Writers of the Future Story Sample: “Twelve Minutes to Vinh Quang”
The Writers of the Future Volume 31 Anthology releases a week from today (May the 4th! Star Wars day! How appropriate!). In that antho, you will find my story, but you will also find stories from a number of extremely talented new writers as well as stories and essays from the likes of Larry Niven, Kevin J Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, and Orson Scott Card.
One of my fellow winners is the talented Tim Napper (or TR Napper, which I think is his preferred nom de plume). Tim writes what he calls “neo noir,” but might also be called cyberpunk. In any event, what he writes is breathlessly cool and edgy near-future scifi set mostly in Australia, Vietnam, and the Pacific region. You will all dig it, I promise. Treat yourself below to a dramatic reading of the first few paragraphs of his award-winning story, “Twelve Minutes to Vinh Quang.”
Prince of Inside-Os
Author’s Note: So, as the last time I did this proved at least moderately popular, here is the teaser for the second mission in my Shadowrun: Hong Kong RPG. Different fixer, different contact in the party, but hopefully still entertaining.
To the average work-a-day slug, the Matrix is something they can hold inside their lives; a sliver of experience they can wedge between ‘playing with the kids’ and ‘getting that report to Mr. Hito’. It is comprised of a banal series of bank nodes and entertainment vids; ordering groceries and indulging in porn and the rest of the boring, simplistic nonsense that, apparently, passes for existence for the balance of metahumanity.
That, though, is the shallow end. That’s the Matrix kiddie pool, complete with lifeguards and water-wings. Those who know how to swim quickly learn that there’s a whole new world beyond that little rope with the blue-and-white buoys. The deep matrix, the dark matrix; there be monsters.
Well, not really; monsters are rare. There be pirates, more accurately. Pirates like you. There are entire kingdoms of pirates down there in the deep Matrix, organized into little islands of hackers, runners, and other people of the shadows, lurking beneath the glow and bustle of the shallow Matrix like predators of the deep.
Your particular pirate island is a place called Inside-OS (get it?). It’s a hacker collective, a combination social group and non-profit criminal organization whose primary qualification for membership is finding it in the first place. The VR landscape of Inside-OS is a comical re-imagining of the Smurf’s village from antique 20th century animation, but infused with every geek reference from Wayne Manor to a TARDIS to the mighty throne of Neil the Ork Barbarian.
Here, you are a warrior prince, a noted member – Slayer of ICE, hacker of mainframes, He Who Must Not Be Dissed. When you stride among the many smurfs (the lowest ranking members – very limited access), they part for you like the Red Sea before Moses. You can, if you wish, behead any of them with your digital katana, banning them from Inside-OS forever (unless they hack their way back in, at which point they are immediately promoted to ‘member’ and can use their own avatar). All told, there are 352 members of Inside-OS and, of them, 278 are smurfs – eager to help, eager to impress, hungry for more respect in this elite pirate kingdom of the deep matrix.
You maintain a pagoda on the outskirts of the node. Surrounded by moat and drawbridge and guarded by stone lions that flank the entrance, this is ‘where’ you spend much of your time when jacked in. It is your electronic home, more personal to you than that hole of an apartment in Mong Kok where your meat-self is forced to exist.
You are in the process of meditating over the best way to hack into the Mitsuhama mainframe to send your mother a birthday card (just as joke) and yet avoid getting her in trouble when the lions out front roar out a challenge – you have a visitor. There, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, is simplistic stick-figure man wearing a hat in the style of a telegram delivery man from the early 20th century. He (though ‘he’ is a stretch – this is clearly a program) is holding a hypercard; its clean, and postmarked as being from Snafu, your fixer. You take the card, and you’re linked to a live-chat that’s being bounced through a half-dozen nodes from Hamburg to New Dehli.
Snafu’s face is an impressionist painting that shifts in color and hue as you look at it. Today, it’s a Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “‘Sup, holmes?”
“On the clock.” You respond. “Go.”
“Well, I got something for you that I think you’re gonna like. Deets are on the card, baby, but here’s the precis: Big deal set to go down between Hildebrandt-Kleinfort-Bernal and Renraku Computer Systems; big cheese at Renraku is set to have a face-to-face with big cheese at HKB at the Renraku corporate retreat – an estate near the top of Victoria Peak. Swank place, tight security – check the specs.”
“Okay, but what’s the job?”
You can’t tell, but you think Snafu is smiling. “Criminal landscaping.”
“Serious. Mr. Johnson wants you to bust in and move some shrubs around, mess with a few statues, replace a few rocks – shit like that. He’s got a whole presentation on the card, man – not making this up.”
