March 28, 2020

Life Shopping Incorporated

LIFE SHOPPING INCORPORATED

A Short Story by Luke Mitchell


“The thing about Life Shopping, m’boy,” says Jensen Wellsworth, clapping a meaty hand to his young charge’s shoulder and all but dragging him down the pristine hallway, “is that it keeps you from sliding straight into the shit.”

Jensen feels the young fellow’s wondrous stare and stifles a smile. No one ever expects their Shopping Mentor to be hip enough to cut loose with a swear. Frankly, no one ever expects Jensen to be anything more than some tight-bottomed, sign-the-line bore of a corporate shill. Clearly, young Neil Schuman’s expectations are much the same.

Jensen Wellsworth takes immense pleasure in proving them wrong.

He shoots the boy a conspiratorial wink, taps a finger to the side of his own nose like Ol’ Saint Nick (as he likes to do when he feels especially clever), and continues on with young Neil, bound for the immersion chambers.

“See, what the aptitude tests fail to tell you,” he continues, “is… well…” He pauses dramatically, holding until he feels young Neil’s curiosity all but boiling, and turns to the boy with a winning smile. “Well, pretty much everything.”

For some reason, Neil Schuman only looks confused.

Jensen suppresses a sigh. Some people just don’t get it. Not at first. But that’s okay. The merits of Life Shopping practically sell themselves once they’re properly explained, just like Mr. Kelborn always says. He just has to keep talking.

“Now, to be fair to the tests, I will admit they have some value in identifying the lines of work for which you might be properly equipped to succeed. And hey, who doesn’t want to succeed, right? But do you know where that line of thinking falls short for us living, breathing human beings, Neil?”

A start and a stop. Neil’s thinking twice about whatever he’s preparing to say. Then thrice. Gods above, the boy would be catching flies if they weren’t standing in a Triple-A, USDIS-Certified-Clean sim facility. He glances at the boy’s intake form on his data pad just to double-check he’s not touring the wrong boy. But no, there it is beneath the name, Neil Schuman.

Primary Aptitudes
- Natural Science: Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Mathematics
- Theoretical Computer Science
- Nonclassical & Modal Logic
Recommended Trajectories
- Applied Engineering: Quantum Technologies
- Field Research: Quantum Mechanics
- University Professorship: Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy

Jensen frowns at the lists, wondering if he’s given the aptitude tests too much credit. This boy, a professor of physics—or philosophy, for the love of gravy? No matter. They’ll add in a few extra Life Sims for Neil’s journey anyway, like they always do. Construction, maybe. Or coal shoveling. See if Professor Einstein here can work a simple shovel.

It’s all part of the process.

“Tell me,” Jensen says, ready to continue his spiel now that he’s reassured himself that this boy ostensibly does possess a brain, “have you ever heard the saying, ‘There’s more to life than work,’ Neil?”

Neil, having coincidentally been finally about to speak whatever pearl of quantum wisdom he’s been inching toward, instead closes his mouth and nods, looking relieved to be back on a page he understands.

“Of course you have, m’boy,” Jensen says, clapping him with a supportive pat on the back as they walk. “But frankly, it’s a bit of a silly saying. What they should’ve said is that there’s more to life than work, unless you find the right work. The right work that will naturally build the right life right up around you, like one of those happy little self-fab auto-homes falling into its proper shape and place. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

He pauses at the observation windows of Immersion Deck A, allowing Neil to take a good look at the bleeding-edge sim rigs that will change his life forever, if he so chooses to let them—or rather, if his singularly ravishing divorcée of a mother out there in the waiting room so chooses to cough up the capital to fund her kid’s bright, happy future.

But that’s where he comes in.

“Don’t you want to find the work, Neil, that you know, deep in your bones, will have you jumping out of bed every morning, shouting, ‘Here I am, world! Let’s do this!’?”

Neil, who’s been gaping at the sim rigs with the first spark of real interest (and possibly even intelligence­) that Jensen’s seen in his dark brown eyes all day, glances over now, brow furrowed. “Uh, yeah… I guess so.”

Why, dear gods, does this boy look so perpetually confused? Why do they always struggle so mightily to grasp the blindingly obvious? No matter, he tells himself. No matter.

“Quite so,” he agrees, nodding amicably, “quite so. And do you know how you find that work, Neil?”

The look on Neil’s face plainly says that he doesn’t. “The aptitude tests?” he guesses anyway.

Jensen’s eye twitches. It does that, sometimes, when people say stupid things around him.

“Life Shopping, m’boy.” He sighs and gestures toward the sim rigs, trying to reign in his irritation. “Life Shopping. Tell me, do you know what’s been the primary driver of career path selection for the past fifty years?”

“The aptitude tests?”

“True,” Jensen says, a sly grin sliding into place. “That is true.” He pauses dramatically. “Just like it’s also been by far the strongest correlation we’ve ever known to workplace depression, self-reported feelings of inadequacy, and life dissatisfaction.”

Neil frowns as if some part of that simple statement doesn’t quite click in his poor little brain.

“How about this one, then,” Jensen says, thinking of Neil’s oh-so-attractive mother sitting out there in the waiting room, alone. “Why do you think your parents decided to spend their lives together, Neil?”

Neil turns back to him with that perpetual frown. “My parents are divorced.”

