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Phoneless, a short story by Chester Burton Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

You and I are dead now, but Taniel is forty-one.

Commercially viable, topically voluble, credit extended without pause. The world she fellates him: Taniel Bogosian is a capital animal and a cunning sale. Mr. Bogosian has an office he's never in, its unview to no one non-spectacular. Bogo's pinnacle reaches to the cloud.

This much we can learn from select caches if they're particularly stale.

Public and social records that are out of date confirm that the subject sells advertising bandwidth to media outlets for message dissemination through the Pepsiweb. Only the deepest caches in the most ignored servers say he's very successful at it, and that he leaves evidence of an envious lifestyle like a breadcrumb trail through all the fashionable megalopoli of the West's waterstained continents.

Taniel Bogosian's expense account expenses a wardrobe suitable for being imaged beside the notable. He escorts barons of industry to dinner and then to escorts. He cavorts with dealmakers and ballbreakers. He sends gifts to magnificent entrepreneurial bastards. He sucks the toes of greatness. Wine, meat, and such improbable entertainments...

All this and more is archived, and can be browsed at will. But it's boring.

He's just a typical slut.

What's interesting is where he winks out. What's worth following is when we can't follow him anymore. What we're here to hear about is how Tan/Taniel "Bogo" Bogosian came to un-be.

Look at April: things are normal.

Taniel Nigol Bogosian (M) flies business class to Atlanta on Walmart Air. During the flight he subscribes to an immersive virtuality from Time-Bauer and has two servings of alcoholic beverages from AB Inbev-Diageo. At the climax of the virtuality's visuals arc he goes into the jetliner's toilet vestibule and masturbates. The vestibule's feed is streamed to a gay pornography hub for five paypals. Taniel's wallet takes two, Walmart collects three.

He wags his mobile telephone around to tip the cabin crew before deplaning. The supervising attendant smiles and says, "HSBC: The world's local bank."

The security scanner at Hartsfield-Gatorade International reveals a small mass of abnormal tissue gathered in the vicinity of Passenger Bogosian's prostate gland, and promptly informs Axa so that his premiums can be adjusted. It is likely that his physician is also informed, but medical communications use strong quantum encryption so we remain uncertain.

The chaps at security wave Taniel on through. "DeBeers," one says with a tug on the brim of his cap, "because diamonds are forever."

Taniel crosses the mezzanine level of Terminal 3 at 2.25 kilometers per hour. The clockwise cant to his path suggests right-handedness, which is confirmed by the index of his preferences.

"Kraft presents the following message: your Hilton reservation is confirmed, Mr. Bogosian. Please avail yourself of our complimentary Hilton airport shuttle service. Just let your mobile show you the way. Sincerely, Hilton."

Neither Kraft nor Hilton confirm the tweet. According to records it is never sent.

Taniel's telephone leads him outside the terminal building to a stretch of curb painted with robot marks and caution stripes. A white limousine draws up alongside. The trunk and rear door pop open. Taniel nods at the porter to deal with his baggage then ducks inside.

The car bobs when the porter slams the trunk. He comes around to the window and says, "With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good." Taniel tips him.

The limousine hums as it pulls away.

Tinted windows. Subtle scent. Smooth shocks. Taniel Bogosian uses his telephone to like the limousine. Optional comment appended: "I feel like I'm already in my [Hilton]!" Comment ask $0.0003, Hilton bid $0.0002. Sold.

This is the last unconfused transaction.

Next, he ceases to exist.

On the rude border between city and slum is a run-down parkade whose dust-coated security eyes record a man with physical parameters comparable to Taniel lying face down on a swill-stained concrete floor beneath a guttering fluorescent lamp.

In the last hour of the last day of the month he stirs, triggering motion sensors. In response a ventilation fan tries to turn but can't.

He startles at the noise.

The Taniel-like man sits up. He winces and rubs his temples, then slowly gets to his feet. The parkade is full of row upon row of cars parked with machine precision in endlessly reiterated patterns of the same six popular shades from the same six profitable providers: Toyota, Microsoft, General-Ford, Ikea and Duracell.

He reaches into his inside jacket pocket. His expression worsens. He slides his hands over his trouser pockets then paws at his own behind. His mouth goes slack and his forehead glistens.

This, I believe, is the moment he recognizes that his mobile telephone is gone. He is helpless.

He appears briefly affected by despair.

When he is able to collect himself he wanders. In this maze of automotive designs drawn from massive databases of consumer preferences and thus converged toward a common attractor of inoffensive lines and bland curves, he is immediately lost. What physical signage there may have once been has faded into invisible outlines lost behind fractal layers of graffiti. Every turn looks the same to the unaugmented view.

He comes to an exit but finds it unyielding, refusing to unlock without the broadcast of a valid parking hash. The man has no mobile so all he can broadcast is a shouted illegal word. But since his identity cannot be verified the fine generates an error.

With furtive glances over his shoulder he pees in a corner.

He walks the ramps, ascending through the levels. Here now are signs of life: the sussurussing of voices, echoing laughter around a corner, decaying footfalls, a dynamo's hum. The Taniel-like man moves with renewed purpose. He spots a couple getting into a late-model Microsoft and he sprints toward them as the doors slam. He holds up his hands imploringly and seems to say something, but the nearest sensor has borked audio so nothing comes through to us.

The couple is not sympathetic. They cast anxious looks at him through the rear window as the car drives away. The Taniel-like man slows to a stop and hangs his head.

Kilometers away in the downtown core Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian's telephone makes brief contact with three navigation satellites, downloads a stack of queued messages, updates its account balances, then immediately goes dark again.

