Jules’ Trovian MK8 Stylus was completely toast by noon. Its final demise was sudden—right in the middle of adding an alabaster finish to some peripheral points of the design, the wand simply stopped working. Jules shook it in their hand, tapping the buttons, furiously trying to revive it. They swirled the wand around inside the design in quick circles. Normally, that would have totally warped their output of the morning into a muddle of colors and abnormal shapes. But now, nothing.
They held the wand up close to their face. The little blue LED light just below their thumb flickered, and then after a few seconds went out completely. Jules dropped the wand onto the table and rubbed their face.
This was not exactly a surprise. The wand had been getting wonky the last couple of weeks, losing its deft feel and touch, needing multiple clicks to adjust color or line,much retracing, more frequent reboots. But the work didn’t as much suffer from all that as it just made it all take a little longer. Which wasn’t all bad; the extra time for deliberation made Jules more thoughtful in what they were doing. But now the wand was completely dead.
Jules slipped the wand receptor out of the neural dock in their neck and dropped it onto the desk. It clattered and bounced around like die before settling near the defunct wand against the side of their ashtray. They leaned back in their seat. A corner of the sheet over their window had fallen out again and a shaft of light hit them right in the face. They closed their eyes and let the light warm their cheek.
Jules had hoped the wand would make it through the Emerson project. It almost had. Most of the holosculpts were done. The ones still left were the smaller escalator ads, a pad pop-up or two, which were just slight variations on the pedestrian bumps for concourse areas anyway. A slightly different framing, a heavier tint to compensate for the lower res, and a shorter pattern cycle, ten seconds instead of thirty. All told a week’s worth of work at best. Easily meeting their deadline with a day or so to spare. With a functioning wand.
Jules grabbed a half-smoked, dried-out spliff from the ashtray and sniffed it. They placed it in the corner of their mouth and chewed on it unlit, shaking their head.
Jules never missed a deadline. They couldn’t afford to. The producers, company owners, the money folks, they could screw around or set ridiculously absurd goals for their part on a project. And when they flew by unmet they’d just shrug and set another. But not the help. Finish a gig late, even just once, and you’re suddenly unreliable. Miss a deadline because your equipment shit the bed and you are unreliable and out of date. And good luck trying to find the next job with that rep.
Jules rubbed their nose and sniffed. Maybe that was being a little hyperbolic. Maybe. But not as much as they were comfortable with. These design houses, they have no loyalty to a freelancer. There’s always someone else they could bring in for the next job. Someone who always met their deadline.
There was no other option. Jules needed to get a new wand today.
* * *
It was cold and damp out, not quite raining yet, but feeling like it was only a matter of time. The faint mist in the air splashed on Jules’ cheeks like microscopic ice and sharpened their senses. They pulled their coat tightly around themself and hustled down the road, stepping around the trash bags that the squatters in the half-standing building next door had put out a day early. A mangy little dog that was rooting through the bags looked up at Jules and growled as they passed, protective of some new found treasure inside the garbage.
The weather had thinned the market crowd a bit, but it was still fairly active as Jules entered, ducking under a string of LED lights that sagged across the entrance, flickering softly in the uncertainty of being just barely too bright to fully turn on. One of the panhandlers that loitered out front approached them. Jules held both their hands out apologetically and the man turned away with a slight nod of his head. Jules continued past the craft tables and makeshift stalls of baked goods and homemade candy huddled underneath tarps to keep from getting ruined in the rain. A sudden stomach growl made them remember they had forgotten to eat today.
Jules turned off the path to cut across the center of the market where dirt and grass had only barely started to bury the concrete rubble, making for the cargo containers at the far corner of the market. Three of them rested against the side of an old parking garage, with doors and windows cut into their sides and random colorful graffiti in between the openings. These were the more permanent residents of the market, places with more than craft jewelry or homemade baked goods. On one end there was a bookstore, where the couple who ran it were busy pulling in their outside displays. In the middle was a bar that had a smaller container stacked on top, creating a second floor balcony set-up. The bar was still closed, with metal shutters covering the door and windows. Just as Gorky’s electronic shop inexplicably was the other side it. Jules stopped and stared at his place with a scowl.
They approached the shop and wrapped their knuckles on the shutter loudly a couple of times. After a few moments, they heard someone moving around inside the store, something getting knocked over followed by muffled swearing. Then, “We’re closed,” came the hoarse cackle through the door and shutter.
Jules pressed their face right up to the side of the shutter. “Gorky, it’s me,” they shouted back. “Let me in.”
Two hands gripped the bottom of the shutter and lifted it with a screech. Jules stepped back as Gorky’s old, grizzled head stuck out of the dark shop and eyed them. “We’re still closed,” he said.
“C’mon, it’s an emergency,” Jules pleaded. “I’m on a deadline.”
“When are you not?” The old man sighed and stepped aside, swinging the door open for Jules. “Make it fast.”
