Techno-Phobe introduces Javier, an extended-cognition human, and Satoshi, an unmodified human. It is the first of the Adventures of Satoshi Bitman in my collection Fake News & Solitude. Satoshi’s adventures range from shantytown gang warfare, to the worlds of Shamash settled by the lost colony ship Inanna, to the discovery of the Mad God Adavan and his New Eden. This adventure begins in the United Nations Refugee City of Dillingham, Alaska, where billions live out a comfortable but uninspired existence – an existence that a boy like Satoshi might turn to his advantage.
The taste of my own blood filled my mouth as my vision unclouded. My scalp stung where my head had bounced off the hard-packed gravel. As my senses returned, I could hear the word ringing in my ears:
I tried to sit up, pushing myself up on the scraped-up, bloody calluses of my hands. That’s when a vicious kick in the stomach doubled me over. I went with it and balled up, waiting for the beating to end. I started to whimper and shout for effect. An enthusiastic beating is better than an angry beating.
I should know. Not more than a few days ago we’d cornered one of these bastards and kicked him nearly to death. He’d paid for trying to be stoic! All his silence did is make us work harder for the payoff. His silence frustrated us, and that made us kick harder. If you can’t get the reaction you want, your only reward is in stomping the life out of a guy.
So, I shouted bloody murder. I gave the Techno bastards the reaction they wanted, until I got tired and settled down into genuine whimpering, because, fuck, it hurt.
I waited a good long while after the thrashing stopped, until I heard no human footfalls, just the scurrying of rats in the trash heaps and the rustling of the coastal winds in the dry grass. Then, I waited some more. I lay there curled in a ball until I heard the whooshing of the transit rail. That mean that the gang was gone. They wouldn’t miss that train after delivering such a beating.
I pushed myself up, feeling the sharp gravel dig into the cuts on my bare blood-crusted knees. My head felt light, almost dizzy, like I wasn’t sure where my next step would fall. I lurched ahead.
That’s when I saw the dumb punk, out of the corner of my eye, down an alley of the crumbling ghost neighborhood. He was a bit bigger than I was, and his creamy brown skin was as clean as a fucking whistle except, well, the regular coat of clay dust, and except for a big grease smudge on his left calf, I guess except for alot. But he was clean for a kid scavenging the ruins. He was facing away from me, and he bent over to pick up a rusty metal cog and put it in a makeshift wagon that, inexplicably, he tugged along behind him. He was obviously a Techno. I could see the glimmer of his cybernetic implant just behind his left ear.
It was a stupid move on his part, I thought, to be out here alone like this, after his gang had fled. I turned and walked towards him. As I approached, I scuffed my feet as loudly as possible in the dirt and gravel and kicked a stone into a cluster of cans. The cans clattered around, and the nearby rats scrambled, squealing loudly. The punk wheeled around and saw me, and I had the pleasure of watching his face go grey. I saw a little wet mark appear on the front of his shorts.
“Bedwetter!” I bellowed. I considered charging at him, but I decided against it. The punk was frozen in place, not going anywhere. I supposed I was a fearsome sight, like a zombie, all ground up, beaten, unsteady on my feet, and bloodied—but still coming. At that moment, I wouldn’t have felt surprised if he shat himself. I enjoyed the long moment, staggering up to him.
When I reached him, I kicked him hard in the balls and walloped his ears when he doubled over. I put him in the dirt and beat at his chest and face for a few minutes before letting up. His lips were broken and bloody.
I bent over and screamed in his ear. “Fucking Techno scum, go home!” Then I sat up on his chest and spat in his eyes.
“So, what’s all this shit?” I demanded.
He didn’t answer right away. I drew back my fist and asked, “So, where are your friends?”
I didn’t have to ask. I knew the answer. I was a Phobe. I belonged out here. His friends couldn’t beat on me forever, because it was only a matter of time before a gang of Phobe kids itching for battle would come along. But the Techno kids had just whooshed off in a bullet train. It would be hours before they could be back, and realistically, they wouldn’t be back for days. Looking at this kid, he didn’t seem like the kind other kids go back for. This fucking punk was finished. I wanted him to know it—to feel the abandonment. The coastal winds whipped up the dry clay dust and plastered it into my eyes.
