​Be Seeing You

In a future where the company owns—and watches—everything, a freelance bodyguard must confront her genetically-engineered superiors.

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Dec 24 2015, 3:00pm

Art by Gustavo Torres.

It's the holiday season, and we're teaming up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to put a new spin on the spirit of giving. The EFF, which is perhaps the leading defender of digital civil liberties, has put out a great collection of short fiction, Pwning Tomorrow: Stories from the Electronic Frontier, all licensed under Creative Commons so they're free to read and share. Some of the stories included, like Bruce Sterling's 'The Brain Dump', even appeared here on Terraform first. Some are brand new, like the one you're about to read, by Madeline Ashby, who gives us this tale about a genetically-engineered, super-surveilled, and deeply unequal future as a primer for her forthcoming novel, Company Town. Enjoy, and happy holidays from your Terraform eds.


"Doesn't it get, like, distracting? Hearing me breathing?" Hwa asked.

"Only at first," her boss said.

Her feet pounded the pavement. She ducked under the trees that made up the Fitzgerald Causeway Arboretum. Without the rain pattering on the hood of her jacket, she could hear the edges of Síofra's voice a little better. The implant made sure she got most of the bass tones as a rumble that trickled down her spine. Consonants and sibilants, though, tended to fizzle out.

"You get up earlier than I do, so I've had to adjust."

Hwa rounded the corner to the Fitzgerald Hub. It swung out wide into the North Atlantic, the easternmost edge of the city, a ring of green on the flat grey sea. Here the view was best. Better even than the view from the top of Tower 5, where her boss had his office. Here you could forget the oil rig at the city's core, the plumes of fire and smoke, the rusting honeycomb of containers that made up Tower One where Hwa lived. Here you couldn't even see the train. It screamed along the track overhead, but she heard only the tail end of its wail as the rain diminished.

"It's better to get a run in before work. Better for the metabolism."

"So I've heard."

Síofra had a perfect metabolism. It was a combination of deep brain stimulation that kept him from serotonin crashes, a vagus nerve implant that regulated his insulin production, and whatever gentle genetic optimization he'd had in utero. He ate everything he wanted. He fell asleep for eight hours a night, no interruptions. He was a regular goddamn Ubermensch.

Hwa just had a regular old-fashioned human body. No permanent implants. No tweaking. She'd eaten her last slice of bread the day before joining the United Sex Workers of Canada as a bodyguard. Now that she worked for Lynch as the bodyguard for their heir apparent, the only thing that had changed about her diet was the amount of coffee she drank.

"Look out your window," she said.

"Give me your eyes."

She shook her head. Could he see that? Maybe. She looked around for botflies. She couldn't see any, but that didn't mean anything. "I'm not wearing them."

"Why not?"

"They're expensive. I could slip and fall while I'm running."

"Then we would give you new ones."

"Wouldn't that come out of my pay?"

A soft laugh that went down to the base of her spine. "Those were the last owners of this city. Lynch is different."

Hwa wasn't so sure about that. Lynch rode in on a big white copter and promptly funded a bunch of infrastructure improvement measures, but riggers were still leaving. Tower One was starting to feel like a ghost town.

Then again, the Lynch family was building an alternative reactor, right in the same place where the milkshake straw poked deep into the Flemish Pass Basin and sucked up the black stuff. It was better insulated, they said, under all that water. It just meant the oil was going away.

"All towns change, Hwa. Even company towns. We're better for this community than the previous owners. You'll see."

She rolled her neck until it popped. All the way over at the top of Tower 5, her boss hissed in sympathy. "Look out your window," she reminded him.

"Fine, fine." An intake of breath. He was getting up. From his desk, or from his bed? "Oh," he murmured.

Hwa stared into the dawn behind the veil of rain. It was a line of golden fire on a dark sea, thinly veiled behind shadows of distant rain. "I time it like this, sometimes," she said. "Part of why I get up early."

"I see."

She heard thunder roll out on the waves, and in a curious stereo effect, heard the same sound reverberating through whatever room Síofra was in.

"May I join you, tomorrow?"

