Who watches those that watch?

The environment at A-labs was white, clinical and clean. Entering the building via the main entrance glass door made you feel like a specimen entering a test tube. Foot echoes of any kind, generated from the polished marble floor were harsh. It was bright and airy, the light being let in was filtered by smart blinds, in a myriad of windows.

The Reception area made anyone entering feel important. Moving away from there made everyone feel insignificant. The building was massive and imposing and housed a myriad of people and projects. You could in theory travel from the ground floor to the top floor, once passed security in Reception, but as to attaining access to each floor? That was another matter. Each floor had strict access security of its own clearance was strictly limited and even more strictly enforced. To gain entrance, you had to have the correct clearance. From the top floor, there was a view out, across The City. There were two ways down; the way you came and…

Itor Takeuchi had clearance as far as level 2 of A-labs. His work as a Monitor meant he was fairly low down in the food chain and thus fairly low down in the A-labs tower. His day-to-day consisted of physically augmenting the AI routines that monitored A-labs activity (which was extensive) and the wider community. The wider community meant The City but this was never publicised outside of A-labs and Itor never really thought about its implications. He listed, cross-referenced, noted and reported upon the small section of the world he had been trusted with. He never saw the bigger picture, none of the Monitors ever did. That was left to people higher up the tower.

Itor worked from his cubicle assignment, interacted minimally with what he never quite came to think of as colleagues, in similar environments and was content. He couldn’t say he was happy (who really could? Did his colleagues feel happy? Was the concept never really entertained except by him alone?). He had his job and back in his apartment, he had his hobby. He called it his hobby but it was really an extension of his work. He knew that this would be frowned upon by his employers but he kept it strictly hidden from them. The thought gave him a little bit of freedom and if he had thought about it, made him yes, happy. Itor would spend his day at work as a model employee and then make the short walk home to spend a significant amount of his spare time at his own ‘Monitoring Suite’.

Entering his Hab, Itor coaxed the lighting into “low”, which illuminated the box he called home and the blinds to “three quarter closed’ which cut the last harsh, glinting rays of sun to a spatter of warm orange. He made a drink of coffee, late in the day but he required something to distance himself from work but at the same time, give himself the push, into an evening of home work. He walked the short distance from the prep area to his desk, against one of the walls, passed his hand across the on/kill switch and a bank of monitors burst into life. Each one displayed a simple flower symbol - a mon; silver grey upon a pale teal background. It was an ode to his long-distant heritage. The screens faded and were replaced by a series of feeds, all presented in high resolution. The small lag experienced was a by-product of ‘piggybacking’, rather than ‘direct feed’ that A-labs could employ.

To his right, a scanner chirped and resumed the low, static hiss of the previous evening. Above the scanner, a dedicated screen of spectral analysis visually plotted what was effectively white noise. The algorithm Itor had developed continuously monitored the ether.

At work, although his official designation was as a Monitor, the people working in his Dept. were known by the colloquial term of Watchmen. There was very clever software deployed at A-labs; intelligent, artificially. But who watches those that watch? Itor didn’t spend his time watching his colleagues, he watched other things. He was finding out about A-labs little by little, piece by piece. A snippet of information here, a cut of data there. He felt he was safe due to the safety checks and balances he had put in place. He was very skilled in what he did, far more skilled than A-labs credited him for. In his case, he felt there was no-one watching this Watchman.

The monitors provided a view of The City no-one else could have seen, except A-labs. However it was Itor’s specific choice of feeds that made his set up special. He looked over at the bottom right panel, it showed lush green. This was the only camera that looked out, toward The Zone. It looked peaceful and inviting but like every other citizen, he knew that it was a wasteland. A green and fertile one but a wasteland nevertheless. As he settled into an evening’s flow, he sipped coffee. After some time had passed and the recognition algorithms had visually woven their hypnotic effect, Itor was on the edge of sleep when the scanner changed from white noise, to noise.

A faint mournful sound emanated from the unit and the oscilloscope waveform changed from random staccato splashes of white to coherent waveforms. Itor took note. He flipped the waveforms from the unit onto 2 screens in centre view, increasing them 10 times in size. He manipulated the matrix computer access board (commonly known as a CAB), pulling up a detailed map. The map was set initially at a few kilometres but he turned one of the silver and black knobs to hone in on the source. The map instantly started to zoom in, however as it got nearer to pinpointing the source, the map started to hunt, glitch and blur. No further resolution was possible. To Itor’s surprise, the map was centred on The City (he had suspected Roxy or The Zone) but more surprisingly, it was nearby. With no further information available he reverted back to normal monitoring mode and pondered what was happening. The evening played out with no further points of interest. He left the analysis algorithm running overnight as he normally did. Any pertinent information would be presented in the morning.

The day and indeed the week played out as it normally did. No further information regarding the sound he had picked up several days ago, had presented itself . He consigned it the back of his memory, his time being occupied with work.

