By Thomas Flannery
I stood alone in the room. All I brought with me were two manila folders. Every Chooser got a certain amount at the beginning of a quarter. By the end of said quarter, which lasted three months, he or she had to choose a certain amount of them in that group. That number varied between individuals but beginners were given two hundred and had to choose seventy-five.
I had started this job at the beginning of the current quarter. Today was the last day. I had seventy-four done and one to go. After consideration, I had brought it between these two.
The room was barren with the exception of a wall full of individual monitors, and a control panel with a series of blue buttons on them, numbered to correspond to each monitor. I stared at them. Only two were on. One focused on a bald man working in a garden in the front of his house, while the other focused on a brunette teenage girl looking at her phone in a coffee shop. There weren’t even lights in the room. The monitors did the work, giving a bright blue glow that covered everything inside.
I turned around. A camera was pointed at me from the ceiling right above the door and an intercom was to its right. A plaque hung on the wall to my left. Engraved on the plaque was a quote:
“Our lives are made by the deaths of others
– Leonardo Da Vinci”
A beep sounded off and the intercom spoke.
“Good morning, Gene,” the voice said. It was a man’s voice. Sometimes a woman’s voice would speak instead but it varied. “Last day of the quarter is today. You have everything finished up?”
I held up the two manila folders and said, “One more. It’s between these two.”
“Alright very good. I’ll make sure the executives know.”
Another beep and the intercom turned off.
I looked back to the screen. The man was brushing dirt off his shirt while the girl was taking a few sips from her coffee.
I didn’t know either of them. Neither knew I was watching.
My work space was in a cube farm in a building I wasn’t allowed to describe in a location I wasn’t allowed to disclose. I had my Master’s diploma that I got from Georgetown hung up on a wall next to my computer but aside from that, I didn’t have any decorations. No one was allowed any. You had to get something approved by Human Resources in the Department in order to hang it up in your office space. Many Choosers worked in the cube farm. There couldn’t be any risk of personal bias.
I looked at the two manila folders. What it contained was all the personal information of the two people that were on the screens. The man’s name was John Fillmore. He was an insurance agent. The girl’s name was Maria Sharp. She was a senior in high school.
I must’ve read through all their personal information fifty times at this point. And when I say all their personal information, I do mean all of it. I know what high school Fillmore went to: St. Francis in Lawrence, Kansas. I knew the blood type of Sharp: AB+. I knew that before he had happily married a woman named Denise, Fillmore smoked a pack a day for twelve years and has had some serious doctor’s visits about treatments to reverse the damage. I know that Sharp played field hockey for her school, was the leading scorer the previous year, and their team had come within two wins away from a New Jersey State title. I know Fillmore had an affair some years ago. I know Sharp wishes her mom wasn’t such a bitch. Fillmore watches Game of Thrones. Sharp got into a fight in the sixth grade and still has a scar on her cheek.
Currently, Fillmore and Sharp were about 1,189 miles apart. Neither knew the other existed. Neither knew I existed.
I’ve been here only three months into this job but it just boggles my mind. How much can you learn about someone without actually meeting them?
Footsteps echoed down the cube farm until they came to mine. I looked up and saw Martin Peters, another Chooser. He stopped and stepped into the entrance of my cube.
“How’s it going Gene?” he asked. While it was forbidden to hang up personal items in your cubicle, it wasn’t forbidden to befriend your co-workers. In fact, it was encouraged.
I scratched my head and looked up at him.
“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”
Martin had been a Chooser for five years. He had slick hair as black as tar that was combed neatly over every day. He had a square jaw and bright white teeth when he smiled. What he didn’t have was any blemishes on his face; it looked immaculate. He was pretty muscular; many in the office knew he went to the gym everyday after work. I don’t talk much to Martin but he is very experienced and likes to chat with the new people.
Martin Peters was finished with his quota of the quarter within the first week. After a year or so of being a Chooser, you don’t have to look at the monitors to watch what happens.
“I just thought I’d chat a little bit,” he said. “You know it’s the end of the quarter?”
“Well I wanted to let you know that you’re doing just fine. I’ve been talking to some of the executives. They’re pleased with your work.”
