OK this week we do not have another episode of Bartlett spits bile all over the room. Mea culpa. It’s been a bit of a wacky week for me, so instead I’m going to post a bit of fiction I wrote years ago. But first- Backstory!
About ten years ago I was a designer for a card game based on a game called “Cyberpunk”. In addition to helping to design cards and figure out game theory, flow, balance and other wacky game stuff, I and some others wrote some short fiction for the card game. This is one of those pieces. Unlike most cyberpunk fiction, there is no violence, cool tech or ultra suave protagonists. I don’t think you need to be fluent in Geek to enjoy this, but I may be a bit too close to judge. Any commentary and advise is welcome. Enjoy…
John’s hands trembled as he held the envelope. It was thick. It was bulky. It was manila. Rejection letters are not this bulky, he told himself, they are generally a single sheet full of nothing but “you’re a loser.” He should know. Jonathan Randolph Smith had received twenty- six rejection letters so far. None looked like this. Well, The one from Biotechnica Technologies Ltd. had been pretty thick; but then they’d returned his entire medical history and even his blood sample. When they returned your blood sample you knew you were screwed.
John was on his last leg. He had graduated from a decent college and earned his MBA. He had a spotless criminal record, an acceptable credit rating and a small but solid stock portfolio. Yet still all of the large corporations had brushed him off.
John held a respectable job at a local bank, but it was hardly what he was aiming for. He wanted something more. He wanted The Deal: corporate housing, corporate car …heck, corporate life. His current job was fine, in fact there were plenty of people who were satisfied with their lot at “Night City Savings and Loan”. But not John. He was a visionary, an idealist, and an extraordinary resource just begging to be tapped.
John glanced out the window as he fiddled with the lip of the envelope, imagining its contents. He couldn’t stand the fact that he lived in such a dangerous neighborhood. He had to pay extra for a garage so the local gangs wouldn’t tag his car. The building had no daytime security and only a lazy night watchman, but when John complained to his landlord about the lack of safety, he was quite thoroughly ignored.
He opened the letter and almost fainted. There was an opening for a Second Class Junior Assistant to the Assistant Junior Department Subhead of Payroll, Temporary Employees Division, Neo-Arasaka Ltd, a subsidy of Arasaka Ltd, a subsidy of Arasaka Int. His interview was Tuesday, 11:45 am. He only had… 137 hours, 13 minutes to prepare. He jumped to his feet and ran down the 3 flights of stairs to the street. He had work to do.
He took the week off from work to prepare. John updated his resume, cleaned his best suit, familiarized himself with Arasaka Corporate etiquette, changed his mind and got a new suit tailored, read and reread the initial offer of employment, got the tailor to change the color and cut of the new suit, procured and studied an unauthorized copy of Arasaka Payroll procedures, picked up the suit, and started learning Japanese. The only thing left was hiring a bodyguard.
According to a recent issue of Corporate Quarterly, the best way to determine a corporate employee’s status was the presence and quality of their bodyguard. A bodyguard says that you are wealthy enough to afford one, stylish enough to recognize and employ the best, and valuable enough to be a target for assassination or extraction. If you came into an interview with a bodyguard, people would know. People would talk. People would take notice.
The only problem was that John did not know any bodyguards. The security guard at the bank was an old, retired N.C.P.D. officer, and he would not do. He considered hiring an off duty policeman, but they would probably be on Arasaka’s database and John would be caught with a ringer. He’d need someone who wasn’t on the database, preferably someone who looked violent, but would be willing to take on a more suave demeanor. He also needed someone who would work cheap. He made a few calls, and talked to his old collage roommate, Benny.
Benny had been smart but disgruntled at the university, and dropped out his junior year. No big loss, according to John. Benny had been liberal arts major, anthropology or something. He’d stayed in contactwith John sporadically, and apparently he’d been doing the “starving artist” thing and playing in a rock band. John figured where there’s rock, there’s drugs, and where there’s drugs… there’s violent people.
Fortunately, Benny claimed to have the perfect man for the job, and wished John luck on his interview. At least, John was pretty sure that’s what Benny said. It was a little hard to tell with all the loud music and what sounded like farm animals in the background.
