a coagulant matter of proficiency
“Productivity is up one hundred percent.”
Grant beamed. He couldn’t help it. Hundreds, thousands, millions of people would be keeping their jobs and living better lives all because of him and the work he’d done with Enliven.
“And the slackers?” Milch scrolled through the notes on his tablet.
“Not a single one in the past three weeks,” Grant held his smile. “I think we’re good. Everything we’ve accomplished—it’s pretty amazing, huh?”
Milch nodded across the breakout room table, not looking up from his notes. Next to him, Allen set his tablet down and gave Grant a warm, fatherly grin.
“I know we originally said this wellness trainer stint would only be three months,” Allen said. “But we’d like you to continue monitoring. Is that okay?”
“We’re working out some mineral bonding issues,” Milch added.
“Sure thing. Whatever the team needs.” Grant said. “I’m here to help.”
+ + +
“You joining us tonight?” Nat’s eyes lit up as she smiled.
Grant liked it when she did that. But it wasn’t just Nat; it was the whole team, welcoming him, slapping him on the back as he returned to the Wellness Center, his quote-unquote office, stacked with supplements and fruit and neuro-cardio equipment. Every CMP employee seemed to stop by and chat at least once a week, which made monitoring them that much easier. But they were more than test subjects. Grant knew them all by name, knew every one of their concerns and goals. They were so enthusiastic about making themselves better people, better workers, and—most importantly to the CMP higher-ups—a better team that Grant had once or twice thought about quitting Enliven and joining CMP full time.
“Of course,” Grant smiled back at Nat. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Weekly drinks at the S-O Club allowed Grant another couple of hours to get in some quality observations—not that he didn’t already have enough data to call this experiment a success. Looking around the Wellness Center, glancing down from his perch on the 57th floor mezzanine, Grant saw nothing but a sea of happy faces and healthy bodies.
And then he spotted Jordan.
Grant watched as Jordan Ratakowsky hustled about his office pod, typing, swiping, sweating, and furiously doing whatever it was that programmers did. Grant originally pegged Jordan as a slacker, but Jordan kept hitting the same efficiency and productivity goals as everyone else. Still, Grant had doubts. Jordan avoided both the Wellness Center and Grant like an infectious bacterium. Even now, as Grant strolled over to Jordan’s pod, the big man readied his escape.
“Oh, hi, Greg.” Jordan fumbled an empty water jug between his fleshy hands.
“How’s it going, Jordan?” Grant asked, not bothering to correct the gaff on his name.
“Oh, fine,” Jordan danced back and forth between his left foot and his right. Perspiration dampened his forehead. “Uh, sorry, but I gotta go—”
“You have a meeting?” Grant wondered. Programmers rarely did.
“No, you know,” Jordan held up his empty water jug. “Water goes right through me.”
Grant had no choice but to step aside and watch Jordan scamper down the hall.
In the next pod, Rafi typed away. It took Grant several tries to break his concentration.
“What do you think about Jordan?” Grant asked.
“Jordan…” Rafi paused, clearly searching for a polite turn of phrase. “He works hard.”
“He’s sweating up a downpour,” Grant followed up. “I’m worried about him.”
“He works hard,” Rafi repeated, “But not well. I try to help him, but I just don’t know.”
Grant nodded. No doubt Rafi thought it was Grant’s job as Wellness Trainer to turn Jordan from a globe into a Globetrotter. But, as long as Jordan hit his marks, there was little Grant could forcibly do. Ultimately, it was Jordan’s choice to live like he did.
“Is that all?” Rafi asked, eager to return to his work.
“Yeah,” Grant said. “See you at drinks.”
“See you at drinks.”
+ + +
“We’re all impressed,” Price slapped Grant on the back.
It was a week later. The grey-haired director of acquisitions stood in the Wellness Center and looked out over the bustling hive of office pods. It was Price who fired the slackers when they didn’t pull the same numbers as the rest of the team.
“I had my doubts about these supplements of yours, but—it’s like they’re all wired on some new-aged Adderall.”
“A little proper organic chemistry, a little motivation…” Grant stopped short of going into his spiel. Price had heard it when Enliven first approached CMP; the exec had even helped Grant shape it, determined as Price was, in a last ditch effort, to keep a human face on a market that was looking to be overrun by adaptive learning bots.
The results were all they both could have hoped for. Analysts managed obtuse figure connections like simple arithmetic. Consultants resolved the most difficult client confrontations with solutions that left everyone happy. Regulators and programmers processed thousands of lines of data in a few clicks and swipes. All those years Grant toiled away in Enliven’s silent, sterile labs had finally coalesced into something amazing.
“And it’s all natural,” Price smirked. “Hard to believe.”
“We’re just giving the body what it needs,” Grant had the protocol memorized.
“Run it through the water system,” Price shook his head. “You guys are geniuses.”
+ + +
Grant brought his own water in. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his own work; it was that he was supposed to be an impartial observer. A symbiotic relationship had developed between even the earliest test subjects. At CMP, things had progressed further. Several employees now wore svelte, electric-blue polo shirts to work—like some kind of unofficial CMP uniform. Grant was tempted to wear a similar outfit, but decided against it. He didn’t need an overpowering groupthink messing with the accuracy of his weekly reports.
But what was there to report? Everything sailed smoothly. In fact, the workers were so focused that their trips to the Wellness Center were becoming less and less frequent and Grant felt his stint at CMP was coming to an end. He’d miss it: the camaraderie, the weekly drinks, being one of the team. Still, it was probably well past time he returned to the Enliven lab and got some real work done.
Grant settled down to pad out his report beyond “Everything is better than we ever could have expected,” when Jordan moseyed in.
“Hey, Jordan.” Grant put on his best lifestyle guru face, wondering if the big man had finally decided to turn his eating habits around. “What can I help you with?”
“Just…uh…” Jordan gasped for air. Sweat soaked through the back of his work shirt. He leaned against the doorway for support. “Getting some water.”
Jordan mustered up his energy, ambled over to the water fountain, and filled his extra large container with the Proficiency-fueled liquid.
“Is the filter on fifty-six not working?” Grant asked.
“Oh…uh…” Jordan’s cup overflowed, spilling water onto the floor. “No, I was just around.”
Grant ignored the blatant lie, though he couldn’t help wonder why Jordan felt the need to lie. The guru smile remained plastered on Grant’s face.
“So…You going to drinks?”
As soon as Grant said it, he realized he’d never seen Jordan at drinks. He wondered if it was a sore spot, if Jordan didn’t drink, or if the programmer was a recovering alcoholic.
But instead, Jordan’s reply held a note of surprise. “Drinks?”
“Yeah, after work.” Grant wondered how Jordan could not have known about the weekly CMP ritual.
“I don’t know,” Jordan wavered.
Grant took in Jordan’s pasty demeanor, the puddle of moisture that soaked through the big man’s shirt, and once again wondered if Jordan was a slacker. More observation time was needed, and Jordan’s evasive manner wasn’t helping.
“You should come,” Grant patted Jordan on his damp shoulder. “Six o’clock at the S-O Club. See you there.”
+ + +
Grant was chatting up Nat when Jordan opened the door to the S-O club. The after-work-drinks crowd parted for him like a biblical sea. Nat cut short her flirtatious banter with an audible “ugh.” Raffi and Iola sighed in unison. The rest of the CMP employees did little to hide their frowns of disapproval. Jordan hadn’t bothered to change out of his perspiration drenched office clothes; if anything, Grant thought the programmer was somehow sweatier. Jordan’s skin shimmered like an oil slick and his eyes dampened like he was suffering from some kind of allergy. Grant didn’t entirely dismiss the idea. He couldn’t afford to dismiss any ideas.
