There was a scuffling through the warehouse, the sound of hundreds of giant rats rubbing and pawing against dry desiccated cardboard, the kind of shriveled-up husk that invades into your ears and buries right into the cilia, little insects one and all; and there, right at the entrance, those great big metal-concrete portals where the various delivery trucks, those that were part of the masquerade, those that did not know of the true Foundation and thought that they were just supplying some harmless strip mall and not, as it were, one of the largest underground facilities in the world period, even among the Foundation…oh, here they came, those shining beacons of metal and spirit and guts, right up to the mouths of the beast, and there they nested and disgorged in that perfect ritual of capital eroticism, all Romes leading to this road, the shuffling of cardboard and the squeaking of plastic intensifying, all of it overseen by….
"It's soft," Gordon said, squishing his thumb into one of the white bricks in front of him. "It's right off the truck and it's—it's soft!"
The delivery kid shuffled under his baseball cap and stared. "Well—"
Gordon's thumb screwed a little further into the half-gallon of ice cream, one nestled among many in tidy little cardboard sleeves. It made a little schlorp. "I mean—this is completely ridiculous," he said. "You've been telling us for—for months now that it's our problem, that our freezer's just not been working right, that it was perfectly fine when it got into your truck, and now here I am, right off the—the frickin' truck, and—" he rapped the block once with his knuckles, "—it's soft!"
The kid just stood there and looked at Gordon, not knowing what to do.
"Just—just take this back," Gordon said, taking his hand off the ice cream, all his fire suddenly gone. "And deliver some later today. Tell Dick to call me, because I'm not going to take this slop any more."
"All right," the kid said, and packed it up.
And Gordon, his job there done, left the rest of the unloading and sorting to the actual workers; they swarmed in and out, taking chunks and bits and pieces of supplies as they went, and in such a way the pile of sand was moved from one place to another, one grain at a time, less than fifteen minutes later.
When Gordon got back to his office, a little gray box suspended above the floodlands, he found his normal boss standing in wait.
"Do you have a minute?" the boss asked.
"Sure," Gordon said, shutting his door. "What is it?"
"Well…" the boss started, "it's about your payroll."
"What about it?"
"I don't know if you know this, but we're going to have to…well, we've been instituting cutbacks since—well, I don't need to tell you how tough times are, but we've just noticed that you've been listing quite a few workers, and in—in the spirit of—we're going to need to have you have some of them let go."
"What? I can't do that! Have you looked out there? We're understaffed, if anything!"
"Well, your payroll shows a—a very large amount of workers—"
"I mean, yes, it does, but at least four of them haven't showed up to work! I don't know what it is. We've been losing workers—losing 'em left and right recently!"
"Well can't you just remove them from your payroll? I mean—"
"Sure, but then we'd have to hire some more, and if anyone else drops out—"
They stood in silence for a second.
"About the ice cream…" Gordon said.
"It's slop! I went down—just right now. Down to the truck. I take it out, it wasn't even in the air for five seconds and I could jam my finger like, like this—" here he gestured for emphasis "—far into it!"
"Well are you sure—I mean, what with the freezers—"
"It's not the freezers! It's the ice cream! I was down there—just off the truck! I think they're putting something into it!"
"Well I…well, what do you want me to do?"
"Find a new supplier!"
"Well—I don't know if we can do that."
"Can't you talk to the bosses?"
"I'm already talking to them about your payroll issues—"
"Can't—can't you talk to them about this?"
"Well…" the boss said, sighing, "I'll see if I can slip that in as well. When I'm talking with them. Given the circumstances."
"Alright," Gordon said. "Thank you."
"Of course," the boss said.
Gordon sat in his chair and stared out the window at the warehouse below.
Racks and racks of supplies spread out before his eyes, all the shelves of varying heights; some about as tall as a man, some about as tall as a tall man, some (and more still, growing all the time) attached to hydraulic lifts, constantly jackhammering themselves in and out of the ground; reaching up to the ceiling and down to the floor, a constantly shifting cityscape of surplus and items….
