Leeloo strode down Kurzweil and 3rd, past the Amazing Bass display windows that once showcased hardcovers and paperbacks, thick freshly minted tomes of deep thought and edification, great literature to science fiction to Big Idea bestsellers. She traced a single digit through the grimy ash acreeting on the glass like a child fingerpainting dreams into a breath-fogged backseat window.
“I can’t believe I used to hang out here. I read the entire Sandman series cover to cover three times lounging right in that corner loveseat of the Starbeans Café.” The loveseat was re-upholstered in leopard print and was crowded by surround stereo systems.
“I cracked my first bank server while deep into a Kevin Mitnick autobio here. Over an iced chai latte. I had to have my iced chai latte,” I commented into her inner ear via remote uplink, seeing things through her eyecameras.
“For me it was the caramel frappe. I met my first ex-boyfriend doing a Lady-and-the-Tramp thing with two straws. He eventually revealed himself to be a total tool, though.” I refrained from comment.
“What happened?” I extended the pause long enough to make it clear it was a philosophical inquiry and not a dig at Leeloo’s mating game record.
“Right? I can’t even afford coffee anymore. The only dates I can go on are blind ones in dark alleys.“ An awkward bubble filled the space. I veered.
“Insane to think a whole generation is coming of age, never having read anything longer than a Yelp recommendation or a Youcast, two-hundred-word, voice-written microarticle.”
The print age of the previous millenia had already become a foreign country, whose language consisted of strange dis-abbreviated words, who performed bizarre rituals involving embedding texts into dried sheets of plant life, reading them for sheer “enjoyment”. Once chameleonic Kindles and Nooks and other elderly-friendly smartgadgets in book clothing weaned the majority of the population off of their paper and cardboard with quiet paper-like interfaces and “scripted pageturn actions”, they shed their dead media facades and bombarded their 5-year contract, network locked-in “readers” with micromedia feeds, Angry Hamsters and streaming Tubeflix. The mental equivalent of dumping chickenfried double steakburgers and candy coated Snickers bars onto a plate of fresh balsalmic salad. Gadget companies disclaimered “People can choose to read if they want,” just like heroin addicts can always choose to inject a half ounce of refined opium into their median cubital veins, especially when needles are flashing at them all day. Readership dropped 50% the next year, despite skyrocketing purchases of ostensible “readers”, permanently distracted by the endless buffet of apps and entertainment. Universities replaced Literature courses with “Creative Texting 101” and “Wikipedia Tweaking 212”. The Big Electronics trusts laughed haughtily all the way to the bank at an international authors strike that lasted two days. The Nobel Prize winners and New York Times Best Sellers then joined the legal sector, selling their warm orifices on the street, living in megamalls-turned-crackhouses like everyone else. Ghostwriting protest signs for tear-gassed demonstrators. Though where attorneys had been replaced by a machine intelligence explosion, writers saw their jobs destroyed by a human intelligence implosion; two indices which are ultimately inversely proportional, coupled, like gold and fiat currency.
In that light, Krash’s vapidity should’ve been no surprise. There remained one book, browned, frayed, furring with dust in a corner of the display window, like a broken tombstone, titled with the ironic epitaph: “The End of The Book: How The Digital Revolution Will Save Literature” by some Harvard economist. The sun setting on the deep-thought epoch of Shakespeare and Galileo, of Jefferson and Joyce, the alien world of print falling into the black hole of the post-literate society leaving only this freeze-frame on the event horizon, fading into entropy. In the Astounding World of The Future that we had arrived in, there stood, in place of books, arrays of booming, rattling carspeaker cabinets the size of refrigerators. Hot blue rim lights fanning neon like clip-on male plumage. 3D holographic windshields sporting realtime Twatter feeds and huge-breasted virtu-girls dancing in licorice thongs and dark-elf ear prosthetics. Leeloo’s eyecam quickly panned away, as if by electromagnetic repulsion.
