Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

Cyber Sparks Excerpt #2

 

Chapter Two


Corn in the Cyber Storm

 

Stress—some say it’s viral, that you can contract it physically from the world around you—an environmental sickness transmitted straight to the brain.

I don’t know about that, but I can tell you one thing: Earth is the stress Mecca of the galaxy.

 

“Good afternoon, Allegra. Shall I make you a mug of your favorite drink?” My room always greeted me this way—creepy, I know, a room as a licensed persona—when I returned home from my latest round of auditions and interviews. Exhausted, I dropped my bags at the door and slumped onto the settee.

 

“Mm, sounds good,” I mumbled into the settee cushion.

 

“I’m sorry, was that a yes? Allegra?” Nag-freaking-nag. “Shall I make you a mug of your—”

 

“Oh, for chrissakes.” I leaped up and hurled the cushion at the nearest wall—the voice had its choice of about three dozen speakers dotted about the apartment—I was bound to hit one. “Yes, I’ll have a freaking McCormick’s. Thank you.”

 

“My pleasure, Allegra.”

 

The hurtful arrhythmia in my chest seemed to be heading for a crescendo, so I lay flat, massaged it and imagined myself gliding over the dusky hues of Ireton Four. But no matter how hard I tried, Earth seemed to be conspiring against me. I’d hit every pedestrian queue on the way home, then every red light in my sky cab, after being told that my bank account was under investigation for fraud. Not my fraud—some digital hackers had randomly picked me for a political stunt. They’d paid millions from my account into a top official’s, to get his personal finances red-flagged and his shady dealings exposed.

 

Did it work? Who cares? I’d been the one robbed, not the asshole politician. At least I was off the hook in the ensuing investigation—the bank had pinpointed the third-party breach, exonerating me.

 

Those trillions of data waves jostling through the air outside might be invisible, but they scared the hell out of me. Everything and everyone was plugged in, and how did they know who was monitoring what? Or manipulating it? The giant, reflective edifices and the billion fish-egg cameras littering the city reminded me that every time I stepped foot outside, I was logged and locked into a brain with a sacrosanct memory. Whatever I did could be watched and remembered.

 

How does one glide in a place like that?

 

“Set to nighttime.” Magno-locking my door and closing the steel blinds in the middle of the day was a peculiar habit I’d adopted for ensuring a peaceful nap. To recharge before the next round.

 

“Shall I reroute incoming calls to the answering service?” The room’s dry, mellifluous tone never altered.

 

I was expecting a call from my agent. “No, I’ll take all incoming.” A very important call—worth cutting short my much-needed nap for. In the three months since Semprica had canned me, I’d had precious few promising call-backs from potential employers, but it hadn’t perturbed me. Rudy reckoned he could snag a few more interested clients if I was willing to lower my asking price.

 

I sipped my licorice McCormick’s, then tossed and turned on the sofa in the dark for an hour or so, trying to figure out new career routes to try. Sports model, virtual holo-host on one of the podnet channels, or maybe my friend Rinko would let me go into business with her, modeling her lingerie.

 

Restless, I changed into my sports bra and shorts and ran a few miles on the inverted grav track, a kind of oval treadmill that can flip gravity and let you run on the ceiling as well. I’d fallen off it once and shattered my shoulder, so I made sure I was harnessed in.

 

A call came through from the hall terminal while I was winding down in the steam room afterward. Rudy! I rubbed my eyes and sucked in a hot breath. Not wanting to slip on the tiles, I jiggled out in my flip-flops.

 

The screen read, ID Withheld. I palmed the feed open anyway. Maybe Rudy was calling from an out-of-town terminal.

 

No sooner had the caller’s silhouette begun to pixilate when I realized, to my horror, that I was naked, and the screen directly faced—


“Allie?”

 

I ducked for my life.

 

“Allie, you there? The screen’s all misted up.”