I said, “Well I want to be sure I make the right choice.”
“How many hours do you spend looking at those?”
He pointed to the folders. I turned and saw them still open on the desk. “Depends on who’s in it. It can take a very long time. I’m pretty indecisive.”
Once you had finished your quota for the quarter, you were finished for those three months. You could still come to the office in order to find out if there were small mundane tasks to do; but for the most part people left. They took long vacations to exotic and radiant paradises. This was also encouraged by the department heads and executives. They paid employees handsomely. Very handsomely. I had been working there for only three months and I made what many wealthy people make in a year.
Michael smiled, his teeth glimmering like diamonds.
He said, “That’s something you get used to. I was like that myself.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t believe him.
He leaned further into my cube. “I wanted to also let you know that a bunch of us are going to a rooftop bar this evening to celebrate the end of the quarter. We have the whole place reserved for us.”
“How many people are going?”
“I think there are fifteen of us so far but I’m making calls to some of the guys still on break. We’re going at eight. We just have to be sure we make the right preparations for SICS.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said. Martin Peters smiled again and walked away.
I turned back to the folders on the desk. A party? That was one thing I was never able to get over since I started working here. The executives made all of the efforts to ensure that everyone was comfortable, well-paid, and without stress. They gave people money and vacations and condos and parties. And it worked—people were happy. The other Choosers smiled and spoke with each other, becoming close friends. With the work we did, I never understood how everyone could be so blissful.
Thirty minutes later. Still in my cube. The folders still open. Fillmore on the left, Sharp on the right. I was no closer to coming to my decision than when I walked into the office earlier this morning.
I looked up from the folders to see the diploma, the only thing I was allowed to bring with me, to hang up, to personalize, to show what else I was besides a hard worker.
I stood up and walked out of my cube, thinking to myself that a nice walk would do me some good. Maybe it would clear my head, help me finally make a choice. The cubes were grey, and the walls were white. Not a decoration stood out on the walls. Not even pictures. I saw a man, not a Chooser but a maintenance worker, standing over one of the other cubicles, chatting and smiling. I didn’t wonder who he was talking to or what they were talking about. I tried to keep my mind on this one choice.
It’s funny. I never thought I would ever be in this sort of position. When I had left Georgetown, I thought I was going to be an economist, maybe advise some stockbrokers or even do something greater with analysis and statistics. When I had gotten the job at the United Nations, I thought I would be reaching out to third world countries, advising world leaders, and translating policies sought out by government officials. One could say that was the high point in my life, and I would agree with them.
Then I met him. The first executive member I would meet from this department.
He said his name was Gerald Edmond. He was a General in the United States Army. Whether or not that was true, there was no official record of him. He spoke with me in private some days, complimenting my diplomacy, and my ability to work with other members at the U.N. It was when he mentioned Georgetown, very specific details about Georgetown only I, my family, and close friends knew about, that I started getting nervous. This went on for a month. Then I saw the envelope in my apartment.
I turned left and walked through another path of cubes. Most were empty but some of them had people working in them. They looked comfortable, relaxed. I’m sure I didn’t look like that. I was the black sheep in this cube farm.
The envelope didn’t have my address on the front of it, nor a return address in the corner. All it said on it was: “Open alone.” When I had closed the door to my bedroom, I ripped open the envelope and looked at the papers inside.
It was a job application.
‘Congratulations Mr. Champlain,’ it read. ‘We are pleased to offer you a position at our facility as a Chooser. If interested, please fill out the information sheet completely and sign your name below at the end. Return this form with the envelope and all of its contents placed inside when appropriate.
‘It is incredibly important to inform you that this position can contain a great deal of stress. If you are interested in this position, you MUST be able and willing to make difficult decisions under this stress. We will plan to accommodate for this and help you ease any tension you may have while on the job.
‘We cannot tell you more at this moment and we ask that you tell no one about this letter. When you return the envelope to your designated individual: Major General Gerald Edmond, another will be at your current residence with tickets for transportation and information on your new living accommodations, as well as your starting date.
‘Thank you and once again, congratulations.’
The letter wasn’t signed.
