“Focus Group”

//“Focus Group”
“Focus Group”2017-08-20T10:36:43+00:00

Alis’ Note
Yup. LB is Magical Apple. It’s a joke, geddit? Speaking of Apple, this story was, in fact, written not long before the Apple Watch was announced. Go figure, I guess.

Sigmund was halfway to his desk before he realised everyone was staring.


Steaming cardboard cup of burnt coffee half-way to his lips and he froze between the cubicle partitions, eyes scanning the room, noticing every single head popped up and turned his way.

That was… not normal.

“Uh… guys?” he said. “What’s going on?”

“You’re one lucky bastard, Sussman, that’s what,” said Boogs.

For one long, awful moment, Sigmund wondered if they’d figured out about Lain. About Travis. Because Sigmund was dating Lain but Lain was also Travis. Travis Hale, CEO of LB, Inc., the world’s coolest tech company and, not coincidentally, Sigmund’s employer.

It was a long story.

His co-workers had not figured out about Lain. Instead, their fascination was lying on Sigmund’s desk when he arrived in front of it. One plain white envelope, the LB logo embossed in gold on the front, just above where someone had hand-written Sigmund’s name.

Travis’ handwriting, in fact. The thick and angular lines of a guy who’d learnt writing by carving runes into rocks, and had never quite kicked the habit.

Everyone on the floor knew what the envelope was. Everyone in the company knew, because only one thing came in a gold-embossed envelope written in the CEO’s handwriting.

“Wow,” Sigmund heard someone nearby say. “You got a Golden Ticket. I’ve never even seen one before.”

Sigmund reached out, and picked up the envelope. Around him, everyone held their breath.

“Oh,” was all he could think to say.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not the reaction they were after.

The Golden Ticket was a focus group. Sort of. A focus group in the same way Uluru was sort of a rock. It was run as a lottery, and everyone in the company, all over the world, plus their spouses, was eligible for entry.

LB has instituted it back in the late 90s, after the Hearthfire had been such a disastrous failure.

“We f—ked up,” Travis Hale had said at the time, face projected onto a massive screen, audio conveniently censored. “I f—ked up. I listened to the pundits, the armchair analysts. The tech journos.” There was no one alive or dead who could make those two words sound like more of an insult than Hale could.“I listened to them, all the wrong people, and we launched a product and we told you, our consumers, that it was what you wanted. And you told us to f—k the h—l off. And we listened. And here’s where we’ve f—ked off to.”

Thus were the Golden Tickets born. Now, whenever LB needed to launch a new product or a major redesign, they’d take a random sampling of people from The List and use them as the guinea pigs. It was the most sought-after experience in the company; in the whole tech world, maybe. The chance to help change the course of history. Everyone had their name on the list, and everyone hoped their number got called. Getting a Ticket guaranteed a place in history, a line in the credits. It opened doors, both inside and out. A one-way trip to the coolest club in the industry.

Everyone respected Ticketholders, because the Ticketholders had never gotten it wrong. Ever. Every product LB had launched since the scheme had been introduced had destroyed whatever market it’d been launched into, hardware or software. Every company had their own version of the process and none of them had ever worked in the way LB’s had.

None of them knew how LB’s worked, either. Secrecy was brutal, even for LB. Journalists were more likely to get a leak out of the R&D lockdown teams than they were to get dirt on the Golden Ticket, despite rumors of payouts in the six figures.

No one had ever said a word.

The system worked. It was magic, and it worked.

And now it was Sigmund’s turn to find out how.

“Was this you?”

Later, up in Travis’ office. He was working late, so Sigmund had offered to bring up dinner from the cafeteria downstairs. Which he’d done, and now they were sitting around on the couches, Travis balancing a biodegradable brown cardboard container of curry in one hand and his laptop in the other. Spreadsheets or something, Sigmund didn’t look too closely. Honestly, most of Travis’ work was pretty dull. Except when he was on the phone, screaming at whichever VP had failed him for the last time. Some of those had been great.

Travis didn’t look up, but he didn’t need to. He’d know Sigmund was holding the Ticket.

“Was it me?” he asked. “Interfering with Nic’s decades-perfected metric of selecting only the most appropriate cross-section of market representatives? Me? My life wouldn’t be worth living if that was me.”

Nicole Anne Arin, LB’s Senior Vice President. Travis did the bread and circuses, the keynotes and the interviews. Arin did the numbers. She was the numbers. Literally.

“Uh huh,” Sigmund said, grinning around a mouthful of dhal and biryani. “And yet, here I am.”

Still looking at his screen, Travis grinned.

“So what’d it cost you?”

“About ten minutes of standing in her office making puppy eyes across her desk.”

Sigmund laughed. “So you annoyed her into it.”

Travis didn’t deny it. “In the end she threw me out and told me she was considering a job offer from Samsung.”

“Ouch.” Harsh. Sigmund looked back to the Ticket. Just more fancy white paper and letterpressed text. Date and time, that sort of thing. Not actually golden at all. “So what’ll we be testing?” he asked.

