Away from the gleaming lights and hologram billboards. Away from the cacophony of adverts, vying for real estate in our augmented reality contacts. Not off the grid, nowhere is off the network anymore, thanks to cheap satellites and cheaper aerostats, but where the bandwidth thins and the darkness, both real and virtual sets in, that’s where you find them.
Soda might be bottomless, but my bladder isn’t. Desperate times require desperate measures, and my medical app is screaming at me about UTI risks. A hop, skip and a jump, and I dive into an alley. Instantly my ping timer drops. There’s less stress on the network off the main streets, but also less bandwidth. No point investing in places where there’s no money.
I stop by an overflowing dumpster, the private refuse collection doesn’t bother here for the same reason the bandwidth moguls skip on by. It seems private enough, so who’d bother being back here? I drag out my cock, brace a hand in the wall and let fly a stream of steaming piss against the prehistoric brickwork, jet-washing away layers of grime to reveal the primitive neon cave-paintings beneath the muck.
A little anime girl blinks into existence as my bladder drains and gives me a wink and a thumbs up. The score on my medical app has gone up. A timely, successful piss makes me a safer insurance risk by a microscopic amount. and earns me a pittance towards buying trash from the companies in my insurer’s umbrella corporation.
“Spare a couple of hundred dollars?”
The voice seems to come out of nowhere, and the last dribble of piss runs down the inside of my jeans as I jerk in shock and hurriedly tuck myself away. A cautionary ping appears from the smart dust in the jeans, telling me they’re now 48% soiled and could use a wash. Even my goddamned jeans are nagging me now.
“Sorry pungyo, I don’t carry cash, certainly no change.” I shrug apologetically.
“I can accept more than a thousand forms of crypto and process credit microtransactions.”
He’s a rank-smelling, filthy-haired hobo, swaddled in layers of torn clothing, one layer upon another like an over-enthusiastically wrapped parcel. When he pushes back his blanket-cloak to show me his creakingly old notebook I notice some other things. Purple-black traceries of veins, a ripe stink somewhere meridional in relation to cheese, the dull glint of worn metal and plastic. Even his eye doesn’t look right, a blank, unfocussed red circle making slight whirring noises like cameras used to.
I pantomime patting my pockets and then decide to be straight with him.
“Look, I’m not giving you anything. You’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol, and that’s just a wasted investment I can’t afford.”
“Yeah, I’ll spend it on drugs.” He’s surprisingly forthcoming for a hobo. “Anti-rejection meds.”
Ah. I hear the words come out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
Shit, now I have to listen to his sob story.
“You could say I was an early adopter,” he tells me. “I lost my foot at the ankle to a Bolivarian IED in Argentina. They fixed me up nicely, gave me a blade to walk on. That thing, man, once you got used to it, it was better than the real thing. Saved energy, literally put a spring in my step. Lopsided though. Still, it was so good they let me re-enlist.”
I could feel the will to live draining from my body as he carried on.
“So I did another tour, but my meat-foot was bugging me. So I shot it, got a matching pair courtesy of the US government before it fell apart. That sorted the balance out. With that new foot, I could run faster, jump higher and they would have let me re-enlist again if the war hadn’t stopped. By then there were a lot of us right, amputees…”
I wrinkled my nose at the offensive term. “You mean, therapeutically augmented.”
“Yeah, augmented, right. All that fresh meat for the medical companies, they really came on leaps and bounds. Then the whole brain-interface thing took off as well, and you kinda had to be augmented to jump the queue for employment prospects. I spent my mustering-out money on a brain-jack and an ocular implant.”
“You were addicted,” I said, looking for a way to make an escape without being impolite.
“Yeah I was, but things were getting more complex, and because I was an early adopter my old augments weren’t compatible with the new shit. I went from the front of the queue to the back when I couldn’t get my brain-jack software updated any more. Then I couldn’t pay for the anti-rejection meds, and the rot began to set in. That made more implants harder to get.”
“Look, I’m sorry but…”
He didn’t stop talking, leaning in closer as he kept going. Shiva! The stink.
“But they were getting cheaper, unbelievably so, so I got a second brain-jack that could work alongside the first. Chinese, top of the line, only it turned out it was laced with spyware and malware. It’s still playing adverts in my head and uploading everything I do to whoever owns the technology these days. Once that came out, well, that was me out of work pretty much anywhere and everywhere. Nobody wants a relationship when someone’s watching from behind your eye.”
I began to slowly back away.
“Can’t update, can’t afford meds. I tried live-streaming my life on RealTube, but the life of a homeless reject isn’t ‘monetisable’ or ‘in alignment with this company’s core values’. I’m just fucked.” His head hung low, and I took the opportunity for another step backwards.
“AND THIS FUCKING ADVERT FOR NOODLES WON’T STOP!” He smashed his head against the wall, as though trying to break the old bran-jacks out of his head.
“THEY DON’T EVEN MAKE THEM ANY MORE!” Blood ran down his craggy face, washing a slightly cleaner line through the caked-on grease and filth.
“Perkele! Fine, fine, take this. Just stop hurting yourself!” I tossed my smallest, loaded crypto stick at him. There were a few thousand dollars in semi-defunct currencies on there. Enough for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, perhaps.
He scrambled in the dirt and the puddle of piss for the crypto stick, whirring and clattering, twitching and swearing like a junkie. He was all rust and filth, lice and fleas, malware and spyware, defunct systems in defunct hardware, dragging down the meat with the rest of it.
“Caution, infection risk!” Chimed in Insuro-Chan, and I had to concur. I left him there, flaking and rusting in the dirt. Obsolete in every sense, the Betamax of humans.
But that could never happen to me.
“Insufficient data! Please update and upgrade your Insuro-Chan medical companion!”
James ‘Grim’ Desborough is the Video Guy at Trigger Warning and a rapidly ageing gothabilly. He is also an eminent atheist and libertine who spends his time writing, editing, and designing analogue games.