A cyber fantasy about education inequality

This post is a small portion of a short cyber fantasy about a young woman who finds herself trapped in her society’s web of education, debt, inequality, and extended cognition.

A Day in the Life of Esther Jones

Esther hallucinated a sunrise under her eyelids and an alarm at her eardrums as the tendrils of her Companion stimulated her optic and cochlear nerves. “Goddamn Companion,” she muttered, blinking her eyes open to a new day.

She was surrounded with still, silent darkness. Without activating her lights, she rolled onto her chest, wormed her way to the end of her alcove, and rolled aside her door.

The hallway light illuminated her. She slept in a little room that was just tall enough for her to sit up—but not to move about easily, and about twice as wide. It was ten feet long. About seven feet of the length was padded, like a mattress, and its final yard was a hardened plastic platform for storing belongings. It was known as a Tube.

Esther poured out of her Tube and shivered as her bare feet touched the vinyl floor. Her long hallway was stacked with Tubes, two high, on each side. She felt fortunate to have an upper Tube. She couldn’t imagine scooting out onto the cold hard floor on her knees and shins each morning.

She walked the long hall until she reached the unisex washrooms. She entered and pressed her palm against her locker. It opened, and she crammed her pajamas into one of her auto-wash slots.

She stood naked facing her locker. She was five feet eight inches tall, her back lean and bony, like a washboard, without much contour, androgynous. Her wavy, jet-black hair reached unkempt to the deep, dark olive skin of her shoulder blades. She turned away from her locker, crossing her arms over her candy-dot breasts but revealing her strong-jawed, angular face and bright hazel eyes.

She let her arms fall for balance as she walked the textured tiles, past the open rows of toilets and urinals, to the hall’s showers, where she stood under a showerhead. She closed her eyes as the water sprayed onto her face and body and splashed on the tiles around her in the blackness.

She could hear her company in footsteps, flushes, and waterfalls. She preferred not to watch, just as she preferred not to walk the halls or lockers nude, although nakedness in the lockers could not be avoided. She would rather sleep with just her sheets on her body, but that would mean walking the hallways completely exposed. Most of her neighbors had gotten accustomed to the feeling. She shuddered at the thought of it.

Esther shut off her shower and opened her eyes. They were needed for the trip back to her locker. She dressed quickly, retrieving yesterday’s clothes from her remaining auto-wash slots. She leaned in close to her mirror and combed her hair carelessly straight, quickly rubbed some hydrating cream into her face and neck, and shut the locker.

She walked the corridor to the hall commons. It was always sparse when she rose. The entertainment and home-office capsules were deserted. The long benches and tables of the cafeteria were empty. She muddled through the cafeteria line, selecting hot cereal and coffee. She brushed her palm over the sensor to deduct a meal ticket. She wandered past the benches and tables, into the almost inexplicable luxury of the commons lounge, and sat on a spartan but cushioned chair, looking out the floor-to-ceiling window, down the avenue, past the dull windows, over the Bay Wall, and out at the grey Atlantic, almost too distant to distinguish from the mist and sky.

It was a beautiful dawn. In the lounge, Esther almost felt human enough to enjoy it. The sun crested the horizon, shone white and silver off the Atlantic, streamed over the Bay Wall, and danced off a hundred thousand windows. She breathed out slowly. Her cereal cooled. She ate. She sat, sipping her coffee, as the daily spectacular climaxed and receded.

As Esther walked to the elevator banks, the other residents rose in droves, crowded naked through the Hall. The sickly sweet, crusty smells of sleep and sweat and sex overwhelmed her, forcing her to cover her nose with a wildflower-infused handkerchief.

The elevators deposited her into a broad, spartan lobby. She stepped through her Tube Tower doors and onto a vast, shining white sidewalk. A Menial spat at her feet. “Goddamn Companion,” he said.

Esther nodded. “Goddamn Companion,” she repeated, and spat at her feet. The Menial, confusion overtaking the spite on his lips and in his eyes, turned and wandered off, weaving drunkenly, and collided with the skyscraper walls.

Esther padded toward the vast embankment stationed between her and the bay, awaiting at the edge of her high-rise corridor. Her flats softly plunked and scraped on the sidewalk. Her natural shuffle was fine for walking long stretches of flat cement. The sun gleamed through the glass canyon and forced her to stare at her feet. Even the white glare of the cement blinded her. She looked slightly up, into the crowd’s millipede legs. Some of the morning crowd had sunglasses; the rest averted their eyes.

When Esther reached the embankment, she concentrated on lifting her feet. Here, a shuffle would result in a tumble, ruined clothing, maybe a scraped knee. It would make for an embarrassing moment and an inconvenient day.

