by AUGUSTO CORVALAN
urk had come into the office flustered. "What about the results?"
Welsh thought he'd already answered this question. "They're unlikely."
"Like all unlikely things," Welsh said, "they're within the realm of possibility."
Durk seemed frustrated by this. "We must run the scenario through the Beast again," he said, motioning to the terminal.
"That I have," Welsh said.
"And the results?"
"Unlikely enough, the Beast outputted the same results."
"We must analyze the markets," Durk said.
"We must put into doubt that which we thought was certain."
"No doubt," Welsh said. Then, because Durk had broken off and was staring into space, he added, "Is there something the matter?"
"The report for this scenario, it is wanted by the morning," Durk said.
"The next, I'm afraid."
Welsh now matched Durk's gloomy face. "That is unlikely."
"But within the realm of possibility."
Durk took his place behind the drafting table, analyzing charts, configuring and reconfiguring parameters. Assumptions were reworked, conclusions redrawn. Welsh dutifully fed the data to the Beast, which outputted line after line of results on its terminal, the letters glowing green in the black background. The output had to be analyzed, tweaked, re-inputted. To Welsh, it seemed as if they'd worked many hours, yet Durk did not slow down.
Welsh's wrists started to become sore. His eyes pained him from having stared at the Beast's screen for too long. "It does not make sense," Welsh said, wanting a break from their work. "The parameters are all correct."
"Something must be wrong," Durk said, not glancing up from the drafting table.
"Time is wrong," Welsh said. "The accounting of time within the Beast must be off."
This made Durk take pause. "This is bad news. We must start at the beginning."
"How do we account for it?"
"Within the Beast?"
Durk walked out from behind the drafting table and stared at the Beast over Welsh's shoulder. A large metal cube with hundreds of cable bundles tentacling into wall sockets, its hum made his ribs vibrate. Durk scratched the stubble on his chin with a long nail. "What's the first thing you remember?"
Welsh thought about this. "The shade going up in my nursery window."
"No, no," Durk said, shaking his head. "What's the first thing you remember from today?”
Welsh thought about this. "I don't know."
"Well, how did you start your day?"
"What did you have for breakfast?"
"I'm not sure. Eggs probably," Welsh said. Durk seemed disappointed. There was a long silence.
"What did you have for breakfast?” Welsh asked, but had Durk turned away.
"We have been here a long time," Durk said. "Perhaps everyone else has gone home."
Everyone else? thought Welsh. Durk and he worked alone with the Beast. But of course, he thought, there are other people occupying the building, other workers, carrying out other duties. What those might be, Welsh didn't know. He'd never thought about it. "Perhaps the report is due," he said. The report was very important, he remembered.
"The report must be finished by morning," Durk said matter-of-factly.
But Welsh did not know what time it was. He moved to the windows and lifted one of the plastic shades. The sky was grey, the color right before sunrise. Or sunset.
"It looks cloudy," he said. "But I don't know if it's morning."
"Close the shades," Durk said.
"It's policy," Durk said.
Policy? thought Welsh. He remembered policies existing, yes. Codes of conduct. Rules for time in, time out, time off. Rules for dressing, for addressing. Clothes had to be 'business professional.’ Superiors had to be called ‘sir’ and ‘Mr’, ‘ma'am’ and ‘Mrs.’ Inferiors could be anything. But were the blinds part of the policy? He couldn't remember. Yet the blinds were always down, so perhaps Durk was right. He pulled the cord to close them.
Welsh would have asked the Beast for the time, but they had already concluded that the Beast's internal time mechanism had been compromised somehow. It could not be trusted. He felt out of balance without the Beast, off-kilter.
"Should we continue with the report?” Welsh asked.
"I don't see how we can," Durk said.
"What do you mean?” But when Welsh returned to his place by the Beast, the terminal was blank. Welsh had never seen this before. He tapped out some arbitrary input. Nothing seemed to happen. He couldn't tell if the Beast was receiving his messages or not. There was no output.
"What have you done?” Welsh's voice was high with panic.
