By Charlie Jones
Tess kept her eyes shut as she pleasured herself. It had been a while, and she was finding it difficult to stay in the moment. Under her quilt she was fully clothed—long-sleeve t-shirt, joggers, socks—and starting to sweat. With her free hand she plucked at her t-shirt, wanting to remove it but electing not to. Her head she kept above the quilt, not to keep cool but so that the camera phone could see her face. She squeezed her eyes together tightly, pretending it wasn’t there.
Deadlines, like phosphenes, flashed against the darkness of her eyelids. Work had followed her home again, had hardly left her alone all year. Like everybody else over at the office, she was constantly overstretched and criminally underappreciated. Her laptop whirred in the next room, calling her back to her current assignment, only half-finished and due tomorrow morning.
Tess blocked it out and wriggled into her mattress, trying to make herself comfortable. She was having this. She deserved it after the week, month, year she’d had, a single moment of joy, even if it was a little forced. She quickened her stroke. As she did, she knocked her quilt with her elbow; she felt it shift and brush against her cheek. Not stopping, she opened one eye. The quilt had bulged beside her face and was blocking the camera phone’s view of her. Anybody watching her live stream would see only a rocking mound of white cotton.
Keep going, Tess heard herself think. She could probably finish before her disappearance became a problem. Some of her colleagues reckoned they’d been away from their streams for minutes at a time without any trouble. But then, those colleagues were mostly full of it. STAY ON STREAM was the government’s official guidance, its public information campaign, its most enduring three-word slogan. “Even half a minute off stream could have potentially disastrous consequences,” the Cyber Minister had warned in the early days of the deepfake epidemic. Not following his own advice had cost the minister his job.
Huffing, Tess pulled her hand from her joggers and patted the quilt down flat. She looked at her phone in its little stand and, seeing on the screen that she was visible again, shut her eyes and thrust her hand back between her legs.
As she started up again, her fingertips cool, a thought crept into her mind: How many people are watching me right now? Before the government had added a viewer count to LiSt, everybody had asked themselves that same question continually. But since Tess had disabled her own stream’s viewer count last year (she’d felt marginally better for it), it only ever crossed her mind when she was masturbating. Why worry about it? Somebody, somewhere, was always watching.
And just like that, whatever there was of a mood was ruined. Tess sighed and slipped her hand from her joggers. Her moment of joy would have to wait.
A second thought crept into her mind: Turn it off.
She glanced at her phone, at its tiny ever-watching eye. Everybody fantasised about turning off their live streams. It was the talk of the office every Friday afternoon; Tess’s work wife, Bibby, threatened to turn hers off most mornings. Nobody dared do it, though. Unless you wanted to get yourself cancelled, fired, or locked up, you kept your stream running every minute of every day.
Tess threw off her quilt, snatched her phone out of its stand, and keeping the camera pointed at her face, exited her bedroom. “Whoever’s watching, go fuck yourselves.” It didn’t make her feel any better. If anything, it made her feel worse. She knew better than to engage her audience.
Her laptop lay waiting for her on the living space side table, screen black, power button blinking. She slumped onto the sofa and pressed the touchpad; the screen lit up.
“Ten twenty-three, September twenty-first,” she said, turning the camera to the screen to prove it. She clipped her phone to the lid of the laptop and adjusted it so that the camera watched her. Proving the time and date was necessary only on apps not authorised by the government; with LiSt, Tess was free not to, but given this government’s incompetency, she thought it better safe than sorry.
Apps are their solution to everything, she thought. Even so, it was still hard to believe that the government’s solution to the ubiquity of deepfakes indistinguishable from reality was a live streaming app; that with detection software’s lagging behind, the most effective anti-deepfake technology it could come up with to combat fraudsters, cyber terrorists, political extremists, and malicious neighbours was an invasion of privacy—the single greatest invasion of individual privacy in history at that, or as the Cyber Minister proclaimed it, the ‘Great Equaliser’.
