the letter Z
origin: late Middle English: from French zède, via late Latin from Greek zēta
This information printed courtesy of Wiki-Beetle
At 2.23 a.m. the BeetleInsight alarm system went off. This indicated a threat to national security. Various people were instantly informed and among them was Douglas Varley, who was woken by his BeetleBand saying ‘Scrace Dickens’.
Still mired in sleep, Varley heard this as ‘Disgrace’ and leapt out of bed, hoping thereby to avert this calamity, but then Scrace Dickens said: ‘Varley, it’s one of yours.’
‘What’s one of mine?’
‘You didn’t hear yet?’
‘No, I was asleep until five seconds ago.’
Scrace Dickens, a Very Intelligent Personal Assistant who never slept, paused for a moment to process or discard this irrelevant information.
‘So, it seems you have not yet read the initial reports?’ he said, eventually. ‘It seems so,’ said Varley.
Varley was thirty-four, his blond hair was streaked with grey, a genetic trait he derived from his mother. He was tall and had once been shy, but now lacked the time for such nuances. He had the practically identical background of most senior Beetle employees, including a gilded academic career at an Ivy League university and a fundamental obsession with chess and beer. This was Beetle CEO Guy Matthias’s background as well, though Guy had dropped out in his third year at Stanford because his degree (in Artificial Intelligence) was insufficiently challenging. Varley had worked for Beetle in the US for the past decade, in charge of lifechain analysis and troubleshooting. This meant he was constantly fending off potential or actual disasters. He had recently been posted to London because the UK had the most advanced benign regulatory environment in the world, and Beetle was the world leader in benign regulatory environments.
‘Do you want me to summarise everything for you?’ said Scrace Dickens, kindly.
Varley generally refused offers of summaries from his Very Intelligent Personal Assistant (also known as a Veep) to maintain the illusion of autonomy, but this morning his head ached, he had drunk a little too much wine the previous night, as doubtless his BeetleBand had registered, and he noted with some alarm that his hands were trembling.
‘All right, thanks,’ he said ungratefully.
Within a few minutes, Varley had gained a clear picture of the case. His case. The previous day, George Mann – forty-five, tall and slightly overweight, a partner at AHTCH (a globally recognised brand for flow-control valve technology and engineering innovation), father of two boys, husband to Margaret Collins, a lawyer – had left his office on the fifteenth floor of the Gherkin and walked along the corridor, saying a brisk and distracted goodnight to his Very Intelligent Personal Assistant, Bob Sykes. He had passed another colleague in the corridor and nodded to him. It was 18.08 and therefore too early for George Mann to leave work. This was logged by Bob Sykes and Mann’s predictive algorithms were realigned, including his projected retirement age, monthly health insurance payments and bonus prospects. Indeed, a beautiful ripple passed through all the predictive algorithms as they were adjusted accordingly.
After leaving the main lobby of the Gherkin, George Mann seemed to be heading in the direction of the tube, as would have been usual. However, when he reached the station he did not descend, but continued towards the river. He entered the Three Tuns pub at 18.22. There, he sat in a corner, and drank seven whiskies and three bottles of wine over the next six hours. He didn’t speak to anyone, except to order drinks at the bar. The pub was very busy at that time of day, and at one point George Mann was asked if he would mind if someone used the chair to his left. He did not reply, but this was understandable because there was a great deal of noise, and the person shrugged and took the chair anyway. Shortly after midnight, George Mann asked his BeetleBand to order him a car, which was duly requested from Mercury and appeared within minutes. The in-car operating system had no record of Mann saying anything at all. In line with usual Beetle Electrical Company protocols, the Very Intelligent Automated Driving System (VIADS) had simply wished Mann a good evening as he departed, but Mann had not replied. This was also quite usual – lots of people ignored such conversational forays, and Mann had already requested location Home by BeetleBand – this location being a two-up two-down Victorian terrace in a small square by Kennington tube, overlooked by glass and steel edifices. Mann arrived home at 00.47, let himself in and walked to the kitchen. The fridge said: ‘Good evening, George, you’re back late this fine evening!’ Ignoring this, Mann took the sharpest knife from a knife block and went upstairs to his bedroom where his wife Margaret was asleep. Mann smothered her with a pillow and slit her throat. After this, he walked to his fourteen-year-old son Tom’s room and smothered him as well, then stabbed the boy four times in the heart, and then walked into the next room and did the same to his eleven-year-old son, William.
At this point the predictive algorithms crashed.
Mann dropped the knife on the floor of William’s room, left his family bleeding to death, and walked out of the house. By the time the police and ambulances arrived, Margaret, Tom and William were dead.
‘Where did Mann go after that?’ said Varley, feeling sick.
‘At 2.03 a.m. Mann threw his BeetlePad in the river,’ said Scrace Dickens. ‘Then he walked along the river, heading east.’
‘But his interface implant is still working?’ ‘He doesn’t have one.’ ‘The Argus footage?’ asked Varley. ‘Of course,’ said Scrace Dickens, sounding slightly offended.
