Rat Race Jockey

Eli Zaren

Eli Zaren has been a professional collector of rejection slips for more than 30 years. As a veteran of the Army, oil rigs, teaching and other terrible jobs, he tries to use his experience to write stories in which people can see the wrong side of their reality, the way it might be in the near future. He lives somewhere between the hope that the future will be brighter, and the fear it will not be.

Today, Nikki Kristanopolous meant to win the fight of his life — the fight for his life. He had been trying to pry open a job with AirFlex since graduation, bombarding them with emails, phone calls, samples of previous work, FOIA requests and soshnet buzz ratings. After eleven exhausting months, he finally had a realface interview.

This was his chance at a new, better life, one where he could make student loan payments, maybe even have a girlfriend or a car, where he could get away from the soul-crushing drudgery and dehumanizing sweatshop conditions of software coding. The interview wasn’t a dream come true but it was the last door between him and that dream and he was determined to kick that door wide open.

He knew his kick would have to be Herculean. There were thousands of applicants for every publicly listed job, no matter how small. Between simple power tripping, a sea of unqualified job hunters and laws that made workmen’s compensation and unemployment assessments the biggest operating expense after golden parachutes and insurance, companies had engineered hiring procedures that raised nitpicking to a fine art.

Nikki knew it and he prepared as carefully as an ancient warrior facing mortal conflict. He showered using the hypoallergenic soap that cost him a week’s lunches instead of his usual salt/soda mix. It was worth the hunger to avoid any chance of setting off some corporate drone’s allergies. He also shaved his armpits and applied the expensive pheromone cream. Nikki had read all the blogs on hunting strategy and had seen more than one story of odors crushing hopes.

Nikki opened the door of the toilet closet next to the kitchen sink so he could use the full-length mirror. He picked up the razor and had to stop when he felt a flash of panic at the thought of nicking himself. But he had to use old-fashioned blades. After his other expenses, he couldn’t afford a laser cleaner.

Nikki remembered his friend Arianna, who had made the mistake of misspelling her name when she signed the form that authorized the company to subpoena her cellphone records. The company psychs had made that sound like a personal identity problem almost as bad as schizophrenia. With that on her record, she would have spent the rest of her life as a waitress if she hadn’t “fallen” in front of a train. If he showed up with a cut, what would they think of his self-control or his ability to pay attention? Any trace of blood and he may as well be chum in the shark tank.

Nikki closed his eyes and reached back to his yoga lessons. He carefully blanked his mind of everything outside this moment. He drew into himself and silently intoned the Litany Against Fear he had learned in his classical philosophy class. Then he raised his razor and began.

The next few minutes passed in an almost dreamlike state. It took several seconds after the last stroke to realize he was finished. Face fashionably just short of baby-smooth and no damage — Nikki breathed a huge sigh of relief. He gave himself a huge smile and an ironic salute. “Hail Caesar, we who are about to interview could really use a shot of gin.” But nobody would hire someone whose breath set off air snoopers during an interview, so he devoted himself to his other preparations.

Nikki followed the bizwear feeds to the letter: Hair slicked back in last year’s corporate-leader style. A shirt that had both sleeves and a collar, with a tie of this year’s power color painted on it. Shoes, not sandals. Even socks. A formal hoodie and long pants with pockets. The stuff cost a freaking fortune but he was confident today would make it all worthwhile.

His clothing and hair were right, teeth nearly luminescent, natural scents neutralized and heat points painted with gengineered fungi that gave off industrial-strength confidence pheromones. Physically, and nasally, he was as ready as a man could get. Now for the more extreme measures.

Nikki had researched AirFlex and knew almost everything about their hiring process. The street said they were old-fashioned and fairly low-key. They did more background checks than usual and treated the meat-meet mostly as kind of a final test. They did use some basic active measures during the interview to see if candidates could be shaken but they didn’t elevenize their realfacing procedures as some companies did. Still, it was better to take no chances.

