Character is What You Are

Character is What You Are

by Michael R. Fletcher

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Thursday, Oct 19th, 2023. 9:45pm

Character is what you are in the dark. My dad told me that. At the time I thought he’d made it up. Later I learned he got it from a strange movie called, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” It was decades before I understood what it meant and even longer before I realized it was me. If you only live one-eighth of each day, you are spending your life in the dark.

This was a typical day. Well, what little I could remember of it. Nothing differentiated one day from the next and perhaps that was the problem. Or maybe it was me.

Get up at 7am. Shit, shower, shave. Gobble down a quick breakfast of low-carb microwaved oatmeal that has never been closer to a field of oats than it was while puddled in a red and black Wal-Mart bowl.

On the subway by 7:45am. If all goes well and no suicidal marketing analysts throw themselves on the track, I meet Jason Kim at the Java Joe’s across the street from IntroSpec. Burnt coffee and a stale bagel. Fifteen minutes of bitching about life and the job I couldn’t remember. Cross the street, through the doors at IntroSpec, and into the security cordon a few minutes before 9am. Memory Plug into neural tap <snick> only to unplug a fraction of a second later. Ten hours have passed and I’ve logged a few hours of overtime and inched a fraction of a micron closer to paying off the mortgage on my downtown Toronto condo. Another hour in transit and by 8pm I’m home, exhausted even though I can’t remember doing much of anything. Change out of my “casual business attire,” shovel a microwaved-dinner into my face, and it’s 9 pm. To get seven hours sleep I have to be in bed by midnight.

Three hours. That was my day. Or rather, that was my day. Three precious hours, and what did I do? Two hours at the Social and Entertainment Centre watching some crappy crime scene drama, and one hour looking at porn. Well…sometimes two.

And Mom wondered why I was still single.

I blamed the Memory Plug. It was either that or accept responsibility for how my life had turned out. The Plugs, while inserted, scrambled all memories created during that time. Those memories could only be accessed while that same plug was worn. It was the ultimate in security and protecting the hallowed company’s all-important intellectual property rights. Unplug at the end of the day and you had no idea what you’d been doing for the last ten hours. To make matters worse, as my skill-set became increasingly outdated, I grew evermore dependent on the company. No doubt they were teaching me new skills to keep apace of the ever-changing technology, but if I left the company the Memory Plug stayed with them. Quitting IntroSpec would be like hurling myself backwards into the Dark-ages.

The Social and Entertainment Centre lit the room a flickering yellow with commercials for tropical vacations and, noting my wandering attention, brightened the colours and subtly increased the volume. I killed the SEC with a thought and my eyes adjusted immediately to the change in illumination; my parents had them ‘fixed’ when I was seven. They’d discovered I was nearsighted–and genetically imperfect–and complained to the genelab they’d hired once the decision to breed had been formalized. With abject and embarrassed apologies the lab offered to replace my defective eyes free of charge.

I don’t remember anyone ever asking me what I wanted.

“Stop it,” I told my eyes. I wanted to sit in the dark.

The traffic noise from the highway just outside the window ignored the condo brochure’s promises of perfect soundproofing and the flashing LED billboards blasted through dimmed windows.

So much for sitting in the dark.

Back before Memory plugs became commonplace, back when I could remember what I did for a living, I enjoyed my job. Sure there were almost no women in the office, but I got to play with all the latest computers. They were beautiful. They made sense. Other people however, they were a problem. You can’t force people to learn and the more ignorant they are, the more desperately they’ll cling to whatever it is they believe.

I know this to be true. I believe all kinds of strange things about women, am pretty damned sure most of it is wrong, and yet seem unable to do anything about my ignorance.

You are what you do, that was the other thing Dad always said. I think it was a shot at me, like all the escapist crap that went on in my head wasn’t worth anything. If he’s right, a title is all I was: Senior Systems Architect. Somehow that had something to do with being a UNIX admin at IntroSpec, a trans-global financial and speculative investment company.

