Bidding begins at twelve weeks.
Kaplan sees it as something of a wonder that they can start so early. There was a time, after all, that they would only get a conclusive forecast by the third trimester. He can remember what the job was like back then – convincing corps to sponsor prospects was next to impossible with only vague scans in hand.
They crave data, after all. Hard facts.
Thank God for Clarity, then, Kaplan thinks, regurgitating one of the company’s myriad mottos. With the enhanced ultrasound at their disposal, a clear forecast is a comfort they can offer every parent-to-be. No more fear for the future of your offspring, no more doubt – 100% accuracy, guaranteed. Every parent should welcome that with open arms, Kaplan reminds himself, looking at the poster over his desk. The left half shows a smiling mother, bathed in sunlight as she stares lovingly at the baby in her arms, whilst the right sees another recoiling in horror from a monstrous child in its crib. Uncover the odds of a happy future, it reads. Why leave your child’s future in the hands of chance?
Numbers pour across Kaplan’s screen, coating the clinical lab with flickering blue light. His stomach drops as this forecast becomes clear; as near to worthless as they come, this one. A smattering of high points, yes, but the lows – the lows! Even the more charitable corps will baulk at the idea of bidding on a prospect like this, he thinks, grinding his teeth. He can imagine the words of his superiors already: such long odds of making a return, a foolhardy investment if ever there was one…
And that’s what it’s all about, of course – return on investment. All parents want the best for their children, and securing a sponsor with Clarity’s endorsement can offer just that, but there’s little doubt who Clarity’s primary audience is – the corps themselves. No point sugar-coating it, Kaplan thinks; the biggest and best firms are only interested in prospects that are destined to go far – future high flyers with disposable incomes, not those set for a life living hand to mouth. Sponsor a good prospect, one who’ll go on to be a successful, loyal consumer, and you’ve got yourself a customer for life – you take a hit up front, yes, but lifelong upgrades, accessories and apps are where the real money is anyway.
Competition is fierce and exclusivity is everything, that golden guarantee that a prospect will be compatible with your tech and your tech alone for the rest of their lives. The best prospects cause a buzz on the feeds, lead to bidding wars and firm handshakes. It’s a cut-throat industry; they’d have parents signing on the dotted line at conception if they could, Kaplan is sure of that.
None of that would be possible without Clarity and its forecasts. The system lays everything out in black and white; strengths and weaknesses, talents to build on and flaws to fix, perks worth paying for and defects that demand discounts. Potential. Do clear skies lie ahead, or is your child-to-be set for stormy weather? Compassion, strength, musicality, intellect, tantrums, anger, autism, criminality, disability – if a prospect possesses the potential, the forecast will reveal it clear as day.
Clarity has removed all uncertainty, they say, and the world is a better place for it.
‘Oh dear – another dud on your hands, old boy?’
A tall, grinning man looms over Kaplan’s desk, skimming the forecast on his screen. Kaplan takes a deep breath. ‘We shouldn’t call them duds, Olson, you know that.’
‘Yes, yes, I know – “how would you feel if it was your own child?”, right?’ Olson laughs, Kaplan flinches. ‘Don’t have a kid if you can’t handle the consequences, that’s what I say. A dud’s a dud. You should know that by now, Kaplan; you see enough of them!’
Kaplan writhes in his chair. But Olson is right – this one is destined to be nothing but another low point on his already poor record. He should have known it would be a hopeless case before he’d taken his readings; he always gets the duds.
‘Only joshing of course, old boy.’ Olson runs a hand through his gleaming, jet black hair. ‘Anyway, I’ve got my own work to attend to. I’ll leave you to your, ah, lead.’
Kaplan scans the forecast again as silence returns to the lab. He hopes he’ll spot something he missed first time around, anything at all that might mark the prospect out as a candidate for sponsorship. Even a lower tier corporation would be better than nothing, he thinks, would give the prospect a compatible future.
But it’s hopeless. Kaplan always gets the duds. Why hope this one would be any different?
He takes a drawn-out sip from his coffee then stares at the side of the mug. Hang in there, baby, it says, alongside a cartoon cat clinging to a flimsy branch – a faded gift from Laura, from back when he first got the job. He tries to remember what it was like back then – he’s sure it was different. Now it’s just a numbers game, all about how many quality prospects you identify each quarter, their value for money, their viability. But it works, Kaplan tells himself. Everyone has seen the statistics – hereditary defects are dying out, crime has fallen, happiness is on the rise. Clarity has made the world a better place and people feel free of burden, free of fear, free of regret.
But is it possible to regret without having ever had a choice to begin with?
Kaplan sighs. If only he were free of burden, too. But he knows what he’s up against – his results have spiralled ever downwards. He is teetering on the precipice.
Hang in there, baby.
Simmons has it in for him, that’s the problem. He’s been on Kaplan’s case since he lost the Milne-Campbell account, but that contract was dead in the water long before he took it on – Olson had seen to that. But Olson gets away with everything. He’s had it easy for weeks; all high-grade prospects, not a single dud among them. Investors queuing around the block, two promotions in the last year alone. Hard to go wrong with the quality prospects he gets, Kaplan thinks. And what he wouldn’t give for one of Olson’s prospects now; he knows he’ll need something special to get through his next quarterly. His eyes dart back to his latest forecast, desperate for something positive hidden amongst the readings – anything…
There’s nothing, of course. Needn’t have bothered with Clarity at all, really; he’s been in this game long enough to know a poor prospect when he sees one – seasoned assessors can always tell. It’s the mothers, you see. It shows in their skin – so grey, so pale, so thin. He can see it now, glistening with sweat through the observation window as his patient lies back on the disposable plastic covering of the hospital bed. She catches his eye and gives him a weak smile. He can’t stop himself smiling back. Stick to protocol, George…
A thin blue gown hangs loosely on her gaunt frame, snagging here and there as it catches on the sharp joints of her branch-like limbs. Were it not for the bump of her belly, so out of place, an outsider might think the examination was a training exercise as opposed to the real thing. But there it is, clear as day.
Another hopeful flick through the data but the forecast stands firm, and deep down Kaplan knows that no number of re-scans will change that. The forecast is absolute. He looks through the observation window; his eyes linger on the graceful line of her jaw. Beautiful, he thinks. He shakes his head. Focus, focus. He knows his role in all this. He is an important part of Clarity, after all, and the system demands that he upholds its core principles: impartiality, accuracy, trust.
He reaches the bottom of the forecast evaluation tablet and takes in a deep breath – three empty tick boxes greet him alongside a space for his finger print.
SPONSOR / SUPPORT / TERMINATE
Three recommendations, three verdicts, three sentences. The same choice of labels that assessors must apply to all prospects, regardless of where they come from or who they might go on to become. A fair system, Kaplan tells himself, one based on science and science alone.
So why is it so hard this time around?
Focus, George, focus…
He considers the recommendations laid out in front of him. Corporate Sponsorship – the latest tech guaranteed, high compatibility with everything and everyone, a life destined for greatness. Only elite prospects attract bids from the corporations, making it an obvious dead end here; some prospects simply aren’t worth the money. Cruel, yes, but that’s business.
The second option is Social Support – basic, state-backed aid, helping low end prospects grow into useful members of society. Labourers, cleaners, assistants. A life of hard graft and closed doors. A life for those who fail to make the grade, an incompatible life – but a life nonetheless.
But even Social Support has thresholds and limits – some prospects face a different fate.
Prospects like this one.
Kaplan’s shaking finger hovers over the third and final tick box. All this power resting in his hands usually makes him feel like a god amongst men, but not this time. He looks through the observation window, his eyes lingering on the woman, her face solemn and worried. Remain impartial, remain impartial…
He walks into the examination room, pushing his glasses up his nose. He does his best to avoid eye contact, but that doesn’t stop her staring at Kaplan with wide, hope-filled eyes. His fingers tap against the top of the tablet.
