We left the immediate area and continued on towards the soup kitchen. With Frank being limited to what he could do without juice, it was a lot easier to get food as donations than it would be to sustain ourselves fully off what we could get off the streets – at least without getting the attention of either the press gangers, the soldiers administering martial law, or the civilian law enforcement officers.
With the collapse of the private sector economy as the US government institutionalized more and more of the nation’s resources, a lot of hotels went bankrupt. The federal and state governments started buying them up and using them for barracks. Since they were no longer meant to be comfort living, the pools and hot tubs at most of the smaller hotels in highly populated areas became a place for soup kitchens. In most places adopting this popular model, getting a sheep dip in the hot tub then a rinse in the main pool before you were allowed to get food was the rule. If the pool was not climate controlled, it would at least be tented. In very cold weather, the rinse was not required, but the sheep dip was. Insect vector diseases were not a problem.
The homeless weren’t as much of a problem as might be expected in a country with a rapidly shifting, degrading economy, since the US military would pick up almost every able bodied person it could lay its hands on. They weren’t picky either, since regeneration techniques would restore almost anyone to the prime of health, provided they were sane. The number of homeless was low. The number of healthy and sane homeless were extremely low. Those with jobs could get similar meals more easily in stores where they bought other things, without exposing themselves to the public bathing facilities. A lot of low income people came to the pools anyway, because they didn’t have hot water to wash in. Since they were there anyway, they would usually grab a free meal.
Frank had noted on our very first pass through a sheep dip hot tub that not only was the dip a synthetic pyrethroid for crude yet effective control of insects, they frequently had other chemicals in them which promoted health. At this location, the sheep dip had traces of regeneration chemicals in it, as well as a few crude nanites which would seek out flu and cold viruses and generate a blue barcode pattern on the white of the left eye of someone infected with a flu or cold virus, allowing the soup kitchen to provide an additional electrolyte drink. The nanites were not advanced enough to be of any concern, so Frank watched them but did nothing, allowing them to pass through our system without expending the energy to flush them manually.
The regeneration chemicals were also a non-issue for us. They were mostly designed to deal with minor damage to the digestive and cardiovascular systems. They passed right through us because Frank, even without access to juice, had access to my human energy reserves and adrenaline and could heal any wound in time. It was just a lot slower without juice.
Sometimes there were new chemicals and nanites though, so as we approached the soup kitchen, Frank tested the air carefully, looking for traces of chemicals. He also bumped up against another homeless person with a wet spot on their coat, in order to try to get a bigger sample of what was in the sheep dip today.
“Looks to be all clear Bob, nothing we need to worry about.” He reported.
So we stripped and did the sheep dip, then the rinse. The weather was warm and the dip was hot, making the cool rinse very pleasant, but we were still quick about it. We had to keep up the appearance of being a homeless person with barely enough sanity to be functional. It really wasn’t that hard. Especially at the pool. Frank had done a lot of research on the types of mistreatments used over the centuries on POWs, and we displayed a fascinating array of scars which tended to draw the eyes and attention of onlookers. We were lean, with a little bit of a belly. Frank and I had agreed to reduce height again, and we were down to about five feet two inches tall, weighing in at about eighty pounds. We moved with a bit of a limp, which Frank enforced even when I forgot about it, but were not crippled. We didn’t speak much at all. The soldiers barracked at the hotels or posting watch at the pools and soup kitchens would fairly regularly try to get me to talk after they saw the scarring, but they usually stopped trying after I just looked at them and shook my head. On a few occasions the younger soldiers would press me for details, and I’d just tell them “It hurts too much to talk about my time in, sorry.” That usually got them quiet when they put two and two together and realized they were looking at scars from real torture. The current training regimen used for new troops did introduce them to a limited amount of actual torture, since damage done could be regenerated, but their training was nothing like what they could see on us. Some soldiers had asked me why I didn’t get regenerated and rejoin. I just pointed to my head and told them “Can’t fix what’s wrong in here.” Then I would point at them, “Military doesn’t want me in a body like that.”
