The man with the brown fedora sitting at desk nineteen appeared engrossed in what he was reading. He was a small man with small features. Even the sagging skin under his dark eyes appeared smaller than what most elderly folk sported.
He wore the hat even when he ate, because he didn’t want anyone to see how far his hairline had receded. They could guess, by God, let them guess, but they could never know for sure. Not unless he took the hat off and there was no way he would be motivated to do that in public.
No way Jose.
Glancing up from the document he had been reading he saw that Josh Peterson across the room was doing the same thing he had been doing moments before. Reports. All the reports that came in daily had to be processed as quickly as possible. So here they sat, analyzing and processing in a windowless gray room.
He guessed that processing was the worst job of the division, just because of the monotony of the work. But he would never know now, because he had never had another position and had aged to the point that he no longer wanted one. He would retire in this job and that was just fine.
Peterson, on the other hand, was young enough to get away from the drudgery. He had a chance. The young man glanced up and caught his eye, smiled briefly and averted his eyes back to the document he was reading. The boy was focused. A good worker. And given time could probably hold any job in the division with the right training.
Grunting under his breath, he thought about telling the boy to go. To run as quickly and as far as possible. As far as his legs would carry him. Away from this work, this division and section. Move away from the whole place.
He laid the report on the desk, took his wire-rimmed glasses from his face and closed his eyes for a moment, opened them again and stretched his arms, careful not to knock the hat from his head.
Division X had been in the processing business since before he could remember. The analyzing didn’t start until way after the processing business had begun. At first, they had just logged report information into the computers and at the end of each shift the bundle of information went to the analysts in Division Y. Now, Division X did the whole thing. Analyzing and processing. They no longer needed computers except to execute commands. Division X had become the executive branch, so to speak.
He replaced the glasses on his face and glanced at the clock on the far wall above the doorway, sipped from the water bottle in front of him. Only ten minutes before shift end.
Turning in his chair toward the monitor, he began executing commands. First, as always, the deviants. The worst of the mental degenerates who would attempt to thwart the system. Would take the most perfect life from nearly everyone in their society and devolve it into a monstrous thing from the history books. Democracy. Scoffing, the fedora stiff and erect on his head, he grit his teeth punching in the numbers and letters and hit the enter button harder than he should have. Good riddance.
He glanced up and over his desk, checking to see that no one noticed he had abused the keyboard. A couple of people glanced in his direction, but most everyone was busy with their own tasks. Peterson glanced at him again. He smiled uncomfortably and reddened, his hat softening, sinking further on to his head, he turned back to the monitor.
Section one hundred and thirty-three had always referred to the small geographical area located in the most northwest territory of International Corporate States. Just recently, that area had expanded to included the southwest territory, once named Southern California after the division of the states.
Second commands were reserved for those miscreants who dared to abuse the social system to the point of nearly breaking it. The most aged who clung to life like a vice grip, believing that somehow, someone or something would come to make them youthful again. A drain on the system, they continued to use up provided healthcare and food rations, draining the life blood from the system. These were the most selfish of the lot, depending not only on a benevolent system, but abusing their families. Constantly with the hand out. Adios Muchachos. Thank you very much. He hit the enter key.
He glanced up at the clock again and saw that five minutes had elapsed. Peterson stood under the doorway with two other employees; a security investigator and one of the supervisors. The boy glanced in his direction and he nodded, but received no acknowledgement. Instead, the young man looked past him, over his hat and turned back to the others speaking in hushed tones.
The last time a scene like this had presented itself was when an employee had been identified as an infiltrator. He raised his eyebrows, but turned back to the computer again. Best to get the work finished. The fedora felt light on his head and he brought the brim down slightly to secure it.
Tapping his index finger on the desk beside the keyboard, he was unable to get the idea of the infiltrator out of his mind. Division X was the most clandestine operation of the Corporate States. It was the heart and mind of the system and made everything else work. Without Division X, overpopulation and poverty would rule the states again. They had evolved into something better through trial and error and this was the best system. Better than any other before it.
