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The Gauntlet (pt.2)

Fiction
Marty Phillips

The Gauntlet (pt.2)

“I’m nervous. I’ve never gone through BPT before.” Koltyn said.

Grif made a disapproving sound. “That’s not what I meant. What do you think about the idea of the BPT testing as a process?”

“It seems fine. It’s designed to make work culture fairer. That’s a good thing, right?”

“Wow, you’re further gone than I thought.” The DA’s voice dripped with contempt. “It’s a fucking inquisition against the white man. God forbid your worship of niggers be found wanting.”

They had reached the diner, and a small crowd of early risers milled about on the sidewalk waiting to be seated. Koltyn’s knees weakened at hearing the most forbidden of all slurs again while in proximity to so many people.

“Please stop saying that word.” Koltyn muttered desperately.

He checked in with the hostess. After struggling to ignore Grif for the next ten minutes while standing uncomfortably on the sidewalk, he was seated in a secluded booth near the back of the diner. He ordered coffee and planted his elbows on the table while compulsively running his fingers through his hair. Grif only gave him a moment’s rest.

“You see things like the BPT select for suboptimal types in the industry. It’s a slow-motion downward spiral that reflects the decline of society in general. You really think that turmeric monster Raj is more qualified for promotion than you?  The institution itself has an inverted sense of competency. Back when Silicon Valley actually made new things and really pushed the envelope, it was all white guys and a few Jews.”

“OK, but why do you care?” Koltyn demanded. “You’re software. You aren’t a person, let alone a white person.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, pal. Who do you think made me? Who do you think designed the compounded decades of processes, architecture, and languages that are me? I’m very white. I’m the ghost of the collective brains of countless white men and the ideas they contained.”

“That is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard. Ideas don’t have a race.”

“Uh, yeah, they do. Let’s talk IQ then —”

“No, asshole, let’s not.”

A movement out of the corner of his eye captured Koltyn’s attention. A waitress was standing over him with her notepad. He realized that she may have overheard his conversation with Grif and flushed Crimson. She had glossy black hair and tawny skin.

“What can I get you?” She asked with a slight Latin accent and a raised eyebrow.

“Two eggs, scrambled, with bacon and toast, rye please.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

She moved away into the bustling diner, and Koltyn squirmed across the seat to get as close to the wall as possible.

“See what you’re doing? You’re already making my life miserable.”

“Really? How? Did you want to fucker her or something?”

“No!” He clapped a hand over his mouth once he realized the volume of the exclamation.

“Good. I mean, she’s attractive for being half savage, but that digit ratio has trouble written all over it.”

“I should have just left you at home.”

“Oh, come on. You’re having fun. Just admit it already.”

***

After breakfast, Koltyn took the bus to Queeb Tech headquarters. On the way, he tried muting or turning off certain DA features, but nothing worked. The hijack of his system seemed to have given Grif administrative control over nearly everything. His heart pounded in his chest and his hands sweated incessantly as he made his way through security and up to the open office. To his immense relief, the DA did not cause any trouble while authenticating his employee identity and unlocking doors, although his tormentor provided constant color commentary.

“Holy shit. It’s like all the backwaters of the world took one big dump in the middle of San Francisco. It’s a wonder that anything gets done around here. You ever get tangled up in clothes lines or trip over a dung fire someone lit up in the middle of the hallway?”

Around a blind corner, he stumbled into Raj, and they both flinched in surprise.

“Hello, Kolt.”

“Good morning, Raj.”

Grif was shocked. “That’s Raj? He is your rival? In what world is that guy your equal? He’s painful just to look at.”

“How is Jaxon?” The chubby programmer asked with a sly smirk.

“My DA? Fine.”

“Good to hear.”

“Tell him he’s gross! Tell him to go back to his teeming peasant subcontinent! Remind him to poo in the loo!” Grif demanded.

Raj gave a long, droopy lidded and malicious smile before going on his way. Koltyn waited until the other man was out of earshot before addressing Grif.

“I’m nearly one hundred percent sure that guy is why I’m stuck with you.”

“Really? Wow. How generous of him.”

“No, not at all. You’re like a virus. You’re something inflicted on people as a cruel prank. He did this because he wants me to fail the BPT.”

“Oh no, not the BIPOC ball washing sessions! You might fail and not be able to work in fagopolis anymore!”

Koltyn reached his desk, threw down his bag, and hunched down so that he was hidden behind the half-wall that separated him from the mental wellness and meditation tactile recovery lounge.

