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Humanity has inhabited Mars. Technology has taken leaps and bounds to drive progress and allow for great efficiency. But predictably in this giant sandbox, some things have been taken too far. Corporate giant, Sphere, is the sole provider of oxygen… available only through their subscription service.

Fresh Air

by Gabriel Merithew

James boarded the LightLine with the rest of the crowd. Men, Women, Bots, and Hybrids, all with slicked-back hair and crisp suits surrounded him, and he blended in perfectly. Once aboard, he used his HUD to scan for available seats, but as usual, there were none so he leaned casually against a pole as the train departed the station and began to accelerate to its cruising speed of one thousand miles per hour. This of course wasn’t anywhere near the speed of light from which these bullet trains got their name, but it was the fastest form of transportation on Mars by some margin, ridden only by the elites and those with good jobs who were given company passes to commute. James fell into the latter.

James might have been the only one on the train who didn’t appear to stare off into space as everyone interacted with their HUDs. He preferred to disconnect when possible on the ride home and watched as the red landscape blurred and warped as they sped past. He thought of the picture he used to keep under his pillow as a boy back on Earth. The photograph had been taken by his grandmother who had actually seen those crystalline waters and the strange green and brown growths that seemed to cover everything but the water. His wondrous fascination with the photograph continued into his teenage years and he would take it out every day and compare it with the vast grey nothing outside his window. But his mother eventually found it and told him sternly to not be a slave to the past.

James yawned discreetly into his hand and felt his stomach rumble. He’d meant to grab a SusPac from the cafeteria on his way out of the office, but he’d forgotten and was regretting it now. Looking over at the Bots and Hybrids, he felt the usual pang of jealousy. They didn’t have to eat. They were better than him in every way, and for the millionth time, he wondered if he’d ever be able to afford hybrid modifications or maybe even a Consciousness Transferral. But these were just dreams and not productive, so he sighed and switched on his HUD once more and proceeded to check his email.

Exactly five minutes before the LightLine arrived in iCity station, though the peculiar timing didn’t occur to James, the hack began. A large pop-up appeared on his HUD, overlaid on the email response he’d been writing. With a klaxon sound effect that only he could hear, large red text appeared that read: WARNING! BlueGhost has detected a security breach.

James jumped at the piercing sound in his ears and a group of Hybrids to his left swiped at the empty space in front of them, dismissing their HUDs to look up at him curiously, before swiping back to return to whatever it was that they had been doing. His heart pounding, James clicked the Investigate button on the warning pop up. A loading bar appeared and then everything on his HUD vanished to be replaced a moment later by a live screen capture feed of his bank account. “No, no, no, no, no…” James whispered aloud.

Someone was accessing his bank account right now. He hit a command key to minimize the feed, but nothing happened. He tried to close it entirely with the same result. It wasn’t as if he could disconnect his HUD’s power source either. The power source was him. Reduced to a mere spectator, James watched as the intruder pulled up a program on top of his bank account and began to code various commands. A moment later his heart sank as his account balance zeroed out in a matter of seconds. And then the feed disappeared and he was returned to his email.

In a panic, James signed into his bank account as fast as he could and shouted, “NO!” when he saw that it had been real, but it was too late. He was completely broke. Wildly, he looked up and down the LightLine car, not sure what he was looking for. The thief could be anywhere. Accessed his Implant 5.0 remotely. He’d heard of hacker attacks, and he remembered reading that the hacks usually needed to be executed at close range.

It didn’t take long for James to spot him. A tiny man sitting in the back corner, looking incredibly out of place, had an old fashioned laptop open on his lap and had glanced directly at James at exactly the wrong time. They locked eyes, an uncommon occurrence for any two people, but in that instant, James knew for a fact that he was looking at the man who’d stolen everything from him.

James lunged forward, wanting nothing more than to strangle this tiny man, but once again timing was against him and he was thrown backward as the LightLine decelerated and pulled swiftly into the station. On cue, having quickly stowed his laptop, the tiny man ran to the nearest sliding doors and was the first person off the Line. Feeling a sharp pain in the shoulder that had cushioned his fall, James sprung to his feet and gave chase, shoving all manner of people, hybrid, bot, or otherwise, aside as he fought his way onto the platform.

The little man didn’t get far, having tripped over a duffel bag as he glanced over his shoulder, and before he could get to his feet, James was on top of him and grabbing him by his not-so-crisp collar.

“Give it back! Transfer it back now, fucker!” James screamed in the terrified man’s face.

And then James was lifted up by his underarms and dragged away from the tiny man. Not bothering to see who was trying to restrain him, James used every ounce of strength to rip himself free and took off after the tiny man who had seized his opportunity and was already stumbling away towards the stairs.

The throng was still in his way, but James knocked them aside as he continued his pursuit. He couldn’t see the tiny man anymore and after a moment wondered if he’d lost him. But a cry of pain up ahead allowed him to pinpoint his location.

A circle of people with slicked-back hair and crisp suits was surrounding the tiny man when James broke through and saw that the tiny man was on the ground clutching tightly at his ankle. He’d found him. Ignoring the onlookers, James took a step forward to confront the helpless thief before him. But he felt strangely light-headed and staggered sideways into someone who pushed him away. His already labored breaths were suddenly excruciating.

In that horrifying and painful moment, James knew exactly what was happening. Doubled over and gasping, he swiped feebly at the space in front of him and opened his HUD. Sure enough, there was a new email in his inbox and he opened it, immediately noting the zeroed out timer that confirmed his worst fears.

Dear James Hollander,

Your subscription to the Sphere will expire in 00.00

Automatic subscription renewal is not possible when the linked account has insufficient funds.

If you believe this is an error, please reply to this email and a Sphere agent will be in touch with you shortly.

Have a lovely day,

Sphere – Mars’ #1 Trusted Oxygen Carrier

Before everything around him faded to black, James’ last thought was of his grandmother’s photograph. Then the iChip implant in his head completed its task, and having completely deprived his body of Sphere Brand oxygen, it shut down completely, ready to be extracted and transferred to its next living host.

The End