by Nathaniel McKenzie
The streets around the station had caught a glitter from the early morning rain, and as sunlight poured between the towers, every surface sparkled. In the puddles between the tracks, the city was shattered into shards of the 21st century ambition that built it.
Stillness prevailed—a coiled anticipation. The only permanent denizens idled, ready to serve: law enforcement drones hovered at the end and beginning of their patrols; auto-kiosks stood, shutters open, steam curling from espresso bays; city-roombas lurked in alleys ready to suck up litter; adverts lay ready to broadcast targeted pitches to the coming rush. Behind every wall, floor, and pillar programs and machinery hummed in neutral—an orchestra held by the raised hands of its conductor.
Keith watched the city swell to engulf the train, staring out as the avenue of towers rose around the tracks. His morning music—slow sitar overlain by a duet in Hindi and Portuguese—played languidly, barely drowning out the murmur of the carriage behind him. Normally, this was his favourite part of the day—a meditative peace that washed from his commute through his day, providing him deep, enduring comfort—but, today, it was little comfort. He twisted at his hair and gnawed at his nails.
Marriage, he thought. It was a terribly old-fashioned idea, but it felt right. He wanted to commit—to declare his intention publicly amongst his friends and family. To tell his truth. But before that lay the question, and the answer. That morning, something had fallen away within him and he’d realized he was unsure what Surinder would say. Surinder, his Surinder: the man who ate tangerines without peeling them and always got juice everywhere; who talked about chemistry the way others talk about movies; who he’d whisked away to Zanzibar for a beach holiday just four months into their relationship only to find him driving them into Stone Town to explore the old slave markets. Surinder with his cross-eyed grins and his irritating way of turning every dinner party into a political brawl. Surinder who was out of his league; Surinder who might say No.
The train jerked to a halt, pulling Keith from his thoughts.
Shimmying and sidling between his fellow commuters as they extracted bags from overhead compartments, he stepped out into the full-bodied petrichor.
The plaza beyond the station was a labyrinth of queues for coffee, dappled by the shadows of drones overhead. Keith walked with purpose, tuning out the adverts that squeezed in between songs and scuttled over every flat surface declaring promises of weekend escapes, resorts, cleaner shaves, and fragrances that might seduce impossibly handsome men.
Faces surfaced briefly from the crowd, throwing up snatches of public profiles—recent Facebook photos, instagram posts, dating, and hook-up profiles. But, caught in his head, Keith avoided eye contact, paying just enough attention to avoid collisions, and headed for the subway.
He clicked through the turnstiles, stepped onto the escalators, and let the ground swallow him. As he stood through his descent, his contact lenses expanded to seize his peripheries. A moment of darkness ensued. Then he was somewhere else. Immersed in an advert—one of his—promoting the newest dating app.
Before him, a full moon hung over mountains bristling with stone pines. He could almost feel the warm summer breeze. A restaurant enfolded him—Italian, Spanish, maybe Greek. Across the table sat a well-muscled white man, slight stubble grazing a square jaw. His new companion laughed inaudibly, biceps tensing as he slapped the table, and a woman’s voice whispered over the pantomime ‘Find your bliss.’
Keith’s feet found solid ground; the advert dissipated, his contacts shrinking back into transparence. Standing at the base of the escalator, he found himself smiling; it was oddly comforting that the targeting systems hadn’t picked up his intentions, hadn’t known. He’d heard so many stories of the algorithms turning prophet, informing people of their pregnancies, impending breakups, and firings. But what if it knows he’ll refuse, a rogue thought like a bull through the streets, could it know?
He got off the subway a stop early to visit the retail district. Mind still stuck in Surinder, he emerged into sunlight onto a broad boulevard cut by stripes of lush vegetation. Ranks of restaurants lined the street. Suited servers hovered around the breakfast crowd, ready to swoop in to replenish any emptying glass. Artisanal bakeries bustled with personal shoppers of the wealthy, homemakers returning from dropping off the kids, and others— foot tapping, heads cocked or on their phones checking their feeds, email, the time—treating themselves before work. Above them hung a haze of reviews, posts, selfies and pictures, each set in a colour-coded square and sized by their influence, likes, and reach. They formed a digital smog that vaulted from eve to eve, and roiled as new posts puffed up to join the old.
No adverts pestered him. And, if he looked down, he could pretend he was in a city of old. Still the spreads behind the glass were whispered temptations—a seduction that he feared his diet would not survive. So he kept his eyes down or ahead, looking at the plants and the drying tarmac, tunnel-gaze only flickering as the shadows of drones blinked over the street.
Gradually, the delis, bakeries, and restaurants gave way to boutiques selling reconditioned vintage clothes, artisanal crockery, and antique furniture. Still, he kept his eyes down until his destination towered over him: a four-story building with sleek black walls and gaping displays of white silk and scattered with red pillows. A single piece of jewelry was draped over each pillow, each was a statement of simple, elegant, opulence.
Keith tried the door. It was locked. Shit, he hadn’t checked. Of course he hadn’t; too wrapped up in his doubts as always. He winced to himself, imagining Surinder’s sardonic smile—the smile that would wrap itself around his man’s face if—when—he told him. Sheepishly, he looked for opening hours on the storefront. There were none displayed on the door, or on the windows: just a simple logo in gold. Keith pulled his phone from his pocket, and searched for the hours: 11:30, guess I’m coming back at lunch.
Gripped by his mistake, he paused, looking at the windows full of jewels and up over the edifice—camera-bulbs, gold skirting, water stains on the black-clad wall. Gradually, he became aware of a presence beside him.
