Lost in Space by Chris Green
When it was just keeping up with social media and a bit of casual surfing, it was manageable. But since the gambling and online dating kicked in, it has become uncontrollable. I’m spending too much time on the internet. Every time I find myself with a spare moment, I’m logged in. I can’t seem to stop myself. I get up in the night to carry on with these pursuits. And lately, I seem to have added gaming and clickbait quizzes to the list. And of course there’s the porn. I’m getting nothing else done and Jade is becoming suspicious about what I’m doing all hours of day and night, and where funds are disappearing.
I try to sign up for a Digital Detox course at the new place that’s set up in the shopping park, but they tell me I am too old.
Naturally, I protest that they are being ageist. Fifty-nine’s not old.
The girl on the desk with the Estuary accent, the fake tan, and the curious taste in retro facial bling huffs a bit, then asks to look at my phone.
‘It doesn’t even have a cracked screen,’ she laughs. ‘And it’s a Nokia. Oh My God, you are not even subscribed to Tik-Tok and you hardly use Instagram. And look, you’ve only used one and a half gigs this month. How could you possibly qualify for DD?’
I had expected a gentler approach. That behind Digital Detox there would be a bunch of new age philosophy. Presence. Mindfulness. Inner calm. Letting go. That sort of thing. That you would be swimming in incense and bathed in yoga, and instructed how to meditate in myriad different ways to wean you off the demon internet. Possibly some CBD or CBT or both. The odd Eckhart Tolle book lying around. Perhaps something by Paolo Coelho. And in turn, the scheme would be administered by those who held sympathies with alternative therapies. But I suppose you have to run with what you’ve got.
‘I don’t use the phone much,’ I explain to obstructive Essex girl. ‘I use a laptop. Or failing that a tablet. But believe me, I am logged on pretty much all day every day. I can’t leave it alone. It’s a compulsion and not a popular one at home. It’s causing all sorts of rows.’
‘A laptop? Well, there you go, then,’ she says. ‘If you don’t use your phone, you cannot be considered to require Detox. Our service is for people with real need. People who never put their iPhones down. People who don’t even know how to switch their Galaxys off. People who go to bed with them on the pillow and get a new model five times a year. People who watch films on them while they are driving. People who are properly addicted. We don’t run courses for light users.’
It is 3:29 a.m. when the newsflash fills the screen. I am logged in to chat with Suki in Shanghai and to place a bet on Yamamoto in the All-Japanese Tea Ceremony Semi Finals in Kyoto on BetAsia. ALIENS HAVE LANDED, the news says fiercely in red then MORE TO FOLLOW flashes aggressively for a few seconds. If there was to be an important breaking news item, I would have bet on a declaration of war. Or the American President dying. The fellow is pretty old. They all are. And we are squabbling a lot in the global power struggle. Or perhaps a nuclear accident. Instead, it’s Aliens Have Landed. There are no further details. Seconds later the internet dies. It’s all gone. Everything is down.
I try everything I know to get it back up, but nothing works. I am left with the shock of the news about the aliens and nothing I can do but wait for the story to unfold. What is it that has happened? What are the possible consequences? Who are the aliens? What do they look like? Are they Lost in Space type aliens? Or are they the kind that are difficult to detect? The Men in Black type? What is their mission? What do they want? Where have they landed? How local is it? Are they outside? Are they after me?
I would have quite likely put it down to a hoax, and thought no more of it, had the internet not gone down. The TV has no signal, nor does the radio. The mobile won’t even power up. Aliens Land, Media Blackout. The two things seem to go hand in hand. Whether the aliens have caused the blackout or whether there is a calculated news blackout to stop the panic about the aliens landing, this is something that would be likely to happen. But which is it? I want to wake Jade, but she will only ask what I was doing on the laptop in the middle of the night. I look out the window. Nothing looks different, yet it feels like we have moved into the twilight zone.
I creep back into bed as quietly as I can. I leave the phone by the bed so it will spring into life if the internet comes back on. But I am unable to sleep. I need to do something, but I realise there is nothing I can do. Everyday life takes place at the intersection of that we control and that we don’t control. The intersection of illusion and truth, power and helplessness. Easy to see how small miscalculations can tip things over the edge. You realise too late that major upsets are hardwired into the system, but you have temporarily overlooked them. Things happen unexpectedly, and you find yourself in a place that you don’t want to be. Woah!
