Checks, Balances – Ch. 2

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Jack Tran used to hate it when Aria did this to him—the looking-him-coldly-in-the-eyes-until-he-gave-up thing. She’d done that whenever he’d tried to get her attention while she was deeply concentrated on her studies about her heroes. Most recently, it’d happened three days ago, on a cold winter day just like today, except it was raining.

The raindrops loudly pounded on the windows at Jack’s 5th-floor apartment. Aria sat on the living room sofa, pen and paper ready, leaning toward the screen.

Today her study involved watching a documentary. The hero was Lucious Bold, the CEO of Bold Company and a hands-on engineer, researcher, and philanthropist.

Bold, being the ever-generous person he was, had funded the creation of the documentary so that, in his words, “Future generations could be inspired.” Of course, not many people bothered to watch documentaries about scientific discoveries and the commercializations thereof. (That said, most people did know and appreciated the fact that Lucious Bold had been one of the corporate-side advocates for universal basic income, his logic being that for decades, there’d been enough wealth in the world to prevent death from starvation or homelessness. He’d further argued that the cost of not providing for the welfare of everyone—the potential for social upheaval—outweighed the cost to big corporations in the form of taxation.)

The people interested in the technical details had always made up a tiny segment of the entire working population. And with the dwindling of the working population itself, said segment had diminished to a microscopic, almost undetectable slice of the world.

Aria was part of that slice. She didn’t want to miss a word of what Bold had to say.

“It comes in every color, Vincent,” he said. “See, Vincent, from the beginning, I was very adamant about it. I wanted us to capture all the variety there is in our world. It doesn’t make sense to create skin in only one color—let’s just say, pink—when there are people with green and blue and silver skin too.”

“Totally, totally,” said Vincent Gabele.

Aria marveled at the matter-of-fact tone with which Bold said how very obvious it was to him to allow everyone in this world, regardless of the skin color they were born with, to benefit from his new technology.

He was a lean, tall man with wild silver hair that reached his chin at some parts and shot up in the opposite direction at other parts. Clearly, he enjoyed the stereotypical mad scientist look. It had been his signature look since he was twenty or so (with hair brown, not silver), which had been when he’d begun appearing in journals and newspapers for this and that exciting new discovery. Just like with everything else in his life, he’d raised a taken-for-granted concept to the next level by pushing it to its limits: he wore a white lab gown at all times, as if he were ready to be photographed at all times. This was a boon for enlightenment, science, and everything else he represented, because, well, he was quite handsome. So objectively handsome, in fact, that not even that mad scientist look masked his beauty.

But handsomeness aside, what mattered was the attitude. Most people his age—he was sixty by now—tried to look as normal as possible. Most sixty-year-olds had done so throughout the ages, not just in today’s world. But Bold? He refused to take that route. If he could make science a little bit more like a show and thereby get people’s attention and make them care, he was willing to do so.

He never lost his faint, kind smile. He showed no nervousness whatsoever in front of the cameras. The world needed geniuses like him—geniuses who could blossom at the attention of the masses instead of sinking to the bottom of the heap of provocative entertainment. Really, it was smart of him to adopt that mad scientist outfit and hair.

Not that Bold was excessively showy, not at all. His hands were always calmly folded on his laps. He never made big gestures. His achievements were so grand, yet he never tried to intimidate anyone.

As to Vincent Gabele, he was one of the head producers at Bold Productions, whose name Aria knew from the numerous credit rolls she’d seen at the end of these documentaries. He spoke in a quietly sweet voice, brimming with his eternal respect for his boss.

In most other aspects, Vincent was quite unmemorable—especially visually-speaking. In fact, he was optically so forgettable that his most not-forgettable feature wasn’t even his face.

For example, now: Bold sat across from Vincent in that ever classic over-the-shoulder style frame. Hence Aria could only see Vincent’s left shoulder. That, she recognized. That particularly square left shoulder. It, and its counterpart on the right side, were frequently-appearing characters and the most memorable features that Vincent Gabele was born with. Compared to them, his face was too forgettable. Had it not been for the baseball caps that he always wore, Aria wondered if she could’ve recognized him as him in those split seconds in which his face sometimes blinked in a brief cut, then disappeared. He probably kept a whole collection of them at home. Baseball caps, not shoulders or faces.

