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In the near future, social media has connected everyone in the world and every activity is pervaded by unavoidable advertising. David is an ordinary man just trying to get by, but he is beginning to suspect that perhaps man was not meant to live this way.

David. Wake up, David.

David, it’s morning. It’s time to get up.

Dave rolled over in bed, burying his face in the pillow. “Mmphn gnph.”

I’m sorry, David, I couldn’t understand that. Please ask again.

“Mmphn gnph!”

I’m sorry, David, I couldn’t understan…

“I said, ‘My name’s Dave!'” He scowled balefully at the floating female face in the alarm clock, but she just smiled benignly as usual.

Sorry about that. Would you like me to call you ‘Dave’ from now on?

“Yes!”

Your preference has been saved. Good morning, Dave. It’s time to get up.

Dave rolled over and stared up at the ceiling. It was the same every morning. The damn system never remembered what he liked to be called; it was stuck on the original setting. Tomorrow they’d go through the exact same maddening ritual. He should upgrade.

Dave, it’s time to get up.

“I know! I’m awake! Alarm off…”

Before the alarm can be deactivated, please take a few moments to listen to some messages from the Sony Corporation and/or its affiliates.

“Oh god.” He put a hand across his eyes, blocking out the feeble light filtering into his bedroom through the wall vent. “Just turn off, please.”

Unable to comply. Please listen to these messages from the Sony Corporation and/or its affiliates:

The deafening sound of a sonic boom blasted through the room and Dave nearly jumped out of his skin. He stared around wildly, as an amplified voice thundered from the console by his bed.

LIVE LIFE IN HIGH-DEFINTION. SONY BRINGS YOU THE MOST VIVID THREE-DIMENSIONAL VIEWING EXPERIENCE YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE. THE NEW SONY  TETRATRON HOLOCONSOLE IS THE LATEST IN HOLO-VIEWING TECHNOLOGY, RECOMMENDED BY THE INDUSTRY EXPERTS AND COMPATIBLE WITH YOUR HOME SYSTEM FOR FULL ‘NET BROWSING. WIRELESSLY SYNCH YOUR PROFILE AND PROJECT YOUR PICTURES, VIDEOS AND STATUS UPDATES IN REAL TIME VIA THE HOLOCLOUD INTERACTIVE LIGHT HALO. BE CONNECTED, WHEREVER YOU ARE, WITH SONY. THE BEST EXPERIENCE IN HOLO-ENTERTAINMENT.

“Great, thanks…” Dave murmured, now hiding behind his hands again. There was a chime as the next commercial began.

Meet singles in your area. Girls just want to have fun, and we know you want to have fun with them! According to our readings from your profile chip, your relationship with…JENNY BRADFORD…recently ended. Who needs her, …DAVE…when there are girls like this, just a few blocks away!

Dave was dimly aware of something flashing behind his hand, and he risked a peek through his fingers. A three-dimensional holo-image of a girl at least ten years his junior was floating above his bed, clearly dressed for clubbing. She was sticking her tongue out and flashing a hand signal that was meaningless to him. He knew it was taken from her own profile, a picture snapped during a recent night out probably. He had no doubt she really did live nearby, although these things were notoriously bad at synching up-to-date relationship statuses. Except his own, apparently.

Highlight the ‘CONTACT’ option to send her a chat alert right now! You could be talking in real time to this hot chick in just a few minutes! Or, join our profile-matcher service for just fifteen credits a month and be hooked up with sexy singles in your area every day! Highlight ‘CONFIRM’ to join!

“No thank you,” Dave told the swirling, semi-transparent images of half-naked women that hovered suggestively over his bed. “Is that it now? Can I get up?” There was another chime and he sighed in resignation.

Feeling blue in the morning? We’ve analysed the recent status updates at this time of day on your profile, and it looks like you need a pick-me-up, …DAVE…, so why not mosey on down to McDonalds on your way into work at…HOSHI’S SUSHI EMPORIUM…and pick up a McBreakfast Carton? The McBreakfast contains everything you need to kickstart your day, including a synthbacon bap, a biovum McMuffin, and an orange-flavoured marrow shake, all for just four credits. For an extra credit, you can also go hypersize, or add a biogel sorbet. All-McDonalds-ingredients-are-sourced-from-cloned-or-atrificcially-produced-sources-McDonalds-does-not-accept-responsibility-for-errors-in-DNA-sequencing-that-may-lead-to-deformities-or-other-illnesses-McDonalds-takes-pride-in-the-quality-of-its-ingredients-and-strives-to-reduce-any-genetic-abnormalaties-present-in-its-produts. McDonalds: seeing a sustainable, ethical future, with you. Please highlight ‘PICK ONE UP!’ to order a McBreakfast Carton now, so it’s ready to pick up on your way to work, or ‘PERUSE MENU’ to order something else!

