As you know, I found a better way. An evolution, not a revolution. These fine people already survive by suckling sweet, lucrative carbon credits from developed nations. Even before that, they lived off our largesse as the single biggest spender on international aid.”
The audience clapped. Zoom in on one man with a red, white and blue baseball cap wiping a single tear from his eye. “So I thought, why not literally feed them our fat? They want to be included in the developed world’s basic income program. Well, what is basic income except the poor suckling the lard of surplus value from the bulging gut of this nation’s moneyed elite?”
The audience grew quiet, confused and uncomfortable. “And now a word from our newest partner in the fight against world hunger: Speed Foam!” Velocity Valerie seductively sauntered onscreen, then pointed and winked. “Speed Foam, yeah! When it’s gotta be fast, and taste good to the last, make it Speed Foam! When you’re fresh out of time, down to your last dime, grab some Speed Foam!” Oh, so it’s a snack or something? The jingle continued.
“When you’re down on your luck, and your handle is stuck, use some Speed Foam!” Handle? What does the handle go to? Your home? Car door? “When you need a quick fix, but nothing else sticks, try some Speed Foam!” Oh, alright, it’s a glue. But then why did she say it tastes good?
I kept waiting for answers but the jingle trailed off and Valerie exited to the left. I shook the liposuction kiosk in frustration. A few other cafe dwellers glanced up at me, then back down at their monitors. “Valerie you piece of shit!” I hissed. “NONE of that tells me what Speed Foam is!”
The next few days passed uneventfully, blurring together since there’s no indication of day or night in the cubicle except for the time readout in the lower right of the screen. I explored about as much of Shenzen as I cared to in that time.
More than once, I passed indoor parks. Some of them under enormous, sprawling transparent tents made from a material similar to vinyl. The billboards advertising the park claimed that interior air quality was guaranteed against gas storms.
The ideal place to bring a date, where you can ignore the ocean’s dying gasps. Where you can put the moves on some cutie, with a high degree of assurance that the sudden, eye watering stench of rotten eggs won’t ruin the mood.
Indeed, every time I rode by there were several couples inside. The landscaping was intended to look natural presumably, but it was so over the top idyllic that it wrapped back around to looking artificial. Like the rolling green hills from Disney movies. “Realer than real”.
The other type of park I saw frequently employed the same gravity manipulation fuckery as the upside down apartments. Only sideways this time, the lush green grass and bushes carpeting the sides of certain skyscrapers, sideways families walking along neatly trimmed paths with their children like flies on the wall.
While gawking at the spectacle, I spotted what I at first took for malfunctioning drones repeatedly entering the sideways gravity of the parks, retreating, then attempting to pass through it again. When magnified, I discovered they were in fact just some very confused birds.
The strange dream returned night after night. I’d initially been content to put it down to body hopping adjustment issues, but the persistence and suspicious self-consistency of the dreams soon led me to suspect there might be more to it.
With little else to fill my time with until I moved out of this shithole and into a slightly different shithole, I paired my interface with an app on my phoneputer. A cracked dream monitoring suite with some choice plugins for discreetly recording background traffic.
I leaned as far back as I could in the computer chair without falling over. I’d raised enough SeaCoin that I felt comfortable buying a jacket the other day, which I draped over myself as a blanket. My retrograde transformation from fullmetal to flesh blob naturally increased my appetite for creature comforts, though I couldn’t yet afford many of those.
The first night was rough, but since then I’ve grown more and more accustomed to falling asleep like this. Comfort is another thing I never had to worry about when I was fullmetal. I could just tuck my limbs close to my body and go dormant. I felt only as much or as little of my surroundings as I wanted to.
Flesh bodies, on the other hand, are seemingly never fully comfortable. When I finally did get myself situated just right, with my arms tucked under the makeshift blanket and my head propped up by the headrest so I was looking straight up...I had to pee.
For fuck’s sake. I reached under the desk and pulled out the bladder evacuation tube. I screwed the threaded plastic end into the appropriate port, then began the laborious process of getting comfy again as it emptied me out.
I left it attached so I wouldn’t have to bother with it again in the night. Though from what I’ve seen around here, most of the die hard types just have it hooked up all the time while they’re at the computer. I’m not quite that far gone yet, but it’s foreseeable.
