SOCIAL FICTIONS Chapter 01: Half-Day’s Pay

Half-Day’s Pay                

SOCIAL FICTIONS, Chapter 01: Half-Day’s Pay

By Géza A. G. Reilly

        I can’t code worth shit. Guess that’s why I took to gaming in the first place.

        Or maybe that’s just an excuse of whatever kind. It’s not like half the fucking planet isn’t playing around on Social Fictions. And I doubt it’s because none of them can code.

        Maybe they all belong to the League of Sad Fuckers, just like I do. But I doubt that, too.

        In an era dictated by connectivity and social cohesion, I’m one of the few left who persist in a club of one. Which suits me fine. Though it hurts whenever I come across another idiot from an equivalently small club. They tend to be backwoods country bastards. The kind with three teeth in their head. Or a third-grade education. Or some interesting opinions about the Jews.

        Or all three.

        When I find those clubs, the ones that make me remember just how ridiculous the League of Sad Fuckers—of which I’m president, treasurer, and charter member—is, I get one of those horrible self-indulgent epiphanies. The sort that shakes you to your core. Makes me wonder if I should slit my throat or go throw up. The moment never lasts very long—that’s why it’s a moment, after all. But it never fails to leave me feeling like I’ve just survived an earthquake. Thankfully, I can always log back in. There’s always the game. There’s always the illusion of belonging.

        There’s always Social Fictions.

        Maybe I could make something better. Something approaching a life. But I can’t code worth shit.


        I wake up with my terminal screaming at me. Amber and cyan lights flashing, cycling back and forth in a predesignated pattern designed just to piss me off. It works, too, every time. Makes me jolt forward in my chair, neck and back complaining from having fallen asleep in such a bad position. Fourth night in a row for that.

        Static fills my ears. My terminal’s speakers are howling; the audio version of the flashing lights. Just as annoying, even more intrusive. I thumb down the volume, dismissing the awful racket with a wave. The terminal doesn’t get any quieter, though. My squad-mates for the Police Action that I’d queued up for ten minutes ago are frothing in rage, yelling at me, furious that I haven’t moved ahead with the squad when the round began. Without my attention, we’re a man down and everyone else on the squad is getting slaughtered. Everywhere there’s the stink of burned flesh, the sizzle of incendiary explosives mixing with the popping of automatic gunfire from somewhere in the tree line.

        I grunt. There’s no point in me jumping in now. The Police Action’s failed and since it’s—shit—eight in the morning I don’t have time for another queue.

        This’ll hurt my reputation. I’m sure I’ll have to deal with my squad mates blasting me across the forums, which will get picked up by the gossip mongers and spread to who-knows-where. My reputation isn’t exactly great—Hell, it’s about as low as it can get—but for whatever reason I don’t want to have to deal with it getting worse. Someone like me feeling pride is unusual, unwarranted, and ridiculous. But hey. We all go a little mad sometimes.

        I roll back in my chair, disengaging from the terminal. It automatically logs itself out of the world, turns off its monitor, and engages its security routines. Nobody wants their account hacked—Social Fictions is, as a rule, pretty unforgiving if its members, who are just about everyone, are slipshod with their security. As a result, I’m more paranoid than most about securing my terminal against outside intrusion. Somebody tapping into my wire would find some pretty nasty surprises waiting for them. Off-the-shelf stuff, sure, but still. Enough to make any wannabe hacker have a really bad day.

        And that’s not counting the explosives attached to the chassis of the terminal, set there to dissuade anybody who breaks into my apartment. Again, not enough to destroy anything other than itself, and maybe the apartment, but enough to screw up any idiot who wants to break in and walk out again with the only thing of value I own.

        The pocket terminal in my jeans bleeps and flashes a white light three times, telling me that it’s picked up the slack now that my home terminal is shut down. It’s not as fully featured as my home terminal, but it’ll do in a pinch. A connection to Social Fictions is all that’s required, and that’s all that the pocket terminal does.

        What else is there?


        I send a quick message to D.S., telling him that I’ll try to get a Police Action in from work at lunch if I can. There’s no time to head down the hallway to the communal bathroom, so I settle for a quick whore’s bath in the plastic sink that’s bolted to the interior wall of my single room. I don’t bother changing my jeans; there’s no need, since I’ve only had them on for a couple of days at this point. And it isn’t like this is the first time I’ve slept in my clothes. Then I slip on a cheap button-up from the pile next to my mattress, which I think is clean, and quickly finger-comb my hair.

        “What the fuck, dude,” says a voice from my pocket terminal. It’s an approximation of D.S.’ voice in Social Fictions. Not a very good one, since I can’t afford more than a crappy unit. But it suffices.

        “Yeah,” I say, not stopping as I run through the apartment. “Sorry about that.”

        D.S. sighs. I’m glad that the pocket terminal has such terrible sound. D.S. isn’t known for his friendly aesthetics. As awful as his appearance is, the voice he uses to present is even worse. Like somebody gargling gravel while reciting Shakespeare.

        “Don’t bother coming on at lunch,” he says. “Unless it’s around two. The Police Action I want won’t reset until then, and it won’t go after that until late tonight, probably around eight-thirty or nine.”

        “Well shit,” I say. “I’ll be back by then.”

        “Don’t do me any fucking favors, asshole.”

        “Sure thing, champ.”

        I assume D.S. breaks the connection. He doesn’t say anything else, at least. I use the silence to bark out a call to my preferred taxicab company. Normally I’d walk to work, but I’m already running late, and if I miss another shift I’m sure to get fired. The taxi will eat up half the day’s wages but, Hell, better that than being out of work.


