Alone in his cubicle again. The clock is moving so slowly it’s almost running backwards. The memory of some weird dream has been taunting him all day. It was one of those cut offs, when you wake up suddenly and your mind is able to hang on to the tail end of it for a few minutes, but every waking minute makes it that much duller. He received a shock of déjà vu when he came to his desk at 9:08 (late again, but no one really noticed). The dream had to do with work. He was at his desk, people were crowded around. The woman who works in the cubicle a few blocks down was sitting on top of his desk. Her short skirt was hiked up and she was clearing Prad for a landing. He was just about to get into that skirt when she clocked him. Remembering that part wasn’t too nice. Prad had been just settling into his chair, hoping he might be recalling a nice sex dream when that embarrassing detail emerged. Then he remembered the rest, how everyone else in the office was pointing and laughing at him, and how his teeth started to fall out. One by one, the molars, the incisors, the front two. They all just seemed to painlessly come loose and he began pulling them out. Tiny shards of the rest followed. He looked in a mirror at the remainders and saw that they were chipped beyond repair. Not a nice dream. He was happy to have forgotten it and tries to do so again.
Coffee’s better today, and Prad makes sure he sneaks a few cups while the current batch is still hot and fresh. Artificial stimulation is necessary given the mood he’s in. He’s somewhere in the hump of the week, it feels like Thursday but its damn near impossible to tell. The anticipation that comes with the late afternoon, so close to Friday, which in turn is so close to the weekend, has not yet hit him. Still feels like a Wednesday. But at least he has the six o’clock report to look forward to. It might be early, hard to tell. Any day now they are expecting their little “story” to break. Every night since Tuesday, Prad and the others have been waiting on the press conference. They figured it would take until Friday, just in time for the weekend edition on every network in the country.
The anticipation is making him uneasy. He can barely acknowledge the stripper who’s filling the Youtube screen with her massive rack. His other task, the matter of sorting through lines and lines of code, is moving at a rate of about one key a minute. Were it not for the anonymity of the modern office space, he would have been fired several times over by now. Once he’s done with a scheduled task, he pulls up the template form for a task report and fills in the idiot boxes. He then attaches it to an email for the people down at filing.
That reminds him. He hasn’t dropped in on Rohit lately. MSN is forbidden during work hours, so he can’t send him a message to join him in the rec room. But a quick pass by his cubicle is always permissible. He finds Rohit with his back to the room, filling in some forms that look like they should mean something to him.
“Hey, Roti! How are your caffeine levels?”
Rohit turns around in his seat and checks his pulse. “I could stand a top up.”
“Great, come on. I got something to tell you – Oh shit!”
Prad remembers that he left the stripper running on his machine. He jets back to his cubicle and shuts down the internet, runs a quick clean to erase the web directory’s memory and all temporary internet files. He does this every day, his way of staying ahead of the corporate snoops. Now is as good a time as any, and he jets back to the break room to find Rohit already waiting for him.
“Hey, sorry. Okay, so what’s up?”
“What do you mean? You called me in here.”
“Oh yeah,” Prad needs a second to remember what he wants to talk about. Then he remembers Angie’s orders. No bragging. He needs something else to talk about, quick!
“So how’s the layoff talk?”
Well done, he tells himself. It’s the perfect diversion, and something he probably should care about.
“There’s supposed to be a big meeting this Friday with HR. The execs are going to be reviewing people’s files.”
“Uh-oh. What are they looking for specifically?”
“Complaints. Indications of bad work ethics, unprofessional attitudes.”
The way he says it leaves little doubt who he is talking about. Prad sneers at him for the self-righteous attitude.
“It’s so hypocritical. Why do they even file those things anyway. No one ever reads them, not until it’s time to fire people.”
“Same with all the work logs. Which, by the way, they’re going to be sorting through the day before.”
Prad nods. So between a bad attitude and poor work performance, the brass will have their one-two layoff punch ready.
“Well, I know I’m up to date on my task reports. HR might be a problem.”
“Now you take me seriously?” Rohit asks.
“Guess I’ll have to hack into their files and wipe my record clean.”
Rohit chokes on his coffee and looks at the door again. He can’t tell Prad to shut up in words right now, so puts his hands on his shoulders and gives them a hard squeeze. Taking a few breaths, he clears his wind pipe and is able to speak again.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Never mind, I don’t want to know. Don’t even talk like that.”
“C’mon, Roti!” Prad says, shaking loose from Rohit’s grip. “No one ever reads those things anyway. Who’s gonna’ know? I could fix your file too.”
“Last thing I need is another excuse for them to fire me.”
“No one will know, Roti. I got the skills to make it happen. All you need to do is give me the green light.”
“You know, you keep saying that, but I’ve never seen you do anything that proves you have any skills whatsoever.”
Angie’s orders are ringing in Prad’s ears. His mouth desperately wants to open but his lips are clamped shut and refuse to budge. Her wrath would be terrible, should she ever find out.
“I mean, you work here, man. What’s that say about you?”
Prad needs to talk. The words are bulging in his throat like a log jam and threatening to break it open. Rohit’s taunts are deeply distressing to him and it’s overriding his orders.
