Despite preparing all week for his promotion review, Micah was still going to have an unexpectedly strange day.
The gates of Hell hath opened up and through their devilish machinations unleashed an evil so great that no human could endure it without going insane: his morning commute to work. He had the illusion of two choices. Firstly, he could drive with his own vehicle and navigate through maddening stop-and-go traffic, where his mind would be transfixed by trying with avoiding the other commuters. If he found a way to distract himself through this randomized task, he risked colliding with some other vehicle and summoning the full force of Satan himself through his portal of small claims court.
Alternatively, he could choose public transit, the second form of morning transportation damnation where the need for concentration is bartered for an equally terrible form of torture: talking to other people. Sure, the opportunity exists to tune them out with headphones or a good book, but at some point they will start a conversation that not even the Sphinx would force onto her victims.
Micah opted for the former and entered the gauntlet of cars with a beat up sedan his parents gave him on his eighteenth birthday nearly a lifetime ago. The road was full of idiots, as the per the norm, and Micah nearly collided with two other single commuters too occupied with their phones instead of the road. Every other vehicle acted as wall with a dead end lurking around every attempt to merge.
“Local cow mutilation-” Micah cut off his radio. On a day like this with a surplus of phone-lookers, it proved to be more distraction than he needed. He had other things on his mind. His promotion today would determine the path he would navigate through his company until he retired.
An hour and a half later, Micah made it to his office’s parking deck. He should have been happy, the fates that make up HR granted him access to the deck that could access his office via skybridge. Yesterday, he had to walk half a mile from a distant lot to get to get to the front doors. However, he was already late and did not have the time nor the capacity to appreciate the little things in life.
Up and up he drove, through a myriad of ramps and cross-over bridges trying to both find an available spot and optimize his distance to the skywalk.
He questioned why he was even here. Not being ‘here’ on Earth, a question he had been asking himself since college, but why did he accept the transfer to this deck? At least he could find a spot as soon as he entered the one in far-away land. He chalked it up to hindsight being twenty-twenty. He resigned from the challenge of getting a spot near the skywalk and settled on the first open one he found. Another twenty minutes built on to his looming tower of tardiness. Micah scrambled towards the nearest elevator and took it to the bottom of the deck, opting to race through the front doors rather than the skybridge.
The lobby elevator was a foot from closing its doors as Micah hurdled over a couch with a M.C. Escher-esq print on it and sprinted towards the steel gateway. Micah threw his hand into the gap and the doors opened with an angry ‘ding’. Its two occupants were too distracted by their phones to realize that they had been delayed by a few seconds, much to Micah’s relief. He could take a breather now, no matter how many times he pushed the button to his floor, the elevator would go as fast as it needed. It would be the only relaxation he would get all day, so his brain took a trip to the past.
Growing up, Micah had one goal; get good grades to get into a good college. It was as simple as that, or at least it was for him. High School was a series of connect the dots and crossword puzzles to Micah whereas a good number of classmates found their English classes foreign and trigonometry labyrinthine.
Four years passed by, and he found himself standing on a podium in front of a crowd of strangers giving a valedictorian speech that ended with ‘it wasn’t that hard’.
From there, it was off to college. Mission accomplished. His ultimate battle was over at the ripe young age of eighteen, and Micah emerged from it with nary a scratch. Acceptance letter in hand, he walked onto the wide open field of campus, and he had no idea what to do next.
Classes were brutal. Micah’s study habits of ‘do the homework and go to class’ did not pan out when no homework was assigned and class was less of a drilling of memorized tasks and more of a social forum to discuss related topics. His straight A’s slipped to a solid C average with the occasional D, but, D stood for ‘done’ and at this point, that was good enough for him. An unintended benefit of his steep decline was that he now had earned the right to complain about course loads and shoddy professors, which made him acceptable in some social groups.
One day, during a lackadaisical meander towards statistics, something snapped in his head. High school Micah emerged from heaps of video games and cases of beer and was furious over the current state of things. The weight of his previous academic achievement came crashing down on him. Success transformed from the straightforward path of getting out of the school with a modest desk job to a mountainous array of routes heading up, down, and sometimes backwards. At its end was something that Micah could not define, his newfound vision was blurry around the edges, but his younger self insisted that it existed.
