Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 5

Speaking of compressed air, the hissing stopped. The black and white diagram bolted to the wall indicated that it’s connected to utilities. Clean air is a utility now? Apparently it would only start using onboard bottled air if flooding were to carry it away, breaking the connection.

It was a small comfort. Nature only seems more and more determined to be rid of us with each passing year, and in less and less predictable ways. It would be just my luck if the storm I evaded back on the stead was the beginning of a hurricane headed for Shenzen.

Not today, evidently. The sirens outside finally died down, and after the light next to the hatch changed from red to green, the old woman struggled to open it. I stepped in to help, but she shrugged me off, then finished the job herself.

The air still smelled of roasted dog turds. Old books mention a certain lingering smell after it’s rained but somehow I think if it smelled like this, they would’ve used stronger language to describe it.

What a blessing and a curse man’s ever-growing memory has been. The step up from story telling traditions to the written word, then the printing press was almost exclusively constructive.

The step from there to universal digital storage, somewhat less so. Besides the permanent annihilation of personal privacy which resulted, it also furnished ample evidence from past generations that weather wasn’t always like this.

There are no gas storms in flat movies from the turn of the century. There are underwater films depicting a rich abundance of wildlife in seemingly impossible diversity. Not just jellies, dolphins and the occasional sickly looking crab.

Instead, mind blowingly colorful coral reefs. I had no idea until then that corals could be any color except brown. Some of it might be CGI. Seems like it would have to be. But I saw the same views in films which purported to be factual documentaries.

Shit like that gives me some inkling of what dolphins are so angry about. It also made me realize that without all this archived media, kids would never know that gas storms aren’t normal. They would never know that there didn’t used to be any cohabs.

What a pain that must be for the world’s most prolific polluters. What a boon it would be for them if our collective electronic memory extended back no further than a few decades, with everything older than that judiciously wiped.

Rendering the whole of humanity amnesiatic, in a sense. Frightening as the prospect seems, there’s no shortage of people who would gladly forget if possible. Dad says that’s what booze is for.

It wouldn’t fix anything, if we simply forgot what we’ve lost. It would hurt less, but pain is only a symptom. Of course that’s not to say there haven’t been legal efforts to remove certain records on the grounds that they’re “politically biased”.

Weasel worded legalese for “incriminating”. For “materials which contradict the party’s narrative.” Only vigilant watchdog groups prevent the success of such efforts. I wonder if one day, nobody will care enough. Maybe one day we’ll become sick of remembering, and welcome the censors.

Our need to forget is, after all, sometimes more powerful than our need to remember. Evolution did not gift us with perfect recall, despite the apparent advantages, most likely because of the impediment to emotional recovery following the death of a loved one.

However monstrous it seems that the intensity of the pain could fade over time, as if one is somehow no longer “as bothered” by the loss, nature put our brains together that way for good reasons.

I am more inclined to trust those reasons, at any rate, than the implant engineers who second guess evolution. Who work tirelessly to circumvent it, though in fairness it’s still possible to delete unwanted memories. It’s just you that does it now, rather than time.

I’m hard pressed to call that an improvement however, since it’s just as useful for holding a grudge as it is for remembering the beauty and laughter of someone you’re determined to never forget.

The first thing I did was drop a vanishingly small fraction of a D-coin on a pollution mask. I knew it looked a little bit ridiculous, especially on a body with these proportions. I resembled a futuristic luchador more than anything else.

Only afterward did I think to look up reviews for the mask. Three stars? Ouch. Caveat emptor, I guess. May as well be China’s national motto. That’s not entirely fair though, the quality of their goods has risen drastically since I was little.

Dad’s still salty about the shit quality of the Chinese electric motorcycle he nevertheless loved so dearly. But these days the government cracks down so harshly on poor quality exports that manufacturers now cheap out only on what they can get away with.