A man stood to his right, hunched, head down. He was dressed—anachronistically—in the loose coveralls of the city’s old waste management service, a department that had been given over to machines a little over a decade before. He noticed the splitting, ragged rubber of the man’s boots, and the dirt beneath his nails before he averted his gaze, frowning. Homeless, he thought, I thought they shipped them all off. Guilt guttered in him. Still, he studiously ignored the man as he struck off to work.
Keith found his intern, Ndidiamaka, in their shared office. She was standing perfectly still in the middle of the room, back to the door. A detached camera-bulb, its cords looping up into the ceiling socket, lay on his desk like a gouged-out eyeball.
Amused and more than a little curious, he lingered by the doorway, watching her.
Alongside her work as his intern, Ndidiamaka was an engineer and a masters student in the sociology of technology; in exchange for her seemingly inexhaustible labour, his firm—AdSight—provided her the data she needed for her thesis project on automation in advertising. Over the months she’d shared his office, he’d seen her devise dozens of bizarre side-projects. More often than not, they failed.
After a minute stood stock still, she checked a tablet beside the camera. Whatever it showed elicited a stream of frustrated muttering.
Keith cleared his throat; Ndidiamaka jumped.
“Shit! Sorry, sorry—I expected to have this mess cleared up long before you came in!”
“It’s quite alright Ndidi, I didn’t mean to startle you… but what, exactly, are you doing?”
“Well, uh, I stayed late last night crunching data for my thesis—it’s due in two weeks can you believe it? And the lights kept on going out—I’d have to jump around every ten minutes to keep them on! So I tried to fix it, and it kind of spiralled from there…”
“…Oh-kay,” Keith stepped around her to slide his briefcase onto the other side of his desk, “well, I’m going to need my desk back at some point.”
“Right, of course—this camera is refusing to see me when I stand still anyways, something to do with the contrast settings. I can’t seem to get around the firmware, been trying for the last three hours—”
“Ndidi, did you go home last night?” At this question, her face became a rictus of guilt, “Ndidi! We talked about this! Am I going to need to start kicking you out of the office when I leave? It’s not healthy!”
“Right, right… I’m sorry, mum. I won’t do it again…” she rubbed the bridge of her nose, “could you help me get the camera back into the ceiling?”
He sighed, “Alright.”
He had to stand on a chair to feed the wires back into the gut of the ceiling. It took several attempts to get it to loop just right and, all the while, Ndidiamaka stood behind him, nervously holding the chair and occasionally giving him ‘helpful’ directions. Finally, with a satisfying click, it twisted in. He clambered down to solid ground and, installing himself at his desk, pulled on a VR headset.
Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs. Beneath him, programs ran through a century of footage shot on phones, cameras, and whatever other recording equipment. They pulled out anything relevant, trying to find anything that might go viral or enhance the immersive advertising experience. The way the light hit a building, a fragment of graffiti, the sunset over Mount Cameroon, the ranks of cans at a supermarket: everything would be spliced together.
But the programs were not perfect. They did not, for instance, understand the unspoken rules of society, and what rules they did understand they applied mercilessly. For instance, early in his career, Keith had had to press refresh on an entire campaign for Cutesie, a makeup manufacturer’s new line of products for high-school children when the software started spitting out nothing but hardcore porn. Similarly, he’d had to press reset on the campaign for Gladiator Razors after their request for a ‘martial aesthetic’ caused some rogue element to make SS officers the protagonists of every clip.
Thankfully, those extremes were exceptions. Mostly he dealt with the ten percent of adverts that were jumbled mishmashes that made no sense and the other ten percent that, while coherent, accidentally undermined the clients’ brands.
When forced to discuss his job at parties, Keith would tell people that the most interesting part of his job was the subtle art of negotiating the borders of offense. Many of the best advertisements pressed right up against the lines: they threatened transgression. The rules were of marketing were a morass of contradictions that few programs could untangle, none efficiently. Which was lucky, because that was why Keith still had a job. So he sat, VR glasses on, flickering from ad to ad, pushing some through to the automated decision-making processes above him and deleting others.
Most days he felt as though he was trapped between rising flood waters and an impermeable ceiling.
That morning, Keith was faced with a raft of adverts prepared for his agency’s newest client: Saber Security Solutions, a provider of anti-crime systems for supermarkets, homes, and corner stores. He fell into the first ad.
A woman stood before a rack of diapers, grainy in the ancient footage. The scene resolved itself, shedding a century’s baggage to become crisp. It was as though he was there, looking over her shoulder, pondering her choice. She looked a little over forty; a slight grey had snuck into her undyed hair. Hefting a large handbag, she held a box in her hand—a hypoallergenic brand—scrutinising the price. Keith could almost see the calculations writ over her lined face. She sighed, and slid the box back onto the shelf and turned to leave. Then, as though seized by some invisible force, she hesitated. She turned back, lifted the box from the shelf, slipped it into her bag, and walked towards the doors. Alarms blared. Lights flashed. A black tube, terminating in two prongs snaked from the ceiling. Tzack. It jabbed the woman. She collapsed, juddered by the surge of an electric shock. The interlinked triple ‘S’ of Saber Security Solutions descended over the scene, ‘Saber Security Solutions: Presenting the Integrated Anti-Theft System,’ said a stern, male voice.
Not a chance, thought Keith as he emerged from the advert, who wants to see someone’s mother get tased?
The next advert wasn’t much better though it skewed in a different direction. This time the thief was a young, black man dressed in what could only be described as a pastiche of late-20th century ‘urban’ gangster. Wayyy too racist, thought Keith. He nixed it three seconds in.
Of the three ads that followed, only one passed—a gang of rubber-Nixon-masked thieves shaking on a tiled floor.
“Uh, Keith?” He pulled off his goggles. Ndidiamaka stood beside his desk holding two grease-stained paper bags, “my data analysis just finished and it’s given me results that support my thesis so I bought some treats to celebrate.”
