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Fiction Speculative Contemporary

Growl!

Antoine stood up, clutching his tummy. If his stomach had woken him up, then this certainly wasn’t craving for comfort food.

Antoine took out the mobile from his pocket. It was 2 am. Another 4 hours before the morning shift guy would arrive. Antoine dragged his sleepy ass to the elevator landing. He pressed the Up button and waited. The button wouldn’t light up. Antoine moved to the next elevator. No response.

It was then that he noticed the emergency lights were on.

He thought of complaining to the systems admin; abandoned the thought a moment later, when he realized it was the night shift. The only IT guy up and about the building was himself.

The borborygmi emanating from his stomach was for real. He needed food and he needed it now. He grudgingly started up the stairs. He was in basement 2nd level and the nearest pantry was on the 2nd floor.

A faint crashing sound came from the upper floors. Antoine ignored it. Job for Security. None of his concern.

There were hardly any calls during the night, but company protocols dictated an IT support guy always remained on the premises. As per policy, he was not supposed to be away from his desk. But tonight had been unusually silent, and Antoine had dozed off from boredom. 

He rehearsed his excuse list in his mind should he encounter someone in the pantry. The bathroom in 2nd basement wasn’t working, he needed some coffee, there was always the answering machine to back him up, he wasn’t and wouldn’t be away for long and that he was entitled to take measures to ensure he wouldn’t die of starvation. 

But he knew it didn’t matter. Nobody knew him. Nobody noticed the IT support. They were so inconspicuous that the company had not bothered to install security cameras in the basement offices. Now that was pretty odd. It was in sharp contrast to the upper echelons which resembled a digitally monitored fortress. The company had made and continued to make fortunes by churning out digital products and took care to keep new product ideas under wraps. 

Not that it mattered today. The electrical system had defaulted to the battery back-up. The monitoring systems had failed. And the security system was malfunctioning.

Antoine realized that when he reached for the handle of the 2nd-floor service door. The biometric identifiers didn’t blink. The CCTV cameras facing the landing didn’t whirr into action. The door just opened.

A burst of cold air hit Antoine on his face. He shivered, pulled up his hood and closed the light fur-lined jacket as far up as the collar would cover.

There was another crash; the sound much closer this time. It was followed by another. And then a gust of bone-chilling wind. Antoine stepped on to the floor and went towards the right hall. 

No one was there. No one was supposed to be there. Since the met office became better at predicting natural disasters, employees started taking warnings seriously. The office premises have been evacuated much before Antoine walked in for his night shift. Only the onsite emergency services, which meant 2 security guards at the front gate and the lucky IT guy had the good fortune of riding out the blizzard at the office. So much for rehearsing excuses. Sigh! 

Paper and broken glass were strewn over the floor. And the snow-carrying wind howling through the erstwhile burglar-proof glass combined with the white emergency lights created a ghostly atmosphere.

Not that Antoine was particularly malicious, but several years of corporate service had made him apathetic. And other than a few laptops and desktop terminals, there was nothing much to be saved. He left the situation to handle itself and tiptoed over the glass shards to reach the pantry on the other side of the hall.

As expected the coffee-machine didn’t work on backup power. Antoine took out two pieces of cold bread and spread lumps of butter over it. The door for the overhead cabinet opened without an ID authentication. Antoine put a couple of biscuit and juice packets in his pocket before heading out of the now-cold pantry chewing down the rubbery bread and butter.

The basement office was warmer. And it was almost 30 minutes since he was away from the support desk. Antoine was headed downwards when he heard the sound of laughter drifting through the stairways, peals of laughter from children engaged in play

On a cold dark night, it would have normally been spine-chilling. But Antoine was in half-trance and with some fuel in his stomach and with the promise of an otherwise long uneventful night, Antoine decided to play survival expert Bear Grylis. That thought itself was more exciting than his entire career.

