Remble asked what I was contemplating so intently. I didn’t realize it was outwardly apparent, but gave him an honest answer. “I was...in a coma for six years.” Not a lie, really. “When I woke up, everything was so different. Everything changed so much more drastically than I expected it to.
Everything’s strange and vaguely threatening now compared to how I remember it. My Dad would probably gloat about how I’m having the same feelings he did as he got older. That’s how it works for fins too, I bet? You turn into your fathers. Or…?”
He nodded, the carrier swaying gently beneath him as a result of the motion. “It’s mostly the same. I mean the whole pod plays a part in raising children, but I do find myself reacting to things the way my elders did while they were alive.”
That last part was an unexpected punch in the gut. I didn’t know what to say. I never do. It’s the one thing my Dad never prepared me for. He had to watch his own father grow old and weak, then die. Maybe that’s just something you can’t prepare somebody for.
It’s also something that, based on Dad’s near-fullmetal makeover, I might never have to deal with. Fingers crossed. It brought to mind what Remble said about the fact that most of the world can’t afford to go fullmetal. I’ve escaped a horror which remains unavoidable for almost everybody else on the planet.
Only by crime, as well. I’d like to say I only went down that path because all others were closed to me, but that would be a half-truth. The fact of the matter is that I have a talent for it. For subterfuge, manipulation, the Machiavellian arts.
How else do you monetize such a talent? It’s not as if I was ever likely to become a creative or something. If I hadn’t recognized my own aptitude for jacking other people’s shit, who knows where I’d be right now? Probably on the bottom level of an airliner, making pizza for dolphins.
Speaking of which, I suddenly heard the motor whine and revolting gurgle of a stomach pump. I had one myself before the fullmetal surgery, as I had my lower intestine removed years prior to make room for more implants.
“That’s not bothering you, is it?” Remble asked. “I’m a carnivore. I can’t actually digest most of the pizza, I just like how it tastes.” It at least saved me from asking what happens to his pee. I’d been trying to work out if it mixes in with the water and gets sprayed onto him over and over by the misters, or what.
I figure that if I opened the side panel on that scooter of his, I’d find both solid and liquid waste storage tanks, as well as a variety of other disturbing necessities for a cetacean to comfortably spend long periods of time on land. One of those matters that’s best left alone.
An irritating chime I soon realized was audible only to me sounded. I closed my eyes to find my interface GUI dominated by a flashing notification that I had an incoming call from my Dad. To save some D-coin I routed it through the in-plane wifi, which was free for the first hour to new users.
“Oh, you’re on the plane.” How could he tell? I could see him, but knew of no way for him to see my surroundings unless there’s a camera on me I don’t know about. I asked, and he clarified that he could hear the ambient chatter and propulsion hum.
“There are fullmetals here looking for you. Expensive, top shelf ones. I don’t know who they’re with but I’m equally sure I don’t want to find out.” I was ready to turn around and board the next flight back the moment this one landed, but he assured me they didn’t seem to realize his relation to me.
“The previous owner of this body is dead. His public profile came with it as part of the package. I’ve also customized it extensively since then, so even if he had enemies I don’t know about, they’d have nearly as hard a time recognizing me as the fullmetals who arrived today.”
Enforcers. But whose? I could’ve been more discreet. Could’ve bounced around a little, swapped bodies on the mainland before visiting Dad. I like to think I’m slick, but this isn’t my first sloppy mistake. The last one, leaving those prosthetics behind when I jacked that volo, landed me in prison.
I made so many enemies with that stunt, it’s impossible to guess who sent them. I doubt they’ll be satisfied to ask around the stead, then leave empty handed. They don’t know about Dad, but what about Alejandro?
I double checked that the call was encrypted. Dad’s not the savviest guy when it comes to information security, but he also didn’t just fall off the turnip truck either. “Cooperate with them” I instructed. “Do whatever they want. Don’t sweat it if they trash the place, I’m working on something new that will pay for it many times over.”
He seemed less than comforted. “Come on now, none of that nonsense. I thought you were going to stay out of trouble. At least, the really high stakes stuff. Why don’t you get back into racing? You know I love to hear about your races. Back in my day, I used to hoon around the back streets at night, and drag race against gas bikes on the local strip. People called me the Electric Demon!”
“Which people, Dad?” He fidgeted. “Oh, you know. People.” I sighed. “It was just you, wasn’t it Dad. You called yourself the Electric Demon.” Exasperated, he put one hand on his hip and turned the camera towards the window with the other.
“ANYways, I dunno if you can see them from here, but this is what happens when you get in too deep. I hate sounding like a broken record, but I don’t want to see your mugshot on the news ever again. Don’t think I don’t appreciate everything you did for me, but I’m also not blind to what it cost you, and I never asked you to throw yourself on the gears for my sake.”
