Here at Veridian Dynamics we pride ourselves on how everything we do relates back to you, the little guy. Whether you're a baby, a dwarf, or even just a shrimpy little dork who only gets dates out of pity, we know what it's like to be you.
So we all decided we'd like to get a little bit closer to you, our employees. Not in a creepy way of course, like an inappropriate uncle. See, we've got one of them too.
Veridian Dynamics is proud that in these uncertain economic times we can rely on our massive resources of artificially synthesized gold kept in our special vaults in Vanuatu. We're also thrilled that our employees agree to a strict non-disclosure clause in all their employment contracts. Sure, our ties are only legally binding rather than genetic, but that still makes us one big Veridian family.
Just like every family, we need to pretend that we're just like everyone else in public. So over the next quarter we're going to be making some changes to the structure of the company to show the world that Veridian Dynamics is really just like every other company out there. Even though we're not.
We know there are a few people out there who just don't seem to be fitting into the cogs of our wonderful corporate machine. We're especially looking out for you guys; the Company has pledged to get you unstuck and send you on your way to explore the wonders of the world in your newly copious free time. See, even when we fire you we're awesome.
Veridian Dynamics operates a fully transparent management policy, so we're happy to tell you very openly that we won't be giving you full details of any of the restructuring and will expect you to rely on gossip and rumor for further information. We know we'll like it better that way.
Veridian Dynamics. Downsizing. Nifty.
At the touch of a button the lights slowly brightened and the projector whirred into silence. Veronica stood at the front of the conference room by the screen, brandishing the remote control firmly in her grip. Ted was sixty percent sure it was one of the few pieces of equipment in the office that wasn't secretly lethal, but this was Veronica he was thinking about.
"Excuse me." Phil raised a tremulous hand and stood up from his chair. "Why did they use a picture of me for the 'dork' in the presentation?" He turned to speak to the rest of the small group gathered for the briefing. "My wife only went on our first three dates together out of pity. The rest were out of resignation to our future joyously tedious life together." Phil smiled triumphantly.
Veronica twitched her head in annoyance. "The Company bought the rights to the image of your funny little head as part of your paycheck over the past ten years. Besides, your desire for factual accuracy in an important corporate briefing unnerves me. Sit, before I have to glare at your unnervingly bulbous eyes."
"5 foot 8-and-a-bit is a perfectly respectable height for an adult human male."
Veronica narrowed her eyes slightly. Phil sat with a slight whimper.
"Go you!" Lem whispered to his right, where his lab partner was now quaking. "You showed her she's boss!"
"I am cowed by both her beauty and her anger. The full force of her gaze is like being chased by a rabid yet sparkly bear."
"Whatever happened to tha-"
"Shhh. Ted is looking at us with his all-seeing eyes."
Lem and Phil stopped their conspiratorial whispers and tuned back in to Veronica's talk. Veronica had dragged the usual suspects in to the conference room at fairly short notice for what she had told them was a "motivational briefing", but it didn't take a pair of exceptionally gifted scientific geniuses to work out that the news wasn't exactly great.
"I hope you all remembered to enjoy that inspiring presentation from the Company on the forthcoming changes to our working dynamic." Whatever powered Veronica was incapable of what humans call irony.
"You call more pointless layoffs inspiring?"
"Hush, Linda. Didn't you see the beautiful people in the video? Don't you want to be beautiful?"
"I feel comforted." Dr. Bhamba spoke as if he had been tranquilized. More than usual. "The voiceover was so mellifluous."
"Excellent. We have to let you go. Leave quickly." Veronica smiled. Her teeth were like glaciers.
"I feel so lucky." Dr. Bhamba spoke lazily as he got up and bobbed out of the room, a far-off look in his eyes. He made it one foot out the door before the extraction team gracefully lifted him away.
There was little time for stunned silence before Veronica filled it. "Hooray! We're more exclusive already!" She put down the remote before continuing.
"As part of this exciting new move into the future of Veridian Dynamics, the Company has been assessing your long term viability as part of Their work force."
"No-one told us about that, Veronica." Ted's brow furrowed. This was clearly serious business. "I'm sure there are rules about covert surveillance of employees."
