Excerpt for The New Client by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The new client

Published by Troim Kryzl at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 Troim Kryzl

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.


"No sir, you can't ask for a refund once you've died. Nor can your heirs. That's not how this..." And gone he is. Hung up on her. Just like that. She spent more than an hour on...

Zarah feels a hot wave of anger boiling up. How dare he? Checking her forehead confirms. Hot, as in fever. This type of client, they are like a disease. Except it would be unlawful to pay people for being turned sick. Whereas she does get a salary, for this martyrdom. And what a pittance they pay her. Stop. Zarah recalls the anger management training, pushes the pause button, puts down the headset and stands up, to her full six feet height.

"Don't you stay sitting at your desk grinding your teeth" the instructor said. "Did that ever get you anywhere? Oh yes, of course it did. It made you even more miserable. From now on, you'll know how to react to obnoxious clients..." Those were the words of the instructor. Zarah does feel stupid, as the only person standing amid fifteen busy cubicles. But the instructor very clearly stated operators are entitled, both to push the pause button and to stand up. To do some stretching. And breathing exercises. Pandur, the new boy in the cubicle on her right, seems to share her opinion. He attended the same workshop in his first quarter and now glances over encouragingly. Or would that be admiringly? Would actually doing this qualify as acting courageous? Well, too late now. Zarah is already standing, she might as well pull through.

Opting for a t-shirt today was one lucky dress choice, though. This stretching would be near impossible to perform in a blouse. Even a loosely fitting one. She occasionally wears those, when she feels like going girlie. Not a frequent occurrence. A tall person won't manage to look like some doll, however hard she tries. This stretching is quite strenuous.

Imagining chubby Choanna from two rows up performing the same exercise, in one of her tight dresses, her sweet perfume sent proliferating by the exertion, this mental picture turns on Zarah's natural smile. She doesn't notice it, at first. Only realizes her progress when Pandur gives her a thumbs up. She's surprised to actually feel better. And their supervisor didn't come haranguing, yet. So far, so good. Back to the task. Taking a deep breath, she sits down, puts the headset back on and opens her phone for calls. It only takes seconds to flash incoming. Mental note for the next occasion: No need to perform the anger management exercises at speed. Take your time and savour the break, the drudgery will resume soon enough.

"1kYears Limited, Zarah Zavaro speaking, how can I be of assistance?" She grins into the microphone, as advised. And sounds like some overcheerful greeting robot. But the coaches were adamant, that's how it has to be done. And she's getting so used to her customer friendly second name she's starting to use it in private, too. The real one, Zamananarivaro, as proudly inherited from her immigrant mother, was decreed offputting. Clients wouldn't understand it and fear scams. And they want to write down contact details. Would take ages with her full name. Not an option. One has to make the odd little sacrifice for the sake of efficiency. In the client acquisition department, everything is done for customer comfort. If ever Zarah moves on to alter ego complaint management, she might be allowed to switch back to her real name.

"You are the ones with the advert, right? The ones featuring on TV, I mean? I saw that clip, with this movie star, don't remember her name. The one with that impossibly shrill voice? The clip where she says she'd rather not go? At least not fully? She sits on this bench, you know, with all the trees behind her, like a park. Even though it's probably, well, how to put it, not a park?"

Local lingo. Rare, but has be known to happen. Bound to haggle like mad. On the upside, he at least won't be frightened off by learning he's dealing with a Ginerian enterprise. He doesn't sound that old. Forty perhaps, or fifty. Not asking straightforward, of course.

In her third year, Zarah still wonders why most clients have such a hard time coming to the point. They're not trying to buy child porn. We all die, and most of us do loathe the concept. They happen to be able to afford a service that puts part of departing on hold. No more reason to be ashamed than when you buy a mansion or a yacht.

It takes Zarah longer than usual to complete the general pitch. Mister Curver, Sam Curver, as he turns out to be called, interrupts what is supposed to be a monologue after every second sentence. But they are still making good progress. Half an hour in, the initial contact checklist on Zarah's screen features a lot of ticked boxes and entries. The comprehensive financial transaction section was done in a blink. First million US dollars by bank transfer ahead of the scan trip, second million upon confirmatory conversation with the activated alter ego. No problem for mister Curver. No mention of timelines or bridge loans, to cover the period until assets destined for liquidation will become available in the form of cash. The new client just nods it off, like other people would buy a dress. But he's obsessed by two particular details, and obstinate.

"Now tell me again, Zarah, why has all this scanning, and the training of my alter ego, and the confirmatory conversation, why does all this need to take place on the high seas? You've only got a satellite connection at sea, that doesn't feel reliable. And the servers where my virtual me will be living, they will have to be in some country, under some jurisdiction. Why can't we just do this on land? It would also be so much lighter on my calendar..." Mister Curver sounds like taking a gulp of whichever beverage he's having. Perhaps a cocktail? Or just a cup of coffee? He's very much at ease now, and Zarah is glad for a chance to jump in.

"Apologies if I didn't make that aspect clear enough yet, mister Curver, my mistake. Let me put it this way: The preference for the high seas is a precaution, strongly recommended by our lawyers. We need to avoid legal complications for your alter ego. We're talking decisions reaching into a very distant future here, and cutting edge technology. This, to quote our lawyers, is one tricky combination. Blatant lack of precedent. Pretty much anything can happen. The alter egos might or might not be formally included into the concept of human rights. We at 1kYears do of course consider them just another format of humans, and will do everything to keep them safe and happy. But strictly and legally speaking, they are currently less entitled to human rights than livestock. For the time being, and the near future, they're nothing but a unique piece of software..."

