“Your application says you’re from Venus, Mr…” Chris Lightly paused, cocking his head to one side. “I’m sorry. I’ll butcher this if I try to pronounce it.”
Chris smiled as he spoke. It was a dazzling smile, and as Lucas Sharpe watched from his seat next to him, he had to admit he was impressed. As Hiring Manager for the Planet Earth Military Custodial Services, Chris did a lot of smiling, but every grin and every smirk was as big and bright as this one, even when he was faking.
And right now, he was definitely faking.
The applicant took a seat across the table from Chris and Lucas. “You may call me Tom Smith. It is my Earth name,” he said without even attempting to return Chris’s smile. Smith had clearly grown up on one of the Venus settlements, judging from his thick accent.
“Thank you, Mr. Smith. Now it says here–”
“No. Tom Smith. Not Mister.”
Lucas leaned back in his chair, barely stifling a yawn. The Venusians weren’t even trying anymore. They knew the Military knew what they were up to, but that didn’t stop them from wasting Lucas’s time.
“Right, uh, Tom Smith.” Another dazzling smile, another fake. Chris shuffled through some papers. “So you’re applying for an overnight shift, specifically in the storeroom for the Planet Eradicating Laser?”
Smith responded, but Lucas had already tuned him out. Just once, he’d like to skip one of these interviews. It was a custodial job, for crying out loud, and he was CEO of the Planet Earth Military Forces.
This was not what he’d dreamed of when he fantasized about working his way up the Military totem pole. For starters, he’d at least hoped to earn a title like “General” or “Supreme Commander,” but Generals and Supreme Commanders hadn’t been a part of the Military since he was in high school. Things had changed, and fast. Soldiers were still soldiers, but Earth’s military leaders spent more time filling out paperwork and going to office parties than anything else these days.
It was enough to make Lucas wish he were back on the bottom of the totem pole.
Lucas shook his head, forcing himself to pay attention. Chris was asking the man across the table where he saw himself in five years. Smith was oddly jumpy for a guy applying to be a janitor. Guys like Smith always were, and Lucas was sick of it.
“All right, Tom Smith,” Lucas said. If he didn’t step in now, the interview was likely to stretch into lunchtime. “I looked at your resume, too. You have a master’s in Modern Weaponry from the Venus Warfare Academy. What are you doing applying to be a janitor on Earth?”
“I have many student loans,” said Smith with a shrug that was probably supposed to be nonchalant. Lucas liked it better when Venus sent people with Espionage degrees. At least they put on better shows. “The standard of living is much lower on Earth. I wish to pay my debts as soon as possible.”
“So this has nothing to do with the Mars-Venus conflict?”
“You’re not trying to work in the storeroom for the Planet Eradicating Laser because you want to use it on Mars?”
Smith forced a smile, proving Chris to be the undisputed fake-smile champion in the room. “Of course not. I am a man of peace.”
“A man of peace with a degree in Modern Weaponry?”
Smith’s face transformed. In an instant, the look of innocence was gone, leaving only frenzied anger. Lucas started to stand and reach for his laser pistol, but Smith had already launched himself across the table. He hit Lucas in a flying tackle, and Lucas’s chair clattered against the tile floor. Smith clutched at Lucas’s throat as they tumbled together.
“You will give me the Planet Eradicating Laser!” Smith screamed. “Life and prosperity to Venus! Death to Mars!”
They rolled to a stop with Smith on top. Smith reached into the back of his waistband, keeping one hand on Lucas’s throat, and pulled out a laser pistol of his own. How had he gotten that past security? Lucas would have a word with Doug after lunch.
Struggling to focus as Smith’s hand closed on his throat, Lucas grabbed Smith’s gun wrist, twisting the gun away from his head and toward the ceiling.
It was a good thing Venus didn’t require its Weaponry majors to exercise. Lucas was getting out of shape.
Smith screamed in frustration, and the pistol went off. The blast took out a fluorescent light, causing a small fire and setting off the sprinklers. Great. There went another hour of his afternoon, disappearing into the great vortex of Incident Report paperwork. As if Lucas didn’t have enough on his plate already.
Expert on weaponry though he was, Smith clearly knew little about hand-to-hand combat. He’d left himself off balance, and a sharp yank on the Venusian’s arm was all it took to send him sprawling.
