Olivia’s Conundrum [Entry Version]

Author's note: This is my non-winning entry for the Into the Black contest. This particular draft was edited and sanitized somewhat. A new, updated version will be added to my Patreon in the future.

Thursday, 2:24 pm: We're sorry, but your DES housing transfer has not been approved. We require additional information. Please sign in to our secure portal to learn more at my.DES.gov.

Olivia cleared the message and shoved the phone into her pocket, wedging it against her hipbone in her haste to get it out of sight.

"Crap. Crap, crap, crap," she muttered.

How much more information could they need? They had her current address, her projected income for the year, her DES allotment broken down annually and monthly...at this point, there was nothing else to give except a blood sample or a DNA swab.

Olivia unzipped her backpack and wrestled her laptop free.

"Two-twenty-six. I got time. I got time. We got this. It's okay."

She took a deep breath and then flipped the screen up. The hibernation screensaver drifted lazily and then dissolved into the familiar icons that were strewn about her desktop. Once upon a time, she'd had neat folders—back when being neat didn't make it easier for her boyfriend—no, ex-boyfriend—to snoop through her files.

"Okay, my.DES.gov..."

The site took only moments to load, but that didn't stop Olivia from glancing over her shoulder every few seconds. He wasn't back yet. This would work out.

She tapped in her username and password, then put her eye close to the webcam for the required retinal scan. Two beeps confirmed her identity and she was in.

Across the top of her Department of Economic Security profile page was a glaring red banner:

TAX ASSESSMENT MISMATCH | PLEASE CONFIRM DISSOLUTION OF PARTNERSHIP

"Shit."

It had seemed like such a good idea when they'd first moved in together. Tax benefits, a decent bump in their DES allotment. And it only required a few forms, notarized and signed.

Dissolution on the other hand...

Olivia stared at the lengthy form requiring notifications to the bank, the government, his place of business, and her new apartment manager.

A single box was highlighted in red: Partner A's signature

Olivia hesitated, then typed in his name. A confirmation button appeared.

Scan and submit? | Help

She clicked Help. A long list of alternate forms of signatures popped up, none of which did anything to help the situation. She sighed and clicked the 'cancel' option.

NOTICE: TAX ASSESSMENT MISMATCH. DES HOUSING TRANSFER ON HOLD PENDING VERIFICATION.

Ten more minutes of searching the site garnered a help-line. Olivia checked the time, then dialed. Her heart was in her throat by the third ring. She hung up and looked around the room, fingertips drumming against the laptop as she folded it shut. 

The bedroom was spotless, with polished wood floors gleaming in the afternoon light. A single blue rug rested at the foot of the bed, vacuumed in neat lines across the oval surface. Her backpack and one other bag were beside the rug, packed and ready to go.

By contrast, the inside of the closet was a monument to clutter that had almost reached intervention-levels. There were garbage bags full of clothes and boxes of outdated papers and magazines in piles. More boxes—these with comic books—and stacks upon stacks of electronic equipment that no longer meshed with universal tech standards, much less EPA standards.

When they first moved in, Olivia had laid claim to half the closet, and a decent assortment of jeans, sweaters, boots and sandals, besides. Now, everything she owned was wedged into those two bags sitting beside the bed.

After one more glance around the room, Olivia pressed herself into a small gap between two garbage bags and tugged the closet door almost shut.

Her phone adjusted to the darkness and illuminated her face in dim blue light as she whispered, "Redial."

Her thumb hovered over the cancel button, ready to tap the screen. This time, the connection went through right away.

"Hello! You have reached the Department of Economic Security. To check on a pending deposit, press one. To confirm receipt of your DES smart chip, press two—"

"I need to talk to someone, please."

"You want to speak to customer service, is that right?"

"Yes."

"Do you prefer AI, or human interaction?"

"AI, please."

"One moment."

Hold music drifted from the receiver, then a series of beeps.

"Hello! I am Susan, your guide to DES services. Please let me know in a few words how I can help you. You can say things like 'I need to renew my income file' or—"

"My transfer is on hold and I need a waiver."

