Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Hotel Artemis" - Review & Cyberpunk Analysis

"Hotel Artemis" - A Review and Cyberpunk Analysis

Silver Spook AKA Christian Miller

Hotel Artemis is a cyberpunk indie film tour-de-force that got nowhere near the recognition it deserves, slipping under a lot of radars, including mine. So here's me doing my small part to remedy that. 

Hotel Artemis, written and directed by longtime franchise writer Drew Pearce, takes place ten years in the future, where riots over water privatization have ravaged Los Angeles. The Nurse (Jodie Foster) runs a high-security secret hospital for criminals that hovers precariously on the brink of chaos, bound by a heaping helping of anonymity and trust.

Artemis shares a lineage with Bladerunner in that it is a British auteur's cyberpunk vision using the Art Deco husk of Los Angeles as a scaffolding to layer a dystopian hi-tech future onto. In 1982 it was Ridley Scott that set his way across the pond, and this time, it's Drew Pearce, writer on Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible 2, making his directorial debut.

Hotel Artemis has 'cyber' in spades. It's got the hi-tech microwave scalpels cutting open low-life bank heisters. It's got hi-tech Black Mirror-esque cornea-implanted video cameras that get 8G reception through meters of reinforced steel. It's got low-life Molly Millions razorgirl-analogs using said ocular cameras to make snuff films for lower-life well-heeled pervs, two thousand miles away via satellite livestream.

It's a film unstuck in time. Jodie Foster plays a septuagenarian once-hippy turned-diehard-urban den-mother, known as "Nurse". She awakens to the Papa's "California Dreamin" on an archaic record player. After getting a frumpy grandma-cardigan that's as time-faded and threadbare as a Velveteen Rabbit, she goes to work playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on a cassette tape -- slightly less archaic than the record player by two decades, give or take. She listens to 60's counterculture rock on 80's lo-fi in the 40's-style Hotel revamped into a 2028-future hospital for LA's criminal underbelly, complete with 3D liver printers and eye-rebuilding medicinal nanotech.

There's an exquisite layering of time periods, strata of technology and culture existing naturally on top of each other -- with the newfangled gizmos as just a sci-fi icing on a fully-realized world-cake. This degree of verisimilitude is perhaps the greatest achievement of Hotel Artemis that few cyberpunk sci-fi or speculative fiction works ever manage. Most instead hyperfocus on The Astounding Capital-F Future's Blasters Holodecks and FTL Spaceships as in trad- space-centric sci-fi, or the shiny badass cyberarms, flying cars, wired, biochips and trodes in every orifice, cyan-and-magenta Photoshop filtered generic Tokyo-scape, and 100 foot holo-geishas as in schlock cyberpunk.

Artemis' degree of lived-in, thought-through speculative realism alone, more than makes up for some of the wandering story and under-utilized tensions and actors oft complained about in other reviews. But add to this several endearing performances, and a 'soul-first, money-later' spirit that permeates the entire picture, and it's clear there's a future-cult-gem of neo-noir genius buried beneath a tidalwave of mainstream audiences disappointed they didn't get a generic marvel movie, or critics paid by the actual Wolf Kings of Hollywood and the entertainment-industrial-complex, who have certain members of Hotel Artemis cast on, if not the black list, the 'very dark grey' list.

(Pearce has himself acknowledged that he had specifically gone into 'Artemis' with the mantra, 'this is an indie film that not everyone will like, but some people will love it to death' - in particular his seventeen year old self. My seventeen year old self stands in solidarity!)

Obviously this resonates with me, having spent 2 ½ years working on Neofeud, a cyberpunk adventure game labor of love that is quite decidedly not for everyone. Firstly, a LucasArts / Sierra-style point-and-click that is niche AF, and secondly the 'postmodern impressionism' art style I was aiming for is admittedly love hate. But for my own twenty year old angsty Gibson-guzzling, Bladerunner binging and Deus Ex-devouring self, Neofeud would've been the best thing on the planet.

As a native Hawaiian, I'm intimately familiar with hotels (and I also have issues with aspects of Big Tourism that's colonized my homeland but that's one of my frequently digressed digressions so feel free to binge that rant elsewhere in my 'Tube catalogue of extended livestreamed diatribes).

Hotels are sanctuaries from the daily grind of dayjob drudgery. They're places of luxury -- exclusive clubs for a wealthy, privileged elite, and if you've the rare fortune to have a stable job with mysterious things called, 'vacation time', you average Joe or Jane might get to visit an economy-class hotel, two weeks out of a year, if you're lucky.  Hotels are places of anonymity -- also a privilege in our world of Big Brother-centric surveillance capitalism and AI where Facebook, Google and China are in an arms race to build automated wardrone skynets and train world-dominating economic Hal 9000's with your every text message selfie-cammed micro expression, and online purchase.

