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. It not only welcomes her into her new augmentation; it welcomes her into her new future.
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 her left palm, turns in the direction of The Palace of the Grandfather, and mutters a thankful prayer for this opportunity.
The dry, gritty screech of rollers in desperate need of oiling drags her glance over her shoulder. The heavy steel door of the implant clinic rolls slowly shut on a pneumatic piston.
Before the door shuts entirely, she catches a glimpse of one of the girls dancing in the glass advertising enclosures. As has happened so often since the rediscovery of the tech used in the augmentation process, the Neuromesh, piqued her interest in becoming a Full Citizen, envy towards the tall, slender woman decked out with all of the latest implants dancing in her display box surges through Xiao Mei. This time is different, though. This is the last time she'll ever suffer that longing, that desire to be enhanced. The desire to jack her mind into the Union-spanning consciousness of the Aether Network. The pure need to be assimilated.
She can’t even fathom 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. Their jaws had dropped when they saw her test results. "One of the highest compatibility scores we've seen in months!" They exclaimed with astonished reverence.
Well. 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. Her 18th birthday was just a few months away, so 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. She never understood where this expression came from. It always seemed so grotesque to her. But people on TV said it all the time, so it must be cool.
Keeping quiet about how she got around the age restriction would just add to the mystique when her friends begged to know all about it, so she was more than happy to keep it secret.
It’s gonna drive ‘em through the Wall!
It didn’t occur to her that mom would see the implant module as soon as she walked in the door until after the anesthesia 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 any more. 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.
Fifty-five percent off! FIFTY. FIVE. PERCENT. I’m such a SUPER shopper!
Not only will her friends be jealous that she’s becoming a real citizen, but now she can impress him…
“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 (embarrassingly) 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 aether. 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 teashop 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.
REAL. CITIZENS. 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 enough 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 aloud 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 the boring science talk. The technician was excited about it, though. She never understood why anyone can get so excited over this boring technology crap. Who cares how it works? As long as it was the latest, and she could figure out how to look cute while using it, that’s always been enough. But now that she’s 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 this stuff would change NorCap forever and how he’s gonna enroll in the Recovery Operations Corps after high school and earn his citizenship that way. He didn’t seem to like the augmentation clinics. Sometimes in class, he just goes on and on about it being a cheap path to Citizenship. How it’s only for the privileged elite, and that real Conditionals would earn Full Citizenship by recovering the wastes in the name of The Grandfather. Not her type at all. But, now that she’s been augmented, she can’t help but wonder if it was people like him who recovered the augmentation tech from out in the Exclusion Zone. Maybe she should talk to him. After all, she is a Full Citizen in waiting, now. Maybe talking to him will improve his SoCred. Maybe that’ll help him enroll in RecOps.
Then he can recover more cool tech from the Exclusion Zone for The Grandfather’s glory.
A door sliding shut on dry, squeaking rollers pulls her by the ears out of her pondering and throws her back into the moment. She stands only a few dozen paces away from the augmentation clinic door 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 otherwise frozen, grey chasm of the alleyway. She watches her shadow flicker and dance with the changing volumetric ads projected onto the dense haze, and her meandering footsteps echo the length of the silent alley. Isolated by twisting, winding alleys of brick and concrete that stretch into the sky far beyond her ability to see, the sounds of the mega-city sprawling for hundreds of kilometers all around her scarcely penetrate further than a few turns in from the main thoroughfares just about a kilometer away in any direction.
She always liked the tranquility of the alleys in the mid-afternoon. The early-morning crowds of electric bikes, foot traffic, delivery drones, and pop-up breakfast stalls make walking to school a nightmare. At night, these places are packed with drunks, junkies, and hookers. But the two or three hours between the lunch crowds and the evening rush is a period of blissful calm. The occasional fast-food drone zips by overhead to land on the apartments' delivery dock, but otherwise, the alleys are still and quiet.
She doesn’t really understand it, yet the moments away from the city's relentless activity give her peace she doesn’t know she craves. She takes a step out into the alleyway, closes her eyes, and feels the wind tug at her. When she focuses hard, past the rotting trash and metallic-smelling pollution, she can catch the scent of spring blown in from somewhere far, far away. She can’t even begin to imagine where a smell like that would be coming from. Maybe it’s just the way the earth smells at this time of year. Perhaps she’d just never really noticed it before.
Maybe after I make my mark on the city, I can take my family and find where that smell comes from.