"I have done nothing," Durk said. "What is the matter with you?"
Welsh was sorry he had blamed him. "Of course.” Was there something the matter with him?
"The report cannot be finished without the Beast," Durk said. "It is policy."
"Of course," Welsh said. He couldn't remember Durk being so knowledgeable about policy before. Perhaps it had always been this way. Now Durk opened their office door and stepped out. Welsh waited for him to return. He tapped a few more keys, trying for a response from the Beast. Durk had still not returned and finally Welsh stepped out of their office as well.
It was very dim. There were rows of cheap looking cubicles. Rows of lights overhead, all off. Perhaps everyone had gone home. Or had they not yet arrived?
Welsh called out Durk's name. He received no answer. He ducked into one of the cubicles. It housed a desk and a plastic chair. A lamp that would not turn on. A thick logbook with typed reports. Welsh read a few, but they consisted mostly of recursive loops of logic, mazes of corporate language. He could not understand them. He explored another cubicle. And another. Some of the cubicles contained phones that Welsh picked up. The receiver on his ear, he heard only static.
"Hello?" he said into the phone. The static rippled but did not break. He wondered if it was an answer of some kind. He hung up.
More office surrounded him on all sides, more cubicles, and glass-walled meeting rooms, all empty. A bright red sign hung above a metal door. It read EXIT. Welsh headed that way.
"You cannot go through there," Durk said. Welsh spun around. In the darkness stood a figure.
"It is imperative that we investigate the rest of the building," Welsh said. The Beast, he knew, existed not just on their floor but had tentacles that touched every room, every connection in the building, in one capacity or another.
"Until we can establish the nature of the situation," Durk said, stepping closer, "we must not break from policy.” Welsh could now make out the outline of his face in the dim room.
"It is exactly now that we should break policy," Welsh argued. He did not remember policy having hung so heavily over his head before. Then again, he had seldom ever strayed outside of the Beast's control room. Perhaps policy dictated behavior more strictly for the rest of the rooms.
Durk shook his head. "It is policy what keeps the order in an emergency. Following policy as strictly as possible will keep us safe."
Safe from what?
Welsh was irritated. "What's to be done, then?"
Durk stood silent. Welsh waited, thought about repeating the question.
"What would be the evidence," Durk said slowly, "if one had broken with time?"
"What do you mean?” Welsh said.
Durk seemed to think about this, then turned away. Welsh tried to follow, but got lost in the dim. He walked down hallways until he found a turn that looked familiar. He followed the hallway until he was standing in front of the door to the control room. Inside, Durk was sitting by the Beast, clacking on the keyboard. He stopped when Welsh came in and turned to him.
"Has the Beast resumed functioning?” Welsh asked. He walked over to Durk but saw that the terminal was still blank. "What were you doing?"
"You cannot receive instructions from the Beast," Welsh said.
"That is not so," Durk said. "The power is afforded to me in emergency situations.” Then he added, "Situations such as this one."
"What is there to do?” Welsh said, still trying to catch a sign of meaning in the Beast's blank screen.
"The Beast advises to--"
"But there was no transmission," Welsh protested.
"No," Durk corrected, "the transmission is over. It was received."
"But why were you the one to receive it?"
"Because," Durk said, "I am the superior. You are my employee."
"That is not so," Welsh said.
Durk shook his head from side to side. "It has always been so. Think on it. Are you not the interface for the Beast?"
"And do I not oversee the data processing for the Beast?"
"Does it not follow, then," Durk continued, "that I oversee you and that makes you, in turn, my employee?"
The logic was foggy to Welsh, yet the way Durk spoke made it seem like a clear conclusion. Finally, he had to agree.
"I have to take over as the interface of the Beast," Durk said.
"But I have been doing it the longest," Welsh said, "and know the circuitry better."
"How long have you been the interface?"
Welsh thought about this. It seemed like a long time, but he couldn't be sure. It was all like a very long day in his mind, each memory melting into the next. He was looking at his history through a dirty window.