‘We’ve got a few more tests to run,’ he lies, ‘but I’m afraid the results aren’t what would be considered…promising.’
Her smile falls away. ‘Oh,’ she says, voice quavering. ‘That’s…this is very early though, isn’t it? Maybe a few weeks down the line, by my next scan, perhaps…’
Kaplan gulps, the lump in his throat growing larger by the second. ‘I’m sorry, I really am, but our tests are…well, they aren’t set by me at all…but they are incredibly accurate. The reality of the situation is, well…’
‘Don’t say it,’ she says, eyes welling up, ‘please don’t say it.’
This is always the worst bit. They always plead, always insist that there must be some sort of mistake, beg him to run the tests again.
Why hope this one would be any different?
‘You have to understand, it’s…it’s not my place to question a forecast, regardless of my feelings in the matter. The Clarity system is sound, scientifically-proven; I have to interpret the results in an impartial manner…’ Clarity’s key messages summoned on cue; when did they become so ingrained in his consciousness?
‘Surely there’s a-a-another way? There’s always hope, isn’t there? You’ve mentioned Social Support in the past, I think?’
Social Support. Condemned to an incompatible, little more than a locked-in slave? No life worth living, he can imagine Olson saying. ‘I really am sorry –’ His voice is a trembling rasp.
‘I’m sorry, but I have to recommend – ‘
‘George, please…’ Tears are streaming now.
She lets out a long, guttural wail.
Kaplan tries to stifle a flinch. He’s seen how Olson handles scenes like this one, few and far between for him though they are. The gentle hand on the shoulder, the consolatory ‘there, there’ – all against the rules, regardless of who you’re assessing. This is a job, an important one, and assessors should remain neutral and professional –
She looks up at him again, wiping the tears from her eyes. ‘Don’t you care at all, you heartless bastard?’
Kaplan stares at her in silence, eyes wide and jaw slack. He glances at the security camera in the corner of the room. Remain impartial. Remain impartial. Remain impartial…
‘After all we’ve been through, after all this time. After so much trying. What was it all for George? What the fuck was the point?’
‘Laura, I…I…’ Kaplan stutters, throat tightening.
‘I’d like to rest now, if that’s okay?’ She doesn’t wait for a reply, rolling away from him and pulling the thin cover tight around her shivering body.
‘Ah, v-very well,’ Kaplan says. His hand lingers for a moment over her shoulder before pulling away. Remain impartial…‘Take as long as you need.’
He returns to the clinical lab and slumps down into his seat, breath shuddering and forehead sweaty. What does she expect him to do? He’s an assessor and he must evaluate the forecast; his career, no, his future, depends on it. Hang in there, baby. Surely she of all people understands what he has to do?
His shaking hand hovers over the tablet screen once more.
He knows how the job works, knows what he must do – but still…
His finger moves closer to the screen –
Going against the forecast would result in demotion – or worse. His future is at stake.
His eyes flick to the observation window; she still has her back to him, doing everything she can to hide her sobs. He’d give anything to hold her, give anything to tell her that it will be alright.
But it won’t…
Closer still –
The forecast is accurate, the forecast is absolute, the forecast is everything. And who is he but a god with limits, a god restrained, a god on the assembly line?
Why hope this one would be any different, why hope against hope for a brighter future, why leave it all to wild chance? Because that is all Social Support could ever offer, isn’t it?
He looks at his tablet, at the text that fills the screen.
SPONSOR / SUPPORT / TERMINATE
He knows what he should do.
But Laura’s words still ring in his ears, still echo throughout his brain – there’s always hope.
Hope against Clarity, hope against fate, destiny and truth. Blind faith, the belief that things can be better, that the odds can be beaten, that science can be flawed, that chance can reign supreme. It’s foolish, he knows that. But faced with Clarity and the Forecast and the truth they’ve been handed, his wife still believes, still dreams, still hopes.
There’s always hope.
Kaplan looks at the tablet, closes his eyes –
And makes his choice.