As rain pounds down on the canopies overhead, its deep rumble runs through the Spice Bazaar unchecked. Hundreds of locals hurriedly race between vendors, maneuvering through the throngs with expertise. Tourists meander lazily from merchant to merchant, essentially creating slow moving obstacles for the natives. The dance of commerce has a hectic cadence here; a complex mechanism powering the heartbeat of Old City.
Massive bags of herbs and spices spill intense aromas into the marketplace, countered with less pungent wafts of teas and coffee permeating the air. A cheese salesman yells into the crowd with enthusiasm, passers-by mostly trying to duck his torrent of airborne spittle. A man with comically large knives eyes a slab of hanging meat hungrily. A gentle looking elderly woman strokes her hair, as she sits next to her stall full of beautiful ceramic and glass wares. The culture here is as old as human memory, and perseveres in the face of modern industry.
And yet, reminders of the technological age are sprinkled throughout this seemingly analog patchwork of humanity. Customers hover, swipe, and tap ledgers and headsets to confirm transactions everywhere. Prosthetics flash beneath modern and old fabrics as folks hustle through the masses. Occasional glints of AR lenses and digital displays glint with reflections from surrounding LED and neon light displays. Technology adorns the old and new alike, with zero bias.
Stooped up at his favorite teashop in the Bazaar, Ringo reaches behind his ear to scratch at a fresh mod. The skin is still irritated, and it’s probably because he won’t stop touching it. Some of the weather is making its way down the wall behind him, escaping the synthetic canopies stretched across this cavernous space with tensioned steel wires. The thick white noise of the market is usually very calming for him, but today he feels irritated by the smallest of things. He frowns at the sound of trickling water nearby, and absently blows on his tea.
Ringo glances around him furtively. Liz is running late, and this day is full of bad memories. Some guy in an expensive suit nearby speaks loudly, fully jacked into a sleek VR headset. Loudly engaged in a call with unknown parties, he sticks out like a bull in a china shop; his ultra-expensive gear and boisterous attitude completely at odds with the organic culture around him.
Flipping his AR lens down, Ringo scans the suit with his home-brewed sniffer scripts. Finding some cutting edge corporate software running, he quickly drills down 0-day exploits in his repos, and prepares an applicable payload. Taking a sip of tea, he waits for the package to build itself. The tea is dark and strong today, its slight bitterness matching his mood.
Completely caught off guard, Ringo almost falls off his chair. He somehow manages not to spill his tea. Looking up he finds Liz standing next to him with a huge grin on her face.
“Goddamnit Liz, what the fuck! You scared the shit out of me!”
In one smooth cat-like motion, Liz slides a chair over and takes a seat next to Ringo. She throws a disapproving sideways glance at him.
“Well maybe if you weren’t so focused on ruining somebody’s day, you would have seen me coming! Sorry I’m late by the way, weather’s awful.”
Ringo’s HUD flashes ‘ᴘᴀʏʟᴏᴀᴅ ʀᴇᴀᴅʏ’ and he fires it off. Retracting his AR Lens, he looks at Liz with a frown.
“I’m not ruining anybody’s day. Just having a little fun at the expense of the more fortunate. And yeah, I’m not riding today, roads be slick!”
The suit suddenly stiffens, and starts looking around in all directions neurotically. He begins yelling profanities, and swatting at the air with his hands. Local vendors look over at Ringo, then at the stressed out suit, and begin chuckling. One of them raises a cup in their direction, and Liz shakes her head and smirks.
“What did you do?”
Ringo raises both his hands and smiles at the business owners across the way innocently. They laugh and turn away knowingly.
“Nothing. I’m innocent. My hands are clean. You get those La+chos or what?”
Rolling her eyes at the blunt topic change, she reaches in her leather jacket’s pockets and pulls out a pair of black and white Stacy containers. Inside, black pills with crude white smileys stare out crazedly. A tiny cross glows below one of the eyes like a teardrop. Sneaking a look around them, she covertly hands one to Ringo. Denizens of the Bazaar are either minding their own business, or entranced with the suit making a fool of himself.
“I got ‘em alright. These hit fast, and they go hard Ringo. Try to follow the frequency, friend.”
Ringo looks at Liz with gratitude in his eyes and says, “Thank you. I really needed this today Liz.”
She winks at him, and they both pop their containers open. Stealthily, they take their pills.
The transition is immediate.
The deep roll of rain beating on the canopies overhead sets a backdrop for the Spice Bazaar’s rhythm. Droves of locals glide around each other with a determined grace, their choreography clearly well rehearsed over time. Curious tourists peruse from stall to stall, merchants ushering them with big smiles towards their wares. The dance of commerce presses on with a sustained tempo, the unstoppable heartbeat of Old City thumping strongly.
An intense olfactory experience, the ancient marketplace feeds its denizens timeless aromas of herbs and spice. Signature accents of tea and coffee are densely interspersed throughout the space, along with a confluence of sweet and savory delicacies on display. Vendors busily interact with the crowds, serving up their finest goods and wares with gusto. The energy running through the Bazaar is as old as tradition; it is at the center of all civilizations since the dawn of mankind.
