The Quarter Percent Line
A Short Fiction
by Daisy Wu
You had always thought that it would begin in a physical way; that that would be the change that you would have to deal with. Sheesh! You had even factored the contingency into your last five-year plan. You had thought that you were being particularly prescient at the time. How little you had known then. But you had always liked to have a plan. A best-guess prediction of possible future economic and environmental conditions. Sounds kind of pompous, but that was what had made it seem important. Trouble was, the government had had a plan, too, and it had been different to your one. Your modest forecast of personal future wealth, of potential crime black-spots and possible social change – all that has been blown out of the water now.
When the change happened, it happened very quickly, although the truth was it had been happening for years beforehand; slow and insidious, like the most effective revolutions. It was well orchestrated – of course – although it had not appeared that way at the time. When the fuel was stopped at the pumps, it was thought that it was just a temporary hiatus in supply; a minor hiccup in the great human process of consumption; something that would be seamlessly corrected by the invisible powers who control that kind of thing. It had happened once or twice before since Internet Protocol v7 had been rolled out. It wasn’t something to worry about. However, when the power stopped, too, people began to get nervous and then, quite quickly, desperate.
It was amazing how swiftly everything deteriorated. A day without energy seemed like a long time; a week became a short walk back into the Middle Ages. There was no Blitz spirit amongst the population. No siege mentality. If you hadn’t already realised that the concept of community was dead, you realised it in those dark, early days.
Of course, you know now that the government had had think-tanks working for years on what they had dubbed as the Endgame. Where you used to draw up a five-year plan, their plans would project decades, even centuries into the future. The experts always returned with the same predictions. Too many people; too few resources. The accounting sheet could not be balanced. There was nothing that could be done about the resources; as for the people…
You have heard arguments that the job of population-reduction was performed in the most humane fashion possible, but you remain unconvinced. Can it ever be considered humane to so enslave a human being to an addiction that its removal makes life no longer bearable? This is the charge that you lay at the feet of your erstwhile leaders.
Nowadays, you work as a Feeder. It is not a government-recognised job. In fact, it is an occupation strictly forbidden, punishable by death if discovered. Not that any of the government enforcers have ever ventured beyond the self-imposed exile of their energy-rich central haven for the last two years. Today, your first customer – you feeders never like to refer to your clients as either patients or dependents, although it would perhaps more accurately demarcate your respective roles – is Katy. For some perverse reason, you like Katy, although she has uttered not so much as one solitary syllable to you in the eight months of your acquaintance. It is like that with your job. Although professional etiquette demands that you treat all your customers equally, there will always be some whom you like more than others. It is human nature. You can’t help it. And, in this world, human nature is a commodity worth hanging on to. Take Warren, for example. You have tried to like him. You really have. And, on the face of it, there is nothing more objectionable about him than anyone else you visit, but there is just something about the smell that he gives off that you find repellent. He can’t help it – Sheesh! He’s not even aware of it – but it is enough to make you feel slightly queasy.
Katy is different, but if you were called to explain precisely why, you wouldn’t be able to put your finger on the reason. It is certainly not a physical thing – Sheesh! It is rarely easy to find another fellow human creature attractive who you habitually encounter having recently crapped their pants and surrounded by an ever-expanding pool of warm urine, but that is not your problem; it is policy that the Hygienists follow on immediately after the Feeders, never before them – but there is still something about Katy. What is it? Hope, perhaps? A sense that her dependency is not so deep-rooted as some. A glimmer of optimism that she may yet be saved; that she has not yet crossed the virtual event horizon. Although saved for what? That is another problem. When the reality is so grim, it is easy to see the enduring lure of the VR cosh. You should know. You had walked the line yourself. The quarter percent line.
You knew that Katy was an Oblig, too. That made a difference. She hadn’t been amongst the first wave of Volunts. You had almost been a Volunt. And then, later, you had almost been an Oblig, too. That quarter percent difference. It does not sound like a whole lot. But you knew that it could make all the difference in the world. There are 78 genes that distinguish a man from a woman. 78 genes. It is a quarter of one percent of the entire genome of the human body. And yet it makes all the difference in the world. That was how close you had come to living – existing – like Katy. But the current distinction had nothing to do with being either a man or a woman. Although it was no less a matter of pure chance, for all that.
Warren had been a Volunt. That was part of the reason, you realised, why you despised him. And, if you were being truly honest, why you felt a little jealous of him, too. Not that there was anything to be jealous of any longer. You had registered to be a Volunt and yet you had been turned down. The reason, stamped across the official-looking form you had received by way of a rejection, had stated ‘Economically Unviable’. In real-world speak, it had been stating, in fairly bald terms, that you had not had so much as the price of a pint of milk to your name. More, that you were a bad credit risk; a low-earner; an economic non-entity. Warren had been accepted as a Volunt. You knew nothing of Warren’s background – had no knowledge of him or his life at all before the Crisis – but this fact alone suggested that he had once lived a life of, at least modest, privilege. It had been a smart move on the part of the government to restrict access to Human Internet Protocol v2 in the first instance – to keep the number of Volunts down to a limited number – it had created a situation where demand had rapidly outstripped supply, and that had made it so much easier to administer when it was announced that the procedure would become compulsory.
