All Stories, General Fiction

Boundless Growth by Simo Tchokni

‘And all of this is replicated across twenty datacenters.’

With a flourish, Davide draws a large rectangle around the messy, sprawling diagram he’s drawn on the whiteboard. He turns around. ‘Any questions?’

I look at the board and try to look thoughtful, hoping Alina is just as clueless as I am. But she does ask a question and Davide looks pleased.

‘Very good!’ he says. ‘I was wondering whether anyone would notice that.’

Then he explains and adds a few more boxes and arrows to the diagram of the system Alina and I’ve just been hired to work on. We’re the newest additions to the team.

‘Clever solution,’ says Alina, when he’s done explaining. She nods appreciatively, like some kind of connoisseur. Meanwhile, I didn’t understand any of it. I didn’t even understand her question. All I can do is stare at the boxes and arrows. My brain feels waterlogged.

Then Davide says my name and I realise I haven’t been listening. They’re both looking at me now.

‘I was just asking whether it’s okay if I erase this bit?’

Davide is holding the whiteboard sponge and it’s hovering over one corner of the shiny surface. He’s managed to cover the whole board in blue marker pen. I squint at the section he wants to erase but my eyes are stinging and it’s all just smudges, blurry smudges, so I only nod and look down at my notes.

They’re already incomprehensible anyway.

*

‘You guys are lucky,’ says Peter. ‘You’ve ended up in a very good team.’

It’s Friday, 5.30pm, time for drinks on the company. The office’s largest cafeteria smells of pizza and beer.

‘Really?’ asks Alina and looks up at him with wide eyes.

‘Great career growth opportunities in our product area,’ says Peter. He turns to take a bottle from the pool of ice behind him, refills his wine glass. ‘Loads of ways to demonstrate quantifiable impact. That’s what matters, for promotion.’

Alina nods. ‘Do you think getting to level four within a year is realistic, then? I’ve heard some say at least two years but I really want to get there sooner.’

Behind them, someone from the kitchen staff replaces the empty bottle with a new one. I wonder whether I should go home.

‘A year?’ Peter nods, his lips jutting forward. ‘Totally. If you put in the work. As long as you have a good starter project.’

‘Oh.’

Now Alina looks worried. ‘What would you say makes a good starter project? Mine is about driving more clicks to …’

Nobody notices when I set down my glass and turn away.

The bathroom is empty and quiet. There is a ring of pain around the top of my forehead, like a headband that’s too tight. I should be out there, networking, thinking about my career, like Alina. I splash my face with water and then I try to cry but I’ve already cried three times today and it’s like sucking on an empty juice carton.

‘They actually just added a new level to the career ladder,’ Davide is saying when I rejoin the group. ‘It used to only go to level eight but now there’s a level nine.’

Alina’s eyes are round. ‘Wow.’

Peter nods. ‘They had to promote Jeff Hagen and ran out of levels!’ He shakes his head. ‘The guy’s a genius.’

*

‘We have billions of users and every day our systems ingest petabytes of data,’ says Rachel, who introduced herself as our Employee Engagement Manager, during our orientation talk. ‘Of course, no off-the-shelf software can handle that kind of scale. So that’s where you come in. We hire the cleverest engineers from all over the world, people like you, to work on some of the most complex problems in the industry.’ She smiles and stretches her arms wide. ‘Welcome.’

Then Rachel pulls out a box from underneath the speaker’s podium and it’s full of silly, multi-coloured hats topped with an effigy of the company mascot—a rabbit wearing a monocle—and encourages everyone to take one.

‘Newbie hats,’ she says. ‘It’s just one of our traditions for new employees.’

She puts one on. Her smile grows even wider.

*

‘Maybe we all live in a simulation,’ Christoph, our team’s manager, says at lunch. ‘In the future humans or even an alien civilisation will have way more compute power than us, enough to simulate our entire world down to the smallest detail. We could even be in a simulation within a simulation within a simulation.’ He grins. ‘All on some thirteen-year old’s computer.’

