The Conference by E.J. Babb – Short Story

John got in every morning at 8:55am. He would leave at 4:58pm, except on Fridays when he would go at 4:52pm. He took his lunch from 12:00pm to 1:07pm. He read the news for most of the day on an incognito tab and opened his emails whenever a colleague walked past. He took cutlery home every now and then. He had at least one sick day every two months. He pretended to have technical difficulties whenever conference calls lasted more than thirty minutes.

Then, without warning, they hired Adam.

After six weeks, John noted how Adam never arrived at his desk earlier than 8:56am. He would leave at 4:55pm, except on Fridays when he went at 4:50pm. He took his lunch from 11:58am to 1:10pm, and one time he didn’t get back until 1:24pm. He checked his social media accounts continuously, and if colleagues walked past he made no attempt to hide what he was doing. He had been known to take plates and bowls home with him. He was off sick twice in his first week. He didn’t answer phone calls.

John didn’t know why all of this bothered him so much, but it did. It bothered him greatly that this man, who was at least five years younger than him, had no scruples whatsoever. He just blatantly, brazenly and flagrantly took the piss.

What made it worse was his colleagues’ obliviousness to it. Even Sally – a miserable old hag who hated everyone – only moaned about him when he spilled coffee granules on the kitchen counter and failed to clean them up.

Things finally came to a head when Adam walked in one day without a tie. He gave an apologetic shrug to his line manager, who shrugged right back, and sat down at his desk.

“Morning, John,” he said.

“Is it?” John answered.

“Is it what?”

“A good morning?”

“I didn’t say good morning.”

“You implied it.”

Adam’s smile didn’t wane, but he slowly hid behind his monitor.

John was aggravated for the rest of the day. He left late for lunch and came back early, just to see whether Adam would return at a decent time. He didn’t. When Adam got up to leave at 4:48pm on a Wednesday, John allowed an expletive that had been simmering on the top of his brain to slip out of his mouth.

“Excuse me?”

John looked up to see Adam with his hands on his hips, two shirt buttons undone and an eyebrow raised.

“What?”

“You said something to me.”

“I didn’t.”

“You did. You called me a dickhead.”

John scoffed. “I don’t think I did.”

Adam walked round and sat on the edge of John’s desk, right on top of John’s mobile phone. The flab of Adam’s thigh curved around the device and engulfed it with the heat of his legs.

“Have you got a problem with me?” Adam asked.

John muttered a few feeble words of protest.

“Look, if you’ve got something to say, just come out and say it.”

John gritted his teeth.

The next day, John was at his desk by 7:30am. He knew the password to the HR database (Warren, the head of HR, had it on a post-it note stuck to his screen) so he decided to search for Adam’s file. He needed to know more. He needed leverage.

The database was slow, so while it was loading John answered some emails and completed his quarterly report to look busy – even though the only other person in the office was the cleaner. Still, unauthorised access and the passing of HR information would lead to instant dismissal, a pop-up had told him, so he had to be careful.

At 8:38am the page finally loaded. And it was not good.

Adam was not five years younger than John. He was eight years younger. He lived in one of those oversized houses off Prince Avenue, had taken a massive step up from his previous role as an assistant and had somehow negotiated two extra days annual leave during the hiring process. But there was something even worse than all that.

He earned three grand more than John did a year.

“Good morning, John.”

Adam gave a shit-eating grin and plonked his bag onto his desk. It was 9:01am.

“Good afternoon, more like,” John said.

Adam replied with a quizzical stare and turned on his computer.

Something had to be done about this.

John worked furiously all day, fuelled by the sound of Adam lethargically clicking his mouse. At 3pm John dialled into the conference call with legal, knowing full well that Adam was supposed to be on it too, and quivered with rage when Adam got up to go to the toilet instead. He came back twenty minutes later, and although the call went on for another forty minutes and John referred to Adam three times by name, there wasn’t even a glance of acknowledgement.

John set up a meeting with his line manager the next day.

“It’s a bit awkward.”

“Go on, John.”

“You see, I… I think I deserve a pay rise.”

His line managed furrowed his brows and folded his arms.

“I’m afraid we don’t have the budget at this moment in time, what with the recent recruitment drive.”

“But…”

But the new recruit does nothing. But Adam earns more. But John accessed the HR files in order to find that out. But it’s not fair.

The line manager unfolded his arms and leaned forward onto his knees. The light reflected off the bald patch he didn’t know he had yet. “How about this: we review things in another six months or so. How does that sound?”

When he got back to his desk, Adam was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t in the kitchen or in the toilet. Nor was he in any of the meeting rooms. Seething, John sat back at his desk and continued to work. He waited for his line manager to notice, but he didn’t.

At the end of the day Adam came back to his desk, but rather than sit down he proceeded to pack up his stuff.

“Where have you been?” John asked.

Adam did a one shoulder shrug.

“Where are you going?” John asked.

“Home,” Adam said, as if John was a massive fucking idiot.

The second Adam left, John sprung out of his seat and stuffed his lunchbox into his rucksack. His finger hovered over the power switch on his computer. He hesitated.

“Fuck it,” he said, and turned it off without shutting down.

He walked quickly out of the door and ran down seven flights of stairs. He couldn’t risk getting in the same lift as Adam.

Sweating profusely and breathing heavily, he left the building, wincing as the low afternoon sun burned his eyes. Blinking rapidly, he looked left and right, scanning the street desperately for Adam’s check shirt and black jeans (they weren’t work trousers, no matter what anyone said).

