Yesterday, Amanda Back's life was flawless: the perfect social credit score, the perfect job, the perfect home. Today, Amanda is a target, an enemy of the system holding information dangerous enough to disrupt the world's all-consuming tech-a fugitive on the run. But in a world where an un-hackable blockchain links everyone and everything, there is nowhere to run...
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988, 999, 996, 992, 961, 973, 987, 999, 983.
'Fucking jealous bastards,' muttered Amanda. She'd been in London three days before, travelling on the tube on her way out to the airport. She'd touched in but not touched out.
'A ride I could have been chauffeured on,' she said out loud, as if the air around her was responsible for the battering her social credit score was taking.
As well as a penalty fare three times the normal cost, the metro had flagged her up as untrustworthy. The mark would evaporate in a week's time, but friends were leaving shocked and angry responses on her different online profiles, asking what she'd done, assuming she'd been wronged or was otherwise justified. She was, of course, but the tale would have to be delivered to each of them, to work colleagues, clients and friends, customised according to their own prejudices and assumptions about her and the system that had remarked on her human worth. She knew which laugh she'd use with clients when dismissing the event, knew how she'd splay her hands with her friends over dinner as she exclaimed her outrage. It irritated her, spending so much time and energy figuring out how to manage the effects of the downgrade.
Thank God it wasn't something serious, she reminded herself. The system could take weeks to rectify actual errors even if promptly notified; it was literally designed not to forget.
Responding to the searches she was making, the AI that coordinated her online presence flushed the screen with suggestions for improving her score, the first of which was to always touch in and touch out when using the tube.
'No screens or frames,' said a voice from nearby. Amanda looked up to find a short-haired, rough-skinned woman in a dour green uniform staring at her hard. The official waved her finger down, her mouth set in a thin line.
Amanda wanted to argue, to ask if she really looked like the type they should be worried about using her tablet in the customs queue, but she held her tongue.
Flicking off the screen, she returned to shuffling toward passport control, even as the official's gaze slid off her onto someone else surreptitiously checking their accounts for messages now they'd landed.
The Arrivals hall was a broad, poorly-lit floor with a low ceiling and colours reminiscent of varnished puke. Large tinted windows ran along one side but the view, of tarmac and grey skies against a featureless horizon, only reinforced the sense that she and all the travellers around her were lost, held nameless, outside civilisation.
Four dozen booths processed people one at a time: two dozen for travellers from the European Union, and the same again for the rest of the world. If her own queue had taken an hour to spit her out after disembarking, she knew the others would be there as long again. The thought didn't exactly lift her mood but Amanda was able to take a breath and be thankful she was coming home, which was no small feat.
She missed a bombing in Geneva by hours, her flight one of the last to leave the city before it was shut down entirely. There were no frames showing the carnage in customs, but she'd watched more than her fill while waiting for the flight to gain clearance to take off.
A booth flashed luminous red to call her forwards. Amanda stepped in, putting her feet in the yellow outlines, showing her face to the camera and placing her hand on the tacky glass shelf so it could take her biometrics — finger print, iris scan, facial recognition. The lights around her head dimmed while they processed her identity.
She'd signed up for the blockchain passport as soon as the government had announced the beta program. No need to hunt up and down the flat for a paper passport she'd put in a 'safe' place, no need to renew every five years, no fear of her ID being stolen and of her blamed for being lax with her own security, when it was just as likely the authorities had been hacked.
Her chest tightened at the thought of being free of the airport, of being home. She could smell the wedge of lime in her gin.
The white light flickered but didn't turn green. Amanda's neck tightened; she wanted to look around for an official to come and sort out what was taking so long, but breaking eye contact with the camera ran the risk of being forced to start again, or worse, having to go join the ordinary queue and be processed manually.
As she stood there, staring into the box, she made out dark trousered legs approaching out the corner of her eye. They reached the exit of her booth and stopped.
The lights turned red, as if she were done, as if she'd already exited. No one stepped forward to push her out of the way, she hadn't disappeared entirely. Or, she thought, looking around, the men on either side of the booth were dissuading anyone from approaching. She felt like a bacterium surrounded by white blood cells.
'Is there a problem?' she asked, her stomach lurching. Two men wore piped navy woollen jumpers, thin white shirts underneath and cheap blue trousers with the creases sewn in. Inelegant and militaristic. Around their waists were belts heavy with pouches and tools she didn't recognise, whose purpose she guessed at from movies about illegal immigrants. Neither of them were armed. She wanted to laugh, to dispel her nerves at the idea that their being unarmed was somehow a positive.
They didn't respond to her question, ignoring her like the booth. In between the plane and the world beyond the terminal she didn't exist yet; was quite deliberately stateless. These thoughts jumbled up with her frustration at what had to be a mistake. Of course it was a mistake, she thought as the three of them stood embalmed in the silence of five hundred onlookers.