The embankment gradually rose more severely. Alongside the long, gently ramped sidewalk ran a somewhat shorter and more severe staircase, and alongside the staircase rose a sky trolly wire, even more sharply inclined. Esther preferred the ramp. As she crested the embankment, the grey Atlantic emerged again. Because of the embankment, the ocean had faded from her view as she approached it. She had now ascended the Great Manhattan Bay Wall. The Wall held back the ocean, and all atop the wall was the Promenade—a vast swath of walkways, parks, and businesses.

She paused at a little park set amid oak and pine and watched some men and women in threadbare clothes gamble on chess at metal tables and benches. She supposed that the simple pleasures of problem-solving helped to draw the sunrise closer to the sunset. She felt a kinship with them, and she envied them. There was a transparency to their bleak fates.

She shook the thought from her skull. It wouldn’t do to have one of them read it on her face. Empathy is risky; people will revile your affinities. They’ll hate you for thinking you comprehend the smallest detail.

Once, tired after a long day of work, she’d mindlessly stepped off her Tube Tower elevator onto a Social Standard floor. Those Tubes really were tubes! Barely large enough for a human being, and certainly not for anyone with claustrophobia or a sense of dignity and comfort. On her walk home, she’d find these folks once again, still Menials, without Companions—as far as the Law was concerned, only good for unskilled labor or subsistence welfare.

The Companion Law was emblazoned on the city. “No automaton shall perform human labor, except through a Companion.” Thinking of it, Esther laughed to herself, drawing a few concerned looks from passersby. A reasonably-dressed woman with a Companion gleaming behind her left ear was not expected to sit on benches in parks laughing to herself. She laughed a bit more at the thought of it.

The only Law is nature, Esther knew. Humans can only make Law unwittingly. The Law, well, the law of nature was that no human could do intellectual work except through a Companion—and once you’d bought the Intelliware for it, you’d never do a damned thing else. That Law shaped the city, insensate to human motive or legislation. The Law reserved a special level of Hell for the Menials, another for her, and for all she knew, yet more above or below her. The next level of Hell always shone like Heaven, she supposed, until you reached its fires.

She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, reducing her heart rate and feeling her consciousness slightly subside, until she felt that it was lurking, not asleep, but tamed. It was a good feeling. She felt the warmth of the rising sun on her face through the coolness of the morning air and inhaled the fall scents of pine and wet, fallen leaves.

She resumed walking along the Promenade, until a great, bulging glass building loomed over her. Her coworkers had, without affection, dubbed the building the “Fishbowl.” Esther thought it looked more like a great womb. Through the glass, a passerby saw ring over ring of men and women swaying in mid-air, each attached by a great umbilical to the depths of the building.

She entered the building, took the elevator to her floor, and took her place in the long row of ergonomic chairs that lined the window-glass perimeter of her long, circular hall. From her seat she watched the foot traffic atop the Promenade and gazed into the grey Atlantic that waited beyond. She let her mind ebb into the aimless churn of the crowds and sea.

She knew that it was a daily ritual—to hide away from her mind in that oblivion. She was not sure how long her escape had lasted when her supervisor insisted: “Feet in the bucket!”

Esther sighed and lifted her feet onto her footrest. Her chair rose, tilted slightly back, and began its imperceptible roll. She could stay in the chair for fifteen hours a day without getting sores. She grimaced. The only thing missing was a bedpan.

She allowed herself her daily moment to curse her Companion. She couldn’t have this job without a Companion.

Goddamn her Companion!

With a thought, she activated her Companion and jacked into the Fishbowl net. Her Companion hijacked her visual cortex and temporal lobe. Esther sighed. The data streamed in. She hallucinated a screen that responded to her thoughts. Esther let herself forget herself. She let the pleasure of problem-solving wash over her, and she drowned in hit after hit of dopamine.

There was nothing special or demanding about bookkeeping. She was given chaos, and she organized it. In the process, she discovered holes, and she filled them. She felt it was like playing Clue, as she had done with her brothers as a child. Once she understood how the game was played, it was a formula.

Her thoughts wandered. She thought of her father. “Work,” her father had announced to her, “is the poor man’s antidepressant!” And he’d wiped the sweat from his sun-wrinkled face with his greasy towel, thrown back his head, and swigged deeply from the water bottle she’d handed him. “Thanks,” he’d said, smiling broadly at her as he handed back the bottle.

He’d stood, his back heaved, and he’d hurled his body behind the shovel, grunting as it struck through the ground, and he’d cast aside shovel after shovelful of gravel, dirt and sand. His shirt clung to his body, translucent with sweat, the deep red-brown color of his sunbaked skin.