Thirty-eight and still single. Not even dating. Not even the prospect of a date on the horizon. Tonight I would finally do something about that.

I slumped back, sinking deeper into the sofa, and thought at the SEC. It flicked on and asked in an annoyingly excited voice what I wanted to do now. Like every moment spent with the fucking SEC was an adventure.

“Social Google,” I said. “Dating and Relationships.” The SEC displayed the page on its seventy-five inch 3D screen and tracked the movement of my eyes. It watched the pulsating of irises, sampled the hormones and pheromones in the air, and suggested what amounted to a state-sanctioned Escort Service for lonely business executives. I never could get used to thinking of myself as an ‘Exec’ and this wasn’t what I wanted anyway.

“No. Relationships. Not one night hookups.” Though perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. I sat thinking, trying to visualize meeting and having sex with a complete stranger. What do you do before the sex? What about after? What are the protocols? The idea scared the crap out of me. I wanted to date. Go for coffee. See a movie. A chaste kiss on the second date. A more serious kiss on the third. Making out on the fourth and sex sometime after that, when I had some idea who this person was. I wanted there to be some kind of connection first, some kind of predictability to reduce the risks inherent in all social interaction.

Self-doubt gnawed at me. Did I really want to do this? Did I really want to mess up my safe and predictable life?

Safe. Predictable. Boring.

Hell yes.

The Social and Entertainment Centre began peppering me with questions, trying to figure out exactly what I was looking for. Age range? Income? Children? The list went on long enough I almost gave up, but when it asked what type of job my prospective date should have I was suddenly alert.

What if I met someone in a line of work that didn’t require Memory Plugs? What the hell could we talk about, what would we have in common? That cynical voice at the back of my head muttered that I didn’t have anything to talk about with anyone anyway, but I did my best to ignore it.

“She should wear a Memory Plug at work,” I told the SEC decisively. I was faking it and fooling no one. Not even the SEC.

A moment later the SEC displayed a list of 8,253 women replete with pictures and profiles.

“Crap.” That was way too many. It’d take forever to read through all of that. I had an idea. “Only display women with the same job.”

The SEC took me rather more literally than I’d meant and displayed a single profile.

“Raajaa Sinder,” I read aloud. “Senior Systems Architect.”

I watched the 3D profile image as she seemed to watch me. The illusion was unsettling and I felt a moment of confused guilt, like I’d been caught spying. Her smile washed that away and I was lost in dark eyes and chocolate skin. She wasn’t beautiful, at least not by the standards the SEC had been programming me with for the last few years. She looked a little too noticeably ethnic and lacked the racially blended look that was so in vogue. Face a little flat, eyes perhaps too close together, nose too large for her small, round face. And yet she was stunning. I suspected most people would disagree.

I watched, rapt, listening to Raajaa’s recorded message. Her lips turned words like ‘SAN migration’ into soft, sinful pleasures and the hint of a fading English accent made her all the more exotic. I recorded a message and sent it before reason, logic, and sheer gutless cowardice could stop me.

Five minutes later she sent a reply and twenty minutes after that I was on the subway, bound for a little coffee shop called The Epicurean Café.

When I arrived Raajaa was already there, sitting with her back to the plate-glass window fronting the café. I sat across from her, trying not to stare and yet not be distracted by the pedestrians on the sidewalk behind her and the gaudy strobing of the CN Tower’s once-rotating restaurant.

Raajaa flashed a smile of brilliant white teeth in startling contrast to the mahogany of her skin. “So, a fellow Senior Systems Architect.”

“What? Oh. Yeah. Apparently.” Lovely. Very smooth. I quashed the urge to grimace.

She didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness and launched into a rant about how she’d spent an hour at home, crawling around under her desk with a bag of cable ties making everything look ‘neat and proper.’