Ringo notes the glow of digital displays and lit up signs throughout the scene, signatures of modernity illuminating humanity’s cultural interactions. He watches a customer tap their ledger at a vendor’s terminal, and sees the red light of a failed transaction begin flashing. The buzz and din of the marketplace comes to a sudden halt. The red light continues to blink independently, getting brighter and brighter with every pulse.
Steadily, the entire scene is washed over with strobing crimson light, and a low frequency of sound begins to build up. At first it is a subtle vibration in the ground. Then, it evolves into a uniform build-up in his very bones. An unavoidable tactile sensation, the rumble begins to make his eyeballs jitter, and the scene before him begins to break apart into a million puzzle pieces, their edges jittering with chaotic scribbles.
As the jumble of pieces fly apart, he finds himself looking at a cross shaped opening in the void, backlit with an intense white light. As he peers into the negative space in the darkness, he sees a face looking back out at him through the plus-shaped window. Its eyes reflect a white neon glow, and they peer deep into Ringo’s soul. Transfixed, he feels his physicality fade away, only to be replaced with a quiet crescendo of voices and percussive impulses. He is slowly reconstituted into a form made purely of sound, a steady beat phasing him in and out of the semblance of having a body.
Like a hologram of agitated frequencies in a black abyss, his mind reaches out for a sense of identity. As if summoned by his will, a lifetime of memories parceled into a disarrayed swath of puzzle pieces begin cycling into his line of sight. As the pieces individually come to a rest, he finds they are settling into the form of a scene before him. Struggling to pinpoint why the scene is so familiar, Ringo tries to focus. And like a latch sliding open, he feels a mechanical release deep in the recesses of his mind.
A wave of high pitched sound washes over him, bringing an uncontrollable wave of sadness. He remembers being physically hurt by others as a child. The trauma of losing loved ones creeps up unannounced, and he feels like he has been punched in the stomach. Like shitty souvenirs, feelings of loneliness, and being broken sneak into his head. Memories of binging on stims to escape his life blindside him, and he feels tears begin to form deep down in the core of his being. As they well up, Ringo feels a scream submerged below them, boiling to the surface with overwhelming rage.
Giving in to the immensity of his emotions, he lets go entirely. His release is omni-directional; emotive energy shooting out like rays of the sun in all directions, entirely feral and distorted frequencies bursting into the world around him. Abruptly, the explosive peak recedes into a very calm quietude, an unexpected gentle piano tune audible in the distance. Volatility is replaced with composure. Tranquility reigns.
Looking over to his side, he finds Liz, also in a form comprised of sonic frequencies. The emotive melody gets louder, every keystroke sending ripples of color and definition through her being. Digital tears stream down her holographic visage, and she says, “We’ve suffered so much.”
They hug each other, an abstract vision of oscillating humanoid waveforms embracing each other. Their confluence brings into existence an incredibly bright, incandescent light. It illuminates the memory-patchwork reality before them in warm orange hues, contoured with deep indigo and purple highlights. Fascinated, they release each other and realize there are others around them.
A black dog jumps up onto a table and looks directly at them. It asks, simply, “GWAN DRAD?” Suddenly, a deep bass starts thumping and the scene comes to life. The dog jumps off the table, and somebody with a fluffy purple coat dances past them with a joint in his hands. Singing happily with his hands in the air, he seems oblivious to the pair following him with their eyes. As their gaze lingers in his wake, they find a dark skinned man with a very intense look on his face observing them. With a gentle smile, he reaches out and touches their foreheads, speaking in an ancient language foreign to them both.
Exploding into a neurotic whirl of sound waves, Ringo loses Liz, but finds puzzle pieces around him starting to systematically re-form into a new set of shapes. He finds the cadence of the arrangement forming before him, and becomes aware of a steady chanting. All of the positive social interactions of his lifetime start to play out with a bright luminance, and he sees that the true medicine in life is people. Like a therapeutic ASMR track, he submits to the rhythm of catharsis, and weaves together all the memories of healthy bonds he has built thus far.
Now able to see how far he has come with his chosen family, Ringo is hit with the epiphany of love. Accepting the ugliness and beauty of life as part of the process of growth, Ringo blinks back tears and finds himself looking at a goofy dog smiling at him. He blinks at his new friend, and is suddenly sharing an embrace with Liz, their bodies an intertwined helix of audio frequencies. Blink. A neon-lit plus face is gazing intently at him, exuding curiosity. It blinks at him and Ringo is back in the Bazaar. He feels Liz hold his hand, and he knows he is back for sure.
Letting the sounds of the Bazaar turn into a continuous soundscape, Ringo hears the true music of the Bazaar. He lets it become a song that exists only to compliment Liz’s voice singing truth and beauty, as she says, “We’re going to be okay, as long as we’ve got each other Ringo.”
Wiping a tear from his eye, Ringo nods, and accidentally activates his AR. The guy in the expensive suit is flailing amidst a digital mob of fluttering blue butterflies. Liz looks over with her optics flipped on, and laughs. They get up and head into the Bazaar together, the rest of their lives ahead of them.