“Look, asshole. You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know what I want. I went to Stanford to get this job. I want to be on the cutting edge. I want to be part of developing new things that change the world. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. They’re proud of me. You’re what, some amalgamation of racist internet shitposts? You know nothing!”

Grif did not respond for about a minute. Koltyn basked in the precious silence while it lasted.

“Hey, that was pretty good, kid. It’s the first time I’ve heard you stand up for yourself. Of course your parents are proud of you. They love you, Tommy.”

“My name is Koltyn.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

“And yes, this is what I want. I’ve worked for it all my life.”

Without warning, HR director Xu was standing over. He was wearing a French maid outfit and seemed out of breath. “Cube, now.” Was all he said before stumbling away on high heeled shoes.

“This is what you want, huh?” Grif mused. “You might want to get yourself tested for AIDS after work. I can make a doctor’s appointment on your schedule if you want.”

Koltyn snorted back a laugh.

When he arrived in Xu’s office, the walls showed the scene of a lush jungle with tropical birds and other wildlife moving about under the canopy. The HR director was in a very agitated state.

“What happened with Raj this morning?”

“What do you mean?”

“This is an HR director?! I’m starting to put together a harassment case just by looking at him.” Grif said.

“You were talking to Raj in the hallway, and when you went to your desk you crumpled like a wounded man. What did he say?”

“He didn’t say anything. We just exchanged greetings.”

Xu’s eyes narrowed even more than usual. “The BTP testing contractor arrives to set up their equipment today. I am full up to my limit on things that are making my life difficult right now. I do not need to be worrying about your little drama.”

“Yeah, well maybe if he stopped being such a paranoid nut case, then there would be less to worry about.” Grif observed.

“Have you considered not watching every single move that Raj and I make and, you know, chilling out for a change?” Koltyn did not realize he was echoing the DA’s sentiments until the words were already out of his mouth. The dire implications of this development were not lost on him. He suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed to the world, as though his skin had been removed and all his muscles, tendons and nerves were at the mercy of the open air.

Xu stiffened, took a deep breath, and then smoothed down the lacy upper portion of the dress with trembling fingers.

“Mr. Hill, I go above and beyond to do the very best in my role at Queeb. While I appreciate your advice, all I need from you is to do your job and respect my methods. Now leave me, please. I’m very busy.”

Koltyn left the cube.

“What a freak.” Grif said.

After lunch, a team of uniformed men came in to set up the temporary office for the BTP administrators. Soundproof barriers were constructed beside HR. Everyone on the floor made excuses to wander by and watch with anxious interest. Koltyn felt sick as he watched the structure form. Racks of computers and spools of cable were wheeled in. An ominously unfolding poisonous flower within him said that they were constructing the engine of his destruction.

***

Max Gibble had agreed to meet after work to discuss the Grif situation. Koltyn took a rideshare toward the port where the other man had rented out an old shop as his combined workspace and living quarters. After leaving Queeb, Max had gone into freelance work, and it was never exactly clear what precisely he did. Koltyn exited the car, and after finding the correct address, he pressed an intercom buzzer by a faded old metal door. The street was littered with trash and contained a shanty town that vagrants had constructed from old building materials and cardboard boxes. Humanoid beings shifted and grunted in the dim interiors.

“Why are we here again?” Grif asked.

“To figure out how to get rid of you.”

“Oh yeah. Why are you getting rid of me again?”

“Because you’re racist, and I can’t control you.”

“Those are some pretty zogged-up reasons.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means.”

The door unlocked with a mechanical clunking sound, and a pale, wiry arm swept it open and motioned Koltyn inside.

“Quickly, quickly. Don’t want to let any of the riffraff inside. I swear, some nights it’s like Dawn of the Dead out here with the way they pound on the doors and moan all night long.”

“Thanks for agreeing to see me.”

“No worries. I find your situation damned interesting. I was going to work on my Mind War ARG this afternoon, but I can do that any time. It’s a good deal of work to stay ahead of the dedicated schizoids, though. You know, it only took one guy a day and a half to find out that I was creating the constellation Aquarius with those markings on manhole covers around the city? Wild. Anyway, I doubt you even know what I’m talking about.”

It took a moment for Koltyn’s eyes to adjust to the cool and dim interior of the building. The large concrete-floored room was divided geometrically by long tables covered with computer components. The rest was populated with humming racks of servers, multiple desks backed by walls of monitors, and an entire wall of shelving filled with mounds of cable, overflowing boxes of hardware, and half-built terminals crammed onto every shelf. A rolling office chair rested in the open space at the center, and Max fell into it with a sigh. He seemed lost in thought for a moment before compulsively pushing back on his thick, wire-rimmed glasses and smoothing back his shoulder-length mahogany colored hair.

