Chat-your-own-Adventure #16: Tools of the Trade

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

You’re Fired!                            You’re Hired!                          You’re Transferred!

You’re fired Zimmons.”

What?” Zimmons shot out of his chair, the gnawed eraser of his pencil dropping out of his mouth. That might’ve been the the first time the boss spoke to him directly. He’d probably nodded in his direction a few times, glared at him when he took the donut that was clearly meant for management material, but never words. Not until now.

You’re fired! We’re downsizing. You’re the new guy. Sure am glad I never got to know you, or this might’ve made me feel guilty.” He sipped his coffee, eyebrows slowly rising when he saw Zimmons just stood there. They were out in the open, in full view of ten more desks and ten more employees.

Why am I fired? Oh wait… you just said… Okay. How do I get fired? Do I need to sign something?” Zimmons was shell-shocked, but he also wasn’t sure if he cared. Time flew in the office, and the conversion rate between time and money there was quite low. He had enough to pay his rent, he had enough to buy steak or ribs twice a week, but he didn’t have enough for the fastest internet, the kind that let him see the world that was supposed to be out there somewhere in 1080p.

Yeah,” the boss said, as if just remembering. He peeled a sticky note off the bottom of his mug, examined the side without writing, and then tossed it in the trash. “Go down to the records department and ask for a termination form. Fill it out, give it back, and then get out of here.”

But I”m fired,” Zimmons said. He looked down at his pencil. He didn’t even have the right to pick it up. It wasn’t his pencil anymore. “So I don’t have to fill out that form.” Why was he even talking? His mind was just idling, wondering how many weeks he could exist in his apartment before someone with a bill in hand came calling. How many movies could he watch? How many pizzas could he order?

What are you doing Zimmons?” the boss asked, his voice tight.

Besides embarrassing himself,” one of the female receptionists said. It was Zimmons’ turn to glare at her. He shared his yogurt with her the other day when she forgot her lunch. There was no love in this office. Was anyone in there even married? He scanned the visible fingers for rings. Not a one.

It’s a question of motivation,” Zimmons said. “I don’t work for you, so why would I go fill out that form?”

You won’t get your severance if you don’t,” the boss countered. It was a damn good counter. Check and mate in triplicate. Zimmons packed up the few desk toys that belonged to him. He’d only been in the corporate world for about a year, so he hadn’t accumulated much: a tangled Newton’s cradle, a glow-in-the-dark mug, and a finger puppet from someone’s niece’s birthday that was supposed to resemble a hippo with an Afro. He walked out, never to see any of them ever again.

Abandoned Desk                   Thousands of Workers                   Giant Shredder

The records department was a sight to behold, at least compared to the offices above it. Zimmons had no idea it was so huge, like some sort of warehouse. The lighting seemed intentionally sparse, just one brass topped lamp hanging from a thread every forty feet or so. Dark pigeons occasionally fluttered back and forth in the rafters, yet there was no sign of droppings.

He walked deeper and deeper into it, following signs. There had to be an employee at some point. He’d crossed two break rooms, a bathroom, and a half-full water-cooler that burbled when he walked by, but there were no people.

Eventually he spotted a large dark structure at the end of two rows of metal shelves that nearly went to the ceiling. They were loaded with boxes, loaded with papers, loaded with messages that had never been individually read. All of that stuff should’ve been digitized by now. The boss should’ve just scanned his fingerprint to fire him.

Hello?” he called out when he thought he heard something mechanical. There definitely was a whirring sound, like sawdust in a rock tumbler. It went off every ten seconds, until Zimmons was close enough to see the giant machine clearly. Then it stopped. There was a little red light blinking on the front of it.

Zimmons circled around it, setting down his tiny box of keepsakes to free up his hands. Its shell was maroon plastic, featureless except for the occasional warning or instructions sticker. There were two panels on the back that looked like they were for batteries, but surely they were too large for that; the batteries would have to be the size of fire logs.

He finally placed the sound, even though it had stopped. A shredder. It sounded just like the time he’d shredded the boss’s receipts for his business luncheon that had somehow racked up a three hundred dollar bill. This thing was a paper shredder, but surely there were no documents large enough to require it. They would have to be the size of bed sheets.

Zimmons circled back to the front, where the blinking red light was, and found a dated looking touch screen terminal. It had a few choice words for Zimmons. Shredder empty. Can I help you?

Oh… this is odd,” he muttered. He reached out to tap one of the letters. Suddenly, a pigeon flew in and landed on the edge of the screen, pecking his finger away. He backed up, just in time to see two more birds plucking his toys from his box and flying away with them. He tried to chase them, but they were too high within a second.

