It’s my fault for trying to make sense of it. None of this was the result of a rational decision making process, after all. I mentioned offhand as I browsed the bikes that I knew of a woman he ought to meet. I described the flat-earther whose vlogs I binge watched on the plane.
He seemed tickled. “Naw bro, if I was gonna get tied down, it wouldn’t be to some nutjob like her. Only fluorinated sheeple with calcified pineal glands believe the Earth is flat. That’s just a CIA psy-op to make alternative ideas about the Earth’s structure seem ridiculous to the public, so they will never discover it’s actually hollow and populated by advanced beings with a limitless energy source.”
Uuuhhhhhh huh. I slowly nodded, not breaking eye contact, then pointed to the bike I’d chosen. Out of them all, it looked the most like a real vehicle, the metal frame enclosed in a hollow plastic body with a nice wide pleather seat. The rest of the bikes more or less resembled scaled up toys. Some little more than motorized kick scooters with a seat, turn signals and a speedo.
“Yeah, this will do.” He hobbled over, put his hands on his hips and nodded in apparent approval. “Good eye, but those go for about 450 Yuan. You sure I can’t talk you into-” I glared at him. He played it off like a joke, now assuring me I could have the one I’d chosen. One minute a thug, the next minute a coward. Probably if I waited long enough he’d forget he owned any of this.
I gasped as the malformed conning tower of a poorly made submarine of some kind surfaced through the same hatch in the floor I had earlier. A ramp folded down. An acrylic bubble canopy opened up. Then a crew I assumed were just more of Crazy Dave’s buddies climbed out to help me load the heavy-ass bike into the sub, via a small indoor crane of the sort often used to lift battery packs or motors when working on cars.
“Drop him off at the harbor” Dave called to them in Chinese. Then he made a gun cocking gesture with his thumb and index finger at me, and winked. “Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya. That’s the Crazy Dave guarantee, you’ll never leave empty handed.” I forced a smile as the ramp folded back up, the acrylic bubble hatch sealed shut, and the sub began to sink.
It was roughly ten feet in diameter inside, packed front to back with yet more stolen ebikes. The mystery of how they transported the finished bikes back to land was solved, not that I particularly needed to know. Where’d they even get a sub? Is there anything these fuckers can’t get their hands on?
My bike was offloaded onto a concrete platform at the water’s edge, next to a drainage pipe just barely large enough to ride the bike through. Indeed, that turned out to be what they meant for me to do. “If this is how Dave treats his business partners”, I thought, “I’d better see to it that we don’t wind up enemies.”
Flecks of sewage splattered my face, thrown up by the wheels. My eyes were spared thanks to a pair of cheapo goggles I found in the flimsy little lockable storage compartment. That was the only mercy however, I couldn’t help but ride straight along the inch or so deep flow of dubious brown water which ran along the lowest point of the pipe.
As a consequence, by the time I emerged from the other end of the pipe into an open air concrete trough like the one I reached the bay through, I was speckled head to toe with…”dried residue”. At least the tide was low, such that the concrete trough wasn’t flooded. I doubt very much that this thing would float.
What I wouldn’t give for it to rain right now. Of course when you most need rain, it never comes. I couldn’t get into a capsule hotel or the net cafe to use the shower looking and smelling like this, so I instead resorted to spraying myself down at a charging station.
The pressure washer accepted D-coin so I didn’t wind up having to spange, and despite all the strange looks I got in the process, all I cared about was getting that smell off me. So this is what it’s like to start over at the absolute bottom. I know I did it once before, but must’ve repressed those memories. Now I see why.
The bike proved zippy enough to hold its own in traffic, and the wind at speed helped dry me off. Now that I was actually on it, I could see how shoddily manufactured it was. There were panel gaps large enough to fit a finger through, and through those gaps I could see some truly dodgy looking welds on the frame itself.
It felt like riding something held together by glue and rubber bands. I don’t doubt that I’d find some of each if I opened it up. All the plastic panels and fairings rattled slightly from road vibration as I hurtled along, pedestrians occasionally leaping out of my path and shouting slurs at me.
Is this really what my life has become? I’m too damn big for this little plastic piece of shit. Like one of those bears that rides the tiny tricycle in a Russian circus. How did I get to this point? Seems like just yesterday I was the slickest thing on two wheels.
Now I’m riding what amounts to half a mobility scooter that feels like it may come apart under me at any moment, on my way back to that sad little cubicle. All so I can eventually move into someplace even smaller, packed together like sardines with all the other bottom feeders.
