Digital Canary (working title)


I’ve started writing some fiction again, my first story in years.  The reasons don’t really matter now except to say I’ve been in a very long creative dead zone.  Happily I seem to be breaking out of that and it feels very good to be writing again.

The working title for the story is Digital Canary.  Its very much a work in progress and to be honest its a very different form of writing for me.  In the past I usually had a clear idea what I wanted to write, an outline, etc. before I began writing.  This time I started with the idea it was raining.. and that was literally all I had.  The character, the setting, and where the story is going are all things I am as much discovering as I am creating them.  While that’s new for me, I have to say, so far its been a lot of fun.

Digital Canary
by P. Sean ONeal

It was raining out, a steady staccato beat a flat rhythm on the concrete. Evan ducked his head down and water spilled off his hat brim; he kept walking. The cheap synthcloth of his jacket wasn’t holding up well to the acidic rain that was slowly soaking through, but Even barely noticed. He needed to keep moving, it helped him to think. “This can’t be for real,” he muttered to himself, but he couldn’t explain what he’d seen either. Evan needed an explanation, something that let him hold on to what passed for normality, he couldn’t think of one. He walked faster as if somehow he could outpace reality or whatever version of reality he’d somehow fallen into.

A car horn suddenly broke his thoughts and Evan stood blinking starring at the headlights of the Tesla Dynamic citycar that had automatically stopped to avoid hitting him. Inside a startled passenger looked up from his ePad wondering why the car had stopped and why Evan was standing in the middle of the road. Evan thumbed the cancel key on his cell that was repeating an automated warning at him and crossed the street without looking back. The car automatically resumed its journey to where ever it was going.

Evan pushed recent events to the back of his mind and focused on the steady rhythm of the rain as he walked the last six blocks to his apartment building. He paid little attention to the vid-panels that lit up as he passed advertising food, music and whatever else people were trying to sell. Some of them addressed him by name, reacting to his non response by with a variety of emotional appeals; the cheap ads just spluttered out a pre-scripted reel. It was just so much urban white noise that nobody really paid any attention to. Evan briefly wondered why anyone bothered when it seemed so pointless.

The lights came on automatically as Evan opened the door to his apartment. The home system’s synth voice informed him it had ordered groceries from the pre-approved list, what items he was still low on, his remaining credit balance and that there was a 83% chance his vid would fail within the next 2 weeks, would he like to purchase a replacement and schedule an installation. As usual he ignored all of it and shrugged out of his ruined jacket which he tossed into the recycle bin. His house system fell silent when he didn’t answer, it had learned not to persist if Evan didn’t respond and simply scheduled a reminder for later. The recycling unit kicked on a few moments later and began breaking down the ruined garment into re-usable polymers for printing a new jacket tomorrow.

Burt met Evan at the couch, a chilled beer rising out of his flat back just as Evan stretched out and got comfortable. “Thanks Burt”, Evan replied and the house bot chirped happily as it went back to doing whatever it did all day. At least Evan liked to think it sounded happy, maybe it was just its VUI programming. He’d named it Burt because giving the little bot a name just seemed right somehow. Burt already knew Evan pretty well and had gotten quite good at anticipating what he might want like the cold beer. Some cross-over country began to play at background levels. He didn’t recognize the vocalist, something the house system had selected prompted by music promoters no doubt. It wasn’t bad, he let it play. Evan sipped the beer, a local microbrew, and closed his eyes.

Evan was vaguely aware of the vid running, the morning news was on. Burt was trying to figure out how to scoop up the beer bottle that kept rolling away; he’d already cleaned up the spilled beer Evan hadn’t finished. Evan watched the comical scene through bleary eyes for a few minutes before taking pity and blocking the bottle with his foot. The bot used the assist to catch the cornered bottle in its front scoop before letting out a satisfied chirp and heading to its station to deposit the garbage in the recycler. Evan mostly ignored the news and all of the ad feed which played automatically before letting the regular programming run.

Shrugging out of his half ruined shirt, Evan tossed it in the direction of the recycle bin and missed. He used to be a better shot but was still too tired to care, Burt would get it anyway. In the bathroom Evan sprayed on some body deodorant and then brushed his teeth. His toothbrush beeped and the house system’s feminine voice informed him he was at risk for developing a cavity, would he like to schedule a checkup. Evan ignored it and rinsed, ran a comb through his hair and headed to his bedroom. There wasn’t much in his closet, there wasn’t much in anyone’s closet these days. Instead Evan scrolled through the 3D images on the wall printer’s screen and picked out a new button down shirt pattern and let it start printing. Why keep clothes when almost anyone could print something new every day. He thought about his jeans but he hated replacing them, just about the time you got them comfortable they wore out. The synthetic cloth wasn’t really designed to last. The house system announced the shirt was ready, the polymer packs were down to 20% and the red dye was at 2%, would he like to restock. Evan confirmed the order and the system informed him it had scheduled a delivery for that evening. He didn’t need to be there when it arrived, a drone would drop it off and Burt would do the rest.

