What’s Your Contribution? A Love Story

A design-lead storytelling exercise punctuated by group-created renders of a future NYC in 2050.

Background

For our Urban Interaction Design class at Parsons, The New School for Design, I and my two group mates, Merrilee Pan & Sneha Deepika, were tasked with creating a speculative design fiction that featured New York City between 30 – 50 years in the future.

We were asked to write a “short” story about this future world, looking across different trends occurring in the world today, and extrapolating them into potential future applications and crossovers.

In order to get started, the three of us identified several domains we were interested in: technology, environment, energy, economics and work, society and culture, and started looking at current predictions of how they would change by 2050. We also used a critical eye to look at some of the pros and cons of today’s trends in order to extrapolate both the positive and negative ways they might play out.

After identifying these trends and predictions, we chose a handful of domains to inform both our setting and main characters and brainstormed the conditions for our future world.

With a detailed setting and two personas we created using this process, I set to writing a story that would help showcase how these things played out in our future world.

The story grew, and grew, and grew some more until it was less of just a prompt for our class assignment, to build, draw, video or otherwise imagine some of the settings and interactions from our world that involved a person, a setting, and a technology, and more of an actual piece I became passionate about finishing.

Finish it I finally did, and so was born “the story”.

The story is still rough, it still isn’t perfect, but it is here and I hope to keep refining it and submit it for a short story competition in the future. I’ve included the renders we created of what some of the technologies and locations might look like as they occur, with the goal of building an interactive story that helps paint a real picture of what is in our collective imaginations about the future.

I am posting it here today in a hope that you will read it and contact me to provide feedback about how it could be better.

I think that writing fiction is an amazing way to get inspired about design projects, and likewise, methodologies for human-centered design are a great way to start setting up the world for a story. I realised in the end that good design is storytelling, just maybe through different mediums than words.

The Story

What’s Your Contribution, A Love Story is a speculative short story set in a 2050’s NYC, that explores the difference between contributing, and making real impact, when value is derived from every aspect of ones’ connected life.
(Author’s Summary)

What’s your contribution? A love story.

Greg

Greg rubbed the grit out of his eyes as the sun filtered in through the shaded panels. It was only 6 am, but he could already feel the promise of another scorching June day in the hot dusty sunbeams hitting his eyelids. Groaning, he rolled over and shook his hand furiously in the air above him to shut off the ringing that was now echoing throughout the room. Sensors in his wrist-cuff noted the motion and the alarms finally shut off mid cry. He quickly snapped his wrist clockwise until his palm was facing the ceiling, then slowly rotated his hand so it faced one of the ceiling panels which was lined with a thin piece of flexible black material. Dim numbers danced across the flex display, slightly distorted in places where the used screen had been patched with care. As Greg’s hand passed over it, the numbers brightened and formed into a dashboard. He flicked his middle finger slightly to activate the audio commands and fell back onto the pillows with a thwump.

InsideOfHab

“Good morning Greg,” said a smooth genderless voice from the air somewhere near the peak of the HAB where he had stashed a speaker, occasionally interrupted by a hiss and crackle from the old wiring. “Today is Thursday, June 11th, 2050. The temperature for today will be a high of 96 and a low of 84 degrees. The AQI for today is 450 for Brooklyn, so make sure to change the filters in your resp-o before you leave. You have 250 credits available in your combined accounts.”

The voice paused to make sure he was still paying attention, his cuff sensing he was dozing off. The ceiling beeped loudly and he glanced towards the display, jiggling his wrist again irritably. After a moment, the voice continued. “Please pay close attention to your work detail for today.”

Greg perked up a little, opening his eyes fully to stare at the display and waited to see a picture of the site. It would be a new job today, they had finished replacing pumps 42 and 43 in the battery just yesterday. Greg was many things – one had to be in this fucked up world – but officially he was an engineer, certified and everything last year at Greenpoint’s local engineering college. But these days, being an engineer meant just about one thing, you had a job working on the pumps. Well, not actually working on them. You had a job fixing and programming the machines that were building and fixing them. No one really built anything anymore.

Regardless, these particular machines often broke down and had to be fixed and reprogrammed. Salt water will do that to metal and gears and wires, no matter how smart the thing may be. Part contractor, part programmer, and part electrical mechanic, today’s Engineers did the gritty work. They were instruction-followers first and foremost, bringing designers’ dreams into reality and picking up the pieces when the dreams were too big. But Greg wasn’t complaining, big dreams were responsible for the circle of pumps now ringing CITY. Someone else’s visions meant he had a job at all.  Not everyone was that lucky. Almost everyone in what was left of the OBs went to school to be an Engineer for one speciality or another these days, they even offered new free programs to get certified in only two years. When the whole world is automated, someone still has to build the things that keep it running. Well, we haven’t yet figured out how to make machines make machines, or maybe we could but don’t want to… Greg ruminated to himself, thinking about the machines that built the pumps.

“Your current work shift today is Blue zone, scheduled for 88 am Your cuff is programmed to allow transit on the blue line train departing Billybridge plaza at 7:15am sharp. Please be sure to arrive on time as your pass will be deactivated after this window. Another will not be issued.”

Greg got up carefully, wishing he could stand erect and stretch out his back, but the low roof his personal HAB made it impossible, the low dome of his room only reaching about 6 feet at its apex. At just about 6 feet, Greg’s head brushed the ceiling and he continually had to stoop when navigating his room. He felt around blindly on the ground for pieces of his customary “uniform”, seizing the black work pants, knee-high waterproof boots, long-sleeve black shirt, and an oversized sleeveless leather vest – where he stashed most of his small tools, electronics, and anything he might find when out. Sitting back on his bed, he laced his boots tight so they wouldn’t catch on anything and wrapped his resp-o cover around his neck, finishing up with a pair of thick welders goggles.

He shuffled out into the comm-U and mumbled greetings to the members of his framily seated around the large kitchen table. They were all currently in various stages of eating breakfast, two plugged into VR headsets for an early morning briefing, hands moving through the air like bizarre conductors as they flipped through the day’s plans. The eight of them, six adults and two children, had merged their HABs over the last few years as materials became available to fab out the connecting corridors and add the communal unit, or comm-U for short. He and the four other adults were various types of engineers around CITY, except Marcus, who waved him over as he mixed cups of instant coffee, who was a veterinarian. Most vets lived in CITY, pets were highly prized members of families there, however, Marcus had a big heart and spent most of his time roaming the OB looking to restore pockets of animals who had been disturbed by the storms and now roamed wild in some of the coastal flooded areas.

closeHAB

People of all sorts who lived along the coasts often decided to join up as a framily these days, preferring to share the burden of powering, watering, and securing their homes together instead of alone. Changing out the filters, reapplying photovoltaic paint, attaching solar panels and small wind engines was a lot of work, not to mention repairing the rainwater filtration systems that kept their small garden growing in the summer, and two g-HABs (greenhouse units) running in the winter. Local government also liked the practice and offered incentives for small and mid-size settlements in terms of rations for rarer foods not grown in the Northeast. Most everyone within a couple miles of the shore lived in some sort of HAB chain these days, regardless of where they perched them. It wasn’t quite worth it to live inside the buildings on higher floors since the amount of work necessary to barricade an old apartment to keep it insulated and cooled/heated, free of particles and air-pollution, was much greater since the utilities had been cut. Much more economical to just pop up some HABs and hallway units  (as you could afford them) between the rooms on the upper levels, or best of all on the roof where space was in demand for sun and rain.

With an appreciative nod to Marcus, who had his earbuds in, Greg sat at the table and stirred soymilk into his coffee looking at the somewhat friends, somewhat roommates that lived around and thinking about the day the storm had hit ten years ago and what was left of his normal life had finally been shattered. After mega-storm Marjorie, the OBs – what was once Brooklyn and Queens – finally gasped their last breath and were cut off from the CITY utility pipeline. While the collective boroughs had weathered storm, to super-storm, to mega-storm over the years, the local economy finally couldn’t support the cleanup and rebuilding efforts necessary to keep the outer areas going, and power the massive pump and lock system that was in the process of being installed to keep CITY perpetually dry, no matter the predicted (and surpassed) estimates of sea level rise in the future. As the bureaucrats saw it, energy tech had advanced enough for “everyone” to self-power their own homes, solar and wind generators and water-collection systems having improved drastically as more and more cities had to disconnect from the national energy grid. Satisfied that no one who still wanted to live in the OBs would go without food, water, or power, the mayor signed the order to shut off the lines without a backwards glance – plus a few concessions to soften the blow. Every since that day, the tunnels and pipes, wires and cables that still crisscrossed the landscape were dead, ghosts of an infrastructure that had overstayed its welcome and perched scornfully on the earth like a skeletal reminder of their ancestor’s failure to take climate change seriously.

Greg remembered standing with his brother watching the remaining lights – not damaged from the storm – go out one by one across the borough, slowly replaced by different color patches popping up here and there from those who already were running micro-grids and had stored leftover energy before the shutdown. He had wondered where the rescuers were that he had heard about in stories, who would come in bright colored vans with white crosses like some sort of benevolent knights, bringing food and building their homes again. His parents had him late in life, at 55, so they had told him stories of what it was like back during the first storms, FEMA and Red Cross, and the US Army bringing aid and helping people band together to recover. However, federal aid has been nonexistent for years, ever since the Trump presidency and subsequent assassination after the wall incident, set off a barrage of conservative fiscal policies that basically left states and big cities to fend for themselves when it came to storms or run crying to the industries that supported them for aid.

New York had never lacked for big companies to keep the place running, and municipal government once again was run from behind the doors of private companies, but it kept the place going, and after all it was still New York, so no one was really surprised to see what they had always suspected was happening just finally pop into the open.

However, the charm of the once uber-hip outer boroughs quickly lost their appeal when much of the shoreline and coastal areas was swallowed by the sea rising almost three feet, and storm after storm battered trendy apartments and waterfront lofts. The more inland places, still safe for years, had formed their own mini-cities, pooling resources and the FABers granted by CITY as part of the concession for cutting the power. The giant 3D printer-like machines could create almost anything as big as a semi truck using a recyclable polymer that was as hard as steel when processed, but wouldn’t rust from seawater, and they quickly spit out chains of HABs and supporting structures that started decorating existing buildings and empty lots like dots of frosting on a cake, bridges and wide platforms connecting them along the skeletons of the abandoned buildings in the more flooded areas.