But it was good so. They wanted to give the spotlight to Lucious Bold, not the interviewer. So, you could say Vincent was gifted. He was born to do this job, and was doing it extremely well, by keeping his voice sweet, his shoulders square, and his face forgettable, with the exception of a baseball cap as an ornament, just to avoid confusing the viewers altogether.

The clear focus was Lucious Bold. More than half of the frame fixated on him. That was supposed to be like that, and not, like the trolls said, “Because Bold is an attention whore.” Bold was the guy who’d created artificial-but-might-as-well-be-real human skin in every color in which skin occurred naturally, and at an affordable price too. That should more than qualify him as someone who deserved attention, regardless of whether it had been actively sought after or not.

“But it must have been difficult to take all that into account,” Vincent said. “I mean, every shade of skin? From the darkest to the palest? And taking into account all the different environments, say those who live in sunny places, cold places without the sun rising for months…”

When Bold didn’t immediately respond, the frame cut to a different angle, close-up on Bold from the right. Bold pressed a finger at his chin in deep thought.

“Yes, Vincent, good point. It was tough, very tough, I’ll admit that. And some researchers on my team were against my plans. They said we should first pick whatever skin color that was the easiest to make, and go to market with that first. But I didn’t agree, Vincent. Whatever technology that was ideal for making one skin color wasn’t necessarily going to be the same as whatever technology that was ideal for making all the different skin colors. So, to get the latter, we would’ve had to abandon the former and almost start from scratch anyway. Does that make sense, Vincent?”

Instead of showing Vincent’s reaction, the frame cut again to Bold, from the front and left. His face took up most of the screen. His eyes sparkled with calm passion.

“It all comes down to respect. I respect every human being in this world, Vincent. Anyone and everyone who suffered severe burns will be able to lead a normal life now, without having to think, ‘Why wasn’t I born with that particular other skin color that happened to be the first one to be released in the market’?”

“But because of that, those who could have been the lucky few a lot earlier had to wait a little longer, no?”

“Yes, they did. And Vincent, I considered that.”

Bold really liked to address people by their names as frequently as possible.

“But you see,” Bold said, “I always believe that the greater good should take the higher priority than personal gains. And sometimes that means that the whole group has to wait. And that whole group includes me. Believe me when I say that waiting is as hard for me as it is for anyone else. But I had to be patient, Vincent, and I had to subdue the voices inside me that said that I want quick results. I reminded myself: with Bold Company, you can rest assured; we won’t leave you behind.”

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Vincent said.

“Snob,” Jack said from the kitchen.

Aria had almost forgotten that she shared the apartment with Jack. It had been his, originally. But for heaven’s sake, if he’d asked her to move in, he shouldn’t be surprised that from time to time, she was going to watch TV in his living room, and expected to be able to do so without being distracted, just like she didn’t distract him while he was lifting weights.

So, she ignored him, though he’d spoken loudly enough for her to hear him over the rain drumming on the windows. She wanted to absorb everything she could absorb about Lucious Bold.

“By the way, Vincent, I will tell you right now that this isn’t the end.”

“How so?”

“Bold Company won’t rest until we have the full suite of what it takes to help the burn victims.”

“Tell us a bit more about that.”

“Hair, Vincent. Hair. That is what is critical. Wigs are expensive, you see? High-quality wigs made of real hair that hasn’t been damaged from dyeing and frequent drying and other such things. But if we made hair, Vincent? In every color imaginable? And if we, furthermore, were able to plant that hair directly in the scalp and consequently, allow people to grow their own hair instead of having to wear a wig?”

“Then you won’t just be the hero of the burn victims. The entire world population of baldies will call you their hero.”

Vincent laughed. Bold laughed a bit, too—but just the right amount to avoid making Vincent look like a total jerk while not letting anyone misinterpret Bold’s laughter as being politically incorrect in any shape or form.

