Kids These Days


Jake Murphy was a tall and scrawny teenager, unlike older, obese inhabitants that filled most of the houses in his Jersey suburb. The soulless streets hosted nearly identical cookie-cutter subdivisions, each further subdivided into decrepit homes. Most of the inhabitants were rarely seen outside, sending out swarms of quadcopter drones and squat, wheeled service bots to handle the yardwork. Faded American flags and worn Christmas decorations adorned many of the aged structures, complementing their peeling paint and brown grass. The rancid carcass of the American dream was laid out like a rotting corpse in a Santa suit.

The less decrepit homes had solar cells on the rooftops and lush gardens in the front yards, which Jake found less painful to look at. Jake had his smart windbreaker locked into its default gray setting, blending in with the overcast skies and muted colors of early December. Underneath the garment were wearable devices on his head and arms, letting him browse the net as he walked. He let his muse, an animated spider named Iktomi, download a new patch for his favorite games, planning to play them later. Jake kept his hood up, partially to keep his head warm and partially to keep his newly fabbed wearables concealed. Some of the locals coveted his shiny trinkets too much.

"Hey, it's Murphy!" came a deep, almost adult voice from behind a tall fence.

"Don't just stand there, dumbass," came another, deeper voice.

Two of Jake's peers stepped onto the cracked sidewalk. The muscular one was clad in a sports jersey several sizes too big, and the shorter one wore sunglasses and thin garments over his spray-on tan. Juicehead and Carrotface, as Jake nicknamed them, were two wannabe bullies that had nothing better to do than random vandalism and picking on people who still went to high school. There were typically jacked up on whatever ego-boosting drugs and steroids their dealer had brewed in some basement, since they were too dumb to fab their own narcotics or wearables.

Juicehead hefted a baseball bat over his head. "Those wearables you gave us last time sucked," one complained. "Give me some good ones!"

Jake recalled how he had uploaded a virus onto the last ones he had handed over, wiping everything. Already, Iktomi was analyzing the area for escape routes. It was time to get his cardio in for the day.

"Come on," Jake raised his hands defensively, feigning surrender. Carrotface moved in, a smug grin on his face. Juicehead hefted the bat over his shoulder, confident in his premature victory. Jake's glasses projected an escape route over his vision, one taking him to his destination the most directly.

"No funny shit," Carrotface warned.

Jake lifted his hands in submission, waiting for the ideal moment. Carrotface said something to Juicehead, distracting him for a moment. It was then Jake took off at full sprint, pounding the worn pavement as fast as he could. Carrotface stepped in his way, hunching over like a football linebacker. He moved to intercept Jake, but the student sprung to the side and continued his dash. It was a few seconds before Jake heard them calling back at him. His muse detected his posture and gait changing, and began planning his jogging playlist. Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" played at a nearly muted level as Jake sprinted at full speed.

"Get back here, asshole!" one of them shouted. Jake turned to see Juicehead was gaining on him, his steroid-enhanced muscles driving him forward like a mad bull. Jake saw a parked car in front of him, and leapt on the hood. The hybrid's body was sleek and polished, and Jake saw his footprints leaving scuffmarks all over. He struggled to keep his balance, slipping onto the ground.

Jake tried to recover, only to receive a kick to the gut. He saw Carrotface's sneakers in his face, with Juicehead readied his bat.

"You just earned yourself one hell of a beating," the mad batter looked at his prone victim. "Batter up!"

Jake tightened his body and covered his head, waiting for the goons to start raining down blows. America's former greatest pastime had left plenty of cheap bludgeons for its newest pastime, petty violence for its own sake.

Instead of getting another kick to the stomach, Jake felt an entirely different sort of pain. An ultrasound beam jackhammered his eardrums, a full frontal sensory assault. As he writhed on the ground, Jake saw the would-be assailants were similarly disabled. A pair of quadcopter drones hovered overhead, keeping screamers trained on them. Jake doubted they were police drones, otherwise everyone would be in cuffs and have guns trained on them already.

Jake had little time to think in between sonic pulses. A few long moments later, the pounding stopped as suddenly as it started. Jake tried to get up as Juicehead reached for his bat. Suddenly, a large man in a dark boot stepped on the bully's forearm, and the other foot knocked the weapon away. Jake saw the man dressed from head to foot in a dark gray hooded trenchcoat. Geometric patterns flashed across the front and rear of the man's chest, forming a stylized letter "H." Dark gloves and glasses covered his eyes and hands, but Jake saw the man's Latin nose and olive skin. He held a meter of steel rebar in his hand, grasping an end wrapped in duct tape.

