True to Yourself, by Matthew Harrison
Nate Wilkinson’s identity had been compromised. The red-haired, freckled, blue-eyed North London-dwelling young male average-height persona that he habitually lived – of certain fingerprint and retinal specifications – no longer registered on the sensors. And that made things rather awkward.
Nate’s friends thought it was funny, though. The evening after it happened, Riaz and the others took him to the pub – which was just as well since he could no longer get in by himself – and ribbed him unmercifully. “Need a new you!”, “Boil him down and serve him up again!”, “Nah, just throw him away!” were their kindest comments.
The one that stung most was Riaz’s gentle, “Got bitten by one of your own risks, did you?” For Nate was a risk manager at Gagabank; he was supposed to patrol the bank’s highways and byways on the lookout for bad things. Now something bad had happened to him.
Only Julie, Riaz’s blonde girlfriend, saw how serious it was. When the others had quietened down, she took him aside and asked what had happened.
Nate couldn’t explain it. “I got into the office all right, and checked a few transactions. Everything was fine. Then at about ten o’clock, an ‘Unauthorised’ message came up on my screen, and everything suddenly locked down. I tried to call IT, but the phone wouldn’t work, and–”
“What about your mobile?” Julie asked.
“That’s just it – everything went down at once, personal as well as professional.”
“But they know it’s you, surely,” Julie said consolingly. “They’re going to sort it out for you?”
“Well, I suppose so. But it was pretty brutal. Dave from Security came in, and stood over me while I packed my things –”
“Not Big Dave?” (Julie knew some of Nate’s office friends) “The bastard! And he owes you drinks as well…”
Nate thought of Dave and his other colleagues, their faces suddenly cold. “I’ll write the drinks off,” he said glumly. “I may have to write a lot of things off. Christ, I can’t even go to the toilet by myself!”
It was true. He had to get Riaz to open the toilet door, and then block the sensor (Riaz being rather large) so that he could sneak in behind him. Nate half-expected to be challenged at the urinal, but there were no sensors there. “It’s just a pub,” Riaz said consolingly, as he shielded Nate on the way out. “They don’t need to secure their urine assets. Though if you’d wanted to have a shit…”
When he returned, Julie was indeed sympathetic. “They can’t just leave you like that,” she said, “it’s inhuman. And you haven’t done anything!” She squeezed his hand. “I’m sure they’ll sort you out.”
Meanwhile, since Nate obviously couldn’t get into his own home, Riaz put him up for the night. “I’ve authorised you for everything here,” he spread his arms in the hallway of the semi-detached he shared with Julie, “phone, bed, fridge – even the toilet. You can shit to your heart’s content.”
The following morning, using Riaz’s phone – which involved extensive protocol to prove that he was indeed the person Riaz had authorised – Nate reached Wendy at Gaga’s HR department. HR were waiting for clearance from security. So – after more protocol – he called Dave, but got only a voice message. Frustrated, Nate shouted, “I know you’re there, you big so-and-so. Just get me out of this mess!”
The response came as soon as he clicked the phone off. A holographic image of Dave appeared in Riaz’s living room, so burly, bearded and Scottish-accented that Nate felt quite threatened. But he forced himself to stay calm, merely nodding as the avatar explained his rights and warned him not to do anything he would regret.
With a final admonition, the holo vanished. Nate tried HR Wendy again. “You know it’s me,” he pleaded with her, trying to keep the whine out of his voice. “Can’t you do something, give me a provisional ID?”
Wendy paused. “I’d like to believe… I’m sure it is you, Nate. But you’ve got to understand, Nate Wilkinson doesn’t exist on our network, and we do have to look after the bank. I’m sure you understand…”
Nate took a breath. “I exist, don’t I? You know it’s my voice?”
“It sounds like you, Nate, but I’m afraid you really don’t exist, at least not as far as the bank is concerned.”
Nate played his final card, “Wendy, I thought we were friends…” He had indeed once taken her out for coffee – he wished now it had been dinner, and more than once.
“I’m sorry,” was the reply, distant now, “I really am.” The phone beeped and reminded him that he needed fresh authorisation from Riaz to continue.
