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The WaterNet Regulatory Agreement Has Been Violated (Again)
By Annalee Newitz
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Kirby had smacked so many motes that his hands were getting wet. He was stuck in the only VR cubby available to Golden Gate Park staff, and it was a cramped little room that used to be a toolshed. It crouched next to the old carousel, where painstakingly preserved wooden horses swept by in dramatic circles alongside dragons, goats, camels, and even a few extinct creatures like frogs.

Normally Kirby never noticed the motes—the micro-drones floated through the atmosphere, tiny and diffuse, gathering sensor data. Kids sometimes collected them for school with special cotton filters. But they were so thick in here that he could actually feel them crawling across his skin like gnats. Slapping them was an instinct. When the tiny devices shattered from the impact, each released a droplet of water, leaving his arms a little muddy. The floor was dusty with dead motes, and so was every crack in the particle board table where the VR rig was mounted next to a bucket with some dirty goggles in the bottom.

Squashing the lenses onto his face, he felt more motes releasing their fluid, running down his cheeks like teardrops. For a moment he felt bad about wasting public resources. Crushing the motes’ small bodies meant wrecking their ability to detect nuclear weapons by sniffing out plutonium and enriched uranium. But of course, that’s why he was here. To report an irregularity in the mote network, and a possible breach of the Intergovernmental Nuclear Disarmament Agreement (INDA).

The rig’s earbuds were so crusty that he held them next to his ears rather than jamming them inside. After the connection was established, a beige office sprang to life around him, complete with a solid-looking wooden chair on the other side of a desk. As Kirby turned his head to see more, the scene’s hard edges frayed into pixels briefly before reassembling. He stared at the untextured brown walls for a couple of minutes before a representative materialized. She wore the yellow face and blue coveralls of a standard avatar.

“Kirby Castro?” Her cartoon eyebrows arched, perhaps reflecting her real-life facial expression, or just the whims of the algorithm.

“That’s me. Hi there.”

“I’m Enid Weiss—I’m the intake coordinator with the INDA Organization. I’ve gone over your incident report, and the UN research team is testing the samples you sent us right now.” She sounded tired. It was evening in Europe. “Can you tell me more about how you found them?”

“I work as an ecosystem engineer here in Golden Gate Park—”

“Where is that? It says here … coastal California?”

“I’m in the city of San Francisco. We’re a municipal park.”

“Oh, San Francisco.” The avatar’s face wrinkled in what was probably supposed to be a sympathetic expression. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Kirby waved a hand, impatient. “Thanks, but the Bridge Fire was last year. We’re actually pretty recovered now. Anyway, I was working on a new rose installation that is thriving.” He found himself emphasizing the word “thriving” too much, and took a breath to tamp down his defensiveness.

It was about three weeks ago that he’d been pruning the roses, looking for signs of aphids. No matter how carefully he sprayed, there was always at least one branch where the tiny green insects huddled together, preparing to reduce every leaf to chaos lace. And then he found it: a patch of them crusting up the skin of an otherwise healthy plant. Getting rid of them would be tough. Often, the aphids were actually being farmed by a nearby nest of Argentine ants—the insect workers milked them for some kind of goo whose lure could only be understood by someone from this particular species of the Formicidae family. To get rid of aphids, you had to get rid of the ants.

Kirby knelt in the warm soil, knee pads tightening, and hunted around for a line of ants. They would be coming out of the ground, and climbing up the rose stalks … he blinked rapidly, taking his vision into macroscopic range. Nothing so far. He blinked into infrared, which could occasionally help him locate a really big colony that was close to the surface. Again, nothing. Still, just to be sure, he spent another minute on hands and knees, ducking underneath some fat pink blooms.

And that’s when Jeff sent him a tap: Is this you? Attached was a link to a popular local server called “I Left My Butt in San Francisco.”

Someone had uploaded a grayed-out picture with an enticing caption: “This city truly has the hottest gardeners. Look at this adorable li’l crack in the flowers!” Kirby clicked through the safety blur and there he was, bent over the roses with his pants sliding down. Plumber’s butt, the kids used to call it. What the hell? Normally he wouldn’t be mad about being called a hot gardener, but it was upsetting that someone had taken that creepy picture without his permission seconds ago.