Working in an adjacent garage/chop shop was a large Hispanic in a wife beater and skinny jeans. The chico’s chest and arms were covered in blood-powered neon tattoos of Aztec gods that glowed like the runes emblazoned into the forehead of some trad-fantasy movie protagonist.
“This is the contact?” I whispered, watching dermal Technicolor creation stories and the Cortezian battle of Tenochititlan rage on tan skin through Leeloo’s optic nerve. The ocular cinematography bobbed vertically twice in confirmation.
He was flanked by two kids failing at pretending to be useful, waving car jacks around like sparklers, decked in gold-spraypainted plastic chains and baggy mid-calf basketball shorts. Banger garb that went out of Cryps fashion in the previous decade but which hit cultural centers like Bollywood years later like stealthy and long-travelling tsunami waves, leaving whole high schools flailing in floods of bombastic Punjabi Crunk, Canadian Ford F250s inexplicably covered in Confederate flags. That, and the way they barely understood the Mexican’s English or Spanish meant they were obviously escapees from some mass-murdering Coke packaging plant outside of Mumbai that was nuked from orbit after the soft drink star destroyer took off for friendlier police state regimes run by the diamond warlords-cum-noveau riche in the blood soaked jungle of the Congo. Or perhaps these were refugees of some Pacific island atoll nation swallowed by a trillion carbon belches that melted half of Antarctica.
The contact turned, revealing his back adorned with the “OBEY” street-kanji for Tony Montana waving his Little Friend, and Harry Potter characters stenciled straight from antique DVD covers. Mint Chamber of Secrets discs with artwork were trading up near the gallon price of water futures on the Bizaar, so depending on context, the luminescent ink could be taken as postmodern irony or the blacklit stains of a teen fangasm that failed to come out in the wash of adulthood. Sparks showered the grease-blackened floor as he directed a home-industrial 3D printer to carve out of a stainless steel sheet what looked like a frame component for one of those pre-Crash era “rearview mirrors”.
“Didn’t they phase those out years ago?” Leeloo opened. It was true the mirrors had become an unnecessary expense after human driving was illegalized. A liability eliminator made a liability by market force. As he turned, the expression marking his face could’ve been captured in emoticon form via a colon followed by a dash. : / He regarded Leeloo for a brief moment, eyes set in bags the color of morgue lips making a half-hearted attempt at trying to read her, as if he’d given up expending energy on his own survival in District Ten. Life was a toxic asset, awaiting liquidation. He returned to his work, lathing away.
“Right. It’s a retro thing,” he commented, ensuring the precision of the machine incision through re-melted steel. The accent coming from the Latino was cognitively dissonant, way Berkelian, surfer-nerd touched with the effeminate sigmatism characteristic of North Cali GLBT coloring. The crunchy granola lisp. It was almost certainly a joke; the retro bit, not the accent.
“More probable explanation is homey is jailbreaking the cars to allow actual people to get behind the wheel.” I whispered like a little bluebird into Leeloo’s cochlear plug. She shrugged in annoyance, made it look causual, like a shiver.
“I like what you’ve done with the place, Rodney. It’s cushy. Hearthy.” Leeloo stepped further into the shop, out of the field of view and audio of a streetlight surveillance camera, the hemisphere of oily onyx glass hanging ominously like a malevolent urban stalactite.
Rodney glanced up from his work over tortoise shell wire-rim glasses, “Yeah. I’m trying to get the jump on the next real estate bubble. The Bay Area is coming back, I hear.” A shrill barrage of explosions, like Times Square new years eve fireworks interrupted the Amazing Bass subwoofage. Leeloo and Rodney turned in time to see some hydrogen-powered grease-cooker blow out the windows of a Taco King, now also caught on fire next to the smouldering Sharper Image. The conflagration had been raging for over an hour, and there were no ululations of firetrucks, not even the automated fire extinguishing teams that had replaced human firefighters were anywhere in sight. Laughter choked up from all parties.
