Daniel hadn't even realized how tired he was until he drifted awake to a pleasant, cool breeze on his face. Mildly disoriented, he rubbed his eyes and stretched—only for his arm to come into contact with the wall of the alcove he slept in. Daniel rubbed his face furiously. His body felt strangely heavy and lethargic. As he sat forward in the plush automatic recliner in what appeared to be a single-occupant train compartment (not a train; now he remembered getting onto a bus; but why?), everything leading up to this extraordinary jaunt came rushing back to his memory.
An envelope icon hovered in midair before his face. Daniel tapped on it, and the icon unfolded into a message screen.
"Arrival at the Byblos Grand Campus in 5 minutes," it read, "Please be sure to look your best."
Look his best? Daniel shook his head and endeavored to straighten his rumpled shirt. He was the victim of a hostile corporate takeover, what did he care? A piece of paper—still favored by the older generation, but so near obsolescence that they were used in small quantities and rarely—rustled in his pocket. Daniel dug it out.
"Do you see a man diligent in his work?" it read, "He will serve before Kings.—L. Boggs."
Daniel smiled at the memory of his mentor. The older man always demanded a stringent level of character and professionalism from his protégées. "It's not about the job you do," he would say, "It's about the work you do. You can be the janitor on the warehouse floor, but perform your duties well and fully, and you may find yourself foreman at that same warehouse, or even a technician higher up in the company. Whatever task you are given, go at it with everything you've got. No one has come away less than satisfied from a task at which they've given their best."
Finally, the lights of the cabin gently flickered on, and a mechanical voice greeted him, "You have arrived; enjoy your stay!"
Daniel's seat belt retracted, and he stood. Exiting the compartment, he found others slowly filing out of the autobus.
"Dan?" A voice erupted in the milling crowd. "Hey, Daniel!"
"Oy, Prince!" Harry's familiar shock of red hair materialized out of the sea of faces around him. Harry grinned and turned to call the others, "Guys! He's over here!"
As Aaron and Mike wormed their way through the crowd, Harry inspected Daniel's nametag. "So what name did they give you? Benedict, huh? That's nothing, check me out!" he displayed his nametag with mock pride. Daniel read the name "Sherman."
"Hey guys," Mike said as he approached, "boy am I glad to see you two!" His nametag read "Martin."
Aaron would not show his. He stood so it was out of view. "That's some lame excuse for a database, if it can't register real names!" he grumbled. "What kind of a company changes your name when they hire you?"
Daniel shrugged, "Byblos, apparently." He glanced around. The last bus was offloading it's passengers. Somehow, he could not believe that the twenty lines of fifty employees was even half the workforce of Integra Communications; if this were true, where were the rest of them? And why were they being singled out?
He was distracted by a whoop from Mike.
"Alexander?" he pointed a finger at Aaron's chest. "They named you Alexander?"
Blushing, the young man shrugged and scuffed his foot along the ground.
"Where do we go now?" Aaron asked, abruptly changing the subject. The three looked around. Daniel pointed to the lines forming. "Over there, I guess."
Daniel noticed that the lines of Integra employees were being somehow registered before entering the high white wall in front of them. Every so often, a waiting Byblos employee would take an Integra worker by the hand and escort them off to the side, grinning all the while. Those who "passed muster" were allowed beyond the bank of tables and into a train of large white bullet-shaped, open-air vehicles. They moved in a single line on tiny wheels as if on an invisible track, shifting every time a car filled.
Daniel could not squelch his fear as he neared the table. The woman sitting before him had the same impeccable features as Ashley Perez. She stared at him, using her glass tablet to scan his features. The border around his nametag flashed green, and the woman said, "Proceed."
Daniel fought to maintain his composure as absolutely calm. He joined the group waiting for the next car to arrive. Daniel did not watch for it as the others did; instead, he turned back to the line and watched his friends.
Three green borders, three "Proceed"'s. Daniel sighed with relief.
The car approached, and all the employees filed onto it. By the time Daniel's turn came, there was only one seat available on the car. He gave his friends a sympathetic wave as the car sped into the "inner realm" of the Byblos Corporation Grand Campus.
An enthusiastic male voice greeted them out of the speakers as they moved through the Square in front of a high, sloping glass building.
"Hello, and welcome to the Byblos Corporation," he said, "I am your president, Chad King, and I can't wait to show you what's in store for you here!" As they swept through the glass doors and into the building, Mr. King announced, "Welcome to Byblos...where You Matter Most!"[.....]
