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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: December 24, 2018      Views: 64

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I write fantasy novels and short fiction for fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural. Occasionally there's a bit of poetry or essay, too, just cuz I vainly think I can do it all....

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This work has reached the exceptional level
Alex wants a promotion but discovers a dark secret
"Corporate Spirit" by Jason A. Kilgore

Alex Ravin sneaked glances around at his co-workers. Tracy was on the phone with a customer. Patel had walked away from his desk. None of the others were looking. So Alex turned back to his computer, minimized a spreadsheet, and navigated to the internal "Careers" webpage of his biotech company, Incytomix. The second position on the list, "Advanced Services Supervisor," was still marked "open" next to a red button labeled "Apply Now!" A sidebar on the page read, "Need a Personal Growth Mentor? Take charge of your career and contact HR today!"

Alex had already applied for the job, though. It had been almost two months and still no peep from Human Resources other than an email acknowledging the application ("You're actualizing your career!" read the subject heading). The most recent round of layoffs had booted one of his two supervisors, leaving his boss, Cindy, filling both positions in the interim until it could be backfilled. Not that she complained. Like all management around the company, she always had one of those pasted-on smiles, even when she delivered bad news. She had announced the layoff of her co-supervisor and two of Alex's fellow workers in the group with the same sort of oh-shucks tone she might use to let you know they were out of organic coffee in the break room. If he got the job, he swore to himself, he wouldn't be another "Cindy."

Alex re-read the job posting for the hundredth time. The deadline had been extended another month. Did that mean they hadn't found his application suitable and were still looking?

"Hey!" said a voice to his left. Alex jumped, quickly clicking back to the spreadsheet on his screen.

It was Patel, standing there with a steaming mug in his hand -- his afternoon Darjeeling with milk. On the side was printed, "It's magic until it's science!" He took a sip, seeming to savor the surprise. Alex gave his friend and coworker a glare. "What is it, Patel?"

"I saw what you were looking at." His voice was low, spoken with his characteristic mix of colonial English and the lilt of Hindi. "Applying?"

This wasn't a good thing. Alex didn't want the weirdness of potentially being Patel's boss to get in the way of their working relationship. "Just looking."

"You won't catch me applying. The last thing I want is to sell my soul to this place."

Alex picked up a customer matrix form on his desk and put it in a file, trying to look busy and end the conversation. "Well, we can't do tech support for the rest of our lives."

"Uh uh uh!" Patel said with a sarcastic inflection, wagging a finger at him. "Not 'tech support!' It is 'Advanced Services' now! Medical Instruments Division!" The name change had been the bright idea of the last upper manager who'd come and gone. They all had to make their mark, somehow.

"Whatever. A decade of doing this should be enough relevant experience -- if I wanted to apply. I could use the pay raise."

The founder of the company, P. Gerald Chapman, had a reputation as a greedy bastard. Brilliant, but dark and brooding, and rumored to be dabbling in taboo, cultist pursuits. When he sold SpecMedTek Inc. to Incytomix the year after Alex started, everyone celebrated, thinking a publicly traded, international company would offer fair wages. The old man died soon after, under mysterious circumstances, hardly living long enough to spend his millions. Incytomix started introducing little perks here and there and talking about positive things like diversity and fairness. But wages barely rose. Now, instead of one "greedy bastard" running the company, there was a cadre of penny-pinching upper management and a board of directors who weren't approachable at all.

Patel shrugged and turned back to his desk. "I would not hold my breath, my friend. You know what the motto should be for Incytomix, right? 'Praises, not raises!'"

Alex nodded. Just that morning he'd gotten a "Certificate of Thanks" from his boss's boss, "Manager Mike" Blackwell, in his email. It was the only acknowledgement of Alex's months-long side project to streamline the process of replacing faulty medical devices they did tech support for. In some companies you'd get a bonus for such a massive undertaking. Instead, Alex got a digital certificate in his email that read, "Thank you for accelerating excellence and evolving our business acumen!" whatever the hell that meant. It wasn't even on paper unless he printed it himself.

He sighed. Every time one of these things happened, he felt a little bit of his self-respect ebb away. But he couldn't leave the company -- there weren't any other biotech jobs in the area -- and the needs of his family required he stay in town. It wasn't easy to build a network of support for a low-functioning and nearly non-verbal autistic child. Money was tight. Though he was middle class and his wife worked, raising a special needs kid was pushing their finances to the breaking point, even with the meager funds the state provided.

