/ Angus McIntyre / 12 pm Mon, Apr 20 2015
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  • Fiction: Someone to Watch Over Me

    Fiction: Someone to Watch Over Me

    Amala's got a new job: monitoring paroled prisoners' CCTV feeds. What she sees isn't nearly so disturbing as who sees her seeing it. A tale of science fictional horror from the new Black Candies - Surveillance.

    Editor's note: I'm delighted to bring you Someone to Watch Over Me, a beautiful, chilling science fiction story by Angus McIntyre, which appears in the just-published Black Candies - Surveillance: A Journal of Literary Horror: "We’re never alone. Paranoia has replaced privacy. Secrets are the new currency. The strangers who watched from the street now watch from within. For this issue of Black Candies, we found 11 smart, terrifying stories that explore the theme of “Surveillance” in explicit, implicit and abstract ways. These stories not only touch on the contradiction of the securities of our modern era, but unearth the deeper terror, paranoia, and anxiety that results. Featuring fiction from: Angus McIntyre, Valerie E. Polichar, Julia Evans, Gabriela Santiago, Melissa Gutierrez, Berit Ellingsen, Jake Arky, Matt Lewis, Chris Curtis, Kevin Sampsell, Ron Gutierrez, and Wade Pavlick." -CD

    "Everything you need to know is in the computer," said Duggan, leaning across Amala to switch on the display. The computer was a fat black tower, a blue power light staring unblinking from the front panel. It looked sleek and powerful, at odds with the shabbiness of the office. She glanced around the room, taking in long desks lined with other computers, operators wearing headphones hunched over their displays.

    "Start by logging in," Duggan instructed. Amala looked down at the scrap of paper on which her username and password were written. The keyboard was larger than she was used to. She had to type the password twice before she got it right.

    The screen flashed the Seeing Eye logo, then changed to a display that looked something like a mailbox.

    "This is your work roster," said Duggan. "We're starting you off with just one job. Later, when you've had more experience, we'll give you more to do. OK?"

    He looked at her expectantly. She nodded.

    "Fine. This job is what we call a ParCon. Parole conditions. Your job is to watch this guy and make sure he doesn't do anything he's not supposed to."

    "How do I know what he's not supposed to do?" Amala asked. Duggan gestured to a note icon on the screen.

    "Click that," he said. "That will give you the summary."

    The text of the note was written in all capitals, a list of abbreviations that meant nothing to her.

    "This is pretty standard," Duggan said, reading over her shoulder. "No drugs, no alcohol. There's a list of places that he's not allowed to go. You don't need to worry about those; the system will signal automatically if he steps out of bounds. Sometimes the dossier will include pictures of people he's not allowed to be with, but again, face recognition should flag those for you."

    "What do I do if–" Amala started.

    "–if you see him breaking the rules? Click the red button there. That will flag the video and call a supervisor over. The video's all recorded anyway, but flagging it creates a log, makes it easier to find when we send the case back to the client."

    "The client?"

    "The client on a ParCon case is a parole or corrections authority," Duggan explained. "Probably more than half our work comes from ParCons. They don't pay well, but it's steady money."

    "I see," Amala said.

    "Let's have you click there and see what we can see," Duggan said. Amala clicked the spot he indicated and the screen filled with an image of a room. There was a television set and a couch, table and chairs, but the room was empty.

    "This is camera 1," Duggan explained. "You see those numbers down there? You have three cameras at this location. Click the '2' ... and now the '3'."

    The scene changed, revealing another view on the living room, followed by the interior of a small kitchen.

    "The locator says he's home, so he must be in the bedroom or the bathroom," Duggan said. "They can't put cameras in there. Privacy issues." He grinned. "Your man knows that. So if he's indulging, he'll do it where you can't see."

    "He knows he's being watched?" asked Amala.

    "Condition of parole," said Duggan. "The deal is that if he lets the authority watch him, he stays out of jail. So long as he doesn't break any of the rules."

