by Anne Light
Some time in the future, little things may rule your life.
|A sterile smile filled the screen. It was the third commercial for toothpaste in a row. Connor lolled on the couch, his eyes glued to the TV.
"Darling?" Mina's head appeared in the door. He looked up. "I'm out shopping. You need anything?"
"Toothpaste," he said.
"I got it on Monday."
His eyes went back to the screen. Another toothpaste commercial, another clean smile.
"Don't forget to shower when you come back."
Mina sighed. Connor could hear all the suppressed frustration in it.
"I'm just over at the supermarket. Five minutes," she said.
"And how many people have been there, today? You could catch anything."
"Okay, okay, let's not go over it again." She came over to the sofa and planted a kiss on his forehead. "I'll shower. I just wish I had a normal life."
Connor nodded and hugged her. There was nothing he could say. It was necessary to keep the house pure; you had to exclude external sources. Mina knew it, but she found it too much trouble and slacked. And he could never be sure about cause and effect.
Mina left the house and Connor returned to the screen. Was there nothing on earth but toothpaste?
He got up and stormed into the bathroom. On the sink lay a Crest tube. He grabbed it, ran into the kitchen, and threw it into the garbage. He peeked into the living room. Toothpaste. He looked into the store room and found the carton on the top shelf. A fresh tube in hand, he went back to the bathroom, opened it, and removed the seal. The sounds of the commercial were muffled, but he recognized the brand. He took his brush from its glass and squeezed the tube. He looked into the mirror.
"I'm brushing my teeth," he yelled. "With Crest. Fresh tube." He grimaced at his contemptuous face, stuck the toothbrush in his mouth and shrubbed.
Afterwards, he went back to the living-room. Colgate, or Mitsubishi?
Kraft cheese. Only half a victory. Kraft was his pet peeve. You always got these crappy quiz shows in the evening if they assumed you were eating it. He'd had a major fight with Mina about the cheese because he thought she was buying it to snub him. He'd made a point of eating McAdams or that fancy Italian stuff, but all it changed was, now he got commercials on McAdams, too.
He opened his laptop and went into his preferences menu. There it was: 17.00 h - On the Road. His favorite show. His eyes switched between the two screens. The commercial ended.
"INTICLES News." While he listened to the jingle, he looked at the computer. 17.00 h - INTICLES News. It had sneaked back in as usual.
"INTICLES denies rumors that a hacker caused the blackout in Chicago yesterday." The CEO, John Harwood, appeared on screen.
God, he hated that man.Connor had tried everything to avoid seeing him. He'd deleted the program from his preferences.
"Sparks is the safest system since the dawn of e-age."
Bullshit, Connor thought.
"We put the highest confidence in its ability to self-repair."
He had put INTICLES on the list of "Least Favorites". He'd cut all online connection to the firm, had them in his spam filter. He'd removed it from the registry, but still John Harwood's meaty face was grinning at him everyday at five.
"The best proof is our 100 million dollar challenge. No one will ever be able to claim the money."
Bloody liar. As long as you don't pay, it never happened, right?
He heard the car in the driveway. His wife returned. Tom stood behind the curtains and looked out. Right. She went in through the back. He sat back on the sofa and pressed a few keys on his laptop. Before him opened the image of the small annex he had built with a connecting door to the house. The camera was hidden in the ceiling. He had a total view from the top.
He watched Mina enter and put the groceries on the workbench. Then she undressed. Connor kept wishing it would take longer, but in no time she had removed pants and t-shirt. Maybe if she knew? He'd toyed with asking her, but he guessed she wouldn't like it. In her bra and panties, she went to unpack the bags. Vegetables, milk, meat balls, detergent - Connor marveled at the amount they seemed to need every day. With short and efficient movements, Mina wiped her purchases with a wet towel. Then she rinsed the vegetables. She put all in a box that she placed in front of the connection door.
She hugged herself. The tiled room was always cool. Then the bra was off, and she slipped out of the panties. She stuffed the clothes in the washing machine next to the sink. She got another towel from the closet, went into the shower and was gone from Connor's view.
