The Data Runners Above Our Heads: A Documentary

 data runner illo

The Data Runners Above Our Heads: A Documentary

by Stephen Gaskell

Suzanne Bergsen: Have you thought about what might happen if you were ever caught? The Home Secretary, David Howes, has been suggesting many data runners are modern terrorists, “as dangerous to our liberties as Al-Qaeda and their ilk”, and presses for charges of treason for those arrested. How does it feel to know you might be hung?

One-Time: Ha, I guess if that ever happened the man behind the mask would get his fifteen minutes. But, seriously, I don’t know. I never think about getting caught. Anybody who wants to be the best at what they do–art, karate, mathematics, whatever–can’t entertain the possibility of failure. It’s like making a hard jump. Commitment is everything. Doubt will only get you killed. So you don’t. As to data runners being terrorists? When was the last time you saw a terrorist go to war with his hands?

From the transcript of The Data Runners Above Our Heads, a documentary by Suzanne Bergsen

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Suzanne had never been so close to him.

A trace of his sweat, salty and somehow wholesome, lingered. She fed one of his arms, then the other, through the harness, deliberately brushing her forearm against his shoulder. She’d expected firm muscle, but only found a soft suppleness. Considering his exertions getting here, she was surprised he wasn’t dripping with perspiration.

All this only intensified the feeling that this man, despite all she’d come to learn and feel about him, was still a stranger. A stranger without a real name.

She tugged the harness tight, clipped it into place. “How does that feel?”

He peered at the straps that constricted his chest. “Weird.” He broke away to fit the shoulder-mounted camera.

“We don’t have to do this,” Suzanne said. “I don’t want you falling on account of me.”

Data running footage was to be the central dramatic conceit of Suzanne’s film, a visual, visceral thread that would help ground the film’s more intellectual elements. Without it the film would be crippled.

“I won’t fall.” He played with some controls on the shaft of the camera, no bigger than a pencil but sporting full HDSC, and a red LED lit. “Unless that’s what you want?”

The image of herself pulsed into existence on her flatscreen. She saw herself in profile, young but frayed, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, calculation in her eyes.

The truth was a film about data runners wasn’t going to resurrect her career. Not unless she had a unique angle. Something big. Something controversial. Something in the so-called Public Interest. Something like: the hacking group DOSRevival delivering modded sublimns to Customs Officers at Brunswick Wharf. Or: the Restitution Czar caught receiving a cool million Naira from the Nigerian Ambassador. Or: footage of the world’s greatest data runner getting caught.

She dissembled. “God, turn that off, please.”

The image fled to a white dot.

“Thank-you.” She rubbed the side of her neck. “You don’t trust me, do you?”

“On the contrary, I trust you completely.” He glanced at the intricately panelled door to her study. “Others, not so much.”

“You needn’t worry about Peter,” she said. “He barely even feigns interest these days.”

That was certainly true. While her partner, Peter, enjoyed his meteoric rise at the Home Office, her career had nose-dived. At the tedious dinner parties they had to attend, she could feel the waves of embarrassment coming off him when people asked her what she did. She’d felt so ashamed. It was hardly her fault that between the government’s draconian security laws and an increasingly docile general public, investigative journalism had taken such a hit. Catholic priests had better reputations these days.

He told her he didn’t mean Peter per se, simply other forces that only saw the world in black and white. “Data runners are the last bastions of privacy in this fucked-up land, and what do most people want to do? They want to see us locked-away–or worse.” He glanced at the inside of his left arm, probably checking the time. “Anyway, old ground, eh? What I want you to know is . . . you’ve given me back something I lost a long time ago. Faith in people.” 

She felt a knot of emotion catch in her throat. “I’m not–“

“I tracked down your earlier work. The soya bean undercover. The organ harvesting. Life in the Badlands. Important work. So those programs didn’t get great eyes-on? So you won’t win some shiny award like your mother did? Doesn’t matter. Times have changed, but we still need it documented. Now more than ever.”

Something about his words scared her. Sometime soon he’d retire, burn the chameleon vest and khakis, the tac-gloves, the ConReal shades, blend back into the masses on the streets rather than the stones on the walls. He wasn’t as agile or as sharp as he used to be, he’d told her. “Fall or get caught; they were my two exit strategies until you came along,” he’d said. “Now I can walk away with my dignity–and my life.”

She realized she was afraid she might never see him again.

“Are you sure?” she asked aloud but it was as much to herself as him. “We don’t need a realtime upload.”

The original plan had been for Michael to do the run and then bring the camera back later, footage still local to its hard drive. Instead, he’d insisted on a realtime upload to an anonymous server. Nobody would pay much attention to one more home movie in some digital backwater–at least not for a while. This way she could watch his run live.

“We’ve been over this.” He pinched his brow between index finger and thumb. “If something happens to me this way you still get some material.”

Nothing ever happens to you though, Suzanne thought.