Unsure whether he would be able to re-enter Riaz’s house if he left it, Nate stayed in all morning, glumly making a cold lunch from the contents of the fridge. There was no question of heating anything; Riaz had forgotten to authorise him for the oven or even the kettle. Nate didn’t even dare walk around the house in case his unaccustomed presence triggered a sensor.
Yet as the afternoon drew on, and pale winter sunshine gleamed on the street outside, he became increasingly restless. Riaz would be back after work, and Julie too; at worst he’d be locked out for a few hours. Taking a precautionary visit to the toilet – where he availed himself of Riaz’s full-scope authorisation – Nate closed the front door behind him, walked down the short front path, and stepped into the street.
He took deep breaths of the crisp January air. He was free – anxious, uncertain of his future, but free. Even if his life was a mess, there was a certain relief at not being answerable to a thousand profilers, not having to play out his daily routine at the bank.
Turning randomly, Nate walked along the street. Riaz lived outside London proper, in Essex where the houses were cheaper, and after a little the housing estate gave way to fields. Idly, he crossed the road for a closer look. The first couple of fields were agri-business, raw stubble reeking of fertiliser, but the next field was smaller, with mixed vegetation in little plots even at this season, like the allotment his parents used to tend. He stopped to look at it.
A light on the neighbouring lamppost began to blink red. Damn! Nate thought – a sensor. He walked swiftly on, reflecting that in Central London he would probably would have been arrested by now, an unidentified male wandering about.
Nate reached the end of the variegated field. There stood a group of rough buildings, the largest a sort of barn. He happened to glance back, and saw a black speck moving fast over the houses in the distance. A drone! Part of him wanted to stop and explain, indignantly protest his rights. But another part recalled the relentless bureaucracy he had been up against since the previous day. The drone banked; Nate dived off the road and behind the barn.
“Wear this!” came a commanding female voice. Surprised, Nate turned, to find a tough-looking young woman holding out a piece of sacking. He hesitated. But in seconds the drone would appear. He did not want to be caught. Without speaking, he took the sacking and wrapped it over his head.
“That’’s right,” the woman said. Then she signalled to someone. “Ben – quickly now!”
A man, dressed in little better than sacking himself, emerged from the barn and started to walk briskly out to the road. The woman took Nate’s arm, and led him into the interior.
When Nate’s eyes had adjusted to the dimmer light of the barn, he found to his surprise that it was full of people among what looked like stalls. Yet they were not the smartly dressed smartly-identified staff of the bank, nor yet Riaz and Julie, assured in their middle-class personae. No, these people were ill-kempt and shabbily-dressed. Were they tramps? Bereft of the identifying aura that his mobile generated around everyone he encountered, Nate was at a loss.
But they were looking at him. He limply held up a hand in greeting, conscious of his own smart clothes.
“Relax!” said the woman, and the people turned back to their stalls.
“I’m Sheena,” the woman said. She was tall, nearly his height, and sturdily built beneath her rough smock. In one gloved hand she held what Nate recognised as a trowel, earthy, as if she had just been working. Her face was worn but confident.
Nate gave his name. Then, since she had just saved him from the drone, he felt he owed her an explanation
Sheena listened, her face cracking into a smile at the toilet episode. “You’ll get used to it. We have a septic tank at the back, if you need to go.”
The man called Ben returned, and Sheena asked him to show Nate around. Nate followed, trying to take it in. The things that looked like stalls were just that, laid out with vegetables, items of clothing, and small tools and other useful-looking items. There was something odd about it all. Nonetheless, people were looking, picking items up, apparently shopping. “Yeah, this is how we get what we need,” Ben said, reading his thought.
Nate came to. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I owe you, for the drone.”
“It hovered around for a closer look, then went off again,” Ben said. “They’re not interested in us.”
“And who is… us?”
Ben smiled. “Look!” he said, gesturing at the rough wooden stall beside them, piled with carrots, potatoes, beets still covered with grains of earth.
