Middleman

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Middleman

Post by Faust on Wed Jun 19, 2013 1:03 pm

My phone buzzes in my pocket.



Hotel rooms all smell the same: clean, palatable, with the vaguest hint of some generic brand of air freshener. For the occasional traveler, this inoffensive aroma may very well be comforting, but for me, it's an intolerable stench, a sterile, cloying cloud that permeates every synthetic fiber on every knockoff piece of furniture in every cramped hotel room on the planet.

You can't escape it- it follows you, clinging to your clothes like cigarette smoke, incapable of being brushed away or washed or cleaned. It disgusts me.

I haul my luggage over the threshold of the door and close it behind me, making sure to indicate that I do not wish to be disturbed. Not that whatever low-end "room service" the hotel hires would ever pay attention to it, anyway- I'd be surprised if the people cleaning my room could even read the language the sign was in, if they could read at all. But I do it anyway, if only out of force of habit.

There's something reassuring about a little bit of privacy, even if it's as thin as a curtain drawn over a window, an action I perform immediately after closing the door. It keeps paranoia at bay; it keeps you sane.



I can feel the susurration of the blood in my veins, bubbling onto the cool tile beneath my slick hands. Every atom of my body protests, howling, panicking at this existential threat to my existence, but none of them cooperate, straining against each other in every direction, coalescing only into a beautiful blossom of agony that sprouts from my lower back. I've been shot, I process, at speeds too slow to be thoughts- detached observations, more like, of my current state.

I spasm in alarm as I realize that I'm staring down at my body, curled into a fetal position, wishing for the warmth of my mother's womb as my skin goes pale and scarlet blood pours like a faucet from the fist-sized hole in my suit jacket. Why'd I think I could run? I'd never make it. I knew that. I still cling to life, though, scrabbling at the body that’s become my coffin, my throat burning and hoarse- but I can already hear the bass rumble of boots against the tile floor, and there’s nothing left for me to do but close my eyes.



The lifestyle common to my line of work is no different than any other mid-level corporate executive. I spend hours on conference calls, half-listening to overzealous employees drone on about profit margins and product lines; blow most of my income on narcotics, consumables, and seating upgrades; and, occasionally, meet with prospective clients.

As most of these conversations take place over lavish dinners or luncheons, I've become adept at purging my food, and exercising in my spare time. Each doctor I've consulted has consistently refused to condone my behavior- but I don't pay them to criticize me. I take my dietary supplements and benzodiazepines, listen to the latest in global politics, and try my best to care about the people I run into on a daily basis. The only difference is that, in my profession, failure is often fatal.



The doors open with a pneumatic hiss, but the lobby is deserted, and I immediately slam into the nearest structural pillar, recognizing the tell-tale signs of an ambush. The first shot is almost imperceptible, vaporizing the nearest chunk of wall with an actinic flash of light- but the second shot is aimed, sending me reeling away from my makeshift cover, my left arm raised defensively to block splinters of rock from tearing my face into hamburger.

I feel my mouth open, and hear a scream come out, but it's not me who's sending the orders- I'm analytic, logical, processing the most reasonable way out. The elevator's not an option, the front desk is too far away, there's no fire escape- just the front door of the building, where my assailant is standing, shooting at me.

There's got to be a way out of this. I can't die here. It's not right. But, already, I can't feel my legs, and when I look down, I'm staring at the ground inches away, twitching from the first probing tendrils of the unbearable pain that’s sure to come.



It's the 22nd century. Technology has progressed at such a fantastic rate that traditional observations like Moore's Law are no longer just out-of-date; they're defunct, products of an era that may as well be ancient history. With new discoveries, inventions, patents, and products coming into existence at rates that are difficult to fathom, traditional corporate espionage is a futile endeavor. Even if the megacorporations bothered to legally fight those who leak trade secrets, the courts are so slow and so corrupt that no settlement would be worth the amount of time and resources it would take to see the case to fruition.

In-house assassins aren't out of the question, for particularly egregious breaches of company trust at higher rungs of the corporate ladder- but, in most cases, corporate spies and saboteurs are simply blacklisted. When most opportunities for legitimate employment come from one of four places, this is effectively the end of their careers.



There's no time to pack anything. I almost destroy the phone, but I realize there's no point, and my higher brain function stops me from crushing it into its component parts with my fist. The palms of my hands are already bloody, from where my carefully-trimmed nails have dug deep furrows, but I don't feel the pain. I'm already fumbling for the door handle, leaving my prints and skin and blood samples all over the smooth aluminum. They already know I'm here, in all likelihood, so there's no point in trying to clean up the mess.

My only hope now is to disappear, go completely off-grid, hunker down in some shantytown and hope to God they give up- but clawing at the back of my mind is the suspicion, the worry, the knowledge that they'll never let me go with my life. I thought I did everything right, kept my cool, covered my tracks, vetted my target- but not closely enough. I’d failed. Now I’m going to pay the price. I slam my bloody palm on the screen, calling the elevator.



The real trick, then, is not to target the products or ideas themselves, but rather the individuals responsible for birthing them. Intellectual capital is the currency of the day. Once a product is designed, it's almost trivial to steal it: mass production is an involved process, and any attempt to keep an idea in the dark for a significant of time is almost certain to result in failure.

Corporate espionage has evolved to track the ideas down at the source. I am responsible for meeting with prospective turncoats, buttering them up, and attempting to smuggle them from their current place of employment to a higher-paying corporation, in hopes that their creativity and intelligence will more than pay off the price it took to obtain them.

