Chapter 7: Tipping point

Instead of moving on to other work, Stan sat staring at the wall, wondering how the content had been taken from his home server, given that he’d installed the same level of security he had on the Genomica Labs server, which had never been breached. Someone would have had to access his terminal from within the house, and send content from it when he was logged in.  That limited the suspect list to one of maybe five people who were regularly around the house when he was at home, including the housekeeper and gardener, occasionally Genevieve, Mary and the tech support guy from Genomica.  Whoever it was would need to go in and out of his study when logged in, and would have to be quick. They’d know what to do to find and export the right files, and most of the suspects weren’t capable enough or fearless enough to do this.  Genevieve and Bogdan would both be capable, but they were both completely in his circle of trust.  It had to be Mary.  She’d been at arm’s length from him for years, and he knew she hated him for sleeping with other people, even though she was screwing that Welsh idiot, Edwards.  Identifying it as her was one thing, but working out why she took it was another.  It was so premeditated, and had clearly been going on for a long time. She wouldn’t leak this stuff simply on personal grounds, because she was not shy in having ‘full and frank’ altercations with him about his lifestyle.  He wondered if she’d begun to form political opinions over what Zurich was responsible for, or perhaps she had it in for him since he’d stopped her getting her job back all those years ago after Jade was born.  It had required him to give a firm instruction to HR, and that might have set her off.  Whatever the motives, the milk was spilt as they say in England, and Stan wasn’t about to waste time speculating about history.

Once he’d come to terms with what had happened, he began to think of how to limit the damage which news of Alistair’s bribe and others would cause within Zurich. Alistair was right, of course. It wouldn’t be what the government could do to him, or what it dared to do to Zurich, it was what public sentiment could do to the share price. There’s nothing a PLC hates more than a downturn in public sentiment.  You can manage a global product recall, or the compensation after a chemical effluent problem, but public sentiment is so amorphous, so insidious.   He’d have to v-mail the Board straight away, including Malcolm McBride, and get the Churchill guys onto the breach, so he could claim a violation of privacy. Of course, bribery is bribery whether it’s public knowledge or secretly negotiated. The Board could be quite sanctimonious when it wanted, even when the company had clearly benefitted enormously from the contracts he’d managed to bring in.

He’d like to know just what had been lifted, and where it had been sent, besides Downing Street. That  should be easy for Churchill Digital Security to find out once they were on Mary’s Amazon account, since she was never inside his security net.  He began to draft some messages to Board members, but left them in his drafts folder until he was sure he’d have to send them. There was no point in constructing a pre-emptive defence and looking weak unless the shit really was about to hit the fan. It took a while to find something appropriate to say.  He tried coming over as the victim, but knew that would never wash.  He tried a ‘leading into pitch battle’ speech, on the grounds that Zurich’s Board liked to stand together, but jettisoned that in favour of a straightforward ‘hands up, fair cop, but all in a good cause’ approach.  It’s what they’d wanted when they took him as part of the Genomica purchase. He was notorious for getting things done, for circumventing or obliterating obstacles, and this was just another example.

When he looked up he noticed it was already nine thirty, and he needed a drink.  Just as he was pouring a Stolly for himself, Genevieve came to the door and asked if he needed anything else before she left for the night.

“Join me for one?”

She stood in the doorway to his dark office, her face in shadow, as the main office lights were bright behind her.  He could see the outline of her thighs through her summer dress, and he smiled. She struck that pose he found so irresistible, and she wasn’t turning to go.  He stood up and carried the vodka and two glasses from his side table to the sofa. He knew she’d accept the drink. She put down her bag, turned and locked the door, took the shot glass from him and sat back, while he knelt on the floor before her, slugged down his shot and slid his hands slowly up under the skirt until he felt the silk of her knickers, which he drew down her legs and off her bare feet.

Genevieve lay on the sofa, naked from the waist down, with her head thrown back over the armrest, moaning softly.  Stan was trying to empty his mind of Alistair Pringle’s voice by burying his head in her lap and his mouth in her groin. Despite his 59 years, he was still vigorous.  His morning sessions in the basement gym at Hamilton Terrace were keeping him fit and energetic. He crawled back up her body and held onto the armrest either side of her head.  With his feet firmly planted against the other end of the sofa, he began a slow thrusting, which gathered pace and drove out all thoughts from him.  He was hyperventilating and driving harder, slapping against Gen’s young body.  He had no interest in her satisfaction, because he knew she was getting what she wanted from him and he from her – that was the deal. He had no real feelings, other than the animal drive to reach an orgasm and the physical need for its aftermath. As he began to come, his Amazon started buzzing, over on the desk, as it received notification of a change to the PQ algorithm that had been approved to run. The approval had been issued from the full Board, including him, apparently. Ellen’s Amazon had uploaded the PQ patch to Zurich’s server, through the R&D department’s portal, and John had effected the Board approval process remotely.  She’d left it on her desk, under some papers, and once the upload had taken place, John cleared her cache and erased the upload path, so she could pick it up the next day, or Monday, or never. As Stan’s breathing subsided and he fell back against the damp sofa, the PQ upgrade was delivered to all chips across the country from Zurich’s servers, with his authorisation.

It was 11pm on Friday May 15th 2046, as the pubs were shutting and the clubs were getting lively. The door scanners on all the clubs were checking PQs against blacklists and billing the punters their entry fees through their Amazons. The scanners guarded doorways and responded to the PQs to block entry to known trouble-makers. All clubs were fitted with double door cages which admitted one person at a time. Until the first door closed, the second wouldn’t open.  These continued to block known trouble-makers, based on their last known PQs. Inside, everyone was checking out the talent on their wristbands, reading each other’s informagear or scanning rooms with their Amazons to be sure that the people they fancied hitting on were within their financial reach.  Thousands of people were in restaurants across the country, choosing from electronic menus which read their PQ in order to offer appropriate selections of food, and thousands more were shopping online using their Amazons in conjunction with their PQ read-outs to select their shopping. Almost everyone else was watching Netflix.

The small night staff working shift in Zurich, like most of the staff who were working late in Whitehall, were all glued to their wall vids, soaking up the online newsfeed, which was pouring out details of several of Stan’s business meetings, and showing clips of intimate conversations with politicians and military leaders, recorded in his study, or elsewhere in the house. The ticker-tape along the bottom of the screen reported news of Alastair Pringle as having handed in his resignation, of the PM having called an emergency Cabinet meeting, of Leaders in the US and Somalia calling for explanations for the breakdown in the deportation deals they’d struck with the UK.  Morgan Edwards was being interviewed outside the Houses of Parliament, barely able contain his glee over what he called the collapse of the house of cards at Zurich.

Anyone using their Amazon when the patch uploaded had their activity interrupted by a high priority v-mail coming in: ‘Don’t worry, your Amazon is not faulty. We’ve made some adjustments to your settings which are designed to improve your experience of Zurich services. PQ scores will no longer be visible but health and welfare monitoring will continue as normal… ’

The PQ read-out simply stopped functioning, and nobody could see their own or anyone else’s score, for the first time in years. The message explained that this was as a result of policy changes reducing Zurich’s dependence on the PQ for calculating insurance premiums, which would be simplified, without reducing or removing any benefits. Within two minutes, Zurich’s servers had re-programmed all 82 million chips to relay more limited biometric and geo-location data from the chip to the company, and to receive no more uploads from it. All psychographic tracking, other than for health and welfare purposes was frozen. This effectively blocked all PQ G-Match uploads, making it impossible for anyone to know anyone else’s score.  Dozens of apps crashed, because their reliance on the PQ left them with no input data, but many functions continued uninterrupted.  People in driverless MPVs had their bank accounts docked in the normal way for their journeys.  Public order was maintained by security contracts based on chip feedback, and despite Gimme’s fears of a dramatic rise in crime or street violence, there was no immediate rush to break the law.  The health services continued to react to chip feedback on medical emergencies, and to send ambulances out, but charges were levied to victims’ accounts based on their last PQ score before the upload, frozen on their Zurich files.

In maternity hospitals across the country, g-mapping newborn babies continued without interruption, but they all received upgraded chips from the mapping machines, all centrally programmed from the PQ Algorithm. None of the staff was any the wiser.

Stan’s Amazon began buzzing continuously, as members of parliament, business leaders, journalists and Board members all tried to reach him for some explanation of the outrageous material they were watching on the news. Zurich’s call centre was flooded with incoming v-mails and calls, and people even began to gather outside the offices, staring at their Amazons for guidance.

Stan lay back with his eyes closed and his hand resting on Genevieve’s breast.  The sweat  was cooling on her and she curled into his body for warmth.  He ignored the buzzing Amazon on his desk and reached for the vodka bottle, pouring another two shots.  Someone tried the door, which luckily was locked, before knocking.

“Dr Janekowski? Are you there? Sir, if you’re there, please could you … Could you check your Amazon, sir?  Or turn on the vid wall, sir?”