"I'm sorry to hear that you're having difficulty completing your transfer. One moment while I access your account. For security purposes, please scan your chosen identification, or enter your 10-digit access code."

Olivia held the phone up to her right eye and a bright flash made the entire closet pitch black to her for several seconds.

"Scan is confirmed. Thank you, Olivia Thompson. One moment while I look up your case file."

Olivia hugged her knees with her free hand and rocked back and forth.

"Your file is currently on hold due to a missing signature from—"

"I can't get his signature."

"Would you like me to attempt to get the signature on your behalf? I can contact—"

"No!" Olivia winced, then said "No," again, in a softer tone of voice.

"I am sensing agitation in your response. Are you experiencing a situation that requires human intervention?"

"No, I just need a waiver."

"The signature on a dissolution cannot be waived in most circumstances. Please answer the following questions truthfully," the AI responded.

"Are you currently in the middle of a humanitarian crisis or climate change related disaster?"

"No."

"Have you been under illegal surveillance in the last six months?"

"...no?"

"Is your partner currently incarcerated?"

"No."

"Do you evidence of, or do you have reason to suspect that your partner may be involved in domestic terrorism—"

"No—"

"—the sale or distribution of illegal drugs—"

"—no!"

"—or the facilitation of illegal immigration not attached to humanitarian crises abroad?"

"No."

"Is your partner currently employed beyond the 20-hour per week requirement for DES benefits?"

"Yes."

"Are you currently employed beyond the 20-hour per week requirement for DES benefits?"

"No."

"Is your current move request the result of a professional career change?”

"...no."

"According to your answers, I am unable to process a signature waiver at this time. However, you can make your request in person at one of our DES centers."

Olivia bit her top lip, then sighed.

"Okay. How do I do that?"

"One moment while I upload directions and your appointment time to your phone—"

"Wait, what?"

"Your appointment is confirmed for 3:35 pm today. If you need to reschedule, please call back between the hours of 8:00 am to 2:00 pm, Monday through Friday, excluding holidays. Goodbye."

"...shit!" Olivia hissed the word and then stared at the phone, which now displayed a marginally-useful map to the closest government help center. With a racing heart and palms that were beginning to sweat, she crawled out from between the garbage bags and stood up.

*****

 

Thursday, 3:01 pm: I'm moving out early,

might be late to my shift.

 

Olivia tapped 'send' and shouldered the brown paisley backpack with a faint grunt. It was packed too full—clothes, books and her laptop in the main compartment, a tablet, three notebooks and a bundle of colored pencils crammed into the front pocket.

The weight dug into her shoulder when she leaned down and grabbed the handles of the black carry-all, but Olivia welcomed it. This was everything. She was leaving.

 

Thursday, 3:01 pm: If you don't have cover,

we'll have to let you go.

 

Olivia grimaced and put the phone away. Less than twenty hours a week would make things tight. No job would make this impossible—she'd used the extra health allotment from work to reserve a gated apartment. No extra allotment, no extra security. No extra security...

 

Thursday, 3:17 pm: I'll be there.

 

Olivia hit send as the train pulled away and once again crammed the phone into her pocket. Someone on the bullet train had gas. And not the typical, 'what-did-you-eat-yesterday' flatulence, but a long stream of eye-watering 'sulfur mingled with walking with sweaty bare feet through a cow pasture and into a pigpen in 90-degree weather' flatulence. She held her breath, and when that didn't work, she turned her head and breathed into the fabric of her jacket-sleeve.

After the third emanation in less than ten minutes of being packed in like sardines, Olivia was certain she was going to be ill. Everyone around her grumbled, but the source of the gag-inducing stench could not be located, nor did it dissipate between stops as people disembarked and new people boarded.

An elderly man with pink-crepe skin and wispy white hair clinging to his scalp bumped into her as the train lurched around a corner. Olivia's free hand tightened on the overhead loop and she swayed with the movement as little as possible. The man's hand caught Olivia's thigh and she let the momentum of the next turn rock her carryall into that hand—hard.

"Ow! Watch where you're standing, shit."

