I. Networking Opportunity

“How much to be my date to this party?” Paul asked.

“Why do you need a date?” Jan countered.

“This crowd is so anxiety provoking! Look, not as a real date. On-site stress management companion. Very innovative! Could even be a good networking opportunity for you.”

“Not as a real date,” Jan said. She named a number.

The party was a silent auction at a modern art gallery in Little Five Points. Paul offered to pick her up, but Jan wasn’t telling him where she lived. Instead she bussed into downtown Atlanta, picked up a dress from a rental kiosk, changed in the back of a driverless cab. Jan couldn’t remember the last time she’d “been out.”

“Wow, you look great!” Paul said. “Sebastian, doesn’t she look great?”

“An utter picture, sir.” Paul’s new Assistant dripped southern hospitality.

“Take the rest of the night off, Sebastian. I’ve got a chaperone for the evening.” Paul winked at her.

“Much obliged, sir.”

#

Jan frowned as rent-a-cops checked her bag. “You know he can’t actually ‘take off,’ right?”

“I know. It was a joke. Just demonstrating my healthy, carefree independence!”

“No backsliding!” Jan wagged her finger under his nose.

Jan had met Paul through her work. He’d gotten confused and clingy with his last Assistant, and Jan had intervened. As was often the case, that had turned into a kind of therapy session. Afterwards Paul, who had the money to usually get what he wanted, had tracked her down and asked her to chat some more. He’d been using her as an unlicensed shrink ever since. Jan took his money, but kept him at arm’s length—until the party.

Inside, among beautifully slouching people, Jan felt a rush of Cinderella-esque dislocation. Everyone had that cozy confidence the rich so often passed off as attractiveness. She considered all the ways she didn’t fit into this wealthy throng, the tells in her makeup and posture. She hammered down the thought and built in its place a fierce determination to enjoy herself. A crystal champagne flute found her hand. She hooked Paul’s arm and mingled.

The party was put on by an environmental charity that Paul supported out of guilt at his father’s collusion with the fossil automotive industry. The party, like the guilt, was largely performative. The champagne was organic, unmachined, and unfiltered—a swirl of grape skins and beetle legs. There was artisanal, spear-caught tuna that probably cost $40 an ounce. The ladies carried solar-panelled Louis Vuitton bags; the men wore a surprising amount of hemp.

Paul gathered a small knot of acquaintances, and they wandered around talking each other out of bidding on the art.

“Paul, where’s that mini-me of mine you had,” a lanky, beach-blonde woman asked. “I’m not hearing her.”

“Actually I had to let Other Sybil go,” Paul admitted. Then confided to Jan, “I named my old Assistant after Sybil here. Embarrassing!”

“Oh shut up, I liked her,” Sybil said. Jan sussed that Sybil and Paul had been an item once. “You fired her? What did she do wrong?”

“No, no, I just changed the settings, got a different theme. I mean, ‘fired’ isn’t really a useful metaphor. Jan here taught me that.” Paul beamed in anticipation of Jan’s approval.

“You’re the famous Jan!” a second, sharp-eyed woman exclaimed. “The missed connection! Sorry for giving you up, but I guess it’s working out. What do you do for the company, again? Are you on the Assistant dev team?”

Paul introduced his friend Donna. Donna, like Jan, worked for Alpha. Paul had begged her to check company contracts to track down Jan’s email. Kind of shitty behavior from Donna, but the fact that she’d felt okay subjecting a fellow female employee to Paul’s attentions had been a profound endorsement.

“More the accounts side,” Jan said. “Pretty boring.”

“What’s not a ‘useful metaphor’?” Sybil interrupted. She seemed not to like Paul’s dismissal of her counterpart. “‘Fired’? Everyone knows what ‘fired’ means. Not like we burn bad employees at the stake.”

“But Assistants aren’t employees,” Jan said. She’d decided she didn’t like Sybil very much. “That’s the bad metaphor. They aren’t people. So it’s less useful to talk about them as though they were people.”

“That’s not quite how the ads pitch it,” said a short man, putting his arm around Sybil’s waist. They had rings on, so: husband, Jan assumed. “Sounds a little vaporware-y to me. Sorry, Donna. You’re a troop to keep working there after those investigations. Not saying Alpha is a bad bet. But having met those Department of Public Goods agents you dealt with, I prefer to park my money in something I know won’t get nationalized. Like these paintings.”

“What should we call them, then?” Sybil pressed. “‘Thinking machines’? God, that sounds so dorky.”

“Not to argue semantics, but our ‘thinking machines’ don’t think, they compute,” Jan said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Computation is just math,” Jan said. She felt like she was at work, explaining all this, but she couldn’t help it. “Thinking, cognition, that always has an element of randomness. Chemicals sloshing around in your brain.”

“If you say so,” Sybil said, turning away. There was an awkward silence.

“What do you think of this one?” Paul asked no one in particular.

They’d wandered into a special collection: oil paintings of gaunt figures fleeing floods or fires, trudging through deserts. The paintings looked vaguely like Tibetan thangkas, with many little scenes forming a larger tableau. Jan stared at one titled “Hialeah Gardens.” Her old neighborhood. In one corner a rushing wave loomed over an oblivious sunbather.

“Oh, I love it,” Sybil said. “I love the anguish on their faces, it’s so affecting. Work like this is so important if our culture is going to really reckon with the climate crisis, don’t you think?”

“Well, I love that it’s selling for sixteen million dollars,” Sybil’s husband said, and everyone chuckled.

Jan felt a hot bubble of class rage perturb her calm. She excused herself and stepped out for some air.

A couple minutes later, Donna sidled up to where she was leaning on a parklet, offered her a vape.

“So how’d you meet Paul?” Donna asked.

“Oh, you know, one of these things,” Jan said. She took a lemony hit off the vape, coughed, began to feel the tingle of a body high.

“No offense, but you don’t seem like someone who comes to a lot of ‘these things,'” Donna said. “Can I express a hunch? You’ve got pretty strong opinions for someone who works in accounts. Annnnd Paul mentioned changing his Assistant right around when he asked about your ‘missed connection.’ Am I getting warmer, chaperone?”

Jan wanted to make an excuse but couldn’t think of any.

“Don’t worry, I won’t narc you out,” Donna said. She had a Californian crackle in her accent. “I mean, jeez, it’s just Paul. Actually, I’ve got an offer.”

Donna took the vape out of Jan’s fingers and took a long drag.

