Liberty Points by Dennard Dayle
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I have my rights. That’s a 21st century line, but you guys could be a little nicer about this. I’m starting to think that my score doesn’t mean anything at all.
I have my rights. That’s a 21st century line, but you guys could be a little nicer about this. I’m starting to think that my score doesn’t mean anything at all.
Well yes, I’d say that I have contempt for the court. The court switched my quarter-million dollar suit for a blue onesie during processing, and I have a feeling that even if I win I’m never going to see that suit again. That’s a bitch move. I’d never even touched anything that expensive before last week.
On that note, does divorce law apply here? Because I sure as hell have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. That lifestyle involves more oysters hand-fed to me by movie stars, and less dodging spoons carved into knives by angry children. Trust me: two weeks is more than long enough to spoil yourself, and two nights is just enough to get decapitated.
These rulings usually take a while, so I have to ask: what gang do you think I should join? I know, a black guy from East Ward normally defaults to the White Tigers. But they don’t have their shit together, as you can tell from the fact that they sound like a white-power cell and are named after an animal found exclusively in East Asia. It’s not a growth organization, and I’d like to survive long enough to be executed.
Really? You enjoyed my “sub-sophomoric imitation of a sense of humor” when I was First Citizen, your honor. To be honest, I was trying to pander a little by keeping things light. But if you want me to jump to my version of the story, I’ll cooperate.
It began--What do you mean, introduce myself? You know who I am. So do all the gawkers giggling behind me. The bailiffs know, the journalists know, and the security drones have a hint. I mean, I’d understand if we still had juries taking up space, but you’re just wasting time.
You’re right, arguing does take longer. My name’s Lucas Nolan. Out of the two hundred million citizens of the Free Empire’s East Ward, I’m currently ranked first. Number One. King of the hill. Head nigg-you get it. I’ve had the rank for about fifteen days.
It started on a Tuesday, while I was supposed to be working. If you guys are serious about cutting down on sedition, you need to find less mindless tasks for us to waste our lives on. The imagination goes places after the eighth hour in a temperature-controlled box. The same goes for rehabilitation, as I can now say from experience.
Of course that’s not a threat. Am I going to blow up my own prison cell? We’ve definitely spent a few too many decades in the Levant if you think I’m the suicide bombing type.
It was a government desk job, the first place you go when you’ve tapped out of life. Pushing papers is the same everywhere, but for our purposes I’ll point out that I worked for National Surveillance. As the associate communications director, I started the day by forwarding e-mails from the assistant communications director to the lead communications director. The rest of the day was mine, as long as I didn’t leave my box.
In communications, there are sensors marking every cubicle, elevator, exit, and urinal you happen to walk by. The number of recorded trips tends to come up during requests for raises or vacation time.
I started out with a few number puzzles to wake my brain up. Unless I’m hungover, a round of 3D sudoku works better than a cup full of stimulants. Once I felt like a person again, I moved on to calisthenics. Strength training’s retro, but working in surveillance made me way too paranoid to shoot nanites into my muscles. I guarantee that every artificial six-pack in the Free Empire is sending data to someone on my floor. Anyway, I did my usual full-body routine, starting with handstands-
Yes your honor, I do believe the “day-to-day inania of my life” is relevant to this case. It speaks to my state of mind. Do I have the right to defend myself?
After the workout, I sped through a reheated lunch. I needed my actual lunch hour to meet with Talia, my semi-girlfriend. In that I considered her my girlfriend, and she did not. In hindsight, I have a lot more empathy for her position. The communications department break room isn’t the least romantic location on Earth, but it is in the running. However, as manager, she could have done something to spruce it up.
No, I don’t think I’m incriminating myself. I’m not on trial for evasion of labor, and won’t be unless she goes on trial for abuse of authority. No, I don’t think I’m being petty either. Just a little petty.
