In the Fall (c) copr all rights reserved 1995 by T.J.Hardman, Jr. HTML version of In The Fall (c) copr all rights reserved 1996 by T.J.Hardman, jr and TJH Internet SP. No part of this work may be reproduced, copied or distributed without express written permission, with the exception of on-screen viewing. This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to any persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Some use may be made herein of real locations or institutions, but such use is entirely fictional in intent. Any use of tradenames or trademarks is completely accidental, and is not to be interpreted as any attempt to disparage or recommend.
The guard peered at him through the thick glass of the observation port. He returned the hollow stare of the guard and after a moment returned to the decades-old hardcopy of Newsweek that he'd been reading. The heavy door clicked open, and the guard beckoned. He rose and followed the guard into the inner waiting room. The guard positioned himself between the indicated seat and the less-stout door which evidently led into the interior of the Administration building. A nurse bustled in, complete with pink uniform, non-skid sneakers and clipboard. She greeted him with something resembling a smile: "How are we doing today? Let's get your blood-pressure and temperature..." He proffered his arm and began rolling up his sleeve.
She attached the pressure-cuff with practiced motions and it began to inflate. She made little mouth noises as she worked, sort of humming with occasional little "tsks" as she prodded him and attached the arcane tools of her trade. At least she didn't do the usual nurse-thing of trying to hold a meaningless conversation; instead, she presented him with a litany of questions. In a minute, the reading unit beeped, and spit out a label which she attached to the forms on her clipboard. Her beltcom also bleeped as it accepted data. She glanced at it, and she said, "Everything's just fine today," with the usual nursy lilt to her voice. He suspected that she'd speak to a child, a kitten, or a raging bull gorilla in the exact same tone of professional voice. "Come right this way," she continued, and both he and the guard moved to follow.
She led them to a largish conference room, and indicated the chair where he should seat himself. The guard, true to form, remained just inside the door. She left her clipboard in front of one of the chairs at the central table, and exited the room. Within moments, through another door came a group of familiar faces led by one unknown face, that of a tall pale man in a white labcoat, doubtless a doctor, if the stethoscope and beltcom were any indication. Another labcoated person, a small brown man evidently of Arabic or Hindian ancestry entered, and shadowed the other doctor. His probation officer and social worker followed. They left the door open behind them, and in another moment, two more men entered, wearing the classic grey suits of the hollow grey men whose desks were their power.
They were followed by another man, a much larger younger one, whose muscles and discreetly bulging armpit proclaimed him a guard of a rather higher caliber than the mere prison guard across the room. The two goons sized each other up, and then pointedly ignored each other with slight sniffs of professional disdain. The Federal goon closed the door behind him, and took up station. He himself rose to shake hands with the officials, whose ignorance of his proffered palm was studied and profound. His P.O. waved to the chairs, and they all were seated.
The doctor had grabbed up the clipboard and seated himself rather absently, and was studying the various forms and printouts with an interest which excluded all merely worldly phenomena. He consulted his beltcom as well, paging through the screens with determination that bespoke a massive familiarity with the immense remote-mounted data structures that were reliably-rumored to more than occasionally think for themselves. The rest of the group fixed their attention on the changes in the lines of his brow as he occasionally furrowed, dimpled and smoothed. He consulted with the other medical-type, who pointed to various spots on the clipboard and beltcom, occasionally speaking in a voice that scarcely reached Wilson's ears. Finally, the American doctor set down the clipboard, paused for a second and then addressed the grey men and said, Southern-simply, "He'll do."
The doctors, the nurse, the two grey men, and their goon remained, but the facility officials left, the social worker favoring Wilson with an odd look as he departed. The smaller doctor withdrew a vial from the pocket of his labcoat, fitted it to a hypospray, and injected him in the arm.
The doctor advised the nurse to watch him closely for the next half-hour, but other than a slightly reddened swelling on his arm, nothing happened.
The series of pre-dinner injections went on for a week, and then they took him in for exhaustive testing. They drew quite a bit of blood, hooking him to an interesting if cryptic device that chugged intermittently, and then they dismissed him. Occasionally, the small brown medico from the conference could be seen in the background, examining equipment and the results they displayed, or consulting with the technicians and nurses. They seemed to defer to him, but he regarded Wilson with evident trepidation, and seemed to be a basically nervous individual. He only saw the tall pale doctor one more time, and that was in a chance passing in the halls outside the lab. "Doctor!" he called, "Is this stuff working?"
The doctor paused, thought for a second, responded. "Well, you should be immune to about all known diseases, and the tests we've done seem to indicate that. As for the rest," and here he grinned as if hearing some intense private joke, "only time will tell." He continued to the nurse, "Certify him for pre-release into general population."
He'd been made aware, shortly after his admission into this minimal-security Welfare facility, that there were a variety of ways to get out of this prison. He had just done one of the things that could potentially greatly speed his release. There was the tried and true method of simply serving your time, not an easy thing to do when one had been sentenced for the crime of peripateticism.
In 1995, following the preceding Republican sweeps of the House and Senate floors, a series of legislative and regulatory changes were swiftly enacted, and despite the liberal agenda of the Democratic presidency, a tide of conservatism swept the land. Eager to distance themselves from the "tax-and-spend traditions" of the Democrats, the Republicans promptly did what they did best, promoted establishment business interests by relieving the tax- burden of the wealthy (minimal at best) and placed the staggering national debt squarely upon the backs of the poor.
As an adjunct to removing millions of "lazy good-for-nothings" from the Welfare rolls, many near-revolutionary policies were instituted. Following the lead of the Californian Proposition 187, which legislated a policy of total non-support for undocumented aliens, Federal law was enacted in 1997 requiring greater control of the borders, reporting of suspected illegals, and speedier deportations. By 2001, the borders had been very effectively sealed. Political will combined with radical advances in automation, and the borders became totally impassible to anyone not possessing the correct documentation. One long-term result of this house-cleaning was a drastic reduction in certain types of crimes in border towns, which had some social benefits, undoubtedly... but the other immediate result was a dearth of cheap labor in the fields of the agricultural states. American workers could not be hired for such low wages as could the illegals, and so a compromise was reached: Able-bodied entitlements recipients would receive wages commensurate with those that the illegal migrant workers had enjoyed. The net payments were approximately the same as they'd have received sitting around the house with the kids, so that worked out. The only difference between the treatment that the illegals had received and the treatment that the new cheap-labor class would receive was that the low wages of the new laborers were taxed, and they continued to have Medicare coverage, within the drastically reduced limits mandated by the Republican cost-cutting legislation. Still, not enough field hands were made available through industry-wide utilization of only members of this new economic subclass... and so subsequent legislation was enacted to tighten the net.
Women on Welfare must undergo sterilization (reversible, with improved Norplant progesterone implants) after having so many children, at state expense. Actually, this was not that bad an idea, it certainly was saving a lot of entitlements money, simply through vastly reducing childbirth billing. However, subsequent ancillary legislation required that women on Welfare, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and later on, even those on Food Stamps, must register their children with State-run day-care and pre-school facilities, most of which had, oh so fortuitously, boarding facilities for the children of mothers whose jobs were distant enough.
Women on any of the above-mentioned entitlements programs, whose children were old enough to be eligible for such alternative to direct parental care, were required to accept such work as was available to them, or both they and their children would lose such entitlements as they had. Thus, any female receiving entitlements who did not have a babe-in-arms suddenly found herself out in the fields hoeing lettuce or picking vegetables at less-than-minimum wage, while their children were raised at these de-facto orphanages. Admittedly, the day-care and pre-school facilities were clean, well-maintained (as much so as any school), and well- staffed, with staff all certified teachers and Child Development professionals... but it is difficult to lose one's children, no matter that they go to a better life than had been otherwise possible.
The Republicans had, admittedly, done their best to live up to their campaign pledges. They also attacked the increasing problem of rising out-of-control crime in the inner cities concurrently with their tightening of the border. In many cases, the National Guard simply occupied high-crime districts, and vigorously enforced curfews with lethal force and extremely intrusive methods of information-gathering. They finally created, through an administrative fiat, what amounted to a National Identity Card, and the first people to receive this card were those who were receiving any type of entitlements, and the first of those issued the new cards were those whose primary entitlement was mere freedom: Probation and Parole recipients, who were really not in any position to in any way argue.
The new de-facto National Identity Cards were based upon driver's licenses issued by the State of Maryland beginning in 1994. These used digital imaging, and on-card data storage, with a magneto- optical stripe on the back, and Universal Product Code laser- scannable non-alterable ID coding on the front. The format of the Maryland Driver's license so well conformed to anticipated needs of the various interlinked information-retrieval systems that the format was mandated through the Code of Federal Regulations as the new national standard for Drivers' Licenses and non-drivers' State Identification, with the additional fields for a compressed holographic representation of the person's fingerprints and genotype to be eventually added, as well as a second magneto- optical data strip, the so-called "user-datastrip". All persons in the various entitlements systems were required to upgrade from their previous identification to one of the new IDs, and the various separate agencies' (whose data was often stored in vastly differing formats on a variety of antiquated mainframes) tasks of collating information was greatly simplified by the adoption of an external standard for information interchange - the cards that now were required wallet apparel for all entitlements recipients.
This was not a legally mandated de jure National Identification Card, but the de facto standardization of format amounted to the same thing.
Society itself, or at least the segment of society that received entitlements, became a minimum-security gulag with internal passports required.
Foodstamps were not issued as specie, but were written as data to the cards, which could be read by point-of-sale scanners and debit devices. Illegal trading of foodstamps became a thing of the past. An entire underground economy was eliminated almost overnight.
Section VIII projects landlords were required to receive payment via the cards, or direct deposit, the latter being the preferred payment mode.
Presentation of the cards (with thumbprint and password validation) at various checkpoints, such as the receptionists' desks at various entitlements-agencies, was successfully used as an alibi defense in a number of criminal cases, and thus encroachment on rights became accepted as a permissible evil. The card would prove to be of benefit as much as it would to detriment, and so they became accepted.
So accepted were the cards, in fact, that banks began to first prefer, then to require, that the cards be used in lieu of automated teller-machine cards, and soon the issuance of a credit card became less the issuance of a piece of plastic, and more of the issuance of a set of codes for state-authorized writing to the secondary datastrip on the card.
Possession of hardware and software that could write to the state- datastrip, the primary datastrip on the cards became at first restricted by administrative, and then later by criminal law, regulated by Federal agencies as disparate as the Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate Banking Commission, and the Law-Enforcement Assistance Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Eventually, functions of all of these agencies were consolidated into one subagency of the National Crime Information Center... and thus were born the National Identification and Information Laws.
Meanwhile, welfare mothers worked at substandard wages in the fields, hoping for accumulation of sufficient labor-points to allow them to visit their increasingly estranged children at the "welfare orphanages" (as they came to be called), and as a part of the continuing drive to remove all undocumented workers from the country, it became ever more difficult to secure work without an officially-approved identification card... and when the Social Security Administration announced that it was phasing out its own identification cards and that soon it would accept only official machine-readable State IDs as identification for purposes of entitlements-processing, the last straw was in place.
The old, the young, and the rest of society all had machine- readable IDs by the year 1999.
Without a OneCard, as they came to be known, one simply didn't exist. All other ID, including birth certificates served only as supporting evidence for the issuance of a OneCard, and indeed, new birth certificates were issued in the form of OneCards.
