Sunday, March 2, 2008

1.3 Signs and Portents

It was Tuesday, and Steve was doing his best to avoid the lecture. Not only had his mother had just opened a window in his sensetap, and all but directly ordered him to go – if anything, that was be a powerful reason not to go – but that little traitor Bindi was trying to talk him into it, too. He asked why, his friend said, “The lecture she’s giving today, man. I’m positive she’ll slip and lay out some utter political fuckery, and someone has to be there to cover that.”

Bindi was a wannabe public eye. At a year younger than Steve, he was already a node of small credibility within the hive mind of the media. He was one of the smartest, best-informed people Steve knew: he stayed so on top of the news that he was even able to catch Aiken by surprise, every once in a while. “Dude, there will be. Probably hundreds of public eyes will be covering this lecture.”

“Yah, but on the spot?”

“That matters?”

“Stop thinking like an eyeball. On the spot is access rating gold.” His owlish friend looked up at him, blinking behind flickering contact lenses that were even now dumping a constant stream of data from the essential newsfeeds into his peripherals. Bindi's fingers waved about in the air, and he announced, "Already got two hundred pairs looking through me, and the lecture's fifteen minutes off."

“Why do you need me?”

“What, why? It’ll be fun."

Right about then he got a text from Aiken.

>Blow this place? I've got some interesting stuff I'd like to show you, back at my place.

Steve knew what that meant, and it sounded like a lot more fun than hanging out in a lecture hall packed with a bunch of cex-crazed tribes, who would cheerfully pound him to a pulp.

>>Anyone else in?

>Gav and Nikel.

>>Fuck yah. Where you at?

>South doors.

Other side of the school.


>>OMW. 10 min. Down if Bindi comes?



"Hey, Bindi man, listen. Fuck that shit. We all know what she's gonna say anyways. Aiken's having a little get-together at his place, Gav and Nikel are gonna be there too. That sounds like a lot more fun than hanging out in a lecture hall packed with hostiles. Wanna hit that instead?"

Steve illustrated his point with a quick flash from a wallcam inside the lecture hall. It was already filling up with students from a dozen different tribes, at least: graks in their bony, armored hides, clumped together in an intimidating, glowering mass; pestiks in their touch-me-not jackets, their eyes daring those around them to do just that; korpsiz, dreamy and disinterested, their clothes the same unhealthy off-blue texture as their skin. All cexies, of course … kids convinced that civilization held nothing for them, that the Extinction War would take them one way or another, that the ecosphere deserved to survive more than they did, and that, hell, they might as well have a good time while everything went to shit.

Bindi clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder, letting their PANs establish a secure connection. Look at those wasters, he said. I’m going behind enemy lines here. And I could use some backup, you know?

Won’t be any violence, Steve said. Not with the level of transparency coverage it's gonna be under. The only violence is going to be in my heaving guts. The stench of stupidity makes me puke.

I've heard some things on the waves.


Signs and portents. My intuition's telling me something's gonna happen there.

Like you're gonna need a bodyguard kinda something?


You're tripping, Bind. Nothin's gonna happen.

Don't be a coward.

Don't be paranoid! Listen, man, you wanna come to Aiken's?

No, I'm going to the lecture. I'm not gonna let down my audience just so I can spend an hour with mechbac poking at my synapses.

Go alone, then.

Steve broke contact before Bindi could answer and headed for the elevator. Bindi didn't say anything, but looking back through a wallcam Steve saw him standing as though frozen, staring with widened eyes at Steve's receding back. A moment later his expression set and he turned away to head for the lecture hall.

A little ball of guilt twisted up in his gut, like a worm. Which is stupid, Bindi himself said he was in no real danger. Repeating that like a mantra, he activated his PAN's emotional biofeedback utilities, and stepped on that guilty worm before it had a chance to grow.

Getting to the other end of the hall was like trying to paddle the wrong way through white water. With the popularity storm in full swing - thanks in no small part to Rowen's selection of the school as her physical location, three months before - the whole school was way over capacity. It was worst on the eighth floor, where Rowen’s lecture was being held.

Rown's popularity was an awesome thing, and she had built that popularity by exploiting the dynamic instability at the heart of the modern educational system. There were no hard and fast academic schedules anymore; education was accomplished primarily through unsupervised simulation and lightly supervised practicals, the students learning more or less what and as they pleased, their progress tracked down to every last theorem understood, reaction pathway memorized, athletic technique mastered. Many instructors provided lectures, as Anastasia Rowen did, but these were as voluntary as everything else. The aim of education, the instructors always said, was to make learning fun, to make school the most interesting place for children to hang out so that they would want to learn as fast as they could be taught.

Steve’s generation had been the guinea pig for a vastly influential pedagogical fad. The movement was not only successful but (as all too often happened these days, when millions of people made up their minds about something and expressed themselves using their shockingly powerful modern technology) arguably too successful.