The operation itself was wonderfully simple – so much so it barely warranted the description ‘operation’. The electronic RFID chip that was inserted beneath the skin was discrete and invisible once the initial scarring had healed. Of course, some people decided to flaunt their new status – it became fashionable to tattoo a small representation of the miniature circuit-board on the skin above the position that the real thing was imbedded, and this particularly by people who had been refused the procedure. You are ashamed to admit that you have such a tattoo yourself. Nowadays, you admire it purely as a reminder of how close you had been to crossing the line. Of course, the chip was not solely about identification; a whole lot of other fancy gadgetry was included, too. That had been the big lure. A mega-deal bundle.
People had been accepting of electronic tagging for nearly a decade. IPv7 had realised the great dream of the early years of the 21st century of creating an ‘internet of things’; what HIPv2 appeared to offer was merely an extension of this technology. It seems strange looking back now, in a country where something as mundane and as innocent as a National Identity Card had always been regarded with the deepest suspicion, how people came to be so amenable to the idea of a computerised implant. Of course, this is what you meant by the change having already happened. It was not the insertion of a physical microchip that was the great difference – AI; robotics; body augmentation: the concepts had been kicking around for a generation – no, the big change had already happened in people’s minds. It was the pack mentality of the suburbs. You knew. It had happened to you, too. This is perhaps again where you recognised that in some way Katy was different. You felt – rather than observed – that she had maintained a basic humanity.
It was the environment to blame in many ways; or, at least, not to so much the environment as the recognition that we had all screwed up the environment so much that it was going to need some pretty drastic measures if we weren’t all going to find ourselves living in a future climate hellhole. Ironic, heh? Looking around now. If this isn’t hell, you don’t know what is. IPv7 had been sold to the masses as the great future hope for Mother Earth. And all neatly packaged, prêt a partir, and without the necessity for any of the uncomfortable lifestyle-change predictions involving hardships and cutbacks that the leading environmentalists had been espousing. After all, everyone wanted to do their bit to protect the environment, just so long as they could still drive their big, gas-guzzling SUVs and run their washing machines on super-fast spin cycle while they were doing it. IPv7 promised that this would be possible. And in a way, it had been.
You know how it is; the way these things come about: something that had appeared inconceivable one moment, is assimilated so rapidly that it then seems impossible to think of a time without it. That had been the case with IPv7. It seems hard to recall now but in your youth, the idea that your television set could be considered in anyway ‘smart’ would have been laughable. You remember how your dad used to refer to it as the ‘idiot box’’. Who’s the idiot now, Dad!? A generation of people had grown up accepting the idea of the possessions in the home around them – even the utilities of the home around them – being linked into a wider connected network. In the beginning, there were often jokes made about how your refrigerator would be chatting up the next-door neighbour’s dish-washer as soon as you had turned out all the lights at night. In fact, the truth wasn’t so very far removed from the humour.
Of course, IPv7 had it serious application: it wouldn’t have been so widely taken up if it hadn’t. It was marketed as the great environmental miracle; in one single stroke, the innovation that would both reduce world energy consumption and cut down material waste by careful stock control management. And perhaps it could have. If it had been given a chance. But the government had done their calculations. Whatever savings IPv7 was capable of making, they would not be enough; not to keep the fat cats living the lives of idle plenty to which they had become accustomed. A more drastic solution – an Endgame – had been required for that particular status quo to be maintained.
Something else you liked about Katy was the way she ate her food. She would really wolf it down – unappetising though the meals usually were – and finish every last mouthful. It was always satisfying to see your efforts appreciated. Warren, on the other hand, would barely touch the food you brought for him. You had to force every spoonful in between his clenched and resisting teeth, and even when you were successful and thought that you had managed to get him to swallow a few precious, life-preserving morsels, he would more often than not vomit everything back up a minute or two later.
As a Feeder, it was your responsibility to maintain your personal Food Plot. You had been allotted Food Plot #5443. It wasn’t a bad patch – you mean, it wasn’t the best, but neither was it the worst either. Food Plot #5443 comprised roughly one quarter of an acre of tillable land, situated on three separate locations, all within the grounds of a former suburban hospital. There was one large rectangular plot, which benefited from the afternoon sun, being out of the shadow of the shell of the crumbling, old hospital building, but which you had had to cultivate on top of the remains of the old hospital car-park and which suffered from a very poor and thin topsoil as a consequence, and was the least productive of your three allotments. Root vegetables were a total non-starter planted there. The remainder of your plot comprised two smaller established beds, hard up against adjacent walls of the hospital building itself. At some time, flowers would have been grown there. These beds were much smaller in scope than the car-park site, but they had the benefit of a nutrient-rich soil, lovingly nurtured by yourself, and they provided the mainstay of your output. The battle to maintain viable plants and obtain fresh seeds for the new season was a constant one for you, but you had been fortunate enough to hook up with the Sector Twelve Agro Defence Co-operative – a welcome recognition of your work for the community – who took it in turns to patrol every member’s allotments and protect them from marauding Outlivers.