Dave dropped his head down to the pillow, stared up at the ceiling again. The unappetising images of floating fast food were starting to fade, but he finally gave into temptation and waved his hand in the direction of ‘Pick One up!’.

Thank you for placing your order. Would you like to hypersize it?

He flicked disconsolately at ‘No’.

Would you like to add a biogel sorbet?

He resisted for a moment, then flicked ‘Yes’.

What flavour would you like? Vanilla, strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, toffee tumble, rocky road, cookie dough, Cadbury’s crème egg, Miller-lite, Big Mac, french fries, Belgian waffle, jalapeño, sour cream and chive, Smirnoff vodka, Jack Danie…

“Bloody hell,” he angrily waved his hand at vanilla, “who wants a vodka sorbet at seven in the morning? I’m amazed anyone buys this shit. Actually, go back, I’ll have crème egg.” He stopped the order processing with a raised hand, then dragged it back a page to change his order.

This page has expired. Please refresh and place your order again.

“Oh fucking forget it…” The commercial faded, and he waited patiently for another chime, but there was blissful silence, save for the low hum of his system in the background. “Finally,” he breathed, “one of these days those things are going to make me late.” He padded blearily into the bathroom and made the usual perfunctory ablutions. He gave his face a quick wash and reached for the toothpaste. With a frown, he realised the tube was almost empty and he remembered having the exact same thought yesterday morning. He’d forgotten to get any on the way home again. Another thing he missed about having someone else around the house. He glanced up into the mirror above the sink. He looked like he’d aged a year in the last two months. How reliant had he been on Jen to keep him going? To keep him in one piece through the day-to-day grind? His eye wandered to the mirror’s side bar, where an endless stream of updates from his friends whirred past. His eyes alighted on a picture of his friend James, currently somewhere exotic, giving the camera a goofy thumbs-up. Sensibly, he’d erased Jen from his list of contacts soon after she’d left – he couldn’t bear to see her life played out in front of him. He knew more than a couple of people who’d kept tabs on their exes’ profiles, and it had always ended badly.

Thanks for using Colgate toothpaste, valued customer!

The sidebar was brutally minimised as his mirror filled with the image of a grinning blob of stripy toothpaste, perversely mimicking James with the same thumbs-up. Probably a coincidence, but it was sometimes hard to be sure. He tried to crane his neck around it so he could see his reflection and get on with the business at hand, but it was no good. He stood there, waiting patiently for the schpiel to finish instead.

It looks like you’re nearly out of Colgate Extra-Strength Enamel Revitaliser there, friend! Dentists recommend Colgate Extra-Strength Enamel Revitaliser for busy professionals on the go in the modern world, like yourself. Here’s what one had to say:

“Synthetic foods often contain harmful acids as a result of their production processes, and these can erode teeth over time. What’s good for the environment isn’t always good for your dental hygiene! But Colgate Extra-Strength Enamel Revitaliser can help delay the effects of acid erosion and protect your teeth against future damage by forming a layer of hydrogen-bonded heavy metals around your teeth and gums.”

“I know,” Dave told the mirror, “I already fucking bought it, didn’t I?”

Did you know you were nearly out of Colgate Extra-Strength Enamel Revitaliser?”

“Yes!”

Pick some up at your nearest shopping hub today, or why not select ‘BUY NOW!’ to order direct from Colgate and have it delivered to your door within three working days! And if you enjoy this Colgate product, there are many more available! Select ‘PERUSE CATALOGUE’ to see our entire dental care range! Colgate: the freshest feeling, first thing in the morning!

“Yeah, thanks,” he said as the commercial dissipated, leaving only his tired reflection and the scrolling updates. Grunting, he squeezed the last of the toothpaste out onto his toothbrush and scrubbed at his teeth without enthusiasm for several minutes. Then he shoved the squashed tube into the recycling chute by the sink and sloped back to the bedroom to get dressed.

