External Processors

Nolan, age 12

The last unopened present at Nolan’s twelfth birthday was a box wrapped in shiny blue paper that fit in the palm of his hand. He tore open the paper to reveal Omni’s iconic blue-gray packaging. In an instant, all the other presents – a few books, a Lego set, a new backpack, an electric skateboard – paled in comparison. His classmates, scattered on the couch and floor pillows in his airy living room, fell silent and leaned in to watch him open the box. Nolan showed its contents around the room. A creamy white External Processor nestled snug in the cardstock interior, eliciting gasps of excitement and envy. Only three other students in their class of 27 had ExPs.

Nolan’s mother brought out the ice cream cake next. Soon after the slices had been distributed and eaten, the other parents started exclaiming about their dinner plans or how dark it had gotten. Nolan helped his parents clean up the remaining cake, plastic cups, and paper streamers after the last of the guests trailed out. Then his mom helped him apply the ExP sticker to the nape of his neck.

As soon as the lunch bell rang the next day, Nolan’s friends crowded around his desk to check out his ExP.

Floppy-haired Jason asked, “How many hours do you get? Is it on now?”

“I get ten hours. I’m not using it right now – there’s a green light when it’s running.” Nolan opened his Omni app and tapped the “Request session” button to turn it on. He chose 30 minutes, the length of their lunch break.

Teacher’s-pet Clarice asked, “What’s 435 times 78?”

It took him two seconds for the numbers to race through his head. “33930.”

Jason asked, “I have cities, but no houses. I have mountains, but no trees. I have water, but no fish. What am I? “

Nolan went through a list of things that could have cities or mountains. A geography textbook? An architectural model? “A map.”

Sandra, who had the cutest braids but rarely deigned to speak to him, asked, “What do potato, dresser, grammar, and banana have in common?”

Nolan thought of their meanings at first. Could it be salad? “Grammar” could be alluding to word salad, but it seemed like too much of a stretch. He searched for patterns in the spelling instead. “Got it! If you take the first letter of the word and move it to the end of the word and then reverse the letter order, they spell the same word.”

His best friend Mandy was one of the two other ExP owners, and she sat quietly during his interrogation. He knew, from the way she sat up straight at each question, furrowed her brows a bit, then relaxed them soon after, that she was working out the problems, too.

Mandy asked him, “You’re coming over today, right?”


Mandy’s father picked them up after school. Once they arrived at Mandy’s house, the two friends took a detour to the kitchen to pick up a plate of peanut butter cookies, then headed down to the basement. The L-shaped couch, the plush teal rug, and the wall-mounted TV with its assorted gaming consoles were as familiar to Nolan as any furniture in his own house. He’d sunk into that couch countless times.

On his first day of elementary school, a pigtailed girl came over to introduce herself as Mandy, short for Amanda, and complimented him on the Squirtle pin on his backpack. He invited her over to play the recently-released Pokemon Obsidian after school. The rest was history. Their friendship had survived third grade when boys and girls suddenly grew wary of each other’s cooties, and sixth grade when their friends periodically pulled one of them aside to ask in a whisper if they liked the other. By the time they reached middle school, their friends finally understood that their constant questioning wouldn’t nudge their relationship from platonic to romantic, and moved on to other potential couples to speculate about.

That afternoon, they played Escape Wonderland, where they started out trapped in two separate rooms in the Queen of Heart’s palace then met in the ballroom to escape together. Mandy finished all the puzzles in the library in fifteen minutes and waited for Nolan to unlock the tea room.

Nolan stared helplessly at four teacups. He could feel Mandy’s impatient stare boring into him. He was supposed to rearrange them, but he couldn’t figure out how. Finally, she said, “Green red yellow orange.”

Nolan followed her suggestion and the orange teacup tipped over to reveal a key. He asked, “Wait, why?”

“There’s a gyro on the plate, but when have you ever seen gyros at a tea service? So I thought, G, Y, R, O…”

Nolan narrowed his eyes at the faint green light peeking from under her hair. “You have your ExP on! Cheater.”

“It’s not cheating, you can do it too.”