The excitement made him think of Julia. Julia Morgan, the Executive Assistant to the CEO, Mr Schwarz. Promising himself to trace the source of the laughter in a bit, Antoine made a quick detour at the 6th-floor service door. His worries that the door wouldn’t open turned out unwarranted. 

The IT system was certainly malfunctioning. He was supposed to fix it. But was he? He wasn’t supposed to know about it as long as no one reported it.

No, he wasn’t stalking. He just wanted to know if Julia was engaged, or had a boyfriend. That would give him some reason to not pursue her as if her being oblivious to his existence was not reason enough. Almost every week, Antoine fantasized her laptop to be infected and infested with trojans and malware, make screeching and blipping sounds, and the screen would dance and throw coloured lines so he could answer her call at the helpdesk. But that wish wasn’t fulfilled.

Julia Kent was not just out of his league. She was a league of her own. Antoine paused to look at her perfect smile, possibly from a summer beach party, in the framed picture at her desk, next to the Employee of the Year trophy in shining golden metal. Several certificates and accolades adorned the front wall.

The biometrically operated drawer was open. Antoine peeked in. For all her perfection, the girl wasn’t very organized. Some receipts and boarding passes. Some loose change. Passport. Why would she leave her passport here? Some cards and keys.

The next drawer had some pins, clips, tapes, a couple of forks and paper plates, hair bands, a comb with a few long blonde strands. Medieval men used to wear locks of hair from their beloved around their necks. In a similar romantic gesture, Antoine took out the stray strands and put it in his jacket.

The other two drawers just had papers and files of different thicknesses with different coloured post-it notes scribbled by various people. Antoine decided against rummaging through them. These were probably documents containing million-dollar deals and classified confidential information. But he wasn’t interested much.

Unable to hit upon anything remotely personal belonging to Julia Kent, Antoine took out the keys from the drawer and headed to the ladies’ restrooms. He wanted to check out Julia’s locker there. He also felt a perverse excitement most men feel at getting to check out the ladies’ restroom.

Antoine stepped into the restroom dimly lit by a sole emergency bulb. The walls were coloured light-yellow and there were a series of toilet stalls. The smell was of air purifier, very similar to the men’s restroom. Somehow he had imagined the restroom to have a smell similar to the perfumes ladies wore, but this was a disappointment. The only obvious differences were the lack of open urinals and two huge full-length mirrors adorning consecutive walls.

Antoine used the flashlight on his mobile to find Julia’s nameplate amongst the twenty-five odd ones there. He felt being inside the Money Heist. This wasn’t any less exciting for him than breaking a bank vault. He hesitated for a bit, looked around out of habit and then realized there was no one to judge him there. 

“Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao Ciao Ciao” filled the still stale bathroom air as Antoine performed a little song and dance routine to an audience of one. He continued his little jig as he opened the locker with a single turn of the key and went through the contents of the locker. 

Bottles and tubes of varying shapes, sizes, colours and smells. Antoine couldn’t tell the brands in the limited light, neither was he interested in those details, but they must have been expensive. On his salary, he probably wouldn’t be able to support the various lotions and potions and warpaint items a normal girlfriend demanded, let alone the high-class choices of the elite Julia. He shoved those aside. More hair accessories, some jewellery, a box of tampons. 

What was he even thinking? What evidence had he expected to find in there? Dejected, Antoine closed the locker, but not before removing a butterfly-shaped hair clip as a memento of the adventure. He would have to remember not to leave it in his own drawer.

As Antoine was returning the keys to Julia’s drawer, an orange post-it caught his attention. 

3 pm. Salary structure discussion. Brief boss at his cabin.

The CEO’s cabin. Antoine has never been inside. As the IT support guy, that opportunity should have come to him at least once in the last 2 years of his employment with this company. Tonight, he will correct the absence of that experience.

Pushing the heavy door ajar, Antoine peeked into the pitch dark room. The blinds were closed. The hail was relentless on the windows behind. Antoine fell back on his mobile flashlight again.

