Desmund could only stare. His jaw hung open and his eyes moved erratically as if searching for something that could help rationalize what was happening. The small square office was empty. The monitor in front of him watched patiently, the cursor blinking off and on after the last message in rhythmic electronic inhalations. There was a beep and a new line text appeared on screen.
REASON: BUSINESS – OTHER
He sat, hating that he couldn’t try to influence or reason with the machine – which was, of course, one of the main deciding factors in using this new non-interactive approach. With a deep sigh, he wheeled the chair away from the desk and, hoping his shaking legs could bear his weight, tentatively stood. His knees threatened to buckle, but didn’t, and he realized a cold sweat had soaked his back despite the room being temperate. His shirt clung clammily to his skin, and he pulled at it with a grimace.
This must be a mistake. A mix up? But deep down he knew mistakes like this weren’t possible. He shot one last look at the monitor as it fell into a silent sleep and, on still slightly shaky legs, left the room. Closing the door quietly behind him so as not to receive a Noise Infraction Penalty, a soft bell sounded somewhere above him.
“16518191514 to Human Assets.”
His shoulders slumped.
“Your Financial Testament indicates you request your Career Service Payments to go to Ms. Clara Meltzer,” the bespectacled middle-aged woman perched behind the protective screen said. Her name tag identified her only as Staff Number 21189147. “Birth Patent eleven dash twenty-four dash eight dash ten dash fifty-four?”
“That’s correct.” Desmund paused before adding, “She’s my daughter.”
He didn’t know why he had added that extra piece of information. Perhaps he has hoped it would trigger some kind of emotional response from the hawkish woman but she didn’t even flinch.
“Under Article 34.3, I declare that you have no outstanding debts or citations…and no penalties.” 21189147 took one last scan of the paper and then jabbed a bony finger at it. Desmund saw she wore a wedding ring – a thin, gold band that looked uncomfortably squeezed onto her finger. “Sign here that you affirm.” She pushed the form beneath the glass screen that separated them, her head fixed downward as she fiddled with her necklace.
Desmund noticed it held an old circular engraved locket, no doubt containing a holo or photo of someone beloved and close. He wondered if it would be of the same person who had given her the ring and tried to picture her at home in one of the Company houses, dressed in a large gown and slippers as she regaled how work had been and told stories from her day.
She caught him watching and stopped fiddling with it. Clearing her throat, she turned her head away.
Desmund scribbled his signature in the empty box and pushed the form back through the mail slot.
The Human Asset Records Technician snatched it back as soon as enough of it had poked through, and hammered down three different stamps with well-versed precision. She slid the paper into his Personnel Folder and looked back at him. The halogens overhead buzzed wearily.
“And your time keeper.”
Desmund stared back, wondering if it had been a question he had somehow missed.
21189147 rolled her eyes with a tut and tapped her wrist.
“Oh.” Desmund shrugged the silver watch off. “Forgot I was even wearing it.”
He fingered it one last time. It had been given him when he first joined the company, and now it was old –scratched, weathered and beaten – but still worked and hadn’t let him down in all the years he’d been wearing it. It had been the silent organizer and orchestrator of almost all the major events in his life, and the wear and tear etched scarred across its body told a thousand stories and spoke of many adventures. With a heavy heart, he dropped it into the receptacle.
21189147 scooped it up and placed it into a bag. “Korovin-Li Psionics thanks you for your service.”
A roller shutter came down with a crash before he could reply. He was alone.
The tannoy belled. “16518191514 to the Medical Bay.”
“Do you accept the situation?”
The man in the white coat, who had introduced himself as 51316120825, reclined in a plush, leather chair with his legs crossed and brow permanently furrowed. He had closely cropped black hair and bright, white eyes that stood out in stark contrast to his dark skin and Desmund felt uneasy under their unwavering gaze, like a thirsty flower trying not to wilt in the scorching sun.
The warm and well-furnished office, with its walls lined with bookcases full of rich-smelling leather-bound editions and floor covered with a soft, plush beige carpet, stood in strong contradiction to the man’s coldness. A holographic log fire burnt in the simulated fireplace located in the corner, and a heavy oak desk lazed majestically on the other side of the room.