Nolan knew his parents had gotten him the ExP for school, but he figured using one of the ten hours for gaming was acceptable. He requested an hour through the Omni app and immediately noticed new possibilities in the room. The patterns in the lace placemats looked like Morse code. Maybe the cuckoo clock’s time was supposed to match the numbers visible in a deck of cards on the table. Could he break the mirror with the butter knife?

Escape Wonderland was a different game when both players had ExPs enabled. With all the possible puzzle solutions now blatantly obvious, it became a matter of ruling them out rather than searching for new ones. They escaped the ballroom in ten minutes.

Nolan said, “Let’s do a harder one!” He realized he’d be spending more than one hour a week of the ExP on non-academic activities.

Eva, age 12

Eva rose out of unconsciousness and blinked to reorient herself. She sat up from the floor, glancing out the window to see the sky had already darkened. A look at her phone told her that she’d been out for over an hour. She slipped out of her room and headed to the kitchen, throat dry from the blackout, or maybe from the fear of her dad finding out about it.

He was already home from his deliveries for the day and sat at the kitchen table watching something on his phone, the entire room steeped in the fragrance of garlic and freshly harvested basil. He paused the video when Eva walked in. “Did you have dinner yet?”

“Nah, I was studying.”

“Great, I made pesto.”

They agreed that one upside of him losing his job as station chef at Sel et Sucre was that he channeled all his love of cooking into meals at home now. Their meager budget forced him to be creative; this past week, he’d made shakshouka and miso ramen. Their conversations skirted a wide berth around the other upside: the long hours of driving around food deliveries incentivized him to stay sober.

Eva’s dad doled out two plates of penne and chicken and smothered them in vibrant green sauce. She could tell from his face – the overhead fluorescent lights etching out the same lines as any other day – that he hadn’t noticed anything. Thank God.

Growing up, Eva loved hearing her parents unfurling potential futures for her like red carpets. They told her she had the empathy to be a teacher, the grit to be a badass entrepreneur, the math skills to be a scientist.

When her mom left two years ago for a man who didn’t regularly polish off a six-pack in a single day, the encouragement tapered off. The responsibility for his daughter reaching her full potential rested solely on his shoulders now, and he quickly realized he wasn’t up to the challenge. He came home from his restaurant shifts too late and weary to help with her homework, and despite the long hours, he couldn’t afford to send her to music lessons or even buy her the Nike AirZooms she’d been coveting for years. Her track teammates grumbled that the west side schools always won the city-wide meets because they had private coaches and better gear.

Then Sel et Sucre let her dad go because he’d fallen into the habit of showing up to work shaky and smelling of stale beer. The final straw was a burnt chicken cordon bleu during the Friday dinner rush.

After a month of wallowing in guilt and self-pity, he signed up to deliver restaurant meals as a gig worker and, in a small spiral-bound notebook, started tracking the days when he didn’t have a single drink. Her dad was clambering out of a dark place. She worried that he’d start backsliding if he found out about the blackouts.

Nolan, age 13

More than half of Nolan’s classmates acquired their own ExPs thanks to birthdays and Christmases throughout middle school. When Nolan and Mandy stepped through the heavy double doors of their new high school for the first time, they realized they couldn’t survive the next four years without one. The wide hallways teemed with bodies bigger than theirs. Some of the boys had beards, most of the girls wore makeup, and almost all of them had ExPs.

Nolan used all his ExP hours during the first few weeks to pick up unspoken rules. Nod, don’t wave, at people in the hallway. Freshmen sat in the back bleachers for sports games. Care Club and Key Club organized nearly identical charity events, but only the Key Club execs hosted ragers. Then assignments and quizzes began piling up and he also needed his ExP for those. He tried writing a history paper without using it once, and ended up with a disappointing C+.

Nolan found it odd that everyone in his school obsessed over their GPAs and college prospects. His friends never spoke of the unsafe sex and hard drugs that seemed the norm in TV high schools, unless he counted the two girls with Adderall prescriptions. Instead, they occasionally snuck wine from their parents’ cellars and discussed their ExP strategies.

Students weren’t allowed to use ExPs during tests; their teachers patrolled the rows of desks for blinking green lights on their stickers. Nolan found that enabling it for projects and readings was most helpful. He learned to have it off while doing practice tests at home, because he struggled to finish the real tests without the aid of his ExP otherwise. And he used any leftover hours for gaming with Mandy.

