By Effie Seiberg
The AdChip technician’s rubber-gloved hand was cold on my chin. “Now hold still, Mi-kay-la.”
“It’s Mi-KEE-la,” I grumbled. My mother, leaning on the beige metal door, didn’t look up from her smartpad.
“Right.” He nodded, uncaring. “This is going to sting a bit, but don’t you worry. It’ll be over before you know it.”
He didn’t know how right he was – it would be over soon, once Sivvy found out.
He pushed my chin to the side, exposing my left ear, then swiped an alcohol-infused gauze in the soft area behind the star-shaped earring I’d bent from a paper clip the other day.
“Now, do you want to be BlueChip or RedChip?” He busied himself with the metal tray of instruments sitting next to me on the ugly green table. An enormous syringe-like tool lay there next to two tiny Chips and a graft gun. Both Chips were black – I guess the color names weren’t literal.
“Shouldn’t my papers already tell you that? Haven’t you already decided everything for me?” There were posters on the walls advertising Coke and Pepsi and IBM and Apple and Honda and Toyota. Stuff for each Chip.
My mother finally glanced up. “Mikila, be nice.”
“Oh it’s fine,” he said with plastered-on cheer. “The papers are only for backup, in case you don’t choose. We just want you to be happy!”
“OK, fine. I’ll choose not to have a Chip at all – that’ll make me happy. Can I go now?” I hopped off the green metal table and moved to grab my worn messenger bag.
He moved to block. “Ha ha.” His smile stiffened on his face. “A funny one!”
I imagined punching him and running, but I knew I wouldn’t. Besides, he’d probably mark that down as being RedChip behavior or something.
“Mikila…” my mom’s eyes narrowed in warning. Ugh. I made a face but got back on the table.
“Okeedokey!” He grabbed one of the two identical Chips and loaded it up in the big syringe. Another quick grab of my chin to expose the ear, and he jammed in the needle behind it. It burned, but no worse than getting my eyebrow pierced. His face was close enough to mine that I could smell his breath. Who the hell eats tuna fish for breakfast? Gross.
“It’s Mi-KEE-la,” I grumbled, adding “asshole” under my breath.
“Right. So your care instructions have been messaged to you.” The graft gun sizzled when it hit my skin. “There’s not much to do. Just leave it alone for a few days, and keep your hair and earrings away from it as best you can.”
Hair wouldn’t be an issue – that half of my head was shaved.
“And my preferences?” I asked.
“You won’t feel anything unnatural. Any brand preferences will feel like they develop organically. They’ll make you happy. I’m a RedChip myself, and lemme tell ya, there’s nothing like a good Coke to go with lunch. It tastes great to me, so I’m never like, ‘Oh, I wish I were BlueChip and could go with Pepsi instead.’ I can message you our pamphlet about-”
I grunted “Nope,” and grabbed my messenger bag, which I’d drawn on in black sharpie. It had my smartpad, a few ceramic tiles with a new glaze I was trying out, and my lunch. I briefly wondered if Mom had packed Coke or Pepsi. Not like it would matter. I’d have bigger things to worry about when Sivvy and the group found out I was Chipped in the first place.
“Come on Mikila, let’s get you to school.” She ushered me out of the AdChip office and to the auto-car.
“I know you don’t love it,” she added as we strapped into the backseat, “but honey, it’s a rite of passage. Every fifteen year old goes through it.”
She would think that – her job was coming up with companies’ AdChip strategies. She always gave the same happiness bullshit: it was helping get the right products to the right people, to make them happy. And wasn’t it better when your things were things you liked?
I leaned my head against the window, the slight buckling of skin behind my ear giving the area a twinge. I bet Sivvy would have fought back harder against getting Chipped. That’s why she was Sivvy, and I was just pathetic.
“Come on, Mik. It’s not that bad.” Her parenting quota apparently filled for the day, Mom brought out her smartpad and got back to work. I’m sure Google or Heinz or whoever it was this time was glad for her attention.
“I could still dig it out, you know,” I mumbled, picking at the fraying olive-green strap of the messenger bag. Not that I actually would, but…
That got her to look back up. “Oh Mik, so dramatic. It’s based on your own brain chemistry. Nobody’s forcing you to like Coke, or Fanta, or whatever. Elevating your existing preferences for your AdChip brands isn’t enough reason for illegal self-mutilation.”
The auto-car swished to a halt in front of my school. Next to the entrance were two food trucks, one Red and one Blue.
“Besides,” she continued, “even if I hook this next client, non-AdChip-supported schools are too expensive. Suck it up, hon. Have a good day at school.” She was already back to her smartpad.