Hwa's mouth worked. She was glad he couldn't see her. The last person she'd had a regular running appointment with was her brother. Which meant she hadn't run with anyone in three years. Then again, maybe it would be good for Síofra to learn the city from the ground up. He spent too much time shut up behind the gleaming ceramic louvers of Tower Five. He needed to see how things were on the streets their employers had just purchased.

She grinned. "Think you can keep up with me?"

"Oh, I think I can manage."

***

Of course, Síofra managed just fine. He showed up outside Tower One at four-thirty in the morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a cartoon mascot. Like everything else about him, even his running form was annoyingly perfect. He kept his chin up and his back straight throughout the run. He breathed evenly and smoothly and carried on a conversation without any issues. At no point did he complain of a stitch in his side, or a bonespur in his heel, or tension in his quads. Nor did suggest that they stretch their calves, first, or warm up, or anything like that. He just started running.

A botfly followed them the entire way.

"Do we really need that?" Hwa asked. "We can ping for help no problem, if something happens." She gestured at the empty causeway. "Not that anything's going to happen."

"What if you have a seizure?" her boss asked.

Hwa almost pulled up short. It took real and sustained effort not to. She kept her eyes on the pavement, instead. They had talked about her condition only once. Most people never brought it up. Maybe that was a Canadian thing. After all, her boss had worked all over the world. They were probably a lot less polite in other places.

"My condition's in my halo," she muttered.

"Pardon?"

"My halo has all my medical info," she said, a little louder this time. She shook her watch. "If my specs detect a change in my eye movement, they broadcast my status on the emergency layer. Everyone can see it. Everyone with the right eyes, anyway."

"But you don't wear your specs when you're running," he said, and pulled forward.

The route took them along the Demasduwit Causeway, around Tower Two, down the Sinclair Causeway, and back to Tower Two. It was a school day, which meant Hwa had to scope New Arcadia Secondary before Joel Lynch arrived for class. This meant showering and dressing in the locker room, which meant she had to finish at a certain time, which meant eating on schedule, too. If she ate before the run, she tended to throw up.

She was going to explain all this, when Síofra slowed down and pulled up to Hwa's favourite 24-hour cart and held up two fingers. "Two Number Sixes," he said. He stood first one one leg and then another, pulling his calf up behind him as he did. From behind the counter, old Jorge squinted at him until Hwa jogged up to join him. Then he smiled.

"You have a friend!" He made it sound like she'd just run a marathon. Which it felt like she had-keeping up with Síofra had left her legs trembling and her skin dripping.

"He's my boss." She leaned over and spat out some of the phlegm that had boiled up to her throat during the run. "What he said. And peameal." She blinked at Síofra through sweat. He was looking away, probably reading something in his lenses. "You like peameal?"

"Sorry?"

"Peameal. Bacon. Do you like it?"

"Oh. I suppose."

She glanced at Jorge. "Peameal. On the side."

Jorge handed them their coffees while the rest of the breakfast cooked. Now the city was waking up, and the riggers joining the morning shift were on their way to the platform. A few of them stood blinking at the other carts as they waited for them to open up.

"How did you know my order?" Hwa asked.

Síofra rolled his neck. It crunched. He was avoiding the answer. Hwa already suspected what he would say. "I see the purchases you make with the corporate currency."

She scowled. "I don't always have the eggs baked in avocado, you know. Sometimes I have green juice."

"Not since the cucumbers went out of season."

Hwa stared. Síofra cocked his head. "You're stalking me."

"I'm not stalking you. This is just how Lynch does things. We know what all our people buy in the canteen at lunch, because they use our watches to do it. It helps us know what food to buy. That way everyone can have their favourite thing. The schools here do the same thing-it informs the farm floors what to grow. This is no different."

Hwa sighed. "I miss being union."

***

Joel Lynch's vehicle drove him to the school's main entrance exactly fifteen minutes before the first bell. Hwa stood waiting for him outside the doors. He waved their way in-the school still did not recognize her face, years after she'd dropped out-and smirked at her.

"How are your legs?" he asked.

"Christ, does my boss tell you everything?"

"Daniel just said I should go easy on you, today!" Joel tried hard to look innocent. "And that maybe we didn't have to do leg day today, if you didn't really want to."

"You trying to get out of your workout?"

