“Why? What have you done?” He gave me a side-eye, brows furrowed.
“Nothing! I just need you to extract it for me, and keep it for a while. I’ll be back, I promise.”
I needed Jinx’s help. Otherwise there was no escape. I shouldn’t say ‘escape.’ I wasn’t escaping from anything. I just wanted to get away for a while. Away from the buzz, the notifications, the constant contact, the incessant connection. With everyone, and everything. I needed to get away – from the transport hub that told me when my ride would arrive, from the freezer that told me I needed to cook enchiladas, from my university that pinged me with class videos and deadline reminders. From my mother’s hourly holograms. And the ones from my ex. I just wanted to be alone. Really alone.
The only way to do that was to get Jinx to extract the tiny chip from my forearm. Which was illegal, of course.
“I don’t know, Silden. This is really risky. What will happen when you don’t respond? When the electricity company sees you’re not turning on the lights? When they see you’re not opening your fridge, or ordering transport services?”
“Welllll, maybe you could take the chip around with you occasionally, so it looks like I’m traveling with you, staying with you?”
“Geez, Silden. You’re asking me to commit a crime, and to walk around with the evidence!” he said in a loud whisper.
I gave him a sweet puppy dog look. “They won’t notice for a while. Why would they? It just looks like I’m with you. And if you feel uncomfortable, you can just, um, leave me somewhere. The chip, I mean.”
“They’ll still come looking for you. Are you sure you want to take the risk?” he said. Brows still furrowed, he looked down at his own arm. “What about your mom? She’ll notice right away, won’t she?”
Funny that he mentioned that Central Control would notice first, before my mom.
“My mom mostly talks at me. She’s used to me ignoring her. Come on, it won’t be for long. I want to get away. Away from the network. Away from the noise. Just for a little while. Please?”
“Where are you gonna go?” he said, looking at me and shaking his head. He was coming around to the idea of helping me. “Don’t answer that. Probably better if I don’t know.”
I smiled and held out my arm. With the other hand, I pushed an Xacto knife across the table.
“Now? With this?” he said, eyes widening. “But wait. If we do this, and you go, I can’t help you. You won’t be able to reach me, and I won’t be able to find you. Are you sure about this?”
“Yes, I’m sure. You’re helping me by doing this.”
“Are you ready?”
I couldn’t tell if he was asking whether I was ready to be cut, or whether I had things packed and ready. I just nodded. Yes to both.
I sucked in my breath at the sting. He lifted it out on the edge of the knife, and put it in the box I’d set on the table. Some gauze and tape to seal the wound, and we were done. I pulled my sleeve down over the spot, and he pocketed the tiny box. In it was my entire life and identity. At least that’s what people said.
Jinx and I walked swiftly out of his office to his transport, trying not to look nonchalant. It was his own glider, so he could take me where I wanted to go, without the public transport networks knowing. I shrugged my knapsack off my back and we slid into the seats, which were covered with some vintage fabric he’d found in some dump, called velvet. I liked the word, and the fuzzy feel of it under me. In public gliders the seats were slippery synthetics. Jinx voiced our destination, adding “maximum speed,” and we moved off soundlessly, climbing to a faster level.
My knapsack, now at my feet, was heavy with supplies. I’d tried to pack light, but still ended up looking like someone on an Arctic expedition back in 2020. There was so much I needed. Without a chip I couldn’t take transport, couldn’t buy anything, couldn’t contact anyone. Most importantly, without it I had no positioning system. But all I had to remember was the route up the mountain. Where I was going was one of the few places that couldn’t be found.
It had taken months to find the tiny spot. Under the guise of research for my geology PhD, I’d been granted permission to look at tattered maps in an archive presided over by a wrinkly old woman who was quietly helpful. Hours and hours of comparing the everyday 3D digital maps with these versions on paper, the markings and names nearly impossible to read, had finally borne fruit. The old lady, whose name I never asked so that I would not need to reveal my own, heard my squeal of joy that momentous day. I probably shouldn’t have, but I pointed to a spot on the map and smiled at her. She smiled back, and nodded.
A tiny gap in the metaverse, the matrix, the universe. And it would be mine. Mine alone, to be alone, really alone. With thoughts completely my own. Silence. Time. Serenity. It was hard to imagine.
I was on my way to experiencing it. The biggest step was over. Now it was time to take the next one, and fast. I had to disappear.
