The Monday-morning commuter into Baltimore was exactly on time for a change, and with an unexpected half hour on his hands Charley Addison decided to walk the six blocks to his office instead of fighting the crowds for one of the golf cart—sized electric cars lined up in the station's lot. It would save his blood pressure and the shine on his shoes, and the medicomputer at the clinic had been nagging him to get more exercise, anyway.
It was a beautiful spring day, but Charley hardly noticed as he concentrated instead on plotting out his mornings work. Checking over the programming on the new chip for CM should come first, but his subordinates were good at their jobs and he didn't expect this final check to turn up any major problems. After that he'd take another shot at the submic processor that he'd been fighting with last Thursday afternoon. It was one of the toughest jobs he'd seen in his thirty-five years at Key Data Services, but it would crack eventually—they all did. Grinning in anticipation, he bounded up the outside steps of the KDS building, bade farewell to the sunshine, and went inside.
And then the universe crashed in on him.
His first indication came when he tried to call up the morning's mail on his desk terminal. Instead of the usual sender headings, the screen lit up with a terse, red-bordered message:
CHARLES DOUGLAS ADDISON
IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY KDS.
Charley stared at the screen in disbelief for several seconds, then tried again. The same message came back. Turning the terminal off and on, he tried in succession for his last work file, the weekly cafeteria menu, and the interoffice memo file. Nothing worked. Frowning, he flipped the machine off again and headed for his boss's office.
Will Whitney, president of KDS, was on the phone when Charley walked in, a respectable frown creasing his own forehead. "Look, this may be a minor aberration to you, but it's at the catastrophe level for us," Whitney was saying as he waved Charley to a chair. "Isn't there something...? I know, I know, but... Yeah, well, thanks."
Dropping the phone into its cradle, Whitney looked over at Charley. "I know why you're here, Charley. I just found out about it myself thirty minutes ago—and it doesn't look like there's anything I can do."
"Why not? Isn't this just some sort of computer glitch?"
"Of course it is—"
"Well, then, get it fixed and let me get back to work."
"—but the problem is that the report's already been transmitted to the National Employment Office. As far as they're concerned you've been legitimately fired."
Charley thought about that. "That's crazy, but even so I don't see the problem. Just hire me back."
Whitney gave him an odd look. "You haven't paid much attention to the country's employment policies lately, have you?"
"Well..." Charley wasn't all that ignorant. "I know how the unemployment systems been turned over to the private sector and all. But there's supposed to be a grace period after someone's fired before that goes into effect—something like ten days."
"It used to be ten days," Whitney nodded heavily. "But as the system's been improved and errors like this have become less and less frequent the grace period's been shortened—it's down to twenty-four hours now. Apparently this order went through over the weekend and... well, it's too late to rescind it."
A cold feeling was working its way into Charley's stomach. "Are you telling me I really am fired? You can't let this happen, damn it!"
Whitney spread his hands helplessly. "There's nothing I can do. I've talked to our lawyer and to the Employment Office people here in town—there just aren't any loopholes I can squeeze you through. If I let you on the payroll without going through the job lottery it'd be worth a felony-two fine."
Charley rubbed his hand across his forehead. "Yeah, I know. I sure wouldn't want you to wreck KDS over this—you know that. I'm just—it's not something I was expecting."
"Sure." Whitney's voice was sympathetic. "Look, we're not licked yet— maybe someone in Washington will listen to me. But... in case I can't get anywhere, maybe you'd better go sign up with the lottery." Charley made a face. "I don't want to work anywhere else."
"You think I want you to?" was the dry response. "Aside from the fact that you know far too much about our stuff, you're just too good a man to lose. But I have to be honest about your chances here... and you can't live off your savings forever."
Charley stared at the floor for a moment, then sighed and got to his feet. "Yeah, you're right. I guess I'd better. I'll check back with you later."
"Yes, please do." Whitney came around from behind his desk and gave Charley a warm handshake. "Good luck."
The world seemed darker when Charley emerged onto the sidewalk. He paused for a moment, feeling a mild disorientation that seemed part of the numbness in his brain, and then turned east and began walking. He still couldn't believe this was really happening to him, that a lifetime of conscientious work could be threatened by something as meaningless as a burp in a bubble-memory somewhere.
Walking in a private fog, he almost passed right by the Baltimore branch of the National Employment Office, a modern building he'd seen often from the commuter but never entered. Steeling himself, he joined the stream of people at one of the revolving doors and made his way inside.
It was unlike anything he'd ever seen, and for a moment he stood rooted in place, taking it all in. The entire first floor seemed devoted to rows and rows of computer terminals. Each machine had a line of people waiting in front of it; around these relatively stable promontories swirled a sea of people traveling to or from other terminals or the huge display boards that lined the walls. In the center of the floor ran a pair of escalators; through their openings he could see that the second floor seemed laid out like the first, and was just as crowded. To his right, on the wall by the entrance, was a building directory, and Charley worked his way across the stream of people until he was close enough to read it. COMPLAINT DEPT. was listed as Room 702. Spotting a bank of elevators, he pushed his way into the crowd. Minutes later, he was on the seventh floor.