Meanwhile, the TV had switched to his favorite show. He watched the intro, then returned to his wife. She stepped out of the cabin, toweled herself before she put on a bathrobe. The towel went straight to the washing machine. Detergent, then she pressed the button. Good. Her head turned to the sink. She'd forgotten the other one. She picked it up and held it for a moment. Stop the machine, Connor thought. But she didn't. She hid the towel behind it. Damn.
He switched the screen off as he heard her enter the living room and assumed his usual position on the couch.
The volume of the program dimmed down a notch, and the small reading lamp on her side of the couch went on. Mina sat down and cuddled against Connor. He put his arm around her. Her hair was wet. He liked the smell of her shampoo, didn't know what it was.
"How was the shopping?"
She giggled. "I wasn't on a spree. I just bought food."
"Mmh." He looked back on the screen where the newest Landrover crossed a creek bumping over stones and splashing through the water like a tank.
"You'll never guess what I they put in the cart." She poked him expectantly.
He winced. "Kraft cheese."
"No, they got that finally. I haven't had it for at least six weeks." She tickled him under the chin. "Try again."
He smiled. "You tell me."
He snorted. "Jeez, I don't even know how to spell that."
"I knew that'd get you!" She put her feet under her legs.
"What does it mean?"
Mina shrugged. "You figure it out. You're the tech whiz."
"Some new meat balls, spicy. I got them for you."
"Christ, be more careful!"
She sat up. "Man, you are just so paranoid. I think it's nice. They know what we like, mostly, and we can put the rest back."
"I want to get rid of that Kraft stuff for good. They're like weeds. You miss them once, and they're back." He clicked on an icon on his laptop.
"They aren't Kraft."
"Doesn't matter. See?" He pointed to the food preferences. The little box beside Kraft products was ticked.
"Then tick it off."
Connor did, closed the window, and opened it again. The box was empty. "I had a commercial today. Easy Cheese."
"Yummy." She moved away from Connor and leaned back. "And before you say anything, I don't buy it even though I'd love to. Sometimes I think they can simply read my mind. They know I love Easy Cheese whether I buy it or not."
"Bullshit. It's the worms."
"You should hear yourself talk. Everybody is a hacker except you. That thing in Chicago, that wasn't you, was it?"
Connor shook his head. "Don't know who's done it. Nobody's admitted to it. Anyway, I'm not into energy supply. I want the network down."
Mina rolled her eyes. "I hope you get caught."
Connor pulled her close and stroked her chin. Mina reluctantly turned her head. "I love you, babe," he said. Mina didn't reply. "I'm doing it for you. A hundred million dollars. We could buy a whole island. Get away from this crap life."
"I happen to like it."
They had been down this path too often for Connor to count. And if he was honest, he wasn't doing it for Mina. Hacking was what he was born for. The INTICLES challenge had just raised the stakes for the game. Mina hated it. She was afraid he'd go to jail, that she'd be charged as an accessory. Connor had tried to diffuse her fears, tried to make up for the little things she couldn't do, like buying Easy Cheese. But these days little things ruled their life.
"Don't you want to be free? Do you want all that Harwood manipulation? Do you want it to kill you?"
Mina freed herself from his embrace and got up. The reading lamp went out.
"He doesn't make us do things, and there's no evidence Sparks killed the babies. Their parents smoked."
"So they say."
"There's no point arguing with you. You are so...pigheaded." Mina stalked out of the room.
One day she'd leave him, he thought. If he brought INTICLES down to their knees and got the reward, she'd see he was right. Sparks was fallible. Sparks was evil. But it was a race against time. He could feel Mina slipping away. Every day it became harder to reach her.
He put the TV on mute. Back to work. He opened a program on the computer and typed the password. Then he went through his function graphs. The trouble was the critical mass. In order to change the commands, you had to reach a minimum of units. In order not to get caught, you had to do it quickly. He still needed far too long. He could change the environment in his own house well enough, but outside was different. There was too much different data, and they'd self-repair and send the link to his computer. He was looking for the units with the best transmitting rate. He was assuming that consumer trackers were the ticket. They were faster than temperature and weather units. Movement units were better still, but they didn't have a wide range, just about twelve yards. There were a few units he couldn't identify, but it scared him to try them out. In the community, rumor had it some were linked with the FBI. Easily possible.