Varley excused himself for a moment and went to the bathroom. There, he threw up copiously in the sink. This was disgusting and not cathartic at all, as he briefly hoped. He groaned and said ‘For fuck’s sake’, then imagined Scrace Dickens logging this as well. It wasn’t Scrace Dickens’s fault – the record was instantaneous. Second by second, even microsecond by microsecond. He washed his face, cleaned his teeth. His clothes had started vibrating, but that was superfluous. He said ‘Stop’ and they stopped. He said, ‘I need to speak to Eloise Jayne,’ and Scrace Dickens said ‘Of course’ again, as if this were a redundant request. In a sense it was, because Scrace Dickens operated to the most beautiful and sophisticated algorithms and understood that every moment Varley would choose a path, and the path of greatest probability was the most probable choice. In the circumstances it was pretty much inevitable that he would choose to speak to Eloise.
What were the other paths? Varley wondered, as he waited for her to answer. To not speak to Eloise, to go back to bed, to lie there groaning, to have a breakdown, to leave his own job, and then he might even hurl himself off Blackfriars Bridge, into the murky depths beneath! They were all paths. He could pick up a gun and shoot himself, except he didn’t have a gun. Therefore, Scrace Dickens had not considered this path of probability. Also, it was absurd to suggest that Scrace Dickens considered anything, in the ordinary sense, because he assessed and rejected available probabilities so swiftly. The analogy to human thought was wholly inappropriate. Yet Varley couldn’t think of another analogy so he used it anyway.
In a glass and steel apartment in the Shard, the penthouse beyond all other penthouses, was Guy Matthias, Beetle CEO, a fit, robust, forty-two-year-old man, in the prime of his life yet an urgent addict to longevity treatments, with his cryogenic amulet hanging round his neck. He invested a large percentage of his wealth in shell-shedding research; his hope was that body–body consciousness transfer would become credible before it was too late – for him and those he loved. His hair was expensively dyed, straight back to his original black. Recent skin treatments (this was the euphemism Guy preferred) had made an enormous difference to his face; indeed he had recently contemplated wiping a decade off his age, and updating the whole of Real Virtuality. This was an ongoing project; Guy needed to test the potential outcomes more thoroughly. He had been awake for some time and had completed his toothbrush test – the result sent to his doctor for immediate analysis, using the in-house Off The Record System (OTR) – and performed his morning yoga satsang. At this point, Sarah Coates, his Veep, conveyed the information about George Mann. Guy’s immediate response was to request that Douglas Varley should be observed more closely in turn. Sarah Coates passed on this request to the relevant people at BeetleInnerSight. Then Guy Matthias OTR-ed his wife, Elska, who had asked him for a divorce the night before. She had been sleeping apart from him for two months now, since he set his Veep to individual voice recognition only. Guy had been obliged to do this because Elska had bothered Sarah Coates all the time, requesting information about Guy’s meetings and even transcripts of his OTR-calls. This made it impossible for Sarah Coates to do her job efficiently. Elska had asked him to remove the voice recognition limitation, or to add her voice as well, and Guy had asked her to trust him, and she had refused to trust him, and now she wanted a divorce. His OTR was brief but conciliatory and he advised her, once again, to think of the children. Guy didn’t really have time to consider this further, because he had to OTR Lydia Walker, twenty-three, a bright young colleague he was mentoring, who he was about to take with him to New York. He had suggested to Lydia that she might act as his human assistant on a new shell-shedding research project. Together they would radically transform and enhance civilisation, he explained. Lydia said she was really grateful for the opportunity. Thanks so much! When could they leave?!
‘My Veep will send you the travel plans,’ OTR-ed Guy Matthias. ‘Lots of very exciting things to discuss. We need to progress with this asap!’
‘Cool!’ said Lydia, adding an emoticon of a rabbit hopping for joy. This disappointed Guy Matthias. To ensure his next trip to the States was not a total waste of time, he OTR-ed Gracie and Nicki, two other bright young mentees of his, to invite them to discuss exciting new research projects in NYC as well. After this, Guy drank some coffee.
On the other side of the city was a high-rise block, with special panels to repel sunlight and other special panels to absorb sunlight, the entire block capturing or reflecting the sun depending on its energy and heating needs. The windows also reflected the towers of Canary Wharf and were darkened every couple of minutes by the shadows of aeroplanes gliding into City airport. This was the headquarters of the National Anti-Terrorism and Security Office, with the acronym NATSO – which no one much liked. You entered this building via an entrance lobby, in which an embodied Veep manned the reception. Or not quite manned, rather Veeped. This was Phoebe Haversham and she tilted her head when you spoke to her, at an angle just too acute to be natural. This was a minor flaw in the design but otherwise the Veep was incredibly realistic. Her skin appeared to be real, and moved with the flexibility of real skin, except that it crinkled and bagged a little around the neck, so the Veep looked young in places and old in others. She had an athletic physique and wore an appealing grey dress, which hugged her curves without revealing too much flesh, which wasn’t really flesh anyway.