A support worker was really needed by his son's side every waking hour, and they had a good one, but given how little state funding there was, he didn't know how much longer they could afford a worker to aide his son with everything from basic communication skills to calming his emotional outbursts. Alex had been forced to cut back the support worker to only ten hours a week, and only on weekdays.

Maybe it was from his little moment of career scheming, but Alex felt watched. He turned back to Patel, expecting him to be standing there again, but he wasn't. Patel was at his desk analyzing data from a customer. The others were working, too. And yet, he couldn't shake the feeling. He held his breath. It was as if someone was right next to him. Staring at him. Reaching for him.

His computer pinged and he jumped again. He turned back to the computer, then clicked on an incoming chat message on the screen. The moment of being watched passed, but he looked around anyhow. Still nothing. The chat message was from his boss, Cindy, even though she was sitting in her office with the door open, just twenty feet away. It read:

Cindy: Alex, did you update the PPI board today?

Alex groaned. She was referring to the latest corporate craze, which stood for Practical Process Improvement. Patel called it "Another example of CBS -- Corporate BullShit." Everyone was supposed to do something for PPI, such as "Just Do It" projects updating key documents or spreadsheets, or larger-scale improvement projects, called "kaizens," even though no one seemed to know what the word "kaizen" actually meant. Some Japanese thing. PPI was developed for manufacturing processes, but the corporate uppity-ups thought it should apply to everyone and everything. So now they all had more work to do, above and beyond the normal job duties.

Alex: Not yet.

Cindy: Don't forget it's a deliverable on your goals. You've got 15 minutes til your next phone shift. Keep up the good work!

She always added that last bit in chat. It was her way of ending a conversation. If you tried to continue the chat session anyway, she became non-responsive or terse.

Fine, he thought. He grabbed his customer matrix sheets and headed down the hall to the PPI whiteboard.

He was busy putting the sheets on the PPI board when two people, talking in conspiratorial tones, stepped out of the neighboring meeting room. Alex peeked around the corner and saw the Human Resources site director, Alicia, talking with Manager Mike in the corridor, their backs turned to him, so he pulled back out of sight. Since the new position would report to Manger Mike, he was the hiring manager.

"I'm not so certain about this," Manager Mike said. "I think we should keep looking for better candidates."

"Insourcing is the only way this makes sense," Alicia answered in her matter of fact manner. "Our lead candidate is a team player but is no longer consistent with his, um, returns. And he's not a flight risk. Low hanging fruit. I feel he's at a point where we can insource him."

There was a brief pause, then Manager Mike stated, "Okay. Ask the Asset to test him."

The two stepped away from the door, still talking, but Alex was too far away to eavesdrop further.

Were they talking about the supervisor position? Was he the "lead candidate?" The thought gave him a quick burst of excitement. He knew what "insourcing" was -- hiring for a position from inside the company -- but he didn't understand what they meant by "no longer consistent with returns." What returns? And who were they referring to as "the Asset?"

Alex glanced at his smartwatch. He had only a few minutes before time to get on his phone shift with customers, so he quickly organized his papers on the board and stepped back to his desk.

The next morning, after dropping his son off at school, Alex walked in to work to find a glossy pamphlet on his desk, along with a cheap, reusable water bottle and one of those little step-counters that you clip to your pocket. Everyone had the same things on their desk, too. Printed in bold letters on the pamphlet, over a picture of a smiling model in gym clothes holding what looked to be a membership card, were the words "Permit To Be Fit!" Opening the brochure, a little punchcard fell out. He groaned. He knew what this was without reading another word of the glossy pamphlet.

"Can you believe this nonsense?" Patel said, standing behind Alex.

Alex sighed and raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess... The company is making us exercise in order to qualify for lower health costs. Right?"

Patel's eyes grew wide and he drew back so quickly his morning coffee sloshed out of the mug he was holding. "You read about it already!"

"No," Alex said, turning back to his desk and plopping the pamphlet onto his stack of customer complaint reports. "I guess I've just come to expect it from this place." He shivered, wondering why he'd left his coat at the front door. Why is it so cold in here?

Tracy chimed in from the next desk over, flipping her head to get her blue-dyed bangs out of her face. She was easily 300 pounds and not shy about it. "They'll punch my card if I meet my step goal. Do I look like I can walk 8000 steps a day? This is nothing more than discrimination against big people!"

Patel nodded. "And how the hell are we supposed to find the time to do all that walking?" He threw a hand up in the air, again sloshing his coffee in his other hand. "Sure, they'll cut our premiums by 5% if we meet their 'step goal' for us, but most days I eat at my desk, and I am still behind in work."