His phone rang. Not his work phone; his other work phone.
Some time passed.
The chair was empty.
Gordon was outside the warehouse, now; in the parking lot, heading for the small electrical substation at the edge of the property. The hard sun shone in the sky above, blocking out the landscape in bright clear edges.
He used his key and went inside the containment fence, then used another to get inside the skeleton shell of the building. Inside was nothing but an old metal lift. Gordon grabbed the cool sticky metal with both hands and yanked the gate open, almost falling over as it flew open with nary a sound. It had been oiled the night before.
Once inside he pulled the lever that emerged from the floor and headed down.
Gordon was in Site-23, the second largest site in the American subcontinent, the fourth largest site on Earth, and the eighth largest site in the Foundation.
What was it like? Fluorescence. Hard-edged industrial light spilled onto painted walls, adorned with the various characters and scribbles of the children of researchers and doctors and prisoners, given pens and paint (if they were old enough) and shepherded out by some smiling attendant and let loose on the walls once every so often, a treat for the kids and a psychological boost to the aforementioned doctors and prisoners and researchers, or so the administrators hoped; they gave the place the look of an elementary school, a prison with bright cheery walls. They seemed to suggest worlds behind them. They were right.
Fluorescence alone, of course, cannot sustain any enterprise of sufficient magnitude. And so as more doors opened, offices and cells and houses and homes, light spilled out of them, slipping through the air, sloshing on the ground: LED, incandescent (even tungsten-halogen and xenon, can you believe it?), high intensity-discharge (that's how you can tell the real freaks in the Foundation, by the way, by the type of lighting they choose. Not prefer, choose. High-intensity discharge lamps are ugly as sin and functional as all hell, and…well…to put it bluntly, some are nothing but car headlights ripped out and scattered around at random, looking for all the world like some abortive silent film-era attempt at expressionism…).
(They split and simmered in the open air, casting no shadows, but leaving some trace, the way they refracted through the windows, soft into hard, bright into dim, smearing across the whole of the underground site, night or day; perpetual Lucifer, the Montag vor Licht.)
Gordon walked through these halls, not noticing, not seeing; light dripped off of him, sticky or hard or sweet, as he went into the office of one of his other bosses.
"Ah! Gordon!" the boss said.
"Hello," Gordon said, walking into the office. The lights were incandescent. Vanilla, bog-standard. Nice, sweet, gooey, and rather plain.
"About the ice cream…" the boss started.
"It's them," Gordon said. "It's all them. I was down there this—this morning, and it was soft. I don't think it ever refroze!"
"Are they putting something into it?"
"I don't know! They say they aren't, but there's no way that ice cream should behave that way—I mean, you've seen the results of it; it goes into our freezer overnight, and it comes out the same way it comes in!"
The boss nodded. "I see…" he said. "Are you sure?"
"We've never had problems with the dairy before. And what with all the freezer issues lately…"
"It was right off the freezer truck!"
"Well, did they say anything about it?"
"No! I made them take it back!"
"But they're saying they haven't adulterated it, no?"
"Well yes, that's what they say—"
The boss sighed. "Well, I'll see what I can do, but…."
"I see," Gordon said.
He expected the questions about his payroll to come, but they never did.
"Talk to Joe."
Who had said that to him, years and years ago?
"Talk to Joe."
Why did it come up now? What dredged it up from the murky depths of memory?
"You could try talking to Joe," the boss said.
"What?" Gordon said.
"Joe handles these sorts of things," the boss said. "Well, some of them. Joe might be able to—" he winked "—help you out."
If Joe wasn't too busy.
If it struck Joe's fancy.
Help out indeed.
Joe wasn't in his office. Gordon went to supply instead.
Joe was there. Joe didn't know Gordon; Gordon didn't know Joe.
Gordon was in hell.
"How long is the contract?" he asked.
"Three years," the man sitting across from him said.
"That's…that's insane," Gordon said, tired beyond all belief. "Why would we ever sign a contract for…."