    Duggan switched back to the first camera just in time to catch the bedroom door opening. "There's your guy," he said.

    The man was white, with a pasty indoor complexion and dark hair just starting to recede. The beginnings of a beer gut swelled beneath his gray T-shirt. There was something slack and dispirited about his movements. He didn't fit Amala's idea of a violent offender.

    She watched the screen as he went into the kitchen, opened the fridge and closed it, then went back into the living room and picked up his jacket from the couch.

    "That's good," Duggan said. "He's going out."

    The screen went blank for a few moments, then lit up with a new image. This time it showed a street view. The camera panned, then centered on a doorway from which a small figure was just emerging.

    "How–" Amala asked.

    "We get video feed from cameras throughout the city–police cameras, business CCTV's, home security, whatever's available. The computer will pick the best view for you automatically." Duggan gestured at the screen. "That smaller image on the left is from another camera on the same street. You can switch to it if you want, but most of the time the computer makes the right choice."

    Amala watched as the man walked up the street towards the camera, his head down, hands in his pockets. On the screen, a red square hovered around his head and shoulders. When he passed beneath the camera, the image held steady for a moment, then changed again. She was looking down the street from another position. This time the image was in black and white.

    "We've got better than eighty percent coverage throughout most of the city center, ninety-five in places," Duggan told her. He sounded proud. "But if you need to see more, you can use a sticktight."

    He touched an icon that looked like a tiny aircraft. The main image shrank into a corner of the screen, replaced by a view of the street from above. The red square picked out a moving dot below. "You control the drone with this joystick," Duggan said. "Don't worry about crashing into anything. It flies itself. You just tell it what you want to see." He worked the controls and the image of the walking man swelled abruptly. "When he gets back into a zone where we have fixed coverage, click this icon to release the sticktight."

    Amala watched the image switch back to a view of the street from ground level again.

    "What if I lose him?" she asked.

    "You can't," Duggan said. "He's wearing an ankle cuff. It sends out a signal that the sticktight can follow anywhere. Unless he actually saws the cuff off, you'll always know where he is."

    He patted her shoulder. "Enjoy," he told her. "If you have any questions, just press the supervisor button and I'll be right over."

    At one o'clock, Duggan came back to let her know that it was time for her lunch break. He showed her how to transfer her case to a backup operator while she ate.

    She ate in the break room with a half dozen other operators, all women, mostly young. Almost all the operators she had seen were female, the supervisors mostly male.

    "Women are better," her neighbor Margie explained when Amala asked about it. She was a big woman with a friendly manner, her dyed pink hair a splash of color in the drab office. "Guys get distracted. They use the cameras to check out girls. They'll spot some hot chick and follow her around for the rest of the day, forget who they're supposed to be watching."

    "Plus there's interiors. Any time you're using cameras inside, it's supposed to be same-sex," another woman added. "Female subject, female operator. Men watching women is an invasion of privacy. But guys don't seem to care who watches them."

    "Some of them even like it. I had one guy–" another said.

    "We've all had those," pink-haired Margie said. "Risk of the job."

    Amala frowned, not understanding.

    Margie smiled. "Let's just say that some guys just like an audience," she said. "Don't worry about it. You'll get used to it."

    The conversation turned into a discussion of things that they had seen–amusing, disgusting, horrifying. Amala listened, uncertain whether to laugh or be appalled.

    Walking to the subway that evening, her eyes tired from a day of staring at her screen, Amala was conscious for the first time of all the cameras around her. A faceted black globe hovered overhead in the pharmacy where she stopped to buy a bottle of aspirin. Gray metal boxes with staring lenses sprouted from bank façades and light poles. A tiny eye haloed with infrared LEDs looked down from above the doorway of an apartment block.

    She wondered how many of the cameras she could see were tied into the citywide network, opening their window on the world to whomever paid to access them. She wondered whether any of the people around her were under surveillance, pacing across someone's screen with a red box superimposed on their bodies, and whether she herself ever appeared momentarily on an operator's display as she unknowingly passed a surveillance subject.

