I’m going to try something a little different, and start writing little bits of fiction from my emerging game worlds. The next few stories will focus around Ben Davis, a journalist currently assigned in Version City. Most of this will be posted with minimal editing, so feel free to call me on rough spots.
The Lifestyle section. I was writing for the fucking Lifestyle section. The part of the paper that scrolled by in hair salons and doctor’s waiting rooms, and was read by a few culturally effete wannabes and a lot more people with time to kill. God love you if it showed up in your feed queue, because it sure as hell didn’t show up in mine.
There was some point in the past where journalists would kill for this gig. I was writing for the Chicago Tribune, a paper so backward that they still hung on to the administrative name of the city, despite the fact that no one ever used it. I vaguely remember hearing the “Chicago version2.0” campaign when I was in middle school, but most people didn’t know or care about that. All they knew was that we lived in Version City, where the updates keep coming but nothing ever changes.
I took the El out to McCormick Place to cover my first assignment: the Version City Auto Show. The batch of car manufacturers thought to appeal to the “edgy”, “hip” side of the city, without even thinking that none of this demographic drove, and even if they wanted to, less than half of them could afford the cars being marketed. I suppose it was a sad state of affairs, but someone was making money doing this.
Closer to the lake, the city thinned out, maintaining the parks network that was finished in the early 21st century. It was a bit strange coming from Nova Angeles, where space was precious and even coastal erosion didn’t prevent the further construction of high-rises. I think it was a good compromise…I got to maintain my sanity, and could still order yakitori from a boat if I went down to the river.
The convention center continued this “openness” trend with high glass ceilings, and a completely open floor plan. Auto shows were typically like this, or so I was told, because a booth layout made it difficult to bring in the main attractions of the show, the cars themselves. The funny thing was, this was the first auto show in North America in nearly 50 years, thanks to our little nuclear indiscretions. But for me and for most, that was merely what you learned in history class now. Still, I knew some old hat journalists who were deeply pained that there were no more American auto manufacturers left. Putting the horse before the cart, I thought, due to how slowly our rebuilding process had gone.
There were three large Japanese manufacturers, two Chinese manufacturers, and one Korean manufacturer. We had all heard the rumors about when the Mercedes plant was going to open back up in Germany, but the Europeans were having their own problems. Even if the plant opened up at the end of the year like they said, I sincerely doubted they’d export to us within five. The Japanese were dominating the industry, though they still built most of their cars here in America. Space had always been dear in Japan, but now it was starting to get a little ridiculous.
I first went over the Fuji area, looking at their wares. Fuji Heavy Industries owned a relatively niche car brand in the 20th and 21st centuries, but had really come into their own as a maker of performance and specialty vehicles. Toyota and Honda were the commuter makers, but Fuji made the out-there stuff. The first car I looked at was a concept model called the Optimus. There was a smiley model standing there in what looked like a vinyl bikini, telling the other convention goers about the car.
“The Optimus employs 15 different geometrically variable control surfaces to optimize the car’s handling at a whole range of speeds. The four hundred horsepower gas turbine engine can run on any of ten approved fuels, and ensures that you will be in full control on today’s min-speed interstates.” The car was a funky-looking thing, with several different appendages that, for the show at least, were flexing back and forth, shifting the car from a very aggressive box to an almost impossibly squat wedge. The rear was taken up by the turbine’s exhaust ports, as well as the usual traffic information display. The display was cycling through speeds and colors, big numbers showing the car’s intended action on a large matrix of lights mounted on the rear. Though I always found them tacky, TIDs were a necessity for any cars operating in mixed autonomous and personal traffic. Nowadays, that meant pretty much every street.
Fuji had their normal range of vehicles, ranging from powerful min-speed cruisers like the Optimus, down to Western cruisers like their XV. I actually found the dearth of commuter cars somewhat odd, this being a city, but I had no idea who the clientele was. Cruisers were likely to be the most popular, as more and more people were commuting between cities, or from suburbs more than 30 miles out. As fucked up as the thought was, it was nuclear war that brought us the minimum speed limit interstate, and that was ultimately a good thing for those who drove. Long, straight, grade-separated highways with maximum speed limits around 125 mph, and minimum limits starting at 80. They were utterly useless to city bums like me who took trains everywhere, but for those well-heeled enough to own a car, they were a godsend. Apparently, prior to their inception, there was traffic even on grade separated highways. I shuddered at the thought of such a speed differential…it probably killed a lot of people way back when.
