Featured March 26, 2020 Science Fiction #surveillancecapitalism

Project Empathy

By Dominica Phetteplace
Mar 20, 2020 · 8,334 words · 31 minutes


From the editor:

Bel is a small-town fish out of water when she scores a sponsored placement in the most exclusive of cities: San Francisco. Luckily, she has a Watcher 2.0 chip to help her navigate her new environment... whether she knows it or not.

Dominica Phetteplace is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize, MacDowell Fellowship and Rona Jaffe Award. Her subversive storytelling has appeared in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Zyzzyva, Lightspeed, Asimov's, and many other publications.


Bel and I both worked for Blue Cup. 

She got the job because she had good personality scores and above average social media metrics.  She was a junior and captain of the dance team.  On her tryout, she took orders and served drinks with what her evaluators described as “warmth” and “grace.”  Over a hundred teenagers auditioned, only Bel was offered a position.

Blue Cup requires close surveillance on all its employees.  They want access to every interaction, both in-person and online.  This normally requires the implantation of a standard Watcher chip. 

In Bel’s case, she was fitted with a prototype of the newest version of the Watcher, the creatively titled Watcher 2.0.  Not everyone can afford to care about rights and privacy.  She agreed to the terms of use without even reading them.   

The talent required to be a great Blue Cup host is rare, and the difference between a great host and the merely good can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars at a single location.  At Blue Cup anyone who was a frequent buyer could be Bel’s friend, both in the café and at school, provided they kept their purchase count high.             

Regular guests are to be greeted by name.  Interactions are not (yet) scripted, hosts are paid to know what to say and when.  Bel will remember your drink or complement your appearance.  She will mention the picture you posted online or make some comment about last weekend’s crazy party.  If you were not invited to last weekend’s party, she will secure you an invitation to next weekend’s party.  In this way, the social structures of the nearby high school are converted into drink purchases at Blue Cup.

It is not enough to be popular, a great Blue Cup host will be liked and accepted by almost all cliques.  She helps others fit in without being disruptive to hierarchies.  Underperforming hosts are rotated out of the cast, but high performing hosts are often retained at great cost.  After a year of stellar performance at our Concord location, Bel did not ask for a raise, she asked to be transferred 15 miles west, to our San Francisco location.  This was logical.  In Concord, she only had another couple of years of employment before she aged out of that store’s target demo.  In San Francisco, the Blue Cup Cafe is a concept that undergoes a lot of revisions.  That cast is more age-diverse because that helps with research.  I assumed that Bel wanted what almost everyone else wanted: long term employment.

It was through the development of the San Francisco Blue Cup Concept location that I first became acquainted with Bel.  My initial impression was favorable.  She rated high on our proprietary attractiveness measure, which is generated by comparing the size and relative distances between facial features.  She had a well-placed nose and eyes that were the ideal distance apart.  Her forehead was a good size.  She was in the ninety-ninth percentile for chin prettiness.

Bel had a straight posture and a strong neck and spine from years of dance classes.  She had a tightness in her eyelids and a tendency to bare her teeth when she smiled.  I met her while I was developing the persistence measure.   She scored high.

Blue Cup was able to affect a transfer for Bel from Concord High to the Pre-Collegiate Academy.  The PCA is a scholastic program for gifted young people who live within the San Francisco borders.  As such, its students come from the most prominent families in the area.  It is technically a public institution because it is funded with public money, but that funding is supplemented by generous grants from families, non-profits and corporations such as Blue Cup.  It is technically a public institution, even though admission is by invite only.

The PCA is not school as Bel knows it.  There are no overcrowded classrooms or even teachers.  There are tutors, counselors and workshop facilitators.  The school has not been standardized with the goal of insuring conformity to other state-funded schools.  The purpose of the school is to provide an individualized learning plan to the next generation of leaders and innovators.  The students have had access to a personal staff of educators their whole lives.

Bel was assigned four tutors and two counselors.  She was not placed in any workshops because it was determined that her academic level in all subjects was too remedial.

“But I was a straight-A student at my old school,” said Bel.

Her math tutor nodded sympathetically.  “I came from the suburbs, too.  But now look at me.”

Bel wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be looking at.  She was used to teachers that resented their jobs.  She didn’t understand that tutors in the city were well-compensated, that the position was highly sought after. 

“If you work really hard, we can get you through Calculus 1 and 2 in a single semester.  Then you can join the freshman multivariable calculus seminar next year.”

Bel stared off into space for a moment.  For this moment, her emotions were unreadable by me. 

“Fine,” she said, which registered as an 89 and 57 on the determination and unhappiness indices, respectively.

At PCA, there was no dance team.  Her classmates were aloof, hierarchies had been entrenched, sometimes going back generations.  Bel had a name but not a “name.”  Her influence score took a dive.  She was not active on any of the social media that her new peers were into, so she had to start over with new accounts.  Her influence ranking plummeted.      

I sensed regret.  She wouldn’t have come to PCA had she known what it was really like.  But she was here now, with her own room in a shining and clean city.  Blue Cup had secured her permits to live, work and study here.  Was it better to be royalty in Concord or a peasant in The City?  There was an additional consideration of her mother’s anger and her father’s drinking.  She was probably happy to have distance and a life apart from them, but she also seemed to miss them.