The man shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said. "We went in half with the mall. I guess that's why."
"But…can't you break it, somehow?"
"We can't just tear off the contract," the man said. "I mean, you can try talking to legal—"
"I did try talking to them," Gordon said. "They told me to go to contracts, who told me to go to legal, who told me to go to contracts, who told me to go here."
The man shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what to tell you."
"What's the matter?" Joe asked.
It was Joe. Joe Herpes.
Who was Joe? Who was he really? He was the Foundation: tall, dark, and handsome, gorgeous beyond superfluity and superficiality, Byronic face, biological body…he wandered the hallways like light, one of many, the rarefied few….
Bureaucracy is not what people think it is: they imagine papers, stuffed shirts, conformity, red tape, glacial pace, the complete destruction of the Self. They are all wrong. That is not bureaucracy; that is what bureaucracy looks like. It is the skin it wears.
Joe Joe Joe, Joe Joe Herpes…
And he thought our feckless formless protagonist was attractive. And he was right.
"Hello," Joe said, smiling down at Gordon and the man. "What seems to be the problem here?"
"Hi Joe," the man said, perking up. "I was just talking to the manager of our upper warehouse here."
"Ah, hello," Joe said. "You must be…"
"I'm Gordon," Gordon said.
"Pleased to meet you," Joe said. "I'm Joe."
"Joe…" Gordon said. "You wouldn't happen to be the Joe, would you?"
"Depends on who the Joe is," Joe said, laughing a bit.
"I was told to find some Joe by my boss," Gordon said. "He said you may be able to help me out. If you weren't too busy."
"Perfect timing," Joe said. "I'm off right now. What seems to be the problem?"
Gordon explained the problem. Less than a minute later, Joe had the contract in his hands. A blink of an eye, and it was confetti.
"Let's make this right, shall we?" Joe said.
It was the next morning. Gordon was walking the floor, managing as usual, when the new ice cream pulled in.
Gordon hustled over there as dignified as he could, and arrived just in time to see…the ice cream being unloaded.
"Where does it usually go?" Joe asked. He was leaning against one wall of the unloading bay, watching the job be done. "It doesn't look like—Gordon! Good morning!"
"This is the stuff?" Gordon asked.
"Yup," Joe said. "As stiff and pure as can be."
And indeed they were. Shiny white glistening bricks, turgid and hard, came out in a constant line; more than usual, necessary to replenish the freezers…milk, cream, sugar, and little flecks of pure vanilla, all solidly frozen up…Gordon couldn't dent it with his thumb, nor his fist; he debated getting a hammer, but decided against it.
"Perfect," he told Joe. "It's perfect. I can't believe you managed to get this stuff."
"Ah, it was no problem," Joe said. "You've just gotta have the right connections." He pointed a thumb up towards Gordon's office. "Shall we continue this conversation in private?"
"Just like that," Gordon said. "You snapped your fingers and…it was done."
Joe laughed. "I can't actually snap," he said. "But close enough."
Gordon grinned, then laughed, then sat down.
"So how long have you worked here?" Joe asked.
Gordon looked out at the warehouse. "About five years," he said. "Three years up here."
Joe smiled. "Foundation first?"
They sat in silence for a moment.
"Do you—" Joe started.
"Excuse me?" one of the warehouse workers said from just outside the door.
"Yes?" Gordon asked.
"Well—it's about Jake…"
Gordon shot upright.
Joe took his leave. The rest of Gordon's day was spent probing around his list, looking for somebody, anybody, as a replacement. It was a nightmare through and through; scraping through the crumbs he had left, desperately trying to assemble them to fill the holes…it was only later, too much later, when he realized he should have asked Joe for help.
When he thought of it, sitting alone in his office, warehouse and sun dark outside, surrounded by papers and forms and phones and words, he felt ready to cry, eyes stinging and scraped and raw, though nothing came, and the losses continued.
The next morning, Gordon got a call. His boss wanted him.
