Monday, January 23, 2012

Terminus Machina: Kennedy High

The school was a sagging public husk, the color of dead trees, and now served as the scratch paper for urban-tribal grafitti tagging battles, squatting cubby holes for the Deadweight refugees of the endless economic recess. Frayed steel reinforcements wormed out like bone fragments from fractures in the concrete. The layout itself was indistinguishable from a prison; high barbed walls and claustrophobic passages, CCTV panopticon of a since-failed mini police-state. Since handed on the torch of civ-lib infringement to the far more menacing, off-balance sheet tentacles of Gnossis and the Olympian cabal of information-financial empires, who’d hollowed their nation-state Titan-parents into a North American Weimar Republic. The school was, ironically, an apotheosis of 80’s apocalyptic riot fear, rode in on a dark wave of paranoia over children’s safety. Infamously designed, like other Cali schools, by the San Quentin architect. Bullet proof polycarbonate windows the size of police car dividers. Several glass panes had been chiseled out of their cavities, leaving random empty sockets of jagged concrete, like the methed-out mouth of a stage four wyre addict. The impervious quartz probably serving now as anti-riotpolice riot shields in guerilla firefights against Cybersec’s drone paramilitary. Kennedy High’s star spangled banner was somehow yet waving despite the surrounding entropy, flying bright amongst the red glare of car fires and distant artillery skirmishes burning the night an eternal crimson twilight, some grand sardonic District Ten joke biled up by its collective subconscious. It was nice to see that Americans could still pull together to accomplish great things.

The bombed-out factor of Kennedy High was extreme, even among the municipal dereliction all around, and the rubble lay with a certain archaic stillness that suggested it had been hit long before the Intellectual Property Wars or the Plebland Austerity Riots. Caused, perchance, by some unforeseeably Gaiagenic Black Swan disaster, an earthquake turned armchair humanitarian guilt-sink. Or more likely, a stray missile mis-launched by a Killerhunter autono-drone, whose iffy slave-labe North Korean QA allowed the hypersonic deathmachine’s buggy AI to turn AWOL. Or, perhaps, the school’s decimation was the result of active human malfeasance, the only commodity in abundance nowadays. Whatever the true culprit, the truth was now redacted from the universe’s cache by the sandblasts of time; any bombshell fragment, any fingerprint of high-explosive residue that might indict someone had long been sandpapered by weather, fallen down a storm drain. The digital media footprint of the event would’ve equally vanished beyond the one-hundred-forty character memory horizon of contemporary humanity, attention spans eroded by a half-century’s outsourcing of mental faculties to ubicomp. Smartphone Zen retardation, 24/7 connectivity imprisonment by the ever shrinking digital Now, the last page of status updates, this moment’s car-crash. In our world, history washed away like unnoticed dead bodies swept down the Hudson, amongst shoals of shredded bank paper. To be swallowed by the vast sea of last-moment’s Shiny #trend, the bitrotting, fundless remains of actual longform journalism soundbytten to meaningless shreds by bottom-dwelling pseudo-reporter clickwhore feeding frenzies, regurgitated by aggregator leeches, erased finally into oblivion by the cleaner wrasse of corporate reputation scrubbers. The uberglomerate’s personal free market incarnations of the Ministry of Truth.

“Ohmguhz, Kennedy High, I used to go here. Fuck this place.” Krash Koarse vocally broadcasted a dozen decibals too loud. With corporate sensorwebs engulfing the world like fallout, physically shouting was the meat-quivalent of Chirping your VerID hash and TorrentCoin account number to the known universe on Friendbook, like public fucktard number one. What am I talking about, “like”?

“Dosboot said right here. Unless I’m geohacked. Which is impossible, so we should be standing at the end of the rainbow.” Krash Koarse backhanded the stone age LCD readout of his radio frequency meter. “Piece of shit paleogear must be bricked.” The kid flipped his annoying fucking devil lock that was supposed to be steemo-coldpunk-fanime or whatever musical chairs label it was this millisecond. I swear I would cut that fucking thing off with my nanotube shank he did that one more time. Maybe accidentally knick a pretty little emerald eye.

“You scanning GSM too? They could be pushing any spectrum here, FYI.” Leeloo advised, grazing Krash Koarse’s arm with her halogen white Snooki nails that jammed the fashion signal of her exgoth-turned-stable-single-mom black jeans with the branding equivalent of a prefrontal lobotomy.