Zarah's pitch halts. The alluring smell of coffee drifting over from the cubicle to her left has sent her off track. Bloody Marian, again. They're doing it on purpose, to ruin her results. Never missing an opportunity to complain, when anything malfunctions. Quick to plead mobbing whenever any colleague dares refer to them as he. Or she. But daring interfere with other colleagues' calls by drinking coffee. Bloody Marian. And bloody mister Curver, still not done arguing.

"Fine, Zarah, understood. Very kind, how comprehensively you care for these lucky souls, very much appreciated. But let's just assume I do consider my future virtual me, or alter ego, or whatever we call eSam, a mere piece of software. I don't give a damn about his upcoming legal travails. I'll be dead for most of his lifespan, why the hell should I care? If he's anything like me, he'll manage. There's no technological constraint, correct? It's perfectly possible to perform the whole operation, as in scan, training and interview, pretty much anyplace, perhaps even in my office. No, don't interrupt. Let's further assume I'm prepared to pay, let's say an additional one hundred thousand? For this little extra convenience? And sign all the paperwork proving that everything was done at sea. I can even have one of my staff go on that stupid cruise, if this helps. Would make a nice bonus, no problem. Good plan?"

Zarah is stunned. She thought she had seen them all. Religious folk, deeply troubled by the sinfulness of this particular way of cheating, and strongly tempted anyway. Nerds throwing a bucket of tech speak at staff, only to hide how worried they are about bugs and hacks. Fashion victims who will do anything they don't understand, as long as it's both expensive and stylish. The stupid money bags who look like a no brainer in acquisition, only to fail at download time, when a minimum of mental focus needs to be achieved and sustained. Zarah has seen so many of all these types, but she never encountered an oceanophobic client before. She did two terms of psychology, before dropping out of university to join 1kYears, she knows about anxiety disorders. Her client has got a mental health issue. And he's willing to pay handsomely to hide it.

"Interesting proposal, mister Curver. Something might be feasible along the lines you're suggesting, but I'll have to consult with upper management. Should be able to call you back tomorrow, or by the end of this week at the latest. Would that be acceptable?" Zarah normally feels beaten, when she has to admit her role is so junior she's granted zero autonomy. Today she's glad. Could obfuscating the location be considered a crime? Somebody else's problem. Pity there won't be a similar fix for the second issue. And here he comes, raising it again, as she know he would.

"Wonderful, now we're talking. And we will proceed exactly in the same way for the number of scans. One extra million per..." This guy must be swimming in cash. Petro? Finance? Well, it won't help him with this particular topic. Zarah knows she has to cut in at once, and hard.

"Apologies, mister Curver, and sorry for interrupting, too, but this is a no go. And no need to ask upper management. This rule is not subject to negotiation. We at 1kYears Ltd have a very strict policy concerning the number of downloads, and it's one per client. Without exceptions. We regret any hardship this inflicts on our customers, but there is no way two alter egos with overlapping profiles can inhabit one and the same repository. There is only one of you alive on this planet, mister Curver, and there will be only one of your kind gracing our virtual realm."

Zarah remembered just in time to keep it brief and end on a low note. This makes you sound authoritative. Anything else encourages more haggling. Said the coach.

She has seen a lot of promising new client relationships hit the one-scan-only cliff and sink. People hate irreversible choices. The policy is sound, though. The ghosts, as staff call them, are very lively and opinionated. The presence of a partial duplicate would create havoc. 1kYears resort, or just the resort, as staff catering for the ghosts call the simulated 3D environment they inhabit, is hard enough to manage with only one of each spiky character around.

"I see. Let's proceed step by step, Zarah, shall we? You check with your management, about the onshore option, and come back to me, let's say no later than Monday? By then I might have some additional questions, and we'll see how it all adds up." Mister Curver makes himself sound suave, but he's as fond of her as vice versa. And not yet convinced he won't get his way.

Zarah kisses her bonus good bye while wrapping up the call and flagging the case PR, for Pending Review. She's in for a couple more hours of work, and probably won't score. The company really should reconsider its policy. Why not set up a second resort, to avoid clashes of the partial duplicates? With the clients they're missing because of the one-scan-only rule, a separate resort should be easy to finance. But that's management for you. Clueless.

Preparing herself to take the next customer call, Zarah is surprised it's her manager on the line. Unusual for the pompous impostor to respond that fast to any of her flags. Perhaps some fallout from her anger management break? No, it's about mister Curver, where the new client would like his download to take place. The premium service fee is doing the trick. Zarah explains he sounds local, meaning his office might be in the vicinity. She also warns Odu Olanre about the other issue, and gets herself scolded, for not resolving that one first. Stupid sod of a boss. No idea what he's talking about, always making the job sound easy. He doesn't have to deal with six hours of spoilt brats a day. He is one of them, a typical case of promotion by connection. Zara signed up with 1kYears because of their tutorials. Much better than any university courses. At least at institutions she can envision to afford. Here, you get trained and paid. But you have to spend six hours a day on that damn phone. Often at impossible hours. Client acquisition at 1kYears is a 24/7 business, they cater to all time zones. Hers is not an easy life, and it now takes a turn for the worse.

Not satisfied with reprimanding her in audio mode, Odu calls her over to his office "to discuss this in some more detail." Shit. Taking the anger management break was a bad idea. Pandur visibly feels with her, when he sees her standing up once again. Whereas Marian don't even look up when she walks past, deeply engaged in some promising exchange. Why do they always get the easy clients? Zarah once again wonders about cheating. Each time she comes close to making the top sales slot, the rest of the month is suddenly devoid of worthwhile clients and she spends hours talking to walls. Marian managed to get hired despite their... condition. They not only get away with being them, they even got management backing for their peculiar personal pronoun preferences. This more than hints at relevant connections. And they make the top slot every second month, at least. You don't need to be an MMA native to start wondering. The Mehut Metropolitan Area is even better at corruption than at information technology.