He lay silently, waiting for the steps to retreat along the corridor.  Genevieve lifted herself onto one elbow and tried to reach for the vid-wall controls, but they were out of reach, and Stan wasn’t moving to let her up. She was going to issue verbal instructions, but Stan had gently covered her mouth.

“Fuck them. Leave it, Gen. It’ll be some rubbish on the news that Pringle was calling me about. They’re a bunch of weak and ignorant cowards, and I have no interest in playing games by their rules.  You should go home to your husband and avoid any work communications.  Go, Go!” He pushed her gently to get up. “I have a little more vodka to finish and I will then be leaving too.  I’m tired.”

He shifted his weight so that she could push herself off the sofa, retrieve her knickers and collect her bag from the floor.  She unlocked the door, opened it a crack to make sure whoever had been there was gone, and stepped into the corridor, closing it quietly behind her. Stan drank from the bottle, his head resting on the arm of the sofa, and promptly fell asleep.


Chapter 7: Falling slowly

It was late on Friday afternoon and Stan had been having yet another disagreement with Geoff Grainger about his recommendation to remove health cover for all over nineties on UI.  It had long been his view that when the Potential Support Ratio, which compares the number of workers to that of retirees, reaches one to one, then the economic model for UI is unsustainable. With more nonagenarians than under 16s in the UK population, dramatic rises in unemployment, and reduced per capita allowances in the UI, the model for PSR was breaking down, and Stan wanted to do something about it.  Geoff agreed that it would require a different funding structure, but was in favour of tax increases to fund healthcare, rather than curtailment of services.  He’d been lobbying Malcolm McBride, the Chancellor about this, as the budget was due. The Tories favoured a softer approach in the run-up to the election, and squeezing those on UI still harder would not win them votes. Malcolm was a non-Exec on the Zurich Board, despite it being contrary to government policy for individuals to hold directorships while in office. He’d been given a special dispensation, to represent the government on the Board because of the pivotal role Zurich played in the welfare system and the amount of taxpayers’ money which was going through the insurance companies.

Stan knew that the inactive over nineties, exclusively dependent, highly so on healthcare services, was draining the economy.  In fact, he felt this to be true of most of the population on UI, but he had yet to voice that view.  Zurich’s Healthcare for the Elderly contractors had an army of carer bots which were continuously called out to the vast customer base in response to chip feedback from people who’d fallen or who were sick, or had arrhythmia or whatever. These contractors were already at or beyond capacity.

His model advocated incentives to carers and children of elderly parents to reduce or remove policy options offering supports for this age group, rather than bolstering them. It advocated appealing to their wallets rather than making the carers feel oppressed by simply cutting services.

In fact, it wasn’t simply a PR initiative.  Stan had been thinking for a long time that the chip should perhaps be upgraded to deliver direct ‘instructions’ to the body, rather than simply relying on feedback in the form of PQ, premium adjustment and liaison with support services. It would mean a more complex implant, rather than a software patch, but that could be handled quickly through mobile units and autonomous equipment. Everyone would comply and attend the units, under threat of deportation, and it could all be effected within six months, starting with the elderly, those on UI and all street dwellers.  The chips needed to perform more remote functions, such as releasing medication and providing pacemaker and defibrillation functions, and he knew that there was no allocation in Zurich’s budgets for the upgrade, since there was no profit in it.

His idea was to make changes to the chip which would allow it to deliver an electronic pulse, like an electric shock, that would stop the heart, either momentarily to restrict someone in the process of violent or illegal acts, or permanently.  He’d presented this as part of a package of changes to Geoff and the Board, but had come up against a wall of moderation from the majority, resisting what they considered a step too far. What Stan didn’t tell them was that the idea had come from the new PQ algorithm which Genomica Labs had developed. It was presented during an iterative analysis process, in the form of a recommended solution to the problem, but had this new PQ j2software been uploaded to the population’s chips, it would already have implemented the change as part of its own decision-making powers to ‘solve the crisis in healthcare for the elderly’. At this stage, the new PQ was safely locked away in a Faraday cage, like a dangerous beast.  Geoff had warned Stan that he could not expect support for what amounted to capital punishment and euthanasia rolled into one, and he should stop trying to steamroller his policies through.  Profit was not enough reason for such extreme measures.

“Frankly, Stanislav, I feel that your approach to this business is not in keeping with the ethos we at Zurich espouse. In fact, I think it is not in keeping with the British way of life.  You might have gotten away with it in Moscow, but not here. I don’t know where you’re coming from on this, but I will not allow you to put such draconian, not to say evil ideas out under the Zurich name.”

“I put this company where it is, Geoffery. I put you where you are. I put the whole fucking establishment in the comfortable position it is in, and you know it. If you can’t see the future clearly, it is you who shouldn’t be part of Zurich, because you are being left behind. Genomica’s work has underwritten progress for fifteen years, and without the PQ, we’d still be in the dark ages. All I’m proposing is a logical response to a massive problem coming down the tracks – what to do about the cost of aging. If you think that whinging about liberal values will stop the rot, good luck to you. If Zurich doesn’t like my methods, so be it. I’ll move right along, because it will be left behind whether I’m driving change or someone else is.”

“I should remind you, Stan, that Zurich owns the IP, and if you plan to resign, you will walk away with nothing.”

Stan turned and left Geoff’s office. He knew nobody at Zurich had the ability to manage without him, and he knew that Genomica Labs had enough new IP to move elsewhere. The new PQ algorithm, once released online, would find its own way to the top and might not need some monolithic dinosaur of a corporation behind it. But he’d go in his own sweet time, or he’d take out Geoff Grainger and step into his shoes. It was only three years since Genomica had been acquired, and it had become claustrophobic. Stan knew he was never going to be a good bureaucrat and nor did he profess to being a team player.  If they didn’t like his modus operandi, that was their problem, not his. The Amazon buzzed.

“Dr Janekowski, we’ve been through the logs and there’s no doubt that the PQ algorithm source code was downloaded remotely two days ago. It was an exceptionally clever piece of hacking, which we only spotted by chance. We’ve never seen a blockchain hack of this type. They re-wrote the genesis block and bypassed the Solidity stack. Amazing, in fact.  If we can find out who it was, they’d be a great hire. We traced the geolocation of the IP to North London, but it was a dead end with no owner details.  It appears that the full source code was copied and at the same time, attempts were made from another IP in West London to hack your Zurich v-mail, home server and Genomica Labs v-mail, although this was a less sophisticated attempt and it was ineffective.  Do you want us to make a wider assessment of potential breaches, sir? Your daughter? Your wife? What about the coding team at Genomica Labs?”

The CEO of Churchill Security was making the call himself, given the importance of Stan as a client and his position in Zurich, their biggest corporate account.

“Not now.  But please conduct a full scan of all camera feeds in London against those fourteen members of Gimme I notified last week. Particularly Nick Artremis, John Vaunt, Noel Fitzgerald and Anthony Edgeworth. They’re the four most likely suspects, and you have the last images on record from three years ago, which should be adequate for matching.  If you come up with any positives, I want to know where, when and what was happening – send me the vid straight away.  I want to know if anyone who’s on-grid came into contact with any of them and then you can send out the team to bring in anyone who looked like they might be familiar. It’s time we saw some positive results from your guys.”

“No problem, I’ve got our best people on it.  There is one more thing…”

“What? I’m very busy.” Stan assumed this was the point at which the CEO would be pitching their services for additional work at Zurich. Everyone got around to selling him sooner or later.

“We received the normal security logs this morning from staff at Zurich, and our analyst who checks them saw that your daughter has tagged a young man who was residing at her address for the last week.  A man called John Valance.  He’s a Systems Architect at the MoD, and has been … spending time’’’ with Jade’s flatmate, Janine Grant, apparently.”

“And why was she tagging him?”

“Well, sir, it appears that he was asking a lot of questions about you, and he mentioned that he’d been a student at ICL.  His profile checks out, though of course we can’t ask the MoD for references.  It’s just that his name seems similar to John Vaunt. Unfortunately, Jade doesn’t have permanent cameras in the apartment, and there is no vid of him.”

“Run a vid check on Valance and we can see if there’s any link to Vaunt. I’ll talk to Jade and see what she knows about him, other than the colour of his underwear.  She has great intuition. If you draw a blank, let me know and I’ll exert some influence on one or two people to check the MoD recruitment files.”

“Yes, no problem.  I wonder if I could take this opportunity to ….”

“Got to go. Keep in touch” Stan cut him off as soon as the pitch started.

He returned to the model for voluntary euthanasia, but he’d lost the thread, and his Amazon was buzzing again.


“Stan?  This is Alistair Pringle.”

“To what do I owe this pleasure, Alistair? Are you looking for yet more help with your budget submission? How’s that extension working out for you and Harriet? Pretty fine work as far as I can see from my study.  Bloody ought to be at that price.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I’m calling.”

