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A Cloud prequel

 

 

 

Chapter 1 - Caught short

 

 

 

 

Christmas 2069 approaches and in the midst of the greatest retail spending frenzy for decades Bianca has been trying on clothes..  They're at Bergeroff Goodman, an up-market store that Bianca has been taken to by Margery who frequents such expensive places.  Like every retail establishment in the world, the store is packed with shoppers.

Many customers will expend their entire available credit, so they have accumulated credit from earlier in the year to allow for this annual celebratory splurge.  Much of it will be expended on personal services, personal wellbeing, exercise, entertainment and of course religious practice and many will exchange gifts of credit towards these services with friends and loved ones. 

Virtual shopping malls in The Cloud compete with actual physical shopping malls at which customers can handle and try physical goods and in some cases even carry them away themselves.   But carry-away is generally restricted to specialty food and clothing, as delivery drones will usually get cumbersome or regularly purchased goods home faster, usually after the reorder-recycle system has already disposed of the previous model.

This annual retail orgy is not limited to those areas of World culture that are centres for the recent Christian religious revival.  Neo-pagans worship the ancient spirits of the European mid-winter festival too.

This year is the 'greatest opportunity ever' for the World's religions to offer gift certificates, once known as Christmas cards, in the competition for a greater share of the souls of all the 'men and women of the World'. 

Religion went into something of a decline during the years of The Great Famine but now the desert is blooming under the rain of economic recovery.  People are once again searching for meaning, beyond their personal survival.  The blooms are manifold.  The Abrahamic religions remain as influential and as competitive as ever.  The many factions compete to undermine each other and attempt to mobilise the faithful in their strategies.  Monotheistic Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, a dozen Protestant faiths as well as the several branches of Islam and Judaism all attempt to recruit souls from each other and convert them from the many Eastern religions and gods that have seduced so many away previously.  

But the largest and fastest growing faith is neo-Paganism. This is a return to pre-Christian European religion that once dominated the whole of Northern Europe at the beginning of the present interglacial, as agriculture and fixed settlement replaced nomadic hunting.  People are attracted to its mysticism and magic to herbs and crystals and essential oils; to chants and rituals and to forest bonfires on cold nights and to bodily pampering and naturally, to sex.  Neo-Paganism has absorbed Epicurean and Bacchanalian elements. It eschews the concept of abstinence or the nobility of poverty.  It embraces luxury and conspicuous consumption.  So the mid-winter festival is recruitment time for one and all.

***

This Monday lunchtime Margery is encouraging Bianca to buy a top quality black wool and mohair suit with a knee length skirt, similar to the one Margery is wearing.  Bianca had been resisting and equivocating when the call of nature cut short their struggle.  The older woman had assumed her resistance was for financial reasons, insisting that a good suit is not an extravagance but an investment in Bianca's future. 

But the real reason Bianca had been resisting has nothing to do with waiting for the sales, as Margery had implied, insisting that the sales are for unloading second quality or over-stocked goods, it's that she doesn't want to be seen to be imitating Margery.  The women are of similar build, both a little taller than average and slim to medium. In a similar suit Bianca would look like Margery's clone, albeit with reddish-blonde hair.  They have been back and forth to the crowded change rooms half a dozen times, trying variations on the same theme, at Margery's insistence, when all the water Bianca had been absentmindedly drinking from her bottle while working this morning, caught up with her.

The sales person directed her to the store powder-room but when she got there she found a long queue.  Among them was a group of very well dressed and obviously wealthy young women, Busies, who were there finding outfits for the big fashionable New Year's Day race-meeting, the Delhi Cup.  They kept letting others of their group join the queue ahead of her.

Her need was becoming urgent so she decided to go to the Plaza Grand next door.  The Ladies' Restroom there was empty.  But like other five star hotels in this part of the city they have iris recognition so that only current or regular guests can open the booths.

That's the trouble with the 'posh' end of town - no public toilets. 

Leaving the hotel Bianca noticed an historic apartment block with one of those antique panels of call buttons and a camera.  She pressed them one after another until a woman answered.

"I've been caught short and I'm desperate, can I PLEASE use your guest toilet," she begged.

"Sure, come-on up, level ten," a woman replied.  Bianca was surprised by the alacrity with which the voice agreed to this strange request.  She was greeted at the door by an elderly, beautifully dressed, woman with a big smile and was ushered through the kind of tasteful apartment only old money can pull off, to the guest toilet.  The woman reminded Bianca of that attractive society woman from the 1970's Jackie Onassis.  The similarity was striking.

There was a small annex with a hand basin, various soaps and a pile of guest hand towels.  Very old world.  But the toilet itself was not old world.  Bianca closed the outer door and stopped short.  Could she go in there?

Bianca is now desperate.  Its very availability has made her need more urgent.  Yet she's like a woman confronting a primitive outhouse in regional Asia for the first time. This one doesn't smell and is a lot more than a hole in the floor with two ceramic stepping stones.  It's perhaps the most beautiful loo she's ever seen: spotlessly clean in shiny deep grey patterns and solid gold fittings yet it's a lot more alarming. She's instantly recognised the pattern of indented dots on the tiles lining the room for what they are, micro cameras and illuminators across the spectrum from infra-red to ultraviolet.  And if that isn't enough, the haptic toilet seat is certain 'give-a-way'.  This is a total body scanner. What's she to do?  She just has to pee.