Odu's office is on the side of the tower facing the ocean. On a bright day, you can see all the way to the glimmering expanse beyond MMA's sprawl. That's the advantage, of premises on the twentieth floor. For managers like Odu, who are entitled to an office with a window. Nice view. For open space dwellers like Zarah, the height is a nuisance. They wouldn't see any more daylight if their workspacea was situated in a basement, and a lower level would at least spare them the daily treck up endless stairs. The building has two elevators, but both are once again marked maintenance in progress. Facility management, not a local speciality. The helipad on the roof, that's fully functional, just in case. But the elevators don't get fixed.

Today is not a bright day. Rain clatters against the windows and in the distance the odd bolt of lightening flashes out of the dark grey clouds. Zara hopes Odu's mood will be better than the weather. He's rumored to hide a mercurial streak under his sleek manners. Up to now she never ran into trouble with him. But nor did she ever get called to his office without a formal appointment. Attending a video conference with a particularly demanding client, yes, if very rarely. Having to report on her own, never before. Fucking anger management coach, she should have guessed.

When she knocked, Odu called her right in, his voice signaling impatience. But he's still on the phone, standing at the window with his back turned to her. He's mostly listening. To someone more important, judging by his subservient body language.

Zarah has ample time to inspect the office. Still packaged wraps from Hello Bogo on the desk. This sight means two things. Management is allowed to eat at their desks, an act that can get mere operators sacked. And Odu doesn't make a fortune. Hello Bogo, that's not a food delivery service anyone doing seriously well would select. Big portions, bland taste. Next door, at the central bank, Hello Bogo is where the secretaries place their orders. The few who are not dieting. For the upper echelons, Italian food from Sicilian Symphony would be more like it. Zarah saw pictures on her social network. She follows some gourmets, just to remind herself she's not the one who should worry about inequality, despite her formal job and more than average salary. Some people are much better off. But she still does worry. With this weather, some neighborhoods will get flooded. Poor poor people. Someone really should do something about it. Them.

"So tell me, what's he like? Hope you had the good sense not to try your haughty number on mister Curver, Zarah?" Odu is done with his call, and this interview is obviously not about her anger management break. Careful now. Zarah selects neutral words to describe their first exchange. She avoids mentioning her diagnosis. If Sam Curver is as important as Odu's odd behavior signals, she's better off pretending not to know about any mental health issues. Denouncing the mighty never got anyone anywhere but down and out.

"Well, if one of the directors of the Prime Estate Fidelity Fund pays for a house call, who are we to resist? I've already had a word with the BiBo. They sail together, you know? The BiBo is pleased, we're cleared to proceed. Think you can handle that, without getting both of us sacked? That's the perfect opportunity for you, to see the equipment in action without going on a cruise, and you can make yourself useful and do the talking. All our guides are busy at sea and I don't trust our technicians not to misfire. Think you can handle that, Zarah? Call Sam Curver back, talk him into proceeding right away, while he's still young, and schedule the session for Friday?"

Oops. Zarah didn't expect an opportunity. If this challenge deserves to be considered an opportunity. A big if. Personal interaction with a yachting buddy of the BiBo, the big boss owning this whole enterprise, sounds more like a risk. And Prime Estate Fidelity Fund is top tier stuff. They own the huge artificial island hosting the new business district. As flashy as it gets, in MMA. Her late mother wouldn't have approved of her taking on such an assignment. "Stay away from the elite, kid. Bad things happen to girls going for the bling. No good for people like us to mingle with them big boys," that was her mantra. She made that face, when intoning it. The taboo face hinting at horrors too bad to describe. Never mind. No is not an option. One courageous action per day is plenty. Zarah promises to do her best and is back out in a minute.

Walking back to her cubicle, she's ambivalent. If her client tries to insist on multiple downloads, or postpones the whole exercise, she's in for some more scolding. A storm that will pass. If she manages to talk him into proceeding, she'll end up in a face-to-face situation that can go wrong in so many and potentially catastrophic ways she barely dares envisage them.

Reaching her desk, Zarah decides to pull herself together. This is not her first challenge, she'll manage. Sam Curver will accept the one-scan-only rule and she'll make a fine house call. She has to think this three times, as the coach said she should. "As long as it takes" he said, "to feel the effect of the autosuggestion." Finally she's ready and and reaches for her headset.

Half an hour later, she's excited. Friday 10 o'clock has been agreed, and her team will be picked up by helicopter. Her team, that feels like serious career progress. She got her senior operator title automatically, after the first year and completion of four training modules. Talk of her team sounds like the next step. Who said operators never make it into management jobs? Zarah Zavaro has launched herself. On the way out at the end of her shift, she even smiles at Marian. Nice to see them puzzled. Well, why shouldn't a successful girl smile? You don't need to wear pink hair, eyebrows and moustache over a turquoise miniskirt to be a star. Looks fancy, though, you got to give them that. Weird, but stylish. Sort of.

Two commutes and one sleepless night later, Zarah has reverted to the bundle of nerves state that cut short her former degree ambitions.

She's back in her cubicle and on the phone, but her mind refuses to engage this stupid client. She, because it's a lady client, seems to have consulted with each and every female member of a very extended family, about the optimal timing. Auntie A was in favor of doing it right away, "as long as you look half way presentable." This sounded like valuable advice. But auntie B proposed to proceed no earlier than on her sixtieth birthday, "when you will have seen it all." This also seemed to make a a lot of sense. Unfortunately, both well founded recommendations collide with the no-later-than-fifty advice from yet another auntie C...