Typically, in the rest of the shadow world, your fixer doesn’t know what the job is. Snafu is a hacker, though, and being nosy is his job, so you aren’t offended. You’ve known him for years and he’s a proven friend. If he says that’s what the Johnson wants, then that’s what the Johnson wants. “So, we break in, change around this garden…”
“…without anyone knowing. Best to do it just before the meeting starts, right, so they don’t have time to inspect and, you know, redecorate again.”
“Dude, don’t tell me how to do my job.” You scowl at Starry Night for a second, “So that’s it? Break in, redecorate so they don’t notice or don’t have time to change it, then get out. That’s it?”
“What’s the pay?”
“No shit. Betcha they don’t pay their actual landscapers half that.”
You turn the card over in your hands – on the back, the icon to connect with Mr. Johnson is there, glowing faintly. “Man, I’d be an idiot to turn this one down.”
Chun Fa’s Job
Author’s Note: What follows is a bit of introductory text for a Shadowrun campaign I just started running. I’m placing it here because (1) I’m pretty proud of it and (2) I’m pressed for time and can’t post anything else just now. I hope you enjoy it!
Hong Kong has two seasons: dry and wet. During the dry season, it’s really hot and very humid; during the wet, it is somewhat less hot and, incredibly, even more humid. Monsoons batter the coastal city with driving rains, rains that seem to fall in not just one direction but all directions at once. The water is like human sweat, warm and a bit salty, and there is no escaping it, no dividing your own body from it. The rain covers everything in this town, merging it together in one slimy, sticky, foul-smelling slick.
Walking down the Golden Mile in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, you can tell the locals from the expat from the tourists by how hard they fight the rain. Tourists wear polymer fiber raincoats and brightly colored umbrellas, sweating and bumping along uncomfortably with the crowds. Expats wear simple ponchos of lightweight plastic and don’t bother to button them, which is still a step above the simple sampan hats of the locals, who take the rain as a gift from the spirit world, even if they don’t particularly like it.
As an ork, you’ve got a good half-meter in height on most people on the street. Ordinarily this gives you a good view of your surroundings, even in a crowd, but it’s night on the Golden Mile in the rainy season, and all you can see is Chinese characters in jarring neon beneath the non-stop spam in your AR displays – tourist shops, noodle stands, sex clubs, and even traditional Chinese apothecaries bombard your senses with ads, some even linked up with your hot sim. If you didn’t have it cut out as a safety measure, you’d smell the noodles and taste the tea while feeling the massages, both chaste and pornographic. Ordinarily you’d be running in private mode in this area, allowing you to see, but Chun Fa has his ways of contacting you, and it often involves enduring the spam for a while. So, you wash down the street with the river of humanity, bathed in the rain, the world nothing but a riot of neon color with the roar of the rain all around and a sea of sampan hats beneath.
It’s only about ten minutes of this before you spot the ad. It’s a picture of a pig on a spit being braised over hot coals with the words “Hot Times!” advertised beneath – no animation, no flair, it’s an ad that nobody would notice or even remember in the neverending sea of Golden Mile spam. You’re looking for it, though, and you know what it means. You duck into the next little cafe and sit at an open table in the back. The place is well lit Japanese sushi place with buzzing fluorescent light and decorated with cheap vinyl faux-wood veneers and imitation paper screens. You recognize the name – some chain called Magic Fish that’s been trying to get a foothold in Hong Kong for the past decade, with moderate success. You’re not really here to eat, anyway, but you order some tea to avoid arousing the suspicion of the dull-eyed teenagers behind the counter. They’ll bring it, but they aren’t rushing. Suits you.
Chun Fa shows up a couple minutes later. He’s a heavyset Chinese man with a face like a dumpling – round, flabby, and glistening as though coated in oil. His hair is a tight little copse of curly black positioned on the very top of his head with the sides shaved away, like he’s maintaining some kind of game preserve up there for whatever could survive in his heavy oiled do. He smiles, making his face undulate into a kind of cheap knock-off of the laughing Buddha. “You look sick. Eat something, my treat.”
“I don’t eat this crap.” You mean to be sullen, but it’s hard not to smile at Chun Fa, so you do. “How you been?”
“Better than you.” He grabs his belly with both hands and shakes it so it jiggles. “I eat. Hey, got something for you.”
“About time. You’ve been too busy eating and not busy enough getting me work.”
Chun Fa shrugs. “You have no face, my friend. No guanxi. Hard to get you work when most of your work is somewhere else.” You’re about to protest, but he cuts you off. “Please, I mean no offense. Besides, I have something – no small job, either. Big work – pull it off, and you gain a lot of face, make the right connections for even bigger work later. Okay?”
