Mira trudged past the boarded up storefronts, careful to stay in the thin sliver of shade provided by the sagging overhang. She pulled a mildewy t-shirt across her face to keep the swirling dust out of her nose and mouth. The California sun pounded down like a molten hammer on a filthy anvil, and she squinted across the broken pavement of the parking lot. This had been a shopping complex of some kind once. One of the storefronts read “Carvel” in thick red letters, while another one featured the words “Hens & Kelly” in big black cursive. She had seen places like this on shows, but she had no idea what these stores had sold. She looked down at her cardboard visor and shook it. The power bar was good, she’d been in the sun for hours, so it’d better be, but the picture was dead. She pinched the reset dot for a moment, nearly pushing her cracked and dirt encrusted thumbnail through the flimsy material.
“Fuck,” she spat. She rarely had to look at default reality, and it made her feel bad. This place was goddamn ugly. Everything was brown and dry and crappy. With her visor on, she could just follow the map and it would abstract away this ugliness. It lit her path with little green dots, gave her points for avoiding obstacles, and she could keep chatTime running all the while, her friends never out of reach. But without her visor, well, this whole thing sucked. She had no idea where she was or how to get to where she was going. She wandered forward aimlessly, surveying the deserted plaza.
“What’s the matter, wirehead? Your rig broke?” croaked a voice, making Mira jump. She twirled around, trying to see where it came from. “Heehee, up here, idiot,” it said. Mira looked up to see a tiny sparrow drone hovering above her. The drone’s cameras zeroed in on the skinny, Hispanic teenager as she stamped her foot in frustration. “It’s not gonna work. I jammed it!” it said. “This is my turf, you gotta pay the troll if you wanna pass.”
Mira scratched her head and thought for a moment. She’d never heard of a drone troll before. Usually the gang that controlled the area around a blood bank would just post some guys a few hundred meters out and they would tell her how much tax she had to pay. But she was trying out a new place, because she’d heard they were paying more if you were young. Maybe the gangs were different out here, but they usually had guns and didn’t mess around with this high tech stuff.
Real gangs had AKs. An AK could blow a big ragged hole through her. What was this stupid little drone going to do? Also, the voice sounded like a kid, someone her little brother’s age, maybe twelve or thirteen. But still, her visor was toast and she was stuck. “How am I gonna pay you if my visor doesn’t work?” she asked the drone hovering above her head, well out of reach. She glanced around for a good rock. There were plenty of loose stones around.
“That’s not how you’re gonna pay this troll tax,” said the voice. “There’s another way, with your body.”
Mira shivered with disgust and glanced around fearfully. “Ew, don’t be fucking gross!” she shouted. She doubted there was anyone with enough muscle around to grab her. And she was pretty fast if she had to run.
“That’s not what I meant, wirehead,” said the drone. The whiny tone of voice was definitely that of a petulant tween. “Put your visor back on, it will work again, sort of. Just follow the blue dots. You’re gonna make a little detour on the way to the blood bank.”
Sure enough, when Mira put on her visor again, the display was lit. But everything looked wrong. It wasn’t set up as she liked. She tried opening chatTime windows, but they were grayed out. She could see her friends posting frantic updates about how she had dropped offline, but she couldn’t respond to any of their messages. Still, it felt good to see the hit counts ringing up for #whyMiraOffline.
“Can’t you stay off chatTime for five seconds?” complained the drone. “Just follow the blue dots.”
The dots led up to a metal, graffiti covered door to one of the boarded up shops. She never bothered checking these any more; they were always locked tight. And if you found a way into one of these deserted places, someone had usually found their way in first. Unsavory someones, mostly. So Mira only went into squats with a group of friends, and only if they knew people who could vouch for the place. But it looked like this snotty kid with the drone had truly hacked her visor, so she was stuck and had to follow his directions.
