"I'd like my graduation certificate, please", he told the university clerk.
"Hmm, let's see. David Rhodes, Eligible for graduation in 2080."
After some typing and checking, when he thought she was about to print it for him, things began to go wrong.
"Your university application form is missing a completed copy of the E38b certificate", she said. "This should have been noticed before, but you are in an irregular situation. Admision may not occur without the E38b."
"Well, I have a copy of it here", he said, opening a big folder. "I brought everything just in case."
"That's not enough. The certification must date to a time before admision, not after the fact."
"Sure", he said. "It says it right here: issued in May 2075. I applied for admision in July 2075." He pointed at the relevant dates on the papers.
"So you're saying you had this certificate at the time of application, but you failed to include a copy?" she asked.
"That's right", he replied, recovering some of his confidence.
"Hmm. I thought it was an issue of lacking the correct document, or getting it out of date, in which case your admision would be invalidated, and hence your degree would be void."
"Right, that's not the case."
"Instead, you actually had it at the time. Which makes this a case of failure to disclose during an administrative procedure. So we add to your degree invalidation a fine of 20000 EUR."
"Now, you got a compulsory social service deferment for your degree, during your 5 years of study. Of course this is now void, too, so we add to your 3 years service the 5 years of improper deferment times 1.5 for sanctions... You owe the state 10 years and 9 months of compulsory service."
"Now, let's take a look at your family situation--"
"I just wanted my graduation certificate!" he said. "How is my family involved at all?"
"Well," she said, "all these things are integrated now. Don't worry, though, I'll make sure your status is entirely adjusted to the law. Let us se... You've now been unproductively unemployed for the last 5 years. That shifts your family status from class D to class E, so your housing benefit is cancelled... I think we can go easy on the clawbacks for the undue rent, since the infringement wasn't wilful. It wasn't wilful, right?" she asked.
"Of course it wasn't!"
"Right. We won't charge you the legal interest then. Your rent is 1200 a month, so that makes it 72000 EUR for back pay. Oops."
"What are you doing now?" he asked.
His entire life, and that of his family, was being destroyed because of a minor oversight 5 years ago.
"Well, your debts are over the threshold of 80000 EUR. Can you pay them on the spot?"
"Are you joking?" he asked. "Of course I don't have 80000 EUR in cash."
"Any payment instrument that matures before 7 days would do", she said. "Backed cheques, bank cards, anything like that. We don't intend to make this difficult."
"No, we don't have that kind of money."
"In that case we must execute on your assets." Some quick typing. "Right, that's all your accounts frozen. I'm afraid with your income level and debt to equity ratio your right to residence cannot be sustained."
"So what do you expect us to do now?" he asked, with tears in his eyes.
"Look, I'm just doing my job here. It wasn't my fault that your status went out of adjustment." Some mouse clicking. "We have some openings for the pilot underwater resource extraction project. That'd give you a legal residence, it counts for your compulsory service, and your mother and sister could hopefully get paid employment to cover your existing debts. In 20 or 30 years, if you're careful, you could retire the debt, and maybe get to save enough to pay for transportation back to the surface."
"You want to send us to the bottom of the sea... How can a university clerk do this to us, force us out of our flat and send us into virtual serfdom?"
"I'm only trying to help", she said. "You need to have a lawful residence and an adjustment plan by the time you leave, though, or it becomes a criminal matter. Surely you don't want that."
Surely he didn't want that. Did it matter what he wanted anyway? Everything, his degree in engineering, his plans for the future, his hope to get back to the part of society that got good jobs, ample homes and respectability... All of it was lost.
"Let me at least phone my family to consult", he asked.
"Not allowed", she said. "If you warn them you know they'll hide their things and the creditors will never get to recover them."
"Fine. I accept movement to the underwater pilot facility and compulsory service there subject to legal residence for the 3 of us."
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" she asked. "Now, if you do something for me, I can make this easier on you. Let's say I could mistype something and get your debts down to 30000 or so."
"What would I have to do?"
"Just promise me a favour of my choice. Anything I ask you for."
"What else can I do? I promise."
