“Oh, it’s you. Go away now, lots of damage.” I told him I didn’t care how the outside looked. “Not just outside! Pipes break inside, leaking water. Power is out. City send robots to fix everything but I don’t want them inside either, the Shuzu are on bad terms with the city.”
Shuzu? A quick search behind my eyelids brought up “the rat tribe”. Citizens who live in highly subdivided dwellings, usually subterranean, built into what used to be bomb shelters and other municipal underground spaces.
Hey, that’s me! I both chuckled and winced. I knew I’d be starting out on the bottom…but didn’t fully appreciate until now that it’s possible to start out literally underground. “So you’re doing the repairs yourself?” He shook his head. “I have people.”
I asked how long until the repairs would be complete. Six days, he said. Six days! “What the fuck am I supposed to do until then?” He shrugged. “Not my problem.” Subsequent attempts to reason with the man proved fruitless, so I headed off in search of someplace to rest my head come nightfall.
Behind me in the alley opposite the apartment building was another gas shelter. I looked at it long and hard before deciding I’d rather take my chances on the street. Besides which, if cops can’t even keep bums from sleeping in autocabs back in the States, probably that shelter will be packed with ’em as soon as it starts getting dark.
That suspicion appeared vindicated when the next gas shelter I passed had a pair of seedy looking men in dingy clothing loitering next to the hatch. They didn’t need to tell me to keep moving, their eyes did the talking.
I contemplated a capsule hotel, but even though they’re at the absolute low end of pricing for overnight lodging, it was still a good deal more than I wanted to pay after stranding myself in a foreign country with a nearly empty coin wallet.
What I ended up settling on was a net cafe. It baffles me that these are still around given that people regularly throw all the hardware you need to get online into the garbage without batting an eye, but then it’s more of a social thing in Asia.
In America, personal ownership is a big deal. Here, it’s long been the tradition to physically go someplace to use hardware you pay by the hour for. It’s why VRcades are still around over here but not in the US, and why net cafes still exist.
What you’re paying for is not just access to a computer of course, but a warm, dry, relatively safe environment in which to take a load off. Check your mail, see how your coin portfolio is doing, play some games and so on.
The same basic amenities most have at home. A little home away from home, in one sense. Like what taverns are to the typical Western man, but instead of beer and televised sports, you get instant ramen and a computer.
When I arrive at the nearest net cafe, there’s a row of dingy looking ebikes in every color plastic can be painted sitting out front. Each of them connected to a power outlet by a locking plug, quietly humming as their batteries charge.
Little grey boxes attached to where I’d expect an ignition switch caught my eye. Periodically a little lens opened up on each box and swept the body of the ebike with laser light. Some sort of security measure I imagine, but unlike any I’ve seen before.
The inside of the cafe is packed with a mixture of teenagers and sad, dumpy looking old men. The teenagers run away to the net cafe to escape the scorn of parents who don’t like them wasting their youth on gaming.
The older set are mostly former salarymen who became unemployable for one reason or another, and migrant workers who can’t even afford the Shuzu lifestyle. Behind me, the streets were once again filling up with ebikes.
The Chinese define ‘electric bicycle’ very differently from the rest of the world, mind you. Prospective buyers here are looking to get the most vehicle for their yuan, so despite being built with bicycle parts, most of these things are surrounded by plastic body panels to give the appearance that they’re full blown scooters.
This usually includes lockable trunk, a lockable container for your helmet like a motorcycle would have, a headlight, turn signals, a horn…basically they make it as close to a “real vehicle” as possible without it being legally classified as one.
That means no license needed, which means taking your life in your hands any time you set foot in a Chinese street…to say nothing of driving such a contraption yourself. The motors are just a couple hundred watts, so it’ll only do maybe twenty to thirty miles an hour, tops.
Of course that feels much faster than it sounds when you’re surrounded by other ebikes moving at the same speed, relativity and all that. It makes for a harrowing experience, zipping along so low to the ground, riding a mostly plastic piece of shit that feels like it’s held together with glue and rubber bands. But if one hits you, it’ll probably do more damage to the bike than your body.
So of course I decided right then and there that I had to have one. Realistically I won’t be making the kind of dosh I need to put a proper motorcycle back under me for a year or more. Until then, an ebike seems like a tolerable compromise.
As soon as I paid the paltry fee for a few hours computer time, I settled into the cozy little cubicle I was assigned and got busy researching what an ebike costs. To my utter dismay, the cheapest few used lead acid batteries.
I imagined myself buying one, only for Dad to give me an earful when he found out. Who still makes lead batteries, even? I’ve never seen them stateside and only knew about them from Dad’s rants about that shitty electric motorcycle he loved so much in his youth.
There were a few lithium ones as well, but the rest were sodium glass, dual carbon and aluminum titanate. I bookmarked the site. It felt nice to use a dedicated computer with a keyboard instead of my interface. The sense of physicality made me feel grounded, and secure.
This is just the beginning, I told myself. I’ll be in the apartment soon. I’ll have a roof over my head! Well, I technically do here since I’m inside the cafe, but the cubicle walls don’t even go all the way up to the ceiling.
I’ll have real food as well. My stomach growled, as if seconding that motion. I browsed the cafe’s menu from the computer, found some cheap but acceptable looking ramen and submitted my order. A few minutes later a robot arm suspended from an overhead rail, like the one in the airplane, delivered my meal.
It was steaming hot and there wasn’t any plate provided. I briefly closed my eyes to turn off pain reception for my prosthetic hand, then used that one to carefully take the bowl from the delivery mechanism and set it down on the desk.
A bug eyed anime character with a giant head on a tiny body popped up onscreen to remind me about additional fees that would be charged should I spill any of the ramen. They always use some cutesy character to say stuff like that so it will feel less threatening. What happens if you don’t abide their rules is…considerably less cute.
The ramen filled me up, though I imagine it did little to legitimately nourish me. At least if the mild stomach pains a few minutes after I finished were any indication. As if my body was protesting the garbage I’d put into it and demanding something better.
Not tonight, body! Tonight you dine on ramen. You’ll get garbage and like it, because that’s what I can afford. After that I began searching for a new arsenal of exploits. My old mainstays were now hopelessly obsolete.
It all came back to me soon enough. Within the hour I had modern equivalents of all my old heavy hitters downloaded, cleaned and ready to rock. It was the work of the subsequent hour to flesh out my tool set with all the smaller specialty programs I thought I might find a use for.
Next stop was the darknet markets. I put my feelers out to see who to sell to, who to buy from, whose services I might need soon, who to keep an eye out for and so on. Getting the lay of the land, now that my connection was sufficiently anonymous.
Stay Tuned for Part 16!