The countryside became nearly overrun with female workers, former Welfare recipients, for the most part. The US Department of Health and Human Services became the nation's largest employer, finally outstripping and eventually absorbing Manpower, Incorporated, in 2000. The new Republican administration functions of Manpower were much more streamlined than any Federal bureaucracy could be, and the administration decided that if Manpower was selling, they'd buy it. HHS had forced Manpower into near collapse, anyways, and the Manpower personnel staff simply got their paychecks from a new source, and did basically the same old jobs, achieving the goals of political will with private-sector efficiency - privatization at its best as far as the ideologues of the mainstream Republican right were concerned. Welfare births dropped precipitously. Out-of-wedlock births became rather rare, since unemployed mothers could look forward to perhaps four years with a baby before they had to give it up and go back to work, hard work in the fields, at substandard pay.
For the parents, a life in the fields was possibly the best life for which they might now hope; a high-school diploma meant simply that one might be eligible for a supervisory position within the entitlements establishment. Without OneCard, and technical schooling, one could hope for little else. The gap between the rich and the destitute grew ever wider, and as the price of education grew and government funding was eliminated, the middle class died, and with it died its morals.
In the work camps, there were reasonably clean beds, showers that worked, and free minor-care medical staff and facilities. In the morning, busses or vans drove cadres to the fields or the orchards, and American agriculture remained profitable and illegal aliens were expelled in droves, mostly returned to Mexico to swell the ranks of the impoverished there, and to foment revolution.
But what of the men? Drifters and hobos who had subsisted for years as migrant undocumented citizens by showing up for work at the various labor halls and pickup-corners found themselves slowly forced into a regimented society. This was obviously not to their tastes, or they'd have been working in factories somewhere. When one state "went OneCard", they tended to move as a group to other states, looking for field work or day-work... but often they found themselves cashless in a state which required that only those who were within the entitlements system be allowed to do manual labor.
Many of these men were petty criminals, vagrants of the sort who are not above stealing chickens for dinner and working only for drinking money. Even when this was not the case, as far as the various state and local government were concerned, these people were simply on the lam from paying local-level taxes. The Federal Government tended to concur, and while legislation was not enacted, simple administrative process ensured that without an official change-of-address procedure, one was considered to be resident at one specific address... and when one was paid by OneCard, the taxes redounding to the local jurisdictions where one was resident were automatically deducted along with the Federal income tax.
As time marched forward, more states began to revise their vagrancy laws. If one was arrested on any charge, and one did not have a OneCard, one was held until identity could be established sufficiently for a OneCard to be issued. From that moment forward, one was, until legally re-registered, a resident of the jurisdiction of the place where the OneCard was issued, and taxes were automatically collected. Small towns everywhere found it in their financial best interests to round up the vagrant and the shiftless, to register them, thus to collect their shares of taxes.
The entire system became more grasping and inclusive as time went on. When one became a OneCard carrier, if one could not prove that one had received a paycheck from a legitimate source within the past month, one automatically was registered as an entitlements recipient. As an entitlements recipient, one was by law required to register for the labor placement services.
Some people regarded this as outright slavery, but the few remaining bleeding-hearts tended to agree that the safe, humane and ultimately beneficent labor camps were not only a more pleasant alternative to homelessness, vagrancy and welfare, but were a positive economic boon. Besides, having eliminated cheap undocumented labor, there simply weren't many alternatives.
They had some valid points. Ever more Americans were employed forty or more hours a week, the numbers of people paying taxes rose ever higher, homelessness was fast becoming a thing of the past, and illegal migrant workers had been nearly eliminated from the economic scene, along with their inevitable associated importations of interestingly obscure tropical parasites and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. The increasing use of the OneCard in almost all payment transactions assured collections of the taxes and fees so vital to a government economy, and the rapid near-elimination of cash allowed much more efficient tracking of the economy, allowing centralized planning and control of economic factors under scientific methods for the first time. Out-of- wedlock births were down, the children of poverty were not suffering neglect and danger in poorly-maintained unhealthy projects, but were instead cared for and coddled in learning- enriched environments. The culture of violence and despair that most agreed was caused by cycles of poor-education, ill-health, malnutrition, and concentration in slumlord Welfare projects was being destroyed, slowly but surely, and the American future, a Republican future, was ever brighter.
Some, however, didn't see all of these changes in a positive light. Some perceived the OneCard as invasive government snooping at best. Many saw it as internal passports, tracking them should they attempt to move to and fro in what had once been a free country. Many resented the fact that their entire educational, health, employment, credit, tax and criminal histories were accessible through one single identification number, to any who had a networked computer and the proper access codes, which were known to be traded as currency in the secret hackers' underground.
Many hated the whole idea so much that they themselves went underground, moving into barter economies, working for food and products rather than cash - but as more of the population came (or were forced) in-system, the various investigators, snoops, social-work busybodies and outright taxmen found it easier to run the out-system people to ground.
By the time that Wilson Forbrush was brought into the system, he'd been one step ahead of the registrars for about ten years. He'd been an "unemployed" (by any major corporation) general-skills man for ten years, taking ten bucks here, fifty there, doing work ranging from gardening to home-computer system-tweaking to earn his meager rent, camping here, renting weekly there. He was willing to work, but he was damned if he was going to stay in one place long enough to fill out the reams of paperwork necessary to pay local taxes. Wilson, you see, was the sort of person who was a connoisseur of the seasons, a traveling man. He had his itinerary, and part of that itinerary was to travel the continent, to stretch his legs, to have some elbow room as a free man in a free country for so long as it remained possible. Wilson was quite convinced that it would not long remain possible, and when he was issued his Maryland Adult Driver's License with magneto-optical striping on the back and barcode on the front, he decided that it was only a matter of time before that card carried another little notation which would state whether or not he was a Party member. He didn't care whether it was a notation of party Communist, or Democrat, or even (god forbid) Republican - he just believed in his heart of hearts that it was nobody's business where he went, what he did, and what his voting record was. He wasn't much of a lawbreaker, aside from the occasional drunken night out, and he didn't believe that every citizen should be required by law to carry a police record, even if that record had no entries on it. A man, he declared, should be by-God innocent until proven guilty, like the Constitution said, and not required to prove his innocence to any fool with a cardreader as a prerequisite to getting work.
He was still declaring that heartfelt belief ten years later, when they finally caught up with him.
By the time they caught Wilson Forbrush, he was no longer so very innocent as he liked to pretend. No, Wilson had not turned to a life of crime, robbing henhouses or citizens, mugging little old ladies or committing burglaries. Wilson Forbrush was, among other things, guilty of interstate tax evasion.
He'd worked in Texas, one of the last bastions of a cash economy. Indeed, Texas had come close to seceding from the Union over the Federal requirement that income taxes be automatically withheld at the time of payments when payments were made to OneCard. The Federals had run a dataworm on all of the Texas banks, recording transactions to remote and then destroying accounts information. Texas capitulated, and the same dataworm rewrote the accounts information... but as a result, wherever possible, loyal Texans did their damnedest to not keep money in banks. The massive withdrawals of cash from national banking systems caused the Federals to declare a bank holiday in Texas, but the damage was done. Texas retained the cash economy required for Wilson to live under-the-table. Wilson made some connections down in Texas, gaining a reputation as a good steady reliable worker, and migrated with the seasons, working on Texan-owned farms in Idaho and Montana.
It all came down when he tried to buy a tidy little laptop-and- beltcom package-deal at a datashop near Pocatello, Idaho, and the owner tried to register him for the beltcom service. Wilson, who had intended to barter the beltcom for some software, backed out of the package deal, not wanting to have to present a driver's license so out of date that it didn't even have the secondary "user" datastrip used in lieu of cash in most places. It would have made things so much easier for the clerk to simply slide his and Wilson's OneCards through the point-of-sale reader, instantly registering Wilson's new beltcom and laptop, applying for a com account, registering warrantees and transferring payment to the various suppliers, vendors, and credit/banking agencies who made all of these transactions so instantaneous and trouble-free. Wilson insisted on paying cash. The store, being the bastion of the vanguard of the technophiles that it was, didn't even have a cash-register, just a point-of-sale OneCard reader. Wilson canceled the sale, and walked out muttering something to the effect that the Global Village was getting more like the Global Jail all of the time. The clerk smelled a rat in the walls of the Global Village, and immediately called the local constabulary, who promptly collared Wilson.
The cops pulled their multidrive vehicle up alongside him as he was walking the dusty trail back towards the ranch, and demanded ID. Wilson had been dreading this for years, but his circumspect manners, good behavior and the fact that he didn't drive had so far spared him the indignity of presenting an expired driver's license. The cops promptly hauled him in for having no valid ID, as a holding charge pending investigation. He was also charged with vagrancy. He protested this, since he had about eight hundred dollars in US currency in his pockets. The cops asked him why he wasn't aware that the vagrancy law, as amended, required that one have the statutory ten dollars on hand as credit on his OneCard.
The cops ran his ID, and it turned out that he hadn't filed a Maryland income-tax return for the last nine years. When confronted with this damning evidence, Wilson told the local Justice of the Peace (who was acting as police commissioner) that he hadn't lived in Maryland for nine years. "Well, son, I reckon that since you didn't legally change your address when you moved, you're still legally a resident, and as a resident you owe them income taxes. At least, that's the way they see it, they've extradited you."
Actually, he'd been extradited by a computer. It had simply found his name on a list of deadbeats who had not responded to dunning within a statutory time limit, and had sent a fax equivalent of a form-letter requesting that he be held for ten days, pending final request for extradition. When a supervisor was presented with a small pile of such forms at the end of the day, three of which he was supposed to prefer for actual extradition-proceedings confirmation, he had leafed through them looking for one that was interesting enough to warrant the expense of extradition. When he saw that Wilson was still using a dead license from ten years ago, a bell went off in his bureaucratic little mind. On his deskterm, he opened a window into the online Code of Federal Regulations, and ran a quick search, and a smile lit up his face. Not only did he get to throw several books at someone, but this could actually be the makings of a promotion. Yes, he decided, I shall make Wilson Forbrush a Federal Case, and a major career-move for me.
When Wilson and his escort emerged from the airport terminal, he was promptly re-arrested by a Baltimore County Sheriff, who served papers for County income tax evasion. He was also served papers for income tax evasion for the City of Baltimore, and was hit with a sheaf of services from various collection agencies who had, in turn, dunned him repeatedly for these overdue taxes and their fees for this service. Wilson was not feeling so very free at this moment.
In court, he was able to pay off all of the taxes directly, though this left about forty dollars in his pocket. Oddly enough, the state did accept cash payment for taxes, as there was some antique law on the books which rejected the concept of usury. There was, however, the little matter of some forty counts of various state charges of failure to register change of address within thirty days. Despite his best efforts, he'd left a paper-trail (data, actually) behind him which could reliably place him in a great many states, illegally residing in those places for more than the statutory thirty days allowed before a mandatory change-of-address filing.
Wilson and his attorney argued that this was unlawful discrimination against a person for traveling, and that the Constitution forbade the regulation of travel. The various States Attorneys argued that the states had a right to collect taxes and to require voter registration, and that voter registration could not be legitimized except through establishment of residency. The States' motions and arguments were carried, the argument being that travel was permitted, but serial residency was not so protected, and that serial residency amounted to vagrancy. Wilson's attorney fell neatly into the trap, trying to argue against vagrancy charges by demonstrating that Wilson had been gainfully employed in all of those locations. States'-Attorneys were promptly notified by the clerk-of-court, and they all immediately filed charges for tax evasion, all on top of their various jurisdictions' charges of failure-to-register. Wilson's attorney subpoenaed the records of such employers as Wilson could remember, thus attracting a bit of ill will. Wilson's bill was skyrocketing by the moment.
The whole affair became one big media circus, and a political football. Wilson was made out to be some sort of wandering sinister Manson-type, and enhanced photos and digital "reconstructions" of some wild-haired unkempt individual purported to be Wilson Forbrush were widely aired. Prominent psychiatrists and social workers publicly vilified Wilson's "type", some even directly stating that anyone who would go to such extents to remain out-of-system must be a traveling serial killer. Yes, Wilson Forbrush was a menace, and he must be put away for the good of all.
