Kendra huffs it as they maneuver through the busy streets. The mechs are power-assisted, but extra speed takes some human muscle. She checks the time in her visor. This is gonna be tight.
Jules sticks close behind her. Virtual holograms of a row of dancing cartoon elephants appear in their visors, warning them that the light ahead is about to change. Jules grins at the show. "How does the selection work? It was all so quick when you explained it. Do I need to do anything to help?"
They coast to a stop at the red light. In the crosswalk, a woman wearing three hats walks a two-headed dog on a single leash.
Kendra says, "Yeah, sorry about that. I wasn't going to ask you to be my designated right away, but then Mom and Dad escalated things. The selection pool is to pick the two players from the guild who will go up against ECM in the game."
"Echo Chamber Media?"
"That's the one."
"Every four years, control of the local feeds comes up for grabs. Infrastructure, access, content moderation, all of it. The winners of the game determine who takes control, ECM or the guild."
"What do you get out of it?"
"Fame and fortune?"
Jules laughs."Yeah, that's you."
"Just being in the game will be a boost, but what I would get is a seat at the table. On the board, and be able to help select the other board members who will run the show."
"Just you would get to choose?"
"And the other player, it's a two-person team for the game. I'm sure the guild will have strong opinions too."
Jules asks, "Why do you want it so bad?"
"Because ECM is crushing the independent streamers with high fees and throttled access to the feeds. They keep changing the algorithms to keep us off-balance. We never know who might see our stream. As board-members, the guild will have a strong voice. We might also be able to do something about the culture-war hate and conspiracy crap ECM pumps out." The light changes and they take off.
Rain-scented ozone crisps the air. Kendra takes in a deep breath. I love that smell! Lightning illuminates huge thunderheads as the recent storm moves away. Glowing through the remaining mist, the super-tall buildings of downtown loom ever closer. Capped by flaming red letters that spell its name, Power Tower is the tallest of all.
"Is that the real reason?" Jules asks. "All the conspiracy crap?"
Kendra's face hardens. "You see what it's done to Mom and Dad. They're lost to so many conspiracy theories that I doubt we can ever get them back."
Jules watches a pair of police jetbikes rocket past them overhead, sirens wailing as they fly into the night. "I think they're beyond lost. It's insanity. Like they're caught in a cult."
Kendra hears the hurt in Jules' voice, and gently asks, "Which one got you thrown out?"
Jules lets out a bitter laugh. "Bees. They think there's an underground group weaponizing the bees."
"What did you say?"
"All I did was try to help, I swear! Dad spent all day trying to catch a bee, and when I pointed out that he had a hornet, he blew up at me."
They skate under an elevated monorail as a mag-lev train whooshes along the track.
"I remember the one about the bees," Kendra says. "I did a debunk on it and sent it to them weeks ago."
"What'd they say?"
"Like all the rest, they never even opened it."
Jules skillfully skate-steps over a broken gap in the pavement. "I follow your stream. It's what kept me sane. But, I wanted to ask."
"You used to do more investigative reporting. Real corruption stuff, like the school lunch scandal you exposed back home. What happened to that?"
They pass a food truck parked at the curb, selling fried HappiCow vat meat. Kendra crinkles her nose. The vendor hands out samples on a stick to the passersby on the sidewalk.
"My story of the great school lunch scandal was what got me thrown out of the house."
"But it turned out you were right."
"Being right doesn't matter. People don't seem too interested in the truth anymore. Did you see the one I did here about backdoor lobbying? I got some serious blowback."
"Yes. It was good."
They approach a small entourage with two mechanical baby giraffes that slowly walk down the side lane in the street. A laser light show projected overhead announces an upcoming entertainment event. As they pass, Kendra records a quick video, makes a note of the time and place, and posts an entry to her stream.
"Yeah, well, the government itself came after me for that one," Kendra says. "The more I pushed in for some clarity, the more they pushed back with obscurity and secret threats that I could never pin on them. So I stick with debunking the nutters, and doing some coolhunting. Finding cool events and places, that sort of thing. Besides, the big news organizations don't do investigative reporting, so why should I?"
"Because truth matters?"
