At last, the building he was looking for appeared in between two tall multi-storey office juggernauts on the other side of the street. Despite the fresh paint, it was simply too small and inconspicuous to be noticed in the midst of distinctively pompous constructions that mark financial districts of every other city. Architectural details of the building in question bore a signature of an overly ambitious young man. Base colour of a hideous shade of olive green contrasted with white window frames, white corners and white styling features, such as overhangs, notches and imitation of Greek columns. Above the door hung an old board and its letters in a ragged font read Trajectory Office. There used to be a time when the subheading could be seen from across the street, now though after many years of vicious storms it only said E ter at yo r own isk. Not that those who entered cared. It’s not like you could change your mind in front of the door, either. The man staring down the building and smoking his second to last Lucky Strike knew the deal. Wind blew the smoke into his eyes and he shed a tear or two. One gets used to it over time, he hoped, otherwise it would be disturbing.
It’s been a week since his first cigarette and so far, so good. For a person working in a cancer department of a city hospital, it was not unusual to smoke. During pauses, coffee breaks and lunches, half of the staff rolled out and eagerly inhaled the same stuff that made their patients suffer. What else could you do? Cancer Ward, the C-Ward, didn’t make a beautiful sight. Death lured everywhere and even those of the lucky minority knew how badly chemo had damaged their intestines and that beating the odds of recurrence were of probability so small that no one dared assigning a number to it. Over the years medicine has worked wonders in cancer treatment, however as the average life span grew unwearyingly, the question was no longer if, but when. Some authorities were heard to declare in hushed voices that a human kind has perhaps reached its limit.
Precisely none of these thoughts occurred to the man who has thrown the butt down the rabbit hole of sewers and crossed the street. As he approached the front door an elderly man with a body of an ex-bouncer gave the visitor a small nod. He entered, at his own risk. First things first. A queue stretched as far as twenty people because, predictably, only one information desk was working. Our man checked out the young lady on one of her first shifts, or so he guessed based on the chaos she virtually embodied in every single movement she has done. “Ugh” he uttered and strolled to a bench. There, he took out a file from jacket’s inside pocket and flicked through the forms. Confirmation of a valid work contract – check. Birth certificate – check. Pre-printed form 2.A disclaiming any legal responsibility of issues the named above person discusses with Trajectory Office – check. Pre-printed form 2.B… blah blah blah Trajectory Office cannot be held responsible for any damage done… blah blah blah visitor confirms he entered at his own risk – check. Passport -… He couldn’t find it in the file so he turned his pockets upside down before, couple of drops of sweat later, he found it in the same pocket where the file has been. Check. He looked at his black & white photograph on the second page. A young man with fierce determination in his eyes stared right back. Person on the picture was not smiling, he looked as serious as a grey suited banker trying to sell a million dollar mortgage to a jobless Cuban living in a beach hut – deadly serious. José Pablo Pereira. 3rd generation immigrant. “This passport is a property of Sacramento Immigration office, state California, United States of America. … Owner of this passport is under protection of United States of America.” Yeah, of course I am. Contented with the contents of the file, he looked up and observed the situation. The queue hasn’t moved yet and people sheepishly refused to let go of their spots and sit down. Inside, the building was as new as it could be – dark marble stone floor, white walls with a few palms scattered here and there, perfectly tidy. Six information desks and stretched in the back – rooms with a bunch of nerds behind computers who knew how to make a difference. If only one could go straight in. José Pablo Pereira fell asleep.
Night shifts in C-Ward varied from calm through interesting to havoc. Last night, it got tough. One patient was losing it. She was in great condition in comparison with her roommates and thus the complications were completely unexpected. It took them several hours of wrestling back and forth before she got stabilized. José Pereira oftentimes wondered if these fights were worth the struggle, when being alive is paid by countless hours of suffering and a hope for a happy ending is diminishing… Nope, he wasn’t entitled to make that call. Nor would he want to. So this time, they made it through together. Then the electricity went off. C-Ward had indeed a power generator at its disposal, but even so it meant regular check-ups to minimize chances of monitoring machine failure. By the time the emergency guys at a nearby power plant got the juices flowing, a dawn broke out and first beams of sunlight brought a whiff of spring to the C-Ward’s rooms. José Pereira got released at 7 a.m. but he hung around partly to chat with the early birds and partly to check how the night fighter fared.
Someone shook with him lightly. It was a woman’s touch, wasn’t it? Men aren’t usually so kind, they just hit your head against a wall and wake the heck up, right now! Well, in the night clubs anyway. Slowly he opened his eyes and recognized a face of the only worker, who remained in the hall.