Ten minutes later, Dave made his way across the enclosed catwalk that provided access from his own hab-block to the city’s central business district. Only at the beginning of the mile-long trek did he catch a glimpse of the outside world, through a fogged viewing port that revealed the great arterial highway, choked with dozens of lines of seemingly stationary traffic, hundreds of blank vehicles sitting restlessly in a visible haze of exhaust fumes, while holo-commercials were projected onto the swirling yellow clouds for the benefit of those few who still had transparent windows on their cars instead of being fully reliant on external cameras. Dave had never seen that road in any other state and, for all he knew, they could be the exact same cars as every other day, still stuck there, trying to get to a job they were years late for. The catwalk was barely less congested. Though the pedestrians were channelled into two lanes by barriers, the tributaries that joined the main catwalk from neighbouring hab-blocks soon overwhelmed the capacity of the claustrophobic tunnel. They all trudged along in silence, all shuffling a few steps forward at a time, then halting for long periods while newcomers merged into the chaos. Men in the blank grey overalls of city workers rubbed shoulders with office drones in suits and employees who, like Dave, were dressed in the livery of some shopping hub or restaurant, plastered with shimmering hologos of their employer’s affiliates. Dave’s own blazing orange ensemble was a particularly hateful wrench to the eyes and the clashing symbols that displayed on the various panels plastered to it, refreshed each day by Hoshi’s Sushi Emporium’s wireless server to advertise whichever other companies they currently had mutual agreements with, a source of constant embarrassment. The other commuters packed in around him couldn’t help but glance at whatever corporate blazon or catchy slogan flashed up, watching each animation play out with instinctive rapt attention, which he supposed was the idea. Still, it felt invasive – he wasn’t even on the clock yet, but there was no way to deactivate the damned thing. Still, at least his uniform didn’t make sounds, like that of the poor girl hunched over in the Burger King uniform a few metres ahead, around whom a swarm of semi-transparent corporate mascots cavorted and sang, advertising the restaurant’s questionable synthetic produce. The walls of the catwalk were bare, except for the humming air-filtration units, which pumped the thick air within out into the toxic soup of the outside world, while simultaneously pumping in supplies of atmosphere from further away from the roads, heavily filtering it nonetheless to make it breathable. Even so, everyone around Dave was coughing noisily. As they neared the city centre, the catwalk grew wider, better-lit, the stained grey walls gave way to gleaming whiteness. Tributaries from the higher end hab-zones now trickled into the main artery, and with them more affluent commuters. Bankers in  sharp suits with holo-effects that were fashion statement rather than advertising, high-end prostitutes of all three genders, strutting through the crowd in a daze of pink light that both drew attention to their trade while hiding their actual appearance from prying eyes. The walls transformed in other ways too, now becoming clustered with competing commercials. Some were almost static, for the smaller businesses, or corporations that still fancied themselves as appealing to a better class of clientele, with just a few moving holo-elements: a dazzling smile, a thumbs up, a thrust of the hip from a mascot, or perhaps just an animated slogan. And, as the unseen shadow of the city loomed somewhere above them, the interactive ones began.

Say, ABIGAIL, you’re looking a little glum today. Have you tried the new treatment from Scion Healthcare? It’s clinically proven to even out the kind of bipolar behaviours evinced by your status updates…

JULIO! Have you seen the latest episode of “Hammer and Tongs”? You didn’t mention it in any of your statuses last night, even though it was available to download from twenty-one-hundred-hours in your timezone. You watched the other episodes, right? Get it ported straight to your home system by highlighting ‘BUY’ right now!

Hi, DAVE… A scantily-clad model leaned in towards him, projected from the wall at such an angle that only he could see her properly. She pursed his lips suggestively and cupped her breasts. Feeling lonely since JENNY left? Well don’t sweat it…try Lynx: Antarctica, and you’ll never have to lie alone in bed again! A caricature of a muscular man wearing comical antique boxer shorts with red hearts on and with his own face, taken from one of his profile uploads, ghoulishly superimposed on the mannequin’s head, was chased off into the distance by a mob of screaming women in bikinis. Highlight ‘BUY’ to have a pack delivered to your door within three working days, DAVE, the model said with a salacious wink.

“I’m fine, thanks,” he murmured, waving the image away now it had finished playback. The endless crowd continued to shuffle forward as images flashed out from the walls, talking to various commuters in turn, sometimes engaging several at once depending on how sophisticated they were. Finally, they reached the checkpoint and everyone wordlessly lined up at one of the several dozen gates. The roving security cameras, held aloft by their whirring flight motors, scanned the crowd. As they picked up signals from each of the commuters’ profile chips, a few ghost images floated back and forth as part of the upload process. Recent system activity, status updates and image uploads were transferred into the city’s security server for instant analysis. Dave watched as a few people were filtered away from the main press after they passed through the checkpoints. When he waved his own wrist in front of the scanner, there was a low noise he hadn’t heard before and then he was surprised to find himself being politely but firmly escorted to one of the security booths at the side of the city’s dimly-lit entrance plaza on the other side of the gates.