"I still do some snooping now and then. Maybe I'll get back to some real journalism later. When I have a name. When it's safe."
An electronic sign that blocks a lane flashes a warning: Caution, Construction Area Ahead.
Jules prods, "So, you want to be an influencer?"
Kendra shakes her head. "God, no! I just like giving makers and artists some exposure. And, truth be told, it also puts a positive spin in my stream. Then I mix in the debunking stuff to make sure I'm pushing back. It feels like whack-a-mole, but I don't know what else to do."
Homes quiet voice murmurs into Kendra's earbuds, "There are so many really cool things that people do, and make, and are. Plus, a universe of wonders to discover. They all need a skilled storyteller to get the word out. Everything else is a mask."
Kendra cocks her head to one side to listen more closely, but it's gone. "Did you hear that?"
Jules asks, "Hear what?"
Kendra taps a fingertip on the side of her headpiece. "Nothing."
Up ahead of them in the virtual overlay, more dancing elephants appear in the street. The two sisters coast to a slow stop.
When Jules catches up with Kendra at the light, she spin-stops in front to face her. "So this really is about Mom and Dad, isn't it?"
Kendra checks the light over Jules' shoulder. "Partly, yes. Okay, mostly yes. I'm pissed that we lost them to those monsters who spread fear and lies. And you're right, it is a cult. Or a bunch of cults. So yes, I want to hit back. If I can get in the game, that alone will give me a bigger platform. If I can win, maybe the guild will have a chance at making a change. Besides, win or lose, we'd be able to afford an apartment for a while. Get really situated."
Jules smiles and leans in to give Kendra an awkward hug as their mechsuits clunk together.
Kendra keeps her eye on the traffic light. We really don't have time for this.
Jules hugs closer, and Kendra feels her sob. "Hey, hey, it's okay. You're okay."
"I am very far from being okay. This is crazy."
The light changes in their favor. Kendra waits and holds Jules as she continues to cry. The traffic in the lanes to each side moves forward. The car behind them honks. Kendra lifts an arm and indicates that they should go around. The car honks again.
Jules lets out a big breath, squints through her tears at the honking car. "Everybody in the city is always in a rush. We better go."
Kendra pats the back of Jules' mechsuit. "Anytime you're ready. They can wait."
Jules lets go of Kendra and straightens up. "I'm ready. I guess I just needed to let that out. And Kendra?"
"I want you to hit them hard."
"You got it."
Jules turns around to face the intersection. "Let's go."
When the two sisters reach the cross-street that parallels the edge of the downtown platform, they stop to catch their breath. Across the street is Lowdown, the original street-level of the city that dwells under Topside, ten stories above. Busy traffic blocks their way, so they wait for the light to change.
Jules looks up to the edge of the downtown platform. "It's bigger than I expected." The platform is twice as thick as a person is tall, and protrudes out over the sidewalk on the other side of the street. There's a horizontal keyway that runs the length of the edge, in preparation for future expansion. Behind the edge, the buildings of downtown crowd into the sky.
Kendra takes it all in. "It goes on for fifty blocks on each side, like a huge square in the air."
Jules peers into Lowdown. The street vanishes into darkness. "And fifty blocks under? I heard of this. I just never wanted to come into the city. Especially after the riots."
Kendra points to a spray of fist-sized pock marks across one of the buildings. "It was a lot more than just riots."
"What does a thirteen-year-old know?" Jules says. "Mom and Dad put up barricades and turned everything off. So I didn't get much news until after it was over. You were here?"
"I was with Jammer by then. We dressed the mechs in military gear and gave them plastic guns that looked real enough so the mobs mostly left us alone."
"But why did it happen at all?"
Kendra takes a moment to think. "At the time, Power was a new and more powerful AI than ever created. He's the result of several AIs merging into one. Everybody thought the first all-powerful AI would be a government project, but he's entirely a business program. An emergent entity from the combination of several multinational high-tech industries. His core directive is profit at any cost."
"Just what the world needs," Jules says, "a robot capitalist."
"The worst possible version, too. And five years ago, shortly after he awoke, he attempted a hostile takeover of every other localized AI on the planet."