I felt hollow and numb. Powerless. As I walked past the food trucks, my legs propelling me of their own volition, I realized I didn’t even know if I was RedChip of BlueChip. Actually, fuck that. I I wasn’t gonna turn into a colorsheep, blindly consuming like I was told. I’d show Sivvy I could still be cool. Somehow.
“Knitpunk Slaughter is way better than sad-ass Sleep the Deep. Their lyrics actually make sense. Sleep the Deep is just random wailing.” Sivvy sat on the hard plastic bench in the riotous cafeteria next to Joj, her tray of spaghetti left untouched. It was way too muddy to eat under the bleachers like usual.
“Nuh uh. You’re missing the whole point.” Joj’s feet were up on the table next to a wrapped soyburger. “Sleep the Deep is meaningful. Plus they have those awesome riffs where they play looped whalesong over fuses blowing. It’s like, oooooooaaaooooaaaaooo, POW FIZZ! dududuh, dududuh.” He drummed imaginary drumsticks on his thighs.
Cool kids like Sivvy and Joj and Ant never brought their lunches. It was a wonder they were even willing to hang out with me – only last year I was still eying their table, hoping to be cool enough to join them for a weed vape behind the bleachers. It was only when I got the guts to brick the teacher’s lounge shut from the inside with epoxy and broken clay pots from the art studio that they finally accepted me in. I wasn’t talented enough to be one of the “good kids”, the kind that would become BlueChips, and I was too pathetic to be a “fun kid”, the kind that would become RedChips. Sivvy and her band of rebels were my only chance.
I slid in next to Sivvy. “Hey guys.” Maybe they wouldn’t remember it was my birthday. Maybe they wouldn’t check and see the little patch of new skin behind my ear and think I was pathetic like everyone else, like I used to be.
“Mik, you tell him.” Sivvy pushed her purple and black striped hair away from her eyes. “Tell him he has no idea what he’s talking about, and that Knitpunk Slaughter is the best band ever.” Before I could even respond, she slung a casual chainmailed arm around my neck and turned back to Joj. Chainmail was in this week. “See? Mik agrees with me, don’tcha Mik.”
As she moved her arm away, of course one of the links caught on my paperclip earring. And of course as she went to disentangle herself, she saw the new scar, a toffee-colored patch of betrayal.
“Nooooooooo! It’s your Chipping day, isn’t it!”
“Um yeah I guess,” I mumbled, fishing my lunch out of my bag. Peanut butter and jelly on white bread, a banana, and a reusable water bottle. No obvious branding – I guess Mom had made it as neutral as possible before she knew which color I’d be.
“So they made you go through with it, huh,” she said. She poked at the spaghetti on her plastic tray with a 3D printed nail. Did the cafeteria use Prego or Ragu? “How’s it feel? Does it feel… baaaaaaad?” she bleated, grinning. Joj laughed.
I had just missed the cutoff date for birthdays in the school system, and was one of the oldest kids in the class. My stupid November birthday meant I couldn’t see how the group would handle Chipping before I had to. I could see the end of my acceptance in the group coming quickly, and my face flushed.
“Mik? Is it baaaaaaaaad?” She giggled at her own colorsheep joke.
Try to salvage this.
“Yeah, I couldn’t get out of it. I hate the idea, but you know my mom of all people.” I made a show of rolling my eyes, and put down the sandwich. Jammy purple spots appeared where the soft white bread had compressed from my grip.
They were still sitting there expectantly. For once I had the full attention of both Sivvy and Joj, and had nothing better to say. Think, Mikala! Come up with some proof that you’re still cool enough to matter. I looked around the cafeteria in hope of finding inspiration. Ant was cutting through both the Red and Blue food lines, making his way over to us.
“I’m thinking of cutting it out,” I blurted.
“Oh my god, really? That’s so cool Mik.” She stuck her plastic fork into the pasta and swirled it around, leaving oily streaks on the side of the tray. She thought I was cool! Sivvy Tomkins, the rebel queen, thought I was cool.
“Yeah,” I continued, emboldened. “I mean, I know some people died cutting them out when they futz with the neural wiring. But I bet some don’t.” I licked the sticky bit of jam off my finger. It tasted like it usually did: overly sweet, and purple-flavored.
I looked back up and they were still looking at me, listening like I had something worth saying!
“Some don’t what?” Ant plopped down across the table from us and plunked his tray down. A bag of Doritos, a slice of chocolate cake, and a joint.
