Weight Matters

       Troim Kryzl / Science Fiction
Weight Matters
Published by Troim Kryzl at Smashwords
Copyright 2017 Troim Kryzl

Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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"Joe Vanity Doe used to run here. May his soul Rest In Peace. Will you slow down on time? Or follow him into his deep blue grave? Your choice, filthy stupid rich customer."

Ayodele would love to say this. Or to fix a sign above the entrance to the treadmill cabin. A big black-on-white sign. Illuminated by an orange flashlight, to signal danger.

Or would a combination of red and blue lights be preferable? With a siren? To remind people of ambulances? Is there a global agreement on health hazard warning flashlight colors? And corresponding siren sounds? With their international mix of customers, expectations might diverge. You don't want them to think firefighters. Or police. They have to think ambulance.

Management should know. They need to do something about this frantic exercising. The customers are mostly ancient. Seniors aren't supposed to run wild. And they ignore diligent stewards doing their best to save innocent lives.

Innocent lives? With that kind of money to spare? Most certainly not. Booking this particular cruise will take you down two million dollars. US dollars. The real ones. Not some Bamsibwean IOUs. Getting that wealthy is bound to involve activities at odds with innocence.

Ayodele is doing his best to save guilty lives. Would that be sinful, religiously speaking? Hard to tell. It's definitely a smelly business. Very literally.

Mister Monrogue's olfactory presence is hard to bear.

Reminds Ayodele of how he had once messed up his mom's kitchen. A tiny smoked fish slipped behind the fridge. It fell right into the ventilation vent. To reach it, someone would have had to disassemble everything. With no man in the house, and his mom loth to ask over the groping neighbor, kid Ayodele decided to pretend nothing happened. He left the fish to rot. The fish obliged. Took his mom weeks of chlorated cleaning to get rid of the salty rancid smell. Once she had identified the source of the stench and called in neighborly reinforcements.

This is not an odor a person should emit. Especially when alive. Still alive.

"Honestly, sir, your grit is admirable. Never seen anyone running for that long. Absolutely impressive. But please do keep in mind there can be too much of a good thing. You're in excellent shape, sir. You've been at this for hours. Why not call it quits for today? Or perhaps have a go at the pool for a change? To give your legs a little break?"

It's not mister Monrogue's legs Ayodele worries about. But a polite steward doesn't foretell heart attacks. With the air conditioning turned off on purpose, the treadmill cabin is a stove. Even looking at the client wearing his thick track suit causes discomfort. And his upper body is wrapped up in plastic foil, underneath the shirt. To enhance perspiration. For faster weight loss. As if carrying around one hundred twenty Kilogramms of weight, for five feet five inches of height, at a pace of six kilometers per hour, wasn't rough enough.

Mister Monrogue is at risk of doing a mister Brown. This particular lucky idiot had to be evacuated by chopper. Which was possible because they were sailing past the port city of Radokari at the time of his incident. Excellent international hospital, in Radokari.

Mister Brown was the closest call Ayodele had to witness so far. He started working on the 1kYears cruise liner a year ago and there have been no fatalities for fourteen months. Neither from exertion nor from suicide. The company website boasts of this achievement. Meaning there must have been major incidents further back. Completely utterly mad, the rich.

Why would people fortunate enough to afford a luxury cruise terminate their paradisiac lives?

Ayodele is seriously worried. Lucky mister Brown was at least white. Lily white. While at rest. In motion, everybody could see the cardiovascular accident coming. Ten steps on the treadmill, one shade up on the purple head scale. The stewards took turns to stay at his side. With a defibrillator at hand. Colleague Chan from Chong Heng was there when fate struck. He did his thing, as rehearsed in the first aid course. And saved the client.

Mister Monrogue is black. Unfortunately. Hard to tell how close to the abyss he's running.

Ayodele even contacted Marita, doctor Manadogu for clients, his favorite on board physician. He suggested a medical rule forcing dark skinned customers to use the available pulse and blood’ pressure trackers. The stupid doc went rabid in response, accusing him of racism.

You try to save black lives, and that's your reward. An insult. From a fellow Ginerian.

Mister Monrogue is still running, at the same unsustainable pace. Puffing so loudly Ayodele can't make out the lyrics of the Pamkala pop song not really rocking the pool crowd. Only the refrain is loud enough to be audible: "Hit and score like never before, lala-o-o-yee-vo-vo". Dreadful song.

Ayodele hates mom-and-pop music. That's what you're bound to get, with so many oldies on board. Dreadful music. And jokes that stopped being considered funny fifty years ago.

The client doesn't deign to answer. Impossible to tell if he even heard the question. Oldies are often hard of hearing. But a fatal incident would look bad on Ayodele's record.

"Mister Monrogue, sir, please? A triathlon mix of exercise is supposed to be highly efficient, for all kinds of purposes. Some running, some swimming, some biking. You're in excellent shape, sir, you can handle triathlon. May I suggest a round in the pool, for a change?"

This time, the client must have heard the plea. He does react, vigorously shaking his head.

Ayodele gets sprayed with sweat. He involuntarily checks his upper lip with his tongue. Salt. Mister Monrogue salt. Yuck. So much for the sweet life of the luxury service provider. F***. Triple f***.

"Nice try, kid... Excellent flattering... Not blaming you... for trying. But... forget it... I'm old... I'm fat... Need to get... a little less so... before proceeding... Can't look... like this."

Mister Monrogue sounds like the antique power unit Ayodele bought for his mom, to keep the fridge running during the cuts. Lots of puffing, interspersed with gurgling hiccups. For very little electricity output. Only the clouds of black smoke are missing. For how much longer?

"Mister Monrogue, sir, no offense, but you sound like you should stop running. Now. At once."

Ayodele holds his breath. The last bit came out far harsher than intended. The sweat attack must have put him on edge. Not like him. He prides himself to be a very zen person.

Mister Monrogue does hit the red emergency stop button, bringing the device to a sudden halt. His face is all cramped up, mean looking. This guy didn't get rich by being nice to people. But at least he's still lacking spare breath to rail, giving Ayodele time to brace himself.

The steward considers apologizing. Not a viable option. This could be considered admission of his crime. Bad idea. Stealth works best, in his ordeal experience. With a little luck, he'll avoid the sack. Taking care to display a neutral expression, he hands his client a towel from the rack.

Mister Monrogue hesitates, before taking the peace offering with a shrug. Having wiped his face and arms dry, he steps down from the treadmill, checks his wrist and erupts into a rant:

"What the unholy f***?! Now look at this useless piece of overrated gadgetry! Turned itself off. For lack of power. A full f***ing thirty minutes ago. I could have killed myself. Do look at this, right here. One second I was so close to hitting the maximum effort limit, where it's supposed to beep to make me stop. And the next it went into standby. Standby? Might as well call that a killby! And not even recording any longer. Of course not, they wouldn't want that. Would hand you proof. F***ing bastards, trying to get away with it. Well, time they meet Mickey Monrogue. That's gonna cost them. And not just some refund. Gonna cost them a packet. A f***ing big f***ing packet."

And off storms a furious client. Ayodele breathes a sigh of relief. A slightly resentful one. Not getting told off is an improvement on the odds he was facing seconds ago. Mister Monrogue is alive. And angry at someone else. So far, so good. But a tip would have been nice. Saving a customer's life should be worth a little something. But that's not how things work on the 1kYears cruise liner. The ultimate all inclusive experience. No cash on board. No tips.

He takes his time to wipe the treadmill with the used towel. He's entitled to call in a cleaner, for this kind of menial job. He's even supposed to delegate, to make his superior skills promptly available for more demanding tasks. But sometimes a steward does need a break. He's got two more hours to go. It's better to regain some peace of mind, before facing the next client.

Polishing the dashboard, he feels his mood improving even before identifying the source. "It's our future, yes we make it" is playing by the pool. A good song. True. You hear it, you hope.

Only one possible reason for the pool DJ to play this tune. Tabitha must have arrived. She's special. And not just concerning her taste in music.

Tabitha is young. She prefers to be called by her first name. She's always in a good mood. She has been on this cruise for nearly two years, and no one recalls her even shouting at staff. Never mind asking for someone to be discontinued. Totally unlike the other lottery customers.

Ayodele often discusses what they call the ruthless lottery winner phenomenon with Chan. They meet by the pool and try to make sense of the clientele. Over a drink.

Paying clients are more civil than the lottery lot. Sounds somewhat counterintuitive. You'd assume the wealthy guys to be worse. They're used to getting pampered. Had a whole life of time to practice bad manners. Makes sense in theory. Not confirmed in practice. The paying clients are demanding, in the sense of expecting premium service at all times. But as long as they get it, these guys are pretty easy to handle. Courteous even. Some of them. Occasionally.

Whereas your average lottery winner, despite having spent most of her previous life under much leaner circumstances, more often than not in a service job where she got her ass kicked around like the next steward, she'd rather be seen biting off her tongue than talking nicely to staff. They don't ask, they shriek orders. They don't complain, they wail for your sack. At the first glitch.

Except Tabitha. She was never heard screaming. Not even when Chan once let her slip, on helping her exit the pool. She badly bruised her leg on hitting the tiles, and just shrugged it off. Pretended it was nothing, not hurting. Despite the bright red mark.

According to Chan, the difference in behavior is due to a gender gap. Guys are basically good guys. Whereas what they are forced to call ladies, against all evidence, are bitchy witches. Put them in command, they're bound to ruin everything.

Ayodele does agree with Chan's basic observation. There is a difference between paying and freeriding clients. And the former are indeed overwhelmingly men, whereas a majority of the latter are women. So far, so true. But that doesn't prove Chan's conclusion.

Most of the world's rich happen to be men.They book the 1kYears cruise. And often won't pay for their wives to come along. Does that sound like the good guys? Of course not.

The lottery was introduced because of this male overhang. To reach a proper one-to-one gender ratio, some women of the right ages get in for free. And behave Iike the worst snobs next. Once promoted to pseudo-fortune, they turn out to be as bad as any rich man.

Ayodele has learned his lesson. All rich are mean. All of them. He's very gender and color blind in this respect. That's one of the immutable truths he discovered early on.

He was a student at the time, aiming for an engineering degree. To make his mom proud. Or himself marriageable. Or perhaps even both. He doesn’t really recall his innocent phase.

He once listened in on an extracurricular lecture on global inequality. Instead of revising his maths. The event was organized by an activist group. "Students for Global Equality", StuGE. Prisma, one of the StuGE speakers, convinced him to join the march they were planning next.

At first, distributing leaflets in the Mehut Metropolitan Area business district went well. He was enjoying Prisma’s company. Most business people only shrugged at their leaflets, giving the two of them ample chance to chat. Nice. Positive. Good. A few guys reached for their phones. Ayodele would never have guessed this was about them. Until the police arrived.

StuGE had no permission to distribute tracts. Of course not. Harassing business people is prohibited, all over the civilized world that nowadays does include MMA. The cops told them to leave. One of the guys argued good cops should side with the people, not the business people. This must have insulted the cops, somehow. They went riot.

Ayodele lost a tooth, a year spent behind bars and his grant. He was never formally charged, never convicted of any wrongdoing, but had to kiss his academic aspirations good bye anyway.

He's never going to forget how mean the rich are. All of them. Regardless of race or gender.

"Would you like any help with this polishing job? Anything else I can do for you? I'm told headphones are the latest fad, to make real sure not to end up interacting with customers. Put the music on loud enough, you'll never hear anyone coming."

Chan is giggling, like some girl. Not really managing to make himself sound like the sarcastic supervisor he's pretending to impersonate. Standing in the doorway, he looks his usual perfect. Hair, uniform, shoes, everything about him is spotless. The perfect steward. At all times.

