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By Koobie Wyatt

Copyright 2017 Koobie Wyatt

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Chapter 1

You know, gran is such a bullshitter.

There she sits at the head of the table waving her fork around, saying the most outrageous things. Here comes another one now.

Years ago, so she reckons, years ago before even mum and dad were born, they all thought the world was going to end. Everyone was going to be blasted to dust and shadows, and that would be the end of that. So she says.

But it never came. Their final day never happened. There was no blinding flash. Nobody's skin was fused to nobody's bones. Leastways, not until Murmansk – and that was when I was a little kid, you know, like six or so decades on from the main event. And it had been a total accident, too. Fucking thing wasn't actually pointed at anyone when it went off, yeah? I mean, there was no target or anything. Dad thinks they were just cleaning up, but what does he know? So poor little Murmansk was no big deal really, not compared to what gran is talking about.

Millions may die any day now, says dad, when the earth gives way and LA falls in on top of itself. Or maybe Istanbul.

Bad times, dad. Real bad times. I grin, becoming ever more excited by all this talk of destruction and death. Tell us more, gran! Tell us more!

Hayla, my cyst, my big blister, hushes me up and reaches right across the table completely uninvited. Still heaps left on my plate I have, but it isn’t for her greedy face. At least not yet. Not whilst it’s still warm.

Dad snaps at her, which makes a change.

I just can't picture it, you know, gran marking time like that, all paralysed and trembling before the Almighty Bomb as if before God. No shelters were deep enough to hold a future for any of them, she says, and no real future to speak of other than those last four minutes. So together they would hide and huddle in the long grass, gran and her happy friends – just a bunch of kids like you and me – their bright summer days tainted by this one stark certainty, scaring one another shitless with tales of fallout and lingering death, of still births and running sores. Were their treasured, radiant lives to count for nothing?

I shake my head. I really do. Nuclear war really must have been the most serious kind of mindfuck to try to stare down when you're so young. I know I couldn't have handled it. And that's the truth.

At least not without my wire.

Why didn't your parents send you down the mall, gran? Just pop some coin in your pockets and send you shopping or something? That's what ours do! (Or what we ourselves choose to do when none of us is able to face up to what we should be facing up to.)

It all seems laughable to me here and now, sixty some odd years distant from gran's mutually assured nightmare. You know, tucked up safe and sound and completely in the clear. But the minute I start to openly chuckle and stuff, incredulous at the enormity of it all, gran takes it totally the wrong way and comes on dead stroppy with me. That's when she starts cranking out that you-young-people cliché of hers, cutlery poised. Liberteens, I say, correcting her yesteryear way of speaking in a teasing, grandsonish sort of way. The youth of today, gran perseveres, the youth of today have neither the grace nor the wisdom they think they have. They're only interested in what's on the outside. Proofs not truths. (She says all this as if I’m not there, yeah?) They are unable to see or fear the true nature of anything. For them there is no danger. No danger in anything at all.

By now the top of her voice is echoing loud in mum's ears from Sunday lunches long gone, when someone older and wiser and totally unknown to me used to sit in gran's creaky carver. Written all over mum's face it is, grim as grim. I'm just having a bit of fun, you know? I don't pretend to understand.

Why, asks gran, why are we so eager to throw our lives away so uselessly, so easily, so unlived and unfulfilled? (She's seen it on the telly, so she has.) And is it really so very many...?

Don't point with your knife, mother. It's rude.

It's all the reply she gets. For a mouthful or two there's a lull, then up we rise again for an argument about genetics, about ordained destiny, which gran doesn't believe in at all, and about heavensight, in which I don't believe but big blister does. Hayla ignores me when I say it's all big laughing bollocks, and reassures gran in a grand-daughterish kind of way that genetics is something she will have very little understanding of because she didn't have to learn about it at school back in the day. Unlike us. And then gran comes back all wild-eyed and proud, drumming hard at her bony chest, proclaiming she was born the year DNA was first well and truly unravelled. Which I am sure must be a lie. But like who knows?

Gran is making us giggle again and has to bang the table to shut us up.

Oh, come on, gran – you know you're not the punchline!

But our facetiousness is becoming tiresome to her and a weary look of defeat passes across gran's face. She retreats to her food visibly reduced in size. Poor gran. Hayla and I can't keep a serious train of thought going for more than five seconds, she ought to know that. I know I wind her up more than I ought, and far more than she deserves, because I really do love listening to what gran has to say.

Poor mum and dad, look at them. Becalmed in the middle as usual. They've heard all this about a thousand times before: the appalling contrast between their children’s lives and those of the generation preceding their own. And no one is the slightest bit interested in anything either of them has to say, that’s for sure. Recent history is the most contemptible form of history, after all.

Our world on the other hand, our world is now so gloriously bounding, bright and wondersome that gran's commonplace recollections are a strangeness to be savoured. And they're funnier, too. They spank dad's cheesy old nostalgia any day. Listen.

Things were so downright primitive when gran was my age, yeah? Ten times unbelievable, some of it. What she comes out with sometimes, it floors me absolutely. All the way down. I mean, if you simply deleted ten or so things from my life – really essential things – that gran didn't even have back in the Sixties when she was a girl, I can't imagine how I'd, you know, how I'd cope. Function. Whatever. Sorry, I know I'm going to collapse at the total pathetickness of it all long before I get to the end of gran's woeful and like homeless kid list, but here goes. Straight face and no violins.

