There was little to San Francisco now, except a mistiness. Past the fog, past the pollution, past the cigarette smoke on every street corner, the city had the eeriness of a ghost town, a landing point for lives that were still being lived but were long abandoned. Lives lived in the rearview.
But Alice wasn’t thinking about that now. The window seat on the self-driving bus had been a deliberate choice, not for her to examine the blurred snapshots of a city in decay but for her to spy on the characters on the bus with secrecy.
She fixated on a woman who was typing on her phone by the bus doors. Her hair was in a tight bun and her pleated midi skirt was ironed to perfection. As much as Alice wanted to compliment the stranger on her style, she knew this wasn’t how the world worked. At least not anymore. She would need to pay the woman before speaking to her.
Twelve years ago, the social media app Babble had changed everything by allowing users to put a price on speech. By monetizing their voice, users didn’t need an expensive college degree—didn’t need to exploit their bodies or minds for survival. People finally had financial control over their voice after decades of relinquishing it freely. Anyone could create an account on Babble and it was up to users to choose and compensate who they listened to.
Alice’s main source of income, similar to many others living in the West, was this app. But with her dire financial situation, she rarely had the opportunity to purchase connections for herself.
The bus hit particularly bumpy tracks and Alice noticed the woman sweep her skirt to the side delicately, as if she had repeatedly practiced this gesture to perfect it on today’s bus ride. Her clothes, her hair, her expressions all functioned as one unit, as if they belonged with her body, as if they were inextricable from who she was.
Unlike this woman, whom Alice suspected had a proper name like Martha, Alice’s own style featured frayed boot-cut jeans and discombobulated bangs that were cut one way and then another. It wasn’t by choice, her appearance; she knew the Marthas of the world received the most conversations, subscriptions, and money. They were people you wanted to talk to, their polished looks and assured demeanor inviting in a way Alice’s downturned eyes and bulky hoodies never were. Her parents had known this when they named her Alice instead of a traditional Punjabi name. And when they bathed her face in bleach and began waxing her upper lip when she was nine, they were simply preparing her to become the best version of herself.
Though she had tried replicating it, the polish and assuredness never fit right on Alice. When she’d purchased a pair of retro yellow sunglasses, the latest fixation on Babble, they had hung on her with the rest of her clothes, as unmatching puzzle pieces desperately assembled with tape. Even her body never looked as she expected in the mirror, her forehead an inch too high and her stomach several inches too wide.
In the middle of Alice’s observation, she heard a ding. She reached for her phone and felt a jolt of happiness when she saw the Babble notification. A new follower! She clicked through her profile and saw the number of followers had increased to 11,349. She was still far from her goal of 15,000, and if she didn’t hit it by the end of the month, she wouldn’t be able to meet her rent. The thought created a pang in her stomach. Every moment felt like a job opportunity she was squandering.
It is a journey, Alice’s therapist had told her, to be fulfilled. Everyone started at the bottom with zero dollars and zero followers. Only recently had Alice increased her subscription fee to $350 per month on Babble and $3 per word in-person after hitting 10,000 followers. The little money she made from her conversations was supplemented by her job at the health tech start-up Go2Therapy. She looked forward to being able to talk to someone after days of quietness. Her own voice would begin to sound foreign to her, but still, she was grateful. There were some people who couldn’t speak or write.
Alice had been trying to do more for her community. Therapy was part of her community work. Three times a week, she went to the corner of 4th and Market and sat on a couch as her AI therapist, Ella, carefully analyzed her thoughts and offered advice. The algorithm wasn’t perfect yet. Sometimes it would repeat the same advice in different sessions. But that’s what Alice was for. She’d flag areas for improvement and Ella used the data to reprogram automatically. Alice was told that with enough iterations, therapy would be accessible to all people for free.
Alice shifted her attention to a man seated across from Martha. His commute hours seemed to match Alice’s, because he was on every bus with her, sitting in the same exact seat with a book in his hand and headphones over his ears. She imagined his voice was probably deep and husky, like he’d just had a bourbon and was now heading home to perform spoken word for his Babble followers. Or maybe he was an expat from France with a high-pitched accent and a simple customer-service job.
This speculation was exactly why a person’s voice wasn’t free. There was so much history, so much emotion and culture in how a person spoke. How could anyone ever feel entitled to it?
As Alice studied him, she noticed a man in large black-framed glasses enter the bus.