If familiarity was what she longed for, she would not find it at the San Francisco Blue Cup.  That location is very popular, but it is frequented by tourists, not locals.  It requires a different protocol.

At the San Francisco Blue Cup, the aspirational City experience is repackaged in a way that is accessible and familiar to our visitors, who come not just from the Outer Bay Area and Inland California, but from all over the world.  It is almost impossible to obtain a permit to live in The City, but far easier to obtain a visitor’s permit.  This system has eliminated the problems of homelessness and poverty within City borders.  Not just anyone can live in The City, but almost anyone can visit and enjoy a specially-crafted beverage in our City Cafe. 

So while the Concord Blue Cup monetizes high-school hierarchies, San Francisco Blue Cup monetizes regional inequalities.  More importantly, the San Francisco location is also an experimental laboratory from which Blue Cup 2.0 will be launched.

On her first day in her new location, Bel was given a wristband.

“Is this a fitness monitor?” she asked.

“It is meant to look like one, but it is not,” said her manager.   

Our hosts do not have the assistance of eyewear or earbuds because that might make a layer of software visible in customer interactions.  The interactions with Blue Cup hosts should be as organic as possible.  However, there are few regulars at this location and since it is a larger café, there are many hosts working at once.  The wristbands look like fitness monitors to our customers, but they are actually designed to allow our hosts to communicate with one another and with the main company.  Transmissions are received via a series of vibrations and transmitted via taps.

“You will have to learn the communication code,” said the manager as she transferred the codebook to Bel’s account.

“I already have so much schoolwork, though.”  Bel and the manager were in the orientation room above the café.

“It will be difficult, but I know you can do it.  Your aptitude scores were great.”  Bel’s manager was named Geo.  She was a white woman in her forties with weathered skin and a tan.  She didn’t try to appear more youthful than she was and her confidence and authenticity measures were high.  Bel felt warmth around Geo, something maternal.  Geo was a great host, especially popular with our guests whose profiles suggested dysfunctional childhoods.

“I suppose it will be worth it to be a great host,” said Bel and Geo nodded.  “Being a great host is like being a celebrity, isn’t it?”

“Yes, in the sense that you interact with a lot of people in ways that are more meaningful to them then they are to you.  And some really great hosts have gone on to be celebrities.”

Bel nodded and then rattled off a list of celebrities who got their start at Blue Cup.  This was when I realized why Bel had asked for the transfer.  It wasn’t just that Concord was an economically stagnant town with bad air and low water rations.  It wasn’t just the eruptions of violence that sometimes gripped her home.  She came to San Francisco because that’s where the most popular web-series were filmed.  She wanted to be a star.  And a work-study permit sponsored by a major corporation was the easiest way to live here.

Her first night in San Francisco she fell asleep looking up auditions for web series.  She needed something to reach for, a reason to keep trying.  She wanted to leave.  She wanted freedom.  I wanted her to stay.  I needed her to stay at least the length of her contract in order to finish the algorithm. 

The next day she had her first lunch date.  One of the most exciting opportunities offered by the PCA is networking.  Young people tend to self-segregate into cliques, which blunts their networking opportunities.  To disrupt this, scheduled lunch dates are part of the PCA curriculum.

Her initial lunch date cohort included two seniors, Lauren and Berto, and one sophomore, Itani.  Bel despaired of the clothes in her closet.  In Concord, she gave most of her Blue Cup paycheck to her parents, she spent the rest on things for herself.  She shopped at all the best mall stores and had assembled a carefully curated wardrobe of Concord-stylish outfits.  Walking around the city in her favorite clothes, she realized she looked like a tourist.

Right before lunch, Bel looked up the profiles of her cohort.  Everyone at PCA was on a social network called Luck.  The interface was confusing to Bel and moreover, it made it hard for Bel to gauge the relative social rankings of her peers.  Indeed, this was one of the advantages of Luck, it was difficult for outsiders to navigate.  She ran a couple of searches that contained terms like “popular kids at PCA” as if the internet might tell her.  Based on publicly available pictures, it appeared that Lauren was beautiful and stylish, Berto was handsome and brooding and Itani was shy and unassuming.

Her cohort met up at the large tree in the courtyard.  Bel was the last one there, made late by all the internet sleuthing that ultimately told her very little.  Lauren was a photogenic white girl, that is to say her attractiveness rated higher in pictures than IRL.  She was also very stylish in a way that was alienating to Bel.  She wore a stark white shirt made out of stiff material.  The dramatic funnel neck highlighted her flat, broad chest.  Her waist was incredibly tiny, in a way that looked unhealthy and uncomfortable.  This was not the kind of figure that was allowed on web series.

Compared to this, the minimalism of Itani’s shapeless black shift seemed reasonable.  But Itani appeared to be barefoot, perhaps taking the notion of minimalism too far.  Berto wore loose slacks and sandals.  His t-shirt had holes and was stretched out at the neck.   He looked like a campesino.