It was a week to the very hour that Itor heard the Scanner morph into life once again. The faint mournful sound drifting out of the speakers, the waveforms drifting across the small screen. He once again flipped the output to centre and started at the forms presented there. They were similar to what he had seen the evening a week ago but there were multiple signals. He started recording with immediate analysis, determined to follow up on what he had seen, again. This was no mere aberration, it seemed repeatable. Something was definitely going on. Something was there.

Determined not to be beaten, Itor worked for hours and finally located the source of the signal. As to what had generated the signal was still a mystery. A-labs, the very place he worked. He was 95% positive that the sound was generated within A-labs. Stranger still, it was not the upper floors, where he would have expected development work to be carried out. As far as he could tell, it was coming from the ground floor but that didn’t make sense. It must therefore be coming from below the Ground Floor!

Itor hadn’t even thought of there being a ‘below’ Ground Floor, everything about A-labs looked up and forward. Could there be something even more secret than the secrets held on the upper floors, that rose babel-like, toward a digital heaven? His analysis had shown that a lot of the waveforms were infra sound. A few more audible frequencies were responsible for the mournful sound. He sat transfixed by the images of the waveforms, displayed on the large middle screens. They moved in diaphanous form, as if in a haunting, balletic dance. Pale ghosts…

Itor opened and reached into the drawer that sat under the desk, to his left. He slid his left hand in a little further, palm up and pressed his index finger, gently upon a sensor located on the underside of the table drawer. A small compartment at the back of the drawer silently opened. He withdrew his hand and held in it a small card. The card was white plastic with no discernible markings. The small quantum-organic chip embedded in the plastic substrate was state of the art and not easily obtainable. Itor had managed to obtain one by accident, it had literally fallen into his lap one day at work (well, not literally. Someone had unknowingly dropped one. It hadn’t been reported it had effectively been swept under the carpet. His luck was in and he was well aware of the number of clichés in his thought process). He had spent time analysing and re-programming the chip to at some point obtain access to some of the upper floors, just out of curiosity. He had never dreamed he would be considering going down.

Itor Takeuchi was at a threshold. He was physically at the threshold of A-labs, in the atrium where he could go up or, as he now knew down. He was also logically at a threshold, one that could lead him into an understanding of what he had found while monitoring, or an incarceration for a very long time. He had practised acting as naturally as possible and confidently walked through the scanner and then on to smaller lift, at the side of the lift complex. It was a dominating structure; three sides of a box, with a glass-fronted lift facing out of the side of the building. The smaller lift, away from the glass-fronted one was one Itor had never used before. He surmised that it would allow access down, as he knew the other larger ones did not (he had used them many times before). Preying to some unknown technical god, he pressed the card with its embedded chip against the lift sensor and the door opened.

The lift was like the others in the building, save for its size. And the button array. The buttons were numbered by floor: Ground and then 4 to 12 but also a blank button below the Ground button. This ‘below Ground’ button appeared as just a blanking plate but Itor pressed it, not wanting at this stage, to be abandoned by the technical god that was shaping his destiny. The lift started, down. The chip in the card he had secreted in an inner pocket in his jacket was hopefully shielding his face from any surveillance camera that had been deployed. The lift continued down for a short period of time, halted and the door (for there was only one) opened. A dark corridor presented itself, illuminated by small ambient lights that provided a diffuse glow from the light grey walls. There was no-one around and so he stepped out of the lift and followed the corridor to the point where it turned right. The corridor continued and he could see faintly, for the lighting remained subdued, not brightening upon detection of movement, as lighting aboveground did, that it opened out, into an area. Before this, he found doors upon either side of the corridor. The doors were not numbered or identified by any sign and all were closed. He tried the handle to one of the doors. It clicked and opened.

It was very dark inside the room but further in, a diffuse blue/white glow reflected off a desk and walls. The main source of light which came from monitors was blocked by a figure. It was hunched over the desk however, the light appeared to almost glow through the figure. Itor stood transfixed, at a loss to comprehend what he had found. The figure seemed to sense him and slowly turned but what Itor saw was beyond comprehension. The figure, for it was a figure did not seem corporeally present. It was indistinct and all Itor could think was that it looked like a ghost. Its face was that of a man. The eyes widened, the right arm reached slowly out, the lips mouthed the words “help me” distinctly. The horror in the apparition’s face was echoed by Itor’s. He couldn’t help but see past and through the translucent body and saw screens of data, a control interface and other various electronic devices. As the figure reached out, Itor backed away as he thought the thing was trying to grab at him. A sharp stabbing pain shot from the right of his neck and down his body, he convulsed and dropped toward the floor. Falling, he twisted to see a person holding a hypoderm, sneering at him. He heard blurred sounds emanate from the person’s mouth, as if in a dream “Didddd yoooouuu reaalllllyyyy thinnnkkkk…”. Then he heard and saw no more.

As Tendra opened the door to her Hab to leave for work, she saw a tall, well built man in a dark suit coming out of Itor’s door and closing it behind him. He ensured it was locked and turned

“Is Itor al-right? I haven’t seen him for a couple of days”

The tall, well built man in a dark suit simply replied “Mr. Takeuchi has left the building”.