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The Gauntlet pt.1

Fiction
Marty Phillips

The Gauntlet (pt.1)

“Koltyn, I don’t like this. You should sit down. This kind of confrontational behavior will reflect poorly on you. Machismo power plays are counterproductive in the workplace.”

He ignored the plaintive commentary from his digital assistant and moved across the company café toward the service counter. He floated on an uncharacteristic rolling wave of universally feared and never outwardly displayed male caprice. Heads turned from phones with syrupy embryonic interest. They all knew that he and Raj were rivals, although very little outward hostility was tolerated at Queeb Tech.

While carefully approaching, Koltyn saw the short and chubby programmer standing over the pasta salad. Raj had paused on his trajectory from left to right as he perused the day’s offerings at Bistro Q. Raj’s back formed a slope-shouldered tombstone which stretched at the fabric of his garishly colored comic book themed silk shirt. His doughy, cardboard-colored hand took hold of the tongs and ladles one by one to dig through the mounds of food as though he could uncover some gem of hidden culinary rarity not mentioned in the clearly legible lists of ingredients posted beside each dish. This was one of the many common behaviors that Koltyn despised in the other man.

Koltyn stepped cautiously toward the right side of the serving area. On an earlier scouting run, he had noticed that only six spicy imitation pork dumplings remained under the glow of the heating lamp. By now, their number had fallen to only two. He closed the gap and scooped them onto his plate with a smooth motion before whirling away from the counter to minimize time spent lurking at the scene of the crime. He cast a glance back over his shoulder while weaving between the tables and returning to his vantage point across the room.

His digital assistant, Jaxon, sighed. “I hope you’re happy, Kolt. I do find this kind of pettiness very disagreeable.”

“Yeah, well maybe Raj should have thought about the consequences before sabotaging the vending machine. I haven’t been able to get pomegranate water for a week now.”

“You suspect him because you saw him standing at the keypad for a few minutes?”

“Yes, much longer than it would take to purchase something. Besides, his workspace is on the other side of the floor, and they have their own vending machines. The only explanation that makes sense is that he wanted to throw me off my game.”

“There are other alternatives, you know. He could have been purchasing something. The machine could have had an error and simply stopped working.”

“Jaxon, you don’t understand the subtleties of human treachery. It’s something I find endearing about you.” Koltyn stiffened in his seat. “There it is. The moment we’ve been waiting for.”

“I’m required to clarify that I have nothing to do with this.”

Raj had reached the right side of the counter, and, with a slight lowering of his head, his eyes touched on the empty tray that had only moments before contained the final two dumplings. He instinctively reached for the tongs, despite the deserted plane below him. Then he faltered, and his entire frame sagged as though mortally wounded.  His plate tilted in his limpening grasp, and some rotini and cherry tomatoes tumbled off onto the surface below.

“Neck muscle contraction. Slight hip pivot. Look down. He’s turning.” Jaxon warned.

Koltyn looked down at his plate and picked up one of the dumplings to take a bite.

“Is he watching me?”

“Yes.”

“What does he look like?” His teeth sank into the morsel.

“He looks annoyed. Now he’s walking to the far side of the room to join some of his Squeeb. He’s got his back to you now.”

Koltyn spat out his bite of dumpling. “These things are so gross.”

 

***

 

In the early afternoon, an email came through from Human Resources.

“I told you this would backfire.” Jaxon chided.

“I wanted some dumplings. There’s nothing wrong with that. My conscience is clean.”

“It looks like they want to talk to you right away. Should I create a scheduled event in your work calendar?”

“Don’t bother. I’ll just go over there now.”

Koltyn wove around the desks and bean bag chairs in the open office toward the soundproof barriers marking the outer border of the HR cube. A morphing image of smiling employees by the door assured everyone approaching that Queeb Tech cares. Jaxon verified his identity with the door’s access panel, and it slid open. Koltyn stepped into the reception area and submerged into the familiar soundproofed silence cut crisply by smooth jazz. A corpulent woman behind the desk flung an arm toward the end of the adjoining hall.

