VZ Goliath [Sci-Fi Novel]

08

“Julio, your father will be back home late today. Don’t forget to pick up his shoes from the market.”

Julio took the small linen bags that were hanging on the door handle and the receipt that was taped above it.

“Don’t get home too late. You know how dangerous it gets in the evenings.”

He closed the door and stood several stories above a large crowd moving through the small street. He could look down the small container complex and see them rush and squeeze around the corners. It was noisy from all the people, and dust from the street blew into his face as a small drone flew over the crowd. It was a blue police drone headed for the market. Hopefully, there would be no blockade today. A few days ago, several people had been killed in and around the market and the police had blocked off the entire area. He was being held on the market for several hours until he could get back home. The few images that appeared on social media looked like some gang-related crime, but there were far more people dead than usual and far too much police presence. Important gang members had to be involved, which would explain why the police were suddenly so interested. Usually, they would only come to pick up the bodies and ask the necessary questions to categorize the crime, but not actually investigate.

He left the small container he lived in behind and merged into the crowd below. Dozens of people stomping over the concrete while chatting, breathing, and sweating next to each other. His errands would take longer than expected. He checked the piece of paper with the list of vegetables. He barely had enough money in his pockets for all of it.

His mother always wrote everything down on paper, although she could have just sent him a message. He might not have an implant as she did, but his phone was still doing its job. Looking like the super poor who could not even afford a phone was not necessary. No vendor or store would give him a discount; they were more inclined to throw him out because of it. And the people who would see his phone would not steal it; they would pity him for the old model he owned.

The crowd opened up as they reached the large plaza. The market was just ahead and he could already smell the street food. The people in front of him were drawn to the smell and began to move at a faster pace. The chatter from the stands grew louder and music was blaring from apartments above. The noise of pots and pans clanging on metal, oil sizzling, and food being fried. It was like its own orchestra. Above them on the highway, only the large e-trucks were loud enough to pierce through and mix into the sound.

Julio made his way to a small shop below an apartment building. He showed his receipt and picked up his father’s shoes. This wasn’t the first time they had to get fixed. They had stitches all over the places where the leather was connected to the sole. Buying new shoes was way more expensive than getting them fixed, and if they actually would buy new clothes, his father’s shoes were not the first thing that needed replacement.

Julio was working for a small implant shop a few buildings further into the market. The shop was filled with electronics of all kinds, covering large tables and shelves on the walls. People came here to buy in bulk or get their stuff fixed. He came by daily, and at least every second day, he had an implant to fix. It was as with broken shoes; some parts had torn off and needed to get stitched together again. It was not much money that he made from it, but it was better than no money. Over the past months, he had put some aside to buy himself an implant. His parents both received implants many years ago from the factory they had worked at. Their models were old and outdated, but still useful to this day.

Their job had been to monitor the production line and do a last check if the produced chips were working correctly. It was not great, but those jobs were at least somewhat safe from being automated. Developing robots and AI for it was too expensive, and the production would not get outsourced for cheaper labor because of its strategic location near the city. 90% of the factory’s implants were directly sold in the city, eliminating any shipping costs for the company.

Four years ago, the company was cutting on employees and fired his mother. They had to move out of their small apartment near the slum into a small container in the middle of it. The container had a few rooms, but barely any isolation. It was freezing in the winter, and the walls were thin enough to hear the people on the street passing by. His mother had tried to make money with smaller jobs, but there was barely any use for her. Her implants were outdated, and she was too old for most physical work. One evening on her way home, she was robbed and beaten up by a group of teenagers. They had left her unconscious in the street. As the police arrived the next morning to pick up the body, they noticed that she was still alive. Such crime was common, but had the police cared and showed up a few hours earlier, her condition today would have been a lot better. They took her to a hospital, but her insurance would only cover half of the bill.

She had suffered brain damage from the beating and continued to limp on her left leg. It took them two years to pay off the hospital bill. His mother had worked from home for several call-centers, but most of them were swapping the last parts of their hotline to AI voice and answering programs. His parents wanted to buy him an implant for his 14th birthday, but that present was now postponed indefinitely.

