I decided this week to put up the alternate (and original) ending of ‘Rat Race’, a story that was accepted for the ‘Corporate Catharsis’ anthology by Paper Angel Press. This story is much darker and dystopian than the accepted version.
The guards were at the gated entry. the two men in brown and black looked out over the restless swarm of business suits and blue jeans. Each person there in the misty morning carried a briefcase with The bright silver letters ‘HKI’ stenciled on both sides. What HKI stood for was cause of a constant debate online after work, as no one professed to know what exactly the letters represented.
Cameron Farver was there, two rows back. Cameron, or Cam for short, was inches below six feet, pounds over being considered slim, and with less hair than considered attractive. His bulldog-like face belied his gentle demeanor and polite method of speech. He was at once the epitome of the classic squat, sharp-eyed con-man or pawn shop operator, and an elegant refined maitre-de at the most posh and expensive restaurants.
This morning, despite the mist, Cameron had forgone his usual business attire of brown jacket and pants with a white shirt, for the more practical pair of dockers and a button collar blue shirt with black running shoes. He looked at his watch. Five minutes before gygthe gates opened. Because of his height, he couldn’t see higher than most people’s shoulders, so he didn’t know how large the crowd was. He could guess however, because of the way the crowd was pushing forward, squeezing against the gate. His heart sped up. There’d been times people had been trampled when the gate opened. He didn’t want to be one of them, and began using his elbows to open space around him. The quick jabs opened breathing room and calmed the unease he always got during the crush just before the gates opened.
Open they did with a blare of air horns. The gate dropped away as the workers charged ahead like racehorses leaping from the gates. Cameron was carried through by the initial surge. He managed to keep his feet under him as he was pushed through the gate and onto the HKI campus. People began to spread out, racing towards different locations.
“Good morning employees, it is a wonderful day at HKI. At this moment there are fourteen thousand, eight hundred forty three jobs available in all departments.” The bright, cheerful voice blared over the loudspeakers as the swarm spread out. Cameron looked around him at the familiar surroundings.
The large hangars were to the south of the gate, maintenance and transport to the southwest. To the west were security and software, while northeast was research, production, and HKI headquarters. A few ran towards maintenance. This was the easiest job to get, with bare minimum pay and a lot of time running around cleaning up after the water cooler drones, who spilled drinks and dropped food while they hovered around the dispenser. Transport was an okay job. You got to drive small golf carts all over the place delivering parts to research and production. The trouble here was that there were a lot of golf carts and a lot of people walking around. Bump any one of them with a cart and you were back with the Cooler drones for the rest of the day.
Down at the hangars were where jobs like welders, riveters, and other assembly personnel resided. These were hard jobs with a lot of lifting and carrying, plus a lot of work holding tools to help build a product. They were part of production, but didn’t do anything more than get pieces and put them together.
Some sprinted off towards security, where you could get a good job, with decent credit pay for walking around and making sure nothing was getting stolen or broken during use. Software was another fairly easy job, with a lot of console typing and fixing software puzzles. That job Cameron hated. He’d done it once and found he had no aptitude for wither typing in a foreign language, nor solving conundrums in software.
Research was one of the primo jobs on the campus. A chance to do research to create new products, and develop these ideas into a product. The workers who were assigned to the winning project got a salary bonus for its creation and a ten second head start at a random auxiliary gate. literally, Research was the best place to get ahead. 4Cameron liked having ten seconds no one else had. It was THE chance to get a lead. There was a lot to choose from with that kind of time.
Another option was production, turning a design from research into a real thing for sale. This involved problem solving on how you’d get an object from an idea to a finished object. It was here people solved puzzles fitting pieces together to make a whole. Like research, a finished product garnered a salary bonus and a three second head start the next day. Not as exciting as ten seconds, but any early start was welcome.
Most of the crowd, which included Cameron, scrambled to the Northeast, towards headquarters. The cushiest jobs were there. An executive job wasn’t Cameron’s choice this time. Too many tried for them, and ended up water-cooler slackers for the rest of the day. Cam wanted a good job this time, one that would pay for the water, electric, and PlayStation charges that Andrea, the home help program said he was behind on. It was really hard for Cam to concentrate without his PlayBox. He felt his body getting twitchy and his mind was always more and more aching for the sonic high that the PlayBox emitted when he played online.
“Good morning HKI employees, it is a wonderful productive day at HKI. There are seven hundred fifty-five jobs available in all departments. All director positions have been filled. There will be another job update in five minutes.”
