A virtual hurricane spins through the night air above the bright lights of Big City. It’s an incidence of MindStorm, a non-stop tsunami of information served via MindNet, a brain-computer interface that connects your mind to the cloud.
The storm swirls with images, videos, sounds, and emotions. An assault of advertisements mixes in with the user channels for mutant pet tricks, elfpunk boy-bands, and hoverboard drops from space. Virtual jetbikes fly through fantastic worlds to offer the mindlinked thrills of The Games of Life.
Smiling holographic salesmen open the doors to virtual flying cars, waving you inside with the promise of low monthly payments for the real thing. Violent video games invite you into the seats of attack mecha-suits with the assurance of no emotional consequences for your primal release.
A pair of real flying jetbikes circle the edge of the mindstorm, then spiral down to the streets below.
The riders wear black flightsuits and helmets with mirrored visors. The jetbikes are made of shiny black nanotech shaped like crouching wolves — mouths open to suck in air, exhaust ports behind each haunch, and glowing blue sapphires for eyes.
Quell mindnets, Whirl, how can you keep your sanity in all that data?
Whirl retracts her visor as she looks for a place to land. You just have to let it wash over you. Be the stone in the running river and let it slip past. Pick out the stuff that interests you, and grab on when you can. There it is.
She spots a huge metal rose the size of an entire city block. Water pours out of the top edges of the blossom and cascades onto the layers beneath. The water runs down the surfaces of the petals and falls into a blue pool in the center.
Quell retracts his visor as the jetbikes approach the street. They skim above the pavement and stop near the sculpture. The petals stand ten stories tall, and the water inside gushes so fast that it sounds like a large waterfall.
Quell nets, What is this place?
It’s a cooling tower for the servers that support the feeds where the data hurricane is generated. It’s a massive amount of information and they are always on.
And you never disconnect?
I can’t imagine not being connected. Information is like a lifeblood for me now. It’s why people follow my feed. If I stop finding the new and unusual, they’ll move on to someone else. I’ll do whatever it takes to stay out front.
They dismount from the wolf jetbikes as their helmets retract into the collars of their flightsuits. A pair of twenty-somethings out for a night of mischief.
WhirlsWolf nets, We’ll wait for you here.
Whirl pats her jetbike on its head. Better go invisible mode.
Both of the jetbikes fade away to invisibility. Whirl reaches out and touches it again, just to feel it. This mission is like a dream come true. Hack into ECM and maybe get the codes for a mainline? Heaven.
That’s not the mission.
I know, but if I can grab a little bonus, why not?
A new voice cuts into the mindnet, You are advised to complete the mission, and only the mission.
Whirl rolls her eyes. Yes Shaman. Grab a copy of MindStorm for analysis. I get it.
Whirl sticks out her tongue and waves a fist at the air. “Although, I have to admit, sometimes just talking is better.”
Quell grins. “See, that’s the trouble with mindnet. You never know who’s listening. Besides, I wouldn’t piss off an AI. Especially the one paying our bills.”
“If I’d known that working for DISRUPT came with so many strings, I might have said no.”
“Too late now. Let’s go.” Quell takes a step toward the cooling tower, then makes a point to go around the invisible jetbikes. There’s an access door at the base of one of the petals with a sign above that reads: ‘Echo Chamber Media — a GLOBAL Company — Restricted’
Whirl nets, ECM is the biggest supplier of feed data in the city. It’s who everybody wants to be like someday.
Quell shrugs. Looks like a lot of noise to me. I just use it to find places to eat. Anyway, you’re the expert. So here’s hoping Shaman got the locks turned off. He grabs the door handle and pulls it open.
Inside, they stand behind the fast-moving waterfalls that run off the bottom edges of the petals above their heads. The collecting pool is the size of a street cul-de-sac. Pipes extend up out of the water and thread their way through the petals like the veins of a leaf.
A short walk to find an opening in the floor with a stairway that leads down to a dark space. Painted on the wall nearby: ‘To Utility Tunnel — Level 00’
They take out visors and switch to night-vision mode. Grins at how silly the bug-eye visors look, then down they go. The tunnel is mostly dark, with a light every half-block. Large insulated pipes with color-coded directional arrows hang on the walls. Red point in the direction of the cooling tower, blue in the opposite.
A few twists and turns, three more doors with defeated locks, finally to arrive at a stairwell door with a small window and a sign: ‘Fire Exit — Roof Access’
A quick sprint up the stairs to the next level, then exit the stairwell to find a door marked: ‘Servers’
Red light from within glows through a small window in the door. They peek inside to see a huge space filled with dozens of slabs of what looks like red glass. Row after row, the slabs form a regiment of ruby rectangles the size of twin mattresses standing on one end.
Quell nets, What are those made of?
Crystal lattice computing. Very dense, and hot. That’s why they need a cooling tower.
Which one is it?
I won’t know until I get inside. The room is shielded, it’s why this has to be done here. And… Three, two, one.
The electric lock on the door clicks. Whirl opens the door, steps into the room, and mindnets into the local grid. In her mind’s eye, each crystal slab is a brightly glowing mass of red energy. Run subroutine, MindStorm search.
