The other passengers glared impatiently while Mills fumbled for his card. At last he found it and swiped through the transaction. The company would debit his account until the system no longer registered his presence. The Agency, meanwhile, would take a small surcharge for the use of the facility.
"Customers please be advised," the on-board computer said, "the current boarder is a Class 'D' security risk. Please take care of all personal belongings. CCTV monitoring is in operation for your protection."
The passengers shifted in their seats. Some held tight onto handbags and briefcases and nobody looked directly at him. Except, that is, for the security guard who sat up straight and slowly folded his arms.
The bus gathered speed and unbalanced Mills so that he slumped heavily onto a vacant seat next to an old man in a black overcoat. The man stiffened and suddenly became very interested in the view through the window.
"It's disgraceful. People like that shouldn't be allowed to travel with decent people."
For a surreptitious whisper, it carried. So did the collective murmur of agreement. Such jibes should have long ago lost their power to hurt. He turned around anyway and stared at the two old ladies with stakeholder badges pinned prominently to their lapels. Once he gained their full attention he treated them to a lazy grin. Both women looked away and he turned back to follow the old man's gaze. As he did so his face slumped back to its usual dour expression. A grim mask reflected from dirty glass; a way to hide the pain at the stigma he carried and the punishment he bore.
The stigma chose that moment to beep, a reminder that he was going to be late for his Summons. He pulled it from his pocket and turned it over and over between his fingers.
"Nexus 40," the legend read. Beneath, printed on the scratched plastic:
UK Benefits & Welfare Plc
– A Ministry for Human Resources Company –
working for you, so you can too
It really was a hateful piece of plastic. Even now the chip signalled his location to the JobMart's city computer. Depending on traffic down the net, some operator could be reading the data this very moment. Everywhere he went it left a digital scent for the authorities to follow, until it felt like another disapproving eye. He thrust the card angrily into his pocket, out of sight but not out of mind.
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