Excerpt for Cruise Crisis by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Cruise Crisis

Published by Troim Kryzl at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Troim Kryzl

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“...Dilute the resultant Pelagobacteristatic concentrate 100:1 in purified water. Stir for 5 minutes to achieve a homogenous solution...” Blessing reads the instructions aloud, for better focus.

Back in her student days, she wouldn’t have thought twice about performing such a simple procedure. If anything goes wrong in a university lab, you empty the test tube and start afresh. Simple, neat, no stress. Totally different from what she’s doing today.

Blessing had been all in favor, of retrofitting the 1kYears Cruise liner with an ethanol generating hulk. The EthaMar sales guy didn’t need to work her hard.

Making your own fuel while you travel, an irresistible idea, for any maritime engineer. Also the perfect chance to put her bionics degree to good use. Blessing fought the captain, and won. At 1kYears, if the toy of your dreams counts towards the sustainability score, you get it.

Blessing is now in charge of the first full industrial size EthaMar installation.

Most of her ship’s hulk is as white as a conventional cruise liner. Additionally, either side of the vessel features two gleaming green areas the size of basketball fields. They make the 1kYears ship look like a giant Ginerian flag sailing the high seas. Close up, the green areas turn out to be partly organic. Gazillions of algae colonize a translucent ceramo-metallic structure. It feeds them just the right amount of sea water to optimize their ethanol production.

“Your pump at your side! Never no more idling around in a harbor to wait for the refill while breathing toxic fumes,” this sales pitch convinced Blessing.

What the bloody leech of a vendor failed to mention were details on her new role as her ships filling station attendant. And girl, what a complex mess she got herself into!

Running an EthaMar installation of this size compares to Blessing’s previous lab experience like cooking for a horde of gourmets to boiling one single egg for your own dinner.

Still waiting for the electric stirrer to complete its mission, Blessing recalls the awe that struck her when she accessed the maintenance manual for the first time. 12,321 pages of instructions, and that’s just for the management of a foreseeable variety of conditions.

The EthaMar algae, specifically designed for their job, are a capricious and demanding bunch. Their feed needs to be continuously adjusted to the amount of sunlight, its angle of impact, the ambient temperature and a basket full of seawater parameters.

In principle, the analyzing and adjusting is performed by the EthaMar software. But Stupid Mario, as Blessing calls the permagrin interface in allusion to her favorite childhood game, is forever asking for her guidance. And she can’t even blame the virtual white coat.

The data Stupid Mario was fed were generated by much smaller EthaMar units on a couple of private yachts and one river ferry. A square meter of algae, that’s nothing, compared to a basketball field worth of the beasts. And Blessing has to handle four of those.

Traffic in a town with a single main road, that’s easy to manage. Try the same approach in a mega city like MMA, their home port, and you get a gigantic bust-up. The Mehut Metropolitan Area never really unclogs, the go slow only comes in different flavors. Same with Blessing’s ethanol generating hulk sections. They’re never well well. The engineer and her charges stumble from bloom to bust and back, in an endless loop of indigestions. And Stupid Mario grins.

Like this morning. When Blessing checked before breakfast, Stupid Mario proudly announced all systems, and all their precious algae, all green. By the time her coffee had cooled enough no longer to boil off the tip of her tongue, the gadget on her wrist went flashing red.

From green directly to red, and beeping for emergency help, that was a first.

Normally, there’s a couple of hours of an orange alert phase. It provides Blessing with some time to liaise with Stupid Mario, and to call the 24/7 EthaMar support hotline next.

No such grace period today. Red means immediate action, unless you want to lose a full unit worth of algae. And you forfeit any warranty if you don’t act according to instructions in a matter of twenty minutes. At all times of the day. Even before coffee.

“Don’t worry, the guys in customer support don’t mean it. That twenty minute rule is never implemented to the letter. As long as you pretend to be doing something about an issue, in roughly the first hour after the alert, you’ll be all fine.”

Sounded nice and feasible, when the sales rep put it like that. What he failed to mention, patently, was the size of the manual, the complexity of the instructions therein, and the time required to act on them. If you have to wait for stuff to be mixed, stirred, chilled, heated or filtrated, a mere hour, that’s nothing.

An alarm announces the completion of the stirring process. No more time for Blessing to contemplate whether she would prefer that sales rep caned, whipped or tarred.

The solution is ready for administration. A life or death matter, for gazillions of hard working algae, and one very tense maritime engineer. Twenty pints of life saving medicine. Or would she have prepared a toxic sludge that will kill off what little life is left in the front starboard unit?

Blessing will find out soon enough. Heaving the metal container from the stirrer onto the pushcart, she wonders if she should call one of the stewards for help. Not very dignified, to be seen dragging a pushcart. Serious risk of being mistaken for a cleaning lady, again.

Blessing knows it’s not the fault of the overseas clients. Socialization is to blame. It makes them associate black skin with menial labor. Not their fault. Nor her fault, if she longs to throw this kind of fucking white supremacist dickhead over board. This kind of urge just happens.

Most of the corridors Blessing has to walk from her lab to the control room of the front starboard EthaMar unit are off limits to passengers. At this early hour, the lower front deck, the only public area she has to cross with her life-saving load, should be empty.

Urging to rescue her algae, Blessing puts diligence before dignity and sets off. If she meets a steward on her way, she’ll make her lead engineer face and recruit him ad hoc to push her cart. If she reaches her destination without encountering other staff, no one will ever know she performed the non-brainy kind of labor. No damage to her standing.

Meanwhile, up on the sun deck with the Olympic size pool, Tola opens shop.

She knows she’s looking forward to one more slow day. No problem. As long as it’s her own shop, which ‘Tola Akinbola Nail Tech’ very much is, and she manages to pay the bills, which she perfectly well does, she’s not going to complain about quiet.

There’s even a good side to the bore. Spending hours waiting for customers, she gets the chance to catch up on new developments. Not much innovation in basic manicure and pedicure, but nail art has lately gone from odd little paint jobs to fully blown high tech.

