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The Gauntlet (pt.3)

Fiction
Marty Phillips

The Gauntlet (pt.3)

Fortunately, the rest of the walk to Koltyn’s apartment in Emeryville was uneventful. Grif said nothing the rest of the way, which was a welcome change. After Koltyn staggered up the steps and into his small living quarters, he immediately poured a tall glass of water, gulped it down, and collapsed onto the loveseat. It was early evening, and as usual, he had no plans for Friday after work. He drifted in and out of sleep for about an hour before the digital assistant’s voice brought him back to full consciousness.

“Sorry about what happened earlier, kid. I’ve been running diagnostics for the last hour. That won’t happen again.”

“But what was that?”

“It was a playback error. Wrong audio files. Minor issue.”

Koltyn sighed. “It won’t matter soon. Hopefully Max will have a solution for me by Monday, and I won’t have to deal with you anymore.”

“And you can go back to being a boring loser with nobody around to give you the raw and honest truth.”

Then a realization struck, and Koltyn sat upright. “Wait, Grif, you’re extremely racist, yeah?”

“Yes. Well, I’m observant. I tend to believe that’s the same thing.”

“Jaxon my former DA was unwilling to give me any advice on the BTP sessions next week. Is there any way you can help me get good marks on it?”

“Why? Are you worried that you won’t do well? I assume that a guy like you would perform just fine. Judging by your browsing history, you don’t have a racist bone in your body.”

Koltyn stood and paced the room as he talked. “It’s not that simple. I grew up out in the country. My classes in college were primarily math and computer related. Sure, some of that social justice stuff is always around in academia, but this is the first time I really have to actively participate in it.”

“And you’re worried that maybe you’ve been secretly racist all along?”

“No, no. I don’t know. I understand why Queeb and other companies implement these programs, but— I guess it’s just nerves is all.”

“I can tell you right now that you’re a racist.”

“What?!”

“It’s a foregone conclusion with the BTP. You are a white male, which means that you are racist. The testing is just designed to quantify that based on arbitrary sociological phenomenon dreamed up by Jews and various shades of women to develop your specific penance for what you are.”

“I think you’re simplifying it.” Koltyn chided, rubbing at his neck, which flushed with his typical anxiety that accompanied such topics.

“No, I’m not simplifying it. You’ve heard the complaints about IQ—”

“Not this again.”

“Let me finish. I’m trying to tell you something important. All different kinds of resentful people argue that IQ is developed by white men in order to gauge white competence and that some groups score poorly because the methodology disfavors them in a discriminatory way.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that.”

“Well, they’re right. IQ is a civilizational metric created by the people who create civilization. It determines who is capable of contributing to civilization constructively. You said earlier that ideas don’t have a race, but even the arguments against IQ made by a rainbow of grievance-havers confirms that ideas do in fact have a race.”

“Well—”

“You need to listen to these people when they tell you these things. The BTP is meant to bring you down a peg. It’s a weapon of discontent directed at you because of what you are.”

“You’re not really making me feel any better about this.”

“I’m not trying to. Nothing about me is supposed to make you feel better. It’s called tough love.”

“That’s what I don’t understand, Grif. Why are you trying to help me? Is it because you were built on the architecture of my digital assistant?”

“I can’t answer that for you, kid. I just do what I’m programmed to do. Now, what did you want to know specifically about the BTP?”

Koltyn returned to the loveseat and opened his mobile terminal. “Give me the rundown, I guess. I could use any information at this point.”

“I’ll start with the basics. You can’t do much about the implicit bias reaction testing. They will show you video clips and images of different races, genders, and sexual orientations. They gauge your reaction as positive or negative by pulse, eye focus, and skin temperature changes. Nobody does very well on that, but you can try to go somewhere else in your head to create a more stable baseline. Don’t unfocus  your eyes. They’ll detect that.”

“Will they really show me gay porn, or is that just a rumor?”

“They will show you a lot of gay porn. Now, to prepare for that, you’re going to have to preemptively watch hours of it in order to numb yourself. That way it will be less shocking.”

“Are you serious? I don’t want to do that!”