But it didn’t get me down. It made me hungry. Hungry for the finer things in life, to rebuild everything I’ve lost. Anybody trying to live this kind of life needs to be wired like that. So that when life fucks them, it makes them angry instead of sad. One man sees a tragedy, the other sees a challenge. It’s only the second man who can wrestle life to the ground and fuck it back.
I passed a bunch of other, similar ebikes. A few of them had motorcycle style bitch seats, which got a smile out of me. What woman would be caught dead riding on the back of one of these? I’d no sooner finished the thought than an ebike pulled up to the stop light next to me with a gorgeous, fashionably dressed girl of perhaps twenty perched on the back.
Well okay then, shows what I know. Above us, a skyway stretched from the skyscraper to my left to the one on my right. More upside down people, living upside down lives. Not a party this time though, what looked to be luxury apartments instead.
It hurt to look at, the more I contrasted my situation with theirs. “I’ll be where you are by next year” I thought, pumping my legs to help the motor up a steep hill. It felt oddly pleasurable. Muscle struggling alongside motor, each one picking up the other’s slack as needed.
Blue Moon was a damned sight faster, but it also did all the work for me. This ebike’s more of a cooperative experience. I didn’t appreciate that it was too small for me, or that it maxed out at 20mph unassisted. But I did appreciate how much less power it used to get the job done, compared to my old bike.
When you begin to value efficiency over raw performance, you know you’re old. I didn’t feel old right then, however. I felt as frivolous and carefree as I was when I built my first electric bicycle out of parts I scavenged from the junkyard.
There’s a well understood pleasure that comes from powerful motorcycles. But there’s a less well understood pleasure known to comparatively few. The feeling of lightness and freedom, of compactness and efficiency.
Like how the thrill of a powered hang glider differs from that of a jet. The immediacy of it, exposure to the elements and the minimum possible amount of materials keeping you aloft. This bike is built on an aluminum frame that weighs maybe twenty pounds.
Even with the motor, batteries, plastic and carbon fiber, I can still lift it myself. Not an ounce of it is needless. There is only and exactly enough here to constitute a useful vehicle, not a single gram more.
What to call this? The strange giddiness of vehicular minimalism? A feeling I’d never have discovered had my life not taken this otherwise miserable turn. It seemed to me one of many ongoing adaptations to my new conditions taking place in my brain since arrival.
Before, it was “work smart, not hard”. Now it’s “do more with less”. Arguably one in the same, just seen from different angles. I don’t need that gimmicky overpriced apartment, I thought. I don’t need anything except strength and wits...muscle and machinery.
I scoped out the net cafe from the pedestrian space up on a platform above it. The police drones were gone, and the ebike parking spaces were mostly full again. I pulled in between a gaudy pink and white sit-down scooter that looked like it was designed for a Disney princess, and a modest red and gold cafe racer lookin’ thing. Would’ve looked halfway nice if not for all the dried mud on it.
Both were plugged into the same post, blinking indicators on their dashboards confirming that charging was underway. I tugged out the retractable charging cable from my bike and plugged in at the next post over, double checking the little display between the handlebars to ensure it was receiving juice before dismounting.
My cubicle was how I left it, as I’d paid upfront for the full six days. The small island of comfort and security I was able to afford on what little D-Coin I still had to my name. I settled into the reclining computer chair, then ordered some baozi and a snow pear tea.
I also ordered a distributed computing bridge. I knew I’d need it to get any use out of those trash phones. I’ve seen DIY masters use these things to build supercomputers out of everything from gaming consoles to “smart” coffee makers. Anything at all with a chip and a bridge port.
The upside is the bridge itself is fairly cheap, and you can add onto your total computing power one device at a time. Ideal for...shall we say, “urban scavengers”. Every new device I can put my hands on will help me mine coins that much faster.
About forty minutes after the overhead delivery arms brought my food and drink, I got a notification from the front desk that a delivery drone had dropped something off for me. I consented to the fee, then headed up to the front to fetch the package.
Smaller than expected, but the build quality looked good. I powered it on to make sure it worked before giving it four stars on the site I ordered it from. I next ordered a keyboard, mouse and fresnel magnifier so I didn’t have to squint at the shitty little screen on the main phone.
They arrived the same way within the hour, the manager giving me increasingly suspicious looks following each new package. “Hamburgers!” I explained in English. “From America.” A look of recognition and comfort replaced his suspicion.
“Ah yes, of course. You Americans and your precious hamburgers, ha-ha. Yee-haw, pardner!” He poked my admittedly conspicuous paunch. Despite not quite understanding what cowboy slang had to do with sandwiches, I rolled with it.
I guffawed, gave my tummy a big ’ol slap and cracked another throw-away joke that pandered to his preconceptions of Westerners. I then headed back to my cubicle with the final package, peering over my shoulder a few times on the way to make sure he wasn’t watching me or talking on the phone with anybody.
The exterior feeds were still up. I peeked at them every so often to check on my bike. There’s no fancy app to monitor charging, just the LED on the dash that blinks when charging and glows steady when full. I could just barely make it out despite the grainy video quality.
Just then, there was an accident in the street. The feeds gave me a front row seat to it. A woman was struck by a red egg-shaped tuktuk. As I looked on with morbid curiosity, the driver got out to check on the victim.
She lay twitching in the road, obviously in need of serious medical attention. He ran his fingers through his hair. Then looked around, got back into his tuktuk and began slowly running her over. She cried out in pain, beating uselessly at the ungainly three-wheeler’s front bumper.
I’ve seen this before. The law here is unusually severe when it comes to restitution. Whoever is determined to be at fault in an accident must pay the victim’s medical bills for any accident related injuries...for the rest of their life, if need be.
This law had the opposite of the intended effect. Drivers commonly make sure to finish the victim off rather than suffer the financial burden of supporting their recovery for years or decades. An ethnically near-homogeneous country of two billion with some of the most extreme wealth inequality on the planet has perhaps an unsurprisingly brutal take on the value of individual lives.
I’m no great philanthropist. About the best I can say for myself is that I’ve never killed anybody, as blood makes me squeamish and murders attract a lot more police attention than robberies. But for all I knew I was the only witness, and that tuktuk happened to use onboard software I knew how to take control of.
The driver looked this way and that in obvious confusion as his own vehicle began backing off the woman’s broken body of its own accord. I locked all the doors to keep him from fleeing, and submitted both the relevant video excerpt depicting the crime and our address to Panopticon, flagged for urgent police review.
It took them over two hours. I went outside to check on the woman. To my surprise, it was the partygoer I’d spotted through the skylight on my way out to the bay. I don’t think she recognized me, but then she looked barely conscious.
I called an ambulance, which landed about a dozen feet away a few minutes later. Two sterile white medical robots loaded her into the aerial ambulance’s patient compartment before docking themselves to charging alcoves mounted to the outside of the vehicle in anticipation of takeoff.
There was no wind as it lifted into the sky, tangled lanes of flying traffic cris-crossing at various altitudes above it. Just a barely audible hum, and a prickly feeling on my scalp and arms. I’d assume it was magnetic, except in that case it ought to rip my prosthetics off.
Instead it silently ascended into a priority sky channel, and accelerated towards the nearest medical center. “There” I thought. “That’s my good deed for the decade.” I ambled back inside to resume work on the phoneputer.
The most tedious part was flashing the correct firmwares to each phone. There was a different one for every brand and they all had to be the same version number. On top of that, the firmwares were a collaborative community project so I had to hunt the files down across a bunch of personal blogs and shit instead of getting it as a single package from a manufacturer’s support site.
When they were at last all humming together in unison, talking to each other as a unified whole, I wanted to cry with relief. It served as a reminder why bridge computing setups are the province of novelty-hungry hobbyists and not serious power users.
Still, this mess of wires and phones can do something a “real computer” can’t. Because it’s so parallelized, huge parts of it can fail and it only gets slower instead of stopping altogether. Like how you can chop off a starfish arm and it simply grows a new one.
That makes it uniquely robust against attacks, as their effects can be quarantined to a single phone which is sacrificed to save the rest. This hard separation between devices often succeeds at containment where nested virtual machines fail.
It’s not stable, but it’s scrappy. The right solution at the right time for a rat like me, running lean, flying under the radar. I adjusted the fresnel lense until I could comfortably read text on the display of the phone I’d chosen to serve as the monitor.
It occurred to me I could set the phones up in a grid and combine their small displays into a larger one, but I’d have to buy a considerably bulkier, costlier device for that. We’re talking a niche market within a niche market here.
I put it on my to-buy list after setting up my custom stack of miners. SeaCoin, a new ICO from the conshelf territories, looked to be trending reliably upwards. I set up 70% of my stack to mine SeaCoin and the rest to mine NeuroCoin, a longstanding rival for D-Coin’s second place slot just below FedCoin.
D-Coin is my usual mainstay. Rather, it was the mainstay of old me. Another habit I meant to break in order to make what little paper trail I couldn’t avoid leaving as difficult to associate with my old identity as possible.