    That night she drew the curtains with more care than usual, shutting out more than just the glare of the street lights and the neon sign on the laundromat across the street.

    On her fourth day of watching, Amala caught her subject buying drugs.

    She had started to get a feel for his routine, recognizing the places that he went every day. She followed him on long aimless walks through streets both crowded and empty, accompanied him on a visit to his parole officer, watched him as he watched television in his apartment, slumped on the battered tan couch. Sometimes he walked around his apartment naked. Eventually one of the other women took pity on her and showed her how to activate the feature that hid his lower body with a blurred rectangle of colored pixels, sparing her details she preferred not to see.

    Watching the screen all day was mind-numbing, but she quickly learned to watch without watching, feigning alertness while her mind wandered freely. She passed the hours in a kind of trance, but when the man turned to walk down an unfamiliar street, she recognized a deviation from routine. There was something more purposeful about the man's movements now. For the first time, she had the sense that he had somewhere that he wanted to go.

    The only cameras available were too far away so she pushed the button for a sticktight and waited with her heart in her mouth for the screen to change to the top-down view. The transaction happened just moments after the little aircraft came online and took only seconds. The man slowed down, something held in his fist. A second man emerged from a doorway, foreshortened in the top-down view from the drone. Amala zoomed in and captured the instant that the money changed hands. Her subject accepted a small packet and slipped it quickly into his pocket, then walked quickly away as the second man shrank back into the doorway.

    Without thinking, she pressed the supervisor button. Duggan hurried over.

    "What's up?" he asked.

    Wordlessly, she played back the video for him. He grinned.

    "You got him," he said. "Tag and close the case."

    "What happens to him now?" she said.

    "Back to prison, probably. Law enforcement will take it from here."

    He clapped his hands. The other operators looked up from their displays.

    "Amala just got her first," he announced. There was a scattered burst of applause.

    "That's what, four days? Pretty fast work," said Margie.

    "Not as fast as Bella," Duggan said. Bella grinned, showing off prominent teeth.

    "Bella is our record holder," Duggan explained. "Forty-five minutes from first login. I'd barely finished showing her how to work the system."

    Someone wrote Amala's name on a whiteboard on the other side of the room, along with the time–four days–and a '1' for her first kill. At the top of the whiteboard was written the name of the month. Underneath was Margie's name, followed by a '2' and a '4'.

    Duggan came back with a pad and stylus. "Sign and print," he said. "Initial and last name only." She wrote 'A. Gupta' in the space that he indicated, the stylus skating awkwardly on the smooth plastic. She looked at the unevenly printed characters and remembered what the other operator had said about men watching men, women watching women. 'Amala Gupta' was female. She had a face, a body, even a life outside work. 'A. Gupta' could be anyone: a name on a report, a pair of anonymous eyes watching a screen. A part of the machine.

    When she came to work the next day, the screen showed her new assignment.

    "You've got a Disky," said Margie, reading over her shoulder.

    "What's a Disky?" Amala asked.

    "Disputed custody. Hostile divorce, one side paying us to watch the other for anything their lawyer can use. Ten to one, the husband's the one paying."

    There were no cameras inside the woman's apartment, so Amala could only watch when she went outside. Half of Amala's day was spent staring at the unchanging view of the building's front door. She wondered if she was supposed to send a sticktight to buzz past the apartment windows and peek inside, but decided not to ask.

    The woman was in her late thirties, well-dressed and pretty. Amala thought that she looked wary, as if she knew that she was being watched. Her daughter was tiny and delicate, probably six or seven. Her face was framed by a cloud of dark curls. When they crossed roads, the girl shrank from the traffic, clinging to her mother's hand.

    A thought struck Amala as the view switched smoothly from camera to camera, following the mother and child down the road to the park.

    "How is it doing this?" she asked.

