Temp Work

Sean MacKendrick

Sean’s stories have appeared recently, or will be appearing soon, in publications such as Impossible Worlds, Metastellar, and Nature: Futures.

“Everyone wants to be stationed in ancient Rome or Victorian England. Or, failing that, they want to see a dinosaur. It’s refreshing whenever someone is interested in a different period.” Bunma grinned, reclining in his enormous, overstuffed leather chair. “It makes this a lot easier. And opens up your options if you come on board.”

Oliver tried to effect a relaxed posture in the decidedly less opulent visitor’s seat. “What can I say? I’ve always loved the jazz age. It was a pivotal time in U.S. history.” He caught himself picking at a seam in the chair’s arm and put his hands in his lap. “Not that I would object to seeing a dinosaur, mind you.”

“We agree on that point. There are so many important times in our history that people tend to overlook. Plus, consider the language. Talking to someone in 1930 is possible with minimal training. But to become conversant in ancient Latin? In Aramaic? Unless you’ve been studying since you were a kid, forget it. No, any new hires in those areas would most likely be handling back-office support for the teams that do the interacting with the time periods.”

“Are you saying there is a position open for me?”

Images from Bunma’s computer screen flickered in reflection across his glasses, too small for Oliver to discern. “You already interviewed with HR and the temporal qualification teams, correct?”

Oliver nodded. “I did. Nice people.”

“Really?” Bunma glanced over the top of his glasses. “Harkins didn’t give you a rough time?”

“Ok, mostly nice people.”

Bunma laughed. “Honesty is always appreciated here. Anyway, yes, there is an open position.”

Oliver couldn’t quite help himself. He pumped his fist in the air.

“Now, I can’t promise you will be interfacing with the public any time soon. Westerfeld — she runs the training program — she and her department will work out a plan with you. They’ll figure out timetables.” Someone knocked on the frosted glass door and Bunma waved them in. A woman wearing a white lab coat handed him a thick manilla envelope.

Bunma pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope and began reading. He gestured to the woman in white. “We do need to check your medical state before anything. If you don’t mind getting started?”

The woman in white took out a small, zippered nylon bag from her coat pocket. She removed a glass vial and peeled the wrapper from a sterile syringe. She said, “Roll up your sleeve.”

“Uh, sure, right.” Oliver bared his arm, and the woman extracted a sample of his blood with practiced efficiency while Bunma flicked through his paperwork. She set the vial on the desk, affixed a cotton ball to Oliver’s puncture with a strip of tape, and exited the office without saying another word. The door whispered shut behind her.

“Clean as a whistle, I think you’ll find.” Oliver nodded to the vial. “I had a full physical a couple months ago. Been exercising, taking my vitamins, everything.”

Bunma set down the page in his hand. “I’m sure that’s true. Anyway, I’m sorry this won’t work out.”

Oliver stopped trying to rebutton his shirt cuff. “You — what?”

“If we hire you, you will violate multiple company policies. These policies are particularly important when dealing with time travel.” Bunma ran his index finger down the top page of the paperwork on his desk. “We always check with our research office before sending anyone out into the field. Said research office is located in our future, so they do have a full history of your performance.”

Oliver crossed and then uncrossed his legs. “I don’t understand.”

“Well.” Bunma drummed his fingers on his desk. “Looks like your love of the 1920’s extends to some knowledge of stock market history.”

Oliver cleared his throat. “I mean, I might know a little bit. But I would never use that to my advantage.”

“You did, though, according to this report. You made a series of favorable trades for yourself. When caught, you claimed it, quote, ‘made no difference because the market was about to crash anyway.’” Bunma sat back and pushed his glasses onto his forehead. “In fact, your actions slightly accelerated the crash. Real people were affected. Families. This is why we have policies. Policies which you blatantly ignored. I’m afraid we’re going to pass.”

Oliver shifted in his chair. “Why did we go through this, then?” He pointed to the vial of blood laying on the desk between them. “Why bother taking a blood sample? Why go through all those rounds of interviews if you already knew you weren’t going to hire me?”

Bunma picked up the vial and held it to the light. “Because we didn’t know. We’re going to use your DNA extracted from this sample to create a tracer. That will allow us to track all your subsequent actions and is exactly how we’ll learn about your breaches of contract. Didn’t you read the details of your genetic release form?”

“You lied, is what you did. You told me that sample was for medical testing.”

Bunma opened his drawer and took out a small plastic block. “We do need to perform medical tests, no subterfuge there.” He opened a lid and placed the vial inside the refrigerated block. “Medical information is very important. We can’t send someone with diagnosed health risks to a time without the medicine necessary to treat them. We did intend to run a full panel, but that seems academic at this point, does it not?”

