This is the second story in a series I’m publishing monthly throughout 2020. More details here.
CW: self-harm, blood
From the pharmacist, I get gauze, bandages, surgical tape and antiseptic cream. It took me a while to find a pharmacist that still took cash. From a grotty corner store I pick up the plainest, cheapest razor blades I can find. I don’t need five blades and a trimming razor. The moisturising gel is unimportant. I need razor blades that will break apart easiest.
Back in my cheap hotel bathroom, I assemble my instruments. There is black mould halfway up the walls, in between every tile. The sink has a strange brown stain on the bottom. Every part of me is screaming in disgust, telling me this is a terrible idea, but this sort of hotel isn’t too friendly to any authority. They don’t care who you are, don’t scan your bios on arrival and take cash. It has been open since the last century and probably never been cleaned since. It is like stepping back in time. The paper-thin walls mean I can hear anyone coming. Despite the unsanitary conditions it will do. It will have to.
I snap the brittle plastic casing on one of the razor blades, revealing two very sharp shiny pieces of metal. Great. The mere sight of them makes me feel light-headed and dizzy. I breathe deep, trying to stop the room from spinning. I stare at myself in the grimy mirror. My heart is racing.
My hands shake as I try to extract one of the vicious blades. Come on, I tell myself, get it together. It’s important. I hit the sharp edge somehow, because I flinch back instinctively, my right index finger sliced open. For a moment it just stings and the cut gapes open. I stare at it in horror. Then, as if my body finally remembers what it should do, the blood starts to flow, thick and dark red like wine. I let out a whimper, like a stupid child.
Not knowing what else to do, I run my thumb under the tap and watch my blood flow down into the open plughole. Maybe that’s what the brown stain in the sink is. I try not to think about it. The cut isn’t deep, just scratching the surface of my finger, but it makes me feel sick. I hold my finger, putting pressure on the wound and try not to look at it. The nausea is rising in my throat, the room spins more and more. The cut stings. I hate this. Why am I here?
Now the blood is flowing a bit slower and I feel like I can breathe again. I cover my finger in toilet paper. Back to the task. I have to concentrate. Come on, you idiot. Focus. I need to use my left hand anyway, so the right being out of action doesn’t matter too much.
This time I manage to extract the blade without harming myself. My hand still shakes, but I have the razor out of the safety packaging. I place the razor down on the sink, then feel the ever-present bump between my right thumb and index finger. It isn’t much. Like a hard grain of rice, under your skin. Back in the office, I had forgotten it was there most days. I feel sick. My head spins so much I feel like I am on a roller coaster.
I pick up the blade and hold it over the bump. I am shaking so much I can’t keep it still. The blade feels cold in my hand. I am about to dig into my flesh, retrieve the lump of metal that had been in there for years. Don’t think. Ignore the pain. The blood that will ooze out. Come on, I tell myself, Just do it. Concentrate. One moment of agony but then a whole lifetime of freedom. It has to be worth it. I touch the blade to my skin.
Instinctively, I throw the blade across the room. It is almost a reflex action. The blade clatters on the tiles and falls into the bath. I sit down on the toilet seat, feeling like I am about to pass out or vomit or both at the same time. I am drenched in sweat. It's like I’ve just run a marathon or climbed a mountain. You stupid idiot, I think to myself. You idiot.
So, now I have a problem. I still have the chip inside me and I am clearly too much of a coward to take it out. I’ve always been squeamish, but I thought given the situation I would be able to overcome it. Well, so much for that.
I got the chip on my first day at Phaethon. Standard procedure apparently. If I questioned it at the time I ignored my doubts. I was new to the job. I wanted to make a good impression so I just signed all the medical forms without really reading them. The nurse was friendly at the time but I couldn’t shake my nerves. As she drew out the large pincer I was screaming inside. A small sharp pain and it was over. I had expected more.
The procedure left a small wound, no bigger than the cut on my finger now. Just a scratch really, barely noticeable. What was left was a small lump under my skin between my thumb and index finger. For the first few days, I kept running a finger over it, almost unconsciously, like when you have a tooth out and your tongue keeps returning to the gap. Then I forgot about it and it became a part of me.
My manager told me it was just a near field chip. It would open doors to my office, replacing the antiquated system of key cards. It would work as ID as well, identifying me as eligible for free lunches and snacks in the canteen. I soon got used to waving my hands to open a door or get food. It felt like magic. I didn’t have to scramble around in my bag for a card or remember anything. It was quick and convenient. People glided through the office. There were no more queues. Phaethon was big into embeddable tech and they were putting their money where their mouth was. I heard they were developing more advanced ones that went into your brain, made the world into anything you wanted it to be. Like virtual reality but better. I never saw any of that. It was all just rumours that were swirling around.
My manager left out the more sinister purposes of the chip. Like location tracking and blood monitoring. Funnily enough, they never came up. I got my suspicions a couple of months into the job, when a few people returning from sick days were called into meetings. Sure, it could have been a standard welcome back to work thing but it was only a select few. Those who had meetings were quieter and much more withdrawn after.
