Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 7

Their followers become like appendages, both physical and cognitive. Their own personality still present, but subdued by comparison. It reminds me somewhat of how male anglerfish are totally absorbed into the bodies of the females, becoming nothing more than a new internal organ for producing sperm.

Or slime molds. Billions of single celled organisms working together as a single large super-organism, though any individual is free to come or go as they please. Perhaps an atavistic leftover from the stage in evolution where life went multicellular.

A glimpse of a different path life might’ve taken, where participation in the larger organism was voluntary. Instead the cells in my body are locked in place, unable to leave. Assigned specialized tasks from birth, be they lung cells, fat cells or neurons.

A reflection, in microcosm, of the country around me. The beautiful suited host was grilling a K-pop idol about the ethics of inviting her fans, mostly young impressionable girls, to sacrifice their individuality in order to be connected more directly and intimately to her.

There was also the matter of her judicious rejection of middle aged male applicants, of which there was apparently an embarrassing abundance. The two had a laugh over that, pictures of sweaty bald salarymen who’d applied to neurally merge with her scrolling by in the upper right portion of the screen.

They looked a lot like me. I suddenly felt self conscious and wished I’d been a touch choosier about which body I bought. I looked down and gripped as much belly fat as I could in each hand. Fuck it. Everybody knows “You break it you bought it.” But if you already bought it, then break it!

It’s settled, then. I’m gonna run this fleshy mass into the ground before I pour that kind of money into a body again. For better or worse this is who I am, for at least the next five or ten years. The next story was something about genetic engineering.

The host gestured to an inset image of genetic scientists working on what she described as plastic eating bacteria. “Shining Tomorrow Corporation has been identified as the creator of a cutting edge microorganism that rapidly devours plastic waste...a species recently found many kilometers outside of containment.”

The image changed to a feed from the bay. A trash barge like the one I got my ebike from floated there totally exposed, most of the trash once glued to the outside having evidently been gobbled up by this super-bacteria.

There were police robots cuffing resentful looking criddlers on the barge, though I didn’t see Crazy Dave among them. “The outbreak of plastic eating bacteria recently resulted in the discovery of a large electric bicycle fencing operation taking place right under the nose of law enforcement...cleverly camouflaged as a garbage scow.”

I hope Crazy Dave is watching this. I bet he’s shitting his pants right now if he is, not that it could make them noticeably filthier. Then again it’s bad news for me too. After everything I did to get my foot in the door with those creeps, they’ll be shut down for sure now...and all I got out of it was an ebike.

When I made my way up to the front, rays of morning sunshine pouring in through the lobby windows stung my eyes. A consequence of the dark little cave I live in for the time being. I glanced behind me. Through a few partly opened doors I spied lost souls like myself, transfixed by the dancing colored lights of their computer screens.

“How you sleep, American customer? So big belly! Are you pregnant with burger child?” The manager laughed uproariously at his own joke, grabbing my midsection and jiggling it around. “No more package today for you. You want add more days?”

I shook my head, slipped on my pollution mask and emerged into the open. I can’t say it’s fresh air I was after, since there’s not much of that to be had. It’s more that I couldn’t bear to be cooped up in that cubicle all day. I had no particular place to be until the apartment building repairs completed, so I just rode around to get the lay of the land.

Shenzen is dazzling at night, but not much to look at during the day. From street level it looks more or less like any other modern city. That said, there’s still a handful of eye catching landmarks. Distinctly Chinese architectural oddities that remind you which city you’re in.

The swooping roof of the surreal looking civic center is an irresistible photo op. Shows up right away in any image search for “Shenzen”. There’s also a number of theme parks, “Window of the World” probably being the most famous for its miniature replicas of famous international landmarks.

This whole city is like a theme park, in a sense. It puts on a flashy show for visitors during the day, but after the sun goes down, the park staff don’t leave. They’re already home. Many of them tucked out of sight, out of mind beneath street level in what amounts to human warehouses.