Finally, Vincent stopped making a fool out of himself and cleared his throat. He said, in his sweet media voice, “You are an asset to our society, Doctor Bold. And once again, congratulations on opening the flagship store.”

“I am only doing what I should be doing, Vincent.”

“For those of you who are interested, it’s in Onsemiro, the capital of our nation, at the headquarters of Bold Company. Right on the first floor. Am I right?”

“Yes, Vincent.”

“It’s the tallest building in the city. You can’t miss it. Says B.O.L.D. right on the top floor.”

Vincent laughed. Lucious Bold smiled.

“So pretentious,” Jack said.

Jack was talking like the forum trolls. But Aria thought that “pretentious” was the wrong descriptor. Ambitious, maybe. Or strategic. Or annoying, a little, calling Vincent by his name so frequently. But pretentious? No.

To be truly pretentious, a person had to try to come across as being better than they actually were. But that wasn’t the case with Bold. He was great. And he knew it. Of course he knew it. He was an astonishingly smart man. How could Jack or the trolls deny that part? Maybe they’d taken too many of one of those street makes (or street meds, depending on the opinion of the user regarding the usage of substances for self-medication), which had messed up with their heads. Otherwise, they’d be screaming in excitement, which was exactly what Aria wanted to do. Bold had just told the world that he’d created human skin to help the burn victims and that he wasn’t going to stop there, but create authentic hair!

“Nobody who names his company after himself can really be humble,” Jack said.

“Oh my goodness,” Aria said, finally looking around. “Will you stop it?”

“Stop what, exactly?”

Jack crossed the living room with a glass of disgusting-looking, beige protein drink. Him coming over without finishing the drink meant that he was ready to fight.

“What’s your problem with me watching these?” Aria asked. “I don’t keep talking to you when you’re lifting weights.”

“Because I don’t follow people who’re so obviously in love with themselves when I’m lifting weights.”

“What’s wrong with promoting what you’ve accomplished if you’ve developed the greatest technology since the advent of aidbots?”

“Oh, gosh, not that again. ‘Since the advent of aidbots,’ of course.”

“What? It’s true.”

“It’s not true. Not everyone thinks that your job is that important.”

“It’s not because it’s my job. It’s because countless hyperelderly—who we are likely to become, I might add—have gained freedom like never before in the history of humanity.”

“Are you hearing yourself? You talk as if the world would have stopped functioning if you hadn’t worked.”

And so on and so forth.

After a while, Aria gave him the cool look. Jack didn’t give up immediately. Jack said that she’d become a robot while making robots for old people who’d be better off becoming robots themselves because being human, for them, had ceased a long time ago. Humans weren’t built to last a hundred and twenty years, Jack said. Aria kept giving him the cool look during his entire speech, even when he claimed that Bold was merely a race collector, more disturbing and disgusting than a supposedly race-blind person.

The cool look. All the way.

Eventually, Jack gave up and went off to the kitchen to finish his stupid protein drink.

Aria slumped on the sofa. She glared at the screen. Bold and Vincent were talking about other things. Aria heard their voices but didn’t process the content at all. She was brooding about what Jack had said.

Weren’t built to last a hundred and twenty years. What was that even supposed to mean? Obviously, people were lasting that long, hence the popularity of the aidbots.

And even if people didn’t last that long, or weren’t supposed to last, so what?

You do the job that you’ve chosen. Your calling.

Which of course Jack didn’t understand. He didn’t have a job. Few people had jobs these days because nobody had to have a job. Why get a job, when all the essentials were given out for free?

Very few could have jobs. Very few things required human input anymore. Many times, it was better for people to stay out of the way. And that trend had begun long before a silly passenger had put a glass vase in a carry-on gym bag, and a bunch of airport and airline workers had failed to notice because they didn’t have a magical (or technologically advanced) ability to identify glass under layers of cloth.

Aria recalled that story that her mother had told over breakfast once, from the days when most everyone used to work in an office, even as terms such as “digital nomads” had been thrown around as if they were the next big hip thing.