 

Thank God. Twice, as it wasn’t Rudy but Lenore. I resurrected and, on my knees, slowly rose to face her. “Hey, Lenore. How are you?” The screen de-misted itself.

 

“Raring to go, sweetie.” She mooched in for a close-up, whispered, “You forgot, didn’t you.” Nuts. “One word—spree.” She gave a sarcastic nod.

 

“Sorry, babe. Today’s been a freaking knot.”

 

She pressed something at the side of her display, then stepped back with a twirl to reveal her dazzling new couture. All tasteful, all designer, all very off-world and figure-hugging. Lenore and I had been closer than sisters for the past several years, and I can say from experience that she never held surprises. What you saw was what you got, from her airy, pre-college conversations to her gasp-worthy female curves. In a galaxy spinning on subterfuge, a genuine soul like Lenore was rarer than pyrofluvium.

 

“Off the charts, babe.” I pointed off-screen, left and right at the same time, to demonstrate. “You should go out just as you are—forget the mask.”

 

She giggled, blew me the kiss I’d coveted as long as I’d known her, and crouched in front of the display again. “Okay, get dressed and I’ll go round up the others. Buzz me when you reach the vane. And Allie…today’s the day.”

 

My dutiful groan made her playfully wag her finger. So they were still harping on about that.

 

“You’re looking rundown, girl.” Her grave headshake had all the weight of a fairy’s tut-tut. “And I’m not taking no for an answer. It’ll get rid of that stress for good. Trust me, a girl without an omnipod is a girl without a plan.”

 

“I’ll hazard a guess that wasn’t Bronte.” A cheap shot, I know, but I’ve never had much patience for people who speak in advert slogans.

 

“No. And I’ll hazard a guess that isn’t Dolce and Gabbana.” She nodded over my shoulder, to the hall mirror showing…my full naked rear.

 

If I wasn’t already steamed pink, I’d have glowed red with shame.

 

“And you’ve just recorded me, haven’t you?”

 

She quirked an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

 

“Okay, Lenore. Good one. You got me. But if that footage should ever turn up on the podnet, you know what would—”

 

“Feeling about ready to try that omnipod then, are we?” As she whistled tunelessly to herself, taunting me like she used to in the old days, I gasped for air once more. But it wasn’t the world outside choking me, that claustrophobic tangle; this time, I wanted to be smothered and inspected and otherwise lavished with attention…but I wanted it with Lenore, in bed, right now.

 

I guess it just wasn’t my day.

 

But the day wasn’t over yet.

 

“I might keep hold of this footage, you know, for posterior…I mean posterity.” She winked. Good pun, babe—cruel but good. “But then again, I might—”

 

“All right, all right—you win.” I held up my hands in surrender. “I’ll give it a whirl.”

 

“Yay.” She grinned and clapped rapidly like a pixie. “You’re gonna love this.”

 

“I’d better.”

 

“You will. Soon, sweetie.” Something distracted her and she dashed away before I had a chance to reply.

 

Buoyed for the first time in days, I picked out an expensive phosphorescent all-in-one and had the styler-bot braid my straight blond hair into pigtails. Lenore had always liked that look, said it made everyone go weak at the knees.

 

Outside, my building smelled of burning tires. The Sandra Lynn Street sidewalk conveyer was out of order, and so was the repair workers’ fume extractor. Breathing in a little pollution never bothered me—Ireton Four has its share of mining dust clouds—but the people of Washington, D.C. dodged it even more than they did the oh-dear (ODEAR—Off-world Draft for Emergency Aid Relief). No, they rarely suffered anything they couldn’t predict or regulate themselves, including the world around them.

 

Joggers and corporate types alike crammed themselves into the lift for the commuter wheel upwind from the smoke, most of them talking into their own omnipod headsets or bobbing their heads to a private audio track. I got one or two appreciative hand gestures, but no one went out on a limb. Sights, sounds, even smells—they lived in a kind of personal cocoon whenever they ventured out.

