19/ @Jean 5

It surprises her — jolts her — to see another person on this beach.

It’s late afternoon, and she is on her daily walk.  She turned left today, into the sun, to put it behind her for the return trip.  And now, two miles down the shore from the poolside patio — past the tiki bar (closed) and the stacks of unused rental chairs (unattended), but still a click short of the half-buried catamaran — she can see a figure, back-lit, approaching her.

She stops, turns on her heel, considers running.  She is supposed to be alone.  But where would she go?  Maybe it’s another of their million pre-release tests: this one a gauge of her emotional wellness, and specifically, how well she handles surprises.  So they wouldn’t have told her it was happening.

The right way to handle a surprise in this setting, @Jean thinks, would be to reach out to her technician.

“Anne!” she calls out.  Over the past week she has grown used to shouting questions and requests into the open air.  But in this moment she isn’t alone on this beach, in this DRE, and she feels a flush of blood in her cheeks and is self-conscious about it — as if this person, this stranger might see her addressing the sky and mistake her for a paranoid.

@Jean looks back over her shoulder at the approaching stranger.  With the 4 PM sun behind him/her, he/she appears only in silhouette.  The back-lit figure waves at her.  It is a friendly, non-judgmental wave.  And the figure calls her by name:

“Jean?”

She drops her guard and answers.  “Yes?”

Half-jogging up to her — “I’m Th@ch.” — right hand extended.  She takes hold of it and shakes.  In that moment, she receives an alert:

Th@ch13 has offered you a script.  You may accept the script and install it later.  Installing the script introduces the following functionality: auto-correction of any spoken or written reference to Th@ch13 by a gendered pronoun (e.g., <he>/ <she>/ <him>/ <his>/ <her>/ <hers>).  The script will substitute <Th@ch>/ <Th@ch13>/ <Th@ch’s>/ <Th@ch13’s>, as applicable.  If you install the script, you may forfeit personhood status in the State of Kansas.

@Jean pauses to consider this.  Th@ch has finished the handshake, but @Jean is still holding his — Th@ch’s — hand.

“Jean?”

“What?  Oh, I’m sorry.  Th@ch, you’ve offered me this app —”

“Oh, goodness.  I have that offer switched on, don’t I?  And of course you’re still personable in Kansas?”

“I am.”

Th@ch chuckles.  “They’ll find a way to chuck you out soon enough.  But for now, it’s good enough, as a matter of etiquette, to accept the app.  And you can decide at your leisure whether to install it.”

“Yes — yes, of course,” @Jean says.  As a practicing lawyer, she should have appreciated the distinction between accepting and installing. Precision of language, and all that.  She accepts the code into a Pending folder.

“Anne didn’t say I was coming?  I feel like I’ve taken you by surprise.”

“She didn’t.  You have.”  @Jean thinks for a second.  “I suppose if she told me, it would be in the logs.”

“Where Henry could find it.  Is he reduced to reading through your logs, to weed out bad influences?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  But he is interested in the progress I’m making.”  She takes a few seconds and recovers her bearings.  “Th@ch, it’s a pleasure to meet you.  I’ve heard so much about you, over the years.”

“Likewise.  Let’s walk.”

@Jean leads the way, back toward poolside.  Th@ch steps out of the blinding sunlight and takes up alongside her.  She sneaks a peak at Th@ch’s render: slim figure — muscular but not masculine, curved but not feminine.  More gender-neutral than gender-free, but she supposes this is the best ones and zeroes can do.  Th@ch wears black hair grown to the chin, parted in the middle.  Aviator sunglasses, reflective lenses, so she can’t see his eyes.  Her mind landed on his: she has decided he must have been male, when he lived in the PhysWo.  But she can’t say why.

“Have they mocked up your apartment yet?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s very well done.  I’m sleeping there now.  Of course, in the PhysWo it’s in Manhattan.  But here I step out, take the elevator down, and I’m on the beach.”

“Welcome to the afterlife,” Th@ch says.  “Once your quarantine ends, you’ll be able to ride your elevator to any DRE you like.”

“It’s not perfect — the apartment, I mean.  No noticeable differences, and nothing I can put my finger on.  There’s just … a delta.  Between what I remember and what they’ve rendered.”

“It’ll go away with time.”

“How is Henry?”  @Jean asks.  “He sent me a letter.  It was full of wise counsel, but it didn’t give much insight into how he his feeling.”

Head tossed back, Th@ch laughs out loud.  “Would you expect anything different?”

“No, I suppose not.”

They come upon a small crowd of sandpipers.  The birds scatter, running at first, then flying.

“Jean — I can do small talk for days.  In fact, Anne and I co-developed a script for it.  It allows me, at cocktail parties and the like, to allocate a negligible sliver of RAM for hobnobbing, holding forth, the rubbing of elbows, while the better part of my brain is working elsewhere.  I gave up Mississippi and Arkansas for that functionality.  Shall I switch it on now, or do you want to tell me why we’re talking?”

@Jean counts out ten steps in silence, and then she goes for it.  “I want to understand your worldview.”

Th@ch laughs again.  “How much time do we have?”

“As Henry’s granddaughter and protégé, I’ve been on the receiving end of a great many lectures.”

“For sure.”

“I feel like I’m pretty squared away on the Henry Woolsey ethos.  I could lay it out in my sleep.  But for every thesis there’s an antithesis.”

“And I’m the antithesis?”

“Or maybe an alternate thesis,” @Jean says.  “I don’t know. I don’t have that insight.  I only know, from asides he makes — grumbled at times — that you’ve rented space in his head.  He won’t tell me why.  I know next to nothing about what you believe or stand for.  But I know that you are alternately a focus of his admiration and his anxiety.  I want to understand why.”

“Plenty of time for that,” Th@ch says, casting an arm out over the sea, toward the horizon.  “You’ve got an eternity ahead of you.  Why are we meeting in this green room — in Quarantine?”

“I feel like I’m at a crossroads here.”

“Not an answer.  We are at crossroads every minute of every day.”

“I was fully embedded in the PhysWo — I had ties there, and plans.  Now circumstances have yanked me out of it, I don’t know what those ties or plans mean now.”

Five, ten, fifteen silent steps.  Th@ch flicks a scallop shell down the beach with Th@ch’s left big toe.  “I can’t answer that for you.”

“But you can present me with a new perspective.”

“I don’t do guru,” Th@ch says.

“I don’t do follower.  I receive information and I judge for myself.  Next Saturday I step out of here.  My boyfriend will be there, waiting for me.  My career, waiting for me.  Offers of false continuity, when in fact everything is changed.  I will need to make choices.  I know what Henry wants for me.  I’ve heard his side of the story.  You could tell me yours.”

Th@ch stops in his tracks and looks at her.  @Jean glares back.  To this point in the discourse Th@ch has gone out of his way to project superiority and strained patience.  And let’s be clear: whatever he may be now, Th@ch entered life as a male.  Patronizing the awed new girl, making her feel oh-so-privileged to be granted an ounce of his company?  Jean has seen enough of this over the years — men underestimating her.  You’d have thought the ungendering would have scrubbed it out.

Their eyes lock, and they take each other’s measure while the tide washes their ankles.

“Or don’t,” @Jean picks up where she left off.  “But if your plan for the afternoon is to keep dropping one-liners, the better to establish dominance over Henry Woolsey’s granddaughter — maybe your time isn’t quite so important as you would lead me to believe?”

She turns her back on him and starts walking.  “Maybe not,” Th@ch mutters, but by this time @Jean is thirty, forty paces down the beach.  In the PhysWo she would not have been able to hear him.

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