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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Peaceful Intent--Stories of human/Alien Interaction

by
Harris Tobias
The Wizard's House

by
Jeromy Henry
The Dreaming Fire

by
Jeromy Henry
Against a Diamond

by
Michele Dutcher

Panels

by

Ishmael Soledad



The minutehand hung suspended, frozen on the clock face opposite his cubicle tantalising and quivering as if undecided on its course of action. Clay watched slowly as, balanced between the forces of gravity and inertia on the one hand and will power on the other it hung, shuddered and then fell over the small interval that was one-sixtieth its hourly journey. One down, eight to go he thought wryly.

Einstein must have been a clerk, he mused, and a pretty cheesed off one at that. Any desk bound paper pusher understood relativity’s barest essentials. How time at the start of the day flew past, barely enough to order the work and start the task, until late afternoon as that interminable countdown to five pm progressed when time and matter seemingly froze and your brain kicked on, cycling through what had not been done and what awaited. And as the days so the months and years and career until what seemingly faced this this particular fifty year old was a stretched eternity until his pension and release.

To add to it all today the air conditioning was playing up leaving his floor broiling whilst others froze, the landscape of vacant desks broken only by the occasional back of a head building a picture of stasis, heat enforced listlessness. Again the minute hand struggled, again it won the prize, and once more the march to entropy continued and Einstein remained vindicated. Seven minutes.

A tingling in his earpiece and a small window opening on his screen brought him back from the assault on time. The voice was familiar, the face not so.

“Hey Clay, how are you? Long time no see,” the face announced, still stubbornly remaining unidentified. “It’s me, Chris, c’mon Clay I haven’t changed that much!”

He had. Clay smiled. “Oh hi, I didn’t recognise you – what’s with the fungus?” motioning towards the mutton chops and goatee gleaming back at him.

“You know how it is, razors cost. Say, I’m only passing through, got time for a drink?”

“Yeah, sure, but only a quick one.”

“Ok, I’m downstairs, I’ll see you when the shackles drop off,” with which the face disappeared. At the same time the minute hand again fell back into gravity’s clutches. Six left.

Expectation thankfully abetted time’s onwards march such that, seemingly instantly, Clay sat propping up the bar with Chris making headway into the third of what promised (despite expectations) to be a long line of drinks.

“Can’t say I get it,” he said yet again, “you look ten years younger, ten kilos lighter and I haven’t seen you smile so much in, well, years.”

“And I keep telling you buddy”, Chris rejoined, “you need to get out of that place! It’s killing you and it damned near got me. I mean, why are you still there? And don’t tell me it’s the money.”

“Well, as a matter of fact …”

“ … and how many people have got ‘I wished I worked harder’ on their gravestones? C’mon, I’m getting by on a third of what I used to get. Hey, you want proof it’s better outside?” Chris dug into his pocket and, fishing out his phone, brought a photo up. “This,” he said triumphantly, “is Deanna, my Deanna, so you tell me it’s all bad.”

Clay looked at the twenty something swimsuit model on the screen, thinking Chris the biggest liar on earth, until he noticed who it was resting his head on her thighs. Shit, he thought, she’s young enough to be his daughter …

Chris was laughing now, “Yeah buddy, they all think she’s my daughter, but man, you know these kids really can go for you in a big way. But you gotta get out. Soon. Now. Before it’s really too late. Look at you, you need to.”

“Okay, Okay, I can go at fifty eight so it’s a few more years but …”

“… but nothing! They owe you. You remember John, from Central Records? He got out at forty-eight, on a seventy-five percent pension. You know why? Certified nutter he was, kept seeing rabbits everywhere, all day, in and out. Got to the point he’d bring a twelve gauge and a bunch of carrots into the office to lure the beggars out. Well, they had him out the door six months later, and guess what?”

“What?”

“The only bunnies he sees now hang around the craps tables in Vegas. I tell you, they owe you, they do,” triumphantly poking Clay in the chest for emphasis. “Thirty years of service and they still want your blood, and for what?”

So it went until later on Clay found himself at home alone with the cat, sitting in the kitchen of his one bedroom flat staring at the table littered with junk mail and bills. Yeah, thirty years and they still wanted more, no easing off or even a sign of real thanks, just ‘here’s your pay and come back’ each fortnight. In those years his job had cost him a marriage (and with that a house, new car and two kids who never called him), his energy, his optimism and all the other possible lives he could have led. He had a start as a writer, but that was put on hold for his career and eventually the career had gone too, stolen by the younger recruits who were deemed more malleable or ‘corporately aligned’ than he. Arse lickers all. And all he had left was a half paid for flat, a ten year old car, and the promise of a pension that might let him survive if he lived through the next eight years of stupidity, budget cutbacks and volte-faces that plagued the office.