“David Fisher?” a small man in a municipal-grey suit and tie asked. He was sitting behind a desk barely wider than he was, enclosed in a booth that was just large enough for the two of them to squeeze into. Dozens of similar booths lined the plaza wall and, Dave was certain, each contained a fussy little city worker like this one. The masked security guard who had led him there remained outside the open entrance.

“Yes, yes that’s me,” he said with a bob of his head.

“Some irregularities,” the other man said, looking over his tiny screen.

“Oh, what sort of irregularities?”

“I’ll let you know in just a minute, Mr Fisher. If you could just view these commercials first…”

“Right, yes, of course.”

He turned his little viewer around and then sat patiently while it played out.

Hi, voter, a slick-looking man in expensive clothes said with a dazzlingly bright smile greeted him. He was standing on a bright green stretch of grass beneath a dazzling blue sky. In the distance, Dave could see the familiar squat shape of his home city, although mysteriously absent the swirling clouds of pollution. He was holding a golf club. My name is Jack Elbourne, and I’m one of your candidates in this year’s mayoral election. I could tell you all about my plans to alleviate the tax burden on the middle classes, my ideas for the regeneration of the Kensington slum, and how I intend to be tough on crime and tough on the emotional dysfunction that is the cause of crime, but my researchers have told me that you, DAVE, are more interested in how to cut down on urban pollution. I’m sure you’ve noticed the city behind me – looks familiar, right? But isn’t there something missing? That’s right… The view cut to one that was altogether more recognisable: the gridlocked cars he had already seen this morning, the effluence-choked river that wound past his hab-block, the twisted, skeletal trees that clung defiantly to the hill he could see from his kitchen vent. You know it, I know it, and millions of voters like you feel the same way. That’s why I’m here, on this golf course. I’m afraid it doesn’t really exist, DAVE – it’s a sophisticated holographic simulation. But we all have to strive for something. There’s an old saying about everyone being in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Well, I look at the stars, DAVE. I see a better world, a better city, a better future. So, next month, dare to dream about that future – my future, your future – by voting for me, Jack Elbourne, for mayor. Thank you.

“Huh…I guess that makes sense….”

“Yes, well,” the official turned the screen back around to face him.

“Was that it?” Dave asked, surprised.

“His campaign paid for the whole segment, yes,” the little man said without looking up, “something about market saturation.”

“Huh…”

“Anyway, these irregularities.”

“Oh right. Yes. What seems to be the problem?”

He tapped at a few keys on an old physical keyboard built into the desk. The letters and numbers were worn off from years of use, but it didn’t slow him down. “A status update from last night. At…uh…oh-one-twenty-five hours?”

“Ummm…”

“Do you remember that update, Mr Fisher?”

“I don’t know. I…uh…I did have a bit to drink last night.”

“Ah yes, I can see here that you placed an order for a case of Budweiser at twenty-two-thirteen-hours.”

“Right, well, that commercial with the dancing moose came on.”

The official smiled faintly. “Yes, that is a good one.”

“Yeah, and I was just feeling a little low and…”

“Because of your recent break up with Miss Jennifer Bradford?”

“I…yes…because of that I suppose, yes.”

“So you tried to self-medicate with alcohol?”

“Well, I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that…”

“What medication are you taking for your depression, Mr Fisher?”

“Depression?” He held up his hands defensively. “I’m not depressed, I just came out of a long-term relationship that’s all. I don’t need any medication!”

“What was the beer for then?”

“Is it illegal to buy beer now?”

The official smiled flatly “No, of course not, we’re just concerned about you entering the city centre given the…aggressive…nature of your status updates in the early hours of this morning.”

“Like I said,” Dave mumbled, “I was feeling low.”

“You made a number of veiled threats.”

“No, they were just jokes. Sarcastic comments.”

The official looked perplexed. “I’m not seeing any sarcasm tags around this text…”

“No, well, I don’t use them. I’ve always thought it kind of defeats the purpose of…”

“The tags are there for a reason, Mr Fisher. We’ll let you off with a reprimand this time but if you intend to employ satire on your profile in future, I suggest you mark it as such to avoid confusion like this again. Good day to you.”

