Joey listened for a minute to the sound of tapping keys on the other side of the cubicle wall. He was trying to figure out if Smith was actually working, or just trying to break the thick silence filling the game development studio.
After the four-hour meeting this afternoon, nobody wanted to hear another human voice. Most of the programmers and systems guys had their headphones on and their eyes glued to their monitors. Occasionally a mouse click would echo around the room. The only person typing was Smith, and the more Joey listened, the more he was convinced no real words were being formed.
Joey found an expendable sticky note and ripped it in half. On the bottom half he wrote, “Bagel run?” Then he balled it up and tossed it over the cubicle wall. He heard the typing stop. Soon the crumpled piece of yellow paper came back. Joey flattened it out and saw his own words crossed out, and a new phrase written beneath it. “Help. Chained to desk. Send caffeine and salty carbs.”
Joey snickered. He felt half the eyes in the room turn on him. He pulled up his headphones and clicked his mouse once. The accusatory gazes slid away. Joey found his pen. He realized none of the flurry of yellow sticky notes covering his desk and monitor were relevant anymore. Not after this meeting. He grabbed one with some old weapon balancing calculations on it. “Beer run?” he wrote.
He tossed it over the wall and heard some shuffling of feet under the desk.
Before he got a response, Anton walked in.
“Hey, why all the long faces?” Everyone flinched. Anton grinned around the room. “It’s just another challenge, guys. Like, you know, we walked in and found the big boss for this level. We just have to figure out how to take him down!” He pumped his fists.
Easy for the lead producer to say. He’s supposed to be managing people and schedules and budgets. He’s one of the reasons they were in this mess, being asked to trash all the cool features in the game and make it “edgier.” Whatever that means.
Anton’s pep talk was met with more stony silence, and the glares didn’t get any friendlier.
“Come on everybody,” Anton kept going. “You know we’re all counting on you. Nobody would be asking you to take on this challenge if we didn’t think you could do it.” He paused. “And you know what will happen if we fail.”
All eyes turned to the two empty desks next to Joey and Smith. They were part of one cubicle pod, and until a few days ago all the desks had occupants. Nobody ever talked about what happened to Leon and Uri. They just didn’t show up the day after the last missed deadline. Anton packed up their stuff later that day and took it out in boxes. The long stretches of silence started then. By now, everyone had a lot of practice keeping their mouths shut.
Joey heard the shuffling under Smith’s desk again, and he looked away from the empty desk next door.
“Well,” said Anton too loudly. “Don’t forget about the planning meeting tomorrow morning. I need design doc updates for all systems. Come on. You can do it!” He made a ridiculous hand gesture as he walked out. Something like fingers as pistols shooting everybody.
Nobody relaxed with his exit. Everyone just hunched their shoulders and hunkered down over their workstations.
The yellow piece of paper dropped over the wall. Joey unfolded it. “I don’t think beer will help the twitch you’ve developed in your leg.”
Joey turned to his computer. This conversation wasn’t subversive enough anymore to keep away from the snoops monitoring the IM logs.
Joey: Twitch? I’m not the one who keeps pulling USB plugs out of the CPU down there.
Smith: I’m not the one who thinks CPUs make good foot rests.
Joey: There wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t keep throwing all your crap down there.
Smith: Really? You’re going to take this out on me?
Joey: Sorry. But seriously, I’m not twitching my feet. You’re the one who keeps kicking over my stuff.
Smith: I don’t even put my feet under there anymore. It scares me.
There was a pause. Joey leaned to one side. He hadn’t looked under his desk for a long time. It did tend to collect all the flotsam and jetsam accumulated over a year and a half of practically living in the office.
It seemed unnaturally dark under there. Wires and cables tangled together. Far more than seemed right. He supposed Smith’s wires were mixed up with his, but still. He didn’t remember plugging in a cherry red cable two fingers thick. Joey pushed his chair back to get a better view.
The red cable, a blue one. Where were these coming from? They snaked around in a horrible mess, half hidden by discarded papers and chip bags. The floor had a crummy ooze covering it. Joey wondered if the cleaning people had been laid off along with Leon and Uri.