"Oh, They did it without telling anyone. They didn't want you to panic or think there was something funny going on. They didn't even tell each other, it was that secret; They're not even sure if They all know about it now." Phil and Lem exchanged a hurried glance, like two neurons transmitting worried impulses across the acetyl choline of weirdness that was this meeting.
"The good news is that none of the rest of you have displayed sufficient incompetency to be let go." Veronica seemed almost disappointed. "They're prepared to employ us while we develop the mindless robotic drones They would prefer us to be. For some unfathomable reason I can't seem to get funding to accelerate the project, so I guess I'm stuck with you all for the foreseeable future."
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
"Oh, except you, Phlegm. I have to fire one of you because They want to cut down on lab expenditure. Ordinarily I'd make an arbitrary decision on the spot and have you escorted out the building right now, but HR have told me that would be cold and unfeeling. So instead They're going to force you to compete against each other in a no-holds-barred bitter contest to determine which of you is the more valuable scientist to the Company." Veronica clapped her hands with highly professional girlish glee. "It'll be fun! Who wants bagels? Get them yourselves."
"Are you serious?" Phil's voice reached a pitch heretofore unheard by mortal man.
"Oh, no. I'm just joking. I'll get you all bagels. One of you is still getting fired, though. Good news, bad news, it's all even in the end. Like a city after an earthquake, nature likes a level playing field."
"This is ridiculous! When I get home tonight I am going to write a very strongly worded letter expressing my anger, and then my mom will rewrite it, and then she will deliver it to Them!" Lem squeezed a pipette furiously, the rubber grip helpless in his pincer-like grip.
"Will you stop squeezing that so hard? If you put too many moles of sulphuric acid in then where will we be?" Phil was busy scribbling away on a pad of paper.
The aftermath of Veronica's sudden announcement had not been particularly pleasant. Security had to be called to escort Lem back to the lab on a stretcher after he fainted, and it had taken Ted some considerable effort to prise Phil off his legs where he had been supplicating for help. Once Lem had regained his senses the two scientists had attempted to get their heads round what they were going to do next.
"I still think that we should sabotage the contest. We could just refuse to do what They want us to do. Then they wiil have to keep both of us!"
"Or They could just fire us both." Phil continued scribbling while he talked. "We must have done something to upset Them."
"Maybe they're still mad at us about that thing with the doves."
"Lem, you can't keep beating yourself up about that! For the last time, they didn't tell us the lasers were supposed to be low-intensity."
"Man should never mix Hitchcock and Lucas, Phil. I will never forget the screams of those peace delegates writhing in feathery agony."
"Look, they got their pretty, if slightly deadly, light show; we have to move forward and focus on the current situation. There's no getting past it; one of us is going to have to talk to Them and see if we can change Their mind. Minds. Whatever."
"You're right!" Lem placed the pipette down next to the beaker of acid before hitting the table for emphasis. Phil only squeaked slightly. "We must stand united, with one of us in front as a human shield in case of Their corporate wrath! I vote for you."
"Wh-" Phil was about to object but stopped himself, like a bemused goldfish hitting a coral reef. "Actually, you're right, I am the most assertive human being currently in this laboratory." He returned to scribbling, a furrow upon his brow.
"Wait a minute." Lem pushed his fake spectacles up his nose. "You're saying you're more assertive than me? After you fell to pieces when Veronica looked at you in that meeting?"
"At least I left the meeting fully conscious!"
"When you have to work late you have to dope your wife's food so you can sneak out past your curfew!"
"At least my wife doesn't sit in on my annual performance reviews!"
Lem almost rammed his spectacles into his brain. "You know there should be a witness there as a neutral party to any proceedings, and besides - my mom has nothing better to do."
"The rest of us make do with someone from the office who doesn't know jujitsu!"
Lem took a deep breath before continuing. "We are partners, Phil. We will do this together."
"You're right, Lem. I'm sorry." Phil looked sheepish. "If there's one thing that science has taught me it's that there's strength in numbers. Or letters that represent really complicated numbers. Let's both go talk to Them about the downsizing."
