I don’t pick up the first call because it’s Mom. I know she wants to talk about Laura, and I don’t need that mess right now. I’ve got my CorpusTech settings adjusted so that any call from her gets sent to voicemail. If the chip detects that my stress levels are unusually high, it even deletes the voice message for me. That’s why I love bioware; it’s not as difficult to ignore something as it was back in the old days when it was just you in your head. Now that CorpusTech is here, the whole world’s in my head. Messages fly through my brain and neurons like electrical shocks, and I can feel everything move with them, buzz, ping, burp, whirl, all notifications lighting up my fingernails in sequence. I got the full package, so I’m almost completely wired up. I can see the time displayed on the artery in my wrist, control my music by tugging on my ear, answer calls by scratching my elbow. It’s intoxicating, it really is — or so the ad plastered to the subway wall above tells me.
In front of me, the train shoves its way up to the platform and people pour past in a deluge of raincoats, cartoon-emblazoned umbrellas and holophones. Everything’s so tight these days; you see a space, you fill it. Like how someone along the line remembered just how much space we have inside us and boom, now we have CorpusTech. I squeeze into one of the seats, arms pinned to my sides by two gray-faced wage slaves — the type that hold their briefcases on their laps because they’re worried that somebody will snatch up their quarterly reports and work expense forms. My thumbnail blinks. That’s a message. Mom. My adrenaline spikes and my chip deletes the voicemail.
Another call comes in and I recognize the ringtone. No voicemail for this one. “Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” Carly’s chewing gum. Her chip’s picking up the pops and squelches. “You going tonight?”
“Is that even a question?” I push past two guys who look like they’re watching old classics on their CorpusTech implants, playing the movies right over their retinas.
“Geez do you even do homework anymore?”
“What is this ‘homework’ of which you speak?”
“Don’t ask me. Ok, we’re at Starship, over on Third. Need directions?”
“Nah.” I’ve already sent a mental request to the CorpusTech. A second later, I get a pop up of the street address. “See you in five.”
My dorm, Westwood, happens to be right across from the subway station. From where I am, I can see that the main hall is dark. The bootleg chat-seeker that Hex downloaded for my chip makes my skin tingle whenever someone nearby is using instant messenger. Normally, on campus, it’s all motion, little blips and blurps of “hey’s” and “k’s” pumping through me like a second nervous system. But Westwood is pretty dead on a Friday night, especially with the frats up on the other side of campus holding “Get Floored Fridays.” Only the Try-hards and the Calc-creeps stick around on a weekend night. Compared to the mash of the subway, it’s a pretty unsettling quiet. I pinch my earlobe to get some music playing.
Interracorp’s C6 standard issue naval tether is strong enough to handle a payload of 600 lbs. Your daughter will have no trouble, sir.
I turn the music louder.
It’s good that the club’s on Third Avenue — I won’t even have to call a cab. I hate going any further uptown anyway, because that’s when you get towards the dustboxes and the Ziphead Dens. Everyone, even the police department, knows that area is basically held together by meth and heroin, but the Zipheads pack heavy-duty firepower, so they’re left alone. As long as you stay below Seventh, the worst you’ll see is a Buzzy, one of the guys who corrupt their CorpusTech for a cheap high. Hex says Buzzies are stupid schicks because they’re throwing away perfectly good bioware. “Just shoot up like a normal human being,” he once told me.
Third Avenue is thrumming like a bass guitar string when I get there, so deep and low it feels like my molecules are trying to separate themselves as I get closer. Clubs and bars up and down the street are spilling people and noise onto the sidewalk. Music jams the street, and I feel like I’m suffocating in beats, the latest chart-toppers from Kruz, A-Bom, Buzzbit, The WidgetZ. CorpusTech takes it all in through sensors just inside my ears, and tags each song, holo-words like fireworks in front of my eyes. Colors and flashes run in and out of view like arcade targets.
