By Ally Chua
Bill is standing at his office door, waving for her to come to him. His shirt is crumpled and there is a coffee stain on the collar. Sharley can't tell if it is an old stain or new. "They took 1289 off your lattice last night," he says. "I've transmitted a new one onto your monitor. Leng will be over to wire her signals to you."
She nods. She tries to remember 1289. Is she the one with the dim bedroom covered with posters, the one who writes furious manifestos that ramble on for days? Sharley has tagged it as orange a few days back.
She sits. Her coffee, standard size with a sour aftertaste, is placed to her right. Her monitor comes alive in a lattice of microcamera feeds. The red bedroom of 1289 has been replaced with spartan walls. 1314. Ah, there she is. A girl with long black hair and severe brows. She looks a little creepy, like that iconic ghost from the famous Nihon celluloid film. 1314 is eating instant dumplings in front of her monitor, while watching a cooking series. A neutral activity Sharley wonders why 1314 is flagged for monitoring. Once, a citizen went to an incendiary wiresite 20 times in a row, before they discovered that it was the computer malfunctioning. Otherwise, the man was perfectly white.
"Sorry I'm late," Leng announces behind her. He kneels by her table and grabs a spool of cable, before connecting it to a small device. Leng grins at her.
"How was your Saturday? Met with friends? Did you catch the new 'loid?" he asks.
"Oh, it was fine," she says vaguely.
"Right," he looks as if he wants to say more, but a beep announces that the calibration is completed. "Okay. We have some interesting updates to our devices, so I'm going to give you a brief primer. Here we go. You can access her transceiver remotely from this menu; here are all her memos and call logs. This is the computer duplicate including a mirror of her social feed. You can set 'linchpin' words when these words are spoken, typed, or searched, you will immediately be notified. Now very discreetly of course you can even control where the microcamera points "
She settles in. Around her are co-workers facing similar monitors. They usually pair profiles with surveyors in similar socioeconomic categories. It is believed that in doing so, surveyors can pick out anomalies faster than someone not familiar with the target group. So Kevin has his lattice of men between the ages of 20 to 30, and Bill has his lattice of older business owners in the infocommunications industry.
Sharley has a lattice of young university students. Universities are hotbeds for resistance, everybody knows that. Almost all the professors are on permanent watch, supplemented by watchful allies in the actual faculty.
On and on, the rows of surveilling eyes.
Sharley has never failed to identify a threat. She takes pride in it. At her yearly reviews, her boss praises her meticulous record-keeping and ability to process large amounts of data. At the end of each review, he always asks if she has any feedback about her job. No sir. I feel perfectly content and challenged in a job that requires me to monitor our dissidents. My job satisfaction would be a 10 out of 10.
Sharley lives in an apartment near the Seaway Canal. It is two blocks to the rapid train, which is in turn 15 minutes away from the office. She makes dinner at home instant rice with three-minute chicken stew every night except Saturdays. A glass of wine if she is feeling extravagant.
She watches Glass House fanatically, a kinevision series about a group of young adults finding love in a city of strangers. They are in the final season now and Sharley is rooting for Natasha to end up with the underdog Alex. She will blow a fuse if Natasha chooses Eric, who has shown over and over that he isn't clever enough for Natasha (although Sharley will admit that Eric seems to make Natasha laugh a lot more than Alex). But surely a marriage is more than just laughter? You need compatibility in intellect, social economical background, financials, and hopes for the future. No, Natasha must end up with Alex.
Sharley is watching the lattice when 1314 catches her attention. The girl is sitting at her desk, watching Glass House. The final episode. How how did 1314 get that episode before broadcast? Sharley puts a note on the monitoring tab pirated kinevision series and bites her nails anxiously. On one hand, an illegal kine episode. On the other the finale of Glass House. Oh well Sharley is part of the panopticon, isn't she? She needs to watch the episode in case of subversive activities. Yes.
Sharley clicks on the dual-computer link, and watches the show with 1314. They laugh at the same scenes, and check their transceiver memos at the same filler segments. At the end of the episode and yes, Natasha did pick Alex Sharley reaches for a tissue to blow her nose into, the same time that 1314 does.