The car took one last turn as the tour came to a close. "And now," Chad's voice resumed, "May I welcome you to your permanent living quarters here at the Byblos Grand Campus!"
The cars pulled to a stop in the middle of a hallway, and smiling Byblos representatives called people by name to personally escort them to their doors.
"Benedict?" a curvy redhead in a bright floral dress called.
"Follow me, please."
She led him to a door that bore his name engraved in platinum on the door. Daniel walked inside. His first thought as he walked through the door was, "This is meant for me."
Everything down to the arrangement of the furniture to the accent colors seemed to be exactly according to his tastes. The kitchenette cupboards and refrigerator were stocked with his favorite foods. A custom home moderating device on the wall caused his favorite scent to rise from the air ducts, his favorite music to play through the speakers, and activated a fan to bring the room down to his ideal temperature. Everything in the room was tailored specifically to him, right down to the way the clothing in the walk-in closet was organized, to say nothing of it's fit and style.
Daniel never made it past the front door. The minute he set foot in that room, he turned to the redhead.
"It's too much," he said.
The redhead was not fazed in the least.
"Shall we adjust the number of items in the room to better suit your preferences?"
"No; I mean I don't want it."
"You would like an item or items replaced?"
Daniel fought to keep his temper with this aggravatingly simpleminded woman.
"I don't want the room!"
"Would you prefer another room?"
"No; I don't—" There was just no reasoning with this girl!
Daniel decided to cut to the chase.
"Who is your superior?" he asked the girl.
"Ms. Perez is in charge of all the new recruits from Integra."
"Then I would like to speak with her."
The redhead frowned, "But couldn't you—" she stopped when she saw the look on his face. "Very well," she sighed. "Wait there," she pointed to the car, "and I'll take you to her."
Daniel accepted this answer with a nod, "Thank you."
He resumed his seat on the car as she moved to another.
It wasn't long before Daniel heard footsteps and looked up to see Harry, Mike, and Aaron coming towards the car with sheepish expressions.
"When we heard you refused your room, we decided that we did not want ours either," Aaron explained.
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Is that the only reason?"
"No," Harry answered quickly, "We three were sort of talking about it during the tour; we sort of knew where it all was heading, what with the Byblos stamp of approval on every little thing."
"Corporate dependence," Mike remarked wryly, "Coercive brand loyalty."
The other three gave him blank stares so he explained, "They give you all this stuff with their brand on it, well, that's a technique to get you to believe that their product is superior, their brand is the most reliable for quality." He shook his head, "Most of it's a sham, though; Byblos has been doing it for years."
"Quite effectively too, from the kind of funds it must take to pay for corporate housing at this level, to say nothing of the others," Harry added.
Daniel nodded, "Well then it probably won't be too much to ask for different accommodations."
The car brought them down the halls and into the Office wing. It stopped in front of a wide hypoplast door emblazoned with the words "ASHLEY PEREZ."
Daniel and his friends stepped inside and found themselves in a spacious, elegant waiting room.
A man with an itchy, oily hairpiece had been waiting for them.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he asked.
Daniel smiled, "Ah, Curtis, hello. We would like to speak with Ashley Perez."
Curtis jumped and gulped nervously at the name. "I'm afraid that's not possible; she is in a very important conference. I hope I will be enough to satisfy your needs. What do you require?"
"We would like a room."
Curtis blinked, "A room?"
"Yes; no frills, no bells and whistles, no personalization, just one room that the four of us can share."
"Four of you in one room?"
"Oh, and is there a vegetable garden here?"
"Garden? Well—" Curtis checked on a glass tablet, but things were hard to navigate with sweaty, trembling fingers. "Yes, yes we do," he answered, "out by the factories in the blue collar sector."
Daniel saw that the fields in question were several miles away. "Do they make deliveries here?" he asked.
Curtis looked horrified. "Here? Bel no! We have our own line of synthetic fruits and vegetables here. Why not be happy with those?"
Daniel shook his head, "Because our God has called us to do differently. Could you see if they would make deliveries, for us?"
Curtis surveyed the list of "demands", "Well, I will have to ask Miss Perez first—"
"Ask me what?"
Curtis whirled around and the young men instinctively snapped up straight as Ashley Perez walked into the room. She gracefully snatched the glass tablet away from her assistant.
