We think so, and we’re not alone: the story has been shortlisted for this year’s BSFA Award.
Judge for yourself: here’s Limited Edition in all its great handsomeness, complete with striking original artwork by Robert Carter. If you like it, vote for it!
(c) Tim Maughan, 2012
first appeared in Afterparty Overdrive (Arc 1.3), Autumn 2012.
Eugene Sureshot, one mile tall, strides through the wasteland. Where his limited edition trainers hit the ground deserts bloom, city blocks rise and mountains rip themselves from the ground. Vistas erupt from each footfall, spreading like bacteria, mingling, creating landscapes. New places from the dead ground. Civilisations rise, intricate detail evolves around the soles of giant feet.
Then Sureshot stops, as if something blocks his path. He looks up. Looks left. Looks down and then looks right. He breathes and condensation forms on the screen. Sureshot steps back, raises a foot from the ground – leaving behind light-trails of glass skyscrapers and steel domes – and puts one limited edition kick through the screen, so all that Grids can see is the rubber sole, the embossed logo.
Grids and College both flinch, then try to pretend they didn’t. Glass showers the sofa. Sureshot steps through what’s left of the screen, now just nine feet high, and brings one perfectly clean limited edition crep down through College’s mum’s coffee table. It smashes, splinters, spraying broken mugs and cold tea. The drops fall like slo-mo rain on the carpet, which is transforming itself around Sureshot’s feet into streets and parks, buildings and city blocks. Infinite fucking detail, like Grids hasn’t seen since the last time. As he looks he can see little statues of Sureshot, his face on billboards and video screens. So small, so complex, a perfectly formed world at carpet-scale.
He looks up again, and Sureshot leans in to meet his gaze, their eyes locked, their noses so close they nearly touch. Sureshot breathes condensation on Grids’s spex.
Sureshot speaks, gravel tones, Atlanta drawl. “This is my world now, understand?”
Fade to black. Red logo.
“Shit fam,” says College.
“Hype ting,” says Grids.
“Bit too hype,” says College. “IMO.”
“Yeah. But nice kicks tho man,” says Grids.
“Oh seen,” says College, “serious nice kicks fam.”
WHOOOAH new Sureshot kicks TV spot is up! These some fly shoes people! #thisismyworldnow »blink«
Sakura Clan Inc (SKU) hopes to turn back last quarter’s losses with new pro-gamer trainer tie-ins, sponsorship of Eugene Sureshot seen as ‘return to urban market’ »blink«
BIG TING: unboxing vid for new Sureshot shoes! For real! »blink«
Melody’s voice comes hurtling down the cliff-face of the tower, echoing off the concrete.
“WHAAAT?” Grids screams back. Him and College look skyward, scanning the matrix of windows. They can see her head, the glimmer of her hoop earrings, leaning out of the eleventh-storey balcony, a sparkle of gold against the faded, damp pastel of the Barton Hill monolith.
“What girl want now man?” says College.
“GRIIIDS PUT YOUR SPEX OOOONN,” Melody screams again. Echoes.
“I GOT NO CREDIT,” replies Grids.
“Jesus fam, nuff shouting,” mumbles College. “Girl give me focus-static bruv.”
“THEN GET YOURSELF UP HEEERRRE.”
Grids looks up again. Melody’s head has disappeared, back into the tower. He stares up at the grey, flat ceiling of low cloud, lets himself soak in the sounds – the drone of traffic, the synthetic bass rumbles, the tick of ancient, processed drums. For a second he lets himself drift, reverse-vertigo, as the towers circle and sway around him, synched to the distant, filtered breaks that ebb from unseen speakers. Their tops fade into the stationary drizzle, and the fear hits him again, flooding him with insignificance, as though any second they could come alive and crush him like a wounded ant. Nothing scares him like the insignificance. He fights the urge to run, but can’t kill the need to climb, to be high, to be safe, to dominate.
“We should probably move man,” he says to College. “She sounds pissed.”
College sucks his teeth. “She always sounds pissed.”
Hold tight RT @RizzaDaRizz BIG TING: unboxing vid for new Sureshot shoes! For real! »Blink«
Piss-stink lift. Squeak of kicks on laminate. Knocks on door. The bass and snares are louder on the eleventh floor, de-tuned 808 hits vibrate up through Grids’s shins, but it’s reassuring up here. Safety at altitude. Significance.
He hears chains unhook, bolts slide. Melody pulls back the orange, paint-chipped door, looks them both up and down.
“’Bout fucking time,” she says.
“Hello Melody,” says College, his voice dripping with mock civility. “It’s very nice to see you.”
She screw-faces at him, shakes her head. Turns her attention to Grids. “What the fuck? Been trying to inbox you. Where your spex?”
Grids pats an upper arm pocket on his stormsuit. “Got no credit.”
More head-shakes from Melody, followed by a sigh. “Wasteman. You can use my mum’s network. She give me the password, but don’t be doing no sketchy shit, yeah?”
“Oh, so we can come in then?” asks College.
They follow Melody in to the flat, her bunches and earrings bouncing at the sides of her head, and Grids’s eyes fall into the dark skin at the nape of her neck. He feels a twinge of affection and, embarrassed, he covers his eyes with the spex from his pocket. Melody ‘tooths him a PostIt with the passcode – a seemingly infinite string of digits and symbols. Blink – network settings. Blink – connect. Blink – cut. Blink – paste. Green tick. Online.
Melody’s mum’s flat feels safe. It’s clean and warm, and smells of food, enough to make Grids’s stomach rumble. Not that it takes much, he’s not sure when he last ate, maybe last night. Money must be tight, thinks Grids, there’s only Melody’s mum and the three kids, but she works and holds this shit down. She doesn’t like him much, or at least not Melody hanging around with him, but apart from that she’s alright. He feels pangs of jealousy in with the hunger.
“So what’s the fiasco?” asks College.
“Check your timelines.”
