By Rahul Kanakia

The 2029 Northern California Human Resources Conference and Exposition would have long ago gone bankrupt if it had relied solely on the registration fees of the business-suited organization men and women who filled the convention floor. In the current economy, there were fewer and fewer conventional HR personnel every year. But ten years ago, the convention had started marketing itself to non-corporate human resources specialists and the fruits of that effort were scattered across the convention floor: a woman standing in line at the childcare area with seventeen utterly silent children in tow; two men in dapper blue suits whose nametags proclaimed their ties to a large Hindu temple on the outskirts of Milpitas; and a man in a foul-smelling leather jacket who was tapping at a crystal data-earring.

In the midst of such oddities, Sasha barely merited a raised eyebrow when she picked up her nametag from the registration desk outside the North Ballroom. It said:

Sasha Boretsky
Community Manager
Walden Three

“Damn it,” said her husband, George Stanschloss. “I told them quite clearly that your title was ‘Dictator.’”

“They called to confirm,” Sasha said. “I had to correct your idiocy. Our community is looking to attract serious men and women, not more neurotic, drug-addicted fools.”

George blanched. He rubbed the needle scars that were covered by his left sleeve.

“Do you really think we can find someone else who’s like you?” he said. “How could we trust a stranger with our lives? Our… our minds?”

“Don’t be so dramatic. Running Walden Three is not a feel-good exercise. It is a job, and it is a difficult one. We can make an executive love Walden Three, but we can’t make a fool into an executive.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” He was picking through the nametags. “I can’t seem to find my own tag.”

“I cancelled your registration. As my spouse, you can attend for free. There was no need to pay extra. See here, you can make your own nametag using this marker.”

“I’ll look absurd. Why couldn’t you have let them print a tag for me?”

Sasha put a hand on her husband’s arm. He twitched and almost shook her off. “Look, are you sure you don’t need another adjustment? I’m sensing some resentment from you.”

“No… I just… no, I’m fine.”

“Good,” she said. “Now I’m going to get ready for this breakfast meet-and-greet they’ve scheduled for me.”

“But I already ate…”

“I’m going alone. The whole purpose of this endeavor is to find new managers, isn’t it?”

“But—”

“Look at these refugees from the corporate kleptocracy.” She gestured at the crowd. “Their souls have been sucked out, and they’re practically begging for us to fill them up again, but I can’t really examine these prospects if I have to spend all my time looking after you.”

He was rendered desperately silent. His love required him to tag along after her, but it also required him to obey her.

She hugged him and kissed his cheek.

“I’m so sorry, George,” she said. “Someday soon—after I’ve found my successor—I’ll be able to make myself love you as much as I’ve made you love me.”

She left George by the registration desk. As she walked to the South Ballroom, she sighed. He’d probably stand there all day. She really must get him to accept another adjustment. His last one had rejuvenated his flagging feelings for her, but it had also made him foolish and neurotic. For a moment, she remembered that she’d once relied on George; she’d needed his help to get through the day. When had he become just another Waldenite who needed to be taken care of?

The moment she entered the South Ballroom, she knew this breakfast was going to be a bust. The creases in the men’s shirts and pants were flattened-out, as if they’d hung in a closet for a long time. They shot shy, hungry glances at each person who entered the room. The place reeked of long-term unemployment.

Her first and second handshakes culminated in mumbled elevator pitches from job-seekers. The men stumbled over their words and nodded robotically when she replied. She didn’t bother telling them about how Walden Three could transform their humdrum lives; they’d already been sapped of the necessary courage. The third man seemed more human, but when he realized where Sasha was from, he told her that he’d accidentally given her an outdated version of his résumé, then he pulled it out of her hand and bolted from the conversation.

The fourth man gave a start when he read her nametag.

“That’s one of those brainwashing cults, isn’t it?” he said.

She smiled. Another bust.

But he was still holding onto her hand. He kept shaking it, and she saw the gears clicking in his mind. She sensed his defenses crumbling; he’d just fallen deeper than he’d thought was possible. He was sweating profusely. “Do you take families?” he said.

“Of course,” she said. “Most of our members have non-exclusive primary pairings and choose to raise their offspring communally, but we respect all forms of familial organization.”

All of the man’s reserve dropped away. He babbled to her about his years of looking for work. His wife had gone back to his home country, but his children had stayed here. They were living with a cousin. He had no one. He lived in a one-bedroom with six other unemployed men. If she wanted him, then he was hers.

But when Sasha looked at him, she saw a burden: another person whose complaints would fill her day; another person whose neuroses she’d have to adjust; another person whose life she’d need to manage.

When Sasha returned noncommittal answers to his pleas, the man’s shoulders slumped and his voice lowered. The man had tried to sell himself into slavery and found that his life was worthless.

