The new client
Published by Troim Kryzl at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Troim Kryzl
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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“No sir, you can’t ask for a refund once you’ve died. Nor can your heirs. That’s not how this…” And gone he is. Hung up on her. Just like that. She spent more than an hour on…
Zarah feels a hot wave of anger boiling up. How dare he? Checking her forehead confirms. Hot, as in fever. This type of client, they are like a disease. Except it would be unlawful to pay people for being turned sick. Whereas she does get a salary, for this martyrdom. And what a pittance they pay her. Stop. Zarah recalls the anger management training, pushes the pause button, puts down the headset and stands up, to her full six feet height.
“Don’t you stay sitting at your desk grinding your teeth” the instructor said. “Did that ever get you anywhere? Oh yes, of course it did. It made you even more miserable. From now on, you’ll know how to react to obnoxious clients…” Those were the words of the instructor. Zarah does feel stupid, as the only person standing amid fifteen busy cubicles. But the instructor very clearly stated operators are entitled, both to push the pause button and to stand up. To do some stretching. And breathing exercises. Pandur, the new boy in the cubicle on her right, seems to share her opinion. He attended the same workshop in his first quarter and now glances over encouragingly. Or would that be admiringly? Would actually doing this qualify as acting courageous? Well, too late now. Zarah is already standing, she might as well pull through.
Opting for a t-shirt today was one lucky dress choice, though. This stretching would be near impossible to perform in a blouse. Even a loosely fitting one. She occasionally wears those, when she feels like going girlie. Not a frequent occurrence. A tall person won’t manage to look like some doll, however hard she tries. This stretching is quite strenuous.
Imagining chubby Choanna from two rows up performing the same exercise, in one of her tight dresses, her sweet perfume sent proliferating by the exertion, this mental picture turns on Zarah’s natural smile. She doesn’t notice it, at first. Only realizes her progress when Pandur gives her a thumbs up. She’s surprised to actually feel better. And their supervisor didn’t come haranguing, yet. So far, so good. Back to the task. Taking a deep breath, she sits down, puts the headset back on and opens her phone for calls. It only takes seconds to flash incoming. Mental note for the next occasion: No need to perform the anger management exercises at speed. Take your time and savour the break, the drudgery will resume soon enough.
“1kYears Limited, Zarah Zavaro speaking, how can I be of assistance?” She grins into the microphone, as advised. And sounds like some overcheerful greeting robot. But the coaches were adamant, that’s how it has to be done. And she’s getting so used to her customer friendly second name she’s starting to use it in private, too. The real one, Zamananarivaro, as proudly inherited from her immigrant mother, was decreed offputting. Clients wouldn’t understand it and fear scams. And they want to write down contact details. Would take ages with her full name. Not an option. One has to make the odd little sacrifice for the sake of efficiency. In the client acquisition department, everything is done for customer comfort. If ever Zarah moves on to alter ego complaint management, she might be allowed to switch back to her real name.
“You are the ones with the advert, right? The ones featuring on TV, I mean? I saw that clip, with this movie star, don’t remember her name. The one with that impossibly shrill voice? The clip where she says she’d rather not go? At least not fully? She sits on this bench, you know, with all the trees behind her, like a park. Even though it’s probably, well, how to put it, not a park?”
Local lingo. Rare, but has be known to happen. Bound to haggle like mad. On the upside, he at least won’t be frightened off by learning he’s dealing with a Ginerian enterprise. He doesn’t sound that old. Forty perhaps, or fifty. Not asking straightforward, of course.
In her third year, Zarah still wonders why most clients have such a hard time coming to the point. They’re not trying to buy child porn. We all die, and most of us do loathe the concept. They happen to be able to afford a service that puts part of departing on hold. No more reason to be ashamed than when you buy a mansion or a yacht.
It takes Zarah longer than usual to complete the general pitch. Mister Curver, Sam Curver, as he turns out to be called, interrupts what is supposed to be a monologue after every second sentence. But they are still making good progress. Half an hour in, the initial contact checklist on Zarah’s screen features a lot of ticked boxes and entries. The comprehensive financial transaction section was done in a blink. First million US dollars by bank transfer ahead of the scan trip, second million upon confirmatory conversation with the activated alter ego. No problem for mister Curver. No mention of timelines or bridge loans, to cover the period until assets destined for liquidation will become available in the form of cash. The new client just nods it off, like other people would buy a dress. But he’s obsessed by two particular details, and obstinate.
“Now tell me again, Zarah, why has all this scanning, and the training of my alter ego, and the confirmatory conversation, why does all this need to take place on the high seas? You’ve only got a satellite connection at sea, that doesn’t feel reliable. And the servers where my virtual me will be living, they will have to be in some country, under some jurisdiction. Why can’t we just do this on land? It would also be so much lighter on my calendar…” Mister Curver sounds like taking a gulp of whichever beverage he’s having. Perhaps a cocktail? Or just a cup of coffee? He’s very much at ease now, and Zarah is glad for a chance to jump in.
“Apologies if I didn’t make that aspect clear enough yet, mister Curver, my mistake. Let me put it this way: The preference for the high seas is a precaution, strongly recommended by our lawyers. We need to avoid legal complications for your alter ego. We’re talking decisions reaching into a very distant future here, and cutting edge technology. This, to quote our lawyers, is one tricky combination. Blatant lack of precedent. Pretty much anything can happen. The alter egos might or might not be formally included into the concept of human rights. We at 1kYears do of course consider them just another format of humans, and will do everything to keep them safe and happy. But strictly and legally speaking, they are currently less entitled to human rights than livestock. For the time being, and the near future, they’re nothing but a unique piece of software…”
Zarah’s pitch halts. The alluring smell of coffee drifting over from the cubicle to her left has sent her off track. Bloody Marian, again. They’re doing it on purpose, to ruin her results. Never missing an opportunity to complain, when anything malfunctions. Quick to plead mobbing whenever any colleague dares refer to them as he. Or she. But daring interfere with other colleagues’ calls by drinking coffee. Bloody Marian. And bloody mister Curver, still not done arguing.
“Fine, Zarah, understood. Very kind, how comprehensively you care for these lucky souls, very much appreciated. But let’s just assume I do consider my future virtual me, or alter ego, or whatever we call eSam, a mere piece of software. I don’t give a damn about his upcoming legal travails. I’ll be dead for most of his lifespan, why the hell should I care? If he’s anything like me, he’ll manage. There’s no technological constraint, correct? It’s perfectly possible to perform the whole operation, as in scan, training and interview, pretty much anyplace, perhaps even in my office. No, don’t interrupt. Let’s further assume I’m prepared to pay, let’s say an additional one hundred thousand? For this little extra convenience? And sign all the paperwork proving that everything was done at sea. I can even have one of my staff go on that stupid cruise, if this helps. Would make a nice bonus, no problem. Good plan?”
Zarah is stunned. She thought she had seen them all. Religious folk, deeply troubled by the sinfulness of this particular way of cheating, and strongly tempted anyway. Nerds throwing a bucket of tech speak at staff, only to hide how worried they are about bugs and hacks. Fashion victims who will do anything they don’t understand, as long as it’s both expensive and stylish. The stupid money bags who look like a no brainer in acquisition, only to fail at download time, when a minimum of mental focus needs to be achieved and sustained. Zarah has seen so many of all these types, but she never encountered an oceanophobic client before. She did two terms of psychology, before dropping out of university to join 1kYears, she knows about anxiety disorders. Her client has got a mental health issue. And he’s willing to pay handsomely to hide it.
“Interesting proposal, mister Curver. Something might be feasible along the lines you’re suggesting, but I’ll have to consult with upper management. Should be able to call you back tomorrow, or by the end of this week at the latest. Would that be acceptable?” Zarah normally feels beaten, when she has to admit her role is so junior she’s granted zero autonomy. Today she’s glad. Could obfuscating the location be considered a crime? Somebody else’s problem. Pity there won’t be a similar fix for the second issue. And here he comes, raising it again, as she know he would.
“Wonderful, now we’re talking. And we will proceed exactly in the same way for the number of scans. One extra million per…” This guy must be swimming in cash. Petro? Finance? Well, it won’t help him with this particular topic. Zarah knows she has to cut in at once, and hard.
“Apologies, mister Curver, and sorry for interrupting, too, but this is a no go. And no need to ask upper management. This rule is not subject to negotiation. We at 1kYears Ltd have a very strict policy concerning the number of downloads, and it’s one per client. Without exceptions. We regret any hardship this inflicts on our customers, but there is no way two alter egos with overlapping profiles can inhabit one and the same repository. There is only one of you alive on this planet, mister Curver, and there will be only one of your kind gracing our virtual realm.”
Zarah remembered just in time to keep it brief and end on a low note. This makes you sound authoritative. Anything else encourages more haggling. Said the coach.
She has seen a lot of promising new client relationships hit the one-scan-only cliff and sink. People hate irreversible choices. The policy is sound, though. The ghosts, as staff call them, are very lively and opinionated. The presence of a partial duplicate would create havoc. 1kYears resort, or just the resort, as staff catering for the ghosts call the simulated 3D environment they inhabit, is hard enough to manage with only one of each spiky character around.
“I see. Let’s proceed step by step, Zarah, shall we? You check with your management, about the onshore option, and come back to me, let’s say no later than Monday? By then I might have some additional questions, and we’ll see how it all adds up.” Mister Curver makes himself sound suave, but he’s as fond of her as vice versa. And not yet convinced he won’t get his way.
Zarah kisses her bonus good bye while wrapping up the call and flagging the case PR, for Pending Review. She’s in for a couple more hours of work, and probably won’t score. The company really should reconsider its policy. Why not set up a second resort, to avoid clashes of the partial duplicates? With the clients they’re missing because of the one-scan-only rule, a separate resort should be easy to finance. But that’s management for you. Clueless.
Preparing herself to take the next customer call, Zarah is surprised it’s her manager on the line. Unusual for the pompous impostor to respond that fast to any of her flags. Perhaps some fallout from her anger management break? No, it’s about mister Curver, where the new client would like his download to take place. The premium service fee is doing the trick. Zarah explains he sounds local, meaning his office might be in the vicinity. She also warns Odu Olanre about the other issue, and gets herself scolded, for not resolving that one first. Stupid sod of a boss. No idea what he’s talking about, always making the job sound easy. He doesn’t have to deal with six hours of spoilt brats a day. He is one of them, a typical case of promotion by connection. Zara signed up with 1kYears because of their tutorials. Much better than any university courses. At least at institutions she can envision to afford. Here, you get trained and paid. But you have to spend six hours a day on that damn phone. Often at impossible hours. Client acquisition at 1kYears is a 24/7 business, they cater to all time zones. Hers is not an easy life, and it now takes a turn for the worse.
Not satisfied with reprimanding her in audio mode, Odu calls her over to his office “to discuss this in some more detail.” Shit. Taking the anger management break was a bad idea. Pandur visibly feels with her, when he sees her standing up once again. Whereas Marian don’t even look up when she walks past, deeply engaged in some promising exchange. Why do they always get the easy clients? Zarah once again wonders about cheating. Each time she comes close to making the top sales slot, the rest of the month is suddenly devoid of worthwhile clients and she spends hours talking to walls. Marian managed to get hired despite their… condition. They not only get away with being them, they even got management backing for their peculiar personal pronoun preferences. This more than hints at relevant connections. And they make the top slot every second month, at least. You don’t need to be an MMA native to start wondering. The Mehut Metropolitan Area is even better at corruption than at information technology.
