JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS 2023, 6:45 P.M.
Everyone’s going one way and you’re going the other. Story of your life, Schrader. Too bad it’s been almost solely accidental and not part of some well worked-out plan, Travis Schrader thought, while he drove to work on one side of the road, and everyone else drove home for dinner on the other. Least I’m beating the traffic. Sure, it was slim solace, but when you’re an inadvertent creature of the night, sometimes that’s the best sentiment you’re going to get.
But seriously, he thought as he took a sip of coffee and placed the thermos back on the passenger’s seat, how did I end up working nights? Well, it went kind of like that classic Hemingway quote about how people end up going bankrupt: slowly and then all at once. The job started out on a split rotation, thirty days of night followed by thirty days of days. After the first two phases of the schedule, Travis decided to stick with the nights, especially after reaching the unavoidable conclusion that he didn’t have anything in life so pressing that it needed to happen with the sun up.
Besides, it gave him even more of an excuse to exist through smartphone apps. He had one for his groceries, one for his laundry, one for his banking, one for his doctor’s appointments; every human necessity was just a tap away on his iPhone screen. That’s right. He had this whole night thing down; at least, he liked to think so. And if he got close to meditating on the alienation of being nocturnal, of thinking per se about the decision to embrace the lifestyle of a vampire – like right about now – a trusty app like Google Maps always seemed to come to his rescue, instructing him to turn off the interstate and onto a local road, to avoid construction congestion in half a mile. It was as if the machines, the inanimate guides of his life were always on his side, keeping him from doubting his decision to live among them:
“Don’t think about anything, Travis. We’ve got it. We’re here for you. We’ll always keep you company. Unlike those messy humans who are so fickle. Let us protect you.”
Travis squinted, took a right at the exit, and cruised onto a rural stretch bordered by miles of tightly packed corn stalks on either side. He turned on his high beams, kept on the lookout for any animals making a run for it. The last time Google sent him down a side road, it was as if all the animals in Kansas had escaped from a burning zoo and spilled out onto the street. He seemingly encountered everything from a family of foxes to twelve-point bucks.
From outside the car, Travis heard an irrigation system spring to life. The moonlight dappled the drops and they appeared almost like fairy dust, like lunar hail, as they drenched the thirsty seeds. Travis slowed down, examined the field.
The first thing that caught his eye was a series of bright placards peeking out from between the sea of dark greens, announcing that the land was the property of the Gulch Group, right down to the seeds in the soil. The signage also explained the penalties – in a sort of corporate Hammurabi’s Code – if one was caught either trespassing or attempting to excavate any of the patented seeds from the dirt. Unconsciously, Travis ran his fingers across the patch on the side of his all-black uniform, which also branded him as property of the Gulch Group. The hat resting atop his head was similarly emblazoned with the corporate logo.
He drove on, rolled down his window, stared past the placards, and noticed a series of robotic arms planting seeds into freshly saturated ground. The metal limbs were wrapped in thick latex and connected to black pneumatic tubes which terminated in cylindrical bases stuffed with sensors. These arms worked the arable land. They were the only employees, and even better, they were being controlled by someone sitting in an office likely hundreds of miles away, and watching the whole operation via a drone floating somewhere in the sky. Travis was sure it was up there, even though he couldn’t see it. And that somewhere in that speck-sized camera was a miniscule Gulch Group logo.
Google Maps spoke back up, instructing Travis he could hang a left and proceed onto a more traveled road. Travis knew the route well. It would take him through what used to be the town square. Well, technically it still was the town square, but major changes had been afoot, once the Gulch Group planted roots in the town, and imported in thousands of employees, and bestowed a few menial service jobs upon the town’s actual residents. Winning the contract to house the megacorporation was supposed to make it rain – metaphorically – for the first time in decades in Jefferson County, but instead of a hail of green to get the town out from under debt, everyone got to work for the Gulch Group for less money than they’d already been making, and the corporation got to dodge taxes and build tons of infrastructure to basically benefit themselves and their more well-heeled employees.
Travis drove through the stoplight and readied himself for the heady dose of the former town square of his childhood given over to the wares and whims of the needs of multinational executives. There was a series of steel and chrome apartment buildings housing heated pools and heliports, new supermarkets that no one but Gulch Group employees could afford to shop at and that exclusively sold their organic GMO products. Travis knew things had entered a new realm when businesses he thought he’d never see pop up in Jefferson County actually popped up: a Soul Cycle and two psychiatrists. Within a matter of a few more months, the old farming community Travis knew would likely be gone, plowed under by all the signs of dynamic cosmopolitan living.
He reached over, grabbed another sip of coffee, and started to think again about the Gulch Group and his night job at the cornerstone of their empire, and thankfully, before that dreaded “thinking” habit could start, his cellphone rang, and he activated his Bluetooth to talk while driving.
“How’s the Taurus riding?” Billy Stark said, in lieu of introduction. Not like he need one anyway.