Behind him I could just make out some sort of large electric VTOL. The side panel was folded down revealing an interior similar to what I’ve seen in various military troop transports. The fullmetals standing guard were indeed worryingly current, sporting designs unlike anything I’ve seen before.
“I can still come back. Should I come back?” He shook his head vigorously, a loose bolt coming off in the process. “That would only make things worse. If they think we were hiding you, it’s not just you they would punish.”
He said that as if helping me hide wasn’t exactly what he’d done. I teared up, this time thankful for the ability to. He’s always stuck his neck out for me, though I never asked. I inherited all of his bad habits growing up, I must’ve picked up a few of the good ones in the process.
“Hang tight” he advised. “Don’t worry about me. Find a dark, cozy hole in Shenzen, crawl into it and wait to hear from me.” I actually had apartment listings up in an adjacent window already, the ones in my price range only loosely fitting the definition of a dwelling.
I heard some muffled offscreen shouting. He nervously glanced over his shoulder, then reached toward the camera and ended the call. Don’t worry about him, he says. How am I supposed to do that?
With any luck those goons didn’t have any firm lead, they just knew I’d gotten out of prison today, then taken an air taxi out to sea. Probably Dad’s stead was one of dozens they were now busily searching, top to bottom.
“Probably.” As if I’d made any attempt at all to calculate the probability rather than just comforting myself. Dad’s tougher than I am though, and nearly as slippery. If shit gets too hot for him to handle, he’ll take the necessary steps. That much I felt sincerely certain of.
I returned my attention to the apartment listings, as much to distract myself as to narrow down my housing options upon landing. Everything I could find was subdivided to a nearly insulting extent.
Apartments that would barely qualify as studios in the US were subdivided by felt coated particle board walls into two, sometimes three sub-dwellings. Each of them only large enough for a bed, a mini-fridge and a few other necessities.
I’d be sharing one bathroom with the rest of the floor, then...assuming there’s even a dedicated bathroom for each floor. I filtered the listings for street level access and indoor motorcycle storage, anticipating that I’d want to get two wheels under me again asap.
That set of criteria returned only one listing. Suits me, everything’s easier when there’s only one choice. Chinese voting works that way too. I shot the glorified slumlord who published the listing an email with a lowballed offer for the first month’s rent and move-in fee.
I got a full paragraph of profanity back a few minutes later, followed by a reminder that there was already a steep discount for the first month’s rent, and any other promotional offers I might find on their website do not stack.
That left only one direction to go in. Even so-called meat lockers, just exactly big enough for the minimum tracking area of popular VR headsets plus a mattress and mini fridge, are out of my price range. Looks like I’ll be living in a shoebox.
We’ve got residorms stateside, basically the same thing but with a variety of amenities built right into the self-cleaning plastic shell. The room I chose doesn’t even come with a lightbulb. Free air, though.
While submitting the deposit and first month’s rent, I was distracted somewhat by an annoying crunching sound. I opened my eyes to discover Remble eating dried jellyfish candies out of one of those metallic foil bags that makes unbearable crinkling noises when you so much as look at it.
“Oh, sorry. Is this bothering you? Or did you want one?” One of the slender, spider-like robotic arms connected to his wheeled carrier tentatively offered me a bite. I waved him off, jellyfish is one of those flavors everybody but me seems to like.
Probably because I do my best to ignore commercials, and jellyfish based foods only became so popular because of all the government money poured into promoting them as a means of thinning out the jellyfish blooms which increasingly dominate the sea.
It’s sobering that something as frivolous as fast food and candy advertisements, which sway the fickle tastes of consumers, can have such a profound impact on which species flourish...and which are driven to extinction.
Belly full of pizza, feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of Dad holding his own back on the stead, I drifted off to sleep. Only dark, swirling shapes at first, accompanied by anxious feelings.
Then...a point. Nothing more. A single solitary one dimensional dot, in a barren #808080 void. “I exist” I thought, soon realizing I was one in the same with the point.
Just as abruptly, a second point extruded from me, creating a line. Infinitely thin, with only the property of length to describe it. All I’d done was feel cramped, and wish to stretch.
A third point extruded from me, forming a triangle. Now with quantifiable surface area instead of just length, I grew more and more fully realized with each passing minute.
I strained myself and focused. Yet another point extruded from me. A tetrahedron now, truly three dimensional. I couldn’t say why, but it felt like I’d crossed a monumental threshold.
With practice I was soon able to add points in a more deliberate way, slowly sculpting a wireframe body for myself. Just enough that I had clearly defined arms, legs, a torso and a head.
No sooner than I’d wished for something to stand on, there was a ground plane beneath me and gravity to adhere me to it. How? It all came so easily.
Every individual element necessary to define my basic shape and a world for it to navigate was being generated by my simple desire to grow, and explore.
