Life in a box

I check my watch, it’s flashing for curfew. I have 30 minutes to get home before the doors lock automatically and the drones send the police to collect me. The thought sends my fingers to the box in my pocket. It’s a gift for my daughter. Whatever happens, I can’t be caught with it on me.

Tipping my head to the darkening sky, I watch the drones wheeling around like gunmetal-grey birds. I’m old enough to remember when the only thing you’d see in the sky were clouds and stars, the occasional white scar of a passing plane. But that was before the Google campus bomb, before a tech company put a terrified man in the White House. He promised to make us safe; to build a better world. We were so scared nobody bothered to ask how he was planning to do it.

I flag down one of the autonomous taxis gliding along the street, watching as it comes to a stop beside me, the door sliding open. My phone beeps as I get in, counting off one of the two free taxi rides we’re allowed to take per day. For every stick there’s a carrot, and usually another stick hiding just behind it.

“Where would you like to go Mr Colby?” the cab asks.

“Home.”

“Home, it is.”

The indicator flashes, the taxi pulling out into the thinning traffic. Slouching in my seat, I stare out of the window. The slim men are already out, patrolling the gloomy streets. At this distance, they look almost human; their stride just a little too long, their swinging arms a little too loose. Up close, they’re something else: two blue eyes in the darkness, only ever speaking to give you directions, or issue threats. They whirr and buzz and thud, metal shepherds to a timid flock too scared to stray.

How do we beat you?

I freeze, my hand gripping the seat. Did I say that out loud, or just think it? There are cameras everywhere, nothing is forgotten anymore.

“Your heart rate is a little fast Mr Colby, can I help?” asks the cab.

“I just want to get home on time.”

“We’re 13 minutes away. Don’t worry.”

Unclenching my hand, I return my gaze to the window, waiting for my heart to settle.

Aside from the slim men, the streets are empty. Most people are already home, cooking dinner before the energy restrictions come into effect. The solar farms work fine during the day, but come evening the energy meters in our homes automatically dim lights and lower the output of the sockets, shutting off TVs and appliances to conserve power. On the bright side, my family’s pretty good at Scrabble these days.

The taxi slows, veering right instead of left.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

“Change of route, Mr Colby.”

“Why?”

It doesn’t answer. It can’t. It doesn’t know. It takes instructions just as we do, without ever asking for an explanation. At least it was built that why, not trained like us. Not told that it’s for our safety, that ignorance is the price of protection and surveillance the cost of liberty. At least it doesn’t believe what it’s being told.

We pick up speed, suburbia slipping by in a blur of muted colours. My hand instinctively reaches for my daughter’s gift nestled in my pocket. They must have heard me, they must know how I feel. I eye the door desperately, but there’s no handle, no way of opening it until you reach your destination. This is the world we live in; somebody always knows better.

The cab slows, stopping on a tree-lined street, compact white buildings lurking on either side.

“You have arrived at your destination,” says the cab, the door sliding open.

I get out warily, discovering a suited man waiting for me with a company pin on his lapel. He’s soft and pale with bags beneath his eyes and a voice as emotionless as my cab’s.

“Senator Colby,” he says.

“It’s Mr Colby, now. I resigned.”

“Yes, in protest of the curfew as I recall.”

His words drip with disgust.

“I need to call my wife,” I say.

“We’ll contact her, don’t worry.”

“You people keep saying that.”

“Maybe one day you’ll listen.”

He leads me into a nearby office building, where a man is slouched in a swivel chair with his feet propped on a table. He’s eating an apple and watching a shaky video of three girls dancing on the street. Myself and a woman who isn’t my wife are entwined in the background, tumbling drunkenly into a sports car that will never reach its destination. There aren’t any videos of me dragging myself free of the tangled wreckage and running away, but they have everything else: text messages, call logs, emails and my GPS history. Sordid proof of a sordid affair that ended tragically seven years ago.

With a trembling hand, I pull out a pack of cigarettes, almost spilling my daughter’s gift on the floor.

“I’m afraid we have a strict no-smoking policy here Bill,” says the man, taking another bite of his apple, juice running down his chin.

I can see myself reflected in his glasses, trapped and small; utterly transparent.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask quietly.

“We’re not doing anything,” he says, still chewing. “You gave us your life and we put it in a box. We never made any promises about how we’d use it.”

“And how are you planning to use it?”

“That depends on you.” His smile could scare wolves. “We have intelligence suggesting the Luddites are going to contact you. They’ve found a way to hack the slim men, and they’re looking for a spokesperson. As a vocal critic of The Company, we believe they see you as a kindred spirit. We’d like you to accept their offer, delve deep into the organisation and feed us information. A simple trade. Don’t destroy our world, and we won’t destroy yours.”

***

The lights of my house are burning brightly in the darkness, shrouded by trees and creeping ivy. A slim man’s waiting on my porch to let me in. As it turns to unlock the door, I take the gift from my pocket, attaching it magnetically to the slim man’s spine.It shudders, the lights in its eyes dimming momentarily.

“Don’t-be-evil protocol enacted,” it says. “Your command?”

“Spread the word and return here at dawn,” I say.

I hand it the device, watching as it strides off to gather more followers. By morning we’ll have dozens more converts to our cause.

Pushing open the door, I step inside. My wife’s sat on the couch, watching the news. Drones rake some distant desert with gunfire, as robotic mules carry supplies across mountain ranges guarded by platoons of slim men. This war has been going on for 16 years now, but nobody cares because humans aren’t fighting it anymore – at least, no humans on our side.

“Are you okay?” my wife asks. “I got an email from The Company.”

“They gave me a job,” I say, dropping down next to her. “They want me to find out the name of the Luddite leader.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Did they bribe you with the video?”

“Yeah, they finally found it.”

“Then we’re inside.”

The Luddite leader flings her arms around me, hugging me fiercely. I can feel my unborn daughter kicking in her stomach. She’s a fighter, like her mother. She’s going to need to be. My first gift to her will be a life free of constant surveillance. It will be up to her to protect it.

Life in a box

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