But in this fairytale land called 'Richistan', that has none of that, that houses World Economic Forums in reclusive Swiss mountain ranges, idyllic Waikiki penthouse sunsets and private beaches. In this 'Elysium' of the elite no one asks questions when you walk in on the red carpet and check in, and the concierge would be remiss to give away patron data.

Hotels are homes for the moneyd homeless. The post-geographical cosmopolitan jet-setters doing Goldman Sachs bidding over powerlunches, smuggling Ono Sendai hacker decks and Maas-Biotek prototypes in titanium briefcases, or assassinating corporate big-wigs (the latter is the business of certain Hotel Artemis' members).  Hotels are a country whose name is opulence, whose national past-times are, 500 dollar hookers, high-thread-count sheets and four-star room service, whose citizenship card is a platinum rectangle with the word VISA on it, whose anthem is neoliberal doctrine, and whose membership requires fealty to megabanks, megacorporations, and the megarich -- all of which are fundamentally criminal entities, not unlike the occupants of Hotel Artemis.

Cyberpunk is criminals working for bigger criminals, and Hotel Artemis has that in spades also.

Hotels are for those who do Nice, Honolulu, and Acapulco in a span of 48 hours.

According to Pearce, the initial inspiration came from visiting LA during the California droughts. Two years later, Flint Michigan taps spouting lead and carcinogens, 37 US cities and over 3000 communities in America without potable drinking water as part of our cyberpunk dystopian present, and Hotel Artemis is barely science fictional.

Is Hotel Artemis cyberPUNK?

Yes, there are punk elements.

The most punk aspect of Artemis is undoubtedly the Jodie Foster character.

We discover that the 'Nurse', through musical tastes, ideological choices and backstory, is fundamentally a child of the original subversive movements of the 60's -- the Civil Rights Movement, the spiritual predecessor of punk before it was suppressed, destroyed and co-opted by 'The Man' as the boomers called it then. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, shortly before taking a 30-06 round to the head, that 'There can be no racial equality without economic equality'. And then, as Rage Against The Machine says in The Matrix' credit's song, 'Then came the shot'.

A single working parent without a high school diploma could support a family of four with food, adequate housing, and healthcare in the mid-20th century in America. As we all know, that 'golden age of aquarius' has been in steep decline ever since, with half of the country at or near poverty, and millenials with Ph. Ds barely scraping by at Starbucks, uberdriving, dog-walking, and instacart gig-economy jobbing just to afford a closet above a methlab or a 'cyberpunk' coffin apodment at age 37 like Seattlites in Amazon's home city. The technically savvy are programming in sardine-packed into flop houses, attempting to be the next startup / crypto Zukerberg, or win the killer-app Hunger Games before the Go-Fund Me for their insulin dries up. (Fun fact: the average family of four in the US now pays around 30,000 for health insurance BEFORE being slammed with countless hidden fees and charges. Outrageous healthcare costs are a #1 reason cited by teachers striking like wildfire across the nation)

Hotel Artemis functions as an exclusive healthcare club, an exclusive 'potable water club' and exclusive high-security home for wealthy criminals who've enriched themselves looting other people (and sometimes killing them). It's quite resonant to the cyberpunk present we live in, in which a criminal business and political elite have robbed the majority of us blind and left us to rot like a homeless runaway teenager bleeding out from a drug deal gone bad in a ghetto with poison for tap water.

Foster's Nurse is that good Samaritan, who took in those desperate and dying street kids, healed their wounds, and served as a surrogate parent. That is the relationship that Bautista's character, Everest, the hulking orderly, has with Nurse. He will smash your face in with his medikit, but he's like a giant little kid with her. It is one of the strongest chemistries of the film, a believable adopted mother-son relationship, right down to Nurse telling Everest to 'take the long way to get some exercise' when she has him kick an unruly guest out of the Hotel. ("Visiting hours are never!" -- Bautista has all the best zingers)

Everest is no stranger to the violence and the brutality of American street-level poverty. He reminds the clientele that he is a 'certified healthcare professional' and if you talk about fight-club- sorry.. I mean the clandestine criminal hospital, Everest will hunt you down and 'un-heal' your ass.

