Mr. Winters and I headed out the door and into the employee parking lot, where he led me to a Tesla Model 3. Holy crap! He didn’t bother with keys; he used his phone to open it. Of course, I rode shotgun. “Nice car,” I exclaimed, but then I couldn’t help but ask, “How much did this baby cost?”
When he told me, I exclaimed in surprise, “Shit, that’s not bad! Not that I have anything close to that kind of money, but it’s affordable, especially when you consider the savings in using electric power instead of gas. What kind of range do you get?”
“About 300 miles,” he replied. “For all the driving I do around here, it’s plenty adequate. On a road trip, you have to map out charging stations in advance and plan on stopping once or twice daily for a half hour to recharge. But I figure we have to recharge, too, so you just plan to stop at a recharging station and grab a bite to eat at the same time, while the car’s recharging.”
“Do the batteries need to be replaced very often? Are they expensive?” I asked.
“The newest batteries will outlast the car,” he answered.
“Wow! I want one,” I exclaimed. I was practically drooling. I’d never been a car guy before, but this car was so cool, and it was as green as a car could be.
“There’s a bit of a wait for these, so if you put your name on the list now, you’ll likely have enough money to buy it by the time you get yours,” he explained. We’d been driving for about five minutes by the time we pulled up in front of a nondescript building. “Welcome to Data Central,” Mr. Winters exclaimed. “This is a temporary facility. We’re building a much larger one directly across the road from our delivery station, right next to the Interstate. Facebook is building one, too, just down the road. There’s a rumor that Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is planning a data center nearby, as well. We’re also building a wind farm southwest of here on the border with Kansas. It’s almost twice as windy there, so it’s more cost effective to pay the costs of sending the power through the grid. When it’s completed, it’ll provide more than enough power for all of the data centers. There’s already a big fat fiberoptic channel running right down the middle of Interstate 80, and we’ll be adding to it.”
Exiting the car, I could hear it lock itself up as we walked away from it. We entered the building to find row after row of electrical cabinets with heavy-duty cables connecting them. Dim, blue LED lighting bathed the entire room in a subdued light that was just barely enough to see the equipment. Each cabinet was filled with individual blue LEDs as well. In spite of all the equipment, the room was on the chilly side.
“Welcome to Applazon’s temporary Omaha data center, J.J.” Mr. Winters exclaimed. More than twelve thousand servers, each one serving up more than a terabyte of data. Our total capacity will be in the range of fifty to a hundred petabytes once we open our permanent facility and are up to full capacity, making it one of the largest data centers in the world. We keep the lighting subdued in here as an energy-saving measure. Of course, we can turn on brighter lighting as needed when we service the individual racks. This is one of the world’s first 100% solid-state data centers. SSDs cost an order of magnitude more than conventional rotating disks, but they’re several times faster, more reliable, use a lot less power and last longer under heavy use.
“The conventional wisdom is to store data that’s accessed less often on slower media at less expense, but collectively, people access that kind of data about half the time. Our research shows that when a customer has to wait more than a few seconds for a page to load, they go on to something else, costing us potential business. We believe the move to solid-state storage will save us money in the long run.
“Our data centers serve many needs. They serve up pages for all the products Applazon sells. They serve up e-books and they serve up streaming media, including both video and music, primarily for our Applazon Plus customers. That brings up another advantage of SSDs, by the way. A single copy of a movie on an SSD can be streamed to dozens of customers at once, whereas a rotating disk becomes less and less efficient as it attempts to serve up content to multiple users.
“By far the biggest portion of our server business, however, is ACR, our web service for commercial enterprise. Thousands of businesses from all over the world rely on Applazon to serve up their websites. You may have heard that we lost the bid on a huge military contract. We had the lowest bid and the largest capacity, but Jeff Barlow owns the Washington Herald, which is critical of the current administration.” Then with a laugh, he added, “We host the electronic version of the Washington Herald, as well as that of the President’s other favorite newspaper, the New York Times. We believe he intervened personally to throw the contract to Microsoft. We’re fighting it in court, but we aren’t optimistic of overturning their decision.”
“So how might I fit into all of this?” I asked.