To my surprise, I once again caught myself enjoying the ride. The exhilaration of wind whipping through my hair, the endorphins released as I pumped my legs, the appetizing scent of street food somehow making it through the mask’s filter.

This is what it means to live, surely? Not hunching over the computer in that dimly lit chamber, slurping up plasticy noodles from their steamy chemical broth. But that’s my future, isn’t it? Hiding away like vermin, plugged into whatever rig I can cobble together, working my way back up from the bottom.

Maybe there’s room in my life for both. A balance to be struck between the computer and the bike, between shadows and sunshine. I couldn’t afford the bike without the computer, nor could I bear what my life has become without the bike.

The dodgy pile of parts was growing on me fast, as anything on two wheels tends to. For all its shortcomings, it was something to work on. To upgrade, to maintain. A focal point and outlet for my nurturing energies.

There’s something primal and pure about having a machine to take care of. I think men need that in their lives. It’s like a zen garden, something to maintain and keep perfect. If you do a good job taking care of the machine when it most needs you, then the machine will take care of you when you need it most.

The bike chose to interrupt this sentiment by breaking down. It rolled to a stop, throttle no longer responding in front of what used to be an indoor water park. There was an electronics shop next to it, and between the two an alley in which various covered booths were set up.

A marketplace. For those of us who can’t afford the prices at the electronics shop, and don’t care overmuch about where the merchandise came from. Shady looking scum all competed to drown each other out, loudly beckoning me to inspect their wares. My kind of people.

First, I had to diagnose the problem. The display was still on, but freaking out, all the different indicators blinking spastically. I plugged my phone into the motor controller. These things are often programmable so they can ship it electronically limited to whatever the legal max speed is, but the customer can then remove the limiter if they like.

I did no such thing, intent as ever on avoiding the wrong kind of attention. Besides, the one time I’ve seen a cop pull over somebody on an ebike, he plugged a cable into it from a gizmo which I assume checks to see if the limiter’s been disabled. They’re no fools. Instead I ran diagnostics with a free, ad supported analyst program I found after a minute of searching. Burst capacitor it turned out.

I found a long list of forum posts in the search results, people bitching about the low grade capacitors on this exact model of bike. They all recommended just replacing all of them at once rather than waiting for them to inevitably go bad one by one.

That would depend on what a capacitor of this size goes for around here. I used a part identifier app to determine whether the capacitors on offer were any good. The scraggly, wrinkled old man selling them crossed his arms and furrowed his brow, but didn’t object.

“These are top quality caps” he eventually spit out. I nodded. “Looks like it. I bet the bike you took these from was a good deal more expensive than mine.” Rather than take offense as I expected, he laughed, slapping his knee.

“Funny guy. For you, special price.” What was special about it turned out to be that it was only two times the market value of those particular caps, instead of three. Am I really the clown here? I showed him the price listings for the part on my phone and eventually haggled him down to market value.

There’s no way not to get ripped off here, all you can do is limit how much. The other booths were mostly selling knockoffs of American toys, games and clothing. I smirked at a t-shirt with English text on it reading “BORN TO DIE / WORLD IS A FUCK / Kill Em All 1989 / I am trash man / 410,757,864,530 DEAD COPS”. That’s a classic.

Next to it were action figures. “Sense of Right Alliance: Super Crime Solving Partnership”. A Batman figure, Superman, Spiderman, Shrek and a toy car for some unfathomable reason. Why is Shrek there? Is he lost? Do they all ride in that little car? I feel like there must be more efficient ways to solve crime.

Opposite him, a competitor was selling “Robert Cop” figures, patterned after a classic movie character. Not that you’d know it with their crudely sculpted, malformed little faces. “The furniture of law enforcement!” the packaging proclaimed. “Collect enemy and friend figures! Optical Prime! Robert Cop 2! Ray Liotta!”

