Fiction by Terry Nova
Author’s note: Parts of this story are true, and parts are false. I am not legally allowed to tell you which is which.
“So, how you holding up?”
I am having lunch with Jamie in a taquería overlooking the 10 freeway near Santa Monica. The place is situated between a car repair shop and a gas station. Everything faintly smells of gasoline.
I think of my empty bank account. I think of all my belongings in a neat little pile, just waiting until I sublet my place to strangers off AirBnB.
“Still broke as fuck,” I say.
“Shouldn’t someone like you have no problem getting a job?”
“Well, I got an interview with Omnicon.”
Jamie laughs and takes a bite from her taco. “I interviewed with Omnicon once.”
“What was it like?”
“They are a weird bunch.”
“How you figure?” I ask.
“Well, it’s just a weird place. They only interview on certain days, so you immediately feel like cattle. Then, they ask you lots of technical questions. It doesn’t matter if you have no technical background. They never asked me about any of the predator models I made, they just …”
“Asked trivia questions?”
“Well, more like basic technical questions. You know, you tech people really don’t know how to handle people. No other industry uses riddles to choose who it hires. Social skills matter.”
“They really don’t like answering questions. You’ll see what I mean.”
I kinda got the feel for what Jamie meant. During my phone interview, after an hour of talk about a block of code.
“So we are out of time, is there anything you want to ask me?” the interviewer had said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “so, what exactly do you want me for?”
“Yeah, uh, that’s a totally normal question to ask. I’ll, uh, get back to — ”
I had assumed that I failed the phone screen, until I got an email three weeks later, asking which airports I wanted to fly out of. I opted to fly out of Burbank and to have a car drive me to a friend’s place in a beachside town. Frank was an old school hacker and usually knew the deal.
We drag lawn chairs to the sand and smoke cigarettes, while staring at the ocean.
“They’re a Fed shop,” Frank says.
“Feds. Federal agents. They do dirty work for the government.”
“That means they’ll want you to get a TS clearance.”
“A TS?” I ask.
“Top Secret. Maybe even TS / SCI, as in Sensitive Compartmented Information. Government contractors usually need to get the highest level possible. It’s not surprising that they couldn’t tell you anything. I doubt anyone but the actual team could tell you what you’d be working on. Same shit happened to Todd at Teletier.”
“I’m sure it’s not all that way.”
“They only have one customer, and it’s three letters,” Frank said. “You will need to get a clearance. Probably a polygraph, too.”
“You mean, a lie detector test? Do those even work?”
“It doesn’t matter. But it does matter that if you take one, you pass it. This isn’t like one of your college exams. Failing a polygraph is almost a crime, and there are no do-overs. They will ask a lot of uncomfortable questions. Whatever you do, don’t lie. Not during, and never afterward.”
“What kind of questions?” I stared back at Frank.
“Have you smoked any marijuana? Do you watch porn? Do you watch gay porn? Have you ever lied on your taxes? Have you ever lied on a legal document? Have you ever stolen from a close friend? Have you ever cheated on your wife? Have you ever hit your wife?”
“They can’t ask me the right questions,” I reply, deadpan.
“You think they don’t know your record? You think they don’t know about your time in Nicaragua? You think they won’t talk to every person you ever worked with or for? The last guy I knew, after failing on the wife-cheating question, was put in front of a phone, and told, ‘Call her.’ These people want to make sure you can’t be blackmailed.”
“I can’t be blackmailed.”
“I can blackmail you on just the stunts you pulled this year. Be honest, or even better, get another job.”
I slump down in the chair and then into my arms. “I’m fucked. I need this job. What the fuck am I going to do if I don’t get this?”
“You know things don’t have to be so desperate?” Frank replies.
“How you figure?”
“Just sell your shit and live by the beach. You don’t have to do this.”
“I like my shit.”
“So, stop torturing yourself and just do something else. You aren’t fit for government work. You’re too easy to read. Do something else, and maybe you won’t end up in a body bag.”
We walked back and watched standup comedy, until I fell asleep on the couch.
I woke up at 7 a.m. Ready to take the train into the city. I walk out the door, only to see a man standing next to a black Lincoln Town Car. He looks like he was about to call me.
“You Greg?” asks the driver.
“Yes,” I reply. “Who are you?”
“I’m here to bring you to Omnicon.”
“I thought I was only getting a lift from the airport?”
“They insisted someone bring you. Wouldn’t want to be late to your interview.”
I look at the driver again. Omnicon headquarters is an hour away. They paid to have this guy drive down here. I looked back at Frank’s house, grabbed my laptop bag, and got into the car.
We drove in mostly silence. At some point, the driver made small talk.
“So, what are you interviewing for?” he asks.
“No idea. They wouldn’t tell me.”
