Category Archives: Words to go

Short stories

Low Score

Low Score

Three hundred and eighty five. 385. Thirty five soccer teams. A train full of adults. How much time would it have taken them? Assuming an average of five hours, it adds up to 1790 hours. Eighty person days. Wasted. Plus her own contribution. Another 10 hours.

Synat shakes her head in disgust. She’s so sick of this quest. The needle in the haystack. The pearl among the pebbles. Something, anything to work on. She should have taken a nap, instead of sifting through this rubbish. Result would have been exactly the same.

In her brighter moments, Synat remembers how this used to be a fun job. Relatively speaking. Pleasure and wage slaving, that’s like spicy bland. But it wasn’t all bad.

„You’re a skilled software developer“ the head hunter said. „With a specialization in targeting. And you like books. The entertaining kind. The ones people buy without second thoughts. Just for the fun of reading them. In this job, you can make the most of all your strengths.“ Synat recalls both the suit, the smell of his after shave and the pitch as if their encounter had happened yesterday.

The proposal sounded attractive. Vague, but interesting. She agreed to engage with a meeting room full of Mmakuko Inc managers. Thought some sense into their very high level project outline. Got herself hired. Dove right in and did her targeting thing.

She was provided with three socioeconomic criteria. Audience must haves, from a marketing point of view. Sufficient numbers. Acceptable purchasing power. Dearth of products.

Combining these requirements with publicly available data on reading habits, Synat compiled a little jewel of a prototype of an analytical tool. The good old days.

They didn’t last long. At first, the downhill motion was gentle. Refining the beta version of her creation against both past beststellers and middle-of-the-road fare involved some tedium. But it was the rewarding kind of drudge. Dig, dig, dig. See the correlations. Get a better idea.

Synat identified three promising target cohorts:

  • Centrist to mildly progressive men with no or little tertiary education, ages twenty to fifty. The nicer kind of football fans, in her private words.
  • Outwardly conformist, closetly anarcho-sarcastic women caring for kids. The momma bitches, to a career-first-no-time-for-family female person.
  • Terminally old seniors of the non-nostalgic persuasion, often house- or even bed-bound due to physical ailments. Proto-zombies, for any younger-than-thirty mind.

To Synat’s surprise and the joyful benefit anticipation of her superiors, her supposedly distinct groups turned out to share a number of preferences:

  • They like their entertainment devoid of graphic violence and explicit adult content. Don’t want to blush in case their spouse, kids or nurse has a look.
  • They sometimes need their hands and eyes for other tasks, or have trouble using limbs or senses in the first place. Content has to be suitable for audio delivery.
  • They cherish protagonists who look, sound and feel familiar. A cast of mostly straight black plain talkers. No racism, homophobia or cultural sense of mission involved. Just familiarity.
  • They appreciate action over contemplation. Plots should proceed at a robust pace. „It needs to keep you awake“, in the words of a proto-zombie interviewed for in-depth understanding.
  • They insist on happy to bittersweet outcomes. Too grown-up for fairy tales and too burdened with challenges in real life, they prefer the middle path.

Synat’s next steps were obvious. Transform this very general understanding of the aggregate target audience into patterns a machine can learn to identify. Build a first, crude benchmarking tool. Test and tweak. Test again and tweak again. Again and again and again.

With hindsight, they weren’t that bad, the later stages of the old days. Felt stressful, at the time. But only for her lack of an idea of real ordeals. If only a whole working life could consist of the stresses of first version development.

Synat recalls how she used to complain. Nearly drove out Lyreetsa, her companion, with her moaning. No sane being should have to monitor the processing of decades of straight couple, good bloke and best friend dialogues. Nor should she be forced to analyze the pleasure patterns involved in football fandom, housekeeping or shopping.

Synat suffered a nervous breakdown. She was diagnosed with acute mainstream pursuit empathy fatigue. Not good. But the money Mmakukos finally found a budget for the two assistants she had been requesting for a year. She pulled herself back together.

One horrible day, Mmakuko management declared her done. They called for files and triggered a deluge. Tens of thousands of potential books by nearly as many authors flooded the servers.

The wall of content. Synat feared for her poor software. Too big a task for such a fragile creation, fresh from the drawing board. To her shock, it performed impeccably. While she was still trying to slow things down, warning about the limitations of an algorithmic approach and arguing for wet vetting, their first local bestseller turned global triumph.

Translations into twenty-six languages followed. Hype all over. The news called Mmakuko the new Wr@z. Lagos was declared THE fiction hotspot. She was called a prodigy. And the dark witch. On social networks, she got stalked by precious few fans and innumerable trolls.

Writers make vicious foes. Good at finding the words that hurt. As if it was her fault, that a lot of newcomers scored high. Which they typically didn’t even do. Not in their initial submissions. They were just more willing than proven authors to read the feedback, adjust and try again.

That’s how it works, with Synat’s Bestsellerator. You submit, it checks. Depending on traffic and submission size, you wait for a couple of minutes. Half an hour at most, at peak times. You find a score in your inbox. Accompanied by suggestions for improvement. You rewrite and resubmit.

Obigele Akwukwo, the author of Mmakuko’s longest running series „Stuck and no go“, readily confesses she had to submit the first episode eleven times, to barely make it into the 90+% range that was considered sufficient in her days. Managed 89% in her seventh round, only to drop back. „Swallow your pride and keep trying“ was her standard advice for novices.

Ninety percent. So little. Synat marvels at the progress she has been privileged to witness. Nowadays, a mere ninety percent is nothing. 99%, that’s the threshold triggering the alarm.

385 alarms, and not one with a clear potential for the 99.9% needed for a conventional publishing slot. Two might have a chance to get e-published, as niche products. Plus three more, if they adapt the cast. Everything else is hopeless. And her software is obsolete.

No more need for a Bestsellerator. If you want good, solid entertainment meeting current audience expectations, only a novelbot will deliver. More reliably. More precisely targeted. Synat provided the foundations, and the world built on them. From assessment to outright creation, a step that was considered impossible in her heydays, proved to be no big deal. The next generation just did it. Her software is obsolete. She’s obsolete.

One more task best performed by artificial intelligence. And once again, humanity will split along the usual lines. Audiences will lap up novelbot output, glad to get exactly what they want. At a competitive price. Obsolete professionals will shriek. And politicians waffle.

„Synat? What are you doing, Synat? Don’t tell me you’re at it, again? Running the Bestsellerator, are you? Synat. We talked about this, Synat. You no longer need to do this. No more home office, Synat, remember? It is all fine without you performing, no problem…“

Lyreetsa. Even the tone of her voice triggers a rage these days. Pretending compassion. Only achieving to sound haughty. Talking like to a stupid deaf person. Loudly. With extra pauses between each and every single word.

Lyreetsa is going to say the new d-word next. Always says d-words. That’s insulting. Completely insane herself. Still insists on writing poetry. Despite all the lyricbots out there, doing it so much better. For all tastes. Lyreetsa is totally mad. And dares calling her d-words.

„Synat, come on now, be a good girl. We will now quit this program, here we go. All is fine and backed-up twice, the way you like it, see? And now we will switch off…“

No way. There is only so much interference Synat is willing to tolerate, for the sake of peace and non-violence. Lyreetsa will not touch her machine. That’s like rape, that is. Hitting out at the unwarranted hand trying to do the forbidden, Synat beats off the assailant.

„Ouch, you bloody bitch. What the hell was that for, Synat? I’m just trying to switch off that damn computer, and you hit me?! Do I need to remind you, again, what Dr. Morales said, about hitting? No hitting. Never no hitting, Synat. If you keep hitting, we will have to move you…“

She goes on and on. Synat won’t deign comment. Pretends not to have heard the d-word. It has by now been mentioned, as she knew it would. But she won’t react. As long as her machine is safe, she endures. It his her fundamental right to assess Bestsellerator submissions. Even if there are so few of them, nowadays, and of such poor quality. A right is a right.

Lyreetsa is still waffling. Poets = waffle. Takes her a couple of minutes to understand they are done talking. Finally beats a muttering retreat and leaves the room. So far, so good.

