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The story formerly known as “Hackneyed”

October 15, 2011

The gray streets of Nekzuma were framed by robotic trees, clawing upwards into the sky, stealing sunlight to create processing power. The gray streets of Nekzuma were filled with coaches, pulled by gigantic genetically optimized centipedes, inside were the movers, the shakers, the owners of society. The masters of the universe. Who else was going to travel from one place to the other in the age of the internet? Drug dealers, that’s who. The coaches were laced with Kevlar, as was prudent, for the gray streets of Nekzuma were paved with corpses, sleeping and decaying just below the asphalt.
Meet Ace Attax. His body was muscled up to perfect definition, his eyes were gray expressionless spheres, inserted into his eye-sockets at age sixteen. Seeing everything, even with his eyes closed. Even when Ace Attax slept, his eyes would keep watch. His eyes would remember. The last fifteen years were stored in the cloud. Every second of them, ready to be downloaded and enjoyed in High Definition.
Ace Attax was an owner. His most priced possession was a square mile of gray nebula hovering over the Atlantic ocean. In the age of yesteryear a cloud was made of a hundred computers in a Mexican basement. Today swarms of nanomachines bathed in the sun, recombining themselves and storing data.
This was the first voyage Ace Attax ever took. He had lived more than thirty years of his life in the same square mile in what used to be Europe or Africa. It was hard to tell. There were different opinions.
The Drift had taken apart the planet, but it had not taken apart civilization. Human civilization was like Herpes. The planet had literally broken its back to get rid of them, but only managed to kill three quarters. Humans always came back. The internet never forgot.
When Ace Attax dreamed, he dreamed of forgetting. He dreamed of sweet oblivion. He dreamed of laying himself to rest with the humans of yesteryear, slumbering under the asphalt. Knowing nothing. Wanting nothing. Feeling no pain.
The drug injector recognized his downward slope and activated itself with an audible hiss.
Wasn’t life beautiful? Did Ace Attax not have everything to live for?
The gray streets of Nekzuma had an alien beauty to them. Ace Attax pushed a button – an actual button, it was red and it went click – and the centipede spasmed a little, then focused its football sized, faceted, black, shimmering eyes back on the horizon, running just a little bit faster.
#
Ace Attax did not have hair. Hair was obsolete. Remainders of animal fur. Not really harmful enough to be excluded from gene pool by means of evolution. So humans did.
Ace Attax did not feel cold. Or heat. He never sweated or shivered, but sometimes wishes he could. His two fathers had been of the soldier race. When they procreated, their genes mixed to form Ace.
There were no wars anymore. Humans had tried detonating subterranean nukes, but it had not helped. What else could they possibly do to each other? Ace yearned for everything. He yearned to be cut, but that was impossible. He yearned to be shot at any place was of his body, but that was improbable. He yearned to feel fear for his life, but that was equally impossible.
His soldier genes let him feel the pleasure of following orders and the ecstasy of victory. The drug injector counteracted, making him human, again. To a degree. Sixty-eight percent of the users described the experience as being human. That mean sixty-eight percent of the world would say Ace Attax was human. The drug injector let him feel, that that was a good thing.
Ace Attax did not have hair, so the sun burned down onto his bald head, yet Ace’s body temperature did not change. There were houses in this end of Nekzuma. They were not buildings. Buildings were made of concrete and steel. These houses were made of log wood. The windows were made of glass. Deep cracks in one, of them, like the wind could blow it apart at any second.
The houses were not arranged in rows, nor were they marked with numbers. Each of them was built slightly different. Nothing but rainbow colored sand between them.
Ace wore blue jeans, a white T-Shirt and sneakers. Historical wear. He wanted to fit in.
There was no map to this place. His eyes showed him the GPS coordinates, the satellite image of the place was six days old and therefore completely useless.
He called out to the inhabitants. He did not have to use his voice his voice for that.
“I am looking for the mechanic.”, he wrote.
There was no answer.
The inhabitants had seen Ace coming. That was a fact. Everybody saw everybody coming these days. The mechanism of old world paranoia coupled with yesteryears social networks. Everybody knew everybody. Nobody knew anybody. Like all philosophical questions, answering it, determining which of the two was right, would just piss people off.
“I will go and look somewhere else.”, Ace wrote.
No need to bother people that did not want to talk.
As Ace turned, somebody got out. Ace could see him through the back of his head. He was scrawny. He had hair. He also had a gun, pointing it down. The probability of getting shot judging by the data gathered from millions of combat situations was 0.047 percent. Ace felt the urge to charge. He instinctively knew and understood it was a negligible risk. Instead of ripping that man to pieces, he turned around slowly.
Ace’s voice was croaky. He had not used it in a while.
“Greetz. I am Ace Attax.”
The haired man nodded, moving in closer. Just a few feet away from Ace now. He pointed his gun at Ace. As much as Ace wanted to subdue the reflex for diplomacy, he couldn’t.
