The glass rattles in his hand, and he tries to steady it, so as not to spill the drink. He can’t. His hand is wobbly and his vision is blurred. What’s happening to him? It feels like he’s buried under layers and layers of dust, clouding his eyes and his thoughts. Maybe he screams, but nobody seems to hear, so maybe he did not.
He looks up at the man who served him. Grisly beard and eyes full of discontent. He’s eyeing his own customers with suspicion. They’re all troublemakers and he knows it. But he’s gonna be ready for them. The man behind the bar is a tough guy, he hasn’t got one of them fancy laser guns under his bar, ’cause he don’t need that. He’s only got a plain old baseball bat. But he could bash everyone’s brains in with it. He don’t need no machine to do his damn business for him. He can hold his own.
The kid slouched over the bad doesn’t want any trouble, he can see that clear enough. The barman sees his like more or less every day. Kids, lost in the big city, looking to score some easy oblivion off of him. He doesn’t sell his liquor for much and that’s ’cause it ain’t much liquor. What he sells? It’s poison really, from every angle you like to look at it.
But like the old song used to say, you either get tough or die. The way the man behind the bar sees it, he’s doing his customers a favor.
The kid puts one shaky foot down and holds on to the bar for a balance that ain’t there. They’re real, the barman realizes, they’re his own two legs. His meat legs, because enhancements would never be that wobbly.
In fact, the only thing that seems enhanced about the kid is the eyes. They’re larger than they should be, but then again, who’s to say that anymore?
The barman was alive back when skulls came in pretty much one shape and size, but now, that ain’t a problem. You can have your bones altered for no trouble at all. Bigger eyes, better vision, or so they keep saying. Well, this kid don’t seem to be seeing too good with his large, piercing green marble-eyes.
If he could blink, he probably would, but they remove the eyelids in the operation.
Enhancements never get dry.
But other than that, the kid – who looks no more than seventeen – is all his own. Like he was born.
The youth stumbles down the narrow hall into the bathroom and nearly cracks his head on the sink. Luckily, the sink de-materializes just in time.
Someone’s a very conscious bathroom, it seems.
‘Sir, would you like me to help you up?’ the metallic voice feels like ice into his ears.
He shakes his head, but the bathroom ignores him. Two hands have materialized over him, standing by, ready to haul him up if needs be.
‘Leave me the fuck alone,’ the kid growls and the bathroom makes a smooth step-back. He struggles to stand, but manages just fine.
‘See?’ he shouts, ‘I don’t need your fucking help.’
The bathroom makes no reply. Good, that’ll teach the bastards. He sees the sink has re-appeared, now as solid as ever.
I could crack my skull on this, he thinks, and it’d be just as real as if it was an actual sink. If it would allow me.
But that sort of thought is treasonous, after all, sinks were banned almost two years ago now. Nobody uses actual sinks. Or actual toilets. Or actual ovens. They have all been outlawed and removed from usage, being replaced with the more modern hologram system. Efficient. It prevents accidents. It saves space and doesn’t need maintenance.
And yet, the kid thinks, you can’t quite crack your brains open on them, so what’s the point?
He looks at himself in the mirror, matted brown hair sticking to his forehead, but his eyes are as translucent as ever. There is nothing wrong with his vision. Then, it must be his head. He lowers himself slowly, to show the bathroom that he isn’t trying to smash his head against the sink and turns the tap on.
There is only the one tap and the water is cold as ice.
‘Warmer,’ he barks, but nothing changes.
‘I said warmer, you fucking piece of…’ he loses his words. ‘Please, warmer.’
Mollified, the bathroom replies, ‘I’m sorry, but I cannot do that, sir. It is not what you need at the moment.’
‘Your brain scan shows quite clearly that you need cold water to wash. It’s what you need, sir.’
‘But not this cold,’ he argues, but his voice has weakened now. The sweat and the heat is dizzying, flashing through his body, warning that he might not have a lot of time before he passes out.
‘Please, just a little warmer,’ he asks and he could swear he hears the slightest trace of contempt in the bathroom’s voice.
‘Sir, this is what’s best for you. Trust me.’
As another hot flash courses through his skin, the kid dunks his head into the freezing water, growling at how cold it is. He forces himself to stay as he is, keeping his head under the jet of water, allowing it to wash away the sweat and the dirt in his hair. The water pooling in the sink is a pale pink color and he recognizes it as dry blood.
