Vitaria, Western Slums, 2127
Through the scratches and the grime, Jen examined herself in the mirror. She had picked it up a couple of weeks ago after discovering it in an industrial trash can behind the local train station. It had a large and distracting ‘PowerLev’ logo in the center, but it was a pretty good find overall, she thought. She was mostly just happy that it was in one solid piece.
Pulling it out of the trash safely was quite a lot of trouble, as it had been covered in all sorts of broken mechanical parts. Her friends kept halting their digging efforts in order to take pictures of strangely shaped lumps of chromium steel and burnt rubber, intending to look up the value of their discoveries on the net. She found this kind of frustrating, because she felt pretty sure that they weren’t going to make any money by scavenging through junk, she just wanted to have a mirror.
Although her frizzy shoulder length hair had been dyed a bright blue, and she had a pretty and neotenous face, her left eye was always going to remain her most standout feature. It was a cybernetic implant, and very visibly that. A wide ring of shiny silver surrounded a glass lense that glowed softly with violet light. She was close enough to the mirror that a lot of this ambience was bouncing back onto her, gently faded across her cheekbone like a colorful highlight.
In the slums, people were often quite judgemental about anybody with attention grabbing modifications. It’s normally only the rich who can afford to upgrade their bodies in such gaudy ways, and the rich aren’t very welcome in the home of the poor and the damned. The fact that she wasn’t rich was fairly obvious from her shabby clothes, but, sometimes, she could still feel piercing stares watching her movements through the crowds. On days where her self-esteem was low, her eye gave her a feeling of dread about being outside at all.
She didn’t think that any of this was fair. If she hadn’t been in the accident, she wouldn’t have needed a replacement eye in the first place. And if she had been born into any kind of money, nobody would have even known that her new one was cybernetic. She would have just gone straight for an expensive model that looked indistinguishable from her original bio eye. The only reason that she ever ended up with an augment this visible was because it was the only restorative implant that she was able to get somewhat cheaply.
After her accident, everybody in her network had helped her to save up for a replacement organ, including family, friends, and friends of friends. They pooled together any spare money from UBI payments, and from odd jobs, in order to support her. She would forever be grateful, even though the money wasn’t enough for her to get a better aug. This eye was, of course, still much better than no eye at all. It also allowed her to switch to a mode that let her see infrared, if she chose to, but she had no real use for this aside from to help her find her way through the streets at night after staying out late.
Jen messily applied a streak of eyeliner above her organic eye, checked that her hair was somewhat acceptable, and shouted to her mother that she was about to head out. After carefully navigating through the piles of floor to ceiling clutter in the living room, she opened the front door and left the house. She closed the door to a cacophony of unpleasant rattling sounds. The structure wasn’t in a great condition, and her family suspected that the clutter was probably the only thing keeping it standing. But it was fine, this was all normal here, it was just your typical Vitarian slum.
Outside, sunlight bounced off the chaotic mess of antennae and satellite dishes that sprawled across the shanty rooftops. The metal was jagged and omnidirectional, with thousands of parts reaching for thousands of different places. Wires of all lengths, thicknesses, and colors were lazily strewn between them. Most of this stuff didn’t even do anything besides accumulate rust and wear.
A window in one stack of makeshift houses had a couple watching an advertisement for BepNull, the new BepisCo product. Popular comedian Asteroy D. Comet was dancing around erratically with a can of drink in their hand. BepNull is just like the famous Bep Soda drink, only without any of the sugar, flavorings, or colorings. The changes are touted to be in the name of helping consumers live healthier lifestyles, but BepNull still contains vast quantities of anastos-9, a modern and tasteless chemical that’s widely accused of being both highly addictive, and a huge cancer risk.
In the window directly above, a different home, there was a woman watching the exact same advertisement. Her holoscreen was even located on the same wall of the room as it was for the couple below her. Jen thought that it was kind of funny how they were stuck in the same place, seeing the same things, but still so separate and isolated from one another.
Still, in this neighborhood, people came together when they needed to. Jen’s eye was proof of this. It seemed to be true to her that the wealthier you got, the less likely you were to help others, because only the poor could really understand what it meant to be in trouble. You didn’t have to spend a long time convincing anybody here that your problems were genuine.
People also knew that they would inevitably need help themselves someday. The best way to make sure that somebody will help you in the future is, obviously, to be ready to help them in the present. You want to be known as someone who does good things and deserves good things back.
Jen was on her way to help run a stall outside of the communal kitchen. It was a building in the market square where food was cooked and distributed to all who were hungry, completely free of charge. Everybody deserves to eat regardless of who they are.