Once the door is closed, Synat quickly activates her spyware. She might be getting a tad oldish. Her thinking might be slightly less fast and flexible than it used to be. But she’s still clever enough to stay one move ahead of a mere poet. If Lyreetsa dares call an ambulance to have her evacuated to an asylum, she will buy herself time by setting off fire alarms and dash off. Still a couple of tricks up her sleaves, even in pajamas. All hell will break lose if they dare.

But they don’t. Lyreetsa only calls nurse Ramoles: „Ramo“ She always calls her that. Stupid, disrespectful nickname. „Ramo, she’s driving me mad. No, you don’t understand, just let me explain. She has been at it, again. For twelve hours.“ Here we go again. A lie. Can’t even read a watch or count, the traitor. Ten hours. Ten. Not twelve.

„She has been sitting there all day, Ramo. Running that stupid software. She could do anything. Look out the window, watch TV, listen to an audio book. She could knit. They say knitting is very good, against the restlessness associated with dementia.“ And the new d-word again. Synat seriously hates d-words. The old d-word, depression, was bad enough. The new one is worse.

„Pretty quiet activity, knitting. Peaceful. Artisanal. Crafty.“ Poets. Trust them to waffle. The little information there is might be wrong, but never lost for words. Poets…

„She could knit. Bought her wool and needles. Trust her not even to try. Insists on running that stupid software instead. No, Ramo, don’t interrupt me. I know you’re going to say I should let her proceed. As long as she doesn’t burn down the house,… I know, I know, I know. But this is a computer she’s using. And it’s fully connected. You can’t be sure, nor can doctor Morales, that she’s bonkers enough no longer to be able to wreak havoc…“

Twenty years ago, Synat would have held her breath in suspense. Nowadays, she lacks spare respiratory capacity, but excitement she still does feel. Did her ruse work?

„No, Ramo, she’s not that gone. She only pretended no to be aware of the date, or recall her age. That was her at her deceitful best, a trick to be allowed to keep her infrastructure. Don’t you dare call me paranoid, Ramo. I am not, and this is insulting. No, I don’t. „Paranoid behavior“ is exactly the same as „paranoid“. I won’t argue with you, of all people, about words…“

Synat relaxes back into the comfort of her multipurpose day chair. She won. Cool.

A couple of minutes later, she no longer remembers what the fuzz was about. Only recalls a very good feeling. Well worth the effort. Whatever that effort was. It did involve the Bestsellerator. Doing her job. That was vitally important. She has to keep it up. As long as she can.

Ephemerals

Ephemerals

“But there aren’t any. Not one ephemeral. No ephemerals, no non-sapient mobiles, no nothing. Not even non-sapient immobiles. This is just a stupid, empty rock. Homework done, empty rock result duly recorded. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

Norendrum performs the dark energy entity equivalent of holding its breath. If instructor Schwarzberlem doesn’t react, it won’t ask for permission again.

Homework is such a futile invention. Absolute waste of time. There is perfectly no need to progress towards what the instructors call a fully structured state. Norendrum doesn’t share such antiquated notions. It’s a perfectly viable, alternatively structured entity. And longs to go beat Blackantaman now. The opponent is currently leading twelve multiverses to nine. But four of these are so unstable they’re sure to autoterminate on the first shock. Time to win!

“Don’t be stupid, Norendrum. And don’t you even dream of wasting time on that silly game before I have reviewed and accepted your homework. Stop wobbling like that, not prepared to discuss this. You will now focus on this wonderful specimen of alternate matter and record ephemeral activity. Thirty storage units of data, and no debate. Just do it.”

Damn. Instructor Schwarzberlem is such an authoritarian. A real dictator. There is nothing on that bloody rock. Norendrum did check. Twice. One and a half times, at least. Trying for a third time once and for all proves it right. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“There aren’t any. Really now, instructor. Just you check for yourself. Nothing…”

Norendrum would have whined on. It gets cut short by the instructor conjuring up a hole. A pretty big one, spinning menacingly. Swallows two solar systems right away. A dozen more get badly shaken. Instructor Schwarzberlem must be seriously pissed off. Time to climb down.

“OK, OK, got the message. No need to freak out, OK? No, I don’t want to spend a time unit in detention. Yes, I will look at the stupid rock again. If you insist there are ephemerals, I will find ephemerals. Thirty storage units, as you wish. Satisfied now?”

The hole vanishing suggests Norendrum’s surrender was accepted. So far, so good. But how do you find ephemerals on a perfectly empty rock?

Examining the tiny ball once again, much more closely, Norendrum does notice the rocky surface comes in variations. Solid rock. Ground rock. Liquid rock. The solid rock comes in variants. Some of them displaying surprisingly regular patterns.

This was supposed to be important. A sign of something. You had to ask yourself something, on encountering patterns. It was a word with an A. Artistic? No, longer. Arithmetical? No, too easy. The concept in question was far more complicated.

Artificial. Artifacts. Regular patterns in a rocky surface signal it was treated, by something forcing it into a specific shape. Artifacts signal a cavi…, a cera…, a civilization.

Ephemerals, if left to their own devices, form a civilization that litters the surface of a planet with artifacts. Finding artifacts does not necessarily imply the ephemerals are still around. They come and go. They are mostly gone, really. Both individually and at the aggregate level. But if you find artifacts there is a chance of them crawling around. Worth a look.

Norendrum tries to recall the instruction. Hopeless. It didn’t pay attention. There were no resources available, to focus on irrelevant information perfectly retrievable from a library.

Of late, Norendrum has started to experience sudden pattern reconfigurations. Like your whole you shifting inside out. And back again. Feels awesome. Awesomely bad. And imaging what it must look like, to others, makes you feel even worse. That’s far more important than stupid rocks supposed to crawl with hard to identify ephemerals.

The library. Norendrum hates the idea. Doing research to find out how to perform the homework, on top of the actual exercise, that’s more waste of more precious time. On the other hand…

Instructor Schwarzberlem is not exactly known for empty threats. More like the opposite, really. And ending up in detention would provide Blackantaman with a chance to fiddle with their ongoing game. Being confined inside a hole cuts you off, from everything.

Norendrum gawps at the recorded instruction. What the quantum state? If this weird crap is true, ephemerals are walking bags of liquid rock. Infinitely small blobs of liquid rock.

This is real hard. This is impossible. Norendrum tangles its perceptive waves so thoroughly it momentarily destructures. That’s not working. Not at all.

But there was something. Not a perception yet. More like a shadow of a hint of one.

Intrigued, Norendum tries again. Bloody quantum leaps. Lots. Lots and lots, and lots more. The rock is swarming with ephemerals, in some places. Most of them are so impossibly minuscule the little rock must feel like overwhelmingly huge to them.

There is a bigger one. That size is easier to study. And the shape is more familiar, too. One has one’s expectations, when it comes to sapients. What they should look like. A proper sapient needs an identifiable wave structure. Norendrum doesn’t mind aliens, but there are limits. Even to weirdness.

Fascinating, to imagine how ephemerals just like this one achieved to create all the civilization artifacts. Must be hard, to conjure limbs out of liquid rock.  This is still stupid homework, but Norendrum feels some of the pride of the true explorer.

Twenty two storage units on the ephemeral it now calls BigWave, that should be sufficient. Less than thirty, but close enough. The other two instructees will have failed to perceive the ephemerals. Norendrum should be on the safe side.

“Schwarzberlem? I’m done, Schwarzberlem. Found the ephemerals, recorded a bucketful of how they behave, all done. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

The instructor must be busy. No answer. Still none. This waiting sucks. Still no reply. Ask again? No. No need. We’ve got universal perception. Still no response. That’s a permission. No answer is as good as an explicit permission, for all practical purposes.

“Detention? Me? But you can’t, Schwarzberlem, it’s not fair, I was just…”

It takes a resentful Norendrum a while to notice it has already been cut off.

This is all so unfair. First Blackantaman beating it at multiverses. Five to six. It had been leading seven to six, until the very last moment. That last trick, the tackling, that was practically cheating. Even if it doesn’t count as such.

Next Schwarzberlem’s reprimand, for playing without permission. Even though Norendrum did ask. Loud and clear, for all interested parties to hear. If they were interested. Norendrum argued, of course. Pleaded lack of fairness and seemed well on its way to swaying the instructor.

