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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2221329
A girl and her potential beau navigate the social niceties of future living.
Temper could still remember the first time he had seen a member of the Suburbanite Guild of Couriers in motion. He had just turned twelve years of age and his parents had used the event as an excuse to throw a block party barbecue. The theme was Cats and Dogs: it was no secret that Temper Ford was a cat person while his parents were dog people and the party was intended to be a kind of conciliation on their part. Temper remembered that it had been quite fun. The gifts were nice; games had been organized. More importantly, Licorice Smith was in attendance. An ingenue in Temper's homeroom, he had a crush on her since the school year had started.

The luxury sedan had passed by at a reasonable clip as the sun was setting in the east. Visibility from those attending the barbecue was nonexistent, excepting those wearing their sunglasses or who had tinted their retinals; visibility from the sedan, on the other hand, would have been near perfect. The actual event was almost completely silent, but he permitted himself the small wonder of imagining that he had heard the front door on the passenger side open and close as the Courier came rolling out. The roll allowed the Courier to keep level with the passing car, and it wasn't until he had come up into jogging position that those in attendance saw the sub-machine gun held so purposefully with both hands.

Later forensic investigation confirmed that the model was a Deinonychus .32 with a bull-pup handle. It whispered suggestively three times in the light of the evening sun. Ftt, ftt, ftt, and the sound for all the world like fabric falling on fabric. The first round hit Robson Smith. The second round found his wife Iona standing one meter to his side. Little Licorice Smith was third, standing eight meters off and waiting in line for her turn in the inflatable bounce house where a pack of hyperactive tweens were caroming off the walls. Heart, heart, and head, and the three Smiths lay bleeding on the ground. The rounds were soft-nosed Mycol, specifically chosen because they reduced the odds of collateral damage.

Robson, Iona, and Licorice were dead before the paramedics even arrived. The suture-buddies and rapid extract units of those in attendance proved unsuccessful. The fungal cartilage of Mycol rounds actively resisted efforts at closing wounds. It hardly mattered. The shots had been too precise and the damage too specific. Modern medical technology was pretty advanced, but it still couldn't reverse the effects of a heart or a brain that had been perforated into a bruised and pulpy mass. The assailant was never caught, nor would he be. The three shots fired, he went from a jog to a sprint and leaped into the trunk of the car that had opened on his approach. From there, he briefly turned, scanned the area for possible pursuers, and closed the hatch. In all likelihood the car was automated and would have taken the Courier from the area of operations to a predetermined safe site.

It was just about the coolest goddamned thing that Temper Ford had ever seen.

***


The yellow roll of moss-skin wallpaper was on the top shelf and well beyond Nala's reach. (Because of course it is.) She frowned. Her fingers flickered while she activated her Chroma account and rifled through apps. She needed a tall person and performed a quick check of the store aisles around her to see if any registered Chroma users fit the profile. The Pick-a-Profile app wasn't her favourite thing, but needs must prevail. (I'm too smol to worry about the niceties of the matter... I just want that wallpaper.)

After that, it was Pick-a-Profile or climbing up the shelves, and Nala wasn't inebriated. To her dismay, there were only two people in the adjoining aisles that had the required heights and both of them had flagged their online status as Busy. She made her way over to the curtain rods and selected one, then made her way back to the wallpaper aisle. The mission was a success. Yellow moss-skin wallpaper now firmly in hand, it was a victorious Nala that held her nails out so that the scanners could debit her Chroma as she left the store.

An erstwhile drone hovered patiently outside. Nala slipped the wallpaper into its carryall and tapped it affectionately on the side. Having received the command to depart, the drone rose to a safe height some two meters above her head and hovered to the central hub of the mall where the skylight rested in open position. Nala always made time to watch the drones flitting to and from the central hub, looking all the world like especially industrious hummingbirds, ladybugs, or dragonflies, depending on their manufacturer. Rainy days proved no obstacle: the floors of the hub were a sea-green spongiformica that took in most water even as it landed. The gathered water was piped to the gardens and crops that grew along the perimeters and atop the ceiling of the mall.

Nala didn't need to consult her Chroma to know that she had some free time. Encouraged by the sight of the drones and her memories of the walking tour of the mall in which the garden system had been explained to her, she found one of the elevators that would take her to the fifth floor. The elevators consisted of circular floors that travelled vertically in clear blue lucimer cylinders. She celebrated the minor victory of not having to share it with anyone. (It made it so much easier to spy out on the crowds in motion. To invent stories about random others.) Her fingers flicked on reflex as she reconsidered activating Evesdrop. (Not today. I don't need the gossip.)