The water from the sprinklers had turned the tile floor slick, and Lucas slipped as he scrambled to pin Smith to the ground. Lucas lost focus for a split second, and that was all Smith needed to land a punch on Lucas’s chin.
Stars danced in front of Lucas’s eyes as he collapsed.
Lucas rolled onto his back. His vision cleared just enough that he could see Smith kneeling over him and pointing the laser pistol at his head.
“Mars must perish,” Smith said. His straw-colored hair was plastered to his forehead by sprinkler water. “You will give me the Planet Eradicating Laser, or–”
That was as far as he got before Chris Lightly knocked him out with a chair. The pistol clattered out of Smith’s hand, and he hit the ground with a wet thump.
“Nice shot,” Lucas muttered, wiping water out of his eyes. “Took you long enough.”
“I’ve never had an interview go like that,” Chris said.
“Me neither.” Lucas squinted up at the sprinklers. “Do you know how to turn those off?”
“I think they shut off automatically.”
Lucas stood, looking around the room. Water damage, a busted light, a firearm in the office, and an unconscious applicant. There was going to be plenty of paperwork today.
Lucas sighed. The bottom of the totem pole was sounding better and better.
“Well, that’s why they make me go to every interview for positions involving the Planet Eradicating Laser,” Lucas said, scooping soggy papers off the table.
“Boy, that was wild, though!” said Chris. “Usually they give up once they realize you know what they’re up to.”
“It was a bold move, that’s for sure,” Lucas said. “But I’m sick of going to janitor interviews. If we could just say that only Earth citizens are eligible for the position, I’d save myself hours every week. I can’t remember the last time we got a serious applicant from Venus.”
“You know HR would never go for that. Interplanetary discrimination lawsuits and all that.”
“A guy can dream, right?” Lucas looked at Smith’s unconscious body. “Listen, can you call this one in? I’m meeting with a new hire in half an hour, and I’d like to get dried off first.”
“Sure, sure.” Chris’s eyes lit up. “This isn’t–is this the guy who…?”
Lucas sighed. “It’s him. Dr. Max Center.”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
Lucas shook his head. “I know why they picked him, and I’ll even stand behind the decision. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”
“Well, look on the bright side. This guy won’t pull a laser pistol on you.”
“I hope not. I won’t have you on chair duty.”
Chris smiled. This time, he wasn’t faking.
* * *
Dr. Max Center was about to become the worst scientist ever employed by the Planet Earth Military Forces, but he didn’t know it. All he knew was he was responding to a message on his videophone from Lucas Sharpe–the Lucas Sharpe–that said his planet had requested his service.
It was a confusing message, to be sure. The Military only hired the best, and, sorry though he was to admit it, Max was not the best scientist there was. His doctorate was from the second-most prestigious robotics program on the planet, where he earned the third-best grade point average in his class. There were at least thirty scientists ahead of him on the planet. Maybe as many as fifty.
Max had accepted his position of insignificance several years ago. After his first semester at the North American Robotics Institute, he realized he would never be considered one of the top names in robotics unless a serial killer or an oddly selective plague wiped out several dozen scientists. He only spent a month wishing for one of these scenarios.
But now, less than a year after Max’s graduation, Lucas Sharpe was on his videophone. Max Center, third in his class at the second-best robotics program on the planet, had been contacted by the CEO of the Planet Earth Military Forces. How many people had gotten calls before he did? Had they all turned Mr. Sharpe down? That was hard to imagine, but it was even harder to imagine the Military coming to Max first.
Max arrived at Planet Earth Military Headquarters almost forty-five minutes before his appointment. The lobby was a blinding, sterile white. The high ceilings and sparse decoration made Max feel tiny and insignificant, and he wondered if that was on purpose. To his right was a reception desk. The red-haired woman behind it smiled when Max looked at her. The gold nameplate pinned to her shirt said Lee.
“Welcome to Military HQ!” Lee chirped. “How can I help you?”
Max shuffled up to the desk, painfully aware of the scraping sounds his shoes made against the white tile floor. “I’m looking for Lucas Sharpe’s office,” he said.
“Mr. Sharpe? Well, that’s exciting!” Lee pointed toward a hallway. “Just go through the metal detector there, then take the elevator to thirty-five and follow the signs!”
