4

Exiting the stairs of the Cernet building, Harry prepared himself to run the gauntlet of the afternoon rush. The workers, pouring out of their offices, would surely be packing the footpaths, ducking and weaving, before peeling off to a thousand different locations, a self-organising swarm of autonomous organisms flowing through their natural environment.

But there were also its other inhabitants, the informational beings all vying for attention. For Harry it was a game, a test of the advertiser’s algorithms, seeing how long it would take them to figure out where he was going. They also inhabited this space, and after five pm was prime time for the workers who had until now been locked away in their towers.

He’d discretely changed his clothes on the way down, swapping the business wear he’d had on for work with jeans and a t-shirt. He did it without the recently fashionable flourish, instead instructing his aug to wait until there was no one looking in his direction.

The outside wall of this office building was the first surface he saw.

‘How was work, Harry?’ Joe asked. He kept pace with Harry but stayed inside the wall, the augmented pizza store projected into a space created for it, the digital facsimile of the pizza store owner fenced off from Harry’s vision by the image of the counter between the pair.

‘Oh you know, Joe, long day, as always.’

‘Well then, Harry, how about a pizza? We can have yours delivered before you get home!’

‘Dunno if I feel like pizza tonight, Joe.’

‘Well let me know if you change your mind, you know how to find me! And if I don’t hear from you, have a good night!’ With that Joe faded away, along with his store. In truth he did feel like pizza, but he had somewhere else to be.

That was the first premium pitch of the night, he could expect about three more. Joe was a regular advertiser and was Harry’s go-to at least once a week. He didn’t resent the attention, at least he’d paid enough notice to get decent customised ads for his best customers.

The flow of ads became more passive, some paying for the privilege of calling Harry by name, but most just pushing generic consumer products that Harry was already buying. Laundry detergent, news services, household trinkets, the odd political ad. And alcohol, lots of alcohol. Surely they didn’t think he drank that much?

Then the wall next to him appeared to explode as a drone flew overhead.

‘New, from Peerax Studios, makers of the most realistic, historically accurate wartime sims, comes Sphere of War: Southeast China. Command an elite special forces unit in the last great war as you push back invading forces in China’s industrial heartland.’ The scene cut to show Harry inside powered armour, missiles and guns firing off as he barked orders to soldiers and drones, explosions closing in on his troops. The sky was grey with smoke and dust, the only colour coming as fireballs erupted from buildings and machines. Harry did his best not to stare at the ad for too long but found the image of himself as a warrior captivating. He gave in.

‘What are you offering?’ he asked the ad.

A woman in a tight military uniform shimmered into existence in front of him, causing him to stop with an abrupt halt. She saluted.

‘Captain Bo, thank goodness you’re here. They touched down this morning, suborbital landing ships, thousands of American troops. We need to get you suited up to take the fight to them.’

‘Nah, sorry, busy tonight.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ She ducked as an explosion erupted somewhere behind her. ‘Please, when you get home, just one mission, if you have a taste for it again we can talk about signing you on full time.’

‘Alright then. I’ll take a look tomorrow.’

‘Thank you, sir!’ she said, saluting a second time. ‘We need good men like you if we’re going to push the Laowai out.’ She disappeared with the same shimmer.

‘Make a note,’ Harry said quietly.

His aug chimed in response. Harry walked on, the flow of food and drinks and entertainment coming in fast, all vying for his evening spends.

Harry caught a flash from a piece of reflective metal out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see its source. On the other side the street, behind a small velvet-covered countertop, was Mr Huang. He was polishing a pocket watch, the object which had produced the attention-grabbing flash.

Mr Huang worked attentively, his polishing hand moving in slow, gentle circles across the solid surface of the back of the watch. He took out a small screwdriver and moved his attention to the watch’s edge, working on some unseen mechanism, his focus never drifting from the task at hand.

A self-satisfied smile crossed the jeweller’s face as he held the watch up to his eye, examining the product of his fine detailed labour. It was then that he caught sight of Harry.

Mr Huang remained behind his counter, but as he looked at Harry his trademark smile crept slowly across the face which only a moment ago had been a study of focused craftsmanship. He nodded gently across the street, a gesture which Harry found himself copying without thought. Catching himself, Harry looked away, before glancing back to the jeweller and his street-side stall. Mr Huang was back at work, laying out gold chains for customers who could only exist in the packets flowing into Harry’s aug.

Karen. With a complex problem to occupy his afternoon, Harry had put the events of previous night out of his mind. Mr Huang didn’t have to say anything to wrench the idea of marriage back into Harry’s focus.

As Harry approached his apartment building, Joe appeared again. ‘So, Harry, what do you say about that pizza?’

‘Not tonight, Joe,’ Harry said to himself.

