All the Strangers

I suggested I might post this a long time ago but a search of the site indicates I didn’t, so here it is now. It’s the follow up to an old story called ‘The Sweet Man’ which is in the same book and I’m sure I did post, but can’t find it.

Both stories were in ‘The Good, the Bad and Santa’ (Underdog Anthology 4).

Anyway. Since I am busy with this publishing lark and have no time to comment on Vinnie the Wire standing down as leader of the Libby Dhimmis, with not so much as a slot-spectacled Lemsip O’Pick left to be a credible leader…. nor do I have time to wonder how the idiots in Parliament can believe that taking their only bargaining chip off the table helps them negotiate…oh bugger, it’s hard to care any more.

I still have to set up that Freddo competition but in the meantime, here’s a fun story that has probably nothing to do with reality.


All the Strangers

Alan placed his left hand on the panel and the door clicked open. Scowling at his palm, he entered the back rooms of the shop.

What was wrong with swipe cards or code locks? Oh, it was the old ‘security’ trick again. Cards can be lost or stolen, codes can be hacked or leaked. So much safer to have the entry code implanted in your hand. Yeah. Until some bugger cuts my hand off to gain entry.

That was unlikely to happen in this small shop but these chips were in Government installations, banks, all over the place now. The young loved them. They used to throw parties when another member of staff accepted the chip. Alan remembered his – he felt as though he was not so much being welcomed as an embracer of new technology, more as if he was being assimilated into the collective.

Accepting the chip was no longer optional. The card swipe panels and code locks had all been removed. You want to work, you have to be chipped. When it started, they said it was voluntary. It didn’t stay that way for long. It never bloody does.

Alan put his wallet and keys into his locker and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes to the start of his shift, so he grabbed his cigarettes and headed outside for a quick one. The smoking area was at the far end of the staff car park, past the loading bay. As always, Alan had smoked almost half his cigarette before he reached it.

Really, he thought. This is outside, a place where huge trucks make deliveries and cars run their engines to get the frost off their windscreens, and they’re all scared of a bit of burning leaf.  Not for the first time, he wondered when the modern world had become so weak. He had done this job for fourteen years and had seen so many changes. None of them he considered to be for the better.

Well, time to get to work. Most of the year he just stacked shelves and worked the tills but thanks to his somewhat rounded physique, at Christmas his job took on a little more variety. Alan returned to his locker and retrieved his uniform for the afternoon. Red tunic and trousers, silly hat and fake beard. For a few weeks every December, the grumpy overweight old shop boy became jolly Santa. Ho fucking ho.

As he left the stockroom, he met Damian on his way to his break.

“Hey, Santa. Remember not to scratch your sack in public.” Damian grinned at his joke.

Alan scowled. The same joke, every day, every year, every time he wore this bloody costume. He responded with a monotone “Ho ho ho”.

Damian changed tack. “Hey, you’ll never guess what I just saw. I was on till four and some guy paid for his shopping with contactless.”

Alan shrugged. “So what? That’s been around for years.”

“Ah but not with a card. He just put his hand on the scanner. He has the chip embedded in his fucking hand!” Damian’s eyes glowed with excitement. “I have got to get one of those.”

Alan shook his head. “You’re turning into the Borg and you’re delighted about it.” He snorted. “Resistance is futile. Although there is no resistance, is there? You all want to be assimilated. You’ll even pay for the privilege.”

“Oh lighten up, Alan. The chips are convenient, that’s all. You can’t lose your credit card or leave it at home if it’s embedded in you.” Damian gestured at the stockroom door. “Same as this – you never turn up to work without your door entry card, do you? Of course not. It’s in your hand all the time.”

Alan stared at his hand, where the hated chip was embedded. He couldn’t escape the question in his head, the question that had been there ever since the needle slid into his hand.

What else does it do?

Damian slapped Alan’s shoulder. “You and your conspiracy theories.” With a chuckle, he headed for the staff room.

Scowling, Alan stomped towards the tired, age-battered grotto in the corner of the shop. He looked like a Santa who had just had his sleigh impounded and his reindeer sliced up and on sale in Lidl’s freezers.

“Smile, you miserable old sod”

The hissed whisper made Alan jump. He hadn’t noticed Mr. Elwood, the manager, who now glared at him from the household cleaning products aisle. Alan forced a smile, nodded and carried on to the rickety chair in the grotto.