"Violence against the unarmed is forbidden, especially those weaker than you," the man calmly said. "Can you fools comprehend this?" Jake recalled hearing the voice somewhere.

"Who the hell are you?" Juicehead complained. "This is our turf!"

"This turf belongs to the people who live here," the Hispanic man grabbed the baseball bat and tossed it away. "Not to paltry thugs like you. Are we clear?"

"Go fuck-" Carrotface was cut off by the ultrasound beamer.

Jake prepared to run, but could not find a clear opening between him, the bullies, and the strangely familiar man with the screamer drones.

"It is a pity you that your vocabulary is so limited and predictable," the man sighed. "But there will be no more harassing of locals. Enough of your antics have made it online to warrant a visit by me."

"Fuck, bro," Juicehead said to Carrotface. "Let's scram!"

Carrotface and Juicehead darted off, fleeing like whipped dogs. Jake breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed up as the bulky Latino turned towards him.

"Are you okay, sir?" he scanned Jake up and down. "I must apologize for the drones. My muse shows you have no signs of outward trauma."

"Yeah, I'm fine," Jake answered. His heart was still racing, and his ears still rang. "But, honestly, were the drones necessary?"

"I most apologize for any discomfort you feel," he bowed forward. "They are not as precise as I would prefer them to be."

"Who are you, anyway?" Jake asked. "I think I met you before."

"I am from the Internet, and I am here to help," the man extended his hand. Jake grasped it, and it felt like his fingers were in a vice grip. "I am Carlos Lopez, but we have spoken before."

"Hey, wait," he recalled. "You were in my biology class last year, right?"

"Yes, but I have since graduated and moved onto Hashishin work," he nodded, looking at the car. "It seems there's no major damage to this car, aside from scuff marks. It is our duty to inform and offer to compensate the owner."

Jake saw his dirty sneaker prints all over the neighbor's car, a hybrid modeled after a classic Roadmaster. Looking at the plates, Jake immediately knew who the owner was.

"Yeah, let me talk to him," Jake headed up the driveway. The two-story house held empty vegetable gardens in the front, and a squeaky wind turbine above the garage. He walked up to the front door and rang the bell, anxiously waiting for a response. A middle aged man with a paunch, shaved head, and thick glasses responded. He was dressed in a smart fabric fedora and trench coat, oscillating green and blue colors.

"Hey Jake," he asked. "What's up?"

"Hey Mike," Jake pointed to the car. "Your car got scuffed up again."

"Come on, man," he shook his head. "If you want to try doing parkour on my car, give me some warning, okay?"

"Jake was merely trying to avoid some bullies, sir," Carlos bowed. "If you do not mind me asking, sir, you look familiar."

"I'm a biomedical engineering researcher at the local university," Mark Wolfe said. "Maybe you saw my lectures?"

Jake saw Carlos fiddle with his glasses a bit, and then saw a surprised look on the Hashishin's face. Carlos' jaw dropped and Jake saw he took a few seconds to compose himself. Carlos cleared his throat and produced a notepad from his pocket. "I cannot believe my fortune," he explained. "I had no idea that the Retromancer himself lived in this wretched neighborhood."

"I've lived here for decades," Mike replied. "Took care of my parents, siblings, and kids in the same house."

"May I have your autograph?" Carlos handed Mike the notepad. "I have seen all of your shows, from when you started, through the Pacific Crisis, and up to the present."

"Then you really need a girlfriend," Mike grinned as he signed the pad. "Although Jake here found a great solution to that problem."

"Cut it out, Mike," Jake shook his head.

"Yup, he'll be a fine engineer once he gets to college," Mike explained. "He's ambidextrous, so he can use both Righty and Lefty at once."

"Very funny," Jake said. "At least I'm not the washed up net celebrity stuck in their mid-life crisis."

"Oh, your midlife crisis will be an epic fail, I'm sure," Mike replied. "Anyway, who's your friend? He's got better taste than you in online shows."

Jake rolled his eyes. "This is Carlos," Jake continued. "Met him in biology last year."

"Honored to meet you, Retromancer," Carlos bowed his head. "I have come to this neighborhood on Hashishin business. Please inform me if anyone troubles you."