He went down, down, down the elevator, wander'd through the light-drenched halls once again….
"He's not here," his secretary said. "He said you should meet him in Mr. Volante's office."
Volante. Gordon had heard that name before. His boss's boss. They'd never met.
(Another journey, more light….)
He walked in the office to see his boss, Joe Herpes, and Mr. Volante, who was standing on his desk, pants down, stroking his penis.
The ice cream… was the first thought that ran through Gordon's mind, an almost preverbal thought, full of pregnant dread and horror; it was quickly drowned out by the usual feelings of shock and horror.
Joe and his boss sat, not noticing or caring.
"Sit down!" Volante said, gesturing with his free hand to the empty chair. The other hand continued to make other gestures.
Gordon sat down.
"I wanted to talk to you about your personnel," Volante said.
"Usually, we like to keep employee lists low," Volante said, switching hands. "However, after having a bit of a talk with Joe here, we've decided that, given the circumstances, we could allow for some degree of bloat." He gave a vague half-dreamy smile. "Given the circumstances."
"I'm assuming you can take care of the hiring yourself?" his boss said, staring almost, but not entirely at, Volante's penis.
Gordon licked his lips. "Yes," he said, forcing it out.
"Great!" Volante said breathily. "I'll just…."
He grunted and came, a string of ropy white semen that (thankfully) missed all the other participants. Gordon surmised that the meeting was over.
("I have a few more things to ask you," Joe said on the way out the door. "I'm busy for the rest of today, but is there any chance we could discuss this over dinner tonight…?")
Gordon expected the Foundation canteen, really, or at most one of the mall restaurants aboveground if Joe was feeling really ritzy. What he did not expect was this: this private little cozy corner of the Foundation, electric candlelight dripping from the walls, oozing from the tables…white linens, fine ceramics, real metal silverware, not the kind that you're expected to eat as dessert…the place seemed to have no end, all blind angles and extending corridors, seeming to extend endlessly into the dank lit murk.
"The executive canteen?" Gordon asked, trying his best not to rubberneck around.
"No," Joe said, smiling. "Just something a few Foundation employees decided to put together, one day."
"Must've been some—some employees," Gordon murmured.
Joe either didn't hear or didn't speak. They were shown to their table, in a nice cozy corner of the restaurant. Gordon tried to see the back of it, where the servers came from, where the chefs were…nothing. It was restaurant all the way back.
Gordon didn't recognize half the names on the menu; he didn't speak French. To cover, he picked one at random and ordered it. No one seemed to notice; if they did, they didn't say a word.
The questions Joe had about the payroll were over and done with inside a minute; before Gordon knew it, he was doing nothing but talking—
Could it be?
—with Joe, even after the food arrived; Joe asked if he wanted some wine, and Gordon agreed; the waiter materialized out of some corridor (cellar?)—brought it over and let them sniff the cork, some vintage Gordon didn't know, not that Gordon was a big wine person; not even at church; it went down well with the food and he felt pleasantly tipsy by the end…they talked of small little things; hopes and dreams and people and prayers, and it went down as pleasantly as the wine…they had dessert…"Walk you home?" Joe asked, as if it was the most natural thing in the world; Gordon said yes, just to talk with Joe a little while longer (and why not? he was enjoying it, after all) and they exited that gloomy little cave and emerged into the soft bright lighting of the hallway; they both lived on site, of course, all Foundation employees did (and still do)…they arrived at Gordon's room and there Joe was, standing in front of it, looking—almost—could it be? Almost bashful, and there he went, leaning in for the goodnight kiss, and Gordon, drunk though he was, sized up the situation and, in a moment of—well, who knows just what it was—matched it, deepening it…it grew more passionate, more intense, they pulled in closer to each other, cloth to cloth to skin to skin—Gordon shuddered as Joe entered him, a primal instinct, beyond pain or pleasure; Joe thrust back and forth, and Gordon followed…he felt Joe inside him, growing with each passing breath, a warm solid hard feeling, thrusting to his very core and he came, right there on the bed…a few seconds later and he felt Joe do the same, right into him, and he smiled.
