I gave my skateboard one last kick and watched it roll across the porch. It came to a halt by the door, which stood ajar. I went inside the little house, leaving behind the stifling heat and a sleepy subdivision. Just another Wednesday afternoon.

“Anyone home?”

Inside, it was cool. AC: the air of modernity.

As usual, the den looked like a tornado had just hit. Coke cans, plastic water bottles, pizza boxes, various food wrappers. I picked my way through toward Marc’s room. A noise came from my left. A figure took shape, coming toward me. A nice figure.

“Oh, Alex, it’s you. I thought I heard the door.”

It was Marc’s mom, Michelle. Seeing her in her low-cut jeans and tight white t-shirt, I thought: I’d motorboat those tits, I’d pet that pussy…

Michelle had been an Evian long enough to know how to take care of her body so she didn’t show her age. She must’ve gotten snatched up more than twenty years ago, when the offers just were starting. I’d been fantasizing about her ever since the first time I came over. How was it she still lived alone? It beat the hell out of me. Though virtu-orgies she joined through her implant every night—I could picture those quite clearly.

“Oh, hey Michelle.” Just saying her name gave me a hard-on. What I wouldn’t give to —

“Go ahead. Marc’s in his room.”

“‘Kay, thanks.” I kept on toward the back of the house and my friend’s lair.

“Wow, wait — am I seeing things?”

“What? What’s the matter?”

“Your shoes! How long have you…?”

Right. So she didn’t know. Marc hadn’t told her. I turned around, proud, and looked down at the red logo on my sneakers. There I was, flying brand colors. It meant I’d signed a binding contract with the manufacturer; with certain perks came certain responsibilities. The three stripes guaranteed me a salary, but I had to remain worthy of it.

“Oh, just a few days. I’m an Adidas now.”

“Congrats!”

“Thanks. I got a good offer, and I figured I was old enough to sign up.”

“Good for you. Say a little something to Marc for me, will you? He’s not as grown-up as you.”

I said nothing, just kept going. She didn’t know. Her son had been a Toshiba for a year now, and she didn’t suspect a thing. It’d kill her if she knew — a fitness addict, an Evian with a body right out of a wet dream — that the flesh of her flesh, the blood of her blood, had been bought up by Toshiba. So much for her plans to make him a Dior someday, or at least a Reebok.

Still, she must’ve had some clue that the nerd who never came out of his room, the kid who’d wanted his implant at age five, didn’t care about his body, much less his looks.

I knocked and walked straight into Marc’s room. My friend was slumped in his padded chair, hands over his keyboard, eyes glazed over, probably jacked into the InfoSphere through his implant. The only light in the little room was from the screen—quite a change from the blazing day outside — which gave him a ghostly look.

“Yo yo yo! Ahuchi! Over here, bro!” I was only allowed to call him that when we were alone. It went back so long I couldn’t remember why I called him that. Not important. The name sounded like he looked: lethargic.

“Goddammit, Alex, I fucking told you not to yell like that when I’m in deep. I never know where it’s coming from, and I lose my bearings. It’s totally distracting, probably even dangerous.”

“Yeah, but it’s always good for a laugh. You mind?” I pointed to the window.

Marc shrugged, straightening up. He ran a hand through his hair and scratched the left side of his head a bit.

I opened the window, threw the shutters wide, then shut the window again. The glass tinted fast, set to intense outside brightness. The light became less harsh almost immediately.

“No problems on the way over?”

“Ran into some Nikes, but I managed to shake’em. They’re everywhere these days. Fucking Americans.”

“Oh, didn’t you hear? One of them got beat up bad last night. Maybe that’s why they’re out in force.”

“No, missed it. No surprise, though. Go around pissing everyone off like that, and it’ll happen. Sooner or later one of those arrogant little pricks was going to run afoul of an Everlast. Tsk tsk.” I shook my head, picturing what the Nikes would’ve done to me if they’d caught me.

“Well, let’s go then,” Marc said.

“Where we going?”

“Vincent’s. He’s got something for us.”

“Drugs? What kind?”

Marc was silent for a moment, trying to build up suspense. Fail.

“The good kind,” he said, getting up from his chair.

I followed him and tried to catch a glimpse of Michelle in the living room. No dice.