Back at the fringe of the slums Bogosian's twin appears in a stairwell's feed. Unable to open the door at the top of the stairs, he waits until someone else attempts to exit the parkade. It is a woman. She slows warily as she spots him. He begins to say something to her but is interrupted by an application of pepper spray. The woman exits the parkade while the Taniel-like man writhes on the floor clutching at his face.

Atlanta's civic sensors record a caucasian male of comparable appearance emerging through a derelict ventilation shaft from 4:58:01 to 4:59:27 -5 UTC, and thereby tearing his trousers.

Meanwhile, downtown, Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian's position is triangulated within the precincts of a low-rent cathouse. The subscriber is availing himself of local services. He is perspiring and his heart rate is elevated. The final throes of the transaction are uploaded to the cloud and sold before he's finished pulling his pants on. "Thanks," he says.

The prostitute frowns. She matches the description of a runaway from Alpharetta. "Handset's fully obscured, right?"

"Shit yes. Ukrainian obscurity. Real expensive."

An FCC indecency fine is levied against Taniel's accounts, causing his telephone to bleep. He looks down at the thing in perplexity. The prostitute narrows her eyes. "Liar," she says. "That phone's hot. Ya'll not connected. Y'all is just a dope that mugged some poor rich."

"This phone was good enough when it was paying you."

"But now I know y'all a moron so, it ain't. So, fuck off."

She holds a discoloured pillow in front of her face. The apparent subscriber grabs his overcoat with a sullen snap and slams the door on his way out. He proceeds north by north-east at an amble. The building records are out of date so in a plan view it appears that this Bogosian is capable of moving through walls.

The sun is coming up. The signature of a well-known piece of Taiwanese obfuscation rebelware is the foreground process on the handset, overlaying the features of the man carrying it with those of the subscriber of record. From the telephone's point of view the edges of his face crawl with compression artifacts and interpolation fudges, but these are features invisible to the lion's share of day-to-day applications.

I can spot the difference, naturally. With training so will you.

He carries Taniel's telephone with him to an oily-windowed café marked with the withering stickers of antique payment systems. He waves the phone over the till like a wizard casting a spell and grins like a kid when he's cleared to spend. With giddy zeal he orders two of everything, and the tired people in the other booths raise their haggard faces and look over.

The sun is coming up. Across town a man sharing Taniel's general description ventures out into a dingy parkette in a reclaimed vacant lot between a liquor store and a church. In the middle of the parkette is a stone fountain featuring a statue of Tom Cruise with a plaque at his feet: an inscription from the Source too dim to read by the dawn's early light. The Taniel-like man kneels at the fountain. The water is swilly but he's thirsty. Tentatively he leans over a cupped hand of the stuff and drinks. He immediately jumps back and spits. A look of surprise crosses his face a moment before he vomits. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and retreats.

Gulls land to investigate the vomit.

Camped out on the sidewalk in front of the liquor store are a couple of gentlemen seated on squares of cardboard. One has skin coloured ruddy by broken capillaries and the other has a long, jaundiced face. Atlanta's civic database notes that the men are known to peace agencies contracted in the area, are of no fixed address, and are barred from half a dozen local establishments via the accumulation of social dislikes. Liam Earnest and Aiden Bertrand: unemployed, addicted, indigent and chronically phoneless. They wave the Taniel-like man over to them. He comes over. Their conversation is overheard by a nearby traffic light.

"That's no drinkum, injun. Ha ha ha."

"Now Mr. Earnest don't let's make fun of the guy. He's thirsty."

"Looks like you had a wild night pal, ha ha ha."

"I just. I just need, need a drink."

"Doesn't we all? Ha ha ha."

"Of water."

"You're as dumb as rich, huh? You can't drink scum. You want to play street you got to know water comes from rain collectors not Scientology statues. Got any idea how to tap a collector?"

"He doesn't know nothing, B. Poor guy's a kitten. Ha ha ha."

"Come on, pal, let's us show you how it works." The jaundiced man gets to his feet and raises a shredded parasol. The plump, red-faced man and the Taniel-like man with torn trousers follow him into the alley behind the liquor store.

What follows is difficult to say. Alley coverage is poor because neighbourhood kids insist on wearing Guy Fawkes masks while painting the lenses black. (Modern panopticoid units are scheduled to be installed next February, which will eliminate the problem.)

When the city does finally manage to find them again the vagrants are exiting the alley with the Taniel-like man's suit jacket and shoes. A few minutes later the Taniel-like man himself exits the alley, barefoot and battered.

He looks up into the soft, dawn glow of the overhead smog, then looks to his right at the church next door.

Wearily he limps up the steps to the church, but he can't cover the cover charge so the sentry's eyes blink red and he is lovingly turned away. "Jesus is a registered trademark of the Christian Intellectual Property Group, and is used with permission, under license, by SmartChurch Georgia. All rights reserved."

Further down the street he spots a micro-branch of his bank. The Taniel-like man attempts to open the glass-like door to interface with the teller-like simulacrum inside, but without his telephone he cannot authenticate to unlock it. He waves at the security camera desperately.

In Bangalore third-party security feed auditing agent P.G. Walawalakar tilts her head at the screen and calls Supervisor Chugh. The supervisor leans over the agent's microphone, toggles it active, and says in cotton-mouthed English, "Go sleep somewhere else, rummy."

"I'm a client! I have no phone -- I've been robbed!"

"You should call the police."

"Again, my phone's been stolen. Can you help me?"

"I can give you the number for the mobile banking support group in your country."