 

My own experience with the omnipod would change my life forever, but back then, I didn’t want to skip reality any more than I had to. Sleep was the time for dreams, and Mum had taught me the intricacies of lucid dreaming when I’d hit puberty. It had helped me explore and indulge the thwarted fantasies I’d agonized over in daily life, giving me a sense of self I’d never have had without it. At fourteen, it was through lucid dreaming I first came to terms with the fact that I loved women. At sixteen, a stranger I met in a dream guided me onto the famous brass bridge at the Selene pageant and told me that was where I belonged. At twenty-two, I stood in that very spot on finals day. And nothing could ever take that away from me. I saw no reason to hide from everything I’d striven to become.

 

Especially not inside some suck-bait electronic headgear.

 

As we rose toward the station, sunlight glimmered between the spokes of the giant horizontal commuter wheel above. Near the hub, it created a rapid flicker of sun and shadow that no one suffering from epilepsy could stand for long. During my first weeks in D.C., I’d had to take sedatives, as the wheel permanently looming overhead had given me intense claustrophobia. That and bloody awful lucid dreams.

 

Shuttlecraft formed a busy circle around the wheel’s rim, waiting to drop travelers and freight at the dome-shaped checkpoint hangars. I glanced to the hub tower to read the time. Just after four. I turned away from my fellow commuters and slyly pressed my fingerprints in coded sequence on the pterosaur tattoo on the back of my hand. My credit balance flashed twice in the middle of the nano-ink.

Seventeen wings, one jenny.

 

My personal security language for seventeen million, one hundred thousand credits. Thank God they reimbursed the whole amount.

 

Yep, I could afford to splash out a little today.

 

I devoured a diet BLT sandwich from the station cafe, then took the next lift up when the wheel stopped. My spoke had had a new paint job inside, and the corporate logo whooshed electronically down the ceiling half of the cylinder—each spoke was privately leased to a separate company, to ensure high standards were maintained. Hundreds of people drifted by in either direction to a choice of dozens of stops, blissed inside their omnipods, gibbering away, at once gregarious and anti-social. I did the daily crossword with my e-pen while the spoke conveyor carried me to the central hub.

 

“Allie, over here!” Lenore flipped up her omnipod visor and threw me a wave.

 

I could tell who her two companions were from their hair color and their figures. Rinko was obese and had a long black perm. She managed a racy lingerie store that you could only visit on the podnet.

 

The redhead with a bob cut and a narrow ass was Phyllis Briar, daughter of phantom DJ Gideon Briar, a man everyone had heard but few had ever seen. He’d broadcasted his illegal radio show from somewhere in orbit, pinging the signal between the thousands of satellites like a manic pinballer. But no one had heard his show for months. Despite his anti-government spiel, few listeners took him seriously—he was always good for a laugh, though, and brightened up the evenings with his satire. The authorities said they’d stopped looking for him. Coincidence? And though she used to boast about him every chance she got, Phyllis hadn’t mentioned her dad for some time.

 

In customary fashion, neither woman lifted her visor to look me in the eye. They were so omnied in, I was lucky to get a wave.

 

“Hey, Lenore.” At least she’d deigned to unmask. “So you finally talked me round. This is the day I plug in, huh?”

 

“You don’t know what you’ve been missing, doll. I won’t say any more—I’ll not ruin Reggie’s pitch for him.” She wasn’t wearing makeup, and at close range it made her look tired. “It’s a whole new world. You’ll be able to talk to anyone at any time, change anything, buy any—”

 

“Reggie’s pitch,” I reminded her, suddenly intrigued by the prospect of being able to reinvent myselfthis way. I knew nothing about it, but it had clearly done wonders for Lenore.

 

She put her hand to her mouth, then flipped her visor forward over her face. “Come with me.”

