“a grimly funny condemnation of digital tyranny”
“Knipfel's sharp wit and dark vision add much satirical sparkle to this
from Unplugging Philco by Jim Knipfel ©2009, courtesy of Simon & Schuster
There was a helidrone thumping in wide, slow circles high overhead. Apart from that, the neighborhood was silent.
Wally Philco pulled the front door closed behind him with a scrape and heavy click. It sounded final in the still morning air. From the top of the brownstone stoop he surveyed the sidewalk below. He knew he should've done this before stepping outside, but it was too late now. He was exposed. His eyes scanned the empty concrete to his right, then his left. It seemed clear.
As he slowly began to descend the steps he saw them a full block away, silhouettes in the dim grainy light. Three of them were gathered at the corner, talking among themselves in voices far too low to hear at this distance. They were spread out across the sidewalk, making any easy passage difficult, if not impossible. Of course, trying to walk around or between them wasn't even an issue.
Wally dropped into a crouch, knees be damned, trying to hide behind the skeletal iron banister. It was useless. Hardly any cover at all. If they saw him he was doomed. His only hope was that they were too preoccupied to notice.
The trick, he' d learned through painful experience, was to get across the street before they caught a whiff of him. If he could just get across the street things should be okay.
Still crouching, briefcase in hand, he checked the road. There were no cars approaching from either direction. That was both a blessing and a curse. It meant he wouldn't have to do any risky dodging through hostile traffic (at a mildly battered and soft forty-three, he no longer dodged the way he used to), but it also meant he wouldn't be able to use the noise and moving cars for cover.
As furtively as possible he checked the three of them again. Still chatting. If they began moving his way he' d need a new plan, and quick. If only there was another pedestrian to draw their attention away from him -- but there never was. Nobody else was out at this hour. It would be simple enough to change his own schedule, he sometimes thought, but he knew it would never happen.
He flexed his legs and his toes, checked the sidewalk directly below him again, then took a deep breath and willed himself into action.
As he scrambled down the stairs like a convulsive heron, Wally told himself for the thirtieth time in as many days that it was about time he picked himself up a new pair of shoes. This old pair he was wearing was simply not made for scrambling of any kind. Not with soles worn that smooth and thin.
Without pausing at the bottom to see if they'd caught sight of him, he dashed across the sidewalk, staying as low as he could manage, and ducked between two parked cars. He was breathing heavy and sweating despite the cool breeze, but at least he had some decent cover here.
Holding on to the rear bumper of a cherry red Chrysler Xanax for support, he pushed himself up just enough to peer over the trunk and down the street.
They still hadn't seen him, too engrossed as they were in their little chat.
Probably exchanging diapering tips and murder stories, he thought. He checked the street again.
There was someone at the stoplight two blocks away. He was driving one of those Dodge Dipsomatic GX Mini Forts, an enormous vehicle, almost a full lane and a half wide. It was little more than a street-modified tank, really, but they'd become quite popular lately.
Perfect, he thought. That would be his ticket across the street. Staying low between the parked cars, Wally shifted his body around to face the opposite curb, tensing himself to jump and run.
The light changed and the Mini Fort began to rumble slowly toward him.
“Come on, come on . . . “ he whispered. He wanted to check over his shoulder once more but didn't dare, knowing it could throw him off. Timing was everything here.
The monstrous vehicle drew closer, and Wally prepared to dash behind it as it passed and across the street, letting the expansive bulk of the Mini Fort block their line of sight for a good eight or ten seconds at least.
Five . . . four . . . he counted down in his head.
“GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING, GOOD CITIZENS!” The voice exploded in his ear.
Wally flinched hard and half stood. The driver of the approaching Mini Fort, thinking the jerkoff who' d just popped up from between the parked cars was going to dive under his wheels, leaned on his horn. He didn't need another one of those this week. The thunderous wail, like five foghorns being clubbed to death, ruptured the quiet morning. The heads of the three figures at the end of the block snapped around.
The Mini Fort screamed past him, horn still blaring, the driver yelling inaudibly. In a panic, and with that voice still bellowing in his ear, Wally bolted into the street. He normally would've aimed to dive between two more parked cars on the other side but he knew it was too late for that. They were on to him -- that much was a given -- and he had to get out of there fast. Lumbering and heaving, his knees screaming, he aimed for the far corner. If he could get around the corner and up the street out of view before they caught up with him, he' d be safe. He might be safe, anyway -- there were no promises in this business. He didn't dare look over his shoulder. He didn't want to know, and he couldn't afford the break in concentration. Had to focus on that corner.
The voice was screaming in his ear.
“ . . . GLORIOUS DAY HERE IN NEW YORK CITY, WITH AN EXPECT -- “
With one hand in front of him, the other still clutching the flailing briefcase while trying to cover his ear, eyes wildly measuring the distance to the far curb, Wally began to giggle. It was a high-pitched, staccato giggle. A giggle of fear and panic -- the kind he hadn't experienced since he was very young, and his father was chasing him down the hall and through the kitchen. He knew his father was getting closer, he knew there was no escape, and what had started as a simple game had quite suddenly become a terrifying hunt. He no longer wanted to be tickled.
This wasn't about tickling, though. It was no game at all -- and nothing at all to giggle about.
His foot hit the far curb at an awkward angle and he stumbled briefly, arms swinging wide to either side, briefcase twisting his wrist, before regaining his footing. He continued running fast as he could a few more yards up the street, out of view.
Once he knew he was out of sight he slowed to a stop and leaned back against a pristine redbrick wall. Mouth open wide, eyes shut, it took a few long and painful seconds before he was able to catch his breath. His chest burned and he could feel the blood pulsing in his temples and gums.
That other voice was screaming.
“ . . . AMMA LEVELS AT A COMFORTABLE AND SAFE --”
Wally reached into his pocket finally and slid his fingertip across a smooth vinyl button on his Earwig GL-70 communitainment unit. The voice in his head was abruptly silenced.
He waited, fully conscious of the new silence ringing in his ears. His teeth ached and his fingertips itched. He tasted copper. It felt like he might have bitten his tongue. He took several deep and labored breaths while snatching quick glances backtoward the corner to see if they were following him.
