Jacob Freeman picked at his supper, wondering if it would be his last.
Earlier in the day, he had received a phone call from upstairs, simply saying that the Head wanted “a word” with him. The Head never wanted “a word” with anyone who had been in the corporation as long as Jacob had—not a good word, anyway. The MD only held positive audiences with new recruits, and Jacob had not been new in over twelve years.
Jacob remembered his first days so vividly. He had been an awkward, gangly youth with a bad case of acne, fresh from his graduation ceremony with dreams of grandeur swirling through his half-drunken brain. No one had explained why the Head had called him up. No one had warned him about the machines below, machines that made men and women something Else. Jacob had sprinted and stumbled across the complex and up the industrial stairs, thinking he had been selected for a different job, a nicer one.
He had been a fool.
“Not feeling well, huh, Dad?” asked a voice from behind. Jacob glanced up. Standing above him, holding a serving tray against his hip, was Derick Jones, face pinched with concern.
Jacob pressed his mouth into a nervous line. “Not really, no.”
“Something wrong?” asked Derick, sitting down to Jacob’s right and tucking in.
“Well...” Jacob tried and failed to think of a way to express his anxiety in a way that wouldn’t, in turn, cause fear in Derick. “The Head called me up, and I have a feeling it isn’t a promotion.” Derick tensed, his grip on his fork tightening. “If it’s... bad,” Jacob said, “you know what to do when you-know-who shows up, don’t you?”
“Get him trained, get him into the family, get him acquainted with the plan, put the plan into action. Oh, and teach him how to fight somewhere in there.” Derick bit his lip. “I—I was hoping you’d be here for this,” he added in a smaller voice.
“Me too, lad. Me too.” Jacob rested a hand on Derick’s shoulder. “I’ll be back soon, though, aye? You’ll be all right without me for a little while.”
“...if you say so,” said Derick. Jacob squeezed the young man’s shoulder gently, eliciting a weak smile. “I’ll take care of Jo while you’re gone, yeah?”
A wave of relief spilled over Jacob, and he reached his arm around Derick to give him a half-hug of gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Derick. “’s the least I can do.”
After a moment, Jacob glanced at his watch. He was to be in the Head’s office in twenty minutes, and the walk there would take at least that much time. Jacob closed his eyes and rested his elbows on the table, head in his hands. “Make sure the boy knows what he’s getting into, won’t you, Derick?” he said quietly, standing. “I didn’t, you didn’t, but he can. And... whatever you do, make sure he doesn’t get the... the procedure.”
Derick nodded, his jaw was set firmly. He followed suit, standing directly in front of Jacob as if he could keep him from walking forward. “Good luck, J.”
Jacob cracked a weak smile, hoping against hope that it would be reassuring, before pulling the young man into a hug. Derick half-clung to Jacob, thin fingers digging into the accountant’s shoulders with barely veiled terror. He only loosened his grip when Jacob let out the faintest hiss of pain.
Derick pulled away with a faint grimace. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry.”
Jacob put up a hand. “It’s all right, lad. I understand.”
The two stood in silence for a moment before Derick finally stepped aside. “I’ll, uh—I—see you later, Dad. Right?”
Jacob nodded. “See you later, Derick.”
As he moved to leave the canteen, Jacob could hear Derick talking to someone from a nearby table who had overheard. In response to the other fellow’s confusion, Derick only replied:
“It’s time.” Jacob could almost hear the roguish, rebellious wink in the young man’s voice as he added: “Tell your friends.”
Jacob smiled. “There’s a good man,” he whispered. “Just stick to the plan. Everything will be all right in the end.”
Jacob was near collapsing when he saw the end of the staircase. As his foot hit the final step, his mind filled with a bewildered amalgam of relief and horror. No more stairs. Thank God. In a few minutes, however, there could be no more Jacob Freeman.
The accountant shook his head and tried to banish all such thoughts from his mind. They would do him no good here.
The Head’s office was the crowning glory of an impossibly long, austere hallway at the top floor of the office building. The only light came from the ornate bronze lamps arranged neatly on the walls in one-metre intervals, and the only way to go was forward. Jacob leaned against one wall to catch his breath, just as he had twelve years ago, and studied the nearest light. A glaring Poseidon hoisted the receptacle in one hand, his trident held high in the other. The sea-god was flanked on each side with lean, angry sharks, his own wrathful expression showing plainly that he was prepared to rain all Hell upon the carpeting.
Jacob traced the head of the right-hand shark with an absentminded finger, lost in thought. After several silent moments, he sucked in one enormous breath and resumed his journey, taking as long as he could to walk down the hall. He wondered if this was what it felt like to be dealt the death penalty.
Don’t think about death, man, Jacob thought, his breaths turning small and ragged. You’ll only make things worse. It’ll be fine. You’ll see. He probably just wants a quarterly report. Yes, yes, that’s it. Business as usual.
He shook. ...How do I explain why Caleb’s not hired any new kids this past month? He’s going to ask, I know it, and Caleb would never talk to the Head of his own free will...
What am I supposed to tell him?
Jacob had begun to feel the definite onset of a panic attack when he finally came within arm’s reach of the door. He stopped, paused to breathe in an attempt to lower his frantic heart rate, and raised a hesitant, shaky hand to knock. Before his knuckles met the mahogany, the hinges let out the faintest of creaks and the door swung slowly inward.
“Enter,” commanded a firm baritone voice.
Jacob swallowed, his entire body shaking. He opened the door the rest of the way with his palm and faced the Head.
The MD’s black hair was combed and parted to one side, shiny with the water of a recent shower. He looked no older than thirty-five, although Jacob remembered that he had looked almost exactly the same when he had arrived in the office fourteen years ago. A dry smile danced on the executive’s thin mouth, and his pale blue eyes glimmered behind the man’s thin-framed oval spectacles, all beneath a broad, waxen forehead. A deep grey three-piece suit clung to his lean body, and well-shined black shoes padded softly against the Oriental carpet.
