(4200 Words)

I see the blurred teenager long before the others do.

We’re on the train, fishing meta as the rush-hour crowd crams on and off. A crush of people, all bored and messing about on their phones. Buying stuff. Thinking about buying stuff. Messaging people. Scrolling scrolling. Generating all those tasty usage statistics the data providers pay my crew so well for. Every day we cast our nets and haul in hundreds of shimmering little stats.

Every day. I’m starting to feel like one of the people who get on and off this train, clocking in every morning and out every night. But after the message I got last week from data provider and metadata giant Bracket 5, it’s not like I have much choice.

So we do what we always do: gather your information. Creep into your phone and see who’s on your contact list, who you’ve been pinging, where you had lunch, how long your eyes lingered on that one advertisement.

Later tonight, we’ll collate the lot and sell TKC’s user data to Microna, Microna’s to Bracket 5, et cetera et cetera until we’ve got enough kiz to keep us looking blurred and our tech a step ahead of the ducks’. The providers sell metadata to marketers, governments, lobbyists, hobbyists, but they can only sell what they have. Microna can’t track what TKC subscribers are doing. Enter those of us with the entrepreneurial spirit and the proper skill set.

And the gear. My lad Thierry’s modded femto is sluicing data through my phone, and my exploits are doing their dark work. I could take a nap and still make some kiz. But that’s not what brings all the big provs to my little outfit. Anyone can fish. I curate.

My crewmembers are sitting in different sections of the subway car, eyes on their phones. Just like everyone else. They’ve all got airhuds, of course, and everything they need is hovering in the space in front of them, invisible to everyone else. But some remnant of pre-hud etiquette keeps people from staring straight these days. Too much chance of unintentional eye-contact.

But it’s looking at people that gets me the hype stats. The hard-to-come-by. The arcane and desirable.

A clutch of children hanging close to a thin young woman, hands waving as they play some ostensibly educational shut up game on their airhuds. Clearly have some money. May be worth tagging. But her style is too visible. Plum sweater-vest draped over tastefully bony shoulders. Tweed skirt to the calf. No glasses or hat or hood. I twitch a finger, and the matching plum profile above the woman’s carefully disheveled haircut explodes into a web of public presence. Photos location tagged. Pinger account updated near hourly.

This woman is happy to be seen. Her data’s cheap. Saleable, but cheap.

A businesswoman in a black suit, no briefcase. Profile includes her office location. Possible. I tag her.

An older man sweating in a fairly blurred shawl which would have blocked last-gen thermal imaging. Tag.

And then that teenager gets on. Quick-eyed, with squared off cheek stickers—one Irish-pale, the other darker than my own skin—and striped hair swooped low over one side of his face. Silver-nylon blend jacket tailored to hide the contents of the pockets. Hooded shirt patterned with gray eyes and noses and lips. No facial recognition software around is going to snag this guy’s deets. He’s so blurred he could have walked off the cover of a fashion mag. Tag and release the hounds.

I flick my local open.

TIPSY
You guys getting this smudge?

KID
cant get anything off him

THIERRY
Who?

TIPSY
The style star by the door.

RENO
<sigh> Open your eyes, Th. Your actual eyes.

KID
we r blocked until he pulls his phone out of that coat
its blocking evrythng

This kid’s meta’s gonna be worth loads, prolly even to his own provider. The trick is how to get it. I need him to pull his phone out.

The light in our carriage softens as the train rumbles onto the above-ground portion of the track. The overcast sky, featureless as a canvas, diffuses late-day sun over the pocked concrete of abandoned grain elevators and the endless verticals of ninety-story apartment towers before the light comes to rest on the still black river water. I’ve photographed this view hundreds of times. I use a shot of it in my portfolio.

But it takes more than an eye for beauty and a fresh POV to get in on this city’s art scene. The metadata has its say. Example: a show features a big name. The gallery owner refers to the meta to see who’s in Big Name’s social and professional proximity. In his contact list? You’re one node away. And if a one-node has you in theirs, you’re a two-node. It’s a bit more complex than that, but you get it.

The galleries call this co-curation. Letting the community have a say in what gets displayed. It’s Rossetti and Millais and Hunt. Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Cocteau and Picasso. Kerouac and Ginsburg and Burroughs. Which is great if you’re one of them.

Only three-nodes and lower get invited to hang works in the flash-galleries. Four-nodes are invited to come and look. There aren’t even catty insults for five-nodes. Like me.

If I had to guess, I’d say the kid in the coat is at most a three.

TIPSY
Give me a sec.

I stand up and move to a window. I look out, focus my eyes on the tallest building I can see, and hold a finger lightly to my lip. A hand in pocket, I change my public profile to allow candids. This means if you take my picture, my face won’t get pixelated out by your privacy ware. Anyone who wants to take a shot of the hot blurred chick gazing out at the city can go for it. I’d kill for a good pic like that.

The kid reaches into his magnificent signal-blocking coat, pulls out his phone, and takes my picture.

This is why my crew’s the best around. Your regular fishers, see, they’re not going to go that extra mile. They’re not even going to look up from their phones.

RENO
Stop trying to make me jealous. <wink>

TIPSY
Did you get it?

KID
we got it dont worry
youre gonna love this, tipsy.

RENO
Oh, we got every last bit. Movements. Focus tracking.

TIPSY
Who’s he affiliated with?

RENO
As if your little stunt didn’t prove it?
He’s 3N with the financial district
5N with media
and…<dramatic pause>
Second-node with the local arts community.
We’ll be getting top dollar for this smudge’s meta.

KID
hes a style star all the way as blurred as they come
his own prov prolly has nothing on him
nice take

I feel myself smirking. This kid can’t be older than seventeen, and he has the contacts I’ll never have. I framed that shot for him, offered it up. And he’ll get the cred.

He gets off in two stops, off to whatever exclusive rendezvous, and I go back to being the best dressed person on this train. So we got some location data off him, recent browsing history. Whatever.

TIPSY
Let’s skip the route back.

KID
no way

THIERRY
Why?

TIPSY
We got a good haul today already. I’m sick of sitting around

KID
this is prime time good stuff flying in

TIPSY
Yeah, and it will fly in tomorrow, too. You guys can keep at it if it’s so damn important to you. I’m getting off.

KID
you take off now and we r splitting the rest three ways

RENO
Let her go, Kidithi. <eye roll>

TIPSY
I don’t need your permission.

That shut them up. They’re a good crew, but a girl needs a minute to herself now and then. Reinaldo gets it, but Thierry enjoys the tech too much to see how anyone could want to do anything else and Kidithi’s time with the gangs has left her with a severe distrust of anyone doing something private.

Kidithi’s right, though. We need this meta. Far worse than she realizes. I haven’t told them yet about the message I got from Bracket 5 saying that they’re thinking about cutting us loose. Which means turning us in. They call us cyberterrorists. If we don’t give them something very big very soon, we get shipped off without trial and they look like heroes.

THIERRY
Would you like to know a secret?

TIPSY
Ugh. What is it, T?

THIERRY
Did you know there will be a flash-gallery tonight along West St. John?

KID
yes i see

RENO
Your very blurry boyfriend just got the invite, Tipsy.
<oh my>
Ooh and it looks like S. Georgakis is displaying.
Sudhakar Georgakis. A three-node who I exchanged some pings with last year. The connection made me a four-node for all of six days.

TIPSY
So what?

THIERRY
Who?

RENO
The guy she’s been stalking. <wink>

KID
o right what node are u these days

TIPSY
Officially and perpetually five-node. Screw off, Reinaldo.

I didn’t ping Georgakis to try to go up a node. I like his work. I glare over at Reinaldo through the forest of public profiles floating above everyone’s heads. He has his forehead against the window glass and his asymmetrical haircut droops over his eyes. He looks like he’s asleep, completely disinterested in what his slouchy pose is doing to his sharp gray suit. Just some guy with the cash to buy the blurriest clothes around taking a quick nap between debaucheries.

KID
nvrmind that
the meta these art people have on them is worth lots
we r going

THIERRY
Don’t you guys agree?

RENO
I do. <hand raise> If only to see the art.

THIERRY
And what do you know about art?

RENO
<shrug> If I see something pretty, I buy it.

Yeah, I think. But who decides what you see?

I don’t answer. I don’t need to. I’ve never been to a flash-gallery and they all know it. We get off at the next stop.