"Thanks, but no thanks. I've already got a solution to those problems," Mike said. "I'll stick with my shotgun over some cosplaying vigilante weirdoes."

"A prudent decision," Carlos replied, apparently unfazed by the remark. He checked a small wearable on his wrist, and a panicked look appeared on his face. "But my offer still stands. I must consult my peers on recent political troubles for now, but here is my contact information."

Carlos handed Jake an email address written on a piece of notebook paper, bowed, and headed down the street.

"Honestly, Jake, I have no idea how you meet all these oddballs," Mike explained. "You want to come in, or stand in the doorway like a moron?"

Jake stepped inside the front door, and pulled it closed behind him. He followed Mike into a living room that seemed to belonged to a teenager of previous decades rather than a middle-aged man. Movie and video game posters adorned the walls, most of them partially ripped and faded. Old videogame cartridges were tossed across the floor, and game discs were stacked haphazardly in leaning towers that looked ready to fall. Plastic figures and books were crammed into a shelf in the back of the room. Some weights were strewn about carelessly, and Jake almost stubbed his toe on a dumbbell. In the center of the room was an old-fashioned flat screen television with a number of older consoles plugged into it. An ancient laptop sat off in a distant corner, its fan sounding like a demonic blender. Jake had recalled this room used to be a living room, but gradually mutated into Mike's man-cave, or man-child-cave.

Mike reclined in the ratty sofa, and tossed a controller into Jake's hands. The thing was so old, it still had a wire connecting it to the console, a umbilical cord for a stillborn input device. Mike turned on a console, and picked up a controller.

"We've still got some time to kill," Mike said. "Might as well show you some real games."

"Not another shooter game, please," Jake added. "Those are so freaking cheap."

"Today we're going to try a fighting game," Mike continued. "Ever played one of these?"

"Yeah, and I suck at them," Jake saw the logos of long-dead companies appear on screen before Mike brought them to a character selection screen.

Mike selected a character without thinking, and Jake closed his eyes and randomly selected one. The match began as Jake flailed haplessly with the controls. Mike's fighter effortlessly kicked his ass, ending the round in a few seconds. Jake grew frustrated during the second match, which played out similarly to the first. Mike concluded with a finishing move that impaled Jake's character on a spike pit.

"Get the point?" Mike snickered.

"Hold on for a minute," Jake had an idea. He turned on his augmented reality browser and looked up the game. He downloaded some move lists and exploits, and mapped them to different wearable inputs. He automated his muse to handle a few of the more complex ones, ensuring the drivers were ready. "Hey, Mike, you still have that adaptor, right?"

"Yeah," he tossed a small plug to Jake. Jake unplugged the controller from the wire and connected the other end to a port on a wrist-mounted wearables. "Ready for the next match."

He selected a different character, and the match began. Mike continued using the controller, while Jake stood up to use his wearables. He let muscle memory take over, using gamer reflexes from a different generation of consoles. Iktomi helped streamline the input commands, beating Mike's character into a bloody pulp on screen.

"Being cheap again, eh?" Mike asked. "I've been cheap at this game since you were a boner in your dad's pants."

Mike leaned forward and clasped the controller with his sweaty palms. He opened up the match by spamming a few moves, knocking off half of Jake's health. Jake countered as best as he could, having the muse spam projectile attacks until Mike's health was gone. Jake then entered a finishing move of his own, and his character ripped out the spine of Mike's fighter.

"Pretty good for an old geezer in that last match," Jake complemented. "But in the end, I've got the better reflexes."

"Next time, you should actually play the damn game, cheater," Mike replied. "Anyway, back in my time, everyone wanted to ban this game for being violent."

"Gee, what else has changed?" Jake rolled his eyes. "Is there anything they haven't tried banning?"

"The more someone is whining to ban something, the more reason it should be kept legal," Mike replied. "Laws are only good as their ability to be enforced, and eventually, you get diminishing returns on each new law."

"Yeah, I'm sick of my parents bitching about fabbers and margs," Jake agreed. "Why can't we have nice things?"

"What? They catch you trying to fab blow up dolls again?" Mike joked. "Or they finally catch you mooching off their credit cards to pay for games?"

"Nah," Jake replied. "I'm just excited to get my brain uploaded."

Mike grunted in irritation. "It's not a brain upload, idiot," he explained. "Your connectome's a snapshot of your brain at a particular time. Assuming you have one."