Room 702 had nothing of the wide-open spaces of the ground floor, consisting instead of eight boxed-off cubicles with strategically placed upright panels directing the flow of traffic. There were about sixty people ahead of him, so Charley chose one of the shorter lines and settled down to wait. Surprisingly enough, the lines moved quickly, and within a half hour of his arrival he was sitting down across from a tired-looking middle-aged man with frown lines stamped across his face. "Good day, Mr. Ryon—" Charley began, glancing at the desk nameplate.
"Name, number, and previous job category?" the other snapped, fingers resting on his terminal keyboard.
Charley gave them. "What happened, you see, was that I was fired accidentally—"
"Just a minute," Ryon interrupted peevishly. "Your file's not on yet."
Charley subsided. He should have expected a delay; after being at the same job for so long, his records were probably on one of the "low-use" tapes in Washington's master files, and an operator would have to be sent to get it. The way things were going, of course, his file would probably be moved to a more accessible tape on the next adjustment run.
"Says here you were terminated as of Friday, 8 May 2009, from Key Data Services, Baltimore," Ryon said at last. "That true?"
"Yes, but it was an accident—computer malfunction or human error or something."
"Should've corrected it last Saturday. Way too late now. Next!"
"Hold on! That's not fair—no one goes into work on weekends. We should be allowed one business day."
Ryon's frown lines deepened a bit. "The book says 'twenty-four hours.' If your boss is too lazy to pull a ten-minute computer overview on weekends, it's not our fault. Next!"
Charley didn't budge. "I want to see your superior."
"Forget it. I said you haven't got a case." His finger hovered over a button. "You gonna leave quietly or do we do this the hard way?"
Swallowing, Charley took the easy way.
He got off the elevator on the second floor which, as he'd surmised, was laid out like the first. For a long moment he hesitated, distaste and apprehension holding him back. But Whitney had been right; it only made sense to sign up. Picking a line at random, Charley took his place at the end.
Again, the line moved quickly. Watching the men and women at the keyboard, Charley could tell they were all familiar with this routine. Not only were they fast, but they all invariably skipped past the pages of instructions. Fidgeting uncomfortably, Charley tried to remember everything he'd ever read about the lottery.
Finally, it was his turn. Stepping up to the console, he pushed the "start" button.
TYPE YOUR NAME, NUMBER, AND PREVIOUS JOB CATEGORY, the machine instructed him. Charley complied, CATEGORY/REGION? it asked.
COMPUTER PROGRAMMER/BALTIMORE, Charley typed carefully. RANGE?
Range? What did that mean? Punching for the first page of instructions, Charley skimmed it and discovered the machine was asking the outer limit of his job interest. 20KM, he typed, picking a distance at random.
The machine answered with a screen full of company names, arranged alphabetically, each one followed by a string of incomprehensible numbers. NUMBER OF JOBS BEING APPLIED FOR IN THIS CATEGORY? appeared at the bottom.
Charley seemed to remember that the limit was ten. 10, he typed.
The computer's response was swift. DISALLOWED. MAXIMUM IS THREE (3).
Charley blinked. Three? Had they changed the law? Or was he—or programming in general—a special case? Gritting his teeth, he again called up the instructions.
The impatient rumbling behind him was growing stronger. "Hey, come on, would ja?" someone growled. "We ain't got all month."
"Put it in 'park,' " Charley shot back, tension adding snap to his tone. "I'm working as fast as I can."
"So put in new batteries, huh?" a different voice suggested. "Sign up and let someone else have a turn."
"I'll be happy to, as soon as I figure out how."
There was a loud groan. "Aw, c'mon, friend: you hitting senility early to avoid the crowds?"
Charley felt his face reddening. "Look—"
"If you don't know what you're doing, go up to fourth floor and get some help," someone else put in.
Charley hadn't realized help was available. "Yeah, okay," he muttered. Pushing the "cancel" button, he stepped away, the next man in line shouldering past with a growled profanity. Too embarrassed to even turn around, Charley pushed hurriedly through the crowd toward the elevators.
Surprisingly, the fourth floor was practically deserted. Several dozen cubicles like those he'd seen three floors up lined the walls, most of them darkened and apparently empty. Of the handful that were open for business, only about half were being used. The rest of Baltimore's citizenry, Charley reflected, must have learned the ins and outs of the lottery years ago. The thought made him feel old and a little bit silly. Choosing a cubicle with a sympathetic-looking older woman, he hesitantly approached. "Uh... excuse me?"
She looked up, folding up the portable thin-screen she'd been watching. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so." He sat down. "I was accidentally fired this weekend, and while my boss tries to get me reinstated I thought I'd sign up for the lottery—just to tide myself over. But I'm afraid I don't understand exactly how to go about it."
"What do you mean?" She frowned. "Are you trying to find a new category or something?"
"No, it's just that I've never had to use the lottery before."
Her eyes widened. "You're kidding. Never?"
"I like my job." He shrugged self-consciously. "I've been there for the past thirty-five years."