The rest is small talk. After a sensible period, Chun Fa leaves. You stay and wait for Mr. Johnson, who shows up just about the same time as you get your tea. He is thin where Chun Fa is fat, his face is pointed and narrow, like a knife. He is older than you and probably older than Chun Fa, but beyond that it’s hard to place his age. He’s wearing a western suit, which itself means nothing – this guy screams ‘Triad’, but you have no idea which one.
He slides a memory chip across the table to you beneath a napkin and starts talking. “There is a ship that will be docking in Victoria Harbor in three days, called the Aleutian Sunrise. This ship is not to reach the dock.”
A quick shake of the head and a cruel grin is the answer. “You will sink it. In Victoria Harbor, where everyone will see.”
You do your best not to whistle – a tough job, very dangerous, very complicated. “Pay?”
“Ten thousand for a retainer, fifteen upon completion. Plus, we will pay market rate for any cargo you recover from the ship prior to its destruction.”
Cargo – that meant illicit goods, obviously. This wasn’t a ship full of car parts and women’s underwear. These guys – whoever they are – are pretty pissed off at some smugglers and want to make a public example of them. You and your team are the implement of that example, and you’re getting paid peanuts for the privilege. “Okay, Mr. Johnson – let’s talk turkey…”
Say the technology of cybernetics/genetic engineering gets to the point where it isn’t just available to replace the stuff you need (new organs, prosthetic limbs, injury healing, disease resistance, etc.), but you can, electively, enable yourself to surpass the human norm. Super bionic strength, running for days without fatigue, seeing in the dark, breathing water…
Do you get them?
Let’s skip past some of the practical scientific problems here (which are legion) and go straight to the ethical/moral/aesthetic concerns. What kind of stuff would sell? What kind of stuff would be developed? Given our current sporting culture, it’s safe to assume that the sporting world wouldn’t embrace augmented superhumans into their ranks. So, if you can’t dunk from half-court in the NBA, why do you need the super-jumping? Seeing in the dark would be nice, I suppose, but wouldn’t going under the knife in surgery (and all the risk that entails) be a rather large inconvenience for a problem that, let’s be honest, you don’t really have? Couldn’t we just make night-vision goggles cheaper, maybe stick them in regular glasses or even contact lenses? If we wanted to jump really high, wouldn’t it be easier to build a pair of super-jump pants or something?
Well, okay, maybe/maybe not. I, personally, find the idea of augmenting the human form past its normal physical parameters to be mildly distasteful. I confess that I don’t find the idea of boosting one’s mental capacity quite so problematic, so my problem is more aesthetic than it is anything else. Then again, I also wouldn’t get a tattoo (I cannot think of a word or picture that I would love to see on my body until the day I die), don’t find body piercing all that attractive, and am perfectly fine with the color my hair is right now, thank you. Perhaps I’m a poor sampling for the kinds of things people are willing to do to their bodies just for the hell of it.
Cyberpunk is full of the concept of human alteration. It’s used, primarily, as a symbol of the machine corrupting the human temple with its hard, passionless, lifeless influence. I would be surprised if many of the authors in that subgenre actually found such alterations to be positive things, since so much of that genre demonstrates, in the moment of catharsis, the primacy of living humanity over lifeless silicon. When sci-fi authors want to present body augmentation in a positive light exclusively, they tend to do it with biological agents–they grow new glands, produce stronger antibodies, develop stronger natural muscles (Banks’ Culture novels spring to mind here, as does some aspects of Herbert’s Dune saga). Still, the sci-fi audience’s fascination with bionic improvements, all the way from Lee Majors to Keanu Reeves, seems to imply that we do, in fact, like the idea of having kung-fu implanted into our brains. The symbolic appeal is clear, of course (we get to be stronger, better, faster, defeat our enemies, be better looking, etc, etc.). I do wonder, though, that if this stuff were actually available and you could actually afford it, how many of us would go for it?
I guess it would be similar to the amount of cosmetic plastic surgery done in this country, which totaled about 1.5-ish million in 2011. This isn’t a huge number, really. Now, granted, if they were offering things somewhat more impressive than big boobs, maybe that number would go up. Maybe if they made it cheaper, the number would go up. I don’t know, though. It sounds cool on paper, but in practice I feel like it gets creepier and creepier. Would a kind of cybernetic arms race develop among the population? Would all the cool kids in school be able to change their skin-tone at will thanks to sub-dermal pigmentation generators? Would our standards of beauty change? Maybe. Probably, even.
Still, though, there would probably be a pretty sizable chunk of ‘norms’ standing on the sidelines, shaking their heads and muttering to themselves “when that Logan kid gets to be eighty and it’s a cold day, he’s going to wish his skeleton weren’t made of metal. God, think of the arthritis!”