Joe replied, ‘Maybe next time! Have a great night!’

‘You too, Joe.’

He walked straight past the building’s main entrance.

The algorithms which had led them to believe he was heading home for the weekend had been firing advertisements for food and entertainment to be consumed on his own in his apartment. As soon as he failed to enter the building they recalculated, taking in his movement and his regular pattern of behaviour for a Friday night, and began to feed him a new feast of ads.

‘Nothing says I love you like flowers. Show Karen how much she means.’

‘How was your meal last night, Harry? Fifteen per cent off tonight at Sarah’s for you and Karen.’

‘Passion’s Drive, from Nico’s range of premier scents, guaranteed to get the girl every time.’

And then Mr Huang again, this time appearing on a wall, small, no audio, just the old man in his suit at work in his shop. This time he didn’t even look up, there was no need for him to engage Harry. Harry, on the other hand, couldn’t avert his gaze.

He quickened his pace, keeping his eyes down, avoiding all ads. The sounds coming through his aug blended with the noise of the humans hurriedly making their way home.

It was stupid and he knew it. Mr Huang was just like Joe, an artificial person, or at least an informational double of a real person, designed to appear when the algorithms thought he might be susceptible. He could ignore Mr Huang’s suggestion that he marry Karen as easily as he could ignore Joe and his delicious pizzas. Harry lifted his head defiantly and marched on.

He really did feel like a pizza.

Harry turned towards downtown. There was a moment of confusion; Karen was in her apartment, and according to the algorithms he should have turned the other way if he were going to visit her. This latest information took milliseconds to run its way through the predictive model. It took account of the change of direction, finding the locations of his closest social associates, running comparisons with previous Friday nights until it returned a result. Vic was sitting in O’Malley’s, and it was probable that Harry was going to join him.

The telco fed this information to the ad agency, who passed it to O’Malley’s first, offering them the prime advertising spots along his probable route, giving them the opportunity to defend their position as he made his way out for a night of drinking. It was the reasonable thing to do, and advertisers were more likely to pay up to defend a likely sale than to speculatively seek a consumer’s dollar.

O’Malley’s own algorithms received the offer from the telco with enough data to show that they were probably right about Harry’s intentions. It ran through its own history on Harry and politely declined. Vic was always first to arrive, and whenever he did Harry inevitably followed. The algorithm assessed that they wouldn’t need to bribe the telco to ensure Harry wasn’t diverted.

The telco fed the data to the other bars along the route, opening a market on Harry’s consumption as he made his way out for a drink. The bars and clubs placed their bids, each sending out teasing offers until a hierarchy of buyers was established. They then set to work on Harry.

A slithering seductress was first to pop out of the wall. ‘Harry, Sonia’s is the place to be tonight. Bring Vic and your first drink is on us! Real girls here tonight. Oh, come on, Harry, don’t be shy!’

Conan Smith, the legendary forward, made the next appeal. ‘Hey, Harry, come down, watch the game with me, it’s going to be huge. Harry, come back, man, you don’t know what you’re missing!’

‘Took you long enough to figure it out,’ Harry muttered.

Others came and went, offering percentages off drinks, free accompaniments, custom sims tailored to Harry’s known desires. He was a good customer for this type of thing—he only drank once a week, but when he did, he spent up big.

The ads faded as Harry maintained a steadfast path and pace, returning to the background noise of mass consumer products being broadcast widely. Harry didn’t see Mr Huang again until he was about to reach the door to O’Malley’s. He stopped and stared for a moment but quickly regained control and looked away. He’d already responded too much and was only setting himself up for more ads on the way home.

Respite came with the smell of beer, the sound of laughter, the sight of a dimly lit bar, and a wave from the corner where Vic and Adam were sitting. Harry made his way over to his friends.

‘Harry!’ Vic yelled across the room. ‘I got you a beer, what are you having?’

‘Uh, a Lefty’s to start, I suppose.’ As he spoke, the untouched beer in front of Vic lightened in colour and took on the flavour of the house lager. Harry pulled up a stool between his friends.

‘Good to see you,’ Adam said as he raised his glass. Harry mirrored the gesture.

‘And you guys, too. I’ve been waiting all day for this.’ He took a short sip from his beer.

‘I see Karen gave a leave pass tonight?’ Vic asked.

‘I’m yours as long as you’ll have me. Actually, I think she’s going out with Tess tonight, we were out last night so that’s normal. It’s ok though, we’re heading out tomorrow for the opening of Yuri’s new exhibition.’

‘Fancy.’

‘That’s just how I roll these days. It can’t all be beers with the boys.’

‘Then we’re glad you could grace us with your presence,’ Adam said.

‘How are things in your world, anyhow?’ Vic asked.

