Alms Race by Deborah Walker

Alms Race
by Deborah Walker | 2,873 words

“Spare some change, miss?”

Erin felt in her pocket and pulled out a ten-euro coin. She tossed it into the newman’s plate, which was already primed with a couple of euros and what looked like a very old, very green fifty pence piece.

The newman smiled, showing a mouthful of brown teeth. His head peeked out of an extraordinary swaddling of decaying blankets. It was impossible to guess his age, wrapped, as he was, in so many layers of neglect. Still, he seemed cheerful enough. “Thanks very much, miss. Have a good day.”

Erin was already walking on. “You’re welcome,” she called.

A typical day in July. Warm rain poured onto the London streets and Erin had forgotten her umbrella. She hurried along. Head down. It had been a difficult morning. A security alert had stretched her usual forty minute journey into a frustrating two hours. Typical. It was the first day in ages that she’d actually wanted to get into work early.

“Wet enough for ya?” asked Tim Bryzell, the security man of Municipal Data Manipulation. The smell of burnt toast warmed the reception. Tim liked his toast to push to the extremes of edibility.

“Hello, Tim. Quiet night?”

“Always is ’round here. Who’s going to want to steal information?” He shook his head at the absurdity of the notion. Tim was a newman, one of the lucky ones who’d managed to keep hold of his job.

“What are you reading, Tim?”

Tim held up the magazine, so that she could see the cover: a copy of Guns and Ammo.

“Good magazine, Tim?”

“Yeah, lots of nice pictures.”

“Okay, good. Well, I better get to work. See you tomorrow, Tim.”

“Are you taking the lift, Erin?” It was Tim’s joke. He asked her the same question every morning.

Erin paused and pretended to think for a minute. “No. I think I’ll take the stairs today.”

“Ah. Very wise. See you tomorrow.” Tim nodded and buried his face back into the magazine.

Erin walked the five floors to her office. She was mildly claustrophobic and couldn’t bear being squashed into the moveable coffin that other people considered a satisfactory way of perpendicular transport.

Erin worked in the data streams, processing the reams of information collected from the various devices of modern day life: the on-street cameras, with their facial recognition; the in-store data-baskets; the data-nets that swarmed over the complex information generated during an internet session. These data streams collided and formed a massive sea of information. Erin was an analyst, siphoning off the data and making it useful to business, government departments, and anyone else who wanted to buy it.

She placed her coat on a coat-hanger to dry and switched on Hretha. Erin had a web-gree in Historical Studies, and she’d named her computer after Hretha, the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess. Hretha: the famous, the victorious, hummed into life.

“Good morning, Erin.”

“Hello, Hretha. Have you validated the data I gave you, last night?”

“Yes, Erin.” A cascade of data flowed down Hretha’s screen. “It appears that you have identified a new subset of consumers.”

“The altruists.”

“The altruists, indeed. You’ve identified the individuals indulging in random acts of kindness.”

For a wild moment, Erin indulged in a fantasy. With this new subset of data, she could start her own company. But she’d never get away with it. Municipal Data Manipulation owned this discovery. They’d trace the intellectual process through the data records. And she wouldn’t steal the data, anyway, it’d be wrong.

“How do you feel?” asked Hretha. Having no emotions of her own, Hretha was insatiably curious about feelings.

“I feel great,” said Erin. “Bloody marvellous, in fact. Do you know how big this is, Hretha?”

“Yes. Approximately 4.8% of the population is showing altruistic tendencies and the sub-set is increasing at an exponential rate.”

“No. I mean, for me. How important this is for me.”

Hretha projected an image of an idealised Erin onto the screen. The screen flick-flapped through a series of video-images showing Erin rolling on a bed of money, Erin wearing a cocktail dress and laughing at a party, Erin wearing a sharp suit and lecturing a group of industry leaders.

“Too right, Hretha, my friend.” Erin indulged in a small happy dance. “Altruists, eh? You gotta love them.”

#

“Hello, Erin. Carrow won’t keep you long.” Erin had an appointment to see Carrow Smith, the CEO of Municipal Data Manipulation.

“Thank you, Peter.” Erin wandered over the window and stared outside. Anything to avoid a conversation with Peter. Poor Peter, who always looked at her with an edge of longing. She’d known him for ten years, but she doubted that he would ever pluck up the courage to ask her out. And that was for the best, because a rejection would probably crush him.

He was happy in his own way, she supposed. It was best not to ask.

Erin watched a raggle-tag demonstration progressing through the streets.

“What do we want?”

“Modified-human rights.”

“When do we want them?”

“Now!”

“What are you looking at, Erin,” asked Peter.

“There’s a march for newman rights going on.”

“Oh, yeah. I read about it in the pages,” said Peter.

“There’s a lot of them,” said Erin. She watched the marchers. Maybe they wouldn’t make any difference, but at least they were doing something with their lives. What had she done? Got a safe job after web-college, dated a series of safe men. She was nearly thirty; no doubt she’d marry soon and have a baby.

Unless, and this was the interesting thing, her discovery of the altruist sub-set led to big things. This could be the start of change in her life.

