Talent Acquisition

TALENT ACQUISITION

BY BENJAMIN

Many people consider themselves lucky to live in a seed. They find comfort in the energy shields that protect them from the outside world. It’s said that long ago the human race had numbered in the billions, covering almost the entire surface of the Earth. It was hard to imagine so many people. Each seed contained only a few million, and there were only 7 seeds in total. Within the past several decades travel through the outlands and between seeds had become possible, but that didn’t mean it was easy. It definitely wasn’t cheap. For the most part seeds were still isolated and self-reliant. The only true connection between the scattered remnants of humanity was the net.

For Ayame Kirisawa, a poor girl from Bastion, the net was her only way out. Caravans and cars were more than she could afford. Air travel was a dream she could never hope to attain. Computers on the other hand were relatively cheap. All of the best parts fit easily in a purse, and in her youth Ayame had become very adept at acquiring them from unsuspecting store owners. As time went on though her hobby began to pay for itself. She had started simply at first: small repairs and virus removals. In her freshman year of high school she discovered that there was also money to be made in simple hacks. A jealous girlfriend would pay $20 for her boyfriend’s comm account codes. Soon she’d gained root level access to the school’s network and was making a good living altering the grades and attendance records of her classmates.

Over the years several teachers had seen Ayame’s talent and encouraged her to devote more time to her studies. They would tell her how she should apply herself. With a little work she would have no trouble getting into Bastion University. Ayame had no use for further education or lectures from teachers who couldn’t even secure a network from their own student. All Ayame needed was enough money to fuel her habits.

It had been two years since her alcoholic mother’s boyfriend threw her out of the apartment. Since then Ayame had rented a place above Ricardo’s IT and Cybernetics. Ricardo was one of the good ones. He’d caught her shop lifting when she was little, but he didn’t rat her out. Instead he gave her some used gear that he couldn’t sell and let her work around the shop. He knew better than to ask where the rent money came from. After her compulsory education was finished she’d expanded her business. The jealous girlfriends had become jealous wives, and much as she had suspected, Bastion University’s network hadn’t proven to be much of a challenge. College students were willing to pay far more for a grade boost than the secondary students had been. Ayame was happy to help, but she had to admit that things had become a bit boring. She was becoming uncomfortably aware that more of the money was going to her drug habits and less to her technology interests lately. She was beginning to wonder if this was all there was for her in life. Would she sit here day after day doing the same petty hacks and smoking the same cheap shit until she became her mother?

That’s when he showed up. Late in the night an explosion rocked the entire city of Bastion. Ayame woke in a panic. Was this it? Had the shield failed? She’d heard stories about what existed beyond the shields, and read enough classified reports to know that there was some truth to them. More explosions sounded in the distance and a flash of purple light from outside lit up the room as bright as daylight. Ayame saw her reflection in the window. The sheet had fallen to her waist when she’d sat up. Her long dark hair was a mess, plastered to her head on one side. She was completely naked. She hopped out of bed and padded across the wooden floor. Her jeans were hanging from the dresser. She pulled them on and attempted to button them.

“What the fuck?” she said. They’d fit this morning. Why the hell were they so tight? A police cruiser sped past her window, lights flashing. The temporary illumination revealed that these were not, in fact, her jeans. A distinctly female groan came from the direction of the bed.

“What’s wrong, baby. Come back to bed. I’m cold,” said a blonde shapely girl.

Ayame had no idea what the girl’s name might be, but she had definitely woken up next to worse. Truthfully, the night was a bit of a blur. The whole week had been a bit of a blur now that she thought about it, and thinking about it was making her head hurt. “One thing at a time, Ayame.” She reminded herself. She found a shirt and pulled it on for all the good it did. The girl was right about the temperature. From the window she saw that the shields were definitely still there, and they were going crazy. It had been years since she’d seen this much static electricity in the energy field. They must have taken a huge hit. That wasn’t all; there was smoke rising from Eden Tower, and from the West End. The explosion must have come from within the city.

“Hey, don’t ignore me,” the girl pouted.