‘Work’s good, found something new today.’

‘Anything worth sharing?’

‘Maybe, but gimme a few days to see if it has legs.’

‘Yeah, fair enough. And how’s Karen? Apart from demanding all of your attention, of course.’

‘She’s great.’ Harry paused.

‘Ha, I know that look. What’s up?’ Adam leant in as Vic spoke.

‘No, seriously, she’s great. But I’ve started getting some ads.’

‘Go on,’ Vic said.

‘Well, you know, ads telling me it’s time to ask her to . . . to ask her to marry me.’

The two other men laughed and leant back.

Adam slapped the table. ‘Well, Vic, looks like we’ve lost Harry, not just for the night, but for good!’ he said.

‘Nah, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that it’s getting to the time when I should start thinking about it.’

‘Harry, you of all people should know better than that,’ Vic said. ‘I’m guessing it was good work? I mean, expensive?’

Harry nodded his head.

‘I thought so.’ Vic sat up taller and brought his hands together in front of him, leaning forward as he prepared his most condescending tone. ‘You see, Harry, when someone starts getting ads from my mob, not the normal ones reminding people of their civil responsibilities, but the ones telling them that they need to toe the party line, they know that they’re already past the point of disobedience. It acts like a first sanction and is normally a confirmation of a suspicion floating around in the back of their traitorous little heads. Most people shape up pretty quickly. And for those few that we do need to take in for re-education, we can pick up their intention to keep behaving aberrantly almost straight away. You’ve got to realise this isn’t someone trying to sell you a watch. If an algorithm has picked up that it’s time to ask Karen to marry you, then it’s probably time to ask.’

‘Don’t worry, dude,’ Adam said. ‘On the plus side, it means she’s almost certain to say yes.’

‘But there’s so much I want to do first.’ Harry sunk into his chair.

‘Oh yeah, like what?’ Adam said.

‘I dunno. Go off into the wild maybe. Maybe hang with the Realers for a while, try a simple life in a village in the hills. Or go further, travel the train as far as it’ll take me.’

‘I’ve been out there, Harry,’ Vic said. ‘Life outside the city has its charm, but I guarantee you, we’ve got the better deal here.’

‘Yeah, maybe. But every tree I’ve ever seen has been a light post made to look and feel and smell like a tree. Underneath it’s just concrete and some sensory data. Every animal is robotic with an augmented skin. Every blade of grass is synthetic and only moves when the aug layer tells it to.’

‘Not true,’ Adam said. ‘There are weeds growing up between the cracks in the pavement. The maintenance droids are spraying them every day but they keep coming back.’

‘You know what I mean. Life here is so sanitised. There is still real wilderness out there.’ Harry sighed and looked up. ‘I suppose I just want to go off on an adventure first. See something real. You know, before I settle down.’

‘And you can do it all with Karen,’ Vic said. ‘I mean, after all this time together, you’d probably be dragging her along on your trek through the wilderness anyhow. It’ll be sweet—when we find your emaciated corpses in a cave somewhere you’ll be side by side. I’m just curious which of you would eat the other first.’

‘She won’t let me eat cheesy fries, so I think human is off the menu.’ Harry drained half of his pint. ‘Anyhow, don’t you think that maybe these sorts of ads should be prohibited? For bad taste or whatever you government types call it?’

‘Prohibited information class,’ Vic said. He shrugged. ‘We never censor out information built from a person’s personal life, only medical, political or national security information. It’d go against the principals of AugNet openness.’

‘And how the hell would they know what to sell us?’ Adam added.

‘Exactly. I know what you’re thinking, Harry.’

Harry laughed up a mouthful of beer. ‘What exactly am I thinking, Vic?’

‘You are thinking the same thing you’re always thinking. You’re thinking, what about those of us on the edge of the curve? The outliers, the ones to which the model doesn’t apply. Well I got news for you, buddy, we’re all a hell of a lot more predictable than any of us want to think. We eat and drink and fuck and have babies and work and die. We seek out company because we’re lonely and terrified, and because it feels nice. Because, and this the important thing, despite our brilliant technology we’re just animals with primitive drives which lead to behaviours that can be predicted with some clever maths.’

‘Says the man who takes an android to bed every night,’ Adam said.

‘Exactly!’ Vic replied as he raised his index finger. ‘I am an outlier, a perverted deviant, the exception to the rule. But you’ll note that in my late teens I was getting ads for a simulated domestic companion, which I’ll kindly remind you to use when describing Judy, thank you, while the rest of you were being fed dating apps.’

‘Speaking of which, I’ve got a nibble.’ Adam glanced towards the bar.

Sitting on a stool and drinking from a martini glass was a woman, dark hair, slim, in a tight white dress. She fingered her straw as she coyly glanced over at Adam.