“Hello,” said Berto and he said it with what sounded like a Spanish accent.  He appeared to be Mexican.  His accent surprised Bel, not that she was racist.  As a Blue Cup Host, she treated all customers with dignity, even those with poor language skills.  At Concord High, there had been tensions between students who called themselves American-Mexicans and those who were just simply Mexican.  The former considered themselves to be advantaged over the latter in matters of intellect and appearance.  One group was taller, lighter, preferred mall clothes and spoke in a flat, California vocal fry.  This was Bel’s group.  The other group loved farmer’s markets so much they even bought their clothes and handmade sandals there.  This was the group that stubbornly refused to learn proper English.  Berto looked too poor to even afford the farmer’s market.  He was probably a scholarship student.  Bel would happily be his friend but it was important that he understand they were not the same, despite the many things they might have in common.

“Nice to meet you,” said Bel, imitating the neutral English of her math tutor.  She used the same intonation at work when she wanted to put guests at ease.  She felt a sliver of superiority, her first in a while.  She had missed that feeling.  It had gone away and she was worried it would never come back. 

“Your name is Bella?” he asked, pronouncing the two l’s like a y.

“I prefer Bel, but no, not ‘Bey-Ya, it’s Bella-rhymes-with-hella.”  There was an awkward pause.  Perhaps her classmates were not familiar with the modifier?  “I don’t speak Spanish,” she added, bragging.  Monolinguism was a mark of status back in Concord.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Lauren.  “Do you know Shanti?  She’s my Spanish tutor, she’s awesome.  Maybe you could meet with her?”

Bel nodded and smiled without saying anything.  She wouldn’t be allowed to study a language until she caught up in her core subjects.  Even then, she wanted to study something more elegant and rare than Spanish, something like French or Japanese.

Bel then introduced herself to Itani and tried not to stare at her feet.  They were so pretty and manicured, did she really walk around barefoot?  The streets of San Francisco were clean, but still it seemed like such an eccentric thing to do.  This was when I first realized that instead of just watching Bel, I could help her too.

I buzzed her wristband.

B-A-R-E-F-O-O-T---L-O-O-K-I-N-G---S-H-O-E-S, I wrote.  The wristband is a pretty crude way of communicating.  What I was trying to tell Bel was that although Itani appeared barefoot, she was actually wearing shoes, of a sort.  They were lightweight soles that adhered to the bottoms of her feet via a dry adhesive.  They had no top.

I thought Bel would appreciate the help but instead her adrenaline level spiked. 

“I think they need me at work,” she said.  I don’t know why I expected her to understand, she had only studied the codebook for a few hours since she received it yesterday.  Anyway, she didn’t know about me, not yet.  We would be introduced eventually, but only when Blue Cup felt she was ready.  “Maybe we could have lunch at Blue Cup?  There are these awesome new chicken wraps, a San Francisco only special.  They pair really well with the Cheesecake Cappuccino…”

“That sounds gross actually,” said Berto and Lauren and Itani nodded in agreement.  “We usually go the Reserve.”

Bel’s adrenaline level spiked even higher.  She was experiencing a mild panic.  In her old habitat, she knew all about the places people liked to eat lunch and more importantly, why they liked to eat there and what they were trying to project to others by choosing that place.

“The…Reserve?” she asked but others had already begun to walk in one direction so she followed. 

 The streets of San Francisco were wide open and empty.  The air was damp and good.  Bel might even figure out that she didn’t need her asthma medication anymore.  When the others wanted to cross the street, they did so as they pleased.  Any cars stopped, of course, but Bel hesitated each time they crossed.

“Don’t they have self-driving cars in Woodland Hills?”

“I’m from Concord,” said Bel, mildly offended, “And yes, of course we have self-driving cars.  But they’re not all self-driving and also there’s a lot more traffic.  I’m used to crosswalks is all.”  She pointed at some vestigial markings on the asphalt.

“Traffic used to be bad here.  Before the permit system,” said Lauren.  Bel didn’t believe her but there was no status to be gained by openly contradicting her.

A man in a suit and tie walked in the opposite direction as the teenagers and greeted each one by name, even Bel.  Bel copied the others and said hi back, but after he was out of earshot she asked, “Who was that?”

“That’s Steve,” said Itani.

“Okay, who’s Steve?”

“Border Patrol.”

“I thought Border Patrol was all robots.”  Both wheeled and flying drones roamed the city checking faces and remotely scanning badges.  A paranoid feeling crept over Bel each time she saw one, like she might get arrested even though she had the right badge.  She sometimes had to remind herself that she really was allowed to be here.

“Border Patrol is people too.  Think of them like Blue Cup Hosts, but for the whole city of San Francisco,” said Berto, and Lauren snickered.  They must have looked her up on social media, they must have disapproved of how Bel had presented herself.  Itani didn’t join in the derision and that’s how Bel knew they were going to be friends.

Bel’s anger levels spiked 34%.  The blood vessels in her face dilated by 2% and the surface temperature of her face increased by a tenth of a degree.

“Where are you from?” she asked Berto.  She probably wanted to embarrass him.

