Pete stared at himself in the mirror, straightened his tie, and tried to smooth down his flyaway hair. “Should’ve gotten a haircut,” he muttered.
But it wasn’t just that. The pale complexion, the ill-fitting suit, the exhausted look in his eyes – they all worked together to make him look like a man who worked eighty hours a week. Which, of course, he did. For the last two years. But that’s what you had to do, what anyone who wanted to get ahead had to do. Nobody got anywhere in Munin Scientific on forty hours a week. Nobody.
After today, though, it would all be worth it. The work he had done on carbon pico-crystal arrays would revolutionize the industry. It would launch Munin Scientific to the top of the market, and within five years everything that had a computer in it would be indebted to them. To him. He took a USB drive out of his jacket pocket. It was all there.
That wasn’t the only copy, of course. No one could possibly be so stupid as to store their only copy of a potentially revolutionary technology onto something as droppable as a thumb drive. He had the data stored in several different places, all secure behind the best encryption and security the company could provide. If things went terribly wrong, he might lose the drive on the elevator ride up, but the data would still be there.
The LED on the end was glowing a soft amber. The drives had to be accessed at least once every twenty-four hours, to ensure security. If they weren’t, then the LED would turn red and the drive would erase itself the next time it was plugged into a computer. Pete didn’t take it too seriously. After all, if someone was going to steal his data, they probably wouldn’t wait until they got around to it to make copies. But it made the company feel like it was being proactive, so there wasn’t much to be done about it.
He put it back in his pocket and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes to go. He rinsed his hands off and tried to give himself a stern look in the mirror. It just came off looking more exhausted. His wife said he should smile more for interviews, to try and look more personable. He thought that smiling made him look like a freak. He tried it. He was right.
When one of the toilets flushed, he started and turned around. Ewan Conwell came out of one of the stalls and Pete felt his blood pressure rise. “How’s it goin’, Petey?” Ewan asked. He waved his hands under the sink and got a burst of water. Pete didn’t say anything, but went back to inspecting his tie. “Big day today, isn’t it? Well…” He took a handkerchief from his pocket and started to dry his hands, grinning at his own reflection and checking out those big, white teeth of his.
There was something about Conwell’s face that made Pete want to punch it, and Pete had never punched anyone in his life. Maybe the big chin, the fake smile, the beady little shark eyes – he couldn’t pin down what it was. Every time he saw Ewan, he just felt some kind of primate rage build in his gut. This wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t work in the same division. Ewan always seemed to be schmoozing, always looked relaxed and healthy. Never seemed to be cracking under pressure or pulling his hair out trying to solve a problem. He was perfectly happy working at Munin, and that was the biggest sign that something was really wrong with him.
“Yes,” Pete finally said.
“You wearing that tie?”
Pete looked at the tie, then at Ewan’s reflection. “Yes,” he said.
Ewan shrugged. “Cool,” he said. “Good luck!” He clapped Pete on the shoulder, winked, and walked out of the bathroom.
Pete took a few breaths to calm himself down. Freaking out over Ewan Conwell was the last thing he needed to do right now. He breathed, in and out, in and out, and then addressed his reflection. “You ready?” he asked. “Ready,” he replied.
The interview was fifteen floors above him, so he took the elevator and fidgeted with the USB drive on the ride up. It was a smooth, quiet ride, all the way up to the thirtieth floor. When he got there, a receptionist looked him over with a single raised eyebrow, carefully checked her appointment book, and pressed a button on her desk. A moment later she leaned in to her earpiece and said, “Yes, sir. He’s here.”
She looked up at him. “You may go in,” she said. The doors to the left swung open. Pete’s mouth was dry, his palms were sweating, and his stomach hurt. He nodded, gripping the USB drive tightly, and walked in.
The boardroom was bright and spare, influenced by how designers thought Japanese people lived. A long table, shiny and black, stretched down the middle of the brightness and made Pete a little dizzy. Embossed in the center of the table, shining under layers of lacquer, was the Munin Scientific logo.
Three men in suits were sitting at one end of the table, next to a laptop. The men were all wearing suits that each probably cost more than his salary. Before taxes, of course. “Come in, Mr. Wach,” one of the men said. Terence Dorshimer, the chief technology officer. About five levels above Pete, and just the fact that he knew Pete’s name was enough to make him want to throw up.
He set his shoulders back, tried to stiffen his spine, and strode to the end of the table. “Pete Wach,” Terence said, “I’d like you to meet Harris Brummitt, the vice president in charge of research.” Brummitt shook Pete’s hand, a strong, confident shake. “And this, of course, is Ulysses Grodin. I know you know who he is.”