At the same time, Everest is completely loyal and cares deeply about nurse -- always addressing her respectfully with 'yes nurse' even when he disagrees -- because she was the only who was there for him when he was lost in the brutal concrete jungle of cyberpunk dystopia that is the US present and future.

It later becomes apparent Foster's character had taken in countless other street kids, like Everest, and had worked to heal the healthcare-less at a free clinic, until it was shut down.

This aspect of Hotel Artemis personally resonated the most with me, as someone who grew up a person of color in a US ghetto. I later went on to become a STEM teacher for inner-city kids and a social worker. Fundamentally, I was a surrogate parent for countless homeless, marginalized, parentless children whos parents were zonked out on meth, incarcerated, or just working so many jobs to keep the family afloat they just weren't around. These kids I was working with were like Everest, who saw their only possible future as becoming a drugdealing criminal, an Ice Cube-like rap star, or both. They were all striving to follow the footsteps of the Wolf King and the rest of the Hotel Artemis' residents -- as affluent globetrotting badasses. But the reality was they'd mostly end up in the prison-industrial complex making Whole Foods products and fighting California wildfires for 72 cents an hour.

I worked with several foster parents, many of them aging-hippy white ladies just like Jodie Foster's character. One in particular, she had the same frazzled grey hair, faded tye dye so ancient it might've survived Woodstock. I was teaching a Lego Robotics class to about ten kids, many from low-income housing and foster kids -- there were two Native Hawaiians, a few Filipinos, mixed-race, and an African American. Side note: Bautista is half Filipino half Greek, and grew up in poverty in one of the most horrifically unequal areas  of the US -- Washington DC. Bautista once recalled himself and his sister surviving for a week on a pot of burned beets with their single mother.

A lot of the kids I was teaching gave me flak and insisted on pretending to be Kanye West and trying to rap battle me (I occasionally obliged them and had to kick their butt to settle them down and win some respect). But eventually, we got to working on building Lego robotic arms (cause you've got to prime kids to grow up cyberpunks early!) I helped them engineer and program self-driving Lego cars, beating Tesla and Google to the punch by a decade.

But at the end of the first class, this old white lady in her Birkenstocks and a frayed old flower-sweater, very much like Jodie Foster's character came in through the door. 
"Ok boys, time to go!" she said. And about 2/3 of the class got up saying, "Yes, mom" in a tone just like Dave Bautista's "Yes, nurse", and all the black and brown kids all flocked to her and gave her a big group hug.

Everest's and Nurse's relationship is really the soul of this movie, and it is more true to reality than almost anything I've seen in the cyberpunk and adjacent genres. While American cinema and AAA games often demonize or glamorize criminals, (the latter is common in cyberpunk), most actual 'criminals' in my experience are people who are 'prisoners of their own devices' as a certain Eagles song about a hotel goes. They're people with limited options, often due to poverty or marginalization, forced to try to survive by often illegal means. Whether that's robbing banks, selling drugs or boosting cars (one of the smartest kids I taught was a literal grand theft auto convict who grew up poor and brown). 'Poverty is the worst form f violence' as Ghandi correctly put it. It isn't glamorous, it is ugly, and it is wrong. It is a wrong done to millions of people, a particularly egregious wrong in the richest country on Earth like the US. 

The work to remedy is also as unglamorous and often unnoticed as a little drab frazzly grey-haired old lady -- but it is the real work. Jeff Goldblum plays the Wolf King 'owner of half of LA' and there's a scene where Nurse is healing his wounds, and she refers to him as 'just another ex-con hippy who traded beads for bullets'. In that moment the history of America, perhaps the world, is boiled down to a microcosm. Six decades have passed since the Assassination of JFK and King, and one flower child his sold out, bought into 'greed is good' mantra of the 80's and made billions of dollars profiting as the country falls into squalor, the environment burns, water riots and chaos dominate. The other is still doing the hard but necessary social work of providing for those less fortunate even when it was 'uncool', was the safety net for those falling through the gaping cracks, healing the healthcareless. If the ratio of true-punk nurses to sell-out Wolf Kings were greater, we'd probably be in less of a global mess, right now.

Sterling K. Brown plays Waikiki, a bank heister and his relationship with his less-competent drug-addicted brother is another strong point. The brother gets them in trouble and nearly gets them killed on multiple occasions, but Waikiki stays by his side.

But on top of the heavy subtance, Artemis practically oozes style and flair. There are a fair share of action including Mexican standoffs with 3D printed guns, assassinations via coffee cup (Riddick would be proud) and Boutella (famous for kicking deadly ass with ninja-sword legs as 'Gazelle' in Kingsman) is amazing as a physical actress -- a great scene with her taking on a mob of LA gang underlings is nineties-action flick quality.