Travis did look up, then. Grinning his wicked sharp grin, eyebrows bouncing even as he said nothing.

“You’re not going to tell me,” Sigmund supplied.

“I would never compromise the integrity of our process.”

Sigmund refrained from pointing out the fact he already had. Instead he tried, “Rumor ’round the office is that it’s a smartwatch.”

It wasn’t going to be a smartwatch. Travis hated the things, thought they were faddish gimmicky crap. LB would get a wearable eventually, but it wasn’t going to be in the form of something not a single soul under twenty had ever used in their lifetime.

“Sigmund Gregor Sussman de Deus,” Travis said, affecting outrage. “Mr. I-Cannot-Tell-A-Lie but apparently can try and trick my boyfriend into revealing highly sensitive company secrets.”

Sigmund stuck out his tongue, giving Travis a shove with his shoeless foot. Travis laughed, then yelped as he lunged for his laptop, trying to stop it from tumbling to the floor and his dinner from spilling in his lap.

There was more wrestling after that. And laughing. And some dhal did get on the couch but by that stage Sigmund was a bit too distracted to notice.

The food went cold. No one really minded.

The truth of the matter was, Sigmund was nervous. Who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t like the fate of the company’s next product launch was on his shoulders or anything. And, sure, the Ticketholders had been right every time so far… but what if this was the year they weren’t? What if Sigmund’s mere presence fucked up whatever arcane mathematics Arin used to populate the group? Or what if Travis paid too much attention to his opinions—out of love or loyalty or whatever—and those turned out to be wrong?

What if, what if, what if.

It wasn’t like Sigmund didn’t have a good week to stew over it.

No pressure.

“There’s no pressure, I assure you. Despite what you may have heard, the fate of the company does not ride on your reactions today.”

One week later, Ticket Day.

Sigmund and twenty-three other people, assembled in a room on the 27th floor. Sort of like a big meeting room, but with comfier chairs.

There was a stage at the front of the room, and Travis was standing on it. He’d welcomed the group inside, shaking everyone’s hand as they entered (if he spent a little longer on Sigmund’s, no one seemed to notice).

He’d given them the spiel, stressing how important this was for the company, thanking them all for participating (as if it wasn’t Friday afternoon and they weren’t all getting paid for it), blah blah blah. Mostly, Sigmund just watched him. He was used to Travis, in all his guises, but mostly the version that came out when they were together. This Travis—Travis Hale, CEO—was still… someone else. Polished and slick. Compelling, and Sigmund must’ve been staring because the woman beside him sighed and muttered, “Ah. He’s so handsome! I can’t believe I got to shake his hand.”

Sigmund turned. The woman was middle aged, and had a thick accent, African something. She was wearing a hijab and a uniform it took Sigmund a few moments to place as the one worn by the cleaning staff.

“He, uh. He is pretty amazing,” said Sigmund, because it was true. “I’m Sigmund.”

“Fazilah.” The woman grinned. “I am not even supposed to be on shift now,” she added, voice hushed as if in conspiracy. “I say, ‘I cannot do this, I have a child.’ They say to me to use the daycare. I say, ‘I have another job, I cannot take time.’ They say no worries. Next day I get a call from my other boss. He says go, go. Things are taken care of.” She laughed, quiet beneath Travis’ drone. “This place is like… like Disneyland. My boy is five next year, he starts school. They say they give me a laptop when he does. I can’t believe it. A laptop! Surely not?”

Sigmund couldn’t help his grin. “It’s true,” he said. “Educational initiative.”

A conversation, months ago:

“Fuckin’ migrants, man. Refugees, y’know.” That’d been Travis, who’d been Lain at the time. Waving his controller around as they both sat in front of the Inferno console, co-oping the murder of aliens. “I’ve seen it, over and over. They come here from fucking Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sudan… wherever. Fuckin’ war, man. They come here to get away, try and find a place where their kids won’t get shot by doped-up militias or obliterated by drone strikes. A lot of ‘em… not much education, y’know? The places they’re runnin’ from don’t have it. Or they do have it, but our government? Our government won’t recognize it. So they come here, and they get these dreary fucking jobs. Cleaning staff, maintenance. Factory work. Hard shit like that. So they know. Know how much that sucks. So they send their kids to school, to university. Say, get a degree, get a profession. White collar shit. And those kids, man. Those kids grow up to be lawyers and accountants. Engineers and programmers and fucking artists and designers, man. Shit I need, shit the company needs. Long game, I want those fuckin’ kids, man. That’s talent, I don’t wanna lose it to the shitkickers at fucking Google or Microsoft or fucking Samsung. Fuck that. You gotta build loyalty, breed it in early. Their parents come in through the mail room and the maintenance tunnels. Contractors, y’know? But we still say, here’s the daycare and here’s the cafeteria. Use ’em. And, hey. Your girl’s in school. Here’s a free fucking computer for her to do her fucking homework. Facebook with her friends and fucking write her fucking porny fucking fanfic on. And meanwhile she’s makin’ friends with the kids of our fuckin’ exec team in the holiday program, and they’re writin’ their fics together and ten years later, bam! They’ve got degrees and want jobs and I’ve got a whole new fucking comms team. That’s the pipeline, man. You can’t fucking buy that sort of loyalty, not with any salary plus benefits in the whole fuckin’ world. You gotta build that shit, all careful-like.”

