A chemist explores a strange job opportunity.
The flight had taken less than 60 minutes from boarding to descent. Out the window of the cabin air buffered over the swept wings of the plane as it dipped back towards the ocean below. Detail started to become apparent as they came down to cruising height, with the island taking on the features of the city of its namesake, instead of the green speck evident from 100 miles above the planets surface.
A small tone sounded to signal the preparation for landing. The attendant emerged from the cordoned off front and walked down the aisle. Glasses chinked lightly on her tray.
Cynthia looked up to her as she took the martini glass from her flight table. "Thank you, Sandra." This time the attendant did not look surprised at being addressed, only pleased.
"Why thank you Ms. Maxwell. I hope you had an enjoyable first flight."
"Yes, seeing the planet from orbit was very beautiful."
"Oh it gets me everytime! Good luck on your interview." The attendant passed by to clear the next desk, avoiding eye contact with the gentleman patron.
The plane came to a smooth landing on the pad beside a hangar. A brief but pleasant breeze swept up the cabin and out the airlock as the plane depressurized, taking away the comfortable conditioned air and bringing in a small hint of the tropical humidity outside.
Cynthia took her bag and filed off the plane with the other patrons. Most of them went a short distance to other pads, where helicopters waited to drop them off at their destination. For her, a black car pulled to the charter line. Its windows were opaque with thick tinting. She stood up straighter and reached it with feigned confidence, almost jumping in startelement when the door opened by itself at her approach.
"Welcome Ms. Maxwell. Your destination, error, will take 43 minutes to reach. Did you want to stop somewhere along the way?"
She glanced at the display to make sure that she had heard right. A destination had been designated but it did not have an address or building listed. She cleared her throat. "Yes, actually. Could we stop at a coffee house on the way, please?"
The car pulled off the line and started for the gate. "I'm sorry but I only asked as a formality. The interviewer seems to be ready for you as soon as possible."
Naturally. "Yes, then. Let's get to it."
"Of course. If you would like to listen to anything along the way, please let me know. You can call me Miri, Ms. Maxwell."
Cynthia caught a thank you as it almost left her lips. Being polite to an attendant was one thing, but thanking a driving program was the type of naive unprofessionality she needed to be conscious of.
Out the window the city of Tonga came to live. At ground level the city looked unlike anything she had expected or ever known. Splitting every boulevard were lavish parks of smooth green turf and spurting fountains. Boutique shops with products from all over the known world teased themselves from street level windows, above which rose highrises of style she had only seen in digital. Closer to the coast rose lavish hotels and private residences, the docks speckled with massive yachts that rocked in the smooth water.
The car made its way from the luxury of the city, passing by the edges of sport and game preserves. She watched the display, where the highway looped itself about the coastal proper to a strip along the Western edge. With the miles luxury began to fade into warehouses and lower end resorts.
She pulled at the edges of her blouse. "Miri, where is it that we are going?"
"The destination is error, Ms. Maxwell."
"You are saying 'error' as if its a place. What does that mean."
"Error denotes that the destination is not formally registered to any kind of indexing system. Hence the 'error' in its retrieval."
"You must understand my ... confusion." She cursed under her breathe.
"I apologize Ms. Maxwell, but I cannot understand confusion. Please trust that you will arrive at your destination in a safe and efficient manner."
On the display the car got closer and closer to the dot. She looked around. The businesses were simple and nondescript. Small, well kept houses of locals and serfs organized themselves into neat neighborhoods.
She zoomed in on the display. They were now on the same street, with the imposed line getting shorter and shorter. Next to it read ".5 miles". She looked up but could not see anything down the street besides more of the same. On the display the satellite image showed only a well-used old warehouse.
Cynthia leaned back in her seat. She reached down into her bag, closing her hands around the palm-sized tube. She slid it into her pocket and glanced at her device once more to check the information.
Everything had checked out. The ticket, the flight, the waiting car. The expense alone to bring her out here... It could not be a prank. Would someone go through this much trouble to abduct her?