"Plus we have to get below what they consider to be 'obese.'" Tracy added finger quotes to the last word. "I ain't goin' to get below 'obese' anytime soon."

Alex had stopped paying attention. A movement caught his eye. A shadow. It wafted between filing cabinets like a wisp of smoke. Crept up by Patel's desk. Then, as he and Tracy were complaining, seemed to settle over Patel like a mist.

"Patel..." Alex started. But what was he to say? He couldn't make the words come out without seeming somehow paranoid.

The shadow darkened, seeming to form a humanoid shape, hugging Patel from behind. Cozying up, head to head, as if whispering in his ear. It even seemed to have arms that reached around his chest. Patel, for his part, only heightened his rant, but his eyes became droopy as if intoxicated, his words slurring. "And don't get me started about the web portal we're supposed ... to log... them... on...."


Patel snapped out of it, opening his eyes wide.

The shadow lost its humanoid shape and flitted away, hovered briefly over Tracy, then dissipated around her desk.

"What, man?" Patel asked, annoyed.

"The... I saw...." Alex started to point toward Tracy's desk, but she thought he was pointing at her.

"What?" she said, eyes narrowing as if to say, You think I'm 'obese' too, don't you?

"Uh, nothing." How could he explain it? A trick of his eyes? Recovering, he blurted, "It's certainly lots of steps," and scanned the room, looking for a reappearance of the shadow. But it was nowhere to be seen, and everyone else was working at their desks without seeming to have noticed.

Everyone was working, that is, except for Cindy, who was standing in the doorway to her office, the new water bottle in her hand, half filled, and her step counter clipped to her pocket. She watched him, a look of curiosity on her face.

Alex looked away, but too late. He glanced back as she went in her office, but a moment later his computer pinged with a new chat message:

Cindy: Can you come meet with me in my office if you have a few free minutes?

Alex scowled. It wasn't really a question, now was it? And when did he ever have a few free minutes?

He stepped the twenty feet to Cindy's door. The empty office, to the left of Cindy's, would be his office if he got the position. Everything but the desk, chair, phone, and a framed copy of the company mission statement had been removed. Even the little nameplate next to the door was empty. He wondered if his name might soon be printed there.

Alex looked into her office. "You wanted to see me?"

Cindy was reading something on her screen. Without looking up at him, she gestured to close the door and take a seat in the chair beside her desk.

This wasn't a good sign. He closed the door and took a seat. The chair was one of those rolling office chairs which looks comfortable enough, but when you sit in it, it suddenly tilts back too far. It was also too short, forcing average-height people to bunch their legs up a bit, and it couldn't be adjusted. Other chairs had come and gone in the office, but she always kept that one right where it was.

Finally she finished reading, then looked at him, putting on her smile. "Are you looking forward to your step challenge?" Then, before he could answer, said, "Isn't it great that the company is investing in our health this way? Rewarding us for healthy behaviors?"

Alex shrugged. "Apparently we can get 5% off our healthcare premium, but then again, they raised our premiums by 8% over the last couple years."

She flashed a sly grin. "There's that insightfulness we've come to expect in you, Alex! How is work going? Are you keeping up with your PPI duties?"

"Yes, of course. It's the highest priority, outside of customer needs."

"Good, good." She folded her hands on her desk, still smiling the same smile. "Tell me, have you heard from HR yet about the position?"

Alex raised his eyebrows. "No. I keep meaning to inquire...."

"I'm sure it's fine," she said, breaking him off. "You know I'm on the hiring panel. After all, the position is lateral to me. At the end of the day, it'll be me that the person works with most closely."

"Yes," he said, "certainly." He didn't like where this was going.

"So..." She let her smile down just a bit. It was still there, but her eyes were all business. "Tell me what you really think about the 'Permit To Be Fit' program."

Uh oh, he thought. Did she hear all the complaining? Will she blame me and use it against me for the hiring process? He had to choose his words carefully.

He tried to act nonchalant and put on a smile of his own. "Well, it can't hurt for any of us to be more fit. And if it's industry standard for premiums to be raised, then we should thank Incytomix for giving us an opportunity to reduce them, however difficult."

Her grin didn't falter, but there was a dangerous gleam in her eyes. "It doesn't seem too popular out there. You didn't join in the complaining though. Why not?"

Alex briefly considered his options. He could toe the company line and state his support for the program. But he had promised not to be another "Cindy," didn't he?