"What's this about, Curtis?" she brusquely scanned the list. She looked up at Daniel.
"Is this all?" she spoke with a hint of a sneer in her voice.
Daniel shook his head, "No ma'am, not quite. My friends and I would like to read instead of play games."
"I don't follow you."
"On the tour, we were led through a dark tunnel with all forms of entertainment—"
"The Gaming Corridor, yes."
"And the tour guide—Excuse me, President King—said that we would be expected to learn about the expected level of behavior, the history, corporate code of ethics, and various terms of speech used here, through these games and such."
"Integrated educational entertainment, I get it; but are you really sure you want books instead?"
"Yes; audiobooks too, so we can hear the words spoken in the correct manner."
Ashley stared at him.
"Let me get this straight," she replied slowly, "You don't want the things we're giving you—you want to downgrade?"
Daniel smiled, still maintaining a respectful demeanor. "We come from a simpler place, so we find that such an environment is much more comfortable."
The severe, impeccable woman glanced back toward the office, where Daniel did not doubt she had all the rooms under surveillance. "Your friends seem to be assimilating well enough," she muttered, turning back. "Besides, what you ask is out of the question. President King expressly informed me that all recruits are to receive exactly the sane treatment as the existing workforce. If I did what you ask, and he finds out, do you honestly think that he's going to blame you? No, this is my ass on the line, and I'm not about to risk—"
"May I ask for a trial period?" Daniel interrupted. "Give us what we ask for two weeks; if, by that time you find us inferior to the others in any way, we will gladly submit to the prescribed treatment. But if not—"
"We'll talk again," Ashley grew terse again. "Very well; Curtis!"
The man with the hairpiece appeared again.
"Get these men what they want; spare nothing," she glanced dubiously over the quartet, "We don't want to be guilty of restriction here. You," she pointed at Daniel, "I'll give you your fresh foods and your books, but you'll still retain clearance to all the amenities and privileges. You know, in case you just want to try things out for the fun of it. You may never have the opportunity again."
Daniel nodded, "That's very kind, but I have a feeling we may never want the opportunity."
"Oh, have it your way!" Ashley threw up her hands. "Get out of my office. Curtis will set you up in a suite of your own."
They turned and followed the diminutive man, who scratched so persistently that Aaron whispered to Daniel, "Shoot, watching him makes my own scalp crawl!"
Curtis led them past all the posh suites, to an obscure hallway several twists and turns from the main areas. He scanned the doorways with a small device in his hand until one of them flashed green. He laid his hand on the lock-pad.
“This will be it, boys,” he said grimly, standing back and allowing them through the shimmering holoplast.
Daniel stepped in first, followed closely by Harry, Aaron, and Mike.
The room was suitably bare: four beds, one large closet, a bathroom with antique furnishings from the “eco-friendly” era, and a large vidscreen on the wall. Nothing like the executive suites, but still moderately comfortable. Daniel reached out and tested the bed. The sheets were smooth (if a bit outdated) and the mattress was soft—the old memory-foam instead of new massage-foam, but still soft. Daniel nodded to Curtis.
“We’ll take it,” he said.
“I’ll send word to the cafeteria to have your…vegetables on hand,” Curtis said, going over the notes on his tablet, “But Ms. Perez requests that you eat them in the private dining area—for the trial, of course.”
He glanced around, “Any additional requests or objections?”
The four shook their heads. Daniel could almost swear he saw Curtis sigh with relief at being able to finally get out of this back room.
“Good; oh, Ms. Perez wishes me to inform you that while your accommodations and diet are being limited as per your orders, President King has a very high standard of dress among Byblos employees. You will still be expected to maintain that standard—“ he glanced askance at the closet, “even if you have to dress and groom yourselves.”
Daniel had to smile at the way Curtis reacted as if he could not fathom such a thing happening at Byblos. That’s what the clothiers and salons were for, wasn’t it?
Curtis moved toward the door, “Group orientation at four o’clock, then the evening meal,” he said. “You’ll want to make sure you’ll be able to make it on time for everything here. Don’t want to disappoint the President, now, do you?”
“No sir,” Daniel responded. “Thank you, Curtis.”
Curtis waved his hand dismissively and walked through the door.
Aaron was the first to break the silence. He flopped on the second bed from the window.
“Home sweet home,” he sighed to the other three.