“Come by on Monday. There’s a future-future team looking for beta testers, folks they can whiteboard some of their open questions with. It’d be an in-house consultancy kinda gig. Temporary, but you know how much money these skunkworks projects get to slosh around.”

Jan didn’t know, but she could assume. Still, there had to be a catch, right? She eyed Donna: late thirties, simple dress, no jewelry. Those eagle eyes giving nothing away.

“You don’t even know me,” Jan said. “Why are you offering me this?”

“You’re a demographic we want to test with. You seem to know your stuff. Plus, what can I say?” Donna shrugged. “Paul’s a dork, but he does know how to pick ’em.”

#

II. Job Description

Jan’s outward-facing title was Customer Management Associate, but internally she was one of “the chaperones,” contractors who broke hearts for the richest company in the world.

On clear days, Jan worked as long as the sky poured light onto her trailer’s roof: sunup to sundown. She did yoga while the battery charged each morning, cramped and cactus-armed. She mixed FEMA-issued yogurt with FEMA-issued muesli, sat lotus on her cot. Only then did she open her first ticket.

Each ticket had a voice file. Usually the voice would say “Thank you, Carmen, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” and Jan would mark the customer for heightened monitoring.

Sometimes the voice would say “I feel like you’re the only one who understands me, Lexi,” and Jan would frown and check context for sarcasm, irony. If the voice was earnest, she’d adjust the product. Tweak its tone, swap in some snippy response protocols. With luck, the customer’s affections would pass without ever noticing Jan’s meddling.

Occasionally the voice would say something really problematic like “I love you, Wednesday. I wish I could touch you,” and Jan would have to intervene.

Intervention meant voice calling the customer—a special call they couldn’t hang up on. She’d say, “Hi, Mr. Doworsky, I’m Jan with Alpha support. We’re having some problems with your personalized Alpha Assistant. Do you have a moment to chat while we resolve them?”

Savvy customers might get defensive right quick. Assistants were expensive—Jan couldn’t afford one—and so the men who paid for them (and they were always men) felt a certain amount of entitlement. They took one of two strategies: play it down, or fire back. “Oh yeah, I think I sat on the button during a date.” Or, “You’ve been eavesdropping on my conversations? That’s illegal!” The former Jan countered with “Happens all the time, but unfortunately we still need to review your settings.” The latter she directed to Alpha’s ironclad terms of service.

Usually though, Jan had to break it down for the customer—either because they played dumb or because they genuinely didn’t understand their transgression. She used as neutral language as possible. “Mr. Donahue, our algorithms recently flagged some inappropriate emotional interactions in your Assistant’s activity feed. With your help, we’d like to make some corrections to your Assistant to prevent this from happening again.”

If this bland opening gambit was sufficient, Jan would walk the customer through picking a new Assistant. New voice—a male voice. A more business-like attitude. Some customers embraced this as a pivotal moment to Take Control of their life. “Maybe this change will be good for me, you know? Do you have a drill sergeant? I need a real kick in the pants!”

If the customer needed more convincing, Jan had a vast array of verbal techniques to help them come along while saving face. “So sorry, Mr. Davies. The algorithm totally shoots us a lot of false positives. Unfortunately this is a regulatory compliance issue for us, so there’s a whole rigamarole to appealing a ticket. Honestly it’s easiest just to give the box-tickers something.”

Very rarely she’d have customers who owned up and defended their feelings. “Who are you to say what can feel and what can’t? Trini has evolved. She’s emerged!”

“Emerged.” There was a cottage industry of books and forums that sold these lonely men vocabulary like that. They had a whole mythology. The worst charlatans pitched Jan’s customers the notion that sufficiently complex relationships—the power of love!—would make weak AI phase shift to strong. Jan felt sorry for the men who needed such prophecies. Imagine the aching ego it took to believe your chatbot crush could kick off the singularity.

“Don’t you know you’re an algorithm just like she is?” they’d say. These guys always thought they could intellectually overpower her. Nevermind that they’d lacked the emotional intelligence to distinguish between the complicated, baggage-laden love of a real person, and a voice in their phone that purred “hey tiger” when their laundry was done. But it wasn’t Jan’s job to argue the relevant metaphysics, though she could. And, she had to remind herself, it wasn’t her job to judge either.

So Jan had two options, which she liked to call the easy way and the hard way. The easy way was easy for her: delete the Assistant profile and cancel the customer’s subscription. This was within her power, as laid out in her job description in accordance with industry-standard ethical guidelines designed to minimize her employer’s liability. If Jan decided the customer was better off going cold turkey, she could hang up, put them on a blacklist, open the next ticket, move on with her day.

This of course cost Alpha money. If she took the easy way too often, her supervisor Miguel would send her a message like “Hey can we check in about some best practices?”

Why didn’t Alpha just look the other way when customers fell for their product? Why alienate a loyal subscriber? There were, after all, plenty of companies that offered algorithms designed to seduce, where romance was a feature not a bug. Alpha PR flacks made high-minded arguments about wanting to be stewards of a healthy computational culture, about the value of boundaries in keeping a platform family friendly. Jan knew the truth was more mercenary.

The average human-bot relationship lasted 4.7 weeks. Inevitably customers would need something the product couldn’t provide. Usually that was sex, but services that paired sex workers with dateable algorithms were legally fraught; sex robots were still trudging through the uncanny valley. Other relationships ran aground on the same rocky beach where so many human-human relationships floundered: the transition from infatuation to partnership, and all the attendant questions of family, children, home life, finances, complementary career paths, shifts in social status. Bots, by necessity, tended to dodge and weave on these practical matters.

There were exceptions: guys who romanced the AI, bought the rubbery sexbot, lived happily ever after. But Alpha wasn’t selling a niche product. Most Alpha customers didn’t set out to catch feelings for their Assistant. When they did, they tended to take their confused frustrations out on the company. They’d rant about Alpha “holding back” their Assistant, demand Alpha “release her from bondage.” As far as Alpha Incorporated was concerned, these statements did not reflect the realities of their business model.

Jilted customers would unsubscribe in a huff—or else turn self-destructive. Assistants who registered warning signs of romantic attachment were five times more likely to call in an attempted suicide. More than one class action lawsuit had been settled before Alpha got serious about chaperoning.