Eva, age 13

Eva discovered that she could book study rooms at the library three blocks from her school for two hours at a time, and it had better internet and lighting than her apartment. She started heading there after school and staying until the library dimmed its lights at 5pm to signal its imminent closing time. She also had most of her blackouts there.

The ten study rooms lay in a row at the back of the library, behind the architecture and history shelves. Each was a box slightly smaller than Eva’s bedroom, with one window opening onto the street outside and a smaller window in the door for passerby to check if the room was occupied. Usually, no more than half of them were. The other students were usually older. Eva guessed they attended the nearby community college. She’d seen some of them sprawled out over the table too, although she couldn’t be sure if they were serving like her or simply exhausted. Either way, it fueled her optimism that no one would bother her when she passed out at the table. And she was right, at least for a year.

Nolan, age 15

At their usual corner table in the cafeteria, Mandy leaned forward over her plastic tray of buffalo cauliflower and fries and announced to Nolan, “I decided to disable my ExP.”

Nolan stared at her blankly for a second before asking, “Why?”

“They’re inhumane! You know how they work, right?”

“Of course. Everyone knows. Did you just find out?”

“I’ve known for a while, but I finally looked up one of my ExP sources last night.”

“You can do that?”

“Yes, it’s super easy. You can contact Omni and ask for the profile of your most recent source. They don’t tell you their name, but they give demographic information and their bio.” She seemed irritated that Nolan didn’t know this, which he found unfair, because nearly all of the chattering students around them had ExP stickers and he doubted any of them had ever asked for a profile either. After all, did it even matter?

He said, “Okay, tell me about your source.”

“She’s a 23-year-old Cambodian woman. She loves dancing, Taylor Swift, and Starbucks. She wants to open a restaurant with her family, and she’s serving ExP to save up for that.”

“So ExP is helping her reach her business goals! Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Well, she lists her other job as a seamstress at Poipet Garment Company. It’s fundamentally fucked up that her only way out of a sweatshop is to give up chunks of her consciousness.”

“Well, sure, but I don’t see how disabling your ExP changes anything.”

“It really doesn’t. I just can’t live with myself using ExP anymore.”

Nolan knew now wasn’t the time to bring up the fact that they teamed up for projects whenever possible and her decision would probably be a blow to both of their GPAs. He only wished she’d made the decision after they finished their book report on Persepolis due in two days.

At dinner that day, Nolan asked his parents, “Do you think using ExP is immoral?”

His father set down his forkful of lasagna and said, “Of course not. What makes you ask that?”

“Mandy disabled hers because she found out her server is a Cambodian girl and she feels guilty.”

His mother said, “Mandy’s a bit of a drama queen. You know I love her, but you can’t take everything she says to heart. Serving ExP is probably much better than any other job the girl could get.”

“But isn’t it messed up that we’re basically taking time away from our servers?”

His father said, “Nolan, that’s how jobs work, and they have a well-paying one. If they weren’t serving ExP, they’d be farming or working in a warehouse all day, or worse. We’re giving them more free time than they would have otherwise.”

His mother said, “Let’s look up our sources together after dinner. It’ll be a fun project.”

They gathered on the couch around his mother’s laptop and looked up her most recent server first, since the laptop was already logged into her account. A 30-year-old man in Shanxi, China whose bio, in a poetic touch, described his two young daughters as the suns his life orbited. His mother searched for the average annual salary there: $15,000 USD.

She rattled off quick calculations. “See, he’d only be getting $7 an hour there, assuming he’d even get an average-paying job. And we’re paying $30/hour for our ExP, so let’s assume Omni sends $25 of that to the servers. If he just works 20 hours a week, he’d get a $25,000 salary. So he can make twice the average salary while only working part-time. He’s probably living large over there.”

Nolan’s mother’s rationality soothed his concerns.

They logged into Nolan’s account next. His most recent server was a 42-year-old single mother in Indonesia, where her wages from Omni stretched even further. Nolan liked the idea that his ExP hours let a woman provide for her family halfway across the world.

