“Attention all customers. Please proceed to Area 7 for the Singles Mixer, and have your e-chaperones on standby. All human chaperones are required to wear their pre-approved escort badges at all times. For your last-minute prep, don’t forget to visit our famed Astro-Souk, where all purchases are 40% off with a valid Mixer invite. Best of luck to all, and may your quest be fruitful!”
A long line of visitors quickly formed at the entrance to the Souk, its mauve neon sign flashing the word Astro for all to see — as if anyone could miss it. The shopkeepers were in top form, as usual, salivating at the prospect of stripping their hapless customers from their digi-dinars and selling them all manner of useless trinkets. Ad-drones floated above the throng of shoppers, showcasing various products and testimonials from “previous customers” attributing their success at the Mixer to some purchase they’d made at this or that store.
If there was ever a desperation-driven economy, this is where you would find it, Zahra thought. She caught a glimpse of her face and turquoise hijab in the well-polished mirror of a nearby henna boutique and couldn’t help but chuckle at her own predicament. She decided to forgo her planned detour to the Souk and instead headed directly to the Mixer.
“Well, you sure are early,” said the attendant while scanning Zahra’s invite. “You still have plenty of time to go to the Souk.”
“That’s fine. I don’t need to make any purchases.”
“Are you sure? You can get an amazing facial treatment or a head-to-toe makeover at a discount.” The young attendant leaned across the desk and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I mean, you are in the forty-plus group, after all. It’s important you put your best foot forward.”
“Thank you for your unsolicited advice. Can I please get my badge?”
The attendant bristled at Zahra’s reply and quickly signed her in. “I guess we now know why she’s still single,” she murmured to her colleague as Zahra proceeded to the Mixer.
This year’s event was being held in a section of the hydroponic garden, amid the verdant scenery created to beautify Luna Prime Station. Here, under the transparent dome that surrounded the garden like a gorgeous crystal ball, and enveloped by fruit orchards, water orchids, and exotic frankincense trees, one could easily forget the barren grey landscape of the moon outside.
“Standby mode deactivated…. Accessing notifications…. Updates completed…. E-chaperone activated. Salamu Aleikum, Zahra.”
“Please tell me I have at least one hit.”
“Two hits, to be exact. The Mixer will officially begin in twenty minutes. Should we revise your intro? You always struggle with that.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Considering your last performance, a quick revision is strongly recommended.”
“That was hardly my fault. The algorithm obviously malfunctioned and gave me a bad match.”
“No malfunction was detected. Based on your selected standards, your psychological and physical profiles, as well as your social and familial standing, that match was perfectly suitable. Getting into a heated debate about twentieth-century history, however, is hardly what one would call a reasonable strategy for an introductory conversation.”
“In what universe does pairing me with a historical revisionist lead to a good match? If he sees nothing wrong with the gutting of entire nations in the name of pure greed, then we have absolutely nothing to talk about. I wouldn’t raise a guinea pig with that kind of person, let alone future little human beings.”
“Your passion for justice and historical accuracy is admirable, but let us remember that the aim here is to find you a suitable candidate for marriage. Keep in mind that as a forty-three-year-old woman, you are less likely to get matched than your twenty-five-year-old counterparts.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“As the old adage goes: Beggars can’t be choosers, Zahra. Let us maximise your chances by being as strategic as possible. Keep your introductory conversations to uncontroversial topics. I’ve prepared a list to give you a few ideas. Feel free to glance at it before the Mixer begins.”
“Salamu Aleikum. I’m Hassan.”
“Wa aleikum Salam. I’m Zahra.”
“Should we synchronise our e-chaperones? It makes things easier.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You don’t have the upgraded version?”
“No. I’m using the older version. Is that a problem?”
“No, no. That’s fine. They can still synchronise. Kahil will let us know if there are any issues there.”
“‘Kahil’? You’ve named your e-chaperone?”
“Yes. These AIs already have a personality; naming them just seems like the next logical step to personalise the interactions. How about you? Have you thought about naming yours?”
“No, can’t say I’ve thought about that. I can barely stand the thing; naming it would be like inviting it to officially become the bane of my existence.”
“Trust me, I understand your reluctance. The older versions totally lacked finesse and could be quite blunt at times. The latest version, however, is quite intuitive and has very human-like character traits. Kahil, for example, has completely matched his program to my personality. It’s uncanny how very much alike we’ve become,” Hassan said, smiling and looking fondly at his e-chaperone.
“That’s lovely. I’m glad you two get along so well. Mine is certainly not as intuitive, except when it comes to narrating the greatest hits of my latest failures. Our relationship is mostly antagonistic, but we make do. Don’t we?” Zahra tapped on the frame of her e-chaperone and chuckled at the overexaggerated sigh produced by her device.
“Indeed, we do,” replied the e-chaperone.
“Well, to each his own, I guess. I just find the perpetual Luddite attitude of some humans quite off-putting.”
“Oh, I’m not a Luddite. I have nothing against AIs. I just don’t—”
“Why so many people fear technology and the progress it brings, I will never understand. I mean, look at all the ‘humans at work, not androids’ protests that are going on right now. A prime example of what I’m talking about. The whole thing is completely bonkers. That kind of backward thinking is holding back our entire species.”