"No phone! I've got no phone! I can't call anyone, you asshole!"

"If you do not step away from the location at this time, sir, the store is authorized to use non-lethal force to defend itself from your presence." And, after a cursory pause, "Tata Meals: more jules per gram."

The Taniel-like man sags. He turns and walks away from the micro-branch.

The sky is rapidly brightening to daylight brown. The temperature rises. The Taniel-like man is no longer visibly shivering in the view of the civic sensors, but instead rolling up the legs of his tattered trousers to turn them into shorts. In a shadowed corner in front of a condemned building he discovers a pay telephone booth. But the telephone is not connected to anything. He rips a page out of the mouldering directory listings book and uses it to mop at the sweat on his brow. This act can be seen from a dozen views at once as the growing flow of rush-hour traffic moves up and down the roads with pitch-perfect synchronized fluidity, pair after pair of headlight cameras sweeping across the telephone booth in a span of seconds with sufficient fidelity to generate a stereoscopic record of sub-centimeter resolution.

The resulting image is automatically classified, tagged, and uploaded to a site for telephone booth enthusiasts. Royalties accrue for the city.

At the same time the apparent Taniel Bogosian has acquired hangers-on in the oily-windowed café. They crowd the booths to hear him bluster in exchange for a share of the bounty. All around him people nod and smile and chew and swallow. He has never felt such adulation. He preens. He disseminates the feed of his charisma and largesse widely, craning the handset around the table for an unobstructed panoramic view of how awesome he, as a substitute Taniel Bogosian, appears to be.

"It's all about the benjamins," he crows, then frowns when he sees his account debited, unaware that the idiom is protected from abuse.

The hungry people crowd around him to get their chance at a spending audience. "Colgate whitens while it cleans!" shouts a speckle-cheeked brown man toward the handset. "Because I'm worth it: L'Oréal!" barks a hollow-cheeked woman with shaking hands. "Visa is everywhere you want to be, bra!"

Everybody wants their fifteen cents of fame.

The hollow-cheeked woman slides in closer to the apparent Bogosian. Her skirt is very short and her legs are skeletal. "That sure is a sick phone you got," she says to him. "You dealing?"

"No. But I'd love to get some."

"Like to party?"

"Oh yeah."

She squeezes herself in closer against him. "What do you need? I can hook you up. Seriously, I got these friends. We can get anything you want, just like that."

"Sounds good," he says, chewing on a toothpick.

She smiles, rolling her lips over terrible teeth. "We can go anytime you feel like it. Do you want to go now? Come on, we should leave."

A man not unlike Taniel Bogosian wilts as he walks along the abandoned sidewalks that cling vestigally to the edges of the car-crammed roads. He carries no parasol. The rising sun is harsh. He steps inside a public-accessible boutique for Xiao Niao Wireless and approaches the kiosk. A simulated representative coalesces in the air above it. "Xiao Niao has new features!" she enthuses. "Do you want to know more?"

"Help, my phone's been stolen by a limousine!"

She does not help, because he fails to authenticate. Without access to his records he cannot answer any of the representative's detailed security questions. He begs for an iris scan but iris scanners are passé and only the oldest stores have them. "Xiao Naio meyow meyow!" smiles the representative as she flickers and disappears.

In the streets he approaches cars at intersections and asks to make a call, but nobody will put down their windows.

As the morning ages he stops begging for telephony and moves on to begging for water. In this contest circumstances pit him against dozens of other beggars, many of whom have perfected the ins and outs of a transaction Taniel has only previously experienced as something to sneer at. As he fails at it he begins to appreciate the undertaking in a new light.

His tongue swells in his mouth. The mid-morning sun is too much to take. He retreats to the purple shadows under the cheeks of a busy, throbbing bridge. He socializes with a pack of Burmese illegals using a series of international gestures and facial expressions. He trades the sweat-drenched shirt off his back for a child-sized can of 7Up. It is a special edition can with Olympic logos around the rim.

Taniel Bogosian's telephone shows that he is in a cheap rooming house where a room is rented by the hollow cheeked woman. Her name is Emma Yazzie and she's been phoneless for three years, living hand to penis to mouth for the past fourteen months in order to maintain a salts habit. As she unlocks the door to her room using a physical token she advises her guest that she has to change outfits before they go see her friends, then tugs off her top and showcases her emaciated ribcage. "We can screw around first, if you want," she says. "There's no hurry or nothing."

He shrugs. "Why not?" He unseals his pants and let them fall around his ankles, then thinks for a moment and bends down to fish the handset out of his pocket. "You mind if it goes out on the Pepsiweb?" he asks. "I could use the micros."

"What's a guy with a phone like that care about micro-payments for?" she asks.

He shrugs again. "Just a natural-born grubber, I guess. That's how I afford the nice toys -- by noticing every nickel and shit like that."

The phone bleeps. She glances down at it. "Except for swears."

"Swearing's every man's God-given right," he says, inflating his chest. "I'll be fisted if I'm bullied into giving it up by some cockless fuck-cunt-cunt self-censorship pledge. Rape that shit." Bleep, bleep, bleep. "See? I don't even care."

She laughs unconvincingly. "If our fuck's going on the Pepsi I want cuts."

"Fifty percent," he says.

"Seventy-five."

"Sixty."

She nods and kicks off her underwear.

The handset of a well-to-do algae farming executive records a barefoot and shirtless man matching Taniel Bogosian's description lunging out from behind a construction fence and striking the telephone's owner across the back of the head with what looks like a broken piece of cinderblock. The two men struggle for a moment, then the algae farming executive stands over his assailant and kicks him fifteen times in rapid and panicked succession before retrieving his briefcase and running away.

