by Adrian McCauley

Her apartment complex, as with much of this part of Midoru, was owned by Nutrex. A tall plascrete tower underlit by green lights, advertisements for NBP scrolled around the building. Bespoke elements within the adverts quickly updated, and soon the entire building seemed to be speaking directly to Nerita.

The walls in the corridor were also one large, rotating advertisement for NBP. “Invest in Nutrex. Grow your future with us.” It looped scenes from the algae farms, showing workers smiling while maintaining the bioreactors, administrators laughing in front of holoscreens, then parading various food, drugs, biofuels and merchandise they produced.

Nerita rubbed at her temples again. It was a constant assault. She felt like the world was a giant, ugly merry-go-round that she couldn't get off. It left her exhausted and dizzy.

Inside the elevator the walls quickly faded to black and Nerita found herself inside a 3D commercial for a popular VR show, “Cats in Boxes.” For the next forty seconds she experienced what it was like, from a Cymric Panther's point of view, to pull a piece of string through a hole.

After a quick dinner of freshly-printed AgaroSteak, she disabled her avatar and had a long shower. Under the hot water, she felt the tension in her head wash away. Afterward, she walked around in her tiny box-like apartment in just shorts and singlet. She flopped down on her bed, groaning in satisfaction.

Next to her bed was an old PDA she had bought secondhand. She brought up a ChatApp and almost immediately her mother's face appeared, a large hologram hovering just in front of her.

“Hey Mum.”

“Nori!” Her mother was dressed in a dinner-suit in the style of the early 2000's. “It's so good to hear from you. How has your first week in the city been?”

“Honestly? Harder than I thought. It's so damned... loud.”

“We did tell you to expect the noise and the people-”

Nerita sighed loudly. “It's just - it doesn't stop. The lights and the colors and the movement - I feel like I'm trapped in a bad fever. I knew that advertising was everywhere, but didn't realize that meant everywhere. I just get so overwhelmed by everything. I mean, even the people are all dressed in animated textiles or wearing avatars that don't sit still.”

“Oh, I loved the avatar you created, Nori. She's very cute. She reminds me of my girlfriend before I met your father.”

“How is Dad?” Nerita sat upright, plumping a pillow behind her and wriggling back against it.

“He's doing really well. He isn't out of the hospital yet; they want to monitor him and make sure his implants sync properly this time.”

“So will you guys move to the city soon then?” Nerita rubbed a hand over her short hair. It still felt strange but she was beginning to like it.

“I'm still negotiating with the company on that. I refuse to take the promotion unless we are guaranteed a big yard in the enclaves. Gardening is too important to your father. There's no way he'd give it up.” She looked around Nerita's small apartment. It was a single room with amenities along one side, and modular furniture that could fold away when not needed. “I like your room, Nori. You have a view outside?”

Nerita glanced at the live-stream of hills and trees along one wall. “No, just a wallpaper, but it reminds me a bit of being home.”

“Well, it's nice. Oh, we forgot to tell you congratulations. We saw your updates about the gig. NBP is a good company to work for. Do enough gigs for them and you might get offered a full-time contract like your father.”

“Yeah, well I'm not sure if I want to work full time yet. But at least while I'm on this gig, my apartment is subsidized. This is the cheapest apartment in the projects. I looked at what was available in the sprawls, but... I couldn't handle living there by myself. Too crowded. I'd feel pretty anxious, unsafe.”

Her mum's face became serious for a moment, as though she were concentrating on something else. “Nori, I'm switching you to a news feed for a minute, you need to see this.”

The hologram changed to a scene somewhere in the sprawls where people were running around, lost and confused. Glass smashed as a person erupted through a window of a shop, landing on the pavement. Blood streamed from the gashes on his face and arms. He pushed himself up onto his knees, and before he even made it to his feet, a teen in rough clothing burst through the doorway and began beating the man's head with an iron bar.