Outside, in the burning sun, we went down the cement sidewalk alongside the cloned houses: red brick, browned lawns, sometimes a tree or a car out front. No sign of life. A residential desert. I picked up my skateboard.

“Goddammit, I knew it. Go get your fix without me, or start paying me to be your bodyguard.”

“Hey, chill out. There’s enough to go round.”

“Oh, c’mon. You know I play in the Clean Leagues. No recreational highs.”

“Relax, man,” Marc reassured me. “This stuff won’t inhibit your physical abilities. You’ll pass your drug tests no problem. And besides, you’d have a much better time at meets in the All-Enhancement Leagues.”

“Whatever, man. Have you seen my brother? Don’t get me started on his balls. He keeps taking Retropliomazinine, they’re gonna fall right off.”

Marc burst out laughing. I went on. “So what are we talking about here?”

“The stuff of dreams, man. The stuff of fantasy. Someone across the pond managed to synthesize the sense of wonder.”

“The hell’s that?”

Marc quickened his step, waving his arms, agitated. “Christ, what the fuck am I doing with a dumb jock like you?”

“Your face, you fuckin’ ‘shiba. Always showing off your stupid facts when you don’t even know who won the last GloboCup.”

“No, and I don’t give a shit. Not exactly the stuff of dreams.”

My dreams it is.”

“Sure, fine, but it has nothing to do with the sense of wonder.”

“So… you feel like explaining?”

“Remember that movie Singularity Explorers?”

“You mean the one with what’s her name? Sooo hot.”

“Yeah, that one. Well, remember how you felt when you found out at the end that these guys were watching them through the walls, and still other guys were watching the watchers?”

“Oh yeah, that was awesome. Kind of a dizzying feeling.” I dropped my skateboard, stepped on it, and pushed off with my other foot to get a few yards ahead. The blue skateboard went well with the red logos on my Adidas. I said, “Like in that old flick Sky Captain, when you realize the base they’ve been landing at is airborne too.”

“Bingo! You got it, man. Not exactly the same order of idea or setup, but the effect is similar. Something inexplicable that transports you, leaves your jaw hanging. It’s getting harder and harder to find as a feeling, even if you spend all day in the archives of the ‘Sphere like I do. You wind up feeling like you’ve seen it all before. This stuff has to be handcrafted; it’s almost a vanished art. But if this drug Vincent dug up can stimulate your neurons the same way, then — awesome, right?”

“Hmm… not bad. But not my style. Pharma like that’s for guys like you. What I need is something that’ll make me feel like I just scored a goal in the GloboCup finals.”

“It’s matter of scale. According to what Vince told me, the effect is multiplied. The difference between you scoring for the Suburban Soccer League and Mikhailev scoring a decisive goal in the finals for the Euro Cup. The sensations are comparable, maybe, but not the same; it’s a hundred times stronger.”

“All right, we’ll see. Might try it out.”

We walked another mile and a half. Around us, nothing moved. Same façades, same sidewalks, same smells—kerosene and cut grass. Only the numbers on the houses changed. Marc went down an alley leading to a house just like his, number 28874569.

Another black heli passed by overhead. Instinctively, I flipped off the securicam atop a telectric pole. Then I kicked my board up and caught it before falling in behind Marc as he rang the doorbell.

A guy with a mustache opened the door: Vincent’s dad, Hakim. Like most folks on his street, he had no job and stayed plugged into the ‘Sphere all day. We asked vaguely after the characters on his favorite series, Wild Excavations, before heading down into the basement, Vincent’s burrow.

He was playing Blast Heroes VI with other Sonys. A little king in glasses, surrounded by his court. The walls were plastered with naked past actresses and virtual sluts, and the air was a mixture of cold sweat and cheese chips. There were paperbacks and comics everywhere, screens of all sizes, old kiddie pods on shelves and, in the middle of it all, a brown sofa, leathery and stained, on which three Sonys were sitting. In a corner of the room, Phil, with his old skinny jeans and striped short-sleeve button down, gave us new arrivals a once-over with a gimlet eye.

“Look at all these asshats,” Marc yelled as he came in.

“Your face, you ‘shiba dickweed,” said one of the Sonys slumped on the sofa.