His father’s account showed a 17-year-old boy in St. Louis, Missouri. He shrugged. “Well. It’s still better than flipping burgers.”

Eva, age 15

Eva knew something was wrong when she woke up after a session in her usual study room and a slender, dark-haired woman, brows furrowed in concern, sat in the other chair. Her name tag read Cindy. Eva recognized her as the librarian she sometimes saw behind the front desk. Cindy asked, “Oh, you’re awake. Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She felt groggy and a dull ache pulsed at her temples, but mentioning those might complicate things.

“That’s good to hear. Your father’s on his way to pick you up.”

“What? No, tell him he doesn’t have to come! I can get home myself. How did you even contact him?”

“Eva, the library closed an hour ago. I was worried about you, and your library account lists him as your guardian.”

“Wait, that can’t be right. I was only supposed to be out for two hours.”

Eva opened the Omni app and saw that the session had lasted nearly four hours. Her heart sank. The time requests were only estimates, and she’d had a session go twenty minutes longer than predicted before, but this had been way off.

Her dad was silent on the drive back, knuckles clenched white around the steering wheel. He dug out a Guinness from the back of their fridge once they got home, his first in months, and took it with him to their couch. He looked at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher as he sipped. He was steeling himself to have a serious talk with her and she had no power to scold him about drinking tonight. She obeyed his beckoning wave of the half-empty can to join him on the couch, sitting down gingerly on the side farthest from him.

He said, “Eva. How many hours a week are you serving ExP?”

“Ten.” It wasn’t entirely a lie; she served 15-20 hours most weeks, but her lightest weeks were a hairline under ten.

“You don’t have to do this. I make enough to support both of us.”

Well, sure, he paid for their groceries and the roof over their heads. He gave her money for supplies at the start of the school year and a new jacket from Target when the hems of her old one frayed beyond repair. But she didn’t tell him about the $20 she’d needed for a school visit to the aquarium last month, the $18 for a book that her friend wanted for her birthday in two days, the $180 for the end-of-year camping trip she desperately wanted to go on with her classmates. And she had another reason for serving she hadn’t voiced before, because she was afraid of how people would react. “I want to save up for college.”

He took another swig of beer. “Oh Eva, that’s something we should discuss together. What would you even study?”

Up until now, she’d wavered between all the dreams her mom had laid out before she left, turning them over and over in her head. Now that someone finally asked her, she realized that one shimmered with possibility more than the rest. “Cognitive computing. When I did Omni’s training to be an ExP server, I had to watch a video about how its distributed cognitive network worked. And I thought, why can’t we do that without using real brains? Then ExP clients would be so much cheaper, and everyone could have one. It could change the world! The video was only five minutes long, so I did more research on my own. Turns out a couple of universities and tech companies are already making a lot of progress on it. I’d love to be part of it.”

Her dad thought for a moment and sighed. “Sounds like a lot of work, but I’ll do what I can to support you.”

Nolan, age 16

Nolan saw the stack of Omni-branded boxes sitting on Mr. Yeong’s desk as soon as he walked into class. Speculative whispers already circulated the room. Many students noticed their resemblance to the ones their External Processor or SmartBand had come in, but it was unlikely that their geography teacher would have a pile of spare ones laying around.

Mr. Yeong was odd, choosing to bike to work every day even if it meant arriving in a yellow slicker that left trails of water droplets on his classroom linoleum on rainy days. Last month, he brought in cricket protein bars for the class to sample. But the students generally liked him, because he treated them like adults who could change the world someday, and Mandy liked him most of all.

Mr. Yeong opened one of the boxes after the starting bell rang and showed them the white disk inside. It looked slightly bigger than Nolan’s ExP sticker. “We’re going to try something new today. Raise your hand if you know what this is.”

A few hands shot up.

“Adam, why don’t you tell us.”

“It’s the thing people use to serve external processing I think? My cousin told me he tried it because he wanted to make some extra money, but disabled it after a few sessions. He said it was spooky.”

