Written on a chalk board at the front of the cafeteria were the following breakfast choices:
-Oatmeal porridge, Fried Egg, biscuit, choice of fruit, choice of beverage
-Grits, Fried Egg, Toast, choice of fruit, choice of beverage
-Cereal, hash browns, Fried egg, choice of fruit, choice of beverage-Bagel, bacon, Fried egg, choice of fruit, choice of beverage
The menu could have done without the word “Today’s” and didn’t have to be on a chalkboard; something more permanent would suffice because that menu never changed. But as long as one didn’t order the same thing every day, there were enough options to keep a person satisfied.
Robert Christiansen felt like making himself a bacon bagelwich today, so he told the line server that he wanted a ‘number 4’ with an apple and some orange juice. He sidestepped along the counter watching as the server placed all of his items onto a plate, then cut off a chunk of butter off a hefty brick. The server lifted the plate above the counter and let Robert take it away. Robert didn’t even need to flash his badge; the server knew he wasn’t some shyster trying to get a free meal because Robert had been served by this woman more than three hundred times.
After scanning the cafeteria seating, Robert decided to sit in the northwest corner of the vast room. It was too early for the cafeteria to be busy, but he had noticed that Catherine O’Malley was sitting in the northeast corner. He didn’t want get drawn into any small talk that he could possibly regret, so he made sure that he was seated far enough away from her. Catherine was a nice person and all, but she could be a real conversation trap. She could go on and on about the different cats she owned throughout her life, what type of breed they were, what color their coats were, how long their hair was, ex cetera. She was the type of person that was genetically predisposed to office work. An ultrasound of her mother’s womb would’ve depicted a fetus seated in a swivel chair with a romance novel between its nubs and a miniature poster pegged onto the uterine wall that depicts a smiling cat with a party hat on with the saying ‘Can’t wait till Caturday’ printed in bold letters.
Not feeling in the mood to hear an information dump on feline behaviors, Robert selected his corner seat wisely and was pleased on the prospects of possibly eating his meal in silence. He cut his bagel in half, spread the butter on one half, lined four strips of bacon parallel to each other on top of the bread, then added the fried egg and sealed it all off with the other half of the bagel. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, Robert had a victory sip of his orange juice to celebrate his creation. He then started destroying his creation by chomping on it, leading himself to get lost in his thoughts.
Lately he had been anticipating his life after he gets his pension. He could come to this cafeteria every day to get breakfast, lunch, dinner, he would keep his room, and what’s best, he wouldn’t have to do anymore reports. Oh, life will be grand. He could probably even go to some of the supposedly fancier cafeterias, such as the one that they have in the finances building. As long as you got an Alpha badge and a meal sheet, you could get your rations from any Alpha Corp. establishment as long as it serves food. But Robert isn’t even certain that there are higher quality cafeterias; if Alpha Corp. cafeterias are a franchise, how could one be better than any of other ones? Remembering the fast food franchises that Robert frequented growing up, he deduced that if the cafeterias were following the same business plan, then there couldn’t be any superior cafeterias. All fast food restaurants that carried the same name had looked exactly the same and had the same menus. The only difference that Robert could think of was when he went to Europe the dollar menu had been replaced by the Euro menu.
This had derailed his train of thought because now he was onto a whole new tangent; do other cities in the Republic have different menus depending on what crops are grown in the region? Are Mid-Westerners getting plump because of a diet full of diary and corn? Are Californians getting too much citrus, causing their enamel to rot off? Do New Englanders never have to go to the doctor due to their increased apple intake? Robert hadn’t done much traveling through America after the Restructuring, so he couldn’t come up with any answers based on his own experiences.
As far as the cafeteria question goes, he could eventually find that one out, although today wasn’t a good day. Robert wished he could send out a guinea pig to do some reconnaissance for him because he once made a paper run that sent him near the finances building and he found that the people in the area were pompous and intolerable. He could tell that all these people were finance employees because they all had Texas Instruments calculators with the little solar cell strip hanging out of some sort of pocket. So eating in the finances cafeteria would be like venturing into the belly of a beast. Maybe that’s why they have a better cafeteria: to alleviate visitors who can’t tolerate the finances crowd.
Just as Robert was wrapping up that series of introspections, Tim Hutchinson put his plate on the table and took a seat. There goes Robert’s meal in silence, but by now he didn’t seem to mind. The bacon bagelwich put him in a better mood and besides, Tim was a pretty good guy.