First came the “salary snot” injection. Nikki inserted the tube in his left nostril and gave the trigger a one-second squeeze. The aerogel, laced with nanomachines and reactive chemicals, quickly expanded to fill the airway. It would allow the passage of oxygen and inert gases but would neutralize or trap any nanomites or common industrial psychoactives. He repeated the spray into his right nostril, then raised his head and checked in the mirror. Perfect. The material could not be seen from outside. He barely felt it, just a tiny bit of pressure below his eyes. It would not protect him against war gasses or military-grade cellbugs but he had no intention of trying any company that would use such things. Now he was ready for possible pay discussions as long as he remembered to breathe carefully.

Next were the contact lenses. He couldn’t afford models with active countermeasures but these would provide warning if the company tried any psycho-strobing or color bending. They would prevent any attempts at retina or iris scanning, so his eyes would not give away clues. It would be up to him to work his way out if they did any visual spoofing and he had spent hundreds of hours reading up on such tactics and practicing to give plausible responses that wouldn’t look too forced.

He debated waiting to apply the topical cream that blocked contact psychotropics, since it could cause a rash but finally decided he had to do it before he left his apartment. He could accidentally find a sick “joke” that was left by some terrorhobbyist. Better safe and a little itchy than sorry. He applied the cream carefully, making sure it coated all exposed skin, and stood bouncing nervously while it dried to invisibility.

What else? The semiconductor weave in his clothing would proof him against any physical-contact monitors concealed in the furniture. The counteragents he had swallowed to guard against drugs in the coffee or water fountains were spreading through his bloodstream. But he consulted his checklist just in case…

Sonics! He had nearly forgotten the earplugs. He folded the bed against the wall so that he could reach the cabinet built into the bed frame. He unlatched the smallest drawer and dug out the tailored bacteria lumps, inserted them and squirted in the activator. They began fuming, working inward and thinning. Nikki had to work to keep himself from jumping out of his skin; it felt like snakes crawling into his ears. The plugs plated themselves across his eardrums, indistinguishable to the eye from the underlying tissue. They would pass sounds within human-voice range and form a rigid barrier to any frequency outside that. Between all the linings in his nose and ears and clothes, he should now be immune to being stampeded into anything regrettable.

He was as ready as he could afford to be. Now it was time to do battle.

It was a quick trip down to the lobby and he stopped a few steps short of the doors that held the outer world at bay. Before stepping into the drizzle outside, Nikki put on his overshoes and gloves and carefully sealed his body condom. It would mean disaster to show up splattered with road schmutz or a parting gift from the inevitable door bums. He had installed a fresh battery, so the cooling fans worked properly. He could hustle to the light rail station without worrying about the wrapper basting him.

Lastly, he took a deep breath. The aerogel wasn’t effective against many organic molecules and he hoped to get to the end of the block without having to breathe again. He signaled the guard and stepped outside.

And almost tripped over a seated bum whose legs were across his path. “Got any change?” the wreck asked. Nikki grimaced and hopped over him, keeping his gaze straight ahead, waving away the hands stretching toward him. He ignored the pleas and imprecations until he heard someone yell “Fancy asshole is too good to look at us mere humans, huh?”

Normally he would have shrugged it off but today he was too high on anticipation. As he pushed loose from the pack, he shouted, “Bugger off, losers! I’m coming home with a job and a life and tonight, I’m going to eat hamburger while you lick up sidewalk stew!”

A storm of abuse and spit broke out behind him but he was already too far away. During his walk, Nikki held tight to the straps of his daypack, just in case some gutter ronin looking for fix money managed to slice through them despite their Kevlar cores. He arrived without incident at the terminal of the Portland-Tacoma-Seattle Corporate Axis rail system — official acronym PoTaSeaCARS, known to plain citizens as Portacattle. He bought an express ticket to get on site early so that he would have spare time to use the bathroom and applied his motion-sickness dermapatches, a brand that was on the very short list of drug test allowables.