I went over to Phil and fist-bumped him in greeting. He barely looked at me. I wondered what he was doing there. He’d never really been a part of the world of screenheads, usually loitering in the streets instead, drifting from one tribe to another, always looking to scrape together a few credits. We’d spent a few years together at ShopMall, back when the ‘Sphere was still giving mandatory courses. I never thought he understood a word of what the AIs taught us. Sometimes I’d still run into his parents in the RD. What a strange couple: a Black & Decker and an apparently brandless fat woman. There were jokes about how she belonged to Nutella. Actually, neither she nor her son had contracts, still virgins. In a world where everyone’s salary was roughly the same, Phil’s family was part of what used to be called the rank and file. Not that they were really so much poorer, but something about the way they dressed and carried themselves kept them apart from our community and the rest of the world.

I liked Phil. He didn’t seem to give a shit about not having a brand. That made him special, in my eyes. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, his stories were worth listening to. They were never about the latest show on the ‘Sphere or implant porn. No, Phil spun tales of violence in the ‘burbs that fascinated me. I’m sure most of the escapades he claimed to be mixed up in were made up, but I went along with them anyway, just to hear him ad-lib the part where he kicked some Lacoste’s teeth in or got his wrist broken by a squad of rabid ShopMall guards.

Sometimes I’d find him sitting in a little park somewhere—one of those parks that pop up every mile or so in the subdivision, mandated by law—high off his gourd on some pharma one of the many shady types he knew had cooked up, guys who didn’t even live in the RD, incredible as that sounded. Once he’d shown up at Melli’s birthday and snorted heroin while everyone else was downing hallucinogens. Against all expectations, he hadn’t gotten in a fight; he’d even seemed kind of happy. Not something you saw every day.

If you were looking for a drug slightly out of the ordinary, Phil was your man.

I liked him. He barely looked my way. All of a sudden, he spoke. “Well, the gang’s all here. Can we go now?”

Vince nodded and turned to his fellow Sonys. “Stay here, guys, I won’t be gone long. Got some business to take care of with Marc. Slay that robodragon for me and lead the squadron to the gates of Cyrhad. I’ll be back in time for the siege.”

“What if we meet Lucinda?” asked one of the kids on the couch. “What should we tell her? Get gang-raped while we wait for you to show?”

The kid beside him laughed. King Vince said nothing, just went upstairs. So did we.

“Hey,” said Marc. “I thought you had the stuff already, Vince. Where are we going?”

“ShopMall. To meet up with Phil’s man.”

“So you don’t have the pharma in hand?”

Vince shrugged. “Not yet, man, not yet.”

Nothing ever went down as planned. There was always a catch. Here I was, nice guy Alex, stuck shepherding Marc around, me who half the time never touched drugs.

Another two miles in the melting asphalt fumes. We took a lot of right-angle turns at the ends of endless streets, keeping the dome of our destination in sight. Phil and Marc were fast walkers; Vince had a hard time keeping up. His tee from Jumparko (a subsidiary of his overbrand) soon darkened with sweat. I drifted on my skateboard into the road, avoiding the rare silent car that passed us. They were also heading for ShopMall, the only place in the Residential District that showed any signs of life.

Sunnyshore — for that was its name — looked like half an orange plunked down in the middle of the subdivision. The surrounding parking lot, a vast expanse striped with white lines and littered with vehicles almost as rounded as the main building, was lined with floral paths that led to one of the complex’s eight doors. ShopMall always recalled those sketches of fortresses I’d seen my father’s books. I couldn’t have said why, but that monster of aluminum and glass put me in mind of an impregnable stronghold, the last refuge of civilization. Sometimes I pictured it instead as a gigantic beached sea monster, all of us surrounding it like plankton. If we were ever attacked by aliens or zombies one day, I was sure the people of the RD would gather in ShopMall, like peasants in a medieval citadel. It was our womb, our mother ship, a place where the few among us with jobs could display their superiority to the masses, mere shoppers, consumers devoted to their brands.

I’d never seen another mall except in the ‘Sphere, but I knew every mall on the planet looked the same. We swarmed around them like parasites feeding on a fallen beast.

