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The Individuality Clause

Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate of English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). To date, her science fiction has been published in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed, with more forthcoming in Analog and GigaNotoSaurus.
The tour boat stopped two blocks updream from their final attraction, the long-term sleepers' zone rendered in immaculate detail: airships, nine-dimensional manifolds, labyrinthine menageries filled with improbable birds and beasts. Everything viewed prior, generated off shift-work, appeared cartoonish along the fuzzy border between mental matrices, and small chatter gave way to genuine oohs and aahs as the boat lurched, then settled at its edge. Cash turned to give the tourists better shots, the whirs and clicks of meme-drives like persistent mosquitos too lucrative to swat.
Headache? came Jezi's voice through the brain feed.
That your name now?
Cash felt sensation on his cheek--Jezi affecting a slap with her hand, or his? He didn't ask, and she kept feeding client specs as Cash worked the site from all angles: the kind of retirement village you could only wish your grandparents had; a miracle cure for addiction, chronic pain, and homelessness; the last, best hope for true democracy in action.
"When you go back," he said, swinging his arms wide, "and hear more news about how the real world has failed us all, I want you to remember this view. I want you to remember"--he had to concentrate with his closer; Jezi was always laughing up the line--"what dreams are really made of."
Jezi could've run the whole show--hijacked his dream self as easily as any of his limbs through the feed--but there were still some rules they respected, at least during business hours. The individuality clause could be an infernal piece of legislation, but at times it saved life and dignity alike.
Besides, she preferred working recon, and was better at it. The suit in second row was on a wait-list for organ regeneration--and not high up--but the buff avatars in back were well into their sixties, relatively fit, and looking to settle down for the next thirty to fifty years. Cash queried about the woman in row four, taking notes.
No way--serious god type, Jezi replied. Alt-reality's not her speed.
Cash checked the impulse to reply, Or maybe that's exactly her speed. He'd seen people in joyride districts play out all manner of religious fantasies, like something out of '60s drug cults or medieval vision texts, but Jezi still had a little gold cross--her mother's--that she kept by their bedroom mirror. Teasing wasn't worth the risk.
The hell she doing here, then?
Research, by the looks of it. Know thy enemy, etc.
Cash narrowed eyes at the woman, then nudged the boat on. When it hit the LTS zone there was only the slightest lag before a fuller sensory experience switched on. One of the fresher-faced tourists asked if they could steer towards the high-tech projects currently being dream-sourced. Cash tried to make his well-worn response about proprietary interests seem anything but stale.
"But you get to choose, right?" said another female avatar. "Which projects you're dedicating your life to in the LTS zone?"
"Ma'am," said Cash. "I'll be honest with you--there's shift work and then there's LTS. LTS is a commitment. You sign on and your brain's a full-time part of this whole dreamscape. And as you can see, the payoff is incredible. You've got exquisite creations everywhere; you'll never lack for variety."
"And all for free."
Her tone was appropriately dubious. Cash shrugged. "The business model is what it is. You get this amazing place to spend your life the way you want it, and the LTS zone gets the collective imagination of millions, a portion of which is invested in a wide range of projects, public and private."
"Whoever can pay the most."
Was Cash smiling, or was Jezi smiling for him?
"You got it." He widened his grin for the rest. "Capitalism, am I right?"
A male avatar up front--zebra-striped from head to toe--muttered about the individuality clause; Cash tried drowning him out with an announcement about the pleasure dome coming up on their left.
"What's that?" said the female avatar.
Zebra Skin turned from the delights of the LTS and sat high in his seat--a lawyer, maybe, or financial officer from his bearing. "You're still you in here, see, so there's a limit to what they can take from you without your consent. All your thoughts and feelings, any wild ideas you might come up with here--they can't just use them willy-nilly. They have to prove exceptions to the individuality clause first."
