n2020  c2020.txt at tip

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She patted her pockets on the way out the door, finding wallet, phone, pen, and keys.

Keys.  She unhooked her keys from the loop inside her cargo pocket and used one to turn the deadbolt.  A dozen steps took her down the walk to her [ insert car here ] at the curb.

"Hey, Alley!  It's Sunday!"

The rough voice brought her up short, one booted foot hovering off the edge of the cracked old curb.  She sighed, then turned to look.  "Hey, Zeke.  I'm just on my way to a meeting.  Job stuff."

"Yeah?"  Zeke emerged into bright sunlight from the shadows of his garage, the only garage in the eight-unit building he owned, wiping his thick-fingered hands on a standard issue, red shop rag.  "Good.  The meter's running.  Don't start collecting late fees on your rent."

She pushed brown hair away from her eyes.  "Yeah, I know," she said.

"Maybe you shouldn't've left that man of yours.  He always had money."

She grimaced, and quickly turned away, before he saw the hard, loathing look that flashed across her face.  "Yeah," she said, as she rounded the front of the car to the driver's side door.  "Well, you can't change the past."

It took a couple blocks of fiddling with the window button to get the glass on her side of the car halfway down, finally letting in some air so maybe she wouldn't sweat through her grey t-shirt.  No money meant no replacing the thirty year old A/C freon unit with one it was still legal to recharge.  It also meant no money to order parts to fix her power window switches.

The stubborn, angry clenching of her jaws and her pretense of being in a hurry meant not going back for her forgotten sunglasses either, so she squinted through the bright glare of Southern California sun and the fog of dusty windshield at the grey-hazed, bleached look of that part of the Inland Empire she called home.

The endless semi-industrial suburbs and overpacked highway traffic ground past her for more than an hour before she pulled off the ramp and coasted into Irvine.  It was a shorter trip than usual, with traffic flow sufficiently fast and smooth to give her a cooling breeze through her window for most of the drive.

There were more grassy verges, tree-lined roadways, and lushly green center divider islands as she got closer to the university.  Despite herself, her shoulders finally settled, her jaw unclenched some more, and her breath came more easily through a more relaxed throat.  The directions on her phone were more accurate than usual, and she pulled smoothly into a space by the big, blockish, white and glass building she needed.

Almost an hour of answering questions followed, during which Doctor Hearn chewed on his pen and talked around it while typing her responses into his laptop.  The exercise finally wound its tedious way to a halt, or something like a halt.  The tenured professor -- a status he brought up early in their introductions -- kept chewing on his pen as he rolled the scroll wheel on an obsolete gaming mouse, as though he didn't have someone in the room with him waiting.  The tedium had really shifted to a gentler, but more anxious form.

"So," he said at last, as he turned his squinting gaze her way, "tell me more about this digital research job of yours."

"What do you want to know about it?" she asked.  Her eyes shifted restlessly around the small office, and never quite landed on the professor.

"How do you get clients?"

Alley's eyes snapped back to meet his, and widened slightly.

"Is that a surprising question?  It's not a trade secret, I hope."  He smiled faintly, in a manner probably intended to be disarming.

"No," she said slowly.  "It's not a secret.  It's just usually not what people want to know."

He waved a dismissive hand.  "I'm not personally interested, really.  I'm just evaluating your suitability for the study."

Her lips began to curve down, toward a frown, before she aborted the reflex.  "Oh.  Well . . . mostly word of mouth and people stumbling on one of my articles about search techniques."

"Does that really work?" he asked.  "What is that -- content marketing?"

She shrugged.  "I guess.  It doesn't work so well, these days.  Nothing does.  I only get business from people who decide they need more than they can get out of their confirmation bubbles, if they even realize they haven't found everything there is to find, but don't have people on staff to do the research for them."

"Hmm.  Do you mean tailored research bias?"

"Yeah," she said, and nodded.

"Mm-hmm."  He removed his pen from his mouth and produced a green, paisley bandanna from a desk drawer.  He proceeded to meticulously dry his saliva from the pen.  "Does that pay well?"

She cocked her head to the side for a moment.  "Only occasionally," she admitted.

He smiled.  "You said you're technically competent, but not in the manner of a technology professional," he said, obviously reading from his laptop display.  He looked up at her again.  "Do you program?"

"No," she said.

"Good.  Good."  He tucked the end of his pen between his teeth again.  As he stuffed the bandana into its drawer again, he asked "Do you know anything about artificial intelligence research?"

She hesitated before shaking her head.  "No, not really."

"Perfect.  You'll do nicely."  He opened a manila folder, glanced through its contents, then turned it around and slid it across the top of the desk so it rested directly in front of her.  "Here.  You'll need to sign these forms."

She looked at the top sheet, then riffled the edge of the stack, about two dozen sheets in total.  The font looked pretty small, with tiny margins, on the first page.  She lifted one corner enough to see the front page was double sided.  When she looked up at him again, she found the professor staring intently at her.  "Why?" she asked.

"Oh, it's just some standard nondisclosure, guarantee of material return, and other legal necessities for joining the study."

"You mean I'm in."

He nodded.  "Of course.  You're an ideal candidate."

"You got that from the questions you asked."

"Yes!"  He smiled at her, a proud, satisfied smile.

"You need underachievers running out of money, I guess."  She failed to keep a sour note out of her voice.

"Ah, yes, I suppose that's a fair description, if a bit blunt."


He turned toward a shelf behind him.  From it, he took one of three identical smooth, white boxes that looked like product packaging for high end smartphones, but utterly blank like someone forgot to print the branding, or anything else for that matter.  It even sported the usual thin bits of sealing tape at the ends of the outer sleeve.

"Here you go," he said.  "We'll start your direct deposits tomorrow.  This is your interface package prototype for a prioritization system based on my research.  We'll track your progress with it for experimental purposes."

"What does that mean?" she asked.

"Everything you need to know is in the booklet inside the box."

Alley's eyes slid slowly from him back down to the pages in front of her.  "Okay," she said.

"Just sign those papers first."  He removed his pen from his mouth again, and offered it.

She stared at it a moment.  "Uh . . . no, thank you.  I have a pen."