"Sandy, I've got something to ask you," Ben said, getting down on one knee.
"I know, Ben," I said.
"This could be one of the most important things I've ever asked." Ben couldn't stop grinning, and his Coke-bottle glasses had slipped down his nose again.
"I'm well aware of that," I said.
"And you do know I wouldn't ask anyone else."
"And I wouldn't expect it from anyone else," I said, making my way across the cafeteria floor. I was probably grinning like a loon too, but that was all right since Management had long decided I was the least sane person in Stats.
"All right, then." He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and lunged under the desk. "Sandy, grab that monkey!"
The monkey in question darted out from its comfortable seat under Management's audio/visual equipment, springing out from behind the desk like a fuzzy jack-in-the-box. I made a grab for it, but someone had left a squeezable yogurt tube on the floor from the last initiative training sharing experience, and I landed on the desk instead, spraying handouts and forms everywhere. The monkey screeched, bounded first on top of me and from there to the projector, which obediently switched on, displaying a Streamlining Performance Logistical Analysis Team logo and another splotch of squeezable yogurt.
I pushed myself off the desk and glared up at the monkey, which regarded me with the same startled look as it had given absolutely everything so far. "This," I told it, "is all your fault."
I can explain.
Let me back up.
Summer at HiTek meant a lot of things: construction in the parking lot, complaints from every office that adjoined Bio, and at least three complete breakdowns in the air conditioning. For Gina, it meant attempting to convince Brittany and Bethany that they could not have a Bratz-themed pool party. For Sarah and Ted, it meant intense discussions of whether their vacation counted as a first or second honeymoon. For most of the company (Management excluded), it meant a death- and grant-loss-defying exercise as the workplace message facilitation coordinator (and her assistant) went on vacation, usually at the worst possible times, and the new floating facilitation coordination assistant covered for them.
For Ben and me, it meant monkeys.
Call it a lingering remnant of sentimentality, but I'd been dragging my feet about leaving HiTek, even given the acronym of the week from Management. Management didn't really want us to leave, either, and every motion Ben and I had made toward using our Niebnitz Grant to step away from HiTek had been shunted away and lost in the endless morass of paperwork. And after all, the atmosphere of unstabilized chaos had been beneficial in the long run. Alexander Fleming had probably felt a pang of nostalgia leaving his cramped little lab by Paddington Station, I told myself.
It helped that I was in limbo of sorts, Niebnitz Grant or no. I'd finished my first write-up of the bellwether theory of trends (which Management had begged a copy of, then spent the next three weeks trying to convince me to rename and submit to a pop-science publisher) and sent a draft of the first chapter out on submission. While waiting for the revise and resubmit letter, I'd started at a new project that might, if it played out, turn into a chapter of its own, and begun helping Ben with his own research. Management, in what was probably a belated attempt to curry favor with him, had finally approved the project he'd been applying for ages ago, back when I first handed him a roll of duct tape.
"Information diffusion in sheep is one thing," he told me over a muffin at SteamCaff (the most recent incarnation of the Earth Mother café, complete with waitresses in corsets and gear-shaped tables that inevitably snagged on people's clothes). "But I want to see if the effect is still perceptible in a more complex system."
"You're saying there's something more complex than a sheep?" I said, snagging one of the blueberries from his side of the muffin. "I'm shocked."
"Oh, there's pigeons, some species of lichen, rocks . . ." He smiled. "And your research is concentrating on the really complex systems, the historical ones. But I'd like to look at something in between. Something more easily controlled. Besides," he added, his smile widening, "if we're going to be at HiTek a little longer, then I might as well work on what I signed up for."
Which was why I was currently settled in Ben's office, using his computer to scan through videos, and holding down the fort just in case one of the macaque contracts called. Ben had gone down to talk to Management's live-animal liaison, armed with several parts per million comparisons just in case someone brought up Shirl's smoking and "third-hand smoke residue" in the paddock. I had a stack of DVDs and a vast reluctance to continue work.
"Hiya, Doc." A stack of mail flopped down onto the desk beside me, followed by a pair of blue-clad elbows and a brilliant gaptoothed smile.
I glanced up. "Hi, Ell."
Today Ell was wearing blue gauze wrapped around her forearms, a green vest that clashed horribly, an ankle-length skirt in a plaid that combined the worst of both colors, and in-line skates in, for a change, plain black. She grinned even wider, then paused, shuffling through the heap of letters she carried. "Hang on. If you're Doctor Foster, then isn't this Stats? I thought you worked in Stats."
"I do," I said hastily. "I'm just down here while Dr. O'Reilly is out. He's expecting a delivery of macaques today, and he needs someone to supervise their arrival."
Ell (short for Elbereth; didn't take much to guess what trend her parents had been following) nodded along, wide-eyed, then stopped again. It was more than a little like a record needle skipping to a halt -- or, given the changes in technology, the little "buffering" window that popped up when a program decided to give up. "Hang on. He's delivering your what?"