"Sorry," Olivia mumbled and kept her head down, but the bag stayed put in front of her like a shield. She wanted to check her phone. No. She needed to check her phone. Being late might put her in the back of the line. She couldn't afford to be in the back of the line. Her things were packed. She'd left the key and taken her biometics off the backup lock.

There was no going back. Either she got the waiver today, or she'd be in one of the shelters tonight.

Alone. Easy to find.

Olivia swallowed, but it didn't stop the way her throat started to close. Her pulse sped up and the world around her went grey at the edges. She'd be easy to find. All this for nothing. Months of planning for nothing. Stupid. Stupid, stupid— 

The next lurch sent her toppling into a sturdy woman with bright pink hair. The woman grunted and gave Olivia a deliberate shove in the opposite direction. The accompanying glare pierced through Olivia’s mire of 'what-ifs' long enough that she managed another apology and looked around. Her eyes widened at the scrolling text that announced the current station and the next stop.

"Damn, sorry-sorry-excuse me!"

Olivia nudged her way to the doors before they could whoosh closed, and muttered a few more curses while adjusting the strap of her backpack. It was only one missed stop, but now she'd have to jog versus walking to get there on time.

Already, her blouse was disheveled and her scalp felt itchy with sweat. At least her braids would look neat if nothing else.

"C'mon, c'mon..." Olivia muttered to herself and picked up the pace—up the stairs and out onto the street. It was sweltering, with a heat-haze wavering along the concrete, asphalt and metal that made up the covered walkway. On one side of the canopy overhead, ads played.

(Just 10% of your DES allotment per month gets you the latest augmented reality suite! Always updated, always online.)

On the other there were inputs for people who had augmented reality devices. Olivia found herself wishing she'd splurged on a high-end phone that would let her check in for her appointment before reaching the building itself as she hurried along.

Her shoulder ached with each step and she could feel the stitching from the carryall digging into her hands. One step after the other. Avoid bumping into people. Don't slow down. Keep going. Don't stop. A clock embedded in the canopy display read 3:26 pm.

She could still make it.  

*****

"I'm sorry but we require check-in at least fifteen minutes before your scheduled appointment."

The woman at the counter pushed a tablet towards Olivia and continued, "You're welcome to sign up for an appointment next week."

Olivia shook her head. "That won't work. I didn't even have a day's notice for this appointment. It was assigned by the AI."

"Did you ask for soonest available?"

"No, I—"

"Look, just rearrange your schedule. I don't understand why you people think that just because it's free—"

"I have a job."

"Excuse me?" The woman at the desk raised a skeptical eyebrow and looked Olivia over from head to toe. "Volunteer positions don't really count for scheduling preference."

"It's not volunteer. Look. My shift starts in two hours. I need to have the paperwork in process sometime in the next hour, so I can take transit and make it there on time." Olivia was careful to enunciate each word, and kept her voice as even as possible.

Still, she couldn't quite keep the edge of frustration out of her tone and the woman at the desk took note of it with a scowl.

"I'll have to confirm your employment within the system."

"That's fine."

The woman flipped through a few screens, opened her mouth to say something, then frowned and looked up at Olivia again. Her eyes darted from Olivia's face to the screen and back yet again. Olivia swapped her carryall to her other hand.

"I'll have to escalate you to level two." The woman's response was brisk. "Go sit down and we'll call you when that caseworker is ready."

Olivia nodded and carried her things to a seat near the intake doors. As soon as she sat down, her phone buzzed.

 

Thursday, 3:37 pm: Where the hell are you?!

 

Olivia deleted the message.

The woman behind the desk continued to type, and continued to look at Olivia and then back at the screen with an occasional scowl.

Good, Olivia thought. Let her choke on assumptions all day.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Olivia's phone vibrated every other minute. She ignored it. Tapped her feet instead. Ran her hands over her now-chilly arms and wished she'd packed a sweater up top in her backpack instead of at the bottom of the carryall. Counted the seconds bleeding away her margin of error for getting to work on time. And always, she watched the doors.

Thirty minutes later, her stomach started to growl. Olivia ignored that, too.

At 4:15 pm, a red-haired woman in a crisp blue DES uniform came to the intake door and called her name.