“Real weed in broad daylight?” Sivvy. “The cameras are right there. You’ll get caught again.” She poked it.
“Relax, Sivvy.” Anthony laughed, and swiped the joint in behind his ear. His floppy green hair obscured it completely. “Nobody cares anymore. Besides, I’ve got enough for you too.” He gave her a wink. He’d been trying to get with Sivvy for as long as I’d known them, but she was way too cool for him.
“Mik just got Chipped, but she’s gonna cut it out. How cool is that,” said Sivvy, swiping the joint out from behind his ear.
“Whoa, really? That’s like, super dangerous.” Ant leaned forwards, rubber-clad elbows on the table. Only he could wear a jacket made out of old tires and make it look cool. At least, I thought he looked cool. Sivvy mostly just tolerated him.
“You know people go nuts from doing that?” added Joj. “There was this one girl who tried to dig hers out with a screwdriver. The metal wound up connecting some of the wiring in the wrong way, and DZZZZZZT! The next thing you know, she can only speak in German and thinks she’s a duck. I shit you not.”
Oh my god. I didn’t want to go insane. The idea of cutting out my Chip was starting to sink in, and with it, panic. I felt a cold wave of fear. Maybe I could make a ceramic knife in the studio and have it not be conductive or something… would that even make a difference? What if I went nuts anyway?
Ant swiped the joint back from Sivvy, and as he put it behind his ear, he turned the side of his head towards us. Behind his ear was a tiny brown Chipping scar.
“Waitaminute, you’re Chipped?” I blurted. “How are you Chipped? Your birthday’s not until April!” Was it OK to be Chipped now?
“He was held back in second grade,” said Joj, starting up the inaudible drum beat on his thighs again.
“You’re fifteen? You look like you’re twelve.” Sivvy took another bite of her pasta.
If Ant had a Chip and wasn’t a colorsheep… maybe didn’t have to cut mine out, without them thinking I was pathetic for going back on what I’d said. I held my breath in anticipation.
“Shut up,” he grinned at Sivvy, then turned back to me. “Yeah, I’m Chipped, but it doesn’t mean anything. Just because they put this shit in your brain doesn’t mean you need to give in to it.” He put his fingers to his temples. “It’s all in the mind, baby!”
Sivvy snickered, but covered it by throwing her napkin at him. “Idiot,” she said.
“What do you mean, not give into it?” I asked. “Did you find a way to hack it or something?” It was illegal to tamper with your AdChip. Of course, ripping it out was a type of tampering.
Ant leaned back in his chair. “It’s not even a hack, and you don’t have to be insane like Mikayla here. You guys wanna skip fifth period? I can show you how to do it.”
I felt so relieved I didn’t even think about trying to correct my name.
City Art Gallery was the town’s one sad attempt at something beyond mass culture. Originally just a gallery, it now also boasted a RedChip cafe (Dunkin’ Donuts) where patrons studiously worked on their smartpads.
“Here? Seriously?” Sivvy waved her hand at the predominantly Red decor.
Ant smiled and held the door open for us. Joj couldn’t join us – he’d mumbled something about needing to meet a guy about a thing.
“After you, m’lady,” Ant said to Sivvy with a slight bow of the head. “All is not as it seems.”
“This had better not suck.” She breezed in behind him, letting the door nearly close in my face.
The shop smelled like coffee and e-weed vapes. On the walls were paintings for sale, with a sign proclaiming they were by local artists. There was one that was actually pretty good – a collage with oil paint over it, showing a skull with a fist punching out through its top. Jagged neon-pink letters above it proclaimed “BREAK FREE FROM…”
I hurried to catch up with them as Ant walked to a narrow corridor in the back. He led us past the deliberately-graffiti’d bathrooms and through a little curtained section behind them, then down a rickety staircase.
The basement was dark, and the musty smell mingled with the smell of roasting coffee beans. And real weed, not e-weed. A few scratched tables were scattered throughout, and one guy with a black beanie and a braided beard sat wreathed in a cloud of smoke in the corner.
Behind the counter, a barista with 3D printed gauges in her ears wiped down a gleaming espresso machine. Each gauge looked like a miniature city, held sideways by her stretched-out lobes. Her eyes narrowed when she saw us come in.
“Ant? Who’re these?”
“It’s cool, Kay, they’re with me.” He slouched over to her and leaned his rubber elbows on the bar. “It’s Mikayla’s Chipping day!”
“Mi-KEE-la,” I muttered under my breath, but not loud enough so he could hear.
“And the other one?” she jerked her head at Sivvy.
“My birthday’s next week,” lied Sivvy, “But I’m cool, I promise!”
