The tents and shanties of Mira’s camp were huddled together along the sidewalks of a dozen consecutive blocks under the 580 overpass in Oakland. Junk was strewn everywhere: blue plastic tarps, shopping carts, baby carriages, white five gallon buckets, horrendous mattresses and couches, a stream of refuse that was dredged up by the inhabitants and periodically swept away when the various city and county agencies got enough complaints. Huge empty lots under the freeway were securely sealed off with chain link fences, forcing the homeless to erect their tents and shanties on the narrow sidewalks and often on the streets themselves. Whenever the denizens of the camp tried to knock down a fence and claim the unused real estate, drones appeared, firing rubber bullets and beanbags. Mira never could understand why the state guarded these useless lots so jealously. It was stupid.
Mira was feeling surprisingly energetic and vital after the transfusion. She was normally crushed physically after a blood donation and often needed to recharge immediately with juice, forced to spend some of her precious Koin just to make it home again. But she was practically skipping along as the sun began to set and the air around her became cooler. She adjusted her filthy neckerchief, ignoring its stench, totally oblivious to the stark difference between her fabulous, flowing virtual rainbow feather boa and this stained and moldy handkerchief she used to keep from swallowing too much dust.
Everyone knew she had gone to give blood, so she logged out and tucked her visor into her bag before going to pay her tax to the enforcer in charge of her camp. Rolo was actually a friendly fellow and always welcomed Mira warmly, but she knew that he would punch her face in if she ever filmed him with her visor, so she made sure to log off before she approached Rolo’s tent on the corner. He was sitting alone on an overturned bucket with his rifle at his feet and a vape pen in his hand. Mira approached him with her hands up, as was the protocol for paying taxes.
“Wazzup, Mira?” said Rolo, expelling a cloud of vape smoke that smelled of meth. “People sayin’ crazy shit ‘bout you.” He made a signal with his hand and Mira suddenly noticed the little ten year old kid they called Hefe, standing in a dumpster behind Rolo’s tent. He’d had a pistol trained on Mira, but he pointed it skyward and gave her a chilling smile, his eyes dead. Mira’s blood ran cold at the sight of the tiny sociopath. The rules were always the same for every gang. You had to earn your gun with a kill. Mira was afraid of a child who could kill so effortlessly.
“Yeah, shit was crazy, but I got to the clinic, and I gave my blood. Here to pay my tax,” said Mira. She kept her hands up out of respect.
“Cool, cool, you can relax,” said Rolo, giving Mira a gap toothed smile. He pulled out the special hacked together rig he used to generate KaosKoin addresses. Mira held out her hand and he stamped the back of it with a QR code in cheap ink that would rub off easily.
Mira gasped and nearly jerked her hand away. “Three Koin? How come?” Her mind was racing. That was as much as a normal blood bank would have paid her for one visit, but Rolo had no way of knowing that she’d gotten much more. She knew it was dangerous to complain, but if she didn’t then he might suspect how much she really had.
Rolo gave her a shrewd look and took a hit of meth. “You don’t have to pay it if you don’t want to,” he said softly.
Mira froze in her tracks. She knew damn well that she had to pay it or they would hurt her badly. “It’s just all I got, you know, seems harsh,” she whispered. She could feel the tears welling up. She hated getting shaken down like this, even if she could afford it now.
Rolo actually seemed guilty for a minute. “Yeah, well, you know,” he leaned in closer. “You got too much attention. People saying you rollin’ in Bliing. My boss would figure that’s good enough for you. Keep the Bliing, hand over the Koin. I would go soft on you if I could. But I get too soft, I end up in the dumpster and Heffe over there is collecting taxes, you feel me?” Rolo tried to smile, but his cheek was twitching madly from all the meth he’d smoked. He flicked his tongue involuntarily a few times, reminding Mira of a tattoo-faced lizard.
“I’ll pay it. I know how to stay alive,” promised Mira. She made a fist and held up the code to show Rolo.
“Good girl, you’ll be okay, rations coming today.” Rolo looked around nervously. “Now get.”
