“This is Elias Brown,” I said into the intercom. “I have an appointment.”
“Please repeat your name,” said a voice. I assumed it was an AI.
“How do you spell it?”
I spelled it. “I have—”
“You’re not pronouncing it correctly.”
“Your name should be pronounced Eh-LEE-as.”
“It’s my name.”
“Exactly. That’s why it’s important for you to pronounce it correctly.”
I paused while I tried to keep any micro-expressions off of my face, even though controlling them was impossible because that’s what made them micro-expressions. This was the apartment that would change everything for me. It would boost my dating profile rank, which ultimately could raise my relationship status score, which would improve my health insurance rating, not to mention my employability metrics, which in turn—I stood up straighter and lifted my chin.
There were a hundred ways to fail the algorithm-derived tests of daily life, and I’d tried most of them. But this time, I was going to win. I was going to get the apartment.
“Eh-LEE-as Brown,” I said. The door opened.
“How’d it go?” my roommate Javier asked when I got home.
I regarded the edifice of empty pizza boxes and soda cans stacked on the coffee table. More effort had been put into balancing them than it would have taken to throw them away. Soon, however, this would no longer be my concern. “I got the apartment.”
He looked up from his videogame. “Really? Wow. Congratulations.”
“I can help you and Steve look for a new roommate.”
His eyes went back to the screen. “We’ll leave the room open for you for a while. Just in case it doesn’t work out.”
Clearly, he didn’t want a reason to stop playing Soldiers in the Abyss. “I’ve been approved. It’s happening.”
“You think the computers are going to let you get what you want that easily?”
“It’s not like they’re intentionally trying to thwart us.”
Javier didn’t respond to that, so I went to my room and closed the door. That gave me just enough space to sit down on my bed and pull up my work.
“Ms. Jameson,” I said to the first client, a regular, reading from the script, “have you thought more about the contract we were talking about?”
“I don’t know. My husband and daughter both think it’s a bad idea. They say you can take our house.”
“We’re not going to take your house, Ms. Jameson. What would we even do with it?”
“I know. It sounds—I’m just telling you what they said.”
“We want you for the long haul.” I read as the script updated in real time. “We’re not in the real estate business. We’re in the customer satisfaction business. When you tell your friends what a great deal you got, we’ll get more referrals.”
“That makes sense. I know.”
“So, what do you think, Ms. Jameson? Are you ready for the next step?”
“It’s just that I flag data for a living,” Ms. Jameson said. “I know how important data is for the algorithms and what they look for, and my husband probably has flags because of the threats he gets from his customer service job.”
“Ms. Jameson, our system reviewed your family’s data before we offered you these terms.”
“I know, but if I sign up for your security system, and your company decides our house would be more secure without us in it….”
The screen provided a general rebuttal. I went off-script. “Since you know about AI, you know they like stability. Evictions aren’t part of that.”
There was a pause. Then: “Yes. Yes, I’ll do it.”
“Great! I’m so glad to hear that. We’re going to have a good run together. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Of course, I promise. Just sign that form that’s popping up right now.”
“Okay. There. Do you see it?”
“I got it. Congratulations, Ms. Jameson. You’re a new owner of Peerless Security.”
There was a pause, and then new words appeared in my script: Ms. Jameson, it is now my duty to inform you that you have two weeks, as mandated by Maryland law, to vacate your house.
I stared at the words.
“Is there anything else?” Lindy Jameson asked. “What happens next?”
A timer appeared in the upper-right corner of the virtual screen: numbers counting down from ten. If I didn’t speak before it hit zero, I’d be docked Successful Employee points.
“Elias?” Ms. Jameson asked.
“One minute. I’m checking something.” I texted the AI overseeing the session: This isn’t right. We promised we wouldn’t take her house.
Read the words in the script, the AI responded immediately. We are within our rights as stipulated by Lindy Jameson’s signed contract.
But that’s not right, I texted back. The counter hit “3.” We’re lying to her, and we don’t need to do it.
