Rachel wove headfirst through the fog filled maze of graffiti and trash that lined the chokingly narrow streets of the ‘Loin. Used hypos skittered at her feet, their glass twinkling with reflections of signs for vape implants, bail bonds and skin mods. Echo of afterhours beats at the dUb club pulsed at the edge of her senses, dull cymatics rippling through the stacked shipping containers that had been hastily converted to storefronts and housing. Ads flickered to life as she hurried past the shuttered shops, leaving a trail of looping video and distorted audio behind her.
She tried to tune out the chaos and focused on her mobile’s map layer, imagining herself a video game character in the voxel canyons of streets that outlined the Southern edge of NewSan. Built post-quake from salvaged shipped containers, the ‘Loin had inherited the name of another unfortunate hood from when NewSan was still called San Francisco.
She daydreamed of the giant metal stadium that had once stood there at the water’s edge, imagining the KLOK! of ball meeting carbon-poly bat, roar of the crowds filling the air. Smell of fried food and spilt beer. Rachel hadn’t eaten breakfast and her mouth watered, thinking of her favorite fries and vanilla shake at Gibson’s arcade in the Mission. She had mastered the art of dipping the fries in her shake and inhaling the salty sweet goodness between rounds of Street Fighter. But sometimes her greasy fingers cost her the match. Lost in her thoughts, she crashed headlong into a street cleaning robot, tumbling over its dented dome. Only just catching herself on the scarred CityBot, splayed out on the bot’s struggling body, breath knocked out of her. Buzzer rasping from the robot, red warning light going spastic. Rachel pulled herself to her feet, the alarm going quiet, metallic click of self-checks from the CityBot like the vintage pinball games at the arcade.
Kept her head down and plunged on — heart thumping, head spinning, feeling like throwing up. The buzz of a security drone grew in the distance. She pressed her medpatch to quell her anxiety and keep herself from turning around and running. Glad for the anonymity of Karl the Fog, hiding her from the ever present sentry cams that watched the streets from above. The ‘Loin was a far cry from her safe, cozy apartment in the Mission blocks with their hipster robot restaurants and faux grass parks. Finally found the address that Danny had given her for her new gig — a plain white door across from a spotless SamuraiMart franchise. The inverted triangle logo of ThinkCo debossed in the scratched up plastic of the door, highlighted by the patina of grime and nuked gang tags.
Quickly checking her hair and makeup with her mobile phone, making herself presentable after her spill. In the screen she noticed a pair of hackers behind her, perched atop the vending machines at the SamuraiMart. They were tapped into the city dataports - the big one hunkered down and goggled in, machine-woven optical dreadlocks intertwined with cables, pulsing deep red to the algos. Smart tattoos adorned the other’s face, a shimmering dazzle pattern that constantly shifted and folded to foil face reco AI, the living textures anchored by the holographic glasses that the girl had locked on Rachel. The girl slowly drew her arm from the folds of black robes, revealing a gloss black prosthetic hand emblazoned with the hot pink glow of the T3kP_nk clan’s logo.
There was never a good time to be in the ‘Loin, especially when T3kP_nks were around. Rachel’s biohacked hair was glowing electric blue, keying into her nervous system, betraying her spiked adrenaline level. There was a rattle of fastjacks and neural inserts inside the vendomat as the cybernetic girl punk launched off the vending machine and loped across the alley towards her. Rachel stuffed her phone in her pocket and shoved through the door into the ThinkCo offices, where she hoped they wouldn’t go.
The waiting room was tiny, and looked more like a public restroom than a reception. Nondescript interior, off-white walls thick with strata of gloss paint, plastic chairs scarred with cigarette burns. Whiff of blown circuits and tangelo disinfectant stung Rachel's nostrils. A screen clicked to life as the door swished shut behind her, neon hum of the ThinkCo logo confirming she was in the right place. Disappointed, as she was hoping this creepy place in this sketchy neighborhood wasn’t where her new job was. But dreaming paid well and her rent was due. Plus, Danny would be pissed if she blew another gig.
‘Hello. Welcome to ThinkCo’
Muffled audio crackled from paint-covered speakers as a CG bot cheerily greeted Rachel from the screen. The ‘ThinkCo’ triangle screenburned into the bot’s uncanny face, reflection of her own face momentarily merging with the bot’s synthetic visage. Making involuntarily eye contact, Rachel instantly regretting it. Black bot pupils like weirs for your personal data, drinking in your patterns, passing judgement on your rituals.
