“‘Please do not tap on glass. Programmers are easily scared and will start to cry. Violently,’” Roy read aloud. “‘Please enter SLOWLY while singing ‘Ave Maria’ to avoid an incident.’”
He didn’t know whether to laugh like a maniac, or... well, run like hell. If a supervisor saw him standing so close to an illegal pamphlet, let alone acknowledging its existence, he was in trouble. The big guy upstairs was allergic to anything that reeked of light-heartedness, distraction, or a sense of humour. And this...
This was the seventh pamphlet Roy had passed on his way to his cubicle, and they all bore different texts. Correction – this was the seventh he’d noticed. He’d been studying his shoes at least half of the way so far before looking up to see ‘In Case Of Emergency: Whatever you do, DON’T sing ‘Kumbaya’ to stay calm. We can’t risk you contaminating anyone else.’ taped to the elevator door. The parts of Roy that were still an improbably rebellious teenage nerd had fallen a little bit in love at around the third pamphlet. (‘Mind your step and watch out for flying polyhedrons.’)
Somebody was trying really really hard to get fired.
A door opened opposite the one that had been so artfully defaced, prompting Roy into a not-at-all-suspicious sprint down the hall and around the corner. The fun was over. He should get to his terminal before they wrote him up as being late. Roy wasn’t looking to get fired. Though at times like this he regretted that just a bit.
The hum of working computers and clack-clack-clack of keyboards greeted him when he reached his stretch of cubicle farm. He got himself a cup of coffee, hung up his jacket, and turned on his machine.
“Morning, Alan,” Roy greeted. “Hello, Lora.”
Alan, standing in his own cubicle with one arm draped over the partition between his and Roy’s space, and Lora, leaning against the outside wall, turned and returned the greeting. They looked almost as giddy as Roy felt.
“You saw all those papers too?” Roy started, at the same time an unfamiliar voice said: “I have always hated these cubicles. Once I’m in, they’re out. I mean, look at them. You’d think they were specifically designed to block out all the light and make you feel like a prisoner.”
Roy stood on his tiptoes and peered over. There was a guy in a rumpled suit in Alan’s chair, his arms doing half the talking.
“Sorry,” Roy whispered, slinking back. “Maybe later.”
Alan shot him a grin and an ‘it’s fine’ gesture.
“What’s the point in having co-workers like this, anyway?” the guy went on while Roy turned to his monitor. “Teamwork shouldn’t be something you have to schedule a separate room for, or break out a sledge hammer. Also, this coffee is disgusting.”
“That’s because it’s mine and unlike you, I don’t keep adding milk and sugar until it has the consistency of a dessert,” Alan deadpanned.
“Well, nobody’s perfect,” the strange guy laughed. “By the way, Lora, about that laser –”
“Again?” Lora lamented, sighing hugely.
“Did you give it any thought? For me? Pretty please?” The wheels of Alan’s chair squeaked as the stranger pushed it back and stood.
Roy could almost hear Lora roll her eyes. “A little. Can it be done? Yes, probably. But the benefits would not justify the cost – at all.”
“Hey, I don’t see any downsides to liberating the greatest technological development of the century from an entire bunker’s worth of supporting systems. Let that baby see some sunlight! Wouldn’t you like to see the sun again?”
Lora sighed again. “Whatever you say, ‘boss’.”
Roy’s ears perked up. Boss?
“Just as long as you don’t ever forget who majored in physics and radiology around here. A laser is not a toy, nor is it not dangerous just because it doesn’t explode. Or make things explode.”
“My brain is a mouldy raisin compared to yours, my Lady Labcoat,” the stranger said with exaggerated reverence. Then: “Hey, man, sorry I interrupted you there. It’s a bad habit.”
Roy looked up and blinked owlishly. The stranger looked him straight in the eye. Roy smiled and shrugged self-consciously. “It’s okay. You were there first.”
Before he’d said three words, the other guy’s jaw started dropping. It was odd; first he looked like he couldn’t believe his eyes, then he recoiled as if he’d seen a ghost.
“You okay, Flynn?” Lora asked.
‘Flynn’ snapped out of it. He shot Lora and then Alan a wide-eyed look and stammered, “Yeah, fine, fine.” Then he looked at Roy like he was trying to see through him. “What’s your name?”
“Uh, Roy. Roy Kleinberg.”
“Did you write a program called Ram?”
Flynn’s face lit up like Christmas. He hurried around the cubicle walls, grabbed Roy’s hand, and shook it more vigorously than Roy had ever had his hand shaken before.
“My name is Kevin Flynn and I owe Ram my life. Let’s be friends.”