Impossible to sort out this mess of a decision finding strategy. Would be beyond Zarah's means even on a good day. And today is anything but good. Today is Thursday. Implying it's going to be Friday tomorrow. And she's sure to die on Friday. The helicopter will crash. If it doesn't, she'll get seasick. In front of the technicians and Sam Curver's pilot, who will respect her even less for it. If the helicopter doesn't crash, she'll die of shame. If ever she makes it to the office of her client alive, something is sure to go wrong and she'll promptly get the sack. Zarah decides to preempt the assorted debacles and quit, right after getting rid of this obnoxious client.

The waverer has finally run out of aunts, declares the conversation helpful and promises to call again on the next day. A good night's sleep will resolve her dilemma. Not wanting to mention her upcoming business trip or her weekly day off on Saturday, Zarah suggests three nights. More is know to work better, with any medicine, isn't it? Her professionality gets praised in return.

To quit, Zarah would have to push the pause button, stand up and walk over to Odu's office. Feels courageous. Even worse than the anticipation of the helicopter ride. What if Odu kills her, for failing an important client? Better to ponder safe ways to quit over one more call.

"Zarah, everything OK with you? You look dreadful. No offense intended, I just can't help noticing. Just mentioning to explain why I'm calling. Anything wrong, anything I can do to help?" That deep and slightly raspy voice, that's Marian calling from the next cubicle. Zarah is nonplussed. Each operator of course has his personal extension. Their type of deal is rarely concluded in just one call and they are encouraged to build a personal relationship with customers. But who'd dare place an internal call and chat, instead of striving to do the job? Their work is being monitored. That behavior is like calling for the sack. Marian are trying to get her into even more trouble.

"Zarah, you're there? Don't worry, no one is going to listen in. We're both in the top ten, no coach is ever going to dial in to check how we're doing. Have been with coaching for a while myself, know how they proceed. What happened, trouble with Odu?"

Zarah is torn. Marian are an enemy. They are weird. And abrasive. And arrogant. But mostly weird. They were born a man, wear lady outfits most of the time, sometimes sport a moustache and insist on being called them. Marian are weird. But they are also the most senior operator. They're rumored to have been with 1kYears since the very beginning, back in 2025. They know stuff.

"Thanks Marian, for calling. Would you ever done a house call, by any chance? One of my clients insisted, and we're going tomorrow. We as in me, a med and a tec. By heli." Mentioning the helicopter wasn't exactly necessary, but why not take advantage of all that suffering to at least convey some importance? This is Marian Zarah is talking to, they can do with some humbling.

"Let me guess, you're going Atlantic View Terraces, and it's one more of the fat cats from Prime Estate Fidelity getting his virtual clone. Who is it, this time? Has Sam-more-bang-Curver finally made up his mind? Congrats, Zarah, house calls is prime time stuff. If Odu entrusts you with this kind of job, you're in for a solid raise. So tell me, who is it?" So much for humbling. Marian are cheerful, and definitely know things worth taking the risk of prolonging this conversation.

"Sam Curver, yes, that's my client. So you've made house calls, too, at the Atlantic View Terraces?"

"Sure. Half of their big boys went in first. That's how this whole enterprise got started. Our resort is actually based on the same blueprint as the Atlantic View Terraces. They were developed in full walk into 3D anyway. Saved our IT guys tons of work. Sam Curver is OK, you've got nothing to fear. He's no groper. With some of their big boys, you need to watch it. Any lady dropping by for a house call, they think business lunch dessert. But Sam is OK."

Zarah is torn. Marian showing off they're on first name terms with one of the big beasts, that's so typical, and so disgusting. But talking to them also provides relief. The urgency to quit has receded. They chat for another ten minutes, cheating 1kYears to the bone, and decide to meet for a mall outing on Saturday, to compare house call experiences.

Zarah only just manages to carry the flame of her newfound optimism through an especially horrible commute along flooded streets. She gets into one hell of a fight with her cousin once she finally reaches home. His stupid kids have once again savaged her tiny room. It's not much larger than a cupboard, but it's supposed to be her private space. She pays good, solid bucks to stay with them, and still has to endure these intrusions. A situation that was borderline accepable for a student is unbearable for the career professional she has become. If she makes it through the house call, she'll ask for that raise and get herself a place closer to Broad street. And bad luck for her cousin and his wife, if the numbers no longer add up. They should have considered the implications, before letting their kids play with her stuff.

Having once again slept poorly, Zarah leaves even earlier than usual on the following morning. She carries a second set of clothes in a plastic bag carefully folded to keep out the pervasive wet. Wise precaution. There is a big puddle, more like a little lake, where she usually finds a bus. She's soaking wet by the time she finally boards a van full of equally soggy and bad tempered fellow commuters. How much do you need to make, to be able to afford both a place and a car? Odu has both, meaning it can't be impossible.

Entering the office building ends Zara's misery. Even climbing the stairs is better than wading through filthy floods or getting steam pressed on the bus. The staircase smells strongly of lemon flavored detergent. A wonderful sensation compared to the odors she had to sample on the bus. And she's running early, meaning lots of time to change and redo herself. When she emerges from the ladies, in full professional business person combat gear, she's nearly confident and bravely strides down one flight of stairs to find her team.

The lab, as the technical floor is called, is as obviously a guy kind of place as the client acquisition level is dominated by ladies. Same layout, an open space at the center surrounded by outward facing offices for the managers, but totally different ambiance. Instead of orderly rows of cubicles personalized with carefully selected decorative items this open space features a mess of mismatched tables carrying a jumble of equipment in different stages of disassembly, interspersed with cans and food wrappers. The odd DON'T TOUCH sticky note signals that what looks destined for the junkyard aspires to be considered work in progress.

