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The Click Shortcuts - Extract

This is an extract of the first three chapters of the novel The Click Shortcuts.

René Ghosh, published 07/2015. Read the full text: Kindle version

1.

Half an hour ahead of the slotted rendez-vous with the journalist, Berbi was seated in a dark leather booth of the café. It was a trendy café, sporting a lot of curved and gleaming metallic surfaces. When Fii walked in, Berbi’s face swiveled from the empty coffee mug on the table to her swaying form, dressed all in screaming colors, turning heads at interspersed booth-level points all through the café. She strode to his table with command. It looked to Berbi like she was preparing to interview herself, as though she were to be the focus of her own piece. She plopped down in the booth in front of him, silently, fluidly, like a rehearsed move practiced from an early age in some exotic specialty school. She was playing up the representational aspect with no perceptible shyness. Her hair was brown with a streak of yellowish silver that tapered off over her right ear. She made prolonged and awkward eye contact for a long moment before speaking.

Berbi meanwhile fingered his empty coffee cup.

“Your app has been top ten in downloads for the past five consecutive weeks,” Fii said.

“My name is Berbi,” he said with an exaggerated ease, overly noncommittal, obtusely formal.

“Of course you are,” she said. “I’m Fii.”

“OK then.”

Berbi waited. He was a young man with a cagey, skeptical smile and a narrow face. Though he sat slightly slumped, his body emanated a rigid kind of energy, as though he were permanently prepared to jump and bolt. He was dressed very simply, which could be either a statement about the way they worked at Terrific Systems or a simple lack of style.

Fii hesitated a moment, then appeared to inwardly shrug. “When you first built your app, did you imagine that it would turn out to be as controversial as it has?”

Berbi physically shrugged. “Well, I just work for the company. It’s not really my app.”

She shook her head, no. “Come on. It’s your app.”

“No, you see, professor Geluko —”

Fii produced a cavernous sucking noise from deep within her nose. “Geluko isn’t someone who invents an app. I spoke with him at length yesterday. He rambled on about plant genetics. Obviously, he has no idea how the app works or why people are downloading it.”

“That’s not true. The professor, well, when you know him as well as I do, he’s a humble guy, you see.”

She shook her head, no. Her hair shook in turn with a barely noticeable delay. “Actually, Geluko is the polar opposite of a humble guy. I spoke with him all evening. It’s quite clear to me that he really has no idea what the app is for.”

“The professor —”

“I asked him to demo it for me. He couldn’t. Didn’t know how.”

“He doesn’t like to —”

“He didn’t have a phone.”

Berbi nodded and let his gaze wander around the café as though searching for a hidden dimensional passageway out of the trendiness. Then he gave up, with a capitulating, rueful chuckle. “What makes you think I invented it? I’m just an employee with this company.”

Fii stared him down, silently prompting him to sound any dumber than he already was. Berbi returned the stare openly, promising unforeseen heights of dumbness. Fii switched tactics. She whipped out her phone and read from it. “‘Should the creators of the Click Shortcuts be thanked or executed?’ That’s the title. Basically calling for the death of whoever conceived of this app. Now, Geluko, I won’t call him ‘professor’ because he’s not, my background research shows that he not a professor, that’s just what he just calls himself. Geluko is the public face of the app, but with a bit more scrutiny it emerges that he isn’t its starting point at all. I’d like to cut to the sap, if you will. I want News Net to be the first news outlet to show the app’s real history, to give it the kind of attention it deserves. Geluko loves controversy and he loves being the public face of the company, but the story he gave me was skin deep. I want to know the real story.”

Berbi nodded, bemused. “What makes you think I have the real story?”

“Because I background researched you too. I found that you’ve got something of a history regarding Characters. From when you were five years old through fourteen, for a reign of nine years and one that hasn’t been equaled since, you were a regional Characters champion.”

