By Gary Cuba
In the early afternoon of his first day of work at Reliant Data Services Corporation, Henry Hassenlopf suffers a massive cerebral stroke. It happens as he sits in his newly assigned cubicle, in front of his PC workstation. No one in the cubes surrounding Henry’s notices what has happened to him.
Henry’s initial panic slowly gives way to a cooler internal assessment. That there is still something of a mind left to self-referentially consider his own plight, he takes as a positive starting point. Under the negative column, he notes that he is completely paralyzed–no, not quite so, he realizes. As he takes sequential stock of his body, bottom to top, Henry realizes that he can still twitch the big toe on his right foot, flex his right thigh muscle, and move the first two fingers on his right hand slightly. His eyes and facial muscles still function. But he cannot utter a sound, not even a grunt. And he can’t twist his neck; his head remains fixed in position, staring at his computer monitor. Its screen clock reads 2:09 P.M.
What a pisser, Henry thinks. Sixty-four years old. After having searched so desperately for decent work in my field for the last three years. And I blow it on my very first day!
Henry sits and waits. He figures someone will eventually notice his problem and get help. Surely they will notice, he thinks. Eventually, they will.
But as the long, lonely minutes pass, he remembers how aloof his co-workers had been when his new boss, Mr. Williamson, had introduced him around that morning. Many of them hadn’t even bothered to turn away from their monitors to face him; they had simply thrown up a hand over their shoulder in a half-hearted, half-irritated acknowledgement that something was trying to break their concentration. It was a gesture much like one makes to wave away a pesky fly. And most of them, Henry noticed, appeared to have been idly surfing the web or chatting to friends on the phone, rather than doing any actual company business. If Williamson had also noticed this, he made no sign of it.
Henry’s eyes gimbal down to look at his right hand, resting on his PC’s mouse. Maybe this is my lifeline. If I can manage to make my fingers obey my mind, I can send out a message for help. In a supreme exercise of will, he makes his second finger move the mouse to the left, then moves it rightwards with his first finger.
The screen cursor moves a pixel or two in either direction. Henry is fretful at this result; he doubts that he can move the mouse efficiently enough to access the entire screen without losing grasp of the device totally. And if that happens, he is dead in the water. He realizes that he needs to change the mouse settings to make it more responsive to movement, before trying anything else.
Battling fiercely to control his two fingers, Henry finally manages to open the PC mouse settings control utility. He feels discouraged. It has taken him almost an hour to get this far, based on the clock in the lower corner of the screen. While he struggles with the mouse, his mind drifts back to the start of this horrendous workday.
Williamson couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. He sported a short, spiky hairstyle.
“OK, Hassleflop, let’s get you started off here.”
“That’s Hassenlopf, Mr. Williamson,” Henry said.
“Right. First off, call me Will.”
Williamson’s eyes didn’t seem to be able to stay focused on any one object for more than an instant; they flitted around as if there was a basketball game occurring in front of him, one which Henry was somehow missing. Henry felt like he wanted to duck when he saw Will’s eyes run in a quick arc over the top of his head.
“Brandon in HR thought very highly of your resumé, and your interview went well with him. You’ve got a good background in IT data security, that’s true. Quite frankly, I myself wondered if you were going to be, well, quick enough on your feet to keep up with the pace around here. This is a fast-growing startup with a young, vibrant organization, you know. But Brandon held fast, and he’s got more power around here than me, so . . . well, that’s that. Let me introduce you around, now.”
Brandon in HR had, in fact, gone out on a limb by hiring Henry. He had said so himself, after making the job offer: “Off the record, Henry, you’re a bit of an experiment. I want to prove to this organization that we can benefit from workers with a historically broader perspective in the field. Solid, mature people with a good work ethic and a proven record of trustworthiness.”
Brandon was the oldest person he had seen in the entire company. Henry had judged him to be a few years shy of forty.
Williamson strode out of his office with Henry in tow. They stopped at the secretarial station nearby.