 

She grabbed my hand and led me under the giant copper weather vane into the Spiral Shopping Mall that wound down to street level. The other women turned in unison, chatting away into their headsets. Rinko and Phyllis were gossip gurus. Their caustic humor had had me in stitches many a time over the years. But I hadn’t spoken to them much since my Semprica incident—I’d been too busy chasing job opportunities.

 

I was about to join their parallel existence at last—their world within a world. They’d always said it was inevitable. I guess they were right. There’s only so much railing a girl can do before she gets flattened by the fashion express.

 

Reggie’s tacky-sounding omnipod salon, Scheherazade’s, was anything but. The moment I stepped through the bead curtain, my eyes bugged at the sheer imagination on display. Cubicles made up to look like jungle caves, spas, grav chambers, palace bedchambers, even orbital racers, all appeared authentic, no expense spared. The burgundy carpet and gold-ribbed wallpaper oozed exotic elegance. A touchscreen database panel outside each cubicle boasted, in LED lettering, More Dreams Than You Can Imagine.

 

Lenore must have buzzed Reggie over her headset. Without looking our way, he spun from his current clients at the far end of the salon and danced sideways until he reached us. He was a smooth mover, and in his white tux jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves and dark trousers he resembled a VIP punter at Rick’s Cafe Américain in Casablanca. He had a narrow, innocent, easy-on-the-eyes face like a mouse.

 

Unfortunately, he also had to open his mouth. “Lenore, darling. Ca va?

 

Comme ci, comme ca, Reggie. But we’ll be tiptop if you fix our friend up with an SP3 Deluxe. Her name’s Allegra, and she’s a virgin.”

 

I grabbed her toward me. “Hey, what the f—”

 

“An omnipod virgin,” she assured me, then turned back to Reggie. “Is my Loyalty Card good for a guest package?”

 

“Of course, of course.” His hyper camp manner was natural caffeine to be around, and I wasn’t really in the mood. “Use whichever card you like, darling. What my sweet Lenore wants, Reggie gets.” He faced me, his smogged-up eyes as big as wing mirrors. “Allegra—beautiful Allegra, formerly the Face of Semprica, now my new favorite guest. Enchanté.”

 

“How’s it going, Reggie?”

 

“Swimmingly, ma chérie.” After kissing my hand, he invited me through a translucent door marked Executive Consult Room. I turned to roll my eyes at Lenore but she wasn’t following.

 

“We’ll wait for you here, doll.” She fought against the others as they pulled her toward the jungle cave cubicle. “If we’re not here, you’ll know where to find us.” A topless black man wearing jeans and no headset opened the cubicle door for them. Lenore giggled and entered. Jealousy broiled inside me.

 

“Now then, Allegra, darling—first things first. You’ve never omnied before, not even on someone else’s set, is that right?”

 

“Correct.”

 

He rubbed his hands together. “Nothing to it, my love. It’s easier if we hook you up right away and then I’ll key in your preferences manually while you acclimate to the pod sensation. Okay?”

 

“Can I sue you if I upchuck?”

 

His exaggerated laugh suited him as much as it did the garish nightclub and sunset murals decorating the walls of this shiny, dome-shaped room. He told me to sit on one of the six reclining leather chairs that stood around his central console. My chair smelled of boot polish.

 

“Here you are, darling. If I give this to you—” he tore the plastic wrapper off a brand new turquoise-and-pink headset, “—and you put it on…exactly as it is, it will automatically adjust to fit the shape of your head. That’s it.”

 

It felt like a domeless helmet and was cushioned all around. The visor was down, so I couldn’t see a thing.

 

“One second, my love. Let me just key you in to the network. The scanner ID’d you on your way in, so this should be over in a jiffy. Any minute now. Yes, and there…we…go.