“And don’t worry,” he said, crouching on her windowsill, “I won’t start recording until I’m well away from here.”

Then he was gone.

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Suzanne Bergsen: In recent years, the government has become increasingly severe in its interpretation of illegal exchange of information in the public sphere. Only last month a woman was arrested for breaking a pub CCTV system while on her Hen Night. Do you think, as a society, we have gone too far in the erosion of personal privacy?

DCS Theresa Climes, Met CID: Not at all. First of all, let me say that personal privacy is still a right and a privilege that every single person enjoys while in the confines of their own property. The government hasn’t taken that away, and as far as I know, has no plans to do so. Secondly, every functioning society has to strike a balance between public security on the one hand, and personal privacy on the other. I think you’ll find most Londoners agree with me when I say that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear. Non-intrusive monitoring of conversations and movements is a small price to pay for peace. We wouldn’t want to return to the daily riots of the 20s, would we?

SB: Is there not a danger that normal democratic processes–freedom of expression, the right to protest–can be undermined in such a hyper-observed environment?

TC: I don’t think so. All actions that are legal will enjoy the full support of the law and its agents.

SB: Let’s talk about data runners. Are they the menace the Home Office leads us to believe? And, in your opinion, do they deserve to be tried for capital offenses?

TC: Are they a real menace? Absolutely. During my time in charge data runners have been associated with insider trading, corporate espionage, DjangoNet virus outbreaks, flash mobs, patented seedbank thefts, dispersal of q-decrypt rigs, economic destabilisation, electoral fraud, compromises to national security, assassinations, and many, many other crimes. I want that made clear for this film. The last thing we need is a wave of youths taking to the rooftops thinking they’re freedom fighters. As to your second question, let me just say that the world will be a safer place when data runners have been made extinct.

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Suzanne dashed over to the open window. Prim white terraces stared back, roofs empty, window-ledges only occupied with potted-plants. One-Time–Michael as she’d taken to calling him, even though that was exceedingly unlikely to be his name–was fast. Maybe the fastest.

Past the mushroom-shaped treeline of Bedford Square and the diamond-latticed roof of the British Museum, dark bloated clouds massed over London. A skytrain rumbled west. She smelt rain and the acrid discharge of partially-burnt biofuel. She pulled down the sash, paced.

He hadn’t told her who the client was. Nor the nature of the job. “A data runner’s most important asset isn’t his reflexes or his grip or his speed,” he’d told her. “It’s his reputation. Once trust is broken a single time, it can never be regained.” When she pointed out that his reputation would mean nothing when he’d dropped out the game and was sipping margaritas in Tahiti, he simply laughed and said old habits died hard.

One of the first things he’d said after he agreed to help make the film was that she shouldn’t expect any specifics. Clients, packages, loose talk in the boardrooms. He was on board for the cultural historians of the future. That and to make sure everyone knew One-Time, the data runner who was never caught.

Leaning forward, she dug her palms into the edge of the desk, willed the screen to blink back into life, but it remained resolutely dark.

His reticence diluted the power of her film, made it a documentary rather than a news item. A documentary couldn’t alter her career’s downward trajectory. A documentary couldn’t trend. A news item could.

Her mother had the answer. “Hang him out to dry,” she’d said as she moved across her cramped kitchen with two spent teabags when Suzanne had visited her tower block flat in Hackney the week before.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Susie, don’t play the innocent.”

“I’m not. Tell me.”

Her mother dolloped a heaped teaspoon of sugar into each of the teas and then gave them a rough stir. She passed Suzanne her drink. “Okay, I’ll humour you. You say he’s going to be relaying you live footage of one of his runs?”

Suzanne sipped her tea, grimaced at the burning concoction. Too strong, too sweet. “Yes.”

“Well, all you need to do is call one of those ghastly crimestoppers numbers and say that you can see one of those data runners. You could give them a running commentary. They’ll scramble a take-down squad soon enough.”

Her mother cupped her mug, blew off the hot steam. She didn’t need to say any more. Suzanne pictured the specialist officers cornering Michael on some symbolic edifice, the stone friezes of the Royal Courts of Justice, perhaps. The arrest would be dramatic, cinematic. Afterwards, there’d be a media circus of a trial, pop psychology pieces in the low-brows, intellectual debate in The New Statesman and the such like. And in the middle of it all would be Suzanne Bergsen, a pivotal commentator who knew the man better than anyone. She’d be someone again.

“I can’t do that,” she said, not sure if she believed herself. “A journalist protects her sources. You taught me that.”

Her mother gave a bitter laugh that turned into a hacking cough. When the fit subsided, she said, “The world was a different place then. There was a sense of fair play.” She examined her age-spotted hands. “Nobody plays fair now.”

“More reason to stand above it all, surely?”

Her mother stepped to the kitchen window, peered down at the kids who were kicking around a tin can in the weed-strewn communal space. “Why? What difference will it make?”

