Countdown to Zero

Like most people, the best part of the day for Harrison was the preparation in the morning. From his pillow he would watch the bedside clock, his eyes wide open, waiting for the precise second the numbers turned from 5.59am to 6.00 am.

He would swing from the duvet and walk with clarity of purpose, ready for the morning routine in the prep room. Years ago, the prep room was simply for hygiene, but it had evolved into something entirely different, the cornerstone for every day. It was the place to reimagine yourself for others.

The movement detectors on the chandelier eased the light to shine brighter in increments so as not to assault the senses as he strode onto the expanse of heated wooden floorboards. An entire wall was dedicated to an AI mirror. It made the room seem exponentially larger than its ample dimensions, like he was in a grand reception hall in an opulent mansion. He liked the illusion. On confronting his own pale misshapen body, the mirror scanned him in detail, as it did every morning.

“Appearance assessment and patch up,” commanded Harrison, vaguely aware he had uttered the words.

“Good morning, Harrison. You have a blemish where you shaved yesterday, a small rash to the right of your chin on your neck, I will apply a skin tone filter patch. Your frown lines are visible also, the Botox plug-in will see to that. Your hair has a sheen of sweat to it, just visible to the naked eye so I’ll use a soft haze algorithm. Teeth will need a whitening filter. You have grey hairs appearing on the left side predominantly, so a re-dyeing filter for that. I have monitored your implants, they indicate you consumed more carbs than necessary for your supper and also some alcohol last night. This is now showing in your skin and you appear puffy. I’ll slim your flesh down with a good old fashion beauty filter which will make you look three stone lighter.”

“Sheez…Full morning do over it is then!”

“It will be worth it for the ticks in your profile.”

‘What would you know about that, really?’, thought Harrison.

The image now staring back at him was a stranger, so manipulated it hardly resembled even a younger version of him.

“Confirm image and send to the cloud for all applications,” yawned Harrison.

A big yellow smiley face appeared in the mirror where his head was reflecting back. It annoyed Harrison, the way the mirror superimposed emoticons over his reflection but that was the programme’s inbuilt sense of ‘fun’, so he endured. It was little wonder, Harrison concluded, that he was having so many bad dreams lately.

After his bodily features were altered in his prolife, he asked for advice on clothes from the mirror, to further counter his imperfections by way of his digital apparel wardrobe. The mirror chose an aquamarine suit, an expensive looking white shirt and black leather Chelsea boots. The clothes in the mirror image closely tracked his movements as if he were modelling them. They were so real in the reflection, it was a marvel of technology, like the computer had realised his best version of himself. Harrison looked down at the reality of his naked body and instantly felt horrified.

Behind him was the sizable, gleaming spa pod with 50 settings, from tropical storm to seaside breeze. In light of the assessment, he was keen to undertake an extreme exfoliation and opt for the rocky rapids deep scrub and water blast. He could take a shower in 10 seconds with any setting and feel vaguely human, such was the intensity of the water jets. Every second would count when he began the day, it was all about being early, being first, being in the game.

After the shower and dry programme, he swiftly dressed in grey joggers and a three-day old red T-shirt and unwrapped a diet nut bar for breakfast, followed with a coffee sweet for a much needed hit of caffeine.

It was Monday, and it was time for the weekly judgement run.

He stepped tentatively outside the house to take in the cluster of holo chambers in the communal area of the estate.

Since the last pandemic, commuting was discouraged but leaving the house was deemed a healthy benefit, so banks of holo chambers appeared in parks and greens and any space near a population. They were technically outside, if only a few steps from everyone’s front door. There were a few cars parked around but the simple fact was, there were very few places people could drive to. Pubs and cafes had gone out of business with the pandemic, shops were like dystopian hell holes and you could order deliveries by drone or van anyway. It was a quiet, local world.

Inside each cube, the walls had cameras and sensors to create three dimensional projections in real time, a way of meeting without physical contact, without passing germs and viruses and being dangerously close to others. One half of the chamber was for him and the other was for the contact to be constructed in three dimensions. It was intimate, almost real, bar the glitches and flickers when the connection faltered.

“Dialling recruitment company, Juicy Jobs, access all Account Manager positions within pay grade, Marketing, English, upload work history.”

A beautiful woman appeared, dressed in lacy black lingerie, one leg bent inward, biting into the red lipstick coating her bottom lip. She was, smiling and holding up a bottle of detergent, like it was a gift.

“Skip ad… Also adjust algorithm to not repeat ad.”

She vanished.

The room talked to me: “Two jobs immediately available.”

“OK. Upload my work forms and pay history.”

“One job matched. Do you want to progress to immediate interview?”

He took a deep, long breath and steadied his resolve, held himself, aware of every detail about his posture.

“Yes,” confirmed Harrison.

The peripheral light in the room vanished and a man and a woman with dark suits and blank expressions appeared in an eerie electric glow in front of him, sitting behind a broad, shared desk. They were staring into him without blinking, seemingly well practiced at the immediacy of the process. A projected stopwatch in the corner of the room began to count down to zero from 15.

Harrison smiled, held each of their intense gazes in turn, and said: “Hello, it’s good to meet you both. My motos are simply, ‘quality, not quantity’ and ‘you get what you see.’”

Harrison let his hands drop by his sides so the palms were flat on his thighs and he stood perfectly still, like a statue, so they could absorb his shape and colours. He was worried a movement may trigger a glitch and they would see his true appearance for a second. He was aware he had been a fraction too quick with his responses and the last five seconds were awkwardly long and filled with a hard silence.

He was frustrated, he should have been used to flash interviews. It took one tenth of a second to form impressions of strangers and longer exposure did not alter those first impressions. Recruiters decided that if qualifications checked out, the interview was just a matter of weighing someone up in a moment. You just needed 15 seconds to get a rounded impression of an applicant. All work meant a zero hours contract – usually week-long gigs at best, so it suited everyone.

The timer ran out and the two people disappeared, like ghosts flickering out of existence.

“We regret to inform you, you are not hired,” came the message.

Harrison frowned. Now what? He faced a whole week without a job, as it was job renewal day. It was the second time this month he had failed to impress potential employers, and he was nervous about cashflow. His outgoings were hurting.

“Computer,” he said, “Apply for extended loan, extra three thousand credits.”

A couple of seconds passed by and the software processed the request through the bank’s networked brain.

“Loan extension denied, on basis of failed job interview.”

Harrison gulped loudly. A crawling, insidious anxiety was infecting his expression, his heart began to beat faster and he realised his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He would need to retreat back to the house and take one of the new ‘chill pills’ for instant biosignatures leveling, but not yet. He was in a chamber after all, hooked up to the whole world. Going home – what was there at home?

The advert that had arrested his attention earlier sprang back into his mind. It had given him a desire he had not experienced for a long while. He needed human touch, just for a day, just to be grounded. That was what was wrong, why he was off form.

“Computer, put me on Tender, the dating app… Match me up with someone, do it now… Halt, before you do… Give me a beard, close crop, black…Ok, good. Now connect me up.”

The chamber changed colour to blue, and in a supercharged flurry of activity, a convoy of logos flew by his eyes from sponsors, for deodorant, underwear, cosmetics and diet snacks. They swirled into his subconscious like a brand soup. The sponsors knew that people processed logos in as little as 50 milliseconds – it was instantaneous. They had to batter you with a feeling the logo exuded, it was the best way to make it stick.

A woman appeared before him and he felt himself freeze up, like her penetrating stare was a paralysis spell. She had short jet-black hair cut into a perfect bob, it was in stark contrast to her pale white skin. Her lowcut lacy top exposed her perfectly formed and heavily tattooed shoulders and he let his eyes plunge into her cleavage, which cradled a striking gold dollar sign at the end of a necklace. To Harrison, it was obvious it was digital apparel but still, he liked it.

“Hey stranger…” she teased.

Harrison decided instantly that he loved her. The radiance of her. Despite the digital accessories and makeover, she exuded something real, raw and physical.