Ray...Liotta? It just went on like that. Row after row of bootleg backpacks bearing the image of Sonic the Hedgehog with “Harry Potter” written across the top, and “Obama” written down the side. Just a wee bit past the point of cultural relevance.

Next to it, backpacks bearing Lisa Frank style cartoon lion cubs, with “ANUS” written just above. Come on, really? That had to be on purpose. Another depicted some sort of comic book cyborg hero surrounded by dramatic, stylized text reading “Black man loves the school.”

Who buys this stuff? Just then, someone edged around me to get to the last booth. A middle aged woman in a raincoat. She bought one of the “world is a fuck” shirts in small. I’m sure that’ll look sharp on her grandson.

There really is a market for everything, isn’t there. I couldn’t help but have a look at the games as well. “Super Wonderful Mario!” Loads of them were Mario knockoffs, in fact. One of them cryptically titled “Grand Dad” with a picture of Mario dressed up as Fred Flintstone. Sure, I guess he could have a grandson nobody knew about. Deepest lore. Next was “Super Plumb Mans.” Indeed, that’s an accurate description of their job.

I asked the fellow manning the booth what manner of beastly, high tech console I’d have to buy in order to play any of these absolute masterpieces of modern game design. It turned out I had a choice between Nintendo Polystation and Super Megason III.

Still not done amusing myself, I inquired as to whether he had a version of Ultimate Redneck Battle for either machine. To my sincere shock, he did. Except this one came on a lime green cartridge titled “Super Unhygienic Rude Country Men Fisticuffs ’96”.

Tragically, I didn’t have enough for both the capacitors and the game. I’m sure that my every waking moment after this will be haunted by not knowing what fabulous wonders I missed out on. Just how unhygienic were those rude country men? Now I’ll never know!

Just then I passed a booth with a part I recognized. “That’s a motor controller, isn’t it?” The woman selling the smattering of undoubtedly stolen ebike parts nodded and smiled. “Variable voltage! Can work with many motor, big or small. Accept any input voltage between 24 and 72.”

I looked down at the capacitors I’d already bought. God damnit. Then I checked how my mining rig was doing. Up to .2 of a single SeaCoin. I did some quick math in my head, and worked out that I could either afford the variable motor controller...or I could eat dinner tonight.

My stomach gurgled, as if casting its vote. You don’t get a vote you little shit, papa needs to soup up his bike. I emerged from the alley with a pocket full of capacitors, and a brand new motor controller. Well, new to me.

I wasted no time swapping out the old motor controller, still stinking of burnt PCB, then installing the new one. It needed some light soldering though. I frowned, mulling it over. Then took the old controller and capacitors back to the woman’s booth.

“This controller needs new caps. I’ve got some here and can solder them in just fine. Then you can have it, if I can keep the soldering pen.” She rubbed her chin, considering the merits of the exchange I proposed...then quickly set me up with what I needed.

It took about fifteen minutes, after which we both came away with something we wanted. It’s beautiful when economics can be that simple and pure. The kind of economics which needs no name, as it’s simply what occurs anywhere there’s more than one person, and each has something of interest to the other.

These booths, stolen goods notwithstanding, are a cleaner and more efficient expression of economic forces than anything found in the government’s latest five year plan. Just people guessing at what others need, supplying it, and sinking or swimming based on the level of demand which actually exists for it.

The way capitalism fills every viable niche in the market resembles greatly the way that evolution fills every viable niche in the ecosystem. If the environment favors swimming, it will eventually be populated by skilled swimmers. If it favors climbing, then skilled climbers will appear, demographically replace poor climbers over countless generations, and eventually be all that remains.

Likewise, if the market suddenly favors one material or technology over the other, those businesses which offer it will pull ahead of those which don’t. If that selective pressure persists, eventually every business will have either adapted to the change or perished.

This effect was of course noticed long before I was born, described as the “invisible hand” of the market. Mistakenly anthropomorphizing an unintelligent process because it produces outcomes that would require superhuman intelligence to engineer, something many religious people still do with respect to biological diversity and origins.