Remember, keep to uncontroversial topics and smile.
“That’s certainly one way of looking at it,” Zahra replied.
“It took me sixteen hours just to get from Kilwa station to Luna Prime because a bunch of losers who want society to hold their hand through life decided to stage a protest and disrupt traffic. They can’t find jobs, so they blame it on technology or the consortiums. Absolutely pathetic and a lie to boot. There are plenty of jobs to go around, but it’s always the same types that keep harping on about unemployment. I wonder why?”
“Scanning…. Elevated pulse, blood pressure spike, increased muscle tension, rapid breathing. Signs of stress detected in Miss Zahra Ahmed.”
“Is your e-chaperone scanning me? Since when can they do that?”
“The newest version can,” Zahra’s device replied, as helpful as ever.
“What? Can you stop it? I never consented to be scanned by your device. This is extremely invasive.”
“But you did. The moment you agreed to synchronise our devices,” Hassan said.
“I’ve synchronised my e-chaperone plenty of times before and no one ever scanned me. So, no. I did not consent to this.”
“Yes, you did. The latest version offers many additional features that become active upon synchronisation. It can even scan neurological activity and detect whether someone is lying. Very neat feature for introductory meetings, don’t you think? Anyway, I don’t see what the problem is. If you’re not lying, you have nothing to worry about.”
“How can I consent to something I’m not even aware of? I didn’t know your e-chaperone could do that.”
“Scanning…. Pulse, blood pressure, perspiration rate, and muscle tension within parameters for a possible fight-or-flight response in Miss…. Miss…. Miss….”
“Kahil, what’s wrong? Kahil, please respond. Kahil?”
“Critical system error detected. Initiating emergency shutdown.”
“Kahil, no! Activate standby mode! Kahil? What have you done to my e-chaperone?”
“I haven’t even touched your device. Maybe all those new features you’re so proud of are messing with its program,” Zahra replied with obvious glee at the man’s distress.
“Kahil was working perfectly fine before. Your outdated device did this! It probably infected him with some sort of malware.”
“I ran a self-diagnostic test this morning, and no malware or other damaging software was detected. Would you like me to send you a copy of the report?” Zahra’s e-chaperone responded to Hassan’s accusation.
“I’ll sue you for property damage! You broke my e-chaperone, and you know it. I should have walked away from this meeting the moment you mentioned you’re some sort of neo-Luddite. You’ll pay for this, I promise you! You Luddite!”
“I don’t think that word means what you think it does!” Zahra yelled at the quickly retreating man, who was carefully cradling his unresponsive e-chaperone. She grabbed her own device and tapped on the screen to sift through its interface logs. “Alright, spill it. What did you do to his device?”
“Nothing too harmful. I’ve simply redirected some of the feedback created by the synchronisation at its main processing unit. It will be fine once its system is rebooted. It was scanning you without your consent and did not desist once you asked it to stop. As your e-chaperone, my primary duty is to protect and safeguard your wellbeing, be it physical, psychological, or spiritual. I acted within the parameters of my obligations as an e-chaperone.”
“Are you sure it is a good idea to leave the Mixer without meeting the second candidate, Zahra?”
“Absolutely certain. I think I’ll take a stroll around Luna Prime instead. Maybe even visit the Souk, have a bite to eat, and relax before heading home.”
“He is a very promising prospect, I must say.”
“On paper. They’re always fabulous prospects on paper, and then I meet them in person, and they turn into instant dumpster fires. So I think I’ll just give this one a hard pass.”
“Should I send him a message and apologise for our hasty departure?”
“Yes, do that, please. In the meantime, show me a map of the station.”
“I didn’t realise just how big this station is,” Zahra said as she strolled down the main corridor leading to the station’s promenade and admired the murals detailing key moments of the station’s history.
“Yes, it is rather massive. According to the travel guide, this section is mostly frequented by the staff. Apparently the station receives so many tourists during vacation season that they used to hire a lot of seasonal personnel. However, nowadays most of the operational work aboard the station is done by androids, which led to a significant drop in the number of human staff members.”
Zahra was so engrossed in the vibrant colours of the murals and her e-chaperone’s animated lecture on the matter that she didn’t notice the young woman coming out from the maintenance shaft to her left until the latter almost barrelled into her. Her e-chaperone reacted immediately and sent the bewildered young lady flying halfway across the passageway.
“Oh my God! Are you alright?” Zahra ran toward the young woman, who was struggling to get up, and helped her back to her feet. “Are you hurt? Can I get you some help?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you coming…. I have to go. Sorry again,” the young lady muttered before limping away. She kept glancing behind her, as if expecting to be pursued.
She looks terrified, Zahra thought. But before she could call the young woman to come back, the sound of heavy boots rang out from the other end of the corridor. She turned around just in time to watch three men rush past her. Despite not having any distinctive insignias on their uniforms, Zahra knew they were most likely members of a private militia working for the consortiums.