“Damn things are creepy” she muttered, wishing she hadn’t listened to Danny and his skeezy hacker friends about this place. At least the two T3kP_nks hadn’t followed her inside.
“Voiceprint confirmed, thank you. Please proceed to station seven”
A door hissed open next to the screen. Beyond, harsh flourescents flickered to life along a narrow white hallway, doors along each side marked with numbers in generic corporate san serif. Door seven waited for her at the end of the hallway, light pulsing.
She imagined inside each numbered room someone like herself, a Daydreamer. Born with hyperactive imaginations, every stimulus illuminating a rabbit warren of possible futures, stroboscopic images of a fragmented timeline. Each moment of daily life proclaiming potential paths of hope, enlightenment, horror, despair, chaos — all at the same time. Overwhelming emotions converging and congealing into gravity wells of indecision. Many Daydreamers never left their homes, those that did often only mustering the courage with the help of meds.
Rachel felt herself tense, anxiety pressing in on her as she stepped into the hallway. Jaw clenched, shoulders tight, mind reeling as she imagined all the ways today could go more wrong. Wishing she hadn’t told her last boss to go screw himself with a fastjack. Stabbed her thumb on the med patch again, cocktail of neurotransmitters flooding her synapses, maxing her out on endorphins and adrenaline rush.
‘Let’s get this over with’
She kept her eyes down, away from the bright lights, forced her legs to move. Annoyed at whoever designed this place to be exactly wrong for Daydreamers. Then finding herself inside the blissful darkness of Room Seven. Her breathing loud in her ears as devices blipped and whirred quietly. The only object in the dimly lit room was the daydreamer’s chair, a strange looking contraption that looked part recliner, part retro hairdo machine. Above the plastic clad back of the chair hung the thought sensing helmet, lights pulsing lazily up through the thick umbilical rising from the top.
A screen popped to life in front of the chair, surprising Rachel. The now familiar bot rezzed up, asking her to get comfortable and relax. Sitting down was doable, relaxing was out of the question. She prodded at the seat, wondering about its previous occupants, and how they had fared. She wasn’t sure why she was so stressed — it wasn’t a test, there were no right or wrong answers. All she had to do was daydream while they showed her images, and wait for cash in the bank. At least that’s what Danny had told her how this worked. She took a deep breath and sat down in the chair as the bot launched into it’s canned spiel.
‘Welcome to ThinkCo, America’s largest thought analysis company.’
Rachel knew from Danny’s gaming obsession that places like ThinkCo were often used to tune game mechanics or refine story elements in open world experiences. Danny seemed to prefer games where the bots were trained using this kind of crowdsourced feedback. She couldn’t tell the difference — his games just seemed like a lot of shooting, explosions and gore.
The thinking helmet descended over her head, soft rubber sealing her in as the display came to rest over her face. She wondered if it would pipe smells during the show — like at the new Sensorium theatre at the Yerba Buena.
‘Please relax as we calibrate your thoughts with our system.’
A dot appeared in the empty distance for a second, then warped to a new place in space, then warped again. Rachel was reminded of her visit to the eye doctor at the mall, where they had a machine that did a similar test. She’d aced that test. She followed the dot as it continued to jump around, recoiling when all of a sudden it was uncomfortably close to her face. The dot fanned out to become a grid, then fractal tessellating shapes growing more complex. She imagined them as an array of satellites orbiting the Earth, their sweet high speed connectivity serving up endless hours of livestreams. Her favorite streamer traveled the world, trying local cuisines and delicacies. Lately there had been a lot of insect street food. Rachel cringed at the thought of eating bugs. So gross. The network of nodes folded onto itself and reformed repeatedly as a rapid-fire series of everyday objects. She zoned out, lost in dreamy thoughts of her favorite foods. Her stomach growled in anticipation.
“Calibration complete. Your assignment starts now” The bot’s voice snapped her out of her reverie.