My eyes watered as I fought the urge to blink. I bent down and shouted in his face. “Where are your fucking friends, Techno punk?” And I popped his head back into the hard dirt a bit, to make sure he felt it.
For a moment, he looked as if he would cry. He bit his lip and shook his head a bit. No answer.
No matter, I went back to the other question. “So, what’s all this shit you’re lugging around?”
That’s the answer I wanted—obviously, a wimp like this wouldn’t get separated from his gang unless he thought that there was something to those gears. I mean, a wimp like him, his first and only focus would be staying with the gang, not getting beat down. He had to really think this crap was something special for it to distract him enough that he got left behind.
And now, it was a question that was worth answering. Better to talk about those gears than to talk about where his gang was, about how absolutely fucked he was.
“It’s not shit,” he declared.
I shrugged and made what I imagine would have been a look of profound skepticism had my face not been half-swollen and covered with blood. It did the trick anyway—he shuddered.
“It’s not shit!” he repeated, more loudly and in a tense tone of voice, but with a bit less conviction.
“Okay,” I said. “Go on.”
“It’s worth a whole lot of money in the City,” he explained. “Just one of them is worth more than a whole month’s allowance.”
I considered that briefly. He didn’t look like a kid who got the biggest allowances, but not the smallest either. Still, I said, “I’m skeptical. They’re rusty old gears. And how does a kid like you know which rusty old gears are valuable?”
The kid just looked at me as if I’d asked how he knows the sun is bright or the sky is blue. I guess he didn’t get out of the City much. I frowned. “Don’t keep me waiting, kid.”
“Oh,” he said, “I forget, you’re not a Techno.”
He was too much of a pussy to call me a Phobe. I laughed. “You can call me a Phobe, fucker. It’s not a dirty word, except when you say it, but I’ll make an exception.”
He looked at his shoes and continued. “So, you know that we can see the price of everything, if we want to, right?”
This was not something that I knew. However, I nodded knowingly.
“Well, my Dad’s a trader and I want to be one too, so I am always on the lookout for a good trade. And this wagon of ‘shit,’ as you call it, is a few year’s allowance and costs me nothing but some sweat.”
I grinned at him. “You’re dead wrong.” I stood over him, laughing somewhat manically.
“What?” He sounded surprised, concerned. “Is something wrong with the app?”
“No,” I assured him, without really knowing the answer. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your app. It’s just that it costs ME nothing but some sweat. You, it costs a beating. Or maybe two. Is there more of this shit?”
See, Technos beat up Phobes and Phobes beat up Technos, while we’re kids at least. It’s a war along the bullet tracks that has gone on ever since there were Technos and Phobes, and I suppose that it will go on for as long as there are. But it’s sport. It’s bloody, xenophobic, hateful sport, but for the most part we don’t kill each other. The adults don’t fight. Why is that? It would have been hard for me to say at that age. But I think I supposed it had something to do with money. Why would you fight if there’s money to be made?
My fighting days ended that day. I figured this kid and his trader dad could be useful. Landing years’ worth of City allowances would be huge for me. I extended my hand toward the kid and helped him up as he nodded “yes” to my question.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Techno punk? Show me.”
Javier and I made a nice bit of money off those gears, but it didn’t last. We gathered up a few wagons full and lugged them onto the bullet train to the City. “Just wear your hair down and messy,” Javier told me. “Oh, and don’t speak. They’ll know you’re a Phobe if you talk too much.” I nodded and shrugged. I wondered why they wouldn’t notice I had no implant and draw the natural conclusion—it wasn’t as if my hair was long enough to hide the truth. But Javier was the expert on the City, or at least he knew a lot more than I did about it. Which wasn’t hard. I knew nothing about it except second-hand legend. I’d never been.
