Short story originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Issue 562, July 2014.
Five Six Seven
I am almost sure I can hear the vertebra scraping when I turn my head.
“Thanks for calling Moksha Mobile Customer Service. Can you please hold?” I’m flipping the handswitch to connect the next caller before this one has a chance to reply. The minute motion hurts; everything hurts today.
“I’m very sorry to hear that, ma’am,” Keith tells his customer in a tone that suggests he is not very sorry at all. “We have no clue what caused the problem. Probably a terrorist attack or something.”
I try to face him without moving my neck any more than absolutely necessary. Don’t, I say silently, with emphatic lip motions so he can’t mistake my meaning. Today is enough of an ordeal already without spreading even more panic. I can appreciate the attempt at humor, but he doesn’t seem to realize these calls are going to keep us here all night. The automated system, which normally handles most of our calls, is down.
I know Keith well enough after four years working together to read his expression: God, Doreen, lighten up a bit. “I’m very sorry,” he repeats, but my next customer is already on the line.
I inhale and put on my best Happy Pink Collar voice. “Moksha Mobile Customer Service.”
“Yes, hi, I need some help. My cell stopped working about forty minutes ago. I’ve been on hold this whole time.”“Yes,” I say for what must be the hundredth time today, “we apologize for keeping you waiting. We are presently experiencing a higher-than -normal call volume due to similar disruptions in service.” I take his name and user ID: a Mr. Don Cohen. “Let me pull up your records…”
This phrase serves as a command to my cell, which accesses the information and feeds a display into my occipital lobe; I see it as if it’s being projected on my blank white desk. The display stays centered in my vision wherever I turn, though I can’t turn comfortably anyhow. The information is what I’m expecting: “Mr. Cohen. It appears you’re running the Oversoul Model 3?” All of the service disruptions, and there are thousands of them, are Oversoul 3s.
“Yes. I don’t know, I think it’s the 3…”
I read him the script. “We’ve been getting calls by a large number of customers today reporting similar issues with this device. We believe the problem is due to a coding error in the recent firmware update, but our technicians are still working to isolate it.”
“Firmware update?” Mr. Cohen is evidently confused. “I didn’t update anything.”
“Firmware updates are automatic, sir. They almost never create any problem; this is an anomaly.” The problem has nothing to do with the firmware update, but that’s the official story, and Mr. Cohen certainly won’t know the difference. “All I can tell you right now is that our technicians are working to remedy this issue as soon as possible, and we hope to restore service to your device in the very near future.”
“So you’re just going to leave me hanging like this? What if there’s an emergency? How am I supposed to access my documents for work?” Mr. Cohen’s voice is climbing toward hysteria.
“You’ll have to use a handheld computer until your cell is online again. I’m extremely sorry about this, sir, but again, Moksha is working its absolute hardest to find a solution to the problem. Is there anything else I can help you with?” My voice remains cartoon-character peppy.
“Wait!” he shouts. “You can’t just leave me like—”
“Our apologies, sir. I hope you have a wonderful day.” My peripheral vision is filled with five, six, now seven flashing call-waiting lights, each accompanied by a gentle chime to remind me not to delay too long. I flip the handswitch to connect the next caller. “Moksha Mobile Customer Service, thank you for holding…”
The contact center finally stops taking calls at 6:30 PM American Standard Time, a full two hours past our regular schedule, and by the time we close down the office it is nearly 7:00. “Disconnect me from the Block 12 network,” I tell my cell, and several graphics—phone line status icons, calendar, corporate e-mail account widget—disappear at once from my vision. You Worked 9.62 Hours Today, a line of text announces; then that disappears too. I toy with my handswitch to double-check it; nothing happens. Good. I never get a moment’s peace in my own head, until I clock out.
The second and third floors of the contact center each host ten blocks that, fully staffed, contain 30 employees each. When I started working at the call center—hell, nearly ten years ago now, right after I married Charles and moved here from Jersey—Blocks 21-30 occupied the fourth floor. As CASS, the automated call system, was improved to handle more and more customer requests, individual blocks and finally the entire floor were shut down. And in the past few months, Blocks 18-20 at the far end of our floor have gone dark. Scary times, for those of us who have put years into working here and who depend on our jobs. But today, CASS is offline indefinitely, because it was CASS that caused the Oversoul 3 malfunctions—tens of thousands, by the most recent count. The technicians are working to discover why.
“Hell of a day,” Keith remarks as we watch row after row of the fluorescent tubes lighting our block go dark. “We did real good, Doreen.”
My fingers are numb. I get up slowly, putting on the prim smile I always wear when I’m here. “Keith, try to refrain from joking about terrorist attacks in the office, and especially while speaking to our customers. We want to avoid associating our brand with rumors about Anonymous or some such hacker group, and all the more when people are already in a panic.”
Keith scratches his beard, abashed. “Um, yeah, I’ll try not do that anymore. Wouldn’t want our customers running scared of ghosts.” I suppose a bit of pain is getting through the smile, because next he asks, “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’ve just been sitting too long, that’s all.” I fasten the smile more securely to my mouth. Keith knows about the arthritis—cervical spondylosis, my orthopedist calls it—but I can’t have anyone (even someone as apathetic about office politics as Keith) getting the impression that it’s bad enough to get in the way of doing my job. One more month.
We walk together down the central corridor to the elevator, where Jude catches the door for us just before it closes. Jude is a technician, and I know without asking that he’s been troubleshooting CASS all day. He looks positively thrilled. “Well,” he begins as we ride to the lobby, “you certainly don’t see something like that every day.”
“Positively beautiful,” Keith replies.
“I don’t see what was beautiful about it.” I lift a hand to support my neck, which does nothing to help. The skin around my cell is itching. We don’t talk until we get outside, but when we’ve put some distance between ourselves and the front door, I add: “In any case, I’d be careful acting so amused about upset customers while in that building, if I were either of you. You never know who might be listening.”
Jude shrugs. “CASS is listening, usually, but we don’t have to worry about that for the time being. And if you think they have a real live person monitoring the cameras, hell, they’d have to pay him.”
Keith laughs along with him. “So, Jude… This wouldn’t happen to be your handiwork, would it?”
Jude sees himself as something of a working-class hero. With positions disappearing all over the call center, he’s taken upon himself to protect his coworkers’ job security through small acts of sabotage. He’s slipped a number of bugs into CASS in the past, but those were miniscule, mostly limited to some amusing responses to customer requests—nothing as intrusive as this. I don’t know if he realizes that tampering of this magnitude could cost far more than a job: Walton International, our parent company, would likely punish the offender with a permanent no-hire order, scarier and longer-lasting than any accompanying legal action.
Jude starts to answer Keith’s question, but I speak before he can: “I don’t want to hear a word about it. I really don’t want to be involved.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jude says, and we lock eyes for a moment.
“I’m serious. I won’t hear another word about it.”
He breaks the stare and shrugs. “Whatever you say, Doreen. Not another word.” He picks at the peach fuzz on his chin, which I’ve tried to convince him makes him look like an adolescent. “You get home safe.” He hangs back with Keith, to continue the conversation, no doubt.
I have my ten-year review next month. As per Walton International’s corporate policy, an employee ranked “excellent” or better at the ten-year review is eligible to upgrade from the Premium insurance plan to the Premium Plus plan, which will cover eighty percent of my arthroplasty. It will still be expensive—I need three vertebrae replaced; there’s no simple way to go about it at this point—but I’d sign off on a lifetime of debt, if that’s what it takes.
By Friday, the techs have managed to restore service to the affected cells, but as the root cause hasn’t been uncovered in CASS’s code, she remains offline. This means more work for us than usual, and we still have upset customers calling even though their cells are back online by now. These are the ones who didn’t have access to another phone line or who never managed to connect a call through three days of All representatives are currently assisting other customers. They’re less panicked, less furious, than the ones before, but they’re still afraid. Mostly, I’m finding, they want to be reassured.
During a call I glimpse a passive-aggressive text message from Rich, the floor manager:
GLAD TO SEE CUSTOMER SATISFACTION RATES ARE PICKING UP TODAY, SUGAR
When I get a chance between calls, I dictate, “Customer satisfaction has everything to do with our ability to solve a problem. I think my block is doing very well in unusual circumstances.” My cell converts the message to text and sends it as a reply. It’s unnecessary, really; it’s Rich’s job to keep the pressure on, but he knows how well we’re handling the crisis. Block 18, particularly, is striking an exemplary balance between productivity and the best customer service that can be given right now. I’m making sure of it—and making sure Rich will remember, when my review comes around.
Lunch breaks were shortened to fifteen minutes during the service interruptions; we have our full hour back now. Block 12 eats at noon. I used to try to get out of the building and spend my sixty minutes in a more pleasant setting, but recently, the walk to Marathon Grill hasn’t been worth putting any more strain on my neck. Sometimes it feels like there are these strings attached to every part of my body, like marionette strings, all leading back to those three vertebrae—C5, C6, C7—tugging with every movement. Here a subtle pull, there a sharp one. I want to be home in bed.
“Want anything from the mess hall, Ms. Noble?” asks Alexis, the skinny girl from Block 12’s sixth line. How old is she? Twenty-four? To feel that young again.
“Just have Keith bring me a green tea, please. And Alexis, remember to ask our customers if there’s anything else you can do for them before ending a call. That’s been coming up repeatedly on your surveys.” Did she catch me grimacing?
“Oh, right. Sorry. I will. I’ll have Keith come right over with that tea.” She hastily bows out.
I alternate between staring at my hands and staring at the ceiling as I wait for my tea. There’s little else to look at in the building. There’s no need for desktop computers, as the computers are built into the staff. Most desks have little besides a handswitch for connecting calls (faster than voice commands) and a blank white partition at which one stares to read cell data without the distraction of visual clutter. Some people also have trinkets to make the call center feel somewhat more like a home: photographs of boyfriends and girlfriends; popsicle-stick sculptures made by their children. As the assistant and block manager, respectively, Keith and I have slightly larger desk spaces than the rest of the block, but the added area serves little function—my framed photograph, of Charles, went into an old paper shredder I found in the print room, the frame to some representative I can scarcely recall. The window offices on our floor, besides Rich’s, all go to middle management from other departments; the rest of us get fluorescents. It can’t be helping my health, this lack of natural light.
I smell Keith coming before I see him. “Thanks for the tea,” I greet him, and he sets the paper cup on the desk so I needn’t turn to receive it. He’s a bit of a smartass, but I like Keith more than I let on, especially to him. I hand-picked him to help me manage the block.
“Word around the office is, we have some internal affairs people coming to look into the issue with CASS. Everyone keeps regurgitating that factoid about how she has the processing power of five human brains, which corporate takes to mean the error was human, not software. I think it was intentional, but what they don’t know is whether it was an inside job or a hack from outside Moksha.” He smirks. “Maybe I wasn’t too far off about the terrorist thing.”
“I don’t imagine it’s anything so glamorous.” I rotate in my chair until I can see his face; to my surprise, it is etched deep with exhaustion. Keith looks exactly how I feel. “How have your calls been going? No major trouble today?”
“Not today, no…” He sighs. I wait for him to continue; it’s a moment before he does. “I just keep thinking about this call from the day it happened. This guy’s wife, Mary Chang or something, was calling for him. And they were really scared. I mean, a lot of these people have been scared, but these two were terrified. The guy was a government employee with a big chunk of his memory in Cloud storage, so of course he couldn’t access it with the connection down. But he was starting to lose other things too, big stuff, not just work things. He couldn’t remember his wife’s name.” Now Keith looks scared himself. “When I first got the call, I was laughing about it—how do you get that wired in, to the point where you start to lose things like that? But the more I thought about it, the more it started bugging me. I couldn’t even get to sleep last night, thinking about what I’d lose, if that happened to me. So I asked Jude about it, just a minute ago. He said that that’s impossible, that you can’t lose personal memory like that. He said the people were just in shock or whatever.” He sighs again and shrugs. “It was 2031, I think, when the implants hit the market. Just about six years ago. How much do we really know about them, about what they can do to our brains?”
I’ve never seen him like this. I think, nothing, and I say, “I’m sure Jude knows what he’s talking about. Those customers were just in shock, like you said.”
“Yeah,” he says, “yeah,” and returns to his desk. I hope he doesn’t think I’m like this in real life. There are two people in all of us: our natural selves, and the selves we become when circumstances require it. If Rich is listening in on my cell, if anyone else in in earshot is paying attention, I can’t let myself show even the slightest doubt in our product. I need my review to go perfectly.
The scraping sound in my neck is definitely audible now. Keith doesn’t say anything—no one at the office ever does—but I notice his little glances when he hears it.
My mother calls from the nursing home. She tells me the doctors are saying Dad has entered the sixth stage of Alzheimer’s. She tells me I really need to get up to visit more often. I tell her I’m trying, but with work six days a week and only one left to groceries and bills and housekeeping, the two-hour train ride to Edison is hard to fit in. I tell her I’ll try harder, I’ll hopefully come up once work slows down. It’s just really messy now. Good, she says, and she tells me to make sure I do.
Jude thinks that within decades we’ll solve the problem of death. Our computers are already more complex than the observable brain; all that remains is finding some way to transcribe the mind onto the machine. He may very well be right. My mother might just miss immortality. It’s too late for Dad already.