Sometimes I’d feel like the District was stifling me, its heat, silence, and monotony. So I dove into the cool air of Sunnyshore, the only place where people my age looked alive. I’d just sit for hours watching girls go by, their skin tanned with Shiseido Bronze, their paper bags with ribbon handles, their skirts fluttering to the beat of Alex Mitchell, Michael Gaydrat, or some other purveyor of muzak. I zoned out on the fake white marble or a store logo. And there, in the belly of the beast, I’d finally feel like I was at home, one with humanity as I knew it.

Goddamn, but I loved ShopMall.

#

Our meet was set for the eighth floor of the west side, in front of the Ubusk boutique, with a Michelin, one of those clods who still tinkered with gasoline cars. He was about thirty and seemed to know Phil well. A whispered conference, and then we fell in step behind the retromod mechanic, who led us down an escalator, then a glass elevator, and finally out the exit, through a long parade of stores for shoes, grub, décor, implants-while-u-wait, sex toys, 3D games, perfume, glasses, jewelry, phones for people who couldn’t afford implants, cigars, antiques, old movies, prefab houses, cars, DNA testing, spheres, prostheses, underwear, pants, shirts, slutskirts, mooseknucklers, sporting goods, flowers, life insurance, pets, nails, wigs, diginovels, watches… everything that could be bought was gathered under the roof of this temple. And the consumers themselves were also for sale. The centerpiece of ShopMall was was the Logo Altar, the seat of human transactions, the biggest store in the mall, an island in the middle of this pile of plastic and metal. It was where, after reviewing a list of the franchisee’s rights and duties, you signed the contract that bound you to a brand for life — bought and sold, as the codgers liked to say. “A walking advertisement — that’s what you are,” my great-grandfather would fume. He was 118 years old, and had never had a contract.

I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at the Logo Altar as we passed by. Marc and Vince did the same. Phil and his pal didn’t even seem to notice it.

The minute we set foot outside the automatic doors, the heat was everywhere, a caress and a slap all at once. We slowed down. The Michelin led us around ShopMall’s outside wall.

“There he is,” he said all of a sudden.

“Who, him?” Marc let out.

A security guard was approaching us. His dog, leashed and muzzled, sniffed Marc’s balls.

“Brought reinforcements, eh, Phil?” asked the Mall employee.

“Yeah, but don’t worry, Fred, they won’t throw themselves at your crotch,” said the no-brander.

So the Michelin’s name was Fred. He made no reply, just stretched his hand out toward Phil. Marc and Vince pulled bills from their pockets and put them in Fred’s hand.

Great. Nice job with the downlow, guys. Five losers and a guard in front of ShopMall’s great white flank. We might as well have scheduled an appointment with Security, or planted ourselves right in front of a camera.

The Michelin gave the guard the money, and the guard gave him back a little egg-shaped plastic box.

“Thanks,” said Fred. “See you next time.”

We turned around.

“Where’s that pharma from?” I asked Phil.

“No idea.”

“Me neither,” said Fred, before forking off toward Entrance #3. He waved at us, and vanished into ShopMall.

Without a word, we started back toward the RD, down to four again. Vince fell in beside me.

“I heard some labs harvest stuff from dead people’s brains and cut it with DMT.”

“DMT, eh?” Marc sounded like he had a gelcap under his tongue.

“Bullshit,” said Phil. “There’s nothing in the human brain that can’t be synthesized.”

I surprised myself by nodding. There were as many myths going around about new drugs as Chloe Sensua, interstellar slut, had friends on FaceSphere.

The sun was beating down ever harder than before. Sometimes I wondered why we were even on foot. Fine, so most guys our age walked, just to show off their brands, show people in the RD who their friends were, and above all to avoid taking the bus, that abomination roaming our streets, our streets, transporting those who couldn’t drive. Anyone who boarded a bus was forever marked by all the widows with their sagging flesh who went from one air-conditioned area to another, looking like mummies. But shit, when it was as hot out as today, our tribal snobberies began to look kind of dumb.

We turned left at the corner of Sweetwater Way. We had a little under a mile left to Vince’s place. Phil was listing the substances the brain put out that were synthesized as drugs you could easily find on the market. I wasn’t really listening. But when he said, “Dudes, time to turn around,” I looked up from the sidewalk. A gang of guys was running toward us, ten or so. I made out masks on their foreheads and three baseball bats.