“Here’s the most important person to know, Henry. This is Audrey, our department’s Administrative Assistant, and she basically runs the office show. Anything you need, see her. Audrey, this is Henry Hassleflop.”
Henry opened his mouth to give his correct name, but thought better of it. There’d be time for that later; no sense seeming paranoid about it now. First impressions were always important, he thought. Audrey, holding a telephone to one ear with her shoulder, sat polishing a nail. She gave a brief, wan smirk back in a faux greeting, then swiveled her chair around, away from the distraction.
After a few more perfunctory introductions, they came to Henry’s office cubicle. Williamson swung his arm at the opening in a quick, jerky arc.
“Home at last. Everything should be set up for you. I’m afraid this job won’t be as glamorous as some you’ve had in the past, Hassleflop. But you do have full database access, starting today. I want you to read the company’s online policy manuals before you do anything else, though. We’ll talk more about your specific assignments tomorrow. Any problems, just call or text-page me.”
Henry entered his tiny cube. “Thanks, Mr. . . . thanks, Will. I do appreciate the opportunity.” He turned back around, extending a hand to shake Will’s. “I’ll do a good job for y–”
Williamson had disappeared. Henry sat down and booted up his PC to begin reading the online manuals.
“And it’s Hassenlopf,” he said aloud to nobody.
It is 3:24 P.M. by the time Henry successfully gets the mouse movement sensitivity settings changed. During the course of his ordeal, tears of frustration have begun to mix with the beads of sweat descending from his brow. He can detect the faint odor of urine rising from his seat. Fortunately, he can’t feel the wetness.
Since the time of his stroke, Henry has noticed an increasing dizziness, nausea, and a slight narrowing of peripheral vision. And he has never before experienced a headache so painful. He cannot honestly detect a reduction in his mental acuity. But how would I know that, if my own brain is the thing that’s judging itself? Henry knows that a cerebral stroke kills large numbers of brain cells. He also knows that he will need help soon, before he begins to lose the autonomic functions that control his heart and his breathing. Henry’s life is hanging on a wire–the thin cord that connects his mouse to his PC.
He hears his cubicle neighbors leave for their afternoon coffee break. None bother to invite him to join them. Bastards, Henry thinks. Self-absorbed, self-contained, cliquish bastards.
Now endowed with better mouse control, Henry opens the PC’s email program and clicks “New Message.” He slowly and agonizingly scrolls down the company email list, name by name, to find his boss’s text pager address. Why did the sonuvabitch have to be named “Williamson,” rather than “Adams” or “Ardmore”? At length, he reaches it, clicks on it, and stares at the blank message field. Then he looks mournfully at his PC keyboard, which, as far as his paralyzed body is concerned, might as well be located in a distant galaxy.
Henry weeps silently; he knows he will have to use the mouse-based “Insert Symbol” function from the PC’s word processing application to compose his message there, one painful character after another, then copy and paste it into the email. He looks at the PC’s clock; it reads 3:54 P.M. He is running out of time.
There is nothing for it, but to try. Henry blinks away a few stray tears and forges ahead. As he does so, another unwelcome recollection from earlier that day surfaces in his mind. He wonders why those particular brain cells couldn’t have been the ones to die.
In the late morning, Henry walked to Audrey’s station to obtain a paper binder. He found her engaged with another girl in an inane discussion about child care centers. They continued chattering back and forth as he stood there, politely waiting for them to reach a stopping point and turn their attention to him. They could plainly see he was standing right next to them, Henry thought.
But there was no stopping point, and no turning of attention. The subject changed to favorite recipes, then to restaurants. Five minutes later, when their conversation began to segue into the subject of Mothers-in-law, Henry cleared his throat.
“Excuse me Audrey. Mr. Williamson said to see you if I needed anything. Do you have an empty 3-ring binder?”
Both girls swiveled their heads toward him and looked him up and down. The enmity in their flaring glares was both palpable and blatant.