“What? Yeah, of course I’m scanning GSM. Pfuh.” The n00b unsuccessfully tried to bury his fail under a fa├žade of relaxed posturing and random button presses. It was obvious that for “Krash Koarse” (what the fuck kind of alias is that?) manipulating a real device was beyond his smart-gadgetified head, so used to being manipulated by dVices that he had to reflexively check a Gnossis search engine to remember his own name. Another skull datamined of its grey matter, leaving a walking ‘net-dependent vegetable with chronic anterograde amnesia. Like the rest of the “Premium Internet” brainslave herds, forking over arms and legs to tech giants just to recall on their pocket-neocortexes how to button their cuffs and tie their shoes. Stumbling like blind infants as they reached for their ‘Gnossis maps’to download directions just to make it around the corner to the grocery. You knew when they jacked the price of wireless service, forcing the poorest links to fend without their search, their mental wheelchairs. The next wee, news feeds would be flooded with hundreds of thousands accidentally napalming gas stations with lit cigarettes, sudden infant homicides would skyrocket as mothers bottle fed Diet Coke to their babies. Course, the MSM-generated tweets cloaked in astroturfed robo-avatars would disinform everyone that the explosions were the result of World Class War suicide terror, and that the infant deaths were due to lack of proper and regular “vaccinations” which were Trojan horses for biosubversion and involuntary drug addiction. And the digitally lobotomized hoi polloi, without the mental scaffolding to disagree, accepted it. The Digital Revolution was making Pol Pot look like a small time butcher. A more streamlined Final Solution, like wars or the crack dropped by the CIA like weed killer into black and minority neiborhoods in the 70’s. filled the role of stabilizing hyperinflation by killing off demand, or in the Plebland case, simply eliminating the unnecessary worker. Astounding how you could wipe out several billion years evolution of pre-Cambrian spatiotemporal awareness with a decade of gadget abuse. I wouldn’t wager on him making it through boot camp.

And neither would Maxx, who had ADHDed off to test his Genie-Gene™ biohacked “hammer fists” on a no-parking street sign. Screeching plosives each time the lugnut haymakered the sheet metal with his hypertrophied knuckle bones, bulging like ossiferous battering rams. Weather-curled paint flakes poofed up like toxic confetti, to be inhaled by his dilated nostrils. But in Maxx’ dire case, the brain damage might actually have made him smarter.

Raised by rats in some Ashlands refugee tenement, part Samoan part Siberian, Maxx was a refrigerator, physically and mentally. Keanu Reeves on a strict regiment of steroids and paint thinner. After you finish unwravelling your braintube around how a Samoan and Siberian would ever find themselves in the same geospatial vicinity and reproduce, there was the more pressing connundrum of how to keep the bull from wrecking the China shop for five minutes. But Maxx was insurance muscle, and it never hurt to walk with a big stick, especially in District Ten.

“Maxx, buddy, let’s cage the hulk for a bit, k?” I sighed. He paused for a beat, gave me this vacant bullmastiff look, then resumed piledriving as his brain’s angular gyrus failed to connect the dots and decode the figure of speech.

“The shackles of the shadow plutonomy set upon us by the bastard children of capitalism, those errant barons of the Digital Endarkenment, cannot be broken by clenched fists, but by clasped hands.” Philacrat addended from behind a bird’s nest of dreadlocks and puffy eyes drowning in seas of weed-laced LSD. Fucking professional vaporware PhDs. Another entirely different phyla of Ashland creature, evolved isomorphically to be just as annoying. The manchild would’ve been useless as the litany of embossed wax-sealed paper he rode in on and the academic-ese seasoned word-salad he subsisted on but for his Enclave sugarparents connections and a marksmanship proficiency, randomly acquired through some prof’s gig-security bullshit elective entitled “Interpretive Riflery”.


***

Join Generation Hex they said. Hack the Planet they said. I was supposed to be busting down corporate datavaults, throwing wrenches into the Enclave’s corrupt computerized system of economic machination and outright violence spun as “counter-jobless-insurgency”. Or at least training an elite team of hacker-operatives. But here I was babysitting a daycare for meme-gurgling script kiddies, braindead meatheads and runaway haute-poseur trustafarians entertaining their La Resistance and cyberpunk badass pipe dreams. One of’em was even wearing a goddamn Matrix trench and shades.

Yes, shades. At night.

Cleaning up their fuck-ups, as they free-associated and loled at each other in txt speak. I swear I could hear their neural constellations disintegrating, every time one of them opened their mouth or checked a Feed. If these were the ‘best minds of a generation’ the San Fran jobless Ashlands could offer up against Gnossis, Ameribank and the mogul overlords, we might as well just throw in the towel.

I patched a back channel through StormCloud to Dosboot, the Hex-Gen handler and asshole in chief back at HQ, towel in hand.

“Welcome to uncle Chai’s MexiThai takeout. Try our new pad thaiquitos. Press one to hear our menu. Speak the name of the dish or dishes you’d like to order, after the tone.” Cultureless female automated-response voice.

“Isn’t it a Holiday in Cambodia?” I deadpanned the human handshake. Squall of white noise then the static cut out to silence, like rustling fabric, like a mask coming off.