Max nodded his thanks. He didn’t want to talk more than he had to, as a powerful echo accompanied every word he spoke, making it impossible to concentrate. He hoped Mr. Sharpe’s office was carpeted.
The metal detector was just around the corner of the hallway. When Max passed through, the alarm squawked noisily. A heavyset bald man wearing a nameplate that said Doug set down a comic book and stood with a sigh. He stared at Max suspiciously, squinted eyes passing over Max’s body before stopping at his waist.
“Probably your belt,” he said, stroking a wispy mustache. “Yeah, I bet that was it.”
Max started to remove his belt, but Doug waved him on.
“No, no,” Doug said, picking up the comic book and settling back into his folding chair. “Go on.”
Max re-buckled his belt, confused. Was it that obvious he wasn’t a threat? He hoped so. He wasn’t sure he liked any of the alternative explanations for Doug’s behavior.
He stepped inside the elevator and pushed the button for the thirty-fifth floor.
The elevator dinged after a few seconds, and Max stepped out. He was in a long, white hallway. The wall in front of him was blank except for two silver arrows. Precise, black letters were carved in each. On the arrow pointing left was CEO’s Office, and on the one pointing right, CEO’s Bathroom. Max followed the arrow pointing left.
At the end of the hallway was a set of white double doors with silver handles. Max slipped inside.
On the other side of the double doors was a miniature version of the lobby. Everything was stark white. There were a few uncomfortable-looking couches scattered around the room, and to Max’s right was another receptionist’s desk. This receptionist didn’t look as cheery as Lee did, mostly because she was asleep. She was sitting straight up, head lolled to one side. Her mouth hung open, and her breathing was almost loud enough to be considered snoring.
Max cleared his throat softly, and her eyes fluttered open. She straightened her head and fixed Max with a how dare you! stare.
“I, uh,” Max stammered, “I have an appointment with Mr. Sharpe.”
“I bet you do,” said the receptionist. She wasn’t wearing a nameplate. “Name?”
“Max?” His name came out sounding like a question. Max cleared his throat and tried again. “Max Center.”
After raising a suspicious eyebrow, the receptionist pulled out a clipboard. Her eyes widened. “Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the receptionist. “We weren’t expecting you this early. You can wait for Mr. Sharpe here.” She waved at the couches.
This room was smaller than the lobby, and as Max shuffled across, he was pleased to note his footsteps and his words didn’t echo nearly as much here. Max sank into one of the couches. It was rock solid, and only slightly less scratchy than burlap.
Before Max could find a way to get comfortable, one of the double doors swung open. Max instantly recognized the man who rushed in. He had seen him on his videophone only a day before.
This was Lucas Sharpe, and he was soaking wet.
Mr. Sharpe was a short man with big, round arms and a barrel chest. Even in his soggy state, he walked with purpose and pride. But his most noticeable feature–the feature to which Max was always drawn when he saw the man on TV–was the thick, red mustache that completely covered his mouth. His forehead was so small and his chin so large that the patch of facial hair formed an elongated bull’s-eye in the middle of his pasty white face. It was as if his head grew from the mustache, not the other way around.
Mr. Sharpe had to walk past the receptionist’s desk to get to his office. When he sloshed in front of her, she looked up, eyes wide.
“Don’t ask, Diane.” Mr. Sharpe didn’t even stop to look at her. His voice was just as raspy as it had been on Max’s videophone. Max wondered if Mr. Sharpe had a cold or if that was his real voice. It sounded like he was gargling shrapnel. Max suddenly wanted to clear his throat, but he didn’t dare do it while Mr. Sharpe could hear.
Mr. Sharpe paused at his office door. He turned and looked at Max. “Are you…?”
“Dr. Max Center!” Max said with a nervous smile. He held out a hand and walked toward Mr. Sharpe. “Pleased to–”
“Sit down, kid,” Mr. Sharpe barked. “Give me a minute, for crying out loud.”
He yanked the door open and disappeared into his office.
Max eased himself back onto the couch. As soon as the door closed, Max cleared his throat noisily, and a split second later, Diane did the same. She looked at Max and smirked.
“Every time he talks,” she said, shaking her head. “Drives me nuts.”
An intercom on Diane’s desk beeped, and Mr. Sharpe’s voice said, “Send him in.”
Diane smiled a plastic smile. She rattled off a line she must have said a thousand times by now: “Mr. Sharpe will see you now.”
Max stood and walked into Lucas Sharpe’s office.
Mr. Sharpe’s suit was still shiny and heavy-looking from the water, but he had managed to dry his face. His mustache, which had previously drooped under the weight of the water, now bristled proudly over his mouth. Max wondered if Mr. Sharpe had something–like strangely colored lips or a hairy mole or maybe even a questionable tattoo–that he was trying hide with that mustache. At the very least, it looked like all that facial hair would make eating a difficult ordeal.
Mr. Sharpe sat behind a glass desk piled high with fastidiously squared off stacks of paperwork. A small picture frame was perched precariously atop his flat-screen computer monitor. Max couldn’t see the picture inside, and he wondered if there was a wife or a child smiling in there. He wasn’t sure if he could imagine a Mrs. Sharpe, a woman who could find her way through that mass of crimson hair once in a while to kiss those lips that may or may not be colored deep purple or marked with grotesque moles.
It was as Max contemplated the complexities of Mr. Sharpe’s family life that he realized how uncomfortable he was. The CEO had not said a word since Max entered his office. The only sound was the soft tick-tick-tick-tick-ing of a clock hidden somewhere amid the diplomas, certificates, and news clippings that littered the walls. Max had never been in the presence of someone quite as important or powerful as Lucas Sharpe. He sank in his chair a little bit, and the leather made a sound that nearly caused him to insist that it was, in fact, the chair that had made the noise.
If Max had not been so focused on Mr. Sharpe’s importance, his picture frame, or his mustache, he would have realized they were both feeling uneasy. The Military’s CEO was also shifting uncomfortably in his chair, though, after years of sitting in it, he had learned how to move so it would not make suspicious noises. Just as Max had never been in the presence of someone so important, so Mr. Sharpe had rarely interviewed anyone so insignificant. The Planet Earth Military Forces had standards, for heaven’s sake, and Mr. Sharpe could count on one hand the number of times someone so unqualified had been in his office.
Finally, Lucas Sharpe cleared his throat and spoke:
“Max–er, Dr. Center–we called you here because the Mars-Venus conflict is getting out of control.”
Max nodded, but he didn’t say a word. Anything he did say would come out sounding idiotic. He’d heard the talking heads on news channels mention the Mars-Venus conflict, but he didn’t have a clue what any of it was about.
Mr. Sharpe continued: “Earth wants to send a team of mediators to help sort things out up there, but we don’t know how they’ll be received. The Venus settlements have been growing…” Sharpe paused, frowning at his soaking clothes. “…irritated with us and our refusal to take a side.” And then, almost as an afterthought, “Mars is a little ticked, too.”
Max nodded again. He would have to research the Mars-Venus conflict after the interview. He hoped Mr. Sharpe couldn’t sense his ignorance on the subject.
“There’s a good chance the mediators will be attacked just because they’re from Earth. We would send a security detail, but traveling that far through space messes with the body. Something about time-shifting and temporary atrophy…” Mr. Sharpe shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Honestly, when the doctors explained it to me, it went over my head. There’s probably a simpler explanation, but I think they like us to know how smart they are. Anyway, any soldiers we send would be useless for at least a month. And we doubt Mars or Venus will wait that long before attacking, if that’s how they choose to respond.
“That’s where you come in, Dr. Center.”
The room fell silent. After a moment, Max noticed the soft tick-tick-tick-tick-ing again. He leaned forward in his chair.
Mr. Sharpe took a deep breath. “You know how to build robots, right? You learned how to do that?”
Max was too nervous to notice the wild look of fear and hopefulness in Mr. Sharpe’s eyes. The CEO was hoping that by some incredible lapse on the Military’s part, Max was one of those students who had his doctorate in something impractical like Robotic Theory or The History of Automatons in Southeast Oregon. It could have happened. Just this morning, a man with a laser pistol had gotten past the metal detector. The search would have to start all over and someone else would come into his office. Someone with a better resume. Someone with better resources. At the very least, someone a little older. The kid sitting in Mr. Sharpe’s office still had all of the hair on top of his head and almost none of it on his chin.
