Bought, Sold, Delivered
by K. M. McKenzie
Part 1 appears in this issue.
The officer straightened up. “You believe you are the victim of a buying scam.”
I raised my nails towards my lips, glimpsed the nice orchard-coloured polish with perfect coating, and pulled my hand back, not wanting to mess it up. “Yes,” I said with a nod.
“Well,” he said, leaning forwards jadedly, “we will look into the company for you.”
“It’s Pan’s Architectural Life Management, Inc.”
* * *
“Pan what?” Kate exclaimed two days later at work.
“No one has heard of this company?”
“That’s a stupid name for a company.”
“Don’t care; just want my credits back.”
“Mara, you busy?” Mr. Celeste, our boss, asked from across the room.
“See you later,” I said to Kate, heading over to him.
“This is about the Etskin and Nexus deal,” Mr. Celeste said.
My heart stopped, gripped by nervousness. Yesterday, I’d handled the paperwork for a business partnership between the two companies, a deal that promised to introduce the first sentient robots. “They’re not happy?”
“Oh, they’re very happy,” he said. “The deal will be announced publicly tomorrow. I’m pretty impressed.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He grinned, eyes and chin nudging me to say more.
“Aren’t you gonna say it?”
“Your motto: ‘I can sell anything’.”
I blinked. Those were my bragging words, said confidently whenever a brand-new business opportunity presented itself. I waved off Mr. Celeste with an expression of false modesty. Saying it didn’t feel right. I was being played, beaten at my own game; I owned a damn island I didn’t want.
Aimee and my vanity habits had eaten up a sizeable amount of my credit, accumulated over my lifetime of over thirty-five years. Now, all of my earnings might have been wiped out.
An alternate walking route took me towards an isolated intersection. The blocks of the sidewalk lit up with holographic footwear. The shoes walked beside me and matched my stride.
<Perfect boots for the sidewalks of Milan or the sidewalks of Toronto, > said the automated voice. High boots, sandals, ankle boots. I quickened my steps to get away, crossing the street.
A holographic billboard lit up. <Hi there, > said the virtual boyfriend, Gavin.
I lowered my head and quickened my pace. I was overwhelmed, excessively targeted. How to make it stop? How had it gotten so bad? Three and a half weeks ago. That’s when I remembered it starting. A salesman had come into the office, encouraging me to test his simulated advertising software. My mind settled on this point, fuming conspiratorially. “It can sell anything,” the salesman had said, twisting my own professional motto. “It matches desires to goods and services. Try it.”
All these Ads targeted my desires and obsessions. They preyed on my vanity.
A man in eighteenth-century military attire leaped out from a billboard, hovered, and pointed his finger at me. <You are ready for something more in life. Join us in Military Corps. >
I dashed off, running until I was inside of my apartment.
<You have messages, > announced Genie. <Would you like to view them?>
“Did you hear me?”
<The Augmented Reality Network is legally mandated to accommodate adverts. > “Is that so?”
“Then no messages.”
Quietness. Whirring. <Loading soon-to-expire messages. >
I bolted into the bathroom.
<Good evening, Mara, > said Aimee.
“Why are there so many adverts?”
<Adverts are part of the Augmented Reality Network. >
A staple of mid twenty-first century life, the way real companies reach people locked into a virtual world. I squeezed my eyes shut.
<Would you like me to call your ARN provider?>
“No!” I didn’t really want to deal with the company that provided my virtual network services. They charged for everything. The last time, they’d overcharged me for “abuses of the system,” something to do with a heavy download upgrade to Aimee.
<You look stressed. >
I studied the mirror’s shimmering surface. “How do you know that?”
<I detect and read vital signs. Is there something I can do for you? Call a therapist?>
“Can you find me information on Pan instead?”
<Pan is a mythological god of Ancient Greece—>
“Stop! I mean Pan’s Architectural Life Management, Inc.”
<No information on the company exists. >
* * *
The days drifted. I received no update on my purchased island. When I contacted my credit bank, it informed me the purchase was valid and that I had to contact PALM, Inc. to get my sales documents.
“Can you at least give me their phone number?”
<The company has a virtual private network number. Would you like it?>
My heart skipped. “Yes.”
I scribbled down the VPN number and thanked the assistant. When she hung up, I inputted the number and waited for the connection. No one was picking up. <The connection cannot be placed. >
* * *
“The dark web?”
The cop nodded in the chair across from me. “Fancy phrase to describe the criminal aspect that lurks beneath the virtual channels embedded into our lives. You need to be careful with your credit.”
