The next morning, as I get dressed, I turn on the news. Harron Medical Center is back in the headlines.
Another death at Harron Medical Center early this morning, when a mortician was brutally murdered by an unidentified assailant. The assailant attacked Doctor Rodney Paul around three in the morning. Upon hearing screams, two orderlies ran to the scene. The orderlies have said that the assailant turned on them. One of the orderlies issued a sharp blow to the assailant’s head, causing instant death. The assailant has yet to be identified, and the orderly has not been taken into custody. The authorities have called the act an accidental killing. We’ll keep you posted on this developing story.
I switch off the television, annoyed that they didn’t mention the surgeon and his team or the quarantined nurse. I’m still wondering if I might be sick. I try to forget about it by reminding myself that I feel great. My throat feels and tastes like there’s a rotten egg dying in it, and I try to determine if my breath smells as bad as the back of my throat tastes. I conclude that it doesn’t.
On the way to the office, I stop by a cupcake shop and buy some gourmet cupcakes. I figure if I’m going to ask for a favor, I should probably bring a bribe. I know I don’t need to bride them, Eric and Jacob think I’m awesome, but I wanted a cupcake anyway. The cupcakes here are absolutely breathtaking. They cost entirely too much, but I don’t care about the money. They’re delicious and well worth the money. The other great thing about this cupcake shop is that it’s next door to one of those fat people Jazzercize classes. When you walk outside with your cupcakes, you get to see the misery on the faces of those poor, fat women who are living in a twisted skinny world. It’s not that I don’t feel bad for them. I definitely do. It’s just that seeing misery is the thing that reminds me not to be miserable.
I don’t bother locking up my bike when I get to Onyx. No one steals anything off the Onyx lot. It has something to do with the fact that the Onyx building is about as ominous as a building can possibly be. Every time I look up at the giant black trapezoid that serves as our office, I imagine hordes of mad scientists and evil geniuses crafting the next generation of robotic super soldiers and mutualist biogenetic weaponry. The behemoth building towers above the nothingness around it. I look around for Dan’s car, but don’t see it. That’s not saying much as the Onyx parking lot is roughly two football fields big and is filled with “decoy” cars.
No one enters the Onyx building other than employees, each of whom has been carefully vetted in a process that rivals even the most sophisticated government background check. Although there are a plethora of organizations with which Onyx has long standing and trustworthy relationships, no one from any of them has ever been inside the building that I’m standing outside of. In fact, there are only thirty-seven people who have been in the building since it was built. Three of them are dead.
The funny thing is, there’s absolutely nothing special about the Onyx offices. It’s a little nicer than your typical customer service center, but it’s just an office. When you enter the building there is a large, circular lobby with corridors shooting off into various directions. The lobby has enclaves housing three restaurants. The food is fantastic, and all three of the restaurants are staffed by a mere ten people. Those same ten people do office cleanup and man the reception desk. The reception desk, however, does not need manning because in order to enter the building you have to have a badge, a retinal scan, and pass a series of tests designed specifically for whomever it is that you are supposed to be. There’s no one else on the planet that can complete my tests, they are complicated and specific, and they change every day. These tests are the result of a ten month observation period in which an Onyx employee is cybernetically dissected and cataloged using a super computer called Mnemonic. It basically looks into your memory and catalogues every choice you’ve ever made. The tests are simply combinations of those choices, only your individual subconscious will interpret appropriate solutions in the right sequence.
The entrance security is just for shits-and-giggles. Onyx is useless without its people. If one were to bypass entrance security in some way, they would find themselves in an office with nothing to steal. Every scrap of paper, every disc of data is protected by weird minds games that only Onyx employees have a chance at understanding. Every hard drive and pencil shaving is watched over. Like I said, we’re vetted.
The circular lobby I’m now standing in is completely empty. There’s no one in the restaurants. There’s scooters and skateboards lined up next to a replica of Rodin’s the Thinker. I have respect for that particular sculpture, I’d even say I like it. However, I have already voiced my disappointment that something a little more creative wasn’t used in its place. My complaint is scheduled to be discussed in next month’s meeting.
I grab a skateboard and head into the corridor at the western side of the circle. The long straight wall stretches in front of me as I skate to the elevators. The elevators also have a security mechanism, it is not really secure. We call it “Fear”. Each of the three elevators appears to hover above a sinking pit of darkness. When one tries to step into the elevator it falls abruptly. If you make any noise at all, the elevator will continue to fall. We’ve had some interesting incidents occur when people were too drunk from office Sangria to shut the fuck up. The elevators are on a sort of super strength fishing line. They don’t fall to the bottom of the pit. They stop just before crashing and go into a lock down mode. God help you if no one knows you’re on one of them, and you don’t have a communication device.
Onyx employees always carry an Onyx smartphone. Mainly because of the elevator thing, but also because our phones are connected to an entire world of information and not just what you can find on the Internet. With access to any computer, Onyx smartphones are actually smart.
