Sara’s coworker Rita puts hands on hips and assumes a mock frown. And why aren’t we in school today, Miss Melissa?
Sara holds one of her daughter’s shrugging shoulders. They seem to be making, um, adjustments at pre-K, she says, so I thought, why not spend a day at mom’s work? She can sit in the empty pod.
The work pods abut each other, open on the front, like stalls at the emporium, or jail cells without bars, Rita’s, Sara’s, and the empty.
Rita juggles a smile as Melissa pokes a questioning face into the vacant pod. Where, says Melissa, did Richard go?
Rita’s smile fades as she retreats to her pod. Sara clasps Melissa’s hand.
Mommy, where are we going?
But I don’t have to.
Nobody’s at the sinks as they enter. Sara tugs Melissa to the last stall and sits on the commode, her face level with her daughter’s. She whispers, Melissa, honey, we’ve discussed this before. It’s important if somebody, um, goes away, not to ask where. It’s not polite. Okay?
Melissa’s bent head shakes a yes.
Good, says Sara. What I’d like you to work on today is graphic design. Don’t give me those puckered lips. Did you know when I was a little girl, all I wanted was to play games too?
Melissa lifts her chin and releases her pucker. Sara runs fingers through her daughter’s dirty blond hair. That’s my girl, she says. It’s so much more important to work on your skills.
Sara tucks Melissa in the empty pod and slips into hers. But now she can’t take her mind off Richard. Richard with his narrow waist and blasé wit, his inside jokes and presumptive knowledge of upstairs politics. Sara wishes her daughter hadn’t said his name, should let the matter drop. But leaning back in her chair, she thinks, how hard would it be to find out? She could use a work project as cover, one she’s had brewing as a half-joke. Sara leans forward and pecks a proposal to her direct supervisor.
Mid-morning Sara’s screen flashes a hologram request, not from her supervisor but from her double-over, the big boss, the head of Stats & Anal. Accept, says Sara, and his hologram materializes, business casual with a tie, hefty, subsuming the guest chair. Sara, he says, you want to analyze what? The physical characteristics of? He lowers his voice. Of permanent transfers? To what end?
To see if we can regress a pattern. The usual stuff.
Hmm. It can be touchy. We’ll need access to the permtran database.
We’ve done other work-ups on permtrans, says Sara. But never physical. Eyes, hair, height, weight, you know.
And then we can say we’ve covered all the bases.
Hmm. Well. Solid idea, Sara. Give me a few minutes to get clearance. Then give Meldrim a buzz in permtran.
Meldrim accepts Sara’s hologram request and she looks around his quad-pod, which backs up to a loading dock. On the dock rest thirteen permtran modules in three stacks. Each module measures two meters by one by sixty centimeters. Rounded edges and corners, pastel blue, sealed. Why, Meldrim says, do you need to get into the database? Sounds a little sketchy.
Meldrim, we do these studies all the time. Didn’t I just get clearance?
You did. But I’m redacting ID numbers and names.
Sara had anticipated the redact and fires a compromise. Leave the first names, she says. I need them for analysis. Or we go upstairs.
Whatever, he says. You’ve got it for the rest of the day.
Back in her pod, Sara sorts the database on physical characteristics and runs basic pattern inquiries. Results are random, nothing near a line or fitted curve, as suspected. Long ago, Sara concluded there’s but one selection criterion for transfers: whether the current job’s needed anymore. And for permtrans: whether another job exists. Capital ID Numbers exempted, of course, but how many of those are there? Does her double-over, the head of Stats & Anal, she wonders, hold a CIDN? Does Meldrim? That would be rich, if he doesn’t and one day finds himself on his own disassembly line. But back to the report, which needs to look constructive. Sara thinks. She writes: analysis shows weak link between patches of abnormally thick hair on male subjects and permanent transfers. She starts a second sentence: can infer that subjects who over-treat for male baldness blah blah.
Sara puts aside the report. It will write itself. Now to the real task but—does she want to find out for sure? And will her searches show up as snooping? Better to eyeball the existing sorts than risk direct searches. She scans the first-name sort and finds fourteen Richards. Her Richard is short, less than 168 centimeters, reducing the list to two. She checks eye and hair color—her Richard is not there. Sara stretches. She tramps her pod a few times, checks on Melissa, waves to Rita, returns to her pod, and looks again. She’s positive—he didn’t go out as a permtran.
Which means he must be in corporate somewhere. In theory, he could have gone out to the national redeployment pool, but the NRP never rises above four percent, and these days nobody gets in without connections. Need to be related to a CIDN or sleeping with one. So he must be around.
Sara transmits her interim report. Thirty minutes later, double-over’s hologram consumes her guest chair running thick fingers through thin hair. Splendid report, he says. I suspected as much, about the sensitivity to baldness. Myself I let it go natural, except for some organics, ha ha. So a few edits and we can wrap it up, eh?
One thing, sir, I’ve been trying to cross-apply to some of our previous analyses.
Can I speak freely, sir?
Double-over looks up. He looks around. Hmm, he says, well, if it’s germane to the work at hand, why not?
We need to contact a transfer from this department, Richard, you remember him? Of course, if it’s impossible—
Double-over clasps his hands and releases a half-laugh. Ah, Richard, he says, not a problem. Double-over leans forward and lowers his voice. Richard was a lateral transfer. Double-over looks around. I’ll arrange for him to drop in.
Sara holds a hand over Melissa’s eyes and guides her bantam steps to the front of the guest chair. She lifts her hand and Melissa’s mouth opens. Richard, Richard, she shouts and lunges into his hologram, then backs out. Where are you, she says, in real life?
As Richard laughs, Sara lowers her voice. We were worried, she says.
You were worried? Richard talks over Melissa’s head sotto voce. They had me on a gurney with the needle out when Meldrim barges in yelling, stop, you idiots, he’s a lateral.
Richard resumes normal volume. But here I am, he says. Well, almost, my flesh being parked upstairs.
To Melissa, Richard says, you know what? I’ve missed my little girl? And you’re not so little anymore. Do you still like your pre-K?
Uh-huh but some of my friends don’t.
They transferred away.
Richard’s eyes move from Melissa to Sara. They dart up and around. Sara smiles and says in a light tone, I wonder what in the world could be going on with pre-K.
Richard replies in singsong fashion. Oh it’s most likely the new twelve-year-out plan projecting a reduction in workforce.
It seems we don’t need the pipeline so full.
Sara’s vision clouds. Richard continues talking like they’re discussing the price of home holograms. The thinking upstairs is better now than later. Saves resources, easier in the long run, and so on.
Richard puts a hand on Sara’s arm, which she can’t feel because he’s a hologram. Sara, he says, they’re only cutting fifteen percent, so don’t obsess over it.
Richard’s voice resumes volume and excitement. Okay, Melissa, Melissa, got to get back to work. Hope to see you soon.
Melissa laughs as his hologram fades. Bye, bye, Richard, Richard, she says. I hope so.
Robert Perron lives and writes in New York City, and maintains a residence in New Hampshire. Past life includes high-tech and military service. He has previously appeared in STORGY Magazine as well as The Manchester Review, Sweet Tree Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Fictional Café, Front Porch Review, and other journals.
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Poets & Writers
You can read Robert’s previously published story ‘Next To Normal’ here:
This is the tale of a town on the fringes of fear, of ordinary people and everyday objects transformed by terror and madness, a microcosm of the world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. This is a world where the unreal is real, where the familiar and friendly lure and deceive. On the outskirts of civilisation sits this solitary town. Home to the unhinged. Oblivion to outsiders.
Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.
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