“I don’t do binders,” Audrey snapped. “Administrative Assistants don’t do binders. You need to go down to the office storeroom and fill out a requisition for one, just like everybody else in the department does. Now, do you mind? We were talking, here. Before being interrupted. By you.”
They turned their heads back away from him and continued chattering where they left off. Henry could not bring himself to interrupt Audrey again to ask the storeroom’s location. He slunk away. Behind him, he heard a snide comment, spoken just loudly enough for him to be sure to hear it.
“Oh, he’s that new hire, whatsisname–Henry Hassleflop. Rude old fart, isn’t he?”
He wandered around the office for awhile, trying to find someone who would tell him where the supply storeroom was. He finally came upon a worker kind enough to grunt “basement” in reply to his question. He found a stairwell and descended into the depths of the building.
The basement seemed to be deserted. At length, he found a locked, caged storage area that looked like it contained office supplies. Searching further, he stumbled across a teenager sitting in a half-hidden niche behind a boiler, studying a men’s magazine. Henry turned away as the kid zipped up his pants, and asked him over his shoulder how he could go about requisitioning a binder.
“Oh, I can’t give out office supplies to employees, only to the department Administrative Assistants. That’s the rules,” the teenager said. “You need to tell your AA what you need, and she’ll requisition it, pick it up down here, and deliver it to you. On Thursdays only.”
Henry trudged back up to his cubicle. Piles of loose paper were okay, he decided. Piles worked.
Breathing a silent prayer to the engineer who had invented the mouse interface, Henry opens his word processing program and begins to compose his plea for help. Slowly, his quivering finger selects “Insert” and “Symbol” from a pull-down menu, and glacially moves the screen cursor to hover over the first letter in the message. Each succeeding click brings him closer to salvation, and gives him the motivation to continue.
Highlighting the completed message is by far the most difficult task he has attempted since his stroke. Henry’s vision is narrowing further, and he is sweating profusely. His breathing is becoming more and more labored. At last, he copies the message to the email field, and sends it to Williamson’s text pager: “ILL NEED HELP.” The PC clock reads 4:55 P.M.
Henry stares at the email screen and listens to his co-workers power down their workstations, lock their desks, and leave for home. No one says goodbye to him. He hears one of them talking to another as they walk out about Brandon having quit the company that afternoon.
At 5:05 P.M., a reply from Williamson pops up in his incoming mailbox. Henry’s finger twitches uncontrollably as he tries to open it.
“tied up in late mtg. ill get back to you tomorow am. btw dont use all caps in yr msgs its annyong too read.”
Tears of rage and frustration stream down Henry’s face. its annyong too read. . .
At 5:35 P.M., he hears a noise nearby. A man is humming; he sounds old. Henry realizes it’s the janitor, emptying wastebaskets. He listens to him working his way closer and closer, then he hears the man at the opening of his cubicle, pulling the wastebasket out from under the desk panel near its entrance.
“Workin’ late tonite, huh? No future to it. Be the death of ya, y’know, heh heh. . .”
Henry screams inside his brain, trying to do something, anything to get the janitor’s attention. But his back is turned to the cubicle’s entrance, and there is no way he can physically signal his agonizing situation. As far as the janitor is concerned, Henry is just another unfriendly, uncommunicative desk worker in a large office chockfull of unfriendly desk workers–none of whom had ever bothered to acknowledge his existence before.
“Heh, all done. ‘Night now.”
Henry hears his emptied wastebasket being slid back under his desk, and listens to the slowly vanishing sounds of the janitor’s humming as he wheels his garbage cart away from the area.
I’m not going to make it, Henry thinks. He sits and waits for the end to come. The memory of lunchtime insidiously works its way into the forefront of his mind.
“What’s that, there?” Henry pointed to a stainless steel pan behind the glass panel on the cafeteria hotline. It held sloppy looking mounds covered in a red sauce with stringy yellow streaks running through it.
The gum-chewing cafeteria server looked up at him. “Beef enchiladas, hon’. Just like it says up on the menu by the entrance. Or maybe you don’t read so good. You want one, or not?”