The night before the interview John planned to meet his new bodyguard. The person Benny had chosen was going to spend the night since the interview was in the morning, and John did not trust any friend of Benny’s to show up on time. He had arranged for his family spend the night at his sister’s so they would be safe from his bodyguard.
At eight that night the buzzer rang, and John opened his door to find a monster outside… exactly what John needed. The man was large, ill mannered and looked like a hoodlum. In fact, he probably was a hoodlum. He stood well over two meters tall, and his long blonde hair hung in dreads. His clothing was not much better: grimy tee shirt, a leather jacket, big boots, and a lumpy oversized backpack. John swallowed hard, trying not to imagine what this beast of burden might be carrying.
“You John Smith?”
“’m Olaf. Benny sent me.”
“I’d hoped. Please come in.”
Olaf lumbered into the apartment and looked around. He went to the couch and flopped down, putting his feet up on the coffee table. John followed nervously, noting, with horror; the muddy tracks Olaf’s cinder-block boots were leaving on the carpet.
“C-can I get you something to drink?”
“Nah,” said Olaf digging into his backpack, “I brought my own.” He pulled out a brown glass bottle of dubious liquid and opened it with a loud POP.
“Oh. Ummm. Well, let me get you a glass.” John briskly walked to the kitchen and willed his hands to stop shaking as he retrieved a clean glass from the cupboard. Attempting an attitude of confidence, he returned to the living room… just in time to see Olaf slam the now empty bottle down on the table with a loud belch.
“Oh. Here’s a coaster.”
“Thanks. Ya got any chow?” Olaf rooted in his backpack again and pulled out two more bottles. POP. POP. “Here, try this.” He put the beer down on the table in front of John.
“Dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Till then I was hoping I could get your measurements.”
“Why’d you want those?”
“Well, tomorrow I’ll need you to act as my bodyguard when we go to the Arasaka Compound, and you’ll need to wear a suit. Now I’ve gone so far as to get a nice conservative cut for you, but it’s in a general size.”
“Dude, what are you talking about? Benny told me you’d only need me till tomorrow morning. I didn’t sign up to go nowhere, and I sure as hell ain’t going to Arasaka. Now shut up and drink.”
John felt his heart leap into his throat. He obediently swept up the bottle and sucked down a mouthful. He knew he couldn’t count on Benny. He was a fool to try this. Still, he had to try to salvage the situation. Desperately fumbling for a reply, he recalled an article on Employee Negotiation Strategies and took a deep breath.
“Now see here, Mr. …Olaf, I have retained your services for the next …” John checked his watch,” 17 hours and 32 minutes, and so long as I ask you to perform no illegal or immoral actions, you are contractually obligated to serve as my bodyguard until that time. So what I, your employer, need from you, my employee, is to change into the suit I’ve just spent a week’s wages on. Then escort me to the Arasaka compound by 10:00am tomorrow. You shall wait for me to finish my interview, at which point I will pay you the sum of three hundred Euros, in addition to keeping the aforementioned suit. If you do not agree to these terms, you will be in remiss and subject to garnishing and possible forfeiture of wages In addition, you may suffer legal action, and a strongly worded letter from my human resources department.”
The speech went well right up to the point when his voice squeaked out “human resource department.” Still, he could not let his employee see him waver. Olaf stood up.
“Lemme get this straight. All you want is for me to wear a suit and be your bodyguard for a job interview? And I get 300 bucks and the new suit?”
“Th-that is the agreement.”
“I don’t gotta break no legs?”
“Ya didn’t piss anyone off?”
“Ya just need me to play bodyguard for a few hours.”
“What the hell. Least I can do is give ya a drink.” Olaf trudged to the bathroom, taking his bottle with him.
John stood still for a second, and let it all seep in. He’d done it. He had issued an order and it was carried out. He was a deal maker. He was a go-getter. Arasaka would be foolish to let him go. He sat down on the couch and opened the beer bottle with a pop.
The fitting went well. Olaf was a large man, so the sleeves and pants were a little short, but he looked acceptable in them. Olaf changed back to his street clothes and they had dinner, all the while digging into Olaf’s seemingly limitless cache of beer.
After dinner they wandered back to the living room, and Olaf produced two more beers.
