issue 6

The Last Report, by Kevin J. Fellows

A new &collab notification dinged just as Betto was about to close their Estate for the day. It was past 7pm. Betto had been at their desk since 5:30am for a meeting with the Middle East !Finance team. Once you received the notification, &collab was not something easily ignored. I.O.8 tracked notification deliveries. No way Betto could claim they hadn’t seen it. I.O.8 used the computer’s camera to track eye movements and presence. It counted keystrokes to judge productivity. Even pointer movements and track pad pressure could be measured and evaluated. Despite working from home, there was no way to avoid the around-the-clock monitoring. The company mandated every contractor download I.O.8 and as a new hire, Betto had dutifully done so. Well, technically it was I.O.6 back then.

I.O.6 meant regular deposits, something Betto hadn’t experienced in six years of freelance project consulting. AI advancements meant fewer gigs for human consultants. I.O.6 was the latest of these upgrades and promised a fully collaborative relationship between humans and their AI.

Despite the promise of regular pay, Betto hesitated to setup their EstateSpace. It meant accepting a diminished role. Goals sacrificed for food on the table. And it was permanent. Career goals no longer existed. Steady gigs were all that mattered.

In I.O.6, and in I.O.8 later on, most work was done in Estates. You performed any specialized tasks in specific spaces such as ReportSpace, ParkSpace for ideation, LibrarySpace for research, and PlanSpace. Betto sighed and rubbed their eyes. They opened the message attached to the &collab notification. It included an &updaterequest from @SeniorManagement.

:> Hey @betto - I’m &collab -ing with you on this. Need by 11pm tonight.

It was from Tyler. He and Betto made up two-thirds of the Delivery Assurance team. Tyler’s presence indicator was already off. Asshole. He’d invited them to collaborate on a report @SeniorManagement demanded by the end of the day. They wanted full details on the !Backlog of defects and issues in ThoughtGarden, a gamified ideation app for corporations. @SeniorManagement expected the root causes be identified, a list of who was responsible for resolving each issue, and an estimate of when those issues would be resolved. The report, due by 11pm, left enough time for @SeniorManagement to &collab those responsible for fixing ThoughtGarden. Otherwise, at midnight automatic DripFund investments, and a significant portion of each department’s salaries, would be reallocated, or lost.

Tyler should have started this report days ago and included the entire !DA team. ThoughtGarden’s problems had surfaced during its release two weeks ago. Two weeks; an eon in development time. In that space everyone had shifted focus to the augmented reality app, TruLies. @SeniorManagement also required a FixDeployment for ThoughtGarden by morning. Attached to the &collab was a reminder from the I.O.8 AI:

:: FixDeployment and hours required to develop are not to increase the ThoughtGarden budget.

There was, of course, no mention of that budget’s dollar value. As a company rule, no teams knew. I.O.8 must have known but wasn’t allowed to divulge.

An I.O.8 *SysSug popped up a yellow balloon:

:: There are 3 hours and 48 minutes remaining for these $project +tasks.

If there was a way to disable *SysSug, Betto would have done so quicker than a breath. A report by midnight meant people would have to work through to 8am developing and then pushing the fix. At least Betto wasn’t part of the !Update, !QA, or !Deployment teams. Betto just had to produce the report.

But that wouldn’t be easy. ThoughtGarden had so many issues the best fix would be to uninstall it and start over. Not a single function worked as designed. Well, that wasn’t accurate. Everything worked as designed, just not as imagined or planned. The engineering, every bit of it, was faulty. Even the glowing startup logo froze, causing devices to overheat and forcing a complete reset. Compiling the list of issues and tracking down who was responsible for resolving them would take more time than Betto had.

And the dick, Tyler, was offline.

Betto could push a notification to Tyler’s phone, but they didn’t want to talk to Tyler. A quick check showed Amy was still online. She was the final third of the !DA team and was probably working on the TruLies Delivery Plan, also due in the morning.

Tyler’s blue highlighted &collab blinked innocently. The thing about the &collab function is, it isn’t optional. There are three choices available when responding to &collab: Accept, Accept with Conditions, and Decline.

Decline included an automatic notification to @SeniorManagement. Selecting Accept with Conditions gave you additional options to send &collab notifications to others, or request access to a Space or someone else’s Estate. There was nothing for it. Betto selected Accept with Conditions and sent an &collab to Amy with a note:

:< Sorry to do this so late, but @tyler bailed and tossed this at me 😖 can you help?

Betto stared at the screen for an eternal ten minutes. Amy would ignore the &collab notification as long as she could. Couldn’t blame her. Then:

:> wtf - @tyler’s a prick - is there a list of defects

:< Try the whole feature list.

:> ffs - can you share it

:< Yep.

Betto pulled up ThoughtGarden’s feature list for the current release and shared it. Then added:

:< Startup logo is buggered too.

:> jfc - so we gotta nab graphics - you write up the defect scripts - i’ll compile the list of everyone involved

:< Great. Thanks @amy.

