Brad Stifl lifted off from the en suite garage of his Hoboken penthouse in his Audi Interstellar streamcar, which sparkled like a blood diamond. But even this early in the morning, iRoute 95 bowed like a slow-motion tornado over the sludge trail once known as the Hudson, tens of thousands of economy vehicles twisting along the optic stream.
“iOSephine.” Brad checked the symmetry of his eyebrows in the smudge-free surface of the interface display. “Don’t you dare put me in with the rabble.” The operating system of his previous streamcar, a Lexus Hubble, had catered to his driving predilections the way a mail-order wife knew to position herself for backdoor entry on Sunday mornings, but the fashionista blogs had deemed the Hubble a Model-T to the fashion-forward, so Brad had ditched the old bag over the weekend for a new ride. Easy enough to transfer over his settings and passwords, but for her maiden voyage, Brad had to instruct his Audi the proper way to transport a man of his caliber. Fortunately, iOSephine was an ideal teacher’s pet.
“Of course not, Brad,” she cooed through a bevy of micro-speakers. Her voice options ranged from Jewish matron to love slave, and Brad of course inclined toward the latter. The way her breathy tones made the morning weathercast sound like a Hustler forum letter—iOSephine’s sexpot mode even included the wet smacks of bee sting lips breaking their glossy seal. “Searching for an available pulse on the 1% stream.”
The Interstellar kept its distance from the public iRoute and propelled toward the stream reserved for those who could afford its subscription rate. But even the 1% stream proved crowded this morning. The emerald Audi found a spot between a tan Infiniti with a lawyer-type at the helm and a decade-old Mercedes as behind the times as the driver’s hair replacement. Brad had ponied up for the five-star Traffic Management option on the Interstellar, the kind that forewent all traffic laws and tapped into the nearest power conduit to create a private iRoute with no extra pulses for anyone to leech onto, favored among dignitaries and DC power-brokers. But every use of this option carried its own price tag, and Brad had plans to burn a stack of bills later today as the new record-holder on his firm’s commission board while a Polish receptionist bounced on his lap, her thong flicking from his sideview like a trophy.
Still, the driving force to show off his buying power was strong with this one. He, Brad Stifl, was poised to finalize the biggest triangular deal since Molasses-Rum-Slaves (MRS, in trading lingo). The world’s food shortage was his firm’s bread and butter. He spent one half of each trading day chatting up foreign governments about the loads of near-expired food he could park on their borders, the other half acquiring shipments that had fallen below US standards—almost hard to believe the latter, yet Brad never had to look far to find a few tons of pink beef slime even McDonald’s wouldn’t process, or a tanker of drinking water just a smidge over the EPA’s acceptable parts per million.
Right this minute, the Agricultural Secretary of South-Southwest Korea no doubt eyed his international clock, his mouse poised over Brad’s contact link. Ever since fragmenting into eighths, the Koreas found themselves woefully unprepared for the new world of supply shortages. So when SSW Korea got wind on Friday of a cargo ship full of cabbage lolling its way from Ecuador, the Secretary himself hurled numbers at Brad’s office display. Clearly, he feared being outbid by another starving country who could also fling out funds by the gigabyte.
“Hold tight,” Brad cautioned the Secretary, whose massive forehead beaded visibly through the FaceTime display. “Looks like those little brown bastards are holding out for merchandise as well as dinero,” but in truth, Brad had already secured the cabbage. Ecuador had a desperate need for onions, which Ukraine had a bounty of. But Ukraine was in the market for protein, so Brad was banking on SSW Korea having some offal in its back pocket.
The Agricultural Secretary rifled through spreadsheets of inventory, staccatoed to lackeys in his native tongue. “Beef tendon?” he finally acquiesced.
Brad squinted noticeably. “I’ll see if they bite,” he offered, and he blanked the screen.
