The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.
The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance is a dark science fiction action parable from an America that has permanently surrendered to gun violence—available January 29th from Tor.com Publishing.
Alone in the elevator, John McDean shuts his eyes, listens to the hum of the machinery, and mentally recites his research.
His Ideal Person is between sixty-four to eighty-one years old. Their average net worth is $202,900, and they are male, Caucasian, and increasingly burdened with medical debt.
Living conditions, he thinks.
McDean’s Ideal Person is decidedly suburban or exurban, having resided in an extensive, rigorously planned residential environment (two trees per front yard, gated community, six possible styles of brick) for at least the past ten years, and their homes fall between 2,000 and 6,500 square feet—they are not, in other words, “urban” in any sense of the word, and they are decidedly isolated.
Another variable, he thinks. Marriage.
His Ideal Person has been married but the number of marriages doesn’t really matter: McDean’s models indicate that an Ideal Person with up to six marriages under their belt will still generate the minimum target market activation level. His Ideal Person has never performed cunnilingus; or, if they have, they’ve attempted it less than ten times in their life, and they do not have positive associations with the experience (it just kept going and going, they say). His Ideal Person has a very fixed concept of domesticity: they have little understanding of how to do laundry, how to cook, how to take care of children. These tasks are unclaimed by John McDean’s Ideal Person, and thus, like all unclaimed responsibilities, fall to the wife’s domain. John McDean’s Ideal Person describes their wife using a variety of keywords—“good woman” definitely sets off a spectrum of psychological framing tools—but the wife doesn’t matter. Not to John McDean, and, he’s found, probably not to his Ideal Person: when they lose a wife, they quickly go about acquiring another.
Another variable, he thinks. Response.
Despite the research on marriage, McDean has seen that the Ideal Person’s testosterone, oxytocin, and vasopressin levels all respond just marvelously when they see a very specific sort of woman on the television: highly attractive, sharp haircut, steely eyes, bright white teeth, expensive, solid-color dress (Pantone 485 red or 653 blue generate the best responses), and usually blond. She looks wealthy and tough—the Ideal Person imagines her eating shrimp and steak a lot in upscale restaurants. (McDean knows this from the interviews.) Their paragon of femininity is a hard-driving, outspoken creature, pouring acrimony and accusation from between her ruby lips, a loud, contemptuous, cosmopolitan Valkyrie. In other words, she is a contradiction for them: she is the sort of woman McDean’s Ideal Person would never meet and certainly never date. McDean is confident that his Ideal Person wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with her. Such a woman would expect regular oral sex, surely.
This is what they want—contradiction, he tells himself as he rises. To see such a person, but not be exposed to her, not be threatened by her.
A clunk from somewhere in the elevator’s workings above.
To witness violence and fear, but always from safe refuge.
The elevator begins to slow. McDean opens his eyes and softly exhales.
He remembers all these facets, these features, these subsets and datasets as the elevator silently ascends, past the thirtieth and then fortieth floor of the ONT building. He takes out his tablet and reviews the data like a monk reviewing scriptures. He watches the trendlines on social media, all his AIs and bots sampling the streams, compiling and analyzing the keywords and interactions and impressions. He feels like a sailor before a long voyage, reading the wind as it slices up the evening clouds.
He thinks of his Ideal Person, watching screens in the dark. How shall he wind them up and wind them back down? How shall he “make the needles dance”—the industry term for producing the desired biochemical levels in their skulls?
Will I break records tonight? He hopes so. He’s done some fucking impressive stuff with his target market activation numbers in the past few weeks—ad interaction has been off the charts—but that was just normal shit.
Tonight is different. He’s going to make sure it is.
The elevator comes to a stop. The doors swish open. McDean strides out, past the front desk, through three sets of doors—all of which sense his biometrics and unlock instantly.
He walks down a long, glossy hallway. As the final set of doors open, he’s greeted with an eruption of male voices, a harsh, reeking breeze (smelling of stale coffee, whiskey, cheap beer, vape smoke), and the sight of thousands of white screens floating in the darkness, surrounded by hunched silhouettes.
The control room goes still as all of his producers stop, look back, and see McDean standing at the door.
They stare at him, waiting, trying to read his expression. McDean scowls back at them for a while—and then a smile spreads across his face.
“Hello, boys,” he says jovially. “Who’s ready to kill some motherfuckers?”
The control room explodes with whoops and claps. McDean strides in and gets ready to start the show.
“There’s going to be another one tonight.”
Delyna looks up from behind the bar, where she’s struggling to unload the ancient, cantankerous glass washer. “What?” she says.
The cook, Raphael, peers over the edge of the order counter at her, his long, hangdog face shiny with grease. “Another one.” He leans closer, or at least as close as the counter will let him. “Another episode,” he hisses. “That’s what they’re saying, online.” He holds up his phone and waggles it back and forth.
Delyna blows a strand of hair out of her face and hauls the rack out of the steaming machine. “They say that every night.”
“Yeah, but it’s been, what, four weeks? Five since the last one?”
“They say they don’t keep to any pattern. It’s random.”
