Old Media

By Annalee Newitz

The story of a freed slave and a robot professor, trying to figure out what it means to be in love while they watch old anime from the 21st century.

August 2, 2145

They were in the back room making out. What else were they supposed to do on a slow afternoon when nobody came into the store? Michael had taken his goggles off and John was kissing the soft skin of his eyelids while simultaneously groping for some kind of access point into Michael’s extremely tight pants.

Out front, Bella was reading the music feeds in her goggles and not even remotely pretending to ignore them.

“You sound like rutting moosen!” She’d taken to using a fake plural form of “moose” for her own whimsical reasons. “Don’t get any fluids on the goddamn merchandise!”

For some reason, John could not stop laughing at the moose plural joke. Every time he caught his breath, another fit of giggling would rob him of it, until at last he sank dizzily to his knees. He steadied himself by hooking fingers into Michael’s waistband and looking up at his friend, also laughing, amused by John’s amusement.

Michael was studying paleontology at the University of Saskatchewan, and had been trying to grow authentic dinosaur feathers on his head for weeks. Thick red and white down stuck out of his pale blond hair on flexible quills, perfectly framing his wide blue eyes and the short puff of his beard. John thought the full effect made him look almost comically Western, like an English barbarian from the old anime feeds he liked to watch.

But it was also kind of sexy. And here he was, right in the perfect spot to unlock the grippers holding Michael’s tight pants in place. Even when Bella started making extremely realistic moose noises, John was undeterred in his quest to make Michael tremble with more than laughter.

Afterward they both slid to the floor, resting their slightly damp backs against the wall. A languid sense of goodwill spread from John’s extremities upward to his brain. He liked it back here beyond the Employees Only sign, staring at the dusty, half-biodegraded boxes of recent arrivals. Bella bought most of her merchandise from estate sales and warehouses on the prairies, but a lot came from customers in Saskatoon too. Tuesdays and Thursdays were buyer days, and there was always a boisterous line of what seemed to John a completely random assortment of people: aging hipsters with party clothes from the ’20s; college students wanting to trade armor for shreds or vice versa; grandmothers with unbelievable treasures like the ash pleather 2090s boots he was wearing right now; and people from far up north who’d heard the kids were obsessed with old all-weathers and wanted to make a few credits while their families loaded up on supplies at the farm co-op.

It made John think of times before he was born, long before his shit life, or at least the shitty parts of his relatively okay life. Last year at this time… he didn’t want to think about it. Every night he told himself he was safe now, gone legit with a name and a franchise. Nobody owned him anymore. He stared harder at a box overflowing with self-repairing scarves from indeterminate time periods. Maybe they were made yesterday. Maybe sixty years ago.

Michael was nuzzling his neck, dinofuzz tickling John’s ear. He tugged John’s collar down to get a better angle and made a murmuring noise when he saw the brand.

“I like your sexy scar. What do these numbers mean? Zed-nine-one-four-three-zed?”

John pulled away and felt every muscle in his body stiffen. The familiar numbness oozed down his neck into his torso, killing contentment as it spread.

“It’s nothing. Just from when I was young and stupid.”

“Is it a special date or something?”

“That was my identification number when I was a slave, sweetie. Didn’t you know?” John made his tone so sarcastic that Michael snorted out a chuckle. Sometimes the truth, told right, was the best lie.

Beyond the door, John heard the sound of customers—a big group, their voices merging into a wave of indistinct, excited sounds. Probably party shopping. Bella might need help. He stood up abruptly and left Michael lounging among piles of textiles that proved the world had existed long before John was in it.

August 3, 2145

Until this past year, John never had access control over his own room. He and the other boys lived in the indenture school dormitory, and bedtime was when the supervisor wiped his hand over the lock and let them in. If he let them in. Sometimes there was a just-in-time job on a batch of engines, and they worked for twenty-four hours straight. He still sometimes felt an ache in his fingers from doing post-production on each part as it came out of the extruder in the icy 3-D printer room. Still, when they were back in the dorms, John usually figured out how to escape again. He wanted access to the public net, and there was one particular admin who had a weakness for brown boys from down south. John spent a lot of nights writing in the admin’s cramped cubicle, mostly naked, focusing intently on comments in his journal feed so he could tune out his benefactor’s creepy gaze.

