“Is this like a renfair altreality game? I thought these things were voluntary. What dragon?” asked Darren.
“The one that’s devouring you one byte at a time every night.”
The smell of hot breath burned in Darren’s memory. Tick, tick, tick, clackity, clackity, clack. The sound of an industrious giant invaded his mind. The context of it all was just out of reach.
For a moment Darren’s childhood sense of wonder kicked in. “Is it really a dragon?
“Dragons don’t exist! Of course it’s not a dragon mate, let’s just get your training wheels on first. Take it easy.”
“Are we going for a ride?”
“Heh. I’m Morris. The lady and I are members of The Doubt. We’re here to help. We had to take the clown to wake you up. He’ll come to no harm.”
Darren felt assured, and then wondered why he felt better about the fate of a cartoon character.
“Sorry guy, I’m afraid we’re going to have to alter your memory of this meeting. This will all seem a bit fictional in the morning. We can’t allow the Dragon to realize we’re coming to your aid.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“Why capture the beast of course..” he said nonchalantly. The ease of his expression made Darren’s stomach churn.
The vibration coming from Darren’s pocket called for attention. He answered the phone.
“This is Richard. Just got out of the weekly kickoff meeting. I was hoping you were going to do the talking for us. Where are you?”
Darren looked up and felt confused as to his location. He had to scan the room to remind himself.
“I..um…I’m at…Cafe Sophie?” His table was occupied by a single empty coffee cup. “Why am I here?”
He stood up and he was the only person in the cafe not engrossed in their laptop. He scooted his chair into the table. “I guess I needed coffee?”
“Can you come in immediately? I…I think I’m being fired.”
Darren walked past the empty conference room, it stunk of snack food and mountain dew. As soon as he entered the maze of half cubes and shared workbenches Pam intercepted him.
“Chad is looking for you.”
“Thanks, I’m headed there next.”
He passed by Deepak’s desk. When he caught his gaze, the whites of his eyes flashed as he rolled them around to the floor. His bushy eyebrows arched in sympathy
Richard was not at his own desk. A security guard walked up to his half cube with a few empty cardboard boxes just as Darren arrived. He looked to the empty chair and then shrugged the boxes into Richard’s half cube.
Darren headed to his own desk to grab a notebook so he could make Chad feel like he was listening more intently. The notebook was pinned down on his own desk by Richard’s feet. His ass was hanging off the edge of the chair because Richard was too focused on his game to realize his body was sliding onto the floor.
“Oh hey! I’ve got some ideas on how you might be able to turn this around,” enthused Richard. “Uh, we can say that I’ve been developing something secret or maybe there’s some sort of HR policy we can invoke to buy time.”
Darren’s brow was too tired to even react. He exhaled hard, hoping it would be followed by just the right thing to say. Nothing came. He gestured Richard out of the way and reoccupied his own chair, cradling his cranium in his own hands.
“Ok, let’s start with what you said in the meeting,” stated Darren. “I need to know what I’m walking into if I’m going to figure this out.”
Darren knocked on Chad’s door. His supervisors office was a toy museum. It was full of robots, plastic cartoon characters, and furniture intended to inspire nostalgia for Chad’s childhood, but clearly no one felt comfortable touching anything. Perhaps it was the methodical precision of the placement of the objects. The space between mementos and keepsakes was standardized and measured. Picking anything up would surely trigger some kind of alarm.
“You okay, bro? I thought you’d definitely be at the staff meeting,” said Chad with simulated concern.
“I think I’m fine now. I’m still not sure what happened. I may have a health issue going on. I planned to lead our department update. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Glad to hear you’re okay bud. Our success depends upon you. Listen, I looked at some graphs. I think it’s time to act on those concerns you expressed about Richard’s performance. We have some hard deadlines and the stats indicate he’s a bottleneck in the process flow.”
“He’s definitely out of his depth, but I think I can reshuffle him into QA testing and get a better performance. Over time he’ll probably grow the confidence to handle this much responsibility again. I think Mabel can take on Richard’s work. We’re wasting her talents in customer service.”
“These pie graphs don’t lie. Here are yours, see how you’re in the green. Look how green all of mine are in my employee profile. Look how green! Richard’s are in the reddish brown. Reds have to go.”
“He was assigned to my department, he’s my responsibility, if he has to go, then I go too.”
“If you try to quit we’ll sue you for cost of the project. It doesn’t matter if the case goes to court, it will be your all of your personal finances against five of our salaried attorneys. Listen buddy, my boss is so happy with your overall performance. Once we restructure after Richard’s leave, you know we’ll be back ahead of schedule like you normally are. It’s a win for everyone.”
When Darren returned to his desk, Richard was deep into an action packed game. The security guard cheered him on over his shoulder. They both looked up from the screen simultaneously with eyes full of hopeful expectation. As soon as they saw his face the glossiness in their eyes popped like a birthday balloon.
“Man, I hate to do this, but…you’d better go pack.” groaned the security guard. The glow of the screen under Richard’s face flickered off. His head rolled down beneath his shoulders as he trudged back to his desk with the guard.
Darren collapsed in defeat in his chair. He watched as Richard’s name was deleted off the cloud based project schedule. A spinning pinwheel indicated the timeline was replotting. The bar graphs jumped into new places and the project tracking graph faded from orangish red back into the green. Darren could almost feel Chad’s delight from the other side of the building.
The guard marched Richard past Darren’s desk in an attempt to rub in his brewing guilt. The guard quietly gestured with his hands just out of Richard’s view, closed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side. He didn’t make eye contact with Darren again that day. Richard seemed too lost in his own thoughts to notice, until it became apparent that people were gawking over the half walls of their cubes in silent judgement.
“Chad wanted you to have this,” passed along Pam as she removed the packaging and seals on a sleek new laptop. “It should be more fun to get the project back on schedule from home now. It has tons of memory and battery life so you never have to slow down.”
“Thanks?” Darren replied reluctantly.