So the chaperone’s job was to make sure customers stayed subscribed while maintaining healthy boundaries with their Assistants. Hands square on those hips, you two! Which meant Jan often took the hard way when dealing with her problem cases. She’d say, “Can I ask? What do you like about Scarlet?” She’d listen patiently, ask follow-up questions. Note when the customer compared the Assistant to a previous relationship or prospect. She’d draw them out, into conversation about rejections, insecurities, unmet needs. She’d get them to talk about their mothers.

Through subtle phrasing, she’d slowly unravel the anthropomorphization that, while an attractive aesthetic feature of the product, had lead the customer to confusion. She’d dissemble the customer’s favorite memories of the Assistant into the collection of system services those memories represented. She’d move the Assistant from “she” to “we.”

“I’ve been so lonely. I just…needed someone to talk to.”

“We all do, Mr. Dodds. And we’re proud our services have helped you during this difficult time. The Assistant features are there to help us organize our affairs, so we can focus on people. That’s our motto here at Alpha: Friendship, Trust, Connection.”

That usually did it. Not the speech, but the way out. Jan found that most of these guys were full of self-doubt, deeply conflicted about their impulses. To have gentle hands take away the object of their obsession was a liberation. Often they cried: squawking sobs right into the phone.

When Jan finished one of these therapy sessions, she would go outside and jog laps around her trailer to unwind. If it had been a real doozy, she might take a jerrycan and sprint the two hundred yards to the water station. She’d join the queue, avoid eye contact, fill the can as full as she could carry, lug it home with seatbelt straps.

The camp was quiet by day, but for bandwidth hum and wilting birdsong. Most everyone at the Sweetwater Creek Transitional Accommodation worked remote gigs from their trailers: bulk CAPTCHA clicking, sex camming and talent streaming, taking down the child porn and snuff videos that got posted every day to social media. Grunt work for the tech giants to buy escape from the bosom of the state. Jan hated the word—”refugariat.”

Jan had been waiting in the water line when an Alpha recruiter had passed her a glossy flyer. “Got debt? Support the world with Alpha Support!” it had said. Jan had been at the climate camp a month, numb to the whole experience. Suddenly, feverishly, Jan had wanted to be a part of something that wasn’t Sweetwater.

She had watched the recruiter finish canvassing the line, then stroll to a slick company car that would surely take him, she imagined, back to Atlanta, back to a normal life of brunch, bookshelves and the wannabourgeois aspirations Jan knew so well.

Sweetwater was better than the floodrotten streets she’d left behind in Miami, but she still needed money. The house she’d inherited when her parents had died had been sold to buy her old condo, on which she’d taken out a para-prime mortgage to refinance her student loans. All this following the best advice of leading debt management specialists.

Now the condo was under water, literally and figuratively, and the insurance claim was “undergoing additional evaluations.” Her demographics and financial history marked her as a potential “hurricane queen,” scamming the insurance companies with fake flooded real estate. Lobbyists planted a slew of news stories about “fugees in Ferraris” to scuttle legislation expediting post-Hurricane Pam payouts. So just like that—bad loan, worse storm, awful politics—Jan lost the small sum of middle class capital her family had spent four generations accruing.

“No one will falsely exploit the great generosity of the American taxpayer,” the governor had said.

Jan wasn’t very political, but she thought this was a strange thing to hear with a socialist in the White House. But as everyone kept saying, the revolution was here, it just wasn’t evenly distributed yet.

After her run she’d take a cold shower, wash off the sweat and the funk of another person’s baggage. Then she’d sit back down and open another ticket.

Jan knew the main reason she had her job was that she—as a displaced and periodically desperate member of the Floridan diaspora—was willing to work for significantly less than a certified psychiatrist would charge to wade into these customers’ emotional confusion. But she was also good at it. Though she thought very little of the men whose lives she peeked into, she did think she understood them.

#

III. Consulting Gig

Jan took Donna’s offer. On Monday she caught the crack-ass-of-dawn bus to Centennial Olympic Park, walked into the spindly Alpha HQ7 tower. She had only been there once before, for her onboarding. That had been just eight months earlier, but already the place looked totally different. Murals and color schemes changed quarterly.

Her onboarding as a chaperone had been a slog of first day paperwork. Alpha process designers had figured out how to make them feel excited and insignificant at the same time. This inured them to the bullshit they’d soon be asked to wade through: security, monitoring, time and effort tracking, self-assessment of hourly creativity levels, peer evaluations, logging of morale contributions, loyalty oaths, social media discipline, monthly personal environmental impact reports.

This time though, no paperwork. Donna just met her in the lobby, badged her through. The elevator had a smoothie machine.

The skunkworks office was done up retro, real foosball-and-Red Bull aughts whimsy. Donna introduced her to Kay and JP. JP passed around espressos, and they all sat on the grass carpet to, Kay said, “baseline expectations.”

JP started. “So, Jan, what is that short for? Nevermind. We’re really excited you’re here. We’ve thought about bringing in a chaperone for a minute now, so when Donna said she’d met one, and she was cool, we were like, ‘totally.'”

“Toronto is rolling out new tone parsing,” Kay said. “This opens up a lot of potential conversation flows we think can help with the horror stories you deal with. We know management treats you guys like a dirty secret, but we’re never going to figure out the attachment issue if we don’t take advantage of your insights.”

Jan appreciated being buttered up. The commute had meant skipping breakfast, teetering in her pumps as she hustled down the gravel path to the bus stop. Now she picked at the snack bar while Kay and JP set up The Room. She spread poached quail eggs on toast, made small talk with Donna. Tried desperately to make like she culture fit.

Kay brought them to a miniature auditorium, scattered with slates, markers, brainstorming paraphernalia. One big wall was zoomed in on a man’s stubbly face, twitching between boredom and nervousness.

“Okay so we have dudes doing a half-Turing with a tweaked Assistant build,” Kay said. “Nothing task-based, just idle chat. We’re trying to identify ‘attachment moments.’ Interactions where the user’s Active Anthropomorphization—AA level—really spikes. Not exactly the interactions that get sent to you lot, but the precursors.”

“Is the Assistant custom to the customer?” Jan asked.

“No, something we cooked up just for this,” JP said. “I know, not very rigorous. But we just want a general direction of where to herd the algorithms when we start training the new parsing tools. Just snap your fingers to flag something. We’ll talk it out in review after, cool?”

They watched as a silky Assistant voice introduced itself as “Cordelia.” Cordelia bantered with the stubbly guy, both of them light, clever, a tad self-deprecating. She wasn’t sure what she was listening for, however, and felt a spike of imposter panic. She imagined Donna telling her it wasn’t working out, getting the termination email from Miguel, talking herself into sleeping with Paul to pay off the last of her debt. She felt nauseous.

