I was looking over older work I started and didn’t carry forward. I don’t think I posted this piece yet. I’ve written what I regard as firm if not hard science fiction, but I wrote a first chapter for a fantasy piece. Try not to laugh… I wonder if anybody thinks this is worth expanding or should I just post it as a short?
The rumors spread among the elves before first coffee break.
“Something big is going down on the top floor.” All along the production lines heads went together and exchanged whispers. The rumors spread down the lines faster than the build flowed. Part runners carried it back to the fabricators and loading docks. From there the drivers all stopped and gossiped with all the security trolls at the gates and portals. The story ran back down through all the suppliers before lunch time.
“Big Juju,” the e-mails were titled flowing between witches in middle management.
“Can’t read a thing past the twelfth floor,” the seers and wizards lamented. It wasn’t a glass ceiling, it was unobtainium – impervious to sixth sense and second sight.
“Big cuts,” the old hands said at the signs with hard-won wisdom. Most of them had been through this before when things turned down. Some had narrowly escaped previous lay-offs having just enough service or were simply in the right department by blind luck.
“I remember in ’34 when Cloaks and Robes went to Taiwan,” one veteran said. “It didn’t matter how much seniority you had, the entire department went down like a field of wheat,” he explained with a scything motion of his hand.
The apprentices were horrified. “Nobody got to transfer?”
“Nope. They declared their skills un-transferable and laid the lot off. But those were just little bumps. This is big.”
* * *
The ax-man, Axel, was from Resources – you couldn’t very well call them Human Resources after all. As one of the minor races of Ogres he could pass as human with a loose shirt, if he didn’t smile. The Great Ogres didn’t have the temperament for lay-offs unless you wanted the cut personnel dismembered and eaten.
He checked his list, switched his translator to Elfish and stepped inside the conference room. The door wasn’t obviously a portal, but it had that disquieting strangeness that said he was in another continuum. The light played funny to his eyes, everything unnaturally sharp and cloyingly pretty. Probably Fairy space even though the table was full of elves. The irritating little suckers were everywhere across the Universes that they could find a job and send the money home to their families.
The murmur of conversation died instantly. He pulled the emblem of his office off his shoulder and laid the ancient blade on the table to free his hands, distaining to sit down as this would be quick and brutal. Two Orcs with training collars followed at his heel, and the shadowy presence behind them stood just inside the door in case anyone went postal. It seemed like excessive caution given his massive arms and the fact his heritage symbol of office was three and a half stone of cold iron beaten to a razor edge. The stains on it were from an earlier era that didn’t understand job banks and unemployment insurance. Still, being let go would always be a hardship to which some could react emotionally.
“As you are all aware,” Axel spoke, “sales of high end accessories such as magic wands have plummeted. Our set costs have increased dramatically. Due to the unrest in human markets, silver alone has doubled in the last decade. Before you please find an information packet.” They looked down at the table where they had materialized in that instant when everyone was looking elsewhere.
“The vast majority of you will find it is a severance package. A few of you will find an offer to follow the Earth based production to Mexico as a manager or instructor. If you decide to take that offer you have seventy-two hours to contact Resources and bind yourselves to our service. Details of moving allowance and conditions in our Mexican plant’s area are in the packet. Please do not open them to find out which group you are in while on company property. Doing so will void and transform the offer packets in a particularly nasty way.
“You will not need to return to your work area. Your personal items are boxed and will be returned to you at the gate. Beings using company transport will unbind their authorization and destroy any spell linking them to its use. Commercial transport home will be provided. I’m sure you are all law-abiding and adult beings, but any effort to leave malignant spells, Trojans, or change passwords from home will be dealt with…” The hooded figure behind the Orcs removed the compulsion not to look at him momentarily and lifted its head. The pool of black in the hood swept the assembled group, giving them each a sense that they were examined and cataloged. There was not a glimmer of eyeball reflected in the black depths, but everyone was sure of a presence. Nobody knew what the thing in the robe was, and nobody wanted to find out. Word on the street was the company could take care of itself with any entity or reality.
