Sarah Pinsker's new novel, A Song for A New Day is a whiplash paced, near-future tale of oppression, surveillance, consumerism, and the power of art and protest. As such, we're thrilled to debut an exclusive excerpt here on Terraform. Read, enjoy, and get the book here. -the Ed
Our goals are speed and efficiency.
Hang on! Don’t hang up! You are valued but replaceable.
The last poster was Rosemary’s least favorite among the six mandatory inspirational posters adorning her workspace walls. The company sent new ones every three months, along with suggestions for their arrangement. Rosemary dutifully hung them, dutifully snapped daily photos of herself in her work environment to send along to headquarters. Her morning photo had even made the company website once, under the caption “Another Happy Superwally Employee.”
She wasn’t a happy employee. Not a sad or disgruntled one, either, just indifferent. Every morning she woke, ate breakfast with her parents, and went back to her bedroom, where she’d transformed her childhood desk into a Superwally Vendor Service Center. Beyond the workstation, out of the company camera’s view, were posters of the Iris Branches Band and Brain in a Jar and Whileaway; even though she’d bought them from Superwally, with her employee discount, they still weren’t part of an approved workplace environment. She used them to remind herself that she didn’t belong to Superwally: if she was valued but replaceable, so was her employer. In theory, anyway.
She’d never had any other job.
At 8:29 she turned off the music player on her ancient Superwally Basic Hoodie, the school-issued one she’d had since seventh grade, placing it on the charging pad by her bed. She slipped her work Hoodie over her head and adjusted her mic.
“Welcome, Rosemary! Have a productive day!” flashed in her vision. She waved it away.
The first call, somewhere between 8:30 and 8:35 every morning, was always a test call from Quality Control. She knew that even though they never identified themselves as such.
Her earpiece chimed at 8:32. She answered on the second chime, optimal. A message praising her quick action flashed in the corner of her vision, and the hoodspace resolved into a room with a small, uncluttered wooden desk and dusky blue walls designed to project calm.
“Good morning. You’ve reached Vendor Services. I’m Rosemary.”
“Good morning.” An avatar of a gray-bearded Sikh man materialized in the virtual chair opposite her. “I was wondering if you’d help me with a problem I’m having.”
She didn’t bother skimming his culture and gender specs like she would for a real customer. “Sure, Jeremy, how may I help you?”
The man tensed, went still. “Can’t you even pretend you don’t know this is me? We’re recorded. We get evaluated.”
Rosemary sighed. “Sorry. Right. Stick to the script. . . . What can I help you with today? You are a valued vendor in the Superwally family and I’m sure I can find a solution for you quickly and efficiently.”
“Thank you. Our fulfillment interface is throwing a glitch. I can’t see which items you need us to replenish in your Tucson warehouse.”
“Certainly, valued customer. If you give me your vendor ID number, I’m sure we can sort this out.”
Jeremy, wearing the day’s bogus vendor avatar, gave her the day’s bogus vendor ID number and sat watching as she solved the day’s bogus issue. This wasn’t a hard one at all, but she resisted the urge to tell him to throw something more difficult at her. Somebody would, sometime during the day, she hoped. Those problems were all that made the job interesting.
She pictured Jeremy sitting in his own home vendor service center, somewhere in—where had he said that one time? His workspace walls no doubt looked the same as hers, but maybe he kept his own posters out beyond the camera’s range, too. She wondered, not for the first time, if he also still lived with his parents. She thought he might be around her own age, twenty-four, but he could as easily have been thirty or forty.
His avatars didn’t give any clue, since Quality Control were allowed to vary their looks day to day. Everyone else’s avs were set to age thirty-three, an age the company had at some point determined to project the right mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm. The most she had ever gotten from Jeremy, in all his early morning test calls, was his name and that he lived someplace starting with a V. Virginia, she thought. Or Vermont. Neither of those data points was necessarily true, either, but it was more than she knew about any of her other coworkers. The rest existed as a long list of employee performance ratings to compete against.
She took seventy-two seconds to solve the morning’s problem, and another “Timely service!” message rewarded her efficiency. Once Jeremy had gone, she flipped to clearview, straightened her desk, and waited for her first real customer. It didn’t take long. At 8:47, the earpiece chimed again. She forced a smile and answered.
“Good morning. You’ve reached Vendor Services. My name is Rosemary. How may I help you?” Good job! Your customer can hear your smile! scrolled at the corner of her eye. She waved away the bonus point.
“We’ve got a massive problem this morning.” The voice came first, then an avatar of a tall young Korean man appeared beside her virtual wooden desk. It was a high-end av, fine enough to show her the tension behind his expression.
