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