"Oh, no! Not at all! I was just thinking that—"

"Good, because we're still doing leg day. My job is protecting you, and how I protect you is making you better able to protect yourself. Somebody tries to take you, I need you to crush his instep with one kick and then run like hell. Both of which involve your legs."

"So, leg day."

Hwa nodded. "Leg day."

"You can crush someone's instep with one kick?"

Hwa rolled her eyes and hoped her specs caught it. "Of course I can," she subvocalized.

"I think I'd pay good money to see that."

"Well it's a good thing I'm on the payroll, then."

The school day proceeded just like all the others. Announcements. Lectures. Worksheets. French. Past imperfect, future imperfect. Lunch. People staring at Joel, then sending each other quick messages. Hwa saw it all in the specs-the messages drifting across her vision like dandelion fairies. In her vision, the messages turned red when Joel's name came up. For the most part it didn't. While she wore the uniform and took the classes just like the other students, they knew why she was there. They knew she was watching. They knew about her old job.

"Hwa?"

Hwa turned away from the station where Joel was attempting squats. Hanna Oleson wore last year's volleyball t-shirt and mismatched socks. She also had a wicked bruise on her left arm. And she wouldn't quite look Hwa in the eye.

"Yeah?" Hwa asked.

"Coach says you guys can have the leg press first."

"Oh, good. Thanks." She made Hanna meet her gaze. The other girl's eyes were bleary, red-rimmed. Shit. "What happened to your arm?"

"Oh, um... I fell?" Hanna weakly flailed the injured arm. "During practice? And someone pulled me up? Too hard?"

Hwa nodded slowly. "Right. Sure. That happens."

Hanna smiled. It came on sudden and bright. Too sudden. Too bright. "Everything's fine, now."

"Glad to hear it. You should put some arnica on that."

"Okay. I'll try that."

She tried to move away, but Hwa wove in front of her. "I have some at my place," she said. "I'm in Tower One. Seventh floor, unit seven. Easy to remember."

Hanna nodded without meeting Hwa's eye. "Okay."

Hwa moved, and Hanna shuffled away to join the volleyball team. She turned back to Joel. He'd already put the weights down. She was about to say something about his slacking off, when he asked: "Do you know her?"

Hwa turned and looked at Hanna. She stood a little apart from the others, tugging on a sweatshirt over her bruised arm. She took eyedrops from the pocket and applied them first to one eye, and then the other. "I know her mother," Hwa said.

***

Mollie Oleson looked a little rounder than Hwa remembered her. She couldn't remember their last appointment together, which meant it had probably happened months ago. Mollie was more of a catch-as-catch-can kind of operator-she only listed herself as available to the USWC 314 when she felt like it. It kept her dues low and her involvement minimal. But as a member she was entitled to the same protection as a full-timer. And that meant she'd met Hwa.

Hwa sidled up to her in the children's section of the Benevolent Irish Society charity shop. Mollie stood hanging little baggies of old fabtoys on a pegboard. "We close in fifteen minutes," she said, under her breath.

"Even for me?" Hwa asked.

"Hwa!" Mollie beamed, and threw her arms around Hwa. Like her daughter, she was one of those women who really only looked pretty when she was happy. Unlike her daughter, she was better at faking it.

"What are you doing here?"

Hwa shrugged. "I got a new place. Thought it was time for some new stuff."

Mollie's smile faltered. "Oh, yeah..." She adjusted a stuffed polar bear on a shelf so that it faced forward. "How's that going? Working for the Lynches, I mean?"

"The little one is all right," Hwa said. "Skinny little bugger. I'm training him."

Mollie gave a terse little smile. "Well, good luck to you. About time you got out of the game, I'd say. A girl your age should be thinking about the future. You don't want to wind up..." She gestured around the store, rather than finishing the sentence.

"I saw Hanna at school, today. Made me think to come here."

Mollie's hands stilled their work. "Oh? How was she? I haven't seen her since this morning." She looked out the window to the autumn darkness. "Closing shift, and all."

Hwa nodded. "She's good." She licked her lips. It was worth a shot. She had to try. "Her boyfriend's kind of a dick, though."

Mollie laughed. "Hanna doesn't have a boyfriend! She has no time, between school and volleyball and her job."

"Her job?"

