13 March, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kate has just finished picking up the engineers’ time sheets in the room they call the “bullpen” when the faintness strikes her.
The bullpen is a big room at the far north end of the first floor with a beautiful view of the park and fountain which all of the engineers apparently completely ignore, even to the extent of putting posters up on the room’s wraparound windows. But they’re all fun guys! Kate smiles at the thought, remembering the way that that the blond one, Ulrich, and the middle-eastern-looking one, Saed, were joking with each other about the time sheets, obviously clowning for her benefit. Admittedly this is only the end of her first month, but that’s enough time to form pretty good impressions of people. It has become quite obvious that everyone here is simply happier than people were in her previous job. Well, she wasn’t very thrilled when Ulrich called her “ma’am”, though. What is she, three years older than those guys, at the most? And that makes her a “ma’am”?
She has just made the turn at the end of the hall that leads out from the bullpen and in a few more steps the short bit of hallway that she’s in now will open out into the larger hall that leads to the cafeteria entrance or into the building’s big, beautiful atrium. From there she will take the elevator if it’s handy, or more likely run up the stairs to the second floor—the top floor—and Haniel’s office, where she will turn in the sheets right on time at ten o’clock. Punctuality is something Kate is proud of.
The explosion strikes her when she is still in the short corridor, with the big atrium-and-cafeteria hall still five or six steps ahead. It’s an explosion of light, as though hundreds of flash bulbs had gone off simultaneously inside of everything: the elegant wainscoting and paint of the walls, the firm, no-nonsense carpeting of the floor, the sconce lights, even herself.
Her mind tries to convince itself that the light is coming from behind things. But that is not true. It is definitely inside of them, touching their insides at every point. But that’s not quite right either, because it’s also outside of everything. She somehow knows without any possibility of doubt that this light is less substantial than the air—infinitely so—but at the same time more solid than rock or steel. Infinitely so. And it has always, always been there.
The explosion is not the light arriving, the explosion is her being able to see it. Kate closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and slowly opens them again.
And now it’s worse.
Now, in addition to the impossible light, there are multiple copies of everything! She stares, wide-eyed, at five copies of the hallway, all set apart from each other by a small distance. Or possibly by something other than distance.
Kate staggers, losing her balance and hitting the hallway wall with her left shoulder, dropping the time sheets that scatter onto the carpet. She catches herself with both hands on the wall, for a moment seeing inside of it. Inside of everything, multiplied by five.
For the space of a dozen hammering heartbeats she stands there, with her hands braced against the wall as though the world might suddenly rotate the wrong way and throw her around the wood-paneled hallway like a pea in a box. Slowly, the images of her hands approach each other, meet, and become one.
“Hey, ah, Kate?” The voice of one of the engineers, in the hall behind her. “Is everything okay?”
This is not what she needs! Only one month here—what will people think?
Still breathing in deep gulps, she turns and sees Jon Dunham. He’s a small guy, an inch shorter than she is, but fit-looking and more serious than most of them. Right now he’s looking very serious indeed. “Is everything okay?” he repeats. He hands her the time sheets, neatly stacked.
Light extending forever through a higher order of infinity. Light harder than steel, more rarefied than vacuum. Light, and its dark partner: Time—
“Yes!” Kate replies with a gasp, blinking like an owl. She can just imagine how this will look if it gets back to Haniel. Just got her second paycheck, and already malingering, or bringing some exotic disease into the company. The look on the small engineer’s face warms her heart, though. He is really concerned. “Yes, thanks, I guess it’s just, it’s probably just—”
The shards of awareness ride the wavefronts of luminance, joyous and fierce.
Kate stops talking and blinks.
“I, ah, don’t mean to pry, not at all,” the engineer says, “but if you need any help with—food or anything—”
“Oh, no, I’m fine! I had a job before this!” Kate is shocked to her senses. The little engineer is thinking that she might be faint because she hasn’t eaten in a week or something! So many people are having such trouble making ends meet now that if you’re out of work for a while—but not long enough to get a benefits card—you might just go hungry.
“No, I’m just—I don’t know. I just felt a little faint for a second, but I’m fine now, thanks.” Giving him what she hopes is a reassuring smile, Kate turns hurriedly and continues on her way.
Fabulous. The absolute last thing she needs just beginning her second month at work is to be a dizzy blond, literally, in front of one of the engineers that she works with. And it’s just an added bonus to know that not only does one of the young men think she’s old enough to be called “ma’am”, but another one of them now thinks that she’s poor enough that she might actually be staggering around the hallways faint with hunger. Kate’s lips compress with anger. Is that how she seems to people? A twenty-something hobo, somewhere between a waif and a bag-lady, who just wandered in to Triple-AI off the street starving to death? Oh yes, just the image she wants to project!
But OK, so—what did happen to her? As a matter of fact, Kate thinks, she has indeed not actually been eating particularly well lately. But certainly not poorly enough to stagger in a hallway!
Thinking this, she reaches the end of the first floor’s long north-south hall and stops, looking up at the building’s fantastic atrium. Kate has seen some decent office buildings in Ann Arbor and even a couple in Kalamazoo, but she has never seen one with anything like this in it. The great room stretches out more than fifty feet in front of her and a full eighty feet from front to back. Its glass ceiling is as high as the building’s two stories: more than twenty feet. Fully half the area of the room is devoted to five great planters, each large enough to hold its own tall tree and the central planter holding three of them. The trees are apparently some kind of tropical species with perfect little oval leaves and silver bark. Some of the leaves have yellowed and fallen over the winter, but now that the days are getting longer occasional buds have formed on the slender branches and look like they are starting to open. Beneath the seven trees that reach nearly to the glass ceiling the planters are filled with the most exotic and beautiful collection of leafy and flowering plants, ferns, and mosses that Kate has ever seen. The planters rise three feet above floor level, and their tiled sides have wide wooden benches attached where people often sit to eat their lunches, to take phone calls, or just to do some work away from their desks.
Just as she enters the great room, the sun is emerging from gaps in what was earlier a dark layer of cloud cover. The surprising light makes the highest tiers of leaves glow brilliant green, contrasting with the layers beneath that are still in shadow.
Kate stops her hurried progress and cranes her neck to stare.
I don’t have to worry.
The thought is so distinct it’s as though someone has spoken. But Kate knows that it is definitely her own. It’s the same thought-voice she has always had, only louder. She stands and blinks at the glowing high leaves, and beyond them, through the faceted glass panels of the ceiling, the drifting heavy clouds.
I never had to worry.
Never had to worry about not being able to pay the rent? About working for a dying landscape architecture firm one of whose partners was getting drunk every night and coming on to me? Before that, she didn’t have to worry about trying to find a job with a college degree that nobody cared about, in an economy that’s telling new graduates it doesn’t need them? And even now, not worry about the fact that she just had some kind of seizure in the hallway not two minutes ago?
She smiles. No, somehow she knows that this thought that has occurred to her almost literally out of the blue is perfectly correct. Life never needed to be about worrying, and it still doesn’t. She has always found the jobs, hasn’t she? In spite of what people said the odds were? Hasn’t she always gotten what she really needed? Looking at the indoor treetops, for the first time in her life Kate feels that, yes, she always has and always will get what she needs. It’s just that—she smiles with the realization—certainty in advance isn’t one of her needs!
She feels with perfect certainty that this job, in this company, will be the best she’s ever had. And she feels that, whatever just now happened to her in the hallway—somehow even that will work out for the best as well!
Taking a deep breath of the atrium’s early spring-green air, Kate Spence continues walking toward the stairs, carrying the time sheets to their destination.