Her heart fluttered in her chest as every horror story ran through her head at once. Then her blood froze. A slow hunch finally took over with the paranoia.
What if someone in the government or companies had seen her correspondence and wanted to silence her? She knew this could all have been easily planned by them, how could she have been so stupid to deliver herself right into their hands?
The car pulled up to the curb and stopped. She opened her eyes and forced them to look out the tinted windows. Besides the street a painted sign read: "Escher Bro's Island Fruit Co" in front of what looked to be the most quaint processing warehouse she had ever seen.
"We have arrived at... destination. Please remember to take all personal belongings, and have a wonderful interview Ms. Maxwell."
"Um Miri, I am supposed to be having an interview at the headquarters of Florentine Fresco."
"Oh yes, that building is currently under renovation. The headquarters have been temporarily located here."
"The headquarters of a multi-million credit company is being held here?" Cynthia lamented the waste of sarcasm that would fall flat to the AI.
"Yes. Escher Bro's Fruit Co. is an island classic. Founded in 24 PSY by island locals Robe Escher and Robespierre Escher, they have been a mainstay in Tonga fruit handling. They employ several locals not involved in tourist operations."
"Is there anyway you could take me back to the airport?"
"I'm sorry Ms. Maxwell but that is impossible." The door next to her opened.
"Why is that?"
"This vehicle has depleted its charge. It will be shutting down in 20 seconds."
Cynthia felt her face flush. On the display a full charge indicator shone without shame even as the program lied to her. She took her stuff and exited the car.
"Have a pleasant day. Your interviewer will be pleased to meet you, I'm sure of it."
Unsurprised though she was, a steady annoyance welled up as the door closed and the car rolled off down the street.
"Fudge all this." Despite her words she looked at the warehouse door. She had no way back now, and needed the job at any rate.
Maybe it would turn out to be some sort of misunderstanding. There is no reason why a company of this size could not have a smaller subsidiary on such a wealthy island. Real estate here was expensive after all.
The logic sounded lame in her head, but she did not need it to be very rigorous at the moment. The job in front of her could change her life, and besides she had no other choice at that point. There was no money for a flight back home for her.
Cynthia took her bag and walked up the sidewalk to the front of the building. A driverless forklift loaded with boxes drove by to one of the loading ports, stopping to let her cross. She did and took the steps up to the steel double doors.
An unwelcome tingling sensation made itself felt down the length of her spine. She paused with her hands on the door handle. Certainly there were better ways to dispose of her than all of this elaborate nonsense.
With that reassurance she straightened her back and pulled the door open. Inside, a tall vaulted ceiling loomed over an expanse of eisles running back for several tens of yards. Boxes of wood and polymer were stacked with little space on all levels.
"Hello, you must be Ms. Maxwell."
The sudden voice nearly shocked her into dropping the bag in her hand. She looked over to the fenced off room, within which a man rose from behind his desk. A bright smile illuminated his very dark face, disarming her.
"Yes, hello. I'm here for my interview." Her voice sounded lame and sterile. She forced a smile and continued. "You are?"
"My names Clyde. But you don't need to mind me, mam." He opened the gate that separated the fenced room from the rest of the warehouse. "If you'll just follow me I can take you to the interview room."
She followed him a short distance to the steel stairs that ran up the side of the warehouse wall to a catwalk. At the top of the catwalk the warehouse looked much smaller, with the its three lines of rising boxes running down to the now-visible end of the building.
Clyde led her down the catwalk and stopped outside of a beat up door. It swung open easily despite the considerable rust of the hinges.
"Mr. Niobius is running a little late this afternoon, mam. He'll be here shortly. If you want to make yourself comfortable." Despite the humble presentation she found the room pleasant. A solid table of some dark wood sat in front of shuttered windows. A tall bookshelf adorned one wall, opposite of a huge map of the planet. The plush of the carpet beneath her feet felt welcome after the steel and concrete of the rest of the warehouse. "If you need anything just ask, but it shouldn't be too long. Feel free to browse the selection." He indicated the shelf of books and stepped out.