Esther plugged away as her mind drifted. Her father had been surprised when she explained how easily her mind could wander while her brain was at work. “It’s easy to think with a shovel,” he’d said, “but I don’t understand how you can think while you’re doing that job.”

She’d laughed and reminded him that daydreaming is different from thinking. “Still…” he’d said, falling silent.

Esther didn’t hate her work, and she didn’t love it. She didn’t think of it as ambivalence, which would imply she had mixed feelings. She simply had no feelings of any kind about her work. She supposed that it was possible that work could excite her, but for the time being, she needed a promotion not because her job was unacceptable but because she needed to get ahead of her Intelliware loan. With an entry-level job, she’d die with the debt she started with. Intelliware was a life sentence, not an opportunity. That was what maddened her, not the job.

In the last hour of her shift, her supervisor interrupted. “Security Chief needs to see you,” her supervisor explained, pointing upwards, as if Esther didn’t know that the executives occupied the top floor of the Fishbowl.

Esther rolled her eyes and took the elevator to the domed top of the Fishbowl. She entered the Chief’s office when the Chief’s assistant curtly nodded permission.

The Chief waved her in and towards a small chair that supplicated before the Chief’s immense walnut desk. Esther sat.

She felt certain the chair had been designed to feel small, rigid, and comfortless. Its legs were just a bit too short, especially in the front, and she had to work her legs against the chair’s attempt to pour her onto the floor. She sat peering over the heavy desk and up at the Security Chief.

The Chief’s office, except for that chair, was built for comfort. The Chief leaned back in a luxurious leather chair, her boots on her desk. Behind her were polished shelves, each tall and sparsely adorned. Just over the Chief’s left shoulder peaked a malformed stone figurine—a gargoyle of sorts—which together with a brass sculpture of a melting paddock served as a bookend for a row of perhaps ten hardcovers of various sizes.

To the Chief’s right, along the vast windowed periphery of her office, was a sitting area. A light floral Sheraton sofa with dainty, polished arms and legs faced them across a broad, low wooden coffee table bounded by paisley cushioned Bergère chairs. A decanter rested atop a bordering lacquered walnut cabinet.

Comfort was available in this office. Esther supposed her current position was no accident. She bit her lip as the Chief swung her feet from her desk and half stood, leaning forward, looming over her. The woman was thirty-something, with a pale, chiseled face, short, spiky yellow hair and crazy, searing blue eyes. She was lean, but athletic.

The Chief pushed a tablet to Esther. “Read it,” she commanded.

Esther scrolled through the default notice. She suppressed a shrug. “I’ve seen it,” she stated simply, instead.

“You’re a security risk,” the Chief said. “Your credit is shot, you barely have money, your social standing is nil, and your Intelliware is in default. Your social credit is abysmal.” The Chief sat. “Still, you’re a good bookkeeper. Against my advice, management has decided to keep you on—but there’s nothing we can do about the Clamp.”

Esther took the tablet and cradled it in her lap, studying it. “The Clamp…” she mumbled, dejected.

The Chief nodded. “Yes, the Clamp. You won’t remember the Fishbowl when you are off-hours. You’ll toggle. Your Companion higher functions will be unusable outside of the Fishbowl. You won’t be able to use your Intelliware for any job other than the one you’ve got right now.”

Esther thought the Chief must have a stunted sort of humanity to confuse despondency with a request for an explanation, but there was no helping it. She thought back to her own Companion application scores—rare intelligence, common emotional facility, mediocre Companion compatibility, and the horrific sort of finances endured by every former Waster. The latter was the only one that mattered to a loan officer.

Esther knew the Chief’s finances had been stellar, because the Chief had executive-level Intelliware. But where the Intelliware stopped, the Chief was a mediocrity.

The Chief adjusted a spike of her yellow hair. An image of a zombie-ant locked onto a rain-forest leaf, a parasitic fungus bursting from its head, flashed through Esther’s mind. She shuddered.

The Chief reached across the desk and soothingly brushed Esther’s hand, a genuine look of concern in her eyes. “When you’re out of default, the Clamp comes off. Those are the lender’s rules.”

Esther knew that despite the Chief’s shortcomings and hard-ass posturing, she did experience empathy. Esther thought that made her monstrous. It was better to be dissected by a cold, pragmatic robot. At least she knew a robot wouldn’t downplay her humanity—it couldn’t, and it didn’t need to.

Esther suppressed another shudder. She sighed, leaned forward, and began tapping her fingers unconsciously on the Chief’s desk. Five years she had given Accountancy—and now this. But starting over with a competitor was out of the question. The Chief was right. Her lender had her by the tits. She was unemployable. It was the Clamp, the streets, subsistence, or the Wastes. Only the Clamp presented a future.

She lifted the pad to the desk and signed her name with her fingertip. She slid the tablet back to the Chief, who nodded and said, “It’s done, then. Don’t forget to stop for exit protocol when you clock out.” And she waved her hand towards the door, insentient again, as if fanning away some foul odor.

Esther frowned, stood a little too quickly, wheeled, and let the door close just a bit harder than necessary behind her.

Meetings like this were always held near the shift’s end, Esther knew. It was a wise policy—nobody could keep a clear mind after that kind of conversation. Esther took the elevator to her floor and spent the short remainder of her shift in the restroom, averting her eyes from the half-populated row of urinals as she made her way to a stall and closed the door. She was angry.

She sat there for fifteen minutes, returned to her station, logged out, and stood in line for the Clamp. Before today, she had not taken any notice of the number of her coworkers who were under the Clamp. The line shuffled forward for perhaps twenty minutes. There were so many!

Each person in front of Esther, in turn, sat at the exit station and leaned forward, into the Clamp, until a disembodied voice announced, “Clear.” Then it was Esther’s turn. She felt a tightness under her breastbone. She struggled for a full breath. It was if her lungs were being crushed by a boot.

Esther sat at the Clamp and stared into its optical scanners as it reached into her Companion. The chair, cold and metal, pressed into her buttocks. She felt she must have been sitting there quite a bit longer than customary, when she heard “Clear…Clear…Please Move On…Clear…” and felt a coworker gently tap her shoulder.

She stood from the chair and made her way to the elevator, feeling numb and hollow. She felt the fading sense of having dreamed. She was a bookkeeper who worked for Accountancy, and she inferred that some misstep, likely financial, had earned the Clamp. But that was all.

The feeling was unpleasant. She felt breathless and claustrophobic before the elevator disgorged her and perhaps ten of her coworkers into the lobby. Forcing evenness to her steps, she stepped through the doors and out into the fading light of evening.

Esther rarely walked straight home after a day in the Fishbowl. Tonight was no different. She made her way along the Atlantic edge of the Promenade, gazing down the sheer drop into the choppy water against its base, and she felt the void in her mind where her workday had been, until she reached the Salt Block. She allowed herself this one pleasure.

“Triple bourbon” she demanded, and sat at the window-side counter, looking out into the vast Atlantic as it faded behind the tavern’s lights. She could feel a pair of eyes on her, judging her. She turned to see, out of the corner of her eye, a man in a nice suit whipping his head back around. She scoffed.

“Success is all about priorities…” she heard the man’s associate drone on, moronically. She allowed herself a half-mad cackle and stared at the man’s associate with open hostility until she caught his eye. She scowled at him, and he stammered and shifted uncomfortably until his back was turned.

“Harumph!” She turned to look out the tavern’s café window. Priorities! Yielding a year’s-worth of liquid solace wouldn’t put her a month ahead of her Intelliware. Maybe she shouldn’t have sent money for her brother’s synthetic eye when that battery had exploded. Maybe she should be cruel. Stingy with herself and unfeeling with others.

“What a fucking cunt,” she muttered, bitterly, loudly enough to turn a few heads. She waved them off. “Not any of you cunts, sorry, just those cunts over there.” She waved the back of her hand at the man who had turned his back.

She felt her waitress approach, set her glass on a coaster on the lacquered counter, and skitter off silently. Esther lifted the glass and sipped it slowly. She felt the stinging warmth of the spirit spread through her body and breathed and exhaled slowly until her consciousness ebbed.

Momentarily bored, she checked her Companion newsfeed out of habit. Even with the Clamp, that still worked. And what news!

A kitten had gotten its head stuck through a hole in some plumbing. Somehow the kitten couldn’t back out of it. There was a picture. It was a beautiful kitten, striped black and grey, and it lay limply in the hands of a fireman, its head inexplicably on the wrong side of a section of pipe. It was completely passive.

Esther imagined her head stuck through the pipe. She wondered how long it took for the kitten to go limp. She imagined herself shrieking, thrashing, crying. If that kind of thing happened, she wondered would a person feel rage? Could a person make herself pass out? Once she went limp, would the thrashing come again, in waves?

Of course, they saved the kitten. Jaws of life and all, a massive operation; everyone was happy even though no one belonged to the kitten. Esther felt happy too. What a piece of work is Man! She brushed away a tear, again drawing a few stares. Crying! She scoffed and disengaged from her Companion.

The night was a shallow void. She finished her drink slowly and then shuffled home, away from the Atlantic, under the dimmed lights of the city.

Eben Bosc Copyright 2021 all rights reserved

A cyber fantasy about education inequality