That awed look was still there, and Charley felt more than ever like a revived fossil. "Wow!" she breathed. "I didn't think there was anyone who hadn't gone through the lottery at least once." She seemed suddenly to realize she was staring and dropped her eyes. "Well, let's see what we can do for you," she continued in a more professional tone, swiveling the terminal screen so that they could both see it. "Could you give me your name, number, and previous job, please?"
He did so. She pushed a few keys, and Charley was faced with the third page of lottery instructions.
"Right, now, first let's figure out how many jobs you can sign up for," she said, tapping a paragraph with her pen. "The longer you've been unemployed, the more job lotteries you can be in. Since you've been out of work less than a week, you can only sign up on three lists. Anything over six months and you can be on twenty of them.
"Each job list is open for sign-up for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Once it's closed, all the names on the list are put in random order by the computer and the company in question hires the first person on it for, usually, at least one four- day week."
"After interviews, you mean?"
The woman blinked. "There aren't any interviews, Mr. Addison. This is an equal opportunity system; we don't allow discrimination over educational advantages any more than over race or religion." "But—" Charley floundered.
"It really does work," she assured him. "Maybe a bit slower than the old methods, but it spreads the jobs and wealth around more evenly and eliminates the need for a welfare system. And that saves all of us money."
She was repeating the same arguments that the developers of the system's precursor had used twenty years ago—the arguments, he remembered now, that had originally induced him to vote for it back then. It had seemed like a good idea at the time... but now he wasn't quite so sure. "I'll take your word for it," he told her. "What do I do next?"
"Sign up for your three jobs. Let's see..." She punched some keys, scanning the displays that flicked across the screen at the touch of a button. "Accounting looks pretty good today—here's a firm that has only thirty people signed up. Here's one with twenty-six."
"Wait a second—I don't know anything about accounting."
She frowned at him. "So? If they get down to your number the law says they will hire you for at least a week. Qualifications are irrelevant—equal opportunity, remember?"
"But what if, say, thirty short-order cooks and only one accountant sign up for the job. How is the company going to get the one they need before mid-August?"
"Oh, the law allows concurrent employment if all parties are willing. If the accountant they want is number nine in the lottery, they'd just hire him plus the eight people ahead of him. Those eight would get their week's salary and could leave right away; the accountant would begin work in his new job at the same time. See?"
"Very convenient." Also very expensive if the right person didn't make the top ten. No wonder Whitney always looked so harried when KDS was hiring. "How on Earth do small companies survive a financial shock like that?"
"The smallest companies are exempt from the lottery." She pressed a button and a different page of the lottery instructions appeared. "And there's an intermediate range where the company can hire applicants for only one, two, or three days instead of a full week." She pointed out the appropriate numbers, then turned back to the job listing she'd had on earlier. "You ready to try your luck now?"
"Well... I guess so. You really think I should try for that accounting job?"
"Absolutely." She scanned the listing. "The one's up to thirty-two people; the others hit thirty now, Only six hours to go for each one, too—unless a bunch of people notice how empty they are you should have a good shot at making some money on either one." "How do you know about that six hours?" Charley asked, squinting at the screen.
She tapped a number with her pen. "Here's the closing date and time: May 8, 1700 hours. This column gives the opening date and time; this one's the job ID number; this one's the yearly salary; and here's the current number of people on the list. Now, what'll it be—one or both?"
Charley pursed his lips. After all, he was just looking for something to tide him over until he could get back with KDS. "I guess I'll sign up just on the shorter list."
"Okay." She showed him how to line up the display pointer on the proper job and then how to officially get on the list. "You've got two more chances coming to you. Any preferences?"
He chose two computer programming jobs that would also close at five that evening, ignoring her warning that with three hundred people already signed up for each one he had little hope of making any money from either of them. When he had finished, she showed him how to confirm he was properly registered by calling up his Secure Government Personal File and checking his newly acquired job list. "You can drop out of contention for any of the jobs at any time, by using the display pointer and 'cancel' key. And don't forget, once you've been out of work one to three weeks you can be on five lists at a time."
"Right." Charley made a mental note to find a quiet corner at the library later and read over all these regulations more carefully. "What do I do now?"
"Go home and wait, I guess," she shrugged. "If you've got a computer tie-in on your phone you'll be able to find out your standing on the lottery lists as soon as they close; otherwise, you can find out on the terminals downstairs. If you're high enough, the company'll contact you. If you're really low on the lists, you might as well drop out and sign up on a new list; you'll be automatically dropped as soon as the job is permanently filled, anyway. Any other questions?"
"Well... I guess not. Thanks for your help."
"Oh, no problem." She smiled brightly, shaking her head. "Imagine—thirtyfive whole years in the same job."
She was still clucking with amazement as she opened up her thin-screen again and settled back to watch.
It was almost lunchtime when Charley left the National Employment Office building, feeling something like a worn-out paper towel. Not really hungry yet, he decided it would be a good time to do some research on the lottery. A municipal lot was right around the corner, with a handful of the little in-town cars still available. Presenting his driver's-credit card to the attendant, he watched to make sure it was logged correctly into the computer and then drove out of the lot, heading for the nearest branch of the venerable Enoch Pratt Library. Traffic was brisk, but with the city-wide ban on internal combustion engines finally in effect, fighting the crowds was at least no longer a suffocatingly noisy task. Remembering the city of his youth, Charley's irritation at the government eased somewhat. Occasionally, their schemes made life a bit easier.