Setting up the sign ‘This weeks special - 10 Art/1 Mov for free’, purple on pink, Tola sends a prayer into the sunny morning sky. She only needs one initial customer. A single client with a MovNail, one first bragger, she will recruit dozens of follow-up customers.

Attracting her MovNail Customer One, that’s Tola’s challenge of the season.

The crowd on the 1kYears liner isn’t even that old, for a cruise. And pretty technophile, too. Passengers are here to download themselves, their most cherished knowledge and memories, into the virtual 1kYears resort. A little nail high tech should be an easy enough sell. Especially as the clients are also far from busy, for most of their days on board.

Getting oneself a ghost, as the virtual alter egos are called by most 1kYears staff, to Tola’s dismay and disgust, doesn’t take more than a few hours. These active phases are spread over a couple of at least days, often weeks, occasionally months. The customers are encouraged not to rush. As a cruise liner trundling up and down the Golf of Geanui makes for pleasant waiting, they readily comply. Not stretched for time, those folks.

Theoretically, many 1kYears clients could get their nails done.

When she opened shop, Tola expected a stampede. Manicure, pedicure and artificial nails as all inclusive services, at an honest zero extra charge, that would have guaranteed queues back home in MMA. Her former clients would have switched nail designs twice a day, just for the fun of taking and posting a picture.

Tolu envisaged herself collapsing under excess demand. She even anticipated violent reactions from a premium crowd not used to wait. At one million US dollars a pop, 1kYears tickets qualify as luxury goods, space tourism league. Tough act to accompany, for a nail artist.

In practice, Tola found herself mostly idle. No queues, no riots, And her few customers turned out to be easy going. Some of them had never gotten nail art before. They were impressed by the variety of options, grateful for her advice. Totally unlike Tola’s former MMA clients. They had seen it all and never ran short of reasons to carp and haggle.

Only problem with the 1kYears ladies, from a nail art professional point of view, was their reluctance to show off. “Isn’t that a bit too flashy, especially at my age?” quickly replaced “Now stuff that scam and make me a proper price” as Tola’s most dreaded phrase.

Even glow-in-the-dark colors trigger comments like “A bit on the showy side, isn’t it? Haven’t you got anything, don’t get me wrong here, dear, like more decent?” Near impossible to sell moving pictographs, never mind a mood adjusted 3D kaleidoscope, to this crowd.

Taking up her ready-to-welcome position slightly in retreat from the open door of her parlor, not to scare off hesitant customers, Tola examines the MovNail gracing her own left thumb.

Set to her personal default mode, the nail displays a black swan with a red beak flying an azure sky. The plumage of the bird is perfectly attuned to her skin tone, suggesting it’s her inner swan taking off. Beautiful. Deep, in a romantic kind of thoughtful.

Observers versed in the ways of eArt would also notice how the MovNail quotes her nine other nails. Those are nothing but stills of the mini-movie, like in a flip book. Sophisticated nail art, especially graceful through it’s subtlety.

But the best is still to come. Tapping her index on the counter at her specified slow-slow-quick-quick-slow-slow rhythm, Tola activates the 3D projection. A tennis ball sized blue bubble emerges from her index, with the now enlarged swan majestically flapping its black wings. Awesome.

3D only lasts for twelve seconds in the semi obscurity of the beauty parlor. Even less outside, where the brightness strains the power supply. Once the battery is exhausted, you have to wait for at least an hour, for another twelve seconds of 3D. But it’s still awesome.

Even if you know how it works, as Tola of course does. Absolutely no magic involved. The flying swans, both the 2D and the 3D version, are stored in the artificial nail glued onto her real one.

MovNails consist of nothing more exciting than a miniature screen and projector. Plus a chip and some kind of generator transforming body heat into electrical power. And a battery. Simple.

You only had to think of it. Tola would have loved to be the inventor of the MovNails. There’s bound to be a fat bounty of royalties in such a simple invention. Once the market takes off, the kind of fortune that buys a 1kYears ticket is as good as made.

Again. Tola’s brain did it again. Day in, day out she tells herself to quit stupid dreams. But this one keeps creeping up. That’s the only real downside of her current situation. She has too much time for thinking. And this ship is the perfect stage for fairy tales.

Tola would like to be rich enough to get herself a virtual alter ego.

Her favorite daydream involves a nice guy. Old enough to be filthy rich. But still passable looking, not the ugly kind of ancient. With wrinkles from smiles, not mean thoughts.

Nice guy escorts his wife to the nail parlor. She’s a bitch, totally undeserving. Also looks like some artifact. Abuse of cosmetic surgery does this, to women who insist on competing beyond the age of beauty. Bitch goes haughty on Tola, for no reason. Nice guy won’t have it. One word leads to another. Bitch gets sent home, by chopper. Tola inherits her ticket and downloads.

Next, Tola’s alter ego goes lucky. Nice guy turns out too senile to download. eTola ends up all on her own in the 1kYears resort, without owing anyone. She lives happily ever thereafter, perhaps even meeting a nice eguy of matching age. Perhaps. That last part is optional.

Stupid brain. Tola is deeply sceptical of the virtual alter ego sales pitch.

1kYears being a Ginerian company, there’s a high fake probability. But even if life in the resort is as good as promised, the price tag would still not be justified. Alter egos don’t age, yes. They live in a virtual paradise, yes. Does that make their originators better off? No. Stupid!

1kYears customers spend a fortune to stay exactly as mortally miserable as they are. A download makes even less sense than space travel. No fond memories of how you wetted your pants in terror, and promised yourself never to risk your dear life again. You buy exactly nothing.

Puff goes the bubble above Tola’s index. She feels as deflated as her inner swan.

1kYears customers mortally miserable? If only. One look at them, how they stroll the pool deck, more often than not in plain leisure wear, not even image conscious enough to embellish their pathetic bodies with a little fashion. They are so filthy rich they don’t even need to show off, and look anything but miserable. Old, ugly and happy. How the fuck?!

