November 21st: The future of privacy
Independence Day
, by Fay Lee

Shhh!  They might hear you.

No, we don’t have to whisper, but keep your voice down.

That’s better.

I know you’ve done nothing wrong, that’s not the point.  There are things I want to talk to you about, things that They wouldn’t want you to hear.  I’ve seen you around school, heard you in class, and I think you’re special.  That’s why I asked you here.  But I need to know…  Can you keep a secret?

No, we can’t talk, not now.  They could hear us.  But I think I can trust you.  Can I?

Okay then, I know a place we can meet.  I’ve got a map, take it.  Don’t show it to anyone.

Yeah it’s paper, what, never seen hardcopy before?  Meet me tomorrow, same time.  Bring the map.

You promise?

See you tomorrow.

#

Hi, thanks for coming.  I know it’s out of the way.

Well, okay, it’s not the best.  But see that?  It acts like a sound barrier, stops Them from overhearing us, as long as we’re not too loud.  And the trees make it harder for Them to spy on us.

Yeah cozy.  And private.  Have you got that map?

What does it look like I’m doing?  Burning it.  You know how to get here now.

Maybe I am.  I want to talk to you, get to know you better.  And… I want to do that without Them eavesdropping on everything.  I want to share things with you, not Them.

No, don’t… Don’t think I’m being weird, I just don’t want someone else finding out about this place.  Please stay.

I dunno.  Hold your hand.  The leaves over there’re dry enough to sit on, if you like.

Why don’t you tell me more about yourself?  What matters most to you, what’re your values?

Yeah, values.  What do you believe in?

Stop it, you’re making me laugh, too!

Uh, okay, well one thing I really value is privacy.

Sure.  I couldn’t sit and talk like this with you, without privacy.  That’s why I asked you to come here, so we could be some place away from Them.

Sure They were created to keep us safe, but at what price?  When was the last time you were free to say what you thought, without having to worry about what They’d think?  There’s no privacy any more – They hear and see everything.  This is the one spot around here that’s different and I wanted to share it with you.  To show you something, I dunno, amazing.

C’mon, it’s at least special!  You don’t think?

Yeah, I suppose so.  I mean, I do think privacy matters.  Our ancestors thought they had a right to privacy.  They didn’t want to be spied on all the time, they called it Big Brother.  It mattered to them and if we understood what we’d lost, it’d matter to us.

How can it be for the best?  Look, I thought you were smart, I thought you could understand me.  If I’ve got that wrong…

I’m glad.  Not everyone these days has the sort of mind that can take new stuff in, you know, the ability to even think about personal freedom anymore, let alone care about it.

Personal freedom.  See?  You don’t even know what I mean.  We’re so used to Them eavesdropping on us and spying on us and Adjusting our desires away that the words don’t even make sense anymore.  Yet it used to be so important.

I guess you’d say it’s the ability to make your own decisions, carry out actions and take responsibility for the outcomes.

Exactly.  To know what’s what and not just follow what you’re being told, to live life without expecting that if you sound or look like you’re going to do something They don’t agree with, it’ll be stopped from happening and even wanting to do it will Adjusted away.

I don’t know about that.  I’ve never been Adjusted.

Nope, never!  I’ve always known what freedom’s about, and responsibility, and privacy.  So I’ve been careful not to give them a reason to Adjust me.

But isn’t that because we’ve never really had responsibility, so we’ve never been able to learn a different way?  These days, people don’t think about consequences because the consequences are taken away, and any urge to learn and find out… it’s just wiped away.  Isn’t there anything you know about yourself better than anyone else?

There you go.  So why should They have the right to Adjust that away, if They disagree?

You don’t think?  But They could, couldn’t They?

Does it really teach anything?  I think people need to experience consequences to grow.  Like I said, I’ve never been Adjusted, I take responsibility for my actions.  Everyone else… like children.  Can you imagine you and me doing something important that people used to do at our age, like fighting a war or something, it’d be…

No, of course not!  But war wasn’t just about hurting and killing people just because you wanted to.  War was also about defending your home and people you love, and safeguarding a way of life you think is worthwhile, and values you believe in, like liberty and justice.  Stuff we don’t even think about now.

Yeah, ironic, huh?  They now police it, but it’s personal freedom and rights and responsibilities that developed those values in the first place, and these are the things we’ve lost because of Them.  I mean, does anyone actually believe in these things anymore?  How can they, when they don’t even think about them, they’re just the boundaries of what’s permitted?