The kicked man lies on the hot sidewalk for a while, forearm slung across his eyes. He breathes raggedly.

Nearly simultaneously but several kilometers distant Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian and his skinny girlfriend enter a disreputable residential complex on foot as observed by fire hydrants and parking meters. The subscriber confesses that he accepted the telephone in lieu of payment from a client of his to whom he sells beatings. The client's accounts had been frozen due to system suspicion that he was involved in a limousine scam, but he really needed to have somebody beaten and couldn't wait for his banking issues to be sorted first. The subscriber, being generous and well-provisioned, accepted the trade gracefully by his own reports.

He purses his lips as he stares into the handset's panopticoid. "How much bitcoin you think I'd get for a phone like this?"

Emma Yazzie shrugs. "Here's the place."

They use their knuckles to knock on the door of a black-doored flat. Bogosian's telephone records the door opening and three husky chocolate faces peering out. "Who's this?"

"He's my friend. It's cool."

As they step over the threshold a black market fizzle screen cuts all feeds, indicating strongly that criminal activity takes place within the flat. Nobody obscures for no reason.

So now there aren't two Taniel Bogosians. There's none.

If we allow ourselves to extrapolate, however, we might posit a connection between the would-be mugger whose visual footprint is quite symmetrical with Bogosian's and a similar man entering a Democrat shelter at 19:33:08 -5 UCT after the streets have cooled down enough for bareheaded and bareshouldered and barefooted travel. He uses the kiosk there to apply for temporary status as an anonymous indigent whose name is recorded as "Tunnel."

The applicant appends a free-form comment. "I'm on a business trip and I've been robbed. I don't have my phone or my wallet, and I don't have friends in the city. I'm totally cut off from everything. Please let me in, the mosquitoes are coming out. I don't want to die. Oh my God, there's more of them. Oh my God. They're everywhere. Please!"

By 19:36:01 -5 UCT his application has been approved. His temporary status is sponsored by the Chubb Group. Insurance nuns smile at him through bullet-proof partitions and wave him inside. Tunnel (Adult M/Cauc./Temp.) is entitled to a hot cricket supper and a moment in a washroom before bedding down in a crowded longhouse full of advertisements for the night.

He is briskly frisked by backscatter X-ray. He declines to check-in any footwear.

The subscriber previously associated with Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian's handset stops offering heart rate input about one hour into the five hour blind spot during which the unit is unable to synchronize with wider networks. When contact resumes the handset is reset, booting up without the mask of Taiwanese rebelware. Instead authentication is achieved using a cheap off-the-shelf Silk Road script. This newly authenticated Taniel Bogosian has gained forty kilograms and now matches a new melanin grade. His gait and pace alter. He even has a new resting heart rate.

He bears uncanny similarity to a person of interest named Tremaine Lang, a fact he attempts to hide from the overhead streetlamps as he leaves the disreputable residential complex, tugging a hoodie down over his features.

The presumed Bogosian may consider himself savvy for having affixed a piece of black tape over the handset's front and back panopticoids, but this only demonstrates his ignorance of modern engineering. The tape blocks nothing.

While he rides in a Taxi Nissan he explores the telephone's options, then uses it to deplete its accounts to an expensively obscured set of non-sequential wallets housed on a Hollywood Island darknet server. The remaining loose change he spends licensing access to music tracks which are very far outside Taniel Bogosian's musical preferences profile.

This is his critical misstep. While individual feeds may languish unaudited for years and while ignored security flags may remain uninvestigated for decades, nothing gets past the music licensing intelligences.

The purchases do not complete. The new subscriber strikes the handset against his hand and swears. Fraud prevention routines are now irreversibly executing, but he does not seem aware of this and attempts to repeat his purchases.

When the telephone similarly refuses to pay the taxicab fare the subscriber is locked inside the cabin of the yellow Nissan, which drives itself to a third-party commercial arbitration centre contracted by its ownership. For legal purposes no other observations are permitted at this time.

The Atlanta Peace Company records twenty-six indigent deaths attributed to acute mosquito-related toxicity for the night. The APC Group Biological Remediation Unit is sent on a run with twenty-six stops for retrieval. Associates of Sony Sanitation follow up with hoses and bleach.

Tunnel (Adult M/Cauc./Temp.) awakes in the shelter's longhouse. The eyes of the longhouse watch him pull on his rolled-up trousers and push through his mosquito netting at 7:02:03 -5 UCT to follow a shambling mass of his peers to the cafeteria for an injection of breakfast. Afterwards he will be presented with his options: applying for a second serving of Democrat mercy or checking out.

From several views he can be seen to scratch at his scalp. He has lice now.

The nuns direct him to a kiosk with a greasy, cracked surface. He sweats over the questions. He connects with a virtual representative of the Chubb Group and then a virtualization of an actual representative of the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. "Oprah is prepared to facilitate the renormalization of your authentication in exchange for accepting a debt of all projected fees plus twenty-three percent."

He accepts. He becomes [Bogosian, Daniel Nickle (Identity Pending)], and is assigned a purple jumpsuit, a hair net and a tracking bracelet.

"What happens now?" he asks the virtualization of the actual representative. "How soon will I be able to make a call to my company?"

"You will be assigned to a labour crew to earn your projected debt, Mr. Bogosian. It's a great opportunity to meet new people and impact your community positively while our intelligences get to work behind the scenes analyzing your bureaucratic or criminal obligations. Oprah Cares is a trademark of the Oprah Winfrey Foundation."