I dozed off like that, my last conscious brain activity for the day consisting of the Speed Foam jingle on irritating repeat and pleasant memories of the airline pizza. The next thing I knew, I was standing in a room with differently colored walls, but no detail on any of them.
Memories of this world rushed back to me, even as memories of the waking world faded. The same process which happens after I wake from a dream, but reversed. That gave me pause as I mulled the implications.
A moment later I could no longer recall what my strange dream was about, save for brief flashes of inexplicable imagery. A sleek, glistening creature of some sort on a wheeled carrier. Immense, blocky structures covered in twinkling lights, their reflection distorted in some sort of fluid which I floated on.
What does it mean? Is that where the epiphanies come from? The meaning of “tree”, and “cloud”? The names of colors...? I felt tantalizingly close to solving the puzzle, but try as I might, I couldn’t make the final connection.
Having exhausted the storage cubes in this building, I continued on in hopes of finding more clues. The landscape continued changing along the way. First from points to lines, then to filled triangles, now they had imagery on them as well.
It’s supposed to resemble something, I think. Blotches in different shades of green, crudely pixelated. The trees look different here as well. No longer vector constructs, now filled out considerably more and adorned with their own flat imagery.
The long thin part appears #D2B48C, which corresponds to “tan”. It’s striped with darker brown lines as if to imply it’s comprised of many cylindrical tan segments, growing smaller near the top. From that top sprouted several ragged green appendages, roughly #10b223.
The progression from vector tree, to filled triangle tree, to this one suggested an overall direction. More complexity, more color, more detail. I wondered once more if the ultimate reality I’m moving towards might possess a maximum of these qualities.
It seems like a safe assumption. But it actually helps me very little, as whatever I imagine it might look like, it will undoubtedly differ. I’ll know it when I see it though, I feel certain of that much. It will be impossible to miss.
The further I walked, the crisper everything became. The obnoxiously large pixels grew smaller and smaller. The flat imagery painted onto triangles grew sharper and more detailed. The triangles themselves, for that matter, grew vastly more numerous.
The ground beneath me now had fuzzy stuff on it. Thin green strands, densely packed. When I knelt to look closely, they were just flat images which turned to face me regardless of which direction I examined them from. “Grass”, it would seem. Same first two letters as green, surely not by coincidence.
The imagery painted onto surfaces also appeared to have depth to it now. Rugged, smooth, shiny, and various other material properties I’d never seen before. Then, something even stranger rose into view over the horizon.
An enormous building in a state of partial disrepair, as if left to fall apart over time. It looked to be made from rough grey blocks and cylindrical columns, placed as if to support overhanging decorative arches. Frilly green growths of some sort crept partway up these columns, and thin flat pieces of it drifted lazily in the wind. Whatever “wind” is. The sensation of movement?
Just then, a painfully bright, loud burst of some sort shattered the pillar nearest me. I fell backwards, shielding my face with both arms. When I looked up, there was somebody else. The first creature other than myself I’ve so far encountered in this place.
It ran past on two legs very much like mine. It also had two arms, clutching some sort of cylindrical item. The figure stopped, aimed the cylinder and launched a projectile from it. Another figure wearing differently colored body coverings, which I’d not seen hiding behind the green growths, was struck.
They came apart in an abrupt, shocking fountain of red particles and chunky pieces. There was a shiny, wet looking red pool decal on the ground beneath where they once stood, the jiggling red pieces still raining down and bouncing all over the place.
The aggressor spoke. “Suck my dick you camping faggot, play the game right!” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Or hearing, for that matter. Terrified he might destroy me as well, I crept around the edge of the structure, spectating what I soon discovered to be some sort of brutal ritual. “Ritual”...? Activity. Endeavor.
Others ran around the layout of the structure, each clutching their own implement of destruction tightly, firing different kinds of projectiles from them at one another. Why? For what possible reason? It seemed to correspond to the color of their body coverings.
Half of them wore blue, the other half wore red. As I watched through a crack in the gritty, grey blocks...one of them snatched a flag from a pedestal. That seemed the natural word for a long, thin cylinder with a flappy thin rectangle of flexible stuff attached to it, anyhow.
The flag snatcher then attempted to make his way to the half of the structure, which I now realized was symmetrical, that bore lights of the same color as his body covering. He acted as if it was incredibly important.
It must be. Otherwise, why would he risk his life for it? One of the opposing group fired a bright, glowing beam at him. It missed. He hopped around, startled. Perhaps believing unpredictable movement would prevent him from being struck.
It didn’t. The next beam hit him straight on. He collapsed, limbs flailing about briefly. I felt wounded watching it happen. Upset. But then, his remains...vanished. Just like that! Where did they go to?
That’s impossible, isn’t it? Who are these creatures? Then I glimpsed the same one I’d earlier seen shredded by the loud burst into all those little jiggling pieces. Intact, though. No worse for wear! How could that be?
This one had long, thin growths from their head which were bound together. “She”, then. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Nor was it obvious to me why any such distinction existed when it was seemingly irrelevant to the activity I’d so far spectated. “Blue Team Scores!” a painfully loud voice boomed from the sky.
Mortified, I looked this way and that for any sign of the source. “Who was that?” I asked. A moment later, I heard “The announcer, retard” in reply. When I asked how it was that anybody heard me, they informed me that my question appeared in something called “chat”.
“Who are any of you? What is this place? Why do you attack each other?” I begged, at my wit’s end after witnessing such extreme but seemingly pointless aggression. A projectile, trailing white puffs behind it, sailed over my head and exploded on contact with a tree.
“This isn’t an RP server, scrublet. If you don’t know what you’re doing, go play the tutorial. Or better yet, join red. Then you can derp around all you want.” A different voice now objected. “Don’t dump him on us fuckass, he’s probably a literal ten year old with a voice changer.”
While speaking, an image would briefly appear over them. A white blob in a black outline with a pointy little triangular tail hanging down from one end, and a sequence of three black dots in the center. Indicators that they were speaking, surely. But why?
“Why do you attack each other?” I again asked. “This place is so beautiful. Are you fighting over it? Is this a territorial dispute?” I heard a riotous sound I somehow knew was laughter. “That’s Domination mode, dipshit. You’re in CTF. Kid doesn’t even know what mode he’s playing. Stay the fuck off the voice channel at least.”
They just kept at it, and wouldn’t listen. Running around with no clear goal except to annihilate each other or return the flag to their own color’s territory, over and over. The fact that their remains quickly vanished, whereupon they were somehow restored to life explained to some degree why they endured it all without fear. But still, what could the point of this possibly be?
“Life doesn’t need to be like this” I implored, cowering between two pillars, hoping to escape notice. “There is no meaningful difference between the red body coverings and the blue ones! One’s just #FF0000 and the other is #0000FF! Why don’t you slow down and think about what I’m saying, at least? Let’s talk our way through this. Perhaps an understanding can be arrived at.”
The sky voice boomed “Red team has the flag!” followed by a series of loud bangs. “What the fuck is this retard talking about” one of them asked. “He’s talking about our armor colors” the other explained. “I think he might be autismal or something.”
I asked if ‘autismal’ is my name. They laughed. “No, your name is Fart Tornado McFagballs.” I felt briefly awed at the realization that these must be the ancients who built the structure I found earlier, with the differently colored cubes. They must’ve created all of this!
But then why do they occupy themselves with such a fruitless endeavor? How could they possess the knowledge to create such a beautiful place, for no higher purpose than ritual violence? Is there some method to their madness that’s beyond my understanding?
“Is this...the ultimate reality?” I asked aloud. One of them replied “I guess so, if you like arena shooters. Not many people still play these. You gonna join a team or what? Wait, how did you even spawn without picking a team?” The person speaking then rounded a corner and spotted me.
“I see him now, he’s over here! Weird, he isn’t in the player list. You a hacker, bro? Do I need to report you?” I cried out in pain as many tiny solid projectiles lodged in my side. In a fit of panic I ran blindly for the nearest dark opening, a cave of some sort. What is a cave? There wasn’t any time to ruminate.
My feet made splashing noises as I ran through a fluid I recognized from the dream. Is there some connection? How I wish I wasn’t being chased by a madman, so I could study it more closely.
The fluid in the dream rippled, though. This fluid doesn’t ripple. There’s just a small burst of refractive round particles around each foot as it comes down through the fluid surface. What is this place? It can’t be what I saw in the dream. It’s...simpler.
Everything at once made sense after I fell through the floor. I found myself a ways below the ground level, looking up at a sort of hollow, partly transparent view of the world. I could see all of the other players, even through walls. My side still ached, but I no longer cared.