Ayame ignored her. She made her way over to her desktop. The computer was her pride and joy, and the only thing in the apartment that was clean. The machine was contained in a massive plastic case, with a glass door built into the side for easy internal access. The light from the LEDs and neon green coolant piped through the system cast an eerie glow on Ayame’s face as she fired up the monitors. There were 8 monitors in total, each with a 19-inch display, arrayed in two rows to form a semi-circle around the user. The tower contained 4 separate motherboards, each with 2 monitors assigned to it. They could work in tandem as one mini-super computer or individually depending on Ayame’s needs. Ayame pulled on her glasses and began typing furiously, her eyes darting from monitor to monitor as information poured in from the various news services she accessed.

“You’d rather play with your computer than me?”

Ayame had forgotten about the girl again.

“Well fine if you’re going to be that way then I’ll just leave.”

“Later,” Ayame said with a wave.

The girl struggled to find her clothes. Ayame blinked a few times and the heads up display in her glasses showed her the webcam’s view of the room. “Definitely woken up next to worse.” She mumbled. Finally the girl gave up the search and stormed out dressed in a combination of both of their clothes.

“Why are the pretty ones always such needy fucking bitches?” Ayame said with a sigh.

She ran her finger across a blue LED panel on the desk and music began to blare from speakers placed around the apartment. The bass vibrated her desk as electronic beats blared from the speaker. It was a mix from one of her friends who DJ’d at some clubs around the West End. The man had talent. She wondered if he was there to see the explosion. She pushed another button to activate her bottom drawer espresso machine, an addition to her battle station that she considered to be especially inspired.

With coffee in hand and music blocking out the world, it was time to go to work. It had been too long since she had something to investigate, or maybe it had just taken the fear of God to snap her out of this latest binge. She promised herself that she would dump the rest of the pills. “Although,” she thought, “if the shields really are being attacked this might be a terrible time to be sober.”

In the short time it had taken to convince what’s-her-name to vacate the apartment Ayame’s custom algorithm had already identified patterns of interest in the broadcast stream. She was even able to decrypt police communications thanks to a forgetful ex-girlfriend’s cellphone. Ayame had a thing for women in uniform.

Apparently there had been a high-speed chase over Bastion. Terrorists had stolen an armed police vehicle and attacked Eden Tower. Most reports agreed that an Eden executive had been injured. The attackers fled the city. As part of the emergency protocols Eden raised the shields, but the terrorists had managed to squeak through in the nick of time. Several officers were not so fortunate. The police had announced that the terrorists would be charged with their deaths. That was the official story at any rate. It was hardly a secret that Eden owned the police and censored the news.

Another program had been working through the radio traffic on the encrypted police frequencies. One phrase turned up again and again: “Bastion University.” Several hours earlier nearly half of the city’s police force had been dispatched to the campus. Ayame turned in her chair back to towards the monitor that displayed the news stream. There was no mention of an incident at Bastion University. A smile spread across her face.

Eden was getting greedy. They should have at least attempted to come up with a plausible cover story. That would have muddied the waters. Ayame still would have uncovered the truth, but misinformation would slow down her algorithms. Only one scenario could possibly warrant a complete media blackout of B.U. and that was a security breach in the Eden Educational Research Institute.

The EERI’s network was a digital fortress. Bastion University, on the other hand, was child’s play. With a few keystrokes Ayame had unrestricted access to the university databases. Bastion University logged all transactions that took place within the database, which was very helpful for a hacker who wasn’t sure quite what she was looking for. She ran a query to locate records that had most recently been accessed by accounts using either Department of Criminal Justice or Eden profiles. Sure enough, there were several such records that had been accessed within the last 24 hours. The DCJ had accessed all information they could find on Jessica Lawson, Brian Oran, and David Fakenstein.

“What the fuck,” Ayame wondered aloud.

David Fakenstein, obviously an alias, had attracted most of Eden’s attention. Ayame began running her own queries for David’s information, only to find that they had been deleted. Even the back-ups were purged. The only remaining trace that he had ever existed was in the access logs.

Sunlight began to fill the room. Ayame had worked straight through the night and she had hardly anything to show for it. Her software had recorded Eden’s encrypted radio transmissions, but decryption was practically impossible. There had been just enough bits and pieces of Eden conversations overheard by police scanners to deepen the mystery surrounding the man.