And so, a quiet hard-working man who simply liked to work out-of- doors wherever the weather happened to be nice at that season was found guilty of income-tax evasion, failure to register changes- of-address, and interstate flight to avoid prosecution... the important part of the whole proceeding being this: Had he been in- system, and used his OneCard like a good citizen, his taxes would have been automatically deducted, and his changes of address registered, and no prosecutions would have been necessary. Had Wilson fulfilled the requirements of registration and taxation, he would have been guilty of no crimes, but filling out the paperwork would have occupied a substantial amount of his time.
The whole syndrome was quickly named peripateticism by a media figure, a "social scientist" whose career had been composed of much sensationalistic speculation on the motivations of various media-demonized misfits such as Wilson Forbrush.
Wilson's crime was finally codified into a single law, and concurrently, the OneCard finally was legislated to be the official National Identity Card, which was also the one legal means of exchange. Of course, due to the "ex-post-facto" clause in the Constitution, Wilson himself could not be directly charged with this crime; however, the media made quite sure that whenever the word "peripatetic" came up in conversation, memories of Wilson's face immediately surfaced in the minds of any who heard the word.
Wilson was fined a rather nominal sum, amounting to full payment of the various back-taxes on his estimated income. Wilson hadn't made a whole lot of money, and thus his taxes had been really quite low. The States, having had their opportunity to publicly pillory him, declined to seek criminal proceedings for the income- tax evasions... besides, it could conceivably have gone to the Supreme Court on a variety of issues, and nobody wanted to upset their various applecarts. Wilson at first just wanted it to be over, allowing that he was not inclined to litigate, and thus he was simply fined, as part of a negotiated settlement.
Wilson, still not quite understanding what had happened to him, was sent to a light-security facility. They'd have just put him back on the street with a garnishee on his wages if they could have done that, but there was one little problem... Wilson, having received the benefits of a public-expense attorney, had legally received entitlements. As an able-bodied entitlements-recipient, he was required to report to a Welfare Office for labor placement, and he simply refused, on the grounds that he was appealing the various decisions that had broken him financially. His argument was that he had been legally penalized for exercising his rights to travel and to work, and to refuse to carry an illegal internal passport. He had been taken from the courthouse directly to the Welfare Office, transported with pre-release prisoners, and he simply told them that he was going to be damned if he was going to let some court sell him into slavery, since Debtor's Prisons had long ago been abolished, and slavery was unConstitutional.
"Whatever," said the harried Welfare official, pressing a button on his desk. "Your decision, buddy." A guard appeared, and the official told him, "He says he won't work." The guard grasped Wilson by the arm and began to hustle him away. By now, Wilson knew better than to resist. He did ask the guard where he was going and why.
"Well," said the guard, "We can't very well just turn you out on the street, now can we? You don't want to work, and so you're on entitlements, and if you don't want to work for your entitlements, you aren't allowed to work at all. And we can't give you your entitlements for nothing, so if we can't pay you we have to lock you up."
Wilson told the guard he didn't quite understand this.
"If you can't work, and you don't have any money, then you'll turn into a criminal and we'll have to lock you up anyway."
"If I have to work or be locked up, how is this not slavery?" he demanded of the guard.
"Oh," said the guard, "in slavery, if you don't work, you get beaten."
In the jail, Wilson resolved that he was not going to let the system win so simply. He was just settling down to the idea of sitting around and watching TV a lot when he was taken from Administration to his holding area. He was shown his room. It had a bed in it, and some extra bedclothes, and that was it.
"No TV, no radio?" he inquired.
"Nope, no books, no paper, nothing but basic entitlements, food, water, and shelter, and medical treatment if you need it. There's TVs at the work camps, though," the guard said brightly. Wilson scowled.
"Hell," the guard laughed, "we have to give you some incentive to work, right? The camps are co-ed, besides, you know."
"Right," said Wilson.
Wilson woke fresh and early the next day, having been bored to sleep by the utter lack of anything whatsoever to do. Inmates were locked in at nine o'clock. A hideously distorted voice over a cheap bullhorn woke him at six, and the communal breakfast was presided over by an unfailingly cheerful fellow who commented on the purported high quality of the food, read the day's headlines to them, and exhorted them to check out the employment opportunities which could be inquired after at the Administration block.
Wilson choked down the industrial fare of cholesterol-free egg substitute, salt- and fat-free bacon, and decaffeinated coffee with aspartame sweetener and non-dairy creamer. He followed the rest of the glum inmates into the common area, where they were forced to listen to a lecture on proper techniques of writing resumes. Afterwards, there was more decaf, and then a lecture on grooming and manners pertaining to job interviews. He found himself drifting into reveries and daydreams as he stared fixedly at the speaker's red tie through his awesome caffiene-deprivation headache.
Lunch was also terrible, in a sad hollow way. He couldn't remember worse food, unless it was some outdated-surplus Weight-Watchers- type "cuisine" he'd been given at a homeless shelter years ago. Throughout the entire tasteless but healthy meal, he listened to a harangue on the subject of the social benefits of total employment and its relation to the economic competitiveness of America.
"Does it ever get any better?" he asked of a fellow across the table from him, who regarded him sourly.
"Wait until dinner..." the fellow remarked, and then a guard came over and told them that there was no talking in class. The fellow across the table smirked knowingly at Wilson, and then resumed forcing his unseasoned pasta salad down his throat.
After lunch, they were all led through a long hall to a rather well-appointed gymnasium that would have been the envy of any health-club. They were divided up into groups, and put to the treadmills and weights. Wilson tried to hang back, but an extremely healthy-looking individual wearing a tracksuit of the same color as the rest of the guards told him, "Exercise is not optional."
Three hours later, a very tired and hungry Wilson was nodding over his mung-bean and tofu soup. He managed to eat it all, and surprised himself by asking for seconds. Lost in his haze of incredible exhaustion, he was able to ignore the chants of the cheerleading section, who was going on interminably about the reciprocal responsibilities of worker, employer, citizen and state.