“I am terribly sorry to wake you up, sir, your time has come. And I figured you’d like to proceed immediately.”
“Oh, but of course” he mumbled. Her politeness smelled that of Briton, however her accent talked a different game. She came from up state, might be Monterrey County, and watched all too many episodes of Yes, Minister, he would wager. Needless to say, he got up to his feet and followed her to the table. Without being asked to do so, he spread out all the necessary documents and signed the 2.A and 2.B forms.
“Would that be all?”
“Yes, let me just make copies of these and you are clear to go” she said and made her way to a copy machine. Nice ass, José thought. She might watch a lot of British comedies, but she sure as hell does sports. …nah, forget it bull, she’s not waiting to be saved by someone like yourself.
“All done, sir. Here’s a card to take you through those tourniquets.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Good luck out there” she replied with a smile.
José winked back at her and headed to the tourniquet with a metal detector frame. Belt and watch, keys, cell phone and rings and necklace. He stripped everything down and put it in a box that ran itself via weapon detection scanner, and then he walked through the frame. No beeping occurred so he happily packed his belongings when a man in dark, elegant suit, howled.
He even had a napkin in his breast pocket. Red shirt, black tie. Good combination. One gets fed up with the same old outfits of TV reporters, politicians, entrepreneurs, and insurance agents. They all look just a bit too formal and, inevitably, boring.
“I suppose that would be me” he replied grabbing the extended hand and welcomed a good, firm handshake.
“Come, come, come. Let’s talk in my office, we’ve got some important matters to discuss.”
Farenheit perfume, isn’t it? Heavy, unmistakable.
“Please, have a seat” the officer said and pointed at a rather comfy chair with black leather upholstery. He himself danced behind a massive, old-school wooden table, no IKEA design, and opened a cupboard, which contained many bottles.
“May I offer you some drink, Mr. Pereira? In my experience, I believe it’s easier to face what’s about to come after a glass or two.”
José Pereira shrugged his shoulders in a whatever you say manner.
“We’ve got… Pinot Noir from a small Italian winery, Chardonnay from Cotes du Rhone, bourbon from the ‘States and a rum from our dear friends from Havana itself. I am afraid, all the beer is gone.”
“Hmm, you know what? I think a glass of water will do.”
“As you wish. In the meantime, Mr. Pereira, please sign the form that lies in front of you. Our little business is run by the state of California and thus provides its services for free, however we must protect ourselves against any legal actions our customers might take in the aftermath. I hope you understand. Trajectories represent a very young and fragile matter, and, if I may say, one that is largely misunderstood.” He served a glass of water to José along with a plate of lemon slices and went to pour himself a glass of Pinot Noir.
“You see, there is an infinite number of trajectories available. People come to us for one reason, mainly. Did I make the right decision? And I wish I could say yes or no…” he sipped his red, “I mean the technology is incredible, but it is not yet that refined to monitor every single alternative and thus, to produce a final answer.”
“Are you trying to discourage me, mister…?”
“Oh, it’s Chase, Samuel Chase, my apologies. No, I am just trying to maintain a realistic mind set. Believe me, when an institution has its head far up in the clouds as this one, it’s wise to stay grounded. But, forget it. Tell me what area you would like to explore.”
“Well, there are many, but I’d like to start with business or medicine.”
“Okay, let me see” Samuel muttered, sat down to the computer and began typing.
“This would be… the 2016, around late spring, right?”
“Fine. Our algorithm will crunch the data, not only around that period, but with the deviation of ten years in both direction – and we can later enlarge it. This will analyse your decision making habits and produce a trajectory analysis. It may take a few minutes. Are you sure you are okay with the water, it is a huge amount of data, you know?”
“All right, I’ll have the same as you.”
Chase smiled and walked over to the cupboard. The computer hummed quietly as it put every day of José Pereira between 2006 and 2026 under scrutiny.
“For such a delicate matter, you do have an old technology, don’t you?”
“Weeell, that’s how it goes with public institutions. Let the entrepreneurs strive and public officer cry.” Chase handed a glass of Pinot Noir to José who accepted it gratefully.
“There we are. So, there are ten scenarios for each branch – be it a business or medicine. Usually, eight of these trajectories, sixteen respectively, would have been directed mainly by randomness. Two, four respectively, depend on your skills. Have a look.”
José Pereira lifted a thin screen as large as a smaller table and looked at the possible alternatives of his life.
Business route. What are the variables?
Left for a school in another state, bumped into a clever fellow during the first week. Hung around, absorbed, and learned. Good grades, full scholarship ride to graduate school, via networking ended up in an upper class management job. Lots of meetings, lots of business trips, above average pay. Shot down by a Black Swan. Tagged as unreliable, until retirement worked small jobs.