Odu’s office is on the side of the tower facing the ocean. On a bright day, you can see all the way to the glimmering expanse beyond MMA’s sprawl. That’s the advantage, of premises on the twentieth floor. For managers like Odu, who are entitled to an office with a window. Nice view. For open space dwellers like Zarah, the height is a nuisance. They wouldn’t see any more daylight if their workspacea was situated in a basement, and a lower level would at least spare them the daily treck up endless stairs. The building has two elevators, but both are once again marked maintenance in progress. Facility management, not a local speciality. The helipad on the roof, that’s fully functional, just in case. But the elevators don’t get fixed.
Today is not a bright day. Rain clatters against the windows and in the distance the odd bolt of lightening flashes out of the dark grey clouds. Zara hopes Odu’s mood will be better than the weather. He’s rumored to hide a mercurial streak under his sleek manners. Up to now she never ran into trouble with him. But nor did she ever get called to his office without a formal appointment. Attending a video conference with a particularly demanding client, yes, if very rarely. Having to report on her own, never before. Fucking anger management coach, she should have guessed.
When she knocked, Odu called her right in, his voice signaling impatience. But he’s still on the phone, standing at the window with his back turned to her. He’s mostly listening. To someone more important, judging by his subservient body language.
Zarah has ample time to inspect the office. Still packaged wraps from Hello Bogo on the desk. This sight means two things. Management is allowed to eat at their desks, an act that can get mere operators sacked. And Odu doesn’t make a fortune. Hello Bogo, that’s not a food delivery service anyone doing seriously well would select. Big portions, bland taste. Next door, at the central bank, Hello Bogo is where the secretaries place their orders. The few who are not dieting. For the upper echelons, Italian food from Sicilian Symphony would be more like it. Zarah saw pictures on her social network. She follows some gourmets, just to remind herself she’s not the one who should worry about inequality, despite her formal job and more than average salary. Some people are much better off. But she still does worry. With this weather, some neighborhoods will get flooded. Poor poor people. Someone really should do something about it. Them.
“So tell me, what’s he like? Hope you had the good sense not to try your haughty number on mister Curver, Zarah?” Odu is done with his call, and this interview is obviously not about her anger management break. Careful now. Zarah selects neutral words to describe their first exchange. She avoids mentioning her diagnosis. If Sam Curver is as important as Odu’s odd behavior signals, she’s better off pretending not to know about any mental health issues. Denouncing the mighty never got anyone anywhere but down and out.
“Well, if one of the directors of the Prime Estate Fidelity Fund pays for a house call, who are we to resist? I’ve already had a word with the BiBo. They sail together, you know? The BiBo is pleased, we’re cleared to proceed. Think you can handle that, without getting both of us sacked? That’s the perfect opportunity for you, to see the equipment in action without going on a cruise, and you can make yourself useful and do the talking. All our guides are busy at sea and I don’t trust our technicians not to misfire. Think you can handle that, Zarah? Call Sam Curver back, talk him into proceeding right away, while he’s still young, and schedule the session for Friday?”
Oops. Zarah didn’t expect an opportunity. If this challenge deserves to be considered an opportunity. A big if. Personal interaction with a yachting buddy of the BiBo, the big boss owning this whole enterprise, sounds more like a risk. And Prime Estate Fidelity Fund is top tier stuff. They own the huge artificial island hosting the new business district. As flashy as it gets, in MMA. Her late mother wouldn’t have approved of her taking on such an assignment. “Stay away from the elite, kid. Bad things happen to girls going for the bling. No good for people like us to mingle with them big boys,” that was her mantra. She made that face, when intoning it. The taboo face hinting at horrors too bad to describe. Never mind. No is not an option. One courageous action per day is plenty. Zarah promises to do her best and is back out in a minute.
Walking back to her cubicle, she’s ambivalent. If her client tries to insist on multiple downloads, or postpones the whole exercise, she’s in for some more scolding. A storm that will pass. If she manages to talk him into proceeding, she’ll end up in a face-to-face situation that can go wrong in so many and potentially catastrophic ways she barely dares envisage them.
Reaching her desk, Zarah decides to pull herself together. This is not her first challenge, she’ll manage. Sam Curver will accept the one-scan-only rule and she’ll make a fine house call. She has to think this three times, as the coach said she should. “As long as it takes” he said, “to feel the effect of the autosuggestion.” Finally she’s ready and and reaches for her headset.
Half an hour later, she’s excited. Friday 10 o’clock has been agreed, and her team will be picked up by helicopter. Her team, that feels like serious career progress. She got her senior operator title automatically, after the first year and completion of four training modules. Talk of her team sounds like the next step. Who said operators never make it into management jobs? Zarah Zavaro has launched herself. On the way out at the end of her shift, she even smiles at Marian. Nice to see them puzzled. Well, why shouldn’t a successful girl smile? You don’t need to wear pink hair, eyebrows and moustache over a turquoise miniskirt to be a star. Looks fancy, though, you got to give them that. Weird, but stylish. Sort of.
Two commutes and one sleepless night later, Zarah has reverted to the bundle of nerves state that cut short her former degree ambitions.
She’s back in her cubicle and on the phone, but her mind refuses to engage this stupid client. She, because it’s a lady client, seems to have consulted with each and every female member of a very extended family, about the optimal timing. Auntie A was in favor of doing it right away, “as long as you look half way presentable.” This sounded like valuable advice. But auntie B proposed to proceed no earlier than on her sixtieth birthday, “when you will have seen it all.” This also seemed to make a a lot of sense. Unfortunately, both well founded recommendations collide with the no-later-than-fifty advice from yet another auntie C…
Impossible to sort out this mess of a decision finding strategy. Would be beyond Zarah’s means even on a good day. And today is anything but good. Today is Thursday. Implying it’s going to be Friday tomorrow. And she’s sure to die on Friday. The helicopter will crash. If it doesn’t, she’ll get seasick. In front of the technicians and Sam Curver’s pilot, who will respect her even less for it. If the helicopter doesn’t crash, she’ll die of shame. If ever she makes it to the office of her client alive, something is sure to go wrong and she’ll promptly get the sack. Zarah decides to preempt the assorted debacles and quit, right after getting rid of this obnoxious client.
The waverer has finally run out of aunts, declares the conversation helpful and promises to call again on the next day. A good night’s sleep will resolve her dilemma. Not wanting to mention her upcoming business trip or her weekly day off on Saturday, Zarah suggests three nights. More is know to work better, with any medicine, isn’t it? Her professionality gets praised in return.
To quit, Zarah would have to push the pause button, stand up and walk over to Odu’s office. Feels courageous. Even worse than the anticipation of the helicopter ride. What if Odu kills her, for failing an important client? Better to ponder safe ways to quit over one more call.
“Zarah, everything OK with you? You look dreadful. No offense intended, I just can’t help noticing. Just mentioning to explain why I’m calling. Anything wrong, anything I can do to help?” That deep and slightly raspy voice, that’s Marian calling from the next cubicle. Zarah is nonplussed. Each operator of course has his personal extension. Their type of deal is rarely concluded in just one call and they are encouraged to build a personal relationship with customers. But who’d dare place an internal call and chat, instead of striving to do the job? Their work is being monitored. That behavior is like calling for the sack. Marian are trying to get her into even more trouble.
“Zarah, you’re there? Don’t worry, no one is going to listen in. We’re both in the top ten, no coach is ever going to dial in to check how we’re doing. Have been with coaching for a while myself, know how they proceed. What happened, trouble with Odu?”
Zarah is torn. Marian are an enemy. They are weird. And abrasive. And arrogant. But mostly weird. They were born a man, wear lady outfits most of the time, sometimes sport a moustache and insist on being called them. Marian are weird. But they are also the most senior operator. They’re rumored to have been with 1kYears since the very beginning, back in 2025. They know stuff.
“Thanks Marian, for calling. Would you ever done a house call, by any chance? One of my clients insisted, and we’re going tomorrow. We as in me, a med and a tec. By heli.” Mentioning the helicopter wasn’t exactly necessary, but why not take advantage of all that suffering to at least convey some importance? This is Marian Zarah is talking to, they can do with some humbling.
“Let me guess, you’re going Atlantic View Terraces, and it’s one more of the fat cats from Prime Estate Fidelity getting his virtual clone. Who is it, this time? Has Sam-more-bang-Curver finally made up his mind? Congrats, Zarah, house calls is prime time stuff. If Odu entrusts you with this kind of job, you’re in for a solid raise. So tell me, who is it?” So much for humbling. Marian are cheerful, and definitely know things worth taking the risk of prolonging this conversation.
“Sam Curver, yes, that’s my client. So you’ve made house calls, too, at the Atlantic View Terraces?”
“Sure. Half of their big boys went in first. That’s how this whole enterprise got started. Our resort is actually based on the same blueprint as the Atlantic View Terraces. They were developed in full walk into 3D anyway. Saved our IT guys tons of work. Sam Curver is OK, you’ve got nothing to fear. He’s no groper. With some of their big boys, you need to watch it. Any lady dropping by for a house call, they think business lunch dessert. But Sam is OK.”
Zarah is torn. Marian showing off they’re on first name terms with one of the big beasts, that’s so typical, and so disgusting. But talking to them also provides relief. The urgency to quit has receded. They chat for another ten minutes, cheating 1kYears to the bone, and decide to meet for a mall outing on Saturday, to compare house call experiences.
Zarah only just manages to carry the flame of her newfound optimism through an especially horrible commute along flooded streets. She gets into one hell of a fight with her cousin once she finally reaches home. His stupid kids have once again savaged her tiny room. It’s not much larger than a cupboard, but it’s supposed to be her private space. She pays good, solid bucks to stay with them, and still has to endure these intrusions. A situation that was borderline accepable for a student is unbearable for the career professional she has become. If she makes it through the house call, she’ll ask for that raise and get herself a place closer to Broad street. And bad luck for her cousin and his wife, if the numbers no longer add up. They should have considered the implications, before letting their kids play with her stuff.
Having once again slept poorly, Zarah leaves even earlier than usual on the following morning. She carries a second set of clothes in a plastic bag carefully folded to keep out the pervasive wet. Wise precaution. There is a big puddle, more like a little lake, where she usually finds a bus. She’s soaking wet by the time she finally boards a van full of equally soggy and bad tempered fellow commuters. How much do you need to make, to be able to afford both a place and a car? Odu has both, meaning it can’t be impossible.
Entering the office building ends Zara’s misery. Even climbing the stairs is better than wading through filthy floods or getting steam pressed on the bus. The staircase smells strongly of lemon flavored detergent. A wonderful sensation compared to the odors she had to sample on the bus. And she’s running early, meaning lots of time to change and redo herself. When she emerges from the ladies, in full professional business person combat gear, she’s nearly confident and bravely strides down one flight of stairs to find her team.
The lab, as the technical floor is called, is as obviously a guy kind of place as the client acquisition level is dominated by ladies. Same layout, an open space at the center surrounded by outward facing offices for the managers, but totally different ambiance. Instead of orderly rows of cubicles personalized with carefully selected decorative items this open space features a mess of mismatched tables carrying a jumble of equipment in different stages of disassembly, interspersed with cans and food wrappers. The odd DON’T TOUCH sticky note signals that what looks destined for the junkyard aspires to be considered work in progress.
“Welcome to the tec vault, Zarah. Assuming you are Zarah. Anyone dressed up like this will be considered sales force down here. And the resident barbarians are known to feed on your kind. Didn’t anyone warn you, about the cannibals?”