Nate looked, and he understood. The vegetables were not washed, not packed, not tagged, not anything-ed – they were just in their raw state.
“We’re unidentified,” said Ben.
It was an entire society they had here, Nate discovered. They provided one another with food, clothing and other supplies they made themselves, even with services. Sheena was a teacher when she was not organising the farm. Ben pointed out another woman who was a doctor.
Eventually, Nate asked, “How can you do all this without…” he reached for the word “…without trust. You don’t know who you are,” he ended lamely, sounding ridiculous even to himself.
“We do know who we are,” came Sheena’s voice, startling him. She moved quietly for her size. “We are the untouchables, the ones who slipped through the cracks.”
Nate faced her. “So they–they let you…?” he managed.
Sheena laughed. “I’m sure they would rather we weren’t there. But they can’t just dispose of us. Although…” She took him a little aside, and lowered her voice, “they may not let us stay here much longer, so close to town.”
Nate thought of Riaz and Julie, and their brightly-lit home just minutes distant, secured and interpenetrated by its network of interlocking identifiers. He thought of the city beyond that, where myriad people and entities danced an ever more sophisticated dance in the validated, identified world. Then the thought vanished. He was in this cold barnyard, growing dim in the winter dusk. And he was hungry.
There was cooked food in a pan on the next stall. Nate reached for his mobile to pay – and then stopped. “How do I…”
“Do something to help,” Sheena said. She spoke to the stallholder. He brought Nate a bowl of hot stew. Nate gulped it down as he stood, using his fingers to steer the lumps into this mouth. Then, wiping his hands on his jacket, he offered his help.
Much later, the last lights in the barn were put out, and Nate lay down on a rough blanket, his head whirling with the day’s strange events. He must get back to Riaz and Julie, was his last thought, they would be worrying.
“We weren’t worried,” Julie said, as she greeted him with a hug, “we knew the police’d pick you up, we just hoped you wouldn’t be too uncomfortable there.” She stood back anxiously to look at him. “What is that on your head?”
It was the sacking; Nate had shrouded himself as a precaution on the way back to their house. He took it off. “I didn’t go to the police,” he said quietly. Julie’s eyes widened.
Riaz appeared. “So there you are, where have you been?” He threw up his arms, filling the small doorway, “Tell me later, get yourself ready.” He edged past Nate to the kitchen. “Phew! You smell. Take a shower quickly, wear some of my things, we don’t want to be late. ”
“Late for what?”
“We’re meeting Dex.”
Dex was one of Riaz’s mates. Nate had met him once and vaguely remembered – glasses, long hair tied with an elastic band, computer science. “Can he help?” he asked Riaz as they got into his car. Riaz hoped so.
The journey, in the validated world again, was strange – the sensors everywhere, the roadside ads for curries and halal food that popped up for Riaz’s benefit, the people on the pavement, all of them well-dressed, fashionable, defined.
Then Riaz turned into a cul-de-sac and asked Nate to get out.
“Are we there?” Nate looked around; it was just a residential road, the sensors on the street lamps already beginning to blink at his unverifiable presence.
“Not yet. Quick, get in the back and lie down. Yes, the sack, that’s right.”
Riaz patted the sacking down over Nate, and drove off with a squeal of tires. “You’re attracting too much attention,” he explained. “It’s a pain being your friend.”
“Thank you,” said Nate, through the sacking.
Some time later, when Nate had become thoroughly tired of being rolled about on the back seat, Riaz pulled up. Opening the door, he bundled Nate out, head in the sacking, and shouting to someone on his mobile somehow got them into the building. Then he rushed out again to park the car before the sensors blew.
Nate unwrapped himself, and looked around. He was alone in a small windowless room. A pop art poster on the wall depicted interlocking spirals.
“Welcome to D.I.S,” came a young man’s voice.
Nate looked around again, but there was no one there. Must be intercom, he thought to himself. “Where are you?” he said out loud.
“How can we help?” came the voice again.
Nate became annoyed, he wasn’t going to speak to a wall. “Are you Dex? If so–”
The door opened and in walked Dex himself. At least the figure generally conformed to his memory of Dex, although the clothes were sharper, the hairline further back, a diamond glittered in one ear.