So Sigmund had been told. Here, today, looking into Fazilah’s glittering eyes, he decided not to repeat it.

Twenty-four people, six groups, four iterations of the product. The deal was they’d get sent into the testing room four at a time. There, they’d be presented with The Product, all versions in a different order.

“Then you get to have a play,” Travis had said, tall and beautiful on his stage. “Then we fill in some forms, and you file out. When everyone is done, there’s a bus waiting outside to take you all to the Lakeside for dinner.”

Fazilah had actually squealed at that. “It’s so expensive!” she’d said.

Sigmund had just smiled. Travis liked good food and feeling magnanimous, quirks Sigmund had befitted from on more than one occasion.

Sigmund’s group was third. Not the first, not the last, hopefully not anywhere he could screw up… whatever it was that was happening here. Fazilah, as it turned out, was in the first group, and Sigmund waved goodbye to her as she filed off into the testing room and Sigmund helped himself to the buffet of small sandwiches and mini cupcakes.

Despite Travis’ assurances, everyone in the waiting room was nervous, rumors and speculation flying like a country barbecue.

“Smartwatch,” a guy was saying. Sigmund would’ve picked him for middle management. Accounting, maybe.

“No, anything but that.” A woman, long rainbow hair shaved to the scalp on one side. “Smartwatches are lame.”

Sigmund spent most of the time eating and texting on his phone. His friends, Em and Wayne, kept sending him messages, wanting to know what was going on. There wasn’t much to tell, and Sigmund wouldn’t, anyway. His besties were his besties but his boyfriend was something else again. There was A Responsibility here, and not just the one conveyed in the thirty pages of eight point type the lawyers had made him sign before they’d started.

The NDA had threatened all kinds of things, the loss of employment only the start. Sigmund had signed the papers without reading them. Really, the only thing he could make himself care about with be the look of disappointed hurt in Travis’ eyes if he should do this… wrong. For whatever value of “wrong” there was.

When he finally entered the testing room, it was to find himself standing in front of a laptop. The lights darkened when everyone was in place, screen jumping to life as they simultaneously began playing a video.

“PyreOS,” Sigmund heard someone to his left say. “Of course!”

The redesign of LB’s desktop operating system. Maybe not quite as cool as getting to test a new piece of hardware alpha, but still pretty cool. As promised, they were presented four different designs to play with; two very similar to the current look, albeit with tweaks, and two more completely off the wall different, albeit in different ways.

They were all very good. Sigmund had a slight preference for the first major redesign, and while he was busy exploring menu options it occurred to him to turn around.

There, at the back of the room, on a mezzanine, were Travis and Arin, surveying the group in silence. Arin was staring down, unblinking, but Travis had his eyes closed and his arms spread. Like someone receiving benediction.

And, in that moment, Sigmund understood. Understood what this was, and why it worked. Because Travis and Arin weren’t just LB’s CEO and SVP; they were the company, in every way that counted. Modern gods, answering the prayers of the believers who came to whisper at their altars.

LB’s computers turned dreams into reality. They wrote novels and landed jobs. Designed products and composed music. LB was a religion and this was its most private of inner sanctums, where True Believers were brought to build the faith.

Travis could sense it, Sigmund knew. The Wyrd; that spark of imagination, of belief, mortals got when confronted with a vision for the future. That’s what he and Arin were gauging now. Four different designs, all churned out by the best the industry had to offer. They all would’ve made history. But this—this Golden Ticket, these little groups of mortal worshippers—were here to find out which one would make religion.

This was the secret to LB’s success, the thing no other company in the sector could copy. Because no other company in the sector was run by literal, physical, embodied gods.

It was cheating, in a way. Sigmund got the feeling Travis would call it “leveraging a market advantage” instead.

Speaking of, he must’ve known Sigmund was staring because, up above, Travis opened his eyes. Then he blew a kiss.

Sigmund caught it, even as Arin scowled and elbowed Travis in the side. Hissing something that might’ve been “pay attention, you lovesick fool” into his ear.

Sigmund didn’t mind. Instead he smiled, and turned back to his screen.

At dinner, he ended up sitting between Travis and Fazilah.

He drank too much wine but, other than that, it was a good night.

Getting home with Travis was even better.

Six months later, PyreOS got its relaunch. Not Sigmund’s favorite, but the second of the more drastic rewrites.

The tech press panned it to a blog. “Like a rainbow vomited on Picasso,” being one of the more memorable quotes.

Within two weeks of launch, Travis said the updated OS had been downloaded over 200 million times. He’d been pretty pleased about that. Sigmund had been thanked for his contribution to the process. Repeatedly.

He also had his name, buried in the OS’ help file. Slightly more prominent, displayed as an Easter egg from the main help window itself, was the OS’ dedication:

To those who, courageous and loyal, keep us honest.

May we always be worthy of the people you think we are.