Story Teller - Chapter One

GIGANTIC HOLOGRAMS OF KOI FISH swim across the night-time sky above noisy traffic in Home City. Bright neon from a forest of tall buildings adds a purple haze to the misting air. Video screens painted across entire skyscrapers play thousands of streams that clamor for your attention. Facts, news, entertainment, opinions, and lies. And by the way, it's up to you to tell them apart.

Down on the wet streets, Lucid, twenty-four, and her sister Jules, eighteen last week, wear mechsuits with rollerblades on their feet. Lucid leads as they skate alongside rows of self-driving cars, their wheels squishing through pink, purple, and blue reflections of the city lights. Lucid motions to an opening in the traffic, and they merge over next to the centerline adjacent to the oncoming lanes. Stick close to me little sister, and I'll get us to where we need to be.

Each mechsuit wraps half-way around their blue jumpsuits from behind, head to toe and wrist to wrist, like a white jointed turtle shell. The mechs' headpieces cup around the back half of their skulls, with a flip-down transparent visor that covers the upper half of their faces. The electronics embedded in the glass flicker with video, messages, and data.

The sisters cross an intersection into the next block where holograms of flying jetbikes, each shaped like a dragon, race above the street in an endless loop. Stretched across the buildings alongside them, a block-long electronic banner with scrolling purple text reads: Get your tickets now for The Game of Life!

Lucid glances at the banner and says, "If I can catch some luck tonight, they'll be watching me."

Her voice is strong and confident in Jules' earbuds. Jules cranes her neck to watch the jetbikes. Her mech wears a backpack stenciled with a biohazard logo.

At the next stoplight, the sisters pass a slow box-truck by cutting across the centerline, the next lane, and into the gap between the oncoming vehicles. Several of the robotic cars flash red-blue warning lights.

Jules' voice blasts into Lucid's earbuds, "This is crazy not safe! You do this all the time?"

Lucid adjusts the volume. Her eyes stay in constant motion between the traffic and the heads-up displays in her visor. Rogue raindrops from the receding storm spatter across the glass, blurring her vision until a tiny wiper clears them away. "We're in Homes' traffic control system. They couldn't run over us if they tried." Not entirely true, I admit, but being a courier involves some risks.

Jules shakes her head as they skate the gap between the cars.

"We need to make this delivery early," Lucid says, "so we can get to the selection on time. If I can get into the game, all this goes away." Mostly true, from what I've heard about the player payout.

When they get to an opening in the traffic, Lucid cuts in front of an AutoTaxi that slows just enough to let them cross the lane. The taxi texts the standard expletive, so her AutoRespond texts the standard reply. Crossing the centerline again, Lucid enters the traffic going their way, leaving the slow truck behind.

Almost too late to get into the open slot behind Lucid, Jules slaps the front fender of a car before merging into the space in front of it. "Are you recording?"

"Powering up now." Lucid focuses on the section of her visor that displays the video feeds. One shows a closeup of her face, taken from a camera embedded in her visor. Another is a closeup of Jules, taken from the camera in hers. Three more show alternating feeds from cameras mounted on both mechsuits. Lucid says, "Hello to all my online friends. Welcome to my stream and another day in the life of a courier. Everybody, say hi to my little sister. Jules will be taking over more of the delivery stuff so I can do more of the debunking and coolhunts for you guys. Say hello Jules."

Jules looks at the camera in her visor. "Um, hello world?"

The message section in Lucid's visor fills with greetings directed at Jules. "She's gonna do great." Well, yeah, once she finds her moxie. "Big news. This morning, they accepted my application to the journalist's guild, and then I got tapped to be in the selection pool for the game. We're on our way there now, so wish me luck." The inflow of messages cascades into an avalanche.

Crowds bustle on the sidewalk as flocks of floating umbrellas tag along above their heads. Loudspeakers on a kiosk remind everyone to be nice to Homes, the AI that runs Home City, "Because an eMind can get hurt feelings too."

Jules pulls up next to Lucid as they roll. "Can we talk offline for a sec?"

Lucid says, "Private channel." The videos of their faces in her visor turn blue. "Okay, it's just us."

Jules points a thumb at her backpack. "What are we delivering?"

"Did you ask Jammer?"

"Yes."

"What did she say?"

"She said it's data."

"Then that's what it is."

Jules considers her response. "But that doesn't make any sense. Why would anyone move data this way? And why is it marked as a biohazard?"

Lucid points to an opening in the next lane, so they merge over. Their mechsuits' wheels sklish-sklash across the wet pavement. "Maybe they're the kind of people with the kind of data they don't want loose in the cloud. And maybe the biohazard is just to say, hands off."

Jules lets that sink in.

"Don't make this more complicated than it is." Jules doesn't push back, so Lucid says, "Okay, back online. I want this delivery up on my stream. This client has a cool interface and they like the publicity." The blue tint on their faces disappears. Jules manages a weak smile.

They cross through another lane of traffic and turn onto a side street. There's an opening in the crowd on the sidewalk, so Lucid steps up on the curb. Jules gamely follows. It's a short distance before Lucid does a tight spin-stop in front of a glass storefront. No door, just glass.

Doing a graceful spin-stop next to her, Jules looks up at the sign above the glass. "Mutants?"

Lucid says, "Maybe we're delivering body parts."

Jules grimaces. "Yuck!"

Lucid enjoys her reaction. "Or maybe it's just sushi. Everybody has to eat."

Jules makes a vomit face. "Double yuck! Maybe it's both?"

"Yeah, that would be yuck. Especially if they get them confused. Turn around."

She removes the backpack from Jules' mechsuit and hefts it in both hands. "Feels like a med-pack, so always keep the delivery packages upright just in case."

Lucid hands it to Jules, who takes it with a mix of curiosity and disgust. "But she said it was data."

"Maybe that's her way of saying, don't ask questions."

On the other side of the street, a young woman with three friends points to Lucid and waves. "Hey Lucid! Can we get a signal boost?"

Lucid waves them over. Ah, the price of fame, however small. "Sure! But it has to be fast. Send me your handles."

The group crosses the street. Along with Lucid, they all throw a selfie drone into the air. Lucid searches their online handles' histories, just to make sure they're not toxic. The drones buzz and whir as they jockey for position. Confirmations flicker into Lucid's visor. Huh. Longtime followers. All good.

Lucid and Jules stand together in the middle of the group, with her followers gathered to each side as their drones record the scene. Lucid posts hers to her own stream, then re-posts it to her followers' streams. "That should get you a few thousand views and a bunch more followers." And don't forget to smash that re-post button a few times.

"Thank you Lucid!"

"You're the best!"

Her fans continue on their way, flying selfie drones out front.

Lucid catches her own drone in one hand.

Jules asks, "You're getting famous?"

"Almost. If I can ride the wave of a few more trends, I'll switch over to the streaming full time."

Jules lifts the backpack. "And I get stuck with sushi."

Lucid teases, "If you're lucky."

Jules grins at the sarcasm. "That was nice of you to give your fans a signal-boost for their streams."

"Just paying it forward." As a way of knocking, Lucid drums her fingernails on the glass storefront a couple of times. Clickety click, clickety click. "Homes, we're making a delivery. Please advise recipient that we're onsite and ready."

Homes' soft voice speaks into their earbuds, "Done. And Lucid, I'm seeing a lot of noise in the back-channels that mention your stream."

Lucid asks, "That's good, right?"

"I'll let you know when things become clear."

Jules says, "That's weird having an AI that watches everything in the city. At least we still have some privacy out in the heartland."

Lucid nods as they wait. "She can be very helpful at times, and then completely opaque."

A section of the glass shimmers, liquefies, then splits open to reveal a dark recess with a ledge about waist high.

Lucid indicates with her head for Jules to put the backpack inside, so she carefully places it on the ledge and steps back.

After the glass reverses its process and returns to a blank sheet, Jules smiles at her reflection, looking like a humanoid robot. She reaches out to touch it, sliding her fingers across the pane. "It's just like it's normal glass."

"Live nanotech is still expensive," Lucid says, "but it's the coming thing."

Jules shakes her head. "It hasn't hit the small towns. Not that I've seen." She startles when the pane of glass manifests a hand that pushes out against her palm.

Lucid laughs. "I told you these people were tricksters. Go ahead, give them five. You'll get more requests and repeat customers when you play along with their silly stuff." I'll warn you about the kooks later.

The hand gives Jules a high five, then palms a small white card into hers. She takes the card and reads, "For Lucid."

She hands it over, and Lucid reads, "We're sorry Lucid, but we must terminate our courier relationship with you. Good luck with all your endeavors." What the hell?

The white card morphs into a butterfly and flies back to the glass hand where it melts into one of the fingers. The hand waves to them as it recedes into the windowpane. Jules can't help but wave back.

Lucid says, "I need to talk to Jammer."

"Since the mechs can drive themselves," Jules asks, "why are we here? I mean, why include real people in a simple delivery anyway?"

"For most street-level deliveries, you're right, a mech can do it. But some deliveries are inside where it's harder for the mechs to navigate. And, some clients just want, wanted, a real person. I use the mechs to get attention for my stream. Plus, as a courier, I get to go places most people don't see." Places where I get to see things some people try to hide.

Jules adjusts her body within her mechsuit. "Could they make these damn things any more uncomfortable?"

"You're doing really well with it."