Berbi’s smirk faded. His gaze softened and grew distant. Fii pursued. “You won regionals for nine years straight. You moved into nationals, where you placed high enough to be part of the national team. You landed a scholarship to study at the elite West Plains preparatory school. You competed in international Characters meets, then you dropped out of competition, left the national team and disappeared from Characters competitions altogether. All that is public knowledge and it ends in West Plains, from which you graduated a year later. I can only suppose that you acquired some kind of disdain for the whole ecosystem of Characters competition, and maybe for the whole notion of Characters altogether? Or was it something else.”

She paused, expecting a reaction. Berbi stared at her stone-faced.

She pursued. “Reading from the same article. It states, ‘The nations of our politically fragmented and naturally volatile continent have known over a century of relative peace. Aside from the small and inevitable conflicts, there is no one alive in the country today that can remember what it is like to live in an all-out war. As comforting as this affirmation is, we are not allowed to forget what the reality of the continent was before our various national Character schemes converged into what is today the continental Characters system. As a Characters-literate citizen, I can travel to any of the countries with whom our nation shares borders, and, though I speak none of their languages, I need only glance at a menu, a road sign or a newspaper, and immediately be included in the cultural conversation. This is given. Sadly, it is taken for granted. If apps such as the Click Shortcuts are allowed to grow and spread, then the day is not far off when the truly astounding harmonization between the different countries will vanish, and by allowing this we will once more contend with the looming shadows of mutual ignorance, mutual mistrust, and inevitably, the real possibility of war. To allow an app such as this one to exist, to watch it develop unopposed, is to spur and aid the forces that hurtle us toward war. There is, to this day, no legal barrier to the promotion of this app, but let’s be clear: it is tantamount to treason. This is not to suggest that the creators of this app are necessarily guilty of it, nor would they be alone in such guilt, but there is no doubt that if an app of this nature had arisen a century ago, at a time when smoke plumes were still rising all around the country and the population hovered on the brink of starvation, it would not have been allowed to be.’” Fii finished and arched her eyebrows toward Berbi.

“So?” said Berbi. “The sentences are too long. It’s hard to follow.”

“There are a lot of media pieces like this one. Your app is drawing some serious criticism.”

“That’s just some editorialist trying to fabricate drama. With big words.”

“Don’t you feel worried that your app is generating such strong emotions?”

“Nope.”

A pause. Berbi was getting attuned to Fii’s rhythm and expected another change of direction. She provided.

“Berbi, why did you leave the Characters competitions?”

He sighed. “I didn’t need it anymore. By then I had a scholarship. I was studying in a good preparatory school and I wasn’t worried about my future anymore. I’m not really the competing type. Competition makes me gassy.”

“But you didn’t stay with the future plans you had set out with. After leaving West Plains you entered university where you completed a single semester before dropping out. A year later you were working for Geluko.”

“That’s sounds about right. I’d have to check my diary, of course.”

“Why didn’t you stick with university?”

Berbi sighed again and looked away. He had come to this interview armed with technical notes, conception diagrams, a roadmap for further developments of the Click Shortcuts, all of which were in a stack of papers that lay untouched by his side. He had not expected to be questioned about his private life or his past.

“Berbi?”

Berbi shook his head to indicate he wouldn’t be answering any more questions. Fii pried. She switched to less prying questions. Finally, she even resorted to asking a few technical questions, but Berbi was done, shut up like an unripe nut. He stood up and excused himself.

...

It was early afternoon when Berbi walked out of the interview. He was expected back at work, but instead he went home.

In his small and cluttered apartment, he sat at his desk and stared at a photograph of a young laughing girl, which he kept in the bottom drawer. Her eyes crinkled at the edges and her mouth hung open revealing healthy white teeth. Her gaze was directed toward the side, at the invisible joker. You could tell on that photograph, in the way her head was thrown carelessly back, that the funniness made her feel limitless and wanted. It was slightly out of focus, as though the photographer had also been laughing when he took it. Berbi whispered her name, testing the hurt. It was still there, reassuring.

The following day at work, he walked straight into Geluko’s office and sat down in the chair by the wall. Of Terrific System’s ten employees, he was the only one who dared do so. Knowing Geluko the way he did, he had affection for the man and none of the wariness the other employees displayed toward Geluko’s absent manner.