Yeah, they owed him, but how to make them pay? Not physically – he wasn’t a violent man – but financially, paying him back for the thirty years of his time they had stolen from him. It was clear to anyone who looked that being retired medically unfit was the way to go, a pension at seventy-five percent of your final pay level and indexed for life. He didn’t want to be physically handicapped – and he’d need to be pretty well stuffed to go that route – but that only left the mental option and they didn’t hand those out easily. To get pensioned off medically unfit you had to be either certifiably insane or look like you were, fooling management and professionals alike. And it would have to be clearly and undeniably the result of work. It would have to be a pretty good plan, airtight in fact if he went down that path.

So airtight in fact it took him a few weeks to come up with the method. Anything you did they could track through the metadata network and that, he at first thought, would be the problem. Until he realised that he could exploit that weakness. All he needed, sometime soon, was a catalyst, and until then he could lay out the groundwork. He had at times cursed his auditor training but now he thanked his stars for it.

- - -

The first steps were simple, innocuous, nearly invisible. He started subscriptions to New Scientist and Space Flight Monthly, and enrolled in the Doubleday ‘eBook of the Month’ club for speculative and science fiction. Instead of lobbing in front of the office TV for lunch, gassing and whining with his fellow wage slaves, he started reading his new subscriptions by himself, leaving the used copies lying around. Although a natural introvert he started pulling himself slowly, gently ever further back into himself at work, missing the happy hours and cooler chat, capping it off by cleaning his desk of the usual personal clutter and rubbish and leaving only the screen, keyboard and stationery tray. His work remained as it had always been – neat, right and meticulous. It took just over a month for the change to be seen, to be commented on. It was his quarterly performance appraisal with his manager, Shelley.

“So”, she started, about half way through the process, “how are you going otherwise? You know I’ve been flat out this last month, not even here really, but I think you seem even quieter than normal. Is everything OK?”

Clay smiled. Bait taken, time to start. “Oh yeah, I’m fine I guess, you know it’s just I’m nearly past 50 and that’s where you start thinking, maybe too much, I don’t know really.”

“Midlife crisis?”

“Ha! Hardly, I’m just taking stock” feeding out the line, just a little more, “and starting to get back into some things I used to do years ago but had to let slide.”

Shelley nodded and smiled, Clay returned the gesture but couldn’t help feeling slightly sickened by this mid thirties apparatchik pretending to understand ‘life events’. Probably sucked the pap out of a management handbook somewhere.

“Didn’t you do science at uni before switching to business?”

“Yeah, I’m starting to get a bit of interest back now, too late for formal study but nothing to stop me learning.”

“I’ve flipped through a couple of those magazines you’ve put in the lunch room, quite a bit in those, it’s beyond me, it’s just, I guess, really technical.”

“Too true by half” Clay smirked, “it’s hard to start sometimes, it’s really got me thinking, there is so much we don’t know, so much left.” Now that the fish was in, time to kiss and release he thought. “So it keeps me interested, I actually think it has helped me concentrate a bit better, perhaps that’s why I’m that bit quieter.”

Shelley straightened a little in her chair, and seemed to become a little more animated. “I’ve noticed your work seems a bit more concise, targeted even, and from what I can see …” with which the appraisal moved on.

In the next month he concentrated harder, talked less, and made sure he was seen to read more. He started to print off his science fiction eBooks just so they could be seen, and started to buy the occasional ‘alternative science’ magazines. Mainly flat earth, alternate lifestyle and UFO aliens-are-amongst-us dreadfuls. What conversations started around him now seemed to end up as gentle humouring of his new supposed interests. It was getting some publicity and brand Clay was slowly being transformed.

He changed his dress sense too in that month. His usual accountancy bland uniform of greys, blacks and navy blue started to be replaced by pastel shaded shirts, tan and fawn slacks, and slip on shoes. It was, he explained one morning to a question posed, a way of adjusting his outlook through the use of colour management therapy. Moving from a dark hued wardrobe to a brighter but still subdued colour range helped to lift his energy, balance his concentration and reset his biological clock to the workday. It had, he assured those listening, actually worked despite his initial scepticism. To his amazement a few people said they had actually noticed it too, and one even later borrowed his copy of Athenian Magazine to read the article Clay claimed had set it all in motion.

