by Chris Holzworth
From the corner booth, I studied the bar crowd the same way you might a holo-still. Like something posed. Behold the soul-weary masses, playing to the camera with conviction. Fingers delicately brushing along the curves of half-drained bottles. Relaxed smiles powered by chemical assistance. Slack-faced absence from those with something rougher riding through their veins.
Spin the camera one-eighty, though, and I’d look the part same as the rest. One carbon-black arm cradling a tumbler of whiskey, the other idly rolling a cigarette between matte-finished thumb and forefinger. Such a fucking cliché, I know. But we’re all just creatures of habit when you get right down to it. Pile them up high enough, what takes shape is personality. Most of us aren’t exactly bursting with originality.
As for my party-circuit approved attitude, well, I’d love to say that came back with me from overseas—war makes a convenient enough excuse for most things, after all—but the truth is I’ve always kept Life at arm’s length. Just tamped it down better before all my limbs got blown off.
Fortunately, this far north in Philly, you aren’t likely to come across the same look of suspicion thrown at anything that isn’t Classic White Male. See, in all its willful ignorance, society thought itself ready for the march into biomechanical augmentation. But as soon as post-humans came into the picture, we joined the ranks of disenfranchised minorities. After all, if something as surface-level as skin color can compel xenophobia, imagine the sort of bone-deep distrust the merging of man and machine bred. Work placement? Social acceptance? Forget it. Same album of binary tribal bullshit, just a different track.
So after a few tours worth of organic damage and subsequent enhancement—some elective, some not—my heroic return home was met with a distinct lack of interest in anyone built beyond “natural” human hardware specs. Baseline species insecurity mixed with the usual brand of aversion toward those who’ve spent time in the trench made sure that, once back Stateside, there weren’t many options left for me to market my particular suite of skills to—not beyond anyone with an obvious interest in professional violence. Corporates and criminals, mostly, and the two are interchangeable as far as I’m concerned.
In the end, I wound up running with the unimaginatively named Future Now Collective, a bunch of vocal socialists that preached about the ongoing and inevitable failures of capitalism. Not a movement I could buy into readily—though I envied anyone who could muster an honest fuck, let alone full-blown belief—but good company for anyone who doesn’t blindly accept the established architecture. Modernizing the blueprints to a design three centuries out of date sounds good on paper, at least.
“You’re one morose-looking motherfucker, Morgan, you know that?”
Izzy Guerra dropped into the booth beside me, wide slash of smile cut ear to ear, short tangle of curls tossed to one side. The look left nothing to distract from the clockface-shaped glasses straddling her nose—a nod to the group’s roots, I’m told. A slimmer-fitting description might be “ostentatious.” From the neck down, she wore an immaculately cut gray suit punctuated by a red tie.
“You could try smiling once in a while. Pretty sure nobody put a bullet through that part of your brain.” She placed a pint of beer on the marred surface of the table and leaned back into the bar’s non-light like an apparition shifting in the muted haze of some cheap horror sim.
“You’re right.” I stopped fiddling with the unlit cigarette, tucked it behind an ear. “Tore that out myself. Needed space for some new tac systems.”
“There’s that sense of humor.” She waved a finger at me. “Hang on to that—hard to find something to laugh about these days.”
“Been watching the riots?”
“Of course. Only thing anyone’s talking about is the breach. I mean, did they really think firing a security guard and barfing up an apology would make this go away?”
“I know the guy,” I offered, fumbling to pivot.
She swung forward as if pulled. “Are you fuckin’ serious?”
“Served with him in KPK back in ’45. Name’s Devereux.”
“No shit. What’s an ex-commando doing muscling for a corporate shark like Hargreave-Demir?”
Held up a hand and flexed all five artificial fingers. “Principles don’t cover upkeep.”
“Maybe not, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s got to pick a side. Cozy complacency got us into this mess— and gave it an unnaturally long life.”
“Price of progress.”
She held up both hands in mock protest. “I’m just saying. The problem’s been self-evident since the turn of the century. Don’t know how our grandparents didn’t see adaptive V.I. coming and their jobs going. Now machines make fistfuls of money for society’s ‘best’ and whitest while the rest of us wait with our hands out.”
“Price of progress,” I repeated, hoping it would lead her to something resembling a point.