“Ok, look.” Oliver rose to his feet. “You apparently know all these details about me doing something that I haven’t even thought about doing and wasn’t planning on attempting. Fine, send me to another time. I can’t trade stocks if it’s a time before stocks existed to trade, right?”

“Right. Which we did.” Bunma picked up the report and flipped to the next page. “After we had this conversation, I issued a stern warning which you seemed to take seriously, and we found an open spot in supply maintenance in 14th Century Mali. Away from the front office. That seemed safer.”

Bunma turned another page. Flip.

“You failed to check your cargo on a supply run from the present. A few pests came along for the ride. Those made their way into the food scraps where they multiplied, got loose, and decimated the local wheat crops.”

“But that obviously sounds like an innocent mistake.”

Bunma nodded. “Which we have clear transportation policies to help avoid. Anyway, after we had this conversation, I gave you one more try. No need to thank me or my soft heart, it’s just how I am. This time it was construction on a new facility in Australia, circa 10,000 BCE. You stole Aboriginal artifacts and attempted to sell them to private collectors in the present.”

Oliver stopped pacing.

“That is a straight up crime under any circumstances,” Bunma said.

This is a crime, what you’re doing right now.” Oliver placed his hands on the desk and did his best to loom over the shorter man. “You want to talk policies? I researched this line of work before I came here. I know what factors you are and are not allowed to consider during hiring.”

“You’re referring to US253? What they call the ‘might-have-been discrimination’ bill? It did go into effect earlier this year, and the industry is still trying to figure out how to enforce it, but you are correct, this most likely falls under that protection.” Bunma turned a few pages. Flip-flip. “In fact, after we had this conversation, you filed a complaint and took us to court. There were suits and countersuits, it became a big story in the news, and reports of your conduct leaked turning public sentiment against you. It went badly for you. In the end, we prevailed and had to pay some legal fees which while non-trivial were substantially less than the cost of repairing the damage you would have made to the past, had we hired you instead.”

“You can’t bully me into not reporting you.”

“I would never.” Flip. “Lucky for both of us, you changed your mind about suing after hearing all this, and I thank you for it. It would have been unpleasant for all parties involved.”

Oliver stood, leaving two sweaty handprints on the surface of the desk. He wiped his palms against his pant legs. “You know,” he said, “I haven’t actually done any of these things you are talking about.”

Bunma nodded. “And now, thanks to us discussing them here, you won’t.”

“You win. Ok? You win. Guess I’ll go interview elsewhere.”

Flip. “With our competitors, yes. Despite having signed an NDA which, surely, you would never violate, you do have a few interviews, and one of them even hires you. I can’t say which, of course, that’s against policy.”

“Of course it is.” Oliver held out his hand. “Thanks for the info, I’ll be on my way to start filling out as many applications as possible.”

Bunma ignored the proffered hand. “What I can tell you is, the place that takes you on, a few years later they are themselves taken to court. And in this situation, they lose quite badly.”

“So?” Oliver dropped his hand. “I can collect a paycheck until then.”

Flip. “The lawsuit regards lack of adequate safety measures. They are currently, right now as we speak, struggling to make a profit and spending less on equipment than they ought. When several employees suffer… let me quote here, ‘explosive aging of the soft tissues,’ the grieving families file suit. The jury is enraged by some of these awful images of the victims and render judgment for the plaintiffs in short order. Ugh, these are grisly. Don’t look at these pictures. Looks as though your parents are part of that lawsuit, good for them! Hopefully the compensation helps them miss you a little less.”

“I don’t believe you.” Oliver’s voice was small.

“Yes, you do.” Flip. “After I reveal that information, you don’t send out any applications at all. Switching topics. At this point you realize the blood sample sitting here hasn’t been sent to any lab yet, and in a panic, you grab it and throw it to the floor. Some kind of misguided attempt to make this report vanish.”

They both stared at the insulated cube, where moisture was now beading up near the base.

Bunma said, “Destruction of company property is grounds for a lawsuit.”

“It’s my blood.”

“In our sample vial.”

“That’s a tiny tube of glass.”

“You know it’s not about the vial.” Flip. “Regardless, I have swabs in my desk and was able to recollect enough from the floor where you threw it. DNA sticks around a while even when puddled on tile. Which is probably why after I tell you this, you instead grab the sample and try to make a run for it. The guards stop you halfway down the hallway with a bit more force than I would prefer.” Flip. “After hearing this you decide against it. Leaving the sample and thus this report intact. Which is nice.”

Bunma squared the pages into a neat stack and rested his clasped hands on them.

Oliver closed his mouth. “Guess I’ll be on my way, then.”

“Thank you for coming in.” Bunma stood and held out his hand. “No hard feelings, I hope.”

Oliver shook his hand and turned to leave. “Oh, by the way,” Bunma said to Oliver’s exiting back, “consider skipping the oysters next Friday night.” As the door closed, he shouted, “But you didn’t hear that from me.”