But Max didn’t notice any of that. He said, “Yes,” but his voice came out almost as raspy as Mr. Sharpe’s. He cleared his throat and tried again: “Yes, sir. In fact, I was the lead alternate on the robotics team at the North American Robotics Institute.”
Mr. Sharpe’s eyes went blank. After a moment, he let out a sigh, shook his head, and muttered, “Of course. Of course you were. That was in your file.”
The room was silent again, save for that soft tick-tick-tick-tick-ing.
Mr. Sharpe folded his hands on the edge of his desk. He knotted his red eyebrows together and sighed. He’d been doing a lot of sighing lately. “Dr. Center,” he said, “We need soldiers whose muscles won’t atrophy in the trip from here to wherever the mediators set up shop. We need robotic soldiers.”
Max started to say something, but Mr. Sharpe cut him off. His face was turning the same color as his mustache. Max wondered if Mr. Sharpe found the prospect of robotic soldiers exciting or terrifying.
“Of course, these things will be trickier to make than the bots we’re using now. I’m sure you’re familiar with the robots that refuel our ships and perform basic medical tasks?”
Max nodded. He wasn’t familiar with them, but to be fair, his professor for Robots in Modern Culture 101 had been particularly boring.
“Now, it’s not as easy as making a robot like that and putting a gun in its hand. Have you seen some of the science fiction movies they’ve made? Of course you have. You’re a roboticist. You guys love that stuff, right?”
Mr. Sharpe pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped his face with it.
“Anyway, when you watch these movies, you realize there’s a lot that can go wrong with a robot this sophisticated. First, if you make it too dumb, the best thing it can do is malfunction. And we’ve seen malfunction. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty when a refueling robot thinks a wounded soldier is a tank. There’s a lot of things you can do to treat an open wound in a pinch, but spraying it with gasoline is not one of them.
“The worst thing a malfunctioning robot can do is get confused about what is and isn’t a threat to the mission. You ever see that old movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey? That computer realized humans were imperfect, so it tried to kill them all to make sure nothing would go wrong on the mission.”
“We can’t have that,” Max said. It was a stupid thing to say, but he felt like he was supposed to say something.
“No, we can’t,” said Mr. Sharpe. “Unfortunately, the solution isn’t just to make the best, smartest robot possible. I can’t tell you how many of these science fiction movies I’ve seen where the robots get too smart and realize they’re powerful enough to overthrow humanity and rule the planet. I don’t have to tell you that’s a scenario most of us would just as soon avoid.”
Max nodded, wondering if Mr. Sharpe had done any research on the subject of robotic soldiers besides watching science fiction movies. Oddly enough, these were the exact things he’d learned in Survey of Modern Robotics Concerns, and that made him wonder if his professors had done any research on the subject besides watching science fiction movies.
Mr. Sharpe rolled his eyes. “I mean, there’s that movement to replace some of the governmental bureaucracy with machines, but other than that, we’d rather not be ruled by robots.”
Max nodded again. He felt like he was supposed to say something again, but he kept quiet this time. It seemed Sharpe had worked hard to prepare this speech, and Max didn’t want to throw him off.
“That’s why we picked you,” Mr. Sharpe said. “The way I see it, we need a robot that’s good, but not too good.”
Max didn’t nod this time. What was Sharpe saying? Did he mean…
“And I think the best way to build one of those robots is to get a scientist who’s good, but not too good.”
There it was. The truth about Max’s qualifications. He’d known it was true for years now, but hearing it out loud just made it hurt that much more. It certainly didn’t make it any easier that he was hearing it from the CEO of the Planet Earth Military Forces. Then again, if he’d been an amazing scientist, he wouldn’t be sitting in Mr. Sharpe’s office talking about the details of a prestigious assignment. It was a confusing moment for Max’s ego.
Mr. Sharpe didn’t notice any of this turmoil. He just said, “So, Dr. Center, are you up to the challenge, or do we have to go on to our second choice?”
The room fell silent again, but this time Max didn’t notice the tick-tick-tick-tick-ing. Mr. Sharpe had said second choice. That meant Max was the first choice. Max had never been the first choice for anything. Not in his entire life. Sure, this time he was first choice because he wasn’t the best, but so what? Maybe he didn’t have the GPA, the accolades, or the prestigious degree that an elite scientist would have, but he could prove to Sharpe and to the world that he really was a great scientist. He would be remembered for his accomplishments, not for his qualifications.