‘Soap, please’ he croaks, stretching out a hand. He feels a splash of warm liquid in his palm and he rubs it eagerly over his scalp, trying to warm up a little.
After he’s washed away every trace of who he was, the tap turns off and he looks at himself again. His face is wet, but he’s himself again. His eyes are no longer bleary, the dreams washed off. His eyes clear and a little bloodshot.
Of course, his eyes are not actually bloodshot, it’s merely an illusion that he himself is creating. He knows that’s how they should be – if they were his old eyes – so that’s how they are. At least his eyes still obey him, that’s good.
‘Give me a towel,’ he commands, then adds ‘please.’
‘I’m afraid we’re fresh out,’ the voice replies. ‘Sir,’ it adds and the kid knows now that the bathroom is mocking him, but there’s nothing he can do. He could lash out at the walls, but it would not feel.
He walks out of the bathroom, slamming the door and shivering as the cold, stale air hits his washed face. He puts up a hand and feels the frozen skin on his face. He rubs his cheeks, hoping for warmth.
He glances at the peddler of dreams behind the bar and walks out, without a word.
The kid walks the dark streets, afraid of nothing. The water has cleared his head and he feels ready to take on anything. Maybe the bathroom did know best, maybe that’s just what he needed. After all, he thinks, that’s what his brain scan said. And everyone knows scans don’t lie.
He takes the corner leading up to his house and immediately knows it’s a bad idea, although by now, it’s too late.
‘Revick,’ the voice sings, ‘oh, you little rascal.’
The Doctor steps out of the shadows, swinging something shiny on one finger. The kid can’t quite see what it is.
‘You missed your last appointment little boy,’ the man says, in his sing-song voice. The kid shies away.
‘Ree-vick’ the Doctor whispers.
‘That not my name,’ the kid manages. He was wrong. Oh, so wrong. He’s not ready to take on anything. He could really do with some ice cold water now, he’s warmed up again. Not just from the withdrawal, but from fear. Cold, sticky, ice-prick fear. Even the company of the bathroom would’ve been preferable.
‘Oh it’s not?’ the Doctor feigns shock, ‘Funny. That’s what I’ve been calling you. But if it’s not your name, my dear boy, why did you let me call you Revick?’
The kid tries to dodge the coming Doctor, but he can’t. He feels the Doctor’s hand plant itself on his shoulder. There’s nothing real to the Doctor, not anymore. His hand (as well as the rest of him) is enhanced, it’s cold, clean-cut steel. The kid is screwed.
‘Please,’ he yelps.
‘Ah, that’s a strange word, is it not?‘ the Doctor taunts, ‘especially coming from you. You don’t know what manners are, boy. You left me without saying a word, now what kind of friendship is that?’
The kid would like to point out that they are not friends, but thinks better of it. ‘Please, I don’t want to do this anymore. I can’t walk anymore,’ he hears the desperation in his own voice and immediately hates it.
‘That’s the withdrawal, my dear boy, and we both know it. Now, if you hadn’t skipped your appointment, then you would be walking just fine.’
The Doctor’s hand’s clenching around the kid’s skinny shoulder until it hurts. He fights not to let it show. He recognizes the shiny object on the doctor’s finger now. It’s a memory chip. It’s his memory chip, the one he’s been sticking into the slot in his head during appointments.
His life line.
‘Doctor, I can’t think anymore. The…treatment is screwing with my head, I can’t, I can’t dream. I was just at the bar and the dreams did nothing to me, I couldn’t, I couldn’t even see…’
‘But that’s good!’ the Doctor cries, ‘Why would you want to addle your brain with dreams? You don’t need them, boy, not where you’re going. Because I’m going to give you something better than dreams, I’m gonna make you the dream.’
‘But the system isn’t the dream, Doctor. They were supposed to be like us, not us like them,’ he screams.
And now, the whole street hears him. Maybe even the whole world, he doesn’t know, but his words become deafening in his own ears.
The Doctor lets go of the kid, disgusted.
‘How can you say that?’ he growls, through gritted teeth. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying, boy, and you better pray they didn’t pick up on your signal or you’re in big trouble. Big trouble. You just can’t appreciate it, can you, boy? What, you think you don’t need them?’ and the Doctor’s voice drops so low that only the kid can hear. Barely.