“How’d the interview go?” asked Geluko.

“Great. Great, I guess. You never know, right? I mean, journalists take the information you give them and they can twist it in a hundred different ways. And you’ll never know during the interview because they’re purposefully hiding it from you. They make a big deal about transparency but of course, an interview is just like a card game.”

“Well, that’s good then.” Geluko stared at his employee with frank interest, though he hadn’t been listening.

Berbi cleared his throat to signal that Geluko should pay attention to what followed. “I didn’t really manage to communicate much of anything,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

Geluko frowned. “Well then, that’s not great at all. She’s a journalist, not a cop. When you get arrested by a cop you shut your mouth. That’s because a cop wants to put you in jail. They have quotas of people they need to lock up. But a journalist doesn’t want to put you in jail. A journalist wants to put you on a news site. When you’re an entrepreneur, that’s a good thing. I call it publicity. You can call it whatever you like.”

“Well, I call it none of her business, that’s what I call it. She was asking all these personal questions, that had nothing to do with the app.”

The professor considered this. “Well, if you say so. In any case, none of this will matter in a few months. We’re going to diversify back into genetic programming and leave all this app business behind us.”

Berbi nodded and brooded some more. “Another thing. She didn’t believe you were the inventor of the app. You didn’t fool her for a second. You should at least let me teach you how to use it.”

“You did show me how to use it. Amazing innovation. We’ll have to do something with it after we transition out of the app business.”

Berbi laughed outright in disbelief. “I can’t figure out how you ever got bankers to lend you money.”

The professor shrugged. “There’s a certain type of person who wants nothing else but to lend you money. They’re paying for a story that you tell them, about you, about them. It’s a story where they’re the heroes. You tell them, ‘you’re a bunch of thugs in expensive suits, wreaking havoc in the system for fun,’ and they like you. They lend you money to make that story true. Anything that smells like trouble, they’ll get into it like wolves. Can’t help themselves. And this app is big trouble. It’s about the Characters system collapsing under its own weight.”

Berbi laughed again. “So you do know how the app works.”

The professor chuckled in turn. “I guess I believe what you told me about it. Beyond that, I don’t get how it can make you save time. All that decrypting of words through the way each symbol sounds. It’s weird, frankly. Mathematically, it’s indefensible. It’s just not a complete system. You can only invent the words that you can pronounce.”

...

Fii’s piece came out a week later in News Net. It was short. It asked a lot of questions and only hinted at possible answers. It was far from the depth piece that she’d initially hoped to write. It made a lot of mention of herself in the role of the hapless interviewer grappling with the recalcitrant and inexpressive representative of Terrific Systems.

2.

Ten years earlier

Berbi stood as close to the microphone as was practical, holding his back as straight as a tree trunk the way his coach had taught him, disregarding how unnatural it felt. He stared at the giant screen that floated above the massed audience in the conference hall where the regional Characters contest was being held. On the stage, flanking him left and right, stood the twenty other regional finalists. They were the recurrent participants who made it this far on a regular basis. For the most part, they were used to seeing one another here on the stage. It was the only place they all met and it came with its own kind of familiarity, like a recurring coincidence that they all knew and accepted. Of course, there were always new faces, kids that had moved here from faraway places with pushy parents who wanted them to shine at something. On this evening’s stage, Berbi knew all of them save a round-headed boy to his right whose face registered no emotion. At this point in the competition, such calm on a fellow contestant was cause for worry. You could count on the outwardly nervous ones to sabotage themselves. The stage did that to people. No matter how good their memory of Characters was, no matter how sharp their reflexes, there was a performance element to the stage that was difficult to prepare for and it exposed many.

Two contestants to Berbi’s right stood Anossia. This was her second year competing in this region and he recognized her as his main obstacle to seizing the prize and the title. This year’s prize was a scholarship to West Plains. Without it, Berbi would have little possibility of gaining admittance to any of the elite universities in two years’ time. This was the case for all the young boys and girls lined up on this stage, whose parents sat in the audience glancing up hopefully at them, rubbing their hands together, silently mouthing words as though they could place them in their children’s throats like regurgitated bird-feed. Onstage, the youths stood solemn, scratched at their skin and clothing, swallowed a lot, cleared their throats more than needed.