Until the choleric despot looked at the homework.

Such a perfectly suitable piece, and nearly long enough. But judged insufficient. Just because BigWave turns out to be a non-sapient surface structure supposed to be called a “river”.

OK, point taken, minor details do count, in homework. BigWave is not one of the ephemerals after all, had no part in creating the civilization. OK. But it’s made of pretty much exactly the same weird stuff as the ephemerals. That should count.

“That’s it. I won’t have you dare talk back to me like this. You stay right in there and recconsider.”

Those were the last words Norendrum heard, for a couple of time units.

Currently, it’s pondering to rid the universe of ephemerals. Once it gets out, it will do something, about the pests. It was all their fault, after all. Calls for revenge.

Truck Stop

„What do you mean, exactly, by ‘Not available’? What kind of joke is this supposed to be? Now just let me tell you one thing: Not funny. Just do look at this shelf. How many ‘Not available’ stickers are there? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? One hundred and twenty?

I mean, last week, there was the odd one, handwritten. I got that joke, more or less. I mean, I was the one eating pizza instead of burger. I would have preferred burger, I’m very much a meat person. But OK, you don’t always get what you want. And my girlfriend liked the pizza better. OK.

But today, that’s no longer funny. How many of those stickers did you get printed? Do they come by the sheet, or on a roll? How do you think you are going to survive, if you keep the shelves empty? A shop, that’s for selling stuff, man, not for joking.

And, far more importantly: How the hell am I supposed to survive? Do you really expect anyone to dine on, what does it say here? ‘Caramelised pepperoni’? What the hell is that, anyway? So, tonight’s dinner would be ‘caramelised pepperoni’ with ‘corn wafers, salted’? That’s no longer a joke, man, that’s asking to go out of business…”

Sarcasm alarm. Marcelo is by now well aware of the three types of reaction. His customers might be numerous and look diverse, but their coping strategies add up to a total count of three.

His favourite is of course stoical resilience. They come, don’t find whatever they are looking for, buy whatever is left, thank him for keeping it up, and are gone. That’s good. Rewarding.

Nervous breakdown isn’t as nice, but bearable. Only the sobbing creates a bit of a disturbance. Especially since he ran out of tissues. As toilet paper, napkins and all the other cellulose products are also long gone, he can only offer a rag to snort into. It’s wet from multiple use, and that creates additional sorrow. A bit messy. But overall, Marcelo can handle nervous breakdown. Especially since he started to use earplugs to dim down the shrieking.

Only sarcasm is bad. Each round has him wonder why exactly he’s still here, not making money from his mostly empty shop. He’s not staying for lack of options. He could move in with great aunt Rosalia and wait it out on the farm. Her cellar is full. If it wasn’t for her rapidly dwindling stock of antihypertensive drugs, she would be living as comfortably as last month.

The sarcasm is in his forties and pretty tall. Standing at at least 1.70 m. More like 1.75 m, probably. Not very bulky. His checkered shirt fits loosely, hiding details. But his jeans are kept up by a large belt squeezing surplus waistline upwards. He’s most probably no gym addict, and certainly no martial arts master. Good.

Marcelo wouldn’t be left standing, as one of the last open shops in the greater Nalsero area, without his optimism. No need to jump to conclusions, no need to for action yet. The conciliatory approach might still work. And so he goes:

“Totally with you, mister, totally with you. Would love to have more stuff to sell, absolutely. Had lentils, and lentils only, for three days in a row myself. It all sucks, absolutely with you. Praying for them to get things up and running again. To the Virgin. Every night. Fervently.”

Marcelo fells zero guilt, for omitting the onions that went with the lentils. And the Barbera. A quarter of the bottle went into the stew, the rest into their glasses. Minor deviation. The third dinner aspect was true enough. His wife even joked, that she never meant it like that, when she used to praise lentil stew as something she could ‘spend her live dining on’.

The sarcasm hesitates. The look on his face doesn’t bode well. That’s how you glance at your opponent in an assumed right of way conflict. Except you would be in your respective cars. And well protected by the software of your vehicles knowing best. Whereas they are standing less than a meter apart. The sarcasm makes a show of frowning, before stating, loudly:

“You’ve got a storeroom back there, don’t you? That’s where you hide the other stuff, right? How much is it, for a burger, these days? Let me guess that rate: Twenty Euros? No? Twenty five? Thirty? You think you know I can’t pay that kind of rate, and you don’t even ask me, right?”

There comes a point where insisting on optimism turns into stupidity. It has only been three weeks, but Marcelo knows how this exchange has to end. Action us necessary. For the sake of all the other clients. Also provides a little relief, from his own tension. He nods:

“Sure, mister, let’s go have a look, shall we? Please do have a good, thorough look. And feel free to pick whatever you fancy. I’ll make you a good price, a very good price. After you, mister, I’ll be right behind you. PIN is 2025, please do go ahead and enter it. The door will click open.”

This sarcasm is as clever as his twenty six predecessors. At an average of more than one per day, Marcelo doesn’t fail to notice it’s not exactly the IQ top scorers he’s dealing with.

The sarcasm walks where told, keys in the PIN, pulls open the door and steps right through. Zero hesitation. No wondering about why he should lead the way. No noticing of Marcelo’s right hand clutching something underneath his grey-blue franchise coat.

The reality of the storeroom, total emptiness except for a forklift with an empty palette parked right next to the door, hits the sarcasm at the same time as Marcelo’s taser. Sagging down with a sound that starts as an angry scream and ends on a miserable whimper, he’s reduced to watch the shop owner scotching up his mouth, arms and legs.

Marcelo’s secret, how he manages to stay open, is an army grade stun gun. Not the kiddie stuff openly sold for self protection. His device does serious paralysing. A cousin working as a refugee containment centre guard found a spare one in the armoury, in exchange for a crate of brandy. Takes an adult man of average build five minutes to recover his senses. Plenty of time to wrap up the package, heave it onto the palette, drive it outside and dump it next to the waste containers.  One little ‘one more’ text message to the neighbourhood militia, blessed be their practically minded sense of self help and organisation, and gone is the problem.

Marcelo is aware the next steps are a bit rough. The package will spend a couple of uncomfortable hours on the back of an e-quad. Once the driver reaches a scenic spot on the coast, where tourists hopefully will picnic again next summer, it will be unloaded. It will be told never to be a neighbourhood nuisance again. Depending on the militia member on duty, this telling might involve a little beating. Or a couple of kicks.

In the absence of most public and private transport, there is no common back. For the time being. Once normality is restored, all exiled sarcasms will of course be welcomed back. They will all have a good laugh. There won’t be no grudges. All is well that ends well.

Adjusting his earplugs, for better protection against the wailing of a particularly noisy nervous breakdown, Marcelo would appreciate normality to be restored soon. It’s really getting tedious, this disruption. Never has a malware attack been known to cause that much damage.

On the news, they said some people in some regions are so desperate for supplies, they are starting to search the scrap yards for vehicles with actual steering wheels. Human driving! Doesn’t get much worse, public hazard wise. They had thousands of casualties, in the bad old days. Besides, and on a more practical note, there’s no petrol. Even if anyone would be willing to risk their lives reactivating some of these monsters, there’s nothing to fill the tank.

Marcelo is confident the nerds will find a way to restore logistics. That’s what they are paid for. And much more than he’ll ever make. The nerds will manage. A continent wide network of autonomous electric vehicles, can’t be that hard to reconfigure and reboot.

Marcelo would appreciate the nerds to speed up their act. Touching this soggy rag is disgusting. And he’d rather have a burger for dinner. He’s also down to his last sheet of ‘Not available’ stickers. Impossible to print new ones.

Mental note for the future: Always have a spare printer cartridge ready. You never know how long the next downtime is going to last.

Dralala-ping

“Dralala-ping, dralala-toc-toc, drala…”

“Francis, do turn that phone off. Unless you are keen to get yourself fired. Private phones to be turned off at all times. Ever heard of that rule? Now is the time to stick to it. Or you’re gone. Fired, as in sacked. Got me? And off, as in not on. Not ringing. Got me?”