“I’m sure I can find a solution quickly and efficiently. May I have your vendor ID number?” Her words, from her avatar’s mouth. Per company policy, her avatar wore her photographic likeness, but aged up to thirty-three, with neater hair and makeup. She was glad they didn’t care whether she wore makeup in real life, even if they did insist she get dressed in the company uniform every day. They spun that as “look your best to work your best,” but she knew about the tech woven into the fabric, the better to quantify you with, my dear.
He rattled off his vendor ID, one she didn’t recognize. Rosemary entered it, trying to conceal her excitement at the company name that popped up. “Can you confirm your vendor name?”
“StageHoloLive or StageHolo. I don’t know if we’re in there as a subsidiary or our own entity.”
“Your own entity,” Rosemary confirmed.
She had been at Superwally six years now, but had never gotten a call from StageHoloLive. It had never even dawned on her that they were Superwally vendors. Of course they were. Where else would you buy your StageHolo projector or SHL-enhanced Hoodie? Who’d fulfill orders for physical souvenirs of their shows? And for that matter, whose lines did they use when they streamed one or another of their services—SHL or SportHolo or TVHolo—into every home and Hoodie in the country?
Almost every home, anyway. Her family didn’t even have the basic StageHolo living room box that played TV and movies, let alone the add-on subscriptions or immersive live experiences. It was mostly a money thing, partly some Luddite parent principle. They would have tossed her old school Hoodie, too, if she hadn’t insisted she still needed it. It couldn’t handle much of anything, but it let her pretend she hadn’t been left totally behind.
“How can I help you?” As she asked, she repeated the vendor number to herself, so she’d recognize it faster in the future. It was palindromic, an easy number to memorize.
“We’ve got a big show tonight, and the site is telling anyone who tries to register at the day-of price point that ticket sales are closed. It was fine yesterday.”
So Superwally ran their registration sites, too. That made sense. Otherwise they’d have created a competitor by now to drive StageHolo out of business.
“Let me get right on that for you.” Rosemary pictured the code before she looked at it. It was easier when she imagined it as it should be before scoping out the real thing. When she opened her eyes to the visual representation, she spotted the problem. It took only a few keystrokes to fix. She puttered for a moment longer before closing out, so it wouldn’t look as easy as it had been. Don’t make the customer feel stupid, or like they could have solved it themselves.
“Got it,” she said. “It’ll work fine now. Do you want to test it from your end before I disconnect?”
“That’d be great. Hang on.” The av went still, then reanimated with visible relief. “Yep. You fixed it.”
Rosemary glanced at her timer. If she ended the call now she’d get another bonus point for efficient solving, but something nagged at her. “It’s not my place to ask, but I’m guessing this isn’t the first time this has happened?”
“No, actually. I’ve called twice in the last month. Why do you ask?”
“I fixed it for this particular show, but I think there’s a bug in how the system is coding dates across your entire site. It’ll probably keep happening.”
“Interesting. Could you, uh, stop it from happening?”
“I can, if you’d like.”
“Of course. That’s why I called.”
“Well, you called about the specific issue, which I just fixed. We’re supposed to fix the problem at hand, ‘quickly and efficiently.’ Which I did, but the more efficient solution is to make it so you don’t have to call back when it happens again in a week.”
“Great. Do that, please.”
Rosemary grinned for real this time. The repair took fifty-eight seconds; she didn’t wait for the optimal time. “Can I help with anything else for StageHoloLive?”
“No, but listen. You were so quick, and I appreciate that you took the initiative to fix the problem behind the problem. Can I send you a code to attend tonight’s show for free?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t accept gifts from vendors. It’s against company policy.” That saved her from mentioning how the only Hoodies in her household were this work-dedicated one, which she was prohibited from using for entertainment, and the Basic the school system had subsidized when she was thirteen and school had gone virtual, which was still good enough to listen to music and hang out with her friends, but too archaic to handle SHL technology.
“Gotcha. Oh, well. I don’t want to get you in trouble, but can I get your employee ID number? Or a direct line to contact you? You’re my new hero. I’d like to be able to contact you again, and maybe send a compliment to your supervisor.”
She didn’t see any harm in that; she already had a few vendors who contacted her directly. She passed her ID number.
“Thanks, Rosemary. Have a wonderful day.”
“You, too. Thank you for being a loyal customer.”
The call disconnected. Rosemary glanced at her reward center. She had lost her bonus point for problem-solving efficiency—the call had gone two minutes over optimum—but got another one for refusing a gift. She was 157 points away from a merit raise. Maybe she’d use it to buy an SHL-compatible Hoodie, even if it pissed off her parents.