Grids pulls down a menu out of his periphery, blinks icons. The air around him fills with windows and doorways, images and words, rumours and opinions, music and politics. Lies nestle with facts, jokes with atrocities, the exotic with the mundane. More information than the human brain was built to handle floats about him in a multicoloured, vari-textured, ever-shifting mosaic of triviality. Grids tries to stay away from the timelines; there’s too much insignificance, and it’s contagious.
Grids yawns, shakes his head. He defocuses on the swarm so it goes translucent, looks straight through it at Melody. “Yeah. And. What?”
She screw-faces, and he feels embarrassed again, because she looks cute when she does it. Not bimbo, high-street, wannabe-gamer cute, but smart, confident. And cute. He kinda likes her, but he’s known her for time. Since they were little. Plus her mum would kill him.
She sucks her teeth at him. “Can you not see what everyone in the ‘codes is chatting?”
Grids sighs. The timeline thing is such a chore. He blinks a couple of times, sets filters by popularity and neighbouring postcodes, and the swarm reassembles itself around him. A few things jump out, elbowing other tweets and posts and topics out of the way – a police beating in Lawrence Hill, a big graf bombing in Easton, some body in the canal by Feeder Road, and a skunk-factory raid in Brislington. But one thing stands out, dominating his view, pushing its way to the front. A video file, bare retweets.
Grids clicks it. It’s a spex cam capture, stereoscopic. Brief disorientation of being-there-but-not. He’s in/not in a small room, scruffy walls, lit by fluorescent tube lighting. Stacks of red shoeboxes, white logos on the side. Arms that he can’t control extend in front of him, grab a box, flip off the cardboard lid.
“Oh seen,” says College behind him, clearly riding the same clip.
Pulling aside tissue paper, dropping it to the scuffed floor. Underneath are two trainers, white leather with grey plastic details. They’re turned to face him, a signature stitched in flickering OLEDs. Eugene Sureshot. Underneath: Limited Edition. This Is My World Now.
“Yeah, they’re nice kicks,” says Grids. “And. What?”
Melody sighs. Again. Grabs him by the shoulder and drags him over to the window. South Bristol lies in front of him. Infinite fucking detail. From up here it looks like the carpet-scale world spreading out from Sureshot’s kicks in that ad, but twisted and broken, weathered and greyed, stained and British. An unplanned, confused mess of roads and buildings, housing estates and railway tracks, the grey and brown occasionally broken up by defiant patches of green trees and parks. It’s decentralised and pointless, never ending until it fades into the ever-present drizzle bank, and all he can see on the horizon are the flashing hazard lights on the bent-paperclip shapes of cranes and communication towers. He thinks again about that Sureshot ad, and how Bristol looks like someone bio-hacked his shoe’s terraforming virus to make something poisoned and already dead. Or even that this is what was there before, this is the wasteland, waiting for Sureshot – or the next man that’s big enough to wear those kicks – waiting for them to come along and make their mark. Wipe it all out, trample it down, and start over again.
“Stand here,” Melody says, impatiently, “and blink the geo-tag man.”
He blinks the slowly turning globe icon. Instantly a huge arrow appears above Bristol, spinning and bouncing, and he knows straight away where it’s pointing down on to. Avonmeads Retail Park, sandwiched between train tracks and a muddy river, half-hidden under the concrete sprawl of the traffic-filled St Philips Causeway flyover, looks out of place amongst the grid of infrastructure and housing, like a scrap of unwanted paper – like a discarded burger wrapper – that’s been blown onto this huge rolled-out map, or a crumpled note pinned in place with electricity pylons and aerials. A nowhere zone studded with near-forgotten retail brands and fast food franchises, a glorified car park that would have been abandoned to the rats and seagulls if you could download coffee, fried chicken and cheap household goods straight off the timelines.
“Shit fam,” says College, “It must be Foot Locker, innit.”
“What?” says Melody, “Foot Locker long gone. It’s Sports World now.”
“Not even,” says Grids, “Sports World shut down fam. It’s a Track and Hood now.”
“Whatevs,” says Melody. “Fact is they’ve got them Eugene Sureshot kicks right now, and they ain’t even street date until next week.”
“And the rest. They ain’t meant to be out for another ten days,” says College.
“Damn, I want them kicks.”
“Then lets go get some then,” says Melody.
“But I’m skint,” says Grids.
They three of them all look at each other for a second, then laugh.
“Seriously,” Grids says, looking at Melody, “You wanna do this, yeah? No gaming?”
“No shit I do. What else you gonna do today?” She shoots him back a cheeky grin. “But if we gonna do it, we gotta do it quick. That clip’s been all over the timelines for like nearly a full hour fam.”
“Shit. Yeah. We gotta move fast. Like now. And we gonna need more mans. Like a few. Most of BS4 is gonna be thinking the same, probably worth a collab. College, can you get us somewhere we can talk?”
“Yeah, think I know a place. I’ll get it running then I’ll hustle some people in. And get the Smash/Grab server prepped.”
“Nice, but keep it tight yeah? On the down low until we’re actually running. Shit, I need to go get changed while you sort that. Oh, and Melody?”
“Can I beg some credit?” Grids holds his rumbling stomach. “And has your mum got any food in?”
Daily unrest highlights: Beijing Tesco riots »blink« Seattle coffee looting »blink« Croydon (UK) Nandos fire »blink«
Don’t forget #ThroneofShadows is free to play! Sign up today and get 50,000 gold credit! All spex OS supported »blink« #freeplay
“Fuck me. This shit is embarrassing man.” Grids looks down at his heaving,
over-muscled chest, barely contained by the overlapping plates of shining armour. “I mean, Jesus Fuck. Look at me bruv.”
Melody giggles, twirling a battle-axe with blood-stained blades the size of
hub-caps above her head like it’s a majorette’s baton.
“You can fucking talk,” he says back at her. “Take a look at yourself. Cover yourself up girl, serious.”
Melody giggles again, insensibly-sized breasts jiggling. “You know I’m hot.
You wish you could get with this.”
