A gun on the table between us. We could both walk out alive if we wanted, but how were we supposed to trust that’s what the other was thinking too?
What would you like to be when you grow up? An astronaut? A captain of industry? How about a TV producer? Well here’s what you have to do: study real hard so you can get into a good college. Then keep on studying, all the way until you get your degree.
Student loans? Don’t worry about it. You’ll be making plenty of money in your career, so why stress about paying with your minimum wage now? Looking for a job? No problem! You’re an expert in the field you’ve chosen. The places you want to work are going to chase after YOU to work for THEM!
Sound familiar? Yeah, well I fell for it too. Four years out of college and I haven’t used my chemistry degree for anything besides mixing drinks. At first I wanted to be on the cutting edge of biomedical research, but now I’d settle for any somewhat relevant job at a pharmaceutical company. Hell, I’d even hand out drugs at the convenience store if they’d let me.
It wasn’t just the money either. It was about that look my friends gave me when I solved a complex problem that flew over their heads. Or the excitement of my new class schedule, or the pride in my parent’s faces when they introduced their future chemist to their friends. Science wasn’t just a future plan for me: it was my identity. It’s not my dream that’s dying every day at the bar. It’s just that every day that passes makes it that much harder to answer the question “who are you?”
Until I got an offer. The offer. The dad of a friend whose brother I knew from – doesn’t matter where. It was a tech startup with real investors. No experience required, paid on-the-job training. I was going to have an office with one of those fancy little name plaques on the door. I was going to have title, and a salary, and sick days and health care and 401k and everything!
The CEO and I hit it off really well too. At first I was terrified to ask questions that might betray my inexperience, but he was easy going and seemed more interested in my personality than my qualifications. Loyalty, he stressed over and over again, that’s all he cared about. Everything else you can teach.
“We don’t expect to make any money off the new hires,” he explained, “but a good man who’s been here ten years is worth more to me than ten great men giving a year each.”
That’s why the first day on the job wasn’t a tour of the facilities or an analysis of our knowledge. We were going on a company team building exercise right off the bat. Big rope and obstacle course that we were supposed to help each other through, doing exercises like trust falls and listening to motivational talks. What’s not to like about a field trip on your first day?
There were ten of us going taking two separate SUVs. It was a pretty long drive into the woods where the camp was, but it gave me a chance to get to know the other employees. A lot of fresh faces like myself, right out of college and desperate to prove themselves. At first I was a bit incredulous that this much money and trust was being placed in a newbie team, but the CEO told us it made sense from a long-term perspective. How are you going to have lifelong employees if you don’t catch them early? And who is going to be more loyal than the guy who was given his first shot to follow his dream?
All ten of us were gathered in a cabin while the CEO gave his talk. Five tables faced the front, two to each table. You wouldn’t have found better spirits on a campus that had just canceled the final exams in favor of an impromptu music festival. And the CEO just fed the fire, talking about the cutting edge research facilities with secured funding both private and government. Gene manipulation, panacea medicine, even immortality – humanity was on the tipping point into a futuristic age, and we were going to be the ones to make it happen.
“Now I hope you all understand why I value loyalty so highly,” he lectured. “Before any of you have reached middle aged, pending discoveries are likely to double the average lifespan. We aren’t a company, we’re a family, and that’s a bond for life. Now here comes the hard part.”
He turned his laptop to display the draft of a news article. Five fatalities in deadly SUV accident. It was the same type of car we drove here in.
“Feelings, promises, even oaths – it’s a fragile thing to build a company on that’s going to last a hundred years,” he said. “I like to have a little more insurance than that. So this is how we’re going to play.”
He walked around the room, placing a handgun on each of the five tables. Tension rippled through the room in a wave of rigid posture and fixated eyes. I chanced a glance at the person beside me – blonde girl, mid-twenties, eyes like saucers. I can’t imagine her ever holding a gun in her life. What kind of screwed up team-building exercise was this? The CEO didn’t say another word until all the guns were handed out, each positioned right in the center of the table.
“The rules are simple,” he said, face quivering with excitement. “When I say go, the first person to shoot the other one at their table gets a job. No going easy either – I want a clean head-shot. If you just wound them, then you don’t have the job yet. We’re going to go one table at a time so everyone else can stay safe and avoid collateral damage.”
One of the girls made a nervous giggle and rolled her eyes. I guess she didn’t think he was serious, not until he snapped the gun up from her table and blasted a hole through the window. No-one made a sound after that.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” he asked the girl, bending low over the table to put his face up against hers. She shook her head vehemently. Grinning, the CEO pulled away and continued to pace the room.