"Macaques." Her expression didn't change. "Monkeys. For a research project."
"Oh! Oh, monkeys, of course, okay. Sorry, I thought -- well, never mind." She hesitated a moment longer, then perked up. "So you can take his mail too? I think I've got it somewhere here . . ."
Ell was, for the time being, Bio's assistant workplace message facilitation director (floating assignment) and yet another example of how Human Resources at HiTek was quite possibly trying to drive me mad. Although she was as perky and friendly as the actual workplace message facilitation director Ceridwen was surly, she'd apparently subscribed to the incompetence fad Flip had started. For every correctly delivered envelope, four went to other places, and she compensated for scanning the wrong article by scanning it six times. Mistaking Bio for Stats was the least of her difficulties, though it did make me wonder if she had a functional sense of smell.
Still, Ell was so friendly and eager to please that most people let it slide (especially after a run-in with Ceridwen on one of her many off days). Being angry with her was like being angry with a brain-damaged Golden Retriever; all it did was raise your blood pressure while she galumphed along without a care.
Ell peered around my screen. "Whatcha watching?" I started to answer, but she'd already craned over my shoulder. "Hey, is that Shrek 2? I loved that movie!" She tried to get a better look, but slipped as her in-line skates skid over one of the cables, disconnecting it.
I dove to save the cable, then the computer, then the big bottle of tap water I'd been drinking from. Ell scrambled upright, but at the cost of the letters, two of which caught the worst of the resulting splash. My shirt got the rest. "Oops," Ell said. "Sorry. Hey, you oughta get one of those Zip-Tee Bottles, the ones that don't ever close, so that you don't spill so often! I've got like three at home, I can bring one in." She leaned in like a conspirator. "They don't sell them in stores any more."
Yes, and that was because Zip-Tee Bottles had been one of those fads that spectacularly flared out within a month, leaving an awful lot of stock on shelves and three better-designed imitators fighting over what was left of the niche. That was the other thing about Ell that made me wonder if HR was deliberately messing with me: Ell was no less a follower of fashion than Desiderata or Ceridwen (or, really, anyone at HiTek), but the poor girl was always at the end of a trend. No matter what strange new item I saw her wearing, I could pretty much guarantee that there'd be an article on how that particular style was played out; no matter what book she carted around under the heap of mail, a scathing backlash would hit within a day or two; and all the printed posters in her cube were the kind that the Internet had tagged "old meme" (although that wasn't her fault so much as the blinding speed of changing trends there).
All of this made me more than a little sorry that I looked forward to the day when Ell turned surly, since that would presage the end of that particular trend. Then again, Ell and "surly" didn't belong in the same sentence.
"I wish I had a job where I got to watch movies all day," she said, switching right back to her earlier mode and sitting down on a stack of disks. "I'd never leave it. It'd be, like, the best job for a total slacker."
Ell and "tact" didn't really fit in the same sentence either.
"So what'd you think of Shrek 2?"
"It's okay," I said.
"Okay? O-kay? That's like saying that Shiver Shiver Bam is just o-kay." I glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, and she shook her head. "You don't know Shiver Shiver Bam? They're this fantastic band, they just released this album 'Not the Beez' -- I'll make you a mix CD, you'll love it." She hopped up, scattering disks and clipped advertisements, and bounced out the door like a beagle who'd just spotted a squirrel.
I flipped over the top stack -- book release notices for things like Now You Move the Cheese: Self-Actualization Beyond the Rat Race and Scarlett, and sighed. The sequels were getting to me.
This was probably more proof that my research was probably going in the wrong direction. You see, for every fad that sprang up out of nowhere, there were at least ten attempts to cash in on it, pale imitations that sometimes held on and sometimes faded away. Sequels were a stranger form of this, usually because they were made by the same team, attempting to capture whatever spark had driven the first to success.
Sometimes they were better, and those were, sadly, not the kind I was studying. Sometimes they spiraled off into fads of their own, or turned the entire series into a fad. (Harry Potter, in particular, was something I'd been taking notes on with no real desire to study it in detail, simply because the phenomenon was so huge. Simpler systems for better study, like Ben said.)
But often their shortcomings showed up the flaws in the first, and all of a sudden all the people who'd inhaled Twilight or The Matrix found that the most recent installment made them step back and reconsider their first reaction. A bad sequel could easily kill a fad.
If it still made money above a certain threshold, though, it'd keep spawning more sequels, more imitators, and those were what I was now reading, watching, and dreading. Drivel was one thing, but heartfelt drivel was almost easier to take than packaged, spun, and polished drivel-like product. It didn't help that so many of them tried to retread the same ground, sticking to the tried and true line of the first and thus turning plot into formula. Romantic comedies were the most annoying in this regard; in order for them to have any of the same will-they-won't-they tension between the leads, manufactured misunderstandings abounded, usually involving totally improbable situations, sudden unwillingness on one party's behalf to listen to any sort of reason, and the repeated line "I can explain." I'd started watching with closed captions rather than audio just so I wouldn't have to hear that line again.
Truthfully, I'd started this project to understand why people would try to bottle lightning, but all that was coming through so far was that executives would try any pattern in hopes of evoking the qualities that had made the first time work, without any real understanding of those qualities in the first place. Crass imitations, hollow attempts to chase down originality or cash in on its lack -- those were what I wanted to study. By this point, though, I had to struggle to remember why I'd been inspired to study them in the first place.
"Doctor Foster." Alicia Turnbull strode into the office wearing a tailored jacket of a beige so neutral it nearly faded into the background, and a disapproving glare. "Is there a reason why the floating workplace message facilitation director is ransacking my office for a blank CD?"
Then again, with a walking example within arm's reach, perhaps inspiration was easy to track down. "I can explain," I said, and cringed a little inside.
I was wrong about the jacket. No amount of beige linen could ever let Dr. Turnbull fade into the background. "Is Dr. O'Reilly aware that you're using his facilities?"
"Yes," I said. "He is."
She sniffed. "I informed the floating workplace message facilitation director that I had long since transferred all of my research to flash drives, and so there would be no possible reason for a blank CD to be in my office, and do you know what she said?"
"Nope." I pulled up my box-office-distribution regression so that it covered the green ogre on my screen.
"She said that one, it never hurt to check, and two, you'd said it was all right."
"Well, she's right about one thing, that it never hurts to check." I smiled and began tweaking the regressions, without any real hope of producing a result.
Alicia didn't take the hint. Instead, she prowled around the office, lifting papers with the end of her pen as if expecting to find incriminating evidence beneath them. "I'm a little surprised that you haven't continued your research into the Asolo Effect."
The Asolo Effect. Management must have read the preface to my paper and caught on to the one word that looked like it'd fit into a Dan Brown title. I almost regretted adding the preface, but if it got one more person (besides Management) to read Browning, it was worth it.
"I mean, it'd be much more likely to draw the kind of attention that you and Bennett seemed likely to collect, particularly following the Niebnitz Grant."
I glanced at the clock. How long could a meeting with the live-animal liaison take? Years. Decades.
"And statistically speaking -- a topic on which I'm sure you should be more familiar -- I'm certain that Bennett would get a lot more done in a more structured setting."
"We're considering France," I said absently.
There was a long, unexpected pause. I looked up to see Alicia glaring at me, arms crossed. "This," she said, "is exactly the sort of flip approach to science that I have come to expect from you. International travel while in the middle of a potential breakthrough? If it weren't for the fact that you and Bennett provide an important data point, I would think my efforts here were lost."
"I certainly wouldn't want you to think that." And you didn't know that Ben's original research was on the source of the Loue, I mentally added. Browning had it right: "Water your damned flower-pots," indeed.
I got up from behind the desk, straightening my still-damp shirt. "I'll go talk to Ell. I'm sure there are blank CDs in the supply closet somewhere." And any time she spent prying one out of Supply would be less time spent bothering Alicia, therefore less reason for Alicia to come seeking more reasons why someone like me could have possibly been awarded the Niebnitz Grant. Simple system, simpler solution.
Which is the sort of thinking that got Flip hired.
I took two steps out the door and crashed straight into Ben, sandwiching a clipboard and stack of papers between us. "Oof," he said, and then, his eyes lighting up, "Sandy! Good news about the macaques!"
That was the best thing I'd heard all day. It didn't hurt that Ben had put one arm around me to steady me, and that always made good news better. "Wonderful," I said, and meant it. "What's the news?"
"Bennett?" Both of us turned to see Alicia staring at us. "Good news about your what?"
"Macaques," he said. "For a follow-up project on the bellwether effect on information diffusion."
"Monkeys," I added.
"I can send you the proposed abstract, if you like." He hadn't moved, though, and for just a moment I really wished Alicia weren't there because Ben was, and his arm was still around me. But we were standing in the doorway, and unless she wanted to go out through the paddock (which I greatly doubted) we were blocking her way.
I stepped back, smoothing my shirt down. "So what's the good news?" I said, just as Alicia said, "Yes, send me the abstract."
"I can't right now," he said to Alicia, then, turning to me, "because they're here. They've already arrived."
By "already arrived," it seemed that the live-animal liaison had wanted to interrogate Ben for a full two hours while the macaques waited in a truck. It didn't take much thought to realize that this could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but luckily the man sent to deliver the macaques had more sense than the live-animal liaison. We found him sitting in the truck, running five fans and talking to sixteen cages' worth of mildly doped macaques, and he signed them over with a smile.
"It's a small clan," Ben told me as we brought in the next-to-last cages. "One matriarch, three males, a lot of females."
"That's usual?" I asked, staggering under the weight of mine. This particular macaque had apparently not been dosed with the same amount as the rest; while they'd been content to hunker down for transport, this one kept trying to climb out and inspect her surroundings.
"It should be." He set down his cage, then glanced at the name, brow furrowed. "What's the name of yours?"
"Jacques, I think." I peered inside and met a pair of beady, baffled eyes. "Wait. Jacques the monkey?"
Ben groaned. "I can explain. It looks like whoever keeps these macaques has a sense of humor." He showed me the list: Mighty Joe, Yankee, Kung-Fu, and, near the end, Mike, Mickey, Davey, and Peter. I winced. "Don't worry. We don't have to use his designations."
"I just regret having read them." Jacques thumped against his -- her crate, since their owner had apparently ignored the macaques' actual gender when assigning names -- as if in agreement.
The last of them, Big Mama, was quite clearly the matriarch: None of the other macaques ventured out from their cages, despite their curiosity, until she had emerged to regard the paddock with a disapproving gaze that PTA board chairmen would envy. "Good God," Ben breathed. "She looks just like my Aunt Petunia."
I glanced at him. "Two feet tall and covered in hair?"
"Well, no, but --" He fell silent a moment. "We may have the bellwether effect showing clearly here already -- see, she's the first out of her cage, and the rest are following. Though I'm not sure it's quite the same thing in a hierarchical family structure --"
Petunia -- because I could not think of her as Big Mama -- had not quite finished her circuit of the paddock when Jacques darted out from her cage, shrieking, and immediately scrambled halfway up the netting. She stayed there, alternating between shrieks and strangely questioning chirps until Petunia climbed up after her and cuffed her on the back of the head. Jacques slipped down half a foot, and stayed there looking stunned.
As if this had been a signal, the rest of the macaques emerged from their crates and began exploring their new surroundings. Ben's clipboard drooped from his hand. "I think they might be a little more trouble than the sheep."
I patted him on the shoulder. "So are some kinds of lichen."
They were more trouble, though to their credit none of them attempted to head-butt anyone. Caring for a flock of large wooly creatures with five functional brain cells between them was difficult in an entirely different fashion from caring for a group of nominally intelligent, smaller, and infinitely more mobile creatures. They were also louder than the sheep, although this only seemed to matter on the days when the air conditioning broke. Ben and I had to spend a couple of weeks just getting used to handling them, and another analyzing the existing social relations before we could begin teaching them tricks. I spent half my time in his lab following patterns on the screen, the other half out in the paddock, and mornings and lunch breaks leafing through Revenge of the Bad-Ass Fairies or the novelization of The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses.
Information diffusion seemed to have its own snags as well. We started by teaching them a basic knot-tying trick, which made its way through a few of them before dying out. "Okay," said Ben. "Useful skills instead."
The pattern was nothing like I'd expected. Teach a useful skill to one of the males, and it would make its way through them first before being either demonstrated to or co-opted by the females. Teach a nonutilitarian skill to one of the females, and the same pattern would follow, though slower than before, and the social bonds seemed to dictate who taught what to whom or who imitated whom. If there was a bellwether effect in play, it was muted, although I saw a few traces in place in smaller groups within the clan.
At the very least, it was a change from Lucky Bucky in Oz or Masked Avengers 2 or Destiny's Cruel Path, the sequel to Led on by Fate, which though it was no worse than the first had barely sold, possibly because the hero was more clearly a thoughtless cad in this one. I spent mornings scanning through videos of the macaques with Ben, afternoons attempting to teach one of them how to dribble a ball or enter a code to receive food pellets (which most of them rejected in favor of Fruit Tweez, a snack Ell accidentally introduced to them after leaving her lunch in arm's reach), and evenings either reading yet another sequel or comparing reviews and sales figures. The macaques made for more interesting viewing.
The two exceptions to our growing model of information diffusion were Jacques and Petunia. Demonstrating a trick to Petunia -- whether utilitarian or not -- resulted in a long, contemptuous stare, followed by dismissal. It was some comfort to know that Ben and I were not alone in this; several of the macaques ran into exactly the same reaction after learning their tricks, particularly the utilitarian ones. They showed her the sequence necessary to dispense pellets, the umbrella-opening trick for shelter in the rain (which we had a little of, even in the midst of the hot summer), the bucket trick for cooling down, and nervously stand around after demonstrating for her. It didn't matter what the trick was, Petunia regarded it with the same expression of disdain, then walked off, usually to the little ledge that faced Ben's office, to glare through the window at us.
Eventually it became clear that she would never, ever, accept a new trick unless it had been done over and over again, until she was familiar with it in her surroundings. "She's the perfect audience for some of these sequels," I told Ben. "She only likes tried and true formulas."
"Or else she's a marketing executive in disguise," Ben agreed, handing me a cold can of soda from the fridge where we were keeping our dwindling supply of Fruit-Tweez (which, following Ell's lead, had been discontinued by the manufacturer just as soon as we determined they were safe for macaque consumption).
On the other hand, she was clearly still a member of the clan, given food and groomed and accepted. I checked the roster of the macaques and found that she was actually Petunia's full sister, though the difference between them couldn't be starker.
It didn't make any sense. But as the weeks went by and Ben and I ran ourselves ragged trying to keep the macaques from driving everyone nuts and keeping their paddock within some degree of cleanliness, not much was making any sense. Especially not the plots of the manufactured sequels, which had become even more inane. If a heroine had shown any kind of intelligence in the first movie, by the time the second came around I could pretty much guarantee that this would be stripped away and replaced with a perverse refusal to listen to reason. The heroes weren't much better, and three times in a row I had to switch off a movie simply to keep myself from shouting at the screen, which did about as much good as shouting at Ell would have. (Since Ceridwen's return, she'd been put on floating duty again, which apparently meant taking on any duties Ceridwen didn't like, so the mail chase had become another tradition in both Stats and Bio.)
So many of them followed the same formula, or if they didn't, they followed the tried and true plot of the original with a slavish accuracy, that my notes began to blur one into the other. A few were bearable, and some more than that, even though their packaged nature remained clear. The best of those acknowledged a world outside the bubble of the story; in much the same way that the original had created a little world, these invited examination of the boundaries, promising something other than the same old patterns. However, most of them didn't bother with that, and after I fell asleep over breakfast watching Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle it was pretty clear that this project had gotten out of hand.
The problem came to a head with, as might be expected, one of Management's all-staff meetings complete with two new acronyms, a fresh filing form, and initiative brainstorming exercise. Ben had gotten there earlier than me and claimed a table, and when I arrived he waved at me from across the room. "You have no idea how good it is to see you," I said, sinking into the chair next to him. "One more direct-to-video release and I think I'll drop my monitor into one of Doctor Applegate's fish tanks." I stretched out across the table and dropped my head onto my arms. "I'm pretty sure that's cruelty to fish, though."
"Or give it to Jacques. She'll untangle all the cables and then get her head stuck in them."
"Or Petunia," I agreed. "She'd probably love them. They're unoriginal enough for her."
He put a hand on my shoulder, warm through the cloth. "I never thought I'd be happy to go to another of Management's meetings."
"Yeah?" I turned my head so that I was looking up at him. "Acronym and all?"
"Never mind the acronym. They're giving out souvenirs this time."
I looked up to see Management brandishing what turned out to be a tube of squeezable yogurt, apparently to show what sort of terrible ideas could be unleashed if brainstorming ran amok. Ell (and Ceridwen, who'd returned from her vacation with a nasty sunburn and a scowl) had baskets full of the little tubes, all of which had been imprinted with the HiTek logo. "Glad to see our research dollars are going to something useful," I murmured.
"More useful than monkeys?" His expression grew serious, and he leaned a little closer to me. He looked tired, I thought, tired as I felt. "Look, Sandy, I was hoping to catch a chance to talk to you. Once this project is done, I was thinking --"
"You have to help me," Gina whispered as she dropped a handful of Peach Dream! HiTek edition on our table. "I can't take the time to carry the leftovers back to the cooler -- the pool party coordinator is calling in ten minutes and if I don't pick up he'll give our spot to someone else."
I darted a glance at Management, who was busily pointing out something on a pie chart. "I thought you always escaped with a bathroom break?"
"Backfired this time. Ell caught me in the hall and asked me to help with these, and I couldn't say no to her. And Ceridwen's learned the bathroom break strategy, so there's no chance she'll be helping us."
I let out a long breath, then turned to Ben. "I'm sorry. Afterwards?"
"Afterwards," he agreed, though he seemed a little crestfallen.
I took a tube of yogurt. "Okay. Lead on."
Walking back to the kitchenette with Ell wasn't much of a hardship, even if not many people had gone for the squeezable yogurt and so left the baskets nearly as heavy as before. Ell didn't seem to mind the bulk, swinging her baskets like Little Red Riding Hood pre-wolf and chattering on about how much it sucked that Shiver Shiver Bam had broken up and did I get the mix CD? I told her that I had, though I hadn't yet listened to it, and that I appreciated the gift."Oh, it's no trouble," Ell said, beaming even though her cat's-eye rhinestone glasses kept slipping down her nose. There was no glass in them, just the frames, and combined with her purple leggings and silver puffy jacket the effect was more surreal than anything else. "I just like doing nice things for people sometimes."
A faint chill ran down the back of my neck. "Is this something new?" I asked cautiously. "Not that I don't think you've been nice before, it's just . . . was this the result of some kind of epiphany?" If simple good-heartedness was a fad, then Ell's association with it a sign of its impending doom?
"Oh no." She swung her basket around again, this time scattering yogurt tubes down the hall. "Oops. Sorry. No, it's just something I like to do. Always did."
I relaxed a little as I bent to pick up the yogurt. "That's good." That was a relief, actually.
"Yeah, my grandma, she says that the best way to get people to be nice to you is to show them how to be nice." She grinned and skated over a yogurt tube, which obligingly splattered my shoes. "Oops."
She had a point. Now if she could just find some skill to go with it.
I got back to the lab to find that Ben had plugged in my laptop and refilled my water bottle. I smiled, picking up the bottle and sloshing it around. Small gestures, that sort of plain kindness, might not be something that could be ascribed to a fad. Manufactured kindness, maybe -- the "one good deed per day," keep up the karma meter, bland and useless attitude -- but even that could help, the same way that even science-on-demand sometimes came up with a result once in a great while.
As if summoned by my thoughts, Alicia Turnbull's voice drifted in through the screen door to the paddock. ". . . should try to find a new project." I shook my head and put one hand on the screen door, but her next words stopped me cold. "I mean, you're wasted on this sort of research, and I think my regression patterns can prove that the Niebnitz Grant can be ascribed to a fluke. Dr. Foster is passable at statistics and historical analysis, but there's really no way she can successfully integrate her work with your own."
My thoughts ranged between a blur of indignation and a mess of unprintable sentiments. I flattened myself against the wall beside the door, bumping one of the cameras in the process, and peered out. The macaques were much as I'd left them: Mike, Mickey, Davey and Peter passing handfuls of food between themselves, Petunia sitting on the highest perch and surveying the landscape as if waiting for it to disappoint her, and Jacques hanging upside-down from the netting and picking at it. Ben walked beneath her, writing on his clipboard, and Alicia followed in his wake like some kind of shark.
"Her Asolo Effect paper has been stalled for some time, and from what I understand of it there's not really any fruitful avenues of study drawing from that. You need a better partner in this research -- this project alone is overworking you."
Ben stopped and pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Well, I can't deny that I've been overworked on this project," he admitted. "I think I bit off more than I can chew."
"Exactly. Which is why I should come on board." Alicia smiled, and it took a lot of self-control for me not to fling my water bottle at her.
Ben, though, didn't seem to notice either her smile or my presence at the door. "And I will admit that I feel like my talents are wasted here," he continued.
That stung. I turned back, blinking hard. Okay, this was nothing like what it appeared to be, right? Ben could explain, I could explain -- I must have just walked in on this conversation in the middle, and Dr. Turnbull was not really attempting to poach Ben away from me . . . although I really couldn't find a way to look at her words that made them even slightly ambiguous . . . and of course Ben felt wasted here, both of us spent our days chasing after monkey poop and we barely saw each other and maybe she was right and hang on I'd seen this same exact scenario in seven different movies this week.
I put down my water, shook my head, and tried to collect my thoughts. I couldn't look at this through the format of those dratted romantic comedy sequels. This wasn't Romantic Lead Number Two, this was Ben, and I wasn't some drip of a girl ready to misinterpret anything or ascribe evil motives to the nicest guy on the planet. I could face this situation as a reasonable adult.
"Excellent. So you'll sign on to the change of researcher actualization form?" Alicia said.
Of course, there's facing something as a reasonable adult and then there's remembering to collect one's temper. I took a deep breath, then stopped as Ben answered.
"Oh, I couldn't do that," he said. "Sandy's the only one who I trust with my monkeys."
Now here's the strange thing: I knew, knew he used the plural. There was absolutely no reason for Ben to say "monkey" when he meant "monkeys." However, I could swear that he just had done so, and though accidental innuendo might be a trend that had gone out with Benny Hill and BBC embarrassment comedies, I was still more than a little susceptible to it. I put one hand over my mouth, holding in a startled laugh.
Apparently, Alicia was just as unprepared. ". . . What?" she said.
"Sandy's fantastic. I mean, it's just fine when I'm handling my monkeys solo, but she's really something else." Ben gave a happy sigh, then kept talking, still amiable and innocent. "I wouldn't trust my monkeys in anyone else's hands."
I stifled a giggle. There was no way that I was hearing this.
"Macaques are very sensitive, after all, and --"
"This is about your experiment?" Alicia tried.
"Oh yes. No offense, Alicia, I'm sure you'd be just fine, but you're not Sandy. So you see, I really can't let anyone else near my monkeys."
Alicia didn't answer for a moment, and I peered out to see why. Ben had wandered off, clipboard still in hand, and she was left staring after him. "I see," she said after a moment. "Well. I'll, I'll let you be, then."
"If you see Sandy, tell her it's almost time to tend to my monkeys again."
Alicia made a strangled noise, and I did the same, even as she departed through a different door -- probably wanting to stay as far away from me as possible, just in case I ran into her. I couldn't blame her.
After a moment, the screen door slid back. I took a step toward Ben as he entered, but he didn't see me or even notice any changes. Instead, he walked to hallway door, closed it, took down the spare lab coat (with three ink splotches over the pocket), put it over his head, and -- thus muffled -- began laughing hysterically.
I tapped him on the shoulder. "Can I have a go?"
He dropped the lab coat and stared at me. "Sandy? Did you --"
"Yes, I heard all of that. Can I?" I took the lab coat, wadded it up, and let loose with the storm of giggles that had been coming for some time. All the tension of the last few weeks evaporated, and I leaned against Ben, glad for his presence, for his common sense, even for the dratted macaques.
"You heard -- I'm so sorry," he said, mortified. "I've been trying to get her to leave for ages, and I thought embarrassment might work where reason didn't." He was still laughing, though weakly now, and he tentatively put an arm around my shoulders. "It's been a long few weeks."
"For both of us," I said, and moved the lab coat so I could look at him properly. "Ben," I began, then stopped, not sure what I wanted to say other than I was very glad he was here and very glad that we were still partners.
Sometimes you don't need to say it aloud. "Sandy," he said, and kissed me.
"No more monkeys," I said at some point in the next few minutes.
"No more monkeys," he agreed. "And for the record, neither of us should ever use the word in any context other than the lab again."
I kissed him again. "Agreed."
"Oh!" The door to the hallway opened, and Ell stared at us for a moment, then laughed and bounced precariously a few times on her skates. "Oh, yay! I was hoping you two would get together."
Last person to catch on, like I said.
Ell beamed at us. "I just know you'll be happy together. Sorry, I'll stop interrupting." She closed the door, and then a second later, opened it again. "Um, and I was supposed to tell you that your monkeys are loose."
"What?" Ben and I said in unison.
It turned out that Ell's assessment was an overstatement. Only one monkey had escaped: Jacques, who had finally learned the knot-tying trick we'd taught them back at the beginning, then somehow blended that with her persistent interest in the twist-ties we'd used to develop an entirely new skill: untwisting the netting at the top of the paddock. It was just our luck that her complete lack of status as a bellwether meant that the rest of the clan wasn't following.
It was, however, the one bit of luck we had.
"It's just one monkey, right?" Ben said as we followed the trail of shredded paper, broken discs, and other less pleasant traces. "It's got to be less trouble than a whole flock of sheep."
"You just had to say that aloud," I said.
Gina poked her head out of her office. "We got the pool reservation! Now to convince Bethany that she can't fill it with pink bubbles," she announced before taking in the detritus filling the hall. "You're not having livestock troubles again, are you?"
"Define livestock," I said.
Ell, who'd skated along in our wake apparently as a tourist, volunteered an answer. "Dr. O'Reilly's macaque is loose."
Gina's eyes bulged slightly. "His what?"
"Monkey," I said. Her expression didn't change. "Look, unless you want another Romantic Bride Barbie debacle --"
"Oh, I had one of those!" Ell volunteered. "Only for its collectible value, you understand."
Gina shook her head. "I'm staying in my office, and I'm not coming out until it's sane again." She'd have a long wait, I thought.
Ben stopped at a crossing in the hallway. "There," he said, pointing to a trail of cake -- the remnants of Chemistry's Happy Thursday bonding experience seminar, which had succeeded only in bonding together Chemistry in their dislike of cardboard store cakes. "She's headed for Management."
"Wonderful," I muttered, then turned to Ell. "Ell, I want you to go back to the paddock. Take this --" I fumbled in my pocket for my cell phone. "Ben's number is top of the list. Call us if any of the macaques show signs of following. We don't want any more of them to get lost in HiTek."
Jacques was indeed heading for Management, and we only caught a glimpse of her tail as she darted out of the chaos she'd made of the Streamlining Performance Logistical Analysis Team efficiency binders. "Doctor Foster!" Management yelled from his perch on the filing cabinet. "Is letting livestock loose in the building going to be a habit of yours?"
"We can explain," Ben said.
"I'm just sticking with the tried and true formula," I called over my shoulder as I followed Jacques out into the halls again.
Formula it might be, and there was a certain familiarity to our chase through the halls, but there was one major difference: this time, I couldn't stop grinning. Maybe it was because Ben was with me, maybe it was just one monkey versus a whole dratted flock of sheep, maybe this was just so preferable to another viewing of Revenge of the Go-Bots that it felt like liberation. Even after the attempt to confront Jacques behind the audio/visual equipment and slipping on yogurt, the day seemed a lot better.