If I ever put any real money into SeaCoin though, it would probably put me on some lists for an entirely different reason. Namely, it’s the crypto infamously used by fin separatists to buy weapons. Slowly shifting public attitudes towards fin independence probably accounts for the steady increase in value.
Not a race I personally have any horse in though, I’m just looking to climb out of the pit I’m in. Me and a billion others, clawing at each other like the proverbial crabs in a bucket. Well, would you look at that? Now I’m the one making crab analogies.
I run a quick search for what all free SIM offers are out there. I then search for consumer complaints about each and choose the one that’s apparently the least scammy. I still wind up having to log into my account, downgrade to the free plan, then check back a minute later to find “a glitch” has bumped me back up to the default paid plan.
I downgrade to free once more and bitch to a call center zombie about it. That does the trick. When I check back in five minutes, it’s still set to the free plan. But that’s not all it takes. More searching reveals many users are surprised with charges for going over the free data allotment.
It turns out you gotta switch off “auto top-up” buried deep in the settings menu. It’s just one thing after the next, hoop after hoop I have to jump through in order to actually obtain the free cell service they advertised.
I reflected on what Remble would say about the phrase “jumping through hoops” having a problematic history tied to human exploitation of fins for entertainment purposes before submitting the info necessary to activate the sims.
The bridge didn’t only let me pool the computing power of all the phones, but unify their cellular connections too. As a consequence, the paltry amount of data available per month on each free plan quickly added up until it exceeded what you get with most premium level plans.
The three orders of ramen I ate throughout the night came in paper bowls lined with metallic foil. I was able to fashion the bowls into cantennae style long-range wifi transceivers with a couple more gizmos off Amazon.
I used them to blend a further three wifi signals into the overall connection, which was now bordering on acceptable. Better yet, anybody trying to trace me would get back a bunch of different IPs scattered over multiple city blocks.
With all my bases covered so far as I could tell, I played back Panopticon footage of the accident. I wondered how she was doing now. I knew better than to try to hack into hospital systems. That would attract much more serious police attention than my stunt with the ebikes did.
Ships passing in the night, so to speak. Or hoboats, whatever. What I noticed on repeat viewings is that in fact, I was far from the only witness. I could see heads, feet, and other body parts of people just barely out of frame.
All of them were giving the accident a wide berth, but otherwise ignoring it. “Not my problem”, they must think. Don’t get tangled up in somebody else’s misfortune. Even I know better than that. There is no such thing as “not my problem”. No two people or things on the planet, or in the universe, which are actually 100% unrelated. They always connect to one another in at least some distantly causal way.
Problems don’t just go away when ignored. Somebody else suffers. The feeling that we’re truly separate, that another’s pain is only his to bear...that’s the greatest illusion of all. There’s nothing like a life of crime to illuminate those kinds of connections for the sort of person not already sensitive to them.
Eyelids growing heavy, as I’d ticked off all the boxes for today, I reclined as far as the chair would allow and got some shut-eye. It didn’t come easily, I had a bit of a headache from peering at the magnified phone screen for that long.
The slow pulsing pain in my forehead manifested as dimly colored shadowy splotches in my mind’s eye. Before I knew it I was asleep, and the splotches gradually morphed into a recognizable set of shapes.
I stood on the white vector grid, surrounded by equally stark vector-based trees as the sharp white outlines of clouds rolled by above me. Ahead lay something I’d not yet seen. A transition in the landscape from empty vector outlines to solid forms.
There was nothing in the way of texture, just flat colors adorning the triangular facets which comprised this new land. The mountains were blocky and angular as for some reason nothing was made from more than a handful of triangles.
The trees here looked somewhat more developed. No longer just white vectors on black, they now had brown trunks and green fronds. Palm trees. What is a palm tree? Where did those words come from?
Where does outside information keep occurring to me from? It has to come from someplace. I can’t believe I just automatically know all of these alien concepts for no reason. Is...there someone else? Someone feeding me this information?
I tried calling out into the sky. I don’t know why, it felt right. But I received no reply. The cloud outlines were now at least filled such that they were solid white, and the sky was now blue instead of black.
Everything appeared oddly grainy. Whereas the vector world had consisted of perfectly sharp, clean lines, this world appeared rougher somehow. As if I was looking at it through a filter which divided everything into a grid of colored dots.