Ace jumped, his body dropping down the six feet moving like a snake. When hitting the ground at the statistically calculated spot, he grabbed the gun. Ace’s hand had four fingers and four thumbs. Disassembling the gun one-handedly took him seven point six seconds.
“Greetz. I am Ace Attax.” His voice was shaking. Must have been the high heart rate. “I am here to do business with a mechanic.”
The man replied in Spanish. Ace knew that because the voice in his ear was computer generated.
“I am the mechanic, you man of little intelligence.”, said the man. He looked down at the parts of his weapon lying in a patch of green sand. “Can I pick those up or will you rip off my head, you testicle-free son of a prostitute?”
“When we are done talking about my mother, I would like to discuss business with you.”
Ace didn’t wait for an answer. He walked past the mechanic, through the open door of the man’s log wood house. Hardly anything inside. A table with four chairs. A food processor. Empty walls except for the [trunks] of actual trees, once living. Every single one of them a piece of natural art.
The mechanic followed on his heel, clutching the parts of his Glock.
“I do no business with Americans.”
“You have a beautiful home, mechanic. Most people don’t bother with non-digital appearances anymore.”
The mechanic gave him a sneer.
“I want you out of my house.”
“I want to talk to you about trees.”
“Trees?”
“Trees.”
The mechanic sprawled his disassembled weapon on the table, then he sat down and gestured Ace to do the same.
“Not many people ask about the trees anymore.”, said the mechanic. “What story have you heard?”
“I am just sick of living like this. Plugged into a wall, electronic impulses massaging the sexy parts of my brain. It’s no way to live. Makes a man think about going back to nature.”
“There is no such thing as nature anymore, North American.”
“That’s why I came to you.”
“Yes, that’s why you came to me.”
The mechanic caressed his own, unshaven cheek. The fact that he could grow hair both disgusted Ace and made him envious.
“Can you do it?”, asked Ace.
The man nodded.
“Then all we have to do is agree on a price.”
#
It was two weeks ago. Ace was washing the blood of his two eight-fingered hands. The doctor had warned him that this could happen. The injector was not one hundred percent reliable. Breeding and engineering had made his brain the perfect machine. He was, by birth, never meant to be integrated into society. He was to become ten, fight for less than a decade and eventually die. Now, with twenty-five years of age, Ace was venturing into unknown territory. Little was known about how his body would behave past this point.
There was a tiny bit of bone in the crevasse between his left index and middle finger. He picked it out, carefully placing it into his palm.
Tears filled his eyes.
Remorse.
It was nothing his brain could feel on its own. This was the reaction the drug injector had programmed in. He cranked it up, the pain biting into his guts. He relished it. For the lack of a better word, he enjoyed it.
This made him feel human.
#
“I do not feel human.”, he told the mechanic. “I have tried. There are certain options. Experimental treatments. At least what I am asking you to do has been proven to work.”
The mechanic eyes widened for a second. Then he shrugged.
“That’s the first time someone has paid for this.”
“So the others were unwilling?”
He sneered again.
“You could say that.” He cleared his throat. “You could also say that would be the first time I would use anesthetics, if you know what I mean.”
There was silence. Ace was not sure what reaction the man was seeking. He did not give him any.
“So how did you find out, North American?”
“I have done some jobs a few years back.”, said Ace. “For some people who do business with other people.”
There were still some things computers could not do. All of this boiled down to making common sense decisions, to having meaningful knowledge – not data, but knowledge – about the world. Two hundred years past the days of the microprocessor revolution there were still many problems easy for a human brain and beyond the ability of a chip.
As Ace had found out during his freelancing years, for any person sufficiently dark-minded, the solution to that problem was obvious.
“I see.” The mechanic’s eyes had gone dark. “Jesus knows I could use the money. But I am afraid I can’t help you, North American.”
Ace eyed the virtual panel for the drug injector hovering before him in mid-air. What would a normal person feel? What would someone humans would call human feel? Frustration? Anger? Sadness?
In the years of his habilitation, Ace had felt all of those. This was not the time to indulge in idle luxuries, though. Success and failure were concepts he did not need drugs to understand.
“That is unfortunate.” Ace’s claw of a hand moved nervously on the table. “I don’t think I can make you. We have to completely trust each other you and I.” He shrugged. “I guess that means goodbye.”
The mechanic laughed.
“I doubt anybody else can help you either, North American.”
“This is funny to you?”
“My boss is dead. My coworkers are dead. My friends are dead. So are my parents, so is my wife, so are my children. Humor is all I have left. It is the price you pay for crime.”
Ace blinked at him. He was supposed to feel something, but he had switched off the drug injector so he could think clearly.
“What about those trees that plaster the island?”
Again the mechanic chuckled.
“Eternal reminders. They process nothing. They ask themself a question, then answer it, forget about it and start all over again. They have been doing that for half a decade now. They will continue to do this until they fall apart.” The mechanic’s eyes stared into Ace’s. “And I have to live with that.”