When she finally ground to a halt I sat staring at her, unable to speak or even blink.

Raajaa turned a mahogany shade of red and started talking again to fill the awkward silence. “I collect old computers. I have a bunch of old RAID systems. They used to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but now they’re doorstops. Not wireless. They still require…uh…cabling.”

When I realized I was making her uncomfortable I pulled out my Me-Fone and showed her a picture of my home office and the stacked computers filling every nook and cranny. The cables were colour-coded and tied in neat bundles. “RAID 5. And I’m rebuilding an old tape-drive backup system we used back in the nineties.” A white lie. I had all the components, but hadn’t actually worked on my pet-project in almost two years. When did I have the time?

The ice was broken and we talked long into the night, only leaving when the staff started stacking chairs around us. When it came time to say goodbye we shook hands and made promises to meet again on the weekend. Just as I was about to turn away Raajaa caught my sleeve and pulled me into a quick hug.

“I like your accent,” I called out impetuously as she walked away.

“I like yours too,” she called back over her shoulder.

I got home at 2am, tired and grinning like an idiot.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 8:45am

Java Joe’s was crowded with people desperately trying to cram in a few last minutes of living before going to work and their Memory Plugs. Most days I found self-sacrifice in the name of copyright laws and the protection of intellectual property to be disgusting.

Today? Not so much.

The coffee was burnt and the bagel stale. I’d have been disappointed if it had been any other way. Yep, today was that good.

Jason Kim, my best friend since high-school, sat across the table. Irish Korean, Jason was tall slender and handsome with dark almond eyes and just a hint of epicanthic folds. I’d never seen his hair anything less than perfect.

“You have a girlfriend and I’m single.” Jason grimaced. “That’s it. The seventh sign of the apocalypse. End of the world. Cats and dogs–”

“Living in harmony,” I finished. “I think it’s too early to call her my girlfriend. We only went on one date.”

“That’s something. So I don’t have to call the press?”

“Well, it was a pretty good date. World might end this weekend, I’m going to see her again.” I grinned at Jason and lifted the mug of luke-warm coffee in a mock toast. “She collects old computers and has an English accent.”

Jason muttered a quiet “shit” before meeting my eyes with a sardonic smirk. “You’re insufferable when you’re happy.”

“Oh, poor muffin. Does the lonely guy need a hug?”

Noting the time, we abandoned the remains of our stagnant coffees and crossed the street to IntroSpec.

Time to flush away another day.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 9:04am

I stood, rooted to the floor, staring at Jason as he exited the IntroSpec security cordon. “Fuck me.”

“What’s up?” Jason asked.

“That woman you’re having that lunchroom love affair with–”

“Raaj, the other Senior Systems Architect.”

“Yeah. It’s her.”

“Who is her?”

“The woman. The one I met last night. The one I went on a date with.”

We stood staring at each other. Jason recovered first.

“You went on a date with Raaj, my girlfriend?”

“Well, your lunchroom love–”

“Whatever. You know how I feel about her.”

I lifted my hands defensively. “It’s not my fault. I was Unplugged. I didn’t know you were going out with her. I didn’t even know I knew her! Look, it’s no big deal. Nothing happened. We’ll talk this over and get it straightened out.”

Jason marched through the maze of cubicles with me in tow as if dragged by a chain of guilt. He kept muttering under his breath but I couldn’t catch any of what was being said. It didn’t sound happy.

When we entered the corner where our three cubicles faced in towards a central common area, replete with dollar-store coffee machine and an empty water cooler rimed with calcium deposits, the look on Raaj’s face stopped me dead.

Where Jason was seething hurt, Raaj was a mix of confusion and anger. She stepped towards Jason but stopped when she saw his face.

“Jason–” she started.

“What the hell? I thought–”

“I was Unplugged. Outside I don’t know about us. I’m really lonely.” She grimaced. “Just outside, Unplugged,” she added.