“Huh, that doesn’t happen often.”
“Do you know anything about Omnicon?”
The driver chuckles and doesn’t answer. We don’t exchange any more words until we reach headquarters. It’s a regular brick building right next to Stanford. It’s common for Valley companies to be next to the University. Omnicon hugs the border where the University meets Palo Alto. They must really like recruiting those Stanford kids.
I thank the driver, and walk in.
Two women are sitting at the reception table. I walk up.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Greg Volkner. I have an interview today.”
One of the women looks down and nods. “Great! We just need to ask some questions first.”
“Are you a U.S. citizen?”
I blink. I don’t remember ever being asked this by a person. “Yes.”
“Do you have a state-issued ID?”
I hand over my driver’s license.
She looks down and asks, “Do you have a passport?”
“Not on me.”
She seems disappointed. She turns and looks at the woman next to her, then down at my license again. And scans it. “We need to photograph you.”
“We need to photograph everybody on the premises. You consent by being on the premises.”
Before I can respond, they are pointing a camera at me. I don’t get to see how my picture came out.
“We need you to sign this,” the woman says.
I am handed a four-page NDA form. It outlines everything I am allowed and not allowed to say about what is about to happen. I am not allowed to say anything nor to encourage others there to say anything to me.
“Can we strike some of these clauses?” I ask.
“If you wish to discuss this document, we will need to reschedule the interview and talk with our lawyers.”
I grab the papers and sit down. The woman watches as I sit and jots a note on a piece of paper. I sign the document and hand it back.
She smiles. “Just relax for now, and someone will come by to pick you up.”
I sit and look at the other interviewees. There is what looks like a glossy magazine on the table. It has the Omnicon logo on it. We open it, only to find each page filled with zip codes. It has no pictures. None of us knows what to make of it, and we talk about cycling instead. I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Mike,” the voice attached to the hand says. “You must be Greg?”
“How’d you get here?”
“Oh, just fine.”
We make our way into a white room. As we enter the room, another man enters the room, as well.
The second man smiles and turns to me. “Hi, I’m Sean. I’ll just be watching you guys. Consider me a ghost.”
“O … kay …”
At this point, Sean sits quietly in a chair in the corner. Michael looks at me and jots some notes. He begins.
“So, I am going to ask a question, based on a problem I solved here not long ago,” Mike says. “Here at Omnicon, our clients frequently need access tokens. These access tokens are encrypted on our servers before being served to the clients. Write me an algorithm to deliver these tokens.”
“What are access tokens?” I ask.
“They are a method to — ”
“No, I mean, are they, like, passwords?”
“They are numbers. Sequentially generated.”
I pause and slowly write the solution.
Mike stares at what I wrote. “Perfect. How long will that take to run?”
“It’s linear in the code size.”
“No, I mean, exactly how long?”
“You mean, like, in seconds?” I ask.
“Well, microseconds, really.”
I turn and look at Sean. He has no expression on his face.
“So,” I begin, “we can assume encryption per token is 100 nanoseconds.”
“It’ll be a microsecond,” Mike corrects me.
“No, 100 ns sounds right,” Sean remarks.
“So, about 4,300 microseconds,” I reply.
“Actually,” Mike says, “it’s 4,350 microseconds.”
I pause and look back at the board. Am I being tested on arithmetic?
We move on to another problem. It goes in a similar way. The hour ends. Another pair of people comes into the room, while Mike and Sean leave. Again, one sits off in the corner and says nothing.
I am quizzed on currency conversions and which world events are likely to affect which commodities markets and which currencies. This interview ends early. The interviewer asks me if I have any questions.
I ask, “Does this job require a security clearance?”
The interviewer laughs, and both men leave.
Another pair of men enters.
“Hi, I’m Peter,” the first says. “Do you need water?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say.
“Hey, I’m Mitchell,” the second man says. “I’ll just be here to watch the interview. Don’t mind me.”
“All right,” Peter begins, “so, I am going to show you a system, and you tell me all the ways it leaks classified information.”
I am brought in front of a monitor. This was a program that pulls news stories from a wire feed, checks if a user has access, and only displays the stories for which he does.
“We have to make sure the user doesn’t know that content was censored,” explains Peter.
We go back and forth, as I make sure all the cases are handled. I miss a case.
“Now, what were to happen if the user counted every time we made a server request? He would see something was wrong. You need to obfuscate this!”
“So, do you have any questions for me?”
“Great! It’s lunchtime for you now.”
I walk out of the room to find Vishal and a coworker of his. Vishal and I used to work together at an online dating company. His job had been to estimate the intelligence of a user based on what she wrote in her profile. He seemed very cheerful.
“We’re here to take you to lunch,” he says. “So, where do you want to eat?”
