In the dispensary, citizens come and go, paying for their rations with their hard-earned merits. Only the service drone sees them for who they really are.
It was pointless for the dispensary to open before 0900 hours since that’s when the population’s merit rations were renewed by the Central Authority. Eating at odd hours was also not encouraged. The drone unit came online just before the doors were unlocked, logging itself in to the Authority interface. It took a few seconds for the system to warm up and for the command protocols to be downloaded. They changed only rarely – in times of resource shortage, merits might alter their value, for example, which necessitated different protocols: not just for modified script branches, but also for dealing with citizens who may cause Problems. Shortages were always hard on the population. Thankfully, this was a period of relative plenty.
The drone waited patiently behind its desk as the first rush of citizens entered. Wordlessly, they allowed the scanner at the door to verify their chips, taking note of their total merits which were fed directly into the drone’s interface. Each citizen’s chip provided the drone with a comprehensive profile – their demographic data, certain social media activity from which relevant advertising protocols could be determined, but the merits were the main data that the dispensary concerned itself with. To the drone, observing through the Authority interface, the merits hung as giant glowing numbers over each citizen’s head, a constantly updating measure of their productivity, their worth to Society. Most stayed fairly static, but a few fluctuated even as they moved through the dispensary, perusing the various products on offer. Some citizens – the more affluent appearing ones not wearing standard municipal grey overalls – were fortunate enough that their merits ticked slowly up and up, as the work of distant underlings or unseen investments decreased their imaginary debt to the Authority. Others, frequently with a more dishevelled appearance and a wan look on their hollow faces, were losing merits just being here. They had dependents, perhaps; a sick family member back in their hab-unit or maybe just a child not yet old enough to Contribute. Some were perilously close to zero merits already, and they might spend the last of their resources today on some meagre supplies to last them the through the next productivity cycle. There were no citizens with negative merits in the dispensary this morning. That was good. Those with less than nothing would often talk to the drone and try to get it to deviate from its protocols, testing the limits of its programmed script, appealing to a humanity it was unable to demonstrate.
All of this information was of course invisible to the citizens as they went about their business. The floating numbers were just for the drone. The drone watched, and it thought its slow thoughts as the citizens went from aisle to aisle, collecting their supplies in their baskets. Those rich in merits moved confidently, sweeping past the poor without a glance in their direction. The dispensaries served all citizens equally. There was no segregation here, at least until they reached the drone, with its instant access to the interface that held all their secrets.
There was no secret to the woman who stepped up first. She was hunched and haggard, with lank, almost colourless hair and the sallow skin of a subterranean factory worker. She placed her purchases on the counter and the drone wordlessly processed them, automatically extracting merits from her account as it did so. The numbers ticked down slowly. A can of pulses – three merits. A thin, grey cut of synthmeat – five merits. Starch layers – three merits. The drone took note of the floating numbers. It didn’t have to: everyone would know when she ran out. The last item was baby formula – four merits. A chime sounded.
“You have insufficient merits,” the drone said tonelessly. A floating ‘3’ hung over her head.
“What?” she asked. She didn’t seem to have registered what was going on yet.
“You have insufficient merits,” the drone repeated.
“Oh. No, you don’t understand…this is to feed my daughter…”
“You have insu…”
“No, I know. Sorry. How many do I have left?” She glanced back along the line of other citizens, some of whom were starting to look a little disgruntled.
The drone consulted the interface. “One merit remains in the account of JULIE FISCHER.”
“Is that all?” she asked with something that would have been fear if she’d still had the energy to summon that depth of emotion.
“One merit remain…”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.” She looked over the items that had already been processed. “Okay, forget the pulses. We can get by without them.”
“No refunds available,” the drone said automatically.
“No, I don’t need a refund. I just need to put the pulses back so I can buy the formula. Like I said, it’s for my daughter and…”
“No refunds available. If you have completed your transaction, please vacate the payment zone for the next citizen.”
“There’s no reasoning with you things, is there?” the woman – Julie – said with a snarl of contempt in her voice. As exhausted and defeated as she looked, she’d found something to rile against, some small, visible representation of the Authority to lash out at. “Don’t you understand that my daughter’s going to go hungry today? What difference does one bloody merit make? Well, on your head be it, you blasted thing. Maybe my daughter will never be big and strong enough to be productive, and then she’ll just be a drain, I suppose? What then?”
“If you require assistance vacating the payment zone,” the drone said, “please indicate to the drone so an officer can be summoned to give aid. A charge of five merits will be extracted for this service.”
“Ha! Forget it.” She bundled her purchases up in her arms – leaving the baby formula where it was – and stomped off. “Useless things,” she said to no one in particular. No one else in the line had paid any attention to the conversation, and as the next citizen shuffled forward, the drone quickly entered the new data for Julie Fischer following the transaction. Each citizen was given a rating based on their compliance with protocol, and the drone had no choice but to give her the lowest rating. It would be used in her evaluation at the end of this productivity cycle and might well cause a drop in her allocation grade. The drone, of course, was incapable of having an opinion about this. The rest of the morning proceeded without incident.
Towards the middle of the cycle, there was another rush entering the dispensary. These were generally more affluent citizens, flush with merits in the high thousands that glittered cheerily over their heads to the drone’s eyes. They were fortunate enough to be allowed a break during their work cycle and many came here to purchase food. It was a rare luxury and the drone preferred dealing with them – as far as it was possible for it to prefer anything at all, of course. The wealthy tended to stick to protocol. A young man wearing an iridescent holo-suit sauntered to the counter. He was purchasing a bottle of chem-liqueur and he favoured the drone with a smug smile as he placed it on the counter. It silently processed the purchase. Twenty-four merits. The numbers above his head dropped briefly, but the cost was recouped almost instantly. “For a date tonight,” he explained.
“I hope you enjoy your purchase,” the drone said. That was the correct script for any attempt at small talk by a citizen.
“Oh, I won’t have to purchase her.” The man laughed loudly. The interface said his name was Cal Bartram.
The drone searched the interface, trying to find the right protocol for this situation. Nothing was coming up. There was nothing in the databank at all about purchasing people. The dispensary certainly didn’t stock other citizens. The drone tried to improvise, but all that came out was a stuttering noise.
“Silly thing,” Cal said with an indulgent smile. “I forget how limited drones can be. They ought to give you all upgrades. But where would the fun in that be?” He leaned across the counter and rapped the drone on the head. “Eh? Eh?”
Now it was on firmer ground. “Please do not assault the service drone. If you persist, an officer will be summoned and a fine of ten merits will be extracted. Any damage to Authority drones will also be taken out of…”
“Oh get over yourself. Silly little thing.” Cal picked up his bottle and walked away with another laugh. A few others in the line shared a smile with him. The drone rated the transaction on the interface. Technically, as it defied protocol, it should be rated low, but Cal Bartram was wealthy and the merits he already had prevented the drone from selecting the scores at the lower end of the scale. Out of something like spite it rated him average. It would have to do.
Just before closing time at 2300 hours, when the dispensary was at its quietest and the drone usually spent time dealing with inventory, a young couple walked in. They weren’t too wealthy, but not too poor either. They looked happy, just spending time with one another. Their merits were steady, so they had a good source of income, and the glowing numbers seemed to merge as they moved close to each other, whispering and giggling quietly to themselves as they went up and down the aisles. They picked up frivolous things. Snacks, entertainment discs, a bottle of chem-liqueur – cheaper than Cal Bartram’s earlier in the day – but still hardly a necessary purchase. They got to the counter and put the items down in front of the drone. It swivelled from one to the other. Jason Newham. Sally Carter. “Please indicate which citizen will be charged for these purchases,” the drone said.
“Oh.” Jason looked at Sally and smiled. “Whose turn is it?”
“You paid for the air-tram.”
“That’s right I did…”
“But you stayed at mine last night.”
“So my oxygen doesn’t pay for itself! You owe me!”
“Fine, fine.” Their disagreement was good natured, but the drone was prepared for more protocol breaches from these two. Sometimes it was possible to anticipate such things, even though the interface provided no relevant guidance. “I’ll pay,” Jason clarified.
The drone began scanning. Packet of gel-candies – five merits. ‘The Loyal Worker IV’ entertainment disc – seven merits. Bottle of…
“Oh, you know what?” Jason said suddenly. “I have that trip to Delta Megopolis next week.”
The drone paused. It wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Is there a problem, citizen?” it asked blankly.
“What about your trip?” Sally asked, shooting the drone an irritated look.
“I wanted to save my merits. Remember what happened to your cousin when he got stranded with no merits that time? It took him weeks to get home.”
“Sorry,” Jason said turning to the drone. “Can we start again?”
“No refunds available.”
“No, no. I don’t want a refund. I just want her to pay instead.”
“It’s fine,” Sally chimed in. “We’re not trying to confuse the protocol. Just pay for this stuff with my account instead.”
The drone searched its database frantically. “Nominated buyer must pay for all purchases,” it said after a few seconds.
“We know,” Jason said, sounding a touch annoyed, “we just want to change the nominated buyer.”
This was confusing. For one thing, how would it be able to rate the transaction? There was no protocol for this. Citizens should have decided who would pay before reaching the counter. The interface said so. “Please…the transaction must be completed.”
“No, we want to scrap the transaction, you stupid thing.” Jason definitely sounded angry now.
“No refunds av…”
“Oh let it be,” Sally said with a sigh. She rubbed Jason’s arm and that seemed to calm him down. “I’ll transfer you some merits if you get stuck.”
“How will I contact you if I don’t have merits to pay for a transmission?” he asked with an exasperated growl.
“We’ll figure something out. C’mon, let’s just buy this stuff and go home.”
“Fine. It’d just be nice to talk to a real person instead of one of these…these things.”
“Don’t be cruel, Jason,” she told him, “it can’t help that it has to follow its protocols.”
“Bloody Authority. Just get on with it, will you?” This last he addressed to the drone, who did as it was told and completed the transaction, deducting the merits from Jason’s account. The man continued to grumble as he left, and the drone wondered if their romantic evening might have been ruined. It wasn’t its concern of course. It didn’t rate the transaction too low. It was just a misunderstanding.
There were no other customers. The doors finally locked and the drone unit went offline, disconnecting from the interface. It stretched out its arms and blinked a few times before tugging self-consciously at its sweaty grey overalls. Sometimes it wished it could look through the interface at its own glowing merits. No doubt they were still displaying an angry red, but it couldn’t be too many more cycles before the debt was paid off and it could return to citizenship. It picked up its own meagre ration of bio-gruel and ducked through the low door at the back of the dispensary before heading back to its hab-dorm to get as much sleep as possible before the beginning of the next exhausting cycle.