    Margie looked at her. "What do you mean?" she said.

    "The first guy I watched," Amala said. "Duggan told me that he had a cuff on his ankle so that the computer could find him. But how's it following them?" She gestured at the screen.

    Margie gave her a thin smile.

    "Cellphone," she said. "He probably gave the kid a phone with his number in it. 'Use this, you can call daddy any time.' And then he made her promise that she'd always carry it with her."

    Amala looked at the screen again. The girl had a little purse slung across her shoulder, shiny red plastic that glinted in the sunlight as she skipped along beside her mother. It was just large enough to hold a small phone. Amala pictured it nestled among the other childish things in the little bag, brightly colored or decorated with cartoon characters, its tracking circuits silently broadcasting the child's location at every moment.

    The woman's boyfriend met them sometimes in the park. They looked happy together. The eyes of the sticktight were sharp enough that Amala could see the way that the woman's face relaxed when she was with him. It made her look younger, the wary expression replaced by a kind of shy tenderness.

    The little girl obviously liked the boyfriend too, running to greet him when they met. At times they looked like a model of a happy family, sitting on the grass in the warm spring sunshine or strolling along the avenues between the trees. The two adults walked slowly, holding hands together while the little girl scampered ahead. Amala brought the sticktight around in a wide descending curve, playing at film director. She pictured it as the establishing shot in a movie, the wide-to-narrow zoom that sets the scene and introduces the characters. In her mind it was the shot that introduces the protagonists, the ideal, untroubled family. But it occurred to her that if the opening is tranquil, then something bad has to follow–separation, sickness, rampaging monsters, tragedy and disaster. She zoomed out again so that she could imagine it not as an opening, but as an ending. The storm has passed, the trials have been overcome. Nothing is left but the end credits and the happy-ever-after.

    Sometimes the boyfriend went home with them. When the front door closed behind them, Amala was glad that there were no cameras in the house.

    By ill luck, Duggan was standing just behind her when it happened.

    "Violation," he said. "Tag it."

    Amala looked around at him.

    "What do you mean?" she said.

    Duggan gestured at the screen. The woman's boyfriend had just lit a cigarette. "Exposure to harmful substances."

    Amala watched the boyfriend take a pull on his cigarette. He stood by the edge of the street, just outside the park. The woman and her child had gone ahead.

    "But he's not within twenty feet of her," Amala protested.

    "Doesn't matter," Duggan said. "He's a smoker. They'll use that against her."

    It occurred to Amala then that she had seen the man smoking before. The dossier required her to report anything that the woman did that might put the child at risk, but she had never thought that this might qualify. She might have made the connection if the man had smoked around the child, but when she thought back she realized he was always careful to extinguish his cigarette before rejoining them.

    "How can they do that?" she asked. "He never smokes around her."

    "You don't know that. You can't see what he does when he's indoors, can you?"

    She opened her mouth, wanting to protest at the unfairness of it. She knew, she simply knew.

    "Tag it," Duggan said.

    Amala didn't move. Duggan sighed and leaned across her to tag the video. On the screen, the boyfriend finished his cigarette and flicked it into the gutter, then turned and walked off to rejoin the others.

    "Duggan," Amala said. "How does the company get paid? Is it just an hourly rate, or do they get paid more for finding something?"

    Duggan looked away, avoiding her eyes. "I don't get to see the contracts," he said. He kept his back turned as he moved away from her.

    When she came in the next morning, she found that the case had been removed from her roster.

    They put her back on ParCon cases after that. Amala did not bother asking Duggan what had happened to the woman and her child, whether the case was still being handled by the company or whether the husband had learned everything that he wanted.

    "You can't get involved," Margie told her. "You can't change anything. If someone's doing something wrong, they'll get caught sooner or later. If it doesn't happen on your watch, it'll happen on someone else's. Or it'll show up when they review the recordings."

    "Wait, they do that?"

    Margie nodded.

