Exit Interview

Published in Daily Science Fiction in August, 2011

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 colour. Her new­ly-revealed fore­head held two extra eyes, with immense iris­es the colour 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.