I let Jade get up first and lose herself in her morning bathroom ritual before I surface. There may be nothing to worry about, but what if there is? Too often you forget the fragility of what you have. It is easy to take it for granted. There is still nothing doing on the comms. No way that I can think of to find out what is going on. It seems unlikely, but what if I am the only one to have seen the bulletin? After all, how many people in our sleepy suburb would have been on the internet with news notifications on at half-past three in the morning? What a piece of news to be carrying around!
I gently break the news to Jade about the internet being down as she does her pottering. It is a Saturday and we never do much on a Saturday. I casually drop in that there has been a message about an alien attack. And that the two things might be connected. She doesn’t seem alarmed. She doesn’t ask the obvious questions like when and how did I find out?
‘That’s good,’ she says instead. ‘It will help your digital detox. How did you get on yesterday, by the way? At the centre?’
It has been a bone of contention between us for a while, but in the light of what I’ve just told her, I can’t help thinking my digital detox should seem less important.
‘Not good,’ I say. ‘I gave you a report yesterday. Don’t you remember?’
‘Ah, that’s right. So you did. I remember now. They ridiculed you. But no need to give up, Max. After all, you managed an hour while we were at the shops the other day, so you can do it. And there are bound to be other opportunities.’
I feel we ought to venture out to find out what is going on. But I don’t want to embarrass myself too badly. There could be an obvious explanation that, in my cyber-addled judgement, I have overlooked. Jade doesn’t seem to have been phased by the news, which is probably a good thing. A phased Jade would be an additional worry. But if there has been an alien attack and we are under threat, it’s important we know what we are up against. I feel we are in it together. But Jade doesn’t seem to want to let the other matter go.
‘You have to take detox a day at a time, Max,’ she says. ‘If the internet doesn’t come back on today, that’s good. It gives you a kick start to your regime.’
The internet doesn’t come back on. Nor do the phones, and the TV remains dead. The people in our street know something is very wrong, but no one has any idea what it is or what is causing it. no one seems to have caught the breaking news about aliens landing in the night or to have about it in the hours since. Some are more stressed about the outage than others. Dorsey Manning from across the road is jumping up and down with frustration. He says he cannot run his business without Google. I still have no idea what his business might be but I can sympathise. Tara Vain can’t access the digital entry system to get into her house. She is locked out and she thinks she has left the iron on. I offer to go around the back and get in through an upstairs window, but she says she can manage. Jonny Bisco at number nine is beside himself. He tracks his pigeons online and now he doesn’t know where they are. Do we have any idea how much pigeons like his are worth, he wants to know?
I’m not sure how best to share my news now, or whether to share it at all. Perhaps the ones who are the most stressed are in need of a digital detox. If there is any substance to the alert, the prime stressors will also be the ones who panic most if little green men appear. But as there is no sign of extraterrestrials yet, it seems best to hang fire on sharing the news any further. I don’t want to embarrass myself. After all, I have to live in this street with these people, and where we live is quite isolated.
Jade seems to have already dismissed the idea of little green men and does not seem that put out by the prospect of no communications. She has plenty to get on with; she says. But what am I going to do? How am I going to occupy my time? It’s nearly forty-eight hours until I have to be at work. Fortunately, I have an old cassette player in the shed with a stack of old tapes, and perhaps I could have a go at The Collected Works of Leo Telstar that I’ve never got round to reading. And that thing by Brant Salinas that Tony Flags said I should read.
Jade breezes through the day, but I don’t get far with my reading. It’s no longer something that’s intuitive. I have lost the ability to concentrate on a traditional book. I’ve deskilled myself to that degree, or so Jade keeps telling me. For ten years, I’ve only read Kindle books and I had a clear out on the reader a couple of days ago to refresh the titles. With the other distractions, I hadn’t got around to it and the other Kindle books are stored on Google. I keep checking my devices to see if there are any other developments in cyberspace. There aren’t. There is no cyberspace. It is now just space. I am lost in space. There’s nothing out there. I can’t adjust to this new arrangement. I am free-falling.
Panic is averted when, on Sunday morning, along with the phones and the TV, the internet reappears. But it is not all good. The first thing you notice is that it has changed. Its appearance has undergone a radical transformation. You are no longer given a choice about the sites you can access. There are no search engines, no search box or search bar. It is very much a closed down service. You are directed towards a particular site, net.com, with one or two links from it. Mobile phones appear to have gotten rid of the smartphone facility altogether. You can make calls but no longer go online.
My first impression is that all these measures tie in with the aliens have landed newsflash the previous morning. I could be wrong. There is no way to be certain. But whoever they are, it appears that the aliens are now in charge. They have taken over communications. We are at their mercy. But how soon will information about the takeover be available to those not already in the know? How long will they be kept in the dark? Perhaps to prevent people from panicking, those now in charge will explain the changes in another way. Will the masses find out anyway? But how long will this take? None of my neighbours in Harmonica Avenue seem to know anything. Nor the ones in Mandolin Close. But to be fair, we are quite a small community, hardly representative of the world at large. How big is my responsibility here? How important is my insight and how should I use it?
Jade is clearly of a different view. She is not taking the alien threat seriously. Weekends are for relaxing, not for going on a sci-fi bender.
‘Looking on the bright side, Max,’ she says. ‘The reduced service is perfect for your digital detox. It will cut your times down without you having to try.’
‘Look, it’s Sunday,’ I say. ‘Don’t you think perhaps we should go and get acquainted with what’s happening out there? See how things might have changed?’
‘I’m quite happy to stay put,’ she says. ‘I’ve got any number of things to be getting on with. You need to just settle.’
I haven’t been outside since our brief meeting with other residents of Harmonica Avenue the previous day when they came out with their tales of woe. I was hoping that things might have returned to normal by now. I don’t know what to expect to find. I don’t even know where I am planning to go. Observation first at this stage, I’m thinking.
The first clue I get that I may have been duped comes when I see some youngsters in the street, scrolling down their phones with their normal concentration.
I ask them what they are doing.
‘Haven’t you got a smartphone, mister?’ the one with the grey hoodie and the bad attitude says.
I take my phone out and show it to them.
‘But that’s a Nokia,’ the one in the Spurs shirt says. ‘You can’t do much on that.’
‘I can get the internet,’ I say. ‘That is I used to be able to get the internet until yesterday.’
‘What happened yesterday then?’ Grey Hoodie says.
I don’t want to mention the aliens yet, not to an arrogant whippersnapper with a grey hoodie and a contemptuous stare.
‘Well, everything went down, didn’t it!’ I say. ‘Laptops phones, TV, the lot. Radio silence. No comms at all. Nothing! Nada!
‘We didn’t have no trouble, did we?’ Spurs Shirt says. ‘You’ve just got a duff phone, mister. That’s all.’
‘Could I have a look at your Nokia?’ the polite one with the Valentino trainers says.
He fiddles with it for a moment and hands it back. ‘There, it will be OK now,’ he says. ‘Settings!’
‘But the laptops and computers went down too and when they came back on the internet had changed. Now I can only access certain sites.’
‘I’ll have a look later if you want.’ Valentino Trainers says. ‘I can sort most things out.’
‘OK. Later,’ I say. Polite he may be, but I’m wondering, do I really want to let this lad across the threshold?’
I spot Dorsey Manning coming out of his house and call out to him. I make my way over. He looks nervous.
‘Look! I know what you are going to say, Max,’ he says before I get a chance to speak. ‘Let me explain. It was Jade’s idea. She said that your digital dependence had become critical, and she had this plan. She was very persuasive. She said it was for your own benefit. We all agreed to go along with her plan and pretend the whole caboodle was down. It wasn’t malicious or anything. We had your well-being at heart.’
‘What about the newsflash in the middle of the night?’ I say. ‘Jade’s idea too?’
‘Yes, that was her idea too. I’m the only one that knows about that, by the way, in case you are worried. The others don’t know. You wouldn’t really want them knowing how taken in you were by it, would you? Well, not the details. Jade knows, of course. Anyway, I got my lad to cook up something suitably dramatic that would flash up on your screens, just before he disabled your network. All he needed to do it was your IP address. Maybe, not even that. All the other kit is digital too these days so he was able to knock that out at the same time. He’s a bit of a whizz, Damien. Well, they’re all tekkies these days, aren’t they? Even those rogues you were talking to back there. What message did Damien put on the newsflash, by the way? Declaration of war or something like that, was it? Nuclear accident? Presidential assassination?’
I tell him.
‘Ah, that’s good,’ he says. ‘I’m glad he kept it light-hearted and upbeat and didn’t cause you too much distress, Max. At his age, it’s easy to think the worst of them. But aliens, that’s not something you can take seriously, is it? Damien’s watching this thing called Lost in Space. They all are. It’s on Netflix. It’s huge. Apparently. Don’t know if it would be my sort of thing. Have you seen it? …… Anyway, look, I won’t keep you. I expect you can’t wait to get yourself sat back down with your devices.’
Copyright ©: Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved