Everything Inc.

📅 Published on November 5, 2021

“Everything Inc.”

Written by Geoff Sturtevant
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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ESTIMATED READING TIME — 78 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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Chapter 1

If you want to know just how unimportant you are, get a job at the biggest company you can. The bigger the outfit, the smaller the cog you’ll be in that cascading clockwork that makes the thing move.

You’d be more significant as the sole proprietor of a banana stand than you would at any capacity with Everything Inc. At Everything Inc., you’re as good as dirt.

Thinking back, it’s interesting to remember those red brick strip malls that used to be the center of every town. Always L-shaped, a supermarket to one side, a bank, a drug store, a pizzeria, a Chinese place, and a handful of little mom ’n pop shops that flavored the town and sponsored the youth’s sports teams. I remember hanging out at the Drug Fair as a kid; the keystone of my own town’s mall, playing video games with my friends in the little arcade nook in the back, near the pharmacy. The worn, waxy floor tiles collecting grime and black gum in their cracks, like a premonition of the things to come. The drugstore’s days were numbered, and so were all the others’.

Funny to recall the little excuses for businesses that used to inhabit these crumbling brick buildings. A stationery store, a hardware spot, even a gift shop. A gift shop, for God’s sake. But keep in mind, there was also a place you could rent VHS tapes. And if one of them decided to unravel in your pop-up VCR player, you were out a good sixty-five bucks to replace it. I’m talking prehistoric times here.

Funnier still, the fact that no one expected the inevitable. The first casualties, of course, were the niche, little shops. One by one, the windows went dark; black storefronts, like missing teeth. For us kids, the old Drug Fair was suddenly not such the place to be.

Even the mighty department stores; the knees and elbows of the big, indoor shopping malls, beat their retreat. The chandeliers hung dark behind the doors. Papered-over windows, like white flags of surrender.

It fed on the shops. Fed on the shopping malls; steadily snatched up the franchises, leaving big, woodwind instruments of the buildings. Fed on the Alpha companies: the Walmarts, the Targets, the Kmarts; just consuming everything in its path. In the end it settled there, an immense, bloated monstrosity; bigger than its sum of victims, bigger than business, bigger even than the law. Spawning buildings to contain kingdoms; buildings to block out the sun. The aptly-named Everything Inc. Such a logical conclusion, it’s a laugh that no one saw the snowball rolling. Give two people in a room a buck apiece, they say, and in an hour, one of the guys will have both of them.

Well, Everything took it all. Everything was everything. If there was a mission statement, it was this: To become everything, including, but not limited to: absolutely everything. But of course, mission statements were not so important anymore.

Taking the train out to Enterprise City, the staggered roofline of Everything Inc. Headquarters lifted slowly from the horizon like a square-shaped mountain, too big for the eyes to completely drink in. Marginalizing the sky. Blocking out the heavens.

The hive towers stood trackside like great guardians. Thousands of tiny tenements housing the 50,000 supposed employees of Everything Inc. Meager accommodations, but it beat being in the streets. These rooms were what we train riders were after; when you just couldn’t swing it in the outside world, four walls at all made a merciful place to hang your head.

“What say, doggie?” came a bayou drawl from across the aisle.

I turned to see a man reclined cross-legged in a sharp hide overcoat. A wagering grin on his dimpled face. He held a well-read book closed on his thigh under a fingerless glove. Solaris, by Stanislaw. I’d read it myself a long time ago.

“Got a job lined up?” he asked.

“Haven’t been hired yet,” I said. “Figured I’d hoof it out here and see what happens. Got nothing back there.” I pointed my thumb at the back of the train. Back towards the coast.

“No one does,” he said. He gestured west with the arch of an eyebrow. “You’d be lucky to dig up a turnip back there. Nowhere to go but thataway. Forward on, doggie.”

“How about you?” I asked. “Got a job?”

“Hoofin’ it out, such as you say. Same as you.” He smiled amiably, tilting back his trucker’s cap. “Somebody told me once, whatever you’re chasing, you gotta chase after it, even if you don’t know what the hell it is.”

“I suppose that may or may not be good advice,” I said.

He grinned. “Sure, well the guy was drunk who told it to me. What kind of job are you looking to do?”

“I’m just trying not to set the bar too high. Not this time around.”

“Now that’s no way to look at things.” He stuck out a gloved hand. “I’m Dan,” he said, “and I’m pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Paul.” We shook. Maybe it was no way to look at things. But at the time, you could hardly blame me.

Chapter 2

This time around was a kind of backup plan for me, my final failsafe. I’d always tried to imagine a backup plan for myself, just in case the whole enchilada fell apart, you know? Still, I never really imagined I would need it, not until the enchilada went ahead and did just that. Failure, I’ve found, will flank you from all sides. It grows around you like some sort of imminent bacteria.

Back in my college days I knew a lot of guys from South America living up here, washing dishes, bussing tables, stuff like that. They lived by the bunch, stuffing themselves into little apartments, splitting the rent and costs of living. They worked like ants, piling up all the tax-free cash they could, and wired it all down home. By the time they made their way back, they had enough saved up to get by with a part-time job selling bananas. A fellow once showed me a picture of the beach house they were building for him down there. I could hardly believe it. Looked bigger than what most families could afford up here.

So that was Plan-B, to save up a few bucks and move down to where the money was still worth something; be some big-shot gringo in some third-world town. But no loophole stays open forever; these days, houses down there’ll run you more than what they cost up here. I missed the boat, so to speak. But who isn’t to say the big ellipsis of failure might swallow them up too? Swallow up the circle of the earth? An object in motion tends to stay in motion, doesn’t it? So, logically, no one is safe in the Einsteinian Universe.

Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em. The sovereign social experiment turned juggernaut, Enterprise City, was the only real backup plan you could hope for these days. A place to slink off to and lick your wounds once life got through mauling you. Things were bad, but there was always Enterprise, granted you had enough scratch left for the train fare. There was always the front stoop of Everything Inc., where you could go prostrate yourself in front of and beg to be given a job and a place to live, granted you could spare the pride. And there was a fair chance they’d let you in, too. Because it was cheaper to put you up than to bury your desiccated corpse in the Mojave.

Smog on the horizon, sepia in the artificial light of the cityscape. The skeleton of a long-dead Vegas, colonized by some prolific fungus. This symbiotic organism that both fed and fed on it’s people. Everything Incorporated.

I watched through the window, the marker lights of the freight cars doubling by as they sped out of Enterprise and into the parched wastes. Hauling in barge loads of shipping containers, Chinese symbols flitting by in the guidelights. Carrying out everything, literally, Everything-brand everything, to anywhere anything was needed, tracing twisted maps across the country and beyond, like unbridled blood poisoning.

We wheezed to a stop at Enterprise Station, traincars careening by the dozen from the depot. Benches of bundled-up travelers in attitudes of exhaustion.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “I take it you’ve never been here?” said Dan.

“No.”

“Follow me, then.”

“You’ve been?”

He nodded once, half-grinning. “I came, I saw, I left. Then, I was conquered. Now I’m back.”

The lights illuminated the steamy smog into a kind of fabricated daylight. I bought a styrofoam cup of coffee from a sleepy bodega vendor on the platform for two dollars. The sight of real money rather than a credit voucher seemed to perk him up. He put the bills directly into his pocket. The coffee was burnt and bitter, but the cup warmed my fingertips.

“What happened the last time you were here?” I asked.

“I worked at Everything two years,” he said. “I thought I’d take another stab at the free world. The grass is always greener, ain’t it?” He sniffled, wiped his nose on his cuff. “Thought I’d scratch together a living doing this and that. Friend of mine had a pickup truck. Collected scrap metal, moved stuff, that kind of thing. And when the truck ate it… I swear, the minute you get up on your feet, the world’ll just flat kick you back on your ass.”

“So you gave up?”

“Well, not right away. But once I had enough to fix the truck, who do you think I had to pay for it?”

“Everything Inc.”

“Boom. That’s when it hit me. I’m busting my hump, and now I’m paying Everything in dollars for what used to cost me credits. I just can’t swallow it, doggie. I ducked and ran. And here I am.”

I nodded. “It’s just no use.”

“Not that I’ve found. The way they’ve got things, it’s only a matter of time ’til you’re hightailing it back here.”

I took a last sip and dropped the coffee in a passing wastebasket. It wasn’t worth the warmth to hold it.

We walked off the platforms into the terminal station. Electronic billboards lining the walls, flashing advertisements for Everything products and services. A show of pride at most; there was no need to advertise any of it. If there was something you needed, I mean anything at all, it was coming from Everything Inc. It was Everything or nothing.

Up on the veranda we caught a shuttle to Receiving, one of the last places in Enterprise that would officially accept my dollars as payment. Street-side as we went, the nighttime crews out collecting garbage, shuttling it to the methane plant. Enterprise Police propped lazily against signposts. The occasional clusters of bundled-up homeless huddled by a staircase or a dumpster, braving the cold vacuum of the desert night.

“Some people’ll take the open cold over a warm night in the hive,” Dan said of the homeless. “Maybe I would have too once. Maybe in my twenties. But not now.”

“I just don’t get it,” I said.

He understood what I meant. Enterprise was where you came to get your wet ass under a roof. How could you end up homeless in a place like this?

“Lots of people fuck up out there,” Dan said. “Some people’ll do it in here too. Some people’ll fuck up anywhere, just give ‘em a place to fuck up, and they’ll go ahead and do it.”

I’d been under the impression that everyone here had enough to get by. Or at least enough to sleep indoors.

“Life is cheap here, but it’s not free,” Dan went on. “Out there, it costs money. Here, the currency is pride. And speak of the devil…”

He pointed at a black man shuffling under a streetlight. His eyes were glassy in the yellow glow. “That guy right there, see him? There’s a fella that couldn’t cough up the pride.”

“He doesn’t look like he has any to spare,” I said.

“Old Dave, proudest sonofabitch you’ll ever meet. Crazy as a shithouse rat, but proud as they come.”

“You know the guy?”

“Used to. Glad to see he’s still got his feet under him. Crazy bastard. At least he’s still above ground.”

I watched the man disappear in the rear windows of the shuttle. The hives loomed behind, high and dark in the artificial twilight glow. The stars I’d seen only twenty miles back had all been snuffed out. With them, all past perspectives and future expectations.

“We stamped household goods,” Dan said. “That’s all we did. Fourteen hours, stamping, then it’s back to the hive, no funny business. Well, he started sneaking out at night, couldn’t stand the rules. Reckless. You get caught out after curfew, you get fined. Get caught three times and you’re out on your ass. By then, you could never pay the fine anyway; you only get enough to live in the first place. The guy had some bad habits, probably still does, so he lost his place after fine-one. And Bob’s your uncle, homeless in Enterprise.”

“But he’s still got his pride,” I said.

“That’s all he’s got. Besides those habits. There’s a way to do your unsavories here, you just gotta do it quietly. Dave, he just plumb held his hat on and ran.”

“Well,” I said, “whatever you’re chasing, you gotta chase after it…”

He chuckled. “Now that I think about it, Paulie, he might’ve been the drunk prick who told that to me.”

I grinned. It was the first grin I’d allowed in a long time. I think it was also the first time anyone had called me Paulie.

Paulie, Paulo, the Paul man, one Paul to rule them all. Any variation on my name you could think of, Dan thought of it first.

Chapter 3

It was 1:30 a.m. by the time we reached the receiving terminal to join the mass of free-world refugees. 2:30 by the time we wound through the desperate lines to approach the admissions officer. By now I was so tired, I wished I’d hung on to that cup of coffee. Dan, too, seemed to be teetering on the brink. The size of the place alone seemed to suck the life out of you.

“I’m about ready to get horizontal,” Dan said.

“Gotta get admitted first.” I’d heard it took hours. Days, sometimes.

“Nah,” he said. “Leave it to me.”

“Next.”

We approached the counter together. I set my heavy bag down on the floor.

“Applying for admittance?”

“We’re pre-approved,” Dan said. I glanced at him. This strange guy who seemed to know his way around.

“Paperwork?”

Dan took an envelope from his jacket pocket, unfolded two letters and handed them to her. She examined them briefly, one after another, then handed them back.

“Hang onto those,” she said. “Here are your room vouchers, bring those to the boarding desk.”

“Thank you ma’am,” Dan said, taking the vouchers.

“Thanks,” I said. And we left.

I glanced back at the winding lines, pitying those still waiting to apply for admittance. “How’d you manage that?”

“Oh, the letters? Gotta pull some tails to get ahead in the rat race.”

I wasn’t about to look a gift-horse in the mouth. He’d just saved me that whole prostration at the doorstep business; it didn’t matter how he’d done it. I was just lucky he had. For the first time of many to come, it occurred to me how helpless I was on my own. “Thanks,” I said. “A lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Let’s go find us some beds.”

Arriving at the hive, the group of newcomers were arranged in an orientation room for an explanation of the bylaws, delivered by a short video starring our benevolent president, Len Carter. Yawning, we signed a number of forms certifying that we understood and agreed to the rules. The final form, the most important one of all, we were told, was the “Pledge of Community.”

I pledge to be put to my best use in the interests of Everything Inc. and the Sovereign State of Enterprise. Signed, Paul Harper.

With that, it was official.

Hive bylaws were designed so that you wouldn’t even consider violating the status quo. The uniformity officers roamed the hallways checking for anything out of the ordinary—decorations, colors, door hardware, anything at all that suggested individuality before uniformity. On the way there, Dan had told me about the oppressive fines dealt out for everything from shoes outside the doors to the smell of whatever you were cooking inside. After only minutes there, I could sense the tension, everyone keeping to themselves, trying desperately not to stir the air.

Dan and I were issued adjacent rooms. Rooms practically the size of walk-in closets. Little beds, kitchen nooks, tiny bathrooms and tinier closets. Across from the bed was a little TV screen built into the wall. I set down my bag and opened the sink faucet to little more than a drip. I washed my hands and face, glancing eagerly at the bed in the tiny shaving mirror there. When I crawled under the thin cover, my feet hung off the end of the mattress, but that was alright. It was the first real bed I’d been in in days.

The building was quiet as a graveyard. Lying in silence, a twinge of loneliness settled in my stomach. It occurred to me crisply now, in the perfect quiet and in my unguarded exhaustion, where I was and what I had done. I’d left it all behind, the precious and the broken alike. I’d truly crawled back into my childhood bed.

I tried lying on my side, but the thoughts persisted. You weren’t chasing after anything when you got on that train, were you, Paul? Not like Dan had said. No, you were running. You’re a failure. And now you’re here, with your little feet hanging off the edge of a mattress. No matter how you tried, you just couldn’t swing it, could you?

It was nearly 4:00 a.m. by the time rumination gave in to exhaustion and I dozed off into an uneasy sleep. Dreams of hiding, dreams of failure, dreams of finality.

Chapter 4

I woke to a knock at the door. The sun was full in the little square window, casting three black shadows of the suicide bars across the white bedsheets. The clock said 9:45. I’d slept a good six hours. I swung my legs off the bed and went for the door. It was Dan.

“How ‘bout some breakfast, doggie?” He had that same grin on his face, only clean-shaven now with his wet hair freshly combed back. He had on overalls over a button-down shirt, cuffs rolled up to the elbows of his hairy arms.

“I’m starving,” I said. I was, now that I’d thought of it.

The ephemeral gloom I’d felt the night before had abated for the time being. Maybe some of it was the freshness of a new morning. But the fact of Dan waiting there, leaning goofily against my doorframe waiting for me to get dressed, I suspect, was most of it. I might have felt lonely, but I wasn’t alone. Not altogether.

We took the stairs down to the first floor. The breakfast bar was down to its dregs, but the look of food laid out for the taking was a relative thrill. Lodging had included fifty credits with our pre-approved vouchers, enough to feed us for a day or two, and we ate what we both agreed was the biggest meal we’d had in months. Not so fresh anymore, but grand regardless. Everything-brand eggs, toast, cereal, and a couple cups of Everything-brand coffee. “Gotta get tanked-up for the placement interviews,” Dan said. And we certainly did. My shriveled stomach was packed like a baseball. It felt good. Last night’s emotions all tucked into the pending file for the time being. I was here, and I had to make the best of it.

We walked and chatted, boarded a shuttle at 11:00 and walked into Placement fifteen minutes later. I recognized a few of the passengers from the night before, everyone fresh, well-fed, and ready to start anew.

“What’re you aiming for?” asked Dan.

“Hoping to get a job at the power plant,” I said. I’d always known the sovereign city had a huge gas turbine power plant and made its own gas and electricity. Unusual technology, supposedly, but I did know my way around a power plant, at least in several capacities. Enterprise was supposed to be tops in resource technology; the only one they couldn’t manage themselves was water, although I’d heard they were well on their way to figuring that out too. And when they did, President Carter had promised America, it would mean even more jobs for the destitute public.

“I never considered that,” Dan said. “When you think of working for Everything, you usually think of making stuff. Putting stuff together, that kind of shit.”

“It’s what I know,” I said. “At least some of it. Might as well hold up the Pledge of Usefulness.”

“The Pledge of Community,” Dan said. “But that’s close enough.”

Dan and I were waiting at the front of the line when one of the applicants receiving his placement began to raise his voice.

“I’ve got a Masters Degree,” he said.

“Congratulations, Mr. Simmons,” said the placement officer.

“I didn’t do all that studying, all that work, to wield a mop.”

“Mr. Simmons, there are no jobs for radio engineers here. Your practical aptitude assessments have you placed in the custodial department.”

“Come on, there has to be something. I’ll never be able to live on the salary of a janitor.”

Dan nudged me with a knowing elbow.

“We all get by on the salary of a janitor, Mr. Simmons,” said the placement officer. “We get by, so will you.”

“Remember what I said about pride?” Dan asked. “This guy’s gonna have a hard time paying the bill.”

I nodded.

Dan went ahead and took Mr. Simmons’s place. Soon after, a spot opened up for me. The placement officer, a stiff, young man, had me fill out a brief questionnaire on the computer. I indicated wherever I could that my experience was with a power company, and that’s where I thought I’d be the most useful. I hadn’t done a whole lot: basic electrical, maintenance, etc., but it was an environment I was familiar enough with. Most of all, though, I didn’t want to get stuck “putting stuff together,” like Dan had said. I really did want to make myself useful. I wanted to feel useful again.

After I’d completed the questionnaire, the placement officer fed it into the system and examined the results.

“Looks like they’ve got you a position in production.”

“I was hoping for the power plant,” I said, my stomach sinking. “That’s where I’d be the best off, I think.”

He glanced up at me from the screen. “The plant is off-limits to employees,” he said. “We’ve got you in production.”

“Off-limits to employees?” I asked. “Don’t employees work there to begin with?”

Something in his eyes let me know he didn’t care to discuss it. It wasn’t his decision where I worked. The computer decided where I worked, and the decision was final. I could take it or leave it, meaning I could take it, or kiss my apartment goodbye and shove off. They didn’t need me as much as I needed them. They didn’t need me at all.

“Alright,” I said. “It’s no problem, just curious.”

“The job is line assembly. You’ll receive all the necessary training, starting tomorrow. Report at 7:00 a.m. sharp to building 84-A. Follow the signs to the training desk. Your supervisor is Oris Smith.”

He printed out the paperwork, stapled it, and handed it back to me along with my voucher. “I’ve validated your lodging voucher for another day. Once you’ve completed training, have your supervisor sign this form and return it to Lodging for employee verification.”

I accepted the forms, trying not to appear disappointed. Line assembly. I’d be putting stuff together after all. I just couldn’t picture myself doing such paltry work.

“Any chance in the future I might get into the plant?”

He shook his head. “Only very specific personnel are allowed into the plant. It’s not going to happen.”

Dan was waiting for me outside the placement center. “Where’d they put you?” he asked.

“Production. No luck with the plant.”

He smiled. “84-A?”

“Yeah,” I said. “How’d you guess?”

“That’s where they sent me. I told ‘em the same thing you did. Hoping we’d both get in the plant.”

“You said you had electrical experience?”

“Sure, why not?”

I chuckled. “Do you?”

“Let me tell you something, doggie…” He put his heavy arm over my shoulder as we walked back to the shuttle station. “There’s no job you can’t do here. It’s all easy shit. I just don’t want to do it alone. Being a slave is one thing. Being a slave alone, that’s the pits.”

Chapter 5

When I was a young man, working restaurants, delivering pizza, etcetera, I’d think a lot about the money I was racking up while I worked. I’d mentally tally my tips, trying to figure out how much I’d made so far, how much I’d averaged per-hour, and how much I could save by the end of the week. Money was novel back then, back when you could tuck some of it away, save a little bit. When you’re young, being broke is the norm. Anything above that is pure wealth.

Kids change everything, of course. If you’ve got kids, your pockets are empty. There’s no money to be saved, so the novelty is nil. Your base of operations is having enough money. Enough is plenty; the idea of a surplus is plain silliness.

Fail to make enough, though, and you’re in loser territory. And there’s no excuse by then; you can’t blame your parents, you can’t blame your situation, your race, your gender, your place in society. It doesn’t even matter that there are no jobs to begin with. It doesn’t matter that food is so expensive, that housing is so expensive. You can’t provide, you can’t pull your weight, and now you’re a failure. It’s a bad feeling. I know the feeling well.

Everything Inc. moves the baseline back to where it was when you were young. Money still lacks its former novelty, but at least the amount you’ve got will keep you clothed and fed. It’s like being back in your parents’ house; like regressing into comfortable, complacent childhood. Not a challenge to be had. Not the proudest place for a man to be either, but like Dan said, the pride is the door-charge. For a grown man who’s already been through the meat grinder, who’s already lost his house, his family, and who-knows-what-else, it’s a tough carrot to cough up. That might be the hardest part of the job.

The rest of the job is easy. Painfully easy. The necessary training, as the placement officer had put it, could hardly be considered training, and the job could hardly be considered work. Dan and I stood across from each other on the assembly line, repetitively performing our trivial duties. For me, I inserted a three-point pin into a three-hole plug. Pin goes into the plug, and I hit the red “done” button, adding one success to my hourly tally. The pieces moved on to my left, where Jack Johnson, a spiky-haired fellow in his mid-forties, wraps a strip of electrical tape around a group of wires, then hits the “done” button. Then on to Ronnie, with his sausage-fingers, who fiddles with a plastic hood until it clicks into place, “done” button. Then around the corner and on to Dan, whose job was to touch an alligator clamp to a screw and press a button. If the led-light lights properly, he sends it on down the line and hits the “done” button. If it doesn’t, he slides it back across to me, where I check to see if it’s plugged in right, then I send it back up to Jack to recheck his part, on to Ronnie, and so on.

The job was so simple, you could do it without using your brain. As long as you kept hitting that “done” button enough times per-hour, no one questioned your performance. At times we were quiet, just working like ants, each doing our little part. Other times the chat would start up and we’d be joking around, our hands working independently, leaving us free to bullshit.

We all shared our backgrounds, problems, failures, etcetera. As much as we were comfortable sharing, anyway. Dan revealed that he’d always wanted to be a writer, that he used to love to write fiction. He also told stories about his last run at Everything and how he’d had another go at the outside. It turned out Jack, who apparently hated being called JJ, had made a similar second attempt at the free world. “The grass is always greener,” Jack had said. “And really, it ain’t. I’ve been back and forth enough, believe me. You get fucked either way, just in different positions.” Dan agreed—the grass isn’t any greener out there. It was scorched earth out there. You couldn’t dig yourself up a turnip out there. “You’d sooner dig yourself up a dollar,” I said.

“I hear ya,” said Ronnie. He said that after almost everything I said.

“You’d sooner dig yourself up a nice new shovel,” said Dan.

Chapter 6

Back at my room after a long shift, the loneliness seeped back into my thoughts. The walls seemed closer than ever. I had this overwhelming urge to kick my door off the hinges. Not even to leave, but just to have that open space in my doorway to ease the close-quarters cramp. The second it crossed my mind, I heard the boots of the uniformity officer clumping by. Having your door open after curfew would earn you a nasty fine, leaving you scratching for weeks before you were back up to speed. Claustrophobia or not, it was prohibitively expensive to break the rules.

The clumps continued down the hall and around the corner and then they were gone. I allowed myself a moment to feel the childish resentment of being locked in my bedroom. The point of these rules seemed less about uniformity than about subtracting one’s dignity. Too much dignity would be a bane to a place like this. You had to be a genuinely beaten man to allow yourself to be locked in your bedroom after dark. A few years ago, I’d never have been ready for it. But now, here I was. I was that guy.

I sat down and yanked the laces on my boots and kicked them off onto the floor.

Knock knock…

I thought the noise had been my boots landing at first, but then I heard the knocking again.

Knock knock knock…

I listened. The noise was coming from the closet.

I stood up. “Someone in there?”

Knock knock knock…

I walked over and opened the closet door. The knocking was coming from the other side of the wall. I leaned in and knocked back.

“Heya doggie,” came the muffled response from the adjacent room.

“Dan?”

“You sleeping?”

“No, I’m up.”

“I feel like a kid sent to his room,” he said.

“It’s like you’ve been reading my mind.”

“How ‘bout a little mischief?” he asked.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Let’s make a little hole.”

“A hole?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean in the wall?”

“Yeah.”

“What? We can’t do that!”

“Keep quiet, they’ll hear us.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“That’s why I wanna make a hole. We can chat through it. Without being loud.”

“We’ll get tossed in the street, Dan.”

“I’m in my closet too, doggie. There’s no way for ‘em to find out.”

I thought about that. The closets were the one place off-limits to the inspectors. It was the only place in the room you could lock up your personal belongings. Theoretically, you could do whatever you wanted in there, and it was your own, personal business.

“I don’t know, Dan.”

“Just hold on a minute…”

I heard some scratching around behind there. Moments later, the blade of a long screwdriver thunked through my side of the wall. A little burst of dust hung in the air.

“Lucky it’s just sheetrock,” I heard him say. And he began winding the screwdriver around, widening the hole.

“This is bad,” I said.

“Nothing back here, no wires, plumbing, nothing. Just a couple sheets of wallboard. Easy as pie.”

Of course that wasn’t what I was afraid of. I was afraid of getting fired, of failing yet again. This was my only backup plan. If I’d run all the way to Enterprise only to become a failure again, I was truly finished.

The screwdriver withdrew, leaving a hole about the width of a silver dollar.

“Not too dusty, I hope,” Dan said.

“This is a bad idea, Dan.”

“Hear you much easier now.”

“Seriously, this is not good…”

The boots were approaching again. We both stood silently waiting for the officer to pass the other way down the hallway.

When he had gone, Dan said: “Well, what’re we drinking?”

“Very funny,” I said.

“Don’t worry, doggie, I’m buying. Hold on just a minute.”

The screwdriver came back through the wall.

“No, Dan, I hear you fine,” I said. “That’s it, that’s plenty.”

“Just another inch,” he said. “Keep your ears open for boots.”

I stood back. Rivulets of dust poured from the widening hole onto the carpet. I was faintly nauseated now. If we got caught, I could say I had nothing to do with it. My neighbor was crazy, that’s all it was. He went nuts and started stabbing the wall. It would be the truth, too. Dan was obviously losing his mind.

But there was no stopping him. Resigned, I went and put my ear against the front door. No one nearby. The uniformity officer must have been pretty well across the building. And on the positive side, it was highly unlikely anyone would complain if they heard the noise. The tenants regarded the staff more like predators than security.

The scratching finally stopped. “You there, doggie?”

His voice was clear now, almost like he was right there in my room. I went back to the closet. The hole was significantly larger now.

“Oh God,” I said.

“Success,” said Dan.

A moment later, a dark brown cylinder protruded from the wall.

“Can you get ahold of it?” he asked.

The moment I touched it, I knew exactly what it was. It was a cold, glass beer bottle. With a thwunk, I pulled it through the hole.

“Where did you get this?”

“Guy I know from last time through. Snuck up a twelver.”

“How’d you get it past security?” There was a security guard at the entrance that checked everyone’s bags, and alcohol was one of the many prohibited items.

“I gave the guard a few.”

“You bribed him?”

“He might be security, but he’s still a man. And men like beer, don’t they?”

A bottle opener presented itself through the hole. I took it. With a beer in one hand and an opener in the other, I was suddenly less dubious. After all, he was right. Men love beer, and I was no exception.

“It’s a tough system,” said Dan. “But every system’s got weaknesses. Just gotta find the soft spots.” He wagged a finger through the hole he’d made in the wall. I had to grin.

Chapter 7

After a cheap breakfast of Everything-brand cereal and Everything-brand eggs, we were shuttled off to 84-A, greeted by the acrid chemical odor of plastic fumes. We filed out of the cars and onto the platform.

Vendors in their bodegas sleepily offered us coffees for two credits apiece. The small cup I’d had at breakfast wasn’t doing the trick, not after the four beers I’d had last night with Dan. I bought a coffee, dark and oily in a paper cup, and signed my name and pin to authorize a debit to my account. Curious, I hung behind at the coffee stand a minute.

“How do you do here?” I asked the man, a haggard, bearded fellow in his sixties.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Money-wise,” I said. “Not to be nosy.”

“You must be new.”

“Yeah, I’m new.”

He stroked his scraggly beard. “Same as you, one way or another. What do you do?”

“Production,” I said.

“What do you get? Money-wise.”

“2000 a month.”

“Alright, so I sell maybe a hundred cups a day. That’s two hundred credits, seven days a week. That’s 5,600 credits.”

I practically recoiled at the thought of it. That was 3,600 more than I was making in production, what was I doing there? He seemed to pick up on the entrepreneurial notions sailing through my mind.

“Everything brand coffee costs me about 1000 a month. Renting the space runs me another 1500.”

I did the math. “Alright, so you still take home 1,100 more credits than I do.”

“Then the so-called affluence tax. There’s another 750 gone.”

“Affluence tax?”

“They whack you with that one at 2,600 after fees. Brings my take-home down to 2,350.”

“Still beats my salary,” I said.

“How many days you work?” he asked.

“Six.”

“And I work seven,” he said. “So unless your time’s not worth anything, you’re making more per-hour than I am.”

He was right. Eight extra hours a week he worked, that’s thirty-two more hours a month. For a measly 350 credits. It wasn’t even close to worth it.

I walked away with more than just a cup of coffee—talk about waking up. So what could you possibly do here to get ahead? All you could make was just the amount you needed. All you could afford were the products Everything provided at discount prices. Paycheck to paycheck, that was the only way you could live.

I sighed, dissipating the steam of my coffee cup. Well… at least you could live.

Chapter 8

We worked all day in the plasticine steam, (which did little to settle my hangover) assembling parts for Everything’s line of children’s toys. Little plastic houses, with little plastic doors. In our usual spots, I had the easiest task of all—I plugged the pin into the jack. DONE. Jack screwed together the little working doorbells you fastened next to the doors. Easy enough. A little circuit board, a battery, and a switch-button. He’d heat up the beads on the switch wires with a soldering iron and drop on the leads. By the time the assembly reached Dan, he pressed the button to make sure it went “ding-dong,” and if it did, “done” button. The next guy along fixed it into the door. Just like that. All day long.

“So check it out,” said Jack. “How many of these things are we cranking out an hour?”

“Ten?” I guessed.

“About that. And we’re making 8.33 an hour, four of us, to build ten of ‘em. That means, excluding materials, it costs Everything around three and a quarter to get one of these things built.”

He looked at Ronnie, installing the battery fastener. “Ronnie, how much you figure the raw materials to be?”

“I dunno, JJ…maybe five creds?

“Sounds about right. And don’t call me that. And what’s the retail, Ronnie?”

“Twenty-nine ninety-five, JJ.”

“Ding dong,” went Dan.

“And with our employee discount?” I asked.

“You thinking about having some kids, Paulie? In a place like this?”

“Just curious.”

“Half-price,” said Ronnie. Fifteen, give or take.”

“Fifteen,” said Jack. “Costs ‘em about eight and a quarter. Hundred-percent markup.”

“Some discount,” Ronnie said. “Some great act of altruism.”

“Altru-what?”

“There’s just no way to make money,” I said. “It’s like the whole thing’s designed to keep you running in place. Enough to get by, but that’s it.”

“That’s the idea,” said Jack. “And even if you could, what’re you gonna do, stick credits under your mattress? It just don’t work.”

“Why would you do that?” said a new guy down the line. “Aren’t they safe in your account?”

Both Jack and Ronnie chuckled at that. “You’re green as a baby twig,” Jack said.

“Too much in your account,” Ronnie said, “and they’ll whack you with the tax-axe. A credit over 2,600 at any time, and you get nailed for 750. I’ve seen it happen.”

“I heard about this,” I said. “Just this morning, from a coffee guy.”

“The coffee guys get it bad,” Jack said. “Cold months like this, they make a killing, but they cut ‘em right back down to size. 3,200, and they whack ‘em with a thousand-credit fee. 4,000, and it’s a 1,500 credit fee. And it just goes up.”

“Boom,” said Dan. “No matter how hard you try, we all walk home with the same little bag of shells.”

Twelve hours, we were at it. By the time I got back to the hive, my legs were wet cardboard. The guys had all told me I’d get used to it, and I hoped they were right. If they were, it couldn’t happen soon enough.

Taking a break on the way up the stairwell, a fire escape map caught my eye. I leaned on the railing a minute and studied it.

YOU ARE HERE, it said. It pictured an example of all 20 floors of the building. The hives were all colossal L-shapes, like the old strip malls of my youth, only much, much bigger. Leaning in closely, I counted up the units. Each floor contained roughly 200 rooms like mine and Dan’s. I also noted the extra-small units I’d heard about in the crook of the L, by the laundry and storage/utility units, and at the ends of the building. There were 20 of those per-floor. So 220 units per floor, times 20, was 4,400 units per building. As big as some towns.

Up on my floor, I glanced down the long hallway, full of doors. Everything perfectly uniform and grimly quiet. Strange to imagine there were so many people behind these doors, like sleeping bees in a colossal honeycomb.

Chapter 9

The job so mechanical, the hours so long, and everything so uniform, the days seemed to amalgamate into single, week-long shifts. If it weren’t for Dan and me gathering in our closets for beer most nights, the tedium would have been intolerable. I mentioned coughing up the pride was the hardest part of the job; well, the second-hardest part is the monotony. The third-hardest is the long hours upright. Standing at the line all day will get you acquainted with every last bone in your feet, and you’ll wonder how they’ve held you up as long as they have. Everything Inc. advertises that the employees are the bones of the organization. The employees like to say: “sure, they walk all over us without even knowing it.” Well, if they walked on my foot-bones, they’d know it.

“At least my job is stimulating,” Dan said one morning on the line.

We all looked queerly at him, like what the hell is he going on about now? Dan touched the alligator clip to his nipple and feigned electrocution, earning a couple snorts of amusement up and down the line. He’d never let it stay quiet for too long without cracking some sort of joke. On an assembly line, humor is always worth the effort. Orwell said it best: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” And since that was all the revolution we could manage, every snicker was a little badge of victory.

Dan had told me that day outside of Placement: being a slave is one thing, but being a slave alone is the pits. It was true; sure, we were working, but with the guys around to bullshit with, life in the trenches could be tolerable. The line was our own little social club, and we made the best of it that we could. We were all there because we had to be, but that was no reason not to enjoy the company.

As for hive-life, Dan kept pushing beers through the wall, and I sure as hell kept pulling them out. I felt bad sometimes that the other guys couldn’t be there with us. Even if they’d been in adjacent rooms, their closets would have been facing in the other directions. It was luck that Dan and I had ended up with our closets staggered together the way they were. I did feel lucky, but I resented the fact that the other guys couldn’t be part of it.

“I’ve heard the Japanese sleep in drawers,” said Dan. “At least we get to sleep in prison cells. Could be worse, ya know.”

I’d cleaned up the dust from the sheetrock and hung a little picture over the hole for good measure. Now, with Dan in his closet feeding me beers, the closet was like the little arcade-nook back at the Drug Fair of my childhood. It was the new, happening place to be.

“Gets you to work on time,” I said. “With the rooms so small, you can’t wait to get out of here in the morning. Even if it’s just to stand on the line all day.”

“I’d like to get out right now,” Dan said. “Go prowl the streets. Screw up the uniformity.” I heard the grin in his voice.

“That homeless guy you pointed to,” I said. “On the bus. How did he manage to sneak out at night like you said?”

“Dave? He bribed his way around, same as I do to get these beers up here. Only he pushed his luck.” His chair creaked. “Think about it. A few bucks here, a six-pack there; you can get people to turn their heads the other way, but once you start making noise, the stakes are raised. They want bigger bribes, you ask for bigger favors, and before you know it, the system’s broke, and you’re more trouble than you’re worth. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet some of those guards moved to get Dave caught, maybe got him nabbed out on the street like he’d never signed back in. Only a guess though.”

“And you thought he might’ve died?”

“Died? Why’s that?”

“You said something like you were glad he was still above ground.”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant. I meant I was glad to see he was up on the street. Some of those channel rats never come up at all.”

“Channel rats?”

“The channels, underground. Old flood channels down there, some kind of drainage system. That’s where the old hobos squat to keep away from the cops. I’ve heard the real crazies never come out at all. So Dave might be homeless, and guaranteed he’s still the same crazy bastard, but at least he still comes up for his Vitamin D.”

“No kidding. How many people live down there?”

“Underground? Who knows?” He took a few long gulps. “He could’ve died too, I suppose, those bad habits’ll get you eventually. And Vitamin D deficiency.” his chair squeaked. “You know these studs are near twenty inches apart?” he said.

“What’s that?”

“The wall studs,” he said. I heard him knocking at the wall.

“Well, the place is still standing, isn’t it?”

“Nah, that ain’t what I’m getting at. I’m thinking I could cut a whole doorway here. Imagine how much more comfortable it’d be with a nice little doorway.”

“Sure would,” I said, chuckling.

“Nah, I’m serious.”

“What?”

“Yeah, seriously.”

That anxious feeling crept back into my stomach. “No, come on. There’s no way we could get away with that, that’s crazy.”

“Starting to believe quite the opposite, little doggie. I say a hole’s as good as a door and a door’s as good as a hole.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But there’s no way that—”

Before I could finish my sentence, a drywall saw was poking through the hole. Then it was sawing sideways.

“Dammit, Dan…” There was no stopping him. Enough beer in the guy, and Dan was a freight train.

“You crazy bastard, where the hell did you get a saw?”

I got up and listened at the door, shaking my head. Is he really doing this?

When he had finished, there was a narrow opening between our rooms, cut to the metal studs. And there he was, standing in his underwear.

“Christ.”

“Now ain’t that nice?” he said, admiring his work. He coughed.

I realized I had sweat right through my shirt. “You’re out of your mind, Dan… If you get us in—”

“There’s no way for ‘em to know. The closets are our business, doggie. Looks like we got one over on ‘em after all.” The look of pleasure on his face was disarming. If I was appalled, the emotion was impossible to hang on to for long. Maybe we had gotten one over. And besides, what was done was done.

“And what the hell are we supposed to do with all this wallboard?”

Dan broke his sheet over his knee into two pieces and dropped them into the rectangular hole between our floors. They fell a story and landed on whatever brace was between the studs. I winced at the impact.

“Downstairs is the night shift,” he said. “No one there to hear it.”

I took a deep breath. He was right, there was no one down there this time of night. I broke my side of the wall in two pieces and dropped them down the hole as well. I felt a cool waft of the trapped air ride up between the walls.

“Well, come on in,” Dan said. “Sorry, I wasn’t dressed for company.”

Chapter 10

Sometimes we’d hang out in his room, sometimes in mine, always a case of beer between our swivel chairs, which we’d carry room-to-room like briefcases. Dan’s room was a mirror-image of mine, but you could tell the difference by the condition he kept it in. His suitcase sat half-unpacked; he’d only taken out a few shirts, a stack of his novels, and this little “go-bag,” as he called it. It was a bag of emergency stuff, just in case he got himself in a bad situation he needed to get out of quickly. A flashlight, various tools, and his favorite toy: a locksmith’s pick-tool. A “lock-gun,” he called it. “Some people call it a lock-out tool, but I think of it as more of a break-in tool, doggie.”

I’d tease him about the go-bag, but he was unflappable in its defense. “You should have one too” he’d tell me. It seemed the hallmark of the chronic troublemaker, and that, he’d certainly proven to be.

Once he’d drank enough, he’d invariably bring up his discarded literary ambitions, sometimes with humor, more often with undertones of regret. He never told me just why he’d given up writing in the first place, only that it had been a kind of “bad habit” for him. Things just hadn’t worked out the way they were supposed to have, I supposed. I supposed they hadn’t for anyone around here.

I’d still have the occasional twinge of loneliness from time to time; this lingering grip of regret for all I’d left behind. The precious and the broken alike. But just the same, I’d have occasional twinges of thankfulness. It wasn’t so bad, relatively speaking. I wasn’t alone, not altogether so. Not at all, actually. I’d been more alone on the outside, at least since the enchilada went ahead and fell apart. And I wasn’t the failure I’d been on the outside, not necessarily. Not anymore. Not here.

Failure. When I was a kid, the big thing at all the fast food places was the dollar menu. Once the meat was all but plastic, all the burger joints could do to stay competitive was to drop the prices to a buck. A patty of who-knew-what, a pickle, a dollop of ketchup and a bun. One dollar.

I remember thinking that no matter how bad things got, you could never starve in this country. If your kids were hungry, you could take them to McDonald’s and feed them for pennies. You could sit in one of those colorful plastic booths and eat dinner with them, and they’d enjoy it too. And you wouldn’t be a failure, not that night; at least you wouldn’t seem like one. You might know deep down that you were good for nothing, but the kids wouldn’t know it. At the time, it was a comfort to me. If only that were all it took to keep a family together. A few burgers and my own goodwill.

Dan was already out and about by the time I woke up on Saturday. He’d planned to sit out in the park area and read his sci-fi anthology until the sun went down. “Tanking up,” he called it. “To keep the brains flexible.” God knew, we didn’t flex our brains too hard during the week. I thought I ought to start reading again too, maybe not all day, but a little here and there, just to keep my own brains flexible. But first, I needed to pick up some provisions.

The cafeteria was closed on weekends, so I bought a can of coffee from the vending machine in the lobby for two credits and checked out at the front desk and hit the street.

I recognized a couple  of people from my floor on the way to the markets and I waved hello. They waved back tentatively, checking around for security and uniformity officers who might deem the gesture suspicious. All around, an air of quiet complacency seemed to keep everyone facing strictly forward. As I walked, I felt this sensation of boredom; not my own boredom, but this looming fog of malaise. The uniformity, the security, it seemed to infect everyone and everything. A little black bird landed to peck at a crumple of paper on the sidewalk, then flew away again, apropos of nothing.

Uniformly arranged rows of shelving at the market. Everything Inc. used this drab packaging that left the boxes of food difficult to identify without seeing the pictures up close. Boxes of macaroni with their packets of powdered cheese seemed popular; a whole row dedicated to what I’d heard called “Kraft dinners,” disheveled on the shelves. I took two, four credits apiece. I had about 100 credits I could spend without breaking my budget for the week.

I picked up a carton of milk, a box of cereal, granola bars, dried apples, cheese, bread and eggs. I thought my basket looked pretty pathetic, so I went back and took a couple more Kraft dinners. On the way to the register, I grabbed a tin of instant coffee. My bill came out just under budget. I left with my backpack full of provisions and continued on my walk around the square.

There was a bookstore. I hadn’t seen one of them in a long time. Remembering my promise to start reading again, I wove through the crowd to get there. Inside, the selection was sparse. As far as fiction was concerned, the shelves were dominated by the classics, re-published by Everything Press in bland, uniform covers. All paperback. I tilted out a copy of Moby Dick, a book I’d never finished, but had always planned to read again. I checked the price on the back cover—ten credits. I read the first few paragraphs with this strange sense of guilt I didn’t understand right away. I looked around the bookstore; there were only four other patrons. Just the five of us, hiding between the shelves, taking secretive little peeks into books. Maybe it was the idea of peeking into a world outside the institutional greys and whites of Enterprise, where uniformity fell only into the structures of paragraphs and pages. The guilt was that of attempting an escape. I took the book to the register and presented my card, somehow harboring this illogical notion that I would be caught doing it.

On the way back to the building, my copy of Moby Dick hidden securely in my backpack, I planned to cook a box of macaroni and cheese using two of the paltry cheese packets; one from the original box, and one from another. Along with my new novel, two traitorous acts against the status quo. But before I turned back to the building, I thought I’d take a walk around the rest of the hive, just to have a look around.

The residential district was comprised of a number of massive buildings just like mine, roughly the same shape and size. Likely the same number of units—4,400 of them each—although it was impossible to know for sure. I counted eight buildings on my walk back and tried doing the math in my head. That was 4,400 x 8. 32,320 units for the employees at Everything Inc. I’d heard there were 50,000, but there couldn’t have been that many units in the hive. 35,000 maximum, I figured, and even that was pushing it. Maybe there was another residential area in an area of town I hadn’t seen. There would have to have been.

I’d have liked to do some more exploration, but with only one day off a week, and as tired as I was on that day, there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to snoop around. I was curious about the power plant on the west side of town. What was so secretive about it? I wanted to take a walk around it, not to try and get inside or anything, only to walk the perimeter. Only to know whatever it was that they didn’t want me to know. Dan did enough sneaking around himself, didn’t he? I was tired of being a sucker. I ought to be a little more like Dan, I thought.

Chapter 11

My feet had mercifully begun to adjust to all the standing, so I decided to walk back to the hive one day after work. If I kept a brisk pace, I should have no trouble getting back before curfew.

The daytime heat was lifting quickly, bringing behind it the dry, uninsulated desert cold. The crenelated shadows of the hive buildings stretched across the asphalt in the moonlight like the teeth of a giant beast. 4,400 units each. Dim little lights in all the tiny prison windows. I was reminded again how there only could have been 35,200 units, and wondered again how there could possibly be 50,000 employees in only that amount of space. Something about it was unsettling. It shouldn’t have been; I was sure there was a perfectly good explanation for it, but it continued to eat at me.

Dan was already good and buzzed by the time I got back. I thought of bringing up the employee conundrum, but he had his own dilemma he wanted to talk about.

He polished off his beer in just a couple of swigs. “I wanted to be a writer. Have I told you that, doggie?” He belched loudly.

“Yeah, you told me.”

Some of the books I’d seen in his room were about writers. A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, On Writing by Stephen King, that kind of stuff. Even if he’d never brought it up, I’d have figured he probably picked up a pen himself at one point or another.

He reached for another beer and snapped off the cap and promptly drank down half the bottle. “Writing. That was my only ever bad habit.” He belched again.

“That was it, huh?”

“I’d think up stories while I was working and sit down after dinner and type ‘em out. Debbie hated it, she wanted me to watch her shows with her.”

“What kind of stuff did you write?”

“Eh, I don’t know. Wrote this one story where this kid, this kid that gets picked on a lot in school, he’s walking home one day, and there’s this old toilet perched on someone’s curb, waiting to be picked up by the garbage man, you know?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, well… So the kid’s walking by, and he hears something funny. And he turns to look, but it’s just the toilet bowl standing there. So he starts to walk again, but he hears the noise, and he turns to look, and there’s the toilet with the lid moving up and down. So he goes closer…”

“Yeah…”

“And closer… And the lid lifts up a little and the toilet goes ‘Randy,’ because that’s the kid’s name, ‘Randy, I know what they say to you. I know what they do to you at school. And I know how to make them stop.’ and Randy, the kid, he thinks he’s seeing things, right?”

“Right…”

Dan took a long swig. “So Randy leans closer to the old toilet bowl. He goes: ‘I’ve lost my mind.’ And the toilet bowl says, ‘I am Flushtor from the planet…’ well, I forget what the planet was called, but the point is, it’s not a toilet. It’s an alien. It just looks exactly like a toilet. The whole race looks like toilets.”

“Should’ve been Planet Porcelain,” I said.

Dan grinned and took another swig. “That’s ridiculous, Pauly, it would’ve made the whole thing unbelievable. Anyway, the aliens are telepathic, so it was able to read Randy’s thoughts, you know? So it teaches him how to overthrow the bullies at school and everything. You get the idea.”

“I love it.”

“Eh…” Dan finished his beer and dangled the bottle off the side of the chair. “I quit all that, I told you, it was a bad habit.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“… The whole time I was sitting there writing, I never considered why the hell I was doing it. The minute I did, I realized I had no answer. Debbie was right, I was crazy. Because there was no real reason to do what I was doing. No one was ever going to buy it or print it or anything. No one even read stories anymore. So when I really asked myself why, the only real answer I could come up with was that I was amusing myself.” He held up his hands as if to say he didn’t know. “So here we are, the wife and I, sitting in separate rooms and I’m just amusing myself. It’s masturbation, is what it is.”

“You know Moby Dick wasn’t regarded as a great book until after Melville died.”

“Sure, I know that. Not sure why, but…”

“Things change. The book didn’t change, everyone else did. Suddenly, Moby Dick is a masterpiece.”

Dan nodded for a moment. “So what’re you gettin’ at, doggie?”

“Well maybe you thought you were just amusing yourself, but what if you were doing something bigger than that?” I polished off my beer and slipped the bottle into an empty six-pack. “Maybe Mellville’s old lady told him he was wasting his time when the critics started shitting on him. But her opinion isn’t so important now, is it?”

He grinned, staring glassily into space for a second. “So you’re saying Flushtor could’ve been the next Moby Dick?”

“Well, it could’ve been something.”

He considered it a minute.

“So you’re saying I should give it another go?”

“Shit, I’ll read it.”

That seemed to bring his eyes into focus. Some glimmer of something that wasn’t there before. It may have actually sobered him up a bit.

“I don’t know, Pauly. I haven’t had much luck with second tries.”

“I haven’t had much luck with anything,” I said. “But whatever you’re chasing…”

He grinned. “You’re smarter than you look, you know that, Paulo?”

Chapter 12

At a quarter past midnight, well-past the time when all the day-shift guys were supposed to be sleeping, two sets of Everything-issued boots began their tapdance down the hallway. Dan and I met eyes; it wasn’t unusual to hear the boots stepping down the hall late at night, but there seemed to be purpose in these steps, not the leisurely pace they normally took, but like a couple of fish flopping on the floor of a boat. And then they stopped. Right in front of my door.

Knock knock knock. “Mister Harper?”

I motioned for Dan to hurry back to his room, but he didn’t move. He only sat there grinning.

“Mister Harper, we have the right to open this door without your permission. So you could either do it, or we’ll do it for you.”

I glared at Dan, still unmoving, only grinning back at me. What was he thinking? Were the officers bluffing? If they opened the door and saw us both in here, we’d be in trouble. We could be launched right out into the street, he understood that, didn’t he? The old sentiment flitted through my mind; that inevitable conclusion, wherein my mind, all paths seemed to lead. Was I about to become a failure? Again?

It was too late.

The door opened. Two of the sharply-dressed officers stood in the doorway, wide-eyed at the scene. “You’re in violation of Code Ten,” one said.

“And Thirteen,” said the other, eyeing the empty beer bottles.

“Yeah,” said Dan. “I suppose you’re right.”

I had no reply. There was no defending ourselves; we’d willingly broken the bylaws, and now we were in trouble. But Dan seemed calm as ever.

The officers looked queerly at each other. Neither of them paid attention to the closet. They only knew that Dan had illegally left his own room and I’d let him in mine.

“You’ll both be fined a full week’s credits in accordance with the Hive Bylaws. Further violations will result in steeper penalties. A second violation will result in—”

“You get paid commission for handing out fines?” Dan asked.

The officers looked confused. “We’re salary,” one said, “same as everyone else.”

“So what do you have to gain by fining good guys like us besides bad karma? I’ll tell you what, how about a little gratuity for a job well done…”

Dan pulled out his wallet. “Off the books,” he said, and took out a fifty-dollar bill. They seemed staggered by just the sight of it. I must have too. The officer that had spoken looked at the other officer. He nodded.

“Of course the real reward is being good to your fellow man,” Dan said.

Silently, the officer held out his hand.

The officers left, fifty dollars richer. Tax-free money. The kind you could stuff under your mattress.

It was a minute before I had my nerves settled enough to talk. I couldn’t believe he’d had the balls to do what he’d done. Granted, I might have felt differently if it hadn’t worked, but it had.

“Where did you get the cash?” I asked him.

“I’ve been hanging on to that bill,” Dan said. “You gotta get the officers good and filthy if you want to stretch out a little.” He linked his fingers through his long hair and put his boots up on my end table. “Like a hunter. Gotta wait for the perfect moment to strike.”

The fifty had marked them like a cattle prod, Dan explained; certified corrupt. We’d forged an agreement, the four of us, and we all had each other by the balls. It couldn’t be allowed to escalate, he told me, not like it had for Dave. But as long as we kept quiet, they’d keep quiet too.

“What if they come back looking for more?” I asked.

“You know what kind of jobs are reserved for dirty law-enforcement?” There was a satisfied smirk on his face. “Let ‘em come back looking for more. They’d sooner dig up a turnip.”

I would sooner dig up a turnip than explain the mixture of feelings going through my head at that moment. I knew how I wanted to feel; I wanted to be thankful. I wanted to high-five Dan for a job well-done. But how I really felt was more complicated than that. It was so clear to me at that moment that I’d never have been able to do it by myself. How never in my life had I been able to open my mouth and make anything notable happen, let alone urge anyone in a particular direction. And as thankful as I was to have the officers off our backs, I wished I could have made it happen myself, or at least helped. I just wasn’t made of the same stuff Dan was. And that’s why I’d been a failure. That’s why I hadn’t even opened my mouth as I saw my family slipping away. If only I’d been made of different stuff, maybe everything would have been different. Maybe Dr. Thurmond’s money wouldn’t even have mattered to us.

“There’s always a weakness, doggie.”

Chapter 13

The powers-that-be at Everything Inc. offered a constant flow of opposing force to us workers, like a tolerable storm whose winds never died down. While Dan and I did our best to make our stay as comfortable as possible, there were always new rules, always stricter guidelines, and they never seemed to be for any necessary reason. It was like they only wanted to make it more difficult not to get in trouble.

You always had the feeling you were being watched. Maybe not literally watched, but monitored somehow. They seemed to know when you were at home, know when you’re sleeping, know when you’re up. The television would just pop on by itself when there was something they wanted you to see. That’s how I learned about the new “Performance Policy Amendment” one morning.

The face on the screen was our benevolent president, Len Carter, smiling that precarious smile of his. Always seeming to teeter between personalities. Dan had explained to me that the people behind those smiles were always dangerous. “Bit like a gator gar,” he’d said. And if he hadn’t told me that, it never would have occurred to me, naive as I was.

“As employees of Everything Incorporated, you are entitled to be informed of all policy updates. Regarding our performance policy, a few minor updates have been instituted to preserve and maintain the quality of our products and services. To pre-frame these adjustments, I’ll restate that at Everything Inc., our model is to never ask too much of our employees. All of our jobs are designed to be easily performable by anyone of any age or gender, given proper training. It is our strict policy never to ask too much of our workers, and to provide the means and materials to offer a reasonable day’s work. If for any reason an employee is unable to work with reasonable expectations, adjustments may be made, or a transfer to another job may be completed. If you feel that you qualify for an adjustment or transfer, ask your supervisor. Otherwise, an employee chronically un-productive will be administered a series of strikes. Once an employee reaches his or her third strike, he or she will be rejected from his or her position and his or her lodging will then be forfeit. That is all.”

   I knew Dan was probably seeing the same thing next door. I wondered what he thought of it. Vague enough, yet deliberate enough to seem both innocuous and threatening at once, like a tornado watch in an unlikely place. But with the tension at Everything Inc. seeming to stiffen all of a sudden, you got this feeling like there was an axe falling, ever so slowly, over all us slaving losers. Reinforcing the notion was my quiet suspicion that there wasn’t quite the number of employees at Everything Inc. as advertised. There just wasn’t enough room, and with all the new people constantly coming in, there must be an increasing pressure to get the old ones out. I sounded conspiratorial to myself, but I was also tired of being so naive. It seemed to me that the hurdle for acceptable production was slowly being raised. It would have to be.

Chapter 14

“How many employees does Everything have here?” I asked Jack, already knowing what his answer would be.

“50,000 on average,” he said.

“I told you that already,” said Dan.

“But do they all live in the hive? Is there any other residential area in Enterprise?”

“Nah,” said Ronnie. “They’re strict about that. They like to know where everyone’s at.”

“That’s how they keep their thumb on top of you,” Jack affirmed.

“I was thinking about it. There’s just no way 50,000 people live in the hive.”

“On average,” said Ronnie. “People come and go. This ain’t for everyone, ya know.”

“My building has 4,400 units. If all the buildings are like mine, that’s eight buildings with 4,400 units. That’s 35,200, maximum. So where are all the rest?”

“Hell,” Ronnie said. “If I was any good at math, you think I’d be here?”

“Hell yeah, you would,” said Jack.

“I’m just curious,” I said. “Doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe there’re more units in some of the other buildings,” Dan said. “Ronnie, what building are you in?”

“Four,” said Ronnie.

“Alright,” I said. “So when you go home later, have a look at the chart in the stairwell. You should be able to figure it out.”

“What about that plant?” Dan said. “Supposed to be exclusive people working the plant. Maybe they live somewhere else?”

“Could be,” I said. “But not 14,800 of them.”

“I live in building six,” said Jack. “I’ll check my chart too.”

“If it turns out the buildings are the same,” Dan went on, “You’re right, Pauly. That’s a little strange.”

“Any of ‘em shack up in the same room?” asked Jack.

“No way,” said Ronnie. “Against the bylaws, one man per-room. Don’t need any of us working idiots coming up with conspiracies and shaking things up.”

I got the knock a little later than usual that night. By now, I’d been conditioned like a lab rat to get my beer on time. Not the healthiest habit, but hey, I breathed plastic fumes all day long. If something was going to do me in they’d find my lungs turned to Tupperware before they worried about my liver. Classic rationalization, Paul Harper. I got up and unlocked the closet door.

“Where you been, Dan?”

Dan had stayed behind after work. I knew he was going to get beer in any case; still, he usually got back a lot earlier than this.

“Scribbling a little bit.”

“Writing?”

He sat down and handed me a beer and opened one himself. He looked like he’d had a couple already. “This whole place. It’s not really the rules themselves that bother me, it’s the restrictions you put on yourself to deal with them. You know what I mean?”

“Not really,” I said.

He sighed, took a drink. “You get up and go to work, work all day, then come home and go to bed. It’s the mindset you have to put yourself in to live like this. It costs more than just your pride. You gotta give up your aspirations, your expectations, your creativity. Because how could you live with those things? You can’t take care of ‘em. You can’t feed ‘em. They’d end up dying like neglected pets.”

I nodded. “They kind of own you.”

“Well I can’t do it doggie.” He chugged his whole beer and belched. “I remember Debbie telling me I was crazy for writing my stories, and that day I decided she was right. I guessed there was no point in writing my stories, fine. But what was the point in anything? Getting up, working, breaking even at best. What’s the point? There was no point. I was writing because I liked to.”

“Seems like a good enough reason to me.”

“No reason. You know how you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, Paulie? Because you’re doing it for no reason. Because there’s no point to it. Like breathing.”

“Pretty sure there’s a point to breathing,” I said.

“Bad example. You know what I mean.”

I did. I must’ve looked confused for a second because I was wondering what exactly it was for me; what did I enjoy? What did I do for no reason. “I get it,” I said.

“So you wanna read it?”

“Your story? Yeah, absolutely.”

He set down his beer and went through the closet into his room and came back with a short stack of paper and handed it to me. I took it. At the top of the first page it said: Flushtor: The John From Space

“I’ll read it right now if you let me.”

“I got my beer,” he said. “Have at it.”

So I read it. It was better than I thought it would be. Sure, it was loaded with puns—I never figured an alien would be such a potty mouth—but just like Dan, it was a good time and funny as hell. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t until later that I admitted to myself that I enjoyed it more than most of Moby Dick. And even later that I realized why I’d stopped reading like I used to in the first place.

It had been sometime during that period between when money meant something, and then suddenly didn’t. This period of dissipating novelty during which the cement and aggregate of life turns everything concrete. Imagination becomes kidstuff. Years go by. You lose things. You think you’re moving forward, but inevitably, you lose more than you gain.

I was lying in bed when that thought came to me; word by word, like a line of moving prose. My eyes opened wide, staring up at the darkness.

Chapter 15

After doing my errands on Saturday, I thought I’d explore Enterprise a little more. On the far side of town I found an Internet cafe, something I’d heard about from the guys on the line. In the outside world, Internet cafes were things of the past, long-extinct since the Web became so mainstream. But here, without any signals not Everything’s own, access to the Internet was exclusive and strictly limited. By the time I went in and sat down in front of a computer, I’d forgotten all the things I wanted to look up. What I remembered was that anything I browsed would be tied directly to my account, so I’d have to be careful not to type in anything that made me appear suspicious or traitorous. Big brother was always watching.

But what harm was there in being interested in the company I worked for? I typed in “Enterprise power plant.” What I found didn’t seem particularly curious or secretive.

Enterprise was largely powered by gas, including the electricity, also generated by gas; highly advanced technology developed by Everything Energy, an Everything company; completely self-sufficient. All I could dig up about the technology was that it had its roots in old landfill methane-extraction. Some of this I’d known already; you could see all the garbage trucks in town carrying loads of waste to the plant for composting. Big deal. So what was the trouble with letting people work there? To protect the top-secret technology?

Just out of curiosity, I typed in “methane gas energy technology,” expecting to see some giant deposit under Nevada, but there wasn’t one. Could it be that all the methane came from a landfill? All of Enterprise’s garbage?

By the time I asked myself that question, I had used eighteen credits-worth of Internet. It wasn’t worth it. With the Internet so prohibitively expensive, if there was something you needed to research, you’d better know exactly what it is. Surfing just isn’t worth the money.

On my way back to the hive, the midday blaze was losing its strength. I saw a black man walking east, swinging a plastic bread bag at his side as he went. His clothes said he was homeless. And then I recognized him. It was Dave, the fellow Dan had recognized on the way in. I crossed the street and walked alongside him.

“Dave?” I asked.

He looked queerly at me. “Do I know you?”

“No, actually. I know Dan. Guy who used to work with you stamping product. Southern accent?”

“Dan… With the accent, yeah, I remember him. Is he back?”

“Yeah, he’s back. We live next to each other.”

He chuckled. “Man, I thought he’d end up on the street with us.”

“He’s something,” I said. “He said you’re something too.”

“Yeah, I’m something. You tell him I said he’s something else.”

“Want a cup of coffee?”

He bent an eyebrow at me. “You buying?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple credits left.”

“You’re buying, I’m your man,” he said.

We sat at a bench outside a coffee shop on the corner of the intersection. Make a right, and you’re headed back to the hive. Left, and you’re headed towards the outskirts of town, near the gates back out to the outside world.

“I heard what happened,” I said. “With the fines and everything.”

“One fine was enough for me. I barely had enough to get by as it was. Add my lifestyle, and well… I don’t know if you’ve ever had any expensive lifestyle habits, but if you do, you know they take precedence over all that other stuff. Bills, rent, all that.”

He didn’t seem crazy to me, not the way Dan had described him. “I can imagine,” I said. “So the fine was enough to—”

“To put me out on the street, which was the whole reason I came here, to get off of the street. Well, at least I was used to it.”

“I heard a lot of you guys live down in the flood channels.”

“I squat down there most nights. I’m no channel rat though, I come up during the day. You gotta be careful not to get too comfortable down there. They’re wise to it, the law enforcement. They know we’re down there. And if they think you’re a troublemaker, they’ll snatch you up and drag you away. And we never see those channel rats again.”

I was stunned. “You mean they go down there and just drag you guys out?”

“They say it’s in the interest of public safety that we can’t be down there, interfering with the utilities and all that. And we never do anything like that, we just need a place to sleep.”

“They’re utility tunnels?”

“Go from there,” he pointed back towards the opening of the tunnels “all the way out to the power plant. But we ain’t messin’ with no utility workers or no utilities. We just wanna live. We don’t want any part of that meat grinder you workin’ in.”

“It’s not so bad,” I said.

“See, you might not think it is, because you’ve got a little roof over your head and Everything brand eggs every morning, but I assure you. It’s bad. It’s worse than you know, and you’re gonna find out.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Every credit they give you, it all goes right back to them. The rent, the food.” He holds up his paltry bag of bread. “They give you a handful of credits, and you spend it all on their stuff for a profit. What they give you is nothing. What you give them is labor. It’s free labor. Know another word for that, Paul?”

“I uh…”

“Slavery. That’s the word you wanted to say. So ask yourself. Does this arrangement really feel fair to you? Having to live under their rules? Having to buy all of their goods. Just giving back all the credits you earn as a mere formality of the process you’re really in? Slavery.”

I thought about it a moment. It made sense, what he was saying, but still, I was so thankful to have the little roof and the Everything-brand eggs. Sure, the money they gave me was only a gesture of sorts; they would inevitably get back every credit. But if I had no genuine freedom, I had a pretty good guise of freedom.

“Enterprise,” Dave went on, “Gotta be the biggest joke you could call anyplace like this. It’s a slave colony. We built this company, this self-sustaining, mega-company from the tireless laboring of good people. But now it’s a monster machine that eats it’s own people. Consumes ‘em. What kind of organization is that?”

Dave took a deep breath and a long sip of coffee. “Well, I don’t work for ‘em anymore. But they’ve still got that pledge I signed. The Pledge of Usefulness. Meaning I’m still sworn to be as useful as I can to this joint. And one day they’re gonna snatch me up and wave that form in my face and say: ‘So what are we gonna do with you now, boy?’ And they’ll drag me out of my tent and down that channel, and into oblivion, for all I know. With all the other troublemakers.”

“Down what channel?”

“The tunnels. I’ve seen it happen. Follow the channel down west far enough and eventually they’re gated off. The channel rats stay away. Don’t blame ‘em. Because wherever they drug those people off to, they drug ‘em down that way, and they were gone.”

“What’s past the gate?” I asked.

“Hell if I know. The channels run under the power plant and out through the west end of town. They’re gated over there too.”

Again, Dave didn’t come across as crazy, not the way Dan had made him out to be. Eccentric, maybe; a guy who believed the world was after him. This idea of people getting dragged down the channels. Into oblivion, for all he knew. I remembered Dan telling me about his bad habits. Drugs would do that to you, make you paranoid. Still, I was curious about what he did know. Or at least what he thought he knew.

“So when you see Dan,” Dave went on, “you tell him I’m just fine. And speakin’ of fine, let him know I never paid a credit of what I owed ‘em.”

“I will,” I promised. I stood up and started putting on my coat. Dave got the message and did the same. If I didn’t start on my way back soon, I’d be flirting dangerously with the curfew.

“Thanks for the coffee,” Dave said.

“No problem at all.”

“If you need anything… Anything different…” He subtly thumbed his nose. “Or whatever… That east entrance to the channels. Just come on by and ask around. You’ll find me.”