Nikki decided to blow a twenty on a bucket seat to reduce wrinkling, so he would still look crisp when he arrived. With the seat buckled around him, he waddled to the hookup point and shoved the ticket under the scanner. It beeped approval, then lowered the snaphook and he linked up. Instead of waiting for the scheduled gaps required by a basic ticket, the magnetic rail slide immediately winched him up and moved out. It slowly gained speed on the merge rail until the slide shot up a shunt onto the main line and he was up to full speed with a sudden wrench that swung him almost parallel to the ground. The surrounding buildings zipped by in a blur while he twisted and flapped in the wind, praying the unfamiliar patches would work. Heavy rail would have been so much better, but enclosed cars were too expensive for anyone but the IPO Mafia.

It must have been a red-letter day for the line — there were no power interruptions or sniping and Nikki arrived at his destination in only a few minutes. The system slid him off onto the deceleration strip and eased to a stop. The experienced Nikki started walking the second he was lowered enough to touch the sidewalk, so when the hook released it fell behind him. He unharnessed quickly and took a minute to strip off his protective garb and fold it into his daypack.

The building that housed AirFlex was the usual bland concrete eyesore. The only indication of the company’s presence was the name on a plate next to the doors. Before stepping inside, Nikki took a moment to shake himself loose and powered up his underwear. The mesh woven into the undergarments began to emit vibrations and electromagnetic fields that would be read by mikes or remote biofield sensors. They would detect respiration and heart patterns that made him look cool and calm, no matter what. It made him tingle in a very unpleasant way and the power source strapped to his thigh was an impediment to his mobility and a threat to his social life. But it was too important — he had to just shrug and risk a self-inflicted wound.

Nikki waited quietly while the security gear scanned and sniffed him. They would detect his countermeasures, of course, but his gear was all legal for business use, so his signature wasn’t likely to mark him as a terrorist. In the search slideway, he dutifully emptied his daypack and allowed its contents to be scanned again, before he was finally allowed into the lobby.

Crossing the lobby, Nikki noticed no signs of hirespying. The contacts in his pants prodded him as expected but their pattern indicated common security scans looking for explosives or dangerous chemicals. The guard who tracked him was as bland and neutral as the decor. There were plenty of cameras, of course, and for his unseen audience he was careful to look a little eager but in control. I should get an Oscar, he thought.

The receptionist in front of the elevators asked for his pass and Nikki dug out the business card he had been sent. When she ran her thumb over the AirFlex logo, the recording identified him as a visitor to that company and stated the date and time for his appointment. She swiped the card and the readout blinked confirmation. She handed the card back and directed him to the third elevator.

On the 34th floor, Nikki spent a few minutes in the bathroom. It wouldn’t do to arrive too early and look too eager — it might give them the idea he was desperate for the job, and encourage them to up their game. He waited until he would be no more than two minutes early and then marched to the door that bore the AirFlex logo.

Another secretary put him through the same check routine. She noted the time, signed him in and pointed him to another door that suddenly looked to him like it should bear a sign about abandoning all hope. Nikki paused and took a deep, shuddering breath and for the second time that day, he let the calming words of the Litany roll through him. Back under control, he knocked on the door. On hearing an answer from the other side, he touched the access plate and the walnut-paneled door slid open.

Behind the desk within, an elderly Asian man rose and extended his hand and spoke in a light voice. “Good afternoon. I am Delbert M’Zengwa, support manager for our company. I am in charge of all logistical matters such as procuring goods and services the company requires. This includes procuring talent, which I understand from your resume and transcripts you have in abundance.”

“Nicodemus Kristanopolous, sir. Please call me Nikki.”  They exchanged a brief, damp handshake. Nikki felt no warning buzzes from his countermeasures, a great but very welcome surprise. Out of politeness, he folded down his hood and the men settled into their chairs.