You took your responsibilities as a Feeder very seriously; you never forgot that it was not just yourself but sixteen other individuals who were reliant on your efforts for their survival. Including Katy. The one thing that you could not get Katy to eat was beetroot, which was a shame, because you always seemed to manage to grow it so easily. You didn’t blame her, though; you couldn’t abide the stuff yourself. Still, these were hardly the times for being finicky. This was something else that endeared her to you, though: she wasn’t a complete automaton, like some of them; she maintained her likes; her dislikes; her loves; her hates.
It had been a couple of weeks ago now; you had lingered longer than you should by rights have done if you were going to be able to fit everyone into your round that day; hanging on, hoping to illicit some kind of meaningful response from Katy. There had been a Hygienist that you had never encountered before coming into the building at the same time that you had been leaving.
“Does the Wilkins family still live here?” he had asked, looking at the peeling paintwork of the front wall and the tangle of ivy, which was rapidly threatening to overgrow what once might have been described a front garden.
“I don’t know,” you had answered, truthfully. Feeders never traded in surnames.
“Tom and Jean, and their daughter Katy?”
“Katy! Yes. Just, Katy now,” you had said.
“I used to know them a little… you know… before. Nice people.”
“Yes,” you had replied, noncommittally.
Katy Wilkins. Katy Wilkins. That quarter percent line once again.
Of course, IPv7 had its sceptics, too. What change doesn’t? The conspiracy theorists had been quick to cluster in their online whispering galleries with concerns and wild speculation about the sensibility of handing over the control of household appliances to the big multinationals. Maybe, for once, they had been right. On the face of it, though, the concept had been a sound one: the use of domestic ‘white goods’, business electronics, street lighting, practically anything, in fact, could be centrally controlled, enabling energy consumption to be maintained at efficient levels. There would no longer be a situation where a room was being heated that wasn’t being occupied; no longer be a device left on wasteful stand-by. IPv7 would save dwindling resources and cut down on harmful CO2 emissions at the same time. You don’t know why you’re explaining all this again, really; it’s not as though it’s anything new. Even HIPv2 didn’t seem either particularly new or revolutionary by the time the government announced that it would become compulsory.
The Obligs – as they became known – were contacted alphabetically: like you said, it was all very well orchestrated. Special, mobile surgeries were established for the purpose of implementing the procedure. It became a common sight to see queues of people lining up for their microchip to be inserted; something no less commonplace than the crocodile-files of children lining up in schools to have their BCG inoculations, a generation earlier.
HIPv2 had been essentially a monitoring device: it had allowed the recipient to interact with the network of IPv7-linked ‘things’. The functions and benefits were far-reaching. On a day-to-day level, it could turn the street-lights on along your road as you walked along it after dark, and turn them off again once you had passed by; it became the front door key to your house; and it contained a wealth of personal data, which had been a wet dream for marketing executives across the country, who quickly devised ways of bombarding the Obligs with personalised, targeted marketing promotions via every electronic notice-board and in every shopping mall: “Come in, Mrs. Brown; a lovely new line of dresses both in your size and in your favourite colour.”; “Good to see you back, Mr. Jones; the latest page-turner by your favourite author is now back in stock.” It had taken some adjusting to but, for the most part, Obligs had been viewed as being in some way superior citizens. People had been impatient for it to be their turn to be implanted with the HIPv2 chip. It was prophesied that crime would become practically non-existent in the new regime; that people would no longer go missing: there would be no more Brinks Mat security heists; no more Madeleine McCanns.
The other big benefit of HIPv2 had been virtual reality. If most people were honest, this had been the real reason behind their desire to join the ‘internet of humans’ revolution. HIPv2 allowed the Obligs – not to mention the earlier Volunts – to access virtual realms wherever and whenever they so desired. This is the one lasting – you hesitate to describe it as such – ‘benefit’ of HIPv2. This has been the great enslaver of what remains of the human race. This is where Katy and Warren and all the other countless pathetic Obligs and Volunts, who still huddle in dark, depressing corners of their former abodes spend their pointless waking hours. There is no way to drag them back; there is so little to come back for.
But you: you are neither a Volunt nor an Oblig. You had had to suffer the stigma – short time that it had lasted – of being Unclassified; chipless; a walking pariah in a technological age advancing at the speed of Maglev propulsion. And why? Because you had walked the quarter percent line.
Poor Katy. Katy Wilkins. She would have been one of the very last of the Obligs to have undergone the procedure. You should know. Wilkinson. You were one of the very first to have missed the cut. The quarter percent line. The government had been ruthlessly efficient in its distribution of HIPv2. It was not necessary for the entire population to be chipped; a herd immunity was all that was needed for their purposes; no point wasting valuable resources when they weren’t necessary – after all, that was the whole point of the exercise in the first place, wasn’t it?
All the Feeders; all the Hygienists; all the Removers; all the Diggers; all of them had walked – to a greater or lesser extent – the quarter percent line. It had made all the difference in the world.
Today, Katy ate all her beetroot. You couldn’t stop crying for over an hour.
© Daisy Wu
Daisy Wu still won’t eat her beetroot.