Difficult decisions could mean many things. It could mean talking to political leaders on the verge of war, becoming an agent for the CIA and perform surveillance, even monitor lives at a hospital. Or it could mean take an exam for a college student. When I confronted him about the envelope, Edmond was still cryptic in his explanation.
“Only if you’re interested,” he said, as though he had written the letter himself. “In spite of all the benefits, it is a difficult job. We only want the best of rational thinkers and we think you meet that requirement. Just take your time to think about this. If you’re not interested, no one will bother you over it and you can continue with your life.”
“And if I am?”
He smiled. I think back to that smile often, about even though how nice his teeth were, how crooked he was.
“Then you can give me the envelope and get started.”
I wondered what would happen if I had refused and stayed at the U.N. I’d probably be dead.
I wonder which decision was worse.
Maybe a negative perspective will help me, I thought to myself. If I kept trying to see the good in everyone, I’d be here forever trying to decide.
There was already the strike on Fillmore for his affair. It happened two years into his marriage, when he met with a very young girl. She was maybe a senior in college, perhaps younger. She had long brown hair, often wearing a black leather coat in the winter and a blue blouse in the summer. It was obvious what was happening from the past security tapes on him. And they lasted for two years. Based on other security tapes, and considering the fact that he was still married, Fillmore’s wife either heard it first from her husband or she never found out.
Fillmore did break it off, however. That had been obvious too. A conversation at a diner that he initiated, that he spoke at for most of the time, that he left first, and their paths never crossed again.
I sighed in my cube and looked at Sharp’s file.
The file contained several instances of detentions and suspensions in school, and even some encounters with police. I couldn’t say I was very surprised. In many of the security tapes I watched, she was very disrespectful and outspoken. She didn’t listen to any of her peers, let alone authority figures, and would often tease and mock people. I’ve seen tapes of her getting thrown out of classrooms, of her lashing out at police officers, and even just adults in general. One tape in particular that stuck out came from an English class where the teacher almost had to physically throw her out. Both of them were screaming at each other.
This wasn’t with all teachers and adults though. There was her field hockey coach, who, after several hours of security tapes, I had never seen Sharp argue or even attempt to argue with. It could be a strength in a sport, I suppose, and the coach often worked with her; and she worked with her teammates. It was always cooperation.
I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the fluorescent lights. I took a deep breath in of the industrial air, trying to steady myself. I had been watching these people for too long to start making excuses for myself. It was down to the wire now and a decision had to be made soon. Who was I going to pick?
I leaned forward, looking at Fillmore again. He was fat. My God, how fat he was! That guy’s health was probably the last thing on his mind! First a smoker, then a fat-ass. Every day at work, he went out to lunch to eat at Chipotle and every time, it was the same thing: Three beef burritos, never with any vegetables or anything that resembled something healthy on it. And he did this every day for years! How does he not think to exercise? Or at least get something different? How many more years did this guy have to live?
Then again it could be because of his budget. With both their salaries combined, Fillmore and his wife barely had money to save for their children’s college. They’d use most of the money for food for the children and it would usually be fruit and yogurt that was gone within three or four days. As for exercise, his job was a two hour commute away, so exercising at 7 or 7:30 at night was…
No! I couldn’t do this, I thought. Don’t give excuses! Was he fat or not? Does being fat make you a bad person? Does smoking make you a bad person? There were plenty of healthy people who have done far worse than this man! Is that really the deciding factor?
I looked at Sharp’s file again. The skirmish in the sixth grade wasn’t the only time that she had been in a fight. High school was worse. Her mouth would get her in trouble both inside the school and I. I had seen some fights caught on camera involving her and a few of her classmates. None of them were pretty; whether she won or lost, she would have bruises and cuts and scratch marks.
She even got them at home dealing with her father. There were times where he’d approach her with an empty bottle of Smirnoff or Budweiser. They’d exchange words. Sometimes it would get worse than that. Thinking about it, she didn’t have the easiest…
I felt like screaming. I stood up from my cube and nearly ran down the hall. My hands were on my head, gripping at my hair. A woman walked past me down the hallway. She must’ve been looking at me but I wasn’t so sure, nor did I care. I pulled at my hair. Some of it ripped out and when I looked at my hands again, there were small clumps of light brown and grey hair.
