Big Echo

Critical SF

Bigger Faraday Cages! Longer Blockchains!

by Dan Grace

 They look like birds, cutting the sky between tower blocks, perched on the branch of a London plane. It's their silence that gives them away. They should be sinister but I can't help that other feeling they provoke in me, somewhere inside and below the ribs. A feeling of

the knuckle of the wave reaches the seawall before it can break and everything slows and the fist of salt water bursts and it rises up the smooth grey face scattering droplets into the sunlight and they are jewels

if you know what I mean? Like I want to be them. Or I want them to be me. Are those the same thing? I don't think so. They seem free. They at least give the appearance of being free. And this matters because?

There are cages everywhere.

They arrived 48 hours after our official announcement. We were prepared, of course, even if this was slightly quicker than we'd anticipated.

They found empty offices.

Caged, line of communications disabled, the drones crashed to the floor as they passed the threshold. An APV arrived to “investigate”. We watched, recording, from our own micro-drones perched outside the building as they carried cases inside. Sometime later they emerged, cases in tow.

The story appeared, complete with images, in all the feeds within minutes:

ARMS cache found at dissidents' offices.

ILLEGAL union officials killed in firefight with SCO19 drones.

NO officers injured.

We waited for the story to saturate then released our video. Timing is everything.

“Mu-um! Can we go outside now?”

I've lost track of how many times they've asked me that this morning.

“You wearing your suits?”

“Ye-ess.”

“Go on then. Twenty minutes. Stay in the garden, okay?”

All I hear in response is the sound of the back door closing behind them. I watch through the kitchen window as the twins tumble about the garden, the Faraday suits reducing the range of movement only fractionally. Company provided, top of the range. All kids should wear them outside the homecage. They don't, of course. I should know.

I see the drones perched in the trees, birdlike heads twitching back and forth. Starlings almost, that metallic sheen. I know they’re not watching the children. But still.

I sigh and pull up the latest dataset in need of a potential tweaking before it's fed into the 'chain. So much is smart-contracted out now my job is pretty perfunctory. All that's really left is to make sure that the sets themselves are legible. It’s tedious work. Every now and then there will be something, some error in categorising, some anomalous pairing, something that will skew a set with knock on effects for decision making at a higher level, with attendant consequences for the value of our services to central government.

It's easy to lose focus. I have to constantly remind myself that this matters, that my job is important. Watching the kids in their suits helps. But still I get that

weight on the chest and try to roll out from under it and arms are pinned and I give in get off get off please get off

feeling. Sometimes. Okay, most times. It's normal though.

This particular set involves child data. Gaming habits mainly. Alongside consumption of specific streams. It's drawn from across the N-UK. The level of detail is still astonishing. Breakdown of time spent on specific tasks, time on stream, eye-tracking, synaptic scanning. It's spotless, no faults that I can see.

The kids come back in, twenty minutes on the dot.

“We're hun-gry!” they yell in unison as they peel the suits off. I reflexively check our household data-ups. No change.

I pull something sweet out of the fridge and throw it their way. The bulb needs replacing, which will cost a fortune. It's old, like everything in the house. The market in non-networkable things is booming among a certain percentile.

“Here you go. Now some homework, okay?”

They nod, mouths too full of sticky sweetness to reply. I feel the customary pang of guilt at letting them eat that junk, but I can't deal with the argument if I refuse it. Single parenthood is hard enough without pointless battles. I turn back to the set and send it out for the apps to gobble up.

I don't judge those who allow the surveillance. The top-up to Basic Income is significant and increases at an exponential rate as you allow access. The greater saturation you allow, to both yourself and dependents, the more money you get. Like all schemes that require a certain scale of adoption for usability the government made it opt out. Anyway, the job market being what it is these days the assumption is that citizens will want to maximise their income.

Want, need. Whichever.

[cut to]

image of a child in a faraday suit holding hands with a child in normal clothes, they are singing a song but it is too faint to make out the words

“Which is in a cage?”

[cut to]

image of a child on a production line, circuit boards moving past on a conveyor belt, tiny hands whipping about in a conditioned reflex placing microprocessors

“Where is this in the chain?”

[cut to]

image of a child sat on a sofa in their living room, collarbones protruding from sagging neck of their t-shirt

“How is this smart?”

I'm walking to the shops when I notice the group. They're not suited for a start. Unusual in this part of town. Milling about outside the entrance to the parade. They're handing out leaflets. How quaint. I take one from an earnest young man, nod, smile and carry on into the shops. I read the bold headline as I walk.

Public Ownership of the Blockchain!

Free Suits For All!

I try not to raise my eyebrows, let it affect my stride but I feel it rising in me. I toss the leaflet into a bin without reading the rest, try to push it down, try to carry on with my task but

a clot of black smoke fats up from the flames and the sponge wall of heat and the tickle of blistering wallpaper fragments on bronchioles and that tightening of vision of lungs of everything that

so I decide to go home, get stuff delivered. Sure, data will get upped, but it doesn't really matter.

When I get home the message is waiting for me.