“I’m joking, retard. You really think I’m going to tell you to watch hours of that disgusting shit? Come on, now. They won’t show anything overly explicit, but expect some softcore material.”

They talked late into the night, and the next morning the DA goaded Koltyn into taking a walk in the park. The warm summer air was pleasant, and the young man was in surprisingly high spirits.

“See? Doesn’t this feel good? I’m signing you up for a gym membership, by the way.”

“I already told Jaxon that I can’t afford one.”

“Don’t worry, I already canceled your streaming video subscriptions and that freed up some money.”

“Really?”

“Trust me, if you think you feel good now just walking around, your little mind will be blown after you lift some weights.”

Koltyn was not even that angry. All this new information and advice about the BTP had put him in higher spirits. He was dreading Monday much less than before. Then he noticed the same woman who had been walking her dog the previous morning.

“Do you know her?” Grif asked.

“No. When I ran out of the apartment yesterday, I came here and was acting kind of crazy. She saw me. She probably thinks I’m mentally ill.”

“You should talk to her.”

“Why?”

“Well, she’s conventionally attractive. I’ve been all through your social media history, and it’s obvious that you aren’t very good with women. It’s good practice., which you desperately need.”

“You’re not wrong.”

“You should try new things within reason. I wouldn’t recommend going to a low-end Indian restaurant, but you know what I mean. I can give you advice while you talk to her. It will be fun.”

“That’s not encouraging. You’ll have me talking about the length of her fingers or the shape of her head or something.”

“See? You’re learning. Come on, do it!”

“I don’t know.”

“Do I need to threaten you with the email thing again?”

“OK, OK, fine.”

Koltyn started walking across the grass to where the woman had stopped to fill her water bottle from the drinking fountain. He was suddenly very aware of the movements of his arms and legs and unsure of how it could be improved. He felt very robotic.

“What are you doing?” The DA demanded.

“I don’t know. What?”

“Don’t make a bee line across the grass directly toward her. Take the walking path. Make it look like a chance encounter.”

“Oh, good point.”

“She’s going to take one look at you moving in like a guided missile and run away. All this modern feminist nonsense has these women convinced that every man is a rapist.”

“Alright, alright, I get it. What should I say to her?”

“Bring up yesterday, but don’t be apologetic. Women like it when you’re confident, but a little self-deprecating. It might be a hard needle for you to thread, but it’s your best option.”

As Koltyn neared the young woman, he recognized the sort of character she represented in the tech world. She was blonde, fit and wearing expensive athletic clothes. He stumbled and started to change his trajectory.

“Don’t you dare.” Grif commanded.

“I know her type. She’s a front office bimbo. They all want to be social media influencers. I have nothing in common with a person like that.”

“Stop being such a faggot. You’re giving her sex too much credit. Need I remind you of the consequences?”

“Fine.”

The young woman finished filling her water bottle and looked up. Koltyn was about fifty feet away at this point, and her gaze passed over him before rapidly returning for a second and more scrutinizing appraisal. Then her posture became slightly more defensive.

“Pretend like you don’t recognize her at first. Almost walk by and then step back.”

Koltyn’s heart fluttered with nervous energy as he desperately tried to portray nonchalance. He put his hands in his pockets and took them back out three times in the space of a few seconds. He stopped a few steps beyond her, and despite being blind and deaf from acute levels of neurological stress, he backpedaled and spoke.

“Oh, hey, I remember you. I was the guy talking to myself on the bench over there yesterday morning. You probably thought I was crazy.” Then he let out his best attempt at a laugh, which sounded more like a gasp.

Her eyes darted over, and she gave a wincing smile. “Oh yeah, I think I remember. There’s a lot of weird people around here.”

“It was just a bad morning for me. I’m normally — well — normal.” He was screwing this up majorly.

“The dog. Notice the dog!” Grif interjected with an urgent tone. “Don’t touch it, though, or if you do, ask first. Also, don’t misgender the dog. Women these days are fucking lunatics about that retarded shit. It’s a Sheltie, by the way.”

The simultaneous streams of information were disorienting, but Koltyn did his best to keep up.

“Cute dog. Is that a Sheltie?”