 

Ayame had one more trick up her sleeve. She’d done some “consulting” work for a friend in the cyber-crimes division of the DCJ. He owed her a favor. She’d arranged for him to meet her at the coffee shop around the block. Ayame threw her hair into spiky pigtails and pulled on a hoodie. It had been very cold the last time she’d been outside. How many days ago was that now? She had no idea. She grabbed her black leather jacket and a red scarf just in case.

Ayame was half way through her latte when Freddy wandered in. She waved and he came over. He did not look happy. His short orange hair was sticking out at decidedly unprofessional angles and his suit had clearly been slept in. He thumped down in the chair across the table from her, picked up her latte and drank the rest of it in one gulp. He looked around the shop cautiously for a moment.

“What do you want, Kirisawa. This isn’t exactly a great time.” He said impatiently.

“Busy night? I heard the explosions. Anything to do with a certain Mr. David?” Ayame asked sweetly.

Freddy’s eyes widened in horror, “What do you know about David Cohen?”

Cohen was it? Not exactly unique, but it was a hell of a lot better than what she’d had before. Poor Freddy, he was a nice guy but he was really not cut out for police work.

“Not as much as I’d like. Your friends at Eden were very thorou-“

Freddy slammed his fist against the table. Several people nearby looked up in surprise. Even Ayame was shocked.

“Don’t get cute, Ayame. Eden isn’t fucking around this time.” He finally became aware of how much attention he’d attracted and lowered his voice, “If you get involved with Cohen you’ll find out just how thorough they can be.” With that he stood up. “Thanks for the coffee.”

During the short walk back to her apartment Ayame replayed the scene at the coffee shop in her mind. Freddy was easily flustered, but she’d never seen him angry before and lord knew she’d given him plenty of reasons. David Cohen, a man that Eden was going to great lengths to hide from the public. The news reports had mentioned that anyone with information that could lead to the capture of the terrorists should contact the police, so why was an agent of the police insisting that she should keep her information to herself. A terrible idea occurred to Ayame.

“Hello, I believe I have some information that would be of value to the investigation of the attack on Eden Tower last night.” Ayame said innocently. She was sitting in a different coffee shop on the other side of town. In addition to using a public line Ayame had applied several filters to her voice, and to any cameras that happened to be looking she appeared to be playing a video game on her laptop.

“Hold please.” A mechanical voice responded from the other end of the line. The automated menu routed her call to an overworked investigator who had the misfortune to walk in late when they were assigning call center duty.

“Bastion Department of Justice, how can I help you?” The man’s tone suggested that he wasn’t very interested in helping her at all.

“I have information about David Cohen.”

“Who?” The man asked exasperated.

“David Cohen, student at Bastion University. I understood that he was a person of interest in the investigation.”

“Never heard of him.”

Ayame had never been very good at this social engineering shit. “Um, yes, I guess. I thought-,” she stumbled

“Have a nice day.”

There was a click then a dial tone. That could have gone better, she mused. Ayame scoured the net for the next two days, but was unable to catch any trace of the enigmatic Cohen. Eden had been very thorough in their removal of all data related to him. Ayame was bored now, and it was almost 10. The clubs would be opening soon. She threw on her skirt and neon stockings.

 

Organic was the premier nightclub in all of Bastion, and Ayame knew the bouncer. She had no trouble getting in. The music was blasting and the lights were doing their best to give the crowd a seizure. It was perfect. Ayame walked up to the bar, a black marble slab with blue neon lights surrounding it. She took a seat in front of the bartender, another familiar face. Rick waved and began mixing her usual.

A man sat down in the seat next to her. His short brown hair had been gelled into spikes. He was clean-shaven with a strong jaw. The man was a bit overdressed for Organic, suit jacket and pants with a dress shirt unbuttoned to expose his collarbone. Ayame wondered if he was in the wrong club. The office crowd usually didn’t venture this far uptown.

Rick placed a glass in front of her. “The usual,” he said. Ayame tipped the glass to him and took a sip. The man next to her had a surprisingly deep voice. “Vodka tonic, please,” Rick nodded. The man turned to Ayame. “Come here often?” He asked.

“Look I’ll stop you there. I’m not really into guys.”