Rivercrest was a ten story complex taking up most of a city block, capable of comfortably servicing the needs of five thousand students. On a regular day, there would be chaotic knots of exuberant teenagers, rushing from one part of the school to another in the grips of a 5im, standing in conversation, playing with creations made in the fab lab, organizing plays, filming movies, synthesizing biosystems, or any of thousands of other things. The list of projects going on at any given time was almost as long as the list of students.

It was only natural that children were allowed to choose where they went to school as readily as they chose what to do there. With schools converted from pedagogical jails to educational playgrounds, they had abruptly become subject to the same fickle laws of fashion that had once applied only to trendy nightclubs. Fashions these days – in clothing, in genes, in ideology, in anything – changed so fast they sometimes seemed to gain relativistic mass. They’d sweep the entirety of the Core and disappear into oblivion within a month, leaving only a cultural echo in the Gap, lingering for years like a bad hangover.

What worried teachers most was the danger of a school becoming social death. Kids would stay away in droves, often for no immediately apparent reason, and if it lasted the school would go bankrupt. There was also the danger, however, of becoming too popular.

A month ago, this had happened to Rivercrest. Its population had swelled to three times what it could comfortably hold. Quite apart from the physical damage inflicted on the school’s architecture, already badly needing repairs in some places, the student population had become completely ungovernable. With the density of teenagers so drastically increased, the temperature of social interaction was accordingly rising. It was still just a smoldering of hormonal tensions, erupting only occasionally: couples fucking openly in the hallways, careless of who might see them; punch-ups in the bathrooms, and knife-fights in the basement.

Steve loved it. As an original Rivercrester (he’d been there for three years) some of the school’s cachet rubbed off on him. For the most part, the crowded hallways were like an endless party, one that he was, in part, hosting. A lot of the new kids had no actual interest in educating themselves; they just drifted, from school to school, going wherever the party went (this was one aspect the legasphere’s reformers had foreseen, but the reasoning went that there were always dropouts ... and at least this way they’d be more likely to hang out at the schools and, maybe, learn despite themselves.)

Still, there were times when Steve missed the old, comparatively empty Rivercrest. Like now, when he had to struggle his way past teeming masses of his peers in order to get to the other side.

There was crowd of keezers furtively camping out in front of the elevator, around a black carbon hemisphere the size of a beachball. Steve ignored them, pushing the button. There was no response.

“Elevatah down, kiznit,” said one of the keezers, taking note of the interloper. The kid was probably fourteen, a tonsure exposing his scalp and the remainder of his hair long, dirty, dreadlocked and grey. His face was mostly hidden behind a pair of ridiculously oversized horn rim glasses, the lenses consisting of a layer of water suspended between fluctuating, transparent membranes; the unsettling effect was that the keezer’s glowing pupils were alternately magnified to the size of quarters or shrunk to pinheads. The horn rims were a platform for an array of digital cameras, sensitive to a range of spectrums beyond the visible; as for the lenses, they were purely cosmetic. Odds were the kid wasn’t even nearsighted.

“No shit,” muttered Steve. “How long?”

“One minute an’ five seconds. Mark.”

“Fuck. What are you corpsefuckers up to, anyway?”

The kid didn’t move, and Steve got the impression he was engaged in silent consultation with the other keezers. One of them, a bigger kid with a vid-shirt looping through Tiananmen Square, grinned, showing off a mouth full of glowing braces, and touched Steve's arm. Bloodsport, kiznit. With obvious pride he removed a case the size and shape of a pack of cards from his satchel, passing it to Steve. We make these in bio. Then we cage ‘em an’ fight ‘em. Steve thumbed the case, and glanced inside as it went transparent. In the palm of his hand was a vicious looking beetle, carapace gleaming a holographic green, it's mandibles a baroque array of razorblade edges. It looked like it could take off his hand before he had a chance to feel the pain.

He took his thumb off the see-through pad and passed the case back almost reflexively.

All insects?

Mammals, lizards. I like bugs, though. Wanna take a look in ring? He motioned with his head towards the black hemisphere.

Down. Got plans. Mod bug, though. Seein' ya.

“Around,” agreed one of the other keezers absently, and they returned to their game.

Crazy bastards. Cexies generally took a dim view of animal cruelty. What they were doing amounted to open provocation. Come, attack me, I dare you. Which wasn't like keezers. They didn’t generally keep weapons … it was a tribe that was more or less non-violent, and non-political. But then, he’d never known them to practice bloodsports, either. The tribe was changing, apparently; only a few months old, as a recognizable group, and they were already starting to splinter off into separate tribes.

Didn't generally keep weapons... You could fit a lot of those little bugs and lizards and shit in a satchel. Tiny, but lots of sharp bits. And with nervous systems no doubt designed with fight-or-flight circuits frozen on the first option. Wouldn’t kill anyone, but it would leave a mess of their face, maybe even leave them twitching for a while if the keezers had thought to throw a nerve toxin or two into the genome.

It was almost enough to make him want to stick around and see what would happen if some cexie somewhere raised a strenuous moral objection to their game.

No comments: