Before The Fall

Margie shifted in her seat as she sat waiting for her supervisor, Bob Siwarski, to finish making his notes.  He always made her wait, come in….sit down, and just … wait.  This time she was prepared with her questions.  As a data analyst in the Department of Health, it was her job to create and pull reports for all sorts of purposes.  Several weeks ago she assisted the medical school with some accreditation review they were preparing for, and she happened to notice some strange trends in the patient data.  The head Epidemiologist refused to see her, so she decided to just go straight to her boss, who head up their Biomedical Research.  It was probably nothing, but a 300% increase in renal failures and sepsis in children, year over year – could indicate something…more.  She didn’t know what, but these are some of the best kids doctors in the world, supported by brilliant researchers and scientists. You would think they’d want this kind of information.

“So?” Bob was staring at Margie when she looked up from her thoughts.  His short, thick blonde hair was nicely groomed and had those piercing blue eyes that always felt like they were staring into her soul.  Maybe it was because he was her supervisor, or maybe it was the Masters degrees in Theology and Business, but he had the power to intimidate her, and he wielded it freely.

“Oh, yes.  So, I brought the data I had emailed you about, I thought maybe we could go through it together, and then – “

“I’m sorry, I really don’t have the time to do that right now.  How about you just let me take a look at the files when I can.”

“Okay, I can email them to you.”

“They’re all on that USB?” he said, pointing to the tiny memory stick in her hand.

“Oh, yes….but I can…”

“Just leave it. I can give it back to you in the morning.  I’m going to be working late, as usual.” And the smile he flashed her set her mind at ease completely.  “Why don’t you go home, and spend some time with the fiance – you’ve earned it.  These past few weeks have been hellish – to pardon the phrase.”  Margie laughed, and blushed as she made her way out of his office.  Finally, some good feedback about the job she was doing.  Maybe she would stay here after finishing her degree, she was beginning to feel like she was fitting in.

After Margie left, Og stood and slicked his hair back, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. He picked up the USB drive and studied it briefly before packing up his briefcase and heading back to his office. His real office.

The next morning, all traces of the spreadsheets were deleted off her USB drive, as well as her computer.  A week later, someone had called offering her a new job as an Analyst with the technology school – and a salary increase she couldn’t refuse. Eighteen months later, the department had finally received all the funding they'd needed to open a brand new Children’s Hospital, and Margie, so busy with planning her wedding, the new title and position, thought nothing more of it. 

The Great Lakes’ School of Technology proved to be an excellent move for Margaret Brandwick. She was in charge of a Technology Training Lab, at least administratively, and although busy, was able to continue plugging away toward her Bachelor’s degree. She had chosen education, of course, thinking that her administrative background and pedagogy training would secure a bright future in the waning economy. The school, though technically a department of the main Great Lake’s University, the School of Technology was world class – the building’s newly erected and completely contemporary. Classrooms were modular, and fitted with the latest technology – gone were old school chalkboards and overhead projectors – students lucky enough to be attending the GLSOT each received tablet computers and sat in classes outfitted entirely with Internet connected whiteboards, and modular, moveable furniture.

Walking around campus was pure pleasure for Margie; the bustle of new students, smells of fresh ground dark roast in the student union, she loved working and attending classes there, and she couldn’t wait to begin her teaching career. Managing her school’s classrooms was pure joy, each room was designed with intent; stainless steel trim, block glass and the smoothest cherry finish – equipped with hidden technological features – in-floor outlets, pull down projectors for two sides of the room, and HD monitors in every corner.  Teaching and learning (at this University anyway) was finally moving away from “dumping information” into bored, student-receptacle heads and moving toward collaborative, problem-based facilitation. Already, several schools across the world had inquired about the school’s innovation, hoping to use it as a model for their own.

The changes paid off in more ways than anyone could have predicted. Students began applying from all over the world, post-grads and even seasoned PhD’s were inquiring about GLSOT posts. Margie became an expert at promoting the school, imparting tenure-track information and registering for H1B visas, which were required of every foreign, non-immigrating research student and educator. The University took full advantage of  the government's drive to increase H1B visa distribution during those years, especially in the areas of medicine and technology.