The fifth floor was home to relatively few stores. There were several understated install-shops where a shopper with a surplus of luxury tokens could get higher tier consumer goods installed, or could upgrade already installed mid-tier ones. (Right there is where I got this cartilage implant... never looked back.) It felt better than an earbud or a mic-pin, and its look was nonexistent. She had considered getting one of the installs that lit up when it was in use, but that seemed unnecessary. She was pretty enough that she got enough casual attention from people around her without the added detail of sub-dermal lighting displays.

Installation art projects had been set up next to the install-shops, and the former caused no end of problems for the clients of the latter. (Of course, that was the point.) Installation-artists were versed in all the practises of the install-shops that they were mimicking. A client that attended one by accident would very often receive an installation of a quality equal to or surpassing that offered by the real thing just next door. But every dozen clients or so, and one of them would receive some kind of installation that was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Nala had known one girl that went in for an internal rebreather and had come out with a genetic mod: gills on the outside. Kris had sent her a link relating the incident of a security professional that had gone in for a retinal implant and had come out laden with an accelerated pregnancy.

Nala gave a slight shake of her head as she walked to the whispering gallery where she anticipated repeating her traditional walk around the fifth floor. (It's their own fault. All they have to do is check the certificates. Or at least understand that you don't get luxuries without saving your tokens.) It was city policy that anyone receiving the services of uncertified specialists accepted whatever onus of obligation might arise. (And checking certification was pretty easy.) The city even offered reimbursement or correction in the case that a consumer could show that a certificate had been faked at the time of purchase. It was really a very fair system.

Nala found the whispering gallery, an alcove at one corner of the south end of the fifth floor. Here, she could hear the merry and productive gurgling of the myriad rivulets of water being carried throughout the mall. Occasional voices or fragments of music would glimmer their way through, but Nala thought that such brief issuances were more of a counterpoint than an intrusion. The point was to enjoy rather than to meditate. From here, she would make her way to the center ring overlooking the lower hub and listen to the echoes of her fellow shoppers. After that, she liked to skirt the edges of the center and glance down the meridians of the other three cardinal hallways to see if there were any new stores or sales worth looking at.

Today, Nala was pleasantly surprised to see her friend Cleo approaching the center from the western hallway. Normally distracted, Cleo happened to glance her way, her face showing recognition as she flickered her right hand. Of all her friends, Cloe was quite possibly the only one who listened to as much music as Nala did. (Either that, or she's abusing Evesdrop.) Either way, Nala was happy to see her and the two hugged their greetings.

"Come here, Cleo, you have to hear this," Nala started once the two had finished the obligatory exchange of comments on weather or whatever. She hadn't thought to share the whispering gallery with anyone before this, but it seemed rude or deceptive to fail to do so now. She took Cleo's hand and lead her back to the corner.

Cleo was briefly puzzled, before she clapped her hands and laughed. "Oh, Nala, you dear. There's one of these at each of the four corners. Come on, I'll show you."

Nala laughed in turn. (That makes sense.) The two friends departed on a roundabout journey through the other venues.

***


The crowd collectively winced as they watched the Bronze Man carve his way through an eighth member of the Nameless. They weren't really unnamed, of course, but it had become a staple of those viewing at home to refer to the great fameless mass as the Nameless. Victor Navajo 7/354, Temper thought, or something like that. The Victor stood for Volunteer, while Navajo 7 referred to the specific province from which the Nameless had volunteered. 354 was the number of the combatant per their entry position for that season. All told, the victim onscreen and trying to pinch his stomach hard enough to keep his entrails in was Volunteer 354 from Navajo 7, Incorporated Africa.

Between the Vividol coursing through his veins and the fact that he was on an eight-person stabbing streak, the Bronze Man wasn't looking to slow down any time soon. Originally Macadam Bronzino from the American city-state of Marseille, the Bronze Man had ben assigned a name and a number upon his finding recruitment in the General Electric Arms Merchants. Pretty solid team to start on. Temper took a swig of beer. But then again, the season of 2010 had been pretty rough. Lots of openings. But taking the risk had paid off for both Macadam and the Arms Merchants, and Bronzino had somehow bucked enough heads to have become a solid contender for the title of Celebrant in only three short years.

The season of 2013 had seen Macadam offered the coveted All View Sponsorship Medal, contingent, of course, on his acceptance of the flotilla of hovering microcameras that accompanied the acceptance of that medal. From that point on, no minute of Bronzino's life was private. Whether sleeping, eating, killing on the battlefield or starting a fist fight at home, Bronzino was now a brand name and was treated accordingly. The viewers at home were not too surprised to see that he was an inveterate drinker who was in debt up to his ears. Of course, the Merchants took care of that tab pretty quick, Temper considered as he drummed up his own tab on ChromActive. Likewise, team management had paid off the various pharmacies and neighbourhood dealers to whom Bronzino owed money for the laundry list of uppers he consumed on a fairly regular basis.