But now he was here, sharing an apartment in Saskatoon with the only person on Earth who knew his old names: Threezed and Slaveboy. When he met Med last year, he confessed that he’d been writing a journal on Memeland under the name Slaveboy. It turned out she was a fan. He’d never actually met one of his followers in person, and decided impulsively that they would be friends forever. It turned out to be the best decision he’d ever made in his roughly twenty years on Earth.

The door clicked open as he arrived and whistled its “hello” tune. He and Med were supremely lazy about programming the place beyond the basics, so he kicked the wall to turn on the lights and start the kitchen. The warm indoor air smelled faintly of fish sauce and frying garlic from somewhere else in the building.

Maybe one day he’d get tired of the contours of this apartment with its minimal furnishings. But it was hard to imagine ever getting enough of its safe shape, the kitchen booting up alongside him and a slice of his bed visible beyond a mostly closed curtain. It was only when he was alone like this, in complete silence, that John allowed himself to believe he was still alive. The quiet was like one of those silver emergency blankets he’d seen in twentieth-century American movies. It was the way the fantastically kind police wrapped you up after they’d rescued everybody from the monsters, the fire, the tidal waves, the buildings falling from space, the evil robots, the shadow animals, and the ghosts of every dead person wronged by the living.

A memory invaded him, unbidden, like a hiccup of pain.

Last year, he’d found sanctuary in Saskatoon. John’s new master wasn’t like the other ones, at least in some ways. She was a scientist, and she was working on some kind of secret project with Med. He didn’t understand everything about what they were doing, but he knew they were trying to help people who’d gotten addicted to corporate pharma. After the project went live, his master went into hiding. She left him behind with Med—but not before buying him a franchise that granted him full rights in the city. That night, he kept activating the readout from his chip on the mobile’s login screen: Enfranchised. The English word morphed in his mind as he tried to feel its reality. Enfranchised, enchanted, ineluctable, incredulous

Maybe the warm feeling in his back was actually a lack of feeling. A lack of fear. He had a vivid recollection of how the lab smelled in that moment of unburdening, a mixture of crushed grass and coffee.

That’s when Med sat up rigidly, hands flat on the lab bench. She turned to him, her eyes blank. “Get out of here, now!” And then she stood, grabbed him with a shocking strength, and dragged him to the back exit. “Go!”

He glanced back to see what Med had sensed wirelessly: agents arriving, the ones who’d been chasing his old master. A man and a huge, armored bot from the property police. He turned back just once before he fled, and thought he saw Med transform into an avenging angel. Only she was better than an angel. She was real, made of carbon alloy and flesh, not feathers and faith. She’d saved him. Possibly she’d even saved the world.

John breathed shallowly, trying to make himself as soundless as the room. Nobody could hear him. He was safe. It wasn’t like last time; the agents were long gone. He held his breath for five serene seconds before the Yummy Pan made an irritated noise and he knew he should start making dinner.

He was scooping protein-flecked porridge into a bowl when Med opened the door. She looked like a textbook example of the absent-minded professor, blond hair perfectly pinned back and lab coat perfectly rumpled.

“How nice that you’re eating tissue from extinct amphibians.” Med could identify almost anything by smell, though she rarely mentioned it around humans. It made them too self-conscious, especially when they realized her abilities extended to smelling where they had been—and sometimes even their emotional states.

Still, for all her robot superpowers, Med couldn’t really master the art of sarcasm. Partly that was because she wasn’t a very sarcastic person, and partly because John always did something silly to undermine her deadpan cool.

“I love fake frog.” He took an exaggeratedly large bite. “Mmmm, the taste of synthetic biology.” He posed with the spoon and bowl next to his face, like the preternaturally cheerful kid in the ads for Yummy Pan. For some reason, it never failed to make Med grin. Her goofy expression hovered briefly over his memory of that long-ago divine fury, and John had to pull himself back sharply from giving a name to what she made him feel.