“Ndidi! You know I’m on a diet!”
“Hey, I’m not going to eat donuts alone! I got you a dumpling from that Jamaican place, that one you say makes the food better than your grandfather.”
Keith took the paper bag with a smile, “you are such a bad influence.”
“Someone’s got to be—everyone else around here eats like birds.”
She sat on the edge of his desk, pulled down the paper, took a bite of her donut, and released a satisfied sigh. She didn’t bring up her results until they were both halfway through their respective pastries.
“So, Keith, my analysis raises some questions.
“Yeah, you know I was looking at bias in advertising, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well I’ve been applying Implicit Bias testing methods—” he shot her a blank look, “—they were originally used to demonstrate unconscious biases in humans—on the adverts this agency produces. Well, I inverted the test and…”
“And it shows that darker skin is strongly linked to more negative images and subjects in this agency’s adverts and lighter skin has a slightly weaker association with positive images and subjects.”
“So the programs are racist?”
“That’s what I thought… but…”
“But?” he said, trying to keep the frost from his voice.
“Well, when I looked at each step of the process, I found bias in the programs but the skew gets slightly worse—not better—after it passes your desk. The average, I mean. You do cut out the worst of it, the outliers.”
“I see,” Keith tried his best not to sound offended; Ndidi’s only real devotion was to pure data, “What about the decision-making levels above me?”
“They’re much, much worse—they account for over a third of the skew alone. I don’t mean to cause offense—”
“No, Ndidi. You didn’t do anything wrong—the data is the data. I guess I have some work to do on myself.” he smiled but knew it looked hollow, “I’m a black man—a gay man—even in this day and age, I’ve had to face prejudice.”
“Right. I, uh, just thought you should have a heads up before I submit my thesis.”
“Good call… Could you send me your results so I can review them?”
They finished their food in silence, disturbed only by the passing drones and the mutter of the city.
Afterwards, she sent him her results—a mess of tables and statistics. His first instinct was to prove her wrong. But, try as he might, he couldn’t find anything to undermine her results. When he eventually plunged back into his work, her words pursued him. As he passed through advert after advert, he began to question himself, seeing bias in every decision.
Gradually, he started acting against his instinct, letting ads through which he’d normally delete and deleting some he’d have let go. He let two white children get sprayed with mace for fiddling with the window of a suburban home; allowed an elderly woman get doused with restraint foam for stealing a bag of skittles; approved a gaggle of twenty-something women being tased for shoplifting. The elderly south asian man stealing beer no longer had to suffer a light dusting of pepper spray; the light-skinned black youth avoided getting blasted by a noise cannon. Finally, he deleted a video of a black man in a balaclava shoving jewels into a bag only to be shocked again and again as he struggled towards the open door.
His second job for the day was sorting through adverts made for Matcher, a dating app. Here, his fight began to get interesting. His adversary was his own aesthetic and as such he experimented with its opposite. He waged war on defined muscles, manicured hands, crisp hairlines, and well-groomed beards; he fought youngness, smooth skin, smouldering looks, and his predilection for hooked noses. Out went the elegant plates, cocktails, romantic vistas, and foreign-language films. He cut and cut. Reaching down within his decisions to tear out any remnants of his biases.
The adverts that survived were ungainly, pockmarked by awkward silences and the hubbub of shabby joints. Two women haltingly discussed tax policy over plates of congealing curry. A woman tried to convince her date that the dilapidated dive they sat in ‘wasn’t always like this’ as an ever-expanding bar fight threatened to engulf them. A series of stand up comedians in a small, smokey club threw terrible jokes into deepening silence and then at jeers. Hugs met crossed arms. Drinks spilled. Teeth collided. But still, there were smiles, genuine smiles, fake smiles, laughter—nervous, pitying, and redemptive—conversations about nothing, coy flirtation, long-suffering weariness, moments of profound joy.
By lunchtime, Keith felt triumphant.
On his way back to the jewellery shop, Keith called Surinder, as was his habit. Though as the phone rang, he hoped that the man he had already begun to label as his fiance would not answer. Therefore, it was a slight disappointment when Surinder picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hey babe,” came his deep, calm voice, “perfect timing. Just sat down in the staff room… Claire’s here, she says hey!” Someone said something faint in the background as Keith tried to remember exactly who Claire was. Then he heard Surinder shift and he knew he was getting up to go to the window and stare out onto the road and do what Surinder always did when he was on the phone with someone he cared about: pace unendingly.
“I missed you this morning,” Surinder said, “you were shifting about all night, and then out of bed like a shot when your alarm went off. Is something wrong?”
“Just stressed about work,” Keith lied, “I… uh… well you know how it is.”
“Yeah…” Surinder did not sound convinced, “But you owe me cuddles!”
Despite himself, Keith smiled. It was the exact kind of cutesy behaviour he’d have told anyone he hated, but, coming from Surinder, he felt nothing but delight. Not least because it was a side of the man that few ever saw; no, no-one who knew the grave, sincere professional Surinder would believe just how much of a softie he could be in private.
“So, how’s your day going?” Keith asked, “How was remedial Chem?”
“Oh, fantastic,” Surinder’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “just how I wanted to spend two hours of my life. Today there was almost a fight, so at least something happened to break the monotony of re-teaching kids a bunch of stuff they don’t want to know and will never use—little fuckers will probably all end up on basic.”
“I know, I know: I shouldn’t say that,” Surinder interrupted before Keith could get out his criticisms, “it’s just so frustrating. But I hear that Gregson is finally retiring this year, so there might be a spot teaching the advanced placement program…”
“Yeah,” Keith grimaced, the principal had been dangling advanced placement in front of Surinder for three years; Gregson, a flinty-eyed octogenarian and the teachers union rep had showed no interest in ever stopping. Keith half expected her to pass away giving some high-strung overachiever the B minus that would define their personality for a decade. His mind digested what Surinder had said previously, “Wait, did you say a fight?”