More surprising by far had been the sheer bitterness that consumed Bronzino's daily life. Before becoming a contender for Celebrant, Bronzino had apparently spent hours each day browsing and shit-posting the 'nets. He went out on patrol several times a week, geared out of his mind on booze and cocaine, and maintained a solitary vigil with the stated aim of keeping his community safe. In point of fact, Bronzino had seen the inside of a court perhaps a dozen times in as many years for the suspected, and sometimes proved, assaults of various individuals. He had already racked up an impressive 1,000 hours of community service by the time he hit 30, and had served a total of 18 months time in municipal cells. He took no part in the official channels designated for vigilance, fucking cuck sellouts that they are, and fans at home were happy to see that his candidacy did not impede this tradition. Indeed, his newfound fame and sponsorship meant that Bronzino was now operating with more information and more autonomy than ever before.

Needless to say, Bronzino had very quickly become a fan favourite with a specific demographic: those of us who don't want to lose our humanity. Bronzino never suffered the same plague of scandals that seemed to afflict other up and coming Celebrants, and his rise to glory had only met with one setback. Shortly after the first year of his candidacy, it came to light that Bronzino had attended two meetings of the Non-Automated Nation. He had only just returned from a highly successful season of Sponsored Conflict and was barely off the personnel carrier when he found himself face-to-mic with several dozen 'net reporters demanding answers.

Bronzino's response was as smooth and as laudable as his performance during wartime. "Listen to me. I'm not going to repeat myself. I only ever looked twice at those 'nanners for one reason. I was afraid that the automation of transmetropolitan trade networks would co-opt our freedoms and put them back at the altar of the once-mighty dollar." Temper Ford had memorized the response in its entirety. The storm weathered Bronzino was given Celebrant status in 2015, at the ceremony of which he followed tradition and renamed himself the Bronze Man.

Temper finished his beer and ordered one more for the road. He had more than enough luxury tokens. He had been among the first to request voluntary duties when the Voluntary Work laws had been passed, and so had little time in which to get seriously blotto. Nor was Temper a fan of most of the other past times that kept his fellow citizens so occupied: he didn't care for the combat-galleries, didn't attend any hobby groups, and was happy with the few installs carried in his person. As such, he rarely traded luxury tokens with others, and even more rarely lost them in one of the many competitions characterizing daily life.

The Bronze Man shot a Nameless in the knee before putting another bullet in his head. He's on a roll, Temper smiled while glancing at the time. "Chroma live. Any news from Pytha?" Chroma confirmed that Pytha had in fact left a message for him just over a minute ago. When he accessed it, the slot was empty and held no content. "Chroma down." Temper frowned a bit, then upended his beer, finishing it. That's no good. Unsure of what to do, he cued up an app for random probabilities and set it for two results. The number 1 came up: shrugging, he decided he'd keep his date with Nala after all.

***


The divorce had neither been difficult, nor amicable. The divorce worker at the Civil Unions Registry promised a swift and painless delivery. (No lie.) Nala had signed the papers just as soon as Richard had returned from his freight run. She had thought it would require more labour: some kind of proof, perhaps, that the marriage was floundering or that they had at least tried counselling (which they had.) No such efforts were needed, the worker assured her, and all she had to do was make clear to the city that she considered her part of the contract null and void. (Medis had been such a dear. Doing all that research and helping me through things.)

Divorce had not required the consent of both parties since some time around the First Information Age. There had even been talk a few decades ago of how to process a divorce without the consent of either party, but this had been abandoned after several disastrous experiments. (Computers just don't get it.) Richard had fumed and sulked and eventually turned to those books of his. Nala had stayed with Pytha for a few days, then with Medis for a few more. She'd have preferred Cleo but Cleo had been on vacation in Abu Dhabi: the girls couldn't come to an agreement as to what, if anything, to do when they heard that Richard had spat on the divorce worker, but Nala was sure Cleo would have had an answer. At the very least, she could have split the vote.

Regardless, Richard still hadn't signed his own divorce agreement. His recalcitrance only hindered himself. In case of a dispute over belongings, the partner who hadn't signed would be treated as still married, while the one who had signed would be free to discharge their possessions as they chose. The same applied in case of court proceedings or any other venture that might have different expectations for married partners. Despite the cajoling of her girlfriends, Nala did not avail herself of the advantages of the situation. She still respected Richard, even if she didn't much care for him these days.

