Story Teller - Chapter One

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” - Carl Sagan

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

"There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies." - Walter Lippmann

~~~~~~~~~~~~

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. It's up to you to tell them apart.

Down on the wet streets, Kendra, twenty-four, and her sister Jules, eighteen last week, wear mechsuits with inline wheels on their feet. Kendra leads as they skate alongside rows of self-driving cars, their wheels squishing through pink, purple, and blue reflections of the city lights. 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. Jules' mech wears a backpack stenciled with a biohazard logo. 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.

Kendra glances at the banner. If I can catch some luck tonight, you'll be watching me.

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

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

Kendra 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," Kendra 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, Kendra cuts in front of an AutoTaxi that slows just enough to let them cross the lane. The taxi texts the standard expletive, so Kendra's AutoRespond texts the standard reply. Crossing the centerline again, Kendra enters the traffic going their way, leaving the slow truck behind.

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

"Powering up now." Kendra focuses on the section of her visor that displays the video feeds. One shows a closeup of her own face, taken from the camera embedded within the visor. The other is a closeup of Jules, taken from the camera in hers. Kendra 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 Kendra's visor fills with greetings directed at Jules. "She's gonna do great." 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 AI can get hurt feelings too."

Jules pulls up next to Kendra. "Can we talk offline for a sec?"

Kendra 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?"

Kendra 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 Kendra 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 Kendra steps up on the curb. Jules gamely follows. It's a short distance before Kendra 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?"

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

Jules grimaces. "Yuck!"

Kendra 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."

Kendra 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 Kendra and waves. "Hey Kendra! Can we get a signal boost?"

Kendra 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 Kendra, they all throw a selfie drone into the air. Kendra 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 Kendra's visor. Huh. Longtime followers. All good.

Kendra and Jules stand together in the middle of the group, with her followers gathered to each side as their drones record the scene. Kendra 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 Kendra!"

"You're the best!"

Her fans continue on their way, flying selfie drones out front with backside cameras pointed down at them.

Kendra catches her own selfie drone in one hand.

Jules asks, "You're getting famous?"

"Almost famous. 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."

Kendra 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."

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

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

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

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

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

Kendra 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," Kendra 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.

Kendra 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 Kendra."

She hands it over, and Kendra reads, "We're sorry Kendra, 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.

Kendra 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 keep hidden.

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."

Kendra 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, I'm used to playing dumb."

Kendra 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, pick up. 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 Kendra 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.

When car headlights from outside turn into the parking lot, a strafe of bullet holes across one wall fires beams of moving light that laser across the main open space.

Several people do their thing — heading to and from the shared bathrooms, working on their mechs, or playing holographic ping-pong next to one of the virtual pool tables.

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 and crashes into Jammer's feet, where it fights with her hem before being chased away by a sibling calico.

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. 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. That's fifty cancellations in just six hours. This is going too far.

When a courier in a mechsuit pulls up nearby, 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 Kendra. "Carry on everybody, you're doing fine. If you need help with your routes, hold up here for a second and I'll get back to you."

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

In augmented reality through her visor, she sees the street scene where Kendra 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, Kendra 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. Kendra, 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?"

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

Kendra says, "She's muted us."

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."

Kendra asks, "Because of me?"

"Yes. I'm sorry Kendra, 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?"

Kendra 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 that 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 operations. 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?"

Kendra 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, apparently, 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."

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

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

"What do you want to do?"

"I want to go for it. 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 in the game?"

"No. I'd be playing for the guild's team. Without a sponsor, there's no way I can afford to be a player. 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."

Kendra 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?"

Jammer hesitates, then, "Sure." Quarantine will do for this.

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

Kendra nods. "I understand."

Jammer's voice catches. "Best of luck. Now you two scamps get going." Damn, now I'm gonna cry.

"Thanks Jammer." Kendra 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. Kendra and Jules vanish.

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

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 Kendra'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. Kendra'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. Home sweet home? Maybe, maybe not. Come on Lady Luck, do your thing.

~~~~~~~~~~

Link to Chapter 2

It's easier to read the chapters on a widescreen computer if you 'restore down' the browser window to about half the screen width. That way, the line length is more like a book.

Link to the discussion forum

  • Published
    May 19, 2022
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