I step into the elevator and wait for the drop to slow. I don’t make a sound, and the elevator only falls a couple of meters before allowing me to select a floor. Although there’s very few employees at Onyx, there is a lot of space. Labs fill up the majority of the building. I go to the eleventh floor where Jacob and Eric share a six thousand square meter space. The eleventh floor is also where most of the activity is. The command and control center is a bunch of computers that no one ever uses and a giant conference table. Most of the time, if you’re in the office, you’re sitting at that table.
I wonder which of my colleagues are in the office today.
When I get upstairs, I go to my office and set the cupcakes on my desk. Then I skate to the conference room where everyone is sitting. Jacob, Eric, Dan, and June are immersed in a pile of papers.
“Hey,” I say after a full five minutes of standing in the doorway. I’d been watching Eric. Eric is always well put together. He pays attention to himself, but succeeds in looking relaxed. His clothes are tailored, and he chooses colors that match his dark hair and light eyes. He’s the type of person that never has a five o’clock shadow, but can still look a little punk. His hair is always out of place.
“Oh, Maggie! How long have you been standing there!? How are you? Are you ok?” Jacob is obviously manic, but genuinely concerned for my wellbeing. He’s already stood up and rounded the table to give me a hug.
“I’m ok. Just thought I should come in for a bit,” Eric raises an eyebrow at me.
Jacob voices Eric’s thoughts, “Are you fucking stupid, you should be resting!”
“Actually, I know. But I need to talk to you guys,” I look Eric in the eye, and Jacob moves towards the door.
“Well alright, Maggie, let’s go into my office.” The three of us head towards the door. I catch Dan’s eye and give him a signal that we’ll get a drink later. We have to walk a good twenty meters before we reach Jacob’s office, as we pass mine, I duck in.
“I just have to grab something, I’ll catch up.” I was desperate for the cupcake I had bought myself. My blood sugar was low. Plus, those cupcakes are my bribe.
Jacob’s office is huge. He has a foosball table and a sitting area along with bookshelves and a desk. His bookshelves are filled with books like “Steal this Book”, “An Anarchist’s Cookbook”, and “Breakfast of Champions”. He has every essay Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote and a couple of random classics. On the opposite side of the room he has his “Wall of the Game” – a massive multiplayer, multi-platform, multiscreen gaming system with speakers so loud, they could literally blow your clothes off. I stopped wearing skirts to work about three days after I started. He also has several computers strewn about in the room. We arrange ourselves in three of the five armchairs.
“Cupcake?” I set the box on the table and take the one with maple frosting and a walnut.
“You do so like to spread the joy and happiness, don’t you?” I’ve already got icing on my face as Jacob reaches into the box. Eric smiles at me shoving the rest of the cupcake in my mouth.
“So what’s up?” He asks at the pinnacle of my cupcake frenzy. I roll my eyes at him and chew very slowly while watching his smile grow into a grin.
“Well, did you guys happen to see the Harron Medical Center in the news this morning?” I say after swallowing. I can tell by the suddenly serious look on Eric’s face, he was also a little disturbed by the report. Jacob looked clueless.
“Yeah,” Eric says. “Crazy, right? First a quarantine and now a murder.” I didn’t think about Eric hearing yesterday’s report. I’d been watching the local news channel, it stands to reason that there was an article in the paper. Eric reads the paper at his desk every morning. He also has an obsessive compulsion disorder. It’s not a full blown OCD, but there are certain things that he does that are a little over the top. I feel like I don’t know him very well though, so I am constantly wondering if his neatness and attention to detail (even details that are not particularly worth remembering) is just something he does at work.
“A quarantine? Murder? Over at Harron? I had my appendix taken out there.” Jacob is catching up.
“Well, I had my tonsils taken out there last week, and I’m a little worried that I might be sick.” Eric sits forward in his seat, his serious look becomes a little darker.
“Now why would you think that exactly?” I think Eric can answer his own question, he’s bright like that – good at connecting dots.
“The surgeon and his team are the one’s that did my procedure, and the quarantined nurse…well, I recognized her too.”
“Don’t be coy.” I hate it when Eric does that. He always seems to know when I’m holding something back.
“Yeah, how do you know the nurse?”
“Last Friday I coughed up a couple pints of blood on her.”
“On her?” Jacob was nearly laughing.
“Ok, not ON her, but she assisted in the cleanup.” I look at Eric, and his expression hasn’t changed. I decide to lay it out as succinctly as possible. I don’t have time for games, and Jacob and Eric will know what to do. They’ll know exactly what I’m after. “I had direct physical contact with all of the people who have died or are dying from this ’sickness’. I feel fine, but maybe they felt fine too, until they were dead. I want to look into it. I want access to the grid.”
“Grid Access, eh?” Eric is smiling again. Whenever we invoked our network connections to do us any sort of recon mission, we termed it “Grid Access”. It’s a little office joke that strokes God complexes and motivates the troops.
Jacob smiles loudly and stands up. “Give her what she needs,” he says to Eric. “We don’t want any of our own living in fear. Keep me posted on what you find. Don’t worry about it, Maggie – Eric knows what to do. I’ve got to get back to June before Dan kills her.”
Jacob walks out of the room, and the air chances instantly.