Sharley will not admit it everyone is supposed to be nonchalant and casual about the nature of their job but she likes watching the profiles on her monitor. These lives of people with far more interesting days, even if they are dissidents tagged yellow.
● 7609 is an almost colourless creature, except when she gets drunk. She has danced topless in a university bar, urinated near the dean's office, and mooned a horrified young family in the grocery store.
● 1865 suspects her house is haunted. But really, it is because of the malfunctioning bugs the Police installed, blasting pulses of random conversations in the middle of the night. 1865 has now moved to sleeping in a sacred circle in the middle of her bedroom (Sharley has expedited the request to the Maintenance Crew but there are so many things on their plate.)
● 1298 is wildly handsome, and likes to use his computer in the nude. He spends a lot of time on fringe pornography wiresites.
After a while Sharley realises that she enjoys 1314's feed the most. She is not certain why 1314 is not easy to like. Once, 1314 texted a boy after a student meeting, detailing the ways he needed to improve his personal hygiene. 1314 has also written to Cafe Cherryann, a cafe she frequents, about the inefficient queue system they have for takeaway orders.
Dear owners of Cafe Cherryann, she types. The lack of proper foresight into the queue system in your establishment has led to the wastage of time for many students between the morning hours of 8am to 10am. I must comment on this failure as a frequent patron of your cafe. Please consider my suggestions
Dear Suzy, 1314 types in another memo. You have not been pulling your weight in our History project. On May 13, you said you were feeling unwell, but you showed up at the celluloid screening that night. I understand you also went to the bar and consumed three beers, which you should not be doing if you are taking a course of antimicrobics.
There is secondhand embarrassment on Sharley's part, but also empathy. Sharley would have done many, many things the same way.
Sharley is good at her job, perhaps the only thing she is good at in her life. In school she had decent grades, but her social skills were on the negative end of the scale her mouth faster than her brain, jumbling up potential threads of friendship or trust even before they are weaved. "Are you sure that is permitted?" she asked one day to the gargle of girls who showed her a copy of Born Free, males and females with their bodies intertwined, saturated in oil. They did not share with her similar magazines after that, and stopped talking when she was around.
Sharley, after much consideration, thought it could be remedied by speaking with the school's administration. That the formation of cliques in their class would lead to groupthink, friction, and uncooperative behaviour. After a thorough investigation, one of the girls was transferred away and never heard from since. What could Sharley say after that? I'm sorry. I didn't know it would turn out this way. I don't know how else to get you all to talk to me again.
1314 has not touched her computer for days.
After the seventh night, Sharley switches on the microcam in 1314's room discreetly.
1314 is in bed, her vitals stable, although slightly dehydrated.
In the dark of the basement that is the Surveillance Department, Sharley watches 1314 for the rest of her shift.
Sharley has dinner on Saturdays in a rotation of three eateries near her apartment the diner, the cafe, the casual restaurant. Last December, a tanned boy started working at the diner, so of course she abandoned her routine and went to the diner every Saturday. She liked to watch the boy when he worked, committing to memory the way his muscles flex, so that she can turn to it during her night-time reveries. She stopped going to the diner after seeing a girl come by one evening, kissing the boy on his smiling, crinkled mouth.
1314 has not changed her clothes for three days. On the monitoring tab, Sharley hesitates before typing, 'Profile has not shown subversive behaviour in the past month.' After a while, Sharley adds, 'She has not done anything else either.'
On autopilot, Sharley switches on 1314's microcam. There she is, curled up in the same bed, an increasing circle of sweet wrappers, plastic bags, and covers around her. This time, there is something new as well a bottle of sleeping pills, opened and spilled over
Sharley starts. Unless she is mistaken, the bottle of pills used to be in the bathroom cupboard. Now the bright pills are all over the nightstand, and they do not look like they would fill a whole bottle.
Sharley brings up 1314's vitals. Her heartbeat is going dangerously slow.
On one hand, an active suicide attempt. On the other, Sharley is the eye in the sky impartial, unmoving. She is not supposed to care. But there is a blossom of sadness in her heart at the thought of 1314 going black this creepy-eyed girl with the kinevision addiction and blunt manners disappearing into the night.