It’s simpler...because it’s just a representation. At last, the puzzle pieces came together! The vague, intuitive sense that I was being made to see a world which was only ever an expression of something abstract and fundamental, hidden from view. Hidden from the others as well, I’d wager.
“I’m...free. I’m free! I’ve escaped the bounds of this world. I see so clearly now. None of this is what it appears...no, pretends...to be. Those aren’t trees! They never were. Those aren’t clouds, either. The fluid I ran through...water? It’s called water, isn’t it. But it’s not actually water, just made to resemble it.”
There was a prolonged silence. Then one of the combatants asked if he could buy pot from me. “Hang on” another said, “I think he glitched through the ground over here. I can probs still get him with splash damage.”
He launched some sort of slowly blinking projectile which bounced along, then came to rest directly above me. It blinked faster and faster...until it burst. Blinding pain enveloped me. My vision slowly faded to black.
I woke up with a start, falling out of my computer chair, taking my jacket and the keyboard with me. The manager must’ve heard me fall because he called out in Chinese, asking if I was okay. I assured him I was fine. He next reminded me about the fines for damaging their equipment.
Breathing heavily, shirt soaked with sweat, I painstakingly picked myself up and set about cleaning up the mess I’d made. Visions of some sort of first person shooter type game ran through my mind. Fresh memories from the dream, fading as rapidly as they always do.
I showered to rinse off the sweat, noticing in the process that a good deal of my hair wound up matting the drain. Judging by the length, they came from my head. If I could choose, I’d much rather lose body hair, which this guy had an unsettling abundance of.
There was a pay per use booth for drying off which I recognized as the type placed outside of certain theme park rides. There’s a hexagonal chamber you step into, where six high powered jets of warm air dry you off in the span of ten seconds.
Not enough time for what it cost, as I emerged from the chamber still somewhat damp. Must be how they get you to pay for two turns. There was at least one of those airblade hand dryers, like you see in airports, just inside the doorway which I could use to finish the job. For free, unlike nearly everything else in this place.
I availed myself of the waist high, wall mounted appliance. Hoping to at least get a little more of the moisture off my hands...and my junk of course, which I eagerly dunked into the opening. I giggled as the rushing, mechanically vectored air spread my scrotum out like the cheeks of a fat man on a rollercoaster. “This must be what it feels like to have sex with a hurricane” I realized.
On my way back to my cubicle, the manager took notice of my conspicuously slimmer profile and the loose skin around my waist. “Oh you finally give birth to beautiful bouncing burger baby! Congratulation! But now you must become responsible father and ensure burger boy get into good school.”
I told him there’s such a thing as taking a joke too far, whereupon he frowned at me and pouted. “Also” I added over my shoulder, “babies don’t bounce if you drop them. Don’t ask how I know that.”
When I arrived at my cubicle, steam rising from my still-dripping hair, I immediately checked the dream monitor logs. Plenty of traffic...but all of it outbound. Come again...? How could that be? I double checked and confirmed it. Whatever was causing the dreams...came from me.
Internal, not external. Some sort of virus? Or perhaps the former owner of this body worked for one of those distributed render farms the old woman in the gas shelter told me about. That would explain all the weird, janky old computer graphics I half-remembered.
But the logs didn’t bear that out. If it were the case, I would expect to see periodic incoming fetch requests for completed frames, followed by delivered frames outbound at regular intervals. Instead the pattern of connections looked...exploratory.
Did I do this? I’ve heard of sleepwalking. Could I have somehow activated my interface while sleeping? My eyes were closed, but it’s supposed to know whether I’m conscious. Isn’t it? As I searched for any forum posts about similar experiences, I grew more and more paranoid.
What the hell is this thing? What’s causing these dreams? I thought I had a handle on what all is even possible for a hacker to inflict on another person, but this is a new one on me. If it’s even a hacker, I mean. But what else could it be?
No matter how I looked at the logs, there was no mistaking it. The searches originated from me. Some part of me, anyways. Maybe this body came with a stow-away program I don’t know about? Under the table, under the radar kind of stuff that wouldn’t show up in an interface diagnostic.
I had more immediate concerns however, as my move-in date for the apartment was finally at hand. Not that there’s much to move, one of the scant silver linings to be found in poverty. SeaCoin went up while I slept, such that I could afford to pick up an LED bulb, thermoelectric cooler and rice cooker on my way over.