“Right!” He claps his hands together with an excitement that, in retrospect, he decides might well be misconstrued as rather unsympathetic. “Ah, that is to say, I’m sorry to hear that, of course. But all the better to illustrate the point. You see—”

“You’re trying to say my father wouldn’t have left my mom for his secretary if they’d both gone Life Shopping first,” Neil says, his voice oddly flat. “Is that it?”

“Precisely!” He clasps a hand to Neil’s shoulder and turns to study the sim rigs alongside him. Maybe the boy isn’t a complete dullard, after all. “See, it’s all well and good to start from a place of strong affinities and promising aptitudes. Beginnings are easy, you see, but—”

“I wouldn’t be here, you know,” Neil says, quite unexpectedly.

“Hmm?” Jensen looks down at the suddenly chatty boy in confusion, not used to (or particularly fond of) being interrupted by his charges. Especially not when he’s finally getting into the swing of things.

“If they’d done the sims and decided not to marry,” Neil explains, “I wouldn’t be here today. You do realize that, right?”

“Of course, I—” He starts to spout before he remembers his professional wits. He licks his lips, ignoring the twitch in his eye, and takes a nice, controlled breath. “That is to say, I think that’s beside the point here, young man. Besides, with your aptitudes, I would’ve thought you’d understand that it’s not all so cut-and-dried as that. Haven’t you ever heard of Schrödinger’s cat?”

The boy’s brow creases with that helpless furrow again. “That’s… not really…”

“At any rate,” Jensen pushes on. “Where were we? Ah, yes. Beginnings. Such hopeful things, those, when the decisions have been made and bright new paths lie ahead, untarnished by the inevitable decay of time. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a brand new automobile, driving off the lot for the first time, fresh and mint, tires balanced, motor purring.” He shows Neil a conspiratorial grin. “You feel good, don’t you?”

He pauses here to hold Neil captive on the end of his questioning stare, until the boy finally relents and shrugs. Gods above, with this boy. It’s supposed to be a yes. You always start with a yes; it says so in every one of the manuals. But no matter. He could do this, just like Mr. Kelborn.

“You feel good,” Jensen insists. “You feel like you could run for a thousand years. And do you want to know the funny thing, Neil?”

“What’s the funny thing, Mr. Wellsworth?”

He studies the boy. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say that’s a hint of defiant sarcasm creeping into dull young Neil’s tone. But he does know better. He’s watched this boy catching flies over a simple question not three minutes earlier, after all.

Neil Schuman, Jensen decides with a cunning smile, is simply beginning to warm up to the pitch. Finally.

“The funny thing, Neil,” he says, quite dramatically, “is that you could.” He cocks his head. “Not for a thousand years, maybe. But a hundred, sure. That’s the thing about cars. Even as they accumulate years’ worth of gunk and rust, even as their interiors begin to fray and their inner workings fall slowly out of tune, they just keep on running. Perhaps their owners pay enough attention to change the oil here or see about that unsavory grating noise there. But by and large, those poor cars keep on running anyway. And do you want to know the true tragedy of it all?”

Neil is watching attentively now, albeit with that confounded brow furrow. But attentively, nonetheless. He’s hooked. Jensen is certain.

“The tragedy, m’boy, is that year by depreciating year, slowly but surely, each and every one of them forgets what it even felt like to be a new car, perfectly tuned and running in beautiful, frictionless harmony with its purpose. Inch by road-weary inch, they slide so subtly yet so completely into a state of dilapidation that they can no longer even see how far they’ve fallen. All they really know is a vague, quiet certainty that they’re no longer what they once were. That they’ve lost something somewhere along the way. That they’ve been reduced to little more than sad shadows of former selves they can no longer even properly remember.”

Jensen pauses, allowing his words to sink in.

“And that, Neil,” he concludes when the poetic spirit finally declares it time, “is what Life Shopping is all about. Do you understand?”

Neil is silent for a long stretch, clearly thinking. “You’re saying my dad hopped in the wrong car all those years ago.”

Jensen purses his lips, caught off balance and not entirely sure how to proceed. Some people just never get it.

“I’m only saying that there’s another way, Neil,” he says, speaking slowly in some feeble hope that it might actually help. “I’m saying that, thanks to Life Shopping, we now have the ability to dive into the future and see where that winding road of tribulations leads—and to do it while we still have the fresh eyes to observe the results without years and years of slow, steady decay eating away at our once-lofty hopes and dreams. No longer must we simply keep running resolutely on through the years of soul-crushing degradation, stubbornly lying to ourselves that ‘It’s not so bad, really.’ No longer must we pluck the low-hanging but unsatisfying fruit, insisting that ‘It’s only temporary’ and that ‘It’s just a stepping-stone on the career path.’ No longer must we accept anything less than our true life calling. Not when we allow Life Shopping to lend us a guiding light.”

He can barely suppress a shiver for the goose bumps crawling up his arms. It’s a masterful performance. So much so that he actually imagines himself at the edge of a theatrical stage, staring into the darkness, where he knows his audience sits rapt in mesmerized wonder. He bows his head against the glare of the imaginary spotlight, allowing Neil to process the magnificent soliloquy in silence. From out of the blue, it occurs to him quite unexpectedly that he, Jensen Wellsworth, might in fact be a right proper twit, and that he will never live up to Mr. Kelborn’s mastery of the pitch.