“So that’s it?”
“Call this a loss,” he advised, shrugging.
* * *
I took a streetcar rather than walk home. How had I gotten to this point? The augmented reality network was embedded in my life, and everyone else’s. Maybe it was time for me to unplug myself, become more organic, and take some downtime to consider how to move forward.
The window of the streetcar lit up with a holographic picture frame. <Don’t see Mom as often as you should? Now, you can keep Mom in your sight at all times. >
My stalker adverts had taken on new dimensions. My mother had been on my mind all day. Visiting her looked more and more like the escape I needed, though I feared she’d ask me for credits.
Well, too bad. I’m broke.
A debt clinic Ad shouted its phone number from a billboard when I stepped off the streetcar: <444 HELP NOW!>
I shut my eyes, picked up my pace, and hurried home. In the apartment, I gathered my purchased goods, ready to haul them to a donation centre.
<Mara, these are your most beautiful dresses, > Aimee griped.
“They are useless.”
“They look good on you.”
“You are a programmed liar.”
“Your biometric measurements inform me of the fit of your clothes—”
“You are programmed to be nice.” I studied the mirror. “I will return you, too.”
<If I displease or overwhelm you, you can alter my applications and software settings. >
I unravelled and threw the shoe I held. It hit the mirror and bounced away to land next to the pile of shoes I’d purchased but hadn’t worn. My heart stopped. I ran to the mirror, panicking that I’d caused serious damage. No scratches or dents on the surface. Relief settled in.
<You are very upset. >
“Shut up!” I yelled and pounded it with my fists.
* * *
“You look like hell,” Kate said, saddling up to me.
“I am being haunted.”
Kate side-eyed me. “And what by?”
Kate’s brows furrowed. “You okay?”
“The Ads are everywhere.”
“You’re griping about companies trying to sell you stuff?” Kate’s forehead creased. “You’re the one that brags that you can sell anything.”
“Translation: suck it up.”
“I’m just saying... You know how these things work.”
“I must have forgotten,” I said, defensively.
“Ads software scans bio-physiological responses to stimuli. That’s the new normal. If your eyes pop when you look at shoes, it knows you like the stuff and bombards you with shoe adverts.”
“I didn’t start getting spammed until after that guy came into the office with the Ads software. It messed with me.”
Kate squinted and then laughed. “That was a demo.”
“I don’t think it was.”
Mr. Celeste stepped into the room with the CEOs of Nexus and Etskin, and applause and cheers broke out. “I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Kate said, leaning into my shoulder, “I found that architectural company you mentioned.”
My heart nearly leaped from my chest. Before I could say a word, Mr. Celeste jumped between Kate and me. And then three more people joined us. Kate eventually wandered off.
“You more than earned bonus credits. Thirty percent of your salary. How does that sound?” Mr. Celeste said.
I nodded, forging a smile. No genuine happiness. The island purchase weighed down my mood. I needed to get my spending under control. First, I needed to try to get a refund from that shady architectural company, whatever it was called. That meant getting in touch with Kate. I hoped she wasn’t messing with me about knowing the company.
Kate was drunk, laughing and touching a very bored-looking man with curly hair.
“Mara,” she said when I joined them. “this is my friend, Anson.”
“Hi,” Anson said with a tight smile.
“Do you have a minute, Kate?” I asked. “You said you found information on the Pan Management company I told you about.”
“Oh that,” she said loudly, laughing. “Anson knows where and what it is.”
My heart pounded. “It’s a real company?”
“A start-up,” Anson admitted. “Runs from the old Clock Tower building.”
“The Clock Tower building? Old City Hall?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Anson said.
“What does it do?”
“I don’t really know. It’s a tech company. A laboratory.” He sipped his wine, coughed.
* * *
Next day, I called in sick. Mr. Celeste laughed at my lie. “Enjoy your time off, big shot.”
My nerves steadily unravelled while I wandered into the near-abandoned downtown core, permanently under construction as part of a revitalization project. I couldn’t even remember the story of how it had fallen out of fashion in the first place.
The antiquated clock still hung at Old City Hall. It was fashionably charming. The building’s wooden doors wouldn’t open. I knocked and then banged, before circling the entire building. Refusing to leave, I sat on the steps and waited. Nearly an hour later, the front door opened, and a woman walked out.
“Hi?” she said, laughing. “This is for real.”
Why so happy?
The door creaked, and I grabbed it, squeezing inside.
Two security guards stood down the hall. They chatted happily until they spotted me. “May we help you?”