Zarah didn’t see him coming. He’s tall, substantially taller than her. Serious basketball format. At least six feet five. Pretty old, deep into his forties, but with well preserved good looks and a big friendly smile. This guys youngest brother, that would be a man Zarah would love to meet.
“Abeo Adeola, shrink on duty and Abeo-darling for you. Or just Abeo, if you’re not into on the job flirting. When you introduce me to a client, you’d better stick to my formal title, though. That would be doctor Adeola, senior instructor, PhD neurology. I’m also a psychiatrist. For some unidentifiable reason people don’t like to meet those, so we better don’t mention that second PhD. Talking of clients, who’s the bigwig aiming for immortality? We were only told a chopper is going to pick us up at ten, which will be great fun in this weather. I hope it won’t be a long rollercoaster ride. Any chance it’s just one more Atlantic View Terraces job?”
Zarah has been wiped off any remnants of confidence. She feels tiny. This guy is double her everything. Double her age and level of qualification. One more 1kYears longtermer. And he’s even taller than her. So much for being in charge. She just met the boss.
“Abeo, how about strangulating you with one of my wires? Looking forward to the chopper noise covering your cries for mercy. Zarah, just ignore him. He lives under the delusion of being irresistible, and no one dares tell an old shrink he’s gone mental. Where the hell is my charger? We can’t leave unless we find my charger, and you two have been declared the search and rescue party. It’s a white charger, with a phone attached, in a black leather case with a silver skull. Come on, get going, chopper pilots turn savage when kept waiting.”
She’s Abeo’s opposite. Short, standing at definitely less than five feet. Skinny. Sloppily dressed, in an shapeless faded jeans and t-shirt outfit. Her formerly white sneakers have been walked on more than one wet day. And she’s young, improbably young. Looks like high school. Who is this?
“Zarah, let’s get going, we’ve got a phone to find. You don’t want to alienate this particular nerd, senior IT operator for clients, in your first encounter. Trust me, I tried, succeeded and am now condemned to spend my life in her purgatory. She’s called Wasola Taiwo, by the way. Waso for short, to hide she’s a lady. Which she isn’t, not in the sense of manners. Waso, would this happen to be the object of your desires? Hey, what do I get for handing it over without looking?”
Zarah stands there, still not daring to move away from the door for fear of banging into any of the equipment, and watches in bewilderment. Abeo, squeezed between two adjoining tables, holds up a phone still connected to a charger plugged into an array of power strips serving a stack of unidentifiable devices. He’s holding it up high, way out of Waso’s reach. And she to climb onto an office chair, onto the packed table, and reach for the phone quickly abandoned by a laughing Abeo. This is a madhouse. Or a prank. Zarah urges to dissolve.
“Wise decision, Zarah. To spare your saliva for later, I mean. Odu did warn you we techies are not allowed to talk in the presence of customers, unless it’s strictly necessary to perform our respective jobs? We’re your robots, Zarah, at your service. We’ll sit at the back, until you’re done with the negotiating, and the paperwork. Then I’ll do my hairdresser job…”
Zarah has trouble listening. Abeo doesn’t seem to mind never getting no answers and keeps babbling. He definitely knows how to do house calls. That’s slightly reassuring. Why he won’t lead the team and take over the talking remains a mystery, though. No option but to trust his word, under her circumstances. And it’s soon time to go anyway. Walking up the stairs to the heliport feels like ascending the gallows. Outside, it’s still raining hard. And no chopper yet. Just when Zarah starts to hope the trip might have been cancelled thanks to the weather, their air taxi arrives. Time for a new type of worries. And to close her eyes, not to see the crash when it happens.
No ten minutes later they disembark. The heliport atop the highest Atlantic View Terraces tower is far more sophisticated. No crawling out and running under the rain. They have to wait until the rotors come to a standstill and a transparent tunnel is deployed, shielding them from the elements. And the lift is of course as fully functional as the posh assistant leading their way.
It’s a short ride, only a couple of levels down, the assistant explaining how the directors choose not to take residence on the top floors, as would of course have been their prerogative, to avoid sitting too close to the noisy choppers. Zarah nods along, for lack of better options. How the hell is she supposed to handle a guy with this kind of tribulations? She once again feels inadequate.
They are processed into a set of two adjoining meeting rooms connected by a door allowing direct access without passing through the corridor. The first room sports a table set for six attendees. The furniture of the second has been adapted to the occasion, featuring a larger table with four chairs, a couch and two smaller tables on wheels. Abeo and Waso immediately grab one each and start unpacking the metal cases they’ve brought along.
Zarah is glad to recognize most items, now that they are more conventionally arranged than in the messy lab. What looks like a hair net with a tail of dozens of thin, differently colored wires is the center piece of their proprietary technology. It’s called a captor because it captures the knowledge, emotions and memories of the client seeking to produce a ghost. Without, and that’s the big proprietary bit, boring holes into his skull to insert sensors. Clients don’t even need to shave their head. The green dot goes up front. It needs to be positionened at the center of the upper forehead. The captor tail gets connected to its base unit, a bulky kind of laptop with a slender screen and a fat base accommodating all the plugs of all the wires. Everything is color coded. Wiring up a client is not exactly rocket science. Once everything is connected, the so-called instructor performs a calibration. The customer is made to lay down on and gets shown a set of cards featuring colors, images or words. The prompts trigger corresponding thoughts that are recorded as templates. In all clients who manage to think straight and stay focused for a second.
Abeo’s captor base unit is in turn connected to Waso’s laptop, by a fat cable with a big plug, like you need them for the TV. It would probably be possible to transmit the data wirelessly, but the techies love their cables. And this looks fancy on the promotion video, too. Once the system is calibrated for what is summarized as basic abstracts, the nerd takes over for the 3D bit of the exercise, to define the virtual body of the future soul.
In the early days, this was done first. Once it became clear that some real life clients, as opposed to the trial subjects recruited at university, lack the focus to achieve basic abstracts calibration, the sequence was inverted. If you fail, you want to find out early. Being identified as too messy too process won’t cost you in cash with 1kYears. You’ll get a total refund, despite any expenses caused. But the subsequent shrink invoices tend to be substantial. Doesn’t exactly feel good, to be too stupid for a go at immortality. Depression looms.
To create the virtual body, the nerd makes the client stand up to take a 3D scan. On the cruise liner, they use a kind of round cage, like a hollow column. The client steps into it, the door is closed, the cage goes whizz, and that’s it. In the absence of such a cage, Waso will perform the scan with a handheld device. Takes a bit longer, but the result is no less accurate. Once the future ghost has been fitted with his body, motor function calibration is performed by the shrink and the nerd working in sync. The client once again lays down. This time, he’s made to think about movements he does perform in real life and therefore wants his soul to master.
With most clients, motor skill calibration doesn’t take long. They’re old, often more or less immobile, glad to be able to stand up on their own. In younger clients, especially the sporty ones, motor skill calibaration is tedious and time consuming work.
Zarah recalls an amateur juggler who drove his tec and doc team mad. He insisted on endowing his soul with his full set of very complex motor skills. Took them three days, to achieve acceptable results. It was worth the effort, though. The client wrote a glowing review, with permission to use it for advertising purposes. She got a fat bonus. That was great. But if ever not so old Sam Curver turns out to be a motionally tricky client, she might as well call Marian at once, to cancel their outing. They’ll never be done in one short day. And all clients display obsessive urgency, once they have made up their mind. Afraid to die before completing their ghosts.
Abeo and Waso might be an odd team, and the nerd lady really could do with some serious restyling, but they know what they’re doing. Their equipment is ready in a blink and the secretary proposes to bring in director Curver and corporate counsel Olanre. Olanre? As in Odu Olanre? Zarah bites her lip so hard she doesn’t even notice Abeo’s chuckle. Would counsel Olanre be the cause corresponding to the manager Odu effect? Probably. Good to know. Would be a typical Odu, not to expect his kin to be in attendance. Foresighted he isn’t.
The three 1kYears staff stand next to the door to greet the customer and his entourage. Sam Curver enters first, a short and dynamic rosy meat pack of a guy with a brush of thinning fair hair and a broad smile revealing perfect teeth. His energy fills the small room. He’s a very much in charge kind of person, shaking hands all round all the while rattling off his expectations.
Zarah only just manages to perform her role, small as it is. With his way of talking, she expected a local. Certainly not some white foreigner. If this Sam Curver is a US citizen, they’re in trouble. Touching an American on Ginerian soil, that could be asking for a volley of cruise missiles, even without causing any harm. Damn. Why the hell didn’t he mention his condition? Zarah barely finds the time to notice the close resemblance between Olanre senior and junior. It was not some distant uncle who got Odu a job and a title he doesn’t deserve. Dad placed his boy. Disgusting.
The five of them manage to sit down and the assistant exits. Counsel Olanre takes over the task of reading the contract aloud, for the benefit of both parties. Service provider 1kYears Ltd as represented by Zarah Zavaro and client Sam Curver, present in person. The document runs to six pages, giving Zarah time to calm down and remember her client gave his nationality as Ginerian. However Sam Curver managed to acquire his extravagant complexion, and she strongly doubts it was caused by a skin condition, because of his equally extravagant hair, he is to be considered a local in any relevant, legal sense. No need to panic. Just to turn color blind.
Luckily, Zarah’s job turns out to be far easier than feared. Zero additional negotiation required. Olanre senior reads, Curver nods, Zarah nods back in confirmation, all the way down to the end of the contract. Piece of cake. Zarah is so glad this went well she starts signing on the customer line by mistake. Curver saves her by quickly pointing out her error. And he even uses the blot she made as starting point for his own signature. He’s surprisingly nice.
“So what next, Zarah? Hope you’re going to stay at my side while they process me? Not sure I would feel safe, on my own with these two fierce creatures. Quite a team you’ve got yourself. Was there some sorting by size involved? Or did you just pick the mute ones?” Sam Curver is enjoying himself, and not anxious at all. He doesn’t wait for an answer to add: “Counselor, no need to watch the action. That Seven Seas contract is far more deserving of your attention.” Olanre senior bows slightly and exits. You don’t argue with your boss.
Once the door is closed, Curver turns to the doctor, urging him in mock reproach: “Come on, Abeo, stop it. Fine to help preserve my dignity in front of my staff, duly appreciated. But the charade has lasted far too long already. This fine young lady is sure to get mad at us if we keep it up.”
This sentence triggers a cascade of manic speculation freezing Zarah once again. And they’re not done going unorthodox. The conversation takes a turn for the worse.
“So the new definition of never turns out to be a decade? Interesting, Sam, very interesting. Bit of a disappointment, too. Weren’t you supposed to be totally immune, to all these – quote – fucking imperialist privileges – unquote? Said the guy who ends up paying two million bucks for one conversation with a lame replica of his pushy flamboyant self…” Abeo would have gone on nagging, but Sam doesn’t give him the chance.
“Two million one hundred thousand, Abeo, to stick with the truth here. This fierce negotiator also acting as your boss, and hopefully shutting you up any time soon, fleeced me off an additional one hundred thousand, to spare me the cruise. Turns out this fee also gets me insulted by a former friend turned foe. If you want to call that a privilege, please yourself. I’m just trying to help you guys avoiding the dole queue. Can we get going now?”
Zarah is of course aware they’re not really squabbling. They’re old friends making fun. Very old friends. A decade, that means they must have known each other since the very early experimental days of the technology, before 1kYears was even set up.