Alice got a closer look and gasped. She hadn’t seen Jacob for twelve years, since they were in high school computer class together. They would send each other messages and whisper until their teacher sent them to detention for having verbal interactions without payment. They’d sit in separate confined corners until their minds, vulnerable from boredom and loneliness, accepted the message: I will not talk without payment. With enough detention visits, she had begun to truly believe it.
Jacob glanced at her while passing by her seat and she saw recognition flash through his eyes. In excitement, she blurted, “Jacob! What are you doing here?”
Everyone on the bus looked up, their eyes wide with shock and interest. Martha had stopped her incessant typing, and the expat had taken off his headphones. Alice clamped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment.
She turned her face away from Jacob, halfheartedly hoping that her unbecoming greeting was just another silly fantasy she’d concocted. In her periphery, she could see Jacob’s face turn to guilt and confusion. It amazed her how well she could read his expressions still, how some things were hard to unlearn even after much time apart.
The strangers on the bus were still staring, intrigued by the shout that had now turned to silence. Alice waited for some noise to distract them––a sneeze, a honk, a ringtone––hoping for privacy between two old friends. But with betrayal in his eyes, Jacob slowly reached into his pocket and handed her his perfectly designed Babble business card.
. . .
She woke the next morning with her hair a mangled mess and her nightstand littered with empty cookie boxes and pizza crusts. She hadn’t touched Jacob’s card since setting it down last night. She was torn between looking him up on Babble in curiosity or shredding the card down the sink in a rage.
Rubbing her eyes, Alice willed herself to begin the dreary process of getting ready for work at the therapist’s office. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone, much less a computer. She always felt invisible, and at least for today, she wanted to stay that way. But there were rent and food and life to think about.
With a sigh, she entered the bathroom, where, on the mirror, she had stuck a Post-It that read, in her terribly slanted script, “The best way to serve your community is to help yourself. Self-care is important. Investing in yourself is important.”
Arnold Lander, the CEO of Babble, had said this in a livestream two days ago and she’d jotted it down. Even if it had cost her two hundred dollars to attend the event, it was a reminder she constantly needed, especially after yesterday. She wasn’t someone to be taken advantage of, to be the subject of humiliation––not anymore. Conversations required time and energy that people deserved to be compensated for. For so long, white men had ravaged the world with destructive quests as women and people of color were disregarded. Finally, women and minorities did not have to deal with daily microaggressions and explain their humanity to survive.
Looking into the mirror, Alice lifted her spine and widened her eyes. She brushed her disheveled hair until it was half its original size, took out some makeup––she hadn’t worn any in weeks––and copied the same light-pinkish hues she had seen on Martha yesterday.
With every stroke of concealer, she felt traces of happiness infiltrate her body. It was important to be someone to look at.
“How would you rate your mood today?”
The voice of her therapist calmed her. Ella had been programmed perfectly, its tone mimicking her mother’s.
The computer whirred as it processed. “It seems like your average has dropped 23 percent. And your vitals are low. What is wrong?”
Alice shifted in her seat. She couldn’t understand what was wrong with her, much less articulate it. It felt as if the air around her had changed. Her lungs were taking in these particles, processing their foreignness, declaring them poisonous, and Alice was trying to convince a body that wouldn’t listen that she was fine.
“I accidentally talked without payment to someone on the bus yesterday. Someone I used to know.” She could see her speech being transcribed on the screen, highlighting words and proposing responses. “He was my friend in grade school. We’d talk all the time.”
“What do you mean, ‘talk’?” the therapist asked.
“It was before I knew better, I guess. He’d tell me about the street he lived on, how his neighbor would walk to the mailbox in a polka-dot bathrobe, how squirrels would congregate around the bird feeder, how he’d sense the rain coming by smell. I wanted to know everything about him.” Alice paused, smiling at those memories. “Those conversations got us through the day, but they also got us in trouble.”
The machine whirred dramatically. “So it seems this outburst on the bus is a regression to childhood. What is it about this childhood friend that makes you break social rules?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said.
What was it about him? She could remember every detail: the cracks in his voice when he was thirteen, the focus in his eyes when he spoke, the way his ears perked up like a dog’s when he heard even the faintest of sounds.
“He is the only person I’ve ever felt like I’ve had a real connection with. Who listened to me. Every mundane thing I had to say.”
“But he did it without payment.”
“Alice, this sounds like a toxic relationship. As a child, he was pushing you to give away your voice. Now in adulthood, you still struggle to know your worth because of him.”