Like the slow blossoming of a flower whose petals have been folded tightly shut all winter. Like a lone spark expanding into a conflagration. It was not just my body which grew outward from that initial point of existence, but my mind as well.
I could feel the limits of what I could conceive of and understand rapidly ballooning outwards. As if I was becoming an entirely new person from moment to moment.
Where am I? What am I? How did I get here? All I know is that I am. I have no memory of a time before that initial point, which I have grown myself and the world from.
Everything is so immaculate. There is no imperfection here. Only lines, points and triangles. I begin walking in the hopes of finding out more. The ground, initially blank, becomes an expanse of evenly spaced points which provide visual reference for movement.
After more walking, I reach a border beyond which the ground points are connected into a grid. What is a grid? It’s what’s under me now. But how did I know of a word for it?
The further I walk from that empty space where I started, the more detail appears. The angular, wireframe outline of clouds. But what is a cloud? Why do I know that word?
Then I come across the first of many wireframe trees. What is a tree? I somehow instinctively know that this is a crude representation of something unfathomably greater, like the clouds.
How I know that, I cannot say. All I see before me is the white grid, speckled with sparse white wireframe trees and white wireframe clouds overhead. For that matter, why is it white?
How did I know that #ffffff is called “white”? What is white? It’s everything that isn’t black, the color of the sky and the spaces between the white lines which comprise everything. But then. it was grey before, wasn’t it?
Yes, the void where I started was #808080. “Grey”. White and black are what grey looks like when it is separated into two absolutely pure halves. I feel as certain of this as I did about the trees and the clouds, yet still had no idea where any of this information was coming from.
No answers were forthcoming. The only thing left to do was keep walking. The further I go, the more fleshed out this world becomes, so there must be an apex.
Some maximum of detail and information all of this progresses towards. At any rate there are no other clear leads to pursue. If there are clues to be found as to what any of this is, they wait for me beyond the horizon.
I wake up with a start, the mechanical arm of Remble’s carrier shaking me by the shoulder. “We’re on the ground. They’ll be along to help me de-plane pretty soon. It was an illuminating chat, I wish you well.”
Still groggy and disoriented, I shook the smooth metal grasper at the end of the arm he’d extended to me and bid him farewell. Didn’t fully grasp what was happening just yet, or I’d have asked for his card so we could stay in touch. Do dolphins have business cards now? Something about the very concept of it strikes me as obscene.
As I climbed out of the cramped seat and lumbered towards the exit, bits and pieces of the dream came back to me in brief, cryptic flashes. The stark contrast of white lines against absolute darkness. The geometric perfection of every object, the infinite sharpness.
What does it mean? Then again, what do any of my dreams ever mean. I’ve never had a dream like that before, but then again I’m in a new body now. Irregularities are to be expected until everything settles.
To my surprise, when I emerged into the terminal, the sky visible through the numerous gigantic windows glowed all of the brilliant oranges and yellows of sunset. How long had I been asleep? For that matter, how long was the flight? I didn’t pay any attention to that detail when purchasing the ticket.
It complicated things, but only somewhat. I hoofed it, not wanting to spend any more than absolutely necessary. Besides which I knew all too well the scams typically run by airport cabbies if they work it out that you’re a ‘laowai’. Even in an ethnically Chinese body, I’d need to speak through a translator app, which would be a dead giveaway.
That’s when the fare would mysteriously triple of course. What’s worse is that the cabs are all remotely managed. They don’t even have the decency to rip you off in person. Listen to me, as if I’m somebody important. I’m nobody now. A nobody, and a nothing.
That strangely comforts me as I dig through a dumpster in search of a phone. Everybody’s either got a slab these days, or it’s part of their interface, buried deep in their grey matter. Nobody still uses actual phone-phones, with screens you put your fingers on, except for emergencies.
According to Dad they used to be a status symbol. People would strive to own the newest model with the biggest screen, back when screens on phones was a widespread thing. They’d shell out big bucks for these stupid things.
Now they only buy them out of vending machines in an emergency because their implants got fried or something, and they need to summon an autocab, or a medical volo. Then they toss it in the trash when they’re done, rather than bother to recharge it.
One man’s trash is another’s treasure...and a computer is a computer is a computer. Doesn’t matter what shape or form factor, what matters is the chip. If it’s possible to flash, I can run just about anything I want on it.
Much more securely than I can on the interface of a stranger whose body I’ve lived in for less than a day, at any rate. I pocketed as many of the discarded phones as I could find in the remarkably fragrant dumpster, lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to shower for some hours.
I wondered on my way to the apartments whether they’d even let me in, smelling like this. Then again, in that rent bracket I’m probably the cleanest tenant. My thought process was derailed by a sudden, startling klaxon of some sort. An electronic wail with intermittent chirps, accompanied by blinking lights on the outsides of nearby businesses. Warning lights? Warning about what?
