Max Tegan was heading across the parking lot after a long – extremely long – day at work, thinking about getting home and pretty much nothing else. Eating, maybe, if he decided he could spare the energy or the time for it. He ran a hand through his dark hair, noticing absently that it was starting to get a little shaggy. With eleven new investors and Josie’s new algorithms for the site and the supposed threat of market-share competition from Kindlin, their dragon-lady boss Elise had been pushing the entire team to the brink of exhaustion, wanting to drive the business higher.
Elise, of course, had never met the brink of exhaustion and didn’t really believe it existed. Max had finally stopped wondering if she was actually human or not – the answer had to be not. And you couldn’t show any weakness, perceived or otherwise, around her, because she didn’t tolerate weakness. Period. In anyone. For any reason.
Which was why Max was very momentarily happy that his dangerous, gun-toting dragon-lady boss wasn’t there to see him get jumped halfway across the parking lot by someone who hopefully only had mugging on their mind. The knife could be for show, right? The stains could be a trick of the light. And the guy’s crazy, bloodshot eyes could be…his hopeful imagination threw up its hands and walked off at that point, leaving Max on the ground with a crazed, possibly strung-out mugger holding a bloody knife standing over him. Crap, he was going to die, wasn’t he? Right there in the fucking parking lot, where Elise would see his corpse in the morning and mock it for not being alive – or maybe order it to get up and get to work. It was entirely possible she didn’t believe in death as an excuse, either.
Max was trying to decide whether he should start begging for his life or not when a miracle occurred: A black-clad figure leaped out of the night and knocked the knife out of the mugger’s hand. And then it knocked the mugger down, and for a minute Max thought there was going to be a fight…and then the mugger pissed his pants right there in front of God and everybody, scrambled cringingly to his feet, stuck both hands in the air and started backing up, shaking his head violently. “Goin’, I’m goin’!” he exclaimed in a panicked voice. “I’m sorry, I won’t come back, don’t kill me, man, don’t kill me…”
The man in black made a threatening move, stamping down one foot the way you’d warn off a child or a dog, and the mugger broke and ran, trailing pee across the asphalt because obviously the first scare hadn’t gotten it all. And then the man looked down at Max.
No, he looked Max over, quite possibly all the way down to the molecular level. Max shuddered. The man was short and muscular, and of course dressed all in form-fitting black with most of his face covered by same, and he had the intense dark eyes of a movie hero-vigilante – more hopeful thinking on Max’s part, of course, but his imagination had been intrigued into coming back by the idea of being saved by a ninja in a parking lot and so was willing to do him a solid in the wishful reasoning department. The man also didn’t appear to be armed, except in the literal sense because his biceps were making cartoon superhero bulges under his black shirt. He checked Max out intently, apparently didn’t see anything he was looking for, and then took off into the night, vanishing in seconds into the shadows where the anemic parking lot lights didn’t reach.
Max slowly sat up. He could see the knife, lying there on the asphalt, and now it was really obvious that it was bloodstained. He started to get to his feet, couldn’t get his shaking legs to cooperate, and fished out his cellphone instead, dialing 911. “Hello,” he said when the operator picked up and asked what his emergency was. “Do you count it as an emergency if some guy just tried to mug me and possibly kill me in the parking lot of my work but some other guy ran him off and now I’m here sitting on the ground looking at the bloody knife he was going to kill me with?”
The operator calmly assured him that yes, that did count – much to Max’s relief – and asked for his location so she could send the police to get the knife and get a statement from him. She even stayed on the phone with him until they got there so he wouldn’t be alone. Max asked the officer who drove him home after the statement-taking and knife-bagging was over if it was possible to leave some kind of 5-star review for a 911 operator and was disappointed to find out there wasn’t, but the officer promised that he’d pass the compliment on once he got back to the station. He even made sure Max got inside his apartment all right, although he said a repeat encounter with either attacker was highly unlikely. “Your rescuer has made it kind of plain that he’s the only bad thing allowed in the area, if you know what I mean,” he confided. “Not that we’ve had any complaints about him except for the ones from a few perps’ lawyers, but you know how it is – we can’t let just any Tom, Dick or Ninja Guy start running around playing vigilante games in the streets at night. And I think your guy must know that, because he never does anything that would make us have to go after him, and he never shows up in the same place twice or hangs around long enough for anyone to figure him out.” He clapped a reassuring hand on Max’s shoulder. “What I’m saying is…you’re fine, okay? You’ll never have any problems in that parking lot again, because the junkies think your guy is the god-damned boogeyman and they won’t go anyplace he’s already chased them out of.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Sure you don’t want to call a friend or something, though? You have every right to be shook up, it was still a close call.”