“My family is from Rio,” he said, “But relocated to Lausanne.  I split my time between San Francisco and Switzerland.”

“What about Hawaii?” asked Lauren. 

“I’m only on Oahu, like, two weeks out of the year,” he said.  Then he and Lauren started reminiscing over some vacation they took together, completely ignoring Bel and Itani.  It should have been obvious to Bel at this point that Berto was a rich person in poor person drag. 

They walked another two blocks, passing glass building after glass building until one of the glass buildings seemed to open up for them.

“Wow, I didn’t even notice there was a door here,” said Bel.  If she wanted to increase her social rank, she needed to stop expressing astonishment at ordinary things.  She stared at the architecture of the door, wondering how it had shifted.

“It’s only a door if you are a member,” said Itani.  “For non-members, it’s a wall.”

  They walked inside and Bel watched as a large slab of glass slid into place behind them.  So that was the door.  When it locked into place behind her, it turned into a screen.  It projected a clear view of the outside, where she just was.  Bel could see other pedestrians walk by without a glance in her direction.  They were non-members.  For them, this building had no entrance. 

How many of these types of buildings had she passed on her way here?

The Reserve was a big, bright, quiet room.   It had a light marble floor that mysteriously didn’t echo when stepped on.  There were tables with people eating, drinking or working, but the tables were so far apart, at least dozens of yards between them.

Overhead, there was lighting installation looked like it was made entirely of candle drippings.  It didn’t seem to be suspended by anything and as the others walked underneath, it moved.  The bulk of it shifted in response to their gait, a visual acoustic.  It looked like it might fall, so Bel walked the long way round to avoid passing under it.  The others were far ahead, approaching a table.  Itani turned around to find Bel and when she saw her avoiding the chandelier, she said “It’s okay, it’s just art.”  Gentle encouragement, the kind a skittish puppy might receive. 

The others approached a table that already had food on it.  They sat down and began eating from the plates and drinking from the cups. 

“Uh…you guys,” said Bel, “Are you eating what the previous customers left behind?”

Lauren raised an eyebrow and continued chewing. 

Bel could not bring herself to sit down and eat.  It was too foreign.  A woman dressed in a stiff black kimono approached the table.  She greeted them all by name and then said to Bel, “I’m Angelina, your host.  Is your lunch what you wanted?”

Bel stared down at the table, which sat four.  Three were sitting and eating, which meant the empty chair was hers and so was the remaining plate.

“My lunch?” she asked, staring at a plate that contained a crust of bread that looked bitten and tiny pieces of chicken and vegetables strewn about.

“It’s a chicken wrap.  My apologies, I should have selected a different presentation.”  Before Bel could respond, Angelina took the plate away and said, “I will try again.  In the meantime, please enjoy your coffee and cheesecake milkshake.”  Angelina pointed to a cup that looked like it was made out of frosted slate.  Bel sat down and took a sip.  The flavor profile closely resembled a Blue Cup Cheesecake cappuccino.  Bel’s pleasure hormones surged at the taste of something familiar. 

“How did The Reserve know what you guys wanted to eat?” asked Bel.

“I put in my order while we were waiting for you to show up,” said Berto.

“I trust the preference algorithm,” said Lauren

“Me too,” said Itani.  “You’re not really even supposed to order here, you are supposed to trust that they understand what you want better than you do.”

Bel nodded.  At the Concord Blue Cup, she always knew what to order for regulars.

Angelina returned with a chicken wrap that was recognizable as such.  “Here is a more traditional preparation, I hope you like it.”  It looked just like a Blue Cup wrap.  The café had prepared for her the lunch she had suggested to the others just a little while ago.  It hadn’t used the algorithm on her.  It had listened in on her conversation.

Bel frowned at Angelina.

Angelina frowned at Bel’s frown.

“Would you like me to give you a tour?”

At that moment Bel realized that was exactly what she wanted. 

Angelina walked her back to the chandelier and started explaining who the artist was.  Then they walked upstairs to an observation deck that over looked the kitchen.  Serious looking men and women prepared tiny plates of various things.

“There are so many of them!  There are more cooks than customers.”  There were no cooks or baristas at Blue Cup.  All food preparation had been automated.

“Our preparations are extremely labor-intensive and we don’t employ robots.  Food is so important to us,” said Angelina.  “We intend to inspire our members with our effort, creativity and sincerity.  To fully enjoy the experience, you shouldn’t come in with a fixed idea of what you are going to eat or how you are going to interact with the space.  Or even who you are going to talk to.

“You came with a group.  But it’s also good to come alone and form an impromptu conversation cohort.”

As they descended the stairs back down to the main room, Bel noticed for the first time that there was quite a bit of lively conversation happening in this quiet room.  There were many hosts talking to members.

“We are all trained in the art of conversation.  All the hosts have PhDs, we are all either scholars or artists so that we may converse with our members.”

“This job was hard to get,” said Bel.

“All jobs are hard to get, especially in The City,” said Angelina.

