by Zoe Harding

(Part 6 of a serialised prose fiction endeavour. Part 1part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)


Speaking of, I decide it’s time to go for a walk. Staying active is good for your mental health, which is why every single public park and footpath is perpetually rammed with DeepGrey drones trying to keep their brains stable enough to run the god-spreadsheet – in my case it also helps immensely with the dysphoria, which is useful because nothing else is going to any more.

I pull on a bomber jacket and a baseball cap, opting for relatively shallow heels in case I need to out-sidle a DeepGrey recruiter. For once I’ve got enough money for a solid grocery shop, and near me there’s still a place that takes cash, earned scandalously but (in my opinion, anyway) honestly. I feel a solid meal coming on tonight.

I knock on Jenny’s door as I leave, but there’s no response. My purse is splayed open on the kitchen counter, my stuff spilled out over the grimy surface. A moderately illegal drone-killer wrapped in a tampon packet has rolled behind the microwave, as has my spraycan full of homemade chilli-based pepper spray (not enough to slow anyone down for more than a minute, but enough to catch them by surprise at least). I slip on my glasses, wincing as the bodged interface stutters and flickers into life (they were Google Glasses once upon a time, and while that company’s software has been brutally purged from the systems with fire, sword and carefully designed malware, there’s always that moment of danger where some lost backup might have installed itself and I’ll have a DeepGrey infomercial strapped to my face) and flick through it quickly to check for surprises, one hand on the frame. It’s all as it should be, nothing new there, my custom screensaver left over from Halloween still weaving AR cobwebs across the kitchen table. I tab up the mapping programme and load from saved offline data (broadcasting your location in any sense is a bad idea, which is why it’s annoying that so many companies insisted on doing it anyway). My keys are inside the microwave for some reason, so I pull them out and lock the door behind me.

The street is quiet save for the hum of air-conditioning units on the buildings opposite. Like most towns within high-speed-train-ing distance of the buzzing DeepGrey hive once known as ‘London’ (still known as ‘London’, I’m being sarcastic – although most of the people who actually live there call it something with ‘synergistic’ in the name) this place is pretty much deserted: the kids all locked up in school getting indoctrinated, the adults all wearing uncomfortable grey suits and staring at screens in the ranks of identical grey business parks that march through the streets. Construction crews are busy tearing down a once-listed church on the corner, moving with the eerie synchronicity of people on group autopilot. Another metal-walled warehouse will be going up over the foundations and the graveyard soon, endless lines of open-plan office desks to build another tech startup. The thought that the most lively people in the building will be under the floor crosses my mind, and I snort to myself as I walk past.

It’s a warm, muggy day, like most days by now. DeepGrey is doing its best to combat global warming, with endless lines of wind turbines sprouting across hills and valleys, but at the end of the day, three billion endlessly-running computers and untold billions of emails, inmails, messages, live chats, and shared documents sucks up more power than the wind could ever hope to provide. That’s without the eerily efficient traffic that slides through the streets every day, ultra-efficient in the face of congestion, every car carrying four blank-eyed drones who stare straight ahead or busy themselves on tablets. Combine that with human progress generally freezing in fields outside finance tech and office equipment, and you’ve got a world that’s rapidly getting warmer. Those equatorial areas that aren’t Ungovernable Zones (or just forgotten, of course – some societies weren’t digitised enough to spread the unforgivable memes that killed so many in Russia and India and Iran and California) are apparently beginning to evacuate north and south. DeepGrey realised that it’s rather difficult to maintain productivity and promote business growth when your workers’ brains are boiling out of their heads.

I actually have to stop and wait before I cross as a car rolls down the street, a loose fanbelt slapping under its bonnet. The driver looks like they’re about thirty seconds from a heart attack, a pair of wide eyes staring manically over the wheel, shoulders hunched up to their ears, twitchy and paranoid. I swear their beard must reach their knees. They give me A Look as they pass, but I suspect it’s because they give everyone Looks rather than because of me.

It’s nearly 10am, which means I’m safe from DeepGrey Lunch Hour for another couple of hours, but there are still a few office casualwears about. I keep my distance, ducking down a side path across a vacant lot to avoid a knot of shiny pumps and business-length skirts that comes clicking past on the pavement. A trio of DeepGrey drones are standing in the open by the entrance to an anonymous start-up block on the far side of the street, talking earnestly in that worrying way they do. I stay on my side of the street, recognising them for the anglerfish lure that they are.

A high-speed cargo drone bangs overhead, following the line of the main road, heading for a receiving port somewhere in the old city centre. I spent a couple of weeks hanging with a pair of self-proclaimed madwomen who hunted the damn things once, offline ransomwarers, taking them down with an ancient double-barrel shotgun fired through a pillow and dropping them into a net stretched across the cul-de-sac they lived on. They never looked inside the data pods strapped to their mangled fuselages, just sold them back to the lost-looking human drones who came to find them.

I wonder what they’re up to. They were fun to hang around with, at least until they got paranoid. DeepGrey is not good at spies or disguises, because the men who programmed it weren’t really sure how to be themselves, let alone anyone else, but law enforcement has free-thinking quislings working for them too, and those fuckers are sneaky. The one time I got busted, the fucker pulled a badge and cuffs on me once we’d finished the damn thing, after ‘popping to the bathroom for a sec’.

Featured image via Pexels


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