"Welcome to the tec vault, Zarah. Assuming you are Zarah. Anyone dressed up like this will be considered sales force down here. And the resident barbarians are known to feed on your kind. Didn't anyone warn you, about the cannibals?"

Zarah didn't see him coming. He's tall, substantially taller than her. Serious basketball format. At least six feet five. Pretty old, deep into his forties, but with well preserved good looks and a big friendly smile. This guys youngest brother, that would be a man Zarah would love to meet.

"Abeo Adeola, shrink on duty and Abeo-darling for you. Or just Abeo, if you're not into on the job flirting. When you introduce me to a client, you'd better stick to my formal title, though. That would be doctor Adeola, senior instructor, PhD neurology. I'm also a psychiatrist. For some unidentifiable reason people don't like to meet those, so we better don't mention that second PhD. Talking of clients, who's the bigwig aiming for immortality? We were only told a chopper is going to pick us up at ten, which will be great fun in this weather. I hope it won't be a long rollercoaster ride. Any chance it's just one more Atlantic View Terraces job?"

Zarah has been wiped off any remnants of confidence. She feels tiny. This guy is double her everything. Double her age and level of qualification. One more 1kYears longtermer. And he's even taller than her. So much for being in charge. She just met the boss.

"Abeo, how about strangulating you with one of my wires? Looking forward to the chopper noise covering your cries for mercy. Zarah, just ignore him. He lives under the delusion of being irresistible, and no one dares tell an old shrink he's gone mental. Where the hell is my charger? We can't leave unless we find my charger, and you two have been declared the search and rescue party. It's a white charger, with a phone attached, in a black leather case with a silver skull. Come on, get going, chopper pilots turn savage when kept waiting."

She's Abeo's opposite. Short, standing at definitely less than five feet. Skinny. Sloppily dressed, in an shapeless faded jeans and t-shirt outfit. Her formerly white sneakers have been walked on more than one wet day. And she's young, improbably young. Looks like high school. Who is this?

"Zarah, let's get going, we've got a phone to find. You don't want to alienate this particular nerd, senior IT operator for clients, in your first encounter. Trust me, I tried, succeeded and am now condemned to spend my life in her purgatory. She's called Wasola Taiwo, by the way. Waso for short, to hide she's a lady. Which she isn't, not in the sense of manners. Waso, would this happen to be the object of your desires? Hey, what do I get for handing it over without looking?"

Zarah stands there, still not daring to move away from the door for fear of banging into any of the equipment, and watches in bewilderment. Abeo, squeezed between two adjoining tables, holds up a phone still connected to a charger plugged into an array of power strips serving a stack of unidentifiable devices. He's holding it up high, way out of Waso's reach. And she to climb onto an office chair, onto the packed table, and reach for the phone quickly abandoned by a laughing Abeo. This is a madhouse. Or a prank. Zarah urges to dissolve.

"Wise decision, Zarah. To spare your saliva for later, I mean. Odu did warn you we techies are not allowed to talk in the presence of customers, unless it's strictly necessary to perform our respective jobs? We're your robots, Zarah, at your service. We'll sit at the back, until you're done with the negotiating, and the paperwork. Then I'll do my hairdresser job..."

Zarah has trouble listening. Abeo doesn't seem to mind never getting no answers and keeps babbling. He definitely knows how to do house calls. That's slightly reassuring. Why he won't lead the team and take over the talking remains a mystery, though. No option but to trust his word, under her circumstances. And it's soon time to go anyway. Walking up the stairs to the heliport feels like ascending the gallows. Outside, it's still raining hard. And no chopper yet. Just when Zarah starts to hope the trip might have been cancelled thanks to the weather, their air taxi arrives. Time for a new type of worries. And to close her eyes, not to see the crash when it happens.

No ten minutes later they disembark. The heliport atop the highest Atlantic View Terraces tower is far more sophisticated. No crawling out and running under the rain. They have to wait until the rotors come to a standstill and a transparent tunnel is deployed, shielding them from the elements. And the lift is of course as fully functional as the posh assistant leading their way.

It's a short ride, only a couple of levels down, the assistant explaining how the directors choose not to take residence on the top floors, as would of course have been their prerogative, to avoid sitting too close to the noisy choppers. Zarah nods along, for lack of better options. How the hell is she supposed to handle a guy with this kind of tribulations? She once again feels inadequate.

They are processed into a set of two adjoining meeting rooms connected by a door allowing direct access without passing through the corridor. The first room sports a table set for six attendees. The furniture of the second has been adapted to the occasion, featuring a larger table with four chairs, a couch and two smaller tables on wheels. Abeo and Waso immediately grab one each and start unpacking the metal cases they've brought along.

Zarah is glad to recognize most items, now that they are more conventionally arranged than in the messy lab. What looks like a hair net with a tail of dozens of thin, differently colored wires is the center piece of their proprietary technology. It's called a captor because it captures the knowledge, emotions and memories of the client seeking to produce a ghost. Without, and that's the big proprietary bit, boring holes into his skull to insert sensors. Clients don't even need to shave their head. The green dot goes up front. It needs to be positionened at the center of the upper forehead. The captor tail gets connected to its base unit, a bulky kind of laptop with a slender screen and a fat base accommodating all the plugs of all the wires. Everything is color coded. Wiring up a client is not exactly rocket science. Once everything is connected, the so-called instructor performs a calibration. The customer is made to lay down on and gets shown a set of cards featuring colors, images or words. The prompts trigger corresponding thoughts that are recorded as templates. In all clients who manage to think straight and stay focused for a second.