August 4, 2145

The library’s Media Experience Lab was the result of some big grant the university got back in the 2120s, and it hadn’t been updated since. The signs were all done in those old animated fonts that switched back and forth between puffy rainbow letters and classical serif typefaces. Foam chairs, once luxuriously padded and tricked out with knobs for adjusting everything to ergonomic perfection, were mashed into submission, stuck in awkward positions that only worked for really tall people or really short ones who wanted to sit bolt upright. Somebody had made the streaming cubicles out of fake recycled materials, so you could watch twenty-first century immersives while surrounded by biofibers imitating plastic imitating wood. John thought the saddest part of the whole retro setup—but also possibly the most adorable—was the dusty Innerfire cube, installed when everybody thought full-body experience implants were right around the corner. In all his months coming here, he had never seen anyone go inside.

John slid into his favorite booth next to the back wall. He could watch everyone coming in while also keeping an eye on his monitor, currently streaming a century-old comedy anime called Ouran High School Host Club. He liked the story, about a girl named Haruhi pretending to be a boy, learning all the bizarre things boys do to make themselves seem more attractive. Haruhi was so charming in her suit and tie that all the girls requested “him” at the host club. She had no choice but to keep up the charade, because she was a poor scholarship student at an elite high school, and she owed the other hosts money. John swept a few of the episodes onto his mobile, stashing them to show Med later as yet another example of weird human culture.

After two quarters auditing classes, John was going to matriculate as a freshman. It still didn’t feel real. The city franchise got you more than he ever imagined he’d have, back when he was slaved to the factory. Free education, free medical, free net connection, and freedom to live and work anywhere in the Saskatoon metropolitan area. A new implant that broadcast his new identity: John Chen, normal free boy from an exurb called Lucky Lake. No indenture record. No record at all, other than a secure enclave bioprocessor that verified his identity to the city co-op.

Out of the blankness of his digital past he’d made an entire imaginary history for himself, in case anyone asked. Homeschooled, he would say. Mostly worked on agricultural bot repair, keeping the sensors, planters, and harvesters updated with the latest patches and hardware tweaks. At twenty-one, he was older than average for a student, but he fit the profile of a farm kid whose family needed a little extra time to raise the credits for his Saskatoon franchise.

So far, nobody had questioned this story. In fact, the most awkward moment he’d had was when Michael wondered about the brand that contained his slave name: Threezed, for the last two numbers in the sequence.

John should have gotten the scars smoothed out a long time ago. But he wasn’t ready to lose the familiar sting of seeing those numbers in the mirror when everything else was so different. Nothing had been normal for three years, after the factory sent the whole indenture class across the Pacific. Supposedly they had maintenance positions waiting for them on the Vancouver docks. The motors they’d been assembling back in the Nine Cities Delta were used in all kinds of industrial bots, so it made sense. But when they arrived, it turned out the contracts had fallen through in a way that only made sense to bureaucrats. John and his classmates were confiscated by the Free Trade Zone Port Authority, then confiscated again by Vancouver’s child welfare agency. In practice, this meant they spent a few months sleeping in familiar-looking dormitories where they tried to perfect their northern Free Trade Zone English accents.

For probably the fiftieth time, one of the hosts in Ouran High School Host Club was reminding Haruhi that she was low class. She’d brought instant coffee to their elite party, and the rich kids were physically repulsed. They’d never had anything but whole beans ground by indentured servants. John loved the exaggerated faces they made, their features growing bulbous and abstract as they squealed in dismay. Haruhi shrugged it off, but John thought the audience was supposed to understand that her feelings were hurt too.

A new librarian came in and sat behind the help desk. Her presence activated a sign overhead in that absurdly morphing font: “Yes, I’m an actual human! Ask me anything!” John imagined what Med would say to that. Just a little anti-bot sentiment, brought to you by some designer in the 2120s. Not the librarian’s fault. John noticed that she had two thick black braids and her eyes were slightly distorted by a pair of goggles made to look like twenty-first century glasses. Something about her looked familiar. Maybe she’d been in one of his classes?

He kept watching the stream in his cubicle until it was almost closing time.

“Do you want to check that out?” The librarian peeked over the top of his cubicle. “I have to start shutting the workstations down.” Then she glanced at him again. “Weren’t you in Social Media History with me?”

“Yeah. What did you think of that class?”

“I loved it. I’m actually doing a research project with that professor about anti-robot representations in the late twenty-first century. So much video from that time was basically anti-automation propaganda, designed to make humans fear bots. It’s so weird to look back on all this old media and see how it’s still affecting us now.”

“Like that sign.” He pointed over her desk.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/02/20/old-media-annalee-newitz/

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