By Jason Stoddard
15 October 2007
"What if you use a hotcard to buy a minijesus?" the barista said. "I mean, would they cancel out, or something?"
"Or a realkrishna," a bewhiskered man said.
"I heard minijesuses aren't real clones," another said, her inch-long holographic fingernails clacking on the formica bar. "Not like elvises, anyway. They're really engineered from hairless mini Dobermans, or something like that."
I wished for the days when coffeehouses had chairs, rather than stand-up bars and baristas who thought they were bartenders. I supposed there might be some places like that still out there, but not in the Pasadena Young Couples' Complex. Who had time to stop, sit down, read a paper? I was just getting in off a light 12-hour shift. If I was lucky, I could grab a coffee, hit my condo, and sleep for six or seven straight hours. If I was extremely lucky, Karen might even be awake.
"Tall coffee," I told the new barista. He was a young guy, maybe right out of high school, no tattoos, no corporate affiliations other than his bright new Starbucks pin. His shiny new namebadge read, JOHN.
He leaned forward over the bar, his eyes darting left and right as if he was afraid that we'd be overheard. "Just a tall coffee? Not a Venti Grass Nutmeg Frappuccino?"
"What's it going to look like, you sitting there with a coffee, and everyone else with a premium drink?"
Fucking upsells. It sounded good when we moved here, seven servings of coffee per person per week included in the HOA fees. I imagined some young Comparative Value Analyst factoring that into her stellar rating for the Young Couples' Complex. But they didn't tell you they charged you anyway, even if you didn't drink the damn stuff. And they didn't tell you about the upsells.
A flicker of a smile, almost condescending. "What account?"
"West Danvers. 5026 Honeymoon Lane, #11."
"Tall coffee for West!" the barista cried. Conversation turned from the merits of hotcards versus deities to muttered comments about cheapskates.
The barista handed me a small cup of coffee. I'd learned to enjoy it black since I learned about the upcharges for cream and sugar.
"What if we all just did the bare minimum?" barista John said, like some bartender from hell. "What if we didn't contribute to the onward-and-upward, the Beautiful Economy?"
The stares turned back to me.
Fine. Fuck you, then. I pretended to ignore them and pulled out my shiny new vPod Exa, loaded with all the found media of my life, all of which was currently under analysis by some high-powered software by Life Improvement, Inc. In a week, or two, it would tell me what I needed to do to get ahead. Guaranteed results. And the advanced risk management lessons I'd loaded onto it wouldn't hurt. And of course, I couldn't resist loading it with a package from FineFilms, all the greats from 1960-2010.
I let the Life Improvement logo hang in the air for a bit. Conversation stopped again. A little more important than your drinks, hmm? I thought, struggling not to smile.
I frowned, though, remembering how I got the vPod.
"West!" a hand slapped me on the back.
I turned. A slim, dark-haired man stood there, his arms open as if in welcome. Memories crawled back from beyond the drunken veil. Duncan Fernan, from my UCLA Risk Management Extension.
I gave him a quick hug. "Duncan! You live here?"
"Just moved in."
"Yeah, you have to meet her, too—wait, is that your vPod?"
"That is so fucking cool! Do you have the vHouse system to go with it? Man, you must be doing well. Come on, invite me over."
"Sunday is good. Does that work? I might even be able to bring Kim."
"I, well, yeah Sunday works, but—" Karen might be there. Or might not. Their work schedules didn't intersect. They wouldn't be able to afford that for quite a few more years.
Duncan clapped me on the back. "Great! We'll be there! Watch some movies, play some games on that vHouse."
Duncan looked at his watch. "Oh, crap. Gotta get to work. See you Sunday!"
Duncan bolted out the door. I watched him leave, shaking my head. He hadn't changed much since UCLA.
I didn't have a vHouse. That was way more expensive than a vPod. And I wasn't going to just go out and buy one, not with my—
"Hotcard!" the woman with the inch-long fingernails said.
Exactly, I thought. I picked up my coffee and left.
The door to #11 refused to go green with my cardkey. I swiped it again, leaning against the plastic doorframe. The combined fatigue of twelve hours of work on top of three hours of sleep was starting to hit.
The door opened, and an unfamiliar sandy-haired man looked out, his eyes puffed, his hair awry. Behind him, the walls were advertising StimEase NuCrank, guaranteed nonaddicting.
"Who are you?" he said.
"Shit," I said.