 

A sudden forward-wheeling sensation knocked me for a loop, like a positive-g theme park ride I wasn’t ready for. I mouthed the word Shit but no sound emerged. Instead, the buzz of an electric razor rattled on my brain pan for at least five seconds. It didn’t hurt, though, just made me cringe and cock my head the way fingers fondling polystyrene do. Absolute whiteness flooded my vision.

 

The forward-wheeling sensation ended with a quiet thump, as though I’d just been dunked in a sink full of milk.

 

Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeep.

 

I thought I heard Reggie’s voice trying to reach me through the walls of a deep cyber-oyster.

 

Beep. Bee-beep.

 

A few moments of crunching static. Unreachable itching in my inner ear. A low, muffled ring, like those you register by tapping on a tabletop during a hearing exam, gradually sharpened to electronic syllables, then to clear human words. Spoken by an oddly familiar voice.

 

“…last time you will hear my voice. Do not adjust your headset. This is not your product speaking. This is your wake-up call, activated by the first bonding of an omnipod to your neural network. You are in danger. Do not trust this apparatus. More and more users are becoming susceptible to neural interference after frequent use. Remember, your brain is not a plug ’n’ play—the omnipod interface uses filters that reroute and intensify your neural impulses. This can lead to hallucinations and intermittent psychosis. Omni calls its product the last word in living. Don’t let it be the last word of your life.

 

Less than half of one percent of people are capable of hearing this frequency, so the onus is on you to spread the word. Live free, see the wonders of the world through your own eyes before it’s too late. Whatever you do, do not trust your omnipod. The next time you unplug it will be the last time you will hear my voice. Do not adjust you headset. This is not your product speaking…”

 

My legs shook, and the wake of a queasy upwelling tightened my stomach and my chest until bitter nausea burned my throat. Any more of this and the doomsayer’s words would splinter the cork in my head and I’d vomit like Vesuvius…into a brand new omnipod.

 

I gripped the underside of the visor. Before I could wrench it up, the entire rig lifted free and the milk began to drain out of my vision. I gulped warm air and lurched forward, gasping.

 

“Jesus, what the fuck was that?” Though I swallowed the urge to throw up, there was something uncomfortably unreal about reality this side of the thwarted cyber induction. “Reggie, what in God’s name is going on? Someone planted a virus in that omnipod—it fed me a line of shit that beat your line of shit into a cocked hat. I mean, it had me convinced the world is coming to an end. What is it with me and lines of shit? Semprica, the bank, now this place. Do I have a nametag or something that says, Hi, my name’s Allegra—I’m on a diet, feed me your lines of shit?

 

“I must apologize for not warning you sooner, Allegra.” Reggie, having lost a few wigwams of his camp, frowned into his central console as he typed up a storm. “That has only happened here twice in four years. It is an illegal broadcast that somehow jams the virgin omnipod upload—its frequency competes with the interface link, and only a tiny number of clients are able to hear the message. To most it doesn’t register, even subliminally. That section of your brain must be highly receptive. But don’t worry, the message cannot repeat after the virgin uplink.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because your brain has now closed that neural port, to protect itself. In the future it will only respond to our remote uplink, the signature of which has been bioelectrically imprinted.”

 

I blinked until the only traces of white were oily blotches on my vision. “You mean that thing now has some kind of passkey to my brain? It’s encrypted?”

 

“Exactly, ma chérieYour brain is now completely safe from any other omnipod signal, and that is one hundred percent guaranteed.” He rolled up his sleeves over his elbows and fetched me a chilled drinks revolver from the fridge in his minibar.

 

I rotated the selections until I found a liqueur I liked—Arinto—and then hit the central dome to release a couple of ice cubes. The drink-horn holder, some kind of latex over the metal, felt soft, comforting in my hand. I swilled the liquid around a little and then downed it in one shot. Sweet. I pressed the horn back under the tap for a refill.

