by Nicholas Jablonski
My skinless body flopped out of the smoldering remains of my hovertank. I couldn’t see. Either my wifi was down, or there were no video feeds in range. I crawled along the oil-drenched pavement, moving away from the hissing and popping of burning machinery. After a few meters my raw elbow bones dug into a soft gravel slope. It led down to some kind of ditch. Whatever it was, it had to be better than the inferno of the surface streets. I flung myself down.
I don’t know how far I fell. There were bushes, vines, and bramble along the way. My naked, atrophied muscles ripped and snagged. My body smacked into a gnarled tree and stopped. I reached my bony fingers up to my face and felt the smooth plastic visor that wrapped around my temples. Somewhere underneath were my eyes. I pulled at the visor, but it hurt. The intravenous lines that once regulated my experience were tangled up, torn out, or wrapped around my limbs and neck. No drugs were flowing.
“Cortana,” I wheezed. “Shut everything off.”
“Are you sure you want to perform a hard shutdown of your visor? Any Skype feeds you are sharing with other users will be terminated.”
“Yes, confirmed.” I growled. There was no one watching my feed. I was just a bloody body in a ditch with no wifi. This fact would have been obvious to a toddler, but for twenty years Cortana had been the worst digital assistant on the market. She was slow, clueless, and awkward. Her code was outsourced to a contractor in Frankfurt that outsourced to Tokyo that outsourced to Bangalore. We had no choice but to use her; it was company policy. A battalion in Oregon got caught running Siri just last week. It turned out badly for them.
“We deserve to lose this war, Cortana,” I sighed.
I heard the dee-woop slide whistle sound that marked the shutdown of my Skype client. The sockets in my skull released their connectors, and the visor slid off my face. There was pain again. Unregulated reality was too bright. My lidless eyes were wet with tears for the first time in a decade. I could see well enough to know that this was the end of my employer.
A trio of cruise missiles roared overhead, just meters above the burning road I had fled. They were coming in from the north. That had to be the Koreans in Vancouver. Last quarter our strategic prediction algorithms had assigned only a 14% likelihood of Samsung joining this offensive, but in the simulations where they did, there was no hope for our coalition.
“Damnit!” I snapped. The rest of my squadron was probably going to make a killing. They would be negotiating lucrative surrenders by now, and shorting allied brands on the exchanges. I was nothing but a meat body in a ditch, with no connectivity at all, caught right in the middle of the decisive opening salvo.
A thumping darkwave beat echoed through the sky above. I saw two small, saucer-shaped hovercraft swoop down from the north to inspect the wreckage of my tank. They drifted to the edge of the ravine, following the bloody trail I’d left. They spotted me. There was a pause, and then each projected a large holographic face into the air above me. The one on the left spoke first, a full-faced girl with a friendly smile and dark curly hair. A glowing golden logo on her forehead said SAMSUNG.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
The face next to her frowned down at me. He was a sharp-nosed guy with a tall forehead, a waxed mustache, and prominent cat ears atop his head. “You don’t look so good, man,” he said.
My nakedness made their presentation seem grossly fake. Somewhere inside those hovercraft were indistinguishable fleshless torsos just like mine. Objections to virtuality were supposed to be for geezers, but the asymmetry still felt gross.
“How much for a lift to a hospital?” I asked.
“0.008 BTC,” the girl replied. An Uber logo appeared on one of her holographic cheeks. A red cross appeared on the other one.
“All my shit is fried, I’ll make good when I get patched up,” I explained. The two faces became pensive and skeptical. They exchanged doubtful glances.
“I don’t think so, dude,” the catboy said. “We’ve all read about folks who get scammed that way.”
“I’m telling the truth, okay?” I said. “Look, I’ll pay you double. I promise I’m good for it. You can check my address, it’s 15FeEY7rSnrH8sR29drUqi7P6vbtYApUZC.”
The holographic faces were still for a moment, probably checking my accounts and talking on a private line. Behind them the blue sky was striped with thick columns of black smoke from burning war machines and office buildings.
“Alright,” the girl said. “We’ll give you a ride to Northgate.”
She lowered her craft down into the ravine and opened a trunk on her side. A mechanical hand spread a yellow plastic tarp across a shelf inside. I crawled in.
“So, what’s your name?” she asked as we ascended above the burning urban sprawl. “xPC_PRO_2001,” I replied.
“Lame, haha.” she said.