He didn’t seem very discouraged. “Are you sure?”

She looked him up and down. More attractive men than this had tried. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” She got up to walk away.

The man turned around in his stool and rested his elbows on the bar. “It’s just that you’ve been spending so much time looking for David Cohen lately. I thought that maybe he was Mr. Right.”

A number of things went through Ayame’s head at that moment. The common theme being that she was screwed. She decided that the best course of action was a hasty retreat and so without a second glance she ran. She’d only made it a few steps before two large men in dark suits appeared from within the crowd and grabbed her arms.

“Ayame Kirisawa, you disappoint me. You shouldn’t ask questions if you’re just going to run from the answers,” said the man from behind her. The body guards wouldn’t allow her enough wiggle room to turn her head. The music in the club was blaring, People surrounded her on all sides, but no one seemed to notice what was happening. She kicked and screamed but it was no use.

Ayame was dragged into a VIP room deep within the club. Her captors threw her onto an overstuffed leather couch. The man from the bar entered and locked the door behind him. Her “escorts” took up positions at either side of the door, and the man sat in a chair across from Ayame. He set her drink on a dark wooden coffee table that sat between them. He’d brought it from the bar. It glowed in the low light of the room. Ayame suspected there was a reason that the VIP rooms didn’t have black lights like the rest of the club. She took the drink and threw it back in one gulp.

“You’re with Eden then?” she asked.

The man smiled. “You’re as sharp as they say. I’m Thomas Riley, Campus Recruiter for Eden Industries.”

“You’re a little far from the university, Tom, and I’m not a student. Can I get another one of these?” She shook the glass in front of Thomas. If she was going to be murdered in the back room of a nightclub she might as well be drunk. Thomas nodded to one of the guards who left, presumably to fetch the drink.

Thomas turned back to Ayame. “True, but you have a strong presence around campus.” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a large phone. He began reading from the screen. “It seems that you’re directly responsible for around 5% of all grade data entered at Bastion University. You have root level access to all systems on the campus with the exception of our research facility, though not for a lack of trying. You have some skill Ms. Kirisawa. To be honest, I’m surprised you never applied to the university. You would have made an excellent computer science candidate.”

“Look, let’s cut the condescending bullshit. What do you want?”

Thomas raised his eyebrows and placed the phone back into his pocket. “It’s funny, I was about to ask you the same thing. You see, at Eden each of us has a special talent of sorts. You may have noticed back on the dance floor that no one was particularly concerned about your predicament. I have a very calming effect on most people. They tend to open up around me, but you still seem to think that I’m going to put a bullet in your head.”

The guard returned with her drink, which Ayame promptly swallowed. “Well, aren’t you?” She asked.

“Oh I wouldn’t want to steal your thunder. You’re doing a fine job of killing yourself. In fact, it seems that the only thing able to slow down your rampant self-destruction is David Cohen. What is it about him that fascinates you so?”

It seemed to Ayame that Thomas knew exactly why Cohen was interesting. It also seemed that Eden had been watching Ayame far longer than she had ever imagined. She was beginning to regret the second drink. Her mind was slowing down. “Fuck it,” she thought. If Eden wanted to kill her they could kill her. She’d be damned if she was going to listen to this asshole do an impression of her mother all night.

“What about him fascinates me? What fascinates me is that he did what no one else has ever done. He beat you. The guy came into your house, fried one of your ‘executives’ and got away with it. He’s more than some terrorist. You don’t even want the public to know he exists, why? The great and powerful Eden Corporation is afraid. Fuck, I just want to shake his hand for a job well done.”

Thomas laughed. “Well, that’s quite a speech. What exactly is it that you have against Eden? I’ve read your file. I have to say I can’t figure out what we’ve done to you to deserve such hate.”

“I hate this place. I don’t have the money to leave. Only the richest people can afford air travel. Sure you can leave on one of the settlement missions, but they have about a 20% survival rate in a good year. I learned pretty quickly that adults weren’t any smarter than children. You couldn’t trust what you heard in school. Ever since I was old enough to type I’ve searched for information about the world. All I could find were rumors.”