Once we’d finished sweating out our differences, we gave our phones some attention. It’s a lot easier than talking. There were two icons I didn’t recognize, which meant the Imperate had put out another update. The first was an optional app from National Fitness that offered a discreet electric shock if the user went over their recommended caloric intake. I left it off. The second was Liberty Points, which should be familiar to the court.
“Did you know about this?” I asked.
“Yeah, it should be great for our diet,” said Talia.
“I meant Liberty Points.”
“You’re in the agency that came up with it. We had a six-month quagmire over what color the icon should be. Do you remember any of this? We’ve had the thing in public beta for six months. The younger users love it.”
“Yes. I remember that. From the e-mails, which I read.” I tapped the light brown icon (I’d have suggested blue if I’d actually read the chain, it’s a more inviting color). It opened a bare-bones white tab with three lines of oversized sans-serif text:
Name: Lucas Nolan
Liberty Score: 17
Rank: 158,091,241 (Ninth Decile)
“Sixth decile?” Talia roared. “What kind of garbage is this?! Making the logo for this thing should at least put me in the fifth. It must be my sister. That preening idiot votes for an opposition party every year, no matter how many times I tell her they picked the winner a year before the first debate.”
She spent the rest of our break explaining why she deserved to be an only child. I offered my sympathy, but I didn’t take the issue too seriously. How important could it be if they hadn’t even bothered designing a proper interface? There were no settings, bonus features, or even hidden games. The UI consisted entirely of a name and rank that, as far as I could tell, meant nothing.
I took a meandering path back to my cubicle, which made me the ten usual minutes late. Once seated, I followed thirty-five years of hard-coded habit and checked my phone. There weren’t any new messages, but my score had gone down to 16. I snorted and tabbed over to Karate Island, a game I’d taken to playing while warming my seat. Believe it or not, the story is the main feature. It’s about--all right, that’s fair. The story of Jonas “Blood Knuckle” Kang is beyond the court’s concerns.
When I closed Karate Island, my score had gone down to 11.
This caught my interest, and engaged the long-dormant inquisitive part of my brain. While watching Liberty Points in my right hand, I gently wheeled my chair past my cubicle door’s sensor and started counting. When I hit “thirty-Mississippi,” my score went down to 10. I like to believe I said something clever, but I think I just cursed. I rolled back to my terminal, drafted a nonsense-email to my manager, added every buzzword I could think of to the subject line, and blind-copied everyone shiftless enough to work under me. After I sent it, my score went up to 10.5.
Unease crept in. I spent the rest of the work day re-reading e-mail with a self-consciousness I didn’t know I was capable of. It was the best imitation of work I could do with my job title, and it seemed to keep me from dipping into the single digits. My fingers tapped the back of my terminal with hummingbird anxiety, until I realized that annoying my coworkers might lower my score.
I left the office with a score of 11.2 and a headache. I turned to the family cure, which is alcohol in moderate-to-large doses. My bar of choice was Red Jack’s, which was full of the kind of undesirables that my coworkers spent their afternoons stalking. Reporters, comedians, other potential dissidents. The music’s only awful on Saturdays, which is a bonus.
“Could I get three shots of Liver Thinner?” I asked the bartender. He had the stone face of a man that took his job seriously, which I found entirely alien.
“Are you sure? That brand’s imported.”
“What? Who gives a shit? You’re using my drinking time.”
“Whatever.” He filled three shot glasses with dimly glowing semi-solid blobs. I watched the lines of color swirl, with no pattern holding for more than a moment. I got bored of it after about twenty seconds and took the drinks in three rapid gulps. No your honor, I don’t expect you to be impressed by my drinking ability. Yes, I’m aware that the state offers multiple substance abuse recovery programs.
My phone vibrated. I had a high-priority notification from Liberty Points. The audio kicked in without my input:
Hey there, freeman! It looks like through some misunderstanding, you’ve hit the tenth decile with a Liberty Score of 8.3. Liberty Points are here to help you keep track of your contributions--and deficiencies--as a citizen of the Free Empire. We’d never intrude on your life: there are no government-mandated bonuses or demerits associated with your Freedom Score. However, other citizens and private services may take note.