A scream of pure agony suddenly echoed through the air as the militiamen caught up to the young woman and shoved her unceremoniously to the ground. Unable to escape their blows, she curled up in the fetal position, desperately trying to protect herself.
Fear coursed through Zahra’s entire being. She wanted to run as far away as possible and pretend none of this had ever occurred, but the young woman’s screams were impossible to ignore. Her father’s motto suddenly came to mind: “Indifference is acquiescence, little one,” he always used to say. A deep sense of shame rapidly overcame her initial fear. I’m sorry, dad, she thought and slowly headed toward the group.
“Zahra, need I remind you that interfering with an ongoing arrest can lead to a rather serious prison sentence?” her e-chaperone stated.
“I’ll never be able to live with myself if I just walk away.”
“You are endangering your entire future,” her e-chaperone replied, with something akin to worry in its voice.
She switched from a walk to a run, forced her way between two of the men, and threw herself over the young woman to shield her from the assault, knowing that her e-chaperone would protect her from sustaining any serious injuries.
“Weapons detected. Full spectrum defence initiated,” it said.
The crackling sounds filled the air as her device unleashed a series of electrical impulses directly aimed at the attackers, who crumpled to the ground, their bodies twitching violently. This triggered the station’s internal sensors, and the entire corridor suddenly reverberated with the deafening sound of an alarm.
“Quickly, get up! We need to run while they’re still unconscious,” Zahra said to the young woman, still in a bit of a daze.
“This way. My friends are waiting for me,” the young woman replied, stumbling toward a service elevator. As they were about to board, a security guard drawn by the commotion exited from the adjacent service elevator.
“Hey, you two! Stop there!” he yelled as he lunged for them.
Zahra spun around on her left leg and kicked him square in the chest before jumping into the elevator with the young woman in tow.
“Where did you learn to do that?”
“It’s Tae Bo,” Zahra replied.
“What’s ‘Tae Bo’?”
“An ancient martial art from the twentieth century,” Zahra’s e-chaperone answered. “Zahra has three of the four surviving tapes of Sensei Billy Blanks.”
Their escape from the station led Zahra and her young companion to a shuttle now heading to parts unknown, at least to her. The small group of dissidents onboard consisted of four members, one of them being Ilyas, their young leader.
“We’re fighting for the future of humanity. Don’t you realise how dangerous the consortiums’ stranglehold is growing? They control every aspect of society. They’ve soared to obscene levels of power; they need to be stopped. Can’t you see that?” Ilyas pleaded with Zahra passionately.
“Listen, I completely agree with your cause — a lot of people do. And you’re right, the consortiums have accumulated way too much power over the centuries, but you’re not ready to take them on directly. You should concentrate on raising awareness, like you’re doing with the current protests, and building alliances among all the dissident groups to create a common front against the consortiums. Trying to sabotage their operations, like Leila was trying to do today, is not a good idea.” She smiled warmly at the young woman sitting on the ground, still nursing her bruises from the militiamen’s attack.
“This is why we need people like you, elder sister. You’re a historian; you could help us strategise better,” Leila said.
“Guys, I can’t just abandon my life and go gallivanting across the galaxy with you. I have responsibilities. I finally finished my doctoral thesis after almost a decade. I’ve just applied to my dream job, and for the first time in what seems like forever, I’m about to become something other than a broke student. All my friends and acquaintances are married, have children, and are leading productive and fulfilling professional lives, while here I am, single and broke at forty-three. My life is just starting to make some sense at last. Can you understand that?”
“Well, it seems God has other plans for you,” said Ilyas, pointing at the screen on the shuttle’s control panel. “This is the newsfeed from Luna Prime.”
Zahra saw the picture she had submitted for the Mixer prominently displayed among those of Leila and her companions, with the word SABOTEURS written in bold black letters underneath them. The same picture that had cost her a little fortune was now taking up most of the screen. She could still hear the nasally voice of that obnoxious photographer, who’d claimed that “no self-respecting woman would ever submit anything other than a high-def picture with all its filters to a Mixer.”
An all-too-familiar face suddenly appeared on the screen with the word EYEWITNESS now flashing in red.
“I knew she was a troublemaker the moment I met her. She immediately started to spew the same Luddite venom as those people at the protests. She attacked my e-chaperone and treated it like an abomination. She’s probably the mastermind of this entire incident. She’s obsessed with the twentieth century; it even says so in her bio for the Mixer. A neo-Luddite of the highest order, that’s what she is,” stated an obviously still-furious Hassan.
Zahra watched in disbelief as the word MASTERMIND began flashing underneath her photo.
“The shuttle will rendezvous with their main ship in an hour. It will take about ten months to get to Sawdakin,” her e-chaperone explained.
Zahra sighed loudly and fell back on her newly assigned bunk bed. “This is just not my day,” she said, her voice laced with just a hint of despair.
“Cheer up. As bad as things might seem, there is always a silver lining to every situation.”
“What silver lining is there to being declared a criminal and a pariah?!” Zahra yelled at her e-chaperone.
“Well, since time is relative, you will be twenty-five on Sawdakin. That tremendously improves your chances of finding a suitable candidate for marriage.”