Mira scurried away when he dismissed her and quickly logged back into her visor. The filthy camp was obscured by the virtual structures her neighbors had created to spruce up the place. Colorful mushroom houses and fanciful castles surrounded her now, as the chatter of her social groups resumed and her view was filled with status windows and alerts. Mira sighed as she reentered this virtual world.
The real world sucked. People trying to kill and hijack you, shaking you down all of the time. Nothing but poverty and garbage everywhere. Mira thought she would go mad if she didn’t have her ChatTime, her friends, and the AR skins that hid the ratty tents and debris all around her.
She came to a big red and white spotted virtual mushroom house that was, in reality, just a brown tent with a tarp over it, but it was where Mira’s friend Zazoo lived. Zazoo was an older woman who Mira visited when she was feeling down, when she needed a mother figure. Mira’s own mother was down in LA, hooked on pills and not very communicative. Zazoo allowed Mira to see her location status and Mira knew the old woman was inside, but she called out with her voice out of politeness.
The door of the mushroom hut opened and Mira saw Zazoo’s familiar avatar, a green haired earth mother in a flowy, tie-dyed rainbow dress.
“Ohh, so pretty, so pretty,” chuckled Zazoo, welcoming Mira into her hut. “What Bliing, so fancy!”
Mira surreptitiously scanned the code on the back of her hand with her wallet and began to thaw out three Koins so she could pay her rent and forget about it. Then she ducked into Zazoo’s tent. It was a shame that AR couldn’t cover the smell. The old woman worked hard to keep her place clean, but without running water it got pretty rank inside the little tent.
“I’ve just been sitting here and watching my little Mira’s adventures, oh so many hashtags, poor Zazoo can’t keep up,” chatted the older woman. The avatar presented Mira with a sunny smile, literal suns emanating and diminishing in a geometric pattern. It was a custom animated emoji that Zazoo had bought years before, but Mira never tired of it. The avatar glanced slyly around and then leaned forward, as the woman whispered conspiratorially to Mira. “You must be hungry, but you don’t have to wait for the relief trucks. Old Zazoo still has some rations tucked away. Even on delivery day, Zazoo keeps some food saved.” The avatar produced a silver tray with a crystal dome, which she pulled away to reveal a steaming, stuffed turkey. This represented a plain turkey MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat), Mira knew.
Mira didn’t feel nearly as hungry as she normally did after donating blood, but she accepted the old woman’s precious offering. Partly to be nice, and partly to not raise suspicion with anyone who might be watching or listening nearby. Everybody was always hungry when they returned from the blood bank. No one would refuse food at such a time, especially on ration day when everyone was out of food. The turkey meal assumed its real proportions as Mira received it, so that she could eat it properly, and she took a bite.
“Your boa is so crazy, I’ve never seen such a thing,” commented Zazoo, inspecting Mira’s new AI with fascination.
“It’s mostly a DJ,” said Mira. She paused in her munching to gesture and wake up the assistant. It oriented itself immediately toward Zazoo, noticing her interest.
“I know what you like,” hissed the snake, flicking its tongue as it sampled Zazoo’s public profiles.
“Oh yeah, pretty snake?” asked Zazoo. But then she gasped as music came forth, emanating from each visor handle into their ears. Zazoo was stunned into silence by the tune. It was some kind of really old fashioned rock with lots of echoey drums and guitar, and a chorus of men and women singing together. Mira was utterly bored by it and secretly turned down the volume. But Zazoo was smitten and tears were rolling down her cheeks as she was carried back in time, perhaps far away from this filthy camp, to a place where she was young and life still had promise for her.
Mira chowed down quietly, respectful of the emotional moment her friend was having, but a little impatient as she scanned her feeds and watched with disappointment as her notoriety slowly ebbed away. Her traffic volumes were falling a bit more with each passing minute, as new bright and shiny events drew the attention of the masses, and the story of a little girl dropping off the grid and then witnessing a gangster incapacitated by drones became less and less fresh.
The snake noticed both Zazoo’s intense emotion and Mira’s disinterest and morphed the tune subtly into a new piece, with beats and melodies from a current top ten hit that Mira loved, but mixed with an upbeat psychedelic countermelody that drew Zazoo out of her ruminations.