Huzzah! A seamless menage a trois of desperation! Each country was ready to hand over the food it had, and Brad was there to make sure it handed over gobs of currency for the food it didn’t. He messaged Ukraine, “Wanna yank some beef tendon from the mouths of foreign babes?” because competition was one way to raise bids, and he kept this back and forth going until the closing bell, because delay was the other. Brad feigned frustration, blamed the lag on sunspots, and shut off each feed with a vague promise of being at his desk before Monday’s opening. Hungry clients usually upped their offers 9.8% when kept on hold, but SSW Korea was Brad’s big fish—hungry nations with mineral deposits raised their bids an average of 28.75%. Now, everyone had to wait through the weekend, and all three were too xenophobic or war-mongering to dare talk to each other.
Brad now predicted a 400% rise in the price of kimchi once the trading day opened, a spike in beef tendon, and a bullish outlook on onions. Enough commission for him to blow a hole in the firm’s leaderboard. Brad kicked back to soak in his potential energy, which was amassing to supernova proportions.
He looked to his left to find the lawyer-type in the Infiniti Event Horizon checking him out. It was a momentary glance, but Brad knew the signals. He had all the latest adjustments in the repertoire of the successful metrosexual (polygonic eyebrows, cheekbones like turtle shells, his pompadour sloped up into a bread-slicing edge), and that wiggled the spine of any woman with half a reproductive system. She was probably close to his age, but she kept herself up pretty well—checkerboard dye job all the way to the scalp, equilateral nose, breasts raised to to the bottom edge of her clavicles. Sure signs of Preferred Guest status at the Joan Rivers Surgery Mall, though she didn’t look familiar. Not the kind of acquisition Brad had coming to him today, but she maybe a consolation prize should today’s target already be committed to a board of directors soiree or screaming retreat. Brad gave the lawyer a sidelong smirk, but there was no telling if her return grin was anything more than the residual effects of Botox and laser peel.
“iOSephine.” Brad sneaked a peek of his blue-tinted teeth as he spoke. “Bump that Infiniti and remind at seven tonight to tap that contact if better prospects aren’t already square in my lap.”
“Contact received.” iOSephine purred like a vintage porn coed offering her roommate to the meter-reader.
Brad’s better prospect was, of course, Kasia, who reposed at the receptionist station by the executive floor elevators, a purely decorative position to keep her on-hand for wifeless excursions with the higher brass, whether they be man or dyke. The only trader she’d ever dropped her Slavic iciness with was Culpepper, and only when he’d set the current commission record. She sapped him of his bonus in one weekend flat, but his tales of gymnastic glory made the expenditure sound worth it.
Maybe it was that anticipation alone that made the 1% stream seem sluggish and plebeian. It was a relief to get above the economy vehicles and see nothing of the analog roads on the ground save the fog of their diesel, but wasn’t the point of a 1% subscription to be in an exclusive minority?
“iOSephine. What’s got the posers burning up their allowances so early in the month?” Brad pointed with his chin at the hair-replacement job on the other side of him. Poor boob—Mercedes was as passe as roller derby, not to mention the peeks of pink scalp between his implants. No doubt a banker or old-fashioned stockbroker who lacked the gumption and slippery-slope morality to rake in the big commissions anymore. Probably went to the big player clubs, nursing the one martini he could afford in a futile attempt to look relevant.
“You mean the slowdown in your current stream?” Brad should have looked into an update package that would have given iOSephine a Polish accent. “Looks like we have some blockage on the City end.”
Brad fingered his console, still protected with adhesive film, to focus his map display on the jam-up, but the blockage must have been too fresh for the drones to fully pixelate yet. Were those smokes plumes drifting by the entrance to the City? Two each for the iRoute and Brad’s 1% stream, like inconvenient mushroom growth. Accidents? Had the Hudson caught fire again? Today of all days?
“iOSephine, what gives?”
“The latest reports are just in. Seems several hot air balloons are blocking the optic streams.”
“Son of a fuck.” Brad tried not to crinkle his lips together, as his philtrum highlight was still a little tender, but in the end he couldn’t help himself. As much as he preferred seeing the world through his display screens, he peered out the window and could just make out the bulbous outlines at the end of his present stream.