At the far end of the room, one of the slabs turns blue. There it is. You keep watch here, this will take a sec. Keep the door open.
Whirl passes through the rows of crystals, marveling at the expense and expanse of technology on display. She eventually stands next to the blue one. Run subroutine, Invader. Her mind rushes inside the blue crystal where she ‘sees’ herself as a silvery avatar standing in the center of a vast array of data points.
She float-walks to a panel that represents the file management system, and sweeps her hand across the surface until she finds the file she wants. Download MindStorm to memory. The transfer is instantaneous.
Quell nets, How’s it going?
She’s about to turn away when another file name catches her eye. FOMO? What is this? She touches the file and immediately regrets it. Virtual sirens screech into her mind as she backs out of virtual reality. Worse, there are real sirens in the actual room with the servers.
Quell startles and almost lets go of the door when the electric lock throws the deadbolt. It hits nothing but air, so it withdraws and tries again. Click-clack. What’s happening?
On my way! Disconnect your mindnet, now!
Just do it!
Whirl takes several steps toward Quell, but the room morphs into a completely different reality as the counter-measures kick in. It invades her mindspace so she can’t see reality at all.
Instead of the neat orderly rows of servers, she ‘sees’ a hellscape of tombstones under a full moon. The dirt in front of the tombstones boils up as skeletal zombies rise from the graves. A screaming banshee flies into her face. When she tries to bat it away with her hands, all she touches is air. It attacks again and passes through her head, leaving a wave of dread in her emotion channels.
“It’s all virtual. I just need to remember it’s all virtual. Quell, talk to me out loud. I’m caught in a mindstorm nightmare.”
“Over here. I’m staying with the door. It’s trying to lock.” Click-clack.
Whirl focuses on his voice and takes a few steps toward him.
“That’s it, just keep heading straight ahead.”
Whirl’s view becomes ever more frantic with spinning banshees, rising zombies, and a moon that gets blindingly brighter with every step. She holds her hands out in front of her as she lurches forward. Quell calls out, “A few more steps Whirl.”
In virtual reality, the banshees form a swirling storm around her, causing her to start spinning. Around and around she goes as she approaches the pit of an open grave. Just as she’s about to fall in, a pair of hands grab her. She gets a moment of clarity. It’s Quell.
“Look at me Whirl. Concentrate.”
She stares hard into his eyes, and finds herself back in the server room. Quell has one foot extended back to hold the door open. Click-clack.
He looks into her eyes. “Are you with me?”
“Yes. I’m here. Let’s get the hell out.”
When they leave, the door closes behind them and the lock throws the deadbolt. Clack. It almost seems happy with itself.
Inside the stairwell, they start down toward the utility tunnel. Voices and the beams of flashlights from the other side of the door’s window turn them back.
Whirl says, “Up, let’s go.”
They take the stairs two at a time.
When Whirl looks back, the zombies are climbing up after them. “Oh no.”
“I was hoping the hallucinations would stop in the server room.”
“What do you see?”
Silence as they keep running.
Eventually, Quell asks, “Did you get the program?”
“Yes, and something else. It’s what set off the defense system.”
“What is it?”
“Fear of Missing Out?”
Quell shakes her head as she tries to get enough breath to talk. “It’s a trojan. I can’t get rid of it. Listen, we need to call the jetbikes over mindnet. But we can’t risk both of us. I’ll connect, but if I go under, you’ll have to help me out again.”
They finally reach the landing to the roof exit. Quell pushes on the panic bar, but the lock stays in place. He tries it again, no go. “These locks have it in for me.”
He turns around and leans against the door, pressing against the panic bar with his butt.
Whirl leans over the railing and looks down to see the zombies shambling up the stairs. She backs away and leans against the door next to Quell. “I’ll go in and unlock it.” She takes some deep breaths. “Okay, here goes.”
Before she can connect, the door opens and they fall backward onto green grass.
Whirl says, “Oh no, the cemetery again.”
Quell looks around. The roof is a greenscape, covered in thick grass. He notices a sticker under the panic bar: ‘Fifteen second delay’ as the door-closer pulls the door shut. “Um. I think it’s okay.”
“You see it too?”
He pulls up some grass and hands it to her. “It’s real. But we still need the jetbikes.”
Whirl tests the grass in her hands, takes in the smell of it.
Quell stands up and offers her his hand.
She lets him pull her up. “Thanks. I’ll send a SOS and coordinates. That may be all I get.”
He gives her hand a light squeeze. “I’m staying right here with you. Just listen to my voice.”
She steels herself and mindnets, Jetbikes! The roof! Coordinates —
The nightmare comes rushing into her mind, and she’s back in the cemetery.
The virtual reality stretches itself outward as the zombies materialize all around her. She feels Quell’s hand on hers, but when she looks it’s a zombie’s hand holding her. Panic floods into her emotion channels so she pulls away and starts running. Somewhere behind her she hears a voice call her name, but the panic is too great.