Amanda folded her arms, turned her back to the crowd. She could feel children asking their parents what was going on, hear women tutting, men turning away, believing she deserved what was happening. They wouldn't detain her otherwise. Right?
The lights went out around her, the booth deactivated and the doors swished open. Amanda turned around, seeking guidance, finding the men flightside pointing past her, that she should follow others through the exit she'd been itching to reach a moment ago, before they'd come along like pawns surrounding a rook.
They marched her along wide corridors full of passengers, adapted golf buggies carrying the infirm and elderly. A door was opened with a lanyard, a red light winking yellow to let them through. Behind the scenes was grimmer than the soulless façade she knew so well: the walls were scuffed, the lights were harsher, white instead of the cool washed-out yellow. The carpet squares curled at the corners, and the half the ceiling tiles were missing, revealing the internal steel skeleton of the building. Out of sight of passengers, appearance didn't matter as long as it all worked.
She gazed at the walls, thinking how a corridor needs nothing more than walls to be what it has to be.
They let her carry her bag, didn't touch anything that was Amanda's until they reached a small grey room; the walls were painted charcoal below three feet, winter grey from there to the puckered tiles above.
Inside, a cheap table, thin steel legs and a pitted white surface, chairs from the same place they'd sourced the rest. It was clean but Amanda felt as if there was dirt in the air, in the very fabric, soaked with lies told to protect hope under the glare of the indifferent.
One of them stayed behind with Amanda, standing with their back to a wall and not taking any notice of her.
'Should I sit?'
Her question went unanswered.
She wouldn't get out for an evening run now. I'll have to catch up tomorrow, she decided. Turning around she put her leather cabin bag on the table, where it chose to lean precariously towards the edge. She pushed at it half-heartedly, but each time it fell back as if it was trying to tip off onto the floor with the witless insistence of the inanimate. With an irritated hiss, her ears suddenly hot, she lifted it up and put it back down facing the other way. The bag slumped towards the centre of the table.
That left her with nothing else to do. 'I'll sit down, then,' she said, but in the absence of a response she remained on her feet. There were no obvious cameras, no observation windows disguised as mirrors; just her and a stranger in a uniform that separated them as surely as a national border.
After a few minutes she pulled her bag over, pulled open a pocket and took out her phone. She looked at the uniform, but he didn't move or pay her any attention. She had no service, the phone reduced to an expensive address book; all her music, her diary, her life were stored online, and within that room there was no online.
She could feel messages from work piling up unanswered, pictured each passing second the dozen small ways her absence would be noticed. She had friends expecting her for drinks, she had meeting invites to be reviewed, accepted or rejected. Fractions from the whole that was her life splintering away.
Her absence wouldn't be enough for anyone to stop and ask where she was. Adults were rarely closely monitored, easily able to disappear for a day, a week, before someone frowned as their own lives were impacted enough to find out what was going on. Except for her traders — they were deskbound, held captive by the bank as a critical interface between the company and the market. She remembered people being fetched from the toilets because the head of the desk wanted to know where they were and what they were doing. It was the kind of monitoring traders never talked about with outsiders; that they were the masters of the universe who needed permission to go for a piss, like children at school.
An hour passed. Then another. Her phone ran down as it searched for a network, any network, that might respond to a handshake.
'Why am I being held here?' she asked more than once. The first couple of times she tested the words out carefully, hesitating as she spoke to the uniform. He didn't respond, his eyes staring straight ahead, as if he was standing guard outside Buckingham Palace. Eventually she directed her questions to the lights, to the walls and the door, trying to guess from where they were watching her.
'You can't just hold me here,' she said, but there was an electronic lock on the door and the key hung around the neck of her guard. Her words were an idea, with no purchase on her reality.
She daydreamed about disabling the guard and taking his keys. Then, more mundanely, she imagined calling friends, colleagues who were lawyers, who would marshal resources and come down on the immigration service like a vengeful leviathan, threatening, frightening them so badly they'd cower and grovel as they escorted her out. Amanda wanted them to know they'd messed with the wrong person, to force them to apologise. She passed over whether her lawyers' acquaintances would charge her for their time, or even if they could aid her; leveraged finance lawyers wouldn't be much real help, but they were the magic circle, and it seemed inconceivable for them not to have someone who'd be able to master whatever duty solicitor the immigration department had on call. Besides, she'd always found that most conflicts were won in the attitude.
Her bladder pressed its case. 'I need the toilet,' she told the uniform, to no effect.
'I really need to go,' she added. She wasn't yet at the point of threatening to relieve herself on the floor, but the idea of it made her want to cry with frustration. Why wouldn't they just tell her what was going on?
When her need to pee had focussed all of her attention down to a single point below her stomach the door opened.
