Ellen checked through her wardrobe on her Amazon to see if anything caught her eye. Her lightest, shortest, sexiest skirt needed pressing and so she dropped the image into her express dry cleaning box app for one-hour turnaound. No point wearing her new Informagear top, as the party would be off-grid. Just time to get home, grab a bite to eat and change before the last m-rail into town. She messaged the fridge-micro to have her low cal linguine ready for eight.
Jade had invited her to the party only this afternoon, and she’d chipped in her fifty on Partypak. This party promised to be hot, and she wanted to look cool. Jade had booked the Bond Street Picadilly line platform bar, a hundred metres down, which meant no aircon, and even so long after the trains had stopped running, the tube never had lost its dry heat. Against that, the lack of online access meant no proximity monitoring. So she could do what she wanted, with whoever took her fancy without raising her Subverse Score for mixing with the wrong type of gatecrasher. She could do with a bit of excitement.
The news, which streamed on the office v-wall, washed over her:
“…..minister for profiling reported today that increasing numbers of birthcert chips are being hacked and deactivated illegally… darknetters… calling for greater deportation powers… “
“…Axa announces £50bn rights issue … invest further in Monsanto’s GM research division… stem the growing number of immuno-deficient births…”
“… In trading today, shares in the PQ90 Plus Surrogacy Clinic plumet as G-mapping fraud is uncovered…”
Ellen hated the news always being on in the Insights Department offices. Every day it was getting worse. Control of behaviour, control of choice, de-selection of undesirable traits. God knows what it would be like if the Government got involved and introduced the more stringent measures being talked about. Sure, the average intelligence and health of the nation would improve, but there would be nowhere to hide. It wouldn’t be about the no claims bonus any more, more likely about eviction, deportation and, if the hawks got their way, forced terminations.
She and Jade left the office together, and waiting for the lift, side by side, Ellen dwarfed Jade. When the lift d-panel checked her, the inevitable slim-line ready meal ads began to play. Jade’s panel was much more interesting.
“I’m sick of only getting dieting ads while you get handbags and holidays. I mean, I go to the gym, take the medication. Even when I get shown clothes they’re never as posh as yours. Have you had a pay-rise, Jade?”
Ellen had been over-spending and her balance seemed permanently low, so she never got presented with upmarket goods or holidays. She often complained to Jade about the system of tagging the ads. Surely you should be allowed to see things you can’t afford as well as those you can. Isn’t aspiration good for morale? But that wasn’t her bosses fault, it was upstairs that policy was made.
“That’s the trouble with having your G-map held by the insurance company.” Jade reminded her “They force you to stay with the programme, or get penalised on the policy.”
Jade was a fine-boned bird – a wren or humming bird, while Ellen was more of an Elk. Not overweight, but large, and with a strong drive to graze. Her parents were both large; mum was big boned, and dad’s family were all heavy.
“As you’re older than me, you were probably conceived before pre-marital G-mapping came into force, so it’s not surprising your scores are high.” Jade had had this conversation with Ellen often before.
Ellen noticed the undercurrent of pity in Jade’s tone. If they hadn’t been friends, it might have been distain. Jade was always more of a comformist than Ellen, though nowadays, there was little space for non-conformity.
“I know it’s sentimental of me wanting to marry someone for love, and risking everything on chemistry, but why can’t natural selection and chance play a bigger part? Who wants the perfect PQ baby with the perfect bore of a man?” Ellen, ever the romantic, wanted to feel attracted more than she wanted to further improve the human race.
When digital birth certs came in, just before she was born, she had to be mapped and chipped, and her family was put on the programme immediately. In her case it worked wonders – low cholesterol, average BMI and a much admired body. Her probability quotient for ill health related to obesity, and her parents’ demographic profiles and shopping habits, which were all tracked by Axa, had forced them all to accept the regime.
Everything went like clockwork, which made Ellen feel optimistic about the evening ahead. The m-rail was not too packed, the dry cleaning was waiting in the shute, her linguine was piping hot, if lacking cream, and she was in and out of the appartment in minutes. Now she was in the thick of the party, at the bar, and getting to know a tall dark man who would only give his name as John. She knew she wanted him, without being told. She couldn’t check him, in the subterranean bar, see how they scored, but she just knew. So that is how animal instinct feels, she thought. Beats G-match.
They talked and drank and danced together all evening, though before they got drunk enough not to care, she tried and failed to glean some background. John didn’t share like most people, and he wasn’t wearing any Informagear either. He just wanted to dance, and oh could he dance. He was slim but strong, good looking. He had piercing blue eyes, long hair, stubble and a gentle smile. He moved like a swimming seal, and touched like a nuzzling cat. God, his scores must be through the roof!
The party began to quieten down as some left to catch the late m-rail, and others subsided into sleepy corners. “So, if you hate your job, and you’re not chasing money, what do you want to do?” he asked as they lounged across the sofa in the vintage train carriage permanently parked at the platform.
“You mean now, or generally?”
“Let’s get to ‘now’ in a minute…. What about life?”