Neil’s voice breaks through the troubling reverie. “I mean, maybe Mom was the right car way back when. But I guess work is stressful, right? Changes a man, and all that. Requires his undivided attention.”

Jensen can only gape in horror. The boy truly hasn’t heard a single word he’s just said, has he?

“Then again,” Neil continues on, unperturbed by his silence, “I guess his attention must’ve been at least a little divided, considering.”

“Umm, yes,” he forces himself to say, not especially sure what it is he’s even agreeing with, only that he needs to steer them back on course before this strange boy leads them any further into the woods. “Just so. Quite. But, umm…”

He doesn’t even know what to say. Does he just repeat the whole damn thing?

“But why wouldn’t he be distracted?” Neil wonders, oblivious to Jensen’s plight. “I mean, she was there and Mom wasn’t, right?”

“Um…”

“She was younger,” he continues, raising a hand toward Jensen as if to indicate he will especially appreciate this next part. “Less mileage, I guess you’d say. Probably had all kinds of exciting new features.”

This is a nightmare, Jensen decides, as the boy smiles to himself, muttering something under his breath about world-class airbags. An absolute nightmare. He’s preparing to pinch himself when the boy shrugs and meets his stupefied gaze.

“I mean, most people never even buy cars at all anymore, right? Why own a depreciating asset when you can just hop from lease to lease? That’s what they say, right?”

“Uh…”

“You know, I think you’re right,” Neil says, nodding to himself. “I guess it all makes perfect sense when you put it this way.”

“Um… quite. Quite so, yes.” Jensen frowns. “I suppose. But, um, getting back to the matter at hand… With the Life Shopping… Well, we do offer a single Life Sim, completely free of charge in order to, um, allow you to experience the system in a way that words alone could never accomplish.”

And a way that words alone so clearly haven’t accomplished, he thinks, staring at the boy who appears to be, at best, only partially listening.

“So what do you think, m’boy?” he finally asks, once the silence has stretched entirely too long to permit any reasonable hope of an organic reply. By now he’s starting to wonder, for the first time in his arguably flawless career as a Shopping Mentor, whether he should even continue bothering with words at all. Clearly, they aren’t speaking the same language by anything but the loosest definition. Still, nightmares and irrefutably strange boys aside, Jensen is a professional. So when Neil turns to him, he digs up his most charming smile and forces out the closing words: “Are you ready to give it a whirl?”

For the first time since they’ve begun their tour, Neil shows Jensen a smile, but there’s something unmistakably off about it, like the smile a hungry crocodile would give to—well, whatever crocodiles ate. He doesn’t know. All he knows is that that smile is a bright red danger sign. As are the words that follow.

“I think we’d better go talk to my mom first.”

Jensen suppresses an exasperated sigh, witnessing the control slip away as the boy begins to turn. He can practically feel Mr. Kelborn’s disappointment seething from the walls.

Talk to your mother, snaps a voice in his head. Go on, ask her.

He blinks at the violent timbre and abruptness of the thought. It’s unlike him. None of this is like him. Failing to close. Losing his temper with clients. It’s just this boy. This confounded boy.

“Uh, well…” he begins, searching for some last lifeline. If he could only get the boy into the rig for his first demo. No one says no after the demo. No one. Not even this petulant little bother of a boy.

But young Neil Schuman is already walking back the way they’d come, toward the waiting room—and directly away, Jensen can’t help but worry, from the fat commission awaiting one well-spoken Shopping Mentor at the conclusion of the sale that seemed all but guaranteed until only a minute ago.

“Yes, I suppose we’d better,” he concedes, though the boy is already too far to hear. With a sigh that could’ve moved mountains, Jensen Wellsworth starts after his rogue client, eye twitching every step of the way. He adds under his breath, “You petulant little bother.”


***


“You told my son WHAT?!”

Daniel Kelborn sighs and continues on down the hallway, toward the sounds of an unmistakably enraged mother. Neil Schuman’s mother, he gathers from a downward glance at his data pad. Lilliana Baker. Pretty. He sees that on his data pad’s live security cam feed even before he reaches the not-so-tranquil waiting room. Pretty and divorced, apparently.

“Ma’am, I assure you,” comes another voice, hopelessly bumbling and practically oozing with flop sweat. Jensen Wellsworth’s voice, unmistakably. “This is all simply a colossal misunderst—”

“Misunderstanding?” hisses the voice belonging to Lilliana Baker. “You told my son that he was a mistake!”

Of course he did, notes some tired corner of Daniel’s brain.

Pretty and divorced—and agitated, notes another.

Blanking the data pad screen, Daniel peers into its black surface to ensure his well-styled hair and perfectly tailored microwool suit are immaculate as ever. They are. He smiles, and that’s immaculate, too.

Showtime.

“Mr. Kelborn, sir,” Jensen Wellsworth stammers the moment Daniel enters the room, his reddened jowls all but trembling as he looks frantically back and forth between his prospective clients and his magnanimous employer.

Daniel pays him little attention. He’s too busy comparing Data Pad Lilliana Baker to Real-Life Fuming Lilliana Baker. Extremely pretty. Irresistibly so. And she’s staring right at him with those lovely green eyes, like two widening emeralds caught up in a mesmerizing firestorm of flushed cheeks and flowing copper hair. Eyes widening, some muted corner of his mind notes, because of him. Because Daniel Freaking Kelborn himself has just walked into the room in the flesh, right before her very eyes.

And because she likes what she sees. Daniel is sure of it.

He fights down the frenetic thrill that runs through his entire body at her stare, that fading remnant of his geeky past that threatens to salivate at even the thought of a woman like Lilliana Baker, and focuses instead on looking unaffected. And making a mental note to avoid resorting to any Christmas-color metaphors when the time comes to pick his compliment of choice. Because that time will come; he’ll make sure of that.

How far he’s come these past few years. It hasn’t always been a cakewalk for Daniel, keeping his head as Life Shopping gained a foothold in the world and the name Daniel Kelborn exploded onto the front pages of all the finest RealNews™ vendors. To say he’d been unprepared for the revolution of his self-image would be a gross understatement. At times, hugging the toilet before the interview with CNBCNN, or curled up and hyperventilating in the bathtub before the cover shoot for Span Magazine, he’d almost longed for his old life and the comfort of benign obscurity.

But those tumultuous times are behind him now, and thank the universe for that. Some ideas are simply too important to remain lost in obscurity. And while Daniel wouldn’t go so far as to say that his life’s work was going to one day save the world, well, he might not have gone so far as to argue with the sentiment, either. Plus, saving the world aside, it’s hard to ignore the perks that come with the rarefied air one breathes after achieving such radical technological and financial successes. Perks sweeter than he’d ever dared dream, back when he’d set off to change the world as a bright-eyed, freshly graduated computer engineer. Perks like Lilliana Baker, and the way she’s looking at him right now.

Women never used to look at him like this. Not before.

“Sir,” Jensen Wellsworth is still stammering, “I was just trying to explain to Mrs. Baker here that—”

“Idiot,” Daniel says.

The single word takes the air from the room, leaving Jensen Wellsworth, Lilliana Baker, and young Neil Schuman—who Daniel only then notices for the first time—all gaping at him in some mixture of shock and awe. Daniel stifles a smile. He doesn’t particularly enjoy resorting to harsh words and personal insults of character, but then again, he doesn’t particularly like Jensen Wellsworth, either. The man’s an idiot. A pudgy, ham-fisted, shortsighted idiot. But Daniel pities him.

It’s the only reason the man still has a job at Life Shopping Incorporated. For now.

“Go check on the C Deck rigs, please,” Daniel says to Jensen Wellsworth, rather loathing the way the last word tastes on his tongue, but not wanting to give their waiting customers the impression that he’s completely heartless. “Victoria in C-7 was anxious about starting her sims this morning, and I’d like to make sure she’s doing okay.”

“Y-yes, sir,” Wellsworth stammers, shuffling toward the exit—the wrong exit, Daniel notes—with an odd little sequence of stutter-step bows Daniel can only assume are intended apologetically.

The man looks like a malfunctioning robot, but it’s hardly the most embarrassing instance Daniel has witnessed of Jensen Wellsworth’s peculiar behavior. He just hopes the ham-fisted idiot will recognize the true problem without Daniel having explicitly spelled it out for him. While it might well be true that Victoria in C-7 had been anxious about starting her sims, the far more pressing matter on C Deck is the alert Daniel received on his way over here, an automatic notification that the nutrient delivery pump in C-7 has shorted out again. But Daniel sees no reason to call attention to a minor technical failure in front of such fine prospective customers. It’s not as if Victoria is actually in any real danger. Not for at least another twenty-four hours.

Still, he decides as he watches Jensen retreat from the room like a scuttling, bow-bobbing crab bot, jowls aquiver all the way, it won’t hurt to go and check on Victoria himself in a bit. Just in case.

He suppresses a sigh. Perhaps it really is time to heed the board’s persistent advice and finally step back from day-to-day operations. It’s a notion he’s fought vehemently up till now. It’s not that he disagrees with the logic. Universe knows he has more pressing work to spend his time on. That’s why he’s already yielded many of his managerial duties, stepping back first from their quickly expanding line of satellite facilities and then from his control over much of the operations here at HQ, relinquishing more and more every step of the way.

All that’s left to him now are Decks A through C, the first three decks ever constructed at Life Shopping Inc. Eighteen of his beloved immersion rigs. Eighteen out of ten thousand. He loathes the idea of abandoning those eighteen rigs. His eighteen rigs. It doesn’t matter that they’ll be perfectly well off in the hands of his people who, with the exception of a few hack salesmen like Jensen Wellsworth, are really quite brilliant. He just isn’t ready to step away from his beautiful machines. They might as well be his children at this point.

Plus, as he’s pointed out to the board on more than one occasion, if and when he finally steps away from his last, vestigial deck duties, it will no doubt become harder and harder to truly keep his finger on the pulse of the business and the true state of their still very much blooming art. Harder and harder to happen by these serendipitous meetings with the Lilliana Bakers of the enterprise, too. And what a shame that will be.

Daniel realizes he’s drifted. It happens from time to time; hazards of an overactive mind. He fixes Lilliana Baker and her son with a polite smile. “I apologize for my employee’s carelessness.”