Kay pursed her lips, then huffed and said, “Fine. What’ll it be? The usual?”
“Yep. And my lovely lady friends’ drinks are on me.” He gave the barista a broad grin, and Sivvy’s eyes narrowed with interest. Ant was rising in the hierarchy.
The board behind the barista was written by hand, in actual chalk. I wasn’t familiar with any of the brands. Four Barrel, Ritual, Blue Bottle, Sightglass… each available in dark roast, light roast, medium roast, lattes and cappuccinos and espressos. The list was unbelievable. There was an illustration of a logo in red and white chalk: a stylized outline of a cup, done in a way to make the handle and curve of the cup look a like a sickle, with a star overhead.
“Um, I guess I’ll have a frappuccino?” I scanned the list, looking for it.
“You’ll have to excuse her,” said Ant. “She knows not what she says.”
“Yeah, Mik, don’t be such a sad-ass colorsheep,” sneered Sivvy.
He turned to me. “Don’t you get it? This is where we’re away from the brands. None of these are RedChip or BlueChip. If you don’t drink Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee ever, they don’t get to you! There’s no such thing as a frappuccino down here.”
Sivvy smiled appreciatively, and inched towards him. “That’s cool, Ant.”
I needed her thinking I was cool, too.
“Are there other places like this? Like bars and restaurants and stores?” I asked. If there weren’t, I could suggest we start one or something. That would be the cool thing to do, right?
Kay smiled. “There are if you know where to look. We don’t all love our Chips, or our corporate overlords.”
So Ant had cemented his cool factor with an entire Underground network. Crap. I’d need to do something else if I wanted to avoid cutting out my Chip. Maybe I could throw a party? But nothing I could do would compare to Joj’s blacklight foam party in an abandoned military bunker, which everyone “forgot” to invite me to last week.
Kay looked us up and down. “We got a fresh batch of Ritual beans just out of the roaster. Medium roast. How about I make you each a soy latte.” She turned on the grinder, which whirred and growled, then tamped the grounds into a portafilter and snapped it into the espresso machine.
Maybe I could come up with another prank? But really, what could top an entire Underground, a world of cool people where Ant was the entryway?
Two mismatched cups caught the fragrant espresso shots while Kay steamed soymilk in a metal pitcher, a soft whsshh emanating from the machine. Each cup received a generous pouring of steamed milk, which she maneuvered at the end to leave a leaf-like design of foam on the surface of the drink. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Nice!” breathed Sivvy in appreciation as she accepted her warm cup and turned to Ant. “We should come here more often.” Her and Ant. Not me.
I took a sip of my latte. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. If divinity was a thing, this was what it tasted like. The hot coffee was creamy on my tongue, sliding down smoothly and trailing an earthy aftertaste. I felt my eyes briefly roll back in their sockets. “Wow,” I breathed, for a brief moment forgetting everything but the richness of the flavor, the soft caress of foam on my palate.
“I know, right?” said Kay. “Welcome to the Underground, kiddies!”
Sivvy giggled and hooked her hand on Ant’s arm, and the world snapped back into place. I did need something else, or it would be only a matter of time before I’d slip back into my artsy oblivion, sitting alone on a closed toilet seat at lunch again with nothing but the paint stains on my jeans to keep me company.
That night, Mom made my favorite for dinner: vegan portobello steaks with balsamic glaze and dairy-free mashed potatoes. She’d clearly cooked them herself, in the old casserole dishes from Grandma.
“I didn’t make you a cake,” she said. “I know you don’t like sweets, so…” with a flourish, she produced a candle from behind her back and shoved it on the steak. “Ta daaa! Happy biiirthdaaaay toooo yooouuu,” she sang, oblivious that the candle was tipping and about to fall into the potatoes.
I quickly huffed it out before it could finish its fall, but the charcoal on the end of the wick still got into the mash. “Thanks Mom,” I said before she could finish the song, and started to eat.
She grabbed her own plate and sat down. “How’s your Chip feeling?”
I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be sore. “It’s fine. I can’t feel it anymore.” I poked behind my ear, behind the paperclip earring. It actually was a bit tender around there, but only if I pressed really hard. “Hey Mom? Are you RedChip or BlueChip?”
“Oh neither, honey. In my line of work, it would be impossible to be unbiased.”
“How are you allowed to go without one? Does the government give you a special waiver or something?”
“Hm? No, I’m just too old for it to be a requirement. They implemented the program when I was twenty three, already out of college.” She was looking down at her lap and her left hand was under the table – a sure sign she was also working on her smartpad at the same time.
