Craig Hallam has a new queer/non-binary cyberpunk book out: “Oshibana Complex.”
Welcome to Shika-One City, humanity’s final home.
Nations have come together. Gender and race are petty concerns of the past. But not everything is well in Shika-One.
Humanity can no longer procreate and has to synthesize future generations. But there aren’t many genetic templates to go around and meeting yourself on the street is a daily occurrence. With so many people wearing the same face, the synths of Shika-One strive for individuality in a world where stepping out of line can lead to the shredder.
In this pulsing neon world lives Xev and eir friends, all hard-working synths who maintain their designations to earn the XP to live and hope to afford the holographic shams that cover up their similarities. That is, until a new synth makes Xev start to ask big questions that might upset the status quo.
In Shika-One, life is cheap.
Xev is about to discover what e’s worth.
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The tube’s milky white interior blocked out all distractions. No sight, no sound, and Xev’s Access, tuned to the Burger Stop company channel, gave nothing but orders and updates in Miyahara’s nerve-racking bark. The inner of Xev’s uniform had gone from nipple-shattering cold to an unpleasant slickness as eir sweat coated the inside of the polymer material. A hot throb pulsed in eir lower spine, and eir feet cramped at odd intervals, but the tube left no room for slouching, and Miyahara would be watching through Xev’s Access, eager to hand out a reprimand. It wasn’t worth that kisama’s attention. So, bobbing on eir toes to warm up eir pinching calves, Xev waited to be summoned from a narrow, featureless world.
A stilted, artificial voice rang out as a customer stumbled through the Burger Stop door.
“Welcome– to Burger Stop.”
Several automations kicked in at once. Xev’s Access connected with that of the unseen arrival and the customer’s pre-sets popped into Xev’s vision. E could see that the customer preferred paler skin, lighter hair, and larger eyes than Xev’s own. The Access took care of it, projecting a sham around Xev’s real life template which appealed to the customer’s aesthetic preferences. The tube faded to transparent to reveal a Xev that the customer wanted to see, spine straight, hands clasped so that eir fingers formed a yin yang on the belly of eir plasti-cloth uniform which now emitted a soft glow. Where an invisible seam ran down the front of eir tube, the thick polyglass slid apart and Xev stepped from the platform. Bowing as e spoke through a company policy smile, even eir voice was re-modulated into something softer, almost apologetic:
“Thank you for choosing Burger Stop. How may I help you today?”
With a brushed steel briefcase white-knuckled to eir side, plastic tie tugged down from an open collar and coffee-stain rings around eir eyes, the customer looked like e might just collapse before e found a table. Wiping one hand down eir face, carelessly smudging eir makeup, the customer muttered something about a table for one. E looked uncomfortable in that expensive suit and Xev could make out the stain of yellowing sweat around eir collar.
Corp type, Xev thought, recognising the haunted look of an overworked synth who slogged for the Takano-Stanhope corporation.
“Follow me, please.”
It had taken weeks of practice to perfect the effortless glide with which Xev drifted across the pearlescent Burger Stop floor; weeks to master the simple and yet robotically perfect back and forth from door to tables. How the little uniform slippers hadn’t worn ruts in the tiles by now, e had no idea.
Past chromium plated tables Xev led the customer, whose eyes winced against the floor’s dazzling shine. Synths of every kind cluttered the Burger Stop tables: studded bikers and Corp suits, career gamers with hollow cheeks and xp to burn and It-synths with layer upon layer of Access sham filters coating their base template with holographic adornments. At a circular table with red leather seating, Xev held out one hand, briefly, before refastening it to the other.
“Take a seat, if it pleases—”
A clatter erupted somewhere behind. A plastic tray and, by the sound, a host of pre-packed meals splattered across the Burger Stop floor. Silence crashed down. A soft pat of flesh hit the cold tiles as a young synth in Burger Stop uniform fell to eir knees, tears in eir voice.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
Xev didn’t lose a beat.
“—you. And summon us when you are ready to order. Can I help you further?”
The customer tossed the case onto one chair and slumped into another without a word. Xev bowed and drifted away. Back on eir platform, e allowed emself a brief side-glance toward the back of the Burger Stop as the tube slid closed. Just enough time to see the offending synth, Toriq, ushered politely away by the belly-bloated Miyahara, whose greasy smile melted just a second too early as e guided the poor synth through a rear door. A knot of ice crept into Xev’s spine as the polyglass waxed milky once more, blocking em from view, the light from eir uniform winking out.
That poor worker was done for sure. Burger Stop had a no-drop policy and that meant the poor synth’s designation was now void. E had only been named a week or so. If it had been a few days earlier, e would have been for the shredder. Now it just meant another synth on the street. Xev wasn’t sure which was worse. E sighed. The worker had a cute template, at least. Nice and symmetrical. There’d be work if e wanted it bad enough. And it wouldn’t be long until e did.
“Welcome– to Burger Stop,” the auto-voice sang.
Xev’s spine snapped straight, the company smile blinking onto eir face as quickly as the Access automations changed eir entire self, and the cylinder faded around em.
“Thank you for choosing Burger Stop. How may I help you today?”
End of designated work period
Begin rest period: 8 hours
Xev’s Access, tapped straight into eir optical nerve, flashed the words across eir vision. With a happy little trill eir xp value, always at the edge of sight, rose by several hundred points.
Untying eir chin-length hair from the sprout of ponytail at the base of eir neck, Xev ran fingers through the black strands, sighing at eir scalp’s sweet release. The fibre-optics near eir roots flashed electric blue. The uniform hanger shunted back into the locker, door clicking shut, and the sounds of industrious cleaning erupted from inside. The next shift was in and working already, someone inhabiting Xev’s tube, other synths shuttling back and forth with trays or waiting for the next customer while feigning robotic inertia for the sake of Company Image. Perish that a robot greets someone, or worse, that real synths act anything less than robotic.
Beginning his career with short stories in 2008, Craig’s tales have graced the pages of the British Fantasy Society, among many others. He has managed to avoid winning a single award in this whole time and has decided to take that as an accolade in itself, whenever the tears stop falling.
He likes to think that his books are about real people who live in impossible worlds. Whether his books are Fantasy, Horror, Steampunk, or Sci-fi, Craig loves to go wherever the stories may take him.