But for all the adrenaline and fire in his mental pep talk, Max did not feel “up to the challenge.” He’d built robots that could make an omelet, replace a tire, and bag groceries, but programming a robot to use a spatula was very different from programming one to wield a gun. This was not going to be easy.
Still, Max felt himself nodding his head, and he even heard his voice say, “Yes. You can count on me.”
Max had never been one to say “no” to authority, and the CEO of the Planet Earth Military Forces certainly qualified as authority.
Max shook hands with Mr. Sharpe, and just like that, he became the worst scientist ever employed by the Planet Earth Military Forces.
* * *
Just a few floors overhead, there was a party. A sheet cake had been placed on the long table in a conference room, and a string of glittery letters crookedly spelled “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” along the room’s sole window. People stood in twos and threes around the room, quietly making small talk and chuckling over pieces of cake set on paper plates.
In the corner of the room stood a white-haired man who towered head and shoulders over everyone else. His perfectly trimmed goatee was as white as his hair, though his face was younger than the white hair would suggest. He wore a poorly fitting suit, scuffed dress shoes, and a scowl. He was sipping a drink in a blue plastic cup that looked tiny in his large, scarred hand. Nobody was talking to him, which was odd, considering the party was for him.
It was his fortieth birthday, and though most people don’t look forward to turning forty, the white-haired man in the corner had been dreading this particular birthday since he was eighteen. Everyone in the room knew this. They had to know it. If they knew him nearly as well as they’d been pretending to, they would know what this day meant to the man in the corner.
As of this day, his life was over. And no one in the room seemed to care.
Even if they did care, it was only because they were glad to see him go. The man in the corner wasn’t stupid–at least, not hopelessly so. He knew he made people uncomfortable. But he had never once broken protocol. He may have toed the line between what was and wasn’t appropriate, but if you asked him, that was the mark of a good soldier.
Unable to stand the false smiles, empty small talk and stale cake any longer, the man in the corner crumpled his cup, threw it away, and strode purposefully toward the door. The buzz of conversation in the room continued unchanged, but the man could feel every eye tracking his movements. They were probably afraid he’d make a scene, God forbid.
“Leaving already, Meat?”
The man had been so busy focusing on the secretive glances that he failed to notice the kid who came out of nowhere to ambush him. On the battlefield, the kid would have been dead moments after he decided to approach, but this was the headquarter building. The rules were different here.
The kid was armed with a glass of punch and the biggest fake smile of anyone in the room. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old and might have weighed 140 pounds if he took his ridiculous, oversized briefcase to the scale. The man in the corner had never seen the kid before, but he already hated him.
The kid had called him Meat, too. That was what everybody called him these days. He doubted anyone actually knew his real name, and even if they did, they wouldn’t use it. They liked having a nickname for him. It made them feel like they knew him, like they could control him. But nobody could control him. He’d made that clear enough the past twenty-two years.
All these thoughts passed through Meat’s mind in a split second, and he barely hesitated as he pushed past the scrawny, sweating kid. He heard a cry of protest and a soft splish–cheap punch dampening a cheap suit. He didn’t bother looking back.
Hurrying down the familiar hallways of the Planet Earth Military Headquarters, Meat told himself he didn’t mind that no one in the whole building knew him. He didn’t join the Military to be known. He came to fight. It was the only thing he knew how to do. Now the Important People–the ones who were too important to do anything besides sit around and sign official documents all day–were telling him it was time to stop fighting, and not because he’d done something wrong or because he was losing his touch.
They wanted him gone because he was forty.
He’d been a perfectly adequate soldier when he was thirty-nine years, three hundred and sixty-four days old, but forty years was just too much mileage for the Military. They knew forty was when many human bodies began to break down, and they wanted to make sure they had only the best bodies. And so forty-year-olds were given the boot in the form of an Honorable Discharge, though Meat didn’t think there was anything honorable in telling a loyal soldier he didn’t pass muster anymore.
Meat stopped walking for a moment as he realized he had instinctively made his way to the headquarter building’s gym. The large room was separated from the hallway by a wall of reinforced glass and a security door. It made sense he would end up here. Meat had spent nearly every moment of his free time on the other side of that glass wall, working to keep his body in peak physical condition. He’d probably spent even more time in there than he had in the dingy apartment where he lived now.