I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My scalp hurt a little but that was what I wanted. Just a little pain, physical pain. Something that felt different than this decision that I didn’t have the heart to make.
I started thinking of other options. If it was so hard, I could look back into the other manila folders I had been given months ago and choose someone from there. But it was the last day of the quarter. I had already had breakdowns at home on who to pick and I was not going to take a step backward and put myself through that pain again.
There was an empty stall in the bathroom and I went inside. My stomach felt like it was turning and spinning and I was worried I would vomit while sitting there.
I don’t know what inclined me to get out. Maybe it was the urge to move and to keep mobile to keep my brain fresh and alert. It could’ve also been that the stench of the room was getting to me. I was dying for some fresh air but I wouldn’t get it here. This office didn’t have windows. The only air came from the conditioners and vents above us. It was to make sure no one knew what we were doing or who we were.
I walked out of the bathroom and checked the clock on the wall. I was already halfway through my lunch break. Walking to my cube, I picked up the lunch I had packed for myself in my backpack and started to make my way to the kitchen.
There were five tables in the kitchen in total, each with six chairs sitting around it. Because the department encourages so much communication with their co-workers, lunch was always the time where people could really talk to each other without the burden of work. I say burden because that’s what it was for me. But every time I walk into the kitchen for lunch, my fellow co-workers were always chatting, smiling, laughing even. It was like a school cafeteria.
Of course, being the newest one out of everyone, most questions were directed towards me. There would be whole lunch hours where we would talk nothing about myself and my life. The first day I thought they were just being nice. After the first week however, that was still all we would talk about. At that point, I had learned a lot about my new position and I answered questions quickly, just to get them off the subject; but the more I tried to dodge questions, the more they would ask. On my eighth day here, I confronted Martin about it.
He just said, “We do this to everyone. Try to get you more engaged with us, make you feel welcome.”
He smiled that whole time.
After that, I didn’t go to the kitchen much. I’d either skip lunch or eat it right before or after twelve so I would run into less people. Today, I had to make an exception. I couldn’t sit at my desk again to eat my lunch. Not yet. Not while those files sat on my desk. So I made my way to the kitchen. I wondered if they still talked about me.
Five people were in the kitchen when I entered, all sitting at the same table. It was like they were waiting for me, I thought. Three of the five were women sitting together. One was a man in what looked like a freshly made suit. The last person was Martin Peters, with his hand resting on empty chair that would soon have my name on it.
Unfortunately, he saw me first.
“Good afternoon Gene!” he said. The others turned around and smiled saying hello. I walked over looking at them, only now noticing that it wasn’t just Martin who had nice white teeth. Everyone there did. The other man didn’t have so much as a blemish on his skin, let alone his new suit, and the women looked like models, each with tight new clothes, jewelry on their wrists, necks, fingers, and ears. And there I was. My shirt was stained with sweat from sitting in the bathroom, my hair was matted from tearing some of it out, grey in comparison to these walking supermodels.
I sat down next to Martin and put my brown bag on the table. He slapped me on the back and I lost my breath for a second. Everyone at the table laughed and I forced a smile, looking around at all the white teeth grinning at me.
“Better late than never,” Martin said. “We were just talking about you.”
He continued, “Did you get the last form done?”
“Not yet,” I said. Not even close.
“Well it’s almost the end of the day. I figured you would’ve had it by now.”
“There’s still time,” I said.
One of the women spoke next. “How come you never sit here to eat lunch with us?” she asked. “I don’t think I’ve actually seen you since your first day.”
Out of all the women at the table, she was the most gorgeous. She had blonde hair that was probably washed by four different people at three different salons. And why not? She was also a Chooser. She could easily afford it. Her clothes were the tightest as well. I was amazed that nothing ripped when she shifted in her seat.
“I like the quiet,” I said.
“So why come here today?” Martin asked.
I work here, don’t I?
The other man said, “That doesn’t really matter now.” He stuck out a fist and looked at me, waiting for the return. I looked down at my hand and curled each of my fingers into a fist, one for each person at the table. My fingers turned white. I raised it slowly and reached out to his fist. We made contact. I thought if the man had a personal trainer. Maybe five personal trainers. He was muscular, I could tell from just that little bit of contact.