“I emailed him to send me four files,” Mother had said, fake-amused and actually quite infuriated. “And you know how much thought I had to put into that process? Let’s just say too much. It was like this. Imagine that the files had been named after fruits. First off, I knew that if I listed those four in a sentence, like ‘Can you please send me the apple-file, banana-file, cherry-file, and durian-file?’, he was bound to miss one of the four. So, I wrote the email with a numbered bullet-point list.

“Can you please send me these four files?

“1. Apple-file

“2. Banana-file

“3. Cherry-file

“4. Durian-file.

“Guess what he did?”

“What?” Aria had said, already guessing the answer. She swallowed the bacon in her mouth so she could react as soon as her mother answered. Aria was ten or so back then, young, wanting to please her mother. Besides, when it came to office blunder talk, there’d never been a time when Aria had needed to disagree with her mother.

“He sent me the banana-file and cherry-file,” Mother said, “but didn’t send me the apple-file and durian-file! Didn’t even acknowledge that I’d mentioned them.”

Young Aria rolled her eyes and let out a chuckle.

“So I emailed him back,” Mother said. “ ‘Thanks for sending me the banana-file and cherry-file. Can you also send me the apple-file and the durian-file?’ Guess what he did this time.”

“No, he didn’t,” Aria said in genuine disbelief.

“He sent me the apple-file, but didn’t send me the durian-file!”

At this point, Mother laughed—that angry, I-give-up laugh.

“So I sent him another email,” she said. “ ‘Thanks for sending me the apple-file. Can you send me the durian-file too?’ And that was when he finally said, ‘The durian-file isn’t available yet.’ Can you believe it? How can people, who cannot read a list of four files and send those four files, be working at a job that requires that they be able to read a list of four files and send those four files? Their entire job is to send files!”

True story.

Aria had taken after her mother. She wanted to be the person who was capable of sending, receiving, comprehending, and acting on an email that discussed four files and much more—just like her mother, even in an age in which people weren’t required to work to survive.

Jack had frequently said, whenever Aria had given him the cool look, that Aria was stuck up because she thought she was more important than him, which in turn was because she still worked and he didn’t, and never had, never planned to.

Aria had equally frequently pointed out, “I don’t think people need to have jobs when they determine they don’t need them.”

“Then why’re you looking at me as if I don’t live up to some sort of expectation?” he’d scream, in his sweat pants, with nothing to cover his torso because he liked to keep his beautifully sculpted abs exposed. (That wasn’t Aria’s word choice, by the way. That was what Jack called his workout routine: “sculpting” his muscles.)

Needless to say, their relationship hadn’t lasted very long. To be precise, for only about six months, ending at that hour that could be called last night but also this dawn. Aria had to get out of his apartment, so desperately, that she’d prioritized her departure over her beloved breakfast.

She had to leave because she liked to watch TV in peace, but also, despite Jack’s abs, frankly: yeah, Aria did have expectations. Expectations that had nothing to do with money. Jack had money, not plenty, but enough. He actually had more money in the bank than she did, because his insurance, unlike hers, didn’t need to cover for human-caused accidents that might happen in her aidbot workshop.

Jack also hadn’t paid a ridiculous amount of money on his education to become a technician. Of course, the theory was that an education was an investment. Should Aria persist in maintaining a career, she might earn more than Jack in five year’s time. He, on basic income like everyone else. She, basic income plus a little extra. But all that was conjecture, and based on the assumption that the technology wasn’t going to develop any further, any faster, rendering all human inputs not only unnecessary, but also detrimental.

And yet, yes, Aria had to admit: it would have been nice to date someone who wanted to do something.

It wasn’t that Aria thought work was what defined the human. In fact, the opposite. Play was what defined the human.

But what if work equaled play? Why the hell not? Why couldn’t a person enjoy work so much that she identified herself by the work she did?

For decades, people had called those who loved work too much “workaholics.” What a derogatory term. So condescending. These days, it was even more nonsensical, because the original meaning had gotten lost. People didn’t actually overwork themselves these days. That was simply impossible. The word “workaholic” was merely faultily used to imply that wanting to get work done—any work, even when it wasn’t overwork—was something bad. As if wanting to be of use to other people was wrong. As if wanting to exist for a reason, for an anchor in an otherwise random and chaotic world, was terrible.

An anchor.

Because, without the need to hunt for jobs, without the need to hunt for cheaper housing, and with most of the basic education going online, people could live anywhere. Too many choices had been given the human. Too long a life, with too many guarantees.

Yet most people didn’t utilize that freedom. You’d think they’d move anywhere, be free, embrace the possibilities—but no. Most people lived and died where they’d been born. Most of the population wasn’t adrift.

Aria could have lived that life. Nothing wrong with that.

But she hadn’t.

She couldn’t.

She’d left home despite craving a compelling reason to belong somewhere. She hadn’t wanted to be defined by the pure chance event that had been her birth. She’d wanted to choose where she lived.

Ever since she’d been eighteen, she’d traveled from city to city. Whenever she felt as if she were living at a place only because she’d gotten lazy, it was time to go to the airport. There, she bought a one-way ticket for the next plane.

Freeing, sure. But that also meant: no anchor.

Aria could go back home. Home home, not that-random-apartment-wherever home. To Mother and Father, Aria could return. Not exactly into their house, but to that neighborhood.

But something about that… was so deterministic.

That was Aria. Needlessly contemplative. She wanted an anchor of her own, not one that was imposed by others or by chance.

Maybe that was why she liked Lucious Bold so much. The man had purpose. He knew what he wanted, he worked toward it, and got it. He shared the result with the world. Aria was certain that he could have become anything he’d set his mind to. He could leave whenever. Become something else. But he’d chosen this calling. He was committed.

She wanted to have what he had. Jack didn’t understand. Jack agreed with the forum trolls who hated Lucious Bold or pretty much everyone who “tried too hard.” Trying was uncool.

Even Vincent, they hated. Regarding him, the trolls said, “One of the minions who entered paid slavery.” But Aria didn’t care what the trolls said. Most of them had never created anything beyond the useless accusations they wrote on those forums, if that could be called creating. None of them were in a position to rightfully accuse Bold of forcing artists into creating what they didn’t want to create. None of them were in a position to rightfully accuse Vincent of letting someone force him into creating what he didn’t want to create. Heck, if someone could be forced to create something, that was quite a feat these days. Besides, “paid slavery” didn’t even make sense.

Anyway.

Jack and Aria had parted ways. Once again, Aria was on her way to a random city. All she knew about her destination was that it was going to be smaller than Dodam, because Dodam was the largest city in the nation (even larger than the capital, Onsemiro) and she could only pay for a flight within the country.

Maybe it’d been wrong of her to expect that her job could be her anchor, when no occupation in this era required anyone’s physical presence.

Of course, at the time when Aria had begun her training, technicians had needed to open shops at specific places, like any other retail or service-oriented business of the early 21st century. A department store, for example, used to need physical space. Or restaurants. Or a dentist’s office.

Those were still there. Some of them.

But mostly, people simply ordered stuff from whatever website and had it delivered to their window. The drones dropped off the packages right up to the 21st floor, or the 50th, or whichever floor.

Same with food. And even for a dentist’s appointment, if it was something simple and routine, like scaling, most apartments nowadays had at least a couple of medbots that got the job done.

And anything could be 3D printed. Aidbot parts and other electronic parts, especially. Nowadays, Aria’s competitors sold their customization layouts to anyone and everyone all across the world. Some of the really great technicians didn’t do offline face-to-face meetings at all. They could customize bots remotely with the help of other bots.

Only the newbies like Aria were better off establishing a physical store presence. This was entirely due to their target market, the hyperelderly. Some of the customers in that bracket liked physicality. Some liked it so much that they were open to trying out newbies like Aria instead of working with a more established technician online.

But if Aria continued to work in this field for a few years, then what? Would she be willing to continue pouring ridiculous amounts of money on short-term rent, while she traveled from city to city? Ordering and shipping physical inventory and so on?

Aria craved for a reason to be somewhere, but that didn’t mean that she was so idealistic that she didn’t recognize desperate extravagance when she committed it. Paying pointless rent counted as desperate extravagance.

