It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global microdemocracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
Ken’s first stop the next morning is at the Policy1st office. He’s undercover, but with all the election activity in Jakarta, he thinks it’s safe enough, and at this point in the cycle, he wants the latest data, to the nanosecond. Plus, he wants to see if he can learn anything about Liberty’s possible malfeasance. Looking through the office’s existing files will save him specific Information searches that might alert others to what he’s on to. He didn’t want to make the office an obvious home base, though; rather than the slightly squalid, windowless place around the corner from the Policy1st office that the travel coordinator suggested, the hotel Ken chose is a little farther away and significantly more pleasant.
It makes for an entertaining walk to work. Jakarta is hot and smells of durian. It’s in season, apparently; Ken sees thorny slabs of it laid out on rough wooden tables along the road. He abstains until he reaches a centenal governed by UNICEF, which is supposed to have better food hygiene standards, and buys some rujak from a pushcart. The vendor hands him a small paper envelope of typhoid inoculation with his purchase, which Ken rips open and sprinkles over his fruit with the chili-peanut sauce; so much for hygiene. He uses an elongated toothpick to eat the pieces of papaya, starfruit, mango, and pineapple while he walks, but has to rush to finish before crossing the all-but-invisible border to the next centenal, warned by dancing public service pop-ups along the walls that not only street-vending but also street-eating is illegal there. He considers going around that territory, but a glance at a map projection tells him it sits squarely in the middle of the shortest route to the office. He’s already running late, and he’s almost done with the rujak anyway. Besides, strolling through that uptight centenal has its own pleasures: the tropical gardens are well tended, their fragrances painting the humid air, and the street-vending prohibition doesn’t extend to musicians, who seem to be encouraged. Ken does note that most of them are cleaner than average. Maybe a government program rather than free-flowing capitalism, although he doesn’t bother to check.
Policy1st’s offices are, as usual, in a Policy1st centenal (Ken has argued to Suzuki that they should open satellites in the territory of any government that will allow them to, at least during this last month). Ken is pleased to see that their policies have been adapted to the local context. The accountability board, available for immediate projection as always, has also been painted in appealing colors and fonts on a wall by one of the main streets. When he examines the demographics of the centenal on Information, he sees that levels of education and handheld penetration are in fact quite high, which tracks with most Policy1st demographics. Maybe the mural’s not strictly necessary, but it’s still a nice touch.
As he turns onto the side street where the Policy1st office is located, a pop-up catches his eye. He’s not sure why, something about the particular degree of sparkle on the jet-black coloring, or the font, which is somewhat reminiscent of the KISS band logo, or the rhythm of its bounce in the air; something about it says “cooler than all the other advids,” and his eyes stick for the briefest microsecond as they slide past. The sophisticated sensors in the ad projector notice, and the ad immediately flies to the forefront of his vision.
IGNORANCE, it says, in that sharp-edged script, humming in place.
The word flies away and is replaced by another.
And then it’s gone in a scintillating starburst. No feed address, no Information link, no explanation of what they’re selling. Hurrying on with his eyes firmly fixed on the door of the office, Ken wonders if he was wrong and rather than an ad, it’s some attempt at street art. Either way, he finds anything that flies in his face too annoying to appreciate.
His irritation only grows as he walks into the office. Given how dynamic and competitive the city is, Ken finds it surprising that the Policy1st office in Jakarta isn’t more impressive. Not physically; Policy1st’s aesthetic tends to be understated and geeky, representing its positioning as the wonk that cares about substance rather than flash. No, what Ken finds unimpressive is the management. Agus, the office head, keeps Ken waiting for ten minutes and then talks at him from behind his desk, twiddling a pen while blandly refusing to be of any help whatsoever.
“Liberty? I wouldn’t have much on them beyond what you can find in Information.”
Ken always reacts badly to Agus’s particular brand of obfuscation, and based on his chat with Tanty last night, he’s starting to suspect that Agus knows this and is doing it on purpose. “I am asking you instead of searching Information myself, because I don’t want people to be able to figure out what I’m looking for.”