“Right…yeah, thanks…” Feeling shell-shocked, Dave ducked out of the booth, giving the security guard a polite nod and then re-entering the crush of commuters making their way to the metro platforms. The crowd was ten ranks deep at the station, and the front-most of them filtered neatly into one of scores of gates running alongside the edge of the platform. Every few minutes, a battered metro train rumbled into position, the doors lining up exactly with each gate and then creaking open. Workers filed in until each carriage was packed to bursting point then the doors shut again, the train whooshed off down the track, and the next row advanced. Dave was worried he was going to be late after his encounter with city security. He tapped his wrist to bring up a holo-display that showed him the time. Oh-eight-forty-two hours. He should still make it, if he could make good time from his terminus to work, and there were no problems on the metro. At each gate, the commuters in line were greeted with another cacophony of advertisements while they waited. The glacial pace of the crowd’s progress continued, until Dave found himself at a gate. A metro rolled up and he started moving, hoping to get on, but the carriage was already heaving with bodies when he stepped to the platform’s edge, and he let the doors clunk shut with a sigh. The train zoomed away, momentarily making his hair stand on air as static electricity buzzed off the rails and he resigned himself to a further wait. He triggered the holo-display again: oh-eight-forty-nine hours now. It was going to be tight.

DAVE, a sultry voice greeted him, and he glanced up to see another half-naked woman leering at him. “Didn’t I just see this one?” he asked no one in particular.

You’ve never seen anyone like me, DAVE! The holo-woman replied, and he raised his eyebrows at her. “The metro has interactive commercials now?”

I’m the latest technology, DAVE. Just take a look at these! She leant forward and her ridiculously inflated breasts nearly spilled out of her bikini top. Her lips were also unnaturally shiny and plump, her waist was tiny and her hips ridiculously wide in comparison. Her hair was sleek, reflective, oddly lifeless. It was impossible to tell if she was a recording of a real woman or a system-generated simulation. I know you’ve been looking for someone like me, DAVE: we’ve analysed your searches over the last couple of weeks, and I’m exactly what you want. I know you’ve been lonely, DAVE, so why don’t you take a trip down to Kelli’s Big Tit House of Horny, the hottest site on the ‘net. We have sluts like me, getting down and dirty in hot, hard, gangbang action. Girls, boys, trans – whatever takes your fancy, we have it at Kelli’s. Watch me get spunked on by…

“Whoa!” Dave held up his hands, acutely aware of the queue of people standing directly behind him. “Can you maybe cut to the hard sell or something? I have a train to catch…” He could hear it further down the tunnel too, and his feet were starting to move anxiously.

I know you like this, DAVE, because you’ve accessed adult content on sixteen separate occasions in the last five days. Come down to Kelli’s, and we’ll make you forget all about what’s-her-name…

The metro was arriving, the lights on the front of the engine illuminating the darkened tracks. He edged forward. The gleaming homunculus-woman reached out to him though, and he felt pressure on his chest where her finger, capped with a long, hot-pink nail, prodded him. “What…?” he goggled.

“Oh cool,” a young girl said behind him, “it’s a tactile.”

“Tactile? I saw a thing about those,” he said, “holograms you can touch. What kind of porn site spends this kind of cash on a shitty metro advert?” Through the semi-transparent body of the holo-babe, Dave watched the metro pull up, and the doors open. “Hi, sorry,” he said to her, “I have to get on that train.” She didn’t move. Her eyes were even deader than before. “Hello? Excuse me?” He went to walk forward, but her finger was immovable. He reached out, touching one of her almost perfectly spherical breasts. It had a texture like polished marble and was neither cold nor warm, but he couldn’t push past. She was as unyielding as concrete. “Hey! This thing’s broken!” The people behind him were starting to complain now, and he turned around and shrugged at them helplessly. “It’s frozen, and I can’t move it,” he told then apologetically. A flashing ERROR message floated in the air before the stationary pornstar, and then she abruptly winked out of existence. He dashed forward, but the carriage was already full, and the doors were shutting. He reached out, trying to get a hand between the doors to stop them, but it was too late; they closed firmly and the metro lurched into life. “Shit,” he said to the whooshing air, just as another stray spark of static sent his hair into a monetary paroxysm.

He stepped back into place behind the gate and activated the holo-display. Oh-nine-oh-two hours. “Shit,” he said again.

Just under fifteen minutes later, Dave trudged gloomily into Hoshi’s Sushi Emporium, to be greeted by his furious manager, Claire. “What time do you call this?”

“I’m sorry, really – first I got held up by security at the checkpoint…”

Her eyes went wide. “What?” She was already tapping at the screen on her handheld console. “You know our policy on criminal behaviour, David. If I find a record of anything against your profile…”

“No no no,” he said, waving his hands desperately, “it was really just a misunderstanding. They were concerned about my status updates last night, that’s all.”

