Dear Mr. Barker,
It has come to our attention that your BMI has increased substantially and has surpassed the maximum of 26.0 allowed considering your age and health insurance package.
You have two weeks to work on your health and decrease your BMI.
If under any circumstance you fail to succeed your insurance will be frozen, which is in breach of clause §12.1.17 subsection A.E.. Not meeting the deadline specified in this notice implies you must upgrade to a higher plan or you’ll face incarceration in one of our health facilities.
Jocelyn Parker-Knowles, PhD
Peter re-read the message on his retina lenses. Tomorrow would mark two weeks since he received it. He looked down at his belly and squeezed a layer of fat. He needed to work on his health, he knew that, but he just was not able to. Ever since his best friend and co-worker Matthew died he got fired from his job. After that, everything went downhill and Peter just had no motivation for living healthy.
He decreased the brightness of his retina lenses. The screaming advertisements which were displayed wherever he looked intensified his headache. It was all noise without substance. Companies who tried to lure him into buying the newest retina application, hovercar, self-sustaining energy system or a box of intensely flavored curry pot-noodles. The sky was filled with drones out on delivery of such products. People barely had to make an effort to get or do anything these days.
Peter waited in front of a stop sign displayed on his lenses. The physical stop signs that once marked every street had been removed two years ago. Most of the people’s lives played out on their lenses. If he would switch the device off it would be like he was both blind and deaf to society. Which, considering his predicament, would not be such a bad option. However, he wanted to score some booze, and the only way to get a solid amount was to go to O’Reilly’s on 44thand Musk.
Alcohol was only legal in small amounts. People were allowed to buy one liter of spirits and five liters of wine or beer on a monthly basis. Peter usually finished that in two days. Bars were allowed to serve one alcoholic consumption per customer per day, depending on the customer’s balance. This was all tracked via people’s lenses by the government. O’Reilly’s was one of the few outlets with an old-fashioned speakeasy, hidden in a secret room behind the bar. Illegal alcohol production was a booming business, but dangerous nonetheless. O’Reilly’s used potatoes from Ireland to ferment and produce alcohol.
An elderly lady in front of him started to cross the street. Electric and hovercars still passed. There was no one else around. Peter reached for her to pull her back, while he desperately wanted to stay put. He tried to reach her without moving his legs, for he feared what would happen if he illegally crossed the street. He couldn’t get to her standing still. He walked and reached over to grab the old woman. He was blinded by a notification popping up.
YOU HAVE ILLEGALLY CROSSED THE STREET MR. BARKER. THIS IS YOUR THIRD OFFENSE THIS MONTH. MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE NEAREST STATION. IF YOU FAIL TO DO SO, WE WILL COME AND COLLECT YOU.
Shit, Peter thought, it’s not like I don’t have enough on my plate. He reprimanded the old lady and made his way into the bar at the green light.
Tim the bartender knew him and merely nodded as Peter entered. Tim gestured with his head towards a door behind the bar. Then, the barman fetched a small scanner and held it in front of Peter’s right eye. First, Peter had to shove away his black hair.
In the corner of his eye, Peter could see a small amount was being deducted from his bank account for one beer and six cokes. Peter was always adamant on receiving the beer and he waited patiently for Tim to get one for him. The bar was practically deserted except for a young couple making out in the back. Peter accepted his beer and entered the speakeasy.
The contrast with the regular bar couldn’t be more striking. The small room was bustling with people. Peter had to squirm and push before he finally made it to the bar. All seats were taken. He squeezed himself between two old drunks who were holding on to the bar for support. There were four high cylinder stages spread across the room. Dancing women were projected on them. Peter had selected these dancers from the menu. Usually, he just switched his lenses off. Then the stages would be empty. He always wondered what other people were looking at. Everything was possible.
Tom, the bartender on duty here, was Tim’s brother and proprietor of the speakeasy. When the pub closed, he would go into the cellar with his brother to produce more potato-based vodka. Tom handed Peter a bottle. He offered a glass too, but Peter passed. Peter opened the bottle and drank.
