Trevor shuddered in the misting rain. His thin-film poncho was worn in spots, cold droplets soaking into his dark shirt. A battered “FreeStick” leaned at an angle from the concrete, covered in dents and looping graffiti. He was hungry and cold. The vendor would dispense one ration per day, and not one gram more.
It was nearly midnight, when the ration cycle would reset. The grey lumpy goo wasn’t luxury, but it would keep him alive. He didn’t want to think about what it was made of. Trevor patted a small bottle in his pocket. The alcohol would strip the barely edible gruel from his tongue, so he didn’t have to endure the bitter aftertaste.
It was part of the “Minimal Assistance Program”, not designed for long-term consumption. The texture and taste carefully engineered by psychologists and “experience engineers” to deliver sustenance at the very edge of human tolerance. The local government abided by the letter of the law, not so much the intent.
MAP meant getting upgrades to your modules only once a year. MAP meant sleeping in pods barely larger then your body, then rudely ejected into the morning chill of sunrise. The MAP card was filled with just enough to provide travel to a local agency, where there were no jobs waiting, and back to the pod racks at night.
Trevor spent long hours near the UniCar depot. He’d smile and assist well-dressed passengers for the hope of some credits. Most ignored him, but every once in a while he’d net enough to get by one for a month or two. The men were stern and cold, eyes focused on overlays and virtual assistants. The women smelled nice and would pat his arm after he opened a door, sometimes with a kind word or a few credits.
Trevor practiced his best language skills then, to thank them for their generosity. He didn’t have the best module, his upgrade was hundreds of days ago. But it worked well enough for simple sentences. Since the world was linked together with fast travel and cities that stretched for kilometers, a multitude of languages were flowing throughout its veins.
A triple tone announced the new cycle had begun. Trevor held a small bag under the nozzle, grainy light scanning his face. Approved, a steady stream of goo flowed into the bag until it was halfway full. The nozzle sputtered as the last of the expanding gas pushed the final bits of gruel into his makeshift container.
Trevor twisted the bag shut, placing it carefully in his pocket. The city never stopped moving, even late at night. He quickly strode down the byways and alleys to the UniCar building. If he was lucky he could catch the early rush. The chill mist slackened, droplets giving way to fog.
The dull-orange glow of the UniCar sign cast a halo into the foggy night. Trevor adjusted his poncho, toes at the line of the exit ramp. He had learned earlier that trespassing was not taken lightly. He still had twin scars on his back from the tethered stunner that hit him.
The exit lights pulsed from white to emerald green, door unfolding in complicated geometries. A female passenger disembarked, holding shiny bags. Trevor held open the passenger door, smiling. She was tall and gorgeous, hue-changing dots suspended at the tips of her eyelashes. She looked down at Trevor and smiled.
Trevor didn’t understand. He mimed an accepting shrug, still smiling. The cheerful tone of credits being accepted to his card played in his ears. The passenger walked off to a waiting personal pod. She must have been rich, hardly anyone had personal vehicles anymore.
The exit lights changed back to dim white, exit portal closing shut. Trevor shook his head. His translator should’ve been able to convert any language into something he could understand. He would have to fix this, or else he would be lost in a city full of alien tongues.
He carefully backed away from the property line and walked around the corner. Tapping the side of his head, he invoked the main selection menu for his Cabral Linguistic Module.
“Welcome to Cabral! Please subvocalize your selection. Ah – Configuration, Oh – Diagnostics, Em – Upgrades.”
He spoke the keyword for Diagnostics under his breath.
“Processing… Diagnostic routine initiated. Completed, your module is functioning normally.”
Trevor frowned. Working normally? That couldn’t be right. Recalling the woman’s words, tumbling from painted lips over perfect white teeth. There wasn’t a single word he had understood. He slumped down, sitting against the wall. He vocalized the “Upgrades” keyword.
“Processing… Connecting to local net. Sending refresh request… Upgrade available, 100 credits. Amount exceeds available balance.”
One hundred credits.
Trevor looked up at the sky, fine mist swirling in colored lights. He sighed, taking out the bag of gruel. Grey and colorless. He ate, as wet droplets fell out of the sky.
Trevor wondered what her word for “delicious” was.
It probably sounded like angels singing.