Some left for Long Island to try roughing it, but most of that area had long been abandoned as it became cheaper and safer to move to cities, or inland with the weather and water and lack of power (they cut off Long Island as well, saying they had the resources to generate their own power). Most of the area had quickly been reclaimed by the woods and Suffolk county was now almost exclusively used by CITYfolk zipping around in rented hydro-cabs, first along the elevated highway that had been built to accommodate the AI driven amphibious taxis, and later skimming lightly over the water, using batteries that had charged up from the kinetic energy generating roadbed along the way. These cabs pulled up to glass beach houses sitting high above the water, perched like storks on long stilts, looking out over the ocean that had conquered the area for others, but as always, could never dissuade those who had the money and power to overcome nature.

Lesley

It was in one of these beach houses that Lesley now stood wrapped in a blanket, sipping a glass of hand-pressed orange juice and staring morosely at the waves far below her feet through the transparent glass floors and ceilings. Feeling seasick, she muttered “JD, black out the floor” and the back of her wrist buzzed reassuringly as the implanted sensor registered the voice command.

The special reinforced electrochromic glass darkened in an instant and she was staring at what appeared to be a jet black marble floor, although she knew it to be fake. Either way, the floor was cold and she quickly finished her juice and stalked over to the adjacent bathroom, stepping into the floor to ceiling shower and sighing in pleasure as the pressure sensors in the tiles registered her presence, and water – exactly the right temperature – misted from jets above her head. The outer two walls and floor were more electrochromic glass, currently darkened on all sides, but when Lesley ran her fingertips lightly across one of them, almost as if unfogging a mirror, streaks appeared through which she glimpsed the sun lower over the ocean’s horizon. She pressed her palm firmly against the wall and wiped it back over the trails her fingers had made, clearing a palm-height window outside, and resumed her earlier vigil, getting more and more aggravated the more comfortable she was at. She would soon have to ruin it.

Today was supposed to be the first day of Lesley’s four day weekend, seven-day workweeks having long since been abolished as automation made it unnecessary for people to continue working that long to keep things running. These advances were just in the nick of time, as the population aged and fewer and fewer immigrants graced America’s shores post severe policy restrictions and the infamous wall incident made it clear that America was done welcoming its international brethren to its shores – unless they had something concrete to offer, and even then it was hard.

Lesley reflected on the past with distaste, after all, she was fashionably liberal and anti-big government like anyone else in CITY. She remembered the lesson in school about Trump’s foolish dream and parallel attempts to deport so-called Muslim “radicals” back to where they belonged that led up to the whole thing. He had ended up getting his wish, in the end, it just took him pissing off the world enough for them to want revenge to do it. Though the federal government still remained and had charge of immigration, military, educational edicts (occasionally) and necessary things like that, after the assassination and subsequent terror attack, they were mostly focused on keeping the country safe and investing in new weaponized and foreign surveillance technologies, leaving individual states to fend for themselves when it came to social services, utilities, trade and commerce – and the private companies that located camped there.

While NYC’s economy had indeed shrunk after a series of recessions throughout the 2020s and 2030s (not as bad as the rest of the nation) those who were well-off enough or bright enough (and lucky enough) to land jobs in the booming technology, information, and media industries that still thrived in CITY really didn’t have to do that much work at all, much of their off-time focused on personal branding exercises and code/design/art contributions that would bank them points in networks social rating system. You know what they say, work as much or little as you want, but always Contribute your all. Luckily Lesley was a born contributor. Her natural grace and outgoing personality juxtaposed perfectly with a sharp intellect and insatiable creative curiosity, making her a natural across several personal, professional, design, and gaming circles. 

As a matter of fact, Lesley was pretty much at the top of her game these days, having just successfully made the grab for CED (Chief Executive Designer) of Knopf Industries, the elite design studio and production facility that manufactured and repaired the pumps currently keeping much of Manhattan above water.

That’s why I’m so angry, she reflected. You would think that being CED would mean I had less time to work and more time to focus on me. She had planned to attend a virtual design hack later in the day, contributing her ideas to the design of new HAB blueprints to be sold to residents in OB, each sale which would then bank her authorship points for her percentage contributed to the model. This week they were supposed to competiterate on the design of a two-story model, with the challenge how the lower underground level could be used to store water, without risk of contamination by salt water. She already had sketched a wall of ideas, which she now summoned to the display wall in the shower, her eyes roving over the rough pictures units with fanciful domes popping up over the landscape like some sort of post-modern hobbit-community, each supporting a small garden and water filtration system on its roof. What a challenge!

But there would be no competiteration for her today she remembered bitterly as she waved her hand to clear the display and stepped out of the shower, today there was a problem. She had awakened a5:30 amam that morning to an urgent pulsing from her wrist and a gradual throbbing and brightening of the ambient lights discretely embedded into the glass of her beach-cottage bedroom. She was groggy and aggravated, having woken up just one hour after she arrived by hydrocab from CITY. After finishing the tour and re-powering of two pumps recently repaired and redesigned in Manhattan – by her recent predecessor –  she stayed out too late, again, at the weekly Wednesday night party with friends – after all, it was the weekend. She was also still feeling a bit jittery from the (prescribed) uppers that had been slowly seeping from a patch under her ear as she worked and played yesterday, trying desperately to keep up with the storm of new work she had inherited before her official promotion only last night, upon the unveiling of her the last CED’s big design. They had partied for hours afterward to celebrate her new position and her shot to finally, finally design something that made a difference in everyone’s lives, every day. That they would walk on, touch, play with and look upon at all times. Something essential to keeping life as they knew it possible.

Covering her eyes, Lesley had loudly demanded to know what was happening to the empty room, only to be informed that she was required to work an extra 6 hour day to supervise turning off one of the new pumps so recently repaired. It turns out that there was a massive leak and 2 months of repair-work had been ruined by sea-water, circuits fried and the pump in danger of collapsing entirely unless it was shut down today. While Lesley didn’t need to really do anything while there, it would be comforting to have the new CED there to reassure everyone it would never happen under her watch, and to propose the necessary redesign to ensure it never did.

Oh no, the redesigns! Lesley leapt from the shower and rushed over the flat white desk that was her console. After bumping her wrist hurriedly against the glass to log-in for the day, she quickly entered commands while glancing at the wall opposite her, which activated upon her gaze. She sent the proposed redesigns from her interview to the on-site team and set automated requests for the appropriate number and type of engineers to be queued in for work that day. She glanced up at the time, 6:35am, it should still be early enough that no-one noticed her sulky lapse in CITY, and she knew how to tweak the time signatures to move the files to the earliest slot in the queue that morning. Right about now fifty or so engineers should be getting a new assignment beamed to them, probably sitting over their meager breakfast of rations supplemented with whatever they could scrounge together in local gardens. She shuddered at the thought and hurriedly entered a few more commands onto her console, making sure her fridge had been stocked by Amazon Postal with the right brand of granola before her arrival, even though she knew that the order would be right, it always was.

Greg

Greg almost dropped his spoon into his breakfast porridge as the cuff on his wrist buzzed with a notification. Who would be contacting me this early, he thought to himself as he delicately placed the dried apple ring that had been on the way from his mouth, and was now on the table, back into the bowl Can’t waste that he mused, one of the last from last fall’s harvest upstate. He pulled out disposi-screen from a stack he kept in his vest pocket and activated it against his sensor. The screen lit up immediately with an urgent flashing notification, his wrist cuff buzzing in time. He tapped the alert to silence it and read through the message that had appeared. Reassigned? At this hour?

Sure enough, his detail was now bordered once again in the burgundy outline he had come to associate with his day-to-day work at pump 42 in the battery of Lower Manhattan. One of a twin pair that like Atlas, did the best they could to hold back the weight of the rising sea from the precious high-rise buildings of the financial and technology center of the Eastern seaboard.

What could have happened? They had turned the pump on just yesterday and everything had been working fine. As a junior engineer, Greg had stood in the back of the roughly 50 or so men and women who made up his work detail, watching as their senior flipped the switch to set the majestic creation spinning once again.

No time to think about it now, he was already late as is, messing around with some renders of old Williamsburg that had been captured from Google Streetview, and memorialized forever through their “walk through the past” catalog. In his spare time, Greg was a collector. He pored over old maps of areas of Brooklyn along the water that were now mostly abandoned, hoping to find a relic of times past – an old vinyl, subway map (especially precious since they shut down) or equally mundane piece of a world that was no longer there. People paid to remember and Greg was happy to do the legwork to take advantage of their nostalgia. He also scrounged for useful electronics and parts from abandoned HAB chains, old solar arrays, satellite dishes, whatever could be re-used and refitted into modding out their own unit as much as possible. Everyone was a bit of a scrapper nowadays, patching together different types of technology to live as best as possible since cut off CITY’s grid. Just last week he had finished hooking up a new water tank they built entirely out of scrounged parts, and stored in the apartment directly below the area of roof which their HAB chain occupied.

He shoveled the last of his breakfast into his mouth and took a swig of the now lukewarm coffee before pulling on his work bag and heading towards the door. His cuff buzzed again.

“Don’t forget your resp-o, air quality alert has been issued for today!” his wrist informed him, his hand poised over the control to unlock their door.

