Low bandwidth

The math is simple. Fifty apartments at three people per apartment, on average, is one hundred and fifty — Dunbar's number. In other words, one building equals one tribe. Which is exactly how it works in the neighborhoods on the outer ring of the Capital, complete with communal living and mutual self-defense. And you'll hear all kinds of bad things about this way of living. But I say, you try feeding ten billion people in a world with no oil and still maintain the illusion of civilization.

Don't get me wrong, you'll see police cars patrolling up and down the large boulevards all the time, but they never come into the city blocks proper. It's better that way; the last time they tried, it was an outright war, and in all honesty they have their hands full keeping the wage slaves in the second ring from revolting. Not that you have much energy left for revolting when working 70-hour weeks just to make meets end.

I should know; that was my life until a year ago.

Here I am on a rooftop, dragging my feet among box after box of tomato plants, getting dirt on my jeans where the apron doesn't reach, while eleven floors below a dozen drunk and dirty dimwits are howling and pounding on the chainlink fence surrounding the building and its generous ground floor garden. That's the thanks we get for not letting the whole bunch starve to death. Sometimes I wonder why we bother. The villages around the city have a lot more space, not to mention real soil, while we have to settle for compost and hydroponics. On the plus side, we're less vulnerable to the weather, which nowadays only has two modes: drought and flood. In any event, the fat cats downtown give us clean water on tap in exchange for fresh food, so it must be worth something, right?

By the time I make my way to the stairs, laden with half the garden shed, the show is over courtesy of a garden hose and a very angry Mr. Demetriakis. Nasty old man, but I wouldn't want to be in his place right now. Not that anyone here expects me to; at fifty kilograms all soaked, I'm hardly a manly man of action. So instead of going down there and making sure everything is all right, I stop at my lair on the eighth floor and turn on the computer. One of them, anyway; the room is littered with machines in diverse stages of refurbishing. Took me long enough to make the host's kids leave them alone; they don't have a concept of personal space around here.

A chat window is waiting for me like a jealous girlfriend.

awesomeguy: Hey, man, where have U been? Everyone's gathered already.

bookworm009: Some of us have work to do, young grasshopper. :P

awesomeguy: Well, get your cane and hobble over here, grandpa. We're basement-diving at the Hangar today.

bookworm009: Say that again? You fed up with life or what?

awesomeguy: Didn't you say you wanted to plant a robo-switch there?

bookworm009: That was daydreaming, man. I like my skin in one piece.

awesomeguy: Come on, it's not so dangerous during the day. Besides, what's life without a little adrenaline?

bookworm009: ...

awesomeguy: So, coming or not?

I went, of course.

There are two parts to any network: the communication channels and the endpoints.

The latter is no issue. Hardware is plentiful after nearly a century of making microchips by the cargo ship, not to mention printable technology smuggled in from the cyborg cities. Which is all kinds of illegal, but I'd rather chance it than settle for what they call computers in civilized society. Their wall screens don't even have keyboards, for crying out loud! After all, people can't possibly be allowed anything that could be used to infringe copyright. Not to mention the same tools could be used to make new art outside of the corporate milieu. The rabble would then control their own creations forever, and we can't have that, can we?

It's the former that poses an obstacle. Radio is the obvious choice, except I wouldn't be caught dead using a cellphone. Too easy to track, even if they gave me one without showing ID. Even peer-to-peer devices are vulnerable to war-driving, unless you only turn on the radio module now and then for a burst transmission, and that's hardly practical. Might as well just go Sneakernet. So what does that leave?

Wires, that's what. But there's no point in having fiber to your front door if you can't do anything meaningful with it. If only there was some other set of cables, one that nobody monitored and you could use for whatever you wanted without needing permission.

As it happens, there is: called a telephone network, it was still being embedded into any new building during the second decade of the 21st century. Almost forty years later, the copper lines are still there, but few people remember they ever existed. All you need to do is locate an intact line, attach modems at both ends, and presto! Instant computer network.

Naturally, that's easier said than done.