“Heads up,” interrupts College, from under the oversized brim of a purple,
gold-star festooned wizard’s hat. “Lawrence Hill crew incoming.”
There’s a flash of light, a swirling of mystic winds and a puff of magical smoke, and suddenly there’s a green-skinned ogre and a hooded ranger stood in front of them. Text floating above their heads reveals them as Flex and Brainstorm.
The other three burst into fits of giggles.
“Fuck you man,” says Flex. “And fuck you too man. Seriously. Look at me. Man look like a special needs man.”
“Dunno blud, orc-style kinda suit you Flexman.”
“I said fuck you man. Hate this neckbeard-virgin epic fantasy shit. ‘Throne of Shadows’ – what does that even mean? Why couldn’t we meet in one of them mafia games or World War Two or some shit man?”
“Cos them games are full of people bruv,” replies College, “and where there’s people there’s the Feds, innit. This game is dead son. No one’s monitoring this shit. Plus it’s free innit.”
“I ported into the wrong place at first,” says Brainstorm, flicking what looks like sticky black gore off his pretty green cape. “Had to murk some goblins fam.”
“Really?” College asks, genuinely interested. “How was that?”
Brainstorm shrugs. “A’ight.”
“Alright games masters, y’all can compare your experience points inna minute,” says Grids. “We got shit to sort and we ain’t got much time. Flex how deep you rolling today?”
“Dunno, reckon I can drum up ten, maybe a dozen mans. Short notice innit.”
“Safe, that’s good. Reckon we can get the same from Barton ends. Should do us. But they all gotta drag their asses into this shameful place and get registered, seen? Like College said, we’re using this cos it’s dead and free, plus it’s got its own pervasive messenger so we can all chat in the real and the Feds won’t know shit. You get me?”
The ogre, the wizard, the ranger and the scantily dressed she-warrior all nod back at him. Grids shakes his head and tries not to laugh.
“College is gonna be outside, running media,” explains Melody. “Me and Grids and our crew will take point in Track and Hood. You guys will be on crowd control.”
“Alright,” says Flex. “I get you. Look, don’t take this the wrong way. This is your run so I got no problem with you guys taking point. But my boys, y’know, they ain’t gonna be happy unless a minimum of most of them come away with a pair of those Sureshot kicks. You get me?”
“Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Don’t get vexed – that’s why we doing this. Get them kicks. Reason number one. Anything else, boosting rankings, whatever – is a bonus. In and out. And I’m sure it don’t need specifying, but standard Smash/Grab rules yeah? No casualties, especially no staff or civilians. Right. Everyone go get prepped, get your mans prepped. I want feet on that tarmac at three pm sharp. No gaming.”
Daily unrest highlights: Illegal Disneyland flash-rave broken up »blink« Shareholders throw chairs at Google meeting »blink« Tokyo pensioners set fire to over-budget, newly opened nursery »blink«
Check it! Them kicks were filmed in Bris! 10 days and counting »blink« #thisismyworldnow
When Grids and his crew get to Avonmeads, he sees they’re being eyeballed by a fat black crow, perched on top of a CCTV pole. Like the camera, it watches them pass. Last summer whenever they came down here College would go into this big thing about how the crows and the seagulls were in this big turf war around Avonmeads, but after watching them Grids ain’t too sure. He’s seen both sides fighting with their own. There’s no loyalty out here in the wasteland, and it makes him jumpy. Back in the ends he knows everyone; knows who he can trust, has a fair chance of guessing people’s motives and strategies. Out here the same conditions don’t apply. This isn’t his territory, he doesn’t belong here, and the low whine of the camera and the crow’s eyeball tracking him hammer the point home. He feels knots in his stomach, that feeling of being out of his comfort zone, of being watched and pointed out as an outsider.
Avonmeads is less than ten minutes walk from Barton Hill, from his ends, but it feels like a different world to him. Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here. This isn’t a community space – it’s nowhere, a non-place. Nobody lives here, it’s populated only fleetingly by transient visitors – van drivers getting lunch, shoppers buying the few things they still can’t buy through their spex or print at home. Even the staff in the shops here – none of them live here, they just come for a few hours a day, a few days a week. And most of them don’t even hold that down for long – there’s about as much a sense of career down here as there is community. For a start the shops never stay for long – something opens, fills a short-term need, then closes. Storefronts lie dead and abandoned, until someone thinks they’ve found another fleeting need, moves in, shuts down. Open, close, repeat.
No, the only thing that matters here is cashflow. It flows in and it flows out –
in huge, armoured, aerial-drone-tracked security vans. And that’s all it does. Nobody lives here, nobody works here for long, and the money doesn’t stick around. Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s still not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider. It makes him insignificant.
Except right now he can feel his significance rise. Partly it’s because he’s rolling seven deep – most of his crew fronting behind him as he strides in, the rest already on site waiting for the green light. But largely he can feel the wrong kind of significance radiating onto him, from the top of the poles and the sides of the pylons that litter the two-thirds-empty car park, he can feel the cameras twitching like the crows and seagulls, tracking their moves, trying to place their faces. There’s nothing much they can do to avoid the knowing gazes apart from keep their stormsuit hoods up, their cap brims low and their spex polarised. Depending on what version the cameras are running it might be enough, but even if it’s not then legally it shouldn’t be an issue – they’re all under-age, and most of them have never been cuffed for anything major, so their faces shouldn’t be on file. But Grids knows where there are laws there are loopholes, and it’s more than likely the cameras are trying to match his face with timeline pictures, retail security wikis and the pupil data that Bristol City Academy dumps online for a small fee.
But fuck them. Fuck the cameras and the wikis and the school that sells out its own kids. Fuck them all. They’ve got nothing on him, fucking zero, and even if he is out here in the wasteland where he doesn’t belong, he’s rolling with his crew seven deep. Shoulders back, hoods up, heads high. You don’t like it, then what son? What?
“Oh shit, here we go,” he hears Melody say beside him.
