ruthless test

If there had been a time where the Foundation Pacific Regional Administration building didn’t stand on the corner of the intersection three blocks from the park he played in as a child, on the outskirts of the northern part of Portland overlooking the decay it had come to cause, Kilroy didn’t know it.

He’d seen it first when he was thirteen. He was sure he had had to have seen it before then, before the containment protocol went up and the city he’d lived in since he was four became something very different, but the first time he saw it and remembered it was when he was that age: the big brick building with adornments at the top like a great oak bookcase, the antique facade marred with barbed wire along the edges of the attached parking garage. It was the good part of the north side of Portland. The potholes were filled right away.

Sears took him there. If it had been anyone else but Sears, his mother’s ex boyfriend and someone with a certain amount of presence in the anomalous underground, as well as a generally imposing person— Sears was a tall fat man who, although generally amiable, was known for reacting to Foundation shakedowns with a certain amount of unbridled rage— he probably would have been more afraid than he was.

“I want to show you where I used to work,” he’d said, and they had been on the side of town by coincidence, although for the life of him Kilroy could not remember what it had been. The security cameras on the Portland Administration building had traced them as they passed. A time before the building was a time without the cameras, too, and he remembered seeing Sears walk so stiffly by, positioning himself closer to the great red box on the intersection, putting Kilroy on his right hand side closest to the opposite storefront, shops not for them and full of things they could not afford. They walked quickly. Kilroy had tried to get a better look one they’d been three quarters of the way down the street. Sears had responded with one big hand between his shoulderblades.

“Don’t let them get your face,” he’d said, and they’d kept walking.

The building that used to house the Amazon office sat two blocks away from Portland Administration. It always confused Kilroy how Sears had managed to go to work every day so close to it, passing it even, somewhere in a very different world where the tech incubators had been something other than abandoned, when there had been a lot more people and a lot fewer drugs. Sears told him before that he hadn’t always hated the Foundation like he did. He said he remembered even before the barbed wire went up that that wasn’t an unpopular opinion.

“You used to work here?” he’d asked, a bit taken aback. Unlike the ruins of the tech incubators on the northwest side, the old Amazon office had been repurposed instead of abandoned; it seemed to still be an office building, but Kilroy could see traces of the flashy stylistic choices typically chosen by large successful corporations with money to spend and stockholders to impress: geometric overhangs, wide windows, solar panels on the roof, faux wood panneling right inside the door. The building had an uncharacteristic smoothness, a modern styling made to look distinctive, carefully styled to fit something that had long abandoned it. It looked like a definition without a word.

He couldn’t imagine Sears of all people working in a place like this. Sears, who ran the Phreaker club out of an abandoned laptop assembly center on the outskirts of Portland, who he associated strongest with ebook publications and certain street drugs. Sears, who he’d never seen wear a shirt without a hole in it, who would not tolerate Foundation agents on his property despite them coming out at least two weekends every month. Sears, in a time far away when he was too young to remember, walking to work at the fancy modern Amazon office two blocks from Portland Administration; striding past and not being afraid of the cameras and going the same way home; getting paid, he imagined, on the regular, probably on not too bad of a salary.

Sears laughed and nodded. “I worked with the Kindle,” he said. “Man, at the time…we were about to launch a new one with a holographic screen. ‘Kindle Air’ is what they called it. It was gimmicky as fuck looking back, but we were all obsessed with getting it right, you know? The first round of beta testing went well, but we were all terrified. Corporate wanted it done by the holidays. We had a month left and hit a bug with the battery. Like, it was functional, but it could be better and we wanted it to be better, so…”

He paused. Kilroy felt a tightening in his gut.

“…I mean, like, there were a lot of us working overnight, is what I’m trying to say,” Sears said tentatively, “I was running a test on the software. There were about five people around me, all like us. Must have been an hour to midnight. I wanted to go home and shower and change, so I was like, ‘you know, I’ll be back in a few hours. You guys keep going’. And you know Kilroy? They did. They sure fucking did keep going.”

He paused again. The building suddenly looked very empty, and very cold.

“And they died,” Kilroy said, almost as a question.

“They died,” Sears said, “and lemme tell you, kid, I’ve never seen investors pull out so fast.”

Somewhere far away, a dog was barking.


[NOTE TO SELF: REWRITE THIS SCENE]

Kilroy half-flopped, half-was dropped down onto the beaten red upholstery of a spare gaming chair, blood drying in small dark commas from his ears, half-down his cheek on the right side. He hadn’t been able to make out who’d yanked him up from the floor of the bar and dragged him down the steep flight of decrepit stairs behind the counter, and so long as he was sure it was that specific flight of decrepit stairs he hadn’t cared enough to ask. His vision swam; the pounding migraine was beginning to set in, the one he knew was coming, the not-quite-pain-not-quite-well aura of confusion. In the harsh white light of the monitors mounted on the walls— god knows he’d had enough of that goddamn light over the past twenty-four hours— he saw a thick, muscly hand with an old nintendo logo tattooed on the wrist in black ink.

“Sears,” he huffed. “Jesus.”

“You look like shit, kid,” Sears replied. The gaming chair was high-backed; Kilroy let his head fall backwards into the stiff leather, fighting the urge to fall asleep. He didn’t have the breath to reply.

“How long did you go?”

Deep breath. Lightheadedness, the want to ask him to turn off all the monitors and let him sleep for a bit. He closed his eyes. It hadn’t been this bad when he’d yanked the flash drive from his laptop and walked the three blocks to the bar in the twitchy throes of rapidly fading adrenaline; he had been sure he’d be able to make it, and this time was different. This time was special. He had to make it.

“Twelve hours,” he breathed. Sears thrust a red Solo cup of water into his hands.

“You know, I told your mom I wouldn’t let you go under for longer than four at a time. You trying to get me in trouble, Gip?” Kilroy smiled at the nickname. Gip was what people called him online. Gip, that crazy motherfucker messing with Foundation code. He sipped the water carefully, testing out how his stomach would take it. He’d puked on Sears once the year before, the aftermath of one of the only times he went for a twenty hour go. It was funny now. It hadn’t been funny at the time.

“Not my fault she went out of town,” Kilroy said.

“Do I have to come over and babysit?”

“Benny,” he said, “it’s done.”

The bartender went quiet. Without opening his eyes, he heard the older man settle down into the plastic lawn chair set up a couple feet away, the one Kilroy usually inhabited. A moment of silence. He smiled.

“No shit?”

“No shit,” he said. “Works okay.”

“Did you test it?”

“Not on the real thing. On a simulation, yeah, it’s pretty functional.”

“Dotted your is, crossed your ts?”

Kilroy nodded.

“The chatroom is gonna blow up, you know.”

Kilroy pushed the heel of his hand into his left eye. He was crying. He could taste metallic blood beginning to clot along his back molars.

“Yeah,” he said.


RUTHLESS.EXE VER. 1.0

WELCOME, ENEMY OF THE STATE



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