3

It was easy enough to tell who was hooked in and who was available. The ones who were on a task had their screens up, partitioned off from the rest of the floor, the space where they and their desks should be replaced with a garden or a landscape or whatever it was they had set as the signal of their unavailability. It made the floor space look like a mishmash of clashing vistas, but it was important that the analysts had the freedom to express themselves in their workplace even when they were out of the world.

Harry wasn’t one of the ones working. He was leaning back in his chair, feet up on his desk, and eyes cast to the ceiling, musing over the problem he was facing.

‘Aug, call up the literature on marriage for me, specifically stuff on the theory of the signatures for this type of detection. Don’t limit yourself—go for all identifiers, primary and aggregated —any way that anyone has ever tried to predict that marriage will be likely from the types of data we collect. And if we have any signatures ourselves, some old ones before that sort of stuff was outsourced, give me them, too.’

Files appeared in Harry’s vision. As his eyes scanned through them, he was provided a title and summary of the documents from the Cernet archives.

Marriage and Consumption Patterns: Estimating proportionality of brand loyalty in newly joined households. Abstract: As newly joined couples seek to establish stable consumption . . .

Opportunities for Expansion of Consumption Following Marriage. Abstract: The move from two single-occupancy residences to a shared habitation frees up income which can be used . . .

Motivation and Product Desire through Phases of Marriage. Abstract: Marriage follows predictable patterns from early accommodation to a honeymoon phase through children and . . .

Estimating Social Cues from Metadata to Establish Relationship Status. Abstract: While no two relationships are identical, there are a number of well-established social cues which can be . . .

Harry blinked twice at the file. His aug began to read the abstract to him.

‘. . . used to establish relationship status simply by examining standard patterns in the aggregated metadata of an individual. Through a combination of social-network analysis, geospatial colocation and temporal patterns, it is possible to highlight markers which give advertisers opportunities to develop signatures to pre-empt changes in relationship status. This paper aims to describe the patterns in metadata which can be used to describe relationships with the aim of equipping analysts with the tools to discover and deploy signatures in their algorithms.’

‘Stop. I don’t need the theory, I need something specific. Kind of like this but with descriptions of specific signatures, the signatures themselves if possible.’

A call came in for Harry. As he answered it he found himself sitting across from the image of Nicole Hearson, an analyst from the advertising company Tailored Margins.

‘Nicole, good to see you.’ Harry’s aug trawled through recent public posts relating to her. It aggregated the information.

‘Harry,’ his aug interjected, ‘she’s been on holiday, trekking through the mountains with a female friend, probably platonic, got back on Sunday.’

‘Likewise, Harry. How are you doing?’

‘Super. Back at sea level with the rest of us I see?’

‘Yeah, and back to the grind, never stops. I have an interesting one for you today.’

‘Ooh, you always bring me the good stuff. What do you have?’

‘One of our bodies, connected through you guys, has recently had a complete drop off in consumption. He still eats but that’s about it. Nothing is gaining any traction and we’re worried that we’re missing something.’

‘What have you found out so far?’

‘Well, from what I can see just going off the metadata, it looks like there is a minor change in social network with the addition of a few new peeps and a dramatic drop in the locations he’s been visiting. His personal communications remain roughly the same but what’s interesting is that his emotional range is off the charts. We’re weren’t pushing anything on him that should have been bringing him up and down like that and the moments of what we’ve categorised as bliss aren’t correlating with looks at marked advertising surfaces. Then there’s the terror.’

‘Really? Terror? Outside of a sim?’

‘Yeah, it’s crazy. There is no cause so far as we can see, nothing that we’re feeding through to him that could be generating those types of emotions. We figure it must be some sort of application he’s running, something non-standard that is maybe covering up the ads.’

‘If it were a new ad blocker we hadn’t seen, it would explain the lack of consumption but not the emotions you’re seeing.’

‘Exactly. He was a pretty good consumer before, seventy-first percentile, and we’ve got a contract with you to advertise to him for another year which, I will say, we have every intention of keeping. We can’t get full streams like you do, obviously, and know that the telcos have to consider customer privacy before engaging in this sort of thing, but I suspect he’s running something new. If he is, it’d be in both our interests to get on top of it before it spreads.’

Harry sat back and rubbed his chin. ‘It’s certainly worth a look. I’ll at least check the metadata and make a call as to whether he needs special treatment. Can I call you later today?’

‘Absolutely. Thanks, Harry!’

‘Thank you for bringing me something interesting. You have no idea how little productive work I’ve done today.’

Nicole laughed as she closed the link.

Harry called up the analytic application built by his employer, Cernet, and his aug set to work.

‘Subject is Wilson Star, find his basics for me please.’

‘Wilson Geoffrey Star,’ Harry’s aug said. ‘Thirty-eight years old, restaurant manager, divorced, no children. Good credit rating, consumption levels moderate to high for his demographic trending to very low three weeks ago.’

‘Ok, mark that. We have the who, and an approximate when, it’s a start. Whatever it was happened before then.’

Hypotheses, Harry. Start with an ad blocker.

‘Can we look at hits on advertising surfaces? Are his eyes tracking past the ads or are they still making stops? Go back three months.’

‘One moment.’ His aug interfaced with the Cernet databases. Within were logs containing all the dwells the Cernet users had made over the publicly assigned advertising surfaces. The codes painted on the physical surfaces, visible to the augs but covered up with advertising before reaching the consumer, were fed back in a metadata stream with the time, user ID, dwell time and emotional-response marker derived from the movements in the user’s face. From there they could be fed back to the advertising companies to establish what was working for each of their consumers. The aug pulled all the records for Wilson Star.

‘Average dwell time is down but number of ads observed is up.’

‘Weird. So, he’s seeing more ads but spending less time looking at each one?’

‘Correct.’

‘Can you chart that out for me on a timeline please? The whole three months. Daily averages for the dwell time, just the aggregate for the number of ads.’

Two lines appeared, one showing dwell time, the other the number of ads, with time marked along the X-axis. The lines followed a relatively stable pattern left to right before a crossing dramatically at a point twenty-seven days ago. Like the aug had said, dwell time dropped and number of hits increased at the same time. All within the space of a day.

‘Right, new temporal marker, today minus twenty-seven days. What was the date?’

‘Saturday, March four.’

‘Got it. What pattern of dwell time and hits do we normally see for an ad blocker?’

‘A fully effective ad blocker will reduce hits to zero, a partially effective one will reduce hits proportional to the level of effectiveness. Dwell time does not alter significantly.’

‘Would you agree that the pattern seen with this customer is not consistent with an ad blocker?’

‘Yes, Harry, it is not consistent with an ad blocker. An ad blocker would not result in an increase in hits and would not decrease dwell time.’

‘Thanks. The when is set, what’s next? Can we look at his geo data? Bring up his movements for the past two months this time, just the track on a map to start, I want to establish a range.’

A map was generated in his vision covering the extent of the city. A continuous line represented the path Wilson Star had taken over the past month, locations calculated by his aug as it connected to the Cernet network. Harry examined the knotted messes around his key locations while the aug traced the line through time, speedily traversing the route taken in two months of Wilson Star’s life in under a minute.

‘I’m not going to find anything in that mess. Highlight repeat locations, I want to eliminate his workplace and his home first.’

The aug set to work calculating his most visited locations. Home was easy, it was in his billing details, and the aug eliminated it straight away.

To find his work location the aug had to do a little more. Work for most people was reasonably temporally consistent, with most people working standard hours, while the shifts worked by others were outlined by labour laws. It quickly found a consistent pattern, five nine-hour blocks of continuous time where he was, for the most part, in the one location.

‘Bring up home and work time in an hour-day matrix, one day per column for the whole period.’

A calendar appeared, a column for each day running from zero to twenty-four, the hours at work and at home each blocked out in distinct colours. His work shifts were consistent, Wednesday to Sunday, from just before three in the afternoon until a little after midnight. He’d go straight home afterwards and stay there until normally about ten the next day. On his days off it was different, but he still spent a lot of time at home. Wilson Star didn’t have much of a life.