The remaining shift-hours passed in a series of mostly easy fixes and a couple of trickier ones. Rosemary appreciated the tricky ones, even if the system didn’t adjust to give credit for dealing with more complex problems. She imagined there were other people in her position who found ways to shunt off those issues, to go for time points rather than completion points; she occasionally got calls that had been bumped from other vendor services staff. She’d never met or talked with any of them, so she could only guess some note in the system marked her.
If her parents were correct, sooner or later it would cost her a raise. The company would keep her where she was, solving everyone’s problems, but not solving them quickly or efficiently or whatever the other inspirational posters of the month demanded. At lunch she ate her yogurt with speed and efficiency. She solved issues as quickly as possible, but some couldn’t be solved any faster.
Just before she took her Hoodie off for the evening, one more message chimed. Annoyance surged through her. She was obligated to take it, even two minutes before quitting time, but she didn’t get overtime without prior approval and she’d get dinged if she ignored it.
She tapped the message envelope and found an optional overtime assignment. StageHoloLive had put through a formal request for her to observe that evening’s show to make sure there were no technical glitches from the Superwally end. Observe the show itself, but with access to the code if she was needed. She read it twice to make sure they were serious.
“I’d be happy to, but my hood isn’t SHL-enabled. I’ll see if I can borrow one in time, but it’s unlikely,” she wrote back. “I apologize for not being able to fulfill this assignment.”
The system passed her message along to whomever had sent it. She changed out of her work uniform; they weren’t supposed to track her after she clocked out, but she didn’t trust them not to.
Walking from her bedroom/workspace into the kitchen was a walk back into reality. Enclosed in her Hoodie all day she sometimes came to believe there were no real people, just voices and messages and lines of code and avatars spread out across the world. Faces that needed help from her in order to feed themselves data and packages and money. Then she stepped into the warm kitchen and was reminded humans existed, real flesh-and-blood people, and they didn’t all need something from her.
“What can I do?” she asked, stretching one arm against the doorframe, then the other.
Her mother was chopping carrots for soup, her crutches leaning against the counter beside her. She hadn’t bothered with her prosthetic today. “If you take over on the vegetables, I’ll do the chicken.”
Rosemary took the proffered knife, popping a carrot piece into her mouth, then spitting it out again. The handsome carrots Superwally droned in never tasted as sweet as the stumpy and gnarled red-cored Chantenay they grew in their garden, but those had all been harvested months ago. Her mother gave her a look, and she ate the bland piece rather than waste it.
“Hey, Ma, do you know anyone nearby with a StageHoloLive hood? Near enough for me to get it in the next hour?”
“I’ve got a chance to go to a free concert. I thought it might be interesting.”
“That’s not ‘going to a concert.’ Trust me, it’s a slippery slope. The hood is cheap, and maybe the show itself isn’t too pricy, but then they make you pay for more and more inside the experience, and it’s too easy just to say yes and transfer money. It’s a system designed to make you spend and spend—”
She heard the frown in her mother’s voice without seeing her face. “I know, I know. But they’re covering me. I’m curious about the full experience. Just once. I’d get paid overtime, too.”
The overtime made a little difference. “I didn’t realize it was for work. Maybe Tina Simmons? She practically lives inside that corporate playground.”
Rosemary didn’t bother to check; her mother hadn’t noticed she’d been avoiding Tina for years. She wracked her brain for others among their closest neighbors, but nobody came to mind whom she’d be comfortable asking. The more she considered it, nearby was only the first problem. Her mother was right that Tina spent all her time in hoodspace, like everyone else but Rosemary; asking to borrow something most people put on when they woke and took off when they went to bed was the second problem. It wasn’t going to happen. She cut the remaining carrots, moved on to celery and onions. She was setting the table for dinner when the proximity alarm on the front door beeped. Her mother washed her hands, wiped them on her jeans, and pulled her phone from her pocket to check the security camera feed. “Package drone. Are you expecting any-thing?” Rosemary shook her head. “I’ll go see what it is.” She unlocked the door. The package was small and light. It was addressed to her employee ID number, not her personal ID. Inside nestled a brand- new, top- of- the- line, honest- to- goodness name- brand Hoodie™, along with all accessories.
She turned it over in her hands, amazed at how little the new model weighed. No won-der people never took them off. The packing slip had a sentence in the notes section saying, “Thank you for supporting our concert this evening.” She ran back to her room and pulled her work hood back up to check if the assign ment was still available to her. It was. “I will be able to assist,” she said, happy that the interface wouldn’t convey her excitement.
A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker, is out September 9th from Berkley Press/Penguin Random House.