“Good evening, Mister Freeman,” said the Head in the level accent of a highborn Londoner. He bowed slightly.
“Evening, sir,” Jacob replied. He dipped his head respectfully.
“I trust,” the Head said, stepping behind his intricately carved desk and taking a seat in his thickly cushioned chair, “that you are well?” With a slender hand, the Head gestured for Jacob to seat himself as well.
“As always, sir,” Jacob lied as he obeyed. The accountant kept his eyes on the intricate carvings in the desk in front of him. He felt the Head’s gaze bore into him, and he suppressed a shiver. “Connelly tells me sales are up from last year,” he added, finally looking up.
“Excellent.” The Head smiled, eyes crinkling. He wetted his lips before stretching to open a drawer, retrieving a bottle and two snifters. “Care for a drink?”
Jacob shook his head. “No, thank you. Sir.”
“Suit yourself.” The Head put away one of the glasses before pouring himself a rather excessive amount of whatever liquor he had selected. He downed a gulp and then folded his hands, briefly drawing the accountant’s attention to them. Jacob noted a silver band on the right middle finger, etched with Celtic knots. The forefinger of his left hand tapped the ring in a steady rhythm. “Do you know why I called you here, Mister Freeman?”
Jacob looked up at his superior’s face, saw the inquisitive lift to the left eyebrow—the distinct lack of a smile—and shifted in his seat. He cleared his throat. “I do not, sir.” But I can guess.
The Head’s lips tugged at a knowing smirk. He leaned over and, unfolding his hands smoothly, reached into another drawer. He slid his spectacles down his nose and brought a sheaf of paper into view. Jacob swallowed.
“Caleb Thale informed me of our recent hiring freeze, and the reasons behind it.” The Head’s cold eyes scanned the cover page. “It says here you... advised him, telling him the company can’t seem to afford any new recruits at this particular branch.”
“It—it’s true, sir. We don’t have the funds to hire workers we don’t need. Our profits have dipped severely in the past few months, sales increase or not.” Jacob stopped talking—and breathing, for that matter—when he saw the deep frown etched into the Head’s brow.
“We have a reputation to uphold, Mister Freeman, as the greatest hirer in the national network. Imagine if the main branch on Erebus Alpha had followed this example!” The Head pursed his lips. “And yet you would have Thale sully our image.”
“Why did you call me and not him?” Jacob asked quietly.
“I did call him, Mister Freeman. He was replaced this morning. Those who heed whispers of insubordination will be dealt with accordingly. Surely you already knew this.”
It was at that exact moment that Jacob knew he was doomed. The Head would not have worded his berating so if Jacob had had a chance of survival. “Whispers of insubordination” would have been said as “complaints and rumours,” so as to preserve the image of the company as something other than a prison overseen by a brutally tyrannical warden. With the full knowledge that, in about ten minutes, he would be dead, Jacob leaned forward. Scowling, he looked the Head directly in the eye.
“What did you do with him,” he said in a low, flat voice.
The Head quirked an eyebrow. “With whom? Thale?” Jacob replied with a brisk nod. The Head sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “He repented and accepted the inevitable.”
Please, God, not— “...The Merge.”
“But of course.”
Jacob swallowed, jaw tensing.
“Naturally, he had to be bumped down to a lower position, and his memory required a... cleansing, lest it taint the others,” the Head said with a matter-of-fact expression. He looked almost apologetic. “But yes, he Merged.”
“It is always done willingly,” said the Head, affronted. “Can you even begin to imagine the damage that would be done to the brain if something as delicate as that were forced? Why, the rush of hormones alone would be enough to cause a system failure. The subject might even shut down—possibly even killing some of the others, were they partially integrated already.” Jacob shuddered. “Which, of course, means that I cannot berate you for your actions in the way I’d prefer unless you agreed to it.” The Head sighed and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands. “And I know you won’t do that.”
Jacob’s jaw clenched. “Damn right.”
“Watch your tongue, Freeman,” the Head snapped.
Jacob narrowed his eyes. “Why should I? You’re going to kill me anyway.”
The Head clicked his tongue and shook his head. He chuckled low in his throat. “Now, now, you can’t know that.”
“You’ve said I need to be ‘berated’ and that I can’t be Merged without causing system damage. What other option is there?” Jacob said, although he already knew.
The Head sighed, as if he actually regretted what he was about to do. “You’ll spend two weeks downstairs with a... specialist, and then we’ll see how you’re feeling after that.”
Jacob’s breath came out in short, ragged bursts, and he could feel the blood drain from his face. You make it sound like a visit to a doctor’s office, he thought weakly. Attempting—and failing—to swallow his fear, he played one final, desperate card. “You’re going to be without one of your chief accountants for two full weeks?”
“One of your subordinates can borrow the position, I think,” the Head said, inspecting his fingernails. He looked back at Jacob and smiled. “See you later, Mister Freeman.”
The MD clapped his hands twice, and a broad-shouldered man strode into the room through the door through which Jacob had entered. In the man’s hand was a set of handcuffs. Jacob clutched the arms of his chair, stomach clenching.
The newcomer stormed towards Jacob and forced him out of his chair. Jacob hissed in pain as the man forced his hands behind his back and clamped the cuffs on his wrists. The thug gripped Jacob’s shoulder and pulled him to his feet, responding to the accountant’s struggles only by digging his fingers in harder.
The last thing Jacob saw as he was forced into the lift was the smiling face of the Head and the executive’s cheery wave.
“Have fun!” the Head called out.
The lift’s doors clanged shut and Jacob’s world went dark.
==> Part 2: Chapter One