Chapter 18:


Grime in the Gears: Create, Read, Update, Delete

It was early in the morning. Mr. Taito hadn't yet arrived. Sakerse walked down the hall, looking at the daruma dolls as she passed. She stopped at the last one with its one blank eye. She picked it up and looked at it.

She set it back down with the others. Each was a different animal or other creature. Each one meant something: an acquisition. She tried to place each one with a business she remembered Araiguma acquiring. There was a seahorse and a monkey and what looked like a wizard. She picked up a few and turned them around in her hand.

When placing back one that looked like a rabbit, she saw that one of the dolls was facing backward. She picked it up. It was some kind of large cat. Maybe a tiger. However, only one of its eyes was filled in.

She held it and looked at it for a minute. It didn't have anything written on it, other than the crane eyes and turtle moustache and Mr. Taito's paint job. She looked at the bottom. It was blank.

She slipped the doll into one of the cargo pockets of her pants.

"Quite a series of accomplishments," said a voice behind her. She started before turning. It was that Eremiya guy. 

Her brief expression of surprise melted, returning to her stoic look. She nodded. "Quite."

Eremiya walked off, shaking his head. Sakerse waited until he was gone before she started breathing again. She walked away from the line of daruma dolls. By the time she made it to the coffee lounge she had regained her composure. 

She had heard tales of Araiguma employees who looked too deeply into the abyss and found the abyss staring right back at them. The company announced new hires every week at the Weekly World Meeting, but nobody ever talked about the seats they were filling and who filled those seats before them.

Nobody asked any questions about where Yoshi or Doug went. And when a new face took their spot, it was a smile and a handshake. Or just a handshake, in Sakerse's case. That's all they meant. When they were gone, whether they got too nosey or whether due to some strategic restructuring, they might as well not have ever existed.

Sakerse kept her head down and her nose clean. Well, usually. She felt the doll against her leg. Almost everything in her was telling her to put it back. She didn't know why she even took it in the first place. But that still, small voice prevailed. In her pocket it stayed.

She poured herself a coffee from the obviously expensive coffee maker. All the buttons were in Italian, but she only needed to know one word to get her daily fix. Americano. She pushed the button and let the cup fill up. She took a sip of it once it was done and still just a tad too hot to drink in anything more than a sip.

The coffee alone was almost worth all the dystopian bull-and-serpent she had to put up with to work here. Almost. She finished her coffee, appreciating the dark bitter flavor as she drained the cup. She crunched the cup and tossed it into the recycler, where it disappeared with a flash.

"How's work going?" One relative would ask.

"Fine," she'd say.

She didn't want to be the next Yoshi or Doug. She looked at her schedule for the day. Mr. Taito didn't have any pressing work, so she could do whatever she wanted for the next few hours, provided it was beneficial to the company, and that if Mr. Taito wanted to make an unscheduled departure to the outside, she'd be ready to go before his patent leather shoes hit the sidewalk.

She decided to hit the company gym. It was mostly empty, except for one of the other bodyguards. He was a former juicer, and it showed. She grabbed a few free weights and ignored his elaborate grunts as he thrashed his quads, or whatever other muscle group it was that needed work. To be honest, he looked like a single muscle, so any exercise would have done the job.

As she lifted her weights, her subdermals glowed. She had worried shortly after she had gotten them that she'd come to depend on them too much. One well timed malfunction and she'd be as weak as a thumb puppet. But then she did what anybody should do when they're worried: get more information. The failure rate on her mods, if well cared for, was practically nothing. And she took care of them.

So, while Gluteus Maximus over there was able to deadlift his entire myostatin-deficient family, she could do comparably to her own body mass, but without all the grunting and sweating and swearing. Still, she glowed when she did it, so everybody knew. 

But she didn't care.

When she was done and back in her uniform, she felt the lump in her pocket, and that gave her a lump in her throat. She also saw that she had a message notification floating in the corner of her eye. She opened it. It was a simple message from an unknown number. All it said was "FOLLOW THE ACQUISITIONS. -JC" She trashed it as quickly as she had read it.

