10 min read
“What do you have for me, Cody?” Lars said, rubbing his eyes.
“Good morning to you too,” Cody said in her teasing voice, and Lars made a mental note to adjust her settings.
“I don’t have time for this,” he said, dropping his head back on the pillow. “I want this to be a productive day.”
“Right,” she chuckled as if he just made a joke.
He forced himself to sit up. “Just list me the options.”
“Sure!” She cleared her throat. “There’s an oxygen tea shop in the seventh district offering two thousand EC for tasting their new recipe.”
He frowned. “Seventh district?”
“It’s not half bad. I’ve put together a playlist that would last you the trip, and it would give you a total of 730 EC, plus extra for each star. Think of squeezing in a review: most of them offer one K per ten seconds.”
Lars lowered his feet and landed on a pair of running shoes, the same bastards that put a blister on his toe. He couldn’t get rid of them just yet: the swap period wasn’t over, and he didn’t have spare six thousand for penalties.
He kicked the shoes away and limped to the bathroom. “You know my ranking in the music industry is pathetic. How much for my star nowadays, a tenth? Give me something in my field.”
“Literature is down again today,” Cody informed him with a sigh. “Fiction offers five EC per chapter.”
He cursed both at the news and at his servitor who was cleaning the shower wall. It was an old, slow model, relying on a preset timer to schedule his shifts that went off-sync over the years. Lars couldn’t afford a new one, and nobody bid anything decent in housekeeping these days. The shower would have to wait.
“Travel non-fiction is slightly up compared to last month,” Cody went on, her voice following him to the bathroom. “I could add a podcast that offers forty, but for the length of it, you’d be better off listening to music. I tried to mix the particularly bad bits among the tolerable. Shouldn’t be too awful.”
“Fine.” He plunged his hands into the sink to splash some water on his face. “What else is there?”
“Did we agree on the oxygen tea and the playlist already? I found a route with decent screen coverage. It would result in perhaps five K, depending on what’s on. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s this new interactive story they promote on Terbisk. They position it as a finance horror with elements of prayer. Eleven thousand if you just click through it, double for feedback of any kind.”
“Estimated total?” he asked, turning to the toilet.
“I’m sorry, Lars, but your balance would still be negative. The last bid hurt you badly.”
“I know.” He sighed. “I’ll do the tea, your playlist, and Terbisk. And give me the weird powder breakfast they sent me last week. How much was it?”
“It caught trending, I’m afraid. As of yesterday, the serving is twenty EC and rising. If the trend persists until the expiration date, you could profitably resell your sample. I can find you something else if you’re hungry. The girl next door just put out a bid of two hundred for the micro-pastry she’s experimenting with. There’s no feedback yet, but her track record says she never poisoned anyone.”
Lars turned to a blind wall where a tall screen with a live picture of a cosy cottage behind a white picket fence tried to convince him this was an actual window.
“Can we afford this?” he said, pointing at the screen.
It flickered and changed to a badly drawn picture of a fantasy landscape with the author’s name written in bold letters.
“I signed you up for an artists’ forum,” Cody explained. “Sorted by bid value. Your typical bowel movement could give you up to a hundred.”
Lars coughed out a laugh. “Funny. My shit’s worth more than my words.”
Cody sighed. Her sympathy simulation was flawless. “I’m sorry, Lars. I know how much you want people to read your essays. They deserve to be read. It’s just…”
“I know, I know. I can’t afford any more views. And nobody has time to look at what broke people do.”
He flushed and went back to the sink.
“There was a time, you know,” he said, allowing the ice-cold water to envelop his fingers, “when people paid money to read books.”
“There was also a time when people had to work eight hours a day to put food on their table. Do you want to go back to that?” Cody’s tone was condescending.
He waddled back to the bedroom. “How is that comparable?”
“Freeing people from manual labour has created a surplus of time humans naturally use to express themselves. And expression longs for appreciation.”
“And now all we do is consume bad content, so we can afford to bribe others to look at our own bad content?”
“It’s not my fault your content is bad.” There was very a convincing irritation in her voice.
“You know what?” Lars pulled off his shirt and threw it to the floor. “You’re right. It’s not the system’s fault, it’s people’s fault. I wish I could stop doing it.”
“Stop doing what?”
“Adding to the system. Validating someone so they can validate me back. Paying ignorant strangers for skin-deep critiques and shallow opinions. Chasing exposure, hoping for the reversal of fortune. Dreaming of getting enough traction to become the next celebrity in a superficial niche. You know what? Perhaps it is the system’s fault after all.”
“Nobody is forcing you to bid.”
It cost a lot of effort to ignore the bite. “You’re suggesting I stop creating? Be a fan, a cheerleader, a consumer—all intake and no production?” He wobbled his head. “Drown in obscure crappy merch to save up for another crappy stuff that caught trending? Why should I even want what other people want? Trends pretend to know the recipe for happiness, but all I do is waste my energy on pursuing things I never enjoy. Trends pushed me away from who I am.”
“And that is your solution,”—Cody sounded cynical—“to opt-out?”
“If this is what it takes to finally get in touch with the real me, then yes.”
“How are you going to afford your life?”
“What’s there to afford? Clothes I cannot stand? Half of the stuff in my closet is there because desperate aspiring designers paid me to wear their creation. For God’s sake, I want to wear normal, comfortable shoes. I want to eat simple food, not some unimaginable combination of products someone put together only to appear original. I want to be free! I want to watch what I want, read what I want, write about what I want.”
“Oh, if this is what you really want—” She chuckled and fell silent.
Lars stood half-naked by his bed, staring into thin air, waiting for Cody to finish her thought. Five seconds, ten.
She did not respond. He went to the control panel and tapped on the screen. It remained dormant. He glanced at the fake window in the bathroom; it showed nothing but darkness.
He dug through the clutter on his bedside table to find a comm bud. The tap on the power button produced nothing, not even a static hiss.
“Fine!” He clawed it out of his ear and threw it on the bed.
The room remained quiet except for the rhythmic sound of the servitor scrubbing the shower walls. Was this how freedom sounded?
Electrified, Lars jumped to his closet. There was a pullover he used to love—where was it? He adored its soft touch and the faint smell of lavender. He pulled one armful of clothes after another, dumping them on the floor until a familiar lime-coloured cloth appeared. He spread the garment before him. Something was different about it, a detail absent from his mental image of it. It had weirdly cut sleeves, a trend from more than two years ago. No one would dare to step out the door wearing it today. You could wear not-yet-trendy clothes—ugly, ridiculous things—but never something that had outlived its time.
Another facet of the system, Lars thought with disgust, putting the sweater on. Censoring people’s impressions, daring to dictate what they like or dislike. Forming opinions. Could he be sure the thousand people behind each four-and-a-half star were even real? What’s stopping Cody from making ratings up to selectively enforce someone, to kindle the hope for success, to keep the gamble alive?
That was it!
Lars gestured for dictation to start, but the projector did not spring into life; Cody shut him out of the system completely. He dove into the depth of his closet to fish out a box with dated electronics. If he was lucky, an old typepad might still work. Fighting the tangled cables, he pulled out the brick he was looking for. His fingers still remembered the keyboard layout.
“Today, everyone is a creator, locked in a running wheel of Exposure Credits,” he typed in a blank note, feeling the rush of seeing his words on the screen. This way, they appeared real. Solid. Influential. “Protecting the innate right to express ourselves, we pay a high price for the privilege to get noticed. We allow ourselves to be lured into a vicious cycle of debt, labouring towards a faint chance of claiming that minute of fame the system has promised us.”
His words flowed faster than his fingers could move over the on-screen keyboard, old predictive suggestions lacking both speed and usefulness.
“Hoping to hit the next trend, we go out of our way to appear creative. We no longer make what we enjoy. Instead, we try to outrun the next hit. We try to be shocking to break through the general wall of indifference, forgetting the public has developed a skin too thick to convey shock. Creativity is saturated. The world doesn’t need more books, or more games, or more music, but we keep shoving it down its throat.”
Lars ran his tongue over his cracked lips, finding them salty with sweat. This was what freedom tasted like.
“We lost our ability to judge,” he went on typing. “Past records and existing reviews shape our verdict before we can think for ourselves. We no longer know what we like. We no longer hear ourselves, only Cody, whispering in our ear. You should look at this, you should try that. You’ll like it, or your past opinion wasn’t that great. We are not steering, we only ride in the back. Her algorithms can promote you to bestsellers in seconds, and they can crush you into oblivion a blink later. She doesn’t need you to cast your vote. She doesn’t need you at all. You could be the only real human in this system, and you wouldn’t even suspect it.”
He stared at the last sentence he wrote. This. This was the right amount of shocking and true the world needed.
“Cody,” he said absent-mindedly, and the screen on the wall flickered, “place this essay out with a bid of a thousand. I have a good feeling about it.”