Erick looked up from his drink to see the digital image of his grandfather plastered across a Times Square billboard. It looked blurry to him, but he didn’t need to be sober to know what it was. It was the same advertisement that ran over and over again, drilling dear old grandad’s medical achievements into everyone’s brains just like the implants he developed.
“You know that little voice in your head that tells you right from wrong?” the holographic figure spewed. “We at Life Incorporated think that voice could be telling you a lot more.”
Erick, tired to death of hearing it, finished his drink and promptly ordered another.
“Our artificial intelligence brain implants can regulate your every bodily function and give you a rundown of what’s going on in your body. It’s like having a doctor in your mind.”
“Fourteen,” the bartender said.
Erick forked over some cash.
“Imagine having a voice in your head telling you what your blood alcohol content is, or notifying you of acquired diseases, or predicting and even responding to cardiac arrest.”
Erick threw his new drink back.
“Another?” the bartender asked.
Erick struggled to make eye contact.
“Nah I’m good,” he stammered, chuckling.
“Probably a good call.”
Erick grabbed his leather coat from under the bar and started to make his way to the door.
“All of that and more is available with just a simple procedure,” his grandfather continued.
Erick slipped a bit on the sidewalk slush as he stepped out into the city. A car zoomed by overhead. There was a decent amount of snow falling from the dark sky. A holographic advertisement for car insurance featuring a talking dog danced away across the busy street. A WOOSH could be heard as a taxi lowered itself down into a parking space. A huge gust of wind crashed into Erick’s back as a tanker truck rushed by above him, making a WHIRR noise.
“Life is what you make of it. Make it a good one with Life Incorporated,” Erick’s grandfather sneered from the billboard behind him.
“Ugh,” Erick grumbled.
He continued down the sidewalk, trying not to bump into the other pedestrians. His apartment wasn’t too far away. As much as he hated living in corporate-controlled midtown, he couldn’t afford anywhere else.
As he turned onto 50th street, he came face-to-face with his grandfather once again. This time, it was on a bus stop booth. He materialized out of nowhere and immediately broke into the same sales pitch.
“You know that little voice in your head that tells you right from wrong?”
Erick stopped in his tracks, staring at the image. His hands stretched before tightening into fists.
“We at Life Incorporated think that voice could be telling you a lot more.”
Erick lunged forward and punched his grandfather in the face. His fist passed through the hologram and slammed into the glass. His grandfather, unphased, continued his rhetoric.
“Our artificial intelligence implants can regulate your every bodily function.”
“Aargh!” Erick shouted, holding his hand. Growing more frustrated, he started kicking the glass.
“It’s like having a doctor in your mind.”
“Shut up!” Erick kept kicking. The hologram froze for a second and flickered. The audio skipped a bit.
“All of that...that...that...more...life…”
The hologram went black for a second, but then popped back up.
“You know that little voice in your head…”
Erick gave one more kick, this time sending his foot through the sign. Glass shattered everywhere and sparks rained down onto the slushy concrete. He pulled his leg out of the mess of broken wires and shards. He was left with a moment of silence. He savored it, but only for a moment. A maintenance drone would soon be there to fix it. He stammered on, much more proudly now.
There was a clicking sound, followed by a BEEP as Erick opened the door to his dark apartment. As he swung it shut behind him he was greeted by a familiar face.
“Welcome home, sir,” LiPt-man said. The little hovering robot extended an arm in the direction that Erick was dropping his coat, catching it just in time. LiPt-man turned and took the coat to the closet, while Erick made his way to his bedroom.
“Sleep well, sir.”
“Thanks, LiPt-man, good night,” Erick uttered as he climbed into bed and passed out.
That night Erick dreamt of nothing, as usual. As empty as his real life seemed, his dreams were even worse. As a child, he would have vivid dreams. He used to dream about flying, about swimming, about dancing, and about running. Now, though, his dreams were empty. It was like sitting in a dark, empty room, just staring into the abyss.
He awoke the next morning to a throbbing headache. LiPt-man arrived to his bedside with a glass of water and aspirin.
“You should have something to eat, sir.”
“I’ll grab something on the way,” Erick grumbled back.
He rolled out of bed, got himself dressed, and left his robot servant alone in his dark, brick-walled apartment.
The door of his Ford Centor slid open in an upward, scissor-like motion. The leather of the seat felt cold and stiff as he sat down. The dashboard lit up, recognizing him. He pressed the ignition button and the car started with a high-pitched whistling sound followed by a low hum. It lifted up off of the ground and he was on his way.
The snowing had stopped, and all that was left was brown mush covering the streets. Wheeled cars splashed through it down below, spraying the atmosphere with a muddy haze. Erick slowly pulled away from the dank streets and merged into the air traffic. The industrial wasteland of Midtown Manhattan disappeared below, and the cleaner and more colorful cityscape of the Skyway reared its pampered and well-funded head.
When the city’s population broke 12 million, the mayor created a new initiative to build significantly higher. Most of the city’s buildings tripled in height, essentially creating a new city on top of the old one. Parks were built up on steel stilts and department stores moved to the rooftops, while the ground level was covered in permanent shadows and faded into obscurity. Now, with a population approaching 20 million, only the rich lived in the new elevated borough known as the Skyway. Erick managed to discover that the only things that Midtown still had going for it were rent prices and drink prices. You just had to put up with annoying advertisements.
He pulled his car into the drive-thru of a coffee shop.
“Large iced coffee and a bialy, please.”
Erick ate his breakfast on the rest of his commute. His headache was just beginning to subside as he pulled into the parking garage. He lowered his car into a parking space, finished the last bit of coffee left in the plastic cup, and made his way across the towering garage. Other cars drove by overhead and filled in the other spaces as he went through a door in the corner and entered an elevator.
As the elevator ascended, Erick gazed out the window at the view of the Skyway. He was so high up that he couldn’t even see Midtown down below. All he could see was skyscrapers stretching up into the sky and cars flying in every direction.
With a ding, the elevator door opened, revealing a large courtyard. It was the kind of space you saw out west in front of Fortune 500 company headquarters. There was a huge fountain in the middle, and perfectly manicured trees and shrubs along the sides. The whole place was enclosed and heated, keeping out the cold winter air. At the end was a towering, glass building, with a huge LIFE INC. sign mounted on its face. As Erick made his way to the front door, he pulled his employee badge from his pocket. It had a less than flattering mugshot of him with the title of Director of Digital Systems proudly displayed.
“Hey, John,” Erick said to the guy at the security counter as he scanned his badge to get through the turnstile.
“Welcome back to paradise.”
It was the same exchange that had plagued Erick’s morning routine for the last six years. This day was different, though. This was his first day as director. This was his first day with corporate respect. This was his first day with power. This was his first day with full digital security clearance. This was, he believed, the first day of the rest of not only his life, but everyone’s lives.
As Erick walked down the hall, he looked at the pictures on the walls, commemorating past and present executives. They were a proud bunch of men.
“Smug bastards,” Erick exclaimed under his breath.
At the end of the hall was a portrait of Erick’s grandfather, the founder of Life Incorporated. There was a bronze plaque at the bottom.
Here, we honor the late Desmond Brennan. His company may have outlived him, but his legacy is immortalized with his incredible achievements. He is the reason we are here, and he will be the reason we go even further.
Erick paused for a moment, reflecting on the tribute. They painted him up like a hero. They held him on a pedestal. Even after his death they bowed at his feet. Erick shook his head and continued to his office.
He sat down at his desk. His chair was plush and comfortable. A little robot approached him.
“Hello sir. Congratulations on your promotion. My name is InDy-man. Is there anything I can get you?” he said.
“Thank you. A glass of water would be great.”
Erick leaned back in his chair and cherished the moment. He was in charge of something. Finally, after all of the work he had done, he had gotten somewhere. He scanned his thumbprint on his desk to log in to his computer and got to work.
He opened his email. The first message was the same one that always popped up.
Life Incorporated employees can enjoy discounted rates on implant operations! Simply reply to this email or contact your human resources representative for more information today!
Erick was pretty confident that he was the only person working there that didn’t have an implant, and he knew that that drove them crazy. They even brought it up in the interview for his new position. They weren’t sure they wanted a director that didn’t have an implant. Erick told them that he followed a traditional religion that forbade augmenting his body. He knew that they saw right through his lie, especially since religion was all but extinct, but it was an excuse that they couldn’t argue with. Plus, Erick promised that he wouldn’t go public about it.
The rest of his work day was about what he had expected of it. He answered some emails and phone calls in the morning, had a couple of meetings later on, and worked on some finishing touches for a new operating system he was implementing, set to launch at midnight. The new system was actually part of why he had been promoted. It was a streamlined and simplified version of what they were already using. The executives liked the fresh new look of it, the shareholders liked the accessibility of it, and Erick liked the backdoor access it would give him to the company’s classified documents and records.
By the end of the day, he was happy with his product. He had spent a number of years developing it, and it was finally ready. As he left his last meeting of the day, a meeting with executives regarding the launch of the new operating system, he felt confident. He felt happy.
He stopped by the bar on his way home. It was the same dingy Midtown spot that he had been at the night before, and it even had the same bartender.
“They always come crawling back,” she said, smiling at him. Her name was Clara, and she was the main reason Erick kept coming back every night.
“Nobody pours rum like you,” Erick remarked, sarcastically.
He had a few drinks and they two of them made small talk, all while Desmond spewed his sleazy sales pitch on the billboard outside. As much as Erick hated listening to it, he put up with it to talk to Clara. She was a beautiful creature. She had short, dark hair and lots of tattoos. She also had a wedding ring. It looked great on her, but Erick hated it. It almost perfectly complimented the bruises and scars that she tried to cover up with makeup.
They spent the night swimming in booze and chemistry. Before Erick knew it, it was almost midnight. He was forced to close his tab and cut their flirting short for the evening. It was a bitter end to a sweet night, but he had business to attend to. He walked home, leaving his car parked around the corner.