The shop was dark with the shutters still over the windows, but not pitch black. The neck on the lamp by the small table near the door was turned upside down and reflected off the shiny ceiling, sending long shadows over the stacked bins of random electrical equipment along the back wall. On the table next to the lamp a multileveled schematic spun slowly over a holopad.
“Looks like it’s almost done,” Jules said, nodding at the display.
“Got my hands on some octocore processors. Should cut the time breaking through encryption by half.” Gorky walked past Jules and dropped a kerchief over the base and the display blinked out. “If I can find the time to work them into the design.”
Jules nodded. “Right. Fine.” They cleared their throat. “My wand just crapped out on me. And I need a new one.”
Gorky smirked. “New?”
“New to me.”
“That I have.” Gorky walked over to a glass display case and flipped a switch on its side, lighting up the case. Inside were various electronic items spread out over two rows of shelves. In the upper right corner were a collection of five wands, resting haphazardly on top of their boxes.
Jules walked up to the case and leaned down to look at the wands. After a few moments they looked up at Gorky, leaning on the case opposite them. “These all you have?” they asked.
Gorky gestured around the store. “It’s not like I have a backroom here.”
Jules straightened up with a sigh. “They’re all prosumer at best.”
Gorky took out a wand from the end and rested it on top of the case. “What about this one? The Maxwell ER5. Has all the functionality of the higher-end models.”
Jules picked up the wand, and rolled it over in their hand, looking it over. They shook their head and put it back down.
“I’ve tried them before. It’s not terrible, but it’s sluggish. It’s got a slow processor. And its color palette is too narrow. You end up spending half your time mixing and blending to get the shades you want.”
Gorky scratched his chin and returned the wand to its spot under the glass. As he did he pointed to the one next to it. “What about the Tokugawa Series 12?”
“Better processor but less control. It has only two single press buttons instead of a directional switch and a thumbwheel. And they’re not even tactile.” Jules tapped the glass above the other wands in turn. “Same goes for the Tribulet, the Yellen, and the Inokin.” They straightened up with a sigh. “I was really hoping you’d have a Trovian. MK7 or better.”
Gorky chuckled. “I don’t carry high-end stuff like that.”
“You have before.”
“Only when it fell in my lap. Even then they usually just take up space. Nobody around here has any need for something like that.”
Jules wrapped their knuckles on the glass case. “I do.”
“Obviously.” Gorky threw up his hands. “Well, if you want, I can order one for you. Rush the delivery and it’d get here by tomorrow evening. Day after at the latest.”
“I could have done that from home. Even assuming there’d be no delay on the delivery—which I don’t—it’d still take too long. And I’d miss my deadline.”
“Then get the Maxwell to use until you can get a Trovian.”
“I can’t afford two wands. Even after I get paid for the job I’m on. Whatever I get now I’m stuck with for a while.”
“Get one on credit.”
“Do you take credit?”
“I meant get the Maxwell now and order the Trovian online with credit.”
Jules snorted. “Sounds so simple when you put it like that. I suppose you’ll let me return the Maxwell for a refund.”
Gorky smirked again. “Then what?”
Jules stared down at the case for a long moment, before they shrugged. “I’ll have to go into the city.”
“You thinking Ajax?”
“They’re more audio. I was thinking H&I uptown. Guaranteed they’d have one.”
“Yeah, but uptown,” Gorky said with a grimace. “That’s no place for decent humans.”
“I know,” Jules replied. “That’s why I stopped in here first. To see if I could avoid it.” They stood straight and started to turn towards the door. “I was hoping to not have to make a whole damn day of this.”
Back outside, many of the stalls were empty or in the process of being packed up, the sellers having decided to go home and wait for tomorrow and hopefully better weather. Some were still braving it, though. Jules stopped and grabbed a banana muffin from one of them on their way out of the market and ate it as they walked to the train. After the last bite, they rolled up the cellophane and paper into a ball and deposited it in the overfilled trash bin on a corner, gingerly placing it on top so it wouldn’t fall onto the ground.
As they wiped their hands together over the bin Jules looked down the street to the left. It sloped downwards sharply and leveled out a few blocks away. They could see all the way to the river, and then over the faded brick buildings on this shore to the blue and silvery skyscrapers shooting upwards on the other. So bright and gleaming. Flashy reflections of candy color lights faintly sparkled in millions of windows. Even the air around those structures was brighter. Despite the cold and miserable weather and ominous clouds above, it was just another sunny day in the city. Naturally. They’d never let it rain uptown during business hours.
* * *
The train across the river was pretty empty when Jules got on and took a seat against the back of the car. The only other passengers were an old woman standing by the middle doors next to all the empty seats and her shopping cart full of tied-off bags, and a pair of kids at the other end who were clearly playing hooky from something. At the next stop three others got on, a tired-looking laborer and an Orthodox mother with her child in a stroller they were far too old to still be in.