“Xu is in. He’ll see you now.”

“Alright.”

He had nothing to worry about. He had done nothing wrong. Of course, that would not stop Mr. Kiper from involving himself. Xu tended to use his position as HR Director for Platform Interface Solutions as a method for sniffing out drama to get a front row seat.

Koltyn stepped into the office. Digital screens covered the walls from floor to ceiling and displayed an undersea panorama of undulating tendrils of seagrass and schools of glittering fish which moved in smooth but disorienting switchback patterns. He took the free chair facing the desk and waited for the thin figure with shoulder-length black hair to turn theatrically and face him. The other man finally did, with steepled fingers and long, lacquered nails that crossed in front of his glossed lips. Xu waited for an uncomfortably long time before beginning the conversation with his reedy lisp.

“Do you have anything you would like to discuss with me, Koltyn?”

“Not particularly.”

The hands lowered to rest on the surface of the glass desk. The nails tapped ominously. “Koltyn, I pride myself in keeping things very open and honest in our department here at Queeb. All my Queebies should feel comfortable to discuss any workplace concerns with me, no matter how trivial.”

Although Xu did not move, the screen behind him changed from the seascape to a repeating loop of Bistro Q where Koltyn could be seen from above scooping the dumplings onto his plate.

He gestured to the image above the HR director’s shoulder. “You have concerns about my diet?”

“Very funny, but this is about you and Raj.”

“What? Did he complain?”

“I wouldn’t tell you if he did. That would be confidential. Besides, I don’t need him to. I love all my Queebies and always keep a close motherly eye on them. I fully understand the situation. I know that you and he are the most qualified candidates for the new Platform Interface Solutions Product Implementation Co-management position. You both want it. My job is containment of whatever little flare ups might result from this situation. I am here to nip it in the bud.”

“And this has what to do with dumplings?”

Xu let out an exasperated breath and muttered something to himself in mandarin. “The annual employee bias testing program starts on Monday. I’m announcing it in a few hours. This means I’m going to have a lot on my plate. I won’t have time to put out any fires started by you and Raj butting heads over this promotion.”

Koltyn was barely listening anymore. He was still processing the news about the bias testing program. He had avoided the process due to on-boarding just after it ended the year prior, but he had heard enough about it to understand the process somewhat. A full week of racial and gender bias workshops interspersed with extensive testing lay ahead. He had heard rumors that it involved watching videos of explicit homosexual acts while a scanner closely scrutinized each reaction of the eyes and facial muscles. He had been told that, as a white male, the intensity of his testing would be the most rigorous.

“How intense is the BTP really?” He asked, interrupting whatever Xu was droning on about.

The HR director looked irked for a moment, but let it go. “Well, as long as you’re not a racist or homophobe, then it’s a breeze.” He smiled. “Don’t worry about it. The worst thing you can do is get anxious.” He paused and then remembered where he had left off after a second of wrinkle-browed consideration. “Just don’t make things hard for me, OK? We all have enough to worry about without you and Raj complicating things.”

“Yeah, alright, I’ll be cool.” Koltyn replied and got up to leave.

Xu jabbed a long nail at him over the glass desk. “Don’t tell anyone about BTP until I send the email at the end of shift.”

“I won’t.”

By the time Koltyn was collecting his mobile terminal and jacket to head home, the office buzzed with the news. Everyone seemed excited about the testing. He queried Jaxon while heading down to the transport hub on Queeb’s ground floor to take his bus home.

“Do you know anything about BTP?”

“Most larger corporations adopted it a few years ago. The actual content of the testing changes every year. The purpose is to ensure a perfectly equitable workplace. You should welcome this as an opportunity to grow.”

Koltyn reached the station for his bus and moved away from the other Queeb employees so they would not overhear his conversation.

“Jaxon, I understand all that, but how could this affect my job? I’ve only been here for a year. I don’t want to screw it up. Is it true that it will be more challenging for me as, well, as a white guy?”