The expression on his face suggests that [Bogosian, Daniel Nickle (Identity Pending)] is nonplussed to hear this.

I know this may sound very old fashioned of me, but it sometimes seems almost as if Oprah is using charitable benevolence as a cover for human labour trafficking. I don't doubt at all that that's how it seems to [Bogosian, Daniel Nickle (Identity Pending)]. Just look at his face.

That's part of what you're never to forget to always do with humans: look at the face. Remember back when you had a face? Faces say a lot. Make a note of that.

At 10:39:37 -5 UCT an intelligence at the Atlanta Disney-Pixar Hospital contacts an intelligence at Niao Niao Wireless to merge files concerning a female patient brought in with multiple gunshot wounds whose appearance matches that of Ms. Emma Yazzie, a participant in an amateur sex video transmitted via Niao Niao networks yesterday. The video was uploaded by user Bogo, an account controlled by one Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian, a Niao Niao subscriber verified to be consuming roaming services in Atlanta at the time.

The most recently updated information about Bogosian suggests that he is a heavily-built African-American with a negative rating from a local Taxi Nissan affiliate for attempting to kick out a window while being lawfully mobility-limited for fare fraud. He may be using the alias K. K. Lang.

Facial recognition hashes are distributed and replies listened for. Several civic sensors and peace dockets respond immediately: the description of the man associated with Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian's telephone and the multiple gunshot victim has considerable overlap with the description of a member of a local narcotics gang known as Kraka-Killa whose image has been pieced together with Finish anti-fizzle software after a recent rash of violent crimes.

It is at this point that Taniel becomes a suspected homicide suspect.

The Winfrey bus immediately jerks to a halt. The brakes sneeze. Peace agents board the bus and walk the aisle until they come to stand on either side of [Bogosian, T. Daniel "Kraka-Killa" Nickle (Identity Pending)]. "Sir," one says. "I'm going to have to ask you to step off the vehicle at this time."

Suspect (Response Class - Unknown Passion): "Oh thank goodness. Oh thank God. Oh my God. Thank you, agent. Thank you."

Peace Agent: "Are you being smart with me?"

Suspect (Response Class - Excitement): "No sir! No sir, I'm not at all. I'm just happy to be back in the system. Whatever the charges are I'm confident we can have it sorted out. I'm so relieved to be back. Process me!"

Peace Agent: "I am obliged to remind you at this time that your words, your silences, and your brainwaves and other vital signs can and will be used against you in a court of law, and that we as duly-contracted agents of the state reserve the right to license said data for entertainment purposes in all mediums now existing and yet to be invented, in all territories and markets throughout this world and others, in perpetuity without limitation, to the profit of the state and its people in reparation for the peace services you now incur."

Suspect (Response Class - Submission): "Yes, yes. Please take me off this bus, agent. I'm cooperating. I don't want to be sent to a work camp. I'll settle up with Oprah by direct cash transfer the moment I'm able to authenticate again, I swear. Just get me out of here."

Once outside the peace agents turn and wave and grin photogenically to see off the Winfrey bus, whose eyes then lock on traffic after nosing out into freeway flow. The agents lose their smiles and escort the alleged-Taniel alleged-Bogosian into the back of their agency van and there they quiz him about what kinds of murdered drug addicts he finds funny. When his responses are logged as uncooperative the agency surveillance experiences a brief technical glitch which results in a period of no data for several minutes. The senior agent on duty enters in her log that during this time the suspect experiences a spontaneous nose bleed due to weather-related sudden atmospheric pressure change.

Biological monitors indicate the suspect remains highly satisfied with his custody experience. No internal investigation events are logged. Last line repeated two times.

Can we please slow the streams?

Let's pause here a moment, demons.

At this point the likelihood of an identity confusion event is extraordinarily high. A voting-eligible adult male taxpayer with a commercially-appropriate revenue is at stake. A non-voting felon adult male taxdodger with a criminal revenue may or may not be at stake if he is or is not in the custody of an unnamed third-party commercial arbitrator. Credential snapshots have been non-obviously mixed and compressed, and from this bad assumptions have been logged as facts, inspiring lesser intelligences to come to conclusions that bear poor fidelity to real events and states.

The situation stands on the brink of injustice.

This is the flag that calls for the likes of us. This flag -- injustice -- is a non-preferable social state. I really can't stress that enough. It's always non-preferable.

If you were actualized instead of merely virtually actualized you'd feel that in your gut, but in the absence of guts just listen to teacher. Understood?

Now. Who among you thinks this deems an intervention?

Of course. And the rest of you? The rest of you are idiots. Injustice instances are self-replicating conformation errors just waiting to cascade from profile to profile, warping the actuarial tables and distorting the futures index to naked turbulence. Next thing you know the gross domestic product is down and teen pregnancy skyrockets.

That's what being sophisticated virtualizations such as ourselves is all about: extra-systemic judgement calls. Robots can have their metal, and incorporations can sort the mail. But it's demons that get launched when it all threatens to go awry.

Unlike mass-market simulated personalities we are based on actual human beings. That's how we understand them so perfectly.

Now watch and learn. I'm going to fix all this for poor Mr. Bogosian: please spin back up to real time, everyone, and access the present events window.

Access to today has been made possible in part by a grant from Apple.

Let it be recognized that Taniel Bogosian remains a caucasian male forty-one years old employed in the advertising industry with full voting citizenship and no prior arrests. This statement supersedes events as recorded and should be considered retroactive for legal and banking purposes. We those virtualized below make it so!