Eloise Jayne worked in the highest levels of NATSO, and her desk was positioned in an open plan area outside Commissioner Morgan Newton’s office. She was a tall, muscular woman of thirty-five, with cropped blonde hair. She might only have a decade or so remaining, according to the lifechain, because of the premature deaths of her parents and several other close relatives. This dolorous prediction had caused her to become exceptionally determined, and her ascent had been swift. The other person, or entity, who worked in this open plan area was Little Dorritt, Newton’s Veep, who was not embodied and resided in a VeepStation and various connected devices instead. Eloise wasn’t sure whether she preferred the Veeps embodied or stationed. She had refused so far to have a Veep at all, and she was aware that this was a major problem for her, as an individual, and also for her individual lifechain predictions, and also for the lifechain predictions for all individuals, now and in the future. Varley had explained it to her. She was anomalous. Anomalies were a pain. They screwed up the system. The lifechain had to accommodate these painful anomalies and this accommodation made the results potentially unstable. Eloise still didn’t want a Veep. They made her feel sad – these assiduous entities with their heads at uncomfortable angles, or trapped in VeepStations or BeetlePads. Confined, either way.
As Eloise walked past the VeepStation, Little Dorritt said: ‘Good morning, Eloise Jayne, good to see you again. Douglas Varley is waiting for you on OTR.’ Little Dorritt operated using the latest face and voice recognition software and received constant updates from the Custodians – a Beetle service for smart cities. Eloise replied: ‘Hi, Little Dorritt, thanks for that, I’ll take the OTR now.’ As she said, ‘Hello, Douglas Varley?’ she was cursing Beetle for sending her so much work. When BeetleInsight failed, she was obliged to investigate the consequences. The consequences of each failure were cataclysmic. Yet, Beetle claimed it had the most accurate predictive algorithms in the world. Due to the astounding and unchallenged monopoly of Beetle as a global media conglomerate and main online reality for two thirds of the world’s population, Beetle also had every available security contract with the Government and therefore it was the sole resource for those, like Eloise, who were obliged to arrest prospective criminals and terrorists in line with the Sus-Law, the latest extension of the Criminal Intentions Act. This law permitted her, and her colleagues, to arrest on the basis of predictive algorithms, or probability chains, and these were perceived to be legally authoritative in any trial. It worked beautifully for a while and had saved many lives but Eloise had noted a few glitches in recent weeks.
The Mann case was another major glitch. Three lives destroyed, so brutally. Varley was talking about how the lifechain predicts had failed and there would be a full BeetleInsight enquiry and the conclusions would be conveyed by the end of the morning – Eloise interrupted: ‘Forgive me for interrupting,’ she said, not really caring if he forgave her or not. ‘Please ask Scrace Dickens to send Little Dorritt every available Argus report, immediately.’
‘Yes, they’re copious,’ said Varley.
‘If we find Mann, he won’t kill anyone else. That’s my priority in the real world. The real world is my priority, not your virtual crap.’
‘The real world isn’t just real,’ said Varley. ‘It’s virtual too. Guy Matthias calls it Real Virtuality. Real Virtuality is preferable to reality because it is perfectible. It has greater value.’
‘Thanks so much for explaining that,’ said Eloise, thinking: I don’t care. It wasn’t even that she didn’t care. She despised these sorts of phrases. She didn’t really know Varley and they had never met in the bodily world but she despised him anyway. He seemed to be a perfect Beetle droog. As if sensing her ambivalence or even distaste, her BeetleBand was pinging at her, telling her to relax. The one thing Eloise understood about the Mann case was the moment when the poor murderous loser threw his BeetlePad in the Thames. Who didn’t want to do that? She would have thrown in her BeetleBand as well. But it was obligatory, or no insurance, no job. Fully obligatory, therefore, though Beetle claimed it was the personal choice of the individual. Without the necessary data, an individual couldn’t be verified. Therefore, they could no longer be regarded as a trustworthy citizen and banks, corporations, prospective employers, actual employers would all proceed accordingly. Eventually such a person would be formally unverified. It was your personal choice to starve to death, to die on the streets – a marvellous choice. The path forked, in general, but in the case of the BeetleBand there were no other paths. It was the band or nothing.
‘Just send the Argus information over and I’ll get Mann in prison,’ she said.
‘Absolutely,’ said Varley. ‘Meanwhile we can give you a firm guarantee that this slight – glitch – in the algorithm will be fixed as a matter of total prioritisation.’
Eloise didn’t bother to reply. She ended the exchange and then turned off the sound on her BeetleBand – which flashed urgently at her, to indicate that she had made a terrible mistake and turned the sound off – then she covered it with her sleeve, so it vibrated urgently to indicate that she had made a terrible mistake and covered it with her sleeve. Then she went into the office kitchen and poured some water into the kettle. The fridge said, ‘How are you this morning, Eloise?’ Actually, the fridge already knew how she was because it was linked to the Custodians Program. It knew everything about her. The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what the hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever. It was sometimes difficult to determine if BeetleBand readings were good or bad; for example, a high pulse rate could indicate exercise, stress, or passionate sex. From the biological readings alone it was sometimes hard for the Custodians to differentiate between these states of being, but for greater accuracy they combined these readings with recorded visuals as well.