"Olivia Thompson?"

"Yes, that's me." She stood up and picked up her bags.

"Right this way, please."

Olivia followed the woman down two hallways and into a third.

"I'm not sure I'll have time to finish this today," she said. The woman just smiled and shook her head.

"It won't take long. A signature waiver, right? You could have done that with the AI over the phone."

"I tried, but it said I didn't qualify."

"Oh. Oh, I see. Well, let me pull up your case file and see where the snag is. Sometimes the artificial intelligence doesn't have full access due to HIPAA laws or the Incarceration Privacy Act... Not that I think you've ever been incarcerated," the woman continued with a laugh.

Olivia gave the woman a wan smile and sat down.

"Listen, here's the thing. I have to have a waiver today. I've already moved out. The deposit on the new place cleared my account. I've literally got nowhere else to go if this falls through."

The woman's brows shot up, and she stared at Olivia for a long moment. "Well. Let's just see what I can do here." Her attention returned to the screen.

"...I take it there's a reason you can't get a signature from your partner?" the woman asked as she read.

"He won't sign." Olivia rubbed the back of her neck and looked down. "He's not on board with dissolving the partnership."

"Do you owe him money or have any shared debts?"

"There's a car that's in his name, but I make the payments."

"And here... ah yes, I see his record. Mr.—"

"He's full-time employed. A full forty hours. Drone tactical management contracted to the government."

The woman sucked her teeth.

"Right. Okay... but everything seems to be in his name only."

"That's the way he wanted it. It didn't seem to matter at the time. I already took my biometrics off all the joint possessions. I don't care if he keeps everything."

The woman behind the desk 'hmmmed' and pulled up another screen on her monitor.

"I think... I can get you a 60-day waiver. You'll need to come in and re-certify that he's non-compliant when it comes to dissolving the partnership, otherwise this will revert."

"And it won't affect his job?"

The woman shook her head, "No, it shouldn't. Not yours, or his. Oh, but I'll need to have some sort of documentation as to why he's disagreeable."

Olivia paused, then took out her phone and tapped the message icon. "...will this work?"

She passed the phone across the desk. The woman took the phone in one hand, holding the edges with her fingertips as if trying to keep some distance between the device and herself while still being forced to touch it. As she read, her eyes got wider, and wider still. Her thumb flicked over the screen to scroll down to the last entries. "Ms. Thompson,” the woman paused, then continued in a lower tone of voice, “are you sure you don't want to press charges?"

"Yes." Olivia took a shaky breath. "I just..." want to disappear "...need my own place."

"Not an easy thing, keeping out of the eye of a military contractor."

"I know. But I'll manage."

An alarm went off on the phone and Olivia inhaled a startled breath as the woman scrambled to keep hold of the phone by its beveled edge.

"Crap, if I'm late they'll fire me. I'm sorry, I've got to go."

She stood up and shouldered her bag again.

The woman behind the desk fumbled with the phone, caught it in both hands, and then turned it over.

"No, I understand. I'll work on this and you should get confirmation later this evening. Let me... phone up private transport. It's free on your DES account when it's for official appointments as well as work-related travel, so this qualifies."

"What? You mean I could be taking private transport to work every day?"

"You didn't know?"

"No one at the office told me."

"In that case,” the woman said with a sigh, “I'll email you some official docs so you know everything you qualify for. Let me get to work on this—it’s going to take a while. If you follow the arrows out, security will unlock the doors automatically. Your ride should be here in two minutes."

"Thank you, so much."

*****

 

"I dunno what to tell you, lady. Your forms aren't updated in our system." The man smacked his lips and looked Olivia over from head to toe. He was dressed in a t-shirt with yellow sweat stains around the armpits, a pair of mustard-stained blue jeans and red flip-flops. He also had an official security badge and the AI wasn't sounding an alarm, so Olivia could only assume that he was who he said he was.

"Can't let you move in here until we've got the completed package," the man continued. He scritched the blond stubble at his jaw and then shrugged.

Olivia's hand tightened on her carryall. Outside, it was dark—the sun had set hours ago, and all the nearby shops were shuttered for the night. Even the bus routes and autonomous vehicles had stopped service.