In her house there was:-

- no phone (roamer or otherwise)

- no computer (which I kind of knew anyway)

- no wet room (just a cold steel bath, the very idea of which gives me the shivers on account of the giant hairy fucking spiders)

- no central heating (can you believe, the first thing gran had to do when she arrived home from school was to make an actual fire – by hand, with paper and coal!)

- no fridge

- no dishwasher

- no washing machine or tumble drier

- no microwave (everyone’s houses must have smelled of cabbage and eggs, yeah?)

- no music system (well, just this manually operated effort, sort of like a meat-grinder, which played things about the size of a family pizza – and with an actual needle for Christ's sake! – I mean, I'd die without constant music: I've always got at least one earbug in, even at the dinner table, like now for instance)

- no chip DV or even that crappy video thing that dad brings down from the attic every once in a weepy while

- and – get this; this is deluxe – a monochrome box television set made of wood, on legs with just three channels and no broadcasts during the daytime. I mean, what on earth did they do when it rained? Play miserable little dice games?

Gran's impoverished life didn't end there. There was more. Plenty more.

Until she flew off on her honeymoon, gran had never been abroad or on an airliner in her life (I've been on twenty, minimum). And in those days glow and pollen were still totally beyond law (though that's no bad thing if the question's being asked). And, if you can believe it, there was only one place in town you could actually buy a burger: in a real life restaurant, all brown and scarlet plastic inside with waitresses to match. Nasty. Gran says you honestly had to sit down and eat it with a knife and fork – bun and fries and all – like it was a serious meal or something.

And then gran tries telling us there were no shopping malls at all. Not a single one in the whole damn town – in any town – just sort of ranks of uncovered shops along either side of a cold and windy street. She reckons browsing used to mean going into each one of these sad places in turn to see if you liked what was on offer. There were no pop-ups, no persuasive virals or auto-calls, no man-to-man marketing or anything. I mean, there was no pressure. It cracks me up. It really does. No mall! Sounds worse than nuclear winter, yeah gran?

But of course it has to sour. It always does. We've been sitting there nearly a couple of hours, having a wonderful laugh over mild curry and light wine, me and mum and big cyst, dad and gran together, when the rain starts to hit hard against the window. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault, yeah? The whole afternoon falls right out of the sky because gran's had too much to drink – like she always does – and then dad has to go and mention the etherworld. My netherworld. Oh, great! Like thanks, dad. So now she's having a right go at me for being hardwired and stuff, and how I'm sure to kill myself before I'm twenty and had children of my own. Sure, gran. Sure. What’s the problem?

Out of the blue mum sticks up for me, though kind of half-heartedly, saying it's just another phase and I'll give it up soon enough. It's more to mollify herself than her mother really. Then the big bloater parked opposite contradicts mum right out by saying that the hardwire's evil and stuff and beyond law and I shouldn't be doing it ever and why don't you put Cal’s name down on one of those new head transplant lists or something if you’re that worried?

He’s already had it shrunk.

Fuck off, dad!

My turn to bang the table. Plates are cleared and silence grows. Sphincter muscles tighten. Bowls of dessert appear. It only remains for dad to start persecuting me, which he does, as soon as mum is out of the room.

I listen to a couple of minutes of this rubbish of his masquerading as dazzling perception, before waving it all away and making to leave the table. I don't have to put up with this shit I don't, not for one minute. I tell big blister she's welcome to my pudding. Only dad has to restrain me from shoving it all down her fat front when she makes to flick half a teaspoon of pale pink goop at me and chirps all sarcastic, don’t forget Andrena's portion!

I've had enough. I stomp upstairs.

Why do they have to get on at me like that? Why can't they just let things glide and ride? Why can't they just accept? I don't do bad stuff. You know, bad stuff to other people, stuff to harm the general population. And all my key performance tests come back fine or thereabouts, term after term, so what's the big fucking deal? Anyway, life's not a bottomless pit, is it? So what if I throw myself in as hard and as far as I can? They know it's what most liberteens end up doing. What's it got to do with any of them, anyway? It’s my fucking life! Andrena understands, thank God. I'd go mad without her. I really would.

I slam the door.

Dolts. Why do we bother with them? They squeeze us into this world of theirs and then spend forever complaining because the rails they’ve set us on are never ever quite straight enough. You know, one pesky micron off true. Always we come toppling off and they make such a big fuss and flap of setting us right back on them again. There we go! they say. Right as rain. Pat-pat. Good as new.

Right as rain, my arse. Dolts.

Alone in my room I lie down on the floor and jack the wire in behind my ear. The countback is set at four. Just a little one. Just enough to flush the stress out of my system, to block out the sound of gran crying below. There was a time when they would have chased me up the stairs, shouting at me, pleading with me. But not any more.

I smile. Andrena understands. So what more do I need?

Green lights flicker at my mind's horizon. I hit the switch and a golden light receives me. I am welcome.

Chapter 2

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Sick of this waiting room I am. Horrible fug of air fresheners and cleaning products. Magazines all dog-eared and dead. Not even any good pictures in them. Look at this one here: how old is it, for God's sake? Great big words proclaiming a stardust empire for the whole of mankind, all bold and crowish above a phoney image of some astronauts struggling to raise a flagpole. Bunch of wankers and no mistake. Two years left at school I have and still they haven't reached Mars. Dolts!

I know we're supposed to look up to them and everything, but our elders and betters are such an utter disappointment, aren't they? And like every time, too. Without fail. And it's all because of them I've been harbouring these dangerously high hopes and expectations, for years and years. Totally embarrassing really. I blame them entirely, all of them, without exception, for making me feel how I do. And these scientists, yeah? Their idea of a cosmic breakthrough is to toss up a probe in that direction every once in a while and stir up some dead orange dust. Awesome, as dad would say. It doesn't even make the news.