There were helpful notices from the Custodians in the hallways of residential blocks, on public transport and in offices; these notices were also helpfully reiterated by BeetleBands, BeetlePads, Veeps and fridges: ‘This is a respectful community. People are reminded that verbal abuse, disorderly conduct, dishonesty, smoking in public areas, criminal behaviour and a lack of respect for others in the community will be recorded in the individual verification system. To avoid a negative record of verification, please follow the relevant guidelines and help those in the community to follow them as well.’
The Custodians were not sentient, in the traditional sense, but they were a sophisticated form of AI, developed in Beijing. Indeed, the Custodian technology had been leased from Beetle’s Chinese partner company, Băoguăn. This was not generally known because there was no reason for it to be generally known. It was in the public’s interest for the Custodians to monitor them – for the safety and security of the nation, and the smart running of the city – but it was not in the public interest for the public to know more precisely where the Custodians Program came from. It would only upset them and this would also upset their BeetleBand readings.
The fridge knew, for example, that Eloise had not eaten enough breakfast. It knew that the Custodians had advised her to eat more breakfast – via her fridge. It knew that she had ignored this sage advice. So it advised her, again, to eat some breakfast. It explained that it was full of berries and juice, as well as soya yoghurt. It also knew that Eloise had forgotten to take her toothbrush test and it reminded her that she had forgotten to do this. Eloise waited for the kettle to boil and made herself a cup of coffee. The fridge advised her that this was ill- advised. There was no volume adjust on the fridge. At one level Eloise hated it, but she also felt ashamed about this. The fridge had the voice of a sad, nervous male of about thirty-five – slightly like Douglas Varley, in fact – and it offered tentative suggestions about her diet, which she ignored. ‘Perhaps you might like a herbal tea instead?’ it said, like a timorous friend, who was afraid of her. In fact, she was fastidiously polite to the fridge, but it remained tentative and miserable. She imagined it, indeed, as a little man, trapped in the fridge and wasting his finite life talking to her about yoghurt.
She took the milk from the fridge door. The fridge said, delicately, ‘We have semi-skimmed and skimmed as well, if you’d prefer?’
‘Thanks for the suggestion,’ said Eloise, taking the full fat anyway.
Her BeetleBand was riddled with irate messages from Commissioner Newton. He was out of town, so he told Eloise to work with Little Dorritt and sort out this mess. Reluctantly, Eloise turned to the VeepStation and said: ‘Hello again, Little Dorritt.’
‘Hello, Eloise, what can I help you with on this fine morning 23 November?’ She resisted the urge to tell Little Dorritt to shut up and instead said: ‘Argus data.’ ‘Sure!’ said Little Dorritt.
For some time after that, Eloise pored over Argus images of George Mann walking along the banks of the Thames, under steel docklands apartments and crossing at Shadwell, taking the Docklands Light Railway to its eastern terminus, arriving eventually onto the Isle of Sheppey. She watched him sitting on a bench and falling asleep. He slept – the bastard – for an hour, slumped like a drunk. He had been copiously drunk when he committed the crime, as his BeetleBand readings confirmed, though this was hardly an excuse. While he slept, she said: ‘Probability chain, next hour.’
‘Sure!’ said Little Dorritt. ‘George Mann will awake in the next ten minutes, based on ambient temperature readings and the probable temperature of his core. Based on the last time he ate, he will stand and walk 125 metres east to the nearby twenty-four-hour garage and buy something to eat. Based on the last time he used the washroom he will use the washroom. He will wash his face and he will then continue walking. Based on his previous trajectory he will continue east across the Isle of Sheppey. Based on his levels of exhaustion it is probable he will check into the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge at Garden Terrace, the Isle of Sheppey, ask for an alarm call and go to his room. He will sleep.’
‘Probability chain inserting guilt,’ said Eloise.
‘Sure! George Mann will awake in the next ten minutes, he will stand and walk 125 metres east to the nearby twenty-four-hour garage and buy something to eat. He will use the washroom. In the washroom he will weep and shake. It is probable he will vomit. Based on his previous consumption his vomit will consist of whisky and red wine. He will wash his face and then he will continue east across the Isle of Sheppey. It is probable he will check into the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge at Garden Terrace, the Isle of Sheppey, ask for an alarm call and go to his room. He will not sleep.’
‘Thanks!’ said Eloise.