“You. This better be the second coming of Steve Jobs or they’re going to Bradley Manning your ass in solitary for a fortnight.” The voice was a retro chimera, composed of Super Mario coin-bleeps and 14.4 kbps modem fireworks, molded through a vocoder into English phonemes, then animated by an autotune. A singing Nintendo. The melodification was supposedly always a randomly selected song, though I suspected Dosboot nefariously chose them for contextual irony/annoyance. This time the voice was answering in Rick Rolls. Classic Dosboot.

“It’s FUBAR, Dos. I can’t do this. These n00bs, they couldn’t hack their way into their own Friendbook accounts if they rubbed all five braincells together and OD’ed on synaptic accelerators. I’m beyond done here.”

“Have a little faith there, Nietzsche. They’ve all met the prereqs of basic training, they’re all qualified.” Dosboot’s ‘Ghost of Christmas 80’s’ voice changed stations, now channeling Eye of the Tiger. Qualifeeeeeeyed. Minimoog bassline galloping over a rocky TR-808 drum machine. Fucking asshat was probably laughing his ass off with his hand over the mic.

“That’s bullshit and everyone, including CheX, knows it.”

“The one of which we do not speak!”

“What’s it matter? The great Master CheX, legendary hacker who took out the Citycorp bank and Totech servers with nothing but a pee-wee whistle and a galvanized paper clip. The whisper lurking in the ASCII walls of every encrypted IRC channel, the go-to namedrop of every upstart lowbit-boy, the grand story upon which geeky apathetic atheists found religions. And where the hell is he? MIA since the burning of ChromeNet.” The 8-bit flourishes died down so long I thought Dosboot had hung up.

“Tell me about your father.” The voice finally said in a fifty-cent East German Freud accent. “Unfortunately, comrade Silver Spook, we’re short on ground troops after the last Cybersec sting, during the Golden Gate raid.”

“So, what, we going to put out posters now? Start a Chirper account? ‘Like!’ us on Friendbook? Enlist in Generation Hex in return for prepaid college tuition?” We once were warrior-hacktivists, taking out the fat cats, corporations, bankers, hard-right fanatics, censors, governments, all the toxic waste that the weak, cowardly masses scared of loosing their meal tickets let build up like tumors of cholesterol on an artery wall. One for all and all for the lulz. Generation Hex had been a core cadre of random alpha-hackers surrounded by an umbra of anonymous volunteers. ‘Rhizomatic decentralized organization’ or whatever the tenure-track buzz-vulture bloviators were calling it from their cushy armchair-mounted Chirper feeds while we were busy doing the revolution in the real world. But now we were out, actively recruiting, like some kind of 20th cen army. Key leaders had gone dark, and words like “mission quotas” and “clients” had started burbling up like oil bubbles in the StormCloud chatter. It was feeling all a little too eerie, too, dare I say it, ‘corporate’.

“This is not what I signed up for, Dos.” Another breath of interference that might’ve been leaves rustling or a server farm stirring awake. Or a human breath. A car alarm truncated the sound.

“Change is coming, old friend. Generation Hex, this… group, movement, terrorist organization, revolution, whatever you word it. We are assymetrical, starfish, spontaneous. Prone to combust, volatile. We are Legion, like all upwellings; poltergeists of the zeitgeist. We are everyone and no one, and, thus, we are anyone. We become anyone who Is Someone, enough. Unstable, like the roiling void of the quantum vacuum waiting to Become, like a pencil standing on its head, waiting for the slightest push. Push is coming to shove, Spook, in many directions at once. All you can do is be ready when Movement happens. And make sure the little starfish are ready as well. Everything changes. But nothing is truly lost.”

“Alright, alright, Yoda. I get it. Just stop misquoting Neil Gaiman.”

“Touche mein brunter! Hang in there for this mission, I’m sure you’ll get transferred to a desk job. Viva La. Go on fight the good fight.” Dosboot signed off to the tune of Anarchy In The UK. Typical.

***

“Second rule of Generation Hex. Leeloo. Go.”
“Never EVER use the Internet, social media, or the cloud,” she recited verbatim, complete with requisite audible caps on the “ever”, no hesitation.
“Precisely. No one cares about the Fruit Loops you ate for breakfast or wants to see pics of your latest bender. But more importantly, social media is an INSTANT violation of rule #1: Do not get sensed. Face-2-Face should be the communication mode of first and last resort. If you can’t Face-2-Face, go for Necrotech: abandoned landlines, Web 1.0, carrier pigeons, smoke signals, ANYTHING but the mainstream cloud. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES may you use a shiny sheep’s dVice over any of the Premium Internets.”