Jules shifted in their seat to look out the window. The rain was coming down in buckets, so hard that just a minute after it had started you’d never know it hadn’t been raining all day. They had been fortunate that there were enough old-fashioned brick and mortar stores still alive within the sphere of the station that they were able to keep themself somewhat dry, or at least not soaked to the bone, by hustling from awning to awning till they got to the street underneath the elevated tracks and the relative cover it provided. Jules looked down on those buildings. The signs of life only went for a few blocks from the station before the buildings became more commonly covered with layers of graffiti and boarded up windows. Or in ashen burn scars, sometimes with roofs if not their entire innards collapsed inside of them.
Jules turned and sat forward in their seat. It suddenly occurred to them they didn’t know the exact amount of money they had. There was definitely enough for the new wand in their account, they were certain of that. Work had been pretty good recently, so they were well ahead at the moment. Good thing this had happened now instead of last fall when they barely had two pennies to rub together. But how flush were they, exactly? How much would be left after the big purchase for everything else this month? They tried to remember the last time they checked their account. It had been a week or two at least. With all the work and subsequent invoices coming in there wasn’t as much of a need to keep track, knowing it was plenty. Two thousand? Maybe twenty-one hundred? It was something like that.
They looked around the train. They supposed they could check their account now on their smartwatch in relative safety from a hacker. No threats in the train at least, and anyone stationary below wouldn’t get far before Jules flew out of range. At least as far as they knew—who knows what someone out there has come up with. Jules shook their head. They should have checked before leaving the house.
More people got on the train at the next station, being the second to last before the river. Their car wasn’t cramped just yet with the influx of families, students, second shift workers, the lost tourist or two finally getting back on track, but the sense of space was gone. Jules gave up their seat to an elderly man who nodded appreciatively to them as he sat down with a tired grunt. At the next and final stop before the river more people got on, filling the car. Jules was herded out of reach of any of the poles, so they grabbed the lapel of their coat with one hand and pressed the other into the ceiling to steady themselves as the car pulled out with a jerk. Next stop, the world of tomorrow. Consumerland.
H&I would definitely have a hefty markup on the wand. Of course they would. They could be selling it for as much as a thousand, which was two hundred more than Jules could find one for online. That much Jules could probably handle. More than that, say one or two hundred more, then that would start to strain their finances. And they wouldn’t be totally surprised if that was the store’s markup either. Fancy boutique stores like H&I could get away with prices like that. They thrived on hobbyists or trust fund artists who were too lazy to bargain shop and rich enough not to have to.
Jules closed their eyes and took a deep breath. Worst case scenario—twelve hundred for a new wand. Which means they could be left with as little as eight hundred to get by. Not enough. Not even close. That’s not even rent, let alone food. Of course, there’d another thirteen hundred coming in when they finished the Emerson project, and those guys never needed the whole thirty days on the invoice. They always paid early, sometimes within a day or two. Then tighten the belt just a little bit more, no going out for a while, line up a few quick jobs while there’s jobs to be had, and in a month or two all would be good with the world again.
Jules ground their teeth in circular motions. Lots of supposition there. Assuming the Emerson job paid early. Assuming that work was going to be easy to get after it. There was no reason to think both things wouldn’t happen, but relying on future events no matter how likely made Jules’ confidence in their plans wobble just a bit. They had to remind themselves that all of that was the worst-case scenario. And there was no point in worrying about it yet.
The train pulled into the station, and the doors opened onto the glaringly bright platform. It almost looked like a wall of pure white just outside the car. Jules flowed in the push of people out the door as they blinked repeatedly, their eyes slowly adjusting to the blinding glare of the city.
The platform was essentially just that—a flat plateau two stories above the street and open to the air. It was all glass, marble, polished steel, and exactly trimmed greenery, with banner-like sculptures rising up from four corners, meeting above them at a point. Large animated holo-ads hung in the air above, flashing their wares on ten-second loops. Beyond that was the cityscape. Large skyscrapers, some with sharp points and edges, angular, others smooth and rounded, rose up to the clouds above, only slightly distorted at their peaks by the streams of rainwater being filtered away in the environmental barrier above.
Jules walked to the far end of the platform. The holo-ads above them shifted to other products as Jules’ perspective to them changed. They avoided staring at any single ad for too long and proceeded to the escalator to the uptown monorail, a standalone structure seemingly bereft of any support to the left of the street exit.
As they waited at the bottleneck to the moving stairs, Jules glanced at a holo-ad hanging in the air over the short wall on the edge of the station. The hilt of a medieval sword, ornate in silver and leather twirled slowly, pulling back to reveal the long and thick-looking double-edged blade. When the sword came fully into view, a large ruby that was the sword’s pommel started to glow, and red electric sparks ran up the side of the sword to meet it. The sparks intensified and formed the words ‘MARAUDER CONQUEST’ in a pulsing Viking font, with a small game designer logo underneath. After a moment the whole thing flashed out and the loop started again.
Jules shook their head. The detail on the sword was good, especially in the leather strapping, and the red sparks were well animated and didn’t repeat patterns. But zooming out from a close to a wide? Such a two-dimensional concept. Fine for a vid poster or flat screen but not for a 3D holo-ad. Somebody must have cut a corner at the agency that made it. Either hired a newbie or didn’t pay to get the design specified for the given medium and just dropped the flat screen version in whatever. Jules bet it was Holohouse. They were always getting away with shitty work like that.