“…So what’s so big about getting a job at Arasaka, man?…”
“…So how did you get to be in gang, anyway?…”
“…I wish I’d a stayed in school sometimes…”
“… Sometimes I feel like I haven’t even lived yet…”
“…I’m free to do whatever I want, man. No one tells me what to do…”
“…I want the deal, man. The personal car, the jet, the penthouse….”
“…chicks, man. Drive ya crazy every time.”
“…chicks, man…Drive ya crazy eve’ry time. Hic…”
A bomb exploded in John’s head as early morning sunshine screamed through the blinds. Somehow, last night he had made it to his bed and now his bleary eyes focused on his alarm clock. It was playing music. Loud music. Angry music.Damn you, Beethoven.
John sank back into a miserable oblivion until his ocular nerve processed what it had seen: 7:45am. His brain kicked into autopilot. Interview at 11:45, hour and a half for prep time, 45 minutes travel time, 45 minutes for initial paperwork, security scan and entry. He could afford to hit the snooze button three more times.
Was that three of four? John’s head still felt like a rugby team had a bar fight in it, but he had to wake up. He pried open his eyes and looked at the clock. The numbers glared back at him, daring him to move. 8:47. He was doomed.
John lept out of bed and raced to the bathroom. He showered, changed and woke Olaf, directing him to the shower. John set out Olaf’s suit, and started the coffee. They ran outside and got in John’s Burowagon.
He didn’t trust Olaf to drive, so he drove to the Arasaka Ltd. Compound, pushing the speed limit all the way. His hangover had shrunk to a dull shrieking in his left ear as he pulled up to the compound’s entrance. He dug out his temporary ID and passed it to the guard. The guard considered the piece of paper as if it were guilty of treason.
“OK, You clear, Mr. Smith. How about your friend?”
“What? Oh, ummm, this is not my friend, he’s my bodyguard.”
“Yes, Bodyguard.” John said petulantly,” Anyone on the way up has a bodyguard.”
“Not if they want to get in here.”
“Your temporary identification pass is a grade red 4, it allows you on the grounds for no more that five hours. It does not include guests, entourage, family… or bodyguards. You can go in, but your bullet catcher has to stay outside. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t get assassinated.”
John looked around nervously. His gaze finally settled on Olaf. “Ummmm. Mr. Olaf, it appears that your services are no longer required. While we appreciate your…”
“Look, man, I’m still getting paid, right?”
John’s life flashed before his eyes. He dug out his wallet and began saying: “Of course I’ll have to pro-rate your salary based on time spent,” but after the first two words his survival instinct kicked in and shut him up.
Olaf raised an eyebrow.
“Whatever.” He took the proffered cash and got out of the wagon. “See ya, man. Me and the guys are drinking at the 404 tonight. Come join.” The cash disappeared in Olaf’s pocket. He gave him a bone-jarring pat on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” John drove into the compound and found his assigned parking lot. He got out, grabbed his portfolio and started to the main building. This was it. The big time. John Smith, you are going places. But first, a quick trip to the toilet to throw up.
He walked up to the Arasaka building and stared up… and up and up. It loomed above him. He straightened his tie, buttoned his suit jacket and marched in to meet his destiny.
He showed his badge to the security guard at the door, then to the secretary as he signed the register. He was directed to the 12th floor, room 12125, and told to look for the “Prospective Employees” sign. After a brief detour to the restroom, and a whirlwind relationship with the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl, John was ready.
He was herded into the elevator with other personnel and as it rose, he felt his brain explode against the sides of his skull with the change in air pressure. John was surrounded by Arasaka employees so he could not risk a groan. He slowly rubbed his temples and wished for medicine, maybe a breath mint, or a quick, painless death.
The door mercifully opened and John stumbled out. He wandered around until he found the right room, took a deep breath, matted down his hair, and walked in.
It was a large lobby with uncomfortable plastic chairs circling the walls. Low quality speakers bleated out a soft rock song from 20 years ago performed by an orchestra. Each chair was occupied by other hopefuls; each one John’s mortal enemy. The unnatural lights seared his poor, bloodshot eyes. Only one person here would get the golden ring, the rest would be losers. John was determined to win… if he could keep from throwing up again.
John marched to the secretary and handed her his resume with as much flourish as he could muster. She looked up from her magazine and said, “ Thank you. Take a number and have a seat. You will be called in the order in you entered.”