Without looking, he reached over his head and felt for his now familiar resp-o, a small mask that fit over his nose and mouth, pulling it down from among the tangle of others. He pulled a new filter from the pack marked – 200AQI – 400AQI, popped upon the front of his mask, pulled out the old one, now streaked with thick black dust and grime, tossed it into a nearby bin, and put the new filter in its place. Unwrapping his striped respo-cover from around his neck, and fitted the mask into the scarf-like garment with practiced ease. He fitted the ear pieces of the mask over his face and re-wrapped the scarf around his neck. The mask paired with his cuff as he pushed the top-right corner, and the cuff’s buzzing finally died off as it spoke “Your current respo-filter is at 100%, with current AQI levels it is rated for 24 hours of use. You will be alerted when at 50%”. Throwing his bag more securely across his back he opened the door to the HAB with a hiss and quickly shut it behind him as he stepped into the early June morning.

habOnRoof

He walked hurriedly over to the edge of the roof that their HAB was perched upon, and looking at the crowded platforms that zigzagged along the old streets about a foot over the standing water, decided it would be fastest to take the high-road today. He walked over to the bridge he had saved up to have fabbed last year, admiring its sleek Victorian design that he had programmed in. It was setup between his building and the next (who had already had a bridge to the next) and helped him get about a mile north, providing he was willing to make one or two short jumps. Testing the bridge with his foot he made sure it was still lashed securely to both buildings and lightly sprang onto the thick plastic center, making his  way South towards the Billyburg bridge plaza, occasionally weaving his way through roofs tightly packed with FABs, and balancing across swaying plastic bridges that had been set improperly or fabbed too cheaply.

Eventually he made his way to the end of the connected buildings and higher ground, descending into the noise and bustle of street level. Here wide platforms, made from the same plastic polymer that the HABS were fashioned from, spanned the low-water across nearly the whole street, and people walked and biked through a sea of erected and assembled stores and eateries that had been slowly fabbed as more people moved to the area, preferring the autonomy of HABchain living versus the inner borough enclaves. As he hopped down from the last ladder his foot missed the platform and his boot descended into the warm seawater.

“Damn damn damn” he muttered to himself as a thin stream made it in through a rip in the heel of the waterproof fabric, and thought longingly of the small, dry, and unobtrusive lanes of CITY that sparkled at night from embedded LEDs powered from solar and kinetic energy gathered from the pavement that pedestrians strolled along. On the broader streets, AI controlled hydro-cabs gracefully glided overhead along arching roadways that sheltered shops and eateries, the kinetic energy crackling softly from the roadbed overhead so that every moment was underplayed with a quiet peaceful hum (they had tuned it to a pleasant note). While the roadways were dangerous if stepped upon, it hardly mattered as most of the streets didn’t have any at all, and those that did had them raised about thirty feet into the air, making a ring around CITY and crossing through it at strategic intervals.

Even the people in CITY had to walk to the nearest entry-terminal to catch a cab, but it was fashionable to walk and be in shape, or to design your own unobtrusive personal mobility system to get you around. Every little thing counted as a contribution for those people, and the better your fitness rating or the better designed your personal wheels, the more points you would rack up – especially if others in your circle copied you. Greg had himself earned extra credits through the contribution network when he was in school and still thought he might make it in CITY. Although an engineer, he had a knack for bringing some of the quaint old design styles of his scrounged materials into newer contributions, delighting those who looked for a taste of the old. But after his exams had marked him as an engineer, an executor, not a dreamer, he had had to front all his sketches through a friend studying design at a CITY university who lacked imagination, but not money.

Even though his friend paid him a shore of the authorship profits he couldn’t take credit for any of his work as he wasn’t a certified designer, so all of the contributions he did get were just for the implementation schematics actually setting the things up at a public event. Still he did his best to sneak in some charm when he could through his friend, and at the end of the day his biggest pleasure was actually building what he had dreamed up and seeing others enjoy it – even if they didn’t know it was his design.

Wondering what his friends rating was these days, Greg got in line with the other engineers at the New Williamsburg Bridge Plaza Municipal Rapid Transit Station – that was its full name,  but most people just called it Billyburg Station, and the rapid transit that departed it, the Billy plus the color of the line. For instance, today he was supposed to have taken the Billy-Blue to what was once the edge of the Meat-packing district, instead he would again be taking Billy-Red to the battery.

hydroCabs

The color didn’t actually indicate so much of a train line, as it would have in earlier times, rather it referred to the geolocation authority given the modified hydro-cabs bringing in workers from the OB. Each of the work areas along the edge of the city was divided into colored sections, and workers would be granted access to their assigned sections and shuttled directly there and back twice a day. A line of four-person low end cabs were currently chaining together under colored signs throughout different parts of the station that sprawled across the lower end of the Williamsburg bridge, now used exclusively for this purpose. From the station the chain of cabs was shot magnetically through a huge pneumatic tube into CITY station east where they would detach and head along the kinetic roadbeds to their assigned sub-station, depositing the workers exactly where they needed to be and nowhere else. CITY preferred to keep the engineer filled pods near each other and departing at scheduled times – although completely unnecessary as each could autonomously wherever it needed – because it made security cheaper, they only had to be monitored during certain hours, and because the cabs could then be re-used more quickly throughout the day for better purposes than shuttling OBers around.

People from the OB could also visit CITY, but they would then take the Billy-Green and their cuffs – or implants if they had them – would be coded with the proper boundaries and limitations for the areas they were allowed to visit on foot, and the substations they could disembark at. If you went too far beyond the district boundaries of your designated authority level – without special override from a CITY resident – your wrist would start to buzz unpleasantly, then your whole arm would vibrate, and finally an electric shock would be applied every couple of seconds, warning you to turn back.

This wonderful technology had actually been invented for Alzheimer’s patients before it was cured, to help alert family members and the person that they were lost or entering unknown territory. Some enterprising bureaucrat had thought it would be a wonderful way to finally designate social and private boundaries directly upon the city – without having to pay for expensive security guards or a patchwork of surveillance cameras, gates, keycards and systems. After the CITI – the Computationally Intelligent Transcoding Interface (yes it was co-created with CITI, yes it gave CITY its name, in reference to all the places where one could access it) was installed all over Manhattan island, it was easy to overlay any data structure directly into the embedded sensors of the new towers that stood on each street corner, information kiosks erected decades earlier and modified to embed the new intelligent information network directly upon the topography of the island. CITI was an amalgamation of all of the information contributed by every working sensor, machine, computer, phone, and content contributor all over CITY. It allowed everything to be smoothly automated and adjusted to the location, biofeedback, and even emotions of the user in some cases – these zones were still a bit politically contested but becoming more popular as people realized the benefits of a cozy cafe that shifted colors, scents, and music to lift your spirits when it sensed you were sad – some even offered coupons for free cake or referrals for discounts on antidepressant patch prescriptions on your way out.

Greg stared out over the East river as he slowly inched forward in the line, thinking about the prescription patches. He had taken a couple in college to stay up studying, most people did, and they weren’t really “prescribed” anyway, meaning that pharmacists had long since obtained the power to sell them over the counter, after a quick chat (or sales pitch in some cases) with a customer. Many other countries had already done this, and with the municipalization of universal healthcare (the federal government never quite let them do away with it completely) CITY had adopted the policy of its overseas brethren, and gave pharmacists many more powers to prescribe a range of drugs directly to the public.

People had long since thought of using them with any sort of distaste. With embedded devices, augmented senses, and an almost constant connection to some sort of data-hub, whether you were in CITY or not, everyone had adopted the practical approach that we are already cyborgs anyway – even if they hadn’t vocalized the distinction. The dominant thought ran, if we created the technology to augment computers with better algorithms and faster processors, then why wouldn’t we give ourselves the same advantage? After all he reflected bitterly, so many of the computers had the jobs that we once did, so we needed all the help we could get to compete with them.

Even still, Greg preferred to stay as natural as possible when it came to pharmas. Of course he was addicted to caffeine – some things leftover from NYC never changed – but other than that, and the occasional HannaLee brand marijuana cigarette to relax – legally sold everywhere New York state – he wasn’t one to alter his senses. Most people in the OB did as much of that as they could, having lost most of their dreams for the future. All they had left were hopes. Hopes that they would have fresh food tomorrow, that they could buy filters so their children’s lungs wouldn’t blacken at an early age, hope that they might scrape together a better filtration system, gardening technique or FAB modification, and sell the design to some of the illegal FABbers on the black market who would actually license their design – all in untraceable block-chain currencies.

Greg was working on a couple of such designs right now, his slightly steampunk style appealing to the young CITYfolk who decided to throw up a HAB in the OBs for a couple of years and find themselves before heading home. You could always tell the transplants, small drones the size of humming birds circling their heads as they walked around, filming their experience for later contributions to blogs and video sites detailing their lives. This made for some of the most popular viewing in CITY, especially when one of them slummed it with an OBer for a night. Nevertheless, they paid a handsome price for his designs, hands poised over the transfer key as they smiled nervously at their first off-grid credit transaction, hoping they had followed all the steps the credit cryptographer had given them earlier that day.

He pulled out his disposi-screen and flipped through some sketches of an antique Victorian looking mirror-like information display he was working on, trying to decide the most pretentious way to engage the system with one’s wrist sensor. Transplants liked flair, so he fiddled with some ideas about having an a lace haptic glove enclose over one hand, lightly caress it while the system mumbled nonsense about checking credentials by skeletal structure and nerve endings, and then retract confirming identity – while a tiny sensor actually just scanned the chip. The user would probably know the interaction was bogus, but these days the experience was what counted. People were bored with typical interfaces and anything new and different, whether or not it was actually needed, rack him up credits.

As he finished shading in some of the hieroglyphics to go around the circular opening for the user’s hand (he was on a Victorian meets Egyptian cyberpunk kick this week, after watching a VR rip of an old movie called Stargate last weekend) he heard an annoyed harrumph and found himself face to face with the Billy-Red usher who was glaring at him impatiently and jerking his head meaningfully toward the nearest waiting cab, the other three seats already filled with engineers laughing at his puzzled expression as he was startled from his reverie.

“Oh, uh, sorry!” he cried over his shoulder as he jumped into the empty cab. He slid into the cool leather seat and felt darkness descended over him as the roof shade closed in preparation for launch. The car lurched a little as the magnetic couplings on its front and back snapped close, anchoring it in line with the others.