Abeo's captor base unit is in turn connected to Waso's laptop, by a fat cable with a big plug, like you need them for the TV. It would probably be possible to transmit the data wirelessly, but the techies love their cables. And this looks fancy on the promotion video, too. Once the system is calibrated for what is summarized as basic abstracts, the nerd takes over for the 3D bit of the exercise, to define the virtual body of the future soul.

In the early days, this was done first. Once it became clear that some real life clients, as opposed to the trial subjects recruited at university, lack the focus to achieve basic abstracts calibration, the sequence was inverted. If you fail, you want to find out early. Being identified as too messy too process won't cost you in cash with 1kYears. You'll get a total refund, despite any expenses caused. But the subsequent shrink invoices tend to be substantial. Doesn't exactly feel good, to be too stupid for a go at immortality. Depression looms.

To create the virtual body, the nerd makes the client stand up to take a 3D scan. On the cruise liner, they use a kind of round cage, like a hollow column. The client steps into it, the door is closed, the cage goes whizz, and that's it. In the absence of such a cage, Waso will perform the scan with a handheld device. Takes a bit longer, but the result is no less accurate. Once the future ghost has been fitted with his body, motor function calibration is performed by the shrink and the nerd working in sync. The client once again lays down. This time, he's made to think about movements he does perform in real life and therefore wants his soul to master.

With most clients, motor skill calibration doesn't take long. They're old, often more or less immobile, glad to be able to stand up on their own. In younger clients, especially the sporty ones, motor skill calibaration is tedious and time consuming work.

Zarah recalls an amateur juggler who drove his tec and doc team mad. He insisted on endowing his soul with his full set of very complex motor skills. Took them three days, to achieve acceptable results. It was worth the effort, though. The client wrote a glowing review, with permission to use it for advertising purposes. She got a fat bonus. That was great. But if ever not so old Sam Curver turns out to be a motionally tricky client, she might as well call Marian at once, to cancel their outing. They'll never be done in one short day. And all clients display obsessive urgency, once they have made up their mind. Afraid to die before completing their ghosts.

Abeo and Waso might be an odd team, and the nerd lady really could do with some serious restyling, but they know what they're doing. Their equipment is ready in a blink and the secretary proposes to bring in director Curver and corporate counsel Olanre. Olanre? As in Odu Olanre? Zarah bites her lip so hard she doesn't even notice Abeo's chuckle. Would counsel Olanre be the cause corresponding to the manager Odu effect? Probably. Good to know. Would be a typical Odu, not to expect his kin to be in attendance. Foresighted he isn't.

The three 1kYears staff stand next to the door to greet the customer and his entourage. Sam Curver enters first, a short and dynamic rosy meat pack of a guy with a brush of thinning fair hair and a broad smile revealing perfect teeth. His energy fills the small room. He's a very much in charge kind of person, shaking hands all round all the while rattling off his expectations.

Zarah only just manages to perform her role, small as it is. With his way of talking, she expected a local. Certainly not some white foreigner. If this Sam Curver is a US citizen, they're in trouble. Touching an American on Ginerian soil, that could be asking for a volley of cruise missiles, even without causing any harm. Damn. Why the hell didn't he mention his condition? Zarah barely finds the time to notice the close resemblance between Olanre senior and junior. It was not some distant uncle who got Odu a job and a title he doesn't deserve. Dad placed his boy. Disgusting.

The five of them manage to sit down and the assistant exits. Counsel Olanre takes over the task of reading the contract aloud, for the benefit of both parties. Service provider 1kYears Ltd as represented by Zarah Zavaro and client Sam Curver, present in person. The document runs to six pages, giving Zarah time to calm down and remember her client gave his nationality as Ginerian. However Sam Curver managed to acquire his extravagant complexion, and she strongly doubts it was caused by a skin condition, because of his equally extravagant hair, he is to be considered a local in any relevant, legal sense. No need to panic. Just to turn color blind.

Luckily, Zarah's job turns out to be far easier than feared. Zero additional negotiation required. Olanre senior reads, Curver nods, Zarah nods back in confirmation, all the way down to the end of the contract. Piece of cake. Zarah is so glad this went well she starts signing on the customer line by mistake. Curver saves her by quickly pointing out her error. And he even uses the blot she made as starting point for his own signature. He's surprisingly nice.

"So what next, Zarah? Hope you're going to stay at my side while they process me? Not sure I would feel safe, on my own with these two fierce creatures. Quite a team you've got yourself. Was there some sorting by size involved? Or did you just pick the mute ones?" Sam Curver is enjoying himself, and not anxious at all. He doesn't wait for an answer to add: "Counselor, no need to watch the action. That Seven Seas contract is far more deserving of your attention." Olanre senior bows slightly and exits. You don't argue with your boss.

Once the door is closed, Curver turns to the doctor, urging him in mock reproach: "Come on, Abeo, stop it. Fine to help preserve my dignity in front of my staff, duly appreciated. But the charade has lasted far too long already. This fine young lady is sure to get mad at us if we keep it up."

This sentence triggers a cascade of manic speculation freezing Zarah once again. And they're not done going unorthodox. The conversation takes a turn for the worse.

"So the new definition of never turns out to be a decade? Interesting, Sam, very interesting. Bit of a disappointment, too. Weren't you supposed to be totally immune, to all these - quote - fucking imperialist privileges - unquote? Said the guy who ends up paying two million bucks for one conversation with a lame replica of his pushy flamboyant self..." Abeo would have gone on nagging, but Sam doesn't give him the chance.