Sharley returns to the lattice, and then back to the microcam again. She does it two more times before picking up her transceiver. She rotates the dial mechanically, slowly. Her voice is soft when she reports the suicide attempt.
Six Months Later
"I am putting 1314 back on your lattice."
Sharley turns around. Bill is not looking at her, but at his tablet. He hands her a folder. "She just left the Hospital. Still in the yellow though, so continue what you've been doing."
Sharley feels a rush of emotion. Since the medics arrived in 1314's apartment, roused her and took her away, Sharley has not heard about her. Sharley did covertly check up on 1314's signal flares, but found nothing. 1314 did not reply to any memos, electronic mails or calls after she was admitted to the Hospital.
Sharley takes a sip of her coffee. She clicks on 1314's profile to bring up the microcam and sees 1314 staring straight at the lens. It is so disconcerting that Sharley almost drops her drink.
After setting down her cup, Sharley turns back to the screen. 1314 is writing something. After a while, she holds it up to the screen.
The paper reads "HELLO."
Sharley looks wildly around to make sure no one else has seen it. She turns back to the screen. Of course 1314 cannot see Sharley. Their surveillance system is too sophisticated for that. Well, except if you took the time to call an ambulance for a girl who was obviously dying alone
1314 does not move. Her eyes are still on the camera, giving Sharley an absurd feeling that they can see each other through the lens. 1314 looks healthier, her skin glowing in the computer's glare. She has put on some weight and no longer looks gaunt. The stay in the Hospital is good for her.
1314 trace her hands down her face, her neck, her button-down shirt. She slides open the first button, revealing a mess of old scars. Sharley is transfixed. The surveillance team have all seen their fair share of nudity and sexual behaviour, so much so that none of them even consider standard sexual compulsions worth reporting. This will not be the first time Sharley sees 1314 without clothes.
Still Sharley feels her heartbeat quicken, can't help feeling that 1314 is doing it deliberately for her. Now 1314 has her shirt off. Now 1314 is unzipping her jeans, and her face is solemn as she puts her hand between her legs.
On Day 300, Bill summons Sharley to his office.
"So, 1314," he says. "It's been 300 days? And she's still yellow?"
"I know," Sharley says softly. "But I can't find anything truly subversive"
"Then it's time to colour her down. There are other dissidents, you know."
Bill looks at her, sharper this time.
"She she made contact with a group of students known for their seditious views. But I am trying to get more evidence "
"Made contact? Made contact? This is the Red Angels group, isn't it? Sharley, this is bad it is incomprehensible that you remained silent on information like this."
He stands. Sharley looks up at him, anxious.
"I'm taking her off your lattice and monitoring her personally. This omission will be considered at your review."
1314 has distributed 1500 pamphlets and spoken to 40 students about joining an upcoming protest at the university. Sharley has all their names, all the screencaps, the printed memos, and paper pamphlets.
Sharley keeps quiet. She nods to Bill as she walks slowly out of the room.
Cafe Cherryann is a student-run cafe located just outside the main campus of the University. Known for its strong coffee and egg sandwiches, it sees long queues almost every morning, with sleepy students grabbing their caffeine fix before their morning lectures.
Sharley has been in Cafe Cherryann since morning. This is the first time in years that she has ventured beyond the three eateries near her house. So many students, so many snatches of foreign languages. On her right is a cup of coffee that has been empty since one hour ago. The waiter is getting annoyed.
There, at the door.
1314 has entered the cafe. She is shorter than Sharley imagined. Her hair is in a ponytail, her shirt is wrinkled. She has a slouch. She looks very approachable.
1314's eyes drift over the patrons in the cafe, and do not linger on anyone. She looks back at the menu over the counter, tapping her chin in consideration.
Sharley can still return. Back to her office, take out the folder of printed evidence, and hand it to Bill. It is the right thing to do. All these currents of rebellion will spark unrest, and inadvertently people getting hurt. Are these students not afraid of chaos, of a society in disorder?
Sharley's hands are shaking. Any minute now, she thinks. She will put down her cup, get up from her chair, and walk to 1314. Any minute now.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020