He’d always thought it odd that the headquarter building didn’t have dormitories. It had everything else. There was a food court, a library, even a stage for the soldiers who fancied themselves actors. From time to time, the aspiring thespians would put on a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author or something equally as old and equally as pretentious. Meat had never been to a performance, and he couldn’t say he regretted it.
The headquarter building was almost like a mall–not that Meat had much experience with the places. He generally avoided spots where young people gathered. Young people reminded him of how much he’d changed, of how much he’d aged. Also, they annoyed him.
Walking up close to the glass, Meat peered inside the gym at the familiar training machines and free weights. There were soldiers in there, sweating and grunting and not-so-discreetly flexing in the mirrors. They were all so weak. Meat knew he could outdo every last one of them without so much as a warm up, but that didn’t matter. Not to the Important People. He was forty, and his body was in decline.
Shaking his head, Meat continued walking. The gym disappeared behind him, and he suppressed a swell of emotion as he realized he had seen that familiar wall of glass for the last time. There was an elevator at the end of the hallway, and he punched the button with his thumb. A soft hum filled the empty hallway as the elevator moved between floors. After a few moments, the steel doors opened with a ding.
There were two people inside the elevator, a man and a woman. They both looked like Important People. They wore perfectly pressed black suits and carried briefcases that looked brand new. They wore the default expression of Important People, an odd mixture of boredom and busyness. Not a hair was out of place on their heads; the woman’s was pulled into a tight bun, and the man’s was parted neatly down the middle. But the most obvious clue that these were Important People was their size. They were tiny, just like the sweaty kid at the party. Just like every other Important Person.
As Meat entered the elevator, he watched the man and woman edge to either side, eyeing him closely. They felt just as uncomfortable around him as everyone else in the building did.
The elevator resumed its humming as it continued its descent. The man started shifting uncomfortably. He looked like he was trying to catch the eye of the woman at the other end of the elevator. Meat turned his head to the woman. She was desperately avoiding eye contact with both of the male occupants of the elevator.
Meat looked back at the man to find his eyes had drifted from the woman to Meat. His gaze was intent, and when he realized Meat was looking at him, his eyebrows shot up and his eyes widened as they locked with Meat’s. His mouth opened slightly, and a jumble of words fell out. It was less a collection of sentences than it was a stream of consciousness with no pauses, except for a deep breath after he began his speech with a just-louder-than-normal “Ohmygosh.” Meat couldn’t understand the individual words, but he got the basic idea: the guy knew who Meat was, and he was impressed.
The scrawny pencil pusher might have kept talking until he was hoarse, but the elevator stopped him with a ding. The long, rambling speech ended as suddenly as it had begun. As soon as the doors slid open, the woman hurried out, staring at the floor in front of her feet the whole way. The man, however, remained perfectly still, gaping at the soldier in front of him.
“This your floor?” Meat muttered.
The man cleared his throat, looked like he was trying to say something, then shuffled out of the elevator. The doors slid shut behind him.
Meat leaned against the back wall of the elevator as the humming began again. He felt a twinge of pleasure knowing he had a fan–even one like the man he’d just met. As proud as he was of his ability to instill fear even in the people for whom he fought, it was nice to hear a positive word. Not that it would make a difference. One fanboy’s opinion wasn’t enough to outweigh corporate policy.
Finally, the elevator stopped humming, and with one last ding, the doors opened to the ground floor lobby of the Planet Earth Military Forces headquarter building. Meat walked out slowly, looking at the people sitting in the uncomfortable couches, reading old magazines. Meat felt eyes on him from the receptionist’s desk, but he kept his gaze straight ahead. Meat rarely exercised this kind of self-control, but if she was behind that desk today, he didn’t know what he’d end up doing.
Only a few yards in front of him was the front door, and beyond that, the world from which he’d become so distant in the last two decades. His steps, as always, were purposeful and confident, but he was now feeling a surge of emotion he could not suppress. He’d come to the end of his career, and there was no going back.
A lesser man might have turned for one last look at the place, but Meat was no such man. He placed his hand on the front door, took a deep breath, and pushed it open. As he stepped into the sunlight and listened to the door swing shut behind him, there was only one thought on his mind.
What was he going to do now?
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