Ayodele can't help wonder about the sexual orientation of his colleague. They say there are a lot of gay stewards. And Chan is no fan of ladies. His voice is pretty highly pitched, too. He might be pretending, when they congregate in the staff club to watch porn.

"Spiros sends me. He wants you for a word, in his office. Nothing to worry about, in my opinion. He sounded rather pleased. You might have done something right. Can't figure out how that would have happened, perhaps some mixup..."

Ayodele doesn't wait for the rest of this less than funny bit of standup. Spiros, the head steward, is not to be messed with. Not even when pleased. He's bitter. According to Bojan, who worked for him back in Europe, Spiros owned and lost his very own hotel. Something went wrong, with a bank loan for a renovation. Some big mess, around plumbing. Spiros had to start all over again. At fifty, when he was just starting to think peace and retirement.

What is called Spiros' office is basically a section of a store room behind the main club lounge. There is a desk with two large monitors taking the feed from the innumerable CCTVs.

Spiros loves to watch his stewards at work. Especially the mixing and serving of drinks. He spends his days watching and recording bar activity. When he has seen enough, he performs what he calls advanced coaching. That feels exactly like being told off, but you are expected to joyfully welcome the experience. And in a way, you actually do enjoy. Spiros is at least predictable. A bar shift will get you watched and coached. Any other shift leaves you free to behave as you please. As long as the clients don't complain. Pretty fair deal, for a service job.

Nelson, one more Ginerian, is guarding the empty bar and nods encouragement when Ayodele passes by to access Spiros' office. Good sign. If there was a storm gathering, Nelson would have put on a poker face, to stay on the safe side.

Spiros not answering the knock immediately is one more promising lead. If he's mad at you, and urging to get at you, you barely have time to touch the door before he calls you in.

When Spiros finally does react and Ayodele enters, the positive mood is immediately confirmed. A smiling supervisor, that's bound to be a good sign.

Five minutes later, Ayodele leaves Spiros' office on a high. Not because of any drink. He got a raise. Not just some one-off bonus. A genuine, from-now-on-monthly raise. Pretty substantial, too. A good ten percent of his former salary.

What a difference one sentence makes. After the episode in the treadmill cabin, mister Monrogue went straight to the main all purpose service counter, for advice on how to bring down the manufacturer of his malfunctioning tracking device. He mentioned owing Ayodele his life, and praised his insistence. Most staff wouldn't have dared speak up, for fear of reprisals. Which would have left him as good as dead. Or headed for severe disability.

"That guy is worth his money, make sure to pay him well", those were mister Monrogue's exact words. The service counter lady informed Spiros who in turn declared him promotion ready.

Until the end of his shift, Ayodele has to fight the recurring itch to pull out the sheet of paper for one more look. It's just a two-liner, under the 1kYears logo and above Spiros' indecipherable signature. Stating his raise. With a typo. Pretty banal. But this is his very first raise ever.

Ayodele had been in process of making up his mind to ask for more money. He's in his second year, a level of seniority that had been feeling like a good basis for such an initiative. The "if" was obvious. But he struggled with the "how much". Only conflicting advice online. And 1kYears paying slightly above average salaries, despite providing an extraordinary level of onboard benefits, didn't facilitate his task. Hard to define how to take into consideration such luxuries as the access to the pool and some free drinks. And the social club. And their personal suites.

Under the previous owners, the 1kYears liner was operated as a luxury cruiser for 750 passengers. Now they have at most two hundred clients on board at any given time. In practice rarely more than one hundred and fifty. At this reduced operating capacity, only the so-called superior and penthouse suites are used to lodge clients. The former entry level suites, and some of the facilities, are reserved for staff. A real treat. Especially with their leisurely shift schedules. Compared to conventional cruise staff, they work minimal hours. Never more than sixty per week. Less than fifty in most functions. Pretty hard, to properly factor in such advantages.

While Ayodele is unsuccessfully trying not to peak at his raise every other minute, Mickey Monrogue is headed for the pool.

Time for him to cool down. His legal missiles have been fired off. One projectile will detonate in the inbox of what will soon be referred to as a former medical device manufacturer. Another one will hit the corresponding regulatory authority. A well organized round of whistleblowing will make sure financial analysts and journalists become aware.

Mickey is more than ready for a shower. Peeling himself out of his sweaty tracksuit, he can't help noticing his clothes scream for the laundry. He should have stopped at his suite to change. Too late now. Discarding the soggy plastic wrap into a smallish bin feels like shouting at the world: "I'm a fat guy, and desperate to lose weight".

He's lucky the pool area is nearly deserted around lunchtime. Just two ancient Asian couples at the far end, playing some board game. And a lady in the pool. A beautiful young lady with surreally light skin and a red bathing cap hiding hair that has every chance to be fair. Floating on her back, her head and upper body supported by one of the yellow plastic snakes. Mercifully, she doesn't look at him. Her eyes might even be closed.

Stuffing his smelly clothes under a deck chair, Mickey steps behind the smoked glass wall hiding the shower. He turns it on full throttle, blue side. The impact is miraculous. The gush of fresh water turns the sticky wreck back into a proud man. Pulling in his belly, and without a mirror to contradict his perception, he convinces himself of being in pretty good shape. With a little more exercise, he'll soon be ready for eternity. His swimsuit already feels less tight.

Stepping out and towards the pool, he doesn't even mind the floating beauty opening her eyes to check who's coming. Climbing into the water, he wonders about etiquette.

She can't be of a conservative persuasion. There is neither chaperone nor male guardian in sight. Is it appropriate to say hello, and perhaps even introduce himself? Mickey would never aspire to anything more than a good long look, he's not delusional. But an in depth glance and a chat would be nice to have. If achievable without making a total fool of himself. Improbable.

Having reached full immersion, he takes care to crawl away from her. To avoid eye contact, and to buy time to figure out a tactic. Having reached the far end at a leisurely pace, he performs a somersault turn. He might be old, and flabby around the edges, but he's still a good swimmer. Breathing to the side where the beauty will come into view, he's careful not to push for speed. Reaching her end gasping would be the first of many possible errors he needs to avoid.

"Welcome to the best spot on board. Nice to finally see someone making good use of this wonderful pool. Isn't it gorgeous?"

She's talking to him, obviously, her voice ringing with good vibrations. This is a genuinely warm welcome. She combines a funny accent, impossible for him to place, with otherwise impeccable English. Mickey takes the risk to stop at her side and reply.

"Well, thank you for the compliment, and nice to meet you. Afraid my best swimming days are long gone. But you're right, this is a glorious pool indeed."

He takes great care to keep it short, and to resist the urge to introduce himself. First rule of dignified interaction with out of reach females: Don't push. She doesn't seem to mind the presence of an old fool, though. He should have resumed his swimming by now, but her smile tells him to stay. This is bound to end badly, but he can't resist. That smile is worth it.

"Nice to meet you, mister master swimmer and understatement expert. Me, I'm Tabitha, Tabitha Tiryaki. You're new, right? Let me guess, you came on board in Laouda, correct? How come it took you a week to discover the joys of this marvelous pool?"

She's still smiling, and talks as if chatting up a stranger who could easily be her father, if not worse, was the most natural thing to do. Back in Pamkala, only whores would take this kind of initiative. But they would do it differently. Mickey doesn't dare react, for fear of breaking the spell.

"Hope you don't take offense? None intended, please excuse me if I overreached. I'm lottery, you now, not versed in the ways of posh persons. Absolutely no offense intended. Just got carried away, because most people here barely manage a breast stroke. Comes as a nice surprise to witness some proper swimming. Will you forgive me?"

She seems so seriously worried now, he can't help laughing out loud, before reassuring her:

"You are a very kind person, Tabitha Tiryaki. And no need to worry, I'm anything but offended. It's me owing you the apology, for not introducing myself properly. Mickey Monrogue, Mickey like the mouse, at your service. So you've been on board for a while?"

He did it. He did risk a question. It's a pretty innocuous one, nothing personal. But it's a question all right, equivalent to a request to prolong their conversation. If she ignores it, he will feel humiliated.

But her smile suggests she might play along. And here she goes indeed:

"Well, I suppposed two years do qualify as a while, don't they? I hardly remember what it was like to live at home, just vaguely recollect it as much least pleasant. But I'm not interesting, I'm just one more lottery. Whereas you are a paying client, making all this possible, right? Would it be impertinent to ask where you're from, and what you do for a living?"

There is only so much restraint an old man can muster. A beautiful young lady calling for your life story, irresistible. Mickey discards his previous tactical considerations and spills it all.

How his dad had a garage in Pamkala. How he noticed that organizing rare spare parts for other garages brought in more money than fixing cars. How he saved for his first 3D printer, and the outrageously expensive metallic powder needed for the replication of mechanical parts. How he had to take on a shark loan and was threatened to have one of his ears cut. How he worked like mad, because he very much wanted to hang on to both his ears. Even though they are on the big side, and stand out more than ears are supposed to, in humans. How he kept it up once the shark loan was finally repaid, because he had gotten used to it. How he expanded to another city. And to more cities. How he expanded to another country. And to more countries.

They float side by side, Tabitha holding on to her big yellow snake, Mickey paddling just enough to keep himself from sinking. Every once and a while, he feels apprehensive. But he goes on telling his tale anyway. He's proud of his achievements. He took risks and worked hard, not like the fat assed sheikhs who got their petro wealth by virtue of birth. He overheard one such group boasting in the restaurant, and felt nothing but disgust. He deserves being here, and getting himself what 1kYears calls an alter ego and he thinks of as his immortal digital soul.

Tabitha is fascinated. She had guessed right, mister Monrogue is one more specimen of a kind she loves to study. A rich guy you have trouble despising. Her brother and his comrades, back in Taziangep, they laugh her off as naive, when she tries to convey her insights. According to them, all rich are the same, and equally despicable. But she knows better. Close up, they are diverse. Mister Monrogue is certainly no angel. But nor is he the devil of her brother’s tales.

"Forgive me, Tabitha, I'm an old man on a holiday, afraid I lost count of the time. But you really should have stopped me, you now? Instead of letting me behave like the old fool I am?"

Mickey suddenly became aware of the pool pop having switched to happy hour sounds. One look at the sun confirmed, it's nearly down. He got here at lunchtime and has been chewing away at Tabitha's ears for hours. Terrible manners. He will sure be punished.

"Oh come on, Mickey, we both know it's me who kept you talking. And you really should have someone write all this down, yours is a very empowering story. But you are right in one respect. It's getting late, dinner buffet will open soon. Any chance you could call over a steward, on your way out? I've got this alarm thing they make me wear at all times, but I hate using it. It always sends them sprinting. Makes me feel bad, to cause so much fuzz. If you could just tell the guy at the bar I could do with some help, that would be very kind."

Mickey is puzzled. Why would she need help to get out? Perhaps she is more conservative than he assumed, and doesn't want to be seen in her bathing suit outside the water.

"Why call a steward, I can fetch your stuff on my way out. Just tell me where it is, no problem."

This sends Tabitha laughing. Seeing him frown in irritation, she quickly explains, pointing at her legs: "This is not just about dressing up, Mickey. It's because of these. Didn't you notice how I don't move them? That's because I can't. Paralyzed, from the waist down. They hide my wheels behind the deck chair cushion cupboard. The sight makes some of the very old clients edgy. Just tell the guy at the bar I need help, he'll know what to do."

Mickey is perplexed. So young, so beautiful, and so handicapped. And in such a good mood anyway. He'd never have guessed anything might be wrong with her.

"Sorry, Tabitha, I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. Sorry. Let me get those wheels."