I know, it is a lot to take in.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to talk about that, I just wanted to show you this place.  To be with you, and just you, for a while.  But think about it.  I guess it is important to me and I… I’d like to share it with you.

Well, I thought I’d be asking whether anyone’s told you you’re pretty.

Oh.  Right.  When could you come again?  I’d really like to see you some more.

I don’t mean to be, I just want to make a time now and stick to it, without sending it to your diary so They tell you where you’re going and when and why.  I mean, I wouldn’t forget when I’m gonna see you next, y’know?

Is that the earliest?

Okay, then.  See you next week.

#

Hey, glad to see you, I was about to give up.

Yeah, it’s hard to keep track of things without a diary, but that’s why it makes you grow.  Makes you an adult, not a child wrapped up and kept snug in a cot.

Am I getting carried away?  Think about it, how much freedom do you really have?  How much responsibility?  Do you think you’ve ever really made your own decisions and took responsibility for your life?

That’s not real responsibility!  That’s just what your parents get you to do!  Where’s the risk, the judgment, the consequences to your decisions?

C’mon, let’s sit down, I didn’t ask to see you alone just to talk about Them.

Interested?  I thought you might say obsessed.  But I’m not, really, just… aware.

Well okay, but I kinda don’t know where to start.  Um…  Look, see that tree?  Imagine climbing it and if you fell out, not having Them to catch you.  It’d be up to you to use your own judgment and skill, and you would, because the repercussions if you didn’t would be real.  Fear, exhilaration and responsibility, real responsibility.  Anyway, that’s all I was saying.

Do you mind if I put my arm around you?

You don’t think I’m a weirdo, do you?  I just think this stuff matters.

Because it’s what people used to do and take for granted.  Generations lived with risk, freedom and understanding the outcomes associated with their actions, but we end up unable to live without Them to tell us everything and keep us safe.

No, I don’t think it’s too late, I don’t think it’s just the way things are.  Things can change.  With the right person, y’know.

I hope you are.  I guess you must be.  You’re here, aren’t you, and we’re having this conversation.

Well, if They heard it, They’d be in here like a shot, wanting to Adjust us.

You hadn’t realized?  But that’s what I mean.  We’re just talking, but it’d be considered too dangerous for Them.

Hey, I’m sorry!  But you’re not in any trouble, that’s why we’re here, so They can’t hear us.

Look, why’re getting you so upset?  Like I said, you’re not in any trouble.  God, you’re acting like a child.

Yeah, maybe.  If just talking upsets you so much, maybe you’re not ready for anything else.  Looks like I got it wrong, you’re just like the rest.

I’m not being like anything.  You’re the one who thinks that a conversation is too much responsibility to take.

What does it look like?  I’m going.  I have things to do.

Yeah?  You don’t act like you want to meet again.

If you say so.  I’ll be here, but I won’t wait around like I did today.  You know where I’ll be, and when.

Sure, ‘bye.

#

So you came after all.

No I didn’t, not after you got so scared last time.

Yes you were!  But you’re here now and that’s what matters.  I thought maybe you wouldn’t come.  What brought you back?

See, I told you.  You push the envelope just a bit and you can feel the chains.  Even your own parents, who’re supposed to love and nurture you, want to stop you growing up.

Yeah, of course I treat you like an adult.  Aren’t we both, more or less?  I mean, it’s not like we hit some magic number and morph into adults overnight, we haven’t been kids for ages.  And isn’t that what you keep getting told?  I do.  That at my age, I ought to be grown up enough to make decisions and act responsibly.  That’s what they say, but the moment you do, your parents and teachers tell you they know what’s best, and if some ‘adult’ isn’t around to run your life for you, They’re there, stopping you from doing anything stupid.  Well, people used to fight and get married and all sorts when they were our age without being babysat by Them.  Can you imagine if we had to do that?

Yeah, well, that’s what the world’s coming to.  By the time anyone lets us think for ourselves, there’s nothing left for us to think about.

Of course I like you.  I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.  And didn’t I say you were special?

I don’t know.  You’re so pretty.  Your eyes, your lips, your hair.  Everything.  You make me feel… alive.  Excited.  Like I’d like to get closer to you.

Of course I mean it.  Can’t you tell?

No, not here.