Tola of course doesn’t do envy. Not her style, she’s proud to be generous. But is it really too much to ask, of the fortunate, to spend a little time and effort on making themselves nicer to look at? Life would be so much more pleasing if everyone tried harder to make the most of themselves. A splash of color here, some fancy fabric there, a tiny glimmer of jewel on top, that should be feasible. Even for the most fashion unconscious bores.

Like that Oduro snob. She’s from Radokari in Nhaga, but this only explains so much. No MMA type sophistication to be expected, in a girl from a backwater, OK. But bland nails?! Like some maid from the village?! Tola hardly believed her eyes, when her favorite steward introduced her to the engineer. Younger even than herself, face haughty like some boss, and nothing. No makeup, haircut like a boy, natural nails. Tola considers Blessing Odura an affront.

Especially as the engineer dared refuse her offer of a nail job.

Technically, it was more 1kYears than Tola doing the offering, all staff have access to all facilities and services. But she actively promoted her work, which she wouldn’t have needed to. And the bumpkin to send her packing. Without even a thank you.

“Not my thing, to paint myself, really not doing those. If ever I feel the need for vivid colors, a t-shirt or a scarf will do just fine”, that’s how the bumpkin dared word her refusal. And the face she made. Disgusted, as if Tola had suggested some perversion.

The engineer is not bad looking, in a rural way. Tola is prepared to concede as much. But even a pretty face needs highlighting. And who’ll ever notice delicate hands without some nail art to attract the gaze? Tola would have turned passable raw material into a masterpiece. Instead, she got dismissed like some street peddler.

Five levels down, the object of Tola’s contempt isn’t at the end of her pains.

Blessing made it to the control room of the front starboard EthaMar unit with her dignity intact. But she crushed a toe under the hard wheels of the pushcart, when she struggled with a sharp turn through a door she had to hold open with one hand. One shouldn’t wear sandals when handling pushcarts loaded with twenty pound containers. The toe is throbbing so bad Blessing is close to tears. But she can’t do anything about it yet, too busy saving her algae.

Getting the container with the remedy here turned out to be the easy part. Now the magic potion needs to be administered, as in transferred into the system.

The EthaMar manual made the process sound simple: “Clean spigot S. Attach sterilized funnel set F to spigot S. Open spigot S. Check EthaMar content fills the spigot side valve chamber only! Pour solution into the funnel at steady flow rate as allowed by funnel size.”

Reading this, Blessing couldn’t help shout a four letter word at the gleaming metal wall of the narrow chamber, three times.

A perfectly viable instruction, if you deal with a pint of liquid to be poured into a funnel the size of a coffee cup. But Blessing needs to administer a whole barrel of the stuff. The EthaMar manual and equipment have once again failed to plan for her kind of circumstances.

Time to liaise with Stupid Mario to check how to get from barrel to funnel, without damaging the medicine. Visibly aggrieved, the support interface avatar helplessly fumbles with a button on his lab coat while confirming that an additional step, like pouring from the big container into a glass jar, might be a bad idea, because of contamination risks. Why would the authors of the manual have called for a sterilized funnel set, if contamination wasn’t an issue?

Time to call the 24/7 helpline, and try to forget about the throbbing toe just a little longer.

Emily, today’s cheerful helpline lady, listens to Blessings sorrows without interrupting her tale, a good start. Followed by a bad answer: “This makes a lot of sense, Miss Oduro. The Pelagobacteristatic solution definitely needs to be poured directly into the funnel, to avoid contamination risks. And please don’t hesitate to use a second sterilized funnel set, if ever you have to stop pouring. Or even a third. Better safe than sorry, right?”

Blessing would love to be anywhere else. Preferably in a coma. She’s getting claustrophobic, the clock is ticking, she’s in pain, but she needs to keep her nerve. Shouting at the helpline doesn’t work. She tried that last week, on the occasion of a heat wave emergency, and only achieved to confuse the lady so badly she hung up. Not an option now, with even higher stakes.

“Please, Emily, can you perhaps liaise with someone from microbiology? I just can’t pour from that container. It’s big, like a barrel. I can barely manage to lift it. Pouring into such a small funnel, never mind at a steady rate, that’s impossible. Impossible as in impossible, no way. Now my idea would be to use a clean glass jar. I pour from the container into the glass jar, as quickly as possible, and from there into the funnel. Any chance you can confirm this approach?...”

It takes Blessing one more inconclusive round to understand she’s on her own.

Her turn to hang up and proceed. If she hesitates any longer, the pain might send her fainting, which is sure to condem the algae. Her toe is probably broken, already more than double its natural size, and screaming for medical attention. She has to proceed as long as she’s still able to stand, and lift the bloody container.

The first round is the worst. The glass jar fills faster than expected, Blessing spills half the medicine. But the pouring into the funnel works fine. And Stupid Mario acts supportive, for once. The interface mostly endorses her approach, making her feel better.

The next rounds are easier. Blessing by now knows what she’s doing, and the container getting lighter helps. It only takes her a couple of minutes to administer the full dose. Urging for a doctor, she nearly forgets to close the spigot and detach the funnel. Luckily, Stupid Mario’s screen is still on. He detects her mistake and calls her back, thereby preventing the next catastrophe. She might have to reconsider his nickname, once her toe is fixed.

Hobbling across the lower front deck towards the staircase and elevator connecting the levels, Blessing wonders how to word her predicament.

“There was like this pushcart, Doctor, and it just so happened to roll across my toe. No, no, no! No clumsy stewart involved. That was just me walking, and the pushcart rolling...” No good. She’s not going to ruin what little luck she had this morning by admitting how the accident occurred.

“No idea how I got this, Doctor. I was in the lab, very busy with an algae emergency, and suddenly I noticed my toe hurting. Just like that...”. Impossible. Suggests she’s doing drugs.