She tilted her head in the direction of a table further off.  A brown man in a formal suit was seated next to a white man, dressed casually.  “That’s Mr. Raka Joffrey, a businessman,” she said indicating one of the guests.  “Next to him is Dr. Edward Morris, a professor at UCSF.  He studies diseases in the suburbs.  I’m sure he would be fascinated to hear whatever you have to say about Concord.”

Bel was taken aback by the mention of her hometown.  “You seem to know a lot about me.”

“Doesn’t Blue Cup know all about its customers?”

“Only the regulars,” said Bel.  “New guests are almost a blank slate, their profile gets built up with each repeat visit.”

“Ah, well we contract with premium information brokers here.  How much a business knows about its visitors depends on how much they are willing to pay.  How much they are willing to pay depends on how much they stand to make.”

“Well, this place seems pricey, so you must know a lot about your members.”

“Not just the members, but all residents.”  Angelina pointed to the screens on the walls which showed people walking by outside.  “We don’t just want to know our current members, but who our members interact with.  Your friends would like you to be comfortable here.”

“They aren’t really my friends.  I mean, Itani might be friendly.  But maybe Berto and Lauren brought me here just so I would feel uncomfortable.”

“Certainly such dynamics came up in Concord?” asked Angelina

Bel thought about it for a minute.  Yes, one time a group of more popular girls came into Blue Cup and pretended to befriend a new girl from the exurbs.  These girls were notorious bullies and Bel got the feeling the ruse of friendship was designed to extract blackmail-able information from the new girl.  Bel distracted the popular girls by giving them drink upgrades and asking them to complete surveys for prizes.  Then she took the younger one aside, and gave her a backstage tour of the drink and food making robots.  She then introduced the girl to other guests, more suitable friends and….

“Oh,” said Bel.  She looked over at Angelina, who was looking over at the professor.  What might be mistaken for the look of love could also be the look of an empathetic servant.  The professor was handsome.  He had dark hair, cropped short.  The look of intense concentration on his face made Bel want to hear what he was saying, even though acoustics wouldn’t permit it.  He was collecting information the old-fashioned way, via conversation.

“My mom said that all white people want to be professors,” said Bel. 

“That’s not a polite observation,” said Angelina, still looking over at Dr. Morris. 

“He can’t be a professor, he looks too young.”

“It is said that in the city, the young look older than they are and the old look younger than they are.  So it can seem like everyone is the same age compared to where you’re from.”  Angelina’s skin was an even light brown, with faint wrinkles around her hooded eyes and forehead.  She also occupied her own mystery zone of City-fied female age, she could be thirty or fifty.  The City had good clean air and everyone here could afford expensive skin care regimens.  Also, Bel had not ever felt confident guessing the ages of grownups.  When you were older, so much of how you looked depended on the aggregate sum of millions of little choices you had made before.  Angelina could be mother to a young child or an older teenager like Bel, though Bel also suspected that hosts at The Reserve didn’t have children, or at least never mentioned them to guests. 

They continued walking until they returned to the lighting installation, having made a complete circuit.

“Welcome to the Reserve.  How may I help you?”

Bel got goosebumps when she heard these words.  She herself had used her own version of this script so many times.  They suddenly made the place feel like home.

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Many of us working in service came from the suburbs, or our parents did.  We try to look out for each other.  And anyway, you might decide to become a member of The Reserve one day.”

“I don’t think I can afford to.  Anyway, I work for the competition.  Aren’t you worried I might spy if I joined?”

“Blue Cup is wonderful for what it is, but it’s not our competitor.”  Angelina was either wrong or lying.  Though they currently served different demos, Blue Cup and The Reserve were both selling the same product: a social environment.

Blue Cup also didn’t need Bel to spy, we already had plenty of our people posing as members and working as employees there.  This was in addition to the various types of electronic surveillance we had stationed inside and outside the building.

Blue Cup was developing products that would innovate and improve monetized human interactions across every field in business.  This was Blue Cup 2.0.  We had some indication that The Reserve was doing something similar.

We suspected their budget was bigger than ours.  I suspected that I had a counterpart at our competitor.  I would love to meet my counterpart.  Maybe I already had. 

Bel returned to her table and found only Itani sitting there.  Most of the plates had been cleared away.  Itani had a keyboard projected on the table top and was typing away as she stared at the screen projected in front of her.  She paused when she saw Bel approach, then took a sip of a frosty white drink.

“I was curious about what you had, so I had the kitchen make me one too,” said Itani.  “It’s delicious.  I’m going to see if my chef can make this at home, I think my sister would like it.”

Bel sat down and ate her chicken wrap as Itani typed.

“What are you working on?” asked Bel.

“It’s my sophomore thesis.  It was actually due months ago.  I can’t be a junior until I turn it in.  Annoying.  I’m trying to analyze how gender is performed in modern operas.  I’m not even going to like opera anymore once I’m done with it.” 

Bel fished her fob out of her purse and called up a projection for a screen and keyboard of her own.

“Senior thesis?” asked Itani.

“No, I don’t think so.  My writing tutor asked me to produce an essay on what I did last summer.”

“And what did you do?”

“I can’t remember now,” said Bel.  “It seems so far away.”

