"Be careful with it," says the manager from Acquisitions, as he opens the lead-lined box. "It's one of only a pair we've managed to successfully extract."
Carlos peers into the box. It holds a single stone, approximately the dimensions of his fist. Its surface is uneven, the jagged, shining black of obsidian, but with an inclusion of another mineral running in branching veins, iron-rich to tell by its deep red hue.
"What is it?" he asks.
"The colloquial name is bloodstone," the man says. "Heard of them?"
Carlos shakes his head. "No, but I'm not a minerologist. Are you certain this wasn't intended for the geology department?"
"They have the other one," the acquisitions manager says. "This one is for you. We need a way to track them down."
"Track them? You mean, locate deposits?"
"Not exactly. But any method of detection you can come up with will help the company's efforts."
Carlos taps the box's lid thoughtfully. "Any method up to what cost?"
The man from acquisitions checks his tablet. Twice. Then says, with a hint of disbelief, "Unlimited."
Carlos's eyebrows lift. He's never been given an unlimited budget before. The expected profit margin for these bloodstones must be astronomical. "What's the deadline?"
The man checks his tablet again. "ASAP." The look he throws Carlos is either envy or relief.
Carlos has never been given an ASAP project before, either. "Then I better get started."
Initial work on the bloodstone is discouraging. It isn't magnetic, its refractive index is generic, and its radioactivity isn't high enough to distinguish it from the potassium in a bunch of bananas. Its density is equivalent to a number of other volcanic minerals, so seismic reflection wouldn't be useful.
Come lunchtime, when Carlos files into the company cafeteria, the nutrition specialist gives him a plastic sachet with his lasagna. The pill inside is tiny, circular, and emerald green.
The scientist sitting across from Carlos watches him swallow it, remarks, "Wow, what project were you put on, to get the good stuff?"
She's an older woman, her tightly bunned black hair streaked with markedly more gray than Carlos's own. Carlos has only been at the DB facility for a couple of months, not long enough to learn many of his colleagues' names; but he sometimes sees her during the morning Teamwork & Efficiency Recitation. The diamond pin on her lab coat identifies her as from the geology department—possibly assigned to work with the other bloodstone? Or maybe not, since she doesn't have a lunchtime dose. Carlos puts down his water, explains, "I'm on an ASAP."
"Already? Congratulations!" Her smile is admirably practiced.
"Thank you," Carlos mumbles, forking bites into his mouth as fast as he can chew. He can't afford to waste time here.
"So, is this your first rush job?" she asks.
Carlos nods. The stimulant might have hit his bloodstream already; his pulse is pounding. In the lab he can lose himself in the scientific exploration, but separated from the tests and equipment his mind wanders.
He finds himself thinking back to the orientation seminar, when the HR representative had introduced them to Dr. Blanchard. Dr. Blanchard had formerly been one of the R&D directors, a highly paid, prestigious post; but he'd devoted too much time to personal projects, had let the company down.
Of course they were generous enough to keep him hired, so Carlos sees Dr. Blanchard every day. Usually he's cleaning the mirrors in the seventeenth floor men's room, painstakingly wiping the glass in slow, methodical circles. Occasionally his supervisor will relocate him to the elevators, to polish the metal doors in those same careful circles, until he's stopped.
Carlos starts when the geologist reaches across the table to pat his hand. "I'm sure you'll do fine," she tells him. "Just stay focused, and think of the bonus you'll get if you succeed. Eyes on the prize, right? Good luck!"
Carlos gets another green pill at dinner. Multiple doses in quick succession leave his mouth dry and his hands trembling minutely. He gets an extra bottle of water from the dispenser and steadies his wrists on the keyboard tray to type.
He keeps the radio on as usual. Even if it weren't a company requirement, he's always preferred a little background noise. Tonight he works through Kevin's sign-off, on until midnight, when the cognitively boosting soft jazz is undercut by a subliminal voice reminding that a well-rested worker is a productive worker. Carlos reluctantly submits his End-Of-Day report and departs.
On the shuttle to the company dorms, he stares out the window at the featureless desert. Freed from the immediate focus of the project, his mind careens from idea to idea like a whipping top spun off its string. He wonders how many other scientists in his division may have been given this project before him. There's no way to know; for legal reasons failed research is often expunged from corporate documentation, along with the researchers. Or is he the first? In which case he should start with the most basic tests, determine composition, molecular structure, isotopic signature. He'll need extra equipment, more precise tools...