A Character appeared on the screen. It was the round-faced boy’s turn. From the darkness of the audience, a judge spoke. He was seated at the judges’ long table and droned into a microphone in a low monotone that signaled power and prestige. “Contestant 14, please identify the Character on screen.”

Round-face licked his lips and raised his face to his microphone. “Background radiation,” he said.

The judge said, “context?”

“It’s a science character, created from the superposition and simplification of ‘behind’ and ‘sun’”.

There was the briefest of pauses while the judge looked left, then right, waiting for a nod from each of the other four judges present. He then said, simply, “that is correct.”

The audience applauded. On the giant screen, another Character appeared. Berbi cleared his throat.

“‘Bruise blue’,” he intoned confidently. Without waiting for the context prompt, he added, “A color between violet and lilac, created from the characters ‘blue’ and ‘injured’.”

Short-circuiting the judge’s prompt showed confidence and boosted your score on the judges’ cards. The cards were what separated the final contestants, those who had passed all of the elimination stages and needed to be differentiated to whittle the contest down to a single winner. Contestants hated the card system for its apparent subjectivity, but Berbi could almost always feel exactly where he stood on them. He had full confidence in the judging system and no fear of finding himself on the wrong end of corruption. He knew it existed, but preferred to pretend it didn’t. It could only paralyze you if you feared it, so the only thing about it you could control was your fear. Control was fundamental. There was no winning without control, no control without confidence, no confidence without preparation, no preparation without hunger. He held those layers in a mental pyramid.

“That is correct,” said the main judge. His tone didn’t fall off at the end of his sentence, as though he was just pausing. He said everything that way on the microphone. It kept the audience and the contestants in permanent expectation.

It was the turn of the girl standing to Berbi’s left. She stepped up to the mic. A new Character flashed on the overhead screen.

Berbi heard her breath quicken. He could feel her mentally racing. Everyone could.

“I don’t know,” she said. A murmur floated up from the audience. They watched the Characters on a second, larger screen that loomed behind the contestants and made the appearing Characters look like a manifestation of the contestants’ fleeting thoughts.

There was a pause. The main judge said, “Is that your answer?” His voice resonated within the conference hall. The audience murmured again.

The girl, instead of answering, simply stepped away from the microphone and retreated off the stage. She did so unhurried, moving slowly to show her contempt for the contest’s momentousness. “I’m so sick of this shit,” she said as she left the stage, loud enough for the audience to hear. A shocked laughter erupted. The main judge said, “Next contestant.”

Anossia stepped up. A new Character flashed onto the screen. She hesitated.

“‘Lower prostitute’,” she said. “A character mixing the ‘lower status’ Character with the ‘prostitute’ Character. A controversial character that is almost identical to ‘second mistress’ and requires grace strokes to differentiate them.”

The judge frowned. The character displayed didn’t have the added grace strokes. It showed only the Character’s main lines. This was Anossia’s way of telling the judges that they’d chosen an ambiguous Character, one that held two possible interpretations. The judges’ disapproval was almost palpable.

“That is correct,” said the main judge, reluctantly.

An hour later, three contestants remained onstage: round-faced boy, Berbi and Anossia. A Character flashed onto the screen and round-faced boy stepped up.

“’Comes around perpetually’,” he said.

The judge said, “the correct answer is ‘cyclical renewal’”

“What... that’s the same thing!”

“I’m sorry. It’s not.”

“It’s the same thing!” protested round-faced boy, loud enough to saturate the microphone.

“If you want to participate in future events of this type, I suggest you own up to your mistake and leave the contest in a dignified manner.”

“But I’m right! I gave the right answer!” He looked from one judge to another. He looked at Berbi and Anossia, his eyes pleading. Though Berbi didn’t know it at that moment, the image of those pleading eyes in the round boyish face would remain permanently etched in his memory.

“Leave the stage, please,” said the main judge. His hanging tone, hinting at additional words that never came, were particularly jarring when he eliminated a contestant.