No point figuring our chances. Pushing off the asphalt, I shot off in the other direction. Meanwhile, Marc was shouting something like, “Shitshitshitnottoday?” I wanted to tell him to shut up and run, but made do with just taking my own advice.

In no time at all, Phil and I were leading the pack, Vince lagging behind. I yelled back at him he’d never make it, he had to turn and cut between the houses or he’d get caught. Was it because, deep down, I was hoping the others would chase after the easiest prey?

The sound of our plastic soles slapping the cement was nothing, nothing next to the urgency, fear, and adrenaline (there’s nothing that can’t be synthesized) making us run faster than we’d ever run before, and think faster than John Gayer when he’d proved the nonexistence of dark matter. I’d already shaken Nikes earlier, when I was heading over to Marc’s, but back then there’d only been three of them. And no baseball bats.

Our flight lasted a minute, probably a lot less, but it felt like an eternity. I was used to going all-out for short bursts on my board, but never under such conditions. My chest had never hurt so bad, and I was the one who usually trained. I wondered how the others were feeling.

I turned to look back without slowing down. Phil was two or three meters behind me, with Marc on his heels. The others had stopped chasing us. They’d caught Vince.

I stopped. So did my friends.

Two hundred yards back, the Sony, surrounded by guys in multicolored tracksuits, was screaming in fear.

“Oh, shit,” said Marc, breathless. “Fucking Nikes!”

“Punitive expedition,” Phil chimed in.

“What?”

“They’re looking for revenge after what happened yesterday, right?” said the Toshiba.

We heard a sharp crack. A bat slammed into Vince’s skull. He fell to the ground, and all I could see now were the legs of the Nikes around him.

“But that wasn’t our fault,” I said. “Or Vince’s either. He hasn’t been out of the house in three days.”

“They’re foaming at the mouth,” said Phil. “They don’t give a shit who they beat up, as long as it makes them feel better.”

I dropped my gaze and asked, “Well, what do we do?”

Another sound, more muffled. Probably a knee to the stomach. Or the balls.

“We split up,” Marc said. “Each head for home. No point hanging around till they’re done and remember us.”

“No.” Phil had never sounded so determined.

“I’m going back,” he said. “Scram if you want. I have to try something, or they’ll cave his head in.”

He left, heading for the group. I stayed there, wondering what to do: go get torn into little tiny pieces for some slow-ass schmuck I barely knew, or follow my friend and hide. I turned to Marc at last.

“If we go back without that heroic asshat, what are we going to do? He’s the one with the drugs.”

My friend shrugged. I turned back.

A few strides later, I’d joined up with Phil, and could hear the Toshiba swearing. In another twenty feet, Marc was right beside me, sweating hard. He smelled worse than the locker room in August, after practice.

One of the Nikes spotted us, and called out to the others. They stepped aside, revealing a gory and unmoving mass.

Vince.

A big blond guy with long hair and a face like Jonah Farr gave him one last kick before turning around. It was like we were at a sporting event: all these assholes were wearing masks with athletes’ faces, which made them look like robbers instead. Hello Steve Pickering, Chuck Tyler, and Francis Champs. And their molded rubber smiles seemed to mock their latest victim, lying at their feet.

That was what we’d look like in a few minutes. I hoped the securicams had already sent out a distress call, or a few good citizens with front row seats behind a living room window had notified the guards. But even if they had, no one could get here in time. There were three of us and ten of them. My near future was looking a lot like Vince’s: face battered to a pulp, probably in a coma.

“Oooh, reinforcements,” said one Nike. “Fresh meat.”

“Well goddamn, fellas,” said the big blond dude. “You didn’t really think we’re going to let you gather up your fuckwad of a friend here, did you? Besides, we’re not done with him yet. I don’t think his face is quite messed up enough. His mom could probably still recognize him, if she tried. Now Arthur, our friend who got busted up yesterday—well, his mom’ll never hear a word from him again.”

“Fine, but Vince had nothing to do with that,” said Phil.

All I could see of the Sony lying on the ground was the back of his neck, but what with the pool of blood around his head, I could picture quite clearly what his face looked like.

