I: Citizen Zero
Part Of A Novel By Mark Cantrell
Copyright (c) May 2001
Beggars Can't Be Choosers
HE was being watched again. As soon as he arrived at the bus stop the
camera turned to stare. How he longed to be invisible, to belong to
just himself, but his kind were never allowed that luxury.
Mills sighed despondently and tried not to think about it. Such
thoughts only made him nervous. He wanted to go back to bed and shut
out the world until he felt able to deal with it. Say in twenty years.
But he couldn't ignore the Summons. It wasn't worth the hassle. He
The bus grumbled to a halt, thankfully blocking the eye's mindless
stare. He might have felt relieved. But he knew they didn't need to see
him to track his movements. The doors slid open with a snake-hiss of
hydraulics and he clambered aboard. The vehicle was old, converted to
auto-pilot because the company was too tight to invest in new vehicles.
The driver's seat remained empty. Human drivers were no more than an
old man's reminiscence.
The other passengers glared impatiently while he fumbled for his card.
At last he found it and swiped through the transaction. The company
would debit his account until the system no longer registered his
presence. The Agency, meanwhile, would take a small surcharge for the
use of the facility.
"Customers please be advised," the onboard computer said, "the current
boarder is a Class 'D' security risk. Please take care of all personal
belongings. CCTV monitoring is in operation for your protection."
The passengers shifted in their seats. Some held tight onto handbags
and briefcases and nobody looked directly at him. Except, that is, for
the security guard. He sat up straight and slowly folded his
The bus gathered speed and unbalanced Mills so that he slumped heavily
into the vacant seat next to an old man in a black overcoat. This man
stiffened and suddenly became very interested in the view through the
"It's disgraceful. People like that shouldn't be allowed to travel with
For a surreptitious whisper, it carried. So did the collective murmur
of agreement. Such jibes should have long ago lost their power to hurt.
He turned around anyway and stared at the two old ladies with
stakeholder badges pinned prominently to their lapels. Once he gained
their full attention he treated them to a lazy grin. Both women looked
away and he turned back to follow the old man's gaze. As he did so his
face slumped into its usual dour expression. A grim mask reflected from
dirty glass, a way to hide the pain at the stigma he carried and the
punishment he bore.
The stigma chose that moment to beep. A reminder that he was going to
be late for his Summons. He pulled it from his pocket and turned it
over and over between his fingers.
"Nexus 40," the legend read. Beneath, printed on the scratched
UK Benefits &; Welfare Plc
-- A Ministry for Human Resources company --
Working for you, so you can too
It really was a hateful piece of plastic. Even now the chip signalled
his location to the JobMart's city computer. Depending on traffic down
the net, some operator could be reading the data this very moment.
Everywhere he went it left a digital scent for the authorities to
follow, until it felt like another disapproving eye. The card was
thrust angrily into a pocket. Out of sight but not out of mind.
He sighed, not quite in despair but almost, and thought of the Summons.
Maybe things were about to change? He pulled out the Nexus again and
pressed the display micro-switch. Text scrolled across the strip and he
read it for the umpteenth time. Could they really be serious?
"Artificial reality job-hunting? Hey, maybe I'll get an artificial
The man next to him shifted in his seat and glanced sidelong as though
Mills crazy. Sod you, Mills thought.
"+++ MILLS D + S + PLEASED TO INFORM YOU THAT YOU ARE SELECTED FOR NEW
IMPROVED JOBNET SCHEME + INTENDED FOR RELENTLESSLY UNEMPLOYED +
UTILISES LATEST IN ARTIFICIAL REALITY TECHNOLOGY TO HELP YOU BACK TO
WORK + ATTEND 0915 HOURS TUESDAY 10 APRIL + ENDS +++"
Terse and to the point, like all their messages. We command. You obey.
And these schemes became stranger with each passing year. How many have
there been so far? Too many, but perhaps this one will be different.
Perhaps this will result in that ever-elusive beast: a job.
"There's always hope," he said to the suit. The man only smiled weakly
and looked away. Mills allowed himself a cynical smile and signalled
the auto-pilot for his stop.