“That’s right. They’re officially called External Processor Server Stickers. Our next unit will go over the origins and implications of Omni products over the past few decades, with a focus on external processors, and I thought it would be fun to kick things off by experiencing what it’s like to be on the other side. Completely voluntary, of course; I have five available and Omni has a 10-minute minimum for sessions, so we can spread it out over the next few classes. Please sign up here and I’ll come up with a schedule for everyone interested. Any questions?”

Adam raised his hand. “I heard serving ExP might be bad for brain development.”

Mr. Yeong nodded. “I’ve seen those news articles too, but they’re all distorting research results to get people riled up. There’s been a lot of studies and none of them found any causal links, just correlation. But no pressure to try it if you have any concerns.”

He passed around a sign-up sheet and Nolan kept track of how many of his classmates wrote down their names. He was relieved that only about a third of them did and observed that Adam, who had heard about his cousin’s experience, passed it on without putting down his name.

The sheet came to him from the left, and without missing a beat he turned right and handed it to Mandy.

She whispered, “Seriously? You don’t want to try it?”

“Not really…it doesn’t seem safe. Especially since our brains are still developing.”

“Omni’s last demographics report said 17% of their servers are in the 12 to 20 age range. Those kids are doing it for hours every day. We’d only do it for ten minutes!”

“Fine, but I’d rather try it when we’re older and there’s more research. Maybe in 5 to 10 years.”

Mr. Yeong noticed that the sheet had stopped flowing. He asked, “Everything okay back there?”

“Yep, it’s all good.” Mandy wrote her name down so hard the pen left grooves and passed the paper to her right.

Mr. Yeong assigned them a reading about the ExP sector in Indonesia to keep them busy while signed-up students filled out an application on Omni’s website to become a server. Three of them were instantly approved, Mandy included.

She accepted a session minutes after she finished setting up. She slumped over the reading, her hair spilling over the desk to reveal the server sticker with a tiny LED light blinking green. Mr. Yeong had applied it to the same spot where she’d once had her client sticker. Nolan took note of the time – 2:16. He periodically turned to look at his friend. He was surprised by how long ten minutes felt and that Mandy didn’t move a muscle the entire time.

The other two students woke bleary-eyed from their sessions around 2:25. Mandy still hadn’t moved by 2:30, and Nolan thought of all the things that could’ve gone wrong. Wasn’t there a man in Cincinnati who’d had an aneurysm while serving ExP last month? He went up to his teacher’s desk. “Mr. Yeong? Mandy still hasn’t woken up.”

Mr. Yeong glanced at the clock. “She started at 2:16, right? It’s pretty common for sessions to go a few minutes longer or shorter than the estimate. I wouldn’t be concerned unless she’s still out by the time class ends.”

Nolan returned to his desk, his worry not quite appeased but unhopeful that Mr. Yeong would be of any help. Finally, at 2:37, Mandy raised her head and looked wide-eyed at Nolan. She looked pallid, with pink marks along her cheekbones from the strands of hair and notebook her face had been pressed against. He felt a sudden urge to run his fingers along the marks. Instead he asked, “How was it?”

She rubbed her knuckles against her left temple before answering. “I didn’t feel the time pass at all. I accepted the session, my mind went blank, and…it was over.”

“Was it like sleeping?”

“Not really. My head hurt when I first woke up, but it’s fading now. And I still feel mentally exhausted. You know, like at the end of a hard math test.”

It felt like things were back to normal between them. For a few minutes, at least. Then Mr. Yeong told them to form groups of four to work on a presentation based on the readings from that class, along with their own additional research. They’d have a month to prepare.

Nolan turned to Yvette and Easton, his two other friends in geography.

Yvette looked unusually hesitant. “I want to work with you, but that means Mandy would be in our group too, right?”

Nolan wasn’t sure if Yvette meant for Mandy to hear the question, but Mandy did, and she spoke up before he could say anything. “Don’t worry, I won’t be in your group. I’ll find a different one.”

Ever since Mandy had disabled her ExP, Nolan’s friends had grown increasingly unenthusiastic about working on group projects with her. She usually pulled her weight, but she’d work late into the night on her part on what should be simple assignments. For their last geography presentation, they’d camped out at a Denny’s the night before it was due. At 11:30pm, their server came around and told them it was their last call. Only Mandy was still working; the others, not really wanting more caffeine but feeling awkward for staying so long, ordered another round of coffee. Mandy said, “We don’t have to stay, I’ll finish it up at home and submit it.”