“Sure, maybe not him,” said the blond. “But how about you?”

“I’ve never seen your buddy Arthur in my life,” Phil maintained. “We’ve got no beef with you. I’m not the kind of guy who’d attack a guy like you.”

“Oh yeah?” the blond yelled, clearly heading the pack. “How about this asshole, then? He got a beef with us?”

He was clearly talking about me. What could I say to something like that? That I loved Nike but had gone with Adidas because Nike hadn’t wanted me. No, I fucking hated those assholes and their American products. If there were ten of us and three of them, I’d have loved pulverizing those shitty little athletes all hopped up on Korean steroids. But as it was, they were the ones holding the bats. Better off shutting up and playing for time.

“I had nothing to do with the attack on your friend. Hell, you know that.”

“You think we fucking give a da—”

He was a short Nike with a shaved head. His nose broke before he could finish his sentence. Phil had just given him a headbutt worthy of the final monster in Out of the Dark IV. Taking full advantage of their surprise, he pivoted toward the big blond dude and kicked him in the nuts. The man in the Jonah Farr mask folded in two and fell to his knees.

Phil didn’t seem to be really into the idea of playing for time.

I finished off Mr. Ballbusted with a kick to the face. He was out cold in the middle of the road.

Only nine left.

Shit.

Phil ducked a bat. He followed up with a fist to the belly of his attacker, who dropped his weapon. I bent to pick it up, and managed to just before taking a boot to the ribs. I hit the ground rolling and came right back up. Two shitheels were coming at me. The threat of the bat stopped them cold.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil explode a Nike’s chin with his knee. Behind us, Marc was still hanging back.

“Goddammit, Ahuchi, the fuck are you doing? Waiting for them to stomp us to pieces?” It was the first time I’d called my friend his nickname in front of other people. Just then, I had other things on my mind besides how sensitive he was.

I dodged a kick and, swung my bat feebly through the air. With their expressionless rubber masks, our enemies looked like malfunctioning machines deserted by their primary programming. Suddenly I realized I was a character from one of Phil’s stories. If we got out of this, it would become one of the stories he told, exaggerating our feats and the number of attackers, like the dozens of other stories, made-up or not, that I’d heard him tell before.

But at the moment, off to my right, he’d just taken a fist to the face. He came back with an uppercut that missed its mark by a bit. The Nikes had figured out he was the biggest threat. Three of them went after him.

Another one came at me, bat raised. I parried, and the two wooden weapons banged together. Then an Ash Bryant, all smiles, laid into me. He grabbed my shoulders and took me down. On the ground, I saw a heel miss my nose by inches. It was a miracle.

I tried to get up, but this time the Nike hit home. I felt like my back had just shattered. I took several kicks: one to the stomach, another just below, and third to my leg. I lost track before the last one, probably my face. I fell back on the asphalt, gagging, breathless, in terrible pain. I didn’t want to fight anymore.

Not one bit.

I knew if I stayed there, unmoving, they’d take me to pieces and wouldn’t stop till I looked like Vince, but I had nothing left.

It was over.

The blows were about to rain down.

A few shouts reached my ears.

Phil and Marc were about to get it too.

I shielded my head with my arms. The bare minimum.

But nothing happened.

Then I heard the helicopter.

Getting closer.

I couldn’t believe it. The goddamn cavalry.

I opened my eyes.

The Nikes had disappeared. Fear is a good motivator. They tore off faster than Phineas Gross’ dad when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant.

Marc stuck out a hand to help me up. His lip was split and swollen.

The heli’s loudspeaker kept spitting out articles of the law our aggressors had violated, promising them the direst tortures. As usual, they’d scattered to the far corners of the RD, and the heli would only chase down one, who’d take the rap for the rest.

On my feet again, I spit out something that hadn’t previously been in my mouth. A tooth. An incisor. Like my insurance covered that.

Phil got up painfully. His nose was broken and his left eye shut. He tried to speak, but an ambulance siren drowned out his words. Whatever good citizen had notified security had done his job well.

I walked over to Vince. His face, swollen and bloody, made him look like the horror movie version of my neighbor Michael’s sister. Disgusting.