There wasn’t any drama or talk today. We dipped, rinsed and got a big bowl of soup, cup of coffee, and hunk of bread. It was actually pretty filling staple food. Genetic modification, enhancements to automation, and nationalization and forced proper care of farmland had dramatically increased yields while at the same time crushing what was left of rural farm life in the US. Regeneration therapies handled any strangeness with how people processed the frankenfoods.
Almost all US citizens now lived within fifty miles of a major population center. Everyone got a public ‘education’ until they were sixteen. At sixteen, if they didn’t pass the college entrance exams they had to take vocational aptitude exams. If they could not pass vocational aptitude exams, they were immediately drafted into the military, and the military would find something they could do, from digging ditches, to offering other services. Yes, the US military had reverted to having camp followers of all the basic types, from those that took care of uniforms, to those who took care of carnal needs. They were paid, however, and offered the same health care as other soldiers. They were also allowed to advance out of the ranks of camp followers if they showed the aptitude and desire to do so. It wasn’t a feudal society with no possibility of advancement, but it wasn’t far from it either.
Those with vocational training or potential talent would have the choice of technical military job training with a fast track to either NCO / warrant officer, or civilian sector service industry job training. You had to be damned good with your hands, good looking, and know when and how to use your mouth to get civilian service industry job training though, because the civilian sector service industry pretty much only served the rich and powerful. The middle class had imploded during nationalization of resources. Outside of civilian sector work, the military would usually let you choose what you wanted to try to do, provided your testing indicated some sort of aptitude for it. Passing the college exams would allow further education possibilities, leading to more advanced choices. Military officers, national infrastructure jobs, or research. These people were the remnants of the middle class, and the competition for positions was intense. The vocational and college branches of education did, of course, end up finding a large number of people unsuitable after a while. The vocational types might backslide into the lower ranks of the military. The college crowd might backslide into vocational or even low ranking military positions if they failed spectacularly enough.
Thinking about how dramatically things had changed in the US in just a few years wasn’t going to get the job done any sooner though, so I finished my soup. When the soup was gone, I broke the bowl over the napkin like a fortune cookie and ate the bowl pieces, then the spoon, and rolled the napkin up and ate that too. Bioengineered materials had come a long way. Bowls, plates, cups, and cutlery literally grew on trees these days. Something of a cross between nuts and the skins of apples. I got a refill of coffee in my cup before I walked out. I’d eat the cup after that was done.
I shook my head. Way too many things changing way too fast, but some things weren’t changing fast enough, or were changing in toxic ways. Especially in the US. The Mexicans and the Canadians were actually building the walls that the US had threatened to build for decades. They weren’t building them to stop immigration or emigration though, they were building them because both of those nations had accepted symbiotes and were afraid of the US. Most of the other nations in the world were barely concerned about the US. Due to their closeness to the US, Mexico and Canada had been reluctant to accept symbiotes as legal citizens. So they had a late start in modernizing their militaries. The relationship between the US and it’s neighbors was painful.
The US was no longer a crony capitalist nation, it had become a totalitarian fascist nation. It had somehow managed this both rapidly and without a civil war or even significant protest. How this happened was a raging debate in the rest of the world, but most agreed that the trigger was the emergence of symbiotes. The timing of events was too clear for any other possibility. When it started to become clear what symbiotes could do, both the US government and US big money industries began to panic. Then they started to work together, waging a huge propaganda war about “protecting” the US from symbiotes. Eventually, as the new government unfolded, a whole lot of forgotten and discarded research was being brought back and explored with the power of modern computing. This was the “entrance fee” to remain in positions of power for some individuals and groups who had access to technology that had been suppressed because it would be too disruptive to their profit making in a capitalistic model. A rather large percentage of wealthy persons with no particular urge for power had simply moved elsewhere in the world before the borders were mostly shut down, removing a substantial chunk of the moderate political voices. Unlike most of the sociopolitical doomsaying of the last several decades, this change was real, and it was frightening, and people were being led by their fear. Some for fear of symbiotes, some for fear or loss of power.