The path was so muddy in places that you couldn’t see the fractured concrete tiles. As she walked, the ground squelched underneath her boots. They were combat boots with thick soles and chain bucking. It was partly just because she thought they looked cool, but also because heavy duty footwear can greatly improve one’s quality of life in a place like this. Her little sister once stepped on a shard of glass and it went straight through the sole of her shoe, but Jen had no intention of ending up with even more accident trauma.
By the time she made it to the market, it was already starting to get busy there. Lots of different vendors stood behind different stools holding all kinds of different things. People traded old clothes and furniture, sold pieces of interesting looking scrap that they had found, and auctioned off their trinkets. There was even a back alley machinist trying to drum up interest in homemade cybernetics, but most people knew better than to trust scrap augs.
Some of the street food stalls smelled wonderful. Jen eyed up some sizzling zebra kebabs, which were juicy synth meat combined on skewers with real vegetables! Zebra is a very sweet meat, sweeter than beef, and like most people here, she was a big fan. There was a long line for them today though, so she didn’t really have any time to waste there. She had to hurry to the communal kitchen’s stall.
They definitely weren’t serving nicer food than other people, but they were giving it away for free, and that really helped a lot of folks to get by. Many people could barely afford to eat two meals on a day to day basis. There were even quite a lot of people living in this district who were struggling to access Vitaria’s UBI system. It was vital that group stepped up and worked together to help them live some semblance of a life.
You need to list an address in order to claim UBI, but a lot of the buildings were built by the community rather than real construction companies, and as such they’re not included on the registry that the system uses. The average person can’t afford to get their property on the list, only landlords have that kind of money. Some people get away with building their homes into old derelicts, or on sites where registered buildings used to stand, but they’re lucky.
One thing that many people do is live in one place, but register at a completely different location just for UBI purposes. Friends are often willing to help each other. However, upon registering a building, a maximum safe occupancy limit has to be set, and that’s also the maximum number of people who can claim UBI while living there. Thus, when Jen’s mother got pregnant with her, she had to move out of a popular derelict address and into landlord controlled housing.
Jen’s coworker, Alberd, waved her down from behind a stall that looked like someone had challenged themselves to a blindfolded carpentry time trial. His chubby cheeks were covered with freckles, and his curly ginger hair had started to get a bit too long. He had recently started to grow out a beard in an attempt to make himself appear a little less goofy to others, but right now it was still messy stubble.
“Hey there, you were almost late,” he said, with a dopey smile on his face.
“I’m pretty sure that means I was on time. if you want me to arrive earlier, you need to actually tell me when you want me.”
“Well, these noodles aren’t going to serve themselves, you’ve got to be more proactive about it, Jen!”
Alberd thought that he was much funnier than he ever actually was, and often spoke only in aphorisms and irony, but Jen had slowly become endeared to it. They had known each other for years, and she knew that he had a good heart. Nothing he said was supposed to be taken seriously.
“Good morning to you too,” she responded.
He made space for her behind the stall. She put on her apron and got straight to work. The heat from the electric stove was immediately unpleasant, but that was to be expected on such a sunny day.
They were serving wheatfry. It was a stir fry dish that was mostly just wheat and flavoring. There was faux meat made from seitan, and the starchy water byproduct of seitan’s production had been turned into translucent cellophane noodles. The noodles glowed blue and green, because the supplier corp had marinated them in genetically modified vibrio phosphoreum. They didn’t think that the colors were bright enough though, so the kitchen had been able to buy large quantities of product off of them for fairly cheap.
For the next couple of hours, the two vendors portioned out meals to everyone who approached the stool. They used ceramic plates and metal chopsticks, washing them up with buckets of soap and disinfectant so that they could spread their limited resources across as many people as possible. Other kitchens in other parts of the slums had given up and moved to paper plates, because trying to reduce waste in a place like this is like sticking an ashtray on a hoverbike, but Jen still thought it was good that they were putting in the extra effort.
“It’s really busy today, huh?” said Jen.
“Yeah, I think it’s the heat. Nobody wants to spend today indoors. It’s going to get even hotter soon, and even busier for sure, mark my words.”
“I hope we have enough food for everyone.”
“I’ll go inside and get the next batch in a minute.”
Alberd looked for a moment like he was about to turn around and leave for the kitchen, but he stopped, turned his head into the crowd, and started speaking again.
“Hey, look at that guy!” he sounded quite surprised.
“Who?” Jen asked.
“The one in the fancy suit, of course. He sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s even covered in augs.”
“Oh, yeah, I wonder why someone from the inner city would come all the way out here. It’s been a while since I saw anybody that well dressed.”
“Holy shit! Look at the guy next to him. Look at that armor.”