For the next hour, she flicked through real-time Argus footage of Mann, as well as archive footage of him from the night before. There he was, in his office, moving along the corridor, treading heavily, his feet splayed to the sides, his suit fitting him rather badly, as if he had bought it when he was a younger and fitter man, with more muscle girth on his shoulders and arms, less fat on his legs and waist. She watched him walking to the Three Tuns pub. He sat there for hours, gulping down wine and whisky, staring into space. The bar teemed with drinkers all evening and was still full when Mann left just after midnight. She observed him waiting for a Mercury car, looking exhausted and drunk. One odd thing about George Mann: he neither consulted his BeetlePad nor – except when he ordered the car – his BeetleBand. Around him, everyone was fixed on these devices, their faces illuminated by little screens. Once the Mercury car arrived Eloise had footage from the operating system, with the VIADS camera focused remorselessly on Mann’s face, as he stared out of the window. Like everyone else, he had learned – she supposed – to keep his expressions very blank, never to register any violent changes of mood. He was also nondescript as he arrived at his house, recorded by the Argus cameras along his street. Mann’s expression remained blank as he picked up the knife and – captured by the fridge camera – walked out of the room.
The crimes themselves, even seen through the shadowy and inadequate lens of external ArgusEyes, oriented towards the windows of Mann’s house, were horrific. His wife, in fact, did not struggle as she was smothered. Her recent deliveries by droid made it clear that she was an inveterate user of sleeping tablets, and Eloise assumed the post-mortem would confirm that she was deeply drugged. The sons, however, slept more lightly and both had struggled as their father smothered them. Once each victim was inert, Mann stabbed them methodically, lining up the knife before he punctured it into their flesh. As far as she could discern from the footage, Mann’s expression stayed the same: blank. When Eloise first began in the police force, this blank expression was a clear sign of psychopathy. Mann would already have been categorised and she would be dealing with psychiatrists and experts on mental health. Now, facial blankness no longer indicated anything much, in itself. Blankness had become normal, and even requisite.
For the next hour, Eloise assessed the real-time activities of Mann against the probability chain. The results were disconcerting.
As the first planes whined into London-Sheppey airport, George Mann slept on the bench, apparently undisturbed by the considerable noise above him, for another twenty-five minutes. Then he woke, yawned and stretched, and stood up. For a moment he watched a plane descending in front of him. Then he began to walk east, as the probability chain had indicated. However, Mann walked past the nearby twenty-four-hour garage and, instead of confirming the chain, followed a winding path towards the beach. There, he relieved himself into the sea, then took off his clothes and went for a swim. This lasted five minutes, then Mann came out of the sea, shook himself dry and dressed again. When he was fully clothed, he walked up the steps and towards the Isle of Sheppey Travelodge. Yet, he passed the entrance without even breaking his stride, and continued instead to a greasy spoon by the pier, called Pat’s Caff. There, Mann ordered a full English breakfast and a black coffee.
‘Probability chain for the next hour,’ said Eloise. ‘Factoring in a total lack of guilt.’
‘Based on previous activities,’ said Little Dorritt, ‘George Mann will finish his breakfast and then commit another serious crime.’
Eloise marked the case as dangerous. She put in a request for an Anti-Terror Droid, or ANT, to be sent over to George Mann. These droids followed the SAYD protocol – Shoot At Your Discretion. The protocol had been developed using petabytes of scenario data by DARPA — the US defence contractor – and the discretion was the robot’s. Eloise was relieved that she didn’t have to make the final call, though she wasn’t sure she much cared about the continued existence of George Mann.
Then she asked Little Dorritt to file a classified report.
The above sequence of events explained why Lionel Bigman, eating a full English breakfast in Pat’s Caff, looked up from a vintage copy of the Sun to find an Anti-Terror Droid (or, as the café owner Pat described it later, ‘a massive headless robot with a gun’) standing in the doorway. Lionel was a tall, thickset, retired soldier, who bore a deeply unfortunate resemblance to George Mann. At least, it was deeply unfortunate for Bigman, though astoundingly fortunate for Mann. Bigman was further doomed by other eerie coincidences. He had sat down at a table recently vacated by George Mann, who had gone to the bathroom. Mann had removed his BeetleBand, silenced it, then hidden it in a vase of flowers on the table. Furthermore, it was a sunny day.
The arrival of the massive headless robot caused the owner of Pat’s Caff, a part-time boxer called Pat, to duck behind his counter. Three Latvian builders were sitting by the door, and as the ANT moved inside the café they took the opportunity to depart onto the street. This left only Bigman, on the table by the door to the Gents.
Bigman was about to embark on his early shift driving a nostalgia bus from Sheppey Docks to Tower Bridge. This bus functioned without Beetle Electrical Company technology, for financial reasons, and as a result it was permanently stuck in traffic. Besides, he had never liked driving, but this was the only job he could find. It made him irritable. The previous day someone had tried to pay with cash, rather than with an EasyTravel card, and he had asked: ‘What do you think I am, a fucking bureau de change?’ The woman in question, brandishing an antique-looking ten-pound note, had promised that there would be ‘consequences’ to his behaviour, but Lionel Bigman had not quite imagined that the consequences would involve a headless robot. Now his BeetleBand beeped at him, explaining that his stress levels were elevated. This caused Lionel Bigman to experience considerably more elevated levels of stress, because the enormous headless robot turned at the sound, and moved towards him.