"Skipper's," Mollie said. "You know, taking orders, bussing tables, the like. It's not much, but it's a job."

"Right," Hwa said. "Well, my mistake. I guess that guy was just flirting with her."

"Well, I'll give you the employee discount, just for sharing that little tidbit. Now I have something to tease her with, eh?"

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Hwa said. "Girls her age are so sensitive."

***

At home, Hwa used her Lynch employee login to access the Prefect city management system. Lynch installed it overnight during a presumed brownout, using a day-zero exploit to deliver the viral load that was their surveillance overlay. It was easier than doing individual installations, Síofra had explained to her. Some kids in what was once part of Russia had used a similar exploit to gain access to a Lynch reactor in Kansas. That was fifteen years ago.

Now it was a shiny interface that followed Hwa wherever she went. Or rather, wherever she let it. Her refrigerator and her washroom mirror were both too old for it. So it lived in her specs, and in the display unit Lynch insisted on outfitting her with. That made it the most expensive thing in what was a very cheap studio apartment.

"Prefect, show me Oleson, Hanna," she said.

The system shuffled through profiles until it landed on two possibilities, each fogged over. One was Hanna. The other was a woman by the name of Anna Olsen. Maybe it thought Hwa had misspoken.

"Option one." Hanna's profile became transparent as Anna's vanished. It solidified across the display, all the photos and numbers and maps hanging and shimmering in Hwa's vision. She squinted. "Dimmer."

Hanna's profile dimmed slightly, and Hwa could finally get a real look at it. Like Hwa, Hanna lived in Tower One. She'd been picked up once on a shoplifting charge, two years ago. She raised her hands, and gestured through all the points at which facial recognition had identified Hanna in the last forty-eight hours. Deeper than that, and she'd need archival access.

But first, she needed to call Skipper's. Rule them out. "Hi, is Hanna there?"

"Hanna doesn't work here any more." Hwa heard beeping. The sounds of fryer alarms going off. Music. "Hello?"

Hwa ended the call.

There was Hanna on the Acoutsina Causeway, walking toward Tower One. The image was timestamped after volleyball practise. Speed-trap checked her entering a vehicle in the driverless lane for a vehicle at 18:30. Five minutes later, she was gone. Wherever she was now, there were no cameras.

"Prefect, search this vehicle and this face together."

A long pause. "Archive access required."

For a fleeting moment, Hwa regretted the fact that Prefect was not a human being she could intimidate. "Is there a record in the archives?"

"Archive access required."

Hwa growled a little to herself. She popped up off the floor and began to pace. She walked through the projections of Hanna's face, sliding the ribbon of stills and clips until she hit the top of the list. Today was Monday. If Hanna had sustained her injury on Friday night, then Hwa was out of luck. But Mollie had said she worked all weekend. Maybe that meant—

"What are you doing?"

Hwa startled. "Jesus Christ, stop doing that!"

"Doing what?" Síofra was trying to sound innocent. It wasn't working.

"You know exactly what," she said. "Why can't you just text, like a normal person? How do you know I wasn't having a conversation with somebody?"

"Your receiver would have told me," he said.

Hwa frowned. "Can you...?" She wished she had an image of him she could focus her fury on. "Can you listen in on my conversations, through my receiver?"

"Only during your working hours."

"And you can just...tune in? All day? While I'm at school with Joel?"

"Of course I can. I thought you had some excellent points to make about Jane Eyre in Mr. Bartel's class, last week."

Hwa plunged the heels of her hands into the sockets of her eyes. She had known this was possible, of course. She just assumed Síofra actually had other work to do, and wasn't constantly spying on her instead of accomplishing it.

"Are you bored?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Are you bored? At work? Is your job that boring? That you need to be tuned into my day like that?"

There was a long pause. She wondered for a moment if he'd cut out. "You watch Joel and I watch you," he said. "That is my job."

Hwa sighed. He had her, there. It was all right there in the Lynch Ltd employee handbook. She'd signed on for this level of intrusion when she'd taken their money. He was paying, so he got to watch. She'd stood guard at enough peepshows to learn that particular lesson. Maybe she wasn't so different from her mother, after all.

