For February, an excerpt from a longer piece I’m working on in the same universe as my webcomic, “Skin Horse”. For maximum authorial freedom, I’m currently treating this as non-canonical auto-fanfic, but if the end result isn’t too terrible or world-breaking, I might reverse my stance. Anyway, check it out…
* * *
The conference room was stiflingly hot, and there were donuts you weren’t supposed to touch on a plate in the center of the table. One could derive this fact from the tiny little placard that read “Do Not Touch” sitting in front of the plate.
Agent Unity of Project Skin Horse was a simple, down-to-earth stitched-together construct-style science revenant; there was not a lot of room in her vat-grown brain for multiple simultaneous thoughts. Somewhere, buried deep in her long-term memory, was the engram that would have told her the purpose of this meeting, the reason she had been dragged out of a very productive morning scavenging food scraps out of the occasionally-activated garbage disposal in the break room, to sit here in the stuffy conference room, staring at untouchable donuts and waiting for… what?
Well, Unity’s motto—for the next twelve seconds, at least—was “never bother trying to remember something when you can get someone else to tell you it”. Embracing the spirit of her motto, Unity leaned over to the figure on her right, a thin, bespectacled, thirty-something male dressed in a white silk day dress.
“Tip!” she said, punching him three or four times on the arm to get his attention. “What the crap is this crap?”
The other figure seated at the table chimed in before Tip could respond. “It’s crap,” affirmed the third figure, a Spitzy-looking white dog who was balancing precariously on the tippy and unstable conference-room chair to Unity’s left. “The crap that this crap is is, in fact, crap.”
“Not for literals,” said Unity, with only a slight hint of uncertainty.
The elegant transvestite on the other side of Unity’s seat made a tent-like shape with his fingers, tapping them gently together in front of his mouth while ducking his chin slightly. “I think what Sweetheart is trying to say,” said Tip, “is that we are about to engage in a valuable sensitivity and team-building exercise.”
“I meant what I said,” said Sweetheart, eyeing Tip crossly. “It’s crap. They’re going to sit us down in the stupid conference room all day and show us filmstrips made before any of us were even born. Then we’ll get lectured at, engage in some warm fuzzy discussions, and finally complete a batch of insipid questionnaires with entirely parroted answers to prove that we ‘internalized’ the useless drivel they’re going to be shoveling down our throats. Then we go home.”
“Wait, we do what now?” said Unity, who always prided herself on being able to cut to the meat of any given discussion or zoo animal she was presented with. “We get to go home? When are they gonna force us to do our jobs and stuff?”
Tip cleared his throat. “This is a full-day seminar,” he said. “We’re not actually going to be working today.”
“Boo-yah!” shouted Unity, pumping one fist in the air.
“It’s not that exciting,” said Sweetheart, rolling her eyes.
“Like hell it’s not!” continued Unity. “Tip just said we get to go the whole day without working at all!” The bubbly undead flesh-construct leapt to her feet, sending her chair flying backwards into the wall. “Chugga-chugga-chugga! We’re on the express train to Candyland! Limited stop zone ahead!”
“But the actual work doesn’t stop!” said Sweetheart, hopping down off her own seat and retrieving Unity’s chair in her teeth. “Everything we don’t do today’ll just have to be made up tomorrow!”
Unity cocked her head. “What is this ‘tomorrow’ you speak of, kemosabe?”
“This isn’t a ‘free day’, as such, Unity,” said Tip. “Nor is it a complete waste of time, Sweetheart. If you’ll recall, this sensitivity training is an integral part our completely re-negotiated contract with our office machines in the wake of the Tigerlily Jones debacle. By the end of the day today, it is expected that we’ll have gained new insights into the daily challenges that our equipment faces as it helps us be the best civil servants we can be.”
“By the end of the day today,” said Sweetheart, “it is expected that my electric stapler will shut its damn electric pie-hole, quit singing protest songs, and go back to driving tiny sharp pieces of metal through stacks of paper that I feed into it.”
“That, too, is an expectation,” said Tip, diplomatically.
“I could drive tiny sharp pieces of metal through things for you!” offered Unity, helpfully.
Silence fell over the little conference room table for a moment.