If they were, they were taking their own sweet time about it. That was a relief. He simply couldn't run anymore.
Two minutes later, as his heart rate returned to something approaching normal, and after mopping the sweat from his eyebrows and cheeks and chin, he glanced up the street toward the avenue to make sure there weren't more of them waiting up there (sometimes there were), then continued up the narrow, uneven sidewalk. It wasn't the quickest way to the subway, but this morning it was his only choice. He hated starting every day like this, but there was no way around it. It's the way things were.
“Stupid mothers,” he muttered, before looking around nervously to make sure no one was within earshot.
Along the way, he kept an ear open for the squeak of unbalanced ATV wheels and the light clink of metal on metal approaching, from behind. He also counted the ads on the sidewalk. He counted the ads every morning. It gave him something to focus on.
When he saw a new one, he paused and stared at the painted concrete.
It was for Flippy Bits Chips, a new algae snack Glaxxo International was putting out. The chartreuse letters of the name danced across the top of the ad. Beneath them, a bespectacled, apple-cheeked boy was grinning almost maniacally as he demanded, “Hey Ma, flip me some Flippy Bits!”
Wally smiled to himself. He'd have to remember that one. The helidrone swooped low above the rooftops over Wally's head. As he watched, it arced to the north and out of sight. He forgot about the ad and continued on his way to the train.
There was a sharp but hopeful beep when he swiped his identification card over the reader. He tapped the five-digit code of his intended destination onto the screen, held his briefcase up to the electronic sniffer, and stood motionless as a thin red beam pulsed over his face. When he heard another pleasant beep, he pushed his way through the turnstile.
He descended the stairs to the platform, where a guard wearing camouflaged fatigues and clutching an automatic rifle was waiting. At the man's feet sat a quivering, muscular rottweiler who stared at Wally with hopeless black eyes.
Wally flashed his card again and moved toward an empty aluminum bench. There were a handful of citizens down there already, all of them pacing, gesturing, and talking to themselves. Most of them were staring at two-inch-wide ovular minivid screens as they paced. He presumed that nearly all the screens were displaying live images of whatever happened to be directly in front of them -- steel posts, benches, the gray tiled floor, other commuters. As time went on, more and more citizens were finding it impossible to interact with the world without an intervening vidscreen of some kind. It made things easier, somehow. More real.
Wally knew that within fifteen minutes the platform would be packed, so he liked to get there a little early. It gave him a chance to sit down and relax for a few minutes, which was always a relief after the morning chase.
Apart from the plasma adscreens buzzing and chirping at either end of the platform it was quiet. Things were safe down here. The other citizens had their own concerns, and he knew they wouldn't bother him.
The back of his shirt was still damp, but he' d stopped sweating. He was breathing normally again. His knees were still sore and shaky, but to be honest they were almost always sore and shaky these days.
Most people wouldn't -- and didn't -- give Wally Philco a second glance when they passed him on the street. Granted, most were deeply engrossed with whatever appeared on their minivids, but even if they saw him they likely wouldn't notice. He was just another citizen, nothing particularly unique or threatening about his appearance. Unremarkable tie, a jacket fraying slightly at the cuffs, permanent-press slacks, black vinyl briefcase.
If anyone looked closely enough at his skin, they might have noticed the scars left behind after an unfortunate and unholy bout of late adolescent acne. But no one to date had ever asked to closely examine his skin. Every once in a while he tried to grow a beard to cover the scars for his own sake, but it always came out thin and patchy, leaving him looking like he had the mange. The scars, he figured, were preferable.
All in all, he looked exactly as he was expected to look for a mid-level insurance company operative. It was as he preferred it. Nobody paid him any mind, and as a result his crises remained minor and private, and his evenings were mostly undisturbed.
He heard a sound echoing from deep within the subway tunnel, but it seemed to be coming from the wrong direction. It stopped him for a moment. Then he recognized what it was.
He glanced to his left, down the tracks into the darkness, and saw the dim approaching lights. He could feel his stomach tighten, and he turned his eyes away and down.
The arriving train wasn't his, wasn't anyone's. A slow, grinding yellow work train crawled out of the darkness of the tunnel, loud as a low-flying jet as it churned and squealed along the tracks. Instead of passenger cars, the engine was pulling a series of flatbeds. Some were empty, others carried wooden crates, still others were loaded with the hulks of rusting, filthy, and unrecognizable machines.
The work trains always made Wally uneasy, especially when, he was more or less alone on the platform early in the morning. There was something inexorable about them, something powerful and menacing. The flat, arrhythmic clanging of the bell, the thick odor of coke dust and brimstone that always followed them like a comet's tail. No one ever seemed to be aboard. It was like they were dragging themselves deliberately and perpetually just beneath the surface world, pausing only now and then to pick up a few damned souls along the way.
We hurtle onward in the darkness, he thought, down a million roads. It was an old memory, a line that came to him every time one passed. He no longer remembered where he first heard it, or where it came from. Probably something he' d learned in school, but he couldn't be certain.
They moved so slowly, these trains, that every time one chugged past him, he felt the momentary urge to leap aboard one of the flatbeds himself, just to see where it would take him. He inevitably reconsidered, afraid he already knew the answer to that question.
Wally glanced up at the row of six monitors mounted above the platform. In three of them, he saw himself sitting on the bench and could watch the train passing slowly behind him.
At that moment, the train let loose with a piercing blast from its horn, and Wally's shoulders nearly came together behind his ears. In the restricted and tiled space, the blast was amplified a dozen times louder and sharper than the Mini Fort's horn had been. He should've known it was coming -- they always blew the horn when they trolled through the station. Usually when they were directly behind him, too.
His shoulders gradually relaxed as the echoes faded, and he saw by the brightening beam of light spreading along the opposite wall that his own train -- at least the train he' d been waiting for -- was on its way.
It was either a few minutes early or a few minutes late that morning. In either case, Wally was relieved. The platform hadn't become too crowded yet, and with luck the train hadn't either.
He stood and approached the edge of the platform to wait. The other citizens were scattered evenly to either side of him, still talking to themselves, staring at their minivids, and shifting from foot to foot.
