“May I have your consent, Connor?”
The man in question blinked once, twice. He was still not familiar with the total whiteness of the room. The doctor sitting before him mentioned the idea of purity, like a newborn. Connor thought it fit the description of this Reborn programme.
“Sorry, could you walk me through the last minute? I—”
“Probably the medicine is still kicking. You might find it difficult to maintain concentration, but rest assured, its effect will disappear after two days. You know, recalibrating your body after we flushed out the last remnants of the toxin.”
“Um, yeah, maybe. So, why is my consent needed?”
“To allow us to proceed. Only two months ago you were roaming the streets for a place to sleep. You were involved in the latest gang fight about drugs. We believe you want to turn your life around. And here you are, having finished the last stage of the therapy. You’ll get sent to your new accommodation, not much, I know, subsidised by the government. Start with a clean slate.”
“Sure, I’d love to. Total freedom to a new life?”
“Not that absolute, of course. You’ll be evaluated. You have been in the monitoring programme since joining. We’ll continue until we deem you fit as an active member of society.”
Seeing no follow-up question from him, the doctor prodded, “So, your informed consent, please?”
“One regular size milk tea, with bubbles,” Cael stated his order. He stood in a line forming before the bubble tea vendor, a new opening in town which quickly gained traction as the social media kept being bombarded by the paid influencers. He wanted to have a taste of it and moved on with his life, just like everyone else was doing this afternoon.
“Please place your face to the scanner,” the cashier lady asked him to step aside to the front of a digital screen glowing with an animation work. Its colourful circular motion gave a telling for the buyers to position their body so that their face was situated inside the ring. His sweaty angular face looked contrastingly haggard to the optimistic tone the electronic payment animation set. He could use a good shave for his 3-day stubble. Why his priority after a long day was to queue for a cup of bubble tea? He didn’t have the answer for that. Nobody had. Perhaps, he deserved a little treat after doing his part for saving the world.
Oops, the scanner popped up an error message, saying [N o f a c e d e t e c t e d]. Not believing his luck, Cael blinked a few times and angled his jaw differently, probably it was that sensitive. A pamphlet that he kept holding with his left hand became crumpled in his nervousness. He tried again, this time his feet a step closer to the screen where the animation was still rolling with its cheerful aura, completely oblivious to a buyer’s predicament at the moment. He forced his eyes to open considerably larger and mouth pulled into a thin line. He was not sure why he had to do it, such a silly face. But after a few seconds, the same error message reappeared on the screen. Everyone lining behind him became restless; he caught the sound of rustling feet and clothes, murmurs here and there of words he didn’t wish to catch.
His last hope was the cashier lady. Throwing a concerned glance, the lady who just finished wrapping up a customer’s order left her post and approached him. She motioned him to retry, only to find the same error message greeting this customer. She shrugged.
“No cash, please.”
Looked like his order’s fate had been decided, then. His feet turned around, no bubble tea to wash down his tiring day.
Walking to the station from the bubble tea stall, Cael sighed in relief. Just another 20-min sitting on the train and 5-min walking down several blocks to his 10-storey, east-facing flat, to finally throw his body to the crumbling old mattress and inhale the musty air of the ramshackle housing complex. Oh, what a joy to be had, some others had it worse! If not for the technology fascism… He didn’t know what fascism was, but Astrid, the team leader of the protest this morning, repeatedly mouthed it to the megaphone. Naturally, he thought it was an important word. Astrid, likely a low-level employee of similar socioeconomic condition as his but with guts, had stood firmly and shouted braver than the rest of his team. Cael felt content just by distributing the pamphlets to any passersby with the default message of supporting their cause, because “someday they might replace you, too”. Especially to the middle or upper workers who happened to cross the street earlier.
But sweat beads trickling down his back, just added another dark spot of grease and sweat on his yellowish shirt. What next? Where to go from there? Surely he still had to go to work tomorrow, but at what cost? He just spent his day off now, and tomorrow had to be another 10-hour round under the sun, mindlessly inputting the data to another spreadsheet, producing another report. Numbing, and from one conversation he overheard (he knew overhearing might cost him his job but who was to blame when the Senior HR Manager threw such a heavy topic next to the water dispenser where he happened to make some tea), automation was in the company pipeline for the next year, gradually replacing Caels, Toms, or Jennas of the first-floor and adding extra load for the developers commanding the latest gadgets on the tenth or eleventh floor. Perhaps, he should consider taking up some evening classes to understand what the hype with coding was and elevated him up high in the career ladder, not just the literal floor. Who knew that Living-Smartly flat opening downtown could finally be rented, not staying on his wishlist forever.