“If you’ve got a problem with the builder or there’s a leak in the roof, you can fuck off and deal with it yourself.”

“No Stan, this is somewhat more important.  When we first discussed our little arrangement, in your study, that Sunday I came to lunch, it appears you were recording our conversation.”

Stan remained silent. Not that he was particularly concerned about Alistair knowing, but he was trying hard to work out how he’d found out.

“Mmmm, well, I do have a security system in the house and it does vid each room when there is movement or heat in it. Even the toilets and cellars. Can’t be too careful in my business, you understand. It would have picked up on our being there.  But may I ask how you came to find out?”

“Because, Stan, I’m watching a fucking vid or our whole conversation including the part about you getting my support for the Zurich contract in exchange for your help with the extension.  And you’ll never guess where it came from.”

“Surprise me.”

“The head of communications at Number 10! It’s being put out on the ten o’clock news tonight, and it was sent on to me with a clear instruction from the PM.  She’s losing the plot. Says it was accompanied by several v-mails between you and other members of Cabinet, none of which is very flattering to the government.  Some of this stuff is considered highly inflammatory to swing voters. Your fucking security video is doing the rounds of Whitehall as we speak, and you and I are about to be spread across the media as doing some dirty little deal.”

Stan let his breath out quietly, wanting Alistair to think he felt no concern. “What was the PM’s message?”

“What do you think, Stan. My report on her desk by 9am with explanation for what looks like bribery, or else I’m gone.”

“Frankly, Alistair, it’s not something I can help you with.  I’m not the Home Secretary, and besides, I think you can assume that the Cabinet won’t want to accuse Zurich of breach on our non-disclosure, since this was a private security video which has been removed illegally. Besides, do you really think  the PM wants to rock the boat right now, with an election just around the corner? You know I’ve got enough on each and every one of the wankers in your cabinet to ensure nobody makes waves.  Now your future as Home Secretary, on the other hand…”

“I wouldn’t be too complacent, if I were you, Stan. Once the markets open on Monday morning, and Zurich’s price plummets, how do you think the shareholders will view your activities? It’s a fucking mess, and it’s your fault this got out. I’d have thought you of all people would be a little better protected from hacking. Can’t you fucking do something?  Pull some strings? Get it off the air? I can’t believe this is happening, Stan. How irresponsible can you be?”

Stan began to laugh, and the tension he’d felt momentarily about the leaks evapourated. This wasn’t his problem.  He wasn’t trying to get re-elected, and he held all the cards.

“Do you really think I give a monkey’s what people think? Now I have to get on with some work,” and he cut the call.

Chapter 7: Propaganda

Micky March had joined the Gimme co-operative a year earlier. He’d been an investigative journalist at Netflix before he was ousted for digging into Stan’s role at the GRU in Moscow. He’d been called in by his editor and told that there was no longer a job for him, that he’d get a lump sum to leave and that he should abide by the confidentiality clause in his contract which ran for 12 months post-employment with Netflix.  The Editor had had a call from the publisher, who’d been called by the CEO, who had been called by Zurich’s head of Communications who had been told by Stan that people were asking questions he didn’t like and to deal with the problem.

While Micky lacked hacking skills or even much technological understanding, he knew how to manoeuvre his way around the media, how to conduct interviews and how to present information.  Besides, Micky met Jojo at a party and she turned out to be a coder with anti-establishment views, and once they were together, they made a formidable team within Gimme.

A week earlier, after the first King’s Head meeting with Nick, John had delegated Micky to create content for these webinars on the proposals for curtailing the reach of Zurich, limiting the use of the PQ and outlining alternative community structures which Gimme would like people to consider. They would all run without questions, pre-recorded and from untraceable IP addresses. John and Nick’s voice-overs were altered enough to be impossible to match to records, and scripted by Micky.  Most of the vid footage was cut from the security material that Stan had generated, which added plenty of spice to the topic.  Micky pulled together news footage of the brutal mistreatment of British citizens during the deportation process, raids on alternative communities in Spain and elsewhere, and lots of the material he had collated on Stan and taken from Netflix when he left.  The last section of the webinar was presented in a different light. Having delivered its blows to the current regime, it went on to offer a brighter future, but took care not to over-sell or proselytise about alternative communities. It was presented in the form of diagrams and charts about the simulated communities, created by Nick, and integrated existing healthcare and security service offerings in the mix.  John had even produced some rudimentary econometric models to show that the step back on control would not impact the taxpayer, and that the only savings would be taken from Zurich’s obscene profits.

Each webinar ran to almost an hour, but with Micky’s expertise, they became watchable documentaries, and Nick pulled out all the stops on his persuasive voice over. The message was clear: ‘look what we have now, look who runs it and how, and now look at what we could have.’ Those attending each were invited at the end to register in order to watch further webinars which would be available soon, which would introduce practical steps for change.  Nick planned to recruit individuals from each audience to participate in the second tranche, with a view to having legitimate hosts run conferences, workshops, think-tanks and chat forums in future.  The whole concept had to be legitimised, and that had to happen quickly, before Zurich could re-apply the screws, and before the Tories, in an effort to win the election, began to ramp up the propaganda machine for maintaining the status quo.  Once these forward looking events were set up, Nick and the other members of Gimme could then attend incognito, unless there was some miraculous general amnesty before then.    Micky selected journalists from the more liberal media, and especially those who had previously attacked Stan’s work. John and Nick felt that with these two influencer groups on board with Gimme’s objectives, a lot of work could be done by legitimate opposition, rather than being seen as subversive games.

Chapter 7: The gathering storm

‘This patch is locked up pretty tight in a quantum AES block cipher, but I’ve no doubt that the team at Zurich or the Genomica Labs guys could crack it in time.  Let’s assume they’ll be  called back in over the weekend to do that as soon as the alarms go off.  If we’re going to have any permanent effect, it’s got to be negotiated this weekend.  Are you ready for Stan?’

In truth, John was far from confident that he could undermine Stan’s position enough through leaks and threats, which would be water off a duck’s back to him and no more than a diversion. This guy was supremely confident of his status, and believed that he had the market over a barrel. The question was whether he was over-confident and assailable or whether he couldn’t be touched. His position looked secure as long as his algorithms made money for Zurich, and as long as nobody else offered an attractive alternative for managing welfare services. But John thought that perhaps there would be a moral backlash against him, if he could be presented as beyond the pale.  Would Zurich and the government hang Stan out to dry? Could they manage without him? Nobody is indispensable, surely?

The problem was that Stan could retaliate, as could the government. Gimme could quickly become public enemy number one, and the establishment’s spin would be that a bunch of hacker Subs wanted to take away law and order, decimate the healthcare supports which Zurich had in place, and worse, block payment of the UI. This last story could be backed up by disruption in the UI payments, instigated by Stan, but attributed to Gimme.  Perhaps they should pre-empt this with some sort of interference between the UI control program and the payment system, clearly attributed to Zurich. But nobody in Gimme wanted to cause any suffering to the very groups they were trying to help.  The should consider how to pre-empt the negative spin. They could communicate with a large majority of UI recipients through the news media, and with some via Amazon, warning them that Zurich was likely to mess about with their payments to hide its problems.

But in the end, almost anything Gimme did to disrupt the current status quo could be undone within a week or two. It was essential that nobody in the co-operative believed they were the best. If they could break into and alter software, so there would always be someone else who could reverse their work, crack their security.  The only way to use this breach was to create a hiatus, a calm space in the eye of the tornado, to engage directly with Stan in the process and hope to use his temporary difficulties to persuade him of the other options. It would be worth finding a way to have a live v-mail conversation without breaking cover.

‘I am worried about him, but we can’t have one man getting in the way of everything.  We have to bring him to his knees somehow, and perhaps then we can offer him a role in our alternative future.  After all, he is more interested in science than money, isn’t he?’

‘It’d certainly be great to have him inside pissing out rather than standing over us pissing down from a great height.  Imagine if Stan brought his resources to bear on our proposals and backed them.  But let’s not get carried away with positivity, Nick. It’s best to concentrate on the next few days. Are you worried about the public’s over-reaction to blocking aspects of PQ?’

‘Yeah, aren’t you? Who knows how people will react. Will the dating business become a mess? Yeah, but who cares? It’s about time we started choosing our own partners.  Will the security contractors withdraw from their duties? Not unless we cut their feed from the chips, which I haven’t included in the patch. Will Zurich suffer massive problems trying to re-calibrate the insurance premiums? I really hope so. Will Stan lose his job? I doubt it.’

‘Well, there’s no point throwing everything up in the air unless we’re ready to accept how it all falls to ground.  Have you included any other disruption in the plan?’

