Chapter 1, Part 3

The resident of the house nodded nervously and half-turned to lead his two guests towards the general purpose table he had been sitting at a minute earlier. Too nervous to fully turn his back on an individual such as Faye, yet too timid to continue making eye contact with her, he ended up executing a funny side-step all the way to the plain piece of metal furniture. Fortunately, despite living alone, Mr. Gibbs had four matching chairs surrounding the table.

“I hope this is satisfactory. I don’t normally have people over so, well…” he trailed off, laughing awkwardly.

In one efficient motion, Faye adjusted the position of a chair and sat down. James remained standing, and crossed his arms. Once Mr. Gibbs was seated across from the two of them, Faye began her screening. It was a delicate matter, ascertaining the latent threat status of a citizen without encroaching on their privacy rights, and it was one that she handled with grace akin to a concert musician.

“Let’s talk about you, Mr. Gibbs. Please describe to me a typical week of yours. What you do, places you visit, people you interact with, et cetera.”

Faye’s teeth made another appearance, but this time they seemed to sparkle with a friendly luster. This put the questionee at ease and made him forget that as a 2nd degree citizen he technically was not obligated to answer such questions without first seeing a written warrant.

Speaking evenly for the first time since their encounter, Mr. Gibbs responded, “Well, I really don’t go out all that much. Maybe once or twice a week, for various errands. I don’t really have any friends either, since Victoria is enough for me.”

Victoria: a massively popular, programmable artificial intelligence base that could be integrated with most computing devices on the market, including home communication systems. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens with first or second degree privileges to use their corresponding credit income to replace human interaction with some form of AI, of which Victoria was a common choice.

Interestingly, Faye’s respect for the citizen grew by an iota. If he was aware of his condition, then he had taken steps to minimize the risk he posed to others by limiting social encounters. Of course, there was the possibility that he was merely oblivious and antisocial, but that wouldn’t change the agent’s impression of him at all so she split the difference and raised her opinion of him up to an expected value taking both possibilities into account.

Faye continued with her queries.

“What is it that you do to make the credits necessary to pay the duties required to maintain your degree of privilege?” she asked.

“Ah, nothing fancy, nothing fancy. I make programs for sensor arrays and sell the code to manufacturing and distributing companies. Nowadays I end up selling my intellectual claims on the code, but I used to hold on to that to receive the usage fees. It’s just that competition’s going up these days and clients are constantly upgrading and optimizing so nothing I make lasts long out there.”

“When would you say your competition began to noticeably increase?”

“Hmm, well that would be around seven or eight years ago.”

“And how long have you been coding for sensors?”

“Just about fourteen years now. Before that I was employed as a maintenance engineer by XI. When I started noticing that the sensor systems would constantly bug out, I thought that I could make more of an impact by programming them more efficiently.”

A hint of warmth flickered in the frigid depths of Faye’s dark pupils.

“I always enjoy hearing how our citizens find their place among the interlocking cogs of our society. Thank you for that.”

“Y-yeah. No problem,” Mr. Gibbs stammered, taken aback by this unexpected change in tone. It did not take long however, for the veil of seriousness to descend once more, masking his questioner’s expression.

“Now, this competition you spoke of – do you have any ideas as to what caused competent programmers to suddenly proliferate?”

The meek freelancer’s eyes flickered between Faye and James, hoping to stumble upon a clue hidden in their stoic visages. No such luck. Was there a correct answer to this question?

“It’s fine if this is not something you’ve thought about, citizen. I just want to know, more broadly, if you’ve noticed anything strange emerge in the last decade.”

“If you put it that way… there are some newcomers to the field who – by some accounts – might… by chance… have unnatural aptitudes for working with systems.”

“Well said. The Central Government shares your view,” Faye said, smiling in a non-threatening fashion for a second time, lowering Mr. Gibbs’ guard.

“I mean, they’d still have to learn the programming languages and all. Although, now that I think about it they would have an advantage picking that up as well.”

In his brief moment of vulnerability, the citizen had made a crucial mistake. James was impressed. Faye had managed to herd their target in precisely the right direction with only a handful of questions. Behind his back, the safety officer began priming the hemispherical force projector. It seemed like it would be seeing some use on this mission.

Instantly, Faye’s smile had regained its edge. “You speak as though you know something about these people, Mr. Gibbs.”

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