A cup of coffee was waiting for Evan on the breakfast counter. He didn’t really have a kitchen, most apartments didn’t these days. The automated food processors could prepare almost anything from the… Evan paused in his thoughts; he wasn’t really sure what the food was made out of, some kind of raw food material he assumed. Nearby the pleasant computer generated face of a young asian woman appeared on a screen coupled with the house system’s voice. It was giving Evan a rundown of current economics, his current credit balance, local crime and environmental warnings. Evan didn’t really pay it much attention, he did briefly wonder why he hadn’t given the house system a name even though he’d lived in the apartment for 2 years, but he’d named Burt the day he got him (and why was Burt a “him”?). The Sanyo system was still at the default factory settings which were predictably Asian biased but Evan kind of liked it. He was human, he didn’t have to make sense.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Evan thought about what he’d seen last night and quickly pushed it out of his thoughts. Thinking about it made him uncomfortable, even a little frightened, that wasn’t pleasant. Instead Evan headed down to the local public college for his weekly classes. They were supposed to be job training, a requirement to collect his unemployment benefits; mostly the classes taught you useless skills while corporate recruiters picked through the “students”. As long as you took the classes you got your credit deposit, most of the students had given up caring if they got another job.

Evan used to have a union job at robot factory, but now a robot did his job and the union was pretty much nothing but organized angry protesters. The idea of robots building robots seemed unsettling, there were protests about that too; but the robots didn’t seem to care and people still bought the robots. After that Evan had tried doing some digital manufacturing; that really meant he sat around coming up with the 3D patterns used in the printers to make stuff, but you couldn’t make a living at it. If some anarchist hacker didn’t spam your design all over the web, some corporation filed a patent dispute and if you were smart you let them have it because you couldn’t afford to fight it. So now he collected his weekly credit and tried to find something to do with himself. His latest “hobby” was playing at detective.

A lot of his “detective” work was really doing online searches for information. There were apps that would find lost electronics for you in seconds and give you a GPS map to within 6″ of its actual location. People didn’t really need anyone to find lost things anymore; they needed someone to find lost information. Getting paid was a little tricky, if he took direct credit he could lose his benefits, so instead clients paid in credit vouchers. The government knew about the work around and sometimes threatened to crack down on it but the multinational corporations always blocked it, so nothing really changed. Evan didn’t figure it really mattered, it’s not like he made much at it so who was it hurting? Most of it was boring stuff, genealogy searches were popular or someone wanted sources on some news story tracked down. About the most interesting job was tracking down some old published papers for a physicist doing some research. He’d found them even if he hadn’t understood what any of it was really about, the math looked like some arcane language. Still, it’d been a sort of buzz thinking he’d maybe contributed something to real science.

Evan thumbed the screen of his cell and looked at his messages. The auto filter caught most of the spam and things from people he didn’t want to know anymore. Seriously, what was it with some people who couldn’t accept being unfriended? Let it go already. Ironically there were job offers from people who wanted him to track down someone who had blocked them and find out why. Evan deleted those, getting involved in peoples personal issues was a bad idea. You never knew when something would turn violent, people could get really angry over the strangest things and just explode. There were three others from people wanting data mining, that was his usual thing. Then there was something odd, something really odd.

It read… “Dear Sir,” Evan paused, who wrote like that anymore? “I am given to understand you are available to find missing things. I would like to retain your services to find someone who is currently missing. Details will be provided upon your acceptance. Please include your preferred form and amount of payment in your reply. This offer is time sensitive. Your prompt consideration will be appreciated.” There was no signature, just an anonymous account. Evan blinked; he’d never had a missing person job, he’d never even had a missing dog job (to be fair, most dogs were chipped and there were apps for that). Nobody outside of the police did missing person jobs and they didn’t particularly like sharing. You just didn’t hire a data miner like him for things like this. The whole thing was strange, but Evan couldn’t help being curious; maybe this was some kind of scam or prank. He started to reply and then stopped, a list of credit vouchers from various corp stores was easy, but he had no idea about the total value to ask for. “What do you charge for a missing person?” he mentally asked himself, he decided to make up a number and put some zero’s behind it just to see what would happen. Evan entered $5,000, attached his list of preferred vouchers and hit send. Almost immediately his cell beeped, incoming msg. “Thank you, your fee is acceptable, details are file attached. Half payment has been included with the balance on completion. Your discretion and expedience are expected.”

Evan stared at the screen for a moment in disbelief before letting out an involuntary “Holy shit!” What had he just gotten himself into?


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