He looked around at the fellow lowlifes. Gangsters, pimps, businesswomen, politicians, and ladies and gentlemen of the night. This bar was a representation of what was left of society, albeit the dodgiest of sorts.
Peter woke up and protected his eyes from the light with his hands. He squinted and looked around. He had no idea where he was. Until he saw the iron bars. Shit. He was trying to recollect his thoughts but his vodka infused mind refused to cooperate. Instead, it protested heavily and signaled his stomach. He threw up beside the bed he lay in.
Peter could not be bothered, he just wanted to sleep, wake up, and feel better. The lights were flickering in his cell, then they went out. Peter tried to activate his lenses, but he noticed he was not wearing them. They must have taken it out when they locked me up. He sat up, his head buzzing. He heard someone cough, it sounded like a man. The man was mumbling in his own cell. Peter fell asleep again.
The sound of his cell door being opened and shut woke him up. A woman holding a candle approached him.
“Hi Peter, you’ve put yourself in quite a mess haven’t you? Ignoring red lights, insurance fraud and a drunk public disturbance last night. You’re looking at at least six months of societal grooming in a rehabilitation camp.”
Peter groaned. “Kavita?”
“Yes, missed me?”
Kavita was the last person Peter expected to see. She was his former boss. She wore a crimson suit, her skirt ending just above her knees. Bright red high heels completed her important look. Kavita’s immaculate bob shined in the candlelight.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I take that as a no. Doesn’t matter. I can’t say I missed you either. However, I do miss your talent at the bureau.”
At that, Peter perked up. “Are you saying I was good at my job? Shouldn’t have fired me then, huh?” Peter teased.
“You know why we had to let you go. Not because of your skills, but because how you handled the whole… situation,” she averted her eyes from his, the light of the flame flickering between them.
“His name was Matthew, Kavita.”
“I know, Pete. You know I’m sorry, but I’m not here to make amends. I can’t change the past. I can, however, change your predicament.”
“Let me guess, you need something from me?”
Kavita nodded, she looked tired in the candlelight. “The lights are out for a reason. We are under attack. The electricity in the whole country is flat on its ass. Nothing works, ATMs, public transport, stock markets, refrigerators, even our lenses once the batteries die, you name it. It’s a mess.
In a few hours, we expect the first people to go on the streets to break into supermarkets and convenience stores. Someone has gained access to the entire system. This is unprecedented. Frankly, we have no idea who’s behind it and how to stop it. We need you, Pete. Help us and I’ll make your charges go away. Hell, I’ll even throw in an insurance upgrade, since your lazy ass is unable to lose some weight.” She sounded both frightening and confident.
Peter let Kavita’s words sink in for a moment. Who the hell is able to shut down all electricity? That would be impossible. Unless… “I take it you have external power generators at the office, right?”
“Remember what Matt was working on before he was killed?”
Kavita nodded again, uneasy.
“I would start there,” Peter was surprised to hear himself say that. He was pacing the cell, his mind racing. “I’ll do it.”
“Follow me then.” Kavita stood up and let Peter out of his cell.
“How do we get there, do the cars still work?”
“That’s the thing, even the electric cars don’t work once the batteries are empty.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “How?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“I mean, how do we get to the bureau?”
“My driver, Horace fetched an old Ford from the garage. Still had half a tank.”
“Lucky us,” Peter smirked.
“Do you have a coke and aspirin for me?” he asked Kavita.
“No, I don’t.”
“I have some aspirin in the glove compartment,” Horace said. Kavita sat in the front and fetched it for him. Peter swallowed it without any drink. His head was throbbing.
“There’s part of your answer,” Peter pointed out of the window towards the sky. It was lunchtime but it was dark outside. Thick purple clouds held the city in a tight embrace. “The clouds.”
“Shit, you mean those influence our electricity?” Kavita asked.
“Yup. Question is, who did it and what is their angle?”
“What’s this got to do with what Matthew was working on?”