The chair, like the rest of the grotto, looked somewhat sad, as if it had made an attempt to be festive the morning after a serious drinking session. Alan straightened out some of the threads of tinsel and lifted the ones that had fallen to the floor. He lowered himself carefully onto the wobbly chair and wondered if Elwood would ever see fit to replace it. Probably not. This was the same chair the previous Santa used, five years ago. He went mental or something – Alan hadn’t been at work that day but the tales the staff told sounded really bad – so Elwood no longer trusted outside hires for his store-Santa. Alan wondered if this rickety chair had helped drive the man nuts. It certainly felt unsafe.

Ah well, he thought, at least it means a bit of extra money in the pay packet. Not much, but every little helps at this time of year.

Money for nothing, Alan thought, after twenty minutes of the four hour stint had passed. Not one child entered the grotto. Maybe it looked so unsafe parents were keeping them away. That was fine with Alan, he was sick of hearing demands for the latest expensive electronics from spoiled, greedy little shits.

He was not to promise them anything. That was the rule. Santa never made a firm promise in case the parents sued later. Elwood had angled a security camera, with microphone, onto the grotto in case some compo-hound pretended Alan had made a promise the parents couldn’t afford to keep. This was a bit of modern surveillance Alan didn’t mind. He wasn’t really the one being watched, and anyone who noticed the camera would assume that he was the one being watched in case he tried to get into a toddler’s pants. As if anyone with that kind of perverted desire would even get a job in this shop. Elwood might be a grumpy tight fisted bastard but he was a shrewd employer. Very few thieves or perverts had ever slipped past his interviews and once identified, they were out of the door in a flash. Sometimes with a police escort.

The customers never grasped that they were the ones being watched. Any claim against the store based on what might or might not have happened in the grotto would be faced with video evidence. Elwood kept every tape for years. He was not going to lose any lawsuit brought against this shop.

Alan’s reverie was broken by a small voice. “Are you really Santa?”

At the entrance to the grotto stood a small boy, holding his mother’s hand. Alan composed himself and launched into his prepared spiel.

“Ho ho ho. The real Santa is busy. I’m one of his helpers but he hears every word I say. So, small boy, what do you want Santa to bring you this year?”

The mother’s face reddened. “Xe identifies as a girl and likes to be called Belinda. Please don’t assume gender on first sight.”

Alan closed his eyes. Oh Jesus Holy Christ on a motorbike fuelled by unicorn turds. It’s one of those trendy idiots who loves to mess with their kids’ heads just to look right-on. He opened his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Okay.” He looked at the child. “What do – xoo – want for Christmas?” Little boy/girl/thing. Oh how he wished for the nerve to add that part aloud.

The mother rolled her eyes in that superior manner that only the half witted can manage. “It’s just ‘you’, not ‘xoo’. ‘You’ is not a pronoun.”

Did I ask for a lecture on fantasy grammar? Alan looked her dead in the eye until she broke eye contact, then turned his attention to the child. In a now very obviously forced cheery voice he asked “Well, Belinda, what would you like?”

“I want a doll house.”

Alan raised his eyebrows. This was the most traditional request he had heard in a long time. Among the demands for expensive electronics, games of murder and death and toys of alien monsters or demons, this child’s request seemed so… ordinary. Or it would have been ordinary if a girl had been asking for a doll house. Alan coughed and regained his composure.

“Well, I’ll pass your wish along to Santa and we’ll see what he can do.” Alan lifted the small plastic cauldron, a Halloween leftover, and offered it to the child. “Would you like a sweet while you wait for Christmas?”

His/her/its mother stepped forward. “No sweets. I don’t want my child to suffer obesity.”

Oh for fuck’s sake. Let the kid have at least a bit of childhood. Fortunately Elwood had anticipated a visit from at least one of the modern loonies so Alan had an alternative bucket behind his seat. He put the sweet bucket down and picked up the other. “How about a bag of nuts or dried fruit?”

The mother smiled her approval and the child selected a bag of dried apricots. As they left, Alan sagged in his seat.

How long does humanity have left? He stared into his palm where the inert electronics of his door opening chip lay silent. They’ll have credit cards embedded and then all their bank details. They’ll have chips to run their cars and they’ll have those Google Glass things embedded in one eye. They’ll get one hand replaced with a tool for their specific job. And they will welcome it. Hell, they’ll fight to be first in line.