Both scientists strode out of the lab, their eyes shining with resolve. Never had a more confident sight been seen.
A casual glance at Phil's pad would have revealed the single word "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH" writ upon it, in various configurations bizarre and unnatural.
"You should go talk to Them about the downsizing."
Ted was puzzled. Phil stood in the doorway of his office, nodding to emphasize the point; the effect came off less as confidence and more like a cross between a pigeon and a jack-in-the-box. Lem had sidled almost completely out of the way; all Ted could see was a tentative thumbs-up poking into sight.
"Look, guys, I'd love to help but this whole thing goes way above my head. None of us really know what's going on. Veronica just looks at me with pity if I ask her any questions before striding off down the corridor and avoiding the issue entirely. It's unnerving." Ted waved his hand in frustration. "They've only just told me what They want you two to do."
"We're not doing it, whatever it is."
"Even if I ask nicely?"
"No. Maybe." Phil wavered for a short moment before folding, crumpling up against the wall. "Oh, I just look at your puppy dog eyes and I can't resist you."
"Shame it doesn't work on Rose at bedtime." Ted sighed. "I don't like this any more than you do. You're the best scientists in the whole R&D division, and I don't understand why we have to lose one of you. And no, it's not about the dove thing; I checked."
Phil and Lem slowly eased into the room, shutting the door behind them. "So what is it They want us to do?"
"Well..." Ted leant back slightly in his chair, trying to give the impression of being relaxed about the situation. "They want you to prove which one of you is the true Master of Science." Veronica was possibly the only human being capable of capitalizing words with her voice, but Ted did his best to do the same. "They were going to set you three challenges based on the three major scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, but They apparently couldn't get the insurance to cover a triathlon and the Model Train Society has somehow managed to get a covenant on the deeds to the basement preventing wanton scientific destruction - unless caused by plastic models."
Phil and Lem exchanged the nerdiest fist-bump in recorded history. "Score one for legalese!" said Phil. "The bylaws of Tiny Town in conjunction with Godzilla save the world again!"
"They've decided instead to pour everything into one condensed challenge in the parking lot. I know, I know," - Phil had opened his mouth to speak – "I told Veronica that you can't do everything, but They've already got the daycare kids setting up obstacles out of Lego bricks and everything, there's nothing more I could do."
"No, no, they're right, we are scientists," said Lem, "as research and development specialists we can do absolutely anything scientific across all fields, as long as it's slightly strange and potentially life threatening." Phil nodded his humble assent. "It's what we did our all-encompassing training for."
"They reckon that each of you can come up with something to face any scientific challenge. By tomorrow."
"But that's insane! We should know, we flirt with sanity's edge on a regular basis. It's the only romance Phil gets these days."
"Whether sane or not, it's what the Company wants."
Phil raised a trembling finger. "Well, why don't we both just quit? Then they can't fire either of us!"
"Well, for one you'd both be out of a job, but for two, you'd get me, Linda and the others in the team fired too. They'll disband the whole team if you both go. Do you really want me to get laid off too? After all I've done for you guys?"
Phil and Lem considered this for a moment. "No," said Lem, "I guess we don't. Who would stop Veronica from becoming contagious if you weren't here?"
Ted was deadly serious. "Exactly. Anyway, Veronica tells me that They're going to split the lab up so you two can't communicate; there wasn't any lab space free to put one of you in for a night, so instead They're wasting cash on partitioning existing space rather than saving it to pay your wages. Even though They can already pay your wages. I don't get why it had to be my team that takes the fall for a random PR exercise."
"I feel weirdly privileged," said Lem, "being important to fire for the media makes up for a lot of inadequacies in my life, although obviously not the potential impending loss of income. Do you think I'll get groupies? I think I can work the sexiness of unemployment. Maybe there's a reason it's called getting laid off."
As usual, Lem was awkward enough that the silence that followed failed to measure up.
"Now that you've made me feel distinctly unclean, we'd better go." Phil ushered Lem back out the door. "We have competitive science to do!"
As the door closed Ted smiled to himself. Sure, he'd bent the truth of the situation a little. Maybe a lot. Maybe right round back on itself like a piece of sellotape. It would be worth it in the end, though, if all went to plan.
Somehow, in the brief half-hour between Lem and Phil going upstairs and them returning, a giant black plastic wall had been erected exactly down the middle of their lab. Veridian Dynamics was nothing if not rigorously mathematical in its fairness; so rigorous that nothing, whether complex machinery or decorative furniture, had escaped the bisection. Both scientists admired the precision with which the partition had sliced the NMR spectroscope, and the now-deceased samples of sentient plant life would make for interesting post-mortem studies, but it wasn't an ideal situation.
The HR Department had donated an extraction team to act as guards in case of any scientific shenanigans. Having frisked both Lem and Phil for Blackberries or other electronic communication devices, they escorted Phil into the far side of the room through a door in the plastic wall which could only be activated by key card. His attempts at stealthily pawning a card off one of the menacing guards was as effective as a bush baby menacing a jaguar.
Neither scientist could see into the other's section of the lab. Lem discovered quite quickly that Veridian's IT department had blocked access to anything on their computer systems that would facilitate communication (the Company took internet security very seriously and very literally; their firewall could cause spontaneous combustion in both system and users). The extraction team stood guard outside the main lab doors. There was nothing to be done about it; Phil and Lem were trapped, condemned to work on an omnipotent creation that could best any challenge thrown at it through its scientific might.
It was going to be a long twenty-four hours
By ten that evening neither scientist had managed to come up with anything particular successful. The coffee machine was stuck on Lem's side of the lab but the cups were on Phil's side; Lem had resorted to chewing coffee beans to stay wake while Phil had dozed off three times already. Linda had come down to the lab for several hours to be sympathetic and understanding, which had at first been perfectly pleasant; however, after she started lecturing Lem on the moral implications of making fabric softener out of the tears of orphans he had decided enough was enough.
"She's gone." Hyped up on caffeine, Lem had discovered that, despite the soundproofing on the plastic partition, his twitching fingers could communicate to Phil through Morse code. He tapped as subtly as he could on the wall, trying not to draw the attention of the extraction goons outside.
"I never thought she'd leave," the reply came back at high speed, "When she came through here at first she was all "chin up, buddy!" and the like, but then she started ranting about corporate injustice and I had to get the guard to let her out. Now is a time for science, not con-science."
"I just don't want to cause a fight. If she can't see the difference between profiting off the misery of children and recycling their sadness into fluffy joy for millions then I am not the one to open her eyes. How are you getting on?"
"I'm going to kick your soon-to-be-unemployed ass tomorrow, is how." Somehow, even via the medium of finger-tapping, Phil still couldn't lie well under pressure. "I haven't come up with anything."
"Me neither. I have no good ideas at all, and all the equipment in here's useless anyway."
Both scientists tapped out the word "sigh" as they did so. For someone who was almost illiterate when it came to body language, Phil found himself missing it more than he'd anticipated.
"They're going to fire us both, aren't They?"
"But that would make Ted sad. Even They can't want to do that, right?"
"Desperate times call for desperate and ludicrous measures, Lem. I'm half-tempted to stay in here and refuse to come out in protest!"
"Phil, you're already locked in there. That would be kind of futile."
"I'm half-tempted to stay in here and refuse to come out in redundant but conceptually significant protest!"
"Have you got any food in there? I might have some melancholic beef in the freezer on this side; I could cook it with a Bunsen burner, but I don't think this batch was the one that phased through walls."
"Why do you always have to apply your bitter realism to my dreams of rebellion?"
There was a loud crackle and a whine from somewhere in the ceiling. A voice barked out "Stop communicating through the plastic! Not only is it against the entirely arbitrary rules of this competition but it's playing havoc with our surveillance system."
"God is judging us!" Phil tapped through the partition in a panic.
"No, Phil, that's just Veronica. It's hard to tell the difference through an intercom system."
"Is there really a difference, gentlemen? Really? Damn it, I've got to work on that one. If it were my decision, Lem, I'd fire you right now for making me look inferior. Why is everyone against me today? First the Company has to remind me that I don't get diplomatic immunity if I shoot you, now this..."
