Chapter 59

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"Is there anyone here who would like to talk to a deceased loved one directly using the latest technology?" Dvorak says.

Scores of people raise their hands, but Zandra keeps her focus on Dvorak. There's something off about his body language as he scans the audience from his podium.

How could he pick someone out of the audience if he can't see past these lights in our faces? He's faking. His team of merry dipshits is probably communicating with him behind the scenes through his gadgets. And I'm the phony?

Maybe that's all part of the act, though. He's good. I'll give him that. But look at the way his eyes move. He's looking down at something behind the podium, and he's trying not to make it obvious. Sloggins could call him on it, but I doubt he will. This is so rigged it's ridiculous.

"You there," Dvorak says and points. "How about you?"

The stagehands bring a microphone to a man in a suit, although Zandra couldn't tell that from her position on stage.

"Yes, I'd like to talk to my father, if you will, please," the man says. He sounds like someone whose father would've died 50 years ago.

Maybe that's part of the trick. Date the father as being gone too long for Dvorak's technology to touch, and whatever this prick has up his sleeve looks all the more impressive.

"Very good. Just give me one moment," Dvorak says. He pulls out a laptop computer and plugs an audio cable into the PA system. "I'm ready when you are, sir. Ask away."

"I'd like to know in which account he directed his mineral royalties to deposit into. He owned a share in North Dakota, and the fracking company still won't disclose the account those payments are being made into for security reasons," the man says. "I don't want the exact account numbers. I just need the name of the institution. By the way, sir, do you need my name?"

"Not at all," Dvorak says as he types something on the laptop. He's polite to the point of condescension. "I'm ready to go. But first, please tell me whether we've ever met before."

"If you don't know my name, how could we possibly have met before?" the man says.

Exactly the point. This guy is a plant if there ever was one.

"I suppose you're right. Now let's ask your father what he thinks," Dvorak says.

The audience goes silent as the sound of rushing water fills the auditorium. It's coming from the audio in Dvorak's laptop, but Zandra wouldn't put it past someone for thinking a water main broke somewhere in the building.

The water sound slows to a trickle, soon replaced by the echo of a voice, as if its origin had been cut off.

"Hodag...Credit...Union... in...Rhinelander," the voice says, referring a town in northern Wisconsin.

"That's him. Good lord in heaven, that's him," the man in the suit says, sounding like he's close to having a heart attack. "He died 10 years ago, but that's him."

"Yes, it's me, son...I'm proud of the way you took...up the...family shipping...and receiving business," the voice says.

These people aren't going to fall for this, are they? Are they really that gullible to not see this guy is in on it?

The audience applauds despite Zandra's hypocritical skepticism.

People want to be fooled. They crave it. Doesn't matter where it comes from so long as it lines up with something that must be taken on faith. Nothing gets people going like validating their faith. Shows they're not crazy, and that they're more insightful than the average person. Who wouldn't want to feel that way?

"Go on. Ask those questions I mentioned earlier," Dvorak says to the man in the suit.

"Yes, of course," the man says and clears his throat. "What's it like where you are, father? Are you with God?"

"It's not like where you are. God is within each of us, son...and you...won't...understand until you...remove the handcuffs...of your physical...body...to allow...your spiritual self to reveal your...true being," the voice says. "Nothing matters in life...except to...leave the world a...better place than you...found it...because everyone has this...magnificent spirit inside...of them. Death is not the ultimate equalizer...just because we die...but because the truth of our shared...spiritual experience becomes clear."

I couldn't have spouted that woo-woo bullshit better myself.

The man in the suit is overwhelmed. He hands the microphone back to the stagehand and holds his head in his hands.

Dvorak types something into his laptop, and the ethereal voice goes mute. Sloggins jumps right in with, "What just happened?"

Why don't you ask me, Sloggins?

"Some might say this is a demonstration of science and spirituality finally meeting at the intersection of faith. Others will allege that this man is a plant, and that I set everything up ahead of time. Both are only partially correct, and I'll bet my own money that what you just witnessed, ladies and gentlemen, was more or less authentic," Dvorak says.

"So we heard the voice of a ghost just now?" Sloggins says.

"Just a minute. First, I need a hand, please," Dvorak says. A stagehand hurries to his podium. Dvorak reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick wad of cash. He holds it high above his head before giving it to the stagehand. "Please give this money, exactly $5,000 from my own savings, to the gentleman who just talked with his father. If the information about the account is wrong, I want him to keep it. If it's right, he should return it to me immediately. My mailing address is included with the money."

The audience claps once again as the stagehand brings the money to the man in the suit.

Don't breathe in too deep when you're counting that money. You might get a contact high.

"Will you tell us how you did that?" Sloggins says.

"I will, and it starts with a new piece of patent pending software I developed. In fact, this is it's first public debut, although I hope to bring it to scale with the right investment," Dvorak says, shamelessly plugging his business. It won't be the last time.

"How does it work?"

"It automatically builds a digital version of a person based on social media posts, news articles, videos, photos and more. I call this digital version a Xerman, like a cross between the words Xerox and human. This Xerman's attitudes and behavior come from an algorithm that continuously analyzes data obtained from the real person, living or dead, and creates a predictive intelligence profile. That includes things like speech, relationships, memory and more. The profile is updated based on reactions of other real life people, which provide another layer of authenticity."

If you're not bluffing, Dvorak, I'd even buy that.

The audience murmurs, and Sloggins calls for quiet. He says, "What you're suggesting sounds a lot like digital immortality."

"That's exactly right. A Xerman embodies everything about a deceased loved one. The more data you give it, meaning the more a family or friends work with the software, the more lifelike the Xerman becomes," Dvorak says.

"Everything but the body, though, right?" Sloggins says.

Dvorak pauses for dramatic effect. He grins and says, "I believe I'm up against time. Your turn, Zandra." 

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