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Seems like where we’re headed (5/2021)


The corporate wars weren’t wars, really. No, the government pretty much rolled over to the mega corps, slowly at first, then more rapidly, then completely. Citizens pretty much rolled over after that. Only a few wealthy folks can remain clothed, don’t have to sell themselves, literally. For the rest of us, well, things changed quickly once the new power structure was fully in place, before we became ad space.

Mom’s old enough now where she’s only a level four. They say she’s too wrinkly, that her ad space isn’t worth much because her wrinkles distort any ‘vert copy. And art, too. Dad’s got body hair all over the place, so he’s a level one. Together, they barely bring in enough credits to keep the power on in our unit and food in our bellies every other day. So it’s up to me.

There’s not much I can do to get taller. Believe me, I’ve tried. I rigged up a rack and some pulleys but I’m not noticing any difference, really. I mean, I’m growing a bit but I’m still young so my growth could just be normal. Luckily both mom and dad are tall, so I’ve got that going for me. I feel bad for Petey, who’s only five-two and is likely about as tall as he’s ever going to be. A few years ago, the rate sheet showed that not a single person under six feet was above a level seven, and then only a small few. I’m five-eight right now; another four inches could mean the difference between mom and dad starving to death and us being able to afford a larger unit, one where we don’t have to take turns sleeping on the cot.

I should probably explain… despite some early push back from so-called religious conservatives, the corps quickly realized the value of using the human body as a canvas to paint ‘verts. You’d think that clothing would work better, since all but the very poorest among us could own multiple shirts and pants, and each could have their own advertising. But human psychology is interesting; the corps did studies that show the permanency of body ‘verts drives customer loyalty far deeper and for far longer. I guess if your best friend believes in Aunt Betty’s Pancake Syrup or Bob’s Royal Soda Pop enough to permanently support these products, you’re much more likely to use them too. So, public nudity became legal. Then practically mandated, when the rates for clothing-based ‘verts plummeted. I still wonder whether some freak at one of the corps is just really into seeing naked people. Or maybe it’s just a power thing, knowing they can get us all to strip ourselves of our clothing and dignity to make a living. I’m still a bit suspect that it was one of the corps that performed that study…

I was lucky. A buddy of mine, Shinzo, has family in Japan and I happened to be in his unit when he had his video visitation time with his family. I don’t have any extended family, so the corps don’t give me the five minutes’ of video connection like they give him each year. But while I was trying to mind my own business when he was on his video call, I happened to look at the video screen and I saw Shinzo’s father; He is huge. I mean, really, mind-bogglingly huge. Well over two hundred kilos, I bet. I know it was rude, but I rushed up behind Shinzo and practically yelled out, “What rate level are you?” Shinzo shot me a dirty look — It’s not cool to talk about people’s levels — but before he could chastise me, Shinzo’s dad said, “Hush, Shinzo. It’s okay.” Then he looked at me, winked, and said, “I’m a level eight.” That’s when I knew what I needed to do. I think I thanked Shinzo’s mom and dad and mumbled some kind of apology to him before I stumbled away from the video screen, and then ran home.

Now, it’s one thing to have a plan, it’s another to enact it. Especially when that plan required credits to buy food so that I could get my level up so I could get enough credits to buy food. It was a classic Catch-22 situation. Oh, Yossarian, what to do? I should probably tell you… before my mom got all wrinkly, she was a stunner and peaked at a level nine! For most of my childhood, we lived in a larger unit — one with two cots and a small eating area — and we not only had enough to eat most days, but mom and dad also bought me books to read all the time. It was quite a luxury; almost nobody has the credits or the time to read these days.

For days, I was stuck. I felt like I had a great idea, one that would really help mom and dad, and me, out, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to save enough credits for the extra food. Then one day I had to walk into the central district and right past Mega Bank. On their holo, a woman was gushing about how she was able to take out a loan and that even though she wasn’t able to pay it back on time, all she had to do was have two more children and commit to them ‘verting for the bank. She said it wasn’t a hardship, that she loved kids, but it sure seemed like I could see sadness in her eyes. Or maybe it was resignation. Or exhaustion. Doesn’t matter. If I need to have a few kids to help my family, that’s what I’ll do.

A week later, I had a big fat balance of credits. I didn’t tell mom and dad at first, and I felt guilty because I started eating so much more than normal, than them, and I wasn’t offering them any extra food. I still feel horrible about that, but I was investing for the future. Our future. My plan was simple: change nothing except for my eating habits, spending no extra credits on anything by the extra food and diet supplements. I paid back my monthly payments directly from the balance of credits I’d borrowed. Each day, I did the math and figured out when I would run off my financial cliff. I still had over a year.

When I turned thirteen, I became eligible to sell space, so I registered in the centralized ‘vert system. After I uploaded a holo of myself and filled out a questionnaire, I got my first level assignment: I was a five! None of my friends were above a level three. I immediately headed to the art store to get my first ‘verts put on. Without thinking too much about it, I added ‘verts for a few of the corps my folks supported. Since contracts were annual, I only used a small fraction of my legs and back. My gains were coming steadily now and I wanted to wait to use the bulk of my, uh, bulk when I was beefed up enough to perhaps earn credits at level seven rates. Of course, I was rapidly running to the end of my loan runway, so I was doing my best to balance things.

A few months later, I uploaded a new holo, something you they allowed you to do at any time, and got bumped to level six. I used my left lat and shoulder to support a few of the least offensive mega corps and was able to buy myself another six months paying back my loan. A few months after that, I repeated the process — this time with the right side of my back — and I am now proud to say I have enough to repay my loan completely. And I still had my entire stomach, chest, and arms uninked!

By this time, my parents could tell what was going on. I mean, you can’t put on twenty-five kilos and have ink showing on your legs and shoulders and expect your parents not to notice. So I sat them down and explained what I was doing. I showed them my ‘Vert Analysis Report, or VAR. That I was a level seven. Tears came to their eyes.

I was earning enough by then to use some credits to get them more to eat. By the time I’d paid off my loan and moved to level eight, I moved us into a larger unit, one with two cots, an eating area, and a small corner for reading. My mom cried for days, but I could tell they were happy tears.

Now, I’m over a hundred and fifty kilos and a level nine. My plan worked, thank you Shinzo’s mom and dad. We are happier and healthier than we’ve ever been. Well, maybe not healthier.

Now, I can’t help but wonder, what does it take to get to level ten? Daily viagra and penile enlargement surgery?

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