"No, of course not, Phyllis. I'd never do that. This isn't that kind of relationship. Sure. Thanks for understanding."


"Bob, check the numbers on the Philly contract please. What? Yeah, I got the updates from Sam. This morning. Fuck, no, I'll check them again but not until I'm on the plane. Sure. Sure. Well, I...I...no, I just want to be sure we're not too exposed on unit returns to Taiwan. Last time we took a fucking bath on those bast-"


"Hi Mom! We're going to be arriving on the nine-thirty plane out of Tokyo." Shit, specifics. Fix it. "Oh. All right, we'll rearrange the trip then. No, no, that's all right. I'll have to talk to Sandra and get the times we can make the hop from her; I don't know how many days that week are open for travel..."

Cranston muted his headset and craned his neck slightly to look at the timer. Five and a half minutes. Wincing, he unmuted and continued the conversation, moving into the kitchenette to make a cup of tea. Adding lemon and some thistle honey for his vocal cords, he nattered on about trans-Pacific travel arrangements with a pleasant middle-aged woman on the other end of the line for the required three hundred and thirty seconds. Sounded like Janis. The speech patterns did, at least; Janis had trouble disguising her word patterns. The end-of-contract beep cut her off in the middle of a diatribe on TransPac's airline food, and he went Offgrid with a sigh of relief.

Five minutes to take a break. A cup of tea for the vocal cords. Five minutes of isometric exercise to take him out of the desk chair and away from his prompter console. Cranston was proud of his skill; he was one of the few backtalkers that could work without the prompter while switching contracts, not losing touch with the Grid.

Then maybe another couple of hours work before dinner.

The conversations would blend into one another. Zen would help, and he would try to sit before sleep, wiping his head clean for the relief it brought. While around the world, that day, the seven hours of conversation that he'd produced on demand would bounce from satellite to cable to computer, from packet to analog circuit, from cell phone to landline. Each conversation with another random backtalker contractor on the backtalk grid, myriad possible connections and conversations made, injected into the billions of legitimate conversations out there, while his clients used those datapaths to hide dataflow - steganographic submarines of power and money, pain and treachery. Governments, smugglers, criminals, saints and spies. He thought of them all the time and never, imagined them sliding gently beneath the waves and breakers of his perfect and flat Middle American accented voice (Speech pattern type Ortho-Texan, PacNorAm I/X/VII) with their payloads of treasure and treason.

Ah well.

Gulping his tea, Cranston opened his link to the Grid and flicked through his contract offerings, looking for another fifty or so random colleagues to converse with for pay.

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