“Wow, you really are distracted today,” Surinder chuckled, “Yeah, the Chen twins were picking on Gus Ramotar again and I guess he’d had it. He flipped his table—”
“Gus the bus flipped a table.”
“Hey, don’t call him that… and it was a mistake, I think, they were poking him, calling him Gus the bus and he flipped out, had enough, stood up… and you know how big he is and how small those ancient desk-chair combos are. Almost took half a row with him.”
“Oof,” Keith winced, “I’m guessing that only encouraged them.”
“Everyone started laughing.”
“He was halfway down the hallway before I caught up,” Surinder sounded unusually bitter—irritatingly but brittly superior despite his terrible grades, Gus was far from Surinder’s favourite student, “He was crying Keith. I asked him what was going on—even if everyone knows he hates them, he’s generally controlled enough not to give the Chens a show. He showed me his news feed using that app—you know that one that lets you share your stream—”
“Yeah, that. Well, he showed me his stream. It was all dieting supplements, workout tapes, fitbits. Every advert.”
“Fuck. That’s horrible. They’re not meant to be able to market that stuff to kids.”
“Yeah, well, they do…”
Keith had ground to a halt on a corner a few blocks from the jewellery store. In the silence, he became aware of his surroundings for the first time. Across the road, a blank expanse of concrete had been overtaken by a view out onto a white sand beach. Waves lapped and, in the midground, two men faced each other under an awning—a South Asian man with a heavy beard who looked nothing like Surinder and a black man who looked creepily like Keith.
Keith flinched. Immediately, he tried to suppress his reaction. The anxiety that had subsided during his chat with Surinder washed back up his throat and quite suddenly, the last thing he wanted to be doing was be talking to Surinder.
“Listen,” he said, “I should go…”
“I wasn’t criticising your work… it wasn’t your stuff—”
“I know, I’m not hanging up because of that,” Keith said, “I just got back to the office…”
“Ah… well… thanks for calling and listening to me rant. I’ll see you this evening?”
“Can’t wait! Love you.”
“Love you too babe.”
Keith hung up and stood staring at everything except the beach. He hoped his stifled reaction had not been captured, logged as one of the thousands of factors that made his profile. But he’d been too slow and, as he strode towards the store, ads for suits, registries, ministries supplanted the normal barrage of food, beverages, sex, phones, and cologne. He felt naked. He sweated, picking up his pace—head down—even as the auto-ads gave way to the pitches of the well-dressed, beautiful men and women proffering plates of free samples from doorways. An overwhelming awkwardness pressed at him as they tried to appeal to him—it was best not to make eye contact. He kept his focus ahead, at the plants. He cranked up the music, and tried to ignore the promotional messages that shoved themselves between the songs which told him: book now and save 50 percent.
He fled to the jewelers’.
Bam. Someone jerked away from him, falling back. Keith reached out to steady the man. Calloused hands rasped across his. He caught him before he fell, pulling him upright.
“Are you okay?! I’m so sorry!” he blurted, looking earnestly at the man only to find his gaze avoided, “I wasn’t looking—I’m sorry.
“It’s okay,” mumbled the man, straightening his shabby suit. Before Keith could say another word, the man was off, limping into the rising lunch rush. Shaking his head and feeling a little embarrassed, Keith turned back to the door.
The interior of the jewelers’ was a large, low-lit room with an archipelago of glowing display cases scattered across it. A man in a suit stood behind one these cases, waiting patiently a few feet away from two women—who were looking at the displays the way one might look into a cage at the zoo. The clerk turned to Keith with a calculating look, glanced down at the tablet in front of him, and did an approximation of a smile — it looked as though some puppeteer had tugged on strings hooked to the edges of his mouth.
Keith nodded at the man and then looked down at the display cases, skimming over them.
“This way, sir” said the clerk, motioning towards a large bank of glass in the middle of the room.
Keith frowned and walked over, skimming the contents of each display case. The one the clerk had indicated was full of rings. How did he know, Keith thought and then; he probably bought some sort of consumer-information package.
Innumerable jewels glittered back at him; yellow, red, blue, pink, lines of diamonds, rubies, and other stones, stones that he did not recognize; square, oval, hexagon, rectangular; bevelled, smooth, a few rough. The metal of the rings were a whole other phylum: plain bands; metal like knotted rope; chains of circles and squares; gold, platinum, silver in all their shades. Panic seized him. He felt as though he was staring down at an ocean of eyes.
“Do you know what kind of ring you are looking for?” said the clerk softly, “Does the lucky man have a stated preference?”
“No diamonds,” Keith replied, trying to shake his shock at being so unceremoniously outed. Pushing aside one part of his anxiety, Keith looked down at the rings once more, “I think he’d prefer rubies—it’s his birthstone. He also says he’s allergic to gold…”
“I see,” the clerk unlocked a drawer behind the display, pulled out a black felt tray, and pushed it across the top of the display case. Ranks and columns of silvery rings set with red stones glimmered in the dim light, “this is our selection of rubies set in platinum.”
Keith peered down at the rings, reached towards them, and then hesitated, “may I?
He left the store empty handed, though his visit had not been in vain. Of the multitudes of rings, he’d found three or four that he thought Surinder would love, though their price tags gave him pause, despite the clerk’s insistence that the payment plans were affordable. He excused himself, telling the clerk he had to think, and left for his office.