And yet, an anchor—that idea intrigued her so.

Something to push oneself toward, or to allow oneself to be pulled by.

Damn it, all Aria wanted was to stop feeling so restless. With all the resources people had nowadays, anybody could become anything, but it seemed that because of that precise reason, most people didn’t become something, just like most people of the previous generation hadn’t become something.

It was bizarre. More peace, more resources, more good everything, and yet not everyone got what they wanted. Not everyone wanted to want.

Safety, food, shelter? Yes.

Self-fulfillment? Not necessarily. That wasn’t something that the government could distribute. No one could mass-produce that.

But what was “self-fulfillment” anyway? Aria wasn’t even sure anymore if it was something achievable, or if it was something ever-elusive, something that kept retreating the closer you thought you got to it. She should have just, oh, heck, just stayed at home with Mother and Father or gotten married and gotten cats. Meet with friends instead of studying. Watch more horror movies instead of learning about bots—

“There,” the old lady said.

Aria blinked. Where was she?

At the airport with the hundreds of people who needed to take off their shoes. The old lady had managed to get out of both sides of her loafers. She held them in her free hand and grabbed Aria’s arm with the other.

Aria smiled. At times like these, her racing mind took a breather. At such moments, she was the anchor to someone, sometimes literally, at other times figuratively. And either way, it felt marvelous.

“Do you mind?” the old lady asked, nodding toward the line. There was a ten-foot space between them and the end of that line.

“Not at all,” Aria said.

Together, they walked. The $4,000-suit guy behind them cleared his throat indignantly. Finally, he seemed to say.

Yes, finally, and also, not done yet.

But they’d almost reached the check gate. There were only two more people in front of the ancient man and his silver aidbot.

A nearby agentbot repeated the usual. “No liquids. No breakables. No flammables. Please throw them away now if you have them.”

Aria patiently waited for the agentbots to direct her to the check gate. Never make a mistake, or you could be the start of an unstoppable chain reaction of people getting fired. And not just any people, but the last working people of civilization, people who’d chosen to work, who loved to work, to whom work meant the world…

“Oh, no,” the old lady said, tugging on Aria’s black leather jacket.

Aria looked where she pointed.

She gasped. If she’d thought that the man with the silver aidbot was ancient, then that man there, three lines to the left, was prehistoric.

Age spots covered his entire face, even his hairless, glistening scalp. His back was so bent that it didn’t look like a back at all, but more like a sickle.

How strange, then, that Aria found him so familiar. She didn’t know anyone that old. Not even her grandparents were this old. Or were they?

The prehistoric man wore wet, muddy jeans and sneakers that looked almost as old as him. He wasn’t dressed for winter. His checkered shirt was thin and he wore no jacket, no gloves, no scarves. If his body could have moved quickly enough, it would have shivered to generate heat, but Aria guessed that it couldn’t, because he remained stiff and still as a statue.

His eyes were closed. An agentbot that stood in front of him had removed his sunglasses for facial recognition, which didn’t seem to work. And the pale ceiling lights were too piercing for the prehistoric man. Yet the agentbot refused to return the sunglasses, despite the disapproving murmurs of the many humans around it.

Apparently, it was attempting to make eye contact with the man. It had a very important message that it needed to relay directly to the man. For, the man had committed the cardinal sin that no one in the air traveling profession, human or otherwise, could ever forgive:

“That luggage exceeds the weight limit specified in the new regulations,” the agentbot said in a perfectly human and strategically neutral tone. “It’s overweight by 200 grams. You must leave it behind or check it to proceed.”

The agentbot pointed at something next to the man. Aria stood on tiptoes to see beyond the three lines that separated her from the scene.

What was that metal box there, next to the man? Pink vinyl covered the thing, except for the little protruding part on the top, which looked like a smaller box. Two long hoses were attached to the big box, to either side, as if they were arms.

What on earth…

Then Aria recognized the thing. She’d seen it in many photographs during her technician training. It was the first-ever aidbot mockup. And thanks to it, Aria recognized the prehistoric man.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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