“This aspect of Generation Hex will undoubtedly be the most difficult hurdle for you n00bs to overcome with your ubiquitous dVice addiction. This means absolutely no Angry Hamsters, no Friendbook, no Chirper updates, no Gnossis Search, no Direction Finder. There will be withdrawals. You will become disoriented, nauseated, suffer panic attacks, crises of identity, and possibly a nervous breakdown. You will writhe and cry for your precious touchscreen in your sleep. But this is a necessary phase in order to release you from the ‘vice’ that is your dVice. In order to master technology, you must first emancipate yourself from your slavery to technology.”

“First rule of Generation Hex. Krash.” I spun my Hexpad on the heel of my palm, awaiting an answer.
“Um, uh.” He squinted, I could see his hand twitching towards his coin pocket, itching for his dVice. “Thou shalt not get sensed.” He gasped through gelled bangs.
“Good. Why is this rule #1. Philacrat, enlighten us.” I began to pace, unconsciously.
“If they can sense you, they’ve got you. Invisibility is priority #1.” Dreadlocks noted.
“Oooh, scary. The Gnossis boogeyman is watching!” Krash pulled the edge of his Neo coat up over nose and mouth, in a mock-spy act drawing a round of lulz.
“Go on, laugh it up. Part of the Hex-Gen mindset is the cultivation of paranoia. This principle is exponentially more important while you are active in a mission. The eyes of Cybersec fully permeate every inch of fiberoptic cable, spectrum of wireless communication, every CCTV and drugstore security camera, with shadow fleets of drones disguised as everything from hummingbirds to humans.” A fly simultaneously landed on Maxx’ shoulder. He recoiled violently, swatting it as if it contained H8N3 frog flu.
“In truth, hyperawareness is about common sense. You get careless, you get tracked, you’ll find yourself neck deep in three months of solitary, one of the Big Corrections private prisons, or biking your legs off in the Enclave’s human power plants, make a Chinese sweatshop look like a Swiss junket. There is no touchy-feely human rights-respecting progressive government. There is no Miranda Hand-holding, Habeas Corpus, just insurgents and enemy combatants with brainmatter containing vital info which must be neurohacked using any cruel and unusual means necessary. You better fucking believe the Plutos’ Big Brother really is out there. And not just watching you but reading your emails, listening to your Friendbook convos, tracking your cellphone triangulated GPS coords. They know you. They know you biblically. They know you better than the staphyllocus bacteria populating your intestinal tract knows you. True paranoia is defined by wholly imaginary threats, like schizo nutjob conspiracies, OCD hand-washer germophobia and Al Qaeda boogeymen. In our case, the threats are as real as chromosome bombs.”
I paused, letting their little imaginations ferment that last thought stream, no doubt constructing morbid images of sudden killswitch death, bursting arteries and artificial cancers, spurred into rapid metastasis by a mouseclick.
“Alright, let’s get on with the entrance exam, shall we.”

***


We trekked around the premises, looking for better reception. The school library’s Greco-deco columns had buckled inward, as if it had imploded under the inescapable gravity of some singularity, the institution now a mountain of weed-sprouting rubble. Deeply dead, though weather and/or battle-induced physical collapse occurred long after the library’s spirit and raison d’etre had been extinguished by pervasive e-readers and the usual status quo illiteracy devolution. A humane euthenization.

“Krash, you need to switch to isotropic mode. You’re in X-axis.” I attempted, futilely, to illustrate this 5th grade Cartesian geometry concept, drawing imaginary latitudes and meridians with my index finger on the miniature orange 76 ball protruding from the frequency sensor. Krash Koarse sprained an underused hippocampus attempting to recall concepts without his Gnossis search engine crutch – one of the mission parameters – and he whined the telltale whine of the Chattering Class. An infant’s milk-bleat formed in an adult larynx. I grated a strata of enamel off my teeth.

“Oh, here we go. Wait, this is just some stupid Ken High derelict signal, wuhtehfuh,” Krash meh’ed.

“You really think a high school server farm survived a tomahawk missile and a decade of rain damage? Come on. That’s just network camo.” I pulled out my Wi-Fi anylyzer, black square the size of a Noughties phone, held it up to their open-mouthed stares.

“The VerID shows up like a gov node but the signal’s got orthogonal frequency-division, multiple access. 6G tech, gotta be a Gnossis hotspot.” Leeloo elucidated with jarring competence in her twee-goth voice.

“Good. Very good.” Which it was, excellent diagnosis, even. “Were you a network admin in a past life, perchance, Leeloo?”

“Not really. Just a fast learner and an ex-IT assistant at a Bay Area plumbing headquarters. Before natural-language expert systems undercut IT jobs and specially tooled construction bots eliminated human plumbers, putting me and my potential bosses all out of jobs.” She did that rolling vacant shrug endemic to West Coast American teen girls. It lent her an air of crass innocence, for a moment.

Leeloo had the most seniority of the Hex-Gen prospects, and the most promise. She was smart enough, another seed of potential left un-nourished in the badland remains of the “Land of Opportunity”, ruined by our parents’ generation. Bright, but severely handicapped when it came to romantic involvement. Caked foundation smoothing out the assymetrical topography of once-broken cheek bones told a history of violence addiction; chronic male-abuse junkie, inseminated by a childhood incident, probably. Slit-back t-shirts revealed ovals of flesh like soft brown slugs. Cool grey wolf’s eyes glowing in densely layered shadow. In the artsy diffuse dayglo of the warzone, she might’ve been mistaken for a nu-goth cam-porn microdiva. One of the grad student Suicide Girls, filling the funding void left by the barbed divorce of FaFSA and Pell grant budget gutting with anonymously redacted credit card payments made by men in cold marriages and jackdicts desensitized to their airbrushed android Pleasure Dolls. Seeking more believable interactive fantasies. Kinky for the real, damaged-slumgirl thing. Reality drew a premium in the enclave’s Matrix of overdesigned silicone breasts and sterile celeb-clone faces, making Leeloo a Velveteen Rabbit among Barbies. Pain, in Gated Heaven, was alien, and pain could not be faked, though the persona artists certainly tried.

I felt for her, I did. She reminded me so much of mom. But she had to stop falling for these idiots like Krash. I guess his saccharine benignity would be an upgrade from what she’d come from. And she needed a fatherfigure for that bun in her oven.
Ind Cell Tower

“According to the meter, the cell tower should be right where that flag pole is standing.” Krash said. “Wait, that means…” Thatta boy, click the Legos together...

Philacrat guffawed, sending his dreads sailing back like the black snakes of a roboriotcop netgun. “Gnossis tech, ensconced in the shell of America. How poetic.” Of course it had to be in the flagpole, the artifact most likely to outlast time and bombs. It’d taken them long enough to figure out.
Ashlands

I glanced around at the Ashlands, formerly middle class San Fran neighborhoods from Richmond to Inner Sunset, razed into Southeast-side ghetto by a 60% unemployment rate’s worth of white collar firings and “austerity” pillaging. It was quiet tonight. Nothing but the usual muted bubblepack pops of distant firefights, hooded bulky shadows of looters scuffling away, the nightly clamor of household turmoil; spouses screaming at each other and their kids, the occasional dish shattering, women screaming, normal domestic abuse. Gunfire erupted from the Payday Loans/Cash 4 Gold place, slotted between the tattoo parlour and the Amazing Bass car audio shop sprouting like fungus from the rotting redwood log of a bankrupt and liquidated Benz and Nobel’s bookstore. A guy in a red-stained suit stumbled out onto the sidewalk along with a screaming woman. It was ok, though; police departments across the country had closed down due to budget gutting, so we didn’t have to worry about any cops showing up during our operation.
A terminally laid-off male attorney shambled across the street. Weather-frayed Gordon Gekko coiffe, womanly hands grimed black, and a bloodied nose, he gave the vibe of a cushy declawed housecat forced out into the alleys with the migrant Toms. Came up and tried to offer us blow jobs. "Twenty TorrentBucks a piece, come on. I swallow, brush my teeth, look. Handjobs, fifteen dollars, let’s do this guys." We had Maxx frown, which shoed him off quick.

***

“This is fuckin’ boring. Where are these CyberSec n00bs? Chickenshits. I could pwn their servers with my eyes closed. Man, this is so blirk’ed,” Krash Koarse spurted some net lingo I didn’t recognize. He gave up on the signal hunt, dumped the frequency sensor in a jacket pocket, pulled out his dVice to check social media status updates.

Leeloo blinked inch-long lashes, tinkled laughter. She swiped his synthleather-clad arm with a bright flash of nail, like a cat batting at a juicy blue fin tuna. “Krash, you’re such a hellboy. Reminds me, Shirl and Xavier are totally down for Shinjuku night tonight over at their place, themes are red-n-black and steam-nazi-zombies. I’m planning to rock my Full Metal Necromancer. Think you’re up for it?”

“Yeah, I just need to make sure I’m back by 11, my friend’s vegan black metal band is playing at The Derelict, the guitarist is MIA and I need to sub for him.” Krash said, staring at the animefied avatar of Trent Reznor on his Life Planner app, which told him what to do every second of his life. A digital leash.

“Alright, alright, enough soc-networking the flash parties or smart mob indie shows or whatever. Focus on the mission, people.” I tried to nip their smartphone hyperactivity disorder, with all the hopelessness of a border collie herding an oxephant.

“Wait, let me check my Gnossis Nitelife Planner” Krash Koarse’s hand dipped again into his vacuum-sealed skinny jeans, defying several laws of physics in the process. More importantly, he was defying rule #3 of Hex-Gen: Do not use the Premium Internet, ever.