Starship is a five story, neon-blue mess, belching mascara-streaked co-eds and muscle-head schicks in tank tops. Everyone has the new Lumo download so their skin glows just like the club. A girl stumbles past me, mint-green. She must be floored, because the Lumo plug-in keeps going dim. She looks like a bad light bulb. Groups keep leaving, but they’re running into even bigger groups that are trying to push inside. We all go round and round and it takes me ten minutes just to make it through the door. The music is like artillery.
Hex spots me first. Even before he speaks, I know he’s pretty far gone. His Lumo is flickering like a strobe and some sort of video is playing over one of his eyes. All of his thumbnails are blinking, and he keeps scratching at little notifications that are running over his arms. He looks like a bad horror movie experiment. “Heeyy! Look who showed up!”
Carly’s not far behind, lit up sky blue (her favorite color). She’s in a white t-shirt and dark shorts, and in the club’s UV spots, the t-shirt glows. It’s like the middle of her body’s vanished, and she’s just a torso and legs. A Coke can sparkles in her right hand, purple in the lights. She grins and the UV makes her teeth glow. She shouts something that I can’t hear over the music.
Over the speakers, Lazr’s “Domino” blends into a new house mix by sLEDge. On the big screen they’re projecting music videos, with a little pop box in the corner that connects to your CorpusTech. If you blink at the screen wrong, you get a pop-up ad to the face. I get a banner for the Marines, advertising their new rockets, and how fast they can throw you into space now. I cringe at the overly-macho voiceover, yelling in my ear about “forging the future” and “staking your legacy in the stars.” It’s all bull, of course — nobody pays attention to what happens on Mars anyway.
An enemy warhead breached the airlock. She died protecting our freedom, sir. You should all be proud.
“Something wrong?” Carly’s watching my face.
I shut down the banner with a blink. “Freaking ads. More of the Mars recruitment. It should be illegal to let those schicks play stuff like that in here.”
She takes a slow drink from the soda can, then leans in close. “Speaking of … are you doing alright?”
“You sound like my mom.”
“Just trying to be a good friend. Aren’t you supposed to talk it out or something?”
I shrug, then nearly cuss when it makes my music library start playing again. “It’s not like there’s a manual: ‘What To Do When Your Sister Gets Shot Out of an Airlock.’” I take a stab at gallows humor. She doesn’t play along. “What, too far?”
“A bit.” She drains the Coke.
We run into Hex again at the counter. His sunglasses are impaled on his spiked haircut, and his jacket is soaked in sweat and booze. He’s had so much that I can almost hear his insides sloshing. I grab his arm. “You’re not driving, are you?”
After a minute, he focuses, and his CorpusTech identifies my face. “Oh, hey it’s you. Driving? Who’s driving?”
“Geez.” My chip searches cab companies nearby, but it looks like they’re all running full. “Alright man, just —”
Someone stumbles into me from behind. Hard. I slap against the bar, sending a couple cans of beer skidding to the ground. I spin and find someone hauling himself to his feet. He’s got sweat pouring over his face and his T-shirt is one of the ones they hand out at the Marine recruiting fairs when they want to bring in athletes. He’s big, drunk, glowing and, unfortunately, I know him. Hank.
Hank makes eye contact with me for a split second, and I see the flicker on his retina as his chip tags me. He flashes a sloppy grin. “Lookee here. Hey, Marky.” That’s all he gets out before this other numbskull comes out of nowhere and tackles him to the ground.
This new guy’s even bigger than Hank, and he’s managed to get a jump on him. He gets a good round of punches in before a bunch of other guys manage to pull him away. They’re all in Navy gear, with fresh new rocket patches on the sleeves.
“This ain’t over, schick!” the Navy guy shouts. He pushes his buddies off and they disappear into the crowd.
Hank shoves a cocktail napkin up one of his nostrils and presses a meaty hand over his face before noticing me again. “Nice to see you, little bro.”
“Last I checked, going out with my dead sister doesn’t make me your brother.” I glance at Carly, who’s trying to keep Hex from keeling over. “And you’re supposed to be fighting the Russians, not the U.S. Navy.”
