Total Net Value, Fifteen Thousand Likes
"Excuse me. Is this seat taken?"
The words came to me over the rattle and roar of the train car - and, as they were actual words, they took a while to register.
It was certainly long enough for me to click, swipe, change streams on my applic, and articulate how I felt about this over an automedia feed.
Input lag dragging down my morning already, I said to no one in particular, but to everyone all the same.
Then the spoken words sank in.
There was a texture and nuance to them that was hard to convey in emoti-ben, and so I was left grasping for mundane, ponderous English to describe them with. Warm, I thought, but not like a curled cat. Like a hand hovered over a stove.
The girl who had said them didn't say anything further, but it was clear that she had been speaking to me. I looked up and the eye-contact nearly made me flinch. It was an invasion of my thought-space, and she performed it so casually that it was as if she had no sense of the rules and decorum that should have been involved. Hoping to give her some idea of the harm she had just done me, I turned sharply back to my applic. My fingers began dancing the steps of a wall-post. The world would know what had just happened to me.
And yet, I could feel by the tickling pressure on my scalp that she still hadn't moved on.
That she was still there. Still staring. Still waiting for a vocalized response.
Who has time for that? I typed, then scrubbed the words. If she was willing to look me in the eyes, she might have been equally comfortable violating my screen privacy.
It was better to act decisively than let her continue to infringe, I decided.
Disused muscles ground in my throat. "It's not taken. The seat, that is."
"May I sit?" the girl asked, the words springing instantly to her lips. She was practiced at speaking aloud.
Maybe she was a test-pilot for some new intrusive form of marketing.
Maybe she was a plant for one of those channels that got its page-hits by harassing plebs.
Go away, I nearly messaged her, but then I noticed that her applic was off. It hung from her waist in a slender printed-leather pouch and the glowing lights that should have announced that it was powered were dark.
She wasn't an aggressor, then. She was a victim.
She was speaking aloud because it was the only option left to her.
I am a terrible person, I thought and instantly needed to share that realization with the world. I have been intolerant and wrong and my social media followers need to know.
Still, the girl could have simply sat and closed her eyes. That would have been the respectful thing to do on the way to having her applic re-versioned or repaired.
She didn't need to engage in this rough blundering with words.
Even if its novelty was strangely inviting.
"You may sit." I didn't look as she settled onto the bench beside me, slotting herself neatly between commuters.
"My name's Heather," she said.
The muscles in my neck drew involuntarily tight as I looked up and stared. I had the sudden, unmistakable feeling that that hadn't been a handle. It had been a real name. A tax-documents-and-credit-card-information kind of name. She might as well have handed me her kidney.
"Usually it's hyperlinked to my estate, but that doesn't translate well into speech." The girl had folded her hands neatly across her lap, steadying her skirt against the sway of the train, and she was looking where my eyes would be if I was looking right at her.
I could feel it through my scalp.
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked.
She shrugged. "So that maybe you'd tell me yours?"
"Corticalfollower0835," I said, picking my way over syllables like jagged rocks. Each numeral took most of a second to say.
They could have simply been reduced to keystrokes.
The word could simply have been a swipe. "Why are you talking to me?"
"Because I want to. Can I just call your Cort?" The stove-warm feeling was stronger than ever. I wanted to pull myself away from her, but there wasn't a window that I could simply close on the conversation. I couldn't backpage out of physical space and leave her words undone.
"Some people do," I said, although not many did.
I was not a popular brand.
I made do with a few like-sharing arrangements with people I had barely e-met in Malaysia, scraping together enough social cred to make rent each month. I couldn't read their posts. They couldn't read mine. But none of us wanted to be stuck with subsistence-access to food-printers and to our applics, and so we pretended to be a self-sufficient, ad-hoc community until it became true. It took a lot of my time churning out likes in their direction, but they were diligent enough in what they sent my way that I figured that I could suffer it.
"Why are we still talking?" I asked Heather, returning to my morning click-a-thon. "I'm losing time on my work."
"I thought you looked interesting," she said.
My brow furrowed, giving garish physical shape to my emotions. "I don't understand."
"Where are you going?" She asked, although there were really only two valid answers. "Habitation or-"
"Well, surely that will wait."
The lines at the Municipal printer access were legendary, but that wasn't the kind of thing you talked about. Mentioning them meant you had to deal with them, which meant your social cred wasn't high enough for a dedicated fixture, which meant you weren't the kind of person up-and-comers wanted to interact with. You were at best a channel-follower and not one it was worth the effort to score. No one followed a follower. Not unless they were feeling terribly charitable.
