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RedCorp agent rank 57005
ARGYLE, Liam (age 41)
Summary: Weather presenter for 24-hour newsfeed on Stream 2. Ratings above par (marginal).
Highlights: Top "likeability" scores among current workforce from feeder synthetic personality testing. Second highest "mockery" scores.
Psych assessment: Repressed intellectual identity. WJ VI standard score 112 (High Average), Exner FABCOM1, PSV1. Mild depersonalisation disorder (DPD) under stress. Light anti-social tendencies. No medication required as per last medical inspection.
Employment history: Telemarketing ("summer job"). Unemployment post-grad. Directed to Stream 2 by unemployment algorithms (2053-present).
Education: Master's (Philosophy), University of London (see "known associates," Schedule A)
Personal notes: Former alcoholic (relapse perspectives: moderate), Mild Gaming addiction, Compliance level 4
Extracted - 08:23 13/01/2072
Ms. Heath stopped reviewing the AR personnel file and moved it to the background of her heads-up display. The Chair, Ms. Preston, was about to open the board meeting.
"First point on the agenda. The ratings for Reality Shock are down for the fourth quarter in a row."
The stout and sharply dressed matriarch at the head of the conference table didn't have the usual AR profile floating in front of her. No title, no position in the corporate organigram, no family ties. None of the personal background and preferences that became the Corporation's property — and, in a large part, the Corporation's creation — the moment you signed on.
Everyone knew who Ms. Preston was. She didn't need any display. And ramming home the difference between "Management" and "management" was a side bonus.
"We had to make a tough decision, but we cannot wait any longer. It's time for a change. We're bumping Reality Shock back to daytime and launching a new feed for the Spring line-up. Mark?"
A squat boulder of a man squirmed in his chair. The words "Mark Underhill, Marketing Director" scrolled at the top of his display. He tried to draw himself up to a height he did not possess, making him look rather like a startled hippopotamus. He coughed and launched into his overly rehearsed spiel.
"Thank you, Ms. Chair, members of the Board. Our department has been hard at work over the past few months fabricating the next big thing. We decided the best way was to go back to the source and evaluate our past successes. Why did so many people tune in every night to watch The Eliminator?"
As he spoke, free-floating AR windows popped up to the left side of his ear. They showed a desperate, half-naked man running from unseen pursuers through a jagged metal jungle.
"How did a podfeed like The Daily Diary manage to topple local governments on three different continents?"
More windows appeared to his right. The newsfeed footage showed people, young and old, brandishing old-fashioned ink pens in the air. Confused and worried officials looked on from the windows of official-looking buildings.
"Why did viewers start watching the old, so-called 'reality television' programs in the first place?"
He paused, daring anyone to venture an answer to his rhetorical questions. Or even worse, to suggest he and his department only wanted an excuse to watch old vids of half-naked young men and women walking around flats. No one suggested any such thing. Satisfied, or close enough for management work, he continued.
"I'm not trying to give you a history lesson here. What we've been seeking is nothing less than the source of the terrible attraction of realpod. And we found it: voyeurism. The need to watch, observe, love, despise, scorn and — above all else — judge.
"Today's society belongs to the individual, not the community. It no longer fulfils that basic human need to judge our peers. With realpod, we wrap all this up into convenient daily doses. Ready for consumption from the comfort of home, office, public toilet, or anywhere else you can catch the feed."
He paused, taking a sip of water and enjoying every second he made them wait. But the Chair, Ms. Preston, stared at him the way a dog stares at a fallen scrap, i.e., not for long. He coughed and resumed in a rush of words.
"We already knew all this. And to be frank, as the Mirror's troubles show, we've run the concept dry." At his words, the previous two clips faded into the background. An animation appeared instead, showing the show's ratings over the past two years. It was like something out of a ski adventure sim.
"So, how can we make it fresh and powerful again? I'll tell you how." He started to pause for dramatic effect again, then glanced at the Chair and thought better of it. "The sources of realpod's historical popularity are more potent than ever today. Literacy reaching beyond a fast-food delivery menu has become a joke. People are more isolated from one another than ever before. Everyone is a victim.
"Not only is everyone a victim. Everyone's part of a world- spanning shouting match to get everyone else to recognise them as a victim. Children are suing mothers. Mothers are suing children. Psychoactive over-the-counter drugs are popped on an hourly basis by people of all ages, colours, classes, and creeds." He couldn't help but pause again, preparing his audience for the home stretch.
"So, what we asked ourselves was this. What if we gave every poor slob in the world the opportunity they've been begging for all their lives? A chance to have their unjust suffering recognised by all? What if we created an arena where these unfortunate souls would compete for our pity? What if we let the whole world watch them humiliate and reveal themselves, then vote on who has it worst?" He grinned, and his eyes gave a firm flick to the left.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the Board, I give you the Red's greatest triumph to date. I give you The Grass is Greener." You could hear the boldness.
