The Crunch

A story written for Tales from the CyberSalon — #2 A New High Street

Jake’s mouth is full of toothpaste when his Gran calls. He quickly rinses, pops his toothbrush in its holder and his oral health is broadcast to his fan base.

“Hey,” she says. “Good luck. Not that you’ll need it.”

“Thank you.” He blurs the screen. “Sorry, I need to get dressed.”

In the background his gran is going on about how much better things are compared to her day: she loves being able to see her doctor, dentist and chemist all in one visitit’s old news, but he loves her and lets her ramble onshe can pop into the college or the library, the family entertainment is fantastic and those shopper’s rooms where she can order clothes and stuff from all over the place and then return what she doesn’t want are amazing. He brings back the visuals and she claps. “You look wonderful,” she says, “totally a town councillor in the making.”

And get noticed by Gerry, he thinks. “Must dash,” he says.

“Are we meeting in town for supper?”

“Yup. Full family I heard.”

“Great. Don’t forget, if you lose you’ll shame us all. Me and your mother and your children when they come. It’s a town that remembers.” She winks.

He shudders and leaves the flat as quickly as he can, confident that his best friend Mark can help boost his popularity. After all, a trend predicting data entrepreneur with an eye for fashion might be exactly what he needs.

Out on the streets it’s a lot busier than usual, but the border of the town centre seems to be coping admirably, recognising subscribers who are paid up members and taking a fee from those who aren’t.

Mark’s new house is in a surprising part of town, but then he does have an uncanny knack of moving into a place just before the rent becomes fully funded through a town planner regeneration project. As Jake approaches, he gathers the one free apple his health app allocates him from a communal tree, and tears a strip of edible leaves from a vertical garden. Lunch. Mark is leaning against a lamppost, plugged in and charging. “Ready?” he asks.

“And raring,” replies Jake. “Let’s go.”

Along the way Mark pauses at one of the recent pop-ups generated by the creative partnerships between cognitive computers, artists and entrepreneurs. Two of the town’s artificial creatives are playing chess, using the shoppers as pieces on a board scattered with squares that contain surprise prizes. “Two minutes,” says Mark, as he takes footage to help him turn the public datasets into a product for tourists. “So long as this smart town planner keeps flexing the business rates and placing new pop-ups to increase footfall, the data will constantly change, and I’ll keep making a living,” he says, followed by a big grin.

“Good for you,” says Jake, tapping his foot.

“Maybe one of those prizes is a date with Gerry.”

“Stop it. Come on. I need to get there.”

They walk quickly to the local college where Jake waves to the crowd, inwardly worrying about being rejected and disgraced. No room for failure, as his gran would say.

The hi-tech start-ups recently housed in the local train station have fitted the candidate rooms in the college with immersive virtual reality and popularity prediction equipment. He steps into VR and chooses trousers, shirts, jackets and shoes. Each combination he tries gains a positive prediction, indicating that he should be a highly successful influencer and an advocate for their town. His gran will be pleased. The trouble is that no outfit passes the threshold for sustainability. He shifts to the second-hand clothes on offer, virtually swapping a pocket here for a pocket there and an arm here for an arm there. It’s all about personalised style. None of his creations do well in the predictions until he uses the frilly collar and cuffs from a dress-shirt and attaches them to a suit jacket. It’s a VR hit. He orders the clothes and thirty minutes later the jacket and shirt are delivered to the room along with the wide selection of new items he’s already chosen. He sets to work on the different combinations that Mark offers until the predictions are high enough to press send, and waits to see how Gerry will react. Gerry doesn’t respond.

“He hates me, I’m finished.”

“You’re a style guru, go with your gut,” says Mark, as he gets ready to programme the stitchbot to attach the collar and cuffs to the jacket. “What do you want? A place on the council or Gerry in your bed?”

“Both.”

“Glutton.”

“Ambitious.”

As soon as the bot finishes stitching, Jake swaps the jacket he’s wearing for the hybrid and faces the cameras. The predictions shoot up, but Gerry pierces Jake’s elation with a stinging comment — Boring. His gran comments too — Keep it popular. Remember Uncle Frank. He doesn’t, but he’s heard whispered stories about the family having to disown him and delete him from the census data. He wants to please Gerry, but his gran’s plea to please the crowds has hit home.

“Here, let me,” he says to Mark and cuts a piece of shimmering insulation material that’s growing on the walls. He hand stitches a series of patches, making them visible and artistic. Meanwhile, the material on the wall repairs itself. The crowds love it and so does Gerry. The call comes — Jake will be incorporated into the augmented reality parade that evening and as a newly recognised high influencer he is eligible to be voted on to the town council and to have a say in the metadata that shapes the town planner.

Gerry comments. Fabulous to see such originality — kill all celebrity copy-catting.

Jake laughs with delight and runs a final test to make sure nobody else has submitted a similar outfit. They haven’t, so he confirms his choice with the town planner to prevent anyone copying, and relaxes.

Lounging on the sofa, he considers his apple. It is the perfect icon for his townsimple, natural and healthy. He takes a bite. The crunch is sweet and refreshing, like life itself.

He grins. “Mate, we did it.”

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Stephen Oram

Stephen Oram’s near-future sci-fi collections have been praised by publications as diverse as The Morning Star and The Financial Times. www.stephenoram.net