We’re in the financial district, curved glass buildings slicing the darkening sky into jigsaw shapes. With the business day done, the streets are nearly empty. A generously-hipped executive in a navy skirt suit buys a hotdog from a grinning vendor who has already closed his umbrella. Four school kids pose by a car, neckerchiefs over their faces after the fashion of train robbers.

Reinaldo takes the lead, his impossibly beautiful hair—black and wavy with a camera-confusing spit curl over his nose and left eye—floating defiantly over the heads of the thin crowd. He has always claimed to have a car within one mile’s walk of every train stop in the city. As ludicrous as it sounds, I have yet to see his statement proved incorrect.

Of the four of us, Kidithi keeps to protocol the best. She crosses the street immediately, stretching headphones over her ears and bobbing her head to the music. I catch a few people looking at her. No surprise there. Her long thin body lets her clothes simply hang off of her, the smooth, deep brown face framed by the swirling fabric of her pale shawl. A flower from a black-and-white movie. Her appreciative on-lookers have no way of seeing her wiry muscles. Or the weapons.

She would never risk walking too closely with the rest of us, no matter how many times Thierry tells her that the location meta usually isn’t fine enough to tell one sidewalk from another.

Thierry’s walking behind me. I can smell it. Vodka was his breakfast today, apparently. Better than whisky, at least.

I hear the frustrated whir of camera servos pushing lenses back and forth as they try to get a focus on my face. This is what the city sounds like if you’re me: the confusion of automata. My makeup keeps the cameras from IDing me and the infrared blinkers in my fascinator make doubly sure. The other people on the street flick at their phones and huds, the occasional twitter alerting someone they’re about to run into someone else.

Thierry speeds up to walk alongside me. He’s not as blurred as the rest of us, but his high-collared fitness shell and bespoke farmer jeans are enough to mark him as a person with some modicum of taste. His thick backpack makes him either a student or one of thousands of gadget geeks. Completely harmless.

I wait for him to break character, to give me some indication that he understands how important this is. Important for me. He doesn’t.

KID
u guys drive i ll see u there

She makes a turn down an alley. Something must be bothering her for her to be this strict. This gig’s a little different from our normal fare, I guess.

The rest of us meet at Reinaldo’s quietly elegant car and get in without saying a word. He drives. A dull electronic buzz from Thierry’s pack and the clink of a flask tell me he won’t be talking.

KID
so whats the plan

As if she weren’t going to answer her own question.

TIPSY
We’re going to hit this show and pull in our biggest haul yet.

At least we’d better if we’re going to keep out of prison, I don’t say.

KID
we will enter separately
pretend to start conversation with each other after an hour or so
maybe swing out for a drink then head back to the show looking nailed

RENO
Yes. Except Thierry won’t be pretending. <laughing>
Now don’t look a fool in front of Georgakis, Tipsy.

TIPSY
What, you think I’m going to actually talk to people?
What kind of trashy five-node do you think I am? <grin>

The best thing about emoji is that people can’t see you lying.

We talk shop for the next few hours and drive around as night sets in. Thierry gets in a bit of casual fishing when we pass through some underrail market streets. I snap a few pics. A skinny boy in a plain white A-shirt picking at a bag of lychee under a string of Malayalam graffiti. Two round old women draped in purple and fuchsia sitting on a curb, smoking. All crap, of course.

Thierry messages for the first time since we got in Reno’s car. I might have forgotten he was there if his breath didn’t reek of some kind of floral brandy.

THIERRY
You wna know what I think??
We shouldn only take the meta.
Can’t we do more/?
My femto can do lots of trickss.

KID
forget it TH
not worth the risk
anyone notices their mobile acting up everyone in 3 blocks gets labeled for watch
including us

TIPSY
And we weren’t invited, which looks suspicious.

RENO
And let’s not forget…
we are actually criminals. <headshake>
Don’t think for a second the provs will send anyone to our aid.
Anything resembling a black mark, and they won’t come near us.
<noose> Party’s over.

I feel my neck getting warm. Bracket 5 would do worse than ignore us.

THIERRY
Do you think so?
They won’t tag anything but our fakes.
And that’s if they can even ID us/
Don’t these art people have loads of kiz?
Can you imagne th tech we could afford?