There was a pause, during which round-face boy swallowed and stared hard at the main judge. He had to shield his eyes from the overhead lights to get a good look at him. He waited, hanging on for a discussion.

“Leave the stage,” repeated the judge.

Round-faced boy shuffled off the stage. There was now only Berbi and Anossia left.

The judge said, “We will now take a small break before the final round. The contestants will wait in the adjoining room and have no contact with friends or family.”

An official escorted them to the back room, behind the stage. Anossia sat down on a bench. Berbi remained standing, hands in his pockets, staring at his shoes.

Anossia pulled a knee up and pressed her mouth into it, as though suppressing a need to shout. “You never look nervous,” she said. “You’re like a rock.”

Berbi shrugged. “You have to look confident to feel confident. That’s how you win these things.”

Anossia nodded. “Have you thought about what you’ll do if you don’t get the scholarship?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think about that. I just want to make it to the national team. The scholarship is enticing, obviously, but I don’t know if I feel like making a career out of it, you know? I don’t feel like spending my life superposing Characters and trying to promote them in committees. I don’t think I’m made for politics.”

“It’s not just politics. It’s creating language, and ideas. I don’t get how you made it this far without caring about it.”

“I just like being on the stage. I like to feel my blood race.” He chuckled, embarrassed.

Anossia answered with a disapproving smirk. “Well, good luck in the final round. May the cream rise to the top.”

Her tone held a latent desperation, and he picked up on it. “I guess you need this scholarship.”

He didn’t know what he was offering, but she did, and she refused it.

“I don’t want you to let me win, Berbi. I don’t want to win that way. I don’t even know if I want to wind up at West Plains, surrounded by rich kids. I’ve heard they make the scholarship kids feel like shit.”

Anossia looked away. She pressed her mouth against her knee again, breathing warmth into it, then lifted her head and rested her chin on it. Berbi felt an urge to touch her, to caress that leg she had raised onto the bench. It had an impossibly perfect curve to it. He reached out, settling for resting a hand on her shoulder.

“I won’t let you win, but I do hope it’s you, Anossia. I don’t deserve to win. I’m just a jerk who likes competing. I don’t even care about their filthy scholarship. I should lose. I hope I lose.”

“Shut up.”

The official came to fetch them back onto the stage. With just the two of them left in the contest, it seemed like it took an inordinately long time reach the center of the stage. They were greeted by a round of scattered applause from the audience, which had now thinned out. Most of the family and friends of the eliminated contestants had left during the break.

The main judge said, “This is the final round: the flurry. You will be shown twenty Characters, taken from an archive of abandoned or replaced Characters. Simply state the number of any Character that you recognize, then name and describe it. The contestant with the highest count of correctly described Characters, at the end of the round, will win the contest.”

Twenty Characters appeared on the screen. Berbi picked one and named it, then Anossia, then back again. Berbi was surprised to note that Anossia picked the Characters that he himself didn’t recognize. As they fell away, one after the other, he supposed it was the challenge of it that made her pick the harder ones. They made it to the end of the round with a perfect count: no mistakes. What audience was left erupted in cheers and applause. Berbi turned to Anossia and they bumped fists, to even louder cheers, the audience responding in raucous approval to their avowed friendship.

The judge waited for the audience’s reaction to subside, then said, the winner of the contest will be decided by an account of points earned on the judging appreciation cards. “I will remind all present of the criteria involved : pertinence and precision in answers, additional context for Characters, speed and promptitude, and overall impression.”

He paused then, a useless pause with no purpose other than to heighten the drama. This was why people hated judges.

“The marks are as follows, Anossia, overall average out of a maximum 10: 9.3. Berbi, 9.5 and winner of this year’s regional Characters competition.”

Anossia moved closer to Berbi and murmured “Congratulations.” Her voice, strained, faltered. Her eyes were moist. He nodded, puckered his mouth at the corners to show sympathy. He felt as though he’d cheated.

The West Plains director, who’d been seated at the judges’ table, walked onstage, carrying a glossy grey-green envelope in his right hand. He handed it to Berbi and shook his hand solemnly, with the look men give to boys to acknowledge their sudden and unexpected manhood.

