|Jan/Feb 2003 fiction|
It amazed Mikko that most people thought they were alive.
Typing in his work cubicle, Mikko glanced at Elena, the secretary two stations behind him. She was dead and she didn't even know it. She came equipped with a zombie's assortment of accessories: a divorce from her high school sweetheart, a four-year-old son, the beginnings of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an insomniac's puffy eyes. Her purse was stuffed with diet pills and a heavy wood crucifix and a rolled-up copy of a fashion magazine. As Mikko watched her she yawned and showed him a mouthful of gold fillings. He thought of all the mouths with all the fillings just like hers around the world, and all those mouths yawning and all those fillings gaping in a tunnel of lumpy gold teeth, one set of teeth opening inside another and then another and then another until Mikko was swallowed down an infinity of mouths, digesting him slowly in their weak acids.
Mikko had no close friends: he had found none worthy of him. He had no serious lovers: he had found no woman who survived his scrutiny for longer than a few weeks. He had relatives—parents in a small northern Finnish town, a younger sister in Rovaniemi—but he refused to think of them as his. He was twenty years old and he wasn't going to accept the people chance had brought his way, the dull men and women he had met in such a short period of time, in such a small part of the world, after such limited opportunities to discover anybody he could respect.
He had come to Helsinki two years ago, but already he wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere bigger and more glamorous. He dreamed of a city of achievement, a city dedicated to success: he imagined parties in the top-floor ballrooms of skyscrapers. The guest lists would include the fastest man to ever run the 800 meter dash, the first woman to walk in outer space, the world's finest poet, a heart surgeon on the verge of a breakthrough in transplant technology, a physicist who had devised a new theory of gravity, a quiet librarian who had calmly rescued half-a-dozen people from a collapsing store in a San Francisco earthquake. And Mikko would walk among them as an equal, would drink champagne with them and laugh at their jokes and accept their nods of recognition, although he still couldn't figure out what he would do to distinguish himself, or how he would transcend the mirage of this office cubicle, the illusion of these human beings flickering around him in their close-packed humming swarm.
He worked only part-time, as a marketing assistant for a large Finnish cell phone company. He also studied at the University of Helsinki, but he couldn't decide on a major. Almost everything appealed to him at certain times, from certain angles of thought, and yet almost nothing appealed to him once he had to start learning it. He had originally planned to be a linguist but had given up after a few months. Then he had tried economics. Then history. Then biology. Now he was considering anthropology: the challenge of finding fossilized bones in distant deserts, the romance of dusting off a shattered skull in front of his future wife, the glory of the symposium where he would announce his research results on the oldest human remains ever uncovered.
When he wasn't studying or working he went jogging. He had been a good hockey player in high school but now he was obsessed with turning himself into a perfect running machine, long-legged, tireless, striding smoothly through the park. His handsome pared-down face was being sweated to its essentials, a silhouette cutting the night with razor sharp lines, with the promise of the figure he wanted to set running through the years. His legs pounded faster the more they hurt, the more his muscles strained and burned. Then he would push his stride even harder and know that the same determination pressing him up the hill of the Helsinki observatory would force him through whatever flames or floods he would need to cross, whatever trials he would need to pass as he won the victories his legend would someday demand.
"How are you?" asked Gareth, the Welsh software designer in the cubicle next to Mikko's.
"Fine," Mikko said, barely glancing Gareth's direction. Small talk didn't interest Mikko. He never asked people how they were, never understood why anyone would think he could care about the mechanical answer to such a pointless question, the hollow exchange of people who had nothing to talk about, no life worth discussing, no feelings worth revealing. Gareth was a failure, a forty-three-year-old man stuck in a job that no rising employee would want after the age of thirty. "How are you?" Gareth always asked, and Mikko's reply was always half-spoken, half-grunted. He could barely contain his contempt, and the words looped through his head, ran like a bad advertising jingle—how are you fine how are you fine how are you fine—until he found a bitter pleasure in their repetition, their echo taking him down that tunnel of gold fillings again, that cave textured with the stalactites and stalagmites of incisors and molars, still opening to swallow him, still threatening to mount his own teeth in their procession.
In the spring he took a computer course at the university. He liked the course and pictured the standing ovation at the awards ceremony where twenty years from now he would be honored for his software work, for developing programs that would allow pulses of nuclear fusion to be transferred across the Internet, or that would unlock the code for understanding alternate dimensions.
One of the other students showed him how to make a simple computer virus. The virus would scramble all the numbers and letters in all the files on a PC. Mikko made his own version of the virus, just to see if he could do it. It was a surprisingly satisfying exercise.