The door bell rang. Shit. He closed down the computer and went into the hall. "You expecting someone?" he shouted up the stairs.
He looked at the screen next to the door. Holy shit. Police. He opened the door, putting on a genial smile.
"Mr Welch?" The officer was middle-aged with an open, easy face. Connor knew better than to trust it. "Can we come in?"
Connor changed his expression to worry and let the men enter. "Has something happened?"
"We're following up a lead for a hit-and-run. Were you out today?"
"No, my wife was shopping. But she wouldn't..."
The second officer, younger, all business, intervened. "Don't worry. The subject has been identified. He hasn't been in touch with his probation officer. We are following his trail."
He took a hand-sized gadget out of his pocket, a sniffer. Connor had never seen one for real. He watched curiously as the officer switched on the display and moved the device around.
Mina came down the stairs. "Is it about the hacking?"
Connor's heart plummeted. "The Chicago blackout. We were wondering if the police were looking into the possibility that it might be caused by a hacker." He threw her a furious glance.
"Not that I know of." Mr Trustme had shrewd eyes. He followed his colleague who was already in the living room.
"Maybe we can speed things up a bit," Connor said. "I've done a reset this morning. There's only one place where it can actually be." Just get them out. Mina looked so pale, so guilty.
He led the way to the back into the small annex and fished the towel from behind the washer.
"Here." He handed the damp cloth to the officer with the sniffer. God, that thing made him nervous.
The officer thanked him. From the living room, Connor heard Mina tell where she had been.
The policeman put the towel on top of the washing machine. He produced a small case, and took out a magnifying glass and tweezers. Slowly, the magnifying glass moved across the fabric. "Got it," he said finally. He plucked the particle off and put it into a plastic bag. "We are finished then. Nothing new. The supermarket was an old trace."
"That a movement unit?" Connor asked. He couldn't help it. He was curious.
"No, we call them identifiers. They are for professional use only. You find them in public places and in burglar alarms." The officer packed his kit and put it away.
"They can track every person?" Creepy.
"Theoretically. We send the profile of the offender out and they check for matches. The system can handle about ten offenders statewide at the same time."
"Doesn't sound much."
"It isn't. We are hoping for an update soon." The officer headed for the living room. Mina and Mr Trustme were seated on the couch. Mina had her hands folded in her lap.
Mr Trustme pointed above the door. "You had a bug?"
Connor glanced at Mina. There was alarm in her eyes. "Yes, that's why I did the reset. The TV kept turning off when I opened a Miller." It was common enough.
The officer got up. "You forgot to close the Sparks dispenser. Have a nice day, Mr Welch."
He saw them out. Mina stood at the window, watching the car drive away.
"Jeez, baby, don't look so scared. They are gone."
"I thought they had come for you." She slumped on the couch and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook, but she didn't make a sound.
"Hey, don't." He knelt before her and gently took her hands. But she wouldn't let him. He stroked her hair. "It'll be all right, baby. You'll see it'll all be right." He sat next to her, pulled her into a hug, and rocked her until she was calm. Finally she sat up, searching for a Kleenex. He handed her the carton. "Okay?"
"I guess so." She blew her nose. "How did you know about the towel?"
He pulled a grimace. Was there ever a good time for it? "I watched you."
"How?" Her eyes fell on the laptop. "A camera? Are you spying on me?"
Connor attempted a grin. "I like you naked."
"I've had it," she said. She got up, swerved around his outstretched arm, and made for the door.
"What are you doing?"
"Packing. I'm leaving." She ran up the stairs, taking two at a time.
He followed her. "Mina, let's talk."
"Talk?" She stood on the landing, laughing bitterly. "It's not enough that I got a hacker for a husband. It's not enough that he's lying to the police. It's not enough that he thinks the whole world is after him. You don't even trust me. Forget it, Connor, I'm out." She disappeared in the bedroom. The key turned.
"Baby, it's not what you think!" Foolishly he stood in front of the door, pleading with her. She didn't answer him. Connor felt sick thinking he would lose her.