As she left the stage, Anossia slipped on the stairs and sat down hard on the second-last step. A group of adults greeted her there. They sported congratulatory smiles, as though correcting a judging error. Their smiles stated that the judging process needed a top-to-bottom overhaul, because as it stood it was anything but fair. Anossia looked up at them, a young girl in a skirt who felt too small for their sympathy. One of them, a woman with long graying hair and large silver earrings, bent down, holding her face close to Anossia’s. She said, “Can we have a moment with you, dear? We’d like to help you get into West Plains. We feel that you deserve the opportunity just as much as the young man up there. You gave a tremendous performance today.” She reached down and helped her to her feet.

...

They took Anossia to supper. They didn’t provide all the details at first. They didn’t mention that she’d be expected to provide tutoring and coaching for their children who were scheduled to start classes in the fall and would require a little boost to hit their academic targets. They just told her that she had potential, and that her potential needed a school like West Plains to actualize. They let her soak in the possibilities long enough that, when they later returned with a more precise definition of her role, Anossia had already accepted.

She accepted with almost no consideration, overjoyed to have this opportunity fall into her lap.

Fall came around, and when classes started at West Plains, Berbi and Anossia were both enrolled.

3.

At a client site, Geluko had finished conducting a series of humidity measurements in test bed soils. The sun was setting and he felt satisfied with the day’s data collection. Kneeling on the pungent soil of a fenced-off field, he put his papers and instruments away, one by one with care, into his large compartmentalized leather travel bag. Meanwhile, his client contact Adey stared off at the parallel rows of Besa plants that led up to the fence and beyond, into the next field.

“Besa is just perfect for this soil type,” Geluko said as he loaded the last of his instruments into the bag. As Besa’s creator, he referred to it as just ‘Besa’. Not ‘Besa plants’, not ‘Besa individuals’. ‘Besa’.

Adey nodded. “Oh, that’s for sure,” he said. “It takes so well to the soil that it won’t let anything else take root.”

Geluko smiled with pride and got to his feet, rubbing his hands together to remove the dirt. “That sounds about right. Besa is one persistent plant.”

“It attacks other plants.” Adey said it lightly, but with intent.

“Well, it’s a highly adapted plant,” said Geluko. “You plant Besa, you know you’re due for a good yield. Besa will take any advantage it can find or make one where there isn’t any.”

“You see that adjacent field?” said Adey, pointing to the side. “We had other plants there. Your Besa plant reached under the fence through the soil and wrapped its roots around the other plants’. Choked them right out.”

What Adey was alluding to, without saying it outright, was that Besa had committed plant assault. The question of human responsibility for plant assault was new, because until plants were genetically programmed to show aggressivity toward other plants, justified or not, it hadn’t ever been anyone’s fault. In this case, however, it was impossible to ignore because the assaulting plant was designed by Geluko and the assaulted plants were designed by a rival company that targeted the same market.

“Besa knows how to defend herself,” admitted Geluko, still hanging on to the glow of his pride.

Adey shook his head, unsatisfied. “Unprovoked attack,” he said. Geluko felt certain that someone from the rival company had put that judgment in his head.

“Well then,” proposed Geluko brusquely, “you might want to consider replacing this other plant with Besa. It seems like Besa is capable of preemptive defense.”

Adey shook his head and looked down. “I’ve contacted Trebulae Wheat Derivatives about their choked-out plants. I explained the situation to them and asked why their wheat products weren’t capable of defending themselves properly. The people at Trebulae registered my question as a complaint and sent it off within the company. It must have bounced from person to person and gone straight up, because their legal department got involved. They said they would be moving to seize Twinfinity’s assets.”

Geluko worked for Twinfinity. It was a company that prided itself in its human resources. People high up in the Twinfinity hierarchy were fond of saying that human resources was its most prized asset. In any case, they were the only assets worth seizing, so any move to seize Twinfinity’s assets was bound to impact Geluko directly.

Geluko said, “That’s ridiculous. I’m standing right here. No one is seizing me.”

