This week’s special was ‘the roll of roasting beef’, which hadn’t seen a cow before but as far as George could remember, was pretty realistic. They had a choice of this or the ‘chicken’, which was OK, but only lasted two days, compared to three or four with the ‘beef’. Jodie had never eaten chicken or beef, and the last natural protein she tasted was some sort of pulverised maggot steak which had been upgraded from agriprotein to human food. It was one of those ‘real meat’ scams, involving Department of Health corruption and importation documents being signed for fees. The product was dumped on the market by a South African conglomerate a couple of years ago, when she still received discretionary food vouchers she could spend in Tesco. That scam had lasted all of six months, until A&E departments started filling up with botulism cases. Since then, and before Tesco closed down, all unprocessed food imports were stopped, and food processing now took place in one of Amazon’s vast automated factories outside the city.
On principle, let alone the botulism scare, Jodie was not a big fan of animal protein, or synthetic meat, which was almost all grown in a lab from bacteria. She’d been brought up to kill bacteria with antiseptic sprays, not to eat them for nutrition. If the family was better off, for instance if she’d been made redundant from a government job, there would be dried Krill shavings every week in their B plus box. Jodie’s friend, Carmella, who had lost her job in The Central Bank, and was eligible for an A plus single person box, occasionally invited her over for a fish curry, even though Jodie could only bring her porridge ration as a contribution. Carmella was a good cook, and ever since the bank let the last of their staff go, she’d been traipsing the city in search of spices to bring her rations to life. The porridge was flavourless, but it mixed well with the Krill and turmeric to bulk up the curry.
Jodie was unpacking their Standard Box B, for three adults, or two adults and two children. The words ‘Box B’ were printed in giant letters on the side, in case the recipient might pick out the wrong box in a mass delivery, which often happened in the lobby where the boxes were dropped on a Monday for all the apartments in the block. It was barcoded with the family’s details, so the truckbot was sure to dump the same shit on the doorstep every week. It got stacked in the communal hallway, along with four or five other Box B’s and several Box A’s for the singles, and one or two Box C’s for the largest families. This block had no premium boxes delivered. The apartments were smaller and less well furnished than Carmella’s, and besides, if an A plus box were delivered, it would be snaffled before you could say ‘Krill Curry’.
Bigger families which were allocated a Box C seemed to get slightly less food per person, which was presumably intended as a discouragement from having more children, but it was all the same shit, as Jodie established once when she fancied a change and opened someone else’s Box C to check.
When she first started at Tesco, Jodie topped up the larder with whatever she could get from work, which were considered special staff perks. Every night, the branch manager gave out damaged packs and some out of date items to the staff who worked hardest. It was presented as a perk, but really it became a big bone of contention when everyone was competing for leftovers, because they were working for minimum wages. Jodie was always among the top employees when it came to productivity scores, as she’d learned to keep moving all day. She had been told by the store manager, who had been trying to get his dirty hands into her knickers for months, that the staff productivity algorithm scored distance covered in a day as the number one measure of productivity. Once she knew that, it was easy to fiddle the results. Even if she was taking her lunchbreak, she’d eat while walking up and down the isles, and she loaded shelves by parking the pallet as far as possible from the display.
Universal Income meant that everyone got enough to live on, and was effectively treated equally. Rations were the same for everyone in the estate, so at least there was no envy or food theft. Housing used to be graded for UI recipients, based on their last earned income, but once the private pensions were taken over, that all changed. They were all replaced by a single tier UI, and the grading shifted to smaller items, like food and travel tokens. Now, even if you lost your job as CEO of a multinational, you’d only receive the same UI. If you had any sense, you’d have your millions stashed overseas, and you’d be spending most of your time working out ways to circumvent the UI system to spend your money in the black market. Carmella was one of the unemployed with slightly better food rations, but as far as Jodie knew, she had the same healthcare package and educredit vouchers.
For Joe Public, Universal Income was completely pre-spent on food, educredit, space charge and healthcare. There was nothing left for discretionary spending, not even for M-rail fares or books or art materials, sports equipment or even cosmetics. The days of going down the local for a pint or even to a coffee shop for a cappucino were gone. It was all fixed so you couldn’t do anything to make it better. You got what you were given, even when you wanted to do something to get more, you couldn’t.
Jodie always retrieved the box from the lobby on a Friday, as soon as she heard the delivery, ever since the squatters from the basement apartment raided all the boxes for the tokens, and the family had to manage on reduced rations all week after that. George was meant to be the hard man and go downstairs with his crowbar or a baseball bat to sort them out, instead of fucking around in his lock-up with the Ford, but he was too busy cleaning the carburettor to do his thing.
“What’s the point of all the work you do on those engines, dad?” Jodie complained. “Even if you ever get it running, you’ll have nothing to put in the tank. What’s the point of searching for parts on those sites, when we haven’t got any tokens for food?”
“That’s not the point, love. I only need one or two more parts. It’s a classic. I built them gearboxes for years. I can do it with my eyes shut and one hand tied behind my back. It’s not about finishing. It gives me a reason to get up, and a reason to get out of this prison and feel the weather. I know you don’t understand. You should find something that occupies your brain, like me, instead of taking the happies every day.”
“That’s not fair, dad. You know I didn’t want to be made redundant, and I want to work. I hate it in here as much as you do, but there’s nothing to do. I know you want me to get the analytics exams and to get a job with Zurich like Ellen, but like she said, there’s no new openings, and I can’t concentrate on the studying if I take the pills, and I can’t get through the day without them either. What am I meant to do?”
George and Jodie have never been on the same wavelength. He was much more like Ellen, without the mental acuity, and Jodie was like Elsie used to be, full of emotional intelligence but not prepared to apply any logic to her life.
Jodie’s pills were costing a lot, as they were the high dose. They kept her from wanting much though. Nothing at all really. She no longer felt the need to find a partner. She couldn’t be bothered cooking so they only ate the prepared microwave mush most days. It all looked the same, smelt the same, tasted the same. She never cleaned the apartment, didn’t make any effort with Elsie, and had almost nothing to say for herself. The educredit they received as part of the UI wasn’t getting used, and she knew she would fail the exams if she even went ahead with them. George had given up trying to change her, and Ellen was never around to bring them together or to push Jodie.
“Whatever else you do, you should lay off them pills. They’re draining your brain. You need to be sharp if you want to survive. And we could use the tokens for some more educredit for your analytics exams. If you don’t bother even trying, you’re fucked.”
Jodie was meant to be re-sitting her analytics exams next month even though she’d got no chance, any more than any of the thousands of other hopefuls, to get in to Zurich Insights, or any of the other insurance companies. It was all AI driven these days, without human intervention. All the less sophisticated jobs had gone the same way. Anything that could be automated had been, and the only jobs were for Ethics Audit engineers, which were about managing and authorising the AI processes. The EA engineers were supposed to be a fail-safe against AI decisions which didn’t benefit humans, but when you looked at how most people fucked their own lives up, why should we be worried about AI making a worse job of it? EA engineering was really hard to get into anyway, and only people with a lot of experience in deep learning logic and critical path analysis had a chance. Ellen had been hoping to get a promotion into EA at one point, and out of Insights, even though she was only ever trained as an insights coder, because she felt she understood the criteria that Zurich applied to premiums. She hated the way it had gone, even in the last year or so, with the increasing thresholds and declining benefits, but she thought her boss Jade should help her get the move, rather than recommending her for the scrap heap.
Ellen collected up Elsie’s dirty washing and stuffed it into a carrier bag. She’d been taking her parents’ laundry home more often, in an effort to save their tokens, and putting it into her own service. Elsie didn’t notice at all, but George was grateful.
“Are you off, love? Careful outside, going to the M-Rail, won’t you. It’s been designated unsafe round here, you know. Not that I’m covered for being attacked anyways, since the mugging. I can’t go out unless I want to take my chances. That’s what the crowbar is for, you know. Maybe I’ll walk down with you to the stop, just in case.”
“Thanks dad. I’ll be fine. It’s early, and people are still going home from work.”
“Yeah? Round here? You must be joking. Nobody within five miles has seen a pay packet in years. Come on, let your old dad accompany you to your train.”
As they walked out of the block into the heat, George stepped in front of Ellen with his crowbar held like a sleeping baby in the crook of his arm. He looked left and right before he took a pace forward to let her out of the porch of the building, and they walked quickly to the M-rail in silence.