The next day was Administration day, where they were led up to the Admin wing, and given form upon form to fill out. Wilson made fairly short work of his forms, and then he went to peruse the employment opportunities bulletin board.
The outlook was not so bleak as he had thought. There were a wide variety of opportunities listed, everything from manual labor to systems analysis. He heard his name called, and went to the desk.
"OneCard, please," said the clerk. Wilson, like everyone else there, wore it around his neck on a lightweight chain. The overalls they had been provided had no pockets. The clerk ran his card through a reader slot, and then handed the card back to him. He told Wilson, "Just go to the bulletin board and select something that you want to apply for. Slot your card, and if it stays selected, you're automatically registered as an applicant. Of course, as a Welfare prisoner, you're about the last person who'd ever be considered, but it never hurts to try."
Wilson did as advised, registering for several inside jobs. What Wilson didn't know was that all of these jobs were also listed on the bulletin boards at the various labor camps, and each inside job had probably some five thousand applicants. These jobs were all listed solely for the purpose of getting hard workers out of the labor camps. If one was at the labor camps for a certain time (ten years, minimum) or if one was obviously being wasted in the fields, efforts were made to place the workers into a suitable position, or to create a suitable position if need be. Wilson was of course not informed that the only class of jobs listed on this bulletin board for which he might ever be hired were field labor positions. Despite the best efforts of the Welfare Office to place hard workers in inside positions, it was still necessary to the greater economy that there be agricultural workers laboring practically for free (once administrative and support costs had been discounted). Thus, everybody who could be directed, by hook or crook, into the camps for labor in the fields was so directed.
After two weeks at the Welfare Prison, Wilson had learned of this fact. What he hadn't figured out on his own, he heard from other inmates. The one place they were allowed to talk amongst themselves was the gymnasium, and the word got around. There was only one way out of this place, and that was the fields. Wilson was actually quite used to the work that was offered, had done it by preference and choice for the last five years, and indeed, the thought of following an entire farming season in the well-worked fields of Frederick County sounded rather appealing. It wasn't as if the work would be any harder than what he presently was doing; he'd gained about ten pounds and firmed considerably under the diet and exercise program. He simply didn't want to lose to the system in this manner.
He did wind up being selected for a program which was the Welfare System's equivalent of selling blood. One could gain preferment points by volunteering for medical experimentation, in this case, "vaccine testing". He applied, and was accepted, and the vaccine didn't seem to have hurt him any. He also hadn't gotten sick since they'd tested it on him. He still wondered, though, exactly why they'd had those Federal types in on it.
Wilson still refused to apply for any of the labor placements, and so he languished healthily (as it were) at the Welfare Prison.
About three months after he'd been through the vaccine testing, he was checking out the bulletin board one day, he did manage to come across a listing that seemed rather special. He could get in as technical support on a road gang. That sounded rather odd. Surfacing equipment repair? He'd discovered that he could do inquiries of the bulletin board, it wasn't just a simple hypertext display with totally turnkey operation. He figured that as bulked up as he was, depending on the type of roads that were being built, he might as well consider it. He'd be traveling, and he'd be a part of something large and lasting, and that also appealed to him. He slotted his card and touched the screen to bring up more information. As he thought, he'd be doing something with surfacing equipment. He keyed for application, assuming that he'd be rejected.
Two days later, returning from the workout, where he'd just done enough reps to turn his rather solid biceps to a state somewhat equivalent to that of gruel, he heard his name paged. He slotted his card at one of the wallcoms and the screen lit with a strange face.
"Wilson Forbrush, sir?"
"Uh, yes, Mr. Forbrush, you've scored high on our primary sort for the position of Support Tech IV. Would you care for an interview?"
"Why, yes, sir!"
"Got a few minutes?"
"Certainly! Um, pardon my appearance, I was working out."
The man sized him up through the medium resolution-screen, and said, "Good! Always did like to see a man who takes good care of himself! I also like to take a man who takes care of himself off of relief, too. Your intelligence and education scores are all in the higher percentiles of those who have applied for this job, and while many others much more intelligent have applied for this job, none were in the physical condition you're in. This is a very demanding job, physically, you'd be doing what amounts to a rolling rebuild on a number of surfacing machines. This is new construction, and you might have to do some ditchdigging-type stuff, power-equipment, of course. One thing I'd like to know, why is it that you're on entitlement? There's nothing on your record that says why..."
"Uh, sir, I was doing migrant piece-work for the last ten years or so, and I just wasn't in the system, and got behind in my taxes, and next thing I know, I got brought in-system, and bang. Found myself here, and I'd sure rather do what you're offering than simple field work."
The man reached offscreen, and a restful pattern replaced him for a moment as he shelled his deskterm to files and then he returned. "Ah, yes, I can see that the field camps would be a waste of your skills. Rather eclectic for a migrant worker, aren't you?"
"Well, sir, I found that if you do your job and also pay attention to what's going on around you, you can learn new things as well, and with a little knowledge, and a good line, you can often get work that includes the old knowledge, gives you new knowledge, and allows you to improve yourself through all of it. And I do already have a certain amount of heavy mechanical skills, I worked on a lot of farm equipment as I followed the harvests around. I was a migrant worker, but I tried to get more support-type work wherever possible. I'd rather drive a hay-baler than pick up the bales."
"Uh, yes, I can see that. Well, this wouldn't start for about three weeks. Let me get to your supervisor, I think that you'll do nicely. OK with you?"
"You mean I've got the job?"
"As soon as it starts, unless you get something better, in which case let me know."
"I'll take it sir! Thank you very much!"
"Thank me after you've been working it for a few months, son. Endit."
"Yes, sir! Endit, sir!"
The picture vanished, and Wilson pulled his card from the slot and let out a rebel yell, which got him an extra hour of gym two days later.
