In the Rat's Nest, there is no natural light. From what I've heard, there used to be a sim-sky down here, once upon a time. Sometime last century, however, it quit working. Since then, the only illumination comes from neon, streetlights, and holo projections lining the tightly packed corridors. The overall effect is that this part of the city is always night, even as topsiders are sunbathing in broad daylight over our heads. Most of the city's nightlife lives down here now, an unending, twenty-four-hour-a-day binge of narco-chips, sim-sex, actual sex, gambling, body-modding, gender-warping, cath-mugging and a whole host of other things people seem to prefer to do outside the light of day. It goes without saying that the crime rate is through the roof.
My immersion rig lets me know it's just a little after noon as it gently stirs me awake and shifts out of a horizontal position to an upright one. Once on my feet, I disconnect the haptic input cables and neuro-sim wiring from the back of the suit and shuck the bodysuit into a pile on the floor. From there, it's straight to a sonic shower and antibacterial rinse. Back in my old home, bathing every day wasn't necessary. Unfortunately, when you spend most of your waking life sweating in skin-tight rubber composite, however, it becomes absolutely necessary. Haptic sleeves really have a way of "sealing in the freshness".
Once I'm passably clean, I pull on another bodysuit, and put the immersion rig into sleep mode. It folds up and lifts towards the ceiling as a panel slides back into place over the omni-directional treadmill beneath it. I'm always struck by how empty the place looks with it out of the way. It's easy to forget you have no other furniture when you use the sole piece you have for everything from eating to sleeping. Other than the sonic shower and a mirror, there's no other bathroom amenities to speak of either, save an analog vac-toilet that isn't connected to the City's water-debt network. Whatever water-debt service used to exist in Sunshine Heights has long ago been gutted out, meaning if you need to relieve yourself, it's a trip across the street or money literally down the drain. There's no doubt in my mind there's a tank owned by the complex that all of the vac-toilets dump into, but I don't care nearly enough to find out for sure.
I'm halfway to the stairwell when another one of the apartments opens, and Bill steps out into the hallway. Bill's the building maintenance engineer, although, given the state of the place, I'm not sure what he actually does. He's a short man, soft in the middle, with thinning brown hair and wet, protruding eyes. He is dressed as always in a drab blue jumpsuit emblazoned front and back with the Hawkridge Corporation logo and wearing an unnervingly friendly smile.
The man turns his attention to me, his fish-eyes focusing on me in unison. His grin broadens.
"Well smiley day to you, Krystian Locksley! Brought to you, of course, by Hawk Flakes, which are part of this balanced breakfast!" Bill says with a chipper wave.
It's worth noting that Bill isn't actually his name. Truth is, I have no idea what it actually is. He’s just one of many people employed by the Corporation to be a living advertisement to pay the bills. You give up part of yourself, your personality, autonomy, and self-expression, replace it with whatever the Company wants you to advertise, and they’ll compensate you for it. The more of yourself you replace, the more the Company will pay you, and the more of a Bill you become. This particular Bill? I don’t think I’ve heard a single word out of his mouth that isn’t ad copy, and that isn’t for a lack of me trying.
“How’s the wife?” I ask, skirting past him.
“Still sleeping thanks to NestRest, the concentrated sleep-aid formula that can help guarantee a full night’s sleep on just a single capsule! Now on sale at any Hawkmart location!” Bill says.
“You know, Bill, is there like a paid subscription service that will allow me to bypass the ads? Like, Bill Premium, or something?”
Bill’s smile broadens.
“Why, of course, Mister Locksley! Subscribe to Hawknet Premium for just 3 gill a month, and you too can have an ad-light experience that only shares the most relevant and important advertisements in your viewing field during IR and AR sessions. For only a few gill more, you can even get ad-free sleep when resting in an immersion rig, and no ads during private or intimate IVR moments with high-priority fellow users! Subscribe now and get the first month free!”
I sigh wearily.
I round the corner and am heading down the stairwell before he can say more. Five flights of stairs later, and I’m out on the street looking for food and a piss-to-pay. After relieving myself, I use the cash earned to buy a few skewers of roast lab-meat and a bottle of Hawkjuice.
On my way back to the apartment, my attention is drawn by a small crowd gathered around a small holographic display a few inches off the side of one of the buildings. Getting closer, I can see that the hologram is projecting a long list of names, along with numerical values listed for each. Next to the list of names, a corpo stiff in a sleek blue suit is speaking in a live video feed. Lacking any real reason to rush by, I join the crowd and listen in.
“...and that’s why, effective immediately, any individual listed on the Company’s Most Wanted board is denied access to Company-managed water-debt, public transport, amenities, healthcare, communications, or IR/VR programming. Additionally, all legal protection for the individuals listed is removed, and all crime committed against them is legal and without repercussion.
Finally, a water-debt bounty has been placed on each listed individual relative to their wanted rank. Any individual who kills a member of this list or remands them to the appropriate authorities will receive a lump sum compensation for their efforts from the Company equivalent to the value listed next to the individual’s name. No limit has been placed on the amount of bounties that are allowed to be claimed by a single individual, and repeat claimants are both welcomed and appreciated.
Your corporate benefactors thank you for your efforts in helping to reduce crime in Hawkport together!”
The in-window video disappears, and the Most Wanted list expands to fill the space left behind. The response of the others around me is immediate, as the group dissolves into little pockets of furtive muttering.
“They’re completely cut off, huh? Yeah, like that will affect them in the slightest.”
“100 drums for taking out number five? There’s no way anyone’s gonna actually see that money. The Company will just make you disappear if you win. See if I’m wrong.”
“...but I mean, how does the Company decide who makes the list?”
“Sounds like the coppys are getting lazy is what it sounds like.”
“But, what if they do pay out those bounties? Think about it, man! Our families would be set for life!”
I peel myself away from the murmuring crowd and resume my walk, my mind preoccupied. Public bounties on criminals, huh? Even for the Company, that seems a little gauche. The HBI are already the terror of the criminal underworld in this cesspit. If you want to grift, you’re paying them bribes. A LOT of bribes. Think I’m kidding? Ask around. It’s pretty much just a fact of life here at this point. So why announce who you’re after publicly, and sic the entire city on them?
Best I can figure, the Board of Directors probably know something we don’t. Or one of them has decided turning the streets into the world’s largest game of hide and seek is a good idea. Either way, it doesn’t concern me.
Although, to be honest, the thought of making that kind of money while also making the world a better place does sound like a pretty good deal. Enough of a good deal, in fact, that I spend the next 12 hours flipping it over and over in my mind as I burn through deathmatches for a couple gill an hour, dreaming of what (and who) I’d do if I had that kind of money.