He put his head back into the seat and held it there firmly between the neck braces as a low humming started, inaudible at first, but felt throughout the machine and deep in one’s bones and teeth. It grew steadily for a couple of seconds and WHAM, his stomach wrapped itself around his spine as the train of cabs was propelled from 0 – 60 miles per hour in a second, hurtling down through the bridge and into the old subway tunnels, now converted into sealed tubes, underneath the East River, to land a just a minute later in the CITY East station.

All traffic from the OB came through this station – aside from a special line that ran to New Jericho, a small community of Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn who chose to rebuild above the flooded island, living on movable stilt houses and lashed together boats, forming a sort of floating city connected by old-fashioned bridges made from collected wood and scrap metal. New Jericho eschewed any and all fabbing, refusing the offer of units from CITY upon the shutdown. They felt that the fabbers were the pinnacle of everything wrong with the world today, a symbol of automation, of convenience, of the lack of jobs, and a diminishing connection to actually working to feed and clothe oneself from the earth. Obviously they couldn’t give up participating completely, they still needed credits to buy the food staples they couldn’t grow in small patches, but they refused to earn money by contributing to or possessing fabbed things, and built all structures, boats, and houses by hand. They were also convinced the end was certainly coming, and coming quickly, so they felt it would be best to live on the edge of what they called SinCITY, in a type of last stand Noah’s ark they could ride when the big wave called judgment finally came.

Greg opened his eyes and swallowed back bile as the shade retracted on his hydrocab as it left the chain and ascended to street level. He HATED the launch through the tunnel, thinking it completely unnecessary for such a short distance. Why do we build things just because we can? He knew the answer of course, faster was more efficient, everything had to be faster. With this system CITY kept the cabs free for its citizens for most of the day, and only had to charge them a minor surge for congestion pricing during commute hours. Most people in CITY worked from home anyway, or chose to work and socialize in the C3s (Coworking Coffee Commons) that made up so much of the city.

As industries in CITY shifted to prefer flexible and mobile work patterns, most big high-rise buildings were quickly converted to luxury housing and/or recreational facilities for some of the coolest new technologies that had come out. He was saving credits to be allowed into one of the Green-zone multi-level VR simulators, where you immerse yourself in just about any large-scale MMORPG game you currently played on your little screen or visor at home. His guild in Sriracha Legendary Fire Dragon had been planning on taking down some lower-level CITY players who had bought high-level armor and weapons with real credits and were flashing it off all around the local PVP dungeons. They always played together in fully immersive VR, giving them the advantage when it came to strategizing skirmishes, as one of their teammates could cast a Seeing spell to float above the whole board and order commands, while the others could actually move around the room to get in position with no lag. No matter this reality or a virtual one, being together with your team physically always helped, technology could never fully replace that.

Even so, it’s the one place where we can win out on them he thought, smiling at the idea of the weapons and armor he would pick out from the rewards. The game was less important to him than the ratings and recognition it would bring, as the whole fight would be streamed and highly attended when it finally went down. While he didn’t participate too much in CITY’s formal contribution network anymore, he had a pretty big name in OB gaming and design circles, and was known for trying to stick it CITYfolk whenever he could – remixing their designs and reselling them on the black market, beating them in online games, or getting into long drawn out philosophical debates on Creddit (reddit’s fully monetized big-brother).

Getting distracted, he scrolled through the Creddit feeds looking for any hot debates as the hydro-cab merged onto one of the Cross-town elevated roads and whisked him and its three other passengers towards the battery. With a gleam in his eye, he tapped on the his disposi-screen and launched himself into an argument with a bunch of Harraway-haters who argued that people with enhancements and implants weren’t natural anymore, forgetting that they typed or vocalized their very arguments into a brain-enhanced network themselves. This was going to be fun.

Lesley

Lesley was herself zipping towards the battery on a hydrocab, albeit a more luxurious single-user uberH20 variety, only accessible via the uberH20-X app for those with high contribution scores. She reclined in the ambi-leather, an intelligent covering (from god knows what animal) that attuned itself to her body-temperature via a heating mesh woven behind it (finally solving the age old dilemma of leather seats on hot and cold days) and sipped her single-origin coffee. At $50 a pound, it was one of her favorite frivolities. She knew very well that she couldn’t really taste the difference between the beans from a tiny commune in South America and a huge factory, but she liked to pretend she could, and besides, she enjoyed ruminating on the journey her special coffee beans took from the plantation to her cup.

With everything automated and convenient these days, the only thing that could really raise the value of something was a story. Stories were unique and made all the difference between a cup of Au Bon Starbucks brew – whatever their giant signs claimed about quality – and a cup of SO Colombian small batch coffee. Lesley bought everything small batch, she could afford it, and beside she deserved it, having worked so hard to have gotten where she was.

She also was no stranger to the importance of stories, much of her official and unofficial career devoted towards storytelling through her designs. It was a unique skill, and many argued it could only be refined for those who had a knack for it, never truly taught from scratch. Others had called it social or emotional intelligence, leadership, vivacity, but at the end of the day, storytelling was about being able to briefly capture your audience in your imagined reality, and that was what made you a Designer. Whether through a virtual reality, words, media, pictures, the thread remained the same. With so many information streams, contribution networks, messages, and advertising detritus competing for attention, stories were still prized, somehow following an ancient spark of oral tradition and human engagement that connected on a primal level, moving one’s heart rather than just the mind.

She would have to do some great storytelling today she reflected, savoring the taste of the rich coffee, and alternating sips with bites of granola and (real) blueberries from her to-go-cup while watching the sunken shores of Long Island zip past her at 140mph. She tapped the windshield of the cab two times in quick succession and the glass darkened, a glowing circle indicating where she should login. She touched her wrist to the screen and watched as lines sketched themselves gracefully out from the circle, joining together like sketched spiderwebs to create an illustrated profile and dashboard – liberally dotted around the edges with gears and 2D animated cogs that would turn and blow steam in time with commands as she did her work.

Lesley was a huge fan of fantasy and steampunk skins for her interfaces, and yes she had actually downloaded this one off the black market. As a certified designer, she had certain freedoms when it came to purchasing illegal work, as long as she re-contributed any modifications she made to it back into the appropriate monetary channels. Designers were thought to be slightly eccentric, those who were good storytellers even more so. One required a certain level of illicit and scandalous material to get inspired, and the municipal government did not want to limit the creativity of the people who kept CITY afloat (physically, monetarily and spiritually).

“JD, bring up the emergency structural reviews of the old designs for Pump 42” she murmured and the screen morphed into an animation of three ancient tomes rising from an ornate bookshelf that had rendered itself on the screen. They landed on her dashboard with a digital “thump” that she felt in her implant, clouds of fake dust spreading across her display. She smiled to herself, almost imagining the musty scent of how old books must have smelled.

“Actually, first put in an order to Amazon Postal for “musty book” scented ambi-beads, or the closest you can find.” She’d do the rest of her contributions this weekend on a disposi-book and would code it so that the musty smell was released when she opened and closed it again on a new chapter.

hydroCabdash

Feeling happy for the first time that day at her thoughtfulness, she started reviewing the designs for the failed pump as the digital cogs made hissing and steaming noises in the small cab interior. There it was. So stupid. She raised her finger, pinched over the area to zoom-in, then touched her index finger to the screen until she felt a confirming tug from her wrist. Slowly pulling her hand away from the screen, the design followed her finger out of the screen,  projectors on the side of the glass rendering a 3D replication as quickly as it hit the air. She used her other hand to spin around the render stuck to her index finger like a basketball, then pinched and released her fingers again until she had zoomed in on the mistake.

All of the pumps were integrated into the landscape of the shorefront, the richest CITYfolk still preferring sea-side views no matter the cost. They were meant to be discrete and embedded into the local environment, pretty much the motto of all security, utility, or infrastructural items in CITY. Even the elevated highways were used as the roofs of massive semi-outdoor malls and common spaces for the C3s that ran off the leftover kinetic from the cars passing by overhead (most of the cars didn’t actually need to recharge that often as they never left the track, leaving plenty of leftover collected electricity for local businesses). Every time they needed to be repaired, about every five years or so, a redesign was required and Chief Executive Designers were brought in to oversee the integration of the technical, aesthetic, interactive, and urban functionality of the new design – a construct that should delight residents, as well as keep them alive.

pump42fromWater

For this reason, the massive pumps, as big across as a football field, and as deep as a seven story building, were folded into the natural seashore and made into an asset of the neighborhood, not an eyesore. Twin pumps 42 and 43, two of the hardest working in CITY, due to the already artificially-dredged land the battery was built on, were currently encapsulated in a beautifully designed japanese inspired zen-garden, courtesy of the last CED, who had done what everyone thought was an amazing job integrating the engineering, architecture, information technology, and human computer interaction designs into a beautiful experience that transformed the ugly utilitarian pumps into a pleasant and magical public space for everyone who saw them.

However, for some reason, the designer didn’t realize that the electromagnets used to invisibly shift the charged sand into random fractal patterns every couple of minutes, were as strong as they were, or as poorly insulated – at least when all of them were used at once for a big show! Somehow, they were affecting wiring and signaling below them, leading to a corruption of the digital signal going to the hatches that regulated water flow. When the pumps had been turned on last night, the magnets had switched on full power on for a special show for residents and employees. With the whole system going at once, the magnets exerted so much energy that they scrambled the signals below them, and the message the pump erroneously received was to slightly open an emergency-cooling hatch below the seal-level, used to flood the engines in case of a fire. That hatch had been slowly leaking seawater directly into the pump room for hours, finally culminating in entire lower part short-circuiting and exploding overnight when it hit the delicate circuitry overhead. Oops.

She examined the layers between the sand, the magnets, the ceiling of the engine room, and the wiring, thinking of what could be done to salvage part of the design. The entire pump would have to be replaced, and quickly, so pump 43 didn’t over-exert itself too much and degrade too quickly, messing up the carefully calibrated repair schedule that had both of them queued together for efficiency. Flipping through the designs for the other pumps that she had submitted earlier that morning, she reviewed what would look good in that space in short notice, reincorporating many of the technologies already wired in, and her eyes lighted once again on the spinning cogs and gears of her display.