If you were to ask, for instance, “what would the cheapest hamburger any significant number of people would be willing to eat look like”, capitalism has an answer for that. Or “what is the highest end sportscar that would still attract enough buyers to turn a profit”, it has an answer for that too.

This is why, for instance, cars targeting the same application and income bracket often look very samey. There’s only a relatively narrow range of right answers to that equation. Evolution also often converges on multiple samey solutions for a given environment. That’s why dolphins so closely resemble sharks even though one is a mammal and the other’s a fish.

Historically, the most commonly proposed alternative to capitalism has been a planned economy. Rather than setting up capitalism and letting it go, procedurally filling niches as they appear, prices fluctuating dynamically according to what the market will bear, it is instead undertaken to do all of that manually by a central authority consisting of between a dozen and a hundred humans.

The economic equivalent of intelligent design, you could say. It doesn’t work terribly well unless those in control of the planned economy are in possession of both superhuman intelligence, which is easy to come by these days, and exhaustive economic expertise...which isn’t. This results in frequent shortages, as levels of demand for various products are incorrectly predicted, resources are mismanaged, and so on.

At this point someone usually says “But evolution is horribly brutal. Civilization’s purpose surely must be to elevate us up out of that primal condition, affording us with a degree of comfort, safety, fulfillment and opportunity not available to wild animals.” Indeed, nobody wants to live that way. These last few days were an ample reminder of why that is.

Nowhere is it more evident than in Shenzen and other special economic zones that a heavily capitalist society is unbearably brutal...for mostly the same reasons that a classical state of nature is.

Under those conditions, the strongest simply dominate the rest, warlords sending armies of malnourished serfs to fight and die in defense of their master’s property. These days it just takes the form of corporate espionage and assassinations, and the serfs live in capsules instead of huts.

So, governments regulate it. Regulation is like the rim of a pool table which prevents the balls from going over the edge. The ancap view is that it’s possible to play an absolutely perfect game where the rim isn’t needed...but how often does that actually occur?

The modern hybrid economy represents a fusion between deliberate design and optimizing process. Sort of like how we correct flaws in our own biology by surgically integrating a technological alternative. The rest of the body is still biological and a result of evolution, but evolution sometimes makes mistakes.

The most ideal outcome possible can be achieved by letting evolution do its thing...most of the time...but stepping in with an engineered solution whenever evolution produces an unwanted anomaly. Blindness, missing limbs or deafness for example.

This principle is why the economies of nearly every developed nation in the world employ a hybrid approach, predominantly capitalist but with socialist elements that smooth over capitalism’s rough edges.

After all, were there no safety net of any kind, millions would perish from exposure to the elements each winter simply due to being homeless at an inopportune time of year. The boom/bust cycle inherent to capitalism ensures that, when the bust rolls around, there will always be a new wave of freshly homeless.

But that isn’t a death sentence because, in recognition that only 8% of homeless remain that way for longer than three years, every developed country provides for the survival of the temporarily disadvantaged.

Healthcare is another example. Without such providence, any unexpected injury could result in your starvation. Can’t physically get to work? No family to support you? Starve to death. Can’t do the job you’re trained for because of an injury or automation, and can’t afford to retrain? Starve to death. This form of capitalism is riddled with dead ends, black pits with death waiting at the bottom that are much too easy to fall into...no matter how vigilant you are.

We can never totally eliminate all of these pitfalls. We can’t coat the world in Nerf foam so nobody ever stubs a toe, prevent milk from spilling and ensure that we never see or hear anything that offends us. That’s beyond the scope of a reasonable benefits system.

But a happy medium exists between the two. Between the pool table with no rim, and Nerf world. The only legitimate debate remaining these days is what the appropriate balance is. In the US, that balance is now more or less the same in every state because of the second civil war. In China, it’s different in every city.