Alice took this in. It was true; it had taken her years to become proud and protective of her voice. Seeing him again had unearthed all the insecurities, questions, and crises she had when she was a child. Her eyes welled up.
“What can you do to heal from this?” her therapist asked gently.
“Reclaim my voice?” The mantra slipped off her tongue like a reflex.
“Reclaim your voice,” Ella said with finality. “You are capable of great things, Alice. You must have the optimism to manifest them.”
. . .
On the way home from work, Alice noticed people raising their phones to the sky frantically. Babble servers must be down, she thought to herself. This happened occasionally, normally only for a couple hours, but it was becoming a political issue. The government had proposed legislation that would require Babble to pay users who were not able to fulfill their jobs while servers were down, but Babble lawyers called the bill absurd and planned to lobby hard against it. Alice paid no attention to the clash; she rarely had any work as it was.
She was three blocks from home when she heard a homeless man shouting in front of the Babble HQ. The building was the tallest in San Francisco, and rumor had it that on a clear day, you could see every Bay Area bridge from the top floor. She had never been inside, but sometimes she imagined herself looking through a top-floor window and counting every cloud she could see. This dream of watching the city from above somehow comforted her.
The entrance doors of the Babble Building had been plastered with signs from angry activists: PAY US and WE DEMAND ACTION. But Alice was more concerned with how the homeless man was acting. He moved around erratically, going nowhere in particular, and as Alice got closer, he locked eyes with her and muttered, “What have you become, what have you become, what have you…?”
Alice looked away instinctively. So much of the news nowadays focused on the growing homeless problem, chastising the homeless for disturbing the peace of society by flouting social dynamics and capitalizing on government payouts. As Lander had said in his livestream, “Anyone can be successful on Babble. You just have to put in the work.” Alice agreed, but the homeless man’s words melted into her mind like another mantra, activating synapses that had lain dormant for too long.
Carefully, Alice took out her wallet and handed him some cash. As her arm stretched out, they locked gazes again, and all Alice could sense was desperation.
. . .
Back home, Alice opened her Babble account. She had ignored it all day, but she couldn’t afford to take days off if she wanted to keep this apartment. She posted a video of herself reading a book aloud, which typically garnered the most views and money. She analyzed her finances and made a plan to create more content this month, ignoring the empty feeling in her stomach that had started since she met Jacob on the bus and had worsened with her interaction with the homeless man. Reclaim your voice and everything will be better, Alice thought to herself. Investing in yourself is important.
In their yearly paid conversations, her brother had offered to loan her money, but the thought of that embarrassed her more than her outburst on the bus. She was going to be successful with integrity. Completely on her own.
Scrolling through Babble that night, Alice clicked open a trending article on her newsfeed:
BABBLE INC. PURCHASES GO2THERAPY, A MENTAL HEALTH TECH START-UP, MAKING THERAPY MORE ACCESSIBLE
June 6, 2042
In a surprise purchase, Babble has acquired Go2Therapy, a young mental-health start-up that trains algorithms to provide tailored therapy to each patient.
“The deal has been months in the making,” Babble CEO Arnold Lander said in a statement. “We’ve been impressed with the direction of Go2Therapy for quite some time and are excited to take the product to new heights.”
While Lander refused to disclose any of Go2Therapy’s future plans, sources claim that a Babble / Go2Therapy integration will be available soon. We do not have more details but are excited to see Babble’s rise in the mental-health tech space and expect that this move will make therapy accessible to millions of users.
Alice felt a bubble expand inside her chest. All those hours she’d spent in Go2Therapy’s small building, sharing her feelings to better the algorithm, felt like they’d had a purpose. Even if it had been just a job, through this acquisition, she was part of the effort that was helping therapy become more common and more effective.
Would this mean that Alice was now technically an employee of Babble? She again imagined herself on the top floor of Babble HQ, looking out at the illustrious city. A dream that didn’t seem so silly anymore.
She printed out the article and taped it on top of her headboard. Optimism leads to great things. She was capable of so much more.
. . .
Over the next few weeks, not much changed at work. Her job at Go2Therapy was still the normal routine—she’d meet Ella and spill her feelings—but she’d leave feeling more fulfilled than she had in months.
One night, after she posted another clip of herself reading an excerpt, Alice heard an unfamiliar ding from her phone—a direct message on Babble.
She tapped open the message and read, Hi Alice. You have a lovely voice. I would love to hear more of it. Someone named David had sent her six dollars, purchasing five more words from her.
Her heartbeat quickened. Reclaim your voice. Be calm and cool. She hearted the message and sent a voice note back: “Thanks. I love to read.”
