art by Alan Bao
Character is What You Are
by Michael R. Fletcher
***Editor's Warning: There is adult language used in this story. ***
Alex Baker - UNPLUGGED.
Thursday, Oct 19th, 2023. 9:45 pm
Character is what you are in the dark. My dad told me that. At the time I thought he'd made it up. Later I learned he got it from a strange movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It was decades before I understood what it meant and even longer before I realized it was me. If you only live one-eighth of each day, you are spending your life in the dark.
This was a typical day. Well, what little I could remember of it. Nothing differentiated one day from the next and perhaps that was the problem. Or maybe it was me.
Get up at 7 am. Shit, shower, shave. Gobble down a quick breakfast of low-carb microwaved oatmeal that has never been closer to a field of oats than it was while puddled in a red and black Wal-Mart bowl.
On the subway by 7:45 am. If all goes well and no suicidal marketing analysts throw themselves on the track, I meet Jason Kim at the Java Joe's across the street from IntroSpec. Burnt coffee and a stale bagel. Fifteen minutes of bitching about life and the job I couldn't remember. Cross the street, through the doors at IntroSpec, and into the security cordon a few minutes before 9. memory plug into neural tap
only to unplug a fraction of a second later. Ten hours have passed and I've logged a few hours of overtime and inched a fraction of a micron closer to paying off the mortgage on my downtown Toronto condo. Another hour in transit and by 8 pm I'm home, exhausted even though I can't remember doing much of anything. Change out of my "casual business attire," shovel a microwaved-dinner into my face, and it's 9 pm. To get seven hours sleep I have to be in bed by midnight.
Three hours. That was my day. Or rather, that was my day. Three precious hours, and what did I do? Two hours at the Social and Entertainment Centre watching some crappy crime scene drama, and one hour looking at porn. Well... sometimes two.
And Mom wondered why I was still single.
I blamed the memory plug. It was either that or accept responsibility for how my life had turned out. The Plugs, while inserted, scrambled all memories created during that time. Those memories could only be accessed while that same plug was worn. It was the ultimate in security and protecting the hallowed company's all-important intellectual property rights. Unplug at the end of the day and you had no idea what you'd been doing for the last ten hours. To make matters worse, as my skillset became increasingly outdated, I grew ever more dependent on the company. No doubt they were teaching me new skills to keep apace of the ever changing technology, but if I left the company the memory plug stayed with them. Quitting IntroSpec would be like hurling myself backwards into the Dark ages.
The Social and Entertainment Centre lit the room a flickering yellow with commercials for tropical vacations and, noting my wandering attention, brightened the colors and subtly increased the volume. I killed the SEC with a thought and my eyes adjusted immediately to the change in illumination; my parents had them "fixed" when I was seven. They'd discovered I was nearsighted--and genetically imperfect--and complained to the genelab they'd hired once the decision to breed had been formalized. With abject and embarrassed apologies the lab offered to replace my defective eyes free of charge.
I don't remember anyone ever asking me what I wanted.
"Stop it," I told my eyes. I wanted to sit in the dark.
The traffic noise from the highway just outside the window ignored the condo brochure's promises of perfect soundproofing and the flashing LED billboards blasted through dimmed windows.
So much for sitting in the dark.
Back before memory plugs became commonplace, back when I could remember what I did for a living, I enjoyed my job. Sure there were almost no women in the office, but I got to play with all the latest computers. They were beautiful. They made sense. Other people however, they were a problem. You can't force people to learn and the more ignorant they are, the more desperately they'll cling to whatever it is they believe.
I know this to be true. I believe all kinds of strange things about women, am pretty damned sure most of it is wrong, and yet seem unable to do anything about my ignorance.
You are what you do, that was the other thing Dad always said. I think it was a shot at me, like all the escapist crap that went on in my head wasn't worth anything. If he's right, a title is all I was: Senior Systems Architect. Somehow that had something to do with being a UNIX admin at IntroSpec, a trans-global financial and speculative investment company.
Thirty-eight and still single. Not even dating. Not even the prospect of a date on the horizon. Tonight I would finally do something about that.
I slumped back, sinking deeper into the sofa, and thought at the SEC. It flicked on and asked in an annoyingly excited voice what I wanted to do now. Like every moment spent with the damn SEC was an adventure.
"Social Google," I said. "Dating and Relationships." The SEC displayed the page on its seventy-five-inch 3D screen and tracked the movement of my eyes. It watched the pulsating of irises, sampled the hormones and pheromones in the air, and suggested what amounted to a state-sanctioned Escort Service for lonely business executives. I never could get used to thinking of myself as an Exec, and this wasn't what I wanted anyway.
"No. Relationships. Not one night hookups." Though perhaps that wouldn't be so bad. I sat thinking, trying to visualize meeting and having sex with a complete stranger. What do you do before the sex? What about after? What are the protocols? The idea scared the crap out of me. I wanted to date. Go for coffee. See a movie. A chaste kiss on the second date. A more serious kiss on the third. Making out on the fourth and sex sometime after that, when I had some idea who this person was. I wanted there to be some kind of connection first, some kind of predictability to reduce the risks inherent in all social interaction.
Self-doubt gnawed at me. Did I really want to do this? Did I really want to mess up my safe and predictable life?
Safe. Predictable. Boring.
