5959 words (23 minute read)

Company Line

Based on a story by my Dad

Clack clack clack.

Trinidad Wyatt had a headache.

No, this was more than a headache. He was waking up from the sleep of the dead, like the handful of parties in college that were just black slides in his brain where memories should be. Trinidad’s eyelids protested their own weight and his pupils shrunk back from the harsh, white fluorescent light that stabbed them.

Clack clack clack.

Why was he sitting upright? Had he fallen asleep in a chair? Focus, he told himself. Maintain. There was a QWERTY keyboard under his hands. A bafflingly beige raster-scan monitor was attached to it, completely blank except for the green blinking cursor.

Clack clack clack.

Trinidad heard a sickening sound in the room, like horrid crab-like bugs skittering on a clay floor. He didn’t have the strength to look for the source. Instead, he reached out a finger and tapped the D key. It made a clack sound, like the cacophony around him, and the letter appeared onscreen, but nothing else. He tapped the F key. Same results.

Clack clack clack.

He felt a pain in his forearm when he moved his arm. His lazy eyes moved to the point of the prick: an IV plugged into his arm. It was alarming, but his grogginess kept him from being physically startled.

Clack clack clack.

Something grunted to Trinidad’s right. He turned and took in a broad-shouldered man at another beige computer terminal. Strings of gray ran through his beard. Trinidad’s eyes focused beyond the man. More people were seated at terminals, forming a ring of about 100 people around the circumference of the room. There were people of all sizes, ethnicities and ages. There were even a few children.

Trinidad carefully removed the IV from his arm. A trickle of blood seeped out of the hole it left behind. He looked out at the hundred or so people sitting at their terminals. Everyone was wearing lime green hospital scrubs. Everyone was clean, but not otherwise well-groomed. Everyone was drumming their fingers on their keys, making the clacking noise filling the room, their eyes darting across their screens. None raised their heads to look at Trinidad.

A voice spoke crisply and clearly over the highest-quality loudspeaker Trinidad had ever heard.

“Your workstations conform to your workstyle,” a soothing female voice said. “They will train you to be more effective and efficient.”

A large pillar stood in the middle of the room. Four screens were attached, each facing a compass direction. Animations and slides on the screens accompanied the speech.

“Be proud,” the speaking voice said in a now-masculine pitch. It was almost emotional. “You are part of something important. You are part of something revolutionary. Your family and friends have been notified.”

Everyone in the room but Trinidad nodded enthusiastically and chattered in sobered excitement for a moment, then turned back to their work. The keystrokes never stopped.

I am not supposed to be up. There was shuffling outside the room. He was a child out of bed, straining his ears for his parents’ footsteps down the hall. He turned to a woman nearby and snapped his fingers in her face. She blinked and made eye contact with him.

“Hey,” he said, starting simple. Despite her enthusiasm for the propaganda and her fastidious work ethic, she wasn’t all there.

“Hey,” she said back. The pleasure of success surged through Trinidad’s mind. He would have pumped his fist in the air if his muscles didn’t feel like jelly. She was obviously drugged, almost certainly with a drip in the IV. Trinidad put his hands on the woman’s cheeks and locked eyes with her to get her full attention. He was happy with getting most of it.

“Where are we?” he said slowly. She was so damn excited about being here, surely she knew. But, she just shook her head in his hands, looking blankly at him, searching his face for god-knows-what.

“…processors.”

Trinidad’s ears pick up the word, the last in a sentence spoken by the feminine voice. He turned from the woman to face the screens in the center of the room. The slideshow ended. The screens went dark for a moment, then began displaying random green characters on the screen. No. Not random. Nothing is random. The keyboards chattered in return. A silent dialogue, save for the crab-skitter clacking.

The masculine voice spoke once more. It was authoritarian, but not threatening.

“Rotation beginning.”

A loud, sudden sound of a machine engaging and locks disengaging thundered through the room. The floor shifted rudely underneath Trinidad’s feet, knocking him to the ground. A hint of centrifugal force began to push on his body, like he was on a roller coaster that was just beginning to descend its first big drop.