“The hell?” I muttered.
“Patriots buy local booze,” said the man to my right. He abandoned his chair, and his friends followed. For the next hour, I was toxic. Each group of comely web journalists I approached fluttered to the opposite side of the room. Every word I said went unacknowledged by people I’d shared years of happy hours with. When I went to the bathroom, the cleaning staff abandoned their mops and pails to leave.
The bartender caught me sulking in the corner and wagged his finger. “Look, I’m on the clock, so I’ll help you out. Scores tend to converge. Speaking with someone in a lower decile might bring you down. Keeping them in your contacts will definitely drag you down. Until you raise your number, it’s going to take more than your outdated sense of humor to get around.”
My sense of humor is not outdated. I was the funniest guy in my government office and...I should focus. You probably agree with him anyway.
I tried to switch bars, but the Castle Club wasn’t letting anyone with a two-digit score in. You had to be seventh decile to get into Grinding Pit, and fourth decile to get into Grinding Gallery. I tried to buy my way into Bass Mentors, but the bouncers said they didn’t take bribes from anyone with a score under seventy.
It didn’t take long to find a taxi back, at least. The cabbie made me do the driving after checking my score, but at least I didn’t have to walk.
Out of all the streets in East Ward, I chose to cut through Delancey. There, I caught a glimpse of Talia in a blue dress I’d never seen before. She was walking with a guy that looked a bit too much like me, with a nicer suit, a wider smile, and a higher number. I threw the cab into park, and watched for twenty seconds longer than I should have. The cabbie kept the meter running.
Yeah, a recess would be nice. Is there going to be food?
I’ve got a theory. If you’re still allowed to use that word without going through the Imperate’s academy. Every phase of life is just an echo of high school. You can change the people and places, but the same fundamental low-stakes pettiness is in place. It becomes high-stakes pettiness at the United Nations, but you get the idea.
After Thursday’s washout, I was in a giving mood. I showed up to my lunchtime non-date with Talia with a bottle of plum wine. A local brand. She received the bottle with a pair of rubber gloves, which she then placed in a garbage chute.
“Look,” Talia said. “Violating multiple sexual misconduct agreements with an employee is one thing. But sleeping with a ninth decile is out of the question.”
“Could you move a little further away? I think I can lose points by standing near you.”
“No eye contact.”
That’s when I left.
Back in Communications, I found myself in high school. I’d bumped my score up to thirty-six, but that was just enough for me not to get fired. Passersby still gave me a two-foot berth in the hallway, and I had to duck a pair of spitballs when I returned to my terminal. Removing the barrier between me and civil society would take something more drastic. Eating alone was fine when I chose it, but having it forced on me picked at my ego.
Online, I found my contacts list greatly reduced. Like anyone, I once had more people on that list than I cared to keep track of or ever speak to again. Now that Liberty Points were out of beta, there were six people left. One of them was an advertising bot, one was a drug dealer, and I was related to the other four. At three in the afternoon, the drug dealer removed himself.
I’m not giving you the dealer’s name.
I regressed with my environment. Isolated, I did my best to fall in line and hope that the situation improved. My first step was clearing the games and vulgar image edits off my terminal, which was now exclusively for forwarding and proofreading internal deparment messages. That was as engaging as it sounds.
On my fourth day of retreading old messages, I had an idea. The idea, as far as this trial is concerned. I pulled up every message on Liberty Points that I could find over the last six months. I cut that pile of garbage down to the messages from the project design team. I hoped to find a comprehensive list of actions that changed Liberty Scores. All I found were the patch notes for soft drinks, indicating which domestic brands citizens would get points for buying. There’s a monthly rotation, to keep us on our toes. I think Banana Spikes are in this month.