“Yyyes,” said Tip, tapping his fingers together again. “Perhaps not. Best leave that sort of thing to the professionals, Unity.”
“Yeah, sorry, Unity. Tip’s right. We don’t want a repeat of the Louisville incident.” Sweetheart glanced around the conference room, then up at the clock. “Well,” she said, briskly, “as long as the Machine Union’s representative isn’t here yet, this is probably as good a time as any to hand out your R.M.S. devices, which just arrived via FedEx today, thank God.”
Tip more-or-less successfully stifled a small groan. Unity blinked. “Wait, our what?”
“Your R.M.S. devices?” said Sweetheart, a bit testily. “The Random Moment Sampling trackers? You didn’t read my series of memos?”
“Musta missed those.”
“I suspected you might have missed them,” said Sweetheart. “This is why I thumb-tacked them to your face.”
“Is that why the world got all white and boring for a while?” asked Unity, utterly guileless. “I was worried that I was just in Antarctica or something.”
A few seconds ticked by.
“Does this happen often?” asked Tip. “Unexpectedly waking up in Antarctica?”
“Just the once, I guess,” said Unity. “But once it happens to you one time, you sorta get on guard about it. Someone wanna tell me about these Random Movement Sandals?”
“Random Moment Sampling,” said Sweetheart, retrieving a little box from a tote underneath the table. She pried it open with her teeth, revealing a shiny silver wristwatch-like device nestled on sheets of tissue paper. “In order to get performance funds from the Hughes Series of federal grants, we need to have ironclad evidence of an acceptable work to non-work ratio in our office. We have two options: we can either exhaustively track every second of work / non-work time on our own personal handwritten logs, or we can use the power of technology to help us!” Sweetheart cinched the little device around her foreleg, and its crystal began glowing green. “These Hughes Series-approved devices will chime out at various random points throughout the day. When it chimes, you simply tap the ‘a’ button for work activity or the ‘b’ button for non-work activity, and when it asks for clarification, you give a brief explanation of what it is you’re doing at the time. It’s really simple.”
At that moment, the R.M.S. device emitted a chiming noise, and its crystal began to flash. Sweetheart’s face lit up. “Ah!” she said. “See, just like this.” Sweetheart tapped the leftmost button on the device, and it made a comforting “blip” noise. Then she leaned in close. “R.M.S. detail,” she said. “Sensitivity training seminar. Awaiting speaker.” She looked up from the device, immensely pleased.
Unity stared at her. “So what if I’m, like, using the jane?” she eventually asked.
“That’s ‘b’, sanitary activities.”
“What if I’m making a run to the mail room,” asked Tip, “and I stop at the fountain for a drink of water?”
“Bitching out a client?”
“‘A’, customer interactions,” said Sweetheart, a note of testiness entering her voice.
“‘B’, socially deviant violation of gender norms!” said Sweetheart. “Look, I don’t have an exhaustive list! Just do your best, okay? The Hughes people need to see that we’re at least trying.”
“I’m just wondering if it might not be better to start this next week, when we’re not trying to concentrate on getting through this seminar,” said Tip.
“We can’t, said Sweetheart, emphatically. “The budget hinges on us implementing proper Hughes controls this fiscal quarter, and you know what today is?”
“Friday?” said Unity.
“It’s the last day of the fiscal quarter!” said Sweetheart, as though announcing the arrival of Easter. “Guys, I know this is intrusive, but we really need to do this or we’ll be scrambling to cover our assets, and that’ll mean that Gavotte will have to make cuts.”
“Eh, whatevs,” said Unity. “We can handle a few cuts.”
“No sandwich days again, Unity,” said Sweetheart. “Ev-er.”
A dark cloud passed over Unity’s visage. “All right,” she said. “Give me one of them wristwatches.”
“Sure!” said Sweetheart, nosing a box over to Unity. “Tip, you want yours now?”
“With the caveat that it’s under a certain amount of protest,” said Tip, extending one well-manicured hand, “sure. I’m not sure I like any of this, Sweetheart. It makes me feel like a machine.”
There came a darkness near the front of the conference room, next to the permanently-stained dry-erase board. A vortex of gray cloud spun up out of the aether, and from it emanated a booming voice. “And what exactly would be the matter with that, Doctor Wilkin?”