Baudoin doesn’t sound annoyed. The lead mechanic took up meditation ten years ago. In rehab. After what his doctors insisted on calling his first heart attack. He also lost weight and quit smoking. These two improvements didn’t stick. He’s back to his naturally bulging blob shape. And to puffing. Even though you have to walk for what feels like half your break to reach the one and only remaining smoker’s corner. But Baudoin is zen. At all times. He will look and sound exactly the same, whether he asks for a wrench or gives you the sack.

Francis utters the customary, only subliminally ironic “Yes, boss, sir”. A mechanic doesn’t contradict the master of the private jet maintenance hangar. He also ostentatiously switches off his phone, before stuffing it back into the breast pocket of his overalls. Stupid boss. Stupid job. Stupid everything. Denying a man the slightest tiny crumb of pleasure, them who call the shots are.

He’s of course well aware he’s only got himself to blame. It wasn’t Baudoin who installed the ConStop app on his phone, and connected it to the sensor wristband. It was him.

Originally, it was Sophie’s idea. “We need to save, otherwise we’ll never escape renting” she said. “No house, no family” she added. Francis immediately stocked up on quality condoms. The higher the stakes, the more solid the motivation.

Two weeks later, he installed the app anyway. Has been dreaming of a Hurfay Robinson bike for years. This clever little piece of software will help him realize his ambition.

Customizing ConStop required more than a bit of effort. Francis’ first attempt failed. He started the process in the half time break of the UEFA semi finals. Bad idea. He wasn’t done by the time the game resumed. Nearly missed Lyon’s second goal. He needed a longer slot.

Sophie once again proved helpful, as she occasionally can be. Her enthusiasm for the Eurovision Song Contest provided him with the perfect opportunity. She was so glad he agreed to watch this, a first, she didn’t even notice he wasn’t playing his usual shooter game.

That’s because the customization process is quiet. And pretty simple, too.

You download and install the app. You connect it to your wristband. The very same you use to track and publish your gym prowess.

Next, you browse the internet according to the instructions: “Search for one item you love, and then for one you loathe.” And again: “One you love, one you loathe.” Not really hard, just time consuming. You keep it up until the app signals “Done”.

From that moment on, you save. The first couple of days are a bit rough, but it does the trick. Each time an advert, or a shopfront display, or even a canteen tale, each time anything triggers an urge to buy something, the wristband does notice. It sets off the specific alarm and stops you.

“Dralala-ping, dralala-toc-toc” goes your phone. You have to get it out and walk yourself through a questionnaire.

“Please name the item you consider buying, without using brands”. You actually have to type in the answer. That’s the toughest part. If it’s a pair of Qyle on display, you tend to think “Qyle”. Not “Sneakers”. Quite some reflecting involved. And the typing comes on top.

Luckily, it gets easier from there on. Next, the app will ask “Please do explain how buying… (sneakers, in the Qyle example) will improve your life.” Sounds pretty bad, but this stage is multiple choice. And you’re allowed to pick more than one answer, too.

The app typically lists five pretty good reasons. Plus an “Other” option. Here, you will have to type once more. In the fortunately rare case of not having been provided with a valid rationale.

In the last ConStop sequence, your reasoning will be challenged.

Francis does love this part. Especially in audio mode. He took care to select the sexy female voice. Listening to his ConStop guardian angel always sends him phantasising. He forgets about any potentially desirable items, even before considering her extremely sound advice.

The ConStop app changed his life. For the better. The nerd he met at the sports bar called him an imbecile, for providing an obscure company with a heap of data. As if he wasn’t aware of this aspect. But, honestly, it’s not exactly a secret he likes to get laid. And fancy bikes. And flashy cars. Why would he hide this kind of information? He’s not the central bank. Or some secret service.

The only problems with ConStop are of the interactive kind.

Like when Sophie, who also uses the app, doesn’t fail to notice his alarm won’t go off on seeing wedding dresses. Or prams. Or real estate adverts. They’re not in perfect sync, to put it mildly. Not a big deal, though. They won’t last forever anyway. There’s even the odd chance the Dralala-ping gap might contribute to lessen the blow once they are done. Less of a scene is always welcome.

His phone greeting a picture of his bloke Henry’s boat with an enthusiastic chime was worse. He would have preferred to nonchalantly pretend zero interest. Henry suddenly inheriting a second house, even though he already owns his residence, that wasn’t fair in the first place. Not a good bloke kind of thing to do. Selling it to be able to afford a sports car and a boat made perfect sense. But you would still prefer it to happen to yourself.

And it’s Henry’s fault he got into trouble today. His invitation to give the boat a try this weekend made him check the weather forecast. No harm done, he had to wait for the auto-diagnostic tool to run its course anyway. Turned on his phone for just this one second it takes to look at the weather app. But they had to place an advert for a Hurfay Robinson next to the sunny forecast. Bad luck.

Virtual Voices

Don’t you worry, miss Basil, this is just a plug. It’s perfectly ordinary. Just like the ones for electricity. This one is for oxygen, as it says on the label. And the one next to it, that’s for air. Nothing to worry about, miss Basil. And some patients need it, too.“

Here they go again. Would this be round eight? Or twelve? The solidly built nurse with the jolly good temper not hiding her burn out has to explain the function of the plug. Whenever she enters the room. For whichever purpose. Miss Basil, the patient in the bed next to the window, is convinced to hear a voice. She identified the oxygen plug as the source. Demands to have it sealed. Miss Chole watches from the opposite bed. She tried and failed to keep count of the exchanges. Her side the room lacks the customary TV. She gets to watch miss Basil instead.

And what a well of entertaining anomalies the lady is. Used to be on antipsychotics. When she arrived on the ward, a young lady doctor tried to talk her into resuming the medication. A non-starter. According to miss Basil, these terrible drugs cause constipation. Makes them contraindicated in her case. She had to be admitted in emergency mode because of an inert bowel. She’s certainly not going to swallow anything bound to further worsen her condition. The valiant doctor tried to point out that making do without the antipsychotic didn’t exactly improve her gastrointestinal status, meaning resumption of administration might be harmless. Nice try.

Miss Basil didn’t even deign reply. Her fierce look signalled clearly enough what would happen if anyone tried to force her ever to take that stuff again. And who would want to send a thin little lady crying? Especially one with a hump. She’s enough of a mess already.

The long dark brown hair of a girl frames a greyish-white face so stuck in perpetual resentment you assume she’s going to start sobbing any second. Small wonder, with her biography.

Over meals, miss Basil insists on divulging tons of personal details. After an unspecified career as a studied musician she has been on disability benefits for twenty years. Left the work force because of bulimia aggravated by an addiction to tranquillisers. An expensive combination. To make ends meet, she had to develop kleptomania on top. She readily describes how she used to list her food and drug expenses, juxtaposed to the savings generated by her shoplifting. Sounds proud to have been such a bad girl, right until she fell seriously ill.

Her new career as a professional patient started last year. First, she broke a vertebra. The incident left her with the hump, and a catastrophic prognosis. The orthopaedic team told her this wouldn’t be her last fracture. Her chronic malnutrition had caused osteoporosis. High time to start eating properly, if she wanted to escape the wheelchair.

Miss Basil dutifully proceeded as told, only to discover she couldn’t. Her misused stomach had slipped through a hole in her diaphragm. To get fit for the recommended surgery, she had to wean herself of the tranquilizers. This involved a couple of weeks in a mental health institution, where they put her on antipsychotics. The stomach relocation surgery went well, in principle. She has regained her ability to eat. But her bowels don’t move. Hence the readmission.

Having discovered her former way of life harmed her body, Miss Basil currently plans an autobiography. For the benefit of girls tempted by pro anorexia groups. She used to get praised for her nicely crafted letters, she’s bound to make an excellent writer. Unfortunately, she’s an offline person. Without access to any computer, never mind the internet. When miss Chole suggested to start with a blog, to check if there is an audience for one more bulimia book, she drew a blank.

In the specific context of having to spend three days with three strangers, Miss Basil is a treat.

So was the young lady with the baby. A nurse working at this same hospital, currently supposed to enjoy maternity leave. Stupid timing, to come down with appendicitis when your youngest kid is a mere eight months old. Both fellow patients and staff got enrolled to provide distraction. Making stupid noises and fetching diapers can be quite entertaining, in the absence of any alternative.