He dropped the smile that had crept onto his own face. He leaned forward, the chair tilting too fast and almost throwing him against the desk. "Well, Cindy, I think the program is another way to get workers to think the company is serving our needs when it isn't, really. Only a small percentage of us will actually walk 8000 steps a day, now won't we? With our sedentary desk jobs and complicated home lives, we're lucky to walk 5000. How do I know this? Because we already tried this as a company five years ago." Alex could have stopped there, but something spurred him to keep going, talking in a smooth but assertive tone. "It just gives a false sense of morale -- a hope that the company is thinking of us -- before tossing it into the shredder, only to have another inane program on our desk the next week. So I have to ask you, Cindy, do you think it's worth complaining about?"

He stopped, watched her face, waited for a reaction.

But her smile never died, and the same gleam remained in her eyes. An uncomfortable moment passed where they just sat there, unchanging, each waiting for the other to react. Then finally she grinned further, her eyes relaxed. "I like you, Alex. I like plain speakers. Let's put a pin in that topic for now." She turned back to her computer monitor and hit a few keystrokes. "On another note, it looks like you need to bolster your metrics, Alex. Your customer satisfaction scores have taken a dip."

He sat back again, this time controlling the tilt better. "I'll work on it. Tomorrow I ...."

"Right. Keep up the good work!"

Her eyes didn't leave the monitor. She started typing away at something. The meeting was over.

Alex walked back to his desk, puzzling over the little meeting with Cindy. He shouldn't have spoken his mind like that, given she was on the hiring panel. She's so "corporate" she probably has the company logo tattooed on her ass. He may have just cost himself the new position.

Or was she sincere when she said she likes "plain speakers?"

He couldn't be sure. The fake grin did a lot to hide her true thoughts. At least the room has warmed up, he thought as he sat at his desk and logged into the phone shift system to take customer calls.

"No ma'am, the WhispAir XL is not intended for that usage. It's a CPAP device. It's meant to help you breathe at night while you sleep."

Alex adjusted his headset in irritation as he listened to the customer on the other end, a woman with a thick Chinese accent.

"Yes, ma'am, I understand. But I told you, it is for sleep apnea. It is not intended as a daytime breathing aide. For that you will need to speak with your doctor and..."

The woman cut him off, speaking Mandarin to someone off the phone.

"Ma'am? Mrs. Chen? Hello? Ah, yes... Did you hear what I said? No, it is not to help you breathe as you walk. You are thinking of a portable oxygen concentrator. For that I can transfer you to a specialist who ...."

She cut him off again, but the cell connection was poor and kept cutting out. He only heard maybe every third or fourth word she said.

"Yes, I understand you. But I cannot offer any discounts. I am not in Sales. You will need to contact your sales rep." Alex turned up the volume on his headset, straining to understand her past the accent and fuzzy connection. "I can't offer a discount, ma'am, but we have our Allegiant loyalty program, which includes a one-time discount on our instruments. Would you like to hear more about that? .... Hello? Mrs. Chen? Hello?"

The cell connection had been lost. Alex hung up and tried the number she had given him, but it went to a message that said the voicemail was full.

Tracy and Patel sat at their desks smirking at Alex.

"I do not understand why you try so hard, my friend," Patel said. "That customer was truly clueless. You should have just hung up and blamed it on the phone connection."

Alex resituated his ergonomic keyboard. "Wouldn't be the first time. Though there was a time I would have frowned at your idea."

"Here's what you do," Tracy said, poking a fork in the prepackaged salad she was holding. "She obviously wasn't listening, so you just 'upsell' her to the latest model of CPAP machine. She gets what she was calling for, you get credit for making an 'opportunity' in our database, and our group metrics look better."

Alex shook his head. "It was the wrong device for her. I'm not going to do that."

Tracy shrugged. "Says the man who lags behind me in sales opps." She stuck a forkful of lettuce and dressing in her mouth and gave Alex a smug wink.

He nodded. She wasn't the only one in the room who compromised their ethics for the all-too-important group metrics. The longer people worked there, the more jaded they got.

"And why are you plugging that loyalty program, anyhow?" Patel asked as he pulled the lid off a package of hummus. It was lunchtime, and, as usual, they all ate at their desks while they worked. They were technically supposed to take off at least a half hour to eat, but doing that would put them all behind on work, forcing them to stay late anyway. "It is a great idea, but we do not get anything from directing customers to it, and it sucks for product offerings."

Tracy nodded. "The Allegiant program is just a ploy to get their information so we can spam them."

Alex shrugged. "Well, it has its uses...."

Then, from the corner of his eye, Alex saw it again -- the shadow creature. It was more humanoid this time, moving across the room toward them, stopping at each of the employees along the way. This time he could make out the torso, head, arms and legs, albeit still smoky in appearance. Each time it moved near an employee, it seemed to pull some wisp of smoke from them as if pulling off a veil.

