Monday, 22 June 2020

Dark Fiction: The Best Things in Life are Assigned


Dark Fiction: The Best Things in Life are Assigned


By Casey Douglass



The Best Things in Life are Assigned


The apartment door slid shut with a grinding at the end of the motion. Maz always thought that reality should live up to the old science fiction shows, especially those doors that hissed closed. Her door grated, much like her life. She smiled. It wasn’t her door any more. She swiped her wrist implant across the sensor and heard the bolts slide into place. They made a grinding noise. She rolled her eyes.

‘You’re going through with it then Maz?’

Maz turned and smiled at the bald-headed white-whiskered man. ‘Yeah. Nothing for me here Juo.’

Juo rubbed his stubble as he let his gaze slide to the floor.

She felt like an ass. He was the closest she’d come to having a friend in this dump and she couldn’t even say goodbye without ruining things. She moved forward and gave him the briefest of hugs. When she backed away she laughed at his expression. She doubted it would have looked much different if someone had pulled a gun on him.

‘You hugged someone!’he gasped.

‘I wanted you to know I appreciate you.’

‘And now you’re going to disappear...’

‘My timing was always shitty!’

‘Always! But I appreciate you too! I especially appreciate you breaking the habit of a life time and actually showing some physical affection. That must’ve been hard!’

‘Oh it was! I’m sure I felt part of me die!’

Juo snorted as he chuckled. ‘If by any chance you still remember me after, feel free to visit.’

‘I will, but I don’t think it’s possible that I'll remember.’

‘I don’t either.’

They looked at each other, Juo with a quivering fuzzy lip, Maz with a mouth so tightly closed that it looked like one thin line of magenta lipstick. ‘Bye Juo.’

‘Bye Maz.’

She knew he watched her as she left. Even once she’d hit the hubbub of the street, she could feel his eyes on her back, no doubt standing at his dirty window, his breath steaming the cold glass. She felt a tingling slide from her heart and down into her stomach. She supposed it was sadness but it always felt like she experienced her emotions second-hand, once someone else had already put some mileage on them. She merged into the throng of people.

An elbow dug into her ribs, complimented by a hand that brushed past her backside. Her hand flew to her pocket to check that everything was still locked up tight. She relaxed a little on fingering the membrane. It was intact. The membrane sucked at her finger, pinging her implant to see if she wanted it to open. She almost turned to see who had tried their luck but she stopped herself. There was no point, not in this crowd. She remembered the day she’d bought this jacket, a nice brown leather number with built in anti-theft technology. She moved her hand away and clenched her fist, ready for the next arsehole who wanted to try it.

God she hated these fucking people! It was bad enough that they were stuck in such a shit hole, but fucking each other over just made everything seem even more miserable. She waded through the bodies like she was pushing through meat in a slaughterhouse, wary of coming into contact with something that would stain her soul. The stink was about the same too.

Within a block, the feel of the neighbourhood changed. Her old apartment was in the liminal zone between the slums and the area where people could afford to eat, even if only the reconstituted protein that passed for haute cuisine there. Street vendors cluttered the side walk with their little metal carts, shimmering holograms fighting for her attention. One offered implant unlocks, another the latest in cosmetic sex splicing. Some were a little more obscure. She passed one that threw up a cryptic sigil that only those in the know would be able to decipher. 

Maz didn’t look too closely, as some of the holograms could hijack implants. She’d found that out to her cost a year ago when she’d been taking photos of a new breed of advertising holo. By the time she’d returned home, her accounts had been emptied and she was locked out. It’d taken months to get it all sorted out and even then, she never saw the money again. A cobra hologram hissed as she swerved too close to an alleyway. A gang was probably doing a shady tech deal in the shadows. She pulled up her collar and quickened her pace. She didn’t need to think about that kind of thing, not today.

A few more blocks passed and the street detritus lessened. Walkways were wide and clear, the shops looked more respectable, and the glaring colours of poverty gave way to the pastel colours of wealth. Maz had deliberately dressed down with this in mind, but she felt the magenta lipstick scream on her face. Otherwise, her style was kind of half and half. Her anti-theft jacket blended into russet jeans and sky blue ProX-Social boots. Her brown hair sat lacklustre on the top of her head, her freshly flattened mohawk doing a passable job of looking like a secretarial bun. She half wondered if people might think a rich banker had ordered a strippergram from the slums when they caught sight of her. It was the best outfit she could manage.