    "There's a whole second office that does reviews. They don't look at everything. They might look at random samples, or scenes that the computer flagged. Or the parts where you paid more attention." Margie stopped, as if a thought had struck her. "You do know that the computer is watching you too, don't you?" she asked.

    Amala looked at her open-mouthed. "I don't–"

    "The display has a little camera in it," Margie explained. "The machine watches you while you're watching the screen. Eyes mostly. If you see something that catches your attention, your eyes widen and sometimes your breathing changes. Just a little, but the computer can pick it up. So if you see something but you don't flag it, then they might review it to find out why. Or if the computer flags something as interesting but you don't react, they might pull the recording to see if you're paying attention. Miss too much, and they'll terminate you."

    "How much is too much?" Amala asked.

    Margie shrugged. "No one knows." She grinned again. "Relax, Amala. You'll be OK. You got that first guy pretty quick. And Duggan likes you. Just try not to screw up on anything that matters."

    That night, Amala sat down at her tiny kitchen table and tried to work out whether she could afford to give up her job. She listed all her expenses and summed the total. On the other side of the paper, she wrote her monthly salary from Seeing Eye. The two numbers differed by less than fifty dollars.

    "It's only until I have a little more money saved," she promised her reflection in the glass door of the microwave oven. "Then I will find something else."

    Seeing Eye Systems handled a bewildering variety of different cases, for state, corporate and private clients. ParCons and AyJays–Alternative to Jail programs–made up more than half of the company's business, split more or less evenly between cases funded by the state and cases paid for by private corrections firms. The state paid less but paid regularly, private companies offered better rates but were slow to pay their bills. Whenever cash-flow became critical, head office would issue a new set of directives: so many cases to be closed each month, no more than a certain number of hours to be spent on each case, and so on. Bella was let go because she closed too few cases. A day later, Duggan was already training a new girl to take her place.

    More lucrative than corrections work was employee surveillance, which had its own set of acronyms. ELP was Embezzlement and Loss Prevention; ILA was Inappropriate Leisuretime Activities. ELP was low-end, but ILA involved high-level employees. Corporations would pay Seeing Eye to make sure that their executives did not do anything in their off hours that might embarrass the company. Margie called ILA cases "rich guy reality TV", and gave the break room daily updates on the latest developments in the cases she was handling.

    Individuals commissioned a small but still significant number of cases, mostly Diskys and SuspIns–Suspected Infidelity. Men paid for most of the Disky cases, but SuspIns were more evenly balanced. After the incident with the woman and her boyfriend, Duggan generally gave domestic cases to someone else. Occasionally, Amala would be assigned to a Disky as backup, covering for one of the other operators during their break. She watched, but rarely took any action.

    The rarest cases were called blacks. Dossiers for black cases left the client field blank and the instructions given were either minimal or curiously specific. The operators talked about the blacks in whispers, if they talked at all.

    Amala had been with the company for six months when Duggan assigned her her first black.

    "I want you to have this one," he told her, pushing the door of his office closed. "But you need to promise me that you'll be smart about it."

    She frowned, not understanding.

    "It's what we call a black case," Duggan explained. "We don't usually give out blacks until someone has been with the company for at least a year. But I trust you, and I'd like to have your eyes on it."

    Duggan often praised what he called the quality of her work. His praise was sometimes so disproportionate that Amala suspected that he had some kind of crush on her. She was grateful that he was professional enough not to take it any further.

    "What do I have to do?" she asked.

    Duggan looked at his tablet. "The note just says 'observe and describe'. You'll watch this person, get a sense for their routine, and write a summary report."

    "How often?"

    "Daily. This is a full-focus case. You can put your open cases back in the pool and someone else will pick them up." He hesitated. "And Amala–"

    "Yes?"

    "Don't talk about this with anyone. Not even Margie. If you have a question, you come to me about it. OK?"

    She looked at him and he flushed slightly.