A man’s life is at stake, Suzanne wanted to say, but she held her tongue. She hadn’t come here for an argument. Sometimes when she visited her mother it was hard to believe this woman with her cynicism and bitterness and pinched hair was one and the same as Kate Bail, the world famous journalist who’d been there at Trafalgar Square during the City Quota Kettle Riots, who’d been outside the Houses of Parliament when the Personal Energy Cap Bill had been passed, full of passion and fury, a mouthpiece for a disenfranchised generation. When the New Conservatives had swept to power, dangerous agitators like Kate Bail were offered two choices: shut-up or get locked-up.

Her mother sighed, edged into the small sitting-room, and sat in her frayed armchair. She picked up a garish YouTube Weekly. “Besides, he probably wants to be caught.”

A blur of motion snapped Suzanne out of the memory. Across the room, rain thrummed on the panes. On the screen she watched One-Time move across a slick, wet, London skyline. The feed was live.

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Suzanne Bergsen: For those of us who don’t get along with equations, could you give us a brief explanation of what a Qputer is?

Ana Mpenza, PhD Quantum Decryptography: Sure, no problem. Okay, brief. Well, the best way I can put it is that a Qputer–a quantum computer–is like an ordinary computer on speed–and then some. It does this by harnessing quantum effects like superposition and entanglement that are very anti-commonsense. You’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat? Okay, never mind. Let me put it like this. Having a Qputer is like being able to make countless duplicates of yourself. That’s handy when you’ve got a whole stack of work to do. It’s the same for big calculations. Qputers can crunch through the numbers in the blink of an eye.

SB: And how did this revolutionize communications?

AM: Well, almost overnight all encryption systems became useless. Anyone with a decent Qputer and the right algorithms could hack any communications they pleased. Government correspondences, celebrity phone calls, military orders–anything that was transmitted over a publicly accessible network–the internet, satellite communications, cellular grids–no matter if they were encrypted or not could now be read or listened to by anyone with a few smarts.

SB: There must’ve been a fair few red-faced individuals at that time. Fraud, affairs, morally dubious pastimes coming to light . . .

AM: Not only individuals. Corporations. Governments. Of course, once Pandora’s Box was opened it was inevitable that governments would eventually assume control. With the resources at their disposal they could eavesdrop on everyone. All the time.

SB: And if you didn’t want Big Brother–or anyone else–eavesdropping?

AM: Difficult. You’d need a hard-line that nobody could access. Or a rendezvous in a windy park. Or DHL. <laughs>

SB: You’re laughing because using a courier service like DHL would defeat the purpose?

AM: Exactly. Tracking. Signatures. What would be the point?

SB: Hence data runners.

AM: If you need a message or information shifted quickly–and secretly–data runners fit the bill. Of course, they come with their own risks. A data runner’s human. They might sell you out. They might fall. The latest thinking has that steganography is going become increasingly important in the future.

SB: Steganography?

AM: Steganography is an alternative to cryptography. Messages within messages. For example, you might send a photo to a friend and adjust the colour of every 100th pixel to correspond to a letter in the alphabet. Nobody thinks you’re sending a secret message. They just think you’re sending a photo. The big advantage of steganography, over cryptography alone, is that messages don’t attract attention. It’s hiding in plain sight.

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Michael certainly hid in plain sight, Suzanne thought.

“Welcome to London’s heights,” he panted, a bodiless voice accompanying a blur of brick chimneys and slate tiles and glass skylights. The speed he skipped between the buildings was incredible. The grind of traffic and the sound of horns echoed up the stone intersections. From time to time he would leap up ledges, his camouflaged arms rippling the view. Even now, on the job, he was invisible.

Through the drizzle she glimpsed a facade of glass, a car park full of ambulances. Was that Great Ormond Street Hospital? How long had he been gone? Five minutes? Christ, he’s fast. She stared long and hard at the antique telephone on the small table next to her reading chair. A few spirals of her index finger and she could be speaking to a police operator. A few choice words and she could have a take-down squad moving to intercept.

One call is all it would take.

A few weeks back when he was teaching her the rudiments of parkour at Russell Square Gardens he’d told her the hardest thing was keeping his anonymity.

“You have to hide in plain sight,” she’d replied as she clumsily hoisted herself over an iron railing.

He’d nodded, surprised at her insight. “I do. I have to live in a shitty flat that befits my apparent socioeconomic status. I have to be careful with my spending. I have to keep up a routine.” He showed her the jump again. “I have to act like I’m a nobody.”

Suzanne twisted and did some stretching against the railing as a couple of plainclothed men walked past. You could never be too careful. “But you’re not a nobody.”

“Damn right. I’m One-Time. You know where that handle comes from?”

She knew, but he didn’t give her a chance to answer.

“One-Time Pad. The only cypher that’s unbreakable. That’s me.”

“But you’re also some weird guy who keeps to himself, who works odd hours, who doesn’t talk to his neighbours much. In fact, some might argue that’s the real you. Everyone who knows you, who knows your real name, knows that person. Not One-Time.”