Reflecting that night at home Clay knew that he now had a reputation of being slightly different, if not yet eccentric, but that was not enough. He knew what was needed, the jump off to the next stage. Without a key, a catalyst, a lightning rod he could not do it; he could not risk a singular event, it had to be tied to work. He hoped he would not have to wait long. In fact, it was only two weeks.

- - -

It was a very subdued Shelley who that Friday afternoon pulled Clay’s team together into the glass walled meeting room. To his surprise David, the site manager and Shelley’s boss, was present. Although not saying a word it was clear that at some point he had worded Shelley up, and he was there to make sure she stayed on message. After the usual preamble she got to the point.

“So we have received our budget allocation for the remainder of the financial year and as a key component a two and a half percent efficiency dividend has been placed on us. We have to find expenditure cuts to fund that which, if it had come at the start of the year would have been hard but now, half way through, it is in effect a five percent expenditure cutback.” Her eyes remained fixed at one point at the end of the room, upon the only unoccupied chair.

Clay’s gaze had shifted outside the glass walls to the teams that had just vacated the room. They were huddled together in animated but dejected discussion. Although he had lost track of Shelley’s delivery he knew where it was inevitably leading. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist.

“ … there is only one way left therefore” she continued, “and as a result two teams on this floor have been made redundant as of close of business today. However our commitment to service remains, and with the shifting of both resources and responsibility we envisage only a ten to fifteen percent increase in workload across all remaining staff for the remainder of the financial. Come the new year our planning process …” with which Clay switched off, leaving a mask of shock, bewilderment and distrust on his face, keeping faith with the others in the room.

He could hardly conceal his delight. This was perfect, no, better than perfect. Catalyst, build up and crisis mapped out and all to start Monday! Looking out of the room again he could see the other teams clustered near the lifts, bags and photocopy paper boxes containing personal effects under their arms. Some shot hateful or distressed looks at him, but the bulk simply continued to look down, shoulders hunched and backs bent. For the briefest of moments Clay felt sorrow and empathy, but only fleetingly; as part of the Department they were the enemy, they owed him not he they, and they were paying now. And, he smiled inwardly, the Department’s day was coming soon.

- - -

He ramped it up, slowly, notch by notch. Days in the office lengthened, as they did for everyone, and Clay made sure he stayed well on top of it all. Not that it was hard work, just more of it. Deliberately he started to look a touch frayed at the edges, choosing to shave at night at home rather than before work to get a five o’clock shadow at eight am, and every few days not ironing his shirt. He now looked just a bit stressed, showing signs of tension if not quite cracking at the seams.

The hat was the key. It wasn’t any old hat, but the keystone in the next stage. It was oddly comfortable Clay thought, and good looking too it seemed as he looked at the mirror that Monday morning. Good thing, it was going to be with him twenty-four seven from now on. Yellow bronze was also a positive colour, adding to the appeal.

It took until the following Wednesday for Shelley to get him by himself. By then the hat had settled a bit, looking more like a slouch hat than a fedora. Clay had started darting his eyes randomly back and forth every so often, so he needed some covering to rest. Hard work that, but it helped.

“So I just need two minutes to ask you about your new hat” Shelley said, leaning back in her chair and utterly failing to appear relaxed, “it’s the talk of the office you know.”

“Oh, ah, yes, I guess it is, I mean we all should have one you know, if only for peace of mind. Do you like it?”

Shelley winced. “I’m not sure, it’s a nice colour. You must like it a lot, I can’t recall you not wearing it in the last fortnight. But the material, I don’t know what it’s made of, it looks very shiny.”

Clay smiled to himself, time for more line to go out. “It’s not cloth, it’s wire mesh.”

“Wire?”

“Copper. Took me ages to get the right gauge you know, had to order it in.”

“But why? I mean, it would hurt you wouldn’t it?”

“No, not really, it’s taken to my head nicely, it conforms and moulds after a while. As long as I don’t hit the rim too hard it’s good.”

Shelley squirmed in her seat. Clearly she was not getting through. Maybe a direct approach.

“Clay, it’s not that I have an issue with your work or your dress, but the hat is, well, it’s a bit different if you see what I mean. No-one else has one …”

“No” Clay put in, “Stevo from IT is making one now, I gave him the plans”, which was perfectly true. Stevo had asked for and had nearly demanded the plans from him. It was all going to help.

“… anyway, what I need to know is why you have to wear it inside. There is no UV risk, no-one else currently has one and, although we don’t have a dress code, you do look a little, a little, I mean you look very very individualistic in it. I do need to know.”

“Ok then, but it’s hard to grip with. The hat’s actually a Faraday cage.” Clay smiled broadly.

“A far away cage?”

“No, Faraday.”

“So what does this Paraway cage do?”