    "I know you're discreet," he said. "You don't gossip in the break room like the other girls. But ... well, I mean it when I say that you mustn't talk about it with anyone."

    On her way back to her desk, she thought about how Duggan knew who gossiped in the break room and who did not. She decided that they must have a camera in there too.

    Amala had been working the black case for less than four hours when she realized that she knew the subject.

    The subject was a young woman, about the same age as Amala. There were cameras in the room that she shared with her boyfriend. More cameras were located throughout the squat where she lived. The picture quality was not as good as the authority-installed cameras in the homes of parole cases so Amala guessed that they must be miniatures installed in secret. There were microphone pickups as well, but the sound that came through her headphones was tinny and hard to understand.

    Something about the woman's face seemed familiar to Amala. She frowned, trying to remember where she could have seen her before. It was a gesture that finally unlocked the memory for her, the way that the woman fidgeted with the chunky plastic bracelet she wore around her wrist, sliding it almost to her elbow before letting it fall back. Amala had seen that gesture hundreds of times, repeated so often that she had finally stopped noticing it.

    Amelia zoomed in as much as the miniature camera would allow. Now that she had made the connection, there was no doubt in her mind. Her friend used to have long hair. Now, she wore it cut short and bleached blonde, the dark roots just beginning to show through. She had gained a little weight. But it was her beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    Her name was Rebecca, and she and Amala had been friends of a kind during their first year in college. Amala remembered her as smart and opinionated, not afraid to argue her point of view in class. Amala had never been part of Rebecca's inner circle, but they knew many of the same people and took some of the same classes, so their paths crossed regularly. Sensing Amala's shyness, Rebecca had done her best to introduce her to other people and Amala had been grateful for her kindness. Then Rebecca had gone to study abroad, and they had lost touch.

    Amala forced herself to be calm, wondering if the invisible eye in the screen had recorded her surprise. She felt abruptly afraid. What if Duggan had assigned her the case as some kind of loyalty test? Should she tell him that she knew the subject? And if she did, would he take her off the case?

    Eventually, she convinced herself that it was only a coincidence. The city was small. It was not unlikely that she would someday find herself watching someone that she knew. She decided to say nothing to Duggan or anyone else.

    The dossier gave no clues to indicate why someone might be interested enough in Rebecca to pay for a permanent watch on her. There was no list of prohibited behaviors or associations, no name in the client field, not even a billing code. As Duggan had said, the instructions said nothing more than 'observe and describe', with a notation indicating that a daily report was required.

    At lunch, Amala casually raised the topic of black cases. She wanted to know who the client for such a case might be, but her colleagues were little help. Margie thought that black cases were contracted out by security services and the police, lower-level investigations that could be safely handled by an outside agency. One of the other women insisted that they were always corporate, information gathering for dirty tricks campaigns that had to be outsourced for better deniability. Others joined in with their own theories. Amala let them wrangle. It seemed that none of them knew any more than she did.

    The squat where Rebecca lived was less squalid than Amala might have expected, the occupants having gone to some lengths to fix things up. Only the haphazard nature of the furnishings and the apparent fluidity of the lines between public and private space convinced Amala that she was looking at a squat rather than disorderly student housing.

    Watching through her cameras, Amala came to the conclusion that the squat was home to a small but functional anarchist collective. The walls were decorated with posters condemning capitalism and militarism and one room housed a kind of improvised press center, with salvaged laptops and printers dedicated to the task of turning out more posters and flyers. The young men and women who she saw in the squat all had a similar look–faded jeans and patched jackets, ragged T-shirts with radical slogans, hair buzzed or worn in dreadlocks–but Amala soon learned to distinguish the permanent residents from the transients. The transients drifted in for a few days, smoked drugs or slept with someone, and then moved on. The residents seemed more focused. They held meetings to which the others were not invited and whatever they did had an air of purpose to it.