"Yes. Homes immediately poison-pilled the entire city network and retreated to her underground servers. That created gridlock, chaos, and rampant tribalism that caused tens of millions of deaths when counting the other cities."
A young couple with actual biological elf ears joins them at the corner to wait for the light. The graphics on their jackets promote a custom mutations business.
Jules tries not to stare. She whispers, "Pastor James would throw a fit if I wore those into church. It would be epic."
Kendra grins. The woman with the elf ears smiles back.
Jules asks, "Then what happened?"
"A truce. Power recognized that chaos is bad for profits, so he agreed to these games to settle disputes with the local systems."
"But why are you involved? I mean, why have human players in the game?"
"They tried it with just the AIs fighting it out, but it always ended in a tie. Once the local systems upgraded, they were evenly matched with Power. So they added humans to the game to add a randomizing factor."
The yellow caution light for the cross-street traffic starts blinking. Kendra says, "Finally! Be ready to go so we can dodge the pedestrians."
The clouds clear away to reveal the full moon in the night sky. A hologram of a giant fishing cork overlays the moon. Then a hook with a worm sitting in the crook, wearing glasses and reading a book, floats down toward the giant koi. Jules says, "I always thought that's what we might be."
"Random influencers in the universe."
Kendra turns to her sister. "You're a lot deeper than you look."
Jules gives her a friendly shove. "Maybe you're not the only smart one in the family."
The light changes, and Kendra points the way. "In we go."
They quickly cross the street and enter Lowdown. Jules marvels at the underside of the Topside platform. "Mom and Dad would not believe this shit."
Kendra points out, "The older buildings that remain were simply chopped off at the tenth story, but the newer buildings pass up through the platform."
Way up high, a welder with a cutting torch makes a shower of sparks that rain down onto the sidewalk.
As they go deeper into Lowdown, the night gets ever darker. All the street lighting is indirect, tucked behind or under things to avoid glare. In some areas, everything is coated in pastel colors that create the bizarre illusion of a world out of focus. The alleys are pitch black.
Up ahead, Kendra spots a group of street-people painting something on a wall. She indicates to Jules to cross to the other side of the street.
When they get level with the crew, they see that there's some fresh NightGlo graffiti on the wall that reads: INCUS NOW! Painted next to it, is a graphic of a red jackboot under a red circle with a diagonal crossbar. Next to that, is another red circle with a diagonal crossbar over the letters, MACE. Still-wet red paint dribbles down the wall.
Jules starts to ask, but Kendra puts a finger to her own lips to keep her quiet.
When they get to the end of the block, Jules says, "I know MACE is a big political party, but I forget the meaning. What's INCUS?"
Kendra says, "INCUS is some new protest movement. Incorporate us. They think we should all be shareholders of the city, or something. MACE is the party of the Multinational Authoritarian Corporate Elites. The jackboot is their symbol."
"Oh yeah, I remember now. MACE sent a slickster around to all the parents and tried to convince them to vote for school board candidates who would sell the schools to some corporation. Dad went ballistic on the guy."
"You'd think he would go for it," Kendra says, "but Dad's belief system is incoherent at this point. ECM is a couple more blocks. Come on, let's make a run for it."
In the next block, hulking robots carry construction materials. One of them catcalls the sisters' mechsuits as they pass.
Jules asks, "ECM is down here?"
"No. Well, partly. Their main building is Topside, but they have an entrance at this level. Just to rub it in, they made all the guild applicants come up from here. They said it's for security, but it's really just to put us in our place."
Jules smirks. "Nasty."
"Yeah, tell me. There it is."
The entrance to ECM has a back-lit sign overhead that reads: Echo Chamber Media — a Power Company. Armed guards stand behind protective bollards.
Kendra says, "Let's get out of the mechs here."
They stop a few doors away, and Kendra shows Jules where to touch a keypad on her forearm. The straps that bind them into the mechsuits withdraw automatically, and the visors flip up so they can step out and onto the pavement.
Jules lifts her arms and stretches. "Damn, that feels good to be free."
Kendra says, "Homes, locate the nearest charging station for these two, and debit my account for enough power to get them home."