Space sucks. It really does. Endless void full of junk and urine crystals, that's all it is. Time was it used to be exciting and stuff looking up at the stars, dreaming and wondering. Like back when I was a little kid, maybe, all eager for dad's promises to come true. One day, he'd say, one day there'll be this magnificent glass and aluminium colony of frontiersmen up there somewhere. Heroes to a man. And he'd get me all bouncy and gleeful about rockets with fiery tails, things like that, and how I'd get to fly in one. Some day. But it doesn't excite me now. Not any more.

Nowadays I don't hear dad one way or the other really: I'm channelled into a very different kind of space – the space between my ears. The universe of my very brain! My heart churns white hot just thinking about it. All those on/off switches set to ignite me – and about a billion others – entwined across the ether every night. Personally, I'm aware of another three besides myself – Dil, Erle and Andrena – my friends, yeah? But we are most definitely legion. No question. Oh, and there's another one just down our road, a post-grad veggie loser, almost as old as dad and completely dirty. I don't mean sex dirty; I mean filth dirty, disgusting dirty like totally unwashed. Grins and shows me yellow teeth. Doesn't shave or shower and probably almost certainly stains his own clothes. Never has, you know, clean hangings or makes time to frig with his hair or anything. Just sits and smokes and looks greasy, with wormcasts all over his face. You wouldn't want to touch him even briefly, even by remotest accident. I mean, the guy’s a fucking maggot. Great brain, mind you. Just that Koel's in the same drecky garb day after day, week after week. Like dressings off an old wound they are. Criminal shame, because Koel really understands the inner distance. He can sort of hold your hand in the ether and show you ways and means you'd never dreamt of, corners of brilliance you'd never so much as even think were there. Shame it had to take a guy like him to show me, to humble me.

None of us has seen Koel about much lately though. Or felt his presence. For months come to think of it. Which makes me ten times more wary than normal. I bet he's boiling up something real creepy. Like I get the feeling he's always looked upon me as some kind of mud-sucking apprentice or somesuch, for him to direct or manipulate or whatever. All for him and him alone. Well, he can fuck off as far as the eye can see. Totally sick-making. One of these days I'll tell him to back right off, freaky boy! Which won't be easy, because there's all this history between him and me. Not that I want to talk about that right now. Ok?

Maybe I'd like a disciple or whatever, too, yeah? A little follower, a fellow traveller. That would be cool. Someone whose eyes I could open, wider and yet wider! But I guess I'm still too fresh and a little lean on real knowledge to be of any use to anyone just yet. And I don't want to lose anyone in the ether, now do I? Know what I mean? Oh, but maybe you don't know what I mean! Or know where I've been, where I'm going, this evening or whenever. Don't you download or watch the wall-to-wall? Surely you do! Like nobody doesn't, these days. Unless they're another dad, another sad and slo-mo infotainment junkie dad, all receding and tiresomely twentieth century, just filled to the brim with the printed word and stuff. Yeah, go on, dad, tell us all about your collection of classic plastic bottles. That’s it. There’s a good lad.

I can scan dad's boring grey hole of a universe in no time at all. Less than no time. Crap, the whole of it. No use to anyone. Not compared to my domain. Not like ether incognita. In mists divine.

Sometimes I make a real effort and try to reason with dad: like what about stims and tranks, dad? They're all ghostmakers, too! You know, like the purple and greenies gran has to take? But back he comes all scoffy and everclever with like come on, Cal, it's not the same, now is it? You know that. It’s not the same as screwing around with what's inside your head, all those rusty, leeching wires raking at your brain, poisoning your blood and juices, your mind quietly suppurating. Just think about it for a minute! And then I tell him he's completely ignorant and a philistine because he's never even been there, so he doesn't know. He wouldn't appreciate the damn thing anyway, would he? Dolt and never once young in his life, if you know what I mean. So how could he know?

Honestly, dad has never been hardwired, not even when it was the newest thing to emerge, the greatest thing ever to reach out to us from the global grid – not even just the once out of wholesome curiosity – back when I was six or seven or something. (Dad probably peaked with air hockey or maybe the driverless car – know what I’m saying?) I mean, everyone was into it. It may have been completely basic back then, but at least it was reversible. Too big a mindstep for him I suppose, poor thing.

I can't imagine turning down such an opportunity, such a fantastic exploration like that though. I really can't. But it takes no great leap of the imagination to picture dad just standing there, palms pushed forward in typical, safe self-denial, if ever the offer were made. Which I seriously doubt it was. When all's said and done, dad's just a voyeur.

What for me was the most momentous event in human history was for him little more than an interesting phase in the corporate evolution of AngelTech, before they went bust.

Okay, so being hardwired used to do those things he says, well, some of them anyway. But most of what you hear nowadays is just scary media shit trafficked by dolts jealous of what we liberteens are doing in private with our most beautiful beautiful filaments. Sure my folks know I sneaked an inquisitive go or two back then, and that I do it now. Habitually. They know I'm hooked and happy. Won't see a happier teen in our street! And clever with it. Clean, charming and clever as fuck. And a total wirehead. I let them deal with the fear. No fear in me. Not so much as a whisper. Not a breath.

I hear my name. Time to go in.

The man at the back has a question. Cal, my boy, what exactly is hardwired?