“You are the manager, right? How can’t you know?” Peter couldn’t hide his surprise.
“Above my paygrade I guess. But since your technically not on our payroll, why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Matt was working on something similar to these clouds. He — I mean he and I and our team — were developing an anti-electric field. Such a field could strip a city or even a country of its electricity. It’s every leader’s wet dream. Imagine what you can do with that! You can disrupt a whole nation. Perhaps more than one nation, depending on the agenda of the initiator. It makes an atom bomb obsolete.
In the past few years, it’s like a new Cold War has emerged. This time not between two countries, but between all countries.
Whoever can control electricity, can control the world basically. How long do you think it will take until our society turns against itself?
I bet we’re done for in two days. Think about the money which has evaporated, possessions without a registered owner, rations which will empty out, or perhaps the worst: boredom. People will not know what to do with themselves.”
“That’s why I need your help! How can we get this cloud to go away?”
“I need Emma.”
Kavita hesitated but then nodded. “OK. I think she’ll be in today. I urge you though, don’t make it personal.”
Peter rolled his eyes and looked outside. Suddenly he laughed because many people were crossing the streets without warning, without the working stop lights. When you lift the control mechanisms, people will disobey.
Only now did it come to Peter’s attention how bleak and miserable the streets really were. He was so used to viewing the city through his artificial lens, he now could not even recognize it. Now it was just bricks and lots of grey and brown stones. With that thought, Peter closed his eyes and tried to squeeze in a short nap.
Emma had a rough morning. It started when she woke up. She wanted to switch on the lights in her bedroom, but nothing happened. She tried other rooms and checked the electricity box. Nothing worked.
When she switched on her lenses, she was bombarded with notifications. She clicked on several and ended up in a news app. She started reading. Apparently, a lot had happened overnight. The electricity stopped working at midnight, which caused immediate mayhem. Planes and cars were not allowed into the city anymore. The ones that ran out of battery could not be used. Trains and metros came to a halt or even derailed. Traffic lights were extinguished. Streetlights switched off. There was total darkness in the gloomy, plain streets. Slowly, people lost control over their digital environment the moment the batteries died. The stock market came to a halt, but rumor had it all stocks made a steep dive.
Emma knew she had to get to the office as soon as possible. She quickly dressed while her mind raced with worries. She knew that they had to be quick in finding a solution before the entire city would collapse. She wanted to order a taxi, but before she realized she probably couldn’t, her lenses switched off.
Her grandfather once gave her an old smartphone, a remnant from almost two decades ago. She used it to play games and to use the encrypted chat app. It was one of the easiest ways to communicate with someone without the chance of anyone listening in. That battery was almost empty too. She sent a text to Kavita, saying she was figuring out a way to get to the office as soon as possible.
She checked her car in the garage, she had an old hybrid from fifteen years ago. It still had a bit of fuel in the tank but barely enough to make it to work. She had to try at least. To be sure, she threw in a race bike she hadn’t used in years.
Outside, she was surprised to see so many people on their feet. She felt the unrest. When she drove out of her garage, a man approached her. Emma slightly pulled down her window.
“Can I get a lift to work?”, he asked, showing an incomplete set of teeth. ‘You’re working at the government, huh? What’s all this about, I need my lenses.
“Sorry, I’m in a rush,” Emma locked the doors and was about to drive away before the man put his hands on her window and knocked.
“Come on! What’s this? Should we worry? Do I need to use my rations?” he yelled.
Emma increased her speed. She could not afford to waste any more time.
She looked up at the sky and saw clouds of purple. Involuntary, she thought of Peter. He would know what to do. She had not spoken to him in two months, since their last fight. However, Emma knew she needed to urge Kavita to bring him in. He might be the only one able to help her solve this.
Peter smiled at the fact that his old desk was still vacant. In fact, Matthew’s desk wasn’t occupied either. It was like both their desks stood there as some kind of sanctuary.
“Is Emma in already?”
