The Prole and the Peach
The day Johnny went out to buy a peach was the day he became a terrorist.
“Reel Peaches! Special, while supplies last”, is what the ad on the Metaverse had read.
What, he wondered, was it like to bite into a real peach? Were they really covered in soft fuzz?
The only fruit he’d ever had were apples that came in alien, genetically modified colors, or artificially flavored cornfruit.
But real peaches. Lush with the juice of the sun. How did they smell, an entire bushel? What was it like to choose the one he liked best, to hold it in his hand and feel it with his fingertips? Maybe it would even have a fertile pit. He didn’t know why his store was offering real peaches, as it was a luxury for those with higher social credit scores than his. But as the advertisement boasted, this was the sort of opportunity only possible in a country as great as Maceria. So, he decided. He’d get his.
Like most people, Johnny had a Neural Net chip in his brain that read his thoughts. Implanted in his frontal lobe, it kept him constantly connected to the Metaverse wherever he was, as wifi and routers had been obsolete for decades. The chip now read his desire for a peach, and the same ad for Reel Peaches appeared out of nowhere and floated before his eyes in electric blue text.
“Order now!”, it blinked. But Johnny waved his hand and swiped the ad away. No, he didn’t want a delivery drone snatching any random peach up in its plastic claw. So instead of ordering one on the Metaverse with his mind, he left his housing pod and took the bus to the grocery store on nine hundred thirty-third street.
The bus was standing room only. He held on to the rail above his head and looked beyond the other passengers at the world outside the window. The city was nondescript save for the isolating menace of skyscrapers on either side of the road. Their shadows blocked out the sunlight as the bus and the narrow street it traveled cut a path through the concrete canyon. Their facades were blank and featureless, with no architectural details other than garish, glossy surfaces. Each was some shade of grey or white and towered more than a thousand feet high. And each was topped with a thin steel spire that glinted above the clouds.
Johnny was glad the buildings’ summits were so far up they were invisible, because at the pinnacle of each spire was a glass-enclosed, open-air prison—roofless and bare to the sky. He didn’t like to imagine what was going on up there right now above the passengers’ heads. Time and tedium encouraged prisoners to entertain themselves by looking through the thick glass to the distant ground below. They could watch the daily comings and goings of the Mercerians and envy their freedom. But in fact, the prisoners were free to leave at any time; each prison had a single ladder scaling the fifteen-foot glass wall. And the more time the prisoners spent looking down over the thousand-foot edge, the more inclined they were to climb the ladder and jump.
Johnny’s social credit score was 2.10. If it slipped by even a tenth of a point he’d lose the privilege of being allowed to buy a peach at all. So he tried to be polite to everyone on the bus, saying as little as possible. He’d learned long ago that the less he said the better.
He heard a voice behind him say, “hey killa, can I get an upvote?”
Killer was a name Johnny didn’t like being called. It referred to the first thing he’d said, the very first time he logged onto the Metaverse. It turned out to have been the wrong thing to say: a very bad thing to say. Ever since, he’d been reminded of his misstatement daily, although he’d said it when he was only ten.
Johnny turned around. The beggar was a police officer. His uniform was neat, his face clean-shaven and his badge polished. But his face looked haggard. His blue eyes were bloodshot and baggy, his cheeks and nose were puffy. He wore far too much aftershave; it smelled like the brand that was currently trending with the 4.90 influencer crowd. And he didn’t carry a gun.
When you looked at someone, the Metaverse automatically displayed their profile information. Johnny read that the officer’s name was George Adams, and his social credit score was 1.72. Johnny had met some unpopular cops, but 1.72 was pretty low, even for law enforcement.
“What do you want it for?” Johnny replied.
Officer Adams contrived a smile. “Well, I’d like to be in a better position to make positive changes in our community.”
“Yeah that’s what you gotta say,” Johnny said. “But tell me the truth. What do you really want it for?”
The officer sighed dramatically. “I want to make sure everyone feels safe. I want to help underserved people affirm their true selves. And raising my social credit score will make it easier to accomplish that mission.”
As he spoke, Johnny watched the text, icons and emojis that appeared, floated, and disappeared around Adams, the data scrolling in arcs on either side of his head. This was what people called his “bubble”, a virtual reality overlay visible to those implanted with Neural Net chips. While Johnny could hide the officer’s bubble from sight or tap it to get more information, Officer Adams could not turn his own bubble off. There it floated, revealing everything he’d ever loved, hated, or feared to anyone who cared to look. It was always, always on.
“You believe all of that?” Johnny asked.
“Of course I do,” Officer Adams replied cautiously. “We should all try to be better people and be more accepting of ourselves.”
A drunken voice from the back of the bus interrupted, shouting out; “hell yeah I believe in you ocifer. You can do it.” A green happy face lit up to the side of Adam’s face—on his bubble—while an ascending, cheerful, three-noted chime rang. He’d gotten an upvote, raising his social credit score by a tenth of a percent.
Officer Adams flashed his practiced smile and waved in the direction the voice had come from.
“That’s nice,” Johnny said.
“Yeah,” Officer Adams said. “I like being a role model for the kids.”
“Heh,” Johnny laughed abruptly. Officer Adams frowned. The cop raised a hand and moved his index finger a few times. Johnny knew his profile was being read and a knot of anxiety formed in his chest.
“You know,” Officer Adams said, “non-affirmation is very serious. You could stop someone from becoming their true self.” To this remark, Johnny kept his mouth shut. He glanced at the empty spot on the cop’s belt where his gun should have been, then looked at the floor. More silence passed as Adams swiped the display visible only to him. Then he said, “you seem to have a long history of anti-social tendencies, Mr. Leoni. It’s hard for you to stay above 2.0, isn’t it?”
Johnny remembered the peaches waiting for him at the store, which was a stop away now. He’d managed to get through the ride so far without getting a single downvote. He was so close.
He shrugged. “I can’t keep up your positive attitude.”
“Do you have any better ideas?” Adams’ voice didn’t sound fake at all. Maybe he was really asking, Johnny thought.
It caught him off guard. Before he could answer, the road, which had grown bumpy, jolted the passengers sharply forward and back. Everyone confined within the bus groaned and gripped the seats and railings harder.
Once they were stable Johnny said in a flat voice, “I don’t know. You’re very inspiring. Here, take your upvote. Good luck getting your patrol car and gun back. Not that you miss them.” Johnny imagined pushing a button in his mind. A green happy face lit up beside Adams while the upbeat chime rang again.
One of the officer’s blue eyes twitched. “Thank you for your support, Mr. Leoni.”
Johnny looked through the throng of passengers and through the bus’ front window, searching anxiously for his stop. He imagined pushing a button in his mind, then a tone rang out and an A.I. generated voice said, “stop requested.”
He pushed through the crowd to the front of the bus. There was no driver. He didn’t like self-driving vehicles or how they moved of their own volition, as if haunted. The bus halted and the doors parted.
“Thank you for not blocking the doorways,” the A.I. voice said. “Please allow all passengers to exit the bus before boarding. Please keep your hands and feet clear of the doors, which will close. Please make sure you’re getting off at the right stop…”
Johnny ignored the digital voice that droned on. It spoke slowly, as if addressing mentally-deficient children. As he stepped down from the bus and onto the sidewalk he felt the knot in his chest melt away. It was a cold day but Johnny thought it was refreshing. Breathing in deeply he looked up at a sign that floated in augmented reality. It read “Mid Market” in mold-green text and had an abstract, leaf- or rock-like logo. He smiled and began to walk.
He stopped short when he heard a digital noise like a sneer. Three descending notes, awkward and off-key scolded him. A red unhappy face flared before his eyes and flashed four times before dissolving. In his peripheral vision he saw his score of 2.10 drop to 2.09.
“Fucking N.I.ers!,” he exclaimed. Gasps echoed around him. He noticed other people on the street and that they stared at him in shock.
“N.I.” was a derogatory slur of the term “A.I.”, and meant “no intelligence” instead of “artificial intelligence”. It was used by the unpopular to insult people who repeated the opinions of influencers.
“Sorry,” he said, looking around. He composed himself. He’d just have to get an upvote from someone in the store.