Joey jumped back. He was too tense for this. In his headphones, he heard the ring from his computer saying he had another IM message. Joey looked up.
Smith: I’m serious. It’s like a black hole under there. It scares me. Stop moving stuff around.
Joey: I didn’t touch anything.
Smith: … neither did I.
Joey heard something shift again right by his feet. He scooted back.
Smith’s head appeared over the partition. Joey shook his head and looked under the desk. He saw the big red cable fall a couple inches. Both he and Smith jumped.
Smith came around to Joey’s side and together they sunk down to see what they could see.
“OK, that’s the power cable from my monitor, the cord for my mouse, the game controller, the power cord for the CPU. What’s that one?” Joey realized he was whispering. He coughed, as if he had something in his throat.
Smith looked puzzled. “Is that red one coax?” He whispered, too.
Around them, the office was coming to life with the sounds of people getting ready to go home. Bailing right at 5:30 was what Joey had planned to do, too, but now he wanted to know. He put his head under the desk to get a better look.
“What are you guys doing?” said a female voice behind them.
Joey smacked his head on the bottom of his desk. Smith spun around.
“Oh. Hi, Callie,” he said.
Callie was the one girl with a desk in the programmers’ room. She was wearing striped black and white tights and a black denim skirt she must have saved from a shredder. By the time Joey looked up to her white shirt and black pigtails he felt himself blushing.
Smith saved him. “We think there’s something under the desk. A mouse maybe.”
Callie’s eyebrows went up and she leaned down to get a look. “Whoa! You guys be careful down there. It looks like you could have opened a gateway to hell.”
She grinned and wiggled her fingers at them. “Ever heard of Cthulhu?”
Smith waved her off, and she walked away laughing, talking to the others who were streaming out the door. Joey didn’t think it was a good sign that Callie was always laughing when she walked away from him.
Smith snapped his fingers in front of Joey’s face, and he blushed again as he realized he had been staring at her ass.
Smith laughed. “The gateway to hell, remember?”
Joey laughed weakly and turned back to the desk. He reached in and tried to clear away some of the paper detritus. Smith fetched a wastebasket and Joey stuffed handfuls into it.
“Man, I hope there isn’t a mouse down here. They have, like, diseases and stuff, don’t they?” Joey was talking in a normal voice now. The empty office gave him courage.
“I think it’s called Hantavirus,” said Smith, “And yeah. I think it’s a pretty painful death. Like, drowning in your own bodily fluids.”
“Gross,” said Joey, and he decided it applied to both the conversation and the stuff he was hauling out from under the desk. Everything was covered with the goo.
Joey looked back at Smith and reached as far back as he could. “So, how do you get Hantavirus from mice? Do they have to bite you or what?”
“Nah,” said Smith. “I think you just have to touch an infected one. Or their droppings.”
“Oh, just what I need. Mouse turds.”
They both laughed.
But then Joey choked on his chuckle. He swore. One of the cables had wrapped around his wrist. He tried to pull free, and it bit into his hand at the base of his thumb.
“What?” Said Smith. “Did you find a mouse turd?” He giggled at his own joke.
“No, man. I’m stuck. It’s got my hand.”
Smith laughed. “What? The mouse?”
“No,” said Joey, feeling a touch of panic. “I think it’s that red cable.” He tugged again and felt it slip a little bit. He twisted his hand around and got free.
He scrambled away from the desk and stood back.
Looking down at his hand, he saw a red mark all the way around his wrist, almost like a jellyfish sting. It was even bleeding a little in one spot. He shook off the pain.
“Whoa,” was all Smith had to offer. He sobered up and set down the wastebasket. He bent over and looked under the desk. “What did that to you?”
“I don’t know, but it was no mouse.”
Smith went in head first, looking carefully before he touched anything. He shuffled some things around and came back up with a game controller.
“What’s this connected to?” he asked.
“It’s not from my desk.” Smith said. He turned it over in his hands. “Weird.” Then he shrugged and handed the controller to Joey. Joey saw why he was confused about it. The buttons were all in the right places, but they didn’t have any markings on them. They looked like someone had scratched the printing off and maybe tried to write in new symbols with a black pen. On black plastic – black, gummy plastic. It wasn’t very helpful.