He emerged from the library about two hours later, slightly boggled at the number of laws and regulations the lottery had generated over the years and completely discouraged as to his chances of finding a loophole he could use. His one half-formed idea—that of setting himself up as a one-man "consulting firm" which KDS could exclusively retain—was scotched early in his reading, and he hadn't been able to come up with anything else that offered even a spark of hope. The National Employment Office had had two decades to close the loopholes, and they'd done a good job. Squinting up at the early-afternoon sun, Charley flipped a mental coin. Lunch lost; climbing into his car, he headed back to KDS.
Will Whitney was off somewhere when Charley arrived, but was expected back momentarily. "I'll wait," Charley told Whitney's secretary. "I haven't got much else to do."
"I heard," she said sympathetically. "We're all pretty upset about it. I hear the people in Programming are missing you already."
"Thanks," Charley grunted. "It's nice to be needed."
Whitney barreled through about ten minutes later. "Charley, hi; come on in," he called as he passed.
"I just stopped by to see if you had anything new," Charley said as he sat down across from Whitney's desk.
"Afraid not," Whitney said distractedly, shuffling through a mound of papers on his desk. "Damn GM chip's got a glitch in it Sanders can't find. Did you give me the preliminary stat sheet yet?"
"Last week," Charley told him. "Look, why don't I go and give Sanders a hand with the debugging?"
"Great. No—wait." Whitney looked up, frowning. "No, you'd better not. I mean, you're no longer on the payroll...." He trailed off.
"You don't need to pay me," Charley assured him. "Come on, Will—I want to help. Consider it a public service to keep my brain from atrophying."
"Believe me, I wish I could let you. But... I don't think we can risk it. If someone found out—I mean, there's no way we could prove I wasn't going to pay you under the table."
Charley sighed. "Yeah; and then blam goes a big government fine. I suppose you're right." He stood up awkwardly. "Well, then, I guess I might as well go on home."
"Okay." Whitney had found the paper he wanted. Clutching it, he headed for the door, his free hand sweeping Charley along with him. "Look, I'm still trying to get you back, so keep in touch, okay?"
"Right." Standing in the corridor, Charley watched his boss—his ex-boss— hurry away. Feeling vaguely as if he'd just lost part of his family, Charley turned and trudged toward the exit. A short time later, having turned in his car to the lot at the train station, he was on his way home.
At exactly 5:01 that evening he keyed his phones computer tie-in and, holding his breath, checked his standings. The list for the accounting position had swelled to one hundred seventy-six since he'd signed up; the computer job rosters hovered near the five-hundred mark. On none of them had he even made it above a hundred.
The next few days settled easily—too easily—into a dull routine. Each morning Charley headed into the city—cursing the fact that the job lottery wasn't accessible from home tie-ins—and fought the crowds at the National Employment Office building. After a few disappointing experiences with the high-paying jobs that attracted lots of applicants, he became adept at flipping through page after page of job listings, scanning for medium-paying ones that were being largely ignored. As a matter of pride, though, he made sure he was always listed for at least one computer-oriented job, even though they were generally long shots. Once signed up, his "work" was done for the day. At first he spent his new free time constructively: catching up on all the journals he'd been promising himself to read, working out at the fleeball courts, and carrying out needed maintenance on his condo. But as the days went by he found himself drifting from self-improvement toward self-indulgence. The trend didn't worry him particularly; sitting in front of his wall thin-screen, he told himself that things would be all right again once he was back at work.
And exactly one week after losing his job, a break finally came. Not the one he'd hoped for, but a break nevertheless.
The receptionist at Dundalk Electronics looked up as Charley came in. "May I help you?" she asked pleasantly.
"My name's Charles Addison; I'm here about the programmer job."
"Down the hall, second door on the right," she said, her voice noticeably cooler.
"Thank you." Wondering what he'd said, Charley left the room and headed down the corridor.
The sign on the door said Employment Office, and the young man behind the anteroom desk had the busy look of a man clawing his way up the corporate ladder. "Yes?" he said as Charley stepped up. "Name, please?"
"Charles Addison. I was called yesterday—"
"Right." The junior exec took a piece of paper from a stack beside him and handed it over. "Sign it and you can have your chit."
Frowning, Charley took it and read the first paragraph. It was a contract stating that he was withdrawing from the lottery for job #442-0761-3228-764 in exchange for a cash payment. "I think there's been a mistake," he said. "I'm here about the programmer job."
The other looked up, mild irritation on his face. "And there's your release. Sign it and you'll get your money."
"But I don't want any moneys—I want the job."
The younger man stared up at him in disbelief. "What are you trying to pull?" he demanded.
"Nothing. But I'm number eight in the lottery and I'm qualified for the job, so I'd like to take a shot at it."
"But—" the other sputtered. "You can't; we've already hired the woman we wanted."
"Then why did you call me? Wait a minute. What was her lottery number?" Anger was beginning to grow in Charley's mind; anger and a conviction that someone was trying to cheat him. "Well?"