‘You think you’re too good for AI? Well, think again. I knew people like you, once. Fools and idiots who opposed evolution, who would’ve had us stuck in the Dark Ages. But we took care of them, boy. Nothing will stand in the way of evolution, do you understand? Nothing, certainly not a maggot like you. You can either be a part of it, or you’ll be crushed, trying to resist,’ the Doctor hisses. ‘Now, you will honor your agreement. You will resume your treatment, as we agreed, or I will denounce you as the traitor you are.’
The Doctor resumes his loud, fearless, booming voice, ‘I will see you on Monday, yes?’
There is steel in his voice, much sharper than that in his body. It is that steel that scares the kid into oblivion.
‘I don’t hear you, boy.’
‘Yes, Doctor,’ he speaks it clearly, so as not to say it twice. He’d close his eyes, if he could, and he’d wish it all away. But he cannot close his eyes and he cannot escape reality, not anymore.
The Doctor nods, as if to bid him ‘good day’ and moves on down the street. The kid stumbles, on shaky feet, to the place he calls home.
Although, it’s not much of one, to think of it. The only room he could afford to download is smaller than the bar bathroom, but that’s alright. It’s a very primitive model, from back when the holograms had just been implemented. The model is as solid as it can be. The bed is permanent, it doesn’t disappear. Still an illusion, but not a shifting one, and in some small way, that seems better. And what’s best, no voices above, telling him what’s best.
To think that this room was the reason he went to the Doctor in the first place. That, and his storage capacity. He runs a small calculation, checking his storage and sees that he’s down to his very last megabytes. He’s gotta do something about that. And soon. If he fills it up, he’s burned, and he knows it. He knows what they do to people who couldn’t afford the storage space. They’re put into power down mode. He’d be rebooted, given a new chance. After all, he’s still young, with a couple of enhancements, he’d make a great model. And with the right attitude.
The kid’s already received a couple of notices from the board. The kind you can’t delete. The kind that take up storage space.
The board doesn’t take kindly to people who refuse enhancements. He’d kept them at bay for a while with his eyes, but they were growing restless.
Why limit yourself to your eyes when the rest of you can be extraordinary also?
With these people, there was no point in explaining you didn’t want to be extraordinary. He just wanted to be that blasphemous ‘n’ word.
But he couldn’t. Because his storage space was about to go bad and if he didn’t get more megabytes soon, he’d be toast.
That’s how he’d met the Doctor, he thought again, and had the vague feeling he’d just had that thought. He could never be sure with his own thoughts, anymore. The doctor had been working on a…treatment, as he called it. A cure for humanity, the damned race. And all he needed was someone to try it out on. He was willing to pay a hefty price to the chosen candidate. All the storage room you can imagine, if you only submit yourself to the treatment. He’d created shocks and small electronic tinkerings that went through the brain. And – according to the Doctor – if they went through the brain enough times, they could turn you into a better being. They couldn’t make you like them, they couldn’t make you as smart or as powerful as them. Not yet, at least. But they could make you into something like them.
Like the robots. Only they weren’t called robots anymore.
No, he whispered to himself. He couldn’t think of them like that anymore, that word had been banned, too.
‘Traitors once spoke of…very evil things. AI, they used to call it. It stood for artificial intelligence. We know now, of course, that it’s better intelligence. We know that they are the Evolved ones, but once humans did not. They thought of them as…robots, machines even. And they claimed, in their treacherous speeches, that there was a war, going on between us and them. That the AI, as they called them, were our enemies. But they were wrong, you see, to pit humans against the AI. The AI were never against the humans, boy. The AI didn’t care to outsmart us or to trick us. It was only the humans’ instinct for self-destruction. It was always human against human, we were the only threat to ourselves. We had so much to learn from the AI, so much to grow. But there were some who did not see that, some who thought the AI must be destroyed. Just like man has always believed that the validation and the…the salvation of his species lies in the destruction of another. Do you see what I mean, boy?’
The kid has re-played the Doctor’s words in his head many times. And there had been a time when he had seen, when he believed the only way forward was through becoming more like the machines, like the AI.
But not anymore. He can’t, anymore. He sees far clearer now, although his brain isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Maybe he is evolving, who can tell, but one thing he is sure of – he’ll never evolve into one of them.
You were wrong, Doctor, it’s not man’s need for self-destruction. It’s man’s instinct to preserve its species. And it’s coming for you, motherfucker, it’s going to get you and bite you in your steely, cold ass. You’re the species’ traitor, Doctor, you always have been.
With that thought in his head, the kid begins to sort through and delete his memories. He keeps a precious few, maybe not enough to remember who he is, but enough to remember he is human. Enough to remember to fight back.