“Oh come on, Mom, it’s my birthday. Put that thing away for once, will you?”
“Sorry! Sorry, bad habit. I’m done, I promise. It’s a special night, after all.” She put her smartpad on the table and held her hands up. “See? Now you can see I’m not on it.”
“So which one am I?”
“Which Chip? Honey, how do you not know? You should have felt it kicking in by now.” She moved the potatoes around on her plate. Mom’d never been a big fan of soy mash.
“I dunno, I guess I haven’t really tested it yet. What kind of peanut butter was in my sandwich at lunch?” I’d had a few halfhearted bites, but didn’t remember feeling anything weird.
“I gave you the last of the Skippy. Did you like it?” Her eyes sharpened.
“Tasted the same as usual. It was fine.” Why was she looking at me so strangely?
“Well then that settles it. You’re a RedChip!” She gave me a small smile. “But you’re so creative, honey, it’s a natural fit. I’ll buy you Jif from now on. In fact, let me make a note of it on the fridge.”
She got up and went into the kitchen, where she tapped in the new instructions to the fridge’s food-delivery system. “Is this right?” she mumbled to herself, then rummaged in the junk drawer for the manual. She always had trouble with it.
“Mom, do you want me to do it?” I called over.
“I’ve got it! It’s fine.” She looked from manual to the fridge’s screen. “Why is it saying ‘meat-lover’s special’?”
A RedChip. What would my sandwich have tasted like if I’d gotten the BlueChip instead? Actually – the thought came unbidden – what if they were both RedChips, and I’d never had any choice at all? The two tiny black Chips had looked identical. But no, they said I’d had a choice. Presumably I’d have been able to taste the difference between Skippy and Jif eventually and caught on. Unless it was all based on a placebo effect and whichever one I’d wanted, I’d have started to think tasted better anyway.
I guess it didn’t really matter in the end. The woman at the coffee shop had said there was a whole Underground. They probably didn’t want unChipped people there because they’d be more likely to blab, or something. I’d need a solid way to get Underground groceries, or at least know enough about them to make sure that if my mom is making my lunch nobody knows it’s from a RedChip or BlueChip brand peanut butter. Of course, for all that I didn’t like the idea of Chipping, it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t sit with Sivvy and her group anymore.
I chewed my portobello steak without tasting it. Ant would know. Ant of the cool tire jacket – which for all I knew, was standard attire at the underground clothing stores. What else would they have? Underground art supplies stores? Underground toilet paper? If I stuck with him, would some of the cool rub off? Maybe I could be the first to discover one of the Underground stores, and bring everyone in. That might be at least a few cool points…
My mom’s smartpad buzzed on the table, blinking an urgent purple, and a message popped up on the screen.
“Mom, your smartpad’s gone purple!” I called over to her.
“Hang on honey, now the fridge is saying something about a juice cleanse and I can’t get it back…”
I reached over to grab it to bring it to her when I noticed the text.
>>> Urgent! Mtg tomorrow re: Starbucks BlackChip strate-
The message was cut off. What the hell? With a sinking feeling in my gut, I tapped it and saw the full note:
>>> Urgent! Mtg tomorrow re: Starbucks BlackChip strategy pushed to 8:30. They want Underground data for their Ritual Coffee Roasters brand ASAP
I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. My whole body started to shake. BlackChip. Both my Chips had been black. And Starbucks owned Ritual and the Underground was all part of everything and I never had a choice and it was all predetermined and that latte had been so good because I was a colorsheep and didn’t even know it and… I caught myself hyperventilating and tried to slow my breathing. Focus.
Mom was starting to come back, so I quickly moved to tap “Mark Unread” on her smartpad so she wouldn’t know I’d been snooping. But instead… my hands moved almost of their own accord, like they knew what I was going to do before I did. I pulled out my own smartpad from my pocket and messaged Sivvy, Ant, and Joj:
About to blow your mind. Watch this…
No more girls’ room at lunch for me, hoping that nobody would fart over the sounds of me eating my lonely, lonely carrots. No more colorsheep. On Mom’s smartpad, right before hitting “Mark Unread”, I hit “Tweet”.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special edition of Lightspeed Magazine (winner of the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology), Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, Fireside Fiction, and PodCastle, amongst others. Her stories include a finalist in the AnLab Awards 2016, an honorable mention in the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015, and inclusions in the Tangent 2016 recommended reading list. She is a graduate of Taos Toolbox, and is a member of SFWA and Codex.
Effie lives in San Francisco and likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com). Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.