    Rebecca and her boyfriend were permanent residents. The poor quality sound made it hard to follow much of what was said at the meetings, but Amala had the impression that they were among the original organizers of the collective. Rebecca's boyfriend talked a lot about 'direct action' against someone or something, but it was never entirely clear what he had in mind. Amala supposed that it must be in some way related to the posters on the walls.

    She felt an odd admiration for the anarchists. It was hard to get a clear sense of their goals, but at least they seemed to have some ideas about making the world a better place. She wished that she could say the same.

    At the end of the week, she went over her reports with Duggan.

    "She doesn't go anywhere else at all?" he asked her. "Only to the mall?"

    Amala shook her head.

    "I think anyone who wants to talk to her comes to the squat," she said.

    "And you're sure she doesn't meet anyone when she goes to the mall? So why does she go there?"

    Amala tried not to smile.

    "Food," she said.

    Duggan stared at her. "Food?"

    "She goes to the food court and buys fast food. She sits and eats it, then goes back to the squat."

    Duggan shook his head, amused.

    "Well, I suppose even the most committed anarchist must get tired of vegan stew eventually," he said.

    "I suppose so."

    "Which mall is it, anyway?" Duggan asked.

    "It's the big one just down the road from here."

    "Oh, right. You said." He scrolled through the report. "OK, very good. I'll send this along to the client. If they want more detail about anything, we can send them a supplementary."

    Amala stood up to go, then hesitated.

    "Do you know who the client is?" she asked.

    Duggan raised his eyebrows. "Why do you ask?"

    Amala shrugged. "No real reason. Maybe if I knew who they were I could make my reports more useful."

    He gave her a thoughtful look. "Better not to ask," he said. "Might be corporate, might be one of the intelligence agencies. Just write down everything you see. The big boys will decide what to make of it."

    That night, she thought about what Duggan had said. 'The big boys,' he had called them. The name was apt. It conjured up an image of unchecked power, of massive institutions operating at a scale far above the human. She looked at her reflection again and saw herself as a pawn on the wrong side of the board.

    When she left work the next day, Amala walked from the office to the mall where Rebecca went for her surreptitious fast food treats. Walking quickly, it took her less than five minutes. She could walk from the office to the mall, go to the food court, and be back at her desk in fifteen minutes, twenty at the outside. She could do it on her lunch break.

    The idea of trying to warn Rebecca that she was under surveillance had come to Amala gradually, so that afterwards she could never say exactly when she made the decision. Instead, she focused on the practicalities. She had quickly ruled out the idea of sending an email or a text. She was afraid that she would simply incriminate herself. Leaving a note at the squat was out of the question too. Other operators would be watching round the clock, tracking everyone's comings and goings. That left only a face-to-face meeting. She would have to go to the mall.

    The trick was finding a way of doing so unobserved. On the face of it, it was impossible. When her shift ended or she took a break she was supposed to pass the case to a backup operator so that there were always eyes watching the subject. If she tried to meet Rebecca, she'd quickly find herself added to the dossier.

    At last, she worked out a way to do it. The software used by Seeing Eye required operators to hand over their cases manually. If Amala simply walked away from her desk without logging out or reassigning the case to the backup operator, the video feed would continue to flow to her terminal. The computer might chide her when she came back, but there would be no human eyes watching during the crucial moments of the meeting, no one to mark the event as significant. She weighed up the odds and made her decision.

    Once she had decided, it was simply a matter of waiting for an opportunity.

    Her chance came just two days later. She watched with growing excitement as Rebecca left the squat and boarded a bus. Amala followed her camera by camera, switching back and forth between video from the bus's own security cameras and more distant views, nervously reassuring herself that Rebecca was still on course for the mall.

    The clock on Amala's display showed that there were still ten minutes until her own lunch break. In a fever of impatience, she watched Rebecca enter the mall. Amala followed her into the building, leaping from viewpoint to viewpoint as Rebecca rode the escalator down to the food court and joined the line at the noodle stand. When Rebecca sat down to eat, it was still five minutes before the hour, five minutes in which Amala could do nothing but watch.