Axel shifted the broad blade back to his shoulder, checked his PDA for the time, he was doing fine, and moved on.
The next department on his list was so small they didn’t have a conference room. In fact it was so small it only had head count for one full time and one part time employee. He was supposed to lay off a minimum of thirty percent of every department regardless of profit level. A closer look at the sheets showed all their goods were outsourced to Guatemala since the Pennsylvania shut down of ’27. The whole department was simply an added value operation and didn’t make sense. They didn’t have any materials budget, not even packaging, so what were they adding? Inspection was in Guatemala too.
The department showed as being in existence from the second year of the company. That’s when the big expansion had happened. A shame things were going the other way now – but that’s business. He couldn’t see any justification for the operation.
He shifted his ax to the other shoulder. The damn thing was awkward and got heavy after awhile, but there were certain forms to follow and they were traditions. He left the Orcs and the presence at the door. He wouldn’t need them for one elderly human.
The room was so small he felt a tad claustrophobic. There was no receptionist and no desks. The lady in the rocking chair was just having a cup of herbal tea while dwarfs scurried to take some skids of hex signs out. It was 09:17 and not any proper coffee break period. If that’s how slack they ran things here, it made it easier to break the bad news.
He wasn’t sure if it was a magic window or a big flat screen monitor, but behind her a large rectangle showed a scene of fenced fields and black and white cows standing around chewing like cattle are wont to do. There were woods behind and a barn in the distance. Given that both employees here were human, and that the sky was an absolutely shocking blue, it must be an Earth view. It was an extravagance for any but highest executive office. His work space certainly had nothing that nice. The printout indicated he should speak with her in English or German.
“Mrs. Ayers? I’m from Resources. I’d like to speak with your assistant also if he is available.”
“Oh, my son Billy. I’m sorry but he’s not available right now. He’s in his Junior year at Harvard. He’ll be back in a couple years and will take a break before he goes into graduate school if you’d like to meet him then.”
“Hmm…I hadn’t noticed the name is the same. That’s most irregular also, but I suppose it doesn’t matter after today. I’ll have some papers for you to pass on to him. He has been an apprentice even though he is your son?”
“That’s the way it works, father to daughter, mother to son. He is my apprentice for life. It’s spelled out in my terms of employment that he is salaried regardless of actual time on site. After all I expect he will take over some day. He wants to have a real education, but this is where the family’s bread and butter has always been. Just a moment please,” she requested.
The boss dwarf gave a high sign and the dwarfs ran in with three new skids. That they stood idle until she ordered them was a huge waste of productive time. All the skids were stacked cunningly so that each sign was visible to her. She started rocking the chair a little and spoke in a highlands German. Her voice had a regular cadence of memorized lines, but not that tonal quality of a chant. The translator whispered in his ear that it could not provide him the incantation because it was proprietary intellectual property and subject to nondisclosure agreements. She picked up a well worn leather bible in German and flipped it open where one of several bookmarks hung out. There was no telling where the spell ran seamlessly into reading instead of memory. The colorful art on the skids seemed to move subtly for an instant, the colors shifting like 3D post card with a lenticular overlay, and then it was as before and she closed her bible and made a mark in an open ledger on the side.
“What exactly do you do?” he asked puzzled.
“Why, I put the power in the signs,” Mrs. Ayers said, as if he were a little simple. “The English do love them, yust fer pretty” she explained lapsing into an accent intermittently, “but there are still plenty who want the real thing, not just a tourist doodad to take home from vacation. I put the seed there and hide it from those that don’t have the eye. Not like that,” she said, pointing at a huge Wheel of Fortune hanging on the wall behind her. When he looked right at it the swirled design moved like a vortex sucking him in, and he gasped at the power, jerking his eyes away disoriented for a moment.
“That was painted by my great – grandfather and he said the words over it. It has been working for the company every since I vust hired.”
“Are you Amish?” he asked, confused. He knew a little bit about human culture, and noticed her simple dress and linen cap pinned on her gathered up hair.
