Starlight 3, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books
I’ve been trying to break into Starlight for, oh, six or seven years. For my money, it’s the best original sf anthology I’ve ever read, and I’m unspeakably pumped to finally sell Patrick a story.
No less spectacular are the circumstances under which Patrick accepted the story: it was at the reception before the Hugo Awards, and I was in a state of barely contained panic. Patrick said, “Hey, I keep forgetting to tell you — I want to buy your story for Starlight” — an hour later, I won the Campbell Award, and that was possibly the only thing that could’ve eclipsed my ecstasy over selling this piece.
I wrote this story while stuck in a hotel room in Montreal, working for an ad agency.
Wow, you won’t believe what happened today. First of all, I was nearly late for work because my new roommate is worried about the electrical and he pulled out all the plugs last night, even my alarm clock! His name is Tony, and I think he is either weird or crazy, or maybe both! He keeps saying that the Company uses the plugs to listen to our minds! He unplugged all the electricals and put tape over them in the middle of the night. When I woke up this morning, my room was totally black! I had my flashlight from work on the chair near my bed, and I used that to find the living room. Tony was sitting in his shorts on the sofa, in the dark, watching the plug behind the TV. Hey, I said, you watch the television, not the plug, and then he said some bad words and told me that he didn’t want me plugging in anything. He is skinny like Jimmy got when he had the AIDS, but he is not sick, he is hyperkinetic, like Manny was when he went to the special school. That is why he is management and I still work on a truck. If I have to be skinny and crazy to be management, I’ll take the truck all day long!
So I got dressed and ran out of the apt and took all those stairs up to the slidewalk because there was a big line-up of people waiting for the elevators, like always, and I didn’t have time to wait, because my watch was already warning me that I was going to be late as if I didn’t know! I ran all the way to the garage, around all the people on the slidewalk, who don’t know to walk right and stand left like you always told me. Life up here in the city is different from back home and no doubt at all.
My watch knew that I wasn’t in the garage at 8:25 and it started counting down the minutes till I was late. Its voice gets higher and higher and more and more excited as I get closer to being late, and I thought it was going to bust something as I ran through the door of the garage. It told me that I’d had a close call, but I’d made it, and I felt pretty good about that.
Wendell, the day supervisor, smiled at me when I came in, which he never does, and I got nervous that maybe my watch was wrong about my being late, except that my watch is never wrong. Jap, he said, you’re on special truck 982 today. I said what’s that, and he told me that it was a great honour and then he said I’d like you to meet your pusher for today, Rhindquist.
So I shook Rhindquist’s hand. He was a kind of old, fat, short guy, and his uniform was old-fashioned looking and not as smart as the one I wear, that you liked so much in the photo I sent home last month. So right away I thought that he was some kind of moron and I was being punished for being late. He said, pleased to meet you, Jasper, and he didn’t sound like a moron, but more like one of those guys on your TV stories that are rich and powerful and in charge. I said call me Jap everybody else does and he said twenty years ago the All-Nippon Anti-Defamation League would have put a stop to that and I laughed even though I didn’t get the joke until later. It is that Jap is also short for Japanese, which is like the Moonies but they are from Korea.
Let’s roll ’em out, Rhindquist said, and hopped on the back of the truck and held on tight. I got in and did my ten-point startup safety check like they taught me. By point four, he was banging on the side of the truck and saying Let’s go! and I leaned out my window and said that I wouldn’t skip my safety check for nobody and he said some bad words and I said that I would have to start over again and he’d better keep quiet or we’d never get out of there. My watch said I did right, which made me feel good. I hoped that Rhindquist’s watch told him off for trying to shortcut on safety!
We rolled out a little late. I drove to my first pickup, which is the side of Finance 38. Finance 38 is a very, very tall building and all no windows because they don’t want spies from other cities seeing them and their money. I drove over the Severe Tire Damage yard and passed through three security gates and backed up to the shredder bay. I did my four-point shutdown safety check and Rhindquist banged on the truck again and said more bad words but I ignored him. His watch must be busy all the time, telling him not to be so mean!
