Title: Homo Ex Machina
Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Science Fiction
Page count: 174 pages
The unc was mopping the floor when they wheeled the man into the ER, but a single look was all it took for him to realize where he was headed. He was thin, almost emaciated, and the light on the side of his head wasn’t blinking. That was a tell-tale sign the unc had long since learned to recognize, not that such a sign was even necessary, not on that particular day. He looked around, but the man seemed to have arrived alone, and that, together with the shape his clothes were in, went a long way towards confirming his suspicions that the DCW would soon count another resident. No, going by what he’d seen, he didn’t think anyone was going to be getting that one a new set of implants any time soon, and that in turn meant that he was about to pay the ultimate price for what had once been a life of privilege.
The unc didn’t even know how he felt about that. Sure, growing up he had hated the plugs and everything they represented with a passion, that was par for the course, but the truth was that since then he had learned to count his blessings.
No, being an unc wasn’t easy, but at least he knew that the possibility that he would end his days in a place such as the DCW was not one he had to worry about, not that the plugs did. They weren’t even aware of the DCWs’ existence, for crying out loud! That was one of their world’s most carefully guarded secrets. In fact the need to keep the existence of those places from becoming public knowledge was one of the main reasons why the DCWs were staffed, to the extent that they were staffed at all, by uncs. Yes, that was an anomaly, a big one, but in spite of that he knew that there was a method to that particular bit of madness.
Simply put, while there were a number of safeguards built into the system that made it possible for a plug’s implants to sandbox an isolated memory if the need arose, having a number of plugs going in and out of the DCWs on a regular basis —plugs who, because of their duties, would have to be allowed to remain aware not just of where they were, but also of what they were seeing and doing at all times— would have been an entirely different matter. Seeing how what was at stake was nothing short of the possibility of polluting the stream as a whole, the unc could understand why someone had decided that dumping the responsibility on an ill-prepared unc’s head was by far the lesser evil. Sure, that solution was not the most orthodox one, but at the end of the day the bottom line remained that no one was likely to complain about the fact that the unps were being cared for by uncs.
The DCW was a hidden world, that was precisely the point.
Was it better to live life as an unc, or was it better to enjoy the perks that came from being a plug, even if that meant that one ran the risk of winding up in the DCW someday? To the unc the answer to that question was an obvious one, but he knew most puncs would have disagreed rather loudly with his assessment in that regard… in fact they would probably have disagreed even if they’d seen what he had. In a way he didn’t blame them. Too many puncs had no pride. They had no reason to be proud. For them being an unc was nothing but a sign of shame, a stigma they couldn’t possibly hope to escape.
When a child was born he or she was given a name. That child was also assigned a standard nine character ID in the Unidat, the universal database that was supposed to keep track of everything and everyone. At about the age of six months, if their parents could afford it, babies were fitted with their first implants and began getting acquainted with the vast streams of knowledge that were the plugs’ birthright, though the unc could still remember how some fifty years prior it hadn’t been all that uncommon for parents to wait until a child was two or even three years old before taking that step. If by the age of six a child had failed to receive an implant, on the other hand, the prefix unc —short for unconnected— was attached to that child’s file, and the child was assigned to an unc school. From that moment on the die was cast. In those schools the young uncs were taught to read, write and perform menial tasks. As uncs they were also invisible to the Unidat, or rather to the stream, and as long as they kept their noses clean, they were left more or less to their own devices.
The unc thought back to his own official designation: UNC TOJ222807. That was who, or to be accurate what, he was to the world at large. Oh, he had a name, Joshua Thompson. His parents had always called him Josh, but once they had passed away that name had fallen by the wayside. The uncs were addressed either by their designation or by their number, and even the three characters that were supposed to represent the remains of those names in their IDs —the last name’s initial and its first vowel, plus the initial of their first name— were hardly ever used. That he was an unc was made plain by the conspicuous absence of an implant, and the odds that two uncs who shared the same number would ever come across each other were less than one in a million, so to those around him he was merely 222807. As for a name, that was a luxury that was reserved for the plugs.
Of course, even though as a child his growing awareness of what his status as an unc entailed had filled him with a sense of shame, the truth was that —unlike the younger generations— he hadn’t had it so bad because in those days there had still been quite a few relics teaching at his school, and that in turn had gone a long way towards making his world bearable. For those relics the unc schools had become a sort of haven, and they had gone out of their way to open the young uncs’ eyes to the little things their world still had to offer.
Oh, there was no denying that those relics had been more than a little weird, but they had been kind, they’d had a funny insistence on the use of names rather than numbers, and they had been wise. The real problem was that those relics were no more, that it had been several decades since the last one of their kind had quite literally given up the ghost. In fact at times the unc suspected that it had been only because it had been known that the relics were not going to last that they had been allowed to undermine the stream and the system as much as they had. Sure, even after their demise some uncs had tried to keep their legacy going, but the demands of real life had quickly reasserted themselves, not to mention that the uncs had never been able to move past the fact that the world those relics’ words had so vividly painted for them had been an alien one, one they hadn’t been able to hold on to.
Unlike the uncs, the relics had been born before the implants had come along, and even when those implants had become the norm they had stubbornly refused to get fitted. At first some of those relics had even scoffed at the plugs, but as time went by they had found themselves becoming increasingly marginalized by their choice. They had become themselves an object of ridicule, and when the Unidat had been officially established they, along with those who had been unable to afford an implant in the first place, had been granted a special designation, which in turn had given them a unique status that was somewhere between that of an unc and a plug… not that that had done them much good. Yes, the relics had had a name, a name they had stubbornly refused to give up, a few of them had even been wealthy enough to lead comfortable lives, and they had stubbornly refused to be relegated to a second class status, but even though they had routinely tried to go to some places that were supposed to be reserved for the plugs, that hadn’t really done them much good. After all, and especially in those early days, the uncs exclusion had had more to do with the way things were organized than with the laws themselves. Simply put, going to a restaurant was not exactly an option when you couldn’t even peruse the menu.
The thing was that, in spite of the obstacles that kept being thrown their way, the relics had taken an odd pride in their past, one they had done their best to pass on to the next generation. They had insisted on reminding the young uncs of the fact that the stream itself had been created by uncs, they had taught them how to see the unfiltered beauty of the world around them in a way he suspected the plugs couldn’t hope to match, and they had even organized an underground network of unofficial schools that had enabled the young uncs to continue their studies well past the eight years of basic mandatory education that were provided by the state —schools in which they had gone out of their way to teach them things they were never meant to know— and that knowledge in turn had gone a long way towards helping them get past at least some of the bitterness that in his youth had already become as much a hallmark of the uncs’ lives as their endemic poverty.
No, the unc couldn’t even begin to imagine what being plugged would be like, he had never experienced the stream as such, and he knew he never would. The closest he had ever come to that were his dealings with the terminals that were meant to help the uncs interact with the plugs’ world to the extent that such interactions were necessary, but the feedback those stations could provide, and the queries that could be inputed into them, were extremely limited. They consisted of isolated text strings —plus maybe a few manually selected images and soundbites— that weren’t complemented by a detailed personal history, or by any other kind of supplementary sensory information. They didn’t allow for the kind of in depth and personalized tracking that were the implants’ trademark, a tracking that not only made it possible for the stream to provide a perfectly tailored reply based on an individual’s needs and preferences, but could often predict an imminent request before it even arose. That, he suspected, was the fundamental difference between them.
As an unc he had always seen the world through his own eyes, and he had also been free to make up his own mind. All his life he had been virtually invisible, and that invisibility in turn had enabled him to see what he suspected the stream concealed from the plugs. In his mind that freedom was his birthright. No one had ever really tried to sell him anything, no one had ever tried to sell him, period. The uncs were poor, and that meant that they were of little interest to advertisers and the like, a situation that was then compounded by the fact that getting a message to an unc was so much harder. With a plug an ad could be delivered as a perfectly targeted, personalized reply to almost any query, and almost without seeming like an ad at all, but the uncs’ very nature meant that that was not an option.
Of course, there was a lot more to the stream than those ads. For the plugs the stream was always there, a constant companion that kept whispering in their ears, guiding their steps, and helping them along the way, but also preventing them from seeing anything they weren’t actively looking for… or at least preventing them from seeing anything they couldn’t be charged for.
The end result was that while going by a plug’s standards the unc’s world came across as being extremely limited, from an unc’s perspective the plug’s world seemed to be missing something.
Of course, the unc knew that that distinction wasn’t exactly black and white, not to mention that it had been decades since he had been taught by those relics, and that since then things had gotten worse, much worse. The uncs lived in a world of closed doors and limited opportunities, and under those circumstances the fact that a good number of their young would lash out —earning for themselves the label of puncs or ‘problem uncs’— was not entirely surprising. In fact at times it seemed to him like some puncs were determined to destroy what little beauty remained in their world, a beauty they refused to even acknowledge. No, it wasn’t all youths, in fact it wasn’t even all puncs, but there were some that were so full of hatred that they needed an outlet, and that situation was compounded by the fact that they knew better than to lash out at the plugs. They knew that their files and their biometric information were available to the Unidat, as was everything every plug ever saw, so that, if they were to turn their rage against the plugs, they would be identified and rounded up almost immediately. The uncs, on the other hand, were all but invisible to the system, and that in turn meant that they could be targeted with impunity.
Oh, he could understand where it was that those puncs were coming from. He knew that they were almost painfully aware of how limited their own prospects happened to be, that they couldn’t take two steps without being reminded of the things they’d never have, and that a part of them blamed their parents and their poverty for dooming them to a fate they had no hope of escaping, just like their children —if they had any— would blame them when the time came.
No, the status of unc was not a hereditary one, not officially, but it was close. The implants were expensive, and the jobs that were available to the uncs were of the kind that barely allowed them to eke out a living. That meant that the odds that an unc would be able to afford the implants for his or her child were basically nil, and even if they could afford them somehow, what would happen then? Plugs and uncs inhabited what might just as well have been different worlds. They lived in different neighborhoods, their lives followed what were fundamentally different rhythms, and there was no way for them to bridge that gap, not in any meaningful way. That meant that the life of a plug that lived surrounded by uncs would have been all but unbearable. That was one of the reasons why he himself had always refused to marry or start a family, why so many uncs chose to live their lives alone. What would have been the point of bringing a child into the world that would have been doomed to inherit his own status, one who would have been bound to become a punc? That had always been his fear, not that choosing to spend his life alone had done him much good.
Thinking about the puncs, his mind drifted back to that incident a couple of weeks prior, when a gang of them had torched the library. They had been able to get the fire under control, eventually, but the damage had been extensive. Almost a quarter of the collection had gone up in flames, a good chunk of the rest had been destroyed by water, and another charred building had been added to their landscape, yet another reminder both of what they’d lost and of what they had become.
That library had been, as so many other things, a remnant of a half-forgotten world of paper that had once been a source of pride, but like everything else having to do with that world, in time it too had wound up being discarded.
The plugs didn’t need books, so the libraries had fallen first into disuse and then into disrepair, before being claimed by the uncs as part of their own legacy. Reading was one of the things the relics had taught him to cherish, but it was also one of those things that were despised by too many in the younger generation, who saw them as yet another reminder of their own status. The plugs didn’t read, they didn’t have to. They had all the books that had ever been written at their fingertips, so why should they bother? All they had to do was query the stream, and the specific details they were looking for would be immediately provided to them. Of course, the uncs, or at least the older uncs, knew that there was more to reading a book than being able to barf back a quote, or extract a fact or two, but the plugs didn’t have the time for that kind of thing. They were always on the run, chasing the stream and dreading the possibility of being left behind… not that there was anything about that fear that could possibly be described as unfounded.
He looked around once more at the ER, an ER that was in a hospital that was meant to cater to the plugs. It was a place where those who had been left behind were routinely wheeled in, never to be wheeled out. The hospital was brightly lit and full of gleaming surfaces… and in his mind he contrasted that with the world he inhabited while not at work. His was a world of peeling paint, grime, filth and decay, a world of old buildings that were slowly falling apart. He lived on a fifth floor, and even though the building did have a couple of elevators, well, the truth was that he couldn’t even remember the things ever working. Still, while climbing those stairs was getting harder on his old bones with each and every passing day, he knew it could have been much worse, after all the building itself was twelve stories high… and the truth was that, even though he could most definitely have gone without the filth, after a day spent working among the plugs in that pristine hospital, he was always grateful when he got home for a little grime. It was crazy, but in his mind that grime —along with the mold and the peeling paint— were what gave the place its human quality.
He glared at the floor he had been mopping up to that point. It was absolutely spotless, and that meant that the time had come for him to tackle the next one of his assigned areas. It was one of those things he did on a daily basis, just another one of his duties, but one he hated with a passion.
He went to the service elevator and hit the button that would take him down to the DCW, the dead connections ward where the unps —those former plugs who fell down on their luck to the point that their implants became so obsolete that they could no longer accommodate the latest updates— were effectively warehoused.