Sunday, October 21, 2012

Enquiry Manager

Enquiry Manager

Enquiry Manager

Being a Enquiry Manager administrator was an isolating job. Firstly one worked in a compound sitting on a neck of land jutting out into the estuary of the river, a compound surrounded even along the river by high, guarded walls with coils of razor wire and electronic sensors atop it. There were sentry boxes every three hundred feet, manned 24 – 7. Secondly the compound itself was isolated. The jut narrowed as it came onto the mainland presenting a three hundred yard interface at the neck which was double walled with the land on the city side of the walls completely flat and empty for six hundred feet. The section of city which began at the end of this was a wasteland of ruined warehouses, at night their blind, empty, lightless windows staring out at the darkness so sadly that regardless of the fact they were wood and bricks, metal and mortar, they seemed, in their lifeless abandonment, their desolation, to give off an atmosphere of organic despair. Thirdly one left the compound infrequently. Other than his vacations (two months a year) during the years he worked there Alan left the compound only six times.

Alan had a fourth source for his sense of isolation – he felt at odds with most of his fellow administrators whom he considered to be blinkered in the extreme and whose opinions he considered, for the most part, to be borderline psychotic. Alan’s reputation was that of a silent man, a lone wolf. This was not really true of his essential self but certainly was of the self he had created to get along with his fellows in the compound. By saying little he was excused from repeating the shibboleths they mouthed every day which if he himself had said them would have made him physically ill.

He stayed because he needed the money. He was the sole support of a family of ten who lived in modest circumstances in a house across the river. He and his estranged wife had six children, all of them grown and none capable of making a living. Five had a rare genetic disease common among the city’s inhabitants. A small minority of scientists wondered if it were not caused by the city’s drinking water which they claimed to be chockfull of contaminants but the majority of informed opinion sided with the Council of Considered and Thoughtful Resolutions, which claimed the disease a result of karmic obstructions imbedded in the DNA of a long line of ancestors. The disease wasted muscle, made walking and balance tricky and thus rendered them incapable of sustained work of any kind. The sixth child was blind and, according to the decrees of the Council, to be tolerated in the interior of a private space but not allowed out in public. The children along with his wife made seven. The others making up the household were his two aged parents and his wife’s bedridden mother. As has already been said the house they lived in was modest but fortunately it was large, a necessity for a house sheltering such a number.

Every month when he received his pay Alan sent seventy-five percent of it in cash, by messenger, across the river. His wife sent a note back by the same messenger thanking him. The note was written in a fine backward leaning script perfectly centred on a piece of brownish notepaper and sealed in an envelope of the same colour. The bottom drawer of his desk, a large drawer twelve inches deep, was full of these notes all replaced neatly in their envelopes with the flaps tucked in. That his wife had sent them every month and that he read them and saved them in the drawer seemed to him to be a symbolic comment upon their marriage and the cool, exact and formal thing it had been. When he signed the contract to work for Enquiry Manager which involved him living in the compound ten months a year, he was mightily relieved for by that time the tension in the household between he and his wife was close to unbearable. He spent two weeks of his yearly vacation in a hotel room visiting the house every day. The other six weeks he spent upriver in a cabin he built some years ago with his own hands.

Fortunately for Allan his job at Enquiry Manager was technical. He was the administrator for the unit which wrote code for robots. He had his own small building containing five private offices with a large common area. He had twenty-one staff ranging from the janitor to an assistant manager. When he first came to the compound he wrote code but over the years he moved more and more away from writing to administrating and supervising. Now he did no writing at all. His days were filled with assigning tasks, dealing with personnel issues, balancing budgets and writing reports. He didn’t hate his job but found no real satisfaction in it. Yet he considered himself lucky to have a good paying job that he did not loath and which enabled him to support his family in a more than adequate style.

