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Started on this a couple weeks back. Finished it today. I hesitate to call it a story. It's more a portrait. Too long for Daily Science Fiction, too short for much of anything else. Maybe you'll enjoy it.

It's about consumer technology falling short. And other stuff.

Scott sat there nervous at his workspace. It wasn't even a space, really, more like a section of flowing and elegantly curved table. It looked nice and sleek as a catalog entry, with clean lines that would never be covered with workstations and cables and half-eaten doughnuts and stacked Styrofoam cups. It looked good on paper. It looked great, a testament to not only the manager's taste, but their desire to reflect perfection in every stage of the workplace.

The reality was chaotic and messy, with every crumb and spill and untidy cable, thick and open binders and tiny shrine to family or aspirations as yet unearned. Just like the reality of BlueSky's latest division, the Ringers.

It was simplicity itself. Affix a Ringer to your doorframe. Unbreakable, unshakable, permanent as your building itself. Inside it was a camera and microphone that could see and hear everything happening within a one-hundred-fifty-five-degree arc of the Ringer unit. If someone should activate the doorbell, their picture would be taken (well, really, it would have been shot the moment the camera detected movement within a ten meter threshold, fifty meters on the deluxe unit) and cataloged at BlueSky's main headquarters. Needless to say, this was all instant anywhere in the US, minus Arkansas and Delaware, whose legislatures saw fit to hold out for better deals to generate the necessary law enforcement partnerships.

If someone wasn't supposed to come in, they would be warned off by verbal command, verbal rebuke and then warning that local police would be called, with a final threat that a BlueSky response team would be dispatched, and their rules of engagement were very different from the local police's. "M-16? Hell, these are like M-32s!" declared the ad copy.

All this happened without the owner having even heard the doorbell chime (should you have chosen the Cold Discretion setting, which ensures absolute minimal intrusion.) No more solicitors, witnesses of any religious denomination (again, exceptions allowed as per user), not even so much as a youth activity organization selling cookies or popcorn or Christmas tree removal services would ever bother you again. This was BlueSky's promise of Sane Security™.

Only Scott Dyson was having problems keeping the company's promises. In particular at 1432 Dahlia lane in the Hollywood Hills over Los Angeles. The unident/preint (Unidentified/Pre-Intruder, as specified in the binder and in all of BlueSky's literature) would be given every opportunity to avoid police or BlueSky operative intervention.

Usually those were enough.

This unident wasn't going away.

Scott had only been on the job for a week, if you count the four-day intensive training seminar. All he could remember of that was the smell of flop sweat, chicken sandwiches chilled to a chewy toughness and bottled water that tasted more like Love Canal than a tropical island like the label on the bottle said. He could feel his head creak and groan as he stuffed it full of protocols and procedures, the difference between Cold Discretion and Warm Neighbor and All Drop Back for customer engagement levels, the various sensitivity thresholds of sound and motion that would mark the difference between a preint and a null-target, the load-outs that various levels of BlueSky response teams worked with to protect their customers (Threaten, Terse or Total).

But they hadn't really covered what to do when a preint refused to back off. And this one wasn't. He, and Scott was sure of the assessment, with the square shoulders and ungainly bulk, was hunched over the camera, so close that he blotted out nearly everything on the monitor, leaving only a small corner of blown-out-white the shape of a state he couldn't quite name. He'd been like that since lurching up into the Ringer's view, like the earth had coughed him up after trying to grind him with the force of continents shifting, oddly boneless and awkward. The shape could have been drunk or something else.

Scott had checked the dossier on the homeowners. Married couple, she works, he stays at home with their adorable five-year-old son. He'd even flipped back to the initial pickup on camera. Light was bad behind the guy, silhouetted for the time that it took him to get to the Ringer camera and blot it out. That had been a problem, crappy CCD software, slow to compensate for hard light.

He read the profile again. It was all right there, up on the monitor the second the ping came in. The preint didn't match any of the homeowners or their cleared visitor list. There was a pseudo-hit on a cousin who visited on holidays, but the algos tossed it out based on motion study baselines. Still, there was enough hesitation that Scott thought things might've just gotten fucked up. It happened, but you never talked about it with anyone but your superior or customer service. E. V. E. R. Too many hack journalists and news streamers saw BlueSky as a tasty target.

He'd tried the standard warnings. "Step off of [the customer's last name] property! This is a warning!"

He'd tried notifications of police response. "I am calling [local police force] and units will be en route immediately."

He'd tried escalation. "You leave me no choice but to dispatch [response team appropriate to subscription level] teams and they will be there in [time dictated by subscription level]. Nothing moved the guy.