“Oh yes, Claire sniffed, “I saw those too. I hope we won’t be having any of that sort of behaviour on the restaurant floor today.”

“No, of course not.”

“You know our policy on being drunk at work.”

“I’m not going to get drunk!”

“You had a whole case of beer last night.”

“I ordered a whole case. I didn’t drink it in one sitting. Anyway, I needed to drown my sorrows.”

“Yes yes, because of that Jenny girl or whatever. Do you know she has a new boyfriend?”

“I…what?”

“Yes, look, here’s a picture of them together.” She thrust the console in his face.

“You don’t even know her,” he said weakly, resolutely avoiding looking at the screen.

“No, but I looked her up after you posted that update about wanting to cut out her heart.”

“I meant it metaphorically,” he mumbled.

“Well,” she said with another sniff, “just leave that shit at home, David. We don’t need it here. Also, you’ll need to make up the time you’ve missed at the end of your shift.”

“That’s fine. Hey, Claire,” he asked as she started to walk away, “do you check up on everyone who works here?”

“Only the ones who I think are going to cause problems the next day,” she replied without turning around.

Dave made his way through the kitchen and out to the restaurant floor. A young woman he didn’t recognise in a uniform the same as his own was waiting for him. “You David?” she asked.

“Dave, yeah. Do I know you?”

“Nah, I’m new. Dex.” She held out a hand.

He took it. “Dex. Short for?”

“Nothin’. S’just Dex.”

“Right, okay. So this is your first day?”

“Uh huh.” She jerked her thumb back towards the kitchen. “That bitch with her hair in bunches said you’d show me the ropes or whatever.”

“That’s Claire. She’s in charge.”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you worked in a restaurant before?”

“Nah. This is my first gig.”

“You’re just out of school?”

“Uh huh.”

“Right okay, well just come behind the counter here and I’ll explain how everything works. It’s pretty simple.” She followed him, looking thoroughly bored by the whole business. “When a customer comes in, we show them to a table and ask them if they want any drinks.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why don’t they just order themselves?”

“It’s not that kind of restaurant.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

“Yeah, so as I was saying, you put their drinks order on your console here.” He handed her one of the standard consoles. “Just calibrate it like you would a…yeah, that’s it.” Dex had already touched it to her wrist without being prompted. “That gets relayed automatically to the kitchen. Then you come back here and wait for the drinks to come out of the hatch.”

“And they come get them?”

“No, you take it to them.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a waiter. That’s what this job is.”

“Fuckin’ stupid,” she said, shaking her head. “This console is shit.”

“It only has functions relating to the restaurant, yeah. If you want to do anything else, you’ll have to use your own hardware on your breaks.”

“It views profiles though,” she noted, brightening up slightly. She pointed it at him. “Dave Fisher, huh?”

“Yes, that’s me,” he said with a tight smile. “Now, after you take their drinks over…”

“You’re that old?” She was still absorbed in the console.

“Yes, I’m that old. Anyway…”

“Why do you have this shitty job?”

“There’s nothing wrong with this job.”

“I been here five minutes, and even I know it fuckin’ fries.”

“You haven’t even done anything yet. You might find you like it.”

“I doubt that, man. I really do. Hey, you just go through a break up?”

“Yes, actually. Look, can we talk about work?”

“She was cute. What happened?”

“Nothing happened. It’s complicated, okay?”

“Whatever, man.” She finally looked up and noticed his expression. “Hey, I was just bein’ friendly. Fuuuck.”

“You take their drinks over and ask them if they’re ready to order food.”

“Right, yeah, and you put that in the console, then pick it up from the hatch when it’s done and take it over. I get it.”

“Yes, and you work other tables while you’re waiting for the food. They get billed automatically when you place the order – that’s why the console can scan profiles. It’ll bill the nominated payer automatically when they scan themselves in at the table.”

“Yeah, I have eaten food before, thanks. This is dumb though.”

“Why?”

“Because robots should be doing this. Why are we taking food and drinks from that dipshit hatch to the table when it could go on a conveyer belt. We’re fuckin’ superfluous to this endeavour.”

“Well, like I told you, we’re not that kind of restaurant. This is a smart place. People come here for business, or on dates. They like to be served by a human.”

“‘Cause it reminds them they make more money than we do.”

“If you prefer to think of it that way, yes.”

“I’d prefer to be at home, masturbating,” Dex said, “but a girl’s gotta eat. This place is dead,” she observed.

“No one eats sushi for breakfast,” Dave shrugged, “we only get a few customers at this time of day.”