        I sigh, tasting rancid breath. The plastic mirror above the sink hasn’t ever been clear. I don’t know whether it’s fogged due to a manufacturer’s defect or just due to the years that it’s surely spent epoxied to the wall of this horrible apartment building. Doesn’t matter, ultimately. Even if it were crystal clear it wouldn’t help me at all. I catch a glimpse of myself as I straighten up: lank brown hair, worn short; wire-frame body, barely a buck thirty soaking wet; high cheekbones sticking out from a face hollowed by my ridiculously bad diet; wire-rimmed glasses that have seen far better days.

        Nobody’s fucking hero. Signatory for the League of Sad Fuckers. That’s me.



        By the time I’ve managed to get my door locked, my cheap security engaged, and hauled my ass down the six flights of stairs between me and the lobby, the taxi is already waiting for me. Starting to pull away from the curb, in fact. I hurl myself across the open-air lobby—not that it’s supposed to be open air, of course. The caretaker just doesn’t bother fixing the front door anymore—and grab onto the taxi’s door handle. My pocket terminal beeps, and a squib of data is relayed between it and the cab’s on-board computer, verifying my identity. The taxi stops and there’s a loud chunking sound as its locks disengage. I climb in.

        The driver’s almost completely obscured, what with the protective layers of bullet-and-puncture-proof plastic between us. He, if he’s a he at all, doesn’t even bother to look around. To be fair, this doesn’t strike me as rude; it isn’t like I’m going to be paying him any attention myself. Instead I look at the monitor built into the backseat of the driver’s section of the taxi. My photograph is displayed there, rotating slowly from left to right. Next to it is a scroll of my biographic data. Name, date of birth, bank records, and of course criminal background. The first two are boring—the last two show nothing.

        Well, next to nothing. I mean, I’ve got enough to pay for this ride. Maybe enough for a few dinners out if I make it stretch. Almost enough for next month’s rent, too. And the criminal background isn’t much to speak of. A citation for underage drinking, a few public indecency fines, a brief stint in lockup for some possession offenses. Nothing major.

        Nothing, at least, of sufficient strength to get me arrested here in the cab. If there were something pending against me, like a murder charge or a bench warrant or whatever, then I would’ve heard those doors clunking all over again, locking me in. Then the driver would have taken me down to the nearest cop shop and dumped me into the loving arms of all their tender mercies.

        The cab company would’ve billed me for the extra ride, too.

        But since my record doesn’t show anything more interesting than my pathetic life, it instead pulls away from the curb, moving slowly like a reinforced tank or one of those ancient caddie cars you see in movies now and again.

        “Merriweather building,” I say. The taxi begins driving dutifully along the GPS-dictated route to my place of thankless employment.

        The cab’s computer understands me, at least. It’s nice that something does.


        There’s nothing to do during the drive. I could get back onto Social Fictions from my pocket terminal—there’s a relay built into the cab somewhere—but the ride won’t be long enough to do anything more than browse the forums. That’ll just piss me off, and I’m not in the mood for getting angry this morning. Too damn tired already. So instead I just sit back in my seat and try to see the city passing me by through the filthy windows.

        This city. This fucking city.

        Everything’s gray down here, under the vault of the wide-open sky. Sometimes that vault is blue, crystal clear and achingly blue. The sort of blue that fills up your heart and makes you think that there’s a place for you under all that vast expanse of Heaven. The blue that makes you long for something better from head to toe. But the rest of the time—which is most of the time—it’s just a curvature of gray. Clouds arcing from one horizon to the other, covering all of existence with a dull, dreary overhang.

        Sometimes I think the ground’s trying to reach up to meet the sky. Dirt and dust inching slowly upwards, taking the nice clean houses and tall shining skyscrapers of the city and infecting them. Giving them a wretched patina that says that the dirt is always waiting. The ground will be triumphant in the end, no matter what. So with fingers of refuse and corrupting tendrils of mold, the ground works its way up and up, ever higher, making all of humanity’s great works filthy and degraded in the process.

        Until there’s no distinction between the skyline and the muck on the ground. The muck that we’re stuck in. That I’m stuck in.

        This fucking city. I hate it here.

        It’s like nothing was ever new in the city. I can’t remember ever seeing one piece of concrete that wasn’t crumbling, one wall that wasn’t covered in grime or at least disfigured with graffiti. Most of the windows in the city are at least cracked, if not outright shattered, as though a big group of people had all been born with the same optical defect. The air tastes greasy and every tap gives brown water. Even basic subsistence living is prohibitively expensive, meaning that the majority of the working population are trapped in nightmarish jobs that fill their dreams with cries of failure and desperation.  

        Once I thought that the people living in the high-rises downtown, or out in the suburbs along the fringes of the city, were the lucky ones. They must be rich, I thought, leading the good life. Eventually I realized that the grime doesn’t stop at the thirteenth floor. Cracks run all the way from the foundation to the roof in the city, and the suburbs are plastic monoculture trash bins just like every other neighborhood. There’s no way out, not in the city, not for the rich or the poor. If you’re human, you’re fucked.

        Just more honorary members of the League of Sad Fuckers.


