So far we’ve only seen what life in the future is like for the have-nots, but now let’s meet the 1%.
RUS was Emma’s favorite bar in Atlanta. Dark and cool like a wooden cave, a rustic Russian “vodka bar” aesthetic that had briefly been popular in the 20s, RUS had long since been coated in decades of paint, varnish, and sanded plastics that locked in a lost scent of vape juice and paint.
“You new?” She asked the bartender. RUS had been her first destination since she’d gotten back from the new Mediterranean beaches in Antibes.
The bartender was sun-baked, tinged red here and there.
“Not particularly. Been working here a few weeks. Nobody ever comes in during the day.”
Emma ordered a gin and tonic. The sun outside was a haze through blotted windows. She could barely hear the city.
“What, no lime?” She asked, tasting the drink. It was more acrid than she liked, some cheap American knockoff with that hint of corn.
“You want limes, you move to Austin or Chattanooga and go to one of those places that charges forty two bucks for a drink in an old boot.”
“I was kidding. What’s your name?”
“Dynex. I was kidding about the old boot, too, I’m sure it’s just some 3D printed thing you can’t even wear.”
Emma tapped her forehead. Right above the left eye.
“Ah don’t bother looking it up, Dynex is an old brand of electronics. First thing mom saw when I was born. She was on a lot of pills.”
Dynex’s tattoos were unprogrammed ink, his forehead didn’t have a dent. She tapped hers again, unconsciously, regarding that tiny indentation that so many could never leave alone.
He watched her tap her skull, left hand to left eyebrow, a practiced, automatic move. She was young still, and her fingers had barely dented that spot, which he imagined her eroding, tap after tap. He exhaled loudly.
“I prefer ‘unboxed.” He said, as if she should already know this. He held up his wrist, adorned with an old 40’s era smartlink watch. “We’re not exactly all natural, you know. We have drones and nets, we’re not out there forgoing prosthetics like Libertnonites or Quaunnis. We just don’t have…” He tapped his skull just like she’d done.
“The box. I get it. ‘Unboxed.’ Pretty literal. Not as sexy as ‘natural.”
That seemed to end the conversation - a fact that slightly offended Emma, who imagined her own advice on the subject to be irreproachable, especially to a sunburned bartender with a name like “Dynex.”
Emma frowned at the screen on the wall, instead. It was blank and black. She tapped her box but nothing was there to access. A dead slab of screen.
“It’s not online, at least not to anything that’s been around for thirty years. It’s probably from when they built the place.” Dynex said. He was calibrating the pour sensors on each bottle. Emma was fairly certain that was illegal.
“Don’t want to hear about President Carson’s box swap?” She asked, lifting her chin toward the dead screen. If it was on, she knew it would talking about that very fact.
“As if they could talk about anything else. Fucking vultures circling, is what they are. Waiting on the biggest scavenger of them all to drop dead. Vultures eating vampires. Maybe today it’s another glowing review of Dear Leader Donald Carson! Or do you want to see another 3D animation of blood leaking into a brain, because I know I’ve seen enough. Or maybe you want to see the spec sheet on the Presidential Box. Again. Or hey, maybe they’re running a little aspirational bit about Domingo Gutierrez's exercise regime. Or talking to the doctors that will do the surgery. The swap.”
Something about it seemed to bother Dynex. Not all of the redness in his face was from the sun, now.
“Gutierrez is a soldier. He knew what he was signing up for.” Emma said.
“It’s his duty. He would gladly sacrifice himself if it was a terrorist trying to kill the President.” Emma continued, parroting the phrases heard over and over again on every outlet from AM radio towers in Dakota to Box Uplinks in Austin.
Dynex rolled his eyes so hard she could tell he wore contacts. “This will be what? His third body?”
“It’s not HIS body.” Emma said loudly. “It’s Donald Carson’s box, and it’s Domingo…”
“Yeah, yeah, Domingo Gutierrez's body, I know the damn speech. But they mess with the words. The box is you.” He said, tapping above his eye rather aggressively. “They say “Donald Carson,” like it was him, and not…whoever President Carson was last time, I forget.”
“Mohammed Jones.” Emma said.
“Right. They don’t say ‘Domingo Gutierrez’s body is replacing Mohammed Jones’ body,’ even though that’s what’s happening.”
Emma got quiet and Dynex felt his tip slipping away.
“There’s a good trivia night question - name President Carson’s three bodies.”
No one else was in the bar. “What’s trivia night?” She asked.
“Thing we do in the arcology - sit around, ask questions, get them right, get points.”
“So what stops people from just…” She trailed off.
“Gotta be unboxed to play. We can’t just hop on a net without it being pretty obvious.” He was tapping his skull in a way that made her self-conscious.
“You could do it here if you had a strong enough Faraday Cage.” She said.
“Yeah, Tuesday nights at RUS, Trivia Cagematch, step into the steel cage, test your wits without a net, it’ll be fuckin’ huge.” He said.
Emma was daydreaming about arcology naturals arguing over old crates of g-net archives and trying to search random drives with their fifty-year old smartwatches and broken phones when she got a message that reminded her of why she was scrounging around Atlanta in the first place.
“You said you live in the arcology?” She asked Dynex.
“I can’t afford to cross the wall everyday.” He said with a shrug. “Lots of us unboxed live there.” He said ‘unboxed’ slowly as if trying to introduce her to the word.
“And people there would probably be good for digging into old g-net stuff, right?”
The g-net was what they’d simply called “the internet” back fifty years ago before it splintered into thousands of different little worlds. Nobody knew who had run it or how, but only that a lot of the problems were from some company that named everything “G” and also from various Governments, giving rise to the shorthand.
Dynex was paying attention, now. Boxes asking about Arcology Life was rare.
Emma thought a few things and the tattoo sleeve on her right arm changed to a rolling display of flame, with a tiger bounding through it, the stripes of the cat becoming the stripes of the flame.
“Fan of Blake?” Dynex asked, tucking a single curl of jet-black hair behind his ear.
“The Thor guy or the rapper?”
“The poet.” He said, trying hard to suppress some snark.
“The Tiger is free, yes!?” That guy?” Emma asked.
“Yeah. So. You know my name, my job, where I live. What do I know about you?”
“Well, you know I have a box. And it’s active. You know my name is Emma, because your little payment processor told you that much and now I’m gonna tell you what my job is.”
“What’s your job?”
“I’m a beach body.”
“A beach body?”
“Rich old people go to visit some exotic locale and sample the sun and the wine and the sex and the moonlight, right?”
“Right.” Dynex said, though his own speculations on “rich old people” were more narrow and cynical. to have while they’re on the beach.
“But they don’t want to be getting fucked on top of a volcano or getting a massive hangover on a sandy moonlit beach in their old, decrepit bodies, right?”
Dynex’s eyebrows practically met the bangs that Emma hated.
“So they call up the agency, pick a beach body out of a lineup, do a little box swap, and they get to spend a week young and adventurous and undoing all the hard work I put into being worth the money.”
“Holy shit. I’m imagining parchment-skinned grandmas suddenly realizing they can put their ankles behind their ears.” Dynex said, bushy eyebrows settling back down toward his eyes.
“Oh they’re usually lots of fun.” Emma said a little wistfully. Her small smile pursed up as she took a drink.
“It’s when a grandpa becomes me that I regret it when I get back.”
Dynex poured her another drink and Emma saw why he’d tampered with the pour sensors when she tasted it.
“Sorry, I hope that pays well. Do you remember any of it?”
“Well the answer to both those questions is ‘kinda, sorta, not really.’ I mean, I remember physically doing stuff, sometimes? But not the emotions, or the thoughts. Or even what they see. The transfer doesn’t work like that, keeps me from remembering their bank account logins or what movie star they pegged on a beach in Italy. But I’ll remember rock climbing. Or being tired. Or pulling a muscle. It’s weird, but it’s real, just like the pay. Cryptos and scrips and transfers and jewelry, gems and exchanges, but…”
She put a real, Washington DC issued hundred dollar bill on the bar. Then another.
Dynex looked at them with a furry pierced eyebrow.
“I came early, looking for someone who liked to live off the grid a little, Dynex.” She put another bill on the bar. It was half a month’s rent in the arcology or half an hour subbing in for a withered matriarch. “Someone who was me, for a while, but then vanished. Went wild.”
“I like cash. Cash is hard to come by, kind of like the people you want to know.”
Both of them, all smiles, then.