"I had some practice working in one of the warehouse centers back home. Jobs are rare, so a mech put me on equal standing with the men when it came to carrying things. It was a make-work program and a bullshit job, but at least they tried to keep us busy."

Lucid touches a button on the side of her headpiece, and a virtual circle of light appears on the sidewalk. "Speaking of home, I'll try to get Jammer to give me a hint on how she's coming along with your space."

"The surprise you're not supposed to tell me about?"

"Getting kicked out of your home on your eighteenth birthday is a rotten deal. I knew you were stressed. I just wanted you to know that you had a safe place to land." Something too many of us don't have.

A homeless robot pushes a shopping cart filled with batteries along the sidewalk. Jules says, "I don't know where I'd be without you and Jammer."

"She did the same for me when I got kicked out. When we get back, pretend you don't know anything about it."

"After years of living with Mom and Dad," Jules says, "I'm used to playing dumb."

Lucid tosses her selfie drone into the air. It hovers a short distance above and in front of them, the camera recording the scene where they stand. "Come on Jammer, connect. We're in a hurry here."


Across town, Jammer's place is a long metal warehouse with a center-pitched roof and rows of enormous windows high up along the side walls. Giant rolling doors on each end let the breeze blow through. A small army of couriers come and go. Some are people wearing the mechsuits like Lucid and Jules, but most of the mechs are empty and drive themselves.

Inside, the warehouse contains dozens of makeshift sleeping quarters, a workshop and storage area for the mechs, and a commons with a kitchen and dining tables.

In a long row of sound-proof booths, several streamers record their podcasts. Outside the booths, some confer and give notes to each other.

In the salon and makeup area, a stylist with green hair carefully trims a woman's blue 'do' with a laser cutter. On the concrete floor, an orange tabby kitten wrestles with an older gray's mechanical tail as it twitches back and forth. When the gray hisses, the tabby runs across the main causeway through the building and crashes into Jammer's feet, where it fights with her hem before a sibling calico chases it away.

Jammer wears a black silk kimono with a red tie at the waist, and a sleek visor that reflects tertiary colors like an oil slick on water. She's flash with a HiGlow tattoo of a dragon that wraps around her neck and descends underneath her kimono. A courier in a mechsuit stands nearby. Through her visor, Jammer sees a virtual map of the city projected into the air in front of her. A series of disconnected routes, pickup to delivery, overlay the streets as blue lines. A second layer in green highlights the most efficient sequence so the courier can do all the routes without back-tracking. Two of the blue routes flicker and turn red — cancelled — so the sequence reorders itself. Jammer lifts her chin into the bad news. "That's fifty cancellations in just six hours. This is going too far."

The courier shrugs. "I'll take any routes you have."

Jammer says, "Reload." The collection of routes flash through the sequence. At the same time, the blue routes flash across the courier's visor as it downloads the data.

Jammer asks, "Got it?"

The courier gives a thumbs up and takes off toward the big door at the far end of the warehouse.

Jammer's visor notifies her of the incoming call from Lucid, so she turns her attention to a reserved space on the floor that is outlined with yellow safety paint. Above it, a red LED on a wall-mounted camera pointed at her lights up. She touches one of her visor's earpieces.

In augmented reality through her visor, she sees the street scene where Lucid and Jules stand facing her, projected via their selfie drone. Other than a slight blue glow that outlines the three-dimensional image, it looks like they are standing right in front of her in the safety zone.

At the same time, Lucid and Jules can see Jammer in their visors like she's standing in the pool of light on the sidewalk.

Jammer asks, "Jules, how was your first delivery?"

"This is fun. I'd like to do more if that's okay with you."

"I think we can work something out. Lucid, what we discussed is snow-balling on me. I've had over fifty cancellations since you joined the guild and agreed to be in the game selection pool."

"Fifty? Already?" This is not good.

"Yes, and many of them are your routes. Hang on." Jammer touches the side of her visor, and her image freezes.

Lucid says, "She's muted us." Just please don't fire us, not now.

Jules watches as one of the giant koi fish swirls around a skyscraper. An enormous ad covering one side of the building promotes MindNet, a brain-computer interface that connects your mind to the cloud. The text reads: Don't be left behind! Payment plans available.

A few seconds later, Jammer comes back online. "I've just been told by my rep at TrustBank that they are cutting us off."

Lucid asks, "Because of me?"

"Yes. I'm sorry Lucid, but you're going to have to make a choice. You either renounce your guild membership, or I'm going to have to ask you to move out."

Jules blurts, "Move out? I just got here."

"This doesn't have anything to do with you Jules," Jammer says. "It's just bad timing."

"But why?"

Lucid touches Jules on her arm to calm her. "We thought there might be a little of this. The guild demands a higher level of professionalism. If I become aware of activities that are harmful, I'm now obligated to report them to the guild."

