Thomas’s tattoo made him late for work. He’d covered it years ago, replacing the pattern on his inside left wrist with a bland circle he’d almost forgotten. But there it was in the shower: red ink rising up through the grey, accusatory against his pale flesh. He wasted ten minutes hiding the swelling with his wife’s make-up, made her and the kids late too.
Since the new rules, violations had diminished and Thomas worked alone in Audio Moderation. He slid his hand into the scanner, slipped unnoticed into Room B. Frank from night shift had gone home without waiting. “Lights on,” Thomas commanded. Then winced to see his left table screen flashing. There was a problem with the platforms.
He leaned over the table in the middle of the room. The right screen displayed long-range transmissions as normal; the same smattering of platforms were almost, but not quite, in Far Violation for loudness. But he’d never seen anything like the levels on the left screen – so many Near Violations he had to scroll manually. Citizens were over-amplifying short-range sound waves all over the city. It was as if certain platformers were blasting their speakers right into the faces of their audience.
Thomas checked individual volumes; each platform was within its allowed decibels, both short- and long-range. In fact, when he sat down at his desk by the door, his data screen showed neither additional amplifiers nor signal boosts on any of the problem platforms. He glanced across the hall at Visual Moderation. Jordan was staring at Judy, who was staring out the only window in the office at the same things she watched onscreen. Platforms, lecterns, people talking. Jordan felt Thomas looking, turned and nodded. Shut their door.
Thomas stood up again. Swiping above the table screens, he examined Judy’s visual reports. Everyone had circles of untrampled, regulation-height, green grass. No one had broken in anywhere. Occupied platforms had only the permitted single citizen. Thomas switched to Jordan’s live feed.
The citizens in question looked calm. Many weren’t even standing at their lecterns, though he couldn’t blame them in this heat. Platformer 287 was on his back, vaping and smiling with an old mic in his hand. 9250 sat on the ground using sign language, translated via a speaker in her lap. Thomas paused, stared hard at the brown-skinned deaf woman, but her signs were serene. And he could tell 4794378 was just a kid, despite the adult cut of her sleeveless shirt. She traced fingers over one wrist like she was bored, shifted in her wheelchair. He couldn’t locate what was wrong about her picture, any of them. Visuals weren’t his job anyway. Jordan could deal with it.
The sound issues were concentrated in one field zone, so Thomas checked the zone’s close-range sensors. Undamaged. Why was the screen showing Near Violations when there weren’t any? He ran another scan, found no interference or short-range loudness. Not even flagged language. Of course the citizens could say whatever they wanted. The Prime Minister required notification of certain words, but they each had the same circular piece of ground on which to build their platforms, place lecterns, and tell anyone what they thought. It didn’t matter if they didn’t look like Thomas, or have two healthy children and a Tier 1 marriage. They could do anything they set their minds to. Thomas’s wrist throbbed.
Three months earlier, Eralia had received a letter with a number corresponding to a round piece of land. Because of the supreme fairness of the Prime Minister, the circle was exactly the standard size for every citizen. The message confirmed you could fit between three and five citizens across the two-metre diameter, standing. It noted, however, that the Ministry forbade sharing.
And water is wet, thought Eralia. If everyone got a platform, why would you share?
She researched the address and rushed to catch a train. Since turning thirteen a few weeks ago, she had waited for her letter with a packed bag. Both her mothers used platforms. Eralia wondered why they seemed wary of their country’s unique birthright, but she knew they visited their circles. Eralia tried to tune in when she could, sometimes caught their signals late at night when the system wasn’t overflowing. Her mother, Sina, sang with the most raging accent, no matter what anyone said. And Tendai, her other mother, told stories Eralia sensed had some deeper meaning. When she was younger, Eralia used to sit on Sina’s shoulders to see over the crowds gathered at Tendai’s platform. That was before screens were popular, platforms had fences, and her mothers’ circles were moved from the city centre.
As the train passed the downtown platformers, Eralia smiled at the familiar but ever-changing collection of amplifiers and satellite dishes. The Moderation Building loomed over the zone from her left. Here the circles were farthest from one another; they hosted the most extravagant citizens, the biggest audiences. Beneath one woman’s feet, a spherical platform sparkled with water and fish. Another citizen stood atop life-size screens; six of him gestured to a crowd. Further along, a ruby-studded staircase spiraled up to a stained-glass lectern high as the trees. Eralia spotted a waterfall, lifts to even taller creations, grass ringed by rare pumpkins. Her stomach rumbled.
The train stopped for a routine delay. Eralia was close enough to touch the nearest fence from her chair, if the windows hadn’t been sealed. Just a metre away was a platformer in a suit worth more than her home. Eralia traced its artful stitching with her eyes, watched the white man gesticulate from a platform of giant satellite dishes. Surrounded by a fence of metallic blue antennae, his lectern, too, was made of rods that curled together then jutted out at fantastic angles. As Eralia daydreamed of placing her feet on vibrating satellites and easing her arms into the man’s cobalt jacket, he stopped talking to the audience, turned, and spat a gob of yellow down onto her window. The train began to move then, but not before his smile framed the splatter.