The Social and Entertainment Centre began peppering me with questions, trying to figure out exactly what I was looking for. Age range? Income? Children? The list went on long enough I almost gave up, but when it asked what type of job my prospective date should have I was suddenly alert.
What if I met someone in a line of work that didn't require memory plugs? What the hell could we talk about, what would we have in common? That cynical voice at the back of my head muttered that I didn't have anything to talk about with anyone anyway, but I did my best to ignore it.
"She should wear a memory plug at work," I told the SEC decisively. I was faking it and fooling no one. Not even the SEC.
A moment later the SEC displayed a list of 8,253 women replete with pictures and profiles.
"Crap." That was way too many. It'd take forever to read through all of that. I had an idea. "Only display women with the same job."
The SEC took me rather more literally than I'd meant and displayed a single profile.
"Raajaa Sinder," I read aloud. "Senior Systems Architect."
I watched the 3D profile image as she seemed to watch me. The illusion was unsettling and I felt a moment of confused guilt, like I'd been caught spying. Her smile washed that away and I was lost in dark eyes and chocolate skin. She wasn't beautiful, at least not by the standards the SEC had been programming me with for the last few years. She looked a little too noticeably ethnic and lacked the racially blended look that was so in vogue. Face a little flat, eyes perhaps too close together, nose too large for her small, round face. And yet she was stunning. I suspected most people would disagree.
I watched, rapt, listening to Raajaa's recorded message. Her lips turned words like "SAN migration" into soft, sinful pleasures, and the hint of a fading English accent made her all the more exotic. I recorded a message and sent it before reason, logic, and sheer gutless cowardice could stop me.
Five minutes later she sent a reply and twenty minutes after that I was on the subway, bound for a little coffee shop called The Epicurean Café.
When I arrived Raajaa was already there, sitting with her back to the plate-glass window fronting the café. I sat across from her, trying not to stare and yet not be distracted by the pedestrians on the sidewalk behind her and the gaudy strobing of the CN Tower's once-rotating restaurant.
Raajaa flashed a smile of brilliant white teeth in startling contrast to the mahogany of her skin. "So, a fellow Senior Systems Architect."
"What? Oh. Yeah. Apparently." Lovely. Very smooth. I quashed the urge to grimace.
She didn't seem to notice my awkwardness and launched into a rant about how she'd spent an hour at home, crawling around under her desk with a bag of cable ties making everything look "neat and proper."
When she finally ground to a halt I sat staring at her, unable to speak or even blink.
Raajaa turned a mahogany shade of red and started talking again to fill the awkward silence. "I collect old computers. I have a bunch of old RAID systems. They used to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but now they're doorstops. Not wireless. They still require, uh, cabling."
When I realized I was making her uncomfortable I pulled out my Me-Fone and showed her a picture of my home office and the stacked computers filling every nook and cranny. The cables were color-coded and tied in neat bundles. "RAID 5. And I'm rebuilding an old tape-drive backup system we used back in the nineties." A white lie. I had all the components, but hadn't actually worked on my pet project in almost two years. When did I have the time?
The ice was broken and we talked long into the night, only leaving when the staff started stacking chairs around us. When it came time to say goodbye we shook hands and made promises to meet again on the weekend. Just as I was about to turn away Raajaa caught my sleeve and pulled me into a quick hug.
"I like your accent," I called out impetuously as she walked away.
"I like yours too," she called back over her shoulder.
I got home at 2 am, tired and grinning like an idiot.
Alex Baker - UNPLUGGED.
Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 8:45 am
Java Joe's was crowded with people desperately trying to cram in a few last minutes of living before going to work and their memory plugs. Most days I found self-sacrifice in the name of copyright laws and the protection of intellectual property to be disgusting.
Today? Not so much.
The coffee was burnt and the bagel stale. I'd have been disappointed if it had been any other way. Yep, today was that good.
Jason Kim, my best friend since high school, sat across the table. Irish Korean, Jason was tall slender and handsome with dark almond eyes and just a hint of epicanthic folds. I'd never seen his hair anything less than perfect.
"You have a girlfriend and I'm single." Jason grimaced. "That's it. The seventh sign of the apocalypse. End of the world. Cats and dogs--"
"Living in harmony," I finished. "I think it's too early to call her my girlfriend. We only went on one date."
"That's something. So I don't have to call the press?"
"Well, it was a pretty good date. World might end this weekend, I'm going to see her again." I grinned at Jason and lifted the mug of lukewarm coffee in a mock toast. "She collects old computers and has an English accent."
Jason muttered a quiet "shit" before meeting my eyes with a sardonic smirk. "You're insufferable when you're happy."
"Oh, poor muffin. Does the lonely guy need a hug?"
Noting the time, we abandoned the remains of our stagnant coffees and crossed the street to IntroSpec.
Time to flush away another day.
Alex Baker - PLUGGED.
Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 9:04 am
I stood, rooted to the floor, staring at Jason as he exited the IntroSpec security cordon. "Fuck me."
"What's up?" Jason asked.
"That woman you're having that lunchroom love affair with--"
"Raaj, the other Senior Systems Architect."
"Yeah. It's her."
"Who is her?"
"The woman. The one I met last night. The one I went on a date with."
We stood staring at each other. Jason recovered first.
"You went on a date with Raaj, my girlfriend?"