        I can see the outlines of the Merriweather building amongst the forest of skyscrapers long before the taxi rolls to a stop in front of the employee entrance. It’s a horrendous affair. Somebody dreamed up an idea of what the future would look like and then built it in the form of a high-rise business complex, only they built it thirty years ago. The gloss of the imagined future never wears as well when the actual future rolls around. So there it is, the Merriweather building. Its silvered windows and clean, straight lines haven’t aged well at all; these days it looks more like a drunk whose beer was spiked with GHB. He tries to keep his balance by staying in-line with everyone else who’s on the street, but always ends up canted over at some debauched angle.

        Through some mystical alignment of tectonic forces, the top floor of the Merriweather isn’t quite symmetrical with the foundations any more. And yet, incongruously, the roof still points straight up into the air as though it’s asking something of the sky. All that shiny, reflective glass has become dusty with years of smog and inclement weather. On the higher floors the dirt is so thick that it looks like the building has just been covered over in spots with corrugated cardboard. The trim has rusted where it hasn’t flaked or chipped away, and the whole leaves the observer with nothing but a sincere question as to why the fucking mess hasn’t fallen down just yet.

        Inside is no better, I know. I’ve worked there for three years. Horatt Climbt, Teleresearch, occupies five floors of the building. I work on the second, where veteran phone operators spend their lives sitting in cubicles that are nothing more than green-brown ergonomic Hellscapes. The corporate design isn’t any different than the first floor—it’s just that the first floor houses the new kids. They flock to the job thinking that it will be an easy paycheck, which it is, while they’re secure in the knowledge that they can always quit if it becomes too soul-destroying.

        Which it is.

        The problem is that once you’re there it becomes harder and harder to find your way back out again. Not because of any quality the job has. Oh no, that would make things too easy. That way there would be someone to blame. No, here it’s all about inertia. You get just enough money to survive. You have a comfortable, climate-controlled environment to sit in while your independence and creativity are ground out of you, day by miserable day. You get to look down on all those idiots that don’t have a job because, hey, it isn’t the economy—they’re just not as clever as you are. Sure, there’s no real room for advancement, and your career consists of calling people for the purposes of meaningless corporate research, and one day you’re going to turn around and find out that somehow you’ve become fat, forty, and with nothing to look forward to except for the cubicle, the computer, the phone, the paycheck.

        As that greasy, flaking poster says in the break room says, “It’s a living!”

        Some of the workers on the phones dream about the floors above the first and second. The third is where all the administrators gather for their arcane, inscrutable meetings. Hallways of interchangeable offices behind uniform brown, locked doors. These middle-management types alternate between the special cubicles down on the floors—denoted by the fact that they have three-quarter size walls rather than the half-walls that the rest of us plebeians get—and the secreted areas above our workspaces where they gather amongst themselves to pore over our numbers in individual and aggregate forms.

        But at least the administrators are human. For the most part.

        The same can’t be said about the inhabitants of the fourth floor. God only knows how many of them are actually up there; they all look alike to me. The men all wear the same suits, ripped from the pages of this season’s catalogs, and all have the same chiseled, slightly stubble-covered faces fringed with expensive haircuts that look like they’ve been modeled on dolls’ heads from the 1950s. That’s corporate. They might as well be the God-kings of the company, coming down from their seats of inscrutable authority to enact their plans amongst the fearful majority who can never understand them much less resist their will.

        Five? Nobody knows what’s up on five. Most people care about it for a year or two, and then they forget. I know I have. Though, to be fair, I never cared about it in the first place.

        The rest of the Merriweather building is foreign territory to me. The ground floor is empty, insofar as I can tell. There might be a barber in there, or one of those corner-of-the-business-complex style groceries run by families with seemingly endless relatives all just waiting for the chance to mind the counter. Horatt Climbt, Teleresearch, is almost like a demilitarized zone between empty floors. One five-story spate of productivity, and then it’s the land of wind and ghosts from thereon out. I occasionally see a few people that are ostensibly part of businesses on the other floors. They’ll scurry out of elevators like cockroaches running away from a suddenly flicked-on light, avoiding any chance that eye contact might be made between themselves and somebody else. Their identification badges whip around their necks on bizarrely printed lanyards in the breeze created by their hurrying hither and yon, holographic data twinkling in the half-light of the Eco-friendly fluorescent bulbs.

        Once, while standing in the hallway for my first of two fifteen-minute breaks, I asked a nearby janitor who those people were. Where they worked, what they did. If they had homes, and dreams, and a life outside of work. He just stared at me, aghast.

        I never saw him again after that.


        The taxi rolls up to the curb outside of the employee entrance. Thank God it stops underneath a pedestrian sky-bridge that stretches between the Merriweather and a monstrous shopping complex on the next block over. Wouldn’t want to have to run to the doors while awash in dazzling sunlight. That might remind me that there’s something out there worth living for, something beyond this festering hive of statistics and corporate reports. No, it’s better this way, with the shadow of the sky-bridge casting everything I can see in dull shades of twilight-in-a-gravel-quarry colors. And hey, the bridge just reminds me that if I get really bored on my lunch break I could always hop next door to check out the mall. Sure, most of the stores are vacant and the ones that are occupied don’t seem to sell anything other than knockoff brand baseball caps and cheap luggage, but that doesn’t matter. The pizza place in the food court sells good slices. And the walk is nothing but good cardio, right?

        As soon as I can I get out of the backseat of the cab. I don’t bother saying anything to the driver; between the GPS and the on-board systems the car has he’s barely had to do anything. Hell, he might not even be human, for all I know. Could be a robot up there. Or, more likely, a sack stuffed with dirty laundry.