She thought about putting the statue back. She didn't even have a plan for getting it out of the building. Her palms began to sweat. She made her way back to Mr. Taito's floor. 

She stepped up to the display of dolls. She looked around to make sure nobody was watching. With a deep breath, she pulled the doll out of her pocket and took one last look at it before placing it back among the others, making sure to face it against the wall.

"Ah, I see you have found my longest unfulfilled wish," said a voice behind her. She turned. It was Mr. Taito.

He stepped up next to her and picked up the doll. "This was from well before your time," he said. He rotated the doll in his hands while he spoke. "A pity too. By the time we were ready to make an offer, there was nobody left at the business to make an offer to." He placed the doll back on the shelf, rotating it so it faced backwards. He looked at Sakerse. "I valuable lesson, if you ask me," he said. Then he tapped his nose before stepping off toward his office.

Once again, Sakerse held her breath until she was alone. She took one last look at the dolls before going down to the range for the rest of the day and practicing her shooting. Quitting time couldn't come fast enough.

Her mind was abuzz as she waited in line to go through the exit scanner. Had Mr. Taito seen what she was doing? Did the nose tap mean anything more than just Mr. Taito being Mr. Taito? She looked ahead at the scanner, glad she had decided to put the doll back. That could have led to some very uncomfortable questions. When it was her turn, she stepped through.

The alarm buzzed.

"Please step aside," said the door guard, motioning her to a glass cubicle. Sakerse kept her neutral face, but she felt her fingernails digging into her palms. She tried to steady her breathing before stepping over to the glass cubicle. The guard nodded at her. "Trying to take something home?" he said.

Sakerse opened her mouth to say something, but the guard started laughing. "You forgot to return the gun," he said, pointing to the gun still sitting in her holster.

She nodded. She pulled the gun out, checked the safety, and handed it to the guard grip first. He took it, examined it himself before putting it into a bin and sending it on its way. "Accidents happen," he said to her. "Right?"

"Right," she nodded. 

"But they don't happen twice."

"Right," she said.

"You're free to go."

She nodded once more before filing her way out through the building, out through that strange door, and out onto the sidewalk. She took one last look back at the entry before merging with the crowd and making her way home.

FOLLOW THE ACQUISITIONS was all she could think. At home, she opened a browser and found a list of Araiguma's recent acquisitions. It was on Araiguma's site. It showed page after page of company logos, and each logo or company name had something about it that reminded her of the daruma dolls outside Mr. Taito's office.

Then she started doing research. She worked late into the night. She found articles, more than she could reasonably read. She autosummarized them to get the gist. When she was done, she felt nauseated.

Each one of Araiguma's acquisitions had been preceded by some terrible accident. A designer-drug overdose here, a sunk yacht there. One company lost one of its founders during a humanitarian mission to the jungle in some distant place where jungles still were. With each article, there came a resounding chorus of: "police are still investigating."

She did some more searching, looking for the tiger company. After narrowing it down, she determined it was most likely Baghbot, whose mascot was a tiger with robotic features. The company was completely lost when a fire broke out, everybody trapped inside. Though she didn't want to, she watched the news feed with that all-too-cheery Magda Mitra narrating as rescue workers pulled out body bag after body bag.

One of the bags caught her attention. The man wheeling it out wore a white lab coat, like a doctor, but it had very distinct blue stains on it. He struck Sakerse as familiar, but she couldn't remember where she'd seen his face before. She took a snap of his face and saved it to her internal storage. She'd have her facemap look for it tomorrow.

Before retiring to bed, she did one last search. GEOMYS. She read the article about one of the owners being poisoned in his own home. The police were still investigating. Sakerse wondered if they'd ever stop.

She was barely able to sleep at all the entire night, continually having dreams of Mr. Taito holding her in the palm his hand, and lowering a black-tipped paint brush toward her eye. 

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