The Hangar is a flat, wide building of concrete and metal, with no windows. Broken letters above the main entrance spell the name of a supermarket chain, from back when there was such a thing. A maze of car wrecks covers the parking lot, which suits the current occupants just fine. We can see them lurking in the long shadows of the morning as they take turns watching; the Hangar is undisputed gang territory. No-one has eyes for the ruin looming on a mound off to the side, partly collapsed brick walls jutting out like rotten teeth in a skull.

"They only ever watch the front," whispers Julian, peeking cautiously around a creaky pillar. "If we can get around the side unnoticed..."

That's awesomeguy, by the way: a pale 18-year-old Asian, short for his age, with multicolored locks of hair drooping over his eyes and more bracelets on his forearms than I've had warm meals this week. He looks for approval to his girlfriend, whom he forgot to introduce: a girl of middle-Eastern origins, maybe, with broad shoulders and a bored face.

In turn, she looks to the fourth member of our party, a lanky Roma girl dressed in a garish, if not exactly traditional, skirt and tight blouse that leaves her midriff exposed. If I'm the oldest here, she must be the youngest.

"Well," she drawls, "Momma has a saying: if there's a door, there's a way past it."

She notices me staring at her and points. "You're Robert, right?"

"How do you know?"

"I live the next building over from you, nerdy! Name's Chrys. Short for Chrysantemum."

Out in the street, an electric truck full of wobbling crates revs its engine and honks at a horse cart convoy, adding to the deafening clatter of hooves. Inside our ruin, the raising sun is melting the shadows at an alarming rate.

"Do we move or what?" quips Julian's girlfriend.

On the other side of the parking lot, another chainlink fence separates the side of the Hangar from the back of an isolated and largely abandoned apartment building. Which suits us just fine: this kind of barrier tends to break down when it's not being watched, if you get my drift. A few unmade loops are enough for a teenager-sized entrance, and then it's just a short run around the corner. There's even a two meter wall along the back. Perfect for concealing an intrusion, not so great at preventing one. Anyway.

The door leaving into the basement is stuck halfway open. It doesn't have a lock anymore.

Julian's girl punches him in the ribs. "I thought you said they weren't using the basement!" she whispers urgently.

"They're not, Gina." says Chrys. "It'd smell of piss and stuff."

She's right. The draft coming up the stairs carries an indistinct smell of mold and not much else. I stare into the darkness as if that helped me see better — or hear, for that matter. But nothing stirs.

"Let's go," I say in a shaky voice, and we file down the steps.

It's dark. Julian clings to my shoulder while he fumbles around in his pockets, and the scraping of leather on denim echoes.

"You need wider jeans, man." I tease him.

"They'd fall off," he protests just as his flashlight comes free.

Gina pinches his sides, and the beam sways wildly. "Well, put some weight on, skinny butt."

Ahead of the pack, Chrys tugs experimentally at the end of a wire hanging at eye level. A rusty nail clatters on the bare concrete floor as more of the wire comes free. We cringe, but she just starts rolling it up. "I don't suppose anyone will miss this." Clang! Another nail.

"So that's why you wanted to come with us," remarks Gina dryly.

If Chrys gets the implied insult, she doesn't show it. "To each his own," she says. "Why did you come?"

"I don't know. Why are we here, Julian?"

"For the lulz, dear." He steps in a puddle of water and swears quietly.

"Uh-uh. And you, Robert?"

"Hmm?" I pass my own light back and forth over the exposed pipes along the wall, but it's not obvious where the water comes from.

"Why are you here?" presses Gina.

I look into her eyes. "Because it's important."

She stares at me blankly, to the distant sound of dripping water. We go that way, Julian dutifully marking the way with spray paint. In the rearguard, Chrys finishes rolling up her wire.

"Remember when they restored the communications tower atop the abandoned Press House, up north? Half the city could plug live into a datafeed from the cyborgs."

"That was rad, man," says Julian wistfully. "Too bad the cops took it down again so soon." He pauses. "Wait, how'd you know that, Robert? You weren't with us back then."

"No, but I was in the engineering department at Soniho Robotics."

"You were allowed to have darknets so deep downtown?"

"Unofficially? Sure! Even 3D printers. It was the only way we could get anything done."

"So how'd you end up here on the periphery?"

"I started distributing certain files to the rest of the company."