‘Yes, I’ve written a worm to insert into the deportation data, which should bring the whole thing to a grinding halt, and I’m planning to make some substantial donations from Zurich’s accounts to various groups in need. Those won’t undermine the company financially, but a crash in their share price will. We should make sure that the financial markets have access to all the information they need to put manners on Zurich.  We don’t want the company to collapse yet though. It has to maintain the basic levels of service while all the overarching powers it wields are cut back  I do feel we should also hurt Stan through his wallet.  Fitz could give him the full credit blacklisting treatment – no cards, no direct debits, overdraw his accounts, freeze his assets. You know the sort of thing.  Obviously, unless someone in Zurich wants to hang him out to dry, that won’t stick, but it might distract him.  I think you should dump a load of the Stan files into the mix, too.’

‘Let’s get Fitz to set that up, but let’s hang fire to see how he reacts to the shit storm.  We might need some carrot and stick with Stan. OK, better get back to work. Let’s talk before the end of tomorrow.  Ellen can bring your patch in to her office with her on her Amazon, which will ensure no interruption in uploading.’

Nick’s mail pointed John to a file he’d uploaded to their secure storage which was labelled QP. John liked the joke – PQ backwards – that this was the patch which would be distributed from Zurich’s server to everyone’s chip, making it hard to reverse centrally, once the chips no longer performed the same functions.

Friday was frenetic for everyone in Gimme. V-mail flew between Fitz and John and between Nick and Micky.  Ellen helped John work his way through Zurich’s servers to identify key people to receive information in the correct order.  Everything was tagged with launch times to coincide, even though it took hours to make sure it was all ready. The rest of the Gimme team were drafted in to deliver Stan’s files and vids to individual politicians and to various media contacts at suitable intervals to ensure that the news would be running when the patch was distributed.  Victims of the vid leak were given five monites to view their material before it went public. Just long enough to digest the impact of it but not long enough to make calls to stop its use. The public would see what an absolute mess Zurich was in, and how corrupt and dangerous Stan was, at the same time as they were being released from the chains of the PQ.  All the material would be delivered to the victims through via anonymous routers, and all signed by Gimme, in the name of democratic freedom and equality, while all the public communications would be addressed from Stanislav Janekowski, Director of Research at Zurich, in the name of profit, subjugation and greed.

John wrote anonymously to Mary Janekowski at lunchtime.

‘You don’t know me, but we have a shared interest in some of the meetings your husband holds in his study.  Morgan’s got quite a following for his blogs, as you know.  We want you to know, and to tell your ‘good friend’ Morgan and his followers, that there will be a closed user webinar tomorrow morning. By then, you’ll know why.  Please avoid sharing this inappropriately.’

He sent it to her Amazon from  an untraceable IP, with details on how to access the webinar, and monitored her activity. She did as asked and immediately sent it to Morgan who was in his office in The Commons.  He did as she asked and sent out a simplified version removing the ‘good friend’ reference, though both knew that their affair was pretty common knowledge.  He marked the v-mail confidential and not for distribution, and sent it to some of his shadow cabinet colleagues and one or to back-benchers with the webinar details. Nobody abused the confidence, but several in the circular v-mail met in the corridors to whisper about what might be going down.  Private meetings with Stan had been attended by several Labour MPs over the last three years, and others knew of them. Everyone was intrigued about why they were being referred to by a hacking co-operative. Everyone cancelled other meetings and family outings to be free on Saturday morning for the webinar.  Several agreed to meet in Morgan’s office to share the experience.

Chapter 6: preparations

One of the Gimme hackers, Fitzgerald, with the apt monika ‘Ifthecap Fitz’ had been looking for ways into Stan’s personal life, chinks in his armour, because he specialised in identity theft and generating fake profiles. John had passed the mantle to Fitz because he was up to his ears in algorithms, and this called for a ferret with a history in social media. Fitz had spent his life wrapped up in VR games development and had also worked for several specialist agencies which manipulated personal data for political and financial clients on contract, before joining Gimme.  His feeds to John and Nick, who were viewed by everyone in the co-op as de facto leaders, took some disentangling.

‘Stan’s been a naughty boy with at least fifteen girls in the office, all crowing enough about his antics for her indoors to keep track. She’s following them and guess who’s following her?’

‘Mary J? Oh, I’d say half of the People of Quality in London.’

‘Quality? Half the Labour Party more like. She been the subject of Edwards’ trouser snake for long enough and he’s getting more than his end away.’

“What’re we talking?’

In response, John got a dump of all the more factual v-mails between Mary and Morgan about Stan’s business, which he skimmed to check they were not fiction. It was all credible, fascinating and mostly compromising. And what struck him was the quantity of information she’d managed to glean about the future of the PQ, and how much she was prepared to share with the Shadow Home Secretary.

John had never spent time studying Mary, but now he trawled through her history on Zurich’s servers, in case she was a contender for leverage against her husband. He could see that she’d not only been one of the first tranche of recruits to Genomica once it had moved to London, and had been involved in the initial stages of the G-Map programme, but she had a Masters in computer engineering and quite a lot of experience with algorithms.  He was fascinated by her decision to leak Stan’s content to Morgan.  From what John knew of Edwards, he wasn’t the sort of slippery bastard who would blackmail her into stealing information. If it had been Alistair Pringle, that would have been a reasonable supposition.  In this case, he had to assume that Mary had made her own decision to leak it. He v-mailed Fitz.

‘What’s she looking to do? Can you follow the trail from Morgan to see where it’s all been going?  I’m interested in what Morgan did with these and what his cronies think of them. I’m considering using her. She seems to be ready to undermine Stan, and we can use that. Also where’s she getting this stuff. We haven’t managed to get this close.’

‘Last time I checked you weren’t married to him…’

‘I saw in one or two of her msgs ref to security video feed. Can you check for back doors?’

Fitz could crack most personal v-mail and use his hacks to collect connected material stored in non-proprietary cloud servers. If Mary had access to security video, he could pull it. An hour later, John received links to a large number of videos from Stan’s house in St John’s Wood and from the Zurich offices.  He hadn’t time to watch many, but scanning through the latest ones he came across the discussion between Stan and the Home Secretary, Alistair Pringle, about the Tories awarding the UI healthcare programme to Zurich, and the obvious bribery which it included. There were loads of different people who had had meetings in Stan’s study, or had been recorded at various parties, chatting.  It was a treasure trove of useful content.  That would be the sort of pressure which Gimme needed to help tie Stan to the barrel.  He messaged Fitz.

‘Any chance you could search this lot for compromising material, especially involving politicians, and do what you can to provide me with contact details for each one? And also, I’m interested what Genomica Labs has up their sleeves for future upgrades to the PQ. I’ve scanned their v-mail server, but it hasn’t got any reference to their work. Could you work your way through the coders’ personal accounts and see if any of them has a lover who has access to tidbits? Sorry it’s a lot of work, but there’s only twenty or so people working there.’

‘Are you thinking smear campaign in run up to election?’

‘Thinking threat of one…’

Nick v-mailed that night, which was a Thursday, to say he’d be ready by the end of the working day on Friday to launch the PQ blocker.  The patch he’d written would not disable the software, but would switch off certain aspects of it, and allow others to continue to feed Zurich with data. He planned to simultaneously initiate auto-messaging to all Amazon devices and v-mail accounts with the news that until further notice, G-Match would be off-air, that the PQ would continue to support healthcare and security requirements, but would not feed directly into Zurich’s insurance premiums. This, he said, would come as though from Stan himself, having been routed through the Zurich External Communications account to all policy holders. It would go live after the stock markets had closed, and once most Zurich staff had left for the weekend. That would not only slow the response time down, but would also keep the change as low-key as possible, even though it would undoubtedly send shock-waves through every channel. As to how Zurich’s insurance model would change as a result, that wouldn’t be Gimme’s problem.  Undoubtedly, the insurance industry wouldn’t run at a loss, and the old way of calculating actuarial probabilities and feeding those though to premiums had been dropped long ago.  Nevertheless, Zurich already had such a detailed profile for everyone, there should be little problem in predicting demand and appropriate cover.  The quality of healthcare to those on universal income was already terrible, and they were no longer covered outside their front doors, so it couldn’t be worse for them.

Chapter 6: John and Ellen

John had moved into Ellen’s flat straight after that first night, because he was being thrown out by Janine, and since the party Jade was treating him like something she’d stepped in. Ellen couldn’t work out Jade’s reaction to him, seeing as she’d been so keen to put the two of them together, but during the week after the party, she began to suspect that Jade had been checking John out.  Jade didn’t say anything, but nor did she ask how they had got on, even though she was usually pretty nosy about any man in Ellen’s life. Ellen assumed she had failed to find anything other than the fairly innocuous profile of John Valance, Systems Architect at the MoD.  John was studying Jade’s work most of the time, and could see her following the trail, and he knew it wouldn’t be a case of letting sleeping dogs lie.  Something about his profile and the man she’d met didn’t ring true, and she wanted him out of the apartment. She’d already given Janine notice to quit so that Jasper could move in, and once she told Janine that John had spent the night with Ellen after the party, it was straightforward to get Janine to eject him. John didn’t seem bothered and had packed his backpack and said thanks to Jade on his way out.  Ellen had made no secret at work about having got off with the extremely handsome man everyone had seen her with at the party, and though she knew much more about John now, she was happy to play along with his alias. Magda quizzed her, and one of two of the others, but Jade said almost nothing.  John could see that she was compiling information on John Valance, presumably to have him checked out by security.

