The Bean Counter’s atmosphere is bright without glare and just crowded enough at any time to suggest the site’s quiet popularity. Komila is seated, as is her custom most days, alone at a small high-top near a street-side window, cup in one hand, foldie in the other, scanning headlines without much interest.
Not for the first time, she marvels at the coffee’s aroma, its heat in her nostrils, and the visceral certainty of each luxurious sip. She sets the cup aside and her fingertips graze its surface as she releases the handle. Its ceramic context is undeniable.
That such nuanced sensations as these can be conveyed within a construct always manages to baffle her. The craftsmanship of the experience here is among the best anywhere, and she looked around with deliberation before choosing this one.
Likewise, the continuity of the scene proceeding streetside is completely convincing. Unlike most fee-comp nodes, as The Bean Counter has ever been, the exterior view architecture and activity is impeccable. She’s watched it with curiosity over the course of many subjective hours and the virtual tableau through her high-top by a window—always hers, no matter the time of day nor the volume of clientele, well worth the extra simoleons—proceeds without apparent loop or even a subtle reordering of recognizable components.
It has become her preferred entry portal, a casual, unpretentious ambiance from which she can decompress after work, review and select from a menu of experiences, meet with friends, play, relax, commune. The value of such experience is proven to be therapeutic.
She swipes across the foldie, shifting all the content into a corner, scrolls through a short list of personal messages without reply, and schedules a day trip with her friend, Yunie, to visit a mountaintop monastery in Nepal this weekend. A breathtaking teaser assures her the monks themselves have developed a masterful virtual reflection of the vertigo-inducing site.
No one seems to pay any attention to Eric as he makes his way between knots of patrons engaged in animated exchanges and others, like Komila, in quiet pursuit of personal interests. He stops at a polite distance from her table and graces her with an open smile.
Komila’s avatar is of the current trend for many older citizens of the virtual milieu, an unpretentious representation of the corporeal without excessive post-corrections. She appears a slightly plump, fortyish woman with pleasant, dark-complected, East Indian features. She wears an ornamental bindi with a small peridot on her forehead. She doesn’t stand, but stares at him over her cup with a narrowed brow.
“Whoever you are, everyone knows that face. You should go away.”
“You are correct, Mrs. Chandra,” he says. “That is why no one else would try to wear this face but me. You are also correct to be skeptical. Here is my validation.”
A Character wouldn’t know her name outside of a scenario and this isn’t one. Komila has an unclocked moment. The documentation is authentic; unless the concrete foundations of AsReal have broken down, there is no question. It really is him.
“You’re really him,” she says and wishes she could have those words back. She places her cup in front of her. “Why are you here at my table, sir?”
“I apologize for the interruption in your experience, Mrs. Chandra,” he says. “I have a matter of personal importance to discuss with you.”
He has a likeable, boyish face and all the lines in it turn upward, as if they’ve done it often. A good-looking man, as famous for his asocial behavior as for his numerous accomplishments and, if one can believe accounts, questionable, possibly terrifying motives.
There are so many things she thought she might say to this person, should the implausible opportunity ever arise. Flustered now, she settles for, “I’m not sure whether to be flattered or afraid that you even know who I am, Mr. Gerzier.”
She says his name with the proper French-Canadian pronunciation, rather than the American bastardization so typical among those who do not like him, and there are so many of them.
She places her cup between them with deliberate care. “I am, as you may imagine, confounded as to why you would need to speak with me at all. Discuss what?”
“Your son, Rahm, Mrs. Chandra.”
“This venue is an open one,” he says. “More so than is prudent for our conversation. Will you spare a few minutes of your time to accompany me so we may speak privately?”
Her peridot tips into the furrow between her eyebrows and she allows herself to give the surroundings a critical review. She considers a number of responses as she does so, some of them civil. She isn’t concerned for her safety; wherever he might take her to ‘speak privately’ must exist, if that’s the right word, within AsReal. As bizarre as this moment has become, she reminds herself, she is in no real danger from this man. Or anything, really. Her Autonomy and Exit Rights guarantee it. Aside from any of that, what does the notorious Eric Gerzier have to do with her child?
“May I ask where we are going?”
“My home. And I apologize in advance for the abrupt transition.”
Komila is weightless a startled heartbeat as the coffee shop motif dissolves before the new site’s physics capture and settle her into an overstuffed chair.
“Oh!” she pipes and cannot get that back either.