There had been an old documentary, a TV show about the fictional Star Trek universe, in which it was stated that nobody knew where the Borg came from. Alan knew. He had recognised it at once. They came from a world like ours. They did not need to forcibly assimilate their original population. Their people had welcomed every new advance, every new embedded chip, every new modification, until it was too late to resist.

So what’s next?

A child of about seven strolled into the grotto, exuding an air of confidence that his youth should not possess. He (or she or it, Alan was not going to fall for that one again) stood in front of him and smiled.

“So.” Alan felt a little disconcerted by this child. “Um. Ho ho ho.” He shook his head to clear it. “What do you want for Christmas, small… person?”

“A FitChip.”

“Uh…” Alan blinked a few times. “A what?”

The child sighed, then pulled back the sleeve of his shirt to show Alan a device around his wrist.

“Oh right, one of those things that monitors your activity.” Alan considered these things pointless. Nobody needs a device to tell them what they are doing, and whether or not they feel well. “But don’t you already have one?”

“Oh get with the times, Santa. This is external. I can lose it. The new ones are implanted. They transmit all kinds of information about my health and location and my phone picks it all up.” The child looked almost pityingly at the baffled old man Alan suddenly felt himself to be.

“Ah.” Alan saw an immediate flaw. “What happens if you lose your phone?”

The child shook his head and lifted the hair on his right side. There, embedded in his flesh, was a long narrow silver object with a tiny blue light that flashed occasionally.

“Nobody loses phones any more. Nobody loses house keys either.” The child held up his hand and tapped his palm. “And it all charges using wireless chargers. I have one over my bed so everything charges up while I sleep.”

That must be why the Borg rest in those alcoves on the TV show. Alan had wondered about that.

“You’re being turned into some kind of machine.” It was out before Alan realised he had said it aloud. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“It’s not like that.” The child scowled. “It’s what my granddad says too, but it’s not like being a machine. I control the chips. They don’t control me.” His lip started to tremble.

“Okay, I understand.” Alan felt panic rising. A crying child leaving the grotto would look very bad indeed. He held up the sweet cauldron. “Look, have a couple of sweets and I’ll see what I can do about that – what is it – fidget?”

“FitChip.” The child’s smile returned. “I really want one. I’d be the first in my class at school.”

“Right. Well, good luck on Christmas morning. Just make sure to be good and I’m sure Santa will come visit.”

The child grabbed a handful of sweets and left with a cheery ‘Bye’.

Alan sagged in the chair. That Santa who went psycho in this very chair a few years back… Alan could quite understand it now. It seemed to just get more damn weird every year. Maybe he should start looking for a different job in the New Year. One that didn’t involve anyone, especially him, dressing up as Santa. The image of the phone implanted in that child’s head hung in his memory. What the Hell is coming next year?

The kid said he controlled the chips. They don’t control him. For how long? The chip he wanted, he said, transmitted all sorts of information to his phone. Where else did it send that information? Could someone else pick it up?

Oh maybe I’m being paranoid. Or maybe I’m being sensible. Only time will tell – but implanted phones! Alan shuddered. The kid even had his door key implanted. Like mine, only mine is just for work. Alan stared at his hand. How long before it opens my house door too? And who else will have the chip code, and therefore access to my home?

People never look at the risks of the new toys they are sold. They have TVs with cameras installed, watching them as they watch TV. They have voice activated listening devices that they’ve bought and delighted in, and never wondered who might be listening. Now they are loading their bodies with chips that transmit intimate details about them. To who? To where? They never even think to ask.

What would happen to people his own age? Would they be forced to assimilate or just be brushed aside, a load of irrelevancies waiting to die? What happens when you get old and forgetful and can’t remember what all those chips do? That child’s medical chip – will it simply switch him off when he gets too old or too sick to be productive?

From Alan’s point of view the future looked bleak indeed and yet the young people thought it all wonderful. He sighed and hoped they were right.

It was a quiet shift today, leaving Alan plenty of time to reflect, in his own morose way, on the coming world he could never feel a part of. An old song played in his mind, a song by a deceased musician he had idolised in his youth. He smiled at the memory of that particular musician’s androgynous appearance, his space-age, almost science fiction music at times, and how he played all it to the gallery. It was edgy and different in those days. Now it had passed the stage of ‘normal’ and was fast becoming compulsory.

Alan closed his eyes and let the song play in his head.

All the strangers came today.

And it looks as though they’re here to stay.

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