Xiao Mei stands outside the clinic and traces the streamlined steel and glass embedded in the back of her forearm with her finger as it finishes the initial setup routine. A crisp, yellow welcome message flashes across the display. Seeing the path that’s opened up before her fills her with elation and purpose.
Before beginning the journey back home, she bows her head, clasps right fist in left palm, turns in the direction of The Palace of the Grandfather, and mutters a thankful prayer for the path he’s allowed her to step on. The screech of metal-on-metal drags her glance over her shoulder. The heavy steel door rolls slowly shut on a pneumatic piston, and caught a glimpse at one of the girls dancing closest to the door.
Envy towards the tall, slender woman decked out with all of the latest augmentations dancing in her display box surges through Xiao Mei for the last time. She can’t even imagine how much of the Neuromesh the dancer has crisscrossing beneath her skin. She’s so beautiful and so full of energy. She has that faraway look in her eyes; the look people get when they travel deep in the Aether.
For years, Xiao Mei had yearned to experience that. To feel the connection. To see the Grandfather’s spark illuminating her beloved city from behind the veil that her organic frame stubbornly refused to lift. To touch the Aether. To be someone.
The woman slips out of view as Xiao Mei begins the walk home with a sense of satisfaction.
No reason to envy her. Not anymore. I’m one of them now.
Unbidden, a moment of reflection falls upon her. She had to have walked by the wetware clinic a million times since it opened around a month ago. Every morning and every afternoon. Back and forth to school and home again. She would stop and scan the QR codes projected onto the drifting haze every day to see the new accessories they had, the phone modules they were offering, and promotional events—all that crap.
And they were having a sale!
The Shen Mei Bionetics Clinic had the hottest girls strutting and dancing in their display boxes, showing off how amazing the implants looked, inviting her in to take the compatibility test. She had worked up the nerve to step inside for the first time about a week ago and was whisked away by sales reps wearing the coolest suits and the latest hairstyles from Inner NorCap.
Today was the last day of the sale, and she COULD. NOT. Miss it.
She HAD to have one.
When they shoved the forms in her face, she didn’t read any of them. It’s all just silly legal stuff that nobody ever reads, anyway. Right? Besides. The Grandfather would never allow his people to be taken advantage of. Why even have contracts and all that legal nonsense?
The forms said that minors need to have a parent’s signature. But they were so cool about it. They let it slide.
“But just this once!” They said. “Don’t tell your friends! We can’t have every underage girl in the city asking for an exception!” they warned her.
“Oh, no way. Lips stitched!” she promised.
Besides, it would just add to the mystique when her friends begged to know all about it.
It’s gonna drive ‘em outside the Wall!
It didn’t occur to her that mom would see it as soon as she walked in the door until after the gas started to wear off. She freaked out about it, but the sales rep calmed her down. He was right. It didn’t matter; mom and dad would be SO proud of her for taking such a huge step towards full citizenship. She could just imagine what things would be like: An apartment down in the CBD, new job assignment options for her parents, better schools for her sister. They would just melt with joy when she walked in and flashed her shiny new ticket to the upper echelons of NorCap society.
Some people are afraid when they hear about assimilation. Her friends talked about it once at school. That one stupid girl kept saying it wouldn’t be worth losing your identity over. The silly bitch deserved to get raided and sent for reprogramming. Maybe her family didn’t deserve it. Her sister probably shouldn’t have died in the raid, but Xiao Mei had decided to keep that little bit of introspection to herself. It was that bitch’s fault, though. She shouldn’t have been so critical of the Grandfather’s gifts. Xiao Mei always loved to fit in, anyway. Being assimilated would be kind of like that.
Like being popular, but with everyone, all the time!
Oh well. Too late to think about that, now.
She hadn’t understood the part about the clinic getting to claim the implant if she stopped using it or switched it out for one of their competitors’. And there was some weird thing about neural bleed if her mind rejects the implant. Whatever that meant. Oh, and something about some weird place called Outbound something, something, something collecting user data for scientific research. Also, some bs about visual artifacts and Hyper-Assimilation Syndrome… Or something like that…
Selling them testing rights for the patch of skin they cut off gave her enough of a discount that she ended up with more than half off! They told her why they would even want to buy some nasty old patch of skin, but she wasn’t paying attention. Something about experimental colonies floating around in the clouds on Venus or something. Boring science crap. She just remembered them talking about medical research. It was super gross. It’s like…
Why would they even want that?
Her skin had tingled at the thought of how CHEAP she was getting it for! Until they chopped the skin off, anyway. That part didn’t tingle anymore. The rest of her skin kept tingling, though. She was weirded out by it at first, but that was then, and this is now. The QuLED display looks so much cooler embedded in her arm than some boring old skin.
I’m such a SUPER shopper!
It was fifty-five percent off!
FIFTY. FIVE. PERCENT.
Not only will her friends be jealous that she’s becoming a real citizen, but now she can impress…
“They sliced off a patch of skin on my forearm like the size of a pack of smokes. They’re gonna fly it off to Venus. Can you believe that? I’m probably gonna be famous.”
She stops typing to revel in this new reality. Only a few hours since getting augmented, and she’s already making contributions to the people of NorCap. She swells with pride at her selfless contributions to The People’s Science.
Oh, I can’t wait to see Li Na’s face when she hears that part. And she thinks working with those gross homeless tweakers from the EZ is good citizenship? Pff…
She scoffs with an inward grin and goes back to working on him.
“Then they sprayed some weird smelling glue stuff on it so it wouldn’t bleed and get all infected. That way, when it was all done, I didn’t even have to wait to go home!” She types into her now-obsolete mobile phone.