“Oh no. The Amish and the other plain people don’t hold with old ways. None of the preachers like a pow-wow woman like me. They look down their nose at us. Why one time I stopped the blood flowing on the preacher man neighbor when he slipped with the ax and he come running all the way from his place and cursed me to let it go. That’s gratitude for you. As if I’d take a chicken or anything from him. We don’t take money for pow-wow you know,” she informed him. “I yust done it fer good, or a little pay-in-kind.”
“But it says here you get two stone of fairy gold a lunar for your services,” Axel insisted.
“Ah, but the government in my human country has decreed that gold is not legal money.”
“So, what do they use for money?” he asked dubious.
“They use numbered engravings of dead politicians.”
“Engraved on what?”
“Well, paper. On what else do you print engravings?” she asked like he was daft.
It was madness. Art as money? Maybe fine originals, but numbered prints? He had wasted too much time here already, so he let it go.
“So what business did you have with me today?” Mrs. Ayers asked politely as another crew of dwarfs rushed in to carry the goods away.
“Are you aware things have been going very poorly for the company for the last several quarters?” He was getting the feeling Mrs. Ayers was at a disconnect with anything outside the sturdy Oak door he’d just entered.
“Oh my no,” she said with honest surprise. “I’m wondering why Harold didn’t say anything to me. Goodness, let me take a look here.” She grabbed both arms of the rocker and twisted it around. She lifted the screen on a very nice Tough Book computer and started reading.
His first thought was why does she need an expensive Panasonic built like a bank vault? The worst he could see happening here was if she spilled her tea on it. But that paled at the anger he felt rising as she expected him to patiently wait for her to catch up on her mail. Employees didn’t treat him like that. Normally they were afraid of him, terrified even.
“Achk – der it is,” she exclaimed. “Harold….”
“You mean Mr. Griffin the Owner?” he corrected with proper reverence.
“Yah, I yust forget to check my e-mails. Harold told me tings was bad a couple monts ago but I never seen it.” When she was upset her English suffered quickly. “Tings be very bad when dat don suck enough luck to keep us going,” she said nodding sage agreement. ‘Dat’ was apparently the wheel of fortune spinning away on the wall. It appeared to be painted on planks of barn wood, the sort architects and designers would pay a fortune for if weathered to a beautiful silvery silk texture. “I vill quick like maken dis right donchu vurry. You yust outen der light as you go and I’ll sit in der dark a bit vit my bible and have a good talk at der problem.”
“Thank you for the thought, but that’s why I’m here Mrs. Ayers. We are cutting back, and considering the size and relative importance of this department there is no rational way to make a fractional cut. I’m terminating it altogether. Axel pointed to an envelope that had suddenly materialized beside the computer. “You will find all the details in the packet.”
“Vell – Harold knows about this?” she asked stunned.
“Everything Resources does is with the full authority of the executive suite and the board of directors,” he assured her. “Do you need a hand with packing up? Perhaps a cardboard box for any personal items?”
“Everything you see is mine but the laptop,” she said showing a little anger for the first time. “Even der floor.” The look in her eye made him wonder if he should have kept the Orcs with him after all. He sensed a gathering power like the feel of a storm building up. “To my house you send, and be careful der is not a mark on it, especially the wheel,” she pointed at the vortex on the wall, “or I say some words – things dat shouldn’t be said – over your name,” she warned, hand gathering something he couldn’t see out of the air.
His hair was standing straight off his arms with electric potential, and he stood frozen like a rabbit before a fox, knowing the slightest move would bring disaster. She looked at him like she was considering something further, and then dismissed it spilling her hand open reluctantly. The room itself seemed to expand a little, like it breathed a sigh of relief. She stomped out the door and between the Orcs without a glance at them. The hooded figure behind the Orcs scurried out of her path and cowered flat against the wall, whimpering.
Axel shook his head in disbelief, hair flat again, too accustomed to fearlessness to retain a healthy dread with her out of his sight. He shifted the damn chopper on his shoulder again and checked his PDA. Crystals and Pyramids were waiting in conference room twelve and he was late because he spent so much time letting that old woman go on and on. He hurried down the hall.