"Only one person must interface with the Beast," Durk said. "This is very important."
Welsh thought about this, then nodded.
"Well, then you must exit," Durk said.
"How is that?” Welsh asked.
"Did I not just answer that question?"
Perhaps he had. Either way, it did not appear to Welsh as if he had a choice. He left the control room. Durk shut the door, but Welsh could still see the shifting of shadows against the light streaming through the gap under the door.
"I need more paper," Durk said through the door. "There must be some in the rest of the office. It is for the Beast."
Welsh looked through the cubicles again. He did not think he would find any paper and was going to go back to the control room to inform Durk so. But then he checked the thick logbooks again and found that, beyond the tangled hierarchy described in the beginning, most of the pages were blank. These he removed from the logbooks. He started piling the sheets outside of the control room. He made several trips but on each subsequent trip, he found the pile of papers had been retrieved, the door closed.
Welsh made to open the control room with the last stack of paper, then hesitated. "I need to come back into the control room, Durk."
There was only silence. Welsh was about to repeat his question when the voice through the door spoke again.
"You cannot call me Durk," it said.
"You are a subordinate now. It's a threat to integrity. It has always been this way."
Welsh remembered a policy about that, vaguely.
"Entering the control room is not possible," the voice through the door said.
There was silence for a long time after that, and even the shadows under the door stopped shifting. The stack of paper started to weigh in Welsh's arms. He put it down before starting again: "I need to get back to--"
"Your sweater is needed," the voice cut him off.
"Your sweater," the voice demanded again. "It is needed for insulation. Please unthread it."
Insulation? The Beast had never needed insulation before. Was this perhaps why it had stopped working? "But," Welsh said, "why can't the paper be used?"
"The paper is flammable," the voice said rapidly, as if insulted. "There is a loose thread in the collar of your sweater, to the left."
Welsh looked down, and there it was, a thread sticking out of the corner of his sweater collar. He found that he could grab it between index and thumb and pull and more thread would come out. With each tug the thread became longer and longer, until he was pulling with both hands.
"Yes," the voice through the door said, pleased when Welsh started to jam the thread underneath the door. He felt a force taking hold of the thread from the other end, then a mechanical spooling noise and the thread started to whirr into the door. The collar disintegrated, then the shoulders and sleeves and finally the whole sweater had been consumed.
"I need to come into the control room," Welsh said again, now that he was without sweater. "It's cold in the office."
He expected the voice to reward him for his actions, but no answer came. Welsh rapped his knuckles against the door. He rapped harder, but still there was only silence. Welsh tried to peer through the gap in the door, but saw only shadows, shifting, an eye looking back at him. He jumped back.
"There are consequences to the breaking of policy," the voice said.
"It was only a quick look," Welsh excused himself. He walked away from the door, thinking that increasing his physical distance might make up for his transgression. He started to run. He turned down a hallway with an empty picture frame hanging off-kilter on the wall. He did not remember having seen that before and turned again. He was in a wider room, looking over the rows of cubicles. Yet he couldn't be sure these were the same cubicles from earlier. They seemed different somehow. He went into several and checked their logbooks for missing pages. He flipped through the typed pages, then the blank ones, but couldn't tell if they should have had more or less pages. In a cubicle with a phone, he picked up the receiver. As the piece touched his ear, the voice said, "There are consequences to the breaking of policy."
Welsh slammed the phone down. He walked very fast past the cubicles so that they started to blur before his eyes. He knew on the other side there would be a hallway, and there was. He turned into it and through several more, never ending were he had started. He was tired now. The office seemed to have elongated, expanded in space. The word ‘exile’ arose in his mind as he walked. The very walls seemed to be breathing with the word. Exile. It was there, beneath the echoing of his footsteps. Exile. Was this his punishment for the breaking of policy?
There was a sign he knew, red and with the letters EXIT written on it. Could there be a place the Beast didn't touch? He went through the grey door under the sign. The stairs stretched up and down before him, an unbroken flight receding into the gloom at either end. Outside would be down he knew, and started going that way, the darkness breaking apart for a few feet ahead of him and wrapping around him like a fog. Sometimes a door appeared to his left. Sometimes to the right. They were unmarked, grey doors, same as the one he'd gone through. Welsh wondered what the door to the Outside would look like.