That LiSt had proved largely successful these past few years was even harder to believe. But then, if it wasn’t for LiSt, Tess herself would have sworn the videos she’d seen of old friends abusing each other, of religious leaders vehemently denouncing their faiths, of the Prime Minister talking up eugenics on the morning news were all legitimate.
But here we are, she thought, retrieving her email. Her inbox overflowed with new messages, all marked URGENT. Grumbling, she closed her email and returned instead to her unfinished assignment. As she scrolled through spreadsheets with no apparent end, her cheeks began to burn their familiar burn; her temples thumped their familiar thump. How did it ever get to this? Ten years out of university and stuck in a dead-end office job she despised, after all the promise and potential she’d shown when she was younger. “You’re going to do great things when you’re older,” a teacher had told her one parents’ evening. “You’ll be on television soon,” another had said.
“Aren’t we all, now,” Tess muttered, resenting them. Her camera eyed her from the top of her laptop.
Another thought sprang into her mind, one she hadn’t considered in years: What if nobody’s viewing my live stream? What if I’m not being watched? For starters, she could pleasure herself however she pleased, no need to worry about quilts or clothes. She could say whatever she wanted to, complain aloud about work without fear of repercussion. She could go about her life uninhibited, relax for the first time in God knows how long—at least until somebody started watching her stream again.
Tess unclipped her phone from her laptop and brought up the LiSt app’s settings. Surely, nobody was watching her scroll through spreadsheets at ten-thirty at night. If nobody’s watching, she thought, half-grinning, I’ll turn it off. Just for a bit.
Though she’d thought she was being facetious, Tess’s finger wasn’t quite steady as she reenabled the viewer count on her live stream; it appeared at the bottom of the screen.
1 WATCHING NOW, it read.
Tess deflated. Somebody, somewhere, was always watching.
Turn it off anyway, she heard herself think. Not just for a little bit, permanently. Her heart jolted at the thought. She couldn’t, could she? Technically, it wasn’t a crime to turn off your live stream, just government guidance not to; she wouldn’t be breaking any laws. With this one person—this saddo, this sicko—watching her, though, she ran the risk of losing her job, her friends, her freedom even.
You’re going to do great things when you’re older.
What if her old teacher had been right, what if she was destined to do something great? What if turning off her stream was that something? She’d be the first to do so since the early days. She’d be a trailblazer, an icon. She’d go into work tomorrow a hero, inspire her colleagues to turn off their streams, too. She’d rouse a generation to action, start a movement, lead a revolution! She’d bring about the end of the deepfake epidemic, better society, change the world.
“I’m doing it,” Tess blurted out loud, a fire suddenly roaring inside her. She brought up the LiSt app’s settings once again and found the option to uninstall. She tapped it.
ARE YOU SURE? an alert box warned.
Tess tapped YES without hesitating, feeling in her chest her heart hammering, and in her heart, millions marching with her.
Tess walked to work alone the next morning. Her heart still hammered away in her chest, but sleep had extinguished the fire inside her; in its place, an eel writhed. She had almost reinstalled LiSt, had almost started up her live stream again before she’d left the flat, but she’d managed to quell the squirming urge to do so. Though her phone was tucked away in her backpack, she could feel it in her hand, like a phantom limb. Her fingers twitched.
Not one passer-by this morning had so much as glanced her way, too preoccupied as they were with their live streams. It wasn’t until Tess reached her office building that somebody finally noticed her; as she entered through the automatic doors, Liz, on reception, was already getting up from her desk. She spotted Tess from under her hands-free streaming camera. Her smile vanished and her mouth fell open.
“Hey,” Tess managed, clocking in. The eel inside her thrashed, as if it had been doused with boiling water. Liz said nothing, only stared at her, wide-eyed and rooted to the spot. As Tess left reception and headed for the stairs, she heard behind her hurried footsteps. By the time she’d climbed to the fourth floor and stepped into the office, she could hear police sirens wailing distantly.