From out of the gloom of the overpass he hears the pathetic whine of electric motors as a golf cart pulls in front of the group, blocking their path. Big fat fucker in the driving seat squints at them through crappy unbranded renta-fed-issue spex as he sticks a McDonalds coffee in the dashboard cup-holder next to a bag of Greggs sausage rolls. He’s got Group 4 Retail Response embroidered onto the polycarbon body armour that barely fits over his beer gut, and he winces from back pain as he heaves himself out of the driver’s seat.
“Alreet then boys,” he says in a deep Bristol drawl, attempting to pull his sagging trousers up over his fat arse, “Where’s you to today then?”
“What? Who you calling boy? What you blind?” Melody fronts him, screw-facing.
“Alreet me babber, no need for all that is there? Just answer my question now, where you going?”
“Going get a burger,” College chips in. “What?”
“Ah right. And you got money for that burger have you? All of you? Let me see your wallets.”
“What?” says Grids, “Wallets? We don’t carry cash granddad. What is this the nineteen-nineties?”
“Let me check the credit on your spex then. And you,” he points at College, “Show me what’s in that backpack of yers.”
“What? You can’t check our spex or search him. You ain’t real feds.”
“Fucking renta-shop-cop,” someone murmurs behind him.
“Under section 12, paragraph 18 of the 2014 Anti-terrorism, Illegal Protest, Sporting Events-Related Violence and Retail-Slash-Enterprise Zone Security And Management Act,” Grids can tell the guard is reading off spex-prompts now, “any privately employed retail-slash-enterprise zone security or management employee with reason to suspect potential antisocial behaviour or incitement to civil unrest can order the—”
“Fuck you man,” interrupts College, “you ain’t looking in my bag.” Grids feels his stomach turn. College’s bag is full of goodies. The sort of grey-to-black-market goodies that could get him in a fresh pile of shit.
“Come on son, don’t make this all unnecessary now.” The security guard reaches out an armoured arm to grab the straps of College’s backpack.
College slaps his hand away. “Get your fucking hands of me you fucking paedo!”
Suddenly the whole crew is crowded around the security guard. Grids likes the feeling of strength he gets rolling with them, but right now he can feel plans and any vague sense of control he had out here slipping away. He can feel things about to kick off before they are meant to, and not how he had sketched them out.
And then there’s a beeping sound, a pinging from the golf cart and the guard’s spex. He holds a hand up to the kids as if to signify shut-up, turns his face away and sticks a finger from his other hand in his ear. “Received. On my way.” And then he’s awkwardly clambering back into the tiny little toy-town car and speeding – if it can be called that – away.
“That’s right, you fat pussy,” shouts College after him, “Go run your way back to Krispy-K for some donuts!”
“Fucking wasteman,” says someone else.
“Yeah, get back in your milk float granddad.” Everyone starts laughing.
“Fuck,” says Grids to Melody, “Shit was close there fam.”
“Did you hear the message tho?” she replies. “Some-ting about trouble at Track and Hood.”
“Serious? You could hear that?”
“Yeah, I swear down.”
They watch the stupid little vehicle and its oversized driver wobble away across the tarmac. Grids sucks his teeth, worried some other crew has beat them to it.
“Guess we’d better go scope what’s happening then, innit.”
Leaked footage shows appalling conditions in Vietnamese shoe factory »blink« #thisismyworldnow
Everyone in Grids’s crew is pay-as-you-go, standardly. Which means they can’t opt-out of ads, and they spend the walk over to Track and Hood swatting away floating Ronald McDonaldses, grinning Colonel Saunderses and hyperactive anthropomorphic M&Ms. At one point – when some Z-list virt celeb is trying to ram a non-existent Greggs sausage roll down Grids’s throat – it gets too much and he actually takes his spex off for a bit, pulling his scarf up over his face at an attempt to substitute the disguise. But he knows it isn’t really going to work, so he puts them back on. They’re all back there again; up in his face, reminding him how hungry he is.
Anyway, when they get there it’s clear – to his relief – that it wasn’t another crew making a Smash/Grab raid on Track and Hood. The fat rentacop and one of his buddies are dragging some guy away, kicking and screaming – although the screams are muffled by the black-and-white-splattered gas mask he’s wearing. His clothes, some knackered-looking old stormsuit, is splattered in the same black and white too, and Grids guesses it must be some kind of paint. Then he clocks something and it all falls into place – the guy they’re dragging away has stencilled a still fresh-looking, 30-centimetre-square QRcode onto Track and Hood’s window.
“Don’t you be blinking that man,” College says to him. “Probably sketchy as fuck. Malware, believe.”
Grids looks at the QRcode, then at the vexed guy they’re dragging off, and back at the code. He blinks it.
The surface of Track and Hood’s window starts to shimmer and flex. A large black rectangle – something like a screen – pops away from the glass and floats in the air, video footage starting to fill it. It’s rough and jerky, disorientating – and it takes a second or too for Grids to realise it’s more spex cam capture, but even more illicit this time, like it was filmed secretly, by someone that really shouldn’t be filming at all. Wherever they are is fairly dark, apart from these long tables that are lit from above by painful fluorescent lights. Lots of people in matching yellow hats sat in rows along the tables – lots of people. Mainly women it looks like, hunched over. No, not women, children. Chinese looking, or Thai, or something. Grids isn’t sure. Is it a school? He can’t see what they are doing. The camera/spex-wearer’s head pans around the room – which is huge – no, it’s not a school. Looks like a warehouse, or a factory. The wearer gets closer to one of the tables, the kids look exhausted, sad but concentrating faces. Some of the girls look tiny, like less than his brother’s age, maybe just ten years old. If that. The wearer goes up to one, who glances up and then looks away, ashamed or scared. Over her shoulder he can finally see what she’s doing: stitching, with a needle. The middle of the table is a conveyer belt, along which come objects – he can see what they are now, shoes. The girls reach out and grab them as they pass, work on them. They’re trainers, white leather with grey plastic details. The girl in front of the wearer grabs one, and with tiny hands he can see she is stitching something in flickering OLED thread, filling a printed outline. A signature. Eugene Sureshot. Underneath: Limited Edition. This Is My World Now.
She looks back up at the camera again, tired and frightened. Freeze frame. Scrolling text – average ages, hours worked, amounts paid. Grids feels the hairs on the back of his neck prick up.
“Fuck me,” he says slowly.
“What?” asks College, turns to look at him. “Ah man you blinked it, didn’t you? Oh my days. Nice one G. You better not be infecting my shit, yeah?”
“Nah man, not malware,” Grids shudders. “Just nasty.”
“I told you not to blink it. Fucking great.”
“I’m telling you, it ain’t malware. Just a video file.”
“What is it Grids?” asks Melody.
“Probably a fucking trojan,” Says College. “Dickhead.”
“Shut it College. Just a video Mel, bit murky. Don’t stress it.”
“Yeah, well. Assuming you ain’t just fried all your apps, I suggest we do this thing, yeah? Y’know, why Fatty and his mate are busy hauling off that angry hipster?”
“A’ight, yeah,” Grids tries to snap himself back into alert mode. Go mode. “Send that message out. Let’s do this fam.”
TEN DAYS! These new Eugene Sureshots look NEXT LEVEL and they in #Bristol already! »Blink« #thisismyworldnow
College doesn’t know where the Smash/Grab servers are hosted, or who runs them, but he’s heard all the rumours. He’s heard the one that says they’re carried around by a swarm of autonomous, solar-powered high-altitude drones that never touch down, and are maintained remotely by a collective of hacktivists on the east coast of the US. And the one that says a Russian gambling oligarch hosts them in a stolen nuclear submarine illegally patched into a mainline cable on the floor of the Baltic Sea. Then of course there are the tin-foil-hat theories that actually the Feds run the whole thing in order to catch kids like him, and even take a cut of the betting profits. College don’t know which is true, if any, but he’s pretty sure the last one is bullshit. He’s been running Smash/Grab games for a nearly a year now, since someone at school explained the whole set-up to him, and he’s never been caught. The Feds have never come and knocked at his door, never surprised him with an unexpected visit at school. Yeah sure, first few times they did a run he nearly bricked himself every time he turned a corner near the ends and there was a squad car parked up, but nothing ever happened. Beyond the standard stop-and-searches he never got any hassle, and they were so regular these days that he doubted they were ever connected.
So no, he doesn’t know who runs Smash/Grab, and he doesn’t really care as long as they keep it locked down. He logs into the server right now, blinking and focusing through layer upon layer of passwords and image security, until he gets to the game he prepped earlier, before they’d left. He spent a good hour this morning checking everything was right: setting up objectives and registering the players from both crews, making sure their profiles were up to date and negotiating odds with the server’s automated agents. He even managed to pick up some sponsorship, a couple of glazing and security alarm companies took the bait – or at least their autonomous ad-buying spiders have, giving them plausible deniability if anyone should ask any questions. Though as far as College knows no one ever does.
Anyway, the game looks set. He gives it all one last check. The players are all there, their avatars rotating slowly in a grid; stats unfurling when he lets his gaze hover over them. Followers, rankings, products liberated. Most common stolen and destroyed brands. Panes broken. Fires started. And the two most important of all: the smash and grab scores. The grand total value of damage caused and items robbed.
Now College knows there are some big hitters out there. He’s seen kids in Malaysia walk out of smashed-up shopping malls with TVs the size of a tennis court. He’s seen a gang of girls in Tehran cover an armoured personnel carrier in pink paint and dance topless around it while its crew ran from the black smoke that poured from its doors and slit-like windows. Mad points, big rankings. A different league. But scale things down to a city level – so you’re just looking at the rankings for Bristol – and his crew ain’t too shabby either. Filter the tables by postcodes and really it’s only the hippysters, the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft, that give them a run for their money – but those soap-dodgers have got a different strategy on the whole game, and it’s reflected in their scores. They’re well down low on the rob scores, up much higher on the criminal damage achievements. Those kids just like burning shit. He’s watched them – both on Smash/Grab and out on the streets – set fire to a Nandos full of perfectly good chicken, smashing bottles of Peri-Peri sauce off of balconies in Cabot Circus while his crew’s stomachs rumbled. They say it’s because they want to make a point, because they’ve got a political agenda – but to College it’s just another way of playing the game, a different strategy. It’s wasteful to him and the crew he rolls with – to people who ain’t got the shit they want, the shit they’ve been told since they were toddlers they need to get – but he can see how it works for them. Keeps them clean, burning the evidence. He’s seen more gamers get busted through stop-and-search or random raids on cribs full of illicit stock than through CCTV footage or timeline track-backs, so it kind of rules all that out. Plus those hippysters claim they don’t want any of that shit anyway, which is why they’re doing it. But College ain’t always buying that. He sees them, with the latest spex and augmented clothes, buying bread from their artisan bakeries and eating locally sourced chicken in their organic restaurants up in Montpelier, where he could only dream of being able to afford a cup of free-trade coffee. Nah, he thinks, fuck their political agenda. It’s just a cover, they want shit like everyone else – it’s just different shit they buy with the money their parents out in the suburbs give them. But most of all, like everyone on Smash/Grab, they want to be seen, they want the props. Like everyone on the timelines and off, they want the significance.
That’s what it’s about today. Significance. And those fucking peng-looking Sureshot kicks, son. He blinks ‘PLAY’.
The server plays him a quick siren sample in confirmation, and unseen to him starts to stir into life. Two hundred thousand dummy profiles start talking to a combined follow-mass of over six million, dropping updates and spamming forums, hijacking hashtags and spawning new ones. Botnets start subtly looting resources to host anonymous video streams. Ripples expand in socialspace.
College is out of the server for a second, blinks open the Throne of Shadows messenger client, struggling to read text in the hilariously cheesy-looking fantasy font it insists on using for everything. In between sighing at the neck-beard bullshit he manages to shoot out a message to both crews. Go time.