Of course Pete knew who he was. Grodin’s was the public face of Munin Scientific. Third-generation president of the company and probably one of the most well-known and well-loved CEOs in the country. Pete put his hand out. “Of course. An honor to meet you, sir.”
Grodin didn’t offer his hand, and Pete was left hanging for a moment.
Terence stepped in to rescue him. “I’m sure you’re eager to show us what you have, Pete.” He gestured to the laptop. “It’s showtime.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Pete plugged the USB into the machine and the little LED turned green again. An explorer window opened up, Pete found the icon he wanted, and the slideshow began. Terence pressed a button on a remote and the lights dimmed. A wallscreen lit up, with the computer display on it.
Pete looked at the three men, licked his lips, and cleared his throat. Grodin was starting to look annoyed, Brummitt bored, and Dorshimer’s smile was beginning to turn brittle.
“How would you like,” Pete said, “to have every movie ever made – yes, every single one.” He dropped to a whisper, as he’d practiced at home. “Even the dirty ones.” He paused for a laugh, didn’t get one, and then stuttered back into form. “Um… All the movies ever made, in ten different languages – twice - stored on a chip the size of your thumbnail?” The slideshow faded to show a close-up of a hand with a small silver chip in its palm. “And if you want, we can throw in the Library of Congress just for fun.”
That should have gotten at least a chuckle. Something really wasn’t right here. He advanced the slideshow, and what looked like a computer-generated thornbush appeared. “With picotech crystal arrays, we can store more data in a smaller space than anyone would have dreamed even two years ago. What’s more-” He went to the next slide, which was numbers and data on a pleasant gradient background. “As you can see, it’s highly durable, and will hold onto data with little or no corruption for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.” He went to the next slide and started to read from it. There were circles and arrows, pointing to other circles and other arrows that explained what the technology was and how it worked, and as Pete read from it he knew that something was going horribly wrong.
He could feel the yawning void on the other side of the table. It was exactly as though someone had walked up to him and was standing behind him, breathing down his neck, but he wasn’t allowed to see. After he got to the third circle, his voice trailed off and he turned around.
All three men were staring at him. “I, um…” he said. He cleared his throat again and straightened his suit jacket. “I suppose I can… um. Take questions? If there are any?”
Brummitt shifted in his seat. He glanced at the other two men, who were still staring at Pete. “Mister Wach,” Brummitt said. “Do you think we’re idiots?”
Pete’s mind went blank for a moment. Of all the questions he had prepared for, this certainly wasn’t one of them. If they had asked about data retrieval rates, thermal fluctuations, storage tolerances – he could have talked the sun down on any of those. But did he think they were stupid? “Um… No, sir. Of course not.” He looked at the other two men, and their faces were unreadable. “Why would you think I thought-”
“You must think we’re dumber’n a Texas schoolbook, Mister Wach, coming in here like this.”
“That we just fell off the bullshit truck yesterday. Is that it, Mister Wach?”
“No, sir, of course-”
“Because if we were stupid, if we were complete and utter shitheads who didn’t know our dicks from diamonds, then you might have gotten away with this stunt you’re trying to pull!”
Pete tried to speak, but all that came out was soundless breath. He looked from Terrence to Grodin and back, but neither man would speak. Terence pushed another button on his panel and nodded to Brummitt. A moment later, two security guards, hands on their tasers, came through the door.
Pete put his hands up. “Wait, woah, woah. Wait! Look, I really don’t understand why-”
For the first time, Ulysses Grodin spoke. “Mister Wach, you have taken enough of our time. You may either leave, or you will be taken out.” The tone of his voice made it clear which he would prefer.
“But I don’t understand,” Pete said. “The technology, my presentation, I don’t… What did I do?” he wailed. He started to make his way back around the table, which was the cue for the security guards to launch their tasers at him.
The pain was far worse than he imagined, and he collapsed almost instantly, just barely missing the table. He lay on the floor, twitching, and he heard someone say, “Again.” Another bolt of white-hot pain shot through him, and he tried to yell. His jaw was locked, and he couldn’t get the breath out.
When the pain stopped, and he felt himself fading into unconsciousness, he heard Brummitt kneel down next to him, one of his knees making popping noises as he did. “We’re going to have a very long talk later, Wach,” he said. “And you’re going to tell us exactly how and why you stole that research from Ewan Conwell.”
Pete’s last thought as he passed out was of Ewan, and how much he hated him.