“I see you are interested in Marauder Conquest,” a voice said next to them. “It is currently on sale for a limited time.”
Jules turned to see a young, vibrantly attractive woman in a sheer jumpsuit standing next to them. She smiled at them softly, bringing out symmetrical dimples on their clear white cheeks.
Jules shook their head. “I was just looking at the ad. Not interested.”
The woman continued. “It is one of the top-selling games of the year. Now with an improved AI and add-ons including new factions such as Wessex and Rusk to both play against and as, included in the basic download. All for eighty-five ninety-nine for a limited time.”
“I said I’m not interested.”
The woman nodded. “If you change your mind this limited-time offer will be valid until July first. From Enersoft games.” The woman grew hazy and disappeared.
Jules turned and got on the escalator. Can’t even stand still for a moment before a bot latches on.
* * *
Uptown was crowded, as always. For the most part the foot traffic kept right and moved along in an orderly fashion, but it was slowed by tourists who sauntered along, staring at everything, trapping Jules in the snail’s pace they created. Many of them conversed in detail with ad-bots floating next to them. Jules rolled their eyes, mild annoyance at their gullibility itching in the back of their head. They knew to keep moving at least.
Jules supposed it must be something for them to be here. To be catered to by bots everywhere they looked. The big city. It was one thing to see the buildings in pictures, another to see them in person. And another thing altogether to look up at them from their very foundation and to see the perfect rows of human-sized windows slowly shrink as you look up the building into squares smaller than your fingernail. Then keep going up into a blur. The flashing lights, the animated seven-story billboards as clear and vibrant as your screen at home, the forty-foot holo-ads in the air above the park. All of it so bright you felt it in your eyes. Designed to grab your attention, to compete for your gaze. To get you to buy something, anything.
The flow of people stopped at the corner waiting for the light to turn. Jules wound up at the front, their feet hanging over the edge of the curb. The cars passed by at a crawl, occasionally someone honking their horn pointlessly. Jules looked to their left at the person standing next to them. A woman, a good head taller than Jules, with blonde hair pulled tight against her scalp in a bun, deep cheekbones, and tinted round glasses stared ahead. Her clothes were all white, smooth leather, bare-shouldered with a deep V-neck that fell almost to her navel, and pants that hugged her thighs and legs snugly to her knees where they flared out over obsidian black five inch heels. Her long graceful neck jutted forward like a ballerina’s, adorned with an intricate knit patterned choker, thin in the front above her collarbone but rising to cover her entire nape in the back.
“We have many styles and sizes to suit you at Simones, two blocks ahead on the right.”
Jules turned to see the ad-bot standing in front of them in the street, the traffic moving through their body as she stood with her hands clasped in front of her, smiling.
“I wasn’t…” they stammered. Jules looked back up at the woman next to her. She looked down at Jules and smiled almost like a conspirator. The light changed and she stepped out into the street with a haughty walk. Jules followed and the ad-bot hovered in front of them.
“We have the latest fashions tailor-made for all sizes and tastes for all occasions,” the ad-bot continued. “From gala events to office wear. Come see our new comfortable Excelsior exercise line, designed to allow for full range of movement and superior perspiration absorption.”
Jules waved their hand irritably through the bot, making her hologram glimmer and go hazy. “I’m not interested,” they said sternly. “Go away.”
The ad-bot shimmered and disappeared. Up ahead the woman was swiftly moving ahead in the crowd. Two people behind her already engaged with ad-bots of their own. Jules quickly looked away from her to prevent the bot from coming back.
Well that was new. Ad-bots triggered by other people. Now just making eye contact with someone on the street and you’d get an ad for Lasik surgery. Checking out someone’s walk would get you shoe ads. Or toilet paper. The woman was probably a model the store hired to just walk around the area all day, not flirting, or talking, or interacting with anyone at all. Just being present and catching people’s eyes as she sauntered down the street. All for the ad clicks.
Jules shook their head. Just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse up here.
The solid glass door of H&I Electronics swung closed behind Jules as they stood at the entrance and looked around. It was a small store, space being at a premium in the area, with comforting eggshell walls and deep display cases sloping up and back running along all four walls. Soft, nondescript music played from the mirrored ceiling.
The store was empty apart from a man off to the right who was bent over one of the cases. Jules approached the man, and as they stepped around to face him they saw him examining a joystick controller he was holding inches from his face, a cybernetic eye in his right socket glowing red. Standing next to him was the hologram of a man, patiently watching him and waiting to answer questions.
Jules sighed and turned to their left. A hologram woman appeared in the air. She smiled at Jules brightly. “Good afternoon. Is there something I can help you with today?”
“Are there any humans working?”
The woman shook her head. “I’m afraid all the other associates are busy with other customers or are otherwise not available.” The woman reset to her original smile. “Is there something I can help you with today?”
Jules sighed. “I need a new design stylus.”
The hologram nodded. “We have a fine selection of the best high end wands on the market.” She gestured towards the back end of the store. “This way.”