“Here I am!” Emma said, looking disheveled. “Sorry, my car broke down about three miles from here. I had to bike the last bit. It’s very windy outside, and have you noticed the clouds?”
“So much for ‘never speaking to you again’,” Peter smirked.
Emma shot him a stern look. Kavita just stood there, awkward to witness this encounter.
“Right, Emma, Pete has asked you to help him figure out this purple cloud thing. He thinks it has something to do with the electricity being shut down everywhere,” Kavita said.
Emma nodded. “Makes sense.”
Peter gestured to the desk opposite him, where Matt used to sit.
“Are you sure?” Emma asked.
Peter’s heart jumped. Or his stomach, he never knew how these things worked. He still loved her. Obviously. She was a beautiful woman. She pulled her light brown hair to the left side of her head and exposed her right ear. She was still wearing the earrings he had given her for their five year anniversary.
He woke up from his daydream. “Yes. But first, grab a chair and sit next to me. You too Kavita. I want to show you some things.” Peter switched on the glass screens on his desk. He moved some folders and files around with some simple gestures. The two women fetched chairs and followed his every move. Peter opened a file and then his screen froze.
“Oh come on, external generator out already Kav?”
“No, it should be working, I — ’ A video opened on the screen. In fact, the video was displayed on every screen in the department. Other employees shared worried looks. An image of Matthew appeared. The video played and Matthew started talking.
“Hi Pete, when you see this, it means we succeeded.”
Peter tried to shut off the screen but it didn’t work. He started gesturing wildly, nothing happened.
“The clouds are active, and I think we are the first who succeeded. The Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, no one has been able to but us Pete. You know why I did this, why we did.”
Kavita started talking. “What’s he on about, Pete?”
Emma looked worried.
“You know I used to believe technology was our future but it’s gotten so far out of hand it seems more like our demise. Creativity is our greatest asset. Does a computer get a stroke of inspiration?” Matthew continued. “We tried to strive for perfection in this technological society, but where did it get us? The search for perfection is destined to end in failure. Evolution is the most beautiful thing that ever happened to mankind. We’ve constantly optimized our own lives. And essentially, that is the key, to keep developing ourselves as human beings, as a society. In freedom, science, health, trade, everything.
As a kid, I always dreamed that we were on our way to a cleaner, peaceful, more honest and compassionate society and that technology could help us achieve that. That is a lie, I now realize.
We lost track of where were supposed to be heading in our search for better and faster technology. Our search for perfection. I should have never underestimated the fallacies of humankind, power, and greed. Our lives never became simpler and more humane. We’ve become robots, barely functioning in a totalitarian society. Even George Orwell would have turned in his grave. Perfection is an illusion.”
“What’s going on, Pete?” Emma pressed.
Matthew interrupted her. “I’ll share this message with you first before I release it to the world.”
“We can find out where we came from in the past. We can find out who we are in the present. We can find out who we become in the future. And based on where we are now, I don’t like the direction we’re heading. So let’s go back 150 years and start over.”
Matthew’s video disappeared and the screens were once again empty.
TWO DAYS EARLIER
Peter paced around in Matthew’s living room. It was odd standing there, where they had shared so many conversations infused with wine and joints. They had been friends since kindergarten. They had a similar worldview. They both ended up in cybersecurity because they wanted to help tame technology. What they wanted above all else was to stop the people pulling the strings.
An hour ago, a message appeared on his lenses asking him to come to his dead friend’s apartment. Confused, but somehow hopeful, Peter went. He wondered if he would finally get some answers about his friend’s death. So far he, Kavita and Emma have all been guessing at what happened. Matt did have many enemies. He did a lot of freelance hacking assignments and he exposed several criminal organizations. Plus, Matt had enticed multiple foreign governments with his hacking abilities, revealing their secrets and future plans.
Five minutes passed, fifteen, and just when Peter was thinking of leaving, he heard the front door being opened. What am I doing here? I have no clue who might come in and yet here I am, unarmed and vulnerable. What if Matt’s killers want me too?