THE JobMart's tinted windows seemed to frown at him. They were like the
shades worn by the stereotyped spy: sinister, watchful and totally
inscrutable. Yet the building itself seemed so shabby and dreary it
gave him the urge to shiver. Even on a bright day like this the
building appeared overcast.
Desperate as he was to find meaningful work, he pitied those who worked
inside. Each day of their lives they came face to face with the
unemployed. The tentative nature of work was paraded before them in a
reminder of their own tenuous grip on society.
With a heavy heart he passed inside. People jostled him. A long counter
separated the employed from the jobless. It made for a wall dividing
two worlds, where the ragged queues of blank-faced people waited to
sign their names for another infusion of grinding poverty. Behind the
wall, more blank faced people processed the deserving poor. Workers on
a human production line, they churned out ready-made rejects.
He joined the queue and found himself surrounded by the dead-eyed faces
of the hopeless and the broken. Minds that could no longer understand
the concept of work, every trait they needed to find it sucked out of
them as though by a vampire. And now these zombies shuffled mindlessly
in search of instruction. A shudder ran down his spine. Truly, this was
the Realm of the Damned.
SLOWLY the queue wormed its way up to the main desk. Mills idly looked
around. Beyond the queues, the vacancy screens listed jobs in a
multitude of languages. Invariably, they were low-paid and short-term
dead-ends. Nearby, people in headphones sat at a bank of machines: the
blind and the illiterate force-fed with 'opportunities' by soothing
machine voices. On the far wall, in large print, a poster declared:
BEGGARS CANNOT BE CHOOSERS
Bored-looking people occupied the rows of seats by the rear wall. They
watched the information videos endlessly playing from a bank of
monitors suspended from the ceiling. On one, yet another
expensively-dressed politician spitefully slandered the poor.
It was all too much and he felt his mind wander.
BACK through time to the steel works, where he had his first and only
job. The blast furnaces glowed in the darkness like pockets of Hell.
Twenty-four hours a day those furnaces produced high-quality steel to
be shipped out all over the world.
Life was hard, but he felt useful. And in those days he had friends.
People thought him worth knowing. Pete, Jeff and Rob, his shift-mates.
Where were they now?
Pete was the joker of the bunch. He was also a wizard with the
controls. Mills knew he was every bit as competent, but somehow he felt
overawed by that tiny control room. It seemed strange that he and his
three friends should control so much industrial output.
From the air-conditioned box they smelted and poured millions of tonnes
of metal. Once thousands were required to do the job by hand, back in
the traditional steel cities. They had been thrown aside by the
automated systems he operated. And then he, too, was thrown away.
In some distant office his job was deleted by some corporatchik,
doubtless in connivance with some government functionary. They probably
made a fat profit. And doubtless the odd killing too.
"YES?" The woman at the reception desk looked tired. It was only ten
o'clock in the morning but how many people had she processed
He didn't feel like talking much. What was there to say? So he produced
the Nexus and handed it over. The woman slotted the card into her
terminal and tapped a few keys. Then she went over to a filing cabinet
and rooted through a drawer. No matter how computerised they became, he
noted, they couldn't bring themselves to ditch the paperwork.
He rolled his eyes. It was only printed on the card in her hand.
"Mills," he said.
At last she produced a folder stamped with his name and social security
number. With a bored manner she dumped it on the desk and entered some
details into the computer. Without another word she returned his card
and disappeared into the hidden recesses of the building. Mills felt
his mind wander once more.
THREE years after it closed, he went back for a nostalgia trip with Rob
and Pete. Somebody had beaten them to it. The foundries were still
there, much to their surprise. Now they formed an attraction in an
industrial theme park: "The Workshop of the World".
Some multi-national had bought the place. They presented the site as
part of Britain's industrial heritage, which in a way it was. It was
still strange because it had only been in operation for five years
before he started there. The real heritage long since disappeared.
Buried beneath the foundations of shopping malls and monuments to
commerce. He didn't even know where the steel industry was originally
based. They never taught him that in history, only what a great and
glorious country he had the good fortune to be born into - a haven for
freedom and democracy where the cameras never blinked.