IT’S ON! New game! Bristol (UK) trainer raid! Tune in and place your bets NOW! »blink«
Grids get the message, pulls his cap down tight, checks his scarf is round his face, checks his hood. The tiny Smash/Rob window pops open in his periphery. He’s already got 634 followers, climbing. Who knows who they are? Bored office workers, slum kids, stockbrokers, fashionistas, online griefers, lazy journalists, housewives, angry Daily Mail readers. Better give them something to watch. Go time.
782 followers. Nerves start to churn in his empty stomach. He glances across the car park and here they come, spilling out of McDonalds and Costa Coffee, the rest of the combined Lawrence Hill and Barton Hill crews, rolling nearly thirty deep, hoods up, caps low, spex and bandanas, black, white and brown skin all but disguised. Girls and boys, some young youths, some older soldiers. Moving en masse towards him, on point, on cue. The nerves steady, adrenalin kicking in, significance taking over.
1000 followers. Achievement unlocked. 10x points multiplier.
And then him and Melody are through the doors into Track and Hood, on point, the others cramming through behind them, and it all goes off. Most of them are just grabbing shit, throwing it to the floor, kicking over displays. Some kiddie has bust open a tube of tennis balls and is lobbing them across the store, sounds of laughing and cheers and unadulterated joy. Playtime, pent-up frustration and drab boredom channelled into expression and dance. Grids and Melody are more focused though, that’s why they’re on point. He grabs a cricket bat, Melody finds a golf club. They laugh and whirl, raining stock from shelves with their new-found toys, for once enjoying their youth and innocence; free from judgement and control. They smile as one, the whole crew, a shared moment of ecstasy and belonging.
Grids smashes glass display cabinets full of over-priced AR fitness gadgets –
run trackers and pulse monitors – and coins dance in front of his face, clocking up points to a ker-ching ker-ching ker-ching video-game soundtrack. He crushes boxes with his foot like Mario stomping mushrooms ker-ching ker-ching ker-ching.
3000 followers. Achievement unlocked. 20x points multiplier.
Check my stream! Little chav kids kicking off at Avonmeads! Streaming live now! #Riots »blink«
Outside, most of the Lawrence Hill crew is preparing for the inevitable. Four of them hurtle around from the back of Pizza Hut, dragging and pushing a huge wheeled recycling bin, scattering civilians out their path – some of them running for the safety of their cars, but most of them just hanging back, watching. Recording. Streaming. Filling the timelines with more traffic, a mixture of outrage, bemusement and shameful glee.
College has to move quick, this he knows. He drops his backpack to the floor, unzips it, pulls out the first micro-drone, throws it into the sky. Then the next, the third, the fourth. The four little insect things hang above him in the air, circling each other, suspended on quad-rotors, ball cameras twitching. With blinks he sends two through the shop’s open doors and the other two into higher orbits, a crow’s-eye view. Windows fill the air around him and he’s running the media, jumping between streams – not just the drones, but from Grids’s and Melody’s spex too. Scratch mixing into one output to the Smash/Grab server – cutting, mixing, transforming, flipping highlights into backspun rewinds. From out of the shop a piercing alarm bell rings – a shrill, unending skull-piercing tone designed to scare as much as alert – and he samples it with a couple of blinks. Runs it through a loop chopper to make a wall-of-noise riff, drops one of Melody’s pre-cooked beats, sprinkles it with 808 snares and grounds it with sub-bass. Punctuates it with a few handclaps and dub-sirens. Checks levels, adds reverb, and drops it over the output stream.
Achievement unlocked – ‘Stanley Fucking Kubrick’. Media control bonus: 20x points multiplier.
The recycling bin hits the kerb and flips, unleashing its rolling and smashing cargo of bottles and jars in an explosion of colour and sound, College dropping a drone down to just a couple feet above the mess, close up art-house shots for the pixel-geeks and hipsters. Some of the Lawrence Hill boys have started on the windows, railing against them with their feet and bottles, trying to break the almost smash-proof glass. It’s not giving in – it never does at first – instead it turns itself into overlapping cobwebs of white, fractured patterns of infinite fucking detail. For a while College thinks it’s not going to go this time, which means means missing a massive destruction points bonus, until something hurls past him, something big and stupid and oh so wonderfully funny that College laughs so much that he nearly forgets to stream it.
Feral youths need rounding up and shipping off to the Falklands. Teach them some discipline #riots
Wow, apparently these filthy little chavs in Bristol want some new trainers bad! #lolscum »blink«
Grids pauses for as second, catches his breath, looks around and drinks it all in. Someone must have slashed open a goose-down ski jacket – who the fuck in these codes goes skiing man? – and the air is full of slow-moving feathers, swirling lazily like anime cherry blossom. The alarm stubbornly persists in its efforts to make him flee, but it’s all but drowned out by sounds of laughter and joy and College’s over-dubbed soundtrack. He watches Melody and two other girls gleefully take apart a display of rugby boots, their golf clubs and tennis rackets arching gracefully in the air, and realises this is the happiest he’s felt for a long time. He knows it’s fleeting, ephemeral, but nothing beats the rush of unchained freedom and significance.
Then there’s a crashing sound from the front of the shop, and he sees most of the glass fall in – it’s a shattered mess, but it’s largely holding together as one piece – as something huge powers its way through, slamming into the already wrecked clothes racks. It takes him a quick second to realise that it’s the security guard’s little electric car, and another to realise that Flex is driving it. Everyone in Track and Hood freezes and turns to look at him, the air full of palpable disbelief, as the fifteen-year-old stands up on the cart’s front seats, hands outstretched above his head in a gamer’s victory stance.
“YES INDEED FAM-A-LAM!” he bellows in an exaggerated Jamaican accent, “YOUR RRRRIDE IS HERE! READY AND WAITING FOR CARGO, SEEN! LOAD THAT BADBOY UP BREDRIN!”
And then everyone is laughing and cheering, bo-ing and fist-bumping him, and he’s taking bows and shaking his head in mock humility, loving the significance, as mans crowd round the little car, loading it up with trainers and T-shirts, stormsuits and caps. Ker-ching ker-ching ker-ching.
