From: Management <email@example.com>
Sent: 5:43 AM, Friday 9 July 2007
Subject: Putting the FLEXIBLE in the Company Week
Management has been disturbed by reports that employees of Electricity Specific have external-to-company interests.
Ha ha, we jest! Of course we expect you to have a life outside of the ES enterprise. But if you find you’re doing unproductive things with your Sunday – eyeballing the TV, guzzling beer and other carbs, diminishing domestic bliss – why not direct that pent-up get-up-and-go to one of Electricity Specific’s shining tiers: Energy Matters, Technology Shaping, Foxalicious, Capital Finance or Radiant Meadow? Long dead are the days we insisted on Monday through Friday weeks. Progress, we like to say, is not without flexible* working weeks, allowing you family and other external-to-company time, while maintaining the level of productivity we all hunger for.
(*Naturally, all suggested input hours must be submitted in writing to the executive floor at least three months before requested ‘flexible’ hours would commence.)
Kandinski orbited through the kitchen, past the water cooler, past the toilet block, past Yang’s desk on the right – the carefully timed three-minute lap of the office’s gravitational path. He awarded himself another lap, a bonus for four cramped hours at his desk.
Due to a history of acquisitions and mergers, Electricity Specific made everything from jet engines to films, from light bulbs – newfangled and self-decomposing – to medical software. Yet neither Kandinski nor any other person in his office had ever laid eyes on the fruits of this labour. Their role was to formulate reports, accentuate certain columns and make the company’s overall maths enviable.
Kandinski entered the kitchen.
Through previous trial and error, he knew he could murder five minutes in there: making coffee, shuffling the newspaper, investigating the snack box. Eleven minutes of free will in total.
A mere forty minutes after that, he could return home to Zoa.
The International Roast coffee was barely distinguishable from rust water, but Kandinski always let it brew anyway. The definition of insanity, yadda yah.
No blip on the SETI-at-work radar.
Geostationary, he glanced at the clock. 4:53 pm. Those last yards were like waiting for freedom or sleep, happy to succumb to whichever arrived first.
A shadow fell over his desk. Richards leaned in wearing a conspiratorial smile. ‘See they got the new De-luxe International Roast in the kitchen?’ His caterpillar eyebrows crawled. ‘Another one of my ideas.’
Kandinski nodded, eyes making for the clock. 4:53 pm. Time was cement-draped. ‘Er, thanks.’
‘Doing anything on the weekend?’ Richards stood, arms crossed over torso, crumbs fused into the thick beard he’d been growing for as long as Kandinski had worked at the company.
Kandinski’s mind flitted to Zoa. For a millisecond he considered delving into geosynchronous orbits and pericentres and the whole jelly discovery, but the whim just as quickly vanished – his secret was not something he would part with for Richards, or anyone else in the office.
‘No,’ Kandinski replied.
‘Huh.’ Richards, who had tired of waiting for an invitation, revealed his own plans: ‘I’m running a marathon.’
Kandinski eyed Richards’s ursine physique.
Richards rubbed his hand over his mid-section, ‘Looks can be deceiving.’
Kandinski felt a peevish flicker. He reminded himself that Richards had, at various times before his promotion, claimed to be half Israeli, half Palestinian, half Ulster-Irish and full Trekkie.
Kandinski’s stomach clenched; he needed to get home to Zoa. He shut down his computer and grabbed his bag and helmet from the portable drawers beneath his desk.
‘Not staying for Friday social then?’ Richards observed.
‘No, have to … um … dentist.’ Kandinski jogged to the lift, one of 40 or so sagging employees to crowd in. No more than 35 healthy physiques at the one time declared the silver plaque next to the rows of numbers. Everyone smiled nervously at each other and inhaled as the doors closed.
Factory-made satellites were now so common that a celestial traveller could expect to find three hundred operational in space on any given day. Then there were the millions of abandoned satellites and chunks of spacecraft strewn across the cosmos. No-one tells you about the highways and junkyards of space debris mapping the sky, or about the graveyard orbit, Kandinski thought as he checked in at each of his five sifting computers.