Travis had that kind of relationship with Billy Stark – the twang-laced voice on the other end of the line – the kind that didn’t require polite introductions; one could just jump into the meat of the conversation. They’d been best friends for twenty years, starting at the age of ten, and the dialectic of their relationship had never altered. From the beginning, they had so much mutual love and respect for each other, and were so sure the other was comfortable in the knowledge of that deep well of shared emotion, that they spent most of their time insulting the other for life choices, blown opportunities, and personality defects.
“I think you made it worse,” Travis said. “The alignment’s still off. I take my hands off the wheel and it starts to drift to the left.”
“The hell are you taking your hands off the wheel for?”
“To test the alignment,” Travis said.
“Well don’t do that.” Stark snorted in derision. “It didn’t drive that way after I fixed it.”
“Fuck do you know,” Travis said.
“Maybe it’s because you start drinking the minute you get up. Roads tend to bend and swerve out of nowhere when you’re hammered.”
Travis chewed his lower lip.
“I take it from the silence,” Stark continued, “that the solo festivities for the evening have already started.”
“Regardless,” Travis said, “it was my fault to trust a scrap merchant to fix the alignment. You strip cars. You don’t repair anything. You come in when repairs aren’t an option anymore.”
“And you’re a security guard I wouldn’t trust to watch a friggin’ lemonade stand,” Stark said.
“I’m not a security guard. It’s just a temp job.”
“Do temp jobs normally go on for two years?” Stark countered.
“Maybe you don’t know this,” Travis said, “but there’s a thing called the gig economy now. If you want to be a part of this labor force you’ve got to be mobile. You’ve got to be flexible…”
Stark laughed. “Sorry. I’m just thinking about you and flexible in the same sentence.”
Travis looked down at the black brace strapped to his knee.
“They can’t need anything that valuable guarded,” Stark said, “if they hired you.”
“I’ll remind you—” Travis said, getting defensive.
“Oh you’re reminding me of things now…”
“—that it’s not just a security job. I’ve got a degree in electrical engineering. There’s a technical component involved.”
“Sure is,” Stark said. “That’s why they pay you fifteen dollars an hour, instead of the eleven they give the other guards. That’s how important they feel that state college degree is. An extra four dollars an hour.”
“Whatever,” Travis said. “It’s not my career. It’s just where I’m at right now. I mean…we can’t all be the ‘Lord of the Junkyard’.”
Stark got excited. “You heard my new radio ad?”
Travis laughed. “I did. You should cut down on smoking. All your sales pitches remind me of veiled threats delivered by a guy gargling acid.”
“It was a bold acting choice,” Stark said, laughing. “And I’m not the ‘Lord of the Junkyard’. I’m the ‘King of Second Chances’.”
“And I’m still wondering why the hell you called in the first place,” Travis asked. “You’ve fixed this car three times already and never cared enough to call before. You must have really fucked it up. I thought I detected genuine concern in your voice. I’m gonna die in five minutes, aren’t I?”
Stark laughed. “Yeah. You probably won’t make it. Tonight’s not your night.”
“Noted,” Travis said.
“I called ‘cause I heard an interesting rumor.”
Travis perked up; for some reason gossip always entertained him, gave him kind of a dirty eavesdropping thrill. Likely because he had no reason to expect the rumors ever involved him. He didn’t exactly live a life that lent itself to reams of dirty speculation, so he could safely bask in other people’s scandals.
“It actually involved you,” Stark said.
“Me?” Travis said, practically skidding in shock after nearly missing the exit towards work.
“Indirectly,” Stark said. “It’s more about Annie. But anything involving Annie kind of involves you in one way or another.”
That name. Annie. Two syllables. You could say it in less time than it took for one breath. Annie. That’s another one of those topics that could get Travis trapped down the unholy wormhole of “thinking.” In fact, Annie was such an overwhelming topic that even the machines might not be able to save him.
“What about Annie?”
But before Stark could answer the question, his voice became a solid wall of fuzz and feedback, cutting in and out.
“Shit,” Travis muttered, infuriated he wasn’t going to get an answer, get some closure on the newest Annie wrinkle. “Stark, I gotta call you back. I’m near work. The signal’s getting jammed.”
Actually, Travis was surprised; the signal generally began fading out once you turned the corner, but tonight it held on for an extra fifty feet or so.
Must be some kind of brief atmospheric disturbance, some slight shift in the wind patterns, maybe some rain tonight, he thought as he rolled past the sprawling, verdant grounds and the soaring white stucco buildings, six separate campuses, all housing varied elements of the cloud datacenter, the crown jewel in the Gulch Group’s multi-pronged octopus tentacle wrapping around the global information economy.
He pulled the nose of his Taurus to the security stop, removed the lanyard from his neck, and ran his barcoded photo I.D. over the monitor. The screen flashed green; the orange security bar rose, allowing him access to the nearly empty parking lot.
There’s no way it’s going to rain tonight. If it was going to, I’d have felt the twitch in my knee. That’s the one thing about a permanent bone-smashing injury. It leaves you oddly attuned to forces beyond your control.