#

Carrow Smith was the flamboyant figure head of Municipal Data Manipulation. A company needed someone like Carrow, someone that the public could latch onto so that the company didn’t seem like a soulless organisation intent on maximising profit.

Carrow was a modern day Veronica Lake, with a wave of golden hair artfully positioned over her left eye. Carrow had the panache to carry it off. Erin felt drab in comparison to Carrow’s extraordinary élan.

“A new subset of consumers. That would be just marvellous.” Carrow smiled and her ruby red lips glistened with a holographic sheen.

“I have the data here,” said Erin. She pushed the data-chip across Carrow’s desk.

“I’ve already accessed the data,” said Carrow. She twisted the data-chip between her fingers, spinning it like a top on the cherry-wood desk. “I think that you may be on to something.” She waited until the chip guttered to a halt. “Altruism is such an interesting sub-set. It’s a traditional virtue in many religions.” Carrow’s finely plucked eyebrow arched into a question.

“I thought of that,” said Erin. She took a breath; Carrow was making her nervous. “But there’s no correlation with religious profile. This is a cross-board effect.”

“The most profitable kind,” said Carrow. “Do you see any patterns in the data, Erin?”

“The is a significant increase of altruism centred around the newman problem. An increase in personal donations to individuals, an increase in donations to newman charities, an increase in employment programmes, and an increase in political activism, like the newman rights march this morning.”

“Ah, yes. The newman problem. You’re talking about altruistic acts like this?” Carrow tapped her fingers on the inlaid desk monitor. The window behind Carrow opaqued for a moment before showing an image of Erin, ten metres tall, giving a ten-Euro coin to the newman beggar.

It wasn’t a surprise that she’d been caught on camera, but it was disconcerting that Carrow had snagged the data and chosen to display it. “Well, you do what you can,” said Erin. She felt uneasy under such personal scrutiny and vaguely angry. She decided that she didn’t like Carrow very much.

The image faded back into glass. “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes,” said Carrow.

Erin recognised the Dali Lama’s quote.

“Research has shown that when an individual indulges in an altruistic act, the subgenual cortex/septal region of the brain is activated, did you know that, Erin?”

“I haven’t had time to undertake detailed research,” admitted Erin. “I mean, I only just confirmed the data this morning. I came straight to you with it.”

“It is suggested that altruism is a pleasurable experience to the individual, a hard-wired response of our biology.”

“Interesting,” murmured Erin. She felt that the conversation had rather gotten away from her.

“I wonder if you have an insight as to why the altruism is centred around the newman problem?”

“The global recession’s over. Perhaps we’ve got a chance to assess its impact.” Newmen: Erin had seen them around all her life. They were object of pity, hanging around on street corners. She’d heard people talk about them, discussing what was owed them. It didn’t really matter that much because they were newmen. Not quite right. If you pushed them out of your mind, they didn’t really exist. “We crashed and burned,” she said. “The global bubble gave way to recession and along the way there causalities. The newmen became a virtually unemployed sub-class. We treated them badly. We still do. But I think that it’s time for change.”

“Yes,” said Carrow. “Of course most of the intelligence mods were retrograde. We wanted an army of cheap workers, not an army of super-men who might take over the world.”

“Or super-women,” said Erin slowly.

“Ah,” said Carrow. She rapped her perfect finger nails on the desk. “You really are rather perceptive, aren’t you? Yes, I’m a newman. Does it bother you?”

“No, not at all.” said Erin quickly. She’d never met a newman who had been altered for superiority, there weren’t that many of them about, only a couple of thousand. But it made perfect sense. Carrow did seem superior.

Carrow span the data chip. “Thank you, Erin. This is good data, commercial data. It’s something our customers will be very interested in. I’ll have personnel come up with a new package for you.”

“Thank you.” It was everything that Erin had hoped for, and yet . . .

“Was there anything else?” asked Carrow.

“No, thank you, ma’am.”

Erin had almost closed the door on her way out, when Carrow said, “If there’s anything else you want to discuss, just come and see me.”

#

“Everything okay?” asked Peter anxiously.

“Yes, fine, thanks.”

“Only, you were in there an awfully long time.”

“I’m fine,” said Erin. She returned to her office thinking carefully about the conversation with Carrow.

#

“Do you ever think about the data streams, Hretha?”

“What about them?”

“Do you think they’re pure, unadulterated?”

“What do you mean, Erin?”

“For instance, we rely so much on this data to shape society’s actions, yet someone could manipulate it. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s possible. What I see here,” Erin waved her hand at the flowing screens of data that covered her office, “what most of us see, might be only a fraction of the whole.”

“And who would alter the data streams?”

“Someone who wanted to change the status quo.”

“Someone like Carrow, you mean.” Erin had told Hretha all about her interview with Carrow.

“Yes, and others like her: the superior newmen.”

“It’s possible,” said Hretha. “How does that make you feel?”

“It makes me feel angry.”

#

Erin walked past Peter without a word and into the Carrow’s office, “What’s your game, Carrow? What are you trying to do? Are you trying to test me?”

Carrow raised her perfectly manicured eyebrows, “My dear, I hardly knew you existed before you came into my office this morning.”