He stood up and looked around, zooming his vision in and out, checking for heat signatures in the trees. It couldn’t have been a drone—the angle was all wrong. It must have been somebody standing a few yards behind him. And yet there was nobody. It was a weekday, and the park was mostly empty except for a distant group of nannies, picnicking with strollers and carebots. Then he noticed a particularly dense swarm of motes over the tidy rows of flowers, their heat making them shimmer in IR. His skin tightened with goosebumps. Had somebody used the mote network to take pictures of his ass?

Motes were managed by all kinds of companies—the only way INDA could afford its weapons deterrence program was by partnering with private industry on mote production. As long as these companies included a drop of H2O for WaterNet, the government allowed them to deploy all kinds of apps on top of their mote swarms. Surveillance systems, local hookup finders, supply chain trackers, environmental sensors—new apps came online every day. Maybe the motes targeting Kirby were owned by the same people who ran the butt server. Or maybe they had been released by a startup that cared more about scaling up their products than making those products hack-resistant. Either way, he felt violated. And that wasn’t how the WaterNet was supposed to make anyone feel.

Kirby snapped back to virtual reality and considered the impassive yellow cartoon person sitting in front of him. Probably best to leave out a few details.

“I noticed the motes while I was searching for ants among the roses,” he said carefully. “They were behaving in an unusual way, so I grabbed a sample.”

“And what was unusual about their behavior?”

Kirby didn’t want to lie about something as important as the WaterNet. Every kid learned in school about the system of motes whose tiny freights of H2O formed a network that could detect antineutrinos emanating from nuclear weapons caches. The WaterNet kept everyone safe. After the disarmament treaties of the 2050s and 70s, the UN stepped in to form the INDA Organization—where his interlocutor Enid Weiss was streaming from. They regulated the specialized network devoted to sensing the manufacture of nuclear weapons. No matter how deeply buried your warhead was, or how shielded your uranium enrichment facility, it would leak antineutrinos. And eventually one of those antiparticles would collide with a mote.

Except it wasn’t really the mote doing the work. It was the water. Actually, the proton in a water molecule, to be precise. The antineutrino smacked into the proton, which promptly turned into a neutron and ejected a positron—and that positron released enough energy to set off a mote alarm, calling more motes to the scene, until the source of the antineutrinos was found. There was even a School Vibe video about it, complete with adorable anthropomorphized water molecules releasing positrons like itty-bitty farts.

“Mx. Castro, can you tell me what was unusual about these motes?”

Kirby locked eyes with the avatar, whose head was tilted questioningly. “They were—swarming. Like aphids on a rose. Something seemed off.”

He really hoped he wasn’t going to have to explain about the butt pictures. Still, they were what made him look twice at the swarm, and then swipe some of the offending motes out of the air with a filter. That’s when he noticed that none of the dead motes were leaking water.

“So that’s how you determined that they were not in compliance with WaterNet regulations? From that sample?”

“Yeah—there were so many in the filter that I could see it even without magnification. They were dry.”

“OK, Mx. Castro. Thanks for your testimony. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us before we proceed with the investigation?”

“Well, I—” He searched for the most sanitized way to explain his concerns.

“Yes?”

“I think somebody is using those motes to take pictures of people without permission. It seems like a huge violation of privacy.”

Somewhere in Europe, in an office filled with antiquated technology, Enid Weiss shrugged. Or at least, that’s what Kirby imagined she was doing. Her avatar swayed a little. “We don’t regulate what the motes are doing other than particle sensing, Mx. Castro. As long as they carry their water molecules, the companies who manufacture them can do whatever they want.”

“I think it might be a hacker or something, though. Like maybe the software on those motes was vulnerable to being exploited by a bad guy? I was on a server and somebody showed me what seemed like … spy pictures.” As soon as he said the words, Kirby felt intensely silly. Improv had never been his strong suit. Plus, his complaint didn’t even make sense. How would he know these particular dry motes had taken the pictures unless he’d been in them?

He started to sweat, wondering if lying to the INDA Organization could get him in trouble.