Mira pulled the bar on the door and discovered that it swung open, reluctantly. She gasped in surprise at the lush green interior, and stepped eagerly inside, pulling the door shut behind her. The roof had caved in long ago and sunlight filtered in between the beams, offering bands of cool shade from the unrelenting sun. A water main must have been leaking somewhere, because the bushes and small trees sprouting through the floor of the shop were fresh and healthy seeming. Mira pulled off her visor and saw that this wasn’t an overlay, but part of default reality. She couldn’t believe that this verdant garden was thriving behind that rusty door. She wondered what other magical places were hidden behind the other battered storefronts.
The little drone dropped into the space between a gap in the rafters. “Nice, huh?” said the voice, full of boyish delight.
One of the trees was an apple tree with actual apples hanging from it. Mira had never seen an apple tree in real life. “Can I have one?” she begged the drone boy, as she approached the tree in wonderment, visor tilted back on her head.
“What? Oh yeah, sure, I guess. Are you hungry or something? We have SocStab rations,” said the drone.
“I’m sick of social stability rations. Everything I eat is old, dry, and crumbly,” said Mira, grabbing a ripe apple and yanking it down from the tree. Several other apples fell and she guiltily scrambled to grab those as well. She crammed them into her bag and took a bite of one. Its crisp, sweet flesh exploded into her parched mouth and she nearly fainted with delight. It was the best apple she’d ever had in her life, though she rarely had anything like a fresh fruit or vegetable, so that wasn’t saying much.
“Will you put the visor back on now and follow the blue dots? I can’t wait long, this battery is almost dead,” complained the little drone; and then it was gone, buzzing quietly up through a gap in the roof and soaring out of sight.
Mira idly considered ignoring the drone boy and hanging out in the leafy refuge for a while. But then she remembered that he’d fucked up her visor so she couldn’t get on chatTime, and she needed the little bastard to fix it. She dropped her visor back down and found the blue dots, occasionally pawing impotently at the semi-disabled chatTime windows, as interest in her whereabouts quickly faded and was replaced by conversations about the latest shows. At least she had the wonderful apple to comfort her, and she gnawed it down to the core, even eating the bitter seeds, as she picked her way through the miniature forest.
It ended abruptly thirty feet from the back wall of the store. The black and white tiled floor was oddly intact along this wall, somehow impervious to nature’s prying fingers. The dots pointed Mira toward a pair of doors with crash bars, the exit sign above them illuminated. Mira was startled to see electricity still flowing through this destroyed place. She lifted her visor to be sure it was real, and, sure enough, the green letters of the exit sign glowed brightly. She pushed through the doors and found herself in a massive warehouse. The ceiling soared above her into darkness. The only light was the sunlight filtering through the ruined roof behind her. Her path led down an aisle between towering racks stacked with cardboard boxes. She let the doors slam shut behind her and was engulfed in darkness, her visor providing a wireframe of racks and obstacles in her path.
She felt gypped when she scrambled over a pile of tumbled boxes, but didn’t get any points for her effort, and she watched her chatTime feeds longingly, wishing she could post about this adventure right away. Her social status would definitely spike once she’d told this story. She hoped her visor wasn’t too screwed up to be recording. Going from that weird overgrown store into this huge warehouse was as interesting footage as any video game she’d ever played. Her friends would love it.
After a while, the dots led Mira down an aisle to the right, and she came to a door with a punch clock next to it and a little stand with a coffeemaker on it. The button was lit and Mira could smell a fresh pot of coffee. She found a stack of paper cups and poured herself some. It burned her tongue and tasted bitter. She rummaged around a bit more and found the nondairy creamers. She emptied five or six of them into her cup, which cooled the coffee and made it lighter and smoother, though they were greasy and added an oily sheen to the surface. Refreshed by a few sips of coffee, Mira pressed ahead and went through the door.
She would have been blinded by the bright fluorescent lights of the break room if her visor hadn’t adjusted the brightness. A middle aged woman in a white lab coat sat at a table, performing some virtual task, her fingers flitting deftly above the bright white tabletop before her. A young teenaged boy, maybe thirteen years old, sat across from her, kicking his legs as he manipulated something, probably the drone, Mira decided.
The woman promptly stopped working and lifted her glasses when Mira entered. She had brown hair streaked with grey and a hard expression on her face. She looked like a rich woman, both she and the boy were dressed in clean clothes that looked expensive.
“Close the door and sit down. We don’t have much time,” said the woman, gesturing tersely to a strange chair with one padded armrest and a reclined backrest.
Mira lifted her visor to her head. “Your kid messed up my visor! Tell him to fix it!”
“I’m the one who told him to break it in the first place,” responded the woman, taking Mira by the shoulders and pushing her down into the chair. Mira complied because she was tired and it felt good to sit down. “Don’t worry, we have plenty of those cheap cardboard visors around here. I can give you a whole box if you want them. But I need you to run an errand for my employers.” The woman sat on a stool beside Mira and brusquely rolled up Mira’s sleeve.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Mira, trying to struggle, but the woman was surprisingly strong and quickly strapped Mira’s arm to the armrest. Mira realized that this was sort of like the chairs in the blood bank. “I’m not giving you any blood for free or even for a box of visors,” Mira said, “I was on my way to get real money.” Her heart started racing as she wondered if this woman was trying to steal her blood, but something about the woman’s demeanor gave her pause. She wasn’t friendly by any means, but she wasn’t angry, either. She was businesslike, and her eyes didn’t have the deadness that Mira saw when people really intended to harm her. And she had seen dead eyes plenty.
“Oh shucks, I messed up, Mom,” said the boy. “I must have missed a security system somewhere, private security is being dispatched out here to check on the cameras.”
“That’s fine, it was to be expected, get us a car,” said the woman, unwrapping a tiny hypodermic needle from a plastic bag.
“What are you shooting me up with?” asked Mira. “This is going to look so crazy on my feeds.”
“You aren’t going to be able to put this on your feeds,” said the boy smugly. “I’m wiping your visor history.”
“You fucker, do you know how much status I could get from this?” cried Mira.
“This isn’t for you, Mira,” said the woman calmly, as she swabbed Mira’s filthy arm with alcohol and deftly sank the needle into her bulging vein. “It’s a present for the blood bank. You won’t feel a thing. It’s perfectly harmless to you.”
Mira believed the woman; she handled the needle so well that she could barely feel the prick. A few seconds later, the woman was done and had released her arm from the restraint. She pocketed the needle and the plastic wrapper as she and the boy got up to leave.
“There are the stability rations and a box of visors,” said the woman, pointing to a pair of cardboard boxes on a counter in the corner. “Take them and get out. Security will be here soon.”
“Wait, what the fuck did you just do to me?” asked Mira.
“I don’t really know, dear,” admitted the woman with a shrug. “I just took this gig off of a job board. I tested the vial first and I can assure you it’s not toxic, but that’s all I know.”
“But it’s for the blood bank? Why?” Mira called after them, as the woman and the boy exited by the door opposite the one Mira had entered.
“The blood bank is a longevity clinic. The blood goes to plutocrats,” said the boy with a smirk. But his mother shushed him and the door closed. They were gone.
Mira sat stunned for a moment. Looking at her arm, she found no evidence of the point where the needle had entered. She didn’t feel drugged either, maybe a little jittery from the coffee. She jumped up, stuffed the boxes into her bag, and bolted out the back door, hoping to ask more questions of the mother and the boy. But, just as she emerged into the pummeling heat of the afternoon, their autoCar was pulling away. Mira found that the visor she’d been wearing was dead again and she tossed it away in frustration. She pulled a fresh one out of the box and, after scanning her for a moment, it logged her in properly. Green dots leading to the blood bank reappeared and all of her other windows came up, just as she liked them. Her friends were practically shrieking with excitement when Mira’s feed came back on chatTime, and she was texting away so intensely that she didn’t even notice the security vans pulling up and the guards jumping out and pounding into the warehouse behind her, laden in body armor with their rifles out.
A burly white guard in a puffy black vest stopped in front of her. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Blood bank,” Mira murmured distractedly. She’d spent enough time in reality and didn’t want to deal with it anymore. The guard shook his head in disgust and let her pass.