Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Silence: Harvesters


They trekked a quarter mile or so off the highway, far enough so no one passing by would be likely to see the glow of the camp fire. No one would see the smoke at night.

Robbed of almost all earthly possessions, vulnerable as broken-ankled deer, they decided it was best to veer off the highway, take the path less traveled, preferably non-traveled. They trekked through the woods, keeping a line of sight with the road. They made camp a quarter mile out, far enough that the glow of the campfire would not attract unwanted attention, like flies to a lightbulb, to their vulnerable and unconscious bodies in the night.

Cid whipped out his WiFi hotspot power harvester, a matte white rectangle of plastic the size and shape of a sink sponge. Able to recharge your i-Eyes or G-Pal handheld device by transmuting WiFi signal into energy, it meant you never had to see the un-augmented world again, never missed a clever nano-blurb about a coworker’s breakfast, never had to find your way through a new city by the seat of your pants, never met a looker at a party without already knowing their job and favorite food through auto-face recognition, never had to remember any information about anyone or any thing ever again. Everything you needed about anything you were doing was instantly drawn up from the all seeing eye of The Cloud, inserted contextually yet unobtrusively into your visual field in a cyan text overlay. This meant the harvester was clipped to the belt of virtually everyone with disposable income above the poverty line or without moral hang-ups with regards to misdemeanor theft. Built to feed on the once all-permeating, brain cancer-inducing cyber-ether, the WiFi harvester was a flourishing species of polymer and silicon based life form. It was a thunder lizard of the digital, suddenly wiped out by the e-Cataclysm that was The Great Silence, leaving only these inert plastic fossils as evidence of the mass extinction.

But as always, with great power comes great irresponsibility.

The first Black Friday when the Apex Cyber Leech WiFi harvester, the top of the A-list of hip gadgets that year, made its debut, the United States made almost its entire GDP in cheap Chinese plastic. Cid remembered checking his news feed that morning to find dozens of people were trampled to death in stampedes through Wal-Mart aisles to claw tooth-and-nail for one of the holy objects, talismans into the looking-glass world of Augmented Reality. After the Futura E-Eyes AR goggles, the Cyber Leech was the most mass produced gizmo of all time.

And, like melamine-poisoned baby formula and cadmium-tainted children’s jewelry, the Chinese manufacturers cut every corner off the E-Eyes short of paying pollution-blinded children the price of a cup of coffee a day to hack it together out of cyanide laced construction paper, turning the Yellow River literally yellow with toxic byproduct. Before the first recall a week after release, several million children and adults suffered nausea, vomiting, blindness, paralysis, and even a few deaths. The culprit was contact with the toxic plastic casings coated with tritocyclidine, a neurotoxin used in the fabrication of the cheaper batteries that would’ve cost another fistful of yen per unit to decontaminate. The effects wore off if use was immediately discontinued, but many users of the E-Eyes found themselves unable, in some cases physically unable, to stop once they discovered the joys of eternal connectivity in augmented reality. Withdrawal symptoms ranged from mild to clinical depression, to bodily dysphoria to actual physical pain.

One of Cid’s co-workers had himself passed into a coma after a 28-hour session of “True War”, an augmented reality Iraq War sim that overlaid a bombed-out cobblestone and mud brick Baghdad onto your neighborhood buildings. In his dreams Cid could still see the kid sprawled on the sidewalk behind a line of officers and parametics, spasming and jerking epileptic, as if he’d eaten several poorly filleted fugu, unseeing dilated pupils zipping back and forth like mad flies caught in glass bowls, some terribly malicious form of REM from which there was no waking.

Many reported thoughts of suicide after the E-Eyes were removed forcefully whilst patients were IV’d in hospital beds and “Augmented Reality Rehab” clinics sprouting up like fast food franchises. The makeshift clinics were often staffed by unqualified personnel looking to milk the “Augmented Reality Addiction” mass hysteria, reassuring paranoid parents that their children’s “cyber demons” would be cleansed in their whitewashed halls, and back on the Ivy League track. The “wirehead nuthouses”, as they became perjoratively known, then essentially resorted to terrorizing the kids into quitting cold turkey or else, turning to sleep deprivation, beatings, waterboarding and worse. Torture campaigns that would’ve made even the most hawkish Bush Administration official cringe. The clinics were horribly ineffective, and after a scandal wherein a counselor drowned an eight year old due to amateur waterboarding technique involving a firehose and saran wrap, most of them were shut down.

The Cyber Leech never had quite as deadly side effects, although it did have the peculiar property, due to its chemical make up, of being highly flammable, and prone to burst into flame, which hospitalized many an unwary user with third-degree hip burns.

Cid had collected as many husks of these Cyber Leeches as he could after The Great Silence, and they were thankfully never in short supply due to their pre-Apocalypse popularity. The raider kids left the inert objects, ignorant of the Cyber Leech’s multifaceted uses without their precious Internetz to tell them. Ignorant of everything. But people like Cid, they found uses for things.

He held the device like a flint rock in one hand, taking the USB jack between forefinger and thumb in the other, raising the chrome plug to the base of the Cyber Leech’s metallic abdomen. If you did it right, you could reuse the same Leech dozens of times, but if you messed up you could wind up with no eyebrows and BBQ chicken finger fingers. Striking quickly, down and towards the whittled sticks and pine needles, a bright flame like oxidizing magnesium flared, singing the ends of the needles, a cluster of red embers, dying soon after. Three more strikes and several huffs and puffs later and the camp fire was up and cackling. The rediscovery of fire in the noxious rubble of endgame laissez faire Reagonomics, Cid awaited the epic timpani of a Kubrick soundtrack to herald the miniaturized 2001 Space Odyssey Monolith. Cid smiled, packed the defective, black-streaked gadget back into his too-light knapsack, giving it a loving pat. “Leave it to the Chinese,” he murmured before drifting off in the fire’s warm embrace.


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