The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Corporate Standards

"How are you feeling?" Tribbs asked him in the elevator. They were alone, and there was genuine concern in Tribbs' voice; he didn't want his investment turning twitchy at the last minute.

Soper drew himself up and rather self-consciously dropped his hand as it started on its automatic way towards his head. He knew perfectly well that no wisp could fight its way out from under all the gel he’d used; he had spent almost an hour in front of the mirror this morning and further preening would only mess things up. He hoped Tribbs hadn’t noticed his treacherous hand.

"I’m okay," Soper said. Tribbs nodded distantly and went back to listening for the floor numbers which a computerised female was steadily counting off. Tribbs’ own hair was like part of a plastic mask. Not only was no wisp out of place, but Soper couldn’t really imagine Tribbs having wisps at all, just as it was difficult to picture Tribbs shaving his chin or clipping his nails. There were those who doubted whether Tribbs had a pulse. Soper wondered if, after today, they would harbour similar doubts about him. Ever onward, ever upward.

As they reached the fiftieth floor, Tribbs glanced at him again. Had he shuffled his feet? Was he sweating overmuch? Soper tried to tell himself it didn’t matter - he had, after all, been accepted - but things were never that simple. Acceptance onto the Board was merely the first step; acceptance by the Board would require still greater sacrifice. It was all very well gaining permission to sit with the gods; but without their attention, their favourable attention, one might just as well be down on the factory floor.

Tribbs was smiling; no cavities either, suspected Soper irritably. "Nearly there," Tribbs said, as if Soper were a child nagging for the bathroom.

"I don’t think I’ve ever been up this far," he said, since Tribbs was apparently in conversational mode, as the siliconised female announced the fifty-seventh floor.
"Not many people have," said Tribbs. "There are a few procedures to go through once we get there. After the meeting you'll get your clearance card, and then you’ll be able to come up whenever it’s necessary."

Necessary. Soper noted that. Not when convenient or when he felt like it, but whenever it was necessary. Appreciation of a nuance like that could save a man’s career, and Soper felt a small throb of gratification like a benign ulcer in his belly. He was going to be fine.

He thought of asking Tribbs about the procedures, but Tribbs might take it as a would-be-knowing hint about the privileges Board members were supposed to enjoy - the rumour among the lower orders that the entire top of the building was a decadent corporate paradise of recreational pharmacies and luxurious sex parlours. Soper did not want to appear either naïve or drooling with anticipation, and he kept his mouth shut until the voice announced the sixty-fourth floor and told them to have a nice day. The elevator doors opened.

There were no parlours or pharmacies, at least not yet. Tribbs led him down a short passage to an unmarked white door and ran his clearance card through the slot. A buzzer sounded; Tribbs pushed the door open and motioned Soper through ahead of him.

The room was white, a sterile cube. In the middle of the floor was a large adjustable chair with head- and foot-rests and a clip-on tray at the side - a dentist's chair, Soper realised after blinking at it a bit. On the tray attached to the chair, instruments were tidily laid out, their blades immaculate.

Soper stared at Tribbs. The show of incomprehension was regrettable, but there was nothing he could do about it.

"Standard procedure," Tribbs said.
"What kind of procedure - are you going to pull my teeth?"
Tribbs gave him the smile again, white as the walls and just as shiny. "Sit down," he said.

After a moment's hesitation, which hopefully didn't add too much to any unfavourable impression already created by the tone of his question, Soper sat down. The backrest of the dentist's chair was set forward, so it was little different from the chair he normally used at the office – his former office, he reassured himself.

Tribbs moved behind him. A moment later Soper heard the rustling of a sheet and a moment after that the sheet descended over him, covering him from the throat down. Tribbs leaned over, fastening it tight around his neck. "Don’t want to get hairs down your collar," Tribbs said.
"So it’s a haircut now?"
"Standard," said Tribbs, filling a hypodermic. "You’ll feel a slight sting."
"A free haircut and drugs as well," Soper said. "No wonder everyone wants to be a Board member." The sting came at the side of his neck, dragging away his consciousness as it faded.

When Soper’s eyes opened, Tribbs was rolling up the discoloured sheet. He trod on a pedal; a lid jumped open and Tribbs dropped the sheet down the hole. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"I’m okay," Soper said, and Tribbs nodded distantly. Soper put his feet on the floor and stood up. He felt no ill effects. Tribbs led him out of the white room and back along the corridor to the elevator. They stepped inside and travelled in silence to the next floor, where they stepped out again. They walked along another corridor, this one with much thicker carpet. They stood before an imposing double door of dark, panelled wood.

Tribbs knocked once and the doors opened slightly. A dried-up female who looked as if she could have supplied the elevator’s voice appeared in the gap and motioned them through. "You’re going to be fine," Tribbs said, and entered.

Soper followed, precisely five paces behind. The doors closed after them, just audibly, and the woman returned to her seat, far away at the other end of the room.

The room was long and wide, occupied almost entirely by the conference table which began within a few paces of where Soper was standing and ended almost invisible in the blinding light from the window far opposite. Reflected in the gleaming dark surface of the table, whiteness filled Soper's eyes and made it impossible for him to see many of his fellow Board members clearly. He had a vague impression of movement at the far end of the table, where the Chairman was a dark blur topped with a gleaming grey dome. Soper couldn’t tell if the Chairman’s hair was grey or if he had no hair at all.

Nearby, Tribbs took his seat and fixed his gaze on the empty chair opposite, which had been vacated by the man now sitting at Tribbs' right. When that man replaced Tribbs, Tribbs would replace someone else, and Soper would move as well, to make way for another newcomer; perhaps Soper would even be the one to introduce the newcomer to the Board. Ever onward, ever upward.

Soper stood staring into the light. His nails were clean and his chin was smooth. He did not perspire. His hand did not stir towards his head; he knew that not a single wisp was out of place.

"Welcome aboard," said the Chairman, tonelessly.