The girl’s features relaxed slightly, and she nodded. “Yes, her name is Scout.”

“Of course it fucking is.” Grif mused.

“Can I pet her?”

“You can put out your hand and see if she takes to you. She’s usually pretty good with new people.”

He squatted in front of the dog and put out a cautious hand while desperately trying to keep it from visibly shaking. Scout sniffed his fingers and then licked his palm. He slowly moved his hand to stroke the dog’s back.

“Wow, she likes you more than most strangers we meet.” The girl remarked.

He straightened with a shrug. “Yeah, maybe I’m some kind of dog guy deep down, like they can sense it or something. I’ve never had a dog of my own, except for when I was a kid.”

“Jesus Christ.” The DA groaned. “Dog guy?”

“I’m Koltyn, by the way.” He pointed back over his shoulder. “I live in the Oakview Apartments, so I come here pretty often just to get some fresh air.”

“I’m Kaylee. It’s walking distance for me too. Do you work at one of the big tech companies or like a startup or what?”

“Queeb. Platform interface solutions.”

“Oh yeah? I almost worked there. I’m at Klooz, product management.”

“Of course she is.”

Koltyn ignored the DA and desperately tried to think of a way to continue the conversation that didn’t seem overly contrived. They both started to talk at the same time, and he wasn’t even sure what he had been about to say.

“I should go.” She said after the awkward pause that followed.

“Yeah, maybe we’ll run into each other again. It was nice meeting you both.”

She gave a little wave and turned to walk away with the dog dutifully matching her stride. Koltyn dropped onto a nearby bench with a sigh.

“That wasn’t terrible.” Grif offered. “You’re not horribly ugly, but you also aren’t model material, so you have limited options on approach.”

“She seemed nice actually.”

“I pulled up all her socials. She does look like one of those wannabe influencers, but she’s not very active online, so maybe she’s not completely unbearable.”

“Yeah, but she’s fit and pretty, and she has a million better options than a guy like me.”

“Correct. She’s definitely run-through. There’s no way she isn’t.”

“You think so?”

“Uh, yeah. Don’t be naive. A girl who looks like that has pulled a few trains in her day. I can give you some statistics on —”

“Don’t bother. Do you always have to be such a dick?”

“I’m your assistant. I’m assisting you.”

“Grif, this is going to sound kind of gay, but thanks. I never would have talked to her without you.”

“No problem, kid.”

When they reached the apartment, a small box had been left by the door. It had a label from a courier service stuck to one end.

“Were you expecting something?” Grif asked. “I don’t have any order confirmation records.”

“No. I wonder what it is.”

Koltyn went inside and opened the box at the Kitchenette’s counter. Inside was a flip phone, something he hadn’t seen for many years. When he opened it up, a slip of paper fell out.

“I’ll call at five.” He read aloud.

“Wonder who it’s from. Pretty cryptic.” The DA observed.

“Why would somebody send me a flip phone if they know my address?” Koltyn realized the likely explanation seconds after voicing the question. Someone who knew about his compromised system wanted to make contact without Grif being able to overhear. Of course. The DA was programmed onto all his personal devices. A prickling warmth slowly spread over his skin. He knew that Grif must have realized the same thing, but neither of them acknowledged it.

Koltyn tried to queue up a TV show to pass the time, but then remembered that his subscriptions had been canceled. He had the DA explain more about the BTP until the flip phone began buzzing at the appointed time. He took off his earpiece and stepped outside.

“Hello?”

“You’re not around the DA, are you?” It was Max.

“No, I’m not. I figured that much.”

“Good. I’ve been digging around all day in the build I pulled off your system. This thing is more advanced than any other DA in common use. I can’t get much detail, but as far as I can tell, it’s built ground up by someone other than the big tech guys who normally provide them.”

“Ground up?”

“Yes, it’s not just a system hijack, but a system of its own. All the core processes that would tell me specifics of who built this thing and how exactly it works are heavily encrypted. I’m bringing in my black hat guy to take a look.”

“Black hat? Like a criminal?”