She still can’t even get the name right he thought, it could be a harder job than I guessed. “It stops radiation, it stops radio waves, it stops mind reading, it stops scanning. In and out. They’re all listening you know.”

“Who?”, and by now Clay could see she was rattled. “All the people here listen Clay, we’re on the phones all day.”

“It’s not them, it’s the ones out there you can’t see. The CIA. ASIS. But most importantly the aliens” he whispered, eyes widening, tightened grimace on his face.

“Aliens? Where, in the cupboard?”

“No, seriously, aliens. No-one can prove that they’re not there, we don’t know, but they are somewhere. This” and he tapped his hat, “stops them digging into my mind. I don’t want to end up being damaged or changed by them. I’m a little scared Shelley, you know after Katie left with the kids I was gutted, had nothing, I’ve built back up a bit but now the job’s probably at risk, all I might have left is my mind and I don’t want to lose that,” with which he forced a single tear out of the corner of one eye and down his cheek, “I can’t lose that.”

Shelley regarded him in the same way you would a dog with a hurt paw. She leaned forward to him. “Your job’s not at risk, you’re doing your usual really good work you know, it’s just that I care for my staff and I want to help. The hat’s a bit different, don’t you think? Does it really make you feel better?”

Clay found it hard to keep his disgust hidden. Care? Couldn’t spell the word. “Yes, it really does; I couldn’t get calm before I made it, now I’m all good. I’m actually safe.”

“Fine then.” Shelley rose. “I’m comfortable with you keeping it on if it helps.”

“Good, thanks.”

“But you know there is one thing that I don’t know about” she said as they left the room, “I mean, I can understand how it stops things going up and down from your head, but what about the sideways stuff?”

Clay looked at her as she walked away. Again it seemed all the cards were being dealt just for him. She had just confirmed the next stage of his plan, suggested it even, kicking open the door.

- - -

Three weeks later David eyed Shelley angrily inside the glass walled meeting room, looking out across the office. He shifted his gaze to what, to an uneducated observer, appeared to be a copper cube seated in amongst the grey walled panels of an open plan work area. It was, in fact, a copper cube seated in amongst the grey walled panels of an open plan work area. In addition the blow up aliens, pyramids, UFOs and graffiti circling the cube were exactly that, put there as mocking totems by Clay’s workmates.

“ … and how in hell” David continued “do you condone that? What sort of asylum do you have here? You can’t tell me he’s effective and it’s not impacting. Do you know” he said, glowering, “that someone offered me ten to one odds that he’d believe he was a plastic fork by month’s end?”

Shelley was as angry as David, but her anger was directed at him. She’d thought him a bombastic ass before, now the feeling was even stronger. Any chance to slip the knife you bastard she thought, but you have no idea about my new blade out there.

“His work’s flawless, probably better than before. Productivity here” she spat, slinging a sheaf of paper his way, “is fifteen percent up and error rate three percent down. It’s actually having a positive effect and I can’t see an issue with it as long as this keeps going on. Until it becomes disruptive he stays.”

“Oh yes” David retorted, “I can see why, you did actually endorse that,” pointing outside, “that, that chain mail clunker out there and, just to make sure, you have also linked it to a downsizing coping mechanism. Do you know what HR’s opinion is? No, of course not, you wouldn’t think to ask would you? Well we are at risk here, if he cracks totally then we could be liable. Do you understand?”

“Of course. So he gets a damned pension for being crazy, it hits our insurance bill but it’s not going to happen. It’s all under control, all good. In fact,” and she allowed herself a small smile, “he’s managed to pass his next grading exam so he’s up for promotion.” The look of horror on David’s face only egged her on. “Oh yes, and as a starter he’s on the next workplace review committee. So get used to it” she chortled as she left, “he’ll be there next Tuesday with you.”

David sat briefly in the silence of the empty room, then reached for his mobile phone. Time to put a stop to this he thought. Better now than later.

Shelley was also thinking hard as she walked towards Clay’s cube. She had to admit that Clay gave her the creeps now, but he was still of use. As long as work improved she looked good, and now she had a chance to hang Clay around David’s neck. With no recourse it would reflect badly on David, not her. All she had to do was make Clay more visible, and he had done that for her. All Clay had to do was keep his work up to par, and he was doing that. Then any move David made would be discrimination against Clay and she could walk across David’s carcass courtesy of the EEO laws.

“Clay” she called into the cube, “do you have a minute?”