        I’m in such a rush that I almost lose my footing on the crumbling masonry of the curb. Thankfully, I catch myself at the last minute, right before stumbling and breaking an ankle on the exposed sewer drain beneath the sidewalk. My hand is still on the cab’s door—if an accident had occurred invisible legal mechanisms would have sprung into action, making sure that I didn’t do something foolish like sue the taxicab company or their corporate conglomerate masters. They’d make my life a living Hell—more than it already is—by deploying all sorts of tricks and, more importantly, money, to make it very clear to me that my suffering would only increase if I sought to use the legal system to protect something as worthless as the private citizen. In that way I guess they were like Bodhisattvas, coming back from the Nirvana of unimaginable wealth to tell me, the little guy, that I shouldn’t waste my time dreaming of anything better.

        Life sucks. Deal with it, then move on.

        I barely have time to take in the surroundings once I’ve found my sea-legs again. Don’t know why I scan the block when I get to work. Maybe I just like to pretend that I care about something other than my own path through the world. It’s not as though I spend any time out here in the quadrangle, anyway. It’s just a climate-controlled, architect-sculpted expanse of concrete arranged in staggered levels to give the illusion of difference. A little terrace leads up to what probably was meant to be a faux-Japanese water garden at one point. There’s no fish in it. Hell, there isn’t even any water in it if it hasn’t rained or if the annual snowfall hasn’t started melting into the drains yet. Nothing there to contemplate but more concrete.

        Towards the back of the quadrangle, away from the street, there’s a little stretch of grass and trees broken up by two benches conveniently provided by the owners of the Merriweather building. Except nobody ever sits on them: they’re made of hard, injected molded plastic that gets too hot to endure in the summertime and becomes impossible to sit on without sliding off in the frozen wintertime. The grass and trees aren’t any better. Years of pollution, neglect, and the general fuck-you-nature state of the city have twisted them into withered, brown little things that remind me more of abstract art than they do the majestic expanse of arboreal forests.

        And that’s it. Sodium arc-lights tower above the space on thick steel poles, hanging down above the workers and the visitors like the eyes of a centipede God, reminding us all that he has us in his multitude of inexhaustible legs.

        Fuck it. Like I said, I spend as little time possible out here in the quadrangle. Given the choice I’d rather be anywhere other than hanging around outside of the joyless mill of absurdity where I work. And the WiFi sucks out here anyway.

        I settle my bag on my shoulder and flat-out run for the worker’s entrance doors. I’m twenty minutes late already, meaning I’m going to get docked pay for the morning, and the taxi ride cost me whatever I’m going to be making this afternoon. Basically I’m just showing up so as to not lose the job. Even though I can’t stand it. Fuck it, though, right? A job’s a job.

        The doors, being corporate designed and ecologically inclined, don’t even have the courtesy to smash open as I go through them, banging closed in my path. Instead they just suck open, the slightly higher pressure inside making them resist my frantically pulling hand. Then they susurrate closed, falling shut as lightly as angel’s feathers wafting to the ground. I’m sweating by the time I make it to the security podium, that first outpost of business interest making sure that the thronging hordes of industrial spies don’t accidentally make their way into the protected environment of a tele-research firm. But I know the security officer manning the podium, who’s leaning her heavy bulk on a rickety wooden stool that she snuck in from home.

        She doesn’t like me very much. Which I like, very much.

        “Morning Doris,” I say as I flash her my best slimy smile.

        She just glares at me from underneath her thickly mascaraed eyelids. To her I’m something that she should be scraped off the bottom of her arch-support shoe.

        “ID,” she says, pointing at my narrow chest with one overly manicured nail.

        “Shit.” I skid to a halt, furious that I’ve forgotten my lanyard. I probably could make it into the elevator without it, considering that the security software in the Merriweather likely isn’t robust enough to keep the doors from opening if it doesn’t sense the telltale RFID wrapped around my throat. But even if I did Doris would be on her radio before I’d left the ground floor. A security group of people much larger than me—even larger than Doris—would be waiting for me when the doors slid open. I’d be escorted from the building, with ‘escorted’ being the kindest euphemism I know for a situation where at least three broken bones and criminal charges are going to be the lightest of outcomes.

        Yanking open the zipper of my bag I plunge my hand in and rip out the length of plastic-reinforced canvas line attached to my square laminate badge. My pocket terminal emits a short sequence of beeps the instant the lanyard’s around my neck. It’s telling me about as discretely as it can that it’s interfaced with the thin sandwich of circuitry in my ID, firing off a squib of information to the Merriweather’s servers, officially registering my presence in the building. Then my pocket terminal gives two long squawks, letting me know that the Merriweather, which is really just one gigantic Faraday cage, is cutting off its connection to the greater noosphere outside.

        “Better?” I say, throwing my arms wide. Doris just looks at me with those big, disgusted, beautifully brown eyes.

        I don’t give her any more of a chance to judge me.


“You’re on the Big One again,” Marley says.

        “Aw, for fuck’s sake!” I mutter.

        Gritting my teeth, I stalk over to my cubicle and throw my bag across the back of my chair. It isn’t my regular cubicle—that’s the one that’s over closest to the door so I can get out of the office within five seconds of my shift being up. Since I arrived late this morning, however, all the good seats are taken by the drones who showed up to the hive on time. And since we technically don’t have a space of our own in here—each cubicle is nothing but a desk, a chair, a computer, a headset, and a telephone with the buttons removed—we should be able to slot into whatever workspace is available to us. Never mind the fact that many of the cubicles have deficient parts, breaking down in one way or another that’s bound to negatively impact on our productivity numbers for the quarter. Or that the less hygienic employees, of which there are a great number since, come on, we’re not exactly trolling the top five percent of the population here, have left the station covered in grease and infectious disease. Or that, worst of all, the chairs are just never as comfortable as the one that I like to think of as mine. It’s got all my presets built into it and everything.