He looked back to his signpost, the twenty-seven-day mark when the change in add hits had occurred.

‘Take three to midnight Wednesday to Sunday and mark it as work time, exclude it from analysis. Then search the timeline for regular appointments, consistent absences from home location recurring on same days of the week, taking into consideration a possible change in pattern on March four.’

The application quickly processed the timeline looking for consistent patterns on days of the week.

‘Match found. Every Monday he is absent from home between ten am returning before two pm.’

‘Search the spatial record. Which locations is he visiting?’

‘Retail and entertainment sector, Central Market area.’

‘That’s not surprising, first day off, he’s probably doing his shopping. Split the time period into two parts, before the March four mark and afterwards. Any difference in time away from home?’

‘Average time away from home drops sixty per cent during the second period.’

‘Good. He’s kept up his pattern but is spending less time away. Do you conclude that the change in hours spent at the markets is consistent with the previously established time for change in behaviour?’

‘The change of time spent at location was first observed twenty-five days ago, the first Monday after the nominated change date.’

‘Excellent. So, the date is right but I still have no idea what happened. Anything else?’

‘There were changes in home time after March four on Mondays and Tuesdays. His earliest home time on those nights over the period was eight pm.’

‘Right, bring the map back up, plot his movements for midday to midnight on Mondays and Tuesdays after March four. Highlight home location.’

The map appeared in his vison once again. This time there were fewer lines, a less complex string of movement, his home location linked by his movement to only a few other places.

‘Next, colourise movement sectors and stationary ones. Eliminate any part of the track where he was moving outdoors. And get rid of any times he was at home.’

Large sectors of the tracks disappeared. Harry was left with a map overlayed with several knotted masses of lines correlating with buildings in town, the places where Wilson Star had been doing whatever he’d been doing. The aug defined twelve distinct places where the man had spent time over those periods. Each was outlined with a box, the name of the place at its side.

‘We’re finally getting somewhere. Get rid of the tracks, just show me the locations and how many distinct days he visited each of them.’

A number appeared in each of the boxes.

‘That one. Eight visits, one each Monday and Tuesday since March four, right?’

‘Correct.’

‘What’s there?’

‘A candle shop.’

‘A candle shop. Why was he visiting a candle shop?’

‘I don’t know, Harry.’

‘Ok, whatever. Go back, when else did he visit there?’

‘Tuesday, February twenty-eight, and Saturday, March four. No visits during the search period prior to that time.’

‘Got him. When was he there on the Saturday?’

‘Between nine in the morning and one in the afternoon.’

‘Four hours in a candle shop?’ Harry stopped and sat back in his chair and thought a moment before continuing. ‘The emotional spikes, the bliss and terror as Nicole put it, do you have that data? Just since March four.’

‘Yes. He has been registering abnormally high H8 and F7 consistently along with markedly elevated H4, F9 and F12. Eight of the other sixty tracked emotions exceed the ninetieth percentile.’

‘Define H8 and F7.’ Emotion wasn’t something he normally paid much attention to.

‘H8 is Happiness: serene happiness. F7 is Fear: crippling fear.’

‘And the others?’

‘H4 is Happiness: general optimism. F9 is Fear: flight response. F12 is Fear: general apprehension.’

‘Percentiles?’

‘H8 greater than 99, F7 greater than 99, H4 is 97, F9 is 96, F12 is 98.’

‘How can someone possibly be hitting high percentiles for optimism and apprehension over the same period?’

Harry waited for a response. ‘Aug, that was a question. What circumstances are consistent with this emotional range?’

‘Profile is consistent with several mental illnesses.’

‘And why hasn’t this been picked up?’

‘Cernet does not aggregate emotional metadata to determine mental-health status. Use of automated algorithms for this purpose is a violation of privacy laws.’

‘Oh yeah, that’s right. So, he has a mental illness?’

‘Not determined. Erratic emotional ranges derived from metadata can be said to be consistent with mental illness but are not in themselves diagnostic.’

