Mon Jul 8, 2019
The overwhelming stench of rotting garbage and vomit pulled Nathan out of his stupor. His dream, half-remembered, lingered blue and sparkling — like the shimmer of the ocean. The dream left him with a vague sense of joy, dissipating quickly as he opened his eyes.
His tangled dirt-caked hair was covering his face; he clumsily smoothed it away. He was lying in a dumpster on a putrid bed of refuse. Must have passed out here last night, he thought.
Scrambling out of the bin, Nathan headed down an alley to the street corner. It was bitterly cold and he was starving. People were bustling to and fro, the soft light of their holographic heads-up displays lending a demonic red hue to their faces.
Although the building walls were nothing more than blank slabs of dirty concrete in reality, he knew that the ubiquitous heads-up display worn by every passerby projected the bright lights and festive decorations of virtual store windows to everybody except him. The projections were part of an exclusive fantasy world he was no longer a part of.
The only real-life clue that it was the holiday season was a morose Salvation-Army Santa droid standing on the corner ringing a bell and soliciting donations.
As he stood there staring, pedestrians stepped around him without looking at him. Some of them probably had blockers installed that removed him from their vision entirely.
But he was hungry, and more importantly he needed credits for more synthcaine, so there was nothing else for it. He extended his left wrist (the one with his nanochip implant) to a passerby. “Spare some credits.” His voice was dull and muted and seemed a mere whisper to him. “Spare some credits for the hungry,” he said, raising his voice.
The sound of the ringing bell abruptly ceased and a flurry of red and white suddenly materialized in front of him accompanied by the whine of actuator motors.
“Move on headless human,” said droid Santa shoving his ugly metallic face into his. “I’m working this corner. Go beg someplace else.”
Nathan backed away warily, almost tripping on his own torn pant legs. The pants were too big on him.
“Get a job human,” droid Santa muttered and started ringing his bell again.
He had a job once. He got it right after dropping out of school and leaving his messed-up family for good. It was in a batcha rendering plant. Or at least that’s what they called it. It was a slaughterhouse. “Raw product” — the heads and hooves of processed batcha swarming with maggots piled up on the floor. In the sweltering heat, Nathan would don his bandanna and use a mech-dozer to load the “product” into large stainless steel pits. He’d never forget the blooming of bright red as a grinder in the pit began to turn.
The plant was the only place that would take him in the small rural town where he grew up — but even they let him go after he started showing up at the night shift with the telltale glowing veins of a synchcaine addiction. Refusing to move back in with his family, Nathan spent his last credits on an airbus ticket to the big city. It turned out the promise of a new start was nothing more than a continuing descent into synthcaine and the streets.
Despair flooded thick through Nathan’s blood as he stumbled aimlessly along the sidewalk. The streets grew quiet and large grey snowflakes began to drift down through the darkening sky. Looking up for a second, Nathan’s eyes screwed shut at their soft touch. He’d better get to a shelter. As much as he hated them, it would be a cold one tonight. He hoped the cold would keep the lice and the predators away. Shelters in this city seemed to attract the worst kind of sicko predators who beat up the homeless for kicks in some sort of sadistic AR game. Shuddering now — and not just from the cold — Nathan made for the nearest shelter a couple of blocks away.
When he arrived, he discovered that the line stretched around the block. Hundreds of desperate headless were shuffling along, their breath visible in the frigid air. The predators were out, gnawing at the hapless fools at the end of the line like a pack of hyenas attacking the weakest members a fleeing herd.
He didn’t think the pit of despair in his stomach could get any worse, but he was wrong. He passed the line and kept on walking, not caring anymore where he would sleep tonight as long as it wasn’t in this shithole.
Then, Nathan’s luck changed for the better. A whole lot better as it turned out - and all thanks to a discarded spark stick.
As he trudged aimlessly through the streets with his head down, he spotted the spark stick in the gutter. When ignited, spark sticks emitted an intense burst of light and heat for about five minutes. Nathan picked it up with trembling hands, but didn’t ignite it. No, he was going to save this beautiful prize for later.
His resolve didn’t last long.
Not much later he was huddled in a dark empty alley, the cold burrowing into his core, hungry and in synthcaine withdrawal. Every cell in Nathan’s body cried out for just one taste of warmth. So, he ignited the spark stick. He didn’t care what would happen after the five minutes were up. He just desperately needed those five minutes more than anything else right now.
The stick sputtered to life and flooded the alley with warmth and light. A glorious burning sensation spread all over him and the heat seared his exposed skin as if he was sitting in front of an enormous bonfire.
He then noticed that the alley wasn’t quite as empty as he’d assumed in the cover of dark. There was a stained tarp right at the back of the alley’s dead end and it was covering up something large. The shape was naggingly familiar.
Curiosity overcoming him, Nathan approached the mysterious object and pulled off the tarp.
Looking completely out of place, a terrestrial vehicle suddenly gleamed in the light. Nathan recognized it almost immediately. It was an older-model Tesla, lovingly restored to the point of obsession. It looked brand new.
Nathan dimly recalled that the famous Elon Musk had started Tesla before he died in his failed Mars colony. As a child, Nathan was really into classic cars - back then, most cars were still terrestrial. Tesla’s newest models were much sought after in the luxury passenger-drone market, but Nathan had little interest these days in craning his neck to look up at the aerial playthings of the rich.
With the light and warmth of the spark stick in his hand starting to fade, Nathan was desperate to get out of the cold. Unsurprisingly, the car doors were locked - they didn’t even seem to have door handles. But Nathan could hardly believe his luck when he fumbled with the trunk and it opened, revealing a spacious cavity for him to curl up in. He adjusted the tarp so that it once more covered the car, then climbed in and closed the trunk over his head.
He watched the spark stick slowly die, the last vestiges of its heat filling the enclosed space of the trunk. As he was plunged into pitch blackness, pure exhaustion carried Nathan away into a deep sleep.