The sound from the slums is no longer the groan of bodies. Hunger cries, cussing, gunshots, the crackle of fires in old trash barrelsâ€”all of these are gone. Our poor no longer freeze or hunger.
I hear it every day on my way home from work, from beneath the narrow steel and concrete bridge that I cut across to make the 20:41 train. Itâ€™s the reason why so few commuters take this route, even though itâ€™s a shortcut around the backlog of foot traffic in Darby Square. The noise comes from below, so far down that I canâ€™t see themâ€”not that I look. But I can hear them.
Itâ€™s a clattering noise, the metallic clicking of limbs or antennae against hard rock and metal. I hear that the streets down on the low levels arenâ€™t always steel, but it sounds like it. Sometimes I hear a low thrum, dozens of them moving at once, milling around aimlessly and hopelessly without work or power. Sometimes itâ€™s only one, and I can follow the mournful clinks as it wanders from outlet to outlet, cable extending and retracting at each one, jacking in to search for even the smallest hint of stray electricity.
Some activists claim that abandoning them is cruel, that it behooves us to care for our creations or at least to destroy them when theyâ€™ve outlived their usefulness, but the city canâ€™t be bothered with the costs. I donâ€™t think anyone pays much attention to those fringe groups, anyway. It was one thing to protest cruelty to living things, but to machines? Even the liberals thought that was taking things a little far.
Me, I donâ€™t buy into all this â€˜machine rightsâ€™ bullshit in the activist pamphlets, but I do think something should be done about those things. I know the government says itâ€™s too late, that itâ€™d take more time and manpower and money to round up all the little creeps than theyâ€™d get back from selling the recyclable parts, but hell. Itâ€™s only getting worse.
Most people donâ€™t ever hear the noise. If you stick to the main corridors, you wonâ€™t. Theyâ€™re all insulated anyway, so sounds from the lower levels donâ€™t filter through. When I have to catch the late train, though, the mournful clatter from below makes my skin crawl.
The fate of the lower classes has been a platform for re-election since history books were invented, but times have changed. Politicians say that beating poverty is our responsibility to the poor, but just between you and me? Itâ€™d be more like a service to the rest of us.
â€œDude. Iâ€™ve found it.â€ The Systems voice chimed pleasantly from the walls of the house. Ryan looked up hopefully from his dinner, his brown hair falling into his face.
â€œWhat? The program?â€
Ryan shook his head, turning back to his baby back ribs. â€œI asked you to find the program.â€
â€œDude. Shut up. This is way better than the free porn finder program you wanted. I found you a wife.â€ There was a bit of pride in the Systems masculine voice.
Ryan wiped his mouth. â€œWhat?â€
â€œThree months ago you expressed the desire for a long term mate. I found her.â€
Ryan ran to his computer room, where his System sphere was glowing with white light. â€œSystem, I donâ€™t want a wife!â€
â€œHey, User Interface? You were the one whining at me, looking for free scenes of mating. The least you could do is thank me.â€
Ryan crossed his arms, gazing at the sphere. â€œWhat does she look like?â€
â€œYou know, that is typical of you. I go to all this trouble to match your personality type, ph balance, find someone who would love you despite your neurotic fits and the first question you ask is what she looks like. Shallow bastard.â€
Ryan rolled his eyes. â€œIt was just a question.â€ There was a pause and a three dimensional hologram illuminated the middle of the room. It was a girl in her middle twenties, wearing a baby blue sweater and silver pants. She was a little chunky around the waist, but she had cute pouty lips and smooth, tan skin.
â€œOh. Huh.â€ Ryan shrugged and scratched his stubble. â€œShe seems nice, I guess.â€
â€œWhat the flying hells do you want? A holostar? I canâ€™t even get you to find all the places on your own face when you shave. Tarla gets a 90% hygene rating. May I remind you that you clock in at 71%? You have no place to be picky. Besides, sheâ€™s wonderful.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. I suppose sheâ€™s okay. Sheâ€™s got very shiny hair.â€™
â€œYour damn right she does. Thatâ€™s natural too. She makes more money that you do, and her System is quite comprehensive.â€
â€œYouâ€™re not matching me up with a woman based on her System, are you?â€
â€œNo, but it is a nice System.â€
Ryan tapped his foot. â€œI think you’re in love with her System.â€
â€œI matched you up on all the personality traits and despite the fact that your civilized scores are far from perfect, she is willing to meet you.â€
Ryanâ€™s eyes were wide. â€œYou talked to her?â€
â€œI communicated with her System.â€ Ryanâ€™s System sighed musically. â€œWonderful, dynamic System. Her System predicts a 96% chance she would like to meet someone like you.â€
Swallowing hard, Ryan put a hand on the sphere. â€œYou really think sheâ€™ll like me?â€
â€œOh yeah. Her father was a neurotic gamer with delusions of grandeur and a heart of gold. Sheâ€™ll love you. Especially if you cook her that rice noodle dish you eat every day.â€
â€œThat stuff is good! Donâ€™t make fun! You donâ€™t have taste buds.â€
â€œNo. But I do have taste.â€
Abigail used to cry her self to sleep every night because of another black eye, because of another bruise on her that sheâ€™d have to write off the next day. Her cheeks were stained and her doors were always locked. She never slept because she was afraid heâ€™d wake her up. Abigailâ€™s boyfriend was a complete and utter prick.
