Chasing Stars: Chapter 1

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An orange glow lit his face in the dimly lit bar as he pulled on the joint. It had a citrus note to it.

"What is this again?" Markus asked.

"Does it matter?"

Markus flashed a mischievous grin as he took another drag.

"It's super lemon haze, it's on the uppers side," his friend explained as Markus passed the joint to him. "It helps against the sluggish when getting a good cross fade going.

"By the way, good Christ did you see what Ana was wearing tonight?" his friend seemed to exclaim out of nowhere after taking a drag. "I started humping the cutting board whenever she came to the pass through. Fuck man, she bent over to grab a ketchup and you could see right down her shirt it was awesome!"

Markus just smiled. He'd noticed of course, but wouldn't make a comment like that about her. That didn't stop him from being amused at the boorishness of his coworkers. He enjoyed the simplicity of hanging out with them. He didn't feel like he had to censor himself or worry about how he was being perceived or judged. He found their forthrightness relaxing; there was no pretense, no airs, no duplicity.

They had recently gotten off the evening shift in the kitchen of the Cheshire Cat Lounge, a drug bar in the basement of a mixed use downtown Vancouver high rise. When all drugs became decriminalized, and then later legal to sell but not advertise, these kinds of places popped up pretty quickly. This one was pretty classy as these kinds of establishments went. It had a purple and mauve striped colour scheme to match its name, a variety of gaming pods, sensory deprivation tanks, and a general bar area with good smoke extractors. On the walls were images to appeal to trippers and odd idiosyncratic items to muse over. The place was as much about providing a fun place to be high as it was about selling you drugs to take.

None of them had to work in the strictest sense. The baseline provided them enough to survive with relative comfort, but not much more than that. It was indexed to wherever you lived and what things costed around you, so what you could afford on it was pretty universal wherever you lived. If you wanted to support an expensive hobby like a drug habit, any of the nicer things in life, or have any other kind of fun that costs money, you had to work. Since no one had to work though, the other side of the deal was that there was also no minimum wage. You typically didn't make much when you did work, but what you did make you were able to keep on top of the full baseline, so it was still worth it to most people if they could find the work.

The baseline didn't come about because of generous human spirit. Once androids and simulants became economical enough, they replaced all human manual and low skilled labour. There were just no jobs, and riots and unrest got more and more violent and wide spread until the baseline was instituted as a solution. Rich people were still able to continue to get richer of course, but they had to pay modest taxes on the profits their robots made for them in order to pay for the baseline.

Androids and simulants were already creeping into the more skilled areas, but the closer you got to the centres of power where the decisions made dictated how the world turned, artificial minds were generally excluded. It was more out of arrogance than any kind of fear or suspicion of the machines. The masters of the universe had difficulty imagining something could be smarter than them, whatever that meant. The question of how to define and measure intelligence hadn't gotten easier since humans had started creating new kinds of intelligence.

Some cults had already sprouted up based on the premise that we should be worshiping the machines. They believed it was their purpose to help usher in machines capable of improving on themselves until they could do it themselves. True judgement, according to them, would come when our creations became our betters, and better able than us to judge the merits of our continued existence. Markus figured it was probably inevitable we'd eventually get there anyways, so why rush it.

"Thinking about asking her out man, I'm pretty sure she's been flirting back lately!"

"You're fucking high, bud..."

"I'm serious!"

"So am I!" Markus rebutted with a laugh. He drank the last half of his beer, and then offered: "Go on then, ask her out. Do it before any of the rest of us do. We've all been circling her since she broke up with her boyfriend. Take your shot man, but how certain are you really that she'll say yes? Because if you go ask right now? I'll bet you this month's basic she'll say no, what do you say to that?"

The boys hooted at the challenge. Markus didn't expect the man to actually take him up on his bet, it was a lot of money for people like them. Neither could really afford to lose a whole month's basic. Markus had clearly underestimated either the man's estimation of his chances, the irrepressible lure of double his basic payment this month, or both.

"You're on," his friend declared as he took a shot and then slammed the glass down on the table. "You're on, and you better be good for it." He said pointing to the others as he left, "You're all are witnesses!"

"Come on, no!" Markus tried to call him back with a laugh. He only turned around to give him the finger and to mime making it rain before turning back to his objective. "Oh my god she's going to rip his face off!" Markus exclaimed to the others. "I can't take the poor guy's money after that!"

"He'd sure as shit take yours in a heartbeat man," one of the boys offered, "and you know it."

Markus acknowledged this truth with a nod to the side. They watched as he approached and started talking to her. They couldn't hear what they were saying, but the fact that it seemed to be going well made Markus feel sick to his stomach. He couldn't lose this month's basic; his brother would kill him. He'd only made the bet out of a certainty the guy wouldn't go for it. Even if he did, Markus was sure he'd get shot down! Markus also wouldn't have taken the poor guy's money, he'd offered more of a joke bet. His other friend was absolutely correct that the guy would demand payment from him though.

