Freeman paused on the bottom stair, listening, one naked foot extended over the hall carpet. It was there again, faint but persistent; the gentle sea-sound like a shell held to his ear. He scrolled quickly through the Samsara Medicorp notification, felt his chest tighten as he continued hesitantly towards the kitchen. The house seemed cold. He pulled his dressing gown closer and checked the temperature on his Samsaraband.
Concentrate. This isn't difficult. He ran his free hand through his hair and across the stubble on his chin.
'Rate this service', he read. Delete. 'Customers with your history also purchased'. Delete. '1000 free bonus points and the chance to win...'. Delete. 'Introducing your Local Fulfilment Team'. Delete. 'New Partner Matches found'. Delete. 'Your credit card used for Samsara Consumer Solutions will shortly expire.' Mark as unread. This last from Communica ('a wholly-owned independent subsidiary of Samsara Worldwide').
Freeman surveyed the dirty plates piled by the yawning dishwasher, the half eaten pizza languishing in its greasy box. The bottles huddled like refugees by the overflowing recycling bin. The fridge display was scrolling a long list of foodstuffs that needed replacing. Automatically he chose to add all items to shopping cart without reviewing.
The machine had made fresh coffee, so he picked through the unwashed crockery for a mug. Tipping the dregs into the sink, he considered checking Headspace, but the idea of catching up with Network Buddies curdled in his stomach. He looked in the fridge before remembering there was no milk, closed the door and stared for a long time at the haphazard magnetic letters spelling out 'JAK' in jaunty primary colours. Above the silence of the house he could hear the low hum of delivery drones criss-crossing the sky.
Freeman dropped the mug into the sink and picked up the breadknife. He swept the takeaway boxes from the kitchen table and examined the magenta Samsaraband on his wrist. There was no weak point in the flawless plastic. Inserting the blade between his wrist and the device, he began to saw.
At first, the knife made little impression because the gap was too small for the blade to run freely, but eventually a groove appeared and small crumbs of plastic began falling onto the tabletop. The knife handle grew slippery under his hand. Breathing heavily now, he paused to readjust his grip. The sea-sound was intensifying again in Freeman's ears. Heedless of the red mark the back of the knife scored into his wrist, he sawed frenziedly until the Samsaraband parted and its LED display died.
The doorbell rang.
Freeman jumped up, eyes on the door.
The bell rang again, followed immediately by insistent knocking.
Relax. It's a delivery. Just a delivery.
Adjusting his face for a Dronepartner bearing a parcel, Freeman was confronted instead by a young woman in a smartly tailored business suit, her blonde hair pulled back into a short ponytail. The Samsaroptics on her heart-shaped face made her look disturbingly ant-like as the datastream flashed intermittently on the inside of the pale blue eyewear, confirming his address.
Behind her stood a middle-aged man chewing rapidly on a piece of gum. His closely cropped grey hair, black bomber jacket and open-necked white shirt made Freeman think of off-duty policemen. Or bailiffs.
'Mr Freeman?' The woman smiled and extended a cool hand.
'I'm sorry, I never buy -' Freeman glanced back towards the kitchen.
'Don't worry, Mr Freeman - do you mind if I call you James, by the way? - we're not selling anything.' The woman's hand went to a blue lanyard around her neck and she proffered a laminated identity card. Freeman didn't register her name, but he saw the familiar Samsara logo (three white arrows forming a circle on a powder blue background) and the matching powder blue Samsaraband she wore.
'I wasn't - '
'We're from your local Fulfilment Team. We messaged you a couple of days ago? An 8.45 appointment? I'm afraid we're a few minutes late. Can we come in?' By the time Freeman had consulted his wrist and found it bare, the visitors had brushed past him into the hall.
'In here?' The woman was already in the study. 'Goodness. I haven't seen so many actual books since the days of the Public Libraries. Have you read all these?' She glanced back at her companion. 'Some interesting titles.'
Freeman followed the back of the bomber jacket and stood irresolutely in the doorway. The woman took the armchair by the window and crossed her slim legs, tugging the hem of her skirt over her knee. The man sat in the swivel chair at Freeman's desk and stared dispassionately at the screensaver of Ellie and Jake.
