I’m not a big fan of parties, especially office parties. They’re usually pretty boring, and being the new guy I haven’t really gotten to know a lot of my coworkers. I’ll probably just spend an hour or so holding up a wall, sipping weak punch and eating bland sheet cake. But it has to beat spending another hour trying to transcribe heavily redacted reports, so I’m here.
Six weeks I’ve been working at the home office for the vaguely named Interworld Solutions, and this is the first time I’ve heard of Baker. Of course, there’s a lot about my new job that I haven’t heard about. Like what exactly we do here. I came here after five years at the ATF, moving to the private sector for better pay and benefits, and I can tell you the internal security is way tighter. You need a keycode just to unlock the bathrooms.
I emerge from the elevator into a scene as close to bedlam as this place gets. I knew the whole office was invited, but I guess that didn’t fully register. There must be a couple hundred people in the cafeteria, milling around, forming small groups, breaking apart and reforming elsewhere, like those films you watch in high school about how germs or bacteria act under a microscope. The tables have all been removed, save a row set up against one wall, practically groaning under their burden of punch bowls, trays of veggies and little sandwiches, and a truly impressive sheet cake. Seriously, that thing has to be ten feet long. The noise level is significant, a far cry from the usual hushed atmosphere of the place. There’re enough bodies in here that the ventilation is struggling with the barn heat, and there’s a definite it’s-been-a-long-day smell in air that deodorant, aftershave, and perfume can’t mask. But, hey, at least there’s cake.
I stop as a hand touches my chest, to find myself confronted by a security guard. She’s a little shorter than me, but still projects a sense of competency and barely controlled lethality. I hurry to straighten the lanyard hanging around my neck, displaying the bad picture and its attendant employee number. She gives it a penetrating look, as if searching for any sign of a forgery, then nods. Before I can sigh in relief, she steps back and runs a handheld metal detector/explosive residue detector over me; it isn’t until the thing beeps and flashes a green light that I can breathe normally again.
“Enjoy the party, sir,” she says, already turning towards another new arrival.
“Yeah, you too.” Heavy security presence at a retirement party, check. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this place.
I make my way toward the buffet, hoping that the punch has been liberally spiked. About halfway there, I pass by small clusters of people engaged in conversation, drinking from Styrofoam cups and munching on food. I get close enough to one group to overhear what they’re saying.
“I thought Baker would never retire. She’s a legend, been doing fieldwork longer than I can remember. Figured they’d have to shoot her to get her out of here.”
“Uh-huh, I know. Worked right up till the last minute. She was neck deep in that thing in Colorado last week. Fate of the world in the balance, and she just keeps calling the shots, cool as ice.”
“Yeah, that could’ve been bad. If people knew how many natural disasters were anything but natural…”
I miss a step, and my stumble draws the curious gaze of those nearest. I look up, face coloring, to meet a few mildly concerned stares.
“Okay there, fella?” asks one a man over the rim of his cup. “Too early in the party for the punch to be that strong.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I just… uh…”
“Oh.” He says this like he understands perfectly. He turns back to the rest of his group with what I can only call a smug grin. “New guy.”
“Oh.” The whole group choruses back.
“Don’t worry,” he says, facing me again. “You’ll get there.”
“Uh, okay.” I move away, gesturing helplessly towards the buffet as an excuse to end the embarrassing moment.
I’m not sure what I heard, what they were talking about. Maybe just a joke? But I really don’t know what the company I work for does, so… Now I really hope that punch is spiked.
At the table, I snatch a cup and start ladling bright red liquid into it. Beside me, two women are sipping at their own cups, chatting amiably.
“I know Baker has quite the reputation around here, but, seriously, what’s the big deal about her? I hear she just got lucky in her assignments, to tell you the truth.”
“Oh, really? Way I hear it, she was a natural, took to it like a duck to water.”
“Oh, please. She started just like everyone else. Data entry for two years, then once she’d proven she wouldn’t have a spectacular meltdown, they stuck her with Play Time Duty—”
“Where she shone by all accounts.”
“Doesn’t everyone? I mean, what’s so hard about PTD?”
“Maybe the fact that if you mess it up, you’re erased from existence? Why do you think you never actually hear about anyone failing to pass PTD?”
I’m just taking a sip when I hear this, and it comes back out as a jet of fine mist, spattering the wall in front of me. When I stop choking and get my breath back, both women are staring at me.
“Sorry,” I mumble, thinking fast. “Cherry. Not a fan.”
“Oh,” both say in unison. They share a look.
“Yep. First office party, too, I’d say.”
“Uh, yeah, okay.” I pick up a napkin, wipe my chin. “Hey, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or anything, but what you were talking about…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” one of them says, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re cleared for it, or you wouldn’t be in here.”
“Yeah, but… but… what is Play Time Duty? And that bit about—”
“All in good time, newbie. All in good time. For now, just try to enjoy yourself.” She sighs. “While you can.”
The two of them move off, still chatting, leaving me there dripping punch. Okay, there’s no way this punch could possibly be strong enough. Maybe some cake…?
There’s a line for getting your slice of cake, and even as I join it, I’m hearing more stuff that I wish I couldn’t.
“Well, Baker’s the whole reason sticky notes are banned in the office, what with that business ten years ago…
“Where that guy in the mail room did that thing to his coworkers? Well, that was just the fault of Procurement, plain and simple…
I try to tune it out, humming to myself, thinking about something really boring and mundane, like baseball. Doesn’t help.