“Have you really been feeling ok?” Eric’s concern delights me. Over the last couple of months we’ve had a variety of interactions that I wouldn’t deem as strictly professional. Nothing overbearing, but we’ve exchanged tidbits of personal information – likes, habits, things that annoy us, and we do a fair amount of verbal jousting. When I’m traveling, we check in weekly for a briefing. The briefings have been getting steadily longer. Even when we’re in the office, we send each other random messages to break up the day. I look forward to them. There’s definitely chemistry there, but he always seems ever so slightly unsure. He hasn’t made a move, and I’m not pushing the issue. His current concern is genuine, there’s no lightheartedness behind it. That scares me a little.
“I’m fine. Just a little freaked out. I’ve done the standard searches. I looked into the hospital PR files, and police records. Those people are either getting better at hiding their digital artifacts, or they’re not writing anything down. It’s just strange.”
“Alright, let’s go to my office and see what’s in the Rolodex.” Eric grabs a laptop and hands it to me. He makes no effort to go to his actual office. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m taking the 46-Book.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go ahead, take the best laptop in the office for yourself. It’s fine.”
“Now, now, you just asked me for a favor.”
“One you want to do.”
“You’re right. I don’t want to fight with you, I’m helpy,” Eric is smiling again and typing quickly on the 46. “You know, if you asked me to, I’d do just about anything for you.” I don’t respond. I don’t know what to say to that. I’m just watching him and wondering why exactly I have a laptop in my hands. “Ok. We’ve got a security guard at Harron that owes us a favor after we erased his unfortunate experimentation with PCP and the nakedness that it caused.”
“I guess we could start there.”
“That was so full of agreement and enthusiasm, I very nearly dropped this expensive machine.” The unbridled sarcasm irritates and entertains me at the same time. I remain serious.
“Look, my surgery was Tuesday. The doctors bit the dust yesterday. Best case scenario, I’ve got five days to figure out if I’m wasting five days figuring it out. Maybe I should just not bother. If I’m dying, I’m dying. I’m not going to find out about it and find a cure in five days.” Melancholy was starting to set in. I didn’t want to pretend like I wasn’t scared shitless about dropping dead in five days. I was pretty happy in my life for a person that is completely unable to be happy. I have work I care about, friends to get drunk with, and I make enough money to fly off at any random time and just see some stuff. There are things that are missing for me, but I am content.
“Alright, we’ll find someone else. Don’t worry, we’ll work it out, today.” His voice was soft, and I know he is just as worried about it as I am. He continues surfing through the Onyx network, and I take another cupcake. After ten minutes, Eric looks up at me and smiles, “I’ve found her.”
“Bethany Fordson.” I wait for him to clarify his selection and his plan. “Bethany is a member of the janitorial staff at Harron Medical Center. Last year, she participated in a random rally. She met with some of our people, and showed an aptitude for secrecy.”
“Are we just going to call her up and ask her to risk her job by collecting information for us?”
“No. We’re going to go see her and ask her to risk her job by collecting information for us, and we’re going to pay her.” I’m immediately surprised by Eric’s matter-of-fact tone. Onyx is a company, not like any other, but a legitimate company. We have accounting records and contracts, development strategies and business processes. Paying an informant for information is on the list of our expenses, but we don’t generally pay people for information to quell curiosity. Our informants are connected to projects, projects are connected to clients, and clients have budgets.
“How are we going to justify a payment for information not regarding any of our projects?”
“I have access to the cash, why don’t you let me worry about cooking the books?”
“That’s exactly my problem. I don’t want you to have to worry about the accounting because of my curiosity.” Eric looks at me for a moment. A long moment. Then he sets his laptop aside and takes mine from my lap. He takes my hands.
“You are not curious. You’re scared, and so am I.”
“Ok, I’m scared, I admit it. But what does that have to do with you?”
“I’ve been completely preoccupied with thoughts of you the last few months. I can’t stop thinking about you. There are things I want to talk about with you. Things I want to do with you. Things I want to do to you. Moments I want to have,” he’s still holding my hands. “I want you. All of you.”
“You don’t even know me!”
“I know you a little. I want to know more. I want to know everything. I’m going to help you figure out what Harron is hiding anyway, but I need to know if I’m imagining the chemistry I feel between us. If you don’t feel it…I just need to know.”
I don’t say anything. I let the seconds go by. He’s waiting for me to respond, waiting for me to say anything at all, and I’m just staring at him. He starts to look a little embarrassed, uncomfortable. He looks away.
“Well, I guess…” he’s about to say that he guesses I don’t feel the same way, but I interrupt him by leaning forward and kissing him. He immediately places his hand at the back of my neck and pulls me towards him. The kiss tells him everything he needed to know, and when I pull away again, he pulls me back. Then he looks me in the eye before saying,
“So that’s what a tonsillectomy tastes like.” I feel my face turning bright red, I sit back quickly.
“Oh my god. Jesus.” I feel completely disgusting, embarrassed, and ashamed, but Eric is smiling at me. He stands up, then leans down and kisses me again.
“It’s that kind of gross that makes me want more. Let’s get to work.”