There were about twenty wands in all, in four rows in the case against the back wall of the store, displayed in clear glass cradles on top of their packing boxes. All had the same basic design with minor variations, mostly in their skins.
“To better help you make the ideal purchase, could you describe to me what your main use of a design stylus is?” the hologram asked.
“That’s all right, I know which one-” Jules turned towards the voice and stopped when they saw the hologram’s torso cut off by the display case she was above. “Don’t do that,” they said tersely. “Don’t hover in the case like that.” Jules pointed to the spot next to them. “Stand here or something.”
The woman moved to stand next to Jules. “I apologize if I have made you uncomfortable. It was not my intention.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need to be pitched anything. I know what I want. I came in here for a Trovian MK8. And only for a Trovian MK8.” Jules turned back to the case. “Just like that one.”
The hologram turned to the case. “Yes, the Trovian MK8. Top of the line performance with .008 nanosecond response at maximum process capacity, dual-button variable control, and extensive personalization parameters. A professional-level design stylus. Comes with complimentary multiple skin options to suit your individual taste.” The air in front of the case glimmered as the security barrier dropped. “Please feel free to pick it up.”
Jules took the Trovian wand in their hand, instinctively placing their thumb and forefinger on the small buttons on the shaft. The wand gleamed bright green. The surface of the wand was coarse and didn’t have the smooth spots they had worn into their old one through use, but otherwise was exactly like it. Jules smiled. The wand felt like an extension of their fingers.
“Would you like to examine some of the other wands?”
Jules put the wand back on its cradle. “Nope. That’s the one I want.” They turned to the hologram. “All right. How much is it?”
“The Trovian MK8 is six-ninety-five ninety-nine.”
Jules did a double take. “Six? I thought it was going to be a lot more than that.”
The hologram shook her head with a smile. “That is the listed price of the Trovian MK8.”
Jules stared at the hologram for a long moment, but the face of course betrayed nothing. “I thought it’d be at least another three hundred. Why so cheap?”
“We are starting the process of liquidating our inventory of design wands to discontinue selling them,” the hologram replied.
“The entire functionality of design wands are being incorporated into the next generation neural manipulation devices, rendering them obsolete.”
Jules grunted. Neural amps. They had heard talk of them taking over design. Even knew a few people who already used them instead of wands. But they were still limited, as far as they knew. “But that’s not going to happen for another few years.”
The hologram shook her head. “There are already models on the market with full stylus capability.” She motioned with her hand down the display case. “We currently have two in stock.”
Jules walked around the hologram to where they had gestured. On the lower shelf was a neural receptor resting in a display cradle. It was chrome and shone like a mirror.
The hologram dropped the security barrier on the section of the display. “That one is the Seirfont T18 neural manipulation device. It comes with operational capability for all general computer tasks, and individual programming capability for specific functions. Offering a seamless input with no delay or loss, plus self-teaching shortcut memory.”
Jules picked up the amp. It was much larger than the receptor they used for their wand, thicker than a flat piece of metal. Which of course it was, as it was more than just the receiver for another tool, it was the tool itself. Still, it wasn’t huge, about the diameter of their first finger’s top joint. It was shaped like a tiny starfish, fluid looking, with another appendage on its surface coming out of its center and angling up.
Jules looked at the hologram. “Can I try this?”
The hologram nodded. “The display model is formatted for guest use under my control. You can insert it into your interface and I can direct you.”
Jules plugged the amp into their neck. There was an immediate tingle, but it went away quickly. “How do I start this?”
“The manipulator is not adjusted to your neural map, but tap it twice and a startup menu will appear. After purchase when it is calibrated to you it will work with mental command.”
“Think something and the manipulator will engage.”
Jules nodded. They tapped the amp twice and heard a light beep in their ears that sounded strangely internal. A logo superimposed itself on their vision, shock letters in blue below an expressionist depiction of an old man with a long grey beard and a cloak. The staff in front of them formed the ‘T’ in Seirfont.
“What you are seeing now is the welcome screen,” the hologram said. “I assume you want to test its design functionality.” The logo flickered off in their view and the hologram upturned her hand flat between them. “I have initiated the design function. You can use me as a display pad holofield.”
Jules reached their hand above the hologram’s outstretched palm. Not knowing exactly how to work, they held their hand out as if they were holding a wand. They flicked around a few times but nothing happened. “Think of a line, thickness and color,” the hologram said. “Just as you would with a wand. Except you do not need to engage wand selection to lock it down. Thinking it is enough.”
Jules thought of a red line, three-point thickness, and made a small circular movement. It appeared in the air above the hologram’s hand, uneven and freehanded. Jules made another one just in front of it, slightly larger. They turned off the line and reached out to rotate the circles ninety degrees to view them on edge. Not bad. Jules changed to ocean blue and added a line connecting the two. They spun it to add three other lines, turning the two circles into a cylinder frame. Jules changed the color again to a dark green and filled in the spaces to make the cylinder solid.