Lab Operations and Classroom Management weren't the only areas Margie was able to gain expertise in, this was a Technology school afterall, there were plenty of colleagues around to help Margie develop the latest, greatest way to organize her department data online or assist faculty in accessing their computers from home, or even begin learning to develop custom web pages for the lab.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Logging into the 3D game "Dream Life" for the first time was almost as exhilarating as her first time skiing, or cliff jumping into the St. Croix River; Margaret had always been tech saavy, but the device her gaming friends suggested for her was nothing short of genius. Unlike laptops or other mobile devices she'd seen before, this machine was about the size of a deck of cards.  Once charged inside it's velveteen electrostatic sleeve, the chrome packet launched it's operating system in a completely unexpected way. With a simple finger swipe, the interface sprang to life: a holographic image instructing the user to "please put on headset." Once Margaret activated it, again with her fingerprint, she placed it gingerly on her head, carefully inserting the ear buds and nodes on her forehead and temples. There was a swivel mic, which she placed in the "off" position, before typing on the virtual keyboard that had popped up in front of her.

The virtual screen floated comfortably at eye-level. It had several adjustments - sizes as well as text-based, 3D and full immersion. Margaret selected her home location; a serene, mystical forest, and then logged in with her user name "Margie Cotton," after her hometown of Cottonwood, before selecting the interface mode: "Full Immersion."

Almost immediately, her kitchen transformed into a lush green forest - she could hear crickets, and bees, and the wind's dancing leaves behind her.  The kitchen chair had transformed into a life-size mushroom, she could almost feel the spongy texture beneath her, she could almost reach out and touch a giant leaf, floating toward her - in fact she did reach toward it, slightly standing, reaching--

"Mom?"

Her daughter Emma had entered the room, pausing briefly to assess her mother's posture before interrupting.  Margaret started, quickly pulling the head set from her head as if she'd been doing something wrong. Her kitchen remained unchanged, transforming back into her dining table-slash-study desk. Her daughter materializing before her eyes, arms folded in front of her, foot tapping, scowling brow.

"Oh!"

"Yes, 'Oh' - Mom. You said 20 minutes, it's been an hour."

"Of course." Margaret quickly encased her device and pocketed it.

"What were you doing, anyway?"

"Oh - some research…for school. We're investigating virtual learning environments."

"It looks a little crazy, mom."

Margaret sent her daughter a look that neither of them had to clarify with words, before heading out to the sleepover party. Even as she drove, she couldn't stop thinking about the limitless teaching and learning possibilities in that 3D space. Only her ignorance kept her from acknowledging the fact that the tech had already been in place for decades, by the military, various departments of the government and several major universities.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 "But how do you know that's who you're talking to?"  Professor Boehman and her classmate, Greg, had taken her out for drinks after class that next week.

"Well, I guess I don't, do I?  He said he was a disc jockey in Seattle or Portland or something - why wouldn't I believe him?"

"Did you tell him your real name?"

"No -- well, yes…I gave him my email address."

Allen and Greg looked at each other over the table they were all sitting at. Margie was only a few months into the graduate program when Allen suggested they all go out for drinks to discuss a possible research project in a virtual space. The next hour was spent discussing "Dream Life" and her experiences inside it. They both seem genuinely intrigued and wanted to learn more about it. Margie was thrilled to be treated like an "expert" of the subject, even though she was far from it.

"So how does your husband feel about you being in there?"

"Well, he has no interest in it, really."

"Are you sure?  There's a lot of people talking about how many relationships have broken up because of that game."

"You mean that game, or gaming in general?

"Well--"

"Because I think me and my husband have a solid enough relationship to work through the difference between reality and virtual reality," Margie interrupted, "because we communicate honestly and openly about things."

Greg nodded and smiled, "of course you do, still, things can change. People change."

Margie nodded, "Well, of course they do." And then she tilted her head a bit, looking at the two of them, looking at each other. Something was up, but she didn't know exactly what. She did know, however, that it felt good to be considered the expert, to be a part of something exciting. They both had mentioned they'd like to pursue "research" in that area, an area she would love to get involved in after grad school. She also went home that night determined to prove that she and Pete's relationship was solid enough to withstand a silly video game. Soon, she had talked him into getting his own account, and began introducing him to all her friends in the forest.

The next week in class, Margie gave another presentation to the class and received mostly positive results. There were many colleagues who were not convinced that counseling students in a virtual environment would be worthwhile, nor would they want to put forth any extra effort learning the technologies. All very valid points.

"Boehman….Boehman…" Margie couldn't help but think her Professor's name was familiar somehow.  She went to high school with someone of a similarly spelled name, but after doing a little research online, came up with no connections.  Born and raised in Iowa, and apparently, a champion snowmobile racer. It's amazing what you can find on the Internet, Margie thought to herself.

