At the specified hour the employee strode into the national HQ and presented his summons. After a brief interrogation, he was pushed into an amphitheater. On its semi-circular tiers, behind executive desks, dozens of bosses conferred, muttered into phones, or glared down at him with hands buckled across paunches.
The employee’s personal boss—young and crisp, stiff as a soldier—rapped on his desk.
“We’ve ordered you here because your colleagues have testified that you often stare at nothing in particular, lost in private thought.
“In other words, you have been stealing the time that we purchased from you.
“Personally, I believe that such behavior deserves swift exile—with prejudice.
"However, here at Corp Inc. we subscribe to compassion, and the directors will settle for removing the part of you that stares into space and imagines other ways of existing.
"It will be stored safely, in isolation. You won’t feel that different, but there are a few side effects…”
“Okay,” said the employee, and stood up. “I’ll make this as easy as possible for both of us.”
And he bolted.
He hurtled through the generic hallways, skidded into a stairwell, and fled down concrete steps, past bare pipes, toward the coolness of fresh air.
But the corridor led to a catwalk forking off through windy darkness.
Eying a distant EXIT sign, he edged out onto the open…
And found himself high over an immense cavern split by an agitated river.
The rocky walls and ceiling, the wet boulders of the riverbanks, were webbed with thick white strands that sagged everywhere with bulky cocoons.
Inside each cocoon, just barely visible, was a junior boss in suit and tie, knees curled to chest.
The employee crept across the catwalk through echoing river-roar until he reached an iron staircase that spiraled down toward daylight. He had descended several flights when the thin stairs began to reverberate with someone’s ascent.
It was a muscular, clean-cut boss in a white dress shirt tucked into chinos.
As they passed each other, he realized that the other man had his face, but harder, and perfected.
He emerged into noon dazzle on a lush hill over a strange city.
A city he’d seen in dreams.
A fractal city that shifted under his gaze, its streets opening at impossible angles on ever more castles, skyscrapers and pavilions, circuses in ancient forests, ziggurats and temples and hypermodern black cubes. There were carved stone dwellings teeming with monkeys. There were single-acre farmsteads sailing down canals, past floating nightclubs lit by throbbing holograms. There were mammoth trees, growing out of abandoned churches, whose boughs supported colonies of eccentric treehouses.
But though he often called out, no one ever answered.
He was alone.