The lady with the baby was soon replaced by a half day stand. Miss Dalton arrived at 10 am to be gone again by 11 pm, after a tiny procedure. She’s seriously stressed. Not because of her surgery. That’s just one more minor inconvenience. Same as the acute hearing loss she suffered two weeks ago. Neither fun nor problem. What really gets her down is trouble with her senile dad. He used to be in a care home. Had to be hospitalised four weeks ago. Now he refuses to be returned to his residence. Insists on living with one of his three daughters instead. They offered to sponsor domestic help. Or a better care home. He turned vitriolic in response. Big mess.

Same for miss Aderbeen. Three tubes connected to her body, as opposed to just one for the other three patients. This makes her the resident intensive care case. But that’s not her problem. She would be perfectly able to cope with a little hysterectomy. What stresses her out is her stupid SIM card. The devilish device chose this most inopportune of days to fail her. First her PIN didn’t get accepted. Then the husband she called for help failed to find the PUK. When he finally called back, after thirty agonising minutes, the PUK malfunctioned as well. And he’s on laxatives because of a gastroscopy scheduled for the next day. He can’t drive over to bring the spare phone. Calamity.

“Don’t you hear it? I admit it’s faint. It’s barely audible above the noise from the TV. But it’s there all right. It very clearly states ‘you should have gotten yourself a family, now you will die all alone and lonely’. Over and over. If perhaps we used one of your chewing gums, to fill the plug? This should shut it up.” Miss Basil glances longingly at miss Chole’s busy jaws.

One can’t just damage hospital property to boost the mood of a roommate. But upsetting someone who insists on hearing voices doesn’t feel like a recipe for a peaceful night, either. Miss Chole takes her time to come up with a carefully calibrated response.

“We can’t do that. It probably wouldn’t help anyway. I can’t hear the voice now, whereas you obviously can. Chances are it will stay that way. Chewing gum is supposed to provide lousy sound insulation.” That last sentence, uttered with the confidence of a subject matter expert, does the trick. For the moment. Miss Basil discards the chewing gum option and resumes staring at the oxygen plug. The peace won’t last. Some sustainable distraction is needed.

Miss Darbun, the late night arrival who inherited miss Dalton’s bed, shouldn’t be on this pelvic surgical ward. Her migraine clearly identifies her as a neurological case. Officially, she’s in attendance because this was the only empty slot available at short notice. Informally, anyone familiar with the concept of bariatric surgery for extreme adiposity assumes her presence is a subtle joke, courtesy of the A&E shift. She’s fat. And turns out to be clever, on top.

„Can’t you tell the idiot in your oxygen plug a third of women make do without a family? They are statistically more prone to happiness than their more fecund counterparts. I mean, I don’t hear that voice. But if anyone dared throw this kind of bullshit at me, I would sure tell him to stuff it. Or go ask my fiancé, about how to lead a happy sex life. Without adding to overpopulation.“

A short period of silence ensues.

Miss Aderbeen is neither used to foul language, nor to speaking up against it. Her husband takes care of this type of incidents.

Miss Basil recalls one of her eating disorder therapy groups. Adipose girls are supposed to use their body fat as a shield, to fend of intimacy. No one mentioned fiancés in their context.

Miss Chole ponders recruiting miss Darbun for a stand against the crucifix on the wall and the big fat black bible in each cupboard. This is a municipal hospital, not some church venue. If the fat lady is as ruthless a feminist as her remark suggests, there could be a revolt in the making.

The silence doesn’t last long enough for any of the patients to come up with an initiative.

„Siri would like to meet the oxygen plug. Sounds like a soulmate. And there is no such thing as overpopulation, as far as humans are concerned. You folks just do go vegan, and you’ll be fine. What you need to watch is the European anopheles swarms. Don’t do anything about that very real overpopulation, you’ll succumb to malaria by the millions. Talking of feeding habits: My charger needs to be plugged in. Just mentioning, in case you want to watch the evening news later on.“

Miss Basil collapses in a sob of joy. This voice is much louder than the one from the oxygen plug it just confirmed. A hospital cupboard is an unusual source, but who cares? And all three ladies very obviously heard it. Never again will she get talked into taking antipsychotics.

Miss Chole makes a mental note to discreetly remove her iPhone 10 from the cupboard the next time miss Basil disappears for one of her unsuccessful toilet breaks. The latest Siri version does get a bit uppity, at times. But you have to admit it’s far more versatile than its predecessors.

Mad old bark

Again?! Bloody pests, why can’t they just go easy, for a change? Indigestion guaranteed, with them around. There can be too much of a good thing. Food aplenty is good in principle. Makes you grow big and strong. But overshooting four seasons in a row, that’s an aberration. Mour feels obscene. Waking up to this kind of trunk expansion should be prohibited. Time to do something about this disaster. It has lasted far too long already. Shouting should help. A proven remedy, against all kinds of nuisances. But only in the presence of an audience.

“Veira? Iscas? Li? Anyone around? You lot turned mute, or what? What kind of bloody cycle is this? And why do I wake up to yet another binge? This was supposed to be ephemeral, right? Li, you promised it wouldn’t last much longer. Well, it ephemeral-my-root-rot does. So what now? Any ideas, anyone?” Mour feels the hot flush of indignation rushing through his bulky shape. That’s an advantage, of boom times. Surplus food allows you to get real angry.

“Relax, Mour. Shouting won’t help. Yes, the bloody nuisances are still around. Even more of them than in the last season, by the feel of it. So what? Let’s look at the bright side. At least we’re not going to starve, right? As long as we’re standing, we’re just fine. It’s pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Them going to such lengths to feed us? Who’d have thought. Valuable learning, in my opinion. For when we try again. Or if ever we need to survive seriously lean times. We just kick these off once aga…” Li would have gone on, in the cheerful way of the seriously senile.

Except Mour won’t have it. If there is one irritation he hates even more than being force fed second helpings on waking up, it’s unwarranted optimism. He cuts in: “Shut up, Li. I’m not in that kind of mood. Yes, we can and will survive this. We always do. No, that’s not enough. You’re old, you don’t understand. You’ve had plenty of properly balanced seasons to enjoy. But me, I’m young. I’ve had enough. I want a life. I want them disbanded, now. That’s the fourth season, Li. The fourth! In a row! This stupid experiment has lasted long enough. Triggering sentience in bipeds was a bad idea. A very bad idea. Our ancestors thought these would do better than the octopeds. Well, they don’t. Plain fact, case closed. Now we need to get rid of them. How do we do it?”

Li sighs. One is supposed to enjoy the presence of youngsters. But this particular juvenile has a talent for ruining what would otherwise be a perfectly nice season. Important not to shout back, though. He will have to spend his precious few remaining cycles in this hot tempered company. This calls for a didactical approach: “Glad to hear your vigor, Mour. You’re  right, the bipeds are a bit of a nuisance. But extermination, that’s not how we do things. One intervention on the mobiles every one thousand cycles, that’s the maximum the rules allow. And rightly so. These experiments need to run their course. Takes a while, to get a clear picture. Even with such a short lived species. You need to observe a lot of generations. The bipeds seemed to be going strong, not so long ago. Looked pretty sustainable, despite their upgraded brains. Not harmless, but susta…”

Mour won’t let a doddery senior interfere with his urge to kill: “Li! I’m not attending this party to talk science, for a wet heavens sake! I asked you how to get rid of the pests. If there is a rule against it, there must be a way. How is it done? What’s the trick?” Mour is curious now. Living in such a small group dominated by seniors is a tough fate for a young sentience. But there are nuggets of wisdom buried underneath the progressing dementia. The parties are much better on the other hill, where over two hundred kids celebrate their second birthday. Whereas here, you get a chance to learn things. All wisdom accumulated over the generations is of course accessible to all of them. But it takes many seasons to make sense of it. Li must be over forty. At least. He knows stuff.

“Did you guys even notice how the shoreline seems to have changed, again? Is that the waves rumbling closer, or what? Li, hate to interfere with your lecture, but this is an emergency. We’re still out of reach of the waves, yes please?” Iscas is tense, expecting the worst. His attention is fully focused on the Atlantic Ocean bashing the feet of their low cliff.