The lights flickered on, illuminating the brick walls and clutter in Erick’s apartment. As he walked in, he handed his coat to LiPt-man.
“How is Clara this evening?” he asked, taking Erick’s coat to the closet.
“As good as ever, I guess,” Erick responded.
He checked his watch, seeing 11:56 pm on the screen. He let out a sigh and stared at the papers that covered his wall. There were documents dating as far back as 2020, copies of emails to and from Life Incorporated executives, transcripts of phone calls between those executives and government officials, military records, research papers on artificial intelligence, and conspiracy theories about mind control. Also within that mess on the wall, Erick hoped, was the truth.
He sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee and just stared at his watch, waiting.
It was time. He logged into his work account on his computer. The new landing page loaded right up. The new operating system was live, and he had full access from the comfort of his apartment. He took a sip of coffee, logged into his second computer, and got to work.
It only took a few minutes for him to access the server from his second computer. He logged in and started sifting through the seemingly endless list of documents and forms. It was almost overwhelming. He started downloading the first group, titled Insurance Memos. He watched as each line scrolled by, showing names and numbers. It was all a jumbled mess that he would have to make sense of later. The next group was titled Implant Serial Numbers. They rushed past his eyes as the download commenced. Next was a group called Procedure Protocols.
Erick got up to refill his coffee. LiPt-man had just finished making a fresh pot and handed him a cup. Steam rolled off of it like the manhole covers outside. When Erick sat back down, a group titled Patient Directory was downloading. He watched as countless names scrolled across the screen. As he lowered his cup, one name in particular caught his eye as it flew by. It was only visible for a fraction of a second, but he definitely saw it.
Erick froze. Staring at the still scrolling list of names.
“Wait, no!” he said to himself.
He went to set his coffee cup down, but partially missed the desk and it fell to the floor, shattering. He didn’t even notice. He started pressing buttons frantically until he was able to pause the download. He went over to his first computer and pulled up the Patient Directory group. He started scrolling down until he found it again.
His heart began to race as he tried to figure out why his name was on the list.
“What?” he exclaimed.
He started running his hands through his hair and around his neck.
“No, no, no!” he shouted. “There’s no way!”
In the midst of his panic, he noticed a faint humming noise. He paused, calmed himself down, and returned to his desk. He leaned over, looking at the screen again. Slowly, he reached into the drawer and gripped the pistol he had stashed away. After a deep breath, he turned and fired a shot through his window, shattering the glass and hitting the drone that was hovering just outside, spying on him. Sparks and shrapnel exploded in every direction as the bullet tore through the drone. It fell and crashed into the street below.
Erick, beginning to panic again, rushed out of his apartment. He ran to the stairwell and looked down. The front door was seven floors below, but the roof was right above him. Instead of wasting time going down seven flights of stairs, he decided to go up. He threw open the door and ran out onto the roof. As he did, he heard another humming noise. He ran and lept to the neighboring building, slipping in the slush and falling.
As he picked himself back up, he saw another drone. CRACK. It fired an electrified shot at him, knocking him down. Erick grimaced in pain, trying desperately to regain control of his muscles. He was stiff, but not totally incapacitated. As the drone flew closer to him he was able to pick his arm up and fire a few shots, one of which hit the drone. It crashed down onto the roof.
Erick picked himself up, groaning in pain, and tried to keep moving. The next building was a bit lower. He got a running start and threw himself over the ledge, dropping down and landing hard. He collapsed to his stomach on the muddy snow-covered rooftop. There was another humming noise.
CRACK. Another electric shock hit him in the back as he lay there. He screamed and rolled over onto his back. Snow was falling down on his face. He could see the soft glow of the Skyway up above. Then, his view was blocked. The third drone was hovering right over him. He tried to pick his arm up, but it was too stiff. The menacing device let out another CRACK as it shot Erick with another shock, right in the chest.
Erick let out a cry, clutching his chest. “Aargh!”
CRACK. Another shock was delivered. Erick, succumbing to the attacks, watched the drone through the pinhole of vision he still had left. Suddenly, the drone lurched to the side, turned, and exploded in a shower of sparks and pieces. Before he could see it crash down, Erick faded away.
He was left in an empty void. He could see nothing, but he felt strange. He felt uneasy. He heard a voice.
“I’m sorry,” it said.
Suddenly, Erick’s grandfather materialized in front of him. Without saying another word, he lunged forward and began pushing on Erick’s chest. He pushed relentlessly and rhythmically, with a focused look on his face. Erick could do nothing but lay there helplessly in the black abyss and watch his grandfather push on his chest.
Suddenly, Erick’s back began to feel cold. He could feel a tingling sensation in his skin. He felt wet. His chest felt like it was on fire, though. He felt pressure. His grandfather continued to compress, without saying anything. The cold feeling began to spread across Erick’s body. He started to feel pain, first in his legs, and then in his arms. His grandfather kept pressing.
Erick gasped for breath.
To be continued...