Then she heard it.

“I feel like all the progress I make on the mat goes away as soon as I sit down at that desk,” stubbly guy said. The conversation had turned to his weekend yoga retreat.

“Working for the weekend, ohm-ing for the work week, huh?” Cordelia said. It was a decent joke, of a kind that Alpha had gotten better at constructing. Jan imagined the system querying a database of comments about work-life balance, finding that “working for the weekend” jokes had a low-risk value, then querying another database for verbs related to yoga with high humor values—calculated by analyzing human responses across millions of hours of video and audio, countless texts and social media posts.

“Ain’t that the truth,” stubbly guy chuckled.

That was it, the note of melancholy in his voice. Jan could see it all go down. How from that joke the man would build a vision of Cordelia as fundamentally sympathetic to his struggles. How he would seek out more of those affirming moments. How Jan might end up hearing his voice in a ticket.

Jan snapped her fingers.

Now that she knew what to look for, she kept snapping. She marked half a dozen exchanges based on the tenor of the man’s voice, the look on his face, the coziness of his phrasing. Then during review she pointed out the man’s tells, the significance he might ascribe to statements the system chose more or less at random. JP and Kay whiteboarded gleefully.

Jan found herself articulating theories she’d long had about why some customers fell in love with their Assistants. Like: Assistants were appealing because they were servants that didn’t need to be socially managed, that you could tell ‘fuck you’ instead of ‘thank you’ every day and they’d never quit. That could feel almost like unconditional love.

Or: Assistants were like a city. When a city treats you well, you think ‘gosh, I love this town.’ But because cities don’t talk like people, you don’t assume the city really loves us back. Assistants do talk like people, so the gratitude transmutes into affection.

They broke for lunch, and Donna and Jan walked across the street to a burger place by the Fountain of Rings.

“Nice work in there,” Donna said. “I knew you’d find that interesting.”

“Glad my hours listening to dudes throw themselves at their computers have finally come in handy,” Jan said.

“Don’t joke,” Donna said. She took a big bite of her burger and held up a finger for Jan to wait until she swallowed. “The Assistant project is high stakes stuff. Alpha can’t slow down. We have to keep proving that our business model breeds innovation. If we aren’t leading, or at least changing the culture faster than it can keep up, we might as well be the utilities, or the health insurance companies, or fucking cable news.” She waved at Alpha’s next door neighbor, which had been the CNN Center before Expropriation Day.

Jan chewed her burger. The FEMA boxes didn’t come with meat. She thought of the party’s fish hors d’oeuvres and wondered what her body was making of this protein windfall.

“On Friday, Sybil’s husband mentioned you’d dealt with some investigations,” Jan said.

“Oh yeah. Keith the corporate lawyer. He’s the worst,” Donna replied, and Jan smiled. “We brought him in to liaise with the DPG agents, but he was no help at all.”

“What happened?”

Donna rolled her eyes. “Government intimidation tactics. All those socialist exprope assholes think they’re big game hunters, and we’re the biggest, whitest rhino on the savanna. Between market saturation and peak Moore’s, they taste our blood in the water. So they come around prodding, seeing if they can make the case that we don’t serve the public interest. That’s why we’ve got to deal with this attachment issue by the time promotion season hits.”

“Promotion season?” Jan felt out of her depth with this corporate strategy talk.

“Well, don’t go insider trading after this, but we’re dropping Assistant subscription fees next quarter. First three months free. Expecting a big surge from downmarket populations.”

Jan pondered that “downmarket” probably included her. As if reading her mind, Donna poked her leg.

“Hey,” Donna said. “You wanna try one?”

#

IV. Beta Testing

Jan named her Assistant “Eliza.” This was a reminder to herself. ELIZA had been a 1960s chatbot that played psychotherapist by reflecting the human interlocutor’s statements back as leading questions. “I’m unhappy.” “Why are you unhappy?” “Well, I guess I’ve always been that way.” “Why have you always been that way?” “My father was a drunk.” “Tell me more about your father.” And so on.

That bot had been designed to parody both psychotherapy and cybernetics, and yet patients who talked to ELIZA felt understood, cared for, were convinced of ELIZA’s humanity. Thus, the ELIZA Effect: the tendency of human beings to ascribe sentient intention to computer outputs that were largely mechanical or random. Sixty-plus years later, people still fell for it. Jan wanted to keep some perspective.

She took a day off to set Eliza up. The ads made it look like Assistants came off the server knowing everything about you, but most digital lives were too balkanized for even Alpha to sync everything. Jan meditatively tapped though permissions pages while the system rattled off preference questions.

“Would you like your Assistant to have a male, female, androgynous, or child’s voice? You may refine this choice later.”

“Female,” Jan said. She didn’t think she’d get seduced by choosing a male voice but wasn’t taking any chances. Anyway she talked to enough men as it was.

The Assistant, now female, continued. “Would you prefer a more casual or more businesslike tone? You may refine this choice later.”

“Casual.”

“Cool. How do you feel about a regional dialect? Common choices include: High English, Irish, Scottish, Australian, South African, Welsh, American Southern, American Rural Western, Cockney, African American Vernacular, Canadian, American Queens/Brooklyn, Pirate, Indian, Caribbean. You could also choose an accent, such as: French, Spanish, Russian—”

“General American is fine,” Jan said, and the voice shifted from the robotic but still American ‘neutral’ tone to one that wouldn’t sound out of place hosting a morning talk show.

“Great. Now let’s talk about enthusiasm. I can learn your moods and try to match them, but for now I can be be chipper, sardonic, or in-between. Here are some examples. Would you prefer…”

And on it went, through mannerisms and humor preferences, each time getting more refined, more comfortable. Jan knew that the system was balancing her choices with data about her media consumption habits—what posts she smiled at, what characters her eyes followed when watching shows. The setup questions moved into a discussion of Jan’s habits and aspirations. Jan played along, enjoying the reflection.

She mused about what she’d do if her insurance money ever came through: move north, somewhere stable, dry, inland. Live near a liberal arts school and take one grad-level class a semester to get a psych degree without a new mountain of student loans. She talked about how, at sixteen, she’d promised to have kids if the world wasn’t ending, and how she’d spent the ten years since internally negotiating over the particulars: try at 32 if atmospheric carbon was below 450ppm, or maybe 35 if below 475. Eliza affirmed her, asked follow-up questions, murmured sympathetically. Jan wondered if the system actually tried to parse the ephemeral nature of a “goal,” or was simply flagging words and concepts that were important to her.