“Your life story is enthralling, Ayame, but if this doesn’t come around to a point soon I may actually have to shoot you. Busy schedule you see.” The man from Eden seemed far too amused with himself. It was pissing Ayame off.

“We were taught in school that ether was produced as a side effect of the catastrophe and after months of sacrifice and hard work Eden was able to harness ether and use it to create the shields.”

Thomas was grinning like a cat. “But…?” he interrupted.

“But, the truth was that Eden had shielding in place almost overnight in the areas that were home to branches of the Eden Corporation. You didn’t just harness ether. You were prepared for it. Before the catastrophe Eden was just some small company among thousands all competing for some chunk of a global market. Now you rule what’s left of the world. At best you could have done more to save the world, letting billions of people die just to secure your position. At worst you engineered the whole thing. Whenever anyone comes back from the old-world ruins with archeological evidence that contradicts your story you bury it, and in more than a few instances you bury them. You can’t delete the net though. Anything can be found if you know how to look.”

The man from Eden maintained his self-satisfied smirk. “Oh, you might be surprised what we can delete. I’ll be blunt, Ms. Kirisawa. I’m here to offer you a chance to join the Eden Corporation.”

Ayame stared wide-eyed at the man.

“Speechless are we? Good, that means you have some idea of the severity of what is happening. Before we get into specifics of the position let me tell you what Eden can do for you. You will have answers to all of your questions and more. We are looking to hire you into a key intelligence position at the company. Not only will you have access to all of our technology and data it is expected that you will acquire an intimate understanding of them. You will have unrestricted access to all of the seeds and Eden controlled territories. Needless to say, money will never be a concern again.”

The room was beginning to spin for Ayame. “I assume there’s a catch?” She asked.

Tom’s smile disappeared. “Consider our conversation tonight as the first stage of your interview process.” He snapped his fingers at the bodyguards. One of them produced a small vial of blue liquid from his jacket and set it on the table. Thomas continued, “As you may have guessed this isn’t an offer that you can simply refuse. Should you choose not to move on with the interview process, this is our gift to you. It is poison. You will you drink it. You will fall asleep and never wake up. It’s very peaceful.”

“Not much of a choice, is it?”

“You concern me Ayame. A recruiter is judged by the quality of the candidates he can bring into the firm. I truly believe in your abilities; however you have a history. After tonight, one way or another, you will not be able to go back to your drugs, depression and meaningless relationships. The answers you’re looking for are out there, but they come at a price. There are worse things than death.”

Fatigue was starting to take hold of, Ayame. She’d be lying if she’d said it was the first time she thought about killing herself. Her mom had pretty much screwed her up from birth. There was no denying her skill with computers, but even that had amounted to little over the years. This might have been a good place to stop. A tear ran down her cheek. Her decision was made.

“I’m going to make you regret hiring me.” She flicked the poison vial with her index finger and they both watched as it broke on the floor.

“Welcome to the second phase of the interviewing process, Ayame Kirisawa. We’re looking for certain qualities in a candidate: resourcefulness, creativity, independence, etc. To determine who has the best combination of these qualities we have decided to make this a competition.”

“What kind of competition?” Ayame wasn’t afraid anymore.

“The game is simple. At this very moment, all across Bastion, the other recruiters are giving the same explanation to their candidates. In 30 minutes the game will begin. The objective is to identify and kill all of the other candidates. The winner will be the last man, or woman, standing. I will not reveal the number of other candidates. Should you be the sole survivor you will be notified that the game has ended. If you are caught committing any illegal acts, and wind up in prison you are not automatically disqualified. Eden will of course deny any knowledge of this meeting or ever having heard of you. The same is true if you should get cold feet and attempt to seek help from the police. I don’t need to tell you that there will be no investigation into any wrongdoing on Eden’s part.”

“I’m not killing anyone for you,” Ayame said. She couldn’t help but notice her voice was shaking.

“You are free to go back to your little apartment above the computer repair shop and pretend that this conversation never happened if you feel that this is the best strategy. The other candidates might not be as complacent though. The game will continue until there is a winner. Eden is very patient.”

This was ridiculous. Someone had to be playing a joke on her. She’d blogged extensively about the evil of Eden. There were about 50 different conspiracy theory mailing lists to which she subscribed but she never actually believed that Eden had murder games as part of their hiring process.