Hearing this shaky voice, Li recalls how nervous a kid Iscas used to be. Even before he got hurt in a thunderstorm. Happened when he was eight. Now he’s approaching twenty, and a penchant for a carefully measured approach has turned into an outright anxiety disorder. The ocean is down there, they are up here. No problem. Except… Li checks his sensors again. Mighty meteorite! There is a problem in the making, after all. Not with the shoreline. But underneath. Salt water is infiltrating the ground. Couple of cycles down, this could indeed cause trouble. Lethal trouble. Not for Li himself, he has grown his course. But the others better enjoy the good times while they last. Should he warn them? Rather not. Mour would waste the remaining seasons on shouting, Iscas on tearful screams. Not an attractive prospect, for an unaffected bystander. Would the imminent danger jolt Veira out of his sulk? He decided never to talk to them again five cycles ago, after one more row over the frequency of apocalyptic solar eclipses. Statistics and probabilities, they really get Veira going. He’s a mere thirty eight, but very convinced of his intellectual superiority.

“Li, I’m talking to you! And it’s not just me. Iscas raised a question, too. If we’re not allowed to exterminate the bipeds, is there at least a way to reconfigure them, to stop them stuffing us? I can feel your patterns, Li, you’re holding back. That’s not fair, not to share knowledge.” Mour pushes the one button than works on the oldie. Appealing to his fairness should do the trick.

Li is glad the shore issue has been sidelined. To keep the conversation on the bipedal pest track, he decides to grant his young companions a glimpse of their might: “It’s of course possible to reprogram the bipeds. They’re DNA based, like all live forms. And they like to eat our fruit. Perfectly easy, to introduce a DNA altering agent. We sent them brainy, we can of course switch them back. Some of them. That’s the problem, Mour. The clever ones tend to survive. Once you’ve triggered sentience in one kind of mobiles, you have to wait it out, preferred option. Or to induce intelligence in the next kind, hazardous plan b option. Let’s say, for example, we decided to upgrade the biwings currently nesting in your crown, Mour. It would be pretty easy, to turn them more clever than the bipeds. And their generational rhythm is even faster. Shouldn’t take them more than a couple of cycles, to replace the bipeds as the dominant species. But they’ll probably fuck up, too, in the longer run. That’s the problem, with mobiles. They can’t handle sentience…”

Mour cuts in once again: “You’re kidding, Li, aren’t you? These little tweep tweeps, they can’t possibly be turned intelligent? They would never be able to handle an upgrade. Wouldn’t know what to make of it. What’s so funny, why you’re laughing?”

Li calms down to answer: “See, Mour, that’s the whole point. That’s why we do it. It’s interesting. You can’t anticipate what they’ll make of it. Not even a mighty statistician like Veira here can tell you in advance what the civilization of a particular species of mobiles will look like. It’s so creative. The ultimate art. For example, the octopeds, most guys daring a prognosis would have guessed…”

The breeze is on once again, the early morning lull is over. A bright sunshine day, not one cloud on the horizon. Even the mighty Atlantic waves seem to be rolling in more gently than usual. So peaceful. Such a contrast to Li’s tale. Apogees of vice and violence characterized the Tarantulean. The octoped civilization went after everything. Each other. Other species. On and off planet. Exterminated a full eighty percent of life forms, before they were brought down by a virus they had engineered as a biological weapon. Only minuscule shadows of their former selves, dumbed down and harmless, grace the planet these days. Good riddance.

Li enjoys himself. What a wonderful cycle. Lecturing the kids is his favorite pastime. One of the last remaining pleasures past middle age. And the Tarantulean was at least an interesting period. Totally different scale of entertainment. Rooting through the records of the octoped exploits as compiled by generations of diligent chroniclers, Li once again regrets to have grown in the wrong era. The bipeds are so boring. Not even achieving space travel. Nor making any serious attempts at living underground or underwater. Just crawling the surface in ever greater numbers. Plain boring lack of ambition. All mobiles turn vicious, once endowed with intelligence. Seems to be an eternal rule of nature. So be it. But they should at least strive to make it an interesting kind of vice. But the bipeds are just boring. Like the ones that come trampling up the hill.

“Dad, there is a sign. Can you read the sign, dad? Is that Portuguese, dad? What does it say?” The kid has reached the top of the cliff ahead of his parents and longs for anything to disrupt the tedious hiking routine. Nothing but stupid landscape to look at for at least an hour, that’s not a holiday, that feels like a punishment. They could at least have put up some interactive educationals, to make up for nothing of interest ever happening here.

Dad has put out his smart phone to make sense of the sign and provides clarification: “Yes, Darek, this is Portuguese indeed. But only the second part, the explanation. The first bit is Latin. ‘Oliva Europea’ is the Latin name of the olive tree. Wow, now look at this, who’d have thought? The tree in the middle, the big one, it has been carbon dated to at least 1,960 years. Two thousand years old, can you imagine? This tree was here before Columbus set sail for America. Wow!”

His wife cuts in, slightly impatient: “Never mind Columbus, darling, you’ll only end up confusing the boy. What daddy meant to say, Darek, is that this tree witnessed the time of Cesar, when the Romans ruled Europe. Like in your comic book, you know?”

Dad is glad for the search engine once again assisting with dignity preservation. It’s his role to introduce his son to science as he’s perfectly able to perform: “It also says here that there seems to be more to the humble olive tree than the banal appearance suggests. With something called a PCR method they have discovered that the trees undergo subtle genetic changes. Every thirty five years, their metabolism speeds up and a peculiar pattern occurs. This tree being 1,960 years old, the pattern will have happened 56 times. And guess what, it’s on now.”

The boy dutifully looks at the trees once again. Nothing happening. Boring. He longs to get back to their holiday apartment. There is an old computer with a wicked game. You get to kill huge spiders.

Inside the box

“It’s no worse than an office or a cubicle, Elisa. Will you stop making a fuzz? People were upset, when the first open space workplaces appeared, you know? Saw a documentary about this. One day the workers had each their own office. The next they were assigned cubicles, in a large common room. They suddenly were confronted to each other. Some made a fuzz.”.

Noticing the lack of affirmative response, Sharifa raises her voice: “Why am I telling you this, Elisa? Why talk about offices and cubicles? To remind you that you’ve got a perfectly nice job, of course. Now you go do it. The working conditions are fine. You said so yourself. You told me about the health & safety inspection. You mentioned the certificate confirming everything is in good order. What more do you want? Don’t try telling me you’d prefer to live on basic universal…”.

Elisa, still standing in front of the building, does hate it. Them. Everything. The building, for being her workplace. The raindrops on her glasses, for impeding her vision. The augmented reality feed is all blurred, too. She also hates the rain as such, for making a bad morning even worse. This should be a special day. And the plug inside her left ear, she hates that one, too. For delivering unwelcome encouragement. And Sharifa… No, not Sharifa. She’s not a problem, she’s a solution. Even if she currently sounds like one more mistake. Sharifa is an improvement, compared to her former flat mate. Polymeros, he was a disaster.

Elisa would love to be good at words. Why is it so hard, for Sharifa, to understand she can’t keep doing this? This so called job is an aberration. It’s inhumane, to spent your days at the mercy of weird people. Offices? Cubicles? As if this was just another call center. Some vile clients enjoy their flat rate subscriptions with the RHHB, the Regional Health and Happiness Board. HH as in haha. The acronym is the perfect misrepresentation of average employee job satisfaction.

At the other end, Sharifa takes a deep breath. Freaking out won’t work. She has to play this cool. Slouching on a bean bag chair, vintage 2012, she takes a sip from the replica one-way coffee-to-go cup before resuming the pep talk. Elisa can be so… complicated. Two hours ago, her flat mate stood up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, summoned a commutopod, folded herself into the guaranteed harassment free mono compartment and rolled off, without one single complaint. Now that she’s there, right in front of her workplace, she starts arguing. Stupid. No wonder she wasn’t considered viable for any more intellectual occupation.