“Now I was busy in the lab, and dropped a...” What kind of object in a lab is heavy enough to cause as much damage as the wheels of a heavily loaded pushcart? And solid enough to survive a drop only cushioned by a toe? Wouldn’t there be accessory damage to her foot? No good.

Blessing needs more time, to come up with a viable story for the doctor. In the elevator, she pushes the button for the sundeck with the pool.

There won’t be anyone around that early, hopefully. She’ll roll up the legs of her jeans, sit down on the pool rim and splash around with her feet. Officially, just for the fun if it. In practice, to cool, and hopefully shrink, that throbbing toe. And come up with adequate wording for the next step.

Exiting the elevator, Blessing blinks in the sun. Takes her a second to confirm she’s alone. All deck chairs empty, no one in the water. Her toe urging her forward, she’s already halfway across the rows of deck chairs when she notices the open door of the beauty parlor. The sign advertising one more stupid fashion craze is out, too.

Taking care only to look at the empty pool, not at the shop front, Blessing keeps hobbling towards relief. She’ll sit down with her back towards the beauty parlor and splash very quietly. With a little luck, the resident fashion beast won’t notice her. Or is busy with an early client. She hopefully can’t abandon shop and come chatting. That would be worse than the throbbing toe.

Blessing doesn’t hate the beauty parlor lady. She’s not into hating. That kind of sentiment never got humanity anywhere nice. It’s just that they lack any shared topics.

What the hell can you talk about with someone doing nails for a living, and selling fake eyelashes? There’s bound to be a fashionable nail color of the year, and probably also a must-have length of lashes, but Blessing isn’t into that kind of news. She gets her hair cut every second week, boy style, and makes do with what nature provides, on the nail and lash side.

Blessing isn’t immune to style considerations. She does make sure to always wear something colorful, either for jeans or for shirt. Not because of any particular love affair with bright and pink, even though she did notice the latter contrasts nicely with her very black skin. Blessing’s choice of colors is mostly a precaution, to make sure she gets identified as a lady. Despite her hairstyle and in the absence of either makeup or artificial nails.

It’s not that she would mind being mistaken for a lad. Some of her fondest memories are associated with pretending to be one.

Back in her earliest student days, when she had just moved from Radokari in Nhaga to Dgansk in Lopand to get herself turned into a maritime engineer, a quartet of African students decided to learn to dance, conventional European way. There was this stack of special-offer cards on the counter at the reception of their student home, and they were bored.

When they arrived at the venue, ahead of time to avoid the need for complex explanations stretching the locals’ often precarious grasp of English, three of them, the authentic lads, were warmly welcomed: Always far more ladies signing up for dance courses, dire lack of men. Hence the special offer, of course valid for whichever your race.

The manager repeated the race bit three times, meaning it must have been a lie. But a freebie is a freebie, even if not wholeheartedly given.

Blessing being no man, as the manager guessed, a bit too tentatively for her liking, the deal was not for her. He explained he hadn’t expected anyone but guys in a student home for maritime engineers. She would only be entitled if willing to learn the guy steps, and impersonate a man. A bit exotic, especially for such a short and light person, but one lady even shorter than Blessing and still lacking a partner might be desperate enough to give her a try.

Definitely a racist, that guy. But he turned out to be an excellent teacher anyway. And Blessing’s weekly dance lesson was the second best fun she had, in her Dgansk days. Only working on the nanoburst generator prototype beat waltzing along with Carlotta, her dance partner.

Having reached the edge of the pool, Blessing discards her sandals and rolls her pants up. That’s the advantage of non-fancy jeans. They’re loose enough to allow rolling up.

The injured toe is double its natural size. Looks like a plum squeezed in between the toes. Like some particularly ugly toe jewel. Jewels, and toe jewels in particular, that’s one more mostly female behavior Blessing doesn’t understand.

Why would any free person want to wear chains? Some of the bling is nice to look at, sure. But if looking at nice was the point, you could just take a picture, like for other pretty, and spare yourself all that discomfort. And the clinkaclanking when you walk.

The water in the pool isn’t exactly cold, they would have to actively chill it down to achieve this in the gulf climate. But early in the morning it’s still fresh enough to soothe pain. Blessing’s damaged toe also feels a little less stretched, even though it still looks enormous. Might be a bit of an optical distortion involved, with the water acting like a magnifying glass.

“A very good morning to you, Miss Oduro! Anything such a miraculous beauty as yourself might need, to prolong a stay so marvelously embellishing this deck? A drink perhaps? Or some towels, for your feet? Sorry, madam, thought you heard me coming.”

“Zaoshang hao, Chen, good morning to you, too, and absolutely no problem. Heard you coming all right. It’s just that my reflexes are still a bit slow, that early in the zaoshang. Coffee, black, no sugar, and a towel, that would come in very nicely indeed.”

Blessing barely managed not to slip into the pool when the stewart startled her out of her nostalgia, but she’s certainly not going to admit as much. A lead engineer has to come across as calmly in charge. At all times, whatever inner turbulences she might be experiencing.

She’s glad it’s only Chan. The Asian stewart tends to overdo his service mentality, always showering ladies with compliments. But apart from that, he’s nice. Very diligent. Makes ordering anything feel like doing him a favor. And he reminds Blessing of her time in Rokea, where she studied electronics. She ended up hanging out with Lin from China, the only other girl foreigner in her course. They were very close, for a while. Blessing even got to visit Lin’s family in Chong Heng, over the holidays, and learned a little Mandarin, for the sake of politeness.

By the time the stewart is back, Blessing has devised the wording for an additional task: “Chan, one more thing. Do you by any chance happen to be familiar with the control room of the front starboard EthaMar unit? Great! There’s a pushcart, from the storage room, that needs to get back. And an empty container, also from the storage room. And this one needs to be cleaned before putting it back. Hope you don’t mind? Xie, xie, many thanks for doing that for me!”

Always glad to be of service, Chan immediately whizzes off. Blessing breathes a sigh of relief. That delegation went well. She’s finally getting it.

