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“You can’t do this!” Yelled Lucas at the screen. “I need those pills!”

“If you had been using them as I prescribed, there would still be plenty left,” his therapist said, speaking calmly from her office over the live video call.

“I’m working on something important right now, it’s only natural I’m a bit on the edge.” His exasperation seeped into his voice.

“If you want your medication renewed,” the stout black woman explained, the very picture of tranquility, “you are going to have to come by my office and tell that to my face.”

“What difference does it make whether I tell you over a call or in there? My answer is not going to change.”

“That may be so but looking at your recent location data you haven’t been doing your exercises. Lucas, we agreed that getting habituated to public places was the only way you could get over your agoraphobia. I want to see you get out, not hide inside your apartment all day. The meds are only there to help the transition, not as a solution for your anxiety. Drop by at your leisure.” She ended the call.

He sat hunched over in his apartment, grasping his head with both hands. His mouth was dry, his palms sweaty and he feared he could have an anxiety attack any minute. There was no way he could get anything done like this.

He summoned his car to the entrance so he could practically dive inside it directly from the building’s lobby. The address of the therapist’s office was already punched in, so the car started travelling along the fastest route.

He lied down on the back seat, so he was puzzled when they stopped prematurely. Screams and shouts and slogans carried from the street outside to his dark hiding place. He peeked from the corner of the car window and saw a progression of people marching the street.

“What’s going on?”

“It is one of the many recent demonstrations,” the car’s computer system answered.

“One of many? How haven’t I heard of a single one?”

“You haven’t shown interest in the subject, so they are given low priority in your newsfeed. Would you like to update your preferences?”

“No, that’s alright. Take some other way to the clinic.”

“Unfortunately,” came the voice from the speakers around him, “the area has just been marked as possibly unsafe on my navigation system, so I cannot take you any further due to company policy.”

A guttural whine escaped from his mouth as Lucas hid back down.

“Would you like to return home?”

He did. But at the same time, he saw no way he could last without his medication. At first, he had only needed them in especially crowded places and face-to-face social situations. The drugs had been a godsend and with them he had finally felt like what he thought everyone else must feel like all the time: like he was not the most pathetic person to exist for whom looking someone in the eye was like looking at a gun muzzle aimed at your head. But the more he used the pills the more he needed them. It had been a while since he last had gotten out of bed without an ample dose. It’s not like it was any problem; he knew most people his age where on one medication or another, it’s just what one had to do to cope with the challenges of modern day-to-day life. At least until the reins could be handed to Ampere Intelligence. But if he could not continue his work that day might never come.

“Wait for me here.” He slowly opened the door.

“The parking fee of $1 has been paid from your bank account,” the car informed him before powering down.

He fumbled with the wireless headphones plugged into his ears and turned the active noise cancellation to the maximum. The cacophony of the street faded almost into nothing, leaving only occasional, distant-sounding voices. Taking a deep breath, he stumbled into the churning mass.

With the outside voices mostly eliminated his hearing was dominated by the fast pounding of his heart. But there wasn’t much he could do about the deluge of colors and shapes flooding the street before him. As so much of their life took place in virtual interfaces, most people went to great lengths customizing their online appearance. And, thanks to the augmented reality software of the Ampere smartglasses, one could just about bring their avatar to the real world. For some it was just their own appearance with slight touchups like clearer skin and more dazzling colors, but others went around with emojis, selected pronouns or special effects constantly accompanying them. And for those who considered their biology completely at odds with their mental side that avatar became “the real me”, never to be shut off to hide the false, erroneous face beneath. Marching past him were also the blurred forms of those who didn’t feel at ease with any type of identity and instead represented themselves as blurry golems with no identifiable race, sex or body type.

He waded forward in the stream of self-images with his arms raised both sides of his head like a defending boxer. He was jostled and stumbled but kept going. Someone grabbed his shoulder, the person’s feminine façade shifting its facial muscles in an unnatural way as they yelled something to him. He grabbed the hand – large, sweaty and hairy – and jerked it away from his shoulder. He gave a wide berth to computer-generated little girl in a Victorian dress, the video artifacting around her suggesting that the software struggled to edit out the complete bulk of the person behind the character. Overhead the edited-in pop-up windows jingled advertisement tunes and tried to draw attention with large colored text.

“I can’t breathe,” he thought, crouching down and shutting his eyes. The sheer unreality of it all still caused him disquiet even though it had been years since he had last seen the world without any filter at all, not counting the time it took him to put the glasses on when he woke in the morning. He flailed his arms blindly around in the flashing, shifting procession of retouched shapes parading through the artificially adorned venue like a man stuck in a fever dream.

Something nudged him. Peeking through partially closed lids he thought it was a dog but opening his eyes he saw it just somebody’s virtual stand-in, an anthropomorphized canine with large eyes, blue fur and tongue hanging from a grinning mouth. The person must have crawled on all fours to better match their character. They went to nudge him again, but he quickly clambered on his feet and pressed on, feeling numb all over.

Once he was past the crowd getting to the therapist’s was a simple matter. She was true to her word and extended the prescription, telling him that making the trip showed that he was learning to overcome his affliction. He just nodded, and once he was out of her office downed a handful of the pills he had received, a couple of days’ doses in a single helping. The clamp around his windpipe finally released, his heartbeat no longer thundering in his ears. He has been grasping the bottle white-knuckled out of fear it would slip from his sweaty palm. Luckily, the therapist had not paid much attention to him.

He stood in the lobby staring at the exit. He had turned the noise cancellation off so he could hear the cacophonous jeering and incoherent, yelled conversations with the background of marching feet. The windows reverberated slightly to the tune. To him, it was the soundtrack of a nightmare, of his personal hell. His earlier exertion through the mass had left him drained and he found himself unable to walk out of the building. Resigned, he sat down on a sofa, planning to wait there until the throng passed.

“Hi Lucas! You come here as well?” He turned his head toward the melodic female voice. He could not quite believe it but there Amber was, greeting him with a warm smile. His answer came weakly and even he did not know what he quite meant with his inarticulate grunt.

She did not seem to pay that any mind, her eyes and smile shining as brightly as ever as she hooked her arm with his.

“The protest outside is making me anxious. Could you help me past it?” she asked as she started pulling them towards the door without waiting for an answer. He was pulled along in a daze.

She nuzzled his shoulder. “I knew I could count on you.”

He was pulled along, terrified of the mass but at the same time elated that someone saw the heroism in him. Still, that didn’t stop him from throwing up due to anxiety and his body rejecting the overdose.

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Lowhale

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