“You want to talk about esoteric skillsets? How about the time she negotiated with that Class Two that they keep locked up in the reactor? New Jersey would be a smoldering, radioactive crater if Baker hadn’t brought her A-game…”
“Might be an improvement…”
By the time I reach the cake, I’m not sure I want it anymore. My stomach is doing flipflops, and I’ve broken into a cold sweat. The guy handing out cake looks at me, eyes narrowing.
“You okay, pal?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I just… maybe I just need some air.”
“Oh, new guy, huh? Yeah, all the shop talk can be a bit much if you aren’t used to it.” He jerks a thumb toward a door nearby. “Take that door, and then the first right. Let’s out onto a terrace.”
“Thanks.” Abandoning all thoughts of cake, I speed walk across the room. The directions are accurate, and moments later I burst out onto an open terrace, into cool evening air. The sun is just slipping behind the surrounding cityscape, towering skyscrapers and high rises drawn close around our own tall building. In the dim light, I make my way to the railing that surrounds the terrace, where I pause, gulping air.
I can’t believe all the strange stuff I’ve just heard. Nothing in the employee handbook, or the interview process, or the orientation I went through even hinted at so much weirdness. What have I gotten myself into here. Play Time Duty? Unnatural natural disasters? Things imprisoned in nuclear reactors? Banned sticky notes? Now I wonder if it’s too late to get my old job back. Analyzing bank statements and tracking fertilizer shipments sounds like heaven right about now.
“New guy, huh?”
I start violently at the unexpected voice. Whirling toward the sound, I see a woman leaning against the railing a few feet away, holding a cup in a listless grip. She’s older, with iron grey hair and deep lines around her eyes and mouth, like she’s spent too much time squinting and frowning. Her pro forma pantsuit hangs off a shockingly thin frame, giving the impression that there’s not much left of the woman beneath the outfit.
“How could you tell?” I say, my voice shaking.
“Oh, something about the eyes,” she says. “That look of ‘what have I gotten myself into here.’ Trust me, kiddo, everybody in this business gets there, sooner or later.”
I take a few more deep breaths, seeking elusive calm. “This is the strangest office party I’ve ever been too, bar none. I mean, do you know that stuff they’re talking about in there?”
She nods, turning her gaze from me, looking out into the gathering twilight. “Oh, yeah. I know. Strange doesn’t begin to describe it.”
“Is it real?” I ask. “This isn’t just some office prank, a gag for the new guy? I mean, if it’s not, then they were being pretty free with some shocking knowledge.”
“Wish it were, kiddo. But it’s not. And don’t worry about confidentiality; trust me, those NDA’s you signed are a lot more than pieces of paper. The consequences for breaching them are more… immediate. Anyway, everything you heard, well, probably doesn’t do justice to what really happened.”
I let out a bray of laughter, with just the slightest edge of hysteria to it. “How is that possible? How could it be any more unbelievable?”
She shrugs. “For starters, none of them were there.”
“And you were?”
Realization blooms in my troubled mind. “You’re Baker, aren’t you?”
“Why are you out here? You’re missing your own party.”
She shrugs. “Just taking a moment. Reflecting on things.”
I blow out an exasperated sigh. “If half of what they’re saying is true, I wouldn’t be reflecting on things. I’d be thinking about jumping off this terrace.”
“Oh, I’m way past that, kiddo,” she says. “I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. No, when you’ve seen what I have, you realize that the last thing you want to do is give up.”
“Really? Why is that?”
She hesitates, jaw working, like she’s chewing on something she doesn’t know quite how to swallow. “Kiddo, you might have heard tell that I’ve been doing this job for longer than anyone else in the company. Might be that’s true. And there’s a reason for that.” She pauses, taking a deep breath, her gaze going out to the city around us. “You see, most people go through their lives living in a box. Almost literally. They see the world and think it’s everything there is. They don’t have a clue what’s really out there, how far beyond the limits of that box existence really extends.” She turns to look at me, her eyes finding mine in the fading light. “But we do. We know how far everything goes. Once you get to a certain point, it stops being scary, but it never stops being amazing. So you stay with it, and for as long as you do, you keep seeing new and wondrous things.” A sigh escapes her lips. “Until time catches up with you, and you realize you’ve lost your edge. You need to step back and let the next generation take over. And by then, that isn’t easy. So you find yourself skipping out on your retirement party, standing on a terrace, feeling a little afraid.”
“Afraid?” I repeat the word, surprised. “I’d think after all you’ve been through, fear isn’t much of a problem for you. What are you afraid of?”
A sad little smile plays about her lips. “The box. After tonight, I go back in the box. I don’t get to see beyond it anymore. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering what new and fascinating things the people who replace me are seeing and doing. It’ll haunt me, I know it. And I don’t know how I’ll deal with that.”
She falls silent, and we stand there for a bit, lost in our own thoughts. What must it be like to spend so many years facing one outlandish, unbelievable adventure after another, only to end up being dismissed, excluded, left to trust that someone else can take over. Left to envy them.
“Well,” I say at last. “I guess that’s what the party is for.”
“It’s a chance to remember everything you’ve done, all the strange, amazing stuff you’ve seen. To look back on a life lived outside of the box. A tally of wonder, so to speak.” I shrug, uncomfortable trying to wax philosophical with someone whose been around for a lot longer than I have. “That’s something you can take with you, after all.”
Baker stares at me for a minute, then let’s out a bark of laughter. “You know what, kiddo? You’re right. I know what I’ve seen and done, and they can’t erase that, now can they?” She heaves another sigh. “Say, let’s go back in, see if there’s any of that cake left?”
“Okay.” We turn to head back to the party, but I can’t help asking the most pressing question on my mind. “Um, Baker, can you tell me: what’s Play Time Duty?”
She claps a hand on my back, gives it a reassuring pat. “All in good time, kiddo. All in good time.”