Clay emerged, rearranging his hat and smock. Since getting the cube he had only worn his personal faraday cage suit when outside the cage or at home. Soon, when the home cage was finished, he would not even need it there. Shelley had not recognised him without his suit last time she had seen him. Funnily it had not been much of a shock seeing him add the smock to the hat a week after their last talk, and the step up to the cube a week or so later had, strangely she thought, actually made some sort of weird sense. The only thing about the whole thing that was kind of disturbing was the habit of everyone else sticking fridge magnets to his back when he was not looking. She’d even added a ‘Take Me To Your Leader’ one in a weaker moment.

“Ok, again my congratulations on the upcoming promotion, but it is now time to get to work at that new level. So you’re on the Workplace Review Committee. First meeting is in a week so you’ve got your work cut out, so I’d suggest as a first step ...” and so it continued.

Once finished Clay stepped back into his cube and out of the hat and smock. Time for the big play he thought, and not a moment too soon. He hated the copper suit he had to wear, it itched and scratched him and his ankles and wrists had taken on a pale green hue where they touched the metal. Not to mention the utterly legendary jock rash he now had, and the smell. Although (thankfully) unnoticeable to anyone else, all he could smell was stale sweat and filth when he wore the suit. And obviously he couldn’t pee when wearing it, the signals could get in through even the smallest gap, he had to stay in character. Not to mention the trouble being seen in public, his collection of fridge and advertising magnets placed on him by neighbourhood kids was truly scary.

He was sure he was right on the edge now, but the only question that had remained was who would be the right pressure point, David or Shelley? Either would do, all he needed was one of them to kick it off. Maybe, he thought, Shelley’s invested too much of herself here in me, allowed the craziness to grow and nurture. She might not be prepared to try and get rid of me. So David, top of the local tree, that was the one. And Tuesday week was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

- - -

Corporate boardrooms are, by their nature, places of excess and lavishness. The preserve of the top echelon of the corporation they are symbols of privilege and luxury for those at the helm of the ship of commerce and visible reminders of the distance between the top and bottom of the organisation. Together with the executive bathroom suite they are an unassailable bastion of corporate position.

So too in Clay’s world, even in the public service. In fact more so. As the perks enjoyed by their private sector brethren lay outside the bounds of politically decreed probity, those that lay inside tended to be all the greater and more lavish. Twenty floors up, with sweeping views across the bay through two glass walls, the solid Beechwood table, form fitting ergonomic chairs and tastefully ridiculous post modernist paintings tended to take the breath away from any visitor at less than branch head level. All would readily admit that to face a painting worth multiples of your annual salary (with the valuation of course being tastefully, discretely but prominently displayed on the frame) would in and of itself be distraction enough, never mind the real estate agent wet dream inducing view. But today, for the dozen persons in the room, such things had been instantly and irrevocably erased from their memory. From now on, in the combined mind of those twelve most deserving of apparatchiks, the room would and could only ever be associated with one thing. And that one thing, shimmering burnished metal in the corner, edged it’s careful and clattering way on all fours slowly from one side of the room to the other.

Clay’s appearance had long since failed to be a shocking novelty, so when he took his place at the table earlier nothing save the usual pleasantries were exchanged. Barely had the proceedings begun when he sprang (slowly, given the 40 kilos of copper he was clad in) to his feet.

“My apologies” he blurted, “but I must check the room for safety issues”, eyes darting to the wood dado panelling on the far side of the room.

“I beg your pardon?” the Chair questioned, “What do you mean? Fire hazard, electrical, furnishings?”

“No, hardly,” Clay replied, spreadeagled face down on the carpet, crawling to the far wall, “nothing so simple.”

“Just what” the young up and comer from fourteenth floor asked as Clay grazed her exquisitely waxed and shaped legs with his green tinged smock fringe, “are you talking about and please, my shoes, don’t scuff my shoes!”

“Panels” Clay mumbled, “panels, they use the panels and I’ve only just realised,” turning his head to look at a visibly paling Chair, his eyes glowing and wide visible even beneath his coppery epidermis, “they use the panels as access points, surveillance points, it’s so, so, so ordinary, so common, so easy. Need to check every one, each panel, each look alike panel, floor, walls, ceiling, each pattern to check” with which he kept pressing his fingers firmly in between the lines, on each panel of dado, each square of carpet, anywhere lines formed a box, a rectangle, a shape, a panel.

Shelley was now some fifteen minutes later outside looking in with David, the Departmental Head, and Lois the Regional HR officer. Clay was still spreadeagled on the floor of the boardroom and had just about completed his circuit of the room. Shelley’s visible shaking and cold sweats were not for her (assumed) insane subordinate on the floor, but for her own truncated career. David’s expression said it all, his talking as if she did not exist (which she technically felt was true) a confirmation.