“What matters is he decided to join us,” he said. The table laughed. I looked at the blonde girl across from me. Her clothes still hadn’t ripped. I looked at the other women, one had darker blonde hair and the other had red hair. The three of them looked like they were made in a factory.
“So Gene,” Martin said. “Are you going to join us tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I said. It was nearly a whisper. “I haven’t thought about it much.”
I haven’t thought about much of anything.
“Well I hope you do,” the other man said. The three women across from me laughed. It was then I realized I couldn’t remember their names. I only knew Martin because I spoke with him the most. I must’ve met them at some point in my first few days but that felt like ages ago.
“It’s a rooftop bar,” he continued.
“Everything there is just for us.”
“We should be leaving around eight this evening…”
“…but we just need to be careful about SICS.”
The whole table laughed again. I turned left and saw Martin and his perfect white teeth and perfect black combed hair, looking like he had just heard the funniest joke since his childhood. I looked at the other man right next to him. He was leaning back in his chair, his mouth wide open, as though he were laughing at God Himself. Saliva came out of his mouth and disappeared into the air, but he didn’t notice. None of them noticed. The three women were laughing as well, their smooth skin formed wrinkles and crevices from the ways their mouths were contorted. The blonde haired one was leaning forward at the table and I was just waiting for that dress to rip and for those faces to become full of shock and embarrassment but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that they would just continue laughing harder and harder, faces contorted and mouths wide open, teeth gleaming white in front of a black mouth that led to an abyss, no heart, no soul, nothing. All of the people at the table were definitely sleeping with one another and if I had to guess; Martin was probably fucking the blonde one, and that they would get another opportunity tonight at this rooftop bar that was definitely worth thousands but who the fuck cared right? We were young! We could afford it!
“…I mean think about our job for a second,” Martin was saying. I missed a good part of that sentence. “All we have to do is push buttons.”
Now I was laughing. I started chuckling along with them but I found none of it funny. I kept chuckling after they had settled down. I moved into a laugh as they went silent. I turned to Martin; his eyebrows were perked up.
“Yes you’re right!” I said. “That’s all we do! All the money we make, all the things we can get, the enjoyment we can buy, and all we need to do is push a shiny blue button!”
I laughed harder. I wanted to shout. I looked at the man sitting next to Martin and saw he wasn’t smiling anymore. He had the face as though he were looking at a disgusting zoo animal.
“I feel like a child! Does anyone else feel like a child?”
The three women stared at me. The red haired one whispered something to the darker blonde one. I couldn’t hear a thing they were saying from laughing but I saw the both of them shake their head. The blonde sat still. Now her clothes looked really tight on her, like she was being inflated and that the dress would rip at any second, pumped with money, diamonds, plastic from those tens of surgeries, and hot air that made her think she was a queen, made everyone around her feel like they owned the world because they did. I imagined the dress ripping and her finally popping, like we were at a birthday party with balloons and buttons, and I laughed and laughed and laughed.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and it was Martin, a look of horror on his face.
“Are you ok…”
“FUCK YOU!” I shouted. I stood up, the chair fell over behind me, and I walked out of the kitchen. I walked into the bathroom again. This time, I vomited. It was nothing but bile. I realized that I hadn’t even touched my lunch.
Fillmore was still working on his garden. He was sweating all over, the top part of his shirt drenched and his forehead had rivers running down into his face. It was an impressive garden though. He was caring for tomato plants now. Before he was looking at his squash and blueberries, which also looked like they were doing well despite the Kansas heat.
Sharp was at home reading a book. It had a picture of a silhouette underneath a tree and the title said it was East of Eden by John Steinbeck. She had gotten that book two weeks ago and was already halfway through it. I didn’t notice how much she had been reading it. I loved that book when I was in high school.
I didn’t have manila folders with me in the dark room. I was waiting for the intercom to go off. I was waiting for someone to tell me to go to the executive offices, or have a security guard come take me away from the screens.