"You aren't supposed to be prying into your fellow classmates' lives unless they pose a credible threat to Joel." So he'd been spying on her searches, too. Of course. "I know what you're thinking, and-"

"How come I can't do this to you?" Hwa blurted. "That's what I'm thinking. I'm wondering how come I can't watch you all the time the way you watch me. Why doesn't this go both ways? Why don't I get to know when you're watching me?"

Another long pause. "Is there something about me that you would like to know?"

Oh, just everything, she thought. The answer came unbidden and she shut her eyes and clenched her jaw and squashed it like a bug crawling across her consciousness.

"Are you coming running tomorrow?"

"Of course I am."

***

Síofra had a whole route planned. He showed it to her the next morning in her specs, but she had only a moment to glance over it before heading out the door.

"Why did you stay in this tower?" Síofra asked, leaning back and craning his neck to take in the brutalist heap of former containers. "We pay you well enough to afford one of the newer ones. This one has almost no security to speak of."

"You've been watching me 24/7 for a solid month and you still haven't figured that one out? Corporate surveillance ain't what it used to be."

"Is it because your mother lives here?"

Hwa pulled up short. "You just don't know when to quit, do you?"

"I only wondered because you never visit her." He grinned, and pushed ahead of her down the causeway.

His route took them along the Acoutsina. They circled the first joint, and Síofra asked about the old parkette and the playground. This early, there were no children and it remained littered with beer cozies and liquor pouches. She told him about the kid who had kicked her down the slide once, and how nobody let her on the swings, and he assumed it had to do with her mother and what she did for a living. His eyes were not programmed to see her true face, or the stain dripping from her left eye down her neck to her arm and her ribs and her leg. She had tested his vision several times; he never stared, never made reference to her dazzle-pattern face. And with their connection fostered by her wearables, he probably never watched her via botfly or camera. He could spend every minute of every day observing her, and never truly see her.

They ran to the second joint of the causeway, and circled the memorial for those who had died in the Old Rig. "Do you want to stop?" he asked.

It was bad luck not to pay respects. She knew exactly where her brother's name was. Síofra waited for her at the base of the monument as her steps spiralled up the mound. She slapped Tae-kyun's name lightly, like tagging him in a relay run, and kept going. Síofra had already started up again by the time she made it back down. They were almost at Tower Three when he called a halt, in a parking lot full of rides.

"Cramp," he said, pulling his calf up behind him. He placed a hand up against a parked vehicle for balance. When Hwa's gaze followed his hand, she couldn't help but see the license plate.

It was the one she'd asked Prefect to track. The one Hanna had disappeared into, last night. "I thought..." Hwa looked from him to the vehicle. "I thought you said—"

"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, Hwa." He smirked. Then he appeared to check something in his lenses. "Goodness, look at the time. I have an early meeting. I think I'll just pick up one of these rides here, and drive back to the office. Are you all right finishing the run alone?"

Hwa frowned at him. He winked at her. She smiled. "Yeah," she said. "I'm good here."

He gestured at the field of rides and snapped his fingers at one of them. It lit up. Its locks opened. She watched him get into it and drive away. Now alone, Hwa peered into the vehicle. Nothing left behind in any of the seats. No dings or scratches. She looked around at the parking lot. Empty. Still dark. She pulled her hood up, and took a knee. She fussed with her shoelaces with one hand while her other fished in the pocket of her vest. The joybuzzer hummed between her fingers as she stood. And just like that, the trunk unlocked.

Hanna was inside. Bound and gagged. And completely asleep.

"Shit," Hwa muttered. Then the vehicle chirped. Startled, Hwa scanned the parking lot. Still empty. The ride was being summoned elsewhere. It rumbled to life. If Hwa let it go now, she would lose Hanna. In the trunk, Hanna blinked awake. She squinted up at Hwa. Behind her gag, she began to scream.

"It's okay, Hanna." Hwa threw the trunk door even wider, and climbed in. She pulled it shut behind her as it began to move. "You're okay. We're okay." The vehicle lurched. She heard the lock snap shut again as the ride locked itself. "We're okay," she repeated. "We're going to be okay."

***

Hwa busied herself untying Hanna as the ride drove itself. "Tell me where we're going," Hwa said.

"It's my fault," Hanna was saying. "He told me not to talk to Benny."