“Hey Jordan…” Grant fought to maintain a straight face. “You feeling okay?”
“Lots of work,” Jordan wheezed. “But I’m here.”
“Yeah, you’re here,” Grant fought to keep his voice cheery. He tried to think of a point of conversation that didn’t concern the weather or politics or CMP, but was distracted by a scuttle of movement behind him. In near unison his CMP coworkers had turned their backs to Jordan.
Turned their backs on Grant.
Grant tried to ignore them, actually started talking about the weather, but Jordan cut him off.
“Thanks for inviting me, Greg. But…” Jordan wiped a cascade of perspiration out of his eyes. “I’m not feeling that great.”
“What’s the matter?”
Something was up, and Grant was almost certain it wasn’t just allergies. The programmer’s lips held tight, but not tight enough to keep a river’s worth of drool from escaping his mouth. Every muscle and tendon in the Jordan’s body jiggled with fear. Before Grant could tell him everything was okay, Jordan beelined across the bar. His torso moved faster than his feet and his weight nearly toppled him head over heels as he stumbled through the front door and disappeared onto the crowded sidewalk.
+ + +
The state of CMP’s least popular employee nagged at Grant. None of Enliven’s Proficiency tests had encountered this type of reaction, even in the slackers. Whatever it was, it must be some communicable illness or x-factor related to Jordan’s lifestyle. Or maybe it really was just an allergic reaction.
After a couple more drinks, Grant eschewed Nat’s flirtations and headed home alone to pour over his notes from the Enliven trials. He now had something to add to his report beyond “everything is fine”, but he wondered if he was simply imagining problems that didn’t exist because everything actually was fine. Maybe Allen and Milch didn’t need to know yet; there was no reason to worry them over what was probably nothing, not when they were so close to accomplishing so much.
The next day, Jordan was nowhere to be found. No one knew where the big man was, and no one seemed to care that he was missing. Grant spent the weekend tormented by visions of Jordan turning into a pile of goo while racing out of the S-O club, collapsing to the ground and being trampled by non-caring passerby’s in blue polo shirts and disingenuous smiles.
+ + +
On Monday, Grant received the latest round of productivity stats and found what he was looking for: Jordan was a slacker. Every other CMP tech had bounded to almost one hundred fifty percent productivity, but Jordan remained plateaued at one hundred twenty five percent. For Grant, that explained everything. Jordan had seen the writing on the wall when the other slackers were let go, forced himself to work harder, and pushed his body beyond what it could handle. Grant had been right. It wasn’t Proficiency-Three; it was Jordan.
Grant hated to get the big man fired. But, even if Grant fudged the numbers, there was no way to hide Jordan’s lack of performance forever; the man stood out from the rest of the trim, smiling, blue-shirted CMP employees like a wasp in a bee’s nest. Perhaps it would be a kindness to let him go.
Still, Grant needed to be one hundred percent certain. Jordan’s genome type would have to match that of the other slackers. Grant wondered how he was going to get someone as skittish as Jordan to voluntarily provide a blood sample.
“Where’s Jordan?” It took a couple of moments for Grant to get Rafi’s attention.
“Probably in the bathroom.” Rafi didn’t take his eyes off his screen. “That guy wastes too much time there. I wouldn’t worry about him if I were you.”
“Honestly, he’s not CMP material.” Rafi spoke plainly, as if it were a well-known fact like the hydrobiotic bonding signature of a glucose enzyme.
Grant raced to the 56th floor bathroom, a blood tap clenched in his hand. Jordan burst from the door just as Grant was about to enter.
“Oh, shorry,” Jordan’s fleshy hand held the door open for Grant.
Grant hesitated. Did Jordan have that lisp before? He couldn’t remember. A group of CMP employees chatted nearby. Iola laughed about something.
“I’m all set. Actually, I was looking for you,” Grant said.