“What are you looking for?” Agus asks, but it was probably just provocation, because he doesn’t wait for an answer. “I’m asking because you’ll be exposing me and this office by going through us, so I think I have a right to know.”
“As the campaign office here, it makes sense for you to have a file on the main competitors.” Ken says. “In fact, you don’t have to do any new searches. Just show me what you have already.”
Agus doesn’t seem to like that much, probably because he hasn’t been doing his job properly and doesn’t have much opposition research to show. “Well,” he drawls, leaning back in his chair and swiveling it, “we don’t consider Liberty one of our main competitors for the Supermajority. I mean,” he adds to Ken’s raised eyebrows, “obviously they’re a competitor, but we don’t think that we’ve got a lot of overlap with them in terms of potential voters. On the global scale, we’re focusing much more on SavePlanet and Economix, for example.”
Ken happens to know—no, he doesn’t happen to know; he did his homework before coming, that’s how he knows—that SavePlanet doesn’t have a single centenal in JaBoDeTaBekBan. “I thought your job was to win centenals in Jakarta, not to worry about the Supermajority.”
“I thought your job was to get Suzuki where he’s going and then wait for him in the car,” Agus shoots back. “What are you doing here, anyway? Some super-secret errand for the big man, huh? Don’t start checking up on me, son. Leave the real work to the experts.”
Ken thinks about hitting him, can actually see it play out. Leaning over the desk, knuckles connecting with jaw. Not very hard, because he’s leaning so far, but then it wouldn’t take much to tip that chair over. That stupid pen flying across the room, Agus scrambling up from the floor, calling security… Ken cuts it off there. He’s not worried about his job. Suzuki appreciates a man of action and has bailed him out from worse scrapes than this would be. But Ken doesn’t like to call in favors from his boss, since he’s aware there might not be a bottomless supply. More importantly, he’s unlikely to get the intel he wants that way. They’re fourteen days out, the first debate is in thirty hours, and some wack shit is going on. He doesn’t have time for fisticuffs.
“Yes, it is a job for Suzuki, and your boss works for him too. Why don’t you give me whatever you have so that he doesn’t come asking for it himself?”
Agus shrugs and with a few motions, sends a file to Ken’s workspace. “Here,” he says, tossing in a few others. “So you can see what campaigning looks like.”
“Great, thanks,” Ken says, pretty sure that they won’t be helpful anyway. “See you later.”
He heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” Agus asks.
“To talk to some informants,” Ken says, backing out the door. “You know—real campaigning.”
Ken’s antennae jiggle frantically as he walks away from the building, but he figures that’s Agus staring daggers at him from the window and ignores it. He’s got to get his over-eager grad student vibe on.
* * *
Domaine does get rid of his fro for the meeting in Saudi, but only by braiding it up tight. It’s a style that has come into fashion in the Gulf states recently, but no one will know he’s following it unless he takes off his keffiya. The important thing is that he now looks not far off from Arab.
The meeting is with a sheikh he has connected with through the intercession of a music star who prefers to remain anonymous, but who is willing to put both money and social networks (a publicly traded commodity) to the cause of reforming (or “overturning,” as she put it in an overenthusiastic message) the election system.
And now Domaine is here, shifting uneasily in his robes in the thick air conditioning, rare as bananas these days. He wants to get self-righteous about it, but after briefly experiencing the heat outside, he can understand, if not condone, why they still use it.
It’s not his first time meeting an Arab prince. Back in his private-sector days—before he saw the dark—he was in and out of Dubai all the time. He knows the drill: the trappings of multinational politeness, the echoes of tribal customs made infinitely more comfortable. He’s looking forward to the tea, rather less to the small talk. And he can’t deny his nerves, those intimately measured connections trembling just below his skin. He assumes they have body-stat monitors here, and can only hope that they take his anxiety as a compliment. Saudi, even what’s left of it, is not Dubai, and he’s not sure how much leeway he has here.
The sheikh enters, preceded and followed by the cloud of his entourage. Tea is poured, small things (“The weather? Ah, still hot.”) discussed.