"Two million one hundred thousand, Abeo, to stick with the truth here. This fierce negotiator also acting as your boss, and hopefully shutting you up any time soon, fleeced me off an additional one hundred thousand, to spare me the cruise. Turns out this fee also gets me insulted by a former friend turned foe. If you want to call that a privilege, please yourself. I'm just trying to help you guys avoiding the dole queue. Can we get going now?"

Zarah is of course aware they're not really squabbling. They're old friends making fun. Very old friends. A decade, that means they must have known each other since the very early experimental days of the technology, before 1kYears was even set up.

Abeo leads his victim over to the couch, making him sit down: "At your service, Sam. Let's see if there's anything worth copying inside your head. And now you fold your hands behind your back, close your eyes and sit very still, to allow me to dress you up. Oh, and no talking, Sam, strictly no talking. It makes the head move, can't have that. This is actually what I like best about this job, you know? My patients can't talk back. I finally got myself the same peaceful job ambiance as enjoyed by dentists. Marvelous. Management of course tells me to shut up and let the pretty lady do the talking. You're entitled not to be insulted, for that kind of fees. But, you know what, Sam? For you, I'm going to make an extraordinary exception. Zarah won't mind. You deserve punishment, for tricking her into believing you don't know this enterprise inside out. You've been a bad boy, Sam, and now you're going to pay for it. Hard currency."

Zarah wishes Abeo wouldn't be so hard to read. Is he serious, about threatening a VIP client? Or still making fun? Impossible to tell. Sam Curver seems no wiser, judging by the way he clenches and unclenches his fists behind his back. He's at the mercy of the instructor, and obviously has no idea talking would not interfere with what Abeo is doing. He's only adjusting the cap, making sure all sixty four sets of microneedles properly puncture the scalp. The needles are so short you barely feel a little prick, as Zarah learned in her technology basics module. They all had to press one against their forehead, to get an idea of what it feels like. Barely a prick, and no blood drawn.

Abeo takes his time to position, and sometimes reposition, all sixty four captor heads. And he keeps up the teasing. Anything goes, from lurid tales of empty brained customers not even managing the difference between green and red, without the excuse of being color blind, to more spicy jokes centered on sexual prowess, or more often non-prowess, and the way it shows up in the downloaded data. Listening to him, any intelligent person should run, instead of submitting to a procedure that so often ends up in agonizing humiliation. Zarah herself is starting to feel scared. Would she have fallen for a sales pitch hiding massive downsides?

She can't help admiring Sam Curver. Her client doesn't run. He has morphed into a stoical lump not even clenching his fists any longer. Might even be smiling ever so slightly. If this is some sort of test, or contest, he's winning. It's Abeo running out of ideas, not him taking fright. And the doctor reaches the same conclusion soon enough, giving his victim permission to speak.

"OK Sam, here you go. This is your very last chance to call this off and avoid facing the void inside your skull. Feel free to ask for more time, for further consideration. I certainly won't blame you, it's the first rule for a doctor to make sure not to cause harm. How much time shall we grant you?"

"None, you bloody f-beep s-beep. Sorry ladies, normally I wouldn't use foul language in your presence, but this is exceedingly hard to word politely. Abeo, I don't need to reconsider. What the hell do you think I spent the last ten years on? Just do your f-beep job. Preferably a good one, if you don't mind me asking. I know what I'm doing. I'm the one guarding that patent, remember? If there is anyone aware of the side effects as well as you are, it's me. Hit it, will you?"

His tone is quite laconic, but he's angry all right. Less of an extrovert when the going gets serious. Zarah's mind once again engages in a feverish bout of speculation. Sam Curver, holder of the patent behind 1kYears stellar success? Or would he have filed the patent on behalf of the BiBo? Why would anyone resort to such an intellectual property strategy? She's lost, but also fascinated. Amazing business trip. Her best bet is to listen carefully, not to miss any clues. Marian hopefully will have an idea of how this is supposed to make any sense.

Abeo shrugs, without even commenting, and signals his patient is to lay down. Sam Curver conforms, shrugging back his persistent exasperation.

"Zarah, do me the favor to sit down, your feet will love you for it. With this kind of tension we're in for one long hard session. Sam, relax. Know this doesn't come naturally to your kind of temper, but you have to let go. I'm the one giving the orders here. Your job is to look at the card I'm showing you and tell me what you see. If I confirm, you keep thinking the same concept, as strongly as you can. And stop being mad at me, that would ruin your results. Ready?"

After this rowdy start, Zarah expects the worst, as in Sam Curver failing for lack of focus. But the basic abstracts calibration proceeds at a steady pace. Abeo no longer teasing helps, but the client himself contributes a solid ability to concentrate. Sam Curver will get his ghost.

The body scan proves no more of a hurdle. Waso had been quietly playing with her phone throughout the first stage, looking rather unwilling to perform. Zarah braced herself for one more of her impertinences, instead of adequate action. But when Abeo calls for her part, the shabby nerd puts down her gadget without objections and does a good job. The eSam they're invited to admire on her screen half an hour later looks exactly like the original.

Motor function calibration provides more of a challenge, as Zarah had anticipated. Once they are done with the basics, triggered by sentences on cards that occasionally send the victim blushing, they have to address the special skills. Sam Curver is both a sailor and a surfer, and not willing to deprive his ghost of seaborne fun. This calls for intense three way communication, the client showing the techies videos to explain what type of movements are involved. The ambiance has turned fraternal, the three of them striving to attain their shared goal. Zarah feels useless. But as no one else seems to care, she tries hard not to mind. If her job only consists of looking business like, that's what she will keep doing. And watching this trio struggle with a complex task is way better than picking up the phone back at the office.