Outside, the midday sun had thickened the air. Sluggish currents shuffled through the streets, disturbed only by the buzz of passing drones. Sweating in his suit, Keith paid for a reprieve from the audio-adverts and tried to focus on his music. Still, the logos of department stores offering discounts on registry as well as sweeping shots of fridges, blenders, tables, stoves, and microwaves called out from bus-stops and billboards, crowding his peripheries. He ignored them until he reached the intersection in front of his office. There, he stood looking up at the collage of videos above, massive images that rippled down the sheets of glass and concrete, a salesman’s rain.
In a way, he supposed, they were good omens.
Back in his office, he found Ndidi trying to fit the camera bulb back into the ceiling. He wondered, vaguely, how she’d managed to get it down again, before taking over from her. This time, it only took three attempts before it clicked back into the socket.
“Sorry,” she said as he sat down behind his desk, “It’s been bothering me all day.”
“Well, kind of?” she looked at him guiltily, “I confirmed that the problem is contrast; it has problems recognising stationary black hair and skin as a living person rather than an inanimate object. I found that I could trick the camera into thinking the room was darker than it is so that it registers my skin as lighter. I don’t understand why they didn’t just program this thing to focus on temperature—you only need like 2 degrees either side of 37.5 to detect every single living human.”
Lacking a response, Keith shook his head sympathetically. The few times he’d stayed late at work, he’d often removed his VR goggles to find himself sitting in darkness. It was irritating, but his work hardly required the light, which buzzed on if he got up to stretch his legs or visit the toilets. It hadn’t occurred to him that the problem was fixable, much less that its cause might lie in the colour of his skin. Still, it seemed a minor problem—not worth the effort Ndidi had put into the solution.
He picked up his VR goggles but a message from his aunt appeared in his vision, projected on his contacts:
Can I see you in my office?
With a sigh, he put down the goggles.
His aunt’s office was down the hall from his. It was a sizeable room—easily twice the size of his—with an arresting view of the city subsiding into the suburbs, farmland, and then mountains. Framed prints of late 20th century adverts crowded the walls, an audience for the single desk and the elliptical the room contained. There was only one chair: his aunt’s.
His aunt was running on her elliptical, sweat glistening on her freckled skin and her unruly red-frizz pulled back, straining against elastics. He stood, waiting for her to finish. It was a long five minutes before she hopped off the machine, pulled a large tablet off the display and, towel handing over her neck, slid into the seat across the desk.
“Keith!” she said, brightly, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Nothing happened recently?” He noticed a slight edge in her voice, “this morning, perhaps?”
“Not that I can think of,” he kept his voice neutral.
“Well then,” she smiled, “can you account for the precipitous fall in your stats this morning?”
“Please do not interrupt.” she swivelled her tablet to face Keith revealing his name atop a column of numbers, “until about eleven this morning, you were among my top-performing employees with over seventy percent of your approved ads moving onto at least the final stage of production. Then, after a break of about ten minutes, you fall to thirty percent. What’s more, when I reviewed your reject feed there were a number of adverts that were clear winners. So you can understand my concern that something might have happened.”
“I’m sorry, Siobhan. I—”
“Don’t be sorry, be better. I’m not going to lie; your mother’s pestering helped you get this job but you are a talented, reliable, and competent person, which is as much why I hired you over the thousands of other qualified applicants. We all have bad days but you need to communicate if there’s a problem…” she looked at him expectantly.
“I… well…” he fidgeted with his trouser pocket and tried to work out whether telling her about Ndidi’s findings would help—whether she’d do anything about it.
“Listen Kee,” she said sweetly, “communication is really important…”
“Ndidi showed me her results,” he blurted, “they showed racial bias in our advertisements.”
“I see,” she sat back, looking unsurprised, “I thought that might be it. Listen, Kee, I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no problem, but we’re not the problem. We are subject to the realities of the market and, quite frankly, people’s biases affect their desire to buy. In the end, we only reflect our culture’s issues.” She pulled out her phone and jabbed at it for a few seconds.
“Our only aim is to help our clients show their product in the best possible light. Sometimes, that task is going to come with some cultural baggage.”
The door opened behind him. Keith turned to see Ndidiamaka sidle into the room. She looked nervous. Sorry, he mouthed at her. Her eyes narrowed.
“Ah Deedee,” continued Siobhan, “Keith was telling me you have some results from your study.”
“Yes,” Ndidiamaka replied timidly, “but they’re only preliminary.”
“I understand,” Siobhan replied sympathetically, “but you can understand how results such as those Keith described might put this agency in an awkward position.”
“I’m not going to name the agency in my thesis.”
“Yes, but you will in your resume and, with me as one of your references, it’s not going to be that hard to put two-and-two together—”
“What are you asking me to do? I can’t change my results.”
A silence unspooled; Siobhan’s jaw clenched. Keith could almost hear her calming herself down.
“The last thing I want to do is tell you what to write in your thesis,” Siobhan said in a brittle, sugary tone, “but aren’t there a lot of ways this data could be interpreted?”
“So your results are infallible—no uncertainty?”
“Well… there’s always some uncertainty.”
“Exactly,” Siobhan smiled and it was genuine this time, “You’d be remiss not to mention that uncertainty. For instance is the racial bias worse than that in our society? How do you measure bias? Are there problems with such measurements? How does this agency compare with others? Is there data for that? See, those are just off the top of my head and I’ve never studied sociology.”
“But my thesis—”
“Listen, Deedee” Siobhan’s good humour evaporated, “over half of this agency’s employees are women and a full third are people of colour. I can tell you that no other agency comes close to matching our levels of diversity. Smearing us will only result in us losing clients to other agencies and may force us to lay people off. I would never tell you what to write, but think carefully about the potential impacts of your work. Don’t make us pay for systemic problems.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith said as soon as they left the room but Ndidiamaka hurried down the hallway ahead of him, barely acknowledging he’d said anything. He jogged after her, catching up just as she turned into their office, “wait, I’m sorry… you know how she is—she bullied it out of me.”