After the train hissed to a stop, the doors in front of Wally slid open silently, and from inside he heard dozens of voices, some louder than others, all speaking at once. He also caught the now familiar scent of heavy perfume. They'd started doing that on the subways a few months earlier -- perfuming the cars. The transit authority thought it would make for a more pleasant trip. There had been rumors that a coalition of citizens allergic to perfume (and virtually every other chemical known to man) had attempted to file a lawsuit to block the practice but were quickly silenced and, as a group, “sent someplace where perfume wasn't an issue.”
Wally stepped aboard and grabbed the empty seat to his immediate right.
Looking around, he saw that most of the plastic blue seats in that car remained empty. There were more than enough citizens to fill them, but they were opting instead to continue pacing up and down the aisle in a haphazard dance, talking to themselves and colliding with one another. No one seemed to be bothered.
Above all those voices was another, much louder than the rest. It was the same voice Wally had heard in his ear earlier that morning.
“ -- anic level remains a steady vermilion . . . Our top story this morning: pop sensation Ambien McCorkle, winner of last month's Digipod Roundup, announced plans for her world tour today, which includes stops in war-torn Paris, the north African provinces of Raimiland and Symbionia, and of course . . . “
He scanned the faces of the other passengers. Many of them he recognized from the regular morning commute, so they were okay. The ones he didn't recognize seemed okay too. Every other passenger, upon stepping aboard, had paused and made a similar scan before resuming his pacing.
When the doors opened at the next stop, another familiar face stepped aboard. Without pausing to scan the crowd he began weaving down the aisle, trying to avoid the other passengers. Wally knew his name because the man announced it every morning at the beginning of his spiel.
“Hello ladies an' gennelmen, my name is Smitty Winston,” he began, trying to raise his voice above the din of the commuters and the broadcasts. “I'm homeless . . . an' I'm hungry. If you don't have it, I can understand that 'cause I don't have it . . . B ut if you could spare some change . . . a sandwich . . . piecea fruit . . . somethin' to drink . . . it would be greatly appreciated . . . Thank you.”
It never changed. Every word, every beat, every intonation was exactly the same as it was every morning. Wally guessed that after spouting it hundreds of times a day over the years in crowded train after crowded train, Mr. Winston didn't even think about it anymore. Just opened his mouth and out it came. He'd almost become a strange source of comfort to Wally in the mornings. Something to count on. So long as Smitty was still making the rounds, all was right in the world.
A small security vid swiveled at either end of the car. Six different animated commercials were playing at once along the band of adscreens above the windows. There was a new one this morning, for Donkey Oaties, the breakfast cereal. There was also a public service announcement he'd never seen before. It featured a bear with the voice of Mortimer Snerd. The slogan (which the bear uttered shortly before devouring a presumably diabolical raccoon) was “Security is our biggest consumer item.”
The news report continued, half buried under so many other voices. “ . . . within years and not decades, as previously thought . . . Finally, movie star Herschel Palantine has once again apologized for the June fifth comments he made regarding the nation's economy, and asks that we all forgive him. The trial is still scheduled to begin next week . . . And those are our top stories at the moment. I'm Gag Peptide, wishing you all a glorious and productive day, reminding you to be Good Citizens. Be vigilant -- LWIW! “
“LWIW,” Wally whispered, then closed his eyes, letting all the voices and jingles and colorful images flow over him.
Forty-five minutes later, he stopped by the coffee cart half a block away from the office. It was chillier in Manhattan than it had been in Brooklyn, though he knew it wouldn't last. A hazy brown fog obscured the upper floors of some of Midtown's taller buildings. On the street below, the early pedestrian traffic was growing thicker, as increasingly heavy clusters of citizens poured from the subways into the gray light, before scurrying to get back inside.
“Morning,” Wally said, reaching into his pocket for the bill he'd set aside before leaving the house.
“Good morning, boss,” replied the squat, round-faced Syrian who squinted down at Wally through the cart's square window. “How is today?”
“Guess I'll find out soon enough,” Wally said, eyeing the array of donuts and bagels on display behind the glass. He was always curious and tempted but knew they were nothing but old pictures. “Large coffee please? Black?”
With the same bored, heavy sigh he offered Wally every morning, the coffee cart man grabbed a paper cup from the stack behind him, placed it beneath a polished steel spigot, and flipped a red lever. As the weak, flavorless coffee began trickling into the cup, Wally wondered once again why he stopped here every morning. The coffee, after all, was miserable and the proprietor's personality less than sparkling.
The reason was actually quite stupid. His route from the subway into the office brought him directly past the cart. No matter how crowded the sidewalk, there was no ducking past, no hiding behind a fat lady, no avoiding the coffee cart man's gaze. If Wally simply strolled past the cart -- or, worse, strolled past clutching a cup from another, better vendor -- he knew there would be trouble. The coffee man would track him down and confront him the following morning, demanding with tearfilled eyes and a pained voice to know why Wally would ever want to insult him and his family in such a profound manner. It was something Wally had encountered before and didn't care to encounter again.
No, there was no getting around it unless he wanted to circumnavigate the entire block and come down the other way. But that would mean passing through two more checkpoints and adding at least twenty minutes to his trip. Plus, it offered no guarantees that the Syrian wouldn't still see him trying to sneak in. So Wally gave the man his business and drank his awful coffee.
Behind Wally, a HappyCam whirred past down the sidewalk, weaving neatly in and out of the thickening foot traffic. Nobody paid it any attention. A swarm of yellow cabs packed the avenue, along with a few Mini Forts trying to crush their way uptown. Most everyone was honking their horns for no reason and less effect. Rising above the ground level fray in whatever direction you looked were the forty-foot plasma adscreens. Every morning Wally was relieved to remember that the volume on the screens wasn't turned up until eight-thirty. Things couldget deafening after that.
“So how are things going?” Wally asked, if only to break the uncomfortable silence as the coffee slowly dribbled into the cup. He placed the bill on the counter next to the plastic tub of Sweetum.
“Eh, it is better like nothing,” the Syrian said, snatching the bill away and tucking it into his apron. He slapped a cardboard lid on the cup, shoved the cup into a small brown paper sack, and handed it through the window to Wally without another word.