It was as dark as it would get this night. I’d counted on a full moon to show me the way. It had to, since I had no digital flashlight, powered by the everpresent network, guided by the chip. I could see the outline in Jinx’s pocket of the box – my life, my identity inside it.
No, I told myself. That was not my life nor my identity. It was not me! That cannot be the case. Because then what was left? What was I, in this physical, chipless body? Had I really lost something essential, or was I much more than that? I had to find out.
The glider slowed, and we looked around. No other vehicles were nearby. We let the glider hover at the coordinates we’d given it. I reached over to hug Jinx again. Lips pursed, he nodded gravely.
"Be safe," he said.
I slid out with my knapsack. Staying low, I slunk off into the woods like a wild animal. I was more like one now, I thought, and nearly laughed. Livin’ young and wild and free – must’ve heard those lyrics in some grungy bar that played oldies.
I kept moving. Uphill, until the forest would thin out. This was one of the few forests left – I was grateful for its shelter from lights and cameras, however temporary. I scrambled up and up in the dark, the moonlight providing merely a faint glow at the treetops.
Tiring, I slowed a bit. If I was headed in the right direction, I’d be out of the thickest part in about an hour, and then I could check the position of the moon to see if I was on the right track. I’d pause at the edge of the sparse woods before crossing the meadow. It had been impossible to tell whether the meadow would be filled with tall grasses or whether I’d be completely exposed. I hadn’t decided whether it was better to run through the grasses, or go slowly, stealthily.
I suppressed my thoughts. How strange, to have to calm my own mind! I’d thought that without the clutter of messages, voices, reminders, and news, my mind would be gentle, observant, deliberate.
Nevermind. Time to plow ahead, I told myself, and took up a steady pace.
My feet trudging through the underbrush made a crunch-swish sound. The occasional branch snapped, giving me a start. A breeze rustled through the tops of the pines. All strange and unfamiliar. I thought there’d be silence. I pushed the thought from my mind – there I go, trying to control it again – and kept on moving.
The trees were sparse now, and the moonlight grew stronger. As the sky opened slowly before me I scanned it for drones and towers. The one thing Jinx hadn’t been able to tell me was whether the system tracked movement even if there was no chip detected. In cities, there were motion detectors and heat maps, to catch criminals or fugitives, or even just people with defective chips who needed to be brought in for replacements. Everybody knew that. But in the few forests and unpopulated areas, he wasn’t sure. Now that I was up here, I couldn’t be sure either. I crossed the field quickly but not running. I hadn’t seen or heard anything but branches and breezes since I’d entered the forest, and couldn’t see or hear anything human or electronic now either.
The moonlight showed me the way to the start of a ridge of rock. I found my way to the side of the rock face, the top edge hanging over to give shelter. Surely this sheltered me from any surveillance. And that’s why this could be it. I must be close now. I made my way along the rock face, dragging my palm along it. I moved forward in darkness since the moonlight was obscured by the overhang. There it was, a small gap in the line of rock, a small space, like an entryway.
I felt my way into the indentation, now feeling my way with both palms. I pushed gently, trying and hoping that the rock would give way. It was the size of a door, but the opening couldn’t be that obvious. I knelt down to feel the rock all the way to the bottom. But wait. The rock stopped abruptly, giving way to a different surface, something like wood, softer but as smooth as the rock. I felt around to gauge its size, and paused for a moment. If this was it, what awaited on the other side?
I listened for the soft buzz of a drone, but heard nothing but the wind, and the distant sound of water rushing. That must be the brook at the edge of the gap in the map, a source of fresh water. I pushed at different places, and suddenly, the panel began to give. It wasn’t much larger than the door of a doghouse. I could feel my heart beating faster, even without a device to tell me. This was it, my chance to slide into a secret world. I set my knapsack down, and began to back in on my hands and knees.
I reached to pull my knapsack in with me, and I was suddenly blinded. Light penetrated my eyes, and filled all the space around me. An electronic voice began to speak, in that familiar, docile, yet commanding tone…
“You are kindly requested to approach the glider and extend your left arm for scanning.”
I had found the Gap. And now Central had found it too. Oh, Jinx! I cried. I struggled to stand, and then let myself fall, my empty left arm out in front. It was all over. I would be reconnected, and would stay connected, forever.