He nods and ducks a pipe at the last moment. We're navigating a maze of boilers and ductwork, where valves jutting out at odd angles threaten our clothes at every turn. In a hard to reach corner of the ceiling, a worn-out joint leaks; the air is damp. A doorway ahead reveals a cramped room where a rickety desk leans against a filing cabinet that no longer has a door. On the opposite wall, a flat cap hangs from a hook, right above a pair of tattered shoes. In the shifty flashlight beams, it's easy to imagine a human shape filling the space between the two items. We shuffle away as fast as we can without breaking into a run.

The city isn't truly divided into concentric rings, but it's useful to think of it as such.

First there are the upscale gated communities, where the rich and powerful live. Needless to say, you don't get in unless you're one of them... or a servant. The vidcasts want you to envy their life, but I think they are in fact very afraid.

Then come the working class neighborhoods, where apartments are small, wages are low and options are narrow. Where if you do well in school and land a good job you'll actually be able to afford medical care. But if you don't have ID you'll see the inside of a police van very soon.

That's meant to protect the honest citizens from us — the periphery. The bogey man. The freeloaders who live by taking the hard work of others. What they don't tell you is that as the city cuts down on public services, and the corporations on jobs, the periphery grows wider. Sooner or later, everyone ends up on the edge of society.

"This is it," whispers Julian. "The junction box."

He points at a cabinet built into the wall. I wordlessly hand him a socket wrench. The lid refuses to cooperate, though, until Gina takes pity of him and lends a hand.

"Ooh, look at all the wires!"

We all put our heads together to stare at the dusty niche where a maze of wires goes in and out of rusty terminals.

"Did they need so many external lines?"

"Probably not, Chrys, but there used to be a factory here. I bet most of the wires go to nearby buildings, like the ruin, or that warehouse out back, by the train tracks."

"Man... How do you know all that?"

It's my turn to punch Julian in the ribs. "It's called talking to older people. You should try it sometimes."

"All right, all right!" he laughs. "Let's get to work. Do you have it?"

"Right here."

The roboswitch is an intelligent PBX. It can recognize peers, form routes all by itself, and doubles as a network server too. The battery alone is something I would have sold my granny for in my corporate days. Not that we'd have been able to market it without stepping on more patents than I can count.

While everyone goes "ooh!" and "aah!" at what is essentially a piece of alien technology, I get out a meter and test each pair of wires in turn.

"This one has voltage."

Everyone stares at me as I pull out an ancient telephone and plug it in. And then it rings.

My hand shakes as I pick up.

"What took you so long?!" The voice at the other end is youthful, easily piercing through the line noise.

"Who is this?"

"That's not important. I saw you go in. Listen, you have to hurry."

"Is that so?" interjects Gina, leaning over the handset.

"Want to run into the merry men upstairs? 'Cause they're coming down."

"We must have passed by an open shaft," mutters Julian. He's already moving faster than I could, plugging in jacks and running diagnostics.

Chrys' self-assurance has taken a vacation. "What do we do?"

"I'll arrange a distraction. Meet me at the market."

"But how...?"

"Just stick close to the River Road exit. I'll find you."

"You do that," I cut him off, and pull the plug.

We almost make it to the stairs, too.

"So, where are they?"

"Dunno, boss. The paint marks just end there."

The boss is fat and snarky; his underling is a little drunk and a little scared.

"What were they after, anyway?" wonders another of the men, with a stupid look on his face. "We don't keep anything down here."

"Well, find them and ask them, you dummy. Why do I keep you around?"

They all peek doubtfully into various side tunnels. Most of the gang carry candles; only the boss has a cluster of LEDs stuck to a battery.

"What if they left already?"

Behind a column, not three meters from them, Julian swaps his paint can for pepper spray. Gina casts him a horrified look.

"They'll rip our heads off!" she mouths.

"Doubly so if we're helpless," remarks Chrys as she flips a blade open.

They must have heard us, too, because they suddenly turn and head our way.

I squeeze the grip of my coolest toy, a home-made semi-auto coilgun.

I never get to try it out.