“I know!” His fists clenched. He cricked his neck. “That’s all that matters.”

Time for the big one. “Why did you become a data runner?”

A breeze whispered through the leaves of the trees. He parried the question with one of his own. “When did you become so interested?”

“When I saw one fall to her death.”

“Where?”

“The London Aquarium.” Suzanne fixed her gaze on his shrouded face. “I was eleven.”

He turned away, stared at the frothing arcs of water in the fountain. “What happened?” he said, deadpan.

She recounted the events of that bright spring day, when her parents had taken her to the London Eye to see a birds-eye view of the capital. For an eleven-year old child, the sealed bubble-cars took a short ice-age tracing out their three-sixty arcs, and before they even reached the apex of the journey she was thoroughly bored of the Houses of Parliament and The Gherkin and the rest. To fight her boredom she wriggled through the throng of tourists and day-trippers, until she stationed herself on the near-side overlooking Thames Walk. There she could block out the chatter of the passengers and the slightly sick feeling that the constant motion induced, and concentrate on one of her favourite activities: people watching.

The secret was to only see them, not hear them. If she could only see them they could be anything her imagination desired: secret agents, embedded aliens, stunt artists. If she could hear them the magic would be shattered like a vase hitting stone. It was as she was spying on the hotdog vendor, pretending that he was delivering microchips to select customers via the innards of his Frankfurters, that she caught a glint of motion on the curved gray facade of the Aquarium.

There! Almost invisible, two rippling shadows scaled the walls. As she watched, she realized with a start that they were people. One was faster than the other, and soon enough he or she stood shimmering on the lip of the building, seemingly shouting commands back at his or her companion. For once, Suzanne wished she could be closer, wished she could be up on that flagpoled roof and hear what they were saying. Who were these daring acrobats? And what were they doing?

And no sooner than she had those thoughts, the one still climbing wasn’t climbing anymore, and was actually falling. After that her eleven-year old self apprehended events as a series of still-lifes, like clicking through one of those old ViewMasters you pressed to your eyes. A soundless impact. A bystander’s muted scream. The body, still half-cloaked, half-revealed. The whole form unveiled, limbs bent where they shouldn’t be bent. A sweep of blonde hair. A curdling horror. A man with suede patches on his jacket’s elbows crouching beside the girl. Pedestrians staring up to where the girl had fallen. An empty space where the other runner had stood.

By the time their bubble-car had spat them onto the heaving promenade, the police had cordoned off the area around the dead girl.

“My little obsession with free runners–and later data runners–began that day,” Suzanne said. “She’s haunted my dreams ever since.”

Michael didn’t move, still as a statue.

Suzanne went on. “You know, she was only seventeen. You must’ve been about the same age.”

“You knew her?” Michael replied, voice thick, not turning.

“No. Only as much as the feeds reported.” At that moment she wished she could see his eyes. “Did you?”

He turned full about, raised his head a little so she could meet his gaze beneath the lip of his hood. He might as well have been wearing a stone mask, face devoid of any emotion. “I didn’t know her. No.”

She suspected him of lying, but knew pressing him would be futile. Later as he showed her a grappling technique using the trunk of an old oak tree, he told her he’d got into data running by chance. A childhood lark that had somehow become his life. “Isn’t that what happens to us all?” he’d said.

She’d thought bullshit then, and, as she watched the jerky rush of rooftops on the screen, she thought it now. We all sometimes pretend we’re blown through our lives like nothing more than leaves on the wind, but don’t we all know, deep down, we choose our fates.

She hovered her hand over the receiver, watched dark clouds slide across the sky outside the window, watched the slick motion on the screen as Michael ran the heights, watched for some kind of sign. None was forthcoming.

She had to decide.

She pulled her hand back. She’d known the risks from the beginning. She wouldn’t forfeit a man’s life to give herself a story, to give herself protection. She wouldn’t betray his trust.

She sat in her chair, jogged the desktop mouse, and opened her editing software. She’d need to integrate the footage into the film and get the whole thing to her contact at Purple Monkey Media as quickly as possible now that Michael’s video feed was out there available to anyone. Not that it was likely to be discovered straight away, but today’s news was still tomorrow’s fish and chip paper whatever the age.

“I did know that girl.”

Suzanne snapped her gaze from the monitor and onto the screen, unsure whether she’d just imagined those last words. Michael was descending, an ornate stone facade streaming upwards, while he breathed hard. There was no doubts about his next words.

“I was the one on the roof of the aquarium.” He paused in his descent at a rain-slicked pane, his cloaked reflection distorted save for the whites of his eyes. “We’d been hanging out for a couple of years, messing around in free running circles. We weren’t involved, but I think we both knew that was only a matter of time. We were intensely competitive, teasing each other about our styles, our jokes, our ideas about the world. I guess we were flirting in our slow, clumsy way. Annabel wanted to make people think. She saw free running as an expression of freedom, of teaching people to think differently. She’d always say if getting from A to B didn’t have to be two-dimensional, then neither did life. In her way she foresaw it all–where all the surveillance and technology was headed. She was a data runner before it happened. All I wanted to do was pull the craziest stunts, get the biggest audiences. I was goading her when she fell. I killed her.”