Jacques peered down at me from the top of the projector. "Are the doors closed?" I asked Ben, not taking my eyes off her.
"All of them. She's now trapped." He shook his head. "I think if we make her perform an initiative exercise we'll get complaints from animal-rights groups."
"If they didn't already ding us on the Fruit-Tweez." I approached her slowly, hands out to the sides. "Come on, Jacques. Look, tasty sleeves. I'll take you back to the reliable food source and we can get some of that cake off your ankles."
Jacques gave me the same concussed, wide-eyed stare as she did every time Ben or I tried to teach her something. Behind me, the telltale thump and creak of a crash bar sounded as one of the cafeteria doors opened. "Ben," I said warningly.
He wasn't paying attention to me. "Ell?" he said. "Sandy told you to call us --"
"You said you didn't want any of them to get lost. And this one looked like she knew where she was going." She glided carefully across the cafeteria floor, her skates making short work of the remaining yogurt. Petunia had settled herself on Ell's shoulder, one hand wrapped around the top of her head, just above the terrycloth headband. And I had to admit, she didn't look lost. She looked like a dowager duchess waiting to be delivered to a particularly tedious charity ball. "Besides," Ell continued, "I left Ceridwen to watch the rest."
Ben glanced at me. "Uh-oh."
"She'll be fine," I said, not very convincingly.
Petunia interrupted by leaping to the top of the audio/visual desk, then glaring up at Jacques. Jacques screeched, whimpered, and bounced down, head and tail bowed.
Ben and I glanced at each other. "Okay. We can carry them both back," he began.
Without missing a beat, Petunia smacked her on the back of the head. Jacques squeaked, then picked up the tangled cables and held them out to her sister. With one loose Ethernet cable, she demonstrated the knot-tying trick, then took the rest of the mess and nimbly untwisted it.
"Same thing, but different," I said quietly. "It's the familiar elements, but turned into something new."
Petunia didn't move for a moment, then took the tied cable and, after a moment, untied it. She grunted, then sat Jacques down and began grooming her. Jacques, though still looking as stunned as before, submitted, crooning quietly. After a moment, Petunia nudged the cables toward us and held out her hand.
"Er," I said. "Ben, have you got any Fruit-Tweez left?"
"A few." He produced a couple slightly fuzzy ones from his lab coat pocket and held them out to Petunia. She took them, sneezed, and handed them to Jacques, who regarded them as if they had just dropped out of the sky. Petunia held out her hand again, this time to me. After a moment, I took the tube of Peach Dream! HiTek Edition and held it out.
The macaque matriarch took the tube of yogurt, sniffed it, and grunted, settling back down beside her friend. "I have no idea how we're going to write this up," Ben said beside me.
"I do," I said slowly. "Familiarity. Familiarity and change. Innovation as accident." And being late to fads, and picking up only the important pieces, and the new ways to use an old skill.
"You know," Ell piped up, "the bigger one looks just like my grandma."
Petunia, meanwhile, had managed to open the tube and squirt yogurt all over her hands. She gave an undignified squawk and glared at me. This, she seemed to say, is all your fault.
The next morning, I called in sick to HiTek, who accepted it without their usual fuss, and made a big pot of coffee, more than I could usually drink. After a moment, I dug up Ell's mix CD and put it in my stereo. It wasn't bad, even if Shiver Shiver Bam seemed to like singing in languages they couldn't pronounce properly.
When the knock came, I didn't even bother to check who it was before letting Ben in. "I brought muffins," he said.
"Great," I said. "I made coffee."
He got down plates and napkins while I poured two cups. "So, I was thinking," he said, "we might not be wasted at HiTek, but some days it feels like it."
"Wasted is a strong word," I agreed. "But we both need a break."
"Right. So once the macaques are sent back -- which is today, by the way, I made the call last night -- maybe we could take some kind of . . ." He hesitated, searching for the word.
"Sabbatical?" I said, and put a cup of coffee in front of him. "I asked Management about it on my way out last night. It's usually pretty difficult to apply for one, but right now --"
"Right now they're in the right mood for it." He handed me a muffin. "I don't know that it'll be a real sabbatical, since I've got some ideas of research I want to study."
"Your original project," I said. "The grotto at the source of the Loue."
"Our Niebnitz Grant should cover that particular project, and yours --"
"Is fine." I motioned to the heap of mail that had been waiting for me the other day, including the very minor revisions requested on my bellwether paper. "I need some time to revise, and I can do the rest of my work anywhere."
He leaned over and kissed me. Or he would have, if Ell's mix CD hadn't chosen that moment to move from indecipherable acoustic guitar to something closer to death metal. "What is that?"
"I can explain," I said.
Ben laughed, and this time he really did kiss me. "I'm looking forward to it. To all your explanations."