'Thank god,' she said, looking at the man who let himself into the room.
'Not quite,' he replied, smiling back. 'I'm Crisp.' His accent was neutral, slightly nasal. Estuary with money, she thought. Like a growling dog, the name had teeth in it.
'Please, take a seat.'
Amanda sat down, waited for him. He wasn't what she'd expected; tall, gym-conditioned with short-cropped blond hair. His features were rugged, wrinkled even, but framed piercing crystal azure eyes, arresting if not handsome.
He gestured at her holdall. 'Can you open it, please.' It wasn't a request.
She undid all the zips. He did nothing, at first, until she realised he wanted her to pull it open so he could see inside without touching it.
'I'm going to look inside.'
Amanda shrugged. It wasn't as if she could object.
The first thing he did was pull out her tablet and place it to one side. 'You have a connected watch or implant?'
She unstrapped her watch and laid it next to the tablet.
She shook her head.
With fingertips only he searched her bag, pulled out her clothes, held them up to the light as if seeing through the material would offer greater insight into her life. The clear plastic bag with her used underwear appeared and Amanda resisted the urge to snatch it from him.
He searched through her knickers with no more concern than he'd shown when he examined her merino jumpers. 'This is all yours?'
'Who do you work for?'
'State Federal Finance,' she replied.
'The same.' Something of which she could be proud.
He raised his eyebrows to stare at her, but said nothing.
'Open the tablet, please.'
Which didn't seem right. Did she have to comply with that statement? She didn't think so, but resistance drained out of her fingers as her thoughts cooled to ash in her mind. Picking it up, he held it out in front of her. Amanda took the tablet, gazed down at it so the screen went live, then handed it back.
Time was spent flicking through her apps. She watched him scan her inbox, her browser history. She realised he'd see the dating apps she was using, that she'd set them up so she was always logged in. He could, if he chose, see all the men she'd flagged as of interest, how she'd rated them, which ones she'd dated, slept with, ghosted.
'They're all white,' he said.
She stared at him, knowing exactly what he was saying but unable to find the words to answer.
'The men you like. All white, black hair, dark eyes. No beards, which is hardly fashionable. I'm surprised.'
There it was, she thought, gutted and angry at the same time. 'Because I've got brown skin?' The words couldn't carry the weight of emotion and disgust she wanted them to convey.
'Well. Quite.' He shrugged, his eyes sliding off her and back to her bag.
'I'm British. My parents are British.' She stopped talking, appalled. She didn't need to justify herself to him.
'Your grandparents on your father's side were Indian. Anglo-Indian, if we're being precise, which in circumstances like this we always are. It's why you call yourself "British"; only those who need the identity latch onto it. People from here, we're English, or Welsh, or Scottish. We want our little patch of dirt and want the rest to know their place. You lot, you're desperate for the world to be united, for it to be something more accepting, because we all know that if Englishness is more important than Britishness, your position is that much more precarious.'
'There's nothing wrong with being English,' said Amanda.
'No. I'm very happy being Scottish, myself,' said Crisp. 'But it's the direction of travel. We were British but now we're not; we're smaller, diminished, prouder suddenly of being less than we were. Where does that end? Balkanisation is never very kind.'
'Is it so bad to want to belong?'
'To want to belong?' he asked, pursing his lips as if considering the idea. 'You don't want to belong. You do belong. You're an investment wanker, you're into white guys, you went to Oxbridge and have all the money in the world.' He held his hands up, lips curled and nostrils flared. 'You're a master of the universe. Your parents are a doctor and a professor, respectively. Pillars of the community, all of you.' He slid the tablet onto the table and turned his whole body in her direction. 'Success generates resentment as poverty generates repulsion. When pogroms come, everything is a reason to unpick that integration you're so proud of.'
'I'm not integrated,' said Amanda. 'I'm from here. There's nothing to integrate, because I didn't start out different.'
He laughed. 'You and I are very different.'
'You're not the yardstick by which my citizenship is measured,' she said.
'Am I not?' He narrowed his eyes. 'Why are you here, then?'
Whatever fight had been coiled in her chest unwound then.
He turned to the uniform. 'You can leave us.'
'Sir, I can't.' The tone said Sir, surely you know this, that Crisp's request was as irregular as it was pointless.
Crisp clenched his jaw, the line along his cheek showing in the light as a momentary shadow.
'Get undressed,' he said.
Amanda froze. From the door she could feel sudden attention from the uniform, his eyes on her for the first time.
'I'm sorry?' She dropped her hands below the table so he couldn't see them shake.
'Get undressed. I want to see you put on one of these.' He held out the bag of dirty underwear. 'I don't care which, your choice.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tangle's Game"
Copyright © 2019 Rebellion.
Excerpted by permission of Abaddon Books.
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