“Too bad the cost is the continuing erosion of independence. But you’re right—there’s no going back. And who would want to?”
Don’t know why I was giving her a hard time. She wasn’t wrong by any stretch. Despite the upswell of Human First conservative rhetoric, none of their mouthpieces would stomach losing the technological toys that help make their lives so cushy. Not really. The whole notion of preying on nostalgia for the good ol’ days was absurd. Newsflash: The good ol’ days still sucked. It’s always sucked for the little guy. Always will, too, so long as the distribution of power is spread so unevenly. I took a pull of whiskey and let the silence between us soak through a little longer.
“What’s the scan, Zee?”
She laid her chin on both fists, arms propped up on the table. Another grin tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“As your South Philly scumbag friends might say, we got a rat problem.”
She reached up, plucked something invisible out of the air, and tossed it over to me. Data blossomed on my AR field like a neon-etched flower in bloom. I started sifting through the contents with a series of imperceptible saccades while Izzy went on.
“You’re looking at Ethan Hendricks. Rrecruited him, I don’t know, maybe six months ago? Spec Ops, like you, but unlike you, Mr. Hendricks seems to have pre-existing loyalties he did not disclose.”
"Someone let a corporate agent slip into the FNC’s mix? Oops."
“Yeah, oops.” She shrugged. “Human error. It happens. Point is, once certain patterns started piling up, we decided to take a closer look.”
“Didn’t like what you saw? So, what—this a standard snatch and grab? See what he knows?”
“And do what, torture him till he confesses? Probably has a head full of security anyhow. Containment’s the name of the game at this point.”
“Your call. What’s the play, then?”
“You’ll find him near City Hall tomorrow.” She picked up her pint and sipped it. “Loc’s in your file. He thinks he’s on an op—scrape up what he can on Senator Kearstie’s cozy corporate relationships.”
Quick few saccades across the data file to the payout…
“Offering an awful lot for a job that’s all but served on a plate.”
“I know it seems beneath you, but it’s important. I need the best.”
Izzy fished a brown parcel from her suit jacket and slid it across the table. I palmed it, feeling the unmistakable shape of a pistol through the padding. I buried it in my peacoat’s inner pocket.
“It’s clean.” She pushed her glasses up. “Use it, lose it, and get underground.”
I gave her a mock-salute that earned me another grin. She knocked back the rest of her beer, clapped me on the shoulder, and got up from the table.
“See you on the other side of this, Morgan.”
She flicked two fingers off her temple in salute and sauntered out. I stayed behind, nursing my whiskey. Tried to conjure an interest in the assignment beyond something to keep me busy. Came back empty handed. I finished the rest of my drink, settled my tab—instantly regretting the sight of my bank account data—and shouldered my way out into the faint traces of winter’s coming cold. Navigated the OLED-lit streets of North Philly until I found a set of subway stairs, and let the pulsing thrum of the train’s maglev drive keep me company the whole way home.
The next morning, I surfaced from the subway to a washed-out sky the color of cigarette ash, just shy of City Hall. The building’s Neo-Baroque design stood in stark contrast to the modern towers of glass and steel surrounding it, their surfaces a neon ecosystem of shimmering holo-ads. Dilworth Park was already packed with Philly’s palest, all crowding the prefab stage thrown over the long inactive fountains lining the statehouse’s west side. A memory from before the Water Crisis flashed through my mind—a much younger me skipping through the fountain spray, feet slapping against the water-slicked tiles. Locked it down and kept walking.
A patrician with the same off-the-rack good looks handed out to every powerbroker strode on stage. Kearstie, in the expensive-suited flesh. The sea of bodies broke out in applause. He smiled and waved, affecting modesty with the measured practice of a predator. I peeled off toward the ruins of the Ritz-Carlton hotel across the street, where it once stood watch over the city’s seat of government. Kearstie’s amplified voice followed in my wake.
“Friends, we are a country standing on the precipice of uncertainty—an uncertainty that could very well lead this great nation to its downfall. We have strayed too far from the foundations of our democracy, and now we face losing our very humanity.”
Interlocking hexagonal barriers cordoned off the block. Beyond, the bones of something new grew from the corpse of the Ritz-Carlton. Assembler boxes undulated along the edges of partially constructed walls like insect colonies. I scanned the perimeter for an entrance.