It was also incredibly silly; people didn't just get 'asked out' in the restaurant industry. You got drunk and hooked up while barely coherent, and saw where things went from there.

The table stifled an eruption of cheers as their boy hugged the woman. He returned to the table beaming, with a big shit eating grin on his face. "Boom. Proper movie date, Tuesday night. How bout that hunh?"

"You're asshole," Markus teased as he picked up his pad off the table and transferred the funds.

"And you're broke!"

"What did you do, offer to split the money with her if she played along."

"Ahh, a gentleman never tells," he said with a wink.

"Yeah, so why can't you tell me?" Markus asked and the boys laughed.

They were fun.


*** *** ***


Markus awoke after ten the next day on a couch in the back area of the bar. It was for people tripping too hard who needed a quiet place to lie down. Their servers were pretty good though, so this didn't happen very often. As a result, the owner didn't mind if the staff crashed there every once in a while, as long as they vacated when a real patron needed to lie down.

Looking way past the ceiling above him, he rubbed the stubble of his beard which was just starting to have the odd white hair in it here and there. He was not looking forward to what he needed to do next; he hated having to go to his brother for money. He was certainly entitled to it, but he was sensitive about his brother thinking him a loser, and he hated having to do anything which supported this opinion.

After standing up and stretching out all the various pops and creaks in the joints throughout his relatively lean body, he made his way out through the front of the bar, saying good morning and good bye to the day staff on his way out. He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for one of the upper floors, and then withdrew at the sight of himself in the mirror. He straightened his clothes and did his best to smooth out the wrinkles. He ran his fingers through his short brown hair trying to bring some order to it. The bags under his eyes went down a little when he massaged them, and the medicated eye drops helped the redness of his eyes somewhat, but not completely.

Looking himself up and down he figured it was at least a slight improvement, but hardly a convincing lie. The doors opened and welcomed him with his own last name 'BOWLAND' in big electric blue letters on the wall behind the receptionist.

"Hello Markus, " the receptionist greeted.

"Janet."

She looked him up and down, and then got up and led him away with a small sigh. "Follow me".

Markus knew Janet had affection for him, but she was happily married with children, and he interpreted it more as pity with a bit of amusement, the regard you have for an animal with a surgery wound and neck cone.

She led him to what was in theory his office, an out of the way private room towards the back of the floor. He wasn't formally an employee, but he was involved with the company enough to be able to have a private space at the offices for when he should need it. Janet pulled clothes out of the closet and opened the toiletries drawer so he could see the toothpaste, toothbrush, and comb.

"When you've cleaned yourself up, dm me and I'll tell your brother you're here."

"Thanks Janet, you're too good to me," Markus offered as he started to take off his shirt.

"Don't remind me," she answered with the same sad but amused look before opening the door to leave.


"Come in," his brother Lucas said from behind his desk when Markus knocked. "Ah, Markus, have you seen this? He swiveled one of his desk's screens around to show Markus. It was a before and after but in three stages of him getting onto the elevator, then getting out of it, and then leaving his office a short while ago.

"Sure doesn't take them long does it?" Markus observed as he looked at the pictures. Before and after the elevator didn't yield much improvement, but when you compared entering the elevator against coming out of his office, he thought the improvement was actually pretty impressive.

"No, and frankly I'm a little concerned that my IT department isn't savvy enough not to pass this stuff around within the company network. We'll have to have another look at them... Anyways, what brings you by?"

"Can't I just come by to see how my dear brother is running our company?"

His brother raised an eyebrow at him. Despite being older, Lucas took care of himself better and arguably looked younger than Markus. His hair was lighter, and it was obvious he worked out.

"Certainly, you just don't usually seem to care."

"Okay I'm going to level with you." Markus mocked like he was going to tell him a secret. "Don't be surprised, but I do need something."

"Un hunh." Lucas seemed mildly amused but unmoved.

"I just need to cash out a bit of my stock.'

"Again?" The expression was more concern than surprise or anger. "You can't wait for the next dividend payment? It's only a couple month away."

"I fucked up. What do you want me to say?" Markus was embarrassed but only a little. He owed Lucas a lot, but there was still a bratty little shit of a younger brother inside who balked at being made to feel like he owed anybody anything.

"What happened?"

"Oh... I made a stupid bet I didn't really mean, but someone took me up on it literally and it got carried away."

"How much?"

Markus looked at him, more embarrassed now. "A month's basic."

Lucas rolled his eyes and laughed. "You're crazy! Is that how much you want then?" There was no discussion about it, Markus was entitled to cash it all out at any time if he really wanted to, he just didn't have as much left as he used to.

"Yes please."

"No problem, we'll have that in your accounts within the hour."

"Thank you."

"I still don't get why you bother though. With basic I mean, with that job and those people when you know we could set you up with a do-nothing job here that would pay you so much more."