“How do we finish this off, cleanly and simply? We cannot have that” with which he disparagingly pointed to Clay, “here any longer.”

“Well” Lois replied, “immediate psychiatric assessment followed by an invalidity redundancy and he’s out of here, four weeks tops. If he acts like that in his assessment it might even take a fortnight. But” she continued, facing David, “it will cost with our insurance premium and questions will be asked how he was allowed to get to this state.”

“Those questions are already answered” he replied, and looking at Shelley, “as are those responsible. It would be an appropriate time to re-evaluate one’s career goals I would say, wouldn’t you?” Then turning to Lois before Shelley could respond, “Get him on the couch and out of this building” with which he walked off.

The Departmental Head, a toughened old crone of 58 years, regarded Shelley as an idiot child. “That is sound advice you should consider carefully. There are options on the outside you know, and once there none of this need follow you. If one stays here then, well, our records remain. Has anyone else seen this? What of the team? Next I’ll have a floor of bloody chickens each trying the same damned trick, if it is a trick. You clear his desk, you get him downstairs and out. He’s either pensioned off or fired, I don’t care which.”

Shelley managed, a bare five minutes later, to get Clay into the lift and heading down. It had been a near thing, the carpet being the tiled kind, and Clay had insisted on checking each and every tile out, just in case. She had to ask him, even knowing the answer she just had to ask.

“Clay, who is behind the panels? Why here?”

“You don’t believe me,” he said, straightening for a second and then bending down again, red raw fingers prying at the lifts tiled floor, “I’ve been trying to tell everyone but you all just laugh. Well when I find them, and I will, you won’t be laughing quite so loud. Do you actually remember what I said?”

“Well, no, you said so much and really I only got half of it, if that.”

“Thought as much.” He stopped mid pry, just short of the lift door as they passed the twelfth floor. No-one else had bothered to get in, even though – as was it’s habit – the lift paused at each floor for extra passengers. Shelley’s makeup bore streaks from tears and perspiration that even Lancôme could not help, and Clay was a slow blur of activity on all fours. Who’d want to share a lift with an Alice Cooper lookalike and a hundred kilo armadillo? They continued alone.

“I’ve told everyone all along. It’s the aliens, the post Roswell aliens. All the clues are out there, you’ve just got to find them. After the crash they changed tactics, it was initially too obvious so they chose to do it all by stealth …” by which time Shelley had retreated, again, into her own thoughts and was ignoring Clay. Time to get another job, and even as she piled him into the taxi a little later she was still detached, still distracted. She watched the taxi go off down the street, then went back inside. She picked up two boxes, accepting the inevitable, and left.

The taxi ride was uncomfortable and, as usual, his smock got caught in several places on the fabric seat covers. Having disentangled himself when he exited at home, the fifteen meter crawl to his flat was tortuous, having to check each square, each block formed by expansion joints in the concrete path. Clay thought briefly about forgetting this, but decided it was better to keep in his role. Good job too, Lois’s surveillance unit was both quick and professional and were watching his exit with more than a distracted eye.

“Fucking nutter” the girl at the camera growled, snapping the bronzed butt in her telephoto lens from the van down the road.

“Keep a lid on it” her supervisor responded, “just make sure you get it uploaded. And be thankful it wasn’t another of those Spiderman wannabes”, with which she resumed her bagel and paper in the front seat.

Safely behind locked door and closed windows Clay got out of his smock and hat, examining his bloodied fingers and calloused knees. Even with the kneepads it had hurt like hell, and the rashes from the skin contact with the copper were getting serious. But not long to go now, maybe a month and a bit, maybe two, and it would be easy street from then on. All he had to do was get through the psychiatrists visit, drop the final piece of bait, and not screw things up. That was all.

Over lunch he trawled through his usual web sites and discussion groups, looking the world like another conspiracy theorist with something to prove. Next, to his own web site, the icing on the cake, all his theories (and mind) on display for all to see – and hopefully the right people to see. Still there and still safe, he added to his latest blog and let his 600 followers know (a fact Clay still found both amazing and disturbing) that his panel theory had as yet uncovered nothing, proving that they were really well hidden. A quick tweet on the up and he closed his machine down for the day. He was there, just about there he told himself. Four weeks from now, with luck, I’ll be down at some beach, cheque in the bank, a blonde under each arm and texting Chris. And with that thought he drifted off to sleep.

- - -

Doctor Betel, the contracted psychiatrist, looked up from Clay’s file to David, Lois and Claudia, Shelley’s replacement. “You seem to believe it is open and shut, yes?” he enquired.