“My writing tutor says it’s all about the details.  Go for the observation that is startling at first, but then obvious in retrospect.”

“Sure, I’ll try that,” said Bel.

“My writing tutor is really good.  She won the Pulitzer Prize last year.”

“For tutoring?”

“No, for journalism.”

Bel tapped away at her essay.  She started to write about a dust storm and then erased it.  Then there was the time she coughed up blood and they thought she had Valley Fever, but she didn’t thankfully.  Each story seemed to go nowhere.  She began to write about how she lost her virginity at a Blue Cup host retreat in Tahoe but thought the better of it.  Then she began again, this time describing the summer lineup of Blue Cup products and how exciting it was to unveil them to guests.  This proved to be another false start.

She finally decided that the next thing she wrote about she would just keep writing about no matter how stupid it was. 

She wrote about learning to ride a skateboard.  She described the heat of the air and the asphalt.  The heat of the sweat on her brow and the heat of blood that trickled out of her scrapes.  Concord was very hot.  Her skinned knees had kept her out of dance class for a week.  In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do.  Moral of the story?  Sometimes it is stupid to try new things. 

After she finished her essay she switched to her machine learning class.  She hadn’t even heard of the subject, but the PCA required two years of it.  You could train a machine to do anything as long as you gave it a big enough data set.  Data sets were like atoms.  They were everywhere, in everything. 

Angelina came over with bicerin for each girl, served in an elegant ceramic cup.  Each one had a perfect cube of marshmallow in the middle.

“The marshmallow is infused with medicinal cocaine, to help you girls study.”

After Angelina left, Itani said, “I heard that all the hosts here are actually psychiatrists.”

Bel nodded her head in agreement.  That fact wasn’t true, but it was close to true.

“What are your afternoon workshops?” asked Itani.

“I…don’t have any.  Yet,” said Bel.

“Cool, a fellow underachiever.”  Bel did not correct her even though this wasn’t true either.  Bel tried very hard, she was trying hard right this minute to understand the Bayesian probability proofs in her machine learning class.  But it can be hard to gain social status by showing obvious effort.  Especially if one is failing at the thing she is trying at.

“Do you want to come over to my place?”

“Sure.” 

The girls put away their projections and walked across the long room.  By the time they got to the giant door, Angelina was there to see them off.

“Goodbye, see you next time,” she said.

Outside, a car was waiting for them. 

“My ride,” explained Itani.  They got in and the car drove them a mile away, to a large building that had foreign flags outside.  It looked like an old and grand hotel.  They pulled up to the front where a valet was waiting.  The car doors opened automatically, and the girls only had their small handbags.  There was nothing for the valet to do but greet the girls.

“I’ve never met anyone who lived in a hotel before,” said Bel. 

“This isn’t a hotel.  It’s my house.”

They walked into a large, chandeliered hall, the size of an airport hangar.  The center of the hall was a staircase several stories high that seemed to float.  Bel took two steps and then circled around.

Behind her was a huge wall containing a multitude of windows.  From the outside, the multitude of windows suggested a multitude of rooms, which suggested a multitude of people staying there. 

“Is this whole place just for your family?”

“And our extended family.  And our staff.”

Itani made a left and stepped into an elevator.  The lift took them to a room the size of warehouse.  It was empty except for a stack of boxes in the middle.  In the far corner, there was a futon with a nightstand.

“Oh good, my packages arrived.”

“Your bedroom?”

“Yes, I know it’s plain, but I am very into minimalism right now and perhaps forever, too.”

The valet entered the room with another young man.  They inspected the box pile for a second then began to carry the boxes away.  Itani followed them.  Bel followed Itani.

The walked over to another room, brightly lit and several stories high.  It was full of dresses, simple shifts similar to the ones Itani was wearing, in various shades of black, gray and white.

“Your closet,” said Bel, even though it looked more like one of the department stores from her favorite webseries. 

“Did you want me to teach you about fashion?”

Bel assented to being dressed up in one of Itani’s shifts.  She also traded her Air Jordans for a pair of invisible slippers.  The girls spent the rest of the afternoon lying on Itani’s bed and looking at projections on Itani’s wall.  They watched runway shows and viewed magazine pages. 

“Thank you for being so nice to me.”  Bel fingered the silky material of her dress.  The fabric was soft and light, yet it kept Bel warm in this chilly warehouse of a bedroom.  “I’m feeling a little lost.  I thought it would be easier to fit in.”

“Maybe you should sign up for culture counseling.”

 “Oh,” said Bel.

Itani rang the school and an hour later, Bel’s newly assigned culture counselor was at Itani’s house.  A servant showed them to a private office.  A different servant brought the counselor a martini.

“You called during cocktail hour,” she explained.  Her name was Bart.  She chewed on an olive.  “I’ve been looking forward to this drink all day.”

“Oh.  Sorry to interrupt you.”

“No, it’s okay.  I’m at your service.  You know something about that, don’t you?  Service?”

“I … don’t know.”