The lights dimmed in response to the command. A tense hush fell over the assembly like a woolly comforter. A retro techno beat started up, with sound fed through bone conduction into each participant's inner ear. The walls disappeared from everyone's AR- enhanced view. Instead, there were vast expanses of nothing, spotted with rare pinpoints of bright light.
A disembodied emerald-green hand appeared above the centre of the free-floating boardroom table. It snapped its fingers three times in rhythm with the beat, with unmistakable tactile cheer. Then it gave way to a slightly squished blue-grey ball, rotating with ponderous grace.
The planet — for such it was — fell through the void, spinning upon itself as its moon spun around it, and both spun around the distant sun.
As all this happened in dizzying precision, the table and viewers fell ever closer. Bits of brown, green, and black started popping up amongst the grey clouds and the blue sea. Soon, the screen broke through the cloud cover. It soared over a landscape of vein-like maglev tracks, huddled vegetation fighting a doomed rear-guard battle, and a triumphant conglomeration of urban sprawl.
"Earth," boomed a deep voice, perhaps out of charity for the slower viewers. "Our home. Since the dawn of humanity, we have lived in society, ever striving to shape our world to meet our needs. All this time, a single question has dominated human existence like no other: 'Why am I here? Today was supposed to be my day off!'"
The view merged with a random piece of sprawl. People milled about, as hard at work as the proverbial ant. The music's beat sped up with reckless abandon.
"We all have our load to bear, and the real question behind the human condition is this: Who has it worst? Is it you? Is it your neighbour?" Everything paused at this. Maglev trains stopped halfway around a bend. Ground vehicles paused in traffic. The rare pedestrians froze mid-stride, forever awaiting another leg to stand on. The camera swooped and soared, making a show of trying to take it all in.
"Let's find out, shall we? New on Red this season, the realpod feed that will become a legend. Together, let's see who has it bad, who has it worse, and find out where —" dramatic pause — "The Grass is Greener. Now taking applications."
The AR display faded to opaque silence. Both lights and walls returned to feed upon the gory aftermath. The only sound was a gulp as one executive, somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa if her display was correct, took a tentative sip of water. Everyone sat in what they no doubt hoped to be thoughtful poses.
A seasoned veteran, the Marketing Director allowed everyone their moment of posturing before he spoke.
"As I'm certain you have already realised, the title The Grass is Greener, which we ultimately retained at the end of extensive synthetic target-response testing, allows us to clearly describe the voyeuristic nature of the feed while avoiding any of the more ... unfortunate connotations. With 'The GiG,' as we've taken to calling it, we can give the main theme a positive spin, reducing guilt issues amongst feeders."
"Would we be looking at similar scheduling to Reality Shock?" asked a balding sprig of a man. An animated "Programming" logo played across his AR display in a misguided attempt at quirkiness.
"This would need a constant, twenty-four-hour broadcast as a base, but with a couple of novelties on top. Testing has shown moving the weekly feature broadcast from Friday to Sunday would reduce feeder turnover by up to fifteen percent. Our socioanalysts think this encourages 'religious' feeding behaviour. Our psychologists say it appeals to feeders trying to counter the imminent Monday dread and suicide rate peak. And the computer people running the simulations say, 'That's what the computer says.'"
As he continued, the Programming exec's bald pate shone like a small, hair-fringed moon. "Then there's the bit we're most excited about. Legal has figured out a risk-free way for us to force contestants to have our new eyeNet lenses implanted for the show. We're looking at full, first-person perspective coverage, all day, every day."
The matriarch butted in with one word: "Fred?" Nothing else needed saying.
Fred turned out to be a short woman sporting the kind of pink bow that's only appropriate on the head of a bear riding a small bicycle. She righted herself to attention. The sober word "Commercial" bobbed along with the display in front of her, the only one not animated or scrolling in any fashion.
She frowned in concentration as columns of data appeared before her eyes only. "First projections show annual advertising revenue of some eight- point-three billion fids. A net growth contribution of one percent after advertising, supplies, maintenance, and personnel losses."
"Which brings us to the second item on the agenda," said Ms. Preston, not only hammering the point, but nailing it. "The success of this feed will hinge on finding the right kind of person to host it. Someone under our control; someone people can relate to, and maybe even 'like,' while still being able to condescend to him."
She stopped, considering what she had just said. "Yes, we need a male for this one. A woman could never fit that bill. Does anyone within your units seem suitable?"