But at the same time all this was true, Alan had a great longing. His work was journeyman and technical and he longed for something more absorbing, more compelling. In three months he would be fifty and time was passing by. During his ten months a year in the compound he had little time for anything but work. In the six weeks he spent at the cabin he brought with him at least one, sometimes two of his grown children and although they were mostly independent, there were still much that he had to do as a result of them being there. He had a longing to be free of his responsibilities. He would have loved to wander about the country for a year or so seeing how other people lived, what they did with themselves, if there were any who managed to live a life free of the slavery his own life had become. But this was impossible. His family would starve. To follow his own desires at the expense of others would bring down upon him not only self-condemnation but the anger of heaven as well. He had created two poles in his mind and he was torn between them. He felt he would never be free of the conflict and despair he felt growing within him everyday.

Then, one day in his eleventh year in the compound, on a fine day in late spring, on one of the short trips outside his job occasionally required, he met an unusual man. The meeting he left the compound for was in an office building in the old downtown not far from the river. When it was over the two men with him decided to go on a tour of the building. Alan declined. He had taken it some years before. He and the other two agreed to meet in the lobby of the monstrous high rise when the tour was over, two hours or so. He took the elevator to the ground floor and walked outside onto the vast boulevard  running along the front of the building. The pavement was jammed with automated vehicles. The noise was incredible. The stink of gasoline, exhaust fumes, burnt oil, hot rubber made him slightly nauseous. He didn’t know but he suspected that if he went down the side alley one hundred yards from the entrance, he might run into some area worth walking through and perhaps a place to grab a bite to eat. The security robot followed him, of course. It was strictly against regulations to disable it but he was on the team that wrote its code, so as soon as they turned into the alley and was out of sight, he ordered it to stop, flipped up its control cover and, punching in a series of complicated instructions, ordered it to wait where it was until he came back. Over its shoulders he draped the bright red suit coat denoting him as a member of the bureaucrat classes. Underneath he wore only a generic white shirt cut much like the one worn by most people you see on the street. He wore a pair of scruffy jeans, something his superiors objected to but stopped short of insisting on, for it was the tradition in the compound that the code writers dressed more freely than other bureaucrats. Thus decked out he would appear to people not close enough to notice the expensive watch, the impeccable haircut, the expensive handmade shoes, to be an ordinary person, perhaps a store owner or a small trader of some kind.

The alley was a long one for the building was deep. When he came to the end of it there was another alley traveling at right angles to it. After a moment’s hesitation he turned right for the river was somewhere to the right and he might come upon a park, or docks or something different from the usual maze of urban alleys. He was surprised to find that after ten minutes of walking along this new alley he was at the river. He had thought the river was much farther away.

In river cities it is usual for the well to do to live along the river banks – spreads of lawns with docks and sailboats on the riverbank, and above this the house sprawling its wings across a hill built up to prevent flooding and create a view. But this was not so in the City for the better off chose to live outside the city, in places similar to the compound, circled round with walls and guards. They felt being spread out along the river made them too vulnerable. So, much of the riverbanks were occupied by the poor. There was the occasional ‘gracious’ home chopped up into rooms and small apartments but much of the banks were occupied by homemade shacks constructed of salvaged or stolen materials. Into the sluggish current of the river jutted wharves made of tree trunks cut from the copses of trees along the banks. From these the local people swam, fished and launched their primitive homemade boats. Some worked weirs along the banks. Other used nets of various kinds and description. These people were called the river people and perhaps three quarters of their food came from fishing, shooting birds and trapping small animals along the banks.

The river people were not gardeners. Some of the women tended small salad gardens but that was about it. So Alan was very surprised when, upon coming to the end of his alley to find a long, wide vegetable garden leading down to the river. As it swept down to the bank the garden flowed, so to speak, around the dilapidated sides of a small shack distinguished from most of the river shacks by having a stone chimney sticking up through its metal roof. Midway down the garden, on the left hand side, was a man working between the rows with a hoe. Most uncharacteristically Alan decided to walk along the cut grass beside the garden and speak with this man. Ordinarily he would not have been here in the first place but, given that, it was truly extraordinary that he decided to walk up to the man and engage him in conversation.

