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Plant Peeple

Three novelists tackle the city’s hard-boiled side in these new short stories about crime and grime, set across the city’s past, present and future.

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Eyes scanned the room as the group gathered in the lobby of the Tom Hops hotel bar guessed at each other’s plants. Nettie tried not to attract attention. She was in disguise tonight. Most of these singles were advanced planties, she knew, signed up to meet like-tuned individuals in a curated space, hosted by HazMain as part of their new "Plant Peeple" platform. She tried not to think about what would happen in she was found out; that's why she had Lena on standby, just in case anything got raw.

As Nettie glanced around at the various faces, maybe twenty in total including her, she sensed a buzz in the air. Potential sex, of course, but also, money. Lots of it. Even though plants weren’t exactly new to the Bay Area, they were now evolving fast, particularly in San Francisco. The procedures had gotten less invasive. You didn’t have to get a whole new eye plant anymore, you just got your existing one tuned, and the device, grafted to your organs, updated accordingly.

“I heard about a guy in Bernal Heights who got thrown in jail for his new eye tune,” a man said to a woman on the other side of the room from Nettie. “Apparently, he was using it to watch people.” “Watch them do what?”the woman said, her voice muffled through an air mask.

“Mostly voyeur stuff, ”the man said. “His tune downloaded the feed to his cloud. A new DevMore feature. He transferred sixteen hours of video, mostly people in their bathrooms. His device then streamed the footage online.”

“That’s where you need to watch out,” the woman said. “It’s always the ones who want to share that get caught.”
“Oh yeah. But the thing is that the guy says he didn’t know he was doing it. Said the tuning fucked with his UI, that the developer’s to blame.”
“He was still looking in bathrooms. Not DevMore’s fault if some asshole wants to go supervillain.” “People always want to blame the corporations.” The man looked at the woman’s mask a little more intently. “Hey, you know you can take that off, right? Fire’s eighty five percent contained. And we’re inside.”
“Oh, no. This is for my plant.” She pointed to her mask. “I’ll take it offff until we’re inside. Some people get freaked out.”

Nettie rubbed her finger over the bridge of her ear, feeling at the thin, clear piece of film that contained her recording equipment, and tried not to feel self-conscious. The device she wore was a good facsimile, but didn’t contain any of the guided services like uWeather or Quiet. Anyone who took a second to exchange contact info or Ribbot wands would find her out immediately. Thankfully this wasn’t the case with what the second device she carried in her left pocket, the little circle pad with a button. That one was harder to detect, and much more precarious.

“Hello everyone!” came a gentle, but well- projected voice. The twin doors at the end of the lobby opened and yellow light spilled from inside. A person stood in the doorway with a black chohawk and eye plants that, at the moment, glowed hot pink. High grade tuning, thought Nettie.

“I’m Baxter Freely. My pronouns are they/ them. Please take your name tags and list your name, preferred pronoun, and any other relevant information—listing your plant is optional! You can save that information for one-on-one conversation.” Baxter’s eyes pored over the faces in the group, likely scanning plant brands for data mining. They halted on Nettie for a second, but then moved on. “On behalf of HazMain Media, we’re so excited to have you here tonight. So excited, in fact, that the first drink’s on us!”

The group followed Baxter out of the lobby into the bar. It was dark inside, styled after an old speakeasy. The lamps were nice, real copper, burnished, and the stools were covered in red leather. North Beach was filled with nostalgia wells like this one, with eighty two dollar drinks and smoke rooms for anyone who wanted weed.

Nettie sat down at the bar proper and ordered her free drink. She chose what was listed as a Siam Sazerac, regularly priced at seventy six dollars. She was barely finished swallowing when a woman sat beside her on a stool.
“Sazerac?” she said.
Nettie swallowed. “I think so.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t leaning over your shoulder,” the woman said, not smiling, but not frowning either. “I knew it was because of my olfactory tuning. Absinthe, sugar cube, bitters, rye and cognac. Something else in there too. I’ll have to ask the bartender. CBDI?”

“You’ve got a nose plant.”
“Yep. And my name’s Haley.”
“Hi Haley. I’m Nettie.”
“Oh no, our names rhyme...” Haley made a show of frowning. “I guess that means we can’t date.”
“Well, they don’t really rhyme.”
"Close enough. What kind of plant you got?"
“Didn’t they say we didn’t have to disclose that?”
“Well, they said we didn’t need to write it on our name tags, but that’s why we’re all here, right? Plant Peeple?”
“Yeah.”
“Hey, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want, but I’m here to be me. So…”
Nettie thought about it for a moment. “Okay... then guess.”

With her device, Nettie could hear the woman’s heart beat. It was calm, evenly paced. She would have been able to hear more with an actual plant. Some tunings, the newer ones, could hear the lungs breathe, could track individual clumps of food pushing through the intestines.

“You’re an ear plantie,” Haley said. “Without a doubt.”
“How did you know?”
“Ear planties turn their ears towards you in conversation... the new ones don’t even know when they’re doing it.How long you had yours?”
“A couple of months.”

Nettie looked over at the man and the woman she’d seen talking earlier. The woman was taking off her face mask. “Wow,” the man said. “I’ve never seen one of those.”

