Roland stepped forward, shouting into the throng of people trundling past as he stood beneath the kaleidoscope of neon shop lights that filled the Central London Shopping Centre.
“Step right up! New opportunities, new horizons, a whole new life awaits! 34 days until the Neo Kosmo departs to Lamperi Gi, the first habitable exoplanet, and spaces are available!”
A few faces turned from amidst the sea of people. Roland smiled, scanning for anyone who looked to be just inside 30 years old. Younger people had too many living relatives. Older people had got too comfortable on Earth. A young family, already feeling the economic pinch of an aging population made the perfect prospect. Plus, a family meant multiple tickets for a very healthy commission.
A ticket on the Neo Kosmo would cost most of your assets. And of course, you had to be willing to leave Earth and everyone you knew behind. With 500 years of cryo-sleep ahead it was a tough sell, and choosing the right target was important. Roland saw no one matching his desired age range, so he turned back toward the Offworld Life sales office where a depiction of the Neo Kosmo took up the entire window.
An older lady was examining the colony ship’s photographs and Roland met her with a smile. She wasn’t a sales prospect but being friendly to everyone was good for word-of-mouth referrals.
“She’s a beautiful ship isn’t she? The first and only colony ship.” Roland said.
“I suppose so,” she replied, not looking at him.
“You should see the pictures of Lamperi Gi. You’d want to go there even if you were going in a cardboard box!”
The lady turned to him and frowned. “Do you know anyone going?”
Roland shook his head. He was the only one of his small friend group who had the money for a ticket, but before he could answer the lady continued.
“My son has a place. He’s so excited but,” she paused, “it’s easy to make up a lie. I just don’t want him to be disappointed if it’s not true.” She shook her head and walked off, leaving Roland with the next part of his pitch hanging on his tongue.
Scientists had run magnetospheric imaging through a high-complexity physics modelling AI to get real images of the planet. Her son would be fine. Roland shook his head and slipped back inside the sales office.
His colleague Luc raised his eyes. “Slim pickings today Rolo.”
“It’s still early,” Roland replied, “there’s a family in need of a better life out there somewhere.”
Luc rolled his eyes. “God, you and your cheesy sales lines...”
Roland punched him gently in the arm, “Say what you want, they work. I was way ahead of you last month.” There was no reply.
Alexa, the latest sales recruit chimed in. “And...the month before as well I think?” She never failed to make a dig at Luc.
Luc mumbled something obscene and walked off, leaving Roland and Alexa grinning. Roland looked around, where every wall of the sales office was covered with oversized AI-generated prints of Lamperi Gi. Mighty marble mountains reached for the clouds while beaches with sand whiter than sugar granules melted into sapphire seas. Fertile floodplains met viridian evergreens; promising plant life of a magnitude found only in centuries-old pictures of Earth.
He sat down at his desk and brought up his personalised sales pitch. Earth’s governments had individually conducted magnetospheric imaging, which was double checked by non-governmental organisations and universities. There was no way it was all fake.
Luc clamped a hand on Roland’s shoulder, shaking him from the revision.
“And the long game pays off! Two more sales for me! Young engineers the both of them, just confirmed and paid online. Looks like you’ve been dethroned!” He lifted an imaginary crown off Roland’s head. “I tell you man, the right strategy now is to push the government subsidy angle. Engineers and trades people get crazy discounts.”
Alexa jumped in before Roland could say anything. “Since you pay taxes, and those taxes pay the subsidy, and the subsidy comes to the company, technically you are part-buying those tickets, so it shouldn’t count.”
“Shut up.” Luc said, and made a mocking face at her. He squinted at Roland’s computer screen. “What, you forget your sales pitch?”
“Huh? Oh, the lady outside caught me off guard and I wanted to get the facts on this magnetospheric stuff right.”
Luc shrugged. “There’s no way to really, truly know what plants look like on another planet. Even with technology, it takes 500 years at the speed of light to get there. Everything could be purple for all we know.”
Roland shot him a look and stood up. “You’re not helping.”
Luc winked and walked off. Roland shook his head and grabbed a free coffee from the office machine. It was terrible quality, but the bitter black liquid sharpened his senses. He repeated his assurances on the veracity of the planetary photographs to himself. With the coffee in his system and the extra competition as fuel, he went back to scanning for the right targets.
Soon enough, he found a young man who fit the bill: A stubbly face suggested an age just shy of 30. Unbranded but smart clothes suggested enough money for a ticket, but not enough money to waste on fancy brands. That was a good sign, as was the lack of a wedding band. Roland caught the man’s attention and began the delicate dance of his sales pitch, trying to project confidence with his quick replies.
“How many people are going?” the man asked.
“1 million spaces are aboard the Neo Kosmo, around a hundred thousand remain unfilled.”
“What safety measures are in place?” the man probed.
“Every system has at least four back-up systems in place. Every safety or core system has ten,” Roland countered. The young man was asking the right questions, he was smart.
“What happens if the planet isn’t habitable?”
Roland stumbled. “I beg your pardon?”
The man spoke slowly, “what happens if the colonists get to Lamperi Gi and the pictures are wrong? Can the ship be turned around and sent back to Earth? Is there a plan in place for that?”