The junior exec hesitated, then took refuge in his intercom. "Mr. Girard; there's someone here I think you'd better see."
A moment later the inner door opened and a broad-faced man strode into the anteroom. "Yes? Is there some problem?"
"This man refuses to sign the lottery release," his subordinate said, pointing at Charley.
Girard's eyebrows rose fractionally. "Is that true, Mr.—?"
"Addison; Charles Addison. Yes, it is. I've worked in computers since I was twenty-three, and I want to take this job."
"I see. Would you step into my office, please?" Charley followed him inside, sat down in the proffered seat. "Now, Mr. Addison," Girard said, perching on a corner of his desk, "I'm sure you understand the computer industry these days; how fast things are changing and all. I don't doubt that you're an excellent worker, but we need someone fresh from the leading edge of research in the field."
"Mr. Girard, you don't seem to understand. I'm not just someone who wandered in off the lottery—up till a week ago I was chief programmer at Key Data Services. I know I can do the job."
"Yes, I'm sure you could—with proper training. But we can't afford to take the time."
"Not even a week? I'm legally entitled to a week, you know."
Girard shrugged. "Quite frankly, Mr. Addison, you'd be wasting both your time and ours. The higher-ups have already decided who they want, and they would be the ones to decide whether or not your work had been satisfactory."
Charley stared at him. "And it wouldn't be, of course," he said bitterly.
The other spread his hands. "It's standard company policy, designed to speed up the employment process. I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do."
Charley grimaced, a sour taste in his mouth. This was something his reading hadn't prepared him for, and he didn't know how to fight it. Suddenly realizing he was still clutching the release form, he raised it and began reading. A number caught his eye. "This says you're only going to pay me three hundred fifty to drop out of the list. A week's salary for a twenty-five-kay job should be five hundred, shouldn't it?"
"Oh, well, that's standard policy, too. You see, if you're actually hired for a job, even concurrently and only for a week, you lose your buildup of unemployed time. Most of the people we pay off are up to the twenty-listing level and don't want to start over again at three. They're willing to take less money to simply drop out of line and therefore maintain their status."
A status that apparently enabled them to avoid work entirely while still making money. The welfare system hadn't died, Charley realized; it had merely been given plastic surgery and sent out under a new name. "Cute. Probably legal, too."
"Of course." Girard reached into his pocket. "So if you'll just sign the agreement—"
"But I'm not one of your professional moochers," Charley interrupted him. "I prefer to work for my living, even if only for a week at a time."
Girard froze halfway through the motion of handing Charley a pen. "I... well, I suppose that would be all right. I guess your status doesn't matter much when you've only been out a week, eh? I'll just get a concurrent-employment agreement—"
"That's not good enough," Charley said calmly. The rules of this game, he was learning, were far different than he'd expected. It was time to find out if they would bend for him, too. "Maybe working here would be a waste of time—but I've got plenty to spare. If you and your new whiz kid don't want to sit around for a week, you'll have to make it worthwhile for me to drop out."
Girard's eyes narrowed. He was silent a long moment, searching Charley's face. "How much?" he said at last, some of the starch seeming to go out of his backbone with the words.
Pay dirt. Anticipating business as usual, Dundalk Electronics must have jumped the gun. Their new programmer was probably hard at work already—and Charley was suddenly in a strong position. Maybe. "I want two weeks' salary," he told the other, daring greatly. If Girard called his bluff and refused, Charley wasn't at all sure he could get official attention to the case—or even whether the government really prosecuted cases like this.
But Girard didn't refuse. "Wait here," he growled and left the room. Within two minutes he was back with an electronic transfer chit and a new form, both of which he thrust at Charley. Skimming the paper, Charley learned he had accepted a week's concurrent employment at a "special payment rate" of a thousand dollars. The chit was made out in the proper amount; pocketing it, Charley signed the agreement.
"Okay. Now get out," Girard growled as he took back the paper.
Charley stood up. "I don't want you to think I'm deliberately trying to cheat you," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, you're entitled to two weeks' worth of my services. I'm sure I could be of help around—"
"Forget it. And if you ever wind up on one of our lists again, don't think you'll be able to pull this trick twice. Troublemakers like you go onto our computer, and it carries grudges a long time."
"I'll keep that in mind. Good-bye, Mr. Girard." It was a small victory, Charley realized as he walked outside, and not one he was particularly proud of. Still, getting paid for not working was the next best thing to actually having a job. He just hoped it wouldn't get to be a habit.
"Will, I'm rapidly going nuts. Isn't there anyone else you can try?"
Whitney's face, even given the limitations of telephone pictures, looked pretty haggard. "I tell you, Charley, I've gone the whole route. I've talked to everyone in the local Employment Office and half of the button-pushers in Washington. Apparently no one but the director himself can do anything at this point, and he's already refused to intercede. Ignores my letters and calls completely now."
"Maybe you should write to the president," Charley suggested, only half- jokingly.