“Top of the line white hats make software companies, man. They design computers in their garage and take the world by storm with new innovations. They’re not second rate programmers working in a cubicle.”
“Second rate!” Prad’s voice has broken free. “Hey, I don’t need this job. This is a pathetic waste of my abilities.”
“Then why are you still here?”
“You’re here. What’s that say about you?”
“And I’m your superior,” Rohit reminds him.
“Oh, sorry, sir.” Prad does a mock salute. “You know, maybe my days here are numbered but I’ll have opportunities afterward.”
“Oh yeah?” Rohit’s grinning at him now. More acid-tongued words are coming, Prad can sense it. What the hell? He’ll never meet Angie.
“Yeah,” Prad replies. “Just ask Congressman Dangle. He’ll tell you just how fucking good I am. Oh, actually he can’t, because he has no fucking idea it was me!”
Rohit’s looking down at him with unbelievable incredulity. He has no idea what he’s talking about, and can’t fathom how he’s come up with such a tale. They’ve been joined too by Donna, cream lady, who is not to be talked loudly around. This complicates matters further.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he whispers to Prad.
“Wait and see, I’m sure it’ll be in the news real soon.”
Prad leaves Rohit standing at the counter with his fresh cup of coffee. He tries to follow him but his coffee spills from the sudden forward momentum, forcing him to go to the sink and wash his burnt fingers. When he finally manages to clean up the mess he’s made and place his cup safely on the counter, he storms after Prad. They end up in the men’s room, which at the moment is slightly more private.
“What are you talking about, Prad? Did you do something illegal?”
The words are whispered and one of his ears is kept open for sounds of flushes or people coming in behind them. Prad meanwhile has both eyes on the road and both hands on his wheel, smiling like he just got it waxed by some hottie in the supply closet. He says nothing as he goes to wash his hands and Rohit is still hanging on him.
“I’m serious, man! If you did anything that’s going to threaten your job here, or mine, I’ll fucking squeal on you. I’m not going down as an accessory for anything.”
“Calm down,” Prad says as he shakes his hands off and grabs a paper towel from the dispenser. “I told you, no one knows I had anything to do with it. I shouldn’t even have said anything to you, you’ll probably squeal on me anyway. God knows you can’t keep anything a secret.”
“Hey, we’re not talking about the usual crap you pull around here that I’m always covering for. If you’re doing something on the side that could wind you in jail, I’m not going to protect you.”
“Like you could!”
Prad leaves and has Rohit following him back to his cubicle now. He is extremely self-conscious about all the people who might hear them, but refuses to let the topic go. Already Prad is feeling stupid for bringing it up. Not for fear of his job or the law, but because of the trust he might have betrayed. No one needs to know that the Society did something it wouldn’t ordinarily do. That’s the whole point of a one time thing. You do it once, and forget about it. Those who wouldn’t understand are kept in the dark for just that reason.
“Prad, just tell me what you’ve done and maybe I can help get you out of it.”
“Nothing serious,” he says finally. Taking his seat, he swivels in it a bit to make sure the gears are still sliding just right. “Just had a little fun with some government resources. That’s all. And no one is going to know about it, provided everyone who now knows keeps their fricking mouth shut!”
“Who else knows about this?”
“Only a couple people, but they helped. So it’s just us, and you.” Prad admits with a shrug. “And I wasn’t exactly supposed to share it with anyone, so consider yourself part of my inner circle,” he finishes uncomfortably.
Rohit shakes his head mournfully. “Breaking your conspirators trust should be the least of your worries, man.”
“Yeah, but it isn’t. So, can I count on you not to say anything?”
“I don’t know,” Rohit confesses. “You sure this can’t be traced back to you?”
“Positive, Roti. You and I both know the system’s ins and outs, which is why it’s an insult for the both of us to be working here. Speaking of which, were you done telling me about layoffs?”
Rohit looks relieved to be talking about that again. Only comparatively is the thought of being laid off not a source of stress for him anymore. “Well, next week they’re thinking of starting up interviews.”
“Interviews? What, for like new people?”
Rohit chuckles sardonically. “No, I mean that’s when they drag all of us in, one by one, and ask us to explain how we’re productive and useful around here. They start with the senior people and then work their way down, section by section. You’re asked to explain, in your own words, what you bring to the company.”
“Lazy shits! They want us to do their work for them!”
“Yeah, basically. It’s easier than taking an interest in what your employees actually do on company time.”
“And they’ve got our HR files and our work reports to compare it against?”
“It’s so they catch you in lie. If you say you work hard, they pull up your reports and demand to know why it took so long to do this, why you haven’t finished that, etc. And then they ask about your fellow employees, and if you say you get along, they point out how people have complained.”
Rohit leans in and looks all self-conscious again. “Keep your voice down. And don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re going to have some serious explaining to do come next week.”
Rohit is about to leave, but Prad stops him with a little reminder. “Dude, just remember, I can have a look at the files HR’s got on you and me.” He illustrates with his fingers, playing air keyboard. “Few strokes, all complaints are gone!”
Rohit leans into his cubicle again. “Just do me one favour, Prad. If you have to start looking for a new job, don’t list me as a reference.”