"Why would you shoot us?"
"Oh, only one of you. I thought it would be faster; this is all taking too long. You know you've been tapping out messages for about four hours now? Morse code is very noisy and very slow."
"Oh my god, Veronica, it's two in the morning." Lem glanced quickly at his watch, his eyes bloodshot and caffeine-fueled. "Why are you here?"
"Why wouldn't I be? You two are. I can't have you making me look uncommitted to my work."
"We can't do this, Veronica. I can't cope with the freedom to create anything; I work best when asked to design something ridiculously implausible within a mind-bogglingly narrow specification of criteria, and you've handed me the world on a Petri dish with this task."
"I'm just too terrified to think, especially with your divine judgement booming out of the ceiling." Phil was, as always, honest.
"Look, how long have you two been here? Ten years or so? Surely in all that time of doing... whatever it is you to make things, you must have something you can draw upon? I'm not bothered if you just turn up with a sack of jelly beans as long as I can get the whole thing over and done with. No-one in Ted's team wants to do any work while this is going on; apparently they all care about what's going to happen, and no-one will explain to me why that stops them from functioning properly."
"You know..." said Lem thoughtfully, "there's a few things you can do with jelly beans. The food colorings in high enough doses..."
"Yes, yes, whatever, as long as you've got some inspiration I don't really care. It's going to be boring enough watching your every move unblinkingly until sunrise without you two sitting there doing nothing for most of it except realizing there's no john in here in about twenty seconds time."
The intercom went silent. Phil and Lem stood expectantly, but there was nothing forthcoming from Veronica.
After about twenty seconds, Phil began to tap through the partition again. "Wait a minute..."
The hours passed. Lem half-heartedly toyed with some recombinant plasmids he had lying around but his heart wasn't really in it; at any other time the possible engineering of a frog-pencil hybrid would have been thrilling (write anywhere with a graphite tongue that can also catch flies!), but tonight just wasn't the same.
Phil had resorted to repeatedly hitting his head on the table. It wasn't working out that well for him either.
"I can feel vibrations through the table," tapped Lem, "and I don't think you'd be stupid enough to design something seismic. How are you holding up?"
"This is pointless. I can't create anything on my own. That's why we have lab partners. Now I'm just a lab part."
"Even though you're only about a foot away from me, I miss you, Phil." Lem put his hand up against the partition in a faintly melodramatic fashion.
"I miss you too. Ten years of partnership reduced to headbanging, artificial rivalry and no toilet facilities." Phil's hand also went to the partition; in a completely different place from Lem, true, but the thought was what counted.
"Do you remember when you first came here?"
"How can I forget Seventies Week 1999? The disco dancing, the bad moustaches, Dr Bhamba trying to make me into a porn star... those were the good times. The Myman was in his element."
"Did I ever tell you what happened to my old partner?"
"Something about anger management issues or something? Didn't he go to work for Boeing or something?"
"I infected him with rage, you know. It wasn't contagious or anything, he just started foaming at the mouth and threw some furniture around. It was pretty funny until Veronica wanted to have him put down, so they had to transfer him elsewhere. I was a real wildchild before you came along, you know."
Phil was slightly choked up. "Lem, that is so sweet. You've never infected me with rage deliberately. I'd like to think that I have been a calming influence on your youthful excesses OH GOD IT IS NEARLY SEVEN AM AND I HAVE NO IDEAS I AM DOOMED." Phil resumed headbanging with renewed vigor.
"Cheer up, buddy. At least we'll still have each other on the outside world after my mom's finished. We could still work together on something, find a job somewhere else. Who says it has to end here?"
"It wouldn't be the same, though. I don't want to replicate the scientific magic elsewhere. You're all I've got right now, Lem!"
Lem paused before tapping. "You know, that gives me an idea that's so crazy and implausible that it might just work..."