The drugs. The propaganda. And now this, the final belt that bound them.

“Everyone listen to me!” Trinidad yelled, phlegm gurgling in his unused larynx. “We are not in a good place!”

The room stirred to look at him. Good. The drugs must be carefully balanced to keep them docile, yet efficient. A little unexpected stimulus is all it took.

“The room is going to start spinning in a second, and that will pin us to our workstations,” Trinidad said loudly. The room’s new g-force grew a little stronger. “We need to all lump in one side of the room and knock it off its bearings.”

The drugged people were slower to act than Trinidad would have liked, but they all did it without complaint or counterpoint. Everyone huddled against the wall, half of them standing, half of them propped up on elbows with atrophied legs. The floor and some of the people were covered in blood from where many had done a bad job removing their IV needles. They didn’t seem to notice. The room spun faster. The mass of bodies press against each other.

There was movement in the corner of Trinidad’s eye, and he struggled to move his head to look further along the curve of the room, which was now the new “up.” Helmeted heads popped up from the top of the pillar in the room, and the bodies they were attached to climbed down to an extending path that hovered above the rapidly rotating floor.

Each time Trinidad passed by the figures, he could make out a little more: They were clad head to toe in gray militaristic armored uniforms. They were genderless, but not in the human way an androgynous person would be. Rather, they were unsettlingly mechanical. The figures were "its," not "theys."

There was a tickle in the room’s momentum before it leaned and unseated itself from its track like a poorly-loaded washing machine. The foul smell of burning metal and lubricant and rubber belts filled the room. One of the armored figures lost its balance and flew into the still-revolving wall and bounced off it. Its neck bent the wrong way. The other figure, still on the ladder, also lost its balance, but it was luckier and merely crashed to the floor. The fall looked incredibly painful, but the armored figure did not make any sound of fear or pain. It was a long fall, but not long enough to kill. A black metal object fell off its hip.

The rotation slowed to a standstill. Light smoke from the burned machinery filled the room with a haze. Trinidad scrambled toward the black metal object; up close, it was obvious that it was a weapon. He was far less dazed than the armored figure, who tried to crawl toward the weapon, too, but wasn’t anywhere near it by the time Trinidad wrapped his fingers around the handle and trigger.

One of the other scrubs yelled “don’t shoot!” but Trinidad pulled the trigger without hesitation. The muzzle flashed. Helmet fragments exploded and the figure went limp. Trinidad stood in place, horrified at what he had just done.

Trinidad shook his horror off and ran toward a ladder on the side of the pillar. He climbed up and saw a hatch on the top with a ladder leading down into darkness. He couldn’t babysit the scrubs anymore, he justified to himself, but he’d blaze a path for them if he could. The space inside the hatch was dark and, as much as Trinidad hated to admit it, scary.

But, it was the only visible way out of the room. He squeezed his shoulders through the doorway.

The hatch was more constricting than he thought it would be, especially considering the size of the people that emerged from it. At the bottom was a distressingly small hole he had to crawl through on his hands and knees. He crawled and shimmied for what seemed like hours, sometimes making slight curves. A few times he felt stuck, and that was when the icy fingers of panic scratched at the edges of his mind.

◀ ◀ ◀ ◀ ◀

Trinidad sat at his desk at Davids-Offerman Financial, his mouth parched with the dry wang of coffee aftertaste. He fumbled through his desk drawer for the pack of peppermint gum he kept handy.

“Trinidad?”

The female voice made him jump. He spilled tacks and paperclips out of the plastic tray in the drawer. He turned to see a woman in a dark pantsuit looking at him. She smiled and introduced herself as Jennifer, who was technically an “office manager,” but was really just the schmuck from the corporate office who was supposed to check up on the workers in the individual branches. She laughed as if she’d told a joke.

“Oh. Oh! Okay! What do you want to know?” Trinidad did not grasp social situations as quickly as coding solutions. Jennifer sat on the edge of the desk and crossed her heels. It was a casual gesture, but not a flirtatious one. She nailed her desired effect perfectly—Trinidad was instantly comfortable with her.