 

Reggie excused himself, sneaking a quick sip of something through a straw as he ducked out the door. He returned moments later without the revolver, instead toted what looked like a tri-core memory stick about the size of a thumb. “These are brand new.” The boastful glint in his eye concurred. “An instant start-up template, so we can bypass most of the manual neural calibrating. It accesses your likes and wants directly from your memories, and adapts the omnipod in kind. For you, Allegra, it will create an audiovisual framework while the pod is in use—a kind of automatic learning tool that updates on the fly.”

 

He opened a side port on my pod and clipped the gizmo in. “On the market, it would cost thousands of clips. At Scheherazade’s, for a special client, all it costs is a quick nod. Do you accept my deepest apology?”

 

I paid him in full. The poor guy had bent over backward to set me at ease, and in any case the pirates had stuffed that doom signal in my noodle, not Reggie. I wasn’t sold on the whole omnipod fad just yet—quite the contrary—but he was being sweet and I was still a little in shock from the sour-milk fiasco.

 

“You sure, Reggie? There’s no hard feelings one way or the other,” I lied. “Just so you know, you don’t have to buy my loyalty or anything.”

 

He nodded earnestly, then, turning to one side, flashed a smirk. “Oh, it’s nothing. And tax write-offs are always good for business.” His wink set me delightfully at ease.

 

“In that case…what other freebies have you got?”

 

“More than you can imagine, my lovely Allegra.” The company motto. “On your next visit you’ll be able to access any virtual vacation with your pod. The scenarios are adapted infinitesimally by your own imagination. Based on pre-selected virtual frameworks, your pod suggests fully interactive sensorial experiences which your brain then fills in. It’s hard to describe—indeed, it’s impossible to describe, because you’ll be the one omniying each and every experience. Many of my clients come back several times a week. They find the omnipod’s potential limitless and exhilarating. No two scenarios are exactly the same, and you can flesh out your deepest dreams, cravings, desires in absolute privacy. Or if you’d prefer to share them, you can invite your friends to experience what it’s like to be you for a session.”

 

“That sounds…creepy. In my case, a problem shared is a problem doubled. ‘Hi, guys—welcome to my group suicide. Keep arms and legs inside the pyre at all times. Hot s’mores on me.’”

 

He blurted a laugh, overdid it as he did everything else. “Actually, the shared scenarios are filtered, unless users opt for the highest heat ratings for sexual trysts. But clients don’t usually come here for that. They can easily simulate it at home with a standard power adapter. Here at Scheherazade’s, we cater for the more elaborate fantasies—immersive historical worlds, far-flung planets. The more original, the better. One of my clients, a performance artist, improvises his moods and scenarios as he goes, drifting in and out of dozens of elaborate matrices to reflect the music track playing in his omnipod. He then sells those pod recordings over the communal podnet, and I get a percentage of his revenue.

 

“Another client, an elderly woman in her nineties, assumes the form of a beautiful twenty-five-year-old and narrates her interactive journeys. She visits famous historical events, and her first-person pod experiences, together with her lifetime of knowledge, have become popular teaching aids in schools throughout the colonies. As well as seeing what she sees and hearing her narration, you also get to taste, touch and smell history as her brain interprets it. The omnipod simulates all of that sensory information directly into users’ brains by nano-link. It’s a shared experience…in every way.”

 

“Okay, you’re blowing my mind here, pal.”

 

Reggie grinned as he motioned for me to lean away from the rig. “The tech is evolving all the time. Experts say that, before long, human consciousness might start to evolve with it, that the omnipod might be the catalyst for our brains to reveal their true potential.”


“And that collective popping sound will be our hot noodle soup.”

 

While he disconnected my new headset from its power terminal and packed it in a custom-designed padded case with the Scheherazade’s logo on the front, he kept muttering that phrase to himself, enjoying the hell out of it. “Hot noodle soup. Hot noodle soup. Allegra, I love your humor. Will you do me a huge favor and sign my photograph of you?” He reached under the central console and retrieved a framed black-and-white picture—one of my first and most famous interplanetary advert poses for Semprica.