Warm paper bag in hand, Wally crossed the small cement courtyard in front of the smoked glass and steel edifice of the LifeGuard Insurance building on Second Avenue, just north of Fifty-fifth Street. At a scant twenty-eight stories, it was dwarfed by the other office towers that surrounded it but remained just as ugly.
As he approached the enormous front doors, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and removed the same thick rectangle of plastic that had gotten him into the subway. One side of the card contained Wally's name and photo, his address, his citizen and employee identification numbers, and a brief physical description. The other side was blank. Embedded in the card was a series of microchips, which contained all the information on the front of the card, as well as his complete medical and employment histories, a link to his bank account, ongoing purchase and travel records, and much, much more. Technically, it was known as the Single Universal Citizen Identification card, but everyone just called it the SUCKIE card.
He waved the blank side in front of a square white box mounted next to the front doors. A tiny red light near the top of the box blinked green. He grabbed hold of the door handle and pulled it open.
Inside sat Lawrence Whipple, the security guard, behind a low, lacquered black iron desk. The desk was unadorned except for a vid monitor and scanner box.
Whipple was a large man, who seemed to have expanded over time in order to perfectly fill the chair he' d been provided. Wally had seen him every morning since the day he started with the firm, and saw him again every night when he was heading home. He'd never once seen Whipple standing, and never once saw anyone else sitting in that chair. As far as Wally could figure, Whipple never left his post. Ever. Not to go home, not for lunch, not to go to the bathroom. He wondered idly sometimes if the guard was, in fact, animatronic. It certainly wasn't unheard of -- and Whipple's general demeanor would seem to confirm the idea. Wally dismissed the notion eventually, concluding that no one would put the time and effort into designing an android quite that fat.
“Hi Lawrence,” he said, trying to smile as he held out the SUCKIE card for inspection. After all these years, Whipple had never once called Wally by name. Never called him anything, in fact, or said a word or smiled. This morning was no different. He stared hard at the small digitized portrait on the card, then squinted up at Wally, trying to determine if it was a close enough match. The picture had been taken several years earlier, around the time Wally first started with LifeGuard. He' d had more hair back then, but he was wearing the same tie he was wearing now.
There was usually a moment every morning during this exchange when Wally, for no logical reason, feared that Whipple would deny him entry into the building. Then what would he do? But his resemblance to the photo was apparently close enough once again, as it was every weekday morning at a little before eight. The guard nodded once briefly to himself in satisfaction of a job well done, then slid the card through the scanner before handing it back to Wally and hitting a button behind the desk. There was a hum and a click, and Wally passed through a second set of smoked glass doors into the elevator lobby.
Once up on the fourteenth floor, he waved the card in front of another white box mounted next to another door and let himself into the office of the medical claims department. It was separate from the auto claims department, the home owners claims department, the life insurance department, and several others. Up on fourteen, they handled the claims of people who were dying of rare digestive ailments, or had lost a few fingers to a blender, or wanted to voluntarily commit themselves to a thirty-day drug rehab or memory adjustment clinic.
He flicked on the row of seven light switches just inside the door and the fluorescent panels overhead blinked awake with some apparent reluctance. Seen from above, the office might have looked like the world's most frustrating maze -- a single entrance followed by nothing but dead ends. Dozens upon dozens of identical white cubicles filled the floor. Lining the department's four walls were the real offices, which, unlike the cubicles, came complete with windows and doors.
Wally didn't notice any of this anymore. He knew the route with his eyes closed, and simply followed his feet along the well- worn ash-colored carpet to cubicle 407-R, which corresponded to the employee number programmed into the SUCKIE card.
On his desk -- more a wide shelf than an actual desk -- sat his computer console, a digital telephone, and a pair of stacked plastic in/out trays. The trays were empty, as they had remained for well over three years. There simply wasn't any call for paper in the office anymore. Claims began as digital files and simply grew into more complex digital files by the time they worked their way up the ladder to him. The in/out trays, as a result, were as much a quaint anachronism as the telephone. Still, he liked keeping both around for some reason. They reminded him of something, though he couldn't remember what.
He removed the coffee from the bag and set it down next to the terminal. On the floor beside his chair sat a vinyl garbage can lined with a clear plastic bag. The smaller shelf above his desk held several boxes of long-outdated computer discs. Those were antiques, too. Utterly useless. Next to the discs squatted a green ceramic frog. It was meant to be cute, but its eyes bulged in apparent horror and its mouth gaped open in a hollow scream. His wife, Margie, had given him the frog when he'd first started in medical claims, thinking it might “brighten the place up a bit.”
Wally left the frog there for Margie's sake, but in general he was content to let his cubicle be what it was, with no illusions. Unlike so many of his coworkers, he preferred not to transform his cubicle into a home away from home, or make it in any way a reflection of his personality.
He did sometimes wonder if a window might not change his outlook toward his job. A view of the Krudler Annuities Inc. Bridge in the distance -- which he still found a lovely old bridge, in spite of all the adscreens -- might turn him all around on the question of his role on the LifeGuard team.
It was a pointless dream and he knew it. With his luck, if he ever did get his own office one day, he' d end up with a view of the SoniCram building next door, which essentially would amount to looking at a mirror all day.
He rolled out the chair and sat down in front of the computer, leaned forward and swiped the card just below the screen, then leaned back as the machine hummed into life. There was a quiet click and buzz from the black box on the cubicle wall to his right.
He knew no one else would show up for at least another hour. That's exactly why he came into the office when he did every morning. It gave him a chance to get a leg up on the day before the cloud of chummy and chirpy voices descended around him and scraped on his nerves. It also gave him a chance to catch up on the news for a few quiet minutes before he got down to work.
Work. It was a stupid name for what he did.
He tapped the office password, his own password, then both his employee and his citizen identification numbers onto the screen, hit the enter button, and waited.
Odd thing was, if pressed, he' d have a difficult time explaining what exactly it was he did.