“Show me your world, Trinidad. What’s a day like for you?”

He rattled through the mundane details of his day. Coffee, computers, lunch, more coffee. “No, no, I have a file on all that. Show me your world.” The emphasis on the last two words of her sentence was thick. Jennifer’s words and her long, red hair made him think of The Little Mermaid.

Trinidad’s voice lowered. “The asshole in the next cubicle likes to tell people that being transgender is a mental illness, and how he thinks black people should protest,” he said. Jennifer nodded sympathetically.

Trinidad lowered his voice even more. “I take a bathroom break every day at 2:30 so the company has to pay me for sitting on the toilet for 15 minutes.”

Jennifer laughed loudly. It made Trinidad jump again.

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

Trinidad finally saw light. He reached the lip of the tunnel and spilled into a room like a slug, catching himself painfully with his hands and arms to keep his head from smacking the ground. Trinidad rolled onto his back, pointing the weapon around the room. When he saw no one, he relaxed and wobbled to his feet.

He was standing in a locker room as finely manicured and clean as the spinning computer room. It was also the same ugly beige color scheme. He tried one of the locker doors. It was unlocked and opened smoothly and quietly. Inside was a martial uniform like the ones the armed figures were wearing in the centrifuge. He yanked it out of the locker.

As soon as the top of Trinidad’s skull touched the top of the helmet’s interior, a heads-up display filled the visor. Gibberish ran across the edges of the visor—not code, but actual nonsense words that meant nothing to Trinidad. Three all-caps words on the top of the visor read:

DRIGO OURNKEY FEBBIN

 He turned his head, and the phrases changed to:

DURNDIG OLANYI FWALSTRU

He turned his back, the original DRIGO OURNKEY FEBBIN phrase returned. He tried rotating 360 degrees. The gibberish seemed to be one set of words when he looked a specific direction, and another set of words when he faced any other direction.

The rest of the armor was too baggy. If he wore it, he would be too suspicious. Trinidad tried a few more lockers until he found a perfect fit. Another polished weapon hung on the side of the locker. Although he had carried the dead guard’s weapon through the hatch tunnels, this was the first time he had a good look at it. It had a trigger and a grip for his hand, but it wasn’t quite a gun. He had no idea how to reload it, so he tossed aside his original and took the fresh one.

He gingerly opened the only door in the room besides the hatch in the ceiling. A hallway stretched beyond the crack in the door. More beige, but not a soul in sight. No more tip-toeing, he reprimanded himself. If he was to make the disguise work, he would have to walk with confidence.

He picked a direction and marched.

◀ ◀ ◀ ◀ ◀

A few weeks after Jennifer crossed her legs and guffawed at Trinidad’s desk, she returned for one of her weekly checkups on Trinidad and his co-workers. Her demeanor had unusual note to it that day. She was still friendly, but Trinidad sensed their meeting would be more serious than last time.

“Hello Trinidad,” she said as if to a friend with whom she expected to climb a mountain in 100 degree heat. “Has anyone told you why I’m here today?”

“Nope,” he said, feigning a casual attitude. He was comfortable with Jennifer, but not with the mystery looming in the air.

“Good,” she said with a nervous, sharp exhale. “Nobody was supposed to.”

“Uh, is everything okay?” Trinidad asked. He was becoming more nervous by the moment.

“I have to test you today,” Jennifer said. “I like you, Trinidad. I’m not going to lie to you. The test is going to be stressful.”

“What kind of test?” Trinidad asked.

“It’s a skills assessment test,” Jennifer said. When both of Trinidad’s eyebrows shot up, she quickly pulled a single sheet of paper out of a manila folder she had with her and held it in her hand.

“This is an official document from the CEO that promises that you, you specifically, will not be terminated, demoted, or furloughed as a result of the test results. As a matter of fact, this promises that you will be employed for at least a year with at least your current salary and benefits.”

Trinidad looked at her blankly. She leaned in toward him and lowered her voice.