“We think so” Lois responded, “he seems to have been tipped over by us, possibly by our acceptance or condoning of his behaviour ...”

“… but we will not and cannot publicly accept any liability” David interjected, “based on a misinformed view, no matter how genuinely presented” shooting an icy glance at Lois.

“Which is the correct stance to take and also why I am now here” Dr Betel smiled, “to see what you really do have. And already I can see its shape.”

“Which is?”

“From this file, his personal history and what I have seen at your offices, there is a chance in my mind that his problems may not be as grave as he presents. There may be, and probably is, some doubt over his genuineness that could only be resolved by my seeing him, as we are to arrange.”

“You mean that he is a fake?”

“Perhaps yes, perhaps no, perhaps maybe. It is never quite so, ah, stark as you think. He may genuinely believe it, he may choose to believe it sub-consciously whilst consciously doubting it or vice versa, or it all may be a convenient shield against an unknown other. I will find out and if he can be helped back we will see.”

After an extended discussion of Clay’s office behaviour, online habits, surveillance photos and work assessments, Dr Betel continued. “There is that other matter, that of his workmates. Has this had any impact at all upon them, has there been any obvious change?”

“None we’ve seen” added Claudia to David’s shake of the head, “in fact they seem the better off for his absence lately, although I’m not sure if it’s the lack of Clay or the lack of Shelley or both that is at root. After all, with the cutbacks another two people gone are not too much impact on top, are they?”

“I imagine not, but it is the illusion of Clay’s beliefs remaining I am concerned with.”

“On that score” David rejoined, “all that remains is an over abundance of fridge magnets and an extra garbage bin full of trash magazines. Nothing, as they say, except a bad smell.”

Dr Betel smiled and leaned back, gathering his papers into his valise. “So then, my only concern is Clay, and that will be in hand by tomorrow. All things being equal my report will be with you within a fortnight.”

Lois broke her silence. “You still want to see him at his house? Is that entirely safe?”

He smiled, fatherly fashion, at her. “We have come a long way from couches and electro shock therapy you know. He has no violent tendencies, seems like an otherwise quite reliable and honest man who simply thinks aliens live in every nook and cranny. I will be perfectly safe, and he will be perfectly at ease in his home environment.”

He stood, started out the door then, stopping, turned around. “There is of course a more practical reason to see him at home. My offices are in the city plaza as you know, a lovely place of trees and open grass surrounded, unfortunately, by a rather large flagstone mall. Apart from the severe embarrassment he may suffer it could take him the better part of a week on his hands and knees getting from the taxi to my office door. And once there he has to face the parquetry floor. Adieu”, with which he left.

David sank back into his chair. “Now, do you think we can perhaps actually get back to what we are paid to do?”

- - -

The next day Dr Betel found himself sitting comfortably in Clay’s flat, chatting amiably to him whilst casually jotting notes as he went. To him Clay’s flat was a touch on the small side and very austere, with not many personal items on display. It was in keeping with a single separated man in his experience; they either went to the extreme of near anarchic chaos with disorderly homes that looked like the proverbial bomb had gone off, or they went to the polar opposite of hyper-fastidiousness, living in spotless and near clinically sterile fashion. Both were problematic, both were non-normal, but at least with this he did not have to worry about where or what to sit on. Yes, the flat would have seemed normal and very clean, save for the fine copper mesh that lined the walls, floor and ceiling and made a double blind entry on each and every door. Neatly soldered and reinforced, he felt he was inside a giant tea strainer, a rather claustrophobic feeling at that. It was also stultifyingly hot, being at the start of summer and with no breeze penetrating the cage. The smell of sweat, his and Clay’s, was near overpowering.

He had just spent the better part of two hours there, Clay telling him how he built the cage; explaining how effectively it cut out all radiation and signals in and out; how his smock and hat covered and protected him outside; and how his flat was now a bastion of safety. Clay was just concluding his third explanation of why this was all necessary, made at Dr Betel’s request. Clay didn’t seem to mind and, if anything, had slowed down delivery each successive time to aid his comprehension. In fact, Dr Betel observed, Clay seemed to be warming more to the subject with each successive telling.

“… so that is how I came to the conclusion” Clay said leaning forwards on the sofa, “that aliens were in fact living incognito on Earth, observing us. With all the evidence no other conclusion is possible. None.”

“And they are doing what again, here?”

“Observing, that’s all. They must be. I don’t exactly know why. If they were in the open or doing something we’d know, so they must be watching, waiting, for I don’t know what. So this cage, my hat, my smock, they’re my shield. They can’t see me or observe me so I’m invisible to them, and they can’t get in here unless I wish them to and I don’t. All I have to be careful of are the hatches.”