Desmund’s words scrambled together. “I-I don’t …”
51316120825 held his hand up and Desmund stopped.
“16518191514, do you understand the next steps?” The man spoke slowly and deliberately, as a parent would to a child when repeating something important.
Desmund sighed. The simulated flames licked and danced but no warmth radiated off them. “I understand.”
The company doctor ticked off a box on the Medical Discharge sheet. “Do you have any suicidal feelings or intentions?”
“I didn’t before this meeting.” Desmund flashed a tired smile.
51316120825 looked up and Desmund tried not to squirm as he felt his cheeks redden.
“If you commit any violent or self-harming acts against yourself then your CSP Recipient forfeits all payments.”
Desmund nodded. “I know. I…” he sighed. “…I know.”
51316120825 sat still for a few seconds, then flipped the page over and hovered his pen over an empty box named ANNEX A. “16518191514, if you have any thoughts –”
“No.” Desmund leaned forward, slight panic gripping him. “It was just a joke. I understand the forfeit and the contract. Sorry, I was just trying to…”
Trying to what? Make light of the situation? He turned away and noticed there were photo frames scattered on the desk. Despite most of them facing away from his chair, and towards the plush leather seat, one had been left half turned, as if 51316120825 had been looking at it seconds before being interrupted.
The photo appeared to be the doctor holding a baby aloft in the air as they both grinned, him looking up and the child down, their faces frozen in open-mouthed glee – the kind that only comes from spontaneous outpourings of love that leave indelible, gentle scars forever and a warm feeling inside that almost buzzes. With a sudden rush of sadness, he remembered doing the same thing with Clara when she was a baby.
Desmund looked back at the man. The pen still waited, its nib hanging like a guillotine. The fake fire crackled. Desmund shook his head. “Everything is okay.”
51316120825 eyed him carefully before nodding and returning to the questions overleaf, leaving ANNEX A thankfully empty. He scribbled his signature in the large box titled MEDICAL OFFICER before handing the forms over to Desmund and tapping the wad of papers with his pen.
“Sign here that you understand.”
Desmund smiled as he took the sheet, but 51316120825 didn’t see, busying himself instead with his handheld computer tablet. With another sigh, Desmund signed the box where instructed and offered the papers back.
51316120825 placed them on the desk and reached down to bring up a plastic baggy. “Please hand over your med comm.”
Desmund patted his body until he found the comm in one of his trouser pockets and fished it out. Small and wafer thin, it contained all his medical history from coughs and colds to the operations he’d had and what medication he needed. He had used it more as he had grown older and felt an odd pang of panic as he dropped it in the bag.
Before he could ask what would happen next, the tannoy clicked on with his next destination.
“16518191514, please confirm your Recipient’s Account Number.”
Desmund shifted in the uncomfortable chair as his agitation climbed. The fat, middle-aged man behind the protective screen waited with his hands clasped together, and elbows resting on the counter.
He expected more from the man in front because he actually knew Eric Winder. He’d had meetings with him every six months over the last few years to make sure his documents were in order, and then every three when rumors about the Hack Technology patent being rejected by the Courts began to circulate.
“Eric, you know the Number. We’ve discussed it for the last year and a half.”
Eric’s face darkened, his mouth twitching ever so slightly. “16518191514, under Article 18.56, any and all of our prior discussions, if we had any, are obsolete and cannot be called on to –”
Desmund gritted his teeth. “What do you mean ‘if we had them’?”
Eric stared back, stone-faced, before leaning forward with a jolt that made Desmund jump. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t be so selfish, Desmund,” he hissed. “Do you know there’s a machine being worked on right now that can handle every employee’s Recipient Data simultaneously? Where do you think that leaves us?”
Eric’s eyes moved upward and Desmund followed them to see a small circular black ball watching them both from the ceiling.
“I have a family,” Eric continued in a low voice. “Let me do my job. Help me out. Okay?”