Eric’s chair faces hers at a discrete distance.
“Again, Mrs. Chandra, I apologize,” he says, “but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to reach out to you. Are you all right?”
She’s had rougher transitions.
They say the more coherent the communication becomes between AIs on either end of a transfer, less visceral responses will become commonplace rather than exceptional. Sometimes it seems like two pilots trying to land the same aircraft, each only able to control the opposite side of the plane. A soft landing like this is a memorable one. Her personals have followed her as well, as they should, cup steaming on a side table, clutch and foldie next to it.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
Her first assessment of the interface is a quick one. Impressive presentation, stunning aesthetics. Her natural curiosity would draw her straight in, but she knows enough not to be spellbound by a site’s glamour until it’s time to do so. The nature of this particular interaction precludes it anyway.
“What is your interest in my son, Mr. Gerzier?”
“Rahm has made direct application to my Promethean Project School. It is unusual, given his age… twelve next week, is that correct?”
“I mean no, I will not co-sign his application. I will not allow him to join your cult army. He is a boy. He does not understand what he is doing and you…” Komila is surprised that she is able to keep her voice level. “You cannot have him.”
Eric’s expression does not alter, except maybe around the eyes, as if perhaps she’d stung him with that ‘cult army’ jab. She expected him to look angry or something, but he doesn’t. She’s waiting for his rebuttal. It doesn’t come. He just sits there and twinkles at her. She notices herself noticing that this irritates her quite a bit and knows that’s not a good place for her next words to come from, but here they come anyway.
“I have heard things about your students and your school,” she says. “Even if they’re not true, the accusations disturb me deeply. It is common knowledge, I’m told, those enrolled in your school stand to lose their American citizenship and that alone is reason enough to decline your offer.” She watches for him to react, a hint of a smirk or scowl, a hasty denial, something to confirm her words. If anything, he looks solemn.
“I have asked to speak with you like this because it is the School’s responsibility to notify you of your son’s application within a very specific and prohibitive timeframe. Any number of my associates could deliver this information to you in a formal setting, but this is personal to me. It is precisely young people like Rahm for whom the School was created. I consider it a courtesy to bring you into this moment personally and as directly as possible. This I have done. In similar fashion, I have made it possible for you to bring your husband, Madhu, into this moment as well, if you wish it.”
Oh no, she thinks.
“No,” she says.
Dammit, she thinks. Madhu will be all for it.
“Very well,” Eric says. “A moment ago, you mentioned declining my offer. I have made no offer. Rahm has made application, quite on his own initiative, and I am following protocol. He is a gifted young man. That much is obvious. He has a window of opportunity to understand and develop those gifts. The fact that he understands this and has taken responsible action, at an age when an overwhelming number of his peers are adrift, is significant. The Promethean Project School was created to nurture talented young people like Rahm, help them focus their abilities toward overcoming the challenging aftermath of the so-called End Times. You have, no doubt, seen some of the work that’s being done around the globe by my ‘cult army’.”
“I know you’re trying to change the world by bullying governments into doing things your way because you think no one can stop you.”
“That is an unproductive exaggeration. We are striving to help heal the damage our species has done to the planet. We are not alone, but we have taken bold steps others cannot. We are not trying to change the world, Mrs. Chandra. We are trying to change how we live with it, if it will still allow us do so.
Komila knows it will be unproductive to say, “You sound just like Madhu,” but there it is anyway, right out there, word for word.
Her peaking frustration, both at her own impetuous speech and at this shadow celebrity’s obvious ploy—attempting to weave Rahm’s uncharacteristic and troubling recent behavior into what she knows to be twisted facts about his own lofty actions and motives—have given her medications in Real a test. She can feel her anxiety spiking. “What I mean is, I see no reason to continue this conversation. Rahm is not of age to make this choice for himself and I will not change my mind.”
She stands, and Eric with her. “Will you have your agent return me now, or must I exit here?”
“Your previous frame will be restored, Mrs. Chandra, exactly as you left it. Before you go, I will ask you to share this with your husband.”
Eric extends an open hand with something in it she’s heard about. She doesn’t reach for it.
“What’s in it?”
“It is the complete four-dee record of Rahm’s application exam submission to the School. I am still following protocol, Mrs. Chandra. As a minor, Rahm understands he is not legally entitled to Privacy and, by his submission, has allowed this record to be made. It is your parental right to have it.” He holds the thing between them in the steepled fingers of one hand.
“Is this the original and only iteration?”
“The original, yes. The School will retain a copy for its records, of course.”
It is the size of a robin’s egg, but angular, and its surface seems to be indistinct, shifting in conflicting Escher-esque motion. It is unpleasant to look at.
“Of course,” she says and plucks it from his fingertips. It squirms in her palm. She snatches her clutch from the side table and releases the weird thing into it, snapping it closed even as her cup bounces and coffee splatters the carpet.
“Oh!” Hand over her mouth, furious at her gracelessness and the mess it’s caused, she reminds herself this is vee. There is no mess, no good reason to feel foolish. She looks at her cup on its side, the dark blot contrasting with the carpet pattern, splattered drops on Eric’s shoes.
She expects to see on his face the look her father would show her whenever she spoke or acted without thinking; he showed it to her often. Instead, Eric’s eyes are kind. She can’t remember ever seeing a validated image of him without an expression of good-natured patience. Her favorite channeler often likens it to the vacant look of a lobotomy patient. Ha ha. Up close and personal, Komila isn’t seeing that.
Yes, this is vee, but she reminds herself, this is a Person, not a Character. His manner seems effortlessly genial and respectful. Even here, he maintains a polite distance and demeanor, not quite the arrogant, polarizing figure as he’s been depicted. She has a brief glimpse of how her information stream has narrowed, and her views with it. She wonders what’s become of her old skepticism and inquisitiveness. And she is curious.
Behind the man, the entire long wall from floor to ceiling is cabinetry crafted from some rich vermillion wood. An eclectic assortment of mementos and artifacts, some of them recognizable, and objects of either artistic or inexplicable purpose dominate open shelving. Books stack, stand, or slump between them all. Nearby, a wide stair curves upward to a mezzanine and what appears a spacious, softly illuminated common area beyond. At the far end of the study, a single painting commands the wall, an energetic abstract backlit to allow translucent elements to stand out in colorful relief.
Turning to see what’s been at her back the whole time, she barely realizes her tari has begun walking toward it. A single, monolithic transparency spans the entire length of the room. A few steps carry her to what seems a precipitous edge. Beyond is an undulating sea under a crystalline half-moon. Dark, roiling surf scours the lagoon below.
Komila realizes she’s allowed herself to be drawn in against her best intentions and drags her attention from the view, back to the contradiction of the man.
“I understand your reticence,” he says, “and I don’t presume to know the precise narratives that dominate your perception of my work. I trust you haven’t predicated all your hopes and prayers upon their guidance alone. More immediately, however, I trust you and Madhu will choose to understand why Rahm has made this decision. I believe he wants that understanding from you more than anything.”
She wants to ask why he thumbs his nose at laws and governments where he has no right to involve himself at all. They say his workers are given implants and become robotic. And does he really grow inhuman creatures in tanks as laborers and soldiers? And why, maybe the most telling question of all, does he care what one disturbed little boy does or doesn’t do?
Her opportunity to probe the celebrated recluse will never be any better than this and Komila is disoriented once more to find herself in the Bean Counter, seated alone at her high-top by the window. The transition was flawless.
There is a small node the size of a pea behind her right ear—not really; it’s an AsReal thing—but pressing it just so initiates the exit protocol.
… and she is in a cubicle, a soft-cornered booth as immaculate as it is austere. A luxurious reclining couch covered in a tough synthetic hide is central and a low, integrated shelf runs the length of one long wall for personal belongings. These, a charging stack on the shelf, and a double hook at the door to hang her coat and hat, represent the only differences between a virtuary and a cramped walk-in closet.
She reaches for her tiny handbag and her foldie within. The back of her hand brushes the encapsulated vorp. It is still obnoxious. She opens her foldie to its margins and a three-dee three-sixty of Eric Gerzier’s study displays on its seamless matte surface. A linking icon accompanies the image with a personal note from Gerziere in a casual, cursive script. It seems merely a polite close with no answers to the questions she was not even allowed time to ask. She folds the sheet into neat quarters and slips it into her clutch. Well, maybe she will ask them.
She cups her mask to her face and it seals below her eyes and under her chin. A breath in and out to test it, she steps into the hallway toward the exit with a purpose. There will be no more socializing in virtua for Komila today. No time for further diversions of any kind. Nor will there be, as much as she is committed to maintaining her rigid fitness regimen, time for an energetic workout. She’s got something in her clutch that will make Madhu just absolutely shit himself.
~ ~ ►