“Ah well,” sighed Zazoo, unaware that her emotions were being manipulated by a semi-autonomous algorithm. “Those days are long gone, aren’t they?”
“Huh?” asked Mira. “You know those cholos really fucked me hard on the rent.”
“Oh yeah, so sorry baby, but you had to see it coming.” The older woman took the empty meal package from Mira’s lap and slipped it into a compost bag. “You can’t get too famous in the camps. The spotlight brings the sharks out.” The avatar stared off into space. “Ahh, see, look, the trucks are here already, they’re parked down on Brush today. Let’s go stock up! Having a full cupboard will cheer you up.”
Mira and Zazoo emerged from the little mushroom hut and joined the crowd. Everyone was staring at Mira’s snake until she frantically toggled its privacy settings down to a much tighter social circle. No one else around there could afford such a fancy assistant. In fact, most of them were wandering around as is, without any avatars at all. This always amazed Mira. She couldn’t understand how anyone could fail to take a few simple steps to set up even a basic avatar. But some people were just too slow or too preoccupied with drugs and poverty to care about their virtual appearance.
The homeless formed an orderly queue, policed by a swarm of aggressive drones from the Social Stability Council. These drones would deliver a nasty electrical shock to anyone who tried cutting or crowding in line. People learned that pretty quickly and it was usually only the really drugged up denizens who incurred the wrath of the drones. There were some bandwidth problems with so many homeless gathered in one place, and Mira’s AR kept freezing and dropping her back into default reality, where she was confronted with the piles of garbage lining the barbed wire fence that blocked off the empty lots, forbidden to the likes of her. The homeless were complimentary subscribers and didn’t get very much bandwidth allocated to them. Paying customers rarely ran into these problems in crowds, even at big sporting events.
The Social Stability Council trucks were fully automated, of course. Each citizen was scanned and then presented with a fresh box of MREs and a visor of the latest revision, fully charged, which emerged from one of several chutes on each side of the container sized trucking unit. One box per citizen, but multiple citizens serviced at once. The process was very fast and efficient and the line moved along quickly until it was Mira’s group’s turn. She approached the nearest chute and a green checkmark appeared before her, confirming her eligibility, but then the checkmark froze and shattered in the strangest animation Mira had ever seen, let alone in any animations associated with government programs. Everyone else was seeing the same thing and a collective gasp went up from the crowd.
“Oh shit, something bad is happening,” cried Zazoo.
But then the chutes started chugging wildly, the entire container swaying back and forth on its suspension, as box after box of rations came pouring out of every chute at once. There was chaos as people started shouting madly, grabbing up as many boxes as they could carry. The drones buzzed in angrily, trying to keep some semblance of order, but several were knocked right out of the sky by flung chunks of concrete.
Miraculously, Zazoo produced a fishing net and spread it gracefully before her with a flick of her wrist. Mira immediately understood their good fortune. Of course it was nice to get a little extra food, but these council trucks NEVER malfunctioned. She was streaming a crazy, unusual, and chaotic event to her social channels and her traffic volume was soaring. Mira was giddy with excitement, she would probably get a reality show gig from all this publicity. She helped Zazoo pile a bunch of boxes onto the spread out net and, when they had collected as many as they thought they could carry, they grabbed the edges of the net and tried to scurry away, crab walking sideways with their bulky load. There were already sirens in the distance and the heavy thrum of big security copters en route to restore order.
“We can’t go back to my hut, the cops will be here soon and they will be searching everyone’s tents. In fact, they might purge everyone’s stuff again for this,” panted Zazoo. “We need to get this down to the port. I have a secret spot.”
“No-no, no-no,” scolded a youngster’s voice. Mira’s blood ran cold as the little gangster called Heffe suddenly appeared before them. He pointed his huge gun at Mira, no particular expression on his face at all, as he threatened her life. “All this loot mine, chica.”
“Heffe, my visor is streaming this,” whined Mira in exasperation. “You know how many followers I have right now? Besides, you can’t carry all of this stuff, you are too little.”