You know I want to.  But not here.  It’s not private enough.  If They found us, we’d get in trouble.  You know They wouldn’t care what we thought, They wouldn’t approve of us being alone together.  They’d Adjust us so we never wanted to see each other again.

Yeah, I know.

Well, there are ways of doing things without Them knowing, without getting caught.  Like I said, I haven’t ever been Adjusted and I’ve done things…

No, nothing like that.  I keep telling you, you’re special.  I’ve never…  I dunno.  Felt so close to someone.

Yeah, me too.

Hey, I just had a thought.  Maybe I do know somewhere more private.  Somewhere we could really be alone together.  My family used to go camping at this place, it’s a long way from anywhere and They don’t go out there because no-one lives out that way.  If we went there, it’d be just the two of us.

But didn’t you say…

Then meet me there.

Look, you know yourself best, I just said ‘coz you asked, you make your own decision.

No I’m not.

Well, you said you wanted to, and I thought maybe you liked me.

I’m not… You said it.  You said you wanted us to be close.  All I’m saying is that I want that, too, and I know a place we can be.  But it’s up to you.

A lot.  I like you a lot.  That’s why I want to spend time with you, without having to hide down a bank, under a tree.

Yeah, at this place I’m thinking about.  But you understand that you can’t tell anyone else about it, don’t you?  I don’t want Them to find us and Adjust everything away.

I can give you directions now, it’s not hard to find: you take a Hills pod to the end of the line, then there’s a field on the right with a gate.  Climb over the gate and follow the track to the end.  It’s not very far.  There’s a big rock in the side of a hill.  It sort of juts out, makes a little cave.  It’s private, but not cramped like here.

You’re sure you can remember that?  Because I want so much to be alone with you, show you what you mean to me.  Want me to go over it?

Yeah, you’ve got it.  And you think you can remember that?

How about Saturday?  Catch a pod first thing in the afternoon and I’ll be waiting for you.  I promise.  No-one will be able to get between us there, not your parents, not Them, not anyone.  And I’ll have a surprise for you.

I’m not telling you, it’s a surprise.

Yeah, maybe.  To make sure you come, because I’m really looking forward to it.

Yeah, me too.  Saturday.

#

Ta da!  Well, what do you think?

C’mon, it’s not that bad!  But it’s not what it looks like that’s important, it’s what it is, and that’s private.  Are you sure you weren’t followed?

Yes, I am paranoid!  It took me a long time to find this place, I don’t want anyone to spoil it.  I don’t want Them to turn up when it’s just you and me and everything’s perfect.

What?

I said…?  Are you sure?

I’m not calling you a liar, yeah, I remember, I did just think of it then, so all I was saying now was…  No, don’t go.

I’m not getting out of your way until I’ve given you your surprise.

There, that’s better.  Sorry I had to hit you.  You needn’t bother, I’ve been studying knots.

Let you go?  I haven’t even started!  I’ve got another surprise for you.  Here, what do you think?

You bet I’m serious.  Want me to show you how sharp it is?

Oh, but it is funny!  See, the real surprise is, I think I’d like to kill someone.  It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but now I’m sure.  This is going to give me a real thrill.  Worth all the effort I put into getting you here.

Yeah, you’re getting it now.  Pity you haven’t had much experience in thinking for yourself, you might’ve bothered wondering earlier about why They exist.  See, generations back, our forebears realized that the most dangerous thing left in the world was people.  There are so many of us now, the chance of someone different popping up, somewhere, starts to approach certainty.

That’s right.  They’re not really here to stop us hurting ourselves, but to stop the ‘me’s in the world from hurting the ‘you’s.  Pity for your ‘you’ that my ‘me’ figured a way around Them, huh?

Maybe.  But I didn’t lie.  I said I wanted to be close to you, and nothing could be more intimate than this.  I said I was really looking forward to being alone with you, and I am.  And you’re starting to learn that some actions have consequences you mightn’t have foreseen, aren’t you?  Not everything you do ends with a happily ever after.  Personal freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes.  Individual responsibility allows the opportunity to do wrong.  Very wrong.

Go ahead, scream some more.  They won’t hear you.

*

Australian Fay Lee always wanted to write science fiction.  Following the adage that “the best sci-fi writers are engineers” has led to twenty years of work and study, with the result that she is still transitioning from her career to her passion.  After a year of writing, she has had flash fiction published in Aurealis SF and short stories accepted by Angelic Knight Press and Musa Publishing’s Erato imprint.


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