“Can you think of anything someone might have said, maybe something you overheard, about being angry or dissatisfied with things here at work?”
Rich is asking the questions, reading from a script. Perhaps they expect the answers will be more honest this way. The inspector sits in a corner of the office, murmuring notes. Rich has the windows dimmed; a weak trace of sunlight stumbles through. He’s leaning forward, hands folded, elbows on the immense glass desk. Mine brace my knees. “No, nothing I can think of.” I can think of plenty. If that’s what they’re investigating, Keith might find his back against the wall, as well as Jude.
“Well, let us know if you remember anything. Umm,” Rich says, and glances back at the script. It’s printed on paper, very official. “When you close down your block at night, are you ensuing—” he hunches squinting over the sheet. “Ensuring. Are you ensuring that none of your subordinates are either on the network or still in the building?”
“Each evening, I send everyone else home before performing my closing duties. Generally, Keith McElwee and I leave the building together. I’m always the last to log out.” I’m trying to be professional, but I can’t suppress a sigh. “You know all this, Rich. And if you’re worried about people in the building after hours, why not review the security camera footage?”
“Well, see,” Rich begins, “It turns out that with CASS down, we can’t actually access the security cam—”
The inspector cuts him short with a terse shake of the head. It’s strange to see such a full-faced man terse; his jowls quiver a little with the tension. Rich is a striking contrast, bony, with a huge forehead and gray eyes and graying hair. Aside from the scalp, he’s fairly attractive for his age, which must be nearly sixty by now. His hairline came further down his head when I began here, back when I was running a single line and he was managing my block. We haven’t moved so far since then.
“Right,” he says in response to the inspector’s signal, “right.” After a last glance at the bottom of the page, he announces, “Well, that covers it for now. Thanks, sugar. I’m sure I’ll be calling you back in here if this guy has any more questions.”
“Anything I can do to help.” I slowly rise from the chair, putting a hand on the desk to support my weight, taking care not to topple the fake-gold bowling ball atop it. It’s a league trophy; bowling, for some reason, is Rich’s thing. Jude’s thing is playing keyboard in some god-awful band; he says they’re trying to get a contract on the small imprint so they can play some local concerts. Keith’s thing, near as I can tell, is sarcasm. I guess everyone needs a thing. It gives shape to all the hours in the call center, to have something to look forward to outside it.
“And if you don’t mind my saying,” Rich calls as I exit the room, “those pants look deliciously professional on you.” I don’t need to turn around to know the exact shape of his grin.
The questioning was just standard procedure, but my neck is acting up worse than it was beforehand. I have a sense that I won’t make it through the end of my shift if I can’t get some rest. My lunch hour has already begun, so instead of returning to my desk or riding the elevator to the mess hall, I walk the length of the floor, passing my block and each of the others. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, hundreds of feet. And finally, the dark of Block 18.
I’ve never tried this before, but no one is paying me any mind, so I easily slip into the grid of desks. Most of the chairs have been removed, but a few remain, the last sign that anyone ever filled this space. I gingerly sink into one, shaking off some superstitious fear I’ll upset its prior occupant. I set the alarm on my cell for three minutes before the end of my break, and for the first time in my life, I sleep on the job.
My apartment is frigid when I arrive at home. It’s a compromise: keeping the heat low lets me save more money for the surgery, but everything aches in the cold. I wrap myself in a blanket while I wait for the heat to rise. It doesn’t take long; it’s a small place.
The new Ikea catalog came yesterday, and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I pull my feet up under me in my lone armchair (aging, black leather) as I open it. There’s a beautiful bedroom setup in black and white, elegant, not too showy. If I keep my job at the call center after my surgery—I’m not sure yet that I will—perhaps I’ll be able to afford it.
The monthly deposit from Charles is late again. According to our prenuptial agreement, he should owe me half his income for six more years. Infidelity is a hard thing to prove, but Charles is not a careful man, and my lawyer (Sam Ferdock, highly recommended) secured a subpoena for the contents of his cell. In court Charles said that I was “frigid,” that my “withholding” sex forced him to seek it from one of his sociology students. It was my neck, of course he knew that, but in court he managed to beat the sum down to a pittance. And even after that, he can never manage to pay on time!
Maybe I’ll call his wife tomorrow, and see what the delay is for.
It’s another week before it happens. When I log into the network to begin my shift, there is a message at the top of my inbox. It’s from CASS.
GOOD MORNING, DOREEN.
No one told me she was back online. My neck scrapes as my head jerks in surprise. “Good morning, CASS.”
Keith is pleasantly surprised when he arrives. “It’s about time. I’m sick of handling every how-do-I-check-my-mail question ourselves. Still, guess it didn’t hurt our job security. They can’t get rid of us all now, when things like that can happen.” He smirks. Maybe it’s just a smile, and I just always read it as a smirk. “Did they ever find out what did happen?”
“Sabotage,” I reply, though I don’t know what they found.
It’s midmorning when we see the ample inspector, flanked by two more able-looking guards. They troop from the elevator to Rich’s office, where the door remains closed for some time. Then they troop back to the elevator. We see no more of them.
It’s only when I disconnect from the network for lunch that I see the missed calls from Jude on my personal line—twelve of them. I make my way back to Block 18 and return his call.
“Fired,” he manages.
“What? How? What happened?”
“That inspector, he came in with these two other guys, they said they were Walton loss recovery or something, they locked me out of CASS and dragged me out of the building and they say I’m never going to work again, shit, they’re saying they might take me to court for reckless endangerment…”
“Jude, you need to calm down. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. I have to go, but I’ll call you back after work. Everything will be all right.”
“Yeah? How the hell is that?”
“I’ll call you after work,” I repeat, and I disconnect before he can respond.
When I’m home for the night, I call back and talk to him at greater length. He’s calmer, then.
The day of my ten-year review, I wear my “professional” pants. Rich looks happy to see them; I keep my customer service smile on. “I hope you’re having a good morning, Rich.”
“Good morning, sugar. Ten years already, is it?” He spares us both the seems-like-just-yesterday platitude, at least.
“Yes, sir. It’s been a wonderful decade of service with you.” At this point, there’s no harm in laying it on thick.
“Yeah, sure has.” He flicks the switch on a projector on his desk. An employment record appears on the blank back wall with my name and photograph. “Here you are. We spent a lot of time going over it, me and the district manager…” He keeps talking, but I don’t hear a word of it. My eyes are locked on the text on the wall.
“Good,” I croak. “You’re evaluating me as ‘good.’”
“Yep. It’s a bigger raise than ‘satisfactory,’ but we think you’ve earned it.”
My neck throbs like someone is taking a hammer to it. “‘Good’ isn’t good enough, Rich. I’ve given my life for this job these past ten years.”
“You gotta understand, sugar, there’s only so many ‘excellent’ evaluations I can hand out. With CASS back online, it’s all I can do to keep your jobs. I’m out there fighting for you with Corporate. But you know those suits, always riding me about the bottom line.”
I stare at my reflection in the golden bowling ball on the desk. I will not cry. “Rich, you know I have arthritis. I can’t get my surgery with my current insurance. And I don’t get the plan I need with a ‘good’ evaluation.”
He replies, “And we took that into consideration, but we looked at the numbers and this is how it came out. It’s already in the system, I can’t change it now.”
I lean forward, grimacing as much with anger as with pain. “Yes you can. You get on your goddamn cell and you update that evaluation.”
He stares at me for a moment, his expression difficult to read. Then he laughs. “Whoa, there. No need to get aggressive, sugar. Maybe that nice raise on your evaluation can help pay for the surgery. It is what it is…”
I have returned my gaze to the bowling ball. It is so bright, and so much harder than Rich’s bulbous forehead. He is still talking; I reach for it; he is still talking; my grip tightens on the finger holes. I begin to rise from my chair.
“Now,” he concludes whatever he was saying, “is there anything else you need to talk to me about?”
I look down at my hand. Even warped by the sphere, my reflection looks tired. I relax my fingers and retract them from the ball. I pull back the edges of my lips, tethered to anchor points in my neck; the prim smile returns to my face. “No, sir. Have a good day, sir.”
When I return to my desk, I take a minute before connecting to the network. Ten deep breaths. My cell receives a notice from Walton Atlantic Bank: the second payment to Jude has been deducted from my account. This one is the bigger payment, the hush fee. Planting the bug might have ruined him, but at this point he has nothing to gain from giving the inspector my name. The sum we agreed upon was a large one, though not as large as I expected—the loss would have put me another month away from affording the surgery, as if that matters anymore. Jude needs whatever money he can get, now. I log in.
GOOD MORNING, DOREEN.
I don’t reply.
The lines are slow today, as they have been every day since CASS was brought back online. At lunch, I notice several people from another block, carrying things down the hall: photographs of boyfriends and girlfriends; popsicle-stick sculptures made by their children. Some faces are streaked with tears. I have my lunch in the mess hall today. Just as I return, the fluorescent tubes that light Block 17 are beginning to go dark, row by row.