“Yeah, that’ s what they say. They say whatever they say. Me, I think it’s like rain—get no rain today, then your odds of getting rain tomorrow are higher. Yeah?”
Delyna grits her teeth and starts drying the glasses. She can feel Raphael look her over from behind.
“You carrying?” he asks.
“I know better.”
“I’m not sure you do. You’re wearing yellow tonight, too? A yellow shirt? That’s a target color. People can see you from a block.”
“I want tips,” she says. As she walks behind the bar, she flicks the big, plastic tub on the corner of the bar—previously a pickle container—and her finger makes a resonant thunk. “I want people to notice me.”
“Well, maybe not tonight. You at least pack a go bag?”
She sighs. “No. No, Raphael, I did not pack a go bag.”
“You gotta get smart, girl. You gotta start bringing clothes that are, like, gray and black and shit. Stuff you can hide in, run in.”
“I am at least wearing flats.” She glances around the South Tavern, taking in the evening’s regulars. They are almost entirely men, mostly white, all about forty to fifty. With but a look, she can tell that they are the sort of people who come to bars at this hour because going home is the worse option.
She also notices the bulges at their calves, at their armpits, or the black, matte protuberance at their hip.
All of them are carrying. Maybe they always do. But maybe not. Maybe they’re ready for tonight. The only one not carrying is Randy, the Tavern’s most-frequent customer, whose chronic alcoholism means he’s occasionally homeless. He sits alone in the corner, slouching in his seat, not talking to anyone. She knows in about an hour he’s going to stand, go to the bathroom, and only manage to get about 20 percent of his flow of urine in the toilet. Delyna will clean up the rest later.
I do not like, she thinks, having anything in common with Randy.
Still, she snorts. “You think they’re gonna do a Vigilance up in this damned bar? Shit, I hope they send an active in here. Maybe he’d actually tip.”
“You laugh,” said Raphael, “but they closed off a street in Cleveland and did one there. Just an open street. People running in and out of McDonald’s and shit. You gotta wise up, Del, because what you’re doing ain’t eno—”
“Nothing I do is going to be enough,” says Delyna sharply. “You think if I had on a different shirt or some tennis shoes that I’d have a chance? God, Raphael. Trust me. If it happens here, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Raphael shakes his head and retreats into the kitchen.
Delyna dries another glass, then glances around the bar once more. There are multiple television screens throughout the seating area, all of them running The O’Donley Effect on ONT. Few people seem to be paying much attention.
Delyna grimaces, dries her hands, and picks up the remote. She finds a game—any game, there’s always a game—changes the channel to it, and banishes the thought of Vigilance from her mind.
McDean begins the evening as he begins nearly every evening: rotating from pit to pit, checking in on each aspect of their production. Each “pit” is essentially a desk with about six to seven giant monitors, before which sits a team of men, hunched over, faces pale and ghostly in the glow.
First up is Neal and Darrow, his enviro eval team. They aren’t surprised to find McDean stalking over to them, and they sit back in their chairs and swivel to him in unison.
“How are our prospective sites shaping up?” he asks. He stoops forward to review their monitors.
“The skating rink’s performing like dogshit,” Darrow says. “Gender ratio is completely fucked. 3.7 men for every woman.”
“What!” says McDean. “I thought it was middle school game night!” He spies one window on Darrow’s screen and glimpses bleachers full of white men with pale, blocky faces staring out at the ice. Darrow’s software ripples over the faces, highlighting each one, tagging them with names, age, credit scores.
“It is,” says Neal. “But there’s a dance competition taking place this same night. Alllll the girls are getting siphoned away.”
“Fuck. We can’t have a goddamn sausage-fest,” says McDean. “All-male environments test like shit!”
“That’s what I said,” said Darrow. “That’s why I say not to target sporting events. The gender ratios blow hot and cold, but never in between.”
“Why didn’t we catch this?” asks McDean.
“Dance competition got rescheduled,” says Darrow. “Flu.”
“We can tell you anything,” says Neal. “But not who’s going to get the flu.”
McDean sighs. He likes Darrow and Neal, but then, he tends to like spooks. Both came to ONT from the NSA, veterans of some blandly named department whose workings are so classified and compartmentalized and confidential that God Himself doesn’t know what the fuck they get up to. They are forgettable men, as spooks tend to be, both small, compact, lean, with deep-set eyes and excellent postures. They even look similar—maybe the military does that to you.
But though they seem unremarkable, both men are astounding mavens when it comes to security, able to carve through systems like a hot knife through butter. Both men have arsenals of bots and spoofed email addresses they can summon up to pound victims with phishing runs and spam until they’ve mined every goddamn password and credential you could dream of. Since most buildings these days are layered with cameras and biometric sensors (the modern rule is, the only thing that doesn’t have a camera in it is a camera), most of which are poorly secured, it’s a simple thing for Darrow and Neal to hack in, scan a crowd, and tell you in seconds everyone’s ages, places of birth, religions, hell, even people’s hobbies, most of which is acquired by the AIs the two have built.