Some young thing sitting behind Fred — half a continent behind, in fact — let out an involuntary "Umm." It earned him the terror of Ms. Preston's undivided attention.
"Sorry, Ma'am. I was only thinking, sorry, wouldn't it be better to hire someone who is, you know, famous, to draw people in to watch the feed? Sorry," he punctuated again.
No hint of a smile broke the Chair's countenance. "Don't be a fool. A poorly trained lemur could host this feed and become a worldwide superstar overnight. We don't want some video-enhanced diva already loaded up with an ego the size of a planet. And even bigger pay expectations, no doubt. This isn't a celebrity gossip feed; this is about the nitty-gritty of life."
A sharp young lady halfway down the table let out a tactical cough. Her display read, "Ms. Alyson Heath, News and Weather," in prominent but sober font. "Stream 2 currently has in its employ a young man who seems suited. Liam Argyle, our evening news weatherman."
"Him?" scoffed the Marketing Director through the folds of his chin. "The tall guy with the stubble and the jug ears, to host our flagship primetime feed?"
The Human Resources manager drew up Argyle's psych profile and let out a loud "Hmm."
"His profile also says he is educated — in philosophy, of all things. Clearly, this was some time ago. Yet is he not a bit ... mismatched for a host position such as this?"
"He does have a nice smile, though. Sort of authentic, you know?" This thought came from a Human Resources middle manager who might not be a resource himself much longer unless he guarded himself better.
"Yes," cut in the matriarch, addressing all comments at the same time. "And it is precisely because he gets such reactions that our Mister Argyle will be the perfect host for The Grass is Greener."
She turned to the burly man with a red tie sitting on her right. "Les, get the full personality and background assessments started on him straight away. Make sure any of that high-horsed nonsense has been squashed out of him over the years. If he checks out, I want him on the job starting next week. Can you take care of the details, Alyson?"
"You can count on me, Ms. Preston," replied the younger woman, her face stonier than the cliffs of Moher.
"Well done. On to more pressing matters," said the Chair. As she scanned the faces around her, a scrolling list of items and prices appeared behind her head. "What are we having for lunch?"CHAPTER 2
Sunk deep within the embrace of the automated vehicle taking him home, Liam couldn't believe his luck.
The whole experience seemed alien. As removed from reality as letters to the North Pole, news of floods in eastern Kazakhstan, or the eternal feasts in the Halls of Valhalla.
The sheer impossibility of it all had been gnawing at him since the call on Thursday. Liam had braced himself for disappointment, fully expecting the ground car to fail to show up to take him to the Heath estate. Things like this didn't happen. Not in reality.
And yet, there the car had been — five minutes early, of all things. And off he had gone, stepping into the world of his betters. Hearing the offer again straight from the mouth of Ms. Heath, the goddess of his own personal pantheon.
His own show! And not just any show, the network's flagship feed! He hadn't dared to ask the question that seemed to loom over the whole affair like an elephant behind the settee. Why him? Liam didn't think of himself as ugly. Not in so many words. But the face in his mirror didn't belong to a Sanchez-Oda, or whoever the latest androgynous flavour-of-the-season was. Neither did the belly, added the deriding voice of integrity.
Liam almost slid into the abyss that was his despair over a four-year absence from the female front, but caught himself. He was fine as he was, he convinced himself once again, before wrangling his thoughts back to the day's events.
Why him? He wouldn't risk breaking the charm cast upon an otherwise sane and uncaring world by uttering the words out loud. And in any case, what was he supposed to do about it?
He'd tried to remain as composed as possible during the brief meeting. But it was clear he was no longer in control of anything. Refusing the offer was not only unthinkable. It was on par with one of those primordial Words of Power. The true name of some Great Old One, which if uttered would sunder the very fabric of reality beyond the skills of any passing cosmic Penelope to repair.
What's more, it was a silly notion. How could he refuse? It wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was, from his experience of the universe, a never-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or at the very least, never-in-Liam-Argyle's-lifetime. It was an astounding chance to finally take his rightful place with the movers and shakers of the world. To help the company make the world a better, richer place.
That was the problem with the covering the weather, of course. Weather affected everyone-it was far and away humankind's single greatest topic of conversation. But a weatherman didn't, contrary to popular belief, affect it. You put words to data other people, using expensive chunks of metal zipping through space, had worked out about what it might do next. You gestured at the maps and diagrams some other people displayed on AR lenses around the world. And yet, people reacted as if he were the weather's trainer in some great elemental circus. They blamed him when it broke loose, escaped, and took a member or two of the audience along with it. It must be true, after all — it was on TV.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Always Greener"
Copyright © 2020 J.R.H. Lawless.
Excerpted by permission of Uproar Books, LLC.
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