“Carelessness,” Ms. Baker echoes, the first hint of a hard edge creeping into her eyes. “Your employee told my son that he was a mistake.”

Neil looks mortified. “Mom…”

“A mistake,” she pushes on, “that wouldn’t have happened if only my dear ex-husband and I had had the good fortune to be born at an age where we could’ve gone Shopping first, before rushing into marriage.”

Daniel opens his mouth to reaffirm, perhaps in slightly more diplomatic terms, that Jensen Wellsworth is indeed a ham-fisted idiot and that his employment might well be up for review after today.

“My husband died three years ago,” she finishes. “In a car accident.”

“Dear god,” Daniel says softly.

It’s more of a gut punch than he’s prepared for, the guilt at his assumption of divorce rivaled only by the deep and surprisingly potent flash of anger that roils up like a thundercloud at the revelation. He’s too gripped by the intensity of the anger to even parse who or what it’s aimed at. Too gripped, that is, until he notices the odd expression on young Neil’s face, and a quick glance at his data pad shows that Neil’s father, Simon Schuman, is on record as having signed the Life Shopping liability release form. Three days ago.

“I am so deeply sorry to hear that,” Daniel says slowly, suppressing a frown as he tucks the curious discrepancy away for the moment right along with his volatile emotionality. Better not to make any rash assumptions, he decides, looking between her and Neil. It only then strikes him, the pointed way she’d said the words car accident. Like that was the worst part of this entire debacle.

“Merciful universe, he didn’t use the aging car metaphor, did he?”

The question startles Neil out of the disconcerted look he’s fixed on his mother. “He, uh… He did, Mr. Kelborn, sir,” the boy says, avoiding Daniel’s eyes, and looking rather guilty about it. “I, um, may not have been the most cooperative subject. I’m sorry, sir.”

“Dear boy, I am certain you needn’t apologize for anything. Mr. Wellsworth is…” Not long for this company, Daniel doesn’t say.

“Careless?” Ms. Baker offers, possibly in challenge.

“Undoubtedly.” Daniel glances down at Neil’s intake form again, noting the impressive aptitudes, then back to the boy himself. “He also has a bad habit of failing to realize when he’s speaking with clients who could think circles around him in their sleep.”

Neil stares down at his own feet, clearly abashed, but Daniel doesn’t miss the proud smile tugging at the boy’s cheeks. He doesn’t miss the faint softening of Lilliana Baker’s stare, either. The way to a mother’s heart…

“Personally,” he continues, “I’ve never been a fan of the aging car metaphor. I’ve always preferred to think of it as a cliff of sorts.”

He gauges the curious, attentive looks they fix him with, debating whether or not to indulge in his favorite old spiel.

How do you climb a cliff? It always starts with that question.

Slowly, some would say.

Carefully, said others.

One handhold at a time, they would eventually arrive at. Inch by careful inch.

Whether you’re climbing up or down doesn’t particularly matter. The one thing you can count on is that barring catastrophic slip-ups, it’s going to take a while to get to where you’re going, and you probably aren’t going to feel the same way about your destination upon arrival as you thought you did at the outset.

The part Daniel likes about the cliff metaphor is that it’s more fundamentally complete. It allows for upward reflection every bit as well as it does for the downward sort. Because contrary to what lowly oafs like Jensen Wellsworth might think, the point of Life Shopping isn’t to scare children away from paths of likely failure, or even to show them how the brightest of prospects might still slide into the abyss over the years, whispering reassurances all the way that things are going to change, and that each approaching moment will be the one when they’ll finally find their handhold and regain control.

These are valuable lessons, no doubt. But the true point—the gift, as Daniel sees it—lies in the power to instantaneously translocate an individual to their so-called destination.

To be free and able to stand on that fabled summit of legendary success in one’s prospective career field, or to find oneself mired in the valley of misplaced aspirations and surgically dispassionate career choices—and to do all of it without first being subject to the inescapable effects of the climb, up or down… To experience the destination, truly free of the burden of understanding just how many handholds it had taken to arrive, and yet how many more it would take to inch back from that place, much less to arrive somewhere else entirely…

That is the dream that Daniel dreams for the world: instantaneous arrival. Objectivity and perspective in the plotting of one’s life course, where before there has been nothing but an endless and cumulative sequence of what direction the wind happened to be blowing from day to day and moment to moment. That is the dream.

He’s drifted again.

“It hardly matters,” Daniel says, excusing the pregnant pause with a wave of the hand. “You don’t need to hear another ham-fisted metaphor about what Life Shopping can do. I get the impression Neil here might understand what happens in these rigs better than my own salesman does, anyway.”

“I’ve read a few things,” Neil admits.

“He’s being modest,” Ms. Baker says, reaching over to stroke her son’s hair.

Daniel shows them a knowing smile. “I genuinely believe that.”

He’d probably say the words even if he didn’t believe them. He learned early on, through no shortage of his own failures, that slick metaphors and well-oiled sales pitches are poor substitutes for winning the trust and affection of a prospective client. If they trust you, more often than not, the facts almost cease to matter. People are funny like that.

This boy, on the other hand…

“Tell me then, Neil,” Daniel says. “Do you have any questions I can answer for you? Anything at all?”