Micah spent the next year and a half trying to repair the damage his meandering did to his GPA, and was able to pull a C+ average. After six additional months of interview after interview, someone thought it would be worthwhile to reveal another path to Micah’s life and give him a job.
The elevator dinged at the eighteenth floor, two floors above the one his meeting was on. Heads from the nearest cubicles popped up when he cursed at the elevator and sprinted to the nearest stairwell.
The Crete Meeting Room, Micah’s meeting room, was a few yards from the outlet of the stairwell. He had barely enough time to compose himself and re-tie his tie before knocking on the door and walking in.
A fate from HR sat behind a massive mahogany table with a mirror finish lacquer spread across its top. Her stack of papers had a manila envelope with Micah’s name markered on it as a capstone. Her eyes were focused on the phone in front of her, and her fingers were busy attacking a monster and leveling up her virtual character. Micah gave a not-too subtle cough.
“Oh! You scared me!” Kimberly said, and she clicked off her phone and laid it face down. “You’re kind of late.”
“I’m really sorry, I had some trouble in traffic, and then finding a place to park in the sky bridge deck was next to impossible,” he said with a mild grin.
“I carpool,” she said. She waved at the seat across from her. “We can start when you’re ready.”
Micah took the seat and had a bit of trouble meeting her gaze, so he fixated on the photo of a Grecian sunset over the mediterranean behind her instead. “I’m ready.”
“Great. So, how do you think you’ve done this year?” she asked.
“I met all of my goals at the end of last quarter, and even exceeded a few. I initialized the new hiring portal…” he took a breath.
“…and I think I did a pretty good job leading our intern team before they left and got jobs elsewhere. I’d be ready for another opportunity to manage, should any need arise,” he said. It came out a little more rushed than he practiced, but the videos he used to prepare reiterated the need to announce just what type of career path he wanted.
Kimberly thumbed through his file and pulled out three printed-out emails, “Well, if these are any indication of your management ability,” she slid the papers over to him. They were letters from Micah’s team of interns praising his abilities and also providing meaningful and specific comments towards his management style, just like how he asked them to write them. “Then I think you’re in good shape.”
Waves of cool relief washed over Micah.
“But let’s shift our focus towards your core responsibilities. You said you helped initialize the hiring portal, did you know that I use that every day?” she asked.
Kimberly was in talent management and recruiting. He even met with her a few times before the launch to make sure everything was in-line with her expectations.
“I know all of it, in and out,” she arched her eyebrows and gave a knowing look to Micah.
“Thanks?” The videos did not cover a situation like this. They did mention that it might not be a bad idea to take initiative, however.
“I feel that I could lead the development of automating a few core systems with significantly positive return on investment should the company allocate me the necessary resources and manpower,” he crammed as many buzzwords as he could into that statement.
“I’m sure you could,” Kimberly said, “But I think we both know, it’ll never happen.”
“Not while I’m around.”
Micah was annoyed. Sure, he was late to the evaluation, but Kimberly was acting like he was an alien sent from the planet Gribnok with the sole purpose of having an awkward conversation with her.
“Hey, look. Can we restart or something? Clearly there is something wrong with you,” he bit his tongue as hard as he could after that rolled out of his mouth.
“Shit, I didn’t mean that,” he was nowhere near the promotion from the start, and he had just taken off into the atmosphere. It was microscopic from his vantage point.
“Yeah, something is wrong. Maybe you should look into fixing it before considering the road to a promotion.” She picked up her papers and left the room without another word.
Miach stared at the photo a bit more. The sand must have been warm, and there was probably a waiter carrying olives and martinis beyond the edge of the frame. Of course, this was all he could imagine because he would have to wait another year before there would be enough cash in his bank account to go to a place like Crete.
Despite his desk being two floors up and a rather straightforward walk to get to, he slouched through the halls like it was his first time in the office, as if he were lost and unsure where to go next.
After some concerned guidance from one of the maintenance workers, he made it back to his cubicle. Its walls were decorated with spreadsheets, email printouts, and a dozen of flowcharts he created while working on the portal. They could have been crayon drawings now for all he cared. His desk shook after he dropped into his chair and dropped his arms onto his keyboard. The ‘x’ key popped loose and flew over the cubicle wall.
A calm washed over Micah. He had failed before. This was barely any different than his stumbling through college. Maybe it was time to move on? Perhaps to a company that gave promotions based on merit alone instead of self-evaluation?