But what Artemis DOESN'T show speaks volumes, and is in senses more bold than what it DOES. A massive showdown with Bautista wielding an axe is merely implied, a bank vault goes uncracked (much to the chagrin of the drilling specialist). Oft slammed by critics for 'missed opportunities' on the contrary, I think fully revealing these would be easy, predictable Hollywood cliché, and thinking about it in retrospect, wouldn't've added much. (The film was also shot for $15 million, or about 1/3 the going rate for a major Marvel action star, and given this A-List of Bautista, Foster, Brown, and Goldblum, there was obviously some pro-bono work hours put in here.)

What is Punk?

"Punk subculture originated out of working class angst and the frustrations many youth were feeling about economic inequality and the bourgeois hypocrisy. It was primarily concerned with concepts such as pro-working class, egalitarianism, humanitarianism, etc." the inherently infallible truth arbiter, Wikipedia, tells us.

Foster's character didn't have radioactive green Mohawks, sleeveless jean jackets, or safety pins and studs everywhere, but her character was the most actually punk in the 'substance' sense. Nurse actually did humanitarian work, helped people who actually needed it, often at her own peril -- such as Everest and an injured community liaison officer. The latter act could've gotten her killed given the LA criminal godfather (played by Jeff Goldblum) owns this future-tech hospital for the criminal elite.

She's also got the 'cyber' in cyberpunk covered with all the 3D printed organs, laser-exactos, and even a broken bone-mending spray based on biohacked coral polyps. (Director Pearce describes this in detail, and experts on the movie ranged from NASA to SpaceX. The research on the movie is one of its highest points.

While its neo-noir lighting and fixtures, whodunit slow-burn sensibility and post-genre originality may not be everyone's idea of a silver screen weekend getaway, for those who fans of true cyberpunk, and tour-de-force from-the-heart indie filmmaking if you check into Hotel Artemis, like the Eagles Hotel California says, 'you'll never leave'.

(Drew Pearce probably wanted to get that song in the movie but couldn't afford the rights, so imagine it playing over the credits!)

Check it out on IMDB!

Check out the video version of this review:

Monday, October 22, 2018

Terminus Machina: Bailout (Excerpt)

Jack Newman shouldered past the six-inch reinforced alloy frame of the self-driving armored personnel carrier into SoMa town, San Francisco, shards of glass and crumbling asphalt crunching beneath his tactical boots like the rib cages of small mammals. He squinted through mean wind that tasted of burning batteries, to take in the broken majesty of AT&T park. Half of the Giants Stadium had collapsed like some 20th century rendition of the Roman Colosseum, its steel bones digested by the stomach acid of Pacific sea salt and the floor-by-floor demolition of state budgets. The more obscure consumption of the United States by its financial élite, that infestation of white-shoed tapeworms who devoured all legitimate business, all productivity, leaving nothing but stinking piles of economic feces and fraudulent bank paper where metropoli once boomed. 

The Bay itself had gone the color of bile, the ocean heaving nauseous from a trillion tons of anthropocentric carbon, vomiting itself across South Beach Harbor parking lot and playground, washing wrecked yachts across the highway against bent street signs and abandoned cars and the dark windowless husks of skyscrapers. Shoals of trash and untreated sewage festered and smothered whatever remained of the coastal ecosystem. The bodies of poisoned fish, seals and whales were left to rot, the fly-ridden flesh thin and grey and everywhere, like black and white photographs of Nazi camp mass-graves.

It’d been ages since Jack had actually seen un-mediated, unpolished urban decay in meatspace, let alone actually had to wallow in it, and it made his skin crawl with a kind of ambient tension and Rousseau-esque guilt. It made his head hurt more to think about what it meant that he felt such revulsion toward reality. Visions of the Agent Smith-Morpheus showdown asserted themselves like popup ads into his mind’s eye.