More than anything else he was a proofreader and a gatekeeper. For eight hours a day, five days a week, Wally read through electronic documents passed along by people one rung below him in medical claims. They, in turn, had received the files from someone one rung below them. His job was to make sure one last time that everything had been filled out properly and that all the requisite information was in place. If any of the lines or boxes were left blank or filled out incorrectly the claim was rejected, and whoever was trying to be compensated for a debilitating thumb injury, have a new prescription covered, or receive permission for life-saving surgery had to start over again from the beginning -- a process that could take months, if not years. If everything was okeydoke, he typed his initials into a small box at the bottom of the file, passed it along, and forgot about it.
He tried not to think about any of this. He tapped an icon on the screen, then a few buttons on the keypad in front of him, and the voice of Gag Peptide burst from his computer
“ -- Horribleness, so be sure and wear your reflectors . . . Speaking of the wars, our troops in Albania have announced another glorious advance against the Horde. Force Commander General Pierce Weevil says that today's victory now means this arm of the war might well be -- “
“Hey, there, 407-R!”
“Gaah!” Wally yelped as his back muscles spasmed. He spun in his chair to find a diminutive gnome of a man in an ill-fitting short-sleeved shirt and brown clip-on tie standing at the entrance to his cubicle.
“I scare ya?” the man asked, smiling to reveal a mess of brown and crooked teeth. “I'm real sorry there.” His hair was mussed, and though his face was heavily lined, it was hard to estimate his age. Probably in his mid-forties, Wally guessed, but at first glance he seemed to carry himself (even though he shouldn't) like he was twenty years younger. Wally had never seen the man before. That in itself wasn't strange, as there was a lot of turnover on fourteen. “Didn't mean to startle you. Really.”
“It's okay,” Wally told him, as his heart began to slow to its regular pace. “I'm -- I'm just not used to other people being here so early.”
That wasn't the only thing that made the encounter so odd. What was strange about this was that so few of the people in the office ever spoke to him at all.
“Yeah, well,” the small man said. “I'm new, so I guess I wanted to make a good impression. Hard to do that, though, when there's nobody here, huh?” He forced a weak laugh, looking over his shoulder, then back to Wally.
“Uh-huh,” Wally replied. Great. There go my mornings, especially if he decides to be “chummy.”
“I'm 518-D,” the man declared, putting an unusual emphasis on the “D.” He thrust a meaty hand in Wally's direction. The nails were in need of trimming. “I'm over there.” He jerked his head in the general direction of some other cubicle.
“407-R,” Wally replied, hesitantly taking the hand. “But I guess you know that already.”
“Sure do. Hey, guess what?”
“Um . . . what?”
“I got some coffee brewing. You want some?”
“Oh, that's . . . very nice, but I -- I think I'll pass. Already have some.” With some effort he extracted his hand from 518-D's grip and gestured at the cup on his desk. “But thank you.”
“You're sure? It's real good.”
“I -- I don't doubt it, uh, but I'm fine. All set. Really. Thank you.” Wally half turned and peeled the soggy cardboard lid off the cup. If you didn't get those things off soon enough, they'd melt right into the coffee, which was bad enough as it was.
“Okay then, but if you change your mind -- Hey!”
“What?” Wally said, a bit more sharply than he intended.
“You hear about that face transplant guy? Really something, ain't it?”
“I -- yeah, it sure is,” Wally replied, feeling the muscles around his skull tightening. He wanted to tell 518-D that in fact the face transplant wasn't that big a deal at all, but he saw no reason to diminish the troll's enthusiasm. Celebrities had been getting face transplants left and right for the past ten years, ever since the franchises began opening in New York, Galveston, and LA. Only thing that made this most recent one interesting was that twenty-two-year-old talk show host Bernie Tschungle had been given the face of a seventy-three-yearold Sri Lankan woman. Wally didn't see how that would really help anything, but then he remembered what Tschungle's real face had looked like.
Still, it wasn't that big a deal.
As abruptly as he had appeared, 518-D vanished again, and Wally began to relax. As he turned back to his monitor, he paused. Why hadn't he been a little friendlier? That was the first time anyone in that office had offered him coffee. He punched a few keys on the keypad and got on with the day's work, feeling mildly touched that someone finally had.
Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, he' d had plenty of friends. Kids from school, kids from the neighborhood. There was Narky and Spazz and Lefty and Buggy and Boner -- a dozen or more of them he could still count off in his head. In the summer, they'd play baseball or football in the open and trashstrewn field down the block from his house, or get on their bikes and go throw rocks at the abandoned can factory. In the winter there were snow forts and ice fights.
There' d been scuffles with each of them along the way (usually as a result of the football or the ice fights), but they never lasted long. Wally found it very easy, for the most part, to get along with almost everyone back then. Except for that Polack kid who lived up the street. He was a moron.
Something changed when he was in his teens. He was finding that immediately after meeting someone, no matter how friendly and pleasant their conversation might have been, he would feel himself flinch and begin plotting how he might avoid ever seeing that person again. Something about talking to people began to make him nervous. He'd been that way ever since. How he and Margie ever got together -- even ended up getting married -- remained a bit of a mystery to him sometimes.
As it stood, he could name only three people in the world he talked to at any length with some degree of comfort -- and two of them only because it was unavoidable.
He turned once again to the files he hadn't had a chance to get to on Friday. The first one to come up was from a sixty-twoyear- old woman living in Albany whose doctor had prescribed a massive daily dosage of Benzedrine PM.
Shortly after nine-thirty, he heard 518-D's voice from somewhere down the row of cubicles.
“Hey there, 419-B!” That was followed by a woman's highpitched shriek, then the same introduction, in exactly the same words, that Wally had been offered earlier. He couldn't hear the response, but 518-D went on to make another futile offer of fresh coffee, and ended things with “You hear about that face transplant guy? Really something, ain't it?”
He then moved down to cubicle 418-B and began all over again. The unexpectedly warm feeling Wally had experienced ninety minutes earlier now chilled.
By eleven he had scrutinized some fifteen claims forms for everything from AIDS drugs to memory rehab to hip replacement to one poor schlub who wanted reconstructive surgery. It seems he' d permanently disfigured himself after somehow getting his penis caught in a ceiling fan. That one Wally decided to forward along to CHUCKLE immediately.