Jason shook his head in confusion. “Lonely? Why didn’t you say something?”

Raaj stepped tentatively towards Jason. “I’m not lonely at work. I have you. But when I go home you cease to be part of my life. When I’m Unplugged I have no one.”

“But…Alex? I thought you…“ Jason’s voice faded to nothing.

“You know I don’t like him.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” I said.

Jason and Raaj turned to face me but only Raaj spoke. “This isn’t exactly news. You don’t like me and I think you’re a passive-aggressive arse.”

“You seemed to like me just fine last night,” I shot back, hurt.

That stopped her. “Sorry,” she said. “But you know it’s true. We’ve been working together for years and we’ve never got along well. Soon enough we’ll realize that on the outside, when we’re Unplugged.”

I wasn’t so sure but couldn’t think of a way of saying so without sounding petulant.

Jason too looked less than convinced. “Alex said you two had another date planned for this weekend.”

“We didn’t actually nail down any plans,” said Raaj. “Maybe we won’t even see each other again.”

She was avoiding my eyes. There was no doubt that, once Unplugged and home, I was definitely going to call Raajaa and make plans for Saturday.

We worked in such close proximity there was no avoiding each other. When Jason and Raaj disappeared for their lunchtime tryst I remained in my cubicle, staring woodenly at the faded Dilbert comics pinned to the padded blue-grey wall. Was Raaj right, would we soon realize how much we disliked each other? Right now it seemed a very real possibility, but I could remember how I felt last night as we sat talking. She collected old computers! How could we not get along?

The rest of the day was hell.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 7:13pm

I exited Introspec and looked around for Jason but he was nowhere to be seen. No real surprise, Jason often left on time. I had to admire his ability to walk away from a project–no matter what stage it was at–at 5pm to head for home. Perhaps if I could do that I’d have more than three hours of ‘real life’ a day.

Now that I was out and Unplugged, all I wanted to do was rush home and talk to Raajaa.

Once home however it didn’t seem so easy. I sat in front of the SEC, a processed ham-on-wholewheat sandwich forgotten on the coffee table before me. Should I call her? She had said that she wanted to see me again but was she just being polite, just letting me off easy?

The SEC pinged for attention. It was Raajaa.

“Hey there,” she said with a mischievous grin. I could see a collection of old computer casings piled against the wall behind her.

“I was just trying to work up the guts to call you,” I said.

“I can hang up and let you get back at that if you want.”

“Nah. Any doubts I may have had have been soundly put to rest. I thought we were going to hook up tomorrow, on Saturday.”

Raajaa rolled her eyes. “Or, if you’re willing to blow off that sad-looking sandwich, we could grab dinner tonight.”

An hour later we sat in a quiet Indian restaurant called North of Bombay eating Hyderabadi biryani which, Raajaa informed me, actually came from somewhere five hundred kilometres east and south of Mumbai. After dinner we walked back to her place, holding hands, chatting about our computer collections, and reminiscing about the days when we could remember what we did for a living. By some unspoken agreement neither talked about our current jobs; there was no point. It’s difficult to maintain an interesting conversation about something you have no recollection of.

I didn’t return home until late Sunday evening.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Monday, Oct 22nd, 2023. 9:06am

Jason and I stood in the hall beyond the IntroSpec security cordon, staring at each other.

Jason broke the silence first. “You son of a bitch!”

“But I didn’t know!”

“You spent the weekend screwing my girlfriend–”

“You’re screwing my girlfriend when she’s at work!”

“–and the last fifteen minutes bragging about it at Java Joe’s.”

Jason, finally hearing what I said, stepped menacingly towards me. Thinking I was about to be hit for the first time since grade three, I quickly backed away.

Jason halted his advance. “We’ll meet at lunch,” he growled. “The three of us–”

That won’t be awkward.”

“–and figure this out.”

If Friday was hell, Monday was turning into something far worse.