I went through the metal-detector and into the Finance 38 and the guard’s watch and my watch talked to each other for a while and then the guard stopped pointing his gun at me and said, You’re late now move this stuff out of here and I said OK and started moving the boxes. Finance 38’s boxes are very heavy, and there sure are a lot of them! Every day, there are fifty boxes, as big as the big TV at the community centre back home. I am getting very strong working at this job, Mom! My arms are bigger every morning.
I moved the boxes back to the truck. I left them for Rhindquist, who started opening them and pushing the papers inside into the hopper. On my normal truck, 3528, my pusher is Vasquez, who is very fast at pushing the papers. Rhindquist was slow, so that by the time Iâ€™d moved half the boxes back to the truck, there was no more room to be move the rest! I thought that for a guy whoâ€™s always in a big hurry, he sure works slow!
So I went into the truck, with my flashlight. And there was Rhindquist, and do you know what he was doing? He was reading the papers before putting them into the shredder! What are you doing? I said, you arenâ€™t allowed to do that! He gave me a look, not like he was angry, but like he thought I was a moron or something. My watch told me that I should report him right away, and I started to go back into Finance 38 to use the guard’s phone, but Rhindquist did something with his own watch and my watch stopped working! You broke my watch! I said to him!
He said, That’s from the Blues Brothers, and he said, What do they do, attach the disposal baskets to the laser printers? This is all junk, none of this needs secure disposal! And I said, you broke my watch, Rhindquist, and everything in the Finance Buildings needs secure disposal, it’s in the manual.
He said, I didn’t break your watch, I just shut it off for a while. It will be OK, trust me. Come here, have a look at this.
Mom, I did it! I read the paper in his hand, with my flashlight. It said, Johnson, your performance review has been rescheduled for 1630h on Friday, 78th floor boardroom.
This is crap! Rhindquist said. This doesn’t need secure disposal. He kept digging through the papers, and looking at them before shoving them in the shredder. Every time he looked at one, he said, Crap, and then put it in. I couldn’t stop watching. I thought we were going to be fired! Or put in jail! Then he said, Aha! He showed me the paper, it said, CONFIDENTIAL at the top, and I felt like I was going to sick up, I was so scared. It said RE-ORG CHART, and it had lots of names with dotted lines connecting them to other names. Rhindquist winked at me and put it in his pocket — his old-fashioned uniform had pockets!
I thought I figured it out then. Rhindquist was a spy from another city! They talked about spies in Basic Training, and what to do when you found one. You are supposed to make sure they won’t go anywhere, then contact security. So I ran as quick as I could out of the truck and slammed the door and security-locked it from the outside, and then I climbed over all the boxes of unshredded documents from Finance 38 and ran to the security guard. I said, there’s a spy in my truck, and he’s reading the papers! And he said, What? I said, My pusher is a spy! I caught him reading the papers and putting them in his pockets! The security guard looked like he thought I was crazy! I said, Really! And he picked up his phone and spoke in Securitese to the other security guards and then there were sirens and lots of cars and guards with armour and guns, Mom!
They surrounded the truck and unlocked it and Rhindquist stepped out with his hands in his pockets. He said, Quality Auditor, boys, radio it in. The security guards looked like they wanted to shoot him, but one of them talked into his phone and then shouted out at all the security guards in Securitese and they went away!
Rhindquist walked over to me and said, Jap, you aren’t the brightest bulb on the marquee, but you think fast and you follow orders. I said, I am as smart as the next person and I do my job. I said to the security guard from Finance 38, aren’t you going to arrest him, he’s a spy!? And the security guard said, Look, he’s management. He’s allowed to do this.
And Rhindquist put his arm around my shoulders and said, You’re stuck in a loop, son. New data: I’m not a spy, I’m your boss, and you did right, even if you have blown the audit. How’d you like a promotion?
And I said, you’re management?
And then, do you know what? He said, Jap, my boy-o, I am Rhindquist J McBride, CEO, President, and Chairman of the Board of the File-Agator Corporation, The Incorporated Township of File-Agator, Ontario, and File-Agator International Holdings, Limited. I’m in charge!