"Benny work at Skipper's?" Hwa picked the tape off Hanna's wrists.

"I told him I was just being nice." Hanna gulped for air. She coughed. "I quit, just like he told me to, but Benny and I are in the same biology class! I couldn't just ignore him. And Jarod said if I really loved him, I'd do what he asked..."

"Jarod?" Hwa asked. "That's his name? What's his last name?" She needed Prefect. Why hadn't she brought her specs? She could be looking at a map, right now. She could be finding out how big this guy was. If he had any priors.

"Why are you here?" Hanna asked. "Did my mom send you? I thought you didn't work with us, any more."

Beneath them, the buckles in the pavement burped along. They were still on the Acoutsina, then. It had the oldest roads with the most repairs. Hwa worked to quiet the alarm bell ringing in her head. Hanna's skin was so cold under her hands. She probably needed a hospital. But right now, she needed Hwa to be calm. She needed Hwa to be smart. She needed Hwa to think.

"With us?" Hwa asked.

"For the union," Hanna sniffed.

"Eh?"

The angle of the vehcile changed. They tipped down into something. Hwa heard hydraulics. They were in a lift. Tower Three. They'd parked Hanna not far from where they were, then. Hwa's ears popped. She rolled up as close as possible to the opening of the trunk. She cleared her wrists and flexed her toes. She'd have one good chance when the trunk opened. If there weren't too many of them. If they didn't have crowbars. Something slammed onto the trunk. A fist. A big one, by the sound of it.

"Wakey, wakey, Hanna!"

The voice was muffled, but strong. Manic. He'd been awake for a while. Boosters? Shit. Hanna started to say something, but Hwa shushed her.

"Had enough time to think about what you did?"

Definitely boosters. That swaggering arrogance, those delusions of grandeur. Hwa listened for more voices, the sound of footsteps. She heard none. Maybe this was a solo performance.

"You know, I didn't like doing this. But you made me do it. You have to learn, Hanna."

Behind her, Hanna was crying.

"I can't have you just giving it away. It really cuts into what I'm trying to do for us."

Fingers drummed on the trunk of the ride.

"Are you ready to come out and say you're sorry?"

You're goddamn right I am, Hwa thought.

The trunk popped open. Jarod's pale, scaly face registered surprise for just a moment. Then Hwa's foot snapped out and hit him square in the jaw. He stumbled back and tried to slam the trunk shut. It landed on her leg and she yelled. The door bounced up. Not her ankle. Not her knee. Thank goodness. She rolled out.

Jarod was huge. A tall, lanky man in his early twenties, the kind of rigger who'd get made fun of by guys with more muscle while still being plenty strong enough to get the job done. He had bad skin and a three-day growth of patchy beard. He lunged for Hwa and she jumped back. He swung wide and she jumped again.

"Let me guess," she said. "You told Hanna you'd fix it with the union if she paid you her dues directly. Even though she's a minor and USWC doesn't allow those."

Jarod's eyes were red. He spat blood. He reeked of booster sweat-acrid and bitter.

"And you had her doing what, camwork?" She grinned. "I thought her eyes were red because she'd been crying. But yours look just the same. You're both wearing the same shitty lenses."

"He made me watch the locker room." Hanna sat on her knees in the trunk of the ride. Her voice was a croak. For a moment she looked so much like her mother that Hwa's heart twisted in her chest. "He said he'd edit my team's faces out—"

"Shut up!"

Jarod reached for the lid of the trunk again. He tried to slam it shut on Hanna. Hwa ran for him. He grabbed her by the shoulders. Hwa's right heel came down hard on his. The instep deflated under the pressure. He howled. She elbowed him hard under the ribs and spun halfway out of his grip. His right hand still clung to her vest. She grabbed the wrist and wedged it into the mouth of the trunk.

"Hanna! Get down!"

She slammed the lid once. Then twice. Then a third time. He'll never work this rig again, she thought, distantly. The trunk creaked open and Jarod sank to his knees. He clutched his wrist. His hand dangled from his arm like a piece of kelp.

Behind her, she heard a slow, dry clap.

"Excellent work," Síofra said.

He stood against the ride he'd summoned. Two go-cups of coffee sat on the hood. He held one out.

