Exit Interview

Stel­la Laine, deputy head of Human Resources, tent­ed her fin­gers, looked me in the eye, and said, “Your time on Earth is near­ly up, Ben­jamin.”

For a cou­ple sec­onds I couldn’t stop blink­ing. Final­ly I got my eye­lids back under con­scious con­trol, and, with what I thought was a hero­ic lack of qua­ver to my voice, I said, “Do you real­ly have that kind of pow­er?”

Now came her turn to blink. “I’m sor­ry?”

Are you— are you seri­ous­ly telling me that you’re going to kill me?”

No!” She stared at me a moment. “No, Ben­jamin. For cake’s sake, what makes you say that?”

I—nothing. I think I must’ve mis­un­der­stood.” I men­tal­ly rewound our con­ver­sa­tion to her open­ing gam­bit. What else could she mean? “Look, if this is some sort of reli­gious thing…” I didn’t want to tell her that I was pret­ty sure pros­e­ly­tiz­ing in the work­place was against one law or anoth­er, sep­a­ra­tion of church and state and all, but if pressed I would play that card.

Reli­gious? In what way?”

I—uh, nev­er mind. What do you mean, then, that my ‘time on Earth is com­ing to an end’?”

I said near­ly up. Did I abuse an idiom? Is that the issue here?”

This kept get­ting weird­er. “I can’t real­ly say, unless you tell me what you mean.”

She nod­ded. Then she opened a desk draw­er and pulled out a pack of Vir­ginia Slims. “Do you mind if I…?”

I glanced at the win­dow sep­a­rat­ing her office from the HR foy­er. The blinds were down. Smok­ing in a work­place was tech­ni­cal­ly against the law, but if she didn’t care, I didn’t care. “Go nuts,” I said.

I’m sor­ry, does that mean yes or no?”

Go ahead,” I said. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

You real­ly have made progress on local idiom,” she said. I’d nev­er heard any­one use the word idiom in casu­al con­ver­sa­tion before—short of CBC—and here it was, twice in two min­utes. She fished out a cig­a­rette, lit it, and took a long, long drag. I could actu­al­ly watch the orange glow chang­ing white paper to pale ash. She tapped the ash into a small desk­top planter that held the for­lorn, wilt­ed remains of some species of orna­men­tal tree. I won­dered if she’d ever watered it.

I think I’m going to miss the plea­sures of this flesh the most,” she said.

I had no idea what she was talk­ing about, so I nod­ded.

Speak­ing of plea­sures of the flesh,” she said. She undid the top two but­tons of her blouse, and pulled the col­lar open. I saw black lace and pale, light­ly-freck­led décol­letage before I man­aged to force my eyes back up to hers. “Do you fan­cy a rum­ble?” she said. “One last time before we leave?”

We?” I said. “Leave?” I said. And, “Rum­ble?” Then I got hold of myself. “Lis­ten, Ms. Laine,” I said. “I’m not at all sure what’s going on here, but I think it’s best if I, uh, just leave. The soon­er the bet­ter. If you want, I can keep this under my hat, but you’d prob­a­bly bet­ter get some help. Maybe a shrink…”

She smiled, and did the but­tons back up. “Ben­jamin,” she said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard.”

Heard what?

We’ve been recalled.” She reached up and took her face off. It didn’t peel like latex, the way you see it in the movies; it sort of slid like paper. It made a dry, rustling sound, like autumn leaves, as she fold­ed it and set it on the desk­top.

Beneath her skin was anoth­er lay­er of skin, sort of, smooth and not remote­ly the right col­or. Her new­ly-revealed fore­head held two extra eyes, with immense iris­es the col­or of liq­uid gold. This new face spoke, using a gib­ber­ing lan­guage that had no kin­ship to Eng­lish, or to any human lan­guage.

What?” I said.

Those gold­en eyes had a kind­ly look to them, but below them, her still-human eyes glared at me. “Very well,” she said, in Eng­lish. “You tru­ly have assim­i­lat­ed, have you not? Good show. Too bad it’s all for ought.”

Your idiom’s slip­ping, I thought. But I knew if I said it aloud, I’d start gig­gling uncon­trol­lably, and hys­te­ria just wouldn’t be pro­fes­sion­al.

The inva­sion has been called off,” she con­tin­ued. “All embed­ded advance teams are ordered to return to the ral­ly points, tonight. The ships will be here to pick us up.”

What?

She took it as com­plaint rather than bewil­der­ment. “Yes, I’m dis­ap­point­ed too. I gath­er there’s been a change in pow­er, back home, an elec­tion. The new lead­ers are unin­ter­est­ed in con­quest. They’ll be send­ing out diplo­mat­ic teams instead. The invasion’s off.” She snort­ed, an uncom­fort­ably liq­uid noise. “If you ask me, it’s a bureau­crat­ic boon­dog­gy.”

Uh,” I said. “I don’t think you’ve got the right guy.”

Ben­jamin Hardi­son, no?” she said.

No,” I said. “I’m Ben­jamin Har­ri­son.”

She stared at me, with both her human eyes and those gold­en extras, long enough for the wall clock to carve off one minute’s worth of ticks. Final­ly she said, “Oh, piss.”

Yeah,” I said, get­ting up from my chair. “Look, I can get Hardi­son in here right away, if you’d like. His cube is just one floor down from mine. Hell, some­times I even get his pay­check by mis­take.” I knew I was ram­bling but I couldn’t help it. “Fun­ny thing,” I said, walk­ing slow­ly back­wards, keep­ing my eyes on as many of hers as I could man­age, “he and I even have very sim­i­lar employ­ee num­bers. I’m 091848, and he’s 098148. So I keep get­ting his pay­check by mis­take.” My hand, behind me, touched the cold met­al door­knob. “I said that already, didn’t I? Heh.” Could I turn it with­out it click­ing? Would she let me get away? Would a ray­gun reduce me to ash?

Stop,” she said, her tone flat.

I stopped, heart ham­mer­ing.

Let me put my face on,” she said, “before you open the door.”

I sagged with relief.

And be a dear, would you, and send Hardi­son up, please?”

Of course, Ms. Laine.”

Please,” she said. “Call me Stel­la.”

In the ele­va­tor, it occurred to me that, at the very least, I wouldn’t be get­ting Hardison’s check by mis­take any­more. Good. Bas­tard made way more than me, and I couldn’t say I’d ever seen him actu­al­ly do any work around here.


 

Reviewed by Dia­bol­i­cal Plots:

[W]ell writ­ten, inter­est­ing, with good dia­logue and humour sprin­kled through­out. […] A sim­ple idea, well exe­cut­ed.