Toyota was the next stop on the show floor. They and Honda had become largely commoditized, and were getting taken down by the lower-buck Koreans and Chinese. Toyota’s method of solving this was an innovative manufacturing solution that let everyone make their car to order, down to an incredible level of detail. Toyota’s cars were largely autonomous, though there were a few self-control models with added power and handling features. The display showed the components of the car, and how they could be customized. Around the central display were a group of six Toyotas, with a wide range of customizations, paintjobs and feature sets. These were once again being hawked by scantily clad Asian models.
It was at some point around here that I lost the plot. I had been taking notes about the Fujis, the Toyotas, the Hondas, the Doosans…but it didn’t seem to matter so much. Cars were cars at a certain point, right? No matter how much technology you packed into them, cars in this day and age had two characteristics: they got you from place to place, and they were ridiculously expensive. I thought about my closest friends, and couldn’t picture a car buyer among any of them. I guess that’s what I needed to do, then: I needed to talk to some customers.
As it turns out, no one wants to stop and talk to a journalist. After the fifth or sixth time being brushed off, I stopped trying to talk, and decided to listen. First I heard a father and his fourteen year old daughter, talking about buying her a car. When he had to pick up his phone, it became clear he was a real estate trader. Next, I saw a young couple milling about the Toyotas. The man was the owner of a high-touch design firm in the city. I saw a group of middle-aged men looking at the Fuji Optimus. Briefly listening to their conversation revealed that they were investment bankers. As a journalist, I could have been the poorest person in the whole damn convention center.
I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and quickly sent a brief outline to my editor. The message that came back was terse: “Just talk about the cars.” Of course. It was the fucking Lifestyle section. No one wanted a class shift editorial there, all the thinking would make their brains hurt. I continued doing my rounds, gathering the bullshit up for the Lifestyle version. Power, fuel economy, number of doors, type of fuel, all those nice numbers that people pretend to understand when they compare their purchases. Editor would eat it up. In line at one of the concessions stands for lunch, I shot my other outline over to a friend. He ran a blog that was apparently well-read on ShadowNet. ShadowNet was popular among Informals, that is, people who didn’t participate in the regulated economy. Those in said regulated economy tended to call it the black market, but that’s an ugly term, oversimplifying something much more complicated than black and white. I knew the way my piece would be presented, but it had to be better than being relegated to the Lifestyle section. Besides, I never really interacted with Informals…even if my politics didn’t get messed with, I bet it could stretch my paycheck. The message came back.
“Like the idea, like the content. Let’s meet tonight, discuss payment. You’ll need a ShadowNet username.”
I bought my hot dog, sent my clean article to the Tribune, and sat down. Unsurprisingly, the article was accepted with my byline after only about 20 minutes. I mean, it is the Lifestyle section, why waste more time? I knew I’d probably get fired after my shadow article ran, but I wasn’t so worried about that. Somehow, I hadn’t been thinking about money or my career direction with this move. It was impulsive, but I kind of liked it. I did one more run around the Korean and Chinese displays, and sent a draft to my ShadowNet contact. As I was leaving the building, I got another message.
“Looks good. We’ll discuss and polish tonight. BTW, your login: Bendy, password: ChangeMe”
I downloaded an onion router and fired up ShadowNet. My login worked, and a bunch of content had already been forwarded to me. It was overwhelming, most everything being organized in a combination of nested forums and subcategories. I made a mental note to explore it on the train ride home. In the station, I got another message from my Tribune editor.
“Nice work, Bendy. We’ll make sure this arrangement can continue to be beneficial for all parties.”
I froze. That account name had existed for less than an hour now. Apparently, journalism in Version City was more complicated than I had anticipated…even in the Lifestyle section.