Maybe Martin and the others won’t say anything. Maybe they’ll be too afraid to talk about it. I couldn’t have been that loud, could I? Did anyone else hear me?
Sharp closed the book and placed it at her side. She was looking up at her bedroom ceiling. One of Fillmore’s kids ran outside to tackle him. He started laughing as they wrestled in the dirt.
I lost it for one second. It can’t be that bad. Those five have been here for the better part of, at the very least, two years. Hell, Martin was there for five. Somewhere along the line, they each should’ve had a mental breakdown, right?
The air got heavy. It got harder to breathe. I could feel my heart begin to pound in my chest and my ears. I refused to leave, though. I continued to watch as Fillmore picked his kid up and held him up on his shoulders, and Sharp picked up the book and started reading again.
There must’ve been a breakdown among them, I kept thinking. I couldn’t be the only one. That just wasn’t possible.
The intercom was still silent. No one, no Chooser, no secretary, no guard told me to come out. I waited, telling myself that everything would be okay.
It took me a while to exit the dark room and go to my cube. When I got back, the folders were still open in front of me as I had left them this morning. Sitting down, I looked again at the files, not processing any of the words written on the pages. Instead, I started thinking about the options I had in front of me.
Option one would be a choice between Fillmore and Sharp. Based on everything that had happened today, it was clear that I couldn’t go forward with this choice just yet. Option two was to choose another person from the set of manila folders I was given. That, however, would just send me back a step. The quarter ended in less than two hours. I had neither the time nor the willpower to go back and restart to look over one more person. And option three would be to go to an executive and ask for help. That might be an idea but I don’t know how much they currently know about me. It was a small office and very few people were here already. News gets around.
None of the options were appealing. It was one of those three that I needed to make so I could make a choice and go home.
There was a knock on the wall of my cube. I turned around.
It was General Edmond.
“You doing alright, Mr. Champlain?” he asked. He was wearing his military uniform but there were no badges. Only two stars on his shoulders and a name tag on his chest indicated who he was.
“Alright,” I answered.
He pointed at the folders. “These your candidates?”
“It can be a stressful job. Believe me, I understand that. Sometimes you just need to walk away for a minute.”
He stepped away from the cubicle but he kept looking at me. He wanted me to follow him.
“I’ve been away from this for long enough,” I said. “I just need to make a decision now.”
He nodded and smiled but he stayed put. “I get the feeling you haven’t,” he said. “Something tells me this has been on the back of your mind all day long. Whether you’re at your desk, in front of the monitors, at the kitchen, and even the bathroom.”
He knew. He wouldn’t say it but he knew.
“Come walk with me,” he said. He wasn’t smiling. He was talking to a soldier, giving an order that must be followed.
I stood up and went to his side and started walking. Neither of us said anything until we started approaching the hallway to the executive offices.
“Tell me,” General Edmond said. “Did you keep a copy of the letter inviting you here?”
“No, I figured you wouldn’t want it copied,” I answered.
He nodded. “Can you remember what it says?”
“That this is a difficult job. That I would need to make decisions with a high amount of stress and that there would be accommodations.”
We turned down the hallway that led to the executive offices. All the polished wood doors were closed and the lights went dim. It was like we were walking through a five-star hotel, not an office.
“And that we thought you could make reasonable and responsible decisions in these scenarios,” General Edmond said. We stopped in front of one of the doors. A nameplate with the words: Gen Gerald Edmond was on the wall next to it. “When I first saw you; first saw you work at the U.N., I thought to myself, ‘Finally, a person who works for the government and can filter out the bullshit.’”
He took out a key and unlocked the door. He stepped inside and I followed.
“A person who understands that no one is perfect, that no one is above their peers despite their title, their earnings, their accomplishments.”
The office walls were painted a pale green and were decorated with plaques and medals and pictures. Behind his polished wooden desk was a glass cabinet full of liquors and glasses. A nameplate on his desk read the same as the tag outside and next to that was a picture of Edmond and what appeared to be his wife and daughter. I noticed all of them were smiling in the photo. Edmond walked around to his desk and reached into the cabinet for a bottle of white wine and a glass.
He turned and pointed to the cabinet to ask if I wanted a glass. I shook my head no.