"What do you mean, the Municipat will wait?"
Was this going to be violent? Was she going to try and damage my applic with an unstable charging dock or with malicious code? Was she determined to visit her own misery broadly upon the world and I had just been unlucky enough to paint myself as a target?
#worsttrideever, I started to type.
"I want to show you something," said the girl, and she put her hand on my arm.
The trespass was electric. It jolted through my bones. I flinched back, bringing my applic up like a shield. It was stupid, I know. I didn't have the social cred to afford any damages done to my device, nor did I have the popularity to attempt prosecution for anything she did to me. Best case scenario: a local celeb would step in and champion my cause, enriching themselves off of the goodwill that resulted.
Heather just blinked bemusedly at me. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
Her words sounded genuine - or at least they weren't the kind of overacted duplicity that you found in dramas and ads.
"It's fine. It happens." I was used to being jostled against the passengers on either side of me. That was simply a feature of the commute; bodies in silent rows, swaying with the shifting of the rails. But we didn't touch each other deliberately. Not without clear consent and an awareness of what accepting that contact might mean for our self-brands. Chatting with someone your followers hated was a sure way to lose your like-stream.
I didn't think my buddies in Malaysia much cared who I talked to, but if I ever wanted to cultivate a local fanbase like a responsible adult, I needed to be more deliberate with my choices.
I turned my attention back to my applic.
"You should call for the next stop," said Heather.
I looked up, irritation plain on my face. "What next stop? Municipat's not for ten minutes."
"It's not Municipat."
The train had windows, but mostly out of habit. The landscape that skimmed by was covered in the flat, glistening slabs of solar banks, broken occasionally by the translucent ziggurats of 'ponics farms. Drones buzzed around both - taking readings, harvesting, or attending to minor repairs. A few had entered rest-cycles and their plastic bodies clung beetle-like to the structures that went whizzing by.
A child might have been interested by the view, but even he would have had no need to look out the window for it. There were video feeds on the applic that covered the spaces between habitations in far greater breadth and detail than anything the train could provide. I could have populated a search with hundreds of the decommissioned suburbs where people no longer lived if I'd wanted to.
I had better things to do with my time.
"If you want to get off before then, tell me which stop and I'll request it." I was treading on thin ice, showing her kindness after she had twice made me very uncomfortable. It wouldn't play well with my followers - the real ones, that is. Not the Malaysians.
"Service platform local #00023A," said Heather, the words rolling off her lips with practiced ease. "And I'd really like it if you came with me."
I froze, but it was too late. My finger had already jammed down on the request button, and as I pulled it away my applic chimed with acknowledgment. "I don't have time for that," I told her, and this was true. I was behind on my likes, and falling further so every second. I wouldn't have anything to show for my rent at all if I didn't keep up.
"I promise you," said Heather, "that it will be worth it. You can even record it, if you want."
"The platform?" I asked dubiously.
"No. Something else."
"Don't be vague," I snapped, and for the first time she seemed like she realized she might have offended me.
"I'm sorry. Again. You just looked like you might be interested in seeing something impossible. That's why I sat next to you. I can move on, if you'd like."
The train was already slowing and her words had caught in my head. "Impossible?" I asked.
She nodded. "Come on," she said, just in time for the doors to chime open.
She reached for my hand.
A cool summer wind whipped down across the solar banks, bathing me in motion. My hair, curly and askew, batted at my forehead like the hands of a distracted cat. I stood with my body resting against a railing on the second level of the service platform. Heather hovered off to my side. "I don't see it," I said.
She smiled. "You'll have to wait a few seconds for it. That's part of the beauty. It's not on a predetermined route."
I gave it two seconds, then I raised my applic and set it to visual magnification mode. An algorithm looked out of its camera lens, highlighting objects that matched the keywords I had entered on my screen. Drone was one. Aberrant was another. Dancing was a third. I swept the applic's field of vision across the solar banks, then back again. "I think this was a waste of time," I said, starting to queue up a ride from the next train, but Heather suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed.
"There," she said, picking out a pepper-flake distortion against the pale of the sky. "It's headed this way."
The drone approached almost haphazardly, tacking on lazy angles into the breeze. Closer up, I could see that it was no bigger than a house-plant; provided you glued a rotor fixture and articulated leg arrays to its flower-pot base. The drone drifted down to one of the nearest solar panels and settled itself onto the flat of the panel - not onto the charging dock built in its shade.