The US at the very beginning of their conversion to a totalitarian state tried to threaten Australia and demanded extradition of the symbiotes for crimes against humanity. Australia ignored the US and showed other industrialized nations examples of the trade goods they could supply with a symbiote workforce. A single platoon of symbiote soldiers was sent to Pearl Harbor. In a period of about two hours they rendered all of the US military non-medical personnel there comatose and disabled every plane, ship, and military combat vehicle at the base. There were zero casualties on either side. The antidote to the drug rendering the US military personnel comatose was delivered to the US military medical teams a couple hours later. After some testing, the antidote was used to restore all the troops. This pretty much proved that nobody was going to take Australia with conventional forces, and there was no more saber rattling from the US, just a doubling down of their efforts to improve their own technology. By that point, almost every nation in the world other than Canada and Mexico lined up against the US, while at the same time starting to try to attract symbiote citizens of their own.
Star, Alice and Frank worked out an education system for symbiotes which would allow a newly implanted symbiote to quickly understand humanity well enough that they didn’t need to be kept in isolation within an adult human body for years, learning, or monitored extremely closely for months after synergy with its host. This was to prevent symbiotes from overreacting to threats or imagining threats and creating problems for human/symbiote relations. Implants of symbiotes in children under sixteen years old were still not allowed unless the child would die without the help of a symbiote. When symbiotes were required to save a child’s life, child hosts were separated from their symbiotes using a modification of Alice’s firewall and hidden codes – without the neurotoxin trap, of course. A symbiote could be introduced to any human with at least a few pounds of bone mass, and within one week, the symbiote would be able to communicate with it’s host and eradicate any illness or ailment in their host and communicate with the outside world. Two days after that, the symbiote would be highly unlikely to unintentionally do something criminal.
Female symbiotes that were not imprisoned had full control over their reproduction, unlike imprisoned female symbiotes which tended to release them randomly in contact with potential hosts. So symbiotes were now only given by request and neither forced on anyone nor delivered randomly. That was one of the biggest things that Star disagreed with us on. She nearly convinced us to adopt a policy of forced symbiote hosting for all humans, starting with the most politically powerful, but we avoided that path. So far. I was still conflicted about it, but my conflicts were immaterial on this topic in any case. Frank could not reproduce because I was male, making him male. We could argue the politics of it, but when it came right down to doing it, the decision wasn’t in our hands.
The whole ‘losing bones makes holes in the firewall’ problem that made all of this possible? Star helped Code, Alice’s symbiote, identify and resolve that problem in thirteen seconds, but with the exception of child hosts, it was meaningless now. After a couple days of working with Frank, Code was more than capable of enhancing her own computing capacity dramatically with a biocomputer, and Frank and I went on to help others learn how to do things that we had figured out. We also learned quite a few things from the analog symbiotes – some of which confused even Star in her dramatically reduced state. At this point, most nations in the world had between three and seven percent of their human population hosting symbiotes. The US was the only nation in the world who rejected symbiotes.
The US did show the world that it was capable of supporting a Basic Income Guarantee. The problem was that they did it by turning the nation into a giant breeding facility for a war machine. There were over 100 million people in uniform in the US. Regeneration therapies were sufficient to eliminate most of the need for social security and medical care systems. If you lost your job, no problem, there was always something else to do. If not within your field, the military would take you in and either use your skills or train you in new ones. If you weren’t in the political class, or one of the lucky few in the middle class, you could choose to do absolutely nothing productive and get just enough to survive, or you could work to afford some luxuries. If you broke laws and got caught doing it, you were drafted into the military. For most offenses, the sentence was just service at low ranks performing menial labor like digging canals or grading roads. With regeneration technology, the days of the chain gang had returned. More severe offenses would result in prison time, and much more controlled menial labor. The death penalty was rarely handed down, since most assaults ended up being survivable.