“You do not have to work as if you were using a wand,” the hologram said. “The manipulator will adapt to your intention.”
Jules thought yellow, reached out their finger, and tapped the cylinder. A solid yellow spot appeared on its surface. They tapped it again in another place and changed the consistency of the color, making the yellow run and blend into the green between the two blue lines. They turned off the line again and pinched one end of the cylinder, squeezing it down to a point, turning the cylinder into a cone. They bent off the tip to curve upwards.
“How does it do with texture?” Jules asked.
“The Seirfont has all the functionality of a professional grade stylus.”
Jules thought about a rough texture, granite, and ran their fingers over the cone. Its surface grew cracks and small black spots as their fingers passed over, leaving a streak of yellow and green rock. They changed to something smooth, crystal, and the surface became almost reflective. They flicked their finger at the cone and it spun in place.
Jules lowered their hand and looked at their creation. “That looks… really ugly.”
“But you were able to utilize the interface quite easily,” the hologram said. “The Seirfont T18 has all the functionality and versatility you are accustomed to in a stylus, plus an improved seamless response time. And that is just one function. The Seirfont T18 also has 10K VR capability and Dolby sound quality audio, and comes with a year’s subscription to the Netflix/ Hulu Googleplex plus the option for two other-”
Jules waved at the hologram. “I don’t care about any of that,” they said dismissively. “I need this for work.” Jules removed the amp from their neck and stared at it in their hand. The thing wasn’t even calibrated to them and look how easily they could work with it.
Jules looked up at the hologram. “All right. How much is it?”
“The Seirfont T18 Neural manipulator is twelve ninety-five ninety-nine.”
Jules closed their eyes and groaned. “I don’t suppose you have a payment plan.”
The hologram shook her head. “I am afraid that we do not sell items on installments. Store policy.”
“I probably wouldn’t have the credit score for it anyway.” Jules glanced over the hologram’s shoulder back at the wands. They should just get the Trovian that they came in for. And at such a great price, a bargain hunter’s price. But that was only because it was becoming obsolete. Still good enough for their jobs right now, but it might be worthless in a year. And then they’d have to get one of these anyway. But if they got it now they could stay ahead of the curve. It might even get them more work when they put it out there what they were using. That was always the way it worked with new toys—the mere idea of hiring someone using the latest cutting edge tech would make them more appealing to some places.
And it better. If Jules pulled the trigger on this money was going to be tight for a little while. But could they really afford to fall behind?
Jules juggled the amp in their hand, watching it bounce in their palm, picturing the weeks ahead of ramen noodles and canned fruit.
* * *
Back at the platform, Jules sat down on an empty bench. They had seen a train head back across the river as they came off the escalator so they had a few minutes. They opened their bag from H&I and peered inside at their new neural amp in its package. They took out the box and put the bag down on the bench next to them. The box was square and metallic purple, with the same wizard logo on the front above a picture of the amp highlighted with a white animated glow.
Jules slid the top off the box. Inside packed tight in foam was a small oval case with a booklet resting on top of it. They set the booklet aside on their lap and pulled out the case, closing the box and dropping it back in the bag next to them. The case was hard plastic, pewter black in color, with rivulets in the top like a seashell. Inside the case their new amp was nestled inside and wrapped in plastic. They took the amp out and pulled off the plastic. Its surface felt a little different than the store model they had used somehow. But it was exactly the same. The same shape, lines, weight and heft, looked just as shiny. Even the etched name in barely visible letters was the same. But it was more pristine, clean, hadn’t been touched by numerous people before them. Not that that made any sense—put this one down next to a row of three others they’d never be able to pick it out. But it still felt wholly individual to them. It was theirs.
Jules replaced the amp in its case and grabbed the booklet. It was only four pages, the first one having the word ‘WELCOME’ printed in bold letters taking up a quarter of it. They skimmed looking for installation instructions. There didn’t seem to be any, apart from: ‘The Seirfont T18 is a ready to use device. Just insert the Neural Manipulator into your neural dock and the installation and calibration process starts automatically in the background. As it works, you will notice applications come online, but otherwise will not affect or distract you from your daily routine. Once the process is started do not remove the Neural Manipulator. May take up to ten minutes to gain full functionality.’ The next page was just a repeat of the first in Korean.
They closed the booklet and dropped it in the bag. Just put it in, and let it work. Simple as that.
They took the amp out of the case again, and put the case in their pocket. Jules turned it over between three fingers and their thumb. Ten minutes. Just about how long the train takes to get across the river.
Jules felt the amp lock in place with a click. Just before they went to tap it as they had in the store they heard the beep again, and the logo came up in their vision, though more faintly than before. Obviously it was more perfunctory now than the store model in demo mode.
The logo faded, and a friendly monotone voice spoke directly in their head: “Congratulations on your purchase of the Seirfont T18. The premiere Neural Manipulator. Your system is currently calibrating. Please do not remove the Neural Manipulator until the process is complete. You may experience a slight disorientation, but this is normal and temporary and should pass in just a minute.”
