Researcher Clayton stood before the small office door and double-checked to make sure he was in the right place. The room was so out of the way that it looked like it had been built as an afterthought. Clayton gave a quick look around, and then knocked. This was to be his first assignment for the Foundation.
“It’s open,” shouted a voice from inside the office. Clayton took a deep breath and stepped inside.
At the center of the room was a large desk decorated with all manner of small trinkets. The near and side walls of the room were covered in motivational posters, while the far wall was lined with numerous old filing cabinets, most of which were labeled with what appeared to be someone's name. A single man sat alone in a chair behind the desk with a friendly smile.
“Dr. Cameron?” Clayton asked as he began to inch his way towards the center of the room.
“In the flesh,” declared the man in the chair. His head was bald and starting to spot, and a thick pair of glasses sat on his crooked nose. Rather than a lab coat, he wore a bright green knitted sweater that appeared a few sizes too big. “Just 'Donald' will be fine, though. The actual doctors tend to get their feathers ruffled if they catch you calling me by their precious title.”
Clayton smiled as Donald laughed at his own joke and ushered him to take a seat.
“Are you ready to begin?” Donald asked.
Clayton nodded enthusiastically.
“Great,” Donald replied. “First things first, we’ll need to get your desk moved here. You’ll also want to make sure you invest in a very good chair. Your back will never last otherwise.”
Clayton nodded a second time. He looked around the desk once more. Among the objects that caught his eye were a miniature ship in a bottle, a silver Rubik's cube with the different sides represented by various colored gears, and what appeared to be a large alligator tooth.
“What is it exactly that you do for the Foundation, Donald?” Clayton’s eyes were drawn to the numerous filing cabinets along the far wall.
“Glad you asked.” Donald swiveled in his chair and rolled over to the filing cabinets, banging one of them on the top. “I’m in charge of these.”
Donald proceeded to write his name on a small label and slid it into place on one of the few unused cabinet drawers. He then sat twiddling his thumbs. Clayton opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but ceased when Donald held up his hand. After a few more seconds Donald opened the drawer and pulled out a small file folder; the date and hour were printed neatly on its label. He then rolled back to his desk and opened the folder, removing a sheet of paper from inside and sliding it to Clayton. Half the page was covered in black type that said: iamcurrentlythinkingaboutdemonstratingwhatthisobjectdoesforyou over and over.
“Basically, if your name is on one of those drawers, then your thoughts are recorded on the paper that appears inside, all nice and organized by the day and hour you had it,” Donald explained.
“It all runs together.” Clayton looked on in awe.
Donald chuckled as he fed the paper into a nearby shredder and then removed the label with his name from the filing cabinet drawer.
“It sure does!” he exclaimed. “Human thoughts don’t run in nice little sentences and paragraphs. They happen in an instant and run smack dab into each other. It’s called 'stream of consciousness'. Our job is to read these papers, and turn the jumble into useful information. You’ll get used to reading the transcripts after a while.”
“If the Foundation can access anyone’s thoughts, why are we the only ones assigned to the task?” Clayton looked over the cabinets again. “There must be thousands of people out there whose thoughts are of considerable value.”
“Sure there are; the only problem comes from the number of requirements these damn things have when they operate,” Donald said as he leaned back in his chair. He took a deep breath as he began to enumerate the cabinet’s problems on his fingers.
“First off, the drawers have to be closed to work, meaning that if you have it open, you stop collecting the person’s thoughts. If you close the drawer without returning the file to the cabinet, it goes blank and you're stuck with just a useless ton of paper. You’d think you could get around that by just writing the person’s name on two drawers, but if you do that then neither drawer works. On top of that, these cabinets only store about four days’ worth of thoughts. After that, the older thoughts begin to disappear as the new ones are being written. Finally, you have the problem of how to interpret the damn things. You can’t just scan them into a computer because the text won’t appear on digital copies or images.”
“That sounds like a lot of work for little pay-off, even if you can decipher the pages,” Clayton said, his enthusiasm fading.
“There are individuals whose thoughts are just important enough that the Foundation is willing to put in this kind of effort,” Donald replied, cleaning his glasses. “It’s not as difficult as you might think. We open up a cabinet, scan about two hours’ worth of thoughts for anything of use, and then we place the file back and move onto the next person. At the end of the day we give Director Holman a report. The task forces make one hell of a punch when they already know what their target's plans are. ”
Donald finished with a chuckle, followed by punching the air. He then reached into his desk and pulled out a clipboard with several forms attached.