This kind of dumb flapping around in the dark is precisely why I maintain with dad that everyone should be unhinged all day every day, with just a few observers like watching over us as we cascade over one another in the cerebral cosmos, kind of guardians to dab at the corners of our mouths every now and then as we smile and drool in like =SUM(Human Existence), yeah? Sounds like a load of trippy drug hero bollocks, doesn't it? But when you've been there you just know it isn't, because it's so pure and instant and always and beautiful and everything all at once. Enlightenment and release and love and God and happiness all down the one wire. You know, The Answer. Everything worth knowing.

And so as to leave you in no doubt, being hardwired has absolutely nothing to do with chemicals whatsoever. Pharmageddon is utterly yesteryear and beyond. You know, blowing your mind apart with microglycerine and all that stuff. Garbage in, garbage out, that’s what I say. Christ, I'd rather talk to my cyst than ingest any of those dull neuro-toxins cooked up by some scabby, failed chemistry student. As for hallucinations – sorry, I mean mere hallucinations – compared to our higher ethereal state they're just abbo and burn bad as sulphur right behind your eyes, in that special, guarded place. I'd rather watch wall-to-wall, yeah? And I never watch wall-to-wall. Except maybe when I'm snacking or there's an overground to catch in like ten minutes time and there's just no point in starting anything major.

Anyway, the sap at the back still has his hand up. Like sorry, okay?

As a speckish point of reference, being hardwired is the physical condition of having the sweetest of cerebral implants, usually behind the left ear, because it's the left hand side of the brain which responds best in most people. Don't rightly know why. Look it up!

When people first started toying with implants, say, ten or eleven years ago, they were made of copper and surgical steel. Unfortunately, these prototypes were full of imperfections, all pitted and easily contaminated or corroded by cranial fluid; that's why so many ended up with sep or hep or both. Hadn't been properly sterilised or product-tested, yeah? Or the clowns were actually sharing them. Can you imagine?

Anyway, these days they are sheer perfection. There's still a hollow stem about twenty-five millimetres long, only these new ones are fashioned in hardened gold, because (a) it's micro-electrically conductive, and (b) it's tissue inert. No different to earrings or nose studs or whatever your mum's got in her flaps, yeah? Anyway, that's the port, the door, the bridge where you plug yourself in via the universal mute plastic box; yes, the one onto which all your dreary courseware is loaded. Standard glasswire output, slim black jack with a male end. Pretty low tech when you think about it. The really masterful bit is the swish of ultrafine titanium hairs, hundreds of them, the surface of each barbed along its entire length, I guess to prevent them drifting around in the squishy stuff between your brain and your skull. Or for better and more extensive contact with the outer synapses, perhaps? Small wonder an implant is sometimes spoken of as a fern. It also has a clunky medical name as long as Sunday, but like who cares?

I heard somewhere that the early ones looked kind of (and probably were) ex-military, with about half a dozen strands protruding, thick as domestic fuse wire. You know, a bit like a detonator. Frankly, I'm surprised those who pioneered the technique got any response at all using hawsers like those. Equally, I'm not surprised so many died. But I try not to think about that, nor remind myself I'm little more than a walking time and space bomb myself, as big blister so often delights in telling me. Coma’s gonna get you, little bro! Well, she can go swivel.

Looking back to only this time last year, now that definitely was the hardest part of all. Having the actual implant. Not the operation, yeah? But waiting and waiting for my time to come and having to constantly explain away my excess agitation as nerves about giving a stupid presentation at school or something.

The whole thing was carried out under local anaesthetic, so I didn't feel a thing. The surgeon made three quick incisions, flicked the tiny triangle of flesh from the end of his scalpel into a cashew-shaped dish, and delicately trepanned his way through the bone. No sooner had the drilling stopped than he planted the fern, fronds first; a quick twist and that was that.

I didn't watch mine being done in a mirror or anything, I just asked if I could watch Erle having his done and the bloke said sure. They gave me a gown and a face mask and everything. How cool is that?

Recuperation takes longer than for your average teen boob job, though the cost is about the same. Four thousand, maybe five. Depends if you want to jump the queue. Which, of course, I most certainly did.

What you are and what you want, eh?

Afterwards, you have a sore head for days and days, all raw and scratched inside. Weirdest feeling. And until the vivisector's hangover subsides completely you cannot, must not plug in. Your brain would just overheat and turn to mush. I lived on analgesics for a month.

When our time came, me and Erle bunked off school for a week. Like I said, we had it done together. And because it's completely beyond law here in this country, and has been for several years easy, we had to go to France, to Paris. All those sly doctors who’d been making a small fortune on the quiet, after hours, set up their new dirty little clinics around the Gare du Nord, yeah? Like they’d all just rolled down the tunnel, flopped off the train and set straight to work. Nobody bothers them there! Koel says he flew back to Cape Town to have his done. Which is where he comes from. He reckons he could do his own, too. Tosser.

Now, once you have it done they make it so it's completely irreversible, just like the tiny tatts Andrena keeps hidden beneath those lush woolly tights of hers. My only darling. Surgeons can't yet figure a way to remove all those thousands of hooks without causing a stroke or brain damage or some other cubist facial feature palsy, not even the ethical ones. But when the gene is your driver, what does it matter? Nothing matters. Except being there. You know, in mists divine.

The man at the back has another question. Where does a complete ingrate like Cal get five thousand from?