He frowns at me over the nose napkin. “We’re not fighting the Russians anymore. Now it’s the French.”
“Whatever.” I shrug. That’s how Mars works. One week, you’re at war with one country. Then the next week, some other schick comes along and knocks over the wrong satellite dish and boom, new war. They’ve probably got a sign-in sheet just to keep track of them all. Ever since people first got there, it’s been a nonstop land-grab, especially since we ran out of space here. “Anyway, it’s been great watching your face get rearranged, but now I want to go talk to people I actually like — ”
“Wait,” he grimaces and swaps out the napkin for a new one. “I’ve been meaning to find you. We gotta talk.”
“First time for everything.”
“Look,” he says. Music pounds a slow heartbeat through my feet. “Here’s the thing. I feel bad about how everything ended.”
“Good job.” I stare at him.
“Oh good, you remember her name.” I cross my arms. “Still couldn’t bother yourself to come to the funeral, though.”
“They wouldn’t let me off base. An emergency preparedness drill.”
“Whatever.” I shrug. “That’s your problem. I’m not the one who’s next in line for the great gory vacuum cleaner in the sky.”
He winces, which makes me feel more concerned than triumphant. He tries again. “It’s cold in space, Mark. Real empty. There’s none of — ” he says, gesturing to the club around us, “this.”
“I know, I sat through Laura’s ‘holiday cards.’” “Holiday cards” — referring to the safety pamphlets and letters that our family got when Laura first enlisted, meant to help prepare us for what “God forbid” could happen to her. The military is good with info dumps, albeit slightly graphic ones. It’s not hard to cope when your last image of your sister is her heading off to the Naval Academy in a brand-new uniform. It’s harder when your last image of your sister is imagining her blood stream filling with more bubbles than a can of Sprite.
Hank stares at me, skittishly, in a way I haven’t seen before. He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Look, I got something to show you. You got another minute?”
“Depends, Jarhead.” The music’s starting to give me a headache. “What for?”
“I got a video message yesterday.” He downs the last of his drink. “From Laura. It must have gotten caught up in the military servers, so it only just got here.”
The words hit and they hit hard, like the cluster bombs they use on Mars, the kind you see on the news that tear open airlocks and kill a whole platoon and your sister in one go. The music goes thump, thump, thump.
The fingernail on my ring finger blinks and for once, I don’t check it.
We head to one of the side lounges, where people go to recover from the music on the main floor. Hank has a message card, the kind that the military mail ships drop off every month. There’s a barcode on the back and we both scan it with our chips. The video starts playing.
I’m not prepared to see Laura’s face. Last time I saw it, it was on the poster in the funeral parlor, a real crappy print job with too much saturation. But this isn’t a poster, it’s my sister — moving, talking. Judging by the background, she’s on one of the medical ships that are stationed around Mars. She’s got on her fatigues, with the little blue patch that designates her as a nurse. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun. “Oh man, sorry about how long it’s been since the last message. We’ve been slammed ever since the Russians started that last offensive. Hank, we might need you up here.” She grins and rotates slightly in the low grav cabin. “Plus it’ll be nice to be with you in real life for a change. Mark,” I cringe at hearing her say my name, “sorry I missed your birthday. I recorded a message for it, but the schick who was in charge of the vid files that day corrupted half of them. I hope you guys went out somewhere nice.” Behind her, a klaxon goes off, and she looks up, more irritated than worried. “Damn. Another all-hands call.” She reaches up to something next to the screen. “I gotta go, guys. I’ll try to record something before you get here, Hank. Love you both.” Then, she’s gone. Again.
I shut down the messenger. Then the email. I don’t stop. I keep going through, shutting down chip functions, pausing videos, stopping exchanges, freezing data. Finally, it’s as off as it’s gonna get.
I don’t feel CorpusTech trying to go through and intoxicate me. I feel the whisper of clothes as the sweaty Buzzies and partiers push around me. I hear the pulse of the music. I see laser points like stars on the ceiling and streaks of cars flying down Third Avenue. And for once, I can stand the sound of my own thoughts.