Everything had moved on very fast after John and Ellen’s breakfast together. She’d slipped out of the patisserie, walked straight past him where was standing in the shadow of a doorway across the street, avoiding the man in the dark suit, and up to her apartment, leaving the door to the street open.  He followed minutes later, once the coast was clear,and found her lying naked on the bed.  They’d spent the whole weekend making love, ordering full-fat foods to be delivered, and talking for hours. John’s conversation wasn’t all about being a hacker and a political activist. Ellen wanted to know all about his upbringing with a single mother on UI, how his father had died and what he’d been like growing up. It resonated with her family’s predicament, and John really seemed to understand the downward pressure that people felt when they became economically worthless. Despite what had happened to his father, he didn’t seem especially bitter, though his hatred for Stan was there in the background all the time.

John was a good listener, and even though she knew he’s been checking out her history online, he clearly wanted more connection than her vid archives would provide. She described the apartment in Tower Hamlets, and how her father had tried so hard to maintain their old lifestyle after he was made redundant.  She told him about Elsie before she was on UI, and how strong and resourceful she’d been, and she talked about Jodie’s vivacity and daring before she started on the happies. She got the feeling that John knew everything about it before she’d finished. The flat in the tower block was almost identical to his mother’s place, and his mother had struggled with unemployment too.

He showed her how he could help George, Elsie and Jodie to some better living standards with very little work, if she wanted.  She was tempted but felt that such power seemed inappropriate, and she decided not to become indebted to John now or ever, even though she dearly wanted him to help her family. Perhaps when it was safe, she could bring him to meet them, and he could talk directly to George, so it would be her dad’s decision whether to take advantage.

“I know it’s not stealing from someone, and it’s a great offer, Robin Hood, but George hates charity, and I don’t think better food or some spending money will stop Elsie’s habit, or Jodie’s.  They need a reason to get up in the morning. They need something to believe in, to fight for.  You can’t give them that, can you?”

“Not until we bring down Zurich, but maybe in the future, they’d consider belonging to a new community.”

She did accept his offer to install some code on her Amazon which would let her turn off her chip at will, without setting off alarms at Zurich.  When he suggested it, she thought it’d be something she’d use when she fancied eating fattening food that was bad for her, or if she wanted to spend time in an unsafe zone. The freedom of not being checked out all the time wherever she went had a delicious appeal, and she fantasised about what people in a bar would think when they realised she wasn’t readable.  Then she began to appreciate the import of what he as giving her. It wasn’t something to play with, or a way of circumventing the insurance premium.  It was the opportunity to go off-grid permanently, if she needed to.

“Look, it’s simply a back door.  If you’re with me, then you need one,” he said. “I’m not saying that by us being connected, you’re in danger. I wouldn’t put you at risk.  It’s simply that if I’m picked up for something I plan to do, and if I’m tracked back through Jade to you, which could happen, then you can drop out of sight on the spot.”

“And what if I wanted to share more with you than this?” Ellen stroked his thigh. “Would it be possible to remove me from the records, and help me to slip away and for us to exist outside the system?  I’m not sure I know enough about being off-grid. Is it hard? Are there lots of people doing it? Where are they?”

“That is possible, and I’m hoping it might become attractive to you. It already seems to me to be worth considering.  But yes, it is tough enough.  There are tens of thousands of people off-grid, even in this country, and there’s loads more overseas. Some have become exiled and others have found places to live where the rules are different, and they can get on with each other in a traditional way.  From what I’ve read about these places, most of them don’t last because they’re too small and don’t have enough resources, or they depend on stealing from the establishment to survive. If people don’t find like-minded communities, they become loners, hiding out and not daring to interact with on-grid people.  That’s where I’ve been for the last two years.  I don’t have anywhere I can call home, and I can only watch over my mum from a distance, without contacting her.  I have to cover my trail wherever I go and whatever I do. I avoid being logged on vid, and I’ve had my fingerprints altered.  You saw what happened down at Umberto’s. That guy.  That’s a regular occurrence. If it wasn’t for Gimme and feeling a bond with the others, albeit an electronic one, I’d go mad.”

“So what’s going to happen?  You’ve been clever enough, or lucky enough, not to have been captured and deported? Surely sooner or later they’ll catch you? Is it possible that what you and Nick are planning could change the way they treat people who’re off grid?  I mean, you’re probably wanted for all sorts of hacking stuff, but maybe you could get some sort of amnesty.”

“Maybe. The future is completely unpredictable, and things will change very fast once we begin to act.  I’d like to think that your life could be much better even within the world you’ve got set up, so that you won’t need to step out to be with me.  For me, it might be hard to get back in without a lot of power, and I’m just not about to try and take power when I’m trying to remove it from others. An amnesty is a nice idea, but I don’t think Stan would consider it if he remains in control.”

Chapter 6: Meeting in The King’s Head

“This is Ellen. I told you I’d met someone, and this is she.” John smiled encouragingly at Ellen who was standing back, looking awkward. She sidled up to the corner table and now shook Nick’s hand, which was cold. She could feel his tension and see the suspicion in his eyes.

“Hello Ellen. John tells me you work in Zurich Insights on G-Match.”

“Yes, though perhaps for not much longer. They’re making half of the team redundant within a month.”

“Yes, well, the march of AI will not be stopped until everyone is redundant, or extinct. So you work for Dr. Stanislav? Do you like him?”

“I’ve never met him, and I doubt I would be invited to. Insights reports to him, but he’s two levels above me, though his daughter is my boss. Jade said he’s never even visited the flat that he bought her, which is near here, isn’t it John? He has a reputation for being distant and unsociable.” Since Ellen and John had been spending time together, the subject of Janine had come up once or twice, inevitably.  She’d had to work hard to avoid asking him personal questions about his previous affairs, but she couldn’t help asking about what he thought of Jade, and as she’d had never been to Jade’s place, she was keen to get John’s description of it.

“Ah yes, the meteoric Jade Janekowski. How does someone live with such a surname? She must be carrying a lot of baggage, not to mention the Prince of Darkness’ DNA. You’d think she would have changed her name long ago, just so she could be seen as her own person.” Nick’s face held a sort of smirking frown, and he looked at Ellen from beneath his hoodie, with a fixed gaze. Unlike John, who also tended to stare, Nick’s look felt penetrating and uncomfortable.

“So you met John at Jade’s engagement party last week. By all accounts it was quite a bash.  The guestlist looked more like the Insights payroll, plus a few little rich kids like Janine.  Jaspar’s the lucky man, isn’t he? His father’s a banker, and he’s is on the Board of Zurich. Nasty piece of work by all accounts, and Jaspar’s a bit thick, judging by his PQ.  I wonder what Stan thinks of him fucking the precious Jade.”

Ellen tried to fight her intuitive dislike of Nick.  She’d heard about his ignominious ousting from ICL at the professor’s behest, and with Stan pulling the strings, and how he had joined Gimme soon after John set it in motion with the Egress hack.  Somehow she couldn’t see him as  a Sub.  He had a sanctimonious air about him. Nick hadn’t been looking for anonymity, but one condition of his joining Gimme had been that he go off-grid and keep a low profile in order that he didn’t lead anyone to the co-operative.  For John, Nick’s recruitment was a huge boost to the group, not just because of his reputation and contacts, but because Nick had been in the forefront of AI coding only three years ago, and that was where all the action seemed to be for Gimme.  Three years was a long time, and it was likely than nobody in Gimme had kept up to date with developments recently, since only a few very shadowy enterprises were receiving enough funding to compete in the race to full AGI, and they were pretty impenetrable.

“Jaspar seems OK, though I’ve only met him a couple of times. I wouldn’t like to speculate about his intelligence, but he’s loaded alright. Has his own car and a house in St John’s Wood, which he inherited apparently.” Ellen realised that she was giving much more information than she was getting from Nick, which was against one of her first rules of meeting people.

“You certainly know a lot about people involved with Zurich. How come?” she asked.

“In my position, it’s unavoidable.  And not just those in Zurich. George and Elsie, and your little sister Jodie, for instance. Looks like they’ve had a tough few years.  They’re on basic UI, living in Tower Hamlets on that god-awful estate. George was made redundant from Ford in 2022, when they lost the contract to build driverless MPVs for Uber. You were three and Jodie was only one.  Must’ve been traumatic for him to find himself on UI.  Elsie is hooked on VR, and you’re contributing to the cost of her package, as well as Jodie’s happies, as you’re the only wage-earner. Jodie lost her job in Tesco two years ago.  I could go on, but you know it all.”

Ellen felt shocked, and the blood drained from her face.  Of course she should have assumed that John and his friends in Gimme could find out anything they needed to know once they’d entered the Zurich servers, but having it presented starkly to her by this dishevelled stranger was still shocking.

“Yeah, I do. And so do you. What do you think of my PQ by the way? Am I thick too? And the guys I’ve been dating through G-Match? Bunch of losers? And what I had for breakfast this morning and what route I take to work and what time I get there? You set yourselves against the people who made all that information possible, and here you are, using it to spy on people. Who the fuck do you think you are?” She was red in the face and speaking quickly. John put his hand on her arm and she became silent.

Nick saw that he’d pushed too hard, and he began to relax, realising that Ellen was not a threat just because of where she worked.  His voice softened.

“You’re right, we are trying to stop all that and we shouldn’t be using it.  Look, Ellen, I’m telling you, so that you’ll understand that John and I are in a very dangerous game, and we can’t afford to take any chances with people who find out anything about us.  So we have certain skills which allow us to change peoples’ circumstances, for better or worse and …”

“OK, Nick, enough.” John was very aware of how freaked Ellen had been ever since the morning after the party, and he could see her eyes clouding over and tears beginning to form. They’d talked a lot about what she could do if she stayed on-grid in order to ensure he was not discovered. Both knew that sooner or later, his connection to her would raise suspicion with Jade, and some image match would be made with an old John Vaunt file, and Stan’s security department would send out the bounty hunters to pick him up. It might already have happened, at Umberto’s, but John assured her there were always roving security guys following up on anyone who was registered entering places but who didn’t show up on the system. He’d been switched off, but if he’d been registering as John Valance, he wouldn’t have been followed.

Alternatively, she could go off-grid, but that would entail making a clean break with her family, and her social life.  She could re-connect with the family in due course, using a new identity, but only once they had been ‘moved’ in the system, since all connections to subversives were tracked to try and pin them down once they are off-grid.  Neither seemed like a solution at this early stage, and she felt somehow in limbo.  John had proposed bringing her to meet Nick as a way of helping her decide how far in she wanted to be with Gimme. She had little to offer the co-operative except her access to Zurich, and even then, she was not senior enough or technically literate enough to be very useful. If she was kicked out in the next round of cuts, she’d be literally no use to them.

“Just to be clear, Nick. Ellen knows a little of Gimme’s objectives, and she’s considering her options.  If she’s dumped out of Zurich next month, the future is pretty grim, in that shit-hole in Tower Hamlets. As it is, I have already looked into what we could do for her parents and sister, and she is thinking about whether we should upgrade their package, and maybe re-route some small disposable funds their way. Nothing big or obvious. And Ellen is considering dropping off the grid too, but I’m not pushing that. You and I both know the downside. Micky and Jojo are the only couple in Gimme, and Jojo is a coder too, so it’s not the same.”

“Yeah, well, you be careful John. The last thing we need right now is any sort of trail. So, Ellen, what do you think of John’s point of view? I assume you’re not 100% in favour of the direction that Zurich is taking the country, and if you’re ‘dating’ a Sub, I assume you’re getting your head around alternative lifestyles.” Nick smiled reassuringly, and Ellen felt she’d calmed down enough to try again, for John’s sake if not her own.

“I’m not sure what the right way forward is, and I don’t really understand the ins and outs of the technology which is taking over, other than it is artificial intelligence and it seems as able to make decisions as I am, or better. I’ve been asking John lots of questions in the last week, about other ways of living.  He said you’d been working on some simulations for communities, which sound really positive.”

“Yes, they are, but it’s one thing to generate simulations and another to institute them in real life.  We have to enlist the help of the government and big business, and at the moment, those are the institutions who see us as pariahs and terrorists. We think that somehow we have to win over people in Zurich, since they really hold all the cards now.”

“So how can you introduce people to your ideas?”

“We think that if there’s a backlash against the current system, which is centrally controlled, and if we can present the best alternatives in a non-threatening way, ideally with the backing of some part of the establishment, we have some chance. It’s not that someone in Stan’s circle actually believes that the world is better as it is now than it was before the PQ.  It’s just that they set out on a path to maximise profits from AI and this is where it’s taken them.  If we can convince them that this is not the best way to use it, and that short-term financial gain is at the expense of longevity, we might be able to pave the way for our alternatives to be considered.”

“But first you need to remove the power which Dr Janekowski and Zurich have over everything in order to get to that I suppose.  As you know, I’m just a G-match Insights Analyst, which means I spend my time working in the dating business. We’re in the persuasion game really, and we spend our time encouraging people to do something which they’re interested in anyway. Perhaps you could offer people some way of learning about alternatives, using G-Match. I think people see it as non-threatening, and sort of fun, even though they know it’s not just about match-making.  Most people get it that G-Match is all about healthcare and security and cost saving, and not some sort of romantic thing, but it has a pretty good press. I’m not really sure what would happen if you take it away from people.”

“We’re not sure either, but as you know, the cornerstone of the whole Zurich operation is the PQ and how it integrates with every aspect of Stan’s control over everyone.  We know a lot about it, how it works and we have some concerns about what will happen if Genomica Labs take it much further, as a full AGI. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he’s trying to get there, ahead of everyone else. Worldwide. AGI is a self-improving algorithm with generalised capabilities which would generate super-human intelligence, and potentially would take control of Zurich, and then all its tendrils in order to achieve its goals.”

Ellen had heard some of this from John and hadn’t really processed it. Nick, an inspiring lecturer in his time, had a simple and succinct approach to tell the story, while John had been more convoluted, paranoid even, about the existential threat.

“What do you think its goals might be? If Zurich set them, they must be about making money, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Typically, AI runs against a set of objectives set by humans, such as maximising profits, winning games, selecting the most efficient path to a given success, and so on. The goals set for AI to date have been fairly simple, and Stan has always built in a caveat ‘only achieve this goal if it doesn’t undermine the humans, and only if I tell you to.’  You’ve probably seen the upgrades which the Board of Zurich authorises.  That’s all well and good, but it means the AI is effectively acting as the slave, and it isn’t advancing as much as it could. But in future, it’ll have the ability to adapt its objectives independently to take into account steps it has achieved, without recourse to someone like Stan to approve them.  In other words, the AI would take things into its own hands and become self-driven, autonomous.  I’m not going to be anthropomorphic about it. There’s no cognitive process, and no irrational decision-making.  Lots of people think machines will have personalities, and will become aggressive in order to subjugate humans, in the way that we have done with pet dogs or something.  I don’t buy that.  We have things to offer which make us useful.”

“You mean we can live alongside super-intelligent machines that can work a million times faster than humans and make better decisions, and we won’t become redundant?”

“Not for a while, by which time we might have integrated with AI in some sort of cyborg society or we might be given our own space to inhabit, a bit like a wildlife park.”

“Oh, great. I’ve always wanted to pace back and forth along a fence, waiting to have food thrown at me.  How long is ‘a while’ do you think?”

“The speed with which a Full AGI could become much cleverer than you or me, or Stan, means that within days or hours or minutes, it could harness computer power worldwide to build a robust, networked intelligent machine that could circumvent any attempts to stop it.”

“Yeah, I get that. We all saw those ridiculous scifi films when we were kids. You know, the Terminator ones and stuff. Why wouldn’t robots just get rid of people?”

“Well, in my view, it all depends on what direction people point them in to start with.  The original goals will affect the direction they take, and the direction will result in evolved futures.  John and I have been working on community simulations that could be guided by a super-intelligent system without being dominated by it. A guardian angel which we can trust.  We believe that with the right initial goals, the AI would integrate with human communities.  We’re running some tests on the PQ algorithm, which has been given more coding hours than perhaps any other AI product in history, and so it has a lot of great features.  We think that Dr. Stan may have taken it further too.  The big unknown is whether he is setting beneficial or sacrificial goals.”

“You probably know a lot more about him than I do, but if Jade is anything to go by, what could be worse than someone like him having control?  I mean we’re already putting up with some terrible things because of Zurich’s rules which everyone just has to accept. My family is being turned into zombies or caged animals by UI. The people I get offered to date… at least the people I was considering before I met John… weren’t my own choice.  I can’t go anywhere without being tracked, and I’m made to avoid so many places and things like foods and activities because they’re considered by someone else to be unsafe for me.  I don’t seem to have the right to choose anything.  How would AI decisions be worse?”

Nick smiled at Ellen and this time it wasn’t at all disconcerting.  He looked at John and Ellen, and said, “let’s make a move.  You were right, she is one of us.”

The pub was filling up.  John and Ellen were going to eat down the road, and Nick was going back to Tottenham to continue coding in the cage.  They left together and strolled slowly along Upper Street towards Highbury. Nick felt safer talking on the street.