"Ok, that'll be attempt to unduly influence the outcome of an administrative proceeding", she said smiling. "That's a bonus for me, and a sanction for you. What are those tables again? Ah, yes, double the fines. It's been a pleasure serving you."
She was still smiling when the police arrived to take him away.
It was year 2090, and David was out of a job, again. Almost 10 years under the ocean had taught him the vital lesson his mother hadn't got through for his entire life. For different people there were different rules. For them, rules would always be found to keep them down, while for others, there were no rules at all. That's how his family's debt kept getting worse. Fines just before they were about to retire some of it, unfortunate periods of unemployment, things kept happening to keep freedom just out of reach.
Until he found a formal assignment, he was obliged to do anything any citizen told him to. Fortunately there weren't that many citizens, but it was bad enough to have to do chores at their spatious towers in the centre of the city while they lived in cramped quarters shaped by the curve of the dome. If he didn't get assigned in 2 weeks, they'd start auctioning his services every morning at the Central Square, and his life would become constant pointless drudgery. Worse, few people got out of the casual labour pool once they were in.
If it weren't for that, he wouldn't even be looking at this assignment. Water work--work outside the city itself--had really bad survivability rates. Most of the hazard pay got eaten up by the insurances one had to take, though he still had a few months of compulsory service to go through, so that would get paid for by the city, same as his basic residence fees. That only covered air, 3 litres of drinkable water per day, and the right to use public spaces and sleep outside citizen areas, but his mother and sister had to pay dearly for those. In theory, he was entitled to use the parks and streets in all areas, even the city centre, but guards didn't like it and he had learned the bruises and fines weren't worth making the point.
He didn't know what would come of him after his compulsory service was done. In some ways it was a terrible situation to be in, though they had let him do engineering work now and then even though he never got his degree. He might be able to keep doing that afterwards, though he'd get rated as unskilled for wage purposes. In other ways, there were advantages. Compulsory service meant he couldn't be deported (deportations were rather terminal, and conducted through the airlock) and he at least had access to the absolute necessities and good chances to scrounge for food.
"I'm here for the water work assignment", he told a receptionist at one of the towers.
He was conducted to an interview with one of the managers, where he explained his situation, engineering skills (though not qualifications), and his status as an unassigned compulsory worker.
"Ordinarily we prefer to hire people who have something to lose. We've found that compulsory workers can be a bit careless about safety and push our insurance premium up. We also have to cover training costs, which are considerable, without much of a hope they'll ever be paid back. However, we really need someone with your profile for this assignment."
"I understand it would involve some major body work", asked David.
"We've perfected these modifications over the years. Until now we've used submersion equipment, or permanent modifications to workers which make them fit for underwater life, but which are irreversible. What we propose for you would be much better. You get the essential modifications to operate under water at our depth, but you also get to come back and breathe air."
"It sounds good. What's the catch?"
"Not much of one, really. Well, I should say these mods are experimental. There's also a process to activate and deactivate them which is triggered by pressure changes, so it takes about an hour to take you from one mode to the other."
"Do I have any chances to get this type of work after my compulsory service? I have to start thinking about that now."
"Well," said the manager, "we can't promise you anything, but getting a worker with your experience for an unskilled wage is quite an advantage for us. I'd be surprised if you can't get at least occasional work with us. More than that... It depends on your performance and what other better qualified and rated people want."
In the end, as ever, he didn't have much of a choice. It only took a few forms and a couple of hours to get him under the knife.
Of course the knife was metaphorical. The changes were introduced through genetic modification, with a bit of mechanical and chemical aid. He wasn't told the process had a 10% fatality rate, that it rendered him sterile, or that it damaged his immune system increasing his susceptibility to infection and cancer. After all, he was just an input. One more replaceable surplus worker.
He was the first of the hybrid water workers, and he didn't expect the rest of the team to like him on sight, but the hostility he experienced was beyond anything he had imagined. After all the training, including sign language to communicate under the water, he was sent out to mine the wealth of the ocean beds. Polymetallic nodules, hydrocarbons, biological samples, and the fissiles to feed the nuclear reactors of an energy-hungry world.