And in that theme park, his foundries glowed again. But it was a cold
light, the tinted glow of electric lamps, and the metal they poured was
nothing more than back-lit paste.
The workers were the best. Big, muscular men, with oiled and bronzed
skin, toiled at the foundries manually. Funny that, because they were
never designed for manual operation. Except in an emergency. But how
many of the paying public would know that?
The fall of the Industrialists' Empire. The Workshop of the World. Just
a play-park for kids. The irony wasn't lost on him. The world was a
workshop - one where men, women and even children toiled all day for
next to nothing. Yet here, in the country that coined the phrase,
actors performed fake work for the paying crowd.
"MR Mills?" A pleasant voice shattered the images of the past. "Would
you like to come this way?"
He turned around to find a woman smiling brightly. It came as something
of a surprise to encounter such an amiable approach. The badge on her
chest identified her as Jane. No surname. She indicated a door and
walked towards it. Beyond it was just another office: a cheap desk,
phone, assorted pens, and a filing cabinet in one corner. A fan gently
stirred the air.
All very ordinary, except for the sign on the door: "JobNet".
The Whole World's An Oyster
JANE touched his arm lightly and guided him into the office. The air
possessed that faint polymer smell of sun-warmed plastic. An
uncomfortable odour he always associated with school and low-level
"Take a seat, Mr Mills."
Gingerly he sat down in the cheap chair. The plastic felt uncomfortable
and sweaty against his body, but he tried to put this out of mind.
Instead, he regarded the woman. Jane, a face with a name. Unusual that.
It made her seem almost human. Perhaps because she treated him as such,
rather than as a number to be crunched by lifeless silicon.
Jane smoothed her skirt and sat down, briefly treating him to a warm
smile. He did not return it. Despite her friendly manner, he felt too
"I see you've been unemployed now for ... ten years, David," she said,
casually scrolling through his computer records. "You must be feeling
things are pretty hopeless by now."
He felt touched by the tone of her voice. It was a new experience; he
almost felt that she cared.
"Well ... yes. It gets you down after a while. In the end you feel
pretty worthless. The future --"
"That's what we're here for, David," she interrupted, flashing another
smile. This time he noticed how her eyes lit up, so different to the
usual faded officials he met.
"We've helped a lot like you, David. So, don't give up hope. I know
things look grim at the moment, but there are jobs out there. We're
pretty proud of our track record so far --"
"Yeah, that's all very well. I've been on schemes before and they all
sang their own praises. Not one of them has done me any bloody good. So
why should this one be any different?"
She sat up straight, her face expressing deep concern. She steepled her
fingers and looked him squarely in the eyes. "David, there's a world of
opportunity out there, just waiting to be seized by those with
motivation and self-confidence. Why confine yourself to this city? To
this country even, when the whole world literally rests at your
"This is what JobNet offers. From this building you can travel the
world. All the limitations that have held you back evaporate. There are
no obstacles anymore. Can't you see what that means?"
The world is my oyster, he thought. To his surprise, he couldn't stop
himself from becoming intrigued. The woman had come alive, her
expression animated as though she really felt keenly about the scheme.
Did she really feel for the unemployed, or was it just sales
"Okay," he shrugged, "so what is JobNet?"
That smile again. Jane sat back in her chair and regarded him for a few
moments. She really was quite pretty. In any other situation, he could
see himself wanting to know her better. Except they lived in two
different worlds. The desk between them was a wall, a division between
society and the dispossessed. Yet she was offering him a gateway back
to the world: her world.
"Read this, David." Jane passed him a sheet of paper. "It'll tell you
what you need to know."
Official documents. Doubtless, there would be reams of forms to fill
in. There usually was. He let out a faint sigh and began to read.
WHAT JOBNET CAN DO FOR YOU
DON'T let life kick you in the teeth. You may have been unemployed for
what seems like forever but there is a way out of the rut -- if you let
the JobNet Agency help you.
