Bob, who lived in the pod above Jake, was masturbating again.
Jake peeled his eyes open. They felt like oranges that had been cut open and left in the sun. It wasn’t something out of the ordinary – watching the standard government-funded porn before getting up for work – but Bob was far too indiscreet about it. He moaned and rocked as he got off, making the old steel and fiberboard of the pod creak in time with his ugly incantations. Jake looked at the clock next to his mattress, in the single shelf that housed his personal effects. He was not allowed to get out for another twenty minutes.
He rolled over and turned his earpods on, then launched up a game on his datalink, desperately wanting to go back to the world of dreams, to escape the wakefulness that had come unbidden to draw him into the infinite grey of the world that is. For his waking mind, the game was the closest thing, but as soon as he passed the loading screen he remembered that he hadn’t waited long enough since the last time he had played, and thus had no stamina to walk out into the beautifully rendered world of escape.
Resignedly, he charged another five UN credits to the game, buying a quick stamina potion so he could actually go exploring. With a sigh, he knew he would buy another one at lunch.
The adventure was efficient and successful. He cleared out a building full of Christian Cultists in a ruined temple, retrieved some currency, and even got a gold chest. He would normally have paid to open it, but having just spent five credits, he decided to wait and open it that night after the time had expired.
He turned off his earpods and listened to the space around him. Bob had apparently finished his business, and outside the curtain of his pod Jake could hear others being woken by their datalinks and preparing for the day before common time began. Jake sat up, or at least sat up as much as he could in the cramped space, and began pulling on his clothes for the day.
With a flash, the lights turned on, and curtains began to be drawn back. Jake opened his own, watching the men and women shuffling out of their pods into the crowded common walkway, most dressed and ready for their day. A few were naked or lightly robed, intending to shower and be de-loused before they left. His eyes lingered on a woman heading for the showers, and he found himself admiring her, taking in the details of her flesh and watching her hips and breasts sway.
He felt a pang of guilt, knowing he had committed a dark act with his eyes. He had been avoiding the pornography networks too often of late, and now he was raping a woman with his eyes. Despite this, he did not look away as she paused in the crowd. He stared at her buttocks and his eyes went up her back to her bare neck and shaved head.
He sighed, thinking she would be beautiful if she had hair, but then again, only pornstars had hair.
At last, he got out of his pod, his soul refuge of personal space, and put on his shoes. He headed through the crowd toward the exit. He stepped around the biggest milling crowd, which was composed of people trying to get their breakfast from the early food service, and stepped up to a vending machine instead.
He charged another few credits and got a WaferBar. He was hungry, but he knew he would be hungrier still if he didn’t eat during the time allowed. He peeled open the bar and examined it. He could barely tell it was made from beetle larva, so processed was its shape and texture. Reluctantly, he bit into it, trying to eat it quickly.
“You’re wasting your money, you know.”
It was Natty Eckelstein, who stood next to him with a bowl of fresh smoked larva. He picked up a few and tossed them into his mouth, then crunched them loudly.
“And you don’t? You spend all your money on KillQuest.”
“At least I have something to show for it. I’m rank fourteen. You’re what, rank seven?”
“Eight. Well, eight was my highest.”
“You could be buying lootboxes my friend, and you know, actually working the meta, but you keep wasting your money on snacks.”
Jake paused and frowned. “I don’t like it.”
“Then why play it?”
“I mean, I don’t like eating bugs.”
“It’s free, Jake. Why are you paying for what’s free? That bar isn’t made of some mythical jungle fowl.”
“It doesn’t make me feel like I’m eating bugs is all.”
Natty smiled. “They’re better for you raw. You know that, right? That processes stuff will make you fat.”
Jake forced a chuckle. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Jake stepped out onto the street. He looked up and down, seeing the other pod houses emptying of residents, all heading for their respective transit stops. He crossed the street toward his own, and his datalink came to life, beaming in the first news report of the day. He pressed the button on his link to kill the transmission, but it didn’t work. He had run out of pass credits for the news and had to watch the broadcast.
The annoying voice of a female anchor (she had short hair, not bald) screamed into his ears. The security council was apparently negotiating the successful beginning of a war. Quickly the broadcast went through some local news, and Jake began to zone out.
He jumped back into consciousness, however, when he had to leap out of the way of two speeding chair scooters, their occupants laughing and snorting as they ran into pedestrians. The girth of each of them spilled voluminously over the sides of the chairs, jiggling as they ran over the uneven, crumbling pavement. He watched them shriek as they sped down the avenue toward the department of wellness, where they would be picking up their weekly disability stipend.
At last, he reached his train stop. He found a tight crowd there, all standing back from the landing. He quickly saw why. The largest pile of feces he had ever seen sat on the platform, leaning like an ugly castle, almost scowling at the crowd. Insects had already found it, and crawled and buzzed over its moist and fetid surface.
“How could one man make that?” Jake said aloud. Nobody responded.
The train arrived. Jake and the rest of the commuters stepped around the brown monument to human waste and into the train car. The chimes began to sound as the doors closed, a series of sharp melodies corresponding to each classification of person on board, letting each group know when it was time for them to find a place. Jake was surprised to find a single seat vacant when it was his turn to sit and nobody else requiring it.
He sat next to a large man, who scratched at his bald head.
“You hear they’re going to do a mid-semester de-lousing for everyone?” he said, staring out the window. He took a glass pipe out of his coat and began to pack the bowl with greasy black leaves that smelled like floor cleaner. “I might actually need it this time.”
“Couldn’t hurt. Luckily there is no typhus at my pod-house.”
“Just one guy at mine, but he was a rough sort. Spent too much time out-of-doors. I think he might have died, but I haven’t seen them rent the pod out to anybody else.” The stranger lit up his pipe and took a long draw of the substance within. Others in the car were following suit. “You forget yours?” the stranger said.
“No I just don’t want it,” Jake said.
“Gotcha,” said the stranger, winking and touching his nose. “You should know the natural stuff is better for you.”
Jake shrugged. The stranger quickly put his pipe away and opened up a game on his link. Jake did the same, trying to resist the urge to drop another five credits on the way to work.