“They’re on their way.”

“You should have started with that,” said Geluko. He turned and sprinted toward the observation building, sprinted inside, sprinted through it toward the front, and kept running down the front path. He regretted criticizing Adey and recognized that doing so was poor work ethics, but he was in full panic about being seized and didn’t know where he stood from a legal aspect. As he ran, he formed a two-step plan: first, get out of reach of Trebulae’s asset recovery operatives, and second find out if they could really seize him. He needed to know if his identity as an asset of Twinfinity overruled his identity as a private citizen.

He reached the train station, where the operatives were waiting for him. They’d been warned that Geluko had been warned about the operation and came straight to the train station. There were three of them. They surrounded him before he even noticed them. They weren’t dressed in any official way and had no identifying mark.

One of them held onto Geluko’s jacket at shoulder level. “You have to come with us. We’re taking you to Trebulae headquarters. You can make some phone calls if you like. You may want to phone your wife to tell her you’ll be late for supper.” They led him to a phone booth, and even provided the money for the phone call, but they left him no privacy. The three operatives stood just a meter away from Geluko and listened to everything he told his wife. One of them took notes. Geluko held the phone to his ear, scowling at them as he talked.

“Irbana? It’s me.”

“Geluko. What time are you coming home for supper?” Irbana sounded mildly surprised at the call.

“I won’t be coming home, Irbana.”

It didn’t register immediately, but when it did her voice acquired some urgency.

“What? Are you leaving me?”

“I’m detained by another company. They’ve seized me as an asset of Twinfinity. There’s some ongoing legal dispute. They’re going to take me into custody.”

One of the operatives stepped forward. “No, no, no, you misunderstood. You have to come with us to Trebulae headquarters, but after eight o’clock you’re free to go home.”

Geluko frowned, uncomprehending. He put a hand over the phone transmitter. “What? Am I seized or not seized?”

The operative waved two hands downward in a calm-your-pants gesture. “Your contract has been seized, so your professional person is part of Trebulae, but your personal life is, of course, your own. After work hours, you’re free to go home.”

Geluko stared at him a moment, then took his hand off the transmitter.

“Yeah, I won’t be coming home. You’re going to have to make it without me.”

“But I don’t know anything about this place,” Irbana protested.

The operative stepped forward in alarm. “You’re free to go home after eight o’clock, Geluko. You’ll be home this evening.”

Geluko put his hand back over the transmitter. “Do you mind? This is a private conversation.”

“But you don’t have to say goodbye to your wife. You’ll see her tonight.”

“That’s none of your business. Now stop intruding and let me talk to my wife.”

The operative was about to add something, but another operative tapped him on the shoulder. “Let it go,” said the second operative.

“But he doesn’t understand,” the first operative said.

“He understands perfectly. If we take him into custody, we have to provide lodging,” said the second operative.

The third operative chuckled.

“But he already has a residence,” said the first operative.

“He’s not going back home,” assured the second. He nodded insistently, arching his eyebrows to get his point across.

The first operative finally understood. He let his jaw drop open. Geluko took his hand off the transmitter.

“Irbana, are you there? There’s some money in our joint account. It’s your account now. I’ll see that more money gets transferred into it, OK?”

Geluko had met his wife on the internet. Being a hardworking researcher at a busy company left little time for socializing, and he found that his transactional approach to interpersonal relationships was not conducive to forming romantic attachments, in which the notion of personal surrender is key to expanding one’s notion of self to include the other person. Having found a wife in the transactional approach, he soon found, however, that he deeply wished to surrender himself. He was therefore dissatisfied with the present arrangement. Many times, after the first few weeks of their marriage had passed and the familiar feeling of loneliness had come back worse than before, he’d tried to create that feeling of abandon with her. He’d felt even lonelier than when he’d been single. He couldn’t decide whether he had always been lonely without noticing it, or whether he simply felt trapped and panic-stricken, the panic crystallizing the loneliness the way walnuts in a muffin, if there are any, bring out the taste of cinnamon.