“I’m not angry at you, Keith. I’m frustrated that months of work is going down the drain for PR reasons.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, “how did she even find out?”
“I tried to be less biased and it tanked my numbers; my aunt figured something happened.”
Ndidiamaka stared at him for a few seconds.
“To be honest,” she said eventually, “I’m surprised you changed your behaviour so quickly. I expected you to do something… But I thought I’d have weeks—enough time to have already submitted my thesis. By then, even if your aunt complained, it would have been out of my hands. ”
She sat at her desk and stared blankly at her computer, lost in thought. Similarly silenced, Keith sat down at his own desk, pulled on his goggles, and found himself immersed in a series of adverts for electric razors. Square-jawed men with rippling abs stood in hyper-modern bathrooms, shaving foam slathered on hairless faces. Waiflike women caressed faces, rubbing chins, cheeks, necks with perfectly manicured hands. He flipped through the ads, allowing his instincts to take over. It was easier than he’d ever admit.
After several torturous hours listening to gravelly voices describe at length just how close a shave could be, Keith stepped out of the office into a cool evening. The package holidays had returned in force, packing the buildings with glimpses of silhouetted palms, densely forested mountains, and vineyards. Though the sky was a pale blue, the dusk in the adverts gave him the impression of gathering clouds. He hunched over as he wove through the rising commuter rush.
As he approached the jewellery store, the package holidays gave way to adverts for credit cards and banks. Men and women smiled from the walls, gold watches peeked from the cuffs of immaculate suits, children frolicked around sleek kitchen islands. Skies were a cloudless blue; the grass was green.
By the time he walked into the cool, dimness of the shop, he felt calmed and assured. His smile returned by the clerk, he strode over to the display of rings, and asked for the three most likely wedding bands. The clerk—who had set them aside for him—slid them over the glass on individual white satin pillows.
One was a simple circle of platinum with a large, bevelled-rectangle ruby, its deep red glittered ostentatiously even in the low light. It was beautiful but, seeing it again, Keith realized that it was far too showy for Surinder’s tastes.
Tiny rubies snaked around the second ring, oscillating across a broader band of platinum. He picked it up and slipped it onto his left hand. He thought the rubies caught the light beautifully, but the broadness of the metal felt cumbersome; he liked the idea of Surinder forgetting he was wearing the ring, of the admiration of others drawing his attention. He wanted the compliments to be a trail of gifts in the days ahead like petals leading to a bedroom.
The third was perfect—as thirds are wont to be. The ring itself was made of four thin strands of bright platinum twisted together. The metal half-swallowed the stones. They peeked from within as though the metal swaddled a ring of pure ruby. He slipped it on. It was surprisingly light, almost gossamer. He raised his hand peering at it in the gloom. The door behind him opened and the ring caught the flood of evening light, sparkling. This is it, he thought, this—
“Get down on the ground!” yelled a hoarse voice.
He turned, confused and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. He froze. His world turned on that point of darkness. At its edge, he had a dull awareness of chaotic motion—the clerk scrambling back towards the cash.
The barrel turned away. Panic overtook him. He dived sideways, landing on a display case. Glass shattered.
“Don’t try anything!” yelled the voice.
But Keith was already stumbling towards the door.
“Put it in the bag!”
A familiar hum awoke the air. Tendrils unfurled from the ceiling. The door was just a few feet away.
“I’m warning you”.
His hands felt the cool glass of the door. Something moved in his peripheries.
Two things happened at once; there was a loud bang and Keith felt a force course through him. Propelled forwards, he spilled from the shop and out onto the street. He fell, the pavement thwacking into his palms. An acrid stench—burning hair—filled everything. Another gunshot resounded behind him. Help, he tried to say, but he could barely croak.
“Citizen, halt. Surrender yourself.” buzzed a voice from above.
Keith struggled to his feet, stumbling forwards, pushing himself away from the store. The world seemed distant. His heart pounded. He collided with someone, and then someone else. Then suddenly, it seemed the street was clear. He tried to catch his breath. He forced himself to keep moving.
“Citizen, this is your final warning.”
The approaching sirens were a salve to his panic. They promised salvation—an end to the madness that had overrun his evening. How could anyone possibly think they’d get away with such a brazen robbery, he thought, his first clear thought since it had all started.
A shadow flicked over him. There was an crackle of electricity. He looked up. There was barely time to register the taser-barbs lancing from the wasp-like form of the law enforcement drone, before a surging current pushed him into darkness.
His face was pressed against cold metal, its bitter smell mingled with the pungency of saliva. His legs and arse felt leaden, asleep. He tried to push himself up, to get comfortable and found he was handcuffed to a bar in the middle of the metal table.
The walls surrounding him were featureless expanses of brushed metal. On the other side of the table, two empty chairs faced him. A camera bulb sat next to the lone light on the ceiling. Confusion. He had a vague recollection of a jerking passage in a van; of rough hands pushing him through a brief outside into another darkness; of hands taking his phone, his watch, even his contacts; of a flash as he stared dazed; of questions answered automatically; and then of a silent room and the return of the all-embracing darkness.
“Hello?” In the echoes he felt a stab of panic, “hello?”
An outline of a door appeared on the wall across from him. Silently, it slid back and then sideways, revealing two figures silhouetted by the harsh light of a hallway. Sounds of walking feet, typing, and indistinct conversations spilled into the room.
“I think there’s been a mistake—” Keith began
“Keith Higgins,” rumbled a baritone, “of 32 Pineview Drive?”
