Talent & Culture

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“How familiar,” the mail pod wants to know, “are you with the European Parliament’s current legislation pertaining to sentient and semisentient data structures? One, not at all. Two, not particularly. Three, somewhat, but please tell me more. Four, I’ve got this.”

Tomislav shifts uncomfortably in the chair, aware of the sounds of the cargo ship being unloaded behind him. “Net yiqi,” he says, quietly reverting to the Sino-Russian dialect used on Europa where he’d been posted for six months before Talent & Culture decided even that wasn’t remote enough work for his temperament and sent him to Triton.

“That sounds like a no,” the pod decides. “It’s germane for reasons which will become obvious when we discuss the bequeathment of Mrs. Barlowe Victoria Squibb-Waldridge, who is your second cousin once removed, which we know based on a DNA comparison with your company’s Talent profile. So thank you very much for contractually consenting to share your saliva, blood or semen, as the case may be.”

Tomislav can’t find a skip button on the touch display.

(Image by Marie Ginga via Adobe Firefly)

“On 11 December of last year, Mrs. Squibb-Waldridge died peacefully in her sleep of advanced frontotemporal degeneration, unmarried, unconventional, but not, of course, unloved. Please accept our deepest condolences on your loss.” The pod pauses respectfully. “In auditing her estate, we discovered in Mrs. Squibb-Waldridge’s background a nearly fatal accident on a skiing holiday twenty-three years prior, at which time it had been deemed prudent to induce a medical coma and create a deep brain scan as a backup in the event of surgical complications. This was an accepted procedure in Austria at the time, although it’s now no longer considered ethically or legally justifiable. As you might imagine, this created some jurisdictional difficulties because of the EU’s more recent restrictions on the deletion of sentient and semisentient data structures. Fortunately, these legislative restrictions are nonbinding beyond the surface of the Earth.”

“What,” asks Tomislav carefully, “am I bequeathed?”

“Mrs. Barlowe Victoria Squibb-Waldridge.”

An LED is blinking next to the pod’s dataport.

“Mrs. Squibb-Waldridge’s connectome has been stored in a pacifying simulated environment which will fit on a 32 petabyte memory stick or smart appliance.”

“…And she’s in a coma?”

“No, dead.” The LED continues to blink. “Do you have a 32 petabyte memory stick or smart appliance?”

He searches his zippered pockets for his key fob and then lets the pod work. The metal contact plate is warm when he unplugs it.

“Again,” offers the pod, “our very, very deepest condolences,” then snaps his picture and spiderwalks across the loading bay toward crew quarters with its remaining messages and firmware updates.

The tablet in Tomislav’s quarters refuses the download; only certain media files are allowed on networked devices, which includes everything at the Flammarion Glacier Ice Boring Station. Tomislav repockets the key fob, wanders down to the canteen with a bottle of Posadskaya and forgets about it.

He’s stowing gear in his footlocker later when he remembers the simulation and looks around his quarters for somewhere else to plug in. There’s a dataport on the back of the coffee machine, and although it’s networked, no one’s installed any security restrictions, so he can tap into the shared memory and copy over the files. He swaps the fob for a telepresence dongle and puts on the glasses he uses to control the boring cylinder a mile beneath his feet. He knows that when the spinner is done loading he won’t be in the empty cockpit of an industrial drill, but he doesn’t expect to be sitting on a wooden bench by a pond with a middle-aged woman in a tartan coat and climbing boots.

“First time in Berlin?” she asks him.

He looks around, spooked by birdsong.

“Tiergarten. Rest of it’s rubbish,” she tells him. “Bauhaus brutalism and Gothic ostentation. Give it back to the Russians. Can you smell the rhododendrons?”


“What’s the point then?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m in Kitzbühel. Skiing misadventure. Where are you?”


“Well, I don’t really know North Tyrol. The roads are terrible, I know that much.”


“You sound as though you’ve had a brain injury. Has anyone told you that?”

“I think it’s in my Talent file.”

She laughs. “They love to classify you, don’t they? Their smart suits and knobby wristwatches. They love to commoditize you. Dehumanize you.”

“I’m not really what you’d call a social person.”

“Do you know who’s social? Termites. When they want to have a chat, they secrete a few interesting thoughts from their bazoo. What does that tell you?”

“Does it get dark here?”

“Loops,” says Mrs. Squibb-Waldridge. “Sloppy. You can see it when the clouds come in over there an hour from now. Feels like rain and then it doesn’t.”


“Just as well. Becomes a bit of a destination after sundown, if you know what I mean.”

Tomislav doesn’t know what she means. He removes the glasses and stows them in his footlocker. He intends to return to the tear garden and find out about the family money, but his shifts have been extended to compensate for the declining rate of the drill’s descent through rock and ice, and there are dark mentions in his weekly T&C evaluations about uninsured solo excavations further out in the Kuiper belt.

His eyes are sleep-gummed as he makes coffee after a twelve-hour shift, and when the machine doesn’t produce a corrugated cup he peers at the touchscreen and sees that the firmware has been updated and his Arabica drip is now something called a lungo. He retrieves his glasses, but Berlin is gone, and with it the pond and the rhododendrons and every last trace in the universe of Mrs. Barlowe Victoria Squibb-Waldridge.


This story previously appeared in Nature.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Timothy Quinn is an author and technologist whose work has appeared in The New Orleans Review, The Antigonish Review, Nature:Futures, Red Wheelbarrow, Whiskey Island Magazine and The Portland Review, among others. He lives and works in Toronto, is a frequent speaker at conferences around the world on a variety of topics pertaining to science and technology, and posts at Timothy Quinn.