“The technophilia that has swept this republic represents the greatest threat the American people have ever faced,” Kearstie droned. “And if we fail to impose restraint, well, look only to history—to the leaders in civilization that came before us—and you’ll see the fate we’ll share.”
Sure, not like the whole of human fucking history isn’t built upon our relationship to technology. Newsflash: It’s who we are. Ever since the first of our kind strolled out of their cave, picked up a rock, and used it to bash in something’s brains.
I found an opening—just in time. A gutted wall panel had been replaced with a crude chain-link gate grafted incongruously to one of the adjoining hexagons. Some of the most expensive machines on the market at work on the other side, yet whichever corporation had won the construction contract didn’t see fit to have their subsidiary shell out on security. Never underestimate big biz’s capacity for cost cutting. I twisted the lock off like it was made of cheap plastic, tossed it aside, and pushed through.
“With your support, I will fight for a proper future. Together, we will remind the world what it truly means to be human.”
Inside, clusters of programmable matter cubes scurried about with the chaotic grace of a time-lapse video. Colonies shifted form back and forth in a coordinated effort to build in months what would’ve taken human hands years. I watched something snake-like lay infrastructural cabling, then reconfigure to resemble a chest-sized spider. It gathered raw material from the nearest fabricator plinth, then danced up a support beam and joined other automated arachnids in weaving load-bearing musculature across the skeletal framework of the slowly growing building. Might as well have been in some bot artist’s techno-chic insectarium.
At a guess, Hendricks would be several stories up. Higher ground would keep out prying eyes, not to mention give him a clear run on Kearstie’s hardware. I spotted what looked like stable structure above. Top-of-the-line legs put me the full ten feet up with ease. I landed in a crouch and sent a swarm of assembler boxes scattering like children’s blocks kicked over in a fit. They skittered back and resumed their work as soon as I passed. The faint sounds of conversation coming from overhead caught my ear. Still too distant to pick up anything distinct. I drew the Beretta Izzy gifted me and thumbed off the safety. Waited for another eight-legged arrangement of assemblers to scuttle off the ledge to the next level and out of the way, then hopped up and gripped the edge with my free hand’s fingers.
It didn’t hold. I heard the snap, then came down hard enough to knock the air out of my lungs. My fingers curled reflexively, squeezing the handgun’s trigger and sending an errant shot into the worksite. The report echoed over the chirring of machinery.
I looked up to see six feet of grafted muscle peering down at me from above, mid-morning sun glinting off his standard-issue Ray Bans. Combat instincts kicked online. I swung the Beretta around and clasped it with both hands. Put a round in each lens. He pitched over the edge, eyes like shattered glass. I barely rolled clear before all two-hundred and fifty pounds of killing weight crashed down.
Now a known variable, I leapt to the next level with the subtlety of an Adriana Xia action flick. Found another graft-job waiting for me. I tried to train the Beretta on him, but the giant sprung on me faster than his bulk would suggest possible. Massive hands enveloped the pistol and disassembled it with a flawless display of CQC skill. Might’ve even grinned at me while he did it. I let the pieces fall away and filled the space between us with my knee, driving it into his solar plexus. As he doubled over, I took him down in a tangle of jiu-jitsu locked limbs. Managed to get atop him and slam a mechanical elbow into his face. His whole body slackened, resistance ebbing. I lifted the elbow and brought it back down again. This time, I felt his face cave in like a hammer striking a melon. He stopped moving altogether.
I was prying myself free from his dead weight when I felt a series of stings along my back. My entire body tensed, electric currents frying my nervous system. My teeth clipped my tongue and I tasted blood. I kept upright long enough to look over my shoulder and see someone holding a shock-thrower pointed at me, bland Caucasoid features like something selected from a corporate fashion catalog.
I blacked out before I hit the ground.
“Your Future Now friends really fucked up this time.”
Hendricks stood over me, shock-thrower held loosely in one hand.
“Doesn’t mean you have to pay the same price,” he continued. “You’re just doing your job, same as me.”
Combat instincts came back online sluggishly. I flexed my arms, trying to lash out, but found them bound behind me by restraining bands. Legs, too. The nanoweave fiber pulled back against my protests. Useless.