Tess froze, gripping the straps of her backpack. Her face flushed. A dozen pairs of eyes were on her. Her colleagues sitting at their desks stood up; those already standing stopped dead.
“She’s here! She’s here!” Annie shrieked, turning to the camera clipped to her desktop.
“Call the police!” George yelled, scurrying behind the printer. A stack of papers slipped from his desk onto the floor. The office stirred.
What did I do? Tess tried to say but found she could say nothing at all. The hero’s welcome she’d dreamed of last night seemed suddenly—obviously—like a child’s fantasy.
“Get out of here!” Warren shouted. “No, somebody grab her!” Mary yelled. They each held their phones out in front of them, cameras pointed at their faces.
Tess took a step backwards. She swallowed. “What did I do?”
Bill scoffed. “You know what you did.”
“I swear I don’t,” Tess pleaded.
“Liar!” Lewis spat.
Tess flinched. Her skin prickled, as if thrust with pins. Run, a voice in her mind said. She looked back at the open office doorway, at the clear and empty corridor beyond it. Her feet shuffled against the char-coloured carpet. “Whatever you think I did,” she said slowly, “whatever you think I said, it wasn’t me.”
The office erupted.
“Yes, it was!”
“We saw you do it!”
“We heard you say it!”
“How could you?”
Tess shrank, struggling for words. Her colleagues—people she’d known nearly a decade, people she’d lunched with, moaned with, laughed with—looked upon her as if she were a stranger. Even Leo—normally such a calm and friendly office dog—barked and bared his teeth at her. Run! the voice in her mind said, again. She held out her hands. “It wasn’t—” She glanced again at the open door behind her. “It wasn’t me. It was a deepfake.”
“Sure it was,” Sam said, suddenly behind her, blocking the doorway with her broad frame. Her camera phone looked up at her from a harness strapped to her chest.
“It was!” Tess said, her voice cracking. She’d missed her chance; she had nowhere to run. Her face was aflame, her hands trembled. She noticed in front of her Bill and Warren inching closer, Lewis creeping around to her left. Behind them, Annie clambered onto her desk. She held a camera phone in each hand, one pointed at her own face, the other trained on the scene unfolding before her.
“I’m streaming it!” she screeched. “You’re all on stream, grab her!”
Hesitating briefly, Bill and Warren set down their phones. Lewis, a camera mounted to his chest, picked up a glass paperweight from the nearest desk.
“Wait! Wait!” Tess pleaded. She slung her backpack from her shoulders. The advancers recoiled. “I’ll go back on stream, just let me—”
Before Tess could react, her backpack had been wrestled from her arms. Hands grabbed her wrists. “Get away from me!” she screamed, wrenching herself free. She scrambled behind the stationary cupboard, knocking over pencil holders and a tray of spare phone stands. “I just turned my stream off,” she said, scanning the room for a sympathetic face. “That’s all. I turned it off.” Hot tears blurred her vision; she blinked them away and there was Bibby, standing at the back of the room, her head bowed. “Bibby! Bibby!” Tess cried. “You believe me!”
Bibby folded her arms across her stomach.
“Bibby!” Tess screamed. “Help me!”
Bibby raised her head. Her eyes were small, slate grey stones. “Why didn’t you stay on stream?” she called.
Tess’s heart plummeted down to the pit of her stomach. “But what—”
The glass paperweight struck her above the eye, cracking sickly against her brow.
Tess fell against the stationary cupboard, clutching her forehead; it was wet and pounding. Her nose tickled and her eyes watered, and then she smelled blood, felt it trickling down her face. The cupboard toppled over under her weight, and she collapsed onto the floor. The carpet scratched her cheeks like dry straw.
But what did I do? she had tried to say, but she knew what she’d done, what they thought she’d done: something great.
Above her, the clamour swirled like a thick black smoke; it descended upon her.
About the author:
Charlie Jones is a writer from Merseyside, UK. His stories have appeared with Samjoko, Dead Sea Press, Liquid Imagination, and Hypnopomp.
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