He didn't fit well in the city. Although his modifications were not as obvious as the permanent ones, his skin still had an unhealthy, scaly aspect. In the water, he was the slowest, clumsiest, and most fragile of the workers. The water dwellers had been so heavily modified they no longer looked human. They were considerably bulkier, had finned limbs to give them hydrodynamic control surfaces, and lacked hair. Not devoid of some grace, they were clearly something other. In exchange, they had no dependence on the heating units David had to carry if he didn't want to die of hypothermia, and no need for the powerful light sources he used to penetrate the darkness of the ocean depths. He still could make himself useful, with his careful, delicate, and small hands, in accessing the cramped modules of machinery in need of repair, and he dealt with moving things in and out of the city and making inventories.
For once, things went as he hoped for, and after his compulsory service ended, he got a permanent position as a water worker. Perhaps not surprisingly, citizens or even the better class of residents wanted nothing to do with such drastic modifications to their body plan, and David was one of the few people with the right mixture of reliability, precision, skills and desperation for the work.
Little by little, the hostility of his coworkers turned into pity. They saw themselves as a better adapted, superior form for their environment, and didn't think much of a skinny, hairy, almost blind creature who kept shivering with cold and fear. As time passed by, they began telling him about their life as water dwellers, their permanent settlement, and he told them his own story: how a missing form ended up with his entire family exiled under the sea and him selling his body and his soul for a residence fee. When they learned of it, they told him how they ended up there themselves. The details were different, but the general shape was the same: poverty and plunder.
Since he took over the inventory work, he began to notice some things. There was an undercover trade between the water dwellers and someone at the extraction labs. They sent some extra fissiles, gems, or other dense valuables, and in exchange got an assortment of products. After a while, they noticed he noticed, and relaxed around him even further.
"Can I see your settlement?" he asked one day.
A riot of colours followed that question. Unlike David, the water dwellers had been equipped with chromatophores to simplify communication under water, but he didn't have the knack of reading them.
"No", said Julia. "Don't ask again."
Eventually he realised much of what the water dwellers got in trade was stuff they had no business using. Extremely high-tech little modules kept coming back from the city every now and then. Genetic analysers, artificial ribosomes, and hyperdense gate cubes. He wondered what they were doing with custom lab equipment down there, in the place they would never welcome him to.
"We need a favour", asked Julia. Of all the water dwellers, he got along with her best.
"What is it?" he asked.
"We need a few packages of purified chemicals."
"I know you have some dark trade going", he said. "I've never made a fuss about it."
"These are too bulky. We need you to bring them in hidden as heating units."
"No way!" said David. "You know I barely have any margin. What if I run out of power? I'm not like you, I'd die really fast in here without heating."
"We know", said Julia. "We've been thinking of a way to make this safe for everyone. How about if I told you we have some heating elements stashed at the settlement? They're not exactly the same as the packs you use, but they will do."
"I'd have to see them before I committed", said David, intrigued.
"And?" she asked.
"If you're satisfied with them, will you do it?"
"I want something in exchange. My sister is not doing well at all in here. I know the sort of kit you're getting and it isn't cheap. You could find her a sponsor up there and get her out of this place", he said.
They wrangled a little about the numbers, but it soon was agreed. He would move 3 bulk packages for them in exchange for a residence sponsorship for his sister, enough money to cover her unfinished schooling, and to retire his family's debt, standing at about 25000 EUR. He'd also take back one bulky package, hidden in the same way, and he'd get to see their settlement.
It was amazing how fast things could move when lubricated by sufficient money. His sister was out of the city in a matter of days, sending him delighted messages from the surface, though she didn't know how things had been arranged. Her lack of gratitude didn't upset him though, better for her not to know he had been responsible. What she didn't know she couldn't tell, and hopefully wouldn't be blamed for.
He took 3 disguised packages, in the shape of his heating units, and got to try their artisanal heating mechanisms. They weren't as portable and convenient as the usual units, but they kept him warm when he needed it.
Finally, he got to see their settlement. Under water caves full of custom machinery he couldn't understand, but which he soon realised had to have some biomedical function. When he inquired about it, Julia explained everything at last.