"I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it." The smell, that’s what it was. The smell of burning ash and rotting garbage and dead mammals. All of these un-targeted, un-personalized stimuli, all this terrible ‘serendipity’, this unprogrammed experience. It was viscerally repulsive to Jack. He closed his eyes, nudged the microprocessors in his corneas awake with a three-thought Ideocode sequence -- visualising his mother's face, the melody to All Along The Watchtower, and the memory of his first successful assassination with a humanoid drone. He clicked his heels together for good measure. An Encephalock reader membraned over the tissue of his cerebral cortex, scanned the chain of neural firings in his brain, unlocking a transparent cerulean HUD of timestamp, taskbar, and compass that crept into his peripheral vision. With a wink at a virtual tab, Jack papered over the sight of disgusting reality with the clinical rectilinearity of his AR-overlayed email inbox. He felt instantly better. Even if it was a wall of X-Pandgen penis enargement gene-therapy spam and messages from his wife hounding him over some birthday party planning he couldn't be bothered with. Even the ubiquitous marquee ads for depleted uranium flechette pistols that kept chasing him across the net were a comfort as they scrolled over the tangled snarl of a sixteen car pile-up in South Beach playground. No place like home.

It was unusual, to say the least. The heavy brass had called Jack and his team of Troubleshooters out of the bunker arcology down into San Fran, demanding in-person oversight of the investigation. That never happened, especially not beyond the Ameribank City barrier. RPLCNTS and air drones were teleoperated in the field from climate-controlled C&C hubs, or programmed for autonomous detective-mode as the primary means of on-the-ground actual police work. That was the CyberSec M.O. If human beings were called out of the green zone into the battlefield, it meant someone very high up was personally pulling strings. Strings such as the fat end-of-the-year bonus that had suddenly appeared in Jack’s bank account, one which his immediate supervisor would never authorize, not even for cluster-bombing an abandoned Costco full of World Class War jobless insurgents. Not that Jack had an argument with the money, per se.

A Valkyrie drone transport was crouching near the crime scene. The Emergency medical drones had made it in time to stop the bleeding but the kid had slipped into a coma, and all the king’s nanites couldn’t put his prefrontal cortex back together again. Multiple cerebral contusions, face smashed unrecognizable- Jack hadn’t seen that kind of gutty gore since the Compton prison guard robots went AWOL from a bad firmware update, pounded the inmates’ skulls into corned beef with fire extinguishers. That incident had been a bitch to cover up. It took the cleaners six hours to scrub the goopy chunks of brain and hemoglobin from the cell walls and bars. The cover story about a facility-wide prisoner revolt had been a stretch, but necessary to ward off all the Human Rights and Anti-Robot organization limpdicks salivating at the chance to score political points against the big-box automated prison industry. Jack had pulled multiple Red Bull-powered all-nighters taking down whistleblower blogs and humanitarian sites using DDoS hacking attacks, shouting down activists in forums and chatrooms with an army of AI-run counter-poster accounts. Jack nipped all attempts to expose the incident in the bud. The spin team CGed black faces onto all the released security footage; the undying fear of the angry black man could always be counted on to sway public opinion in a pinch.

But this wasn’t an airbrush job for the corporate Elite; for the first time in months, Jack was actually being asked to solve an honest-to-Gnossis crime.

"I’m feeling like a real police officer, I think I need to up my dosage," Jack bantered into his mic.

"Book ’em, Dano." Stasia laughed back, exiting the vehicle beside Jack, ballistic leather-analog creaking as she slapped him on the shoulder.

"The boy, one Justin Diamond. Stable condition. Son of Alistair and Margaret Diamond, Divorced. Father is a senior executive at Vitanet Medical. Former governer of New Hampshire and New Jersey. On the board of the American Medical Association. Duck-hunting buddy of President Vanderlyle’s old man."

"Vitanet? Jesus. That explains, well, everything. Of course the trillionaires can afford to buy their own personal investigation into their son’s near-murder."

Jack pulled up the boy’s files into an unused section of retina real estate, thankful for the overlay’s breakup of the real-world overload. The brick and mortar was starting to grate on his eyeballs.

"Last connectivity, today, 9:34 AM. Via a dVice Ubiq." Jack fiddled through the kid’s pockets, coming up with only lint and date-rape pills.

"No dVice on him. Looks like someone out there is running around with stolen hardware. Let’s run it by the registries."

Jack examined the area surrounding the chalked outline, stepping over the metal column of a fallen street lamp, fluted green metal blistering with rust. There was another dead body, thirty feet away. A spider crawled over to the mess, scanned the face and took a DNA sample. A tiny hooked implement like a dentist’s scraper ejected from the forensic bot’s mandibular area. It used the scraper to extract a dollop from the pool of blood beneath the corpse’ head. The blood had congealed in a pothole like strawberry Jell-O.

The results for the second victim were instantaneous, and the dossier tabbed itself like a playing card beside the primary’s file.

"Amit Garcia. Ex-accountant. Former Ameribank City citizen till a few months ago when his citizenship was revoked due to consecutive delinquent payments."