When she got hired for this job, the captain made delegating sound easy: “You’re basically second in command on board, meaning anyone who is not a paying client is on your team. You only need to pick whoever is in sight for whatever job you need done. And supervise how they go about it. You can’t expect miracles, with sailors, security staff and stewards, especially around any equipment more sophisticated than a rope or a broom. They also require a firm hand. But with a little training, they get a lot done. Just make sure to state the task very clearly, preferably in simple English. Adding practical guidance always a good idea, too.”

So much for the theory. Probably works that way, for a fifty plus guy in a captain’s uniform who eyes people up like some black shark looking for juicy bits to chew off. He nearly sent Blessing running, during her interview. If it hadn’t been for that charming Marian lady doing her utmost to make her feel at home in her office, she’d never have stayed the course.

Blessing still doesn’t understand how she got the job, despite the interview calamity.

She was only just back in Radokari, with her brand new bionics degree from the university of Vannaha on Bacu, and no idea what to do next. “No more studying,” mom and dad had decreed, in unison for once. “Three degrees, that’s got to be enough. Time for your to settle down.”

When dad said it, he was talking job. When mom said it, she was talking family. But they agreed on the no-more-studies part.

Blessing was prepared to accept the parental verdict. If only this job hunting was less elusive a project. She never intended to become a degree collector, it just happened.

Shipping companies didn’t queue for lady engineers, as she found out when she tried to monetize her maritime degree. She landed a grand total of one single interview that ended on the recommendation to forget about sailing the high seas and go find herself a husband.

Blessing got herself a second grant instead and did electronics. University once again worked fine, the subsequent job applications less so.

She made it into more interviews, but there was always a showstopper. One interviewer wondered whether she might go on parental leave soon, at her relatively advanced age of twenty four. The next worried such a young lady would distract all the other engineers on her team. The third only promised to call back, without further explanation.

With her mom starting to push dating opportunities, Blessing took fright and applied for a third grant. Once again successful, against all odds, she did bionics.

Another three years of studying later, she landed back home in her childhood bedroom with the same old ship engine posters, and resumed her job application routine.

Composing meaningful letters was even harder this time. How the hell does one explain ten years at university, and degrees in three different fields? Impossible to build a coherent narrative. And never having worked, at twenty eight, didn’t look promising. Not even to her own eyes.

Blessing decided to keep her letters short and compensate the lack of quality with quantity. West Africa was supposed to be booming. The technological shift to the solar era was well under way. Some company somewhere was bound to need some of her skills. Hopefully. Eventually.

Three days into an effort she had promised herself to keep up for six months, Blessing received an urgent email from an MMA company she had never heard of.

“MMA, of all places. As decadent as it gets, no location for a single girl,” her mom countered, when she reported her first success. “Did you sign up for that dating site yet?” mom added.

Fortunately, 1kYears were generous enough to grant interview travel expenses. Blessing didn’t need parental funding for her ticket to MMA.

She decided to go by speedboat, curious to see the newest generation of microburst generators in action. The express ferry service Arrca-Melo-MMA had just been established, and it would look good to travel sustainable, in line with the enviro-talk on the 1kYears website. This was bound to be one more practically meaningless sales pitch, but Blessing liked it anyway.

She of course had to get from Radokari to Arrca first. Luckily, dad was willing to drive her. Something about MMA and him. His eyes went all misty when she revealed her destination. Less luckily, they ended up in a monumental traffic jam.

One more sinkhole had rendered the coastal motorway impassable. Running late, dad stretched their luck, pushing the batteries of his ancient Tesla to the limit, and beyond. Blessing didn’t make it to the port on time, despite the expense of a taxi for the last stretch.

The ferry company was prepared to reschedule. Instead of a day of MMA sightseeing and a good nights sleep in a hotel ahead of her interview, Blessing would sleep on the ferry and reach the 1kYears headquarter just in time. If everything went well, traffic-wise.

Blessing arrived at 1kYears headquarter half an hour late. And in poor state, all sweaty from two days on the road, with her shirt and jeans crumpled, smelly even to her own nose.

She was made to wait in a small meeting room, together with three guys. Not hard to guess those were her competitors. Clean shaven, fancifully dressed maritime engineers. What the hell was she doing there, once again applying for a career perfectly closed to womenfolk?

It it wasn’t for the desperately needed travel expense refund, Blessing would have run.

Instead, she had to sit it out. When it was finally her turn, she came last, she only longed to get the massacre over with. She went her most tight lipped, staring down the ferocious captain. He quipped in return, she burst into tears, and attempted to run, despite the expenses issue.

But the Marian lady, a real looker like straight from a billboard, she went after her, caught up with her at reception and talked her into another round. She would get a one hour break to have a shower and change into fresh clothes. They’d also have a bite together and get to know each other, all easy. Then they would go meet the captain again.

Blessing enjoyed the chat with Marian. They even shared a laugh about preposterous prejudices against lady engineers. And the next round with the captain didn’t go that badly.

He didn’t like Blessing, that much was obvious from his grim stare. She summarized her qualifications anyway, as Marian had suggested, emphasizing her role in the development of the microburst generator prototype. A very minor student role, but she was right there, and spent many nights fiddling with that nuisance of a first device. A very unstable contraption, until they figured out how to phase the tricky core process.

The captain listened without appreciating, until he suddenly inquired about how stormy conditions affect this type of engine. A good question.

Blessing had done a lot of experimenting on this particular aspect. She vividly recalled the results and was happy to quote her professor: “Never no loss of control again. As long as you’re afloat, maneuverability persists, whatever the conditions. You won’t want to sail that kind of waters, but you can.” The captain seemed to hate Blessing a little less from that quote on.

Blessing left the 1kYears headquarter in high spirits. She’d never get that job, not against the competition she had witnessed, but she had spent four hours in a real HQ, and talked coherently with real corporates. The running away crying episode was a bit of a blemish, but overall this interview went very well. And there would be a full travel expenses refund.