Yvette sighed with impatience, “We might as well finish it here.” She requested an hour of ExP and added a few paragraphs to Mandy’s section, then submitted their paper a few minutes past midnight. They received a B+.

Yvette complained to Nolan after they received their grades. “She missed the connection between overfishing and loss of rainforest diversity because she was too stubborn to use her ExP.”

Mandy had a few other friends that she sometimes worked with: Keith, who’d also disabled his ExP – Nolan didn’t particularly like him because he reeked of moral superiority and Nolan had caught him staring at Mandy’s boobs during PE more than once – and some of the scholarship students who never had ExPs to begin with. She approached a cluster of students in the back corner. When the bell rang, she exited the classroom with three of them, deep in conversation about how they’d divide up the work.

Up until now, Nolan and Mandy still joined forces for any partner projects. But a week later, when their English teacher asked them to analyze The Paper Menagerie either alone or with a partner, Mandy told Nolan she’d prefer working alone. Nolan teamed up with Easton instead.

Eva, age 16

Eva’s dad knocked on her bedroom door, then entered before she responded. He sat at the edge of her bed and showed her a job post for a tutoring position on his phone. “Hey, you have good grades. Why don’t you try this?”

Eva groaned and looked up from her algebra worksheet. He hadn’t outright banned her from working as an ExP server – they needed the money – but he relentlessly nagged her about other job opportunities, as if she hadn’t considered and ruled them all out already.

This time, she was prepared. She opened the spreadsheet that she’d been adding to over the past few months as she researched. A paper route: $12 an hour, and infeasible without a car. McDonald’s: $12 an hour and surprisingly competitive. Costco: $15 an hour and rarely hired high school students. Tutoring: $20 an hour, but most parents would take one look at her ExP server sticker and rule her out. So far, nothing compared to serving ExP; it paid $18 an hour, she could do it from home, and aside from the occasional headaches it wasn’t physically taxing. She chose to dismiss any research about it potentially affecting brain development as correlation, not causation.

Eva said, “I’ve applied to two tutoring centers already, and they didn’t like that I wasn’t an ExP client. They were worried about students running into a hard problem that I wouldn’t be able to figure out either.”

“What about the AMC down the road? You could watch free movies!”

“Dad, stop! Shouldn’t you be the one looking for a better job?”

He stood up. “Don’t speak to me like that.”

“Why can’t I? It’s not like delivering food pays better than serving ExP.”

He teetered on the edge between exploding with anger and admitting defeat, and Eva felt almost disappointed when he decided on the latter. His shoulders slumped and he sat back down. “I applied to serve ExP too, right after your mom left, but I didn’t pass the screening.”

“Oh. I didn’t know.”

“I should apply again. I’m in a better place now. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders and I just hate to see it being used by strangers instead of you.”

He pointed to another spreadsheet on her computer, “What’s that?”

Eva blushed. “It’s nothing.”

Her dad reached over and clicked it open.

“Dad!” She shouted, annoyed. Alongside the job-hunting spreadsheet, she’d been filling out one with scholarships. The first spreadsheet made her realize how small and miserable her life would be without a degree and hardened her resolve to study cognitive computing. She hadn’t mentioned college again to anyone since the library incident. What chance did she have against all the students with ExP clients? And how embarrassing would it be for her dad and friends to see her plans for something better, only for her to end up at a job from the first spreadsheet anyway?

He scanned the rows, then turned to her. “I love this.”

He held his phone out to her to show her a website: ExP Excellence Award. “I’ve been doing some research, too. Do you want to add this to your sheet?”

Eva read through the page and couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it before. It was a fund that partnered with a few colleges, including Emerson, UCLA, NYU, and Ohio State, all of which had good cog comp programs.

“Oh, Dad, this looks great.”

He smiled. “See, your old man isn’t entirely useless.”

As soon as he closed the door behind him, Eva opened the document where she’d jotted down notes for her college applications, feeling inspired to work on them again. Her motivation fizzled into despair as she stared at the mostly-blank page. The only highlight of her extracurriculars was winning the city-wide 800m run, but she didn’t even go to the statewide meetup afterwards; she couldn’t afford the hotel stay. And serving ExP meant she’d never had time to volunteer.