        Plus, I’m going to be right in front of Marley’s cubicle for the rest of the workday. Marley’s an alright person, I guess. I know her from outside work, originally, at least in passing. We used to drink at the same bar a handful of years ago when I still believed in things like youth, prospects, and fairness. She’s a heavier girl, but pretty in her way, and is a lifer at this job. I’ve never met anybody who can take the abstract, anonymous bullshit of corporate culture and convince themselves that it means anything at all, much less anything of importance, the way that Marley can. For whatever reason Marley’s bought into the whole package. She’s utterly convinced that what we do here means something. What, I don’t know. But something.

        Since my new cubicle is right in front of hers, she’s going to have me under her watchful eye all shift. And since she has me on the brain from seeing me all day, she’s going to scrutinize my every move through her corporate terminal and its hidden spreadsheet projections of employee performance and project confidence. Marley doesn’t like me any more than most people do, which isn’t at all, but has always been fascinated by me in—I assume—the same way that people are fascinated by particularly grisly crime reports in the daily newspaper. They cluck their tongues, think that this, right here, is evidence of the fact that the world’s gone to Hell, and then they turn the page and forget all about it. But Marley cares about her job, and the company at large, which means that I’m going to come under fire for whatever fuckups I enact on this already fucked up day.

        It doesn’t help that she’s just assigned me to the worst of all possible projects.

        “Come on,” I say after leaning on my new, assuredly uncomfortable chair to gather my thoughts for a minute. “Don’t put me on the Big One. What about that insurance one from last week? I was getting great numbers with that one.”

        I’m referring to a project where I had to call people that had just recently been released from hospital, pretending that I was checking to see how satisfied they were with their insurance company’s procedures. The company paid a bevy of nurses, each one of them assigned to a variety of cases. Each nurse was supposed to call each client within forty-eight hours of the client’s release to hear their complaints and give them medical advice for any problems that had come up. Marley had told me that the project required a certain kind of tact, and that was why I was being put on it. Apparently, the managers thought that my nasally, clipped syllable rhythm of speech came across as polite, even compassionate. Which was all bullshit, of course. They put me on because I listened. And I listened because I just didn’t care.

        Because it was all a scam. This fucking insurance company, the Horatt Climbt client, didn’t give two shits about the wellbeing of the people who had just come out of traumatic hospital treatment. They cared about whether or not the nurses they had on the payroll were doing their jobs. So, they hired us to call the clients and gather up all this intelligence about the nurses’ performances, reams and reams of data, solely to surreptitiously determine if the calls the nurses were being paid to make had in fact been made. We called the patients up at random and asked them a bunch of questions, dutifully taking down detailed notes on our archaic desktop computers as they rambled on at length about the service they’d received.

        We collected a ridiculous amount of material, funneling it all into the Horatt Climbt servers where it would be dissected by the data management team. Pages upon pages upon pages of these sick, wounded people pouring out the story of their suffering to us was recorded in loving detail... and then summarily discarded. All of it. Did the nurse save your life? Too bad, deleted. Or did he give you bad advice, leading to more time in hospital being required? Sucks that information doesn’t impact on our report analysis, bud. It all just got thrown away. It was all a smokescreen. All that mattered, the only question of any relevance to the project, was whether or not the nurse made the call.

        My first time on the project involved trying to interview a respondent who’d had surgery to remove a brain tumor. She was pretty messed up, despite the fact that the surgery was a success, but she insisted on talking to me anyway since she was really impressed by the quality of her nurse. The problem was that the time and speech centers of her brain had been partially destroyed by the surgery, so half the time she didn’t know what she was saying, and the other half she wasn’t able to arrange what she could say in any coherent order. I did my job, though. I transcribed all of it. Every twisting, non-linear line. Every garbled sentence. Every confused moment that functioned only if one could believe that Tuesday preceded Monday, noon came after three o’clock, and bandages were replaced before they were even put on. I wrote it all down.

        It took just shy of three hours to complete the interview—a record for me since most interactions with respondents don’t take any longer than is necessary for them to scream “GET OFF MY PHONE” and hang up. By the end of it I was almost in tears.

        There was a terrible beauty in it. This woman, this poor woman who had struggled and fought in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine, was pouring her heart out to me as best as she could. She knew how fucked up she was. She knew how hard it was for me—or anybody—to understand her. And she did it anyway. For almost three full hours. Not to describe her own troubles, no, nor to laud herself on how she’d fought whatever horrific condition was eating her brain piece by piece. All she wanted to do was tell somebody about how well this anonymous nurse had done. How kind she’d been to her. How supportive. This woman, who likely was not going to survive for very long, thought it was desperately important that other people knew how much this minimum-wage level telephone nurse had meant to her.

        I thought the record should have been published in every newspaper. Excerpts of it should have been read in galleries or published in textbooks on ethics and philosophy.

        Instead, the data analysts checked the box indicating that the nurse had, in fact, made the call she had been paid to make, and deleted the transcript entirely. The fuckers probably never even read the thing.

        In truth, they assigned me the job because I could move through it without getting emotional. Because I didn’t care about the project, just like I don’t care about the job. It’s all a pack of nonsense. But some nonsense is less excruciating than others, and I’d rather be back on the insurance scam project than on something as utterly mindless as the Big One. At least on the scam I might just be able to let some other terribly fucked up person believe that they have a platform for a few minutes, letting them say whatever they want to say without fear of recrimination or censure. That’d be nice. My own little ray of sunshine in the overcast life of the president-for-life of the League of Sad Fuckers.

        Instead, they give me the Big One. Over and over again, the Big One. The Big Fucking One.

        “Come on,” I repeat as Marley just stands there looking down on me with her bright, peppy eyes.

        She’s taller than me, like most people, and I get the feeling that she doesn’t like how the discrepancy makes her feel the power differential between us. As in, she has all of it and I have none. She is entirely the gatekeeper of my happiness. And despite her fervent belief in all the shoals of corporate buy-ins she’s gone through, Marley doesn’t like making people unhappy.

        “You know how it is,” she says at last. “Maybe tomorrow you can get onto something else, if you come in on time.”

        There it is. Landing the Big One is my own fault, since I wasn’t here on time. Of course.

        “Thanks, Marley,” I sneer. It’s hard not to roll my eyes. No paycheck is worth this.

        The Big One, as it’s commonly known in the office, is the largest contract that Horatt Climbt currently has. Likely the largest one Horatt Climbt will ever have, mostly because it’s never ending. It has a malignant beauty of its own, borne out of corporate ingenuity the likes of which I’ll never be able to fathom. It works like this: Very Large Telecom Company A realizes that all of these people are breaking their contracts early due to their shitty service and going with an entirely different Very Large Telecom Company B for an entirely different kind of shitty service. Very Large Telecom Company A wants to find out what exactly it is about their shitty service that is causing all these customers to drop them like a hot rock. Not so that they can improve their shitty service, oh no. That would be too easy. They want to know so that they can create some carefully tailored attack ads to make it seem like Very Large Telecom Company B’s shitty service is even shittier than theirs is in specific, targeted ways.

        So Very Large Telecom Company A hires Horatt Climbt to enact an extensive information gathering campaign. But not a random one—oh no, that would be too easy. Very Large Telecom Company A realizes that they’ve got all of this customer registration data at their disposal, filled out and filed when their customers first signed a service contract with them. Why not just feed that data into Horatt Climbt’s servers and have the little worker drones spend their lives calling up people who are pissed off at Very Large Telecom Company A’s shitty service and ask them to take part in an hour long survey about why Very Large Telecom Company A’s shitty service pissed them off? It’s bound to work!

        At least 0.3% of the time.

        Whenever one of us is unlucky enough to draw a shift working on the Big One, the odds of which are pretty good, we are glued to our phones dialing people on their pocket terminals and asking them out of the blue to take part in our research on behalf of a company they outright despise. For hour after hour. Every single call is likely to be short, filled with abuse screamed at us and a sudden disconnection. It’s terrible for our quarterly numbers and makes us hate ourselves as human beings. It’s utterly pointless and abjectly insane.

        The team has been working on the Big One for more than five years. There’s no termination date for the project. Very Large Telecom Company A just keeps sending us more and more lists of pissed off people who broke their contracts early.

        If I were more conspiracy minded, and I’m not, I’d think that the whole project was actually one gigantic smear campaign carried out by Very Large Telecom Company B. It’d be a corporate propaganda trick of epic proportions, designed from the ground up to keep people pissed off at Very Large Telecom Company A. Entire divisions of espionage agents would be purposed with the sole task of finding this month’s rolls of customers who broke away from their provider simply to ensure that the hungry-mouthed servers of Horatt Climbt were never starved for long.

        But that would require sanity. And creativity. And coherence. None of which is a hallmark of corporate culture, insofar as I understand it.

        Which means it isn’t a clever new way of waging secret warfare. It isn’t disinformation at its finest. It’s just a joke. An insane, stupid joke. A Catherine Wheel we get paid to break ourselves on.

        And it’s always there, squatting in the office like a possessed toad. Just waiting.


I zone out after the third call. This job doesn’t lend itself to imagination or even just letting one’s thoughts wander, so it isn’t like I’m traipsing through mental realms where I get to be whatever I want, and everything is under my control. You’d have to be a much luckier person than me to have a daily life that gives opportunities like that. Instead I just sit at my desk in my unfamiliar-but-identical cubicle, writing reports and waiting for the auto-dialer to connect me with the next pissed off person so that they can yell at me for a few seconds before hanging up in rage. My body goes on automatic pilot, going through the motions while my mind drifts through gray fog. I barely notice when the clock flips over to my lunch time.

Marley tries to stop me from taking a full lunch break since I was so late this morning. I tell her that I’m already getting docked pay—it wouldn’t be fair. Reluctantly, she lets me go. She isn’t really looking at me; she’s looking at whatever mixture of company paperwork she’s going to have to fill out in order to explain my fuckup of the day. The language she’ll use is foreign to me, filled with all sorts of shibboleths and markers that are beyond my comprehension. As I often do, I wonder how much of Marley is really human anymore, if any at all, and how much of her is pure corporate creature.

        Then again, the same thing could be wondered about me. Or anybody else in this wretched hive.


As soon as I can I get the fuck out of the office on my lunch break. It’s supposed to be an hour, but it ends up being thirty minutes—they actually take my two fifteen-minute breaks, mandated by law, and deduct them from the length of my midday meal. The cheap fucks. I stretch it out as much as possible though; they usually don’t notice if I come back ten minutes late so long as I’m slick and immediately bust my ass on the phones. Sometimes I get screwed on the back end, but it works enough times that I think it’s worthwhile.

All that means that I’ve got next to no actual free time once I’ve gotten out of the building. It’s enough to run a Police Action or two, normally, though today I’ve got nothing but damage control on my plate. There’s a café about a block away from the Merriweather building, ensconced in what I think used to be a gas station at one point in the ancient past. The place is painfully trendy: the clientele are either beautiful and young or rich enough for nobody to care about their ugliness. Everything they sell is overpriced, their overstuffed leatherette chairs are uncomfortable, and the music that they pipe in is always whatever flavor of the week the multinationals want to sell.

It’s unbearable. But it also has a free connection I can hijack. So that’s where my lunches go down.

I put my tea—the absolute least expensive thing they’ve got on the menu—on the table and pull out my pocket terminal. It takes an overly precious minute to connect to the café’s network. I’ve got to jump through the corporate hoops to actually get through to Social Fictions, and I have to engage my value-priced security software to prevent those hoops from forcing some intrusive malware onto my system. But after that it’s smooth sailing.

Weirdly, D.S. isn’t in any of our regular lobbies. I have to send up a few flares to find him but eventually locate him—he’s squatting in a clearing out by some random forum. Once I figure out where he is, it’s no trouble spying him in the crowd; D.S. doesn’t change how he presents from location to location, unlike most people. I don’t know how he does it, to be honest, much less why. I mean, I present as a version of myself, my real body, but that’s just because I’ve got no imagination. Most locations interface with terminals intrusively, making them force-comply with local convention, subtly altering presentations to match. In an urban region, I just present like myself, but in a fantasy region, I present as myself with a broadsword, or armor, or whatever. In order to keep his regular appearance everywhere, D.S. must be running a pretty low-level hack.

Fucked if I know, though. I don’t bother giving any thought to customizations made on my presentation. I just let the various regions dictate what’s needed and go from there. It isn’t very pretty, but then neither am I. So, win-win, as far as I’m concerned.

“What up,” I say, looking around at all the trees and shrubs and crap filling the forum.

“What the fuck happened to you?” D.S. asks.

        He’s sitting on top of a rock in the middle of the glade. Big and imposing, but kind of funny looking at the same time, decked out in his purple and black armor. Except for his face. Dude’s got a face like a tombstone, with a voice to match. Works wonders when he’s trying to intimidate some idiot. Or when he’s trying to reprimand a teammate, like me.

        “Sorry about that,” I say, kicking a rock across the ground. “Passed out at my terminal. When I woke up, I had to get to work.”

        “Well shit,” D.S. says.

        “Yeah. You said that Police Action you want to run resets tonight?”


        “I can pitch in if you want.”

        “Sure, man.” D.S. stands up, suddenly stark and, frankly, terrifying when contrasted with the tranquil surroundings. “Listen, I think something weird’s going on. I haven’t been able to get a handle on anything yet, but... There’s some sort of glitch. Lag, maybe. I dunno.”

        “So what?”

        “Just watch yourself. Make sure your gear’s shaken down and running clean. I don’t want anything to interfere with our kay-tee-dee unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.”

        I look at D.S. It isn’t like him to be worried about, well, anything. But shit, maybe he’s just concerned about my level of commitment. Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to me. But it’s not as though people are flocking around me to be my friend. Not that D.S. thinks he’s my friend; I disabused him of that particular notion long ago.

        “Listen,” I say, “I’m gonna have to get back to the shithole soon. Lunch’s almost up. Got anything you want to run real quick like?”

        D.S. sighs. His gauntleted hands go behind his back, and he looks pensive for a moment. Or at least as pensive as he can; the planet-cracker appearance tends to foul any expression that demands any subtlety whatsoever.

        “Naw, man. I want to do a bit more research into the Police Action for tonight. Make sure our shit is tight. Maybe spend a minute figuring out what’s going on, if I can.”

        “Sure, alright. I mean, whatever.”

        There’s not much point in hanging around after that. I head away from the forums and back to my usual stomping grounds. Just in time, too—I can hear a couple of loud assholes ranging through the area screaming at each other about some inane crap or other. They sound like undereducated fuckers trying to come off like they’re the local experts on whatever nonsense they’ve decided to latch onto. This is why I hate forums; the loudest rooster rules, which means you always get left with some giant cock or other.

        My tea’s cold and my time’s up when I get back to my regular. I log off, fold up my pocket terminal, and head back to the office. My stomach’s growling something fierce, and my normally sunny disposition is clouded by the knowledge that I’ve still got another four hours on the clock to go. It’s going to be a great afternoon.


        I’m sweaty as Hell by the time I make it back to the office. Doesn’t help that the security guard hassles me about my lanyard again, costing me seconds that are being relentlessly counted by some program deep in the data structures of Horatt Climbt. Then, when I’m rushing through the break room to get back to the floor, I run right into a trio of executives. They’re wandering through the area in their tailored suits and immaculate hair, looking down at their horrendously expensive pocket terminals, ignoring the world of plebeians around them. When I barrel into them, I’m not sure who’s more surprised. Me, for coming across something as rare as an executive, or them, for actually coming into physical contact with a lesser life form like me.

        They squawk and twitter about when I skid to a halt and fall onto my ass in front of them. My eyes widen in horror, and I jump up, ducking my face away so that hopefully they won’t see me well enough to recognize me later on. Then I flat-out run for my cubicle.

        It doesn’t work, though. I’ve barely gotten my ass in the uncomfortable chair when they appear in front of me, looming over the partition. The three of them don’t even bother looking at me; whatever’s on their pocket terminals, which are at least three generations ahead of my own, is too engrossing. I can’t bring myself to think less of them than I already do, which is pretty little, for that.

        “Hey guy,” one of the three says. “We’ve gotta re-prioritize you for a moment, bud. There’s some re-tasking that needs to be fulfilled, and we’d be thrilled if you’d do us a solid with the opportunity.”

        “What?” I ask.

        “Come with us, dude,” another of them says. The third executive punches a tab on his terminal, and I hear Marley’s own corporate terminal chime in response. She looks down, checks her monitors, then looks over at the Three Douchebags and smiles, nodding.

        The computer on my desk goes dead. There isn’t even the illusion of work to keep me here. Sighing, more than a little nervous, I stand up.

        “What do you need?” I ask, grabbing my bag and making my way around the cubicle.

        “Just follow us,” says the first of the trio, a blonde who looks like he gets his eyebrows threaded and his cheekbones shaved. The three of them turn as one and work their way through the forest of cubicles. Shrugging, trying to rectify the fact that I don’t want to lose my job with the fact that I don’t really give a shit, I take off after them.

        At the elevators, one of them holds out his pocket terminal, which plays a happy little sound. The doors slide open, we pile into the car, and we start going up. We glide past three, and I’m shocked to see that we’re even going past four. The mythical five is our destination, it seems, and I feel like one of those old explorers, those assholes who landed on the so-called ‘New World’ and encountered beings beyond their wildest dreams.

        The truth doesn’t hold up well with what I’d imagined. What did I expect? I know very well that there’s no Nirvana, no Land of Milk and Honey, anywhere in this fucking city. There’s no place to escape to, no break from the monotony and the idiocy and the dirt. Floor five, as I discover, is not the world of mystery that I had expected. It’s just more beige carpet stretching from wall to wall, more beige-walled cubicles outlined in slightly darker beige trim. There’re desks, and what look like they might even be private offices extending from each wall, but other than that it’s just like every other floor. Boring, corporate nightmare. It’s like descending to the ninth level of Hell, and instead of Satan imprisoned in a lake of ice, there’s just more lechers and gluttons.

        No matter how far you go, it’s just sin.

        Well, except for the fact that the lights are all off. And there’s no people.

        I look around as best as I can while the trio lead me through this unexamined country, but I don’t see a single person as we go. The floor doesn’t look disused—there’s no dust on the desks, no stacked chairs, no exposed ceilings through holes in the tiles—it’s just empty. I can’t possibly imagine why.

        Eventually the trio hustle me into one of the offices sticking out from the exterior wall of the building. It’s got big, half-wall windows in its front, and a simple door of pressboard leading into it. No nameplate on the door, I notice. Inside, however, is the biggest fuck-off industrial strength terminal that I’ve ever seen. I can’t help but suck in a gasp of air at the sight of it. It’s really an impressive piece of tech; it must have cost as much as Horatt Climbt spend on rent for a year.

        “Wow,” I say.

        “Yeah,” says one of the douchebags. “It’s pretty out of date, now, but I guess you’d think it’s a neat machine. You game, right?”

        I get the uneasy feeling that if the douchebag looked up from his terminal long enough to let me see it’s ancillary screen, I’d see my company file displayed there.

        “I guess,” I shrug. “Who doesn’t?”

        “True that,” he says. “Anyway, check out what’s on the screen.”

        He waves his pocket terminal towards the big industrial terminal. There’s a squelch of sound as security handshaking is done, and then the terminal’s monitor lights up. I sit down in a cheap office chair, the kind on rolling wheels that are never set correctly, and look.

        “What the fuck is all this?” I ask. “I’m not a coder.”

        The screen is filled with lines of programming code, some of which looks like they’ve been truncated.

        “We know, bud,” one of the trio says. “We just need you to go on and run the command that’s been pre-loaded into memory.”


        “We need you to press enter,” the third one says, “After you’ve pressed your print here.”

        He holds out his pocket terminal, and I press my thumb to its front, causing another little squeal of security checkpoints to sound.

        “There you go, bud,” he says. “Now just, you know. Do it to it.”

        I look back at the monitor. I can’t really make heads or tails out of any of it. At best, I can guess that this is a script to end some process running on a server somewhere. Some horrifically complicated script designed specifically to safely and completely end some equally horrifically complicated process.

        But all of this has started to bore me. I remember how little I care.

        “Whatever,” I say, and press enter on the industrial terminal’s keypad.

        Nothing happens. Well, nothing much happens. The monitor flickers for a second, and I can hear a whirring from deep inside the chassis, which tells me that the horrifically complicated code is executing. But that’s it. A few seconds go by, and the monitor goes blank. The terminal plays some sing-song corporate jingle and shuts itself off.

        It’s over.

        “Thanks, bud,” one of the Douchebags says. “Let’s get you back to the floor now, yeah?”

        I shrug again. This is an awfully weird day to not be getting paid at the end of it.

        The three executives take me back to the elevator, guide it back down to the second floor, and unceremoniously dump me out there. They don’t even walk me back to my cubicle, the bastards. The only thing I’ve got to welcome me back to the droning hive is Marley’s bright, shining smile, and her bright, jealously shining eyes. She puts me back on the Big One as soon as I drop into my chair. Shit.

        I keep my head down for the rest of my shift.

I wish I could code. I hate this fucking job.