The time had come for the final showdown – mano-a-mano, yin-versus-yang, lemur-versus-panther, acid-versus-alkali, proton-versus-electron. The extraction team led a dishevelled, distressed and unshaven Phil and Lem out of the building and into the Veridian Dynamics parking lot. A crowd had gathered outside to watch the spectacle from the street (much to the concerns of Veridian's insurance brokers), and most of the office had come down – some had even made banners with such inspirational slogans as "Someone to Win!" or "Go Science!". Ted had even brought Rose along to watch; from Phil's viewpoint she just seemed to be frowning at the proceedings.
One would ordinarily remark that it seemed odd to have acid-filled pits or small nuclear reactors available for installation in a company parking lot. Phil and Lem were not, however, in the right state of mind to comment.
Veronica had designated herself Master of Ceremonies for the proceedings and stood at a table with a very large megaphone, surrounded by officials with notepads and stopwatches. As neither scientist had no idea what the rules of the contest were supposed to be, and no longer had any intention of following them regardless, the judging panel seemed entirely pointless.
Veronica spoke into the microphone, magnifying her voice to reach all and sundry. "Employees, spectators, other people, listen well because I'm only going to say this once. If you can't work out what's going on here then, quite frankly, you're stupid and should probably just go somewhere else. Thank you. So without any further ado, gentlemen, would you present your creations now so we can all get back to work?"
There was an anticipatory murmur throughout the various crowds.
It was Phil who spoke first. "Ladies, gentlemen and colleagues, it is with heavy heart that I must present my creation to undertake this fiendish and completely inscrutable challenge, knowing that it is I who will be superior and victorious at the end of it. We have been put in an impossible position by Veridian but we have, as always, done our best to meet any challenge thrown at us. All I want to say at this point is that it has been, if not always a pleasure, at least mostly tolerable working with you all, and I am sure that whatever happens from here whichever of us is the winner will have your utmost support in future."
"Go Phil!" cried Linda from the midsts of the crowd. "You can do it! But also don't, because we don't want Lem to go either!"
"Without further ado, I present to you my discovery. Drumroll please." There was none. Veronica glared. "In that case, I give you... LEM!"
Lem stepped forward. "And, um... vice versa!"
The judging panel looked nonplussed. Veronica spoke into the megaphone in the blandest, most disinterested voice possible. "Oh my what is this it appears there is some kind of upset whatever shall we do yadda yadda yadda. Explain so we can all go, please?"
It was Lem's turn to speak. In the heat of the moment, he and Phil held hands like schoolchildren. A collective "aaaaaw" came up from the crowd. "We were asked to come up with something that could cope with any scientific conundrum posed in time for today's little shenanigans. Neither of us could think of anything or anyone that would be better equipped to handle a problem like this than each other."
"The extremely vague rules you gave us didn't say we had to do the obstacle course right now," said Phil, "so I'll get Lem to work on a solution with me and vice versa depending on which of us you pick!"
"So how does this count as a discovery or an invention or anything like that?" Veronica looked amused. The judges looked confused.
"Well, you could say that over the last ten years or so of our working together we've been discovering all about each other. It's going to take us a very long time to work out how to beat this challenge, though, so I suggest we just keep on working like we always have done." Both Phil and Lem were smiling slightly manically.
"Well, it's good enough for me," said Veronica through the megaphone, "as long as it gets everyone back in the office being productive and conforms to the rules. Besides, we've managed to sell those laser-shooting doves to North Korea, so They can't justify cutting any expenditure to your department any more. Looks like we all get to go back to work!"
The crowd shouted "Yay!"
"I guess we'll be firing someone else, so I'm happy whatever."
The crowd shouted "Boo!"
"But it's not going to be anyone you know or care about!"
The crowd shouted "Yay!" once more. Everyone was happy. Except Linda, but that was par for the course.
Phil and Lem never worked out how to beat the scientific obstacle course; the daycare kids ended up dismantling the whole thing a couple of days later. Only one of them fell in an acid pit.
Nor did Phil and Lem work out that Veronica and Ted had manipulated the entire situation so that neither of them would get fired (except for the doves; they were just serendipitous). A few choice words from Veronica to remind them of their long working history, plus Ted's conciliatory nature, had worked wonders.
They would never find out about that, though. That's why management manages, and scientists... science.