Now this is something my parents haven't forgiven me for. Gran neither. That I walk the city like some proto-cyborg straight out of a really bad film, that's cool, because one way or another they always kind of knew I'd end up hardwired. It's what I've always read about and crapped on about. It's what I've always wanted. But off-loading several grand's worth of treasured family heirlooms whilst they were away on holiday some ghastly place with ten pools and free booze and insects and fuck all to do worthwhile, well, I really got doused in nitric for that. I removed the photos and other sentimental crap from the drawers first, mind, and all the legal-looking stuff. I'm not a total shit. Besides, the stuff was insured I guess. And liberteens are driven to doing this kind of thing all the time, aren’t they? So really they shouldn't have been that shocked.

Anyway, in exchange for half a carrier bag full of red, brown and blue banknotes I left our front door unlocked for maybe an hour or so and let all the best pieces walk, although at the time I really had no idea what would be carried off. Or whether or not they would shit on the carpet. It’s just a risk you have to take.

I tell you, for about a day I felt well and truly minted.

The people who did it were from over Andrena's way I should reckon. Dil’s dodgy friends most like. I must say though, I was astounded and fair mystified by their taste. All of our state-of-the-art wall-to-wall gear they left well alone – the high end satellite uplink stuff – and lifted the bloody furniture instead. All of it. Including my chrome bed! Paintings and tacky china creatures, too. No sense of value at all, some people. Still sleeping on the floor I am, but no matter. Small price, I reckon. And I still have my favourite pillow and a couple of old crash mats from when dad once forced us all to go camping. Somewhere by the sea. With ants. About a thousand years ago.

So now I have my wire.

At the time I honestly didn't care, because I was so obsessed with reaching sixteen and totally fixated on this one single outcome, yeah? But when the wind blows from the wrong direction I get glimpses of my parents' point of view and I relate to their loss and sympathise and stuff. Which isn't often.

Anyway, once they figured my head was nailed back on straight and I’d agreed to come here once a week for a bit of counselling and displacement therapy, mum and dad extruded this flimsy promise out of me to repay them in some way. When I'm grown up, of course, and a true dolt just like them.

You're bright! (they said.) There's a great future ahead of you! (they said.) You've got so much to live for...!

I swallowed their smiles and absorbed their squeezes of encouragement. And all the time I’m thinking, like yeah? Like I'm gonna toil my life away like you do? Oh sure. Anyway, this is my final session. Thank God.

Coming! Ready or not!

Chapter 3

As soon as I woke up this morning, I knew that at some point during the day I was going to have one of my nosebleeds. I’d got totally wrecked the night before hardwiring with Dil, so it really was kind of inevitable.

Dil blows his mind deliberate: you know, spends way way too long in the ether. Half an hour and I'm dog food. You've got to be some kind of gonzoid grandmaster or somesuch other lunatic – like Dil – to immerse yourself like he does for hours on end. (Dil’s motto is too much is never enough.) I'm surprised he still retains the powers of speech and balance, let alone reason.

As usual I went round to Dil’s place when the wall-to-wall started in with its daily hour of greed shows and the early evening mini-soaps – Beefcake Luvs Cheesecake and all that rubbish. I'd fully intended catching up with Andrena and Erle for homework and stuff, but somehow it never happened. Know what I mean?

When Dil’s mother, LizMary, opened up I knew instantly where the boy was at. She hollered up the stairs that that useless string of protein Cal was here and waiting, and when no answer came, she smiled widely and stepped aside. I went on up.

There was no point knocking not even out of mock politeness, because when you're hardwired the outside world is another dimension entirely. Literally. And as far as Dil was concerned, had he been aware of me, that's exactly where I was.

The door to Dil’s room had to be opened real gentle though. There was a significant danger that any clumsiness on my part might wrench the fibre optic out of its socket, and that would have sent Dil into shock or something just as horrible, all twitchy and messy on the bedroom floor. Can’t do it wireless for the same reason. Someone next door uses a tv remote and bang! you’re pangolin stew. Anyway, Dil was out of harm's way amid a moraine of old clothes, comatose and serious-looking, way and away. I sniggered and called him a lucky sod.

Dil’s hardware is this exclusive customised aluminium box, burnished clean of all the manufacturer's graphics and sponsorship logo crap, and as he's such a generous soul there are always other wires trailed and waiting. Selecting the nearest, I shook some slack into it and took up the recovery position on the floor next to Dil. But not too close, yeah? His room's like real cramped, you know?

I'm not saying hardwiring is really risky or dangerous or anything, not like crossing a dual carriageway or eating fugu fish fingers, but lying on your side in the recovery position is definitely safest. Just in case. One arm slightly behind your body, the other hooked up in front, hand level with the forehead; left leg straight, right leg at right angles to the body, hinged at the knee. The Crooked K as we call it and God sees it. Andrena does it foetal in a nest of duvets, but then she just would, wouldn't she? She heard someplace it's even more fulfilling. But then what's an extra half a per cent on a million?

For those who've been boxed and stored in a mine or prefer sailboarding blindfold across the Pacific or whatever, ether is the most glorious, trackless bewilderness imaginable. No grief or germs or stressy interfering dolts jerking you around in all directions. Just peace and tranquility, and aeons of foreverness. On your own, maybe, or with another mind. Or a million minds, if you can handle it, if you are equal to all the beauty and endless chaos lying beneath its great and holy arc.

Shame it's totally beyond law nowadays, yeah? To have an implant, I mean, or at least to perform the operation on someone. Because it really is a gift. Such an incredible gift. Just think of all those who are missing out! But with hundreds of kids already dead and thousands persistently vegetative across this land of ours, not forgetting all the ones across the wide wide waters, I guess it's no wonder really.

