Rows of screen-saving computer monitors pass on either side of me. sodacanhero stands beside the soda machine, the front of which is slightly opened. Enough light’s pouring out from inside that I can see he’s this Dale Gribble-looking white dude wearing a tinfoil hat and way too much checkerboard flannel.
“sodacanhero?” I ask, stopping in front of the machine.
Me, with my walking stick.
He, with a can of Sprite.
“Yeah,” sodacanhero says, “but you can call me Sprite. Why are you wearing a towel?”
I bump his proffered fist. “It’s a SoCal thing. Are you a repairman or something?”
He swings open the soda machine door, sets one foot inside. “Not exactly.”
“I follow him inside the soda machine” is honestly about as WTF a thing as anybody could ever say or do. Even more WTF, though, is what’s inside the soda machine: a cramped, but impeccably-organized miniature apartment. It’s literally the world’s tiniest tiny home—and it’s made out of a motherfucking soda machine. Either Sprite’s tunneled into a closet in the adjacent suite, or there’s some kind of TARDIS action going on, because we’re basically dealing with a desk-bed combo situation, office and mini-fridge below, bunk above. I’m one part impressed, two parts confused.
“This is some place you’ve got here,” I say.
Sprite beams proudly. “I got the idea from that Sergio Santos guy who converted a closet into an apartment. I figured if he could do that with a closet, I could do this with a soda machine. Hybrid SuperMegaNet server. Augmented reality. The soda machine façade is actual. The rest is virtual.”
Huh. Kind of like Jan’s persistent skin. But I thought only Beta knew how to bend those rules. “So, you’re some kind of hacker?”
“More of a copy-and-paster, but I make do. As long as there’s a Wi-Fi signal, that is.”
I glance at the front of the soda machine. “What happens when someone tries to buy a soda?”
Sprite pops open the mini-fridge (stocked top to bottom with a variety of colas), holds up a small mug filled with coins and dollar bills. “That’s what these are for. Someone puts money in the slot, I push a soda through the dispenser. Of course, it gets kind of tricky when I need to make change.”
“Or take a credit card.”
“That’s what the ‘Sorry, cash only’ sticky note is for.”
“Okay, so what does your living in a luxurious soda machine tiny home have to do with me or my problem?”
“I know what it’s like to be the crazy guy,” Sprite explains, offering me an ottoman and sitting across from me. “The screwball no one believes, the guy who’s nuts just because he decided to break free of ever-increasing rent prices and move into a half-real, half-virtual soda machine tiny home embedded in the rear wall of his former place of employ.”
“Good for you. But I’m not nuts, I’m pregnant.”
Sprite glances at my belly. “You weren’t kidding about that?”
“Wow. I kind of feel like I should be tweeting this with a #wtf hashtag or something.”
“Ditto, bruh. Now, what’s the deal?”
Sprite leans in close and opens his mouth wide.
I scrutinize his teeth shrewdly.
“I found out,” he says, “that the government’s got surveillance equipment hooked to my teeth.”
“Really? I don’t see anything.”
Sprite straightens. “Of course you don’t! They’re real small.” He starts making grand gestures in the air, his tinfoil hat sliding around on his head. “Microscopic cameras and microphones. Everyone’s got them, but I’m one of the few who actually knows. Fluoride in the water—that’s the catalyst. Nanoparticles bond with your enamel. You don’t even know they’re there.”
“Is that why you wear the tinfoil hat?”
“No. I wear the tinfoil hat to keep the Grays from reading my thoughts.” Sprite adjusts his hat, looks intense. “I used to work here at Puke Green Cyber Cafe—”
That’s what this place is called?
“—I was the admin and chat room moderator, till they bugged me. See, I know the servers too well. I know where to go when I want information, and if there’s one thing the government hates, it’s the free flow of information. You’ve heard of SuperMegaNet’s persistent skinning feature, right?”
“Yeah. It’s been in beta forever.”
“To the general public, sure. But the finished code is there, always has been, and it’s ready to go. Taurus Labs is just sitting on it until they can get the monetization part in their favor. Kind of like how we already have cures for cancer and AIDS, it’s just the powers that be who’re keeping a lid on things until such time as great quantities of money can be harvested by the evil pharmaceutical companies.
“This tape you’re looking for, this El Cassetto, it’s some killer nodge, brah. It was designed by government officials at the highest level. It’s a form of population control. They screwed over the Mexicans by encouraging a culture of large families dependent on low income. They created an artificial reliance on federal assistance. The Mexicans were the pilot program. Now it’s being rolled out on a larger scale. SuperMegaNet is being used to lock in the lower-class. The government wants to create a nation of poverty, families too large and too much in debt to do anything but go to and from their menial jobs in the factories and fields supporting the upper-class. It’s all about monthly subscriptions, enforcement, control, tracking—which reminds me…” Sprite holds up a bottle of whiskey and a pair of pliers. “…have a swig of this, and I’ll take care of those surveillance molars for you.”