She set her bag down beside the chair opposite of the business end of the desk. Not wanting to sit for an unknown amount of time with her back to the door she took up Clyde's offer and started perusing.
Most of the selection she found unfamiliar. Many of the magazines were interplanetary or from far off planets, and several of the books were hard in engineering and the sciences. There was little in the way of fiction, mainly leather bound versions of Earth era classics. A large section that seemed out of place devoted itself to organized volumes of studies in the social sciences. It was one such volume that caught her attention.
The sound of footsteps approaching on steel stayed her hand. The door opened and a man entered quickly, his head down and hand brushing the dark stubble of his chin. He looked up, for a moment almost seeming surprised at her presence there.
"Hey." He paused next to her and looked at the shelf. "That is an interesting one. He reached for the shelf, brushing past her lightly to take the volume from the shelf. "Please, have a seat, Ms. Maxwell" He beckoned to the chair and pulled it back from the desk.
"Thank you. And please, call me Cynthia." She sat down, smoothing out her pants as he took the chair opposite of her.
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, placing the book on the desk and drumming his fingers on it with a sporadic rhythm.
He ran a hand through his hair, which ran in thick unkempt waves atop his head, before opening his eyes and straightening himself. It took only a moment, but the nervous and aloof demeanor had vanished, leaving only a focused clarity which he fixed on her.
"I trust you had fair travels then, Cynthia." His face stayed fixed, offering nothing, but his eyes glinted with a sly smile. As if he were about to let her in on a grand joke.
"Yes..." She paused, unable to find words. The whole situation had been too bizarre, and words were not coming to her.
The lines about his mouth deepened as the corners of his mouth spread outward, almost imperceptibly. "So you're from Calico?" He waved a hand to indicate the papers she had waiting in her hand. She handed them across the table.
"Yes. This is the furthest I've ever been from the continent." He thumbed through the papers for a second before tossing them away with a flick of his wrist. Cynthia bit down on the edge of her lip and met his eyes as he looked back up to her.
"So you went to a local public college."
"I earned my degree from Calico Public, but I have a lot of-"
"Public colleges aren't typically known for giving a very rigorous education." He leaned back in the chair, his eyes level with her own.
"An education is what you make of it." She tried to keep the edge out of her voice.
"If your as qualified as you seem on paper I don't understand why you didn't get picked up by an institution."
The smile grew. Her blood began to feel hot. "Public education is all that was available to me. I have included all of my publications in my portfolio, which you can see is well at the level, higher I might argue, than is being sought for this position."
"Anyone can get added to a publication. I had a friend in college who got added to a plasma physics study for cleaning the inside of a spectrometer. They didn't even use the spectrometer for the study."
Cynthia stopped biting her lip for fear of drawing blood. He looked as if he were about to burst into laughter at any moment, making her even more furious. "If you could read the publications, it is very clear what role I played in each of them. Otherwise, I would not feel the need to add them to my portfolio."
He leaned forward. "This company manages revenues in the millions of credits. The question I have is why I should turn over R&D and existing proprietary information to some girl with a worthless degree who's never held a job in the field."
The amusement in his face made her want to reach out and smack him. She matched his stare. "I did not receive my education from an institution. I started in public school and ended in public school, as the situation demanded. I did not spend every day out of class in the library or working demeaning, thoughtless jobs and then eat the shit of cruise-ship researchers to have my credentials disregarded in the back room of a rundown fruit warehouse." She rose from her chair and leaned onto the edge of the desk. "If you don't find my education to be up to par, and the portfolio of my publications unsatisfactory then why did you fly me out here for this damn job? It'd be much easier to hire some rich asshole who partied his way through Limbaugh U."
She tried to catch the last sentence as it came out, but the flow could not be contained. Cynthia waited for the job opportunity of her life to be ripped away.
"Well." He put on a show of looking stern, but to her shock only broke down into laughter. He tapped a display on his desk and leaned forward. The amusement had vanished, leaving only a sober sincerity. Once again he indicated the chair next to her. "Please, take a seat. We have much to discuss."