Max shook his head, wrapping his arms around his chest. The idea of calling one of his co-workers for…this sort of thing was unthinkable. He couldn’t handle the teasing right now, he just couldn’t. He found a shaky smile for the officer. “I’ll actually…be better off without any of them here, honest,” he said. “I’ll be fine, really.”
“Okay, your call,” the officer agreed, and let himself out. Max locked the deadbolt after him, put on the chain, and then slowly walked into his bedroom, sat down on the end of his bed, and just shook some more. He was entitled, after all. The nice police officer had said so.
And if he dreamed fitfully about ninjas once he finally did get to sleep…well, that was okay too.
Max was still too shaken up to drive the next morning – or to contemplate braving the parking lot after dark again to get to his car if he did drive – so he took a cab to work. Which deviation from normal was immediately commented on by multiple people, all of whom just automatically assumed that his car hadn’t started that morning. Max was happily letting them think that when someone who was surfing instead of working found the police report buried in the day’s local news and started telling everyone else about a near-mugging happening right in their very own parking lot the night before. Eventually someone else put two and two together and figured it out, and it wasn’t very long after that that he found himself being tapped on the shoulder by a frowning Elise.
Who had a gun in her hand, which almost sent Max right out of his skin just on general principles. “Do you want some protection?” she asked him point-blank. “Because I can teach you to use this, so it won’t happen again.”
Max got his breath back and shook his head. “No, I…thanks, for the offer, but I’m fine. The police said we shouldn’t have any more problems here. And the junkie just had a knife.”
“Gun beats knife, every time,” she informed him, but tucked the holstered gun under her arm. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
“I will, thanks.” Surreal, but that was Elise. At least she hadn’t gotten on his case for not standing up to the mugger, which was nice.
She made fun of him for it later, in their meeting – that was also Elise. But Max handled it, because he knew it was more about their coworkers than it was about him. If it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have caught him alone first and offered him a gun and lessons to make him feel better. Weird, by most people’s standards, but that was just the way Elise worked and Max had gotten used to it. He weathered the teasing with a quip or two, suggested that in spite of the officer’s assurances they might want to warn employees working late that they shouldn’t work late alone, and let it go. And so did everyone else.
Josie did ask him if he was all right later, though, which he thought was nice of her – as in nice that she’d remembered to ask at all, which was also a good sign that she was currently more human than algorithm-spewing robot goblin. And Blake nervously brought him a cookie and even more nervously asked if he wanted a ride home after work since he’d taken a cab that morning and cabs were expensive, and Max thanked him but said that no, he’d be fine and he’d be driving again the next day, he’d just been…shook up. To which Blake nodded a little too vigorously – for anyone else, but pretty much normal for him – and told Max that if he needed anything just to ask and then darted back to the front desk. And Max had smiled, actually smiled and even felt a little warm inside. Say what you wanted to about Blake, who could be really, really annoying sometimes, but he was a good little guy at heart. Max resolved to step back on the Blake-teasing in the future in appreciation of that. Their office could get kind of brutal in that area, something Elise had unintentionally started because she just didn’t have a filter or see any reason to get one, but maybe it had gone too far, gotten too mean. In fact, thinking back, Max sort of wanted to cringe away from some things he actually remembered himself saying to his coworkers, especially to Blake. He’d sounded like a bully, in hindsight, and that really wasn’t the kind of person he saw himself as or wanted to be seen as, either.
He resolved to do better, starting immediately. Which turned out to be harder than he’d initially thought it would be. He’d actually been acting like a mean bastard to certain of his coworkers long enough for it to have become a habit, which was worrisome to him, but he pushed on despite the occasional slip – which he made himself apologize for each time – and gradually, actually painfully slowly, he started to get a better handle on the problem and it started to go away.
Blake called him on it at the end of the first week. “Max, are you…are you okay? Because you haven’t…you haven’t been acting…well, like yourself, lately.” He scratched his front tooth with a fingernail. “Is it still about that…that incident? In the parking lot?”
Max made a face. “Kind of it is, but kind of not,” he admitted. “I realized after it happened that we’d gotten more than a little mean around the office – I mean, you were so nice to me the day after, once everyone found out, you were actually the only person besides Elise who was really nice about it, and I realized that I’d been…well, a total dick, a lot more of one than I was really comfortable with being and a lot more often than I’d realized I was doing it.” He shrugged. “So I decided I needed to stop doing that. Maybe if so many of us around here weren’t acting like assholes all the time, that night I could have…well, maybe I would have felt like I could call someone to talk to that night, instead of sitting home alone trying to deal with what happened on my own.”
Blake leaned forward, just a little, and looked him in the eye; he had brown eyes, just like Max did, and they were surprisingly intense. “You can call me,” he said, not sounding hyper or displaying a tic or anything. “You know you can call me, right?”
“Yeah, buddy, I do – and you can call me, too, although I really hope I’m the only one who gets threatened with death and/or dismemberment in the parking lot this year. The cops said I would be. But even for mundane stuff, you know, you drank too much or you need a ride or something – just call me. Because the dealing with it alone thing sucks donkey balls.”
“That it does,” Blake agreed, and then the nervous twitchiness came back and he bounced off. Max watched him go, puzzled. Something…well, he’d figure out what was nagging him about that later, right now he had work to do.
Of course, it didn’t take too long before other people around the office started to notice Max’s change of attitude, and not much longer than that before they started to comment on it to him instead of just to each other. Mostly in relatively negative ways – meaning, now Max was the one getting picked on more often than not. He held strong and persevered. Elise had said once that she was disgusted people weren’t already their ideal selves, and so when she’d asked Max about his change in attitude in her blunt way he’d explained it the same way he had to Blake and she’d not only gotten it, she’d actually been supportive. Well, supportive for Elise, but it was one of those things Max didn’t and had never held against her; Elise was the way she was, she was happy with herself, and it seemed to work for her in a way that it usually didn’t for normal-ish people. Max only concerned himself with it when they were talking to clients or investors, at which point it became his job to help balance her inherent Elise-ness out and make sure whoever talked to her knew they didn’t have a reason to run for their lives and/or call the cops.
Josie usually did damage-control for Elise as well, but she’d been being an absolute little shit to Max ever since he’d stopped participating in the teasing around the office; she’d done it before, most recently during their last divisive run-in with Elise’s competitive reindeer games, although she’d ended up apologizing to him for that one. He knew she was picking on him, in her own mind, in a ‘fun’ way, but knowing that wasn’t making it any fun for him. Her he actually – verbally, anyway – duked it out with a few times, although he never got anywhere with those arguments because you just couldn’t argue with Josie, about anything. Which was another thing he usually just accepted, Josie being Josie and occasionally being either a robot or a goblin or possibly a robot-goblin hybrid, but for some reason he’d been having more trouble dealing with it lately than he had in the past.
And then, he got a visit from HR. FindLove.net had one HR person, a guy named Martin who was almost indecently pretty and perfect, sort of like a Hollywood actor playing the yuppie bad guy in a movie. He was also a complete and total dick, further completing the yuppie bad-guy image in Max’s mind. Martin appeared in the break room doorway while Max was having a slightly rushed late lunch one day, leaning against it but not coming into the room – Martin never came into the break room that anyone ever saw, rumor had it that he was germ-phobic and kept his own bottled water and snacks in his office. Or possibly in a hidden refrigerator under his desk, something nobody else but him probably could have gotten away with since Elise tended to treat him like a favored pet. Not for the reasons Martin probably thought, as Martin all-too-obviously considered himself to be God’s gift to an undeserving world, but because all he had to do was open his mouth to confirm every scathing comment Elise had ever made about men and fully fifty-percent of every scathing comment she’d ever made about humanity in general. He really was a dick.
He also had only the barest comprehension of how a concept like ‘confidentiality’ applied to the rarely-seen performance of his actual job. “I heard you’re having some problems with the prevailing corporate culture of our company,” he announced – and in spite of them being the only two people present, it was definitely an announcement and not just a statement. “You’re supposed to take any issues you have to your supervisor…”
“…Or bring them to HR?” Max supplied helpfully. “Isn’t that the way that’s supposed to work, you take problems to HR?”
Martin made a face like Max had just started eating a dead rat in front of him and then offered to share. “Your supervisor can bring them to me if it’s necessary. Which I doubt it will be.” He rolled his eyes at the apparent plebian nature of such problems, which would doubtless be beneath him and a criminal waste of his time to deal with. “But someone else said something to me via the complaint box, so I’m following up for my weekly report. Stop harassing your fellow employees, Mr. Tegan.”
“My fellow employees are a bunch of bullies – which you’d know if you ever came out of your office,” Max countered. “And I haven’t been harassing anyone, I’ve simply been refusing to take part in the verbal abuse and harassment of other employees…”
“Who you happen to be sleeping with?”
The words were so unexpected that Max actually felt his brain throw out a system-not-responding error as it tried and failed to process them. He slowly shook his head. “I’m not seeing anyone here at work.”
That got another eye-roll. “Sure you aren’t. Don’t even try to deny it, you come to the defense of one particular coworker more often than any other. You must have a reason for that, correct?”
Max frowned as the error resolved itself. So that was it. He really did work with assholes. “Yeah, I do – he’s been getting singled out for most of the verbal abuse and harassment. Even by me, before, and when I realized what I was doing…I stopped. Because it wasn’t right, and that’s not the person I want to be.” He saw the other man shaking his head in denial of that and stood up, starting to get angry; it made him feel just a tiny bit better that he was several inches taller than Martin. “So you, as our director of Human Resources, find it perfectly a-okay for employees of our company to be abusive to one another, is that what you’re saying? But if someone decides it’s gone too far and refuses to participate anymore, then that person is the troublemaker…and your automatic assumption is that they must only be objecting because sex is involved. Is that it? Is that what you showed up here in the break room to convey to me?”
Martin straightened away from the doorframe. “This entire company – which pays both of our salaries – is based entirely on the idea that everything people do leads to or from sex, Tegan,” he bit out. “That’s the way people work. I realize Elise hired you to be her ideals person, to make sure the public face we show is all romance and commitment and happily ever after…but those are just ideals, fantasies, and the rest of us know it.” He shook his head, tsking lightly, a mocking, smirking sort of sneer quirking up one corner of his mouth. “You know, if there was one person doing anything just because of an ideal,” he made it sound like a dirty word, “that would be you, wouldn’t it? Consider yourself off the hook for the favors-for-sex ethical violation someone complained about, I’ll put it in my report that you’re just an ‘idealist’ trying to push his own standards of appropriate interpersonal behavior onto his coworkers and that I gave you a verbal warning for it.”
He sauntered off again, and Max slowly sank back down onto the hard break-room chair, feeling like he’d just had a rug yanked out from under him. Because even after some of the shit that had gone on recently thanks to their Kindlin-related market-share issues, he’d still thought he was an important member of the team at FindLove.net, not just Elise’s ‘ideals’ person, hired to balance out all the logic-wielding numbers people. And certainly not just…not just a joke.
From the corner of the break room, the round convex lens of a small security camera glinted in the light from the sunny window behind him, allowing the green light on its base to go unnoticed.
Max was unusually subdued at the afternoon meeting, and when he got back to his desk afterward and found a mocked-up Planeteer ring with a heart on it on his keyboard, he stopped talking altogether. He went home early after sending Elise an email saying he was sick. He composed and discarded three resignation letters, played with his resume for a little while, and finally went to bed and just stared at the ceiling until he fell into a restless sleep.
The next morning, Blake greeted him with honest concern when he came in to work, wanting to know if he was feeling better. Max managed a sickly smile – and after his sleepless night he really did look like he’d been sick, and he didn’t feel so hot either. “I’m okay – I’ll be okay,” he said. “I just…I guess something just sort of knocked me for a loop, I’ll get over it.” He added a little more wattage to the smile, even managed a wink because Blake still looked worried. “Thanks for asking, though.”
Blake just nodded. Max continued on to his desk, found the Planeteer ring still there…but now there was something under it, a folded piece of paper. He unpacked his laptop, plugged in and sat down, then took a deep breath and moved the ring, opening the note. Inside was a simple printed message:
Without the Heart, Captain Planet would have been a monster.
Max sat there, stunned. And then, slowly, he smiled. He put the ring on a shelf where everyone could see it, and the note where he could see it but where nobody else could, logged in to the network and got to work. He had emails and things to catch up on thanks to leaving early the day before, and the team had a meeting with Elise in two hours. And he also had a really awesome friend named Blake.
He never heard another word from HR, although the following week he did hear someone mention that Elise had torn Martin a new one over something and the bastard didn’t have his own refrigerator anymore. And eventually everyone in the office calmed back down, and the bullying problem actually did settle down to what might be considered ‘normal’ levels – as opposed to the levels it had been at before. Which made Max happy in a way he was kind of unhappy he couldn’t share with anyone without sounding like the kind of person Martin had accused him of being. He might just be Elise’s ideals person…but he’d still made a difference.