A phone rang in the pocket of the guard who’d brought her drink. She and Thomas both stared at the man in irritation as he took the call. A few seconds passed and without saying a word he ended the call. The large man walked over to Thomas and whispered something in his ear. Whatever the news was it didn’t please Ayame’s recruiter. Thomas’s frown deepened as the guard spoke.

“What the hell was he thinking? That we wouldn’t notice? The old man is going to hear about this.” Thomas was muttering to himself more than anyone at the room. His eyes closed and he took an exasperated breath. He held his hand out to the guard who promptly placed a gun in it. Thomas checked the chamber and clip, seeming satisfied, he slid the weapon across the table to Ayame.

He stood up and straightened his jacket. “It seems our 30 minutes have passed. You have a game to win, and I have some business of my own to attend to.” He nodded to the gun. “Don’t forget to turn the safety off.” With that Thomas stormed out of the door, his two guards followed quickly behind him. Ayame was left alone in the darkened room with only the gun to prove that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. She grabbed her new weapon and placed it in her jacket pocket.

 

It was cold on the empty street outside of the club. Ayame felt like she’d never noticed how beautiful the night in Bastion could be. Neon lights streaked past overhead. The Bastion skyline was in full view. Maybe it was because she was probably going to be dead soon or maybe it was just because she’d never left a club sober in her life, but the city didn’t seem as terrible as it once had.

“Kirisawa,” a drunken voice screamed from behind her.

She turned just in time to see the flash of the gun as a bullet whizzed past her head. She didn’t remember screaming or covering her ears, but when she came back to her senses seconds later she was doing both. She looked up, eyes wide, heart pounding. The adrenaline had narrowed her vision, but she could clearly see Freddy standing in the middle of the street. “Standing” was a generous word for it. He was stumbling and struggling to keep his balance; his police issue gun held recklessly in front of him.

“What the fuck are you doing,” she screamed in genuine confusion.

“You think I wouldn’t figure it out you stupid bitch? After the coffee shop my recruiter he told me all about the game. I may not be as gifted with the net as you are, but I’m not an idiot. All the help you’d given me over the years. Fuck, you already knew about that Cohen guy. They were sure to try to recruit you, and if they didn’t I might be able to use you to help me find the others. I followed you into that club. I saw that guy take you into the back room. Only one reason a dyke like you would follow a guy like that into a VIP room.”

His rant gave Ayame time to grab her gun. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t have any words left. Ayame saw his eyes go wide as she leveled her gun in his direction. He struggled to raise his own weapon, but he was too drunk to react properly. Ayame squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened

Freddy’s gun roared again but the kick was too much for him and the bullet only managed to ruin Ayame’s jacket. She turned and ran, finding cover behind a parked car. Freddy stumbled to close the 5-meter gap between them, muttering more homophobic slurs on the way. Ayame stared at the gun in confusion, before she recalled Thomas’s parting words. “Oh, son of a fucking bitch!” She switched the safety off. What the hell was Eden thinking? Freddy was a nervous wreck and she’d never even been in so much as a fistfight in her life. How the hell did anyone ever think they’d have a chance in this “game”?

She peered cautiously over the hood of the car. A bullet took out the headlight. Glass sprayed across her face. Warm blood trickled down her cheeks, but she hardly even felt it. She took aim again, just like she’d seen people do in the movies. Her shot managed to catch Freddy in the leg. He fell to the ground face first, dropping his gun. There were sirens in the distance. She picked up Freddy’s gun with her jacket sleeve as she walked over to him. She felt like her heart was going to explode. She couldn’t catch her breath.

Freddy was unconscious. If she left him here he might just bleed out. It was self-defense. He was shooting at her. The sirens were closer now. If he didn’t bleed out he’d come after her again. Freddy had enough on her to have her arrested even before this shoot out. She’d be a sitting duck in jail. Worse, Freddy seemed to have cracked. Who knows how much attention he’d already attracted to her? She swallowed hard. Carefully, she pressed the barrel of Freddy’s own gun to his temple. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. She had to keep it together, just a little while longer. “You did this, Freddy. You stupid bastard.” She closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger.

 

To be continued…