We set up our gears in an open-air market that took up the whole of a great big field smack in the middle of the city. The park was surrounded by buildings that were so tall that I couldn’t see the tops without tilting my head so far that I practically fell over backwards. “Why here?” I asked. I had imagined that Technos would use the Network to order everything. After all, even the villages used the Network for purchases. Why traipse around the villages if you could sit in your town’s pavilion and place an order? I had assumed that the City folk would be at least as sophisticated.
Javier looked at me like I was insane. “People like to get out, I guess?” is all he said. We stacked the cogs up onto our table early in the morning and sat behind the table as potential customers began to wander the park. It was an odd sight for me. When I shopped in the pavilions, I clicked through a series of holo-screens before a transaction was finished. Here, for the most part, the customers simply picked up an object, appeared to ponder it for a while, and then walked off.
A few times, the customers spoke with us. They didn’t have questions about the gears or what they did, just about where we found them or whether we would take a lower price. We didn’t tell them where we found them. Trade secret. We only took a lower price for bulk purchases.
Javier explained to me: “People with an implant don’t need to use a physical device for the Network. They access everything through the Mindnet. If they want to know the value of our stuff, they see it. If they decide to make a purchase, it happens. They can just leave the thing here. The money is in our account, and at the end of the event the delivery staff will sort and ship everything.”
Towards mid-afternoon, the customers stopped pausing at our booth. I mentioned it to Javier, who had been half-napping. He did a double take at our table. “Fuck,” he said. His mouth hung open. “What is it,” I asked him. “These things are basically worthless now,” he explained.
For a minute, I thought it must be nice, sitting there with a chipset in my head, able to simply glance at the table and tell what was sold, what remained, what it was worth. I shook my head. No, on second thought, it would be too much information. I supposed I’d react to it the same way anyone reacts to too much information—like Javier, by ignoring it just when it might be the most important.
I looked down our long grassy aisle and caught the figure of a man wheeling around. I couldn’t be sure, but he looked like the guy who Javier had said selected maybe twenty of the gears about an hour ago. I punched Javier in the arm. “Let’s scram,” I said.
He looked at me with confusion. “But—all our stuff!”
I pulled him from the booth behind me, walking at a good clip away from the man at the other end of the aisle. “Well, the stuff that sold is sold, and the stuff that’s left is worthless, right?”
“Hm-Hm,” nodded Javier.
I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the man breaking into a run. I jerked Javier between booths, through a few aisles, and then pulled him into a crowd. We were shorter than the adults, so it would be hard for the man to pick us out.
Later, as we gulped lemonade in a little café where we had ducked to get off the street, Javier asked me, “I don’t understand. Why run? All sales are final. Everyone knows the rules.”
I nodded. “That’s true. But he wasn’t after money, he was after blood. He’ll calm down and realize that it isn’t worth it. He’ll be too embarrassed to even talk to our parents.”
“Why would he do that? We didn’t do anything wrong.”
I nearly spit my lemonade all over him, laughing. “You mean we didn’t do anything illegal.”
Javier stared at me blankly. “What’s the difference?”
I rolled my eyes and answered in mock surprise. “Oh, you’re a lost soul, aren’t you? We sold people obviously worthless stuff just because the app—for some reason we don’t understand—tells them it’s worth a fortune. Do you think that’s right? That it’s fair?”
Javier stammered a bit. “Well…er…um…when you put it like that, maybe not.”
I gave a short laugh and continued in a laughing, punchy cadence. “Well, don’t worry, kid, because I’m your business partner. This is all a grand joke on Technos, who are the only people who would ever fall for this crap, and they deserve it at the hands of a Phobe like me.”
And I meant it. There was something about this exploit that revealed the deep beating heart of the City, and it felt powerful to know I could stab at it. I liked the feeling.
We slowed down on the lemonade. I winced as the icy liquid froze my brain. I pressed the thick of my tongue against the roof of my mouth in an attempt to speed my recovery from the sensation. I don’t know whether it works or not, because I’ve never tried it another way. I’m not willing to experiment. It hurts bad enough already.
“So,” Javier inquired, “what do you think happened?”
“Oh, that’s easy. We should have thought of it. We flooded the market.”