I don't particularly care whether it does or not: I pocket a set fee, based on the level of risk that I anticipate for a particular job, and perform my duties to the best of my abilities. Whether or not it was a profitable venture for my client does not concern me.



The line had gone dead. The conversation was over. But why couldn't I just accept the obvious? Why couldn't I just suppose that I'd been wrong, take a seat on the bed, and listen to some vapid tripe about the latest scandals or celebrity gossip?

I replay the conversation over and over in my mind, scrutinizing every detail, every nuance, every subtle hint of meaning- but I come up with nothing. But I know, with complete and utter certainty, that I'd been correct. Something was wrong. I stood up to pace, walking the distance between the door and the bed. 11 steps there, 11 steps back. No, it wasn't about how he said it, or what he implied. It wasn't his accent, or his inflection, or his tone.

I stare down at the phone in my hand, my eyes wider than they should be, fixated on the little timer that indicated the length of the call. It was so goddamn obvious: I'd never mentioned who I was working for. He couldn't have known.



What does concern me is that most megacorporations do not take the theft of their personnel lightly. The defection of a particularly talented programmer, or even a high-level executive, is often ignored, or the defector targeted personally, ensnared in a labyrinth of legal matters that they will never be able to escape- but the defection of a scientist on the verge of a new discovery, for instance, is treated with a different level of severity.

The scientist will never be harmed: they are an asset to be protected, nurtured, even, and as long as the profit expected to result from their ideas exceeds the cost it takes to maintain their loyalty, the company will stop at nothing to protect them from unwanted influences, like myself.

I, on the other hand, am nothing more than a middleman: plausible deniability for my client, and a target for their competition.



I mirror his farewell, and let him end the call. It was just a simple goodbye, if a bit juvenile and earthy- but it was tripping every alarm in my mind. There was something distinctly off about this call. Not the way he ended it, but something about it, some part of it that was causing every one of my finely honed senses to tell me to cut and run immediately before something truly terrible happened.

I try to fight back feelings of rising panic, hunting half-heartedly for my bottle of benzos. It takes a few seconds of digging before I locate them, twisting the safety cap off of the bottle and shaking out two to swallow. I've long since grown used to their slightly bitter aftertaste. It's no worse than any of my other vices. I pick the phone back up, intending to put it into my pocket, but doubt continues to nag at my mind. Something was off.



I am well aware of my vulnerability, and take steps to ensure my safety and anonymity. My only home address is a PO box. My only method of contact is a disposable cell phone. My only method of identification is a passport. Everything I need to live, I carry in my luggage. I do not follow a schedule, and I always make first contact. I do not know the name of my agent, and he does not know mine- and it is the only relationship I have with anyone that involves any degree of trust. I do not trust my employer; I do not trust my targets; and I do not trust any associates my client may feel to saddle me with.

I am congenial, when necessary; cold when not. I do not emotionally attach myself to the people I am paid to convince to betray their employers. They may as well be baggage: I go through the motions of telling them what they want to hear, nod and smile when they express their concerns, quote them figures and statistics to feed their sense of greed, and platitudes to placate their conscience.



I answer it after waiting two full vibrations- enough to make it seem like I'm busy, but not enough to seem like he's low-priority.

"Hey, man," I say, adopting a kind of bohemian inflection to my voice.

I'd recognized long ago that my target was a kind of middle-aged electronic activist, a warrior-poet for peace and understanding so long as it didn't interfere with his day job. My client agreed: the best way to win him over was probably to try to appeal to his left-wing sensibilities. They'd already managed to secure him an office with a beautiful view of some well-preserved greenery, and many of their employees, I was to inform him, practiced healthy, all-natural lifestyles. It was, indeed, encouraged at their offices.

"Hey! You remember me, right? From the restaurant? You gave me your card, to call you, if I was interested-"

He pauses for a beat longer than he had to, and I took the opportunity to jump in. "Yeah- you got me! Thanks for giving me a call- I knew you'd get back to me. You're just perfect for the position."

There was another pause before he continued. "Yeah, you know, I thought about it after I got back- and I'm actually interested in hearing more about it. Maybe we could meet over lunch again someday this week? Or, uh, dinner, if that's better for you."

I ignore his last sentence, focusing on the lunch. "Yeah, excellent, man, whatever works for you. Same place? That was some good stuff, you know. I'm usually not into all that eastern cuisine, but, man, was it something."

The lie was innocuous, and he probably recognized it as such, but I lay it on thick.

"Oh, yeah, that's fine. Same time work for you?"

I agree.

"Well, alright, man, see you there. I'm really looking forward to hearing more about what Intrepid has to offer," he says with a note of finality. "See you there."



I don't perform my job out of any sense of misguided loyalty. I'm a free agent, as far as that counts in today's society, and over my career I've worked for every megacorporation in existence. If I wanted to help them, I'd probably get a real job, and get my name on an official payroll. Maybe then I wouldn't have to jump through hoops for a pittance, bottom-feeding from the trough of the untold billions of dollars that go missing in "accounting errors" every fiscal quarter. There's nothing noble about lies and deceit, but I have no pretensions about my job: I've never seen myself as a gallant hero or intrepid rogue. No, when it comes down to it, I'm a charming mercenary- little more than a liar for hire.



My phone buzzes in my pocket.

Faust

Posts : 4
Join date : 2013-06-19

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