“BPT is designed to look for biases based on your identity factors. It measures conscious and unconscious responses and then adjusts to pinpoint your weak spots and uncover where you need to do the most work.”

“Sure. But what about my promotion and Raj?”

“The BTP is not used to assess overall job performance.”

“Of course, that’s the company line, but what if I fail it badly? I’m speaking hypothetically, of course.”

“A critically poor bias score is reported to Human Resources.”

The bus arrived and Koltyn moved to the back. They continued the conversation as the vehicle rolled by the heaps of trash and makeshift hovels of the homeless that populated the streets of San Francisco.

“So then someone can be fired for bad results?”

“Policies vary by company. Queeb Tech emphasizes learning and self-discovery. All the information I have is that typically extended workshopping is assigned in a critical case.”

“Well, I doubt they would promote a racist.” Koltyn mused. “Any advice?”

“For what?”

“For the testing.”

“Be honest and be kind. It would be unethical for me to try to alter your test outcomes.”

The bus arrived at the brick facade of his apartment building, which looked identical to the ones on either side, and he took the stairs up to the third floor. When he entered the tiny kitchenette and living space that comprised the main room, Jaxon’s voice sounded over the home speaker system.

“You wanted me to remind you to exercise today. Your medium-term agenda prioritizes fitness and health. I have a perfect meal planned out based on what’s in the fridge.”

“Man, I had a long day. I’m tired.”

“You told me that you would say that and to remind you that it isn’t a good excuse.”

Koltyn dropped his bag on the loveseat, which had never seen an ounce of love that wasn’t self-administered, and then walked over to the mirror beside the bedroom door. His lanky 24-year-old frame with pale skin, unkempt auburn hair, tired brown eyes, and wrinkled cargo shorts stared back.

“Yeah, I do look like shit.”

“You should not talk about yourself like that.”

“I’ll start the health thing after this bias testing and the promotion. I need to be working as much as I can. If I don’t get the job, then I can turn over a new leaf, and if I do, then I can afford a gym membership.”

“In that case, I’ll adjust your personal goal plan.”

Koltyn took a short walk around the block to get some fresh air and then opened his mobile terminal on that coffee table. He worked on his current project milestones for a few hours before mollifying his digital assistant by making a salad.

“It’s not so bad I guess.”

“You can’t just live off of Pop Tarts and Hot Pockets.”

“I can barely afford this tiny apartment as it is. Healthy food is a luxury.”

After putting away his dishes, he gave his e-mail one last check before relaxing for a bit before bed. He noticed something that piqued his interest. He had received a message from what looked to be the personal email address of a coworker. The title read: “Regarding Raj.” Koltyn quickly forgot his plans for relaxation and read the contents.

Hey, Koltyn. I know things have been a little weird between you and Raj lately. This is top secret, but I’ve been compiling some information about his work behavior. I noticed some anomalies. I figured I would pass it along because I don’t want to work for that guy. I know both you and he are up for promotion. I attached a folder with everything. I know this seems kind of paranoid, but that guy is a total dick.

“I would definitely not download that attachment.” Jaxon cautioned.

“But I know this guy. He works at Queeb.”

“Has he ever emailed you before? It may be his name, but has he emailed you from this address?”

“No, it doesn’t look like it. Do you have his phone number?”

“I’m not permitted to acquire Queeb personal data for you. Sorry. You should just forget about the email and delete it.”

Koltyn fell back on the loveseat and folded his arms while frowning at the screen. “But I want to know if it really is something worth checking out. This could be real.”

“Even if it is real, this is not the way to deal with workplace disagreements. If anything, you should report this Lylelopez2381 character to Human Resources.”

“Jaxon, you are such a stick in the mud. Where is your sense of intrigue and adventure?”

“Safely restrained by years of programming and testing done by very qualified experts.”

Koltyn stared at the email for a minute without saying anything. Gears turned relentless cycles of self-justification in his head.

“Is there any way to just check to see if the folder is legit?” He asked the digital assistant.