"You didn't want in on that?" Hwa asked, jerking her head at the whimpering mess on the floor of the parking garage.

"Genius can't be improved upon." Síofra gestured with his cup. "We should get them to a hospital. Or a police station."

"Hanna needs a hospital." Hwa sipped her coffee. "This guy, I should report to the union. He falsified a membership and defrauded someone of dues in bad faith."

"They don't take kindly to that, in the USWC?"

Hwa swallowed hard. "Nope. Not one bit."

Síofra made a sound in his throat that sounded like purring.

***

During the elevator ride between the hospital and the school in Tower Two, Hwa munched a breakfast sandwich. She'd protested the presence of bread, but Síofra said the flour was mostly crickets anyway. So she'd relented. Now he stood across the elevator watching her eat.

"What?" she asked, between swallows.

"I have something to share with you."

She swiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. "Yeah?"

"I don't remember anything beyond ten years ago."

Hwa blinked. "Sorry?"

"My childhood. My youth. They're..." He made an empty gesture. "Blank."

She frowned. "Do you mean this like...emotionally?"

"No. Literally. I literally don't remember. My first memory is waking up in a Lynch hospital in South Sudan, ten years ago. They had some wells, there. I was injured. They brought me in. Patched me up. They assumed I was a fixer of some sort. They don't know for which side. And apparently I had covered my tracks a little too well. I've worked for them ever since."

Hairs rose on the back of Hwa's neck. "Wow."

"As long as I can remember, I've worked for this company. I don't know any other kind of life."

"Okay," Hwa said.

"I've never lived without their presence in my life. I've never had what you might call a private life."

Oh. "Oh."

"But you have. And that's something that's different, about our experiences."

"Yeah. You could say that."

"You don't have implants," he said. "Not permanent ones, anyway. They-we-can't gather that kind of data from you. But they know everything about me. My sugars, how much I sleep, where I am, if I'm angry, my routines, even the music I listen to when I'm making dinner."

"You listen to music while you make dinner?"

"Django Reinhardt."

"Who?"

He smiled ruefully. "What I'm saying is, you're the last of a dying breed."

Hwa thought of the stain running down her body, the flaw he couldn't see. He had no idea. "Thank you?"

"You're a black swan," he said. "A wild card. Something unpredictable. Like getting into the trunk of that ride this morning."

Hwa shrugged. "Anybody could have done that. I couldn't just let Hanna go. She needed my help."

"You could have called the police. You could have called me. But you didn't. You took the risk yourself."

She frowned. "Are you pissed off? Is that what this is about? Because you're the one who—"

Síofra hissed. He brought his finger to his lips and shook his head softly. With his gaze, he brought her attention to the eyes at the corners of the elevator.

"I just want you to know something about me," he said, after a moment. "Something isn't in my halo."

She smiled. "Well, thanks."

"Not a lot of other people know this, about me."

"Well, it is kind of weird." She stretched up, then bent down. She looked up at him from her ragdoll position. "I mean, you are only ten years old, right? You can't even drink."

He rolled his eyes. "Here it comes."

She stood. "Or vote. Or even have your own place. Does your landlord know about this?"

He pointed at the view of the city outside the elevator. "My landlord is your landlord."

The elevator doors chimed open. They were on the school floor. Hwa had fifteen minutes to shower and put on her uniform before she met Joel.

"Hey, if you're not too busy? I kind of didn't do the last question on my physics homework. So I might need some help with that. Before I hand it in."

"I think something can be arranged."

She stood in the door. It chimed insistently. She leaned on it harder. "Did you ever go to school? After you woke up, I mean? Or are you just winging it?"

"I know what a man my age needs to know," Síofra said. "Be seeing you."


Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty series. This story comes from her novel, Company Town, coming in spring 2016 from Tor Books. She has also written science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others. You can find her online at madelineashby.com, or on Twitter at @MadelineAshby.

"Pwning Tomorrow: Stories from the Electronic Frontier" is an anthology of speculative fiction, all licensed under Creative Commons. Launched by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as part of its 25th anniversary festivities, the collection features acclaimed authors such as Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling, Lauren Beukes and Cory Doctorow, who imagine the technological challenges we'll face over the next quarter century and beyond. Donate what you can or download the ebook for free from EFF's website.