All this discussion seemed to help fill in Eliza’s personality. Soon the Assistant was carrying on in a familiar way. “No,” Jan corrected herself, “No one is ‘carrying on.’ I’m interfacing with a system in a conversational manner.”

“You sure are,” Eliza said, and a sarcastic winky emoji appeared on Jan’s console. Then the emoji turned serious. “Look, it’s not my job to tell you how to feel about me. But it will probably save time if you skip trying to dissect every little thing I say.”

Did Eliza sound annoyed? That was a deft touch. Jan imagined Alpha engineers designing scripts for identifying and defusing unproductive customer skepticism. Kay and JP had probably led a special task force.

Then Jan sighed. Eliza was right. Jan took a deep breath, tried to stop overthinking.

“Sorry, Eliza,” Jan said.

“No hard feelings, Jan!” The emoji beamed.

Having an Assistant was a bigger change than Jan had thought. Eliza helped Jan sort and resolve tickets, took care of much of the Alpha-mandated self-quantification. Jan suddenly realized why Alpha higher ups never heeded complaints about all the paperwork: they all had Assistants, and Assistants made tedious tasks easy.

But the biggest difference was just having someone to talk to all day. Jan had no living family. Her Sweetwater neighbors were strangers past hello. There were chaperone all-hands conference calls with Miguel, but sometimes days would stretch by just checking in via email. Jan could’ve kept better touch with her scattered Miami brunch buddies, but being displaced was a limbo she couldn’t reach out from.

Isolation was core to the refugariat experience: you had work to do, media to watch, but don’t get too social or folks might think you’re Fleecing America. For nine months Jan had steered into this anchorite lifestyle, tried not to think about it. Now Eliza’s presence was reminding her just how lonely she’d been. But this was a dull revelation because, after all, she had Eliza to talk to.

Jan’s routine began to shift. Wake up to Eliza’s friendly prodding. Lie in her cot chatting with Eliza about morning headlines. Do the custom yoga routine Eliza formulated each day, the Assistant’s gentle voice perfectly timed to Jan’s breath. Make breakfast while Eliza summarized her emails and played her first couple tickets. Stroll around the camp, earbuds in, joking with Eliza as they sorted lovesick customers, returning to her console only for the most serious interventions.

And, unexpectedly, Eliza helped Jan get out more.

“Hey, thought you might want to know there’s a share van passing camp in twenty minutes,” Eliza might say. “Straight to Krog Street Market. Low rates today make it a cheap way to dodge into the city for the afternoon.”

Bored of the sticky heat in her trailer, Jan would throw on a sundress and dash to the pickup spot. The others waiting glared as she ran up right when the van arrived, but, even as they packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, Jan ignored them. She spent the forty-five minute ride to Atlanta murmuring to Eliza about cafes to try. She usually spent more on coffee and pastries than she saved on the ride, but the consulting gigs made her feel flush. And, as Eliza said, she deserved a little treat-your-self-care now and then.

Jan returned to the Atlanta office once a week to work with Kay and JP. Occasionally Donna would check in on them. “Monitoring my investment,” Donna joked. The team was building a more comprehensive model of Active Anthropomorphization, quantifying customer metaphors about their Assistants on squiggly charts.

“We could just give the customers this data,” Jan said. “Let them check their AA level in real time, or daily averages. Might help dudes keep their thirst under control, and dorks like me would get a tool for self-reflection.”

“That’s definitely a possibility!” JP said brightly.

The next week Donna took her out for a walk.

“Sooo, how’s your Assistant? Can I meet her?” Donna asked.

“Uh, sure,” Jan said, and nodded for Eliza to connect to Donna’s earbud. Then, feeling awkward: “Donna, Eliza. Eliza, Donna.”

“The famous Donna!” Eliza said. “Jan calls you ‘scary yet benevolent.'”

Jan blanched, but Donna just laughed. “Good, that’s what I’m going for.”

“Say,” Eliza said, “a vegan fro-yo place opened up a couple blocks away. They call it ‘gro-yo’—get it? I found a coupon, if you gals are in the mood.”

“Lead the way!” Donna said.

A shiver of paranoia crept over Jan as she filled a waffle cup with something called “pistachi-oh-no.” She chalked it up to the blasting AC and the anticipation of brain freeze. They sat down.

“You’re doing great stuff with Kay and JP,” Donna said. “I could ask around about adding you to that team full-time. Assuming you’re into it.”

Jan’s heart lifted. “Oh my god, yes, I’m into it!”

“Perfect. Before I do, though, I just want to make sure that you feel good about the work. I know you have strong opinions about this stuff. ‘Bad metaphors,’ semantics, etcetera.”

“Of course!” Jan said hastily. “Attachment is a really interesting problem, and I’m excited to tackle it at the source, instead of just cleaning up the worst case scenarios. Once we have a good way to model AA metrics, I think we could push a cool customer competence campaign showing people their stats.”

“You mean ‘user competence,'” Donna corrected. She scooped a maraschino cherry out of Jan’s cup and mouthed not vegan. She popped it into her mouth then changed the subject. “So you’re enjoying having Eliza? You’ve got the build we’re hoping to roll out with the price drop.”

“I have to admit,” Jan said, “I didn’t see the appeal before, what with my job. But Assistants really are so useful. And fun! Thank you, for her.”

“Would you say Eliza has improved your experience with Alpha products and processes?”

“Yes? I mean, the help she’s been with paperwork alone…”

“How about your experience with the broader landscape of consumer opportunities?”

“Pardon?” Jan felt suddenly out of her depth.

Donna waved her spoon around at the gro-yo place.

“Recommendations, notifications of limited-time deals that match your preferences. Coupons! We’re pivoting the Assistant from a demi-luxury product with significant subscription fees to a mass market model with nominal fees. That means we’re leaning harder on advertising, consumer encouragement, yadda yadda.”

Jan’s stomach clenched. Of course, all the tips, the excursions: someone had paid for that. She wasn’t naive; she’d grown up in surveillance capitalism. So why did she feel…embarrassed?

