Danny charged down the high street toward the hospital, dodging freebots all hell-bent on being useful. He could still make this, he could still get to Sally in time.
"Danny Clarke, a Dad? Congratulations!" A chromed, headless horse skittered toward him and dropped to its knees. Danny stumbled to a halt, thumping his thighs in frustration, his chest fit to burst.
The horse waggled its saddle. "You need a ride! Sorry you lost your benefits, big guy. Hard times. Can my sponsor help you out over the next few months? Hop on, they'll sort out the details on the way."
It was only then his hoodie buzzed. The hospital. He propped his wheezing body against a lamppost.
"Mr. Clark?" The nurse's voice was tiny against the blare of the street. He wedged the hood hard to his ears. "If you're interested?" she said, "Your wife just had a baby girl."
Danny doubled up and spat on the pavement. His hands were blackened and raw from the dawn shift, his arms still trembling. He screwed his eyes shut. He should not have taken that job. He should have stayed with Sally.
"Right," he said, his voice coming out in a strangled falsetto. He cleared his throat. "Sally? Is she-"
The nurse gasped. "Frankly sir, whatever you're doing that is so important right now? I'd keep doing that for a while."
More freebots peeled off the throng and barrelled toward him. Danny had stood still too long. He creaked upright, blurting apologies into his hood but the nurse had already gone.
A job-cart trundled toward him, feathered in leaflets for jobs that needed brains, not brawn. "Down to your last ten quid, eh?" it said. Danny balled his fists, and pictured smashing freebot casing, reaching through the internet and crushing the parasite sponsors in their holes.
Instead, he forced himself to walk away, striking off in a random direction. He didn't stop until he hit a pub, then he didn't think until he was inside.
The 'Kings-Shilling' was dark, wooden and rammed. The only space at the bar was beside a loitering freebot. Either that or next to the Wipe-Clean Lady, who was plain scary from her broken, droopy eye down to her dusty stilettos.
"I kept a seat for you, fella," said a white plastic flea the size of a football. "Just 20p a month. Free pint too!" White fleas occupied all the pub's chairs, untouched pints in front of them. Danny shook his head and headed to the bar.
A real bargirl met him with a taut smile. "I can offer you the ad-free experience, sir, if you'd like to join the member's club?"
"Pint of Black," Danny said, before the guilt could step in. That's when the loitering freebot piped up.
"Ah, death," it said, spinning binoculars at him, its voice crackling and old.
"Mate, check the credit," Danny said. "Can't afford your life insurance."
"Ha, ha, ha." It clattered on its wheels. Danny frowned at the ugly machine, just a tripod bolted into the arms and back of a motorized wheelchair. "Daft bugger, no," it said. "Guinness, your drink. Death is like Guinness. Thick, black, warm as blood." He spun at the bar girl and boomed, "Not. Cold!" She frowned and plonked Danny's pint down, leaving finger prints in its bloom of frost.
Danny swigged and closed his eyes at the deep, bitter rush. That was it, all gone. No more money. He heaved a sigh from his boots and pulled his hood over. He should've done the right thing and saved the wages. No Job. No benefits. That meant no flat. What would he tell Sally?
He kicked at a tangle of shoe-worms, before they could re-tie his laces in patented knots and bill him for undoing them. There would be more crap from the freebots now that he couldn't afford protection. Streetlight subscription would lapse, too, probably have to walk home in the dark. While they had a home. It didn't bear thinking about, moving his family out to the slums, or face living on the street. Poor Sally, and poor little baby girl. They deserved better. He was no husband, no father. No man. Just a dumb lump, dragging them under.
He stared into the sinking cream of his pint and tried not to recall the terrible morning, but did. Hefting junk out of an old house and competing with yabbering freebots for the pleasure. Worse, under the foremanship of another freebot, sponsored - as it turned out - by social services. Danny was done, on the spot, for benefit fraud; signing-on while "employed." As if a morning's casual labour counted as employment. That sarcastic freebot laugh, as it printed out ten quid's worth of voucher codes. "Ha, ha, ha."
Danny drank the way he'd learned as a kid - small sip, big swallow - to trick his body and make it last. Then the ugly machine burst into song next to him. "Oh Danny boy ... the pipes, the pipes are ca-alling..." Suddenly that empty seat next to the freebot hooker didn't look so unappealing.
Something prodded his shoulder, a purple mannequin in a yellow suit. "Danny," it said, "let me get your next drink, pay me when you can."