Smith headed back in again. “How do these things get tied in knots like this? What -” and the word trailed off into a gurgle.
“Smith!” Joey saw his friend pulled, fast, under the desk.
His actions were reflexive. Later on, when he thought back on it, he felt stupid. Really, really stupid. But he was a hardcore gamer and he couldn’t deny his reflexes. He was standing there with a game controller in his hand when he saw Smith get jerked into a dim hole full of cables.
So he hit the pause button. Hard.
At least he didn’t run.
Smith’s forward motion stopped. He even started pulling himself back out again. He was still making gurgling noises, though, so Joey threw the controller on the desk and grabbed his buddy’s arm. He was stuck. Something had him. Joey reached in and felt a thick cable wrapped around Smith’s neck.
Joey grabbed the cable and pulled. Smith twitched. Joey let go of the cable and heard a slow, hissing noise coming from deep under the desk. He started feeling around on top of the desk trying to find some scissors. His hand landed on the game controller again. He felt several buttons depress, and chaos erupted under the desk. Joey stood up, grabbed the controller and found the pause button again. Everything froze.
He found the scissors he was heading for, reached down and cut the cable. The scissors bit into his hand, but Smith came free. He fell back on the floor, ripping a length of red cable from around his neck.
Smith sat up. His face was grayish-white and a big, angry red mark traced all the way around his neck. He was cursing like a sailor.
Joey stepped away from the desk. He looked down at the cable in Smith’s hand. To his horror, he saw it twitch. Smith dropped it and scooted away. The cable started inching back toward the desk, leaving a little trail of blood behind it.
Joey and Smith just stared at it.
The blue cable shot out and grabbed the red one, pulling it back under.
Smith spoke, his voice raspy. “Maybe Leon and Uri weren’t laid off.”
Joey managed a little gurgling noise in response. He cleared his throat. “Then how would Anton know to clear off their desks?”
Smith pulled himself up and into the desk chair. “I see two possibilities. One, this is Anton’s pet. I mean, we’ve always said there was something wrong with that guy.”
Joey laughed weakly.
“And two,” Smith continued, “Anton’s always the first one into the office. He could have found … something. Leftovers.”
Joey tried not to retch. “OK, either way, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, are you going to call 9-1-1 and tell them the morale in our office is so toxic we accidentally opened a doorway to hell and now Cthulhu is under our desks?”
Smith swallowed. “Good point.” He rubbed his neck. “How did you get it to stop?”
“The scissors -“
“No, before that. It was pulling me in. How did you get it to stop?”
Joey was embarrassed. “Um, I hit ‘pause.'”
They both looked at the game controller on the desk. Smith picked it up. He pushed the button usually marked “pause.”
An angry hissing erupted from under the desk and two writhing cables whipped out at their feet. Smith mashed the pause button again and the cables froze.
“Wow,” was all Joey could muster.
Smith let out a slow breath. “What are we going to do?”
“Why hasn’t it eaten us before?”
They sat in silence for a minute.
“Eating. I wonder if it’s … hungry,” suggested Joey. Smith stared at him. “Leon was always eating something. Dropping stuff under his desk. It was a mess over there, remember?”
“And then Anton said no food at our desks?” said Joey.
“Yeah,” said Smith. “About a week ago.”
Joey had an idea. He headed for Callie’s desk across the room, opened the third drawer down and pulled out a bag of chocolate.
Smith chuckled. “Count on Callie to break all the rules.”
Joey came back, unwrapped a chocolate and set it down next to the two cables sticking out of the morass under the desk. He and Smith stood back as far as the cord on the game controller would reach and pressed the pause button.
The cords twitched back to life and one coiled around the chocolate. They both slid back under the desk, and there was a munching sound.
Smith blinked. “I always thought it was Uri who chewed with his mouth open like that.”
Joey looked down at the controller in his hand. “I say we order a pizza.”
Smith looked at the desk. “Make it two.”