The tour around the whispering galleries in the mall had been delightful. From south they had gone west, where Nala noticed that there was a lot more music than in her own accustomed spot. Cleo explained that the music from the dancehalls on the fourth floor made their way up the pipes and mixed all together here. Nala clapped, they both got a little groove on, and moved on to the north. Here, the sounds of the combat-galleries on the second floor could be overheard. Triumphs, impacts, and the occasional pained shout made its way to the two girls in bursts and fragments. Nala's blood started running: she missed the arena, but the one she normally attended was closed for upgrades.

The east had disappointed her. She heard no sounds and only smelled incense. Cleo shrugged (whaddaya gonna do?) and she and Nala went for mimosas at a chic rooftop caf Cleo caught her up to date on her own life: more installations as soon as she could afford them, with an eye to paired strips of mimetic skin running down from shoulders to heels.

"That's not the worst of it," Cleo said, looking as close to guilty as one can when drinking a mimosa at three in the afternoon. "Catch a glimpse." She passed her ring fingers over her eyelids, which turned ladybug red as they passed over. She double-, then triple-tapped, her ring fingers over the affected areas and was rewarded with the appearance of three eyespots on each eyelid. "I'm famous, didn't you know?" Cloe vogued while pursing her lips.

Nala laughed out loud. "Stay still. Don't make this hurt," she said, reaching out and touching Cleo's eyelids. "This is a pretty good job. How'd this happen?" Nala was a pretty soft touch, but her finger pads received only the barest impression of the skeins of silica-cell that must surely have been under them. "How much did it cost?"

Cleo pinched her cheeks. "I'm blushing," she explained. "But it's not an accident we ran into each other. I remembered what you said about the artists on the fifth floor."

Nala stopped and stared. (Only Cleo. Better to confirm.) "You intentionally went to an unlicensed shop?" Cleo nodded in the affirmative.

"Honestly, Nala, I looked into it, and figured it was either going to be awesome or hilarious. They almost never do anything that's irreversible. And look at this! I mean, why ladybugs?"

Again, Nala had to take a few seconds to process. "That's not what you asked for?"

"Hahaha, no." Cleo was careful to say each ha. "I asked for a normal mascara install, with a gradient app. They put in this one instead." She passed her ring fingers over again, and her eyelids went to a northern lights pattern. Another sweep, and it was a silhouette of the Marseille skyline. One more, and she had the sumptuous coloration of monarch butterflies. "But, I mean, I don't really have any complaints, except." She furrowed her nose. "They're on a cycle. I have to go through them in order to get the one I want. Unless I've missed a subroutine."

Nala rolled her eyes as a passing dispenser stopped at their table. Both girls topped up and clinked their glasses in celebration. Cleo had mutilated her body at a discount price, and Nala had a date in a few hours. She could go back home now that Richard had finally given up his siege, but there didn't seem to be much point. She'd just get herself wrapped up in what to do with the wallpaper: currently, the plan was to let Temper do it. She had already taught herself how to use the anchor points the moss-skin needed to take root and thrive, but had pretended continuing not to know so that Temper would feel more useful.

The anchor points could be finicky if you didn't coax them with some agar spray. (Richard would have lost his shit. Probably why he covered the poor things up as soon as we moved in.) Nala had felt the need for a new environment once Richard had moved along. She took down the rugged press-on paper preferred by her ex and was delighted to see that the corners of her wall had anchor points at all. They were difficult to see except by close examination, but her fingers had picked up the dimples of cork marking their positions. Anchor points meant she had a spongiform wall, and that meant she could finally plant the moss-skin wallpaper she had been thinking of.

It bothered her that the first nice guy she met after the divorce seemed afflicted with Richard's sickness for seeking labour, but he really was quite handsome. (Clever, too. And a movie buff, to match.) The ability to hold insightful conversation while watching a movie had proved too good to pass up, and so Nala had agreed to the third date, albeit against her better judgement. Tonight would be a test of sorts. She had to see how Temper handled this task that he had all but set for himself. Time would tell.

***


Temper had tried to join the Courier Guilds as soon as he hit the age of recruitment: thirteen years of age. Old enough to own a gun, old enough to use it, reasoned the Couriers. Other Guilds, like the elitist and rightly feared Bodyguards Guilds, wouldn't think of recruiting anyone with less than one full tour of duty under their belt. Waiting that long would have delayed Temper's plans by seven or more years. Enlistment at sixteen, deployment to one of the more unruly colonies for four years, no thanks. The Suburbanites had seemed the most logical choice, and they had good representation in Marseille.

