by J.D. Mitchell
“Remember walking down the street without ads in your brain?” Luca said to River. Or were they shouting? It was hard to tell with The Feed blaring in their head like a passing train. Forced to revert to free service, Luca’s mind had become flooded with more ads than an old-world social media feed.
I’M SO TIRED OF INVASIVE ADVERTISING: I SHOULD INVEST IN BRAINBLOCKER BY—Luca shook off the mental ad.
Free service? Nothing was free.
A person not broadcasting their SocialCredit sauntered by; Luca recoiled atavistically, as if the person’s silence was contagious. How did anyone get through the day without signaling? Random people wouldn’t know who they were.
River, strolling beside Luca, cozied into their early-season feather boa like it could hide their identity. “I can’t believe we’re walking street-level like a couple of non-entities. How could you lose your position, Luca?”
“It’s not my fault the management algorithm flagged me as obsolete. How can I upgrade with what they pay me?” I SHOULD BUY NEW SYSTEM UPGRADES—HALF OFF AT DEUS EX MACHINARIUM. Luca growled away the ad. They wouldn’t be in this mess if Luca could afford upgrades.
Their debt flow had been a trickle at first, but then came fee restructuring, mandatory upgrades, and optional add-ons for essential services until their credit had toppled like an unbalanced load-lifter. It made Luca pine for the days of analog. Shit, they were starting to sound like an unplugged Luddite.
Luca and River edged around an unnetworked person dressed in last year’s fashion: a ruffed collar and JoggerChic hose. It didn’t credit to stand around the unnetworked and unfashionable for too long. It would drag down their own SocialCredit, which was already dangerously depressed. Luca didn’t care how other people lived, but the System did.
River pulled Luca to a stop by the arm. “Look, we’ve been cohabitating for years. We’re not juniors anymore. HotBoss367 says upwardly mobile servitors see a 0.766 percent rise in credit after propagation.”
“Why’d you have to say tha—” I MUST GET A FREE GENETIC SURVEY FROM—shit—AND A WASTE-ELIMINATING UNDERWRAP FOR SENSITIVE SURFACES, GUARANTEED TO—Luca rapped their temples. Propagation ads were the most invasive. “We can’t, River, I’ve got to sell my kidney just to make rent.”
River took Luca by the shoulder mounts. “I know, I sold mine last month, remember? But propagation’s the only way.” River grinned, a mischievous gleam in their optics. “If we both get increases, we could even afford a microhome. Think of it, an entire microhome!”
Luca frowned and kept walking. “I’m opting out of this conversation. We already have adjacent dwelling sills.” Honestly, Luca didn’t want to bring a junior into this System. Sure, it would jack up their credit score, but then the junior would be stuck on the same track as them. A track to nowhere.
Luca’s internal alarm showed rising levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine. The alarm only jacked both levels higher. Luca took off their visor and wiped their forehead. THIS ANXIETY IS KILLING ME. I NEED TO GET MY DOCTOR TO PRESCRIBE BENZODALCLONAPAM. BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY: IT'S THE ONLY WAY.
River dragged Luca up the street by the hand. “Hear me out: Corporate Indenture—it’s the newest thing, and propagation will ensure not only our futures, but our junior’s!”
A maglev train blinked past, its wake nearly bowling them over. ATLAS TRANSIT SERVICES. WHY AREN'T WE ON THAT TRAIN? WE'D BE THERE ALREADY!
Luca shook their head. “You’re sounding like an ad, River.” Luca fixated on a large tree growing out of an iron planter set in the concrete. It looked out of place against the Neomodern urban decay. Fraxinus americana (white ash or American ash), 21.3805008 meters tall, 0.5980684 meters in diameter, age: 41.15 years (approximate). ENJOYING THIS TREE? LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE TO KEEP TRANS-ASTRAL BANK FROM HARVESTING IT FOR MULTI-USE SPILLAGE ABSORBENT—ONLY YOU CAN SAVE OUR PLANETARY BIOMASS.
The tree made Luca think about roots and time. The future. How much would it take to buy their way out of wage slavery and set their own course? More than forty years and a kidney, that was for sure.
Luca stopped at a faded crosswalk and turned to River. “What’s a microhome go for these days?”
River laughed. “You don’t want to know.”
Luca looked at the Vital Organ Donation Kiosk across the street. “A microhome is, what—thirty, thirty-two square meters?”
River nodded. “It’d be stellar. We could mount junior’s rack overhead. Massive upgrade.”
It was a way forward. Something. Anything. They’d have to buy all the domicile permits but being in Application Status would up their SocialCredit. They might not even need to propagate to get back on track. Yeah, sell a few organs, upgrade, and apply. Work the System. Unnetworking and getting out of the city wouldn’t get them anywhere. There weren’t any ads for autonomy or tutorials on independence.
“Fuck it, let’s go.” Luca stepped into the street.
ATLAS TRANSIT S—
Luca wasn’t walking anymore, they were flying. Cartwheeling in slow time over a huge traffic prow while staring down at the upper deck of a passing maglev. For the barest second Luca couldn’t feel or hear anything.
I’VE BEEN A VICTIM OF A HIT-AND-RUN. I SHOULD CALL ABACUS & FINCH, ATTORNEYS-AT-LAW.
They were weightless. It was wonderful.
THIS IS POSEIDON GENERAL. IF YOU DON'T WANT EMERGENCY SERVICES, PLEASE SHOUT “DO NOT RESUSCITATE!" OR YOUR ESTATE WILL BE DEBITED ACCORDINGLY.
Luca hit the ground. Hard. The Feed cut out. Without it, Luca couldn’t assess their level of injury. Not knowing was oddly comforting, but it must be bad. The Feed was hard-wired. Luca lay on the ground, totally and deliciously numb. Everything sounded strange: hollow and distant. Luca was hearing through their own ears for the first time.
In that moment, it didn’t matter that Luca had lost their position or was facing ruinous housing and medical debt. For once they simply couldn’t, and it was so nice.
A crowd gathered in the street. Most took the opportunity to pose over Luca’s mangled frame. Luca didn’t blame them. Everyone had to cater to their SocialFeed, and a gruesome accident was too good an opportunity.
Luca laughed a wet, choking burble. Do not resuscitate, eh? Luca laid there, feeling organic juices sluicing through their cracked steel housing. Hell, maybe dying wasn’t such a bad thing. At least creditors couldn’t follow you into the void.
J.D. Mitchell’s stories are informed by his historical studies and transient upbringing. The latter, while terribly angst-inducing, exposed him to a rich tapestry of people and places, as did his varied service industry jobs and a sixteen-year stint in the Public Service of Canada (but who's counting?). His published works include the dark fantasy Springtide Harvest and The Citadel of Bureaucracy, a satirical gamebook about surviving a very bad day in the civil service. You can find all his at stories at www.jdmitchellwriter.com.