Thursday, December 9, 2010

T.R.C., Part 2

This short story takes place between the events of Under the Amoral Bridge and The Know Circuit. Part 1 is available here.

The contrast between the HR offices and Collections stunned Peter. Since Collections occupied the same building as CFirm, he knew their digs wouldn’t be as nice as in the newer building, but even for the older structure, the offices were Spartan and dismal. Lighting was at a premium and shadows draped the entire cube farm. The only sound emanating from the area was the low hum of crèche cooling fans. No conversations broke that low-level buzzing. Upon entering the darkened area, Peter had to double back to make sure the offices were even occupied. Standing at the door, he uttered a timid, “Hello?” which sounded as loud as a gunshot in the murky silence.

“What do you want?” The disembodied voice, filled with electronic static, seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“I’m here to see Margaret.”

“Straight across, cowboy.” Bridge peered through the darkness and found a sliver of light seeping from the sill of a door opened but a crack.

Peter muttered a weak “Thank you,” at whoever had directed him towards the door and walked across the floor. His hesitant knock thundered through the area and echoed back on him.

“Yeah, what?” came the response, a gravely female voice.

Peter eased the door open. “Are you Margaret?”

“Who wants to know?” The speaker sat behind a desk, her long fingers dancing the air on a keyboard only she could see. She slouched in her chair, her head almost level with the battered desk. She had curly blonde hair that cascaded sloppily down to her shoulders, its luster just beginning to fade. Peter reckoned her in the mid-30’s, the start of crow’s feet edging at her hazel eyes. She wore a little too much makeup, her cheeks rosier than natural. Her silk blouse was an ill-fitting number, the sign of someone not especially that concerned with her appearance, or at least someone who didn’t really have to worry about it within the confines of her job.

“Peter. I’m heading up the CFirm division.”

“Didn’t we buy you out few months back?”

Taken aback by the question, Peter nodded. “How did you know that?”

“I had to run the background on your startup. You guys put together a nice little minnow.”

“Ummm, thanks?” he replied, not knowing quite how to respond to being called a minnow. “Are you Margaret?”

“Yeah, I guess so. What are you doing here, Peter from CFirm?”

“Jan Anderson in HR sent me. I…”

“Say no more. Let’s go.”

“Go? Go where?”

“You’re buying me lunch.” She stood up like a shot, grabbed a snazzy vest jacket and pushed past Peter while turning off the light in her office.

“I am?”

“You are. You feel like Italian? I don’t. I feel like Mexican. I know this great place has ox tongue tacos you would not believe. Melt in your mouth like butter.”

“Ox tongue?” Peter stammered with a disgusted look on his face. Confused, he followed the brash blonde like a puppy. “Can I expense this?”

“Most certainly not. We aren’t really discussing business, so it’ll have to be a personal lunch.” She pushed through the door leading out of the Collections division, leaving Peter standing gobsmacked.

The Mexican restaurant she had insisted on far exceeded Peter’s initial expectations. The hole in the wall dive smelled like seared beef and looked like a disaster area, but the food hit the spot. After collecting their order, Margaret led them to an outdoor table and dove straight into her food. She had finished one taco before Peter had gotten through a half, showing few table manners in doing so. “God, I love this place. Totally makes these meetings worth it.”

“What are we doing here?”

“Well, we can’t talk about what you need at the office,” she said matter-of-factly, and her expression said that Peter must be a moron for thinking otherwise. “This way, if anyone looks at why we were meeting, they can’t be sure you aren’t just banging me.”

Peter almost choked. He coughed out, “I’m not sleeping with you, I’m married!”

“Relax there, tiger, I’m not offering. I’m merely suggesting we have another excuse should it come down to it.”

“Why would anyone care if we met at the office?”

“Because if we’re at the office, I have to record our conversation so that you don’t sexually harass me or we don’t do some illegal shit.”

“But we’re not doing anything illegal.”

“Not yet we aren’t,” she said through a half-full mouth grinning from ear to ear. “But you didn’t go to Jan Anderson because your business life is all peachy keen, now did you? You went because you had a problem employee you wanted to fire and Jan shot you down.”

“How did you know?”

“Jan and I have an understanding. She sends me the people she can’t help and I don’t do what I do to her. Everybody’s happy. Well, I’m happy and that’s all that counts.”

“And what do you do, exactly?” Peter squinted at his lunch companion with mistrust.


“What does that mean?”

“Boy you really are green to this whole corporate scene, aren’t you? You startups.” She sighed and chugged down a large gulp of her drink, shaking the cup with a frown at discovering more ice than drink. “Transactional Redactive Collection, a T.R.C.”

“Yeah, I still don’t know what that means. I mean, I know what those words mean separately but I don’t get the combination.”

“Good, it’s done its job then. See, the phrase itself doesn’t mean anything, it’s just one of those bullshit phrases that we can abbreviate and put on a report somewhere and no one will look twice at it. It’s kind of descriptive, but only vaguely so, and that acronym makes it seem like it’s legal.”

She fixed Peter with a serious stare. “But it’s not, of course. You need to understand that. It’s not exactly illegal, per se, in that no one has made a specific law saying we CAN’T do this type of thing, but the actions we have to take are most definitely illegal. So as long as no one gets mouthy about it, no one really looks too hard at it.”

“I don’t want to do anything illegal,” Peter said timidly.

“Too late for that, homeboy. You’ve already bought me lunch. The T.R.C. won’t cost your department anything. We can have it done in days. Problem solved.”

“But you still haven’t told me what you do exactly.”

Her brows knit into a wrinkled scowl. “You cannot be this cherry. Ok, let’s break it down. You have an employee that’s burning your ass, right?” Peter nodded. “And this fuckup is dragging your whole department down. You need to get rid of him, a little addition by subtraction, am I right?” Again, Peter nodded, amazed at her cynical yet accurate portrayal of the situation. “But of course, you can’t fire him either because you haven’t followed procedures or he’s unfireable, right?”

“Yeah, he’s got some kind of bullshit disability or disorder. Asshole’s Syndrome, or something.”

“Whatever, doesn’t matter for my purposes. The only way you’re getting rid of him is a long, arduous process of paperwork, reprimands and procedural ass-covering, or he gets arrested or dead or something. And you don’t want him dead, I take it?”

“Fuck no! Why would you even ask that?”

“Just checking. It’s not really my area anyway, and Jan doesn’t do those types of transactions.”

“Wait, Chronosoft kills people?”

“You didn’t hear it from me, and I couldn’t confirm it even if you did. I’ve got my suspicions, but again, not my area. Arrested, however, that I can do.”

“You can have Josh arrested?”

“Josh, huh? Yeah, if need be. Not the only option I have and it’s a pretty messy operation but yeah, we can have him arrested.”

“For what?”

“Not important.”

“Ok, hold up, you’re making my head spin here. What exactly are you going to be doing to him, provided I actually ask you do something to him? Which I’m not sure I am, by the way.”

She had finished her last taco and began shifting nervously in her chair, scratching both arms. “Fuck, I could use a cigarette.” She raised one arm to reveal a skin patch. “I swear, I get done eating and I’m this close to licking one of these fucking things I want a smoke so bad. I’ve even gotten to love the smell of these stinky things. How sad is that?”

“Ewwww. What is it your department does, Margaret?” A ball of nervous fear took up residence in his stomach beside the tacos. Peter didn’t want to know, but his curiosity got the better of him.
“A T.R.C. We assassinate his credit.”

“Run that by me again.”

“Ok, in the old days, like Internet days, right, everybody had this credit score thing. Still do. It was supposed to be some objective measurement of your creditworthiness. Banks, retail, car dealers, landlords, whoever could use that to determine whether they should lend you money or provide you a service. Of course, being good little blood suckers, a lot of them started finding other ways to make money off lending, particularly off of lending to really shitty candidates, people who had no business being lent a dime much less the price of a car. The government had to get involved back during the oughts, but really didn’t do much of diddlysquat. The blood suckers only got more creative, see.”

“What does any of this have to do with Josh?”

Margaret reached an arm across the table to pick a piece of steak off of Peter’s plate, and he couldn’t help but notice the wrinkles around her wrist, which gave his stomach a little turn. The more this person talked, the more disgusted he became by her mere presence. “I’m getting to that, sport. So the blood suckers right, the creditors kind of got together and started setting up all these elaborate algorithms for credit worthiness, a whole bunch of shit even more arcane and abstract than credit score. Somewhere along the way the algorithms achieved their own little bit of organic artificial life, a self-replicating numerical organism made up of every past, present and potential future transaction you could ever make. That organism is your credit.”

Seeing the perplexed expression on Peter’s face, Margaret stepped back. “Let me put it down on your individual level. Last week, you bought a pack of gum at a convenience store in the dirigible terminal gift shop. Let’s say you bought it with a debit card. Three months, six days ago you bought that same pack of gum in the same place with the coins jingling in your pocket. Every time you bought that pack of gum, you made an entry to your credit record. Those coins were tracked to you just like that debit card purchase. You got that change when you bought lunch at that little burger joint you go to 6.7 times a year in Century, that place near your old offices. You got that cash from the street term up the road from the burger joint because your wife was across town buying a dress at Macy’s with your particular debit card, which you must have left in your car. Now, based on the pack of gum you bought, the frequency with which you have bought that gum in the past and the difference in the two transactions, we can predict you’ll get another pack of gum at the same place with your card roughly two months into your future.”

Peter began to think back as he tried to follow her train of thought and somewhere around the time she brought up the burger joint, it hit him full in the face. No hypothetical scenario this, the purchases she described were all too real events of his recent past. His jaw dropped. “You’re not talking theory here, that’s really me you’re talking about.”

“Can I have a piece of gum?” She replied with the most evil smile Peter could ever picture. Unconsciously he reached into his pocket to retrieve the pack of gum and laid it on the table in front of them, leaving it there to sit, unwilling to touch it again. She picked up the gum and popped a piece into her mouth, making the pack disappear into her purse. “Now, you see what I just did there? I took the pack.”

He nodded. “That’s what we do. We take your gum. Of course, it’s much more complex than that. Not only do we remove that purchase from you now, we take it from you then. That purchase gets wiped out completely, as if it never existed. So in essence, we’ve made it so that you stole that gum. Only, instead of doing it to an insignificant pack of gum, we do it to your electric bill; or your GlobalNet surcharges; or your rent; or mortgage. However many transactions we need to excise to achieve the desired result, we’ll do. Then we take any money you have in your bank account, and we remove that. Gone, poof, disappeared. Then we take your future income, which is really nothing more than a promise from your employer that your efforts will be compensated at a certain level in the future, and we take that promise away as well. You may still technically be employed, but for the purposes of your bank paying for transactions in excess of current available funds, that promise of future income is what they use to justify paying that excess. Without that promise, your bank will deny the charge completely. Your accounts become frozen overnight. If we plant the right information into those voids, we make it look like you’ve committed a crime, and the first time you realize something is wrong is when your lights go out, a second before the cops come busting through the door in riot gear.”

Her lips smacking around the gum, she leaned back with a final thought. “We take that credit organism apart, piece by piece and recreate it in the image we want to portray.”

His appetite completely gone, he stared down into his lap for a moment to gather his thoughts. “That’s truly horrifying. Why would you do that?”

“Me personally? I don’t handle the day to day anymore, so I wouldn’t be the one doing it. But when I did pull jobs, I did it to get paid. Same reason you write code.”

“No, why does Chronosoft do it? Why do they have an entire department dedicated to T.R.C.’s?”

“Technically, the department doesn’t just do T.R.C.’s. We do actual bill collections, as well as other stuff.” Peter didn’t want to know about the ‘other stuff.’

“Chronosoft does it for a variety of reasons, though. They want to recruit some hotshot from a competitor, but they don’t want to pay market value. Or the guy refuses. Or some podunk software house doesn’t want to get assimilated by the megacorp and is playing hardball at the negotiation table. We take the knees out of whoever needs fixing, and leave them begging for Chronosoft to pull them back up. At a discount, of course.”

“And that’s not illegal?”

Margaret shrugged. “Not if you don’t get caught. No lawyers will defend the target. After all, how’s he going to pay? Besides, when you’re a corporation that makes the local and state law, you know how to manipulate the wording of the law so it doesn’t trip over federal statutes. Mostly. There’s not a real delineated set of rules for doing this shit. And every corp with an LGL does it, at least every one of them I know. None of them want it done to them, but if they call out their competitors, they lose the ability as well. Can’t have that.”

Peter shook his head. “Why don’t we just shoot them in the head?”

“Not my department. I’m just Collections. Somebody else can do the physical work. So what’s it going to be, sport? You want to put a hit out on this Josh character?”

Despite his disgust at the idea, Peter hesitated. His deadline was real, oppressively threatening his peace of mind and the department’s profitability. When he’d chosen to visit HR this morning, he had been so assured. Josh’s removal from the picture would ensure they met their deadline, but this? Peter couldn’t say with certainty that even as big an asshole as Josh deserved that kind of treatment.

“Can I think about it?”

“You got 24 hours. After that, you forget you ever heard of us. I don’t want to hear from you unless you are sure you want me to do what I’m paid to do. None of this pussyfooting around.”

She leaned over the table with a squint. “And before you get any delusions of do-gooder dancing through that cute little noggin of yours, keep this in mind. The cops? Don’t forget their official department title is Chronosoft Law Enforcement Division. The press? Chronosoft Network News. The feds are too dependent on the corporate LGL tit to make waves. You want to blow the whistle on some great injustice, be prepared for it to blow right back up in your face, and your wifey’s face too.”

“Is that a threat?”

“I don’t need threats. It’s a fact.” She stood with a smile. “I’ll be waiting for your call. Or not. Doesn’t matter to me, I got a busy docket.” She strode off with an evil confidence, leaving Peter with his thoughts.

He sat for a long time thinking it through. The half plateful of food left on the table grew cold. His mind did gymnastics trying to rationalize the use of Margaret’s services, but no matter where it went, he couldn’t justify it to himself. Yes, Josh could probably qualify as one of the biggest assholes Peter had ever had the misfortune to employ. His work redefined sloppy code. Peter knew with an absolute certainty that CFirm could not meet this current deadline with Josh in the crew barring a miracle.

Finally, Peter stood and began to walk slowly back to the office. His mouth felt dry. He barely noticed the pedestrians passing him on the sidewalk. The taste of onions lingered sourly in his mouth. Walking through the opulent front entrance to the Chronosoft Downtown Headquarters, he put his hand in front of his mouth, sure his breath stank. He needed a breath mint, or a pack of gum. He walked dazedly to the public mall, his eyes unable to focus on the glittery promises of the overpriced stores. Remembering the pack of gum in his pocket, he reached for it only to recall that Margaret had taken his gum.

Standing at the counter of the gift shop, a pack of gum between he and the shopkeeper, the kid behind the counter said, “That’ll be 55 cents. Cash or card?”

Peter stared down at the gum, then at the vacant eyes of the cashier. “You know what? Never mind. I don’t need it that bad.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting story waiting to happen when the credit AIs get together and decide that human nature is a bad risk...


Chapters (17) Cyberpunk (26) GlobalPedia (10) Interviews (3) KCChapters (54) Meatpunk (4) News (76) Reviews (15) Tales (10)