He and the manager exchanged meaningless banalities for a minute, followed by about ten minutes of apparently directionless questioning about Nikki’s aspirations, the usual cark about why Nikki was interested in AirFlex. As if someone who had been unemployed for two years had any reason but the need for money. But Nikki carefully kept himself calm and on track, giving answers that he had worked on with his hunt masters coaching him, tailored spiels that had been tested to click with almost any corporate types but would seem individual as long as he was a good enough actor.

When Nikki’s last response died away, M’Zengwa regarded him with a blank look for a moment and Nikki returned his best number 2 bare hint of a smile — eyes lively, mouth set but curved up just a touch, relaxed but alert… and a complete lie. He knew his opponent was as tense as he, waiting for an opening that he steeled himself to avoid giving.

This was the moment that could define his future. This was the pause that kenshis knew in iaijutsu — that silent tension that presaged the carnage, with both combatants carefully watching for any sign of bad stance, of shakiness, of fear, knowing full well that being the first to move also meant being the first to possibly make a mistake. To be the first to die.

Finally reaching some internal decision, M’Zengwa smiled and opened a folder. “Well, Mr. Nikki, I think we should proceed to the real purpose of this encounter.”

For just a second, his eyes flickered as if he were glancing at unseen readouts. But Nikki knew M’Zengwa’s cavalier address of him was just a small test, an attempt to needle the applicant into a physiological reaction to calibrate his sensors. Nikki was confident in his preparations and his self-control remained unbroken. He sat still and waited for the first real maneuver.

M’Zengwa spoke again, this time giving Nikki a background on the company. His hands kept moving slightly, almost rhythmically. He kept his face bland and smooth and spoke in a calm, measured cadence. It was very soothing and Nikki began to relax, to slump slightly… he dug his fingernails savagely into the palm of his hand and the pain rocketed up his arm and jolted his mind. The lights were subtly changing in time with the manager’s speech and the man’s head was rocking slightly in the same rhythm. All in rhythm with the wall clock ticking. Hypnotism? Talk about “old fashioned”! But the spell was broken and his smile made that clear.

M’Zengwa knew the ploy had failed. He cut off his spiel and slapped the pile of printouts on his desk. “I have here many papers regarding your application for employment with our company. Your history shows a strong work ethic and consistent good performance. And in those things that reflect upon your relationships and your personal interests, you also show signs of being the type of person we find most useful.”

 “I must congratulate you on your net standing, Mr. Nikki. You have quite a circle of friends and acquaintances, many of them the type of people, or in the right positions, to make your connections valuable to you and our business. Your ability to charm people will doubtless serve you well.”

Despite the hint of sarcasm in the manager’s voice, Nikki gave him a tight smile and a brief nod; an acknowledgement, not a thank you. Internally, he thanked the keystabbers who really deserved the praise. His hired astroturfers had done their work well.

“As I am sure you know,” the manager went on, “we have already investigated you quite thoroughly. And for any questions we may have about your abilities, your character, your credit history, your personal opinions on anything of interest to us, we have already developed our own answers. We believe there is no point in subjecting you to an interrogation which really does nothing but give you the chance to exercise your histrionic talents. Why waste time prodding you for answers which may only contradict the professional opinions of our psychiatrists and spies?”

M’Zengwa smiled and made an extravagant hands-up shrug and Nikki replied with a light chuckle. “I appreciate the implied confidence, sir. So, what can I tell you or show you that you may still want to know?”

“A small thing. We still wish to see how you react to real-world situations of the type you would have to deal with as our employee. So, we have for you a practical test.” And here came the real pressure. M’Zengwa produced a standard UDP exchangeable chip. “This is the same type of tests you took during your training, only tailored to our particular business. And this is slightly different in that it will test not only your problem solving skills but also your business sense. We need to see how you would perform when presented with the type of problem which our clients present to us daily.”

