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The Unknown is as close as beside you. We just can't always see it.
Remember the old fifties and sixties Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone? I loved those stories. Usually nothing was really explained. Stuff just happened and we accepted it. These stories are something like that. Stuff happens and I don't try to explain it or justify it. No room for a lot of technical jargon that I don't understand so why try to sell it to my readers that I "do" understand it.
I had to categorize this as science fiction, and there are some I would call "futuristic" (see the excerpt: A complete short story, one of 13 included in book.) But besides SF there also is contemporary fantasy and some I'd call horror.
Hope you enjoy!
THE LAST UNEMPLOYED MAN
(entire short story; 12 more)
Bentley Durant stared long and hard at the pad where he had scribbled his three choices for his next job. Agriculture: greenhouse research. Business. Mining. He had no training for any of them. But he would get it. That's how things worked. He had already entered the necessary data.
Moments earlier he had job-searched for Joe English. The search had come up negative. No choice remained but the last option. Bentley’s finger hovered over the 'ENTER' key. His heavy arm looked slick. Sweat. No absolute guarantees for his own future either. He considered this pause as a sort of moment of silence for his fiftieth client. Joe English. His last.
The moment passed.
He tore the scribbled job-choices sheet off the pad and shoved it in his pants pocket, then hit the 'ENTER' key
Instantly on the computer screen: BANKS CLARIFICATION IN PROGRESS
BANKS CLARIFICATION FINISHED
The knock came, then the door opened.
"English is ready, Bentley."
Bentley pushed from the desk no longer his. The casters rolled him smoothly to the edge where plastic mat met lush carpet. He stood, suddenly felt heavier than his 230 pounds, weaker than when he first took the job. Older. Something in agriculture would get him back into shape. But maybe agriculture should have been his third choice. He had never heard of anyone ever getting their first choice.
His replacement, Bill Livven, stood there. Well-built, young. Young? They were the same age, both forty-two. Only now Bill was the only one who looked forty-two. Had the stress of this job actually aged him extra years? Of course it had. What a surprise Bill would get after he had sat behind the desk for several months.
Bentley managed a smile, stuck out his hand, "Good to see you, Bill."
"Good to see you, too, Bentley."
Not much reason for further chatter. Being second in charge, Bill would have already received training for the job everyone knew always reopened. Bentley had his last duty as departing director of employment to perform. Bill his first.
He squeezed the hand of his friend, briefly thought of their shared childhood, before all the changes, when a man had to be concerned about his future, had things to work for, strive for.
Nostalgia swept him. For a few seconds he wondered if the old ways maybe weren't better, and mumbled, "Time for Banks Clarification to churn its wheels."
"What…?" Livven asked.
"Oh…, was just thinking out loud, Bill."
"Well, that nobody has to worry about their next meal. Everybody has work." Bentley glanced at the computer which still flashed the announcement BANKS CLARIFICATION FINISHED. He had seen that announcement for his forty-nine other clients, too. The letters were no larger but the words seemed to almost fill the screen. "Except Joe English."
"The system works, Bentley."
"I know. English has reached his twenty-first birthday. He's still usually unemployed. There's no designation for unemployed, and, the allotted time has passed."
"Right." Livven smiled. Bentley hadn't seen his friend in quite some time. His smile seemed different today, cold, maybe, the mouth cracking fully, but the eyes…but then, coldness was needed for this job. "Everybody else is employed. Birth and death rate balanced. Everybody's working and happy."
Yes. Cold. "I know." Everybody except Joe English.
"The best solution by the best minds for population control." Livven approached, patted Bentley's shoulder, "One hundred percent employment. And it means retirement from the top job for you, my friend. And now you'll get your job of choice." Livven squeezed, then patted again and withdrew, "A sort of cybernetic pat on the back."
Bentley moved to the door, opened it, turned back. Livven still had his mouth cracked open. The eyes were still cold. And hard. "You're probably right, Bill. Things are probably better now."
"Of course they are."
"Maybe see you again sometime. Goodbye, Bill."
Bentley left the office and walked quickly down the bright corridor toward the waiting room. He wondered why he felt so uncomfortable about the disposition of this last client. What was it about Joe English?
The man was single. Only surviving member of siblings. Loner. Nobody would be disturbed by his departure. Perfect candidate for Banks Clarification. Clarification didn't become necessary that often, but when it did, someone like Joe English made things more convenient. People would move up in their lines of work. Teenagers would enter the job market to replace retirees. Babies would be born to replace teenagers. The whole organized process would re-agitate its numbers and gears and everybody would be happy, working, cared for.
Except Joe English.
He had never seen Joe English, not even a photograph, but he knew English would be the only person there, notified to report even before Bentley had made the final job search. But that's how things worked. The chances of the final job search being productive were zero. But, for the record, the final search had to be made.
One thing bothered him. It had always bothered him. To get the clients there, to get English there—the easy way—the man had been lied to. No reason for the masses to even know of the existence of Banks Clarification, for 99.999 percent would never be affected. Paranoia and misunderstanding could have caused chaos. So, when the process was installed, only the small governing body and the director of employment were allowed to know.
He saw English through the glass. Long-haired, blonde, handlebar moustache, black leather jacket. Obviously a nonconformist, anyway. For a moment what Bentley had to do seemed easier.
The man, seated, turned around, faced Bentley with ice-blue eyes, "Hey, man!" English smiled, "Thought you were never coming. I was beginning to wonder if the system worked after all." The man stood, increased the smile, shoved out a hand, "When I heard I'd finally gotten with computer science—something I've always wanted—man, I couldn't believe it."
Bentley accepted the handshake, a warm, sincere one.
"Marge ain't gonna believe it, either—" Marge? English squeezed Bentley's hand, then released, "Haven't gotten to tell'er yet."
"You're married?" Bentley asked, feeling shaken. Had there been some mistake? Cohabitation wasn't allowed, but, evidently, Joe English had slipped through that crack, too.
"Not yet, man. I'm not ready to join society quite that much, but soon, probably." He rubbed a thigh tight with blue jeans, "Now that I've got a good job."
"Of course." Bentley wasn't sure what to do next. No time to recheck records, insert new information. And Joe would just get separated from his Marge, anyway. And his orders: Once Banks Clarification is initiated it cannot be reversed. It was the law.
He remembered being the last unemployed man, also lied to about a dream job, with no idea of what really lay ahead. But he had been lucky. Someone had died with no confirmed births in that time/job slot, so he had gotten the opening, and, finally, the top job.
English was waiting. "This way, sir." What he had to do would take such a short time. They started out.
"You don't have to call me 'sir', you know, Mr. Durant."
"Yes, of course, I know that, Joe." Anything to keep him happy, walking, "What the hey? Let's shake hands again. My first name's Bentley."
"Hey, great. I knew there were some real people in officialdom, but, until now, Bentley, meeting you, well, I've also strongly suspected there weren't."
Great. Make friends with him. Make him trust you even more than necessary. Bentley's weight felt like it doubled. They reached the elevator door. "Well, here we are, Joe." He pressed the call button. The door opened. "Now, Joe, I've got something to tell you." Yes, another lie.
"With your hiring we have reached 100 percent employment in this country. Let me congratulate you." Bentley extended his hand yet again, dreading the contact. At this point, twenty-one years earlier, he had been about to step onto the elevator when the director of employment's beeper had gone off.
He listened for his own. Nothing.
English shook his hand for the third time. Bentley felt beads of sweat on his forehead, his palm felt clammy. He released English, "Your next stop is the fourth floor, Joe. They’re waiting for you. Just push the number four."
Joe's smile faded as he stepped onto the elevator, "Aren't you coming with me, Bentley? Introduce me?"
A look of…something…fear? No, not really. Hate? No. Aversion? Yes, as if the man had somehow suspected his fate, and now was certain. He felt repugnant to Joe, Joe English, the last unemployed man, "Push the button, Joe."
He felt cold, and hot, too, everywhere, his whole body felt like it was sweating, maybe even smelling. But he knew his voice had dripped with coldness.
But Joe pushed the button.
The door closed, and Joe's eyes never left Bentley's.
Thirty seconds later the number four above the elevator door lit up, as if Joe English had actually gone there.
Bentley's beeper went off.
"My God!" He rushed to the nearby corridor phone, punched a three digit number, "Yes! What the hell is it?"
"There's been a mistake, Bentley."
He recognized the voice of Bill Livven, "It's too damn late!—It's over!"
"All right." Livven's voice faltered, "I'll be right there."
Only a moment passed before Livven, his face ashen but calm, arrived. And two uniformed security men.
Why security men?
"The message just came down, Bentley. Banks Clarification is fast, but not fast enough to search twenty-one years in ten minutes."
Ten minutes? Was that all the longer it had taken to process Joe English? "What message?"
"A new procedure, Bentley." Livven's face hardened, "Your history coordinated with English's. The man was born during the moment you faced this same elevator door, only there must have been a computer glitch."
"What the hell are you saying, Bill?"
"I'm saying you should have gone to the fourth floor then. Everything about English's life would have changed. As it was he was unemployed more than anyone else. And it wasn't his fault."
"Well, it sure wasn't mine."
"I'm not saying it was, but now things have to be set straight." Color returned to Livven's face as it hardened still more, "I've already made the corrections."
It didn't take Bentley long to realize what that meant.
"You got your first choice, my friend." Livven's eyes said he was no friend. Bentley doubted he ever had been.
"You got greenhouse research, specifically, research on genetic deficiencies of tuberous begonias."
Research. So they were going to lie to him, too.
"With your hiring to your new job, Bentley, we have reached 100 percent employment in this country." Livven stuck out his hand, "Let me congratulate you."
My God, he’s going to lie right down to the wire.
Bentley took the hand. Cold and clammy.
Livven pressed the call button. The elevator door slid open. "They're waiting for you on the fourth floor, Bentley. Just step inside and push the number four."
Bentley stared at Livven for another second, thinking he should protest, go out kicking and screaming, fight with the security men, anything. Then he wondered, did the security men even know the truth? And if they were to learn, then what? Would they be processed too? Would they accept the truth and remain silent? Or would they tell the whole world?
And cause chaos, a return to the old ways?
Livven's eyes were steady, like embers in a dead skull. Tiny beads of sweat were on his forehead, and everywhere else Bentley suspected. He even thought he could smell Livven's body odor. Was this how he had looked to Joe English? And smelled? Had Joe—and his forty-nine other clients—even been able to smell his body odor?
Livven was only doing his job, just as Bentley had.
He stepped into the waiting cavity.
An acrid, burnt, smell, hit him. A few flakes of black ash still floated. He turned and looked back at Livven, "So the glitch of twenty-one years ago gets erased, Bill. Banks Clarification. One hundred percent employment."
"Push the button, Bentley."
He pushed the button. The door closed slowly, Bentley's eyes remained in Bill Livven's the whole time.