It turned out Eralia’s circle was made more of mud than grass. The zone was outside the city centre, and had no signal boosts or extra speakers. A few citizens just had megaphones. At first Eralia regretted not telling her mothers about her letter or setting out to build her platform alone in her wheelchair. She quickly changed her mind when several people left their circles to greet her, then showed her the smoothest paths. She noticed a lot of wheelchairs and crutches, skin like hers.
For the next three months, Eralia got to know her neighbours. They spoke in ways she had never heard, especially about the sacred birthright of equal platforms. Eralia learned how to build, understood why her mothers were scared.
In Audio Moderation, Thomas examined a visuals warning from Judy. Platformer 4983 had dyed the insignia of the old opposition into their grass. But no. The buzz in Thomas’s earpiece, the flashing sound waves; these weren’t about tacky vegetation. He seconded the warning, kept searching.
A phone line clicked open in his earpiece. The data screen announced ‘Peter Witchen’ and a voice shouted, “My platform’s been cut!” One of the country’s foremost citizens, Peter Witchen had twelve signal boosts and the finest amplifiers allowed. Thomas scratched his wrist hard, looked down from his screen. He watched blood soak into his shirt cuff, start to drip along his hand. Ending Peter’s call with apologies and promises, he ran to find a bandage in the lunchroom.
Peter was still screaming when Thomas returned, but at his audiences. “No one can hear me!” Thomas could certainly hear him. And the platform reception boards showed Peter had lost some listeners, but only a few out of hundreds of thousands. Everything was close to normal, except the left table screen was still flashing for no reason, and Peter and 37 other popular platformers were yelling into their microphones. Thomas’s earpiece clicked again.
Eralia looked around from her ramped and adapted lectern. Everyone was speaking into megaphones or taped-up microphones, but their words echoed as if through the best of signal boosts. The cumulative rumble shook the wheels of her chair and vibrated pleasantly about her skull. If she had a lift to the sky, she would see the disparity between the city centre and her field zone, and not just in platform materials. There was a lack of arable soil, water sources, paved roads. Thousands of circles almost overlapped, spreading out from a single electrical tower. From above, the people here would blend.
Eralia imagined their outlines looked as glorious as they sounded speaking together, despite the drawbacks. A sea of people. Their concerted effort a concert.
Management had disconnected the call, but their words echoed in Thomas’s head. “Do something! You’re losing control of the platforms!” On hundreds of feedback boards, citizens were posting about the unfairness of Peter Witchen’s silencing. Ministry platforms reported an attack on the country’s commitment to equality. But there was Peter Witchen on Thomas’s screens, louder than anyone.
Transfixed by the spittle on Peter’s chin, Thomas suddenly realised what he’d missed. He had only scanned for flagged words. He hadn’t thought to listen to what any of the problematic citizens were saying in relation to each other. Thomas let their words into his earpiece now, not as abstract wavelengths or decibel levels, but with meaning attached. It wasn’t their volume at all; it wasn’t a glitch. It was that they were all saying exactly the same thing at the same time. A free signal boost.
Thomas searched as many of them onscreen as he could, stalling for an excuse to avoid reporting their action. He listened to 48,654 people say the words 248 times. But there was no way to help; the computer had logged their numbers. Then he saw the girl again. Platformer 4794378. He zoomed in as she leaned forward in her wheelchair to speak. She was massaging a tattoo that matched his bloodied wrist.
Eralia’s microphone was one of the first to go dead. Lost in the vibrations of choral speech, she had been absentmindedly caressing her inked scars. Suddenly there was silence everywhere. Public loudspeakers and a phone message simultaneously transmitted: “You have been charged with endangering the amplification of platforms. Your platform rights are immediately revoked. You will be remanded to custody for sentencing.” Surprising herself, she didn’t panic.
Eralia’s mothers had made her a red suit jacket and lovingly embroidered it, as they had her, with the family symbol. She put it on. Waited.
After sending the expected report, Thomas rushed past Jordan and Judy out the back door. He drove to his own circle, which he hadn’t used in fourteen years. When he unlocked the gate and removed the protector from his lectern, he found his microphone undamaged. Of all the things to cry about, he thought, switching it on. That you wasted a state-of-the-art mic from two decades ago. He ran his hand over it, inhaled deeply.
“Check one.” The mic sounded better than what most people had now. Than what she had.
Thomas began to repeat the words, with the same pause and intonation as the others. As her. There was no audience, no point, but his mouth moved. Over and over: “We all have the same freedom. Some people’s freedom is louder.”