“It takes a lot of people to keep a data center like this going,” Mr. Winters explained. “And data-center techs are in short supply. We don’t have enough people to run this one as it is, let alone the one we’re building, and that will cost us money. I can’t place you here, however, unless you know what you’re doing. The skills you claim to have could be put to good use at one of our corporate headquarters, where actual website and software development occurs, but you lack the necessary certifications or an equivalent college degree. If you spend the next two weeks getting your certification as a data-center technician, I can hire you for that purpose to work here and then you can work toward a college degree and maybe move up to a more fitting position at corporate headquarters on either coast.
“There won’t be time to take any courses on data-center management during the next two weeks, but I suspect you can learn the material better on your own. I can provide you with a company laptop you can take home with you. The only restriction is that it connects to the internet through Applazon’s firewall, so I wouldn’t recommend using it to browse sensitive sites, as you never know when big brother may be watching. Take the test and get your certificate, and you can start here two weeks from today at a salary of $50k per year. You’ll make enough to save up for a Tesla.”
Fifty thousand! That would be roughly $25 per hour! However, fear struck at my heart when I realized I might need a security clearance, so I asked, “Will I need a security clearance to work here?”
“Yes, but it’s not like what you’d need for military work,” he answered. “The data on the servers is all heavily encrypted and you won’t have direct access to it. We’ll do a security check based on your name, date of birth and Social Security number. It’s not much more than a bank would do before giving you a loan.” I couldn’t help but wonder if a security check would turn up the fact that I was dead. It was highly unlikely, given that all of my documentation was from Wyoming and my character’s death occurred in Iowa. Even if it did, however, given that I obviously wasn’t, I thought it likely the discrepancy would be chalked up to an error in county records, and therefore, the risk of discovery was negligible.
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With proof of residence from two sources – my documentation of employment at Applazon and my Applazon credit union account – and with my birth certificate, getting a learner’s permit from the DMV went smoothly if one didn’t consider the two hours spent standing in line. I think I had the nicest photo taken of anyone there, however, as I was still wearing my suit. When we got out of the DMV, it was snowing heavily, making driving treacherous. It took forever to get to East Bellevue High School, barely making it there in time to meet with the principal and get me enrolled. I couldn’t believe that in this day and age, the school mascot was the head of an Indian chief with a full head of feathers. I thought most schools had abandoned the use of racist team names and mascots, but not here.
Because I already had a GED, I was enrolled as an adult learner, which still allowed me to take courses there. By the time we finished, it was too late to enroll in Driver’s Ed; however, the principal’s assistant checked and found there were only two slots left at the late-evening time period, so she signed me up herself. I still needed to pay the fee, but I could do that online using my debit card. When we got out of the high school, it had warmed considerably, and it was raining heavily. Fortunately, our house was only a little over a mile away.
Making use of the shiny new Applazon ProBook Mr. Winters had provided to me, I got to work that evening studying the material for the data-center certification exams on Applazon’s site. It seemed pretty straightforward, and by taking the practice exams, I was able to hone in on what to study and where to find it. I’d planned to go into work with Rob on Wednesday and spend the entire day taking the data-center-technician certification exam. The exam needed to be proctored, which was why I had to take it on-site. Unfortunately, by Tuesday it was clear we were in for a storm of historic proportions, and the governor declared a state of emergency in anticipation of what was to come. Because Rob was considered an essential employee, he had to go in anyway, and so I still went in with him, but the drive was scary, and with so many people failing to make it in, Mr. Winters himself ended up proctoring my exam. In spite of having only completed a superficial review of the material, I got a perfect score and had my official certification as a data-center technician. Only the pre-employment physical remained.
While I was busy with the exam, the weather was warming significantly in Omaha and the snow was rapidly melting, swelling the Missouri and Platte Rivers and the numerous creeks that fed into them. In contrast, the Rocky Mountains were experiencing a record snowfall as an area of immense low pressure moved through Montana and Wyoming and into the Dakotas and Nebraska. The result was that several feet of snow were dropped on top of what was already a record snow accumulation in northern and western Nebraska as a bomb cyclone moved through the state, bringing with it blizzard conditions with wind gusts of up to a hundred miles an hour. In Omaha, we continued to get heavy rainfall as the barometric pressure dropped by 24 millibars in less than thirteen hours. It was a storm of epic proportions.