How an infiltrator from outside the Corporate States penetrated not only the geographical area, but the Division X compound was mind-boggling. Planning of the infiltration would have taken years, not to mention considerable resources to cover her identity. She passed the psych scans and security checks, become friendly with other employees, learned the processing system and over a period of several years, had even gained entrance to the inner sanctum of analyzing and executing commands. And when finally identified, she had even appeared surprised by the accusation. Denying evidence presented and went so far as to accuse the reviewers of fabricating the story. As if oppositional forces against the system didn’t really exist.
Four minutes before shift end, he typed in the last of the commands. The most feeble of the system. Not the aged, but the ill and dying. Those poor souls already given a death sentence and in the throes of denial, believing a cure would suddenly be found. This was the group that bothered him the most. Partly, because it included the handicapped children of healthy, productive people and caused those families enough pain to warrant loss of work, possible draining of mental health facilities. This was a touchy one. To be analyzed with extreme care. His hat hung forward as he pondered the list.
He finally hit the enter key lightly, slightly ill. A moment later as he turned away from the monitor, the feeling had gone. Bouyant from a job well done, his hat sat comfortably on his head and he pushed the brim up slightly, smiling to himself.
One minute to spare, he sipped from his water bottle again and glanced up as young Peterson approached his desk. He sat back tall, a satisfied smile on his face. “Hello there Josh. How was your production today?”
Eyes narrowed, the young man’s lips pulled back into a sneer, “How was Your production today, Fellow Brown?” He hissed the last part, as if the facial expression wasn’t enough to impart his dislike for the older man.
Taken off guard, Brown sat up straighter, feet firmly on the floor, tense. “What do you mean Josh?” He attempted to sound unconcerned, but the words stumbled out. Sweat broke above his brow.
The investigator appeared directly behind Josh, smiling casually, appearing unrumpled and cool in his dark uniform. The man was young and handsome. In his thirties, he appeared as a rugged, soft-spoken type. Dark hair, soft, brown eyes. The kind you would see on the digital these days, with the community hanging on every word, urging them on in their mission, helping them to find and beat the bad guys.
His mouth felt dry and he reached over to his water bottle again, sipping. Replaced the shocked expression with an unconcerned smile. Best not to give any indication that he was nervous. Nervousness was a sure sign of guilt.
He stood up, pushing the paper pile on to the metal insert at the rear of the desk. The shredder whirred quietly. “Josh, I’m not up for playing today. I’ve just finished a full day and want to go home.”
A hand was extended in his direction. “I’m Inspector Andrew Nathan, Fellow Brown.” He sounded friendly enough and really was soft spoken. Brown took the hand, squeezed slightly, “What’s going on here Inspector?”
“Why don’t you sit back down. Let’s talk for just a minute.” Brown sat back in his seat and noticed others walking past on their way out of the facility threw uncomfortable glances in his direction. Some looked displeased, scornful even.
Pulling on his shirt collar, he asked again, “What’s going on here?”
Security boy glanced back at Josh, “Can I get a seat please? I need to speak with Brown in a comfortable position.” He held up his hand, index pointing upward, “One minute.”
A moment later, Josh was back with a chair. “Thanks Josh. Why don’t you let me speak with Brown alone. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
Peterson glanced at his co-worker contemptuously. “I’ll be right over there,” he pointed to his desk across the room, “In case you need me.” Nathan smiled and nodded, turned back to Brown as he sat.
“So…” he started, leaning back in the chair and crossing one leg over his knee. “How long have you been working here Brown?”
“You’re security and don’t know how long I’ve been working here? What is this?” Insulted by the question, he sounded sharp without meaning to.
His response was ignored. Nathan raised one eyebrow and took a small device from his breast pocket, typed something into it, moved to the next question. “Is it true that you analyzed and processed only three lists today?” He sat forward, leaning in toward the older man, smiling in anticipation.
Over the years, the lists had become longer. They were analyzing now also, which made the task of processing twice as long. He nodded, “Yes it’s true. The lists are longer now. I go through each carefully.” He thought for a moment and added, “I take pride in my work and make sure each is gone over thoroughly.”
Nathan sat back in his chair scowling, typed into the device again. “Are you aware of the population of Section one thirty-three?”
Brown nodded feeling confident. This information was televised every night before the power out. “Last night it was one-hundred and fifty million.”
“Are you aware the average analyst in Division X processes at minimum, seven lists?”
Brown had not known this. He sat up straighter, uncomfortable again. If that was true, his production was below fifty percent. “No. I was not aware of that. Someone should have told me. I could have done something to step up production.”
A loud “thwack” sounded behind the security investigator and suddenly the man fell forward into Brown’s lap, pushing him back into his chair further. Peterson stood behind the man with a weapon in his hand, reached over and pulled the corpse from him, throwing it to the floor.
Brown’s hands went to his face, “Please!” Then he was being pulled to his feet. “Come on Buddy, let’s get out of here. You’re free. It’s over.”
The sound of running through one of the halls overhead, a couple of shots fired somewhere in the building. He cringed. What was this boy talking about? The computer behind him exploded and he yelped, throwing himself forward, almost fell, but regained his balance.
Several people he worked with and had known through the years passed by, smiling, congratulating each other. Some had weapons. Contraband. An older man with silver hair, ready for retirement held a small gun in his hand, sauntered by glancing at him, raised the gun hand in greeting. “It’s over Brown. We’re free.”
Peterson stood watching him for a moment, a look of sympathy crossing his face. “Brown, I’m sorry about earlier. I had to play along until it was time.” He waved the boy away. “No, no. It’s alright. What’s this business with the guns?”
Peterson turned to face the doorway, in the same direction Brown was facing. A few people looked confused, lost. “We had no other choice. We went over the plan several times and this was the most efficient way of getting the most people out safely.”
Brown nodded as if he understood. “Okay then. I guess we’re free now.” He smiled at that, but had no idea what it meant. He wished Josh would go ahead and leave him alone now, but the boy continued to watch him.
“Brown?” he hesitated before continuing. “You believed in this system didn’t you?”
The older man lifted one eyebrow, “Does that matter now?” Shaking his head, he answered his own question. “I don’t think it matters now. We’re going to re-invent the wheel, go back to a system of democracy that’s new and improved, though it retains the fundamental flaws of the last system. That has nothing to do with me. I’m almost retirement age Josh. That’s all that concerns me.” He glanced at his former co-worker and grinned, gathered his jacket from a hook on the wall, glass crunched underfoot.
“Josh, maybe you should have someone clean that up.” He indicated the former security investigator. Then turned back to the young man, curious. “By the way, what was that business about? Him questioning me like that.”
Josh stabbed him with a dark look, “You were considered for one of the command lists. Production was low and you’ve aged past the point of re-training. Your name was to be added to the next batch of lists.”
The young man glanced at the security investigator and added, “You were one day away from volunteer elimination. For the good of society, right?” He spat the last part out and Brown smiled at him.
“I guess I’m lucky you and your friends came along then.”
He stepped quickly toward the doorway, pausing a moment, knowing something was amiss without knowing exactly what it was. He glanced back at the young man. Young Peterson surveyed the gray surroundings, shot out computer monitors, sheets of elimination lists scattered about the floor.
His hat had fallen sometime in the chaos and lay near his desk. He hadn’t noticed that it had taken leave of his head, but now felt naked without it. The thought struck him as funny, as he bent to retrieve it.
He placed it back on his head, “Maybe no one will notice.” Josh glanced at him, curious. “What?”
“Nothing really. Just a thought that maybe no one will know the difference now that we’re all free.”
Hat firmly on his head, he stepped back to the doorway and went through it, leaving Division X behind.