“Yesh?” Jordan seemed surprised. His skin was nearly as translucent as the water he sucked down. “If it’s about sha osher night—“
“Well…” Grant hesitated. His eyes darted to the nearby group of CMP analysts. Iola laughed again. “Let’s talk in private.”
Jordan reentered the bathroom and Grant followed. Every time Jordan took a step, his flesh rippled like an old waterbed. Grant unsheathed the blood tap. His hand shook. He rested his finger on the pressure switch and stepped forward. Three, two, one—
Jordan turned around. “Sho, what shou wants to talk about?”
Grant hid the blood tap behind his back. “Jordan—don’t take this personally, but you don’t look so good.”
“I shwas a little under sha weather shish weekend, but today’s I’m sfeeling mush better.” Jordan talked as if his tongue were too big for his mouth.
“Jordan, I’d like to check your vitals.” Grant willed his hand to jab the needle into Jordan’s arm and be done with it.
“Did shees osher guys put sho up to do this?” Jordan’s face reddened. “Firsh they don’t let me in the breakroom, don’t invithe me to drinksh and now…now…”
Grant took that as good an opportunity as any. He struck forward with the blood tap, but a pasty hand with the wet consistency of a jellyfish slapped against Grant’s forearm. The needle skidded across the floor and into a toilet stall.
“Leave meesh alone,” Jordan mush-mouthed. “I’m fine.”
Jordan shoved past Grant and Grant could almost hear the water in the programmer’s gelatinous body swoosh with his heaving shoulders. Jordan opened the door and paused.
“Pleashe don’t tell anyone about this,” Jordan wheezed. “I’m shorry, Greg.”
Jordan disappeared into the hallway. A sweaty film covered Grant’s skin where the big man had touched him. Not sweat. Water. Grant was sure of it. He needed to talk to Allen.
+ + +
“I want you to watch this.”
Allen clicked his tablet and a holoscreen animation popped up above the conference table. Red molecules bonded to blue; a flux of compounds swarmed through a computer-generated humanoid and converged into a brain that lit up like an old fashioned light bulb.
“Proficiency-Three,” Grant shrugged. He’d seen this dozens of times. He didn’t have time for Allen’s demos, but he didn’t know how to tell his mentor what had happened either. Grant still wasn’t sure what was going on himself.
Allen shook his head. “This is Proficiency-Four. This is Proficiency-Three.”
Allen clicked the tablet and the holoscreen animation restarted. The red molecules again bonded to blue, but as they moved through the body, the compounds broke down into green globs that stretched and disintegrated instead of travelling to the light bulb-like brain.
Grant imagined Jordan’s sagging, sweat-drenched face on the lifeless human facsimile.
“You’re just telling me this now?” Grant almost jumped out of his seat.
“It only came through with extensive testing. The subject had to be overexposed to the compound to the point he would never be able to fully flush out the halide.” Allen watched the animation play again, then turned toward his protégé. “Is something wrong Grant? What did you want to talk to me about?”
“We’re at one fifty percent productivity.” Grant felt himself sweating oceans, just like Jordan. He forced his lips into smile. “Things couldn’t be better.”
+ + +
The office clock struck five and every single CMP employee swarmed to the elevators.
Grant raced down the stairs, one blood tap clenched in each hand. He arrived at the 56th floor elevator bay just in time to see Jordan denied entry into an elevator car. The door closed and Jordan turned around. A look of anger bubbled over the loose flesh of his face. Grant flew toward him. Jordan’s slug-like finger slid across the elevator call display. Another elevator car opened. Jordan charged inside and pressed the dummy close doors button. Grant laughed at his good fortune. He sidled up next to Jordan. The large man’s body shook—sloshed, sweated, decomposed, decoagulated—and the triumphant smile plummeted from Grant’s face. How could Jordan not notice? What was wrong with him? Was his brain turning into sludge along with his body? Grant wanted to shake Jordan but didn’t want to touch him.
“Shleave shmee alone Greg,” Jordan slurred. “I’m fine. Shime phine.”