There are lost souls, too, some say. Really. Lost souls. Wow.

Some days it seems right and proper having it banned, other times loathsome and small-minded. Still, none of this has stopped anyone I know; especially not once the gene becomes your driver. No, we mustn't forget The Gene. This is how it goes:

Day One on God's green earth all the newborns get this test, right, which I'm sure you know already, to determine exactly who they are. And I do mean exactly. The test hadn't been fully developed when I hatched out, so I had to have the needleprick when I was three or four or so. Sometimes I fancy I can even remember it, mum taking me there and all that, and getting bribed with the promise of a big packet of sugar-free sweets afterwards if I was good. Anyway, this test tells you everything about yourself, be it good, bad or whatever. All that from just a speck of blood. Amazing.

This day one data, once centrifuged and cultured, is output as an autorad, a narrow strip of film banded light and dark, about twice as long as the infant it's taken from. It's like your own unique barcode or something. Which I suppose is precisely what it is. Most of the bands provide info you can glean easily enough from a bathroom mirror or a sideways glance at your parents and grandparents, your brothers and your sisters: red eyes and hairy palms, cloven hooves and retractable claws, yeah? Lol. But there are hundreds of lesser groupings which underscore behaviour, demeanour, cravings, disposition etc. And within these there are thousands of quirks and twists yet to be extracted, let alone fully understood. Then one day:

Trust me, I'm a scientist!

A glass slide is held up to the light, so to speak, and the Icarus gene is discovered. The Icarus gene, betokening recklessness and an overwhelming sense of invulnerability. Yeah, that's me all right. (Ok, so they’ve got no imagination but I mean, what the hell else could they call it?)

To the noble professors who decoded this newest little squiggle half way along one of our trillions of helices, the discovery was just another tick in the genome margin. Nothing more. But oh! imagine the unimaginable thrills when at last they identified a foolproof way of determining whether it or some other dull brown kink was a person’s controller gene. Now this really was a milestone. It was also a completely new game – Mankind By Numbers – and boy, did they love it. They spent years just studying the rules.

For the whole of society, the whole of humanity, a great liberation was suddenly at hand. The lab coat army marched triumphantly up to the gates. And locked us all in.

Many years passed before anyone realised the key had been turned the wrong way. And during those many years, parents were told with rampant hubris what their children’s destinies were or were very likely to be. But they don't do it any more. Family doctors are no longer allowed to read you your immutable genetic Tarot. Oh no. Slowly it dawned on them just how destructive these blind revelations could be, and how limiting rather than liberating they were.

Now we're like back before The Epigenetic Flood or whatever. So much so that all information on a profile remains buried – providing your offspring is mentally and physically normal, that is. Otherwise there comes a knock at the door, some awful and inescapable truths are tactlessly disclosed, and years of subsidised counselling follow. Ten times cruel it is.

Anyway, there are now tens of millions of us right across the world who know pretty well how our stay here is likely to end, those of us wilfully steering our ship straight into the storm. Or onto the reefs.

But what do we care? What do we care once Icarus takes the wheel? He won't let go, you know. Just you try and make him!


It only remained for me to consult the countback on Dil’s box. Fuck! It still had twenty-eight earth minutes to go! How long had he been gone? Jesus! This is one stupid, mad and fucked out bastard!

Two or three times I wiped the jack on my sleeve, taking one last look over my shoulder at the door as I did so. But I needn't have. Dil’s mum is cooler than most, maybe because she's still on the young side, and well milfy with it. Or maybe she's back on strong medication again on account of all her, uh, issues. Whatever, LizMary never chides us or anything. Takes the piss, mind, like she’d once levered the doors of perception off their very hinges or something, all by herself. As if! A tweaker when a teen, Dil once told me. But that was then and this is now. And that's the difference between a musket ball and a smart bomb with a moral imperative.

I laughed, lay down and plugged in.

Convolvulus white fluids wash over in slowest milliseconds. Never the same state twice, no sensation duplicated. Not an experience, more a state of being, of well-being, a happy delirium, your body abandoned on a couple of square metres of floor someplace, anyplace really, your mind uncaged. Equilibrium sets in, then your id and your karma do it doggy-style for entertainment and belly laughs; vocabulary becomes tits on a bull and no back-answers. This is the rush. All of the brain's synapses fly open and all the crap you've ever witnessed with your big brown eyes, and I mean every last flaky fucking forgotten thing, a total sluice, a d&c right down to your very lining, becomes an absurd carnival marching four abreast for an eternal now. And then it's gone. That’s your headwaters downloading. Next, everything from everyone else across the globe who's tapped in at the same time as you is uploaded straight into the vacuum of your brain. It's like a tide which has never before come in, as if it has been waiting for you to witness its power, to give that tide its very purpose. To scour you clean. Or so it seems.

In waketime if we try to analyse it and speak words to one another about the impressions we’re left with, how quickly we become unstuck. This is definitely the weirdest stuff. Not weird because it's surreal, which it surely is and indescribably so, but weird because of the familiarity of all the thoughts and brain impulses, if that's what they are. The permutations of experience are as boundless as your average universe, yet there's a soothing unremarkableness about it all, as if you're two and a half and in bed, and your mother's crept in and cosied you in under a blanket of complete understanding. There’s no monsters or evil spirits, nothing nightmarish like that. And just as you're getting totally blissed out, watching a hundred million worlds go by (each life is a world, Andrena says) they dissolve forever like sugar strands dropped into warm double cream. Sounds become kaleidoscopic, colours polyphonic; angels come in your face, and you swear you're entering the upgrade of Heaven it's so brilliant. Gradually, the light shimmers with a oneness as your soul drops minutely into an ocean of stillness, and there you remain until the countback counts back the crore seconds until it all fades to gold.