He's out of the pool and on his way without giving her any chance to answer. And comes back with both the sporty wheelchair already draped with her huge towel and her bag in no time.

"I can help you get out, if that's OK with you. Or would you prefer me to call the steward?"

Mickey feels awkward, suddenly afraid his offer might be misunderstood. He didn't reflect before uttering it. And now he risks coming across as a groping old leech.

"Really? Now that's very kind of you. It's quite easy, actually. I just need your arm, to help pull me up onto the edge of the pool, where I can dry myself. And than one more pull up into the wheelchair. I'm not that heavy, according to the stewards, and can help lift some of my weight."

Mickey is stunned. Tabitha doesn't even seem to consider the plain fact that being allowed to touch a beautiful young lady is a rare treat for an old man. Very trusting of her. Even though he didn't hold back concerning the more ruthless aspects of his character. Quite a compliment. He takes great care to assist her in the most non groping way possible.

Tabitha decides to entice Mickey to join her in the pool more often. The old man does nicely respectful assisting. Contrasts favorably with the tendency of some stewards to touch her in suggestive ways. Chan is a bit of a nuisance in this respect. At least one of his hands always ends up near one of her breasts. A minor issue, but irritating.

"Thanks a lot, Mickey, I can handle from here on. That's the good thing, about a cruise liner designed to accommodate seniors. Wheelchair compatible. Will you be going for dinner right away? We could share a table, if you don't mind being seen with a cripple?"

Mickey's turn to laugh: "Don't be stupid, Tabitha. If you really don't mind my ramblings, I'd feel honored to join you. Give me ten minutes to get dressed, OK?" Hearing himself sound so eager, Mickey stops short and holds his breath. But she just nods: "Sure, ten minutes, see you!".

While they roll respectively walk off in different directions, Ayodele and Chan make their way to the pool. They always celebrate the end of their shift with this ritual: Go to cabin. Change into civilian. Walk to pool. Stop at the bar. Fetch a Margarita. Settle down on one of the far end loungers in the third row. Wait for the other guy to join you. Praise end of shift. Take first sip.

Always the same choreography. Followed by the same endless loop argument.

Chan, with ten years of cruise liner experience, is adamant. 1kYears are by far the most fabulous employer. Stewards, and even cooks and cleaners, all staff are practically treated as clients, once they go off shift. Praised be the magnanimous bosses.

Ayodele begs to disagree. He sees nothing but window dressing. 1kYears make dirt cheap junk look like luxury. Same principle, for both their product and their Human Resources. They sell the rich a computer game as if it was access to paradise. And they make staff feel treated well by providing a few cheap trinkets. But look more closely, and it's all fake.

A mere total of five drinks, six if you include canned beer, from a twenty page list, are provided on the staff tab. And it's no more than two drinks per day. They've got the gall to call this additional restriction a precautionary health measure. Insult plus injury.

Same for pool access. Staff are allowed on the premises. No big deal for the bosses, with the ship running at less than a quarter of capacity. But the two front rows are reserved for clients. Staff have to make do with the back seats. Bad old segregation, it's called.

When this senile European prince with the forest and castle fixation fell in love with Zuwena, their fabulous Zantanian cook, he had to sit with her in the third row, because she wasn't allowed up front. Just ask yourself, how would famous Rosa Parks have reacted?

Chan begs to differ, calling Ayodele's attitude "futile black resentment year".

Zuwena wasn't sitting in the third row because of her skin color. Nor did her prince owe his front seat to his lighter one. She was middle class and he was rich. She was staff and he was customer. As simple as that. No race involved, at any stage. Never mind racism.

Besides, having been informed of the issue, 1kYears management immediately clarified the pool rules. Staff are allowed in the front row, as long as they are invited and accompanied by a client. On a normal cruise ship, any personal contact with customers is prohibited. You can get the sack for so much as talking. You end up as shark feed for anything more intimate. You're not at risk, of course. You have to work eighty hours a week, at least. Ayodele has no idea.

Chan knows he has landed the best possible job. What's not to like about this daily happy hour? After a little light work? Normally, he wouldn't listen to anyone bragging propaganda that sounds even more blatantly stupid than the fare on the TV channels back home. Why not praise comrade first secretary and his overseas mansions, while you're at acting dumb?

Ayodele is hopeless, as far as politics are concerned. Thinks he knows about what he calls the system, just because he spent a year in jail. He asked for trouble, by the sound of what he told Chan. Everybody knows MMA doesn't do speaker's corner. The Mehut Metropolitan Area is more like his native Chong Heng. You don't commit certain acts, or else...

But Ayodele happens to combine perverse politics with an alluring body. Watching him slip out off his shirt and bermudas for a round in the pool, Chan once again urges to take a picture. Ayodele in his bathing shorts, he has to find a way to add this one to his collection.

He has already got the two of them with drinks, toasting his birthday. And the two of them in their uniforms under the 1kYears logo, celebrating Ayodele's first full year on board. And the two of them at the pool table in the staff lounge. But the two of them in bathing trunks, that would be better.

Chan is well aware Ayodele is not into boys. His porn preferences are unmistakably biased towards the breasted end. If ever he was to romantically engage anyone, a big if with his perpetually vengeful mood, it would be a girl. A black girl. Waving a red flag.

Being world wise and clever, Chan would never risk any explicit initiative. Lay low, be patient, keep it ambiguous, that's his mantra. He even went as far as engineering a false lead. It didn't fly, because he underestimated Tabitha's endurance. Any other lottery lady would by now have complained about his groping. Not Tabitha. She just avoids his services. Devious bitch.

Chan will never be caught trusting any girl again. As a school boy, he used to be naive. Was even kind of friends with a girl, Meizhen. They studied together. Had some good laughs. He never did her any harm. And she attempted to kill him in return.

They had just passed their high school graduation exam. Right after the ceremony, she posted farewells. A broadcasted post, no less. Wished him luck, for his studies and love life. How he would find a wonderful athlete. Some slender runner. Wink wink icon.

They had watched some Olympics together. She had noticed what got him going. And on what should have been his day of pride she practically informed the world of his inclinations.

Chan switched off his phone and ran. First along the main road, blinded by panic. Than all the way back to his school, for lack of any idea where to seek refuge. By the time he got there, the building was closed and the premises were deserted. He hid at the back, next to the garbage bins. It was smelly. When night fell, it also got cold. He was so miserable.

He hated Meizhen, from all his heart. But he was still shivering. So he extended his furor. Hating more girls was better, but still not enough. All girls, and all ladies, everywhere, that helped. Hating all women, except his mom, saved him from catching pneumonia. By sunrise, Chan had made up his mind. He knew where to go, and never looked back.

Swimming in the pleasantly warm water under the soft light of the multicolored poolside lamps, the classical music underlining the majesty of the deep black sky with its millions of sparkling stars, Ayodele physically feels the perfidious power of capitalism. Under such circumstances, it takes a very aware man to resist the temptation to accept. If it wasn't for his body recalling jail, he would be at risk to fall for it, and consider his exploitation benevolent.

Meanwhile, Mickey and Tabitha are having a lively dinner at the restaurant.

"Come on Tabitha, please. You know me better than my former wife by now, why not tell me about you? Just a little bit? I don't even know where you're from. Please?"

They've got a table for two, along the wall. Meals are a very casual affair on the 1kYears cruise, both the dress code and the seating. You just come and choose a table. It's always buffet, and very international. All palates will find something to please them.

Mickey of course offered to help Tabitha, wheelchairs and buffets don't mix well. She declared to like anything, and asked him to just bring for her what he'll select for himself. He hesitated at first, mentioning regionally divergent tastes. She just laughed him off and actually turned out to like most of what he brought. Especially the samosas. He had to fetch her a second helping.

She made him explain the dishes, which he couldn't, for lack of cooking skills. He admitted both his addiction to food stall fare and his divorce. This somehow led to more explanations. How he offered his former wife her very own 1kYears ticket, no strings attached. And how he set apart money for their two daughters, in case they want a go when they turn eighteen. A man of his advanced age with underage kids, that called for yet more explanations. How he married late, or wasn't made for family life in the first place, and how it wouldn't work out.

It took Mickey until dessert to notice how Tabitha got him talking, again. Now he's adamant. It's his turn to get to know her, and he won't take no for an answer.

"OK, Mickey, if you insist. But there is no story. I'm from Taziangep. You'll never have heard of the place. Viewed from down here, it's practically in Europe, located just where Asia turns into Europe. Two and a half years ago, a car hit my bike. When I woke up in hospital my legs had died.

While I was in rehab, learning how to negotiate sidewalk rims in a wheelchair, my younger brother enlisted me for the 1kYears lottery. Very few slots for the very young, because of the ten years rule. But I won anyway. Thought they would reject me, because of the wheelchair.

But I was allowed to come after all. And doctor Manadogu, the doctor in charge of my download, doctor Manadogu wondered if my alter ego might be made to walk. Checked with a senior doctor in MMA, and they decided to give it a try. It's tricky, takes a while. And that's it, about me."

Mickey is fascinated. Tabitha is beaming, telling it as if this tragedy was a joyful fairy tale. Such a brave girl. He's on the verge of asking about the ten years rule when the nearest table for two gets impossible to ignore. It's a solidly built white lady with an American accent turning stormy:

"... I don't care, Donald, I just don't f***ing care. Anything can get photoshopped, of course it can. I won't download in this shape, and I certainly won't diet. Nor will you. You're a boss, Donald, for f***s sake. How many more times do I need to tell you not to let anyone boss you around..."

It's very obviously a husband and wife team negotiating some fine print. Mickey recalls the associated feelings. If you can't deliver, you have to stonewall. Don't expect leniency...

Tabitha shakes her head in disbelief: "Did you hear that? She's got no idea what she's talking about. As if your 1kYears alter ego was a mere picture. You can't just streamline the body, the downloaded memories wouldn't fit. Perfect recipe for eternal misery. The technicians will never commit such malpractice. But trust some customers to scream for them to try."

Mickey swallows hard. Never would he admit that was planning to raise pretty much the same demand, tomorrow, when he's scheduled to meet his doctor. Tabitha does sound authoritative. Might be a good idea to take advantage of the knowledge she must have accumulated.

Over coffee, Mickey learns more about 1kYears software. Boy, this is high flying stuff. Far more so than he had anticipated. He had been aware of the 3D scan of his body, and that it would be combined with a download of his memories. He had always assumed the basic building blocs to be pretty generic, like for the mechanical parts manufactured in his workshops. He had strong doubts concerning the legitimacy of the outrageous price tag, but that's monopolies for you. Be the one and only, you're the one fixing the price. He knows about that. That's how he got rich.

What Tabitha now tells him sounds more like seriously artful art than the software engineering he's familiar with. He would never have guessed the digital souls to be so specific and unique.

Mickey longs for yet more details and they relocate to the bar.

"... and that's it, basically. My brain recalls what it was like to walk, to climb stairs, to ride a bike, with my body as it still is. Same shape, same weight. It's just my circuitry that got damaged. Same format is very important. You internalize the corresponding physics. Make the digital alter ego lighter, or more slender, he won't be able to properly interact with his environment. They isolate the patterns that are still there, in storage, underneath my current awareness. If they manage to separate the patterns, my alter ego will walk just like I did. eBitha, that's how I like to call her, she can be perfectly healthy. If I manage to focus hard enough."

They're at their second cocktail, and Mickey tries to share Tabitha's excitement. Doesn't work. She'll still be in her wheelchair. Nothing will change for her. No reason to rejoice.

Tabitha is watching her senior friend expectantly. He's really kind. Obviously thinking about how she will be no less of a cripple, even if she manages to endow her alter ego with full physical capabilities. Too polite and considerate to say so, but visibly concerned.