For the most part, that means domestic products sold to desperate people who make in a year what I used to make on my mining rig in the time it took me to vacuum out my lower intestine. Feeling a pang of guilt, I went looking for the old woman to give her my mask, but she was long gone.

The trek to the apartment building wasn’t too bad. The prosthetic leg did more than its fair share of the work, such that I wasn’t even out of breath by the time I arrived. My other leg hurt like a bitch due to years in cold storage with no exercise, but fuck it. I plan to replace that thing pretty soon anyhow.

The building looked outwardly devastated by the storm. But as my actually below ground level, it didn’t occur to me right away that the storm damage would cause any problems for my schedule.

Brightly painted yellow robots painted with hazard stripes were noisily going about the tedious work of clearing debris. A fat, balding man with two prosthetic eyes and a prosthetic right arm up to his shoulder stood just outside the front office, gesturing wildly at the robots while shouting obscenities.

I initially had no idea what he was angry about, as once I got close enough that the translator app could make it out, he noticed me and abruptly changed his demeanor. That is until I told him I was the guy who tried to lowball him on his cheapest room.

“Oh, it’s you. Go away now, lots of damage.” I told him I didn’t care how the outside looked. “Not just outside! Pipes break inside, leaking water. Power is out. City send robots to fix everything but I don’t want them inside either, the Shuzu are on bad terms with the city.”

Shuzu? A quick search behind my eyelids brought up “the rat tribe”. Citizens who live in highly subdivided dwellings, usually subterranean, built into what used to be bomb shelters and other municipal underground spaces.

Hey, that’s me! I both chuckled and winced. I knew I’d be starting out on the bottom...but didn’t fully appreciate until now that it’s possible to start out literally underground. “So you’re doing the repairs yourself?” He shook his head. “I have people.”

I asked how long until the repairs would be complete. Six days, he said. Six days! “What the fuck am I supposed to do until then?” He shrugged. “Not my problem.” Subsequent attempts to reason with the man proved fruitless, so I headed off in search of someplace to rest my head come nightfall.

Behind me in the alley opposite the apartment building was another gas shelter. I looked at it long and hard before deciding I’d rather take my chances on the street. Besides which, if cops can’t even keep bums from sleeping in autocabs back in the States, probably that shelter will be packed with ’em as soon as it starts getting dark.

That suspicion appeared vindicated when the next gas shelter I passed had a pair of seedy looking men in dingy clothing loitering next to the hatch. They didn’t need to tell me to keep moving, their eyes did the talking.

I contemplated a capsule hotel, but even though they’re at the absolute low end of pricing for overnight lodging, it was still a good deal more than I wanted to pay after stranding myself in a foreign country with a nearly empty coin wallet.

What I ended up settling on was a net cafe. It baffles me that these are still around given that people regularly throw all the hardware you need to get online into the garbage without batting an eye, but then it’s more of a social thing in Asia.

In America, personal ownership is a big deal. Here, it’s long been the tradition to physically go someplace to use hardware you pay by the hour for. It’s why VRcades are still around over here but not in the US, and why net cafes still exist.

What you’re paying for is not just access to a computer of course, but a warm, dry, relatively safe environment in which to take a load off. Check your mail, see how your coin portfolio is doing, play some games and so on.

The same basic amenities most have at home. A little home away from home, in one sense. Like what taverns are to the typical Western man, but instead of beer and televised sports, you get instant ramen and a computer.

When I arrive at the nearest net cafe, there’s a row of dingy looking ebikes in every color plastic can be painted sitting out front. Each of them connected to a power outlet by a locking plug, quietly humming as their batteries charge.

Little grey boxes attached to where I’d expect an ignition switch caught my eye. Periodically a little lens opened up on each box and swept the body of the ebike with laser light. Some sort of security measure I imagine, but unlike any I’ve seen before.

The inside of the cafe is packed with a mixture of teenagers and sad, dumpy looking old men. The teenagers run away to the net cafe to escape the scorn of parents who don’t like them wasting their youth on gaming.

The older set are mostly former salarymen who became unemployable for one reason or another, and migrant workers who can’t even afford the Shuzu lifestyle. Behind me, the streets were once again filling up with ebikes.

The Chinese define ‘electric bicycle’ very differently from the rest of the world, mind you. Prospective buyers here are looking to get the most vehicle for their yuan, so despite being built with bicycle parts, most of these things are surrounded by plastic body panels to give the appearance that they’re full blown scooters.

This usually includes lockable trunk, a lockable container for your helmet like a motorcycle would have, a headlight, turn signals, a horn...basically they make it as close to a “real vehicle” as possible without it being legally classified as one.

That means no license needed, which means taking your life in your hands any time you set foot in a Chinese say nothing of driving such a contraption yourself. The motors are just a couple hundred watts, so it’ll only do maybe twenty to thirty miles an hour, tops.

Of course that feels much faster than it sounds when you’re surrounded by other ebikes moving at the same speed, relativity and all that. It makes for a harrowing experience, zipping along so low to the ground, riding a mostly plastic piece of shit that feels like it’s held together with glue and rubber bands. But if one hits you, it’ll probably do more damage to the bike than your body.

So of course I decided right then and there that I had to have one. Realistically I won’t be making the kind of dosh I need to put a proper motorcycle back under me for a year or more. Until then, an ebike seems like a tolerable compromise.

As soon as I paid the paltry fee for a few hours computer time, I settled into the cozy little cubicle I was assigned and got busy researching what an ebike costs. To my utter dismay, the cheapest few used lead acid batteries.

I imagined myself buying one, only for Dad to give me an earful when he found out. Who still makes lead batteries, even? I’ve never seen them stateside and only knew about them from Dad’s rants about that shitty electric motorcycle he loved so much in his youth.

There were a few lithium ones as well, but the rest were sodium glass, dual carbon and aluminum titanate. I bookmarked the site. It felt nice to use a dedicated computer with a keyboard instead of my interface. The sense of physicality made me feel grounded, and secure.

This is just the beginning, I told myself. I’ll be in the apartment soon. I’ll have a roof over my head! Well, I technically do here since I’m inside the cafe, but the cubicle walls don’t even go all the way up to the ceiling.

I’ll have real food as well. My stomach growled, as if seconding that motion. I browsed the cafe’s menu from the computer, found some cheap but acceptable looking ramen and submitted my order. A few minutes later a robot arm suspended from an overhead rail, like the one in the airplane, delivered my meal.

It was steaming hot and there wasn’t any plate provided. I briefly closed my eyes to turn off pain reception for my prosthetic hand, then used that one to carefully take the bowl from the delivery mechanism and set it down on the desk.

A bug eyed anime character with a giant head on a tiny body popped up onscreen to remind me about additional fees that would be charged should I spill any of the ramen. They always use some cutesy character to say stuff like that so it will feel less threatening. What happens if you don’t abide their rules is...considerably less cute.

The ramen filled me up, though I imagine it did little to legitimately nourish me. At least if the mild stomach pains a few minutes after I finished were any indication. As if my body was protesting the garbage I’d put into it and demanding something better.

Not tonight, body! Tonight you dine on ramen. You’ll get garbage and like it, because that’s what I can afford. After that I began searching for a new arsenal of exploits. My old mainstays were now hopelessly obsolete.

It all came back to me soon enough. Within the hour I had modern equivalents of all my old heavy hitters downloaded, cleaned and ready to rock. It was the work of the subsequent hour to flesh out my tool set with all the smaller specialty programs I thought I might find a use for.

Next stop was the darknet markets. I put my feelers out to see who to sell to, who to buy from, whose services I might need soon, who to keep an eye out for and so on. Getting the lay of the land, now that my connection was sufficiently anonymous.

A lot of the listings were stolen ebike parts. Criddlers I imagine, though I have no idea where they get their fix, given how draconian the Chinese government’s drug laws are. Come to think of it, I saw something on the news about floating ebike chop shops out in the bay.

They lash their boats to floating wooden platforms built on sealed plastic drums for buoyancy. Then they use the space to store, tear down and rebuild ebikes. By randomly mixing and matching the parts, they disguise the fact that they’re all stolen.

While scrolling through the listings, I opened the cafe’s beverage menu. The flavors were all utterly alien. Snow pear? Is there really a species of pear that grows in snowy climates? For that matter, what the fuck flavor is “swallow’s nest”? Does it taste like twigs and egg?

I recognized the bubble milk tea, so that’s what I bought. With grass jelly instead of those little tapioca balls though, as I could never stand their texture. Apparently beggars can be choosers after all.

I then went searching for info about the security boxes I saw on the ebikes. However the internet in China is heavily censored, so perhaps unsurprisingly I could find no clues on how to compromise them. Probably there are US sites with the info, but access to US domains is similarly crippled here.

I searched the darknet next. There were some gadgets for sale, designed to defeat the “point cloud imagers” as they’re evidently called...but well out of my price range. Sites offering info on how to defeat their security manually were behind D-Coin paywalls.

I could tell I needed to consult someone with more expertise in this area, so I sought out a dedicated chat lobby set up by local criddlers. Someplace they could warn each other about upcoming police sweeps so they could move their tents in advance, sell meth to one another, that sort of thing. These days, even the homeless need to network.

As expected, they were planning a mass ebike heist. I mentioned offhand that I was currently sitting in a net cafe with upwards of twenty ebikes parked just outside, though for obvious reasons I didn’t specify which one just yet.

“I’m new to the area. I don’t know shit about ebike security, but Panopticon is my bitch. I can have all forms of surveillance in the parking lot offline for at least five minutes, maybe more. If you’ve got the manpower to steal that many bikes in such a narrow window-”

There was a flurry of confused posts about just who the fuck I was and how I got in here without being invited. “I’m just that good. So, any takers?” Silence after that, until one of them asked for a demonstration.

It was easy enough to set up, hampered only by my paranoia that Panopticon security might’ve meaningfully improved in the last six years. But as a government operated surveillance network, of course it hadn’t.

I knocked out Panopticon for an entire city block, hijacked a nearby autocab and had it do donuts in an intersection for ninety seconds before the transit authority remotely shut it down, locking me out. The criddlers then spent the following hour double checking my work to ensure I’d competently covered my tracks before resuming negotiations with me.

I waited another hour after that for the criddlers to consult whoever it is that gives such people orders. I suppose even rats have kings. I had no prior relationship with them, and as such was unable to negotiate any sort of partial upfront payment.

Instead, once the time we agreed upon arrived, I double checked that I had my ducks in a row...then pulled the trigger. Conceptually, very much like an invisible electronic Rube Goldberg machine. Fragile, elaborate workarounds to each security barrier executing one after the next.

The overhead lighting flickered. I heard the screech of rubber on asphalt, a few honks, and angry Chinese shouting. That wasn’t me, was it? I only meant to attack surveillance. I then heard a low pitched electrical whine as the truck pulled up.

All exterior feeds were dead by this point. Shame, as I’d like to have watched them work. More confusing shouting, probably coming from people who don’t often see criddlers pour out the back of a truck and start jacking ebikes.

I dared not go to the front in order to watch for obvious reasons. Just sat patiently until I heard the electrical whine return, signifying that the truck was pulling away. More confused shouting, this time at least a dozen different voices.

Over the din outside, I could just barely make out the manager on the phone with the cops. I could also hear lookey-lous emerging from their cubicles to find out what the noise was about. That’s when I allowed myself to join them.

Six years ago I might’ve been careless enough to go on ahead, drawing attention to myself. That was the old me. The new me moves in groups. The new me blends into the crowd. I hung back, not wanting to appear in any photographs as the police drones showed up.

They didn’t even bother to unplug the damn bikes. The sparking, sheared-off ends of the charging cables were still dangling from the sockets, snipped-out GPS trackers and PCI security boxes littering the empty parking spaces. Sloppy. But then, these are the fleas you get when you sleep with dogs. I headed back to my cubicle, noting that the exterior feeds were all coming back online little by little.

It proved even tougher than expected to collect my earnings. The thing about criddlers is, when they say they don’t remember making any deal with you, they’re often telling the truth. Either way, a little roughhousing typically loosens up the ’ol neurons.

“I can take you to him!” the pitiful figure sputters, bubbles of blood forming on his lips. I’d knocked all three of his teeth out, not one of my proudest moments. “He lives on the bay! We can take my boat!”

Far be it from me to understand how somebody living on the edge of starvation affords a boat. Stolen, surely? But then how do they get away with it when they float ’em right out there in the bay, smack dab in front of God, the cops and everybody?

The answer arrived less than an hour later. The wretch I laid out still nursed his bruises, mumbling spitefully as he heaved the little rusty dinghy’s steering lever this way and that. The batteries were bare, unshielded terminals just chilling in the open.

How does he never electrocute himself? What does he do about rain? These fuckers are halfway clever about some things. But only whatever they absolutely have to stay on top of in order to keep the meth coming.

We sailed lazily down a waste water channel, at the bottom of a massive concrete trough with sloped sides. For flood waters, I assume. As we emerged into the bay, the modest wake left behind us beautifully distorted the reflection of Shenzen’s skyline, now rippling hypnotically in the water.

The last pair of buildings we passed between had a multi-story skyway connecting them. At that point, can you even really call it a skyway? I’ve seen whole restaurants and clubs tucked away in those things. Seemingly endless rows of windows cascading upwards, some of them lit up from within. Lives stacked upon lives, stacked upon lives.

A sudden glimpse of a beautiful pale face framed by short black curls captured my attention. The lowest floor of the skyway, now looming overhead...had skylights in it. I boggled. It was...the ceiling to them. Somehow? She stood upside down, looking “up” at me through the skylight. Down, really. What the fresh hell is this baboozery?

I noticed other party goers milling about all around her. All of them upside down relative to me. She waved half-heartedly, then resumed socializing. As we pulled away from the skyway, I could tell from the silhouettes that every damned person inside that thing was inverted.

Some sort of high tech gravity gimmick. Six years can really do all that? Must be. How do they get turned the other way up when they want to leave? Does blood pool in their heads or is it attracted to the floor plating as well? Assuming it’s the floor plating that does it, anyway.

The boat man noticed my confusion and snickered to himself. Probably thinking “Get a load of this asshole, never even seen an upside down party before.” In fact it would prove to be the least astonishing sight of the day.

All the rich people watercraft were docked in cloistered marinas by the shore. The rest of the bay was given over to floating trash piles I’ve occasionally heard the media refer to as “hoboats”. I wonder if they ever hold hoboat regattas.

The motor whine died down as we approached what looked to be a massive trash barge. “Hey, hang on. This isn’t what we agreed to.” He gestured for me to hold my horses. I was about to swim for it, figuring he meant to have a buddy shoot me, then hide my body in the trash heap.

Instead, somebody shouted at us. Muffled shouting, from an unseen source. It almost seemed to come from...but that can’t be, surely? It seemed to be coming from...inside the trash heap. That’s when I noticed for the first time that it didn’t even stink of garbage.

I awkwardly stepped off the dinghy and onto the barge, running my hands along what I now realized was just a thin fiberglass shell with trash glued to the outside. Newspapers, candy wrappers, soda cans. Very little of it could decompose. It mostly just smelled of glue, and a trace of something else. Burning chemicals?

“Hey, where’s the doorbell on this sumbitch?” The boat man made a swooping motion with his hand that seemed to mean I could expect there to be an opening on the bottom to surface through, should I dive underneath it.

I called out more questions, but he swore at me and shoved off. Before I could jump back onto the boat, he’d pulled away and was headed back to shore. Still better service than an autocab! I didn’t come all this way to twiddle my thumbs on a fake mountain of garbage, so even as I pre-emptively regretted it, I dove in.

The water was a soupy mixture of fuck knows what all. I took care to wipe as much of it as possible from my face and hair after climbing up through a hatch in the floor. Unseen hands offered me a clump of rags.

Once I got as much of that shit outta my eyes as I felt I was able to, I opened them. To my astonishment, the fellow who’d offered me the rags was a white man. Frazzled grey hair with a few visibly burnt ends. A face full of mangy stubble. Decked out in oil stained swim trunks and most of a T-shirt. The tattoo on his arm read “Crazy Dave”.

“You must be the glorious motherfucker what arranged for that Panopticon blackout. I guess I owe you one, don’t I.” He didn’t yet say what he owed me one of. I reminded him the specific amount we agreed upon beforehand.

“Oh, I don’t know about all that. Look where you are.” I glanced around. The hollow interior of the faux trash heap was populated by a dozen other twitchy, snaggletoothed criddlers busy with welding torches. They all focused intently on the task before them, bodies trembling as they worked. One paced frantically back and forth, animatedly arguing with himself in whispers.

The burning chemical smell was much stronger in here. My eyes once again began to water, the skin around them swelling slightly. I briefly considered the cost/benefit analysis of having nictitating membrane implants put in under my eyelids. How could he stand it in here without a mask on? They all seemed totally unbothered.

“So you’re fucking me over. Is that it?” Dave said that was unnecessarily strong language. “You’re new. I couldn’t find anything about you except that you’re a body hopper, everything we turned up was about the conshelfer who used that body before you.

The way I see it, that probably means you’re running from somebody. You already got enemies you can’t handle. Can you afford to cross me?” I grimaced, but didn’t dispute his analysis. He smiled slightly, rotten brown teeth showing through the gap between his lips.

“That’s what I thought. You also beat up one of my guys, or did you forget? After that, you think I should roll out the red carpet for you? On the other hand, that was some impressive work you did. I might could use you again in the future, so I tell ya what. I’ll let you go with one of the bikes. Your pick.” The filthy fucker. That load of bikes was worth at least three D-coin.

Wishes aren’t horses though, nor are they bikes. If this beggar means to ride, a deal will have to be struck. “It’s funny” I chuckle. “The first ex-pat I see in China, and he immediately fucks me over.” Dave looked bewildered. “We’re in China??”

At the far end of the enclosure, I found a row of freshly rebuilt ebikes. Frankensteinian combinations of mismatched parts, though at least a token effort had been made to spray paint the plastic body panels and fairings to match.

What a sorry looking stable to choose from. Behind the bikes was a stack of sleep capsules and a gas shelter they must’ve jacked. The hoses, normally hooked into city air utilities, were instead fastened to industrial sized compressed oxygen cylinders.

I understood where he got the sleep capsules. There was a glut of them even six years ago, manufacturing overproduction due to the intensifying exodus of climate refugees from parts of the globe no longer fit for people. Now bums lug them out of the landfill, run them off a jacked solar panel or splice discreetly into city power. The modern shanty.

I also understood where he got the gas shelter, and why. But how did he get his hands on those O2 cylinders? How did he manage to build this fake trash barge? How fucked do your priorities have to be, when you can accomplish feats of criminal brilliance like the one I’m standing in now...but you can’t hold down a job, or an apartment?

When you’re that far gone, all your brainpower goes to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep the meth matter how elaborate. Intelligent stupidity. The limitless energy and fanaticism imparted by a brain full of crank, misdirected into the construction of this floating fiberglass absurdity.

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