“…Hi…” he stuttered, losing composure completely. “…I want someone to be with today, if you are nearby. I’ll pay for a taxi. I just need someone to talk to, someone to feel…Is with me completely, just for a day… No strings obviously. I lost my gig today, so I have freetime to…you know…to…”

She rolled her eyes and tutted. “Hey sad sacks, I haven’t got all day and I don’t want your life story… I just wanna quickie over the holo. No way am I goin’ to your pad, you could be an axe murderer for all I know, what year do you think this is, two thousand and ten or sumat?”

Harrison gulped and felt a hot wet drop of perspiration roll down his forehead, and slide into his mouth, like a drop of poison his head had leaked was desperate to be re-ingested.

She curled her lip, shook her head and turned herself off.

Harrison found himself alone and juddering in the chamber, a creature trapped in a box, waiting for food that would never come. For all he knew, she could have been an overweight trucker getting his kicks from deception. The surge of love he experienced dispersed like dust exploding with a blast of cold air.

There was a time, he pondered, when people must have talked to each other, properly, slowly, with consideration, a time before devices. With instant lives came instant decision making and instant judgement.

The chamber was reading him as he stumbled about in small circles, monitoring and registering his dubious behaviour. He was panting like a dog in a hot car.

“You have been reported to your local mental health and social alert services as a high risk,” said the room. ” Go home now, stay there and wait for a prescription, which will be delivered before 5pm today. We are flagging this incident to your chosen recruitment agency.”

“I just like to be liked…” he protested, “That’s not a crime…That’s what all this tech is for, to be liked!”

His eyes began to flutter as if his brain’s circuits were overloading.

“No one knows me…” he added, pleading to himself, feeling like there was a rock in his stomach.

He pushed the button to open the door and stumbled outside, clutching his sides tight in the onset of a panic attack. His breathing became even more erratic and just as he was about to collapse to his knees, a sharp breeze caught his face. It probed his scalp like a gentle reassuring hand. The wind was real.

He stood up straight again, and shook the panic out of his arms vigorously, taking control of his inhale and exhale. Moving away as if evading a predator, he looked over his shoulder, looked back at the bank of chambers, and watched them for a minute, as they flickered and glowed with their internal lights.

A tall, imposing metal mast stood erect on the street corner, near the road sign instructing pedestrians to ‘be aware’. It was the power and comms feed for the holo chambers.

Harrison could not hold himself back. What he did next was like intuition, like all the daily failures that had beaten him down needed to be addressed in the moment. He marched to the small waist high shed bolted on the side of his house, stooped to open the doors and amongst garden tools and piled logs, he found what he was searching for.

He began swearing loudly, like he could no longer hold the bursts in, and he lurched toward the mast with a crazed glint in his eyes. The axe had been seldom used so was exceedingly sharp. Sparks erupted with the first strike and as he pounded into it, the metal struts began to pop off, bend and weaken. With just a handful of blows, Harrison could force the mast over with his hands. It was like watching a tree felled, the edifice a living keeper of voices and signals and chatter, murdered in broad daylight, left for dead in the middle of the road.

He pivoted to face the blocks of holo chambers as their lights darkened to nothing. It only took a few seconds before pale faces began to emerge, peeking around their cage doors, seeing each other, the hunched figures edging out onto the paving. It was like watching small sea creatures edging from their nooks and crannies in a rock pool.

The neighbours, they were looking up for answers, not down at their devices. They appeared bewildered. People in boxes with no daylight, it must have felt just like waking up.

Harrison listened to the human voices, voices not interrupted by adverts or computers. It was the unique sounds of people chatting to each other, working out the incident, excited, shocked and exchanging beautiful words. No mottos, no false smiles, no plastering emoticons on each other’s heads. They were looking at each other.

He dropped the axe which clattered on the pavement, discarded next to the thick roots of cut cables now protruding from a jagged metal stump. Despite the gathering sounds of sirens approaching, his pulse slowed, his breathing found a rhythm and he walked slowly toward the people who had been so close but invisible for so long. A genuine smile cracked open, and his eyes glistened with a watery sheen as the wind made them reflective.

“Who are you?” someone asked.

The End

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