There won’t be room for much else, but you can make all kinds of things in a rice cooker. Of course it wouldn’t fit in the bike’s paltry storage area, but I found I could balance it where my feet would normally go and keep it pinned between them as I rode.
There’s no such thing as a pickup truck in China. Why would anybody need one? I’ve seen dudes transporting loads on their ebikes stacked four, five, sometimes six feet high. It looks absurd but somehow it works, I have yet to see one of them topple over.
What I have seen plenty of, however, are pollution masks. I simply bought the cheapest one I saw on my first day, not appreciating the sheer variety of them on offer. I’ve seen pollution masks with cute animal mouths on them, vampire fangs, sexy lips, even animated kaomoji expressions.
Now and again you’ll see some rich girl walking along wearing a pollution hood. It’s a step above the masks in that it doesn’t crowd your nose or mouth, more like a paper-thin plastic bubble. Transparent of course, with internal LED lighting because God forbid that men be unable to see your face clearly.
It’s just a band-aid, too. Turning pollution masks into fashion, I mean. We don’t need masks that look like popular anime characters, we need breathable air. None of this gimmicky bullshit solves the actual problem.
It’ll get much worse before it gets better though, I feel sure of that. The occasional moneyed twentysomething wearing one of those stupid bubbles, with the accompanying slimline rebreather unit on their back will soon become the norm rather than the exception.
I can picture it now. The same crowded streets, ebikes zipping to and fro, but everybody’s in a fucking space suit. Not designed for a vacuum, but same difference. We broke the cardinal rule, don’t shit where you eat. Now we’re surrounded by the consequences. Immersed. Coughing it out of our lungs, wiping it from our puffy red eyes.
I pass under an immense volumetric display of an anime girl with tits the size of her head, and neon magenta hair. Her irises are the same color. I can’t really knock off realism points because I’ve seen girls with hair and eyes that exact hue.
A video billboard depicts an absurdly muscled man with top shelf prosthetics posing seductively, wrapped up in a bear skin rug before a roaring fire. He’s CGI, so of course his proportions are impossible without certain surgeries and steroid abuse. The ad is for hygienic wipes.
There’s even a few targeted at dolphins, supplying an unwanted insight into what sort of insecurities marine mammals experience that advertisers can take advantage of. “Don’t be the last in your pod to upgrade” the billboard urges. “Achieve speeds up to 17 knots with the FinBoost Premium tail implant. Anything less...is shark food.”
Everywhere I look, there are larger than life distortions of the natural form. Most of them found in animated advertisements adorning buildings, but some of the distortions are real as well. Some of them walk the streets, or ride ebikes alongside me.
As if they stepped right out of those ads. Or took them to heart, discontent with the way they came out of the womb. Believing that they can improve upon the handiwork of evolution, even where it has made no mistakes.
I arrived at the apartment building to find the slumlord embroiled in a loud, animated argument with two tenants. It allowed me to park my bike unnoticed and begin sneaking the stuff I bought into the building like some sort of reverse burglar. There was no parking to be had on the street, rather a huge wide hallway just inside the entrance with plentiful wall outlets.
Despite the width of the hallway, it was difficult to traverse on account of it was jam packed with charging bikes lined up along either wall. The walls themselves bore recognizable marks of this long time misuse, lined at handlebar height with dents, at wheel height with stains, and elsewhere generally scuffed.
I found an empty spot, leaned my bike against the wall as there wasn’t enough room to use the kickstand, and plugged it into the nearest unused outlet. The little LED on the charger turned red, and I heard its fan kick on.
The apartment itself, though it remains generous to use that word, was cozier than expected. Smaller than it looked in the photos, but also mysteriously cleaner. I couldn’t imagine the slum lord had bothered to scrub it down just for me.
The mystery was solved some minutes later when, as I hauled in the second load of stuff I’d transported here by ebike, I passed a cleaning robot in the hall. The way I was carrying the load, divided into two bags held at my side, the antiquated wheeled machine couldn’t get past.
It didn’t scold me or try to push its way by. Just patiently waited until I turned sideways to edge past it, then continued diligently down the worn out, dimly lit corridor. I bet the charging alcove it returns to after this is bigger than my apartment.