His marketing job bored him, so near the end of June he did something that, in Finnish culture, was exceptionally bold. He asked for a meeting with Aruna Mohanti, the Indian woman who had recently become the head of the company's Development division. Then he told her that he wanted to take charge of one of the New Products teams.
"Which team interests you?" Aruna asked.
"Whichever one's doing the most revolutionary work," Mikko said.
Aruna chided him with a small dismissive smile. "What makes you think you're qualified for a team like that?"
"What makes you think I'm not?" Mikko asked.
Aruna put her glasses on. She studied him as if she were a botanist examining an intriguingly mutated calyx. Two thick lines of gray dramatized the upswept waves of her lush black hair, and Mikko admired her crisp clean blouse, her impeccable posture, the obvious agility of her long fingers as they revolved a fat gold pen with nearly hypnotic smoothness. She was known as one of the best division heads in the company, and Mikko felt unexpectedly relaxed in her presence: the pen didn't spin impatiently in her fingers but turned end over end with a calm regular motion that soothed him almost as much as her warm dark eyes and murmuring voice.
"What qualifications do you have for New Products work?" she asked.
"None," Mikko said. "I'm not really an expert in any particular field, but I can evaluate and organize the work of any group of specialists, and I can do it better than anyone else here."
Her face remained unreadable, professionally courteous. "I'm afraid I can't give you a team of your own," she said. "But I might make you part of one of the existing teams if you'd like. Give me a day to think about it and I'll tell you the team I feel is most appropriate for you. Is that acceptable?"
Mikko reached across her desk and pumped her hand. "It's the most acceptable thing I've ever heard," he said.
The next morning Aruna called Mikko at his cubicle and invited him to join the Imaging team. The team was responsible for adapting 3-D imaging technology to the company's latest line of phones.
The team met in a vast quiet conference room of aquamarine glass and immaculate pale-blue walls surrounding a long round-edged table. Mikko's chair was almost preternaturally comfortable: it supported his body exactly the way he wanted it to support him, yielded to softness exactly where he wanted it to yield.
Aruna supervised the team herself. The working group included four foreigners and four Finns. Except for Mikko, all the Finns were 3-D imaging specialists, a trio of marketing pros whose company had been bought out by the Development division three weeks ago. Two of the foreigners were English. They were London women who had designed a program that allowed the imaging technology to run smoothly on the company's phones.
The other foreigner-the one who worried Mikko-was Henrik Antonsen.
Henrik, a lanky Norwegian in his early twenties, seemed to hide behind his hair. His head down, his long blond strands hanging across his face, he slouched in his seat as if he wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear from the conference table. He was a software designer, fresh out of the University of Oslo.
The meeting went on for nearly twenty minutes before Henrik said anything. Since this was the team's first gathering, Aruna introduced everyone and started a general discussion about the 3-D imaging techniques that the company's customers might find most appealing. Yesterday Mikko had written a list of ten possible imaging features: he tried to take charge of the meeting by going through the features one by one, and he passed copies of the list around the table. But just as he felt the discussion was gaining momentum, Henrik interrupted.
"Excuse me," Henrik said, so softly that some of the team didn't hear him. He slouched closer to the table, cleared his throat, held his coffee cup in both hands as if he were trying to keep it from floating away.
"If we can move on to the next feature," Mikko said, ignoring Henrik and looking around the table, "I think you'll see that this one has real possibilities."
"Excuse me," Henrik said again, this time loud enough that everyone noticed. He spoke hesitantly from behind his hair: "I don't want to take us off track, but I'm not sure if the features on this list will work."
Aruna cut in before Mikko could respond. "What are the features that won't work?" she asked.
"All of them," Henrik said. He took one of his hands away from the coffee cup and raised his copy of the list for everyone to see, like a lawyer displaying an exhibit to a jury. "None of the features on this list can operate on our phones. They all have technical problems."
"What sort of technical problems?" Aruna asked.
Henrik brushed some of the hair back from his face and revealed one large blinking eye. "You want me to explain? For the whole list?"
"Please," Aruna said.
Then Mikko had to watch while Henrik went through each feature and detailed why it was too complicated or too expensive to implement. By the end of the meeting, Mikko thought, two things were clear to everyone on the team: Henrik was a quick-thinking expert on all aspects of phone technology and 3-D imaging, and Mikko knew so little about these topics that he had made a long list chronicling his ignorance.