“I take it the meeting didn’t go well?” Jerry said, from over the wall as he gave the key back to Micah.
“Thanks. No it did not,” he said.
“Was your evaluator Kimberly?” Jerry asked. Jerry liked to know the details of what went on behind everyone’s closed doors.
“Yes…” Micah said.
“Oh, Kimberly,” Jerry gave a heartwarming smile and held his hands together like he was reminiscing about a past love.
“What do you mean, ‘Oh, Kimberly’?”
Jerry smirked and put down his hands, “Don’t you have the hots for her?”
Micah let his mouth slack a little bit, “What? No? Why do you think that?”
“Well you had a lot of ‘private’ consultations with her a month ago, so I only thought…” Jerry made a kissing noise and winked.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” Micah stopped fiddling with the key and slammed it down on his desk. “Did you say anything to her about that?”
“Well, I didn’t ‘tell’ her anything, per se.”
“What did you do?” Micah’s voice lowered to a rumbling growl.
“You might want to check the tutorial of the hiring portal,” Jerry said and snickered.
Micah snapped the ‘x’ key back into his keyboard and logged into his desktop. With a few keystrokes, he unlocked the source code folder for the portal and ran through the twists and turns of its architecture.
A file named ‘tutorial scripts’ floated before him, his hands cooled as the blood drained out of them. Jerry was an ass, no doubt about that, but he did not have access to the source code of the portal. He reached out with the cursor and double clicked, transforming the file into a chunk of text.
His eyes immediately caught Kimberly’s name laced throughout the file. A gasp pulled much-needed air into his starving lungs when he realized he was holding his breath. More snickering came from behind his wall. Micah began to read.
‘Imagine you’re a user like Kimberly, the hottie, and you just can’t figure out who to hire.’
Micah scrolled down.
‘So with your itsy-bitsy delicate Kimberly fingers, type in the potential applicant’s last name, then their first name.’
The trackwheel of Micah’s mouse bent under the pressure of his finger.
‘And once you forward the applicant’s resume to the hiring manager, you can go out on a date with Micah. Because he’s too afraid to ask you in person.’
Micah heard a demonic cackle from Jerry, the beast, behind him. Jerry had taken the trip around their little neighborhood to read above Micah’s shoulders.
“How dare you,” Micah said, his whisper was poison on a blade.
“What? I thought this would help, you’re the one that likes her so much,” Jerry rested his fist on his hips, seemingly astounded at Micah’s anger. What he really meant to say was ‘I’m stuck at this point in my career, and instead of putting the effort into switching jobs, I much rather drag everyone else down to the pits with me.’
“There’ll be traces of you in the user logs,” Micah growled, his knuckles turned white.
Jerry guffawed, “No. There won’t,” he rested his hands on Micah’s shaking shoulders, “It’s amazing how a six pack of craft beer can turn a trusted intern into the most devious trap-laying minion,” Jerry said.
Micah had privileged access to the source code, and so did his team of interns. His trusted band of adventurers had betrayed the very hands that gave them gold.
“So what’d she say? You guys have a date set up?” Jerry said.
At this moment, Micah saw two doors he could go through. One lead to him taking the abuse from Jerry which would turn him into Jerry’s plaything to torture and and mock whenever he pleased. An eternity of sitting next to a snickering monster, dragging him further and further into its pit of darkness, never to be seen from again. The second door opened with a rage-powered haymaker to Jerry’s jaw, sending Jerry into the flimsy cubicle wall and Micah to jail.
But then, that calm he felt earlier came back. It gave him a spare moment in the face of a snap decision to look around the doors a bit more. Through his searching, he found a lip in the stone wall. An infinitesimal edge that yielded to a gentle press of the palm of his hand. The wall slid away, grating across the ground and spit out a narrow beam of light as it opened. After a few uncomfortable seconds of Jerry laughing at his own joke, the secret door was fully open.
“You know what, Jerry? That was a good one.” Micah said, walking through the door. He gave Jerry a playful punch on the shoulder.
“Yeah… It was…” Jerry said. Micah was wearing a wide grin.
“But to answer your question, no. She turned me down at the last second. But hey, you win some and you lose some,” Micah said and shrugged. All of the rage, all of the anger, and all of the the hate bubbled away once he was on the other side.
“I… guess so,” Jerry stared hard into Micah’s eyes trying to find smidgens of pain, but found barrels of aloofness instead.