At some point, Sam Curver is told to have a break and empty his head while Waso and Abeo check what they've got, ticking off items on a long list. Zarah knows this checklist was introduced because of glitches. All teams are convinced never to forget anything. Unfortunately, reality didn't confirm their assumption. One omission led to a color blind ghost, a bit of an issue in an avid painter. Another ghost proved capable of performing a somersault, but was hardly able to scratch his head or comb his hair. Hence the checklist, to make sure no basic skill is amiss.

"That's it, Sam, good job. Wouldn't have expected you to be actually clever, assumed you were just pretending. Quite a surprise, really. Ready for the hard part?"

Abeo doesn't wait for the answer to reach for the prefilled syringes. These syringes, and the need to monitor the vital signs of the client during the most consequential nap of his life, call for the presence a fully qualified medical professional. Sam Curver will now be subjected to a very special kind of anaesthesia. It facilitates retrieving his memories. Both the conscious and the unconscious ones. Very scary, in Zarah's qualified opinion. And in Abeo's too, as it turns out.

"Zarah, any chance you'd be willing to assist with the dream phase? Sam will do better if someone holds his hand, to anchor him in the here and now. This trip is best not taken alone, and he's had enough of me for one day. See his hopeful expression? Any chance?"

And so Zarah ends up with her chair pulled close to the couch, holding the hand of her client. Having anxiously wiped her palm against her skirt she's surprised his is no less sweaty. Good at hiding he's stressed, the currently not quite so mighty director. Abeo is busy on his other arm, inserting an IV cannula. Sam will be put on a drip, just in case, and the content of the prefilled syringes will be injected into the port of the infusion set.

Zarah realizes for the first time that this really is a medical procedure. Up to now, she had considered their product an outrageously expensive computer game. Witnessing this for real conveys a totally different impression. Abeo was right, to compare himself with a dentist. This is at least as intimidating. She's really glad it's not her on the couch.

"OK Sam, you're ready to fly. Don't forget, you're totally safe, it's just memories flashing by. Zarah is here to remind you this is nothing but a very vivid dream. Don't hesitate to clutch her hand if you're scared. She's a tough lady, she can take pressure, and will clutch back. Don't try to control the process, don't try to fight, there's nothing you can do. Just let it gush through you. The less you resist, the less you'll suffer. OK? Good. This mouthpiece will refrain you from biting or swallowing your tongue. And as additional benefit, you don't need to worry about screaming. Zarah, brace yourself for a couple of spasms at the beginning. He's going to calm down after a few of minutes. This initial sequence will unfortunately feel like hours to him, and he's sure to make a big mental note never to do this again, but he's perfectly safe. It's nothing but vivid memories. Here we go."

Zarah grips Sam's hand more firmly while Abeo administers the three drugs. She knows what they are for. The first one sends her client sleeping. The second one will reduce his muscle tension. The third induces the mental state allowing the calibrated captor to suck out his memories.

Sam grips up in a violent spasm no thirty seconds later. At acute risk of getting her bones crushed, Zarah instinctively pushes back, gripping his hand with all her strength. She's lucky to be tall and have large hands, otherwise she would be at risk of getting hurt. Reminds her of the fights she used to have with her cousin, when they were kids, who'd cry and call the competition off first. What a weird way to lead one's professional life. They should develop something more gentle.

"Don't worry, Zarah, this won't last. He's going to calm down any second. It's the most traumatic memories going first, always a bit of a drama. Reliving all the worst moments of your life at speed sends anyone running for cover, virtually speaking. See, he's slowing down. Doing extremely well, our Sam. With his temper, I was worried he'd try to stay in control, but this looks excellent. He's letting it happen, perfect. Waso, what does the torrent look like on your side?"

Sitting with her back to the nerd, Zarah can only guess she must have abandoned her beloved phone once again, to monitor something on her laptop. Her answers comes fast, and affirmative. Sam is adding a lot of "meat to the bone", as she puts it. A fine ghost in the making.

Two hours later, Abeo takes over the hand holding to allow Zarah a toilet break. Sam is still spilling memories. His extremely extended download will deliver a superb ghost.

When Zarah comes back in, Abeo and Waso are once again speculating about the reasons for their subject's stamina. According to Abeo, mental preparation did the trick. Sam has been pondering this act for years and didn't shy away from a good hard look at the downsides. This turned him resilient. Waso can't stand hearing any of this "old fashioned white male superiority assumption crap". She's adamant age is the clinching factor. Most of their clients are old dodderers, barely alive. No wonder they can't keep it up that long. Remembering is like sex...

Zarah is once again holding Sam's hand, and she's torn. Waso is a badly dressed little pest that urgently needs to be taught manners. That's not how you talk about clients, or back to your elders. And who has ever heard of an educated girl starting sex talk? Ill mannered men do this. Whereas good girls pretend not to notice, and never react. No girl is allowed to behave like this unpunished, even if she's very skilled at computers. Except Waso seems to be getting away with it. It's Abeo on the defensive, struggling to argue his corner. While she joyfully "brings in some data" to reinforce her position. Fascinating. Girls like Waso, or Marian, if she can be considered a lady, are fascinating. Wrong, but you want to keep looking. And listening. Bad girls are sure to end badly. But this one seems to be having a lot of fun getting there.

Around 8 pm, Sam's assistant dares knock and peak in. Would they be taking much longer? And if they intend to keep going, is there any chance they could make do with the security, for any assistance required? Sam having transited from download to sleep less than an hour ago, Abeo tells her to call it quits, they'll manage on their own. She doesn't argue and leaves at once, sending Zarah wondering how she'll get home. Certainly not by chopper, at night. Complications ahead. As if she hadn't endured enough today already.

Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-25 show above.)