Could it really be as dire an emergency as the voice had said? Had Welsh doomed them all by breaking policy? What would be waiting for him Outside? He tried to penetrate the dirty shadows surrounding him. Perhaps his punishment would be light, his escape catastrophic to them all. Perhaps he had made the wrong decision.
He turned and started ascending the stairs. Doors appeared to his right, to his left. All grey, unmarked. Which one had been his floor? He tried one. The rows of light fixtures, the unbroken cubicles--it was his floor. But he was sure he hadn't gone far enough. Or had he?
He opened the door further. A light flashed, long and bright before fading. There it was again, the light, the penumbras of the cubicle walls lengthening and retreating like tentacles. Welsh walked towards it, his footsteps creating a thin echo. But there was another noise, with each flash, a long pixelated rending. Welsh walked towards it. He peered into cubicles on the way. They looked identical to the ones on his floor. They contained a logbook, a phone. The latter he was too afraid to pick up. The former he opened, riffling through the pages. These were all filled with tiny rows of photocopied print, crammed tightly into each page, no padding or margin, swarming like a pile of ants threatening to writhe out of the pages.
Welsh walked hesitatingly towards the source of the pulsing light, which now traced out a fragile human figure in its antumbra. Welsh got closer.
He was a manic, sweating figure standing over a large plastic machine and surrounded by loose reams of paper, some which reached up to his waist. The worker would grab an armful of paper and shove it into a compartment that opened at the top of the machine. The light would flash, excessively bright and loud. The worker would wipe his forehead with his forearm. More sheets would spill out of the machine's side-chamber, transformed and covered in dense type. The worker would rush to catch these and pile them, perhaps following some organization. Welsh couldn't tell.
"What are you doing?” Welsh said. The worked turned, startled and threw himself into a corner when he saw Welsh.
"What has happened?" he said. His eyes were foggy and Welsh wondered how long he had been working with the machine. "Is the report due?"
"Not yet, perhaps," Welsh said. "Or perhaps yes."
"The figures aren't ready," the worker said. "There is much work to be done before morning."
"How long until morning?” Welsh asked. He had the creeping feeling that he had already lived this moment.
"I can't be sure," the worker said, pointing to a green display on the machine. "The time interface is malfunctioning."
This all seemed familiar to Welsh. Flashes of memory started to come back to him. Durk. The sound of a name. It belonged to the voice behind the door. There was no voice, he realized. Only Durk. And the Beast. The Beast, which was the source of his power. That machine and its omniscient fibers, its power of information and connection, its cancerous wires extending through every wall, every interface.
Interface. Another word. He had been the interface. It was he who should be the wielder of the Beast's power.
"Your sweater," Welsh pointed at the worker.
The worker whimpered when Welsh pointed at him, and retreated further into the corner.
"I need your sweater," Welsh said, slowly. "I am cold."
The worker seemed to understand this. "But I need this sweater."
Welsh took the worker from the corner and stood him up. He raked his fist across him, knocking him down.
"Jesus," the worker said, rubbing his head, his face bloodied. He took his sweater off and threw it at Welsh's feet. Welsh smiled and put it on. He was no longer cold.
"Come," Welsh said to the worker.
"Why?" he responded, arms crossed, timid.
"I must go back," Welsh said. "You will help me."
This seemed to frighten the worker. "No."
"I cannot leave this place," the worker said. "The other floors, they are unsafe."
"You must come.” Welsh's lips twisted into a grin. "You must obey. You are my subordinate. It is policy."
Augusto Corvalan's work has previously appeared in One Buck Horror, the anthology Winter's Canon, Midwest Literary Magazine, Potluck Literary Magazine, Bewildering Stories, among others. He was an honorary mention for the Quarto Prize, judged by Mary Jo Bangs.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.