Maz avoided looking at the shops and buildings. Whereas before, it was for safety, now it was to avoid envy and bitterness. There had been talk of some kind of footpath toll in this area. It had never materialized but estimated charges gave the impression that ninety percent of the city wouldn’t be able to afford to walk here. She was sure it would be voted in at some point. That kind of thing always happened eventually.

She entered an inner-park space, tall trees and lush green grass jarring after the urban build-up from poverty to privilege. The fuzz of sound dampeners could just be heard in the now peaceful environment, the sounds of the city scrubbed almost to zero by an algorithm that she’d helped to develop. She realized they weren't adjusting for the particulate threshold, that’s why the slight buzz was there. Maybe if they’d paid her properly and not fired her once it was semi-stable, it would be a better product. She felt the bitterness rising. It always made her heart race before it gave way to that second-hand sadness feeling. It didn’t matter. Not really. She’d only fallen into that job and it was far more dull than she’d ever imagined a job could be.

She moved to a bench and let herself fall onto it. The wooden intelli-struts rippled and flexed, absorbing the impact and cradling her body. The few other people around her faded into ghostly silhouettes, the bench tech syncing with her implants to give the illusion of peace and quiet. She blew out a heavy breath of air in a sigh. This might be the last time she ever walked this route. Hell, this would be the last time she’d even be the same person, if what she’d read about Assignment was true.

A blue-tit landed on a fountain across the way, its chirps and bobbing motions drawing her eye. It could be a real one. It could be a simulation. The water rippled as it grabbed a beak full. Still not conclusive. She realized her mind was doing that distraction thing. Assignment. That’s what she had been thinking about. How it changed you. How it injected your life with purpose when nothing else seemed to work.

She watched the bird, both caring if it was real but also angry at herself that she also didn't give a shit. Was this second-hand anger? It felt distant, but also hers. God she hated feeling so fucked up. Would Assignment really change that?

Neurobiology and technology had advanced more than even the most optimistic researcher could have predicted. Sure, there were some parts of the brain that were still a hot mess of mystery, but others were mapped, analysed and optimised long before most people alive today had even been born. One grand discovery had been the location of the part of the brain that dealt with the meaning of life, or at the least, its purpose. This had led to various procedures that could “insert” a new meaning into the brain, and have the brain accept it. 

The government had been quick to latch on to this advance, offering a free treatment to people swamped by purposelessness. They were pretty much saying: “If you don’t know what to do with your life, let us help you. It’s the patriotic thing to do!” The catch was that you had to accept the purpose that they assigned you. The enticement was that they would give you a helping hand settling into your new life, whether a new apartment, financial aid, or even being able to step straight into a new job. The downside was the domino effect that changed who you were as a person.

Early trials had left subjects struggling with their new identity while they still lived their old life. The disconnect was fatal more than half of the time. Now, anyone wanting the procedure had to walk away from everything and everyone that they had known, with some memory modification sealing the deal.

The blue-tit glitched and faded out of existence. Maz chuckled at the timing. She felt like it was an apt image for where she might end up. The bird hadn’t chosen to glitch and disappear. Maz wouldn't be able to choose her new purpose. That was the preserve of the rich, paying customers. People who didn't sit in parks trying to stretch out time, between the now-now and the now-then.

She sighed as she stood and walked on, the dusk beginning to fall, her new life quietly calling.

The Assignment building was both nondescript and intimidating at the same time. The front was all glass, but the kind of holo-fed privacy glass that showed a fake interior filtered through the surface. It was currently set to a retro office display, women with bee-hive hair cuts walking past type-writers and other archaic devices. Maz sniggered. Maybe the government would actually improve efficiency if they really did go back to the old ways. They couldn't be any more incompetent, and they may even achieve the illusion of caring about people!

The revolving door ushered her into a warm, fresh space, the orange and yellow of the 1960s giving way to sterile metal and bicubic glass d├ęcor. A woman at a small podium greeted her, asking her the reason for her visit.

‘Assignment.’

‘Paid or Complimentary?’

‘Complimentary.’