But the embers of pity flared up inside Sasha. She wondered what everyone had thought of her when she’d first come to Walden Three.

“We can help you,” she said.

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and started babbling his thanks.

She took his hand and turned it upwards as if she were trying to read his palm. “After your first adjustment you’ll be able to work sixteen hours without stopping. Your hands are small; I think we can use you in our shoe factory. After only a few more adjustments, you’ll love the work. You and your family will have to sleep in the barracks for a little while, but you can build a home in your free time. You said you have two sons? The work should go pretty quickly.”

His smile congealed. She left him with a business card and a silent prayer. Maybe—if he had enough courage—she’d someday see him standing tall and singing proudly at one of Walden Three’s general assemblies. On the other hand, maybe he’d remain mired in fear. These middle-class refugees were rarely able to let go of their pretense at mental integrity and appreciate the real gift that Walden Three was offering them. It was happiness, offered up neat and simple and without stress.

Sasha’s next handshake was firm, but not a contest of strength. The man’s other hand was in his pocket; this was no job-seeker.

“Jesus, what line are you laying on these résumé-droppers?” the man said. “Most of them are circling the room to avoid you.”

His nametag said: Roger Schultz / VP (Human Resources) / Landon Chemical. Sasha sucked in her breath. Before she could speak, he flicked his nametag and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to explode and poison you.”

The bitter joke startled Sasha. Here was the perfect prospect: a dissatisfied senior manager who could come to Walden Three and reform all the tawdry inefficiencies that Sasha didn’t have the experience to adjust her way around.

“So you’re a cult leader, then?” he said.

“A dictator,” she murmured.

“What?”

“We’re not a cult and we have no leader. We operate by consensus. We need ninety percent agreement to enact a proposal.”

“If there’s no leader, then who are you?”

“Nine years ago, they consented to vest much of their decision-making power in me.”

“Like the Romans did. You’re their dictator.”

“That’s what they call me. I don’t think it’s a very funny joke.”

“Some of my college friends call me Herr Vice President.”

“Oh? Because of the cloud of poison gas that decim—”

“You’re offering to adjust people.” He smiled as he scanned the room. “I’m surprised that no one here has spit in your face.”

His words hung between them. A crowd of job-seekers was perambulating restlessly around him; many of them were shooting undisguised stares at the vice president.

“Don’t pretend that your firm has never indulged in adjustment,” she said. Everyone knew that the top corporations routinely forced their critical employees to undergo adjustment so they’d work longer and harder.

“We’ve used it in Asia, but forcing adjustment on employees is illegal in the U.S., and, so far, public opinion has crushed any company that has tried to pilot an optional adjustment program.”

“I doubt that you care about public opinion.”

He laughed. “You really don’t realize how rare your skill set is, do you?”

“You’re pretty rare, too. We could certainly use someone like you. There are a lot of people who are willing to stitch shoes, but there aren’t many who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to manage Walden Three.”

“Let’s discuss it over drinks,” he said. “Two-thirty, in the bar.”

As he pulled away from her, the swarm of jobseekers descended on him. No one else spoke to her for the remainder of the breakfast.

She blew off the other morning and afternoon sessions so she could research Roger Schultz. This had to be the man she’d been looking for. He had no loyalty to Landon: he’d only worked there for three years. For two decades, he’d skipped across industries and states, but he’d been born right here in the Sacramento area to a working-class family. He’d spent two years in community college before transferring to Chico State. She’d seen for herself how cynical he was about his own business. Sasha knew first-hand exactly how much doubt and self-hatred and insecurity lay behind that sort of cynicism.

This was a highly skilled man who’d been entrapped, long ago, into using those skills for evil. Sasha needed to make him realize that there was another life waiting for him. Her body vibrated with energy, and she felt the beginnings of a headache. This felt just like the moments before a presentation to a high-profile client. The minibar was right there. She could drink it dry if she wanted. George wouldn’t question her. No one would.

She pounded at her forehead with the heel of her hand. She hadn’t had those thoughts in a while.

This man had to be it. She needed some hope of a successor. Otherwise, what else was there? Another nine years of toil with no chance of relief?

The hotel bar was packed with boisterous HR directors, but Roger was sitting in a semi-private booth toward the back. There were two glasses in front of him.

“Two Manhattans,” he said. “The wait for service looked pretty long, so I ordered for you preemptively.”

A Manhattan: that had been her drink, fifteen years ago.

“I don’t drink,” she said.

“Part of your little religion?”

“Not at all,” she said. “At Walden Three, you can drink, smoke, eat meat, and inject heroin, if you want to. But we can also help you to be better than those things.”

“It’s hard to believe you’ve actually practiced employee-adjustment. How many people have you done?”

