It was a drenched cold day of late spring, and the loudspeakers hollered at full volume.
"Two minutes to total lockdown. All SmileyCorp employees who fail to enter the premises as the clocks strike thirteen may face contract termination. Remember, compliance is safety, and SmileyCorp loves each and every one of you."
The screeching devices could be heard all over the mammoth office complex, four skyscrapers surrounding an inner plaza, and a mass of young men and women, all wearing gray SmileyCorp uniforms, rushed to return from their short lunch break. Heads were kept down, while the HR motivation officers, armed with laser pistols, shouted at stragglers to hurry up before their future might be at risk due to "indolence."
"Return to your cubicles! Enjoy your air hockey tables! Smile to the publicity cameras! Your happiness is assured under SmileyCorp's benevolent guidance," they yelled, while the company's mascot, a cartoonish yellow bunny with an oversized grin and sly eyes, holding up a gold coin, was projected upon every wall, reassuring the corporate drones that their seven years in college were well spent.
A short blonde in tight black uniform, hair tied in a bun, screamed at the passerby via a handheld bullhorn: "If you require sick leave, or a quarter day off, report to your superior. If we deem your reason acceptable, you might be eligible for time away from the bliss that is serving SmileyCorp."
Bobby pushed through the lobby of building no. 3, his fast food meal dripping on his shirt, threatening to escape his grip and fall on the mirror shined black marble floor. He passed the biometric scan, the facial scan, and the IDNA verification successfully, without dropping a single fry. An underappreciated personal skill. From the security zone he needed to reach turbo elevator no. four, which would take him to underground level D8, and he had to do it in exactly 2.08 minutes, without bumping into any living soul, or else-
Too late. A couple of young, hot women, who were busy talking to each other, crossed his path, not acknowledging his existence in the slightest, and he failed to dodge in time. As a result meat, buns, sauce, and fizzy drink all spilled on their carefully ironed office clothes, leaving the two standing before him in shock, mouths open, eyes shooting sparks.
"I-I-I–" he stuttered, until one of them slapped him across the facee, twice.
"Filthy nonbreeder!" she spat, "Give me your IDNA. You better have enough Omniwallet balance to cover the cleanup."
"Y-yes ma'am, but, you see, you–"
"Don't talk back to me!" she barked. Her blonde hair smelled so nice, and her eyes reflected the light like a mural in a temple, but her teeth looked like they wanted to tear the artery out of his neck… without actually touching him, of course.
The blonde yelled at him some more, while other workers passed by, smiling or giggling at him. She finished with another slap, and kicked him in the rump, making sure to call out his full name:
"If I ever see your ugly face again, Robert Adamson, HR will hear of it, and you will spend the rest of your life unemployable."
Unemployable. A certain doom for a young man like himself. The equivalent of being forced to commit lifexit. He made sure to apologize repeatedly, and hurried to the elevator. Ignore the scornful faces around, he thought. The most important thing was to get back on time, before Mrs. Angels notices...
She noticed. She noticed quite a bit.
Mrs. Angels was a large bodied woman, who stood half a head above Bobby's average height. Even though he himself was obese by medical standards, her massive proportions dwarfed him, and struck fear deep into his heart, which already began beating fast with anxiety when her thick lips moved.
"Kobold!" she yelled, "Where have you been? You're 1.17 minutes late!"
"I-I-I–" Bobby stuttered, but she was not interested at all in his words. Instead, the manager slapped him on the back of the neck, pointed at his cubicle, and yelled at him to sit at his station.
"We have an important conference with the Twin Suns hotel chain from Beta Ceti III, and you need to show your ugly face to the camera!"
Her voice was the equivalent of an old car, ground slowly to dust by a machine composed of rusty nails. Her oily, short, purple hair, shaved on the sides, both repulsed and intrigued him, and her pudgy chins vibrated with every syllable she uttered, evoking a curious urge to put a finger against them.
Bobby rushed to his cubicle, tripping several times on the ancient, dirty, colorless carpet of the office, and limped into the uncomfortable, armless chair, that had to courageously carry his entire weight. He put on a couple of wireless earphones, tapped quickly on his greasy keyboard, and opened the visual conference app. At least the earlier incident did not end in catastrophe.
Except, his stubble was laden with red sauce, mayonnaise, bits of processed meat, and bright yellow mustard. One of the clients, a woman in her late forties, with eyes that could turn lava into ice, wondered aloud "who or what" just joined the video conversation.
His arms moved desperately over the table, frantically searching for something to wipe himself with. A notepad… why not? He ripped off some pages, but, since the paper had zero absorbance, only managed to smudge the fluids further over himself, on camera, right before the important foreign clients.
"I'm, err, Robert Adamson," he cleared his throat nervously a couple of times, "Account management and... I mean, synergic priority assignment maintenance, and client multi-level integration streamlining. I've got the… your data right here. One moment, please, I'll put it on screen."
"Do it fast," said the woman with the freezing eyes. They were so beautiful. How old was she?
Even though Bobby clicked the same buttons that he did a hundred times before, on a daily basis, the numbers app refused to share to screen. The pressure didn't help one bit, and he struggled to remember how to handle unexpected errors, so all he could think of was clicking again and again.
Nothing happened, though. Nothing! Not even an error message.
"J-just... just one second. There seems to be a glitch."
Frost-eyes lady was not impressed.
"Shouldn't you know how to operate your own software?"
When under that much stress, Bobby would sweat uncontrollably all over. Someone else commented about his lack of professionalism, but he did not have the courage to look up.
Finally! The stupid app opened up… but all the spreadsheet numbers were wrong! It was as if some goblin went and typed random equations into them. Red notification animations popped over each cell, making sure the clients noticed the issue as well. Even worse, when he panicked, and tried to reload the document, instead the shared screen was covered by an animated character of a cute woman, with large blue eyes, an even larger chest, and a big, vicious grin, who was stepping on the face of a young man.
Bobby washed his face repeatedly in the bathroom sink. They were allowed a 3.14 minutes bathroom break, once every two hours, at most, for any purpose. That meant you had to vacate your bowels fast, and wipe even faster. The toilets were built into the wall, with an angle that constricted blood-flow if you sat on one for more than a few minutes. With enough practice, he knew how to use the limited time well. At the moment, however, he focused on removing any signs of mayonnaise, and tears.
Why didn't he bring an extra shirt to work that morning?! Now he was stuck with the stained one for twelve more hours.
"You can make it," he said to the round, stubble laden face facing him in the mirror. That beard was getting thick and itchy, but he didn't have the motivation to do anything about it. His glasses were also very dirty, but he didn't care. His brown hair was sticky, shapeless, and full of dandruff. Nobody bothered looking, though, so what difference did it make?
After straightening the gray company clothes, Bobby walked out of the lavatories with 0.02 seconds to spare. A model employee, no less, and now all he had to do was stare at a screen, and hope there wouldn't be any other important conferences for the rest of the afternoon, evening, or night.
SmileyCorp was an interstellar corporation, after all. It meant contact with distant planets, in other star systems, was routine. He had to account for radically different time-zones, not to mention different number of hours per day, and a different yearly cycle per planet. At least a universal calendar of twelve months, and seven day weeks, were agreed upon, even though nobody remembered (or cared) why these conventions were used.
On the way back to his cubicle, he noticed Mary Thatcher. She was a 160cm bundle of hotness, with lips like an angel, dyed red hair, and a chest that bobbed when she walked. What else could a guy look for? To his great joy, she caught glimpse of him as well, and gestured with one thick finger to approach her cubicle.
It smelled of vanilla, had two cat plushies on the desk, and the edges of her monitor were covered with a colorful, glittery stickers.
"Bobo," she asked in a sweet, yet assertive voice, "Are my documents ready?"
"Almost? I need them for tonight. Did you forget?"
The voice remained sweet, running circles inside his ears, creating fireworks inside his brain, but it left no room for error. He saluted jokingly. She did not appreciate it, and only stared back in displeasure.
"I… err… had a delay."
"More important than me?"
Check-mate. He'd do anything for just one night with her. Even one hour. Oh, who was he kidding, he'd give a kidney, no, two kidneys just for one minute of her undivided attention. She could even yell at him during. In fact, it would even better that way.
"I want her to step on me," Bobby muttered quietly to himself back in his cubicle, hoping that nobody except the company's microphones were listening, as he kept typing data into her documents. When they were ready, he sent them via the internal messaging software – they weren't allowed to use any other – and added pridefully that he completed her task with three minutes to spare.
Add an emoji... no, those weren't approved either, to not reduce productivity. He used a colon and a parenthesis. She would understand… hopefully.
The documents were received… respond, Mary. Respond! Come on, respond already! Ten minutes later, still nothing. No thanks. Not even a smiling emoticon like his.
Well, that simply meant he should try harder next time!
"Kobold! In my office!"
Only three hours before Bobby could go home for a five hour, medically induced sleep, Mrs. Angels summoned him to a hearing. Her office wasn't much larger than his cubicle, but at least it had actual walls. The insides smelled of old food and cheap skin moisturizers. There was barely enough space there for the two of them, and he had to struggle to squeeze his overweight body into a small chair. Facing her stern stare across a cheap table, he twiddled his thumbs, and buried his eyes in the floor.
"Do you know how much money your earlier, embarrassing display has cost this company?" she asked in a voice that would make dogs start howling. Bobby avoided any chance of accidentally meeting her tiny dark eyes, and shook his head.
"I would tell you, but that is your job. In addition to all your regular tasks, you will produce a detailed document telling me, my boss Mrs. Mbuya, and her boss Ms. Wilson, exactly how much financial damage we incurred due to your sorry existence, in projected reputation decrease. We will use it to decide on whether it's worth keeping you as a member of SmileyCorp."
"Yes, overall department administrative manager."
"That's better. Until then, your salary will be cut in half. Pray that no more measures will be taken."
If it would only end with a salary cut, he'd consider himself lucky. Those female action figures can wait until next month, and mom would give him money for food.
"Now, get to it before I run out of pity, and send your sorry ass to HR."
HR were merciless. People that were sent to their headquarters on the sixteenth floor of building no. 2 were never seen again. Only their social media accounts could be spotted, thanking SmileyCorp for all it had done for them, and how happy they were to embark on a new journey. Words that meant they desperately hoped someone would be willing to give them a second chance, at a considerable reduced pay, since unemployment for a period longer than a month could mean being marked permanently unemployable by all corporations in Allied Free Stars territories.
For the vast majority of young men, that record stain meant they would be forced to lifexit.
Bobby contemplated that dreaded act on a daily basis, but never found the guts to go through with it. Perhaps tomorrow, he thought every single day, and every single night he somehow fell asleep first.
Two hours before he could leave, Mary Thatcher burst into his cubicle, scowling:
"Your document had a calculation error! My boss yelled at me, and told me to stay all night to fix it if needed, so now you have to stay all night to fix it."
"Let me see," he said apologetically, and attempted to load her document in his app.
It crashed again.
He tried to restart it, and the system got stuck.
While the OS rebooted, Bobby turned to look at Mary. If only she would slap him, or aggressively push his head down on the table, that would also count as a touch.
"Looks like we're both stuck here," he smiled. She grimaced at him.
"No. I'm going out with my boyfriend. Message me when it's done, and it better be soon."
Bobby acknowledged this was the most courageous move he made towards a female in the past decade, and definitely the bravest he'd ever been with Mary. Wasn't confidence supposed to be a turn on?
He popped open a large bag of oily potato chips, and began working on her document. No more hope for a five hour sleep. Perhaps three hours… maybe he should just stay overnight at the office?
Work finished. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, Bobby had a sudden change of heart, and walked as fast as he could from the titanic office complex to the nearby maglev train hub. Short of breath, he watched the very last one leaving before his eyes. Out of pure desperation, he banged on the doors of the passing train cars, knowing full well there was nothing he could do. Not about getting back home, nor about anything else. The only result was a security guard yelling at him to stop before his social score would be reduced by fifty points.