I could see Javier’s eyes involuntarily drifting up to the left, which is what he did when he was hallucinating from his chipset. “Stop that bullshit,” I ordered. Javier looked straight at me. “Why?” he asked.
I folded my hands behind my lemonade and let out a long sigh. “Just think about it.”
I paused until Javier broke the reverie. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
I was unsure what Javier meant by that. Whenever we’d run to the pavilion holo-screens to get the answer to a tough question, Teacher would stop us. “Think about it,” she’d say. And we’d talk through the problem, just like we would if we were out on the shore, not a holo-screen in sight.
“Ummmm…” I made that sound for an embarrassingly long time and then paused before, finally, I gave it a shot. It seemed likely that Javier didn’t have much of a choice about consulting his chipset—this Mindnet—so I decided to feed the question to him bit by bit, make it personal.
“Well, I just think we should talk it through without looking at the Mindnet—for practice. So, I’ll start. If we were standing in the trainyard dumps back at my village and I asked you to pay me for a gear, would you pay me?”
“So, you wouldn’t pay me, not even if your app told you it was worth a ton of money, right?”
“No—I mean, right, I wouldn’t pay you for it.”
“Well, there are hundreds of them, so I can just go pick one up.”
“Exactly. And what did we do today?”
“Oh, we brought a bunch of them in at the same time.”
I nodded. “And we started reducing our prices to sell in bulk.”
Javier was getting the idea, and he nodded too. “And a lot of customers stopped, looked, but didn’t buy one.”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said. “For some reason, your app thought those things were worth a lot. And they were, until your app got information about how people were reacting to the product.”
Javier frowned. “So, we can’t keep doing this for long.”
I laughed, and he looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. I waved him down. “No, no, you’re all wrong, we can keep doing it forever.”
That only confused him more. “What about today would make you think we can do this forever?” he pleaded.
“Well,” I smiled, “it’s all about timing.”
Our village didn’t have a name, but it did have Teacher. She was a pretty, middle-aged lady with straight black hair, skin like coal, shale blue eyes, chiseled features, and a voice as clear as a herald trumpet. She was the smartest person I knew. I sat in my place with my still-swollen face and scraped knuckles, and when she paused to ask the class a question, she looked right through me, to the kid at the bench behind me, like I was some kind of phantom.
“Don’t come to my schoolroom dirty” was one of her rules, and I’d broken it by showing up in such a state. It wasn’t a schoolroom, really, not quite. It was a great pavilion set down the center with rows of holo-desks and alongside rows of benches and half-tables. The pavilion was the town’s library, meeting hall, school, you name it.
I hated to break Teacher’s rules, but today I wasn’t here for Teacher, I was here for the holo-desks. The only time a kid could use them was during the school day. After school, the place was a library for adults only. It was one of the compromises you make in a shantytown, where everyone shares resources. I couldn’t wait for my mangled face to heal up. Before Javier and I tried to sell again, we needed to understand why the Network thought the junk was valuable. We needed to confirm my intuition about timing. So I was here even though my sad condition would disappoint Teacher.
Like I said, Teacher was the smartest person I knew. The way I knew it is that she didn’t teach me about a subject; she taught me how to learn about the subject. She had explained to me that city kids didn’t have a Teacher. They didn’t need one. They were Technos, so they had a chipset. I was maybe four or five when she had explained that to me, and only because I had been asking her questions about the city and about the shiny metal behind the traveling Doctor’s ear.
I cried when I heard it, because I couldn’t imagine kids without a Teacher, and because I thought it meant I could never be like the Doctor, who knew many things about the world. “Don’t worry yourself about that, Satoshi,” Teacher had consoled me, “only Phobes discover how to learn.” It was the same thing Dad said to me later when I cried to him about my first beating, asking him “what is a Phobe?” He’d washed my cuts and smiled. “Don’t worry yourself about that, son, only a Phobe understands the world.”