His brain is still churning as he takes the elevator up to his single room. Fortunately his nightly prescription has been updated; there are two sky-blue oblong tablets in the sachet by his bed instead of only one. After swallowing them, he just has time to brush his teeth, change into his pajamas and file requisitions for an electron microscope and a photodiode array, before falling asleep with his tablet in hand.
At seven-thirty the dorm's good-morning buzzer sounds. He showers and stumbles down to the dorm cafeteria. There's another green pill at breakfast, instead of the usual sunshine-yellow, and by the time the shuttle brings him to the lab, he's more than ready to have a productive day.
The requested equipment is delivered promptly, but Carlos fails to make significant progress in the days that follow. The bloodstone persists in being an ordinary rock; he can't even determine what makes it so valuable, much less how to track it. The only accurate method of location he's proven is visual identification.
He tries to keep his EOD reports pertinent, diligently describing every test and framing the results as positives. "Denser than H2O, so in any given body of water always guaranteed to be found at the bottom rather than the surface." "Confirmed opaque, so is easily differentiated from transparent glass."
So far it's been sufficiently convincing. Carlos's supervisors haven't come to the lab to evaluate his progress in person. And Kevin hasn't read off his name on the daily roster of the underperforming: "Those of us who need a little extra encouragement—we all have days like that, folks, so if you see any of them today, remember to give them a thumbs' up or a pat on the back, or a quick jolt from a productivity inspiration rod, if you're a supervisor!"
Still, when Carlos gets the email alerting him to a scheduled afternoon session at Psych, he almost panics. He considers pretending he missed the message in his inbox, but of course it was flagged the moment he opened it. So at three sharp he takes the elevator up to the fifty-sixth floor, one down from HR—the Ward, it's informally known as.
This is only his third visit, after orientation and his thirty-day review last month. Dr. Tithoes is as friendly as the other psychiatrists, meeting Carlos at his receptionist's desk and giving him a firm handshake before inviting him into his office. It's decorated exactly like the others, except he has an orchid on the window sill instead of a fichus or spider plant.
"A well-proportioned Miltoniopsis hybrid," Carlos remarks of the flower, "though providing the proper humidity in this environment cannot be an efficient use of company resources—" and then he forces shut his mouth. He's no botanist. And every word spoken in this office will be recorded and analyzed. The wrong one could get him removed from the project, the department—even the company itself.
Dr. Tithoes offers him a professionally calming smile. "Relax, Carlos—can I call you Carlos? This is a routine appointment, standard for everyone assigned to ASAP projects. We want to stay in extra-special touch with our most valued employees." He picks up his tablet, scrolls through the forms. "Your profile looks normal. Hmm, a few more restroom breaks than usual, lately...?"
"I've been drinking more water," Carlos explains. "Dry mouth from the stimulants."
"Ah," the psychiatrist says, making a note on his tablet. "See, this is why we like to check in. I'll prescribe a counteragent additive for that. Have you noticed any other symptoms from the augmented regimen?"
"Hand tremors at first, but they've mostly stopped."
The doctor nods again, makes another note. "What about mental effects? Difficulties concentrating, mood swings? A sense of displacement, or unusual dreams? Some people experience uncommonly vivid dreams, almost like false memories."
"Nothing like that," Carlos says. "I rarely remember my dreams anyway."
"Excellent, excellent," Dr. Tithoes says. "Judging by the length of your EOD reports, you're really taking to this regimen—it's going to be quite the let-down, when the project is ended! Though if you do exceptionally well, you may be granted another ASAP—always something to look forward to..."
Every seven days, all productive workers are rewarded with a weekend restday. On restdays, the good-morning buzzer never sounds. Carlos nevertheless makes himself get up by nine; there may be no wake-up call and no assigned hours, but the company still monitors employee enthusiasm.
There's a pill at breakfast, not green but the standard sunshine-yellow wake-up tablet. Carlos downs it with a couple cups of coffee. Over the cafeteria loudspeakers, Kevin cheerfully reports another beautiful sunny day in Desert Bluffs. "Rest today, work tomorrow! There are so many company-approved recreational activities you can enjoy. Take Shuttle Eight to the new safari park, where none of the animals are dangerous because they're all lifelike robotic constructs! Or visit the mall on Shuttles Four through Six-B, to shop to your heart's content. Just remember, only by buying mass-produced goods can you be guaranteed to get your scrip's worth; why take a chance on a hand-crafted item that may be inferior to what your neighbor just purchased..."
Even without his ASAP bonus yet, Carlos's account is full of scrip. He knows he should take advantage of this; a good employee is expected to spend as well as earn. But he can't decide what he wants to do. He scrolls through the housing advertisements and real estate listings filling his email box, uninterested. While a researcher of his rank should have at least an apartment by now, the dorm is adequate for his needs.
Besides, none of the photos, however warm the lighting or wide the models' smiles, show a place that looks to him like home.
He'd go to the lab to put in some overtime, but the shuttle would refuse his S-chip. And he doesn't really feel like going out anyway; the coffee and tablet leave him restless but still lethargic, with a mild headache. In the end he spends the day on the couch in the dorm's Congeniality Lounge, eating NaturFresh-Corn with Real Butter-Flavored Topping and watching TV.
Between the advertisements for Strex subsidiaries they play unified chanting sessions and gladiatorial ring highlights, and then a movie. It's an old black-and-white Western, not a genre Carlos has ever cared much for.
So it's a bit odd that he knows every plot twist of the film, despite having never seen it before. At the finale he finds himself mouthing, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" along with the actor, wondering vaguely why the voice sounds wrong to him. Perhaps he saw a remake?
He eats dinner in the dorm cafeteria, at a table by himself. Most of the population is eating out at restaurants, or making meals for themselves according to nutritious company-prepared recipes. Next restday, Carlos tells himself. He'll go shopping, buy fresh ingredients. He can't remember the last time he cooked.
Now he goes to bed. The next morning the good morning buzzer rouses him as usual, and there's a green pill waiting for him at breakfast.
Apart from the corporate mandate, Carlos's lack of progress with the bloodstone is becoming personally frustrating. He finds himself talking to the rock under his breath as he works, cursing it, pleading with it.
It occurs to him that neurotic anthropomorphizing might be another stimulant side-effect, but he doesn't report it. He can't afford the chance of them reducing his dosage; he needs every advantage he can get.
He's running yet another spectrographic analysis and muttering encouragements to the stone, when a voice behind him answers, "Hmm, this is new!"
Carlos jumps up from his desk, nearly dropping his tablet. Not the bloodstone, of course not—but if it's a supervisor—
But no; the newcomer to his lab is a young woman who is neither matte steel nor plastic white, rather an ordinary shade of human brown. Her hair is tied under a kerchief, a restrained and styled stormcloud; and she's wearing a red t-shirt. The logo on the shirt reads NVCR Internship Program. It's not a subsidiary Carlos immediately recognizes. "So where am I?" she muses as she turns in place.
"Um, you're in my lab," Carlos tells her. "Can I help you?"
"Oh! Can you hear me?" The young woman turns to him, smiling—a strange smile, her lips not as tightly drawn around the teeth as the norm.
But the smile falls away as she sees Carlos, her brow furrowing.
"Yes, I can hear you?" Carlos replies.
The young woman stares at him, her gaze for some reason shooting up to the top of his head. Carlos reaches up to see if anything is amiss, but no, nothing's there but his hair. It's getting a bit long; he ought to make a barber's appointment. The curls get out of control easily, particularly in the desert heat, so he keeps it cropped short for efficiency's sake. Still, there's hardly enough of it now to be of note.
"I can see you as well," Carlos prods, when the woman doesn't speak. "Is there a reason I shouldn't? What are you doing here?"
The woman shakes her head, as if trying to wake herself from a dream. "...Carlos?" she asks, hesitant, disbelieving.
"Yes?" Carlos doubtfully confirms. If she's not a company employee, the cameras would have spotted her intrusion; a security team will be here any moment.
The woman's smile returns, broad and open, showing her teeth, though not threateningly. "Oh my god, Carlos! You're alive! Does Cecil know? I thought, from the last broadcasts I heard, that you—"
She takes a step towards him—only to wince, glancing down at her feet as if she stubbed her toe, although there's nothing in front of her. "Oops, too far! Sorry, I guess I'm going; but I'll try to make it back here, if I can—"
The security team has yet to arrive. "Wait," Carlos says, reaching to stop her.
But when he touches the sleeve of her t-shirt, his hand passes through it—through her arm itself, as if she were only a cold wind. Carlos squints at this phenomenon. "That's highly atypical..."
The woman's soft brown eyes meet his. She doesn't seem perturbed that his fingers are poking through her seemingly solid limb; her tone is brisk, capable. "Carlos, if I don't return, could you please tell Cecil that I'm still on the mountain, but I'm looking for a way home. I haven't given up hope yet!"
Carlos stares at her, baffled, and asks, "Who's Cecil?"
But before the woman can reply, she vanishes, and Carlos is left standing in his lab, his hand extended before him into empty air.