Jules blinked a few times. Their sight felt a little weird, shaky, a little distant, the movement of their head or eyes very noticeable. Almost like they were seeing with a camera instead of pupils. The constant hum of the city in their ears started to sound like it was coming through a long tunnel, and kept changing in volume. Their right hand fell asleep. They looked around the station platform. This was not distracting?
“Calibration is nearly complete. Please standby.”
After a few seconds the effects dissipated, and quickly everything was back to normal. Eyes, ears, and body. Jules let out a breath.
“Your new Seirfont T18 Neural Manipulator is now fully calibrated to your person. Your individual settings are being embedded into the system and installation of the general application package will commence in the background. You can check on the status of the installation at any time.”
The train pulled into the station, and Jules stood up and made their way to the doors. They had most of the car to themself and again took a seat near the back. The doors closed and the train glided off back across the river.
They touched the amp in their neck, ran fingers along its surface. It was warm and they could feel it vibrating slightly. Was it working right? they wondered. How do I check? And what was in the general package?
The voice replied. “The general package contains basic function applications for maintenance and security for your Neural Manipulator, as well as games that come standard with the system. Installation is currently working. Two percent complete.”
Oh. Just think it and the amp picks it up. That made sense. Seamless input with no delay or loss, the hologram had said. So yeah, the neural connection would have to be pretty deep. Well beyond a surface connection.
Jules suddenly felt cold. They had not realized the extent to which the amp was integrated to them. It could literally read their mind. Which made them suddenly wonder, who else could?
“The Seirfont T18 Neural Manipulator only recognizes and acknowledges intentional, conscious commands, and does not infiltrate into the subconscious of the user or keep any recorded log of any kind after a command is completed. The Neural Manipulator only communicates general performance logs to the Seirfont server for the purpose of product evaluation and upgrade needs. This information is still not shared with any third parties. Further security can be initiated by disabling data sharing. Would you like to disable data sharing?”
YES, Jules thought. Yes yes yes.
“Data sharing disabled.”
Jules sat back in their seat with a sigh. That was something they should have thought about before. The obtrusiveness of an amp. There was no such thing as privacy between them and the piece of metal in their neck. It says it won’t share data with anyone—but of course that’s what it would say. Not that their thoughts would be all that dangerous. Private, just like anyone’s, but nothing the feds would care about. It was the principle of it, though. They would have to look into more applications and cracks to make sure things in their head stayed in their head.
They felt a slight pinch in their neck by the amp, like a bug bite. It made them jump, but even before their hand could reach for the spot it was gone again. Jules turned their neck to stretch the area and looked out the window at the river below. The waves were barely perceptible from this height. It had stopped raining at some point while they were in the city but it was still somewhat misty out, which hid more detail than usual. Just below and in front was the roadway of the bridge flying by, mostly empty of cars on the outbound side. Something about it reminded them of a movie they had watched a long time ago. Some strange old flick on a free site. It opened with some kind of ribbon-cutting ceremony in the middle of a bridge in front of an oddly small crowd, surrounded by soldiers. Then four guys ran through and continued on to jump off the side of the bridge. Jules didn’t remember much more about the movie other than that scene. And the song that was playing during it. A calm sort of song, woodwinds, an organ, drums punctuating the melody, and a man’s voice singing softly, distantly, along with it. It was very relaxing.
It took a few moments for Jules to realize that they were actually hearing the song from that movie, not just remembering it.
“What is that?” they said aloud.
“The ‘Porpoise Song’ from the film Head,” the amp voice replied. “Performed by The Monkees. Currently only works in the public domain are accessible until your personal music library is attached.”
“Don’t... Just play something when I think about it,” Jules said half under their breath.
“Music player setting switched from ambient to manual.”
Good, Jules thought, rubbing their neck. They’d never get anything done with that kind of distraction. They started to suspect there were going to be a lot of settings to change on this thing. Maybe even disable everything except for design.
Though that felt kinda wasteful. I mean, they had the thing now. Why not fully use it?
There was a pinch on their neck again, harder, closer to painful this time. Jules touched the amp. It was very warm, almost burning. They started to feel the amp buzz on their neck, accompanied by a ringing in their left ear just above it that washed over the whole left side of their head. It slowly grew louder and more intense. “What is going on?” they asked. The amp did not reply. The ringing kept rising in intensity and the pinch in the neck started to feel like they had been stabbed by a needle. They reached again for the amp.
“Please do not remove the Neural Manipulator until the installations are complete. Any discomfort is only temporary.”
Jules started to feel the heat of the amp on their skin. And the ringing grew deafening. The subway car took on a deep red tint that kept getting darker. Already they couldn’t make out the other side of the car in front of them.
Jules gritted their teeth and leaned forward in their seat. “What,” they repeated almost in a growl, “is going. On?”
The amp said nothing for a while as the pain, sound, and redness increased. When it finally replied, it said, “The Neural Manipulator is experiencing a compatibility issue with the neural dock. The data input is not working at full capacity and is causing feedback. Attempting to re-calibrate.”