The two Indo-Pacific flunkies stroked their thin Asiatic goatees, examining Leeloo like a car they were considering jacking, mouthing some glib series of hodge podge slang like, “Let’s check bitch legit home.” Even though I was merely inhabiting Leeloo’s headspace via remote feed, I felt a deep sense of violation, a kind of surrogate objectification.
“I don’t know how you women handle that shit on a daily basis.”
“It grows on you,” Leeloo lied into the mic, with nausea.
“Get the fuck out of here and bring me the aluminum powder kegs like I asked before I sell you and your VerIDs to the embassy,” Rodney yelled, the idling teens waddling away in their low-crotch pants like giant tropical penguins.
“You know there’s daycare for that,” Leeloo deadpanned.
“My sister’s boyfriend and his buddy. She needs me to keep them from mugging greycollars, ripping off fuelstations with armed clerks. So I occupy them, Rodney’s afterschool science program. Family is family. Or whatever.” He kicked the chrome digitigrade toes of the automated steel printer as the hydraulics stalled out on the pivoting platform supporting the half-sculpted shell of the rearview mirror. The podium readout had bluescreened on a critical kernel error.
“Puta!” Rodney banged the screen, calling up a debugger on his personal tablet, landlined to the printer’s interface.
“So how much are jailbroken autocars going for on the dark market these days?”
“Not nearly enough to cover the hazard pay,” Rodney sighed. “Illegally converting self-driving cars to human-drivable was a booming black market, given the burnout rate of vehicle radar/ultrasonic sensoriums, whose replacement fab-schematic files are tightly monopolized via FDRM. Not unlike the music and movie IP cartels who monopolized digitized art and entertainment earlier in the century through content locks and mass lawsuits. If your smartcar’s brain scrambles, you have to cough up a ten thousand dollar fealty to your Big Auto lord to get it fixed. Then there’s the fact that you need Level Five Premium Internet – ringing in at a hundred dollars per day -- minimum to utilize the Cloud-based self-driving artificial intelligence. All of this payable only in US dollars.”
“That’s the Devil’s Currency,” Leeloo footnoted.
“Exactly. Fully surveiled and hyperinflated toilet paper.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well most of the underclasses – i.e. everyone outside of Blue County – would opt right out of the formal auto market for the riskier but actually affordable shadow economy, and that’s good for us. But then that also meant plunging quarterly reports for corporations and dwindling car loans for banks. They weren’t happy about that.
“After the global real estate fraud bubble 3.0 turned the entirety of the physical Earth into a debt-shackled planetary Gulag, the bankster Reign of Terror, having consumed the entirety of realspace, reared its bonus-hungry maw on fabricated cyber-objects. “Real estate” bubbles became “virtual estate” bubbles. Patenting not just software, car designs, better mouse traps, but language itself, even parts of history. For a few months the prison industry Gulags were filling with people who used copyrighted words or phrases like “friend”, or “Gnoss it” as verbs without paying royalties. You could not reference the second World War in a book or movie without coughing up to Omniversal Media half your commission or production budget. Bilderberg Group praetors almost daily gave unholy birth to patent-shark multinationals who landgrabbed physical design-space, drafted armies of patent-commandos from the new ‘white ghettos’ of lawyers displaced by advanced expert system roboattorneys. In the age of decentralized manufacturing when t-shirts to iPads to Maseratis could be ‘baked’ out in your garage while you slept by autonomous self-reproducing pansubstance extruders, laser-fabs, and assembler droids, the PIAA (Patent Industry Association of America) will call down an airstrike of lawsuits and/or actual Earth-scorching daisycutters if they catch you printing out even an abandonware ’04 Honda Civic.