“Basically, taking the test means you can’t be fired for anything for a year unless you, like, steal from the company or murder someone. And…”

Her voice lowered even more.

“I hear that people who do well on the test get rewards. Like, cash rewards.”

Trinidad was not swayed. He was not convinced the company was incapable of backlash, nor unwilling.

“What do they need this for?” he asked.

“Alright, I can tell you’re nervous, and I told them you’d be too smart for the whole—” Jennifer widened her eyes and waved her arms comically—“caaaaash! thing, but they didn’t listen. The truth is, leadership is having a lot of morale issues. I mean, be honest, does it suck to work here?”

“I don’t know if it sucks,” he said. “But, I guess I could be happier.”

“Right, see, that’s the problem. The company’s not having a turnover problem, but the workforce is unmotivated and unfocused, and they desperately need to fix that. They’re just not smart enough to know how, so they hired a firm to make up this skills test to make sure everyone has work they’re interested in doing.”

“At least they’re smart enough to know they have a problem,” Trinidad said.

Jennifer nodded and stuck a flat palm at him in agreement. “See, that’s what I said, too.”

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

            Trinidad’s hands itched for his weapon, but he kept it holstered. He kept subconsciously transitioning to a stealthy foot-rolling creep as he moved through the beige corridors filled with tan Star Trek-style sliding doors that wouldn’t open for him. He straightened up to a tall marching posture. He had been lucky so far and had met no one, but he was prepared for that luck to run out at any moment.

            His prediction came true even as he thought it. He turned a corner and nearly collided with another figure dressed just like him. It was slightly taller than Trinidad. The gibberish printed on the inside of Trinidad’s helmet was faintly visible inside the other figure’s helmet, but he couldn’t make out a face beyond it.  The figure scanned Trinidad from top to bottom, then tapped the side of its helmet in a mechanical gesture devoid of personality.

            Trinidad kept his posture, but inside he was panicking. He shook his head, trying to mimic the slow, methodical head movements of the guard. The guard reached for its hip, and for one terrifying moment Trinidad thought the guard was reaching for its weapon. Instead, it unclipped a palm-sized slab from its hip that slightly resembled a cell phone. The figure tapped a few times on its surface. The gibberish in Trinidad’s helmet fizzled away. After a moment of three dots idly animating in the middle of his heads-up-display, it returned with new words.

            Trinidad tried nodding. The guard tapped a few more times on the slab. His visor rebooted again. The guard looked expectantly at him. Trinidad wondered if the guard was even human, which would have seemed a silly thought an hour ago.

Trinidad tried turning sharply in place, with purpose, then began marching down another hall across from the corner where he met the guard. He heard a snap behind him. He whirled back around, his weapon drawn deftly. Green lines appeared on his visor, converging toward the figure’s chest, but Trinidad ignored them. The guard drew its own weapon, and brought it to bear straight-armed. This is not really a person, Trinidad thought. It is trying to hurt you. It’s okay to kill it. He fired the weapon impulsively several times. Two of the glowing, streaking projectiles popped holes in the umpire-vest-like armor the guard was wearing. Dark liquid flecked out of the entry wounds. The figure’s weapon fell out of their its hand, and it crumpled to the floor.

The beige walls were suddenly bathed in red, strobing light. A loud, repeating alarm filled the hallways. The text in Trinidad’s helmet changed from green to orange. New words appeared. Trinidad tossed the weapon from his hand and picked up the fallen guard’s. He began to run.

◀ ◀ ◀ ◀ ◀

            The skills test was best described as “esoteric.” “Skills test” might have been the worst way to describe it, as none of the questions seemed to actually be about skills. There were no questions about coding or banking. There weren’t even the one or two HR questions about communication or office relationships that were usually stuck on this sort of thing.

            Question 1: “Imagine one of your co-workers is being held at gunpoint by an unknown assailant in your office. How would you respond?”

The answer field underneath the question was empty except for bold, red words that said REMEMBER, THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS. The company had gone to startling lengths to drive this point. After Jennifer had told him about the test, a lawyer had come to his cubicle to reiterate it at least three times.