“John, I think I’ve cracked the problem we had with removing the PQ reporting, without disabling the chips.  I think we can do that, and at the same time we need to block entry from Stan and blast out the message through Amazon to enough people that it’ll become universal quick enough.  Everyone who relies on PQ to make decisions about themselves and each other will have to get quickly used to managing without it, and that could cause a lot of unease. Obviously we need to reassure people that it won’t undermine their medical and security needs, but we can turn off the G-Match and stop everyone receiving premium penalties every time they do something non-conformist, and we can cut down on the security feedback systems if we want to. My worry is that if we cut down the security feedback, we’d be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and it’d leave the door open to any trouble-maker to take advantage. It’s be like turing off the alarms in a shopping centre and expecting it not to be looted.”

“OK, I’m with you on that, but once we start, we’ve got to move beyond disruption, haven’t we? How long will we get?” John had been worried that the opposition was too resilient to be held back long enough for the whole breach to make any real difference.

“It should hold for a while, till Stan’s team finds an alternative route round our block.  In that window, we need to pin Stan down and put enough doubts in everyone’s minds about his motivation.  That means getting to all the opposition politicians, the media, even Zurich’s Board.”

“Great.  When will we be ready?”

“Well, the reason I wanted to meet today was to ramp it up.  I think they know I’ve been in to copy the PQ.  I’m not sure, but I saw a v-mail from internal security to Stan highlighting my breach of the system, and he hasn’t responded, which is either because he’s too busy, or more likely because he no longer trusts the channel.”

“So we need to strike soon.  How long do you need to have it all ready?

“A day or two should do it.  Meanwhile, I had a look through some of the stuff that Fitz downloaded, and I think we can create a big enough diversion with some of that to keep Stan on his toes. Might even be enough to get him stopped for a while.”

Chapter 6: plan of action

“Hey Nick, how are you. You alright for a pint?” John and Ellen had taken the M-rail from Stockwell to Islington to meet Nick in The King’s Head.  While John greeted Nick in their usual corner of the old bar, Ellen hung back, reading the list of plays to be performed downstairs on the noticeboard.  John had given her some background on Nick, and she’d read a couple of his papers from his days lecturing at ICL, and she’d seen his vid at Zurich from before he went off-grid. She wasn’t ready for the crumpled-looking old man in the corner. His last vid on the Zurich files made him look like the respectable academic he had been at the time, in a linen jacket and with short hair.  Ellen had gone in to G-Match to look for him, even though she knew it would be flagged up on the security system, given Nick’s current status as a wanted man.  Luckily, John had been tracking every click from the terminals in Insights, and was alerted to her indiscretion. He was able to remove the evidence of her search before it was inserted into in the standard weekly security update automatically generated from each department and analysed by the security team.  He’d had to warn her about using the office to do any background reading, and uploaded another patch to her personal Amazon to ensure that all her searches were untraceable. He’d given her a load of people to research for the release of Stan’s vids, so that she’d let him spend the late evening doing his own work, rather than talking or fondling him. Much that he liked the attention, John was trying to focus on getting everything ready.

Nick was dressed in black jeans and an old hoodie, with straggling grey hair and bags under his eyes.  She wondered if he was living on the street, but from what John had told her, Nick had money and a couple of perfectly adequate bolt-holes, one in Tottenham somewhere and another out in a village in Suffolk.  She hadn’t been far outside London since she was a small child, when George still had a car, and before the M-rail was built.  Nowadays, getting to the countryside was almost impossible on public transport, and she couldn’t afford to use a personal vehicle, even if she could book one to go that far. She had a romantic notion of country villages from childhood memories and Netflix, and she thought maybe when things felt more secure around John… IF they did, she would suggest they went to visit Nick in the country, assuming John’s skills would allow him access to transport and if Nick was OK with intruders.

She’d viewed some film of Bungay, the nearest tiny village on the coast, several kilometres walk from his cottage, and it seemed unimaginably quaint and old world.  John had actually come up with the idea of a weekend away, but the unspoken truth was that he didn’t feel able to get away while Gimme was working so hard. Besides, Nick was in London, working nights on creating a clone of the PQ algorithm which he could edit and test. He’d been working in isolation, in a home-made Faraday cage to ensure that whatever he set in motion with the AI wouldn’t get out. The AI Box would stop it taking over other computers to achieve a goal, provided the AI didn’t manage to persuade him to let it out, which was always assumed to be the biggest threat from an isolated super-intelligent machine.

In the event, it had become clear that the PQ algorithm was not yet at a Strong AI level which would enable it to self-improve beyond basic sub-routine iterations, and that it had been limited in its decision-making, not only by authorisation protocols but also by the fairly tight definitions of its goals and activities.  While it was highly sophisticated, it was only really a set of sophisticated inter-related subroutines, which didn’t have a central ‘brain’ function.  John knew that the version which he had managed to copy was not Stan’s latest, but was the fully operational version being run by Zurich.  Stan had agreed as part of the takeover by Zurich that he would have the right to maintain an independent R&D facility under the original Genomica brand. He signed away all rights to exploit any of Genomica’s inventions which could be considered to compete with Zurich, but he would be permitted to license new algorithms from the Genomica labs so long as Zurich had first refusal.  After the merger, Stan had so little time to spare that it was impossible to give the Genomica development any thought, and it languished for two years until he began to feel the weight of working in a multinational corporation.  It felt like an insidious erosion of his autocratic leadership, brought about by trying to please the Board and shareholders, and ultimately the City.  After trying to get Geoff Grainger and the Jaspar’s father to support some of his more ‘progressive’ ideas for developing the PQ, Stan finally made time to re-invigorate Genomica Labs to develop a much more sophisticated AI than Zurich was ready for. He saw Genomica as his guilty secret, something he could slip away to when he couldn’t stand the office politics any longer at Zurich, or when the politicians he had to spend time with drove him to escape.

He brought in a team of AI specialists, working in a highly secure facility he set up in Wapping, to move the PQ forward to a point where full AGI was possible.  He oversaw strategy and drove the team hard, but they were way ahead of him when it came to coding.  It was only by chance that Nick found out about the continuation of Genomica Labs, when an ex-student contacted him for advice on whether to work there.  Despite his best efforts, John had been unable to find a way in to the Genomica servers to copy the latest version of the PQ algorithm, and this was mainly because they were not connected with any of the servers it used for v-mail.  The company was clearly not a marketing outlet, and had no online presence he could find.  Through his ex-student’s v-mail, who had taken a job there, he was able to hack the v-mail server, but found a pretty innocuous range of mail. Clearly Stan had made it an absolute rule never to communicate in writing or video about the AI.


Chapter 5: An affair

Now Mary wasn’t working at the firm, Morgan hadn’t crossed paths with her for a long time, until the party.

Mary had always enjoyed his attention, and when she got a glimpse of the invitations, she was pleased to see his name.  Stan’s motives in choosing the list were never completely clear, but he spent a lot of time briefing his team to ensure that the right people were drawn into the right corners together and recorded, so that invaluable information could be gleaned.

By mid-evening, the canapes had been served, the buffet had been demolished and the massive fridge full of champagne was almost empty. Most people had switched to wine and spirits from the open bar in the dining room.  The caterers had retreated to the kitchen and guests were spread throughout the house, in couples and groups, talking.  Morgan and Stan’s colleagues from the public sector evaluations team set themselves up for their discussion in the library during which he disputed Zurich’s view that large numbers of police, teachers and local authority workers were now unnecessary, since their work was being done more efficiently and cost-effectively by AI. The evaluations that had been carried out without the knowledge of the employees included biometric and psychometric analysis of all the data held by Zurich on those who had been G-Mapped and chipped. It was benchmarked against the ‘best in class’ private sector samples, and showed a marked disparity in performance, inclination and ability.  From Zurich’s standpoint, it was a simple economic imperative to remove waste and replace it with cost-effective machines.

Morgan’s political stance was in defence of employees’ rights, and at odds with the economic arguments which Stan’s PR team had been putting in the media.

Stan’s model for the introduction of universal income played into the hands of the Tory party, offering as it did the prospect of endless leisure time and unearned income for the redundant workers while taxing the multinational AI companies which were delivering huge profits.  Labour wanted to see limits put on redundancies and no privatisation of the NHS. The meeting got quite heated, fuelled by copious quantities of Stan’s champagne, and when Mary came into the room, she found Morgan sitting with his head thrown back and a bloodied handkerchief held over his nose. She assumed that someone had hit him, and ordered everyone else from the room, only to find that he’d simply become over-excited and had had a nose bleed.