Michael began climbing down again, slowly this time. “The guilt crippled me for a long time. I lost touch with everyone. I became an automaton. I sleptwalk through my life because I couldn’t face the pain. A few years later I heard about data running. I understood that I could honour Annabel by running as she would’ve ran. Most data runners, see, aren’t saints, just adrenaline junkies who want to earn a fast buck. I guess that’s what I am too, because over time I lost sight of what Annabel would’ve wanted. I’ve let my standards slip. These days I’ll do jobs for anyone.”

He hopped away from the wall and fell the last couple of metres, landing like a panther. Refuse bins and spluttering drains clogged a narrow alleyway. He decloaked, then emerged into a busy one-way street. Buses grimy with pollution top-and-tailed on the far side of the road at their respective stops, while vehicles whistled by with rain-smeared headlights. He was outside King’s Cross.

What was he showing her?

Michael kept his head down, walked briskly north, the camera capturing splashing footsteps and sodden trousers. After several twists through a criss-cross of side streets he ducked into a small coffee house. Coloured glassware, hand-woven mats, and carved wooden hookahs decorated the walls. Suzanne could almost smell the fragment tobacco. He ordered an espresso and sat at a stool beside the window. Shortly after the elderly proprietor delivered his coffee, a tall man with dark hair wearing a trench jacket entered. A few minutes later he left, discarding a newspaper on the table beside Michael as he went out.

Michael followed shortly afterwards, weaving back the way he came. The rain had stopped, dirty puddles pooled on the pavements.

Wait, wait, wait. Had he just let her witness a pick-up? That hadn’t been part of the plan. He was supposed to have turned off the camera.

With a shaking hand, she rewound to the coffee shop footage, played it back. There was something here. Something big. She knew it. She just didn’t know what it was. And then she did. Oh Lordy.

He’d disguised his Nordic heritage well with his dyed hair and false colour contact lenses, but Suzanne still recognized him. The man in the trench jacket. The man whose message Michael was carrying this very second.

The man was Bjorn Lomström.

Why, Suzanne wondered, fearful and excited in equal measure, had the leader of the Environmental Terrorist Group, Earth First not sent someone in his stead?

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Suzanne Bergsen: Data runners are something of a paradox in that they are out of sight of the heavily surveilled public spaces of our city, and yet at the same time, although often cloaked, somehow demanding our attention by being so exposed. What does this tell us about them?

Markus Schlief, Cultural Critic: That’s a very good question, Suzanne. If I might make a small correction though: free runners encapsulate that paradox much more than data runners, but since most data runners were once free runners the correspondence largely stands.

And what it tells us is that runners are fundamentally conflicted people. They desire, not government-sanctioned approval since they perform their activities beyond the observance of official society, but, by performing high above us, they still wish for recognition from the collective subconscious. They want anonymity and acknowledgment. In short, they seek notoriety.

Of course, free runners could just about walk this tightrope. Data runners, however, where the stakes are so much higher and the punishments that much greater, have been forced to hide themselves entirely. I would imagine this suppression of their base nature causes great personal angst, even possibly self-loathing.

SB: The first, perhaps apocryphal, instance of data running is alleged to have happened in 2023, when Carlita Hernandez, a courier for Square Mile Riders was knocked off her bike and attacked by two members of the corporate espionage ring, Iron Ceiling. According to the myth, Carlita landed gracefully, incapacitated both men using Shaolin Kung Fu, and then proceeded with her delivery by climbing the Lloyds building. Whether that’s true or not, it is safe to say that data running never had any formal origins–was never something planned. What does this tell us about the activity?

MS: The emergence of data running was in many ways similar to the formation of traditional cults–in the non-pejorative sense. If we examine the conditions under which cults form–one, a charismatic leader; two, an amenable source of recruits who, consciously or sub-consciously, wish to manifest an alternative political structure to that which is currently imposed on them; and three, an emotionally-bonding ritual which isn’t readily accessible to the wider society–we see that free running satisfies two of the three. Firstly, free runners, in rejecting conventional means of transportation–cars, buses, tubes–in favour of the chaotic, non-deterministic modalities of hurdling, climbing, and sprinting, are essentially rebels who are attempting to dismantle the political status-quo. Secondly, the act of free running itself is highly ritualised, requiring great feats of strength, agility, and visualisation, that is exclusive to a small set of finely-honed athletes. Where free running falls down and fails to self-actualize into a cult is in the absence of a leader figure. Sure, there may be certain individuals who are respected for their “mad skillz”, but generally these individuals have no ulterior goal, and no wish to impose their will on their fellow free runners.