"Know what, Mickey Monrogue? You better stay away from poker games. It's written all over your face, how you think I'm too stupid to understand I will be no better off, if we really manage to create a fully functional eBitha. I'm aware, Mickey, totally aware. But it's so much better for her. Me, I'll be living, no idea how long. Forty more years, or perhaps fifty? Pretty long time to keep sitting around, sure. But nothing compared to the thousand years eBitha can look forward to. Just imagine they find a cure, for my kind of handicap, three hundred years from now. And she'd still be forced to use that wheelchair. That would sure feel terrible. We need to get her up and going."

This time, Mickey has to join her beaming. Not because he's convinced. Deep down, he isn't, still feels sorry for Tabitha. But her good mood is contagious.

Walking back to his suite, he wonders what to call his digital soul. Tabitha and eBitha, that's nice. He'd like something comparable. Doesn't work, for Mickey. His real name is Mick. Not much easier. eMick, that sounds like gimmick. dMick, for digital Mick, is even worse. Choosing that would be like calling for Dick as a nickname. His real life nickname is bad enough, no need for a repeat.

Mickey brushes his teeth and goes to bed, still searching for a suitable name. He's useless at this kind of task. His wife came up with the names for their daughters. Same problem.

He probes his feelings, checking if he misses his family. No, he doesn't. Overall, he's better off without. He'd prefer not to be alone. He does like company. But they didn't get on well. Even though they were exactly on the mark, for the ten years rule.

This still strikes him as funny. Apparently, most men prefer younger companions. The same age might be tolerable, but younger is supposed to be better. And most women seem to agree. This was taken into consideration, when the lottery was created. For each male client in gender ratio overhang, there is one lottery slot, for a female in the same to ten years younger age range. The virtual realm is very well organized. A bit scary, really.

Virtual. Vick. Mick and Vick, that's a cool combination. Vick, like victorious. Mickey achieved the creative thing. Satisfied with his choice, and his good life, he falls asleep.

Having heaved herself into her bed, Tabitha reaches for her phone to check for messages. Always a tense moment. Things aren't going well, back home.

Her dad is with the police, and there is yet another purge going on. He barely managed to cling on to his job in the last round. Her handicap saved him. Most people, on both sides of the regional conflict, assume she was targeted on purpose. She never cared about whether her accident was a case of drunk driving or a terror attack. But her dad was allowed to keep his job because she's considered some kind of mini martyr.

The news are as expected, between the lines. Sounds like her brother hacked something, to get their dad out of trouble. Cheeky little geek. Tabitha once again wonders, about her lottery win. 1kYears systems are reputed to be impossible to break into. The company cares for what staff call the ghosts, their resort is well protected. But still...

At some point, usually around half past two at night, the 1kYears liner is quiet and dark. With most clients and staff asleep, it finally deserves being called the ghost ship.

Beep. Beep. Beeeep. Ayodele reaches for his phone, to turn off the alarm. Morning already? Or did he set the bloody device to the wrong time? He hopes so, against the odds. Until the screen confirms half past five. He needs to rush to make the first breakfast shift.

One and a half hours laters, it's Mickey's turn to fumble with his phone. He loves this lazying around. His first holiday ever, and he adapted well. There's a surprising lot to do, in the absence of work. First, you take your time waking up, instead of jumping right out of the bed. Next you take your time in the bathroom, and choosing your outfit, and selecting your breakfast, and having it. You can spend two hours easy on what takes ten minutes on a normal day.

The light in the bathroom is too bright. Mickey only had two cocktails, not enough for a headache. But the brightness reveals he's too meaty. The mirror is merciless. No mistake to make, even without the glasses he needs for reading. He's not fat, but there's an awful lot of him.

He has always been like this, more or less. He used to look younger, but never pretty or slim. Is his digital soul going to hate him, for his lack of discipline at the buffet? Vick will have to walk around in that shape for hundreds of years. And find himself a lady.

Tabitha said the food in the resort is excellent. His digital soul will enjoy eating loads of delicious digital meals. Without ever gaining weight. If Vick is anything like him, he won't waste time on brooding over any body shape or mass issues and hit the buffet hard instead.

With this cheerful thought firmly anchored at the top of his mind, Mickey heads for the restaurant. Some coffee, and some fruit, not to meet his doctor on an empty stomach. Wondering about whether to add one or two of the fluffy buns to his menu, he doesn't even notice his coffee is delivered by the guy who saved his live less than twenty four hours ago.

At the same time, doctor Marita Manadogu is on her way to her practice. Slowly, because of the cup of coffee she's carrying. She's not into breakfast. Coffee to go, currently from a staff restaurant too posh to be called a canteen, is all she needs. She won't be seeing anyone before nine o'clock. But today is a first interviews day, and she prefers to face new clients well prepared.

She'll have a look at the files as compiled by the sales people, often very summarily. And inconsistently. Not to mention the occasional outright error. Like the extremely fit supposed nonagenarian who turned out to be a mere fifty two. Typo.

Half an hour for each interview. Not much. The first two are a no brainer. Husband and wife couple. Married for half a life time, going digital together. No complications to expect. Marita will do her little introductory speech for both of them together, before switching to the mandatory one-on-one.

The files of the third new client suggest issues. Mister Monrogue is divorced. Unhappily, by the sound of the background information. Midlife crisis? He also doesn't seem to have had much schooling. Informed consent? Marita vaguely recalls the name. Someone mentioned a mister Monrogue. Unfavorably. She made a note not to forget that name. She's got no idea why.

Three issues in one single new client, this calls for a strategic approach.

"When in doubt, call a ghost", her mentor said. "Preferably mine, if you're looking for expertise", he added. As doctor Abeo Adeola happens to be the neurologist who made this whole enterprise happen, together with his nerd friend and a venture capital guy acquaintance, this statement doesn't even qualify as bragging. He performed one of the first downloads, making his ghost vAbeo one of the most ancient resort residents. And he's always willing to help.

Marita clicks on the staff videoconferencing icon on her screen. Time zone wise, the digital resort is aligned with the headquarters in MMA. The ship is currently one hour behind. vAbeo is an early bird, should be available now. And sure enough, his icon is green, as in taking calls.

One more click, and his standard message is displayed: "Thanks for calling! Give me five minutes, I'll be with you as soon as my schedule permits."

It typically takes vAbeo less than five minutes to call back. But he never accepts incoming calls.

Marita assumes this is related to the ghost autonomy controversy. 1kYears charter considers the ghosts entitled to the same human rights as people. They're the product of an initial download, but once they go live, they evolve as autonomous entities with their own free will.

This concept and company policy is not yet accepted by any government. Officialdom considers the ghosts as nothing but a very sophisticated piece of software. As they are indeed relying for their existence on a material infrastructure they can't control, they're intrinsically vulnerable. This makes them very sensitive around certain topics. Hence vAbeo's reluctance to take calls.

While Marita waits for him to call back, vAbeo pulls himself out of his reverie. He's a very happy piece of software. Fell in love with beach mornings on his very first day of resort roaming and came to this spot ever since. With the sun only just rising, the temperature is exactly right. Sitting on the highest dune watching the waves of a perfect surf crash onto an equally perfect beach fits his personal concept of paradise. A nerd addicted to sailing designed the digital seaside. His dedication shows. In every little detail. The sand feels just the right kind of sandy.

Two surfers are active today, a black and a white one. vAbeo knows both of them well.

The black surfer derives from a former elite soldier. On leaving the army, he joined a security company headquartered in Verlipool. Nowadays, he’s the boss of the Central African affiliate. His ghost has been in the resort for eight years and helped set up their police force. Another digital dignitary, with the physique of a heavy weight champ. Not as tall as vAbeo, who needs to watch his head at every doorstep. But tall enough to stand out in a crowd. And massive.

The white surfer is a good head shorter, but not less athletic. His reddish tan and ash blonde hair suggest Anglo, despite his originator being a true MMA native. A property developer with a sideline in venture capital, he helped fund 1kYears but only downloaded a couple of months ago. vAbeo's and eSam's biological counterparts go back a long way. In many respects. As ghosts, they are only starting to determine how much of their real world relationship they are ready to replicate.

Sitting up straight and putting on his counselor face, vAbeo pushes the videoconferencing button on his phone: "Good morning, dear doctor Manadogu, glad to see you. You look gorgeous! May all your patients be wise and compliant, at all times. Anything else I can do for you?"

Marita immediately feels the pressure ease. This mentor supervision thing really does help: "Good morning to you, dear non-doctor vAbeo, thanks for your blessing. May the resort always be fully powered and the backup safe. I’d love to hear your opinion on..."

It took her three sentences to explain why she expects trouble. They're still at it twenty minutes later. Initially, she was irritated to hear vAbeo contest her rationale. According to her mentor, any sane person should experience some sort of crisis, midlife or other. And academic achievement wouldn’t turn anyone wiser, only making people more apt at concealing lack of wisdom.

vAbeo also inquired how exactly her client managed to get wealthy enough to be on board. A valid question. Mister Monrogue is paying for his ticket, and can afford to pledge the same sum for his former wife and kids. He's rich. Heirs tend to come with high flying academic credentials. He doesn’t, he must have made his money himself. How?

Digging deeper into the file, Marita has to concede defeat:

"Now listen to this, vAbeo, you're going to love this. He made his fortune in 3D printing. That's the TryUs guy, no less. You know, TryUs? Pretty big chain claiming to be able to print pretty much anything, pretty much anywhere? Someone like that will have attended some prestigious university, not just Pamkala St. James Primary and Middle School, as it says here. The sales folks, they’re a real hazard, forever omitting vital information. This guy is sure to know everything there is to know about software."

vAbeo makes an effort not to react. Recruiting good neurologists is hard. Bringing them up to speed for the counseling part of their 1kYears job is even harder. His originator studied both neurology and psychology, before spending most of his career practicing cognitive behavioral therapy. He can’t except a junior neurologist fresh out of university to know it all.

Marita might struggle with the concept of a big company founded by a barely literate innovator, but she's still less prejudiced than most academics. She's also from MMA. Important, in the context of their precarious legal status. And she's a lady. If 1kYears are to live up to their equal opportunity employer aspirations, they need more ladies in senior positions. Lady neurologists are rare. But lady nerds are even rarer. vAbeo can't risk alienating Marita.

Browsing mister Monrogue's file to check for any more blatantly obvious omissions, Marita notices the weight and height section. Pretty heavy, for such a short guy. This brings back the memory she struggled to access earlier, and her debacle turns into triumph:

"vAbeo, informed consent issues is no problem. But his midlife crisis, that's not just your average blues. Remember when I said there was something else, some oral information I struggled to recall? Well, it just came back. This guy, he's at risk of self harm. He's on the solid side, physically. Not obese, nothing to worry about. The little medical records he provided signal excellent health. But he's been hitting the treadmill so hard one of the stewards came running, afraid there might be one more cardiovascular accident in the making. Bet he's going to fight for body shape adjustement. Hope he doesn't turn aggressive. He might. Just look at that guy."

vAbeo makes one more effort. He does love the fire of youngsters. If only they could refrain from jumping to conclusions. Especially inconsistent ones. The self harm issues they sometimes have to deal with, both in originators and in ghosts, are unrelated to the recurring calls for body shape adjustements. Or occasional incidents around dieting and exercising. And someone's face doesn't tell you whether he's violent. That scar looks bad, yes, but so what?