Shouts erupt from the direction of the stairs, and a cacophony of echoes fills the basement. Dark shapes run back and forth, creating a trippy stroboscopic effect in the flickering candlelight.

It seems to take forever, but it's only moments before we're alone again. And then we're up the stairs and over the wall, and we don't turn to look even when stones fly past us. The last thing we need is them seeing our faces.

The sun is high in the sky by the time we make it to Fairground Street.

It smells of sweat and booze and dust and garbage as we elbow our way through the crowd. I trip on a wailing kid who goes right on running, pursued by a massive woman. She blows me out of the way like I wasn't there, and Chrys catches me, laughing, but whatever she's saying is drowned by high-pitched honking. A moped balancing two large baskets swerves to avoid a stray dog, and hits the side of a pick-up full of watermelons. The two vehicle owners promptly start arguing, and the crowd forms a circle around them.

It's market day.

Stalls cluster chaotically around and inside a huge cube of reinforced concrete which looms over one side of the plaza, directly across from its much older counterpart, a terraced building made of dark red brick. Music drifts from the direction of an open air dive bar, along with smoke from a barbecue. We're skirting the mass of buyers and sellers, gawkers and pickpockets; diving into the whirlpool is not for the faint of heart.

Julian regretfully peels his eyes off a hat stand. "Do you think he'll come?"

"He kept his first promise," shrugs Gina.

Off to the side, Chrys is haggling with an unshaven man who is missing an arm. I guess he didn't value her roll of wire too highly, because she still has it, and a mouth full of swear words on top of that.

"Who're you talking 'bout? That kid on the phone?"

"He's a kid?" ask Julian, putting on his derpy face.

"He sounded twelve if you're asking me," I tell him.

It doesn't register at first, but someone is running toward us, waving and yelling "hey, hey!" He's short... and plump to say the least, a white boy with a butch cut and big round glasses who stops in front of me panting and wheezing, hands on his hips. "What took you so long?"

Gina glances at him sideways. "Are you talking to us?"

"Who else?" the boy asks confusedly, then he slaps his forehead. The glasses slip. "I forgot to introduce myself. Name's Phreak," he proclaims pompously, puffing up his chest, "but friends call me Dan."

I can almost hear the leet speak. It's the voice from the phone all right.

"Hey, man," nods Julian. "Thanks for getting us out of there."

"My pleasure." The boy deflates all of a sudden. "Wait, what? I didn't do anything."

"But you said..."

He looks sheepish all of a sudden. "That was to give you courage. I just have a webcam in the right place, is all."

"Then who the eff got those punks so riled up," drawls Chrys, tapping her foot. Dan seems to notice her for the first time, but instead of leering he looks away. Huh. More for me.

And then I see it.

Boxy blue vans with emergency lights flashing. Bulky human shapes, also in blue, form an advancing cordon. The music cuts off; a garbled voice blares incomprehensibly from a megaphone. All around, people stop and look at each other in shock.

A raid at the market is unheard of.

First of all, everyone knows it's pointless. They could arrest every third adult here and still not catch one genuine criminal. Moreover, this is very bad for business, and if the farmers decide to stay home next week, people begin to starve. That's why this is normally a truce zone.

At least it was, until today.

Tomorrow, heads will roll at the police headquarters. Today, however, the brutes will have their fun, some hot-headed young officer will think he's smart... and we'll lose equipment we took years to acquire.

It beats rotting in a cell until the cops feel like letting us go.

One moment, there is an eerie silence. The next, women begin to scream and children cling to their mothers, crying. As four-man squads begin to comb the area, vendors abandon their stalls full of produce. Drones circle overhead, while other drones are trying to block their view. The media are having a field day of their own.

So do the local gangs.

It's not until I see the bricks and bottles flying that the entire picture becomes clear. Someone must have tipped them off, and they had just the time to prepare. Mind you, they're not taking our side out of the goodness of their hearts. What they're doing is called "protecting an investment", and while that bodes ill for the rest of us most of the time, right now they're the enemy of our enemy.

Within moments, our nook of the market is deserted. It's odd, standing behind the administrative building like that, white paint peeling off the walls, while twenty meters from us a battle rages on. No way we could cross the street now, even if we did feel like braving the abandoned factories on the other side. In the opposite direction, more fighting blocks the exit towards Capital Plaza, if a bunch of women in hijabs hurling insults at the riot police can be called fighting.

Did I mention Capital Plaza? It towers over this end of the market, an apartment complex built on top of a three-level mall and integrated with it. Looks like a fortress, and functions like one too; a place where the not-quite-rich can feel like they're above the unwashed masses. There's even a small park behind it that has somehow escaped enclosure. Unfortunately, right now it's in the way.

"Oh no," laments the kid, "they locked the gates!"

"So?" deadpans Julian.

Honestly, it takes us all of a minute to clear the fence, most of which is spent hoisting our new friend over it. Then it's only a short run across... or it would be, except for all the stray dogs.

"Girlie, no! It's me! Stop that! Girliiie..."

Dan doesn't sound like on the phone anymore.

Long story short, by the time we make it to the other side I have new holes in my jeans. Not that anyone's going to notice a few more patches. On the plus side, jumping over the fence feels much easier this time. The corner of the building is in sight... and so's a police car. So much for our great escape.

While I'm raking my brain for a way out, Dan pushes us under the colonnade, then through one of the big glass doors. I shield my eyes from the sudden neon lights — not to mention all the cameras — while he whispers something to a hulking security guard.

I guess a way in works just as well. Matter of perspective.

How did we all end up in this mess? It took a perfect storm, of course.

They knew when oil was about to run out. Obviously. It's just that they chose to line their pockets until the last possible moment. And in all honesty, what were they supposed to do? Ships up to a certain weight can make do with sails, primitive as that may be, but planes require gasoline. Sure, there's always bioethanol, assuming you can spare the land to grow any when a burgeoning population clamors for food... which you can no longer afford to import from continents away. And worsening climate change makes local production a challenge. For the same reason, hydro power is unreliable at best. Solar and wind? Not only they're inefficient, but they take up even more of that precious arable land. As for nuclear energy, that's something you don't mention in polite company nowadays...

We wash and eat in a back room, while employees pass through in a hurry. It doesn't take long to figure out that Dan's parents run the place; everyone treats him like family. The mall is dimly lit apart from the store windows, and the few shoppers tiptoe around, whispering. At some point, a scrawny young man comes in dragging a waist-high domestic robot. He looks a lot like me, in fact, apart from the squeaky-new coveralls. The mechanic barely eyes us before opening a back panel. He crouches in front of the dead machine, muttering.

I finish my sandwich and move closer to him. "Is this last year's model?"

He eyes me again, warily and wearily. "This year's, actually — the low-cost version. What's it to you?"

"I designed the original."

"Lucky bastard," he says ambiguously, and gets back to work.

Dan gives him a big pat on the shoulder. "Come on! This is awesomeguy and his gang. I told you about them."

The mechanic looks up again, his face lighting up. "You're awesomeguy?"

"Actually, he is." I point at Julian. He blushes.

"He is?" Dan blinks.

Julian nods, looking embarrassed.

"So you're the guys who've been carpeting Riverside in darknets!"

"You know about that?"

"Lots of people use them. Not everyone who lives inside the system is a sheep, you know? Listen..."

He clamps his mouth shut as a gray-haired woman in a clerk uniform bursts in with a sour face and plops onto a stool, not before grabbing an oversized remote. The flat screen on the wall flicks to life. It's some sort of aerial view, riddled with artifacts from where the video has been hastily stitched together. It shows a crowd boxed in by vans with emergency lights. In a popup, some police general brags about cutting down on contraband or some such.

Another clerk comes running. She looks like a schoolgirl with too much makeup. "Have you heard what's..." She stops to gape at the news stream, while two more of her coworkers show up. "Tsk," says one of them, "there's police everywhere as of late. One of these days..."

The old harpy gives her a brief, but poisonous look. Behind her back, the mechanic makes a "shush" gesture. He plugs a cable and a tester into the robot, and its projector springs to life. I follow the beam to the opposite wall, where short messages start scrolling by, under a darknet header I don't recognize. They tell a very different story.

We put our heads together and read.


Felix Pleșoianu, 6 November 2012
Second edition, 10 August 2022