short story in progress
2: FOOD CHAIN
Shìchǎng is the largest market district in the center of Lower New Kowloon and Shao-Bei is its main drag, which means even this time of night, the street runs like the Mekong in monsoon season.
I stepped out of the alley into a torrent of people and traffic, all surging through a neon-bright canyon cliffed in steel and smartglass. Celebrities smiled down at the masses, endorsing hot ware that could sync and sex up anyone to be just like them. Holograms swam in a smog of bio-diesel and steam, spiced with curry and hot peanut oil, all buoyed on a hurricane of sound.
The Bank of Shanghai’s Neu-Deutsch Techno jingle announced a branch opening in district three. Ten-story tall Thai androgynes in Gosha Streetwear catwalked to West African Griot Folk Rap. A vendor stall next to me was blaring specials on cloned carp and sex dolls, while across the street, a bar’s window screen simulcast a cage fight in first-person view.
Bus stops flashed political ads and air quality notices. End-of-the-week sales floated past my face, everything from loom-grown beef to 3D bio-printed replacement organs. Shao-Bei Street was a valley of lurid consumer hallucinations.
Not only were the shops and stalls doing brisk business, the street species were in full bloom. Market center or no, a dark district is a poor district so the bottom-feeders had swarmed to nibble at the edges. I spotted beggars and buskers by the dozen, the thick shapes of grafted bodyguards herding intoxed corporate suits past burnt out wire-heads pleading for per diem memory courier gigs.
On the corners, missionaries from every faith competed with hookers of every flavor, all hoping to evangelize the wallets of the unwary one way or another. I spied a dozen grifters shadowing their marks.
Politicians who try to sound smart claim each district has a distinct eco-system, a unique civic biome subject to an arcane blend of location, economy, and residents only they can divine. I don’t know about that, but the sprawl certainly has a food chain. Step onto the street, you’re fair game.
It looked like everyone in the lower city decided to do their shopping here, tonight. Crowds like this, the only way to get where I needed to be was to find the right current and be carried along.
I felt the wind again just as the P.A. chimed the night sweat warning. It was misting already. A thousand holo-ads fuzzed as the oily drops started to fall. I cut across the avenue under a sea of blooming, clear umbrellas, all seething with reflections – a riptide of electrified jellyfish – and joined a swarm of Japanese tourists.
They were headed my way, south, toward the electronics and ware boutiques in the Gray Market. I got a couple of sidelong glances but my virtual NKPD tags insured they didn’t linger. No one wants the trouble that comes with police.
I made it six blocks under borrowed cover with uncomfortable but polite Japanese salary men before I finally ducked down a side road. They bowed and waved goodbye. Relieved.
I tried to be, but my second thoughts bred geometrically with every step. I was going to see an illegal software dealer and even she thought my idea was bad.
Two blocks off Shao-Bei, my low-light implants kicked in. This was the “other”Shìchǎng, the Naya Dalit slums where the Scrape, Scrap, and Shit gangs lived. Stuck here, two blocks from stuff they couldn’t afford, were the immigrants and refugees who worked underside repair, recycling, and sewage. Or any other filthy, dangerous, non-contract job they could find. No pretty lights and corporate jingles adorning these neighborhoods. Just teetering stacks of foam-crete apartments, salvaged fiberboard shacks, and cheap LEDs.
The new untouchables are shackled by technology, not ethnicity. Or rather lack of technology. Some can’t even afford a neural chip. The rest simply can’t pay the monthly subscription fees. A domestic or dock worker with a basic Musk package can live in an edge district where they get a few hours of sunlight one way or another. Here in the middle of the Lower City, they’re in the dark and disconnected.
“Casualties of the neural interface revolution,” one journalist once called them. Poor bastards stuck on the wrong side of the technology gap. It’s the latest version of an old story: without money they can’t get tech. Without tech, they can’t get money. No info-net, no social credit, no bank history, no identity – nothing to help them claw their way up and out of here.
Sunlight doesn’t reach this deep under the Terrace and with the girded underside of the Upper City squatting over their heads, Shìchǎng might as well be the fucking Mariana Trench.
No wonder these people riot every few years.
Or snap and start murdering their neighbors.
Lights from the Gray Market played on the buildings ahead of me but I turned onto Chatham Road South. I needed to make a stop.
I ‘faced and called Loi Cao. She picked up instantly. Tense. “Zek. You coming or what?” she asked.
“I’m three blocks away but I have to make a quick detour. Thirty minutes.”
A soft curse. I could hear her scowl. “Not a fan this ware.”
“Twenty minutes, then.”
“Okay, Zek. Not a second later.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I’m serious. Not one second later,” she said, and hung up.