"Not your number 11, fuckwit!" He slammed the door. I looked down the rows of identical condos and sighed. Someday I'd be able to afford a FirstTimeEveryTime RF tagger and avoid the embarrassment.
I tried finding the house by landmarks, wishing I'd bought a unit closer to the walls. They were easier to find, I heard. I eventually identified our unit by the bushes out front, which had grown into shapes like copulating rabbits.
Inside, the houselights were set on eveninglow, dim and sexy and perfect for quality time spent with your spouse. But Karen was asleep on top of the covers, still wearing her business suit, her face pressed into the side of her big black purse. Probably another twenty-hour shift. As a Customer Relationship Manager, her trajectory was higher than mine, so her sacrifice was greater.
Karen didn't awake as I undressed her and peeled back the covers. Her face was still embossed with the ostrich pattern of her purse, and her corset had left bright-red stripes on her flesh. But she lay there, peacefully, almost smiling, and I couldn't help smiling back at her.
I wondered if Duncan's wife was this wonderful, if she strived. And then thought, Oh shit, what about the vHouse?
The living room walls were playing a commercial for Meetless, a new chain of vegan eateries catering to couples who wanted to stay loyal to their SO's. It segued into vacation stuff for timeshares in Baja California with worknet access, newly cheap after the latest earthquakes, then finally into stuff for hotcards.
How many days would you give for weeks like these, it said, showing happy couples riding horseback in the mountains, with no access card or cellcomm in sight. It showed slow sunsets on the beach with the same couples.
I waited until the commercials were over, wishing we'd had the income to buy out of the advertising-supported package altogether. At least we had the mid-tier pack, unlike some neighbors who had to tolerate ads at all hours, even in the bedroom.
I waited until the ads were over and called up my most recent hotcard statement. The numbers glowed there:
West Danvers, card # 2322-6192-8099-8923
Life Improvement (Analysis)
Risk Management 1.4
Media Archive, 1960-2010
*Exchange rate varies with item. Check exchange rate before purchasing if considering alternate payment!
Twenty-nine days of my life, rounding up. For the promise of being shown a true path, of possibly exceeding Karen's own trajectory, it was worth it. Less than a month. If I was to die at 89 and 9 months, I would die at 89 and 8 months.
I took the card out of my pocket. Its self-powered lenticular showed a continuous animation of fire, and the card itself felt slightly warm. Something I'd noticed the first day, when I slipped it out of the Tyvek envelope while Karen snored on the couch.
I looked up at the wallscreen. All life-improvement stuff. If I only used it for that, what would it truly hurt?
Then you should cut up the card now, throw it away.
But I had to look up the cost of a vHouse system. With a commercial-override feature, it was still under $30K. And the exchange rate was good. Only 4.8 days. I wondered how the manufacturers decided on the exchange rates. I wondered where things were manufactured, period. Maybe some sweatshop in Africa, presided over by a clone of Henry Ford, or perhaps everything was simply grown from a slurry of plastic and silicon by the magic of nanotech. The vPod, smooth and black, bore no indication of where it was made.
Five more days. Still less than thirty-three. Still about a month.
Just a month, I thought, pressing the PURCHASE icon.
Karen was gone when I woke.
I sent her an I-love-you message and set the wallscreens to repeating images of our beachside wedding. The surf contamination patrol had been retouched out, and I could almost believe the plastic horses we rode were real.
I could see next door's elvis and minijesus from my kitchen window, sitting in a cheap fakewood lawnchair on their tiny balcony. The minijesus was perched on the elvis's shoulder, like a parrot on a pirate.
I had never actually seen my neighbors. I wondered if the elvis and the minijesus actually were the neighbors, and, if so, what living in the Young Couples' Complex meant.
On a whim, I slid the door open and went out onto our bare balcony. Elvis and minijesus swiveled to look at me.
"Good morning," the elvis said. His rough, phlegmy voice sounded like he'd spent the previous night gargling cigarette butts in tequila.
"Morning. Hey, I have a stupid question."
"There are no stupid questions," the jesus said softly.
"What if you used a hotcard to buy a minijesus?"
The minijesus smiled, his little sapphire eyes glinting. "How I am obtained has nothing to do with any benefit derived from my presence," the minijesus said. "That is my maker's current interpretation."
"Your capital-M Maker, or your manufacturer?"
The elvis leaned forward and belched. "Seems like bad business to me."
"What do you know about it?" the minijesus said.
"I, uh, well, I know some about sin."