Abeo leads his victim over to the couch, making him sit down: “At your service, Sam. Let’s see if there’s anything worth copying inside your head. And now you fold your hands behind your back, close your eyes and sit very still, to allow me to dress you up. Oh, and no talking, Sam, strictly no talking. It makes the head move, can’t have that. This is actually what I like best about this job, you know? My patients can’t talk back. I finally got myself the same peaceful job ambiance as enjoyed by dentists. Marvelous. Management of course tells me to shut up and let the pretty lady do the talking. You’re entitled not to be insulted, for that kind of fees. But, you know what, Sam? For you, I’m going to make an extraordinary exception. Zarah won’t mind. You deserve punishment, for tricking her into believing you don’t know this enterprise inside out. You’ve been a bad boy, Sam, and now you’re going to pay for it. Hard currency.”
Zarah wishes Abeo wouldn’t be so hard to read. Is he serious, about threatening a VIP client? Or still making fun? Impossible to tell. Sam Curver seems no wiser, judging by the way he clenches and unclenches his fists behind his back. He’s at the mercy of the instructor, and obviously has no idea talking would not interfere with what Abeo is doing. He’s only adjusting the cap, making sure all sixty four sets of microneedles properly puncture the scalp. The needles are so short you barely feel a little prick, as Zarah learned in her technology basics module. They all had to press one against their forehead, to get an idea of what it feels like. Barely a prick, and no blood drawn.
Abeo takes his time to position, and sometimes reposition, all sixty four captor heads. And he keeps up the teasing. Anything goes, from lurid tales of empty brained customers not even managing the difference between green and red, without the excuse of being color blind, to more spicy jokes centered on sexual prowess, or more often non-prowess, and the way it shows up in the downloaded data. Listening to him, any intelligent person should run, instead of submitting to a procedure that so often ends up in agonizing humiliation. Zarah herself is starting to feel scared. Would she have fallen for a sales pitch hiding massive downsides?
She can’t help admiring Sam Curver. Her client doesn’t run. He has morphed into a stoical lump not even clenching his fists any longer. Might even be smiling ever so slightly. If this is some sort of test, or contest, he’s winning. It’s Abeo running out of ideas, not him taking fright. And the doctor reaches the same conclusion soon enough, giving his victim permission to speak.
“OK Sam, here you go. This is your very last chance to call this off and avoid facing the void inside your skull. Feel free to ask for more time, for further consideration. I certainly won’t blame you, it’s the first rule for a doctor to make sure not to cause harm. How much time shall we grant you?”
“None, you bloody f-beep s-beep. Sorry ladies, normally I wouldn’t use foul language in your presence, but this is exceedingly hard to word politely. Abeo, I don’t need to reconsider. What the hell do you think I spent the last ten years on? Just do your f-beep job. Preferably a good one, if you don’t mind me asking. I know what I’m doing. I’m the one guarding that patent, remember? If there is anyone aware of the side effects as well as you are, it’s me. Hit it, will you?”
His tone is quite laconic, but he’s angry all right. Less of an extrovert when the going gets serious. Zarah’s mind once again engages in a feverish bout of speculation. Sam Curver, holder of the patent behind 1kYears stellar success? Or would he have filed the patent on behalf of the BiBo? Why would anyone resort to such an intellectual property strategy? She’s lost, but also fascinated. Amazing business trip. Her best bet is to listen carefully, not to miss any clues. Marian hopefully will have an idea of how this is supposed to make any sense.
Abeo shrugs, without even commenting, and signals his patient is to lay down. Sam Curver conforms, shrugging back his persistent exasperation.
“Zarah, do me the favor to sit down, your feet will love you for it. With this kind of tension we’re in for one long hard session. Sam, relax. Know this doesn’t come naturally to your kind of temper, but you have to let go. I’m the one giving the orders here. Your job is to look at the card I’m showing you and tell me what you see. If I confirm, you keep thinking the same concept, as strongly as you can. And stop being mad at me, that would ruin your results. Ready?”
After this rowdy start, Zarah expects the worst, as in Sam Curver failing for lack of focus. But the basic abstracts calibration proceeds at a steady pace. Abeo no longer teasing helps, but the client himself contributes a solid ability to concentrate. Sam Curver will get his ghost.
The body scan proves no more of a hurdle. Waso had been quietly playing with her phone throughout the first stage, looking rather unwilling to perform. Zarah braced herself for one more of her impertinences, instead of adequate action. But when Abeo calls for her part, the shabby nerd puts down her gadget without objections and does a good job. The eSam they’re invited to admire on her screen half an hour later looks exactly like the original.
Motor function calibration provides more of a challenge, as Zarah had anticipated. Once they are done with the basics, triggered by sentences on cards that occasionally send the victim blushing, they have to address the special skills. Sam Curver is both a sailor and a surfer, and not willing to deprive his ghost of seaborne fun. This calls for intense three way communication, the client showing the techies videos to explain what type of movements are involved. The ambiance has turned fraternal, the three of them striving to attain their shared goal. Zarah feels useless. But as no one else seems to care, she tries hard not to mind. If her job only consists of looking business like, that’s what she will keep doing. And watching this trio struggle with a complex task is way better than picking up the phone back at the office.
At some point, Sam Curver is told to have a break and empty his head while Waso and Abeo check what they’ve got, ticking off items on a long list. Zarah knows this checklist was introduced because of glitches. All teams are convinced never to forget anything. Unfortunately, reality didn’t confirm their assumption. One omission led to a color blind ghost, a bit of an issue in an avid painter. Another ghost proved capable of performing a somersault, but was hardly able to scratch his head or comb his hair. Hence the checklist, to make sure no basic skill is amiss.
“That’s it, Sam, good job. Wouldn’t have expected you to be actually clever, assumed you were just pretending. Quite a surprise, really. Ready for the hard part?”
Abeo doesn’t wait for the answer to reach for the prefilled syringes. These syringes, and the need to monitor the vital signs of the client during the most consequential nap of his life, call for the presence a fully qualified medical professional. Sam Curver will now be subjected to a very special kind of anaesthesia. It facilitates retrieving his memories. Both the conscious and the unconscious ones. Very scary, in Zarah’s qualified opinion. And in Abeo’s too, as it turns out.
“Zarah, any chance you’d be willing to assist with the dream phase? Sam will do better if someone holds his hand, to anchor him in the here and now. This trip is best not taken alone, and he’s had enough of me for one day. See his hopeful expression? Any chance?”
And so Zarah ends up with her chair pulled close to the couch, holding the hand of her client. Having anxiously wiped her palm against her skirt she’s surprised his is no less sweaty. Good at hiding he’s stressed, the currently not quite so mighty director. Abeo is busy on his other arm, inserting an IV cannula. Sam will be put on a drip, just in case, and the content of the prefilled syringes will be injected into the port of the infusion set.
Zarah realizes for the first time that this really is a medical procedure. Up to now, she had considered their product an outrageously expensive computer game. Witnessing this for real conveys a totally different impression. Abeo was right, to compare himself with a dentist. This is at least as intimidating. She’s really glad it’s not her on the couch.
“OK Sam, you’re ready to fly. Don’t forget, you’re totally safe, it’s just memories flashing by. Zarah is here to remind you this is nothing but a very vivid dream. Don’t hesitate to clutch her hand if you’re scared. She’s a tough lady, she can take pressure, and will clutch back. Don’t try to control the process, don’t try to fight, there’s nothing you can do. Just let it gush through you. The less you resist, the less you’ll suffer. OK? Good. This mouthpiece will refrain you from biting or swallowing your tongue. And as additional benefit, you don’t need to worry about screaming. Zarah, brace yourself for a couple of spasms at the beginning. He’s going to calm down after a few of minutes. This initial sequence will unfortunately feel like hours to him, and he’s sure to make a big mental note never to do this again, but he’s perfectly safe. It’s nothing but vivid memories. Here we go.”
Zarah grips Sam’s hand more firmly while Abeo administers the three drugs. She knows what they are for. The first one sends her client sleeping. The second one will reduce his muscle tension. The third induces the mental state allowing the calibrated captor to suck out his memories.
Sam grips up in a violent spasm no thirty seconds later. At acute risk of getting her bones crushed, Zarah instinctively pushes back, gripping his hand with all her strength. She’s lucky to be tall and have large hands, otherwise she would be at risk of getting hurt. Reminds her of the fights she used to have with her cousin, when they were kids, who’d cry and call the competition off first. What a weird way to lead one’s professional life. They should develop something more gentle.
“Don’t worry, Zarah, this won’t last. He’s going to calm down any second. It’s the most traumatic memories going first, always a bit of a drama. Reliving all the worst moments of your life at speed sends anyone running for cover, virtually speaking. See, he’s slowing down. Doing extremely well, our Sam. With his temper, I was worried he’d try to stay in control, but this looks excellent. He’s letting it happen, perfect. Waso, what does the torrent look like on your side?”
Sitting with her back to the nerd, Zarah can only guess she must have abandoned her beloved phone once again, to monitor something on her laptop. Her answers comes fast, and affirmative. Sam is adding a lot of “meat to the bone”, as she puts it. A fine ghost in the making.
Two hours later, Abeo takes over the hand holding to allow Zarah a toilet break. Sam is still spilling memories. His extremely extended download will deliver a superb ghost.
When Zarah comes back in, Abeo and Waso are once again speculating about the reasons for their subject’s stamina. According to Abeo, mental preparation did the trick. Sam has been pondering this act for years and didn’t shy away from a good hard look at the downsides. This turned him resilient. Waso can’t stand hearing any of this “old fashioned white male superiority assumption crap”. She’s adamant age is the clinching factor. Most of their clients are old dodderers, barely alive. No wonder they can’t keep it up that long. Remembering is like sex…
Zarah is once again holding Sam’s hand, and she’s torn. Waso is a badly dressed little pest that urgently needs to be taught manners. That’s not how you talk about clients, or back to your elders. And who has ever heard of an educated girl starting sex talk? Ill mannered men do this. Whereas good girls pretend not to notice, and never react. No girl is allowed to behave like this unpunished, even if she’s very skilled at computers. Except Waso seems to be getting away with it. It’s Abeo on the defensive, struggling to argue his corner. While she joyfully “brings in some data” to reinforce her position. Fascinating. Girls like Waso, or Marian, if she can be considered a lady, are fascinating. Wrong, but you want to keep looking. And listening. Bad girls are sure to end badly. But this one seems to be having a lot of fun getting there.
Around 8 pm, Sam’s assistant dares knock and peak in. Would they be taking much longer? And if they intend to keep going, is there any chance they could make do with the security, for any assistance required? Sam having transited from download to sleep less than an hour ago, Abeo tells her to call it quits, they’ll manage on their own. She doesn’t argue and leaves at once, sending Zarah wondering how she’ll get home. Certainly not by chopper, at night. Complications ahead. As if she hadn’t endured enough today already.
“Thanks, very much appreciate your support”. Sam has popped awake, just when she was wondering if he would sleep through until Saturday morning, on his comfortable couch. Must have been the voice of his assistant triggering some don’t-doze-on-the-job reflex. He looks well rested, too. Certainly not traumatized. Bit of an anticlimax, really. Shouldn’t he at least sigh? Zarah certainly is tired. And her back feels smashed. It’s not Sam’s fault. It’s the seat. Why can’t anyone invent chairs high enough for comfortable sitting?