“You’re not.” Grant readied the blood tap in his right hand. He tried not to imagine the needle pricking Jordan’s goopy arm, releasing not blood but an endless stream of Proficiency-laden, body sodden H2O+.
“Shy amsh,” Jordan garbled.
“Do you hear how you sound?” Grant had to do it. There was no other choice. Lift his arm and insert the needle. That’s all he needed to do. Strike one of the bright blue veins visible through the thin layer of Jordan’s skin. Simple. Easy. Do it.
Sweat rolled off the programmer’s body and plopped onto the stainless-steel floor. The big man huffed and puffed and looked on the verge of collapse.
“Look at yourself. You look—you’re dying.” Grant’s arm tensed. His thumb squeezed the needle’s trigger.
“Notsh sheveryones sha healsh guwu,” Jordan slurred.
The elevator dinged and opened up onto the crowded lobby.
Grant swiped with the blood tap and hit nothing but air.
“Shbye, Greg.” Jordan barreled out the door and into the throng of commuters.
Grant pushed after him. At this point it didn’t even matter if someone saw Grant steal the blood sample; no one could blame him, not if they looked at Jordan, not when they realized—
A strong arm yanked Grant back into the lobby.
“Watch it,” a gruff voice said. Grant was spun around to find himself face to face with Milch, Allen and several other angry-looking members of the Enliven crew.
“That guy, I’m sorry I thought—“ Grant started, but Allen waved a hand to cut him off.
“We’ll get him.” Milch and the rest of the team followed in Jordan’s wake, easily racing past the crowd of commuters who avoided the programmer like an infectious disease.
“How long have you known?” Allen snapped.
“Since our meeting this morning,” Grant fumbled for a coherent lie. “He looked sick the other day, took a day off, then came back in today and—just in the last few hours—I was trying to get a blood sample—but—“
“We’re fucked, Grant.” Allen’s face was filled with disappointment.
“No. There’s got to be something—“
“Did you not see that?” Allen appeared to be doing everything in his power not to explode in the middle of the lobby. “You don’t come back from that.”
“I—we can fix this.” Grant knew that if he could just get back to the lab, he could finagle a cure. He was sure of it. “Other than you and Milch, no one knows Proficiency better than me.”
“No one knew Proficiency-Three better than you. We’ve moved past that now.”
“I’ll catch up. Other than this—“ It was a big ‘this’ Grant knew, but it was the only incident—and he knew he could fix it, help Jordan before it was too late, despite what Allen claimed. “Everything’s run smoothly. A hundred and fifty percent efficiency. And with the new compound—everything should be set right?”
Allen shook his head. The anger seemed to have faded. “I’ll think about it.”
“You will?” Grant couldn’t help but get his hopes up.
Allen nodded. “Sure. Today’s Monday, right? Don’t you usually grab drinks?”
+ + +
By the time Grant arrived at drinks, all of his CMP mates were heading out. Their half-finished cocktails littered the table.
“Early night?” Grant asked.
A few nodded but not a one spoke as they collectively made their way out the door.
Grant sat down at the bar, allowed himself five rounds of carb-leaden beers and then stumbled home. He swore he’d make things right. He’d get to work super early the next day and show Allen he could still be an effective monitor. He’d engage with all the employees and write his most detailed report yet.
He kept that promise and arrived at six and yet somehow that still wasn’t good enough. Every single blue-shirted CMP employee was already hard at work. Programmers tapped at their screens, consultants chatted on the phone, analysts discussed data, and middle-managers darted to and fro from pod to pod like they’d been there for hours.
“What happened?” Grant asked Nat as she walked by.
“Big account.” She flew off without another word.
“It’s amazing, everything we’ve accomplished.”
