Story Teller - Scene 1

Gigantic holograms of koi fish swim across the night-time sky above busy traffic in Home City. Bright neon from a forest of tall buildings adds a purple haze to the air. Video screens covering entire skyscrapers display the content of thousands of streams that compete for attention. Entertainment, sports, news, politics, conspiracies, and lies.

Down on the street, Kendra, twenty-six, and her sister Jules, eighteen yesterday, wear mechsuits with inline wheels on their feet. Kendra leads as they skate alongside the other street traffic. 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 the skaters' heads. Transparent visors cover the upper half of their faces.

The two skaters 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. Scrolling electronic text across a block-long banner reads: Get your tickets now for The Game of Life.

A kiosk reminds everyone to be nice to Homes, the AI that runs Home City, "Because an AI can get hurt feelings too."

Smears of pink, purple, and blue on the wet streets reflect the city lights. Self-driving cars squish through puddles with robotic stop-and-go precision. Crowds bustle on the sidewalk as flocks of floating umbrellas tag along above their heads.

At the next stoplight, the sisters pass a slow truck by cutting across the centerline and into the gap between the oncoming rows of traffic.

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

Kendra adjusts her earbuds' volume. Her eyes stay in constant motion between the traffic and her heads-up display. The last of the raindrops spatter across her visor, blurring her vision until a tiny wiper clears the glass. Calmly competent and world-weary for her age, she says, "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.

A furrowed brow over piercing eyes, Jules shakes her head as they skate the gap into the cars.

Kendra says, "We need to make this delivery early 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 endorsements that players get.

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. Kendra's AutoRespond texts the standard reply. Crossing the centerline again, they merge into traffic going their way, leaving the slow truck behind.

Jules asks, "Are you recording?"

Kendra focuses on the section of her visor that shows the video feeds. One shows a closeup of her own face, taken from the camera embedded within the visor. Another shows 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. She's gonna be taking over more of the delivery stuff so I can do more of the coolhunts for you guys. Say hello Jules."

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

Kendra smiles as her comments section fills with greetings directed at Jules. "She's gonna do great." Once she finds her moxie for the street.

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 red. "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.

Kendra says, "Okay, back online. I want this delivery up on my stream. They have a cool interface and they like the publicity." The red tint on their faces disappears. Jules manages a weak smile.

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

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

"Maybe we're delivering body parts."

Jules grimaces. "Yuck!"

"Or maybe it's just sushi. Everybody has to eat."

"Double yuck! Maybe it's both?"

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

Kendra removes the backpack from Jules' mechsuit. Hefts it in both hands. "Feels like sushi, so always keep the package upright just in case." She hands it to Jules, who takes it with a mix of curiosity and disgust.

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

The group crosses the street. Along with Kendra, they all throw a selfie drone into the air. Kendra quickly checks their online handles' histories in her visor, just to make sure they're not toxic. Huh. Longtime followers. All good.

Kendra and Jules stand together in the middle of the group, with her followers gathered to each side as all of their drones record some video. Kendra posts her video to her own stream, and 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 Kendra!"

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 coolhunting full time."

Jules hefts the backpack in her hands. "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."

Kendra looks up at the address on the storefront. "Just paying it forward. Homes, we're making a delivery. Please advise recipient that we are onsite and ready."

Homes' soft voice speaks into their earbuds, "Done."

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.

She carefully places it on the ledge.

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."

Kendra says, "Live nanotech is still rare, but it's the coming thing."

Jules shakes her head. "It hasn't hit the small towns. Not that I've seen."

Kendra adjusts a setting on the side of her mechsuit's headpiece. "In that case, you'll enjoy a neat trick we're gonna pull later."

Jules looks up to the sky where an enormous hologram of an egg bursts open to release a butterfly. "Well, aren't you the mysterious one?" She startles when the pane of glass manifests a hand that pushes out against her palm in a high-five.

Kendra laughs. "I told you these people were tricksters. Go ahead, give them five."

Jules slaps the glass hand. It waves to her as it recedes and morphs back into the pane. Jules can't help but wave back.

Kendra grins."Very good. You'll get more requests and repeat customers when you play along with their silly stuff." I'll warn her about the kooks later.

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

Kendra nods. "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 a real person. I like to use the mechs to get attention. Plus, as a courier, I get to go places most people don't see." Places where I get to see the 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 puts me on equal standing with the men when it comes 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. Seen through her visor, a virtual circle of light appears on the sidewalk. "Speaking of home, let's check in with Jammer and see how she's coming along with your space."

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

Kendra places a hand on Jules' shoulder. "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 you had a safe place to land." Which is more than way too many of us don't have.

Jules watches a homeless robot pushing a shopping cart filled with batteries. "I don't know where I'd be without you and Jammer."

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

Jules turns away from the robot in the street.

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.


Across town, Jammer's place is a long metal warehouse with a 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. 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 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 client'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.

Jammer wears a sleek visor that looks like rainbow-colored sunglasses, and a black silk kimono with a red tie at the waist.

Through her visor, she sees a map of the city projected into the air in front of her. A skater in a mechsuit pulls up nearby. Several pickup and delivery routes flash as red lines in a sequence on the virtual map. At the same time, the red routes flash across the skater's visor as it downloads the data.

Jammer asks, "Got it?"

The skater 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 sec 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?"

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

"I think we can work something out. It's getting late, isn't it? For the selection?"

Kendra says, "We're heading there now. It's still okay to use the mechs?"

"Be sure to charge them so they can bring you back. That's a long trip."

"Thanks Jammer." Kendra deftly 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. Kendra, we need to talk when you get back. Come see me as soon as you get home. About the rent on your space."

Kendra says, "I will." There it is, the secret. "We need to get going."

"Don't be too disappointed if you're not chosen this round. You're new, and there's a lot of competition from the other guild members."

"I know. I won't be."

Jules waves. "Bye, and thanks again."

Jammer touches the side of her visor. Kendra and Jules vanish.

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

Jammer asks the stylist, "Did the guys finish with the space for Jules?"

"They did the best they could."

"We'll set her up better when we scrounge up some more stuff." Jammer walks toward the living quarters, her black kimono flowing out behind her.

The construction for the private rooms is a makeshift collection of found materials — old doors, 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 grins when she sees 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, and then falls to the floor 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 murmurs, "Home sweet home. God help them both."

~~~~~~~~~~

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Link to the audiobook of this Scene 1

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