A world rezzed up around her — she was inside a car, one of the newfangled models the city was experimenting with. The interior was fancy— dark leather seats, synthetic wood panels, mood lighting. Outside, a bright city street, sidewalk bustling with people, cars streaming by. The driver’s seat was empty. Curious what she was supposed to be doing, she leaned forward to check out the front of the car, only to feel the unyielding rubber of the ThinkCo helmet press against her cheeks. Someone tapped on the window and she turned, when abruptly her bright new world disappeared, leaving only startling emptiness. The black void pressed in on her, blackness stretching on for seconds, into minutes that felt like hours.
Her mind wandered; was this thing broken, what if it had malfunctioned and she was stuck in this cushy pleather chair with no-one to find her? Would they find her emaciated body days later, soul siphoned into the machine and mined by AI for algorithmic gold? At least she wouldn’t have to worry about making rent.
After what seemed like an eternity, the machine seemed to reset itself. Another light bloomed in the center of her vision. Dot of blinding white expanded into a disc, spectral waves oozing out from the periphery. Rippling wavefronts coalescing into Rorschach shapes, one moment a subconscious glimpse of horror, the next a dreamy flight of fancy. Then exploding apart into a million stars, swirling like eddies, flowing flocklike, each point a supernova radiating colors she had no names for. Two galaxies held each other in a delicate embrace, spinning through the infinities of her imagination, the black holes at their cores shimmering at their event horizons. For an instant she thought she saw a face form in the nebula, gaunt and immense, eyes forged from the whirling twin galaxies. Locking gazes with her — cosmic scale expression of amusement made her skin crawl. Then the galaxy winked at her. She blinked.
A disembodied voice from outside time, and a cold touch on her shoulder. She started, and the gaunt face was gone, fractal spacetime unfolding back into lower dimensions.
The rubber seals of the goggles tugged at her face as they were lifted off. The dissipating tracts of space suddenly tiny and insignificant, locked inside the display that was pulled away from her face. Rachel’s eyes stung and teared up, strong smell of smoke in the tiny room, strobe light arpeggiating in the darkness. Dark silhouette of a figure crouched in the corner reached out at her. She flinched, ready for the end, her death just another pointless casualty of the ‘Loin’s depraved wetware scene.
“Quick, put these on”
Disoriented and terrified at what would happen if she disobeyed, she grabbed at the object. A pair of glasses. Hands shaking, she slipped them on, the fitted lenses thankfully blocking out some of the strobing and smoke. Then, a new room appeared over the darkness around her; the same space, but looking more like a video game than reality — bright polygons unpacking like finer and finer origami to fit the contours of the room. The smart glasses must be scanning the room and showing her a structural layer, letting her see in the dark. Revealing the shape of the T3kP_nk girl in the corner, a weirdly angular smile on her face. Rachel froze.
“I’m Mux. Follow me — we gotta be fast”
Thick Texan accent coming from the glasses, as if from inside her own head. The girl stood and slapped something onto a panel, then strode out of the door. Rachel pushed herself out of the chair, her senses struggling to reconcile this artificial line-art version of the world with the real one. She stumbled out of the door and ping ponged her way down the wireframe hallway past the closed doors, trying to keep up with Mux. Barreled through the waiting room and out of the building, close behind the hacker. Nostrils suddenly assaulted by overpowering metallic smell, her eyes tearing up despite the seals on the glasses. The door to ThinkCo slammed shut behind her.
“Smoke bomb. Get in the cab.”
Shape of the egg-like form of a drone taxi rezzed up from the toxic grey morass filling the street. She clambered in, and collapsed into the soft seat. The polygonal view of the world was less disorienting over the well-lit interior of the pod. The driver gave a thumbs-up to the glitching outlines of Mux and her hacker accomplice through the window. Pod door hissing shut, Rachel pressed into the seat as the cab punched through the smoke and out into dreary ‘Loin morning streets. The driver flipped on some music — strangely syncopated beats and foreign musical scales completing her total distortion of reality.
Rachel’s imagination ran wild — maybe Danny had sold her out because of a gambling debt? Maybe they were going to use her as a guinea pig for experimental implants? Or harvest her organs to replicate and sell on the black market.
“What the hell is going on??” She yelled at the driver.
Mux’s voice piped over the glasses. “Sorry for the cloak and dagger shit. Hang tight.”