“Oh, I’m one of the most experienced adjusters in California. There’s no need to worry about that. I’ve supervised hundreds of initial adjustments, and thousands of touch-ups.”

Roger’s eyes widened. “Hundreds? You have that many folks up there?”

He was leaning forward with his hands on the edge of the table.

What kind of pitch would interest this man? “We have many kinds of operations: factories, stores, schools—we even have two members on the county council. We’re small but expanding fast, and we’re doing the kinds of things that corporations can never do. We’re really getting into the nitty-gritty of how people live. At a company, people go home at the end of the week with a little money and then try to live their real lives. And at the end of all your work, what do you have? Some new fertilizer? Some new pesticide? At Walden Three, you get to build an entire society.”

“It’s exciting at Landon,” he said. “The maneuvering, the strategizing, the planning, and the execution. I even like the disasters. Our decisions affect the whole world.”

“Come visit Walden Three,” she said. “That’s where you’ll see real excitement. We’re making the kinds of sacrifices that other Americans aren’t willing to make, and that’s why our revenues have grown three hundred and twenty percent over the last five years. There’s nothing as exciting as deciding to build a factory on a plot of land and seeing your people leap to the job, devoting day and night to the task of making your vision come true in the most precise and excellent manner that they can possibly achieve. We’re seven hundred people who speak with one voice.”

“Your voice,” he said.

He scrutinized Sasha, looking her up and down. She felt damp and uncomfortable. She’d spent a whole day in downtown Sacramento trying to find the right suit for this convention, but she still felt poorly dressed.

“Why didn’t you try to get back into advertising?” he said.

Sasha slapped the table. The surface of her drink vibrated. “You looked me up online, too?” she said.

“I understand why you left. By the end of your first year, you were coming in late to meetings. In your second year, you started missing work. After a client smelled alcohol on you during a morning—”

Sasha laughed. “Are you headhunting me?”

“But after you sobered up, why did you keep doing this cult thing? You still had friends in the industry. You could’ve come back.”

“I’m doing something that’s more difficult, more exciting, and more important than trying to brainwash people into buying a different brand of toothpaste.”

Sasha felt slightly hysterical. This man wasn’t going to come to Walden Three with her. He was trying to get her to leave. Dammit, did he know how many times she’d dreamed of leaving? But she knew that Walden Three would fall apart without her.

“They adjusted you, right? That’s how you quit drinking.”

“No. I always knew that wasn’t for me.”

“Come off it.”

“After drifting around for a few years, I ended up on a farm where some people were operating a then-illegal adjustment clinic. But I never used their skills. I sobered up on my own. I worked sixteen hour days on my own. I stopped smoking on my own. I lost a hundred pounds on my own.”

“Through willpower.”

“Some call it that. I think that I just found something better than laziness and hedonism.”

“You can’t expect me to believe that the apostle of an adjustment cult has never been adjusted herself.”

“People feel guilty about adjustment, sometimes. They feel weak. They start to idolize those who didn’t need to make the compromises they had to make.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said. He tapped his fingers on the table, then stopped. “You were adjusted. When it transformed your life, you saw how powerful the process was. You started working in the adjustment clinic. Afterward, you began adjusting your fellow cult-members. You made them idolize you. You made them respect you.”

“Believe what you want. What’s your offer?”

“We’re opening a plant in the U.S. It’ll be our only U.S. factory. We’ve invented a volatile new product: it doesn’t matter what it is. It needs to be manufactured close to the point of sale. We’ve had three dozen delegations come and beg us to locate our plant in their city. We’ve had sixty thousand applications on our U.S. jobs portal. But we’re still leery of U.S. workers. We’ve decided that we’re going to offer an initial adjustment as an ‘option’ to all our new hires.”

“They won’t take it. No matter how much you threaten to fire them, people won’t give up their minds. Not to people like you.”

“There’s no one in the world who has more experience than you at convincing Americans to take adjustments.”

“You’re wasting your time.” Despite herself, Sasha was intrigued. At Walden Three, she cajoled and shamed people into taking adjustments. But she’d sometimes pondered other, more impersonal, methods.

“If you had to, how would you do it?

She spoke slowly. “People don’t want to work harder. They don’t even want to make more money. They just want security. They want peace. They don’t want to make decisions. They just want to take a pill and feel better.”

“And yet they won’t take adjustment.”

“Oh, they’ll take it if it’s offered by a doctor,” she said. “Offer them free psychiatric treatment. No co-pays. No deductibles. No hassles.”

“They don’t even offer that kind of benefit to me.”

“Have you ever been to a psychiatrist’s office nowadays? They’re quick places: in and out. They see dozens of patients a day. They listen for fifteen minutes and then prescribe one of the standard adjustments.”

“But how do we make sure they get the right course of adjustment?”

“The standard initial treatment for stress involves minute changes to a number of neuroreceptors responsible for concentration. By increasing one’s focus, they eliminate ancillary concerns and anxieties. This procedure, incidentally, results in increases in productivity for familiar, repetitive tasks—at the expense of a concomitant reduction in productivity for complex tasks like cooking, social interaction, and the like.”

She continued: “You would need to make the factory floor into a very stressful place: loud noises, sudden increases in the pace of work, rude and unreasonable demands by foremen… paired with a campaign to notify workers of their generous mental health benefits.”

“So they’ll really adjust themselves?” the vice president said.

“People trust their doctors.”

“And that’s what you do in your little compound?”

“Won’t you please come and see it?” Sasha said. “You wouldn’t believe how much improved your life can be.”

“After you adjust me?”

“No… we wouldn’t adjust you. I think that you’re capable of seeing clearly. You would see the importance of what we’re doing and the importance of doing it well. To do my job, you can’t be satisfied. You have to change yourself the way I changed myself, and those changes don’t make you happier: they make you tougher, hungrier, and angrier.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a deal.”

“It’s exhilarating,” she said. “But it’s also exhausting. I’m not sure how long I can keep juggling seven hundred lives. They have so many demands.”

“You want me to be your ‘dictator’?”

“Eventually.” Sasha needed this to work. She couldn’t bear to ride home with George babbling away. She couldn’t bear another year of staring down the sheep at the general assembly. She needed someone else. She needed a partner.

“You’re the one who needs an escape hatch,” he said. “You do something well, and you love doing it. It’s all the rest of this personal shit that’s dragging you down”.

He took out a business card and wrote something on the back of it. “I know that if I asked for your answer right now, the answer would be no,” he said. “But the factory won’t be built for another six months. I’ll be in touch with you again.”

He slid the card across to her. He’d written: $1.2 mil / year + stock options.

“There you are!” She whipped her head around. George was bearing down on her. His eyes were glassy. He slid in next to her, and put his head on her shoulder as Roger looked on. She was revolted by her husband’s childishness.

George was babbling, “I thought about what you said and I decided to do it. I’ll let you adjust me again. I really do need it, don’t I? I’m so, so, so sorry about how I acted earlier. Please adjust me again. You have to do it, you really do. I’m, I’m not acting right, the way I am now.”

Roger’s expression mutated. His smile twisted. He nodded at a waiter and gestured for the check, but as George babbled on, the vice president slowly looked back at them.

Sasha pushed George off her. “This is my husband, George.”

“You… adjust him, too?” Roger said. His voice was soft.

George was looking around with his wide-open, babyish stare.

“Are you married?” she said.

“Three times,” Roger said. “But not right now.”

“Maybe they would have lasted, if you’d gone in for adju—”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I ever would have done that.” He looked at his watch.

“It’s what he wanted,” Sasha said. George was happily unaware of Roger’s presence. He was still sitting there, waiting to be petted for having made the right decision.

“If your successor has to be willing to do things like that, then I think she will be very hard to find,” Roger said. His hand was moving, perhaps unconsciously, toward the business card he’d left on the table. He looked down, and then pulled his hand away.

Roger got up, opened his wallet, threw four twenty dollar bills on the table, and was five feet away before he stopped. “Please call me,” he said. “We still need you. Your personal life is… it will stay your own business.”

The vice president hurried out.

George’s mouth was hanging open. Sasha smiled weakly at him. This was the man she loved. Not as much as he loved her, of course, but still… they’d made an agreement to love each other. He’d come to the farm eleven years ago, just as she was finishing her apprenticeship in the adjustment clinic. He’d stopped shooting up by then, but he was still drinking heavily. He’d been so handsome and so intelligent, but he’d broken so many promises to her. He’d sworn he was going to follow in her footsteps. He’d clean himself up using willpower, and then he’d help her with the leadership roles that had, even then, been forced onto her shoulders. But she’d gotten tired of how long he was taking. She’d persuaded him to accept adjustment. And then, while he was going through the first pangs of withdrawal, she’d told him that they should agree to love each other forever. He’d trusted her enough to let her do whatever she wanted. That hadn’t been a lie: the person who’d trusted her was the real George, the unadjusted George.

If she had so much willpower, then why had she been unable to resist destroying him?

Sasha pocketed Roger’s card. She hoped that George’s original personality was still stored somewhere in her files. She’d put him back together before she left.

Rahul KanakiaRahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, the Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In the fall of 2012, he will be starting a Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He also serves as a First Reader for Strange Horizons. He currently lives in Oakland, where he works as an international development consultant. You can follow him on his blog, Blotter Paper, and/or his twitter feed.

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