The smoke coiling off the commissar’s cigarette had the peculiar tang of Twobacco. At my age, I’m part of a dwindling number that can remember the difference. Something about the genetweaks they made to it to cut out the carcinogens and reduce tar makes even plain old-fashioned nicotine cigarettes smell different. The ones that have benzos or amps or whatever have their own specific scents depending on the drug, but no one’s been able to get plain tobacco to smell or taste like the old dirty stuff. Twobacco’s scent is to the smell of old tobacco like a new car is to a “new car smell” air freshener. Though even that’s changed with the times. Different glues, fuels, materials, et cetera. Or maybe my memory is faulty. Which brings me back to why I’m sitting in front of this young androgyne commissar in the first place.
“Do you deny the evidence presented?” The commissar sat back in their chair and regarded me over the burning end of their smoke as they took a drag. When they turned and lifted their head to exhale towards the room’s exhaust fan, something about the lines of their neck, the graceful shape of their throat led me to think they were probably female, but there were a lot of willowy beautiful men roaming the world now, so who could tell.
“I can’t, I guess, but I didn’t do it. I was alone, at home, that night. I’m sure if you trace me back through the day –“
“Don’t tell me how to do my job. I’m conducting a criminal investigation into the commission of a serious infraction and we have you on multispec, placing you at the scene and committing the act in question. Now, again, do you deny the evidence?” They took another drag, and this time blew the smoke directly into my face.
Coughing and waving my free hand in front of my face, I shook my head in confused denial. “I don’t know what to say, I wasn’t even downtown that night! I was at home, plugged in like usual. Why would I even want to do something like this?” The wall behind the commissar was replaying the video of my alleged crime, looping through the half-dozen cameras that had captured me doing it. It sure as shit did look like me, even I had to admit. Even though I didn’t think it was me, I, like a lot of us pushing the century mark, were old enough that we’d never gotten comfortable watching ourselves on video, and seeing myself (or not), life size, replaying behind the officer was making me deeply uncomfortable. Which was probably their intent.
Previous generations complained about hearing their own voice on recording, but that was a pale shade compared to inspecting yourself from an external perspective, noticing all the little things you do that you’re unaware of. Your gait, resting expression, facial tics, the simian way we all scratch ourselves. Somehow the way you walk is singularly weird and embarrassing and everyone else is normal. There’s some little kink in our mental wiring that makes us unable to forgive ourselves our humanity. Those un/lucky enough to be natives of the surveilled world, who can’t remember when you couldn’t replay every moment of your life, seem not to have this issue. I’m not sure if I’m envious or not. At least I haven’t seen my own conception.
“Elder citizen, are you listening to me? You’re the prime suspect in a serious dataterror crime. We have video evidence of you sabotaging a fiber trunk line, which took out data service to over 10 residential blocks for several hours. You are being charged with terroristic datacrime resulting in the loss of digital life. Do you deny these charges or not?”
“Will anything I say make a difference? You’ve got me on video.”
“At this juncture, no, but you are permitted to make a statement. Criminals who confess upon apprehension are generally viewed more favorably by the tribunal.” Their cigarette was nearing the end of its life, and they took a final drag before flicking it into the corner of the room. A janniebot shot out of a mousehole in the opposite corner and retrieved the butt, then returned to its hole, almost too fast for the eye to follow.
“I think I’m innocent. That’s all I can say.” I shrugged, resigned to my fate. Visions of a heroic exit, fighting the commissar and the guards in the hall, jumping through a window with flames blooming out behind me, a car chase through the city, all the action movie tropes of my youth bled together in my mind’s eye, a testosterone-soaked kaleidoscope of righteous violence. In reality, my nonagenarian body was barely being held together by the cheap biotech I was afforded by the Citizen’s Medical Bureau. Every bone in my body protested as the guards came in and lifted me by the armpits at the Commissar’s signal.
I was dragged, feet trailing weakly, down the antiseptically lit hallway to a windowless cell and tossed unceremoniously inside. As I was getting to my feet, I heard the tiny whine of an electric motor behind me and turned to see an old-fashioned security camera mounted in the corner of the room against the ceiling behind a seamless clear plastic dome. As I moved around the room, the camera followed me. I had to laugh – video surveillance had been “solved” decades ago – lens-capped hair-thin fiber optic threads fed through pinholes in walls, making nearly undetectable cameras capable of recording in higher definition than the human eye can resolve were obsolete 20 years ago. Millimeter wave radar, laser mics, transdermal infrared identification, voice patterning, gait analysis, and algorithmic behavior modelling were so well developed that simple video recording is almost irrelevant.
No, this camera wasn’t a camera. It was a statement. We all know we are being watched, but in this cell, they want you to know that they know that you know that they are watching - and are watching all the same. In all likelihood, the camera probably wasn’t even connected to anything, and was just using a simple motion tracker to follow me around. The real surveillance was occurring in the wash of invisible electromagnetic spectra passing through the cell.
I knew I’d wind up here, sooner or later. I was surprised they left it this late, to be honest. Maybe they were trying to avoid making a martyr of me, waiting for my ignominy to burn out over the years. Maybe they knew I was on my way out and didn’t want to let me die on my own terms. There’s a lot of maybes, but I think the real reason is that it just didn’t matter – we were all imprisoned a long time ago, this was just a differently sized cell.
I took a shit in the steel toilet while looking directly into the camera, just for effect. Then I laid down on the thin, hard cot, fell asleep, and dreamed.
There was dried blood still trapped under my fingernails. I picked at them as best I could with my good hand but the shattered bone screamed in the hot, bright language of pain every time I dug too deeply. The waitress approached my table with a steaming carafe of black coffee and I quickly hid my stained hands under the table where they wouldn’t draw her attention.
“Top you up?” She gestured towards my half-emptied mug. I nodded and she refilled it with more of the acrid brew. The last thing I wanted to do right now was sleep – images of scrabbling fingers, memories of the fall we took were bubbling up unbidden like the whorls of cream upwelling in my coffee. The borderless world of sleep wasn’t ever safe from those demons, but the waking world was fraught right now too. I sipped at the too-hot burned coffee and felt it slide down my throat. I’d say it was warming but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel warm again.
Wincing, I shifted and tried to rearrange my broken right arm into a more comfortable position, but nothing was going to help until I could get it re-set and into a cast. I fumbled with my left hand, the good one, in the vest pocket of my heavy coat until I found the familiar smooth metal of the flask there. Awkwardly I fished it out and passed it to my right, which had just enough grip to hold it still while I unscrewed the top. I slopped the remaining whiskey inside into the mug until the liquid wobbled, threatening to overtop and spill.
Burn doubled, I sipped at the mug left handed, trembling a little as I set it down again. The white porcelain now bore livid red smears, dried blood reactivated by the spilled whiskey and left there like an accusation. One I was guilty of, certainly, no matter the justifications and circumstances I wove around it. The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb, the saying goes, but this blood, this covenant, had been with my own brother, my twin, even. Where’s the pithy saying for perpetrators of twin fratricide? That blood hadn’t come from me, but it was mine, just as much as it was his. Two cups drawn from the same well, one now shattered.
My brother’s vessel lay, shattered and cooling, at the bottom of the elevator shaft of the building that was now occluding the murky sunrise on the horizon. I watched the scarlet disk of the sun crawl up the edge of the building as I finished my coffee. Leaving a few bills on the table after cleaning off the now-empty mug with the sleeve of my coat, I rose, tenderly, favoring my arm and the leg that had partly cushioned the fall. I left the diner and lit a cigarette, one handed, the normal ritual motions broken by having only my off hand to use.
The morning was cold and windy, threatening rain. A few droplets stung my face as they were blown down the man-made canyon of the city street. Maybe I was still in shock – I knew I should be seeking medical attention, but for now, as long as I was walking, I didn’t have to think about it. About him. About what it meant now that it was over. About what was next. About any of it.
The sun finally overtopped the building, now a tombstone, a monument to my sins, and cast watery orange light down the avenue. My cigarette had burned down to the filter in my ruminations, and I turned to face a glass-fronted building to shield the next while I lit it. Backlit in the wall of glass, I caught a glimpse of my own ragged, lopsided reflection.
A black, featureless, man-shaped hole with a single burning eye stared unblinkingly back.
There he was, on TV again, being fawned over by some fawning plastic-faced talk show host about his newest innovation in humans taking pictures of themselves. The echoing voices of the other inmates in the hall drowned out the sound, so I moved closer to the TV.
“—absolutely loves the new feature! She’s bought probably 20 [digital clothing items] and loves showing them off to her little friends. They get so competitive about it!”
“They’re really fun, aren’t they? Obviously they’re more popular with women, but hey, its 2025, guys can have a little flair too, can’t they? In fact – Dave, could we?”
Chaz gestured off-camera, pointing to his head and grinning. Suddenly an elaborate cowboy hat appeared on his head, complete with a smoking bullet hole through the crown and miniature circling vultures above. He stood and turned, an exercise wholly for the camera, as the live audience watching couldn’t see the virtual hat he was wearing.
He sat back in the set chair and leaned back, hands behind his head. “Well, what do you think? You want one too?” The host’s botoxed features were incapable of expressing anything but mild amusement, but you could see her brow struggling to furrow in confusion.
“One wha- Oh!” She had looked to an off-screen monitor and seen the digital effect. “Well, sure, pard-ner!”
With an exaggerated gesture, Chad pointed to her head and suddenly a similarly elaborate hat appeared on the host’s head, overlapping weirdly with her frozen coiffe. This one was hot pink, replete with the rhinestones and feathers of the worst kind of honky tonk fashion. A pair of stylized pistols in chrome and mother of pearl crossed the band at the front. She reached up to touch it, and then caught herself, laughing.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” He made another wild gesture and cowboy boots matching their hats appeared on both of their feet. The host laughed as Chad got up and did a funny western dance. Even though he was being intentionally goofy, he still managed to do it with grace and charm. I had always hated and envied and loved that about him. He was blessed.
“Ok, one more surprise” Chad said and pulled a slim metal case out of his blazer’s inner pocket. He opened it to reveal two pairs of thin-framed, stylish glasses and put one on, handing the other to the host. “Ok, now, feel the little button on the bridge?” He made the classic “nerd pushing their glasses up the bridge of their nose” motion and settled the temples onto his ears. The host mirrored his movements and gasped as she looked at him.
“Oh my god, I can see it! The hat! This is so cool! How does it work? What is this?”
Chuckling good-naturedly, he replied “Oh, just a little something we’ve been working on behind the scenes at [corporation]. We think this will be the next step in personal computing. We are marrying the digital world to the real. Now those cool boots aren’t just for your selfies, you can wear them out in the world! Anyone with a pair of Spex will be able to see –“
The TV shut off suddenly and I turned to see Okie, the guard who’d taken it as his personal mission to mess with me, grinning widely from the guard booth near the ceiling, pointing the remote at me. He pressed a button on the panel in front of him and leaned into the microphone.
“Rec break’s over, assholes, back to your holes. Double time!”
Slowly, the mass of men formed a line along the wall of the rec room. Some held books from the prison library, others surreptitiously putting the loose cigarettes won in day’s gambling into their pockets. I’d almost forgotten that I was holding a book myself in the buzz of seeing my brother. Banned by court order from using a networked computer, the only opportunity I had for contact with the outside was a physical visit. With no surviving relatives apart from Chaz and sentenced to the max security facility in Terre Haute, I hadn’t had communion with the outside world for 6 years at this point. Terre Haute, Indiana is about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get in the US, culturally and temporally. Not that I had seen much of it through the wire-grilled windows of the van that brought me here.
That distance was more than you could put on a map, though. Chaz name was synonymous with his tech empire, and the blemish of having a twin brother who’d been put away for cybercrime at all, much less the magnitude of what I’d done, put a political rift between us that you couldn’t buy a ticket to cross. A few news outlets had made the connection and tried to blow up the story, but Chaz’ money and control of SEO made sure it never quite bubbled up.
The irony, of course, was that my crimes consisted largely of trying to expose behavior just like that. I’d stolen a lot of money as well, but that was more of a bonus prize I grabbed on my way out of my target’s networks. Like taking a mint from the dish on the way out of a restaurant. Despite what you may have heard, I donated most of it to various charities, but federal judges don’t really abide by Robin Hood laws. Stealing from the rich in the US is the most serious of crimes, apart from discovering oil in your own country.
All this to say that seeing my brother on TV was usually the highlight of my month. Okie had figured this out pretty early on – all the best bullies are highly perceptive to other’s weaknesses. To say I had a smoldering resentment for the guy was a serious understatement. It was more of a pilot light I kept burning, waiting for the right moment to burn the house down.
He grinned that stupid grin at me as I filed past him, hand on his billy club and lower lip fat with a fresh dip. Predictably, he spit a stream of brown saliva at my feet, splashing the thin canvas shoes we were issued. I knew he was just trying to get a rise out of me so I kept my eyes straight and shuffled along, even as I could feel the residual body heat from his spit warming my foot as it soaked through.
“One day,” I thought to myself, “One day I’m going to burn down your whole fucking life, Okie, and I’m going to make you choke on your Copenhagen.”