Henry shook his head no, and shuffled on down the line. At least the chocolate cake looked good. He walked over to the drink dispenser and pulled a styrofoam cup out of a holder. Five unwanted ones came along with it, falling to the floor.
The cashier yelled over to him. “Gotta charge you for those, you know. You ruined ‘em.” The other employees in the cafeteria line stared at Henry as he awkwardly stooped to corral the rolling, wayward cups. The employees snorted and murmured to each other. Fortunately, the embarrassed ringing in his ears prevented Henry from hearing what they were saying. He filled up his cup with ice and diet cola, then moved to the checkout cashier.
“Two-seventy five,” she said. “Including the cups.”
Henry reached in his wallet. He had no small bills, so he pulled out a twenty.
The cashier eyed the proffered bill with disdain. “This ain’t no freakin’ bank, you know. Got anything smaller?”
Henry said no, and she grudgingly gave him his change. He walked into the main dining area and looked over the sea of faces in front of him. There were a few empty tables, but Henry was determined to make the acquaintance of some of his co-workers. He studied the diners. Christ, it’s like this whole company is nothing but kids. I might as well be eating in a high school cafeteria. He spotted a table occupied by what he judged to be the oldest people in the room–three men in perhaps their mid-thirties–and walked over to it.
“Mind if I sit down here, fellas?” he said, placing his tray on the table.
The nearest of the three looked up at Henry. “Not at all, Pops. We were about to leave, anyway.”
The three got up and left Henry sitting alone at the table. They hadn’t even given him the chance to introduce himself. He slowly ate his chocolate cake and thought about how long his afternoon was going to seem.
Henry’s thoughts race through his mind like wildfire as the last of his life essence steadily leaks out of his body.
Goddamn it, I’m dying. I ought to be thinking about God, or the disposition of my soul, or the meaning of life–or even about my blood-sucking ex-wife, who took me for everything I ever managed to scrape together. She’s why I’m in this fix in the first place. I could’ve been retired and relaxing on my back porch, sipping a Martini. But no. I’m sitting here dying alone, and all I can think about is how much I hate this shitty company and the shitty people who work for it!
The overhead office lights had been turned off, and the only source of illumination is coming from Henry’s PC monitor. The screen clock reads 7:49 P.M.
Henry’s vision has shrunk to a small circle in the center of his field of view, and he is having to struggle to breathe. His two right fingers twitch. They seem to move with a volition of their own, pushing the screen cursor up to the file display menu. It’s there somewhere, Henry thinks: the company’s central database. Password? Yes, I remember it. I can compose and copy it there, just like I copied my help message.
Henry had been hired on the basis of his IT data security experience. A big part of his skill-set is knowing who the data thieves are, how they operate, where they lurk. If its secure client data files ever become compromised, he knows that a company like Reliant Data Services is ruined. Its managers’ careers are destroyed, and its employees end up working in fast-food restaurants. Henry has seen it all happen before, first-hand.
It is not until 9:14 P.M. when Henry manages to access the company database, and, with a single triumphant stroke of his left mouse button, commences the outbound data stream. Reliant’s client files begin to fly off to a hacker website where the worst and most voracious of the data criminals will be overjoyed to find the boon. The entire transmission will take two or three hours to complete, but it will proceed on its own.
Henry feels his face break into a sardonic grin–possibly a little droopy on the left side, but it feels good anyway. Before he expires from pulmonary failure at 10:03 P.M., Henry has the time and the resolve left to compose one final email message, addressed to “Send to All”:
“MY NAME IS HASSENLOPF GODDAMN IT!”
Gary Cuba lives with his wife and an unruly horde of domestic critters in South Carolina, USA. Now retired, he spent most of his career working in the commercial nuclear power industry, and holds several US patents in that field. His speculative fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Grantville Gazette, Abyss & Apex, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Visit The Foggiest Notion to learn more about him and to find links to some of his other stories.