Michael opened his front door and stepped into the pre-dawn light, not to check the weather or get the papers but merely to express his stupefaction at standing upright at this hour of the day. It was 4:30 a.m. He’d had four hours of bad sleep featuring a dream of global Network collapse, but that was more sleep than he’d had the night before, or the night before that. On his way back inside, he glimpsed himself darkly in the smoked wall-mirror of his condo foyer. He had several days’ beard on his face, long, claw-like fingernails, eyebags bigger than an iguana’s, and spikes of black hair that made his head resemble a Van de Graf generator.
Odd, the creature in the mirror didn’t look like a computer scientist. He had seen it happen to others but had not believed it could happen to him. He had thought he was too young, too strong, too smart. Mostly too young. But he’d been thinking that for quite a few years now. How young was he anymore, anyway? At what age had the EverNET Corporation and its biggest, most absolutely vital client, SurfTrust Financial Services, finally nailed him?
Thirty-six. Thirty-six years old and completely fried.
He held his smart card out the truck window for the robot guarding the EverNET lot. A smart card was a computer you carried in your wallet. The card and the robot had a brief, supernatural conversation and the robot sent a message to a database across the Net. Michael Sessions, 00004, 1999-05-28 05:35:17, 05:47:23 hours since last departure. He drove inside. The only thing the robot didn’t know was that it had just raised the gate for its creator. “00004” – the fourth employee of the EverNET Corporation. Maybe, Michael thought, that should be the next step in his career – to program the robots so they knew. Maybe then they, at least, would give him love and devotion.
He remembered the meeting, years ago, where he’d proposed that EverNET stake everything on a costly fiber network and the then-unproven smart card. The MBAs all laughed, but those were the days when young Michael, recently hired away from IBM, was still Network God to the founders and investors. They listened, and eventually those two decisions made EverNET the darling of the banks. “Plastic with a brain” was now a registered company trademark. Some of the old laughers were still around today – as EverNET VPs. It was one of the eternal mysteries of business: The less you knew, the more power and money they gave you.
Unfortunately, Michael found banking boring. Beyond boring. He wanted EverNET to innovate again, to move into zones of digital glory. At a meeting several months ago, he had announced that the next big thing was remotely programmable microprocessors surgically implanted in one’s neck, so that an executive’s computer would be with him at all times, even when the executive was nude. He suggested that EverNET’s managerial elite submit to a beta-test of the program. The looks on their faces were delicious, but that wasn’t the funniest part. The funniest part was that he wasn’t kidding. That was the next big thing.
Not long after that, a suit waylaid him in the hallway one day on the pretext of asking him something, and while he was answering the guy’s question two other suits gathered round, and then they all started moving him toward the elevators. “Hey, what’s going on?” Michael yelled at the shoulder pads, the chins shaved like pieces of meat, the hair barbered to weird perfection. They took him to a conference room on the seventh floor where others of their kind were gathered in the fluorescence, as if schooling in a tank. They stripped away all his design authority, made him supervisor of seven younger engineers, and told him to take it or leave it.
Now, from his black mini-pickup truck, he considered the 10 floors of the EverNET Corporation. It even looked insincere, a pink-tinged concrete tower with 12-foot-high panes of completely opaque blue glass. He crossed the parking lot in the opalescent morning light, waved his card at the armored front door, and punched his password into the pad on the wall. You’d get less security from a guard with a gun. For comfort, he told himself that his work had built a world where men didn’t need guns. They could point little computers at each other instead.
He stepped into the chromium-blue semi-darkness of the lobby. He had been of singular importance in making this place what it was, and now most people inside it didn’t like him anymore. And he didn’t like them. They loved big money. Engineers famously loved other things. So now they had all the things Michael loved, and Michael did not have the big money. He could thus stay and do what they told him, or leave for the same deal with the competition.
He had to laugh. The smart cards were smarter than he was.
Arlington resident Ralph Lombreglia, a contributor to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of Make Me Work, a collection of short stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994). “Fried” is adapted from a novel in progress.