"Of the United States? I already did. Also the Secretary of Labor. They each sent me back a form letter and list of the administrations accomplishments." Whitney shook his head tiredly. "Look, if you need to borrow some money or something—"
"Aw, no, it's not that," Charley assured him. "I'm making a little bit now and my savings account is still healthy. I just can't stand this business of collecting money for doing absolutely nothing. I thought I'd get used to it, but I'm not. How do people do this for years at a time? Five weeks and already I feel like a cross between a parasite and a professional gambler."
"Have you tried for any government jobs? They're mostly low-skill, low-pay types, but at least you'd be working for your income."
"I'd rather sweep floors for private industry, if it comes to that. Look, Will, if we're stuck, we're stuck. Let's open up the job, and I'll just take my chances with the lottery."
"Well..." Whitney seemed acutely embarrassed. "It doesn't look like we can afford to do that. The law limits how much internal shifting we can do when a position is vacated, and it turns out that the lowest job we'd be able to offer on the lottery would be that of level-two programmer. With the thirty-three-kay salary that goes with that we'd get hundreds of applicants, and we can't possibly afford to pay off even a fraction of them. We're just going to have to make do with one less programmer for a while."
Charley felt his jaw sag. "But if you don't even open the job up I won't have any chance of getting it back."
"I'm sorry, but we've got no choice. We'd give practically anything to have you back—you know that. But we can't go bankrupt in the process."
"Yeah. Yeah, I understand."
"Again, I'm sorry. If you can come up with any new ideas, I'm game to try them." Whitney glanced away as someone apparently came into his office. "I've got to go. Keep in touch, okay?"
For a minute after the connection was broken Charley remained where he was, staring through the blank screen. The hope of eventually getting his job back was all that had kept him going these past few weeks. He couldn't—wouldn't— give that up. So the director of the National Employment Office wasn't answering calls and letters, eh? Well, there was always the direct approach. Flipping on his computer tie-in, Charley called up the Baltimore-Washington train schedule.
"Mr. Addison, there really isn't any point in waiting—really," the secretary said, her manner one of polite irritation. "Director Pines never sees anyone without an appointment."
"I understand," Charley told her from his seat by the reception room door. "If you don't mind, I'll wait a bit longer. In case he changes his mind."
She sighed and returned to her typing as Charley buried his nose in his magazine again. It was clear that Pines's refusal to see him wasn't merely general policy; the secretary had been in and out of the inner office twice since Charley's arrival, and he had no doubt that the director knew of his presence and business. Equally clear was the fact that Pines wouldn't be coming out through the reception room as long as Charley was waiting to buttonhole him. But if Charley had judged things correctly the director had a private door into his office—a door just within view from Charley's carefully chosen seat. Trying to avoid him was the directors prerogative, of course—but it was almost noon, and Charley doubted Pines had his lunch in there with him. Pretending to read his magazine, Charley gave the private door his undivided attention.
And minutes later his diligence was rewarded as the door opened and a dignified-looking older man slipped out. Dropping his magazine, Charley charged out after him, catching up before the other had gone ten steps. "Dr. Pines? My name's Charles Addison."
Pines glanced at Charley with a look of extreme annoyance and increased his pace. Charley stayed with him. "Dr. Pines, this isn't a problem that'll just go away if you ignore it long enough. I've been cheated out of my job by your system, and I'm not going to give up until I've got it back. Now, are you going to discuss it with me, or am I going to have to follow you all over town?"
With the explosive sigh of barely restrained exasperation Pines stopped abruptly and faced Charley. "Mr. Addison, your complaint was brought to my attention weeks ago," he said, his words precise and clipped. "As I explained to your employer then, the law is very clear on the subject of error correction: twenty- four hours—no more—is the time limit. Period; end file; good day."
He started walking again. Charley hurried to catch up. "I don't think that's at all fair, Doctor," he said, "and for a system that bills itself as the first truly fair employment scheme in modern history something like this would be an ugly blot, wouldn't it? How would you feel if the news media got the story?"
Pines didn't even break stride. "To quote the Duke of Wellington, publish and be damned." So Pines was the type to call bluffs... and Charley had already tried vainly to interest the media in his situation. "Hell," Charley exploded, his self-control finally breaking. "Look, I've worked and sweated for thirty-five years at a job and company I've really grown to like. I'm a good citizen, I pay my taxes on time, and I've had jury duty twice. Why the hell would it be such blasphemy to bend the rule just once?"
Pines stopped again. "Because it wouldn't be just once," he snapped. "If I let you bypass the rules there would be hundreds of people who'd demand the same privilege, whether their claims were justified or not. A flood like that would cost tremendous time and money, and ultimately hurt both the lottery system and the taxpayers and businesses that support it. It's not worth that kind of risk for any job, Mr. Addison—not yours, mine, or anyone else's. If you've been dealt with unfairly, I'm sorry—but I am not going to change anything. Understand? Good day."
He strode off down the hall with a snort. Charley watched him go, his mind numb with defeat. He'd gone to the very top... and come away with absolutely nothing.
The train ride back to Baltimore seemed very long.
He stayed in his condo the next three days, not even coming out to register with the lottery. A great deal of his time was spent staring out the window in deep thought: thought about his past and future, and the things various people had said lately about both.