“What’s not to like, Elisa? It’s safe, it’s inside, it’s technology-driven, it’s hygienic,… Your job delivers good marks on pretty much any scales anyone can come up with. Just think of the poor field scavengers following the harvesters. They at least have a reason to complain. Even your hours are good. Every fourth week. When you’re on the 08:00 to 14:00 shift. As you are now. As I hopefully won’t need reminding you. Please look at the watch in your glasses to check, if you don’t believe me. And while you’re at it, please do notice you’re running out of time. If you keep idling in front of that building, you will have to dress up at speed. Don’t you come home moaning about how you had to endure a crease in the gear pinching you mad for six hours…”.

Sharifa trails off again. Sarcasm doesn’t work, on Elisa. She needs a gentle hand. Gentle, but firm. Even for the early shift, the most harmless of the four. Most roboes, as RHHB staff call themselves, are quite comfortable with the early shift. It’s mainly about exercise and shopping, interspersed with a bit of wellness and very few odd requests. Late shifts are far more rowdy. And only the most seasoned and thick skinned employees manage to handle a full week on one of the night shifts without resorting to doping. Antidepressants, mostly.

Sharifa sits up to have another go at exhortations when the little dot on the monitor wall starts moving again. And in the right direction, too. Five more meters. Up the stairs. This is the lock. Hurrah, Elisa is inside. A major milestone. All is not yet won, though. She could still turn around and call it quits. As long as she’s not geared up and plugged in, escape is possible.

This is exactly what Elisa is thinking about, wandering through the hall to reach the elevator. But you don’t get out without an interview. If you try to leave before having performed according to the shift schedule, you will have to explain your motives. All roboes end up in that interview at least once in their careers. Typically early on, in their first or second week. 

It starts harmlessly enough. You get to select your preferred type of voice for the artificial intelligence in charge of human resources: Male, female or hard to tell? Old, young or hard to tell? Intonation oriental, orientav, orienty or plain glob? For anglotrads, please add @ to confirm you claim minority status and wish to be addressed in a complex ancient language.

That’s how the interview starts. Two hours later, you feel like a pile of trash, for having considered leaving without performing. ‘Retroactive depersuasion’, that’s what they call this management technique. Elisa shivers. A six hour shift is bad. Getting interviewed by HR is equally bad. She would like to dissolve into thin air, to avoid both options.

Some of the roboes love to speculate, for hours, about the interview algorithm. It’s supposed to be based on a matrix combining your choice of linguistic interface with your profile. One legend has it that the @ will spare you the worst, whatever your origins and educational achievements. But you need to be more than a bit crazy, to actively claim anglotrad status. Asking to be mobbed, that is. And what if you don’t manage to make sense of the questions? Replete with nuances, the antique lingos. Anglotrad is supposed to be more straightforward than Aramaic, but…

Elisa asked Sharifa for her opinion, on the @ legend, and she just laughed. If Artificial Intelligence algorithms were that simple, she would have made it through the computer science selection process easy. Instead of hitting the wall at level five out of eight and being made to earn the means for her vintage tastes as a mere human medical procedure interface. Better than a roboe, but not a career you proudly mention in sophisticated company. You can’t second guess an artificial intelligence, dumbo. Why not put humans in charge of running RHHB, while you’re at it?

Of all the people Elisa doesn’t like to meet it has to be Polymeros joining her in the elevator. Brimming with service mentality, as usual: “Elisa, isn’t this one wonderful Wednesday? Can’t wait to get online! Just hope it’s not too quiet. Seems like a bit of a lull, lately, doesn’t it? RHHB really need to do more marketing, no offense intended. I had three breaks, yesterday, three! In just one shift! And the longest lasted for upwards of four minutes. Felt like a holiday. I immediately cancelled one of my five days of annual leave, to make up for it…”.

Elisa would love the elevator to accelerate. Instead, it stops at level three. She should have opted for the session with the artificial intelligence. Anything is better than Polymeros. If he got his head stuck into a toilet bowl, you can bet he would scream: “Oh, lovely, a waterfall!”.

She doesn’t know the new entrant by name, but she (most probably she) looks nice sad enough. Especially by comparison. Anything is better than a one-on-one with Polymeros. And she (or would that be he after all?) had business on level three. At this hour, he most probably tried his luck at requesting a reassignment. Only two services, on level three. Vocational counseling and Accident & Emergencies. If you count the row of padded cells as part of A&E, which you should. Nervous overstretch is their biggest occupational hazard.

“…, that would be so nice! Or one more marshmallow addict. Love marshmallow addicts! Did you ever get one of these, Elisa? My last one, he went up to forty six. Forty six! Amazing, what this does to your metabolism. Went on a real high, wanted to keep going. But the emergency stop got triggered. Pity. Whereas your average fancy dress fan, not much happening. You really need to think of an extra, to turn this kind of performance into an experience. Like last night, for example. Because I volunteered for an additional early night shift. Was boring out at home. Just dressing up into a 1899 swimsuit would have been a terrible dud. So I ordered some ice cold water, added a couple of blue ice cubes for additional visual, and splash,…”.

Elisa is glad to see the third floor entrant sharing her feelings. Polymeros, and anyone of his persuasion, will be the first to go when the revolution comes. Perhaps they could be relocated to an island all of their own, the service mentals. Elisa longs for a humane revolution. No killings. Just some gentle relocations. Even though the likes of Polymeros don’t deserve kind treatment. They are every bit as bad as the job itself. Humiliating yourself to provide clients with a live flow of virtual experiences, that’s horrible. Becoming intimately associated with people fancying vanilla pudding, pints of extra sweet vanilla pudding, does ruin your emphatic inclinations. But coworkers pretending to like this nightmare of a job, they are the worst. 

Level eight, finally. Elisa doesn’t want to arrive. But at least she’s getting rid of Polymeros. He rides on to level twelve. Fishy, level twelve. Lots of service mentals. You wonder if they were mad before getting their performance space assigned, or if it’s the level turning them into freaks.

Sharifa was right to tell her to hurry. Elisa is late and has to stop brooding, to put on the captor harness as fast as possible. It might look like a blue catsuit completely covering the roboe’s body, including most of the face, but it is fiendishly difficult to adjust. All sensors need to be in exactly the right place. Feverishly tapping commands on the touchscreen, Elisa forces the material to adapt. All 120 captor point dots need to switch from red to green.

Currently, it’s all green all right. No red dots on display. Except her left ankle feels like shackled. Trying to reposition the captor promptly turns the dot back to red. Bloody fuck-up of a useless technology, will you behave now? It takes her two more attempts to finally achieve both a green dot and a bearable sensation. Someone really should invent a less tight captor harness. But trust the designers not to care. They don’t get to wear this.

Blue. Why does this place have to be so blue? The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the 3D outline of Elisa’s own body, all blue. Only exception: The red emergency stop button that has materialized on the display, next to the countdown signaling she will be online in twelve seconds.

Originally, the red button was intended to provide the roboes with the means to get rid of customers requesting inappropriate action. There are guidelines, and there is a filter, of course. RHHB worries about the potential for scandal anyway. A big company is just one staff error away from fatal scandal, according to Elisa’s trainer. He emphasized their right to cut off customers. In case of improper requests, they are to terminate the connection, at once. Complaint management will handle the rest, including apologies and refunds where necessary. RHHB is a principled employer who will not put staff in harms way.

The emergency stop in practice mostly serves as a pause button. The coffee break concept didn’t make it into modern shift arrangements. But bio breaks are hard to avoid, if you rely on human staff. The sensory stand-in for a customer sampling teas to decide which blend to order will need a bio break, at some stage. Even an artificial intelligence with only the most virtual grasp of the inconveniences associated with a full bladder can accept that input has to be followed by output. And that the next customer is sure to complain, if his experience is perturbed by sensory remnants of previous assignments. RHHB offers a premium service. The clients are made to believe the roboes idle around most of the day, only waiting for them to come up with an idea.

Three, two, one, could have been worse. Elisa’s first job of the day is a workout. To be performed in the body shape of a man. In his fifties. With a serious body mass issue. She looks horrid in this shape. He is sure to have photoshopped the 3D projection to make himself feel good about his appearance. But he’s horrid. The Superman shirt, his idea, makes esthetics worse. But a workout is good. Exercise is fine. Keeps you trim. Allows you to get rid of all the angry feelings.