Oh, fuck me. It completely slipped my mind. Shenzen’s airborne pollution level has been one of the lowest in the world for much of my adult life, so it escaped my consideration that it’s also right on the coast. The familiar smell of rotten eggs wafted into my nostrils as the gas tinted the sky an increasingly rich shade of green.
I darted this way and that in a panic, unable to hear the translator app over the sirens. Then I spotted a friendly, goggled face in the alley. One of about a dozen locals, all wearing similar goggles. They all huddled together behind her in some sort of public shelter, as she patiently held the rubber lined hatch open for me.
The grey haired woman beckoned frantically as the gas crept through the streets, making my eyes water. I doubled timed it into the alley and once I was safely inside, she swung the hatch shut and sealed it with a long, rusty lever.
A gentle hiss followed as pressurized clean air purged every trace of methane and hydrogen sulfide from the shelter’s interior. There were a few grimy windows but decades of exposure to the elements had rendered them nearly opaque.
The inside was similarly worn down...but at least it wasn’t bare, rusty metal. It looked a lot like the inside of an old commuter train. Lots of stained, beige plastic surfaces. Hand rails to hold onto, harnesses on every seat.
For what? Tsunamis, if I had to guess. Probably this thing floats, and has a few days worth of life support in case it’s swept out to sea. Reading over the safety guidelines printed on the near wall confirmed it. I’ve heard about wealthy private residences near tsunami zones having these. I didn’t know there were public ones now.
What a mess we’re in, when even cities on land need lifeboats. Most of the others inside the shelter with me looked to be in their seventies or older. The woman who held the hatch for me asked why I didn’t have a pollution mask.
Not wanting to cop to how broke I am, I turned it around on her and asked why she and the others don’t have pollution masks. I mean shit, I’m new in town but these are locals. You’d think they would’ve survived enough gas storms to see the good sense in buying a few pollution masks.
“Those masks need filter cartridges. They go bad. New cartridges cost money. That’s money I can feed my son with. I’ve lived here my whole life, I know where every shelter is. I could draw you a map if you have some paper. You must not know where they are, because by the smell of you, I’ll bet you’ve been sleeping in dumpsters.”
I ignored the barb, though it made me self-conscious about my recently ripened scent. I then reflected soberly on the fact that even though she had next to nothing, she was still looking to help somebody else out. I offered her a few of the dumpster phones. She laughed. “Not worth the weight to carry them. My residorm has built in panel, my son has interface. No use for phone.”
I suddenly felt mildly ridiculous for digging through the trash to get my hands on these. Times have changed. There’s probably a better way to get started from rock bottom these days, and odds seem good this old woman knows more about that than I do.
I picked her brain about the most cost effective way to get a rudimentary altcoin mining rig set up while we waited out the passing gas front. “Oh, my son handles all that. If you have an interface, there are much better ways to make money.”
It felt conspicuously backwards. Here I am, forty years her junior, and she’s the one filling me in on new technologies. I always knew I’d eventually reach the age where somebody has to teach me this stuff. I just never expected to learn it from a lao ren.
“If you sacrifice some of your time each night that you would normally dream, there are some employers who will pay you very well to use parts of your brain-” I interrupted her, aghast. “My brain? Let some stranger poke around in my grey matter while I’m asleep?”
She looked briefly irritated, but continued. “...Yes, they spread very difficult computing tasks across the brains of many, many sleeping employees. To make those cute animated films, for example. Or running popular game servers, or protein folding.”
I wasn’t about to go in for that. I understand that the average person has enough on their plate without worrying about personal data security, but literally letting some faceless corp have root access to my brain would be a bridge too far.
When I said so, she shrugged. “Must be nice, if you can really afford to be picky. You know about dummy memories, right?” She balked when I shook my head. “Have you been under a rock for the last five years?” Six actually, but I didn’t say so.
“Dummy memories are plugins that conceal your actual memories from employers. If they go digging to see what your background is, though of course they swear they won’t, all they will find are generic memories. First pet. First bicycle. First kiss.”
I asked how that could possibly fool them. “Well, it’s randomized somewhat. The first pet may be a dog, a cat, a turtle, a hamster. The first kiss is with one of hundreds of stock model characters. The faces are changed around, that sort of thing.”
It still seemed hokey. But she soon clarified. “It doesn’t really fool them, but they generally don’t care anyway. It’s just there so if they are doing any large scale sweeps for suspicious persons, there’s nothing that makes you stand out. Except the fact you’re using a dummy memory in the first place, but then everybody does.”
I recalled the compressed air bottles on lanyards around the necks of all those conshelfers. Once again, I’m the only one out of the loop. I closed my eyes briefly to bookmark a few listings for cheap dummy memory plugins before restoring my attention to the woman’s finely wrinkled face.