But the sheikh, also a multi-trillionaire CEO, does not have a lot of time to waste on formalities. “It is election time again, I understand,” he says, as if it were something he happened to notice at the bottom of one of his feeds, as if just because Saudi doesn’t participate in the election system, the outcome wouldn’t affect his multiple business interests in thousands of ways.
“It is indeed,” Domaine replies. “Trillions of bits being spent in six months of global pageantry.”
“We, as you know, are not involved,” the sheikh says, although what Domaine does know is that he has personally donated billions to not one but several of the major governments that he thinks will be favorable for his investments and corporations. Domaine tries to swallow the disgust rising in him.
“Given that perspective,” he says, “we hope that you can support our opposition to the system.”
The sheikh is practiced at this and merely plasters a sage expression on his face, but Domaine notices that some of his henchmen are smiling. “We do not get involved in the sovereign affairs of other governments,” the prince proclaims, another statement Domaine knows to be false. “If the other peoples of the world wish to hold these events, that is their affair. We choose not to do so here.”
“The peoples of the world didn’t choose it, though,” Domaine says. “Did they? I mean, the system was dreamt up and pushed through by some soon-to-be-ex-UN officials who grew a pair, and ratified by governments under duress or false promises, not all of whom even called themselves democratic.”
“I am not,” the sheikh says, “the most ardent believer in democracy, so this perspective is not exactly troubling to me.” It’s the only true thing Domaine has heard him say since they agreed that the weather was hot.
“Which is exactly why we should work together,” Domaine says.
The sheikh deigns to raise his eyebrows. “You, who believe the system is not democratic enough, and I, who believe it is far too democratic?”
“Exactly,” Domaine says, making his voice vibrate with urgency. “We form a coalition. Now is the time, before a new government takes over the Supermajority and starts to cement its power.”
The sheikh shows interest for the first time. “You believe that Heritage will lose the Supermajority?”
“Our Information makes that look like a serious possibility,” Domaine says. He twists his wrist, and in a nice bit of coding showmanship, a globe projection leaps out and slowly revolves. It shows what Domaine believes the sheikh would like to see, to the extent that Domaine thinks the sheikh will credit it: the major governments, corporates and traditionals, splintering the vote until the domination of Heritage is in doubt. “Of course, there is still time, and the debates, so nothing is certain.”
He doesn’t bite. “Regardless, I am not interested in changing a system that I do not participate in.”
Seems unlikely. “It is a shame that Information is constantly attempting to influence the minds of your people, claiming that the election system is the answer to all their problems.”
“Information does not enter here,” the sheikh answers. “We provide our subjects with all the news and entertainment that they need.”
“But still.” Domaine leans forward. “The election system, flawed as it is, is constantly held up as a paragon of democracy, peace, consumer choice. It exerts an insidious appeal on nonvoters, no less dangerous for being false.”
The sheikh is silent for a moment. Most of his entourage are suddenly busy with their handhelds, perhaps rechecking Domaine’s background and reassessing the discussion. Domaine presses on. “Surely you would prefer for the election system not to exist? We are working to eliminate it, or at the very least make it more realistic…”
The open question breaks the tension, and the sheikh laughs. “Why would we want to change it? There is nothing that suits us more than most of the world believing that their will is being carried out by governments that do exactly as they please.”
There is little else to say, and eventually Domaine is graciously removed from the room.
* * *
Ken’s antennae jump again as he’s leaving his fourth interview, and he jumps too. His first thought is that he’s glad he invested in the antennae, because he’s so hyped from the conversation he just had that he probably wouldn’t notice anything without them. His second thought is: because of that conversation, this must be the real thing.
Maybe it was a trap to begin with. The centenal secretary seemed eager to give it to him. Or maybe the overworked woman wanted someone besides her clients to see it. Maybe whoever it is has been watching her office, just in case. Or maybe they’ve been following him for a while. They’ve figured out who he is, or they don’t care who he is but they don’t want anyone to know what he heard. Or what he has.