“During this test, you should act as if you were in the presence of an actual customer, and you must not only solve his problem, you must do so in a way which protects and, if possible, improves our business relations with him. Please use your personal system to run this test, and show me your results. And remember that many clients are impatient, so work as quickly as you can without imperiling the value of your solution.”

M’Zengwa laid the chip on the edge of the desk. “Please load the test program and let me know when you wish to begin.”

Nikki took the chip, then slid his universal data platform from its hip holster. He slotted the wafer and at the same time, with the tiniest of movements, he thumbed the unmarked pressure plate that shunted all input to his UDP’s second processor farm. He opened the test program in a sandbox. He knew his antimalware software couldn’t protect him against the really slick stuff a corporation could field but hopefully, he could walk out with an uninfected system. When the last indicator flashed green, he gave a terse nod and the manager smiled and ostentatiously pushed the start button on a timer that suddenly loomed larger in Nikki’s eyes than the desk under it.

It was a tricky problem; he had to run through several decision trees and run several searches to check all the possible ramifications. The sections that required tool usage were particularly bad. Since he couldn’t actually handle the hardware, he had to provide terse yet complete descriptions of what his real-world actions would be, much more difficult than simply calculating or identifying components.

The warning buzzer in the folded hood suddenly began vibrating. Bastards! A tight-beam sonic was being directed at his head, avoiding the linings. It was meant to stimulate him into a panic. He rolled his shoulders as if to ease tension and waited. In seconds, the processors in his clothing had analyzed the signal and the piezoelectric speakers in his hoodie blasted out a destructive interference pattern, neutralizing the attack. He kept hammering at the problem, gradually filling the required answer sections in the test RAM.

Nikki began to worry about the time he was taking but he dared not risk a glance to gauge the manager’s reaction. He had to stay focused to work out his solution. But the tension built to the point where he had to silently give thanks to the charcoal pads in his shirt’s armpits.

After the tight beam, he was not surprised when his eyes began to tingle and tear up. He noticed M’Zengwa had pushed back from his desk, closer to the air outlet in the ceiling. Something close to Nikki was emitting a type III gas, probably a soporific to dull his mind, to simulate his performance if he was ill. But with M’Zengwa in the room, it couldn’t be full strength or based on a contact penetrant, and it wouldn’t get past his nose filters. It was too easy. Nikki needed only a moment of rapid-fire blinking to get his eyes back to normal and he continued working without a pause.

Finally he nailed down a work plan that he was sure was feasible. It even included a pricing estimate that showed how he had improved ROI by substituting for some of the company’s standard components, with a matrix that laid out a cost/benefit comparison. Confident he had the right answer but trembling at the thought he had been too slow, he saved the solution and handed the chip to M’Zengwa.

Without a word, the manager loaded the chip on his system. He was not at all reticent about openly running several AM programs and Nikki mentally paced around the room while he waited. Finally satisfied, M’Zengwa threw Nikki’s solution on a large display on the wall of his office. He turned and sat regarding it silently with no reaction other than occasionally twisting his lips or tapping his fingers on his chin. Nikki was almost ready to explode when he finally turned back.

Nikki steeled himself and launched a ploy of his own. “How did I do?” he asked, a question he had practiced for weeks. Just the right touch of concern but more simply wanting to confirm his solution. No one could have detected any hint of nervousness with anything short of an MRI.

M’Zengwa smiled mightily. “My congratulations to you, sir. You have done quite well. Your solution is exactly what we need — effective and efficient. Minimal time and effort, maximum result. Obviously your ability to diagnose and solve these problems would be quite useful.”

Nikki had to work very hard to keep from screaming in relief and joy. He was tensing his muscles to rise from his chair and accept a handshake when the ceiling fell in.

M’Zengwa said, “But as I am sure you understand, our hirings must be timed so they fit our business needs. We cannot simply hire people and then wait for work for them. We are on the cusp of our slack season, when business ramps down significantly because people take vacations and move and many who need our services delay contacting us until later in the year. So right now, we have no openings for you.”