Deeply submerged in his limited imagination, Cael didn’t notice the passengers behind him grunted or coughed to get him moving. But he couldn’t. His Transport card could not be read. Wait, what? He ran it again across the reader at the gate of Downtown Station, West Entrance, before the same red letters and beep notified him that no, it’s your card, not us. He mentally checked when was the last time he topped up. Only three days ago, because today was Wednesday. He made it a habit to top up weekly. Of course, he couldn’t do it monthly. Monthly salary, monthly top-up. Weekly wage, strictly weekly top-up.
A straightforward concept.
If Cael was sweating profusely due to physical activities and sun, now he was nervous. How could he afford his transport home? No more money in his wallet. Each weekly payment was wired to his account, and from there he managed to pay his bills and top-up. What odds was it to have his face not detected and the Transport card not working on the same day? Screaming internally didn’t help his case, much less staying planted in his spot, hindering everyone else behind him to pass through.
He moved away from the line the second time that afternoon, fumbling through his backpack to get his phone out. Ride-hailing was his last option as their price could go somewhat cheaper than the regular taxi. But it was peak hour, wasn’t it? Cael could just hang around nearby until the price went lower hours after, or he could rush to have it now. He didn’t have the luxury of instant gratification for it took more money. The poor should wait. But he was dead on his feet, so he typed in his destination. He got a mini heart attack immediately after the fare was displayed. He never had it easy, did he? He booked the ride.
[S o m e t h i n g’s w r o n g w i t h y o u r w a l l e t].
Yeah, I knew it, he screamed in his mind followed by multiple expletives. Why did the universe insist he suffered tonight? Only that this universe might be a puppet on its string and someone twisting the wooden controllers not in his favour.
Hungry, exhausted, and penniless in the digital world, he called Astrid.
The girl rushed to the meeting point at the station concourse. Her ponytail still stood right and the sling bag she wore when shouting injustice to the sky still clung to her body.
“You think you’re being pursued?” she questioned warily.
“With whatever we did today, that only makes sense.”
“No, it doesn’t, Cael. No one else is having the same problem as you do. Not even I, the organiser.”
Her sincere concern alarmed him. There had to be a catch. “What is it, Astrid?”
She shook her head.
His panic did not subside when two men clad in black tactical uniform approached them on the concourse. The mass parted like the Red Sea, but he only heard, “You must be Cael, or Connor. Come with us.”
A lady clothed in a blue dress covered with a white lab coat sat before him. They were in the Reborn facility. This blinding whiteness surrounding reminded him of the years past when he was still a failure, a stray dog going unnoticed in the world of humans.
“Every piece of technology hates me and that’s not even because of something I do in this life.”
“In this life? As if we’re talking about multiple lives here. It’s only a new identity that you put on like a trench coat. Covering you, but behind the layers, you’re still you. Your consent to join this programme was well-documented, so was the part indicating our right to take any means necessary to stop you from relapsing or doing harm. We’ve got your signature, photo ID, and consent paper. You said you wanted to start anew and trusted the system to do it for you. Whether as Connor or Cael, it still works.”
“There’s a loophole in here. No, two loopholes,” Cael was done being a slow thinker. He might not have the best vocabulary in the world but it didn’t mean his brain failed to articulate the naked truth.
“Firstly, the consent was made when I was Connor. Now, I’m Cael. The ID isn’t valid anymore. Oh, please, it was, what, five summers ago. Secondly, what am I doing wrong here? I exercised my civil rights to participate in protests, coordinated or not, and what I did was literally just distributing pamphlets and standing up the whole day. I didn’t touch drugs or cause violence, for goodness’ sake. Which part of the consent contract said to prohibit me from protesting, huh? Show me!”
Regina Haru was a seasoned professional in the mental health of adult and juvenile criminals; being stoic and firm while still maintaining approachability was her key technique here. Talking about heeding her own advice.
“Let’s take a step back here. Do you have any idea about the essence of your protest, Cael?”
“Yes, I’m very sure of it. I made sure I understood what I stood for before joining. And that is about the people’s voice to protect the jobs from automation.”
“Because you think your job is unsafe? That you and other employees could be replaced by machines and AI?”
“Precisely. And it’s not only about the companies in this industrial complex where we’re coming from. The team leader said it’s the system itself that we must be united against.”