“Yes that’s me, but I think there’s—”
“You’ve been read your rights,” said the other figure in a flinty, peremptory tone, “you are facing charges of armed robbery, grievous bodily harm—escalating to first degree murder, if the clerk does not survive surgery.”
The two of them stepped into the room, revealing themselves.
The first voice belonged to a large—but not fat—man. The arms of his suit ended prematurely, revealing shirt cuffs and a hint of a tattoo on his forearm. Stubble speckled his face around a ragged blonde goatee, merging into a crew cut that was about a week overdue for a haircut.
The owner of the second voice was a tall, thin woman wearing a charcoal grey suit, and a blue shirt with a yellow stain on it. Her hair was pulled back into cornrows ending in blue beads that, Keith noted, were the same colour as her shirt. She was holding a tablet under left arm. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
“Mr. Higgins,” continued the woman, “I am Detective Beckford and this is Detective Strauss.”
Detective Strauss sat heavily in the seat across from Keith. Detective Beckford leant on the back of the other chair.
“Please, there’s been a mistake, I didn’t do anything!”
Detective Beckford’s jaw clenched. She leaned over and slid the tablet towards Keith, “Mr. Higgins, we have your accomplice in custody. He’s being questioned in the next room.”
“Accomplice? I didn’t have anything to do with the robbery, please believe me.”
“If that’s the case,” said Strauss gently, “I’m sure things will be cleared up soon. But it will be cleared up more quickly if you work with us.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet. The screen flickered and displayed an aerial shot of a street. Two men stood staring at a window display filled with jewellry. With a rising sense of dread, Keith recognised himself.
“Is this you?” asked Detective Beckford
“Standing outside the scene of the crime this morning.”
“Why did you go to the store before opening hours.”
“I made a mistake, I wanted to buy an engagement ring—”
“You went to buy an engagement ring but didn’t check the opening hours of the store?”
“It was a mistake.”
“Right. And the man standing next to you, who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You had never met him before?”
“No. I didn’t even talk to him.”
Detective Beckford’s eyes glinted and her mouth curled up into a sneering smile, “Mr. Higgins this will be easier if you tell us the truth,” she flicked the screen, changing the display to footage of the store. Keith, head down except for occasional furtive glances, collided with a man, pulled him back to his feet, and then said a few words to him, “here we have you talking to that same man—”
“That’s just a coincidence—I didn’t even realise that was the same person. Maybe he was staking out the store.”
“Yet, he looks at none of the cameras and you look at every single one and then…” she flipped to another set of footage—a man, his face hidden by a cap, walking into a store,“he avoids every single camera on his entry. Do you know a man named Quentin Jones?”
“No…wait, maybe… the name sounds familiar.”
“It should, you went to highschool with him. You were both on the Rugby team.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet and a yearbook photo popped up. Beneath it was the name Quentin Jones, a few words and a signature which, with a sinking heart, Keith recognised as his own. “Now, Mr. Higgins, we can place you both at the store on three occasions today. Your agency works with Saber Security Systems, so you have the knowledge necessary to identify the alarm. You also have the technical background to disable the system. You pulled the clerk away from the silent alarm, but Mr. Jones came in before you had a chance to disable the system.”
“I did not!” Keith protested, “I was not involved in any way. I only went to the store to buy an engagement ring. Ask the clerk.”
“We would, but he is currently undergoing surgery due to the fact that your accomplice shot him.” retorted Detective Beckford, “You’re looking at 15 years in prison, you understand that? 25 minimum if the clerk dies. Longer, if your friend testifies against you. Ask yourself: how much do you trust Quentin?”
“Mr. Higgins,” Detective Strauss’ voice was calm and reasonable, “you left the store with a ring during the robbery, a $20,000 ring—six month’s wages for you, right? We’ve run your financials and there’s no way you could afford that ring. Hell, the cheapest rings in the store would be a stretch with your outgoings, even with generous financing. Now, I don’t think you expected Mr. Jones to shoot the clerk and, when he did, you ran. We have footage of the two of you; we have footage of you running; we have footage of you disobeying lawful commands from a law enforcement drone. We have predictive data that flagged your behavior as suspicious, evasive, and conspiratorial from the start of the day. You’ve been caught Mr. Higgins; you’re going to jail. But, if you work with us, we might be able to get you a deal, particularly if you cooperate before the clerk passes. After all, you did not pull the trigger; is it fair for you to face the consequences of Mr. Jones’ actions?”
Keith stared at the two detectives. For a moment, he was convinced, caught in a web of circumstances that reeled him towards the deal. A future hunched over him like a gargantuan spider, mandibles distended. Then it all vanished under the pure heat of the truth; he was not guilty. He had done nothing but flee danger. It seemed impossible that a jury would convict, that anyone would believe this story. He knew all about reasonable doubt.
“No,” he said flatly, “I was not involved in any way. I want a lawyer.”
Detective Beckford clenched her jaw and snatched up her tablet; Detective Strauss gave him a look a pure disgust and stood. As a unit they walked to the door, which slid open as they approached. At the door, Detective Strauss paused and looked back at Keith.
“A lawyer won’t help you.” he spat, “your accomplice has already confessed to everything.”
The door closed, leaving Keith alone in the sterile light of the interrogation room. He tried to remember Quentin Jones, his teammate twenty years before, but could not recall anything except a few fragments—the motions of play, the feeling of a rugby ball in his arms, the smell of mud and turf. Quentin was a vague shape—a blur at the peripheries of his memory. He didn’t even remember having a five minute conversation with him. He had no idea where the man had been for the past two decades. He tried to imagine what he would do if, with one, small lie, he could claw back a decade of life from the threat of incarceration. He shuddered. There’s still the trial, bail—it’s not all lost. It was a glimmer of hope. But, as the incessant buzz and inscrutable walls stretched the minutes, that hope faded like the mouth of a well above a falling child.
