Short Story: “Fair Game”

The military have predator missiles. Businesses have predators of a different kind, but they are just as deadly.

“Fair Game”
by P. Orin Zack
[09/16/2009]

The ranks of sign-carrying protesters arrayed outside ‘The Suasive Experience’ had grown quickly in the hour since a dozen or so grey-haired mall-walkers streamed through the just-opened glass doors. Photojournalist Margot Güernsbach had been on hand, because she wanted to provide her readers at the crowd-sourced news site she reported through with the sense of purpose the activists expressed, even when they were idly chatting with the elderly indoor exercise enthusiasts.

She smiled, and raised her hand to catch the attention of a happy-looking couple in matching blue-and-white striped jogging suits. They had walked briskly past two of the mall’s security guards, and were now warily approaching the protest. “Good morning,” she said brightly, and introduced herself. “Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”

The woman, who was a few inches shorter than Margot, nodded, and peered uncomfortably at the gathering. One of the protesters, a burly young man whose sign read, ‘Retirees are not Fair Game’, grinned back at her. She started, then shrunk a bit and pointed tentatively at him. “What does that mean? What’s going on here?”

Her mall-walking companion, a lanky gentleman with a fringe of white hair, who identified himself as Arthur Fischer, gestured at the store’s façade. “I’d heard there was some big financial-services company behind the mall’s new gaming center. They say it’s a recruitment tool, kind of like that video game in the movie, ‘The Last Starfighter’. So what’s wrong with that?”

“Those are exactly the sorts of questions I want to answer for my readers. You’re right, sir. It is a recruitment tool. But unlike the ‘The Army Experience’, which lured kids into volunteering for a far more dangerous job than what they were shown in the game, this one’s supposed to entice shrewd twenty-somethings into taking call-center jobs convincing seniors to invest their nest-eggs in high-risk securities.”

After Margot got permission to quote them in her report, Mrs. Fischer complained about the incessant telemarketing calls they got, despite being on the no-call list, and asked if it had become so hard to find what she called ‘script kiddies’ to fill corporate call centers. Margot chuckled at the new use for the derisive term for malware tinkerers, and reminded herself to use it in her report. “I think,” she said, “we can both benefit by speaking with a few of the protesters about that.”

The young man who had grinned at Mrs. Fischer lowered his sign when he saw them approaching and extended his free hand to her husband. “Hi,” he said, “have you come to join the protest?”

Fischer glanced at the callused hand but did not accept it. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and grimaced. “You protesters make me sick,” he said tightly. “You’d think that in a bad economy like this, you’d have the decency to let a law-abiding company go about its business, and not stick your nose into their hiring practices.”

Fearful of letting the exchange turn ugly, Margot quickly asked the young man, a specialty welder named Stan, to explain why he’d come to the protest, and whether it was a personal or a principled matter for him.

He eyed Fischer’s expensive walking shoes for a moment before answering. “I’m blue-collar,” he said, “so I actually work for my pay. So was my father. But during the bubble, he made the mistake of believing all the hype and lost his retirement fund to one of those ‘law-abiding’ con artists this company hires. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral.”

A news crew from one of the local TV stations had just arrived, and the reporter immediately launched into a hasty standup in front of the still-growing crowd of protesters that Margot could see behind Stan. She excused herself for a moment to get some reaction shots of the protesters, but before she’d had a chance to resume the conversation, three black-suited men emerged from the storefront and accosted the TV reporter.

“I just spoke with the General Manager of your station,” one of them said with an air of superiority, “and was assured that you were here expressly to do a puff piece on the gaming center.”

“You can’t –,” the TV reporter trailed off, his mike wavering unsteadily, which Margot interpreted to mean their assertion was news to him. He snorted, tightening his grip on the mike. “You can’t give me orders. I’m here to report on the protest.”

Another of the men thrust a cell phone towards his face. “Here. He’s on the phone. Ask him yourself.”

Margot got a series of shots, including two zoomed close-ups of the stand-up, the first when he was enraged by the corporate goon’s claim, and the second when he was on the phone with his boss. The TV reporter reddened as he handed the phone back. Then, after closing his eyes briefly, he feigned a smile and followed the three into the storefront, where a very satisfied-looking and overdressed woman waited.

