Jules huffs it to keep up with Kendra as they maneuver through the busy streets. The mechs are power-assisted, but to make time it takes some human muscle. "Why does Jammer think they won't pick you?"
Kendra keeps an eye on the traffic as they turn onto a different street. "She's probably right, but it doesn't really matter. It's good publicity either way. I picked up several thousand followers just by applying for the selection."
Virtual holograms of a row of dancing elephants appear in their visors, warning them that the light ahead is about to change.
Jules grins at the show. "The selection we're going to now, is for what again? It was all so quick when you explained it."
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."
Kendra checks the time in her visor. This is gonna be close. "Every four years, two seats open up on the ECM board of directors. The winners of the game determine who takes those seats. I want one, and somebody else in the guild gets the other."
"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 a board-member, I'd give the guild a voice at the table. I might also be able to do something about the misinformation and conspiracy crap they produce." The light changes and they take off.
Rain-scented ozone crisps the air. 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.
Jules asks, "Is that the real reason? 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."
Kendra hears the hurt in Jules’ voice, and gently asks, "Which one was it that got you thrown out?"
Jules lets out a bitter laugh. "Bees. They think there's an underground group that is 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."
Kendra says, "I remember the one about the bees. 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 deftly skate-steps over a crack 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. What happened to that?"
They pass a food truck parked at the curb, selling fried HappiCow vat meat. The vendor hands out samples on a stick to the passersby on the sidewalk.
Kendra says, "People don't seem too interested in the truth anymore. I got some serious blowback. Did you see the one I did about money laundering?"
"Yes. It was good."
"Yeah, well, the government itself came after me for that one, so I stick with coolhunting. Finding cool events and places, that sort of thing. Go beyond that, and they cut you off at the knees. Besides, the real news organizations don't do investigative reporting, so why should I?"
Jules says, "Because truth matters?"
"Yes it does, but I'm just one person."
An electronic sign that is blocking a lane flashes: 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. Then mix in the debunking stuff to make sure I'm pushing back."
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. 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. I don't know if you noticed, but the digs at Jammer's place aren't exactly plush."
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."
Jules shakes her head. "No, I am very far from being okay."
The light changes in their favor. Kendra waits as Jules 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. And Kendra?"
"I want you to hit them hard."
"You got it."
Jules turns around to face the intersection. "Let's go."
When they 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.
Jules looks up to the edge of the platform. "So this is downtown."
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 downtown. Especially after the riots."
Kendra points to a row of pock marks across one of the buildings. "It was a lot more than just riots."
Jules says, "I was only thirteen. 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. In we go."
They quickly cross the street and enter Lowdown. Jules marvels at the underside of the Topside platform. In some places, they simply chopped the older buildings off at the tenth story. In other places, the 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!
Jules starts to ask about it, but Kendra puts a finger to her own lips to keep her quiet. When they get to the end of the block, Jules asks, "What's Incus?"
"Some new protest movement. They think we should all be shareholders of the city, or something. ECM is a couple more blocks. Let's make a run for it."
They both skate deeper into Lowdown.
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 neon 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. 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 us home."
"Done." The two mechs skate away as Kendra and Jules walk to the ECM entrance.
The guards make a show of tensing up as they approach. "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 says, "Can you show us to the lift?"
The door swings open to a plain lobby. "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 fingers 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 lets me model his regular designs in exchange for a mention in my stream. Try yours, on the cuff there."
Jules fingers one of her cuffs. Her blue jumpsuit morphs into a dark blue jacket over a purple shirt and purple pants. 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."
So she does, and this time she ends up in all black on black. Jules approves, "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 says, "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 the virtual reality 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. "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."
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?"
"We're playing against the CEO of ECM."
Jules turns to Kendra. "Really?"
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.
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 the Game of Life!"
"This is a special edition of the game. In contention this time are two seats on the ECM board of directors. Seats that have a high level of control of the data feeds 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. 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 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 participate 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 to Jules, "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 at 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, Home City Academy. May I present, Homes!"
That gets a lot of cheers from half the crowd. There's a whiteout flash in the virtual overlay channel. In a cone of blue light, the avatar of a woman in a long flowing blue gown materializes on the stage.
When Jules lowers her visor, Homes vanishes from sight. Jules tests it a few times, lifting and lowering her visor. There, gone, there, gone, there. Huh. 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 to Jules, "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!" Well, well. If Kendra gets in, this could be fun.
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, maybe next time."
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 indicates the crowd with a wave of her hand. "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. 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.
Jules asks, "Who is that?"
Kendra grimaces. "It's Power."
"He's an AI too?"
"The worst. He's why we have these special edition games. To settle disputes between the AIs."
Jules says, "Why haven't I heard of him?"
Kendra watches Power. "The multinationals try to keep their control hidden so they can do their dirty work without raising an uproar."
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 up from his empty, and now smoking 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 asks, "Why do Homes and these other people hate him?"
Kendra whispers, "He's the one that fills the zone with crap."
"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?"
"In addition to a lot of the multinational elites and companies, he owns a few of our politicians too."
"But you said you wanted to be like ECM."
"Not like them. Just bigger. As big as them. Someday."
A soft voice whispers into Kendra's earbuds, "Are you really sure you want to do the things it would take to get there?"
Kendra turns to Jules. "What did you say?"
"I didn't say anything."
Kendra studies Homes' face. There's a fleeting moment of acknowledgment, but it's too subtle to be sure.
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. 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 that Power controls."
Senator Trator's hands shake as he reads the name on the card. "Kendra Wunder!"~~~~~~~~~~