The normally cold blooded little killer started fidgeting, shifting his weight from foot to foot in agitation. “Well, fuckin’ turn it off then,” he said. “You too, old lady.”
Mira and Zazoo hurriedly removed their visors, but it was too late, and the kid should have known that. He had already been witnessed robbing them with the gun. He’d broken a cardinal rule of the gangs around here, namely to stay the fuck off of social media streams. Especially hot ones like Mira’s. Mira thought she detected the slightest sign of fear when Heffe saw Rolo and a couple of the older members of the gang sauntering over.
“I didn’t do nuthin,” yelped the youngster, training his gun on the approaching gangsters. Sweat was beading on his brow.
“Hey, hey, we know that little man, we just here to talk, okay?” said Rolo, holding up his hands to placate the youngster. But Heffe wasn’t fooled, and he gave a cry as he fired off a few rounds in the direction of the older boys, making them duck for cover before running for his life.
Several of the boys with Rolo produced guns, but then thought better of it as the heavy policy copters approached, clearing the crowd by spraying some of the older bean bag projectiles, as well as some of the new immobilization foam.
“He’s just a kid,” said Mira to Rolo, as his companions chased after the fleeing child on foot.
Rolo’s tongue shot out and back, but he seemed completely unaware of his signature tic. “You know that ain’t true, Mira.” He took a hit from his vape pen and looked on dispassionately as the choppers dispersed or immobilized the crowd behind them. “He would have done me in in a second if I fucked up on protocol like that.” The gangster looked at the pile of ration boxes on Zazoo’s net. “And for what? A pile of fucking MREs? That’s poor impulse control, even for us crazy bastards. Ah, he wouldn’t have lasted anyway. Don’t cry. Go put your visors back on, you’ll get crazy Bliing from this wild shit.” And the vicious boy walked away casually.
Mira eagerly put her visor back on, capturing the turmoil that surrounded them as the security forces moved in. Her blood ran cold with the realization that Heffe was as good as dead. If the gangsters didn’t catch him that day, they would eventually. And they would kill the little boy. Just like that.
But then Mira sobbed even more deeply as she saw the garbage trucks arriving. CalTrans was coming in for another purge in response to this incident, even though it wasn’t the camper’s faults that the council truck had fucked up like that. The state was coming to gather up the refuse and dispose of it in the garbage trucks. But that refuse included the tents and ramshackle structures assembled by the homeless in this camp. It wasn’t an official camp, after all.
“The fates are against us, child,” cried Zazoo in distress. “Fly to your tent and gather up your things before they vacuum them away. Such a shame to lose these rations, but we can’t carry everything at once.”
The homeless around them were abandoning their windfall rations and rushing to salvage whatever they could carry of their meager possessions, before the automated trucks started sucking everything up to be hauled off to the dump.
Mira was about to rush off to do this herself, forgetting even her wildly expanding traffic share for the moment, when her interfaces crashed again and a big, middle aged white man appeared before her. His avatar was the super-realistic kind that she had only seen on shows.
“Mira? My name is Matheson. I want to talk to you.” As the avatar spoke, an expensive Tesla autocar pulled up and the door opened. Its cool interior offered a surreal haven of luxury amongst the milling madness under the blazing sun.
“Great Zeus, what’s this?” gasped Zazoo. She stared open mouthed at the tooled leather seats of the extravagant autocar.
“Can’t you see him? Maybe he’s here to offer me a reality show deal?” offered Mira.
The avatar seemed to freeze for a moment, before presenting Mira with a wry smile. “No, Mira, we can’t offer you fame. But my employer has many resources and we can compensate you well for your assistance.”
“What’s he saying, Mira? We need to get our things, child!” urged Zazoo. She grabbed Mira’s arm and shook it.
“He says he isn’t with the networks. Shit, mister, can’t you show yourself to Zazoo too? This is stupid, they’re gonna take our stuff!”
Matheson appeared to Zazoo and was about to speak to them both, when Zazoo interrupted, her eyes alight with a plan. “You know what? I don’t care who the hell you are. If you’re offering us a ride, we’ll take it! Just swing by and let us grab our stuff first,” said Zazoo. “Mira, help me get these rations into the car.”