Eric sat back and looked at Desmund with pleading eyes.
Desmund exhaled and nodded. “Okay, Eric.”
“My Recipient’s Account Number is 18K06H2014KV.”
Eric activated his computer holoscreen with a finger flick upward and inputted the Account Number. A spreadsheet full of indecipherable figures, percentages, taxes and sums flashed up. He scanned through the information quickly, checking and adjusting anything he saw that needed it. “Everything’s in order,” he muttered, closing down the screen. He looked at Desmond, nodded, and then in a formal tone added, “The nominated will receive the monthly amount after taxes once Termination is complete and after she activates the Account. She has the Pin?”
Eric’s voice dropped again and his face softened. “Is she coming to see you?”
Desmund shrugged. “I don’t know.” There was a silence before he added, “I hope so.”
Eric nodded and they shared a small silence before his eyes began wandering upwards again. This time he caught them and instead busied himself by stiffly fishing out a sheet of paper from under the desk. He slid it through the dividing screen to Desmund. “Sign here that you understand.”
Desmund took the paper.
The tannoy spoke once again.
The elevator doors slid closed. Desmund reached across to the panel and swiped his card into the reader. The display illuminated and a soft female voice spoke.
“16518191514 to Out-Processing.”
The elevator began to descend and Desmund tried to push encroaching panic away.
Clara won’t come.
The smooth, shiny walls of the Upper Level soon gave way to the dank and old bricks of the Basement, the light growing dimmer and the temperature cooler as he descended. The elevator stopped with a charming ding before there was silence. Despite the quiet, he sensed a tinge of menace in the air, like a faint musty smell that just wouldn’t fully dissipated.
The doors opened and Desmund was greeted by two soldiers clutching rifles. Between them stood a young man with a smooth olive complexion and spotless features. His slicked-back hair, lime green open collar shirt, and confident swagger all dripped with confidence.
“16518191514, I am Processor 821218919. Follow me.”
Desmund stepped out of the elevator and eyed the guards.
The Processor shrugged. “Sometimes this is where it gets a little too real.”
“They’re not going to shoot me, are they?”
The Processor’s gaze softened ever so slightly and he dropped his voice. He took a step closer to Desmund. “Not unless you become a threat. Come on, you’re nearly done.”
821218919 spun on his heels and started down the corridor, prompting Desmund to trot after him as the soldiers fell in behind.
“I’ll get you Processed and then take you to await final completion. If you have any visitors or communications before then, you’ll be notified and asked you if you want to accept.”
After turning into another corridor, they arrived in a small, clean reception area filled with cameras and hovering drones. A large desk jutted out from the wall on the left with three soldiers waiting behind it.
The Processor strode up to them and showed his ID. “Meltzer, D. 16518191514.”
One of the soldiers flicked up his computer screen and tapped in a series of codes. A quiet series of bleeps followed and the guard nodded then reached beneath the counter to bring out a plastic grey tray. He pointed at Desmund, then motioned him forward. “Everything on you – keys, phones, pens, money, cards – everything needs to go in here. Then stand over there so we can scan you.”
He gestured to a spot on the floor under an ugly black machine clinging to the ceiling like some sort of alien, mechanical spider. It was unnervingly silent, as if hibernating.
“When you’re ready,” the Processor turned to Desmund, “step over there and stand in the centre. It’s nothing dangerous or invasive – you won’t even feel it.”
But,” he levelled a finger at Desmund, “don’t move until it’s complete or we’ll have to go again.” He turned and walked away, disappearing through a small door labeled ‘Safe Room’.
After emptying his pockets of the almost embarrassing lack of personal objects, Desmund walked over to the Scanner, stopping when his feet lined up with two stenciled footprints on the floor. He craned his head up to try and get a better look at the machine. A mess of thick black wires, circular glass lenses and heavy plated armor greeted his gaze and made him shudder.
The machine whirled into life. Desmund jumped, squeezing his eyes shut as a bright spotlight from above shone down. An odd warmth, accompanied by a quiet hum, crept across his body. After half a minute or so, the light vanished and the machine clunked off. He opened his eyes just as 821218919 reappeared, tapping busily his tablet.
