We were all leaving after the Mindfulness Moment mandated by human resources when our employer’s voice beamed again from the intercom. “Enjoy the rest of your day. And you,” my wristband buzzed vigorously, “see Caryline in the East Conference Room.”
They placed the buzz on the underside of our wrists—right where a doctor’s finger would press in to take a pulse. Studies showed that this exact location led to the greatest percentage of successful workplace wristband notifications. In other words, it was the most sensitive spot on the wrist.
The buzzes stung.
I walked down—wall on one side, cubicles on the other—to the conference room. My wristband flashed red with the words, ‘You might be having a HEART ATTACK.’ It did that all the time. My resting heart rate was high, and anxiety brought it up even more. But it was never a heart attack. Other things would have to go wrong in my body for my heart to wind up attacked.
I turned the corner to see Caryline, my boss, sitting on one side of the long table. She was stone still. I entered and she jolted awake, or aware, or into consciousness. Something like that. It was jarring.
“Hi, uh, you wanted to see me?”
“That’s what the voice said,” answered Caryline. I sat down and saw two pale, glossy-eyed, well-dressed onlookers staring down at me from a single row observation deck just above where Caryline and I sat. I could see my boss was holding a tinge of pain behind her usual stern, all-business visage.
“I’m sorry. You’re being fired,” she said to me. The two observers stood up and glided through the exit of the observation deck. I heard their jet-black matching Ferragamo shoes tap lightly again and again and again as they left.
“I’m being fired or you’re firing me?”
“Yes. Galgacom is uncomfortable working with you and your clear conflicts.” Galgacom was one of my newest and biggest corporate clients. When I took this consulting job a few years after college, Caryline told me that I would only be working with non-profits. Obviously, that was not true. Each time I brought up that my title was, ‘Non-Profit Associate,’ I was shooed away or told to leave the conversation by the voice in the intercom.
“Galgacom is the reason I’m being fired?” I snapped abruptly.
“You can’t do your job if you’re showing up to protests against your clients.”
“I wanted to be taken off Galgacom.”
“There was simply nothing that could be done.”
“Wait, what protest?” I said finally realizing what was going on. I was surprised and, well, not surprised.
“You get how this works by now.”
“How what works?”
“How what works?” she repeated, snidely questioning my question.
“Yes. What are you referring to? And how does it work?”
“We know you went to the Galgacom protest last weekend.”
Caryline continued, “Cameras out on the street corners, municipal buildings, ATMs, outside the subway stops, and on the roving secuirty bots recorded you.” She slapped down three photos showing my partially hooded face. “Galgacom matched you with the scans it has from our in-house video conference system, which you know is hosted by…Galgacom.” She then pulled a large binder from below the table and plopped it in front of me.
I flipped through. It was my face after my face after my face staring into the nothingness of a video call. Then pictures of me in the break room, on the street, at the protest. A bland, frightening Look Book of me.
Picture after picture after picture of me. Each flap of the page brought a sinking thud in my heart.
Picture after picture after picture.
Flap thud flap thud thud thud thud.
“How can you have permission to record and store all of this?”
“You know,” she started matter-of-factly, “something you signed when you started working here allowed us to do it. Terms of employment blah blah.”
I was angry. Upset. Embarrassed. I knew this could have happened, and I was ashamed I didn’t do anything about it sooner.
“And the police bots,” Caryline picked up again, “have a facial recognition system actively scanning protests picking up people’s faces. Then, those scans are matched with pictures already in its data storage farm. And all of the cameras and the police robots are owned and operated by, you know, Galgacom. Just like our video conference system. And the roving security robots. And all the data belongs to Galgacom, too. Get it?”
“See, you get it.”
“I didn’t ‘get it’ enough to avoid this situation.”
“You can be smart and still be trapped.”
“You can be smart and not have the willpower to wriggle out from the heavy slab of limestone resting flush on your chest,” Caryline added.
“Yeah,” I replied, dejected.
“Since you’re being fired for cause—as you were unable to perform your duties because they were too unpalatable to you—we will do everything in our power to block your eligibility for unemployment benefits.”
The weight felt ever heavier on my chest.
“But, as a courtesy, here’s a voucher for fifty percent off trolley rides up to Mindfulness Mountain.”
I stared at it. ‘HALF OFF.’ I stood up to leave.
“You know,” Caryline began, halting my departure, “a Galgacom rep said that their facial recognition software capabilities only two weeks ago may not have been able to match these partial face photos from the protest with your file. But the latest update took Galgacom’s tech to a whole new level.”
I turned to leave and saw the two glossy-eyed onlookers from the observation deck now blankly staring through the glass door at me. One leaned on a crystal-topped walking stick, calmly jostling around a hard candy in his mouth. The other looked through a pair of little fancy binoculars on a stick. I did not move for a long time. I don’t know how long. They kept staring at me. In me. At nothing.
I heard a paper crumpling behind me. Caryline had balled up one of the photos containing my partially hidden face and began to eat it.
I walked down the corridor of cubicles back to my desk. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I looked and it said ‘Known.’
The weight felt heavier.
I declined the call as my face filled with the overwhelming feeling that often followed with tears. But I did not cry.
“Can someone help me get this wristband off?” Please!
Arthur Tarley (he/him/his) is a writer, activist, and digital marketer originally from Queens, New York. Two of his articles analyzing U.S. political propaganda were recently published in Current Affairs. He has a forthcoming essay in Vox and a short story appearing in the July issue of The Dillydoun Review.