Travis sourced a spot and, before getting out of the car, took in the imposing monolith of the datacenter, took in all the wire-meshed, signal snuffing, windowed eyes staring out at visitors like a congregation of nocturnal animals. Those eyes seemed able to read your secrets, able to translate the messages emitting off your body, before you even had a chance to realize you’d been caught.
The Gulch Group didn’t just choose Jefferson Country, Kansas out of a hat, didn’t choose that precise spot to erect monumental structures housing some of the world’s most sensitive, top-secret data only because of open land and generous tax breaks. No. The reasoning was far more targeted. If you wanted the globe’s secrets stored in your datacenter, you had to promise seamless protection, a frictionless experience these companies and government agencies couldn’t get anywhere else. You had to deliver a geographical space where spasmodic weather wasn’t a factor, where temperature swings wouldn’t cut through the signals, where massive flooding, biblical earthquakes, and other acts of high powers wouldn’t sink the CIA or the DOD’s databases into the center of the Earth and glaze them over with fresh geological crust that wouldn’t thaw for a thousand years. Jefferson Country was flat as a board and despite the rumors from The Wizard of Oz, tornadoes weren’t a frequent occurrence. In short, Jefferson County fit the bill.
Travis locked up his car and started to make his way across the gravel parking lot. All these spaces, all these geometrical blocks to stuff vehicles in, and he’d never seen more than four or five cars here at a time. It was surreal. Granted he worked nights, but still, he couldn’t imagine that this many people – even during regular working hours – would ever be required to keep the datacenter running. What could they possibly have to do? Once you stepped inside, humans seemed relatively obsolete to the mission at hand. The humming machines had things pretty well locked down. And if he was going to risk “thinking”, if he was going to indulge in speculation, Travis felt the datacenter was a terrifying glimpse into a future few people, including tenured employees of the Gulch Group, could even begin to fathom. The facts, at least to Travis, went something like this:
The twentieth century had largely been about the rise of the animate, the body of the worker, being transcended by the inanimate, the mechanical. The steel workforce came for everyone; no worker was safe, the only ambiguity being the speed at which it took your livelihood away. However, the twenty-first century was vastly different, lines of code, digitized matter, memories, and information, were actually making the machines that replaced humans obsolete. The machines, the robots, had the same grim future as us. They too would be tossed aside for code, for the digital, and only called upon if some message enclosed in a shell of meat or steel was necessary for security reasons.
That’s just depressing, Travis thought. Even the automatized machines are subject to the same Darwinian flattening of progress as flesh and blood. Even they can’t hold off the data container century. It caused him to take one more hard, stiff belt from the “coffee” in his thermos, followed by a sharp gritting of the teeth.
Yes. Billy Stark was correct.
Travis had been drinking on his way to work; now he was drinking about to enter work, and he’d most likely continue drinking while at work. Some people counted down the seconds to leaving work and getting to cork open the first bottle of wine, the first sip from the snifter of Scotch, or the first numbing and nullifying puff on a joint. Travis took the exact opposite approach. He worked semi-fucked up and used his downtime at home to pursue his actual interests, which included, but weren’t limited to, playing games online, participating in Twitch livestreams taking on all challengers, then going onto chatboards and discussing shortcuts and easter eggs contained in online games, and finally, getting lost in endless YouTube holes and loops, watching bits and pieces of programming, never managing to finish anything. Travis wasn’t sure why he needed to be dead sober to do any of that, but he somehow felt it was necessary, that somehow, these games and conversations were more real than the work he did at the datacenter.
Travis took one last quick tug on the “coffee”, then popped a stick of gum in his mouth to blot out the smell of the booze, in case he met another night guard, or a janitor. Granted, those chance encounters rarely happened. He’d made sure of it. He’d worked out all his entrances, exits, and floor schedules to avoid human contact. Plus, his slightly elevated position – not just a security guard, but a security guard with a slight degree of engineering knowledge – made other guards less likely to strike up a conversation. They assumed he might be on urgent business. Sure, it was a calculated pose, but it had the desired effect. Because Travis was of the opinion that people were downright unpredictable, they had this urgent need to reach out, to be recognized, to talk, and if he wasn’t careful he might get snared in their vice. Their raw neediness, their frank openness, freaked Travis out, jangled him on a level of being. The honesty of someone dying to communicate with another person puts a lot of pressure on that other person. Someone who stops to talk to you is asking for some kind of validation:
And I’m the last person someone on the edge should ever come to for validation, Travis thought. I don’t need that kind of pressure on my head. I’ve got a hard enough time convincing myself that I even exist. Sometimes I look in the mirror and am surprised to see myself staring back.
Next, Travis shook out the tightness in his knee, loosened the brace to let out the cramp, then rubbed his eyes, readied his photo I.D. clipped to the lanyard on his neck, and finally opened the door, ready for the night shift…
copyright © 2021 Nicholas Menutti