***

Less sophisticated scanners, some as primitive as a single camera, are quite commonplace and not just in toilets, dressing rooms in clothes shops are a favourite.  They aren't legal but the owners are not usually perverts.  They earn credit feeding the data collected to BoganVillia the marketing corporation that collects data on every potential consumer by any means available like offering loyalty cards and giving away bonus points for travel; encouraging gift cards, the gift that keeps on giving, to the vendor, when the card recipients' buying patterns are tracked, the time limit expires or residuals remain unspent.  If she's given one Bianca thanks the giver for the sentiment and then throws it away.  BoganVillia also tie purchases to credit credentials and track product searches in The Cloud until they have a complete profile of a buyer's purchasing behaviour, interests and overall annual expenditure, which obviously matches income, less positive or negative credit accumulation, once known as savings and debt. 

There are many Busie companies, at arm's length from BoganVillia, that install scanners and on-sell the data and every now and then they get caught and fined.  BoganVillia stands by the 'principle' that data should be unfettered by secrecy, no matter how they were obtained.  So they continue to pay for these data according to market value.

Jackie O is obviously a society matron who entertains the big end of town.  The market value of their secrets is probably quite high.  So she's installed this little earner to keep her in beluga.  Somehow the Virtual Police in The Cloud justice system never seem to catch them at it.  You'd think the massive data bursts would be easy to detect.

Only one in several million people would recognise the technology in this room.  But Bianca comes from an information engineering family where this kind of thing is discussed at meals and she wrote her thesis on bio-cybernetics.  The moment she steps through that door she knows that she will be identified.  The software will match her face and iris details with BoganVillia's vast database of identity records.  Everyone, even she, leaves personal details in The Cloud. For example, every time someone checks your photo ID or tags you in a picture, an identity record is created.  Her file in the BoganVillia database will be updated.  Her present body dimensions as if naked, in the various poses she adopts preparing to sit, will be mapped to micron level noting any blemishes, tattoos, piercings or other modifications. Her garments will be identified and traced back to the manufacturer, then forward to the moment she purchased them.  Any loose dust, hair or skin cells will be sucked into the ventilation system and analysed. Her current state of health will be determined from temperature variations across her body, complemented by an ultrasound scan of her internal organs.  Little ticking sounds and flashes will test her hearing and eyesight.  Urine and stool samples will be taken and analysed as they became available.

Like Sherlock Holmes, BoganVillia will have a good idea of where she's been and where she is going; her style preferences; what and when she's eaten this week; and of course any recent sexual activity:- when, with whom and possibly how, from DNA residuals in the aforesaid.  This intelligence BoganVillia will on-sell to anyone wanting to market anything to her.  She will be assailed by even more offers matched directly to her needs, tastes and activities. 

Although this may sometimes be of benefit, for example when she returns Bergeroff Goodman could potentially know her exact shoe and clothing sizes from her underwear out, Bianca hates these intrusions.  They will also know how much she spent on her current clothes and underwear; they may think they know her credit status; and they'll have a good idea of her taste from past purchases.  The sales person will be even snootier than he was before.

If she used toilets like this regularly the details of her life would be recorded and mapped year-round 24/7. And if the data fell into in the wrong hands her identity could be stolen or an Avatar could be constructed that was visually and tactilely identical to her in every way, when experienced in 6D virtual reality. With touch and smell; and this would be a pervert's dream.

The fact that illicit data collection had been going on since the earliest days of The Cloud didn't excuse it.  Bogans might not care or know about their file but it's not for her.

Yet she has to pee.  The hand basin is an option but there's probably a camera out here too. 

***

For Bianca there's a more reliable option. She's a Grad with advanced coding skills and Isis, her Virtual Personal Assistant, hosted in The Cloud, has a 'stream blocker and scrambler' installed that Bianca wrote years ago when still a teen.  Of course a stream blocker is not strictly legal and it's forbidden to hack into and scramble data in The Cloud, so she uses it very sparingly. But this is an emergency.

If Isis simply blocks the data stream it will certainly set of an alarm. A debug routine will start and a repair bot may even be deployed. All she wants at this moment is to have a pee; not have to deal with a torrent of messages or a loo that starts sounding an alarm.

Rather than speaking out loud Bianca, who can read and write, discretely taps in a message to Isis telling her to randomly scramble any data generated by this thing as it reaches The Cloud.  Isis replies with a quick vibration in her pocket communicator.  At last she can sit down. It's safe.

***

As she sat there admiring the technology in the most advanced body scanner she'd ever encountered she was intrigued and happy.  Everything was spotless.  Apart from being a total body scanner it was a very nice loo.  No doubt Jackie O has the ultimate in cleaning robots.  And her apartment was the most tasteful she'd ever seen.  Bianca wondered who she was, obviously someone well placed in society.  It would be nice to know her real name, maybe aunty Miranda knows her?

A thought occurred to her.

Here was this very nice loo just when she desperately needed it and she'd only found it by pressing all the buttons on a random apartment block - essentially by chance.

The Cloud has an almost insatiable demand for new Apps - applications that help people find likeminded others for almost any purpose, from quilting to musical farting; that amuse them; and that manage their daily lives.  What was needed was an App to match those who nature called to empty loos.  Air - loo? Air Ones and Twos ? Almost every dwelling had a guest toilet so why not rent it out to those in need?  Bogan's Apps allow their VPA to tell them what and when to: eat, rest and play; when to ablute and when they should exercise or give vent to their other bodily functions.  But until now, not where. 

In this case there would be few Bogans but Jackie O outside would be delighted to have a lot more up-town customers to scan for additional credits.

Bianca could begin to knock something together when she got home tonight.  Then she had a better idea.

 

 

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