Hmmmm, something retro?’ she mused to herself.Could I finally shake everyone up a little and mix in some old, rather than just some new? Could I convince them to go with something edgy, something steampunk or cyberpunk maybe? I mean, it’s already a bit patchy looking and this is absolutely going to be a patch job, one way or another…’

She chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully and mused about the problem. While the steampunk mash-up of old and new was all the rage these days among the younger crowd, the younger crowd was far outweighed by the number of older citizens, still working, still playing, and still pretty much running CITY by virtue of proportion.

After all, there were more people in CITY over 65 than in all the schools combined, but that hardly slowed people down and bio-engineering allowed people to extend their lives almost to 120 years by now. Still, more than ever, there was a need for young designers, so much so that the position became certifiable – in place of project management, urban planning, architecture and software development, which had all been folded into the designation, given the intimate merging of man and machine necessary to create even the basic blueprint for a new building or public plaza.

Everything was either design or execution these days, and the design was more prized, given it was the one thing that machines till couldn’t do, to create, to imagine. In addition, most of the world’s best creative minds in technology, urban planning, experiential design, and even some areas of government (since so many ended up as politicians) had been lost nearly 25 years ago, after suffering sudden extreme complications from a miracle anti-aging supplement that silicon valley had sworn by in the twenty teens as the elixir to long life.

True to its name, it sent many people straight to Elysium, or Heaven, or Hell – depending on your religious patchwork, but not until most of the top names in the country (who could afford it after demand soared) took it every day in a frantic obsession to beat back old age and work together to save the world that they thought was doomed to increasingly severe weather and climate extremes.

But the drug did work, and after about 10 years most were taking the exclusive pill, laughing as their lessers lost hair and gained wrinkles. But within one week over 90% of them had died suddenly, inexplicably and terribly, leaving the country in shock and shambles as subordinates tried to pick up the reigns of power now left empty, including the oval office. Just one more nationwide mess upon another, further leaving big government powerless, and pushing the companies that kept the country going to come up with a solution, furthering their local oligarchies of state and municipal administration.

The whole affair was still one of the biggest mysteries – and conspiracies – of the early 21st century. Ironically, the nation’s economy was instead rebuilt upon a surge of fresh new blood contributing their ideas through growing official and unofficial contribution networks, especially women and minorities, largely spared from the disaster, the former because the drug allegedly caused fertility issues (though many thought this a ploy longer-lived women from the benefits), and both parties because most companies still lacked the diversity to hire and pay the same proportion of non-white, non-male workers at salaries that could afford the expensive pills.

Thus the contribution systems began to reign supreme as ordinary work declined, manufacturing, logistics, fabrication, and other manual and labor intensive tasks traded to automated machines, as well as much of finance, education and other information-central functions that could be run with algorithms and interconnected deep AI systems that coordinated one’s life from waking to sleeping, from birth to death. Americans had finally completed the century long merge with the spinning wheels of capitalism that had first churned out a model T ford, their whole lives becoming a two-way assembly line of responsive adjustments, information flows, and activities that fitted and upgraded them to give back to the system that sustained them all – at least those who were plugged into the infrastructure of a city or regional hub like CITY.

While she appreciated the outcome, Lesley personally thought the whole lead up was a big conspiracy, and followed the camp that believed a final batch of the pills had been infiltrated by a quick acting engineered virus meant to bring America to its knees in the times of its greatest environmental, economic, and political hardship. Yet even more suspicious, mostly everyone living in a place like CITY, with access to public utilities, had started to live longer anyway after moving to urban centers and those born after collapse pretty much had an automatic extra twenty years on everyone else on top of that. Many thought that the active ingredient in the drug had been discreetly and quietly released into the water supply over the years so that those still left who contributed enough to live in an urban center could keep supporting the struggling economy as the workforce rapidly aged and less and less children were born into an uncertain future.

Whatever the effect, CITY was still disproportionately old, even though not as bad as other places since they attracted so many young imports from other states, and they might not appreciate her slightly exotic styles. Flipping through her more conservative designs, inspiration struck. The Twins! Of course! She pulled up a design for a set of post-post modern styled indoor and outdoor park structures who reflected each other in every way, color, angle, lighting etc.  She had originally created these for another set of twin pumps in the Lower East Side, set on the foundations of the old Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, which had been taken down after the power cutoff to prevent unauthorized excursions from OBers into CITY – before the color grid system had been fully implemented and operational.

The buildings the old designer had erected would easily convert into these new arrangements, they were plain to begin with to help the garden shine, and the magnets could be salvaged from the ground to power giant ferrofluid displays that would fill the sky between the park buildings with constantly updated abstract art pieces that could be programmed in externally from the contribution network. ‘Yes, the board would like that a lot, and I might just be able to use this as the tipping point in the proposal’. Monetized screens of any type that were integrated into public works were one of most popular canvases for CITY’s consultant regularly put out creative prompts for curated exhibitions. Everyone likes creating within some boundaries, and the entire relationship between the different design professions was structured to keep the money flowing between them, always pushing for new, better, faster, more beautiful experiences for CITY residents.

Still staring wistfully at her display, she sketched in a couple of extraneous cogs and gears into the support beams for the screens and found her hand roughly laying delicate curves and lines of a massive antique clock and wrought-iron archway that would frame the screens and connect the two structures, reminiscent of the gas lanterns that used to hang in City Hall park a long time ago. She had seen something similar proposed for the south entrance to the Billyburg Free Trade zone the other day, the district where OBers and CITYfolk could freely mingle and trade, that had sprung up haphazardly in the less flooded areas near the Billyburg station over the years following the cutoff. She pushed her design to the side and held up her other hand to the screen before her, tapping all five fingers against the glass to pull up a keypad, and entering in the number of a private VPN she subscribed to, before pulling up the black market design hub Erebus onto her screen.

She flipped through the pages looking for archways and brought up the proposal, admiring the delicate scrollwork of the reclaimed iron railings. Using a modified line-tracing software she had built, she copied the lines of the design onto her own screen and overlaid them on the twin buildings, fiddling enough with the ornamentation and adding in the ferrofluid screens. Getting there, it was definitely getting there. She stared wistfully out the window as she imagined the design on the space she had stood in for so long last night, replacing the stark shadows cast across the clean and modern courtyard with the simulated flicker of gas lamps and the scent of burning wood pumped pumped from ambi-bead filled chambers below the street, a central fountain making enough of a sound to drown out the ever-present and ever-irritating buzz of the kinetic roadways that passed by close overhead.

Lesley examined her stolen, no borrowed, remixed and re-imagined (she reminded herself) design one more time, and tapped the screen to render in the archway. Screw it, she was CED and she was doing this. It wasn’t quite right yet, rough lines still glaring up from un-imagined areas, but she just needed to update the board on her idea, now that it had been about an hour since she sent the potential portfolio of inspirations.  now that the board had her to send her idea to the board so they could get a picture of what she wanted to go for. She wouldn’t know for sure until the designers under her gave her the analysis of the structural damage, and proposed area she could work within – not to mention the proposed budget – which would now be considerably lower as a redo.

This is so unfair! My first real design as CED and I have to convince a bunch of people the whole thing won’t collapse on them because of stupid aesthetic choices – she wanted to slap the idiot who installed giant electromagnets next to a digital receiver – and do so on a shoestring budget. This was NOT how she imagined her day today!

Finally she felt a slight bump as the hydrocab once again shifted into aquatic mode and they lightly skimmed across the Hudson river.  “Take me around the long way” Lesley spoke to no one in particular, but the windshield flashed once acknowledgement and her wrist buzzed faintly,  the command now relayed to the AI.

The hydrocab turned in a long arc, water spraying from the jets helping it change direction. She coasted down the east side of CITY looking at the giant network of locks, seawalls, and pumps that kept the ocean held back. While the northern parts of the East and Hudson rivers had been narrowed (to prevent flooding from upstate rain storms), down here near the Williamsburg Bridge the river was its full width, dug even deeper than before so massive tidal power fans could be installed under the water to power much of CITY. Puffs of white smoke drifted gently from compost facilities arranged on the shores, interspersed with wind towers. Over all of it, the buildings, the towers, even the streets and walls, shone thin lines of photovoltaic paint, coated on in some places, traced in beautiful lines along others, every part of the new barrier trying to gather enough energy to keep CITY powered and afloat.

As she rounded the bottom of CITY, she saw the massive twin pumps of the battery looming in the distance, the entire area sticking out like some growth from a bygone era where man thought he could master water, not just try to keep it at bay. But they had decided to keep the battery, since they had to keep the financial district anyway, and there it sat, years of man’s ingenuity and mastery standing as testament to their long fight against the climate they had turned against themselves.

With a sigh, Lesley finished the last of her coffee and readied herself for the next few hours as the hydrocab brought her to her destination.

Greg & Lesley On site

Arriving before the other designer and engineers, Lesley lightly hopped out of the hydrocab, now stopped at the transit hub directly next to pumps 42 and 43. She landed on her feet gracefully, reminding herself to pick up more supplements as her knees creaked in slight protest at the impact. No reason to be getting crotchety so young when there was a pill for that. She walked slowly over to the pump plaza, surveying the now still zen garden, smoke still billowing from a whole that emergency maintenance engineers had cut into the ground to vent the pump chamber below.

pump42overhead

The zen garden filled the wide plaza between the two main pump structures, punctuated here and there by pocket parks where residents could admire the view from special tea-house like structures that were actually climate controlled units that kept the cherry trees underneath them blooming for half the year, while pumping in simulated sounds of trickling water and scents of incense from the ambi-bead chambers below.

Real incense was prohibited of course, anything involving smoke was, including smoking tobacco and marijuana outside of specially vented and monitored rooms. Given the escalating air pollution issues left over from power plants, sewage facilities, and other essential utilities that cracked open during the constant barrage of storms and were still leaking the fumes of their waste and byproducts into the air, CITY administration thought that no additional pollutants were needed. Even with the progress of the last fifty years, as cars were prohibited and renewable energy started eliminating the traditional sources of the pollution, air quality was still a huge issue. Also adding to the problem was the huge cloud of coal smoke that drifted down from upstate New York, a primarily liberal area who stubbornly refused to join the CITI-run renewable energy infrastructure and insisted on burning coal since gas and oil were no longer an option after America refused to purchase necessities in the face of surging prices and rising nationalism.