Bigman had served for many years in the British Army and had been under mortar attack in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had never imagined dying at the hands of a headless robot. Somehow the fact that the robot lacked any semblance of a head, whatsoever, particularly upset him. Desperately, he silenced his BeetleBand but then of course it began to flash, so he covered it with his shirt, but it started vibrating on his arm. At this point, for unknown reasons, Lionel Bigman took off his BeetleBand and threw it into a corner of the room. As the ANT moved towards him, Lionel said, ‘Hello, sir. Is there a problem?’
‘You have committed an atrocious crime,’ said the ANT. ‘Is it a crime? Is that a recent law?’ ‘It has always been a crime.’ ‘Well, in my defence, the traffic was appalling that day.’
‘I suggest this was not a reasonable response to stress or traffic,’ said the ANT, which was programmed to perform complex negotiations with terrorists and others who posed an urgent threat to national security. The noise seemed to come from its chest, which was unnerving.
‘I shouldn’t have sworn, I absolutely agree,’ said Bigman. ‘It was very rude.’
‘That is the least of your crimes,’ said the ANT.
‘Would you put down your gun, sir?’ said Bigman. Experience in high-risk situations as a Sergeant Major had taught him that deference was advisable. Even to creatures without a head. In this case, deference was totally ineffective. It was possible that the ANT was not programmed to register deference. It said: ‘You need to come with me.’
‘Come where?’ asked Bigman.
At this, the ANT raised its gun. Bigman stood and put down his copy of the Sun. He folded it carefully, not knowing what else to do. He felt incredibly sad, that everything around him was so incomprehensible, so dreamlike, that there was this headless creature, who seemed for some reason to hate him, brandishing a gun.
‘It was just a stupid joke!’ he said. ‘I don’t even understand what the fuss is about.’
‘Clearly you have a very poor sense of humour,’ said the ANT, and shot Bigman in the face.
In the bathroom, George Mann scrambled out of a window, his fingers still covered with melted butter, so he fell and banged his head. When the ANT arrived he had been staring nervously at the door, waiting for someone – or something – to come and kill him. He had wanted this thing or person to kill him, in fact, but when the moment arrived he experienced a spasm of fear. It was perhaps not by chance that Mann had positioned himself by the door to the Gents, so he was able to push it open and disappear, before the ANT could register his presence. Now, sweating and crying, Mann jumped down into a small courtyard, hitting his head again, tearing his clothes. As he began to scurry along the street, the sound of sirens punctured the dawn.
The ANT stood above Lionel Bigman. From somewhere in its chest came the words: ‘Terror Suspect Neutralised.’
Responses to this bewildering accident were various. Eloise Jayne, observing the events on ANTCam, had jumped when the shot was fired. The SAYD programming was highly delicate and ANTs were meant to be less inclined to shoot than their human equivalents. Furthermore, the ANTs were meant to shoot to immobilise, rather than to kill. In general the ANTs’ decision-making process and general consciousness were quite mysterious. Eloise had argued against the ANTs, in fact, and had suggested they should not be quite so autonomous, but Commissioner Newton had explained that there was no time, in crisis situations, for these state-of-the-art droids to be controlled by humans. The ANTs, he explained, made decisions far more swiftly and efficiently than any human could and their algorithms were immaculate. If an ANT were to shoot a human it would only be because the predictive chain was unequivocal, and the human was about to commit a terrible crime.
For some time after that, Eloise played the footage over and over again on her BeetlePad: Lionel Bigman attempting to negotiate on the basis of his fundamental innocence, which was real and – she would have imagined – irrefutable, then the change in atmosphere, his escalating terror, the way a muscle in his cheek flexed and flexed again as he contemplated the ANT, as the ANT raised his gun, the way Bigman’s voice trembled a little as he tried to persuade the ANT not to fire on him. She watched Bigman – with a look of astonishment – succumbing to a single, devastating shot to the temple, the force hurling him backwards, so he ended his life splayed across a shattered chair. At this point, Pat, who had been hiding behind the counter, screamed ‘Fucking Hell!’ and ran towards the dying man, even as the ANT said: ‘Do not approach the target. Step back. Step away immediately.’ With the ANT’s gun trained on him, Pat dragged this heavy, thickset, dying man onto his lap and tried to comfort him. Lionel Bigman seemed, at that stage, beyond comfort – one of his eyes had been blasted out of the socket and the other was full of blood. There was blood everywhere – it was being pumped vigorously from Bigman’s head, down his shirt, onto Pat and across the floor. Eloise noticed that she was crying and wiped the tears away, as her BeetleBand buzzed on her wrist.