It is nightfall, the sky a luminous blue above the city glow, and the centenal he’s moving through now is a poor one with few streetlights, darkening fast. He glances at windows as he passes, but in the glare of the pop-ups, tuk-tuk headlights, and vendor sparklers, he can’t make out anything in the shifting space behind him. Without stopping, Ken rubs his eyes as though tired, adjusting his antennae to broadcast video into the corner of his vision. He doesn’t catch anything immediately.
Policy1st’s transportation policy includes only environmentally neutral vehicles. Ken got here on a Sunway borrowed from the office, solar-powered and with a top speed of a slow jog. It seemed perfect for the Jakarta traffic, which rarely gets above a slow jog anyway, and after the transport frustrations of the previous day, Ken thought it was necessary. It’s also about as inconspicuous as elephant coitus, which is not unheard-of in these streets but still draws a crowd. As he gets back on, he notices a small switch labeled AUXILIARY SPEED—EMERGENCY USE ONLY.
He proceeds with caution at first. His mind is processing a million different things at once: the map of this and the surrounding centenals, superimposed over his vision; the small vid of the space behind him; not hitting anyone with the snail’s-pace Sunway; and, most importantly, trying to figure out what to do with the intel he just received.
His initial impulse is to send it to Suzuki right away; he even half-composes a message muttered under his breath. Then he remembers that this is not the type of data that can be transmitted that way. Ken curses, accidentally leaving a trail of profanity in his message draft, then closes it. He’s not used to carrying heavy stacks of physical paper; he didn’t even bring a bag. The Sunway has a small storage trunk on the back, but it would be too easy for someone to swipe from. Ken was holding the packet close to his ribs when he left the meeting, and he doesn’t see any option other than to keep doing so. He shoves it into his waistband to free his hands and tucks his shirt over it. He considers sending a message hinting at what he’s found. If he doesn’t make it back, Agus can follow the trail. He discards that idea, too. If, and (glancing at the rearview vid) it seems more and more unlikely, there are people following him because of what he’s just learned, they’ll be expecting him to transmit it somehow. They might be able to snag it off Information before it reaches its destination, use the transmission point to find him if they haven’t already. Besides, Agus would be sure to mess it up.
Just as he’s starting to think the antennae were overreacting, triggered by a random repeat passerby or innocent stares, he passes under a rare bank of solar-powered streetlights, and a few seconds later he sees something in the vid: the glimmer of the lights passing over the carapace of a vehicle, a large vehicle. That in itself is not strange; what is odd is that the behemoth is not nudging people, donkeys, motorcycles, three-wheelers, and Sunways out of the way to pass. Ken risks a glance over his shoulder, and the headlights of the massive all-terrainer seem to wink at him. It is hanging back, maintaining a distance, inexplicable in this cutthroat traffic culture unless there is some other motive.
His heart speeds up, adrenaline spurts. He has to think, though. There’s no way he can outrun them. Ken maneuvers his Sunway around a donkey cart, then stays between it and a three-wheeler for a couple of seconds. When the slow pace of traffic gets him near enough to the corner, he swings the Sunway up on to the sidewalk, slides it around the corner onto a dark, almost-empty side street, and flips the auxiliary speed switch. The platform below him hums, then vibrates. He hears honking from the street behind him as the SUV tries to make it to the corner. Then his head jerks back in a gush of smoggy air as the Sunway takes off, bouncing along the imperfectly paved road.
Ken gets a momentary thrill, although it’s a little muffled by the effort he has to make not to get jounced off the thing. Then he’s thrown against the handrail hard. He chokes, staring down at the dimness of unlit pavement. His ribs hurt, although the package did cushion the impact some. He pushes himself back up to standing and hits the accelerator, and the Sunway gives a plaintive whine, shudders, and completely shuts down. Coughing, Ken glances behind him. He’s only about three hundred meters from the main road, where he can make out large, high-set headlights lurching around the corner toward him.
He gives the Sunway one last shake, and when it doesn’t react, he jumps off and runs.