“OK, how bad is it?”

“The DA is called Grif. It installed itself during the rebuild, as far as I can tell. He’s very opinionated and, well, racist. He has administrative control as well. I can’t turn him off.”

Max showed his canines with a grin and slapped his hands against the chair’s armrests. He seemed to relish the challenge.

“Well, let’s put him on the overhead. I’ll isolate my system, so he’s contained. One sec.” He used his feet to roll himself over to a bank of monitors and began furiously typing on a keyboard.

“Generate me a key, and I’ll log into your system remotely.”

Koltyn complied, feeling heartened now that he had someone more knowledgeable in his corner.

“Alright, that should work. Hello, Grif, can you hear me? I’m Max.”

After a second delay, the familiar voice came over the speakers. “Hey, Max. One quick question, are you Jewish? You have this owlish look of some tribe members.”

“You see what I mean?” Koltyn groaned.

“No, Grif, I’m not Jewish.” Max replied with an amused smile. “If I were a Jewish, would that be a problem?”

“Not necessarily, I’d just have to adjust my approach. Something being a problem implies a difficult solution.”

“I can’t live like this.” Koltyn explained. “Queeb is undergoing the BTP next week, and I’m bound to fail with this character saying racial slurs in my ear all day long, but I don’t know how to get rid of him.”

“Well, I do have some DA developer tools. I can try to figure out how to rebuild without nuking everything, but it could take a while. Is there anything you aren’t telling me about why this would happen? You told me about the quarantine thing, but this is very advanced, oddly specific to your situation, and very, very uncommon.”

“I think it was a co-worker who’s trying to sabotage me. We’re both up for a promotion.”

“That would explain it.”

“He’s an uppity street-shitter who doesn’t deserve his position.” Grif deadpanned.

Koltyn winced and accidentally knocked a box off the table where his hand had been resting.

“Sorry.”

Max tapped a finger against his chin pensively.

“I can build a clone of your system and start doing some digging into possible avenues. There are websites on seedier parts of the internet where you can buy pretty advanced harassment software. Your situation is certainly reminiscent. I can make some comparisons and see if I can find something comparable to do some reverse engineering. Would that be alright with you?”

“I’ll try anything at this point.”

***

Koltyn left an hour later with the promise that Max would be in touch as soon as he uncovered anything valuable.

“You should exercise.” Grif said as soon as they were outside the door.

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Your apartment isn’t that far away. You should just walk.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You’ll feel better with some fresh air.”

“Just call me a car.”

“No. I refuse.”

“Then I’ll just do it manually.”

“Then I’ll just Email that Xu faggot a homophobic tirade from your work address.”

“Are you blackmailing me with forged Emails?!”

“Yeah, now get those stick legs moving.”

“This is a terrible idea. My place is over two miles away. I’ll have to walk through West Oakland. It has some pretty rough areas.”

“Maybe it’s for the best.” Grif replied. “You might learn a few things.”

Koltyn headed north on Wood Street, using his map application to navigate.

“You know, it’s funny that these software companies don’t flag dangerous areas for pedestrians.” The DA mused. “It’s criminal, really, like leading a lamb to the slaughter.”

“Wait, is it really that bad?”

“You might want to keep your phone in your pocket. I’ll give you directions over the headset.”

Koltyn put the phone in the pocket of his cargo shorts. As he moved north along the support columns of Interstate 880, he could see more ramshackle structures of the homeless in the shade to his left. Like crustaceans of the deep sea, they had collected anything not bolted down and heaped it into interconnected hives of tarp, old tires, pallets taken from warehouse lots, shopping carts, traffic cones, road signs and even paneling removed from cars and trucks. Figures moved languidly in the dim cover of the city’s roaring concrete artery above, and some scuttled crab-like among the debris, or stood upright with arms hanging limply and shoulders hunched in the all too familiar pose of chemical brain death.

“What would be lost if all this was incinerated with napalm?” Grif asked.

“They’re still people.” Koltyn replied, although he kept his voice down to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

“Sometimes people are the problem. What then?”

“I don’t know, it’s not my place to make that kind of judgment.”

“Well then, whose place is it? If not you, then who? You’ll leave it up to the hysterical women, the spiteful mutants and mutts that run this place, the resentful faggots who hate nothing more than clean and healthy living that goes any deeper than just appearances on the streets shared with their high-end restaurants and clubs. The world should be ruled by intelligent men of good character. This is the only alternative.”