Someone was definitely making his way towards the living room. The door opened and Peter was close to fainting. It couldn’t be true!
“Hi, Pete. Sorry, mate, I couldn’t let you in on it,” Matthew said.
“Matt! Is someone hacking my lenses and manipulating my sight? How? What? Huh?”
“No Pete, it’s me. I’m alive. I just needed to disappear for a while. I needed to work on our plan without interference. I found a way, mate. Besides, your gadgets are useless in my house, you know that. I don’t like for the authorities or anyone else to listen in or manipulate my environment.” It was true, he realized his lenses were switched off.
Peter approached his friend, still confused. Then he started hitting him on his head, his chest, his shoulders.
“You bastard! I thought you were dead! D’you have any idea what you caused? I’ve been a wreck. Em has been a mess,” Peter fumed.
Matt looked away. “I’m sorry, I know, but I had to. I needed to develop something and the best way to do that was to appear dead.”
Then it hit Peter. “You mean, you have found a way? But how?”
“I have,” Matt smiled. “But, we need to wait for about two days. I need you, Pete. Together, we can bring them down.”
Peter walked towards the window, contemplating if he should kill his friend after all. He had faked his own death! Peter and Emma broke off their relationship because of the aftermath of his friend’s death. But Peter hated to admit he was intrigued now.
“Listen, I need you to misbehave in the next couple of days. Get yourself arrested. I’ll make sure to create a diversion, but in order for it to last, I need you on the inside. You need to be at the office and open the firewall for my software to install.
I’m turning off all electricity, Pete. And I know Kavita will be looking for you once that happens. You have to pretend to help her. I will give you a piece of code. Memorize it and destroy it. I’ll give you a sign once you’re in. Then I need you to open the mainframe and type in the code. I’ll take it from there.”
“What are you up to?” Peter asked.
“What we always fantasized about, mate. Going back. Strip them of their powers. Deconstruct society and hit the reset button.”
“I can’t, Matt. It’s too much. It was great to fantasize about, but actually doing it… Who knows what will happen to the world?”
“You’d rather have someone else coming up with my solution — our solution? You rather have some nation using it against another one? Would you like to fuel this recent second cold war of countries? This possible digital atomic bomb could change our future. I’d rather interfere before people with the wrong intentions do.”
“But what about your intentions?”
“What about them?”
“Once you succeed, we can’t go back. We’ll literally go back in time.”
“Exactly,” Matt said with a wink.
“What’s going on, Peter?” Kavita stood now, her arms folded and her expression hinting at despair.
“I-I honestly don’t know,” he replied. Well, he had an idea that something was bound to happen, but he had no idea what Matt’s exact plan was.
“Let me just have a look into our firewall and look for irregularities. The person behind this has breached our system.”
“No one has been able to do this, Pete. No one but… Matthew,” Emma said.
Indeed, he did. Peter couldn’t bear facing Emma and stared at the glass screen.
“All the more reason to find out,” Kavita said.
Peter sighed with relief, so far so good. He entered the firewall. There it was, the sign, a piece of code that wasn’t part of the security code inside the firewall. When Peter looked closely, he found an instruction left behind by Matt. He followed the instructions under the scrutinized look of his colleagues and entered the code Matt gave him.
Emma grabbed him by the shoulder. “What are you doing? Pete, if you will — ’ Then it hit her. “No Pete, stop.” She tried to wave away the screen and gestured wildly in the air. Nothing happened. Kavita looked from Emma to Peter.
Peter pressed enter.
“Oh no, no, no, no, you didn’t,’ Emma gasped.
“What?” Kavita asked.
“He just made Matthew’s statement a reality.”
“I released similar purple clouds all over the world through our system.”
Both women stared at Peter. Other people in the department peered over their screens with curiosity.
“We’ve finally nailed it. We traveled in time. I’m curious to see how long it takes people to reinvent electricity. Let’s see if we can get civilized again.” All heads in the department turned. There he stood, Matthew, laughing gloriously.