Sam not only turns out lo lack fatigue, he’s positively exuberant. Ten minutes later, the equipment is packed and they’re on their way to a certain Taverna Palermo, to celebrate. Sam’s driver gets them there in just over an hour, a splendid accomplishment on a Friday night. Zarah spends the exquisite if challengingly exotic main dish wondering how inappropriate it would be to ask to be driven home. The result is unambiguous, as in “extremely”. Waso has no such qualms and asks, sending Sam laughing. Of course they will be driven home, why ask?
Zarah’s relief doesn’t last long. Dessert is not even served when she realizes being driven home means the others will find out where she lives. The arrival of her ice cream provides scant consolation. Her brain is stuck, refuses to deliver a plausible excuse for making it home by her own means. And the clock is ticking. Just when she’s ready to stand up and leave, without providing an explanation, Waso speaks up once again. Would the rich guy and his lackey accept to stay put just a little longer, to allow the driver to ferry two tired uptown girls home first? It’s still going look like bad case of hostessing, not to use a worse word in a posh restaurant. But a solo ride will at least spare them being seen in the company of oldies. Wham. The little nuisance had only one small glass of wine. Certainly not enough to plead inebriation. She’s in for the sack.
No, Waso’s job is not in peril. Her computer skills must be outstanding. She earns a round of laughs and gets her way. And turns out to live even farther out than an exhausted Zarah glad to get dropped off first. What a day. Not even the mess in her room can ruin it.
Zarah sleeps in on Saturday. There’s barely time for a cup of coffee before heading to the Kajei Mall. Two hours should be ample, on an average day. But what is ever average in MMA? She leaves two and a half hours ahead of her rendezvous with Marian at the cup cake cafe, to make sure not to keep her senior waiting. Marian are weird, but still entitled to respect. The traffic having been exceptionally light, Zarah has to wander the mall for an hour to kill time, only to receive a stuck-sorry message postponing their meeting for another hour. Politeness does work best as a two way street, but her mood is holding up anyway.
Zarah is too curious to call this off. On the job, people are used to Marian’s eccentric outfits and hairstyles. Here at he mall, people are bound to look, and to look again. MMA is no village, you see all kinds of freaks. But Marian are in a league of their own. Zarah herself wasn’t even aware of this whole transgender concept, before receiving whispered advice to stop staring at her LGBT colleague. And that pink moustache is one hell of an eye-catcher. There a kids here. How are they going to react? This is a show well worth waiting for.
When Marian finally shows up, Zarah is slightly disappointed. Their hair and eyebrows are still pink, but the moustache is gone. Instead of their provocative ultra short dresses and stiletto heels, the senior operator wears a pink and white silk blouse over nondescript jeans and sneakers. The kids won’t come pointing fingers at one more adult. It’s the guys who’ll look again. Without the eccentric attire providing distraction, they won’t fail to notice a beauty of a lady moving with the grace of a cat walk professional. Marian also acts charming, apologizing profusely for not expecting that bad a slow go. She offers to buy their round of cupcakes for compensation. Why not choose some matching their dress colors? They are all equally delicious, and an assorted choice will look so much cooler on their social networks.
Zarah certainly won’t object. The prices are steep. Having Marian foot the bill buy comes as a relief. She’s also glad her colleague brought up the photo op issue. Without this initiative, she would have longed to take and post a picture, without daring to proceed. You can’t risk being considered a cheap brute not used to eating out fancy. Takes them a while to get the snapshots right and settle at a table to finally eat their trophies. Giggling and joking, just like all girls do, when they treat themselves to a mall outing. Except Zarah knows Marian is no real girl.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet me in public. I don’t get to do this often, as you will have guessed. Takes guts, to risk being seen with a trans. Which I’m not, by the way. Pangender would be the official term. But since most people still struggle with LGBT, having a hard time recalling what the letters mean, LGBTP is sure not to catch on. Have to confess I wouldn’t have expected you to dare. Sorry, wrong impression. Being prejudiced against straight people is one of my stronger defaults. Hope my dress is OK? And that this doesn’t feel too weird?” Marian speaks softly, to avoid other guests listening in, but seems at ease. It’s Zarah melting into a puddle of speechless shame. How did her colleague manage to read her thoughts?
“Didn’t expect this to get so tricky, when I came back from overseas. There was this Ginerian rainbow moment, at the time. Everything seemed possible, or just a matter of a few years away. You’re probably too young to remember the roaring early twenties, when MMA felt like the most permissive place on earth. Was as great as it didn’t last. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it here. Absolutely not prepared to leave. But staying involves compromises. Some of them tough. Never mind. Today is not for me whining, you’ve got a story to tell. Did you get Sam into that box all right? What was he like? Cry baby, drama queen or macho man, which version did you get?”
Zarah feels her concept of Marian shifting. Stupid colleagues, infecting her with their bigot prejudices. The senior operator is a sweet lady, practically one of the girls. And with their frank readiness to talk about the most embarrassing of topics it’s no wonder they’re so good at their job. They certainly don’t need to cheat to make the top slot. They’re only mistaken concerning Sam Curver. Time for Zarah to ride to the defense of her client.
“None of these Marian, absolutely not. He was so brave. And very well prepared, too. The doc, he made it really hard for him, teasing and scaremongering. But Sam Curver just toughed it out, very courageous. Most impressive man I ever met. If he wasn’t so short, I would have been at risk of, how to put this… He’s in a different league, but still…, you know?.”
Zarah stops short because Marian must have swallowed some cake the wrong way. Now they’re coughing desperately, to clear their lungs. But they signal for her to proceed anyway, and after a short hesitation Zarah resumes her tale.
“He was incredibly focused. The med and the tec were both impressed. And his ghost looks totally like him, amazing. They even managed to teach the ghost the movements for sailing and surfing. And then he took over two hours…” Zarah proudly pauses for additional effect because what had been a patiently nodding if slightly detached audience suddenly displays wide eyed disbelief.
Marian obviously longs to challenge her tale and gets the chance. They explain that to the best of their comprehensive knowledge no one ever managed much more than hour. A month worth of memories fit into a minute of drug induced reliving. Sam Curver might be able to play tough guy, for a while, but he certainly doesn’t have that kind of grit. A lively debate ensues.
Many hours later, a happy Zarah gets driven home. Rarely did she have so much fun. First she learned a lot, about the history of the company and its technology. And about the complexities of pangender live. Then Marian invited her to a round of beauty treatments, under the pretext of being of advanced age and needing to get their face tidied up before celebrating a brand new friendship with a round of cocktails. The stylist transformed them into works of art and they had to take lots more snapshots, with and without their cocktails. Great fun.
And the future looks even brighter. Marian lives only a couple of streets away. When the two of them share a shift, they will pick up Zarah and spare her the buses. They drive their a very-old-but-very-own Nissan pickup. The expense of owning a car is one of the many must haves associated with their condition. They drive well, too, resolutely forcing their way.
Unfortunately, Marian is on a later shift on Sunday. Zarah is in for one more public transport commute. At least it has stopped raining, the expedition is slightly less dreadful. The first Sunday shift is always good for some anecdotes. Early Ginerian Sunday corresponds to more or less late Saturday night in the Americas, the slot for a rowdy crowd of customers. They slur or shout their inquiries, and then it gets messy. One particularly bothersome type is the freshly crowned casino king. They hit a winning streak, get pissed and promptly opt for immortality. With these, it’s vital to talk funds and make sure they understand it’s two full millions of US dollars they’ll need. Only makes sense to proceed once this aspect has been confirmed. Otherwise, you better hang up fast. Drunk clients finding out they lack the means even though feeling rich tend not to mince their words.
Zarah’s first caller is from the Saturday night time zone all right, and drunk. He speaks English with a sharp Latino accent. Probably one more petro. The Latin American version does sound different from its African counterpart, but the operating principle is similar. Filthy rich and ruthlessly efficient, right up to the moment when the one-scan-only rule jars with their concept of entitlement. Zarah smiles at getting shouted at, until he finally hangs up on her. Phew. If the next one is as bad, she might need one more anger management break. How many of these would be tolerated? One a week? A month? Would be good to get some guidance. Until there is, she decides to wait to see someone else stand up. However bad the next caller.
“Hi Zarah, hope you had a nice day off. Any chance you’d be willing to join me? Our eSam needs some training, before we can let him loose on the resort, and he could do with a fresh face. Interested?” Abeo has obviously no idea what kind of tedium Zarah has to endure in her job. Of course she’s keen to leave her cubicle. And finally meeting one of the ghosts is an additional plus. Abeo just made her day and she immediately heads down.
The tec space is mostly empty at this hour. Makes sense. If the residents come close to resembling their reputation as oddballs, they are bound to prefer the night shifts. The least fearsome looking geek doesn’t seem to mind Zarah’s incursion and even abandons whatever he’s in process of fiddling to accompany her to the door of the doctor’s office.
She immediately gets called in. The room is similar to Odu’s, but obviously used for working. A rack with labeled metal cases, probably containing captor units and medical supplies, and a whole library of visibly read books and stacks of DVDs, fills the wall to the left. An unusually high desk runs along the opposite side. It features two open laptops humming side by side at the window end. Another one, closed and attached to a large screen, sits at the center. Stacks of books and journals pile up at the door end. On the screen and through the speakers, an irritated eSam is protesting against some mistreatment he’s being subjected to.
“You can’t just turn me off like this, Abeo, you’ve got no right. How am I supposed to learn anything, if I can’t even see and hear you? That’s impossible. Hello, Abeo? You there? I really need your help here, I can neither see nor hear you. Abeo?…”
The supposed perpetrator grins at Zarah, inviting her to have a seat on the second office chair: “Come in, come in. Don’t worry, he can’t see or hear us. Why don’t you do a little chatting with him, while I get us some coffee? No need to worry, he’s going to like that. Just click on these two buttons when you’re ready to go, I’ll be right back.”
Zarah would have loved some more guidance on how to interact with a baby ghost, but she’s already alone and eSam looks and sounds ready to seriously freak out. So she switches him on as told, which immediately brightens his mood.
“Zarah, so great to see you. How are you? The stupid old sod, he should have told me. So nice to see you! Tell me, what was it like, to be at someone’s side during the process?”
The ghost looking so much like Sam is more than a bit irritating. Impossible for Zarah to believe this lively specimen is a mere digital entity. He’s staring straight at her with his light brown eyes, beaming with energy and curiosity. It’s one thing to tell clients their spouses might be fooled by a video call from their alter egos. Saying this had been just one more slogan. Actually facing her first ghost rams home the notion that these really are living beings.
“Come on Zarah, talk to me. And you can smile, too. You’re not afraid of ghosts, are you? If you are, you might want to reconsider your career choice. You don’t want to be stuck in client acquisition. Ghost management, that’s where the fun is. Pay is better, too. Would you like to move on to ghost management?” eSam has noticed her distress and tries to help her settle into this incongruous experience. Makes him even more human and the whole situation more unsettling. For a split second, Zarah can’t even help wondering if this is a very complex prank, if this is the real Sam on a conventional video link poking fun at her.