Left for a school in another state, sat next to a witty fellow during a second lecture. Spent many hours in pseudo-intellectual discussions, smoked weed, almost flunked a few exams. Built a b2b business with his friends, survived and strived, shot down by the same Black Swan. Never recovered from the fall, until retirement worked small jobs.
Left for a school in another state, sat next to a witty fellow during a second lecture. Spent many hours in pseudo-intellectual discussions, smoked weed, almost flunked a few exams. Declined an invitation to participate in business with his friends. Got introduced to a woman who would become his wife. She talked with her friends and found him a well-paid job at a marketing company. In this scenario, possibly no Black Swan would occur and they lived happily indeed.
Left for a school in California, but was at odds with the school curriculum. Returned to his parents’ basement to save money on rent and went to Art school instead, where he studied literature. In his free time, he hustled to learn various musical instruments and found he had a talent. In the years following his graduation, he recorded many records, majority however didn’t appeal to mainstream public. He lived a life of a broke musician working temporary jobs and making money as a street artist.
…The same as above with the exception of recognition by a mainstream audience. He became largely successful…
José Pereira put the screen aside and looked out the window, hoping to find some distraction. Nothing was happening in the yard and therefore he had to aim his restless mind back to the screen. Quickly, he flicked through “medicine” trajectories.
Patient lived. Patient died. Faced a lawsuit, found innocent …Became a senior doctor in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. …died of heart attack. … Nothing special happened. Flunked… Valedictorian…
“It doesn’t say much of a value….”
“That’s why it’s for free, I suppose. Come to think of it, you haven’t done anything truly radical in your life. As a result, the algorithm marks marginal occurrences of going bananas as highly unlikely and eliminates them. A rare and yet plausible exception are those trajectories with musical schools. Apart from that, I’m afraid, there is no evidence of your capability to leave everything behind and leave to live in a depths of Copper Canyon” replied Chase.
“I am beginning to understand why you offered me a drink. Those are some hard facts to digest.”
“Nah, do not despair, Mr. Pereira. It’s just an algorithm. Volatile input produces volatile output. Stable input produces stable, but not necessarily boring, output,” he paused for a while a looked José directly in the eyes.
“Why are you here, Mr. Pereira? You walked into this office with an expectation, what would that be?”
“Look, I don’t know, to be honest. I am well in my forties and I feel like I haven’t accomplished much. I have this grim feeling I might have missed out. My childhood friends seem to be doing incredible stuff, you know. Some, not all of course, but still… There are days when I wake up and the world looks grey and numb and then the dreaded question arises: what’s the point? And lately, it’s been a real struggle to come up with an answer.”
“That is why I am here.”
“Would it ease your pain to know that there are many more who think they are not enough? Here, have some more” Chase uttered and diligently refilled both glasses. A red drop trickled down the bottle neck and fell on the table. Chase wiped it off with his finger and smelled it.
“Ah, the scent… It’s always a pleasure to drink one of these, given that there is a spare time to contemplate its nuances.
“What do you know of wine, Mr. Pereira?”
“As much as the next man, I guess.”
“Let me tell you, despatching on a way to become a wine connoisseur foreshadows turning into a douche bag. I learned it the hard way. So many rules are implored, allegedly to improve the drinking experience, but once you see through the veil of snobbery you come to realization that these rules only serve to justify an existence of such wine experts. A rich friend of mine pulled me into it. I learned, I absorbed, I applied. And it walked right around the corner and bit me. Not one of my friends enjoyed chatting over wine with me anymore. Because it often was not the right temperature, the right year, it hasn’t been left to breathe sufficiently. During an intervention, yes, an actual intervention, would you believe that?” Chase laughed for himself and slapped his knee. Then he continued:
“I was made to swear an oath of simply keeping my mouth shut and drinking, no jokes allowed here. Baffled, I asked my rich friend. He reluctantly admitted he was facing a similar disdain. ‘Why then,’ I asked, ‘would you keep on going?’ ‘It is a matter of status,’ he claimed. ‘Once your pockets are full of dough, you pursuit things money can’t buy.’ Now of that, Mr. Pereira, I know nothing. As you can probably imagine, working for a state-sponsored institution doesn’t bring great rewards. Nevertheless, at certain point in life, we have a tendency to look for external yardsticks abandoning the internal ones.”
“And Trajectory office is one of these yardsticks, am I right?”