Alex rubbed his eyes, thinking he was seeing things again. A trick of the fluorescent lighting, perhaps? No, he thought, I'm losing my mind.

No one else seemed to see it. Tracy was still talking. "And when a customer does sign up, it's their sales rep who gets a commission. We don't get anything at all! They keep talking about changing that, but...."

Something about that last comment attracted the shadow creature. It quickly stepped over to Tracy.

Alex felt his eyes widen. His heart raced. He raised an arm and pointed at the shadow as it leaned over Tracy, it's head only a few inches from her, its arm raised over her chest.

"Tracy..." he muttered. His voice had gone hoarse. "A shadow..."

Tracy and Patel looked at him quizzically. Patel looked the way Alex was pointing. "What shadow?"

The shadow creature was taking on more form, becoming less translucent. The veil of dark 'smoke' seemed to shed from Tracy's body and coagulate into the shadow creature, and Tracy reacted with an eye roll and momentary nod, yet she seemed not to notice the creature.

"Honestly, Alex," she said, her words slurring. "Sometimes you creep me out."

But Alex hardly heard her. The creature turned what could only be described as a head and seemed to look at him. The room grew cold as it stared, its "eyes" a darker shade of black, then it took two more steps over to Patel.

Alex leapt up, finally finding his courage. "Patel, watch out!" He lunged toward the shadow.

"What?" Patel yelped, jumping back from him.

Alex threw his arm into the shadow. Tried to push it away. His hand passed through. Only cold air met him.

"Have you gone mad?" Patel asked, wielding a piece of hummus-covered pita bread in front of him as if it were a weapon.

The shadow flitted away toward the other end of the room, then out through the door, leaving Alex standing there in shock.

"Didn't you see that?" he asked.

Tracy huffed and stabbed at her salad again. "Alex, you've been working too much. There's this low-stress diet I read about that you really ...."

"You didn't see that?" Alex repeated. He looked back and forth between his coworkers. "A shadow. It stood right here where I am. It ... it did something to you."

Alex's headset was beeping. He had another customer call coming through, but he ignored it and let it "bounce" to another tech person. Some of those other coworkers were watching him now, too.

"Okay, now you are really freaking me out," Patel said. He stood and put his arm on Alex's shoulder. "My friend, you need to take a break. Go outside and get some fresh air." He gestured toward the door, but given that was the way the shadow had gone, it was the last place Alex wanted to go right now.

Alex shook his head. "Um, yeah, maybe you're right." He forced a chuckle and pulled off his glasses, cleaned them on his shirt. "Just a trick of light, I think." But he didn't believe it. I'm going crazy, he thought.

"Geez, man, you look awful," Patel said when he saw Alex walk into the office the next morning. "What happened? Do you have a cold?"

Tracy turned and then drew back. "You got a cold? You should call in sick! Every year there is at least a 26% loss in worker productivity because people like you come in sick."

"I'm not sick," Alex said as he put his laptop bag on his desk. "I... I just didn't get much sleep last night."

"Because you're sick," Tracy insisted. "Just look at you!" She leaned forward and scrutinized him.

Alex grumbled as he got situated at his computer. He hadn't slept at all the night before. Every shadow seemed alive with an imagined creature. Every creak of the house triggered him. And when, at last, his tired eyes would close, he'd see the shadow hugging Tracy again and sucking out some sort of essence from her. Even now, as he entered the room, he was watching for it, just as he had the rest of the day before. Hallucinations, he thought. He would need to get a therapist or something, though he couldn't afford one. The company's low-end insurance likely wouldn't cover it.

"I'll be fine," he insisted, without really believing it, and opened his email.

Of the nearly one hundred emails he'd received since logging out the day before, two were marked as "high priority." One was from HR with a subject heading of "How many steps did you take yesterday?" He realized too late that his step counter was still sitting on his desk where he'd left it, unused. With a groan he clipped it to his pocket.

The other "priority" email was from Cindy to everyone in the group. The subject heading read "Please get your PPI paperwork done COB today." Yet another ridiculous acronym the company forced everyone to use.

"I've got an acronym for ya," Alex muttered under his breath.

Patel overheard and scooted his office chair toward Alex. "CBS," he whispered.

Alex nodded and smiled. "CBS."

He spent the next couple hours whittling down the slew of emails. About a quarter of them were from customers. Another quarter were from internal sales people and engineers related to his customer cases. The rest was a toxic mix of corporate notices, conversations he had been cc'd on that didn't really involve him, online journal notices, and spam.

Alex opened three different database programs, none of which "talked" to each other, as well as his phone shift software, the Incytomix public webpage, and Google's search engine. The Incytomix's webpage was so convoluted and the company was so huge that it was nearly impossible to find anything on it or direct customers to any particular page. Sadly, doing a Google search was the quickest way to find information on their own pages. Before he knew it, it was time for him to log in to his customer call shift.

The precise moment Alex logged in, the phone rang with a customer call, causing him to flinch. He shook it off and pressed the button on his headset to pick up the call.

"Incytomix Advanced Services, Medical Instruments Support," he said into the mic, adding a 'smile' to his voice. "My name is Alex. May I have your name and phone number please?"

At first no one answered, but there was an odd windblown sound on the other side, as if the speaker were standing in a windy wasteland. He was about to hang up when a raspy, male voice come from the other side. "You have been chosen...."

Solicitor? he thought. It happens once in a while. "I'm sorry," he said. "Do you need support for an instrument?"

"You..." the voice said, drawing out the word in a thick whisper. "You are chosen. Accept ... the invitation."

The voice chilled him, set his arm hairs standing on end.

Alex glanced around to his coworkers, checking to see if this was some sort of prank. They were busy working. "Sorry? What invitation? Are you wanting...."

Then his computer pinged. A new email just arrived in his Inbox from HR. It was an invitation for a meeting. The subject heading read, "Supervisor position."

"It is time..." the voice said. "You must join ... the team...."

Then the line went dead.

Alex frowned in confusion and hung up, then instinctively checked the room for moving shadows. Nothing moved. He clicked on the meeting invitation. It was marked high priority, started in only 10 minutes, and was in the Executive Board Room -- a room he'd never stepped into in his long tenure at the company.

Alex blinked. This was it! An interview, surely!

But then a shiver ran through him. The voice on that call sounded sinister. And how had the person known about the meeting invitation? Was it someone calling from HR?

That's what it was, he thought. It must have been someone from HR tipping him off about the meeting. They must have had to whisper it into the phone lest they get in trouble.

His spirits brightened. The voice had said he'd been chosen. If it was someone from HR, it had to be a good sign. He clicked the button to accept the meeting invitation.

Alex logged back off the phones and looked over toward Cindy's office. From his angle, he couldn't tell if she was in there, so he sent a message:

Alex: Urgent meeting invitation from HR. Have to log off phones.

But there was no reply from Cindy, even after several minutes, which was odd since she always monitored her messages and emails, even from her phone while she was at home after hours. Then he realized: Cindy was on the hiring panel. She was probably in the meeting, too.

He gathered together his resumé and application materials, then spruced himself up as much as he could. Using his cell phone camera to look at himself, he combed his hair with his fingers, straightened his shirt and collar, and checked for any bits of lunch left in his teeth. Then he got up to go.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" Patel called after him.

"See?" Tracy answered him. "Sick. I told you so."

Alex ignored them and hurried down the hall and into the elevator, pressing the button for the fourth floor -- the top of Incytomix's sprawling building. The Executive Board Room was the all-glass part that extended out of the building like some fancy hat on an otherwise piebald brick edifice.

His heart was beating so fast it thumped in his ears. He hadn't prepared. Didn't know what to say. Quickly he tried to make a mental list of his strengths and weaknesses.

But then the elevator dinged and, when the door opened, he was across the hall from the oak doors of the Executive Board Room. Behind it he imagined would be a long table with the hiring panel, including Cindy, Manager Mike, and Alicia or some other HR representative. He'd be situated at the other end, clasping his hands, looking eager, and answering their questions concisely.

But shouldn't these things be scheduled ahead of time? he thought.

For a moment he hesitated, holding his breath. The next few minutes could change everything. His career. His income. His ability to care for his family. With a pay raise he could keep a support worker for his son. Success was the only option here.

Then the elevator doors started to close, forcing him to catch them and force them back open lest he should take another trip downstairs and be late.

Clearing his throat, he stepped out of the elevator, crossed the hall, and pulled open one of the doors.

What he saw made his heart skip a beat.

All of the company managers were there! They formed an aisle of sorts for him to walk through, at the end of which stood Cindy, Manager Mike, and the director of site HR, Alicia. Even the Site Manager, just two steps below the CEO, watched from a corner of the room. The room was full of business suits, except for his own rumpled "business casual."

Alex just stood there in the doorway, not quite knowing what to do or say, myriad thoughts rushing through his mind. Would he have to be interviewed by all of them? Why were they all so grim-faced instead of the painted-on smiles?