Another time, my manager stopped me in the corridor. I can’t remember where I was going but she appeared from a side office. It was too convenient. Like she had been waiting for me.
‘Oh hey, Craig,’ she said, smiling at me. She never smiled. Usually, she glared at you, like you’d done something wrong. My suspicions were raised immediately.
We made small talk for a couple of minutes. Then, just as I was leaving, she smiled again.
‘By the way, remember the company policy on weekday drinking will you?’ I said I would, unsure of how she knew. The way she said it sounded like a threat. It shook me up. All day, my mind kept returning to that sentence.
The night before I had gone to the pub with friends. I had a couple of drinks, but that was it. When I got back I downed a pink of water and brushed my teeth to stop the hangover. I knew how to look after myself. I also knew Phaethon had strict rules about what you did outside of work. If someone turned up with the slightest whiff of alcohol on their breath they were sent home immediately. They wanted to control your whole life. Keep you safe and sound in your little box ready for the next day.
Here’s the thing though. My breath didn’t smell. I even checked my blood alcohol level on a pocket breathalyser I got for a stag do years ago. In the morning, it read zero. I didn’t tell anyone from work I was going out, I didn’t tag myself on social media or anything silly like that. They couldn’t have known. But still, that veiled threat from my manager echoed around my head.
It remained a mystery for a while. I was careful about where I went after work, rescheduling pub trips to the weekend if necessary. Of course, I didn’t suspect the chip in my hand was tracking my every movement. Only when I found a copy of the medical form did I piece together some of it. It was buried deep in my email and I found it by accident when I was searching for something else. I had agreed to constant tracking of my location and continuous blood tests for illegal and legal substances.
Now I have a problem. I need to get the chip out and fast. I am too squeamish to do it myself, that much is clear. Another terrible thought crosses my mind, what if I cut too deep and mess up my hand, slice a nerve to the thumb or worse, sever the tendon to make it useless and limp? I don’t want to use the internet or phone for obvious reasons. Even the most secure connection will be nothing to Phatheon. Besides, people probably haven’t uploaded videos of home surgery and if they have, I don’t want to see it. I pack the blades away and clean up my finger the best I can. Even the sight of the small amount of dried blood on my finger makes me feel faint.
With no other plan of action, I walk the streets. I search for a suitable doctor’s surgery, somewhere desperate and down on its luck, willing to take cash, no questions asked. This is one of the rougher parts of an increasingly slick city. The bad parts still exist, they are just hidden more from the tourists. Graffiti lies over everything. All the shops are boarded up. Everything seems to be broken or decaying.
There is one doctor’s surgery. A small copper sign on the door, no sign overhead. Easy to miss unless you’re looking for it.
What else can I do? I walk in and ask for an emergency appointment. The receptionist is about seventy and looks over her glasses at me with utter derision.
‘James Riley.' Nowhere near my real name of course. I can’t be too careful.
She taps on an ancient keyboard for an interminably long time, looks at me again and frowns.
‘You’re not on the system,’ she says.
‘Can I register?’
‘Sure. It takes seven days while we run the necessary background checks.’
Oh. No good. I decide to push my luck a little further.
‘It’s an emergency though. Don’t you have a duty of care? Don’t you take an oath?’
‘I’m just a receptionist.’
‘Good day,’ she says and turns back to her screen. That is it. The conversation is clearly over.
I linger for a few moments as she types out some message slowly, hoping she will change her mind. The sound of her fingers hitting the keys makes me jumpy. Who is she contacting? Is she informing the authorities? Or worse, is she working for Phaethon?
Without looking back, I push through the ugly plastic door and head out into the cool air.
I have good reason to be paranoid. This morning, I released the whole company files to the public. All the top secret patents. All the personal data. The in-development technologies. All free for anyone to download. It was a reckless, stupid act that had taken weeks to plan. I obsessed over it, yet as soon as it was done I realised what a stupid error I’d made. I’d had enough of being watched and spied on. That was it. I didn’t want to crusade or do it for any moral reason. I was just tired and hurt and wanted to get back at them. It was impossible to crash their bottom line by ruining their stocks or anything like that. I couldn’t stop their multiple subsidies selling ten billion units a day or whatever. So the only thing left to do was accidentally on purpose expose all their dirty secrets.
So that’s what I did. I couldn’t carry a hard drive or USB stick into the building so I worked around it. Over a couple of weeks, I had made some friends online who protested against Phaethon. I changed one line of code on the file system to made everything publicly accessible and then sent them an email. One time only offer. Download while you can.
Then I immediately got up to use the bathroom. Instead of going to the toilet, I walked down ten flights of stairs as I didn’t want to use my chip to summon the lift. I walked out of the building, into the city and away from Phaethon headquarters. I didn’t think too much about what I’d done. I concentrated only on getting as far away as possible. As I was walking in the cool air, the sunshine on my face, it hit me that Phaethon probably took a very dim view of massive data breaches. Especially if they could trace it back to my computer. I could always say someone else used my computer but then, why did I run away? That, and it was probably illegal. I didn’t know the specifics. It felt illegal. Phaethon would want to put me away regardless or get some kind of horrible revenge. Who knew what they were capable of?