Even for the towing bill for dad’s Tesla. Mentioning that bit was awkward, but with Marian so friendly, Blessing had dared, and succeeded. She had never felt as close to achieving a career and vigorously resumed her application project as soon as she got back.

She wouldn’t have needed to write those fourteen additional letters. Blessing’s 1kYears contract arrived a mere week after her interview.

Dad checked the paperwork, without finding issue. Next he took it to the office, for the other guys to have a look. Still no issue. But they insisted it was mandatory to have a lawyer perform a more competent check. The brother of one of dad’s colleagues was such qualified and did a friend fee. Still no issue. On that same evening, after an unusually quiet dinner, Blessing’s dad decreed: “Time to sign, Blessing. This is as good as jobs get, especially for a girl. And I won’t hear no more prejudices against Gineria in general and MMA in particular. This contract is good.”

That last bit was aimed at Blessing’s mom. She was aghast to see her daughter headed offshore, and fighting this option no-holds-barred. If Blessing hadn’t met Marian and experienced her kindness first hand, mom would have scared her out of the 1kYears job.

Blessing signed both hard copies of the contract and sent one back, together with her bank details, social security, health benefits and casualty insurance forms, and a copy of her passport, as requested. She felt real adult doing such grown-up paperwork at her childhood desk.

If only she had known this would be the last peaceful moment for... however long it will take her to settle into her role. If ever she manages. She would have reconsidered.

Blessing’s 1kYears contract provided no grace period, became effective at once.

She had barely sent the email with the courier details of the hardcopies when she received an invitation for a screen meeting scheduled for less than sixty minutes later.

The topic line only said ‘EthaMar’, an alien word that sent her scrambling for information.

Three more screen meetings followed. Plus a four hour online one-on-one with that bloody EthaMar vendor. Stupid light show of a virtual visit.

Blessing got to talk more and more, in those early days meetings. She felt deeply uncomfortable doing so, because the captain once again looked like having her for dinner. But the Boris chair insisted on her active participation, always asking her stuff.

At first, Blessing wondered what exactly put this Boris in charge. Never would she have guessed that such an unshiny person would mostly be referred to as the BiBo, for Big Boss. At first glance, the brains behind the 1kYears technology were decidedly unimpressive.

To Blessing, the Boris was one more engineer in a chequered shirt. Rather thin, definitely no athlete. The kind of guy who spends two days at his computer without so much as a civilization break because “there’s just this glitch I need to fix, just one more sec.” Hadn’t it been for the natural advantage of his dark skin, the Boris would probably have looked sickly.

And his rhetorics matched his looks. Staring at no one, without hint of facial expression, the Boris would utter a name, to signal whom he expected to answer, and state a short question, in a voice as melodious as the screeching wheels of a street vendor cart.

At first, Blessing was perplexed. Who was this guy, and why would such an uncharismatic weirdo get to chair important meetings? But the Boris got things done. Everyone was so attentive, so anxious not to talk past his interest, they did make good progress. Blessing intuitively joined the ranks of the led, whispering her answers as concisely as possible.

Over at the beauty parlor, Tola is thinking strategic reconsideration.

The Oduro thing, as she addresses the engineer in her mind, to keep the tone polite, is very obviously terminally bored. Why would she be sitting by the pool like that, if not out of loneliness? Desperate for human interaction, it might be worth another MovNail sales pitch.

Tola had of course seen the engineer coming. She doesn’t even need to access any of the CCTV cameras to see any movement on what she thinks of as her deck.

Beauty parlors come with an abundance of mirrors, and no one thinks twice about how these are arranged. This provides opportunities for a resourceful business person who prefers to see her clients before they step over the threshold.

Arrange the right mirrors at the right angles, and you can supervise a whole deck from one particular spot, with nothing but bare sunlight for energy. You need to be careful where to place flammable merchandise, to avoid fire hazards, but everything else is a matter of recalling a little school level optics and giving the decorators a hand.

Radokari. A female engineer from Radokari, with a preference for an ultra casual dress code. This is very little for Tola to work on. First rule of sales: “Know your customer, and target your pitch at his needs or dreams.” Dreams are better, of course. More numerous, stronger.

Tola is aware she’ll only have one shot. The Oduro thing is as chatty as a deck chair.

When she happens to sit down with someone, like the captain or one of the download personnel, on those rare occasions it’s the other person doing the talking. And the Oduro thing looks strained. Imperative to get such a customer talking, otherwise even the most persuasive salesperson will only achieve to waste her breath.

Radokari. One more port city. No obvious attack angle.

Engineer feels more promising. Robots, cars, bikes, other engines, all kinds of big shiny things that make vroom, that’s what engineers appreciate.

Tola has seen her share of engineers, brought along by their girls to pay for the nail art. She’s thrilled by flowers, butterflies and rainbows. The brighter, the better. The guy throws longing glances at macho stuff, preferably dark and metal. Sometimes, he’s young and foolish enough to push his preference. The girl typically quips back to have his own nails done, if he wants a say. She gets her butterflies, he progresses on the couple training scale and pays.

Tola knows about engineers, has deducted good money from their credit cards. But how do her learnings apply to the Oduro thing? Technically, she’s a lady, even if she does her best to hide it. What’s her inside like? Rainbows or vrooms?

As if on call, Tola notices a movement on one of her mirrors.

Perfect moment for Jerome, the hairdresser manning the salon next to hers, to show up. He’s a bit of a reverse Oduro. When Tola met him for the first time, she guessed him gay.

Who else but a gay guy wears a purple silk shirt over the tightest of turquoise jeans and aggressively yellow slippers? At ten o’clock in the morning? With what must add up to at least a pound of bling weighing down neck, waist, wrists and fingers, ankles and toes?