Interstate 80 was closed for nearly a full day and most roads in the northwestern part of the state were closed or impassable. The Platte River overflowed its banks, and mandatory evacuations began in the western parts of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, which included the lower-lying parts of Bellevue. Offutt Air Force Base itself experienced significant flooding, and of course Jerry, as a commanding officer, had to be there to supervise the removal of equipment and the safety of soldiers and personnel. The Elkhorn River, which was a major tributary of the Platte, flooded a significant portion of the western suburbs. Rob and I found our way home blocked and had to detour significantly to the north, all the way to U.S. Highway 275. We went to bed that night not knowing if we’d still have power in the morning or if we might be awakened with the need to evacuate during the night, but neither of those occurred.
Then on Thursday, chunks of ice flowing down the Niobrara River slammed into the Spencer Dam, just ahead of where it joined the Missouri, sending an eleven-foot wall of water downstream. Much of that dissipated by the time it reached Omaha, but the risk to those of us who lived on the river was enormous, nevertheless. Several major Missouri River bridges were washed away, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Having grown up in Southern Indiana, in the midst of one of the most active regions in the country for tornadoes, I had all too much experience with warning sirens. Kansas might be better known a la Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, but Indiana had a much higher concentration of tornadoes per capita, and a far higher death rate. Tornadoes were common enough that they taught us in school what to do when the sirens sounded, and most of us had had personal experience with tornadoes by the time we reached our teens. Yes, I knew what the sirens meant as did everyone else in the Gonzalez house. I’d already packed a bugout bag, and at the sound of the siren, we all gathered in the great room and divided ourselves among the cars.
The high school wasn’t much higher above flood stage than we were, but it was the one place with enough space to serve as a shelter for the community, and we headed there, driving slowly so as to avoid accidentally driving into a flooded stretch of road. We’d all been warned that what appeared to be a puddle could be a submerged stretched of roadway. It was part of the flood-preparedness, public-service announcements that had been flooding the airwaves, no pun intended, since my arrival in Omaha. Videos of cars becoming completely submerged in a matter of minutes left an indelible image few would ignore.
So, we all carefully made our way to Bellevue East High School, parked our cars and made our way inside through the pouring rain, where volunteers were already waiting for us. Life in a public shelter is definitely not the way I would’ve chosen to spend my time during a natural disaster. School food was no better in Omaha than it had been in Indiana, and sleeping on a cot is a contradiction in terms. It didn’t help that I awoke from nightmares of being killed by my father every fuckin’ night we were there. Thanks to numerous TVs and our smartphones, we were able to keep aware of what was happening in the world around us, but the media didn’t cover what was happening with our individual houses, and we couldn’t help but wonder if we’d have a house to return to after the floodwaters receded.
Most people spent their time glued to the news channels on the televisions that were set up all over the place. When they weren’t doing that, they were on their phones, talking, texting, playing games or interacting with social media. A few people spent their time reading books on their e-book readers, on their phones or in actual books from the school library. Henry spent his time on the advanced-mathematics sites I’d showed him, which kind of gave me the idea I could be using my time more productively, too. I’d already completed my data-center-technician certification exam. However, there were certifications for which I was qualified that would be of significant use to me. Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite were the primary tools used for much, if not most, website development around the world. Certification in the appropriate components could help me advance within the Applazon organization.
Applazon offered access through the corporate website to several options for certification, all at no charge. I could complete any of them remotely on the company-issued laptop in my possession. I already was proficient in almost all of the applications, but certification involved more than taking a test. I literally needed to complete a number of projects online to prove I knew the software inside and out. There wasn’t time to finish them all before starting work at the data center, but I was certain I could get certifications in the key components used in website development. Besides which, I was stuck in a high school serving as a storm shelter. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
We were lucky. There were a few inches of water in the basement and nowhere else. Because of the high water table and because of our proximity to a floodplain, the basement was unfinished by design. The elevated legs on Jerry’s workbench had been sufficient to protect the power tools inside, and the washer and dryer were both on pedestals and had remained dry as well. There would be some cleanup once the water receded, but that was nothing compared to what some people would have to deal with.
Over the course of the next week, I spent all day every day online working on my certifications. I completed certifications in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, InDesign, Premier Pro and After Effects and posted the results to Applazon’s internal educational website. I completed my pre-employment physical on Wednesday and then got right back to work on my certifications. Although the certifications kept me busy, I made time at night most nights to continue my sexual explorations with Sammy. He continued to insist he was straight, but he was insatiable in when it came to what we did together in bed. The love we shared for each other was more the kind of love brothers share, but the sex sure as fuck was fun.