“So what do you do?”

“Just…hang around.”

Awesome,” she said with mock enthusiasm, returning her attention to the console. “Okay, so your profile is boring. Who else is around?” She pointed it at another waiter, who was setting a table in the corner. “Jan Hasburg. He looks like a dork.”

“He’s okay.”

“He’s into fantasy, huh? Plays a lot of RPGs?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah, there’s a picture of his elf character from The Crystal Kingdoms here. You seen this shit?”

“No.”

“Check it out. Look at her rack, man!”

He glanced at the screen. “Very nice.”

“Ha! He’s a dork. Who else we got in this shithole?” She scanned the room until she saw a balding man in grey overalls with a mobile mop and bucket, emptying one of the bins. “That guy. I bet his profile is hyper-depressing.” She levelled the console and waited a moment. “Huh, that’s weird.” She gestured with it again. “It’s not picking him up. Pfft.” She handed the console back to Dave dismissively. “This is fucked. Find a new one.”

“It’s fine,” he told her, handing it back, “he just doesn’t have a profile.”

She looked at him uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“He doesn’t have a profile.”

“So…what’s on his chip?”

Dave smiled. “He doesn’t have a chip.”

“So… What? I don’t get it. Is this a joke? Are you mentally deficient? Is this some fucked up way of getting into my pants?”

“No, he just doesn’t have a chip. He’s a Blank.” He pointed with his own console. “See? Nothing to read.”

“So…like…what does he do?”

“He’s a cleaner.”

“No, dipshit, I mean what does he do? How does he, like, live? In the world. How does that work?”

“You never heard of Blanks?”

“Nu uh.”

“Some people just…don’t have chips. They’re not connected to the ‘net. There was a big movement maybe fifteen, twenty years ago. A load of people had their chips removed, or lived in out of the way places and never got them implanted. They rejected the trappings of modern life and just worked with physical, external interfaces, like the old computers.”

“Oh. That’s goofy.”

“Yeah. And I guess he was either one of them, or maybe one of their kids.”

“So he has, like, no profile? No status updates? No pics or videos or anything?”

“I guess not.”

Dex still looked bewildered. “How does he get into the city? Does he live in the sewers like some fuckin’ little troll?”

“No, he just uses a card.”

“A…card…?”

“See that little plastic rectangle hanging around his neck?”

“Uh huh.”

“That’s a card. It has a sort of chip on it that lets him scan in and out, and pay for stuff.”

“So freaky. It must totally fry. If you don’t have a profile, how do commercials know what you want?” Dex wrinkled her nose in disgust. She was actually quite pretty, Dave suddenly decided.

“I guess they just…don’t,” he said.

“How do you know all about this shit anyway? Are you his buddy?”

“No, I just know stuff. I’m older than you.”

“Yeah, I know. What’s his name?”

Dave frowned. “Huh?”

“The cleaner guy. The…uh…Blank. What’s his name?”

He shrugged. “How the fuck should I know? He doesn’t have a profile.”

The shift dragged on endlessly, not helped by Dex’s general bad attitude and clear contempt for the job. Dave had to admit that it was hardly how he’d prefer to be spending his day, but he liked to think he had a good work ethic. On his break, he went to the bathroom and looked at Dex’s profile on his own console. She liked to take photos of herself, and he would have spent a little longer looking at some of the dirtier ones, but he suspected Dex was savvy enough to have tracking bots in place to spot if anyone looked at any of her uploads for too long. He took a screengrab of one particular one for later though. The lunchtime rush kept them on their feet and, after bouncing between a few tables, Dex seemed to get the hang of things a bit more and Dave found the time flying by a lot quicker. Before he knew it, the artificial lighting on the street outside dimmed to indicate it had reached sixteen-thirty hours. The evening diners would start to flock in soon.

“How long you worked here?” Dex asked him during a brief lull later on.

“Um…five…no, six, years.”

“How come?”

“How come what?”

“Well, you clearly hate it…”

“So? You’re supposed to hate work. That’s why it’s called work.”

“I guess. You coulda got promoted though.”

“To what?”

“Claire’s job?”

“Claire won’t leave her unless it’s in a coffin,” he said with a rueful smile.

“Ugh, this is so weird.”

“What?”

“I dunno. Something’s just odd. Like, I can’t put my finger on it.”

Dave looked around the restaurant with a frown. “Everything’s normal.”

“Okay, yeah, but I’m trying to think of what I’d be doing now. Like, surfing the ‘net maybe? Watching some holo? Chatting with some boys? I’unno. Something’s missing.”