Time dissolved. The slight and random flicker of the light, the only change except Keith’s shifting: hunched, slouched, upright and expectant, arms crossed, slumped back. His legs crossed and uncrossed—up and down—sliding back under the chair and forward under the table. He tried to think of anything but his predicament. But it sat, a black hole at his centre, no matter what he turned his mind to to escape it, to skirt its edges, the gravity of his anxiety made every orbit a decaying one. The room seemed to tighten. It crushed the breath from him. His jaw locked. Fingernails broke as he raked the table. He tasted blood.
The door slid open, revealing two figures—Detective Strauss and Detective Beckford. They strode across the room towards him. Detective Strauss rumbled something, but Keith could not make out his words.
“Please,” he managed to croak, “I didn’t…”
Detective Beckford came to a halt beside the table. She did not meet his gaze. He tried to catch Detective Strauss’s eye, but the man seemed just as unwilling to look him in the eye. Detective Beckford leant towards him. He flinched. She grabbed his hands, pulled them towards her and fiddled with the handcuffs.
Suddenly, he was free. They pulled him to his feet and shepherded him down a hallway, through a bullpen thronging with uniformed officers, and out to a desk where they handed back his phone, keys, wallet, and contacts.
“Again, Mr. Higgins,” said Detective Strauss, “We were acting on the information we had available. We released you as soon as the clerk confirmed that you were a customer, and we verified there had been no electronic communication between Mr. Jones and yourself.” he hesitated and seemed to be selecting his words carefully, “I hope this experience has not affected you adversely.” he said, eventually.
Keith stared at them, both looked away, down at their boots. With a grim, sarcastic laugh, he turned away from them. This seemed to release them from whatever duty they felt to him and they bustled away. Alone beside the desk, he pushed his keys and phone into his pocket and then put in his contacts. That done, he felt less naked. But still tears welled in his eyes. He wanted to be home.
“Keith!” he turned. A familiar figured strode across the atrium beyond the desk. A tall, broad shouldered man whose stubble was edging on unkempt and whose cross-eyed smile was weighed on by anxious hours of wait and anger. Wordlessly, he walked to Surinder and let his arms pull him in, enfolding in the smell of tangerines and home. Against that chest, he began to sob, “It’s okay,” Surinder said, “you’re safe…come on, let’s go home.”
Outside, the mid morning sun had just begun to dry the rain. The few cars in the car park glittered like damp beetles. The adverts had not yet loaded. Expanses of empty rain-stained wall stared down, a crowd of impassive faces. Then, in unison, they flickered. A horde of men and women in suits strolled into view. Arms crossed, they stared down at him with fierce, determined gaze. Most he did not recognize, but a few were clients—the towering figure of Margaret Anderson of Anderson Litigation smiled reassuringly, Venance Owuor of Mendelson, Ramirez & Owuor stood straight faced. Make a Claim, demanded one advert, Don’t Pay Unless We Win, Fast Case Review, Experience You Can Trust, Personal Injury Litigation, No Win No Fee, Reclaim your Life… The city screamed at him silently, I know; I see.
He fumbled at his eyes—at his contacts. Circuitry tore between his fingers. Shreds of tiny machines falling away, disappearing into the dirt beneath his feet. He blinked back his tears and looked out over a quieted city with naked eyes. Traffic throbbed; trains rattled; indistinct shouts, tone, and alarms rose into the air: it all combined into a threatening mutter.
With a sigh, Keith opened the car door, swung in, and pulled on his seatbelt. Surinder keyed in their home address and sat back as it rumbled to life. They sat in a heavy silence as it pulled out of the car park and struck along a route towards the motorway, Keith staring out at the city as it swept past; Surinder watching Keith, probingly.
“I got a call from your aunt—your phone is off—” said Surinder eventually, “I told her now’s not a good time—I said you were sick—but I thought you should know.”
“I’ll call her back.”
“Babe, you don’t have to—take a break…”
“No,” Keith said, “I need to focus on something else, I need to do something, I need—”
“Okay,” Surinder handed him a phone, “but you’re not going into work today. Today I get you to myself. We’re going to drive to the mountains and go for a good long hike”
“That sounds perfect,” they shared a smile and Keith felt as though he was sloughing off a brittle layer of anxiety. He dialed his aunt’s number, she picked up on the third ring.
“Ah, Kee! Just who I wanted to talk to!” Though slightly out of breath, she seemed unusually chipper, “I heard you were sick. Well, get well soon because I have a lot more work for you! You’re a genius, you know that?”
“Your ads—those god-awful ads—went viral!”
“The security ones?”
“No, those were a trainwreck—nothing we could do—the ones for Matcher! Those awkward, awful dates. Well, eight of the ten that made it through final review have over 30 million hits—30 million in less than a day! Holy shit Kee, you’re getting a bonus this year, shit we all are. So get well!”
She hung up.
“Good news, I take it?” asked Surinder.
“Yeah,” said Keith, staring out the window—the towers had given way to strip malls and parking lots, “some ads I chose went viral.”
“That’s amazing, Babe! Really exciting!”
“I guess.” Keith shifted uncomfortably. They lapsed into silence again.
“Keith?” Surinder looked over at him carefully, “I know why you were at that shop.”
“Well,” Surinder’s smile was the sun rising on a new day, “the answer’s yes.”
I would like to thank Dylan, Hannah, Lauren, and Solomon for making this story better and more comprehensible than I could have done alone.
Nathaniel McKenzie is a proud citizen of nowhere seeking to turn his writing compulsion into an effective means of stealing time from other people. He enjoys avocados, paying rent, the smell of books new and old, trailing off in the middle of sentences, and
This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.
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