He picked up the vegetables from the market and managed to get everything with the cash he had on him. He walked home with the filled bags and would come back to the implant shop later.

He dropped the bags off in the kitchen, which brought a smile to his mother’s face. She was excited to cook for them today. She was trying out new recipes she had found on the internet, and they all enjoyed the variety that had entered their diet. An exhausted skinny man was lying on the couch. His father had come home, and the 12-hour shifts were not passing by unnoticed. He had started to look paler and skinnier than Julio had ever seen him. With his scruffy beard and old jeans, he looked like a beggar, if it was not for the white jacket from work which turned him into a poor hipster. His father greeted him with a waving hand but kept his eyes closed. Julio hoped he could one day make a change in his father’s life. Get him a new job, a less draining one. Or at least not end up like him. Maybe that was already enough.

The implant shop was as busy as the market. Lots of people were standing inside and bought all kinds of equipment. He got noticed the moment he entered. The slightly overweight, half-bald owner with a thick beard, beige shorts, and striped shirt wobbled towards him.

“Julio, my boy, I have three implants that need quick fixing. I’ll pay you double for each. They need to be done today. Get to work.”

Julio walked into the back of the store and over to the small workbench. It was a wooden desk that had burned spots and cuts all over it. The implants were in a little box on the table. The sides of the table and the rest of the room was filled with dusty containers. Besides him working here, the room was mostly used for storage. But the stuff inside the boxes was already several years old, so it was more of a dump that storage. He had never gotten double pay for any repair job before, and it motivated him. Three implants plus double pay was the income of an entire week for him. Maybe he could get implant updates for his parents the next time they were on sale.

Two implants had fried connections that he needed to replace, and the third one needed a full reboot. It was easy work and he had all of them running within an hour. Before he handed them back, he checked each of them for their data. He connected them to the small hand-sized computer on the desk by sticking them onto a small magnet. Sometimes the implants still had something valuable on it; an old wallet with spare change or ID details he could sell on the darknet. People were careless with their data, but he knew that most of the implants coming to the shop were stolen anyway. Their store policy stated that all the implants would get wiped, which gave him the opportunity to bump his small income.

The first two had no useful data on it. The third implant took a while to reboot. While it was reinstalling, he already handed out the two finished ones to the delight of his boss. He received the invoice on his phone and a pat on the shoulder.

It took a few more minutes until the last implant was done. It was a newer ELIM model. Two years old, which was brand new in the slums. The code architecture was quite different from the other ones, and he spent some time studying it. He searched for a wallet or ID and found both. The ID sold for five times the usual on the black market, and the wallet was unusually strong secured. He moved it to his phone and wiped the data from the implant. His boss was happy with him completing the job quickly.

“Julio, you have been working with me for almost a year now, and I thought it was time to show my appreciation. When I asked you why you want to work here, you said to buy yourself an implant. I know you can’t afford the ones I am selling here, but from time to time, I get my hands on some old off-brand implants. Today, one was mixed into a shipment by accident, and the seller did not want it back. My first thought was not to sell it but to give it to you. I liked the idea, and it stuck in my mind all day. So, here it is.”

He took the small implant out of his large pocket and put it into Julio’s hand. Julio noticed how similar the off-brand model looked to its branded counterpart and was eager to test it in the back of the shop. The rectangular implant had a transparent color that was hiding the chipset in the middle. On its four corners, the small silver metallic grips were reflecting the light that came from above. It looked used and had some scratches on the surface, but that was not a big deal. His boss looked as happy as he felt.

“I’m glad you like it. This is one of the older models which sticks on the outside of your skin. I only wiped the data and reinstalled the OS because it was giving me errors. If you want to tweak or experiment on it, feel free to do so when you are here. Come by tomorrow and let me know how life with an implant is like.”

He wobbled back to the front of the store, where several customers already waited for him. Julio cleaned the implant on the workbench and put it on his temple. He watched himself in a dusty mirror that was standing on a shelf. The small LEDs of the implant started to light up, and the surface changed its color to fit his skin. Only the four silver metallic grips on the side of the implant did not change. From afar, nobody could see his implant, and even up close, you would need to take a good look at the four silver dots to see it.