Chapter 16

Jack and Ronnie reported the next day that their buildings each had 220 units per floor, 20 floors. The same number as my building. It was pretty safe to assume that the other buildings were identical too. And if that was true, the numbers just didn’t match up. There simply was not enough room for all the employees there were supposed to be at Everything Inc.

“Where’s Steve been?” asked Ronnie.

“Steve?” I asked.

“He was here up until last week. Further down the line there. Red hair…”

“Right,” I said. “I remember him.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy got tossed out,” Jack said. “He was a snail on the line.”

He had seemed a little slow. In every sense of the word, really.

“It was like they made that performance mandate just for him,” said Ronnie. “Just as soon as it came out, they were all over his ass.”

“Hardly his fault,” Dan said. “His station’s a dog. Just like mine.”

“So what do they do?” I asked. “Move him to another position?”

“No idea,” said Ronnie. “Never been disciplined.”

“Dan over there’ll get it next,” Jack said.

“My only holdup’s when you guys fuck it up,” Dan said.

“He’s got a point,” I said.

“Send up shit that works,” Dan said, “I’ll hit that button faster than any of you bums.”

The guys had a chuckle at that. We all knew it was usually Ronnie’s screw-ups that sent the piece back to me; something about the way he manhandled those pieces together with his big, meaty fingers.

“Gotta treat those pieces gently, Ronnie,” Dan said. “Like a lady.”

Jack snorted. “Ronnie hasn’t touched a lady since… I dunno, doubt he ever has.”

“Treat her like your peter then,” Dan said.

“That’s no better. He’ll squeeze it to death.”

“When I get my hands on you guys, I’ll squeeze you to death,” said Ronnie, grinning.

Dan didn’t take the blunders personally, of course, but his performance did suffer for them. Whether or not it was his fault, if his light didn’t light up, he ended up taking the biggest hit for it. That’s just was the way it was with the structure of the line.

And it turned out we’d jinxed him by bringing it up. That same night, back in my room, Dan told me he’d gotten a talking-to from Orvis.

“I can’t believe it, doggie. The guy actually pulled me in the office and accused me of holding up the line.” He popped a beer and handed it to me.

“Did you tell him why?” I asked.

“Of course I did. But the guy’s all numbers, doesn’t listen to reason. It was the silliest conversation I think I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some silly conversations.” He cracked a beer for himself.

“What did he say when you told him?”

“Said to hurry it up, so I said fine, I would. Maybe I’ll just send some duds down the line, let the dude who replaced Steve deal with ‘em.”

“Then he’ll end up getting pulled in the office next.”

“Yeah, I know it. Nah, I wouldn’t do that to him.” He took a long swig. “Hey, on a lighter note, I’ve got this new story I’m working on…”

Everything went as usual for another couple weeks; Dan told his jokes, the guys and I broke some balls, and we all got our jobs done. Dan was spending a lot more time in his room writing, but we still got together at least four times a week, and when we did, he was like a whole new guy. Always babbling on about his new story he was into, trying to give me the gist of it without spoiling it. He seemed happier these days. And for the right reason, I knew. For no reason. He was doing what he was supposed to do.

But was I? One night after Dan left, I got undressed and got into bed and just lay there awake for awhile, staring at the shadows of the suicide bars in the window. I wondered what it was that I was supposed to do. I really had left it all behind when I came here; the good and the bad, the precious and the broken. I’d come here an empty vessel. At least with nothing to do, there was no way to fail. As long as I could keep on inserting the three-pronged plug in the three-hole thing, I was a certified success. A genuine item on the world’s dollar-menu, right, Paul Harper?

   But what right did I really have to feel sorry for myself. Everyone here—at least everyone I knew—had also lost their families one way or another. Take Dan; his wife Debbie had gone in search of greener pastures herself. The grass is always greener, right Dan? Maybe I had less to do with my own failure than I gave myself credit for.

Failure seemed to hover out there in the free world, almost like a cloud waiting to burst at any moment. When Amy and I both were ready to admit the truth, that I’d never be able to take care of her or the kids like Dr. Thurmond could, I didn’t have the strength to mount a resistance. The rainfall was inevitable. It wasn’t about me, I’d been the sacrificial lamb since the beginning without even knowing it. How selfish it would have been to stand in between her and the life she deserved. Between Amy and the kids, and Dr. Thurmond.

I’ll never forgive myself for my speechlessness when Thurmond took me out for lunch and explained to me how I wasn’t the protagonist of my own story, not the way we all believe we are in the novelty of our youths. I wasn’t even a side-character, I was the antagonist. The bad guy, holding everyone back, causing all the problems. So what could I do but step aside? It was my final undoing, the most complete failure of all, and the perfect ending to the story. The antagonist is undone in the end by his own fatal flaw. That’s exactly what happened, just as it had since the dawn of storytelling. It could hardly be considered a tragedy. Not by him, at least. Probably not by the kids either. But that moment Thurmond signed the check and asked me if I had a couple bucks for a tip. As I reached in my pocket and dropped my last eight dollars on the table, drained of all dignity, unable to utter a word of protest, I became fully a trophy of failure to myself that can never be redeemed.

It was always after Dan stumbled back to his bedroom that I’d take out the trophy out to polish with self-pity. So I was a sucker. Fine. At least I was an award-winning sucker.

Chapter 17

The guys and I got to talking a little about old Vegas; various details they’d heard and read about over the years. Jack happened to know a little about those underground channels Dan had told me about; where some of the homeless supposedly lived.

“So they built these giant flood channels in the 1980s,” he said. “Even then, people ended up living down there. Hundreds, I heard. Lost all their money at the tables and ended up with no place to go. There’s gotta be plenty of ‘em down there now; there’s sure a lot more people that got kicked out than you see on the street.”

“You ever been down there?” I asked.

“I’ve seen where they get in,” Jack said. “Over by where the depot meets the highway there. Off to the right, by the scarp there, kinda cut out from the hillside. That’s where they get in. Goes all the way under the old strip, across town, right down under where the plant is.”

“When the hell does it flood around here?” Ronnie said. “The raindrops turn to steam when they land.”

“Oh, it does. Not often, but the ground’s too stiff to soak it all up, so when it decides to, it’ll flood you right under.”

“Who’d have thunk it?” said Dan.

“So what happens to the people down there if the channels flood?” I asked.

“Shit if I know,” Jack said. “They learn to swim in a hurry.”

“Screw that,” said Ronnie.

“But the rent is free, and I hear it’s a whole lot cooler in the summer. Tell you what, if they kick me out of here, that’s probably where you’ll find me next. Beats getting hassled by the street cops.” He snapped his tape and hit DONE.

“Hundreds, huh?” Dan said.

“That was back in Vegas days. There’s gotta be a thousand now.”

“How would you know?” said Ronnie.

“There’s just gotta be. How many guys you seen kicked out of here already?”

“Good amount.”

“There ya go.”

“Wouldn’t you rather leave?” I asked. “I mean if you lost your job at Everything? I’d rather give it another go than live underground.” And get dragged down the tunnels to disappear forever, if I was going to believe Old Dave…

“That’s pride talking,” said Jack. “You know what they say. Pride goes before a great fall.”

Dan chuckled. “A cliché goes before a great barf.”

There were plenty of peculiarities about the city to talk about, some likely bullshit, but others pretty well-established facts. No one seemed to think the discrepancy between the supposed amount of employees and the amount of apartments in the hive was as strange as I did, however. I’d bring up the oddity from time to time, but it earned mostly disinterested shrugs. From the very beginning, since I’d seen that winding line of people waiting in front of Admittance, it had seemed amazing to me that a place could take all these people in, day after day, day and night. Maybe it was my own self-loathing, the fact that I felt so good-for-nothing in the first place, that surprised me to see so many people being given a second chance like I had. Tough as it was, it was a real, viable, second chance. If so many of them were leaving Enterprise, where were they going? What were they doing? Following their dreams?

I remember my dreams when I was young. The days of novelty, before the whole enchilada fell apart. I’d always let my imagination get the best of me; they actually encouraged that kind of thing when I was a kid. Back when they lectured you about things like “maximizing your potential.” Back when they still used phrases like “the American dream.”

I dreamed of being rich. Not rich in the way you’d think, but rich on a kid-level. I could’ve gotten away with forty, fifty grand a year, that was rich. I’d have my own little place, eat TV dinners, watch TV, drink beer, and enjoy myself without worrying about paying the bills. How hard could that be? Getting to this level of richness seemed a perfectly attainable goal.

It was attainable. Only just as soon as I got there, it no longer seemed so dreamy. Neither did the shitty little apartment with the shitty little TV. It seemed like the minute I cashed my first fully-vested check, Amy showed up in her little shorts and halter top. I never asked for her, never looked for her. Never yearned for that kind of life, to be honest; I’m just a solitary type of guy. Which is why I never would have expected kids to join the mix, but yeah, they showed up too.

I loved them all, just never expected that kind of thing to happen to me, especially without asking for it in the first place. Never expected to be counted on, leaned upon so heavily. Fed upon, until there was nothing left for them to do but move onto a different host.

 

“What do you guys think about fate?” I asked.

The three of them looked at me like I had spontaneously grown a mustache.

“Huh?” asked Jack.

“The things that happen to you in life. Are they always your fault, or could it all be your destiny?”

We were all silent for a moment.

“You been smoking pot?” said Jack.

Chapter 18

At home, it was time for a double-cheese Kraft dinner, my latest poor-man’s pleasure. A box of pasta and a stick of butter later, I sat in my swivel chair like a wet bag of flour, flipping through a good chapter of Moby Dick. By dark, I realized I hadn’t heard from Dan yet. I opened the closet and knocked at the wall. Dark behind the curtain. When he didn’t answer, I knocked again. I pulled the curtain aside. His closet door was closed. I checked my watch. It was past curfew now and no sign of him.

I sat back in my chair, no longer in the mood to read. What the hell was he up to? I wasn’t worried about him getting caught out there—Dan knew what he was doing—but it was unlike him not to be back by now. Plus, I was a little disappointed that I had to wait for my beer.

Dammit, Dan, you’ve made a lab rat out of me.

I watched TV and waited for him awhile, but it seemed like he was having one hell of a night somewhere else. My eyelids were growing heavy. I swung my feet up on the bed and lay back. It was time to turn in.

Man, whatever Dan is up to, he’s gonna be a bag of shit at work tomorrow.

But Dan wasn’t around in the morning either. I knocked for him, but his door was still locked. Had he come home at all? I thought maybe he was up and having breakfast without me, but when I got down to the cafeteria, he wasn’t there either. Normally I’d have grabbed something to eat, but I didn’t have much of an appetite. Something was wrong. Where the hell was my friend?

When I got to work, he wasn’t there either. My stomach sank when I saw the empty spot across the line.

“You guys seen Dan?” I asked.

Jack and Ronnie both shook their heads. “Looks like the party boy’s a little shagged out today. They pay attention to that shit, you know. Callouts. They count ‘em.”

“Too many callouts and they’ll put you on the chopping block,” Ronnie said.

“He didn’t call out, he wasn’t in his room to begin with.”

“Wasn’t in his room?” asked Jack. “Where’d he go?”

I shook my head. “Thought he might be out doing something last night, but he never came back.”

Jack and Ronnie looked dumbly at each other.

“Crazy asshole,” Jack said. “Maybe he’s been hangin’ out with old Dave.”

Chapter 19

I hurried home after work. He’d be there when I got back, I told myself. I was worried for nothing. Dan’s a grown man, a crafty one at that; he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to get around, he knows how to handle himself. I was just being stupid, I told myself.

But I wasn’t sure. Another part of me knew how Dan was, that he’d let me know if he was going to pull a stunt like that. Wouldn’t he?

Maybe not. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe he’d think I was ridiculous for being so overly concerned. What was I supposed to be anyway, his babysitter?

But still, I wasn’t sure.

My stomach was tight as I went upstairs and made my way to my room. I thought about knocking on Dan’s front door, but decided it wasn’t worth it to make the racket. I unlocked my door and went inside.

Dark from between the slats of Dan’s closet door. The knob on the inside would open the door even if it was locked, which I was sure it was. I stood looking at the doorknob, dreading what I’d find on the other side. I took a deep breath and turned it.

Dan’s room was exactly as it was the last time I’d seen it. Including his suitcase, which sat open on his floor, still with most of his clothes.

My stomach sank like a bag of sand. Dan was gone, but his stuff was still here. It was worse than I’d thought. What had happened to him? If he’d been fired, he would’ve come back to get his stuff, wouldn’t he? Maybe not; maybe he was so upset with everything, he’d decided to make a completely fresh start. Maybe he hadn’t the heart to tell me he was leaving. Maybe he’d been embarrassed.

Maybe that’s all it was…

Then I saw the go-bag.

No, I thought. There was no way.

I picked up the bag. It was unzipped, and neatly inserted inside was the paper-clipped manuscript he’d been working on. Flushtor on top. There was a chance he’d leave his ratty clothes behind. There was also a chance—although I wouldn’t expect it of him—that he’d leave town in shame without telling anyone. Maybe—and there was only an infinitesimal chance, but maybe—he’d even leave his go-bag behind. But leave his manuscript? Never. Not a chance in hell. Whatever had happened to Dan, it was clearly worse than I’d thought.

My face flushed with pressure. I picked up Dan’s go-bag and took it back to my room and slammed the closet door. I didn’t care how much noise it made.

“Dammit, Dan, what the hell did you get yourself into?”

I huffed for a minute, then sat back down on the bed. Had they grabbed him at night? Had it been like he’d said; had he become a liability? Were the guards he bribed into him for too much? Had they somehow gotten rid of him?