It continued on from there. Little liaisons, small moments in the hallway, small sweet chunks ripped out of the day: Joe stopped by, Joe did this, Joe did that…he never stopped by at night, though. Never in the light dark.
But that didn't mean Gordon wasn't happy. He felt lighter, more at ease; the Foundation seemed to part before him, like a waterfall, or gossamer-thin molten glass.
Increasingly, it felt like the Foundation was becoming more real, more itself; people's faces seemed put on the right way, behavior more natural, the site more real.
Gordon was called into Volante's office for something or other, beyond his boss's scope, and found him in the exact same position as before; nothing had changed, and nothing was expected to. Another day he was sent to legal, and found them as helping and kind as could be; it was out of their department, they said, but they'd be happy to help. They were happy to help.
Another day, Gordon went back to contracts; the same man as before was there, but hunched on his desk, completely naked, cuddling with a corpse; there were holes in the flesh all around it, from disease or knife or wounds who knew; the man seemed to be…well, entering it was the best word, and every once in a while he took big gulping bites out of the man's back; other than that, he was perfectly nice and reasonable, certainly nicer than he'd been the last time, and the meeting proceeded and resolved without a problem.
It seemed like the Foundation was more and more like that, some days. Not that anything had changed.
It was night, and Joe was gone. Gordon hadn't seen him all day, nor the day before; he felt lonely and horny. He resolved not to masturbate, and laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, letting little sweet thoughts of nothing dance in his head….
Was that a knock at the door? In a flash he was up and at the door, throwing it open, looking outside…there was no one there; a trick of the light. Nothing but emptiness and an erection. He ended up masturbating that night after all.
It was the end.
There was a freezer, deep inside the bowels of the Foundation—some auxiliary thing, used for unimportant foodstuffs and other such trinkets, or so Gordon thought. He went to it one day—who knows why? Maybe out of curiosity. Maybe someone ordered him to go. Maybe Joe told him to go see it. Yes, let's go with that. It was Joe.
He opened the door, hauling it open past the thick seals, and saw rack after rack of frozen blue bodies, hooked up to the ceiling, slabs of meat…(contracts—the man—)…they were his warehouse workers, the missing ones—not all of them, sure (though they could have been there, at one point…), but enough, and more people he didn't recognize beyond that—and he knew, knew beyond anything else, a hideous moment of epiphany, a single bit of truth…the refrigerator light was almost out, he thought to himself, hysterically…it was flickering, and fluorescent, strobing over the whole ghastly scene…Joe…Joe was…
"What is it?" Joe asked, behind him (had he appeared from nowhere? or had Gordon fled to him, without even noticing? the surroundings seemed to blur, to darken…the restaurant all over again, corridors begetting corridors, the Foundation at last!), as if nothing was wrong in the world…Gordon gestured, wordlessly, at the sight, wherever it was, and Joe seemed to understand, to know (of course Joe knew; Joe knew everything, knew everyone) and in that moment, Gordon was consumed with rage, screaming incoherently, punching at Joe, hitting him once or twice; in the face, in the chest, all bouncing off with little to no effect, and there came the tears, and big gulping sobs, emotionally fried, seeing….
"It's okay," Joe said, and kissed him once, on the forehead, then pushed his head down, unzipping his pants…Gordon took it in his mouth, unquestioning…Joe groaned in pleasure or pain (who knows?), and Gordon knew, moving faster, faster, and then it happened: what had to happen, what did happen, what always would happen: he bit down, through the turgid flesh at the exact moment that Joe came, salty and sticky-sweet, all rushing into Gordon's mouth…he swallowed, almost gagged, flesh and fluids going down alike, one cushioning the other, complimentary, lovely…Joe sighed in satisfaction, not noticing, not caring; the lights seemed to expand, ever-outwards, through the labyrinth…they stayed like that for a long time, in that horrible little embrace.