Cash considered telling Zebra Skin that he had it backwards--that these days, in working practice, exceptions were the status quo. Instead, Cash let bits of their conversation filter through Q&A and tried not to laugh at Zebra Skin's proposed fix: Just project a little script about how you retain full rights to your data! That'll stop them from dream-sourcing you to unethical projects!
That headache's getting worse. I'm going to give you something for it.
An anvil?
Don't start.
The effects of the needle were swift, but even with the added buoyancy, Cash surveyed the LTS with irritation--relieved only when the tour boat had made a full circuit of the public spheres, after which he could turn his back on the whole zone and, with genuine enthusiasm, start steering them out.
"Well all right, folks! We've come to the end of the show--forms to either side if you'd like to sign up for future tours, getaways, or maybe even a shift or two. We'll be down-rendering nice and slow, so don't panic if it gets blurry for a few. When the lights come up again, you'll be you! And on behalf of LifeOnline Enterprises, I'd like to thank you for lending that you to us for a little while. We hope to see you around these parts again soon!"
Jezi's prosthetics loomed in Cash's field of vision on re-entry, two honey-brown hands wreathed in images of songbirds. They were alone in the service-room, all the tourists waking in brighter surroundings, soon to be plied with restorative snacks, beverages, and application forms by more fetching company representatives.
"That headache always comes at around the same time," she said. "You gotta find a better fix than me sticking you with drugs each trip in."
"How?" Cash groaned and drew himself to the edge of the workbed. "Only so many times you can take people gushing over something you've stopped seeing as impressive. I think maybe one of them today realized that the fine print on our forms gave LifeOnline access to their creative output for the duration of the tour."
"They probably all knew that, to some extent. I mean, what company isn't stealing from us these days, one way or another? Besides, if they didn't notice the loss in the first place, was it really a theft?"
Cash studied Jezi in the glow of the alt-reality monitors, where she stood finalizing client reports from the tour group and sending her analysis to the next department. "Tree in the forest, huh?"
"Hmm?" She turned to him and smiled--a melancholic gesture. "Cash, we can't unshatter the teacup. No one can."
"Doesn't mean I have to like living with the pieces." Cash stood unsteadily and passed a hand over his face to fight the nausea. "I wish I knew if the LTS had ever been a free-form playground for the imagination. You think maybe private interests have been guiding and normalizing all these people's hopes and dreams since the start?"
Jezi began to respond but Cash waved her off. "Not even that--even if there hadn't been any private interests, in time they'd still have homogenized themselves. Wouldn't they? The hell's the point of an individuality clause for people who don't even function as proper individuals anyway?"
Jezi caught Cash as he weaved, and eased him into a chair. The brush of her hand--pliant, but not quite as responsive as flesh--served as understated admonishment. "So we don't stand perfectly alone. So we bend a little--together--in the breeze. You want to live in a world where there's no protection from that kind of wind?"
"But what's the point? Why act like we're more ourselves than we ever really are?"
Jezi smelled of warm plastic, perspiration, and cinnamon as she straddled him. "So we can pretend we've still got something to give to each other, silly. No fun losing yourself to someone else if you can't even imagine independence."
Cash grumbled, but in the small, stuffy service-room his hands still found purchase on her ample hips; his mouth, her neck; his mind, her mind. The changing terms-of-service notification that had flicked through his headspace when he'd first gone under--something about how LifeOnline Enterprises, for the safety of its employees, now retained the right to keep a dreamer in stasis for however long it deemed necessary, in whatever corner of the dream-space it felt was most secure?--could wait to be discussed.
Jezi's avatar had probably already read that new workaround, too.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 9th, 2015

Whenever the Terms of Service change for a major social media platform, some invariably think that a post reasserting ownership of their content will suffice to counteract the changes. In general, we tend to forget that unless we're paying for something, we're not the primary client--which is bad enough for current media platforms, but what happens when we develop even more immersive technologies? This story offers a glimpse into such a world.

- Maggie Clark

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