McDean is sure the boys have mined away at him with their advanced tools. It’s just too easy. But McDean doesn’t give a shit. You don’t have to give a shit when you’re in charge.
“Then the rink’s out,” says McDean. “How’s the train station?”
“Better,” says Darrow. “It’s a matter of timing. Depends on which train’s coming in.”
“Well, no shit,” says McDean.
“The 5:15 arrives pretty soon from downtown,” says Neal. He points at a window showing a hacked feed from a security camera: McDean glimpses a train platform bustling with people. “And the station’s a major junction. Gender ratio’s forecasted to be at 1.3, average adult age 43.7, average child age 9.2.”
“Sixty-three percent white,” says Darrow. “So, decent. Overall, the train station is maintaining a score of .52 on the optimal target map, plus or minus .031.”
“And the mall?”
“The mall’s a different story,” says Neal, nodding enthusiastically.
“New movies out at the theater,” says Darrow. He points at a window depicting a feed of a wide, glass-walled hallway, full of people.
“New stores opening. All kinds of shit,” says Neal.
“The stats,” says McDean, impatient.
“Gender ratio is 1.6, so it’s a bit higher. Race is at eighty-two percent white, though.”
“Good numbers,” says McDean. “But we do too many fucking malls.”
“We know,” says Darrow. “But it’s scoring a .68 on the map. Plus or minus .17. It’s a great target.”
“Malls usually are,” says Neal.
“I get you. But we do too many fucking malls!” says McDean.
“But do your target demographics get tired of seeing them?” says Darrow.
“They will eventually!” snaps McDean. “You two chuckleheads can find another gig mining social media in Buttfuck, Nebraska, but I’m the one that’ll be stuck here trying to coax oil out of a tapped well!”
The two men exchange a glance.
“Just saying, boss,” says Darrow, “you want to break your TMA stats? Why not go with what works?”
McDean sulks for a moment. He most certainly wants to break his target market activation records tonight—but that’ll mean fuck all if their audience gets bored with their regular content. “LE?” he asks.
“Environment-wise, two off-duty cops at the train station,” says Darrow. “Three at the mall. On-duty, though . . .” He whistles. “The train station is tight.”
“Seventeen veteran officers of law enforcement,” says Neal. “AR glasses loaded with CrowdScan. Same shit we run on the hacked security cameras. But they’ve also got this shiny new Toronto AI, a developing threat identification scan.”
“You can monkey with it, though, right?” asks McDean. “Blind it?”
“We can,” says Neal. “But the problems don’t stop there.”
“The cops have got aug kits with graphene-lined padding, and they’re sporting AL-18s,” says Darrow. “Semiautomatic and tricked out as hell. Not to mention a small flock of Goshawk drones—four active currently.”
“And here’s the kicker,” says Neal. “All the cops have seen action.”
“All?” says McDean.
“Every single one of these cops has done some shooting or been shot at,” says Darrow. “Luck of the draw. It’s just a really mean crew on duty tonight.”
“Well, shit,” says McDean. “That wouldn’t make good television. Our actives would get cut to bits.”
“It’d be a short show, that’s for sure. We could be in bed by midnight.”
McDean sighs. “Tell me about the goddamn mall.”
“Twelve LEOs on duty,” says Darrow. He sounds a little more animated. “All rocking Klimke 78s—basic shit you can buy at Walmart. Moderate body armor. One cop’s seen action. His partner took six rounds, he put the shooter down.”
“Wild card, then,” muses McDean. “Nice narrative to push.”
“We’re forecasting an average of 630 environmental participants at the mall over the next two hours,” says Neal. “Based on our traffic modeling. That’s our peak window—so we’ll need to launch Vigilance before then.”
This is a very sore point for McDean. “Our traffic modeling keeps stepping on its own fucking dick,” he says. “When we did the rodeo, it said there’d be three thousand people there! And there were what, twelve hundred?”
“The satellites track vehicle flows,” says Darrow. “Can’t help it if rodeo people drive big-ass cars with only one person apiece in them.”
“Why are we paying for these fucking AIs if they aren’t smart enough to know what rodeo people are like?” says McDean. “Maybe they don’t know what mall people are like, either.”
“Chinese AIs could do it,” says Neal. “They’ll just also put spyware in the goddamn toilets within a microsecond of install.”
“We got what we got, chief,” says Darrow. “Doing our best with it. We going with the mall, or you want us to keep mining?”
McDean considers it. He checks his watch. Just over an hour and a half until the peak window closes. “Keep mining,” he says. “I need to check on our actives.”
Again, the two men exchange a glance. “You think you can pull a roster of actives who can take on the train station LEOs?” asks Neal dubiously.
“I think I don’t fucking know!” snaps McDean.
He’s pissed—no, not just pissed, but fucking livid. He was angling for the train station tonight, but it’s DOA.
His Ideal Person does not want slaughter. They think they do, they claim to—but they don’t. Despite their inclinations, McDean’s Ideal Person doesn’t have the guts for modern warfare, and he knows it.
Excerpted from Vigilance, copyright © 2019 by Robert Jackson Bennett