“Hatches?”

“Yes, everywhere, anywhere, they change them regularly, the hatches. They can be in the street, in a building, in a plane, a car, anywhere. I actually nearly saw one!”

“You did?” Dr Betel leaned forwards. This was new.

“Yes.” Clay leant across. Now to drop the big one, the last bait he thought; it’s taken days to get it right, if he takes this one I’m home and hosed. “I saw one at a farm just after I started my cage. A hatch, a door barely six centimetres square opened up in a barn and a cow simply slipped through it. I raced over just as it closed and I nearly pulled the barn apart with my bare hands but couldn’t get anything behind where the panel had been but wood. They must change them, somehow, but that’s the thing I saw. So each day, no each time I go near any panel like lines, no matter how big or small, I need to check. Just in case.”

“Just in case?”

“Just in case.”

Dr Betel sat in silence for a while, then stood. “Do you mind if I get some more water?” he asked, pointing at the two empty glasses. “It’s getting hot in here. Would you like a refill?”

“Thanks, yes. Look doc, I know it sounds far-fetched but it’s all true. I mean, I’m not just dreaming this stuff up.”

“I think I believe that you believe it’s true,” Dr Betel said, filling the glasses with his back to Clay, “but there’s truth and then there’s truth.” He swirled both glasses until Clay’s was clear.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Well,” resuming his seat and taking a long drink, “you seem to be assuming that the aliens have bad intentions towards you, if I understand your reasoning.”

“Well yes, I do,” Clay responded, draining his glass. “If they were friendly or benign then none of this secrecy would be needed. Why hide if you are no threat? I mean, we can’t be a threat to them, surely?”

“Your reasoning seems sound, but there is one thing,” Dr Betel continued. He stood and moved to the computer, placing a hand on the silent device. “Your Faraday cage is imperfect you know, quite good but most unfortunately imperfect.”

Clay tried to twist his head to follow Dr Betel but found to his consternation that his head would not move. Nor would his feet or hands. In fact he felt rigidly glued down. He tried to talk but could not.

Dr Betel came into view again, valise in hand. He had changed, the kindly eyes becoming harder and sadder. “Your computer, it’s hardwired into the broadband cabling. It passes through the cage. It’s only five to ten millimetres in diameter, but it’s enough. Enough for us anyway.” He twisted the couch around so that Clay was looking at the computer, now switched on. “An operation this size does leave marks, small clues, but in general nobody is able to tack them together. Somehow you have. It’s a pity really, a real pity.”

He placed the valise on the floor. It opened and produced a thin blue pencil beam of light, tracing out a six centimetre square on the floor’s copper mesh. “I know why you did it, we know about Chris, your job, all that, it’s just very unfortunate that you decided to use this particular theory. Yetis, JFK, Loch Ness Monster, even floating pink elephants and I’m quite sure you would have made it to the beach. But this,” with which he sighed, “it could only end one way. You would have been of use, you seemed like a reasonable person who would have fitted into our administration, but now you will serve another, unfortunately less pleasant, purpose.”

Clay, still frozen, sat silently screaming as he watched the six centimetre hatch open up and his feet and then his legs elongate, flowing rapidly into the hole. “You will,” Dr Betel continued, “get to meet your two blondes, however as both of them are the unit’s vivisectionists I doubt it will have the same outcome as you originally had in mind. Goodbye Mr Creek.”

The hatch slowly sealed itself, leaving Dr Betel alone with the glowing computer screen. A face, his near twin by appearance, stared unblinkingly out.

“It is finished then.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes” Dr Betel replied, “please send in the team. We will need to talk later on this matter.”

“As you wish,” with which the screen went dead.

- - -

A month later David sat in his office on the eighteenth floor watching the last page in Clay’s personnel file pass through the shredder. It had been three weeks since Dr Betel’s report had come in finding Clay sane and lying; slightly less since his letter to Clay demanding his immediate return to work – sans copper outfit – or risk termination. It being the statutory fourteen days since delivery and, with no sign of Clay, he was now fired. It was, David thought, as if the earth had swallowed Clay up whole; and a damned good job too. He took another sip of his whiskey, but stopped mid-gulp.

What had that been? Out of the corner of his eye? Was it a small section of the room partition that had just rotated? Impossible. I’m just overworked he thought, just tired.

Nothing to worry about.

Yet.

The End


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2017-04-14 10:04:26
micheledutcher - Sorry to break in but quantum Muse is having a humor contest in June for cash prizes. Check out the NEWS section for specifics on contest.




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