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When Sarah started at the Company she had to sign away all rights to her likeness: her face, her body, her hair. She had to sign a release stating she understood she could be replicated over and over infinitely into the future, and that those replications could be placed within any cities that hire the Company’s services, almost always cities struggling from the effects of climate change, cities that are leaking corporations and the people that work for them almost daily, people who are heading for places where it might rain, at least, where there might be grass, where they might catch a glimpse of deer running across a field, where there might be clouds, where maybe it’s even possible to open a window at night.
It’s the annual company party, and the CEO is going on and on about what a great year it was for the whole urban revitalization industry, but especially what a great year it was for their company, and Sarah is trying to pay attention to the presentation of the annual company awards at the front of the room, but really, why the hell bother, she’s not going to get any awards; she hasn’t done anything magnificent this year or, come to think of it, ever; and besides, any magnificence within her will never be channeled in the direction of work but rather some weird and marvelous other direction as yet to be determined; she doesn’t know yet what that will be quite yet but eventually she’ll figure it out. She’s had this conviction her entire life. Although now that she’s in her late forties that conviction is wavering a little, but is mostly holding intact.
When the residents of our client cities look out their windows and see all of you, it’s you that gives them a feeling of hope, community, belonging! the CEO says proudly. You aren’t just part of our success, you are our success!
Wow, what a year.
Wow, wow, wow.
The speech the CEO is giving is almost exactly the same as last year or the year before, droning on and on about how studies have shown that—when it comes to personal happiness and a feeling of well-being—having the illusion of people around is eighty nine percent as effective as having actual people around, and how the Company started an entirely new industry based on that concept and is now the model that other companies follow. In fact, it’s so similar to last year’s speech that if this were any other company Sarah might lean over and whisper to one of her coworkers that it seems entirely likely that this is not their CEO at all but rather a virtual version of him, brought out once a year and projected in front of all of them. However, at this particular company, it is actually possible that this is a virtual version of their CEO, that his speech was pre-recorded and cued up by the IT department to sync up with the version of him that’s standing at the front of the room, and that their actual CEO is actually on a beach somewhere, one of the few habitable beaches left in the world, sipping on one of those brightly colored drinks with an umbrella. In fact, the truth is that there are virtual versions of all of them, everyone in that room; at that very moment copies of all of them are wandering up and down the streets of cities with half or even a quarter of the population they had ten years ago, underneath cloudless skies and past long stretches of dirt and up and down city streets, being seated in restaurants by virtual hostesses to spend the afternoon smiling and nodding at one another over nonexistent meals or meandering through department stores or jogging through parks, even lifting up their phantom wrists to check the time, holding up the leashes of dogs as nonexistent as they are, even holding up what appear to be phones to their ears, even appear to be talking, smiling, laughing, enjoying the day, even though it could be one hundred and twenty, one hundred and thirty degrees or more, even though a dust storm could be blowing right through them, even though tornadoes could be on the horizon, even though the last birds in the area could be staggering to their deaths within their midst.
It is the best company, the best vision, everything they do together as a team (that’s his favorite word: ‘team’) is the very very best.
As a matter of fact, the CEO says, today we have a special reward for all of you.
Beams at all of them. Picks up a glass of champagne from a little table and holds it in their direction.
A special treat.
Just wait till you see.
Once Sarah went on a business trip to a town in Arizona that was one of the Company’s oldest customers. She spent days in meetings in air conditioned conference rooms, gazing out at streets shining with heat. One day when they took her out to lunch for a discussion on how to further enhance their existing population with Real Residents™ she saw herself a few tables over, except she was dressed in a prim little suit unlike anything she’d ever worn in her life, and she was talking to Bob, the VP of Vision and Expansion, and they were smiling at one another at a table by the window, murmuring quietly (although without making any noise, as holograms don’t have vocal cords and can’t produce sound of any kind), nodding their heads. Although in real life she and Bob had never spoken, and in fact Sarah thought it was entirely possible he didn’t know who she was. Certainly it was strange to see herself, but what was even stranger were the expressions on her holographic doppelgänger’s face. She was able to recognize them not because she’d seen them on her own face, exactly, but because she could feel them within her own face as she watched other-Sarah silently chatter away, the strain of them; they were the expressions she wore at work most of the day, captured on the cameras that were throughout the office and then processed and re-rendered by the guys on the Expressions team; her strained polite smiling face and her professional listening face and her faux-curious face and her pretend impressed face, all just as artificial as the hologram itself. And then later during that same trip she was on a moving sidewalk in one of the air conditioned walkways that led from building to building, and she happened to catch sight of another version of her dressed for summer, shorts and a t-shirt, walking beneath some of the new artificial trees these towns were installing these days with their plastic leaves that you could see (if you looked closely) threaded one by one with green plastic thread that looked fairly convincing when seen from a distance, leaves that make a rattling sound in the wind. As she watched, this version of her passed below the shadows of the trees, following the path of the sensors Sarah knew were embedded underground, the expression on her face perfectly pleasant, passing other virtual people—some modeled from her coworkers and others either modeled from strangers or entirely made up by the team in the basement, just because they got bored and liked to do that sometimes. For just a moment, Sarah had a little unexpected stab of envy gazing through the glass, watching her, because certainly life would be so easy, wouldn’t it, if she were more like walking-beneath-trees-Sarah, with her unquestioning pleasant smile and her unquestioning behavior, moving from point A to point B to point C no matter how the sun beat down on her, no matter how strong the gusts of hot dust blew across the ravaged and pitiful impression of a park, no matter how loudly the plastic leaves above her rattled in the wind.