“Wait, what is all this?” asked the avatar. It was clearly disturbed by the pile of rations.
“Rations, fool,” snapped Zazoo. Meanwhile, Mira snatched the net from the ground and awkwardly backed herself into the car as Zazoo pushed from the other side.
“You don’t need these; we can get you all the food you want,” protested the avatar, as the two homeless women stuffed the interior of the expensive car with boxes of rations and visors.
Mira had swept her social feeds aside during the crisis, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friends making jokes about how silly it looked to pile poor folk’s stuff into such a fancy vehicle.
“Yeah, well, a bird in the hand and all that,” muttered Zazoo, as she and Mira climbed clumsily onto the boxes piled everywhere. “Now we need to go get our tents. Get Mira’s first, the trucks are nearly upon it!”
“What are you talking about?” complained the avatar. It presented a brow darkened with confusion and annoyance.
“Here’s my GPS, hurry, they’re going to purge my stuff,” pleaded Mira, sending the avatar the coordinates of her tent.
The avatar paused for a moment, gazing into the internet. “Oh, this is a Caltrans purge. I see. Okay, we can help with this.” The car doors slid silently shut and the car leapt forward, flinging Mira and Zazoo to the back of the cab, where they crushed a few cardboard boxes of rations.
The car whipped around a slowly advancing garbage truck with inflatable fenders that pushed the frantic homeless people aside, so that the huge, articulated vacuum tube could hoover up all of their worldly belongings. Tents and shopping carts were unceremoniously grabbed and deposited into the massive storage container on the back of the truck, while the poor, filthy denizens wept with impotence and frustration. Yet these purges happened all of the time in these unregistered camps. It was a fact of life for the rootless and dispossessed.
The car arrived at MIra’s tent just as a truck started clearing her block. She and Zazoo rolled out through the open door and began hastily tossing her things into the front trunk, which had sprung open upon their arrival. Mira did feel foolish loading such paltry junk into the expensive car: her torn blankets and pillows, her smelly old stuffed animals, so much junk. But it was all she had. It didn’t take long for them to load up her things, while Matheson’s avatar kept insisting that they could easily be replaced.
They insisted on picking up Zazoo’s modest belongings next, and soon the back trunk of the powerful autocar was loaded with more random refuse of the sort collected by an old homeless woman, desperate to extract value from the trash that could be found on the street. It included her clothing and dust masks, a baby carriage, and her drug stash, all lodged comfortably into the spacious trunk.
When the two women, one old and chubby, the other young and slim, finally crawled back into the cab amongst the ration boxes, Mira turned to the avatar of Matheson and said, “Okay, Mr. Matheson, if you aren’t with the networks, do you want to tell me who you ARE with?”
But the avatar seemed to crash, fuzzing out freakily around the edges before reassembling in a much lower resolution form. It pulled a Guy Fawkes mask from within its jacket and put it on. “Oh, you don’t want to go see that nasty Mr. Matheson, do you Mira?” asked the masked figure.
“Oh dear,” gasped Zazoo, who had witnessed the transformation.
The car swerved off the road and came to a halt. The interior lights dimmed, then turned dark red for a moment, before resuming their previous soothing orange hue.
“Uh, I don’t know,” stammered Mira, feeling a little frightened. She had never been hacked before, but she had seen plenty of shows about it. Hackers were always a wildcard, not evil exactly, but you never knew what the heck they would do. “Matheson said he would give me Koin if I helped him.”
“Oh, Koin is so easy to get,” laughed the masked figure. “What you need is fun. You’ve been too stressed out lately, we’ve seen your rise to fame. You need to kick back and relax. Let’s go to Burning Man.”
Before Mira could answer, the car jumped back off the curb and started speeding eastward.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Burning Man, Zazoo,” admitted Mira. “Do you think they will really take us there?” She noticed that her feeds had gone grey again, and she suspected that the hackers were filtering her internet connection.
“I don’t know, child. But I’m not sure what choice we have now,” admitted Zazoo. And the older woman began busily restacking their ration boxes, so that they would have a comfortable place to sit on the long trip to the desert.