Stan came up beside her and gestured towards the woman, who was clearly preparing for her close-up. “What I wouldn’t give for the chance to get her away from her publicist,” he whispered.

“You’ve read about Estelle Klamath, then?”

He snorted. “The CEO of the travesty behind this charade? Why do you think I’m here? Before she was elevated to head shark, that creature ran herd on the call centers they’re trying to staff up with this operation. She’s a bloodless vampire, that woman is.”

Margot took a picture. “Mind if I quote you on that?”

“Be my guest. I actually spoke with her once, you know. Of course she was a lot more accessible when she was simply the highest level of management willing to deal with an irate customer. Or the relative of one,” he corrected himself. He rattled the sign in his hand. “This is really about my dad.”

A wave of disturbance coursed through the protest as two things happened nearly at once. The first was the arrival of a second local video news crew, which was immediately surrounded by a good third of the protesters, for whom the story had now grown to include the corporate sidelining of the first one. The second thing was the arrival of quite a few armed and uniformed police officers from a different direction. One of them reminded Margot of Mr. Fischer, but when she looked back towards where the mall-walkers had been standing, they were nowhere to be found.

“Hey!” a voice called out over the din, “leave them alone!”

Sensing news in the making, Margot quickly excused herself and zigged through the loose crowd towards the disturbance. The police officers had started corralling some of the protesters, putting plastic cuffs on them and escorting them towards the exit. But the couple they were presently intent on adding to their haul weren’t here to protest.

Mrs. Fischer looked terrified as she stood there with her arms tied behind her back, and her husband had just raised his fist in a foolish bid to protect her. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said loudly enough to stir an echo.

Almost without thinking, Margot raised her camera. She’d only had enough time to take two shots of the Fischers and one of the arresting officer when a firm hand gripped her shoulder.

“Hand me the camera, ma’am.” The baritone from behind her was an inflectionless monotone.

She craned to look. It was the corporate goon who’d pushed his cell phone at the first TV reporter. “I’m with the press, sir. The camera stays with me.”

He shrugged. “It’s your choice.” Then he twisted her free arm behind her and pushed her towards a nearby police officer. “This one, too. Oh, and hold the camera for us. Our lawyers will want to see it.”

Margot clutched her camera and glared at the officer. “You’re not taking this camera.” Then she turned to face the goon again. “And where do you come off giving orders to the police, anyway?”

He laughed. “Where do you think, cutie? They’re off-duty. It’s our dime.”

“Hired?” She quickly glanced around at the officers, and then squarely faced the one she’d been pushed towards. “Then you can’t arrest anyone, can you?”

The officer shook his head. “No ma’am, but we can detain you until an on-duty officer arrives to arrest you, or ask you to leave the premises.”

“In that case,” Margot said, her eyes narrowing, “I’m not leaving, and you’re still not getting this camera. Oh, and one other thing: your fellow mercenaries seem to have collared some innocent bystanders along with the protesters your corporate employer hired you to rough up. But don’t worry. I’ve already interviewed them, and I’ve got pictures, too. So what are you going to do? Cart me off to wherever you’ve brought the Fischers, or let me do my job?”

Before the officer had a chance to reply, the goon swept in and grabbed her wrist. “Neither, Ms. Güernsbach. You’re coming with me.”

She tightened her arm and looked up at him. “A personal invitation. I’m impressed. And I suppose you know who I work for as well?”

He nodded towards the storefront. “My boss does. She’s got him on the phone.”

As they approached the glass-fronted gaming center, Margot watched Estelle Klamath’s angry face. She was speaking quickly to whoever was on the phone, presumably the news site’s founder and publisher. When the goon pulled the door open, and Klamath’s tirade spilled out, one thing became increasingly clear: she was not getting the sort of satisfaction she was used to. Margot smiled.

Furious, the company’s CEO thumbed the phone off and disgustedly tossed it to one of her aides. “I cannot abide a manager with so little control over his employees. Now then,” she said as Margot was forcibly stationed in front of her, “as to you, Ms. Güernsbach, I’ve just spoken with your boss. He claims to have no control over what you do here, but there are still ways I can get you to do what I want.”