“Chinese coder-slaves rig miniscule, virtually undetectable structural flaws into 3D printer instructions – a lugnut a nanometer too big here, a brake line polymer cocktail slightly unbalanced there – leading to catastrophic failures and fatal crashes on the road. Car companies like Xinjiao, Totech, Autonomobile then intentionally propagate the sabotaged files throughout the BitTorrent shipping routes of pirate networks, seeding killer-schematics like viruses in porn. But there is no malware-scan for physical engineering soundness, and thus the IP sharks created a paranoia-deterrent, scaring patent bootleggers off the grounds with intellectual property landmines. MakerBot rootkits, Rep Rap Trojans are routinely steganographed deep within the guts of the blueprint code, instruct sintering appendages to burn through their own DLP projectors, or start the laser arm spinning like a disco-ball and fry everything and everyone in a fifty foot radius. Your open source living room factory, innocently churning out custom auto-CADed coffee mugs and Edward Cullen tees, suddenly becomes a sleeper cell of machine homicide waiting to massacre your family in a gory cloud of rogue code and granularized industrial arsenic. So all that’s opened up a massive sinkhole in my balance sheet. My cousin and former senior partner, he got careless, didn’t read between the Java lines to see that his downloaded, ripped fab was fusing nitrogen and glycerin into his head gasket. CyberSec forensicbots are still mopping him up out of a crater of silicate glass that used to be an underground fabtory at Fisherman’s Wharf. Poor primo.” Rodney dabbed himself in a sign of the cross, leaving smudges of grease on his forehead like the residue of some Ash Wednesday sacrament.
“So why are you operating a death machine?” Leeloo inquired.
“I know enough about software and mechanics that I think I can take the gist of the designs and attempt to re-engineer a new model based on my study of the blueprints, even if they’re faulty. Reproducing the object in my own words, rather than pirating, so to speak. But any attempt will involve some amount of downside risk, complications.”
“I see. So you were a mechanic or something, before the Hot Class War?” Leeloo asked.
“I’ve actually got a PhD in nano engineering from MIT. Want to see it? That worthless piece of papyrus is hanging right in my office,” He pointed to a blown-out section in the non-functional Barnes and Nobel women’s bathroom, sealed up with a printed plexiglass door faced with plastic imitation-wood venetial blinds, stolen from the design of some 40’s detective’s office. Atemporal media mashups bleeding into physical reality, Frankenstein architecture. I could see the certificate from here.
“Graduated with honors and still couldn’t find a job along with 90% of my class, dumped out into this lawless wasteland of an economy. My parents worked 16 hours a day trimming trees, living under floorboards to allow me to indenture myself to a ball-and-chain of 200 thousand in unforgivable student loans, blow twenty eight years of my life, all so I could change tires and flip burgers. American Dream? American Scam.” Rodney rabbit punched the podium readout again, cursing as he twisted a knuckle the wrong way.
“So you’re an egghead geek in chopper’s clothing. Why bother with all the getup?”
“You’ve got to blend in, around here. Locals don’t take kindly to nerds, whom most can’t differentiate from the upper crust lawyers and traders and the rest of the people who caused the mess and stomp on their face. Besides, the hippies finally got their way and the yuppies have gone extinct. There is no middle class, there is no educated class in pressed shirts and clean shoes. Now it’s just one giant sprawling ghetto of beggars, criminals, and slumdogs with varying levels of education.”
“Right. Don’t tell your little cadets about that degree. You might lose some of that street cred, drop some ‘legit’ness.” Leeloo sniped coyly.
“So let’s cut the History Channel special and get to business.” Leeloo picked up a monkey wrench, one could assume hot off the press, given the slightly more oxidized prototype lying next to it, the Home Depot original from which it had been pirated.
“Let’s,” Rodney said, going over blocks of questionable code with a digital magnifying glass.
“You know the deal. We need the Cage,” Leeloo spun the wrench in the palm of her hand, flicking it with the tip of her index. It rang with an unnaturally thin chime, too low a specific gravity to be pure stainless steel. Some Protean-Age genetically modified ore. Rodney remained unresponsive, giving off the façade of work absorption.