John headed to the beverage station and looked for coffee. His coffee from earlier had worn off, and he was starting to get sleepy. His headache was still lodged in the back of his eyes, and he needed to get the nasty taste of vomit out of his mouth.
He grabbed a disposable cup, filled it with sugar and cream, and pressed the button that poured coffee from the dispenser. Nothing. Great. No coffee. He could feel the eyes of his rivals upon him, mocking his pain. He tried to casually dispose of the cup in the wastebasket, but it made a loud thunk as it hit the bottom. Now everyone knew he was a non-coffee drinking loser. He was tempted to redeem his pride by complaining to the secretary, but he was too tired and in too much pain to bother. He spotted the last empty chair and sat down. The chair was uncomfortable, and because the room was full to capacity he was forced to sit with the outside of his legs brushing up next to his competition. They both squirmed uncomfortably, but gave John a plastic smile. John grunted and did not throw up all over them.
Observing the competition, John came to a particularly uncomfortable realization. They all looked like him… just like him. Same haircut, same suit, same glazed look of hopeful fear John that always wore. All wore the same look of ratlike desperation, fear and superiority. They all looked nervous, eyes darting back and forth. They all realized that this was the big time. His resume probably looked similar to everyone’s here as well. Oh well, thought John, at least I’m here. The hard part’s over, I can close my eyes. I can relax…
“DING. Number 58. Number 58. Last call for Number 58.” John came out of his daze. 58 sounds familiar. I’ve heard that somewhere before. Recently, too. 58. Hmm.
John’s eyes creaked open to look at his ticket. There it was. That rat-bastard “5” right in front of that traitorous, smirking “8”.
John lept to his feet as if the chair had been electrified. He held the ticket up as he walked to the secretary. “Here I am. Number 58. 58, that’s me. It’s not too late, is it?’
The secretary took the ticket. “No. Go through that door.” She pointed a beefy finger to a large double door. John opened it and walked in.
The room was dark, which John appreciated more than he would have thought. At the end of the room was a large desk with a perfectly manicured man sitting behind it. He ushered John in with a wave and offered a seat.
“Congratulations, Mr. Smith,” his voice boomed with authority, “Welcome to the Arasaka family. My name is Michael Williams. I will be your adjunct senior supervisor for your first term here. Here is your contract. Do you have any questions?”
John’s voice almost cracked as he said, ”What? Aren’t you going to interview me?”
“No need to, Mr. Smith. We are familiar with your work at NCS&L, and we found it acceptable. Your coming here was a test of character, that’s all.”
“How? How can you make this decision without even knowing who I am?”
“Oh, we know who you are, Jonathan Randolph Smith. We have your records from ten years back. We know your family, friends, and patterns. We didn’t know what you are like under pressure. Now we do.”
John could not begin to fathom what was going on. He was not just a fish out of water; he was a fish who didn’t even know what water was. He hoped he was not drooling.
“Mr. Smith, that waiting room was designed to maximize the inherent fears and discomforts one experiences in a corporate environment. The lights were overly bright, the chairs uncomfortable, the coffee nonexistent the music horrifying. These factors are designed to cause the applicants heightened paranoia and unease. The seats have biomonitors attached to them, so I was able to record each applicant’s vital signs, approximating their mental and emotional stamina. Of all 67 people in that room, you, John Smith, were a constant. You even fell asleep for a few hours. In my ten years here I have never seen such a performance. You never even flinched. We need that kind of person here at Arasaka.” He extended his hand.
John stood slowly, reaching out to grasp William’s handshake and mumbling something like, “Thank you. ”
“Marie out there will direct you to processing and orientation. We’ve contacted Savings and Loan, your employment with them is concluded. And I’d hate to bring this up, but we suggest that employees of your level have a bodyguard. The expense is yours, of course. If you do not have access to protection, we can not guarantee your safety once outside Arasaka property.”
John’s equilibrium pitched to the side from the motion of standing, and he still reeled from the headache that ripped a jagged distraction through his amazement. “Bodyguard… No, thanks. I can take care of it,” John said, attempting the same diplomatic grin that Williams was beaming at him. “I know just the man for the job.”
“Welcome aboard, John. The recruiter rose to escort him out, “You are going places.”