I still figured Teacher was the one great thing a Techno missed out on. I tried not to miss a day of school. When I wasn’t giving or taking a beating, I was here, listening to Teacher, navigating the holo-desk networks, learning whatever I could, and asking Teacher when I got too far out of depth. I could tell she was good because of how I needed her less and less, but mostly because I could see it didn’t worry her when I didn’t need her, and that it made her proud, and not just proud of me, but confident about herself. At that age I supposed I didn’t have what Teacher would call great smarts, but I could read a person just fine. Teacher loved us, and not just for the pittance and her air-conditioned shack.
When mid-afternoon rolled around and the atmosphere was too sweltering for most kids to learn, Teacher called class off for a few hours while students found breezier places to read, talk, or sleep. I went to the holo-desks and gutted it out. Today I wasn’t after schooling, I was after information. I wanted to know what made those junky gears so goddamn expensive.
Javier slipped into our shantytown that afternoon and joined me at the desk. “It’s fairly safe,” I’d told him. “I mean, if the gang catches you, that might be the end for you, but more than likely everyone’s asleep for the heat of the day.” He made it, and I knew I could escort him out with some degree of safety. Javier could run the same searches over his chipset, and probably did, but by working side by side, we could respond to the same information. This was a place we could work together.
None of the word searches we did helped. Eventually I retrieved a piece of junk from my backpack, set it on the desk, and had the screen take a holo of the junk. That was the charm—the network found it lickety-split. When I turned on the valueapp, it declared the junk priceless. Well, not priceless, but it seemed like a lot of money to a punk kid.
I shook my head, trying to make sense of it. Why would a piece of corroded metal be worth anything at all? I read some more about the junk—apparently, a century ago it had been an important cog in a variety of important machines. Then, people switched to different machines, and for a while, the cog became even pricier as a replacement part. Who knew whether anyone used those machines anymore? For the last ten years that the cog sold, it sold for a ton. I shook my head again. To me, it felt obvious that this cog was completely worthless.
That’s when it hit me. I hadn’t ever thought about what Teacher said about the Technos before. But she was right. Technos didn’t have to think about the truth. They just knew the truth, however much of it there happened to be. Their chipset told them everything that they needed to know, everything they asked of it, and that was whatever the Network Algorithms—the Mindnet—said it was. The Mindnet didn’t give them a long history of information, just a distilled answer. That might be right-on for math equations or chemical formulas, but maybe not for the value of a century-old cog.
The only way the algorithms could adjust the value of the cog was to see whether people wanted to buy the cog when they had the chance, and how much they spent on it. The Mindnet didn’t evaluate whether the cog was still useful, or whether the price was outlandish and preposterous. Those were emotional responses that only a human could have, that only a Phobe was in tune with. Or, I supposed, a Techno could have those kinds of responses, but that wasn’t the first place a Techno looked for truth.
That’s what had happened to Javier and me when we tried to sell too many gears at once. We created the reality—or we introduced the algorithms to reality. We wouldn’t make that mistake again. We’d sell a few of each piece of junk at a time, and we’d sell it at places where people came to look for junk. We’d have a few of our friends come through and buy pieces of the junk for exorbitant prices. We’d teach the Mindnet the lesson we wanted it to learn. The Mindnet was very smart, but it could make a human very stupid.
The discovery excited me. If enough people bought our shit for crazy prices, it would only get harder for anyone to realize the mistake. Were there any other opportunities like this? I felt a surge of elation in my forehead. This was something more than realizing I could stab at the City’s heart. I saw into the City’s depths and understood what made its heart beat. This was a different kind of power from revenge. It was empire. Javier understood too.
We were still shoulder-to-shoulder, whispering our daydreams to each other, when Teacher rapped my knuckles with her wand and, looking first at the rusty junk, then at Javier’s silvery cybernetic implant, and then to the holo screen, said with that mixture of derision and pride that in my whole life only she has ever managed:
“Satoshi Bitman, you’re a little bastard con man.”
She shook her head in resignation, failed to hide a beaming smile, and left me to it.
That’s how we got started. Javier and me and our gangs, all respectable businessmen. We had other exploits, other stories, but that was our first.
Eben Bosc Copyright 2021 All Rights Reserved