“Digital Identification Services,” the figure said, extending a hand. Nate reached out – and his hand clutched air!
What?! Nate staggered back. The hologram disappeared. Then a panel in the wall behind him opened, and in walked another version of Dex carrying a notebook. “Pretty good, huh?” it said, extending a hand. This version seemed more human, the face with natural blemishes, and Nate reached out warily. This time his fingers closed on warm flesh.
“So you’ve had a little problem?” Dex said. “Let’s see.” He scanned Nate with the notebook, then sat down plying the keys. “Yes, got you here. Wow! You have been un-validated, un-friended, un-just-about-everything-ed. A very thorough job!” He looked up. “If I didn’t have you right here, I’d think you didn’t exist!”
At that moment, Riaz came in, his bulk filling up quite a portion of the small room. There was a faint smell of curry.
“…So our friend has had a DDOE attack,” Dex was explaining to Riaz. “Distributed denial of existence – quite unsettling for the victim. In fact, it’s one of the most thorough jobs I’ve seen.” He shut the notebook. “Wonder if the chap would work for us…”
“Dex!” Riaz said reprovingly.
“Sorry,” Dex grinned. “Now, normally, DDOE is not hard to set right – after all, we have the real Nate with us. We can just enter his biometrics into the system again, can’t we?”
“Yes, sure, we can!” said Riaz. Nate felt relief rising through him.
“Except that those biometrics have been un-validated!” said Dex smugly. “Vicious circle, huh?”
Nate’s feeling of relief ebbed. What was he getting at?
Dex held up a hand. “There is a way out,” he said soothingly. “What they register in the system isn’t your specifications absolutely.”
“It isn’t? ” Nate said.
“No. That would be too rigid. What happens to voice recognition if you’ve got a cold? To fingerprints if you’ve cut your finger?”
Nate nodded slowly.
“Anyway, there are two safeguards. Firstly, they slightly blur the original metrics to allow for natural variation, and then apply fuzzy logic. A light cold – or a bit of straw in your hair…” He giggled; Nate hurriedly swept his scalp. “Then secondly…” He paused.
“Go on, go on!” Riaz urged. “We’re beyond blurring here.”
Dex opened his notebook again. “Well, it’s really a trade secret, but we insert deliberate errors into the parameter package – ‘cancellable biometrics’, we call it.” He beamed.
Nate was nonplussed. “How–how does that help?” he said at last.
“Easy! If something goes wrong, we cancel the cancellable – and then enter the actual identifiers again with a new cancellable! The cancellable is our secret sauce.” He chuckled. “I really shouldn’t have told you that!”
“So – so what can you do about me?” Nate managed.
“Do about you? Well, I’m going to document your case, for a start. Very interesting – our professional society would welcome it, I might give a talk about you, yes…” Dex tapped on his notebook. “What did you say your name was?”
Riaz leant over and snapped the notebook shut, Dex only just getting his fingers out in time. “What Nate means, you dickhead, is, what can you do to help?”
Dex rubbed his fingers. “That was quite unnecessary. Of course I’m going to help, helping is what we do.” He re-opened his notebook warily, holding it with one hand as he typed with the other. “It’s just that the case is interesting, I honestly haven’t seen one like it before…”
“So you can’t help Nate?”
Dex winced. “Never say never, Riaz. It’s just that whoever’s done this has got hold of the cancellables as well. It’s either an inside job,” he turned to Nate, “did you have any enemies in the company? Or it’s a very clever piece of hacking.” He tapped away, using both hands now.
Silently, Riaz rose and motioned to Nate to follow him out of the room.
“Useless geek!” Riaz said to Nate as he drove them back. Then, “I suppose he did say one thing – do you have enemies in the company?”
Nate, lying under his sacking on the back seat tried to think. You always had enemies. And even those you thought were your friends – Dave, Wendy… “Not to speak of,” he said finally, in a muffled voice.
Riaz dropped Nate off outside his house, and having waited to make sure his friend could get in, drove off again to work.
Inside, Nate sat on the sofa. What to do now?
Using Riaz’s phone, he rang the bank again. But there was no further information. The house was silent – even the clocks and sensors that monitored his heartbeat, checking it constantly against the authorisation profile Riaz had entered on his behalf, did their work silently. Nate got up, thinking to wander about the house. The sensors on the wall blinked warningly, and Nate sat down again. It was hard leading a verified life.
He wondered about the hacker who had done this. But it was just random, he told himself, he had just been unlucky. Though surely he was not the first person in the bank to be compromised. If it had been the MD, now, he thought bitterly, they would have found a solution. But Nate Wilkinson in Risk Management, he was expendable…
The more Nathan thought about his situation, the more alone he felt. His family weren’t close, he couldn’t expect much from them. Even Riaz and Julie wouldn’t look after him much longer, it was too much of a dislocation. And what help could they provide? He couldn’t even move from the sofa for fear of tripping a sensor!
Tears of self-pity formed. Nathan lifted the sacking to dab his eyes, then hesitated. He wasn’t entirely alone.
“Glad you came back to us,” Sheena said. “What can we do for you? Any unwanted drone attention?” She glanced mockingly at the sky. “Ben’s not here today.”
Somehow, that news was rather welcome to Nate. But not wanting to seem impolite, he said, “Oh, where is he?”
“Raiding,” came the answer.
Sheena laughed. “You’re so straight, Nathan – just trundling down the tramlines of your verified life. Open up, get off the rails!” She turned to go into the barn.
Nate hurried after her. “Try me,” he urged her.
“Make yourself useful first,” was Sheena’s response. And Nate did, glad to have something to do. Under the supervision of a pleasant grey-haired woman called Cara, he washed and peeled potatoes, and otherwise helped to prepare the midday meal for the crowd that gradually filtered in.
Sheena, meanwhile, disappeared. Nate wondered if she was with Ben on the ‘raid’, whatever that was. He tried to stop thinking that thought.
“Where do you all come from,” he asked Cara as they washed the dishes.
“They started out like you, suburbanites, some of them with quite senior jobs,” she said. “And then something went wrong, or they opted out.”
“And you can live like this?”
Cara spread her arms, her gesture seeming to encompass the cooking pots, the table, the chairs where so many people had just been sitting, the stalls where people were still choosing, apparently buying things. “We’re growing,” she said.
“Don’t you want to–to go back?” Nathan asked. Pleasant though it was for a change, living rough on a farm didn’t seem like a future.
“Go back?” Cara repeated. She indicated the row of houses beyond the field. “To that sink of bad credit?”
Nate who handled credit daily in the bank and thought he knew something about it, was nonplussed.
“That’s what it is, isn’t it?” Cara said, drawing a strand of grey hair back from her forehead. “That’s why you need IDs, to do things with people that you wouldn’t dare to do with a stranger. And he’s doing things with you he wouldn’t otherwise dare to do – and with everyone else as well, just as you are with everyone else. It’s a massive Ponzi game!”
This was too much for Nate. “It’s risk-managed,” he protested.
“Young man,” Cara prodded him firmly in the chest, “if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.”
Sheena returned as dusk was setting over the field. She seemed preoccupied, and Nate did not like to interrupt. But the sense of his own situation pressed on him, he had to know more. When he saw her come free, he quickly went over. “Could you tell me…?” he began.
Sheena turned, apparently not too pleased to see him. “We’re having trouble over you,” she said.
“Trouble? Over me?” Nathan was shocked. This was grievous, after all the kindness they had shown him. “I don’t want to cause you trouble,” he said, his voice shaking. “I’ll give myself up, I’ll…” He turned, looking wildly up at the sky as if there would be a drone for him to surrender to.
Sheena put a hand on his arm. “Relax,” (even in his distress, Nate realised she said this a lot) “Take it easy. We’re having trouble placing you in the group, that’s what I mean.” She had a wry expression, as if the double meaning had been deliberate. “No, we’ll help you, as long as you need us. It’s just that we’ve never had a risk manager before.”
Relief flooded over Nathan. But something still troubled him. “The raiding? Ben?”
“Don’t worry about that!” Sheena laughed again. “We can grow our own food, develop medicines, look after ourselves up to a point. But some services we can’t generate internally. We have to get them from the identified community. So we raid.”
“Oh.” Nate had a brief mental image of Ben on horseback, leading a team of cow- rustlers across the prairie.
“Just our word for it, don’t take me too seriously.” Sheena seemed to find him a steady source of entertainment. “You would probably call it, barter.”
“By the way,” she went on, “there’s a message for you.”
“A message?” Nathan looked around. The barnyard world seemed so remote, he couldn’t imagine a message other than by a human messenger. For answer, Sheena rolled back her sleeve, and showed him her wrist-screen.
Nathan peered at the screen. The message was from Julie; it read, “Nate, if you read this, please come back. We’ve got a solution.”
Somehow, this was less welcome to Nate than it should have been.
“Oh it’s so good to see you, Nathan,” Julie said, hugging him. “And do get rid of that ridiculous sack!”
Setting the offending item on a chair, she led him into the sitting room. There Riaz sprang out like a bear from his cave, and gave Nate another hug.
“Good to see you,” Nate mumbled as he freed himself, wondering how Julie could stand the curry.
“I’ve got news!” Riaz said excitedly. “You know Dex? Yes, of course, you met him, silly question. Well, he’s not such a useless geek after all, he came up with something.”
Riaz paused. “How to explain this? Look, sit down, I’ll show you. Picture’s worth a thousand words, eh?”
He set his bulk down on the sofa and began tapping into his laptop. “Yes, here we are. What do you think of that?”
Nate bent down and looked. The screen showed a smart young man with reddish hair and a small reddish moustache. ‘Brian Silverman’, the caption read; ‘Interests: Cycling, country walks, chamber music… Skills: Derivatives, risk management…’
“Hm, handsome guy!” Julie said approvingly over his shoulder. “Knows a thing or two as well.”
“Don’t make me jealous,” Riaz laughed. “Well,” he turned to Nate “what do you think?”
Nate’s jaw dropped. “You don’t mean…?”
“It’s the easiest way back,” Julie said pleadingly. “I’ve spoken to Wendy at the bank, she’s sure she can do it, your vacancy’s still there…”
Nate’s feelings must have shown on his face, for Riaz grabbed his arm, and sat him down forcibly on the sofa. “Nate, I know how you’re feeling,” he began, “I’d feel the same if I had to grow a moustache and be interested in, oh I don’t know, Greek food, and walk with a limp–”
“Walk with a limp?”
“Dex said it was better that way. You’ve got to change your behavioural pattern, and a limp’s the easiest way, no need to change your other behaviours, that’s the beauty… Look, it’s easy!” Riaz sprang up again, and limped vigorously around the tiny living room to show how easy it was.
“Oh, do stop, you’ll knock something,” Julie cried, standing protectively in front of the mantelpiece. “But really, Nathan,” she said, “it’s not hard, and it’ll get you back in the swing of things. You can do it, you really can! Dex put a lot of effort into it, you know. Your friends are trying to help you,” she added reproachfully.
Nate looked down at the elegant coiffured image of Brian Silverman, floating securely in his panoply of connections and identifying traits. Then he looked up at his two friends, equally secure in the web of identities that connected them with the pathways and communities of their world. And then he thought of something else.
Dusk was falling and a chill breeze rising, but as Nate stepped from the pavement onto the rough track that led to the barnyard, he felt quietly elated. Scanning the surroundings professionally, he noted how open the yard was on all sides, how some slates were missing from the roof, how water had pooled in the ruts in the path, even though there had been no rain for some time. He took a quick mental inventory, then walked on in.
Sheena was there, as he knew she would be, solid, enduring, Earth Mother – no, that was too frivolous – goddess.
She looked at him wryly. “You again. What can we do for you this time?”
Nate took a breath. “I was thinking what I could do for you,” he said.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong. Find out more, and pick up Matthew’s long fiction at, MatthewHarrison.hk.
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