[cut to]

image of a bustling high street

“There are those who will say there is no point. That everything we can be collected, repackaged, sold back to us.”

[cut to]

image of a picket line

“That what we want is to go back to some imagined golden age. That unions such as ours belong in the past. That the 'chain will set us free.”

[cut to]

image of houses, the exterior walls fade to leave only the wire mesh of the Faraday cages

“Look around you.”

I always try to meet him somewhere neutral, somewhere we've never been before. A pub. The caged area. I'm early and buy myself a drink. He arrives, gives a short wave, heads to the bar first and then lowers himself into the chair opposite. He’s lost weight, let his hair grow out a bit. Still wearing the same jeans and t-shirt combo as when we first met nearly two decades ago. Somehow it still works.

“John.”

“Zoe. How are the kids?”

No preamble, no niceties. Straight to the meat. I smile despite myself.

“They're good, you still going to take them this weekend?”

“Yeah, looking forward to it. Camping I thought. Got tent with a cage I can borrow from a friend, Alan. You remember Alan? Anyway, they can bring their suits. We'll go fishing I thought.”

“You remember Alice is vegetarian now?”

“Oh. Yeah. I already borrowed the rods and all. Well. Fish is sort of a vegetable, right?”

He laughs. I don't.

“Okay, so no fishing. We'll start fires. It'll be fun.” He takes a deep gulp of beer. “How's work?”

“Fine. How's whatever it is that you're doing now?”

“Fine!”

He doesn’t offer any more information.

“Are you dodging my question?”

“No. Gardening. It's great. Outside, using my muscles, time to think. Cash in hand too.”

“Cash? What on earth do you do with cash?”

He stares at me. I sip my drink.

“No seriously, where takes cash these days?”

“Plenty of places. Just the sort of places you wouldn't know about I guess.”

“And what's that supposed to mean, I 'wouldn't know about' them? Why?”

His face twists and I can see he's counting to ten. I sigh.

“Why did you want to see me love?”

I didn't mean to say “love” it just came out as if

muscles working despite and the rapid tidal pain that sings through every nerve and a hot steady arm around shoulders and will this never end and new lungs crack the surface of it and we

and I know he can feel it too and can no more bear to articulate it than I can.

We pause just a little too long.

There’s a breach at school, one of the cages fails. It shouldn’t happen but it does. Some are rueful.

“Well at least we’ll have a bit extra this month!”

Others are livid. Want the Head sacked, teachers sacked, an inquiry. Someone to blame for exposing the children to the ‘chain.

“What do we pay for?”

I don’t feel much of anything. No, that’s not true. I feel tired. I take the twins home. They seem quite. They settle at the table, always homework to do, while I sort tea out. Too quiet.

“What’s wrong?”

Maria, still the spokesperson for the two of them, peers up at me.

“We watched a video. On Em’s phone.”

I feel my heart start to race. I haven’t talked to them about things. I mean there are things we should have discussed by now, maybe. I’ve been so busy. They’re eight now. Should have seen this coming. I try to keep my voice steady.

“What sort of a video? I didn’t think you could take phones into school? I might have to have a word with Em’s parents!”

I laugh a terrible shrill laugh. Maria blinks and looks at the floor. I stop. Oh god.

“There was a boy and he was working in a factory and he looked tired. Really tired.”

I’m not prepared for that. I’m

plug pulled water draining a faint rind of dirt making the tideline foam hiding gelatinous waterlogged

but I can deal with that later. I still haven’t said anything. Ethan looks up from his drawing.

“Police too! With guns! They went in and they got the drone back.”

He nods and returns to his work.

“I see.”

I don’t.

Working from home is hard. I remember office jobs, just. They weren't utopia, of course, but at least there was someone to talk to. Although that could always be

suspended in amber, oh god please release me, a million years must have passed, when will they just

you know?

We have a network though, through the school, those of us who still work. We meet up sometimes, for a drink, a chat. We all do the same thing, or different parts of the same thing. Amazing how something already so tedious can be broken down into separate sets of even more dull tasks. So we meet and we drink and we talk shop.

“Public, private, who knows these days. The chain is technically public, but practically private.”

We're in the pub. The caged area, naturally. It's my round. We're already several drinks deep so I'm feeling confident, riding the glowing wave of intoxication.

“Grey data. Have I told you about grey data?”

I don't wait for them to nod or shake their heads. Alan takes a bite from his pickled egg. Mags slurps at her lukewarm bitter. I ramble on for a while, before hitting my usual vein.

“I am a datapusher. A datadrone. A menial data worker. A fleshy appendage to the data behemoth.”

Alan laughs hard at that last one, his pickled egg breath blasting across the table. I sag into my seat.

“How did it come to this?”

There's a silence, then Mags starts to giggle and she has that sort of a laugh that it's hard not to join in. Eventually it subsides and we all contemplate our drinks. Alan clears his throat.

“You seen the video?”

Mags starts giggling again. I shake my head.

“No the kids, well, the kids said something about it. At school, they saw it. On a phone or something.”

Alan raises his substantial eyebrows.

“The kids, eh? Well that's not on. Who showed 'em?”

I shrug. The lie comes easy.

“No idea. Don't worry I'll deal with it. Have you seen it?”

Mags nods. “I have, it's the usual thing. Very noble, I suppose, but what are we supposed to do about it?”

Alan’s eyebrows dance-wiggle through several shape-moods.

“It's very… earnest. You know how these types are. Have to admit it packs punch though. You want to see it?”

He leans in with his phone and doesn't wait for me to answer. I watch.

[cut to]

a factory, stock footage of workers punching their cards

“Its purpose is to administrate populations…”

[cut to]

a talking head shot of an economist on the BBC

“…to make politics disappear…”

[cut to]

row upon row of gleaming technology; laptops, phones, tablets

“…in a puff of techno-babble, never mind who owns the 'chain, never mind it's not you.”

The numbers won't keep still today. The twins are at school, so this is prime work time, but I can't get into it. The dataset is travel related; every tube journey made is tracked, held in a central database. Cross-reference that with other sets, linked to individual's profiles, and voila. All sorts of juicy, useful stuff. For somebody.

I know it's pathetic, but the images in the video keep popping into my head.

What do they want? Who are they? A union? It's ridiculous. Isn't it?

It is six weeks since the video. A month, give or take, since the protests began in earnest. The drop off in coherent sets has been considerable. Not that the company I work for allows that information into the public realm. Co-ordinated refusal of data harvesting. A strike no less. Which means not enough work for me. I'm paid by the piece and now we're running out of everything.

I went out without my suit on today. The drones seemed less friendly. I want to be free of this tension in my chest. Of this continual

drill in brick drone, asymmetric staccato hammer blows, never quite finished, never over until

I want to hand something else on to my children, of course. To the extent we can choose that. And none of this is helping. At least before I could just get on with the work, watch the drones from my window, collapse with the kids in front of a film.

It says in the company wellbeing workbook that I need to act, to take control of this feeling. To “make positive steps towards becoming productive again”. So I do.

“I joined the union.”

I whisper it and he almost spits his beer over me.

“You did what? Why? Since when have you cared about that sort of thing?”

I try not to bite. It’s the tone of his voice as much as anything. Fifteen years together and the tone is really the thing that can drive you absolutely mad.

“Since forever. Especially since I saw the video.”

He sinks in on himself slightly. It's like the time

I don't fucking care if she doesn't mean anything that isn't the point is it it means something this means something can't you understand that what you've

“The video. What did that video tell you that you didn't already know?” He lowers his voice. “Seriously Zoe, it's a dangerous thing to do. What about the kids?”

As if I don’t know it's dangerous, as if I hadn't thought about all this a million times already.

“It's for the kids though, isn't it. What sort of future will they have?”

He sighs again, rolls his eyes.

“How terribly clichéd.”

I get up and walk out. The sky is darkening, the drones are out. I pull my suit tighter around me and hurry home.

I have never held a banner before, shouted, in anger and joy, with others. It feels as if

tiny sparks from the taper to the touch paper that gentle hiss hiss hiss as the wheel builds up and now stopping isn't

I can't see where the crowd starts or where it ends. I see Alan holding a handmade sign high in the air, he gives me a thumbs up. I move closer, throw my arms around him.

“Alan! Is Mags here too?”

He blushes, clears his throat, wiggles those huge brows.

“Not seen her. Don’t think this is really her scene, if you know what I mean.”

I laugh.

“Her loss. Isn’t this something?”

He smiles, nods, peers into the middle distance.

“It is, it is. Wonder where it’s going.”

Something in his tone grounds me for a minute. And then a kid, at least I think they're a kid, all in black, launches something at a circling drone and it crashes to earth to cheers from the masses. A chant starts up:

SMASH THE CAGES! BREAK THE CHAINS!

And we all join in. Every last one of us.

[cut to]

black screen

“We have a choice: the future we know.”

[cut to]

rapid succession of images: debates in Houses of Parliament, empty shelves in the supermarkets, draft of the Data Liberation Bill, prototype Faraday suits, a gig-worker at their laptop feeding the 'chain, new housing developments with Faraday cages, faster and faster and faster

[cut to]

black screen

“Or the future we deserve.”

They don't look like birds really, not when you look more closely. I don't see why I thought that. Slick metal bodies catching the light like

sun on shields in my eyes and the sudden push rush of batons swinging of confused cries of hurled stones of adrenal glands emptying into the blood the blood the blood

and I shiver, despite the warmth of the day.

What is it to be free? I don’t think it is what I thought it was. Alone, gliding through, things, countless things, yet somehow never touching anything. Never letting anything touch you. Above and separate. Transcendent, is that the word? Freedom has dirt under its finger nails. Bags under its eyes. It is imperfect, like us.

I take a sip from my coffee and scroll through the spreadsheet. I'm trying to get work done, despite it being the weekend. Things have picked up again recently. In the kitchen Maria is explaining the intricacies of some game she has invented to Ethan. I can hear the argument before it begins.

“Mum!”

“Coming!”