He had to prove her. He had to show her how Sparks ruled their life. He went back to his computer and opened the file with the calculations again. He needed to be fast, faster than ever. He checked the table with the transmitting rates. No chance here. He concentrated, looking out of the window. Darkness was falling, and the the outdoor lights for their burglar alarm went on. Burglar alarm? What was that unit called? An identifier. They must have an extraordinary range, judging from the officer's description.
He went into the menu of the building system. Burglar alarm, about a thousand units active. Not that many. Temperature and light regulation needed a lot more to keep the environment stable. Of course, they had to process a lot more information. A low number also meant a high transmitting rate. Why hadn't he ever looked into it?
He got a chair and climbed on so he could reach the Sparks dispenser above the door. The top was askew; he had forgotten to put it back on last time. Damn Mr Trustme, he really had good eyes. Another reason to move on. He grabbed a handful of the metallic dust. It felt like beach sand in his hands, rough and spiky if you caught it between the fingers.
The stuff that ruled their life. Every Sparks particle was a processing unit. Sensors collected data about temperature, light, movement, or the contents of your refrigerator. Transmitters sent the data to power stations, food companies, law enforcement agencies. And about everybody and their dog, Connor thought. The units communicated with each other, they could learn, they made decisions when a sufficient number of units suggested it.
Sparks automatized your day. You didn't have to bother to switch on the light or the heating. You didn't need to bother to zap through the TV channels to find something suitable. Sparks knew. They woke you up in the morning, they reminded you to buy the bacon for your breakfast, they knew your appointments, your dates, they knew when you went to bed and with whom.
They were like dust and they were everywhere. In your home, on the street. You carried them with them in your hair and in your clothes. You brought them home from your friends, from work, from the car park. Regularly they went out of circulation and were replaced by fresh ones. You trod on them, washed them down the sink, or inhaled them without knowing. But there were always fresh ones.
He carried the Sparks back to the living room table. With his left hand he emptied the chips bowl. Crumbles scattered on the table. His computer alerted him that the entropy level of the room had exceeded the limit. Over the bowl, he opened his hand slowly and let the particles fall. He wiped his hand at the rim. Many clung still to his hand. He rubbed his hands, knowing that it would destroy a few of them, but he didn't care.
There was only one way to test them. He opened the system console, searched for sparks which came into circulation recently. There were a few from half an hour ago, the cops must have brought them, but they had already been integrated. Usually, he'd do a reset, but not now. The first ones started contacting. Nothing noteworthy. He picked up a few from the bowl and blew them into the air. All of them sensors. He went on like a kid with a dandelion.
A message from the system told him the phone line was engaged. He could have checked who Mina was speaking with, but didn't. There. God, what a range. He marked the particle to report back to the system. His screen filled with green numbers immediately. Jeez, it sent a signal every quarter millisecond. He had one. That was his identifier. It would do.
He looked at the clock. He'd been sitting here for more than an hour. Hope welled up. Mina was still there. Now came the tricky part. He needed to extract the program without alerting the FBI. He opened a different application, designed to decrypt the data the particles sent. His fingers flew across the keyboard. He hit return and leaned back. That would take a while.
He was restless. Hungry, too, he realized. There was no dinner tonight. He went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. He'd do the meatballs for Mina. He put them on a plate and microwaved them. Should he make a salad? He found a bag, ready to be served. Good. He tore it open. Greens in the bowl, a bit of tomato. He found the small ones Mina liked. He didn't bother cutting them up. A bit of dressing, that should do it. He toasted the bread and carried all over to the table.
Then he went for Mina. He knocked at the door of their bedroom. "Baby?" No answer. "I got dinner ready." He heard scuttling behind the door. "I made the meatballs you bought."
"Fuck off," he heard.
"It's on the table, babe. I love you." Connor went back and filled a plate for himself. He started eating as he walked to his place on the couch. A few more minutes to wait. He stuffed the meatballs into his mouth, barely tasting them. Salty. Another check for results, then he got himself a soft drink. He needed a clear head. There were the data. Simple stuff really. Position in relation to the central unit, the vectors for the closest transmitters. The message was gobbledygook, undefined. He'd change that, Connor thought. He opened the visualizer. Tiny dots in different colors hovered across the screen.
