(Out of My System from the Smile EP by SPC ECO)
Forty Seven? Jax stared at the card in disbelief. How could it possible say Forty Seven? Only yesterday it had told him Thirty Four and what had he done since then? Nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe Hellas was right. Maybe the whole thing was nonsense. But how could that be true? Everything depended on The System. Everything. If it were all based on nothing, how could anything even function? How could the whole world work? And yet it worked, or at least some parts of it did sometimes. Right now he couldn’t be sure. The line wasn’t moving at all. What was that lady doing up there? Come on, lady, move! The seventeen other people ahead of him in line were also beginning to grumble and murmur. It was, after all, a public kiosk, meant for everyone, not just for one foolish woman wearing a red beret and a black rain slicker. Jax had seen this kind of blockage before. It was only a matter of moments before the mood turned nasty. The woman seemed to sense the panic growing behind her. She stepped aside, still clutching the card in her hand. As she turned, Jax saw she’d been crying. Well, that can’t be helped, he reminded himself. The System is and The System knows. She is probably less than Twenty, Jax decided from her expression. That’s a less than Twenty look if I ever saw one.
Jax had been fourteen when The System became. They say it was a man named Peter who invented it. No one ever knew his last name, only that he was rumored to be a good man, a kind man, who had only goodness and kindness in mind when he made his discovery. They said all sorts of things about Peter. Thirty years later, it was likely Peter was dead and gone by now, having lived to see his concept spread its wings and literally take over the world. There was no corner on Earth now not under its sway, from the most populated city on the planet to the most remote village in the most secluded jungle.
The System ranked and rated everything on a scale of One to One Hundred. Everything. Whether it was a business or a person or a movie or a book or a recipe or philosophy or a dress shirt or a comb, if it existed it was rated, ranked and rated on the scale. The scale itself had never changed, never budged, but the things it listed underwent continuous change, radical and constant continuous change. Jax was holding a proof in his hand. Forty Seven on his card. Thirty Four yesterday, and yet in between he’d done nothing, or at least nothing he could think of. What did I do? He wondered again, to fall Thirteen points? His score had never moved so much in a day, not in all those thirty years.
Of course, he’d heard of such things, even much more massive swings. There was the day that ValTech dropped a round Ninety whole points, and the entire company vanished overnight. It could happen. Jax remembered, even if no one ever talked about it anymore. Why talk about such things? ValTech had been a Ninety after all! Wasn’t that a wonder all by itself? One should be happy with such a rating. Surely all the ValTech people were proud of that achievement, however it had come about. Jax loved to speculate, even though Hellas wouldn’t listen and told him not to. He had looked into it. ValTech, the company, had never done anything, nothing at all. They had never produced a product, never documented a document, never expounded upon a single exposition. They were “Tech” and they represented “Value”. The Val in ValTech stood for Value. This is the only fact that was ever known about the company. They were Value and they were once a Ninety, and then they fell, and then they were gone.
Fourteen people ahead of him now. Twenty three people behind him on Copernicus Boulevard. The weather was drizzly and humid. The sky was iron and the air was still. He was still outside the storefront windows of The Broken Wheel. Fourteen people ahead of him, now only thirteen as a happy young man skipped off to the side and down the street, waving his card like a miniature flag on a national holiday parade. Good for him, Jax said to himself. Nice is nice, and happy is good. He had been happy just yesterday. Forty Seven was the highest recorded in his personal experience. The charts showed him swelling to that peak over a period of weeks of two or three points forward, one or two points back. He had been following Hellas’ rules. Compliance in all things. Being Kind as a way of life. Going Out Of His Way to be Helpful and Considerate. Smiling Upon All Occasions. Hellas had liked him better those past several weeks, had even helped to bake a fresh pie, had even brought home some bacon. She was, as usual, well ahead of him, never having sagged beneath a Sixty, and usually upwards of a Seventy Two.
As she should be. Hellas was the best. Everybody loved Hellas. She had been the prettiest little girl, then the smartest and the bravest young woman, then the most accomplished and professional adult. When had she not been successful? She held the chair at several prestigious boards, multiple charities among them. She had been awarded a variety of awards. Her businesses thrived, ranked and rated among the highest as long as she pursued them, often dropping as she left them behind to pursue other interests. Why she had a thing for Jax was the ultimate mystery, the one big unknown in her entire portfolio. He believed he was holding her back. She would have been over Ninety without him. Hellas would hear nothing of this. She had her own superstitions. She believed that Nineties were cursed as much as Tens and below. She swore allegiance to a Golden Rule which she claimed was invented more than millions of years ago and was responsible for every positive development in the history of the universe. Not too little, not too much. Everything in due measure and in due time. Goodliness and Kindliness, but Modestness too, and Gratefulness.
The System knew and The System cared. Nine people remained in front of him now. Jax was doing the wrong thing and he knew it. The kiosk was meant for occasional use. The kiosk was a service to the public. One could check on one’s rank and rating at any time, day or night, but one was really not supposed to make a habit of it. Here he was, checking again. He had waited patiently, found himself at the front of the line, inserted his card and removed it. Thirty Four. There must have been a mistake. Shaking his head, he had returned to the back of the line and queued again. Eight people ahead of him now.
There were those who said Peter’s algorithm could never be known. It certainly did seem mysterious. Some bad people thrived, some good people were trashed, some items fluctuated erratically, some never took off while others soared for no reasonable reason. There were popular songs that were seriously awful. There were masterpieces of literature that garnered pathetic single digits. Cures for terrible diseases received a low rating, while snack foods of negative nutrition scaled the heights of the numbers. Of course the opposite happened a lot too. Good movies were recommended, good foods were well touted, nice places to visit were honored as such. The trick was to find out the trick. Many had tried. No one could prove they had won. There were those who gathered a following, only to flame out one day. Many died trying to prove their own theories. Jax especially kept thinking of the man who trusted his life to his will, insisting that self-immolation was the only true way to the ultimate score. If The System didn’t give him One Hundred, then surely God would in the end.
Why does it matter? He wondered again. It should make no difference to me. I have a good job at the vitamin shoppe. I have Hellas who loves me or at least says she does. We have Wiggins the cat. He is a good cat. We have plenty to eat and a house with a view of the world as it is, including a bit of the sky now and then. I live in the city I want to live in. I’m a middle-aged man who wants for no things. My skin could be lighter. That might help for some things, but maybe not much. My eyes could be blue. I wish they were blue. I always liked the color of blue. Hellas has pretty blue eyes. Hellas is right now exactly two times my score.
Three people left in front of me now. I once was lower than this. I was Twenty Four when I was twenty four. That was before I’d found vitamins. I was lost, and trying the wrong things too often. I used different pills, substances of no nutritional value. They made me feel sad, but I took them anyway. No wonder my score was so low. You have to align yourself properly. This, at least, is what Hellas says. If you’re in line with your world, you can’t help but get rated accordingly. Peter was on to this fact, she believed. It was a matter of harmony, of chakras, alignment. Be who you are, be true to the you, it’s all you can do, it’s all you should do. The numbers will follow. They have to.
Jax was now next in line. In front of him he recognized the widow from yesterday’s line. Her husband was hit by a car. She had been nowhere around and yet she had fallen a full ten points. Yesterday she’d fallen again. She’d been sad. That was all. She’d been sad and now The System was kicking her, biting her, knocking her down. Jax could see her hand shaking, holding the card, nearly dropping it, bringing it slowly up to the slot, pushing it in, barely able to breathe. The kiosk was beeping, gently at first, then gradually louder as it did when the customer failed to retrieve it in time. She turned and saw Jax. He saw the fear on her face.
“Could you?” she quietly asked, but he shook his head. That would not be following the rules. It would be kindness, perhaps, but it could also be karma. You have to take your own card. Everyone knows it. It’s written right there on the kiosk. But she couldn’t. She dare not. Instead, she suddenly gasped and ran out right into the street. It was lucky she wasn’t killed. Or unlucky. Who knew? The System knew, and The System would know.
Jax stared at the kiosk. It was beeping now louder and louder. He didn’t move toward it. No one pushed from behind. A worker would have to come out from behind the dark window, would have to come reset the device and take out the card. Jax waited. Everyone waited. The worker would come. In the meantime, he prayed. Dear Peter, he thought, make it good, make it right, please be kind.