Two rescue workers and a man in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck emerged from the ambulance and examined the Sony. The doctor checked his pupils, then cradled Vince’s head in his hands for a moment before ordering the others to carry him into the vehicle.

“Is he covered?” the doctor asked me.

“No idea.”

He stared off into the distance, thinking for a few seconds, then said, “We’re taking him to a Class 4 Hospi. Tell his parents to contact us if they have better insurance. A Class 4 ICU leaves a lot to be desired.”

“OK.”

“Anyone else who wants medical care can come along.”

I glanced at Phil, who shook his head.

The rescue workers loaded Vince into the ambulance, and the vehicle hurtled off, an interlude of light and noise crossing the quiet RD.

“Shit,” Marc tossed out there.

“Yeah,” Phil replied.

I switched on my implant and passed the news on to Vince’s dad Hakim. The communiqué lasted only a few seconds. I had no explanations for him. These kinds of dustups happened every week in the District. Competition was getting fiercer, and the brands were even starting to make the incidents a talking point. We’d just been unlucky, was all.

Soon signing a contract would be like joining a gang.

We drifted off. My left leg hurt every time I put weight on it.

We reached a park, and I asked for a time out. I sat down on a bench by the little regulation greenspace. Phil and Marc sat down to either side of me.

“Where’s it hurt?” asked the Toshiba.

“My thigh. It’s weird… I can’t feel anything where I’m missing a tooth.”

“Just wait,” said Phil. “It’ll come.”

He pulled the little egg-shaped box from his pocket and took out three gelcaps, which he palmed. I’d almost forgotten we’d gone to ShopMall for a drug deal. If I were smarter, I’d be pissed at Marc for dragging me into his bullshit.

“You think this is a good time?”

Phil turned and stared right at me. “Trust me, there won’t be a better one.”

All I wanted was to believe him. The pharma didn’t taste like anything at all. The “manufacturer” hadn’t even bothered to give it a flavor. So sure of themselves. What was the sense of wonder really worth?

I waited for several minutes, fixating on a blade of grass. No one spoke. Something was going to happen.

A miniature man, teeny and lost in the lawn, was the first to show up. Early wonder. Then right away a giant woman—fifty feet tall, from what I gathered—took his place. And the rest followed full-tilt:

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Joe Chip on a fifty cent piece. Friendly aliens who looked like the Devil. To Serve Man, it’s… it’s a cookbook! That’s no moon; it’s a space station. 88mph. Tem has already been forgotten. Humans are fuel for machines. Flying car. Origami unicorn. I am an android. The day of the great shout. I dream that I have a name. Jetpack. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s— The grasshopper lies heavy. My mind is going; I can feel it. John Connor is the leader of the resistance. The Statue of Liberty on the beach. And I weep for humanity. I am legend.

The end was brutal.

I opened my eyes (I don’t remember closing them) and found myself in the park, still sitting on the bench, with the same pain in my thigh. A few images of black holes or space battles were still flashing through my mind, but everything was already over. I couldn’t have said how long it lasted. But it was awesome. Amazing. That dizzying feeling…

To my right, Marc had hid his face in hands and was sobbing.

“What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?”

“Look around you,” he shot back aggressively. “Look where we are, where we’re living, what we’re doing.”

He was quiet for a few moments, then sniffled and went on. “What I saw was wonderful. And we should’ve been there, been part of that world. Sky, space, dream.”

“I know what you mean,” said Phil. “I know that feeling.”

Their comedown had been more brutal than mine, but they were probably right.

“They stole our future,” Marc spat.

I got up and turned toward the street. Asphalt, houses all the same and in a row. In the distance, I could see the swelling of ShopMall. Then a jetpack flashed before my eyes, come back to haunt me. The conquest of space — how was that going? My implant. What was it good for? Talking with friends, all signed with brands like me, living in houses just like mine. Electric sheep. Instead of flying around in our cars, we rumbled with teen gangs on the payroll of some corrupt multinational, wearing masks with the faces of doped athletes. I was at home in the RD, I belonged to this world devoid of possibilities, without horizon or future.

I was part of this world, and after what I’d just seen, I understood perfectly what Marc and Phil were feeling.

They were fucking right.

“They stole our future.”

#

Sense of Wonder 2.0 was translated from the original French version by Edward Gauvin.