Flashing lights on a SafeGuard Insurance Police Drone arrived overhead. The surge of people parted, making room for the craft as it landed. Four officers stepped out onto the street, and a SWAT-Bot rolled out like a grey beachball, unfolding to tower at least a foot above each officer. A medic in grey and red stepped out last, lingering by the vehicle.

The officers began handling the crowd, moving people further back and recording statements while the bot opened a panel on its side and removed a small rifle.

The teen was screaming wildly, swinging the bar in front of him. He foamed at the mouth, like a rabid and uncontrollable animal. He charged at the crowd.

“I'm going to fucking kill you!” He screamed. “I hate you! HATE YOU!”

The bot fired its concussion rifle. There was a loud thuuum. A visible shockwave blew the pavement clear of debris, throwing the youth against the shop wall.

“Stay down,” The bot's deep, authoritative voice instructed.

The teen clambered back to his feet. This time he charged at the police.

The bot changed the setting on its gun and fired again. There was a silent purple flash from a NeuroDisrupter.

The teen collapsed mid-stride. He spasmed on the concrete, vomiting on himself, while the medic tended to other victims, before making his way to the writhing boy on the ground.

The projection switched back to Nerita's mum. “This sort of thing doesn't happen near you, does it love?”

Nerita shook her head. “No, Mum. That was in the industrial sector, I'm in the projects, remember? Better insured district. Private police. Crime is pretty low here.”

“Still...” her mum's brow was wrinkled with worry, “I just want you to be safe, Love.”

“I will Mum. I promise.”

“I'm just reading the news report. Apparently this thing has been happening a lot lately. A rise in random violent crimes throughout the city. If it gets too rough, there's no shame coming back home. You know that, right? We'll support you if you decide to leave.”

Nerita gave a chuckle. “Okay, thanks Mum. I promise if things start to get weird or dangerous, I'll come home.”

“We miss you, Love.”

“It's only been a week. Oh - I've finally made a friend.” Nerita blushed. It felt awkward talking about these things.

“That's wonderful. Did you visit one of those interactive holomovies we read about? They sound exciting.”

“No, actually. I haven't gone out much yet. Not until I can better handle the sensory overload of just getting around the city.”

“Couldn't you just... not wear the AR glasses we got you?”

“I tried, but it's like they've designed everything in the city around what isn't real, so you're kind of forced to buy gear and then subscribe to themes and add-on packs to be able to interact with everything.”

Nerita slapped her palm on her forehead. “Oh, God - did you know, there's a game embedded in supermarket carts? You earn points in the game by buying things that are 'linked' together - kind of like a scavenger hunt. If you buy all the items you get a huge discount.”

“That sounds fun.” Her mum glanced impatiently at the displayed time. “I'm sorry, Nori: it was lovely talking to you, but I really have to go. The evening is getting on, and I have a work dinner to attend tonight. Please try to update your feeds daily for me, okay honey?”

“Okay Mum. Love you.”

“Love you. Bye Nori.”

Nerita disengaged the app and just sat there, watching clouds roll down the hills. After a while she turned the wallpaper off, grabbed her VR band from under the bed and put it on.

She watched Cats in Boxes for at least an hour. A POV show, it streamed live from the producer's studio. Her favorite segment was 'Kitten's First,' where she experienced what it was like to tumble and roll around with a half dozen other ginger kittens, before scooting sideways under a table and attacking the producer's feet.

Afterward, she climbed into bed and turned the lights off. She browsed wallpapers on her PDA and chose one of a distant thunderstorm. The view of the mountains was now backlit by neon lightning. Rivulets of water streamed down the imaginary windows.

# # #

Author Info

Adrian McCauley lives in the small coastal town of Oamaru, New Zealand - world famous for its Victorian Heritage and its ubiquitous Steampunk culture - where he home-schools his three children. When he isn't parenting, tending to his large section, fixing up his Edwardian cottage or chasing his free-range chickens out of the kitchen, he likes to write. He is an author of fantasy, science fiction and slipstream, and a regular contributor to the UbiquiCity series. 
He blogs at https://adrianmccauley.com/

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