            “Will the test be anonymous?” Trinidad had asked the lawyer.

            “Well, no,” she had said back. “But, it is confidential. The leadership might want to follow up with you and ask you questions.”

            “I think I’m still pretty nervous about this,” he said.

            “You can literally write anything in the answer blanks,” she said. “You can refuse to answer the question. You can threaten to murder your co-workers. You can threaten to bomb the White House. The company legally cannot take any action against you for your answers, nor share your answers with anyone outside the company, including police.”

            It was frank talk for a lawyer. And it was enough for Trinidad to finally believe them. In the answer blank, he wrote:

            “I do not like any of my co-workers. I don’t want any of them to die, but I also don’t care to risk one life to save many. My tape dispenser is the heaviest object on my desk. I would throw it at him. He is more likely to point the gun at the object attacking him, rather than me or the hostage. In the confusion, both the hostage (hopefully) and me can double-team him.”

     All the other questions were similar: Unlikely scenarios that asked Trinidad to solve or escape them. They had nothing to do with his work. The test didn’t seem to be assessing any of his relative skills outside of a broad definition of problem-solving, nor did they seem to be of any use determining if he was happy at the company. The last problem actually vexed him:

            “Imagine you are building a house from the ground up on a beautiful piece of land you own, whether it be a beach, or a plain, or a mountain—whatever is the most beautiful to you. You must clear the land where you will build your house. You are almost done with this task, but discover a single stone jutting upward on the perfect spot for your house. This stone seems to be made of an element you have never encountered. It cannot be destroyed, and seems to be just the tip of a massive, mountain-sized deposit that would be impossible to move. What do you do?”

            The scenario was the most complex one on the test. Despite the “no wrong answers” rhetoric, this problem had taken steps to nullify some answers: Moving to another place didn’t really seem to be an option, nor would eliminating part of the house, since that seemed to be less than a “dream” house. He was tempted at first to just say he wouldn’t build the house, or he’d just swallow his disappointment and sell the land, but the exhausting problem seemed to be intentionally placed at the end, when he would already be tired of answering. They wanted him to fizzle out, and he was going to push it in their faces.

            “I would build a room, maybe like a parlor, around the stone. I could make it part of the house and have friends over and make it a conversation piece. Maybe I could even make it a tourist attraction, since I’ve apparently discovered a new substance.”

            “It’s not a bug,” he mumbled to himself, chuckling. “It’s a feature.”

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

            Trinidad yanked the helmet off his head. It was heavy, hot, and no longer necessary now that he had blown his cover. The other helmets were almost certainly capable of identifying him, whether his face was exposed or not. The helmet landed on the floor with a thudding sound loud enough to overpower the wailing siren.

            Standard exit signs, like the kind seen in any hospital or movie theater or department store, pointed down beige corridors. He ignored them. He didn’t trust anything here. The exit signs were only there to trick him.

            He ran until he found a hallway that was a little different than the others, with a door that was a little bigger. The other doors had a string of alphanumeric characters over them, but this one had a real name:

Digital Ontology Facility

      

Underneath was a sign in a different font:

(CPU)

And underneath that was a third, handwritten sign that said “Authorized Personnel ONLY.” The sliding doors stayed shut, just like all the others. He hadn’t minded until now, but not even Hellfire would keep him of this room. He emptied the magazine of one of his weapons into the seam in the center of the door. It popped open like a tab on a soda can.

◀ ◀ ◀ ◀ ◀

            “So, what, you’re a psychiatrist?” Trinidad said to Jennifer from one of the comfortable chairs that had been bought for the new “health room” that had previously been the seldom-used “small conference room.”

            “More like a therapist,” Jennifer said. “I’m sorry if you feel like I misled you. It won’t happen again.”

            “No, it’s fine,” Trinidad said. “You were sortof an employee relations kind of person before, anyway. It’s not surprising you’re a therapist.”

            “Good,” she said.

            “You have my test answers in front of you, don’t you?” he asked.

            “No, I promise I never saw those,” she said. “I do have some data gleaned from everyone’s test results, though, and this at-work therapy program is a result of the test, too. Everyone in the company will have regular appointments with me or people like me.”

            “So, what do you want to talk about?” Trinidad asked.

            “What do you want to talk about, Trinidad?”

            Trinidad shrugged. Jennifer looked down at the files in her lap.

            “You spend your entire day working with computers, especially the ones at your desk. You spend more time with them than you do your human co-workers. What do you most dislike about computers?”

            Trinidad raised an eyebrow at the negativity of the question. He had few inhibitions around Jennifer.

            “I guess… that they’re dumb,” Trinidad said.

            “Dumb like they’re pointless, or dumb like they’re stupid?”

            “Stupid.”

            “I’m not a developer like you. To someone like me, a computer seems smart.”

            Trinidad clicked his tongue, trying to think of a way to describe what he meant.

            “There’s these books called Amelia Bedilia. You probably read a couple in elementary school. They’re about a housekeeper that doesn’t understand idioms and takes all her instructions literally. So, like, if they told her to change the sheets, she wouldn’t take them off the bed and replace them with clean ones, she’d tie-die them or something. You know, literally change the sheets. So, her employers had to tell her exactly what they wanted her to do, like ‘take the sheets off the bed and replace them.’

“What makes computers great is that they will do exactly what you tell them to do. What makes computers terrible is that they will do exactly what you tell them to do.”

Jennifer considered Trinidad’s answer for a moment.

“So, a computer would be better if it could make decisions?” she asked.

“Well, what you’re talking about there is full-fledged artificial intelligence,” he said. “Which is kind of the dream, yeah, but also it’s a whole different conversation. What I’m saying is that it would be better if all the little parts of a computer, like the transistors, the input devices, the memory—all the things that take programming language and turn it into machine language—it would be better if all that could make basic decisions.

Jennifer tilted her head thoughtfully. She looked interested in what Trinidad was saying.

“I’m saying that I want my computer to have common sense.”

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

“Why are you here?” Trinidad screamed, dirt and sweat flopping off his brow. “Why are you here?”

Jennifer looked at him, wide-eyed. Her gloved hands were splayed out from underneath a dark cape she was wearing. They seemed to have stopped the dozen-or-so guards from firing their weapons at Trinidad, though they were certainly still aimed at him. She was bent over in an awkward, wide-stance posture. The cloak covered most of the clothing she was wearing, but Trinidad could see that it was some sort of high-quality uniform made to be similar, but not identical, to the uniforms the guards were wearing.

“Trinidad,” she said, trying to sound calm, but failing. “Trinidad, settle down and I will tell you everything.”

“Why should I trust you?” he continued to scream, shaking his weapon at her.

“Because I think I’m done,” she said. Trinidad’s eyes were still wild, but he stayed silent.

“You were recruited as part of an effort to make, essentially, a human-powered computer,” she said. “I was a plant inside of Davids-Offerman Financial. They didn’t know anything about what we were trying to do. It was an incredible risk to recruit you, but you were so incredibly talented you were greenlit, anyway. You were exactly the kind of person we needed to make it work. You were an outside-the-box thinker, and the things you said in our sessions aligned with our goals precisely. It was amazing.

“I told them—“

“Who?!” Trinidad demanded.

“We don’t have a name,” Jennifer continued. “I told the others that it was going to be incredibly difficult to recruit you, though. The outside-the-box thinking that makes you so valuable also makes you a maverick. You loathe being told what to do and often instinctively do the opposite.

“The thing about conditioning someone, Trinidad, is that they have to have some proclivity toward what they’re being conditioned to do, or they’ll break. All the other processors you’ve met today were inclined to obey, even before we started conditioning them. So, we conditioned you to do what you were inclined to do: Always avoid the conventional, always do what was outside the box. We would get you here, and you would resist at first, but then you would come around to our unorthodox methodology.

“We conditioned you to not be conditioned. Obviously, that backfired.”

 “So, what now?” Trinidad asked.