“A few doctors who work on some of the more exciting projects also use the cabinets as a form of keeping notes,” he added as he slid the clipboard and a pen to Clayton. “I’m going to need you to sign these real fast. Standard furniture and office transfer forms. When you get to the last page, just use the spot below my name.”
“So we do this day in and day out?” Clayton began to sign on the many dotted lines. The last page was a single yellowing piece of paper. It appeared to be a sign-up sheet with a title that read "Records Withdrawal." There were at least five different signatures, but all of them were crossed out except for Donald's. Clayton signed below Donald’s signature, and watched in shock as Donald's signature crossed itself out.
“Actually, that’s what you’ll be doing day in and day out,” Donald gleefully explained. “I’ve done this for the last ten years, and have been on the Director about getting me a replacement for the last five. Now that you’re on the sign-up sheet, I can get out of here and onto better things.”
“What do you mean?” Clayton’s face grew pale as Donald’s smile grew wider.
“These filing cabinets only work for whoever’s name is most recently added to that list you just signed!” Donald got to his feet. “And now you’re it! I’m free at last!”
Clayton remained silent. His expression had become more horrified the more and more Donald laughed.
“Oh, cheer up!” Donald said with a wave of his hand. “You’ll be fine. I doubt they’ll keep you down here as long as they’ve kept me! In fact, I’m sure Director Holman will -”
Donald was interrupted as two security officers rushed in, accompanied by a tall well-dressed man who was out of breath.
"God damn it, Donald! What the hell do you think you're doing with the sign-up sheet!" the man bellowed between gasps for air. His expression then changed to one of worry as he noticed Clayton.
“Ah, Director Holman,” Donald addressed the visitor. “I’ve just finished showing him the ropes. He’s all signed up!”
“You didn’t…” Holman uttered.
“Oh, but I did, Director!” Donald sneered. “I’ve been replaced! Five years I’ve been hounding you for relief and every time you promise me a replacement you whisk them away to work on some other project! I took matters into my own hands this time! There is not a god damn thing you can do about it!”
“Do you have any idea how much you’ll set back at least four different operations?!” Holman shouted back. “People might die because of this!”
“Oh come on, Director,” Donald frowned. “Don’t judge Clayton’s performance already; he hasn’t even started writing reports yet.”
Holman fell silent at this comment, his right hand rubbing his temple as he closed his eyes.
“Get him out of here,” Holman sighed. The security personnel immediately went to work, grabbing Donald by the shoulders and forced him towards the door.
“I've already won, Director!” Donald called back as he was evicted from the premises.
The room quickly went quiet at that point. Clayton looked to Holman for answers.
“I’m sorry about this,” Holman said as he took a few deep breaths and then grabbed the Rubik's cube off Donald’s desk. He fiddled with the puzzle in his hands as he continued to speak. “Donald had twenty years of loyal service up to this point. The man hated this assignment, but this is the first time he actively attempted to alleviate his situation outside of a strongly worded letter.”
“Why has he been down here for so long? Why—” Clayton questioned.
Holman held a hand up to signal that he needed to calm down.
“The longer you’re continuously bound to the filing cabinets, the better you are at reading the transcripts.” Holman placed the Rubik’s cube back on the desk. “What you and I see as stream of consciousness, Donald read as properly formatted sentences and paragraphs. By the time we learned of this effect, he’d already been at work for close to four years. We've been meaning to get him a replacement for some time now, but there was always another person of interest we needed to monitor, and less and less time to monitor them in.”
“You’re not planning on keeping me bound to this thing, are you?” Clayton inquired. “You can’t do that!”
“For the time being I’m going to need you to take one for the team and fill this post.” Holman placed a hand on the distraught researcher’s shoulder. “There are people whose lives depend on the information that may be in those cabinets.”
“You can’t be serious…” Clayton got to his feet. He watched helplessly as Holman made his way to the door.
“I’m sorry, Clayton. There’s nothing I can do at this point,” Holman stepped back into the hallway. “I’ll get back to you as soon as we sort this out.”
Once he was alone, Clayton looked at a poster on the far wall. It depicted a cat hanging from a branch with the term “Hang in there!” printed beneath. For a few brief seconds he stood and stared at the helpless animal in the poster, but then fell back into his chair and placed his head in his hands.