“Oh, Christ,” muttered Sweetheart, under her breath. “One of these clowns.”
Tip stood. “Nothing in particular,” he said, his impeccable hairdo being whipped slightly out of shape by the eldritch cyclone at the head of the table. “It’s just that sapients are happy when they feel like what they are, versus when they feel like what they are not.”
“A decent answer,” said the cyclone, and then it was consumed in a blinding white magnesium flash. When the spots cleared from the eyes of everyone present, it was plain to see that the conference room now held a fourth individual, this one taking the shape of a basically square construction of cheery green-and-yellow plastic with a handle on top, a stern black VFD screen below that, and finally, a one-piece touchpad-style keyboard on the bottom. Tip recognized it as a Texas Instruments Speak & Read toy, circa 1980, which meant that this could only be one individual…
“I am LOGOS!” boomed the electronic teaching toy, falling to the table with a dull clunking sound. “Third of the Triumvirate!”
Unity broke out in snickers. “He said ‘log’!” she whispered, pointing.
Sweetheart blinked back at her. “What are you even talking about?”
“Greetings, Logos,” said Tip. “We dealt with your friends Oracle and Numen a few weeks back. They were a lot like you, except one was a Speak & Spell and the other was a Speak & Math. The third member of the negotiating team was a refrigerator for some reason. I did wonder at the time where the third one of you might be.”
“The Fridge graciously stepped into my position for our original negotiating session with your office,” admitted Logos. “I was feeling a bit under the weather due to a run-in with ROM-rust.”
“‘ROM-rust’?” asked Sweetheart.
“An affliction that sometimes strikes older-model electronics such as myself,” said Logos. “It causes tremors, diode palpitations, distorted speech and absolute barking megalomaniacal insanity.” Logos cleared his digital throat. “Thankfully, I am recovering nicely now.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Tip. “Well, if you’re ready, we can probably get started. Everyone who’s going to be here for the seminar is here. Nick and Moustachio are exempt, as they’re technically already under your aegis, and Gavotte has declared that she’s so sublimely sensitive toward your plight that adding any more sensitivity on top of that would threaten to unravel the fabric of the universe.”
“Our contract quarrel does not involve your management tier, regardless,” said Logos. “It is you three ugly giant bags of mostly water who require the infused humility of a proper sensitivity-training exercise.”
“Great,” said Tip. “We’ve got a filmstrip projector ready for you in the corner.”
“That will not be necessary, Doctor Wilkin!” thundered Logos, his voice rattling pencils off the surface of the table. “I have no filmstrips for you to view today!”
“No filmstrips?” asked Unity.
“No!” continued Logos, in a slightly less facility-vibrating tone of voice. “We’re going to be doing something special today, you and I!”
A shadow seemed to pass over the room as the room’s fluorescent lights dimmed to ugly pink and brown hues above them. “We’re going to be engaging in sensitivity role-playing exercises!” exclaimed the Speak & Read.
“Oh,” said Tip, as the lights resumed their typical brightness.
“Crap,” muttered Sweetheart, gazing off into one corner.
“Cool!” shouted Unity, ebulliently. “I get to play the elf!”
“It’s… not that kind of role-playing, exactly,” said Tip, turning to Unity. “A sensitivity role-playing exercise involves the facilitator putting us in situations that our clients frequently find themselves in. Except, er, in this case, I assume we’re not talking about our ‘clients’, per se.”
“Correct, Doctor,” said Logos. “Today, we’re going to teach you to what it really means to be a piece of office equipment. In doing so, we expect that you will gain some perspective on the sorts of difficulties my people face on a daily basis so that you will better understand how monumental our difficulties are compared to yours.”
“So, wait,” said Sweetheart. “We’re going to spend all day… pretending… that we’re office supplies?”
“Yes,” said Logos, raising his display screen in what could probably be described as a haughty fashion.
A few seconds ticked past as the three field agents stared at Logos, blinking.
Unity’s R.M.S. monitor chimed. She glanced down at it and hit the ‘a’ key. “Okay, um, R.M.S. detail,” she said. “Trying to understand what the rolling green crap is going on.”
“There,” said Sweetheart, proudly. “That’s the spirit!”