My throat suddenly felt dry, and I scratched it. “I’m here to see the manager.”
I dug into my handbag and handed the taller man my badge.
“Chief Financial Officer,” said the guard, showing my company ID to the shorter man.
Were they mocking me? Did they know I was behind the biggest business deal in the world? That, thanks to me, their jobs would become obsolete? That thought pleased me.
“What’s your business with the company?”
“I am here to discuss a recent purchase.”
They eyed each other, cueing themselves to start messing with me. I braced myself. The door behind them opened and a man stepped out. His face. <Hi there, I’m...>
“Gavin.” I spoke the name aloud, and the man smiled knowingly. The virtual boyfriend.
“Fellas, let her inside.”
The guards straightened up. I pivoted around them. Suspicion and curiosity seeped into my brain as I followed “Gavin” down a long hallway. The place had a seedy feel. A holographic screen spelled out “PALM, Inc.” against a backdrop of the beach with palm trees. The words, Virtual life architects were written underneath the company name. Was this the shady seat of the Dark Web the cops had warned me about? I shouldn’t have come alone.
“You took longer to find us than I expected.”
“So you know why I’m here.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I do.”
He led me into a fancy office with nice leather furniture. A frosty glass door stood behind him. Echoes of memories buzzed in my head alongside the faintest breeze of familiarity. I can sell you anything.
“Please sit down,” he said, gesturing to a leather chair.
After obeying, I locked eyes with him. He was Gavin all right. Less chiselled, but still Gavin.
“I gave you an exit-early phrase. Do you remember it?”
“That’s a ‘no,’ then.” He sat upright. “Things to tweak, I guess. The phrase is: I can sell anything.”
I blinked stupidly, not amused. “What’s going on? Is this Pan’s Architectural Life Management?”
“It is,” he said, “and I’m Gavin Knight, the architect of the company.”
I stiffened. “The virtual boyfriend is named Gavin.”
Gavin leaned forwards. His eyes ensnared me with intimacy, familiarity, and a pinch of humour. “Say the exit-early phrase.”
“I can sell anything,” I said grudgingly, between clenched teeth. Gavin’s face twitched, morphing into the face of the Ads software salesman. It couldn’t be right.
I can sell anything. The words rang repeatedly in my head. My vision blurred, and the room twitched in and out of focus. The world vanished into shrinking and blinking white fractals.
“Wake up, sleeping beauty,” Gavin said tapping my cheek.
I shielded my eyes from the bright light with my hand.
“Dim lights,” Gavin commanded.
The room darkened. My reality emerged from blurriness. I was lying on a pullout leather chair.
“Hold on,” Gavin said, removing the helmet with the digital glasses. “How do you feel?”
“Like hell. My neurons are on fire,” I said, a flood of memories ransacking my brain.
“But you know who I am and what’s going on.” He sought recognition in my eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re Gavin, my virtual boyfriend.”
Gavin’s forehead wrinkled, and his jaws tightened.
“Don’t do that to me,” he said, clutching his heart. “This is ready for the marketplace.”
According to my unsuppressed memories, Gavin and I were romantic and business partners. Pan’s Architectural Life Management, Inc. (PALM) was an application that managed immersive and augmented reality experiences. Gavin was the architect, I was the business manager, and I can sell anything was my favourite catchphrase.
“Everything works, including the memory suppressant feature,” I said. “I didn’t remember a damn thing about my real life while there.”
“Other than that, we’re good?”
“One thing. The adverts. There were so many Ads.”
“You sold the advertising spaces.”
“It’s overkill. The Ads software is very effective... and not in a good way for user experience. It knew I was a real-life shopping addict and used that to target me. I couldn’t resist making expensive purchases. I bought an island.”
“That’s funny.” He chuckled.
I glared at him.
“The Ads software feature got us off the ground. You told the companies that you can sell anything. They bought in on that promise.”
“I still feel queasy about it. It exploited my very real addiction, and for profit. This might be a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Gavin’s expression wrinkled with consideration. “We’ll make the disclaimer flashier.” He walked to the computer and opened up the software files. “WARNING: All businesses featured in the virtual/augmented world are real. Anything bought in simulation will be billed and delivered to the customer in real life.” He spoke while tweaking the font sizes and colours.
“Just to be clear,” I said, vivid memories of the Ads dancing in my head, “that island and all the other stuff I bought—”
Gavin laughed. “Yours was a demo. Now, let’s put PALM, Inc. on the market.”
Copyright © 2019 by K. M. McKenzie