In reality on the roof, Whirl runs toward the edge where its a five-story drop to the pavement. Quell chases her, calling her name. Just before she reaches the edge, he leaps and trips her.
In virtual reality, she falls into an open grave.
In real life, she hits the grass with a thud that shocks her out of the illusion. But she feels Quell’s hands holding her feet and panics, kicking him away.
“Hey, hey! It’s me.” He scrambles next to her and takes her in his arms. They both lie in the grass while the panic subsides.
She finds her composure. “I can’t go on like this. Every time I connect, it’s a nightmare. I have to get this out of my head.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“Let’s get back to DISRUPT. It’s not called the Department Involving Secret and Really Unusual Powerful Technologies for nothing. They’ll think of something.”
The two jetbikes land nearby, their eyes flashing as they try to connect via mindnet.
Quell shouts, “Shut off your mindnet. There’s been a breach.”
WhirlsWolf says, “Mindnet deactivated, but you should know that there is a security team coming up the stairwell.”
Whirl stands up first and offers a hand to Quell. “My turn.”
He takes the assist. They quickly clamor onto the jetbikes.
Quell says, “Evasive route back to DISRUPT, hurry!”
As the two jetbikes lift off, the zombie hallucination intrudes on Whirl again. She almost falls off.
WhirlsWolf stabilizes. “Whoa there. What’s going on?”
“You’re gonna have to drive, I see zombies everywhere. It’s from the servers. They infected me with something.”
“Can I deploy the safety holds?”
“Yeah, better do that.”
Straps extend from both sides of the jetbike and wrap around Whirl’s legs, holding her tight. A seatbelt wraps around her waist. “Okay, got you. Lean forward and hold on best you can.”
The security team boils out of the stairway. Some of them fire off a few laser shots that go wild and miss. But one guard takes careful aim at WhirlsWolf, and fires.
It’s an incredibly lucky shot that hits the wolf straight into one eye. The jetbike lets out a scream of confusion, breaking through the mindnet and connecting to Whirl. And now both of them are caught in the mindstorm nightmare.
Worse, the mindstorm itself is able to take control of WhirlsWolf. It lifts them up into the raging hurricane of data.
Quell sees only what is real as he tries to keep up as best he can, all the while shouting her name. He manages to get next to her. “Whirl! What’s happening?”
In the mindstorm, Whirl can barely hear him. His voice echoes in and out of comprehension. She tries to connect to her wolf jetbike. No go. Asks, “Can you get control?”
“I’m trying, but it’s a hard override.”
The virtual hurricane moves toward the tall buildings of downtown, carrying the jetbike with it as it swirls around ever faster.
Quell sees where she’s going. In a few more rounds, the jetbike will collide into the side of one of the downtown buildings.
To Whirl, the winds of the virtual hurricane take a new shape, and become the zombies that have been chasing her. They swirl all around her, their moans becoming part of the howling wind. Some of the banshees grab the rear end of WhirlsWolf, creating the illusion of a tail of screaming anger.
She can feel their hands in her mindnet reaching for the FOMO code. It’s what they want.
A voice cuts through the storm. What have you done Whirl?
I didn’t do anything.
Then why do the demons chase you?
The FOMO code. We need to see what it is.
You had selfish intentions when you took it, isn’t that true?
Yes. I wanted to use it for my own feed.
At first, I thought it was a code for the Fear of Missing Out.
Why does that attract you?
It’s what drives the feeds. It’s why we connect. It’s why people follow my feed. I wanted an advantage. Maybe I could get more followers if it hooks people.
Not very nice. What do they expect to gain, following you like zombies?
Maybe their own advantage? Competitive data? Some certainty?
It looks to me that all it causes is anxiety.
Maybe so, but to us, it’s the ultimate anxiety to live a life with regret that you didn’t do enough. Didn’t live and play hard enough.
You shouldn’t be spreading more anxiety. There’s also a time for calm and stillness.
I understand. But you need to know something.
It doesn’t stand for Fear Of Missing Out. This one is Follow Only My Orders. Maybe we should break into it and see what ECM is really up to.
I don’t want to tip off ECM. Let’s give them some rope.
Whirl frowns. I can’t get it out of my mind.
Now you can, I’ve opened a channel for you.
In the virtual reality of her mindspace, she takes the FOMO file and throws it into the virtual hurricane.
The zombies stop chasing her, the banshees drop away, and they all gather around the FOMO code. Teeth bared, they feed on it.
In reality, WhirlsWolf is on a collision course with a tall building.
Quell nets, Whirl!
In a flash, Whirl and the jetbike reconnect, the air clears, and the jetbike reverses thrust just in time to stop short of hitting the building. They hang in the air a moment while the people inside the glass marvel at seeing such a thing outside their window.
Whirl gives them a casual salute, then the jetbike turns away.
Quell pulls next to her. Are you okay?
Yeah, I’m good.
Do you still have MindStorm?
Transferring to DISRUPT now. Whew. I’m happy to get all that out of my head.
Where do you want to go now?
Someplace calm, quiet, and forgotten sounds good to me.
I know just the place.
Together, the wolf jetbikes fly across the night sky above the bright lights of Big City.