“The Cage, Rodney,” Leeloo came again, impatiently.
Rodney continued scrolling with casual swipes of his finger across the screen of his tablet, occasionally zooming in with thumb and forefinger on some particularly suspicious snippet.
“You know there are almost infinite places to hide a software bug? Even if you run a program for years, you might never encounter the underlying issue until the perfect storm of conditions is met. Dozens of fortune 500 tech companies made it through with horribly infested software, relying on the notion that no one would ever do anything unusual with it, would never test it.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“The more you use and stretch the program, the more likely that the bug is to surface, and thus need to be eliminated. I’m thinking I don’t actually want any extra stretching going on around here.” Rodney said, rebuilding the latest version of his rearview mirror fabricator executable. I had had about enough of this cryptic fuck.
“Put me through to him,” I whispered.
“Spook, I don’t know if that’s the best-“
“I said put me through, now.” I growled. She reluctantly pulled a mini resonance speaker from a back pocket, patched my VoiP through it.
“Look, Rodney. Homes. I don’t know what kind of pop-tarts-and-forum-warriors outfit you take us for, but it’s insulting. But moreso to yourself, an upstanding sub-legitmate Ashlands businessman with decades of premium-grade Ivory League brain grooming, making yourself look so stupid by trying to fuck with us with this bait and switch schtick.” My voice was no doubt tinny and broken by static, but it got his attention. He pulled his face out of his screen, took off his glasses and glared, as if trying to see through space and time.
“Who is this?” Rodney set his tablet down.
“I think you know. I’m the silver lining in this mushroom cloud of a former city which you so obviously loathe. By the way, that Autonomobile fuel cell design you’ve got there in your datavault is sheer perfection. Artwork. Chinese IP cyberspies couldn’t have reverse engineered it better in a thousand years.”
“How did you know- How did you get ahold of that?”
“Details, details. I’ll let you pull all-nighters scanning through your server logs for the next few days trying to find that little “perfect storm” of bugs which I exploited. We don’t have time for that right now.”
“What do you want?”
“Same thing we agreed upon before. The Cage.”
“It’s crawling with CyberSec fauna out there, you’re probably looking at the drone swarms on your MRI right now. How can I be sure one of your operators isn’t compromised, won’t blow me wide open with an intercepted com?”
“It’s not going to have any rotten apples, because they’re hunting for apples and we’re oranges. We’ve been working for months without a single in-op transmission interception and I don’t plan on breaking that record. And even if there is a SNAFU, you’re protected as an associate. You’ve got an immunity deal with Generation Hex, backed by the full faith and credit. And, unlike the US government, we always bailout the little guy.
You’re hotfabbing cars for real people to drive, but how long are you going to let the fat cats in Ameribank City drive you, control your destiny? Hiding around in holes, giving up your rights, your dignity, your humanity, in exchange for another day of survival in hell. When are you going to take the wheel? Don’t you want to get back at the assholes who destroyed any and all possibility of the ‘good life’ that you’ve spent your entire life spinning their gears like a good little hamster for? All so the Blue Bloods could have another twenty mansions in Martha’s Vineyard they never live in, another junket in the imperial suite of some Geneva hotel, another fifty non-autonomous Maseratis ordered merely for display, never to be driven? Well, we’re serving up that revenge, on a chilled silver platter, right next to their $20,000 retsina. We’re tearing down the Wall, one cell tower, one offshore bank account at a time.”
“Look, I just can’t risk it.”
“Risk what? We’re in a goddamn war here, it’s a risk to just sit by the wayside and let Blue County turn the West Coast and the rest of the world into an uninhabited Martian desert. We’re the toilet bowl of the super rich, and if we don’t start swimming up, we’re only headed further down the tubes.”
“I’m not interested in buying war bonds. I need real ROI. I’ve got niche here, buyers. The sniffers find out I’m moonlighting for Hex Gen, a known hacktivist network, I’m over. This is systemic risk on my balance sheet I can’t hedge.”
“You’re guaranteed to go under, you don’t help us turn this Titanic around. How long before some stray heatseaker with an antimatter payload wipes you off the asshole of the USA that is District Ten like a shitstain? How long until some big dark market player decide they don’t really like other Plebians developing their own intellectual property if it cuts into their market share, and they take you out like they did your Primo? Survivability drops to zero faster than minimum wage in the Ashlands.”
Rodney stood, silent, churning, electric tattoos flashing faster, brighter as his heartbeat elevated. Hieroglyphic Voldemorts and Spanish Conquistadors blazed bright crimson red, consuming vast swaths of his chest.
“I know you’re not just another cold survivalist, Rodney. Think of those kids. We both know it’s only going to get worse. How long do you think they can hold out here?”
Rodney’s homies-in-law returned with ponderous clear plastic sacks of some fine silvery powder, like crematorial remains, or volcanic ash. The one in the stupid sideways beanie yanked open a feeder tray in the posterior of the 3D printer, nearly breaking it in the process. Tweedle dumb whipped out a butterfly knife, sliced open the top of the bag with all the elegance of an epileptic kindergartener, spilling a good amount of the grey powder on the crotch of his shorts. Leeloo gagged, no doubt automatically formulating an unspoken pre-mature ejaculate joke. Ambiently emasculating.
“Pour shit mo’ tight, foo,” his partner chastised. They did at last manage to refuel the printer with the granulated steel, with several more scoldings from the resident alpha male.
Rodney’s shoulders heaved in a sigh, bioluminescence receding.
“Fine. You can have the Cage. One hour. I’m sending the authorization codes through your ‘liaison’ here.”
“Direct link, no wireless,” Leeloo approached, outstretched her arm, pulling back black shirt cuffs over pale skin to reveal her wrist’s IVSB jack. Rodney did the same, interlocking palms. They synced up, initiated the transfer, forearm LEDs flickering. Biodata was pretty much the most secure you could get on the street. Perfectly concealed, difficult to steal without a skill saw. Viscous substrate made the stored bytes invulnerable to EMP wipe attacks and remote downloading. In the age of ubiquitous electromagnetized silicon, the meat became a kind of shield, a sanctuary of flesh. And given the exposure of one’s central nervous cloud network, allowing a nefarious party to blow out your heart with an adrenaline hyperspike, a direct IVSB transfer was also a testament of trust. The closest thing to a binding contract, in a world where trust in governments, business, economies, paper money, had been completely destroyed by endemic fraud, fiat, and exploitation. A wrist-to-wrist blood pact, sealed in commingled electrons.
“500 Ts, right?” Rodney said, ejecting his arm from Leeloo’s as the transfer completed.
“No, you know we only pay in silver grams. Untracable, untrackable, no counterparty risk. It’s the only way to fly in the business. Blood and bullion,” I corrected.
“Right. Silverspook. Should’ve known.”
With the 3D printer’s metallic stock replenished, Rodney re-ran the latest build of his rearview mirror program. Bursts of compressed air, like a craft lifting off, as the additive manufacturer sprang to life. A chrome steamroller-like mechanism oscillated back and forth across the plane of argent powder, laying down successive layers of binder. It was like watching the micrometer-thin slices photographed by magnetic resonance imaging of a brain. Not a minute later, the machine completed its work. It left a cube of powder, looking exactly as it had at the start of the job. Rodney reached in, pulling out a perfect replica of a Xinjiao Phasma rearview mirror. He blew loose grains, revealing metal, plastic and glass components printed straight in, moving parts in smooth working order. Leeloo followed him into a back room, containing an equally perfect replica of the rest of the Phasma, from tail lights to lithium batteries to supercapacitor-powered electric motors. Rodney installed the rearview, adjusting it for optimum visibility.
“Let’s get driving,” he smiled.