She pulled out a disposi-screen from her bag and again thumbed in her private VPN number after activating it against her wrist, pulling up the black market design again for inspiration. She really didn’t need to resort to such a secure VPN just to search Erebus and other sites like it for inspiration, this had been expected and tacitly supported since the first class of designers was introduced to the students from OB engineering schools that would one day build and hard code their dreams into reality, starting a tradition of one semester of participative collaboration before graduation. Since the consolidation of the design and engineering professions, each firmly rooted in centuries of class, gender, and ethnic boundaries that had been somewhat overcome, but were reforming along new geographic and occupational lines as connectivity became a premium and privilege.

At first, such incursions into non-CITY controlled networks were strictly prohibited and reprimanded, but the teachers soon realized that allowing design students to participate discretely in the growing subculture of OB black market design collectives that had formed when OB engineering students were frustrated they couldn’t afford CITY designs, nor reproduce them on municipal FABbers and slowly set out to create their own FAB shops and design collectives to solve local problems.  

But Lesley had a secret that required the secure connection, and she had trained herself to use it no matter what the reason for connecting to Erebus, lest her information leak out. While she liberally remixed and sampled the designs from black market designers for her own work, she secretly contributed back into the black market networks as well, for free, a huge no no in an ideas economy that thrived on authorship rights.

Greg

The interior of the cab chimed in acknowledgement, as the machine slid smoothly into a slot at the station nearest Pump 42 and 43 and Greg’s cuff pulsed in time. Looking up from his disposi-screen, he was surprised to find himself at the main level, reserved for senior engineers. He looked at the others in the cab and they all looked back at him in equal surprise, none of their cuffs reacting to the stop.

“Greg Oberkin, please depart the cab and report to the Senior Engineering checkpoint in the pump courtyard. The information and your new assignment has been sent to your personal cloud.” The top of the cab popped open and Greg unfastened himself and hopped out into the transit station, pulling up the assignment and scrolling through it. Sure enough, he had been promoted to one of the senior engineers. After the disaster last night, the full blame had of course fallen on the senior team’s execution, not the ex-designer’s inane plans, for incorrectly insulating the magnet units and not providing adequate feedback on the possibility for digital interruption.

Greg walked along towards the pump plaza, the two simple structures built by the previous guardian growing larger and larger as her approached. He seemed to be the first one here and he looked at the directions again in his assignment. They marked a location in the middle of the garden where a small tent had been set up the night before and he started down the steps towards it, admiring the garden around in the early morning light. As Greg got closer, her noticed a woman standing next to one of the structures, tapping furiously away on the disposi-screen before her.

From the expensive and somewhat impractical cut of her clothes, Greg assumed she was one of the design team sent in to fix this mess, also arrived early at the scene. He started over toward her, hoping to make a friendly introduction before the day started and figure out what exactly was going on, as he was feeling a little nervous about his new and sudden responsibilities. He hoped she was friendlier than his last run in with a designer in a Billyburg  bar, which hadn’t gone so smoothly – but then again, he wasn’t half as attractive as she seemed to be every step closer he took.

Lesley

Holding up her disposi-screen and switching it to transparent, Lesley brought the screen to her eyes, and blinked a couple of times as the glass rippled into the appropriate lens distortions to push her into AR mode. When the transformation was finished, she held her eyes against the new ridges on the front of the screen and gasped in wonder as her design was rendered over the existing landscape as she moved her head to look up and down at the courtyard in front of her.

lesleySteamArch

Her eyes fixed again on the giant ferrofluid screens, now taking up twice as much room as before and somewhat overwhelming delicate physical beauty of the real-world antique clock in the middle with their constant motion, and she sighed deeply wishing that she could for once create something that didn’t have to generate value for someone. As much as she enjoyed her career so far, her shy teenage self still sat deep inside her, scribbling tangible ideas for real impact onto real paper obtained from dealers in Billyburg during forbidden excursions to the free trade zone, which had already had a seedy reputation before the power was even cut off.

While she enjoyed contributing her ideas, and she had plenty of them to contribute, she sometimes felt exhausted from the never-ending cycle of putting herself out there for everyone else, whether at work or at play, but always for the ultimate profit and entertainment of others. As her career progressed she realized that most of Municipal Design was preserving a delicate reality that life was convenient, safe, and most of all certain by seamlessly integrating features that made it so into the fabric of CITY life.

Every interaction within and without one’s home was measured, optimized, and tailored to make waking life a dream, a magical existence half lived in an ephemeral intellectual and digital world that stared back at you from screens everywhere, on buildings, on sidewalks, in plazas, clutched in hands young and old, blinding eyes from seeing and addressing the steadily worsening real world outside of their walls and pumps, ensuring that all creativity and attention was diverted into a huge, yet insular think-tank ensuring the survival and entertainment of their small, precious, and fiercely guarded scrap of land. ‘

In order to stay relevant, one had to stay connected and contribute to CITY, constantly pouring ideas and dreams into a system that mainly only helped those lucky enough to be plugged into its efficient, convenient, and secure embrace. Sometimes she didn’t know where her dreams ended and reality began, most of CITY a reflection of countless intertwined ideas and dreams of millions of people competing with one another for space along the crowded screens of one’s mind. This is why she had started secretly contributing small free designs to real problems that OB residents faced, offering HAB modifications, and alternatives to expensive screens that could be installed.

Suddenly she felt dizzy as she imagined the totality of CITY, miles and miles of screens, projections, and embodied interactions that only competed with the necessary photovoltaic paint to harvest energy, still constantly painted and repainted into new intricate traceries as prompts were released for their re-imagination according to the trends of the year. Dropping the screen, she swayed unsteadily and still in AR mode, went to lean her hand against the nearest pump structure for support. Feeling only empty air, she stumbled disorientingly, the display making it impossible to regain her balance and started tipping into space… only to find herself caught before hitting the ground, face sliding against the pocketed leather long-vest of the man who had caught her.

“Ummm… sorry, you just kind leaned and missed the wall as I was coming up to say hi, so I uhhh, caught you…” the man stammered as he quickly helped her back to her feet.

Lesley blushed furiously as she looked at his outfit and realized he was one of the new senior engineers who she had hired just this morning, promoting those she liked best among the junior staff who had worked on the pumps to replace her predecessors’ recently-fired team.

“It’s fine, really,” she replied, picking up the disposi-screen she had dropped on the ground as she fell. It was cracked clean in half, the screens notoriously flimsy.

“My name is Lesley, Lesley Green, I’m the new CED who will be overseeing the redesign of the project, now that Monty has moved on. Nice to meet you”.

“Hi, I’m Greg Oberkin, recently promoted Senior Engineer, though I’ve been working here for the past couple of months as a junior. I’ve heard a lot about you Miss Green, I’m a big fan of your work for the lower Central Park entrance, those musical reclamation fountains were brilliant,” the man replied smiling and shaking her outstretched hand.

Lesley examined Greg Oberkin closely. He appeared to be a bit younger than her, and was dressed in a mix of the loosely required uniform (long-sleeves, long-pants, and thick-boots of a certain thickness) and steampunk inspired add-ons, the most interesting being his leather long-vest crowded with hand-sewn pockets, sensors, and tool holders, and huge retro welding goggles, versus the newer sleek version that resembled sunglasses.

“Thank you so much,” she replied smiling back, “it was one of my favorite projects to work on so far, I really got to be creative about how to work in the reclamation part and I’m excited to see the effect on the park’s ponds.” He keeps up with CITY designs, that’s unique she thought to herself. Most OB engineers didn’t read the CITY datafeeds announcing new projects and installations.

“I actually in the area on one of my green days and got to catch the first arrangement played. I don’t know how you got the retro bit tune remixes from late 20th century to sound so good with water and speakers”.

Lesley looked at him in surprise. She hadn’t told anyone about the playful little easter egg she had inserted into the opening song from the fountain, a remix of super old video game midi music that she the water to play to underneath the melody. “You caught that, really? You must be a huge fan of old games and stuff,” she exclaimed, excited that her easter egg had been noticed, none of the feeds in CITY had mentioned it.

“Of course I noticed it, I must have played Tetris hundreds of times when I was growing up. I could sing that tune in my sleep at this point,” Greg replied warming up to her as well. “Glad to know there is a fellow connoisseur in CITY, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in old stuff like that with all the new VRMMORPG halls and other games you guys have access to.”

Lesley grinned conspiratorially, “I play those too, but they are a bit too immersive for me. I know, silly given that that is the point. With my job and all the contribution stuff I already do, I feel like I’m constantly strategizing and working on coordinating things, so when I play games I still prefer the simple ones with one goal, just don’t die and keep playing as long as possible.”

Greg nodded, “I agree, somehow they are more immersive than the best VR shield, you just get super into the rhythm of playing. I used to dream Tetris blocks were falling in my sleep when I was done, every time I’d close my eyes, there they would be. You can’t get more immersive than that.” He looked around the courtyard as he spoke, waiting to see if any of the other workers had arrived.

“No one else will probably be here for another twenty minutes or so. I came super early to look into some of the rendering ideas I have, and you seem to be a bit early as well,” Lesley said seeing him looking.

“I just got the assignment back to this section over breakfast and didn’t notice the promotion, so I was already up early enough to make my other assignment and wanted to get some sketches done for a personal project or two down in the junior engineers building before we started, since I had extra time,” Greg replied, waiting for her reaction to the idea of him sketching. Although engineers weren’t forbidden from designing, many designers still thought it was crudely cute at best and disrespectful at worst, although some of the younger ones were open about it. Greg though Lesley might be one of those types of designers given her passion for retro video games, only really available these days through Erebus and related sites.

“That’s awesome, can I see your work before everyone gets here?” Lesley said, moving closer to him and gesturing for him to bring up his disposi-screen.

Greg obliged and pulled up the mirror display he had been working on in the cab earlier and showed it Lesley, holding his breath unconsciously as she swiped and pinched on his screen inspecting the design.