“I would certainly like you to replace Abeo. And Sam loved the way you squeezed his hand. Even so he’s normally agonizing, about how to deal with ladies. Small wonder. A Caucasian Ginerian, that’s complicated enough, even before admitting he’s also gay. Ha, got you! You didn’t guess he’s gay, right? He’d love to hear that. Except I better don’t tell him. That’s what kept him from proceeding, you know? Our kind do know our originators exceptionally well, obviously. The process kicks it all out into to open, relatively speaking. Sam spent whole nights biting his cushion in frustration, because he had to choose between his closet and his ghost. So you’d better not tell him we talked about this, if you don’t want to end up at his stormy end…”
Zarah is fascinated. No Ginerian would ever risk being considered gay for a prank. eSam really is a ghost. And a very cheeky and independent minded character. Poor Sam. If he really was so well aware of the details of what the ghost reverentially calls the process, he had every right to worry. Time for Zarah to speak up for the rights of the poor director.
“That’s a really naughty thing to do to your originator, eSam. Don’t you even think about how horribly embarrassing it will be for Sam, if ever he finds out you told me? And if I was prejudiced about homosexuals, I might gossip. That’s hazardous, denouncing someone as gay. Out here, we’re not as safe as you in your shiny resort…” Zarah would have gone one, even though she feels slightly uncomfortable hearing herself, but eSam cuts in.
“Ha, I knew it. You like him, Zarah, don’t you? Always the same, with tall ladies. No idea why you lot always fall for a short guy. I mean, his looks, our looks, they aren’t too bad. But size matters. You are too tall for him. You two would look awful, as a couple. Did you enjoy holding his hand?”
Of all unsuitable moments this is the one Abeo had to pick to come back in, carrying two steaming mugs. He shakes in head in a pretense of anger and reprimands his pupil.
“eSam, what did I tell you about ghosts and manners? If you don’t demonstrate you’re able to behave, you’ll stay right where you are, in isolation. For as long as it takes. You will now stop being a nuisance, and apologize to Zarah. Or she’s out of here faster than you can say damn. And you will rot for a day in your bare room, to ponder manners. Is that what you…”
“You’ve got no right! That’s torture, Abeo. And you’re not allowed to, torturing a ghost is strictly prohibited. Just because you hold the keys, which is so very wrong as such, you of all people… Anyway, holding the keys doesn’t imply you may torture me. Besides, I didn’t do any harm. We were just chatting, about the process, and how it felt. What’s wrong about that? The process is still very much on my mind, yes. Small wonder. Try being born a mere day ago. You have to look at this from my perspective. If you were freshly born, and had to endure getting stuffed with…”
Instead of commenting, Abeo moves one of the laptops in front of the screen, enters a few commands and has eSam watch a recording of the exchange that took place in his absence. This shuts up the ghost all right, and makes Zarah wish for a gun to shoot herself. Or Abeo.
The doctor hands her one of the mugs before addressing an eSam still holding his breath.
“Very good, eSam, very nice shutting up. You’re much less of nuisance that way. And now we move on to the real challenge. A heartfelt apology. Do it well, I’ll release a cup and you can play at coffee break with Zarah. Do it wrong, as in one atom of irony, I’ll leave you to cool off, for a day. Your choice, eSam. And don’t even dream about going for blackmail. Zarah wouldn’t be in here if I wasn’t prepared to accept her finding out about my affair with Sam.”
Zarah feels her world toppling over. Why does everybody suddenly feel entitled to talk about romance? And insist on being gay on top? That’s no proper office behavior. She doesn’t consider herself prejudiced. But finding out that Marian’s openly assumed pangenderism is just the tip of an iceberg of diversity is starting to alter her perception of 1kYears. She can’t help wondering how the majority of her clients would react, if ever they found out. Bunch of weirdos, most of them would probably think. And how many weirdos are there? Some? Many? More than many? Would she be the only heterosexual around? Zarah feels minoritarian. Abeo doesn’t fail to notice and explains.
“Don’t worry, Zarah, it’s just the founding team. We don’t advertise that this venture started as a cooperation between two gay scientists, a software engineer and a neurologist. We were trying to devise a way to show straight people we can’t just decide to stop being us. A property developer friend, you’ve met both versions of him, helped with access to finance folks. The project went plop. The money guys sent in a team of scavengers to sift through the remains. They came up with the idea to repurpose our technology. Out went the idealism, in came targeted luxury product design. The three of us had a good laugh at the stupid business plan. We only kept our stakes for fun. And then our one and only office phone went berserk. The owners smelled a gold mine and brought in proper glamour marketing. You do know Marian, and they did one hell of a good job…”
Abeo talks matter of factly, as if this was just one more case of the famous MMA entrepreneurial spark. And in a way, it is. People here do this all the time. They improvise and repurpose. But assumed homosexuality is an unusual addition to the mix. A still speechless Zarah struggles to think straight. Perfect slot for eSam to give his best shot at an apology:
“Sorry, Zarah, this was a stupid way to show off how deeply familiar I’m with Sam. No intention to hurt anyone, or to embarrass you. Won’t happen again. From now on, I will respect Sam’s right to privacy. Can I please learn how to have a coffee break now?”
eSam sounds and looks genuinely aggrieved. Zarah is torn. In her very unspoken opinion, both the ghost and the instructor have a point. According to 1kYears’ charter, eSam is entitled to be treated with respect. Subjecting him to isolation could be considered cruel punishment. But Abeo is also allowed to sanction misbehavior. Baby ghosts need to be taught how to behave, both in the technical and in the social sense. eSam has to learn how to handle a digital environment that behaves differently from the material world as reflected in the memories he inherited. And he has to prove he’s civil enough to receive permission to meet other residents. Tricky. But not for Abeo:
“Very good, eSam, knew you can be a good fellow. Now you try to keep that up while I go stretch my legs. Zarah, once he masters the coffee he can have a muffin. Both objects are released, he only needs to ask his room service for them. But you decide when he’s allowed to ask. You heard that, eSam? Zarah is in charge in my absence, and you behave yourself. Will you do that?” Abeo sounds more friendly, but still firm. Seeing eSam nod eagerly, he smiles and leaves.
“Phew. Know what, Zarah? I thought for a moment he’d really do it, let me rot for a day. He can be unpredictable. You never know when his patience will snap. They did that on purpose, selecting him as my trainer. Because he knows Sam so well. I’ll ask for coffee now, OK?” eSam talks fast, and looks set to proceed. Feeling duped, Zarah counters even faster, and hard:
“Hey, stop it! That’s not what Abeo said. It’s not you informing me you’ll do something, it’s me giving you permission.” Seeing his sheepish grin, and no coffee cup action, she adds more softly “One question and one answer, OK? If I’m satisfied, and I mean explicitly saying I am, you can order your coffee, and your muffin. But first you tell me what it feels like, sitting on that bed.”
eSam doesn’t fight back, to Zarah’s intense relief. He readily explains how it took him an couple of hours to get a reasonable grip on his body. His sensory apparatus is cruder than the biological equivalent, as is his environment. That’s due to some resolution and associated computing power issues. The inherited memories translate well enough, but you need to proceed step by step and get used to feel both yourself and the objects you touch. A chair and the floor will feel harder than your bed, for example, like in the material world. But there is no difference between the wooden chair and the tiled floor. You need to get used to this lack of texture. Even if you were aware of the effect in advance and braced yourself for it.
eSam talks like a torrent, providing example after example. Very excited, very keen to share his first impressions. Zarah is gaining in confidence. They are doing pretty well, and the residual sting from the embarrassing initial sequence is fading away.
Fascinating, how alive the ghost feels. And he’s more than a mere copy. Has been an autonomous entity for less than forty eight hours, and is already distinct from his biological originator. Zarah now feels the difference the 1kYears brochure tries to describe. eSam is alive and aware, but not identical with the guy whose hand she held. Optically, eSam might be a perfect replica, down to a little twitching of the left eye when he’s struggling to explain something. They do share a lot of memories. But he’s piling up his own now, is on his personal path.
eSam gets his coffee and his muffin, delivered by a robot entering and exiting his room through the wall. In return, he enthusiastically reports what it feels like to drink and eat for the first time. Quite good, by the sound of it. Coffee looks and tastes coffeeish, a pretty good blend. It’s hot all right, and gets less so if you wait. The muffin is brown, soft to the bite, and tastes of chocolate. Zarah recalls the relevant section of the brochure. Eating and drinking are two of the four important pleasures. A lot of computing power goes into delivering adequate sensations.
Back comes the sting of embarrassment, with a vengeance. The other two important pleasures are sleep and sex. Who would want to live hundreds of years without ever having a good night’s rest, or non rest? Zarah can’t help wondering about eSam’s sexual orientation. Would a ghost inherit it? They are reputed to be less sexually active than their originators claim they expect them to be, but the resort is no convent. Would eSam be headed for trouble? Embarrassing non topic.
“Will you come for a visit, Zarah? Not now, I can’t invite anyone yet. But once Abeo is satisfied I’m no moron and I get my civility badge, I will be allowed to explore and host. Would you want to come? It’s not the real thing, because you’ll still be biological. But I could show you around and give you a better idea. And if we praise Waso’s skills, she’ll make you a proper avatar. She likes doing beautiful young people, provides relief from all the old buggers.”
Zarah feels sorry for eSam. He has been so well behaved throughout their exchange, and Abeo has to come back just when he’s insulting his fellow resort inhabitants. Poor unlucky soul. But the instructor doesn’t punish him immediately. Raising his eyebrows, he asks her how they have been doing. eSam once again holds his breath, aware a lot depends on her verdict.
“eSam has been absolutely charming, all along. Zero problem. Fascinating, how his world feels. He’s very good at explaining, and very eager to experiment…” Zarah would have gone on praising, but Abeo’s roaring stops her short. What the hell did she do to send him laughing like that?
“Sorry, Zarah. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about you. You’re doing a great job. It’s just so funny, him going full charm, when left on his own with a lady. eSam is very much like his originator, in some respects. I wonder if you should take over his training. With a lady at the helm he’d make better progress.” Seeing eSam nod eagerly, Abeo bursts into more laughter.
“Joke, eSam, don’t you get your hopes up. You’re stuck with me. I can bring in Zarah, from time to time, as a treat. If you strive and behave. But I’m in charge here. She’s client acquisition, not ghost management, remember?” Abeo pretends to be talking to eSam, but Zarah is no dupe. His message is for her, too. She’s a mere operator, with a job to perform, not entitled to be here.
At least she’s spared resuming her grueling shift for today. Abeo let’s her lead eSam through a couple more motor skill exercises. At first, they don’t get anywhere. The ghost is brimming with inquisitiveness. Very keen to find out if Abeo used his break to alert the biological Sam about his betrayal. Flaming furious about not getting an answer, eSam doesn’t properly focus on bending down to tie his shoelaces. He promptly crashes down hard, head first. Not dangerous. Ghosts can’t get physically damaged. But painful. They can and do hurt, just like biologicals.
Seeing eSam fight not to shed tears softens Abeo’s stance. He finally deigns confirm he did indeed warn the biological Sam that his secret didn’t take long to leak. eSam instantly switches back to model behavior. He makes such good progress that Abeo decides to let him explore his apartment under Zarah’s guidance, a big treat for the virtual jailbird until now confined to his bedroom.
They go have a look at the living room, the study and the bathroom. Seeing Zarah wonder about the need for the latter, without daring ask, eSam explains that brushing ones teeth and having a shower are so deeply ingrained routines that ghosts feel uncomfortable if denied the opportunity. But they don’t need toothpaste or shower gel, water alone does the trick. Turns out there is quite a lot more amiss in the resort, at second glance. All doors slide open instead of swinging on hinges. They are devoid of handles, opened and closed by pushing a button. This is just one ot the many details minimizing the need for complex movements. eSam does enjoy himself, avidly learning how to interact with his environment, while Zarah marvels at the amount of painstaking work that went into creating this replica universe. Explains the price tag.