No blip on the SETI-at-home radar. 1891 days, and nada.
There were a couple of satellites visible this evening, one quite late. It had only been in circuit for 750 days. Still, could be worth recording. Kandinski walked the length of his terrace house – a few metres at most – to the bathroom. He lowered the volume of the ageing tape deck on top of the fridge and knocked on the bathroom door before he entered.
The shower curtain obscured his view. Not wanting to discomfit Zoa, he perched on the edge of the toilet to talk. ‘So Richards – remember, I told you about him and his promotion? – ensnared me at work again today. Claims he’s running a marathon this weekend!’ He snorted and trailed off. ‘Thing is, he doesn’t look that fit.’
Dull, dull, dull! Zoa needed reassurance, not blather.
He pulled the curtain across. ‘I’m sorry, that was petty.’
He studied the lucent being boxed in the bath. Tendrils brushed up against the edges of the tub and retreated again when they touched cold metal. He sensed the sea jelly regarding him – they spoke such different languages, he couldn’t determine how much was getting through. He wasn’t even certain he was making eye contact.
‘Let’s go out tonight. It’ll be good for us both.’
SETI-at-home processing, processing, searching for pulses.
Three weeks ago he found it. Not far from there, bruising up against the rocks, feelers tangled, glowing. He initially suspected it was one of two things: a satellite fragment thrown thousands of metres from the graveyard orbit, or a discarded glow stick thrown into the river for luck. He left his equipment on the river track and climbed down to the rocks, praying he wouldn’t step on one of the child-sized river rats.
The jelly was pressed up on the rock, the water swirling around, dragging it to and fro. He looked for something to prod it with – his shoe? a rock? – to establish whether it was still alive. He crouched closer. This one was a mess, covered in indentations and deep grooves. Did jellies bleed, he wondered.
Jellies die every day! he chided himself. He nudged it with his foot. Tentacles shot out and wound round his calf. Leaping back from the river’s edge, he jerked his leg slow-wittedly on the rocks. The jelly responded by inching its way up his leg, closer to his knee. Was it eating him?
No. It was smallish and jellies didn’t eat humans, if memory served. He scoured his brain for facts pertaining to marine biology. None, other than many sea creatures were venomous. In all probability, jellies had stingers along each antenna.
Should he kill it? He could bash his leg onto some rocks, though he risked injuring himself or falling in the water. Perhaps if he took his pants off? He looked down at the monster on his leg, purple now, like an elastic bruise. Was he mistaken in thinking the animal was clinging to him, in a position of supplication, like prey that recognises its place lower down on the food chain? Maybe it was asking him for mercy.
Moist heat was beginning to spread up his thigh, but he thought his brain might be affected too. Kandinski wanted to go home and deal with it there, the sooner the better in case it was radiating his leg.
He lumbered home alongside his bike, keeping to the darker streets. Once home he filled the bath, hastily unbuttoned his pants and let them slide to the floor before leaping from the bathroom. He didn’t really have a plan beyond that. Safely outside, he examined his legs for embedded barbs. Finding none, he dressed in pyjama pants and sat on his bed, facing the closed bathroom door.
After 49 minutes, he opened it again. The jelly was submerged in the tub, bobbing up and down, seemingly content. Kandinski went to bed.
‘Abagado 1 is a research satellite in low-earth orbit,’ Kandinski explained, scanning the sky. ‘Should pass in the next 90 minutes.’
He parked his bike in semi-darkness under the bridge next to the river, reckoning the cavernous overhang would offer protection. A good thing, too: the jelly’s luminosity would not dull. He set up his ham radio and pondered his situation, trying to ignore the incandescent activity by his side, flickering through the bucket’s thin walls, serenading the night sky: a vibration beckoning something ancient, alien.
The satellite was a comet of white noise as it passed overhead. Kandinski sighed. He felt no joy in the future hours it would take to decode it. He packed up their stuff, strapped Zoa’s bucket onto the bike and rode home.