Haley drew in a breath. Nettie could hear it, as if the woman’s mouth was brushing her ear. “Have you ever, you know... been with another plantie?”
“You really do come on hard, don’t you?”
“I’ve been with planties before, all kinds.”
“And?”
“Well, I won’t be going back, that’s for sure. You get used to enhanced experiences, you know?”
“Having a plant changes you. Some people don’t realize that at first, but it does. It’s not that we’re beyond human now, like those Nervenon assholes say, but we are difffferent.”
“Is it a mouth plant?” Nettie said, gesturing with her drink toward the woman, nervously changing the subject. The flesh around her mouth glowed a soft shade of blue.

“I wonder what it’s like to kiss her,” Haley said.
Nettie felt her phone vibrate in her right pocket. “Excuse me for a second,” she said, making her way towards the bathroom.

She passed along the bar and into a hallway lit by large Edison bulbs. The bathroom door was made of puckered velvet, and she expected it to be harder to open than it was. As she entered, she saw a woman with short, shock-red hair finishing washing her hands. After she did so, she held them out over the sink. The hands began to shake giving off a low buzz that Nettie wouldn’t have been able to hear without her device, and water dispersed in a mist from the woman’s skin. “See you out there,” she said, then walked out the door.

Nettie found an empty stall and checked her phone.
It’s got to happen tonight, Lena’s message read.
Nettie felt her chest tense up. She wasn’t surprised, but there was always a difference between strategizing and doing.
Okay, Nettie typed back. As long as you’ll bail me out.
I’m ten meters from the rear entrance.
Okay.
Remember. This is good.
I know.

Nettie put the phone away and walked out of the bathroom. She tried not to think about what she was going to do. Not because of her nerves, but because planties were sensitive to physio-emotional changes, like walking lie detectors.

As Nettie opened the door back into the bar, she saw Baxter, standing almost right in front of her, eyes even hotter pink than before.

“You alright?” said Baxter.
“Bathroom,” said Nettie.

Baxter grinned a second too long for Nettie’s liking.“Hey,”theysaid.“Whatkindofplantdo you have? I’m sure you can tell what mine is.”
“Oh, uh, ear.” Nettie smiled and pointed to the side of her head. “I’m pretty new, though.”
“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” smiled Baxter. “I’m actually getting a second one next week. The thrill of the old one, it’s not gone, but it’s, well, you’ll understand one day. I was one of the first, you see. Original graft.”

“Wow,” said Nettie, with genuine surprise. She’d never met an original graft. Most of them were still embroiled in lawsuits. “Isn’t that dangerous? Getting more than one?”

“Can I tell you a secret?” Baxter leaned in. Their syllables came through crisply as Nettie’s device adjusted for other sounds in the room. “Not anymore. In February of next year, HazMain has a big announcement to make.”
“Seriously?”
“Oh yes. Soon, you’ll be able to have two plants. Some people might qualify for three.”

Nettie swallowed. It wasn’t technically illegal, no, little in the plant world was as of yet. But the companies knew what could happen when you had too many enhancements at once, and user satisfaction was the key to longevity.

“Amazing,” Nettie said, as she gestured back towards the bar. “I mean, you’ve given me something to talk to my new friend about.”
“That one was a secret,” said Baxter. “For your ears alone. Consider it a gift from an old plantie to a new one.”

Nettie smiled, bowed her head a little in thanks, and walked back towards the bar.

“It’s a miso margarita,” said Haley, who’d ordered another drink. “Really nice flavor A bit pricey, but, want to try?”
“I’m okay.” Nettie held up her drink.
“You’re not so nervous anymore.” Haley sniffed. “What changed?”
Nettie reached inside her pocket, the left one this time. “I don’t like how you do that,” she said.
“Do what?”
“How you sense what I feel without knowing who I am.”
“Oh, come on,” Haley laughed. “What, were you born in twenty zero?”

Nettie took a breath. “We’ve become these clouds of data... our information leaks, gets subjected to viruses, exploitation. Companies feed off us, make us perform, invite us to parties where no one’s actually in the room. And now? We do it to our bodies.”
“Um... a little dramatic, don’t you think? You have a plant, too.”
“Do I, though?”

Nettie pulled the round pad with a button out of her pocket. It looked like a light you could clip to your backpack at night.

She pushed the button. She wasn’t sure what to expect when she did so. Would the planties start screaming? Would they come for her? Would there be some kind of humiliation, or social media shaming? But no. All that came was silence. Confusion. The music stopped playing. The woman formerly wearing the air mask, her mouth no longer glowed, and Haley, instead of talking, scrunched up her nose. Across the room, Baxter’s eyes no longer glowed pink.

“We... we appear to have experienced an issue,” said Baxter, whose eyes no longer glowed. “We appear to have... we appear…”

The man who was talking to the woman with the mouth implant stood up and staggered, as if at any moment he’d lose his footing. Nettie got up to leave. Unlike the others in the room, her device still worked, and she heard heavy breathing, frightened murmurs. She turned it off.

 

Samuel Sattin is the writer of the forthcoming Glint trilogy and BEZKAMP (2019),Legend, The Silent End, League of Somebodies and Adventure Quest. His work has appeared or been featured in The Nib, The Atlantic, Nerdist, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Paste Magazine, Salon, io9, Kotaku, Vulture, Bleeding Cool, Fiction Advocate, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Mills College. He is the director of a toy company in Oakland and teaches at the California College of the Arts.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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