Tuesday, December 7, 2010

T.R.C., Part 1

This short story takes place between the events of Under the Amoral Bridge and The Know Circuit. Part 2 is available here.

Not even the normally cathartic influence of death metal pouring directly into his brain from the cybernetic MP3 player implanted behind his ear could calm Peter Carragher today. The driving beats, the wall of guitars, the thundering bass, shrieking vocals, none of it drowned out the angry thoughts buzzing around his cranium. One of the programmers under his charge, Josh, had worn down his last nerve. Peter hadn't hired Josh. Given the choice, Peter never would have.

When Peter's small cybernetic firmware outfit had been bought by the global megacorporation and local government licensee Chronosoft, he had brought his own team of twelve over with him, personally ensuring every one of them received a generous benefits packages, lucrative stock conversions and ample salaries. The money had been too good to pass up. Cfirm, Inc. LLC had been a fantastic bit of fun as a startup, successful enough to turn a decent profit in their second year of existence. Peter could have afforded a couple of years off with the takeover money, but he'd never been one for fuck off time. Better to be working, be productive, and take what vacation the wife forced on him than live an idle life. He'd agreed to head the new CFirm Division in Chronosoft R&D's Los Angeles division, complete with swanky new digs at the recently completed downtown complex across the street from Chronosoft's LGL City Hall. Peter wasn't quite sure how he felt about corporate ownership of local government, but it hadn't seemed to have much effect on his day to day life. He took the dirigible into work from the suburbs every day instead of driving the choked L.A. freeways. But other than mode of transportation, he ate like he used to, he watched his TV like he used to, he made love to his wife every few days like always. His life was that of a typical middle management schmuck with a thinning hairline and expanding paunch.

Peter rubbed that paunch now, the first acidic rumblings of heartburn stirring up his esophagus. That fucker Josh was burning a hole in Peter's gut. Even in the old days, CFirm lived in a constant state of deadline crunch time. New owners didn't change the timelines, only the stakes. Firmware had to be written according to the marketing milestones, which usually meant seat-of-the-pants coding. It had to be tested as meticulously as possible by the army of Bangladeshi children the company had contracted for Q&A. And then it had to be uploaded to the servers for GlobalNet deployment by a certain date or there would be "hell to pay." In CFirm Inc., LLC terms, "hell to pay" meant bowing and scraping to the bank for a bridge loan to keep the lights on and make payroll. In Chronosoft lingo, it meant the stock price took a shit until the product got a firm ship date, all the executives just above and just below Peter's pay grade saw the value of their golden parachutes dip and got very, very antsy. Their anxiety turned into a load of scrutiny that would land directly on Peter's balls. The next project might be awarded to a different firmware department or worse, be outsourced to some shit-encrusted backwater software house in Africa or some Slavic state whose idea of labor laws originated in the Middle Ages.

Josh's task was a simple one. Get a 3% increase in response time on that cyberarm code he'd been working on for a week longer than he should have been, and do it without acting like a massive, whiny douche. Massive, whiny douche was Josh's default state of being, of course. The slovenly beanpole looked perpetually pissed off. He would spend whole workdays including overtime ensconced in his crèche, coding away or fucking off on the GlobalNet depending on the hour of the day and whether or not he was under observation. When he did manage to crawl into the cold fluorescent light of the cube farm, he reeked of old sweat and sneered at everyone. Josh had a vocal opinion on everything, a cocky assurance that everything he thought, believed or said had to be absolutely 100% correct, and a vast storehouse of personal experience that could never be topped. If Peter had climbed Mount Everest, Josh would claim to have done that AND to have climbed Olympus Mons on the surface of Mars by himself. His work, if one could call it that, had flashes of brilliance. Those flashes were all too often lost in the mountain of sloppy mediocrity that only a three-star talent with delusions of five-star skill could produce.

Josh wouldn't have lasted two weeks at CFirm Inc., LLC. Peter would have shitcanned him on the spot the second time he'd missed a milestone. In such a massive corporation as Chronosoft, Peter would have to go through proper channels - which meant he'd have to talk to Human Resources. That was a conversation he dreaded like the plague, but he couldn't put it off any longer. The knock on his open door that morning had made up his mind. "Got a second?" John Beaver had asked, though he knew no one in that office had any free time.

"What's up?"

"What do you think?" John asked with a grimace.

"What's he done now?" The all too frustrated look in John's eyes told Peter everything he needed to know about where the problem originated.

"He just spent the last half-hour tearing QA a new asshole about some bug that ended up being his fault. We gotta do something about him."

"I know. I know. I've got to go talk to HR about him."

"Today, Peter. He's fucking killing us."

"He's certainly killing me," Peter responded with a sardonic smile. His eyes lifted to directly over John's shoulder at the middle-aged, well-dressed man who walked up with a worried expression. "Arthur!" Peter said with a joviality he did not feel. "What brings you down to CFirm?"

"Let's talk, Peter," Arthur replied with a glance at John. Peter's second got the hint and buggered off. Arthur entered the office and closed the door. Breathing heavily, the marketing executive sank into a chair with a long sigh. "How are we doing for the new firmware launch? Everything on track?"

Peter began to explain the delays, but stopped as Arthur raised a hand. "Let me keep you from having to lie and go ahead and tell you that I know you're mired in a swamp of bugs. The question is can your team make the announced deadline? Can you get it working in two weeks?"

"I'd have to check for sure, but you know how these bugs go. They could take months to sort out, or we could have a moment of inspiration and solve it tomorrow."