But the rep seemed completely uninterested. Her avatar’s arms waved around weirdly, as if there were a VR system mistranslating the motions she made while packing up her belongings to leave. Kirby shifted one of the disgusting earbuds around in his fingers. It was completely absurd that he had to use this ancient technology to report a possible violation of INDA to the UN, but that was what regulations stipulated.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Enid Weiss said. “Plenty of companies use their motes as a surveillance platform for security and crime detection. As long as they’re carrying H2O, they’re in compliance.”

“Even if—” Kirby broke off, unsure what to say. Maybe he should tell her about the butt pic. Maybe then she would understand. After all, if somebody was using motes to take revealing pictures of him, who knew what other kinds of snooping or upskirting they might be doing?

But Enid Weiss cut him off before he could say more. “Listen. We’re lucky that companies are making these motes available to us at all, frankly. It’s not like the INDA Organization has the money to manufacture them. Have you heard about how your president—the president of California—is trying to legalize dry motes? The tech industry would love that. Adding the water costs them an extra millionth of a cent. Maybe you should try voting for a different president if you don’t like how the tech is being used, eh?” Her voice had taken on a sharp edge, and Kirby remembered some headlines from a few years back about how the EU had banned implants from two of California’s biggest tech companies. Something about privacy.

“OK, yeah,” he mumbled. “Thanks for your time. I hope you figure out where those motes came from.”

“We will.” Her avatar stood up, and part of her head disappeared. “Thanks for your incident report, Mx. Castro. We appreciate your service.”

Kirby couldn’t yank the goggles off his face fast enough. When he left the VR cubby, the sun slipped behind a blob of cloud and left the carousel in cool shadow. He liked the sky on days like these, when the wind picked up and chased puffs of condensed water droplets across the sky. Clouds were like mote swarms without motes.

Wriggling his fingers, Kirby sent a tap to Jeff. Talked to the INDA Organization person about those motes, he wrote.

Jeff tapped back immediately. Really???? What did they say?

They’re going to investigate the company who made them, I guess. She seemed pretty intense about it.

That’s cool. Did you ass—I mean ask her anything about the pictures?

Kirby laughed as he turned down the path that led to the bocce ball court. She said they couldn’t regulate that stuff, even if it violated privacy.

Butt … that seems wrong.

Hopefully they’ll get to the bottom of it.

The puns became more dense and elaborate, and eventually Kirby lost the game when he couldn’t think of a way to incorporate “patootie” into a sentence. As he flicked a finger to sever their taplink, he looked up at the sky again, searching for any sign of the WaterNet that had enveloped him and the planet for his entire life. What must it have been like a century ago, to look up there and imagine a mushroom cloud dominating the sky, instead of pervy mote hackers?

He shook his head. It was just one of those things that was so huge and distant that you couldn’t wrap your mind around it. At last, the bocce ball court came into view, with its perfectly trimmed grass and elegant iron gate. Though it was a pain in the patootie to maintain the lawn, Kirby was glad that this bizarre old game of balls and hammers had survived longer than the threat of nuclear war.

Copyright © 2024, Annalee Newitz. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

I firmly believe that the future will be as ambiguous as the present, and injustice often emerges from the obscure details of legal contracts and policy documents. That’s why I focused on the funding model for the sensor network of “motes” that are used to enforce my imaginary future global disarmament agreement. These motes are tiny airborne sensors infused with a few water molecules; excitingly, they are based on current research into how water could be used to sense antineutrinos thrown off by nuclear weapons materials like enriched uranium or plutonium. Sounds great, right? Imagine remotely sensing nuclear weapons development anywhere in the world! But who is going to pay for all those motes? Not governments, obviously. Troubles arise when governments partner with tech companies to fund mote development and maintenance. That’s my sweet spot as a writer: figuring out what kinds of sneaky bullshit corporations will get up to in the name of “saving humanity.”

About Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz (they/them) writes science fiction and nonfiction. They are the author of three novels: The Terraformers, The Future of Another Timeline, and Autonomous, which won the Lambda Literary Award. As a science journalist, they are the author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age and Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in science. Their forthcoming book, Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, explores the dark art of manipulation through weaponized storytelling. Annalee is a writer for The New York Times and elsewhere, and has a monthly column in New Scientist. They have published in The Washington Post, Slate, Popular Science, Ars Technica, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among others, and co-host the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Previously, they were the founder of io9, and served as the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo.

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