Science Fiction & Fantasy





All I wanted to do, at the end of the day, was make sure Larry had a nice birthday.

I know, I know: Nobody likes Larry. But honestly? I’ve always felt like the fellas down in Dissident Thought Suppression get kind of a bad rap, you know what I mean? Okay, so Larry isn’t the smiliest face around the water cooler, but geez Louise—if you spent all your time scissoring open other folks’ mail in search of words or phrases indicative of anti-Party thought patterns, would you be Little Miss Sally Gumdrops?

My thinking was: Janet, if you’re the Office Coordinator for Positive Emotional Orientation for Sector Nineteen, then by gosh you’re the Office Coordinator for Positive Emotional Orientation for everybody in Sector Nineteen. Not just the Surveillance Techs, not just the Propaganda Dissemination team, not just those zany Sharpie-wielding goofballs down in Redactions . . . but everybody. No one else was going to do something special for Larry’s birthday, so it was up to me!

And yes, before you ask, of course I checked in first with Brett, our beloved and esteemed Sector Foreman and First Officer. (Geez! I’m ditzy, but I’m not that ditzy!) Although I managed to step right in the you-know-what when I did it. I just popped right into Brett’s office after lunch on Thursday, calling out “knock knock,” as breezy as you please . . . and it turns out Brett was right in the middle of conducting an Unscheduled Performance Review with Samir. Who, just between you and me and the fax machine, was not handling it in a professional manner. Brett is reading out the judgment of the Sector Committee, and Samir is, no kidding, down on his knees weeping and shaking and begging for another chance, and when Brett said that he had already certified the results and sent them up to The District, Samir basically started screeching and tearing big chunks of hair out of his head. I think he peed his pants. (Sorry! TMI! I know!)

Anyhoo. Samir finally crawled out, still sort of trembling, and when the sound of his desperate weeping had finished echoing down the corridor, I said, “Sorry, Big B! Just want to get the all-clear from you on throwing a petite soiree for Larry in the break room. Lunch time tomorrow. Sound good?”

And Brett—well, you know how he sort of stares at you for a long time before he answers? So he did that, and then he wrote something down, and then he goes, “Yes, Janet. That would be fine, Janet.”

And I go, “Great!”

And he goes, “One thing, though, Janet.”

And I go, “Sure, boss!”

And—you know how he talks super slow sometimes, and his words are full of that kind of sinister intonation, where it’s like, whoa, Brett, take it easy? Well, so, he did that, and then he said, “If, Janet, at this casual social event you are arranging, any person present should say or imply anything about the quality of my leadership, or that of our wise superiors at the District Level, or at the Level of Absolute Council, I hope that I will hear of it from you directly, Janet.”

And I go, “Roger that, big chief!”

And he goes, “And if you keep something for me, Janet, then I will know.” (And he took one of his big long pauses, staring directly into my eyes. Classic Brett!) I will know.

And then he stared at me, neither blinking nor moving his head, for—geez, I don’t know? Like forty-five seconds. Finally I just backed out of the room. Oh, Brett! Talk about a boss from heck, huh? (I am joking. That was a joke. Brett is an extraordinary Sector Foreman and First Officer. He is only to be admired and esteemed.)

Anyhoo. That night I spent an hour or more in my personal living quarters baking the cutest cake for Larry’s party. I even frosted it with the logo of the Dissident Thought Suppression team—and if you think it’s easy to use frosting to draw a person getting knifed in the forehead, you’ve got another think coming! I went to the Supply Store for streamers and stuff, and I even bought Larry a present—it’s a mug that says “You don’t have to be fanatically devoted to the enforcement of the State’s ideological program to work here . . . but it helps!” LOL, right?

So then it’s the next day, it’s almost lunch time, and I realize I totally spaced on candles! Oh, Janet! As I’ve pronounced repeatedly at Morning Confession of Flaws, I’d forget my own darn head if it wasn’t attached. So down I go to the storage closet on Basement Six, where the custodian Wayne used to keep all kinds of spare junk like that, until Wayne was found to be harboring an emotional connection with a Subversive Person (his son? I think it was his son) and sent to a Prison Island for reeducation.

(Good ol’ Wayne! What a sweetie. I wonder how he’s doing? Probably pretty bad.)

So anyhoo. There I was in the shed, rummaging around for birthday candles, when I hear these voices from the hallway outside the storage closet:

“I tire of this talking, all of this endless talking,” said the first voice. “It is time for us to rise up! To rise like the ocean! For the sun to rise on a new dawn . . . of action!”

“Oh there shall be action,” said the second voice. “We shall rise like tigers, and strike like vipers, until the world is burned down and made new.”

I’m inside the closet thinking: Well, that’s weird! I tiptoed over to the door of the shed and kind of peeked out, and who is it talking in all those similes but Marc and Wendy, from the Relationship Auditing Division! I don’t know them super-well, but we all went for beers that one time when it was Justin’s last day because Justin had gotten suddenly very ill and he kept saying he had been poisoned and we were all like, “Oh, Justin.”

“It shall be a glorious dawn, when our overlords are destroyed,” said Marc.

“Starting with Brett!” said Wendy. “Brett the tyrant!”

My heart was thumping in my chest. Could they mean our Brett? Beloved and esteemed Sector Foreman and First Officer Brett? They probably did. There weren’t any other Bretts in the office. There used to be a Brent, but that’s probably not who they meant.

I glanced at my watch and gasped: It was noon! I had to get back for Larry’s party. I stepped out of the closet, and boy was it awkward. I mean, what are you supposed to say when you’ve pretty much definitely discovered two of your sort-of work friends plotting a counter-revolutionary coup?

“Oh, hey guys!” I said. Then I just sort of sidled on past them, and rang the elevator button. “Come on. It’s party time!”

• • • •

Larry’s birthday party ended up being kind of a dud, to be totally honest with you.

Not too many people came, and Larry just grunted when he saw the cake. And he’d just finished blowing out his candles when all the Mandatory Screens came on, at top volume. Hostilities had been renewed against the terrorists in the Global South, and the department of Political Feeling was instilling furious vigilance by showing news clips of terrorists bayoneting newborn babies.

Which—and I’m totally not complaining, obviously—but it kind of kills the mood for a party, you know what I’m saying?


• • • •

Okay, so full confession: I ate the rest of the cake myself. It was the sort of thing that seems like a good idea at the time, but I spent the rest of the day going in and out of a light doze, waking up when the screens came back on, shaking my fist and screaming at the terrorists for a few minutes, and then dozing back off.

Long story short, I forgot all about that funny encounter by the supply closet, until suddenly everybody else has left for the day, I’m packing up my desk, and there’s Marc and Wendy standing right at my work station!

“So hey,” said Marc, leaning across my desk with this big funny smile on his face. “Don’t know exactly what you heard before. But whatever it was: we were just kidding about that.”

“Oh,” I said. “Great.”

What a relief! They were just kidding. I should have guessed!

“Unless we weren’t,” added Wendy. She was right next to Marc. She sat down on my desk, leaning in real close. They were both staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“No,” said Marc. “We were kidding. It was a joke.”

“Unless it wasn’t,” added Wendy.

“Right,” said Marc. “Unless it wasn’t.”

“But if we were,” said Wendy, “and we thought you were going to denounce us, then that would mean we would have to denounce you before you could do that.”

“Preemptive denunciation,” said Marc. “Isn’t that funny?”

“Yes,” I said. “Totally.” Although honestly, I didn’t really get it.

“Which would be so sad.” Wendy made a real big sad face, like a clown or a cat from a calendar. “Are we clear?”

I looked at them. They looked at me. “No,” I said.

“Okay, then,” said Marc. “Have a great weekend!”

• • • •

The weekend got a little kooky. It was that weekend, maybe you remember, when root vegetables were declared to be subversive, and everybody went crazy finding all the root vegetables in their house and taking them out into the street and burning them in giant piles, and then storming any grocery stores that were known to sell root vegetables, and burning the stores down and dragging the proprietors of the stores out to the street to be thrown onto the fire.

And somewhere in there, I still had Pilates and book club! The point is, the weekend just flew by.