"That is not relevant. The man asked about the acquisition of a deity, which signifies he has at least some interest in improving his spiritual condition."
The elvis shook his head. "Easy money ain't the way—"
I cleared my throat. "So you could use a hotcard to improve your life? Theoretically, I mean."
"Theoretically," minijesus said. "Though I claim no especial knowledge about agreements made at lower levels."
The elvis just shook his head, but said nothing more.
I waved them thanks and got ready to leave. So the plan could work. It could.
The Outsourced Risk Management offices were a palace of concrete and copper mesh, Faraday-caged from the reality of instant wireless access and wallscreen viruses.
I loved it. The echoless hush of the floor-to-ceiling carpet, the 10' high cubicles with even more padding, the tiny retro screen and 3D glasses and workgloves. And the numbers. Nothing better than making the numbers fit together. Nothing better than reaching the end, whether that end be red, amber, or green. I just let my fingers fly and waited for the buzzer to signal the end of first shift.
Most of the time, the buzzer wasn't the end, and I'd be called for another half or full shift. Or I'd be called in the middle of the night for a rush job. Rush jobs almost always turned out red. I knew, somehow, on some level, that red was bad, there was a lot of risk, that it was a bad idea. But it didn't really matter. The numbers, clean numbers, the process, clearly delineated, that was what mattered.
Today was bad. For whatever I was doing. All red. Red, red, red. Not even orange, but a bright angry red. But I was happy. Red was a color of clarity. As was green. Amber was bad. That meant judgment was required. I wondered if I would have to make those judgments when I moved up from Associate Risk Management Analysis Specialist to Risk Management Lead or even Risk Management Team Leader. I supposed I would have to. But I'd miss the numbers.
But today was bad. Risk Management Specialist Jerry had bought the hot, gone on a big vacation to Thailand with no intention of coming back, living on his hotcard until he ran out of days. Probably because he never chose the couple lifestyle. That was the stable path, the path that led to the Beautiful Economy of Infinite Growth and Spiritual Remuneration.
No matter the reason, I got his work. It appeared on my screen in a deep flurry of files. It would be a double-shift day.
Double shifts were OK. What was in the files wasn't. Jerry had made little notes about troop movements in the Saud empire, and how it correlated to the numbers. Little animated stick-figures swarmed on the spreadsheets, peppering each other with tiny pixel-sized bullets, to fall and spread bright red blood over the numbers.
Red. Color of clarity.
Could that be what we were working on?
Team Leader Frank poked his head in my cubicle, probably alerted by the work monitoring software that I'd slowed to a crawl. The stick-figures still bled red on the spreadsheets.
"Oh, shit," Frank said, looking at the screen.
"I, uh, I can do it . . ."
Frank pushed past me and turned off the screen. "We should have had that cleaned."
I looked up at him. I wanted to ask, Is this what we do? Do we work for the empires? Is this what we're calculating? Death?
Frank shook his head. "Take the day off."
"I can work."
Frank put a hand on my shoulder. It felt like a piece of plastic. "Go home. We'll have new work for you tomorrow."
"I can do this."
"Go. Now." Frank pointed.
I stood up and walked out. The autoreceptionist reminded me that I might have to work longer hours to make up for the time deficit today.
I nodded and ran out the door.
"Tall coffee," I said.
"What about a special Venti Concrete—"
"I run fucking numbers. I know how saying 'yes' to your upsells reduces my Extrapolated Lifetime Value to the point where I'll spend 6 years in this complex, rather than just 3. So don't. Ever. Ask me. Again!"
The barista John—the same young barista from yesterday—just smiled at me. His unflappability made me want to put a fist in his face.
"Tall coffee?" he said.
He turned, filled, handed me a cup. "So you're a numbers man. How do you like it?"
I just looked at him.
"No, really, I'm interested."
I sighed. "I don't believe you."
"I don't even know what I do!"
John shook his head and chuckled. "Seems like nobody knows what they do anymore. What does that mean, I wonder?"
I thought of him buying some kind of cheap knowledge pack, full of interesting questions to get the customers talking. I picked up the coffee and walked out. When my keycard didn't work, I dumped the drink in one of the unfamiliar plants outside another 11's door.
I eventually found my home.
The walls still played pictures of our honeymoon.
Karen, of course, wasn't there.
Sunday started well.
I actually woke to Karen in bed. She mumbled that she had seventeen minutes of near-sleep free-association time to process, but she would meet me at Sunday brunch in the Young Couples' Complex El Macho Mexifornia Cuisine, another better-use-it perk included with the HOA dues.