Really? What kind of books? David typed back with another six dollars.
“Mostly thrillers that distract me,” she wrote.
The conversation about books lasted two minutes. She had made seventy-two dollars, the best she’d ever done. David seemed genuinely interested in what she’d said, asking her specific questions and responding to her anecdotes. That night she went to bed with a deep sense of accomplishment. You are capable of great things.
. . .
The next morning, Alice woke to another message request. This time David asked her about her cooking videos and whether she had ever tried Ethiopian food.
“Once,” Alice responded. “I had to inhale a pack of Tums before bed.”
LOL. You’re funny.
As the conversation continued throughout the day, Alice found herself sharing more and more. She made jokes, tried her hand at singing, and even sent David a video of herself dancing to her favorite Rihanna song from when she was a kid.
With every message he requested, the emptiness in her stomach faded. She was being herself: the more she revealed to him, the more authentic she felt. For months it was like she had been living in grayscale, and now the saturation was slowly being turned back on, the color seeping back into her clothes, her cheeks, her eyes. Plus, the money she had been receiving from their exchange would cushion her well enough to pay her rent for the next two months.
The following week, David purchased a subscription, meaning he could pay a weekly fee to communicate as much as he wanted. Alice had never had someone purchase a subscription before. David was kind and interested, and it didn’t feel like she was talking to a stranger when she talked to him.
Several times, she considered asking him to meet in-person. His profile picture was of him and his cat, his tousled blond hair contrasting starkly with the cat’s spiky black-and-white fur. All she could think about when she went to bed was what he’d sound like, if his eyes were really as bright as in his profile picture, and if his hair was always that wavy. But she didn’t want to scare him away. It was too soon.
The next day, she told her therapist how she felt like she never quite fit in. Everyone around her always seemed more put-together and prepared. Prettier and smarter than she could ever be. But lately she felt more confident in herself. More capable.
“What did I say, Alice?” Ella said sweetly. “Optimism leads to great things.”
Everything was finally working out, Alice thought. Anything of note that happened, she immediately wanted to tell David about. And she could finally interact without guilt, because they had a true, paid connection.
Some days, though, she still thought of Jacob and how effortless their conversations had been, back in their school days. Without the prerequisite of payment, she hadn’t had to fit her responses into requested word counts, hadn’t had to try to sound interesting so she was worthy of conversation, and hadn’t had to stress about whether one day he’d vanish on her. But like Ella had said, that had been a toxic relationship. In contrast, David was pushing her to see her worth. She could feel herself becoming the person she wanted to be––a Martha with simple makeup and perfectly ironed skirts, delicate and deliberate in her movements, soft yet confident in her voice.
After three weeks of talking with David, Alice was convinced no one would ever understand her better. Their connection transcended the confines of the app’s payment plan. She knew he felt the same way.
And so that night, before she lost her nerve, she sent him a message. Would you be interested in meeting for a coffee on Friday? she typed.
The response was instant.
Thank you for participating in Phase I of this experiment. Before moving onto Phase II, the in-person section, how would you rate our connection out of 5?
Alice read the message twice, not comprehending. This was a connection he had been paying her for, not some experiment. Maybe he was confused.
I don’t understand. What is the experiment?
Hi Alice, thanks for reaching out! This feature of Babble is rolling out soon. As an employee of Go2Therapy, you are one of our secret test experiments, and your feedback is very valuable to us. We’ve been working closely with your therapist, Ella, to fine-tune our strategy to give you the best experience possible on this app.
What exactly is the feature? Alice’s fingers shook as she typed. Her body felt like it was teeming with insects.
Hi Alice! With this new feature, Babble users will soon be able to pay for the Babble algorithm to fashion the right person for them at any time. Through your visits to your therapist, Babble was able to engineer a connection for you that is tailored to what you need.
Alice’s eyes began welling up with tears, and the text on her phone screen began to blur.
Additionally, as a contractor with Babble, you are still subject to our privacy agreement, meaning no information of this feature can be shared with outside parties. If you have any questions, please email email@example.com. Have a great day! ♦
Navya Kaur is an emerging writer born and raised in San Francisco. She graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in American studies and computer science. Her work has been published in Oyster River Pages, The Bold Italic, and Kaur Life.
Karen Chan is an artist and designer living in the Fillmore District. You can often find her lost in thought at a sunny parklet with a sketchbook in hand. Currently she is on a quest to try all the delicious pastries that the city has to offer.