The unnecessary yet utterly satisfying disconnection tone signalled the multicontinental conference call had been terminated.
The strategy meeting was over. Direction had been set, and fears had been placated. While the Ghost Broker was the most powerful figure in the Oji family, he was far from the only one with influence. While his use of the Ghost Cache had launched the family back into success, he was but one young man. Every senior family member had their own plans that they had believed could save the family if only more of their meagre funds would be invested as they wanted. Now that there actually was a decent amount of funding available, each of those relatives craved a chance to prove that they'd been right all along. Any perceived weakness on his part was a chance to oust him and replace him with someone who felt they were more worthy of benefiting from the renewed Oji fortune.
Convincing obstinate second cousins and stubborn great aunts that he knew what he was doing seemed like a waste of time, but it was the cost of leadership. He cut a trail through the jungle of familial expectations so his team were free to get the real work done. He'd succeeded in keeping them on side for another few weeks, provided his earnings and customer growth kept hitting targets. Without their approval, he would be left without the benefit of their marketing and administration teams, and so many other critical resources. The ghosts were the product, but even an intelligent product couldn't sell itself.
"Time for a snack soon," he said to himself, glancing at the food fabricator. He tried to keep a regular meal schedule, but that was difficult with his round-the-clock schedule. He couldn't be in VIVID for more than eight hours a day, but he couldn't leave his virtual empire unattended for long. He'd solved that problem by breaking up his sleeping time into blocks which were distributed throughout the day as needed. Such fractured VIVID usage wasn't recommended, but it was possible. He couldn't do it without significant chemical assistance, but that too was part of the cost of leadership.
"But first things first. Call Kanda."
"Good to hear from you, boss," Kanda said only moments later. "I'm almost done reviewing today's evaluations."
"You're not done yet? Did something go wrong?"
"Something always goes wrong. We did have a few problematic cases but you know we're well equipped to deal with them. There were no major delays, only more interesting cases requiring close review than I typically say. But don't worry, the success rate was nearly seventy-five percent, and more of the bright ones pulled through than I expected."
"That's reassuring news, Kanda. Any standouts?"
"30108-0916 appears quite competent and rational. And they remembered a name: Megus. They showed the ability to innovate in their trial run, and are generally accepting of the conditions of their... employment."
"And what of the interesting cases?"
"The oddest one is 30108-1709. She tested as likely high in cognitive potential, and she did well enough on the math test. Actually that's one of the odd parts. She only attempted eighteen puzzles but she succeeded in all of those. And some of them are puzzles that few ghosts even try."
"That is a little odd. And don't think I didn't notice that you've been saying 'she'."
"Yes, seventeen-oh-nine knows that she's a woman, but not her age or any names."
"That's rather rare," the Ghost Broker mused. "But there's more, isn't there? How did she perform in practice?"
"She showed strong determination in the face of severe sensory and control issues. However, she was too slow and would most likely have not reached her destination in the allotted time. A bandit killed her before she had the chance to fail on her own."
"Are these issues fixable?"
"They don't seem to be hardware issues, so it's most likely an internal problem. Perhaps with drugs or therapy? For now she's not much good other than as a bottom-tier shambler."'
"Pity. But we need products to suit all levels of customers, even those in the lowest financial positions. Definitely keep an eye on her through. She could have hidden potential. And make sure she's not pushed too hard. We absolutely do not want another public mental fracturing splashed across the newsfeeds."
"And she'll need a name. We can't keep calling her seventeen-oh-nine."
"Er... 1709... Itog. Is that one good?"
"It really isn't. Seven... Teen... Oh..."
"How about Stone?"
"Would you want to be called 'Stone', Kanda?"
"May I speak freely, boss?"
"Just this once."
"I looked up your name, boss, a few years ago. 'Lume' was a radioactive compound put on watch dials, according to the third era archives. Stone may be a weird name, but what's wrong with that? It's the sort of name that could be the answer to a riddle."
"Radioactive watch dials? That sounds like a terrible idea. It's precisely what I would expect from the third era humans. However, I doubt that is what I was named for. In any case, 'Stone' sounds much too plain. My sister would never have approved. We'll call her Stoni." Naming a ghost was not a productive use of time, but what was the point in being Lume Oji, the Ghost Broker, and not indulging in life's simpler pleasures?
"Stoni," Kanda repeated. "That will do nicely."