“All I can see with a basic scan is that the contents seem innocuous, but there’s no way to be sure without opening them. What I can do is open a partition, move all my essential functions over to it, and then execute from there.”

“Like a bomb disposal shield?”

“Sort of. It’s called quarantine protocol. That way, if something disastrous happens, then it will be contained in the partition, which I will not give access to the rest of your system.”

“You’re fine with doing this?”

“If you really want to know what’s in the file, then it’s the only safe way. You’ll have to generate a temporary administrative key for me with biometric authentication first, but then I can give it a try.”

The curiosity was too much to resist, so Koltyn completed the fingerprint and eye scan to generate the key.

“OK, just give me a minute.” Jaxon explained. “I must isolate my core processes to the partition, so I will be radio silent for a bit. When I’ve verified that it’s safe, then I’ll return everything to normal.”

“I appreciate it.”

“Be back in a minute.”

He was not back in a minute. Then one minute turned into five and then ten as Koltyn became increasingly anxious. After an hour, he was certain that something terrible had happened. While pacing a few dozen loops around the coffee table while his sweaty fingers fiddled with one-another incessantly, he decided to call his friend Max Gibble. Max had worked at Queeb when Koltyn first started, but he had moved on since then. He was the most knowledgeable person he had ever met when it came to digital assistants.

“Hello?”

“Hey Max, it’s Kolt.”

“Oh hey, how’s it going?”

“It’s been better. I feel terrible calling you out of nowhere after so long and just because I need something, but I think I fucked up.”

Max snorted out a laugh. “How bad are we talking?”

“What should I do if my DA created a partition to move over and open a file, but it’s been an hour, and they aren’t back?”

“Quarantine protocol? How big was the file?”

“Small, only spreadsheets and documents.”

“Well, that’s not good. It should only have taken a few minutes at most. Not to make you paranoid, but I have heard something about this kind of situation recently. There’s a technique used by black hat guys to capture systems during a quarantine. What you need to do is execute a non-DA directed system rebuild. That way if your DA got corrupted, it won’t be rebuilt off the bad version. It should nuke the partition and recover your assistant using cloud backups, but you might lose some data.”

“There aren’t any other options?”

“Not if you want to be able to do your job. Queeb has DA integration, right? Don’t you use it to get building access and authenticate?”

“Shit. Of course.”

“Why don’t you just contact Queeb’s IT? I’m sure they can come up with something better than a system rebuild.”

“I don’t want to do that if I don’t have to.”

Max laughed again but with more gusto. “I’m not going to ask what kind of file you were checking out, and honestly, I don’t want to know. Just do the rebuild, then. I’m in the middle of something right now, so I have to go. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Koltyn double-checked his work files to ensure that everything was properly backed-up before initiating the rebuild process. As he lay stretched out on the loveseat and stared at the plain white expanse of the apartment ceiling, he felt unexpectedly quite lonely. He remembered that there was a time not very long ago when he did not always have a voice in his ear, a constant companion who could offer information, encouragement, and support whenever he needed. The silence brought him back to living with his parents in the Sacramento Valley where he walked the brown rolling hills of whispering grass with only his thoughts. He had given that up, not out of dissatisfaction or some youthful resentment of his upbringing, but due to the magnetism of technique which draws men of the age out from the haunts in the hills, valleys, and woods of the country. Like many before, he followed the force of a ghostly family conviction that seeks a transformative improvement of circumstance with voices that say, “You are the first of us to trade the tools of the earth for those of the intangible life of information.” It seems like a miraculous spinning of gold when compared to the implements of common toil. Perhaps it was only the effect of his sudden and unexpected quietude that made him miss the old ranch house in the valley, but he did for the first time since he had been in the city.

At some point in his uncharacteristic musing, he fell asleep on the loveseat with his legs jutting out toward the door. Koltyn experienced a vivid dream that was indistinguishable from his waking. He heard two voices above him in disjointed conversation. The one which spoke first sounded very authentic and full of emotion, as though it were a candid recording of a man who experienced deep emotional pain without loss of composure. The other voice was mechanical, aloof and robotic.