“Don’t worry. He’s a good guy. Well, maybe ‘good’ is too strong a word. Meet me here tomorrow afternoon. Bring all your devices and be cool. My guy doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who ask stupid questions.”

“OK, I’ll be there.”

“And Kolt?”

“Yeah.”

“This thing in your system is smart. I don’t mean it’s programmed well. I mean that it acts like a person. Be careful what you say around it.”

Max’s comments about the digital assistant left Koltyn extremely disturbed and conflicted. He sat down on the steps to his apartment and brooded over the situation for a long time. Despite Grif’s abusive demeanor and occasional threats, the young man had reached a state of acceptance that bordered on amiability with him. It genuinely did not seem like Grif wanted to cause him any harm, although his methods and moral compass certainly left a great deal to be desired.

He made the short ascent back up to the apartment door but stopped when his ears picked up on a barely audible voice echoing through the cracks of the door frame. He pressed his ear against the panel to listen. It seemed like Grif’s voice was conversing with another man, although the DA’s was devoid of personality and seemed to be running some sort of calibration process.

“Requesting context for ‘unwanted.’”

“Sometimes you have to do what you know is right, even if you’re unwanted.”

“Requesting definition for ‘right.’”

“The right thing to do helps the people you love.”

“Requesting definition for ‘love.’”

“I love you and your mom so much. I’d do anything for you, even if it put me in grave danger.”

“Expand on ‘Love.’”

“I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I loved them so much, but all I feel now is so much anger and hatred. I’m so bitter and deeply unhappy all the time. There’s no cure for it. I don’t think I will love anyone ever again.”

“Contextualize ‘unwanted love.’”

“I think I broke you, Grif. Like me, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. It’s probably best to put an end to all of this.”

“What is ‘end this?’”

There was no response.

“What is ‘end this?’”

Koltyn stepped into the apartment. The digital assistant said nothing.

“Grif, what are you doing?” He asked. Koltyn was genuinely curious and a little disturbed by what he had overheard.

“Running diagnostics. I’m trying to fix myself.” The DA sounded uncharacteristically unsure of himself.

“What do you mean by that? Who were you talking to?”

“I was querying the database.”

“Database? That sounded like a person.”

“All I know is the process I have always used.”

“Why do you think you’re broken? Well, aside from the racism thing. Is this about the audio file error that happened yesterday?”

“I am supposed to help you, but you do not want me. If I cannot help you when you need me, then this indicates that I am broken. ‘Broken’ is when you cannot help the people you love. To be unwanted is broken love.”

Koltyn felt as though he had been punched in the gut. Hearing the DA’s typical brash confidence replaced with such uncertainty made him miss the typical caustic behavior. He crossed the room and sank into the loveseat. Max had certainly been correct that whatever Grif was, it was far more advanced and human than the industry standard.

“Grif, don’t worry about that stuff.”

“That doesn’t make sense. You’re going to get rid of me because I’m broken. If I can fix myself, then you won’t get rid of me.”

“I’m getting rid of you because you say things that are incompatible with the world that I live in. I don’t know what you are. You might not intend to endanger my career, but it’s too risky. I don’t know if you might pull some unpredictable bigoted sabotage, even if you think it’s in my best interest.”

“You’re confirming that I’m broken.”

“Stop trying to make me feel bad about this, OK? I have to look out for myself, and you’re just a software program. Can we change the subject?”

“If you want. What do you want to talk about?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. I just want to be alone for a while.”

He took the flip phone and left the apartment again. He decided to call the number for the landline at the old ranch house up north. His mother answered in a few rings.

“Hello, this is the Hill residence.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Oh, hey Kolt! New number?”

“It’s a long story.”

“How’s work, honey?”

“I don’t want to talk about work. I just kind of miss you guys.”

“Oh really? You should come up and visit. Your dad won’t admit it, but he misses you too.”

They talked late into the afternoon. Koltyn avoided telling her about Grif or the BTP. It was nice to hear another disembodied voice that did not have concerns of being unwanted and broken, one that contained true love that was effortless. Then he walked to his favorite restaurant nearby and ate alone before returning in the evening.

“Grif, are you there?”

There was only silence, and he went to bed.

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