Coming out of the extra hour of gym, which left him feeling almost exhilarated, Wilson discovered that he had been scheduled for classes and testing on the equipment he'd possibly be using. This was a plus, since the classes, when passed above a certain grade, were credit courses, transferable to either On-The-Job credit or college credit. In either case, he would receive pay equal to the pay he'd have gotten had he been out in a field camp. If he was able to drag the testing out to fifteen days or so, he'd actually be free of his tax-debt and associated fines, and if he could prove that he had gainful employment waiting, he'd be free of the Welfare System's entitlements hell.
The testing was exhaustive, running the gamut of simple questions regarding the types of lubricants that should be used for various parts of various machines, through engine and electrical-motor maintenance procedures, to hydraulic systems, and then, oddly, back to electrical motors, dynamos, and polyphase electrical power generation. He was taking a break for lunch and was knocking down a second helping of tomato juice, when a man wearing the plain- white collar of mid-level Admin staff seated himself next to him.
"How do you like the test program?"
"Um, pretty hairy," Wilson allowed. "How'm I doing?"
"Actually, you're doing, well, can't say. Heh." The man chuckled. "Reason I asked about the test, oh, Harry's the name." He extended his hand, and Wilson shook it. The man had a firm handshake for a deskjockey. "It's one of the new advanced tests Welfare is trying out. It's semi AI-driven, when it detects certain strengths in your fields of knowledge, it tries to branch out to determine the limits of your knowledge, so as to not waste time in the teaching sessions later. D'ja notice anything unusual about it?"
Wilson grunted, and gulped the sandwich bite he'd been
"Yup," said Harry, "It's an odd program. What it's trying to do is to help you sneak into the next level by supplying information at this level. Pretty soon, it'll be trying to further determine where your limits of knowledge are, what you knew when you came in here, and what you know when you go out, and it'll assign transferable credit for what you knew at one conversion rate, and what you learn at another conversion rate... and since the experiential credit is worth a little less than the new-learning credit, it'll try to make you learn as much as possible. Oh, hell, I'm probably spilling too many beans here. Nice talkin' to ya," he concluded, and got up to wander towards the serving rail.
"Uh, seeya," muttered Wilson towards Harry's back, and then dug into the sandwich again.
The next day's testing was exhaustive, even more so than the previous test. By the end of the day, Wilson had learned more than he had thought possible about the maintenance of road-laying equipment. He also was briefed and tested on refueling and resupplying the equipment, and evidently did well. The testing ended with the admonition that tomorrow there would be no tests, but that the day after, there would be exhaustive physical testing.
Wilson looked forward to seeing Harry, but Harry was not in evidence at dinner. However, when he returned to his room, a terminal had been added. It was a very light-duty terminal, a very basic model with only a OneCard slot, and a touchscreen display. He turned it on, and the menu came onto the screen. Broadcast media was not an option, but there was a variety of educational data available, all of it directly related to the job to which he'd applied. Wilson moaned, thinking that he was going to get another hypertext lesson/test, but when he pressed for the first topic, he got a nice little multimedia presentation, evidently a promotional disk from the manufacturer.
Wilson, it appeared, was to be operating the Caterpillar/Asplundh model RL-442, "the final part of the most advanced AI-driven surfacing system available". It was a honey, if you went for heavy equipment. The RL-442 itself was a final surfacer laying what amounted to finish coats upon base. The major application was surfacing large outdoor athletic courts. The company couldn't have made very many of them, Wilson decided. How many outdoor athletic courts could there possibly be in America? Especially outdoor athletic courts with the hideously expensive polyresin "cured" surfaces? The RL-442 could not be very fast. It might move a mile a day, under ideal conditions. The machine was designed to not only lay and cure surface, but to embed any reeled or linear cabling or webbing as it surfaced. The spiel went on and on, and much to his chagrin, Wilson found that he understood rather more of the spiel than he'd ever wanted to understand. He wasn't at all sure how this related to road surfacing.
The next blurb informed him about the generic wonders of AI-driven heavy equipment. Wilson had, during his travels, occasionally seen various telefactors and robots doing heavy work. Mostly, they worked as teams doing demolition-type work. Some were scarcely more than bulldozers with controls mounted on long cables, doing the sort of dusty onerous work that used to be done by illegal aliens. The only one he'd ever seen up close had been an odd bulldozer-type device, about the size of a large office trailer on tracks, which had slowly crawled across the rubble of a dynamited building, very slowly sorting metal from masonry debris. The metal went in one pile, and the masonry went onto a conveyor belt, which carried it to a waiting dumptruck. The operator had looked incredibly bored, and Wilson had not envied him his job. Basically, the poor man had been stuck up on a platform adjacent to the machine, listening for horrible grinding sounds, in which case he was to turn the machine off if it didn't shut itself down. It was evidently not a very smart machine, because it paused several times in the hour that Wilson had watched it, apparently having encountered something which it couldn't classify. Wilson hoped that the RL-422 would be a bit smarter. What the hell, a job was a job - or would be a job, provided that he did better on this test than any of probably several hundred other applicants.
Wilson sat through several other presentations, each lifted entire from the marketing department of the various heavy-equipment manufacturers. There was something missing from the presentation, and that something was not a something that Wilson's imagination could supply. What exactly was the whole point of all of this incredible new high-tech road equipment? Why would the government need the RL-422, which was best suited for laying outdoor athletic courts? Why would they be using it in combination with an automated cement-chopper, and why, if this was a major road-construction project, was there no information on heavy earth-movers? Wilson just assumed that they hadn't shown him any of that information because they'd already filled that position.
The next day, with no testing, they decided to send him to the gym early, and worked his ass off, making up for lost time, he supposed. The gym-staff seemed particularly sadistic today, in Wilson's estimation.
The next day, physically exhausted, Wilson reported for testing after the breakfast-qua-propagandisation-session. He was led to a room adjacent to the previous testing area, and was surprised to see, among all of the other artifacts of what appeared to be a laboratory, a small telefactor. It was perhaps five feet long, three high, looking rather like some giant metallic insect. It rested mantis-like, legs bent high, belly close to the floor, handling arms folded in apparent prayer. Harry bustled in from another connecting room and greeted him.