They both gawked at the heavy construct of metal plating that they could only assume encapsulated a human being. It was hazard suit armor, the kind of thing that you only ever saw on holoscreen shows about brutal warzones. If you threw a grenade at a person wearing one of these things, they’d walk right through the explosion. The eyes of the helmet shone in an ominous red. It sometimes created jagged criss cross patterns of glare, and Jen wasn’t sure if that was just because of her eye or not.
“There’s no reason to bring something like that here,” said Jen, scornfully. “I know it can be dangerous sometimes, but do city folk really think that this is an appropriate response? It’s just going to frighten people.”
“Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know, I’m going to go and get the rest of the wheatfry.”
Alberd went inside, and didn’t see the man in the suit walking haughtily towards the kitchen stall. His shoes were expensive, black snakeskin with metal heels, and they were definitely inappropriate for the slums. The mud was going to completely ruin them, but he didn’t seem to have noticed that yet. His bodyguard followed two steps behind, drawing the attention of everybody around him, and causing many to back away.
The queue for the communal kitchen dispersed, making way for the city dwellers. They were afraid of them. Jen noticed a small knife tied around the upper right arm of the suited man’s jacket. It had a small icon on the hilt, like a circle containing some dark and jagged lines. She couldn’t recognise any meaning in the symbol, but it made her feel uncomfortable.
“Hello,” said the man in the suit, in an upper class but friendly tone. “Something smells good.”
He stood still with his arms crossed, and Jen examined him further. His face was covered in thin streaks of gold, like it had been taken apart and reassembled with a kintsugi style lacquer. A tracheal filter stood out on his neck; it was black with a rectangle of yellow LED light. There were some tattoos on either side of the aug, but Jen couldn’t see enough of them to work out what they were depicting, as they vanished behind his jacket.
His eyes also shone gold, making it clear that he was going for a consistent theme. She noticed an unnatural pattern, like hazard tape, surrounding pitch black irises. One of his eyes would cost three times what she paid for hers, and she had no doubts about the fact that his ones worked a lot better. This man was wealthy.
“Good afternoon!” Jen said, trying to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “Would you like a plate?”
Instead of answering her question, the man just stared at the wheatfry with a disdainful expression that in no way lined up with the enthusiastic words he had spoken just a moment prior.
“I’m just looking around,” he said calmly. “How much does, well, this, uh, this food of yours cost?”
“It doesn’t cost anything, sir. We’re just trying to make sure that everybody can eat.”
“Really? That’s quaint. I mean admirable, truly. You seem like a kind hearted girl.”
“Thank you, but it’s really nothing,” she shuffled about awkwardly because she wasn’t used to getting compliments. “Others help here too, there are a lot of people who are willing to chip in. It doesn’t take somebody special to want to put a stop to starvation. There are a lot of hungry people here.”
“Yes, quite right. But, uh, where do they go?”
“Sorry, I don’t understand your question?”
“I mean, of course starvation is a bad thing, but if you’re helping people like that, where do they go? They don’t do honest work, or much of anything at all, as far as I’ve been able to see.”
“Well, we help a lot of people, they do a lot of different things. A lot of them are scavengers, work on various hobbies and talents, or have families to take care of.”
“But if they need your help just to eat, and they have children, their children are just going to grow up into people who also don’t know how to fend for themselves. It’s inhumane. They could end up as thieves, or capsule gangers, or worse. I’m just not sure that what you’ve got here is a practical solution to society’s ills.”
“Sorry,” she paused, eying the bodyguard in the heavy armor and taking a deep breath before continuing, “but I really think you need to move on if you don’t want any stir fry. This isn’t a debate club, this is a charity, and we have a lot of people waiting to be fed. You’re starting to hold up the queue.”
The man in the suit seemed quite taken aback.
“Well, I’m very sorry, and of course, I don’t want to get in the way of a good deed. People like you are heroes, after all.”
He said this, but he didn’t move a muscle, and it made Jen feel quite irritated.
“Why are you here? What’s someone like you doing somewhere like this? You know that the grime is ruining your cute little shoes, right?”
The man vocalized a quiet hum of disgust, and then took a half-second glance at his feet.
“I’m here because my organization has some business interests here. It’s very interesting stuff, actually. Sadly though, I can’t discuss it right now, I have somewhere I need to be soon. Have a pleasant evening.”
He beamed at Jen without revealing his teeth, but his eyes didn’t move with the rest of the smile. It would have looked artificial to anybody. He then turned towards his bodyguard and made a sign with his hands that relayed a message unreadable by outside observers. The two of them began to leave the market in the same direction that they came from originally.
People returned to the queue and the crowd in front of Jen quickly thickened. Alberd came back soon after the strange pair had disappeared out of sight. Jen suspected that he had just been trying to avoid them.
“Hey,” he said, “what’s up?”