Whatever else Daniel might be, he is genuinely curious about that part. Unlike Jensen Wellsworth, he doesn’t particularly care about closing this sale—or any sale, really. He doesn’t care whether Ms. Baker decides to spring for the full, week-long Shopping Spree package. One sale. A thousand. Such drops in the ocean no longer affect his bottom line in any meaningful way. Ironically, that contentedness might be why he’s become such an effective salesman these past few years. That, or it’s merely the effect of the newfound fame, following him around like a cloud of ionized gold dust for all to see.

Either way—sale or no sale, irresistibly attractive mother aside—Daniel finds himself drawn to Neil Schuman’s quietly guarded thoughts for reasons he can’t explain. It’s ineffable, little more than a gut feeling, really, but something tells him this boy is important.

“Don’t be shy, Neil,” Ms. Baker says, rubbing her son’s back. “This is what we came for, right?”

After a moment’s consideration, Neil concedes the point and meets Daniel’s patient gaze. “Well, I guess I was wondering, um… I mean, if it’s all just actuarial sims tweaked with a few proprietary distributions and a really fancy sensory immersion build, well…”

“How can we make the claim that Life Shopping constitutes anything more than a wild guess?” Daniel finishes for him.

Neil licks his lips and gives an abashed shrug, returning his gaze to the safety of his own shoelaces. Daniel can’t help but smile. The boy reminds him so much of himself at that age. Maybe that’s all this feeling is.

“Tell me, Neil,” he says, smile widening. “Have you ever learned about tachyons?”

“Seriously?” Neil breathes, eyes immediately widening with wondrous excitement. Enough excitement to send a sharp pang of guilt through Daniel’s chest.

“A bad joke, I’m afraid,” he admits with an apologetic smile.

Neil looks deflated, and Ms. Baker notices the change in her son, even if she doesn’t quite know what they’re talking about.

Daniel presses forward before they can dwell on his Wellsworthian miscalculation. “To answer your original question, technically we can’t claim that our Life Sims are anything but highly educated guesses. But I’m guessing you already know that, don’t you, Neil?”

Neil shrugs, still looking a little downcast. “I read the contracts online.”

Of course he had.

“But that thing about tachyons,” Neil continues, “I mean—you already weight the actuarial distributions based on aptitude data and self-indicated preferences, right?”

Daniel nods, waiting for the boy to continue.

Neil’s eyes flick rapidly back and forth, scanning a churning sea of thoughts to which Daniel might pay good money to be privy. “So then, maybe… I mean, never mind if we want to talk about theoretical particles or not, but if you could just find a way to map the distributions out to, well… I mean, it would have to…”

Daniel sees the frustration building on Neil’s brow, matching pace with the immediate and burning need to solve the problem he’s found himself up against. It’s a look Daniel recognizes well, if for no other reason than that it’s the same one that frequently sits upon his own brow.

He doesn’t actually expect the boy to crack out a real solution right then and there. That would be absurd. Daniel’s been working for years to find the proper direction in which to even begin looking. Bright as young Neil clearly is, he isn’t simply going to pluck the answer out of the air. But something about this boy… Again, a peculiar sense of certainty pervades Daniel’s mind, telling him to keep digging—that there’s something here worth exploring, even if does take him all afternoon.

It’s exactly the kind of thing the board keeps telling him he needs to stop wasting his time with, if he truly wishes to succeed in future-proofing the company against the growing tide of would-be competitors seeking to one-up them at their own game. But that thought only lights a rebellious spark in his chest. They aren’t the ones who pioneered the future of mankind’s search for meaning, are they? What do they know about who and what should occupy his time?

They aren’t Daniel Freaking Kelborn.

“Tell me,” he says, a slow grin spreading across his lips. “How would you like to see one of the new prototype rigs, Neil?”


***


Thirty minutes later, after a string of impressively poignant questions and what Daniel fancies to be equally poignant answers, Neil Schuman is preparing for the ride of his life.

Brilliant as the boy so clearly is, Daniel isn’t overly surprised when Neil inquires about hopping straight into the fighter jet sim he spots on the demo list. It’s simply the teenage boy thing to do—or at least one of two teenage boy things, and the only one a boy would be willing to request in the presence of his mother.

The key difference here between Neil and the rest of his teenage brethren is that Neil is sitting in their newest prototype rig, which means that the immersion experience, normally quite convincing in the standard rigs, will be uncannily close to the real thing. So close, in fact, that Daniel convinces the boy to begin with a simple racing sim, based on a genuine concern for eliciting exactly the kind of psychological trauma one might expect from a seventeen-year-old fighter pilot thrown into real combat without a lick of training.

Separately, Daniel makes a mental note to remove such sims from the prototype rig’s demo list until they’ve had time to properly study such concerns. He bids Neil happy racing.

Ms. Baker is grateful for his consideration in tactfully dissuading her son from his impromptu stint as a teenage fighter pilot. That much is clear by her warm touch on his arm and the conspiratorial Thank you she mouths with an equally warm smile, as Neil is busy changing into an immersion interface suit behind the curtains. It’s only when Daniel invites her back to his office to wait that she grows hesitant, glancing uncertainly at the immersion rig.

“We can watch him from my office,” Daniel promises.