Had he ended up underground?

In the channels?

I thought about what Old Dave had told me; about how troublemakers got snatched up and dragged away. Dragged down that tunnel.

Into oblivion…

I took out the manuscript and sat on the little bed with the stack of papers in my lap. Now and then, a ghostly feeling like I was holding a dead man’s hand. They couldn’t really have… Could they?

Chapter 20

You know you’ve seen your best years when your own life has entered its final act.

The climax of my own story was the wife and kids leaving. Boring and melodramatic, I know, but not everyone’s life is a fast-paced thriller. There’s a reason we read stories, you know. Because life is essentially boring. It’s exciting to join Captain Ahab on the Pequod. It’s exciting to become little Stevie for awhile, gleaning secret knowledge from a talking toilet bowl. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen everyday.

Even considering the bleakness in which I ran off to Enterprise, there was a spark of excitement in starting over again. Starting from a diminished level, but a new level nonetheless. I allowed this feeling that I was back at step one, but with a much sturdier place to push off. That there was nowhere to go now but up.

It was only rationalization. The idea behind Enterprise, behind Everything Inc., wasn’t to be a more forgiving ledge on the climb to success, but a safe ledge to keep you where you were. Try climbing, and you’ll slide safely back down the wall, like the sand on an overflowing sandcastle. Make a few bucks, and they’ll get taxed right out of your pocket. Get up on your feet, and they’ll knock you back down. It’s just the way it was. It was the only way a place like this could work.

So what was the end-game, I found myself asking, laying there on my undersized bed; just too small to get comfortable. The grey bar shadows stretched long over the stiff bedsheets, like three damning slashes through the early morning sunlight. What was the end-game? When did it end? How did it end?

Death, that’s how.

All paths pointed to the same end.

I’d always pictured success as a kind of routine. Work, come home, loosen the tie, hang up the hat. It seems like a good idea when you picture it, but when you’re there, it’s different. When you’re truly stuck on a ledge, no matter how wide, how comfortable, you can suddenly understand why people behave so strangely. The chances they take, the addiction to conflict. The tendency to make bad decisions, if only for the sake of making a decision. Why they move all the time, sell their houses and buy new ones. Leave their hometowns, only to come back eventually. Leave steady, good jobs for lower-paying, more interesting ones. Leave stable relationships, vote in crazy presidents, buy convertibles, do drugs—all these things. Because whether up or down, people want to move.

They want change, good or bad. They need to succeed or fail; whichever one may not matter as much as I thought. They’re two sides of the same coin. It’s idleness that’s the problem. Idleness is like floating comfortably into oblivion. And we’re all floating into oblivion; all paths point there, but I’m human, like everyone else. I’m supposed to be doing it kicking and screaming. I’ll get there regardless, same as everyone else will. But I’m not supposed to do it like this. The end-game isn’t what’s important. It’s the game that’s important.

And maybe the game wasn’t over. Maybe the climax hadn’t really happened yet.

The familiar sound of boots came clumping down the hall. Several sets of boots. They came to a slow, then stopped. Right before my door. By Dan’s door.

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me until that very moment; maybe because I’d been emotional about Dan, maybe because I’d been so deep in consideration, but it struck me like a lightning bolt: if Dan was truly gone, they’d eventually need to enter his room. And when they looked into the closet, they’d see the door Dan had cut there, and they’d know I was involved. Whatever had happened to Dan, whatever they’d done to him, they’d probably do to me too.

I sat up sharply in bed, listening carefully. The second my fears were confirmed, the very moment I heard the key enter Dan’s doorknob, I was up and grabbing for my own doorknob. I had to get out of there, fast. But as I was standing there waiting for the boots to clump their way into Dan’s apartment, I remembered the go-bag, and tiptoed back to get it. And as I heard the door close behind the officers, I opened my own door and turned headed left down the long hall.

Remembering the fire escape map, I took the stairwell furthest from the entrance, and with the go-bag slung over my shoulder, I walked hurriedly down the steps until I got to the ground floor. Too jolted with adrenaline to worry about it, I shouldered my way out the emergency exit, setting off the fire alarm in the process. I didn’t look back.

Chapter 21

The streets of Enterprise were busy with employees on their way to work. Trying to appear inconspicuous, I blended in, keeping my eyes forward, Dan’s go-bag at my side like a lunch-bucket, nothing unusual here, folks. Only I wasn’t on my way to work. I knew the minute I punched in, I’d be a sitting duck. My heart still pounding from the hasty escape, my mind still swimming, I knew I had a decision to make. What next? No time to think about what I was walking away from, not now. All I needed to think about was my next move.

I broke off from the westward crowd and headed east, out of the residential district. I fell in behind a group headed toward Enterprise Station.

We passed by the same street corners and vendors I saw that night Dan and I took the bus to Admittance. I remembered seeing Dave that night, wondering how the hell he ended up homeless in Enterprise, wondering how a guy could blow his second chance like that. Yet here I was.

It had always been in the back of my mind; the fact that I ran like a coward. There was no hiding from it after the lights went off; it wasn’t the world that chased me out, it was me who ducked and ran. And here I was, hightailing it out of here the same way I came. The same way I ran out of California.

I tried to shake it out of my mind. My next move, that was all I needed to know. What was done was done. I needed to get out of here.

I unzipped Dan’s go-bag and rifled through some of the compartments. I needed money for the train; if I used my account, they’d surely send out an alert for me.

His lock-gun. Multi-tools. Survival stuff. I stuck my fingers in a small zipped pouch and found what was certainly a tube of rolled-up bills. Bingo. Guiltily, I put them in my pocket and zipped up the bag. It was as though Dan were still looking after me, even after what they’d done to him. The idea of pocketing the bills left me slightly nauseated.

Following the crowd on the way to Enterprise station, the thoughts snuck back into my mind: the waste it had been to come here. I’d gotten a second chance, and I’d blown it. I’d earned a friend, and I’d lost him. Yet another idle month in my life with nothing to show for it in the end. The idea that ultimately, I had lost.

My stomach soured. My legs began to go weary. There was no putting it out of my mind. It was all coming to a head. I came here a failure, I was leaving a greater failure. I was finished. Truly, now. Finished.

At the corner of Enterprise Station and Everything Boulevard, I paused. Everyone as they were, walking along, minding their own business. Lost in their little lives. The futility of it all hung on my shoulders like a lead vest. I was paralyzed.

The thoughts bounced off the walls of my skull like a bullet to scramble my brain. People walking unto their deaths. A man in his bodega, leaning on the heel of his hand. A bird pecking at a bit of garbage, flying away, apropos of nothing. Like everything there was, apropos of nothing. The thought arrived like an electric shock and left just as quickly: there was nothing left to live for. The novelty had drained completely.

A quiet courtroom battle was taking place in my mind as I stood there at the corner, people filing by, moving around me like riverwater around a stone. I’d lost everything, the precious and the broken alike; there was no reason to lift a finger, no reason to breathe, let alone move forward, if not to restore an atom of dignity to the empty husk of Paul Harper. I’d been broken to begin with. How many lumps could a man take?

But what would I do about it? What had I ever done about anything? What had I done while my wife was seeing Thurmond? Nothing. What had I done when he stole my family from me? Nothing. What was I supposed to do now that Everything stole my friend from me?

It occurred to me that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know how to feel anymore; whether I should be thankful to have a roof over my head, or appalled that I’m locked in a closet. Whether I should be happy I have an income, or disgusted by how little it is. Whether I should get ahold of myself and go to work, or get the hell out of this slave colony. What’re you gonna do now, Paul Harper? Doesn’t matter, does it? As long as it’s on their terms, right? Run, because you’re scared; stay, because you’re scared. Do nothing at all, because you’re scared. Same thing, right? Because either way, it’s the same thing; they take something from you, and you do nothing about it. Because you’re afraid to do anything about it. You’re afraid to do anything about anything, aren’t you, Paul? Because you’re an ineffectual, incapable, inconsequential loser. And that’s why you’re a failure, Paul. That’s why you’re a—

My weariness turned suddenly to a flash of anger. No. I wasn’t going to run away like this, not the same way I ran away from everything else. Not the way I ran away from California; from the whole free world, for that matter. I wasn’t going to just go to work and pretend nothing happened either. I wanted to know what happened to Dan. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. I didn’t know what I was chasing, but it was time to make a decision. It was time to chase after it.

Chapter 22

I found the mouth of the channels right where Jack had placed them, dug out of a dry dune down from the East Gate. Where old Dave told me I could find him if I needed anything interesting. But drugs weren’t what I was after. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was after. But whatever it was, I was chasing after it.

Twenty yards past the graffiti-lined entrance, I walked down the concrete tube in near-total darkness, food wrappers and paper bags crunching underfoot. A subtly dank subterranean breeze brought the temperature down a few degrees as I went deeper down the tube.

I thought I made out some chatter a ways down, maybe picked up a hint of smoke too. I saw a smattering of light on a shiny curve in the tunnel wall further down the tube.

Around the corner, the tunnel opened up into a spacious chamber, lit dimly by floodlights. Twenty or thirty people throughout, tables around the perimeter with their vendors displaying their wares. Customers examining the items closely in the dimness. Others clustered by the several tunnel entrances, talking, sharing bottles. Unseen cigarettes pulsing red in the dark. An underground flea market of sorts.

I caught a couple of weird looks as I walked into the room. I scanned the room, but it was difficult to see in the dark. I approached the closest table, manned by a bundled-up vendor whom I couldn’t imagine showing himself up on the surface. A channel rat, I thought.

“I’m looking for Dave,” do you know him?”

“I know plenty of Daves,” he said.

“Black guy. Don’t know his last name. Heard him called ‘Old Dave’ a few times.”

He nodded. “Ol’ Black Dave. Yeah, I know where he is. How much money you got?”

“For what?”

“You want Ol’ Dave, I know where he is. I’ll show you the way, but it’ll cost ya.”

It was more of the last thing I needed. Indignity. “Fuck off,” I said.

“Whoa, take it easy,” the vendor said. “Times are tough. Can’t blame a guy for tryin’.”

The vendor had his own share of defeats, I imagined. I took a breath. “He told me to come looking for him here. Never told me anything about a toll collector.”

“It’s alright, this one’s on me. Take the tube on the left there.” He pointed to a corner in the room where a group of undergrounders cavorted around a large opening. “Head down a ways. Just give him a shout around the encampment down there, he’ll hear ya.”

I fished a five out of Dan’s emergency money and held it out to him. He snatched it away quickly.

“Thank you,” he said.

Down the leftward tunnel, I came across another chamber, this one clearly designated as an encampment for the channel rats. Groups of homemade hovels built from shipping pallets, tarps, and cardboard boxes. Smoky coils hung cloudily in the yellowed floodlights. I asked a lady smoking a cigarette nearby if she knew where Dave was, and she pointed me to his “house.”

Dave’s eyes lit with recognition. “My man…” He held out a hand and we shook. “In the mood for a little excitement?”

“I am, but it’s not what you think.”

“Oh no?”

“What you told me up there, about them dragging people away. Tell me more.”

He looked queerly at me a moment.

“What happened, my man?”

“Dan is missing. He just disappeared.”

Dave shook his head. “You’re thinkin’ they had something to do with it?”

“He just vanished. Left all his stuff behind.”

“He coulda just split. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“He never would’ve done it without telling me. And he never would’ve left this behind.” I patted the go-bag at my side. “Trust me,” I said before he could object. “There’s something in here he never would’ve left behind.”

“What is it?

“A manuscript.”

“A manu-what?”

“A book he’s writing.”

Dave chuckled. “He told me once he wanted to write a book. I was like what’s the point?”

“Look,” I said. “Was it really true what you said? About them kidnapping people, dragging them down the channel?”

“I told you it was true, didn’t I?”

“And everyone else tells me you’re crazy.”

“Yeah? And what do you think?”

It was hard to get a read on Dave’s face in the dark, but I thought he was getting slightly annoyed. “You didn’t sound that way to me,” I said.

Dave lit a cigarette. “So you wanna see for yourself,” he said.

“I have to.”

“And y’all think I’m crazy…”

Dave took me to the mouth of a wider tunnel. A ways down was the locked gate. Beyond was the run under the secretive power plant. Neither he nor any of the channel rats went anywhere near there. Trouble was the last thing they wanted, and meddling with Enterprise was nothing but trouble. Besides, it was locked up. There was no way to get by the gate anyway.

He reminded me that I was the crazy one, and he left me there at the tributary. I had second thoughts, but I reminded myself why I was here—on principle. The point? There was no point. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Chasing whatever it was I was supposed to be chasing. I was just doing it. And I walked. And walked. The wall of the pitch-dark channel my only guide for what seemed like miles in the dark. Until faint grey lights produced the gate up ahead. There it was, the gate Dave had told me about.

I hurried toward it, my feet smacking in the shiny film of water now on the floor of the tunnel. Black, jailhouse bars. I shook at them briefly, of course they didn’t move a millimeter. So secure, they begged curiosity.

Feeling around, I found no keyhole, no obvious lock mechanism. Even if there was, Dan’s lock gun would be no match for it with its dainty picks and pins.

I stood back, the dim light beyond casting long, black shadows at my feet. On the wall a ways back were the rusted remains of a rebar ladder.

With Dan’s bag slung over my shoulder, I climbed my way up the gritty rungs until I reached a dark recess in the ceiling topped by a manhole cover. Quiet above. No way it opened up onto the street.

I climbed until my shoulder pressed against the iron and pushed, unseating the heavy cover and sliding it to the side. With another effort, the hole was wide open. I climbed up into cool darkness.