“Got it. So they organised a protest, invited the union, albeit an illegal body, to speak up about this.”
Something about the air freshener enraged him. The ironically calming tuberose scent forced him to tone down, as if it could stop his blood from boiling by superficial tactics.
“They’re… they’re not illegal! It’s something that we should have so when Tom or Jenna is on the brink of layoff the others could speak on behalf of them.”
“Tom and Jenna?”
“My colleagues,” Cael lowered his gaze.
“Alright. So you thought you wanted to fight for them by raising awareness about the danger of automation. And you thought you’re doing good, saving-the-world level of satisfaction, yeah?”
“What else could I do?”
Regina hummed. “You know, Cael, sometimes fighting against it is not the wisest way to overcome the wave. Do you know how your situation is not on your side? That you’re still on the Reborn watch list and somehow of all the protesters marked down today it was only you who ever was in this programme? Do you know what Astrid really does for a living?”
Cael shook his head slowly. His eyes reflected uncertainty. And uncertainty provided a sliver of opportunity for Regina to plant her firm ideas there.
“She’s a business owner, so much unlike you, and her products are marketed to niche people with radicalised viewpoints, such as being against automation to protect jobs. Something that we as a society can’t afford and yet there are dreamers like her merry band. Her initiative in the protest would surely gain more interest from this niche, turning more people to buy her products. If it’s difficult for you to absorb, let me reveal the truth in the simplest way possible: there’s nothing genuine about Astrid and her protest. She does it for fame, for her own sake.”
Regina let her words sink in. She sipped some water before frowning her forehead, continuing, “She can gain something out of this. But you? You won’t. She wasn’t in Reborn, she’s at no risk of losing her comfortable life. On the other hand, you definitely could.”
“I— I just voiced what I thought was right. This automation is bad for us.”
“It’s not. Civilisation has always made progress by losing something to gain something greater. You’re afraid of your future? Why not equip yourself to be irreplaceable?”
“I don’t have the means. Not everyone can have the means.”
She folded her fingers. Her words emphasised. “Repeat after me: we can’t save everyone.”
Cael kept silent.
“We can’t save everyone, Cael," she said it louder. "Your thinking is based on fear. About the scarcity of employment. Why don’t you turn around to see what automation has helped us with? You can turn your fear into power to change yourself so that you can keep up with the digital revolution.”
“I don’t— I don’t have… Wait, but fear also helps me to stay rational. Fear was what kept me enduring Reborn, because I didn’t want my end to be a dumpster fire. It was what allowed me to let go of Connor and accept Cael. Fear told me that there was something wrong with the way I lived back then and if I kept up at that rate I would die on the street. Now, why am I not allowed to see automation replacing jobs as the threat it is?”
Regina Haru fashioned a blank expression. He had won, Cael thought.
But then she clapped slowly. “Look how far you’ve gone with your critical thinking. Fear inspired you to follow through, and then you were literally reborn as Cael. Now with the same logic, you’ve arrived at the decision that you must do something. I’ll write a recommendation letter for you to apply for evening classes. What do you think you’ll be great with? You’re good with data, yeah? Shall I interest you in analytics?”
A watery layer started budding on Cael’s eyes. His protest wasn’t for his life only. How hard was it for Regina to see? Who was the barmy here?
“Can’t you see?” a murmur came from him.
“Better than getting locked out of every payment channel and transportation here, Cael. Your life to be better, not just normal. Better,” she emphasised the syllables.
A tear falling, a streak on its wake staining his cheek.
“May we have your consent?” She smiled, waiting impatiently.
The silence harangued him with tension.
“You’ve survived Reborn, regained your faculty, and look with your trained thinking now. A decision, please?”
Few beats passed. Cael fidgeted with the hem of his shirt. Another bulb of tear rolled down.
Regina strained her hearing to catch the word. Nevertheless, it rang loud and clear in her conscience. She had helped him from relapse, from his old tendency of self-destruction.
Cael didn’t know what awaited him ahead. Perhaps, he could finish the course just like what he did in Reborn. He would be reborn, again. Reborn 2.0, only without a new identity. With the new skills, he probably could change jobs. Maybe sometime in the future, he could eventually afford a unit at Living-Smartly. But he knew he would soon forget about today’s protest, particularly, about his colleagues who would be kicked out next year. Cael wasn’t sure whether that state was a good one or bad. But he was exhausted and his damp-smelled bedroom soon wouldn’t cut it anymore.