Kett Martin peered blearily at his computer screen. Today had been an exhausting day. It seemed that everyday was an exhausting day. In fact, Kett couldn't remember the last time he didn't feel exhausted.
It didn't seem that Kett had much reason to be exhausted. He exercised regularly but other than that his physical workout was limited to a flight of stairs leading up to his office. He only had to work a standard eight hours per day. In the evenings he would spend time with his friends, and on the weekends he would do his shopping and take care of the little things that had to be done to keep his home clean and presentable.
He closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. There was no reason he could think of that he was always tired. It used to be that coffee served as something of a pick-me-up, but now his morning coffee was a crutch that allowed him to focus on the computer screen that contained his work. Work that he found himself increasingly unable to concentrate on.
He got up and paced his office, leather shoes making no noise on soft carpet. Kett was fortunate enough to have a corner office, overlooking the moderately busy street outside. He stopped at the window and looked out at happy, laughing people walking by carrying little plastic bags filled with little cardboard packages that they were taking home to their families. He let out a heavy sigh.
This wasn't getting him any work done. He was starting to fall behind, and his productivity was already in the toilet. His promotion last spring had been a welcome one at the time, but the job didn't really change, only the office. He looked at the phone, briefly hoping it would ring and give him some distraction from himself, but that was foolish and he knew it. He sat back down in his plush chair and looked at the computer screen again, as he'd done at least a dozen times before today.
He scrolled through numbers, reading about focus groups answering questions about how fizzy they liked their drinks, which shade of red they found more appealing on lipstick, and how they felt about the current fashion trend of men shaving their heads below the tops of the ears. He made a note here, a comment there, and tied a few statistics together. All in all he made almost no progress on the report that was due at the close of business on Monday. He looked at his watch. 4pm. He was meeting his friend Jason at 5:30 for beer and a burger at Elkin's. Only three blocks away. If he left now he felt sure he would be good and drunk by the time Jason showed up.
He sighed deeply and decided to just give up. "Computer, shut down. I'll pick this thing up on Monday." The computer's pleasant voice made sure he really meant to shut it down, and then obligingly made click-click-beep-beep noises while going through the proper sequence to save everything and then go inert until it would once again be needed.
Watching the computer run through its sequence, Kett found himself wishing he could do that. He imagined himself just laying back, one autonomous function after another going into standby mode until finally his mind was completely blank, simply being there, resting quietly, until he was needed again. He allowed himself a small smile at the thought, and realized it might have been the first time he had smiled all day.
He got up and looked around the office. On one wall his credentials: a bachelor's degree in psychology from Danforth University and a Masters in Business from Hellyer's, one of the top schools of the country. Next to it there should have been a picture of his family, he thought. All of his coworkers had photos of family next to their diplomas. But Kett had never found the right girl. Or so he so desperately wished to believe.
On the other wall were two impressionist paintings, vaguely recognizable as flowers in vases, one red and one blue. They screamed generic office art at them. He hated them just now, their indistinct images nothing more than a series of brush marks on a canvas that looked more like the painter had had an accident than designed a piece of art.
He shook his head, collected his things and left. He lingered a moment looking at his office door. "Kett Martin, Senior Market Analyst." He chuckled. That promotion had come with a twenty-percent pay raise, a corner office, and five weeks of vacation a year. And the exact same job he'd already been doing for years. He shook his head and continued on out, briefly relishing the twenty-seven steps that constituted his most engaging physical activity at work. Then they were gone and there was only the company receptionist and the glass door with the chrome handle stood between him and freedom for the weekend.
He pushed open the door, and the sounds of inner city traffic greeted him. So many cars nobody ever bothered to count them, some new, some old, all of them driven by someone in a devilish hurry to get wherever it is they were going. Most of them stuck behind a red light that forced them to wait just thirty more seconds to get moving again.
Then there was the steady stream of people, a few of them leaving work, a few of them arriving to work, but most of them he had no idea what they were doing down here. At least one fellow in front of him was obviously delivering a package. That one in the grey uniform with silver buttons and helmet, she was a peace officer. The rest-who cares? They're just people.
He wandered down toward Elkin's. Even though it was only three blocks, he had to pass some thirty different shops and stores to get there. A cigar store selling imported smokes from Zhan Tsu. Hand-rolled by the savages. Very expensive, they say, but you can't beat the savage's tobacco, or so Kett had always been told. The domestic stuff just doesn't compare.
Then there was the liquor store, the men's clothing store, the women's clothing store, the children's clothing store, the trendy clothing store and the conservative clothing store. Right next to that was the lingerie store, which had the obligatory poster of the very skinny woman, wearing very little, enticing the men in to buy something special. If they were really lucky this very expensive lingerie just might make the woman in his life look like the tanned, sculpted artificial woman on the poster.
He lingered at the organizer store-an entire storefront devoted to the fifteen thousand different ways to organize his to-do list and weekly appointment calendar. He decided he was quite sure the pink leather mini-binder was not for him, but he quite liked the brown one that had Saturday and Sunday together on one page, but the rest of the weekdays each had a full page devoted to it.
He looked at his watch. That only killed fifteen minutes, he still had almost an hour before Jason was going to show up. "Screw it," he said to himself, "I'll just have a drink." The clerk looked at the man talking to himself with amusement, until the bell-chimes on the door were silent again and Kett was gone.
Elkin's was typical of a chain bar and burger establishment. The center area was a square bar with seats around all four sides and a few small tables separated from the dining area by a low wall. A haze of sweet-smelling smoke clung to the air, not quite being sucked away by the ventilation system. Kett found a barstool and ordered himself a beer. The bartender poured two but only charged four credits for one. "Happy hour," he explained. "Two for one until five. Going to order anything to eat?" Kett shook his head. "Just these for now. Could you turn the sound up? I'd like to see the rest of the baseball game."
The tender shrugged. "Sure. We're losing, though, thirteen to three. Lanta hit a grand slam in the fourth and we haven't been able to do anything since. Kind of depressing, don't you think?"
Kett shrugged. "Kind of. Thanks." He tipped the bartender a couple extra credits and turned his attention to the game. The television showed an almost empty stadium-all the fans had already given up.
Kett couldn't make himself pay attention to the game. Watching the batter swing and miss repeatedly felt too much like his own life, except he had no idea what he'd been swinging at and missing. Obviously he didn't have a family, but that really didn't feel like what he had been missing. He and Jason had no problems getting dates when they hit the bars, but he rarely felt the need to really turn those into anything more serious than having fun. And, truthfully, the women he dated rarely wanted any more than that anyway.
By the second beer, he'd decided what he was missing wasn't a woman. It wasn't money, he had acceptable salary, though perhaps less than he would have had if he were truly ambitious, but it afforded him a comfortable apartment, nice furniture and all the trappings of a nice, upper middle class lifestyle. There was always the urge to have more-buy more-a nice house out in the suburbs or a condominium in a downtown high-rise, perhaps.
He heard a crack, and the TV announcer's voice rose with excitement. The home team had finally hit one up in the air...but to no avail. It bounced off the far wall and right into the glove of the center fielder who just managed to get there in time. No, there would be no come-from-behind victory in this game.
He was well into the fourth beer when he heard his buddy Jason from behind him. "Marty!" A large hand clapped solidly into his upper back, pushing Kett's hunched shoulders a little further into the bar. "Marty, you got a head start on me! Did you blow outta work early, bud?"
"Hey Jason, loud as usual. What's with the hair?" Jason's dark blond hair was short and spiked up on top, but below a straight line above the tops of his ears it had all been shaved, leaving only smooth, pale skin.
"The gal at the shop said it's all the rage these days, so I said what the hell. You know me."
"Yea, sure do, Jason. Hey, barkeep-get my buddy here a beer." He looked at his own, near the bottom. "Better get me another one."
Jason looked Kett over with bright blue eyes. "Marty, you're lit already. And not laughin'. What's got you down?"
Kett shook his head. "Beats me, man. Just feeling kinda blah, like there's something I should be doing but I dunno what it is. Don't worry about it. What's the plan for tonight anyway?"
"Give me a cheeseburger and fries. I'll have it rare. Marty, you gonna eat?"
"Oh, yea. Same thing, make it medium."
As the bartender walked away and keyed the order into the little computer, Jason told Kett the plans for the evening. "Doug and Ray are showing up at your place at 8. They're bringing beer, I'm bringing chips and you're bringing cash. My cash, this time."
Kett laughed. "Jay, my man, the day you clean me out at poker is the day the savages become civilized. It just don't happen."
"That's the spirit, Marty. C'mon man, loosen up, forget about work. We gotta get you laid or somethin."
Kett chuckled. "Sure thing." It cheered him up to have Jason around, helped him forget about the pall that had hung over his day-even his week. They always found something to chat about. The baseball game, the weather, politics, women, plans. Their burgers. Who was going to beat whom at their next game of poker, or pool or whatever game they were going to play next.
By the time they finished their burgers-and a few more beers-Kett was in a pretty good mood, even if his team had gotten embarrassed while he drank. They paid their bills, laughed at the newscaster's inane jokes, and left.
The subway stop was only two blocks down, and it was designed to show off the very best that central Cedar City had to offer. The entryway was a set of six escalators, half going down and half going up. Between each of the escalators were carefully chosen leafy plants to add atmosphere and hide odors.
At the bottom of the escalators was a large tiled room. On one side the big silver gates led through to the various tracks and the walls were filled with advertisements for the newest movies, the best stores and the most important network shopping services that could be found. In the center of this large room was a fountain, spraying cold water up toward the ceiling and giving the whole subway a pleasant, ocean-like scent.
Kett and Jason ran their identicards through the slot at the big silver gate, walking past two armored peace officers who paid them no attention. At the tracks they waited only a few moments for the gleaming silver train to show up. It stopped in front of them with only the sound of the wind, hydrolics opening the doors and the announcer letting them know that this was the G train heading toward Arboria. The announcer repeated himself before the doors closed-just in case someone had gotten on the wrong train-and then the train was off, quickly accelerating to cruising speed. Small lights on the tunnel walls left streaks that could only been seen as afterimages on the eye.
Kett's apartment was only three subway stops away, in an area that was actually newer than the downtown urban area in which he worked, but looked older due to slightly less upkeep. Kett guessed that fewer consumers meant less of a need for spit-and-polish, so things were let go for a little longer. His building was a six story building of brown stone, and his apartment was on the fourth floor. He wanted to take the stairs, but better judgement (mostly Jason's) got him into the elevator.
"Marty, I can't believe you're this drunk on only six beers."
"I had four of them before I ate. No wait, five."
"Yea and? I watched you down half a bottle of whiskey and do the alphabet backward for that cop. You remember that?"
Kett shook his head. "Nope. I don't think I do. Who cares, aren't we here to play some cards?"
Jason chuckled. "Your money is mine, bud."
Kett's apartment was full of beautiful, well-matched furniture. Most of it was imported from Zhan Tsu. Hand-crafted by the savages. The walls were carefully decorated with paintings no less empty than the ones in his office. Shelves were full of knick-knacks, little art pieces, the occasional trophy but mostly gifts from well-meaning but poor-judging friends.
A little light on the panel by the door was flashing, letting him know that he had an electronic message. "Just a minute, Jay. Probably just Doug saying he's going to be late again.
Kett disappeared into the master bedroom and sat down at his computer. It came up out of standby mode as he sat down. When he opened up his mailbox, he read the message.
From: A. Friend
To: Kett Martin, Senior Market Analyst
Subject: The Future
Are you happy with your life, Mr. Martin?
Kett read it three times, but it still didn't make sense. He had filters that were supposed to block this kind of message. But it didn't really look like an advertisement. He decided the mystery didn't much matter to him, and deleted the message.
When he got back out to his living room, Doug and Ray had already shown up. They weren't small guys, but standing next to Jason they both seemed it. Jason wasn't really that large either, though he was taller than average, broader than average. But he held himself with that self-confidence that made him seem larger. Doug was of average height, with short, well-styled dark hair and a lopsided face that made his smiles somewhat surreal. He wore expensive clothes that tended to stand out. Ray was a smidge taller than Doug and tended to be the conservative, quiet sort. His clothes were darker and nondescript. In fact, he was nondescript in general, especially standing next to Ray and Jason.
Jason had already grabbed the deck of cards and the beer. Ray was setting up the dining table for the game, which was just barely largest for the four of them to sit around comfortably. "Doug brought a case, Marty. Think that'll be enough? I can go get some more real quick, cause you know the liquor store will be closed by the time we'll be ready for more."
"Douggie, you cheapskate. I can drink that by myself! What are the rest of you going to drink, hm?"
Ray laughed. It was a loud but pleasant sound. "What, you don't have any in the fridge?"
"Hell no, you guys drank it all last week, remember?"
Ray held his hands up. "Sorry man! I'm on it. Back in a flash. Don't give away my seat."
"If you're not back in five minutes, I'm calling Paul."
Jason called out, "Get me a pack of cigarettes while you're out, man."
"Sure sure. Anyone else need somethin'? Lottery ticket, maybe? Can of dog food? Maybe some world peace while I'm at it?" The front door closed with a loud click before anybody could answer.
Doug lit himself a cigarette, then offered one to Jason. "You think he'll be able to find his way back on his own?"
"He ain't had that much to drink yet, has he?"
"Fucked if I know. But he could get lost in a supermarket."
Kett chuckled. "I got ten creds on back in ten."
Jason grabbed at his wallet and whipped out a couple of bills. "You're on. I say he's back in five."
They both looked at Doug. "You in on fifteen or more?"
He shrugged. "Yea sure, why not." He dropped a bill on table, then walked over to the large glass door that led to the balcony. "I'll watch from out here."
The sound of beeping came from the kitchen as Kett dropped himself into a chair. The day's exhaustion and all he'd drunk earlier was starting to catch up to him, and his eyes closed for a moment. He felt as if he could just fall right to sleep, right here, surrounded by his friends in the comfort of his own home.
"Hey bud, your email light is flashing again." Jason placed a couple of plates full of delicious smelling microwaved appetizers on the table, all very dense and loaded with fat and salt. Kett grabbed one. "What, again? What's up with that?" He popped the little steaming morsel into his mouth and got up to go back to the bedroom.
"Computer, on." The computer's flat screen came immediately to life as the computer brought itself out of standby mode. "Email." Obligingly it opened a window which informed him that he had one new message waiting.
From: A. Friend
To: Kett Martin, Senior Market Analyst
Subject: Your Future
Are you happy with your life, Kett? Please respond, it's important.
"The fuck? What is this shit? Delete message!" The computer removed the window with the odd request, presumably dropping it into the virtual wastebasket, or wherever extra bits go when they're no longer needed.
Back in the living room, "What's up with the email, Marty? Work bugging you at home, too?"
Kett threw up his hands. "Beats me, just some weird junk mail somehow getting through the filters. Says it's from a friend, asking if I'm happy. You guys ever heard of something like that?"
Doug and Jason both shook their heads. "No man. Sounds bizarre to me. Has it been fifteen minutes yet, Jay?"
Jason looked at his watch. "Nine. I have thirty seconds left." But Ray did not materialize in those thirty seconds. "Shit," he said. Then the door opened and Ray walked in.
Jason glared at him. "Hey asshole. Couldn't you have been two seconds faster?" Kett laughed and gathered the bills from the table. Ray sneered. "Dude, I'm bringing you beer and I get shit? Next time you get the beer, ok?"
Jason laughed. "Ok ok, you got a point. Never fuck with the man bringing you beer." He waved Ray off, who went to the kitchen to unload. Doug quietly claimed his cigarettes.
"Hurry up, Ray, I want your money." They all sat down at the table.
From the kitchen, "Marty, Doug, you guys need a cold one?"
"Yea man," Marty answered. Doug concurred and Ray delivered. "Oh, food. I'm starving, too!"
They each traded a stack of bills for a stack of chips and Kett started the deal. The tradition was that the owner of the house, or at least the occupant of the house got first deal and choice of games. "Ok, I'm going to pick a game even you losers can play. Your basic stud." Ray sneered, Jason snorted. Doug cracked a grin.
The truth was, for as much bragging as everyone at the table did, the eventual result was usually that Doug or Kett would be the big winner and Ray and Jason would walk away empty handed. More often Doug than Kett. Doug was very good at being quiet and not giving many hints as to what he was thinking, Kett was good at reading people, but Ray and Jason just gave too much away. Of course, heavy drinking could change that dynamic, but Doug was also a lighter drinker than the other three.
Sure enough, after three hours, most of the first case of beer and all of the food that had been brought, Doug was sitting on the biggest pile of money, Kett was just above even and Ray and Jason were both looking pretty grim.
"Your bank's looking pretty weak there, Jay." Kett's speech was a little slurred from all the beer, but only a little. "Maybe you'd better buy in another hundred."
Jay shot Kett a look. "Fuck off, Marty. I'm getting it back on the next hand."
"You said that two hands ago, you drunkard. You couldn't beat a child right now."
Ray interjected. "Hey Jay, tell us a war story. You know, mowing down savages, left and right?" Ray knew, as they all did, that one thing Jason could never pass up was the chance to tell a good war story.
"Anything if it'll shut Marty up. Ok, there's this one where me and my unit were in Djibon. It's hotter 'n hell there, and the bugs were eatin' at us, even through the spray. There was fifteen of us, tromping through the trees. Intel said there weren't no savages around nowhere, but you can never be too sure. They can be pretty good at hidin' and shit. So there we were, trying to get to the rendezvous point and from outta nowhere they're coming out of the trees all over us. Only a few of 'em had guns, but they all had these big ass machetes."
Jason's face was lively, showing exaggerated emotions as he told the story. His eyes were wide: "They got three of us with those knives right off, but then we opened fire." His chair scooted back a little, giving him room to be animated. His voice was full of fever.
"Bullets everywhere, couldn't see jack through the smoke. Then it was all quiet again, dead savages all around us. They got half of us, we musta killed fifty or sixty of 'em, and who knows how many ran."
Ray was looking curiously at Jason, then Kett. He leaned over to Kett, whispering low, "I don't remember hearing this one before. You?"
Kett shook his head. "No way. I thought we'd heard 'em all?"
Jason stopped, irritated by his audience whispering. "What what?"
"Oh we were just taking a bet on what happens next, Jay. Tell us!"
"Well there we were, carrying our dead friends. We were lost, right? But here's the best part. We're hacking our way through the jungle, and then suddenly we get to a spot where all the underbrush is clear. And you wouldn't believe it, but-"
Suddenly Jason's face turned bone white, and his eyes rolled back into his head. Doug stood up, immediately concerned. Ray shouted, "Wouldn't believe what, man? What?!"
Jason recovered and shook his head quickly, clearing it. He looked around at the three of them, suddenly seeming uncomfortable as they all peered intently at him. "What?"
Ray gritted his teeth. "What wouldn't we believe, Jay?"
Jason looked confused. "Uh, I dunno. That I'm going to win this hand?"
Ray threw down his cards, but Doug stood up and asked, "Jay, are you ok?"
"Yea man, why wouldn't I be?"
Ray looked apoplectic. "Stop fuckin' with us, Jay!"
"Fucking with you what? What's your damage?"
Kett, also looking concerned added, "Jay, you were just telling us about your unit."
Jason furrowed his brow. "I was? Don't shit me, man."
Ray stormed off toward the bathroom. "He's just fucking with us, Marty."
Kett wasn't so sure. "You said something about coming to a break in the jungle, then you turned white as a ghost. You sure you're all right?"
"I feel fuckin' fine, man! What kind of shit are you feeding me?"
Doug answered, "No shit, man. You really were. It was kind of creepy."
Then the phone rang. Ordinarily this isn't a weird occurance, but Kett and Doug were both a little tense after all this, and it made Kett jump. "Oh son of a-" On the second ring Kett grabbed the receiver and practically slapped himself in the face with it. "Yea? Kett Martin here?"
A deep, gravelly voice spoke to him through the small handset. "Mr. Martin? I need to ask you a question."
"Uh huh? What is it?"
"Are you happy with your life, Mr. Martin?"
Kett made a strangled noise, then shouted at the phone. "Who the fuck is this?"
"That does not matter, Mr. Martin. Please just answer the question for me. It is very important."
"You can just fuck right the hell off." He slammed the phone down so hard that a small piece of plastic broke off and flew across the room.
Ray was just coming out of the bathroom. "What the hell was that, Marty?"
"Just some cocksucker playing a prank." He grabbed his beer and sank into the couch. "What a weird day this is."
Doug was still puzzling over Jason, quietly quizzing him. Jason had absolutely no memory of the story. "And I've never been to Djibon. I was stationed in Somal, you know that!"
Ray rolled his eyes. "Oh knock it off with the Djibon thing already, Jay."
"I'm serious, man! Either all three of you are fucked in the head, or I am." His voice had a nervous, upset quality to it. Enough so that even Ray took that seriously.
"I might be whacked, or something, if you guys are telling the truth."
"Well, you're whacked but that has nothing to do with any of this."
"Shut up, Marty, I'm serious."
Kett sighed. "I am fucking tired."
There was a knock at the door.
Nobody moved. Maybe they'll go away, Kett thought. Maybe it's the wrong door. Maybe it's just a hallucination and if he closes his eyes he'll wake up and it'll be morning.
The knock was repeated. Kett sighed and got up slowly, as though it were a great strain on his exhausted body. "Fine, fine, I'm coming." He walked to the door and opened it.
The man standing there had jet black hair, pale skin and a designer suit that must have cost thousands of credits. Everything about him spoke professional, and in Kett's drunken, confused mind he was thinking professional killer.
"Mr. Kett Martin?"
Kett thought he recognized that voice. Dubiously, "Yes, that's me."
"Are you happy with your life, Mr. Martin?"
Kett's face went through a series of expressions, from shock to anger to surprise to fear and back to anger. "No. I'm not fucking happy with my fucking life. You happy? Go the fuck away already, asshole."
The man smiled. "That is all I needed to know. Thank you." He turned and walked away, casual and confident as though he owned everything around him. Given the suit, Kett reasoned that maybe he did own everything around him.
After he closed the door, everyone just looked at him.
Ray was the first to find a voice. "Dude. That's fucked up."
"No shit. I'm going to bed now. If Death walks through that door, tell him I'm busy and I'll get back to him on Monday."
Doug smiled. "Night, man. See you tomorrow."
Kett answered with the closing of his bedroom door.
* * *
Kett had not bothered to even take his clothes off when he went to bed. By the time that he had made it into his bedroom, between intoxication and exhaustion, he fell into his bed and went right to sleep. He didn't move when the guys locked the door on their way out, or when the telephone rang in the morning. Nor the second, third and fourth times the telephone rang.
When he finally woke up, it was because the sun had finally crossed the roof of his building and was shining in on his bed, and started making his head warm. When his eyes opened his face was covered with unshaved stubble and dried, foul-smelling slobber that was Kett's normal condition post-drinking. He squinted and looked around. The clock pointedly said "2:17" at him. He decided the clock was being a meanie and he pushed himself out of bed.
He stumbled into the tiny bathroom that was attached to the bedroom and went about the business of making himself presentable. A small handfull of painkillers, a shower, a shave and three glasses of cold water later and he felt like a new man. Or, perhaps, a previously owned man who'd only been driven to the grocery store by an old lady on Sundays.
Kett was chuckling to himself at his little joke when the phone rang again. He dimly remembered that it had rung a few times throughout the night, or rather morning, but he hadn't felt up to moving. He grabbed the handset and put it to his ear. In what he hoped was his best alert voice, but in reality was barely comprehensible, he answered the phone.
A woman's voice greeted him. "Kett? Kett is that you?" Kett breathed a mental sigh of relief. He thought it was going to be the professional killer. "Yea, Susan, it's me. What's up? Why're you calling me on a Saturday?"
He heard her sigh on the other end of the line, and he had a sudden, horrible premonition.
"I have some bad news for you, Kett. I really wish I didn't have to tell you this, but…damnit, you're a good employee, Kett, and this isn't fair."
Kett closed his eyes. He knew what she was going to say, but he asked anyway: "What is it, Susan?"
"Well, you see, we didn't make our numbers this year, and a couple of big clients have left. And you know how things have been, and the board of directors is looking for some blood and. Oh. I'm sorry Kett, but they said they think you're not pulling your weight. I have to lay you off, Kett. I'm so sorry. I'm so so sorry."
Kett found a seat and sunk into it. "It's okay, Susan. It's not your fault." He sighed. "Any severence?"
"They're offering you two months. It's the best I could do, Kett. They only wanted to give you a month, but I at least talked them into that. I hope it's enough for you to find something else. I'm sorry about this, but I needed to let you know before someone else did." He heard her sigh on the other end of the phone. "I hate having to do this."
"Thanks for telling me, Susan. Thanks a lot. I'll be in touch."
He hung up the phone. Fired. He was having trouble making himself believe it.
He looked at the mean, unforgiving clock. "What am I going to do now?"
It answered him, "2:56."