Still she hesitates, though she’s clearly thinking about it. “You don’t have a mountain of work waiting for you?”

“Multiple mountains, I assure you.” He can’t hold back his grin any longer. “It’s the procrastinating I could really use a hand with.”

Merciful universe above, the way those eyes light up when she laughs. He’s never seen anything like it. Nor is he ready for the rolling tide of emotions that wash over him in the moment. What is it about this woman and her boy?

“You’re sure your boss won’t mind?” she asks, pointedly looking around the room as if they might be caught at any moment.

He gives her a knowing smile. “I think he’ll applaud my public outreach.” The board, not so much, maybe. But he really doesn’t give a damn about that right now.

The trip to his office is filled with a subtle tension, one that hadn’t been there only moments before. Daniel punches the top floor of the lift and lets it ride in silence, recognizing the tension for what it is. Part of him chastises the self-aggrandizing decision to pass up his perfectly serviceable ground-floor office in favor of his decidedly more impressive suite at the top of the Life Shopping Inc. Tower. He’s never been one for untethered boasting, after all. At the same time, he can no more take Lilliana Baker to his lower shoebox of an office than the lift can take them anywhere but the selected floor. It’s hardwired, practically a law of nature. And for good reason.

“Oh my god,” she breathes, as he holds the rich wooden door open for her and she steps into the office, gaping at the panoramic view of the expansive city below.

“Would you care for a drink?” he asks, sliding into his standard routine and moving to the well-stocked dry bar, whose immaculate spread he can only ever bring himself to disturb when company is present.

“Oh, I really shouldn’t.”

“No,” Daniel agrees, setting out two glasses, “nor should I.”

They share a moment of silence over an intoxicating smile, the tension building.

“Only the finest, then,” he finally decrees, turning to crack open one of the exceedingly rare and ridiculously overpriced glacier waters his assistant keeps on hand to impress any prospective associates who happen to be impressed by such things.

Lilliana Baker seems to be of two minds on the matter.

“My god,” she chuckles, carefully taking one of the bottles from the bar for closer inspection. “This water probably costs more than the nicest bottle of wine in my house.” She shakes her head, placing the bottle back before fixing him with a curious smile. “Why am I standing in Daniel Kelborn’s office right now?”

He smiles back and finishes pouring their glasses of obscenely expensive ice melt. “Because your son is brilliant.”

He steps forward to place a glass softly in her hand. His fingertips brush against hers, and he allows them to linger, meeting her eyes. She doesn’t pull away.

“And because I haven’t been able to take my eyes off you since I walked into that waiting room,” he admits.

There’d been a time when he wouldn’t have dreamed of being so forward, back when Life Shopping was nothing more than an audacious dream in his gritty basement laboratory in Omaha. Things were different then. So different.

But times have changed. Hell, the entire world has changed. And it’s changed because of him. Who’s to say he shouldn’t reap the fruits of his labor? Failing to do so isn’t noble, he’s come to realize over the years. It’s stupid. And futile. And, frankly, borderline masochistic, especially when those fruits are so delectably sweet—sweet enough to set his well-styled head spinning, as her eyes linger on his, stretching the moment until she finally bites her lip and averts her gaze.

“Are you trying to tell me I have something on my face, Mr. Kelborn?”

“Something, yes,” he says softly. “And please, call me Daniel.”

She bobs her head in acknowledgment, still looking a little lost. She turns and steps to the window, as if she might find some answer out there.

“All right,” she says quietly. “Can I ask you a question, then, Daniel?”

“Only if I can do the same with you,” he says, setting his glass down and stepping closer behind her. She glances back, not seeming to mind his proximity, and gives him a slight nod. Ask away, that nod says.

Maybe it’s just the look in her eyes, or universe knew what else, but Daniel feels as if he’s watching a dream unfold as the next words leave his mouth. “Do you always lie about your husband?”

She stiffens. “You—how did you know?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he whispers, stepping closer.

A rush of déjà vu. She turns back to the window. This is wrong. All wrong. He steps closer anyway, until he’s breathing in her scent. Dear god, she smells wonderful, like—

And why wouldn’t I?” she snaps. “You’re a stranger.

He pauses, eyeing her ghostly reflection in the window. It’s Lilliana’s voice, all right. He’s sure of it. Just like he’s sure that the woman in front of him hasn’t moved a muscle, much less spoken. His eye twitches. This isn’t right. He looks at his tightening fists only to find them open and reaching, guiding him forward like a dream. His arms snake around her from behind, pulling her closer. He nuzzles his way down her slender throat. And she doesn’t pull away.

It doesn’t matter anymore.

“It doesn’t,” he whispers, pulse quickening as she begins to respond to his touch. “None of it matters. All that matters is this.”

It’s a strange thing to say, some corner of his mind notes. But it doesn’t feel strange. It feels right. It feels true. When Lilliana Baker turns to wrap her arms around him, Daniel swears he could die happy.

“But how do you know?” she whispers in his ear.

His eye twitches. Another flicker of… something.

“Know what?” he whispers back, lips brushing her lovely cheek, voice hoarse.

“How do you know this is the real one?”

This time, it’s Daniel who stiffens. Panic grips his insides. Panic like he can’t explain, threatening to tear him from the fabric of reality itself. In that moment, he is terrified. He is lost. He is dying inside.