Chapter 23

I emerged into the corner of a dim control room, unmanned at the moment. Two computer consoles at the far end, before dark, glass panes, like the cockpit of a large airplane. Red lights blinking back against the windows, dark beyond. The woodwind hum of industrial ventilation. The kind of place where you immediately knew you weren’t supposed to be. A prickle crawled up the back of my neck.

There was a microphone for an intercom system. The thought of calling out for Dan crossed my mind, but I knew that was a bad idea. If Dave was right; if anyone had really dragged Dan down these tunnels against his will with all the other troublemakers around here, the last thing I needed was to draw attention to myself. For now, I needed answers. I needed to know just what it was that we lowly workers weren’t good enough to know. We suckers, locked up in our rooms like children at night and expected to behave. But the time for behavior was over.

I sat at the console and squinted at the glass. Mostly dark on the other side, all I could make out was an immense, shapeless form in a huge chamber, wound with tubes running up to the ceiling high overhead.

I tapped away at the keyboards and threw a few switches on the switchboard, but to no effect. Just the droning machinery and the blinking of the powered-down consoles.

I pointed the flashlight around the room. There was a door to the left of the consoles which must lead into the chamber. I knew I didn’t belong in there, and that was enough.

The door was locked, but there was a keyhole override, and it looked pretty basic. I retrieved the lock-gun from Dan’s bag and inserted it and started pulling the trigger. After a few snaps, I heard the lock release. Success. That’s when I noticed the sign on the wall nearby: DANGER, GAS MASK REQUIRED BEYOND THIS POINT.

Of course, danger was exactly what I was after at this point.

Beyond was a short chamber and another door. SECURE AIRLOCK BEFOR PROCEEDING, the door said, but I already had the gun in the lock. In a few snaps, that lock gave way too, and I opened the door onto a hyperbaric rush of strange air. Automatically, dim lights illuminated the chamber.

And there I stood, at the top of a set of tinny stairs, looking out on a steaming pyramid of…

Rippling waves of mirrored air, like the midday desert asphalt, rode upward along the mass. Moving down, steadily decomposing, an intubated mountain of meat. Knotted arms and legs, clawed fingers, loose bodies at the summit, wormy rot underneath, gone to slime by the brow, by the bottom, gone to dirt.

A flash of understanding. The gas. The plant. The technology I’d read about on the internet. The people. My legs went weak. Pressurized gas sucked from within the intubated mountain of gore. The mulching bodies, fermenting gas, churning the machinery that ran Enterprise. Fed the streetlights, the machinery, ran the television back in my room.

Life feeding on life. Life feeding on death.

Death feeding on death.

It can’t be…

I went down.

Chapter 24

“Again, Doggie, sorry I couldn’t get the message to ya, there just wasn’t any time.”

Dan tested the light and hit DONE. He’d had no trouble making his numbers since Ronnie and I had switched stations. Ron’s fat fingers were fine at plugging the connectors together, and my dainty, little ones were much more adept at his old job.

“And I’m sorry about Debbie,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“It is what it is,” he said. “But I still wish I could’ve let you know.”

“Was she your only family?” asked Jack.

“She was it,” Dan said. “If you could still call her family. We’d been separated ten years.”

“Still,” said Ronnie. “It’s a bummer when it’s someone you know.”

There were only a few ways they’d let you cross back over and return without repeating the admittance process; one of them was the imminent death of a family member. Since Dan and Debbie had never legally divorced, the situation qualified.

“Sure,” said Dan. “But it wasn’t all bad. It was good we got to talk a little. The way things ended, you know. Some loose ends.”

“Thought your ass had been fired,” said Jack.

Dan grinned to himself. “You guys should’ve seen the Paul machine,” he said. “Breathed in so much gas, he thought he’d seen Jesus.”

“I saw a lot more than that,” I said.

I sure had. The last thing I remembered was my ass hitting the floor. I was lucky it was my ass and not my head. I was even luckier Dan had found me when he had. A few more minutes of methane and we wouldn’t have been having this conversation.

“Man,” Dan went on, “I never figured you for such a go-getter.”

“Neither did I,” I said.

“Or a sucker,” Jack said. “Listening to old Dave. The guy’s been sniffing glue since he was eleven.”

I shrugged.

“But I’ll tell ya,” said Dan, “It’s nice to know that if you disappear, there’s at least one guy who’ll care enough to look for ya.”

“You got it,” I said.

“Hell, he started looking the minute I got home!”

“Very funny,” I said.

“How’d it go down anyway?” Ronnie asked Dan. “After we talked?”

Dan hit the done button and sent another piece down the line. “Soon as I saw my go-bag was gone, it was like I saw things through Paulie’s eyeballs. I mean, if I were him, I’d probably think I was in trouble too. And I had a feeling he’d be peeking around the channels. So when crazy old Dave pointed me down the tube, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. Of course Dave had laid all his conspiracy stuff on him by now, and with me missing and everything, shit, I’d have believed it myself. So when I saw the light comin’ down from the manhole, I knew I was on the right track.”

“Man, the both of you boneheads could’ve gotten caught,” said Ronnie.

“If Pauly was gonna get caught, so was I,” Dan said. “So I went up after him, followed the Paul-sign.” He chuckled. “Wet footprints, due west. Signs everywhere, ventilation equipment required. Gas masks hanging on the walls. So I grabbed one and put it on. And thank God I did. You know who didn’t?”

“Yep,” I said.

Found him lying flat on his back in the compost theater. It’s where all the methane gets made. Basically a planet-sized mountain of fermenting garbage where they extract all the gas. And Pauly here’d breathed enough of it to kill a dinosaur. He was hallucinating.”

“You’re lucky he came after ya,” Jack said.

“I’m a lucky guy sometimes,” I said. “Much luckier than I thought.”

“So I drag him out,” continued Dan. “And this prick’s heavier than he looks.”

I gave Dan a jab in the arm.

“Ooh. Prick’s got an arm on him too. Forgot you were next to me now.”

“That’ll learn ya,” Ronnie said. “And now Paul gets to deal with your farts.”

“I’ve had enough gas for awhile,” I said.

“Yeah,” Dan said. “I’ll spare you as long as I can.”

So I burned a sick day chasing down Dan, (or him chasing me, more like it) but it could’ve been a whole lot worse. It was bad enough Dan’s wife had died, but he’d nearly lost a roommate too. Funny how things turn out sometimes. The grass is always greener; you’ve heard it a thousand times. And you end up realizing things weren’t as bad as you thought. Take Dan, for example; he’s always trying to make the best of things. That day we got back to the hive, he told me about his wife and what had happened. It was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. Lying there in her death bed, Debbie had had plenty of time to reflect on the way thing had gone between her and Dan. To wonder, without all the petty, day-to-day concerns that normally cloud our thoughts and drown out those deeper questions that come in the quiet and the night. Like: what’s it all for? And: why bother? And: why do I do these things that I do? And: why am I not happy? I don’t know how much of that she figured out herself, but she did realize one thing. She told him she felt bad for discouraging him from writing his stories. That it wasn’t because there was no point in doing it, she realized. It was because it made him happy, and she resented it. No money, no future prospects, and there was Dan, tapping away, somehow happy. His only bad habit. They call it “the creative man’s burden,” but that’s no way to look at things, doggie. We all should have such burdens. As long as you’re willing to shoulder it, you’ve got a reason to keep going.

And keeping going was what it was all about. Not about making all the right decisions. Not about winning or failing. It was only about going; about playing the game. Maybe getting one over once in awhile while you’re at it. There’s a way to do your unsavories, after all.

But in the meantime, the important thing was not being idle. Humans are comfort-seeking creatures, I’d always heard, and sure, that’s what we tend to do, but it’s the worst thing for us after all, isn’t it? There’s a reason they say not to put a couch in the same room with a treadmill; you’ll always choose the couch over the discomfort of exercise. Same as you’ll choose the comfort of idleness over the insecurity of the ruthless world.

It’s comfort we’re all ultimately looking for, but I don’t think we’re ever supposed to get it. Comfort dangles just beyond the void; all roads lead to it, whatever route you’re taking. It’s why we quit our jobs, sell our homes, ruin our relationships. It’s the very reason why we flail the way we do—we refuse to be idle because we’re searching for comfort. It’s our nature. It’s our engine. It would be more reasonable to take what pittance of comfort the world offered you and ride your years out safely, but that’s just not the way we do things. There’s no reason to do things the way we do things. And that’s exactly how we know we’re supposed to do them that way. It turns out I had no real reason to break into the gas plant looking for Dan, after all. But I did it, and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad, because, Paul Harper, you finally did something.

“Let’s make a stop real quick,” Dan said.

It had been a week since the incident, and Dan had managed to switch out his pen and paper for a cheap keyboard and printer he’d ordered from Amenities. I’d hear him through the wall these nights tapping away, printing pages. He’d bound up a few prints of his short stories into little paperbacks. For homemade books, they looked pretty good too. He pulled one out of his jacket pocket as we walked into the little bookstore.

There was the usual crowd in there; five or six bookworms and the two of us. Dan headed to the S section and tucked a book into the shelf next to Dan Simmons’s Hyperion.

“Wrote free on the back,” he said.

“The price is right.”

“That’s what it cost me to write it.”

“Only a matter of time before they get rid of this place,” I said. “This little drug-den. I mean, look at these guys.” I gestured to the few readers dipping in their toes. Taking indulgent, little peeks. Strange worlds, printed and pressed into these innocuous, little bricks, waiting to be unfolded. Whether you made them yourself or read them, you were in constant flux between dimensions. The grass isn’t much greener in any of them, really. It’s greener when you’re making the most of what you’ve got. When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. But seriously, who gives a shit about grass?

“So you’re really leaving, huh?” Dan said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Papers are in. It’s official.”

“You sure about this, doggie?”

“I’m not sure about anything. I never am. I just know I gotta move.”

“I understand.”

“Not saying I won’t be back either,” I said. “But either way, nothing lost.”

“You’ll lose your favorite drinkin’ buddy,” he said.

“Yeah. I will lose that. At least for now.”

“You couldn’t dig up a turnip out there, Pauly.”

“Not sure a turnip’s what I’m looking for. Just want to dig.”

“Dig for what? What are you after?”

“Don’t know. Only know I have to chase it.”

Dan’s heavy arm fell over my shoulder.

“Let’s go drink some beers,” he said.

Epilogue

Dave was shaken awake by another caravan coursing down the channel. Most nights he’d sleep through it, but lately, sleep was uneasy. The drugs didn’t help; they seemed to bite back in the middle if the night these days. He’d wake with those ephemeral thoughts still drifting through his mind; the ones he tried washing away with booze and drugs in the first place. What was the end-game? What was he doing here? And what was really going on at the end of the tunnel?

Sleep wouldn’t come again. With an inspired anger, he started walking, following the slow-moving carts at a distance. What was he afraid of anyway? Dan had gone; he’d seen the two men walking back out of the channel the other day. Maybe Dan was right. Maybe Dave was wrong. Maybe he was crazy, seeing things. So he walked.

He sneaked close to the last cart as it went through the open gate and around the right side of the caravan as the man went back to secure the lock after they’d passed. An uneasiness settled in his stomach as he heard the click of the lock. But no one had noticed him.

The procession continued. Further down the tube, he returned to the rear of the cars and followed. There were ladders leading up to manholes above, but he hadn’t come this far to break off yet. He wanted to see where these cars were going. He was through speculating.

Awhile later, the cars were slowing down. The dim, red lights had brightened a bit, and the whirring of machinery had gotten louder as they went. When the cars finally stopped, he went around the right side of the caravan and into the dark by the far walls of the channel, behind a row of intermittent support columns. He crept from column to column, careful to stay ducked below the dim marker lights from the ceiling.

More of the square cars up ahead. Many, many more of them. He tiptoed away from the columns and out to a railing looking out over a long, low depression, the cars dipping down one by one, rolling out to a deep, intubated pit. One of the trailers tilting backwards on hydraulic pistons like the bed of an enormous dump truck. Out rolled bodies. Limply tumbling into the pit. The faint smell reached him now; the sour waft of death escaping from the powerful vacuum system.

“Hey! You there!”

Dave turned to see two gasmasked men closing in on him. He wouldn’t have had much longer anyway, he figured, not with all the dope he was doing. And what would he have done anyway? Tell everybody? He’d been telling them for years. They all thought he was crazy.

As the gun barrel raised toward his face, he noticed dimly a poster of President Len Carter hanging benevolently on the far wall of the tunnel. He remembered the paper he’d signed, certifying that he pledged to be an asset to Enterprise, above all else. The Contract of Usefulness, wasn’t that what it was called?

Close enough…

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Geoff Sturtevant
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Geoff Sturtevant


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Check out Geoff Sturtevant’s critically-acclaimed collection of short stories, Occupational Hazards: The Blue-Collar Omnibusnow available on Amazon.com. Occupational Hazards is an omnibus of acclaimed novelettes from the “Return to the Dirt” and “Just Speculating” collections, and new, exclusive stories only available in this book. The stories exemplify the unsavory side of our everyday existence. Existentialism, absurdism, and outlandish humor merge with ordinary, workaday life for a unique and hilarious perspective of the human experience. Occupational Hazards is an unflinching ride through the absurdity of it all. Not recommended for the faint of heart or easily offended. But if meaty stories are what you’re after… I hope you’re hungry.

More Stories from Author Geoff Sturtevant:

Anything For My Bubela
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Anything For My Bubela

The Protuberance
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The Protuberance

The Peeper
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10

The Peeper

The Show Goat
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10

The Show Goat

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