When I got there, though, the waiter brought a pad that showed Karen's face, frowning as she pulled her hair back into a business-bun.
"West. Sorry, they need me. I'm going in. I'll make it up to you later."
When? I wanted to ask. I couldn't remember the last time I'd actually spoken to her. "We have company coming this evening," I reminded her. "Duncan and Kim."
A frown. "I might be late."
Meaning she wouldn't be there.
"I will make it up to you," she said, making kissing noises on the screen.
I nodded. "Okay."
She waved and cut the connection.
"You know, we can provide a TruePersona of your wife to keep you company during meals like these," the waiter said. "Flatscreen, projection, or RealFlesh, they're perfect for busy young couples like yourself."
I just looked at him.
"Shall I order one for you?"
"We have options for your meal—"
"No! No options! No upsells! Nothing!"
The waiter frowned. He was young, like the barista. Same bright blue eyes, too. I wondered if I would find a serial number, stamped in some discreet place.
"We're only trying to help—"
"Get out of here," I said.
The waiter gave me one more frown, then left me to my tasteless meal. I tried to enjoy it.
At the end of brunch, I snuck a look at the progress bar on my vPod. Almost three-quarters of the way across the screen now. It now included another line of copy below the progress bar:
ESTIMATED COMPLETION in about 5 DAYS.
Five days to some real answers? I could live with that.
That night, Duncan called at 6:30 and said Kim couldn't make it. I told him that was alright, Karen couldn't make it, either.
He called at 7:30 to say he had been called into the office, too.
I just nodded. So I'd bought the vHouse system for nothing. Five days of my life gone.
Six, if you'd had the party, I told myself, and laughed.
Outside on the neighbor's balcony, the elvis was smoking a cigar, his face warm and glowing in the sunset. The minijesus was nowhere to be seen. I slid open the balcony door.
"How's it goin'?" the elvis asked, his voice shaking small bits of stucco from the walls.
"Not so good."
"Heartbreak Hotel, hmm?"
"No. Not really. Where's your friend?"
The elvis nodded at the sliding glass door. "On the minijesus network, talkin' to his friends."
"Do you have, I mean, do you have, like, owners?"
The elvis cast his eyes up at me through the smoke-haze. "Nobody owns us."
"I mean, are there other people who live there with you?"
"I don't understand."
"Have your whole life in a book, and live it," the elvis said. "See what you don't understand, then."
Have your whole life in numbers, then live it, is what I heard.
"Goodnight," I told the elvis.
"Night-night," he said, as I closed the door.
When Karen called at 10:30, promising to be home soon, I went to the Starbucks near the complex gates. To wait for her, I told myself.
"I'll have a venti iced Thai mocha caramel coffee," I told the barista, picking the most expensive thing on the list.
"Good man," he said, and returned with a drink that was as orange as a traffic cone, topped with about a cubic foot of whipped cream and drizzled with caramel.
I waited until 1:00. I had three of the Thai drinks. My mouth burned with artificial cinnamon and overroasted coffee. But the barista was mercifully silent.
"Are you real?" I asked him, finally.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, are you grown in a vat?"
A smile. "I'm as human as you."
"Answer the fucking question."
The smile didn't change. "I was born, just like you. Of course, I've been modified to remove the need for sleep, and I do run a biodatabase of pseudo-philosophical Q&A, as well as a PerpetuaCheer happiness module."
I just looked at him.
"It's easier than what you're doing," he said.
"But are you happy?"
"Of course." He said it without hesitation, without his smile changing in the slightest.
I nodded. Stood up. Left.
I had to stop myself from kicking in the door to the wrong condo. Because what did it matter? What did it matter at all?
I tried to sleep, but caffeine kept me awake. I directed the wallscreen of the bedroom to display movies from the vHouse. It showed me something from the 80s, with kids stealing Porsches and getting it on with hookers. I laughed at their carefree, simple life. I laughed and laughed.
When the commercials came on, reminding me I had to buy an upgrade pack for even more continuous entertainment, I laughed even harder. I shouldn't have been surprised.
The screens pinged at 3:00AM. Rush into the office for critical work, it said.
I thought I saw Karen as I headed out of the Complex, but I wasn't sure. I waved at her anyway, thinking, So what if she doesn't know me?
What does it matter?
