Barnes had insisted I do this alone. Climbing back up the stairs, I wasn’t so sure.
RONCIN, the subliminal incentive program embedded in the copier was more malicious than I had realized. I felt my pocket where the chip-puller poked into my thigh. Was I really going to do this? I thought briefly about the ficus plant in my apartment. Who would water it if I were gone? Stop being silly, I thought.
Heart pounding from lack of regular exercise, I paused to catch my breath on the landing. I really should go on more walks. Sitting at a desk all day is not the way to extend one’s lifespan. My brain ached for a proper cup of coffee. Wait, didn’t Bob have some quality brew-pods at his desk? I mentally ransacked my failing memory, pulling up the image of a cherry-red container sitting next to his IN box.
My itinerary re-sorted, with a glowing mental bulletpoint of “Proper Coffee” up at the top. It was on the same floor as the DocuMax, so two birds with one stone.
Pushing open the grey door a crack, I peered down the hallway. No one in sight.
I slowly slipped into the hall, shutting the door as silently as possible. Bob’s desk was at the far end, and I would have just enough time to make it before pushing on to the copy room.
Rounding the corner past the wall of prior marketing slogans “Best in business!”, “Industry Defining!” I felt like a vandal who had broken into school to burgle the principals office. Where was everybody? It just didn’t make sense. Nerves on edge, I crept up to Bob’s cubicle, red coffee-pod in sight.
Sweet mercy, my heart leapt to the roof of my mouth. It was Bob, hair askew and holding some papers curled up in his hands.
“I — I — didn’t see you there.”, mouth was dry as cotton, legs frozen in place.
Bob smiled. It was the smile of someone who knew that they had caught me out. Looking down at his hands, the papers he held had a neon-note sticking out. Oh no. He had been to the copier.
“YOU HAVEN’T MADE YOUR COPIES YET”, a trickle of saliva slowly descended Bob’s chin.
Grabbing the pod, I stammered, “Just sorting out a proper cup of joe first”.
Shoving it in my pocket, I shouldered past Bob back into the hall.
“BUT YOU FORGOT YOUR COPIESSSSssssss”, Bob’s hoarse shout echoed off the painted walls as I stumbled back from where I’d come. The last syllable fizzled out in the barely-audible range, making my skin crawl.
I was nearly there. Pop the pod in, get a cup of something resembling coffee, pull the chip, report back to Barnes.
I mentally reviewed the steps over and over, as if reciting it would make it that much easier.
I burst into the lunchroom, a sullen affair with a few basic appliances and mostly functional tables and chairs. Slamming the pod into the maker, I grabbed a clean pot and shoved it under the spout. Only a few minutes. Then I would be fine. Images of cheery workers on lush mountainsides picking coffee beans, hand-delivering their bounty in burlap sacks filled my mind.
I could practically smell it now.
Noises, coming from the hall. My heart pounded, thinking that Bob had followed me here, waving his copies like a wrinkled baton. Steps, more than one.
I peeked around the corner.
Rows of people, nearly filling the width of the hall, all moving lock-step towards the elevators. Each fist holding papers, all marked with the neon notes. Marching orders for the Copyoid army. Scared of being discovered, I left the burbling coffee maker and exited at the opposite end.
Hunched over, I shuffled quickly to the nearest door. Meeting room “C”. A quiet hush descended as the heavy oak door closed, rows of leather seats and polished wood surfaces gleamed in the low light. The executive meeting room was thankfully bereft of people.
Inhaling deeply, I willed my heart to stop trip-hammering my ribcage. Close one.
“Right, lets take it in here.”, the muffled voice outside gave me a start. With no other options, I dove under the conference table, just as the door swung open and the lights brightened.
My lord, this carpet is absolutely hideous. I withdrew to the center, trying to stay out of sight.
“We still have a few holdouts.”, It was the VP of Sales, a nasty chap that always had a smarmy grin on his face.
“No matter. We’ll find them in short order.”, the CEO’s smooth delivery made it sound like he was ordering lunch, not leading mindless hordes.
“Agreed. Then we can move on to Phase Two. Just a matter of time. now.”
Raucous laughter, chilling me to the bone. What the devil was Phase Two? I just wanted to pull the copier chip and go home, wrap myself in a blanket and read a book in my favorite chair. But no, I’m under a conference table listening to despotic executives.
Some more conversation, in lower tones that made it hard to hear. Soon the door swung open, and I was alone.
Edging out from underneath the table, I slipped through the door in the direction of the DocuMax, chip-puller in hand. It wasn’t long until I had a side panel open, straining with effort to pull the ugly grey lump of silicon from its motherboard.
Damn it all, had I forgotten to release the locking lever? I leaned in closely, trying to get a proper view around the bulky heatsink.
Aha, it was locked! Pushing the lever upward, the chip popped out with minimal effort. There, all sorted.
A hand gripped my shoulder, then another. Turning around, I saw the smarmy smile grow wider on his face.
“There you are. I’m so glad to have found you at last.”
Oh damn and blast. No coffee for me, then.
I was slowly marched to the elevators, flanked by a crew of Copyoids with the VP in the lead.
(To be continued…)
Next – Part Five