“Please contact me again in two months, when we will have a much clearer picture of our staff needs. At that time we should have enough work to justify hiring you and we will be happy to make you a part of our family. I would enjoy seeing you join us. Your performance has been most impressive. If you should decide to take employment elsewhere before we have an opening for you, please contact my secretary and inform her. You have my card. Thank you, and I wish you an enjoyable day.”

Nikki had studied everything available about AirFlex — everything except their business cycle graphs.

And just that quickly, just that easily, his life was over.

He somehow stumbled back to his building. Later, he couldn’t remember actually making the trip. He saw and heard nothing. As he stumbled up the sidewalk, the bums saw him coming. They noticed his glazed eyes and the zombie-movie shambling gait and it gradually sank in. They started grinning and they rose and organized themselves into a gauntlet.

They didn’t touch him — the guards glowering in their cupolas above the door would make short work of them if they assaulted a tenant — but they came close enough that slobber spotted his clothes. “Hey Gates, when are you moving to the suburbs?”  “Hey, loan me a million!”  “Got your new Ferrari picked out yet?”  “Enjoy your burger, jobbie! What kinda wine you gonna wash it down with?”

As Nikki pushed through the mob, he didn’t notice the laughter and the jeers or even the stink. His mind was beyond anything the bums could do to him. He managed to reach his apartment and close the door working purely on automatic. All he could think was, Two months?  Another two months before I even find out if I have a chance at the job? How am I supposed to live until then?

Nikki shuffled to the window and stared at the gray clouds, numb inside and out. Gradually he looked down and stood silent and unmoving, watching the drab horde of coders and ware engineers shuffling through the drizzle.

Nikki started beating his head on the armorglass. This may have been his only chance. If this didn’t work out… what else?  If his attempt to break into air conditioner repair had failed, what the hell would he do with the rest of his life?  He had mortgaged his soul to the employment school and the loan sharks to get the money for retraining and job hunt support. He was almost broke and had no health insurance. And if the loan sharks didn’t get him, the government would.

Two months. If he didn’t post a verifiable hiring on his job search page by the end of this month, he’d default on his unemployment loan. The Unemployment Bureau police could find him any time by the RFID button they had implanted when he had applied. They’d force him to do community service at a soup kitchen or a recycling sort line until he had paid back the entire amount. At their wages, he’d be 40 by the time they released him.

The loan sharks wouldn’t wait. They’d hire someone in the work site for a pack of cigarettes, and he’d wake up with a dagger made from duct tape buried in his spleen.

Without this job, the only way he could avoid that fate was to go back to contract programming like those poor slobs down there. And he was sick of that soul-sucking, brain-rotting assembly line work. He had done it for eight years — more than two thousand days of death march projects, of his life being measured in the number of lines of code churned out each day. He shuddered at the memory of living in third-world code farm hellholes like Lansing and Omaha, living every minute in fear his job would be undershored to some south Alabama sharecoder who would work for a penny an hour less.

It has to be a test. It’s just a stress test to see if I’ll crack under the strain of wondering, to see if I can keep calm when it looks like things have gone wrong.

But what if it wasn’t? And what if he had already blown it? He had no idea how he left M’Zengwa’s office. He was so stunned that he had braincrashed. He could remember nothing between the chair in the office and his apartment. What the hell had he done?

Nikki’s shoulders shook and he started crying. He knew he may be under observation but he didn’t care anymore. After so much time and effort and expense, to come this close only to be told he still had to wait so long — it was like reaching the gates of heaven only to be kicked back down into a free clinic waiting room. Something broke inside him and unashamedly he wailed his grief, his tears streaking the window like the rain streaking the coats of the cowed throngs of QA thralls and UI designers plodding back to their jobs through the drab, slimy streets below.