A while back I started working freelance so that I might untangle myself from the corporate day-to-day. It wasn’t the life I expected. In fact, not much changed except that I lost my insurance and other benefits associated with full-timers.
I wrote this story during my last gig.
It takes place in the distant future but, as you well read, nothing much has changed.
Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon. Clouds drifted by the streaked windows of the 45th floor like lost spirits. Weighted down with despair, they slowly fell to earth where they mingled with the fog that haunted the wet sidewalks. Red brake lights retreating north, amber headlamps advancing south reflected their colors off the slick and glistening pavement. The Hudson was a lifeless slab, a vanity mirror for the leaden sky to gaze at its somber face. On the other side New Jersey was all but forgotten behind a drab stage curtain lifted just enough to view a sliver of the complex urban set constructed behind.
In the corner of my eye Lawson grew larger, his hazy shape forming into solid contours as he scurried to my desk. Harried as usual, be shook a piece of paper like Chamberlain just off the plane from Munich. Lawson was beleaguered and gaunt and I wondered if the same cancer that ate Neville’s bowels bad begun feasting on Lawson’s. The paper was not for me, thankfully, but he held it within close range of my ear so that I might experience its abrasive noise as it crinkled in his nervous clutch.
I had grown accustomed to Lawson’s blustery ovations to otherwise trivial matters. Had anyone else approached my desk in such a wide-eyed state I would have been dreading a pronouncement of consequence, knowing what pronouncements of consequence usually held.
“God awful weather, eh?”
I nodded, “Terrible.”
“It’s a beautiful day at my desk. Let me see.” He dragged a rake of five boney fingers through a head of ashen hair, an action that produced a squall of dandruff that dusted the top of my desk. “My Eco is set on A, no C19: San Francisco harbor, sunny, no fog.”
“Mine was the dreary East when I came in this morning. I can’t change it.” I feigned a long sigh in order to blow away the debris from Lawson’s scalp.
“Call our systems support outlet.”
The scene outside was the perfect pairing for my mood, or maybe it had created my mood. At any rate, there was no strong urge to make adjustments. I yawned, deeply.
Lawson hushed the agitated paper by laying it out before me. What was once a crisp, white sheet was now a corrugated mess. He attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles that his worry had rendered. His crooked index extended, he delivered a quick succession of taps to the bold print that read: Notice of Compliance Failure. It was a pronouncement of consequence after all but one that concerned Lawson and Lawson alone.
His face was a mask of dire predicament. “Apparently I have scored too low on my last CSE. Do you know what that means?”
“You didn’t study.”
A flash of consternation crumbled into the exasperated look of an earnest man suffering the fool. “You know you can’t study.”
“So, you’ll take it again.”
“Three chances then you’re out. Gone. Transfer or contingent leave. I have two left.” Staring blankly across the expanse of office floor 45, “I don’t even know where I would go.”
And with that he was gone, stumbling absently back to his view of San Francisco to fret over the soiled notice he had left behind.
A helicopter buzzed through the gloom, northbound, following the tail lights on the north side highway, over the toy boat ferries, to destinations unknown even to the coded functions in the Eco’s elaborate guts. I chose C19 on the keypad: stormy New York persisted.
I had been determined to allow myself the luxury of wallowing in self-pity all morning but my own glum mood had been spoiled by its confederation with Lawson’s residue of disconsolation. My suffering had become a crashing bore. I was eager for brighter surroundings. In seconds I was speaking to someone who introduced himself as Kelvin, J.
“Thank you for contacting your systems support outlet. May I have your user ID and security code, please?”
Credentials provided and problem described, Kelvin began his diagnosis.
“Okay. Looks like I see you in New York, stormy. And you’ve tried steps 2 through 7 in your Eco’s operation manual?”
Confessing I had not, I was led through a series of procedures designed to eliminate the probable cause of malfunction. He typed as he spoke and the plastic clatter of keystrokes punctuated his instructions. Click, clack, click, clack. A sudden flash of white was promising but otherwise, no improvement.
“Well, I can go ahead and change your Eco from here but I will have to dispatch a member of the ground unit to switch out your hardware. It might take a day or two; we are kind of backed up. What would you like on your Eco? Something nicer, I’m guessing. How about tropical?”
As pleasant sounding as it was, Kelvin’s suggestion seemed far too wet at this point. The desert I thought and requested.
“Uh…okay.” There was an extensive list from which to choose and each included such parameters as, season, time of day or evening. “Mojave, Gobi, Painted, Sahara?”
I requested Death Valley, my saturnine disposition not fully lifted. My choice included several specific points within its enormity. Having never been, I picked the alluringly named Artist’s Palette. My first glimpse of the desert’s majesty lasted only seconds. The tender petals of an indigo bush trembled in the breeze and vanished into crackling static. Then there was nothing but space: empty, void, nada, zilch – zero.
Kelvin J. was silent. Had it not been for the moist ebb and flow of his breathing I would have thought he’d joined New York and the desert in oblivion.
“Nothing, huh? That’s weird. Well, a functioning Eco is important so I will escalate this issue to, Tier 2. Meanwhile, I’ll go ahead and expedite your hardware exchange.”
Tier 2: I imagined the system support team arranged on a ridiculous étagère. A ticket was issued, a random alphanumeric sequence that signified nothing to anything but the matrices of system support where endless troubles and resolutions were chronicled – short tales of woe and happily ever-afters. Call completed.