What is endlessly fascinating–and a phenomenon we’ve barely scratched the surface of–is that the transmutation of free running into data running came not under the guiding light of a torchbearer, but through the implacable bearing of market forces. In a very real sense, data running was the meeting point of two very different ideologies: capitalism’s need for the private exchange of information; anarchism’s need to constantly tear down the political structures of the day.

SB: And is there an emerging winner in these clash of ideologies?

MS: I wouldn’t call it a clash, since capitalism and anarchism are not diametrically opposed philosophies, but there is a tension, yes. And on those terms, is there a winner? Absolutely. Capitalism–trade–has been staple part of human culture for thousands of years. Anarchism has largely existed in the syllabi of political philosophy courses from the mid-to-late twentieth century. Data running will become a purely economically-motivated activity within a generation.

SB: Then why is the government so keen to stamp out the movement?

MS: They’re not. They understand that their public position on such activities cannot be nuanced for fear of being politically attacked for supporting terrorism etc., but privately they only wish to eradicate rogue elements who pose a direct threat to their continued hold on power. I’m sure they are well aware that the vast majority of data runners are merely helping turn the wheels of capitalism. I expect they even use their services themselves. In ten years time they’ll be re-spun as white knights of the economy, and invited to sip champagne in Downing Street.

SB: Where does this leave those runners who are fighting this authoritarian government?

MS: A dying breed, I’m afraid. Unless there’s a black swan.

SB: A black swan?

MS: An unforeseen event that changes the rules.

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“You see the kind of low-life I hustle for these days? Go back, rewind the feed if you haven’t already.”

Michael was back in the alley. He glanced up and down the passage, a black cat his only witness as he cloaked, before leaping upwards and grabbing stone. As he settled into a rhythmic climb, prancing skywards as if he’d turned gravity ninety degrees, Suzanne paced circles.

She wished she could talk to him. Bjorn Lomström? she wanted to say. Seriously? Earth First had very noble campaigns–calling for full ecological assessments of De Gullivers surface mining ventures in Central Africa, halting drilling in the Arctic Circle, prosecuting Osborne Energy for radioactive waste contamination of the North Sea–but their methods were anything but noble. Assassinations. Kidnappings. Bombings. They did more harm than good for the environmental movement.

And then there was the fact he’d blown the identity of one of his clients in the most public way possible. It’d only be a matter of hours, maybe a day, before the feed went viral whatever she did with the footage. What about your reputation? she wanted to ask. She gazed over London’s slick-wet skyline, looked north-west in the direction he would be, wondered where he was going.

“I used to run for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, people like that,” Michael panted, drawing Suzanne’s attention back to the screen where he stood surveying the rooftops, “but in the end they just didn’t pay enough.” He started running, skipping between air vents and access doors. “I thought I was keeping up my principles working for Lomström, but it wasn’t long before I realized where he was getting his funds.” He vaulted a crenellated ledge, leapt to the next building. “To my shame it never made me stop.”

Suzanne couldn’t keep her eyes off the screen from then on. Many rooftops were in a poor state of repair with loose tiles and crumbling parapets, and the recent downpour had left the surfaces even more treacherous than usual. It might’ve been a trick of her mind, but she felt a recklessness in his movements, a desperation in his voice. Stop, she wanted to say, climb down, but she knew he wouldn’t listen even if he could hear her.

He was a data runner and he was on a job.

He ran on, flashes of St. Pancras and the British Library sliding past, before he hit the jumbled geometries of UCL. As he jumped and rolled and ran, he kept up a chaotic commentary, snippets of anecdotes and regrets intermingled with facts about the architecture and injuries he’d sustained. He told her how he’d nearly been rugby tackled–right there–by a Romeo and Juliet understudy while passing the Bloomsbury theatre; how he’d talked down a suicide from that hospital window up there; how Georgian was easy, but Art Deco was hard; how he’d been saved from a fatal fall by the flag outside the Armenian embassy. “You can still see the rip!”

His rambling was like some demented confessional, the story of his life.

The first sign that he was being tracked came in Soho. A beat policeman in a luminous yellow jacket emerged onto a rooftop terrace, and did a comedy crab-like shuffle as he tried to intercept the data runner.

Michael had already vaulted him, left him sprawling with a chop to the windpipe, before Suzanne had even spluttered, “How in the hell?”

“No harm in a little bit of drama for the cameras, eh?” Michael said as he burned onwards, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament in the distance.

Closer to the ground now, the sounds of Soho punctuated Michael’s leaps and bounds. The hum of raucous conversation outside a old-fashioned boozer, the clink of glass as a barman collected empties, the howls of sordid sexual acts.

By the time he came to the skyrail station at Leicester Square, she knew the policeman’s presence had been no coincidence; two drones branded with the Flying Squad logo buzzed around him like eccentric satellites. One got too close though, and Michael grabbed its antenna and spun it like a sling. He launched it at a take-down officer who was scrambling up the Hippodrome. The officer dodged, swinging on the spear of the centurion statue that topped the building, before acrobatically landing on the balustrade.