Roy shot Alan a look bordering on panicked. Alan grimaced, but Lora stifled a laugh.
“He’s harmless, I swear,” she said.
“But he’s always like this and he doesn’t know how to take no for an answer, so if you’re gonna run, do it right now,” Alan added with a crooked smile.
“You noticed my print-outs, right?” Flynn said. “Did you like’em?”
Before he knew it, Roy was beaming. “That was you?”
“You bet. And I’m only getting started!”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Headphones in, Roy sauntered back into Encom to a perfectly timed soundtrack of the best guitar solo in the whole damn universe, okay? The moment your hair starts to turn grey is the moment you can officially tell everyone else on the web to get off your lawn when they claim a meme is overdone.
All yourrr base your base, base, base, all yourrr base, are belong to us.
He looked like a bike messenger twenty years beyond his expiration date and wore a shit-eating grin he didn’t think he could wipe off his face if he tried. Only the fact that he was pushing sixty years old and had been living a barely-legal double life for almost half of those years gave him the strength to not belt the lyrics at every scandalized employee that crossed is path.
Instead he walked away from the front desk with his new, genuinely legitimate high-clearance access card only muttering it under his breath and giggling like a loon.
He declined the offer to have someone escort him to Alan’s new office, not because he remembered his way around so well, but because of the stack of papers in his backpack. It was a last-minute idea, not anything as elaborate as what Flynn had done so long ago; just a stock ‘For your own safety, please do not feed the programmers!’ image he’d plucked off the internet. But it was the thought that counted.
An hour early for just such purposes, Roy spent the time left until he’d arranged to meet with Alan pressing random buttons in the elevator and vandalizing the place in a minimal first effort to bring a little life back into Encom. ‘Moral compass’, ha. Big corporate words. Back when Alan was still an ordinary code monkey like the rest of them, he’d have called it for what it was. A pain in the ass.
“All your base,” Roy declared, taping another print-out to a door. “belong to Flynn. And old Gibbs, may he finally rest in peace.” He smoothed the paper, then fist-bumped it, in lieu of the hand that should have been there. “To the code monkeys in the cubicle farms, and the big upstairs-guys who give a damn.”
Sentimental moment over and no-good grin growing again, Roy turned the corner – and promptly bumped into someone going in the opposite direction. They both steadied themselves, but papers went flying all around their feet.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” the girl exclaimed, and immediately knelt down to gather them up.
Roy was in such a good mood he almost laughed. He should throw the rest of his papers down a stairwell, like flyers. He did neither; it would just confuse the poor kid and inconvenience the cleaning staff.
“Don’t worry about it,” Roy told the girl, getting down on his knees too, a bit less smoothly than she had.
It took him a few moments to realise these weren’t just his own papers.
“Wait a minute...” she said, just as he read: “‘Please feed the programmers, or they’ll try to feed themselves!’?”
They looked at each other, each holding up one of the other’s papers.
“Well, this is awkward,” Roy said cheerfully. “Yet excellent. Now everybody’s going to get confused about what directions to follow.”
“‘For your own safety’?” the girl read dubiously. “It’s perfectly possible to feed programmers safely. Just don’t do it by hand; deliver the food and keep moving. If you’re afraid they’re starved enough to come after you for more, run and throw packages. The food won’t stay intact upon ingestion anyway.”
Now Roy laughed. “You’ve thought about this.”
“Well...” She gestured to the paper he held.
“Feed the programmers or they’ll feed themselves... Feed themselves popcorn and coffee and nothing more?”
The girl nodded earnestly. “It’s terrible. I had no idea people took such bad care of themselves.”
Roy shrugged. “Welcome to the world.”
The girl’s gaze sharpened for a few moments, but then she smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Cora. Cora Verne.”
Cora’s big blue eyes widened. She looked over Roy’s shoulder, over her own, and down the third hallway, then leaned in close and grabbed his hands. “ZackAttack?” she whispered.
A little jolt went through Roy. “Have we met before?”
Surely he would have remembered a haircut like that at a Flynn Lives meeting.
...just as surely as he wouldn’t have recognized her without it, and kids with hair like that tended to change it all the time. Well then.
“Sam told me,” she said, leaning even closer. “So it’s true? You’re ZackAttack?”
“Yeah.” He leaned back involuntarily. “How do you know Sa–”
She hugged him so tightly and suddenly it took his breath away.
“Flynn Lives,” she said, voice shaky.
Roy’s knee slipped a little on the pile of contradictory posters. He blew out a little more breath, smiled, and patted Cora’s back. “Absolutely, kid. No doubt about it.”