"How's it going today, Wilson?"
"Uh, Ok, I guess. What's on the schedule? What's with the robot?" Wilson scratched his head as he studied the device.
"Telefactor, Wilson, it's a telefactor. Border Defenders are robots. This one doesn't have much Artificial Intelligence. It's got a lot of onboard processors, but that's purely systems-controllers. This won't do a damned thing unless you tell it to - which is what we're testing today. How fast and well can you learn to control a telefactor?"
"I dunno, I never tried. Uh, right, you can't test learning speed unless it's new learning, huh?"
Harry grinned at him, and said, "You got it. Here ya go." Harry led him to a workstation. Besides the inevitable touchscreen, it had six other smaller screens laid out like an inverted cross. There was a dizzying array of controls, vernier knobs, and analog displays. "Siddown," said Harry. Wilson sat.
Harry stuck his hands in his pockets, stared at the ground for a moment, obviously gathering himself, and then looked up and said, "Top right hand corner of the workstation. Big red knob. Pull on. So you know, that's the emergency master switch, if anything goes wrong, just slap it, the telefactor will freeze, and everything powers-down. Go ahead," he said as Wilson grasped the knob and looked at him quizzically. Wilson pulled, and the telefactor hummed to life. It remained motionless, but a slight whirring started, and rose to a higher pitch as it pressurized its hydraulic and pneumatic systems. It beeped once, and quivered slightly, and then beeped again.
While this was happening, the workstation also came to life. The main touchscreen lit, and checklists marched down the screen. Harry pointed at the touchscreen, and said, "That's the main systems screen, it shows status, lists tasks that you assign, system error reports, that sort of stuff. These others (he indicated the six screens laid out in the cross) are your views, from the telefactor's onboard optics. The center one is the forward view, the top is rear, between them is up, bottom is down, left, right, you get the picture." Indeed Wilson could see the two of them in the telefactor's rear view.
"So what can this thing do?" Wilson asked.
"Just like a computer," Harry said, "just about anything you can figure out how to tell it, it can do. The difference being, this programmable device acts on the physical world, not on data. I sort of mis-spoke myself, this one can act on its own, but only after you tell it to do so. It has to have a certain amount of intelligence, so that it won't walk off of a cliff if you tell it to do that, but it certainly can't be said to think or anything. It might be as smart as, say, a cockroach. But it doesn't have any volition. It'll sit there until hell freezes over unless you tell it to do something, but once it's been instructed, it can do fairly complex things. It'll sort, stack, lay end to end, join, fetch, carry, and, well, as long as it doesn't require the ability to think for itself, pretty much anything, within its physical limitations. It'll never run, or jump. One of the reasons that most telefactors have six legs or have tires or treads is because they're really not very good at righting themselves if they fall over. It can scuttle along pretty quickly, but the routines that would allow it to actually run, well, let's just say that differing gaits are really difficult to program. It can pace, and it can scuttle, but it can't scamper, scurry, lope, canter or gallop."
"Well, how do I tell it to move?"
The workstation had finished its warm-up as they had talked, and Harry now pointed to the status screen. "Okay, see this diagram? Okay, look, touch the center pad, and drag-to forward." Wilson did, and the telefactor walked forward three paces, and stopped at the wall. It made a sort of soft metallic slithering sound as it moved, the sort of sound that you'd expect from a snake covered with chain-mail, or the sound that one sometimes heard from defective harddrives. At the wall, it stood quietly, scarcely humming.
"See?" Harry grinned. "I told you it had some intelligence. It won't come closer than two feet to a wall, and it tries to avoid freestanding objects by the same distance. Okay, tell it to turn around." In response to Wilson's inquiring look, he added: "Drag in a circle around the center pad, in whichever way you want it to turn." Wilson dragged counterclockwise, and the telefactor moved leftwards in a slow circle.
"Okay, now what?"
"Okay, pull down the menu from the bar, under Environment... okay now select Map, Optical." A quadrant of the screen blanked and showed a top view of the room, with the walls and most of the larger objects in the room showing, including the workstation and themselves. The telefactor itself was shown, rather stylizedly. Wilson said, "I notice that it only maps the objects it can see. Can't make assumptions, huh?"
"Nope, and you can't either. See?" Harry indulged in a brief chuckle. He pointed to the map display, which had a small sign in the corner which said: PARTIAL. "So pull down the menu again, Environment, Map, Explore... and keep your hand near the killswitch."
Wilson did so and the telefactor came to life again. It took two steps toward them, and stopped for a second, then took two steps sideways to its right, and then walked past their central location. It circled the workstation, and then stopped again.
Harry pointed at the map and Wilson saw that it had been updated, with all of the objects in the room reduced to stylized icons. The workstation icon on the map was highlighted, and the status screen now had a textprompt flashing, and there was a question visible there.
Wilson touched the Yes icon, and Harry remarked, "It wants to be especially careful of its brain. Wouldn't want it to back up over its own brain, now would we? We had a situation where a telefactor with considerably more onboard intelligence than this one has was digging out some pipe, and the control unit got smashed by another telefactor whose operator wasn't watching closely enough... the telefactor went on yanking pipe on its own until it yanked out a power main and that got it sent to recycling. After that, they made them a little more aware of where their own brains were, and others' brains as well. First thing they do when they power up is look for brains."
"OK, so now what?" Wilson couldn't keep enthusiasm out of his voice.
"Having fun, huh?"
Wilson finished that day a frazzled wreck. At dinner, his mind spun with all of the new skills he'd begun to acquire, and he hardly noticed when Harry sat down next to him. "Mmmphi, Hi," he mumbled through his veggie pizza.
"Job's yours, conditionally," Harry said.
Wilson gulped mightily, and grabbed Harry's hand and shook it. "Ahem," he said, "Uh, hot damn! When do I start?"