With no Eco I had the unique opportunity to use the gigantic window for its original purpose. I stood looking out our vast universe. Overhead, Earth was a point of light in the endless black. Below, Mars, a pocked bloodstone marbled with veins of rich crimson and pale yellow wrapped in a lambent, copper haze.
A full year, Earth not Martian, had elapsed since I began my contract with the interplanetary corporation Galaxy Sunn. This period of time was nine months longer than the agreement stated when it was signed – by me, one year ago. A series of work extensions and certain difficulties posed by a distance of 43 million miles had kept me long past my release date. And, while my compensation had accumulated nicely, further interest in the position had not; I was more than ready to sever the relationship.
However, a voluntary resignation would place the burden of paying for my own accommodations while waiting on the next available transport, also out-of pocket, back to big, blue Mother. ”Next available” could mean days, weeks or months while my debt to G.S. Inc. for room and board accrued. A normal contract termination was more agreeable since the corporation picked up the tab but this formal release had not been issued and, as the extensions piled up, I feared it never would. Certain parallels could be drawn between my situation and those of the penal colony occupants digging in the rusty Martian soil.
I carved a question mark in the rime of frost my weary sigh – not feigned – left on the glass. Had there been some guidance for resolving my dilemma, it was not in the heavens. Nor were the familiar vistas and skylines of earth available for contemplation with Eco defunct. Instead, inspiration came from the crumpled receipt of Lawson’s failure.
The Core Stress Evaluation was one of many periodic tests The Inc. maintained as a bulwark against liability. Low scores were an early indicator of a decline in skill sets that could potentially place revenue, property and lives in jeopardy. Whatever threat Lawson posed to any of this capital was ponderous. He was, nonetheless, now referred to in certain database circles as Lawson, the risk. My colleague was determined to improve his standings in this clique; I was determined to do irreparable damage.
Unfortunately, my contractor status made me exempt from such things as the CSE. And so, compiling a list of alternative methods that could achieve a blemish substantial enough to warrant a discharge without ruining future prospects elsewhere or becoming entangled in legal troubles consumed my free time. Blank was how my list remained over the next few days. Lawson, in contrast, had achieved strike 2. Effortless.
Set against the colossal blackness of space his lanky frame seemed to deteriorate before my eyes as he stood in front of my Eco-less window. Gustav Holst: his Planets, Neptune the Mystic, the final movement and its choir dissolving into the realm of the inaudible, this was Lawson’s own voice – fading into nothing.
Wringing hands: “I don’t understand. I’ve never had problems with CSE. I can’t go back to blue Mother. What would I do?” He paced.” How do you stand it without an Eco? Without day and night I wouldn’t ever stop working. It would drive me insane.”
“I opened a ticket.”
“Ticket, ha! Tier 1 or Tier 2? Oh, it makes no difference. Those guys are kids, I have shoes older than most of them. They don’t know how to do anything. I’d go down to support in person and ask for a Team Lead.”
There were no Team Leads on duty when I arrived at my support system outlet on level 22-F. Kelvin J. was not there either. Lawson had been accurate about this department’s youthful composition; the support representative who assisted me could have easily been younger than Lawson’s footwear antiquities. She introduced herself as Hope, no last initial.
Click, clack, click, clack.
She entered the ticket number I’d produced into her computer console. Blank. “That’s weird.” Head scratched, she retyped the entry, this time slower, careful, deliberate. Blank, still. A third try returned the same.
Eupeptic and eager, “Well, I’ll just enter a new ticket and expedite it for you.” Personal details taken, she asked me to describe my technical issue.
I felt the words Eco and Broken and Hardware taking shape behind my teeth as Hope’s fingers drummed lightly on the keys waiting for instructions.
“CSE. I haven’t received my notice for the CSE. I think I might be past due.”
Her petite nose almost touched the display and its glow highlighted her features with a bluish tint as she scrolled through the list repeating the letters CSE aloud as if to conjure it up.
Cheerfully, “Here it is: Core Stress Evaluation.” She sounded out the syllables in a measured tone so there’d be no confusion.
She leaned back in her chair out of the monitor’s corona. Her expression had changed from winsome to worry. The timbre of her voice darkened, “But this says you’re exempt.”
I mirrored her concern and added disbelief. Barefaced, “But I took it six months ago, as instructed.” I conflated my lie with a poignant recollection of how the same thing had happened before and what a time I’d endured.
Reassured and generously pitiable she began typing. It was good to see her chipper nature return.
”Well, there were some updates to certain divisions recently. That could have affected your account. I’ll just change your status then and add your CSE.”
In moments I was the recipient of a new alphanumeric code and Hope’s promise that I would see a notice from Galaxy Sunn compliance to complete my CSE within two business days.
The gravity generators could have crashed for all I knew as I practically floated back to my desk to wait like a school boy on Christmas Eve. Soon I could begin failing three times, all the way back to blue Mother.
What came in two business days was indeed a notice from the compliance office of Galaxy Sunn Inc. I was congratulated and thanked, personally and profusely, by my Team Lead and his Team Lead on behalf of the Interplanet Security and Intelligence Division. Through my efforts, a gaping hole, in an ominous sounding bit of gadgetry that I never knew existed, had been discovered and patched against possible catastrophic breach. My contributions and value to The Inc. were such that my contract was extended for six months, Martian not Earth.
My Eco was restored shortly after my pronouncement of consequence and upgraded to boot. Poor Lawson, strike 3 and his desk was clean before the sun set on the San Francisco harbor. We shook hands for the last time at my desk that overlooked the Hudson and New Jersey. Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon.