“Ok, everyone. Gather ’round.” Fred Marko, the Admin officer for the fusion center said aloud, twirling his finger in the air like a cowboy calling for all the chuck wagons to circle.
Peter popped his head over the cubicle wall, saw Fred and quickly looked around at the other cubicles. He’d learned early to follow the pack before listening to instructions thrown out to the crowd. The first three times people had called our some variation of “Hey, everyone! Over here!” he’d gone over to the speaker only to find himself alone and selected to attend meetings and given projects whose tediousness was exceeded only by the After Action Reports he was forced to compose for the various supervisors who were supposed to attend in the first place.
His co-workers, meanwhile, kept their heads down and pretended not to hear. Particularly insistent types would go from cube to cube trying to get the attention of each individual. Everyone would do some variation of the ‘What? Me?’ look. Those who were quite adept would always have a pair of headphones on and pretend to have been lost in music.
Mary, his cubicle neighbor, was a master of deception being able to mimic the movements of removing headphones so perfectly that no one had noticed that she never wore them.
“It’s all in how you twist your head.” She explained over coffee. “Most people over exaggerate their hand movements but leave their heads rigid. It’s a total giveaway. I spent about four months last year researching how the human brain processes visual information and detecting things that are outside the norm. Best four months of my professional career.”
“Where’d you do that?” Peter asked.
“Right here. They assigned my some bullshit project to do that I finished in an afternoon but they forgot about it almost as quickly as they assigned it. After that, I realized I was in this weird Twilight Zone and unaccountability. Whenever someone asked what I was working on I told them I was finishing the assignment they gave me. They were so embarrassed that they forgot what the project was supposed to be that they just smiled and asked how it was going. Eventually I felt bad for them and handed it in but it happens once or twice a year. I should finish my Masters Degree next year at this pace. Next I’m going to learn Italian.”
He practiced the fake headphone trick bu he could never really get it right and resorted to just sticking earbuds in his ears first thing in the morning and taking them out a few minutes before he left for the day. It almost always worked.
“C’mon, hero.” Mary motioned to him. “This is one we can’t dodge.”
People began to emerge from their cubicles like survivors coming out of fallout shelters after a nuclear strike. Looking vaguely disoriented and unsure of what was to come they began to cluster around the large conference table in the center of the office.
“Ok, folks.” Fred began. “I just want to begin by saying you’re all doing a super job. Really amazing. I just want to make sure we’re on track to keep up our high standards.
“So, I think there may have been some confusion about our admin reports so I want to take this opportunity to review.”
Peter noticed a collective sagging of everyone’s shoulders.
“I’ve noticed that not everyone is doing their scheduled reports. Peter, for example.” All eyes swiveled and locked on Peter.
“Uh, I’ve been doing my Daily Activity Report . That’s what it says in the handbook. Right?”
“Well, that’s you D.A.R. and that’s fine but you haven’t been doing your WAR or MAR.”
“You’re Weekly Activity Report and your Monthly Activity Report. After all, if we don’t have those, how in the world will we be able to put together the Annual Activity Report?”
“Oh” Peter started. “I wasn’t aware of those. If you can send me a template I’d be happy to do them.”
“They’re just like the D.A.R. except the columns are shifted around a bit.” Fred answered. “After all, we want you to take these reports seriously so we don’t want any ‘cut and paste’ jobs.”
“So,” Peter began slowly, not quite sure he understood. “You want me to fill in the same information just in a different format so that it will take longer?”
“No, not so that it will take longer. That’s just the way it ends up. The DAR goes to Human Resources, the WAR goes to management and the MAR goes to the Department of Homeland Security. Each wanted the information in a specific format. Then they meet quarterly and annually and check to make sure the reports all match.”
“Yeah, but…” Peter was cut off by a look from Mary.
Don’t bother asking. Her expression said.
“Uh, sure. No problem.” He finished.
“Great!” Fred beamed. “Don’t forget now, these reports are forward looking so we want you to describe the activity you’re going to do over the next day, week and month not what you’ve already done or are currently working on. If you do something that you didn’t anticipate you’ll need to fill out the appropriate correction form, email it to me, the command staff, and Human Resources. Then, fax a copy the command staff and hand carry a copy to Human Resources, making sure to get a receipt and bringing that back to me. Once you do that, you should get a confirmation in your email within 96 hours. If you don’t, you’ll need to send an email to the Command Staff secretary asking to track your request and if they can’t identify where it is in the system you’ll need to repeat the process at the time you file your next report. Got it? Good!”
Everyone took that as a sign that the meeting was over and began to shuffle back to their cubicles. Peter looked at his watch as Mary came up alongside him and he stopped in his tracks.
“Two hours?! That meeting took two hours? Don’t tell me this watch is busted. I know it’s a Pakistani knockoff but I still paid a lot for it.”
“It’s not broken.” Mary whispered. “We were there fore two hours. Why do you think I gave you the ‘wrap it up’ look. If you didn’t shut up we would have been there for another two.”
“Wait, what? How is that possible? We weren’t there for more than 10 minutes. It seemed interminable but it wasn’t really that long.”
“Look,” Mary took him by his elbow and pulled him out of the way of the foot traffic. “I guess I’ll have to tell you.” She sighed. “This place is kind of funny. ALL meetings take at least two hours here. It doesn’t matter how long they really are.”
“Oh,” Peter replied with a smile. “I get it. Haze the newbie, right? Mind games? What’s the punchline? You can tell me, I’ll play along.”
“No, you really need to understand me.” Her face became even more serious. “All meetings here take at least two hours. You remember a ten minute meeting right? Well, so do I but I guarantee you we remember different ten minute meetings. And if you asked everyone else they would all remember different versions of the meeting.”
“I don’t understand.” Peter said. He was scrambling to try to figure out the angle but Mary didn’t appear to be joking or insane.
“I know. Nobody is sure why but weird things happen here with time. Some people think it’s because this place is situated on an old Indian burial ground, others think it’s because of that whole Mayan calendar doomsday stuff. Me? My favorite theory is that there’s a microscopic black hole in the center of the earth but not the exact center. It’s a little closer to this location and the effect of this super massive object being just a few centimeters closer to us results in all sorts of distortions in the space time continuum. One of the ways that manifests is that all meetings take at least two hours.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The thing about all these theories is that, ultimately, none of them explain the phenomenon here very well and, perhaps more important, believing any one of them really should certify you as bat shit crazy. Still, once you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, right?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, you’re going to need to stop saying that. It makes you look stupid.”
“Oh, sorry. So, I guess I just avoid meetings and I’ll be OK, right?” Peter attempted to put on his ‘very thoughtful’ face in the hopes of not looking quite so befuddled.
“Well, it’s more than that I think. It can actually be dangerous. A little while before you got here there was a guy…Jason, I think his name was. Maybe Josh. Something with a J. Definitely a J.” She drifted off in thought for a moment.
“Anyway, he booked himself for two meetings 30 minutes apart. You know, to test this theory. Now, people remember his being at both meetings in their entirety. He was at two places at the same time!”
“I don’t…wait, that’s not possible.” Peter was starting to feel like he was in free fall.
“Even weirder, is the fact that he was never seen again. I can’t find his name on any paperwork or emails. His desk, the one you sit at now, gradually emptied out but I don’t think anyone actually removed anything from it. I barely remember him but I’m pretty sure we dated for awhile and I think I may have slept with him.” Mary put her hand to her chin and looked down, deep in thought. “Yeah…definitely a name with a J in it.”
Peter really didn’t’ understand what was gong on but clearly repeating that fact out loud wasn’t a winning strategy so he figured he’d try something different. “So, what are you saying? Some secret government goons are removing this J guy’s stuff because he uncovered some secret of the universe.?”
“No,” Mary said firmly. “I don’t think people are doing this. I think the universe is erasing this guy. He violated some sort of basic laws of physics and that created an irritant to the underlying structure of reality. I’m guessing that when that happens things have to resolve in one of two ways. Either, the irritant has to be erased or the universe does.”
“I knew I should have smoked hash is Afghanistan. I think this might make more sense if I was high right about now. So what do the overlords who run this place say about all this?” Peter needed something stronger than whatever was available at the Keruig machine in the kitchenette.
“Not everyone notices. You saw Fred. He thinks these meetings are great. He describes them as super efficient. Oh, by the way. When you fill out your reports, you can’t indicate that these meetings take so long. It creates all sorts of problems and makes management aggressive. Make up some bogus project and list that for all the extra meeting time. Oh, and don’t mention how much time you spend filling our these activity reports.”
The got back to their cubicles and Peter sat down trying to absorb what Mary just told him. Looking down, he saw a piece of paper peeking out from under the cabinets behind his desk. He reached over and pulled it out, seeing it was a torn print out of an email. What was left of the paper read:
This meeting appears to conflict with another appointment you have scheduled. Would you like to cancel this one?
He looked at the ‘To’ line which is where the tear began on the paper. The only thing that remained was the beginning of a name. ‘J’.
Yep, definitely a ‘J’ name.