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Living Standards

by Bill Kowaleski

Table of Contents

Living Standards: synopsis

In a future world marked by extremes of poverty and wealth, 13-year old Jiri has known only poverty. One day, a wealthy woman appears in Jiri’s enclave, the slum he calls home, and offers his mother an unimaginable amount of money for Jiri’s services. Little do Jiri and his mother know what the woman intends, but they accept. As Jiri grows and prospers in his new life, he becomes involved in a dangerous movement that will change his life and everyone else’s as well.

Chapter 11: Mira Reconnects

part 1

“Forty percent of revenue, that’s our final offer, Mr. Murdock.” Jiri placed his hands on the table, pushed himself away, then leaned backward, his body language reinforcing his emphasis on the offer as final, his twenty-one year old jaw jutting ever so slightly forward in a show of animal dominance.

“This is quality entertainment!” Preston Murdock complained, pulling nervously on one of the tie strings of his sweatshirt. His pale blue eyes, avoiding contact with Jiri’s, telegraphed dismay while his chunky soft body squirmed in discomfort.

Jiri found the man’s lack of physical control repulsive. He turned away to his right, put an arm on John’s shoulder, and added, “Mr. Chester here is our foremost expert on video production, and he assures me that your production qualities are mediocre at best. We like the story you’re presenting, but really, you aren’t bringing us anything all that special.”

John nodded silently, prompting an even more embarrassing outburst from Murdock, who rose from his chair, pointing an accusative finger at John Chester. “This man is a pornographer! We produce quality dramas. How would he know anything about quality?”

“Sit down, Preston!” Jiri shouted. “John Chester could take your product and make it look ten times better, and you know it. Your dramas are good, but the production values are amateurish. We’ll give them a try, but we take forty percent of the advertising revenue. Period. No up-front money, no guarantees, no say on when we show them.”

Preston sat, sulking, considering the offer. “OK, short term only, six months, then open to renegotiation.”

Jiri smiled and extended his hand across the thickly lacquered maple table. “Good to do business with you, Mr. Murdock.” They shook hands, and Murdock walked slowly out of the small conference room.

Watching silently through the wall of windows, Jiri and John waited until the outer door closed on the drama studio executive.

“Sorry about that,” Jiri said. “That pornographer thing comes up every time. They think they can use that against us.”

“So what? It’s the truth!” John said with a grin. “I wear it as a badge of honor. Our work will endure far longer than his, I can assure you! And there’s always a market for it.”

“The man is a slob,” Jiri said, shaking his head. “He wears a ratty sweatshirt to meet with us, he’s fat, he has no control over his body. What a loser!”

“Now, not everyone is blessed with video star looks, Jiri. It’s part of your persona to dress in those haute couture clothes, and you can afford it. It’s part of his persona to be a scruffy producer of Clavenet dramas, a man who tries to dress like his audience. Either way, it’s just a uniform.”

“I suppose you’re right, John, but it comes across as disrespect. I guess I’m turning into a real snob. I should remember where I came from.”

They walked together into the hall, then rode down the elevator thirty stories to the street, where they parted company, John to his studio, Jiri to pick up a quick takeout lunch. As he strode down the hot, crowded pavement, his comm chirped. He looked curiously at the unfamiliar number on the screen.

“Hello, is this Jiri Lee?” a female voice asked. He knew this voice, but it was from a long time ago.

“Yes, Jiri speaking.”

“Jiri, it’s Mira, Mira Alvarez. We knew each other at the Gates’ house.”

“Mira!” His heart raced, memories of a week of ecstatic bliss flooded over him in a wave so strong his knees buckled. “Mira, what a surprise! What a pleasure!”

“Jiri, it’s not safe for us to talk this way. Can we meet? I’m not far from you right now. It’s some place you never visit for lunch.”

“Sure, sure. Name the place.”

* * *

It was on a side street, a place that catered to the clavie workers who came into the wealthy zone to do their jobs, almost never visited by a man in a blue silk shirt and light gray micro-sheen pants, clothing that would have cost most of the patrons a month’s wages.

The fifty or so tables were tightly crowded and overstuffed with workers in shabby, well-worn, dirty clothes. Lightly peppered into the crowd were uniformed workers displaying their trades in crisp, clean clothing that contrasted sharply with the laborers’: receptionists, restaurant employees, security guards, delivery truck drivers. A long counter ran along the wall opposite the door where customers lined up to order, then picked up their food at a window and walked it to a table.

The noise was overwhelming; they’d have to shout to hear each other, Jiri thought. He surveyed the room, standing on his toes, and as he looked toward a dark corner he saw a hand wave at him. He twisted his way through tables, getting too many surprised stares as he approached a woman wearing the employee uniform of a large banking chain.

The woman’s dark sunglasses with currently-stylish oversized lenses effectively hid her eyes and most of her face, though crescents of olive skin showed along her cheeks. She stood as he approached, revealing a slim, taut body covered in the black, gray-trimmed pantsuit that Wealth Bank of Lake Forest imposed on all its customer-facing workers.

She said nothing, pointed toward a corridor that announced restrooms and beckoned for him to follow. They walked beyond the restrooms through an unmarked door into a small private room containing a rectangular, plastic table surrounded by six cheap plastic chairs. He pushed the door closed, and was shocked by the sudden quiet.

She tore off her sunglasses and jumped onto him, embracing him, kissing him hard on the lips. It seemed a strange greeting, and yet it felt exactly right. He held her for minutes, wordless, tears welling in his eyes. She finally pulled away saying, “No one can hear us in this room. It’s a faraday cage, insulated, swept for bugs daily.”

“Mira, how did you ever find me?”

She laughed. “Once you get to know me better, you’ll wonder why I didn’t contact you sooner. I’ve been following your career from a distance, and I think this is the right time for us to reconnect.”

“You look great! Are you working for Wealth Bank now?”

She laughed and laughed. “No, Mr. Lee, I am not taking your deposit, ten thousand dollars minimum, please. No, we have to talk a minute first, then, if it goes right, I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to.”

His mind flooded with so many questions. He wanted to know how she’d survived being dumped at the door of the enclave, how she made her way in the world now, whether there was a man in her life.

Instead he asked, “What do you mean, ‘if it goes right’?”

“Just stay with me, Jiri. I need to ask you some things first. Tell me: are you and John Chester in a position to decide what programming goes on the Clavenet?”

“Well... yes, we choose all the programming, negotiate the rates, work with the programmers to set up the schedule.”

“How much oversight do you get? Is there a censorship board?”

“Sure, the programming the Clavenet puts out has to support the ruling class’s political goals.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

He sighed, looked around. “You’re sure we’re not being recorded, that no one is listening?”

“I’m sure.”

“How do you know about this room anyway? Are you friends with the manager?”

“Jiri, answer a few more questions, then I’ll tell you more. Now, how do you feel about the censorship board?”

“They really limit our creativity, and they won’t let about eighty percent of the real news get out. It makes me very angry. Everyone needs to know what’s actually happening.”

She smiled. “I took a big chance hoping that was still the way you felt, that the wealthies hadn’t totally co-opted you.” Her eyes glowed with an air of authority that Jiri had never seen in the snotty, sarcastic teenager he’d known.

“So, you’re probably wondering, what is Mira doing these days?”

“Yeah, I sure have been!”

“Here’s the short answer, then I’m sure you’re going to want to hear the explanation: I rule an alliance of fifteen enclaves south of Old Chicago.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski

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