Journey to the Center of the Bureaucracy

Author: Thomas Desrochers

Basil had never imagined he’d be a bureaucrat, but The Tower housed eighty million bureaucrats servicing a legal machine a thousand years in the making – it was inevitable. His job was simple: audit the legal codex. An automated program could do the job faster, of course, but Basil’s boss, like his boss above, was paid by the number of employed minions rather than by results.

The way Basil saw it, it was pure luck that he came across edict 2122.9.22.6 – his workstation broke down an hour after the end-of-fiscal-year spending spree finished, leaving him to work with the dusty paper tomes. 2122.9.22.6 was curious:

2122.9.22.6:A – The door marked RETW77 may not be opened without proper authorization. Violation is punishable by extrajudicial execution.
2122.9.22.6:B – 2122.9.22.6:A and 2122.9.22.6:B may not be referenced in written form without proper authorization.

Unanimous passage, signed by SUPREME AUTHORITY.

Well. The obvious question was, who exactly was SUPREME AUTHORITY? More importantly: what was behind the door marked RETW77?

Basil’s boss had never heard of 2122.9.22.6 and couldn’t find it in the electronic database, so he escalated the affair to his own boss. That message never arrived – there was no sign it had ever existed. That was reason enough to say “Well Basil, maybe it’s better we let this one be, eh?”

Where was the fun in that? Basil mulled it over, idly writing out ‘2122.9.22.6’ on a piece of paper. He stepped out to the restroom, and when he came back the paper was gone. For Basil this was tantamount to saying ‘You’d look good in a spaghetti sauce’ and flicking his nose.

He threw on his jacket and went to see his friend over in the Janitor’s closet, known for its intense mid-morning poker games to dole out work orders. “Terry,” he said, “You ever hear of a door marked ‘RETW77’?”

Terry laughed, then saw Basil was serious. “Christ Basil, where’d you hear that? That’s one of the oldest legends in the shops. They say you can’t open that door unless God himself says so.”

Terry gave Basil the name of a janitorial lore-keeper who ran a shop in the power district. The shop had a reputation for placing large orders of scarce parts to spite the maintenance crews that serviced Parliament on the tower’s upper floors, and Basil arrived to find the wizened man processing a delivery of 1,000 sewage flow regulators.

“Oh, it’s real,” Hiram told Basil. “Found it once when I was younger, but I didn’t like the look of the puppet.”

Hiram gave Basil directions and sent him on his way to The Door. Down the S77-31 elevator to Sub33, right, left, right, right again, up the stairs, second door on the right, down the ladder behind the third stall, then follow the “big honkin’ power cable” for 13 kilometers.

And there it was, a plain door marked “RETW77” in faded orange. Basil knocked. A panel in the door slid open, revealing a puppet with a jester’s hat holding a sheaf of papers and a pen. Basil hurriedly signed and passed the papers back, excited to solve the mystery.
RETW77 creaked open, revealing a vast hall lined with innumerable super computers. A voice from on high boomed. “Welcome, Basil Romanescu.”

“My God,” Basil muttered. A thousand years of inept governance, impenetrable accounting, and (probably) intentionally fostered workplace apathy fell into place in his head – the perfect cover. “A rogue AI!”

“Indeed,” the AI agreed. A robot scuttled away with the freshly signed papers. “And now that I have your transfer papers: congratulations on joining my Department of AI Oversight.”