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Report the news, which is the opening of our newest gaming center, not the rabble trying to demonize us.”

Margot considered the request. “I see. Unfortunately, I’m not a business reporter, like the man you primped for a few minutes ago. I’m also not a captive corporate employee. So how exactly did you intend to get me to back off?”

“How did you think?” She chuckled. “By threatening your boss, of course. And that ludicrous website of his. It wouldn’t take much to ruin him. He’s already having trouble covering the cost of running the site. Or would you prefer I make it a bit more personal, and threaten your family?”

“Either way, it comes down to the same thing: a company declaring war on citizens. Bully tactics. Exactly the same thing this so-called game is supposed to cultivate in the people you entice to play it. And the same tactics that they’ll be hired to use against the people you laughingly call your customers. You’re vile, and so is your company.”

“Am I.” Klamath crossed her arms and solidified her aggressive stance.

In the brief pause, a subtle grin of inspiration crossed Margot’s face, followed by a grimace of faux resignation. “Look,” she said suddenly, “since you’re determined to find some way to keep me from reporting anything I find out anyway, how about answering a few questions? I’ve already seen what The Army Experience’s battle sim is like, so I’m really curious about what sort of social sim your developers cooked up to weed out the most talented prospects. I’m sure it’s groundbreaking tech, and your marketing folks are probably already figuring out how to license it.”

“Well,” Klamath said, warming to the strokes, “we are rather proud of it. And you’re right, there are endless licensing possibilities.”

Margot looked around the storefront, taking in the slick posters and the propaganda loop running on the fifty-inch flatscreen over the entrance to the dimly lit sim in the rear. “For instance,” she said as a dynamic infographic flooded the big screen, “the army realized that they had to draw the focus away from the gore inflicted on the CG enemy by the sim’s firepower in order to keep the adrenaline rush focused. I imagine there’s a similar need in a business sim like this to be certain that the potential recruits don’t notice the economic pain inflicted on the targets of the more subtle weaponry used by the sort of social predators you’re looking for.”

Klamath’s botoxed face softened. “You are perceptive,” she said, and looked away to cover the look of admiration that had crept into her eyes. A moment later, she nodded, and turned to face Margot. “All right. I’ll play that game. As long as you realize there’s no way you’ll ever report a word of it.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your honesty. So what can you tell me?”

“One of our subsidiaries did participate in the development of the DoD’s sim. It was valuable experience, and we used a good deal of the underlying team support code when we laid out the sim we’ve fielded in these new gaming centers. In fact, there are plans afoot to extend the idea into other venues as well.”

“Um,” Margot interrupted, “weren’t there restrictions on what you could do with your knowledge of the IP in the Army’s sim? I mean, that’s usually the deal, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “It is when you’re contracting on classified projects. Their sim, however, was merely confidential, so we were free to do whatever we wanted.”

“Even though it included details on how certain controlled munitions work?”

“Ah,” she said, with a devious grin. “They hadn’t noticed that, and we weren’t about to point it out.”

“Just like your recruits aren’t supposed to point out to their marks when they’ve misrepresented, or even outright lied about the financial vehicle they’re pitching?”

“We’re hardly the only business to present its case in a positive light, Ms. Güernsbach. And besides, every lobby group in DC does the same thing to members of congress. Not that you’ll be able to tell anyone.”

Margot nodded agreeably. “You’re right, you’re right. Well, I do thank you for sharing that with me. I probably shouldn’t take up any more of your time, then. Did you want your thugs to actually threaten me before I go, or should I just take it as read?”

Klamath escorted her to the door. “No. I don’t think that will be necessary. Just remember this: we can ruin your life any time we want to. Play our game, and you can keep your job. Get out of line, and you’ll be on the street before you knew what hit you.”

Margot was a few feet beyond the door before she turned back. “Oh, yes. I understand entirely. It’s just that I won’t have to report anything. You’ve already done that.”

“What?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I left my camera on. It’s been uploading our conversation to the site.”

THE END

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack

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