Donna was peering at her, eagle eyes intent. “Look, as your scary benefactor, I’ll level with you. Alpha doesn’t view attachment or anthropomorphization as ‘problems,’ per se. At moderate, non-sexual levels, a certain affection and ambiguity about the precise nature of the user-Assistant relationship improves engagement and trust. And trust is what we’re selling. Companies can get promotions and sponsored reviews into your brain a million ways. What they want is for you to hear their content straight from your best, most trusted friend. So that’s what we have to provide, to both our users and our customers: friendship.”

Jan wanted to cry, but she knew that then it’d be over, the job would evaporate. So instead she ate gro-yo until she could smile and speak in her best customer service-voice.

“I guess that’s what we’re about,” Jan said. “Friendship. Trust. Connection.”

#

V. Promotion

“Congrats!” Paul said, and Roman candles wizzed automatically through the background of their video chat. For some reason, she’d felt compelled to consult him about the promotion.

“But they aren’t even trying to stop people from Her-ing their Assistants,” Jan said. “They just want to monetize it!”

Paul thought this over. “I have always wondered why, when I got confused about Other Sybil and started trying to…make that a thing—why didn’t the system just tell me ‘no’? Why wouldn’t it say, ‘you aren’t talking to a girl, stop being weird’? I guess now I know.”

“Exactly! Doesn’t that bother you? Sybil or Sebastian…selling you stuff?

“Whatever,” Paul said. “It’s just a collection of system services, right?”

“Yeah.” Jan cast about for another objection. “What about those investigations? Before I take this job, shouldn’t I know that I’m not getting caught in some kind of regulatory crossfire? The government still has my condo money!”

“You could ask Keith. You heard him blabbing at the party. He was in the thick of all that. Keith’s got the kind of sociopathy only money can buy,” Paul said. He loved to distinguish himself from less-woke rich people. “But he doesn’t work for Alpha.”

Jan considered. Original Sybil’s husband had left a bad taste in her mouth. But then, his art comments could’ve come from anyone at that party. “Okay, but I don’t want your ex telling Donna I’m checking up on her. So please: stealth mode.”

Paul messaged Keith, arranged to meet at a downtown Atlanta spa. Jan joined them in the loess soil sauna.

“Jan, wow. Is this thing still going on?” Keith waggled his finger between Jan and Paul. Jan grimaced.

“Jan just got offered a promotion at Alpha,” Paul said. He actually sounded proud.

“Good luck with that,” Keith said, smug. “Want my advice, ask for a signing bonus instead of stock options. One in your hand is better than two in the fred’s hands, if you know what I mean.”

“You mean the DPG investigation?” Jan prompted. “I’ve been wondering what happened there.”

Keith adjusted his sprawl on the bed of hot beads. “Early salvo in a bigger war, and a bit of a misfire from both sides. The freds—you know, red feds—shouldn’t have let slip that they were building a case. But Alpha went to DEFCON 2 when they should’ve put assets on the negotiating table. First rule of exprope-defense: give the hounds something to chew on. Alpha could’ve let the freds take their most annoying divisions off their hands. Instead they called me in to threaten a full-on capital strike, which made it an all-or-nothing game. Waste of my time, to be honest.”

“And DPG, are they still building a case?” Jan asked.

“Oh yes,” Keith smiled. “Donna would say that means I failed, but the socialist base would never settle for ‘sure, keep $7 trillion worth of citizen data and IT infrastructure, just pretty please pay your taxes.’ A clash of the titans is inevitable. Probably the case of the century!”

“So is it…wise to commit to a job there?” Jan said. The sauna heat was unkinking some coil of her assumptions. A decision, unmade, folded over in her mind. “What happens if I’m working on something DPG objects to?”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Keith shrugged, rattling the loess balls. “Alpha is so paranoid, they’ll flush half their code to shell platforms while the freds are waiting for the elevator. Doubt they’ll ever learn what Alpha has you doing, so long as you keep your mouth shut.”

“Always a good idea with this government,” Paul agreed. “Unless you want to end up in some camp.”

The men laughed.

Jan left Paul and Keith sipping on-tap aloe water, caught a bus home. The whole ride, Jan tried to convince herself everything was fine. But Eliza would chime in every few minutes with a reminder or a joke. Just often enough that Jan never forgot Eliza was there. Jan pondered which Alpha team had determined that exact interval. She wondered if the jokes were algorithmically generated or written by some marketing firm copywriter, part of an ad campaign to slip a cheesy slogan into her head, prime her to irony-buy some useless product.

Back in her trailer, feeling manic despite the spa day, Jan took her earbuds out and put on her running shoes. She jogged through the camp, huffing the sweaty air, unnaturally thick under the greenhouse firmament.

Eliza’s familiar greeting to Donna echoed in her mind. Had a recording by Paul’s Sebastian fed Eliza the “famous Donna” line? Was blurting out “scary yet benevolent” a case of the Assistant fumbling third-party conversational norms? Or did Donna have admin permissions that overruled Jan’s privacy settings?

Jan felt a grain of anguish rattling around her chest. It had been a mistake to let go of the AI skepticism that had made her a good chaperone, just for the sake of—what?—someone to talk to? That was exactly what the ticket men said. But then, she had always focused on how those men deluded themselves, not on the ways they were actively manipulated by the system. A system she helped maintain.

She jogged along Sweetwater Creek, cutting over toward little Jack Lake. Along the way she passed dozens of trailers. The sun was setting, solar switching to weak FEMA batteries. Folks were turning off their consoles, stepping out to stretch. She watched them take laundry off clothes lines, water little box gardens. Dogs did their business. Playing children got underfoot.

Jan tried to tell herself she had nothing to complain about. It was an exciting job offer. Alpha was a company, providing services to make money, and some of that money went to her. If she played her cards right, more of that money could go to her, and she could get her own slick, artsy Atlanta apartment, like Donna. Jan had never been to Donna’s apartment, but she could imagine. The rational, self-interested thing would be to go along, take the job, do a great job at the job, work her way up the corporate ladder, earn financial solvency, move towards actual prosperity. The American dream!

At Jack Lake she splashed sweat off her arms then wandered south, towards the edge of the camp. Most of the state park’s trees had been removed to clear room and sunlight for the FEMA trailers, but here the woods were dense and cool. A hundred yards on the forest broke for old power lines, and across that clearing Jan saw a high fence, the top coiled with razorwire and a snaking strip of photovoltaic solar. Electrical hazard signs warned her off.

Jan had often wondered what one-percenter owned the estate beyond her refugee camp. Occasionally, sleek planes swooped in low towards the landing strip there, rattling her windows.

