Short Fiction


By Aaron Swartz

Derek hated coffee. Hated the way the sickly brown liquid slipped past his tongue and trickled down the back of his throat. Hated the way the blood flow increased to his brain. Hated the way his eyes widened after a half-asleep commute. Derek hated the person he was on coffee, the person who was always "on", always greeting his co-workers with a smile and an understanding nod. Derek hated coffee, but he drank it anyway.

It didn't use to be like this. Derek still remembered the bright college days, the mornings when the sun always gleamed and the girls always smiled and the classes weren't too hard but just hard enough to keep him out of trouble. Trouble, of course, was in the eye of the beholder. Derek partied and drank and took a few of the usual drugs, but he did so without compulsion, still eager to keep enough of himself around to take a whack at the next day.

When Derek started his job at Metacorp, it didn't seem like that much had changed. Metacorp tried to be a happy workplace, its publicity material insisting that the thirtysomething founders worked hard to bring the exciting college atmosphere to all its salaried employees. So Derek continued on with his life as before, never noticing that the walls had started closing in.

Behind the colored lights and bouncy balls lay a fairly standard series of rectangular office buildings, filled with grids of rectangular cubes, each containing a flat screen monitor, a keyboard, and a programmer. Derek was a code monkey in a vast army of them, round pegs carefully fitted into climate-controlled square holes.

Derek didn't have to talk to his coworkers. Instead tasks appeared on his screen, sent through the interoffice bug tracking system. Derek had to figure out how to insert a new function into a morass of Java code, how to make sure all the functions connected properly, like grafting a new room onto an existing set of plumbing. He'd carefully test it to make sure it all worked and then submit his code and mark the task as done and move on to the next. He'd watch his tasks completed counter increase by one, like completing a job in a video game in which there is always a next level.

The tasks-completed counter incremented. The guy in the cubicle to his left talked noisily on the phone in a foreign language. The attractive girl in the cubicle in front of him continued to ignore his existence. The intern in the cubicle to his right continued to munch noisily. Someone zipped past on a scooter in the cubicle-hallway behind him. Derek took another sip of coffee.

Everything at Metacorp was analyzed. Nothing made their bosses quite so happy as a number, so every task became numeric. Each person's count of tasks completed was carefully tracked and analyzed, outliers highlighted and detected, global trends carefully considered, plans for improving the weak cases hatched. Derek had worked in the productivity statistics department, so he knew exactly how carefully such things were tracked. They didn't need the CCTV cameras in the ceiling. His cubicle didn't need transparent walls. His computer didn't need robot desktop software. His every contribution was being carefully monitored, automatically.

At five o'clock Derek saved what he was working on and powered off his monitor. He put his jacket back on and filed, head down, towards the bus that would take him back to his home in the city. He fiddled with a book on the ride home but the bumps and noise made it hard to read. Besides, visions of if statements and else clauses danced in his head and the book in front of him no longer made quite so much sense anymore.

He chatted gamely with his roommates and then went to bed, ready to begin the process in reverse the next morning, waving goodbye to the roommates, fiddling with the book on the shuttle, walking head down to his cubicle, removing his jacket, and switching on his monitor -- a movie wound forwards and backwards, again and again.

But today the task list had a notice at the top. "Recent analysis of your performance metrics," it said, "have categorized your task performance as sub-optimal. Without rapid performance improvement, remedial action will be taken." He understood what the software was saying. Speed up or get fired.

The software Derek wrote ran on servers in Metacorp's data center, a gleaming-white temperature controlled building in which computer boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling, a nervous system of wiring connecting them all together. Software carefully monitored each box's performance and as soon as one began to slip -- perhaps its hard drive was getting old, or its memory a bit unreliable -- a person would be dispatched to quickly remove it from its place on the rack and replace it with another, before any damage could be done. And they were going to do the same with Derek.

Derek begun working later. He'd keep typing after five o'clock rolled around. He miss the shuttle and simply fall asleep at his desk, skipping the whole forward-and-rewind journey to and fro. But it wasn't enough. Derek put in the hours, but he couldn't focus. His whole life became function calls, just like his software, each worldly cue dropping him into a routine that he couldn't break out of.

The girl in front of him tossed her hair, swishing it so that it caught the light in just that way that made him crazy. He got up and snuck behind her, slammed her head into her desk with one hand and used the other to reach down. The desk muffled the screams.

He'd lived in San Francisco for years, sex didn't bother him anymore. Everybody fucked everybody here. No, it was intimacy that scared him, the crazy notion that you could find your perfect soulmate on craigslist, the girl who'd make all your inner emptiness worthwhile. The girl in front of him finished swinging her hair and turned around to smile at him. He smiled weakly back before turning back to code.

He imagined himself lying next to her, watching her toss her hair as her chin lay atop her elbow-propped arm. He'd see the guy zip past on the scooter and remember his endless, unchanging commute. He'd hear the guy talking on the phone in the foreign language and remember his conversations with his roommates, the forced conviviality, their shared attempt to act as if nothing was wrong, even as he felt his life slipping off the rails. He'd hear the intern munching and think about the food that constantly made him sick to his stomach, that made him want to clutch his chest in agony at nights, that made him feel like he was starving when he tried to stay away from it.

So he started doing drugs.

First it was just coffee, the caffeine buzz the boost he needed to get him through the day. But as his productivity continued to fail to improve, the company dispatched a technician to see if the problem could easily be repaired. The technician made a note and soon the coffee machine began adding Ritalin to his cups. The Ritalin would "smooth him out", they explained, make him more focused and productive.

Metacorp had taken his days, then it had taken his nights. It had taken his inner life, now it was taking his personality. Derek was a more productive worker, but he felt like even less of a person. The
distractions had been annoying, yes, but at least they had been something real, something human. Now he stared at the screen and all he saw was Java code, funnyCapsWords and {curly braces}. He had become the cog Metacorp had always hoped for.

His productivity picked up and the warning message above his task list disappeared. Derek had become the model Metacorp employee: a perfect machine, following instructions without demand. And, as a result, perfectly replaceable. Derek woke up one morning to find his task list had been moved to China. He took another sip of his coffee. Derek hated coffee.

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Derek was published on 24th April, 2009.

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