I didn’t make the call. And yet here they were anyway.

“In case you’re wondering,” Michael said, breathing hard as he scrambled up a skyrail support stanchion, “I tipped off the take-down squad. Thought your film could do with a bit of colour.” He leapt sideways, narrowly avoiding being clipped by a skytrain that barreled past. “Plus I wanted to go out with a bang.”

Oh God, what is he doing? She felt pain in her fingers, peered down to discover she was clenching the desk, fingernails embedded in the wood. She let out a small hysterical laugh; he’d probably compliment her on her grip, tell her she’d make a data runner yet.

On the screen she watched him run himself into a dead-end. Upwards was only the sky, dark clouds still poised over the city, while below–and the only way out–a pair of take-down officers climbed the stanchion like two rhesus monkeys in a race to the death.

“This is kinda breaking the runners’ code–” as he spoke he crouched and Suzanne calves tensed in anticipation “–but as someone way smarter than me once said “Necessity’s the mother of invennnnnttttiiioooonnnn!!!!!” He sailed through dead air windmilling his arms like a pro long-jumper, before landing with a hearty thud. The view went apeshit, sky and horizon and metal tumbling over and over. He came to rest, camera skewed but capturing a rapidly receding officer on the stanchion, a stun gun in his hand and look of incomprehension on his face.

Crazy bastard just leapt onto a skytrain. Suzanne could hardly believe it. As Trafalgar Square slid by on the left, she half-expected Nelson, standing aloft on his column, leaning on his sword as if it were Fred Astaire’s cane, to tap-dance or at least wink, give her some clue that this was some kind of elaborate hoax.

“The problem I’ve always had,” Michael shouted, barely audible over the gale, “is that I’m a narcissistic sort.” He pivoted one-eighty, got up, and leaned into the wind as he scampered down the skytrain. Not far away, but out of arm’s reach, the remaining drone tracked the data runner. “Staying in the shadows, I’ve always felt an itch. An itch for everyone to know my real name. An itch I couldn’t scratch.”

To the west a huge flock of starlings swept over the dark greenery of Hyde Park, before Big Ben slipped into the foreground, blocking the view. The skytrain descended, then levelled off, still a good fifty metres over the black waters of the Thames, ready to glide into the station adjacent to the third floor of the Houses of Parliament.

Despite the danger he was in, Suzanne couldn’t help but feel an edge of excitement. She was going to learn his name. She was sure of it. A name meant a person beyond the moniker and the moves. A history. A human angle. The public would be gripped, the search engines on overdrive. Her film would be one of the top-five trenders. Guaranteed. She understood very well his desire for fame. She shared it herself.

“Tell me,” she whispered.

With a high-pitched wail and a fountain of sparks, the skytrain suddenly ground to a halt, not fifty metres from the platform. Michael stumbled forward a couple of steps, regained his balance. Ahead on the platform, several take-down officers swarmed through the commuters, gesticulating wildly.

Michael took a short run-up and flung himself towards the gothic facade, an imposing assembly of sandstone buttresses and slender cross-hatched windows. The flight of his arc drew out, long and thin, as if time itself were being stretched out like molten glass. Suzanne imagined the scene as a diorama, a frieze of history, commuters gazing up in awe, not knowing how, but knowing in the marrow of their bones that this jump was a momentous one, that something epoch-shaping lived or died in its attempt.

Michael met stone, the picture jarring hard. He dropped a couple of feet, thrust out a ghostly hand, arrested his fall.

Suzanne let out a long breath, and the world seemed to skip forward a couple of frames like a bottlenecked download catching up. Near the platform edge, two take-down officers had taken to the side of the building, scuttling over the stonework, spider-like, while whoever operated the spy-drone now used it like a demolition ball as they tried to take out the data runner.

Masonry rained over Michael as the drone narrowly missed his head. He swiped at the dented device, sent it careening towards Westminster Bridge, then carried on upwards. “Couple of things you should know,” he said. “One, they’ll be coming to talk to you.”

Suzanne shivered. Hairs rose on the back of her neck. Yes, he was right. She’d been ruffling feathers making this film about data runners, and suddenly the most infamous one was scaling the Houses of Parliament. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to suspect there might have been a connection. She glanced at the door to her study. Only silence came from the hallway. They might give her a slap on the wrist, but she’d hadn’t broken the law, only stretched it a little. Journalists were still expected to investigate, after all.

“Two,” Michael went on, “I left you a present, well, more than a present. A choice. Look behind the curtains.” He was high up now, toy-model buses and ant-like people thronging the roads. His hand reached sideways for a window, its iron-lintelled edge open a crack. “To me they were only insurance. For Annabel they’d have been so much more. Perhaps for you too.”