Roland wasn’t sure how to respond to that. No one had asked him that question before, and it hadn’t been in the training information. He tried to sidestep it.
“We know from magnetospheric-“
“Yeah I know. Technology is very impressive. But even so, no one has actually been there.” The man pointed to the neon billboard, to the sapphire blue oceans of Lamperi Gi. “It’s a 500 year journey, what happens if a meteorite hits the planet in the meantime? Or aliens colonise it? How can you guarantee that it looks like this when people get there?”
For a moment, Roland didn’t know what to say. His gut was churning, he could see he was losing the man and his only possible reply was to admit that he didn’t know the answer. With no other option available, he conceded.
As expected, the man walked away. Roland mumbled to himself and turned back to the office, frowning as he saw both Luc and Alexa watching him. He groaned and walked inside, ready for the inevitable teasing that would follow. As he sat down the two of them made an over-the-top gesture of bringing up the weekly sales numbers and rubbing their chins.
Pointedly, he ignored them, and searched the terms and conditions instead.
“Payment in full at the time of purchase. Even I remember that one.” Alexa shouted to him.
Roland sighed and gestured at all the pictures around them. “How about you help me figure out what happens if they got it wrong? Then maybe I can make a sale today.”
Luc walked over and sat down in a swivel chair next to Roland. “Short answer? It sucks. There isn’t enough fuel to turn around and come back and even if there was, we’re talking another 500 years of cryo-sleep. They have to make the best of it. Build pressurised habitats maybe. That’s why we get such a big commission on these sales. That’s why the price was slashed. That’s why there’s still so many spaces left with only 34 days to go.”
He shrugged and gave Roland a clap on the back before walking off. Roland didn’t get time to ponder it before Alexa waved him over.
She pointed to an older gentleman who had come inside and whispered, “this man is already looking to buy. A nice easy one for you. Go on, go get your mojo back.”
The gentleman smiled as Roland approached. He was in his later years, definitely not Roland’s usual target.
“Good afternoon!” Roland said, smiling wide and beckoning the gentleman to a chair. The man accepted as Alexa brought over some water for the two of them.
“I’m looking to buy a ticket,” The man begun. “Not for me, for my granddaughter.”
“Not a problem! We’ll need her to register but you can buy the space and hold it for 6 days.”
“I do have a question first.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I have about 6 months left - terminal cancer. I understand the ship leaves in one month.” The man took a long breath. “Once I pass, my granddaughter won’t have any family left. What I leave her is not small, but also not large. I can make it go further with a ticket, since it’s tax free. Is what is on the other side of the galaxy better than what would await her here on Earth? Is it worth her losing the last months with me? Should I do it for her?”
What was with the difficult questions today? Roland squirmed. He could have sworn that even a month ago no one would have asked a question like this. A month ago his prospects were practically begging to leave Earth. God, he missed the early days. If he had said yes, it would have made the sale right there, but he didn’t answer. With a sigh, he ran his hand through his hair and leaned forward.
“I don’t know.” There was silence between them for a few moments. “And I’m not going to tell you to buy it just for a sale.”
The man left without making a commitment, and Roland slumped into his chair. So much for an easy sale. Alexa and Luc stayed silent, giving him a reprieve. They left him slumped in the chair until it was time to go home. For the first time he’d failed to make a single sale in a day.
“We’ll leave you to lock-up, ok?” Alexa said. Roland nodded at them but stayed at his desk, staring at the computer. Had the lady this morning got into his head? She certainly hadn’t helped. For the first two months he’d been the top seller without fail, and for the last few weeks he’d been having less and less success. True, all the keen travellers had already booked. Maybe Luc was right and he just needed new targets.
He grabbed another cup of bad coffee and locked himself in the sales office. What was wrong with him? It wasn’t like new information had come out. He’d read the reports, the pitches and all the terms and conditions when he first started. He might forget the fine print from time to time but it was hardly anything that would change someone's mind.
One cup, and then two quickly ran dry as he sat alone in the empty sales office, pondering what had happened over the last two months to ruin his sales numbers. With bloodshot eyes he gazed at the beautiful renders of Lamperi Gi, following every contour and dwelling on every colour as the truth dawned on him. He knew why he had taken the job and why he had done so well at the beginning. He knew why he had been so enthusiastic about leaving Earth, even with no guarantee of a better life on the other side. His customers hadn’t been the only one buying into the sales pitch.
There was only one question: Did he still buy it? Knowing there was no possible way out once committed, did Roland, in his heart, believe that what was on the other side of the galaxy would be better than remaining on Earth?
Before Roland knew it, the sky was changing colour outside the shopping centre. As if the fresh morning sun was shining a light on his own thoughts as well as on the building, the final piece fell into place. He turned as the door unlocked and Luc walked in. Roland spun his chair to face his colleague and leaned backward, arms crossed. Slowly a full, genuine smile spread across Roland’s face.
Luc sat down, the faintest trace of concern on his face. “Have you been here all night? You know we don't get paid overtime right?”
Roland nodded. “Never been better. Do you want a free sale? I’m buying myself a ticket on the Neo Kosmo. I’m going to Lamperi Gi.”