Money for Nothing – a flash scifi story

I spotted the ad while I was up late one night grading papers. Just a small blue box hovering at the edge of my vision, next to the virtual controls for my in-head music stream. Any other day I might have ignored it, but I’d been grading every evening that week, working for exam companies to pay off my student loans. I was ready for anything that wasn’t reading the same questions and answers a thousand times over.

I tapped the air where the ad would be. My vision filled with a presentation about Backbrain Revenue Inc. and how they could use my untapped potential to provide a passive income stream. They wanted the processing power of parts of my brain I wasn’t using. They were willing to pay me for it, even as I went about my regular work.

At two in the morning, with my red marking pen in hand, it seemed like a good idea. I filled in a few forms, acknowledged conditions and permissions, and we were ready to go.

Two days later, the first payment appeared in my account. I almost laughed out loud. I’d been so busy, I’d forgotten that anyone else was using my brain. This was money for nothing.

Three weeks later, I started to notice problems. My attention span got shorter in the middle of the day. I found myself standing slack-jawed in front of a class, unable to remember what I’d been asked. I figured it was lack of sleep, but even after a long, restful weekend, I was still struggling to think straight.

Then I remembered Backbrain Revenue Inc. Was this all because they were using my brain?

I went online and looked for other people who had been employed by Backbrain. Sure enough, there was talk of lost intelligence, lack of concentration, even memory problems. Friends ofsome users believed that Backbrain were over-taxing their brains, using so much processing power that it didn’t leave enough for normal functions.

I needed out. It would have been one thing if this happened when I was relaxing and watching TV. But it was always during the working day, when both Backbrain’s employees and I needed my processing power the most. The extra income was nice, but not good enough to make up for risking my teaching post.

I couldn’t chance the delays that might come with complaining by email. Fortunately, there was a Backbrain office in my city. I went there straight from work and asked to talk with someone in complaints.

I was quickly ushered into a quiet side room, where I was introduced to a smiling blonde woman named Sandra. I explained my experience.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” she said. “We’ve had some teething problems around peak time traffic. Just bear with us another week and we’ll-”

“I can’t bear with you another week,” I said. “This is getting in the way of my job. I can’t…” I struggled for a moment to find the words. “I can’t let you jeopardise my livelihood.”

“I understand,” Sandra said. “And we’re willing to compensate you for the inconvenience.”

“I don’t want compensation. I want you out of my head.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen.”

I stared at her, barely able to comprehend what she’d said.

“It’s my brain,” I said. “Get out.”

“We have a contract,” Sandra said. “After the two-week opt-out period, your obligations under that contract are for at least a year. We’ve invested time and resources in making you part of our system, and now we deserve a return from that.”

“I’ll get a lawyer.” I was on my feet, waving my arms wildly. “I’ll sue your asses off.”

“We’re a large company with a team of top lawyers. You’re one person with whoever you can afford. Do you really think you’ll win in court?”

“I… I…” There was something I was missing. Something more than just my righteous anger. Some way I could turn this around, if I could piece it together.

I slumped into my seat, hands pressed to my head as if they could drive the distraction out.

“I can offer you an alternative,” Sandra said. She waved a hand and a presentation appeared in my vision, as if hovering between us. “Our new advanced revenue program lets you commit your whole brain to us for part of each day, in return for substantial rewards.”

“My whole brain?” I stared. “That’s insane!”

“Really?” She smiled, and doubt crept over me. “The advanced revenue program offers more than you earn from both us and your day job. We would only be using your brain for six hours a day, five days a week. Outside of that, you would be conscious as normal, your life and your mind entirely yours. You would have more money and more free time than you have now. Are you interested?”

Was I missing something? I couldn’t tell. But I thought of all my hours spent marking, of my student loans, of how hard it was getting to do my job. And hey, if I didn’t like this then I could just quit, right?

“OK,” I said, smiling. “Sign me up.”

* * *

This story was inspired by a real-life news story about a company using customers’ computers instead of adverts to make money. Sure, it’s a jump from computers to brains, but sci-fi is for those jumps.

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