(Rob) the beauty of the brand interaction

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As Target runs go, it's a fucking nightmare. Technically Rob never even finds it. Navigating Wood2 without a proper screen is a lesson in despair and humility. He sees a couple signs but they're impossible to read clearly in this weather - the rain is so cold it feels hot? And like it's being shot from a cannon directly into every hole in his head? He finds himself in something called the WellNecesCity District, which, as far as he can tell, is what people used to call a mall, and which, as far as he can tell, contains exactly zero Targets.

He stands surrounded on all sides by people on their screens, and beyond that surrounded on all sides by stores he's never heard of, and he feels nothing but worry and regret. Every second he's away from John and Qannen is an increasing opportunity for everything to go wrong. He definitely shouldn't have left them but he also shouldn't have gotten so out of control. He didn't mean to punch her, the thing with the fire, that was ridiculous. It's this city. The things it makes you do just to be heard, noticed. Something about it had felt important, necessary in the moment. When they had set out on this journey he had assumed they'd be doing far worse. Killing, if necessary. Whatever it took to get their message out. Now he was just like anyone else. Doing ridiculous things on camera, desperate for attention.

Rob stands outside a TGreXt, watching the celebrities come and go, trying to understand the rhythm of life here, willing himself to internalize it so he can pretend it's his. It occurs to him they might not even let him in the store - maybe he should have taken Qannen's screen? There's definitely gatekeeping of some kind happening - the workers holding up their screens and scanning everyone who enters, watching carefully as the celebrities select their smoothies, their food bowls, their vitamin drops, their whatever, then take their selfie with it, the brand interactions that the entire dumb city runs on. He watches them in that moment, the way their faces change to delight and surprise, precisely calculated and practiced joy, and then back to whatever they were before as they carry their compostable food containers out of the store.

He can't do a brand interaction, his screen barely even works on this network, and his face definitely can't contort into that rictus of delight, and he doesn't have followers who'd appreciate the considerable effort. He considers going back outside, trying again to find the Target, or some place else that feels less exhausting, but it's all exhausting, and he's here, and the sooner he gets through this the sooner he can get back to the safety of Qannen's room.

He takes a deep breath and walks into the store. A staff person, a barely pubescent teen in a skin-tight zebra-striped jumpsuit, lazily raises their screen to scan him then suddenly startles awake at seeing the screen return zero results. He nudges the worker next to him, they kind of look at each other, hold their screens up again, look at him both through the phone and with their eyes, nothing happening, no idea what to do, no frame of reference for this experience.

"Umm...?" one of them says, but that's it, and Rob realizes they aren't going to do anything. He forces a smile, nods curtly, and takes another step into the store and approaches the display shelves. The prepackaged smoothie vials are stacked on the shelves and labeled with impenetrable phrases like LAD PRO and L5 AUDT. He elbows past the people standing in front of him and grabs one that contains layers of white & purple inside. People look at him annoyed like *Rude???. Then he grabs another one, this one filled with something pink and gray with black dots, and then another one, the goopy stuff inside purple with green streaks, and then people are openly staring at him like *RUDE?

"Umm? It's one? Interaction? per client?" one of the workers says. Is Rob a client?

"You can't do multiple brand interactions," another worker says. "The beauty of the brand interaction is the unique relationship it builds with the individual."

The store is quiet now, the usual riot of everyone streaming their own conversations in their own worlds now focused on him. Everyone looking at or whispering about him. Everyone's screens trained on him, everyone weirded out by the nothing on their screen about him. They wait to see what he's going to do, having taking enough food for, presumably, 3 people.

He decides to do: nothing. He turns and walks out. No one stops him. The celebrities all look at each other like *Literally what did we even just see?"

And then it's as though the idea, having been planted, sprouts in everyone's brains at once, and suddenly they're all shoving each out of the way to grab as much as they can off the shelves, piling it in their arms and racing out of the store. Even the workers, who are only there to Be of Service and have never even dared sample anything TGreXt sells for themselves, who only know it as completely forbidden to them, are grabbing stuff off the shelves, pulling the lids off, inhaling the aromas, crying with bliss and relief. All at once the mall is a complete terror show, people stampeding into every store and stripping the shelves bare to the walls.


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