"Can't," Danny said.
"No problem. We can lend you something, you know, against your daughter's future earnings."
Danny blinked. "Seriously? She's less than an hour old."
The mannequin shuffled on its feet. "You haven't signed her up yet? With a model agency?" It spun, right round at the waist. "Yo Stella! This one needs an agent!"
A candelabra shuddered over, squeaking.
A hatstand shrieked, "Clothes! Clothes!"
"This one is with me." The ugly freebot reared up over their heads, its distorted roar rattling glasses. The freebots scarpered, and Danny considered necking the pint and going too, but the contraption bellowed over at the bargirl, "Sweetheart, put this sad bugger on my member's tab will you?" Then it sang again, to the tune of 'The Red Flag': "The working class can kiss my arse! I've got the foreman's job at last!"
"Keep it down, John" - the bargirl frowned at Danny's bloodless knuckles - "or you're out."
Danny glared into the machine's cold, binocular lenses. He was sick of the world knowing his business. "You taking the piss, freebot?" he said, quietly.
The lenses didn't move. "My name's John," it said. "Loser."
Danny could hear Sally, his better half, she would say: Dan, there's no sense letting the machines get to you. But his face prickled, and his lips twitched.
"What's this?" The freebot, John, whirred its lenses closer to Danny's face. "Think you can break me, big fella? That's your answer is it? That's going to put a roof over your family's heads?"
Danny wrenched his gaze away, downed the rage with his pint and went to the toilet, John shouting, "Ha, ha, ha," behind him.
Danny lodged his forehead on the cool tile above the urinal. He hadn't eaten since the night before and the gulped pint had his skin tingling numbly. He even felt a little dizzy already.
At least being on John's membership tab meant the piss was free, and the hawking freebots all ignored him, even now, at his most vulnerable. He eked out the primal bliss of unhassled privacy, savouring the old-school moment. It was as if the internet had never escaped.
When he came back out, another pint waited. The bargirl nodded at the freebot and shrugged. Danny went to walk by, but the machine rolled into his path.
"It's a warm one. The way it should be," it said. "I'm sorry, son."
Danny stared at the pint, at John. There was a horrible ghostliness to that empty wheelchair, moving about on its own. At least its binoculars seemed apologetic... but Danny should go. He needed to look for work and beg the council for a flat. He needed to see Sally and his baby.
He took the offered drink. There was time. After this one.
"Your wife in hospital with the baby?" John said, its goggles tracing the arc of the pint back and forth from bar to mouth. Danny wiped his hand across his top lip and nodded.
"So they're safe and warm," it continued. "God bless the National Health, eh? What's left of it. I remember my first. Like a bomb going off, it was." It rolled a nudge at Danny's foot. "You need to get your head together, Danny Boy. Plan your next move."
Danny slumped. He hoped the machine didn't see the tear he thumbed from his eye.
"Oh Christ," it said. "That's bloody disgusting. Don't make me change my mind, friend, getting you that pint."
"Friend?" Danny snarled through clenched teeth. "You don't know me."
"You make a lot of assumptions, son." The freebot swivelled on its wheels to face Danny square on. "Would you talk that way if you knew I was flesh and blood? A man?" It rolled so hard at Danny's shin it nearly knocked him over. "A blind, deaf, mute and paralyzed man? That these machines are my only way to connect with the world? That I also have a family and it still depends on me?"
Danny's ears grew hot. "You're disabled?"
"Ah, now son, we don't say that." It nodded at his pint. "But spare your blushes, go on, steady your nerves."
Danny glugged and the freebot - or whatever it was - filled him in. "I was a tower-crane operator. I went out along the arm to grease the hook-gear one day - pissing with rain it was - and I didn't fasten the safety properly. Dropped."
Danny gawped. "And you survived? Lucky sod- No. I mean-"
"Ha, ha, ha," John said, "your face. The rain, you see? Made it muddy. 'A soft day' my Da' would have called it. Helped break the fall. That and I twisted, you know, so I could land on my feet."
Danny imagined the bones of his legs crunching their way up through his body. He winced.
"Didn't feel a thing." John shook his lenses. "Doc said I hit the ground fast as a bloody skydiver. So fast, there wasn't time for the pain to hit my brain before I was killed. Ten minutes dead, they say. You'll have another in there?" John flicked his lenses at the empty glass, and before Danny could react, the bargirl had swapped it.