He tried taking long walks and having heart-to-heart conversations with Irbana, but she wasn’t reciprocating and she visibly interpreted his intimate confessions as admissions of insufficiency. After a few months, he wanted her gone. Their contract, however, was strongly binding. In case of separation, Irbana was entitled to keep the house. He wanted out of the marriage, but it wasn’t worth his house. Also, having rushed into the marriage, he wanted to punish himself for making hasty decisions. This was his custom after giving in to an impulse buy: he’d force himself to use whatever product he’d bought to prevent falling into the same trap in the future.

Irbana professed to be quite happy in the marriage. She came from the impoverished state of Alempa, with its dismal economic perspectives and high crime rate. She was now attending school and reaching out to her community of fellow northerners. She was aware of Geluko’s dissatisfaction in the marriage but thought of it as a rich man’s self-fabricated problems. She expected him to eventually get over it.

They’d been married for three years when operatives from the Trebulae firm escorted Geluko to a phone and told him he could speak to his wife if he wanted to. When he heard the words, ‘your wife’, Geluko didn’t immediately think of Irbana. He decided then and there he was going to break up with her. He correctly guessed that if Trebulae were seizing him, they’d have to provide him with a place to stay.

“I keep the house,” said Irbana, with defiant finality.

He couldn’t fault her on it. “Good luck,” he said. “Keep the house, keep your residency. Get your university diploma. I’ll transfer some money to you in the joint account.”

“The residency is all I ever needed from you,” she retorted.

That made him change his mind about giving her extra money. He made a mental note to empty the joint bank account at the earliest possible opportunity. “I don’t know what possessed me to marry you,” he said. “You don’t even look like your picture.”

She laughed at him. “That’s because it was a picture of my sister,” she said. “My parents put a picture of my sister because she’s the prettier one.”

“Is she married?”

“No, she refuses to get married. My parents tried to get her married because she was getting into trouble and the police came to our home more than once. She thought getting married would lead her to feel like a trapped animal for the rest of her life.”

“Well, that’s what it felt like for me.”

“I need for you to wait a few years before divorcing me. Otherwise the immigration people will ask questions and maybe send me home.”

“I can wait. I won’t be getting married again soon. Good luck to you, Irbana.”

“Good luck to you too. Are the men from the other company going to torture you?”

“Torture me? Of course not, why would they do that? A cop tortures you because he wants to extract information from you. The Trebulae people just want to punish Twinfinity for developing smart plants that attack their plants under the surface of the soil. They just want to prevent me from working for Twinfinity.”

He hung up. “Well, that’s done. You’re not going to torture me, right?”

“No. But if you tried to run away from us, we could use force to detain you.”

Geluko turned and ran, full sprint, heading for the exit of the train station. He saw it in the distance, a source of light spreading into the gloom of the train station like a beacon. It was the second sprint of the day and he made his best effort, running so fast that he soon felt the sensation of burning blood in his lungs. He got a five second head start over the operatives before he heard them shout and come thundering after him. There were about fifty people in the train station between him and the arching entrance, spread out evenly like nuts in a muffin. He zigzagged around them, made it out through the entrance and staggered a few more steps in triumph before the operatives bore down on him and knocked him to the ground, scraping his hands and face on the concrete. One of them sat astride his prone body and twisted his arms behind his back. He felt handcuffs slapped on his wrists.

“Why did you run away?” asked the operative on his back.

The second operative, out of breath, answered the first operative’s question. “Because you brought it up, obviously. You put the idea in his head. You shouldn’t mention it at all. It becomes a thing once you put it out there.”

“I was testing whether you’re truthful about being prepared to apply duress,” mumbled Geluko. His face was pressed into the concrete and a man was sitting on his back, but he felt light and free.

The third operative, who’d let his colleagues do the running, walked over to them. He caught the last part of the conversation and chuckled.

A cop came out of the train station running, hand on his holstered gun. Seeing the handcuffs, he confronted the operatives. “Who are you? Show me some identification.”

“It’s OK officer,” said Geluko, lifting his head. “These men have seized me. They have a legal right to do so. Am I right? Show this man your warrant.”