"Marita, one more guy who'd like his ghost to be slimmer than he is, I'm sure you can handle. And I doubt he'll attack you, physically. Just ask yourself: Does anything in his biography imply he's violent? He’s no beauty, sure. But you don’t know how he got that scar. Your average rich guy, he'll throw a tantrum, if his demands aren't met. If that doesn't help, he'll storm out to call his lawyer. Or his briber. Or both, if he’s from our parts. You should be safe. Especially as it's not your fault, if our software can't deliver this particular feature. We're only triggering and downloading memories, without understanding the details. If we succeed with Tabitha, manage to make her future ghost walk, this is a very first step in the right direction. We're sure to take decades to achieve something as complex as full body shape adjustement. For the time being, it's either get in as you are, or forget about it. You can handle, Marita, I know you can."

Seeing vAbeo beam at her in absolute confidence, Marita has to agree. Of course she can handle. Being well trained, and a pretty tough lady, she never really doubted that. Seeking confirmation is just a professional precaution. A formality, really.

They chat some more, about last night's news.

In the material world, the latest Indo-Chinese initiative for fair access to global agricultural resources is the big topic. The mood is shifting from pretty bad to seriously ugly, with ever more so-called security details stationed close to strategic hotspots. Scary, for US or Eurasian folks. Rest-of-world news for MMA academics. Since petrol lost its prominence, the African mega city and its hinterland move out of the sync with the global economy. And being considered dangerous comes with advantages. Less inbound migratory pressure than other comfortable places.

The resort news are still fully focused on New Batikiri. Since it's founding, the relocation republic has espoused a number of exotic policies. Having rented their new and more elevated homeland, New Batikirians need to make loads of money. Hence the aggressive funding of recreational drug R&D and manufacturing. And the pay-for-your-passport immigration policy.

New Batikiri is considered entitled to some unorthodoxy. The global mighty know they didn't do enough to stop the original Batikiri from going under. But the latest fundraising move stretches this leniency to the limit. Starting January 1st, 1kYears resort inhabitants can apply for New Batikiri citizenship. It costs them a packet, ten times the usual fee, because of their more extended life expectancy. In return, the ghosts get a digital passport and full citizen rights.

An international first. The UN General Assembly has already discussed the move. New Batikiri was amply criticized, for being at odds with the traditional consensus on human rights. Strong wording was used, but no sanctions were proposed, yet.

The 1kYears resort news channels are terribly excited, most anchors urging viewers to take advantage of a golden opportunity that might not last forever. Except some can’t. New Batikiri fees need to be payed in material world money. No problem for ghosts with wealthy contacts. An insurmountable obstacle for those without.

How to proceed for ghosts without access to the material world means to pay for New Batikiri citizenship is the big controversy of the day:

How important should such citizenship be considered? Vital or nice to have? Should ghosts with access to material world wealth be forced to pay into a fund for those without? How high can this tax be set? Should it be the same contribution for everybody, or differentiated according to the level of wealth? Would one more lottery be a viable solution to determine who gets his fees paid by the common fund? Lots of questions, lots of politics.

Marita would have gone on chatting. It's vAbeo politely clearing his throat to signal they might be done. He also looks to the side, obviously seeing someone coming. Marita quickly thanks her mentor for his relentless support and cuts the call.

vAbeo let's himself sag backwards into the sand. Biologicals are tedious. Talking too fast, randomly piling bitsies of information on top of each other. Forever scrambling to make the most of their short life spans. Impossible to cope for more than thirty minutes.

Down below, the black surfer has been replaced by two tanned ladies. Novices, by the look of their attempts to climb onto their boards. Not hard to guess why they're taking up this sport. eSam is a good looking guy with a contagious smile. Improbably attractive, by 1kYears resort standards.

The expert surfer gallantly provides some advice, before paddling further out to catch one more serious wave. That's getting harder by the minute. The digital surf varies with the time of day. Very much like in the real world, except you don't need tide tables. The biggest waves are programmed to occur directly after sunrise and before sunset.

This is one monster of a wave. vAbeo recalls how eSam's originator used to be a little less reckless. He wouldn’t have targeted this caliber. If this goes wrong and eSam crashes, he will feel serious pain. And not just for a second. Virtual bruises fade no faster than real ones.

But ghosts don't die. They experience all kinds of sensations, both pleasant and horrible, but won't sustain lasting damage. A surfing ghost can experience a painful crash and the agony of drowning, but he will regain consciousness as soon as washed onshore. His head, ribs, lungs and limbs might hurt, to teach him a lesson. But no broken bones or damaged brain.

vAbeo saw it coming. Double overhead is beyond eSam's skills. He managed to compensate his wobbly start for a short second, before losing his balance to get tumbled around.

Time for vAbeo to walk down and harvest the floatsam. No need for him to hurry, though. Both eSam and his board will take a while to reach the beach. The bigger the crash, the longer the drowning. Everything is programmed proportionally, to help with learning.

Here he comes, delivered by an exceptionally long wave. No obvious magic in the 1kYears resort. Drowned ghosts will be restituted by what looks very much like a force of nature.

Poor eSam is in bad shape. Lying on his belly, his face in the sand, he’s more vomiting than coughing the water obstructing his lungs, and struggling to push himself into a more upright position. A badly bruised crawling misery.

vAbeo would love to do something. He urges to pat his friends back and help him sit up. But he knows better. Touching eSam uninvited would trigger a tantrum. Followed by a phase of ostracism. He can’t risk more than verbal encouragement: "Easy, eSam, you'll be OK. You hurt now, but you'll be OK. No lasting damage, remember? You'll be OK."

This turns the coughing into laughing, the casualty rolling over to rest on his side and flash a sandy grin at his support: "Cool, isn't it? That's so cool, Abeo. Did you see that one? Two stories high, at least. And I nearly got it. Crashed down on me like a tank. And the drowning, that last moment, when your lungs burn, that sucks. Hate that. But this is so cool!"

Barely able to talk. Spitting sandy foam with every groan. So confused, or concussed, he addresses vAbeo by the name of his originator. eSam is a mess. But beaming. As good at bouncing back as his real life version.

vAbeo crosses his arms behind his back to better resist the temptation to pat: “You bloody little idiot, you nearly got me scared. Why can’t you just have some harmless fun, without risking your neck? Have some mercy with a poor old man, is that so hard?”.

Such a banal remark, but eSam’s eyes flicker around anyway. Checking for hands, before switching to his sceptical grin. vAbeo shakes his head in fake outrage: “Oh come on, eSam, now you’re overdoing it. Don’t give me that face, there’s perfectly no reason. I’m not even thinking about whatever you’re suggesting, never mind doing anything...”

vAbeo would have loved to keep it up, but it’s impossible. He keels over, rolling in the sand, laughing: “Stop it, eSam, you give me the cramps. If anyone watches this, they’ll think ‘crazy ghosts’, and I can’t even blame them. That’s how prejudice is born, you know?...”

Laying side by side, they grin at each other. Just grinning, for the time being. Ghosts can afford to take their time. They’ve got hundreds of years to look forward to.

Meanwhile, back in the material world, Marita takes advantage of the last five minutes of privacy to complete her makeup, clip on some earrings and assorted braid beads and adjust the three piece dress she’s wearing underneath her open doctor coat.

Whenever anyone comments her cultivated appearance, usually favorably, she explains she has to look pretty because of the luxury service aspect of her 1kYears job. This is true. Part of the truth.

She also does enjoy dressing up. The current MMA fashion to combine an extremely casual overall look with just one sophisticated item doesn't appeal to her. She’s convinced people only pretend to enjoy dressing down, to hide they're doing it because they fear kidnappings. You don't want to be a sissy, you call your cover look a style. Not her style.

Once satisfied with her reflection, Marita will settle behind her desk. She likes to be sitting there, all ready and poised to perform her doctor act, when the clients knock.

Outside, Mickey has joined a couple already waiting for their turn. Them again. The big ones from the restaurant. Big white Americans. Her voice even more strident at close range. Same topic. She wants a slim digital alter ego. Her Donald is supposed to make it happen.

Mickey has encountered enough impossible requirements to feel with the doctor. Not easy, to match surreal expectations with real options. Takes a true professional, to get from there to deal.

Technology is never causing the trouble. It’s always the people wrecking around.

Mickey arrived early on purpose. An old reflex. Be on your guard, whenever dealing with the suit wearing tribe. Especially on their home turf.

Mickey prefers to meet suits in one of his workshops. Makes them ill at ease, to be surrounded by equipment, materials and more or less finished parts. Shows them how little clue they have, about real stuff. Good to have some processing ongoing, too. Suits get tense, when made to stand close to hissing engines suggesting the presence of very hot stuff.

Mickey hopes to catch a glimpse of the doctor. A little preview, a tiny sound bite, that’s all he needs, to get an idea of the type of person he’ll be dealing with.

He'll also wait a couple of minutes. Amazing, how confused most people are, concerning walls and doors. In their imagination, not seeing implies not hearing. But a surprising number of rooms are far from soundproof. You get to hear a lot, if you arrive early and make good use of your big ears.

"Donald, I warn you. No wavering. Not today. Not on this. We will go in looking appropriate, or not at all. And not at all is not an option..." That's a fat lady on a mission, not to be messed with.

She's clutching a magazine, lightly rolled into a tube. Mickey can see enough of the page to identify the girl on the picture as pretty. Real pretty, not the skinny kind. If that's her idea of what she wants to look like, she's got taste. And zero idea. Comparing the picture and the pretender, Mickey immediately understands why this can't work. Simple scaling won't do. The surplus fat is not distributed evenly. Huge amounts build up on certain body parts, like around the waist and on the upper arms. Whereas others are hardly affected, like the face.

It's 08:56 on his phone when the fat lady suddenly stands up, knocks, opens the door, without waiting for an answer, and steps in. Her husband follows her, with little enthusiasm.

Mickey expects them to get thrown right back out, for being so pushy. But the door remains shut. Would doctor Manadogu have trouble establishing his authority?

The only audible voice is the lady's organ, demanding, aggressive. Impossible to hear the doctor's responses. Assuming there are any, in the short breaks between blasts. If exchange there is, it’s not going well. The lady is still getting shriller.

Suddenly, there's a commotion. The lady is shouting at the top of her voice now. A very bad word is clearly audible, amidst other foul language. Someone else is screaming. Most probably not the husband. It’s a highly pitched voice, very upset. Something hits the floor, hard.

Mickey tears open the door. It's a reflex, triggered by the sounds suggesting an emergency. Stepping inside, he discovers an elegantly furnished office turned battlefield.

There's a young lady in a white coat on the floor, clutching a waste paper basket she holds high, to protect herself from hits. A female doctor. Very pretty. Very young. That explains the lack of resistance against the initial intrusion. No authority.

The fat lady is standing next to her, looming over her, using her magazine as a baton. She only manages to hit the waste paper basket, but her bodily harmful intention is obvious enough.

Mickey immediately identifies the improvised weapon as useless. No serious harm will be inflicted by such means. He can spare a second to take in the rest of the scene before acting.

There’s an overturned visitor chair standing next to an empty one. The husband would have been seated on this second chair at the start of the riot. He selected to step away from the action and is now standing in the corner by the couch, waiting for whichever outcome. What an idiot. He will have to be dealt with, once the more prominent emergency is resolved.

Mickey reestablishes civilization by stepping between the assailant and her victim, allowing the latter to stand up and sort herself out. No need for talking. One look at him calmed down the aggressor. That's the one advantage, of being a very black square of a guy with a wide scar across his left cheek. He mostly hates the effect. Occasionally, looking scary comes in handy.

The little showdown has turned Mickey into the ruler. His right to decide how to proceed.

He’s well aware that being civilized implies not to use violence, unless you're the police and encounter resistance. This is not the case. Now they need a trial, to sort out rights and wrongs. On a ship, this will involve the captain. When they had their new arrival drill, they were told as much. The captain is the boss, in charge of everything on board.

"Madam, afraid I need to ask you, and your husband, to report yourself to the captain’s office. Now, please. Madam doctor will call him while you're on your way, to inform about the incident and explain why his intervention is required. Thank you. Now, please."

Mickey talks courteously, as is mandatory in polite company. But he keeps his face stern, and steadies his power pack body for any rude action that might be required. The couple don’t fail to be impressed and hurriedly stumble out, the husband mumbling something about misunderstandings, unsafe furniture and how he will sort things out with the captain.

Mickey closes the door behind them and turns to the victim: "Doctor, you’ll better call the captain right away. I'll wait outside. They’re sure to come up with a load of rubbish, how it’s supposed to be your fault. You need to get to him first." Seeing her hands shake, he adds: "You're OK? Not hurt, or something? Not going to faint, not going to need a doctor?"

This question does the trick. The last thing Marita needs now, on top of everything else, is a colleague. She resolutely shakes her head: "I'm fine, no problem. Just let me make that phone call. You're right, no time to lose. And thank you."

Satisfied, Mickey steps outside to resume his waiting. This door could definitely do with better sound insulation. The doctor is upset, talking loud and fast. He can't understand every word, but enough to make sense. It's really a shame, an attack on such a nice little lady. Too polite for her own good. She should have thrown the couple right back out. But in the bigger picture, she's not to blame. That husband, he's the disgrace here. It was his job, to stop his wife.

Inside, Marita regains some composure. The captain's relaxed reaction helps. Having calmly listened to her tale, he's now in process of explaining proceedings. He will interview the couple, in the presence of the lead steward, and put them under suite arrest. If they admit the aggression, which often happens in such cases, there is a specific clause in their contract.

Aggressing 1kYears staff leads to exclusion from the services. For a cooling down period of one to ten years, depending on the severity of the assault. He's thinking three years in this case. Very minor physical harm would get you one year if performed on a steward. Aggressing a doctor is worse, and also unheard of. Should trigger more severe punishment. But he needs to liaise with 1kYears head office. They insist on getting involved in such cases.

Marita feels vindicated. No hint of a doubt on his side, that only the clients are to blame. This is a nice surprise. Because she felt the trouble coming. Her first impulse, on seeing them storm in while she was still fumbling with her braids, was to cancel the meeting. She didn't dare, and ended up being treated like some maid. And called the n-word. This was too much. It made her stand up and step forward, to try to lead the lady to he door. And then all hell broke loose.

She told the captain as much. Without embellishments. Those never got anyone anywhere. He won't have her take part of the blame. For him, only the couple is at fault, period. They will be punished. She will receive difficult working conditions compensation. And one of the more bulky security staff will be made to stand guard outside her practice.

Marita is surprised by this proposal. She reminds the captain there’s already such a specimen in the corridor. She never actively noticed him. But he definitely was there today, and did an excellent job. The captain denies. There are armed security staff on board, to deal with any pirates stupid enough to assault a cruiser sailing under a Ginerian flag. But the gun guys are posted on a lower deck. Definitely not ambling around on the office level, never mind guarding her practice.

Time to verify the identity of the improvised peacemaker. Still on the phone, Marita opens the door to find him there all right, waiting patiently. Waving him inside, she's surprised he's so short. Felt much bigger, when he went up against her tormentor.

"Thank you very much, mister, for helping with this. Very much appreciated. The captain would like a word, too, if you don’t mind? You did such a good job, time you got yourself noticed."

Mickey takes the phone, outwardly as calm as a rock. Inside, he’s bubbling with indignation. Stupid kid, who does she think she’s dealing with? Seems to mistake him for staff. Just because he’s an old fat ugly, and wearing a t-shirt over jeans? Little does she know.

Time to teach her a lesson. Talking into the phone, he goes: “Nice to meet you, captain sir, Mickey Monrogue at your service. Yes, a client. Of course. What else? No idea why she would think that, honestly. Well, I was sitting there, waiting for my interview, minding my own business. Then there was this bang, and screaming. Not the kind of behavior you’d expect in polite company. Know what I mean? Exactly, absolutely my opinion. Yes, I took the liberty of sending the two of them over. Assuming you’d want to take it from here on. My pleasure, sir, my pleasure.”

Marita wonders if fainting wouldn’t be the most commendable course of action after all. First she mishandles a querulatory client and gets herself assaulted. And now it turns out she insulted the next client by mistaking him for staff. She tries to apologize to mister Monrogue, but the words come out all garbled, and sound so terribly inappropriate. She’s close to sobbing.

Seeing the doctor’s distress, Mickey feels his anger evaporate. He’s as good at rightful indignation as he’s hopeless at keeping up resentment. Accepting her apology, he proposes to move on and forget the whole incident. Why not start afresh, pretend they only just met, and she’d proceed just like she would usually go about her business?

The reset approach he perfected in dealing with his hot tempered younger daughter turns out to work on the doctor. She calms down enough to stutter through a little speech, about the basics of the downloading process. Mickey is familiar enough with this spin, but knows better than interrupting the flow too early. He needs this kid to stabilize, before raising serious questions.

“... and that’s it, mister Monrogue. The essence, the basics of it. That’s how we turn your thoughts into your digital alter ego, an electronic version of your self. And this is the actual captor unit. You put this on, like a cap, and these wires go into a kind of laptop. I provide prompts, you focus on thinking the corresponding, and voilà, your alter ego, your digital self, it gets born. A technician will do a little filtering and adjusting, but essentially, basically, the virtual you is you. A digital version of your self, with all your memories and skills.”

Marita prides herself for her ability to use simple language throughout first interviews. That’s important, especially with the less educated clients. Otherwise they might not dare raise their questions. Plain, simple language. Plus a demonstration of the captor unit. That’s all you need, to put them at ease. Both the neurology and the software engineering behind 1kYears product are awe inspiringly complex. But one can’t say that, one needs to keep it simple.

Mickey marvels at the technology. The doctor hasn’t much of a clue. That’s OK, because she’s only performing the medical side of the act. A minor side show, the right assignment for a very junior employee. The real buzz is in the software, obviously. And what a jewel 1kYears created!

Having spent most of his life struggling with an endless stream of 3D printing issues revolving around material incompatibilities, texture faults, weight differentials, all those presumed details causing custom made parts to optically mismatch or technically malfunction, Mickey can’t help being awed by the feat the 1kYears engineers performed.

A little filtering and adjusting? The doctor has no idea what she’s talking about. Him just thinking “blue”, the example she chose, raises a whole tangle of issues. Transparent sky blue, or metallic car blue? And what shade of this blue? And what about the feelings? He’ll forever resent the dark blue dress his former wife wore to announce she would leave him. A dark blue dress and an overdose of rose perfume, this combination freaks him out. How the hell can they capture this kind of memory, and download it, and reproduce it? Awe inspiring.

Mickey pretends to closely inspect what looks very much like a bathing cap with a tail of multicolored wires and is supposed to be called a 1kYears captor unit. How would an educated person voice a request to talk to someone more competent? He doesn’t intend to create offense. The poor little doctor has had more than her fair share of on the job excitement for one day. But he longs for a word with someone more deeply in the know.

This might work: “And those folks, the digital ones, they really look and sound exactly like their real world originals? Please don’t get me wrong, doctor, I’m not suggesting you might be telling it false or something. It’s just so - impressive? Know what a I mean? Them being like us? Any chance I could, I don’t know, meet one of them, talk to one of the digital ones?”

Marita is pleased with herself. She finally got her interviewee to talk, always a milestone. And he’s definitely more educated than his incomplete paperwork suggests. Obviously familiar with the Turing test concept, and searching for a polite way to poke. Well, she knows that feeling. And he’s in for a big surprise. She nearly keeled over, when her mentor casually informed her of his peculiar existential status. Having had her job interview with the real world Abeo, she had no idea she had been switched to his digital counterpart vAbeo for the video link mentoring.

“No problem, mister Monrogue, this can be arranged. It’s very much like a video conference, and I’m sure one of the resort residents will make himself available. If you’d just wait outside, to allow me to check who’s willing? Shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. The alter egos, the digital folks, they like this kind of chat. Pretty sure to find someone, even at short notice...”

Mickey steps outside, glad to have won some more time for his strategic pondering. He’s not surprised by the doctor’s offer. Like most clients, he learned of 1kYears by word of mouth. There’s an abundance of tales highlighting the incredible similarity between the originators and their digital replicas. Even taking into consideration the human penchant for bragging, he has every reason to assume the virtual folks to be impressively live like. Otherwise he wouldn’t have booked.

Unfortunately, the chances are equally high to encounter technological dummies. Most people don’t understand even the most basic basics of the technical marvels they’re using. Mickey’s first virtual contact most probably won’t be an engineer. He will have to find a polite way to get himself introduced to one.

On the other side of the door, Marita is surprised to find an urgent message from vAbeo on her screen: “Sorry. All my fault, sincerely sorry! Please do call.”

And it turns out her mentor means it, for once interrupting his welcome message to directly take her call. News do travel fast in the 1kYears universe.

The captain contacted HQ for advice on how to sanction her aggressors. Abeo reached out to vAbeo for clues. vAbeo ended up under the mistaken impression she got attacked by mister Monrogue, as she had anticipated in their conversation earlier today.

Takes the two of them a little to and fro to sort out the attacker and defender camps. Once a common incident awareness has been established, Marita recalls her original goal: “Mister Monrogue really is charming. Quite sophisticated, too. He’d like a word, by the way. With one of the ghosts. The Turing test thing, once again. He didn't exactly say so, but that’s what he’s after. He’s waiting outside. Any chance to find someone for him to meet, at short notice?”.

Marita knows about the importance of wording such requests very politely. The ghosts are no one’s servants, free to do whatever they enjoy. That’s the whole point of the 1kYears resort. She was warned, sternly, on her very first day, always to respect the wishes of the ghosts. It’s a very bad idea to alienate folks for whom one hundred years are a tenth of their expected life span. Them getting over any inadvertently triggered grudge can take a very long while.

vAbeo once again has to swallow an unsuitable comment. The kid gets herself saved by the very client she was prejudiced enough to fear a couple of hours earlier, and now she has him wait outside her office, like some supplicant?! Young folks these days, a treasure trove of bad manners.

Instead of voicing these reservations, vAbeo goes: “Really now, mister Monrogue a Turing tester? How very interesting. Know what, I think I’ll take that one myself. Sounds interesting.”

Marita doesn’t even try to suppress a little joyful “Yeah, too cool!”.

She had wondered how to repay mister Monrogue, for beating back that horrible woman and not taking offense at being mistaken for staff. She had fleetingly considered asking vAbeo to meet him, but immediately discarded this stupid idea. Her mentor is a VIP. That would be like asking a pop star to perform at some kids birthday party. A polite person doesn’t do this.

Now she triumphantly calls her savior back in, without even thinking about proper timing and circumstances. vAbeo would have preferred a little more privacy, but seeing mister Monrogue’s scarred face eagerly stare into the screen he decides to proceed anyway. This guy looks stable enough, good opportunity the introduce the young pony to a couple of new tricks.

“Pleased to meet you, mister Monrogue. Please allow me to introduce myself: Name of vAbeo. It’s pronounced “Vabeo’, but in writing you’d spell it with a lower case “v”, for virtual, for starters, followed by “Abeo” as in “Abeo”. A pretty frequent first name in MMA, where my real world originator happens to live. Would you by any chance be familiar with the Mehut Metropolitan Area, mister Monrogue? Or at least the wider region, or the African continent as such?”.