A patchwork economic quilt. Different paradigms coexisting within the same national organism, carefully sewn together, all of it somehow working in harmony. That’s the true meaning of cybernetics, after all.

It doesn’t just refer to surgical integration of robotic prosthetics. In a more general sense, it means the study of how different paradigms can be fused such that they work more effectively together than either does on its own. Biology and technology. Capitalism and socialism. Chocolate and peanut butter.

My contemplation was interrupted by a call from Dad. No video, just voice. “Where are you, boy?” I told him about the flight, the gas storm and how I was biding my time in a net cafe until the apartment was ready.

“So you made it to Shenzen?” He sounded frantic and out of breath. I asked him if anything’s wrong. “Everything’s wrong! They found your body!” My...body? I looked around for any sign I was being followed. “Your old body! Your fullmetal body!”

Oh. Ohhhhh shiiiiiit. There I go leaving behind bread crumbs again. “They took Alejandro back to the mainland for questioning. The rest of us are stuck here, the stead is on lockdown until they have what they want.” ...Problem being, that’s me. The more of the big picture that came into focus, the less I liked what I saw.

I heard familiar muffled shouting in the background of the transmission. “If you don’t hear from me in a week’s time” he concluded before ending the call, “meet me at these coordinates.” I saved the attachment, what looked to be GPS coords for a coastal safehouse near the Northern most tip of South America.

When I pulled it up in Google Earth after settling back into my cubicle, there was a dilapidated dock jutting out into the sea, but there didn’t seem to be any buildings nearby. Then again, there wouldn’t be if it’s a hideout. Not ones that are visible from orbit, at the very least. Under the jungle canopy, maybe? Or an underground bunker.

I fought the temptation to call him back several times throughout the afternoon. He’d taken a big enough risk calling me the once. For that matter, he wouldn’t have mentioned I was in Shenzen if they didn’t already know.

That’s right, Alejandro. He knew where I was headed, so now the enforcers do as well. I wonder what else he told them? Alejandro is a remarkably skilled surgeon, but never struck me as the sort of guy who could weather much torture.

My stomach growled, this time more insistently. “Just eat some of this, you piece of shit!” I commanded, pinching my belly fat. As I did so I grazed the edge of a port I didn’t even know I had, protruding from my hip.

It turned out to be for fat removal. Like most people with leg prosthetics, this guy apparently had some trouble burning as many calories after his legs were replaced. Now it’s become my problem, and the sedentary nature of my lifestyle ever since moving here hasn’t much helped.

After the suction finished, my skin hung noticeably looser around my trimmed-down midsection. “Would you like to donate your extracted cellulite to InterNourish?” the lipo kiosk asked. Interwho? I ran a quick search in my interface. Apparently it’s a company that turns surplus cellulite suctioned from first worlders into dehydrated emergency rations for starving villagers in impoverished countries.

A little inset video played, showing a dark skinned man in a tattered “Coca-Cola” t-shirt eagerly taking a bite out of the flaky rectangular yellow bar, row after row of dingy favelas stacked up behind him. There’s no fuckin’ way he knows what that’s made out of....is there? I’d have to be McDonald’s hungry to eat one of those.

“Then again…” I thought, picking at the styrofoam bowl of instant katsuo udon cradled in my left hand. I wonder what all this sodium and MSG is doing to my body. “My” body? What an easy mindset to slip into. But it’s not my body, is it? Never was. I’ll just throw it away when I don’t want it anymore, like the fat.

An excerpt from a press interview with the CEO of InterNourish now played. “Like many of you, I could never stand to sit by and watch children in under-developed countries go hungry. At first I thought, why not feed them to one another until there’s just one big fat kid left, then roll him into the sea?”

Quick cut to audience members slowly nodding, rubbing their chins thoughtfully. Then back to the sharply dressed CEO. “But then I thought, should we really run the risk that he could float to mainland America and resume feasting? Having already developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh?

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