“This is AMAZING Greg,” she exclaimed and he remembered how to breathe again. He looked up from his boots – at which he had been staring nervously while she reviewed his work – and saw that she was genuinely smiling and moving the screen around as if she could get the sketch to render in the nearby projector units built for that purpose, then laughing sheepishly as she realized the power for the whole area was off because of the fire.

“Really, I’m not kidding. I love old steampunky type things, and the mechanism you made here to log-in is over the top hilarious, I’m sure this will be all the rage, even though I can tell it’s completely useless to the actual login from your notes,” she laughed again, it sounded as beautiful as her musical fountains Greg thought, admiring her profile as she went on about the design.

“Can I see some of your other stuff?” she asked and he took the screen back and started to pull up some other work. “Actually, hold that thought, here come the rest of the team.”

Greg looked up, and sure enough, a pack of designers – by their clothes – were walking over disposi-screens in hand and talking loudly while gesturing wildly around the square, no doubt speculating about the potential redesigns Lesley had come up with – that they had not yet seen as the board was still approving them.

Lesley took a half step away from Greg as they approached and he put his screen down self-consciously, praying that she wouldn’t ask him to show his sketches to the other designers who were approaching rapidly.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell them,” said Lesley’s voice from his right. Greg looked over and she winked at him, then turned and put on a huge smile to greet her friends.

“Hey guys!” she said in what Greg thought was falsely cheerful tone, “welcome, to our new home for the next month, or as long as it takes us to get this back up and running, and even more amazing than that putz Monty made it.” Lesley glanced meaningfully at the plume of smoke billowing from the ruined garden and everyone laughed, even Greg as they tacitly shared a mutual acknowledgement of the true culprit for this disaster.

“This is Greg, one of the new team of senior engineers,” she said, gesturing for Greg to step forward and introduce himself. “Greg, this is Matt, Invisia, Gladys, and Alyx, my all-star team of support designers. Matt does Art & Unreality Designers, Gladys is Idea & Imagination Design, Invisia is Ideation & Prototyping coordinator, and Alyx is our implementation coordinator, responsible for the integration with engineers estimates. You’ll be working with her most closely.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Greg,” Alyx said shaking his hand and smiling widely. Lesley caught herself gritting her teeth at the way Alyx stood on her tiptoes to admire Greg’s goggles more closely.

“Anyway,” Lesley continued, “today we will mostly just get to know each other and do a walk-through of the full facility top and bottom to get acquainted with the situation. When the other Senior Engineers get here shortly – they are reasonably late since they just found out about this promotion over breakfast.” she glanced at Greg and smiled again, feeling a pang when he smiled back in acknowledgement of their earlier conversation. “For now, let’s head down to the design tent and see if there is any coffee we can get into while we wait for them.” Lesley started back down the steps of the garden to the tent in and ushered them inside.

Later That Day

Greg splashed cold water against his face from the faucet in the inside of the design tent. He was standing in the private bathroom for the engineers trying to rub off some of the smoke and soot that seemed stubbornly attached to his face since they had emerged from the still smoking pump below. He had had to get close in some spots, and while his goggles and respo-scarf protected most of his face, a thin stripe of black had collected over the bridge of his nose and cheekbones. Rubbing his face again with a towel, Greg stared at the glowing green lined message on his disposi-screen from Lesley’s work account. ‘Green, just like her name’ he mused staring at the invitation to come out for drinks with her after the job, the green border indicating the extension of his clearance to mutual green areas of CITY.

He looked at his face in the mirror, still dirty, and grinned to himself. From their brief meeting, Lesley seemed more like his friend, an open cool designer who though the authorship system was kind of silly too, but had to play by the rules nonetheless. ‘Don’t forget she is also gorgeous” his conscience reminded him as he looked at the message again, his smile growing wider. He pressed the accept button and his cuff pulsed in acknowledgement, a green band lighting up around the edge indicating his change in authorization to anyone who saw it. He tucked it self-consciously in his sleeve as he left the bathroom, not knowing if Lesley wanted her friends to know they were going out together.

It wasn’t exactly taboo for someone in CITY to go out with an OBer, they were all still human after all, but it wasn’t exactly in good taste among older crowds, almost like showing up to family dinner with a scruffy bearded hipster who sold art for a living would have been in the past. Among younger crowds, no one really cared and sometimes couples got together, OBers designation being upgraded as they ultimately moved to CITY and joined the network, though they could still not become designers unless they went back to school for it – which was rare as finding sponsorship was tough.

Most of the others had already left as Greg headed toward the hydro-cab station, wondering if he was supposed to meet Lesley here or in the closest Green Zone in Greenwich Village, she hadn’t indicated a meeting time.

“Hey, over here!” came Lesley’s voice from a hydro-cab already parked at the station. She was seated in a two-person variety for local use, gesturing impatiently for him to get in. “Hurry up, I don’t want to miss happy hour, this was supposed to be my weekend after all.” Greg quickened his pace and hopped into the cab next to her, buckling himself in as the roof closed over them and they whisked North towards the Village Green Zone.

Sitting over drinks an hour later, Greg found himself liking Lesley even more as the alcohol relaxed her a bit and she told him about her upbringing and getting into design.

Lesley explained she had grown up in what was then Downtown Brooklyn, one of the last enclaves of somewhat eccentric designers who had not yet wanted to move back to Manhattan, before the giant pumps had been completed and the power requirements realized. Like her parents, she had clung to the hope that the community could come together to design a solution, similar to Manhattan’s pump plan, that would maintain their precious neighborhood and others from Redhook to Greenpoint. Yet as she got older and the plans became clear for the cutoff of the outer boroughs, her parents had caved and moved them to Northern Manhattan when she was a teenager, and rents were still cheap enough that they could afford it in their new roles as mid-level designers for the DEDP, Department of Environmental Disaster Prevention.

Lesley had shown a creative streak early on and after the nationwide creative die-off when she was five, quickly placed into citywide special education tracks to curate her talent. Yet since she had grown up on both sides of the water, she had several friends and connections who had been cutoff shortly before she started university at 21. In fact, they were the ones who had helped her and pushed her to submit her first first fumbling contributions to the public screen sculptures in Union Square, usually reserved for students from the nearby PPT Design school, but rented at exorbitant fees during festival weeks to anyone who could afford them.

While she could have attended any of the remaining public schools for free, each associated with their own private sponsor to pay tuition, she had wanted to get into the prestigious PPT, and amalgamation of the city’s top private design schools. However students whose parents could not pay the exorbitant tuition had to find their own private sponsors to attend, given that the allure of the school was its un-affiliation with any one private company to shape curriculum and direction. She had desperately hoped to gain patronage through one of the fully supported scholarships offered by CITY’s C3’s, who retained a portion of your authorship fees (and fame) throughout your attendance. Yet in order to do so, she had had to put herself out there – not easy as she had been an incredibly shy teenager. Still at the encouragement of her then OB friends who had helped her incorporate innovative new styles popping up out of necessity in the wake of the cut off, she had traded her allowance credits for months, forgoing new clothes, games, food, and tech-toys in order to save up for the fees and had her work displayed for six hours during one of the festival weeks.

The next day the head of SciFly studios, arguably the most famous C3 in mid CITY, invited Lesley to join their upcoming design-hack on local drone delivery systems, which she had crushed, and subsequently went on to lead winning teams at several upcoming events. When it came time to apply to school at PPT she was fully funded by SciFly and with their support and connections, refined her style, and decided upon a focus in the highly competerative Municipal Design specialty, which allowed one to work on large-scale public projects, the biggest canvas for design in all of CITY. At the end of the day she wanted to help people, and thought she could reach the most people both within CITY and without by learning to design solutions to the new problems that rose exponentially higher and higher with the rising tides.

Greg could empathize with this sentiment and he explained his frustrations with his inability to get credit for his ideas.

“It’s just not fair. I was so close to passing the test for Design school, but my skills just veered a little more to the practical, to making so I get designated engineer. But I had been designing things my whole life and I still do, I just get paid half of what I would if I could distribute them on official networks.” Greg went on, eventually revealing to her around the fourth drink that he passed ideas through his design friend grimaced as she immediately guessed who from the work he had shown her throughout the evening.

After the fifth drink Lesley revealed her own secret to Greg, about contributing free designs through a pseudonym at an OB design firm run by some of her childhood friends. Greg also immediately guessed her assumed identity in OB, having also looked at some of her more private designs throughout the evening.

As Lesley was debating whether or not she should invite Greg over, and how awkward that would be in the morning since technically coworkers shouldn’t be having sleepover, even though the rule was often broken – among designers and other designers, and engineers and other engineers, rarely a mix of the two. She looked over at Greg, flipping through his disposi-screen with one hand, trying to find an old sketch he wanted to show her and she smiled. She really liked him. He was passionate, smart, funny, and wasn’t afraid to do whatever he could to make change. He didn’t see it, but even though he wasn’t getting paid his fair share for work, his blackmarket designs were actually helping people live better lives, not more absorbed and distracted ones.

She glanced down at his screen as he fiddled with his dashboard and gasped in shock as she saw his avatar and online name displayed across the screen briefly as he moved between files.

Greg looked up at her curiously at the noise, shaking himself awake when he saw her expression was suddenly closed off, face an unreadable play of emotions as she stared as his disposi-screen.

“Is there something wrong?” Greg asked, suddenly unsure of himself at her reaction.

“No, nothing, I just… recognize your avatar from Erebus, I’ve seen your designs before, I really love them” she replied softly, wearing what he swore looked like a guilty expression.

Lesley’s mind worked furiously as she saw the avatar of the man before her, the same avatar she had been staring at rendered across her plaza earlier that day when. The same designs that were now being approved by the board and would be announced to the full team on Monday, after the special equipment being used to render the design sketches onto the physical landscape so they can see the big picture was setup over the remaining weekend.