Finally Zarah’s stomach grumbles so loudly for a missed lunch that would by now be called dinner that it’s eSam gallantly proposing to call it quits for the day. He would be able to go on forever, but biological Zarah needs a break. This initiative gets him lauded by Abeo. Displaying empathy is a vital skill. eSam passed one more test. In the future, he will be expected to do even better, when interacting with biologicals. He’ll have to check the time and inquire about fatigue.
When Zarah fetches her bag on the client acquisition floor, she bumps into Marian just done with their shift. A lucky coincidence providing her with a welcome ride home and the chance to talk about her first baby ghost and resort impressions. She of course doesn’t mention the sexual orientation topic. You can’t just say “Oh, and by the way, I found out about the BiBo, Abeo and Sam being gay, and the ludicrous origins of our product.” Impossible.
A couple of weeks pass in a new and far more pleasant rhythm. Zarah somehow ended up on exactly the same shift schedule as Marian. She barely remembers what riding the buses to work felt like. Once or twice a week, she gets called to Abeo’s office, to assist with eSam’s training.
Her ghost friend is still on his own, but in advanced process of settling into his virtual life. In the morning, he does some surfing, before meeting Abeo for his daily session. In the evening, he passionately follows the news, both from the material and his virtual world. The ghosts have their own news channels, with three different flavors of anchors, reporting on all the minor and major occurrences in the resort. eSam is keen to join the fray, forever promising perfect behavior and pleading to grant him his badge. Today is no exception.
“Please, Zarah? Abeo is going to listen to you. No, don’t interrupt, please. I know you’re going to say you’re nothing but a mere operator, not entitled to asses my progress. But you’re mistaken. Your voice does count, a lot. Abeo can’t be impartial, not with his antecedents with my originator. He’ll always find a reason to keep me locked up. He’s got a ghost in here, you know? He tried to deter Sam to protect his ghost, doesn’t want us to meet. If he gets his way, I’ll stay in solitary confinement forever. Perhaps not forever forever. But he could well have another forty years to live. That’s an eternity, Zarah. Please?” Always the same routine. Zarah does like eSam. He’s cute, especially when begging for freedom. But he’s also a devious little cheat.
“Enough, eSam, stop it. We’ve discussed this, more than often enough. Even if Abeo was as brutal a prison warden as you’re assuming, which he isn’t, he could not do this to you. Sam would never let it happen. He’s very well informed, sure to be aware you’re in limbo. The confirmatory interview typically takes place eight to twelve weeks after origination. You’ve been in here something like two months. If Abeo doesn’t get back to Sam, in…, let’s say two more months…” Zarah was right to brace herself for vigorous howling. Patient her virtual friend isn’t.
eSam is still in process of volubly explaining four months is absolutely unacceptably long when the door of Abeo’s office opens. Unusual for him to come back that soon. Zarah doesn’t have the time to finish thinking he might have forgotten something. Turns out Abeo is not alone. Sam is with him. Both take care not to step into the visual field of the camera. eSam didn’t notice Zarah reacting to the door, to busy arguing she should contact his bloody originator right now, to get that that fucking confirmatory interview scheduled. Poor ghost. He excels at terrible timing.
Zarah is glad her impossible situation doesn’t last. It’s Sam stepping forward, asking his stunned ghost to explain why he’s throwing such a tantrum. The unexpected encounter with his originator shuts eSam up, for the shortest of peaceful moments. But he soon resumes his fervent pleading, calling for Zarah to bear witness. Abeo let’s him argue for a while before declaring privacy a must for any successful confirmatory interview and leading Zarah out. The two of them relocate to a small meeting room, where he serves her with some coffee and an apology.
“Sorry for the surprise attack, Zarah, know this must have felt weird. But these interviews are emotionally tricky, for both the originator and his ghost. It’s more humane to throw both right into it, without advance warning. And please don’t worry about eSam getting into trouble because of his foul mouth. Sam is pretty good at self awareness, he knows that’s part of his heritage. eSam has every chance to survive, and a little scathing from someone who knows him even better than poor exhausted me will do him loads of good.”
Zarah never feels completely comfortable in Abeo’s presence. Knowing he’s a shrink is just one part of the issue. As is being aware he’s gay. But he’s also very obviously her elder. So are Marian, but with them it’s different. They’re always joking and laughing and putting her at ease. Abeo is not without a sense of humor, but it’s less straightforward. You need to think before you laugh. And then it’s no longer true laughing. Abeo is tricky company.
He must be joking now. Sam can’t hurt his ghost, never mind kill him. The confirmatory interview only gives the originator the chance to check his virtual lookalike knows stuff no one else could guess. Any client is entitled to see and hear proof, before coughing up the second tranche. But all this cash doesn’t buy him the ghost. 1kYears don’t do slavery. eSam and his fellow resort residents are free people. Virtual, but free. Except for the lightest of policing preventing them from hurting each other. Sam doesn’t own eSam. He wouldn’t even have the right to ask for him to be kept in permanent isolation, if he was ashamed of his ghost. This would amount to cruel and inhumane treatment, a clear contravention of the charter. eSam is safe.
“Did you ever consider taking part in the lottery, Zarah?” Abeo asks matter of factly, but Zarah doesn’t feel at ease. She quickly answers “No”, while still wondering why he would raise this. She’d rather talk about Sam and eSam, doesn’t like her attitudes to become the topic.
“Really? You never even considered trying? How comes?” Abeo is not done asking. But why? Zarah would prefer to understand what this is about, before answering. As she can’t think of any plausible explanation, she decides to challenge the question:
“Why would I? The resort, that’s for rich people, elite stuff. I never considered acquiring a yacht, and don’t buy lottery tickets for a remote chance to win that kind of money. Same for the resort.” Saying this feels truthful enough. Zarah never consciously thought about the issue before. Her job is to sell tickets, not to think about freebies. She’s aware they do exist, especially for ladies. Too many men in the resort. This gender imbalance needs correction, otherwise the place would get even more tricky to manage. But that’s none of her business. Her life is quite good, especially lately. Except for the never ending issue around her cousin’s kids trespassing. And for stupid Pandur no longer smiling at her. As if she had been turned into some kind of manager enemy, by associating with Marian. He’s probably jealous. Stupid kid.
“Why don’t you just tell me to mind my own business, if you don’t like a question? You can say no to a shrink, you know? Or inquire what his nosy asking is about.” Abeo has made himself comfortable, with his feet on a second chair, grinning into his mug. Zarah gives her best shot at displaying a poker face, declining to comment.
“eSam is pushing for your promotion, convinced you’ll make an excellent ghost manager. Me, I can’t help wondering if he’s even doing you a favor. Ghost management is of course fascinating. Anyone interested in psychology can’t help being hypnotized. You get to observe evolutions, both of the individual ghosts and their relationships. Thrilling. Addictive, even. You risk to forget to live your own life. For example, Sam waited for himself to reach the age I had when I initiated my own ghost. In real life, we’re ten years apart. He was eighteen and I was twenty eight when we met for the first time. A pretty big gap, the difference between a boy and a man. When we met again ten years later, the age difference mattered less, we were both adults. But to me, Sam was, and in a way still is, and always will be a kid. Whereas eSam and vAbeo, they are the same age. And they will stay that way. For however long their supposedly guaranteed 1k years are going to last. You can’t help wondering: Is the relationship of the ghosts permanently going to reflect the age difference of their originators? Or are they going to leave behind their biological origins? How do you age and mature, when your body no longer does? Fascinating…”
Zarah is glad this meeting turns out to be just one more Abeo musing session. No need to answer. Nor to listen. Sure to take a while, when he’s in that mood. But one of the most harmless ways to escape that bloody phone. Less entertaining than coaching eSam, but a perfectly nice break.
Pretending to listen to Abeo rambling about resort dynamics, she lets her mind wander. The confirmatory interview taking place today implies two consequences, one good and one bad. On their very first day, eSam promised to invite her, once he would have achieved full ghost rights. She’d love to get a glimpse of the resort. Even though the experiment is more than a bit scary. You get to wear what looks like a full body diving suit. An instructor sends you sleeping. You wake up as an avatar in the resort and get shown around. Cool trip. Scary, but cool. Zarah hopes eSam won’t forget his promise, once he’s let loose. Which is the bad outlook. eSam being granted his virtual freedom means no more ghost coaching for her. No more breaks from that bloody phone. Perhaps she should apply to become a ghost manager after all? But Abeo didn’t sound like endorsing. Not fair of him, to interfere. Why exactly would he oppose her career? Time to resume listening.
“… and that’s it, at the end of the day. Two mighty fat, existential risks. At both ends. Without much of a safe territory in between. And as of now no way to find out in advance who is, respectively isn’t, affected. Not with any acceptable level of certainty. There are a couple of leads, of course. But a mere ten years and two dozen ghost managers in, that’s no solid basis. And it’s all pretty contradictory, too. For example, you’d intuitively guess above average levels of anxiety might be a negative indicator, right? Anxious people, they’re more prone to circumstantially induced brooding, easily get the blues. They’re bound to be at risk. Right? Right, of course. In most ways of life. For most emotionally demanding jobs. Except this rule of thumb doesn’t seem to apply in our case. What we’re seeing so far suggests folks habitually struggling to keep their emotional balance have an above average chance to successfully cope with prolonged in depth exposition to resort affairs. Both in cases with and without a personal ghost. Amazing, isn’t it?”
Zarah curses herself. She obviously missed an important part of the monologue. Abeo seems to suggest minding ghosts might be especially stressful. Must be joking. Sounds like the oh so familiar Odu tune of belittling customer acquisition efforts. What’s not to like, about ghost management? You mostly watch them frolick around in their virtual paradise. You occasionally adress some futile complaints. Or help resolve the odd conflict, which counts as the height of action in this tranquil line of work. Nice job, if you can get it.
“… so tell me, Zarah, which side do you lean to? Ghost management or sales coach? Don’t worry, you don’t need to decide today. This is just a very preliminary interview. My recommendation as your friend is of course to stay well clear of the former. At least as long as you don’t have an option to download. Too hazardous. And you’ll make an excellent sales coach. You’re practically a psychologist, even if you lack the degree. A year under Marian’s gentle thumb will do the rest.”
How bloody stupid is this? Zarah managed to miss the best part of her most consequential job interview ever. Why couldn’t the bloody doc have warned her this wasn’t just his usual drivel? And calling himself her friend on top, to add insult to injury. Only one way forward now: “Thanks, Abeo, this all makes so much sense. Bit of a lot to chew on, though. Slightest of preferences for sales coaching, at this stage. But I’ll need at least one good night’s sleep, to figure it all out.”
Her senior colleague looks pleased with this outcome. No sign he noticed she didn’t pay attention to his sermon. Not that hard to fool, a shrink. They’re only human, after all.
They get the chance to chat some more, about banalities. As Zarah doesn’t fail to notice, now that she’s all focused on the conversation. Half an hour later, Abeo’s phone beeps. It’s the Sams. On the screen, they can see the biological one holding up his phone, trying to tell them something. But he’s impossible to understand. The virtual one makes up for not being visible by screaming extra loud for their presence. Or rather for Zarah. Abeo coming along will be tolerated. In case he insists. Because there isn’t much eSam can do to stop him. But it’s Zarah he wants. He’s really trying to get himself into trouble, on the very last stretch. Instead of playing it safe. Stupid baby ghost.