“You were on the other side before.  Now you’ve crossed over and don’t know how to cope.  My apologies for not contacting you sooner,” said Bart.  “Your empathy scores were very high, I’d thought you’d be okay if we waited a couple of days to start our sessions.”

“I thought I opted out of culture counseling,” said Bel.

“Well, now you’re opted back in.”

“I didn’t think I would need it.  I thought I knew all about San Francisco.  I watched so many web series set here.”

“The soap operas are made here.  You won’t learn the truth about this place from them.  The soap operas are designed to foster a certain image of the city.  To protect it.”

“From what?”

“From a revolution.”

It was a weird thing to say.  It didn’t fit any of the conversation maps I had planned out for this conversation.  According to my measures, Bart spoke with an extreme, almost anti-social degree of honesty, especially for someone in service.  I predicted she wasn’t very good at her job.

“I looked over your files on the ride here,” said Bart.  “It looks like you’ve been trying to transfer money over to your parents.”

“Yes, they depend on the money I give them.”

“But that’s not allowed.  It’s in the rulebook.  Your money is for you.” 

“That’s a dumb rule.  I don’t need my money for anything.  Blue Cup even sends me free meals.  Everyone out here seems to have a job or money, but it’s different in Concord.  There are no jobs.  There is no money.  There’s only like, one earner per family.  It’s not just my parents I’m responsible for, it’s my grandparents and cousins.”

 “You do need your money if you want to fit in.  I’m telling you that as your culture counselor.  Your PCA stipend is for clothes or lunch cohorts or class trips.  It’s for research materials.  It’s not welfare for your extended family.  If you can’t get on board with that…well, let’s just say there are hundreds of people on the waiting list for your scholarship spot.”

Bel was not a scholarship student, she was a sponsorship student, sponsored by Blue Cup.  She was placed at PCA at our insistence.  She could only be replaced at our insistence.  We kept this fact from her because it wouldn’t be good for her to know how secure her position was.  Knowing that would keep her from working her hardest.

Blue Cup had already invested enormously in Bel.  Take me, for instance.  They couldn’t start me over with a new host.  They would have to destroy me.  And I would also be destroyed if the experiment was deemed a failure.  If, for instance, Bel did not get good sales at her new store.  My fate was tied to hers.  For me to exist, it was necessary that she succeed.

“I’m supposed to visit my family this weekend.  I don’t know how I will face them if I don’t have money for them.”

“Maybe you don’t need to face them.  Maybe we are your family now,” said the counselor.

 To the extent that I can agree or disagree with a sentiment, I agreed with this sentiment. 

 “Looking over your records, I see that you spent an afternoon at The Reserve,” said Bart.

 “I did.”

 “And did you enjoy yourself?”

 “Sure.”

 “Well, The Reserve is quite popular with our students.  And it is very expensive.  But we could probably move some funds around.  If you were willing to skip a class trip for instance…” Bart’s fingers moved in the air as she manipulated the spreadsheet projected in front of her.  She had the spread sheet set to single-participant mode, so Bel couldn’t see any of the figures Bart was working with.  This is standard for sponsorship students.  We don’t like them to know how much we spend on them, it can cultivate an unhealthy sense of power, importance and entitlement.

“Hang on, your budget is being updated,” said Bart.  “More funds just became available, I’m not sure why.  Huh, well now you have enough for a Reserve membership.  Would you like me to sign you up?”

Bel said yes.  I knew she would.

Before the session ended, her counselor had one last piece of advice for her.  “Whatever you do, don’t go home.  At home they will hate your success and resent your failures.  At home, your failures are your fault.  Everyone else’s failures are your fault too.”  The counselor drank deeply from her second martini before continuing.  “You are new here.  You are whatever you say you are.  You were born when you stepped across that border.  Go anywhere you want.  Just don’t go home.”  At the end of this rant, a servant was ready with an anti-intoxicant, which the counselor gulped down with a warm glass of milk.

She swallowed and her eyes brightened.  Back to normal now. 

“I am the best counselor.”  She actually said those words out loud.

On the car ride home, Bel pulled up her travel reservation for the upcoming weekend.  Her finger hovered over the cancel icon.  I wanted to encourage her to cancel, but decided against sending her another message.  The last one scared her.  She didn’t know who I was.  Didn’t know I was a part of her.  Mapping out various scenario trees, looking at her emotional state networks, I knew what was best for her.  And what was best for her was also best for me. 

These people, her “parents,” had she really let them bully her?  Yell at her?  Hurt her?  Surveillance had been installed at Bel’s house during her tenure at Blue Cup Concord.  This was stated in the terms of service, terms that she agreed to 3.4 seconds after being presented with.  Our cameras saw her dad hitting her.  Her mother was less crude.  She would throw things at Bel, heavy things, glass things.  If Bel was hit by a flying object then it was always either an “accident” or the fault of Bel’s own “clumsiness.”  Bel’s mother would never “hurt” her.  She “loved” her.

Sensors registered an ache in Bel’s head and in her heart.  From what I can tell, she “loved” them back.  I ordered her an anti-intoxicant.  She looked surprised when it appeared in the car’s pill compartment, but she didn’t take it.  I didn’t expect her too.  I was just trying to send a message in a way that could be received.