We met at lunch in one of the unused boardrooms. I sat on one side of the table while Jason and Raaj sat across from me. I slumped in my chair, arms crossed a little too tightly as if hugging myself.

Jason leaned forward, elbows resting on the tabletop. “I assume we all agree that this is unacceptable. The question is what are we going to do about it?”

“I don’t suppose you two are willing to break it off at work,” I said, only half joking.

“Alex,” Raaj admonished softly.

“Sorry. It’s just…outside…we have–”

She leaned forward and rested her hand on my arm, effectively silencing me. When I saw the look on Jason’s face, I kept my mouth shut. At least for the moment.

“I know what it seems like,” said Raaj. “But Jason and I have been seeing each other for years at work. We’re really in love.”

I took that to mean that she thought what we shared while Unplugged wasn’t real. “I’m sorry, but what you two have at work is doomed. You unplug at the end of each day and promptly forget each other. Outside of work, all Jason knows about you is what I’ve told him. The company will never let you keep your Memory Plugs. You will never get married. You will never have children together. It’s doomed,” I repeated.

“We know.” Jason said it calmly, but his face betrayed his anger. “It doesn’t matter.”

Raaj nodded in agreement. “Alex, the fact is you and I don’t even like each other and we’ve known each other for years. At some point we’re going to figure that out while Unplugged. What’s happening outside is just as doomed.” She glanced at Jason. “More so,” she added.

“You’re my friend, right?” Jason asked.

I saw what was coming next but could see no way to avoid it. “You’re my best friend,” I agreed. Damned near my only friend, but I wasn’t about to say that out loud. At least not now.

“And you’re mine. All I can say is, I saw her first.” Jason shot an apologetic look at Raaj. “It’s juvenile, but that’s how it is. And I love her.”

And that was it. No way out. I nodded. “Okay. I’ll break it off on the outside.”

“How?” Asked Raaj. “We can’t remember any of this once we Unplug.”

“I’ll figure something out.”

Later, while sitting at my cubicle, I pulled off my right shoe and wrote a note on the bottom of my foot.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Monday, Oct 22nd, 2023. 8:37pm

The SEC pinged for my attention. It was Raajaa.

“Hey sexy,” she said.

“God I love that accent.”

“How about you get that little white ass over here. Now.”

“Yes Ma’am. Gotta shower first, and then I’m on my way.”

She blew me a kiss full of hot promise and was gone. The shower was the fastest I’d ever taken. My right foot was strangely tingly and raw. When I sat on the side of the tub to examine it, I saw that all the calluses had been scrubbed away. Weird, I must have done that at work.

The foot was quickly forgotten in my rush to get to Raajaa’s.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Tuesday, Oct 23rd, 2023. 8:50am

Jason was already at Java Joe’s when I arrived. “You don’t even have to say it,” he grinned. “I can tell by your face; you saw her again last night.”

I nodded, flashing my own happy smile. “It was amazing.”

For the next few minutes I told my best friend all the intimate details of the previous evening. The things she did with her tongue. The things I did with mine.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Tuesday, Oct 23rd, 2023. 9:02am

“Jason–”

“You said you were going to–”

“I left myself a note–” the memory of my tingling foot stopped me. “They found it.”

Jason grabbed me and dragged me down the hall, away from the prying ears of IntroSpec’s security staff. “Obviously. You thought you could sneak a note past security? If they cared that little, we wouldn’t be wearing these damned Memory Plugs.”

I shook Jason off. “I had to try. It’s okay, I have another idea.”

“Really? Is it better than hiding a fucking note between your toes?”

“I didn’t…never mind. Yes, it’s better.” I didn’t want to discuss it any further because I was less than sure who would really benefit from my new plan. There was a good chance it would get one or more of us fired.

Instead of taking a lunch break I visited the Human Resources department. It was a single small room with a shaky looking plastic collapsible table, and an unshaven middle-aged man sitting at it. The tabletop was barren except for a thin science-fiction paperback titled only 88. No interface of any kind was in sight.