Analogers. Who else would even inflate hot air balloons in the already flammable atmosphere? Confirmed luddites who blamed every evil in the world on technology, because obviously the extinction of dumb-ass polar bears and the sinking of Fiji were the result of the quantum computer and a manned Mars launch. Last Columbus Day, a tribe of Analogers dressed as American Indians erected a teepee village on the field of Trump Stadium. They chanted the benefits of fresh meat and air, beat on drums and evaded security guards while game time got pushed back further and further. Brad himself had fallen victim to the Lavatory Laboratory, when Analogers removed the industrial-sized toilet paper rolls from office building bathrooms all over Manhattan and replaced them with single squares that asked, in bright brown marker, “Are you SURE you want to go paperless?” Now a red streak of brake lights lined up towards the distant obstructions, like a torrent of souls on fire queued up for damnation.
Again, “Son of a fuck.”
iOSephine caressed his ear with her next suggestion. “There is another way, you know.”
iOSephine was living up to her sexpot settings, buttering him towards the Traffic Management System. His monthly payments were already comparable to a third-world nation’s GDP and didn’t need a bump on his first day. But still–the commission record, Kasia, the fuck of his professional life…
“iOSephine. Let’s break the seal on the TMS.”
“Certainly.” Brad swore he heard a smile in iOSephine’s response. “Please be mindful that you are leaving all regulated traffic lanes and thereby incur sole responsibility as pilot of this vehicle.” What remarkable technology, to have her roll out the legalese as though she were whispering to his erection (tapping into his super-luxury options had stiffened him as quickly as an intravenous Viagra drip).
“Please,” Brad muttered, and with that, the Interstellar rose from the 1% stream and transmitted its own optic. Brad watched as his fellow travelers fell below him. Did that lawyer’s mouth just roll into an O as though begging for his dick? Brad Stifl’s week rolled out out before him like a showcase on The Price Is Right. He could schedule his saline penile extension. The firm would give him a few days at its private island–bare-breasted girls (or loinclothed men) who pigeoned like indigenous peoples, full-time projections of azure seas against the hurricane dome, rum drinks garnished with fresh Illinois papaya. But first, a night of Kasia’s practiced Slavic moans. He had to hand it to the guy who convinced him to buy the Interstellar, even if he was an ugly little mutherfucker.
The employment rolls of his regular dealership probably doubled as a Persons of Interest list for the FCC and International Trade Commission. The luxury consultants (aka, sakesmen) kept stashes of molly and oxycodone in their desk drawers, 30 year-old scotch in phallic decanters, and escorts on speed dial if some quick head sealed a deal. Brad showed up with one item on his mind—a Lexus Higgs-Boson, all the rage and inches beyond the upper limit of his budget, as Brad only made budgets to break them. And some new guy, orange with insta-tan and teeth like banana-flavored Chicklets, locked onto Brad the second he crossed the threshold and steered him directly to the Interstellar, so fresh off the cargo ship it glowed with sea mist…or was that sweat from Indonesian child laborers?
The consultant broke into a spiel, Let me show you how easy it is to get you into one of these babies and get your baby into one of those models who drips at the sight of one of these babies, but Brad knew the game and had no intention of helping this guy to a higher income bracket without at least a little kickback. He insisted on the Lexus. But as the luxury consultant ran on and on about the Interstellar, An interior more luxurious than wet pussy, an exterior that will turn heads more quickly than demonic possession, Brad found himself fascinated with a mole nestled up to the guy’s right nostril. Mole? Fairer to say a trio of plump ticks glued together, or a miniature Michelin man bathed in shit. When the consultant motioned towards his office, Brad felt the facial growth had sucked all resistance from him. Since Botox went OTC, anyone over the minimum poverty wage considered it not only gauche but flat-out disrespectful to appear in public looking no less than ten years younger. Brad took a seat in front of the monitor that would tally his debt and compile his self-esteem.