The room was huge. Probably the size of ten cubicles. Towards the windows was a high leather swivel chair and a huge glass-top desk. The wall towards the left was a mini-lounge to entertain high-profile guests. The wall cabinet behind stocked a collection of wines, tea and coffee. 

The coffee-maker here wouldn’t work here either. Antoine took a couple of swigs from the white wine bottle. Then he set out to find the salary file. Last year, Antoine’s boss had not even allowed him to talk about a raise. Not that Antoine was a great negotiator, but the incident left a bad taste in his mouth.

Antoine rummaged through the drawers. Most of the files looked like project proposals. After searching in the dark for what seemed like half an eternity, Antoine had a Eureka moment. 

He settled down on the sofa, plugged his mobile into the power bank left on the table for guests to use and took a couple more swigs, this time from a different bottle chosen at random as the mobile battery had started running low. He also helped himself generously to the biscuits and cookies laid out neatly on the plates covered with plastic foil.

Antoine relieved himself in the corporate bathroom fitted with marble tiles and smelling like expensive musk. Maybe this was why people indulged in cut-throat competition for the corner office.

It was almost 5 am now. The blizzard had slowed down a bit. Peeking through the blinds, however, convinced Antoine that pretty much everyone would be working from home the next day.

Picking up his mobile and the power bank, Antoine headed to the 7th floor to look for the salary records. Of course, it was a modern-day cutting edge technology firm which advertised paperless offices to its plethora of clients. But for every single task, the employees had to fill forms. Antoine was sure those paper piles existed somewhere in the HR department.

Suddenly he heard the laughter again he had heard earlier. This time it was crisp and clear and came directly through the roof overhead. In his own little quests, he had forgotten the sleuthing task he had set himself up for. Unable to locate any paper piles, Antoine abandoned the task at hand and headed for the 8th floor.

The 8th and 9th floors belonged to the white-collar elites, the new product development team. They were the creme de la creme of new-age communication and digital technologies. Rumour had it that the average IQ of those people exceeded that of Einstein.

The sound of laughter became stronger and clearer as he headed up. It felt inviting, calming and lively. Antoine stepped on to the floor to be greeted by small fluffy white puppies. “Welcome.”

“Swagatam.”

“Bienvenue.”

“Bem-vinda.”

Speaking puppies. Antoine looked at them with wide-open eyes. 

And then they laughed. He pinched himself. 

Ah, these are robots. Play robots.

There was no reason to be surprised. Robotics and artificial intelligence was the bread and butter of the company. Though rumour, or should he say conspiracy theories, had it that there were quite a few military and espionage projects being conducted under wraps.

Antoine had seen pictures of other cutesy robots and videos of their awesome feats in product launch videos.

Wait. Why are these out on the floor? If I have not seen them on billboards, they are still in the process of launch.

“Welcome.”

“Bienvenue.”

The puppies turned the corner. Without thinking, Antoine followed them.

The rooms along the corridor looked like giant lockers from outside. The bizarre thing was not that all the locks were open, but no one had thought about a backup plan for this situation. So much for the business continuity plans by Ivy Leaguers.

Antoine got inside every single one of the rooms and witnessed the technological wonders in making. The items got increasingly bizarre and abstract. But Antoine was overtaken by curiosity. He probably would not get this chance again. 

In the third room, there was a single black mirror. At least it was shaped like a mirror, was polished and somewhat reflective. Antoine touched the black surface and it was cold.

-.-.-.-

Antoine woke up in the basement. It was 2 am.

He felt like eating something. Checking his pockets out of habit, he found a couple of biscuit and juice packets. When had he put them there? Even more odd was the butterfly-shaped hair clip with a couple of blonde strands. Why was a hair clip in his pocket? He recalled seeing it somewhere, but couldn’t remember clearly. 

Sipping on the juice, Antoine reached the elevator landing.

The emergency lights were on. 

He took the service stairs, headed to the pantry and heard a faint crashing sound from one of the upper floors. The blizzard must have started. Antoine shrugged it off. None of his business.

January 22, 2021 15:44

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12:41 Jun 08, 2021

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