Gaming was his life. He had to have more time. It was so hard to concentrate if he didn’t get time. He pushed his squat body faster, angling off from a gaggle of people running towards the second-tier jobs in management. Cameron was gasping for air by the time he’d gotten to the door. It was a brown rectangle in a featureless ivory wall. The door had stenciled in bright white lettering; ‘Employees Only beyond this point.’ Cameron gripped his briefcase tighter, twisting the doorknob and pulling the door open.
The door had no stop, and banged hard against the painted cinder block, adding more scrapes and streaked color to it. If he remembered right, this would shortcut into the research area, coming in opposite the main doorway that led to the job cubicles. The only trouble was he was currently trying to hack up a lung, and his legs were shaking. It was three floors up to research, and one huge production floor west from the exit. This was a secure area. He wasn’t supposed to be here. It was, however, the best shortcut to where he wanted to go.
The trick was to avoid security. The previous shift hadn’t finished yet. They would be relieved by the newcomers in a few minutes. It was a fortunate window he could use if he was careful. Cameron walked quickly and as silently as he could in his hard-soled shoes. The faint tapping of his shoes sounded like gunshots as he moved along the gray and yellow corridor.
A sudden bang startled him. He looked over his shoulder and gasped out a curse. It wasn’t security, it was Blondell Jasper. Blondell spotted Cameron at the same instant, and tucked his chin down against his pale rotund chest and pushed his massive body into a waddling charge towards Cam. Unlike Cameron, he was dressed code-monkey casual; bluejeans, a red t-shirt, and sneakers. Both the pants and shirt were a trifle undersized for his bulk. But Blondell was a full head taller, and much wider.
Cam didn’t wait, tucking his own head down and running as fast as he could. If security showed up, it was better to be in front and closest to the exit. He’d done a job in security, and they always, always walked the same route day in and day out. Deviating from the path or missing a checkpoint got you demoted to Slacker, and your paycheck revoked.
No money meant no PlayBox. No PlayBox meant no way to game, order food, clothing, pay energy bills, socialize, or game. It was solitary confinement until the next day and a new chance for a job. Cameron had been through a number of days like that as he had reached the age of job-holding. There was no breaking in period. You got in line, and ran for a job. It took a few tries to get an idea where to run. The jobs weren’t just for crossing the finish line, you had to FIND it. Jobs like the golf cart delivery were easy. Collect the right key and put it in the right lock, and the job was yours.
Security jobs required you find a clean uniform, put it on and then find a security guard whose shift was up. There was a little red light on top of their caps to help identify those who needed relief.
Just as Cam reached the yellow door on the yellow wall, with Blondell only twenty steps behind him, the door behind Blondell banged open a third time with security yelling ‘Halt!’ at his retreating back. Cam, threw the door open, stepped through and pulled it closed behind him in one smooth motion. He turned the lock just as Blondell started trying to pull the door open. Another shouted ‘Halt!’ vibrated through the metal door, and Cam heard Blondell curse. The heavy footsteps receded, followed by multiple footsteps rushing past the door. Cam heaved a sigh of relief. With Blondell occupied he could get on with his mission to find his job.
After listening for any footsteps, he turned his back to the door and faced the stairs. Listening for any noise, he slowly started up, ready to bolt if he was discovered. This was part of the test for this job. You had to get past the obstacles to claim the job. Risk versus reward. Cam didn’t know of any job like this one. He’d found it totally by accident, after he’d done seven straight shifts for security. “Good morning HKI employees, it is a wonderful morning. There are five unfilled management positions, eleven unfilled security positions, six unfilled manufacturing positions, fourteen unfilled maintenance positions, two unfilled research positions, one unfilled position…”
The Public System would announce the number of unfound jobs, and what department they were in. All except one. Every day there was always ‘one job unfilled’. Just that. No location. No other information. At first he thought it was just to keep the Water Cooler Slackers stirred up. It didn’t. No one seemed to care about the job, apparently because no one had ever found it. It was a small mystery that the Public System never explained. Most concluded it was just a glitch. Cameron wasn’t so certain. There wouldn’t be a fake unfilled job would there? The Public System was perfect after all. So the job had to be real, didn’t it?
Cam’s curiosity had gotten the better of him during the last day he tried for a security posting. He walked the halls diligently, making every check-in location on time. But, for all their diligence in covering the security stations, something seemed off. Cam began charting the circuits. There was one area that the circuits avoided. It was a nondescript location, far away from any of the secure rooms and manufacturing floor. The closest thing of any consequence were three vending machines and a small square table on the Northern edge of the area in question. There were doors, with the usual admonition of ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ in white block letters on brown doors set in ivory-yellow walls.