“We’re going to make it look like the five who died were in a car accident,” he said. “Those who remain are the kind of people I want to have around. And yes, each killing will be recorded, just in case you change your mind down the road. Like I said, insurance.”
“You’re crazy if you think any of us are actually going to do that!” the blonde girl beside me said, her voice cracking when the CEO turned. “We’ll just walk away. Find our own way home if you want to. Nobody would want to work for a company like this!”
“If you believe that; if you really believe that there aren’t people in this room who are willing to do whatever it takes to make their dreams come true, then you should have nothing to fear when it’s your turn. If neither of you shoots, then neither of you get the job. You can both go home.”
She smiled tentatively at me, and I returned it. Good news. I got the pacifist at my table. Unless it was all an act to get the jump on me. Or she didn’t trust me – a complete stranger – and decided to shoot first just to save her own skin. The smile hardened in her face. We’re all educated people here. This was game theory, plain and simple. And even in university level studies, there was always going to be someone who chose to screw the other over just to be safe. Now with life on the line, that was going to be even more evident.
“We’re all going to be fine then!” the blonde girl said. “Everybody agree not to shoot, okay? If no-one shoots then we pass. It’s just a test.”
“Table one!” The CEO bellowed. “Everyone else out of the room for your own safety. To those playing: don’t move a muscle until I say go, or I’ll shoot you myself. Let’s move people.”
Everyone except Table 1 and the CEO exited the room. Some of us plastered against the windows to peak inside, but I just pressed my back to the wall in case of stray bullets. The blonde girl wouldn’t shut up. I know she meant well, but I was so stressed that it just got under my skin. We’re going to be fine, she kept saying. No-one is going to shoot. They’re probably just BB guns anyway. That would have still broken the window, but it won’t kill –
“Go!” he shouted from inside. A gunshot. Almost simultaneously. The people at the window blanched and leaped away.
The CEO opened the door and we couldn’t help but look inside. One was dead on the ground, a pool of blood spreading from his head. The other was holding the gun, violently shaking where he stood over the body.
“He moved first!” the survivor desperately shouted. “I had to! He would have shot me, I swear!”
“Table 2, you’re up! Everyone else out.”
The two girls looked at each other, both smiling meekly. They were holding each other’s hands and exchanging promises as the rest of us went back out. Maybe they wouldn’t do it. Then again, that first gunshot was still echoing in our ears: a grim reminder of the price of trust.
Another gunshot. And another, and another, and another. When the door opened again, only one of the girls was still standing. She didn’t even make an excuse. She just shrugged, dropping the gun on the corpse riddled with holes.
I was the next one up. The blonde girl across from me. The gun between us. Everyone else had left the room except the CEO. He was flushed red and sweating, but there was a grin plastered on his face as he savored the moment before the game started.
“We’re going to get through this,” she told me for the hundredth time. “I trust you. Do you trust me?” I nodded, although of course I didn’t. Not after what I had already seen. Not after what was at stake. I didn’t even know if I could pull the trigger when I pointed it at her. I still didn’t know what I was going to do, right up to the moment he said “Go!”
We both held our breath. I saw her finger twitch, but then she shook her head. I crossed my arms to show I wasn’t going to touch it. Five seconds. Ten. Her fingers were dancing haphazard rhythms on the table. I uncrossed my arms, just in case she did go for it and I’d need a chance to react. Too late. She already had the gun, pointing it at my face.
“It’s over,” she said. “I’ve got the gun, and I’m not going to shoot. Neither of us are taking the job.”
“Easy to say when you’re the one with the gun. Is that what he wants too?” I started to answer, but the CEO cut me off by handing me a gun from another table. “Let’s find out together.”
Her finger tightened around the trigger. I already knew she wouldn’t kill me for greed, but what about for self-preservation? It was a game of centimeters as I lowered my gun to the table. Relief flooded across her face. “Sorry,” I told the CEO. “Game’s over.”
I waited until her gun lowered to shoot. Right between the eyes. The CEO’s face lit up like a child on Christmas. “That-a-boy! Good long term planning. Way to keep your head. You’re going to go far here.”
I could feel the hatred on me as I left the cabin, but I didn’t care. The ones who hated me were the ones going to end up dead anyway. Everyone else had no right. If anything, this shared ordeal was going to bind us together. Then again, I was going to work at a company where all my co-workers wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone for their own gain. I guess loyalty to the CEO comes first, and trust was something we were going to have to learn over time.
Five separate games, and by the end, five dead bodies. No-one had been able to walk away. But I guess that’s in the past now. I had a whole lifetime of productive work to make up for what happened. I guess I know who I really am now.
So I guess the question is: what would you do for your dream job?