He whistled. Now, there was a surprise. The identifier seemed to interact with different units. Movement units would make sense, but this was - he checked - a temperature transmitter. He kept the system console open. He couldn't believe his eyes. The temp transmitter had changed its range. It had become an identifier.
The reading lamp went on and he looked up. Mina was standing next to the table, a meatball in hand. He smiled.
"Don't you think I've changed my mind." Red rimmed her eyes.
"Stay here, baby. Tomorrow, all will be different."
She pressed her lips together and swallowed. "As soon as I reach Mum, I'm off." She took another meatball.
"Why don't you come here and eat. You need more than just a snack."
Her chin went up. "I'll eat upstairs." She grabbed the plate and the salad bowl and turned.
"See you," he said, watching her back as she stalked up the stairs.
Six identifiers were now on the visualizer. Jeez. Where was the command? He looked at the message line again. Maybe his decrypting program wasn't good enough. Time for his favorite program, Brain 1.0. He closed his eyes. Okay, start again. How could you transform a unit? His mind raced through system commands. You'd have to establish a hierarchy. A unit's address started with a Greek letter. Most were α, β, or γ; security sensors got an ε. Maybe the more important the unit, the later the letter was in the alphabet. He'd try the last one, ω. He typed a command line, using the omega for the sender and left the address open. Then he made his decrypting program compare it with the gobbledygook from the identifier.
It'd take about forever. He heard a heavy thump upstairs, Mina trying to move her suitcase. Connor had a daring thought. He could use the units in the house for the calculation, at least for a short time. He'd use only the alphas. He checked the console. One million in circulation. Okay, five minutes. He typed the command.
Immediately, the light started flickering and several alerts appeared on the screen. He checked. Nothing that would call the police yet.
Mina appeared with a suitcase in the door. "What is happening?"
He hardly dared taking his eyes of the computer. "Baby, tonight is the night. Believe me, we are going to hit the jackpot."
She came closer. "What are you doing?"
"I found a way in. I just know it."
"It's just a matter of time, right?" She rubbed her eyes. "As if I haven't heard that often enough. Turn the light back on."
He checked the screen. The smoke detector was affected. Hurriedly, he typed an error message. He didn't want the firefighters.
"If you are caught, I'll tell everything I know." Mina said.
"I'll be fast enough this time."
"INTICLES won't pay. They'll pretend it wasn't a hacker."
That was a problem he couldn't solve. "I'll make them," he said. He patted the seat next to him. "Come here, babe."
"I've got another suitcase upstairs."
"You can fetch it later."
But she left again.
He let the mouse hover over the stop button. He was already one minute over the time. Twenty more seconds. Please, oh, please. The time ticked away.
A message. Quickly he turned the environment to default settings. Yep, that was it. His program had decrypted the command line of the identifier. He searched for a place where he could insert his own little message. The identifier could transform up to a thousand particles within a range of thirty miles. He typed a message. The identifier would transform the particles and then self-destruct. He disabled the self-repair function.
Mina stood next to him. "I'm leaving."
He whirled round. "You can't. Love, just a few seconds."
She crossed her arms. "How will you make Harwood pay? Want to do a commercial?" She grinned smugly. "Connor Toothpaste Welch."
He jumped up and hugged her. "You are a genius, darling." He smacked a kiss on her cheek.
Mina didn't return the hug, but she didn't back off, either. "So what are you going to do?"
"Wait here." He ran into the bathroom and fetched the freshly opened Crest tube. He took Mina's hand and led her to the couch. He opened a consumer tracker window and typed a message: Sparks will die tonight. Connor J. Welch.
"That's stupid," Mina said.
"It'll do the trick." Connor opened the tube and pressed out half of the paste. He checked the console. A consumer unit was responding. He clicked on it and sent his message. It would reach the company and spread. He squeezed the tube until it was empty. The unit started sending. He looked at his TV. A few more minutes, and a commercial would appear.
He held Mina's hand.
A sterile smile filled the TV screen. He watched the identifier on his screen. It was active and interacting. He inserted his virus. And pressed Send.
Then he hugged Mina. And she hugged him back. They watched until the screen went black.
"God," she whispered, "what will happen to us?"