Unfortunately, he had severely underestimated the rigors expected of Guild initiates. Of the twenty other applicants that had found the recruiter that year, sixteen had already managed to procure the wrist and forearm stabilizers used extensively by Suburban Couriers. He and the four remainders were washed out before the conclusion of the first trial. Undeterred, he went on to try to obtain membership with the Bohemians, who were famous for their incorporation of Capoeira and hypnotic dancing rhythms. There was an elegant irony to what they offered: a combat style created by slaves being used to throw off the chains of a placid life.

Unfortunately, Temper lacked the musical genius expected of the Bohemian Guild. Of his agility and strength, they had no worry. Installs, mods, and training could always bring his physiology up to par. But every individual member of the Bohemians was expected to compose their own song and to find their own rhythm. The songs they listened to so ceaselessly on their obtrusive headsets were autohypnotic devices that the Bohemians relied on to become the undisputed masters of close combat among Guilds. They never once insulted him for his incapacity at writing new music, and he never once blamed them for their selectivity. He had left them on better terms than he had the Suburbanites.

There had been no point in approaching the Downtowners or the Mallrats. The former were famously insular, and even the newest of those employed in Marseille could claim at least two generations descent from other snipers. And the less said of the hooligans in the Mallrats, the better. Temper had in fact been approached by them when he turned fifteen, but by then knew the score. The Mallrats were always looking for outsiders who they could hang a frame off of, and Temper had turned their recruiter away with a pair of boxed ears. Paid for that one, mind you, he smirked. The Mallrats had found him a few weeks later in the southside Amazon superhub, a labyrinthine outlet made up of some dozen or so hangars and warehouses. It was the kind of outlet that the Mallrats favoured in plying their trade, and he had gone there with more than an inkling that they would try to start something.

Temper had taken monthly training since the compulsory courses that came with everyone's first firearm purchase. No class, no gun. The Mallrats had first approached him with knives and tasers. Nothing serious, just wanted to make me shit my pants and do a jig. Between his youth and their stupidity, things had escalated pretty quickly. He hadn't intended to draw down on them, but overreacted when one with a taser had brushed it off his Ochrimer sweater. The dense fabric stopped the spark short, his adrenaline kicked in, and suddenly there he was, .32 revolver held in perfect three-point stance. He knew that two of them were behind him, but had hoped that the chance of losing the two in front of him would make them hesitate a bit.

He wasn't wrong. The five of them stood in tableau until Amazon security showed up. It had been minutes; it felt like forever. But security commended him and a gathered crowd of bystanders gave him standing applause. Of the four, only one Mallrat ended up being caught. The other three practised what made their Guild famous, and had fled the scene as soon as eyes were off them. Security chased them, but none of the bystanders could be bothered. No point. Where other Courier Guilds had incorporated assassination and paramilitary methods into their profession, the Mallrats had become master thieves. Between their hackers and the plants in the audience, they've got escape routes built into their escape routes. They almost always get away. Sleight of observation.

So the Guilds had been a wash. There hadn't looked to be too many other outlets for a young buck eager to see combat. He wasn't comfortable joining the Marines since that seemed to be just a different kind of conformity. He craved the community offered by the tight-knit in-groups of the Guilds, but was loath to have anything to do with the indoctrinated camaraderie of the military. Missed the big chance on that one anyway. Temper still didn't know if he blamed his parents for that or not: recruitment into the army took place at two times, these being enrollment in a military academy at the age of twelve, or entrance into boot camp after age of majority. But the latter was only realistic to people before they hit twenty, after which the army wouldn't look twice at your application. They had more than enough to choose from.

Temper did what was expected of him. After completing his mandatories, he went on to learn several trades at institutions of higher learning. By the time he had hit his early twenties, he was a capable electrician, and a fairly skilled plastics and metal worker. He never showed the patience or the intuition needed for bio-craft, but this didn't really bother him. Always seemed like woman's work anyways. He thought again of the empty message from Pytha. Damn idiot probably got herself tailed. Can't imagine that it's easy setting up a meeting with a group like the Non-Automateds, but then again, can't imagine it's too hard. He let out a sigh of exasperation. Life in Incorporated Africa held no allure for him, the adventures of the Bronze Man notwithstanding. Between the heat and need for corporate sponsorship, he'd be out of his element. Better stick with the devils you know.

Temper finished his last beer and went to hit the head. He had a date with Nala in an hour and had agreed to put up some moss-skin for her. He still needed to watch a how-to so as to learn his way around the anchor points, and the trip to her place would take about twenty minutes. Nice girl, too. Doesn't play any games. The automatic cleaning function on his Chroma cycled through, and Pytha's message was deleted. There'd be time for that later.

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