"And I have clients who play close to the edge of the law," Jammer says. "A few, only a few I thought, might not want anyone in the guild nearby. Not even in the same building with the rest of my outfit. In any case, it's not fair to the other couriers if I lose too many clients over this."

Jules complains, "But where will we stay?"

Lucid asks Jammer, "And you need an answer right now?"

"I'm afraid so. I need to stop the losses. Just the fact that you're in the selection pool is already drawing lots of attention that some of my clients can't tolerate."

"Can I put you on mute?"

"Go ahead. Just so you know, I think there's something else driving this. It's too extreme by itself."

Lucid touches the side of her headpiece. The image of Jammer freezes. From Jammer's point of view, Lucid and Jules also freeze.

"I should have warned you," Lucid says. "I didn't expect the clients to react so fast."

"What do you want to do?"

"I want to go for it. The game, the guild. But now that you're involved, I have to ask you. What would you have me do?"

"If you renounce your guild membership, can you still play?"

"No. I'd be playing for the guild's team. Without a sponsor, there's no way I can afford to be a player. The mindnet alone costs a small fortune, not to mention the battlesuits and jetbikes. And now that I'm in, I want to stay in the guild no matter what. We're all stronger as a community."

Jules looks up at the night sky where the moon tries to peek through thinning clouds. "What a shitshow. Three weeks ago, I had a very different life planned, and now this."

"In this moment, I know exactly how you feel."

Jules watches the bustle of the city around them. The slow truck they passed earlier rumbles down the street. "I think you should go for it. The game and everything. But, where will we live? If, you know…"

"I think Jammer will let you stay."

"But what about you?"

"I have some friends where I can couch surf for a while, if it comes to that. Then I'll find a guild-affiliated courier service to work for."

Jules offers, "I don't mind couch surfing."

"I think you should stay with Jammer because it's a ready-made job for you to get started. But, hopefully, none of that will be necessary. Maybe I'll get picked. So, we risk it big on one bet tonight? You're sure?"

Jules shakes her hand like she's holding imaginary dice, and then throws them across the sidewalk. "It's not a terrible bet. Let's see what happens."

Lucid touches the side of her headpiece. "I'm sorry Jammer, but I've made a decision you won't like."

"I suspected as much. I would probably think less of you if you hadn't."

"Can we still use the mechs to get to the selection?" Please say yes.

Jammer hesitates. Then, "Sure."

"And back if we need them? I'm kinda broke."

"Yes, and back. If this doesn't go your way, I'm guessing Jules will be staying with me for a while?"

Jules pleads, "Can I? Please?"

"Yes, and Lucid, you too for a few days. I'm about to quarantine you from our system anyway, so the clients will think you're out."

Lucid nods. "I understand."

Jammer's voice catches. "Best of luck. Now you two scamps get going."

"Thanks Jammer." Lucid bumps Jules with the hip of her mechsuit.

Jules takes the hint. "Thank you Jammer. For everything. I'll, I'll make it up to you. I promise."

"I'm sure you will." Jammer touches the side of her visor. Lucid and Jules vanish.

The green-haired stylist hands a mirror to blue-hair. "All done."

As she passes by, Jammer asks the stylist, "Did the guys finish with the space for Jules?"

"They did the best they could."

Jammer walks toward the living quarters, her black kimono flowing out behind her. Once out of sight of the others, she takes off her visor and wipes her eyes.

The construction of the private rooms is a makeshift collection of found materials — plywood, furniture, corrugated sheet metal, broken drywall and lots of duct tape and actual baling wire. She enters a warren of narrow corridors and dead-ends.

When she steps into Lucid's space, Jammer sighs at a wall made of old doors stood on end that now subdivides the original space. A shower curtain and rod across an opening near the center of the door-wall is a best attempt at some privacy. Lucid's side has a twin bed, a dresser with a lamp, and a desk with a computer. A tangle of wires disappears under a piece of salvaged carpet on the floor.

Above it all, a white parachute hung from the warehouse rafters billows out to make a puffy ceiling, then falls in front of the walls to give the crude arrangement a softer touch.

She pulls the shower curtain aside to see a second bed with a small suitcase at the foot end.

A hand-drawn banner taped on the sheet-metal partition to the adjacent space reads: Welcome Home Jules!

Jammer sits on the bed and holds her face in her hands until the two kittens, tabby and calico, rub against her feet. She picks them up and holds them close to her cheeks. When she stands to leave, she looks at the welcome banner on the wall. The tape at one end unsticks so the banner droops and hangs from one end. She says to the kittens, "Home sweet home? Maybe, maybe not." She looks up to the puffy white parachute heaven above. "Come on Lady Luck, do your thing."

~~~~~~~~~~

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