The Sunday before I was to report for work, I sent off an email to Mr. Winters letting him know that I’d completed certifications in much of the Adobe Creative Suite and that the results were posted to Applazon’s internal educational site. With all of the certifications, I was qualified for any job involving web design. I got a call from him right away.
“J.J., I got your certifications, and I can’t believe what you’ve been up to – in spite of the flood!” he began. “You forgot to get certified in Microsoft Office, though.”
“That would be trivial,” I replied. “There just wasn’t time, but if you need that, I can do it next week.”
“Hardly,” he replied. “I was joking. I was amazed you got all the certifications that you did. Even if you knew how to use all the applications already, most people would need to spend months on getting certified in all of the web-oriented components. You’re obviously very talented to have done it all so quickly. I actually do need someone to do web design, but at least half of the skill required for that isn’t something that certification exams can test. You can be perfectly capable of using software and yet lack the creativity that’s essential to developing a working website. Have you done any web development before?” he asked.
“Other than trying out the software, no, I haven’t,” I answered earnestly. “I don’t profess to have experience in web design, but I’m confident that I can put into code any website design I can imagine. I consider Applazon to have the best-designed consumer website ever designed in the history of the internet, but I think I could make it better —”
“How so?” he interrupted.
Taking a deep breath, I responded, “I hope I’m not talking my way out of a job, but it’s not always evident that Applazon is substituting a sale from a third-party seller for one of their own. When the product delivered isn’t what the customer was expecting and the merchant refuses to take it back, the next time that customer needs something, they’ll go to Walmart or Target instead. Applazon isn’t doing anyone any favors when they pass off third-party sales as their own, particularly when some unscrupulous third-party merchants sell counterfeit items.”
“But that’s why we have a whole team of engineers dedicated to tracking down counterfeiters and fraudsters and turning them over to law-enforcement agencies. Don’t you think our customers prefer a seamless experience?” Mr. Winters asked.
“Do you think the customers feel anything other than cheated when they order a name-brand product that turns out to be counterfeit?” I countered. “It may look the same, or maybe the logo is smeared, but when it falls apart and they try to have it replaced under warranty, they find out it was made in a sweatshop in China.”
“Yes, but don’t you think the customer appreciates the opportunity to buy a product from Applazon that otherwise might not be available at all?” came his retort.
“I’m sure they do,” I responded, “so long as the product is as advertised and so long as they know they’re making a purchase from a third-party merchant and not Applazon.”
“Applazon can’t be expected to police the integrity of every third-party merchant that chooses to market their products on Applazon’s site,” Mr. Winters countered. “We do everything we can to catch the crooks, and we turn them over to the authorities when we come across evidence of fraud, but Corporate feels rather strongly that it’s better to get new products into the hands of our customers as quickly as practicable rather than to take the time to vet each individual vendor, which means we can only detect fraud once it has occurred.”
Taking a deep breath in and letting it out slowly, I replied, “As a web designer, I would have little or no say in Applazon’s policies. Personally, I think that Applazon does have a responsibility to police all the products from third parties that they sell alongside their own. They need to verify the authenticity of products delivered through their fulfillment centers and hold merchants responsible for attempting to sell counterfeit items or for plagiarism. Furthermore, they need to make it clear when they substitute a product from a third-party merchant, and the buyer should be required to opt in to use that merchant rather than the current method of having to opt out. It should be the customer who makes the decision on substitution, not Applazon.
“Of course, Applazon should continue to offer products through its third-party merchants that wouldn’t be available otherwise, but they need to develop much more aggressive mechanisms to identify improper sales, and they need to investigate complaints rather than sweeping them under the rug. Your call centers don’t even know how to deal with the return of a counterfeit item. Damage during shipping they can handle. They’ll gladly replace a defective product. But if you try to return a fake item, they’ll try to get you to categorize it as damaged or defective. They don’t get the significance of crooked logos or blurred pages. Reporting cheap knockoffs should be a priority. Applazon needs to punish merchants for hijacking other merchants’ listings or for posting fake reviews. When Applazon fails to address evidence of merchant malfeasance, they diminish the integrity of the Applazon brand overall. Sooner or later, Applazon is going to be sued over this very issue and they are going to lose, and it will cost them dearly.