"Come in. Come in," Manager Mike said, gesturing.

Alex stepped in, letting the oak doors close behind him, and slowly walked through the aisle of managers until he was an arm's length from his bosses. A few of the other managers stepped in front of the door as if to bar further entry... or escape.

"We've reviewed your application for the Advanced Services Supervisor position," Alicia said, her face carefully neutral under her bobbed haircut. "The hiring panel has agreed that you meet the qualifications. Do you still want the job?"

"Yes, certainly."

"Alex." Manager Mike gave a toothy smile and put a hand on Alex's shoulder. "Alex," he repeated. "We've been watching your progress for quite some time, my man. You've shown skill in your work, but we can tell it's grown ... stale ... after a decade. And why wouldn't it? It's time for a new challenge, don't you think?"

Alex nodded. "Yes," he blurted, then composed himself. "My metrics are consistent. I'm very familiar with the company processes. Over the years I've worked with every department on a number of projects and ...."

"Yes, we know," Manager Mike said, cutting him off and chuckling, a sort of good-ol'-boy joviality in his tone. "We're aware of your accomplishments. No need to elaborate." He stepped closer, pulling Alex toward him and turning him to look down the aisle at all the other managers, his arm around Alex's shoulder as if they were best buddies. "You see all these excellent men and women, Alex? Most came up the ranks, just like you. We call it 'insourcing.' We're a team, you see? All part of one mind-share. We want success for the company in a way that most of the rank and file do not. We've all made sacrifices to be here, just like you."

"But Alex," Cindy added, "what we're about to ask of you requires a mental paradigm shift. A more holistic approach toward how you consider our work."

Alex nodded. "I understand. I don't expect the job requirements to be what I had been doing."

The managers glanced at each other, muffled titters of amusement passing between them.

"Yes," Manager Mike said. "Though I think you might not expect what will be asked of you." He dropped his arm from around Alex's shoulders. "You see, we have a special arrangement here at our site of Incytomix."

Alicia cleared her throat. "But before we go into that, Alex, let's talk about your compensation. In return for a promotion and supervisory duties over half of your group and a corner office, you will be compensated with a 50% increase in salary and twice last year's bonus. You'll also be given an increase of 20% in employee stock options."

Alex perked up. With an increase of that much, he may even be able to afford two support workers to aide his son.

"But Alex," Manager Mike said, "you will never truly be 'off-work.' Do you understand? At any point of the day or night we can call you if something comes up. It's just part of the job."

Alex nodded. "Yes, I understand." Though the never truly off-work bit made him wince.

"And there's another stipulation," Alicia said. "And it's likely to be the hardest for you to accept."

A murmur passed through the other managers.

Manager Mike sighed and gave his toothy grin again, slapping Alex on the arm. "Alex, you know all the programs we have here? The PPI process with its matrix sheets. The 'Permit To Be Fit!' program with the step counters? And all the buzzwords we use all the time. And so forth? Well, it's all part of a special plan...."

Alex raised an eyebrow. He was getting the feeling he was about to be let in on some sort of cabal. And then he noticed something. The room was getting colder. And over by the door, the shadows were starting to move. Oh God, not now! he thought. Please, no hallucinations right now!

"You see," Manager Mike continued. "Every time we send out another email about a new program, with corporate-speak about 'accelerating productivity' or 'appropriately synergizing best practices' or some such, what do you feel?"

Alex knew very well what he felt, but what he felt wasn't exactly the company line. He didn't want to dis the company in front of literally every manager. "Well, we need corporate programs to insure inclusion of all employees and to make..."

"No, that's not it," Manager Mike said, a humorous glint in his eyes.

Alex paused. "It, um, also is important for shareholders that we ...."

"Wrong again."

Now Alex was certain of it. The shadows were moving, forming a figure over by the oak doors, coalescing like smoke leaking in through the hinges. And it wasn't just him who saw it. Many of the managers noticed, too, turning to look and stiffening as if at attention, but not really surprised.

"Alex," Cindy said, "I told you I like that you're a plain speaker. So speak plainly. What do you feel when you hear talk like that?"

Alex's heart was thumping again, this time in abject fear as the shadow creature turned to look at him. He hardly paid attention as the words tumbled from his mouth. "I despair," he said. "The jargon is mind-numbing. Day after day." He turned to look at Manager Mike. "You have these programs as if you were helping us in some way, with words that make it sound like you are improving the human condition and working as a team. And yet, every time one of these programs rolls out it winds up pulling us back down. Like giving us unlikely goals for our step counters in the name of our 'health,' yet really making it less likely to get a cut on our premiums. Or running the PPI program in the name of improving our efficiency and organization, yet making more work for us that in the end increases the chaos."