An innocuous question for starters. Two middle aged black professionals meeting for a first videoconference. Feeling out, establishing common ground, doesn’t get much less spectacular. Except one of them consists of nothing but software.

Mickey jumps right in. Questions, that’s his thing. Always had a knack for these. Never at risk of running short: “An MMA guy, now really. Nice to meet you, vAbeo. Me, it’s Mickey, please. You look like someone who’d call me Mickey. Over here. If we met, in the real world. Except if you were out to scam me. Then it would be “mister Monrogue, this way, mister Monrogue, that way”. Know what I mean? Folks like me, we hear “MMA”, we think “scam”. Familiar with that reflex?”.

vAbeo laughs at what could be considered an insult: “Of course I do, Mickey. MMA equals scam, absolutely. Pamkala might try the odd little dirty, but if you need to go big, scam wise, MMA is your place, period. We’re in a class of our own own. I’m of course only pretending to consist of bits and bytes. For true, I’m an actor sitting on a nice MMA beach. How do you like the beach, by the way?”. vAbeo switches cameras to show off his surroundings. Dunes, like in a picture book desert. A very white sandy beach. An extremely quiet stretch of blue ocean.

The picture on the screen switches back to vAbeo’s grin: “Beach like that, near MMA, guaranteed to be full of rubbish. And squatters. And police, out to evict the squatters. Oh, and let's not forget the soundtrack. You never hear no waves, on an MMA beach. The rich kids roar around on their tuned bikes, not giving a fuck about motorized vehicle prohibitions. The army helicopters droning on above them, doing the odd shootie shootie. At some peddlers, never at the rich kids. And the mother of all go slows is honking along right behind the dunes... Blue screen, so amazing. You familiar with blue screen, Mickey? Ever had your family visit the Eiffel Tower, for virtual?”

Mickey is thrilled. vAbeo, that’s his type of guy. Playing at hard to read. Sense of humor and tech. And even recognizing a Pamkala accent. Or would that be joining in?

Half an hour later, they’re still at it. Mickey comfortably installed in Marita’s desk chair, chatting with vAbeo on his dune. The doctor has pulled one of the visitor chairs to her side of the desk, to get a glimpse of the screen. Hard to see properly at this angle, but better than audio only.

She’s still trying to come to grips with what she learned, about her mentor. With his English worthy of an international news channel anchor, she had always assumed him to be upper class. Now it turns out he’s equally fluent in a barbaric Pamkala lingo peppering English with odd local terms. Shameful, for a professional, to speak so slum. But vAbeo seems to enjoy doing it, and his pidgin definitely puts mister Monrogue at ease.

Her client asked for and got a soft drink from her office fridge, a low calorie one, and is deeply engaged in the ongoing resolution discussion.

As far as Marita manages to make sense of the tech talk, it’s about how the ghosts see and feel each other, and their environment. As opposed to how they are depicted in their video link interactions with the real world.

It all started with Mister Monrogue challenging the possibility to render so much high definition 3D content sufficiently fast.

To Marita’s surprise, vAbeo didn’t deny. Quite the opposite. He confirmed and explained.

It’s all one big bloody fake. The ghosts and their environment are actually very low definition entities, mere pixelated shadows. They only recall what high definition looks like, and their virtual brain makes up the details. This trick doesn’t work for interactions with the real world. Hence the need for an array of dedicated high resolution servers for the video conferences.

One conversation between a ghost and his originator, or anyone else in the real world, requires more computing power than a whole 3D day of ghost life. Even a very sportively active one.

Marita is still making up her mind, whether to consider this a scam or not. You only need to ask, for the technical details. All corresponding clarification will be readily provided. But no normal person ever asks, about specifications and resolutions and all this technical manual stuff. Only the odd techie does. Techies, a rare occurrence in the ranks of the rich. And the lottery ladies.

Scam by omission, is this still to be considered a scam? According to vAbeo, everything feels perfectly high definition real, for ghosts inside the resort. Even if you know it’s a trick. Like with placebo painkillers. They do work, because your brain likes them to.

Marita is on the verge of deciding there is no scam. There’s good money in this non-scam, too.

Over at the restaurant, Ayodele is probing new depths. Normally, he does enjoy preparing the tables for lunch. A nice, quiet, supremely non-interactive job. In an climatized room.

Today, he’s in a filthy mood. He’d prefer to be commandeered around by one of the guests. This would at least keep him from thinking. It’s such a blatant injustice. Performed on him, again.

Nelson called in sick, with a bad tooth. No point in blaming him for this. Even though he could take better care of his oral hygiene. A bad tooth, at his young age, sounds a lot like too much junk food, too little toothbrush, right? Anyway, Nelson is off sick. For an undeniable, very visibly swollen reason. So far, so relatively OK. S*** happens.

But why had Spiros to pick him, Ayodele, of all people, for the double shift? Again?! It’s already the second time, in one mere month, that he has to back up and go double shift. Not fair. At all.

Ayodele gets disadvantaged. He had been suspecting as much for a while, but now he’s convinced. Being called twice, to double shift, when Chan is still waiting for his first round of back up for this month, that’s blatantly evident discrimination.

Just because he’s from MMA, and desperate for a job, any job. Spiros is such a f*****.

What’s the point, honestly, of giving him a raise, if the next thing happening is extra hours? He’s practically going to end up being paid less, per hour, instead of more. Sure, it’s written on the slate, him being due some catch up off hours. But he’s been around. He knows how these hours have a habit of accumulating. And it so happens there’s never a good moment to take them. Besides, he wants to call it a day this afternoon at five, not next week. Or next month. Or next year.

Today, of all days. When he was looking forward to watch the robo-wrestling finals. He even bought two extra cans of beer, to top up the company assignment. A good night it would have been. For once. And now Chan gets to watch the real, live thing. While he will be mixing stupid cocktails. This is so maddening. Chan, who literally can’t tell a GloboBot from a SlogoBot. He gets the evening off. And the only robotics expert on board wastes his time shaking ethanolic liquids.

Ayodele feels bitter enough to recall his second worst mistake ever. There was a time when he thought signing up as a steward on a 1kYears cruise liner might provide him with the chance to move on to a job as technician. He used to be more of a hardware guy, but he should be able to perform this role. With just a little bit of on the job training.

In his first performance review, at the end of his three month trial period, Ayodele asked Spiros, about how to apply for a more technology oriented role. The lead steward thought he was joking, nearly fell from his chair laughing. A former steward fiddling with captor units, hahaha, just imagine the mismatch, hahaha. It was so excruciatingly humiliating.

“Jeshush, man, don’t let the Shpirosh catch you making that fashe! We're shuposhed to cheer up the cushtumersh, not the osher way round, man. Shust popping by to tell you it wash a falshe alarm. My teesh all fine, no problem. Shusht an infecshon. The doc cut it open, out went the mesh, all fine now. Be working late shift, no problem.”

Nelsons sounds drunk, but his cheek is deflated indeed. He looks presentable enough. Ayodele achknowledges the good news, making the effort to smile. He doesn’t feel like it, because your discrimination doesn’t just end when one trigger disappears.

If anyone calls in sick, he’s practically assured to take the hit, again. But at least it won’t be tonight. Hopefully. With his luck, he won’t know for sure until his shift is over. And even then... No escaping your boss, in this job. That’s one of the career downsides he has quickly learned to hate. You’re stuck on the f****** cruise liner 24/7, come what may. Whatever your mood or personal needs.

A cruise is fun for the clients, sure. Their paradise, Ayodele’s 24/7 hell.

Like stinking mister Monrogue out there, strutting towards the pool as if he owned the place. How can such an eyesore of a person dare whistle and grin? And Tabitha, Ayodele’s beloved Tabitha, she waves a joyous welcome at the ugly old ogre?! Disgusting. Sickening. Gross.

"Would you mind having a second go at that glass? That’s not the polishing I taught you. Do you even listen, when I’m spilling my lifeblood trying to coach some sense into you? Look, here, near the rim. That little blemish thing, remember what it’s called? That’s a stain, Ayodele. An s-t-a-i-n. And what is a stain, Ayodele? A stain is bad, it’s so bad...”

Chan is a quick mover, thanks to years of high school badminton practice. He easily ducks the napkin, the serviette ring and the corkscrew Ayodele throws at him in quick succession. Picking up the projectiles he’s careful to hide his jubilation.

He managed to trigger bodily action. Should there be some hope after all? Could the lack of other opportunities lead Ayodele to consider readily available options? Chan recalls having heard rumors, about sailors and soldiers on long sea trips. Very legacy historical rumors. But this is the age of retro dressing. Why not add a little retro dreaming to the mix?

Abandoning his lead steward way of talking, Chan goes: “Easy, dear brother, no assault intended. Just bringing one more message from Spiros. One more good news, I think. Special assignment. Familiar with mister and miss Trendon? The American couple, regency suite 05? Well, listen to this: They are under suite arrest. Arrest, as in jail, prison, no longer allowed to walk around.

The two of them apparently ambushed Marita. Isn’t that horrible? That guy, he sure fooled me. Would never have considered him a raper kind of person. And his wife, just standing by, that’s so... yuck to the power of yuck! Plain horrible.

Anyway, they are under arrest now. In their suite, regency 05. And Spiros selected you as their personally assigned steward. Something about you being good at putting on a grim face. Can’t imagine where he got that impression from.

Anyway, here’s the deal: They’re entitled to take advantage of all services, as long as these can be delivered to their suite. You’re on duty nine to five only, with a one hour lunch break starting noon. Rest of the day, and night, they stew on their own. They’ll contact you by the means of this device. Your’re to act polite, but never friendly. When in doubt about a request, you’re to ask Spiros.

That’s one hell of a stunt, Ayodele. You’re really in Spiros’ golden book, top page. That’s practically a holiday, as good as paid leave, a real gift. You’re pure magic, brother.”

Ayodele is confused at first, not sure to understand. Why would make Chan such a fuzz, about this f****** assignment? Like back up, work on top, that’s what that is. It takes him a while to grasp how his new duty replaces the regular early/late/night rhythm. Sounds too good to be true. Fishy. Why would the lead steward do him a favor? His instincts tell him to be extra watchful.

Outside, Mickey has joined Tabitha in the pool. He crawls two lanes, fast, for appearances, before pausing at her side, eager to share. And she doesn’t disappoint him, immediately asking about his session with the doctor. Hard to avoid bragging, under the circumstances. Mickey at least manages to keep the first run short, only providing additional details at her explicit request.

Hearing himself boast of his encounter with the digital version of one of the 1kYears founders, Mickey wonders how he would react to such a tale. Not too well. Time to cut himself short: “And there I was, an ugly old fool without so much as a proper education, talking to the digital version of one of the great men who make all this happen. Quite an honor, Tabitha. Afraid I’m still a bit drunk with it, apologies for the boasting. But it was such a coincidence, such a man having family in Pamkala. Not that we would ever had any chance of meeting back home, with his mom and dad doctors, too. But he talks the talk, like some regular Pamkala boy...”

Having already heard Chan’s far more colorful version of this morning’s major onboard event, Tabitha admires her senior friend. He’s neither young nor big. In pretty good shape, for an old man, but still... Very heroic of him, to rescue the doctor. He could have gotten hurt. Mickey is brave. And still respectful, when talking about vAbeo. As anyone should be.

Tabitha is a big fan of vAbeo. Because he’s striving to make her future ghost walk. And because he’s so thoroughly nice. Talking to him lightens any burden. She’s forever falling in love with him, despite them being more than ten years apart and him being digital.