Perhaps he should just give up and find a permanent job somewhere, even if it weren't in programming. Whitney's comment about the low demand for government jobs kept coming back to him, but the thought left him cold. Even if he couldn't work at KDS, he at least wanted a job in computers somewhere. But after his experience at Dundalk Electronics he wondered if any programming firm would hire him, or whether they all preferred fresh new college graduates. And to be honest, he was afraid to find out. In some ways it was infinitely safer to stay on the lottery's pseudo-welfare.
Still, something inside him refused to give up... and when he woke on the fourth day he had the first feint glimmerings of an idea. Incomplete and even slightly crazy, it was nevertheless all he had left. Getting dressed, he took the next commuter into Baltimore.
It took him ten minutes at a terminal to locate and sign up for all the jobs he could in the proper class. All of them fizzled out by day's end; but the turnover was high, and there was a new crop of them waiting for him the next morning... and the next. Doggedly, he kept at it.
And within a week he was in. Job description: maintenance engineer, custodial; evening/weekend shift. Employer: U.S. government. Job location: National Employment Office Administration Building, Washington, D.C. Salary: not worth mentioning.
The National Employment Office had never had a new building designed for it, but had from its beginnings been housed in a century-old structure whose masonry and vaulted ceilings clashed curiously with the ultramodern computer equipment that had been more recently installed. Charley had noticed the contrast on his last visit here—but he hadn't expected the janitorial equipment to match the buildings age. The sweepers, waxers, and one genuine monstrosity of a floor buffer were older than they had any right to be. Pushing them around every night was harder work than he would have guessed, and he quickly learned why these jobs changed hands so often.
The soreness generated in Charley's muscles by two nights on the job would be short-lived, though. His supervisor had already made it clear that Charley's first three-day weekend on the job would be his last. No reason aside from "unsatisfactory performance" was given, but Charley could see Director Pines's hand behind it. With the high turnover rate, Charley wouldn't have had to stick with the job more than a month or so to work his way up to field boss—a position that would give him keys to the private as well as public areas of the building. After their last encounter, Charley couldn't blame the director for not wanting that to happen. And that meant that Charley's move had to be made tonight.
"Hey, Addison," a voice came faintly over the floor buffer's roar, breaking into Charley's train of thought. Flipping the buffer off, he turned as Lanthrop, his field boss, sauntered up behind him "I hear this's your last night," Lanthrop continued when the machine's big motor had ground down far enough to permit normal conversation.
"Yep. Back on the lottery tomorrow, I guess," Charley said.
"Too bad. You're a better worker than we mostly get here. Haupt's crazy to send you back."
Charley shrugged. "That's life."
"Yeah. Hey, what say we all go out at break time; treat you to a bottle of the good stuff or something. You know, give you a proper send-off."
"Fine—but we won't have to go anywhere. I figured you guys've been such a big help to me that I owed you one. I won a bottle of the really good stuff in a bet the other day, and I brought it along tonight."
Lanthrop's eyes lit up. "Hey, that sounds great. Matter of fact, it sounds so great that I declare it to be break time right now. C'mon, let's get the others."
"I'll do that," Charley volunteered. "Why don't you go on and—um—make sure the stuffs up to your standards. It's in my locker." With a wide grin, Lanthrop winked. "Damn, but I'm gonna hate to lose you."
Charley took his time collecting the other seven custodial workers, and when they arrived downstairs they discovered Lanthrop was well ahead of them. "Great stuff, Addison—got a real kick to it!" he called cheerfully, his speech already beginning to slur.
"Sure does," Charley agreed as they all sat down around the table. It ought to, he thought wryly; the bottle had been only two-thirds full of bourbon before he'd filled it up with straight ethanol.
The other workers joined into the spirit of the occasion with remarkable speed. Passing the bottle around the circle—a method that allowed Charley to keep his own consumption to practically zero—they were soon laughing and talking boisterously, wishing Charley good luck in the days ahead. Charley joined in the laughter, and kept the bottle moving.
Lanthrop had a reasonable capacity, but with his head start he was roaring drunk before anyone else was even close, and by the time someone suggested it was time to return upstairs he was sprawled in his chair, slumbering peacefully. Assuring the others he would take care of the boss, Charley waited until they had staggered out, and then set to work. Setting Lanthrop into a more comfortable position, he relieved the field boss of his master keys, replacing them with his own public-area set to keep the loss from being too obvious. His next task took him to the main file room, where the employment records and resumes of every worker in the nation were stored on huge reels of holo-magnetic tape. This was the riskiest part of his plan—the file room connected directly to the main computer room, and the dozen or so operators on duty had a fair chance of knowing that Charley wasn't authorized in there. Fortunately, the reels he wanted were "low-use" ones stored in the racks farthest from the computer itself, and he was able to pull the three he wanted without being seen. Back out in the hall, he hid the tapes in the bottom of the garbage container on his wheeled cleaning-supplies cart and, heart pounding painfully, pushed it down the hall as casually as his shaking knees would permit.
Now came the waiting. From conversations with others, he knew that Director Pines invariably arrived early on Monday mornings, usually before the night shift was due to check out. If Charley's luck held, this would be one of those mornings.