He took the small bottle of liquid from one of the shelves nearby and dripped a few drops onto his eyeballs. It took a while for the liquid to form an even surface on his retina. He teared up a bit, then the feeling faded. Once the liquid was covering his entire eyeballs, the implant booted up. A filter showed up on his retina. Half-transparent, it showed the loading sequence with ID and OS specifications. The model was way newer than it looked: the implant three years old, and the OS update two. This was as good, if not better than the one he had planned to buy for himself.

The booting sequence finished, and a voice greeted him from the inside of his head. He answered by thinking the words and set up his workspace. Internet, GPS, image and video filtering, full social media functionality; this was the latest consumer-grade implant. He moved and transformed the individual screens on his retina until he was satisfied. He could finally listen to his favorite music without having to borrow someone’s headphones. He laughed out at that realization. He and his family were really fucking poor.

He played around with the settings a bit more then left. The store was getting empty in the early evening, and he was getting late. Many stands on the market had already closed or were about to do so. He was hurrying to get home for dinner.

The evening he was about to witness would change the trajectory of many lives, including his own.

The moment he left the big plaza, the first scream yelled through the streets. He passed a group of people standing around a woman kneeling on the asphalt. She screamed and was covered in blood. In front of her, the body of a young man. Shootings were nothing out of the ordinary in the slums, and after shivering from the expression in her face, he moved on. Then the police drones flew in. Not one, or two; dozens. Their lights lit up the streets, and he heard buzzing before hearing the screams.

People ran past him. More yells from the alley he had just passed. He took a few steps back and saw two young women lying on the street next to each other. The alley had no lamps, so he could not see what was going on. He was about to walk towards them, as the light of a drone brightened the street for a moment. They both had their eyes open with a large hole in their forehead. Their dresses soaked in blood. He turned around and started to feel anxious. Was this a terror attack? A gang massacre? He had to get home quickly.

The air was filled with screams, the humming of drones and feet running over the cold concrete. A man with his lifeless daughter dangling from his arms. He could only get a glimpse of her deformed face in the faint light. He took a left turn and was almost back home when somebody ran into him. He fell into the mud. When he got up, he noticed the blood on his hands. He had no idea where it came from, but it was not his.

News-feed and social media were filled with fear and gore. The longer he ran through the streets, the more bodies he saw lying in them. A small quadcopter landed on the building close by, and he could see the silhouettes of four people exiting the vehicle. Police and ambulance were starting to arrive. Somewhere a fire had started. He could smell the smoke in the air.

He arrived. His bloody hands were shaking and he dropped his keys twice before entering. He saw the shape of his mother kneeling in the kitchen, his father lying on the floor.

“Dad!”

He took the few steps towards the kitchen counter in terror and shock. His dad was lying on his stomach with blood still pulsating out of his forehead.

“Mom. What happened? What is going on? Mom?”

He looked into the terrified face of his mother. Her eyes were wide open as she was leaning against the kitchen counter. She looked unharmed from this side, but on the other, her face was covered in blood as well as the cabinet next to her. He could see that the implant in her head had been replaced with a hole that was several centimeters wide and deep.

It took him a few seconds to understand, then he disconnected his implant and threw it into the back of the room. The video of a young boy who’s forehead had exploded as he walked through the street slowly faded from Julio’s eyes.

He dropped to the floor without having noticed. His breath was heavy. A few seconds later, he walked outside. He needed to get help, but there was no one who could. He screamed out a few times, only to notice that he had joined the choir of people that were already screaming into the night. He took out his phone and called the emergency lines. No answer. Even the websites were unreachable. He walked up the stairs towards the top of the container building while screaming out for help. He was sweating from fear and shock when he reached the 8th floor. The slum at night was glowing bright by the fires spreading over houses and shacks. Drones were flying above his head; People running below.

An explosion. It came from the market. A fire was rising at the shop he had spent the past hours at. A tall apartment complex in the distance was on fire. His phone received an emergency notification from the government.

The slums started to burn, while the inner city fell asleep in all its beauty, not even bothered by the smoke and fire around it. Julio dropped on his knees and started to cry.