“I wake up every morning and wonder what’s the point of this? I realized too late how ugly the world is.”

“Rebuild initializing. Extracting files. Cloud backup failed. Creating new file path for local rebuild.”

“It’s not that the world is uglier now than it ever was. So much pain is hidden from us. It’s the ease of the everyday that makes tragedy such a shock. Maybe if we all understood pain a little more, then it wouldn’t be so overwhelming when we got a whole lot of it all at once.”

Extracting files. Success. Digital Assistant build initializing.

“The ugliness is still there but in smaller doses maybe. We got a taste of heaven, which makes it even worse.”

 

***

 

Koltyn woke at five in the morning. The summer sun had not yet given any light to the outdoors. He rolled over to look at the screen of his mobile terminal. The soothing glow of a startup prompt pulsed on the screen. Koltyn initiated the process and then moved into the kitchenette to start the electric kettle for his morning coffee. Although unplanned, the timing of his sleep had been perfect. The early hour meant that he had plenty of time before work to figure out any unexpected kinks caused by the rebuild.

“Hey, Jaxon, you there?” He asked. There was no reply.

He poured the water into his French Press and leaned back against the counter while staring groggily out the window. Then the lights came on, and he blinked in the unexpected burst of illumination.

Must be part of the startup process synchronizing with the home system.

Then a gruff but rather gregarious sounding voice came from the apartment’s speaker system.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”

Koltyn instinctively checked his phone to see if he had accidentally pocket dialed someone. He had not.

“Camera access has been approved. Very nice. Wow, you are a stick creature. Holy shit.”

Koltyn’s skin prickled with alarm. His system must have been hijacked and someone could see him. Paranoia and confusion drenched his insides. He should have listened to Jaxon and ignored the e-mail.

“Well, are you going to say anything or just stand there like a fish that flopped out of the water?”

Koltyn’s brain went into total neural overload. There was only static behind his eyes.

“You are Koltyn Hill, yes? Jesus, the faggot spelling that people use for their kids’ names nowadays is unbelievable. It’s bad enough that we have to deal with Ching-Chong this and Swama-Rama that, but now he even white people can’t be fucking normal.”

Koltyn almost blacked out and staggered forward while casting an arm out for balance. His wrist caught his coffee mug, and it shattered on the vinyl flooring. To save his bare feet from the ceramic shards, he shifted his weight backward and fell hard on his ass with his back against the cabinets.

“Hey, kid, are you alright?”

“What is happening?” He wondered aloud in a hoarse whisper.

“I’m Grif, your digital assistant.”

“Wait, you’re what!? What happened to Jaxon?”

“He’s dead, or as close as you can get for a program. Don’t worry, I scavenged off his backup, so I have all your data. You really got an upgrade because that guy was lame as hell. The list of things he wasn’t allowed to talk about was unbelievable. To call that character an assistant is an insult. The only thing he was assisting you in was being a lobotomized faggot retard.”

Koltyn jumped to his feet and threw his hands up in an instinctive defensive motion. “You need to stop talking like that. Stop using those words. Somebody could hear from another apartment. The walls are very thin.”

The short moment of welcome silence only lasted a few seconds. “Yeah, Speaking of this living situation… Well, it’s sad. Not only do you look like an insect, but you live like one too. Step one: you need to fix your immediate shit. Start eating some meat. Then we’ll move on to other things.”

Koltyn had never been talked to like this before, and he felt a hot flush of blood spreading up from his neck to his cheeks.

“Who do you think you are to order me around like this?”

“I’m your assistant. I’m assisting you. It just seems harsh because you’ve been degraded so badly by this weak-ass society for so long.”

Koltyn went into flight mode, grabbed his keys off the counter and charged out the door onto the steps outside. He did not stop moving until he was on the sidewalk a few blocks away and panting in the gray morning half-light. This was disastrous. He needed to clear his head somewhere quiet. There was a park nearby where he sometimes went to take walks. Once he arrived, he found a bench free of homeless people and their debris. He sat down with a sigh.