In Tabitha’s preferred daydream, she imagines eBitha dancing with vAbeo. In the park behind the dunes, where the resort inhabitants have their parties. eBitha and vAbeo would dance to her favorite song: "It's our future, yes we make it". vAbeo being so tall, he would have to bend down ever so slightly. But he would do it so elegantly hardly anyone would notice.

Tabitha is a wise girl, perfectly aware vAbeo is out of reach. A ghost like him, he’s bound to have found himself a fantastic lady. Another learned professional. Extremely intelligent. And beautiful, very beautiful and elegant. vAbeo won’t wait for the arrival of a little ignorant lottery kid.

He does make her feel like the single most important person in the world, though. When they talk over the video link, it’s like magic, everything becomes possible. And there is strictly no harm in cherishing a little daydream. It’s her little secret, keeping her mood bright.

Meanwhile, a fierce if lopsided battle is raging in regency suite 05:

“Do you even listen to yourself, you f****** moron? And don’t you dare honey me again. We can’t just sit here, doing f******* nothing. No, not “but”. I’m tired of your but. No more honey, no more but. From here on, it’s yes, Serena. Yes, and now. Do you f****** get that, Donald?...”

They have been at this fight ever since the captain had them escorted to their suite. Donald tries to say as little as possible. Anything he might come up with will only serve as ammunition. Stay quiet, don’t move, certainly not fast. Never ever physically approach in a threatening way.

Sharing an enclosed space with his beloved wife is mostly safe, as long as she doesn’t feel aggressed. This is the one button you need to make sure not to push, unless you fancy a whacking. Serena is not a particularly severe whacker. She mostly selects appliances causing more noise than harm. Like you would use a folded newspaper to slap a dog gnawing on your carpet. But having her come for you for the first time is still a pretty awesome experience.

Donald is glad they got away lightly. The captain and the lead steward were perfectly courteous, absolutely professional in their handling of the situation. And 1kYears have a sound policy in place. This company really knows how to cater for an exclusive clientele.

Most of Serena’s explosions cause a stream of steep bills followed by a bucketful of painful publicity. This time, nothing substantial. They can leave at the next port, if they so wish, without fuzz, and resume their cruise three years from now at the earliest. Or they can stay on board and proceed, except for not being allowed to leave their suite unescorted.

They spontaneously decided to stay, for the time being. So far, so near perfect outcome. Next, Serena insisted on fighting. First the arrest decision, now him.

Donald of course immediately called his lawyer, to check for loopholes. The lawyer didn’t find any. High seas means captain’s prerogative, he really is the law on board. And they’re sailing under a Ginerian flag. A tricky jurisdiction, where you can’t easily raise futile claims. If they stay on board, they’ll have to comply with the rules as defined by the captain.

Donald of course called his chief financial officer next. A Ginerian company, suggests there should be a way. Trying cost them 100.000 dollars, US. An immediate voluntary contribution to the Federal Ginerian Anti-Corruption Fund. As was clearly stated in the strictly-no-bribes section of a contract his lawyer once again praised as extremely well designed.

That was that. Either they stay and behave. Or they leave, once the next port is close enough to be reached by chopper. This should be the case by tomorrow evening at the latest.

Donald wouldn’t admit as much unless tortured, but he very silently likes the outcome. Paying, lawyers or compensation or bribes, that never hurt anyone. But being denied access to the pool, that’s ouch. And ouch might lead to learning. Worth a try. And some discomfort.

Three hours later, Serena has exhausted her stock of expletives and pushes what was introduced to them as the steward button on the watch-like bracelets both of them now have to wear at all times. To her horror, the device talks back: “Steward service provided nine to five. Please enter one if you want to record a request for tomorrow morning, two if you want to register a complaint that will be submitted to the captain, or three if you wish to end this interaction.”

It takes a furious Serena a couple of rounds, and some more foul language, to finally internalize the toughest truth to hit her in very many years. She’s going to bed hungry. There’s nothing she can do. There’s nothing she can make her Donald do. There’s no one else to scream at.

A couple of rooms down, the captain is on the video phone with vAbeo: “Sure we can risk this? I mean, her alone, no problem, she deserves it, and worse. But the husband is in there, too. What if she freaks out more seriously, and goes after him? With the names she’s calling him, anything is possible. I mean, you’re the shrink, you know best. But this is one hell of a machine of a woman. She might break him apart...”

The captain is seriously worried. It’s all fine and nice, to have all these bugs at your disposal. For safety supervisory reasons, as is clearly stated in the contract, section 28f sentence 5b. But what if this makes him witness a manslaughter? No good.

vAbeo shakes his head: “No risk, zero risk. Even if she tries. He’s pretty big himself, easily capable to fend her off. But she won’t try. Checked her record, before we determined their sanction earlier today. It’s quite a long record, she’s really into this whacking. Always the same excuse, she was attacked. And always the same result, no harm done. Couple of bruises and cuts, mostly acquired in the course of evasive action, not caused by miss Trendon’s hitting.”

The captain isn’t convinced yet: “As I say, you’re the shrink, you’re supposed to know. But I would still prefer to check with the BiBo. Let’s just assume she goes after the husband, he does evasive action, stumbles and breaks his neck. That would be one big f******* mess, right?”

vAbeo nods: “Definitely, yes. And please do stop calling me a shrink. I’m a ghost, and as such not entitled to any title. We’ve got no idea how much of my medical school made it across. Probably not that much, considering there were far more memorable events to recall and download. But I don’t need no degree to tell you this guy is safe. See how he keeps himself still, taking care not to provoke her? He knows her, and what triggers her attacks. He’s safe. Whereas I’m less so. If I go ahead and disturb our big boss for this non-issue, I can kiss my virtual a** goodbye. He’s seriously unkeen on this kind of initiative. You’ll have to make do with humble me. And I say it’s fine, no one will get hurt. If ever she kills him anyway, it’s my fault. OK?”

The captain is satisfied. That’s one nice, clear statement of responsibility. He’s out, vAbeo is in.

In theory, the captain would be perfectly able to contact the BiBo himself. He’s one of the very few trusted contacts with direct access. But he certainly won’t risk his neck or job. vAbeo is right, not exaggerating. The brain behind the 1kYears software comes with one hell of a temper. Compared to their big boss, Serena Trendon qualifies as sweet and docile.

Over in the resort, on the veranda of the park bar, eSam shakes his head in amazed protest: “No kidding? You call that a nice and quiet day? And you’re really turning it off? Not even watching? What if that fury kills her poor husband? Aren’t you going to feel..., like, I don’t know...”

“Like s***. Of course I would. If she did. But I’m convinced she won’t. Statistically speaking, he’s got a higher risk to get killed by a waiter with a bad flambé technique. Biologicals tend to be most afraid of the most improbable risks.”

vAbeo takes care not to adopt too professorial a tone. eSam doesn’t fancy lectures. Unless the topic involves surfing, or seaside real estate, and he’s doing the lecturing.

They’ve both opted for elegant casual. Standing well apart from the other revelers, they had only just fetched their Redbrew beer bottles from the vendor machine when the captain called vAbeo.

eSam sips on his beer, his face turned inward. vAbeo knows better than to ask what his companion is chewing on. The new arrival accepting his proposal to join him for a drink tonight came as a pleasant surprise. He’s certainly not going to reach for the stars and subject sSam to anything reeking of serious, never mind personal, conversation.

They would’t lack topics. The age differential thing, that would be a good one, for starters.

In real life, vAbeo’s originator is ten years older than eSam’s. As they met when the former was twenty seven and the latter seventeen, this was a huge gap, between a man and a boy. Thirty years later, their biological counterparts are of course still ten years apart. It shows less, in two grown ups. But in their minds, they’re still man and boy.

The download originating vAbeo happened ten years ago. eSam went in ten years later. Meaning that they suddenly share the same age, as ghosts.

Amazing. And creepy. vAbeo’s professional duty involves reflecting on creepy 1kYears topics. They started this without any idea of how it would feel, to transfer a conscience meant to reside in a biological identity with a maximum life span of one hundred years into a digital format that might well exist for more than their emblematic 1kYears.

Both Abeo and vAbeo think a lot, about such big questions. But tonight, vAbeo is more preoccupied by eSam catching up with him, age wise. It’s weird, to have him stand there and be his own age. Much weirder than seeing the real life Abeo get older, month by month. That’s hard. It reminds vAbeo of biological mortality. Sad, but at least familiar. Whereas eSam being the same age, that’s neither sad nor familiar. That’s creepy.

How do you count the ghost years? How do you prove you matured, in the absence of wrinkles?

“I still don’t understand how this is supposed to end well. Assuming she doesn’t kill him, they’re still stuck. They’re fat, they don’t want to go in fat. There’s no solution. They’re stuck.”

vAbeo sips from his bottle to hide his surprise. He once again underestimated the sensitivity of what only looks like a pretty macho. eSam is very Sam indeed. Tries to avoid witnessing distress whenever possible. Very easily shaken when confronted with any.

“There’s always a solution, eSam, and being resourceful people they’re sure to pick a good one. They can accept their body shape. Just look at the crowd here. Not that many poster girls and boys around. No problem. Or they can decide to diet and exercise. Come to think of it, they might end up dieting by accident. Couple more days without dinner, the pounds are going to melt away...”

Seeing eSam frown, vAbeo stops to give him the chance to weigh in. And he does:

“Dieting and exercising won’t work. I know, I tried. Really hard, too. That’s my first beer. In two years. No beer, not one single one. Only diet sodas. And you don’t even notice. You’re slim. You’ve got no idea, how terrible that is, getting fat. And the B, too. He’s just like you. Slim. And no idea.”

vAbeo sucks in more beer, hard. He feels himself getting into a whacking mood. He would love to shout at this bloody good looking nuisance of a complicated Adonis. How he of course did notice. And doesn't dare comment. This would count as chatting up. Which is strictly off limits.

eSam’s honey colored eyes glimmer with inquisitiveness: “I got you mad at me, right?”

vAbeo is back in control, emotionally. He would prefer not to need his shrink skills to handle his private life, but this particular romantic interest is worth it: “Nope, not mad. I was just worried, for a second, that I might get stuck. But as a resourceful person, I’m perfectly aware of the multitude of promising options at my disposal. You might come to your senses and discover you’re one good looking guy. Or you might at least notice how everybody else does agree on this plain fact. Like the two novice surfers who nearly drowned stalking you this morning.”

Seeing the pleased smile on eSam’s face, vAbeo can’t resist going one up: “Or how about this one: You go gay pride and allow me to call you attractive.”

Bad move. Stupid, too. The smile is gone and a suddenly sad eSam shakes his head: “You can’t say that. You really can’t say that, vAbeo. You know you can’t.”

vAbeo nods as quickly as possible, with a big apologetic smile: “Sorry. Sorry eSam, OK? I didn’t say it. No need to freak out. Didn’t make stupid joke. Deal?”

eSam doesn’t exactly light back up, but nor does he run, yet: “Don’t know. Perhaps. You really can’t say that. You fetch the next two beers, OK? Deal?”

vAbeo nods, resigned. He’ll fetch two more beers, and won’t get mad at his lover if eSam is gone by the time he makes it back. His very own fault. That remark was way too strong. The ghost is slightly less jumpy than the biological version, but still far from at ease with himself.

Well, at least they got all the time anyone can need to sort this out. Provided the resort stays fully powered and the backup safe. Which it will. That’s the one issue the B really cares about.

Having walked back extra slowly with the two fresh beers, vAbeo is stunned to find eSam exactly where he left him. Eagerly grabbing his bottle, he’s back to beaming: “Gotcha, vAbeo. You’re surprised. You thought I’d be gone. You can be wrong. And now we check mister Trendon is still alive. You can’t not check, vAbeo. You know you can’t.”

###

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