The near future…
“Don’t talk about God or the worthwhile causes. I won’t believe what anyone says. They’re in it for themselves; they have to be. Survival is the only strategy. Take it from me. I know what I’m talking about, and bollocks to the rest.” Edwards paused. “Are you paying attention?”
Panoni wasn’t listening, and to prove the point scratched his balls.
“Shall I repeat what I said?”
“No. Save it for some drunken evening, preferably without me. Men who feel the need to utter such bullshit should be despatched into the wild and forced to survive.”
“There is no ‘wild’, it’s all given over to the production of agriculture.”
Panoni swivelled on the stool. “That’s all you know. You, with your whiny arguments. There’s no room here for individuality. You’re one of us, or you’re…..dog meat.”
Edwards wanted to say more, but Panoni refused to listen. “Let’s get on with it.”
Sullenly Edwards twisted the dial, lighting the face of the screen into a luminous green on which numerous orange gauges flickered momentously.
“I said it could be done.”
Panoni nodded thoughtfully. He was a hard man to impress.
Edwards flicked a couple more switches, checking the results carefully. He knew they were working to a standard, and their performance as part of a team was under scrutiny. He knew all this, but not where the other members of the team were situated or what the overall goals might be.
“We’re searching for answers Dr. Edwards.” He was told more than once during the training period. “Answers on a practical level.”
And then what? He realised the Corporation were chasing the concept of control. Control over assets and results. Control over the competitive elements. Control mostly over markets and other Corporations.
Being first; being top dog, and locking out the opposition. It was war on an industrial level.
He had bought into all this, and now his services were at the disposal of the Watanabe Corporation for a period of seven years. Those other Majors; he had considered them all. Watanabe attracted him, beguiled him with promises, but in reality remained a faceless façade.
To this day, Edwards still had no idea who his immediate boss was, or what the work he did was intended to achieve.
Watanabe had sites all over the world, with an impressive headquarters building in what had once been the USA, but was now Greater Utopia.
Panoni bit into the synthetic chocolate of a candy bar. Edwards watched in silence. Whatever Edwards said or did, Panoni refused to react, and if he did it was to make an unkind comment. It had been this way for seven months now as, Edwards who had initially despaired, became used to the treatment, regarding his colleague with cold dispassion.
There was no point getting a debate, or even a civilized conversation going. Panoni stopped it in its tracks. Maybe he too was fearful of any criticism he might make being overheard by others elsewhere in the building. Dissent was frowned upon, and any who took it upon themselves to criticize the working practices simply disappeared.
Rotated was the expression used.
Edwards still hadn’t worked out the hierarchy. Was Panoni his boss or was it the other way around? Panoni refused to answer him on this point. Indeed Panoni kept quiet out of principle.
“Why should I tell you anything?” He snarled, if challenged.
The woman at the Training Centre had been disingenuous with her remarks, as if afraid of being caught out for the same reasons others remained silent.
A number of people Edwards met at the Centre were exactly the same. Programmed in Corporate speak; and no matter how hard he tried he could not break through their defence to get a straight answer.
Nothing was written down. There was no instruction manual, simply a continuous sequence of video training films and blind obedience to the task. He might just as well have joined a cult.
As he was to discover this was how these enormous corporations operated. People floated, oblivious to the whole – because the whole was a vast conglomeration involving hundreds of thousands of participants. Edwards was a cog, obviously with a role to play, but the tasks he was given were simple enough within the discipline his doctorate covered.
“It’s how new discoveries will be made.” His team leader remarked during training.
She was another of that special breed; all smiles and softness on the outside. He felt unable to penetrate her shell or demand answers.
“You have to go with the wave.” The team leader announced. “Along the way, you’ll see what we do and perhaps understand why. Ask any questions you like.”
Her words were silky smooth, simple enough to adhere to, but it left Edwards with a feeling of unease.
It had been that way since the beginning, as he made his progression from area to area, finally being admitted into the main Facility after three years. It was here Edwards encountered Panoni, and almost floundered against the other’s lacklustre display. Hence the rant he’d unleashed on Panoni, as he attempted to challenge the other man’s refusal to engage.
Panoni was contemplating twin screens at his work station. One showed columns of rotating numbers, the other a Russian porn site Panoni was fond of visiting.
Panoni was addicted to porn, laughing at the banality of whatever scenario was being played out.
Edwards had discovered Panoni spoke six languages, had two doctorates in the sciences, but little success with the opposite sex.
“No good with small talk.” Panoni declared, adding that he usually visited the whores in block 14. Block 14 was reserved for single men.
Edwards was married; looking forward to the bi-monthly ‘welfare’ visit when his wife would be invited to join him in the ‘family’ block for 24 hours.