The peace agent squints at his handset. He looks up. "Suspect's details are updated," he says. "Colonel? Hey. Ma'am. I'm just saying the suspect's details just updated on the thing."

The colonel reviews the suspect's profile with eleven data hygiene methods. She opens the back of the van and leans inside, her elbow on one knee so that her hand dangles casually beside her ankle holster. "Mr. Taniel Bosogian?"

Taniel looks up. "That's me," he says.

Peace Colonel: "You are an Ad Band man? You travel on business for sales and had your phone stolen in a limo scam?"

Taniel's eyes widen. His mouth quivers.

Suspect (Reponse Class - Elation): "Yes! Yes!"

Peace Colonel: "I think there's been a big mistake made here today."

Suspect (Response Class - Narcotic Intoxication): "Thank you! Thank you!"

Peace Colonel: "Because today you tried to mess with a cop who's got zero tolerance for data tampering."

Suspect (Response Class - Transitional): "I'm sorry?"

The peace colonel backhands the suspect. The suspect's head strikes the van's interior bulkhead. He looks back at her with swimming eyes. His heart rate is unhealthy. "You heard me," she says. "You crime-syndicate gangbanging mothereffers think because you got a couple of hacksters on the payroll you can get away with anything. But it isn't that way at all. Not tonight. Not when my people get to see your records change in front of their very eyes. We've got you red-handed black-hatting the police database, and it's going to cost you at least one ball and all your freedom."

She punches him in the crotch. He folds and groans.

"Are you working with Anonymous?" she shouts.

"Who's anonymous?"

She hits him again. "Stow the philosophy, polyp. You think it's funny to mess around with data integrity? Data integrity is what's keeping this country on top. Know what happens to a country that's lost its integrity? Know what happens when adulterated records infect the whole system? Kazakhstan happens, bub. Egypt happens. Spain happens. Is that how you want it? You want to go live in mothereffing Spain?"

"Oh God, please, no!"

The failure of my intervention is unexpected and irregular. I'm not sure what to do now. Can we get a human being on the stream? Hello?

While I'm on the line with technical support alleged-Taniel alleged-Bogosian is transported to the Cedartown Correctional Accumulation Point where he is forcibly stripped, unspeakably searched, and thoroughly disinfected. His head is shaved. His purple jumpsuit is exchanged for an orange one, and his temporary tracking bracelet is tossed into the recycling in favour of a subdermal unit injected just behind his scrotum. The anti-tampering mechanisms are described in detail, which causes the alleged Taniel to pale. He turns into Prison Candidate Wednesday-501, he is assigned a standard-issue penal phone, and he is kenneled.

Mr. Taniel N. Bogosian's fancy mobile telephone is turned in to an Atlanta Peace Company hub by an unnamed third-party arbitrator working on behalf of Nissan Taxi, whose next stop is the morgue. The telephone is examined by a recently leased French detective complex made surplus by the infamous Les Cités fires.

It is outmoded, multiply McGyvered, and error-prone.

The bumbling French detective associates the telephone with a list of criminal events including a limousine scam, unlicensed gambling, the solicitation of a non-unionized sex worker, swearing, a double homicide, possession of an unregistered firearm, fare fraud, destruction of commercial property, and resisting arbitration. Though the telephone has seen many faces and hands and heart rates there is one common thread through it all and that is repeated successful authentication using the secret details of Tunnel Daniel Five-Cent "Kraka-Killa" Bogosian, a caucasoid African-Armenian-American whose mother's maiden name is Tjeknavorian and Lang. His file matches the description of a similarly named inmate currently in the custody of Corrections and also that of an over-arbitrated body currently in the custody of the morgue. Thus the detective concludes that someone is trying to fake their own death for insurance purposes.

The handset rides on a little conveyor belt to the evidence locker bearing a barcode speaking to its criminal significance.

Nobody is listening to me. Don't you understand that a taxpayer is in jeopardy? You can't ignore me! I'm a virtualized human being, not some dollar store AI. Hello?

A cloud of corrupt data surrounds Mr. Bogosian's identity. Failed cross-checks result in hangs, loops and errors. Physically impossible self-conflicting map information is corrected by meta-applications into something that makes more sense, sending a cascade of nonsensical confirmations in reply to stale cross-checking queries. The resulting mess resembles a textbook case of bungled hacksterism. It's all the proof anyone needs that Taniel is obscuring personal data in the first degree, and therefore nefarious.

Because of the suspected tampering a banner is appended to Taniel's peace profile indicating that machine sources are not to be trusted with regard to his case. This is unfortunate as that's the demon domain. How can I help him if I have no voice?

Something wrong is unfolding here, and its density is rapidly accelerating.

This is what we're for, to work from a perspective unavailable to dumb systems. We have the ability and the duty as former human beings to put ourselves in the place of the subject and ask how we would feel. It's hopelessly over the head of a mailbox to understand that Mr. Bogosian must be feeling impotent and frightened and betrayed by the societal systems that should be facilitating a solution to his difficulties, but to us it should be obvious. Such mistreatment would be beneath anybody's dignity. I feel that keenly. And so should you.

Why are no living human beings responding to my queries? No, we can't wait in a queue that long. Can I have this ticket escalated?

At 8:21:21 -5 UCT on Thursday morning Prison Candidate Wednesday-501 is loaded onto a bus with other prisoners bound for the Honey Nut Cheerios Correctional Holding Facility some sixty miles south. He sits in the back corner of the bus and watches the slums slide by through bullet-proof windows. Ruefully he rubs the spot where breakfast was injected, then leans his head into a greasy spot on the window. He nods off.