“I didn’t like that guy in the suit at all. He came over here just to hold up the queue and ask questions. There was a smile on his face the whole time, but it didn’t seem to me to be a very friendly one.”
“Well, it’s what I would expect from city folk. They don’t respect us or how we live. We’re all better off if they stay where they are and we stay where we are.”
“I don’t know. I just wish that more of them would recognize that life is hard here, and that it’s not our fault,” spoke Jen, with genuine sadness in her voice. “We do our best to get by, but that’s never going to compete with the monopolies, with the corps, and surely they know that?”
“They’d have to recognize that they’re at least partly to blame. They’d have to recognize that we’re poor because they’re rich. It would never happen.”
“I guess not,” she sighed.
They carried on working as the weather got warmer and the market reached peak capacity. The crowd was dense and uncomfortable, even with the stall as a divider between Jen and the thick of it. Lots of people approached for wheatfry, and many of them tried to make small talk. There was a variety of visitors, from doddering old women to gruff men who looked like they were in biker gangs, but the most common topic was always the weather.
In what seemed like an instant, a hovervan appeared, creating jarring white noise as it flew in just meters above the people in the market. It was jet black, with tinted windows on a bulky frame. Everybody stopped what they were doing to look at it. There was no reason for it to be here; it didn’t even have anywhere that it could land.
There was a second of silence, then the sound of a door opening. Arms clad in metal armor threw seven or eight spherical objects out of the van, getting a decent spread on them across the market’s center. The door slammed shut, and a whirring marked the beginning of the vehicle’s exit.
As soon as the hissing began, so did the screaming. Gas spread quickly from the round canisters as soon as they clicked open. It weaved between stalls and people, creating a thick cloud that provided just inches of vision.
Frightened cries chorused from every direction, and people scrambled to escape. The gas was harmful, tearing into the lungs of anyone who breathed it in without a filter. A storm of limbs frenzied blindly through the plaza.
Alberd’s first move was stupid panic that caused him to dash forward and collapse into the stool. Wheatfry went flying as the table tipped over. He swore loudly.
The gray roared across Jen’s vision like a wave of static. She activated the infrared filter on her cybernetic eye. Her other eye was starting to burn, so she kept it closed. She held her breath as best as she could and began moving.
People were tripping each other up and crashing into the floor. They were injuring each other and themselves before even receiving the worst of the gas. It was a nightmare.
Jen grabbed Alberd and pulled him upright, but he struggled to regain his balance. She had to drag him around the perimeter of the market and towards the alleyway. They would use it tod escape down.
“Stop,” slurred Alberd, in an attempt to make Jen focus on herself. He perhaps wanted to say more, but it hurt him to speak.
Her heat vision showed her a chaotic scene of red figures who were collapsed or collapsing, with few managing to escape. It allowed her to navigate, and she did so very carefully. She paid a lot of attention to her footwork.
At some point, pulling Alberd over a man who was crumpled up on the floor, Jen briefly stopped holding her breath. The result was a pain that was almost instant. It was like having your lungs forcibly inflated with gravel. She had to tighten the muscles in her throat very hard in order to avoid coughing. They made it into the alleyway.
Jen kept pulling Alberd through the street even after she no longer needed her augmented eye to see. She wanted to make sure that there was no risk to either of them. Alberd was covered in mud and dirt.
Finally, she stopped. She dropped her friend to the floor and the two of them began fits of dry coughing and spluttering. It felt like agony.
Alberd’s coughing carried on for much longer than Jen’s. As soon as she didn’t have to worry about herself anymore, she noticed that he was spitting blood all over his t-shirt. She cradled him as he curled up into a fetal position, unable to communicate with her through the coughing.
He made a kind of hoarse sigh, and seconds later, he stopped moving. Jen immediately rolled him over and attempted CPR, combining chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. She had never been trained, it just seemed like the right thing to try. She was terrified.
Midway through, as their lips were touching, Alberd threw up more blood. Jen felt the metallic taste on her tongue. She kept trying, even through the grossness of it, and even as despair began to overtake her. She tried for longer than most people would have, but finally, she stopped.
Alberd was dead. A lot of people were dead. The gas had mostly dispersed, and the few who had escaped harm through luck or because of their augs were checking the bodies on the floor. Only some of them were still alive, and even fewer of them would still be alive tomorrow.
One woman was on the phone to Kite Security, an Allwell subsidiary. Jen knew that they wouldn’t help though. They never helped the slums. It wasn’t ever profitable for them to try, and a lot of them held grudges against the people here.
Tears ran down Jen’s right cheek, the side of her unaugmented eye. Some of the more expensive cybernetic eyes could cry, but not hers. Even her ability to mourn the loss of her friend had been stolen and become muted. In the shade of the alleyway she broke down and sobbed.