"Yes!" Manager Mike said, with sincere excitement. "Exactly!" It wasn't the sort of response Alex expected.

The shadow creature was now fully formed and taking steps on translucent legs up the aisle toward Alex. The managers to either side watched, turning to face it as it passed, reaching out to touch it as if for good luck. Alex dropped his resumé and considered bolting out of the room, but he'd have to run past the creature to get out.

Manager Mike continued. "You see, Alex, every employee with at least a sliver of good conscience hears these things, they feel at first a surge of interest and expectation, even excitement. And when they realize that things aren't what they seem, they despair. That disappointment is like a little bit of their positive spirit pulling away from them. That positive spirit is something we harvest, Alex. It is a deliverable. A 'return,' as we call it."

The shadow creature was now within touching distance. The hair stood up on Alex's arms as prickles of coldness washed over him.

"And when an employee's returns dwindle, as yours have," Manager Mike continued, "we lay them off -- or promote them."

Alex turned to move away, but Manager Mike put his arm around him again, tightened, held him in place.

"It's okay, Alex. We all see the entity that stands before you. You aren't imagining things. He isn't here to harm you."

Alex's blood was rushing through his head, pulsing in his ears. He had to run. Yet fear kept him rooted where he was.

Cindy stepped forward and stood by the side of the creature. "Alex, I would like to introduce you to the spirit of our founder, P. Gerald Chapman. We refer to him now as the 'Asset.'"

The creature tilted its head in response, and with a serpentine voice rasped, "Alex."

It was the voice from the phone.

Manager Mike massaged Alex's shoulder. "You see him now because he allows you too. The Asset is always in the office, Alex, unseen by employees. He patrols around, makes sure all is well, and when those emails go out, he harvests the 'returns' for us. Afterward, he makes the rounds to us managers and delivers our share of the returns, along with whatever sage business acumen he wishes to share. You will reap this reward, too, Alex." Manager Mike's eyes grew suddenly serious. "In fact, he'll give you a taste of it right now...."

The creature took one more step and came face-to-face with Alex. The air was frigid between them. Its eyes were deep wells of darkness.

Alex fought against Manager Mike's arm. Pulled back. But the creature held his gaze. Came closer still.

And then the face seemed to open up, peel apart, issue forth a golden-glowing essence that rushed into Alex's body as he whimpered and closed his eyes. But the energy seeping into him was warm. And the warmth spread throughout his body.

And suddenly he felt okay. In fact, he was terrific!

Alex opened his eyes and saw before him not the shadow creature, but an older man, well-dressed and groomed -- and glowing with a golden light. The founder, P. Gerald Chapman. And all around, the managers were similarly cast in a shining golden aura.

But beyond what he saw, it was what he felt. Alex was full of energy and bursting with ideas. Gone was the bedraggled workaday slump. He saw in his mind how each of the departments worked together. How the employees formed an interconnected web. How their work intersected to manufacture product, advertise and sell, and make profits for the company. It was a true eureka moment.

Manager Mike patted Alex as the managers closed ranks around them, smiling at him.
Alicia handed Alex a clipboard with a form and a pen. "We would formally like to extend to you an offer for the position. Do you accept our terms?"

Alex took the clipboard and pen. It was all so clear now. He realized he would no longer be in the trenches, slogging through the daily mud of the company. And his family! His family would have what they needed. Manager Mike had said the only two choices were to be laid off or promoted. He couldn't be unemployed!

A flicker of doubt crossed his mind as he realized Tracy and Patel, and all his other coworkers, would still be "harvested" for "returns." But it would happen even if he didn't accept the position, right? And it's not as if the Asset was somehow hurting them.

The whole situation was so surreal, so unbelievable, yet he couldn't understand now why he'd feared it. The positive energy filled him with such confidence. The future seemed so much brighter now. It was a win-win situation.

He looked down and signed the form, ending with a flourish, and handed it back to Alicia.

"Welcome to the management team," Cindy said, and extended her hand.
Alex shook it with gusto. "Thank you, Cindy. Mike. It's time to leverage our competences and upsize our resources."

And as he turned to walk out of the conference room, the spirit of the founder stepping behind him, Alex already had an idea for another new program to roll out to his team.

Horror Writing Contest contest entry

Author Notes
Think "Office Space" meets "Dean Koontz". Alex wants to climb the corporate ladder, but he discovers the reason for all the mindless corporate speak and why so many managers seem soulless.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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