“Maybe I’ll get the next one after I finish up another year-long project,” he gave a careless laugh and sat back down. “Talk to you later Jerry.”
Jerry walked out of the cubical and retreated back to his own. He suddenly found it particularly difficult to look at Micah.
Micah sighed and leaned back in his chair and spent the rest of the day on his phone reading news articles regarding long-dead celebrity sightings and the occasional disappearance. Strange stuff, but paltry compared to what was around the corner.
Micah left the building and headed towards the garage. His sublime peace left him wandering about the deck’s identical floors without much worry. In an epiphany that came out of the cosmic nothingness his mind had become, he chose to take only lefts at every turn, staircase, and elevator he saw. It took an hour to find his car, and he saw every other person leave the garage, but that was fine by him. Less traffic on the way out.
By the time he left, the moon was starting its journey across the starless sky and the roads were empty. No more idiots on their phones, no more crammed carpool vans; it was only Micah and the asphalt.
He slipped back into his peaceful state and felt paintbrushes of warmth stroke the back of his neck. Everything was alright for him. The promotion was not the end-all be-all like he assumed graduating high school was. He survived that, and he would survive now. He was out, free from the maze of life’s expectations, and he was still in one piece.
Except Micah’s day finally went strange on him.
A brilliant light from the heavens themselves bathed the world around him. Peculiar for sure, but Micah was in no mood to question it.
The light faded, and Micah was no longer in his car; the road was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he was standing in a room. It was lacking furniture but flush with strange meats and other viscera.
The calm in his mind let him look on at the gore without concern. Although it would have been nice to know what it came from.
“That was only a cow, no worries,” a voice came from the adjacent side of the room, reading his mind. Micah only now noticed that he had company.
The speaker walked into the light. Its body was difficult to look at, let alone understand, but Micah was able to make out something that resembled a head.
“Standard procedure is to tell you to not be afraid, but you and I both know you’re a tad beyond that,” the creature said through a set of gills that puffed outward with every word.
Micah should have felt fear here, and he tried to convince himself of it, but if anything, this was more interesting than scary. “I guess you’re right.”
The creature stared at Micah, or at least Micah assumed that was what it was doing, and it seemed like he was waiting for him to speak. Luckily for Micah, he was prepping for a situation like this all week.
“I think I’d be ready for another opportunity to manage,” he said. The creature did not outright reject his statement.
“Manage what?” it asked, bemused.
Micah opened his mouth, but could only find ‘Employees’, or ‘people’, which did not make sense given the present circumstances. “I’m not sure,” was all he could offer.
“That’s fine. Would you like to know why you’re here in one piece?” it asked. Micah’s gaze drifted to what once was a cow and then back to the creature.
“You grew up today,” it began. “Instead succumbing to primal emotion, you achieved nothingness. A trait common to my people and an indicator we use when a species is ready to leave.”
“Leave what?” Micah asked.
“The game of life. That relentless puzzle all intelligent life subjects themselves to at some point or another,” it said and answered Micah’s next question, “No, you are not the first one of your species to get here. There have been others. They came back to the surprise of many.”
Micah was reminded of the news articles he read at work.
“So now the real question is, what do you want to do?” The creature pointed to a device that hummed and glowed, “I could send you back into the game to ‘manage’, and you live out your life unperturbed by anything that would have bothered you in the past. Or-” it pointed to the room’s single door, “- you could come with me, and see what other beings of your maturity have to offer.”
A massive decision, but Micah only had one question on his mind, “Why the stuff with the cows?”
“They’re the next closest to a state of supreme nothingness, we’re still studying them to find out when they’ll get there. Sometimes, they die.”
Micah made his decision as well as anyone in his particular situation and state of mind could have made it. He could see every route now, and he knew that all of them only led in circles. It did not matter which option he picked, so much that he picked one, rather than get stuck in the mire of ridiculous self-expectations and never move forward.
Eric Lange is a writer of short fiction and other limited-length sundries. He has spent his whole life in Atlanta, Georgia and has no plans to leave anytime soon. Eric is about to wrap up a year-long challenge to write a short fantasy story every day. All of his stories, and collaborative works based on his writing, can be found on his blog, www.30secfantasy.com. When he is not writing, Eric works the nine to five as a product development engineer for a large-ish toy company based out of Atlanta.