Then I went to Talia’s office and handed in my ID card. Once again, I wish that I had a line. But I didn’t manage anything better than “I quit, go choke on a hand grenade.” Which makes less sense the longer I think about it.
Now, here's the trick. Before I got promoted to doing nothing, I used to run dummies. National Surveillance sets these up online to give people under 'questioning' the appearance of normal activity. The dummy buys food, sells stock, sends your spouse lewd messages, all that. This keeps journos from catching on too quickly, since they rely on digital surveillance about as much as we do. A loyal employee of National Surveillance would never take a dummy for their own personal use, so I had three. I set Dummy One to buy cans of Eagle Cola, which are worth one point each. Recycling's worth another point thanks to National Environmental, so Dummy One sent them directly to the processing center. Dummy Two sent procedurally-generated letters of glowing approval to elected officials around the empire. This only scored me one point for every ten letters, so I set Dummy Three to argue with people online. Each insult to another user's patriotism netted a clean two points, four when the dummy got creative. Buy a Copy, Support this Author
Is everything “tantamount to a confession” with you?
Keeping my terminal from overheating replaced my full-time job. I sank half my savings into heat sinks, fans, and a new freezer. The thing still ran hot enough to turn my apartment into a sauna. Turns out that running espionage A.I.s is tougher on a terminal than pirating movies. I expected it to burn through the floor.
Honestly, I didn’t expect it to work. It was the kind of wild swing you take when the game’s effectively over. I’d grown up on the usual diet of crime dramas, and seen men smarter than me put away for better plans by square-jawed Free Empire agents. But I pushed through the whole logistical hell anyway.
I kept my phone off during most of the project. There weren’t any messages coming in, which can be incredibly distracting. I didn’t want to waste time waiting for answer from no one. So I waited until I dropped off the last recursive can to switch it on. “Recalculating score,” it said before I even activated the program. Then the useless piece of garbage froze on me. The animated clock spun three times before stopping. I pocketed it and resolved to switch brands if I ever made it back into civilization.
It pulled itself together while I was asleep. I was in the middle of a dream about becoming Prom King when the baritone digital voice dragged me back to the real world. “Calculation complete.” I rolled over to see if I’d managed to break out of the ninth decile.
Name: Lucas Nolan
Liberty Score: 170,000
Rank: 1 (First Decile)
Can you dance? I can’t dance. But I sure as hell tried that night.
The first thing I did was go to Bass Mentors. The drinks there were twelve dollars a pop, so I made for the exit. Then I was intercepted at the door by a black-suited man twice my width, all muscle. He had a soft face and rough hands, which said frightening things about his fight record.
“Sir, could we offer you a drink? Or a woman? Man? Robot? Animal?”
It took me a moment to realize I wasn’t under arrest. It took me a few more moments to finish dancing badly on top of table, partnered with a spindly waitress wearing a large wedding ring. I mumbled through a terrible joke, forgot the punchline, and the room erupted in enthusiastic laughter. Questioning this would have gotten in the way of me finishing a bottle of wine older than the Imperate.
For the last time, I am not interested in the state’s substance abuse recovery programs.
The Liberty Points algorithm gets a little wonky at the higher levels. After two weeks of having people flash me their scores, I’ve noticed that it’s not really designed for people to get past 2000. The governor of East Ward has a score of 1998, and that reflects the constant efforts of a fully-funded think tank. At my level, nothing I said or did seemed to lose me a point. I bought imports, lazed around unemployed, and disparaged every chamber of government I could pronounce. My score was locked at 170,000.
On the third morning, I decided to test the limits of my luck. I requested a copy of the Free Empire’s founding document, from the days before the Imperate. Then I sent Johan Brant, the governor of East Ward, a request to “borrow” his authentic flag from the first Free Emperor’s office. It was delivered to me via gunship an hour later.
I brought both objects to TwinTalk, East Ward’s leading morning talk show. The elder twin pinched her nose, clearly bothered by the scent of kerosene. The younger twin successfully identified the smell, and took several steps back from the table before I dropped a lighter on two pieces of history. While the artifacts burned, the number 170,000 remained unchanged. I was bulletproof. Figuratively; I know that you’re into firing squads.
The proximity effect went to an uncomfortable place. Standing ten feet away was enough to take someone from the eighth decile to the third decile. Skin contact could even make a paroled spree killer electable. Which I did, when one field tackled me during a party on the fourth night. He didn’t stab me, so I consider it a fair trade. I also think he has some exciting thoughts about tariff reform.
I spent the fifth afternoon doing my best Christ impersonation. There are plenty of homeless people in East Ward with fully-functioning phones. When I found these men, women, and children, I made a show of tapping their foreheads with my index finger. It was a sick, self-indulgent gesture, but it also gave them access to jobs, places, and simple human treatment that was locked away from the tenth decile.
I still remember Leia, my last patient. So does most of the city, at this point.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Her outfit was a random mesh of bright colors, but she was the one with the incredulous expression. I felt like I’d come to an oral exam without doing the reading.
“Making a change,” I said, head rapidly retreating into my large intestine.
“What about the other bums?” she asked. This forced a sober frown out of me. Helping every vagrant in the city by hand would put a serious damper on the party train. I needed a shortcut, and chose delegation.
I brought my new followers directly to the governor’s manor. Johan looked pale and grey on television, and went paler and greyer when he looked at the crowd over my shoulder.
“Are they your servants?” he asked.
“They’re a task force of fully capable first-decile citizens,” I said, beaming at my own cleverness. I noticed a pair of volunteers to my left roll their eyes, and straightened my back. “The more lucid ones have ideas about the funding of public aid. They can’t do worse than the people you already have in place.” The man to my right took this moment to vomit into a large green vase.
The governor glared at the ground, and I became acutely aware of myself as a man without a non-digital rank. Then his shoulders sagged and he nodded. “I look forward to working closely with the task force,” he said gloomily. I patted him on the back, and his mood immediately brightened.
“Great. That’s Leia. She looks like a decent lieutenant governor.”
Leia tipped the bowler hat on top of her baseball cap. The veins on Johan’s neck became visible, and I took my leave.
On the sixth afternoon, I learned that negativity wasn’t a humane option. On the way to a lecture I was scheduled to give the Apex Academy’s graduating class, I got shoulder-checked by a man leading a shy toddler down the street. Under East Ward tradition, I called him an asshole. Under similar tradition he flipped me off and pretended to check his phone. I caught a glimpse of two flashing red zeroes and his look of cosmic horror. His daughter pulled her hand free and abandoned him, preferring her chances of surviving the city alone.
I took the seventh and eighth days off. I felt like I was losing track of something important, and thought two cycles of sobriety would be good for my mind. There were offers to spend the night at Luxury Falls and the East Ultra Hotel, but I slept on my old air mattress.
On the ninth morning, I asked Talia what she was up to. She showed up ten minutes later with three dozen of my friends, acquaintances, and overt enemies from work. It got a little more crowded when their friends showed up in turn. By then the media had picked up on Liver Thinner as my favorite brand, and everyone brought at least one bottle. In an hour, the entire apartment complex was taken over by waves of supplicants, suitors, and red-carpet vultures brandishing bottles of semi-solid liquor. I compensated the neighbors with a tap to the forehead.
As for Talia, I apologized, she apologized, and we shook hands. Not exactly the carnal throwdown I was hoping for as First Citizen, but I’m glad I showed some sign of restraint during that time.
“I should tell you something,” she said, checking her rapidly inflating score with her free hand. “At National Surveillance, they know you did something. They haven’t pegged it yet, but when they do they’ll decide it was a crime.”
“What about ex-post facto?”
“Very funny,” she said. “I’ve been lobbying for you. They’ll go easy on you if you confess, and show them the crack in the system. We probably should have just spent another month in beta...”