Amazing how many people believe that remotely experiencing some of the sensations of a roboe exercising on your behalf makes you loose weight. Urban legends…

Elisa puts her heart into it. In her own body shape, this could be borderline pleasant. But doing it for someone else is so degrading. And she has another fourteen years to go. She feels like blowing up the whole place. You don’t get used to this. You can do it for fifty one years, and still hate every single day. And this is no way to celebrate your seventy first birthday.

With friends like these…

Dustin has never been a fan of navigating the Rhône-Sète canal, but now he’s considering to quit. Fine to spend his days with the cargo ghosts. Without, his job would be a lonely affair. But this is an outrageous proposal. Oilyboy is a naughty number.

With a soy ghost, you’d expect no good. Agro bulk never means anything but trouble.

Pity he got himself sacked from ContiCross. When he was ferrying around containers full of gadgets, he got Whizzby. She was so nice to look at. With a more substantial body, she could have been a top model. No, not skinny enough. A 1950 pin up girl. Whizzby was pleasant conversation, too. Being on a first name basis with so many tablet cores, she was a treasure trove of news.

Another three hours to go. 4,000 tons upstream, you need to push real hard.

“Whales complaining about oceanic noise pollution should come try a high traffic river!”

Oilyboy won’t give up. Never does. Dustin is well aware his fellow traveler can’t have a clue, about whales. He’s not biological, how would he? It’s surprising enough he manages to make himself heard. They should at least mention the phenomenon, in the physics manuals for school. Or someone could do a YouTube tutorial. Like the one on how to launch rocket propelled grenades.

The real Oilyboy is bound not look like an tango dancer right out of Argentina. Cargo ghosts are called ghosts for a reason. They make your brain hear and see a humanized version of themselves. Originally, according to Whizzby, who was very much into interspecies politics, to complain about the disturbance. It’s low frequency noise creating disruption, in their subsoil world. They used to ignore surface roaming biological entities, for lack of common issues. Except mammoths, mastodons and elephants, the rare low frequency offenders in the good old days.

When Dustin heard his first cargo ghost, he was still a trucker. It was back home in Wales and he had seven tons of chilled pork halves on board. The worst possible cargo for a first encounter.

Dustin dutifully reported himself to a general practitioner who referred him to a psychiatrist who prescribed antipsychotic drugs. He was a good boy and took them. His neck went stiff, as the medic had foretold. The stuff was also supposed to shut down any alternative reality sights and sounds.

Pinkypally didn’t mind, about the neuroleptic. Obviously, it wasn’t her shoulders aching. She was too weak to achieve more than a faint hint of a slender silhouette for an image. But her voice was clear enough. You could have sliced pork with her laughs. She was brutal, in her comparisons between humans and livestock. Sent him veggie, for days at a time.

Doing six pork runs a week, for half a year, he had ample time to get used to Pinkypally. Eventually, she calmed down. Occasionally, she engaged in meaningful conversation. Explained, about the Beneathverse. Something about geology. And vibrations condensing into sentient structures. And more, some q-thing. Physicist stuff. Someone really should do a TED talk.

He got hooked on cargo ghosts. It’s special, being chums with these guys. Human friends and likes on social networks? Forget it. Humans are boring. Like when you go pub. Or bar café, as the pubs are called down here. You know who’s there, before entering. You can guess what they’ll say. And your own response, too. Except for the football results, there is no news. Whereas a cargo ghost, she can be a him in a blink. If she wants to. A big if with some, like Pinkypally. She was a nuisance, most of the time. But he owes her anyway.

He soon wanted more than a mere truckload shadow. The bigger the heap, and the engine, the more massive the ghost. You can spend your life waiting by an apple cart vroomed at by a generator, nothing will happen. Whereas a lorry full of gravel puffing up a hill might get you a date with Crusher. Looks like feeding on nails, gentle as a puppy. Dreams of marrying a garden gnome. And please do make that a neon blue and yellow one.

Dustin wanted more. He pulled himself together, fought hard for his license. Transoceanic container ships provide the most stunning encounters. Some folks even whisper of haptic 3D experiences. But a high seas captain’s patent was beyond his means, and they only take Asians for sailors these days. So he became a river skipper, moving first to Belgium and then on to France in his quest to be put in charge of ever bigger boats. Until that bloody accident set him back.

“Come on, Dustin. What’s the problem? You’ll love it.”

Oilyboy fills most of his field of vision, grinning from ear to ear. He’s standing right inside the front window, on no floor. Some cargo ghosts get it, how people and objects interact. Not Oilyboy. Impossible to mistake him for a real person, despite the precisely crafted mustache. He’s always either floating above or sinking into, not standing on. Now he’s thrusting his pelvis forward, in a gesture even more obscene than the perfidy he’s proposing. It’s really hard, not to reprimand aloud. Time to think firmly.

Courtesy of Whizzby, Dustin is aware Oilyboy is only partly to blame, for his bad manners. It’s a severe handicap, to consist of vibrations sharing a structure with foodstuff. Digestion. What goes in goes out. Small wonder the agro bulk ghosts are so ill tempered. They’ve seen it all.

How long has this phone been ringing? Picking it up and seeing the icon, Dustin braces himself: “Laafi, chérie, so good to hear your voice!” Aminata is from Mali and can occasionally be softened by greeting her in Mossi. Not today.

She strikes back, voice sharp and hard: “Don’t you dare laafi-chérie me, bozo. Who is it? You’re up to something, not hearing the phone like that. If you crash one more…”.

No need to listen to this bullshit, he’s done nothing wrong: “Calm down, chérie. I’ve got a job to do, here. Steering a boat requires action, can’t just pick up the phone at all times. That would be unsafe, and you certainly don’t want unsafe, right?”.

Oilyboy grimacing doesn’t help with this conversation. Sucker. Whizzby would never have interfered. Too keen to observe humans interacting with each other. Like a zoologist.

Turns out Aminata has a good reason to call. The generator they’ve been looking for has finally popped up on eBay. Bargain, self-collectors only, a mere eighty kilometers to drive. Aminata already checked with Camille, a parcel service driver living two houses down. He can make himself and his delivery van available on Saturday, in exchange for Dustin helping fix the roof. Deal.

Shoving the phone back into his trouser pocket, Dustin looks forward to the first trial run on Sunday. The new generator combined with the amplifier he already bought, set up in the courtyard of the cement factory next to a pile of sacks, that’s worth a try. Massimo, a trucker friend from Italy employed there, has the keys to the gate and will let them in. Would be cool, if Crusher turned up. He’s friends with both him and Massimo, there’s a chance.

“Come on, Dustin, don’t be such a wimp.” Oilyboy is couching in mid air, staring at him. Why can’t he at least pretend to lie on some flying carpet? Lack of logic always makes Dustin itch. He thinks, forcefully: “Shut up. Me, I’ve got a Christmas present for my kids to plan. Sick of telling them fairy tales myself. They’ll get a cargo ghost, home delivery.”.

Oilyboy flips back to what would be a standing position if he was touching the floor: “Fine, Dustin, fine. Good plan. And next you’ll invent an app. Any kind of home delivery has an app. But first you need to do it. Be a man. A real man. Act. And we film it. And we post it. It will make you feel better.” And the pelvic thrust gesture again. This cargo ghost is a nuisance.

“Remember how they make you slave. You, who should steer a proud container convoy, reduced to puttering along with mere agro bulk. It’s not fair. A real man fights back.“

Dustin gives up, as he knew he would. Taking great care to set the autopilot correctly, this time, he steps out of the cabin and opens the lid covering the first bulk compartment. Look around. No one. Look upwards. No drones. Camera in one hand. Relevant anatomy in the other. And go.

Oilyboy is doing what would be a tap dance if his legs were visible. They’re not, he’s up to the arms in soy: “Yes, Dustin! Like the burger flippers spitting between the buns! You’re a genius, Dustin.“

This is so stupid. But there will be his piss in the soy that goes into the beef that goes onto the burger that goes into some idiot ruining rainforests.

Heading back to his cabin and steering wheel, Dustin knows Aminata will love the little film. As long as he doesn’t crash and get himself sacked, she’s all in favor of cargo ghost pranks. That’s how she got herself married, after all.