The grey stairwell was quiet and unnerving. I tried not to take the stairs much, there had been an incident last year where a poor intern got locked in and ended up frantically beating at each door until his hands were a bloody mess. I looked at the walls, wondering if management had scrubbed all of the hand prints clean.
Better not touch anything, except the door handles I suppose.
Mr. Barnes was an institution. In the sense that he almost was the institution. The rumors were he was a big partner in the heyday of the firm, before investors got on board and demanded that someone who could see through their schemes be ousted from the inner circle.
Like me, he had been ageing in his cubicle as the world rushed around him. Serene and nearly prophet-like, his bushy beard and oversized glasses were always visible during all-hands meetings. Management tried their hardest not to answer his questions, lest they embarrass themselves.
Chipped paint and a smashed cockroach greeted me at the door labelled “B2”. Management had moved him down here after he raised a fuss about the group lunchroom. I don’t recall what it was about, but apparently it had been the last thin thread holding back their distaste for him.
I looked down at my phone before pushing open the door. Red. No network connection at all. Perhaps it was for the best, the last thing I needed was an interruption. Mr. Barne’s desk was tucked away in what was jokingly called the “Scrap Room”. This was the dumping ground for all kinds of gear, either obsolete or tragically broken.
The organizational chart had him listed as “Resource Officer”, but we all knew it meant “Dead End Career”, with a dotted line to the current Vice President. Such indignity, it pained me to see someone so valuable just sitting in the basement like a forgotten bottle of Bordeaux.
But if anyone knew what was going on, it would be him.
I padded down the hallway, half the lights were out and the ones that worked were buzzing and flashing every few seconds. I swallowed and pushed on, trying not to imagine horrors massing in the flickering shadows. Off in the corner, past piles of old printers and stacks of sturdy chairs, Mr. Barne’s cubicle glowed like a campfire in the remote desert wilderness.
I fought the urge to scavenge for firewood as I approached.
“Oh my boy, how are you!”, Barnes booming voice startled me, I nearly jumped a solid half-meter.
“Doing well, or rather… was doing well. I’m concerned that something is wrong.”
Barnes looked over his large-rimmed glasses, leaning back in his duct-taped chair.
The desk was a mess, full of requisitions and ancient recycling receipts. Things just move differently down here. The sands of time got caught up in the massive filing cabinet, and then trickled in a confused fashion past the green banker’s lamp, down to the linoleum floor, finally resting at the mulched layer of old carbon-copies and take-out receipts.
“Don’t tell me. The copy assignments.”
His quick summation took me by surprise. I opened my mouth to say so, when he held up a hand, continuing.
“No, don’t bother me with the details. It wouldn’t be the first time we had an abuse like this.”
Abuse? What the devil did he mean?
“But first, I must ask for safety sake – have you made any copies recently?”
My guilty gaze fell on the cream-colored folder that I held. Barnes shifted, squeaking out of his chair and reaching for my parcel.
“Better give that to me, will you? Its not something you should be carrying around.”
He swooped the stack out of my hand, expertly sliding it into the lower drawer of his overflowing filing cabinet.
“So, you’re telling me this has happened before? What about copies?”, my voice sounded almost child-like, but I had to know.
Barnes settled slowly back into his chair, and leaned forward on his battleship grey desk.
“Yes. Before. Now what I’m going to ask is important. Did you make more than five copies today? Of anything?”
I shook my head negatively.
“Good. We can continue. I was afraid that something like this would happen once the board approved the RONCIN strategy.”
I was way out of my depth here. I kept on nodding like I knew precisely what he was talking about. The soft whirring of the ventilation was the only sound back here, and it set my nerves on edge.
“RONCIN, or Retinal Operative Non-Conscious Imprinting Network”, Barnes pushed up his glasses, which kept sliding down his nose as he spoke.
“The idea was to imprint a simple set of commands in the scanning process, enhancing worker productivity. Naturally, it seems the board has again over-reached itself. If we don’t stop this soon, the whole building will be a bunch of nodding yes-zombies.”
“How would that be any different than now?”
“Hah! Humor. Yes, we need to laugh in dark times like these. Simply put, you, one of the non-imprinted, needs to go up to the DocuMax and pull its central chip.”
I gulped and nodded, not entirely sure that I wasn’t going to run out of the front door at the first opportunity. It was then I had the electric jolt of realization. I didn’t have my trusty day planner. My mind frantically retraced my steps, right back to where I had placed it on the input tray attached to the DocuMax.
Oh my feeble failing brain. It was settled then. I scooted forward, took a blank page from the top of the IN box, and Barnes and I quickly hatched a plan, with bullet points and floor diagrams.
(To be continued…)
Next – Part Four
This is a multi-part story. Confused? Start at the beginning – Part One