“Well I’m twenty five, single, hot as hell, and I want to start a family” she’d had a lot to drink.
“Yeah? Not interested in changing the world? You work in the right place.”
Ellen vaguely remembered mouthing off about work, ranting about the algorhythms controlling the people, the pre-determination of everything.”
“Right now, I can’t be arsed changing the world. I want to live for the present.”
“Which takes us nicely into what you want to do now,” he grinned.
“Sounds interesting, but we only just met and you’ve been pretty backward in coming forward about stuff.’
“What, you’re not asking about my scores are you? Don’t you like what you see?”
“Well, you know, a girl’s gotta think about these things before she jumps into bed with a horny stranger.”
“Is that what you usually do? Pick guys up at parties and check their scores before you get their v-mail? Just as well we’re out of range. I hate that stuff, and unlike you, I’m more interested in change than putting up with the system. How do you meet guys usually?”
“I’m on G-match, and honestly, I’ve found nobody even vaguely fanciable with a score of 75 or more, and I can’t afford anyone with less.”
John just laughed and watched the couple across the isle swallowing one another’s tongues. They didn’t seem to be having problems.
“Don’t you want to just forget all that? Learn to manage without being told what to buy, without having your daily needs pre-empted? Don’t you just want to choose, really choose? Get to do what you want when you want. Spend time with who you want, and choose by learning to trust your instincts? Have children with who you want, not who they say is right for you?”
John suddenly seemed animated, serious. A little disconcerting, but Ellen was excited. He said what she thought. But then he was back at her neck and her thoughts shifted to making babies.
She knows the score though; she works in Axa’s insights department. Nowadays, it’s totally uneconomical to have a child if you both have the wrong PQ scores. It’s not so much about the insurance companies dealing with problems when they arrise, but it’s her department’s job to predict them before conception and ‘disincentivise’ inappropriate offspring.
“Its fine for Jade. She’s my boss – see her over by the bar in the black dress? Her dad’s loaded, and when she met Nico – he’s the one with the white shirt on – it turned out they only had a 30 score, but apparently he’s rich, and great in bed, so they went ahead anyway. That, and she can eat what she wants, even meat, because her dad pays her premium, and she’s got, like, a non-existent obesity PQ. All right for some!”
John continued to nuzzle into her neck. “Do you really care what score everyone has? Don’t you think it’s mutual attraction that counts?”
G-match had been sending her profiles for highly compatible partners for the last month, and so far she’d met three, starting with the best match – which would mean the lowest cost insurance for offspring – and working downwards. She hoped there’d be that spark, given the compatabiliy scores, averaged across over 200 factors, but despite all the pieces of the jigsaw being in place, there wasn’t. They all looked the same, even though their features differed. Funny really. You’d think that well-matched people would be attracted to one another.
And here she had all the sexual attraction she could want, and not the first idea what John’s PQs looked like. Why couldn’t the party be above ground, where she could check his scores in the ladies, at least? Oh well, what the hell!
“You’re right….. come here.”
It was just getting light, as she woke, and stretched languidly. It was the best sex she could remember, and John was asleep beside her. She felt amazing, though there was a nagging itch in the back of her mind that there would be repercussions. John was bound to score high on subversion. Slipping out of the bed, she retrieved her glasses from her handbag, thinking to find out more about him without waking him. But nothing registered in the corner of the screen – he’s not Linked or Checked. This guy’s off the grid. He’s a ghost.
When he woke, Ellen was already showered and dressed. She was keen to get breakfast, but she didn’t fancy her usual low fat yoghurt which Amazon had delivered to the shute while they slept. John looked like he had no problem with eating well, and for once, Ellen felt entitled to sustenance after their night.
“How about Umberto’s for breakfast?” he suggested
“How did you know that’s my favourite cafe? Have you been checking me?”
“I just guessed….” he lay back, relaxed. “Give me ten minutes and we’ll go.”
While John showered, Ellen watched her v-mails on low volume. Jade had already been on asking how she and John had got on. Strange, John claimed not to know Jade. Maybe Jade had checked him at the door to her party, which would mean she knew he was hard to pin down. Ellen switched to audio only, in case John wandered naked into view, and linked. “Great! How do you know him? Is he a friend of Nico? He’s a dark horse.” She hoped that Jade would reply before John was out of the shower, but realised Jade’s v-mail had been sent in the early hours and she was probably still unconscious.
The sun shone on the street, which was empty at this time on a Saturday morning, except for a cleaner van scouring the gutter. The m-rail hadn’t started and only a few cars passed silently as they strolled to Umberto’s.
Ellen stood in front of the ad-wall at the m-rail stop and saw herself walk by in Karen Millen. They entered the quaint Italian cafe with its red and white striped awning, and old-style plate glass window, piled with delicatessen, and sat at her favourite table. Ellen viewed the table screen light as it scanned her and instantly changed to her own menu of favourites, but only low fat options came up, as usual, even though she fancied pancakes with maple syrup. There were some recommendations, themed on what she liked to eat, but not things she’d bought in the last week or so. She decided, reluctantly, on the muesli and low fat natural yoghurt, thinking of her premium. She touched her order and the menu deducted the price from her Axa account, before she looked up. The screen switched to clips of the new e-book by Morrison, since she’d nearly finished his last one, plus cinema listings near her parents’ place for next weekend, since she’d already bought the train ticket.
