by Matthew Harrison
Andrew shuffled forward in the queue for the cooked dishes, avoiding eye contact. His colleague Meg behind him, more daring, whispered, “God – roast beef again!” but Andrew kept his mouth shut. The algos would be monitoring, reconstructing their words from the lip movements even if they couldn’t pick up the sounds. You had to keep your head down, that was the best way.
He reached the head of the queue, was offered, and accepted, the roast beef with gravy, and shuffled on for the brussel sprouts. Then, while Meg chatted with friends, Andrew found a corner of the canteen with people of his own department, where there was less risk of giving away sensitive information. You never knew where a conversation might lead, and here at Surveillance, Inc. you were always being watched.
Andrew chewed the beef – which (he agreed with Meg) was rather tough – and was so bold as to mash up the roast potatoes to absorb some of the gravy. The CE’s latest speech was being played on the canteen’s wall screen. That was good. Although the speech had been played on the screens all morning, it saved having to risk conversation with colleagues. With care, you could get through the day. You could survive.
As Andrew finished his meal, he looked up – and saw Meg being led away by security. Oh no! He stifled an exclamation. But really, he tried to tell himself, it was no more than expected. She always spoke too openly, she wouldn’t fit in.
Back at his desk, Andrew found that the blinds had been lowered to block the view out of the windows – a new corporate measure to raise productivity. He opened his PC, and clicked on the resources for which he was authorised. All other websites were blocked. He worked dutifully for an hour on his report, did the regulation twenty-second eye-relief exercises, and then worked for another hour. That made it time for a toilet break.
The toilet break was the high spot of the day. As Meg had said (he missed her already), you got a sense of freedom there. According to HR’s pledge, there were no monitoring sensors. Of course, the company set limits. ‘Do it in five’, was the slogan; if you took longer, there’d be a rap on the cubicle door and security would drag you out. But even five minutes away from corporate scrutiny…
Yet when Andrew reached the toilet, he found that the cubicle doors had been removed, and a guard was standing by. They must have interrogated Meg; another loophole was closed. Andrew sat down glumly in one of the cubicles, and tried to look as though he was focused on corporate business.
Back at his desk again, Andrew worked hard on his report. As the afternoon drew on, the blinds began to glow, and he guessed that outside it must be sunset. At seven o’clock he would be allowed to go. When he left the office, he would still have to continue checking emails and be subject to call-in at any moment, but there was a wider world beyond Surveillance. The company didn’t control everything. There was some dignity left.
Seven o’clock came. Andrew began the long trek out through the security barriers. At last he reached the company’s gates. Passing through to the street, he walked round the corner and his heart lightened. Finally, he was free – or as free as an employee could be.
But across the sky where the sun should have been was a bright blur, on which was superimposed in huge letters, ‘Image blocked by your organisation’.
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.