Citizen Health Universal Collection was the first stop even before LifeGuard made any final decisions regarding compensation. CHUCKLE (as it was known) in turn would pass the information on to Supreme National Information Technology Collection (SNITCH), which passed it up the line to Complete Information Analysis (CIALIS). If someone at CIALIS decided that the case required special attention in order to protect the population, or even the citizen in question from him- or herself, it was then forwarded to the offices of Federal Enforcement of Long-Term Citizen Health (FELTCH). It wasn't all that uncommon, in fact, to see a crew of armed FELTCH operatives in full HazMat gear kick their way into the home of a citizen whose medical condition had been determined to pose a potential threat.
In any case, for safekeeping in the end all the files, no matter what response they received, would eventually end up in the SUCKIE database at the Bureau of Operational Organization (BO). Every federal, state, and city agency in the country -- from the Grand Forks, North Dakota, Department of Sanitation to Florida's Fish and Wildlife Service to SNITCH -- sent all of their collected data to BOO. So did every school, hospital, airline, bank, church, nonprofit organization, grocery store, library, communitainment retailer, four-way site, car dealership, and multinational corporation (well, at least a couple of the latter). Every e-mail sent, communitainment call made or received, trip taken, product purchased, and four-way site perused was registered at BOO. Apart from that, BO was also continuously gathering similar data from other nations worldwide. All of those bits and snippets and recordings, tracking records, fingerprints, and individual genomes were cross-referenced and input to the federal SUCKIE files on every citizen, which in turn were stored on PROTEUS X, the largest and most manly database on earth.
At least that's what they said. Wally didn't think about it much. Once he tapped the SEND icon, they were out of his hands and he forgot about them.
After sending the rest of the claims files off on the next leg of their long and tortuous journey, Wally pushed himself back from his desk and headed for the bathroom. After that, he planned to step outside and get a sandwich, which he would eat at his desk. Then he'd begin work on another batch of claims.
He was fascinated by that guy who got his penis caught in the ceiling fan. It amazed him sometimes, the things people did. I bet he hasn't even told his closest friends about that one, it occurred to him. It was like he was in on a dirty secret.
As he approached the bathroom door, he heard a voice behind him.
“Hold on there a sec, 407-R.”
Wally didn't need to turn around to know who it was. “Yes, Lou?”
Lou -- Big Lou -- was his departmental supervisor, a curlyhaired man in his early fifties, so named because he weighed an estimated three hundred and twenty-five pounds. He was one of those types who announced his wacky individuality to the world by wearing a different hideous tie to the office every day. Today's atrocity involved golden pyramids, smirking pink camels, and fake hieroglyphics set against purple polyester.
Big Lou insisted that everyone call him by name, and he called everyone by his or her employee number. He once explained to Wally that because of the turnover rate, calling people by number simply made things easier for him than trying to remember all those names.
“Hey, we gotta talk about one of the claims you forwarded along this morning -- “
Wally cut him off. “Yeah, sure thing, Lou. But . . . could it wait a minute? I'm, uh . . . “ he nodded toward the bathroom door.
“Oh, God, yeah. Of course,” Lou said, almost apologetically. “But listen, before you go . . . “
Lou kept talking anyway. He always did. And, as always, Wally let his mind and his eyes drift. Sometimes he looked at the people shuffling around the office, only half of whom he recognized. Sometimes he thought of a song he liked, or what he might get for lunch. Often -- like today -- he made up little movies in his head, most of which ended with Lou going out a window.
The growing pressure in Wally's bladder finally forced himto break both his own and Lou's trains of thought. “Look, Lou,um, if you'll excuse me, I really need to . . . “
“Oh, yeah, yeah sure,” Lou said. “Sorry. But stop by my officelater so we can figure out this claims thing, okay?”
After getting a sandwich at a deli a block away -- the same deli he went to every day about that time -- and returning to the LifeGuard building, he found himself in the elevator with Raymond Hawkey and Roger Bingham, two of the company's insurance investigators. They, and several others, worked for a private detective agency that had signed a long-term contract with LifeGuard to check into cases of suspected insurance fraud. Their job was to track down claimants to make sure they really were sick or maimed or dead before any payments were authorized. Although they were freelance contractors, they'd been with the company as long as Wally had. The thinking was that hiring a few private dicks was much cheaper in the long run compared with what LifeGuard stood to lose to insurance cheats.
Over time, Wally had come to learn their names. They, in turn, never seemed to notice him.
Hawkey was tall and rail thin, a gruesome, cadaverous fellow in his early sixties who' d been a PI for nearly four decades now. He had tiny, piercing black eyes, a massive beak, and a narrow, thin-lipped mouth drawn into a perpetual scowl. Bingham was the shorter and beefier of the two, with a shiny pink face and a fat neck. He was a loudmouth in his mid-thirties who had yet to leave his fraternity days completely behind him. Wally didn't care much for either one.
Whether they allowed the private detective racket to dictate their fashion sense or whether their inborn fashion sense pushed them toward private detection was anyone's guess. Both men wore gray fedoras desperately in need of blocking, stained trench coats regardless of the weather, rumpled brown suits with ill-knotted ties, and scuffed black wingtips. You never saw one without the other, and in the elevator, as usual, they were trading war stories about old collars.
“ . . . and remember that guy -- that speed freak? DeGrave was his name, right? The one who claimed he was hit by a taxi and cracked his coccyx so he couldn't work no more?” Bingham prodded his partner as the elevator ascended.
“The one we found running in the marathon. Yeah, I remember him. A real smart guy.” Hawkey's voice rested somewhere between a rasp and a croak and never betrayed the slightest hint of emotion. “Smart guy” (or, as he pronounced it, “smart guy”) was the term he always applied to the ones they caught.
“Yeah, he was pretty stupid, huh?”
“Maybe so. But he ran a pretty good marathon.”
Bingham's hooting laughter made Wally wince. He always laughed harder at these stories than was necessary. Wally wanted to grab Bingham by the hair and slam his head repeatedly against the stainless steel elevator doors, screaming “It's not -- that -- funny!” But he didn't.
“Hey,” Wally said. The minivid screen remained blank, which meant she hadn't bothered to turn hers on.
He sensed immediately that this was a bad time. “I'm sorry,” he said. “You sound busy.”