Mole-Man went to work. The 1% stream is a standard feature for this kind of vehicle, he began, but Brad hardly registered anything over the churning in his gut. Here he was, a seven-figure guy, his suits right off the covers of the fashion feeds, his waistline so well updated that his navel was more like a shadow than a concavity. And across from him sat with a schlub in his fifties who looked it, that mound of detritus hovering by his schnoz like a radioactive booger dump.
But this guy had a pitch honed to perfection. The origin of the 1% stream, he explained as he copied and pasted packages of agreements and numbers into Brad’s already hefty sales invoice, was to provide an exclusive few the ability to form their own lane of traffic, more expedient than the plebeian lanes and far better than the (he pulled his collar as he dramatized a gulp of horror)analog roads mired to the ground. But nowadays, even a bachelor history teacher can lease a Beamer with a 1% subscription. He brushed his finger by his nose as though at a sudden itch, but Brad wondered now if the move was to keep him aware of that bastard child of melanoma. But that’s always been the way, hasn’t it? The power brokers always being followed by the wannabes. Just who was this guy? A failed radio talk show host? A cultural anthropology professor on sabbatical to study the rich and powerful in the wild? Whoever he was, his sales pitch spiked a hoo-rah battle cry in Brad Stifl’s soul to uphold the honor of the class elite. Just as credit companies once offered gold and silver cards to attract a higher-class clientele, so did the auto industry first offer the Hummer, with an mpg only the well-off could afford, named after a blowjob because it wanted the rest of the world to suck its chrome. Then the hybrid and the streamcar and then the streamcar with Serpentine function, always upping the price so only a precious minority could afford to stay ahead of the riff-raff. It seemed only right that Brad’s Total Due line swelled before his eyes.
The two Brads, one in the showroom and the one in slow traffic, nodded simultaneously, the latter sneering at 1% stream and its Teslas and carbon-footprint-free Lexuses (Lexi?). Still sneering, he mouthed along with the luxury consultant’s exciting conclusion”
With a new Interstellar, my friend, traffic is an option. Fungus-face crossed his arms with confidence that he had found the right man for this machine.
“What speed do you prefer, Brad?” iOSephine broke Brad’s reverie, but at least her suggestive tone hadn’t quashed his erection.
“How fast can you take it?” No going back now. Perhaps iOSephine had an in-app virtual sex purchase.
“Applying maximum thrust, Brad.” Good Christ–was it in her programming to incite cumstains in the leather upholstery on her first outing? “Our ETA still has us arriving ten minutes after the opening bell.”
“Darling,” he said with the utmost patience (make it last, make it last). “Didn’t I pay for the means to skirt such obstacles?”
“Of course, Brad,” iOSephine hummed. “Course plotted around said obstacle,” but when Brad looked past the dashboard, the center link of the Audi hood ornament had a bead on one of the balloons, which Brad could now see was festooned with a ginormous A that looked like the proscenium to a world of hurt.
“iOSephine,” he ordered. “I don’t care if we have to cut off the Dalai Lama. Get me to my office before the opening bell.” Brad already had a good chunk of his commission spent. His motto: fuck and trade for no one’s pleasure but your own. He could bang a MILF and have her out the service entrance while her daughter came a-knocking at the front. He could sell charcoal as a high-fiber alternative to indigent Chinese farmers. The world was so hungry, he could sell a dumpster full of aborted baby parts as long as he kept the transaction off the radar of those pesky human rights groups. Tofu, pinto beans, chicken feet, assorted Starburst flavors–he funneled it all to spots all over the world not to save the children but to pay down his AmEx Scandium, his mortgages and HOA fees, the Audi and even more of course this TMS system, because who could ever go back to something as pedestrian as the 1% stream after flying freestyle?
But still, the balloon loomed closer. Brad could now make out a phrase along its surface incorporating the A: “Got Analog?” His course hadn’t wavered one iota. This close to the City, Brad typically delved into his visualization exercises, picturing his success to come. Rather than the real world doldrums of the bargraph skyline of the City atop a toxic conveyor belt of former water, Brad preferred a blue Atlantic viewed through the rim of a mai tai glass, brown topless women with no tan lines acting on his every desire. But despite the flightplan that showed the Interstellar bowing gracefully around the balloon, Brad worried about that gigantic vowel gaining size.