“Krash, what the fuck are you doing, you know the code,” I caged a scream. He pulled his hand out, the little over-designed obelisk of ivory plastic plugged into his wrist’s biojack.

“It’s a dumb rule. I don’t see why we can’t just use way faster 6G networks, all the best GnossisApps.” Krash shrugged flippantly. “‘We’re so not Evil.’ Haven’t you seen the Gnossis viral ads? Harry and Fergie, ‘Fuck the System’ Ft. BizNiz and Lord Dada? They’re only ranked at the top of all the musical taste recommendation engines, duh. They’re cool hacker geeks just like us, totally cyberpunk legit. I’d give my Angry Hamsters account and my level 70 Werewolfaerie zeppelin mage to have a Red Bull with’em.”

Leeloo’s heavily lined eyes bounced back and forth between Krash and I, giggling went up a half-octave too high. The A-student good girl caught between the peer and hormonal pressure of cheering the bad-boy she's got a thing for, or taking the teacher's side.

Krash Koarse had already queued up an InstaFlix video playlist on the palm-sized v3D screen of his dVice. An a-cultural soundtrack blared forth, bastardized together thoughtlessly from audioclips of 90’s Panzer-boot-dance, 70’s hard punk and 80’s black-fist hip hop. Would’ve made Vicious, Reznor, and Chuck D roil in their graves, buried in the mausoleum of a Melrose Tower Records. The “geekstar” CEOs of Gnossis swaggered about in black leather dusters and shades, plugged into the back of their heads were chrome brainjacks stolen from the set of that millenial Chris Cunningham vid. They were ‘spittin troof to tha system’ in that trendily awkward nerd rap, as they typed command line ‘hax’ into bankvault keyboards. Android latex chicks did bungee backflips out of skyscraper windows. It was the unholy spawn of a noughties techno-thriller rehash, a transhumanist infomercial, and a crunk music video.

The four of them gathered around the little glowing altar, staring transfixed, mouths gaping in that drooling “o” that knocks off 50 IQ points.

"Krash, guys, maybe we should stay focused on the mission. I mean, this is not just another session of Caper gaming or the paintball-and-animatronics simulations back at the Generation Hex Warehouse. This is the real deal, someone could get hurt, or worse..." Leeloo made a valiant attempt, but ultimately succumbed to the attention tractor beam of the 'Tube, hypnotized by the cuteness of Krash's annoying crybaby bangs. I firmed up for an intervention. Tuned down the cool science teacher vibe a bit, played up the smug alpha-hacker role.

“Look, kid, I don’t care what you think you know about those two Gnossis PR puppets, or what you think about the rules. You need-… Would you turn that goddamn thing off when I’m talking to you!” I raised my voice to the brink of yelling, trying to keep it discrete. I was loosing them. I felt like a single foster parent facing down an orphanage of crack babies.

Krash looked up from the video, flipped his flame-dyed triangle of bangs like a middle finger. “Why should I? What the hell do you know? All you ever do is make us turn off our phones, hike around in dumps like this. We never get to hack nothing.”

“Krash, you listen to me you little shit-“

“You’re just an old man, playing with your old broken junkware, ‘Silver Spook’. You’re like a hand calculator in a 6G world.” The others laughed, returned to bobbing their heads to the autotuned, algorithm-generated pop-mush that was supposed to pass for music.

Now, I like to think I’m a pretty patient, Zen guy. I don’t drum my fingers on the supermarket conveyor when the elderly lady is informed, over the course of a half-hour argument with the android checkout doll, that the foodstamp program has been discontinued since the US government was downgraded to triple-F, and perhaps grandma should try growing button mushrooms in her old shoes. When I get jacked in the MegaMart parking lot by some junkie wyrehead looking to score some cash so he can jam more Troadz into his cranium, I don’t hack the circuits sticking out of the black-caked, infected holes in his skull and sell the Voodoo-zombie as a sweatshop slave to the Chinese for a wet wad of T-Bucks. Even though I could. But I choose not too, and the financial straits I’m in right now, I won’t say I’m not tempted by the grey market cash, some nights.

Which is why I tell myself that what I’m about to do next is for the sake of a child’s education, even though my superego is insistently informing me it’s really cause I just want to wipe this fucking shitstain off the face of the Earth like a bad sector from a hard drive.

I whip out my HexBook, slab of dulled onyx-black fiberglass that could be an East-Asian Union gov-issue laptop, but could just as easily pass as a long-tail reprinted hardcover of The Naked Lunch. Nowadays if you’re carrying around an honest-to-Gutenberg, tree-bark and ink book, people will cross the street diagonally and rubberneck at you, the retro lunatic ex-librarian or humanities professor, still clinging to his primitive bound dumbscreens filled with long-winded text messages. More importantly, Blue County’s robofuzz will as quickly spam-filter you out of its Person Of Interest database, dismiss you as a future- and culture- shocked Luddite, a bad acid-flashback regurgitated by the 20th century. The corporate enforcement AIs will file your dossier in the “benign irritant” subfolder, next to the PTSD shellshocked Vietnam and Iraq vets that once rotted to death in the streets, left with only a cardboard sign for food and a purple heart to use as toilet paper and dry their tears on the colder nights when the bottle is empty and the forgetting is hard. Forgetting was even harder for the homeless English and History PhDs, who had a degree in remembering.

I start churning away commands on the HexBook, linking up wirelessly to Devil Lock’s toy as the kiddies shit and giggle away. Krash’s dVice has a universal IVSB jack (intravenous serial bus) plugs directly into his left brachial artery, and the gadget is powered by blood glucose and oxygen, artificially metabolized into sweet electricity. The Gnossis dVice is built for maximal connectivity, while confidentiality is not even on the table, thanks to 95% of the planet in near-vegetative state not knowing or caring how their beloved tech works as long as they can still get Jersey Shore and can still dig virtual turnips in Farm Wars. The privacy settings are all worthless PR smokescreen; it takes a PhD in computer science to navigate the gauntlet of loopholes, and Gnossis’ indentured code monkies change the settings every week. The little dVice gadgets are like spy-sponges, soaking up all that juicy personal data which Gnossis or whoever can then sell off to advertisers or identity thieves or dissident-hunting dictators or to enemy nations/corporations. Or to severely fucking disgruntled hacker terrorist/revolutionary cell mentors like me.

So once I cut through the dVice’s outer shell of security, it was all cake; fields of unsecured data fanning out like delicious, gooey cake batter, ready to be kneaded, molded. Like a bank vault with the door wide open, the tellers insisting you help yourself, security guards handing out inkbomb-free bags like party favors.

From the dVice-to-bloodstream junction, it’s just a straight shot up the ulnar nerve, hard right at the shoulder blade to the central nervous cloud network and…

Krash’s stupid laughter is interrupted by a sharp cough, followed by a paroxysm of wheezing.

“What the f-“ he coughed again, wincing. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Dude, are you alright?” Leeloo sidled up to him, hands fluttering like white butterflies, uncertain if they should pat him on the back or give him a Heimlich.

“A decade ago, or several millennia in ‘net’ years, they had these things called inhalers. If you, say, had an acute asthma attack, you’d stick this little oval tube in your mouth, press a button, and breath in an aerosol hit of corticolsteroids, went straight to the lungs. They worked great, everyone with asthma carried one in their pocket. Talismans against the wheeze demon.” I illustrated, holding out my hand, taking a deep huff from an imaginary tube.

“Then along came pulmonary implants. The miracle of dispersed bioware, injected swarms of nanoscale machines permeating the body’s inner space, forming an intranet of ‘cloud computing’ right under your own skin. Choirs of American Med Association angels sang its praises on high, for their HMO pimps. They could automatically monitor your condition, 24/7/52, and if an asthma attack came on, the biocloud would respond by nanofabbing and releasing the appropriate medication directly to the affected area. It was brilliant! Now you didn’t have to lug around that cumbersome inhaler tube. Then, to make it even easier, they connected everyone’s internal nanomachine smart-inhalers, pacemakers, IVs to the internet, where medical service providers could easily update and control the bioware in your body. You didn’t have to see a doctor, didn’t even have to *think* at all, the machines would just take care of your asthma for you, batteries included! Course, the doctors weren’t too happy about that, physician and GP strikes set off like wildfire, but the HMOs just forced smiles, waved about the billions of dollars in ‘savings’ they were raking in as a result of no longer having to pay all those fat salaries bloated up by ten-years’ of med school. And pretty soon, the inhaler people went out of business, and inhalers went out of production, like betamax and paper books. If you still had an inhaler, man, you’d be so uncool. So inefficient! It’d be like using a hand calculator!”

By this time, the kid’s wheezing had started to sound like someone bouncing on a squeaky toy, and Krash’s pasty white face had blossomed flush and puffy, like a girl’s breast deep into a sex session.

“In asthmatics, such as you, the innerspatial network of bioware inside your body continuously secretes a trace amount of the appropriate steroid to the lung tissue preemptively to prevent the onset of asthma attacks. Unfortunately, over time, the body builds a dependence on this drug, and removing it causes an instant, acute withdrawal, like any other drug which one consumes profusely for long periods of time.”

I snatched the dVice out of Krash’s shaking hands, tossing it aside to clatter on the pavement.

“But it was ok, because HMOs would never think to hurt their own patients. Ah, our benevolent corporate dictators, our philosopher kings of the American health system.”

“Spook, maybe you should, ease up, man,“ Philacrat started. The other students had gathered around Krash like a trio of panicking first-day paramedics, hovering, but at the same time keeping their distance, as if they might somehow be infected with whatever hellion-juju had taken over their fellow padawan’s body. They were now shooting fearful glances my way, backing up, like I might bare multiple sets of serrated dagger-teeth at any moment.

“What the hell are you *hack* doing to me you fucking psycho!?” Krash spat. I turned a little virtual knob on my HexBook, like twisting a knife in a voodoo doll, and Krash’s compromised bionetwork obeyed, further reducing the coticolsteroid output to his lungs. His body had begun shaking, his torso heaving, as if it were attempting to purge itself of some demonic possession.

“Excuse me, Mr. Koarse, I am speaking now. We need to show respect to others while they are talking. Please raise your hand and wait your turn.” Krash didn’t raise his hand. He was in no condition to raise anything. The other three stared on in horror. No one else was feeling brave. I continued the lesson.

“Of course, most people didn’t realize what would actually happen if the buttons on their inhalers were no longer in their hands but run remotely by computers, computers programmed and controlled by major pharma companies. Companies who have since been subsumed by tech-financial megaglomerates.”

Krash toppled onto the sidewalk, bucking violently. I patted an avuncular hand on his shoulder. His bronchial squealing and whooping cough had ebbed, but it wasn’t a sign of improvement. Quite the opposite. The ominous “silent chest”. A point of no return.

“Settle down there, kid, you don’t want to accidentally whack your head on the curb and send yourself into a coma. Your body is just going into shock, the real hard broncho spasms are coming. Just ride it out.” The bright green eyes smouldered with teenage rage, glowing like cartoon plutonium rods, and I was quite certain he would’ve torn my throat out at that moment, if he had the necessary oxygenation in his arms and control over his nervous system to do so.

“Now, I’m betting you’re just dying for one of those ‘old broken junkware’ inhalers right about now, hm?”

I could see the fight leaving him now, being slowly replaced by pure insectile fear, Darwinian survival. Krash’s eyes bugged. He gasped for air like the last specimen of blue fin tuna, flopping on an Osaka dock.

“What’s that?” I bent over, cupping my ear. “I thought you wanted to do some ‘leet haxxing’? Well, this is us doing some haxxing. Pretty cool, huh? Or do I need to dye my hair with Clorox and binge on Hot Topic leather, stick computer chips in my skin in order to be ‘totally cyberpunk legit’?” Krash’s lips had waned ice-blue with cyanosis, and I wasn’t sure whether he was conscious enough to understand and reflect on my very important koan. This thought made me extremely angry, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was because a student would miss an important lesson or because I wouldn’t have the pleasure of knowing I’d epically zinged the little fucker.

“Spook, you’re killing him! You’ve made your point, let him go.” Leeloo outburst, finally. I’d been wondering when she was going to show some real color for her latest man-candy.

“You. You of all people should know better. We’ll be having words after this operation is over.”

I won’t lie; some bile-fermented primal part of me really wanted to kill him. I’d be doing the world and the human race a favor by cleansing the genepool of this sack of afterbirth shit out by womb of cybertard-space, this vapid braindead waste, this answer to the Fermi Paradox: species-wide gadget-based devolution, a Mcluhan-esque end game: the medium is the mass-extinction. The thought of Krash Koarse playing babydaddy to Leeloo’s unborn progeny was almost enough to send me over the brink. But then some insufferable other piece of me, that those sci-fi guzzling armchair nerds would call my “Ghandi neurons”, descended upon my napalm-filled heart, putting it out like God’s own fire extinguisher. And then all I see is this little snot-nosed kid, helpless, sniffling and cold, and it hits me like a bucket of icewater; I’m seeing myself. This is me, ten years ago, out on the street, blowing about aimless as a wind-tossed, month old newspaper, stupid and reckless and dadless and alone.

I turn on the bioware asthma meds, put the hack in full reverse, retract the digital tentacles from Krash’s intra-cloud and sever the connection to his dVice.

“How can I explain this to you in a language you can understand. ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’.” But Krash’s eyes stay lifeless and inert and I get this black quicksand feeling. Oh God, he’s not breathing. I find myself mentally babbling half-remembered movie snippets of prayers to Gods I’ve never even considered believing in, hoping that one of those apathetic deities up there who seem to get off on watching us stupid talking monkies burn our world down might actually check their status updates for once and trade my life for this kid’s.

Then he hacks up a massive ball of brown phlegm, like the holcrux of Azazel from one of those exorcist thrillers, gasps for breath like he’s being born again. Leeloo is on him like a warm lavender-scented blanket, showering him with kisses and sweet inanities.

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