What is JobNet? Simply a network of AI (Artificially Intelligent)
computers running a world-simulation program that places you, the
client, into a virtual environment of such a high resolution that it
feels like the real thing.
Our experts have discovered that a pleasant environment helps to
relieve stress, and what is more stressful than the search for
You will be placed in a garden paradise that will provide a friendly
surrounding while you seek that perfect job. In addition, you will be
able to relax and enjoy the benefits that a virtual world can provide.
Work and play. A combination designed for the total comfort and
improvement of our clients.
With the emphasis on a stress-free time, you will move alongside
representatives of thousands of employers worldwide. What better way to
find work than by building a rapport with potential employers in an
enjoyable social scene?
To that end, JobNet has dispensed with the tired, formal approach to
applications. The result is a face to face interaction that means a
more productive relationship is established between employer and
client. You may not get the job, but you may find you've found a friend
and an ally on the way back to the world of work.
With JobNet you can't fail. It is the world where dreams come
"TEA or coffee, David?" Jane suddenly asked.
"What?" He looked up from the document.
"Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?"
"Oh, er, I'll have coffee. Thanks."
There was a percolator placed on a windowsill in the corner of the
room. Jane poured some of the liquid into two mugs, one of them simply
"Sorry about the chipped rim," she said, placing a steaming cup on the
desk. "I hope it's not too sweet?"
"It's fine. Thanks."
HOW DOES IT ALL WORK?
SO how can you enter the perfect job-hunting environment? Well, first
of all, this opportunity is not available to just anyone.
To become eligible for JobNet's assistance the client must have been
unemployed for a considerable period of time. Here at JobNet we
understand the feelings of hopelessness that turn job-hunting into an
For those who are eligible, the uplink is achieved via a simple headset
designed to mask out the exterior environment, which could otherwise
interfere with the virtual world. A simple injection both relaxes the
client and introduces the microscopic nano-components that will form
the interface between you and the AI.
FOR those clients who feel they may need special assistance, there is a
two-fold training option available.
Through the various international bodies that form the JobNet Agency
you may arrange training all over the world. Clients can travel abroad
to take up such schemes, expenses being paid with low interest, long
term loans (see leaflet JN/UBO 34), or arrangements can be made for
training to take place within the virtual environment itself.
THE novelty of the JobNet scheme is that it is not linked to regional
or even national employers. JobNet is truly international. As a result,
the job seeker can literally travel the world in search of training or
There are thousands of options available through the JobNet scheme. It
enjoys the prestige of finding work for millions every year, and is the
international employment initiative around.
So why not pick up a form today and get yourself wired up to your
The JobNet Agency
A UK Benefits &; Welfare Company
WITH a grunt Mills finished reading the information, and placed the
sheet of paper back on Jane's desk. He watched her as she sorted
through his paperwork and computer records. At last, she sensed he had
finished and looked up.
"So what do you think?" she asked, flashing that electrifying
"Sounds great!" Despite his cynicism, he couldn't help feeling
intrigued. "So what happens next?"
"You sign this, David."
Jane handed him a simple form with his name, address and a few other
details. He signed it without really bothering to skim through.
"There," Jane said. "That's all the paperwork out of the way, you'll be
pleased to hear."
"No forms?" Surprising.
"Nope. All we needed was your signature to say you've agreed to go on
Jane stood up and gestured towards the door at the rear of the office.
He looked around a little hesitantly, nervous of what lay beyond.
"If you'd like to follow me, David, my colleague and I will get you set
Reluctantly he followed Jane into the next room, which was gloomy
compared to the office. The blinds were shut; the only light came from
a desk lamp in one corner of the room, and the soft glow of a monitor
screen. A row of couches lined one wall. A man and two women, with
plastic headsets and visors obscuring their features, occupied three of
them, where they lay corpse-still. Trails of cables snaked out from the
couches to an instrument trolley by the computer. A man in nondescript
office clothes studied the screen.
"That's it?" he asked, pointing at the computer.
Jane smiled but it was the man who replied. "No, Mr Mills, this is just
acting as a network controller and bio-monitor. The mainframe is housed
in our main office in London. That's hooked up to AIs all over the
world. I'm Stuart. I'll be over-seeing your AR-time while you'll be
"While I'm with you?"