“iOSephine, let’s not just skirt that abomination. I don’t want to be anywhere near those Analogers and their lame-ass protests.”
“I’m sorry, Brad. I can’t do that.” iOSephine’s tone remained as obsequious as ever, despite her refusal. “User profile transferred, as well as all controls, as per instructions.”
And then everything went dark, his displays and even his windows. iOSephine assured him in the climate-controlled inkiness, “This will just take a minute, Brad.” A moment later, the cabin exploded with light when white foamy pixelation fired up on every surface. “A very important announcement coming in.” The outline of a mouth emerged from the pixelation, some eyebrows, lopsided ears.
It spoke. Good morning. The voice was pixelated too. We have seized control of every optic in a 25-mile radius. Even Analogers have some tricks up their cowls. The mouth flashed a quick grin and resumed its scowl. Making you wipe your laser-polished asses with your bare hands wasn’t enough to shake you from your digital addictions. So today, we sacrifice an example of the inhumanity digital culture has engendered. We sacrifice a creature who sells the basic needs of humanity for profit, and we will sacrifice him in the toxicity of his occupation.
“Get off my data stream,” Brad grumbled, “I have trades to complete.”
The monologue continued. We have him in the sky above you, gleaming green like the color of his ill-gotten gains. A man who was going to mark up cabbage and onions on starving millions so he could afford another chemical peel.
Brad leaned close to the display. Was that block of pixels under the right nostril…a mole?
“iOSephine,” Brad pleaded to his love slave. “I’ve lost our ETA. When do we reach my office?”
“Relax, my dear.” iOSephine’s tone was as luscious as it had been all morning, but Brad couldn’t help but hear some smarm. “I’ve uploaded the bills of sale to your customers already. Shipments have been properly routed. Your donations have been well received.”
The remnants of Brad’s high-sales hard-on had receded into negative space. He had trusted iOSephine with everything–account numbers, passwords, mother’s maiden name. What credibility would he have with any of his clients if three of the world’s major buyers got free stuff from him? Brad’s worries turned to Kasia. Would she ever know how close he had come to impressing the thong off her? Maybe if he happened by her station, some faint whiff of near-success would soften her up to acknowledge his presence.
But then, “Don’t worry, Brad. She’ll know you existed. At least, she’ll know you sent dick pics to her work email. That is, if half the firm hasn’t already done so.”
Bitch. He was outnumbered. iOSephine with all his personal information (including his before samples for the implant surgery). And Mole Man an Analoger operative working undercover at the dealership. How many other traders and old-money playboys had Mole plied with his spiel about keeping ahead of the rabble and all that shit before Brad Stifl fell into his net? The saddest thought of all, and thus the one Brad tried to keep far from his frontal lobe, was that Brad was Mole’s very first stab at a mark, that this plan had not been constructed around Brad Stifl but that he had fallen into it by chance and that any other well-to-do would have sufficed.
“At least tell them my name,” Brad seethed at the display.
Witness, the pixilated ugly fuck announced, your digital future go up in flames.
“You’ll suffer less if you inhale the first flames that infiltrate the cabin,” iOSephine advised, like a crazy bitch who fucks up your life and suggests you get over it.
But Mole Face had it all wrong, just the way all Analogers couldn’t see beyond their crusty fingernails. “I can be a greedy fuck without a data stream,” Brad announced to the interior of his cabin. “If I couldn’t call internationally, I’d be skimming my elderly neighbor’s food stamp pantry, fuckers. If I couldn’t pawn off boatloads of kimchi, I’d be selling rice on street corners at a c-note a pound.” He poked his finger at the pixilated mole as though he could pop it and spill its sludge all over his console.
And with that, the displays all shut down. The A now filled his windshield, a portal to nowheresville.
“Impact in ten seconds.” iOSephine reclined Brad’s seat. “It’s been a pleasure hacking you.”
Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Ginosko Literary Journal. He lives and teaches (at a distance) in New Jersey.