KID
too much risk just stick to the plan

Thierry goes quiet, which is for the best. It is too much risk. We’re a fishing crew. We don’t hurt anyone. Any data we snag off you is being captured, packaged, and sold by your provider already. We just spread it around a little. It’s enough to get us thrown in a box for a decade or so, which is less than nothing compared to the penalties for the real stuff.

I see where Thierry’s coming from, but I keep it to myself. Fishing is steady work and lucrative if you spend enough time on it. Just like pressing buttons in a damn factory your whole life.

A dark mile of disused industrial buildings separates downtown from the formerly-busy St. John Street. The city developed the neighborhood to keep a steady growth of factories and warehouses connected to the haunts of the workforce, but the place isn’t much more than a wasteland these days. Even the drones seem bored.

We arrive on St. John’s cracked asphalt a good forty-five minutes after the flash-gallery is supposed to have set up. It’s what my grandmother would call “Indian time”, and I don’t care if Kidithi doesn’t like it. Thierry heads in first, his femto charged and active, then me.

The gallery has spread over both sidewalks and up the stoops of a few of the gutted old buildings. Images of the photos and paintings selected for display are projected on every flat surface around—on boarded-up windows and dumpsters and the sides of mailboxes. Screens sit on tables in the street, slices of light against the blacktop. Humming at the approximate epicenter is a repurposed old food truck sending out a burst of power cords.

And the people. If I were to see any single one of these smudges on the street, I would break a leg trying to get to their meta. A late-model drone encrusted with cameras wouldn’t snag a single ID off this crowd.

But the profiles are out for all to see: slick, understated bubbles of shifting data float above every head. Everyone wants their location history to show they were here at the secret meeting of the beautiful and blurred.

And so do I. I switch from one of my fake profiles to my actual.

A quick flick changes my airhud’s view to visualize the node status of the people weaving from clique to clique. Social connection scores spiderweb out from each profile bubble in thin white lines. It’s easy to see who the hubs are. The first-nodes. The lines reaching out from their profiles are thick and bright, and their profile bubbles are fully red.

A single line, cirrus-thin, stretches from somewhere over my head to a lean, square-jawed man in a Nehru collar and a bucket hat. Sudha Georgakis.

Kidithi, Thierry, and Reinaldo are flashing fakes, of course, and anyone looking close enough would see lines extending from their profiles but leading nowhere. Not that anyone but me is looking at node data. Still, we like to be prepared.

My phone vibrates in two short buzzes. Thierry’s started the fishing.

I begin to curate. In this crowd, there’s almost no point. Might as well tag everyone. I trace the social web visualization and pick out the first-nodes and the higher-ranking seconds, trying not to compare the images on the walls and screens to stuff I’ve done.

THIERRY
Are you guys seeing anything strange?

KID
strange how

I don’t see anything unusual except for a red-haired young woman in glasses, her side slightly illuminated by the lambent light from a handheld on the table next to her.

She’s about as far from blurred as she can be, in a simple black dress and symmetrical makeup. There’s only one line wisping from her profile and it’s headed straight for one of the first-nodes.

The handheld is showing a slideshow of photographs. Her work, I guess. I walk over and make a show of looking at it. She smiles shyly and makes eye contact for a fractional moment.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hey. You’ve got some nice shots here.”

“Thanks.”

She does, actually. There’s one of a pretty young boy sitting on a grassy hill that snags me and I wait for it to come around again.

RENO
I don’t see anything unusual. <shrug>

THIERRY
What would happen if I told you we’re not the only crew here tonight?

KID
oh hell

THIERRY
And what if I said they don’t have the scruples you guys do?
Can you see the data being sent between all these phones?
No way it’s all legit, right?
These guys are after more than meta.

What is this girl doing here? She doesn’t have the connections to even be invited, let alone to show.

“So, uh, is this your first show?”

She smiles. It’s adorable. “My first at one of these things, yeah.”

“You must have been…excited when you got the invite notification.”

“There wasn’t a notification, actually.” She looks away, and curls of red hair hide her face. “I was invited in person. That chick over there. Mirembe? She saw me taking a picture and asked to see it. I showed her my portfolio, and here I am.”

KID
ok pull out

RENO
Agreed. And split up. Meet at Milltown station.

THIERRY
Any requests for new phones? After we burn these ones?