In the aftermath you're lucky if you're not violently sick or disabled with a ten-hour migraine, but it truly is a cosmological kick and everyone just knows they'll be back for more. Me? What's my trade-off? More often than not I suffer copious nosebleeds. So it was daft of me to lie fallow for so long with that toasted geek Dil. He sat up, broke wind, and clambered downstairs to make us cups of slosh with biscuits on the side, which he needn't have done because his cups have like cracks in them. I could have waited quite happily till I got home. I even told him so.

Anyway, we're at school the next day and after a session like we've had the night before, we're both feeling like Jesus and his hungry donkey lost in the backwoods with no camping stove. Piddell, our unesteemed ICT tutor, who is about as yesteryear as they come and I dare say still wets his pants once every twelvemonth when he reaches that part of the syllabus covering virtual reality, well, he starts in with the old you-boys-have-been-up-all-night-at-the-crack-pipe malarkey, haven’t you? He even throws in a witty little mime for good measure. At which point everyone but everyone bursts out laughing and I go apoplectic at the humiliating sadness of it all, whereupon my nose responds by bursting its banks. I can do nothing as blood soaks thickly into the sleeve of my uniform. Or gets splattered all Jackson Pollock up the flat screen in front of me as back jerks my head in dismay and disgust, leaving me to howl away in third degree embarrassment rather than make any attempt to rescue my poor nose.

I can't sit all day like that, can I, all covered in blood? So I dismiss myself from class, my fingers already engrossed with the discharge.

Screen wipe, wretch!

Ignoring Piddell's protestations, I pause only on my way out to daub a satisfying and totally improvised sticky red zero on the back of the classroom door. Everyone understands and roars with laughter a second time.

The look on Dil's mandrill face is deluxe. He should share it with the world.

Chapter 4

Tuesday. Shit. Double Geog, double Humanism, and a whole afternoon of Mixed Sports and Gender Training. Double bollocks and pisseroo. At least in Humanism I'll get to see Andrena, my only darling. And as we're usually allowed to sit next to one another, we can always share a screen. It's only faintly distracting when she digs her nails hard as hard into the backs of my gloved hands. Come on! Everybody does it! But we don't disrupt the class by talking or anything. Or by snogging. No way. Za-za-za. You'd have to be really inadequate to do that in front of everyone.

Breaktimes are when we talk and stuff, or have Erle explain to us what failed to sink in in class. If we're lucky we find ourselves a quiet place on the long low wall that runs below the science block and I'll go yag yag yag and get no word of reply from my only darling. Sometimes Andrena will bitch about everything in her life, but usually she stays silent. Or she’ll sneer at the other kids in the playground, boys as well as girls. Andrena's well into sneering at the moment. I just love watching her face when she sneers. It's like she's full of vinegar and just can't piss it out.

But I know what she means, where her attitude comes from. Like we're both sixteen, yeah? (Or is she seventeen already?) So we could both go and get married and do sex standing up and stuff – though neither of us does, yeah? Because we're clean, right? So, we're both sixteen and we have these like huge waves rolling deep down inside, ideas and feelings and stuff, about life and each other and everything you can imagine, and we're forced to hang out in a fucking playground with all these little kids. Which is really tight. Granted we're not dolts yet, thank God, but we're not kids anymore. It's just that it’s a total jerk off embarrassment sometimes. Most of the time, actually. Why can't we have some cool common room of our own like Hayla does in the Upper? What makes them so special? Or is that one of the poxy carrots on offer for passing all your exams, for handing in your coursework on time or for being some kind of perfecteen athletico hero? Admittance to a private, pastel-coloured clubhouse so you can rub up against all the other gems and keeners, high and dry above this insane chain-link compound of ours, with perhaps maybe a kettle and some crappy jokey mugs and little packets of chocolate fucking chip fucking cookies…?

All this fresh air sucks, too. It really does. You just have to believe me.

I long to couple up on stylish type chairs in like decent and civilized surroundings, instead of sitting out here in the freezing cold in our stupid fucking flappy coats. It's really degrading, you know? Bereft of dignity. Me and Andrena, yeah? We're used to the pure azure of our minds going on and on forever, not being stuck outside in this greyness, suffering flattened hair and teeming little kids with their puerile screaming football catch-me-if-you-can games. Little kids. They need to stay in more. They really do.

For them, seeing us together is simply a cue to skip about and chant sweet songs of love. It drives me near to madness. But I guess that's because they're right to eighteen decimal places. About me anyway. Andrena? Who knows? She's like completely removed and absent when they start up. Zips up her hood into a tube and vanishes. Andrena says she always has so much to unravel inside her head that mere rudeness doesn't touch her in any way whatsoever. Sometimes she says this isn't really her anyway, this blob sat on a school wall going yag yag yag with me, giving away her sandwiches to the lardish kids and stuff.

She's not a blob, yeah? Far from it. But that's what she says she is. Sometimes I think if it wasn't for the ether, she'd be all alone. Maybe in an urn. And I think all those corn syrup love songs the little kids pick up and spit out don't get to her because she doesn't, you know – she doesn't like – she doesn't love – because she's a nihilistic black haired bitch and I! Love! Her! Loads. Okay? Okay. That’s all you need to know. Who says it has to work both ways?