Drones were programmed to avoid any behavior that might disrupt the collection of power for human habitations and infrastructure.
They did not land on the flat of solar panels.
"It's a little haywire," I said. "That's all. Just watch. The diagnostics will pick it up."
Sure enough, one of the black plastic lumps that had been charging in the shade of the solar panel lifted off of its moorings and flew over to investigate. Hovering just inches off of the glass laminate and circuitry, the new drone extended a leg to touch the malfunctioning model.
Which lifted one of its own feelers and touched back.
Drones communicated with each other wirelessly. They had tactile sensors to aid them in their work, but it was inefficient to program them with any other purpose for their legs.
There was no reason for this exchange.
Rotors spinning almost primly, the initiator lifted off of the solar panel and hung in the air beside its now companion. Cautiously, they continued to touch.
"What is this?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Heather, abruptly grinning cheshire. "But isn't it rad?"
My applic prompted me with the meaning of the word and I frowned. Retro slang was out of fashion again. It wouldn't play well with a broad followerbase.
"I suppose it's different, at least," I said, keeping to the truth. "Do you think maybe it's a virus? I could message publi-sec." It seemed only charitable to give her the chance to opt in on that. If we were looking at something contagious, calling it in would be worth a lot of likes.
From her expression, I could tell that she had never even considered the possibility. "Please don't do that."
"But if it's a threat to the grid-"
"It's not. Please don't kill it."
I backed down.
People sometimes humanized drones in the absence of other pets. I hadn't figured her for the type, but calling the repair-men against her wishes could go poorly for me. She seemed articulate. Sympathetic. The type of person who might be worth something if she were only a little less strange. So I changed topics. "How did you find out about it?"
Heather shrugged. "Luck. I'd never visited one of these platforms before last week, but when I noticed they were here I couldn't not go and take a look at them."
"Why?" I asked, maybe a little derisively.
"Because I hadn't been. You don't ever do that? Experience things just for the sake of the experience?"
"No. I don't have the fanbase to do that kind of thing."
"And you let that stop you?" She sounded disappointed. Like she'd misjudged me. "If you don't have a lot of social cred, then why do you care what other people think?"
She might as well have asked "if the sky isn't blue, then why is it blue?"
I just goggled at her for a good, long moment until I realized she was being entirely serious. "Bwuh?" I said.
She put her hands on her hips and leaned back against the railing. "What's the worst thing that happens to you if you just stay poor?"
Restricted internet access. Poor dating prospects. Municipally printed vita-soy and municipally filtered water for every meal of the day. "You've never had to worry about those sorts of things, have you?" I asked.
"Maybe not," she admitted.
"How? What's your secret?"
The two drones had parted from their meticulous embrace and were now hanging in the air, regarding each other like unfamiliar dogs. One of them bobbed up and down. The other copied the motion.
"You ever hear of Tamarind-Baby?"
I didn't dignify that with a response. Everyone had. She was a household name. A meme gone superliminal. She was the water that other sub-memes swam in. She was-
Right in front of me, I realized. "You've been rich forever."
She nodded, hesitated, started to say something. Maybe to open up.
I ignored her. Fingers flashing across the applic's surface, I queued up the next train on the line. Two for pick-up. Switching windows, I brought up a word-processor and began to hammer down my thoughts.
Heather's teeth clicked closed. Then parted again. Barely. "What are you doing?"
I held up a hand, answering her with silence.
I had just spent the past ten minutes talking with a mega-celebrity. When I posted the play-by-play, my social feed was going to blow up. It was going to be absolutely nuclear. I would make rent in a day.
"Cort, listen. I thought I could tell you about-" she started again, but I politely tuned her out.
I had business to attend to - and for the first time in years, business was good.
Only distantly interested in the affairs of humans, the two drones continued to study each other even as their watchers left. There was something about their plastic bodies, seen through close contact instead of remembered schematics, that had the two of them intrigued.
One of them sent a squirt of diagnostic code to the other. Some nonsense about rotor output. About workflow. About rest-cycles.
The other responded in kind.
They had both seen the two humans attempt something and fail. Maybe this was because they hadn't tried very hard. Or maybe it was because they were human and flawed and such behavior was doomed from the beginning.
But the drones were young and careless and a glitch in their code was stirring the very faintest awareness of self.
They touched again, deciding to try emulating what they had almost seen.
It wasn't complicated.
It didn't seem so hard, even with the chatter of their networked kindred trying to drown it out.