He smirked and his teeth showed again.
“You also refuse to let anything get in the way of your judgment,” he said, sitting down and popping open the bottle. “Believe it or not, I fought hard to get you here.”
He nodded and smiled wider. “Yeah, everyone was worried that because you worked for the U.N., that you had become corrupted, that you would snitch about this whole thing to those corrupt politicians when you figured out what we were actually doing. Of course they never heard you speak. I was the department’s only justification that you would be good here. Because I knew you wanted to do the right thing and that you still want to.”
He finished pouring his glass and placed the bottle back on the table. At that moment I noticed that the sound of glass on the table wasn’t the only thing I heard. There was a faint hum. An air conditioner was also in the room.
“I don’t like being wrong, Mr. Champlain,” Edmond continued. He opened a drawer in his desk. “People enjoy bragging. They love to rub in everyone’s face when there’s a dispute that they win. Especially their opponent. I made quite a few opponents here that disagreed with me about you.”
He reached down into his desk. A drop of sweat ran down my forehead and onto my cheek but I didn’t dare brush it away.
“And this decision of yours,” he continued. “This small minuscule decision is starting to raise questions among the other executives.”
He lifted his arm from the drawer and on top of the desk. His hand was holding a revolver. I froze.
“Don’t make me regret my decision, Mr. Champlain,” he said. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Make a decision, finish this quarter, and enjoy your time off before the next quarter.”
He must’ve polished the gun regularly because I could see the reflections of all the walls and lights on the barrel. His hands wrapped around a black plastic grip and his knuckles were white.
“I don’t want to have to let you go,” Edmond said.
I was still focused on the gun.
“Is that clear Champlain?” Now he was definitely talking to a soldier.
“Get it done.”
He put the gun back in his desk. I walked backwards to the door, reaching for the doorknob. It reminded me of a fancy doorknob my aunt used to have. I turned it, and closed the door behind me.
I almost collapsed. For a short time after leaving that room, I stood in front of Edmond’s door, trying to remember how to breathe.
Back in the dark room, nothing had changed. All but two monitors were turned on with John Fillmore and Maria Sharp on the screens. The control panel held the blue buttons; I only needed to press one of them. The camera was still behind me but now I knew there were eyes behind it. Someone, probably General Edmond or someone asked by General Edmond, was behind that camera, waiting to see if I would actually make a decision before the end of the day.
I didn’t bring the manila folders. I didn’t need them.
There was a revelation I had after staring at the screens. I had found option four. Do nothing. Don’t make a choice. Take a stand against everything this department was doing. The outcome from that, of course, would be I would die.
The screens showed John still in his garden but he wasn’t working on his plants. His other two kids and his wife were outside with him. They had started a football game. The youngest son and John against the two older sons. Maria was back in a coffee shop. She had brought her book with her to read while she was there. Earlier, one of her teachers walked inside and the two of them talked for a while. It ended with Maria giving her a hug.
I looked down at the buttons. Even if I didn’t press anything, someone could easily come in here and choose for me. It would be someone who made their judgment based on what they saw on the screen from now until the end of the day. They wouldn’t have the folders. They wouldn’t even know their names. They’d just press one button and let everything unfold.
I raised my hand above the panel. If I pressed one, it just meant there would be a week’s break where I could enjoy all the money I’ve earned. There would be another stack of manila folders when I return.
If I were to choose none. It would have to be now.
My hands lowered to the two buttons, John Fillmore’s on my left, and Maria Sharp’s on my right. The plastic felt cool to the touch and I had to try to keep my hands from trembling.
Last chance, I thought.
My eyes closed. I could’ve been a martyr. I could’ve been a hero. I could’ve stood up to what we were doing here, fought against what was wrong to do what was right.
Eyes closed. My right hand moved down, pushing the blue button with it. There was a click and I opened my eyes. The screen of John Fillmore and his family disappeared. Maria Sharp’s screen was still on so I could watch what happened.