"Very funny, Mike," Jake leaned back. "I know it's just some fancy data-mining software you're using my brain for."

"At first," Mike replied. "After that, who knows? Maybe it can play those margs even better than you can."

"Maybe you're on to something there," Jake said. "I'm ready to go."

"You're just lucky we're using non-invasive scans," Mike said. "Come on. Let's see if there's anything between your ears."

Jake sprung up from the couch, eager to have his brain laid bare before Mike's scientific equipment. Mike followed behind him, and Jake noticed a slight spring in his step. Even Mike still had his passions. Jake followed him out to the car, and sat in the shotgun position next to Mike. The interior of the car had furbished leather seats and was cleaned religiously. He had been in Mike's car before, often to accompany him to lectures or visit his lab.

"You know, in other states, they let the car drive itself," Mike remarked as he turned the key in the ignition. "But here, they force everyone to drive the old fashioned way. Helps the insurance companies keep rates high, since there's more accidents."

"Good thing I'll be out of here in a few months," Jake leaned back in the seat. "Flying out to Cascadia, and got a free ride to college."

"Don't blow it," Mike replied. "I know you're going to be away from your parents for the first time, but do anything too dumb, and you'll get stuck back out here."

"Believe me, I do not want to go back here," Jake explained. "Cascadia's my kind of place. It's like a different country out on the West Coast."

"It almost was a different country, back during the Secession Crisis," Mike explained. "To be honest, I'm jealous. You have more potential than I did at your age, you're younger, and you've got a chance to leave."

"Jealous of my youth, eh?" Jake joked. "Just don't try bathing in a pool of my blood."

"That didn't work too well for Liz Bathory," Mike replied. "But I am jealous that you're probably going to see more of the future than I will."

"But what about just taking your own connectome?" Jake asked. "You're the mad scientist here."

"And you're my Igor for now," Mike said. "I've done it, yeah, but good studies need lots of data points. I've already used myself, most of my grad students, volunteers from lecture, and the janitor."

"Can I get a copy of my connectome?" Jake asked. "I mean, it would be pretty cool to have."

"Sure. Ever subject gets a copy, remember?" Mike said. "We use that connectome as a starting point for the rest of the research."

Jake recalled Mike's research. The connectomes were used to help train neural networks and artificial intelligences. The most successful ones were allowed to "reproduce" and make copies, distributed across a university network. Brains were massively parallel, just like the network architecture. They were intended to process estimate financial transactions and solve complex problems, which gave Jake an idea.

"Say, Mike, I've got an idea for some other fields you could apply the AIs to," Jake asked. "Online games."

"Those are complex problems, yeah," Mike nodded. "But game companies ban those things. They want people to actually play their games, not goldfarming and cheat software."

"Exactly," Jake replied. "Look, I know they have some pretty good AIs that look for that thing."

"They do," Mike added. "I used to consult for some of them. Our AIs aren't optimized for playing games and deceiving game moderator AIs."

"Exactly," Jake grinned. "Have the AIs start on a free to play game account. Then, have it mimic my gaming patterns as best as it can. Have it talk with other players, too, not just ignore them. If an AI gets detected, apply what you learned for the next version."

"Never heard of genetic algorithms, I take it," Mike explained. "There's already people that do that."

"But they never tried connectome-based AIs for this, did they?" Jake grinned. "It's not as good as a devoted AI, and that's the point."

"Not bad," Mike nodded as he turned the car. "The moderators will find it harder to detect AIs that act like immature gamers. Maybe there's something in your head besides the cobwebs."

"Give me some space on your network, and I can even make some money," Jake continued. "Some gamers get in-game sponsors and currency for playing. We can cash that in for real money. Not much money, but that's not the point."

"If you weren't just out of high school, I'd hire you as a grad researcher," Mike complimented. "I've got some spare bandwidth. If this works, I'll put your name on the paper."

Jake was already thinking he could sell some of the more powerful AI-run character accounts to would-be players, doing the more conventional type of goldfarming. It would complement the income from any in-game currency or sponsors. He knew a few sites in the dark corners of the internet that he could use, and some digital currencies that would make it harder to trace. It would take a while to become successful, he imagined, but he only needed it to work once. Every time the moderators struck down an account, the next batch would arise more powerful than they could imagine. As the car turned into the university parking lot, a grin crossed his face.