Fiction | Short Story

High Score

Owen suppressed a sigh as the PoolMAX vehicle slowed for yet another stop. He checked the Pool app on his phone – swipe swipe tap – and let out a low groan. The rider cap was unlimited, meaning that the MAX could (and probably would) stop another dozen times before it reached Palo Alto. Catching […]

Owen suppressed a sigh as the PoolMAX vehicle slowed for yet another stop. He checked the Pool app on his phone – swipe swipe tap – and let out a low groan. The rider cap was unlimited, meaning that the MAX could (and probably would) stop another dozen times before it reached Palo Alto. Catching the MAX has clearly been a mistake, thought Owen, dynamic demand be damned.

He peeked out his window, taking in the many small groups of people milling about, holding signs, chanting. There had been a march or a rally or somesuch nonsense today, which meant that the streets of San Jose had been packed and getting a standard 8-person Pool home was ridiculously expensive. He’d opted for this 40-seat monstrosity instead.

He didn’t understand why these people would use up an entirely good weekday to clog the streets and make life harder for the decent people who  were just trying to go to work or to lunch or back home. These protesters or activists or  “warriors” – as they sometimes presumptuously called themselves – didn’t even have the decency to follow Pool etiquette. At this very minute, Owen looked at the three signs that were swaying in and out of his space. He swatted at them gently, but their owners didn’t even notice. Owen was not going to be leaving a good review for this ride.

The vehicle still wasn’t moving. God, why isn’t the Pool moving yet? Owen looked to the door at the front and noticed that the middle-aged woman who’d boarded was paying with her phone. HER PHONE! No wonder this is taking so long. Owen didn’t remember the last time he’d seen a payment being made with something other than a SmartBand. Phones don’t even have local currency encryption! Doesn’t she know she’s paying with a method that’s both slower and less secure?

Owen raised his hand to his forehead and massaged his brow. He was starting to get a headache, and could feel his face flushing with frustration. He always avoided anything above a 12-person PoolShare. Now here he was on a MAX with its distinct lack of personal space and types of riders he’d never have run into in a smaller Pool. It was upsetting. You get what you pay for.

His own SmartBand warmed his wrist momentarily before a voice sounded in his ear. It was the smooth, sultry voice of a young woman, custom-tweaked over months of training by Owen, and it reminded him that taking a few deep breaths could help relieve tension. Owen took in a ragged half-breath and spit it out.

“Shut up, Susan,” he muttered. The voice made a gentle apology. He had promised his mom that he’d try out a few new wellness apps for the new year, but he hated them. He didn’t need to improve himself – he was doing quite well for himself, thank you very much.

“Hey, Susan, what app was that?” Owen watched the woman wander down the aisle, finding a seat a few rows ahead of him.

“The app is called Smart Emotions,” Susan said.

“Delete it, please.” Owen couldn’t see any wearables on the woman – no buds, no bands, not even a government-subsidized IdentiRing! If – or when, Owen guessed – this lady died alone in her apartment, people would have to find her body and her family the old-fashioned way. Slowly. Gross.

“Smart Emotions has been deleted,” Susan said.

The vehicle jolted into movement, the signs around Owen banging into him once more.  He couldn’t stop staring at this woman. Why is she even on this Pool? She wasn’t carrying any protest signs. She clearly doesn’t have the money to live in either San Jose or Palo Alto. What was in between? Mountain View? He tried to mentally place the woman in one of the smaller apartments in his head, but it still didn’t feel right.

Owen brought up the Pool’s route map  – tap  swipe tap-tap – and looked at the line the wiggled across the screen. Of course! Slummyvale! The Sunnyvale Slums. Owen hadn’t even considered that they’d be going right by Slummyvale – technically named Peninsula Affordable Housing Zone 3, according to the contract drawn up between the state and the Big Three tech companies. He was certain that’s where the woman would get off.

Swipe-tap and Owen had set his phone to high-security mode. He was suddenly nervous. He’d never stopped anywhere close to the Slummyvale Gates, and he had no idea who might get on the Pool. He only had the horror stories of his co-workers to go off of – how one of them had been cornered on a Pool and shouted at for wearing a company shirt, how another had seen a group rip the wearables off a young man who had accidentally wandered into an Affordable Housing Zone. He thought of the countless times he’d been advised to call a private company shuttle for any work travel, no matter how trivial. He now regretted not having waited the estimated 22 minutes for the next available shuttle.

He checked his clothing, his belongings, looking for any outward-facing hints of corporate affiliation.  He unlocked his phone – thumb and face both required since he had put it into high-security mode – and looked through his apps to distract himself..

Swipe swipe swipe. Huh. MonsterHunt. Owen grinned.

“Hey, Susan?” Owen said. His band vibrated gently to let him know it had heard. “Let’s hunt some monsters!”

“Do you mean the app MonsterHunt?” Susan asked.

Owen sighed. He should have just tapped to open the damn game. “Yes, I mean MonsterHunt.”

“Opening MonsterHunt. Enjoy!” Susan said.

MonsterHunt was similar to many of the other location-based augmented reality hunting and collection games on the app store, but it had been the first one designed with a fixed economy and a way to cash out monsters into real money. A new version of a virtual monster would spawn only when the player that caught it decided to cash it out. Every monster was unique and catching a common one was like finding a penny on the street.

Owen had tried to make money with MonsterHunt when it first came out, but soon realized that common monsters weren’t worth his time and rares would mean traveling to specific spawn points and battling hardcore hunters continuously buying in-game gear to help their odds.

He still had a decent set of mid-level gear he’d bought early on, though, and knew that Slummyvale had a pretty valuable spawn point inside it. The Pool should take him close enough to get a few good shots at rare monsters. What made his chances even better, Owen thought, is that the residents probably didn’t even have the AR glasses needed to play MonsterHunt, let alone the money to upgrade their in-game gear.

As Owen pushed the AR glasses onto his face, Susan whispered into his ear. “MonsterHunt has  a required update. The app will be ready in approximately 90 seconds.”

“Ugh, really, Susan?” Owen tore his glasses off, put them back into this jacket, zipped the pocket. “I thought I had background updates on.”

“This update is app-specific and did not inform the background updates system. I’m sorry that you seem frustrated. Did you know that only 5 minutes of meditation a day has been shown to decrease stress levels by half?”

“What? No. Susan, I don’t care about meditation. I just wanted to play MonsterHunt.”

“MonsterHunt will be ready in approximately 70 seconds. Would you like to participate in a sponsored activity in the meantime? Completing  it will reward you with 500 coins in MonsterHunt.”

Owen sighed. “Yeah, OK.”

He looked down at the screen. A flag appeared with a single word superimposed: CITIZN. He had seen this activity before – it was government sponsored and fairly trivial. He skimmed the instructions. These are real people living nearby. Swipe up if they’re a good citizen. Swipe down if you think they may be  a threat to the country. OK, OK, let’s go, tap tap tap.

The first card appeared on-screen. Normal dude with a baseball cap on. Swipe. Black dude, older. He paused. Nothing seemed awry here. Swipe. Cute girl. Owen paused and whispered “screenshot, save to cute girls.”

“The photo has been saved to the cute girls folder,” Susan said.

Owen lingered on the card, smiling at the girl. It said she lived in San Jose. He wondered if he could buy Clark a drink, convince him to run a few searches through the facial recognition database tomorrow. He’d like to know her name. Owen chuckled and shook his head – he was getting too invested right now. Another adventure for another day! Swipe.

A man in a headscarf. Or a turban? Something weird covering his head. His eyes were angry, and the way his lips slightly parted unnerved Owen. He looked around quickly, but no one was paying attention to him. He swiped down.

A young man in a polo shirt. Owen gasped. He knew this guy! It was Hector, an old classmate at Berkeley. Hector has been a decent writer, unlike Owen, and had helped him out of more than a few jams in Owen’s few required humanities classes. He was surprised that Hector was still in the area; he thought he remembered him moving east to look for a job. He swiped up, then said, “Susan, text Hector.”

“Starting a text message for Hector Rodriguez,” Susan replied. “What would you like it to say?”

“Hector! You won’t believe it but I just saw you on CITIZN. I didn’t know you lived around here! Hit me up, let’s do something.” Owen paused. “Send,” he finished, and felt his band vibrate in acknowledgement.

His phone showed a spinning coin on it, indicating that he’d completed a round and scored some coins for MonsterHunt. He tapped the coin, which disappeared and showed his MonsterHunt account increasing. A message popped up.


It was from Hector. Owen furrowed his brow. He opened his messages and quickly typed a reply.


The reply came quickly.

sorry, I meant it’s not good that you saw me on CITIZN. Been pretty busy but we can hang in a week or so if you want

No it was cool seeing you! You back in the Bay?

staying with family. They average household CITIZN scores so hoping my higher one can keep my parents together, will be here until things settle down

That’s crazy! Why is it bad that I saw you tho

the actual chances are so slim that I’m guessing I’m showing up more because I’m on the bubble

Owen was confused. What bubble? Hector had always been more aware of things than he was, more politically active. Maybe this was just another of his movements. He wasn’t interested in that, just in hanging out with a college friend. He feigned interest – maybe he could use this as a talking point with that cute girl if he found her.

uh what bubble

the audit bubble. Look you don’t need to worry about it man, your Patriot Score is probably off the charts

Patriot Score??

Owen snickered out loud. That sounded like a made-up number from some wild conspiracy theory movie.

how do you not know this? It’s your aggregate score from the CITIZN Initiative. You can look it up at right now

Owen scoffed. OK. Sure. He browsed to the site – swipe tap tap tap – which asked for permission to pull his identity credentials off the connection. He tapped the button, his band buzzed, and his ID photo popped up on his screen. He scrolled down a bit.

Patriot Score: 922

Below that, in green text, it read: “No chance of citizenship audit.”

He switched back to his exchange with Hector.

That’s wild!! What’s your score?

684 but my household avg is 498. Below 500 is high risk for an audit. I gotta go take care of some stuff, I’ll let you know if I’m free later. um, glad I could help you learn about the Patriot Score

Owen sighed. There it is. That’s why they’d lost touch – that attitude of Hector’s, that holier-than-thou aura that came through even in his texts! Maybe he’d be too busy to hang out with Hector in a few days.

“MonsterHunt is updated and ready to launch,” Susan cooed into his ear.

“About damn time,” Owen said. “Let’s make some bank.”