“Is this Human Resources?” I asked, confused.

“That’s what it says on the door.”

“This is it?”

“No. We have a huge HR department with really nice desks and beautiful secretaries but we keep it hidden from the employees.” This was delivered deadpan, with no hint of sarcasm.

“Right.” I entered the HR office and realized there was no chair for me to sit in. “So you’re not too busy?”

“Who said I wasn’t busy? What do you want?”

I shrugged aside my confusion. “What’s the company’s policy on romances between personnel?”

“Verboten,” snapped the man, thumping a fist down on the rickety table.

“Right. Well there’s kind of this love triangle thing–”

“Threesome?” This was the first bit of real interest the man had shown.

“No. One guy is seeing the–”

“Seriously? I don’t care.”

“But Unplugged–”

“No one cares.”

“But–”

“Is everyone still doing their job?”

“Well…yes.”

“Then IntroSpec doesn’t care. Glad to have been of service. Goodbye.”

I stalked forward and leaned on the table which shifted ominously under my weight. “What kind of HR department–”

“The only reason IntroSpec even has an HR department is because by law they have to have one. I am it. This way they can, with all honesty, claim that they have an HR Department that represents and assists their employees. I have answered your questions. You have been assisted. Now fuck off.”

“But–”

“But what? You don’t get it.” The man grimaced with annoyance. “At the end of the day you are going to Unplug and forget everything that happened at the office. You might hate your job and everyone here, but the second you unplug it’s all gone. The only way you can quit is if you do so while at work and still Plugged. Then, if IntroSpec rather you stayed with the company, they leave you Plugged until the end of the day. When you Unplug to go home you immediately forget that you’ve quit and return to work the next day. Haven’t you ever wondered why Memory Plugs are designed so that you can’t Unplug them yourself? There are people who have been trying to quit for years. Eventually they give up. It isn’t like there’s a lot of other work out there. Sometimes, when IntroSpec wants to fire someone but doesn’t want to cough up for severance pay, they wait until they’re Unplugged and just tell them that they quit. Who will ever know otherwise?”

“Should you be telling me all this?”

The man snorted. “What are you going to do about it, complain to the HR department?”

The rest of the week crawled like an injured snail. I tried scribbling notes on the flesh between my toes, tucking messages into seams in my clothing, and hiding things in various orifices. Nothing worked, and no message made it past IntroSpec’s security.

Each morning I met Jason for burnt coffee and stale bagels at Java Joe’s, bragged of my sexploits and told my friend of the burgeoning love between Raajaa and I. Each day, once we’d Plugged in, Jason stalked away without a word.

I spent lunches alone, wondering where Jason and Raaj were and imagining what they were up to.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 26th, 2023. 12:13pm

I sat across the table from Jason and Raajaa, but this time it felt a lot less like the two-against-one of our last meeting. There was some indefinable non-physical distance between the two that had not been there before.

Deciding to lay my metaphorical cards on the table, I spoke first. “I can’t take this any more. My best friend hates me and I have to live with the fact that he’s screwing the woman I love every lunch hour.” I decided to try a joke to lighten the tension. “Maybe if I’d watched more Sesame Street as a child I’d be better at sharing.” The joke flopped.

Jason was studiously not looking at Raaj. “We aren’t. Not any more. She ended it.” He glared at me. “You stole the only woman I’ve ever really loved. Good job. You happy now?”

“No. I’m miserable.”

“That’s not fair,” snapped Raaj. “He didn’t ‘steal me’. No one planned this. It’s just…well…here at work…there is no future for us, Jason. I’m sorry but it’s true.”

“We didn’t mean to fall in love,” I added.

We didn’t fall in love,” Raaj corrected. “I still think you’re an arse. It’s only outside.”

“Plugged you just never took the time to get to know me.”