The street that Ken is running down is what is known in Jakarta as a jalan tikus, a mouse road. It is lit only by the faint luminescence coming from house windows and a few outdated, immobile advids. He starts to turn down a cross street, aiming back toward the main road he came off of, but when he notices on his map projection that it’s actually blocked off by some kind of commercial complex he has to duck back out again, dodging past two guards playing chess in front of a gate. The SUV’s headlights are about a block behind him. He asks Information how common plastic guns are in Jakarta, hoping that the answer will be reassuringly lower than he expects. In fact, this is a major underground trade point for them. He runs faster.
Ken’s map is helpfully calculating the quickest and most direct routes to his hotel, and he tells it to stop and use the centenal filter instead. He wants to find a government nearby with better law-and-order stats, or at least more streetlights. There are some alleyways that look too narrow for the SUV, but most of them only have one egress, and it’s a pretty sure bet that whoever is trying to follow him is looking at the same map he is. Ken gets so caught up in checking the parameters of a neighboring centenal that he almost steps in an open sewer. Blinking away the afterimage of the map, he glances back at the headlights (gaining) and sprints toward the next turn, where the street jogs left.
He dodges a motorcycle coming the opposite way and swings around the curve, blowing past a tiny kiosk, its only sign a red-and-white ad for PhilipMorris products, glowing in the night and clouded with mosquitoes. A line of tuk-tuks sits beside it. Their drivers cluster in the light of the kiosk, most of them sporting examples of its merchandise between lips or dangling from their fingers. Ken ducks behind the tuk-tuks but he’s too scared to stop running, so he keeps sprinting forward in a crouch until the headlights of the SUV swing toward him. He hunkers down behind the black canvas hatch of the last tuk-tuk and holds his breath. In the white flash of the headlights he can see the torn leather on the seat of the three-wheeler, the rusted lock clamped on the fuel tank. Then he’s in darkness again, and the huge vehicle is sliding down the road beyond him. Ken waits until it passes the next turn… ten meters past… they’re slowing. They must have figured out he’s not ahead of them. Before they can turn, he bolts.
As soon as Ken breaks his cover he sees the red reflection of the brake lights. They don’t even try to turn around on the narrow road, just reverse hard over the potholes. Ken makes it to the turn first, skids around it, and takes off down the street as the SUV backs past the junction, stops, and lurches forward around the corner after him.
But Ken has already crossed the border into the next centenal. The laws, which Ken already knows from his map, are posted in illuminated signs at the junction. Ken wonders whether his pursuers will read them or just plow through. He doesn’t dare stop to find out. Then he hears the series of sharp bangs. He ducks and glances back over his shoulder.
But it’s just the tires exploding on the anti-vehicle protection in the street. This centenal belongs to a green-party government that runs in Jakarta on a radical anti-traffic platform, and is pedestrian-only. In the dimness (the ecogovernment of the centenal is experimenting with windpowered streetlights, and they are on the faint side) the SUV settles, like one of those beetles that gets eaten from the inside out. Then a door opens.
Ken turns back around and concentrates on running. Whoever’s in that SUV has legs too. But now he has a head start, and the darkness is in his favor. He loses himself in the side streets, using his eye-level map to avoid dead ends. What he wants to do is to lie low until they’ve given up or until daylight, but he doesn’t have anywhere safe to go. He’s tempted by a late-night warung whose patrons are slurping bowls of noodle soup (vegan, according to Information). As he’s hovering in the shadows across the street, indecisive, a man significantly larger than Ken runs up, pauses, and darts inside the warung, glancing at faces. Ken turns and walks quickly in the direction the man came from, heart pounding.
They know what he looks like. Without slowing, he plots a way back to his hotel on his map, prioritizing busy and well-lit streets. Following it, he comes out of the centenal at an exit right on Sudirman Avenue. Vehicles dart by on the sixlane road, and along the middle of it the monorail tracks loom like the spine of some huge, useless, and long-dead animal. Ken considers hailing a public transportation crow, but in Jakarta these are few and overcrowded, with out-of-date algorithms. Besides, if they’re tracing his comms, they could find him that way. He’s got an old-fashioned cargo; he might as well get home the old-fashioned way. He flags a cab and disappears into the anonymous crawl of Jakarta traffic.
Excerpted from Infomocracy, © Malka Older, 2016