"Nice," he said.
Freeman looked from one visitor to the other and ran his fingers through his hair. The sea-sound filled his ears, constant and unvarying, like distant surf.
'Can you tell me what this is about?'
'Of course Mr Freeman. James,' the woman corrected herself. 'Do sit down, please. This shouldn't take up too much of your time.' Freeman perched on the stool he used for reaching the highest bookshelf and rearranged his dressing gown, which had fallen open.
'Before we get started, you don't mind if Alastair keeps a record, do you? For the file?' Alastair produced a tablet from his bomber jacket and detached the stylus. It looked like a toy in his thick fingers.
'I still don't understand...'
'You didn't see the appointment notice?'
'I'm sorry. I've got a bit of a backlog - I was checking the mail when you arrived.'
The blonde woman looked across at Alastair, who made a note. Freeman found himself wondering what colour her eyes were. 'You'll be aware of the Advancing Communities initiative,' she said. A statement rather than a question. 'No? You're looking blank.' The smile was back, but with less warmth.
'I'm afraid I've rather given up following government initiatives.' From the corner of his eye, Freeman could see Alastair's busy stylus.
The woman said 'The Advancing Communities initiative is designed to facilitate active social responsibility and enhanced public protection, enabling a step change in community engagement and customer satisfaction. Under this umbrella, Samsara Worldwide UK is rolling out individual Compliance Plans tailored personally to the needs of the individual consumer. Your Compliance Plan can even include a review of your newsfeed settings if you'd like. To ensure nothing important is edited out?'
'Sorry,' Freeman's head seemed to be filling with static. 'I just...can you hear - ?'
The woman looked at him quizzically.
'Never mind.' Freeman dragged his dressing gown back over his thigh.
'The project represents a significant milestone in pursuit of our drive for full spectrum ambient assisted living from cradle to grave. Responsibility for delivery falls to local Fulfilment Teams such as ourselves,' the woman continued, smiling across at Alastair who stopped chewing for long enough to nod curtly at Freeman. 'Now. We have lots of appointments today, so, James, perhaps we can begin by asking you if you could confirm some basic information for us?'
'I'm not sure I want a Compliance...' began Freeman.
'I'm afraid this is not a voluntary process, James. Compliance Plans have been made compulsory for certain categories under CEPR - I'm sorry, the Community Enhancement and Protection Regulations. Our job is to review issues arising and implement solutions based on rewards and sanctions going forward. If we don't make progress on your Plan today, we'll have to come back later. And that can only look...unhelpful.'
'Excellent.' The smile was back. 'Your full name, please?'
'James Geoffrey Freeman.'
'Date of Birth?'
'10th July '98'
'Thank you. Could you just look into my face for me, please?' Freeman stared into the Samsaroptics and was temporarily blinded by the flash. 'Sorry about that. Just making sure we've got the right person. Ah, good. Retinal scan complete. Now,' she sat back in the chair and appeared to focus on Freeman for the first time, 'tell me about the drinking.'
'I see there's been a sharp increase in your purchases of alcohol and a pattern of drinking above healthy guideline limits in recent weeks. You know this can affect your Medisurance premiums?'
'I got the notification this morning.' Freeman couldn't see her face properly because of the spots floating before his eyes. 'My healthy living rebate has been temporarily suspended pending a review. A 15% increase next quarter.'
The woman seemed to be waiting for something.
'I don't understand why I'm being penalised for having the odd drink.'
'If consumers indulge in behaviour that could cause them to become a burden on society it's only fair they should bear the additional costs, don't you think?'
'Oh, come on! It's not as if - '
'You've stopped posting, James. Care to tell us why?'
'No need to be sorry, James, we just want to understand why.'
Freeman hesitated, conscious that Alastair had stopped making notes and was eyeing him intently. 'I just need to opt out for a bit. Things I don't feel like sharing,' he mumbled.
'There is no opting out, James,' the woman said. 'It's only by sharing that problems can be identified and resolved. Withdrawing is a symptom, not a cure. That's why we're here. To challenge deviancy before it becomes a problem.'
'Deviancy?' Freeman was aware his voice had risen.