The man was a fisherman who came from far up the river where the people, besides fishing and hunting, grew large gardens.

“Everyone here,” he said, “thinks I am crazy to slave away in the garden. They think it unmanly, women’s work. But I don’t care what they think. My family and I have vegetables all year from the garden. The people around are hungry by the end of the winter and sick of eating fish and only fish while we eat root vegetables with our fish all winter long.”

It was early in the season and they had an hour’s conversation about growing plants, with the man doing most of the talking for what did Alan know about growing plants? Before he left the man gave him a bag containing a variety of seeds and told him how to plant them. Carrying the seeds Alan walked back to meet his two companions.

Alan lived in a small house behind his workplace. It was thought necessary that Managers live in separate quarters to keep a certain distance between them and those they supervised. At the side of the house was an open area which got lots of sun. When Alan dug in it with a shovel the earth was loamy and black, the kind of earth the man told him to plant in. Over two days, after work, Alan turned up a twelve by twenty section, screened some soil for the tops of the rows and planted. He had rows of beans, beets, carrots, tomatoes, green pepper, onions, squash, garlic and spinach.

Alan was already considered eccentric by his fellows in the compound. He seldom went to social events organized by the block social convenor. In conversation he was succinct, laconic. Even though he was the Manager of his section, at celebratory social events he attended for a bare minimum of time and then suddenly disappeared, leaving the hierarchical representation to his much more convivial assistant manager. His opinions on social issues were not known. When people began a conversation on such questions he listened politely for a few minutes without saying anything himself and then left, often so abruptly his departure was considered by many to be rude. He did not gossip although he would listen to it sometimes with a bemused expression on his face. When he did talk in an animated manner, it was about an idea or a book he was reading or a development in computer code writing. Occasionally he would say very cynical things about the Environmental Committee’s new plans to clean up the river, such as, “Well, I suppose they will simply calibrate the sensors differently. That should help a lot.” or “If they take readings after ordering a two day cessation of effluent dumping, that should do the trick.” Very few caught the sharp drift of these comments so he was never reported. Most thought them a manifestation of a weird sense of humour as if he were a man addicted to puns or Latin jokes and so narcissistic he failed to realize others didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

So when Alan began digging up the soil beside his house and some weeks later plants began to grow, strange, queer looking things no one had ever seen before, to most people this was simply Alan expanding his realm of eccentric behaviour. That he spent his spare time watering, weeding, and hauling wheelbarrows full of leaves to build a compost heap, was strange but not so strange if one considered it was Alan doing it. When the garden began to produce he set up a portable gas stove in his porch to make stir fry, soups and stews. He invited people over for a bowl of stew but most considered his concoctions to be far too earthy and were afraid they might contain harmful bacteria. It was as if they were made to eat grass and rough, chunky, strangely pungent things lacking the wonderfully even consistency of the cafeteria food with its smooth tastes chemically formulated, sugared and oil injected. His visitors dwindled until there was only two, one a genuine adherent, the other a sycophant looking for a leg up the promotion ladder. The genuine adherent, a strange bird like Alan, a much younger code writer whose own anti social behaviour was tolerated because of his brilliance, began going to Allan’s every evening and helping hoe and haul leaves for the compost pile. This man’s name was Uri and although he was the long, skinny type who reminded one of a reed or a tall stalk of grass, he was amazingly strong despite his spindly, stretched out muscles. On Saturday he and Alan worked in the plot all day, stopping occasionally for a bowl of stew or a green salad or a delicious roasted beet or two. During work breaks, drinking coffee while sitting on the grass beside the garden they talked away at a great pace. Everyone who saw them assumed they were talking about plants and the garden and this was true but they had another topic of conversation as well.