It’s hard for her to fully comprehend, but she’s always filled with a sense of grateful appreciation for the calm. Her parents used to tell her that they lived in an alley like this one before she was born— before they scored promotions to their current work unit assignments. Sometimes they talk about how this part of the city was uninhabitable before the Grandfather united all of the survivors and began to rebuild. This whole district used to be nothing but burned-out buildings and craters that you could get sick and die from just by walking too close to.
She could never wrap her head around the idea that this place had ever been anything but a quiet back alley. She tries to imagine the thousands upon thousands of adherents to The Grandfather’s Harmony, who sacrificed themselves to clean up and restore the district to being livable, but it just makes her sad.
But now that I can become a real citizen, I can do my part to make the city better for everyone!
She tilts her head back and gazes straight up through the layers of haze overhead. The buildings rise high up into the ever-shifting plumes of toxic dust blown in from the Exclusion Zone. Dust, smog, and the unimaginably tall buildings obscure the sky. She rarely thinks about her environment; it’s always just sort of been there. Looking up like this, it dawns on her that she’s never seen the tops of the buildings before. Never even seen the sky. The mammoth, hastily assembled prefab buildings to either side of the narrow alley block out the small bit of afternoon light that manages to penetrate the thick covering of smog, leaving a narrow strip of luminous gas overhead cast in the hues of heavy winter storm clouds. The pollution is lit by the innumerable windows marching up the sides of the narrow alleyway. It’s a swirling, formless kaleidoscope of grey, blue, and yellow hues.
“Stupid pollution… Maybe once I assimilate, we can move into NorCap Proper and visit one of those buildings that rise above the haze…” Before she can stop herself, she whips out her phone and shoots a message off to Mr. Downtown saying as much. The moment of childish vulnerability makes her cheeks burn with shame. But the thought of riding in the glass sky-lift high enough to see the sky for the first time in her life fills her with an exhilaration that makes her feet tingle.
Maybe he can take me there someday.
Heaving a sigh, she files the thought away for future class-time daydreams.
She shoves her phone back into her purse and turns her eyes to the implant. The display snaps on, and a cute, animated bunny flits around in front of the red, black, and gold Norcom Union flag. She whips out an oversized paintbrush and paints 13:50, Sunday, March 27th, 2052 on the display embedded in her arm. Its exaggerated strokes flash in delightfully crisp and vivid colors. She positively vibrates at how cool it looks!
Well, maybe that vibrating is coming from her belly. She takes out the bottle of hyperlink pills again.
“Unmedicated nutrient consumption within the first 24 hours after implantation may result in implant rejection. Rare instances may result in side effects, including neural bleed, corporeal disassociation, excessive auditory-visual artifacts, and hallucinations. If symptoms persist for more than twenty-four hours, contact your implant technician.”
She stares at the label, eyes screwed up, and lips turned down in a pout.
I don’t know what that means, but it sounds stupid. Why would I reject the implant just because I ate something without the medicine? Scientists are weird…
She would have to take the medicine right away and wait to get a snack. One of her friends told her on Friday that an ice cream shop opened at Indigo Plaza. She’d never had ice cream before, but when she was little, her dad used to tell her about eating it before the Norko Crisis began.
Maybe I could take him and his friends to Indigo for some.
With that settled and still no message back from Mr. Downtown, she tries again to wrap her head around this… Neuromesh? Was that what they called it?
This neural… Mesh… Link… thing is hard.
She concentrates, biting her tongue and clenching her fists.
It sounded so easy when that technician guy explained it to me… Maybe I missed something.
Focusing enough to get the screen visualization right takes way more concentration than it did for him when he demonstrated it to her on his implant. The stench of ancient, wet trash drifting through the cold air of the alley from the heaps of forgotten garbage piled up along the walls keeps pulling her out of it.
“Grandfather burn it! Why is this so hard?” she mutters aloud.
Having yet to get the hang of it (and thanks to a headache starting to set in), she relaxes and just marvels at how cute it looks. She ignores the headache and sets about taking selfies with her old phone to edit and upload to CapChat.
It’s like a high-tech tattoo!
Oh, the looks my teachers will give me!
Oh, how much the other girls will hate me!
Oh, the likes and shares I’ll get on these pics.
Oh, look at that!
LEDs set into the pink bumper breath to life, then snap off, again. She tries to concentrate on bringing them back but gives up after her headache begins to pound.
Well, they said headaches are normal while that Neuro… Thing… Binds with my nervous system.