The ancient hinges squeaked as Michael pulled the window wide open, before hoisting himself through the gap and into the most powerful building in the land. A man in a white shirt with rolled up sleeves turned to face the data runner.

“About bloody time,” he said. “I’ve got a Parliamentary Committee Meeting downstairs in two minutes.” Something in his stance or his eyes indicated he knew something was up, but he was a politician and he couldn’t keep the next fatal words from escaping his mouth. “What’s Lomström got for me this week?”

The man was David Howes, the Home Secretary.

Suzanne’s felt her mouth slack-jaw. The second most senior politician in the country was in cahoots with a known terrorist. First Earth was a puppet of the British government, encouraged to commit extremist acts in order to undermine the green agenda. No wonder Bjorn Lomström was the point man; Suzanne doubted that anybody else in his organisation knew they were bankrolled by the people they thought they were fighting.

One-Time had just blown open the biggest scandal in British politics since . . . . ever?

And she had the best angle on the story.

data runner button

Suzanne Bergsen: One day, assuming you don’t fall or get caught, there’ll come a time when you’ll stop data running. A retirement day, if you like. What will you do then?

One-Time: Never really thought about it. You don’t. You can’t. The day you start thinking what you’re going to do after is the day you stop. That not a good answer for your film? Well, how about this: I guess I’ll just lean back and watch the world unfold.

data runner button

“Here.” Michael tossed something across the room.

The Home Secretary snatched it out the air with a pincer motion.

“Good catch.”

The view went haywire for a second, before stabilizing again pointed at the Home Secretary a little further away off left.

“Any messages for your constituents, David?”

It took a short while, but eventually the truth dawned on the politician. The colour drained from his face and he lurched backwards, knees buckling. The data disc dropped from his fingers, smashed on the hard, polished floor.

Then London pin-wheeled on the screen, snatches of Westminster Bridge and the Thames and Big Ben. Suzanne realized Michael had ripped the camera from his shoulder and now held it in his hand.

“You might have heard of me as One-Time,” he cried. “But my real name is John Winter. I am the data runner they never caught.”

The view spun again, stone and cloud and water blurring as he tossed the camera. One moment he was there on the ledge of the window, poised like an Olympic diver on the verge of a backflip, next he was a black dot racing towards the cold waters of the Thames, then there was only a white foamy crest. By the time the camera hit the water and slid down through the murky depths he was gone.

Afterwards, in a room not two miles away, Suzanne pulled back her curtain. She stared dumbly at a small Nike backpack. After loosening the shoulder straps to open the pinched loop, she delved a hand inside. Her fingers brushed papers, photos, discs, angular objects. She snatched her hand back as if it had been bitten. A numbness crept up her arm. She knew exactly what he’d left her. Evidence of all his runs. Times. Dates. Parties. Copies of the data when he’d had the time, she guessed. Like all human activity, it would be a mixed bag, some good, some bad. There’d be a lot of damaging material here though, she was sure.

He’d pushed over the first domino, but he was giving her the chance to make sure that many, many more fell. If the Lomström-Howes axis was simply the tip of the iceberg . . .

As she closed the bag tight she noticed a hand-written note pinned to the sheeny fabric.

SAFEHOUSE: 7 NEWINGTON GREEN MANSIONS

A harsh rap at the apartment’s front door snapped her away from the words. Could they be here already? It was probably only Mrs. Jarvis from across the corridor complaining about the Polish builders again. Her throat felt tight and dry though. Another rat-a-tat-tat, louder this time. It didn’t sound like Mrs. Jarvis. From his office at the other end of the apartment, she heard Peter curse, then trundle into the hallway.

This was the choice then. Stand here, let them take the evidence, bury the corruption. Or–

She grabbed the bag, added her tablet to its innards, threaded her arms through the straps, then slammed open the window, shaking the panes. Cold air and the smell of rain blew past. Am I really doing this? She’d be a fugitive, always hiding, always running until enough hypocrisy and lies had been exposed. No glossy fame, no cheese-and-wine mingles in Fleet Street, no easy life.

She’d live like he had.

A dizzying rush of vertigo hit her as she slipped onto the roof, glanced at the neat gardens below. Hard rain lashed her, made the tiles slippery as oily fish. She’d almost edged back into the warmth and safety of the room, when she saw some pedestrians reacting to the downpour. Umbrellas bloomed like water lilies. Perfect cover from digital eyes. A sign.

The government knew all about its citizens these days. Maybe it was time for the citizens to know a little more about its government.

All she needed to do was make the fire escape–

She wiped the hair out of her eyes and ran.

________________

Stephen Gaskell is  graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, a Writers of the Future XXIII winner, and recently became SFWA Active Member eligible. His work has sold to a number of venues, including Interzone, Escape Pod, Cosmos Magazine, and Clarkesworld. (Editor’s note: Stephen Gaskell wrote this before Edward Snowden broke the NSA surveillance scandal.  It could have been written . . . tomorrow.)

 

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