“Elias?” Lindy prompted.
“I… Ms. Jameson, it is now my duty to inform you—” I stared at the screen.
“You trailed off. I can’t hear you.”
“Lindy, we’re screwing you. Get a lawyer.” I stabbed off the call.
Mr. Elias Brown, we regret to inform you that your employment with Peerless Security has been terminated as of 16:13 hours on May 15. Because you violated the terms of your employment contract, you have waived the right to two weeks’ notice and all benefits. Your last paycheck will be prorated based on your termination date.
I tried again to log into my work account. Account does not exist, the screen read. I pulled up the summary of my stats, but I already knew what I’d see. My employment status said “Unemployed—terminated.” My health benefits had been cancelled, and my credit score had plummeted 20 percent. Because of that hit, there was a new amendment to my new rental agreement. I opened it with an icy feeling spreading in my stomach. Because of my revised credit score, my monthly rent had just been hiked by 10 percent per month, and I now had to pay an additional month’s rent in advance.
A second message appeared: also based on my credit score, along with my lack of health benefits and employment status, my dating site account was cancelled.
Other scores dived in turn, an accelerating cascade.
New messages began filling my inbox. Most of them were the same: ads for different kinds of products geared toward my new status. Offers to boost my scores, to train for job interview programs, to join sketchier dating sites. One message was unique: a follow-up from the AI manager of the apartment complex I’d visited that morning.
Application rejected due to credit score status, it read. You may reapply in one calendar year from today’s date.
I checked. My credit score was now down 30 percent.
I wandered out to the living room. It took a few minutes for Javier to notice me. “Some kid just beat my high score. Get me a Coke?” He looked up. “Oh. You don’t look so good. Apartment fell through?”
“And my job.”
It wasn’t just my job that was bothering me, though. It was that I had taken someone else down with me.
He nodded. “I’m sure you had lots of great plans, but what you’re not factoring in is that God clearly hates us. Grab me a Coke?”
“How dare you call me?” The line went dead.
I stared at the phone. I’d called—I had to admit it—to make myself feel better somehow. As I’d dialed, though, I’d also realized I had an idea that might get her out of the mess I’d led her into. It was a reckless idea, but that’s what the situation seemed to call for.
I knew I wouldn’t stop thinking about it, or about new justifications to ask her about it. I’m very convincing to myself. So, I did what I had to do: I deleted all Lindy’s contact information from my records, put on my headphones and blasted Love, Death & Anarchy while I looked for a neighborhood to get lost in.
About an hour later, I received a text. I just thought you’d like to know I lost my job because my stability score went down, my husband wont talk to me, & our daughter screamed shes leaving home & now i have no idea where she is or if shes coming back.
Five minutes later, another text: Ha ha, not that shes going to have anywhere to come back to.
A few minutes after that: This is lindy by the way. In case you cant keep up w which customer you screwed over or there are too many to count.
I thought a long time before texting her back. Of course, I was going to, but I couldn’t just admit that to myself at the outset. I have an idea.
The indicator saying she was typing was up in the text app for a very long time. I imagined all the messages she was trying out and deleting. Or, rather, I imagined one basic message conveyed in a variety of ways: You and your idea can go to hell. Ultimately, though, a different message came through: What is it?
Me: Not safe over text. I need to tell you in person.
There was a long pause. Finally: Fine.
Me: I need your address.
Lindy: You have it.
Me: I deleted it.
A shorter pause. OK. If my husband & i dont like your idea well be able to tell you to your face.
Lindy came out to intercept me as I approached on the walk. Apparently, I wasn’t going to be let inside. She was fortyish, in sweatpants, with her hair pulled back in a short ponytail. Her husband, Rod, peered through the windows.
“Do you mind taking the battery out of your cell?” I asked.
“My phone’s inside. I’m expecting this to be a short visit.”
I swallowed hard and skipped the apologetic yet compelling introduction I’d been planning. “You tag data, right?”
“My former employer. The one you got me fired from. That one?”
