“Where is he?” I ask because it’s my job to ask. I hate my job.
“Three-eighteen—up the stairs and take a left.” He looks like they all look: shaved bald and wearing the goggle-type sunglasses with black lenses. Buttoned-up trench coat covering who-knows-what. Pants with the seam pressed so tight it looks like it could cut you if you touched it. His black leather shoes are shiny enough to show you a distorted image of the entire room. I can’t see them, and I don’t need to. The Control geeks are all the same.
Rumor has it that those goggles are hardwired into their brains so they can see what Control wants them to see—which could be anything from what’s right in front of them to an imported video clip to the view from one of those surveillance cameras they have on every street corner. Eyes, ears, even their brains are connected: implanted up balls to the wall so they barely even have identities, just like the Administration likes.
These guys give me the creeps. I’m sure they feel the same about me.
He’s standing behind the night clerk’s desk, pretending to try to look inconspicuous. Doesn’t matter—this place is a dump. No upstanding member of society would be coming around to rent a room, and anyone who would be coming around for a room in a place like this can smell a Control geek from a mile away.
I glance at the elevator and see that I’ll be walking. At one time, it might have looked fancy and shiny, with polished buttons, and a guy sitting there asking what floor you needed. Now it just looks like a broken mouth that went too many rounds with somebody bigger and meaner. The stairs don’t look much better. The once-red carpet has been walked threadbare, and where it isn’t torn, it’s stained with one sin or another. The banister is broken in several places, and hangs out at an angle that gives you a headache if you look at it too long.
I crush my cigarette out in the lobby ashtray, hoping to salvage enough of it for a bit of a smoke later. It kills itself with a hiss and immediately absorbs the mysterious red liquid that I hadn’t noticed pooled in the bottom of the ashtray. I take a moment to glare at the butt with disdain, just so it knows how disgusted I am with it, and then I drop it onto the floor next to a couple of flyers that advertise a place of business where young ladies will do things to you and for you that most sane people can’t even imagine.
I start up the stairs.
“Remember, we’re trying to keep this under the radar,” the Control geek says. These guys, they like to throw around their power, like to show you that they’re superior. They think they’re important. Psh—field operatives. The people who work at Control Base know different. Guys like me, we’re handpicked by the guys in the Administration. The little punk behind the desk, if he knew who I sat down with when I went over my reports, he’d have to go buy himself a new pair of super-pressed pants.
I answer to the people so high on the ladder that they’re mostly rumor. The people that parents talk about to scare young children and the people drunks talk about in bars to scare old men.
I get to the third floor landing and am completely unsurprised to find that most of the hallway lights are burned out. This place, it used to be something special. I’m not so old that I remember it in its heyday, but I’m old enough to remember when there were people around who did.
When it was alive, it was called a hotel, and it was visited by the rich and famous—this was back before the rich and famous decided that they would much rather hole up in an exclusive villages, rather than venture out among the poor. Of course, from what I understand, the poor were much more well-mannered back then. But that kind of thinking, that’s confidential.
I make my way down to three-eighteen, and see another Control agent sitting in front of the door, pretending to be a derelict. His slouch is perfect to the point of looking fake, and his clothes have been painted dirty. He smells antiseptic, but not in a cheap vodka kind of way. Not a geek—those anal bastards can’t hack the “undercover” work. I guess being out of their trench coats and pressed suits screws ‘em up too bad. This one’s what’s referred to as an Operative. One thing the Administration’s real big on is official-sounding names.
“Keep walking, buddy,” he says. He sounds like a butler, annunciating every syllable.
“Eat a dick, pal. See what I did there? Profanity, my man—it works wonders.”
“I said keep walking.”
I pull out my badge and drop it under the bill of the hat that has been slanted just enough to make him look antisocial, while still allowing visual access to the entire hall. It’s one of the first things they teach ‘em in Operative school, I think, because they all wear their hats the same way when they’re “undercover.”
“Move it, doorstop,” I tell him, and give his ass a nudge with my boot.
“You should have stated your name and rank before breaking the twenty-foot radius,” he says. “You’ll be reported for this.”
“Tell ‘em I got a rash on my balls, too,” I say, and open the door that he had been blocking. He starts to say something else, but I shut and lock the door behind me. Believe it or not, dealing with those assholes isn’t the whole of my job. Once I get past them, that’s when the real work starts. I hate my job.
It stinks. Back when I first started this job, that was the thing that hung me up the most. People with something to say, it seems like they always stink. Why is that?
Maybe it’s because people with something worth saying don’t ever really feel like saying it. The people out under the spotlights, looking wonderful, smelling wonderful, they say nothing worth listening to. It’s the freaks and the weirdos; the people with growths on their faces, and hair in their ears; the people with body odor and gas and breath like rotten onions—these are the guys who have something to say that’s worth listening to.
It’s not hard to be beautiful in this day and age. Hell, even the Control geeks aren’t bad looking, once you get over those ugly goggles. The Administration will fix you right up, once you’re willing to give them everything. Most people want to be perfect, right? The doctors have human beauty figured down to an exact science—it’s all about mathematics and angles—and they’ve got the tools to apply what they know.
There’s no reason for ugliness.
But some people, they refuse to be helped along by the government, they refuse to be beautiful. They refuse to give up everything they are to be everything they could be. And the Administration, what do they care, right? You want to be an outcast, be an outcast.
That’s the lie they feed the world. Live like us and be a winner or live how you want to—loser. The official lie is that although it’s discouraged, living in that ill-advised state of individuality is perfectly legal. Being one with society is recommended but not enforced.
The truth is, the Administration wants everyone they can get. They don’t want the defective, of course. If you’ve got cancer or diabetes or the Hiv or any of the Hiv’s brothers and sisters—what, sixteen strains of that shit now?—they don’t want anything to do with you. But if you’re a perfectly healthy, potentially-attractive person, they want you.
After the last strain of BIF (you remember—the ugliest, meanest big brother of HIV), five-eighths of the world was erased. And the head honchos of the Administration realized that they had the chance to repopulate the world with a bunch of beautiful, healthy sheep. An aesthetically pleasing, easily-managed flock that think how you want them to think, look how you want them to look, feel how you tell them to feel.
The throwbacks, the diseased, the genetic freaks, they were supposed to die off on their own. But even losers can reproduce, and it seems like the more desperate and pathetic the people were, the more they reproduced. The Administration decided that it needed to do something about this, and began putting a sterilizing agent in the public water supply—and by public, I mean the shit that the degenerates had coming our of their faucets, not the pre-filtered, crystal clear, ultra-clean water of the acceptable—but by then, it was too late. The dregs had already repopulated their festering world.
The place is cluttered with all kinds of crap. I don’t know what most of it is, but it looks like garbage. I hear a sloshing sound from the bathroom. I ignore it, for the time being, and look around the room.
There isn’t much to it. One bed in the middle of the room, covered in stained brown paper bags, ripped up transparent plastic bags, and strips of what looks like rotten meat. There are piles of dirty clothes and food cartons stacked and thrown around the bed, and in one corner, there are piles of plastic cups. There’s an old computer in the middle of the clutter on the bed, flashing the familiar red page with white lettering that I often find waiting for me on jobs like this.
It’s a message indicating a severe overstepping of boundaries, and informs the user that whatever he or she has tried to look at is on a “forbidden” list that should be known by the public. I could quote the exact wording, I’ve seen the screen enough—but the words themselves aren’t important. The meaning is the important part, and the meaning is this: you know too much; you’re screwed now.
In some circles, they call it the red screen of death. It freezes your computer, as well as all of your assets, bank accounts, and—if you live in an automated building—the locks on your doors. You see the red screen of death, you have two choices: you can kill yourself, or you can wait for a guy like me to come get you. I suggest the former, but that’s just a personal opinion.
I walk to the computer and insert a toothpick-sized device into one of the many drives. It copies everything from the computer—each and every file, user history, account information—and sends out tracker bugs to find and copy everything and everyone this computer has been communicating with. There’re ways to block tracker bugs, but even if you block them, they record whatever they can about you, and whatever they find around you, and we just have to look for the blank spot in our system to know who and where you are. There’s a resistance that fights Administration technology, and they’re damn good.
But the Administration is bigger, richer, and stronger. These guys spend months writing the programs to hide from us, we spend weeks killing it. Their fighting only prolongs their termination. Honestly, I wish there was a way they could win. If there was, I’d be right there helping them.
But there isn’t, and there’s no use playing for the losing team. The stick pops out and I slide it back into its protective covering, where the information on it is instantly uploaded to Administration, and the stick itself is wiped clean. The computer begins making strange buzzing noises as the fans shut down and the circuits begin to overheat—the last thing the stick does before ejecting is install a self-destruct.
I hear the sloshing noise from the bathroom again, and I look around the room for anything else that should be investigated. Not-so-deep down, I know I’m just procrastinating, but that knowledge doesn’t do anything to stop me from doing it. I stoop down to look under the bed. I’m not looking forward to finding whatever it is I’ll find under there, but it’s better than what I’ll find in the bathroom.
There’s a box of disposable rubber gloves—the kind that everyone wears when they go outside these days—and a couple of holo-frames. I turn one on and I’m rewarded with a three-dimensional image of a fat, smiling man. He’s wearing a colorful button-up shirt, the kind that used to be called Hawaiian, before Hawaii got blown off the map. He looks happy, so I can only assume that this picture was taken a long time ago. He has a huge cigar clamped between his teeth as he laughs, and an enormous fishing rod in his hand. I stare at the hologram until it changes.
It’s the fat man again, only this time, he’s standing next to a huge fish that is hanging on a dock by its tail, and on the other side of the fish stands a woman who is almost as fat, and smiling just as big. I click the button on the back of the frame, and the image changes—this time, the two fat people are on a boat, laughing. I don’t want to see any more of the fat couple, so I turn the frame off, and insert the toothpick to download all of the image files. I don’t bother turning on the second holo-frame—I just insert the stick and let it do its thing.
I look under the bed again, but there doesn’t seem to be much else under there—a broken coffee pot, a moldy piece of bread, a disposable lighter. Nothing else to investigate. Investigating isn’t even my job—I do a preliminary scan, acquire any downloadable data, and then “engage the anomaly.”
That’s how they say it, which is exactly why they need guys like me.
A clean-up crew will come later, scan what there is to scan, record what there is to record, and then make it look like whatever it’s supposed to look like. Sometimes it looks like an accident, sometimes it looks like a suicide. Sometimes, it just looks like a couple of junkies broke in and went apeshit. It’s a dog eat dog world, and you never can tell what’s gonna happen. Dangerous, living outside the walls of conformity.
The Administration, they’re all about killing two or three birds with one stone. If they can collect info, seal a leak, and scare the shit out of the anomalies, all at the same time? That’s like the efficiency trifecta.
I look around the room once more, but there’s nothing new to see. Time to get to it. Sometimes, right before I step through the curtain or open the door or climb into the attic or down into the basement, I’ll think to myself, “Time to ‘engage the anomaly.’” Even though it’s laced with sarcasm, I stop myself and mentally rephrase the thought. Even if I’m being sarcastic, it’s just one more step to being like them. I don’t “engage anomalies.” I “talk to people.” Maybe they’re screwed up goofballs with a head full of bad thoughts and a closet full of weapons. Maybe they’re just a fat fisherman who said what he shouldn’t have said one too many times.
Either way, they’re people, and it’s my job to talk to them. I hate my job.