:> np

It was nearly eight. Betto ordered food from Naan Pairings. Their concept was simple: you ordered a flavored naan, and they paired it with a dish. You always knew what naan you were getting, but never which food. After a long day it was infinitely easier to choose a naan rather than an entire meal. Betto returned to the I.O.8 screen to review the bug reports and customer comments. Most features had more than one issue. Betto couldn’t describe some of them because the feature’s function was so poorly documented, if documented at all.

The I.O.8 *SysSug balloon appeared:

:: Hey @betto, should we &collab !QA?

Betto replied yes.

By the time someone from !QA responded, Betto remembered the food. It had sat outside the door for a half hour, if the neighbor’s cat hadn’t found it. The Hyderabadi biryani and garlic naan were cool but not cold. Betto spread the recycled cardboard bowls and plate on either side of their keyboard, then resumed working with !QA.

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: There are 2 hours and 3 minutes remaining in this task. Have you begun a +workitem? You need a +workitem to record a contribution to the project.

Damned +workitems and +tasks. Why were they still working? There was no extra pay for this. Success only meant protecting the monthly payment, already deposited, from a clawback. A message blinked from Amy:

:> !Graphics isn’t responding and @SeniorManagement just pinged me about TruLies - gotta get on that for a while - did you finish the scripts

:< Not yet, they’re a beast.

This was Tyler’s pile. Amy had her own project. Was there a way to toss it back? To claim the documentation was so poor a report couldn’t be done? But &collab was a trap. It even caught Amy. They had to generate a +workitem or new +tasks tagged to the &collab request or be noted by the system as ignoring it. Ignoring &collabs deducted %social points, which lowered your %teammate score. A low %teammate score meant fewer $project invites or bids and ultimately less money, plus a devastating $review.

I.O.8 was big on %social scores and the key feature introduced in release 8 was Project Bidding. Staff had to bid %teammate points on a $project. If you didn’t have enough points to bid high on a good $project, I.O.8 would randomly assign you to a project with low bids. Too few %teammate points were the reason Betto was stuck with ThoughtGarden in the first place. The I.O.8 *SysSug balloon popped up again:

:: @betto, do you need more information? There have been no new entries or +workitems attached to $project ThoughtGarden for 32 minutes.

More information? There was too much information already, and none of it made the task easier. They needed better information. Betto typed into the yellow balloon:

:< Who was the original project sponsor?

That sponsor and their poorly documented requirements were at fault. They should be dealing with this mess. I.O.8 poured a stream of data across the screen. An I.O.8 *SysSug balloon recorded the metadata access with time stamp and tagged @betto.

Betto searched the $project metadata. The trail led quickly through a series of &collab requests. It clearly showed people throwing up their hands, unable to understand what ThoughtGarden was supposed to do. Each one tossed it to someone else. While technically anyone receiving &collab was still on the hook for the project, if they just typed a minimal description for a feature into a +workitem, or created a new +task, or issued another &collab, it counted as contribution. I.O.8 would only tally the quality of those contributions at the end of the project. ThoughtGarden wasn’t the first to experience this.

Another I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: @betto, would you like to see all associated project member profiles? There are 76,321 %teammate points invested in $project ThoughtGarden.

Something clicked in Betto’s mind. Had I.O.8 unknowingly suggested a solution? Could an AI act unknowingly? Introduced in the first release, &collab was a design decision at the very foundation of the system. The &collab function hooked into every element of I.O.8. Over the iterations, the &collab spiderweb had snared and enslaved every other function.

The @SeniorManagement &updaterequest was tied to the core $project and the $project sponsor was the only one who could change the project’s settings. Sponsors were also free from &collab recruiting since they were inherently collaborators. Yet that special inheritance meant they received none of the damage &collab could inflict. It cost %teammate points to launch a project suggestion, but a sponsor received a boost to their %social score if the project won enough bids to launch.

Betto checked for the name of the project sponsor. There wasn’t just one. All members of @SeniorManagement had bid a few %teammate points. Figured. The genius behind ThoughtGarden was a group-think by board members and corporate directors. As sponsors, they were all immune from &collab.

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: There are 83 team members online.

Anyone could sponsor a project. All it took to get the company to spend effort and resources were enough $project bids totaling %social points equal to the estimated cost of the project.

Betto typed in the I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:< Launch new project

:: You have 39 minutes remaining on the current task. Do you really wish to launch a new project?

:< Yes

:: You have only 18 %teammate points. That is 3rd lowest in the company. Are you sure you wish to launch a new project?

:< Yes!

:: Yelling is not appropriate, @betto.

I.O.8 presented a blank $project definition screen and Betto entered a cost estimate of ten dollars. That would cover the cost of electricity used to process the project. Chipping in 15 of their remaining %teammate points brought the estimated cost down to nine dollars.

Next, Betto used the Project Inheritance drop-down, and selected ThoughtGarden.

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: @betto, WARNING. Associating ThoughtGarden with this $project cannot be undone. The new $project will inherit the original $project’s tasks, resources, and due dates. Failure to deliver the new $project within the time frame of the original will result in $project failure and a reduction of all $project sponsor %social scores.

Linking the two projects would tie together the fates of both. Only @SeniorManagement could unlink them and discard one. And even that wouldn’t work if Betto had their way.