"Check again, please. I have the confirmation on my end."

Olivia waggled her phone for emphasis.

"Don't matter. Until it hits the central system, I can't do nothin' about the apartment. That is, unless..."

"Unless what?" Olivia asked. Her eyes narrowed, but she kept her tone of voice even. She couldn't afford to lose her temper now, after everything. There was no way to get to a hotel safely at this hour.

"Well, some important lady like you, with a real job but still able to get in on waivers and all... you must have a few extra credits kicking around, I think."

Olivia closed her eyes and exhaled.

"Look, it's not like that. I'm as broke as you probably are—my job isn't putting up an extra housing allowance for this," she said, and opened her eyes again. 

"So why move?"

"It's my choice." Her voice was clipped, despite her best efforts to maintain civility.

"Well, human-based security is my choice, so unless you got a hundred credits for me to code an access panel in the middle of the night, I'll wait and do my volunteer hours in the morning, hmm?"

"You're here on a volunteer permit?"

"Yeah. Been here since the place went up."

Volunteer. Security.

Olivia stared at the man for a full five seconds and then burst into ragged, pained laughter. Each inhale was the edge of a sob that burned her lungs and made her vision swim. Stupid. She'd been so stupid. All that careful research, the paperwork, the mad dash through the city and through every single hoop, every spool of red tape...

...for volunteer security. Protection whenever it was convenient.

 And while the man's face pinched into a frown and then a glower, Olivia could do nothing to control the outburst. When she did manage to catch her breath, it was with a shudder on every other inhale.

"Okay. Okay. A hundred credits."

"You think you can just come in here, laugh at me and pay your way out of it?! You stupid bitch—"

"I'm not—"

"—you think you're better than me because you got in on bullshit some 'diversity' program—"

"—I'm not—"

"—that just because you have a 'job' that you can lord it over people who choose to work on things they care about—"

"—I'm not!"

"—well fuck you then! Fuck you, you elitist bitch. Sleep on the street for all I care! Get the fuck out!"

Embarrassment-laced rage ran from the tips of the man's ears and over his entire face and neck. Olivia stared at him, silent. Her heart pounded in the stillness.

On the other side of the room, the elevator beeped and a woman in a pair of grey yoga pants and a hoodie strolled into the foyer with a laundry basket on one hip.

"Oop, dang. Wrong floor," she chirped. Her dark hair was in a messy bun and she had a smattering of freckles across her nose. "Hey, could you be a doll and hit the button for me again?"

The man gave Olivia a cutting look and turned towards the elevator.

An androgynous voice drifted over the intercom.

"Identity uplink confirmed. Welcome to your new home, Olivia Thompson."

"Ohhh is that you? Are you moving in here? That's so nice! C'mon-c'mon—we can take the same elevator up," the woman said. She beckoned Olivia over to where the security guard stood, still glowering and now even more red-faced at being caught out in a lie.

"It's alright, miss. I'll take the next one up."

*****

Was it worth staying? Olivia had no answer to that. Instead, she sank down on the couch, bags left by the triple-locked door and as-yet unpacked.

From her new apartment, there was a view of the city in twinkling lights strewn along a regular grid of apartments and late-night shops in the distance. The floors were covered in plush carpet and not wood grain. And there was space to stretch out, without any worry of who might see or what they might think.

Olivia sighed into the quiet darkness and let her bare feet find comfortable repose on the cushions.

There was also volunteer security, she reminded herself. But not only volunteer—a cursory look at the welcome guide had uncovered the fact that there was also basic AI surveillance outside, and she had the option of having cameras installed inside her apartment if she ever felt brave enough to trust whoever was on duty to respect her privacy.

As her eyelids started to droop closed, the notification chime on her phone startled her awake again. Bleary and exhausted, Olivia reached for the phone and turned it over. A single message flashed on the screen:

Friday, 2:01 am: Thank you for using my.DES.gov. Your partnership has been successfully dissolved and your housing file is now complete. If you have any questions, please visit us online or give us a call during regular business hours.

END

Leave a Comment