Uri came from a small community in the hinterland. In school he was obviously brilliant and at the age of fifteen was given a full scholarship in the City. Otherwise he would not have been able to attend for his parents were small farmers with nowhere near the resources necessary to pay for a son at the university. The intellectual ferment at the University was just the thing Uri needed. He blossomed like a wild rose and graduated with a Doctorate in computer science before he was twenty. He came to the compound a few months later and had been there for five years. His specialty was robotics. Within the first year he was the source of more innovations than the whole robot research unit had been in the previous ten. Alan recognized his worth the first time he met him and was ruthless in clearing away the deadwood in the department which would have hampered him. He employed the very simple method of transferring jealous and reactionary researchers to other areas of research. In this Alan had not the slightest scruple. For him those who had become stupid and calcified should get out of the way and if they didn’t he removed them.

From the age of twelve to nineteen Uri lived mainly in the world of ideas. He lived, breathed and ate ideas. Three weeks after his nineteenth birthday he fell in love with a young woman whom he met at a student party on the riverbank. These parties were informal annual spring events in student life in the City, one which the university tried its best to discourage but they may as well have tried to prevent spring itself, for the exuberance of the young people and bonfires lighting the dark while the students danced to the weird anarchistic music they loved, went together like matter and energy. The young woman, beautiful and as spirited as a tigress, by some strange principle of attraction, straight armed all the good looking frat boys and zeroed in on Uri, gangly, solitary, self absorbed, whose male beauty was of the highly individual kind but whose intelligence, character and personality shone like gold nugget beneath the surface of an obscuring pool. Uri, granted somewhat otherworldly, but certainly not blind to the beauty of women, did not object to being seduced and the two young people spent the summer together living in a shack on the river belonging to her father, a fisherman. After this they were inseparable. Uri’s contract at the compound included that his ‘wife’ (they were unmarried, neither believed in it) live with him there in separate quarters. This was unusual for the compound contained few women, the men were expected to live away from their wives, but when the contract negotiator tried to refuse him, Uri said he would be leaving then and going back to his home village to work on his father’s farm. This was not an idle threat either. The young couple had determined to do exactly that if she were not allowed to live in the compound. The negotiator quickly changed his mind and made the arrangements.

The bond with his woman changed things for Uri. He began to notice the solid real world about him and the humans who inhabited it. His introduction to her family, physical workers much like the farmers he came from, made him examine the prejudices against their class interwoven into much of what he was taught at the University, the notion that intelligence flowed upward, for example. It was clear from his memories of his own community and his relationships with his girl’s family, that this simply was not true. Fortunately for Uri this did not lead, as it does for many, to exchanging an old set of prejudices for a new. But it did lead to him wanting to leave his research job at the compound. It did lead to him looking into the practical uses of his discoveries and becoming horrified at the ramifications. One of his early electronic discoveries, for instance, seemed to be leading towards a robot which could hover above a crowd, identify a single individual in it and kill him or her with a laser beam or an explosive rocket. He and Ella, his partner, spent hours in the evenings talking about leaving and starting up a farm north on the river. This is why he was so taken with the notion of gardening and when Alan invited him to help he snapped up the invitation. Gardening, farming, could be a way out, a way he and Ella could create a life for themselves outside what he had come to call (only in his own mind and to Ella and a few very trusted friends) the structure of horror.

What he and Alan spoke of then, was leaving. But the situation of the two men was radically different. Uri and his partner could leave at any time. They could either go through the official channels which might take a year or two, or slip away at night up the river into the hinterland where even the authorities could not find them. Alan, on the other hand, had responsibilities. He could not leave his family to starve. Uri, after becoming aware of the problem for the older man, did some thinking and a little tinkering and came up with the suggestion of a solution. But Alan was leery. Not only did this solution seem dangerous but dishonest as well.

“Of course it is dishonest,” Uri said. “But they themselves have been dishonest and it is only a matching dishonesty. Fire must be fought with fire.”

Still Alan was doubtful. “What if they catch us?” he asked.