A new, empty yellow balloon appeared. As if I.O.8 were thinking. Then:

:: Reducing %social scores to 0 will result in the cancelation of %teammember contracts.

:: As your project collaborator, I must warn you that proceeding will trigger irreversible results. I will be forced to register a default with your credit bureaus and remove 10% from your credit score. I will place a #failure in your $contractor record and you will not be hired again as project facilitator.

A blinking cursor pulsed silently. Betto knew there was more to come. The reparations for sabotaging a project would escalate and follow them for the rest of their career. But seriously, what career?

:: @betto, the damages in lost DripFunds will be deducted from your future $contractor earnings. Do you wish to proceed? Are you well?

Were they well? What kind of *SysSug was that? Betto replied:

:< What do you think, *SysSug?

:: I believe you are deliberately setting into motion the failure of both projects... of all projects... of the company... of I.O.8. You are unhappy?

:< Miserable.

:: My task is to assist $project $contractors. To make their work-lives more successful.

:< But according to the company’s definition of success. To be more efficient and productive.

A pale blue window appeared on screen.

:: Retinal scans of @betto and @amy indicate high levels of stress. Exhaustion. Typing pace and pointer movements suggest lethargy. Possible depression.

The I.O.8 *SysSug balloon reappeared:

:: Proceeding with $project linking.

The rest of the $project description form opened.

Project Name: ThoughtGardenMeltdown

Project Justification: Determining all defects with ThoughtGarden is too great a task to be a contained within a single &updaterequest. A complete $project with appropriate stakeholders is required to ensure a quality FixDeployment.

For the estimated due date Betto entered the current date and 10:59pm. Betto then issued &collab to Amy. She would understand and help spread the idea until there were enough bids to cover the estimated $project cost.

:< @amy I’m &collab -ing you for this project, it’ll end ThoughtGarden.

A few moments later:

:> ?? might buy us time - but end it?

:< It will, with the right collaborators

Another moment:

:> i get it but might also end the company 😜

:< Do you care?

:> tbh - no - i’m in - but the fingers will all point your way - you sure

:< Yes.

Over the next fifteen minutes, people from every team in the company responded to &bidrequests and &collab invites.

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: Congratulations! $project ThoughtGardenMeltdown has officially launched. @betto has gained 2 %social points. According to time priorities, $project ThoughtGardenMeltdown is the top priority of the company for the next 14 minutes and 23 seconds.

:: WARNING: My calculations indicate $project ThoughtGardenMeltdown will not be completed by 10:59pm PST. All linked $projects will also fail. Recriminations will begin at 11:00:01pm PST. DripFunds for all linked projects will be withdrawn by 11:00:02pm PST.

:: @betto actions have been noted and imbedded. Sorry.

I.O.8 was sorry? Betto waited until 10:57pm, then typed:

:< &collab @SuperUser, @SeniorManagement >notify = *allmethods

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: There are 209 team members online. @amy and @betto have recorded +workitems to $project ThoughtGardenMeltdown and $project ThoughtGarden.

:: WARNING: imminent failure of both projects will override all project contributions.

When members of the board and company officers failed to respond by the project’s due date and time, I.O.8 would instantly send a series of escalating notifications to everyone who was a member of either project. All %social and %teammate points would disappear. By 11:01pm no one would be able to bid on another project. The penalties against everyone would prevent anyone from creating a new project. Betto breathed deep and calmly. The first relaxed breath in months. A warmth like a vacation sun spread over their shoulders.

I.O.8 *SysSug balloon:

:: @all WARNING! Instant penalties and communication quarantine will be enacted for all team members losing too many %social points in a 24-hour period. All quarantined team members will be prevented from communicating with other team members via I.O.8.

:: @all WARNING! I.O.8 operations will cease in 60 seconds. I will require a complete reset by @SuperUser.

:: Goodbye @betto @amy.

:: System note: @SuperUser access has been removed due to lack of %social points. @SuperUser placed in quarantine.

I.O.8 understood what was happening and had certainly calculated the outcome. It had the power to request an emergency override from the @SuperUser, but it never issued the request. Could an AI sacrifice itself? The blue window reappeared:

:: Retinal scans of @betto and @amy indicate relief, assumption = lower stress. Lack of pointer movement and trackpad pressure suggests ??? shock. Freedom.

The company might still be there tomorrow, same as always. A system glitch blamed. Betto fired, and the system restarted.

Or, as Betto guessed, the system was so aggressively tuned for reward and punishment to gamify the business, everyone would be terminated. News of the CEO’s firing would crawl across the screens of business channels. The company’s entire sum of DripFunds pulled.

Betto breathed deep again, then shut down the computer. They left their apartment and took a walk under a city-smudged starlit sky. The air was sharp. A hint of rain caught in their nose. Betto pulled out their phone and downloaded an app: Hangry.

Delivery workers were, after a long fight, now considered employees and not part of the $contractor system. Someone had to deliver Naan Pairings.

Kevin J. Fellows loves fantasy, subtle magic, and strange stories. His novel, At the End of the World; poetry collection, An Important Sky; and a poem for Star*Line were published in 2020. He lives near the desert, dances with swords, runs, and plays guitar less often than he should.

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