* * *
A week later he was busier than ever. He was trying to keep up with the pink slips, but the whole company was headed south worse this week than the whole of last year. Something was sucking the luck out of it like a spider draining a fat bug. His full attention was focused on his desk and trying to get the papers sorted for a busy day when he noticed two hairy ham-like fists on either side of his antique Rolodex.
Allowing his gaze to climb the attached hairy columns upward there were two white cuffs folded back as far as the massive arms would allow. The white shirt sleeves continued. Floating above these supports was the ugly glaring face of his boss. Behind him was his boss, and oh crap…behind him was the big boss.
“Axel my boy,” the deep voice rumbled, deceptively pleasant, “did you perchance deliver a lay-off notice to a nice older lady by the name of Mrs. Ayers? In a quiet little room off in the back of the production facilities with a bunch of dwarfs running skids in and out instead of a fork lift?”
“Yes, I wondered about the dwarfs actually. It didn’t seem very efficient. Why were they doing it that way?”
“Because Mrs. Ayers didn’t like the smell of the propane lift truck and the electric whine of the battery operated ones disturbed her. If she had asked we would have gladly run them in on the bloody backs of snow white unicorns and sacrificed them for fresh ones if the load was too much for them to bear twice.” He waited to see if Axel could smell which way this was going.
“That’s…remarkable you’d defer to an employee’s taste in matters so much,” he smiled. “I take it Mrs. Ayers had some special relationship to the company of which I wasn’t appraised?”
“You might put it that way. More a personal relationship to the owner. That’s how she was recruited.” The man at the rear looked down upset at those words. “When the personal relationship faded nobody was put forward to manage Mrs. Ayers even though the company depended on her services. She’s an eccentric sort of person like a scientific researcher or an artist you can’t count on to attend meetings or read e-mails. They have to be managed. But none of that is your fault. The real problem is Resources was never supposed to be involved in managing her. You aren’t supposed to even have a file on her. The Resource managers are not even supposed to visit that department, it was a rule passed on verbally to each one, so what happened that you ended up there with a lay-off notice?”
“I suppose because the last head of Resources dropped dead of a heart attack.” (The sort triggered by a wooden stake, but it wasn’t polite to mention that.) “He didn’t get a chance to pass on any company secrets if there wasn’t hard copy of it. The new software we have generates cross files to correct if one department has something missing so everybody has full up to date files. I imagine payroll has to have something on her to pay her. So that’s where the file came from, and auto-copied through the system, I’m guessing.”
Axels boss closed his eyes for a moment in pain. “So…No point in blaming you. We screwed up. But it’s still going to be up to you to fix this cluster…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “We can’t go back to keeping you out of the loop on Mrs. Ayers. When Harold tried to call her she told him – ‘Your man fired me, let him come convince me I should want to come back.’ So like it or not you are our only hope to recover her services. Here is the rest of her file, the hard copy one with everything in it. This is the only copy and only three other people in the firm have access to all of it. Read it. We’ll see to it the software doesn’t keep spreading information where it shouldn’t go.”
He opened the file. Just reading the first page was a revelation, and they quietly let him read. He could see why it was embarrassing to say out loud. The hex signs were just an arrangement. The whole thing was a sham to make her feel she was keeping the spirit of her discipline’s rules. The first few years her compensation had been over generous, clearly a case of the owner’s girl friend kept on the payroll, but now the tail was wagging the dog, and they were the party hostage to her skills. And he’d thought their business was based on their fine products. Apparently their whole business model was a sham. “What am I authorized to offer?” Axel asked.
“Anything. If she wants to hack your silly head off with your frigging ax for a wall mount you can assume we will take excellent care of your heirs and thank you for your services. Better that than your loved ones die of hunger with you in poverty, right?”
Axel wasn’t sure about that.
“We’re rewarding her for mismanaging the company’s luck? That doesn’t seem fair to all the little people who suffered.”