The CEO is finishing up his speech and everyone is holding up their glasses in a toast. Obviously that’s the cue for the tech department, because dance music starts playing through the loudspeakers, something loud and obnoxious with a pounding beat.
Here it is, yells the CEO. Here’s your special treat. Without any further ado, I present…
That’s when copies of all of them—that is, everyone in the room—file in from the door on the left just as if they were waiting out in the hall, and stand in lines in the front of the room. Then they raise their arms over their heads and they start to dance to the music: gyrating their hips, moving their arms, kicking their legs. They’re doing moves that in real life most of the people in the room—all cubicle dwellers for years—wouldn’t be capable of. Like Joel Arnott, for example; easily twice the weight he’s supposed to be and always eating snacks at his desk, emitting a cascade of orange colored crumbs that get all over his papers and between the keys of his keyboard. Yet in spite of all that here he is with his arms in a circle over his head, dancing madly away, not even out of breath. And Joanna Walsh, who everyone knows has been in treatment for some unknown but horribly aggressive cancer, but who has fought back and is still there in their midst, smiling wanly in the halls and at her desk every day—a lifer, they call her, she’s been there since everyone can remember—she’s up there too, kicking with the ferocity of a martial arts instructor. And Priya Singh who sits three cubicles away from Sarah and who has not been herself since the birth of her second child; she still comes to work, but there are times when Sarah will hear her softly weeping in her cubicle, when she will pass her in the hallways and she will barely be able to lift her eyes, which are haunted with despair. She’s at the front of the room as well, doing pirouettes and waving her arms and grinning at the crowd.
Sarah sees herself as well, dancing in ways Sarah has never danced in her life, dancing in perfect unison with everyone else. She feels what could almost be described as a physical pain as she watches this version of herself bend over and shimmy her shoulders to the beat, wiggle her hips, whip her hair back and forth, wearing the exact same smile that Sarah has on her face at this exact moment, which is an excellent imitation of a real smile. And anyway, as she looks around the room, she can see that’s what everyone else is doing; all her coworkers are pretending to be happy, pretending that all of this is great, that they don’t mind. And, hell, maybe they are happy. Maybe they aren’t acting at all. Maybe it’s only Sarah who feels embarrassed for herself, for all of them. Although what use is it thinking along these lines when, hell, she really should face it: this is her life. Even if ever since she can remember she’s always had a haunting conviction that she’s something more than this, that she’s not really the person she appears to be but rather someone magnificent and brave that could still burst into the world like a phoenix, spreading out its magnificent wings for all to see, what good has that done her? The truth is that this is where she goes to work every day. This is who she is. And these are her coworkers; no matter if they’re fundamentally strangers to one another in so many ways, these are still the people who for years she’s seen even more than her own family. They’re all together, they’re all celebrating, they’re watching this show, this special treat that the CEO has put together just for them. She’s been working here for years and years, she’s invested so much time and effort into what she does, she wants to believe that it means something, and of course it does mean something, because look at how well the company is doing! How well they’ve been doing for years and years and years! Look at all of them dancing up there, look how everyone in the room is smiling, how everyone in the room lifts their hands in unison as they begin to applaud. It’s a good feeling, a happy feeling, this feeling of belonging; she should just allow herself to enjoy it, allow it to wash over her, to feel soft and warm and bright like falling backwards into a pool of warm water. She’s smiling and smiling and somehow without realizing it she’s started clapping like everyone else in the room, and she’s clapping and clapping as the holograms step forward and link arms and throw kisses to the audience, take a final bow.
Emily Zasada's short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, including COG Magazine, Your Impossible Voice, The Forge Literary Magazine, Straylight Literary Magazine, Qwerty, 2 Bridges Review, Spectrum Literary Magazine, and more. Originally from the Baltimore area, she now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son.