“Somewhere quiet. Somewhere without too many people.”
We walk a few blocks, until we are in what looks like a residential area. We enter a Vietnamese restaurant and order.
“So, why are you here? I thought you left Pasadena for better things,” I ask.
Vishal had quit the company to go off and join a graduate program at Stanford. He was to be doing cutting-edge robotics research.
“Eh, it didn’t really work out,” he says. “Stanford isn’t like Caltech.”
“Like, no one just does science here. Everyone is, like, trying to start a company. I get pitched products everywhere I walk.”
“What about your advisor and the robots?”
“No robots. David is largely just doing his company and making us do bitchwork for it.”
“So, no robots.”
“No robots.” Vishal looked around and then continued, “So, I did an internship during the summer for Omnicon. David didn’t have anything for me, so I figured, why not?”
“What actually are you doing at Omnicon?”
“Well, we are really this new group. There are only three of us, so far. Me, Henry over here, and Rex. You won’t meet Rex today, but you’d like him.”
“So, historically, Omnicon has avoided Artificial Intelligence technologies. This mostly has to do with error and being able to blame somebody when things go wrong. In normal places where AI is deployed, if the algorithm makes a mistake, it’s just a weird movie recommendation. Mistakes for Omnicon involve kicking down the wrong door or bombing the wrong place.” Vishal makes a motion with his foot and laughs. “So, they have been hesitant to use this technology, until recently. Now, they still aren’t sure how and where to apply this, so they have created this small strikeforce inside the company. The idea being, we get dispatched onto different projects that need AI, help them, and then, leave.”
“Who do you report to?”
“We report to whichever group we are embedded within, but they don’t have final authority over us.”
“That’s not how Omnicon works,” Vishal says. “Omnicon doesn’t really believe in structure. You ask for resources, and you do whatever you want.”
No wonder nobody could tell me what my job would be; there was no official job responsibility.
“What kind of projects are we talking here?” I ask.
“Henry, do you think we can show him the Transactions?”
“Probably,” Henry shrugs.
Vishal says, “Well, besides Transactions, we usually analyze news articles for mentions of political actors, and one group wants us to detect customer fraud automatically.”
“Seems pretty standard,” I say.
We get our food and eat. Henry keeps looking at his watch.
“We should hurry,” he finally says. “They want Greg in the demo by 3. If we want to show him Transactions, we should go in a few minutes.”
We pay and make our way back into the Omnicon building. Vishal grabs his laptop from his desk and walks into a conference room. Henry plugs a cable into the laptop, and a projector blinks on, showing a map. I recognize it as Philadelphia.
Vishal begins, “So, we have transactions.”
“What do you mean by ‘transactions’?”
“Financial transactions. A record of when money moves from A to B.”
“What are these transactions of?”
“No. No. This is all of them.”
“All of them?”
“Yes,” Vishal nods, “this is all financial transactions.”
“So, this is from World Bank?”
“Not an NGO.”
“Is this banks?”
“Could be a bank.”
Vishal taps some keys. The map fills with red dots. He clicks next to the map, and the map is cut into many tiny squares. “The red dots are some of our retail clients. These little boxes are each a household. When we click on one, it shows everywhere the household spends its money.”
As he clicks, thin tendrils grow out of the square to connect to many of the red dots. Some of the tendrils grow and loop back onto other squares. They are tracking money between people, as well.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Vishal grins.
“Real Modern Marvel. So, where do I come in?” I reply.
“We need you for prediction.” Vishal gestures to a yellow area without any red dots nearby. “We need you to predict if a store opens up here, who will buy here and how much they can expect to make.”
“Could this be used for other purposes?” I ask.
“The more uses for this data and these algorithms we find, the better.” Vishal smiles.
Henry interrupts the presentation to point out that I am running late to the main company demo. We walk out and make our way to the conference room where the demo is happening.
“Hopefully, they show you System 39. That thing is kinda cool, I guess,” Vishal remarks. We round the corner, and Vishal looks through the glass at the presentation. “Aww, looks like System 35. Well, have fun anyway.”
I walk through the door to find a room full of people staring at me.
“Hey … sorry I’m late. I’m, uh, Greg.”
The presenter looks at me and smiles. “Hey, I’m John. Just grab a seat in the back.”
I sit and look around. The room is nearly full. It’s all the other potential hires. I look to the front, and seated across from John is another guy … just watching John.
John continues where he left off, “This is Omnicon’s patented system for detecting fraud. As we can see, large amounts of money are moving away from these people. This is suspicious, so we check where it is going.”
A network appears with silhouetted heads in a glowing green swirl that are linked to a group of red silhouetted heads. With a click, the red silhouettes swirl and appear over West Africa.