Changing direction, I headed for the most run-down part of the city I could find. Only after I checked into the hotel did I remember the chip in my hand.
Now I don’t know what to do. Doctors are clearly out. I have no idea how to find a dodgy surgeon without the internet. No idea how to find a dodgy anything. I’m usually so clean-cut, stay out of trouble. Never brought drugs or anything like that. How did I end up here? I can’t go into a surgery. Two days is too long, Phaethon will find me before then. Besides, I don’t have any of the documents to register. My fake name will be sniffed out immediately. It is hopeless. They will find me. Track me down by following the chip in my hand.
With very few options left, I walk into the nearest pub. I regret it as soon as I walk in. Lights turned down low, dark oak bar, sticky floor and a fruit machine in a corner. Old men at the bar don’t turn to look at me. Instead, they nurse half-drunk pints of bitter. It’s somehow worse than being stared at. Just being ignored.
I order a beer and a whiskey. This place is cheap at least. I down the whiskey when it arrives then make a start on the pint. It all burns but I don’t care too much. My current plan is to drink enough so I’ll have the courage to do the surgery, but not enough so I pass out. I get halfway through and order another. The bar lady doesn’t care. She’s half cut herself, swaying side to side. My money is more important than her questions, so she pours the next two glasses without comment.
Next two drinks in hand, I retreat to a small sticky table. Legs are off so it wobbles, but I don’t care too much. I need all the courage I can get. I’m only a couple of sips into the horrible pint before one of the old men sits down on the stool opposite me.
‘Yewanbuystuff?’ His words roll together, so it takes me a moment to understand him. Before I can respond, he carries on. ‘Up, down, dancers, fairy dust, yenameit.’ His bloodshot eyes watch me for a response. His skin is grey and seems to hang off his skull like heavy curtains on a weak rail. He’s indulged too much in his own product. I shake my head.
‘Suityerself.’ he mutters and turns to walk away.
I don’t know why, but I grab his sleeve. Maybe I’m desperate. Maybe I have nowhere else to turn.
He turns back around slowly. I continue in a whisper.
‘I got a problem. You know a surgeon?’
Bafflement and confusion sweep the weathered face. I hold up my hand. Point to the rice grain trapped in my thumb. A smile of recognition expands over his face, revealing one yellow tooth.
‘Suresuresure. I know people, suresuresure.’
Warm relief spreads over me. I don’t think. I just want to be rid of the tracking device embedded into me.
‘Fivehunnred,’ he says. Fine. Whatever. I don’t even try to argue. I can almost see the pound signs light up in his eyes.
My guard is down. It is always good to try and be a little paranoid, but I am trusting. I am completely in the hands of my new friend, despite everything about him.
I down my pint and follow the old man out of the pub. All the drink has gone to my head and I feel woozy. Not quite right around the edges.
‘You techboy?’ he asks. I nod. ‘Knewit knewit knewit. My friend will help. I can help.’
‘Do you get a lot of people wanting these removed?’
‘Some. All bloody Phaethon and IXS and Scope Systems and.’ He doesn’t trail off, just finishes his sentence. He shrugs.
‘Techboys,’ he says, as if that explains it all.
That’s all the conversation. We walk in silence. He leads me through quiet night streets, lit orange. I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or the situation, but I’m jumpy and feeling sick. Two people sit in a parked car over the street. I look again. No one there. Nothing, I tell myself. Still, as we walk, I feel like there are a million invisible eyes watching me from every corner.
We reach a block of flats and head up to a grotty one bed on the seventh floor. It’s strewn with pizza boxes and empty cans of lager.
‘Sitsit,’ the old man says to me. It’s an order. I make space on the sofa where I can and sit down.
‘I’ll make a call,’ he says and smiles again. I don’t like the way he smiles. Too triumphant. I feel like a fly in a web. I’m trapped. This was a mistake.
He leaves for another room. I hear him on the phone, speaking in another language to someone. He sounds excited. My heart starts to race. What am I doing here? I have no idea that this man will help me. He might be working for Phaethon this whole time. Or he could tip them off. Get a double payment. I try to listen to what he is saying but the wall and the other language means I can’t recognise any words. I should get up and run. Go out the door and get out of here.
Just as I’m about to leave, he comes back into the room.
‘He’ll be here soon. soonsoonsoon.’
I can't move. What if the man has a knife? I’m convinced now this is a terrible idea. They’re going to drag me away. They might have torture rooms. I grip the arm of the sofa tight, my fingers digging into the soft fabric. I study every line on the man’s face. He stares back at me. We sit there for a long time, my heart racing, my breathing shallow. My brain is screaming at me ‘get out, get out, get out.’ I’ve made a mistake.
I can’t move even if I wanted to. I’m frozen in the spot. I’m stone. Soon they will arrive and drag me away. They know where I am. This man is working for them. I have walked into their trap. I know these to be facts.
The silence is broken by a loud, heavy knock on the door. We both look towards it. The old man gets up.
I dig my fingers further into the armchair. The door opens.