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Meatspace and MAIA

by Ada Fetters

part 1

Two robot baristas rolled around behind the counter, gurgling contentedly: brown streams of espresso, black streams of coffee, spurts of cream. Ice cubes rattled from their bodies into plastic cups printed with the smiling bee logo of the Buzz. Smells of maple sugar and cinnamon syrup filled the air. The baristas were works of art. Swirls of metal crisscrossed their yellow plastic bodies. Even their black limbs had rounded edges.

Estlin was the human face of the Buzz from noon to four o’clock. He took orders from customers who wanted to interact in meatspace instead of ordering online.

A pair of middle-aged women in plastic shoes had been trying to order for 90 seconds, according to the shimmering numbers over their heads. The customers weren’t aware of the numbers - only Estlin could see those - but their frustration was plain to see.

He smiled at them and leaned his elbows on the counter as a proper store-minder would do. Their irritation melted away like magic. Customers liked his dark tousled hair, country-boy smile and even the wall-eye that gave him an abstracted look. It made them feel confident in a way the baristas didn’t.

As it turned out, the expert-systems voice recognition had been confused by her syntax. The two women had repeated their order more loudly, which hadn’t worked either. Estlin smiled and tapped the instructions into the more prosaic automated espresso machines. His Buzz-networked smartlenses allowed him to see the touch-sensitive areas on a machine that would look like a sleek black surface to customers.

“Thank you so much,” said the taller of the two women. “I never could talk to these... things...” She waved her hand at the baristas.

“No problem. Could do it in my sleep,” Estlin reassured her. In fact, he had a degree in ex-sys communications.

The machine shot milk and steam and espresso from its metal udders. The result was warm even through the insulated mug. Estlin looked at his reflection in the shiny black plastic. He promised himself, again, that he’d get that walleye fixed just as soon as he could let his face disappear into his field.

A mother and anxious toddler approached. “Can I get the bathroom code?”

The toddler shifted from foot to foot and stuck his fingers in his mouth, whining softly. His eyes were unearthly blue: he already had smartlenses installed. So when Estlin made the restroom door visible, the toddler blinked in surprise, took his fingers out of his mouth and pointed. “Ba! Ba!”

The mother cooed approvingly and led the kid away. The two did not see only the physical, meatspace world in front of them, they also saw augmented elements, which varied widely depending on which network their lenses were connected to. There might be as many different versions of the Buzz as there were people in it, Estlin supposed.

A group of middle-aged men gazed into space, watching the same augmented reality. It was invisible to Estlin. “Look at that. He threw it right to one of the Ravens. Luke Hudson wouldn’t’a thrown an interception,” one man told the rest. They shook their heads in disgust.

A job as a human face was easy enough. All he had to be able to do was speak fluently to humans and code fluently for baristas... and look like a human. Estlin supposed he should be glad that consumers found cartoon faces condescending and realistic ones deeply creepy.

His face was his living. Sort of. At least, his account was headed toward the red more slowly than if he were unemployed.

Morian’s voice startled him. “Thank you so much for the hours,” she chirped beside his elbow. When he jumped, she looked up at him through her eyelashes, a mischievous grin on her face.

It was impossible to be upset with her doe-eyes and dimples. They were her living. Having won a rueful smile from Estlin, Morian clipped her heart-dotted nametag to her ample Cougars sweatshirt and did her routine of curtseying to the customers.

This was the price of Estlin’s interviewing elsewhere. Morian would get the afternoon hours for as long as she could hold onto them. The idea was that if a part-time human face had better things to do than work their shift, the hours would go to someone else.

It was a precarious existence. Ten interviews had already nibbled away most of Estlin’s hours at the Buzz.

He unclipped his magnetic name tag, triggering his lenses to recalibrate. While he shared the same space as Morian, he no longer shared the functional workspace. Now he saw the Buzz the way any customer would.