Everyone laughs while I wonder whether that means that the god I don’t believe in but pray to sometimes, when I’m desperate and folded into child’s pose, chest heaving, is a thirteen-year old and whether that changes anything for me and my situation.

‘Did you guys see that we acquired linqr for 3 billion?’ Davide says a bit later.

As if we’d all sat at the negotiation table, all fifteen thousand of us.

*

My starter project is about optimising a machine learning model that helps decide when to show our users ads. It’s the kind of project Peter would call ‘promotion material’ but it’s wasted on me.

‘Have you tried training it on more data?’ asks Davide and I have to admit that I haven’t. He doesn’t say it, but in this moment we both know I am the least clever of the cleverest engineers in the world.

The documentation says that the algorithm can ‘effortlessly scale to process millions of training examples’ so I launch another training job with new parameters. The status page opens in my browser and I wait as somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic a thousand machines spring into action.

Every time I retrain the model I have to wait for hours, which gives me too much time to think. I switch away from the browser to the code editor and try to find a small task to work on in the meantime.

Through my noise-cancelling headphones, Marvin Gaye sings that there ain’t no mountain high enough and a question glints at the back of my mind but I know where it leads. I focus on the white letters against the dark background of my screen. The compiler output is full of error messages. My code won’t run. I find the reason for one of the errors and fix it. Then I start the compiler again and wait.

File names flash across the screen and Marvin keeps singing. It’s only a matter of time, really, before the question unravels and wraps around my mind. But not yet. For now, the compiler reports more mistakes in my code. I fix one, then another.

But Marvin’s voice is still there, singing about how his love is alive, way down in his heart. Is that what love is supposed to feel like?

My heart is empty and flat and terrifying.

I give up on the remaining errors in my code. I find the training job status page and just sit there, staring at the slow movement of the progress graph as the page auto refreshes.

But what if I pictured it, the way he smiled, waiting for me on the other side of the baggage reclaim last time I visited? I try, but his face is a wisp of memory, a poor reflection on the surface of dull, milky glass.

It scares me every time, that numbness where feeling used to be.

Of course, it’s silly, hysterical really, to use songs as the benchmark of my love, but I can’t help it. The songs are tests, assessments, and if I pass, it can all stop, if I pass, I can rest.

When all else fails, the final test is always probing into whether I could leave him. It would be the right thing to do, since I don’t feel anything.

I imagine saying the words, maybe as soon as tonight, on Skype and despair grips me, surges up my throat and for a moment, just a moment, I am relieved that something, anything, moved in me. Until I remember, like I do every time, that despair is not love. Despair is just the fear of being alone.

Saliva pools in my mouth. I rip the headphones off. There is a round, hard thing in my throat but for now, I still draw the line at crying at my desk.

I cross the sea of screens and headphone-wrapped heads slowly, one step at a time, as if I were just a normal employee going on a normal bathroom break.

The cubicle is a tiled oasis, with dark, silent walls. Sinking onto the toilet seat, I bow forward, curl into something narrow and small, and then the sobs roll through me and it’s like a homecoming.

*

‘He flies to California so often for work,’ Alina tells me about her new boyfriend. ‘He’s actually got Gold status with Star Alliance. He can get into any lounge.’

‘Can he?’

I try to look impressed.

‘Yeah,’ says Alina. ‘He takes me when we fly together.’

‘Cool.’

I take a sip of tea but it’s too hot and I burn my tongue. I move it around my mouth. It’s furry and rough.

‘I can’t always go though.’ Alina turns away from the kitchen sink, where she was just washing an orange. She washes everything, even bananas.

‘It’s so limiting, being Russian,’ she says. ‘I really need to get a second citizenship.’

*

‘Your project is not progressing,’ Christoph informs me during one of our biweekly one on ones.

The small glass meeting room we are sitting in is decorated to look like a train compartment, complete with real train seats.

‘I know,’ I say, and then, because I’m exhausted: ‘I’m going through a hard time.’

He sighs, looks at a point on the floor between his knees.

‘You’re just going to have to try harder.’

I nod and imagine boarding a real train, one that never arrives anywhere.

*

When I arrive at home my flatmate is watching TV, as usual. I say hi and go to my room.  She’s stopped asking whether I’ll join her for dinner. These days, I eat all my meals at the office.

I close the door, open my laptop and learn words, an endless loop of words. It keeps me focused and unthinking. It makes no sense that the only part of the day that does that is learning my boyfriend’s native language but it’s dangerous to think too hard about that.

I’ve reviewed a hundred words when there is a knock on the door. My housemate is holding a pack of letters.

‘These arrived for you.’

She stays in the doorway, reaching to put them on my chest of drawers.

Before leaving, she gives me a look. It’s the kind of look she’s been giving me often, recently, because she doesn’t understand. The person she met when I visited the flat was fun, talkative.

*

It’s Monday morning and Alina has bruises on her arms. They’re the mottled colour of dead leaves and finger-shaped.

We’re having tea in one of the office kitchens when she tells me. We’re the only ones here, except for a guy playing pool by himself.

‘I mean … Nobody can expect a perfect partner, right?’ Alina says without looking at me.  ‘Maybe this is just the best I can do.’

She lifts her head and her eyes are blurry green edged with red. ‘What if I never find anyone better?’

There is a hard clear sound of plastic colliding. Behind her, the guy lifts away from the pool table. His t-shirt reads ‘I ONLY SPEAK CODE’ in monospace font.

‘It’s not, and you will,’ I want to say, but I know she won’t believe me.

I’m not sure I believe myself either.

*

‘So apparently it’s mental health week?” says Christoph at our next team meeting. He squints at us over the edge of his open laptop.

‘Anyway, I’m supposed to show you guys this.’

He brings up some slides on the large conference room screen.

‘I don’t believe it,’ says Peter when we get to a slide informing us that thirty percent of employees report feeling too sad to work.

‘I mean, seriously?’ Peter laughs, looks around the table. ‘We have unlimited time off. Plenty of time to sort yourself out.’

Simo Tchokni

Image: Pixabay.com

5 thoughts on “Boundless Growth by Simo Tchokni”

  1. Hi Simo,
    I should have hated this but I didn’t.
    You got the balance perfect. That is one of the hardest things to get right. I don’t think you can really learn it, your work balances or it doesn’t.
    I despise all that corporate / firm / brand enthusiasm nonsense.
    You did this brilliantly as I wanted to punch the characters.
    I hate all that break-up angst drama, but for some reason I wasn’t spitting feathers.
    And all this unbalanced mental health overkill which we now hear every day is completely point missing…But again, you won me over and did make a very good point with an absolute belter of a last line.
    When any of us read something that wouldn’t necessarily be our reading choice and we end up enjoying it, the writer has done an absolutely brilliant job!
    Very well done!!
    Hugh

    Like

  2. Call me Hugh’s echo: I usually read to escape the world described in this story. But you did it so well and with such verve that I found myself charmed by it, even though it reflects the soulless nature of my own employer and co-defendants….um, colleagues.
    Someday the shock wave caused by the exploding of my brain at a “click focus” meeting will rival that issued Krakatoa. Someday I will locate the rat bastard who swapped out my office chair with one that squeaks. Someday the world will make sense. Until then we are stuck with insectile corporations.

    Like

  3. An excellent evocation of our gluten and mind free corporate world. Players of bullshit lingo bingo would be onto a winner in such an office. A tale told well.

    Reminds me of my time as a casual information facilitator in a close minded institution. [Surely a budding young academic at a freethinking university? Ed.) Threatened with compulsory attendance at an ‘isms awareness’ course, I fobbed off both my employees by claiming participation at the other’s place of work.

    Like

  4. I like the bit about Marvin Gaye and the noise cancelling headphones. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Then, the code won’t run. Indeed, emotional life has to be settled or at least stable before the code will run well in any human.

    Like

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