‘Take the elevator on the right and head up to floor seven. You’ll be booked in and assessed up there.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

The hologram faded out.

‘Shit! I genuinely didn’t suspect that one!’ Maz muttered.

The ride up in the elevator was over before it felt like it had even begun. The waiting area outside was deserted. A woman beckoned her over to sit at the desk before her.

‘Are you another holo?’

The woman reached out and shook Maz’s hand. ‘What do you think?’ she smiled.

‘Even that’s not hard to fake!’

‘I know! Have you seen the new quantum-fold holograms? They give me the creeps!’

Maz laughed. This woman was alright.

‘I’m Miss Krey, and you must be erm, Maz Stendle?’

‘Guilty.’

‘Please sit down Maz. We have just a few more bits of information to enter into the system, mainly your consent for the procedure and that you understand what the pros and cons are.’

Maz sat. ‘I already know all about it. I know it won’t be me that walks out of here afterwards, and that I can’t choose which purpose I’m assigned.’

‘That’s right. Your records show that you were assessed as capable of making this decision yourself and that you are aware of all the issues. That’s great! The final questions I need to ask are if you still feel happy to proceed and why you feel the need to have this procedure?’

Maz blinked. ‘I’m still happy to proceed. Why do you need to know why though?’

Miss Krey leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘I’m sorry, it was my own curiosity. Your records show you to be quite exceptional in a number of metrics, I’m a little flabbergasted that someone like you would roll the dice and risk ending up as some kind of menial work wage slave, wading through excrement in the sewer or something.’

Maz nodded and looked down at her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath and released it slowly. ‘I just don’t feel my life is worth living. I have almost zero money, no real friends and no prospect of improving things. I lost the best job I had when they had no further use for me and I can’t even break into many industries because of the flood of A.I workers. I’ve lost the will to fight for myself. I find myself looking at things and wondering why it’s worth the effort to carry on. Then I see people who’ve been Assigned, doing the shittiest jobs around, but smiling as they do them! I figured that if I can’t find my own purpose or meaning, why not be assigned one that my mind will accept and that will see me set on a happier path. If that makes sense.’

‘It does. It makes me sad to hear you say it but I can understand. Better to try this than end up a suicide or a junky I guess.’

‘I just want to find a purpose, something to get me through the day. I don’t care if that happiness comes from ignorance.’

Miss Krey nodded. ‘Look, I’m not supposed to, but I'll make sure you get a bigger head-start after the procedure. We have a few redundancies in the system that often get lost in the database. I can’t tell you which purpose you will be assigned, but I can bump you from a grade one to a grade two support package. It could be the difference between a food subsidy and a new place to live.’

Maz’s mouth fell open. ‘Why would you do that for me? That’s so kind!’

‘My purpose is to help people. I feel that it would help you, so I’m going to do it.’

‘You were Assigned?’

‘No. I found my purpose the old fashioned way.’

‘How? What’s it like? Are you happy?’

‘It’s good, most of the time. And yes, I am happy, again, most of the time. Everything has its ups and downs. As to how, I guess I would say that I struggled for the longest time too, trying to figure out what I wanted. I tried following my passion, which is such a hackneyed phrase. That didn’t work, so I followed my disgust and then made a U-turn.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I guess I mean I didn’t make much progress in chasing the stuff I was already drawn to, so I looked at what disgusted me and which actions I could take to counteract the thing that was so disgusting. In my case, that was poverty and inequality, which in a winding manner leads to me sitting here with you this evening.’

‘You agree with the government using people in this way?’

‘Not fully no, which is why I do what I can to give people a small boost in prospects when the opportunity arises. I’ve seen Assigned people make fantastic things of their lives though, and they do seem to be generally happier. I don’t know. I just have misgivings. I’d guess you do too.’

‘Yeah, but I also feel it’s my only hope right now.’

‘I can understand that.’

Maz nodded, finding her mind empty of anything more to say. She felt a rising sensation in her chest; she didn’t know if it was an emotion or indigestion. She sniffed. ‘I don’t really have much else to say.’

‘It’s okay. It seems that we have reached the crucial moment. Are you ready to go through to the operating pod?’

‘Yes.’

Miss Krey smiled and took her hand across the desk. ‘Let’s get you into your new life Maz.’


THE END