Most of the military was made up of unenhanced soldiers, but everyone who joined the military was provided with a permanent regeneration drug drip. It was a slow regeneration but it would keep someone alive and eventually restore them fully from almost any injury short of instant death. If the system detected a life threatening injury, it could dump its full load of drugs into the bloodstream, providing enough regenerative potential to heal anything but the most serious wounds, but drastically slowing regeneration for hours afterward. The regeneration drip was a huge draw for the ill, elderly, and infirm, drawing millions into the military for a fifty year commitment based on voluntarily joining the service in return for a drip which would cure pretty much anything, even old age. Even some mental conditions responded to the drip, but many mental conditions did not, and some of those conditions associated with violence would make one ineligible for an implant. The drips drew their power and chemical needs from the body of the person they were implanted in – a substantial metabolic charge against the body which prevented most persons from being overweight. Being a bit overweight was possible with enough dedication to eating and avoidance of physical activity. Obesity, however, was generally only seen in the political class, as it was a sign of either significant wealth, power or both.
If you were not in the military, and were injured, you could go to a “doc in a box” clinic and get a regeneration drug shot, and it would fix up just about anything. No charge. Even if you had a mental condition that carried a likelihood for violence. I had been offered such shots many times for the limp and scars and refused them.
The US basic income guarantee if you were not in the military or a government job was basically three staple, filling meals per day, shelter year round if you had children, education for all children from three to sixteen, simple but sturdy clothing, a daily sheep-dip bath if you wanted it, and when needed in either cold or hot weather, common shelter with either heat or cooling. Pretty much all sports had been reduced to nothing except military training related sports. Paintball had been through a government sponsored resurgence, and there were leagues ranging from age five to adult, with a lot of competition. The internet was gone for general access. If you were on the internet at all, you had a job that required you to be there, and there was nothing available to waste your time on, other than work. IT cafés still existed, and if you had a bit of money you could get a membership in one and get access to their internal network for computer gaming or socializing. They were all local though, there was no connectivity into a larger system. In the largest cities, different IT cafés would tie their networks together making larger nodes for entertainment and communication purposes.
Did I really have a right to work against all this? Sure, it was a political system that went against everything that I grew up believing. The people weren’t bad people though, not most of them. They seemed happy too, for the most part. The education, from what I found in a couple textbooks left lying around by bored teens, was atrocious and flat wrong in almost anything related to history or economics, and rather poisonous in regards to all mentions of symbiotes. In this case the losers were writing the history, at least in the US. At least for now. Was keeping people mostly content, but ignorant, isolated, and deprived from the benefits of the global economy a sufficient crime to kill political leaders over? How did the fact that I was actually very plausibly the one who started the collapse of what was left of capitalism in the US color my own thoughts towards using assassination to force the US to abandon their aggressive policies?
Was I just angry at what the government of the US had tried to do to Ayva, myself and all the other symbiote pairs? It wasn’t even the same government, really. The old government structures still existed, but there was a new branch of government, the Economic Consulate, and that was where a lot of the real power was these days. We passed by a public viewing station, and I turned, hoping for something to take my mind off of my internal discussion. A cheap television was mounted behind glass in front of the hotel.
“In the news this hour. The Economic Consulate’s news agency has indicated that the initial live launch for the Space Rail has been completed. A one hundred ton manned payload released from the beginning of the track in Black Mountain Kentucky was launched from the end of the track on Mount Elbert, Colorado, and achieved orbit. Several power stations along the path of the accelerating payload have been reported to still be smoking at this time, and at least two were badly damaged by fire. We were advised that these are not significant setbacks. The stations are modular, and replacements can be delivered by the conventional railway that operates beside the Space Rail. The next launch will be attempted next week.”
I would have been proud of that achievement if this were still the United States I grew up in, and if the entire purpose of this Space Rail wasn’t to put enough weapons in space that the US could use the threat of Project Thor and orbital nuclear bombardment to keep other nations out of space. The US had already successfully sabotaged six different “beanpole” projects with their existing space assets. That was a large part of the reason I was here.
At least it made it a little easier to contemplate my mission again, rather than running in the twin mental ruts of old nostalgia and new doubts.