Tola guessed gay, when she was introduced to Jerome. She didn’t comment, of course, but he must have been used to triggering her kind of thoughts. Why else would he immediately have mentioned his beautiful wife, working the bar here same? And their two kids, back home in MMA with grandma for schooling purposes, allowed to join their parents for all holidays and the occasional weekend, courtesy of 1kYears family benefits?

Jerome is no more gay than the average family man, Tola learned. Just more fond of bright colors. A flashy fashion addict who met his wife doing her hair catwalk backstage. Luckily, his customers like him that way, as he told Tola. If he was doing their cars, he probably wouldn’t get away with his style. But for a hairdresser, flashy no problem.

Tola has made up her mind to seek advice. She stands up to go greet Jerome.

Waiting for customers shop side by side, they have ample opportunity to chat, but take care not to overdo it. “Stay professional, don’t get too close”, always a good rule for neighborly peace.

Once Jerome’s sign is out “Black&Blue - Proud&Gray reloaded” and his coffee machine humming, Tola raises her question: “Jerome, I need your advice, you’re so much more familiar with men as clients. Assuming a man was going to get himself a MovNail, for whatever reason, a bet, perhaps, what kind of design would you expect him to pick?”

This sends Jerome laughing: “You’re wonderful, Tola, you really are. Thought you’d never ask, and wasn’t sure how you’d take it if I did. A guy as first client, that might be tricky, for your marketing.

Anyway, I’m so glad you asked! I exactly know which one I want. The mood caleidoscope, with a bronze-silver-gold-purple shift. If you can do four colors. If three is the limit, I’ll go for silver-gold-purple. And in 3D the pyramid, not the ball.

Your ball with the swan is wonderful, absolutely amazing, but I’ve always loved pyramids. Thinking about getting me a couple of pendants, pyramid shaped, with all four, or all three, colors. Like one more quote, you know?”.

Tola makes a mental note to word her prayers more exactly in the future, not to trigger confusion at the receiving end. This is a marketing worst case, for exactly the reasons Jerome mentioned. Only one way out of this self inflicted mess. Tola has to delay Jerome, under whatever pretext, and get the Oduro thing in first. Aloud she goes:

“What a wonderful surprise, Jerome! Never would have thought you might be interested. Now, this calls for special consideration. Only my very best MovNail will do for you. Know what, this is the excuse I’ve been waiting for, to finally give full customization a try.

Because your standard mood caleidoscope, that’s just basics. There’s this reconfiguration mode allowing to... Why talk? This amazing feature is best showed. And you can provide your input for the preferences right away. Just give me a day, Jerome, to allow me another go at the manual, and then we’ll get you a truly unique MovNail...”

Jerome gobbles up Tola’s sales pitch like an extra helping of the yellow candies his wife rations, to keep him in shape. He’s drooling for unique and will wait. On the downside, a unique MovNail will send him bragging even worse. Tola needs to succeed, with her Oduro project.

She quickly retreats to her shop, to work on her approach.

Jerome did provide her with a lead. He wears flashy colors and longs for a corresponding MovNail. This suggests a drab lady will go for guy stuff. Time to check which vroom would look good on the bumpkin. The Oduro project. Tola’s MovNail Customer One.

Not many boy toys yet, in the MovNail library.

Tola suspects the few contestants she finds weren’t even created with a male clientele in mind. They are probably targeted at retropunk or cyber biker ladies. Next time anyone pretends they’re living in the age of gender neutrality, Tola knows where to go for proof of nonsense.

None of her options look like the device at the back of the ship pushing them forward, or occasionally sideways and back. Not even remotely. Which is good, because that thing is as bland as any giant fridge-shaped object can be. Even the four weird towers with the solar collectors would make better templates for jewelry.

On the engine side, there’s only one very vintage car, late 19th century perhaps, and two bikes. Slightly less antiquated, but still equipped with combustion engines, meaning they’re very early 21st at best. No ancient boats or trains, unfortunately.

Tola retains the very chrome bike and converts the seat to pink. She has seen her project wear some pink, often in awkward combinations, so pink might be important. The result looks pretty good as still, but the animation is lame. Too few moving parts.

Browsing the library once again, Tola’s gaze is attracted by a strange dice.

At first glance it looks like a regular black dice with the right numbers of silvery dots on each side. Looking more closely, you discover that it’s made of dark glass just transparent enough to reveal what happens inside. And there’s a lot going on. The dice is full of cogs, tubes and escalators, all in perpetual motion to carry around three silvery balls that surface in the dots, only to get shipped off again. Totally hypnotic. Even if you’re not interested in this kind of thing.

Tola switches the balls inside the dice and the dots to pink. Bad idea, the dark glass of the dice makes pink balls look faded, like dirty. They need to stay silvery.

Tola feels stuck. The pink of the bike saddle still feels promising. But the dice reminds her of the games her son loves playing, and he’s... engineerish.

According to sales 101, you have to stick with one target, come what may. You might pretend to propose alternatives, but those are just for show, to trick the customer into believing he’s exercising choice while you’re pulling the strings.

Tola decides one more rule needs breaking. Both bike and dice feel odd enough.

Fixing both her options to the nail of one demo finger each, she rehearses her presentation.

She’ll approach the Odoru project with both MovNails blown up to 3D, to hit her target with the full wham of the maximum experience. Time is no problem, thanks to the battery hidden inside the demo fingers. Much better performance than with bio harvesting.

Meanwhile, Blessing is recovering.

Her toe has calmed down. It doesn’t seem prepared to shrink back to its customary size yet. But as long as she doesn’t attempt to move it, it only hums a general warning of reduced operability. With a little luck, it might not be fully broken after all.

The algae in the front starboard unit are doing even better. Blessing’s device signals they are back to green, and pissing alcohol like they wanted to make up for her pains.

Blessing wonders if she should inform the EthaMar helpline of her success.

It might be clever to get the good news in fast, before the onset of the next incident. On the other hand, calling in so early would feel like bragging. Not her style.

At moments like these, Blessing loves her career.