The principle stockholder, owner in every way that mattered spoke from the rear. “The little people would have never had a job at all if she hadn’t been working for us. This isn’t about them at all. Don’t screw this up or all the rest of the little people are down the tubes along with us.” The other two men nodded solemn agreement and they all turned and walked away.
* * *
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Axel told her. He could see black horse-buggies out the window in the cute little town. Mixed with tourist cars packing the restaurant parking lot across the road. It smelled funny in this reality and he was glad he was just a visitor. For some reason when he looked at the horses he got twitchy all over. He’d come through the portal Mrs. Ayers used to come to work and was happy he didn’t have to step outside. Besides the off smell the sky looked creepy and unnatural. He was even less comfortable than in the Fairies domains. He took another sip of the tea even though it was nasty. It wasn’t very hard to sound sincere because he was.
“Things have changed,” she said quite calmly. Now that she was less excited her English reverted to standard. “I’m widowed, and now that he is grown I’m willing to allow my son to start growing into being the head of household. I need to start planning to retire and hand the reins over to the new generation. My son said it was time for me to adopt a much more modern approach to business. He will have his MBA soon and I think it is timely the family has such a modern talent and pays close attention to its wisdom. So I don’t think I want to come back to the company in the same capacity I held previously.” Axel cringed to hear that because it proclaimed his personal doom.
He couldn’t suck another breath in, and his blood roared in his ears.
“I think we could dispense with the sign work, or maybe find a needy young practitioner to do that rote work. I think though, we should be able to come to a different arrangement about the real work of managing the company’s luck, and still follow proper forms.” Axel felt a fresh surge of hope cut through the gloom, sucking in air again.
Axel nodded enthusiastic agreement and swallowed some more vile tea and pride.
“My boy is still very much my apprentice in matters of craft, but he’s the next generation who will have to pay more attention to matters of business than our generation did. I never paid much mind to such matters because we were farmers and what we did on the side was for ourselves and our neighbors. We were happy if we could help, and if we got a chicken or a bowl of eggs now and again we were happy.”
” Now even the simple folk can’t make it farming, hard as they are willing to work, so you see them serving the English sit down meals, making furniture and other things that were never their way of life. My father wasn’t bound to the simple life, but he couldn’t make a living by farming, even using tractors and machinery. We tried market farming, and self-pick. We still ended up with the restaurant you see across the street there and selling the farm off lot at a time for houses. You talk to my boy and whatever arrangement you can make with him will be fine. He’s going to have to live with it a lot longer than me, and he has a fine head for such matters. At least he gets good marks from his professors in matters of business and economics.”
“Thank You Mrs. Ayers, I’ll do that. When will he be available?”
“He just started back on a new semester, he won’t be home until the winter break. About three and a half months, and he’ll be home for a couple weeks and should have plenty of time to work things out with you.”
Axel smiled, careful to keep his incisors from poking out, and took another sip of tea while he contemplated what shape the company would be in after three and a half months. He had to be careful how he expressed himself.
“Gee Willikers,” his translator found the mildest euphemism in its list, if a bit dated. “I just know my bosses would be just terribly upset with me if I didn’t wrap things up a lot sooner than that. Is there any way I could speak with your son sooner?”
“If you’re set on meeting him sooner the only thing I can suggest is going up to Boston and visiting him there. He has much too busy a schedule of classes to be running home for even a couple days.”
“I’ll arrange to do that,” he heard himself say with a sort of detached horror. He looked out the window at the alien sky, and one of the horsed swung it’s head up and seemed to be looking straight across the way at him. It had to be coincidence. “I’ll have to consult some of my people. If it’s better to come back through your portal can I bother you to allow that?”
“Sure, it’s no bother at all if you need it. Here, I’ll write down my boy’s contact information and you drop me some e-mail if you are coming back through. I’ve gotten much better about checking them,” she promised him.
“I feel bad because we Deutsch do things different. I didn’t think it was different from dealing with the English or the alternates for some reason. I suppose I was living in a Fairy Tale, but that’s all right, I learned my lesson. From now on it’s like Daddy told me and I ignored to my sorrow. Friends are for nice, and family is forever, but business is business, and you have to keep it that way.”