She left me with yet another bottle of Liver Thinner. I shared it with Vega Montag, the leading woman from Crab Conflict: Crustacean Chaos. Vega had long red braids that they tinted brown during post-production, and was interested in my opinions about films I’d never even heard of. There was a simple choice. I could confess my crimes against the Free Empire and its vassal states, protectorates, partially-owned territories, directly-occupied territories, and allies, or I could have sex with a movie star.
Vega’s terrible in bed. After all the magazine covers dedicated to that name, this was more than a little disappointing. Clearly, I needed to meet more movie stars to have a more enriching experience.
I spent the next four nights throwing similar parties. At this point, I’d like to say that I was quite impressed by your honor’s ability to execute a “keg headspin.” I didn’t even know that was possible, let alone wise.
On the fifteenth morning, I decided that I needed something different. I went to National Exploration, and attached myself to a test-flight for a reusable light spacecraft. Trips to space are rare on a government flunky’s budget.
I sat next Captain Dominic Alvarez in a two-man craft. The captain was in charge of course correction, diagnostic tools, mission reports, safety drills, and running several minor experiments. I got to press the red button that launched us into space.
“We’ve had these for a while, but this model’s cheaper,” explained the captain. From our perch, the Earth and Mars were small glowing blips on an infinite black expanse. “Considering our budget, that’ll be important if we ever want to get back to Mars.”
“Do you think we’ll ever colonize it?” I asked. I’m sure you remember the advertising blitz during the third space race. It’s impossible to forget those posters of uncannily diverse friends playing volleyball on red sand.
“We could, any year they want to,” answered the Captain, nodding disdainfully towards Earth. “But there are too many distractions. Put the bottle down, we’re starting re-entry.”
Getting away from the planet put my feet back on the ground. The number didn’t actually matter. I felt ready to abandon the First Citizen schtick for something less corrosive to my brain and soul. Unfortunately, when we landed there were a few squads of heavily armed National Enforcement agents waiting at the launchpad. I got a rifle butt to the ribcage before I could start improvising an excuse.
“Fucking soda? Really?” said the officer. I mumbled something I thought was clever, and he tossed me in the back of a cop car. In hindsight, rifle-butting the First Citizen probably set him up for life.
The rest of the story is boring. Gang politics, dodging a prison riot, stabbing a teenager in the leg to stay alive. After all your time as a judge, I’m sure you’ve heard every nightmare that comes out of our system a dozen times. They have to start running together.
There was one surprise: Talia visited me during my first week in jail. Yeah, I didn’t get it either. I asked why the hell she was wasting her time, only not as politely.
“Mostly because we’re friends,” she volunteered. That’s when I understood that I’m a genuine asshole. I reached out for a hug, so the guards flipped on my shock collar.
Remorse, that’s actually a quality question. I do wish that I’d gotten away with it for a little longer. And I certainly regret not saving enough money to post bail. No ride lasts forever, and I should have been getting ready to move to one of the islands that’s still above the water. But regret’s a bit of a waste of energy. I can’t imagine acting any other way after two decades living in the tread pattern on the Empire’s left boot.
Your honor, have you always done well? I mean, today you’re a Free Empire judge, which would impress anyone, but were you king of the hill in your law firm? Academy? Pre-school? Or do you know what it’s like to suddenly become relevant? Because most of us are bored and angry, waiting for a ship that’s not coming. I don’t know how anything we do to escape ever comes as a surprise.
I’ve given you a hard time, but I don’t blame you at all. It’d have been the same with any judge in the empire. I’m actually relieved that you’ve listened to all of this. I’m not much of a writer, so this is the closest thing to a manifesto I’ll get. To anyone else listening, I have a suggestion: race for the bottom. Take your score as far down as you can, and throw a party for everyone.
Let’s hear that verdict. Buy a Copy, Support this Author