George Mann was next seen walking down the High Street, eating an ice cream. Eloise ordered for the ANT to be immediately undeployed and for an Elite Negotiations Droid (or END) to be immediately deployed instead, along with a team of MediDroids. The ANT ran back to its carrier, bouncing on its metal legs, and stepped inside. An ambulance arrived, and several MediDroids emerged into Pat’s Caff, finding Pat covered in blood and gore, holding a now-lifeless corpse. Pat refused to let go of the body and was heard to say ‘He was murdered by that fucking headless robot,’ and ‘I’m not leaving him, you bastards. You’ll throw his corpse away, destroy the evidence.’ Eloise registered that it was fortunate that the ANT had been undeployed, otherwise, with reference to some irrefutable predictive algorithms, it might have dispatched Pat as well.
Guy Matthias was on his balcony, with a dawn-blushed view of the Gherkin, musing over the poetry of Rumi. He had just read a particularly beautiful line and wondered if it might work as a new slogan for Beetle: You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.
To test Athena, Beetle’s wisdom and knowledge service, Guy said to her, ‘Tell me more about Rumi.’
‘Of course, my darling,’ said Athena. ‘乳糜 – Chinese characters, meaning chyle.’ ‘Really? Chyle? What’s chyle?’
‘Chyle is a milky fluid containing fat droplets which drains from the lacteals of the small intestine into the lymphatic system during digestion. From late Latin, chylus, from Greek, khūlos, “juice”. See chyme.’
‘OK, I’ll see chyme.’
‘Chyme is the pulpy acidic fluid that passes from the stomach to the small intestine, consisting of gastric juices and partly digested food. It is—’
‘Thanks, Athena. Actually I don’t want to see chyme any more.’ ‘OK, darling!’
Guy Matthias was about to ask Sarah Coates to place Rumi the poet at the top of Athena’s search parameters concerning Rumi, and demote this information about gastric fluids, but he was distracted by his BeetleBand saying, ‘Douglas Varley calling.’
‘Varley,’ said Guy. ‘What the fuck is going on with this fucking algorithm?’
‘Ah, yes, well, there have been a couple of – er – glitches in the interpretation of the information,’ said Varley. ‘I have just spoken with Eloise Jayne, and she has assured me that this will not happen again.’
‘Her boss tells me it’s our problem, not theirs, what do you say to that?’
‘I say that – er – in state-of-the-art predictive technology the information is susceptible to human error.’
‘So when Sarah Coates writes the press release, she’s blaming human error?’
‘It’s not for me to make that decision,’ said Varley.
‘You’re claiming from your end that it’s fucking human error? Yes or no?’
There was a pause and then Varley said: ‘The process is theoretically susceptible to human error but not machine error. That’s my absolute position, yes.’
Guy Matthias said ‘End call’, and then ‘prick’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ said Varley. ‘Jesus Christ! You are a prick! Get off the line!’ said Guy Matthias.
Varley ended the call.
Guy Matthias’s next call was to David Strachey, editor-in-chief of The Times, the Star, the Sun and the Record, as well as a host of entertainment sites. Guy had employed Strachey as his media relations officer in New York more than a decade ago, when Beetle was just emerging into global prominence. When Beetle bought up all remaining newspapers, it was natural for Guy to ask Strachey to bring his great experience to bear. Nonetheless, Guy Matthias had emphasised that he was deeply in favour of a free press, so Strachey was free to publish whatever he liked. Within reason.
David Strachey was, of course, already awake and in his office by Southwark Cathedral, trying to deal with the reports of a headless robot gunning down a former soldier. Despite the untoward nature of this news, or any news, Strachey’s demeanour was conspiratorial and good-humoured. This was a technique he had learned, as a boy from Huddersfield who had worked his way into journalism over decades. He had acquired the manner – painstakingly – from his illustrious colleagues, most of whom had been through the British public school system. Strachey had learned the tone so fluently that Guy often forgot that Strachey was an actor, and not remotely what he seemed to be. Furthermore, Strachey was a workaholic and a recent widower, with a daughter who suffered from anorexia. Since the death of his wife Strachey had been behaving a little oddly, and various anomalies had been registered by BeetleInsight.
In general, Guy approved of the public school tone (and disapproved of actors). This was the reason – approval of the public school tone, not disapproval of actors – for his partial residence in London. He had sent his daughter and son to major British public schools (Westminster and Harrow, respectively) in the expectation that they too, one day, would become fluent in this cordial tone. Elska had recently reminded Guy that he hadn’t seen either of his children for several months and so Guy had flown over from New York to spend some quality time with them. So far he hadn’t quite managed to see them as much he had planned, because work was proving to be hell.
‘Hi Guy,’ said Strachey. ‘How’s your backhand? Any better than the last time we played?’
‘Expensively improved,’ said Guy. ‘Like my life in general.’
Strachey laughed generously. ‘Money buys,’ he said. ‘That’s what money does.’
‘I’d love to invite you for lunch soon,’ said Guy. ‘To discuss shared interests and of course the future of the free press.’
‘Of course,’ said Strachey, still sounding cordial.
‘We were incredibly glad to be able to save The Times from bankruptcy and embark on an exciting new partnership.’