And then, in the distance, he found his target ambling through a crowd of people. John started to jog in the same direction but slowed himself down – he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted from him yet. He couldn’t rush this. By the time Adam had got to wherever he was going, which was probably his home, John would have come up with a plan. Maybe he’d pretend it was a coincidence that they had bumped into each other. Maybe he would speak to him honestly.  Maybe he would confront him. Maybe, just maybe, he would hit him.

Twenty minutes later, John was exhausted and smelling strongly of sweat. He was thirsty. He was in an industrial estate he had never been to before and wasn’t entirely sure how to get back.

Adam continued to saunter along, taking a left here, a right there, and nothing in the world seemed to change his relaxed, comfortable gait. John was livid.

Finally, after another fifteen minutes or so, John found himself outside an abandoned building. Adam had walked inside just a couple of seconds before. It was a tall, concrete cube with broken windows, surrounded by trash and dead leaves.

“What the…” he accidentally said out loud. He looked around, but no one else was on the estate. Was it a trap? Was Adam going to pounce the minute he entered the building?

Or perhaps Adam was a crack addict. His dealers were probably inside. John may have found the best reason to get Adam fired, but what if the crack addicts attacked him? When those kinds of people get high, they can be stronger than ten men put together. He’d have no chance. They’re unpredictable. They live off instinct. They might even try and get him on the drugs too, and then he would be forever at their mercy.

But curiosity got the better of him, and John edged towards the building. He needed to do this.

When he opened the door he was greeted with a damp, musky smell. Inside it looked like an old factory, with a smooth concrete floor and rows of dusty tables covered in bits of broken machinery that he couldn’t identify. Adam was nowhere to be seen – he must have been upstairs. That made sense. No one ever did drugs on the ground floor, always the top. Preferably in an attic.

There was a huge staircase to the right of him. John started to ascend, hoping his feet wouldn’t betray him, but his steps were muffled by a powdery substance that covered each stair. Plaster? He hoped so, because there was a hole on the sole of his shoe and his socks were thin.

The first floor looked very different to the ground. There was a long corridor with a row of doors on either side. The walls were dark green and the floor was carpeted. All of the doors were open – all, that is, except for the very last one at the very end of the corridor. That door had a sign on it.

Adam had to be behind the door at the end. Slowly, his heart racing, John began to walk down the corridor. He was half-expecting a crazed druggy to rush out, screaming wildly in his face, but every room he went past was empty. One or two had an upturned chair or a lamp inside, but they were all deathly silent.

When he got about two metres away from the closed door, John could finally read the sign. It was tiny, and the letters were faded.

Conference Room.

Right, he thought, no more fucking around.

John placed a sweaty hand on the doorknob and twisted it.

The hum of whirring machines filled his ears. Whatever was in the room was loud, impossibly loud – how did he not hear it from the corridor? And then, once his eyes had adjusted to the bright fluorescent lights, he staggered back in surprise.

There were at least twenty tall glass tanks, each filled with a greenish liquid and wired up to some sort of machine in the centre of the room. The fluid in the tanks bubbled and gurgled, and the large machine whined and purred. He stepped towards it and felt the heat of its lights, the vibration from the motors within it.

He froze. Something had moved in the corner of his eye. Something in one of the glass tanks. His fingernails sunk into his palms and he turned slowly, holding his breath so as not to scream.

In a tank, naked and floating upside down in bubbling green goo, was Adam.

John didn’t know what to do. In the movies the actors either recoiled in horror or moved forward to investigate, but he didn’t want to do either of these things. He was rooted to the spot, full of questions and fear and excitement and confusion.

But then he noticed it. Bobbing up and down in the liquid like a middle finger. And it was considerably larger than his own.

The rage resurfaced. The pure, unadulterated aggravation at the very existence of this man – man, beast, alien, whatever it happened to be – exploded within him. Of course. Of course.

He cried out at the indignation of it all.

This required action. For once in his life, John wasn’t going to let this go. No fucking way. He had to do something about the monstrosity that floated before him, eyes closed, smug grin on his unconscious face, oblivious to the fury that was burning John from the inside out.

He began stomping through the Conference Room, or lab, or whatever it was, peering in the other empty tanks and tugging at thick wires and tapping at lights, trying to figure out what the hell he should do.

He had done at least three laps of the room when he noticed a crinkled poster stuck to the back of the door. He ripped it off.

Are your employees slacking but you don’t have a reason to fire them?

Need to rile things up with some healthy competition in the office?

Then you need Adam! The first AI to be deliberately less competent than your human employees.

Now, we know what you’re thinking, but hear us out…

Studies have shown that humans instinctively work harder when confronted with injustice.

Why does this happen? Only Mother Nature knows!

Don’t delay, get your employees to earn what you pay!

Order on our CONFIDENTIAL HOTLINE: 0800 41 41 41

John let the poster flutter to the floor. He turned to take one last look at the naked, upside down Adam, and left.

The next morning, John got in at 9:15am. His shirt still reeked of sweat – he hadn’t changed it from the night before. He had a tie but it was loose, and he was wearing trainers.

Adam was already at his desk. The minute John walked in, Adam turned sharply, his eyes wide with fear.

“Morning,” John said.

He looked over at his line manager and gave the most shit-eating grin he could muster.

Emily created Dystopic in July 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. She is currently working on her debut novel 'These Unnatural Men' to be self-published in 2018.

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