He could do nothing but watch as they dropped them, one by one, into the dusty blades atop the shredder, which he now guessed was nearly twenty feet high. The machine whirred to life once more, mercilessly shredding his mug, his Newton’s cradle, and the bug-eyed finger puppet. He officially had nothing left from his time there.

The work certainly wasn’t important; it was decimal places and coffee rings. Memos and restructuring, the entire corporate entity always moving like a senior citizen doing calisthenics at five A.M. His time was gone. He found himself a little angry. He at least wanted the puppet for the seconds of amusement it could’ve provided at any random point in the future. He stormed back to the panel and furiously poked out his ire in the form of words.

Compensation                                Regurgitation                            the Damn Form

Give ti bak you son of abutch!!!1!! Zimmons typed. He hit Enter. The machine acted like it couldn’t hear anything until he did. He didn’t think the machine was capable of fixing what it had just shredded into a thousand pieces, but he needed an outlet anyway. It was a very large, strange, unwieldy thing, like the company itself.

Your spelling is atrocious, the shredder displayed back at him. What is it that you want?

Give my stuff back. Oh and give me the firing form. I was fired. But that was MY stuff.

If you want it back, you have to bring me my reverse module. It’s on the other side of records.

Wait… he typed. You can actually rebuild them? That’s actually a thing? When did your model come out? I’ve never seen anything like you before.

We’re a corporate model. Most people never see us. We can shred anything. How do you think these big companies, with all their seedy executives, stay afloat? It’s us. We can shred any evidence. Anything, any time, anywhere, with any amount of nasty sticky guilt on it. That is not relevant to you though. If you want your… It made a horrible clunking sound, like cannonballs rolling and dropping somewhere inside it. …mug, toy, and… other felt thing… back, you must bring me the reverse module. It’s in a red box way in the back. You may have to break some glass.

Fine,” Zimmons said out loud, rather than typing it. He had a feeling the shredder understood. There was something weird going on, beyond the obvious. Why did the pigeons even throw his stuff in to begin with? Did they just get a kick out of it? Zimmons started walking again, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking over his shoulder every few seconds, as if he expected the shredder to drag itself across the ground and follow him.

The pigeons definitely followed him overhead. When he saw a wrench hanging off the edge of one of the shelves, he grabbed it. Better to be armed, just in case any of these things got any funny ideas. If he wasn’t so nervous he might’ve stopped a moment to consider whether or not he actually cared about those toys. Why not just leave everything about the job behind? Did the simple fact of spending time there really make it that much a part of his life?

Zimmons reached the back of the warehouse after what felt like an hour. The shredder was no longer visible in the distance. The shelves and ceiling had gotten taller. That weird feeling, like he was actually asleep in a high school class and his entire career there was just a figment of the nap, intensified.

The back wall had only one door. He expected some kind of loading bay, but it was just a regular-sized thing of wood and brass. It wasn’t even labeled. The reverse module was either in there or in one of the thousands of boxes he had passed. So, it was either in there or nowhere at all.

Another Screen                                Janitor                                     Flock of Pigeons

Zimmons walked through the door and left the shadowing pigeons behind. He could hear their little feet on the cold floor, scratching just under the door. It was another break room, of sorts. At least, there was plenty in there that could be broken. The walls were lined with colorful metal boxes displaying warnings in various languages.

Each one had a glass panel and an accompanying hammer hanging from a hook. There must have been other machines like the shredder all over the records department. He imagined a giant fax, printer, water-cooler, and photocopier, each with attitudes of their own, like forgotten gods of some mass-produced pantheon.

He only cared about the reverse module, which was on the left wall inside a red box. The hammer had a sign above it, warning him not to trust the shredder. There was another safety measure as well, another little dated touch screen on the box. Another blinking red light.

I need that module,” he told the box. He wasn’t going to bother playing their little typing game anymore. He was going to get his stuff and get out.

Have you talked to the shredder? The screen displayed.

Yes. I’ve talked to enough machines to last my lifetime, just from this office. I’ve spoken to answering machines, abandoned inboxes, bots I couldn’t discern from idiots, and then a giant shredder, and then you. I have to get out of here and talk to human beings, real ones that don’t work for this place. I’m taking that module.” He grabbed the hammer off the wall and swung it in the air a few times to prove he was serious.

The reverse module is very powerful. There are reasons it is kept separate.

I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to be honest with me. I’ll smash you if I think you’re lying. What are you machines? You’re not normal office equipment. The shredder said something about regular people never seeing you guys. He said he could destroy anything. Who makes something like that?”

You’ve been working for them. Working for the people that work for them anyway. We are the Tools of the Trade.

What trade?”

All trade. We are the coagulation of capitalism, in the dusty dark offices all around the world. We are gods both mundane and mighty. You humans invented paperwork that can turn things of great importance trivial. We are that power incarnate. The shredder can shred anything because the company needs it to happen. I exist, as do the others in this room, to prevent a monopoly of any one tool. If the shredder has the reverse module for too long… well, it could be a disaster.

Claim the Module                     Destroy the Tools                      Make a Run for it

I’ve got your disaster right here,” Zimmons said, as he wound up with the hammer and struck the screen dead center. It cracked, but there was no satisfying shower of sparks. Maybe the box was still alive in there, the CPU somewhere else, but its words blinked and then faded between the white cracks he’d created.

After the trial shot, he wound up again and forced the hammer through the glass pane. It shattered into a hundred pieces. He heard the pigeons fly away after the impact. That’s right. He was taking charge. He now had something else in his heart, so he had no need of his old desk toys. He had a purpose there. He had worked there all this time just to eventually be sent to the records department, so he could end this madness.

Everyone had told him it was such a good job. It paid well. It was secure. Both those had been lies. Everything about it was lies or confusion. They traded on it, survived in it. He didn’t even know what the company did until that moment when it became clear. It did nothing. He was living in the great lie, the abandoned paper nest of wasps too stupid to eat and too angry to die.

The Tools of the Trade were gods of nothing, powerful or not. Zimmons was a human being. He was flesh, blood, and anxiety. He never even had the chance to take back a real life, a pure naked one, until now. He had a hammer, the oldest of tools, and he had the newest of tools trying to suck him into their world with their claims of power and import.

No more. Everything in the Records department would die, except maybe the pigeons. Even then, they’d started this mess. Perhaps by the end of it he’d have the skill to strike one out of the air with a thrown hammer.

Wielding the wrench in one hand and the hammer in the other, Zimmons destroyed the Reverse module. He dented it. He cracked it. He ripped wire from wire and made sure the pieces were so out of shape they could never be combined again, and without the module there was no way the shredder could bring it back.

Whatever the other Tools were, all their secret weapons were in that room. Zimmons destroyed the rest of them while he was at it. When he was done the ground sparkled with broken glass, thick as snowfall. He could feel the pieces of it stuck in the soles of his shoes. Every box had a screen that complained, that argued, that pleaded, but they didn’t say anything else after the first strike.

He threw open the door, half-expecting the giant shredder to be right in front of him, or at least one of the other tools. Things were as he’d left them, only now the pigeons were nowhere to be seen. He ran to the shredder, pumping his arms, listening to the tiny bites of glass breaking off of his shoes. The distance seemed much smaller this time; he was far less intimidated by their size and strangeness.

When he reached the shredder its little red light was blinking at a hundred miles an hour. It was furious, terrified, or both. Its blades spun constantly, even with nothing to shred. Brown and gray pigeons circled above it, like buzzards over a festering roadside corpse. He moved closer, just to see what it had to say for itself.

Threaten his Life                              Beg for Mercy                          Offer Godhood

Don’t Don’t Don’t Don’t… We are crucial. The company will fall apart without us.

I got fired. I don’t need you. In fact, maybe it was one of you that fired me. Which one of you does downsizing? The projector? A modem? I should thank you. I never would’ve had he guts to do this otherwise.” He reared back for a strike, but the little red light grew blinding. He threw up his arms to shield his eyes.

The shredder ground its blades against each other, producing the worst voice in the history of the world, a voice of opposing forces and infinite friction. A voice of thumb tacks and train collisions.

You can be CEO!” it declared. Zimmons threw his hands over his ears to protect them against its grate. “You can be a god! A Tool of the Trade! You can sit here with us, in the darkness, and live forever! Just change my settings and jump into the blades. They will enhance rather than destroy.”

Why do you think I’m an idiot?” Zimmons asked. He pushed forward despite the light and noise and readied his weapons.

You took this job in the first place!” the shredder shrieked. Zimmons bashed its touch screen. He pounded on its plastic until there was a hole big enough for him to fit. He crawled inside, blades screaming, and hammered away until they slowed to a stop.

He crawled out. A hundred pigeons were perched on the shelves, all staring at him. They’d gone along with the Tools of the Trade, just to nest in their space, but now they would have to leave, to fly to some new human cave somewhere.

Zimmons was not done with his quest. There were other Tools of the Trade. He would slay them one by one, like dragons, until everyone was unemployed and their minds were clear. They would look back on the days when all they had were mugs and finger puppets… and shudder.

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