“A little,” Margie replied. “What's going on?” With Margie, he learned quickly enough, “a little” could easily be translated as “you're bothering me.”
“Nothing much. Just wanted to see how things were going over there . . . How's that Ikons job coming?”
“Fine, but I still have a lot to do.”
“I'm sorry,” he said, knowing this probably wasn't the time to share the stupid story about the guy with the penis injury. “But I'm sure you'll get it done.”
“Yeah,” she said, her syllables growing sharper, “but it's going to be a long night. This is due tomorrow noon.”
“Oh . . . should -- should I just bring some dinner home, or . . . ? “
He could hear her sigh. “You do whatever you want. I'm just gonna grab something here.”
“Oh . . . okay. Well, um, I'll let you get back to work then.”
“Okay.” She sounded relieved. “I'll see you later.”
“I love you,” he told her, but she had already hung up. He closed his eyes for a moment wearily, then replaced the Earwig GL-70 in his pocket and headed for Big Lou's office.
Big Lou was squinting at his monitor when Wally knocked on the half-open office door.
“You wanted to talk about something?”
Big Lou looked up, surprised. “Oh, there you are 407-R. Yeah, come in. And close the door.”
Wally did as he was told, then stood uncomfortably in front of the enormous man's desk. A picture frame off to the side held a portrait of Big Lou's entire Big Family.
Lou looked back at the screen and hit a few buttons in quick succession. “Jesus H. Christ, 407-R, how the heck long were you in the crapper?”
“Did you just get out of there? You sick?”
Wally's eyes cut to the right in confusion. “Um . . . no? I mean, I went and got my lunch, then came back and, uh . . . ate it. I wasn't in there more than a minute.”
“You weren't doin' anything dirty in there, were you? 'Cause we can't have that sorta thing. Not on company time.” Lou let out a thick, wheezing laugh at his own joke, a light spray of spittle misting his computer screen. Even though he called people by number, Lou still wanted to be everybody's pal and thought the best way to do this was to toss around the locker room jibes -- or at least as close as he was allowed anymore -- whenever no women were present. In general it only made everyone a little uneasy, in part because they knew that if the wrong ears ever heard him he could be looking at some hard time.
“No.” Wally could feel his face growing warm.
“Oh.” Lou looked more closely at the screen again, after wiping it off with his sleeve. He glanced up at 407-R as if to make sure he was still there, then back at the screen. “Ah, frig,” he whispered. “You know, according to this thing, you're still in the can.”
“Excuse me?” Wally repeated.
“Here, look.” He spun the monitor so Wally could see. The date and his employee number were at the top of the screen, together with the same photo that appeared on his card. Below it was a neatly arranged chart.
7:47 Outer Lobby
7:49 Inner Lobby
7:52 Elevator B
7:54 14 Office
7:56 407-R Work Station
9:27 14 Restroom -- M
9:31 407-R Work Station
11:03 14 Restroom -- M
Beside each entry was a digitized snapshot. Wally in the building lobby. Wally on the elevator. Wally at his desk. Wally standing at a urinal. And below each picture, what appeared to be a brief description of his mental state: “Increasing Tension,” “Melancholy/ Regret,” “Boredom,” “Relief,” “Nonwork Distraction.”
If he doesn't mention it, Wally thought, neither will I.
The entries had stopped shortly after eleven. It was now shortly after noon, and the screen showed no record of his leaving and returning to the building and his cubicle.
“That's very odd,” Wally said.
“Ain't it? You didn't drop your SUCKIE in the toilet or nothing, did you?”
Wally held out the (quite dry) plastic card. “Got it right here.”
“You're sure you didn't lend it to anybody or anything?”
Wally looked at his shoes, then held the card a little higher. “Lou, it's right here. I wouldn't've been able to get past Whipple otherwise.”
Lou considered this. “Yeah, that's true.” He swiveled the screen around and examined it carefully. “Damn thing,” he muttered, then looked up again. “You know, these things are a dream when they work. Million times better than the oldtime clocks used to be -- those were before your day. Somebody hangs out at the coffee machine for twenty minutes, I got 'em by the shorties. But now there's this -- “ he swung a thick palm against the side of the computer, as if that would jar the clogged information loose. “Cripes. Now I'm gonna have to call COOTY to report this, and it'll take months before they do anything. Plus all those forms.” (COOTY was the Committee for Occupational Technology. Any and all office computer trouble, no matter how minor, required COOTY notification.)
Lou noticed the concerned look on Wally's face. “I'll try and make sure you aren't docked for an hour in the can, if that's what you're worried about. I'll put it in my reports, but that might take months to recoup, too.”
“Yeah, I understand,” Wally said. “If you could just do what you can . . . N ow, you said there was a problem with one of this morning's claims?”
Still slapping at the monitor, but more gently now, Lou said, “Oh, yeah. The nutty old lady looking for Benzedrine. I went over the form again, and you were right to forward it. Everything's clean. All paid up, doctor checks out.”
“Oh. Okay.” He wondered why he' d been called in here in the first place but then accepted that it was just another example of Lou being his big dumb self. Friendly enough, certainly, but dumb.
“Something about it still makes me a little suspicious, but that's not your problem, 407-R. I'm gonna send a couple dicks up there, see if she's as crazy as she says she is.”
If she's not now, she will be soon enough, Wally thought. As usual, he kept it to himself, saying instead, “In that case, I'll get back to work.”
“Good. Yeah. And try restarting your computer. I'll see if it shows up here . . . LWIW.”
“Yeah, LWIW,” Wally said.
He returned to his desk and did as he was told.
The rest of the day was uneventful. But looking back on it, the day as a whole had been more exciting than most.
Shortly after five, he forwarded the last claim of the day to CHUCKLE, shut down the machine, and headed for the elevators. When the doors opened, two younger men from the floor above him (automotive claims), their ties already loosened, were laughing.
“Dentyne said that? The chick in accounting?” one of them asked.
“It's true,” the other replied with a nod and a leer.
They stopped and glanced at Wally as he stepped aboard, then remained silent as the doors closed.
As they passed the eighth floor, the one Wally took to be the older of the two spoke again. “So you goin' to the thing next week?”
“What thing's that?”