From the 57th floor mezzanine, Price gazed out across the throng of activity below. The expression stretched across the president’s lips matched the ebullient mien plastered on every one of his exceptionally proficient employees. To Grant, each of those grinning faces looked fleshy and sallow. Every time an employee raised a water bottle to their lips, Grant swore he smelled their insides turning to a gelatinous mush.
He tried not to wonder where Jordan was.
“It’s science. The key is to get the results you expect.” As Grant spoke the practiced words, he couldn’t be bothered to hide his own disbelief.
Price didn’t register it. He gave Grant a soft slap on the shoulder. Grant wondered if the man was simply hitting him softly, or if Price too was turning into a pile of goo that would be swept into the gutter.
“You’ve done an amazing job,” Price said. “Let’s be sure to keep it up.”
Grant messaged Allen. He rang Milch and dialed the Enliven front office. No one responded, no one answered.
The Wellness Center sat empty. Grant’s coworkers, people he had begun to think of as friends, had no need for him or his services. They were a-okay without him, bopping along, being productive, nary a care in the world beside the tasks in front of them. Grant had nothing better to do than wander the pods and bays and breakout rooms, watching his subjects and feeling like he was constantly sticking his nose in places it wasn’t welcome. The looks they shot at him—it reminded Grant of that night Jordan had come out for drinks.
Grant typed up his usual report (“Everything is running like clockwork. No incidents.”), and sent it in. He couldn’t be bothered to type anything more. After Jordan, the Enliven team probably didn’t even take his observations seriously. Grant sure as hell wouldn’t trust someone who had so catastrophically failed. He could only wonder why he was even still here.
+ + +
An electric blue bottle sat on Grant’s desk, sat at everyone’s pod or workstation. The bottles were arranged in neat rows in the breakout rooms and 56th floor kitchen. The Wellness Center was stock full of them. The word “ASPIRE” was inscribed in a charged font across each cylinder. Odd-looking filters were attached to the drinking spouts.
Grant didn’t know if the bottle filters contained the Proficiency-Four compound or an offset amalgam to the Proficiency-Three in the water supply. Grant wasn’t even sure if Proficiency-Three was still in the water supply. Grant would have tested it, but he had no resources to do so. Allen had all but barred him from the Enliven facilities.
From his vantage point in the Wellness Center, Grant watched the hive of activity below: the swarm of blue polos and ASPIRE bottles buzzed along in a happy, productive harmony. He wondered where he could get one of those blue polos. He’d never asked and no one had ever told him. Why had he chosen to wear yellow today? Or any day? If he wore a blue shirt maybe they’d talk to him again. Maybe they’d invite him back out for weekly drinks, if that was still even a thing, if CMP employees weren’t too concerned about work to have a little fun.
He needed to get out of here, get back to the lab, back to his research. He needed to put his nose down and get some real work done.
Grant ran his finger along the inside of the blue ASPIRE bottle. He studied the filter that comprised the drinking spout. Allen claimed the compound was safe, but they’d all thought Proficiency-Three was safe. What did any of them really know about what they were doing when they had never taken Proficiency themselves? How could their limited, ordinary minds fully comprehend this miracle of science?
Thorough, detailed notes of the compound’s effects would be needed for every worker. It was a necessity to understand precisely what his team’s bodies and minds were going through.
The water Grant poured into the ASPIRE bottle took on a hue reminiscent of mountain springs and paradise beaches. It smelled clean and refreshing. Grant screwed on the bottle’s filter cap and looked across the ocean of office bays. Waves of analysts, consultants, regulators and programmers moved like synchronized swimmers. They all looked happy.
He wouldn’t fall into their groupthink. He could wear a blue polo and still be an impartial monitor. This was his ride out of CMP and his ticket back into the camaraderie of drinks nights.
Grant brought the water bottle to his lips and prepared for success.
David Charpentier is a media producer, lecturer and visual artist currently residing somewhere in Massachusetts. Several of David’s recent short stories have been published by online and genre magazines, including the Sante Fe Writer’s Project, Lycan Valley Press and Storgy.