“Yardstick lord almighty, give us some respect Mr. Pereira, Trajectory office is a proper yardtrunk. The sheer scale of our work is truly mind-boggling, a few years back none of this would be possible and looking a few years ahead we might be able to optimize data processing and input analysis in order to create a functional simulation mechanism.”
“Blimey! I sincerely hope I will not live long enough to see it.”
“Why, your kids will have a tremendous fun simulating their future.”
“Forgive a layman’s question, but wouldn’t these predictions or simulations intercept one another?”
“That is a frequent question we get from government funders and frankly speaking, it’s the one keeping our engineers up at night. No doubt the solution will at last present itself. Theoretically – as much as our engineers hate the word, it is possible. Take for instance a 1984. Have you heard of George Orwell, Mr. Pereira?”
“The name sounds familiar…”
“More than a century ago an English writer foresaw the greatest exploitation of human lives in the history of mankind. He called the book 1984. It spurred a great deal of unease, people were afraid that the 1984 will come. And it did. And it has been with us ever since. You see, it doesn’t matter what the calendar says or what the newspaper claims, we are still living in 1984. Are we capable of moving forwards, into 1985? I don’t know.”
“It’s not like your work would help to solve the issue” José said grudgingly.
“Everybody has to pay a mortgage, Mr. Pereira” Chase rejected him coldly.
“Anyways, I got carried away. Where were we? Ah, the external yardsticks. Well, the external yardsticks are heavily misleading since the external is mostly dependable on randomness. Take your exams as an example.”
Samuel hopped around the table, picked up the huge tablet and pointed at some of José’s trajectories.
“Here, here and here. And also here. And there. Flunked, passed, struggled, flunked, flunked, passed as valedictorian. In majority of cases, we’ve observed, a role of randomness is crucial. Sure, there are very smart people, and, there is no other way to put it, people who are utterly hopeless. Both groups assemble some thirty percent. In their case, the role of randomness is reduced. On the other hand, when it comes down to the seventy percent’s knowledge, it’s all retch and no vomit. It’s based on the mood of the professors, on the question drawn, on the test variants, on the gender. The dividing line between passing and failing is so thin, it staggers me that university degrees weren’t yet abolished. That’s where trajectories come in, because whereas in one you are a hero, in the other you become an outcast. And that’s why external yardsticks fail to provide. With the exception of the best and the worse, it is all predicated on randomness. Therefore, if you are not blindingly stupid, it matters not who you are or where you come from. What matters is how much time are you willing to spend in the system. Enough time increases a chance of exposure to a positive trajectory and to what is perceived as a success.”
“You would make a tremendous motivational speaker, Samuel.”
“Oh I know” agreed Chase missing the hint of sarcasm.
“Back in the days, I used to dominate debate clubs of various universities and colleges all across California. I would train hard and sharp up my mind. I even took an example of Demosthenes, the Ancient Greek public orator who for as a way of training spoke with a mouth full of pebbles. Then, in my prime and whilst in the sights of few companies, I had suffered a rare case of pneumonia and lost my voice for several months. Nevertheless it came back, but I was never able to restore it to its prior greatness. And so I ended here.”
“I am sorry to hear that. I’m also sorry to say it out loud, but I can’t help thinking that what you have said was a bit harsh, even discouraging. Certain stuff is random, yes, I’ll give you that, however me not being a part of the top-notch crowd of cancer doctors and human beings and just surviving and striving somewhere in the middle, I refuse to let go completely and let it rest on the shoulders of so-called probability. Some stuff? Definitely, I’m tired of life, it’s become too big. Certain things though, I have to go on.”
“The funny thing is, Mr. Pereira” Chase mused and scratched his chin, “there is a trajectory out there, in which you didn’t come here and thus we didn’t have this conversation. I can safely say it would be a shame. Don’t you agree? The key thing, Mr. Pereira, is the process, not the end result. On your way home, stop by in a library and ask for books about heroes of Ancient Greece. You’ll understand what I mean.”
José opened his mouth but Chase kept him silent by a hand gesture.
“I could tell it to you straight away, but that would spoil the sweet taste of comprehension. Now, Mr. Pereira, I think the time is ripe to leave this building and go bend some trajectories. Keep the rest of the Pinot Noir, if you want.”
“Thank you, Chase. Is it possible to book another appointment?”
“Only if you deem it necessary, otherwise you are better on your own. I realize that we’ve only looked into business versus medicine, however the core question is the same for any given topic.”
“All right then.”
The two men left the office and strolled through the empty hall. As they passed the metal detector, they waved at the lady behind the information desk and headed to the exit. The door swung open with a slight screech, they both bid each other farewells and immersed in the evening rush hour, leaving the Trajectory Office far behind.