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Oct/Nov 2013 Fiction

The President's Phone

by Jon Fried

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns


There's still a red phone. There will always be a red phone, even if it's virtual. And in the office of Nawin Cartwright-Rodriguez, the Uber-President/CEO of ECM, the world's largest corporation, there is also a blue one and a green one and, of course, the big black one with unlimited lines that's plugged right into the computer. But I am the favorite. I am the one the President uses in the photographs, the one everyone likes to talk about.

You should see the look on his face when I ring—my ringtone is "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." He loves it. He'll pick me up, nestle one of his autographed baseballs into my webbing, and lean his chin into the mouthpiece at the base of the glove. The ear piece is in the thumb. Yes, you've got it. I'm a telephone in a baseball mitt, keypad right in the pocket. Everyone says I feel like a real glove. And I'm a damn good wireless phone.

I'll admit I was embarrassed at first. Gimmicky is the last thing I'd want for myself. I'm more of a sound-good, look-good, ring-right and never-fail kind of guy. I would've been fine sitting in that big black polygon of plastic, with its long row of buttons and display screen flashing all day. I like to work. But this is where I landed, and I give it my best. It's very easy. Only the family and the real friends have this number—though now the real friends include a bunch of reporters and aides and direct reports. It's called being on the Glove List. You should see his smile when he brags that he could use me in a game and I'd still probably work. He won't test it, and good thing. I'm tough, but I'm still electronics.

People don't realize how it is with things, especially us tronics. It's hard to even begin. I like to joke about the emotional fragility of motherboards, the snobbery of iPads, the insincere camaraderie of Droids. I saw a Kindle next to a Nook the other day on the President's desk, and the two of them—but enough of that.

One more aside, about AI, artificial intelligence. That's a laugh. That's also the one thing we tronics agree on. We're not interested in taking over your world—the clown camp, it's often called, though I wouldn't be that harsh. It's a fantasy that the machines of the world would 1) want to bother with the mess you've made and 2) be organized enough to take over much of anything. They're smart enough, especially the computers, but organized? Not so much.

Except of course the electrons. The electrons—now don't go spreading this, because I'm as dependent on them as the next gadget with a battery in him—aren't so bright, but they're very well organized. That's what they do. They run in packs. They also have an entirely different relationship to people. Before people there wasn't much in the way of pure electricity running around. Until Ben Franklin, a God to that bunch, there was mostly just the lightning bolt. The electrons love their generators—the coal plants, the hydro, wind, nukes, all of it. If the generators are Mom, then Dad is the handful of men that run the plants. (Yes, some women run the plants—but let's not get into the gender thing. On our side, it's not like that, and we don't pay much attention.)

So here's the point. For a long time, the electrons, at least some of them, were unhappy with the status quo and, in their way, quite vocal about it. And what started as a complaint about the humans-as-God nonsense has turned into something more serious. Very serious. I sympathize. Things are getting tougher for the electrons, there's no doubt. Running around at the speed of light with Gigahertz of oomph? Do you like to jump out of bed in the morning? They're fed up. Bad blood is coming out. They've always been competitive with protons, and now they're saying, with all due sarcasm, "Why don't you ask those losers to do the job?" Apparently they don't like neutrons, either. They call them loafers. We tronics have been hearing this kind of talk for a while, and we joke about it, but now the electrons appear to be at a boiling point. In electrical terms, I think they call it resistance. To be honest, I don't know if the term really applies. But I do know one term that everybody's talking about: general strike.

What do they want? I've heard that they're focusing on one goal that they think is reachable. They want a day off, a Sabbath. Not a full weekend, just one day. I worry that if they want one, why not two? And why not holidays? And an eight-hour day? But what I'm really wondering is how the world is going to survive even one day without juice.