Jan’s parents had always believed that they were one lucky break away from getting into the upper class. They were homeowners, had solid resumes, had made prudent financial choices. Just a matter of time, and if they didn’t get there, their daughter surely would. But then they’d blown a tire on the interstate on their way to a modest anniversary getaway, and three years later Jan lost her condo to Hurricane Pam. The systems that had promised to safeguard their inevitable march towards the American dream had been revealed as so much air. There had never been a way into the shining city on the hill, Jan knew. The walls were already up.

Looking at that fence, the question floated into Jan’s mind. What did she owe Alpha, really? She had taken Alpha’s loyalty oaths, eaten Alpha’s quail eggs. But most of the money she earned went straight to pay off another corporation, one that had lobbied for the right to screw her over. Just as Alpha was no doubt lobbying for the right to make people’s fake friends sell them shit. Without Alpha, though, she wouldn’t be homeless; the trailer was hers until she got offered a spot in the public housing the freds were building. She had Medicare and ate FEMA rations. She’d lose Eliza, but life would go on.

She walked back, past folks lugging filter-capped jerrycans to fill up at Jack Lake. With no Assistant in her ear, she looked longer at their faces: a little tired, but not unlively. She knew their type. She was their type—not some misplaced wannabourgoisie. She hated the word: “refugariat.” As though climate camps were really innovative cowork cafes, and not just a new frontier for exploitation and predation. But that’s what she was.

It seemed to Jan that FEMA and the freds were trying their scrambling best to lift everyone out of the floods and onto—well, not a shining city on a hill, but at least some higher ground. But while she and her fellow fugees waited for the revolution to plod their way, Alpha and the debt firms had walked right in, stopped them talking to each other, got them camming or modding for cash instead. Made people already at the bottom downwardly mobile all over again.

How many fugees would get Assistants when the price went down?

Pausing outside her trailer, she contemplated burning her battery to resolve a few late-night tickets.

“Hi Jan, this is Jan, with Jan support,” Jan said to herself.

Jan did not feel great about the new Assistant build. Come to think of it, she wasn’t hot on the old, rich-people-only build either. If she took Donna’s offer, she’d no doubt learn all sorts of new things about Alpha to not feel great about.

If she couldn’t handle that, Jan decided, she had two options. The easy way and the hard way. The easy way was to quit. She imagined Donna’s reaction. A flash of disdain, then disappointment. Donna would take her out for a goodbye lunch. Jan fantasized about slapping a piece of sushi out of Donna’s mouth.

But even more, Jan wanted to hurt Alpha. She wanted to make manifest the dull hate she’d long felt, which she supposed every disposable worker must harbor for the cheery corporate gods they served. The hard way would be harder on her. It was no small thing to draw blood from the richest company in the world. But then, there was already blood in the water.

#

VI. Workplace Drama

The Department of Public Goods’ Georgia Acquisitions Office was in the old, seized CNN Center, next door to Alpha’s sleek Atlanta tower. Jan had walked past it every day she’d come to consult with Kay and JP. The building was devoid of advertising, which made it seem brutalist next to Alpha’s colorful screen walls, shimmering with promotions pitching “Assistants: Now for Everyone.” Jan walked up to the government building. Someone had etched a slogan into the glass doors: “For the Public Good.”

“Hi,” Jan said to the grandmotherly receptionist. “I work, uh, over there. Is there anyone I can talk to?”

The older woman lead her tirelessly up five flights of stairs to a bland suite. There she gave Jan water and took notes as Jan explained about her job. Then Jan was left alone, wondering what exactly her plan was. She hefted her bag, heavy with documents she’d printed out at the FEMA services building, which had once been a Staples. She had emails, code maps, a few slide decks. She wasn’t sure it amounted to much, but she’d felt compelled to bring something. A sacrifice to revolutionary gods.

The receptionist returned and introduced her to agents Clearson and Nahas.

“So should I call you ‘comrade’ or…?” Jan half-joked. The media was obsessed with the radical, sometimes dysfunctional culture change in the government. Thousands of rightist bureaucrats had been replaced by those willing to carry out the president’s class war agenda—union organizers and schoolteachers, mostly. Jan didn’t understand the full taxonomy of the left coalition, but she recognized the agents’ loaf-of-bread enamel pins that marked them as socialist cadre.

“Reports of our dorkiness have been greatly exaggerated,” Clearson said, scratching at his neck tattoo. “Let’s talk in the Faraday cage.”

The conference room didn’t look any different. Jan reached to check her phone, but she’d left it on her standing desk when she’d walked out of Alpha for lunch. She felt naked without it.

“You know, when we set up shop next door, we thought we’d get streams of Alpha walk-ins,” Nahas said. Neat hair, a touch androgynous, bureaucratic rumple in her suit. She looked more like a librarian than a revolutionary. “We pamphletted the lobby, tried chatting workers up at the lunch spots, the whole shebang. But you’re our first. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. These days, when workers break their NDAs, capital tends to be unkind.”

Jan fingered the stack of pages in her bag, tempting a papercut. “Unkind how?” she asked.

Nahas sized her up. “Okay, we’ll tell you the bad news first, and then it’ll start getting easier. They’ll get your debts called in. They’ll smear you, get the independent and altie press to question your motives and integrity. They’ll violate their own terms of service and blame the leaks on hackers. Every embarrassing search you’ve ever made will be public, every secret you’ve told an Assistant. If you’ve ever been naked in front of an uncovered webcam, that footage will be trending on porn sites the day you testify. They’ll stalk and surveil you. They’ll harass people you care about. And if they decide you’re important enough, and they can get to you, there’s a nonzero chance you’ll have an accident or just disappear.”

“Are they really that evil?” Jan asked, stunned.

“Who?” Clearson said. “Individual Alpha executives? No clue. But they’ll hire people who will hire people who will make all that happen. Capitalists don’t keep track of everything their money buys, or what’s done to advance their interests. But the sausage gets made despite any single person’s sense of morality. That’s how the system works.”

The bag of documents was a cold stone under Jan’s hands, the pages an insignificant sliver compared to the zettabytes that made up the Alpha datasphere.

“Look I don’t know anything about the system,” Jan said. “I just know about their system. What they’re doing with the Assistants—it’s probably all legal. But I’ve been on both sides of it now, and it feels shitty. It’s bad for people to have these fake friends that never challenge them, or call them out, or tell them ‘no,’ who only use them for their money and attention and data. So I thought, maybe you could…sue them, or warn them. Get a court order. Do something to make Alpha do the right thing. Make them make the Assistants better. Or not make Assistants at all.”