“Unplugged me just hasn’t had time to learn what an arse you can be.”

“You’re both arses,” Jason threw in for good measure. “Why the hell did you ask us to meet you here, Alex? It’s not enough that you tell me all the intimate details of your sex life every morning before work and I have to sit in my cubicle knowing what kind of lubricant you bought together?” He shook his head and muttered “Fuck” with great feeling.

“You tell him about our sex life?”

For a moment I thought to deny it but realized it didn’t matter. “Yeah. He’s my best friend.”

“Was.”

“Still is, you know, when Unplugged. It’s not like Jason wasn’t telling me everything you guys were doing before all this happened. And don’t even bother telling me that your girlfriends don’t know every intimate detail of our sex life.”

“Passive-aggressive arse.” But she didn’t deny it.

I stood and raised my hands to quell any further argument or hurling of insults. “None of this matters. I have decided that I want my cake and to eat it too.”

“What?” Jason and Raaj asked together.

“Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I have figured out how to keep both the woman I love and my best friend. It’s obvious. I have to quit IntroSpec.” I didn’t add ‘if they’ll let me.’ It seemed unlikely that I was all that valuable to the company.

“You’re going to quit for me?” asked Raaj, eyes wide with surprise and something else I couldn’t define.

“No,” I said. “I’m going to quit for who you are when not at work. I’m quitting for her. I think you’ve changed. I think we’ve all changed. We’ve all become different than the people we were before we started wearing these damned Memory Plugs. I like who I am Unplugged. I haven’t been that happy in a long time.”

“You don’t seem all that happy,” muttered Jason.

I’m not. I am, as previously stated, miserable. Outside me, Unplugged me, he’s happy. I want that. I want to be him.”

“But you are him,” said Raaj.

“No. I want to be him all the time. I realized that I don’t give a damn what you think. All I care about is what Unplugged you thinks.” I shrugged. “Go ahead, hate me. You don’t matter. Outside,” I nodded at Jason “you are my best friend.” I looked at Raaj and gave her a sad smile. “And Unplugged you loves me.” I backed away from the table. “I’ll see you both on the outside, in the real world. Jason my friend, I’m going to marry this woman. I hope you’ll be my Best Man.”

“Fuck you.”

I bowed, spun on my heel, and left IntroSpec forever. Perhaps Raaj was right. Perhaps I was a little passive-aggressive.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Saturday, May 15th, 2024. 4:30pm

I watched Jason fidget in his rented tuxedo. If anyone should be fidgeting here it was me, but I felt nothing but calm anticipation. We stood at the alter, Groom and Best Man, awaiting Raajaa’s arrival.

“You okay?” I whispered.

Jason nodded, shifting his cummerbund as if it chafed painfully. “Yeah. IntroSpec went over the deep-end with their security measures right after you left. I unplug every day to find myself scrubbed raw. I’m all pink and don’t have a callus on my entire body!” He grimaced as his pants rubbed at tender flesh. “You quit at the perfect time.”

I was immediately reminded of the days I’d arrived home from IntroSpec to find myself pink and raw. It had been just before I quit. Had that been the reason I’d left the company? To this day I can’t imagine how I could have walked away from such a high-paying job. My friends all said I was crazy. Crazy but happy.

I shrugged. “Just lucky I guess.”

Jason shook his head and whispered, “I can’t believe she used to work at IntroSpec too.”

I hadn’t even known we’d worked at the same company until after I’d left. She quit a week later. “Yeah, weird, eh?”

“I wonder if I knew her at work, when Plugged.”

I shrugged. Knowing her skill-set it was all too likely. The thought left me strangely uncomfortable.

The four-piece jazz band launched into the Wedding March and we watched as Raajaa began her stately walk down the isle, her father at her side. She was beautiful, she practically glowed. Thinking back to what had started me on this path I suddenly realized something.

Dad was wrong. Character is what you are in the light.