"Those fuckers up there, they break things and we pay for them. They destroyed the economy, but we lost our homes; they destroyed the climate, but it was us who drowned in floods, died in cyclones, and got scattered all over the Earth. They destroyed entire countries, took them over, and deprived us even of the right to live in them. They're cleansing the world, making us serve them, and thank them to let us pay our residence fees. When they needed fissiles to feed their industry, to warm their mansions and run their vehicles, they broke our bodies and wrote their designs in our blood. But this time they made a mistake."
This wasn't anything David hadn't thought himself since that day at the university, except for Julia's hope.
"What mistake?" he asked.
"We don't need them. We can get everything we need from this environment. They fixed that mistake with you, but we can live without them. We can get energy, food, and everything else from the ocean. With the bits you got for us, and a bit of luck, we can even reproduce."
She showed him the babies. Little water dweller bodies, misshapen, or rather, shapen to their living environment.
"We are not going to put up with them anymore. This is our niche. You land dwellers fucked everything up and forced us into these bodies. Well, we're seceding."
"I didn't do anything, though. I wish I could join you."
"You didn't stop it. You all let it happen. We, too, before we were forced into this; but not anymore. This is the last shipment you're getting."
"So what is the package you want to send back?" I asked. "Why pay if you are not going to trade anymore?"
Julia looked sad.
"They told me not to tell you, but I can't send you to your death without at least knowing why."
"What, my death?" asked David. "That wasn't in the deal!"
"You know they'll never let you go back properly. You won't get your normal land dweller body back. They'll never let your mother go, either. If it's not today, tomorrow they'll find a rule, or make a rule, or break a rule, and you'll be in debt again."
"What of it? I want to live. It's all I have left", he said.
"What if you could hurt them? Really hurt them?"
He thought about it. What if he could hurt the university clerk who destroyed his life? But really, she hadn't been anything but a cog in a large machine. The same sort of person he had hoped to become after his graduation. A rule follower. What if he could hurt those who make the rules? After more than a decade lost to their greed, of course he would.
"I might", he said.
Their conversation was cut short as other settlers came to warn them their time was running out. He would soon be expected back, and now he would never learn what the package contained. Julia looked at him and signed profound respect. It would have to be enough.
As he came out of the airlock, his breathing began to settle again. He was washing himself when his supervisor entered the cleaning area.
"We've found some new candidates for the flexible water mods", he said. "You'll soon have some new coworkers, if all goes well. We'll have to find a way to get rid of the water dwellers, though."
"Get rid of?" asked David.
"Surely you didn't think we'd keep them around forever. They're sitting on top of our resources and they're too greedy. I don't get why they even want wages. It's not like they can go to underwater shops. Your type is the future, David. We even kept some, well, hostages, and they didn't care. Terribly heartless."
David was more saddened than shocked. Julia was right. And now her people would suffer the consequences of seeking freedom. He was thinking of her, and how to warn her, as she went through his equipment checklist, and the last package, camouflaged as his heating unit, exploded. Hot fine sand everywhere. A shrill siren.
He woke up lying on the floor, by his mother.
"They tell me you brought in fissiles to the city", she said. "We're all going to die."
"I didn't know it was fissiles. I did it for the money, and to get sister out. And I got her out." he said.
"I know. It's always for the money, isn't it?"
She approached him, ready to embrace him.
"Don't touch me. I must be full of that stuff. Contaminated."
"If we're going to die, we may as well comfort each other", she said, hugging him.
Soon his skin began to peel.
"It looks like we won't have time for cancer", he said, laughing darkly.
"--so we lost the city", finished the operations officer for Thiel Enterprises, inc.
"You should have kept an eye on security", said the energy secretary. "This is going to make a huge hole in our fissile stockpiles."
"I'm sure we can deal with it. There are plenty of people using more energy than they deserved", said the CEO of Energy, Amalgamated.
The suggestions came fast: 10% hike on residence fees, 1 more year of compulsory service, 30% price increases on the kilowatt-hour, a class-based cap on kilowatts....
"Sounds good. We'll do them all", said the energy secretary. "Send me the draft regulations and I'll push them through. Good thing there are always more workers where these came from, isn't it?"