Originally shortlisted for SFX magazine’s The Writing Dead competition last year, I tag this short story as “John Grisham with zombie subcontractors”, but feel free to disagree.
I started working at the Where Value Corporation on the same day that my first wife died. I didn’t think anything of it at the time: we hadn’t spoken directly to each other for nearly two years, and even our lawyers were sick of the sight of us.
With hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the fact that my lawyer was sick of the sight of me. I pointed out that a potent cocktail of emotional distress and legal ennui may have influenced my decision to sign on with the corporation.
“I can show you a copy of your contract,” my boss offered, “although obviously I’m under no obligation.”
“Perhaps you could read it out to me,” I suggested, “although obviously you’re under no obligation.”
As he read it out to me, my mind wandered.
My first day on the job, the day my wife died, the day my lawyer screwed me in the most lawyerly way you can imagine — well, that day was not so bad. Where Value is a great company to work for (up to a point, but we’ll get to that point a bit later): the work is rewarding, the perks are amazing, the buffet is satisfying. I was rewarded, I was amazed, I was sated.
“Glad to have you working with us,” my boss told me repeatedly, in that first week, and he meant it.
“Glad to be working with you all, Glenn,” I told him, and it was true. I thrived at Where Value: recruited into the Hypothetical Matter department, researching potential applications of dark fluid, promoted to the Chaplygin Modelling unit. I started dating my co-worker Crystal Haight, who was considerably more attractive and intelligent than my dead wife, and played non-Euclidean Ultimate Frisbee for the department in the company league.
“I think we should get married,” Crystal told me, exactly three months after we started dating.
“You think we should get married?” I responded, because for some reason I found the proposal (at least, I think it was a proposal — she was renowned for her diffidence) puzzling rather than alarming. “Wow.”
“I think we should get married,” she repeated, her conviction condensing like droplets on the side of a cool can of cola. We were married exactly three months later. My career within Where Value went from strength to strength. We had our first child exactly three months after our marriage. My career within Where Value faltered slightly due to lack of sleep. Crystal returned to work exactly three months after giving birth.
This was the point at which Glenn called me into his office for what was known internally as a Confidential. These briefings were a regular part of the life of a Where Value employee, a mixture of performance appraisal and electropsychometric auditing. Sometimes a Confidential could get quite dark, but so far mine had gone swimmingly.
I think this was mainly due to Glenn, who was the best boss I ever had, and a really genuine guy. “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling?” I replied, “I feel great. Great wife, great baby, great job. I mean, what else am I supposed to feel?”
“What else are you supposed to feel?”
“What else am I supposed to feel?” I didn’t understand the question. Glenn looked down at the papers on his desk, which were strictly ornamental, since Where Value was a completely paperless organisation. “Glenn, I feel great. Really. What’s this about?”
“What this is about,” sighed Glenn, “is Crystal.” He told me that, during Crystal’s maternity leave, Where Value had obtained evidence that she had been passing Where Value research findings to our competitors, in return for cold hard cryptocurrency. “The evidence is damning,” he told me. He showed me the evidence.
“Wow,” I said. It was damning.
“Did you know anything about this?” he asked.
“Did I know anything — Glenn, how can you even ask me that? I didn’t know anything about this until you presented me with this damning evidence.”
“I believe you. This room is one big lie detection facility, and right now it’s screaming into this earpiece that you’re innocent.” He took the earpiece out and put it on the desk in front of him.
“If you know if somebody’s lying, then why don’t we bring Crystal in here right now, and ask her what’s going down?” I demanded.
“We don’t want her to stop passing on our research,” Glenn admitted, “We just want her to pass on particular pieces of research.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Corporate counter-espionage. Whatever you do, don’t confront Crystal about this.”
I confronted Crystal about it that evening. She was cradling the baby monitor in her arms as if it was the baby. “How could you do this to me? To us? To Where Value Corporation?”
“The Where Value Corporation doesn’t care about us! Have you read the small print in your contract?”
“Have I read the small print in my contract? Of course not! My lawyer read it on my behalf, and signed in my absence!”
“Well maybe you should call your lawyer!”
“Not again,” I muttered after she had left, taking the baby with her. I sat in the black leather gamechair that Crystal had bought me for my birthday, visions of another expensive and protracted voyage of divorce scrolling down my mind.
“I confronted Crystal,” I admitted to Glenn the next day.
“You confronted Crystal?! Why, man, why?”
“It seemed like the right thing to do?” I offered.
Glenn put his head in his hands. “That explains why she hasn’t come to work today.”
He sent me back to work, but Crystal’s absence in the laboratory was like a dipole magnet missing from a particle accelerator. My mind was not on my work, and that’s why I failed to observe the necessary security protocols, sealed myself in the hazmat locker, and died from dark fluid poisoning early the next day.
Perhaps you remember that I told you that Where Value is a great company to work for up, to a point; it turns out that it’s a great company to work for up to the point of death.
“Wow,” I said, after Glenn had finished reading my contract, and I had realised just how badly my lawyer had screwed me. “So the life extension protocols included in my incentives package aren’t optional.”
“I’m afraid not,” said Glenn, “It’s a great offer, though. If you hadn’t died prematurely in an easily preventable industrial accident due to no fault of Where Value corporation, we would have doubled your lifespan — at minimum!”
“So what happens next?”
“Since you did in fact die prematurely &c &c, Where Value reserves the right to extract the full value of your labour.”
“I got that from the contract reading. What does that mean in practice?”
“It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” and I still believed him, because he was still the best boss I ever had, and it looked like he was going to be the only boss that I ever had ever again. “We could put you back in the lab; although, to be honest, I think team morale will really suffer, what with Crystal gone and you dead.”
“I can see that.”
“What usually happens to employees in your position is that they’re tasked with special duties. Off the books, so to speak. Dead and thus deniable.”
There’s an induction process for undead employees, but Glenn told me immediately what my first assignment was going to be. That’s why I’m sitting here now, in a darkened hotel room in another city, practising drumming my dead digits on the coffee table beside me, waiting for the door to open –
She screams when she sees me, not just because she’d already heard that I was dead, but because I look a mess. Dark fluid poisoning is no laughing matter, corruption and consumption of the flesh; and the exoskeletal armour that Where Value have provided me with is basically steampunk cosplay with a lot of gratuitous torque.
Somehow Crystal’s tremendous beauty doesn’t affect me the way it used to, nor do I feel the slightest fatherly feeling when she drops the baby. I don’t feel any fear when she scrabbles inside her jacket and comes out with a teeny tiny gun, which she waves at me like it was a cigarette lighter. My emotional landscape is a lot flatter since I died, all the hormonal ups and downs steamrollered by whatever proprietary concoction is pumping around my veins now.
The employee handbook that Where Value gave me during my induction (Welcome to your new life as a contractual zombie with Where Value!) doesn’t give you any tips on zombie etiquette. “Just be yourself,” my death coach recommended, but somehow that doesn’t work for me right now.
“Hello, Crystal,” I say as I fold myself up from the couch, although standing and speaking are a lot more difficult than I remember, “We need to talk.”