[Original Novel] Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah, Part 13


Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

I wake up with a start, the mechanical arm of Remble’s carrier shaking me by the shoulder. “We’re on the ground. They’ll be along to help me de-plane pretty soon. It was an illuminating chat, I wish you well.”

Still groggy and disoriented, I shook the smooth metal grasper at the end of the arm he’d extended to me and bid him farewell. Didn’t fully grasp what was happening just yet, or I’d have asked for his card so we could stay in touch. Do dolphins have business cards now? Something about the very concept of it strikes me as obscene.

As I climbed out of the cramped seat and lumbered towards the exit, bits and pieces of the dream came back to me in brief, cryptic flashes. The stark contrast of white lines against absolute darkness. The geometric perfection of every object, the infinite sharpness.

What does it mean? Then again, what do any of my dreams ever mean. I’ve never had a dream like that before, but then again I’m in a new body now. Irregularities are to be expected until everything settles.

To my surprise, when I emerged into the terminal, the sky visible through the numerous gigantic windows glowed all of the brilliant oranges and yellows of sunset. How long had I been asleep? For that matter, how long was the flight? I didn’t pay any attention to that detail when purchasing the ticket.

It complicated things, but only somewhat. I hoofed it, not wanting to spend any more than absolutely necessary. Besides which I knew all too well the scams typically run by airport cabbies if they work it out that you’re a ‘laowai’. Even in an ethnically Chinese body, I’d need to speak through a translator app, which would be a dead giveaway.

That’s when the fare would mysteriously triple of course. What’s worse is that the cabs are all remotely managed. They don’t even have the decency to rip you off in person. Listen to me, as if I’m somebody important. I’m nobody now. A nobody, and a nothing.

That strangely comforts me as I dig through a dumpster in search of a phone. Everybody’s either got a slab these days, or it’s part of their interface, buried deep in their grey matter. Nobody still uses actual phone-phones, with screens you put your fingers on, except for emergencies.

According to Dad they used to be a status symbol. People would strive to own the newest model with the biggest screen, back when screens on phones was a widespread thing. They’d shell out big bucks for these stupid things.

Now they only buy them out of vending machines in an emergency because their implants got fried or something, and they need to summon an autocab, or a medical volo. Then they toss it in the trash when they’re done, rather than bother to recharge it.

One man’s trash is another’s treasure…and a computer is a computer is a computer. Doesn’t matter what shape or form factor, what matters is the chip. If it’s possible to flash, I can run just about anything I want on it.

Much more securely than I can on the interface of a stranger whose body I’ve lived in for less than a day, at any rate. I pocketed as many of the discarded phones as I could find in the remarkably fragrant dumpster, lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to shower for some hours.

I wondered on my way to the apartments whether they’d even let me in, smelling like this. Then again, in that rent bracket I’m probably the cleanest tenant. My thought process was derailed by a sudden, startling klaxon of some sort. An electronic wail with intermittent chirps, accompanied by blinking lights on the outsides of nearby businesses. Warning lights? Warning about what?

Oh, fuck me. It completely slipped my mind. Shenzen’s airborne pollution level has been one of the lowest in the world for much of my adult life, so it escaped my consideration that it’s also right on the coast. The familiar smell of rotten eggs wafted into my nostrils as the gas tinted the sky an increasingly rich shade of green.

I darted this way and that in a panic, unable to hear the translator app over the sirens. Then I spotted a friendly, goggled face in the alley. One of about a dozen locals, all wearing similar goggles. They all huddled together behind her in some sort of public shelter, as she patiently held the rubber lined hatch open for me.

The grey haired woman beckoned frantically as the gas crept through the streets, making my eyes water. I doubled timed it into the alley and once I was safely inside, she swung the hatch shut and sealed it with a long, rusty lever.

A gentle hiss followed as pressurized clean air purged every trace of methane and hydrogen sulfide from the shelter’s interior. There were a few grimy windows but decades of exposure to the elements had rendered them nearly opaque.

The inside was similarly worn down…but at least it wasn’t bare, rusty metal. It looked a lot like the inside of an old commuter train. Lots of stained, beige plastic surfaces. Hand rails to hold onto, harnesses on every seat.

For what? Tsunamis, if I had to guess. Probably this thing floats, and has a few days worth of life support in case it’s swept out to sea. Reading over the safety guidelines printed on the near wall confirmed it. I’ve heard about wealthy private residences near tsunami zones having these. I didn’t know there were public ones now.

What a mess we’re in, when even cities on land need lifeboats. Most of the others inside the shelter with me looked to be in their seventies or older. The woman who held the hatch for me asked why I didn’t have a pollution mask.

Not wanting to cop to how broke I am, I turned it around on her and asked why she and the others don’t have pollution masks. I mean shit, I’m new in town but these are locals. You’d think they would’ve survived enough gas storms to see the good sense in buying a few pollution masks.

“Those masks need filter cartridges. They go bad. New cartridges cost money. That’s money I can feed my son with. I’ve lived here my whole life, I know where every shelter is. I could draw you a map if you have some paper. You must not know where they are, because by the smell of you, I’ll bet you’ve been sleeping in dumpsters.”

I ignored the barb, though it made me self-conscious about my recently ripened scent. I then reflected soberly on the fact that even though she had next to nothing, she was still looking to help somebody else out. I offered her a few of the dumpster phones. She laughed. “Not worth the weight to carry them. My residorm has built in panel, my son has interface. No use for phone.”

I suddenly felt mildly ridiculous for digging through the trash to get my hands on these. Times have changed. There’s probably a better way to get started from rock bottom these days, and odds seem good this old woman knows more about that than I do.

I picked her brain about the most cost effective way to get a rudimentary altcoin mining rig set up while we waited out the passing gas front. “Oh, my son handles all that. If you have an interface, there are much better ways to make money.”

It felt conspicuously backwards. Here I am, forty years her junior, and she’s the one filling me in on new technologies. I always knew I’d eventually reach the age where somebody has to teach me this stuff. I just never expected to learn it from a lao ren.

“If you sacrifice some of your time each night that you would normally dream, there are some employers who will pay you very well to use parts of your brain-” I interrupted her, aghast. “My brain? Let some stranger poke around in my grey matter while I’m asleep?”

She looked briefly irritated, but continued. “…Yes, they spread very difficult computing tasks across the brains of many, many sleeping employees. To make those cute animated films, for example. Or running popular game servers, or protein folding.”

I wasn’t about to go in for that. I understand that the average person has enough on their plate without worrying about personal data security, but literally letting some faceless corp have root access to my brain would be a bridge too far.

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