Her skin crawls. A shiver runs the length of her body. The realization that the bionetic graphene film is growing under her skin and connecting itself to her brain gives her a heavy feeling. The weight of understanding of the permanence of her decision presses momentarily down on her.
Oh well. If that’s what it takes to be a real citizen…
She dismisses the feeling and tries to connect to the app store by tapping through the menus manually, but the “network error” alert keeps popping up. The more she tries it, the more a feeling settles in over her. Not quite pain. Discomfort. A queasiness that settles in the pit of her stomach. Every time the network error warning pops up, that queasiness swells into a sharp, freezing pain that races through her entire nervous system. Likewise, tapping the screen sends little waves of pain running up her arm. It’s as if she were poking the exposed meat just behind the screen and socket. Switching to the calendar app, she sets a reminder to go to NorCap Datacom later to switch her 9g service over to this Aether Network that the implant uses for internet access, wincing the whole time.
Maybe he can take me to the Datacom branch at Indigo, and I can get switched over after our ice cream.
Somewhere back the other way, that stupid door back into the clinic squeals again, shattering the quiet and calling to her attention the setting she’s in. The appearance of yet another passed out junky, this time propped up between a group of trash cans and a wall, punctuates the realization that she’s not in a good place.
How can someone sleep there? It’s so filthy. So stinky!
Her gait slows, and she looks down at the man from the corner of her eye, trying not to let on that she’s watching him. The ruddiness of his cheeks, the appearance of lumps under his skin, and pox scars tell her all she needs to know about who he is.
Filthy wastelanders, bringing their drugs and disease into my city.
Despite herself, she can’t help but pity the man. Everyone knows that outside the walls is nothing but a blasted hellscape of radiation, murder, and disease. He doesn’t move. One eye rests half-open. His head is slumped against the wall, and his mouth hangs open. His phone, a model so out-of-date she can hardly recognize it as a phone at all, lay on the ground about half a meter away from a limp hand.
Unease descends over her, smothering the sense of quiet and calm she had been enjoying just a moment earlier. The urge to go over and try to shake the man awake grips her briefly, and she begins drifting involuntarily nearer to him. The sudden twitch of his fingers startles her. She physically jumps and backs away into the center of the alleyway. The ringing of a bicycle’s bell spooks her yet again, and her hands clench beneath her chin. Another glance up into the toxic plums, and she becomes aware of the subtle shift hues that suggest a westering sun and the gradual onset of evening.
How long have I been walking? I haven’t gone that far… Maybe I should just focus on getting my drink and getting out of here.
Xiao Mei distracts herself with thoughts of what the future holds. The images that materialize in her mind drive out the fear. The people she’ll meet, the apartments her family will have access to, the schools, the jobs. Everything. Maybe she’ll even be able to do something for the poor wretches dragged in from outside the wall, like the unfortunate one behind the trash cans.
Satisfied and sufficiently distracted, she contents herself with meandering towards the convenience store and bumping into the e-bikes sticking out from between the piles of trash and admiring her ticket into upper NorCap society. She turns back to catch one last glimpse of the man on the ground, only to find the space empty. Her brows knit themselves together into a tapestry of confusion, and her head cocks to one side. Had she scared him off? Was he faking it? An e-bike whispers by. It disrupts Xiao Mei’s line of sight with the empty spot where the man was. Some of the water trickling down the alley splashes on her, yanking her back out of her speculation yet again back into the present.
Voices speaking low amongst themselves back in the clinic's direction prompt her to crane her head around to take a look. She looks back and catches a glimpse of that group of guys who were hanging out in the clinic when she left as they file out the door one by one. They’re dressed funny. Heavy, industrial respirator bubbles cover their faces. Their plastic shoes squeak on the scum stained bricks as they come out. Olive green long-coats hang down past their knees with the ends of their sleeves and pant legs taped shut conceal long gaunt bodies. Their sleeves all have some weird black and red stripe pattern running down them.
Xiao Mei’s dad once told her that those people were Norkos that sided with The Grandfather’s forces during the Unification War and live in the Exclusion Zones as tech scavengers. Her teachers said the last of the Norkos died out years ago, and The Grandfather stopped more of their kind from hurting her people.
Whoever they are, they curse and bicker among themselves in guttural accents that Xiao Mei can’t understand.
She can’t make out their words, but one of them slaps another and waggles a finger at the group. Their bickering floats down the alleyway after her as garbled up noise.