Eva decided she’d have to write about her stories of juggling work with school. She opened Omni’s ExP portal and scoured her sessions history page for numbers to sprinkle into her essays. Over the past four years, she’d served an average of 16 hours a week.

She spotted a “Request client details” link at the bottom of the page. Had that always been there? Eva clicked it out of curiosity and filled out the form.

A few minutes later, an alert popped up on her ExP portal. Omni sent a single page with basic demographic information and a bio. Her most recent client was a 21-year-old residing in Pennsylvania. He identified as Latino, heterosexual, unmarried. The bio read, “Hi! I’m a Chemistry student at Penn State. In my free time I like running, reading, and bar-hopping. Thanks for helping me learn the basics, like how to make ammonia. I’m positive I wouldn’t remember what a cation is without you.”

The few times Eva envisioned her clients, they were middle-aged, wrinkles filled with expensive cream and makeup, striding along marble hallways in fitted blazers. Maybe they worked in finance or law. She knew many of them would also get ExPs for their children around her age, but she didn’t dwell on the fact too much. She didn’t want to grow bitter. But here was a client only a few years older than her living the life she wanted, and she couldn’t bring herself to feel anger or disdain for him, only a twinge of envy. She imagined bumping into him as they streamed out of their neuroscience class onto a sunny lawn, then becoming friends over cram sessions and parties. She mused that he’d probably borrowed her neurons and axons for calculus, so maybe if she went to university, deriving functions would come easily to her, the connections for it already built into her brain circuitry.

Nolan, age 20

By the time acceptance letters started trickling into his classmates’ mailboxes, he and Mandy had drifted apart so much that they didn’t coordinate where they’d spend their next four years. Nolan went to UCLA. He found out through friends of friends that Mandy had only been accepted into the local community college. That meant she was usually in town when he visited home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but he never reached out to meet up and neither did she.

His calendar app still reminded him to message her on February 2. Not that he needed the reminder. He typed, “happy birthday!”

She must still have his birthday saved too, because she always messaged him on July 15. Their chat history for the past three years consisted only of bi-annual birthday wishes and thank yous.

Another February 2 came around, and Nolan opened Mandy’s profile to message her. Her most recent post linked to her birthday fundraiser for the ExP Excellence Award, a scholarship helping ExP servers continue their education. She’d set the goal at $20,000, enough to send one recipient to one of the scholarship’s affiliated colleges. The fundraiser was $300 short. Nolan anonymously donated the missing amount and watched as the green bar filled the rest of the meter in a shower of confetti. It was the least he could do.

Eva, age 20

Eva rose out of unconsciousness, slipped on her shoes, and ran. She’d spent the past three years serving ExP at home and serving ice cream at Sweet Cow. The dozens of scholarship applications she’d sent out only got her radio silence, so she was saving up for college the hard way. $10,000 would cover a year of classes at an in-state school.

She’d gotten close to that number, but there were always setbacks. The $700 brake booster replacement when their car brakes started feeling spongy. The $300 dental surgery for her dad when the Advil no longer worked. The $500 new phone when her old one refused to turn on.

Eva’s phone buzzed with an incoming email as she neared the end of the block. She slowed to a walk and tapped it open. She read, “Emerson College is pleased to offer you the ExP Excellence Award in the amount of $20,000.00 for the upcoming winter session. In addition, we will provide an annual subscription to the ExP Standard Plan to help with your studies, which covers 10 ExP hours each week. Your External Processor Client Sticker will be delivered in the next few days.”

She stopped walking completely in the middle of the sidewalk, her heart beating as if she were still running. $20,000. That would cover her tuition for her first year, and saved her from needing to juggle classes with serving ExP. The upcoming year suddenly glittered with opportunity. She’d have time to volunteer in a cog comp lab, to join the track club, to embark on internships or exchange programs.

Eva stood there for a few more minutes savoring her new freedom. Then she opened the Omni app and, giddy with disbelief at what she was about to do, switched her profile from ExP server to client.