 

The fresh silicone frame was still warm when he handed it to me. It had to have been cut there and then by an insta-pic machine under his console. “Sure thing.”

 

He beamed and danced a weird little jig, reminding me of one of those tacky theater emcees with a permanent grin you just want to slap around for a bit. “The Face of Semprica in my studio. Amazing.”

 

“I’m flattered. How about something to write with?”

 

He gave me a nail pen he’d pretended to pull out of his sleeve. “If you could write Enjoy your hot noodle soup, it would make my day.”

I affixed the pen like a thimble to my forefinger and signed the photo.

 

“Thank you, ma chérie.”

 

“You’re welcome. See you soon then. Thanks for the freebie.”

 

The guy had been borderline all along, but now he really began to overdo his camp fawning routine, smooching my hand, slotting his arm across my shoulders, whispering in my ear that I was his favorite model at Semprica and it was a crime what had happened to me and that I’d get the VIP treatment any time I visited Scheherazade’s.

 

“So the next time I put this thing on, I’ll be good to go? There’s a tutorial, right?”

 

“A personal tutorial, as brief or as in-depth as you like. Trust me, my love, your world of the omnipod will unfold quicker and sweeter than your favorite dream. And as long as you wear it, nothing need ever be dull again.”

 

I spotted Lenore and the others giggling, sans pods, with a group of little people at the far end of the store. She scurried over to me in her high heels when I waved, and Rinko and Phyllis sauntered after her. It occurred to me, as Reggie and I explained what had happened during the uplink, that a shift of reality had just taken place, almost imperceptibly, between the five of us. I was no longer on the outside looking in, nor was I on the inside looking out. There was no out. Only denial. I realized every facet of D.C. society was a facsimile of reality, uploaded and downloaded at a trillion terabytes per second. Friends holo-phoned or spent all day hanging out together over their pods—no distance or conflicting schedule came between them. Anyone could buy anything from anywhere and not have to expend any more effort than a blink into a headset to obtain it—more free time to do other things.

  

Yet, it was amazing how time-consuming free time could be.

 

“Bye, Reggie. Get a new suit,” Lenore shot playfully over her shoulder as we left.

 

“You’ll have to program one for me,” he replied, then tap-danced away to his next client-to-be-pitied.

 

Outside, a gaggle of over two dozen schoolgirls skipped by, all wearing designer omnipods and blue fishnet tights with short skirts. The multi-tasking on display was dazzling—they were each engaged in several conversations at once, nodding one way, then giggling another, then ducking to one side for a private, perhaps long-distance aside, all inside their headsets.

 

They reminded me of the juvenile prodigies I’d read about from centuries past, when the global internet had exploded into public consciousness for the first time. Entire generations of children had practically grown up online, cultivated innumerable friendships from an early age. Some of them had become so adept at holding umpteen online conversations at once while also playing games and surfing the web, their brains had developed multi-tasking faculties beyond anything neural scientists had imagined.

 

What Reggie had suggested—that future omnipod generations might witness giant leaps forward in brain functionality—made perfect sense to me. This was the new frontier. The line between cyber and physical reality was blurring.

 

And I hadn’t even been inducted yet.

 

“Allie, the best thing for you right now is to go straight home and get acquainted with your pod. Practice.” Phyllis held her wrist over mine and fed a length of digi-coil from her e-band until it formed a shiny bracelet around my arm. “There, I’ve printed off three usernames and friend invitation codes—mine, Rinko’s and Lenore’s. Soon as you’re live on the podnet, scan the digi-coil into your pod. The second we officially accept you, you’ll start receiving friend requests by the thousands. And trust me, hon, with a profile like yours, you’ll be the toast of the world before the day is out. If you want it.”

 

She smooched closer and kissed my cheek. I didn’t know what to say—Phyllis and I hadn’t exactly finished each other’s sentences in a while. And to top it off, Rinko gave me a hearty squish as well. “This is our present to you, babe,” she said. “Nothing opens doors like an omnipod.”

 

Another one who speaks in advert slogans.

 

I gazed at them in turn, blankly, then held up my new present. “Gee, thanks. I…I pod you too, mother-podders.”

 

I’d never seen them laugh as hard. Lenore doubled up, almost peed herself, and for a second I thought I might have to give her mouth-to-mouth. Mmm, yes please.

 

She slung her arm over my shoulder and flop-walked for half a block, still laughing her ass off. To say our walk back to the wheel hub was the best time I’d had in months was an understatement; the four of us rocked the arcade, mocking everything and everyone the way we had in the good ol’ days, and made the other shoppers seem like omni zombies tuned in to RIP FM.

 

When I got home, a mug of McCormick’s was waiting for me on the coffee table, and the room announced it was glad to see me home. The moment I set my omnipod down on the settee, two notions hit me simultaneously. The first, that I was on the threshold of immense opportunity. I’d resolved to link up with Lenore and the others on the podnet not just because it was the “in” thing to do, but because it would give my career networking a jolt up the cyber caboose. They were all ultra-popular omniyers, and with their endorsements, e-bees would swarm to my e-pollen in record time.

 

That had occurred to me before, but somehow I’d never quite grasped the mind-bending potential. I’d been railing against the very thing that might save my career because, well, I suck at following the herd. My home world is one of the most sparsely populated planets inside 100z. That gave you time and space to find your own path, measure your own stride upon it. But on Earth, when you’re crushed in and conveyed like syntho-meat to your shelf in the sky market, your choices seem kinda prepackaged.

 

Like I’d said, how can you truly glide in a place like that?

 

Maybe I’d found a way.

 

The second notion yanking at my heart in the tug-of-war concerned my three best friends. After such a raucous outing, I couldn’t wait to uplink and join in their podnet antics. But that was also what worried me. From now on, I’d get to know them all over again as podpals in virtual space. And the closer we became as omniyers, the less private, real time we’d share. I needed to spend more time with Lenore, not less. And they’d said I’d be bombarded by thousands of friend requests. Well, I’d already seen the gaggle of multitasking schoolgirls switching focus as though they were shooting ducks in their own heads.

 

The more friendly it sounded, the more hectic it sounded—the more I thought of the commuter wheel’s spokes. At ground level near the hub, the spinning spokes created a rapid flicker of sunlight and shade that could unspool a certain kind of mind. Sure, it was a popular place to meet people, but what good was that when your brain turned into hot noodle soup.

 

“You’re worrying too much,” I said aloud. “Just use it sensibly. Don’t let it take you over.”

 

“I’m sorry, Allegra. That command did not compute.”

 

“Shut it, Room. I’ve just about had a bellyful of you today.”

 

“Is that a new recipe? Would you like me to make less next time? You require a new skillet. Shall I order one for you?”

 

I hurled a settee cushion at the nearest wall speaker. “The answer to every goddamn question for the rest of the day is no. No, no, and fucking no.”

 

Beeep.

 

“Hey, what was that? Sounded like a holo-message. Room?”

 

“Your message has not been saved, Allegra.”

 

“Why the hell not?”

 

“Because your answer to my next question—Shall I save your incoming message from Rudy Moncada?—was no.”

 

“Oh my God. You—” Livid, I thumped the speaker guard, knocking it off the wall and wrenching a couple of wires out of their sockets. Rudy was notoriously difficult to catch after mid-afternoon, and now I might have to spend all evening trying to reach him.

 

The other speakers around the apartment gave off a crackling fizz, as though they were chuckling at the damage I’d inflicted on their cousin. I sank onto the settee, minus cushion, and stared at the omnipod package beside me while I sipped my McCormick’s and cursed a world of ones and zeroes.

 

Nope, me and technology—we still had some ground to make up.