It was the only interaction with the outside world Edwards was permitted during his stay at the Facility, but the separation was placing undue strain on the relationship. He didn’t know if he could sustain the marriage for the remainder of the time the contract was due to run. He’d ‘served’ three years; four more to go.
Edwards turned to stare out the window. The view beyond was one of isolation and emptiness, displaying a scrubby wasteland with no visible topography. It was flat, utterly flat without distinction or interruption. There were few buildings in the vicinity that were not a part of the Facility, and no other private buildings before the road reached the city outskirts, a mere forty-five minute drive away.
The one exception was a sterile lake where the workers were allowed to exercise, exploring a winding path that skirted the edges of the water. Every fifty meters helpful signs reminded the foolish that swimming or boating was verboten/forbidden.
The few wild creatures tempted into the area were soon scared off by the dogs. Edwards remained nervous around them, even when the handlers kept them on a tight leash.
“Don’t go wandering.” He was instructed during a brief induction on the first day. “They go for anything that qualifies as meat.”
The security man laughed at what he viewed as an in joke. Edwards smiled. He had done a lot of smiling during the first few weeks. The people he met rarely returning his smile. They were on message for the most part; Edwards nodded, trying to appear to be on message too.
It seemed appearances counted for a great deal more in the Facility than actual commitment.
Edwards noted down the morning’s findings, intending to transfer the data onto the laptop later. He didn’t know what happened to the figures he entered. Someone else within ‘the team’ no doubt took on whatever aspect the work demanded from that point on.
He just wished he could get an overview, but this was constantly denied.
“People are working at a higher level, where your data will be incorporated into other findings.” He was informed.
Edwards settled back in his chair. Panoni was surfing the internet, looking for better sites. He had a daily routine he kept up before disappearing into the toilets for a crafty wank.
“Don’t you get bored with that stuff, it’s totally…?”
“Fuck off.” Panoni snarled. “Do I give a shit what you believe?”
“Aren’t these machines monitored?”
Panoni glanced at Edwards with barely disguised contempt. “You think they care?” Panoni laughed. “A word to the wise, keep your nose out of my business.”
“Not when you do it beside me. It’s a perversion you know.”
“Just do your work and piss off.”
Edwards shuffled across to a coffee machine which hissed and spat into life as he worked the mechanism to achieve a perfect latte.
Panoni was too engrossed to respond. Edwards tasted the foamy liquid; it was impossible to fathom how they made coffee without beans. Some said it was a form of soya the Japanese had cultivated. It was hard to know, when all the competing corporations kept everything secret.
Everything was a secret now since the Corporations had taken over the running of most of the developed World.
Wars had been outlawed; physical wars that is. There were still cyber wars and disputes between Corporations, usually resolved by lawyers.
Since the takeover everything had become synthetic; clothes, food, furniture. Even values had dissolved into a filmy entity that could be twisted at will.
Other things had simply vanished, never to return. It was easy to blame the markets, but the markets were controlled by the Corporations who maintained a strangle hold over production.
A thriving black market operated of course, and it was possible to get anything at a price, but most of it was fake. Fabricated in Africa.
“We’re worker ants.” Edwards had confided to his wife before enrolling. “Kept alive to perform a simple task.”
Panoni was noodling. He was constantly slacking any time he could get away with it. Edwards was certain his own work rate was dropping as a result.
“What’s next?” Edwards demanded.
Panoni scrolled down the page of his laptop.
“Find the range of elasticity in factor n,” he quoted.
“What’s factor n?”
Panoni glanced up. “How the fuck do I know, you’re the maths guy. You work it out.”
Edwards sighed. Whatever doctorates Panoni possessed they were of little help to him in the work currently in process.
“Show me the workings.”
Panoni made way for Edwards at the work station, discreetly sliding off the stool to head towards the toilet block.
Edwards turned off the porn site Panoni had left running, concentrating on a stream of figures which the screen brought up.
An hour later a dark-haired woman quietly entered the room, remaining at Edwards back in silent contemplation until he glanced at her.
“Dr. Edwards I’m Bloomberg. I’ll be working alongside you.”
The woman was in her late twenties, part of a fast tracked graduate programme the Corporation wanted to slot into roles where they could be of short-term use. Again, it was rumoured many were Corporation spies, reporting back at a higher level.
Edwards wondered if he or Panoni had come under scrutiny, as he regarded the woman uneasily. She wore her hair tied back above a serious face. The one distraction however was the blouse she had chosen to wear, which was made from a practically invisible material. Edwards clearly saw her breasts through the fragile fabric, and failed to lift his eyes in time.
“What?” He blustered, tearing his eyes back to her face.
“Dr. Bloomberg. I’ll be working…”
Edwards sighed. “Panoni. Where’s Dr. Panoni?”
The woman attempted a disarming smile. “I’ve no idea who you mean.”
Edwards knew people could be rotated at random, or even removed totally. He expected to receive some warning however.
At least this woman was better looking than Panoni, and smelled a thousand times better beneath a layer of synthetic scent.
Edwards snapped into work mode, hoping to impress with the character of his disregard for a fallen colleague. “We’re searching for factor n. Any ideas?”
Bloomberg sat at the stool Edwards vacated, scrutinizing row after row of tumbling figures on the screen.
“I might need to run a separate programme. Which machine can I use?”
Edwards indicated the one Panoni employed for porn, hoping all traces had been erased. He didn’t want this woman to believe he was contaminated with the same disease Panoni had shown.
“Tell me about yourself.” Edwards asked, attempting his own version of a disarming smile.
Bloomberg shifted position on the stool. “I’m here because I was told to report to you. To be of use. We studied some of the findings of this section in university. I wanted to be a part of the team undertaking really vital work.”
“Really.” Edwards was taken aback, wondering if her remarks were intended as a compliment, or to take him off-balance.
“Well, I’ll be delighted to instruct you.”
She regarded him with studied indifference. “Let me see the morning’s results. Are they written up yet?”
Edwards placed his notes at her disposal, wondering if she was genuine in wanting to be a part of what they were doing. Should he believe her, or should he remain on his guard? She might be there simply to spy on him. And where was Panoni? His crap still littered various surfaces of the room.
As she worked, Edwards studied the back of the woman’s head. She had nice clean hair, soft skin. He realised he had been apart from women too long, missing their touch and femininity.
He knew also many of the women working in the facility took a pill that suppressed the sex drive. It was to prevent workplace relationships from interfering with the serious work in hand.
“Would you like a coffee?” He asked.
“No.” Came the swift response.
Edwards placed a hand onto Bloomberg’s shoulder, intending to see what she was doing. She reacted immediately, stiffening her body.
“Dr. Edwards, no touching please.”
“I’m sorry. I was only… my colleague… Dr. Panoni, do you know what happened to him?”
She regarded him quizzically. “Factor n Dr. Edwards, shall we concentrate?”
Edwards apologized yet again, realizing he was making a fool of himself. And in the Facility appearance counted for everything. He excused himself by saying he had been over working.
She smiled reassuringly. “I understand Dr. Edwards.”
Did she? He hated her after that. She deserved it, the little snitch.
That night as he lay in bed Edwards examined the day. Would he miss Panoni, probably not? Was the new woman a distraction, probably yes? But was she a spy? There were ways to test the theory. And maybe he would try out a few when the chance arose.
Despite his prejudice against her, she had managed to isolate factor n in no time at all. Maybe he needed to up his game, or he too would be rotated. The Corporation only retained the best people.
“People of value.” His team leader had remarked.
He hardly recalled the team leader’s face. She had become a blur on the memory, and how long had he been a part of this work? Three years, coming up to four. The contract was awarded for seven years, but would he make it to completion, and then what?
He could become part of a fringe world known as ‘private contractors’. Someone who worked for whichever Corporations short-term goals he could achieve. It was a way of making good money.
He’d heard tell of many who were now in a position to dictate their own terms.
Edwards knew he needed to keep working, and to do so meant achieving results within the tasks he was set. Even if in doing so he never got to see the final outcomes. He knew he had to focus hard, or face rotation.
Tomorrow he would set the tone with Bloomberg. If he had to work alongside her, she would become his assistant, and she would do whatever he required.
He intended exploiting both her youth and abilities; he would suck her dry if he had to. She was obviously gifted, but inexperienced.
He would teach her; lead her in the direction he intended to go. If she was indeed a corporate player she would be delighted by this experience. And if she was a stooge, he’d expose her for what she was. He’d break her, indeed he had a duty to do so.
It was in the Corporation’s best interests. He would explain it to her in those terms. “Bloomberg.” He would remark. “I want to get one thing straight with you from the start.”
She’d regard him with a mixture of awe and fear.
“The respect I expect from a junior colleague is to be tempered by the tasks you will be set. Is that clear?”
Perhaps she’d nod and smile. Perhaps she’d wear that blouse again.
Edwards smiled. Would he miss Panoni? The hell he would.
He turned over in bed. His wife was due at the end of the week. He realised he no longer believed in love. It was perhaps the hardest discovery to be made, but there it was. He wondered if he had the courage to tell her, and what her reaction would be. He didn’t want a scene; he didn’t want anyone at the Facility knowing. Perhaps it would be better to say nothing. To simply go with the wave.
He fell asleep knowing it would mark the beginning of a difficult period. He needed to refocus on work. Continual employment for the Watanabe Corporation was all he could expect. Love was dead; it had become as synthetic as the emotion he felt towards work, and the opposite sex.