The baristas looked more like bees, the espresso machines on the counter became slick black surfaces without labels, and decorative kitsch bloomed on the shelves. It was autumn, so these included images of gourds that never decayed and sprays of leaves that never crumbled. The images would stay on the shelves bright as ever until someone programmed new ones for winter... spring... summer... Would he be there that long?

Estlin shook himself. He had an interview! No point standing there looking at the same space, even if it looked a little different. Sleepwalking, his old dad used to call it, usually while giving Estlin’s shoulder a gentle shake. Estlin was always daydreaming, losing himself in possibilities of augmented space.

It had been a good way to get a basketball bounced off his face in P.E.

* * *

A gust of wind snatched at his hair and coat as soon as he stepped outside. He set off at a brisk pace. Fortunately, Cougars HQ was within walking distance.

Most of the businesses he passed presented network displays to the public. They showed ads, menus, or decorated their storefronts. The mother and her toddler from the Buzz were standing at the rails overlooking a scenic vista: the city had put it in where an abandoned shopping mall existed in meatspace.

The breeze that tugged at Estlin’s tie also rippled the yellow leaves of the trees on the hillside. Someone had done a good job programming that. They’d probably mapped network conditions to readings from city anemometers.

The toddler waved as Estlin passed. His gem-like eyes were startling in such a young face.

Estlin glanced at Ohioans as they passed him on the sidewalk. What version of Columbus did private networkers perceive? Did they walk through a shiny, slick version of Columbus or one textured like an Impressionist painting?

Basic was provided free of charge for anyone who paid rent and had lenses. Basic served as a simple, utilitarian program. It decorated the users’ perception of a reality that would otherwise be dilapidated. It also let them synchronize with the essentials of life: crosswalks, signage, menus at restaurants.

Because of Basic, Estlin could exist in the same world as the main crowd of consumers and tourists. Instead of seeing a bleached and sagging bakery storefront in reality, he could appreciate a vibrant striped awning. He could raise his eyebrows at the cartoon cat-girl in knickerbockers singing and posing out front. She was just an ad. The bakery would have a human face inside, just as the Buzz did.

He caught a glimpse of a derelict pushing a shopping cart, ghost-like, through a brick wall that probably hid the ruins of an alley. Without Basic, Estlin would unwittingly do similar things. He would walk through walls visible to everyone else, or wander into traffic.

Expert systems took care of driving cars, and Basic let his lenses know - right in front of his face, impossible to ignore - which way sudden traffic would move, and when. Traffic signals were a thing of the past in Columbus, which made access to the Basic network all the more important.

His hometown in upstate Ohio still had big, power-sucking traffic lights dangling across intersections. It also had a vanishing population of factory workers.

Estlin was on his way to interview number eleven, a Hail-Mary job as a personnel liaison with the Columbus Cougars. He wasn’t entirely sure what “personnel liaison” meant in this context but chose to believe that 11 was his lucky number. What else? Number 11 was the beloved Cougars quarterback, Luke Hudson.

Hudson was recently retired, but time had already erased his mistakes. After all, he’d done his best to separate Columbus’s new football team from that of accursed Cleveland.

“I can do this,” Estlin told himself, fighting to maintain hope as he approached the building. “They wouldn’t have called me if I didn’t have the skill set.”

However, the version of headquarters he saw from the parking lot was eerie. The place looked almost abandoned when viewed by a non-employee. The brutal concrete walls were half overgrown with ivy. Cracks webbed the glass of the double doors. It was cheaper, easier and quicker to put up digital storefronts, art and paint, but most businesses at least presented a Basic network view to the public.

Not the Cougars, though. Estlin had neglected to subscribe to the fan version of HQ. He sighed. This was definitely the same franchise that refused to live-stream games back in the day if the stadium wasn’t full. “If you don’t want us, we don’t want you.”

What if some hidden viewer could tell Estlin wasn’t on the level by his body language, even from here? Was there an amazing display that he was drifting through, unaware? Did he look like he was sleepwalking to the interview?

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2018 by Ada Fetters

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