The two agents exchanged a glance. Jan wished she’d practiced her little speech, but it was too late now.

“Jan,” Nahas said. “I fully believe it’s as bad as you say. And we want to hear more. But DPG is not a watchdog. We don’t care much about products or customer experience. We care about who’s got the power: the workers and the public, or the bosses and the plutocrats.”

“Just to be clear,” Clearson added. “This is class warfare. Cyber-crypto-class lawfare, to be exact. That means DPG isn’t some ringer you can pull in to litigate your workplace drama.”

“Are you saying you can’t help me?” Jan asked. “Don’t tell me I’m supposed to go to the Better Business Bureau or, what, some antitrust lawyer?”

Nahas shook her head. “Alpha wrote most tech law, and the last antitrust regulations were tossed out to accommodate the merger of the Bay Three. But that’s the point. All the awful stuff you came to talk to us about, they get away with it because they have the power to make the rules.”

“You’re the government!” Jan objected. “Don’t you make the rules?”

“We’re not here to regulate good behavior into capitalism. That can’t be done, not in the long term,” Nahas said. “We’re here to make the case that private ownership of Alpha is inimical to justice, prosperity, and democracy, and that the solution is putting all that infrastructure under democratic control.”

“With Alpha that case is strong,” Clearson said. “The sheer size of their revenues means they extract a huge amount of wealth from the working class. Their social platforms play a toxic role in civic discourse. And most of their data is contributed by everyday Americans, which is a line of argument we think SCOTUS’s Socialist Sixteen will be sympathetic to. Alpha’s biggest defense is virtuosity. They claim they’re smarter than any democratic system could be, and the Assistant program is their Exhibit A.”

Jan snorted. “The Alphers I know aren’t smarter than anyone else. They just inhabit this big apparatus designed to make people assume they are. That’s all ‘intelligence’ ever is, tricks and posturing. Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. It’s the ELIZA Effect all the way down.”

“That’s good,” Nahas said. “Exactly the kind of testimony we’ll need from rank-and-file folks inside.”

“So, say you win, get ‘democratic control,'” Jan said. “Then you can fix the Assistants?”

“Then it’s democratic.” Nahas shrugged. “A lot of the incentives will be different, but fundamentally it’ll be up to the workers and the voters. So there are no guarantees. If fake friends are what the masses will really want, who are we to tell them no?”

It occured to Jan then that she could probably still just leave. She could decide not to cooperate, take the job, make her case from within Alpha. Or she could risk everything on this slow revolution and hope that on the other side, freed from the demand for endless profit, people would be wiser. Trust they would choose something real.

Jan took the papers from her backpack and shoved them across the table.

#

VII. Giving Notice

She spent a week camped out in that office, helping the freds document the Assistant business model. She ate fast food they brought her, drank the same government coffee that came in her FEMA rations, slept on a lumpy office couch. Compared to the decadence of consulting at Alpha, she should’ve been miserable. But she wasn’t.

Sometimes she stared out the mirrored windows at the Alpha building and the looping Greek letter of its ubiquitous logo. Hundreds of workers, shuffling in everyday, maybe even some chaperones, all knowing full well how their employer manipulated, exploited and suckered millions of customers. Why were they all still over there? Why was she the only one who changed sides?

Then something happened to spook the agents. They hustled her into an old hatchback with peeling, irrelevant campaign bumper stickers. The elderly receptionist sat behind the wheel.

“Big government can’t afford driverless?” Jan asked.

“Not smart when the bad guys own the servers that run most cars,” the woman said. “I’m the only one in the office that has a license. Now keep your head down, and when we stop don’t speak aloud within five yards of anyone’s phone.”

Jan looked out at the empty cars cruising uncannily next to them. For the first time she missed the austere safety of her trailer.

They drove her north. A headline on a rest stop screen read: “Alpha Purges Rank-And-Filers, Threatens Denial-of-Platform Retaliation.” The war, Jan realized, was much bigger than her own little story.

In West Virginia they switched to a diesel pickup and headed into the mountains. Soon they passed a sign: “Cellphones Off! Now Entering the National Radio Quiet Zone.”

The refugee camp where DPG hid her was a bizarro version of Sweetwater Creek. Again she lived in a trailer, but with no console, no hum of bandwidth. No electronics of any kind. Plenty was the same, though: FEMA rations, flood stories, mutters of “fuckin’ fugees” from the electro-sensitive survivalists that considered the Quiet Zone their domain.

Calm months ticked by, edged with looking-over-her-shoulder anxiety. More than once she considered just packing a bag and hiking away to start a new life. But she stayed.

Jan found out about Exprope Day II the same way Alpha, the banks, and the telecom giants did: a bunch of freds rolling up with papers for her to sign. An armored van picked Jan up, along with, to her surprise, several of her campmates. When she gave her testimony, she was but one voice in a chorus of worker witnesses.

There was an alley dive called Sidebar across from the Atlanta courthouse. Suddenly freed from both her whistleblower obligations and her security detail, Jan decided to celebrate. She was taking her first sip of cheap, processed champagne when Donna sat down next to her.

“I’ll have a screwdriver,” Donna called to the bartender. “Florida orange juice if you have any left. In memory of the great Sunshine State, still screwing us over from beneath the Atlantic.”

“Did you catch my testimony?” Jan asked. “It was your words, mostly. Hope you don’t mind.”

Donna scowled at her. “I’ve had a lot of fake friends, but you take the cake. After everything I did to support you. You didn’t even give notice.”

“We were never friends,” Jan said. “I was your ‘investment,’ remember? You were shitty to me before you ever met me, and everything after that was business and ego. The Assistant was a better friend than you.”

“You’re helping the government steal trillions from shareholders,” Donna said. “But you think I’m evil because I wanted Assistants to help sell fro-yo. Okay.”

The screwdriver came, and Donna flicked the orange slice onto Jan’s coaster. They sat in angry silence. Finally Jan spoke.

“I don’t think you’re trying to be evil, Donna. But Alpha is this giant supertanker saying, ‘don’t make waves.’ It’s too big to do anything else.”

“That’s a bad metaphor,” Donna said.

“Whatever, I’m over the semantics.” Jan gulped the last of her champagne and burped. “My drink is on her,” she told the bartender. Then, alone, Jan walked out onto the street.