By ten a.m. Grace had settled into her routine, serving one applicant after another, bringing their petitions to State Live Services, State Benefits Department, hoping their requests would be granted.
“Citizen, your entitlement is fixed,” Grace said to the man, unusually young compared to her usual clients, older than Grace, but not by much. His clothes were clean but well-worn, as if he’d scavenged the reuse receptacles at multiple corporate reclamation sites, finding the most serviceable articles, vaguely resembling what a job-seeker might wear for a final, decisive IRL interview. Grace wondered how many different data trails converged in this one man, each trail retained by a piece of used clothing, the braid of previously unrelated strands now a single path in the Worldstream.
“One thousand credits a week? That’s not a living wage.”
“I’m obligated to remind you, citizen, that your entitlement is not a wage. It’s your guaranteed minimum income.” Grace’s desk screen flashed a detailed dossier of the man, retrieved within seconds of the man’s first words, the voice response system having recognized his voice and recovered his identity. Grace perused the man’s record. He’d received a weekly transfer since reaching the age of legal entitlement, almost twenty years before.
“This is the same distribution you’ve received since you were sixteen, with adjustments. You’ve never applied for an increase before. Has your situation changed?”
“No,” the man said, barely whispering, “not exactly.”
“I’m sorry. What was your answer?”
“Nothing has changed. I’m still a writer. I still create with language. I still don’t have the skills to render a 360-degree VR venue, or to stimulate a response in the human brain through a neural interface. Those are highly technical skills that I don’t possess. I have other skills. I write. I have no immersive sensory apparatus, no tactile feedback, no galvanic interface to the limbic system to work with. Just words, and my reader’s mind. My words have to penetrate a lot of layers in the reader’s psyche to make an impact. What VR programmers do is too hard for me.” The man looked Grace in the eye. His voice gained a hard edge. “What I do, touching the reader’s mind with words, is infinitely harder.”
The man’s eyes turned tired and moist. He suddenly seemed ten years older.
“Citizen,” Grace said, “I’ll ask you again, has your situation changed?”
“I create content for VR advertising. Nothing more than outlines, really, not even screenplays—just storyboards in words. There’s no premium for creativity, and there’s a penalty for subtlety. The VR programmers take it from there. They get the accolades—and the money.” The man shifted in his chair and looked away. “I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s not writing. I want to write.”
“Have you been discharged from your position? If you have, you could be eligible for an unemployment benefit.”
“No, I’m still employed.”
“Citizen, if your situation hasn’t changed in any material way, we can’t alter your stipend.”
“I need to create. I need to write. I don’t program, I’ve never even wanted to program.” He leaned forward. “Do you use VR? Do you like it?”
“I have,” Grace said. “There are some VR venues that I like.”
“I hate it. Plugging my mind into a machine that controls my senses, putting pictures in my eyes, sound in my ears and feelings in my fingers. Making myself a receiver for whatever the VR machine jacks into me, a human peripheral, no more active than a wall screen. But with language.” The man paused, smiling for the first time. “With language, the reader is a participant, my partner in creation. Do you read?”
“A little. Poetry, mostly.”
“I’ve been reading since I was four. While my friends were strapped into their VR gear, I was reading. While they bungee jumped off of virtual bridges, I walked the streets of Victorian London. While they rode rafts down whitewater rivers, I hunted whales in the Pacific. While they drove race cars on oval tracks, I traversed the circles of hell. Their epinephrine surge lasted a minute; literature changed my life. Who’s better off?” The man covered his mouth with his hand, speaking through his fingers. “I have to leave my job so that I can write. And I can’t live on a thousand credits a week.”
Grace turned back to her screen and studied the man’s case file. “Your mother is still living, is that right?”
“She’s on a pension. Do you provide any support for her?”
He shook his head.
“You’re eligible for a supplemental support stipend on your mother’s behalf. Three-hundred-eighty credits per week, payable to you.” Grace lowered her voice and spoke with exaggerated slowness. “This is provided on the condition that these credits are applied to your mother’s welfare. It’s the best I can do.”
The man nodded with resignation. “Thanks,” he said as he left Grace’s station. Grace watched him leave, wondering what he could have meant by traversed the circles of hell.
From Shredded, Copyright ©  by Charles O’Donnell, All Rights Reserved