She took him into the cloakroom and made him take off his shirt so she could wash out the blood.  Morgan’s nose had stopped bleeding and he was drunk enough to stand behind her at the sink and rest his hand on her hip, making it eminently clear where he wanted things to go. She was a little surprised, and flattered, and after years of being side-lined, she decided to respond. Within minutes they were tussling in the small room, pulling off each other’s clothes and having sex, with Morgan sitting on the toilet seat, and Mary straddling him and looking straight at a photograph of Stan and King William, at a polo match.  She closed her eyes, as much to concentrate on her first orgasm in months as to blot out the image of Stan watching her.  When they’d finished, Morgan dressed in his damp and wrinkled shirt and trousers, was about to slip out of the room ahead of her when Mary stopped him.

“Thank you.  That was enjoyable, if a little cramped. Another time I would prefer a more comfortable location, if there is going to be another time.  Are you going to run a mile from me next time we meet?  You know that Stan won’t care, don’t you. He’s been doing the same thing with half the women in Genomica since long before me.”

“It was enjoyable, wasn’t it? I’ve been thinking about doing that ever since that day in the Commons Select Committee when you caught my eye. No I won’t run a mile, unless you prefer me to keep my distance.  Perhaps we could meet at my apartment in Westminster in future, though. I must say I do feel a bit uncomfortable continuing in the lair of the Prince of Darkness.”

“Really? Is that what Stan’s called in Westminster?”

“That’s the polite nickname.”

“We must share some of the others.  Thursday evening? I’m supposed to be learning to play Bridge on Thursdays, but frankly, I’ve no interest.”

“I’ll make sure you know how to bid.”

So Thursdays became something of a routine which Morgan and Mary both loved.  They spent the first hour in bed, or on the sitting room floor, or up against the wall inside Morgan’s front door and then Mary cooked for Morgan, something she had missed out on with Stan, while they talked about politics and what The Prince of Darkness was up to.  Once the election was over and the Tories were in power, Morgan had more time, and in opposition, was far more interested in holding Zurich to account.  Mary passed Morgan any tidbits she heard, or read about in documents Stan left on his desk at home, because she liked to see someone casting a close eye on Zurich’s activities. It wasn’t that she assumed Stan was up to no good. On the contrary, she still trusted his ethical values, even though she knew him to be heartless and unwavering.  Morgan treated her and her leaks with respect, and became quite dependent on any information about Stan’s plans which Mary could find for him.  In order to find out what Zurich was doing, Mary spent more and more of her spare time, while Jade was at school, rekindling relationships with staff who had moved from Genomica with Stan, whom she knew from her time there, in order to find out more.  Since she was the boss’s wife, she had to be careful, and never tried to be heavy-handed with her ex-colleagues in case her questions were relayed to Stan.  She even agreed to open a private v-mail channel with Morgan so she could send him files she managed to access, and so they could message one another while he was sitting through boring debates.

Chapter 5: Disillusion

Ten years later, out of boredom, loneliness and anger at Stan’s indifference, Mary began an affair with a labour politician who showed her more attention and consideration than Stan had ever done. Stan hadn’t even tried to hide from her his string of sexual liaisons which, as far as she could tell, hadn’t abated at all once they were married. Morgan Edwards had been in line for the cabinet in the ’34 election, which Labour had lost by a mile, and it was in the run up to that election, before the defeat, that he’d been invited to one of Stan’s famous parties in St John’s Wood.  Mary hardly knew about these events before they arrived, as Stan’s private secretary and part-time lover, Genevieve, organised everything from invitations to caterers.  Mary was usually side-lined, and expected to make sure Jade was off the premises for the night.  The parties usually brought together senior members of Genomica and their key suppliers and clients with influential politicians and investors.  At the time of the party, Morgan was still considered to be in a key position if Labour were elected, and he was happy to attend one of the legendary bashes.  Mary and he had met several times at conferences and larger presentations when she was at Genomica, because he had been a supporter of the G-mapping programme as a shadow health minister, and Mary had been responsible for presenting the roll-out at various pitches. At the last such all party committee hearing, which Stan presented at, Mary was the sidekick, sitting just behind him, ready to pass her tablet to him with statistics at the ready, or to swipe images to the main screen as required.

Alistair Pringle, as the incumbent Home Secretary was chairing the meeting which had been called to discuss funding for the G-mapping roll-out, prior to the introduction of compulsory chipping at birth. The Tories were gung-ho for the introduction of universal chipping and for the PQ to become a standard tracking facility. They wanted to use the new services to supply police with criminal profiling, location tracking and ‘association’ reporting, but they didn’t want Zurich to own this.

“Dr Janekowski, can you explain to the committee why you’ve provided a menu of charges for these services, as though Zurich was some sort of restaurant? I think I speak for the Government’s concern that the data you are offering us would be in private hands, given the importance it has to national security.  We have terror cells operating in the capital which we have struggled to monitor effectively, and the G-map project, which we have given our full support to, will help us to keep the country safe.”

Stan continued to draw small doodles on the pad in front of him, without looking up.

“I’m sorry, Dr Janekowski. Am I boring you? I think the committee would like an answer to the question.”

“ Mr Chairman. I forgot the question when you began the party political broadcast. Are you asking why Zurich is offering a commercial service, or why the party you represent doesn’t own the IP?”

“I am asking you to justify to this committee, which I would remind you is an all-party committee, why we should agree to your company controlling of the single most powerful anti-terrorist intelligence this country has ever had.”

“Mr Chairman, I think this committee fully understands why. Because I designed the G-map chip and Zurich owns the probability quotient IP, and because we wish to offer you, as a client, the opportunity to buy our proprietary service, along with other clients such as the Saudi and Israeli governments, the USA and Spain. None of our products have ever been sold. We are simply licensing access to analysis and our consulting services.”

Morgan Edwards caught Alistair’s eye. “Mr Chairman, perhaps I can intercede here?”

“Yes of course, Morgan.” Alister looked as though he was sucking a lemon.

“Dr Janekowski. As I understand it, you are seeking the approval of this committee for the introduction of a bill which ensures compulsory G-mapping at birth for 100% of UK citizens and for compulsory chipping of all people entering the country on work visas, and for permanent residency applications.”

“That is so.” Stan smiled at Morgan, simply to annoy Alistair.

“And this bill will ensure that the health-watch service you have until now been providing to individual subscribers and private healthcare insurance holders, as well as other special needs groups, will become a universal service?”

“Certainly, if the government of the day chooses to subscribe to it on behalf of the people you represent. I don’t mind whether it is you or Alistair with whom I will be dealing in future.”

“Yes, well that remains to be seen. And can I clarify with you that Zurich’s quid pro quo for providing this health-watch service is ownership of the probability quotient IP, the data generated by universal chipping and the means of distribution of that data as a commercial asset?”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself.” Stan returned to his doodling, as though the conversation was over.

“And what would you estimate this will cost the taxpayer in the next three to five years?” This question came from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, standing in for the Chancellor, who was fire-fighting a threatened general strike over the planned mass redundancies in education and the introduction of Universal Income for five milling public sector workers deemed surplus to requirements.

“Mary, could you bring up those figures?” Stan leant across to touch Mary’s hand. It had been only a week since their first evening together, and he wanted to touch her, even though he rarely touched anyone in public. Morgan watched the gesture from behind the podium and wondered whether Mary was spoken for. Mary saw his look, and did not withdraw her hand.

Mary scrolled through the presentation she’d created for this crucial meeting and swiped a complex graphic to the wall display. Everyone turned to view it as the lights dimmed.

“The blue line is an estimate of charges we at Zurich would make to you for security modelling and tracking services, assuming current levels of activity in the market. You understand that I don’t take any account of civil unrest which your boss is busy dealing with, or the threats we have seen from a growing number of Subs involved in cyber-attacks. This should be compared to the red line which represents our view of your expenditure on security services. As you can see it is declining as our costs are increasing. That indicates that the information we supply you will dramatically reduce the costs the taxpayer must bear for security.

The orange line is the healthcare costs per capita as it is now and taking into account our expected launch of upgrades to the PQ in the coming year. Even though this doesn’t show the impact of a number of new initiatives we have been working on in terms of CRISPR patches and so on, you can see the dramatic reduction in per capita health expenditure. The green line indicates … “

“Thank you. I’ve heard enough.” Morgan was looking at Mary and Stan, and , “As far as Labour is concerned, the health benefits of the PQ are so overwhelming, and the security benefits are, from your figures, cost-neutral. The more we can bring AI to bear on these burdensome overheads in the exchequer, the better we can serve the public in areas where they need support, like education, cultural opportunities and so on. We will back the bill, and given the current concerns over Universal Income and rising unemployment, I would suggest, Alistair, that you’ve enough on your plate without blocking the introduction of this bill.”

Labour’s strong showing in the polls in the run-up to the forthcoming election made this declaration pivotal in the committee’s decision to support the bill, even though Alistair Pringle felt it was ceding too much power to Zurich. The Bill subsequently passed, and When Morgan became Shadow Home Secretary, after the election, he continued to keep in touch with Mary through Zurich, even though he had no need to be involved, since Alistair was Zurich’s client.