So there we sit on our long low wall, all hands in pockets not touching or anything, just brimful of understanding and empathy. It's bliss in waketime, it really is. Not that I'd be so dim as to tell Erle and Dil my truest feelings because they'd only tar and feather me with my own embarrassment. So as long as there's no drecky true love cipher for anyone to home in on, it's clean and it's cool, yeah?

Thank sweetest little Jesus in his Mother's cradling arms for friends, that's what I say. Erle is eazzy and so is Dil, for the most part. They're both wireweeds, like Andrena and me. I guess that's why we lock together so well, why we're so hard to pull apart. It’s a kind of closed system, yeah?

I suppose there must be others in our school who fly by night just like we do, only they must be able to bury their dark little secret far better than we can. (Like everybody knows.) In the ether you can do that – hide, I mean – just as easy as turn yourself right inside out all beautiful pearly pink. Sometimes I see snatches of faces – only they're not really faces, more like the insides of faces – and I'm sure I've seen them around and about. I precognise them, if that's an allowable word. Like mind-rolling. Which is another of those impressions me and Andrena try to make sense of every now and then; you know, that sensation where echo and shadow touch upon you without anything tangible ever revealing itself. That and the sound of our own reflections…

I've noticed something else lately, too: parents and tutors are beginning to pry more and more. Way before they even think to speak, I see questions forming in their unknowing eyes.

What do you do in limbo, Cal? What is it that you do in the ether?

Wrong verb, I say: I am in limbo. In the ether we are. The verb is to be. There's no need to over-complicate it. (Besides, it's paradise not limbo.)

Relatives have started asking questions, too, which is a complete pain. I sense alarm in their voices.

What is it that beguiles we liberteens so? (There is an overwhelming need to know.)

Finally, all that bad biased news has penetrated, down the daytime co-ax into their cosy homes for two. I try putting them off as best I can. I mean, I don't want them knowing, now do I? It isn't really theirs to delight in. So they can jog right on, as dad would say. After all, it's only bits, I say, deflecting, just streams of 1's and 0's as long as eternity and then some. (Blank looks.) It's just binary. (More blank looks.) Surely they know that much?

No fucking understanding at all, not a single one of them. This is my only reassurance. Non-liners. I revel in their uneasiness, their exile. Besides, if they are that curious they'll try it for themselves, won't they? Ha!

Sometimes we actually speak binary to one another, Erle, Dil, Andrena and I. It helps things remain special and hidden. Better than teenage hyper-mumble it is. Liberteens can speak bine incredibly fast. So fast it becomes a codified blur. Most kids can deliver a burst if they have to. Up to a point.

Little kids in the mall looped me with a string later that very afternoon, so I blanked them deliberate to see what the follow-up might be. But it wasn’t much. In a nutshell, they called me '0' (zero), most likely because I was still in school uniform and maybe looking a bit miz and stuff without Andrena hunched up next to me, so I couldn't really blame them, could I? But honestly, me? A zero? You know, a zero, somebody who knows nothing. Nothing about anything. Not one single stunning thing. Someone who isn't there. A total shell, a hollow of a person just waiting to be filled in, right up to their very lips with regurgitations and other people’s ucky stuff I just don't want to even begin thinking about. You know, waketime stuff. All the shadows between our dreams. Anyway, I wasn't standing for that, you know, being called less than one. So, with great ceremony, I removed my earbugs and discharged a zip-load of bine so fast they couldn't keep up or translate or even appreciate the majesty of my insult.

Fractionally after finishing they handed me three fingers reversed of immediate respect. Yes, each and every one of them. (Three fingers reversed and spread wide apart looks like W-for-weird, but really it means one-one-one i.e. 7; g is the seventh letter of the alphabet, and g is for God, yeah? [Spooky how two fingers parted works out to be one-one-zero, i.e. 6, i.e. f , i.e. fuck off. – The two spare fingers and the thumb overlap to form the zero, in case you're like wondering.] And the upraised lonesome finger is more than capable of speaking for itself). Anyway, I gave them a look of contentment and serenity and left it at that. No need to bow or anything. Not to little kids. My disdain is more than enough.

You can always tell if someone's hardwired by the speed at which they string bine. Like this is totally laborious, you know? I mean language, mere sub-dimensional words fit only for molluscs from the deepest of seas. Truly. Just remember I'm only doing it as a colossal favour so as not to leave you washed up on the beach all wasted and lost and looking for a comb or something. I'll keep it simple. Perhaps you can pretend I'm some horse-faced teacher you wish you'd forgotten and flushed away.

Let's start with numbers.

In binary, there's only 0's and 1's. Nothing else. There is no '2' or '3' or '4' or anything flash or exponential like that. Just '0' and '1' – on and off, open and closed, light and dark. 0 is zero and 1 is one: with me so far? Because this is where it starts getting complicated. '2' is expressed as '10' – that's one-zero not ten, dumb arse - because in binary you count not in units, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and so on, but in units, twos, fours, eights, sixteens, thirty-twos... yeah? With me? So '2' is one two and zero units, '10', one-zero. Little number '3' is '11': one-one: one two and one unit. '4' is '100': one-zero-zero: one four, zero twos and zero units. Got it? So '5' is...? Okay! Okay! My sister (my blister, my cyst) says I can patronise the pants off anyone. Sorry, yeah? Anyway, if you can understand Roman numerals and all its myxomatosis, binary is a piece of cake. Chimps learned binary long ago, I dare say.

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