Harry groaned in frustration. ‘Ok, well answer me this: these emotions, did they occur prior to the four hours on March four?’

‘There are no H8 or F7 emotional responses in the month prior to March four. These are, however, less common emotional responses and are rarely caused by advertising.’

‘So, he was normal?’ There was no response from his aug. ‘Call Nigel, I need to talk this out.’

Harry’s boss messaged back. ‘I’m three desks down, I’ll come by.’

Harry rubbed his eyes. ‘Drop the screen.’ The miniature castle which had masked Harry’s desk disappeared. Nigel walked up and leant against Harry’s desk.

‘What’s up?’ he said.

‘I got given this problem child by Nicole from Tailored Margins, regular dude who goes from a seventy-one to somewhere under five over the past month. Only it’s not a decline, it’s like a sudden drop, his consumption flatlined, like someone flipped a switch. I’m thinking maybe mental illness.’

‘Yeah, could be. But you said it was sudden?’

‘Yep. I can almost put it down to one incident over four hours.’

‘That makes it a little less likely. Mental illness normally comes on a little more slowly, it’s not something that flips overnight. Has he had a trauma, been to hospital or anything?’

‘Not that I could see.’

‘Well that’s what I’d expect to see for a sudden drop, maybe a head injury or exposure to something unpleasant. Not that it’s impossible, just weird.’

‘He sure is.’ Harry paused and ran his hand through his hair. ‘I think I’m going to have to go in.’

Nigel smiled. ‘Don’t make it sound like you weren’t planning it from the start. Package up what you’ve got, send it through and I’ll run it past the lawyers. Seems pretty straightforward though.’

‘At least with a clean break like this there isn’t a lot of ambiguity. Something has impacted his marketability and we need to diagnose the problem with him.’

‘It makes it easier. Take a break, then maybe jump back into the data, I should be able to get the authorisation signed in thirty minutes or so.’

With that Nigel turned and left. Harry’s aug put together an outline of the findings, and after giving it a quick read, he sent it off.

The authorisation came through after thirty-five minutes. As anticipated, there were no dramas; there was a clear drop in consumption and the company had an obligation to find out what had been happening.

Harry read the wording of the application. Standard stuff, authorisation for him only to access the sensory feed of Wilson Star for the sole purpose of diagnosing issues with the effectiveness of the advertising he was exposed to, as per his contract with the company. He was not to divulge personal information and was not to record anything of a personal nature for later use.

‘Aug, log the authorisation and link it to this session. Screen up, what is his status now?’

‘Wilson Star is at home.’

That meant they couldn’t pull up his sensory feed, a key protection of an individual’s privacy. Harry looked at his watch. ‘It’s two on a Friday afternoon, he should be leaving for work soon. Put a tag on his location, as soon as he leaves the front door of his apartment building I want to hook in.’

Harry used the time to examine Wilson Star’s social connections. There hadn’t been as marked a change, his messaging to other people was largely consistent, and all the additions to his social graph had been people who Harry could place at his restaurant either as employees or customers. It confirmed Harry’s assumption that Wilson Star had no life.

One thing the social-network analysis did was to confirm that the sudden mental illness hypothesis didn’t stack up. The metadata relating to his communications showed that he was keeping up contact with family members and his few friends, and from what Harry could tell there had been no change in the level of communications with people who were associated with his professional life. In all aspects of his life, apart from his emotional range and his consumption, he was functioning normally.

‘Harry, Wilson Star has left his apartment.’

‘Roger. Put the feelers out, see if he’s running anything that might get us noticed before I go in.’

Retrieving the sensory data running through a customer’s aug was standard practice by telcos like Cernet. Network technicians randomly dropped into feeds to check on how the network was working, particularly when they detected that load demand exceeded the requirements of the augmented layer. When that happened, they deployed temporary network access points on drones to fill the gaps. However, it meant that they needed to check in to make sure that the aug layer was seamlessly maintained, that the reality presented to the citizens was what they were meant to be seeing. The retrieval of sensory data gave the ground truth of the aug layer in an area, the remote observer using the customer’s eyes to make sure that reality matched what they believed was occurring.

The need for networks to randomly pick up feeds to check network status was a requirement of access going all the way back to the telephone days. For that reason, nobody really worried about it. But it did require that the network get access to the augs and send back a lot more data than was the case for the normal aug layer sharing that kept the network running. It also used a lot more power. While the networks still owned the hardware inside the heads of their customers and had backdoors into whatever they needed, tinfoil-hat types would occasionally install non-authorised software, which could detect when the telcos were watching and would block the traffic going out. There was nothing that could be done about it—you couldn’t change physics. Increased network traffic between the augmentor unit and the network could be picked up by network traffic analysis tools, and the power drain could be detected with the right software if you were in there for more than five minutes. Harry and his fellow customer analysts rarely encountered them during deep observation, but the network management folks would come across one or two paranoid nutjobs a week.

‘No countermeasures detected.’

‘Right. Hook me in.’

Harry’s vision faded to black and his hearing to soft music. Wilson Star’s reality started to fade in, slowly at first, the sights and sounds the man was perceiving fed through Harry’s augmentor until they shared a view of the world.

Harry’s perspective was slightly different. While he received sight and sounds he didn’t get a tactile, olfactory or gustatory feed and he could still overlay data in his own vision. He was also still in contact with his aug.

‘Aug, I’m in, feeling fine, how are my vitals?’

‘Vitals are normal, Harry.’

‘Roger. Get me a prediction on where he’s going. I assume it’s work but I don’t want to be caught out. Also, display emotional metadata. In particular, I want to know if he spikes on any of the identified emotions.’

‘He is travelling on his standard path to work. His current emotional state is F2 low-level anxiety, I will monitor for any changes.’

Harry saw the F2 displayed in the bottom right of his vision. Everything else was exactly what Wilson Star was seeing. It was always disconcerting to see through the eyes of another, the vision jumping around without Harry moving his eyes, but after years of practice it no longer made him nauseous. Wilson Star was definitely anxious though, and his eyes were darting around, locking onto every moving surface before quickly moving on. It was exactly as the analysis had described—he was hitting a lot of ads but they never captured his attention.

His head was moving, too, swinging back over his shoulder, scanning up and down buildings, constantly moving. He was looking for something but it wasn’t anything in the ads.

‘Give me the local aug layer, an external view. Show me what people are seeing of him in the street.’

Harry’s vision was then outside of Wilson Star’s body, tracking with him as he walked down the street. He was walking with a neutral contentment on his face, his head and his eyes steady, the vision of himself projected to the rest of the AugNet one of calm, steady competence. That was dangerous and unconventional. While everyone put on masks for clothes and facial appearance and the superficial stuff it was never a good idea to mask your body movements. It was legal but it led to the practical problem of people bumping into you.

‘Show me the real now, take down all augmentation.’

A privilege of Harry’s job is that he had authorisation to see the world under the aug layer, so long as it was in the discharge of his duties. The aug layer, the reality painting the surfaces of the buildings, the objects and all the people, disappeared before Harry’s eyes. What remained was a world of concrete and bitumen, the only adornment were the reference markings telling the augs where they were in space. The people, a moment ago wearing the bright colours of the latest fashions, were now all in their greys and slippers, the plain, comfortable suits dotted only with small black crosses for the other augs to track.

Wilson Star was still the focus of Harry’s vision, but he presented a very different scene from what was visible in the aug layer. Instead of walking calmly and confidently through the street he was visibly jittery, walking too fast, throwing his head over his shoulder as he searched for the target of his anxiety. While he took care to avoid hitting any other objects, he came close on at least two occasions.

‘This isn’t helping, I need to know what he’s so worried about,’ Harry said to himself. ‘Aug, change vision back to his feed.’

Once again Harry’s vision was filled with Wilson Star’s neurotic scanning of the environment.

‘Harry, emotional marker F12; general apprehension.’

If something had happened, Harry had missed it. Wilson Star was looking over his right shoulder as he walked, his pace picking up, but there was still nothing there.

‘I have an idea. He’s putting out a heavy mask, maybe there’s something in his own sensory environment as well. Aug, prepare a live baseline of what should be seen by Wilson Star as his eyes track. Compare with actual observations coming through in real time and highlight any aberrant objects.’

‘Comparison running.’

‘Also, capture anything you detect.’

There. Over the right shoulder, four o’clock, a shape, a shadow, but a shadow with two eyes, outlined in red by the aug but otherwise nearly invisible.

‘Can anyone else see that?’

‘Negative,’ his aug said. ‘It is only visible to Wilson Star.’

‘What is it?’

‘Unknown.’

‘Track it please. And tag it or anything else as moving or stationary; overlay a track for each.’

With each scan the aug picked up more of the shadows, a dozen in all, each outlined in a distinct colour key. They were coming towards Wilson Star, gaining on him slowly, and the man knew it. Harry’s aug brought up a display of Wilson Star’s pulse as it moved above one hundred and twenty.

Then Wilson Star stopped abruptly. A glowing light the size of his fist appeared in front of his face before it moved back and started to grow. At first Harry couldn’t make out any details, it was too bright and had no distinct features, but as it reached three metres in height the glow faded.

Emerging from the light was an angel with a flaming sword. Wilson Star stood tall and held his hands out to the figure who smiled gently down at him. In the bottom right Harry saw his aug display H8, the serene happiness they had detected in the metadata.

The angel spoke, its booming voice drowning out all other sound in the environment.

‘Wilson Star, your good conduct today has been noted. They will not harm you tonight.’

The angel raised his sword, and twelve orbs of light shot out towards the shadows. Wilson Star didn’t even turn around, he just stared up at the face of the angel.

‘Walk with me, Wilson.’ The man and the glowing angel continued in the direction of Wilson Star’s restaurant, the angel passing through pedestrians oblivious to its presence.

‘Those of you who chose to walk in the light are taking the harder path. Never forget that, Wilson. It is not meant to be easy, but through good conduct you will know true happiness.’

‘Thank you,’ Wilson Star said. ‘I will keep trying, I promise.’

‘He is crying, Harry,’ Harry’s aug commented.

‘Turn the audio off but keep recording. Actually, pull me back to the room, just give me a screen, show me external projection of what he’s seeing, the two of them walking down the street. Keep highlighting any discrepancies with the local augmented layer.’ His aug complied. ‘What do we have his emotions at?’

‘Still at H8.’

‘I’m not surprised, he’s just been visited by an angel.’ Harry sat back and watched as the angel walked Wilson Star all the way to his work. There were no more demons lurking in the shadows.

‘I think we’re done, cut it off here. And get me Nigel, please.’

‘Angels? And what, demons?’

‘Yep, saw it with my own eyes. That’s why he’s not tracking the ads, he’s constantly looking for things that the rest of us can’t see.’ Harry paused and scratched his head. ‘It has to be local software on the aug, not a shared experience, otherwise we would have noticed the communications traffic. I could go back and look at which applications he’s running but I’d probably need multiple examples to pick a specific one out.’

‘No point really, at least at this stage. If he wants to live his life seeing angels then he’s allowed to live his life seeing angels, we can’t stop him.’ Nigel smiled at Harry. ‘The real question is what are you going to do to get his numbers back up?’

Harry pursed his lips before he spoke. ‘We take the imagery and turn it back on him. We put the angels and the demons in the ads, at least to get his attention. It should work, the reason he’s not seeing the ads is that he’s looking for very specific things in the environment. I can run a comparison in the background on the local aug layer feed compared to what he’s seeing and pick out the characters and symbols they’re using.’

‘Sounds good. What else?’

‘I’d like permission to do some target discovery. If there is group in a church or cult or whatever I might know where they hang out and how to find them. I’ll be able to get a much better idea of what’s going on with a few more subjects.’

Nigel nodded quietly. ‘Sounds like a good project, you have my support. But it can wait until Monday. Start your weekend early. You did really great work today, Harry.’