SICS stood for Sudden Internal Collapse Syndrome. The first cases of SICS started in Louisiana, Arkansas, and other southern states near the Mississippi River. It soon became a nationwide pandemic. It would kill beggars, bankers, construction workers, even politicians and professional athletes (a baseball player recently died due to SICS). It spread to other nations. First western European countries, then the Middle East, Africa, Australia and Asia. What doctors noticed in patients with SICS was a high level of cyanide in tissue from the deceased but for the time being, no one has figured out what caused it.
The people in the department designed the bacteria well. Practically undetectable, lives in water, can survive heating and filtering, and docile before the button is pushed to activate it. It’s the perfect biochemical weapon. And now it’s in practically every single person who has had a cup of something to drink within the last twenty-four hours.
Maria Sharp didn’t do anything at first. It takes some time before the bacteria are activated and can start producing cyanide. However, she was now a walking time bomb. She probably had less than two minutes to live from the moment my hand pushed down on the button.
In the coffee shop, she was still by the window drinking the bacteria infested coffee. She started making a gesture to her throat. That was the first sign something was happening. You’d feel some heat in your throat, followed by shortness of breath. I watched her take a few deep breaths, some of the last where any of that oxygen will do her any good.
She realized that the deep breaths weren’t working. Maybe now something’s clicked in her mind that she got SICS. Every breath gets harder and harder. She realizes that if she continues like this she’ll suffocate. She jammed her hand into her pants pocket, throwing things like lip balm and tissues out of her bag and onto the floor. She pulled out her phone and dialed for what I would assume to be 911 for an ambulance.
It would be no use. At this point, she probably couldn’t even talk. The ambulance to arrive ten minutes too late is just a free ride to a morgue.
She tried to speak into her phone but I saw her just slam it down on the table after trying to say a few words. Her face was a different color now. A deep red, approaching on purple, soon to be blue. She pushed away from the counter top, spilling her coffee in the process. Now other people in the store were watching, standing back because they either didn’t know what to do or didn’t want to catch SICS.
She collapsed and we both knew it’s all about to end soon. This is the part that gets me. Many collapse, some with their faces up, some down, some away from the security cameras, but it’s that same look every time. I wonder what they’re thinking, who they’d like to talk to in this last minute of life, what they’ve wanted to do but will never get the chance to do, where they would like to travel, what they would like to see. Every time, the people have that same look, and every time it has a different meaning behind it. Maybe Maria Sharp would’ve liked to say sorry for what she had done.
But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met this person in my life.
Someone ran forward and started giving her CPR, even though he knows it’s probably useless. She hasn’t blinked in thirty seconds but it’ll take a little more time for her to be pronounced dead. When that happens, the screen turns off.
I watched the man continue trying to give CPR. A woman ran over with an AED and was getting it ready for use. I watched for fifteen more seconds as they put the patches on Maria and waited for the reading. There’s no pulse now for sure. Maria continued to stare up at the ceiling while a shock trying to revive her did nothing.
The monitor shut off after that. My quota for this quarter was complete.
All lights were off now in the dark room. There was a beep behind me. The intercom went off behind me.
“Well done, Gene,” the voice said. It could be Edmond or Martin Peters or anyone at the office. “Quarter’s done. Enjoy your week off. We’ll have the folders for next quarter on your desk when you get back.”
Another beep. All was quiet.
One year after I joined the U.N., the world population hit ten billion. I learned on my first day at this place that since the start of SICS, they had brought it down to close to nine billion. Edmond had given me that talk in this room when I pushed my first button.
“You need to get used to this,” he had said. “That plaque on the wall there holds a lot of truth. In the past, when a species became too successful, nature stopped them. Today, we’ve outsmarted this but the consequences are just beginning. We have little food, even less water; hell, people will have to live on top of the bodies of our ancestors in order to survive. And at that point, who knows how much damage we’ll have done to the world.”
He turned to face me. “You’re doing the world a service. Some may think this is unethical but I say it is a necessary evil. We are the saviors of this world, the Gods, the higher powers, which keep humanity living and breathing. You were selected among the millions of others who were deemed capable of completing this job, some of whom you’ll find on those screens. Choose wisely.”
Our lives are made by the deaths of others. I did the world a service. For my job, I played God. And I chose to be a coward.
I left the dark room so I could pack up my things and go home.