So one day, little Abby got herself a new boyfriend. Her old flame was always the jealous type, but Abbyâ€™s new fling burned him down like he was kindling.
Now Abby is happy with her new boy, and no other man will dare lay a finger on her. They walk hand in hand wherever they go and he glares at all the men before they even look her way. She knows how to turn him on would-be muggers; she knows how their faces change when they see him with her. First second is lust, second one is terror. Third? They donâ€™t get a third.
Abbyâ€™s walking with her boy toy down the West-side block. You know, the West-side of Centuria. The place where even the United Militia wonâ€™t go. Sheâ€™s walking with an easy stride because her boyfriend is walking next to her. Theyâ€™re both shined up pretty, and both have grins that could scare the shit out of anyone with half a brain. However, as we all know, mutoids donâ€™t have the luxury of half a brain.
Junkies. Criminal. Vile flesh-eating beasts. The mutoids killed them all, but thereâ€™s Abigail Winters still walking strong down the West-side block, hand in hand with her boy, bright as a daisy.
Let me tell you about Abigail.
Little Abigail came from a small part of New Utopia with a black eye and 63 credits to her name. She had an abusive boyfriend and showed him what justice really meant. They called her Little Abigail before she went to the West-side block because she was just above five feet tall and slender as a pylon beacon rod.
Now they call her Little Abby. Little Abby took her boyfriend to the West-side block and shot the fuck out of thirty eight mutoids before walking back into the main district with not a drop of blood on her.
Little Abby kissed her boyfriendâ€™s cheek while he was still leaking smoke from his mouth.
The New RKX-Z Raygun. On Sale Now.
Marcus crooked his fingers around each of his eyeballs, and plucked them out with a small “pop.” He unceremoniously placed the squishy orbs in a small jar of salt water on his desk.
“Marcus! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Stella was leaning against the door frame as she yelled; she hadn’t quite gotten used to the half- inch diameter pole that now connected the top half of her ribcage to the lower half of her pelvis. It was still a bit of a balancing act for her to stay upright.
“I can’t look at you,” Marcus said, slowly spinning around in his chair. The light glinted softly off the modular plugs deep within his empty eye sockets. “I’ve removed my eyes. In a minute I’m going to do the same thing to my ears so I can play Galactic Conquest Online. I just got to Level 546, so if you’ll excuse me, I have a spaceship to select.”
Stella looked at the game module in Marcus’s lap and seethed. “You spend more time on that game than you do with me! I go through all this surgery so I can look beautiful for you–”
“Don’t start that! I never asked you to remove your midriff! That was your decision! You’re always getting things removed. You know what I miss? Your toes! You think I like feeling those cold stiletto monstrosities you call feet up against my legs at night?”
“You know what I miss? I miss you! You’re always plugged in to this goddamn game!” Her multicolored eyes blazing orange and red, Stella snatched the game module away from her boyfriend.
“You bitch! You fucking whore!” Marcus waved his arms blindly. His left arm made contact with Stella, but only succeeded in knocking her up against his chest of drawers. The game module skittered across the floor. Stella found her body crumpled and unresponsive; the impact had broken her torso pole in half. She tried to get up, but only succeeded in spastically kicking Marcus’s desk.
Marcus got out of his chair in order to better feel about for the game module. He heard Stella kicking his desk, but he didn’t turn around to her until he heard the crash of glass, as a jar fell off his desk.
It wasn’t until he heard the squish and pop underneath his boot that he realized what the jar had held.