A cab would cost more money than he made in two workdays, especially considering the deduction in pay due to his earlier debacle, so he sighed heavily, took out his minipad, and called mom.
Five rings... eight... ten. Must have been asleep. He sent her a message, saying he would spend the night at the office. Something important came up, and they needed him, because he was important.
Seven years of college for this, Bobby thought while dragging his feet back from the train station. Naturally, rain began pouring from above. Twelve years of schooling, two years of mandatory social volunteering, loans, debt, and pointless voting for different parties, that saw no change.
He wanted a bit of love, or at least meaningful friendship. Instead there were rising housing prices, inflammatory processed food, lower salaries, and the constant parade of other people being promoted to higher positions, due to superficial traits. Every new day meant being humiliated openly by his superiors, who possessed no actual skills, and finally, seeing his health deteriorate at a young age due to to constant stress, and a lack of sleep.
At least he was still employed. At least he did not have to… lifexit. Better be a drone than dead, right? There was even a corporate ad with a similar message, which played frequently, everywhere.
Speaking of ads, a lightning shone over a large billboard on one of the enormous, seemingly infinite skyscrapers around him. The placard showed a smiling, fit, tall man in uniform, with black hair and a chiseled chin, gazing proudly to one side. Two attractive women: a dashing, tall blonde, and a short, Japanese brunette, stood beside him wearing similarly idealized expressions. Silver letters underneath read, "Great intuition? Get tested for Psi Core service!"
"I would if I could," Bobby muttered. Psi Core was meant for psionics! People who were born with an ability to perform supernatural feats. The only unique thing about him was… his IDNA number.
Nothing spectacular waited for Bobby in the future. At best, he'd be a low level cog in a machine that spat in his face. With low spirits, he increased the pace under the pouring rain. At least one benefit of working several dozen meters underground was protection from the wet cold outside.
Zeta Reticuli VI years were 480 day-long, out of which 405 were winter days in Centropolis. Outlying regions had it even worse. Thus, the options were either an underground office, or a space heater.
A young couple were walking on the pavement. When they got closer the woman, cute and attractive, instinctively moved closer to her protector, who was taller than Bobby. He avoided their eyes, and physically moved as far as possible. After they passed him, he stopped to take a long, good look at the woman's behind. Life's little redeeming moments.
Nice and tight. These two would probably have an awesome night, filled with sweaty moans, and take it for granted.
A loud bang from above disrupted his thoughts. At first, he thought an electrical transformer had blown off, and instinctively raised his arms to protect his face, but… nothing happened, so Bobby shrugged, and started walking again. It was freezing cold outside, even under his thick coat, but he didn't even finish taking three steps before he saw a flash of green light crashing into a nearby alley.
Right… well, not his problem, and the smartest option was to keep walking. Whatever that thing was, it was probably illegal, and any camera around could lead to a reduction of his social score if he acts on his own, instead of calling the authorities. Despite all that, Robert's curiosity got the better of him, and he stared inside the alley. A trail of smoke rose from a pile of junk, mostly wet cardboard boxes.
What the hell was that? A tiny meteorite? One that both survived atmospheric entry, and didn't cause a larger explosion? Perhaps it was an object that fell from an airplane, or a low-flying spaceship.
Carefully, slowly, apprehensively, and cautiously, Bobby approached the landing spot. His eyes went wide when he gazed over the burned boxes, and saw a glowing green light resting inside a small crater. What was that thing? It pulsated rhythmically, creating a barely audible low hum.
Filled with awe, curiosity, and quite a bit of fear, Robert touched the light. Instantly, a blinding flash made him jump back with a yelp. When he opened his eyes again, a golden pendant rested in the palm of his hand, even though he could not recall picking up the item. In the midst of that precious jewel was embedded a peculiar green gem.
"What in the Seven Hells are you?" he asked, fascinated.
"Funny, I was about to say the same thing."
A bold, feminine voice. On the stone tiles, just a few meters deeper into the alley, stood a gorgeous, tall, raven haired woman, with olive colored skin, who wore a scary, pointy suit of armor.
Oh. Her eyes were as red as blood.
Shrieking in fear and surprise, Bobby started running.