On the way back to his office Abeo acknowledges as much: “Incredible, isn’t he? Practically cleared for take off, would have to reign in his temper just a tiny little bit to play it safe. But trust him to provoke until the very last second. He’s perfectly able to tune himself down, restraint is his middle name. But zero chance of him doing it under duress. We could keep playing for a year, he’d still buck with the same rage. He’ll calm down once he’s free. Hopefully.”
What kind of an assessment is that? Zarah wonders about the soundness of Abeo’s judgement. Isn’t he supposed to have the best interests of the other residents at heart? What if eSam doesn’t calm down? Zarah would not object to continue coaching her virtual pupil. As long as it’s Abeo breaking the news to the object of her pedagogical aspirations. She’s certainly not going to actively suggest to keep him confined, for fear of what he’d do to her if ever he found out. A stupid fear. He’s just a ghost. But try to remember that when he goes opinionated. It would be nice if Abeo kept eSam shackled just a little bit longer. If she was him, Zarah would have qualms.
Turns out Abeo doesn’t have any. Nor does he do ceremonial. In his office, the actual act of setting eSam free occurs much faster than Zarah would have anticipated. Sam confirms eSam. Abeo informs eSam he’s now free to hopefully behave well. He would have said more, but the newest member of the resort community is gone through the longer locked front door in a flash.
At first they can see the dot representing him on one of Abeo’s laptops head for the central plaza. A classical first move, according to the doctor. And bound not to last, not with eSam. Because of the cameras. To feel real free, he’ll want to stay off camera. And eSam does indeed quickly change directions. Wandering towards the public beach next. Only to once again reconsider, right before he gets there. Headed for the botanical garden now. Both Sam and Zarah can’t take their eyes off the screen, until Abeo slams shut the laptop. No more peeping, time to mind their own businesses. As if they had trouble to stop looking.
Back at her desk, with two hours to go, Zarah is glad not to have a new client on the line. Instead she’s in for one more round with the multi-aunt lady. Same old, zero need to comment. Some grunting, to signal attentive presence at her end of the line, that’s all she needs to do. There is no progress whatsoever with this one. Each conversation feels like their very first one.
Zarah dutifully flagged the case PT, for Pending Termination. If there’s no progress after three calls, that’s what she has to do. To give her manager a chance to assess and eventually discard, for lack of prospects. Upon termination, the client will be rerouted to a bot explaining the requested service won’t be available for a year: “Please feel free to call again twelve months from now, to meet your new operator.” According to Marian, this stupid trick leads to lots of sales. She should know, because she both came up with the tactic and takes such calls. Something about denial of service boosting resolve. Still sounds improbable. Besides being hopeless with odious Odu at the managing end. Does he even listen in? Impossible to tell.
For lack of any more worthwhile occupation, Zarah listens in to the ramblings of her lady client. Better than wallowing in her own blues, as triggered by eSam’s sudden release.
Sounds like auntie A is still her ally, reletentlessly arguing for speedy implementation. Whereas a newly involved auntie D takes the opposite stance, insisting this project will ruin her niece’s marriage. Now that’s a new one. Zarah is so curious to find out more that she even manages to turn dominant to raise the corresponding question. Bad move.
The lady client dissolves into a torrent of noisy tears. Between sobs, she barely manages to explain. According to Auntie D, her husband would be a cheat. Everybody but herself would be aware. It’s supposed to be obvious he only married her for her fortune and finds his fun with someone else. Even an alter ego would immediately understand what’s going on. Hence the risk for a marriage hanging on the thin thread of her continuing ability to fool herself. Buhuhu.
Zarah’s propensity for logic feels challenged. This doesn’t make any sense, as she immediately argues. If the lady client is convinced her husband doesn’t cheat, she has every reason to go ahead. If ever her firmly held belief later turned out to have been a delusion, the marriage would never have deserved saving. Ergo no harm done. And every reason to go ahead, right away.
And the lady client to agree. Just like that. Zarah barely manages to keep up with her sudden urge to wrap,it up. She insists on taking a plane on this very same day, to go join the crowd on the cruise liner. Additional expenses no problem, just do make that quick.
An hour later, Zarah is drenched in sweat, despite the air conditioning. The first million and the additional travel expenses have been confirmed paid. All the paperwork is filed, comprehensively signed, with authentication. The lady is in a taxi on her way to the nearest airport, to catch the first of a series of five flights, including the last one in a private jet. That one will get her to an island in the Indian Ocean where the 1kYears cruise liner will drop anchor tomorrow. What a sprint. Awful Odu always waxes lyrical, about how this can be done in one session, right first time. Well, yes, turns out it can. Except he’d never manage. Whereas Zarah did.
Brimming with job satisfaction, she starts informing Marian of her exploit on their way to the car deck. By the time her friend and driver is done changing into their flat heeled commute footwear, she has reached the intermediary conclusion of not being that totally bad at sales after all. And admitted to actively consider a future in coaching, as accidentally recommended by Abeo today.
Marian get their first chance to weigh in half an hour later, in the perpetual slow go on the very inappropriately named new fast track bridge to the mainland. To Zarah’s surprise and irritation, they don’t endorse her elaborate plan. Why such a rush? What about options beyond 1kYears? With the kind of money she’s making now, she could opt to resume studying, in comfort and style. With a little luck and help, an overseas degree might be within reach. Legacy ivory institutions no longer rule supreme, but a solid degree under a clever girl’s belt, that’s still nice to have. An insurance policy against the vagaries of professional life.
Zarah very nearly slams her head on the dashboard, for laughing out loud at that last bit. Her, studying overseas, attending legacy ivory? “Why not Minren University, while you’re at it?” She has to shoot this rhetorical question back, this idea is so far fetched.
But Marian turn out to be dead serious. They insist on going for a happy hour drink to elaborate. Later that night, Zarah rolls from side to side in her narrow bed, too torn and anxious to find sleep. Marian are adamant their alumni connections can get her into a prestigious institution. Even into the oversubscribed medical course, if she so wishes. For a solid career at 1kYears, this would be her best bet. They’ll always need doctors, those are the hardest to replace. And making excellent money. For pretty easy work. With a chance to switch to ghost management.
Marian made this option sound terribly alluring. Except it’s such a horribly long shot. Going overseas. To attend university. A medical course. While still working part time for 1kYears. She can fuck up in so many ways. And she’s her, not the most courageous person at the best of times. Marian must be mistaken, to have such faith in her. She’s going to disappoint them, bitterly. Zarah once again feels like killing herself preventively. These stakes are too high, they’re all asking too much. Marian, Abeo, Odu. All conspiring to exert relentless pressure, instead of giving her a chance to lead a placid life matching her aspirations. She should tell them to leave her alone. And knows she won’t dare. It’s so stupid, to be stuck with nothing but high flying career options. For simple lack of the grit to refuse. Zarah cries herself to sleep.
A couple of weeks later she recalls her career flash with a smile. During one of her by now customary anger management breaks she looks back at the fuzz she made. Got herself all worked up. For nothing. Neither Abeo nor Marian ever brought up the career subject again. No more heightened expectations. However they finally managed to grasp she’s not into this career thing is none of her business. What counts is the result, the absence of their expectations.
And the episode didn’t even ruin her friendship with Marian. The two of them are as close as ever, keeping each other entertained during the commute and occasionally meeting for girlie endeavors.
Whereas Abeo, he might as well have left 1kYears on the day eSam was released. He’s bound still to work in his office one floor down. But without a reason to visit him she’s as sure never to meet him again as if he had ceased to exist. Same for Waso the tec. What was called her team at one specific point in time has left her universe. Good riddance. These two were mostly stress anyway.
One more proactive smile at Pandur, to help him overcome his shyness. He seems to be thawing a little, these last couple of days. Would he finally have internalized she’s no fiend, even if she travels with Marian instead of taking the bus? Hope springs eternal. As rings the damn phone.
“Don’t hang up, please, OK? I’m suppposed to be on a diplomatic mission here, and most probably the least qualified person on this whole planet to achieve such a feat, so your contribution to my success is absolutely vital. Promise not to hang up, Zarah, OK?”
It’s Sam of all people, a voice Zarah is certainly not going to forget any time soon. In principle, she would now be supposed to tell him she’s no longer his contact. Once he has downloaded they’re done. No after sales service included for clients, only their ghosts get managed. Clients may book the so called posterior plan, if they insist. As Sam is bound to know.
“Please, Zarah? I’m told this diplomacy thing is supposed to involve some kind of exchange, and you promising not to hang up on me would qualify as a very promising first step. Please?”
The biological Sam is as charming as his ghost. Odu would’t want her to hang up on his fathers boss. Time to make an exception and accept talking to a legacy client.
Would it be permissible to take two anger management breaks in a row? Zarah certainly feels like finding out next, right after being done listening to Sam. He’s calling because he’s sick of Abeo and Marian taking turns to cry on his shoulder. And it’s all her fault. Her reluctance to take their bait is causing his friends grief. So he decided to get things moving. They’ve both no idea he’s calling. Nor are they aware of each other’s initiatives. Obviously, otherwise they would have aligned their recommendations. She’s sure to do perfectly nicely in all kinds of careers, but he’d rather side with Marian’s more solid plan. Her alumni connections and his promise to keep her on the same salary for half the hours, plus help with flight expenses, would that finally provide enough oomph to get her going? For the sake of the mental health of his friends he very much does hope so.
It takes a while for Zarah to achieve some control over her vocal chords. And even longer to build up the courage to use them. She’s terrified to be the next one to cry. And lacks a presentable reason for her reluctance to envisage a career.
Sam does most of the talking, slowly piecing together her reservations by creative trial and error. No, she’s certainly not in love with a coworker she’d miss on leaving her operator job. Yes, overseas does sounds far away. You could call that sort of scary. No, she’s not against women having a profession, why would anyone consider a career a male prerogative? At some point, she can’t take any more of his bullshit and just tells him, why this is all so impossible.
By the end of their phone call she’s resigned to let Sam inform Marian she’s willing to try this university madness, provided they promise never ever to utter one word of blame in case she fails. For whichever reason. By the end of her shift she’s convinced Marian will be mad at her, and terminate their friendship, for not daring to speak up. Still wondering how to slip out unnoticed to catch a bus, she gets fetched by her friend, dragged to the car park and drowned in a heap of ludicrous promises. Sam has done a comprehensive job.
And he keeps it up. Two months later, he drags her to the airport in person, to make sure she doesn’t dash out of her commitment at the very last moment. And now he insists on calling her every single night. Sally, her newest best friend ever, calls him helicopter Sam, because he never gives her any reprieve. As if she needed that kind of support. She’s doing great, in her studies. And a couple of hours of client acquisition per week provide just the right level of distraction, from all that learning. Plus some very welcome pocket money. And unbeatable small talk material.
On some nights, Zarah would love to dare tell Sam to just stop calling. But he’s a bit sensitive, underneath his explosive temper, he’d sure hurt. She doesn’t want that. And he’s the sailing buddy of the BiBo, not to be alienated. Best to let him get away with calling, if that’s what he fancies.
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Side effect warning:
There is tons of 1kYears material.
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A year in the life of Zarah Zavaro, client acquisition operator at 1kYears Ltd, an exclusive IT service provider headquartered in the Mehut Metropolitan Area, continental location to be guessed. Science Fiction, remote respectively near or even imminent future type of. Is the global order going to shift into this direction? How will attitudes to race and sexual orientation evolve? Any chance for computer science to reach this level of virtualisation any time soon?