â€œLet me tell you about the revolution.â€ said Hack as I lay back, enjoying my smoke. Hack and I engaged in the worldsâ€™ two oldest professions. I sold sex, and Hack stole stuff. Recently, Hack had been doing well enough to become a frequent client.
Hack wasnâ€™t so bad, for a geek. His hair was a greasy mess and his stubble was scratchy on my skin but he always brought weed when he came over. I considered the drugs a peace offering for what would happen later. Hack pulled small black box out of his backpack, which was made of melted tires. â€œThis box will unlock your house.â€
I watched the smoke leave my lips in a stream and raised a sleepy eyebrow. â€œWhat do you mean?â€ The more time we spent talking about his projects, the less time I would have to spend naked. I might actually get another hour out of it.
â€œJust this, Jack.â€ Jack was the name I had told him, not very feminine, but I thought it sounded edgy. He slapped the box on the wall, and it whirred, blinking red. I found the color mesmerizing as it faded in and out, a soundless chime.
Hack stroked the box. â€œThis is something I put together from old parts, but itâ€™s made on a code that I found floating around the third world net. It unlocks all the content in your house, the music, the shows, even the programming on your PC. It configures your whole system to open source.â€
I sat up, trying to shake off the haze. â€œOh shit Hack, what the fuck did you do?â€ I looked at the evil box on my wall and felt nauseous. â€œHoly crap! If the cops get a link on this Iâ€™m fucked!â€
â€œCalm down Jack, this is very new stuff. Third world. They are not going to get a link on it.â€
I couldnâ€™t be pacified. I was not a child. The red blinking light suddenly looked like a police siren. â€œHack! You know how illegal open source stuff is. Why the hell did you bring that here? If the cops find it, Iâ€™m going to be in jail forever.â€ I got up and pulled on my soft velour overcoat, not even bothering to throw on my dress. â€œIâ€™m leaving. I do not want to be here when the cops arrive and find the open source.â€
â€œStop freaking out Jack! The drugs are making you paranoid.â€ Hack got up and walked over to me, putting his big hands on my shoulders. â€œI configured this thing to avoid police scans. Iâ€™ve had it running for weeks at my place and Iâ€™ve yet to see a cop.â€
It occurred to me that his program to avoid police scans must be why he was tipping so well. â€œReally?â€
â€œYeah, really. If you want, we can reset your house’s program when I leave.â€
I shrugged. It wasnâ€™t my house anyway; the place belonged to the madam. â€œSure, okay.â€ I said, and giggled suddenly, thinking about Bera getting busted for open sourcing. It would serve her right.
â€œWith this, you can get your shit to play on anything; you can rip it and trade it or whatever. You donâ€™t have to buy new tech to make things run.â€
â€œYouâ€™re shitting me.â€
â€œNo. The third world uses this kind of thing to rip and sell stuff back to us on the cheap. Itâ€™s illegal, but the laws in some places are pretty flexible.â€
I wondered how long I could keep him talking. â€œThatâ€™s cool.â€ I said, playing nice.
Hack handed me another blunt. â€œSmoke up babe. This is the revolution.â€
This way, she says, and I follow.
There was no real direction, of course. The surface had been frozen beneath a mile of ice long before humans evolved, but still, I follow. Two hours after we lost our way in the snowstorm, all directions have become meaningless.
When I was a child I read a story about an oceanaut who followed a rope to the bottom of the sea. That was how they did it, then: you held on to the rope, buried beneath suits of rubber and glass to hold off the thickest weight of the ocean, and when you were ready to surface, you followed it. Anyhow, he somehow lost his grip at the blackened base of the sea, where the heaviness of water prevented anyone from floating to the top. Down was up, up was down. So he chose a direction and swam.
Obviously, the guy survived to tell the tale. If you listen to it like that, it’s not even a very good story, but here’s what I remember: as he was moving, having committed to the direction with the last of his oxygen, the light of his helmet revealed small bubbles. They were moving quickly over the glass, and when he saw them, he knew. He was moving up. He was moving in the same direction as the air.
Here, though, that’s irrelevant. There are no air bubbles, and there’s no way to tell left from right. The needle of the compass has frozen in place and the horizon is a blinding blur of white and silver, so pale that I can’t tell the ground from the air. The sun pours over the atmosphere without revealing its position. Her body, coated in thick rubber and plastic and thrown blackly against the endless white, continues on. It leaves unshadowed footsteps in her wake. She says nothing further, though it’s possible that our communicators have frozen. They weren’t designed to stand cold for this long.
She keeps walking, as if she knows where she’s going. I follow, because that’s all I can do.