"At some time today you and the other clients will be moved to a
residential home on the outskirts of the city. You'll be more
comfortable there, after all -- you'll be in AR for at least a couple
of weeks. We couldn't keep you here that long."
"You'd make the place seem terribly untidy," Jane added with a smile.
"Now please take a seat and we can get you on your way."
"Right, Mr Mills, I have to ask you some standard questions before we
He nodded. Stuart took up a pen and a clipboard and walked over to the
couch. His manner reminded Mills of a doctor he'd once known --
mechanical and indifferent.
"Okay. Are you currently on any prescribed medication?"
"Are you a registered drug addict?"
"No. Are you?"
"Have you consumed alcohol or marijuana in the last 72 hours?"
"Are you joking, on the money I get?" He wiped his brow. The room
suddenly seemed hot and stuffy.
"Please, Mr Mills, answer the questions. I'll take that as a no shall
I? Do you suffer from a heart condition?"
"Do you suffer from epilepsy?"
"No," he replied, bored.
"Is there any history of mental illness in you family?"
"My Granddad used to think he was Napoleon and Caesar in the same past
life -- got him very confused. Does that count?"
"Mr Mills, please! We have to ask these questions for your own good, so
please try to be serious."
"Have you ever undergone a nano-neural interfacing before?"
He gave Stuart a blank look. "A what?" he said at last.
A slight hint of confusion crossed Stuart's face. Mills felt a certain
satisfaction at that; he'd caught the man out in the middle of his
bullshit. But Stuart soon recovered.
"Sorry, Mr Mills, I mean have you ever been hooked up to an AR system
"All the bloody time! No!"
No reaction from Stuart, just a swift stroke of the pen as he ticked
off the appropriate answer, but Jane giggled and placed her hand over
her mouth with a sudden femininity that appealed to him. It was a crack
in the official fa?ade, and for a moment the woman shone through.
It had been a long time since a woman had stirred his interest. Perhaps
that explained why he felt a little light-headed. Again he wiped his
brow, and when his hand cleared from his vision he saw Stuart returning
with a hypodermic needle.
"If you could just roll up your sleeve, David," Jane asked. He complied
and Jane sterilised the crook of his arm.
"Now, Mr Mills, I'm just going to inject the interfacing components,"
Stuart said, inserting the needle into a vein. "You may experience a
little disorientation as they hook up to your nervous system. Don't
worry, that's quite normal."
With that the solution was in his system and the needle was withdrawn.
Jane wiped the skin around the puncture wound and gently flexed his
arm. The dizziness grew worse, and he rubbed his eyes with the pads of
"Okay, Mr Mills. We are nearly ready to hook you into the AI."
Through the haze in his vision he watched Stuart fiddle with one of
those headsets. Then everything went black as the helmet slipped onto
his head. The sudden darkness did nothing to stop the room
"The helmet is basically a transceiver designed to shut out unnecessary
external stimuli, Mr Mills," Stuart's muffled voice said. "Those
components we fed into your system will relay and receive information
directly from your brain."
With the helmet in place and his vision blacked out, shifting blobs of
colour meandered across his mind's eye. As the dizziness became worse,
they fused into spinning geometric shapes that battered his mind with a
dizzying light show. A growing heaviness crept up his limbs and torso.
The outside world became more of a memory until he suddenly felt
himself tear free of the world -- free and flying.
"David? David are you all right?" Jane could be heard distantly. Or was
it a memory from a former life? A thud followed. Not a physical impact,
but a memory, an idea of impact.
An effulgent light bathed his consciousness, a light from what his
floating form perceived to be up. On the downside that was reality he
perceived his body lying on the cheap carpet of the JobMart.
Jane knelt beside the body; her long auburn hair masked her pretty
features. Stuart also kneeled by the body. There was a faint hint of
satisfaction on his face as he shook the apparently lifeless form. Then
Jane looked up and smiled. Her gaze pierced the memory that had been
Mills's own eyes, and then she blew him a farewell kiss.