coffee and cake
Image by Engin Akyurt on Pixabay

Vignette 1: Oliver

Oliver stared blankly at the television set above the bar. Refugees wading through thigh-high water. A sombre commentary on the latest floods, displacements.

"Thanks" he said absently as Rosina deposited coffee and orange cake on the table.

Perched next to the coffee cup, Ana flickered a few lights on her upper surface and he heard "Mozambique", in his head. He glanced at the squat, grey disc with a slight smile, but didn't say thank you. For the first few years of living with Ana he'd always thanked her when she supplied just the information he needed, as though she had read his mind. He still felt grateful, although this time Ana had it wrong. Today he was less interested in current affairs and preoccupied with his own affairs.

At the bar Rosina was filling in a customer.

"This whole block, up to the church, it's all going. Two hundred housing units and more than five hundred people and of course the businesses. It's a disgrace."

Her customer, not a local, looked bored.

“I’ve been here all my life. My mom owned this place and before that her mom. I started working here when I was 14. I don't know how I'm going to set up somewhere else. I've never had to set up a café before."

The man downed his coffee and murmured soothingly, “Maybe you can appeal. I’m sure something can be done."

Sitting further down the counter, nursing a beer, Gorata grunted and spoke bitterly.

"We did many things. Nothing helped. The algorithms decided."

She glanced over at Oliver who met her gaze dispassionately. He wasn't going to get involved. Anyway, there wasn't much he could say. Gorata knew that Oliver had written at least some of those algorithms. Rosina knew that too, but held no grudges.

"Leave him alone. He only did what he thought was best at the time."

Gorata rolled her eyes, unconvinced.

Oliver stuck a fork into the orange cake, enjoying the aroma. Rosina was both right and wrong. He had done what he thought was best. But what Rosina didn't realise was that he still thought it was for the best. Oliver believed that cities planned by algorithms were more just. Algorithms, if carefully written, could be fair, optimising decisions so that they benefited as many people as possible and inconvenienced as few as possible. The trouble with really big decisions, like the site of this new transit hub, was that large-scale inconvenience was inevitable. Someone had to move and while he was pissed off that it included him right now, he was confident that the decision was a good one.

“Hey, what’s up?” Funani pulled the chair from the opposite side of Oliver’s table, swung it around 180 degrees and sat down straddling it, his well-manicured hands resting along the back.

“Good to see you bro.”

Oliver smiled reluctantly, putting thoughts of accommodation out of his head. Funani’s immaculate turquoise shirt and yellow hat demanded a smile.

“You look good today. What’s up?”

“I’m heading out for a face-to-face. There’s a new gig opening up, something to do with the exchange.” He flipped over his right hand and rubbed the finger-tips together.

“And you? You look down.”

“Just thinking about where I’m going to live.”

“Oh right, I heard you’d be moving. Bummer. Where are you thinking of?” Funani was unfazed by the pending demolition. He lived across town.

“Well the housing department gave Ana three options - move with the community to the new site in Veronder, move in with my sister in Orlando or take a place in Westcliff.”

“And which are you going for?”

“Well Ana says I’ll be happiest in Westcliff. No doubt she’s been talking to Henry, my sister’s peon.”

“Do what she says bro. I’ve learned that with Lerato here.” He glanced up towards the round yellow ball that sat on his hat, decorated with crystal studs and small green feathers.

“She makes the best decisions.”

“They always do.” Oliver smiled. He wasn't familiar with Ana's algorithms, his domain had been city planning, but he'd come to trust her over the years. Sometimes he thought that Ana knew him better than he knew himself.

Rosina appeared next to the table and looked questioningly at Funani.

“Oh nothing for me. I’m not staying, thanks.” He looked back at Oliver.

“Just wanted to invite you over on Saturday. We’re doing a braai. Do you good to get out of here for a bit. Remind you that there’s plenty more places to live.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be there.” Oliver was normally not so quick to accept social invitations but Ana had just told him that Patience had been invited.

“Great. Masenze lokhu!”

Funani swept out of the room, blowing kisses at Rosina.

Oliver looked at Ana. “So tell me what apartments are available in Westcliff?”

In her corner, Gorata snorted.

“Yes, best you don’t move with the rest of us.”

Oliver paid no attention. He was listening to Ana’s response, transmitted directly into his head. Gorata would not hear her side of the conversation.

“There’s a good number of standard one-room units, but you could pay extra for a two-room. You don’t qualify but you have enough credit and it would fit in with your future plans.” Oliver could hear a gentle smile in Ana’s voice. Shit, these peons have some good code he thought.