Then the moment passes, and he’s staring down at Lilliana Baker’s perfectly mischievous smile once again.

“How do you know this isn’t just another one of your sims, Daniel Kelborn?” she asks, looking up at him with those beautiful green eyes, the quirk of her lips deliciously inviting.

“Here,” he says, cupping her warm cheek in one hand, and leaning slowly in, all other thoughts forgotten. “Let me show you.”


***


“Lilli… ana…”

In the stagnant air, the weak groan is barely audible. Or it would be, if anyone were present to hear it.

There isn’t.

There’s nothing but the droning electronic hum of the ergonomic, albeit somewhat ratty immersion rig at the center of the room, and the rhythmic whir of the bone-dry nutrient pump continuing valiantly on, despite the fact that its chambers have been devoid of water and precious nutrients for nearly three days now.

There’s also the sickly man stretched across the rig, little more than pale skin and brittle bone.

The empty pump gives another pitiful whir; the emaciated man, a pitiful wheeze, weaker than before. Fading. Inching closer to complete failure, one feeble handhold at a time. His brain alight in a wonderful ocean of pleasure and happy thoughts, oblivious to the plight of its ailing host.

Around the work space, chaos reigns supreme. On one side, tools are scattered haphazardly across a dusty, cobwebbed workbench, cast carelessly aside. On the other, a long, faux wood desk plays host to multiple computer monitors and a row of four desktop PCs, arranged in ascending order of chassis size. Between that small attention to detail and the neatly managed armada of cables flowing from the computers to their peripherals, the desk gives the momentary illusion of order. The charade ends abruptly on the other side of the desk, where a mountain of torn envelopes and disheveled papers have begun spilling over to the floor, most of them stamped with red in one place or another.

Rejected, reads the topmost USDIS application, Amendment 37: Application for Clinical Trials, Life Shopping Inc.

Rejected, declares the patent rejection appeal form below that, the seventh of its kind on the desk.

Rejected, screams a scrap torn free from yet another notice and taped to the bottom right corner of the rightmost computer monitor.

“Keep at it, m’boy,” reads the open email on that display. “I understand your frustration, but personally, I think we’ll be sitting on something pretty darn cool once you adhere to regulations and follow all of the guidelines as detailed in Sections 47.d and 73.a-e of USDIS Title 3. Best of luck, Jensen Wellsworth.”

“That’s funny, Jensen,” reads the response just below, “because I was just thinking we might actually be sitting on something approaching intelligent conversation once we swapped out your brain and STOMPED OUT YOUR EVERY ORIGINAL THOUGHT. Adhere to regulations? Do me a favor and look up the definition of the word innovation, you goddamn idiot.”

The return email sits there in draft form, unsent, an everlasting monument to the outburst of indignant rage that birthed it. The same rage that appears to have spilled over onto the framed certificate hanging above the desk, with tight blue block letters scrawled in marker across the glass: “ADHERE. ASSIMILATE. ANNIHILATE.”

The words appear to have been squeezed into what space remained after the same hand had scribbled in larger red letters above: “WHY ARE YOU BEING SO QUIET, DANIEL?”

Beneath the screaming words lay a yellowing printout from the Kelborn Aptitude Institute.

Primary Aptitudes
- Natural Science: Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Mathematics
- Theoretical Computer Science
- Nonclassical & Modal Logic
Recommended Trajectories
- Applied Engineering: Quantum Technologies
- Field Research: Quantum Mechanics
- University Professorship: Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy

“Lilli… ana…” The emaciated man in the rig follows with a series of feeble, sputtering starts and a croak that sounds vaguely like a prayer.

No one hears it, no one but the boy in the photograph on the desk beside the leftmost monitor, which is currently overseeing a sim environment titled Open Dream - Life Shop (Jensen Wellsworth Is a Cockgoblin Prelude).sim. It’s the only other picture frame in the room, the only one with an actual photograph: a faded beach shot of a young boy with dark hair and the kind of shy but bright smile that would infect any onlooker with an unexpected jolt of childlike wonder. An arm is draped across the boy’s shoulders—his mother’s arm, it is evident, though the picture has been folded vertically to cut the rest of her out of view, save for a few windswept tendrils of fiery red hair.

“—eil,” the dying man gasps. “Neil.”

The lights flicker, casting into relief the two words that have been etched into the desk in front of the picture, most likely with the screwdriver that’s been discarded nearby.

The empty pump whines and sputters out completely.

No one hears.

In a dusty basement lab in Omaha, Nebraska, Daniel Schuman draws his last rattling breath, 100 billion brain cells going slowly, blissfully blank of their happy dream, utterly oblivious to the last words etched for the unseeing picture-frame eyes of the wife and son he’s leaving behind.

I tried, those words read.

I tried.



-THE END-

(for now)


Thank you for reading.

This one felt especially dear to me.

-Luke



Wanna see more stories like this one?

While the story you just read was free, the making of it wasn't. If you'd like to support the creation of more stories like it, please...

Or share this story with a friend!

Cheers,

Luke Mitchell


Tags

short story


You may also like

Why action heroes suck

Flight of the Huntress (An Excalibur Knights Tale)

Jarek Slater & the Ballad of the Broken Glass Kids

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
>