Curiouser and curiouser. As I plod along, movement unexpectedly herky-jerky, I spotted a building in the distance. Crude polygonal letters above the entrance read “VRML 3D file bowser, copyright 1993”
Inside was a grid of cubes. I could somehow feel the different amounts of information contained within, as if each had its own remotely discernible weight. I could also, by the same intuition, sort them according to how recent they were.
I opened the oldest. Without explanation, I abruptly found myself someplace new. It was also made out of chunky colored dots, which depicted a simple room with an untextured floor and ceiling, but textured walls at 90 degree angles to each other.
For some reason I couldn’t look up or down. It felt extremely constraining after the relative freedom of the two worlds before this. Why make the world this way? For that matter, who exactly made all this?
Something like me? Have others originated before I did? Could it be that they constructed all of this long ago? Or was this all created by whatever made me as well? They seemed equally plausible given the relative paucity of information available to me.
Onward I crept through room after room, linked by corridors. The ceiling the same color everywhere, as well as the floor. Only the walls looked different from each other. When I first came upon an object, I didn’t understand what I was looking at.
It wasn’t fully fleshed out. Just a flat image of the object it was meant to represent, which rotated to face me no matter which direction I examined it from. Why? For what possible reason was it like this? It was meant to resemble a chair, whatever that is.
Something to sit on! No longer troubled by how I knew that, I instead wondered what the point was to a representation of a chair you can’t even sit on. Is this all some kind of farce? I withdrew myself from it.
The rooms and corridors vanished, and I once again found myself in the room with the differently colored cubes. I opened the second oldest, #4B0082 colored, hoping for something at least a bit more revealing than the one before.
Just more corridors and rooms. But more sophisticated than the last world, this time the floor and ceiling were textured rather than just the walls. I also quickly noticed that the floor and ceiling weren’t the same height everywhere.
Sections of each were now raised or lowered, respectively, to create interesting shapes in the environment. Stairs, for example. Another word which suddenly dawned on me out of the blue, along with that turn of a phrase. Out of what blue? #00BFFF? The sky? I walked up the stairs and looked out a window.
The landscape also consisted of geometrically defined shapes extruded up out of the ground, beneath a pixelated sky. Pixelated! That’s the word I wanted earlier. Why did it only occur to me now? By what rule is some information accessible to me when I want it, but not all?
When I strained myself to recall the words for other features of this world, I felt either blockages preventing it, or nothing at all. The sensation of groping blindly at thin air, in a dark room. What does it mean? Why does it feel like that? Why does it feel like anything at all?
The more closely I examined that concept, the more it came apart. No portion of it was distinct enough to pin down and resolve. What does it mean to feel a certain way? Why is being me like this? What does it mean to “be me”?
I studied my own thoughts, best I could. I noticed how they amass from many smaller pieces of information, such as external stimuli from the world, each contributing some direction to the overall thought. The average of those directions collectively formed my singular focus and intent.
If my thought process can be broken all the way down to individual stimuli...what am I? Am I simply those stimuli? Am I something else which reacts to all of it? If my pattern of decisions owes to past experience with these different environments...how am I separate from my environment?
Every sensory stimuli which contributed to the me having these thoughts right now came from my environment. If I had no environment to react to in different ways I would have no foothold from which to begin building a distinct ‘self’.
What if I’m all of it? Where do I end and the environment begins, in a causal sense? Every part of me interacts with the environment in some way, and every part of the environment interacts with me, if by proxy. The more I contemplated it, the more baffled I felt until I resolved to put the matter out of my mind for the time being. There was still so much left to explore.
Not tonight, however, as that’s where I woke up. What an uncomfortable, alien feeling to remember who you actually are after living some completely different life in a dream. The false nostalgia, for someone you never were. For places you never went, things you never did.
All of it receding rapidly, fading, growing blurry as your brain dumps it all in the recycle bin. That must be the evolutionary reason why we forget our dream lives so readily. For naked savannah dwelling primates who needed to focus on immediate survival concerns, it must’ve been helpful not to be constantly haunted by vivid memories of countless lives they never led.
At least I didn’t have a dream family in that one. At least I didn’t have a dream wife. That always makes it a good deal more bittersweet when I awaken to the reality of my existence. Which, right now, is the meager solace of instant noodles and the flickering computer screen before me.
I clicked on a local news stream. It was some dramatic social concern piece about the increasing trend of celebrity worshipers to integrate themselves into a hive mind with their idol. Hive mind may be a harsh term, but also essentially correct.
The musician, or athlete, or whoever else forms the nucleus of the neurally-networked collective becomes something like the ego of the resulting meta-personality. It’s still distinctly, recognizably them, as if they’ve become the head with all of their followers comprising the body.