Typing on the ancient piece of plastic and metal (SOOOO last year!) pulls on the implant and makes her forearm sore. Not to mention, she feels like such a pleb. What if people see her typing on this thing? It’s so ancient now.
She hits the send button. The text flies off into the ether. The single, grey checkmark beside the text turns blue, and a smile touches her lips. The “speaking” icon appears next to his avatar, and warmth blossoms low in her belly.
She pictures herself meeting him for the first time. Sitting with him, chatting with his friends, and sipping Pu Er cha in some tea shop down in the Central Business District, ordering the right tea and dumping out the first pot to clean the dust from the leaves and steeping them a second time just like a real Citizen would. People would say she’s so sophisticated.
A voice message appears in the chat window, and she taps it with her thumb.
How amazing is it gonna be when I can do all this stuff just by thinking about it!
“Oh wow, baby, that musta hurt like a bitch. You are so brave!” His honeyed voice drips into her ears.
The warmth in her belly grows every time he speaks in that Inner NorCap accent of his.
So much hotter than the nasty peasant accent most of these stupid refugees from the Exclusion Zone speak in.
She glares from the corner of her eye at a man in wasteland garb passed out in a doorway. The covered light hanging above the door paints the man in stark, orange highlights. Deep shadows hide his face, but the way his arms lay limp by his side gives him the look of one of those junkies passed out on nasty wasteland drugs.
“Oh, no. It didn’t hurt at all!” She exclaims, turning her eyes from the man and searching her purse for one of the pain-pills from the clinic pharmacy.
“They cut the skin off and grew this film (or was it a mesh?) between my muscles that they said would let me use my new phone just by thinking about it!” She gushes into the text. “They said that as the film (mesh?) matures, the connection will get better, and I’ll be able to do more cool stuff with it!”
She produces the plain-white bottle with the word hyperlink printed on it in neat lettering.
‘Take with water an hour before meals.’ The instructions read.
Maybe I’ll stop off at that corner store at the end of the alley and get a Bei Bing Yang to wash it down with.
As quickly as the thought of going into that place pops into her mind, the memory of that nasty little peasant woman with the big mole who owns the place slithers in with it. Her skin stands up in chicken flesh, and she cringes behind her disposable pollution mask.
The disgust melts away when the voice message bubble materializes again.
“That’s clutch as hell, Xiao Mei! Now we can meet. I’ll even let you meet my friends!”
Euphoria boils inside her at the excitement in his voice.
I’m so high-class now. I’m gonna walk around downtown hanging on his arm (careful to make sure everyone can see my implant, of course). Everyone’s gonna know I’m a Full Citizen.
The speaking icon appears again, and an audio bubble pops up. “You can show me how good you are with the Neuromesh.” He says.
That’s not all I’m gonna show you.
Her knees get just the littlest bit of a wobble in them, and she can’t stop her hips from squirming as she strolls down the alley.
Her glance wanders from her phone over to the implant. They had grafted a bright pink silicone bumper pad around the socket that the phone module was plugged into. She tries to recall what they told her about its functions, but her old phone chimes and a voice message appears, reeling her eyes back over to it.
“Some of my friends and I are around. Why don’t you meet us at the clinic, now?” he says. “We’re thinking about getting implants, too.”
Oh, Dear Grandfather. They wanna get tips from me?!
“Ok, but I’m already done there. I already left.” She says, concerned that she’ll miss her first chance to be seen with real Citizens from Inner NorCap.
And so close to school? Some of the girls from class might even see them together. CapChat would be dripping with gossip before Monday even came!
She thinks about just turning around, but her arm is getting sore, and she needs a drink to wash the pills down with.
“Oh, that’s ok. Just send me your BeiDou data.” He says. His words caress her ears and soothe her worry.
Ooooh, that accent.
She sets the marker up by the corner store, hits a button, and her location data flies off to bring him to her. That’ll be an easy place for them to find her.
Her destiny set, she wanders off, thinking about what she’ll say to him.
“The phone is not the implant. The socket is, even though everyone calls the whole thing an implant. The phone part is a module you can stick in it.” Xiao Mei recites to herself mentally.
I’m gonna sound so smart when they ask me how the implant works!
“They told me that later, when new models come out, I can just come back, and they’ll swap out the phone module.” She mutters to herself, trying to pack it with as much confidence and authority as she can muster.
“I can install upgrades for as long as the socket is in use!”
It has a QuLED display… whatever that means… And the whole thing is powered by a radioisotope something, something, something… She trails off in her recitations, cursing herself for not listening to the tech demo more carefully. She was so excited thinking about showing it off to all of her friends at school that she just couldn’t focus on boring science talk. The technician was excited about it. She never understood why anyone can get so excited over this boring technology crap. Who cares how it works? But now that she is going to meet him for the first time, she wishes she had paid more attention to what the techs had told her.
How smart I would sound if I could just tell them everything…
A boy from her class comes to mind. She doesn’t know why. She’s never talked to him. Her friends said he had a crush on her. He always talks about how he’s gonna enroll in the Recovery Operations Corps after high school and earn his citizenship that way. Not her type at all. But, now that she’s been augmented, she can’t help but wonder if it’s people like him who recovered the augmentation tech from out in the Exclusion Zone.
A door sliding shut on dry, squeaking rollers pulls her out of her pondering by the ears. She stands only a few dozen paces away from the augmentation clinic in the narrow, brickwork alley heading in the direction of home. The clinic’s advertisements' changing hues bathe this little section of the alleyway in shades of red, green, and gold. It’s an oasis of vibrant, shifting colors in the frozen, grey chasm of the alleyway. She watches her shadow shift and dance with the changing volumetric ads projected onto the haze.