“They will kill us of course,” replied Uri. “But at least they will kill us straight off. What we have right now will kill us very slowly over a number of years.”

For two years Alan and Uri talked about Uri’s solution, Alan leaning toward it one month and away the next. Finally, when they were harvesting the beets from the third of Alan’s gardens, Uri said to him, “She wants to go. She hates it here and so do I. We can no longer live like this. We are becoming moral monsters, predators. She feels she is living in some kind of terrible limbo world where there is no connection to the earth, no connection to basic sanity. I have some money saved. We plan to buy a sailboat and leave without permission. She says we cannot go through official channels. She says they will never let me go. You are the goose which lays the golden eggs she says. She says once they find there will be no more golden eggs they will kill the goose, bake it in the oven.”

Alan begged Uri to give him another two days to think. Uri agreed. “But only two days,” he told him. “Time is running out. No more wasting time.”

The next day Alan and Uri went for a walk along the river and Alan agreed to his plan.

The plan involved Uri computer hacking and Alan using his administrative authority to cover it up. There was to be a transfer of funds from a number of research accounts into a complex maze of external accounts and then into a combination of gold and cash. When these transfers were complete all three of them, Uri, Ella and Alan, would, during their next vacation, (happily synchronized with the end of the gardening season) first leave town ostensibly for a tour along the river, and then, when they thought the opportunity right, up the river into the hinterland. No one but the three of them and an uncle of Ella’s were in on this plan. In the compound you could trust no one. There were spies and sycophants everywhere.

The transfer of funds went without a hitch. It was not necessary for Alan to cover anything up. No one made enquiries. It was as if nothing had happened. The gold and cash were in the hands of Ella’s uncle, a fisherman and part time smuggler.

Uri went on his vacation three days before Alan, staying with Ella in the same shack on the river they spent the summer they first met.

On the night before he was to leave the compound for his vacation, Alan received a message from an old friend. Alan was taking his nightly walk before turning in when the man came up behind him and fell into step with him.

“I will tell you something,” the man said, “and then leave right away. It is too dangerous for me to speak at length with you but what I tell you now is all I know anyway. They know. A man will be on the bus into the city tomorrow – one of them. He will be the only one on the bus you don’t know. He will try to befriend you and invite himself down to the river to meet your friends. That’s all. Good luck.”

Alan’s friend slipped off the path and disappeared into the darkness.

Later that night Alan texted this information to Uri on the secure device Uri had given him.

“Bring the man along with you, of course,” Uri texted back. “There is more than enough room for another in our little expedition.”

Alan did as Uri told him. The man seemed delighted with how easy it was to make his connection. As they walked along the alley beyond the tall office building, the alley leading to the old man’s garden and in turn to the dwellings of Ella’s relatives, the man smiled broadly at the grass fields and the tall, towering trees as if he indeed were out on a pleasure excursion after a long period of hard work which had been stressful and tiring. But his excursion did not last long. When they were halfway down the alley, in the midst of shade and shadow under the canopies of the great elms lining the road, someone shot the man through the head with some kind of silenced weapon for there was no sound but for a soft pizzzzzt. He dropped like a bag of sand onto the road and almost immediately two men come out from the trees with a wheelbarrow. They stripped the dead man completely naked, one of them cutting from his neck a device embedded under the skin. His clothes and the device they rolled into a ball and dropped into a large metal drum filled with water by the side of the road. They weighted it down with a cinder block and it sunk to the bottom out of sight. They then picked up the body and lay it in the wheelbarrow and covered it with a blue tarp. This was all done so efficiently, so quickly that when it was over, Alan could hardly believe it had happened. But it had happened and the two men were gesturing to him to walk with them as one of them pushed the barrow down the road to the river, while the other, walking beside him, hummed a popular tune Alan often heard on the radio. He followed. What else could he to do?

Uri, Alan, and Ella left that night, as soon as it was dark, to sail up river.


No comments:

Post a Comment