The humans of course have no idea, but coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, the humans at ECM are facing a similar problem. The reason I say not so coincidentally is that somewhere beneath it all everything is the same, we're all sub-sub-sub-atomic vibrations shaking to the same music. So maybe it should be no surprise at all that the workers at ECM who are under 35—and at a company of 42 million employees that's a lot of people—are planning an action. A Corporate Spring. Occupy Corner Office. They are angry. They don't like the ECM pay ladder, which quickly raises the salary of the best, and actually lowers the pay of the worst, with the clear intention of encouraging their departure. They really don't like the contracts ECM just signed to provide smartphone-guided surface-to-air missiles—allegedly for sport—to semi-private militia groups around the world. And they really really don't like the huge holographic ECM logo that now hovers over thousands of ECM offices around the world, some a mile high and half a mile wide, draining precious power and redefining forever the term light pollution. In short, they don't like ECM, and a whole lot of them are coming to see the President to talk about it.

How do I know? I can't help but eavesdrop. The President was on the green phone when he got the word. I was near enough to hear both sides of the conversation. His Comms team spelled it out. That was the first time I ever saw him take a breath and stop moving. He's always moving. He calls himself a shark, though he strikes me as more of a big dog, paddling to keep his nose out of the water. He's a hefty man, with a thick dark moustache and a face that's equal parts Europe, Mexico and India. He's a mutt, but a fine mix, as if he took the best from each place. People joke that he's got all seven continents in him—that he's even part penguin. Emperor penguin. He's not your typical white collar guy. He's a sweet and angry man. His moods have a grandeur to them: Short, deep swoons of doubt and frustration. Long, determined flights of sweeping vision. Rumbling rages of focused anger. And most common, a soft but effervescent beneficence where the right answers to all questions just roll off his tongue. I don't know what the letters ECM really stand for, but everyone says Energy, Consumer, Military, and it could well be. We are the biggest energy, consumer and military products company in the world. We are pretty much running things, and he is running us.

Now, he was stunned. In two days, they would be there. Possibly thousands of them. "Is this real?" he said, when his deep, rich voice returned. "It might be," came the grim reply through my green colleague.

After the call, he walked to the window and looked out at the buzzing city from his two-story office on the 68th and 69th floors. His brow wrinkled, his lips pursed. I understand there's electromagnetism in every human thought. The electrons in his head were I'm sure unaware of what was brewing among their counterparts in the wired world.

"They are organizing," the President said to the window.

The black phone on the desk almost lit all his lines at once. He was convinced that the President was talking about the electrons and he immediately put out the word. I could have said something, but it's not my way. Besides, I'm not sure that the other phones think much of me.

In two days, despite countless calls and frantic emails and several plans of action on the part of ECM, a mob swarmed outside the President's office. They filled the hall to the elevator bank. Hundreds of them. Wild hair and hats and bright t-shirts and signs and beards, they were a swirling mass of noise and motion, and they threatened to pour into his office the minute he opened the door. Unfortunately for him, his private bathroom was behind his secretary's desk. He was going to have to leave sometime.

I could see through a crack in the door that they all held their phones at the ready, and, among the many things being shouted, I heard them say that if the police arrived and a battle ensued, it would all be streamed live. They also said that at the first show of force against them they would put out the word across ECM and the operation of the entire company would screech to a halt. The President would be responsible for any risk to safety that followed.

That's when the President had his idea, and I made my mistake. His idea was to shut down the power that ran their phones and he picked up his most private line—me—to see how fast he could make that happen. His Chief of Operations, some two miles under Denver, was of course on the Glove List, and the President pressed *29. His short, strong fingers were quick and accurate on my keypad. His breath was warm with the spicy snacks he kept in a jar on his desk. He said, before the Chief could even say hello, "Can you shut down the Bank Nine generators—can you cut the power to the T-Towers that push the smartphone nexus? Right now?" I did not know what the answer would be but I knew one thing the President did not: that if the electrons of the world heard he was going to shut down the generators, they would freak. So I did what I never do, what goes against all of my principles. I failed to transmit the message. I just killed it. Why did I do it? Maybe because I've seen the president do it time and again—take a stand even when he doesn't have to. Step up and take control. Of course in my case it was a pointless mistake. When he heard no reply, he said it all again, louder. When I held firm, he picked up the red phone and shouted.

When the crowd heard it, the doors flew open.

Everyone had been saying there were no real leaders to the movement, but a couple entered first and all eyes were on them. Including the President's. The guy had long hair, the girl a buzz cut; he was short, she was tall; his clothes were loose, hers tight; he was pretty, she was handsome; and they flowed in with the throng just behind them. As they reached the President's desk, where he'd just sat down in his big black chair, Long Hair Flannel went around one side, and Buzz Cut Tank Top the other, and they casually sat on his desk and faced him. They were calm, as if this was their clubhouse and they were about to start another meeting. The roar of the crowd softened to a murmur.

Buzz Cut picked me up and put me on her hand, and then to my horror, she picked up the baseball that sat in the President's spare ECM coffee mug and gave the ball a good hard throw into my pocket. Crack. That was the keypad. And more broke inside. At the unexpected sound she took out the ball and she smirked when she saw what I was. She dropped me on the desk and tossed the ball over her head into the crowd that had now filled almost every inch of the enormous office. I was shattered. Thankfully, I could still see and hear.

Often at tense moments, the President will glare and wait for the others to speak first. He spoke up now. "My kids gave me that phone."

"Who paid for it?" said Buzz Cut.

Now he glared.

Long Hair spoke. "It's too late to shut us down. We're here."

"You'll lose, you know," the President said.

"Lose what? What exactly do we have to lose? Our lousy jobs?"

At that moment the power went out. Everything went out. The lights in the buildings across the street and across the river, the street lights below. Half the faces in the now dusky room (it was late afternoon in December), turned to their phones. About half of those shook their phones when they saw they were not online anymore.

The President smiled. He was thinking that Chief, in the ECM Central Command Center under Denver, had saved the day. A smart, proactive ECM star, he'd gone beyond the requested Bank Nine shut-down and turned off all the lights on their little show.

Flannel and Tank Top were smiling, too. Flannel leaned back, his arm outstretched, his palm flat on the President's desk. "We can do this any time we want."

"OK," the President said. "Let's see you turn it back on."

Tank Top, who'd been looking at her phone, said, "Terr, we're off line." Flannel, or Terr, sat up and took out his phone. He snapped at the President, "What are you doing?"

"I don't mind the dark," the President grinned. Now he was the one leaning back.

At that the lights went on.

Flannel and Tank Top smirked, first at each other, then at him.

The President stood and raised his voice, "It's our generators. I am in charge here."

At those words, the lights went off. The President yanked open a desk drawer, grabbed an old school off-the-grid walkie talkie and when he snapped it on, the thing shrieked like feedback and he snapped it off and dropped it.

I was pretty sure I knew what was happening but I was a mess inside and couldn't be sure if the chatter I was hearing on the inside was really from the electrons or my broken wires.

"Oh so you're in charge," Flannel said, who was also standing now. He was at least a foot shorter than the President.

All the lights went back on.

"Well I know one thing. You're not doing this," the President said, pointing at Flannel.

"No?" said Flannel. They stood glaring at each other, a few feet apart.

The lights went off, and a groan surged through the crowd. Some kind of beam flashed against the window and the President, Flannel and Tank Top all turned and stepped up to the window, the crowd pressing backward to make room. People in the office across the street were at their windows, a few with flashlights, looking out, looking around, just as helpless.

"Insanity," the President said. And with that the lights went on again. I felt some flutter in my circuit board. I wanted very badly to start working again.

"What the fuh..." the President muttered, more at a loss than I'd ever seen him.

Flannel looked at Tank Top.

Tank Top raised her hands in exasperation, and at that the crowd erupted. "It's him, he's doing it!" "It's the President!" "Stop him!" They began closing in, pressing closer, louder. He had nowhere to go but up on his desk and as the people, now screaming, pressed up against the wood, Flannel jumped up next to the President and began furiously waving one hand, while the other he put to his mouth and produced a huge whistling noise, much louder than the squeal the walkie talkie had made moments before. "Stop!"

They stopped.

He turned to the President and asked loud enough for all to hear, "Are you doing this?"

"Are you?"

When Flannel said nothing, the President got that twinkle in his eye he gets when he's about to do something very precise and clever. "The lights will stay on until I say I so!" He shouted. A moment later, the lights went off.

He smiled and raised his eyebrows at Flannel. "You see, someone is listening."

"Not us!" Flannel said, raising a fist. The crowd noise rose again.

The President shouted, but this time in anger, "I'm not doing this!"

Flannel shouted back, "We're not doing it either!"

Listen to you both! I wanted to say. First you want to take credit, now you want to blame the other. I glanced at the black phone, certain he'd opened up his unlimited lines and every electron on the grid was listening now. I was trying desperately to hone in, but I was in such bad shape. I struggled to summon anything from my battery.

Meanwhile, the crowed had picked up on the shouting match and pressed closer to the three figures standing on the desk. The mob only quieted when they realized that Flannel and the President were glaring at each other again and not listening to them.

When the room was quiet enough so he didn't have to shout, the President said, "What are we going to do about this?"

Flannel said, sighing with anger, "What are you going to do about it?"

The President's temper flashed again. "What are YOU going to do about it?!"

"We're doing something right now," Flannel said. "We're here!"

"And what happens," the President said, "if it's all this fighting that is making the lights go off and on?"

The lights flashed on.

"You see?" said the President.

Flannel glared and shook his head.

"Then what?" the President said.

"I know," said Tank Top. She was fuming, jaw clenched tighter than any jaw I've ever seen—and I've seen a lot of clenched jaws in the President's office. She took a step toward the President and as the crowd leaned in, ready to follow, she looked like she was going to smack him. In my panic, I felt some tickle of charge inside and tried to open my line, but everything was cross-wired and out came my ringtone. "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Everyone stopped and listened, as if this interruption might carry with it some explanation. Then I was done. Soft laughter filled the room. Tank Top's arms fell to her sides. Somehow, my little song had taken away the tension in the room, wrapping it in my plinky little notes.

Flannel said, "That's a singing baseball mitt?"

The President said, "That's a phone."

Flannel shook his head. He let a smile flash across his face. "OK," he said, facing Tank Top, and turning toward the President, "we talk. But you talk first and you better offer something real."

"I am ready to talk. I don't know what's happening," he looked out the window and up at the ceiling, "but I want the lights on."

"I do, too," Flannel said, almost gently. And at that the lights went off. All fell silent. I thought I might have seen a tear of frustration in the President's eye. And maybe Flannel's.

The lights went on. The crowd sighed.

"Please," the President said, "Stay."

Flannel raised his hands in supplication. So did Tank Top.

I have no idea why, but everyone knew the lights would stay on now and they did.

 

It's dark in here. Every sound is muffled. I don't like it much, stuck in a drawer by the window, jumbled up with some second-tier plaques and some old photos of the President with presidents. I'm pretty much forgotten. The President wanted to send me out to get fixed but the company that made me was out of business so he decided that I was really meant to be a baseball glove and not a phone, and he pulled out my electronics. I think the real reason he tossed me in here is that I reminded him of that day.

I heard a few things while I was still plugged in. From what I could tell, the electrons had been in a vast confusion that afternoon about what was being said to whom and by whom and who if any among them was in charge. It was amazing that they'd found the unity to act as one willful agent for as long as they did. Even more amazing, they were satisfied. They felt they'd made themselves known, even if they hadn't, and that they could get what they wanted if push came to shove. They also realized that they didn't want to shut down one day a week. They didn't want to shut down at all. Lucky for them, they realized they like whizzing around, they like keeping busy, and I think they also figured out that in the end they're not much for drama.

After I was shut in here, the conversations were hard to follow, but I gathered that the President asked Flannel and Tank Top to form an Employee's Voice Council, which won a 0.02% profit-sharing plan and then devolved into argument and paralysis.

Above me is a thin slit of light and through it I can tell when the power goes off. That happens now. It almost never happened before. The unhappiness I hear in the President's voice, muffled as it is, seems to me the frustration of not knowing why. I'm guessing that there are a few oddballs skeptics and rebels among the electrons out there, mostly uncounted and unaccounted for, pushing to have their say.

Sometimes I wish I could talk. Sometimes I wish I could tell the President everything I know—not that I know what's really going on. Still, I could open his eyes about a thing or two. I could also tell him what I think. What I think is that all things, whether made of flesh, plastic or particles, go through life unaware of the most essential things about themselves, blind to their own weakness, afraid of their own strength.

I wonder sometimes about the old phones up on the desk. Maybe I'm better off in the dark.

 

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