This can’t be happening!’ she thought to herself furiously, ‘How can I have been unlucky enough not only to rip off the ideas of one of my own engineers, but to have gone out with drinks with him after, complimented all of his work, and then thought about going home with him? This is totally unfair, I like him so much and it is too late to stop this. He is going to hate me tomorrow, I know it.’ She looked up at him and tried to smile to reassure him, but she could see that he knew she was bluffing. ‘Time to make a quick getaway, before this gets any worse.’  She thought to herself, pushing her chair away from the table.

“It’s nothing, I just suddenly feel really drunk is all. I’ve been taking these patches lately to stay focused for work, and they must just be reacting badly is all.” She looked back at him, pretending to grimace and sway a little. She sighed in relief as his expression softened and he stood up to help her.

“No problem, let me get you to a cab. You have a big day tomorrow, Ms. CED,” Greg said as he helped her to the door of the bar.

They walked down the street in silence, Greg supporting her for her supposed drunkenness, both just enjoying the feeling of being close. Lesley savored the moment, knowing in the morning he would be furious with her and this wouldn’t be happening again.

“It’s just not fair…” she whispered to herself as they approached the hydro-cab station and he walked her to the nearest luxury version, swiping his cuff over the unit to activate it on his credits.

“What was that?” Greg said, turning from the cab.

“You really don’t have to…pay for me” Lesley replied lamely, staring at him smiling over at her and trying to return it.

“No really, it’s fine. I had a great time. You are really…amazing. I didn’t know what to expect when you invited me out, but I’m really glad you did.” Greg took her arm and moved her over to the cab and helped her in. “Really, thank you. I ummm… I hope we can maybe do it again sometime,” he said as he looked down at her in the cab.

Lesley managed to smile up at him one more time, genuinely happy at his statement. “I’d really like that…” she said softly, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.

She looked up to find Greg swooping down quickly to plant a kiss on her lips and she kissed him back, both of them parting after a moment, and looking at each other sheepishly.

“Good night,” he said, closing the roof of the cab and waving to her as it pulled away onto the streets.

“Will you be going to your apartment downtown or the beach house Lesley?” JD’s familiar automated voice filled the cab, having been synced as her implant was in range of the sensor.

She managed to squeak out “Take me to the beach house,” before collapsing into sobs, soon accompanied by remixed orchestral arrangements from old video games as her implant sensed her distress and tried to sooth her as they disengaged from the roadway and zoomed into the late spring night.

One Month Later

Greg was nursing a beer at his favorite bar in Billyburg free trade zone, waiting for the rest of his guild mates from Sriracha Legendary Fire Dragon to arrive. They had finally done the impossible and had taken down a pack of mid-level CITYfolk with high-level bought gear, the ambush being arranged for months after watching them strut around the local PVP zone. Altogether it was a good fight though, and it turns out that most of the CITYfolk they beat were pretty cool and fair sports, giving over their gear cheerfully and complimenting them on tactics after the match was over.

His guild had agreed to all meet up after work at Rosco’s tonight to celebrate and in a fit of sportsmanship, they had even invited the CITYfolk to come through, purposely picking a spot that everyone would feel okay to meet up in – close the main station. Greg was early as this one of his new off days, an extra paid day granted to some of the most senior engineers as sort of a quasi-thank you from CITY projects.

After his night with Lesley had ended, Greg found himself waking up the next morning to his wrist buzzing with a new assignment as a Senior Engineer at top design firm loosely associated with Knopf industries. He had no idea what had happened, and when he tried to contact Lesley, all of her accounts were blocked.

He quickly found out why as he watched the unveiling ceremony on Monday through a hacked data feed, wanting to see her again and understand what could have gone wrong. As soon as he saw the bones of his design peeking out from under her creation now spreading elegantly cross the plaza as the projectors cast it onto the air for all to see. It was modified, and had huge new ferrofluid screens that he hadn’t included, but still it was his clockwork archway design that he had submitted (and not been accepted for) for the Billyburg station redesign earlier that month.

At first he had been furious at her, furious that he didn’t’ tell her what had happened right when she realized it, which he now understood to be the source of her hasty flight. He was even more furious that she would just transfer him to a new position, not matter how prestigious, rather than face him about that matter and come clean, admitting she had ripped him off, like so many of the CITY designers he told her he despised.

As the month passed his anger has faded and he just felt sad, sad that he hadn’t seen her, and sad that he probably never would again, regardless of if she had copied one of his designs. In a way, he reflected, she is doing me the biggest favor imaginable, making my design (however altered) a reality for millions of people to enjoy everyday.

Staring into his beer, he wished that she would answer the messages he had been sending, but he suspected that she had blocked him completely right after the incident, nothing of his going through to her and none of her private and public data feeds available to him when he was plugged into CITIs network for his job.

Greg looked down at the disposi-screen he was clutching with the hand not holding his beer. 5:30pm. They should be here in about half an hour, engineers ending a bit later in the day then their designers now that most of his friends were working on the implementation stage of Lesley’s vision, after having been recalled the same day as him. As he tried to decide how he should best pass the time, he heard the door slam behind him and saw someone sit at the far side of the bar, barely looking up from the screen as scrolled again through footage from the recent fight, laughing to himself as the one character with mid-level armor, a mage named Yesell went down under his sword.

Even as he chuckled, remembering the incident, he gave her credit as the only one on her team who had obviously earned her gear, not bought it like the others. Still she wasn’t that great at the game, and kept casting the wrong spells on her teammates, taking a few down herself. ‘She must be new to this one’ he mused to himself watching her get killed again and again and laughing out loud at a particularly obvious blunder where she healed his character right as her teammate was about to destroy him with his legendary swords back-up skill.

“Yeah, she looks like a total klutz. I bet she’s a real jerk too,” said a familiar voice from behind him.

Greg turned and looked into Lesley’s face, shyly smiling at him through her attempted joke, waiting to see what he would do. Looking down at his game, the pieces clicked immediately. ‘Yessel… Yessel? Lesley!’ He looked back up at her, jaw hanging in surprise. Yessel had been hanging around the PVP arena with the opposing guild for the last week, they had all assumed she was a new recruit but were surprised when her armor and stats didn’t match her teammates levels when they saw her.

“You?” he said weakly, “You are the mage I kept blasting to hell and back again all last night?” He slowly got over his surprise, and smiled up at her, happy to see her again. “The idiot mage who kept healing me over and over when her guild mates would pull out a particularly nasty weapon they had bought?”

“Guilty,” Lesley said grinning back at him. Her smile faded. “Guilty of a couple things actually…” she said more quietly, eyes searching his face. “But, I’ve come to make amends and to come clean.”

“Lesley…” Greg began, but she silenced him with a wave of her hand.

“No, let me speak…” she said sitting down next to him, “before everyone else gets here and I don’t have a chance to.” She sighed and looked down at her hands. “I really messed up and I’m sorry I’m both a thief and a coward for not telling you right away in the bar that night.” Lesley looked at him from the corner of her eye and continued. “But I was just so ashamed, after everything you had said about wanting to make a difference and about how you thought I was a real designer, someone who wanted to make a change, not just design pretty distractions for people. Who thought that everyone deserved credit equally for their imagination, not just for the portion that people tell them is okay because of their supposed skills. After I knew you thought all that about me, I couldn’t face you again knowing that I had ripped you off and it was too late to change it. For the record, I did go into the design office the next day and try to come clean, but the board really didn’t care about the stealing, and were more worried you create a fuss so they transferred you out with a cushy job hoping you wouldn’t say anything. I actually kind of lost my job, even though it doesn’t look like it. They took all my designs from my interview and are having new teams implement them without me. I’m kind of just a glorious name to put on them, but I can’t do anything, not even argue about the changes they are making to them. I’ve just kind of been hanging around my beach house, playing old video games. Some friends finally got me to go out to a VR hall and play this new game with them, and I saw your avatar as they were power-levelling me to mid-level for a big upcoming fight. When I found out it was with your guild, I convinced them to accept this invitation after we lost the match, and here I am, in the flesh, to say I’m so so sorry, and then to disappear again from your life before I mess it up any more.”

She reached down and gulped a glass of water, breathless after the speed of her confession. “So yeah, I’m sorry. That’s about it, I guess I will just let you get on with things, I don’t want to ruin the actual party when it happens. That would be awkward.”

“Lesley, stop.” Greg said, and Lesley felt his hand on hers.

She looked up and him hopefully, already half turning to get off the bar stool. “What?”

“Stop being ridiculous, you totally ripped me off and you were an absolute jerk and coward, and now you said you were sorry. I forgive you. So where are you going?”

“You forgive me?” Lesley said uncertainly, turning to face him again.

Greg sighed taking his hand from hers and playing awkwardly with the back of his spiky hair. “Yeah, I did a long time ago actually. Pretty much after I realized that it was already too late when you met me to undo it and it wasn’t personal, just really really awkward timing. Small world, huh?”

“Yeah, a really small world, even though we’ve made it so big.”

Greg smiled at her again, “So what do we do now?”

Lesley smiled back at him “What do you mean?”

“Well we’ve determined that you are basically out-of-work designer, although you are getting paid, which still doesn’t mean much for your contribution score, which I’m sure is suffering after it became clear you aren’t leading your own work anymore. You are also a lousy mage, so that leaves out professional VRMMORPG work. On the other hand, I’m a successful senior engineer at a firm that bores me up to my ears and who makes me implement ridiculous light show for a bunch of screen-blind idiots. So what are we doing to do now to contribute?”

Lesley looked into his eyes as he took her hand again, “we, contribute?” she said, “what do you mean?”

He got up from the stool and lifted her up with him, heading for the door. “I don’t actually know, but let’s get out of here, and I’m sure we can figure it out together soon.” They both laughed and banged through the front door, running down the plastic walkways over the still water, and disappeared into the OB night.

Soon after, a new design collective emerged in Downtown Brooklyn with a revolutionary appeal there were no designated designers and engineers, everyone was responsible together for implementing ideas. And everyone who worked with them still laughed, watching a screen in the back of their office forever loop one of the owners terrible attempt at fielding a mage in a popular VRMMORPG. Then their gaze would drift downward to a simple sign underneath reading “You don’t need to always contribute to make a real difference.”

The End.

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