• • • •

So I go in on Monday and I’ve barely had time to even think about that whole crazy thing with Marc and Wendy, and now I’m pulling into the parking garage and wondering whether I should have denounced them, and if they were going to denounce me before I could. Not to mention the fact that that obnoxious jerk Gerald had parked in my parking spot again, and I knew he was going to say he forgot, but I know he’s not forgetting. I know he’s doing it on purpose.

Geez Louise: Maybe I oughta denounce that guy, huh? For being a big jerk!

When I got to our floor, I could tell right away that something was going on. Three Gray Suits were making their way from desk to desk, telling everybody to report immediately to the conference room for a surprise meeting! It had all the markings of an Emergency Discipline Council, and my first thought was that whoever had been taking Elaine’s yogurt from the mini-fridge was about to get some well-deserved comeuppance.

But of course snack-theft does not rise to the level of Gray Suits, does it? This had to be about Marc and Wendy! Either they were about to come in for Discipline . . . or I was.

I made my way slowly to the conference room, walking very unsteadily even though I was wearing my most sensible pumps. I would know right away, as soon as I got in there—as soon as I saw the look on beloved and esteemed Sector Foreman and First Officer Brett’s face.

But he wasn’t there. Brett was nowhere to be seen.

And here’s the craziest part: When everyone was gathered around the table, one of the Gray Suits cleared his throat noisily and goes, “Brett Anderson never existed. There was never a Brett Anderson. Repeat that please.”

We did, of course. What are we going to do—not repeat a direct Brain Housekeeping command from a Gray Suit standing right in front of us?

“Brett Anderson never existed,” we all intoned. “There was never a Brett Anderson.”

This was frikkin’ wild! Beloved Supervisor Brett had been denounced. He was either dead or on the way to a Prison Island. Soon enough, the guys from Redaction slipped out of the meeting to go start removing all references to Brett Anderson from the office documents. (I, myself, stopped knowing who he was, and do not now know anyone by that name, so please don’t ask.)

I snuck a quick secret peek at Marc and Wendy, but they didn’t even look at me—they were too busy being super excited. They had done it. Their coup had worked! They were going to take over the office. Soon they would start striking like tigers, or biting like frogs, or whatever it is that came next in their scheme.

“The Sector Foreman and First Officer of this Sector,” said the Gray Suit, “The only one who has ever been or will . . .” And he paused, and I totally saw both Marc and Wendy step forward, and I thought, uh-oh! Awkward! “The only Foreman and First Officer of this Sector . . . is Janet Farley.”

Oh. Oh boy.

The room was silent . . . until my friend Elaine started clapping, bless her heart, and then someone else did, and suddenly the room was full of clapping, and people saying, “Janet is our beloved Sector Foreman and First Officer. Janet Farley has always been our beloved Sector Foreman!”

You can only imagine how I felt. What an incredible honor! What an enormous amount of responsibility that has to be discharged in exactly the right way to avoid being denounced or murdered! What a—what a—what an absolute thrill!


When the party was over, I went down to Parking Level 6, and back to that little shed, where no one ever goes. And—you want to hear just the zaniest thing? I started weeping for some reason, and then I sat there weeping, all alone, for a long long time.

Ben H. Winters

Ben Winters. Photo credit Nicola Goode. A middle-aged white man with glasses, dark brown hair, and a kind of classically nerdy look about him, in a blue-and-green patterned dress shirt, smiling and gazing awkwardly toward the camera.

Ben H. Winters’ most recent novel is The Quiet Boy (Mulholland/Little, Brown). He is the author of many previous works of fiction, including Golden State, the New York Times bestselling Underground Airlines, The Last Policeman and its two sequels, the horror novel Bedbugs, and several works for young readers. His first novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, was also a New York Times bestseller. Ben has won the Edgar Award for mystery writing, the Philip K. Dick award in science fiction, the Sidewise Award for alternate history, and France’s Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. He writes frequently for New York Times Book Review. In TV, he was a producer on the FX show Legion and the upcoming Apple+ show Manhunt, and he is presently working as creator and executive producer of The Never Game, upcoming on CBS. He lives in LA with his family.