“The hell are you talking about?” The question came out like a croak, my systems still scrambled from the blast.
“Izzy took something she shouldn’t know about—something my employers at Hargreave-Demir would like back.”
“Are you saying the Collective was behind the data breach?”
“The data breach was a smokescreen,” he said plainly.
“And the real prize?”
“Doesn’t matter. Next Step stuff that Hargreave-Demir isn’t going to quietly file away in a loss report.”
“And what about you?” I grinned. “What’s company policy for an asset that can’t get a job done quietly?”
Like a match against flint, that visibly struck a nerve. Could see it twitch across his cheek.
“You know what you are to the Future Now Collective? A blunt instrument. Nothing but a disposable tool.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather be used by someone with conviction than your lot. People are just variables in profit-and-loss reports to you, footnotes in some endless pursuit of power.”
“Dramatic much? It’s called having a realistic fucking grasp of the world, not some well-meaning but misguided notion of a better tomorrow that distracts you from the ‘now.’”
“Sounds a lot like complacency.”
“‘Complacency’ is what pays the bills. What provides stability. It—”
The muffled crump of a demo charge cut him off. He tried to bring the shock-thrower back around, but the floor caved in before he could. I struck the ground on one side, artificial arm and leg taking the brunt of the impact. Choked on dust. Through the haze of debris, I managed to make out the armored silhouettes of commandos surrounding us, weapons drawn.
Together, we will—
“Put it down,” one of them barked. “Put. It. Down.”
I levered myself upright using my knees, spotting my misplaced pistol nearby. You find luck in the strangest places. I snatched it, but Hendricks already back on his feet, swinging the thrower in a circle. Didn’t take him long to figure out the odds weren’t in his favor. For a moment, he seemed resigned to the standoff. Then he leveled the weapon at my chest.
“Back off,” he croaked.
So much for that much-vaunted realism. Hendricks seemed to have a far-fetched concept of my value if he thought I’d make a good bargaining chip. Whoever had crashed our party sure as hell wasn’t with me. The FNC might aren’t the ride-to-the-rescue type—showy acts of force tend to invite all sorts of unwanted attention.
Together, we will remind the world—
The corporate hardman’s eyes caught mine and locked on. The moment hung between us like the heavy feel of summer air. The commandos were still shouting at us, but for all it mattered in that instant, Hendricks and I were the only two people standing in the Ritz Carlton’s raw skin. Cold panic crashed into me like a wave.
Together, we will remind the world what it means to be human.
I threw myself forward, hoping to get behind the spread and knock Hendricks off balance, pistol arm coming up—
Then the shock-thrower woofed and chased the world away.
My eyes snapped open. A smooth white surface dotted with thumb-sized LEDs greeted me. I tried to get up, but couldn’t move. Couldn’t feel a goddamn thing. Beyond vague situational awareness, coherent thought slipped just out of reach, fragments of understanding dancing away whenever I got too close.
Sense awareness returned like a flipped switch. I bent upright. The light-studded ceiling tilted ninety degrees to reveal a clinical white room, RGB on full blast. The place was littered with an assortment of lab equipment—monitors, gurneys, and a whole host of other medical gear I didn’t know the names for.
I looked around. Felt something tug at my neck as I did. I went to free myself—though, what medical device connects to the back of your neck?—and stopped as soon as I saw my hands. The carbon-black polymer and cold metal of my prosthetics were gone. Instead, I was staring at two finely toned brown arms. Actual arms—nails, pores, hairs—but a notably darker shade than I'd originally sported. I turned them over, mind somewhere between confused and mesmerized. Then I remembered the weight dragging on my neck.
I reached back. Soft fingertips padded against something thick and plastic pressed into the skin there. Not against. In. Like a cable fitted snuggly into a jack.
Jerked my hand away.
It should go without saying that enhancement doesn’t bother me in the least. But like anyone augmented, I knew my specs through and through, and they didn’t include a cervical interface. And mechanical limbs don’t just magically turn back into skin like some tech-era fairytale. Nothing about this was right. I briefly entertained the notion that the religious idiots had somehow got it right—that against cosmically improbable odds, I had left my junkyard body behind and woken up in something more suitable for the afterlife. More au naturel. Hopefully heaven had a goddamn bar, because I badly needed a drink.