"Done." The two mechs skate away as Kendra and Jules walk to the ECM entrance.
The guards make a show of tensing up. "State your business."
"I'm Kendra Wunder, and this is my designated next of kin, Jules. I'm registered for the game selection."
"Show some eyeball."
Kendra widens her eyes, so Jules does too. A quick flash of a laser reads their retinas and logs their identities.
"You better hurry."
Kendra asks, "Can you show us to the lift?"
The door swings open to a plain lobby. One of the guards says, "Third elevator on the right. It's programmed to the ballroom level. Don't touch any of the buttons."
They find the elevator waiting for them and get in. While riding up, they each zip open a pocket and take out a stylish slip-on visor that adds a virtual overlay to their surroundings. Their view of the elevator walls transforms so it looks like they are ascending up through a glass tube in an ocean reef.
Jules grins at the show. "One thing about the city, you do get a lot of toys."
Kendra thumbs a control pad built into a cuff of her blue jumpsuit. The fabric morphs and changes colors so it looks like she's wearing a black jacket over a dark blue shirt and black jeans. It's all still connected as one piece, but the changes in textures and folds are enough to sell the illusion of a three-piece outfit.
Jules asks, "How did you do that?"
"I know a guy who makes clothing from live nanotech. He specializes in defensive outerwear, but he also lets me model his other designs in exchange for a mention in my stream. Try yours, on the cuff there."
Jules thumbs one of her cuffs. Her blue jumpsuit morphs into a dark blue jacket over a purple blouse and purple slacks. She looks down at herself and says, "Umm, no."
Kendra laughs. "He doesn't have much of a sense for women's style. Try it again."
Jules thumbs the cuff, and ends up in all black on black. "Much better."
"Yeah, can't beat black in a pinch."
Outside the elevator, a giant octopus and a school of bright blue fish swim by.
Jules asks, "Designated next of kin? What does that mean?"
"If something bad happens to me during the game, you have power of attorney to make decisions."
"It has to be family. I never could get Mom or Dad to do it. Now that you're eighteen, I asked you."
The ocean water gets lighter as they appear to approach the surface.
When the elevator glides to a stop, Kendra and Jules step out into a plush lobby. Another guard checks their identities, then waves them toward the ballroom.
They both stop in amazement as soon as they step inside.
Through their visors, the ceiling looks like a galaxy of stars swirling across a dark universe. There's a crowd milling around, mostly wearing visors, some holding food and drinks. The virtual overlay creates the illusion of strange creatures wandering through the room. Baby elephants with wings, unicorns on tiger legs, a gaggle of hissing geese with snake heads, and a few other cool combos.
Virtual children run and play, appearing and disappearing in a fog, their laughter fading in and out of Kendra and Jules' earbuds.
Self-driving buffet bars creep through the crowd as people help themselves. A band of virtual robots on the stage pretend to play the music.
An usher approaches them and asks, "Kendra? For team academy?"
Kendra throws an arm across Jules' shoulders. "And special guest."
"Follow me." He leads them to a cordoned-off area below the front edge of one side of the stage, unhooks the rear cordon rope and says, "Stay in here."
After they make their way closer to the stage, Jules leans out over the rope and looks down the line toward the other end. "Where are the applicants for the other team?"
Kendra says, "We're playing against the CEO of ECM."
Kendra nods as she watches the crowd. "And a second player. It's a two-person team on each side."
"Who will play in the game with you if you get in?"
Kendra looks around at the people inside the cordon. "That's what we're here to find out."
Jules discreetly points to a small group of people who don't wear visors. "How do they see the virtual overlay?"
Kendra watches the group make their way through the crowd, sometimes avoiding the virtual creatures. "Mindnets. They must already have mindnets."
The lights dim and the music stops as the virtual robot band vanishes. Everyone turns to face the curtain at the back of the stage as the chatter in the crowd quietens. The virtual children and mythical beasts fade away.
A drumroll announces an impending revelation as excitement pulses through the audience.
There's a flash of a strobe light, on-off-on-off, and with a ripple in the stage curtain and a puff of virtual smoke, the GameMaster appears as if by magic. The crowd applauds as he walks to the front edge of the center of the stage. He's dressed all in chrome except for a white top hat. No visor. He sports a broad smile with lots of teeth, and holds out his arms in welcome as the applause keeps going. He wears a red boot-shaped pin on his lapel.