"Double homicide? Or a separate incident?" Stasia hypothesized.

"Maybe. Hard to say. It’s dangerous, chaotic out here in the Bay Area. Life expectancy rates aren’t so great."

"Chaotic? Aren’t we going to at least look into it?"

"He had his citizenship taken away for failing to make payments. That means this guy’s a Deadweight. An Unemployed. He doesn’t count as a person as far as we’re concerned." Jack pointed to Amit’s former white collar office shirt, turned grey from living in the street, as if it was QED.

"As far as we’re concerned? So we’re going to look the other way?"

"As far as our bosses are concerned. We’re not being paid to investigate deaths of unimportant individuals."

Stasia performed a Premium Internet search with Amit’s facial biometrics.

"Look, there’s a video of Amit and some other jobless San Franciscan tearing at each other’s throats. A human dogfight. It’s got fifty thousand hits on the ‘Tube and is circulating semi-viral on Friendbook. It looks like Justin here wasn’t exactly innocent." Stasia held the jittery clip up in Jack’s face. Jack feigned incredulity.

"We don’t know that. It could’ve been anyone filming the brawl." Jack said.

"’San Fran Food Fite to Teh Deth’, uploaded 9:34 AM today by Darkshado, registered name: Justin Diamond." Stasia held up the streaming video of the soon-to-be-dead Amit having his head crushed against the point of a fire hydrant by another unemployed Deadweight bum. A cracking teen voice laughed and wagged a bag of fast food at the starving Deadweights, egging them into killing one another in sick gladiatorial fashion.

"It’s just high schoolers being stupid high schoolers, that’s what they do. Things got out of hand." Jack brushed the video aside.

"Jesus, somebody is dead, Jack! And this rich little silver spoon brat was directly responsible. We have to do something."

Jack sighed, pulled an Altoid tin from the inner pocket of his double-breasted trenchcoat, one of the few pieces of dumbware he kept on him for sentimental value.

"I said I feel like a police officer, Stas. But that’s not what we are. Police don’t exist anymore. We’re Troubleshooters. Sooner or later you’re going to learn what that means." He offered her one of the flat white cylinders. She turned away.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Terminus Machina Story Collection Vol 1 - Excerpt

The Ghosts of Cloud City (Excerpt)

Don’t get your head stuck in the Clouds,” my dad would say. I used to think that was why our home was miles below the Earth’s surface, cocooned down near the mantle, the warm bosom of Gaia. I thought dad kept us down there to keep us safe, away from the pollution-sickened silver nitrate skies of the surface. But the Cloud was everywhere, no matter how deep you shoved your head in the sand.

The metal slug squishes out of me with a nauseating movie-quality slurp. My vision fuzzes white with pain and I hold back the scream, clenching my jaw so tight I feel it pop. We’re pretty sure the fucks who attacked us lost our tail but we’re not taking any chances. Cyclops douses the gory hole in my arm with hydrogen peroxide, and the bubble of sizzling white foam and syrupy red blood on my tan skin makes me think of strawberry pancakes. This pisses my stomach off more, on top of the peroxide stinging like a centiscorpion. Getting shot sucks.

Cyclops and I bunker down behind the counter of a Starbeans Coffee, getting a nose and mouth full of dust and cobwebs. The cold is chewing its way to my bones, my empty stomach is eating its way out, and my arm is killing me. Figuratively of course; the 9mm round lodged in my tricep we can dig out, and granted it doesn’t infect, I’ve got a good chance in this hell of surviving. My NeuroArm, on the other hand, is literally and definitely going to kill me, and is the reason Cyclops is fishing for bullets in my nature-issue flesh arm with a long-nose pliers. It’s been acting up lately, started glitching spastic while we were in a shootout with some raiders. It’s tough to hit anything when you’ve got cybernetic Parkinson’s disease.

“We should get you to a doctor,” Cyclops finds a tray of non-recycled napkins, dyed brown to appear eco-friendly, back when such things mattered to anyone. He tosses off the top dozen moldy sheets, and uses a fresh napkin to dab at the injury.

“It’s just a flesh wound, I’ll be fine.” But not if we don’t get this AWOL prosthetic fixed, I subvocalize. Cyclops appears unconvinced.

“We’ll be at Ebayzaar in a few days if we make decent time. They’ll have a doc there for sure.” I reassure.

The peroxide we scavved up from the carcass of a MegaMart. Most the aisles were picked clean as the ribcage of a dead whale, so we were surprised to find the bottles of disinfectant floating in a mud puddle in the pharmaceutical department. As hazardous and unpredictable as they are, you can always count on raiders and cannibals to fail to think things through. Guess you can’t blame them, they are mostly the descendants of the infamously infantile Chattering Class that went extinct when the internet and everything else went bye-bye.