Before working in PR, or even before the whole Restructuring thing in general, Tim had worked as a researcher in a lab that was studying a variety of cancers, or something. He hadn’t really discussed it much seeing as his current occupation was quite the downgrade. Tim probably didn’t want to remind himself that he once had a career that was beneficial to society but was now working a job that helped maintain a questionable status quo. Whatever Tim had done in the past, Robert had found it honorable and thus held him in high regards. Tim was also very approachable; always helping Robert with some of the more complex math found in reports (mainly projected revenue losses due to imports/exports) and despite being overly educated, Tim never showed signs of pretentiousness. Robert admired these qualities, so he figured Tim’s company was worth it.
“Hey, sorry about snubbing past you earlier,” said Tim after swallowing a mouthful of hash-browns.
“No harm taken. I didn’t want to stall you on your way to the pit,” responded Robert.
“Ohh,” said Tim with a puzzled look on his face which looked cartoonish due to his bushy grey eyebrows. “Ha-ha, noooo, that’s not where I was heading. I know where you’re coming from, but I was actually running home to get my badge.”
“And here I thought you were rushing to the outhouses. I didn’t want to pull a David Dunlop on you.”
“Amen. Last week I was doing the 100m sprint to the outhouses when all of a sudden Darth Dunlop came out of nowhere and started talking to me about the lack of rain in the Midwest and how it could cause a reduced amount of corn later on in the year. I really didn’t care and took the first opportunity to get out of the conversation. It seemed like he was heartbroken that I ditched out so quickly, but whatever. I nearly lost it once I got to the bathroom. If I had stayed and talked for one second longer, I swear my crap would’ve gone right back up my intestines and I would’ve had some serious flatulence on behalf of Mr. Dunlop.”
It was amazing how open people were to talking about their bowel movements, but then again, everyone was going in the same place, so one might as well be open about it. The private aspect of the bathroom has been severely reduced, so people had to be less ashamed of what went on in there. Potty humor was now widely accepted and it often made for some worthy anecdotes.
Robert chuckled then asked, “But this morning, why did you have to get your badge? Surely, everyone knows you here.”
“Maybe a little too well. The cafeteria lady really has it out for me. Whatever inconvenience she can make for me she’ll go out of her way and do it. After seeing that she was working the counter this morning, I knew she was going to make me present my badge when I got my food, so I had to rush home and get mine. Who carries those things around with them anyways? With the state our clothes are in, the stitching in our pockets would probably rip and leave our badges out on the sidewalk. If that happened, you would probably starve while waiting to get a new one, knowing how this bureaucracy works.”
Tim was always voicing his opinion, which usually involved a critic of the way the system worked. Although Robert and Tim’s job was to uphold this system, they often resorted to bickering about ways in which it could be better or how things ran more efficiently pre-Restructuring. They were old timers, so they often had bouts of nostalgia that glorified the good ol’ days.
“Anyways,” continued Tim, “I was going to eat early so I could finish my book before work started, but the damn cafeteria lady ruined that plan.”
Tim only lived three blocks away from the PR building, so his morning plans couldn’t have been too altered by this minor detour. He was just being overly dramatic, but Robert wasn’t about to point this out; he wanted to investigate the strained relationship between the server and Tim. He had known very little about server during all these years, so through the power of gossip he was inclined to know more.
After taking a sip of his orange juice, Robert asked, “Wait, why does she have it out for you in the first place? Where does this beef stem from?”
“It goes back to last year. She lives in my building, right. So, anyways, last summer I was growing some radishes on my balcony. They’re a good source of a couple of vitamin Bs, they’ve got some minerals and they grow fast, so I thought, ‘I should grow some radishes. Why not?’” At this point Tim ate a spoonful of his cereal, then carried on. “I used to have a green thumb and for the past while I haven’t been able to practice it, so I salvaged a few plot boxes from an old garden and planted some radish seeds. Don’t ask me how I got the seeds - that’s a long story in itself. So, I had a few plots, nothing big, and the leaves started sprouting. All of a sudden, Rebecca, which is her name, started getting all worked up about my experiment. At first she thought I was growing marijuana or tobacco out there, so she told me that it was illegal and by failing to tell human resources, she could get into trouble. I told her, ‘Relax, it isn’t either of those plants.’ Besides, who is stupid enough to grow those in broad daylight, in the city too? So, I told her the truth that these were radish plants. Rebecca then jumped to the conclusion that I was learning how to become self-sufficient; therefore, I would be a future deserter. What audacity she has.”
Tim paused but Robert didn’t say anything because he knew this wasn’t the end of the story. After taking a drink of his apple juice, Tim continued, “I know, she’s younger so she’s gullible to all that propaganda that our employers feed us with, but come on. That is quite the conclusion she jumped to. So, I said, ‘It’s just a few radishes. It’s not like I could live off of a few radishes.’ She took offense to this then gave me this rant about how it’s only a starting point. ‘Next year you’ll be growing wheat, then corn, then raising chickens up there, then who knows what. Eventually, you’re going to run off into the wild, start importing your products to some foolish drone who doesn’t know the repercussions, then it will end up in my kitchen and I’ll get the blame for serving a product that doesn’t meet Alpha Corp’s standards.’ She actually said this. I figured she had so much faith in Alpha Corp. that she would never stop harassing me, so I caved in. I got rid of all the plants and box plots and haven’t grown anything since. Rebecca has remained suspicious of me, so, well, she tries to make things difficult for me at any given opportunity.”
“Interesting. I never knew she was such a card carrying Alpha Corpian. She has got that same estranged look on her face that most of us have. You know? Just waiting for the end of the day to come around. If she was so dedicated, I would expect her to be more enthusiastic, kinda like Darth Dunlop.”
“Well, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Maybe she’s just overly paranoid. These younger ones; they haven’t experienced any other way of living. They see that history film, the one that they all make us watch, and they think that the so called ‘post-consumerism’ structure is the end-point, or rather, the apex of society. To them there’s no other way of living. So, I think Rebecca really buys into that and she feels inclined to narc on anyone who might throw the system off its axis.”
Robert wonders how Tim still has his job. A lot of people don’t fully agree with the way that Alpha Corp. runs the country, but they tend to hold their tongues. Tim’s different. He is very vocal with his critiques. He never holds back his bitterness and this sometimes irks Robert; not in the sense that Robert disagrees with the content, more in the sense that one of these days human resources is going to pick up on it and send him off to a Homestead in Alaska. However, Tim is usually conscious of his surroundings and who he voices his opinion to. Right now they’re in a corner of an uncrowded cafeteria, so it’s fair game. If he had been in the boss’s office with David lurking in the vicinity, he would shut his mouth tighter than a submarines airlock. He knows his limits and he’s made it this far, so kudos to Tim, one of the few who’s willing to speak the truth.
“True. I guess we really ought to stay away from Rebecca types,” said Robert after a few seconds had passed.
“To me, that sounds a little paranoid. Are you planning a revolution that I should know about?” Tim wore a grin on his face.
“I mean, maybe don’t discuss much around people like that,” said Robert in a hushed tone as he glances towards Rebecca. Luckily she is far away; tucked behind the counter, out of earshot.
“I’m just screwing with you Robert. We’re too old to make a difference. Revolutionaries are young and idealistic. We’re old and pessimistic.” Tim separates a part of his fried egg with his fork, crams it into his mouth, chews it, then starts talking before he swallows it. “Alright, enough gossip and controversy for now. Word around the office is that you get to head out of the District. Lucky you.”
“Well, I don’t know too much about it to consider myself lucky.”
“What do you mean? We all like leaving the city once in a while.” Tim had a concerned look on his face.
“That’s when you know what you’re doing. You get to go out of town, enjoy the fresh air, go to a Homestead, reflect on how lucky you are to not be working at a Homestead, find an importer, give him the ultimatum, find the culprit drone, send him off to HR, then go back to the city. Follow the formula, easy-peasy. But this assignment, I don’t know about it.”
“It’s different. I could tell from the way Doug was acting when he was briefing me on it. I know he’s a dedicated man, but he seemed to be more adamant about this assignment than he usually is.”
“What is the assignment?”
“I don’t know too much about it. That’s the thing. I have to go to a Homestead in southern Virginia and do some snooping around,”
“Snooping around?” Tim interrupted. “Like, trying to find an importer?”
“Sort of, but not really. The problem in the area is that there are a lot of deserters. Apparently there’s some sort of messiah around there that’s gaining quite a following. So, my snooping around means that I have to go find out where this guy is camped, or whatever, by questioning potential deserters. How am I supposed to know what a potential deserter looks like? The whole thing seems like a mess and I’m probably the last guy to ask.”
“A messiah you say. I wonder if he’s young and idealistic?”
“I’m trying not to think about it,” responded Robert as he finished the last bite of his apple. That was the last remaining part of his meal and he decided it was time to get out of the cafeteria. “Sorry to backtrack, but I have to get my badge. I left it in my office and I have a feeling that it might come in handy during my journey.”
“Ahhh, our conversation is going to end the way it started.”
“Yep, it’s all about badges. Hey, I probably won’t see you for a week or two, so take care. And remember, keep your mouth shut cause they got spies,” said Robert sarcastically as he pointed his right index finger to the roof and made circular motions with it. But, like everything said sarcastically, there was a shade of truth to the statement.
“I’ll try and keep that in mind. Check you later Robert.”
Robert took that as his cue to leave, so he picked his plate off the table, stood up, and walked over to the garbage. As he left the cafeteria, he noticed Rebecca staring at him like a jury stares at a convicted murderer. Robert knew it was because he was associated with Tim, so he made a mental note: from now on, always bring your badge to the cafeteria.
After climbing four flights of stairs and navigating the dark hallway, Robert made it to his office. In the top shelf of his desk lay his Alpha badge. The badge itself was a simple object; it’s a piece of black leather, 4 inches by 3 inches, with stitching around the edges, Robert’s full name written in stitches at the top right hand corner, a white ‘α’ symbol at the center of it all which is made of some cheap metal, and the following words stitched in underneath the symbol: Alpha Corp. Services Pass. Although it was simple, it could be a real life saver at times. If you were anywhere inside of the Republic, as long as you were close enough to a Homestead or a regional city, the card could take care of your food and shelter. The basic necessities. Robert would be screwed without it, so this trip to the office was worth it.
He silently closed his door then tip toed down the hallway. He didn’t feel like getting into a conversation that would leave a bitter aftertaste, so he tried to make it out of the building with tactical precision.
Then, out of one of the inner offices, David Dunlop materialized in the hallway. ‘Aww fuck,’ thought Robert. ‘What’s he doing in the inner offices anyways? They get no sunlight, so they’ve been abandoned for years. Must be a secrete Alpha Corp. brainwashing experiment going on in there; that would explain David.’
“Hola Robert! Just the man I wanted to see. I heard about your assignment, pretty big, hey? Southern Virginia slash northern North Carolina has some of our most productive Homesteads. We can’t just let them be deserted. I’m counting on you to damper this threat. I know you can do it!” It seems as though he said that all without taking a breath or a break. It’s a pretty impressive conversational adaptation, but it makes everything you say seem like a continuous spray of verbal diarrhea.
“Um, yah,” grumbled Robert. “I’m sort of looking forward to getting out of the city. Not that I hate the city or anything, more for the change.”
Oh no! He did it; Robert flicked over the first dominoes piece that will cause a cascade of small talk. He is going to regret this.
“Totally. It seems like it’s been months since my last out of town assignment.” David paused to think about this for a second, which was rare of him. “Oh wait, I went to Maryland about three weeks ago. Never mind. It always seems longer than what it is though, don’t you think?”
Why can’t there be a conversation eject button? If only you could press it every time you got into some mundane dialogue that doesn’t contribute anything. You could be sprung out of the conversation, have a moment of free floating serenity, then the parachute would safely transport you to a peaceful land where everything said had some substance to it and nobody bothers to mention the weather, or the kids, or the wifey, or the game last night. Robert was thinking of a way he could get out of this one. Then it occurred to him: He has got a train to catch. Eureka, a get out of jail free card can be drawn.
“Yah it does seem longer. Kind of funny. But look, David, I would like to stay and chat, but I’ve got a train to catch. Have a good week, or two, or however long I’m gone.”
“I will. I’ve got some important reports to review. Important stuff to keep me busy. Farewell Robert. We are hoping that you succeed in this assignment.”
“Yah, me too,” muttered Robert. He sidestepped around David then climbed down the central staircase, all the while congratulating himself for getting out of that conversation as quickly as he did.
 The official Alpha Corp. logo.