“It’s work,” he said, “you don’t get to do the things you like.”

“I know. But…” she snapped her fingers, “this is, like, the longest in history I’ve gone without seeing a commercial!”

Dave laughed. “Oh yeah. Well, we can’t buy anything because we can’t use our personal consoles right now. Plus, this is kind of a nice place, so it’s just the scrolling banners up on the walls, and the animations on the diner’s screens. Nothing aimed at us though.”

“It’s weird.”

“You get used to it.”

Dex clocked off before he did, waving goodbye without even looking back at him, so absorbed was she in her console now that she was free again. Its screen was already lit up with an advertisement. Claire scowled at him as he performed inventory, cleaned up and did whatever time-filling tasks he could until he was free to leave, having worked his full hours by staying late. Outside, the covered streets were now darkened. “I’ve set the doors to lock at nineteen-fifteen-hours,” Claire told him, “I’m going home now: I have a gameshow that’s going live for upload in an hour and I don’t want to have to watch it after every other contact on my profile has told me what’s happened.”

“Right, sure.”

“So leave then, and we’ll say no more about this morning.”

“Yes, Claire. Thanks.”

“The new girl: what did you think of her?”

Dave was surprised to be asked his opinion. “Dex? Yeah. She’s fine. Seemed to get the hang of it.”

“Good. Don’t fuck up again, David, or we’ll find another half-retarded high-school graduate like her off the street and replace you. Waiters are ten-a-credit in this city.”

“Yes. Thanks, Claire.”

“Don’t get smart with me. And lay off the booze tonight.”

“Sure.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah…”

She left through the kitchen and Dave was left alone, seething silently. Almost alone anyway. Across the other side of the restaurant, the cleaner was just locking his cupboard full of supplies. He seemed surprised to see someone else there. “Hi,” he said, sounding a bit confused.

“Hello,” Dave said politely. He concentrated on sorting the condiments back into their holder at the side of the counter, but he could hear the cleaner coming towards him.

“It’s Dave, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” Dave said without looking up.

“I’m Martin.”

“Hello.” He was aware his voice was sounding a bit strangled.

“You must think I’m a bit strange.”

Dave shook his head. “Not at all. You’re just…just a guy. A normal guy.”

“I don’t have a chip.”

“Really? I…uh…I didn’t know that.”

“They call us Blanks.”

“I heard that, yeah. I heard they call you that.” He still hadn’t looked up from the condiments he was now obsessively rearranging over and over.

“Okay,” Martin said, “I’ll leave you to your work. It was nice meeting you, Dave. Have a good evening.”

Dave snorted. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Excuse me?”

Dave looked up. “Huh?”

There was a look of genuine confusion in Martin’s eyes. “Is something wrong?”

“What? Oh, sorry, I thought you were making fun of me.”

“Why?”

“Well, you told me to have a good evening…”

Martin’s face only got more perplexed. “And that’s mockery because…?”

“Because of…well, you know…”

“Know what?”

“Well, what I’ve been going through. With Jenny?”

“Jenny?”

“Jenny Bradford. My girlfriend. Well, ex-girlfriend now. We broke up, and I’ve been taking it quite badly. You know.”

Martin gave him a small smile. “I’m afraid not, Dave. I’ve never accessed your profile. I can only afford to go online for a few hours from my home system, and I try to spend as much of that time as I can reading up on topics that interest me and talking to my family.”

“I…oh…”

“Of course, a lot of that time gets eroded by these infernal advertisements. Thankfully, my home terminal is quite primitive, so I don’t have to put up with the invasive holographic ones, and as I don’t have a profile, they’re generally not too offensive.”

Dave considered his words. “What happens when you catch the metro? Or walk down one of the catwalks or whatever?”

“How do you mean?”

“What do the commercials do?”

“I don’t have a chip, so they don’t pick me up.”

“So you just…walk?”

“Yes.”

“And nothing floats out trying to sell you stuff?”

“No.”

“Huh…that’s interesting…”

“But, of course, I can only work menial jobs like this,” Martin smiled, “because most employers won’t hire people they can’t keep tabs on.”

“Sure, sure.”

“I’ll never reach the lofty heights of being a waiter in a sushi restaurant.”

“I…no…I guess not.”

“Anyway, I have to catch my metro. Good evening again, Dave. It was nice getting to know you.”

Dave blinked at the departing figure in his drab overalls. “Yeah,” he said to the darkness, “it was nice getting to know you too, actually…

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This entry was posted in Satire, Science Fiction, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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