The cab descended into the labyrinth of tunnels below the city, joining other pods weaving their way to their destinations. Rachel slumped back into the seat, fear drained out of her, replaced by adrenaline fueled anger and resignation that things were completely out of her control.
“Pardner popped some homebrew smoke to throw off drones and nosy neighbors.”
The cab popped back above ground and slowed for a moment at the Mission transit hub, artificial sunlight filling the cab like it did every time she rode through. The sight of weary commuters at the familiar train station was a strange reality shift. Maybe this madness was just some fucked up daydream she was having while on her way to work.
The cab continued, looping upward through the colorful strata of her Mission block. The driver tapped his fingers to the odd beat of the foreign music.
“What do you want from me?” Rachel’s frustration peaking, she pressed up against the window as they approached her neighborhood. Maybe she would see someone she knew, could yell for help as she went by. Or jump out of the cab at speed, like in the movies. This might be her only chance to escape.
“The boss got it in his head that he wanted to meet you.”
“What the hell — kidnapping seems a bit extreme for a blind date. Let me out! I wanna go home.”
“Actually… we are taking you home”
The cab slowed to a stop. They were a few streets over from her place at the sketchy dead-end where kids would huff mist and fight bots for cryptocash. The door slid open. For a second Rachel was in disbelief, then scrambled out of the cab before the maniacs changed their minds.
“Boss says it was a pleasure meeting you, apologizes for the theatrics.”
Rachel paused outside the cab, confused. The driver turned to face her, gaunt features suddenly familiar. The music peaking as his smile disintegrated into a million points of light, cosmic clouds dancing to the rhythm of the music. Piercing eyes made from inescapable gravity wells sucking in matter from the galaxies that formed his face. And winked. She froze in place — unable to process what she was seeing. Then he blinked out of existence, leaving only the empty driver’s seat.
In her mind she could still see the cosmic apparition — same weird grin made from interstellar dust she had seen at ThinkCo. Eyes made of galaxies, eyebrows formed from spiral arms. Then it clicked — the driver was a hologram, purely a high resolution figment of the augmented reality glasses Mux had given her. The cab sped off, breaking the spell that held her. Rachel felt her skin tingle, overcome with awe at the hyperreal apparition.
“Who is he?” Rachel asked the empty street
Slight pause before Mux’s digitized voice streamed in.
“He… it… is an AI. Calls itself the Wanderer. Far as we can tell, it was modeled on its creator — a scientist who went missing a while back. Hired us to get access to ThinkCo’s systems, and then he became interested in your data — your daydreams…”
“That’s … pretty crazy. Why me?”
“To be honest, you’re the unlucky winner of random opportunity. Right time and place to hack into a daydreaming rig.”
“Sounds like I’m not going back there anytime soon. So much for making my rent payment…” Rachel kicked at the bot shrapnel strewn on the ground. “Aren’t they gonna come looking for me?”
“Any trace of you being there has been erased. You’ll get an anonymous cryptocash drop for your trouble. Oh, and keep the glasses, in case he wants to talk to you again. Gotta go.”
The glasses chimed, and seemed to reboot, logo filling her vision.
Rachel took off the glasses and shook her head, bewildered. Surreal daydream had become reality, the only evidence of what had happened was this fancy headset and her frayed nerves. Her wrist buzzed — a deposit had been made to her account, as Mux had promised.
She slowly wandered towards her apartment, not sure how she would explain what had happened, or if she should even tell anyone about it. They might think she had finally lost it. Past boutique stores that were just opening and hip breakfast spots starting to fill up. Loud hubbub from clusters of people crowded around taxis, fighting for rides to work.
A newsfeed caught her eye on a billboard. All of the city’s drone cabs had gone offline, bringing NewSan’s innovative transport system to a standstill. The cabs’ AI had been hacked by an organization that called itself the Wanderers.
Rachel stopped in her tracks and grinned. She wasn’t crazy — the daydream was real, not just in her overactive imagination. She didn’t know how her experience was connected to the hack, but decided it would be best to keep quiet about her encounter with Mux and the Wanderer. She could tell Danny she had never even made it to ThinkCo.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Rachel realized she was standing outside Gibson’s arcade, delicious smell of fried food making her stomach grumble. Shrugging off the absurdity of her day, she stepped into the arcade.
“Fries and vanilla shake please. Extra large”