“Regarding what I as a web designer could to do to address this, I’d make it easier to distinguish among Applazon sales, Applazon Merchant sales and merchant sales fulfilled by Applazon. I’d provide a direct one-click mechanism for customers to identify problem merchants and to seek redress even beyond the 30-day-return period, but Applazon would have to kick in some muscle behind it. I’d build in the sort of analysis that third-party sites like Fakespot use to spot fake reviews, but more importantly, I’d collect website-traffic data and use it proactively to spot improper behavior so that it can be addressed appropriately.”
“You need to be careful about citing Fakespot, J.J. —” Mr. Winters began
But I interrupted: “People use Fakespot because they can’t rely on Applazon to police fake reviews. Ratings have become nearly worthless. Fakespot has a high rate of false positives, but you can’t fault customers from turning to it in disgust with the status quo.”
“You certainly don’t mince words,” Mr. Winters commented.
“I only shared this with you because you asked,” I replied, “but if you’re not willing to hear my honest opinion, don’t expect me to substitute a dishonest one. I know I’m just a kid, but kids buy stuff from Applazon. A lot of stuff. In fact, I used to use Applazon gift cards to launder the money I earned from tutoring, to keep my dad from finding out about it and taking it from me.”
“You can do that?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied, “and the fact that I could get by with it on Applazon and not with other retailers is probably a reflection of even bigger problems ahead.”
“Damn,” Mr. Winters responded.
“If you’d rather not deal with me speaking my mind, I’ll understand if you rescind the job offer,” reluctantly, I suggested.
“No, I do want you to work for us, but I think you need to recognize that in spite of your intelligence, you’re still young and naïve and need to learn tact. That said, burying one’s head in the sand to avoid hearing what you’d rather not address has never been a good business strategy. I think you’re worth far more to us than I can afford to pay you. The website-development position only pays $70k. That’s very much the high end for web design, and I can’t justify paying you more than that.”
“Seventy grand?” I asked in disbelief. When I went in for that first interview, I was expecting only thirty grand a year.
“Yeah, I know that’s not much for someone with your talent,” he continued, “and if you look around, I’m sure you could find someone who’d pay you more. However, Applazon rewards its employees who are in it for the long haul. I’m sure that once you get more experience, you’ll be able to demand more than twice as much, but I don’t have the resources to pay you that. Hell, I don’t make that much. This is Omaha – not Seattle or New York or Washington D.C. However, I think we can keep you under the radar here, and once you have some experience, you can apply for a job at Corporate, get paid good money and actually make a difference.”
“So… what exactly does this job involve?” I asked.
“Web development, data-center management and a lot of research along the lines of what we discussed tonight,” he answered. “I’m inclined to turn you loose and just see what you can do.”
“Where should I show up on Monday?” I asked.
“Come to my office when you arrive with your brother,” he replied. “I’ll hook you up with the people who will train you.”
When I hung up the phone, I found the entire family was listening in on my side of the conversation. I guess I was gonna hafta kick in something for my living there, and maybe move out sooner than I’d anticipated.
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I reached for the gun I knew was hidden behind Dad’s headboard and turned just in time to see him barge into the room. He rushed towards me, and I knew that if I didn’t kill him, he’d kill me. It was him or me. As I started to aim the gun, I remembered there was something called the safety. I quickly figured out what it was and flicked it off.
Placing my finger inside the trigger guard, I aimed for the center of his chest and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun going off was the loudest sound I’d ever heard. A gaping hole opened in the middle of his chest as I was sprayed with his warm blood. Momentum carried his body forward and he landed right on top of me, but he was still alive. A grotesque smile overtook his face as he encircled my neck with his hands. I tried to knee him again, but he was right on top of me.
I awoke startled and gasping to catch my breath. “J.J., are you alright?” Sammy asked from across the room.
“Sorry. It was just a bad dream,” I explained.
“You’ve been having a lot of those lately,” he responded. “Do you maybe wanna talk about them?”
Shaking my head, I replied, “Nah, it’s nothing. I’m fine. Really.” It almost sounded like I was trying to convince myself more than I was Sammy. In any case, I could never talk about it with him. “I guess I’m just nervous about my first day of work,” I added.
“You’ll do fine, J.J. You know that,” Sammy admonished me. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
I heard Sammy’s rhythmic breathing almost right away, but I tossed and turned the rest of the night.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.