He checked his computers. No running tasks on the SETI-at-home radar. Strange.
Riding to work Monday, he pondered the changes in the jelly since that first encounter: the listlessness, the stilted monologues (his), the unremitting bobbing. Kandinski reasoned it might be depressed. Life in a bathtub couldn’t be helping. It was all metal walls and ugly sky, no depths to explore. What kind of hopes could anyone pin to a beige sky?
Sustenance was a problem as well. The first couple of days Kandinski walked to the river where he drew water with his makeshift pulley. His skills in water-drawing grew by the third day, even if he attracted curious glances on the journey home as he halted every few metres to still sloshing water. He’d assumed that the river water would be crawling with plankton because of its proximity to the sea (not the zooplankton he’d read jellies typically feasted on – they were much bigger and he was uncertain how one would go about catching them). But hunting had never been one of his strengths. His internet search on sea jellies had solved the appellation issue at least: its scientific class, Medusozoa.
By the fifth day, the jelly was noticeably leaner. Unable to detect any living organisms in the water he’d been collecting, Kandinski resorted to the costly but less taxing solution of caviar.
Things could be worse, he thought: Zoa could have thirty-foot long tentacles capable of paralysing a large fish or a small man.
Kandinski arrived at work early to brew his coffee, dodge office interaction, fit in some research. He sipped his International Roast and typed ‘listless jellyfish’ into the search engine. All he found was pages of bad poetry. Evidently people weren’t keen chroniclers of facts about despondent jellyfish.
He checked the sky map. A hurricane was maturing off the coast, the weather update warned ferocious weather likely.
He checked his email.
From: M Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: 8:53 AM, Monday 12 July 2007
Subject: Number Peepers
Kandinski, could you spend today running your peepers over the financials for the Jun–Aug quarter for Consumer and Industrial? Basically looking for new ways to save money. Any efficacious solution-gems can be delivered in my office at 4:45pm, partner.
Kandinski spent the day digging through shared hard drives to draw up the relevant spreadsheets, lost in the thousands of cells contained therein.
At 4:44, brain fried, he knocked on Richards’ door.
‘Cross the threshold,’ sang the voice within. Kandinski did, walking into a room almost a quarter of the size of the entire office floor. Richards had his back to him, bent over something beneath the window.
‘I’ve spent the day going over these figures, and, honestly, they’re fairly lean as is.’ Kandinski placed the folders containing his notes open on the desk, tapping one sheet with his right index finger. ‘I was puzzled by this one however. What does Radiant Meadow make, exactly? It sounds like a place where we might retire our old employees.’
‘Hmm?’ Richards turned an impassive face to him.
‘Radiant Meadow? Seems like we expect to make quite a bit of profit from it with very little expenditure. I was just curious…’ Kandinski’s eyes fell to the tank Richards was no longer blocking. It contained two jellies, agonisingly similar in size and listlessness to his Medusozoa. He broke into a sweat, thoughts jumping for attention. This coincidence meant something, he was sure of it.
‘You okay?’ Richards asked, squinting at him.
‘Are they,’ he tried to keep his voice casual, ‘jellyfish?’
‘Beauties, aren’t they?’ Richards sounded as proud as if he were the father. ‘Watch this.’ He snapped his fingers and the room went dark, except for a small glow emitting from the tank, which flashed dazzlingly at every thirty-second mark.
Kandinski’s pulse thrummed.
SETI-at-home blank, no tasks running. Check back in 51:49:03.
Asteroidal night rained down. Zoa and Kandinski sat silent, while the ham radio showered noise around them. Kandinski plugged his equipment into his smartphone to ensure he caught all of Jason1’s data. Launched in 2000, the satellite had been built to document changes in ocean and climate patterns, but was arriving weeks earlier than originally scheduled.
Finding Zoa, Jason1’s early appearance, Radiant Meadow at Electricity Specific: he felt compelled to decode the relationships between these occurrences.