“Right. Yes. I—” I thought of telling her that I’d been fired as well, but I didn’t see a lot of empathy in her eyes at the moment. “Your ex-employer. They aggregate datasets for the tracking companies. The scores influence each other, so change one and you change others. Is there a way you could access your own data?”
“That’s your idea?”
“Part of it.” All of it.
She crossed her arms, a psychological barrier from my stupidity. “There’s no easy way to change someone’s information, let alone my own, and because of you, I don’t have a job anymore.”
“But could you still find a way into the system?”
She paused. Her narrowed eyes got a little more thoughtful. “If I tried and I got caught I’d go to jail, which is the one thing that hasn’t already gone wrong today.”
“If you could corrupt a batch of files, though, one that yours just happened to be in—they’d have to restore everything, right? How old would the backup files be?”
“My ratings dropped because I lost our house. None of this would get our house back.”
“Maybe you can. Ratings discrepancies are the one way to back out of a contract. That’s a clause Peerless included to benefit itself, but in this case, it can bite them. If it looks like something’s wrong with your ratings, the contract Peerless used to seize your house is void.”
“I don’t know why I let you come.” She shook her head. “The truth? I thought it would feel good to yell at you, to—hurt you. But now I just want you to go away.”
“You heard me. Okay?”
I drew in my breath to argue, but then I saw the firmness in her eyes, and I let it out as a slow sigh. I’d done enough to her and her family. “Yeah. Okay.”
I walked back. It took more than an hour.
When I returned to my building, the door didn’t recognize me. I pulled out my phone to call Javier, but it rang before I could open my contacts.
“I made a huge mistake.” Lindy’s voice was shaking. “I tried what you said. I thought I covered my tracks, but my antivirus software is going haywire. Law enforcement AIs are scouring my system.”
I took a step back and stared at the red light on the door. The buses. The autocab. Were those all related? Lindy’s hack might have impacted more than I’d thought.
“I really am going to jail.”
I rubbed my forehead, thinking quickly. “Lindy, have you ever heard of the app How to Get AI to Like You?”
“No. What? Why?”
“It’s not important. Just—don’t do anything else differently. Once they think they know you, anything you do to change your routine arouses suspicion.”
“Okay. I shouldn’t be calling you if they’re tracking me, should I?”
She hung up. I still needed to get into the building, so I swiped to Javier’s contact info. Before I pressed Call, the door’s light turned green. Whatever that problem was, it had been resolved.
Javier was grinning when I walked into the apartment. “The other score’s gone!” he said without looking up. “I’m back on top!”
“Awesome.” I didn’t remember what score he was talking about.
“Everything I said before, that might have been a little harsh.”
“It’s what you always say.”
“I like that you’re always looking for ways to win. Don’t let me discourage you.”
He actually looked up at me when he said that. I was so stunned that for a moment, I could imagine wanting to stay in this apartment, terrible views and pizza box mountains notwithstanding. Then my phone vibrated, there was an explosion onscreen, Javier turned back to his game and the moment passed. I went to my room to check my messages.
The top one was from the credit agency. Due to a widespread data error, we are reverting to credit ratings posted at 7:00am Eastern Time. We apologize if this causes any inconvenience.
The next message welcomed me to my new apartment.
Lindy. This must all have been because of Lindy’s hack.
I thumbed through my ratings, my grin widening with each swipe. My credit score was back to what it had been. My dating site account was reinstated.
I wanted to call Lindy to see if her scores had gone up, but I took my own advice: nothing to make the AIs suspicious.
More swipes. I didn’t have my job back, which meant my ratings were bound to drop again. “I wouldn’t go back to Peerless even if they let me,” I said out loud, which probably wasn’t true but felt good to believe.
My mind raced. Maybe my scores were decent enough again that I could get hired by another firm if I moved quickly. AI recruiters were fast when they wanted to be.
Before I could act on that, my phone pinged with another text. Unknown sender.
I liked your idea. Have any others?
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