Achievement Unlocked – “Window Shopping”. Criminal Damage/Stock Liberation combo bonus: 60x points multiplier.
When Grids stops laughing he remembers why he’s actually here, and snaps back into objective mode. He grabs Melody and Threat Level – another member of his crew, currently puncturing footballs with a Stanley knife – and they head to the back of the shop with one of College’s drones buzzing along behind them, their feet crunching satisfyingly on glass and debris. Behind the shop’s counter stands a solitary figure in a Track and Hood shirt, hands on his head in dazed dismay.
Grids levels the end of the cricket bat at him. “No fucking about blud, where’s the Sureshot trainers?”
“Shit Grids,” the kid says, “You’ve no idea how much shit I’m going to be in man.”
Grids pushes his spex up on to his forehead, squints at a familiar face. “Rizza? What you doing here man?”
“Trying to work fam,” He shakes his head.
“What? I didn’t know you worked here.”
“’Course he does,” says Melody, “Who d’ya think posted that clip?”
“Yeah, that was a fucking misfire,” Rizza says, despondent. “On WorkFair innit. When they find out about this shit they’re gonna cancel my travel-pass and I ain’t gonna be able to get to college man.”
Grids feels a pang of guilt, but it’s too late now. No turning back. “I’m sorry man, truth. But I need to get them kicks fam.”
“Yeah, I know. Back through there in the storeroom innit.”
“You the only staff here?” Grids asks. Rizza nods back at him. “Then I suggest you fuck off. Now. And I’m sorry.”
And with that Rizza is gone, grabbing a few choice bits of stock on his way out, plus some paper from the till. Standard.
Grids follows after Melody and Threat, who has already kicked in the storeroom door. The three squeeze into the tiny dim room, and there they are – the red boxes with white sigs, stacked up all neat in the corner just like in the clip. He grabs the nearest box, rips off the lid, tissue paper falling to the floor. Lets his fingers run over the leather and plastic and the stitched detailing – flashback to that dim factory, those little girls’ hands – and he’s pulling them out, dropping the box, kicking off his own battered kicks and slipping on the fresh creps. His spex chime, a shoe icon appears in his periphery, followed by a green tick. Paired.
Around Grids’ feet, where his limited edition shoes hit the ground deserts bloom, city blocks rise and mountains rip themselves from the ground. Vistas erupt from each footfall, spreading like bacteria, mingling, creating landscapes. New places from the dead ground. Civilisations rise, intricate detail evolves around the soles of giant feet. The storeroom floor is transforming itself around Grids’ feet into streets and parks, buildings and city blocks. Infinite fucking detail, like Grids hasn’t seen since the last time. As he looks he can see little statues of himself, his face on billboards and video screens. So small, so complex, a perfectly formed world at carpet-scale.
Achievement Unlocked – ‘Retail Therapy’. Stock Liberation Objective Completed: 100x points multiplier.
Grids feels himself mouth the words, not sure if it’s out loud or just to himself, “This is my world now, understand?”
BREAKING: hooded teenagers looting sports stores in Avonmeads. WATCH LIVE NOW »blink«
Disgusting. I feel sick. Someone should assassinate whoever runs Smash/Grab.
Let them get on with it I say. Let them burn their own neighbourhoods to the ground. Then when there’s nothing left maybe they’ll finally go back to their own countries.
Outside the Lawrence Hill crew is holding off a bunch of flabby, riot-shielded security guards with a constant hail of bottles and jars. All apart from a couple, who are playfully trying to take out a sinister-looking police drone that’s hovering over Avonmeads. It flits left and right, effortlessly dodging their missiles, but no matter – the missing bottles arc downwards onto parked cars and vans. Bonus Criminal Damage points. Ker-ching ker-ching ker-ching.
College is a bit more worried though, he knows that drone means it’s time to start winding things down. He checks the CopWatch wiki – as he suspected, riot unit inbound. He fires up the Throne of Shadows client and drops everyone a three minute warning. Blinks into the vid feeds again – from the drone in the storeroom he can see Grids, Threat and Melody packing the Sureshot kicks into black plastic bin bags they’ve produced from pockets on their stormsuits. Nice footage, flips to Grids’ feed to get a close-up.
Wait. Nah. That ain’t right. What is this? Some dark room, much darker than the store room. Long tables with kids at them, in pools of overhead light. Murkiness.
He opens up a VOIP channel with Grids direct.
“Was up? Your shit is fucked up, that’s was up fam!” College is pissed. “Why you never listen to me man? That QR you blinked earlier was straight mal bruv. Fucking trojan innit. Your stream is fucked and showing some random shit right now.”
“Nah, it’s not bullshit man, you fucking go look and see what it’s sayin’.”
Grids pauses his packing and checks his stream. The factory, the kids. Little girl hands and OLED stitching. College is right, it’s that clip from earlier. Trojan business, jacking his stream. Shit, not now. He looks around, at Threat and Melody, and the shoes they’re de-boxing into the bin bags. Dozens of them. Enough that they start to look insignificant. Glances back at his stream, the little girls – same age as his brother – churning them out, filling the warehouse. He thinks fast. Knows what he must do.
College is back on the line. “I’m cutting off your stream Grids.”
“Nah! No! College fam, leave it man! Seriously! I want people to see that shit!”
“What? Don’t game—”
“Serious fam! Leave it! Please! Look, me and Mel are coming out right this second. Just leave that stream up, mix it with the main, and make sure you got a drone on me! Please!”
He can hear College suck his teeth on the other end of the line, pause. “OK. A’ight. But quick man. Feds soon come.”
Threat has gone, Melody and Grids grab one of the two bags each. They exit the Track and Hood, which looks like a bulldozer has been through it, the carpet compacted hard with crushed plastic and glass. The rest of his crew have all fled, spurred on by College’s warnings.
Out on the kerb, squinting at the carnage around him, Grids empties his black bag of trainers into a pile on the floor, snatches Melody’s and does the same.