But we can’t leave. We need all the meta we can get off of these people to keep in Bracket 5’s good graces.

TIPSY
There’s got to be something we can do.

KID
dont be stupid im out and so are u

The picture of the boy on the hill slides by again. It’s a candid, and you can see in his pose, in his face, that he’s making a decision about something. To call her back. To quit and move on. Something important. This dorky girl has captured a real moment from this boy’s life, and let me feel what he’s feeling. Her composition is perfect, and the light…

RENO
I don’t see any of our competitors here. You guys?

The girl gives me a startled look as I start scanning the crowd. My face must be terrifying. Don’t care. There’s someone here who doesn’t belong, and if I don’t find them, it’s life in a box.

TIPSY
T, I think it’s time for us to use something from your bag of tricks.

KID
tipsy

THIERRY
What do you have in mind?

TIPSY
I want you to do something harmless and stupid. Like a prank. But something noticeable.

RENO
This is a bad idea. We talked about this.

THIERRY
Didn’t really come prepared for this now did I?
But I have an exploit that will turn a phone into a wardialer.

KID
damnitthierry

THIERRY
All these phones will start sending texts to a number by the thousands per second.
Exploit sucks though. It’ll show up on the screens.
Will that work?

TIPSY
As long as it gets everyone looking at their phones.

THIERRY
It will.
Gimme a few seconds.
Any particular number you want me to use?

I’m ready to bark something at Thierry about not caring, but something happens in my social visualization. A thin guy in turtleshell glasses has his profile change from yellow to orange. He just changed nodes from three to two.

Whoever gets targeted by Thierry’s silly little hack will change nodes in less than a second. All the way to one.

An image works its way through the tension to the front of my mind. Me, standing next to one of my own pictures as it lights up a wall. People talking to me, blurred and talented.

Someone touches me. The girl’s hand is on my arm.

“Hey, are you OK?” she asks.

For a long moment, I look right into her bright eyes. She’s concerned. But more than that, she’s nervous. She’s here alone. I’m prolly the only person who’s said a word to her.

I mumble something about being fine and walk away.

TIPSY
Thierry, use the num of the girl I just stopped talking to.

KID
GUYS

THIERRY
Redhead?

TIPSY
Y

THIERRY
Done.

A cacophony of message alerts. As one, every person in the gallery pulls their phones out and frown at them. Every person except for my crew and three skinny young guys in warm-up jackets. Each of them looks at the other, surprised. Everyone else is standing still, eyes on the phones in their hands. The seven of us criminals are the only living people in a garden of ghosts.

I catch the eyes of one of the bastards and give him an up-nod. Kidithi happens to be right next to another one. She grabs the front of his shirt and says something. They run off after that. Little punks like that are always skittish. They’re happy to hijack your financials but run like roaches in the light. Lucky for us it wasn’t someone more serious.

“Hey, is your phone acting weird?”

The girl isn’t asking me. She’s looking to the people at the table next to hers. They walk over. The crowd starts moving again as the exploit shuts down.

THIERRY
OK, that did it.

RENO
What’s the over-under on them letting us share a cell? <sweating>

KID
oh please that was just a blip kid stuff
schoolyard prank
nothings going to come of it nice work ppl

TIPSY
After this, we are going the hell out. All of us. First round’s on me.

RENO
No arguments here. <smile>

I grab a cup of wine off a table and get back to curating. Even with all these low-nodes, some people have more valuable meta than others. This’ll be the best take we’ve ever snagged. Good enough to renegotiate our deal with Bracket 5, maybe. Definitely enough to keep them happy for a while.

The redheaded girl is talking with a few people and laughing about her phone as they check out her slideshow. She doesn’t have any way to see herself the way I see her, lines arcing towards her from all directions as her profile bubble changes from yellow to orange to bright screaming red.

image007Alex Livingston grew up in various quiet New England towns before moving to Buffalo, NY to study English at Canisius College. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Bastion, Quantum Fairy Tales, Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi, and other venues. He lives in an old house with his brilliant wife and a pile of aged videogame systems. Visit him online at galaxyalex.com.

1 Comment

  1. Very well done, very believable with the texting between characters. It’s risky to write near-future tech stories like this, because by the time you sell it, it’s obsolete. “Phone? What’s that? Is it like Google Glass?”

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