When the Sick Hyena Laughed

It was his smell that I remember most, a mixture of urine, vodka, and garbage, like a rubbish dump a bum would piss in. The ride home to Willesden Green had, so far, been just like any other, a fluorescent journey of personalised billboards that flashed past on London’s cloned high streets, a few other isolated passengers rocking to the rumbling bus. I gazed blankly out the rain-dropped windows into the urban winter night as whispered messages infiltrated my ears from small, hidden directional speakers promising a longer, wealthier and sexier life if I would just get an interface.

The bus had stopped at a corner a few minutes from the flat, and that’s where it had picked him up, tall and dirty, wearing a mismatched suit on his skinny frame, a blue jacket two sizes too big with large, baggy brown trousers. His unkempt beard jutted out in red, hairy tendrils over what used to be a white shirt, its grey cloth almost the same colour as his skin. The other passengers ignored him. My eyes darted around nervously, and like a cat that can sense someone who doesn’t like them, he headed over and sat next to me surrounded in stench. He turned, his bloodshot eyes surprisingly bright green, alert.

“I was a pastor once, you know,” he slurred slightly. My eyes darted sideways and I thought I could make out a thin, dirty clerical collar beneath his beard. He fell silent for a few seconds, swaying with the movement of the bus, and then grinned yellow. “Still am. Didn’t get chipped, see? So I can’t buy anything, because even the money’s chipped, and can’t sell anything because I can’t buy.” He laughed, like some sick hyena that had been experimented on for too long. “Doesn’t matter; this hell is temporary.”

I avoided eye contact and gazed at myself in the bus windows.

“Got anything to eat?” he asked desperately. I glanced at him, and panic gripped my chest.

Christ, that could be me in a year.

Shaken, I got off the bus at the next stop and walked home instead. The bed-sit felt empty and still carried Kirsten’s smell. I half ate a ready-made dinner, and tried to watch some TV, the vat-grown meat digesting uncomfortably in my stomach. Finally I gave up, went to bed early and lay awake, smoking, staring at the white, textured ceiling.

Kirsten had left me because she claimed there was no connection. I was a social outcast, she said, holding her back from realizing her true potential. She’d tried in vain for me to get an interface – “Damn it, Peter, at least get chipped so we could go out to decent places!” – but I was as stubborn as she was persistent.

I had to be wrong. It wasn’t religion, if I were honest, even though Revelations was unnerving; that was the only way to get around the work requirements. I was a half-hearted Christian out of fear, probably.

James was right. I was afraid, afraid of change. An upgrade couldn’t be much worse than this.

I’d never end up a vagrant begging for food.

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December 31, 2007