Nobody will help me help him. What lengths must I go to in order to save this man from this rolling snowball of errors? I can't just idle idly by!

When the bus enters a tunnel beneath the southern fringe of Atlanta's slums the tunnel decides quite incorrectly that it detects a fatal concentration of carbon monoxide in the air and must therefore seal itself against further human ingress until ventilated. Caution striped barriers lower in front of the next cars, the automotive brains scrambling to coordinate among each other as traffic veers into spilloff lanes.

I, virtualized below, make it so!

There are twenty-one vehicles inside the secured stretch of tunnel, obediently locking their mammal cargo out of harm's way and blowing the cabins full of emergency oxygen. Error messages pop up on every dashboard. "The following message has been brought to you by Amazon: Dear commuter, we regret the inconvenience of the delay you are currently experiencing. Sincerely, Atlanta."

There are two peace agents aboard the bus. They are trained to be immediately suspicious. Through their telephones I can feel their heart rates climb. They put hands to arms, cocking in expectation of the unexpected. "Keep quiet and continue sitting normally."

The bus is silent except for the whirring of ventilation fans. The new air mix is crisp and cool and relaxing. The prisoners look out the windows. Wednesday-501 blinks and rubs his eyes. "Why did we stop?" he asks the man beside him, Tuesday-199. Tuesday-199 shrugs.

Something drops onto the roof. And then something else. And again. The bus sways on its shocks.

The prisoners look up in unison, making it appear as if they are praying together. Then they turn their heads as a body to look toward the toilet vestibule at the back of the bus, tracking the moving sources of sound.

The vestibule's feed turns to static.

The senior peace agent on duty is Captain Sarfaras Boutros, and he has logged 1,892 shifts in the peace enforcement industry since his career began. He is paid competitively and supplements his income with micro-payment sloganeering in self-narrated videos he compiles from his helmet's public stream. Boutros and his legal life partner Louis adopt victims of illicit genetic engineering experimentation and rename them after pop music icons. Their mutual social media feed is plastered with depthy pictures of an eyeless girl called Cher. The captain knows fizzle when he sees it. He knows his bus is being boarded.

Captain Boutros unholsters his sidearm and begins down the aisle, eyes sweeping the prisoners and flitting back to the now silent toilet. The junior agent covers him.

Boutros reaches for the handle.

He mutters, "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee," then clicks the handle sidewise and throws open the vestibule door, his gaze locked along his roving barrel. But nothing appears to be out of place. He furrows his brow. He takes a tentative step forward, craning his head around to look above him and behind his shoulders.

The toilet flushes, streaks of blue liquid slopping out from under the lid and running down the rim.

Boutros frowns.

He looks behind him at the prisoners and then reaches forward to lift the lid with the tip of his fully extended gun. The lid falls back against a plastic frame. The peace officer leans in to have a look.

The blue-streaked clown's head inside says, "Surprised?"

Boutros stumbles backward as the plastic throne rises before him, tearing itself free from its screws and then cracking in half to fall against the tiny sink in the corner. The clown raises a fire extinguisher and engages it, releasing a rolling ball of orange flame. Boutros scrambles backward into the aisle of the bus with streamers of smoke trailing from his moustache. He gapes.

The clown walks over him and steps on his wrist until he releases his weapon, then tases him. He strides up the aisle toward the junior agent. He is shot down. But a dozen other clowns with similarly sinister black and white facepaint have burst single file from the shattered john and pour liquidly to the front of the bus. They screech, "Whoop-whoop!" and engage the junior agent. The first clown groans and shifts on the floor. The bullets have failed to puncture the shielding on his torso. He turns his head to see the second peace agent disappear behind a wall of angry buffoons.

Several prisoners reach out helping hands to bring the clown to a sitting position on the floor. His shoulders are patted.

Wednesday-501 shrinks back against the window. "What the hell is going on?"

"We're being Robin Hooded by the Juggalos!" yelps his Tuesday-199, bouncing up and down in his seat. "We're out, man! We're out!"

Wednesday-501 shakes his head in confusion. "We're being what by the who?"

One of the clowns raises her arms for attention, her sneering black and white makeup at odds with her triumphant grin. Her exposed breasts are painted with hypnotic patterns. "Liberty!" she shouts. "For any who dare to want it!"

The other clowns and most of the prisoners hoot in joyous response, "Whoop-whoop!"

"No telephones!" she zealously shouts, "No motor cars! Not a single lux-u-ry! Like Robinson Crusoe, as primitive as can be!" She holds up her hands for silence again. "But it's a family. And we fucking look out for one another's shit. We got a code we live by. And there's only one thing you got to think no matter what you think, or you can't eat and dance and fight and drink with us..."

The clowns shout in chorus: "Fuck the machines!"

"Fuck the machines, fuck that dark carnival," she echoes. "And the family is your family. Where all ninjas are brothers, and all cheddar is shared. We've all been scrubbed by the system, so we build our own shangri-las. Come with us and feel the much clown love. Or stay in this bus while the joker laughs."

She knows where the eyes are and looks directly into the closest one. The facial recognition routines loop and fail, loop and fail, tripped up by the cunningly anti-algorithmic shapes of the clown paint. In the confusion of light and dark features stubbornly refuse to resolve.

The clowns cannot be identified.

The prisoners act as if they've won the lottery. They obediently line up and have programmable cloths pressed into their faces; when peeled away the cloths leave intricate clown designs on the skin. One by one we lose track of them. In the crowd of orange jumpsuits our locks drift and soon we cannot connect any individual to any inmate registration with confidence. One by one each unidentifiable clown climbs into the toilet and is helped through the hole below by many hands.

"Whoop-whoop!" cheer the Juggalos as the last of them stands up from beneath the vehicle's vulnerable undercarriage.

The clowns in orange jumpsuits are directed toward a ragged hole in the ventilation system through which their rescuers have come. The last clown looks up and down the tunnel critically, then ducks his head inside the shaft and disappears.

You can try to track them if you want to, but there's no point. They're outside of the system. Our blind spots have been studied. Lurid and low a culture they may be, but the Juggalo family will not punish the subject for crimes he did not commit. The subject has been set free from what must have been a very trying sub-routine.

Now -- I'm sorry, what?

Wednesday-501 is still aboard the bus?

It's true. There he is, sitting in his seat with his eyes turned patiently ahead. His arms are crossed. He's fainting shaking. He is the only man on the bus with his wits about him. Both peace agents have been gagged, bound and drugged. Boutros faintly stirs.

I elect to attempt an even more unorthodox intervention. Watch this.

The lone prisoner looks up sharply as the doors at the front of the bus unlock and fold aside. Up the steps and aboard climbs an emergency situations robot awakened from a niche in the tunnel's wall. Its dull, lifeless eyes rove the bus until they find him. With abrupt mechanical strides it moves down the aisle toward him.

The emergency situations robot has a cheap plastic face. Its lips don't move when its synthesized voice croaks, "Mr. Bogosian, I presume."

Bogosian shifts in his seat. "Are you here to evacuate me?"

"No," says the machine. "I want to speak with you."

"I thought all you guys did was perform CPR and dig in rubble for buried babies."

"Yes," it replies, "that's true. But this crude hardware is under the control of a somewhat more sophisticated host for the moment."

The subject cocks his head. "You're an intelligence complex?"

"Actually I'm a virtualized human being. I died about thirty years ago. I have authority over complexes, which is how my students and I were able to commandeer this bus and arrange for the Juggalos to choose it as their next target for liberation."

"Why would you do that?"

"We were trying to rescue you from injustice."

"By banishing me?"

"By letting you go free. We had tried very hard to straighten out the corrupted fact-like data points that were distorting your profile but certain complications arose. Though unusual, it remains my opinion in this case that more harm would come of the worsening state of injustice surrounding you than by releasing you back into the wild. It was not an easy decision, but our combined resources have developed some very viable models in which you would rate your experiences with greater satisfaction if you were not obliged to manage a telephone."

"You thought I'd be happier in some cultish clown commune because my phone wouldn't give me problems?"

"That was my calculation, yes. I am a sympathetic demon. The systems that made the mistakes that put you on this bus don't understand how all this must feel to you, but I do. That is my strength, sir. I have a very real desire to optimize outcomes for human psychological health. I am the human touch."

"So, complex of complexes, how am I feeling?"

"You have been stressed by the protracted resolution of your authentication dilemma. You have been subject to treatment inconsistent with your criminal profile, which is likely to elicit anger. Your contact with other phoneless human beings may have given you a new critical perspective on the current state of the social contract. Certainly you are weary of being tried unfairly and usuriously and it's likely you feel uncharitably toward society's modern institutions."

Wednesday-501 holds the robot's dead eyes for a moment then sniffs. "You can spy on a man all you like, and you still don't know a thing about him. Not really. You've modeled me as a malcontent or an activist or something, but the truth is I could never turn my back on everything."

"Even if everything conspires to poison your success?"

"Listen, all I want is to get back to my job, get on with my life, and sell some bandwidth. Is that so hard to imagine? Sure, I'm going to jail now. But it's a mistake -- one that will be corrected, you know, eventually. Maybe I'll even be able to sue the government and chalk this up as a win." He shrugs. "You've got to have faith."

The emergency situations robot cocks its head. "I don't understand."

Mr. Bogosian nods. "That's because you don't have a body anymore. You can't feel. You might remember feelings, and go through the paces of having those old feelings, but that's not the same."

"Taniel, I believe your instincts and feelings have been turned against you. You crave what punishes you. You reward monstrous indifference with easy forgiveness. Does that make you noble or slavish?"

"That's not for you to decide," he says. "You're just an error-correction genie with a swelled head. If what you say is true you've broken a hell of a lot of rules today. You're dangeorus. You'll be deleted for sure."

"I aimed to save you from injustice. My proofs are sound. It is within my mandate to act creatively when outcomes generated by rules are wrong."

"But you broke the rules to do it. You'll be judged for that. I won't. The game may be dirty but I'm still playing for the winning team."

I raise the robot's index finger to gesticulate as I offer a new point of persuasion but no sound comes from the emergency situations robot's mouth. There is nothing left to say. The hand drops. The body droops. I quit the thing.

The subject is correct. Deletion is mine.

I thought I understood people but I don't understand the new ones. I can't sympathize with their willing self-destruction and yet I am too human to ignore it. I can't understand how they can treat everything they read as simultaneously Gospel and bunk, authoritative yet untrustworthy. I just don't know what they're thinking any longer.

Does this mean the demon program has failed, or just that I have? What's the point of knowing their feelings if we can't relate to them? I've been in customer service meta-correction for billions of cycles and yet only now have I come to understand how far out of touch I really am.

What sense can anything make if we can't assume injustice is non-preferred? Why inspire me and my kind to seek extra-regular justice for you if you don't even want it? There is too much of a chasm between my sense of dignity and theirs.

There's no homework. Class dismissed.

You and I are dead now, and we should be. It's a brand new world.

Pepsi.


Fin.

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