As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.
All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.
A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.
Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.
Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.
Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.
Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.