The following weeks confirmed Henrik's position as the most knowledgeable person on the team, and Mikko's position as the least knowledgeable, the most useless. Henrik destroyed every idea Mikko submitted. Worse, Henrik always did the destruction shyly, impersonally, not as if he had a grudge against Mikko but as if the ideas were so self-evidently bad that it would've been pointless to discuss them. By the third meeting Mikko had almost completely stopped speaking, and when Aruna would ask for his opinion he would mumble his agreement with Henrik and the others.
At the fifth meeting Aruna announced a special assignment.
"I want each of you to write a description of the 3-D imaging features you now feel we should concentrate on developing," she said. "You should support your opinions with any information or material that you believe is relevant. The descriptions should be ready for our next meeting. Then you should be prepared to discuss and defend your paper at the meeting two weeks from now."
The assignment excited Mikko almost as much as it frightened him. This was his chance to redeem his reputation, to replace his weekly humiliations with a fresh triumph. In the evenings, while he ran through the park, he envisioned writing a paper so distinguished that it would catapult him out of the Imaging team and into the company's highest levels of upper management. But when he would sit at his desk and type, all his ideas came out as vague paraphrases of ideas he'd heard the other team members say in the meetings, and he found that even those ideas were too complicated for him. He had never really learned the basics of the interface between the imaging systems and the phone systems, and he lost his way in all his notes and diagrams and reference books.
It was all Henrik's fault. He was blocking Mikko's progress. If Henrik weren't around, if the thought of Henrik weren't constantly on his mind, Mikko would have made a breakthrough long ago. Henrik had put Mikko at a disadvantage right from the start, and had never given Mikko a chance to recover. It was totally unfair. At home, watching TV, drinking cup after cup of coffee, Mikko could see the others praising Henrik's report, could see them attacking Mikko's paper and dismissing him from the team, could see himself walking, defeated, a zombie, back to his old office cubicle, where he would no longer be a talented young man full of promise and energy but just another dead employee, fading, losing his strength, feeling his mind dissolving into the hive, his tiny hum vanishing in the swarm.
The night before the papers were due he stayed late in the office. He examined the computer virus-the one he'd made at school-and copied it onto a disk. Then he pretended to work till midnight, when the office was empty, and went down to Henrik's cubicle, two floors below.
He started Henrik's computer and slipped the disk into the hard drive. All he had to do was open the virus on the PC. Within minutes the virus would infect Henrik's documents, scramble the paper he had written, jumble the research and notes he had done. Henrik would go to the meeting tomorrow with a proper excuse, but his paper would be unfinished and his series of victories over Mikko would be broken. Finally Mikko would have the time to catch up with Henrik-finally Mikko would have at least one meeting where Henrik was the one who felt betrayed and confused.
Mikko's hand hovered above the PC's slim keyboard. If he hit Enter one last time, the virus would be released.
His finger touched the Enter button. He wiggled the button lightly from side to side. But he didn't press it. Instead he bent down and removed the disk from the hard drive and went home.
Henrik delivered his paper at the meeting and everyone agreed that, based on the summary alone, he had come up with the team's most logical and creative approach to imaging.
Flipping through the paper, Mikko expected to feel bitter and resentful. As he read, however, his whole body filled with a soothing coolness: he became loose and weightless and calm. After the meeting he drifted out of the conference room and floated through the halls. He passed a receptionist changing one of her eyes from brown to blue with a colored contact lens. He passed two in-house lawyers arguing about whether extraterrestrial life was carbon-based or purely electromagnetic. He passed a man from Accounting who balanced a pen upright on the tip of his bulbous nose while his boyfriend from the Interactive division clapped and said, "Twenty seconds! Twenty more seconds and the record's yours!" Then the accountant dropped the pen and the boyfriend fell to his knees in mock despair.
Still floating, Mikko approached his cubicle. Elena, the secretary two stations behind him, was reaching into her purse. She took out a glass jar with a palm-sized beetle inside. She held the jar up to her face and inspected the beetle lovingly: the surprisingly beautiful silvery black legs and silvery green back, and the fine-veined translucent wings that suddenly whirred into life as their casing opened and the beetle fluttered up against the lid of the glass.
Then Gareth, the Welsh software designer in the cubicle beside Mikko's, scooted over on his squeaky six-wheeled chair. He maneuvered the chair around the tight angle between the filing cabinets with the panache of a racecar driver taking a hairpin curve.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Mikko said. "How are you?"
"Not bad," Gareth said. Then he began to explain how he had spent last night translating a Welsh poem by Menna Elfyn and had somehow ended up having sex with his ex-wife's twin sister.
Mikko tried to listen, tried to follow the story as closely as he could. It was, he discovered, hard and exciting work.