Processing nothing. Following nobody’s orders. Ace had always wondered why the trees had such an attraction to him. This was the perfect kind of peace.
Ace had dreamed of this. Solar panels growing out of his fingers, his skin flayed away, replaced with a layer of biogel, seamlessly adapting into the nanoprobes and lastly a bark made of steel.
Seamless was the word. Inseparable. He wouldn’t just be an organism stuck in a machine, he would be a machine. His legs roots, digging into the earth, drawing the water his body still needed, fungal cultures in his hair making enough food to sustain him, his arms stretched towards the sun. Always reaching never touching.
“I don’t care about your conscience. You want to know what pain is? In my brain are thousands upon thousands of ways to kill a human being. They come as natural as breathing to me.
“I had my first confirmed kill when I was barely able to read. It was a fourteen kid and the order was to kill. I obey orders like human beings crave to be loved. His blood on all my sixteen fingers I felt nothing. No pain. Just quiet satisfaction. A job well done.
“I want to be something else, mechanic. I can’t be human. I have tried it. But nature always wins. It always does.”
While Ace had been speaking, the mechanic had gotten up and backed away. His fingers were grabbing the wall behind them, trying to find an exit, trying to get away from Ace.
“Are you helping me now?”, said Ace. “You have tortured and mutilated a few dozen people. Get over it. You might think you are a monster, but you could never hold a candle to me.”
#
The operating room was under an automated plastic part factory. The dust was so thick they left foot prints. Still Ace could hardly hear anything above the noise. The machines had been left here, monitored by computers, maintained by caretaker drones. The drones flew out to their main station to be maintained.
So no need for a human to set a foot into a factory. Unless of course that human had a desire for privacy.
Under a chaos of pipes and heat and gases, was an inconspicuous hatch, leading down.
The operating room was a symphony of order. Clean metal devices were hanging on the walls. Tiny bottles with drugs were neatly arranged on shelves. The table itself had eight restraining belts on them. Not the tiniest speck of blood had been left.
Lastly, there was a tubular tank in the corner, attached to a lifting mechanism that would get it to the surface.
Ace had never seen a setup like this before. It looked like an ancient medical facility. He wondered if there was morphine or leeches in one of the jars around here.
“The tank contains the biogel, North American.”
It was of plain gray steel. No windows no doors. The ‘patient’ would most likely be dropped into it and transported to the workshop. Ace’s human side, or rather his drug injector side, gave him a chill of fear. What kind of people could do something like this? What a horrible person that mechanic had to be!
The rest of Ace just admired the mechanic’s discipline.
“Last chance to back out.”, said the mechanic.
Ace looked at his hands again, pinching it, like he had done a hundred times on their drive down here. This would be the last he would ever see of his skin. He caressed it. He felt the urge to suck on it and bite it, but he needed to maintain composure.
So this was goodbye. Goodbye to the largest organ of his body. Still some time though. It would take hours to sterilize this room.
“Let’s do this.”, said Ace.
#
The first IV turned Ace’s skin into shriveled leather. From this point on the process was irreversible. He would need artificially grown skin, but by the time it had grown, the secondary infections would have probably killed him. The surface of his skin was numb. It looked dry and rough, though touching it didn’t let him feel anything. The faint scraping sound his skin made on his skin drove him on edge, though.
“Do you want me to show you a mirror, North American?” The mechanic grinned at him. “No. You really don’t want to look into a mirror right now. Or rather, from this point on.”
That man could sing the song of his guilty conscience of all day, some part of him was definitely enjoying this. Some part of him was as un-human as Ace was. That was what trust funds were for. Should the mechanic betray him, the money would never reach him. Fear for one’s life could drive a person to do anything. But fear of not getting paid could motivate the same person for decades.
“Put me under.”, said Ace.
“I thought you-”
“I don’t want to chicken out.”
Again the mechanic bared his teeth to an asymmetrical grin.
“Very well.” Latex gloves fingers tapped against a syringe. “Pleasure meeting you North American.”
Ace did not feel the pinch, but a few seconds later he was out.
#
The number five, the sum of two and three, it tasted like cinnamon. Somewhere above Ace was the computer, running the calculations to something in an infinite loop, breathing in cool Nekzuma air.
The number sixty-three tasted like oranges. All the prime numbers had distinctive tastes. Or at least the first few billions.
It was dark. There was pain, like millions of ants eating away at his skin, but for Ace’s brain, feeling pain was optional.
Getting over breathing was the hardest part. Every once in a while his body would forget. It would try to spasm, but couldn’t. Panic would go rampant in his brain. Sometimes for hours.
At least Ace didn’t hurt anybody. At least Ace did not need to pretend to be somebody he was not.
He was a tree now. A landmark.
Just another curio framing the gray roads of Nekzuma.

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