Kandinski stood and swept his arm slowly, slowly, following the arc of the low-earth orbit. That’s when he noticed. Or perhaps he’d noticed sooner, but hadn’t made the connection. Zoa was glowing, stunning the darkness beneath the underpass into submission, then fading, then repeating – like a reminder, like a beacon – keeping time with the unfamiliar humming feeding through his antenna.
On a hunch Kandinski walked over to the river, scanning for evidence of jellies. But the river was dark and flat, ungiving of its secrets. Kandinski resumed the arc of the satellite. Along with the crooning were beeps and distorted voices, snatches of intergalactic noise that flowed from the antenna, through him and out into the recorder, soon to be uploaded onto one of his inexhaustible computers where he could create order and meaning.
He followed the trail up onto the bridge, reaching far into the night sky, recording every last mote of data.
He didn’t comment on Zoa’s signalling or the satellite’s humming as he packed up his equipment. By the time they reached home, he’d convinced himself that the jelly was responding to that satellite. There must be a reason it had found him. It needed his help.
SETI-at-home detected a minor blip.
Kandinski didn’t sleep that night. He was too wired on coffee and decoding and the knowledge that there was something else out there – something that, according to SETI, was getting closer. But he couldn’t think about that now.
Everything else was also urgent.
He furiously typed codes and commands to extract Jason1’s data. Pieces meaningless by themselves – tide times, water level changes, anomalous activities, migratory patterns, particularly those of jellyfish – together made chapters of unyielding data, painting a narrative of a species in danger. A species that no longer migrated, whose food sources were depleting, who lived much closer to shore than they used to.
Kandinski cross-checked his findings with the blogs and chartings of some local marine biologists who had reached similar conclusions: the jellyfish were being taken by an external predator, something outside the sea.
‘I’m not one to speculate,’ wrote one conspiratorial environmentalist, ‘but it’s almost as though they’re being intentionally trapped, to be farmed for something – but what on earth could jellyfish produce?’
From: Management <email@example.com>
Sent: 6:17 AM, Tuesday 13 July 2007
Subject: Anomalous Weather Conditions: Stay Indoors
Folks, we’ve been advised by the EPA to ask all employees to stay home today. We’re sure you understand why. We’re confident, however, that the jellyfish situation is temporary and will be resolved shortly.
Jellyfish situation? Rubbing his eyes, Kandinski fell back on his couch in the dim computer room. He’d only got an hour’s sleep before his work email pinged. Perhaps Electricity Specific was being investigated again. He lay there listening to the rain. Heavy rain. It sounded close. It sounded like pieces of sky falling.
He put his feet onto a soggy floor of sea. The water rose to his ankles. He sloshed to his front door. Opening it, he discovered a city drowned. Water rushed into his hallway, flowed around his ankles, rose to his knees. He waded outside; surveyed the sky. It was raining jellyfish. He stood, as they elegantly crashed around him. Thousands of jellies swirled along the city streets.
He returned to his open front door. The water inside had risen to his thighs. Hurrying down the hallway, he already knew.
The cold metal tub was submerged in the flooded bathroom, empty of everything but water. Zoa was gone.
The water grew higher. His study was a room ransacked by flood by the time he reached it; computers bobbed at his waist.
But last night’s creation – made of all the records he’d downloaded from Electricity Specific’s digital systems – was stored, fortuitously, on top of the bookshelf.
Kandinski picked up this handmade satellite and swam out the door. Jellies brushed up against him as he travelled, but did not sting.
He stopped at the bridge over the former river, now an ocean that had claimed his metropolis. Kandinski switched the satellite on and pushed it into the atmosphere, sending the company’s transgressions he’d catalogued out into orbit, where it would remain like a beacon, reminding the conquerors and slaves what went before.
Kandinski sank onto his back and let the tide carry him home, watching the sky filled with blinking jellies.
Sent: 6:18 AM, Wednesday 14 July 2007
To: Management <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Sea change
[Message has no content]
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