"Yeah..." Markus offered, thoughtfully rubbing his stubbled chin. "It's the do-nothing part that's the problem for me."

"Then fucking do something!" Lucas snapped back with more force than he'd meant to let on. "Sorry, I just mean..." he sighed. "You've got the education; we can always use good people we can trust around here. You can 'do something' here," he said with air quotes, "you can do a lot."

Markus looked out the large window which made up a whole wall of his brother's office. He was CEO of Bowland Power Systems, the company which had grown out of the startup which had cracked sustainable fusion almost a hundred years ago. The company was started by their great grandfather, and when they figured it out, it changed the world and made their family rich. Bowland Power Systems were still the top manufacturer of fusion reactors of all classes, from small enough to power your car, to large enough to power cities and starships.

Out the window was Vancouver Harbour. A sea plane happened to be taking off as Markus watched on. The two brothers were both of this place. They'd travelled a lot, seen much of the world and had adventures, but the wet lush greenery and salty sea air of Vancouver was in their blood. It would always be home.

Lucas was Markus' brother, but he acted like his dad sometimes. He'd felt responsible for his little brother since both their parents died when their orbital shuttle broke up on re-entry when Markus was three and Lucas was eight. It was a stupid, meaningless accident. It just happened sometimes. It was a small but understood risk of flights to and from orbit. A century of commercial flights to orbit had gotten as safe as humanly possible, but accidents still sometimes happened. But you never think it's going to happen to you with odds that small, you know?

Lucas was old enough at the time to at least somewhat understand what had happened. Hurt as much as it did, he did eventually recover and thrive. He committed himself to taking over the family company and leading it into the future for his parents. Markus was much younger though, and not grown enough to be able to understand what had happened. All he understood was that his mother and father, his worlds, his gods, his safety and home, were just gone one day, and there was a long period where everyone he encountered was miserable for reasons he couldn't understand.

This shaped him in a particular way. It was like something broke in him. It left him with an unconscious sense that love was pointless since it would inevitably be taken away, that love was pain in some fucked up way. The wound ultimately healed over for the most part (depending on who you asked), but there would always be an eternal pit of sadness in his core. All the niceties and luxuries of living amongst the upper class felt like so many house of cards built on top of the absurdity of human existence.

Markus had dutifully gotten a business degree when he was still playing along with the life assigned to him, but after his first philosophy class he decided he needed to make the subject his minor and dig deeper into it. What he learned opened his mind, allowed him to process a lot of his childhood, and led to a lot of changes in him. He wasn't really ever angry or depressed anymore, he was just challenged to care about anything more generally, because nothing seemed to matter. That's why he didn't just want to do busy work for the company for more money, to just help them accumulate more wealth (happy as he was to live off of it when he needed). The work made him sad because of how disconnected and futile the work ultimately felt. Cooking downstairs though, at least there was an immediacy to his purpose. He made food so hungry people could eat. The reason for his work was immediate, direct, and unambiguous.

"There is actually one thing I do need you to do for me though, for the company."

Lucas was considerate enough of Markus to not ask him to do things for the company and family too often, so he tried to serve whenever asked. It didn't hurt, that what was usually required of him, was his being seen at high brow social events along with the rest of the company and family. The music usually sucked, but there was at least usually good food and good drink. Hell, sometimes he even got laid.

"What's that?"

"There's a fundraiser gala tonight for that new generational starship project. Our new 'New Horizon' class reactors were designed around the requirements for that ship. We hope to sell a whole line of them, but this first one has to go well."

"Fundraiser?"

Lucas laughed. "Yeah, Sadhika Sengupta actually ran out of money funding the project, can you believe it?"

"Wasn't she the richest person in the world?"
"One of, used to be..." Lucas mused. "I mean she's not going to need it after they launch but damn, hundreds of billions of dollars gone just like that.

"And aren't they leaving like, next week?"

"Twelve days, in theory. They've already taken delivery of the core though. It's too important for us or them to hold up their schedule, but it's the last thing they need to pay for and they're coming up short."

"Well that's rude..."

"Yeah, but on the quarter billion dollar price tag for the prototype core they're only down thirty million. We agreed that they would hold a fundraiser to try to make up the difference. We've invited industry people, philanthropists, the wealthier crew members and their families... The deal we made with them is that Bowland will keep the pot whether over or under."

"Ah, so it's a squeeze."

"Yeah, they won't know that, but... yeah, it's a squeeze," he chuckled. "Little more than just showing the flag this time I'm afraid, I'll need you to schmooze and, well..." he trailed off.

"What?"

"Don't make me say it?"

"Ah. Alright, I'll be there. And yeah, sure. I'll be there there. I don't mind playing rich prick every once in a while if it keeps the world turning."

"There you go," Lucas said as he turned back around to his desk. "I'll see you there tonight then."