“What the fuck—”
“Flares!” he shouts at her, “Now!”
She reaches inside her baggy stormsuit, pulls out the final treat, two foot-long black tubes, passes one to Grids. She ignites the end of hers with a disposable lighter, passes it to him, he does the same. The grim, overcast Bristol day is lit up by twin, tiny, intensely bright green suns. He holds his out at arm’s length and he can still feel the heat on his cheeks. White smoke bellows, a dull wind blowing it across the Avonmeads wasteland. Grids watches Melody turn – in slow motion – and launch her flare into the shop, it’s flight traced by neon light-trails across his retinas, the wrecked store interior instantly filling with white smoke. He turns back, his flare held high, pouring out that thick white smoke, looking for College’s drone. One drops down in front of him, head height, ball camera twitching until it focuses on him.
Grids breathes deep, summons strength, squashes nerves and self-doubt with significance. Looks straight into the camera, and speaks to the potential millions that will see him.
“If you’ve seen what’s playing on my stream yeah, then you know why I’m going to do this. This is for them, yeah, them girls. For all the kids. For all the kids that can’t come down here and do what we do. This is for them cos it’s their world now.”
He drops the flare. As it hits the pile of trainers they ignite, bright green and blue. A cloud of white smoke and the smell of burning plastic hits him and he stumbles back, and he can hear protests from some of the other raiders, but it’s too late. Time is up, game over. He glances to his left and he can see the low, squat, six-wheeled, windowless, armour-plated box of the riot truck swerve off the overpass, taking out some bins and half a golden-arch as it skids towards them, air-brakes screeching, a turret on its front twitching to life and aiming at him and—
“EYES DOWN!” he hears College scream.
He looks at the ground and covers his eyes with both hands, but still sees the flash. Everything goes red. Wide-beam non-lethal anti-riot laser, standard procedure. When he looks up again the smoke is filled with stumbling shapes, clueless civilians blinded by the beam that’s meant to be protecting them, shuffling about in a panic like shopping-mall zombies. And then he’s running between them, through the smoke and chaos, him and Melody and College following the others. Under the dark underpass and the roar of overhead cars and juggernaughts, and then up, over the chainlink fence and dropping down into the non-place wasteland beyond, between the infinite pylons and transmitters, the communications towers studded with dishes and aerials, and the diesel-blackened trees, following the train tracks until the towers of Barton Hill rise in front of them, welcoming them home.
Today’s rising stars: Luana-G (Havana, Cuba), Grids (Bristol, UK), Suenna-Li (Hanoi, Vietnam), Flexman (Bristol, UK) »blink«
Wow – looks like some of my people over there in the UK are hyped for my shoes! Keep calm little homies, hold tight. Only 10 days left! #thisismyworldnow
Little feral rats should be round up and shot. And who says their poor? How can they afford the best spex and designer clothes then? Their dressed better than me! Disgusting.
Sakura (SKU) sees stock rise after viral campaigns and UK looting boost demand for new celebrity-gamer trainer range »blink«
Salute to Grids, Barton Hill crew. True soldier, showing us how it’s done »blink«
The suggestion that this is somehow about politics or human rights is ridiculous. These are nothing more than work-shy thugs looking to make a quick buck. It is time to take this country’s streets back from these scum.
Wow, watch them kiddies go. Fair play tho, I hate shoe shopping too. Never got anything in my size.
Someone knocks on the door, and Grids come out of his room. Checks through the spy-hole who it is before opening up – he’s had to keep his head down for a day or two. It’s not just the feds he’s worried about, but he’s pissed off plenty of people in the ends with his little stunt. Melody bought it, he thinks – in fact she even seemed a little impressed – but he could tell College was pissed, despite what he said. As for the Lawrence Hill crew – well, best he keep a low profile round the codes for while, unless he wants to get jacked.
It’s the pizza guy at the door. He unhooks the chain, opens it up, takes the two big boxes and transfers him credit from his spex. It’s the last of the few quid he made by trading in some of his points on the Smash/Grab server. Means his ranking has taken a major kicking, but it’s all good if it means he can feed everyone for a few days. Plus there’ll be more runs, more points. Standard.
He carries the boxes back into the lounge, drops them down onto the threadbare carpet, in front of his little brother and sister who are busy watching Korean samurai cartoons. He smiles as they set upon them, steam bellowing from the boxes as they flip open the lids.
“Try and leave some for dad, yeah? If he ever wakes up.” He glances over at the sofa, shakes his head. His dad is flat out as usual, immersion headset strapped to his face, empty unbranded cider cans littering the floor around him, ashtrays full of spliff-ends spilling out on the carpet.
Grids bends over and grabs a couple of slices for himself, tousles his brother’s thick hair playfully before heading back to his room. On the way there he pauses in the hallway to stare down at his feet, the Eugine Sureshot Limited Edition trainers still immaculate. They’re so clean that he almost never wants them to leave the flat, but as he watches cities bloom in infinite fucking detail on the carpet around him he knows there’s no point in that. He’ll have to watch his back wearing them, that’s for sure, but they need to be seen. It’s still a week until the street date, and these are the only pair in the ends. He made sure of that. Unparalleled significance. Until then, at least, this is his world now.
Also in Afterparty Overdrive, the third of Arc’s quarterly explorations of the future:
explore the future of pleasure, from robot music to riotous shopping, from crowdsourced theatre to biohacked gardening. Neal Stephenson talks to us about reclaiming the body from its digital prison. Justin Pickard meets the new Luddites. New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury takes us to the singularity disco. And Simon Ings remembers the civilisations that partied themselves to death.
Among Arc’s fiction, Lavie Tidhar imagines a future where nobody – but nobody – is a beautiful or unique snowflake, David Gullen explores kidulthood in the far future, and competition-winner Nan Craig drops a cyborg killing machine into Port Talbot.
Arc is, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens, and also available in a collectible print edition.
Visit http://www.arcfinity.org for details.
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