“Now, there is nothing wrong with money going to Africa, but in these coordinated quantities, it is suspicious. Let’s start freezing these accounts. Any questions, so far?”
I raise my hand. “How feasible is this visualization, when most fraud involves hundreds of actors spread throughout the world?” I ask.
John stares at me. I don’t think I was supposed to talk.
“Yeah, uh, it’s something that we struggle with. But it’s definitely an issue,” he replies. He finishes this example and goes to the next example. A map appears. It’s Iraq. He continues, “One of the big requests from our clients is making geographic data easier to manage. The following is civilian causality data for a classified region outside of Baghdad. Now, we can see this large spike in deaths around the autumn of 2006. Can anybody tell me why he thinks that is?”
No one in the room responds. Is there any situation where we can sensibly respond? I follow everyone’s lead and say nothing.
“Nobody?” he asks. “Well, this surge in violence coincides with a massive weapons import from the Mehanani insurgent fighters in Fallujah. Now, let’s see if you guys get this next question. Why did the violence fall off eight months later?”
The room is still silent. The guy watching John is smiling, but the man never looks at us.
John pauses for another moment before continuing, “That’s right. Within eight months, we completed building a security perimeter for this region. You can tell the wall boundaries by how the deaths map out a square.”
He points with his mouse, and I can faintly make out a square. He asks if we have questions, and again, no one answers.
He moves on to a document annotation demo. John is showing how analysts must label diplomatic cables from the various embassies for further study. He asks us if we have any questions.
I raise my hand. “Are those cables like the WikiLeaks stuff?”
There is silence.
“What do you mean?” John asks. The man watching John is frowning.
“Yeah, there was this massive leak of diplomatic cables. You know what I mean. I was just asking, are these like those?” I respond.
John doesn’t answer and continues the presentation. Two minutes later, a woman enters the room.
“Which of you is Greg?”
I exit the room. And face the woman.
“Hi,” she says, “I’m Amy from HR. We just wanted to thank you for taking time to chat with us at Omnicon.”
“Am I done, then?”
“Yes. Here, let’s walk out.”
Amy leads me to the elevator. As we walk in, another man walks in with us. Amy asks how I enjoyed my day, as we descend.
As we leave to the lobby, we all exit the elevator. Amy and I sit in two leather chairs in the lobby. The man sits in a nearby one, facing us, as well.
“So, do you have any remaining questions of Omnicon?” Amy asks.
“No. None. Not at all.”
“Okay, well, we have a shirt. We think it’s your size.”
It’s a size too big. It has Omnicon’s mascot — an owl. I never realized Omnicon had a mascot. The shirt has a stoic owl, with a caption of, Omnicon: Wisely Watching.
“I really am a size lower.”
Amy disappears. The man across the lobby keeps looking at me. Amy reappears with a new shirt and escorts me from the building.
I immediately start texting Frank: This place is fucked up. Everyone is watching everyone. Ask me later about the transactions.
Frank calls me. “So, how was your polygraph?”
“I didn’t have … uh … hold on,” I stammer.
As I have been walking away, I realize I’m being followed. Two people are following me out of the Omnicon building. I turn and look at them. They wave at me and keep walking. I am now a few blocks away. I shut my phone and put it in my pocket.
“Hey, Greg. Do you have a minute?” A stranger approaches and reaches out to shake my hand.
“Sure. What’s up?” I ask.
“Oh, nothing. Let’s just chat for a bit. Would you like some coffee?”
We walk to a nearby coffeeshop. We walk up to a table, and I notice someone is already sitting there. It’s Vishal.
“Hey. Not long, no see.” Vishal smiles.
“Yeah …” I mutter.
The stranger walks away and says he’ll catch up with Vishal later. There is no one else in the coffeeshop.
“So, what’s up, man? This is all really weird,” I start.
“Eh, Omnicon is an odd group. We still don’t know how to work them,” Vishal says. “You know, when they first offered me a job, I told them I would only take it if I could use Artificial Intelligence. As I kept at it, they eventually made a new team for me and a new job. This job we have didn’t exist … doesn’t exist. We don’t know how to interview for it or what to look for. But process gets in the way. They asked me to find more people that could do this. So, I thought of you. It’s all still new, and no one knows what’s going on, but I hope we didn’t scare you off.”
“You guys have an interesting company culture,” I reply, dryly.
“Yeah, well, maybe we can change that. Whatever happens, let’s hang out soon. This place gets boring.”
I get up, give Vishal a hug, and walk out of the coffeeshop. Look around for anybody looking at me. The streets are empty.
I notice a text from Frank: Have you been kidnapped?
I walk to the train station and leave town.
TERRY NOVA is a freelance consultant for various large and eccentric companies. He has proudly never owned a killer robot. This piece was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 8/29/13.