The MegaMart had completely computerized self-checkout registers with RFID and biometric scanners for security purposes, having decided to do away completely with human clerks just before the world went belly-up. Now, I’m no urban archaeologist, but I heard that before The Silence, the MegaMarts sold cheap, Earth-killing, slave-labor goods to people who didn’t have the economic luxury of superficial presentation, so eventually they thought why bother with the flair of a human clerk?

Starbeans, on the other hand, was targeted toward the spoiled upper classes who sipped over-designed cups of this stuff kinda like weak stims in liquid form called “coffee”, while checking their “Twitters” and “Portfolios” and discussing “The Teabaggers” and “Fawksnews”. Not that the Starbeans’ supply chain was any less karma-negative, but patrons were paying for the feeling of sophistication and moral high ground. Fancy names like Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappacino, fancy cups. They needed this thing called “experience” or “story”, which I could never understand no matter how many times old-timers explained it. I have plenty of experience, lots of stories to tell, nobody ever paid me. Sometimes I think The Ancients were all insane, maybe that’s what dad meant about getting your head stuck in the Cloud.

But the primary reason we’re in Starbeans is every Starbeans, unlike MegaMart, had several humanoid robots. Part of the simulated cafe ‘experience’ was having a human barista mix your ten dollar chai latte, but I guess the profit margin was much better if you didn’t have to pay real people once the robots got convincing enough. Lucky for me, the CLERCs (Cyber-Linguistic Empathic Relations Colleague) all come with the same line of robotic NeuroArms as the one attached to the stump where my right arm used to be. It’s a long story.

There’s one CLERC face down in the store room. It’s corroded and covered in silt, a rat's nest lined with shredded napkins and artificial sweetener packets is carved out of the android’s stomach cavity. Another is at the cashier counter, standing, hand outstretched as if patiently awaiting payment or a Starbeans Rewards Card. Frozen instantly, along with all other robots and androids as their CPUs were fried by EMPs in the Intellectual Property Wars decades ago.

Her synthetic skin is dusty and slightly sallow, but remains remarkably intact. Her face is locked in an eternal smile of a lightheartedness utterly alien in the wasteland. Creepily ironic how the only remains of the real humans, including her customer, are heaps of rag and bone on the floor while this replicant appears she might resume her conversation any moment. A fossil token of a vanished culture, caught in the amber of electromagnetic pulse. Her name tag reads, ‘Cynthia’.

“Hello Cynthia. Yes, you can take my order. One Venti Mochaccino, made with those Urban-Aggro beans please. A name for the order? Make it out to ‘Jericho’.” Cyclops laughs at my little skit even though he’s seen it before. I like to pretend. Maybe it’s my way of thanking them for letting me use their limbs. Besides, you’ve got to learn to enjoy the little things, even when you’re being pursued by psychotic sub-humans for your flesh, water, and ammunition. Otherwise what’s the point, right?

Cynthia’s ancient sleeve comes apart like tissue paper.

“Do you want the dermis too?” Cyclops holds up the naked arm.

“Fuck no. Just help me cut it open, funny man.”

Cyclops slices around the upper arm and down the length with an Xacto, pulling back like that scene in Terminator, except there’s no blood, just rubber and metal skeleton. I don’t need a womanly hand with candy apple red nail polish, and the cyborg look tends to frighten the dumber malicious riff raff. Mosquito repellant. Her NeuroArm looks factory-mint, she was probably on the job only a few months.

Cyclops unbolts it, unbolts mine. My prosthetic comes off, and there’s that disorienting feeling of soul-vertigo, that phantom-limb sense of deep wrongness. The feeling vanishes just as soon as the new arm clinks into place, somatosensory cortex settling down to luxuriate in the newfound sensory input. My personal bioelectric patterns are stored in a motor neuron implant that transcodes directly to the Neuroarm, so the new limb is operational instantly. None of that myoelectric stuff, painstakingly shrugging your shoulder, twisting your neck and squeezing your ass just to signal to your prosthetic to pick up a damn bottle.

“Better. Very much so.” I windmill the arm a bit, test the fine motor responses, pull the rifle from my backpack and take aim at the center of the peeling ‘S’ on the cracked glass storefront of the Starbeans. No jittering.

“It looks good, Jerry,” Cyclops says, putting away the Xacto and pliers.

He’s lying, of course, being a good brother. Cyclops doesn’t see the world like most people do. His eyes are blind as a cave shrimp, but he’s got some brain mod that pipes electromagnetic radiation directly into his frontal lobe from his shades, like some kind of third eye. Seriously bleeding edge tech, just before the world fell off the edge. However, a side-effect is he definitely can’t tell whether my new arm looks, “good” or not. The cortical implant bypasses subjective aesthetic valuation centers, old mammalian emotion modules buried deep, a floor above the reptilian brain stem. For him it’s pure abstraction, numerology; seeing a sunset is like reading instantly a spreadsheet on a sunset detailing the frequencies of red, yellow, and orange light due to Rayleigh scattering, seeing the pointers rather than actually experiencing all that qualia-rich, heavenly glory. 

Kinda how the ancients kept their heads surgically buried in their “smart” phones, experiencing sunsets, rock concerts, sex, their newborns’ first steps, life itself through empty 70-character nibbles of text, their worlds reduced to two inch touch screens. In consolation, Cyclops’ eyes apparently facilitate sensitivity to a certain monastic, Einsteinian beauty in seeing the “superstructure of the world”. That’s what the brochure said, anyway. At any rate, he’s truly clueless as to the appeal of my latest prosthetic fashion accessory. But it’s the thought that counts.

We search the Starbeans for any other useful material, but it’s been cleared out long ago. It’s not worth it to dissect the other CLERC for the extra arm; besides the fact that it’s covered in rat shit, these Starbeans are so goddamn abundant. I mean there’s one right across the street, what is up with that?

We pop open the Reebok knapsack, empty it out on the ground. A small can of pork and beans, a twisty-tied packet of a dozen raisins. It’s almost comical, except starvation has this peculiar way of filtering all the funny out of the world, especially when it comes to food. Cyclops’ head and thin shoulders slump, the skin is draped loosely over his emaciated bones like sheets over old furniture. A gust of cold evening air blows daggers and Cyclops starts shivering, so I shake the dust out of an Armani suit left in a booth next to a briefcase and wrap him up in it.

“We’re not going to make it this time, are we?” He stares at a raisin in the palm of his hand, shriveled and stale to the point of petrifaction. Closes it.

“Hey. Hey, look at me.” I squeeze his hand tight over the raisin. “We are going to make it, I promise.” He is suddenly so small and fragile. Everyone grows up so fast out here, there are no childhoods in the wasteland. It’s easy to forget he’s just a fourteen year old kid.

“But you said it’s a few more days if we make good time and we’re stuck here with no food, and it’s cold and those raiders are out there-“

“We’ll make do. We always do. They’ve got more food than you could ever eat at Ebayzaar. I hear they even have ice cream. You remember ice cream?” The corners of his mouth pull up, and I can see the episodic memories of birthdays back in the vault spooling through his mind like a freshly opened bag of jelly candies. The smell of icing and melted wax, adults in labcoats and military brass serenading out-of-harmony, no bed times for one night.

“Remember that time dad got me a bb gun and tried to teach us how to shoot cans in the water purification room?”

“Yeah, I was still crap at using my vision mod and kept shooting you guys in the butt. At least I couldn’t shoot an eye out.” Cyclops taps his bionic eye and we both laugh.

“Remember how he used to tell us those crazy bedtime stories when we were real little?”

“I always liked the one about the people who built their city on the Clouds.”

“They forgot about the real world down below. One day the Clouds evaporated, and they came crashing back down. ‘Their ghosts still haunt the surface to this day.’”

“I miss dad.” Cyclops pulls his knees together and the Armani suit tighter around himself. His machine eyes lack the tear ducts to cry, but I know him well enough to know when he is crying inside.

“Me too, Cy.” I gather up his Italian wool-swaddled body in a hug. I’m lying, about us making it. We’re at least a week, maybe two from where this Ebayzaar “Mecca of the Wastes” supposedly is located, according to an X on a map we plucked off a vulture-pecked body in a ditch on the interstate. For all we know, Ebayzaar is a ghost town, or worse, and out here, the universe’ dice are weighted towards “worse”. Maybe we’re the ghosts, haunting the city that fell to Earth, their streets, their steel-girdered castles, their simulacra of ‘the real world’ run and barista-ed by robot actors. Maybe we’ll fade away, at last, like the faux finished signs on storefront windows.

Desperation is an acid that will eat you faster than any cannibal.

And aside from the vague glimmer of someday finding our dad, Cyclops is all I’ve got keeping me going out here. 

So I lie, because I am a good brother.