“I’m going to call 9-1-1, tell them where we are and that I am holding hundreds of people here against their will. Then, you will go home.”

He allowed her to inch over to a very normal-looking desk and pick up a very average-looking telephone. She did exactly what she said she would do. Trinidad held Jennifer at gunpoint until a SWAT team burst into the room, efficiently arresting everyone there. Jennifer did not resist. The guards complied robotically. Two officers gently handcuffed Trinidad, then led him to the real exit. The exit signs in the hallway had been pointing towards it, after all.

Trinidad blinked in the sunlight. He was in a field. It was filled with armored police officers, police vehicles, and hundreds of dazed people in hospital scrubs. The robotic guards’ helmets were off, revealing flesh-and-blood people who looked just as dazed as the scrubs. Trinidad’s stomach lurched as he thought about the broken ones he’d left behind.

The SWAT team had led him out of a door built into a concrete structure not much bigger than a janitor’s closet. The back of it sloped down, hiding the rest of the facility underneath the earth. Trinidad wondered just how big it really was.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“Oklahoma,” one of the officers replied.

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

“Nobody asked me to cover up anything,” Trinidad said to Kimmel. He was booked solid over the next few weeks for television appearances, but Jimmy Kimmel had pounced first. Trinidad didn’t blame him; in fact, he was relieved to start the tour with Kimmel, who had a knack for handling serious topics.

“I almost did, though,” Trinidad continued. He grinned coyly. “I mean, a technology cult who kidnapped hundreds of people is a pretty boring story.”

The audience laughed. The writers who had given him a couple of jokes to keep in his holster for the interview told him the audience would laugh whether or not he was actually funny. They always laughed for the heroes.

“You really came out at the front of this thing,” Kimmel said, amazement in his voice. “I’ve got a few notes here that say the police ended up arresting 11 people who allegedly—sorry, I have to say allegedly—were involved in the kidnappings. Captain Ernie Harris, the lead investigator in the case, said you, quote, ‘toppled the first domino.’ What does he mean, exactly?”

“Well, Jimmy, I guess he means that I fought my way out of a locked room and forced them to turn themselves in,” Trinidad said. The audience went nuts. Before the show, a producer had told him to be confident to the point of smugness, and she had been right. It was an act, though. In private, in the sessions with the psychiatrist he didn’t quite trust, he told the story differently. He used the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” He was a broken man who had no direction anymore, who didn’t know if his decisions were his own. The psychiatrist had told him to make a conscious effort to follow instructions as an exercise, to prove to himself that he was stronger than his conditioning. It had taken all of his mental fortitude to trust the producer’s advice. His brain screamed at him to do the opposite of what she said, and to give lies as answers to Kimmel’s questions.

“What are you doing next?” Kimmel asked, snapping Trinidad back to the present and reminding him that he was on TV.

“There’s a nice defense contractor that offered me a job. I promised I wouldn’t say their name, but they’ve offered me a lot of money,” Trinidad said.

“So, you’re just going back to your old life?” Kimmel said non-judgmentally. “I’ve heard rumors that you’ve been offered dream jobs—movie roles, executive positions, Hugh Hefner’s lobster tester—”the audience laughed at his rule-of-three—“hell, you can work for me if you want!” The audience cheered at this.

“The psychiatrist I go to says something familiar and stable would be good for me,” Trinidad said. Kimmel nodded understandingly. The audience was silently reverent.

▶ ▶ ▶ ▶ ▶

The office manager finished the tour by showing Trinidad his office. It was a real office, not a cubicle. He could see a park through his window. His name was already on the door, a gesture that touched him deeply. The office manager smiled a pretty smile and said “we’re glad to have you.”

“I’m glad to be here,” he said back. He meant it.

He set up his email and saw that he already had some instructions from the team lead. He had told her that getting straight to work would be the best thing for him, and she had taken that to heart, it seemed. He opened Visual Studio, loaded the solution, and happily tapped at his keyboard.

Clack, clack, clack.

Next Chapter: All the Rot in the Walls