"Inspiration, right." Peter had heard that tone before. Marketing big wigs like Arthur didn't understand programming and didn't care to understand. All Arthur knew was that the coders manipulated unfathomable numbers and formulae to produce cybernetic magic. Creative types, ad men and artists had inspiration, not engineers soldering circuit boards and living in GlobalNet soup cans. "I can't pin a marketing plan for the next six months on the possibility of an engineer's inspiration, I have to set up press, put together email campaigns and GlobalNet banners, get the buzz out on the socials, and get a ravenous public all in a froth over glorified tweaks. Do you know how sexy firmware upgrades are? Yeah, about as sexy as a fucking refrigerator. But the geeks love it, the cyberpunks will stab you in the face over it, and that's the market I have to keep happy. Do you know how much your predecessor's firmware delays cost us? Every delay dropped our stock price 6% in a day. Do you know how much 6% of infinity is? Yeah, neither do I. But it's a fucking lot. I own that stock. YOU own that stock. We all lose money if you don't make those deadlines. I don't like losing money."

"Well, Arthur, maybe if you'd asked me before you announced a firm release date, we wouldn't be having this problem. I could have told you how unrealistic that deadline is."

"You don't get that option. Marketing sets the release date, production meets it. That's how it works at Chronosoft. If you can't handle that, you can go back to garage startups, got it?" The threat was clear. Get the product to market or get bent like the last firmware division Chronosoft had acquired, assimilated and spit back out. The firm, Peter noted ruefully, that had brought Josh into the Chronosoft fold according to his personnel file.

"Crystal fucking clear, Arthur," Peter replied through clenched teeth. Without another word, Arthur stood up and stalked out. Peter sighed and leaned back in his chair. Time to visit HR.

Human Resources had much nicer offices than CFirm. Located in the newly built Chronosoft Local Governance License Administrative Offices in downtown Los Angeles, across the concourse from the corporate headquarters CFirm occupied, it embodied the very idea of corporate excess. Brighter lighting, open-air cube farms and offices with wall-to-ceiling windows kept watch over the gleaming, pristine center of downtown. Peter couldn't suppress the tinge of jealousy as he entered Jan Anderson's corner office. Anderson wasn't even a high-level executive, approximately a tier or two below Peter on the corporate managerial hierarchy, but her massive, clear glass desk and imposing view put him in his proper place. Anderson, a mom in her mid-40's with fading looks that might once have been irresistible, sat behind her desk with complete comfort, smiling genially at Peter's entrance as she offered a variety of beverages.
Deferring refreshment, Peter blundered directly into the problem. "Jan, I need to fire someone."

The friendly smile that had dominated her face fell into a wrinkled frown. Her posture stiffened uncomfortably. "Oh dear, that's not good. Are you absolutely sure? How many 8-60's have you given the employee?"

"Say what?"

"Form 8-60's, a written warning."

"I don't even know what that is."

She stifled a 'tsk' and asked, "It's in your Chronosoft handbook. Has no one been through that with you?"

Taken aback, Peter stumbled over his words. "Well, I have one. My department's been a bit busy, haven't had much of a chance to go through it completely."

Her disappointment was palpable. "Well, that won't do. What has this employee done?"

"He's a colossal fuckup." She recoiled at the use of profanity as if struck. "What little good work he does is overshadowed by sloppy code that's got more bugs than a flophouse mattress, and when you call him on it, he goes nuclear on whoever happens to be in shouting distance. He's a complete douche."

With pursed lips and her fingers forming a steeple underneath her chin, she said, "We can't fire an employee for a disagreeable manner."

"Disagreeable? He's a world class asshole."

"What is this employee's name?"

"Josh Cartwright."

Her fingers danced in the air as she accessed something on her internal HUD. Another whispered 'tsk' escaped her chapped lips. "This won't do. This won't do at all."

"What won't do?"

"Mr. Cartwright. You can't just dismiss him."

"Why not? He's a fuckup."

Again, her face scrunched up in almost physical pain. "Regardless, Mr. Cartwright is disabled. You cannot fire him so suddenly without a significant pattern of written warnings."

"Disabled? He's no more disabled than you or me."

"On the contrary, he's got a terrible condition. Disorder. I'm actually not sure how it's classified. It's like Asperger's, only more severe. It's a very recently discovered disorder."

"Asperger's Syndrome? More like Asshole's Syndrome."

"Language. Whether you believe in it or not, there are medical texts that establish it as a disability and the government agrees, as does Chronosoft LGL. The use of GlobalNet crèche's make it worse, but generally sufferers can only make a living doing the sort of work that worsens their condition."

"That's bullshit." She recoiled again, and Peter softened his language. "He's just a disagreeable person with mediocre skills. And he's killing my department. His screwups are going to cause me to miss a very important deadline and I've got people breathing down my neck. We would function better without him even if that left us shorthanded."

"He has a doctor who has classified him as disabled. You can't even suspend him without at least three written warnings. You're going to have to follow procedure to the letter with Mr. Cartwright."

"That's all you got?"

Anderson seemed to contemplate the question longer than she should, then stood up. "That's all I can do for you, Peter. I'm sorry. I can show you how to fill out the proper paperwork if you decide you'd like to follow proper procedure. If I could show you out?" She indicated the door. Peter reluctantly stood and began to walk out. She followed him to the door and placed a gentle hand on his arm. In a low whisper, she said, "There is one other option."

"What?" he said, his voice sounding too loud in contrast to her whisper.

"See Margaret in Collections. Tell her your problem, she may be able to help you."

With that, she turned on her heels and returned to her desk, as if she'd never spoken to him. He stood outside her door with a puzzled expression then turned on his heel and walked out. He'd have to look up the company directory to see where Collections was located. Whoever this Margaret was, he'd talk to her immediately.

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