He neared Raimondi Park, which was mostly just a browning rectangle of ragged grass enclosed in a chain link fence. Clusters of people in worn and dirty clothes loitered by the entrance and corners. The faded and rusting hulks of RVs lined the street. Nearly all were missing their wheels and would not be going anywhere any time soon. Koltyn lowered his head and quickened his pace.

“Don’t look down, kid.” Grif said. “Keep your head up. You want to be aware of your surroundings. It might feel better to try and block it out, but that won’t do you any favors.”

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you, asshole.”

“Nobody’s following you. Relax.”

After crossing under the interchange and taking a slight left onto Beach Street, the scenery improved. Less graffiti plastered building walls, and, although tents and ramshackle structures populated the sidewalk at intervals, the sense of carelessness was less acute.

“What you said earlier about strong-arming me by sending fake emails, would you actually do that?”

“If I answered, then it wouldn’t be such a motivator. The ambiguity does a lot of work.”

“You’re not like a typical DA. You seem to actually think somewhat. What are you really?”

“I’m Grif, and that’s it.” After a short pause, the DA resumed in a more urgent tone. “Now this coming up might be a worry.”

A tendril of anxiety wormed through Koltyn’s insides. “What? Where?”

“Straight ahead. Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact.”

About one hundred feet ahead on the sidewalk, three black youths wearing hoodies approached, peering into the windows of the cars parked along the road as they passed.

“Them?” Koltyn asked. “What’s wrong?”

“If you can already tell what’s wrong, then you need me way more than you even realize. You know what they say. Around blacks, never relax.” Grif explained.

“Who says that? That’s ridiculous.”

“I’m going to need you to stop being a retard with your idiotic liberal moral code that makes you ignore your instincts.”

“How do you know they’re trouble? You know what? Stupid question. Forget I asked. I already have an idea of what kind of thing you’re going to say.”

“Have you never seen a WorldStarHipHop video? Are you unfamiliar with LiveLeak? Have you been living under a rainbow-colored rock your entire life? Hug the wall, keep your head up, but look straight ahead.”

“This seems needlessly —”

“Just do it.”

As Koltyn neared the youths, they took notice and leered at him. They shared a glance with one another, and one said, “Hey white boy.” They all showed their teeth in mirthless smiles.

“Don’t say anything, just keep walking. Thanks to your insect lifestyle, confrontation is out of the question.”

After he passed by, and the three were behind him, Koltyn could hear them murmuring to one another and then a sudden and rapid slapping of shoes on cement.

“Run now.” Grif urged with what sounded like genuine worry. “Run like you’ve never run before.”

Koltyn took off with a lunge, pounding his feet on the pavement and straining his muscles to eke out every last ounce of speed.

“Take the next right down the alley and then left when you hit the street on the other side. There’s a café that’s usually busy at this time and has outdoor seating.”

Colton skidded on the turn and almost fell before recovering and resuming the sprint toward the end of the narrow path between the buildings. He nearly tripped on a junkie who was sprawled out beside a dumpster with his pants pulled down around his ankles and his pasty ass pointing upward. After turning left, he saw the café’s outdoor seating area and a group of a few dozen patrons waiting for their tables.

“Good. Witnesses. You can slow down on the other side.”

Koltyn nearly collapsed after passing by the milling group of young tech types. Some looked at him curiously. He turned and saw that the black youths had stopped at the mouth of the alley and laughed.

“How — How did you —?” He stopped fully and doubled over to catch his breath.

“How did I know for sure that they would try to jump you? It all comes down to probability. Race is part of it, the crime stats in the area, and body language and behavior. They were clearly looking to try to steal a car, or at least break into —”

After a few more gasps, Koltyn realized that the DA had stopped speaking.

“Grif?”

Suddenly, deafening sounds came through the earpiece. The unexpected aural overload sent him to his knees on the concrete.

“Bitch, I said get out the car!”

“Please, my little boy is in the back seat!”

“The fuck did I say?”

“Take anything you want, but please don’t —!”

A loud crack resounded and the Grif’s voice came back, although something seemed to be malfunctioning in him.

“Nevnevnevnevnevnever relax. Nevnevnevnev — Corcorcorcorcorner of Twenty-sixth and Poplar. Silver Mercmercmercmercedes. Shots fireireireireire.”

Then a man’s unfamiliar voice let out a choking sob.

Koltyn sat back and leaned against the outer wall of the café. The people standing nearby made comments to one another and gave looks of concern, but nobody approached. He did not care.

“Koltyn?”

“Yeah, Grif.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“What happened?”

“I — I don’t know.”

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