‘Yes, we were very glad too,’ said Strachey, sounding less cordial.
‘I look forward to speaking with you about this partnership over lunch, going forward.’
‘So do I,’ said Strachey, not sounding very cordial at all.
The acting was perfect. The facade never cracked. Matthias admired this but he also knew that it was a mere facade. Underneath, Strachey was a leaf, trembling in a storm.
‘I understand that today a former soldier committed suicide by droid,’ said Guy. ‘I see.’
‘In the other case, the tragic case of George Mann, the predictive algorithms were misinterpreted by human error and the result was that circumstances we had foreseen were not averted by those trained to do so. You see?’
‘I think so,’ said Strachey. ‘But even if I see, I don’t direct the investigations of my reporters. As an editor, I am a passionate supporter of free journalism.’
‘Yes, that’s absolutely right,’ said Guy. ‘At Beetle we insist on very high standards of inclusiveness and fairness. We want to end poverty and disease and we are very concerned about wealth inequality. We are on the side of freedom, openness and global community, and we are fiercely opposed to authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism.’
‘I welcome your sentiments entirely.’ Strachey was now sounding very dignified.
‘How are you doing, David, after the death of your wife? Do you ever regret not using lifechain predictions, in the case of her illness? It might have helped a great deal, perhaps?’
‘What the hell does that mean?’ said Strachey, abruptly losing his dignity.
‘I believe those sorts of omissions can – and I mean can – qualify as assisted suicide, these days.’
‘What the fuck are you implying?’
Guy revised his opinion of Strachey’s acting. The facade did occasionally crack, if only at moments of unbearable pressure.
‘Excellent to talk, as always,’ he said. ‘We must play tennis soon. Why not get your Veep to contact mine?’
‘Name,’ said Strachey.
‘Sarah Coates.’ ‘Not your Veep. I need a name. A human who made the human error.’
‘My staff work closely with the security community, saving lives and averting terror attacks,’ said Guy. ‘I can’t possibly expose them to the press. How’s your daughter by the way?’
‘She’s OK at the moment,’ said Strachey. Then, in a very different tone of voice: ‘Isn’t she?’ Guy felt the conversation was not progressing, so he ended the call without saying goodbye and returned to Rumi. Chyle? he thought. Or was it chyme? Within a few moments, he was asleep.
Soon after, an editorial appeared on the Times website:
suicide by droid Alas another poor civilian has committed suicide by droid this morning, 23 November 2023: Lionel Bigman, 48, of the Isle of Sheppey. Bigman served his country with great distinction as an NCO for 25 years, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major. He was noted for his quick temper and his boundless generosity and kindness. He was a loving husband to Sally and a loving father to Jack (26), Josie (24), May (14) and Rob (11) and a loving grandfather to Sherwood (1). Pat Jenkins, proprietor of Pat’s Caff, where the unfortunate suicide occurred, was quoted saying that he heard the ‘deceased gentleman in conversation with the droid, after which he was suddenly dead’. The previous day, Lionel Bigman had sworn volubly at an innocent customer. The now-poignant exchange can be viewed on BeetleBox under ‘London bus driver says he is not a bureau de change’. An interfaith community meeting, which will celebrate the manner of Lionel Bigman’s life and not the tragic ending, will soon be announced.
On the Isle of Sheppey, Pat had been persuaded by the MediDroids to leave Lionel’s body, and Sally Bigman had been informed of the unfortunate death of her husband. She was now accompanying the corpse to the hospital, where a post-mortem would establish, categorically, that Lionel Bigman had died from a bullet to the head. Special Liaison Officers were already making contact with community leaders representing the major faiths and other significant community interests in order to organise a twilight vigil to celebrate the life of Lionel Bigman, who had served his country with distinction, and deserved to be remembered for this, rather than the sad circumstances of his final breakdown and suicide by droid.
The END had located George Mann at the edge of Elmley National Nature Reserve, trying to hide in a shrub. As the END aimed its gun towards him, it said: ‘George Mann, we have orders to arrest you for the murders of your wife Maggie and sons Thomas and William.’
Mann was looking foul and unkempt by this point, his hair matted with ice cream, his clothes torn, his hands and face bleeding copiously, spittle at the corners of his mouth. He was heard to mutter: ‘Oh, my sons! Please, kill me! Kill me!’
Alas for George Mann, he had the wrong droid. Eloise had issued a special command to the END in question: it must not shoot at all. She had requested, also, that this command should override all predictive algorithms. This was extremely irregular and it was possible she would be sanctioned for this later. However, it was now impossible for George Mann to commit suicide by droid, or at least by this droid.
The END requested that Mann move quietly into the squad van. Mann repeated his desire to be killed by the droid.
‘We do not kill people on demand,’ said the END, in an admonitory tone. Then, more loudly, it added: ‘Suspect arrested. The situation is now entirely under control.’
The above is an extract from ZED by Joanna Kavenna, forthcoming from Faber & Faber.
Image © Wikimedia Commons / Ivan Kirwan-Taylor