Things were also going quite well at the Lab. Planning for the disaster workshop was underway, and because there were some medical researchers moving in to the vacant room next to her, she figured the relationship between her Lab and the Medical School was getting better. Soon, they would have more clients, and that would mean -- well, it would mean job security, to put it bluntly.  Margie wasn't at all sure of her future at the Lab, discussions of operating costs being too high, were on the docket at most of her meetings with her boss.

The next meeting was a good one, there were two new people starting at the Lab, a gentleman, who would be taking over the technical side of running the A/V tech for simulations, and another coordinator, like herself - who seemed to be around the same age. Margie's boss, Janet, looked a little harried this morning, and after heralding the group with stories of ushering her precocious four year-old to school that morning, switched gears abruptly to ask

"How is it going in the Lab, Margie?"

"It's going quite well. Everything's running, everything's stocked. I'll be happy when we get some clients this Fall."

"And your new neighbors, how is that going?" Margie wasn't exactly sure what Janet meant by the question, but in a flash, Margie's mind remembered a very specific conversation she had with her sister several years earlier. She was working at the Department of Health at the time, when her sister, Georgia, called seeking advice about a new boyfriend. She'd been trying to break up with a guy she discovered had been dealing drugs, and instead of moving on with her life, she immediately landed in the arms of an Indian technologist that she'd met at a bar one night.

"I don't know, Georgie, do you like him?  Money isn't everything."

Georgie had went on to explain how she'd been secretly seeing him for several months, and how he was already talking marriage.

"Wow. Are you sure? Are you sure he's in love and not just seeking a green card?" Margie thought it a valid question, after only three months of dating a foreign national.

"Indian men seem to treat their women better, than say … African men, I guess."

At that moment, a pair of big brown eyes framed with beautiful glossy black hair peered around the corner from the next cubicle. It was Saachi, the new IT intern that had come up and started working on the computer next to her.  Saachi was clearly of Indian origin, and clearly pissed off. Margie remembered having to make another call to IT to finish the software install for that computer after Saachi had packed up and left without a word.

"Oh, well they're Lab Scientists," Margie voiced to the group, "very focused, not really into chatting." She thought that was about as big a generalization as she should make at that point. It made Margie grateful to have a new female colleague, and so happily accepted Sue's offer to meet for lunch the next day, so they could go over some of the details of the disaster workshop.

"Oh, by the way, Margie - I'm wondering if you could order some T-Shirts for the group, in a variety of colors so we can determine the different roles. I'll email you some specifics."

"Sounds good," Margie declared, thinking that she was getting the easy jobs - most likely because Janet knew she had a lot on her plate. Margie liked Janet, she seemed to know what she was doing, and the fact that she had started her career with the World Health Organization went a long way in her book.  Margie was grateful that the afternoon meeting cleared early, as Margie would now be able to login to Dream Life and scope out some of her training locations before class that night.  She needed to be careful, however, because the last time she logged in, her best friend in-world had "mistakenly" teleported her into an adult location. A favorite spot of his apparently, which left Margie a little unnerved, seeing as how she was developing a bit of a crush, despite her being married. Margie spent a good twenty minutes looking at pictures of naked gay men, before realizing what she was doing. She was on her own computer, but it still was probably not a good idea to be so nonchalant about her school projects at work.  Mixing work and play on the Internet and Social Networking sites was getting tricky, she certainly learned that lesson on Facebook - having made an off hand comment about the clumsiness of the EMTs and the 100 pound hi-fi resusci-Annies that they were using. She was trying to be glib, but the only laughter she 'heard' seemed to come from next door; perfect timing if she was the paranoid sort, but she only shook her head and continued to watch negative comment after negative comment pile up on her post.  Apparently, there were plenty of friends and family that took offense, leaving Margie to wonder how everyone had gotten so God-damned serious all of a sudden.  She'd known some of the people at her school for years and years, and they rarely hesitated when gossiping about some of their own medical personnel in some of the worst ways.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  

Rasul Okwandi sat silently after Greg went over the plan for their group project. Greg, having already appointed himself as leader, had went ahead and made some key decisions over the weekend prior to the three of them meeting to discuss. Margie was certainly fine with that, as she had been excruciatingly busy with her final project in Dream Life and with the new Disaster Response simulation at the Lab. She wasn't sure how Rasul felt about it, however. He didn't seem to talk much, only opening up a tiny bit more when she and him were out chatting after class, or to meetup for dinner somewhere to discuss collaborating on projects. He mentioned that he was separated and was living with another classmate, but about to get his own apartment somewhere downtown, somewhere he could bring his two kids to come see him on weekends while he finished his PhD work.

 

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