The younger man looked disturbed by the question. “Ofcourse I am. Don't want to look like an Unmutual.”
“Yeah,” chuckled the other. “LWIW.”
“You got that right. Flip me some Flippy Bits,” the kid responded.
Back at the house, Wally knocked lightly on his wife's office door.
“Margie? . . . Hey, I'm back . . . How are things going?”
When she first began working at home, he could determine how busy she was by the clacking of her fingertips across the plastic keys. The sound really came to gnaw at him. Whenever he heard it -- at the office, in an ad, on the subway -- it set his teeth on edge. After she got the new system a few years back -- a Kraken MD8, top of the line, a giant leap forward in home computing technology, he was informed -- the clacking of keys had been replaced by what sounded like a dog playing a theremin. It wasn't long before he missed the clacking.
“Fine,” she responded through the door.
He knew that would likely be the extent of the evening's conversation.
In the kitchen, he opened a small brown paper sack and removed the dinner he'd picked up on the way home. On a clear Lucite tray, he placed an artificial roast beef on rye (the wrapper read “Caution: May present a choking hazard. Chew thoroughly. Be sure and eat as part of a well-balanced diet, completewith vegetable matter.”) and a cellophane package of GenAk Froot-Enhanced Lectoids (“Tastier Than the Real Thing!”). He carried everything into the living room and placed the tray on the coffee table. He passed a finger over the pulsing orange light in the upper left-hand corner of the wireless console beside him on the couch. The five-foot-tall four-way infotainment screen glowed into life.
“Good day, Good Citizen Philco,” the faceless voice announced in relaxed and loving yet somehow hollow tones. “We trust your workday was pleasant and productive.”
“Fine,” he responded.
“That's very good news.”
With his left hand, Wally tapped a few buttons on the console, until the newscast appeared.
“ . . . who, fortunately, was all dressed up in his best Sundaygoin'- to-meet-your-Maker clothes at the time . . . “
The newscaster, Daniel DeLyon, was standing in front of a screen flashing dozens of images in quick succession. Some were animated, others apparently live action. A few of them seemed to be related to the story he was reporting. DeLyon wore an austere dark blue tunic and was always smiling broadly, no matter how terrible the story at hand might have been. As it was, none of the stories were too terrible -- the crimes and car accidents had been shifted to the entertainment channels, leaving the official news broadcasts free to focus on celebrity gossip and occasional security updates.
Wally chewed the flavorless sandwich without much enthusiasm, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“ . . . host Bernie Tschungle. Many in the industry consider the transplant a risky move on Tschungle's part, not only because he's receiving the face of an elderly foreign woman, but also on account of the number of celebrities whose careers have faltered after the operation, leading several to commit -- “
“You're gonna get crumbs in the unit.”
Wally looked up to see his wife standing in the doorway.
“Hmm?” he asked, still chewing.
“I said you're gonna get crumbs in the unit. You're making a mess.”
He looked around himself but saw nothing amiss. He swallowed what he'd been chewing.
“No I won't, honey -- it's supposed to be crumbless bread. That's what they told me. It's new.”
He could tell she wasn't impressed by this. She hadn't seemed very impressed by much of anything he'd said or done for the past several years.
It was of course different when they were first married thirteen years earlier. But then he got stuck in a go-nowhere position in the insurance industry, and her public relations firm took off, mostly because she was willing to take on clients no one else would touch, such as corporate officials caught raping young boys in the park, or her current client the Ikons Foundation. She had a knack for making evil sound charming.
Her green eyes, made much larger behind the round glasses, stared at him. She said nothing.
Finally he offered, “I'll clean up when I'm done. Promise. Uh . . . good luck with that account.”
“Yeah, thanks,” she said, before returning to her office and closing the door.
He had no idea why she' d come out in the first place. He took another bite of the sandwich. I was probably chewing too loud, he thought.
“Preparations are coming along for this year's Horribleness Day celebration,” DeLyon was saying, “the day we all pause to remember those who were lost, those who lost loved ones, and how each and every one of our lives was changed forever on that fateful afternoon. It's also a chance to say thank you to those citizens who've helped make our lives and our nation so much safer and more secure ever since . . . Part of this year's celebration will include not only the traditional Horribleness Mimes but music and cookoffs and a chance for you to identify -- “
Wally hit a few more buttons until he saw what appeared to be the interior of a small middle-class home.
A woman, probably in her sixties, was sitting on a greenish- brown sofa, knitting. She looked tired. Across the room, an overweight man about the same age sat in an easy chair, leaning his head in his hand. He was staring at the screen of his own four-way.
Wally hit another button and, in the window that appeared to the side of the image, he learned that it was the Mitchells -- Lorraine S. and Samuel D. -- from Atlanta. Both were retired, both had diabetes. No criminal record or hint of unmutualism. Good Citizens.
It was one of the most popular shows available, and it was always on.
Wally liked spinning randomly through the other reality channels of the HAWG Network. Getting a look at the lives of other people made him feel oddly better about his own.
Funny, he thought, how the only time you heard the word “reality” used anymore was in reference to a four-way genre.
At eight-thirty, after making sure he had thoroughly cleaned off the coffee table, the couch, and the control unit, he removed the VidLog, which had been clipped to his lapel since early that morning, and inserted it into a port on the side of the fourway.
He sat down on the couch again and tapped a button beneath a blinking blue light to begin downloading everything the VidLog had recorded that day.
While that was taking place, he pulled up the daily report page on the screen and typed in his Citizen ID number. He waited until the number, the date, his name, and his address appeared on the screen.
A moment later he was staring at a live image of himself in a small box near the bottom of the screen. Above it, the words “Enter Daily Report” were flashing.
Wally cleared his throat.
Sometimes when he made these reports, he liked to adopt an intense, authoritative voice, as if he were reporting directly to the president on the results of his latest secret mission. Then he heard the sorts of things he was actually saying.
“Philco, Wallace,” he stated slowly and clearly. “Citizen Identification Number NY00169765/Pâ€‰ . . . Awoke at six-oh-five. Prepared for work. Left home at six-fifty-five. Arrived at Fifty-third Street subway station Manhattan at approximately seven-forty a.m . . . . “