I swung off the operating table and onto my feet. Felt the cool touch of ceramic tile against bare feet that couldn’t possibly be my own. Across the all-white room, a wall split open, and in strode Izzy.
“Look at you.” She grinned and hopped on a gurney, giving it just enough momentum to amble closer to me. “Morgan, you beautiful motherfucker. Ain’t nothing that can keep you down.”
Her suit was a webwork of gray and blue plaid circuitry. A matching tie trailed from her neck like the thin blue line of an LED power light. She threw one leg over the other and gave me the sort of look specimens must suffer while being studied.
“Zee—what the hell’s going on,?”
“You died, m’dude.” She laughed. “Ethan unloaded an unhealthy dose of voltage on you at very close range.”
“The tac team—that was you?”
“Got it in one.”
“How’d you even know to come?”
She reached up, patted her opposite shoulder.
“Bugged you at the bar. Sorry.”
Flash of Zee at the bar, tan hand clapping my shoulder.
“My coat,” I almost groaned.
“You always wear it. Bug must’ve shorted when Hendricks went all Sith Lord on you, so I sent a Strike Team. That’s what they’re called, right?”
“Close enough. Stay focused, Zee—are you saying I actually died? That’s not possible.”
“Well, I’m saying you aren’t dead.”
I held up one flesh-and-bone hand.
“What are you saying?” Hard to keep the existential fear in check. To be fair, it was my first new body. “What am I?”
“In a word? The future.”
I wrestled down the urge to grab her by the tie. Instead, I pressed thumb and forefinger into my eyes, then immediately stopped. It’s hard to describe the feeling when reality and expectation fail to line up. I didn’t expect the face I felt under my fingers to not be mine. A spike of panic shot a hand out for a nearby surgical tray, scattering its contents across the floor while I used its chrome surface for a makeshift mirror.
An ethnically ambiguous face scrutinized me in the reflection—a mix of geo-genetic traits that showed subtle hints of Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Slavic, and Maori. I put down the tray and turned to Izzy. My head reeled.
“Hendricks said the FNC took something from Hargreave-Demir, that the data breach was a distract. It was this. I'm what you stole.”
“Reinforced endoskeleton, next-gen polyurethane skin that looks and feels like the real deal but with twice the tensile strength, tear-resistant muscle tissue—you’re the walking, talking, cutting edge. The Next Step in human evolution, tee-em Hargreave-Demir Industries.”
I held out both hands. "But how?"
“I’m an economic sociologist—don’t ask me. Just know the specs. Besides, do the details really matter?”
“Why even do this?”
“Why save you? That’s a weird question, Morgan.”
“I’m just some—a blunt instrument. A gun for hire. You don’t owe me, Zee.”
“Jesus, self-respect much?” She slid off the gurney and sidled up to me. “You’re not just ‘some’ blunt instrument. You’re our blunt instrument. And fuck it, man. We like you. I like you. Might not be sold on the message, but you keep us honest.”
"C’mon, Zee. Don’t jerk me off.”
I watched—and felt—her gaze dip. Her lips curled in a grin.
“Why not? It’s pretty nice.”
“Fine. That skin you’re in? It’s fire—fire we stole from people pretending to be gods. Needed to know how it worked, and in the moment you looked like you could use a new lease on life.”
In a very real sense, the FNC owned me now. They didn’t go through all this trouble to let me walk out over a crisis of conscience. Besides, Hargreave-Demir would flex every inch of its multinational might to reclaim their property and scoop me out of it—if not find a worse fate for me. Corporate R&D is nothing if not creative.
“Is that what I have?”
“Body’s yours, bud. We have what we need to level the playing field—to make sure we all have the same access. Why not try something new, help us finish taking back a future from people who would only sell it to us? Or go back to what you know. Up to you.”
Izzy's version of freedom was about having choice, but choices are often limited, if not nonexistent. There's a truth to choice being an illusion, but sometimes that's better than no say at all. I felt an earnest belonging. I felt nearer to a purpose.
I no longer felt content to just float along.
“So,” I picked up the surgical tray again. The New Me stared back in the mirrored chrome. “What’s next?”