As she did, he mouthed commands to his aug, causing her to break out in a tiny laugh. She replied with words unheard but spoken all the same, causing Adam’s face to contort with exaggerated outrage. His mouth moved in reply, his hands open as he pleaded his case.

She took her time replying, eyes darting to the upper corner of her view, biting on her lip as she considered his response. After several seconds she locked her eyes on him and nodded. Adam downed his drink, stood up, saluted his friends and marched over to try his luck.

‘Go reel her in,’ Vic shouted at Adam’s back. Adam glanced back briefly before sliding onto the stool next to the woman.

‘Well, he’s gone for the night,’ Harry said.

‘You never know, he might bomb out.’

‘Hardly. He wouldn’t have let himself be interrupted if it was anything short of a sure thing. I bet their augs were setting it up for them the whole time we were talking.’

‘As I said, the matching algorithms are pretty good.’

‘Yeah, I met Karen thanks to one.’ Harry looked down at his drink. ‘I suppose I should be thankful for that at least.’

‘To Homo Predictablus!’

‘And the deviant outliers!’

The clink of their glasses broke through the noise of the room.

‘You know, when you think about it, it’s a good thing that we have them. Back in the old times you married the neighbour, did the job your father did, which was almost always farming, and died at thirty. We have massively increased choice these days, but the number of options makes decision-making impossible. So we have the augs and the data and the algorithms, and it guides us to making the choices that make us happy. And someone makes a quid out of it along the way. So if you’re being told to marry Karen, maybe you should listen.’

‘Should I now?’

‘Well, it’s either that, or run off to a Realer colony and spend the rest of your short life scratching around in the dirt. They do have good grog though, I’ll give them that.’

Harry downed the last of his beer. ‘Speaking of which, my shout, what do you want?’

‘Same again,’ Vic said. His order became visible in Harry’s aug.

‘What the fuck is that?’

‘It’s a lavender-and-rose-infused red ale.’

‘That sounds bloody awful. How do they come up with this crap?’

‘Trust me man, it’s good. Get one.’

‘Whatever.’ Harry sent through an order for two pints.

They spent the next few minutes in comfortable silence, their eyes darting across their fields of view as they cleared out the stream of information their augs had been collecting. As they did, a message came in for Harry.

What are you up to? Karen asked.

Hey baby. Just out with Vic, having a couple of beers.

Oh ok, I won’t disturb you.

Nah, it’s ok, we’re just chilling. What’s up? I thought you’d be out.

Nah, I cancelled. It’s ok, I’m just bored.

Do you want to come over tonight?

Yeah . . .

Awesome. Can you gimme a couple of hours? Maybe catch up at 10?

Sounds good

See you then.

‘Well, my night is sorted.’

‘You heading off?’ Vic asked.

‘Nah, got a few hours, but she’s keen which is good.’

‘Good for you.’

The beers arrived. The barmaid was a real person and smiled at Harry as she placed them on the table. It was the authentic touches that kept bringing them back to O’Malley’s.

‘Thanks,’ the two men said in unison. They touched glasses and drank.

‘I was right. It’s awful.’

‘Well we can’t all share my good taste. Change it.’

‘Yeah, I think I will.’ Harry sent a through a command to change his beer to a lager. The flavour and appearance changed with a shimmer.

‘So tell me, this thing you were working on, I got the impression that it was more interesting than you wanted to let on.’

Harry hesitated. ‘Maybe. And if it is what I think it is, then it’s definitely something I’m keen to pass on to you guys. Unofficially, of course.’

‘Always, my friend.’

‘Do you have much to do with religion?’

‘Not really. They’re mostly harmless. So long as they stay within their remit and don’t hit anything political, we don’t really care.’

‘Ok, well how about this.’ Harry held up both of his hands. ‘Angels, following people around. Actually, the angel just seems to visit at the end of the day, it looks like there are demons following him through the day.’

‘What, a custom app?’

‘Yeah, but I think it’s in the hardware as well. I mean, it could be something clever, the custom objects sitting under the normal stream, but I didn’t see any extra traffic coming in on my first pass. As I said, early days. But it looks like he’s jailbroken his aug and is running something custom.’

‘Weird. But not illegal. If anything, it’s a breach of his contract with the telco but not of interest to us.’ Vic paused for a moment in thought. ‘Unless of course there are more of them. If they’re running an unregistered religion and running custom software then we care, at least to know what messages they’re putting out.’

‘That’s the next thing for me to find out.’

‘Right. Keep me posted.’

Harry nodded. ‘Oh, I meant to ask, do you have Brandon this weekend?’

‘Nah, this was Jen’s week, I get him back Sunday night.’

‘Right,’ Harry said. He sipped his beer thoughtfully.