I didn't have enough free time to think about what I was working on that next week. Double shifts, on and on. I think I worked a triple shift, after a trip to the Risk Management HMO for some kind of red pills.
Life contracted to numbers and more numbers, glances at the progress bar on the vPod, and collapsing into bed, and starting over again. I forgot how many coffees I missed. It didn't matter.
Once, I came home, and Karen was in bed, wearing her black lingerie. I remember kissing her before falling asleep.
When I woke, she was gone. I think I dreamed of her with a RealFlesh version of myself. At least I hoped it was a dream. Because if she was buying RealFlesh, she had a hotcard, too. And I didn't want to think about that.
The progress bar on the vPod was almost near the end.
LESS THAN 1 day LEFT, it said.
I tried to be excited about that as I dragged myself into work.
Work was full of watertap talk about Gregg, one of the managers. His hair had gone thin and silvery over the course of the last few weeks. Everybody had an explanation:
"He bought a wife."
"He bought a house in the Caribbean."
"He's got a rare genetic thing, I forgot what."
"Those hotcards don't really kill you, they're not backed by any supernatural force at all, it's just a ploy for Joy Gates to build up enough credit to take over the world."
They turned to me, but I just shook my head. I wondered how many of them had hotcards. And thought, for about the millionth time, how useful it would be to have a limit on the number of days you could take.
But disclosing that would be breach of contract, the rep had told me when I got mine. Too much information. Can't have people knowing when they're going to die.
I stumbled out of the building at 11:30 that night. A bunch of kids were plinking at the LED streetlights with wrist-rockets. I skirted them as my vPod pinged.
When I was safely on the train, I took it out of my pocket and looked at the screen.
ANALYSIS COMPLETE, it said.
I knew I should feel something, but my brain felt as if it had been novocained. I hit the SYNOPSIS button and read the screen:
TOPLEVEL TAKEAWAY: You need to take more risks.
Below that was a DETAILED SUMMARY, but I couldn't read it. I was laughing too hard. Two or three other latenighters looked up from their own media boxes and looked quickly away.
I had the train stop several miles from the house. I found a bar. It wasn't even on the Young Couples' Complex reciprocal revenueshare, but I didn't care. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay. Thought better, and ordered a triple scotch. Nodded at the waiter when he suggested I try a premium like Laphroaig. Downed it. Ordered another. Laughed some more, until the waiter suggested that I was unnerving the other patrons.
I put down my hotcard and told him to give me the unnerving surcharge. He muttered and went away.
When he returned, he held a flatscreen. Karen looked out at me, her hair straggling out of her business-bun. "I don't think I'll make it home tonight," she said.
I laughed. "That's OK."
Karen frowned. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"What isn't?" I asked, and cut the connection.
I tried. I really did. I even made it to our door. Or at least I thought it was. When the keycard bleeped red, I just shook my head and went down to the Starbucks.
John was there, smiling beatifically. I wondered for a moment about his life, and if I should trade mine in on his. I put the hotcard down and ordered a Triple Venti Cinnamon Pepper Sage Green Tea Cooler. Then I ordered one for him, too.
He hesitated for a moment before taking the hotcard and running it through the register, and gave it back to me quickly, as if he didn't want to touch it.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Is that a question from your database?"
He shook his head. "No. Or at least I don't think so."
Are you going to buy the hot? That's what he was really asking. No, I wanted to say. But I couldn't say anything.
TOPLEVEL TAKEAWAY: You need to take more risks.
I laughed. Suddenly, everything seemed completely clear.
"No," I said.
He just looked at me.
I just laughed harder. No, I wasn't going to buy the hot. But I could see how far I could get. Maybe there was some inexpensive corner of the world where I could live. Where the Beautiful Economy hadn't yet touched. Maybe I could fly there, buy a little hovel, do some honest work, and only give up a few years of my life.
"Do you have a phone?" I asked John.
I shook my head. Another one of those Maximizing Lifetime Value things that seemed so sensible, just a few years ago.
"You can go to your condo."
"No." I didn't want to see it, ever again.
John paused, then slid a hand into his jeans and handed me a blood-warm phone. I nodded thanks and keyed in Karen's office number.
"West!" she said. "Where are you?"
I grinned. "Where I need to be."
"I'll be outside your office building in half an hour. Be there for me."
Because I want to see you. Because I know you tried. Because you deserve something more than this. Because it's time to get away, far away, as far away as my life can take us.
"Just be there."
And we'll see how far we can get.