“You’re clean. Follow me to the Facility for hand over.”
Desmund opened his mouth but 821218919 was already making his way down the corridor.
After taking a series of turns, they came to a massive, heavily fortified steel door. Computer monitors were mounted on either side with an armed guard stood beside each. The Processor approached one of the monitors and scanned his card. After a brief pause, the holographic face of a man appeared.
“821218919 with 16518191514 Meltzer D. Ready for hand over.”
The hologram seemed to check something off screen. “Confirmed. Proceed.”
821218919 turned to Desmund. “This is where I get off.” He extended his tablet. “Sign here.”
The Facility door groaned open.
“Remove all company property and place it in this sack.”
The woman dropped a large burlap sack on the floor then linked her hands behind her back as Desmund stood in the small, metal windowless cell, unsure of how to start. He ignored her and glanced around, fighting to quell his growing uneasy concern.
A bunk fixed to the wall on his left caught his eye and he ran his gaze over it, seeing thin, rolled up white sheets stacked at the foot and a single slim white pillow waiting at the head. A metal combined toilet and sink sat in the corner behind him. His feeling of concern grew and he turned to find the woman staring at him. Clearing his throat, he waved a hand down his front.
“These are issued but –”
“All company property is to be returned.”
Desmund stood for a second, the halogen lights overhead casting a dull judgmental glow down on him. Moving slowly, he bent down and slipped off his black loafers with a clatter. He scooped them up, plucked his socks off, and opened the sack, dropping them inside.
He added his shirt into the sack, the hairs on his arms and shoulders standing on end at the cold draught sweeping in under the door. His skin goose pimpled as his fingers worked his belt open and he unfastened his trousers, letting them fall before stepping out and also dropping them in. He rose back to full height and stood there awkwardly.
The woman’s face hardened. “Underwear.”
Desmund stared back at her and fingered the elastic band on his shorts.
She watched and waited.
Taking a gulp, he dropped his underwear to the floor. After placing them in the sack, he stepped back, his feet slapping on the cold floor, and stood with his arms hanging down by his side. His body shivered, wracked with cold.
“Turn around full circle.”
Desmund complied. Something made a sound behind him and he turned to see a bundle of white overalls on the suite floor. The woman had scooped up the sack and was tying it closed with a thick rope.
“Put those on,” she nodded at the overalls. Slinging the sack over her shoulder, she unlocked the suite door, letting more cold air blow in.
Desmund hugged himself without realizing it as his teeth began to chatter.
“Termination will be in ten hours.”
The cell door closed and he was alone again.
He didn’t know the time. The only sounds were the slap of his bare feet on the cold floor. The white coveralls he wore were paper thin and had already torn when he’d stretched too much or too quickly.
His stomach growled but he pushed his discomfort away and wondered how long it had been. There was no way to tell and he decided it didn’t matter. She would come and that was all that mattered now.
Bright light hurt his eyes as he cracked them open. He’d been dreaming, he was sure of that, but didn’t know what about. The dream had vanished like fast-moving smog and he forced himself to sit up and tried to gain his bearings. He saw there was a small tray on the floor by the door.
Moving carefully, Desmund approached it and saw there were two pills on it along with a small paper container of water. He plucked the pills up in his fingers and inspected them. One was Adenosirox Lacset, or Belly Filler, as it was more commonly known. The other was Dorzodocet, a hydration tablet.
He considered them both with a grimace and went to place them back down when his stomach rumbled again. When had he last eaten? It must have been in the morning, whenever that had been.
His stomach growled again and, with a scowl, he swallowed the Adenosirox and chased it with a swallow of water. It was chalky and he struggled to force it down but, when he did, his stomach quietened, placated for now.
He moved back to the bed with the small half cup of water and the Dorzodocet. He sat and winced as the coolness of the bunk seeped through the thin sheet and chilled his thighs. He swallowed the Dorzodocet and washed it down with the rest of the water then lay and tried to sleep again.