Sharp pins and needles washed over their whole body. Their neck at the point of their neural dock felt like it was being ripped at by pliers. Jules nearly fell forward out of their seat onto the ground. They reached again for the amp.
“Please do not remove the Neural Manipulator. Doing so could cause irreparable damage to the unit. And would break the warranty.”
“Goddamnit,” Jules gasped. They couldn’t see anything other than dark red. “Do something!”
“Still attempting to re-calibrate.”
The waves of pain washed over their head like a pulse, the ringing reverberation of which was overwhelming. They could feel moisture on their cheeks, tears, but with the way their head throbbed and everything they saw was red they thought it could be blood coming from their eyes. They gripped themselves tightly across the chest, their fingers digging deeply into the forearms, sure to be leaving bruises but barely felt at the moment. They could feel themselves going…
And then it stopped.
Jules shook. They sat back up in their seat, their head flopping back against the window behind them. They inhaled heavily, wheezing in air. Their body felt light as feather now that all the weight of the pain was gone. They looked around the train. Their sight was back to normal as well. They could see quite clearly the handful of other passengers in the car looking at them confused or scared. They must have been screaming at some point.
“Neural Manipulator experienced a compatibility error. Outdated version of hardware present in neural dock caused a conflict, resulting in a feedback loop. Unable to run at optimum capacity. A patch or upgrade of hardware is going to be necessary to run Neural Manipulator at full ability. Currently only functioning at five point six percent.”
Jules reached for the amp. The voice did not raise an objection this time and they removed it. It was all they could do to not throw it across the subway car.
* * *
All of yesterday’s rain had evaporated overnight, and the sun peeked out from the clouds as it rose over the horizon. It was slightly cold out this time of year, but the slight bite of the morning air helped keep Jules awake as they sat on a rusty lawnchair on the roof of their building, sipping a coffee.
The amp was just barely able to handle design work at five point six percent. Barely being the apt word. Jules had spent the whole night fighting with it. They had limited color options, no texture at all, and the response delay ran into the seconds. It took forever to do anything. But they had to keep going if they were going to meet their deadline. No choice. This moment up on the roof to watch the sunrise was just a short break to relax with a hot drink before going back down to fight with it some more.
Jules shook their head. It would cost them at least five hundred to get the updated neural dock that they needed. And that was for the cheapest, generic one on the market. Which they still could in no way afford. Maybe not even after getting paid for this project.
They rubbed the neural dock on their neck, empty of the amp or anything else. Hadn’t had so much as a single drop out or fluctuating error with it since they had it put in. It might be the most reliable piece of hardware they had ever had. But it didn’t matter, the damned thing was just not up to spec anymore. Would have been a nice thing for that fucking hologram to mention before letting them buy the amp. Though it probably wasn’t something the program did on purpose. Who would expect someone with outdated hardware to be shopping in that store? And the manufacturers couldn’t test it with every old piece of hardware out there.
They should just barely—again, barely—be able to get the Emerson job done on time. They had to fight for just about every little change they wanted to make, and the more fine work was just not possible with a near non-functioning amp. But they could get by. It won’t be their best work but it would be passable. If the agency gave them extensive notes or changes then Jules might be in trouble. They’d been pretty hands off so far though. Hopefully that’d continue. But there’s no way Jules could take on another job until they dealt with this. The thought of even starting something from scratch with the pixelvision quality graphics they were capable of right now was crazy. And without new jobs with what little was left in their account…
What were the options? Return it? Sure, that could be done for store credit. And use that to get the damn Trovian like they should have done in the first place. But they didn’t even know if H&I took returns on something like this. The amp was already calibrated to them. It might be ruined for anyone else. They wished they had at least asked. Besides, getting another wand when they were still on their way out in the industry was just kicking the problem down the road. They’d already gotten into it now, might as well get it sorted if they could. They thought back to how effortlessly the amp had worked in the store. If only they could get that back.
Maybe Gorky could come up with some kind of fix, a workaround of some kind. A tech puzzle like this might pique his interest. Hell, he might have a new (well, newer than theirs) dock that would work with the amp. And cheap enough that Jules could afford it. Undoubtedly he would give Jules shit for getting the amp in the first place, but they would just have to see that as part of the price.
Jules felt a little better. It was going to suck for a while, but all was not lost. They didn’t screw up their whole life, and they weren’t doomed. They still had options. Ways to get over this rough patch. And one of them was bound to get them through. One of them always did. One of them had to.
Jules looked into their cup. Just a sip left, and then back to work.
Down below in the back of the abandoned building next door, a young man stepped out through the remnants of the back room, little more than a wall that was itself half collapsed, and into his backyard. Over the past few weeks the kids living there had broken up the cement with remarkable effort to get to the dirt underneath it, which they had added compost and more earth to, mixing it all together until it was deep and brown. Satisfied they had made good soil, they planted seeds in even rows from front to back, four of them, with a narrow path running down the middle. Even from their height Jules could see small spots of green just starting to pop up through the earth.
Jules swirled their coffee around the bottom of their cup clockwise, not quite ready to drink it yet.