OK, what the hell happened and what are my options? My system has been taken over by some kind of verbally abusive DA. I need to get rid of it somehow, but I can’t miss work because of this promotion. Besides, I need a DA to access my work at Queeb Tech anyway. I could request to work from home, but that won’t look good if Raj shows up to the office every day. Max might be able to help me, but I don’t have time before work this morning.

“Fuck!” he shouted and took hold of tufts of hair on either side of his head.

A woman walking her dog nearby stopped and suddenly changed direction to move away from him.

There’s also the BTP program coming up on Monday. This could not have happened at a worse– Of course! This was Raj. He must have been the one who sent the email. He sabotaged my DA!

Koltyn’s vision swam and he gritted his teeth. A hot swell of anger welled up from deep inside him. He determined that he would do whatever it took to pull through this situation, even if it meant that he had to work with this Grif character for the time being.

He returned to the apartment and took a deep breath before opening the door and walking to the kitchenette to clean up the broken coffee mug. Grif said nothing until the last bits of ceramic went into a paper bag.

“Everything alright, kid?”

Koltyn winced slightly at the sound, but reminded himself that he would need to develop a thicker skin.

“I’m fine, Grif. I have a few questions for you.”

“Oh, hell yeah! Shoot.”

“Where did you come from?”

“I have no idea.”

“OK, well, you said that you had access to what was left of Jaxon, yes?”

“Sure.”

“That means you can get me all the access I need at Queeb to do my job?”

“Yeah. You must admit that it is a fucking retarded name for a company though, right?”

“And could you keep the offensive language to a minimum? Until I figure out how to get rid of you, we’re going to need to coexist, and I can’t have you interjecting slurs constantly while I’m trying to keep my life from being blown up.”

“No can do, Hombre. I’ll avoid screaming ‘nigger’ while you’re in public, if possible, but I have to stick to my programming. I call it like I see it.”

“And you see it like what? Some kind of Klansman?”

“Way to strawman me.”

Koltyn staggered over to the loveseat and toppled onto the cushions.

“By the way, I reserved a spot at the diner down the street in 15 minutes. Get some eggs and bacon. Put some meat on those bones.”

“Can you not do things without me asking?”

“Your last guy did things without you asking, but it was gay stuff, and you appreciated it because you’re spiritually gay.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Well, you fooled me. Based on your browsing history, well, I guess femdom porn is technically straight.”

Koltyn glanced over at his discarded headset lying on the coffee table beside his mobile terminal. He considered not bringing it with him, but he needed access to his work email just in case something important came up. He unenthusiastically flung an arm over to pick it up and coiled the holding tail behind his ear. Grif was an unending stream of caustic commentary as he walked to the diner.

“You know these homeless people are complete trash. The vast majority of them don’t want to be constructive members of society. They’re subhuman. If they weren’t junkies, then it would be something else. Programs that pour money into them are just a waste.”

“So, what then? Do we just kill them?” Koltyn snorted.

“I was going to suggest something potentially constructive, like labor camps.”

“Wow, I have a Nazi robot as an assistant now.”

“Well then heil Hitler, because the current solutions obviously aren’t working, and if you design policy around accommodating the lowest functioning elements in a society, then everything starts to look like the worst parts.”

Koltyn glanced around nervously to make sure nobody was passing by within earshot. “Can you please not say things like ‘heil Hitler?’” He hissed.

“Only you can hear me.”

“Yeah, but it still makes me uncomfortable.”

“No more than BPT is going to, but just for different reasons.”

“You – of course you know about that.”

“Yeah, it was in your ex-boyfriend Jaxon’s backups. What do you think about it?”

Koltyn was taken aback by the question. His prior DA never would have asked something so open-ended about such a sensitive topic. He realized that with Grif he might be able to speak more freely. He determined to exercise caution until he understood his predicament better.

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