The shape just stood there like maybe he was dying. But he wasn't. There were slow breaths, but very faint, like he didn't need that much air to breathe, shallow, almost not even there. Slow and slurred vowel sounds came out of the shape's mouth, but faint, like sleep-talking.

Then there was the drool. Not a lot of it, but enough to be concerning. It cut long vertical streaks across the camera eye, only really visible as they refracted the sunlight behind the shape when it shifted. Which wasn't often. Guy was mostly standing still. Maybe he was asleep on his feet, or on a nod. Scott had seen that plenty of times in his club days, kids just so worn out from partying that they stood with their head on the wall and leaning into it. But he wasn't supposed to take "personal anecdotes" into account when he made his judgments.

You looked in the binder and matched the situation to the flowchart. Only this situation hadn't matched anything he'd seen in the guidance documents or flowcharts.

More concerningly, the team was late. The cops were late, but Scott was told to expect that. Local law enforcement is overstressed, understaffed and under-budgeted. What's more, they weren't happy to run out on service calls for private industry. That's why BlueSky could even exist. To step in and provide service where the municipalities or county or state can't. It just made sense.

But the team was late. Even if the customers had only been paying for copper-band protection (all the way up to platinum, providing a personal intervention specialist as well as the armed response because BlueSky understands there's multiple needs, both physical and emotional). But they were silver-band. Fifteen minutes, assuming proximity to a BlueSky depot, and there was one in West Hollywood and the one on Beverly and Rampart. Not that Scott had seen any of this personally. He was operating his station from Billings, some twelve hundred miles as the crow flies.

This was breaking protocol, but he was already off the map, and what the hell. It would only be his first write-up. On his first day.

Scott leaned into the monitor as if to make himself heard better, despite the headset and mouthpiece that felt like orthodontic hardware. He sucked in a breath and tried to make himself sound big.

"Hey. Buddy. You gotta not be there."

The shape only shifted minimally, as if turning its head, well out of the camera range. Maybe he was looking for the voice.

More vowel sounds drooled out of him, enough so that voice to text just gave up on it and marked [UNINTELLIGIBLE] with a timestamp that spun down to milliseconds. Like that mattered on a human scale.

"Look. The response teams, they don't screw around."

The shape said nothing. It settled back into its lean.

Scott tabbed over to the West LA station switchboard clone. It was lit up pretty hard already. Lots of domestic disturbances, street blockages, looked like unruly crowds. But there were units open. He made a note of it all and included it for the action report that he was going to have to send to his supervisor. He liked and didn't like her. She was like a schoolteacher, just a little too much for his tastes. But she did know how to get results.

And Scott was going to serve up a nice steaming plate of somebody fucked up, just hoping that it wasn't going to be hung on him. Sure, he was going to leave out the whole bit where he pleaded with the guy to leave. How would that look? He'd just chalk it up to nerves and she'd probably narrow her black eyes at him, but it's still just the first day, right?

Scott grabbed the screenshot of the West Hollywood cops activity to mark the lack of response from one of BlueSky's partner organizations. It still didn't explain why there wasn't a house team on the way or already there. Of course, he couldn't check on the ready status of any particular team or detachment. That was supervisor-only.

"hoooahh." Like that. Real quiet. The mic feed barely picked it up, even though the guy's mouth couldn't have been more than a couple feet away.

"Sir. This property is protected by BlueSky and you are hereby ordered to leave the immediate area."

The shape shifted again, like a drunk guy coming to and trying to place himself, lost as a kitten at sea.

Scott ignored the prickles running up and down his spine and arms. He knew his skin was all broken out in gooseflesh. It wasn’t anything in particular, just the sound of that from twelve hundred miles away. Sometimes voices get distorted after being digitally broken down and reconstructed, but this one sounded hollow and not all there. Like the sounds were just falling out, the last gushes of blood right before someone bleeds right out.

Shit. He'd forgotten aid protocols. "Do you need medical attention?" His voice came out like a butterfly in a shoebox.

"hakh nnah." More drool, a rope of it worming over the protective lens now.

Scott decided to forget it. This was going straight up the chain. He would—

Every light on the police/dispatch bank went over from amber to red, and the red ones went purple. Purple. Something big just rippled through the system, kicking everything into overdrive. He'd asked once about the code purple and had been told that "It'll never happen." That was the smug guy from Tallahassee, the one with the gap tooth which a mangled chunk of too-tough chicken sandwich stuck to. "That's like armageddapocalypse. We just put it in there to make the users feel like we got a plan."

Scott closed his eyes and saw the purple afterimage, throbbling like staring at the sun.

He tried not to think about what would qualify for armageddapocalypse.

"nhahh," the preint said.

Like it was said through dead lips.

Scott ran down the hall, no longer caring what his fifth day was going to turn out like.

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