Pines was four steps into his office before he noticed Charley sitting quietly by the wall. "Who are you?" he asked, stopping abruptly, apparently too startled for the moment to be angry.
Charley remained seated. "I'm Charles Addison. We met a couple of weeks ago."
The mental wheels visibly clicked into place. "Why, you—you—" he sputtered. "Get the hell out of my office—you hear me? Now!" He stepped forward menacingly.
"Before you do anything drastic," Charley suggested, "you ought to take a look over there in the corner."
Pines came to an abrupt halt. "My tapes!" he exclaimed, the first hint of uneasiness creeping through his anger. "What are you doing with them?"
"Engaging in an old custom called blackmail," Charley told him, glancing at the pile. It was an unusual sight, he had to admit: three tape reels—minus their protective casings—stacked neatly beneath the old floor buffer. "Magnetic tapes have come a long way in fifty years, especially in storage density, but they still have an unavoidable weakness: they're susceptible to strong electromagnetic fields. That thing on top is an old electric floor buffer. It packs a huge electric motor."
Pines understood, all right. Already his eyes were flickering between the tapes and Charley, clearly wondering whether he could beat Charley to the buffer's switch. He was bracing himself to charge when Charley raised his hand, showing the director that he held the machine's plug. "The buffer's switched on already," he explained. "All I have to do is plug it in. You can't possibly reach either the tapes or me before they're ruined, so you might as well sit down and relax."
"You're insane," Pines muttered as he sank into a nearby chair. "You can get twenty years for sabotaging government property like this."
"So far nothing's been damaged," Charley assured him. "You're right, of course, I'll be in big trouble if I plug this in. But have you considered what'll happen to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your security's gotten pretty lax. I got into the file room without any trouble, picked up these tapes, and just walked out with them. That's going to make your department look pretty bad."
"You couldn't have taken them out of the building, though—there's an alarm- trigger built into each of the reels."
"Oh? I didn't know that. But that hasn't prevented me from threatening them here in the building itself. I wonder what your bosses at the Labor Department are going to say."
Pines was beginning to look worried, but he still had plenty of fight left in him. "They won't say much. The tapes you've got can be reconstructed, surely. No security system is perfect—they know that. You're the one in trouble, not me."
"I'm sure most tapes would be easy to reconstruct," Charley nodded. "With the job market shifting so often, I imagine ninety percent of your master tapes are duplicated at any given time in the thousands of temporary bubble storages you've got in the local offices around the country. But I'll bet that some of the files on these three aren't. Don't you want to know which tapes I've got here?"
Pines's eyes flickered to the pile. "All right—tell me."
"They're the complete records of some people who haven't gone through the lottery for a few years now: the President, Cabinet, Supreme Court, most of Congress, and the top people in the Foreign Service, military, and federal judiciary. If I plug this in, you'll have to go to every single one of those people and ask for access to their Secure Personal Files to get the information back. Still think your bosses won't say anything?"
Pines went white. "No!" he hissed. "You wouldn't!"
"That's entirely up to you. You get me my job back at Key Data Services and no one will ever hear about this from me. I'll walk out that door and you'll never see me again."
"At least until you start demanding money," Pines said bitterly.
"With a twenty-year jail sentence hanging over my head? Don't be absurd. Besides, what would I blackmail you with—the use of your legitimate authority to correct an error?" Charley shook his head.
"But the rules—"
"—aren't in charge here: you are. And you're here because the rules don't adapt to these unexpected changes, to things that shouldn't have happened but did anyway. If they could—if computers could balance justice and mercy—you wouldn't be needed. As it is, a system like the National Employment Office couldn't exist without you—it would have been torn apart years ago."
For a moment Pines gazed into space. Then, with just a glance at the tapes, he stepped over to his desk terminal. "What was the name of that company again?"
And Charley knew he'd won.
"Frankly, Charley, I never expected to see you at this desk again—but I'm damn glad I was wrong," Will Whitney said, smiling like his face was going to split.
"Me, neither," Charley agreed, savoring the feel of his old chair as he gazed at the piles of work on his desk. "I'm glad to see you can still use me. I was half afraid Sanders would've completely taken over by now."
"You kidding? He's happier to have you back than I am." Whitney shook his head. "I'd never realized before how indispensable you are to KDS. I'm glad you found someone in Washington who agreed." Charley grinned. "That's the whole secret of success, Will. You can accomplish a lot when someone thinks you're irreplaceable." And even more, he thought wryly, when he thinks that of himself.
This was my first real foray into the world of business and finance; and as far as I'm concerned, those already in the field can have it. I'll take wading through lunar maps and the physics of black holes any day.
The job lottery idea itself came out of a long discussion of such matters with a friend, after which I sat down and hammered at the logic, cash flow, and loopholes until I got to the system you've just read about.
Would it work? I don't know. Though I don't see any flaws, of course (or I would have corrected them before sending the story out in the first place), I've never had an expert in such arcana take it apart for me. Even if it would work, I suspect it would be impossible to actually get there from here.
For which—I'm sure—we can all bow our heads in silent thanks.