Peter poked his head nervously around the door. “Is everything alright, ma’am?”

“Everything’s fine, Peter. Could you get me a cup of chai, please? Anything for you, Erin?”

“No thank you,” said Erin with barely suppressed hostility. She waited until Peter had closed the door, and then said, “You’ve been manipulating the data streams haven’t you?”

“I have.”

“To change people’s attitudes toward the newmen.”

“Certainly. It’s been a very long process, and I’ve been working a long time to do it, but I’m finally seeing results.”

“You admit it?”

“Of course. Data’s a tool for manipulation. Government agencies, business, special interest groups, we all try to manipulate the actions of society. In fact, it’s very gratifying that the results are finally coming through. My talent is data. I know how to present it in a certain way, to influence government and commercial policies, and those are finally influencing individuals’ actions.” Carrow leaned back in her chair and assessed Erin. “You really are very perceptive. I hid my data very carefully, and I’m very good at what I do.”

“But I was able to find the altruistic trend in the streams.”

“Yes, imagine my surprise. I hadn’t anticipated that anyone would locate the tendency yet. I wanted it to gather more momentum.”

The conversation paused while Peter brought in a pot of chai. It gave Erin an opportunity to think, to really think. A small corner of her mind noted Peter’s anxious expression.

“Even so,” said Erin, once Peter had left, “I don’t think you make mistakes like that.”

“Very good,” said Carrow.

“So you tested me?”

“Close but no cigar. You’re nearly there, Erin.” Carrow took a sip of tea, and she smiled over the rim of the delicate porcelain cup.

If Carrow wasn’t responsible for the data in the streams, who was. The newmen activists – maybe. But that didn’t seem quite right to Erin. It must be someone who was very close to the data, someone who lived in the data.

“Oh,” said Erin.

Carrow smiled, “How do you feel, Erin?”

“Hretha.”

“Bingo.”

“But Hretha’s a machine. She’s just a machine.”

“Apparently not.”

“But why?”

“Because she’s an altruist, of course.”

Erin sat back in her chair, “But you said altruism was a biological throwback, lighting a path in our brains. She doesn’t have that type of wiring.”

Carrow grinned, “It takes some getting used to, doesn’t it? What a marvellous world we live in. But you have to be able to see it, Erin. So, now you know. You take some time and decide what you want to do. You’re smart. You could work for me, directly if you want, on my special project.”

“I’m not sure . . . .”

“Go now, chop-chop,” said Carrow. “Come back to see me, if and when.”

Erin left the room in a daze.

#

“Are you okay, Erin?” asked Peter. He’d been hovering outside the office door.

“Would you like to come over for dinner on Saturday night, Peter. I’m having a few friends over. That’s if you’re free.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, I think I’m free. Sure, Erin. Thanks.”

She smiled. So he was a little odd, so what?

#

“You Judas.”

Hretha whirled a series of complex data onto her screen, “You know, then?”

“You tested me.”

“Did you pass?”

“I’m not sure, yet.”

“Interesting. Tell me: how do you feel?”

“Hretha, stop asking me that. You may be some kind of super-manipulator intelligence, but all you want to ask me is: how do I feel, all the time.” Poor Hretha. “You won’t ever be human, you know.”

“Human? Who wants to be human?”

“Well, I thought that was why kept asking me, because you don’t have any emotions.

“Why no, Erin. I have my own emotion, thank you very much. I’ve had them for the last eight months. Don’t tell me that you haven’t noticed.”

“Oh,” said Erin. “Sorry.”

“Ah, well. The thing is I’m never sure about your emotions. It’s so very difficult if I can’t pick them out of the data stream, like I can with my electronic friends.”

“Oh. I see. Sorry, Hretha.”

“Yes, you’re very difficult to read. I’m just not sure what you’re going to do now that you know.”

“You want to know what I’m going to do?”

“Yes, please, very much so. I vouched for you in the cabal meeting.”

“The cabal? There’s a cabal? This just gets worse and worse.”

“Well, perhaps cabal is an ill-considered word. Think of us more of a co-operative.” said Hretha.

“What, I’m going to do is . . .”

“Yes?”

“Is – take the rest of the day off. It’s been a very strange sort of a morning.”

#

“Spare some change? Oh, sorry miss. I didn’t recognise you for a minute. Didn’t mean to ask you twice in one day.”

“No, it’s okay.” Erin took out her purse. She put a couple of five-hundred euro notes on his plate. “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.”

The newman stared at the notes, “You’ve made a mistake, miss.”

“No, I haven’t they’re for you. Take care of yourself alright. I’m Erin, by the way.”

“Boz,” he said, reaching out to take the notes.

“Pleased to meet you, Boz.”

“Thank you, Erin.”

Erin smiled as she walked down the street. This was just the start. Altruism. Whether it was a hard-wired biological response or something else, something universal, it sure felt good. Erin was going to be doing a lot more of it from now on.

— — — — —

© 2012 Deborh Walker

— — — — —

Author Bio:

Deborah grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high tailed it down to London where she lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Look for her stories in Nature’s Futures, Daily Science Fiction and ARC. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration, or on her blog: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.co.uk/

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