Danny waved at John's ugly rig and haunted seat. "How'd you get that?"
John hummed, "Oh, this old thing. Kids made it for me. Not bad, eh?" It buzzed a pirouette. "Got me on a program. Research, like. All these probes in my head."
"Like mind control?"
"Ha. Yep, suppose so. Sounds fancier than it is, though, moving this fly-shit tiny dot around. You know by concentrating: 'up-up-up, left-left-left.' It's bastard slow. At first, anyway."
An ambulance, rolling up outside the pub, distracted them. Its lights pulsed the bar blue.
"Now, I got all kinds of gizmos. Sound, pictures. And different rigs, for different jobs. Speech, too, obviously. Got my singing voice today." John drifted, staring at the vehicle outside. "Don't need the keyboard now. God that was shite. Like trying to text on a phone at the end of a long tunnel, by lobbing a football at it."
Danny's chest heaved.
"Ah, a smile," John said. "That's more like it."
"So where are you?" Danny said. "I mean, really?"
John's binoculars fixed him. "Now that's a question ain't it, sunshine? Where am I really? In my body? Or here with your sorry ass?" The lenses minutely tracked Danny's eyes.
Danny averted his gaze, feeling foolish.
"Oh Danny boy ..." John started singing again. Danny watched a real paramedic - not a freebot - climb out of the ambulance and hang about. He wondered if the bloke might just saunter in for a pint, he looked so relaxed. Why the lights, then? The medic clocked Danny, and looked at his watch.
"Switzerland," John said. "My body is in a comfy drawer in Switzerland, somewhere. To answer your question. Oh." He twitched at a clock above the bar. "I gotta go. Afternoon shift. So Danny Boy, what are you going to do, eh?"
Danny's stomach lurched at the thought of John going. He shrugged.
John looked around, as if checking for earwiggers. "I'll let you into a little secret. No. Two. You know it was me, earlier. Your foreman who turned tell-tale?"
Danny went rigid.
"No wait. Listen. Another secret." John rolled closer. "We're hiring. The company I work for."
Danny stammered, questions tumbling over each other. His brain crunched and stalled. John's goggles locked to him, nodding slowly.
"You'll die, of course. While they disconnect your nerves. But then, son... wings!"
Danny's head bobbed on his shoulders like a balloon. He gripped the bar. How many had he drunk again? John didn't help, rolling back and forth, talking bollocks: "Travel anywhere in a blink. A digger in Beijing. A sub in the Atlantic. A trash-collecting electromagnetic-net in sodding orbit. Real jobs. It's the new frontier!"
"'s a joke, right?" Danny's voice came out his ears. That was wrong. He should go. Sally. His daughter. When was the overwhelming love supposed to start? Where was the door?
"You got poison in you, son." John rolled behind him. "Couldn't have you bolt. Waste all that money we spent on the 'sad buggers' list,' you know, those most likely to give up, do themselves in. Not to mention my work, prepping your ass. Course, you're free to ask this fella's help." Danny blinked at the pursed lips of the bored paramedic, materializing at his side, fiddling with a needle. "Just say the word, he'll give you the antidote. You're back out on the street. With your family."
John nuzzled the chair at the back of Danny's knees. He swayed, and locked his legs, trembling from the bones out. "Sally," he said into his hood, to call her, but it didn't recognize his thick mumbling.
"Pipes are calling, Danny boy. Do your duty! As a man. For your family. Take the king's shilling. Fight. For them. Or live knowing you're a coward. That when it came down to it, you weren't prepared to do what it takes."
The bargirl caught Danny's eye and shook her head emphatically, in warning or in judgment, he couldn't tell. She pressed her lips and turned away. He swallowed at a rise of bile, forced leaden eyelids to stay open. The room boggled.
John shoved him again and he teetered. "It's got to be your choice, sunshine. Cry for help? Or hold your tongue and man-up?"
Danny gripped John's tripod, warm metal vibrating in his palm. He bared his teeth, shuddering uncontrollably. He could snap its neck, rip the thing apart. Then what? The world had a list of people too crap to live, and he was on it. Danny's life, Sally, the baby, spilled with the tears off his chin. He never had a grip on them at all, and everyone knew it.
He shut his mouth, and shut his eyes.
"Good lad!" A crackling, old voice filled the black, strong hands guiding him into a seat. "Hop on, fella. We'll sort out the details on the way, eh? Ha, ha, ha."