    At one o'clock exactly she stood up, her heart pounding. Margie looked up from her screen.

    "Going on break?" she asked.

    "I have to step out for a moment," Amala said, trying to keep her voice casual. "Got to pick up something from the pharmacist." She touched the button on the front of her monitor, dimming the display. Margie nodded and turned back to her own screen.

    On the street, Amala put a couple of blocks between herself and the office, then pulled a light hooded jacket from her purse. She shrugged it on, pulling the hood up to cover her head.

    She took the steps down to the food court two at a time. There were cameras everywhere, but she ignored them. She was just another office worker, running in to snatch a quick meal. No one was paying any attention to her.

    Rebecca was still at her table in the corner, her back against the wall, the remains of her meal in front of her. She looked surprised as Amala dropped into the empty seat in front of her.

    "Listen to me," Amala hissed. "You're being watched. Through the cameras."

    Rebecca smiled slowly.

    "Of course I am," she said. "They watch everyone."

    Amala shook her head. "Not like that. They're watching you specifically. You and your friends from the movement. Everywhere you go."

    Rebecca's smile faltered slightly. "How do you know?" she asked.

    "I work for them," Amala said. "I'm the operator assigned to your case. I spend all day watching you."

    Rebecca peered at Amala, trying to make out her face under the concealing hood.

    "Not exactly news to me," she said. "I can always tell. But you're wrong about one thing." She paused for a moment. "It's not me they're watching now. It's you."

    Amala stared at her, open-mouthed. "What do you mean?"

    "There wasn't a camera pointed at this table until you sat down here." She gestured at the far wall of the food court. "I was watching that one as you came down the stairs. It tracked you all the way across the floor."

    Amala fought the urge to turn and stare at the camera behind her. She shook her head. Rebecca couldn't be right. She must be mistaken.

    She put her hands on the table and pushed herself to her feet. It was time to go. She had taken too long already. She turned away without speaking and hurried back towards the stairs, keeping her head down.

    Outside on the street she paused for a moment to steady her nerves. The street was a snarl of stopped traffic, vehicles and pedestrians mingling in the afternoon rush. Yet above the rumble of engines and voices she thought she could hear the low electric whine of a sticktight's motor. She ducked her head and broke into a run.

    Amala sat on her bed, looking down at the little camera that she had pried out of her bedroom wall. The whole thing was hardly bigger than a quarter, the lens a tiny faceted bead of glass. Crumbs of plaster still clung to its metal casing. Buried, the camera had been almost invisible. If she had not known to look, she would never have found it or its twin in the bathroom. She wondered how many more were still hidden around her apartment.

    She took out her phone and tried Duggan's number again, but it just rang and rang. After a while, she gave up. Her access to the Seeing Eye offices had been revoked too. When she swiped her card at the security gate, it buzzed and an angry red light flashed. When the guard got up from behind his desk and came over to see what was the matter, Amala panicked and ran out into the street.

    She wondered if Duggan watched the feed from the cameras in her apartment. Did he get his kicks watching her in the shower? Or did he just assign the job to someone else? She pictured another room full of screens, with rows of women in headphones bent over their monitors. Perhaps somewhere another Amala was watching her. And behind that Amala, another camera, another screen, another watcher. She thought of a soup can she had seen as a child with a label that showed a smiling chef holding a can of soup. On the smaller can was a label with the same scene, hinting at an infinite regression of cans and chefs, all growing smaller and smaller until they vanished into a single dot of ink.

    She put down her phone and went over to the window. She looked down at the street below, counting the places where cameras might hide. Each light pole, each doorway, each shop awning could shelter a watchful eye. When she looked up at the sky, she thought she saw a tiny winged shape silhouetted against the clouds for an instant, something that moved too fast to be a bird.

    Read more in Black Candies - Surveillance: A Journal of Literary Horror


    Image: Carrie Anne Hudson)

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