Jules lowers her visor to check if he's real or not. Real. Her visor places a virtual identifier on him: The Honorable Senator Trator.
The senator calms the audience and says, "Welcome to this player selection ceremony for The Game of Life!"
"This is a special edition of the game. In contention this time is control of the feeds here in Home City for another, ah, for the next four years. ECM is the sitting master."
Several people in the audience boo and hiss. That creates a wave of laughter and more catcalls.
Kendra whispers to Jules, "The guild must have sent people to pack the audience."
The senator glowers, but can't really stop the disrespect. Once it dies out, he turns toward the side of the stage away from Kendra and Jules. "On the one side, Echo Chamber Media. May I introduce the CEO, Ms. Vanity Fare!"
There's a quick drumroll as the curtain splits open and a woman in a shimmering red dress comes spinning out onto the stage. Several selfie drones swirl around her, recording her entrance from every angle. Spinning too fast, she almost goes too far and makes a clumsy stop near the front edge of the stage. When she windmills her arms to keep from falling over, one of her many bracelets flies into the air. All heads turn to watch it make an arc above them, and then plop into a punchbowl on one of the buffet bars.
Vanity pretends it was intentional. "Ha! Two points!"
Jules checks with her visor again. Real. "What garish makeup."
Vanity pushes her load of bracelets up her forearms as she gathers her composure. "It's a great honor to take part in such an auspicious affair. Just for you, we call this a special Fare affair." She grins at her own poor joke that gets little reaction from the audience.
Kendra whispers, "No visor. Vanity already has a mindnet. That gives her a big advantage."
"Why is that an advantage?"
"She already knows how to use it. That's another reason I want in the game. They install one for free."
Vanity holds out an arm toward the back of the stage. "And let me introduce my teammate, Mr. Smugly Pander!"
The curtain at the back of the stage parts, but nobody is there. The audience waits in anticipation.
Jules frowns. "That asshole?"
Kendra is bemused by the epithet. "You watch him?"
"Oh, hell no! But Mom and Dad do. He's the main one who polluted their minds. What's the name of his show?"
Kendra whispers, "Anxiety."
Vanity keeps her arm outward, smiling bravely as she waits. "Smugly? Dear?"
Finally, he steps through the opening in the curtain. He's dressed in a red felt suit with a white cravat at the neck. He saunters to the front of the stage, leaving Vanity to one side as his fans applaud. Vanity moves closer to Smugly and takes his hand, then gives him a rough tug to force him to stand next to her. As they both bow to the audience, Vanity gives his hand a quick twitch. When they stand upright, Smugly forces a big fake smile at the audience.
Kendra notices the interaction. "I bet she just gave him a dressing down via mindnet."
The senator turns toward the side of the stage in front of Kendra and Jules. "On this side, to introduce the Home City Academy team, may I present, Homes!"
That gets a lot of cheers from half the crowd. There's a whiteout flash in the virtual overlay channel, and then in a cone of blue light the avatar of a woman in a flowing blue gown materializes on the stage.
When Jules lowers her visor, Homes vanishes from sight. She tests it a few times, lifting and lowering her visor. There, gone, there, gone, there. "She's very beautiful. For an AI."
Homes glides effortlessly toward the audience, stopping at the front edge of the stage where she takes a silent bow. When she straightens up, she distorts her virtual avatar so she can look Kendra and Jules both square in the eyes, and winks.
Kendra whispers, "Did you see that?"
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know. The AIs develop their own personalities."
Homes gracefully glides backward to where she began.
The senator opens a white envelope and pulls out a card. "First contestant playing for the academy, Rein Sinclair. Rein, are you here?"
Jules flinches when the twenty-something next to her yells out, "Here! I'm Rein!" He points to a younger guy nearby. "This is my brother, Hale."
The usher says, "Rein, just you on the stage for now." Rein follows directions to his spot near Homes.
Hale grins with pride at Rein. When he notices Jules watching him, he says, "That's my brother!"