She turned to John, waiting for the menu to offer him images of fried breakfasts or whatever he was allowed. Nothing. Instead, the screen saver faded to a red and orange gingham tablecloth – in keeping with her mood, her heightened expectation. The light over the table dimmed slightly, to suit her sensitive blue eyes, and the air cooled as her chair reported her weight and body temperature to the aircon.
He looked at her, then down at the table screen. No menu appeared, no change of advertising. She watched him smile, unconcerned. Weird. He seemed so at ease, which was more than she could say for herself. He also knew more about her than she did about him – not her normal first date strategy. While he was in the shower, she’d tried to check him using the CCV in the bathroom, even though she hated herself for spying, but she immediately got the error ‘not found’ against his picture on her Amazon. Now she sat back with a strange sense of excitement, realising he would have to have hacked his chip and deactivated himself.
“Why aren’t you getting the menu? You must be…”
“Off grid. Yes.”
So there it was, no ceremony or evasion. John was a Sub, and if caught, he would be a deportee. She felt the warm glow of being trusted, quickly followed by bitter disappointment. That ruled him out as a prospect. Axa would cancel her policy if she showed any evidence of consorting with him. Not that she agreed with it. It was all very well trying to root out harmful elements in society, deviants and defectives. It made sense on cost grounds, and for the ‘family harmony’ the Government wanted everyone to enjoy, but surely being with John couldn’t be that wrong.
She was not alone among her age group in worrying about who gets to decide who is a deviant and what is ‘defective’. Obviously, there’s the medical anomalies, and most people seemed pretty OK about weeding them out, though Downs was a political hot potato a few years back. But what about behavioural anomalies, radical thinking? Who decided what was the threshold for classification as a Sub? Axa and its competitors, no doubt, and their interest was to minimise risk, so that threshold would go down and down. People were becoming more and more predictable, boring, and without risk, there’s no spark.
Her waste bins tracked the packaging she threw away, her clothes reported their wear and tear to her bank, and her spending choices were dictated by upcoming bills – she hadn’t been able to access information about holidays online for ages, and her v-mail was ‘cleaned’ for antisocial content. The latest was that her friends network was psychographically analysed for signs of ghettoism and subversion. Just as well she hadn’t v-mailed John yet. Her life wasn’t being dictated by people, even faceless bureaucrats, but by algorhythms and probability quotients. Sure the justice system is as overloaded as the health service, she thought, but it’s claustrophobic and I hate it.
She should have noticed outside that the ad wall didn’t changed as it normally does, when he passed. He might have appeared in a Boss suit, striding elegantly, or on board his yacht, in Lacoste. She’d been delighted with the way she looked in the red Karen Millen, and she’d paused long enough to find out from her Amazon that she couldn’t quite afford it, but that they’d offer her terms… but the wall stayed green when he passed, like a vampire passing a mirror.
“I’ll have what you’re having.” He said quietly. “Would you mind ordering for me, as I’m not very popular with these devices. “
She felt scared, but her heart was racing and she wanted to go with it. She touched the tablecloth which reverted to the menu. “OK I’m having low fat yoghurt and muesli, and I expect you’d like a fry, but I’m pretty sure it won’t let me go again without penalties.” He smiled and took out his Amazon. The same model as hers, but it had an extra small box attached, unlike any upgrade she’d ever been offered. He held her hand across the table, palm up, and scanned her wrist chip with it. He made a few quick slides across his screen and pocketed the device.
“There we go, I’ve deleted the charges from your account, and the ones you already had for your breakfast, so now you can order the pancakes you fancy without any penalties.”
“How do you do that?”
“I could tell you, but we don’t want to waste the time it would take, and besides, you might want to take this one step at a time.”
He moved closer, feeling the cool air in her space. “I could just remove you from the files, and you could join me in the darknet. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all extremists and nut jobs, mafiosi and pornographers. It’s really liberating, and much safer than Googlenet. We could start by deleting you from Axa g-Match – it’s not a dating site you know, just a spying portal”
Sitting in silence, while John painted a picture of his life, she contemplated the sort of freedom she’d never experienced, a lifestyle only whispered about as that of deportees, outcasts.
It would mean giving up her job over the road, and once she was off the system, she’d have to cut connections with everyone she knew, like Jade and her friends. But there’s a big world out there once you’re no longer tied to the chip.
As the waiter brings their muesli, her eye is caught by a man in the street in a dark suit, passing the m-rail ad-wall, which shows him in a dark suit, as he comes towards Umberto’s. She turns back to her strange new friend, but he has gone. She pulls out her Amazon, which is buzzing, and the screen shows him, still in shadow. He whispers: “well?”.