What’s not to like in a job allowing you to idle by the pool side, instead of hatching a swivel chair and staring down a screen? She’s in paradise, compared to professionals in office jobs.

Except for that ever present nagging expectation. The bliss won’t last, not with four EthaMar units on board. Blessing should have listened to the captain. He was so right, when he argued against being the first to deploy brand new technology.

“It’s the scale, kid, those things don’t scale easily,” he said. The captain called her kid, which wasn’t too bad. He could have said girl.

“It’s certainly promising, not denying this. But the first mover disadvantage, that’s a big issue, in our line of work”, he added. “We’re not like the lucky folks doing software, where there’s nothing much at stake and you just push the reset button and deploy version two. With a ship of this size, trial and error won’t do. Trust me on this now, kid, or you’ll learn it the hard way.”

The captain probably shouldn’t have picked software as example. The Boris raised half an eyebrow in offended response, and declared four EthaMar units ordered.

Four! Blessing had just agreed with herself to go for one unit, as a compromise that would hopefully minimize the furor of the captain. Half of the two the vendor had suggested. Instead, she ended up with four of the beasts. The vendor of course didn’t argue.

“Good morning Miss Oduro, what a pleasure to see another early bird!

Hope you can spare a sec, because I need your advice. As an engineer, you’re the perfect person to tell me which of these two.... Don’t know how a technology person would call them, devices perhaps? Which one of these two devices would you consider more interesting?”

Blessing hadn’t heard the beauty parlor lady coming and winced under her cheerful assault. Looking at her squatting by her side, the two 3D projections came as a nice surprise.

On the left a bike. Cool legacy bike, eight cylinders on proud display, four exhaust pipes. Huge, like big fucking rockets. The perfect toy to waste your weekend on. With this kind of oldie, you’re sure to tinker for weeks for one afternoon of happy riding. Probably impossible to find any spare parts, you need to go full do-it-yourself mode. That’s a major part of the fun.

The virtual bike is very nice indeed, but the second 3D projection is even better.

“An Escher engine dice? Wow! This is absolutely amazing. Can I take it, to have a closer look?” Blessing isn’t an outbursts kind of person, but once she makes sense of what she’s seeing, this virtual object of an engineers dream sends her screaming with want.

Blessing is painfully aware she isn’t doing it right, socially. Not how her mom taught her. She should have used the name of the beauty parlor lady. Preferably the second name, because that’s how her interlocutor proceeded. The polite way is to show the same level of respect in return. Unfortunately, Blessing has zero recollection of any name, first or second. It must have been have mentioned, when they were introduced, but she didn’t care.

Luckily, the beauty parlor lady doesn’t express any resentment. She keeps smiling, a bit over the top, and immediately hands over the object of Blessing’s desire. The Escher engine dice comes with a plastic finger attached, the battery. Funny, in a nice stupid way.

Tola is pleasantly surprised by the positive response she triggered in her target.

This is progressing much more smoothly than expected. Whatever an Ajjar engine might be. Tola puts on an extra dose of exuberance to hide she’s at a loss, concerning the topic of the conversation. First rule in customer centered service: Whatever the client wants to talk about, be it ridiculous, offensive or plain nonsense, go with the flow and smile. As long as you keep that up, the rest of the puzzle will fall into place, and the reward will be yours.

Blessing is absorbed by the Escher engine dice.

The more she looks at it, the more elusive it gets. There’s too much detail and movement going on. Impossible to figure out the path the balls will take. Also really hard to focus on one ball. And each time you do achieve that part, the ball in question seems to be rolling due to gravity alone. This can’t be the case all the time. Absolutely fascinating. Optical illusions of course. Like in the shows the physics graduates used to put up for the Dgansk university Christmas party. But even if you know it’s bound to be illusions, you still fall for them. Fascinating.

Tola fights the urge to actively pitch her product. And her ankles start aching.

Every sales person worth her salt knows spontaneous longing when she sees it. This is the most powerful sales driver, many times stronger than any blurb she could come up with. The customer convincing himself he needs the product, him fearing not to get hold of it, anxious to conclude, that’s a perfect sale. Never spoil such an occasion by chatting, you’ll only distract the client.

Easier said than done. Just squatting there grinning, despite aching ankles, feels awkward. But Tola has to keep up her effort. Jerome can’t be MovNail Customer One.

Blessing would love to take the Escher engine dice somewhere darker.

The projection is quite powerful, pretty impressive how it asserts itself against the bright day. A slightly darker place, indoors, would still improve the effect.

Blessing’s toe is prepared to risk the trip, under the condition of her walking very carefully, with most of the weight on the heel, and the availability of a bucket of chilled water to dump into at their destination.

If only Blessing new the name of the beauty parlor lady, this would greatly facilitate her asking. The name might be on display on the shopfront. Time to strain her toe and stand up, which will allow her to discreetly turn around and check.

Tola’s ankles applaud when she stands up, to keep aligned with her target.

Her Oduro project is going strong, no sign of an intention to hand back the MovNail. How she’s holding on to that battery finger even suggests she’ll want the package. Weird.

Why would someone with ten perfectly presentable fingers walk around with an artificial one? But with Tola, the customer is king, queen, emperor, or even God. As long as the Oduro project puts her MovNail on display, by whichever odd means, Tola will be happy to help.

Blessing’s toe is no fan of the action, but standing up is worth the pain. Her vague recollection was correct, the beauty parlor goes by what is bound to be the name of the owner.

Time to go polite: “Miss Akinbola, honestly, I’m lost for words, this is such a beautiful Escher engine. Always loved those, used to be my wallpaper, and this is particularly sophisticated. So beautiful. Any chance you can get me one of those? I’ll pay, of course.”

Blessing feels awkward, saying that last bit. Her poor grant student days aren’t that long gone, she still struggles to handle her wealth. Procuring anything beyond bare basics used to be for mom to nag dad to put it on her birthday gift list. Nowadays, even the extravaganza of a games console, on top of the latest in AI-wearables, is affordable. Madness.

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