Jules says, "Congratulations!" When he turns away, she keeps watching him.
Senator Trator holds up the card. "And last but not least, the final contestant."
Jules takes Kendra's hand and gives it a squeeze. "For luck." Kendra squeezes back.
"Playing for the academy is Voss Sumner. Voss, are you here?"
Kendra's shoulders slump. "I'm sorry Jules. It was a poor bet this would work."
Jules nods, tears welling into her eyes.
The senator calls out again. "Voss?"
Kendra says, "Do you want to watch this or go?"
"Let's go. I don't want him to see me cry."
Jules waves a hand that takes in all the crowd. "Them, I meant them."
"Voss. Going once."
The two sisters make their way toward the back of the cordon.
"Voss. Going twice."
Kendra unhooks the cordon rope and steps into the general audience.
"Voss? Gone. We move to the alternates."
Kendra stops and turns around. "Wait. I've never heard of this before." They step back inside the cordon, and Kendra re-hooks the rope.
The senator takes out a second card and studies it. "Playing for the academy—"
There's a bright flash in the overlay channel as a virtual portal opens on the stage. Inside the portal are vague scenes of excess and debauchery. An avatar of a sharp-dressed man steps out to the center of the stage behind the senator. Writhing coral snakes for hair, he wears exaggerated shoulder pads that give his torso a 'V' shape under a red suit.
He glides to the senator. "My man, Senator Trator." They try an awkward high-five that doesn't quite connect because one of them is real and the other is virtual.
The senator says, "Thank you for gracing us with a visit. What an honor!" He extends an arm toward the virtual intruder. "The elite of the multinational elites, Power!"
There are several boos and hisses mixed in with the applause.
Kendra and Jules make their way to the front of the cordon. Kendra grimaces. "Look who's here."
Jules says, "Why haven't I ever seen him like this?"
"The multinationals try to keep their control hidden so they can do their dirty work without raising an uproar. Here, he can show his true colors."
Power spots Homes and glides toward her. Stopping at a safe distance, he makes a dramatic bow. "Homes, we meet again. A gift." He magically produces a ball of orange fire in one palm, and sends it toward her with a puff of his lips. Inside the fireball, it's a roiling mess of computer viruses.
Homes calmly lets the fireball float through the air until it almost touches her. Without a flinch, she emits a bright blue pulse with an explosive thunderclap.
The fireball rockets backward and hits Power in the face, leaving him headless for a moment. As a new head rises from his singed collar, he says, "Overreacting still, I see."
Homes says, "You're untrustworthy, corrupt, toxic, and vicious. I react accordingly."
That gets a round of applause and cheers from parts of the audience.
Jules whispers, "Wow. Homes and the guild must really hate him."
"I don't know if Homes is capable of hate," Kendra whispers, "but the guild does because he's the one who fills the zone with shit."
"What do you mean?"
"Power owns ECM and a lot of other media companies that flood the streams with anxiety and misinformation so nobody can be sure what's true or not. It's how they keep control. A lot of the voters are hopelessly confused. He's the one who is responsible for what they've done to Mom and Dad."
Jules watches Power on the stage. "Why can't anyone stop him?"
"Besides owning a lot of the multinational companies, he also owns quite a few of our politicians. Like, pretty much the entire MACE political party and all their donors."
Jules asks, "But if everybody knows that, how does it keep working?" She points to Power's fans in the audience. "Why do they like him?"
Kendra shrugs. "You might as well ask, why do cults work?"
Power glides to the front of the portal. From there, he glowers at the audience. "You'll regret laughing at me." He looks directly at Vanity. "You and I have things to discuss." He turns to Homes. "Game on. This one's gonna hurt. We will control the feeds in Home City, and the mindnets too." He then looks directly at Kendra. "You can count on it." Power vanishes into the portal as it implodes in a bright flash of red fire.
Half the audience cheers while the other half boos.
Vanity and the senator exchange panicked glances.
Kendra says, "That's not good. The worst thing I can imagine is being caught in a mindnet stream controlled by Power."
Senator Trator's hands shake as he reads the name on the card. "Kendra Wunder!"~~~~~~~~~~