|Posted by Mark Cantrell on March 24, 2012 at 7:35 PM|
Beggars Can't Be Choosers
HE was being watched again. As soon as he arrived at the bus stop the camera turned to stare.
Mills sighed despondently and tried not to think about it. Such thoughts only made him nervous. He wanted to go back to bed and shut out the world until he felt able to deal with it. Say in twenty years. But he couldn't ignore the Summons; it wasn't worth the hassle. He sighed again.
The bus grumbled to a halt, thankfully blocking the eye's mindless stare. He might have felt relieved but he knew they didn't need to see him to track his movements. The doors slid open with a snake-hiss of hydraulics and he clambered aboard. It was an old vehicle, converted to autopilot because the company was too tight to invest in new ones. The driver's seat remained empty. Human drivers were no more than an old man's reminiscence.
The other passengers glared impatiently while Mills fumbled for his card. At last he found it and swiped through the transaction. The company would debit his account until the system no longer registered his presence. The Agency, meanwhile, would take a small surcharge for the use of the facility.
"Customers please be advised," the on-board computer said, "the current boarder is a Class 'D' security risk. Please take care of all personal belongings. CCTV monitoring is in operation for your protection."
The passengers shifted in their seats. Some held tight onto handbags and briefcases and nobody looked directly at him. Except, that is, for the security guard who sat up straight and slowly folded his arms.
The bus gathered speed and unbalanced Mills so that he slumped heavily onto a vacant seat next to an old man in a black overcoat. The man stiffened and suddenly became very interested in the view through the window.
"It's disgraceful. People like that shouldn't be allowed to travel with decent people."
For a surreptitious whisper, it carried. So did the collective murmur of agreement. Such jibes should have long ago lost their power to hurt. He turned around anyway and stared at the two old ladies with stakeholder badges pinned prominently to their lapels. Once he gained their full attention he treated them to a lazy grin. Both women looked away and he turned back to follow the old man's gaze. As he did so his face slumped back to its usual dour expression. A grim mask reflected from dirty glass; a way to hide the pain at the stigma he carried and the punishment he bore.
The stigma chose that moment to beep, a reminder that he was going to be late for his Summons. He pulled it from his pocket and turned it over and over between his fingers.
"Nexus 40," the legend read. Beneath, printed on the scratched plastic:
UK Benefits & Welfare Plc
- A Ministry for Human Resources Company -
working for you, so you can too
It really was a hateful piece of plastic. Even now the chip signalled his location to the JobMart's city computer. Depending on traffic down the net, some operator could be reading the data this very moment. Everywhere he went it left a digital scent for the authorities to follow, until it felt like another disapproving eye. He thrust the card angrily into his pocket, out of sight but not out of mind.
He sighed, not quite in despair but almost, and thought of the Summons. Maybe things were about to change? He pulled out the Nexus again and pressed the display micro-switch. Text scrolled across the strip and he read it for the umpteenth time. Could they really be serious?
"Artificial reality job-hunting? Hey, maybe I'll get an artificial job!"
The man next to him shifted in his seat and glanced sidelong as though he thought Mills crazy. Sod you, Mills thought.
"+++ MILLS D + S + PLEASED TO INFORM YOU THAT YOU ARE SELECTED FOR NEW IMPROVED JOBNET SCHEME + INTENDED FOR RELENTLESSLY UNEMPLOYED + UTILISES LATEST IN ARTIFICIAL REALITY TECHNOLOGY TO HELP YOU BACK TO WORK + ATTEND 0915 HOURS TUESDAY 10 APRIL + ENDS +++"
Like all their messages, it was terse and to the point. We command. You obey. And these schemes became stranger with each passing year. How many have there been so far? Too many, but perhaps this one would be different. Perhaps this would result in that ever-elusive beast: a job.
"There's always hope," he said to the suit. The man only smiled weakly and looked away. Mills allowed himself a cynical smile and signalled the autopilot for his stop.
THE JobMart's tinted windows seemed to frown at him. They were like the shades worn by the stereotypical spy: sinister, watchful and totally inscrutable. Yet the building itself seemed so shabby and dreary it gave him the urge to shiver. Even on a bright day like this the building appeared overcast.
Desperate as he was to find meaningful work, he pitied those who worked inside. Each day of their lives they came face to face with the unemployed. The tentative nature of work was paraded before them in a reminder of their own tenuous grip on society.
With a heavy heart he went inside. People jostled him. A long counter separated the employed from the jobless. It made for a wall dividing two worlds, where the ragged queues of blank-faced people waited to sign their names for another infusion of grinding poverty. Behind the wall, more blank-faced people processed the deserving poor. Workers on a human production line, they churned out ready-made rejects.
Mills joined the queue and found himself surrounded by the dead-eyed faces of the hopeless and the broken. Minds that could no longer understand the concept of work, every trait they needed to find it had been sucked out of them, as if by a vampire. And now these zombies shuffled mindlessly in search of instruction. A shudder ran down his spine. Truly, this was the Realm of the Damned.
SLOWLY the queue wormed its way up to the main desk. Mills idly looked around. Beyond the queues, the vacancy screens listed jobs in a multitude of languages. Invariably, they were low-paid and short-term dead-ends. Nearby, people in headphones sat at a bank of machines: the blind and the illiterate force-fed with 'opportunities' by soothing machine voices. On the far wall, in large print, a poster declared:
BEGGARS CANNOT BE CHOOSERS
Bored-looking people occupied the rows of seats by the rear wall, watching the information videos endlessly playing from a bank of monitors suspended from the ceiling. On one, yet another expensively-dressed politician spitefully slandered the poor.
It was all too much and he felt his mind wander.
BACK through time to the steel works, where he had his first and only job. The blast furnaces glowed in the darkness like pockets of Hell. Twenty-four hours a day those furnaces produced high-quality steel to be shipped out all over the world.
Life was hard, but he felt useful. And in those days he had friends. People thought him worth knowing. Pete, Jeff and Rob, his shift-mates. Where were they now?
Pete was the joker of the bunch and a wizard with the controls. Mills knew he was every bit as competent, but somehow he felt overawed by that tiny control room. It seemed strange that he and his three friends should control so much industrial output.
From the air-conditioned box they smelted and poured millions of tonnes of metal. Once thousands were required to do the job by hand, back in the traditional steel cities. They had been thrown aside by the automated systems he operated. And then he, too, was thrown away.
In some distant office his job was deleted by some corporatchik, doubtless in connivance with some government functionary. They probably made a fat profit. And no doubt the odd killing too.
"YES?" The woman at the reception desk looked tired. It was only ten o'clock in the morning but how many people had she processed already?
He didn't feel like talking much. What was there to say? So he produced the Nexus and handed it over. The woman slotted the card into her terminal and tapped a few keys. Then she went over to a filing cabinet and rooted through a drawer. No matter how computerised they became, he noted, they couldn't bring themselves to ditch the paperwork.
He rolled his eyes. It was printed on the card in her hand. "Mills," he said.
At last she produced a folder stamped with his name and social security number. With a bored manner she dumped it on the desk and entered some details into the computer, then, without another word, she returned his card and disappeared into the hidden recesses of the building. Mills felt his mind wander once more.
THREE years after it closed, he went back for a nostalgia trip with Rob and Pete. Somebody had beaten them to it. The foundries were still there, much to their surprise. Now they formed an attraction in an industrial theme park: "The Workshop of the World".
Some multi-national had bought the place. The site was dressed up as part of Britain's industrial heritage, which in a way it was, he supposed, but it was still strange because the place had only been in operation for five years before he started there. The real heritage was long gone, buried beneath the foundations of shopping malls and monuments to commerce. He didn't even know where the steel industry was originally based. They never taught him that in history, only what a great and glorious country he had the good fortune to be born in - a haven for freedom and democracy where the cameras never blinked.
In that theme park, his foundries glowed again. But they glowed with a cold light, the tinted glow of electric lamps, and the metal they poured was nothing more than back-lit paste.
The workers were the best. Big, muscular men, with oiled and bronzed skin, they toiled at the foundries manually. Funny, because they were never designed for manual operation, except in an emergency. But how many of the paying public would know that?
The fall of the Industrialists' Empire. The Workshop of the World - just a play-park for kids. The irony wasn't lost on him. The world was a workshop - one where men, women and even children toiled all day for next to nothing. Yet here, in the country that coined the phrase, actors performed fake work for the paying crowd.
"MR Mills?" A pleasant voice shattered the images of the past. "Would you like to come this way?"
He turned around to find a woman smiling brightly. It came as something of a surprise to encounter such an amiable approach. The badge on her chest identified her as Jane. No surname. She indicated a door and walked towards it. Beyond the door was just another office: a cheap desk, a workstation, phone, assorted pens, and a filing cabinet in one corner. A fan gently stirred the air.
All very ordinary, except for the sign on the door: "JobNet".