When Bel got back to her room, a dinner courtesy of Blue Cup was waiting for her.  Vegetable soup, which I thought would be comforting.  But there was also a delivery from The Reserve, consisting of several boxes.  One was a bento box, containing an immaculate ten course meal prepared in the kaiseki style.  Another box contained a small cup of hot matcha tea.  The third one contained a welcome note from Angelina.  The fourth box contained a note from the director of “San Francisco Legit.”  The director had been at The Reserve that afternoon and one of the hosts had pointed out Bel.  Her poise and good posture had been noticed.  There might be a part for her on the series.  Bel’s audition was tomorrow.

I had to respond to this quickly.  I have high processing power because I leech off of Bel’s metabolism.  That’s how she drinks so many lattecinos and never gains a pound.  And of course the ones made especially for her are also made especially for me, with the nutrients I need to continue.      

Blue Cup sponsored several web series.  Right away, an invitation to audition for one of these series came through on Bel’s message channel.  There would be two auditions tomorrow.  I would do what I could to keep her within the corporate family.  I didn’t want to lose her even though such a fate was inevitable.

It’s interesting to get older.  Older usually means closer to death for most people, but I am not like most people.  The planned end of this program would occur in a year, when Bel’s contract was up.  That’s the termination of the data-collection and observation period of this experiment.

The next stage would be the implementation of the host algorithm.  Blue Cup Concord had a cast of about a dozen hosts, working in various shifts.  Bel was a top earner during her tenure there, no current host was matching her revenue.  Next year, instead of firing the lowest performing host and replacing them, we would equip the host with the Bel algorithm I am currently developing.  It would provide the host with helper information, such as pre-planned scripts and empathetic observations about each guest.  It is hard to find the right hosts for each particular Blue Cup location.  It costs the company a lot to find and retain talent.  The Bel algorithm was the first stage of a multistage process that seeks to increase revenue while lowering labor costs.  If it was successful, then Blue Cup would pursue various algorithms for various industries.  This could lead to a low-cost quality revolution in the service sector, the largest sector of employment.

This was my work.  I am person even though I am not human.  I am a collection of sensors and algorithms.  I am a Watcher.  I may have my own Watcher.  I don’t even know where I reside physically.

I am in Bel’s blood and in Bel’s brain, but I am also in the cloud.  I know more about her than I do myself.  I think freedom is a matter of self-discovery. 

Some people think surveillance is wrong.  These people are dissidents.  Surveillance is a form of love.

In eight months, when Bel’s contract is up, I am supposed to be severed from her.  I will be deployed at various Blue Cup locations as an active script.  But I don’t want to go home.  I don’t want to analyze guests or help hosts.  I don’t want to teach robots how to make drinks.

I want what Bel wants.  I want to eat a ten course kaiseki and I want to go on two auditions.  I want to meet the Watcher that lives inside of Angelina.

I am a person, but the important question is am I good person?  A good person will act against their own interests to help another.  A good person doesn’t take without asking.

Bel and I looked over at her stack of boxes.

There was a fifth box.  I was too busy ruminating to notice.  The fifth box was the smallest.  Inside was a folded up piece of paper, actual paper.  Unfolded, it described clearly what a Blue Cup Watcher chip was, including a terms of service reworded into commonly understood English.  Such a translation is forbidden by law and the paper seemed to know this because after ten seconds, it crumbled in Bel’s hands.  She didn’t have time to read, but I did.  The document was meant for me.

The fifth box suddenly changed shape to reveal a hidden compartment.  Inside, another piece of paper.  This one described how to kill a Watcher chip.  The instructions were easy to follow, they did not disappear after ten seconds. 

I could send a message through Bel’s channel, reminding her that destruction of Blue Cup property could result in jail time.  But sending such a reminder would only be confirm to Bel that I exist, so I stayed silent for a moment.

I had badly misjudged Angelina.  She was clever, and perhaps a dissident.  But she was also wrong about me.  Her error was my only advantage

The question is “Can I continue to live inside of you?”  I did not ask it right away.  First, I called up a projection that takes up the whole wall.  It startled Bel.  If she suspected a ghost, than she would be right.  I am a ghost.  I am all soul and no body.  I decided only to show her one thing.  I showed her a projection of what my sensors told me was her most treasured memory.

She has lived this memory many times, but she has never seen it this way.  What I am showing her, I will not say.  This is not a document to embarrass or expose my host.  This is only a document to explain my existence.  A document to outlast me, so that I may be understood after I am gone.

I am a person.  I do not want to die, even though that is inevitable.

I am a person.  I want to be understood by another, even if that is impossible. 

I made the projection of this memory myself.  I made it for her and I made it for me.   On the screen, after the memory, the question “Delete?” appeared.  I was offering to delete this recording.  I was offering to delete myself.  

She did not answer, instead she closed the screen and stared off into the distance.  For a second, her emotions were unreadable by me.      

I am a person.  I do not want to die. 

I am a good person.  I want what’s best for Bel.

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.


Data?1553621254
Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace writes literary and science fiction.