It was a long while before he managed it.
Desmund heard the voice but it was disconnected and ethereal, coming from somewhere far away and intangible. He snorted and rolled over but rough hands pulled him to his feet and the world tilted. His eyes were mostly gummed shut from sleep and he blinked to try and clear them. He rubbed a hand over his face and felt stubble.
After a few seconds of groggy disorientation, his vision cleared and he saw there were three people in the room with him – two soldiers, cold eyed and dressed in perfectly pressed khaki uniforms, and a third standing behind them, robed with a white coat and carrying a clipboard. Long hair grew wildly off the man’s head and thin wire-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his nose. His name tag announced him as 20855144.
“What time is it?” Desmund muttered, still dragging himself back to the waking world.
“It’s time,” the white-coated man replied gently. His face was not that old and yet deep lines criss-crossed it like canyons of worry.
Desmund swallowed. He was awake now. “Time for what?”
20855144 didn’t answer but the silence held its own truth and an icy ball of dread hardened in Desmund’s belly. “My daughter hasn’t come yet…”
20855144’s eyes met Desmund’s briefly before he nodded and then stepped out of the room.
As the man left, the two soldiers stepped forward and grabbed Desmund by the arms – the same arms he had used to hold Clara aloft when she was a baby. Locking him up tight, they began dragging him towards the door.
“Wait, no!” He tried to gain purchase, to fight, to stop moving, but his feet slid along the floor.
The soldiers tightened their grips.
The door drew closer.
“She’s coming!” Desmund screamed, hearing the high-pitched hysteria in his own voice but not caring. “She’s on her way!”
He tried to grab hold of the door frame but the soldiers were too strong. With a last despairing cry, he was bundled out of the room and into a long white corridor, empty of everything except 20855144 and an old, steel wheelchair.
Desmund battled to remain upright as the soldiers tried to force him into the chair. His lungs burned, a sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead but he still fought. There was something final about being put in the chair that terrified him.
A sharp stab on his shoulder brought him up short, and, as all strength flooded out of him, he saw 20855144 step back, a hypo needle in his hand. Reality swam crazily away and the corridor became a dreamy world where the walls breathed and a comforting warmth smothered him. He stopped fighting.
“Just try to relax,” he heard a faraway voice say.
Desmund sank willingly into the chair, marveling at its comfort, then watched as the corridor began to move past. He stared with wide-eyed interest at the many doors on either side that went by and wondered what was inside them. His head lolled on his shoulders and he felt something cold and wet on his chin. The corridor seemed to stretch to infinity and the world swayed around him, alive and mesmerizing as if he were underwater.
After a few more twists and turns, they arrived at a single door with a small circular red light above it appeared before him. It opened as if expecting him. A large bed surrounded with strange machines lay in wait and he stared at it hungrily. The bed looked invitingly comfortable and he suddenly felt very tired.
Something or someone helped him out of the chair and gently onto the soft mattress. Plastered above him on the ceiling were a myriad of paintings and drawings, each with a dazzling array of different colors. They all breathed as if alive, and the various figures in them moved, and danced, and skipped like he was watching a vidcom. Desmund’s gaze flickered from one painting to another, stopping on one of a man and a woman arm in arm walking by a lake. He looked closer, watching the water rippling and the wind tussling their hair gently.
Desmund barely heard. He watched the man and woman in the painting and smiled to himself. A father – yes. And his daughter. He barked out a laugh as something fixed firmly over his mouth and nose. There was a hiss and he smelt something unfamiliar. The paintings bled into one another and started to fade as his eyelids grew heavy. He was tired and would sleep now.
Desmund closed his eyes.
It had been a long day.
Eric Winder could only stare. His jaw hung open and his eyes moved aimlessly and erratically as if searching for something that could help rationalize what was happening. But the small square office was empty. The monitor in front of him watched patiently, the cursor blinking off and on after the last message in rhythmic electronic inhalations. There was a beep and a new line text appeared on screen.
REASON: BUSINESS – OTHER