Four times a year, from noon to 1:00 PM, Warren Kepler, Rachel Young, and David Clark set aside their mutual hatred of each other and allow themselves a rare few minutes to sit in exhausted, traumatized companionable silence around a wobbly plastic table in the back of the non-descript little pub about a twenty-minute walk from the Goddard Futuristics campus. They each have three drinks. They rarely speak to each other. They never talk about it. When they're all down to the last few sips of their third drinks, they make a single toast.
"To surviving another SLT meeting."
Same time again next quarter.
"All right," says Cutter, clapping his hands. "Why don't we all go around the table and share what we think our areas of personal success were this year?"
"Alternate suggestion," Pryce says, fingers still flying over the keys of her laptop. "I kill you and put us all out of your misery."
"aww, Miranda," Cutter pouts. "We're all friends here."
"I must have missed that memo," Clark says primly from behind a stack of binders that he's ignoring in favour of the entire coffee carafe that he's brought over from the side table. Kepler gives it ten minutes before he forgoes the cup entirely.
"No, David, we only send memos to people who are literate enough to read them," Young says, sweetly. She's spending far too much time with cutter.
"Anyway," Cutter says loudly, clearing his throat pointedly. "As I was saying. Personal successes. Warren, why don't you start?"
Kepler hates everyone in this room more than he has ever hated anyone in his entire life. It's almost liberating.
"I think," he says, leaning back in his chair, "that I've had a lot of success reinforcing some channels of communication within Russia which had been left... too long unattended."
Cutter tsks. "That's wonderful to hear, Warren, but I was hoping we could all share something a bit more... personal. Which of your empowerment goals have you been working on lately?"
"He went to therapy," Young says, fast, like she can't restrain herself anymore. Kepler thinks watching her die slowly and painfully would be deeply empowering.
The HR director-of-the-month makes a pained noise. Kepler can already tell this one isn't going to last long. They never do. He thinks his name is Smyth. Maybe.
"Ms. Young," Probably-Smyth says, frantically. "Major Kepler's engagement with the mental health supports available through the company is strictly confidential. He deserves to feel safe and respected."
Clark chokes on his coffee. Young laughs openly. The director of Accounting shakes her head slowly. She's lasted almost nine months. Kepler's grudgingly impressed.
"It was mandatory," Kepler says, evenly. "Standard practice after a mission that involves a Goddard employee being directly responsible for the deaths of over 200 humans, notwithstanding the presence of airborne toxins or biological contaminants. Exceptions may also be made in the case of deliberate implementation of biological weaponry for testing purposes if the employee has been involved in a similar circumstance in the previous five years." Smyth nods along resignedly.
"What did you do?" Clark asks, bemused.
"There was a fire," Kepler says, blandly.
"Let's move on to business updates," Pryce says. "Everyone can handle their performance reviews on their own time."
"Well," says Cutter. "I learned Swedish this year. In case anyone was wondering. I feel very empowered."
Pryce visibly grinds her teeth. "I'll go first. AI development has been moving along very quickly, particularly now that the shared learning modules have gone live. Prep time from activation to deployment for a Senses 200 unit has dropped from seven months to three months."
"Impressive," Cutter says.
"And the rest of R and D?"
She sighs. "Haven't blown themselves up yet. Pharmaceuticals have completed trials for the latest painkiller, which they're marketing as non-addictive, so everyone remember to toe the company line on that one. I'm sure Mr. Clark will have more about the rollout of that in his report. The VX3 engines have proven very successful, though we won't be releasing them to the market for another five years minimum."
"Wonderful," Cutter says. "Now David, why don't you go next?"
Clark pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, staring down at his binders. "Well. As Dr. Pryce explained Dictropolin will be released to consumers by December. We're in talks with all of the major insurance providers in the States, and as you know, Sir, our reps have been detailing throughout North America for the past month. We've won the contract with the Chinese military for mid-range ordinance (I have a list of the specifics, it's on the SharePoint), so our production will be ramping up. We've also just informed our current vehicle leasing and transportation partner that we will not be renewing our contract given that our goal is to have the entire company transitioned to the self-driving vehicles by March of 2011."
Kepler takes a sip of his coffee and wishes that the potential dangers of these meetings didn't prohibit something stronger. Young is playing some sort of game on her tablet. Pryce is still typing. Cutter's smile hasn't shifted for the last 45 seconds and he's starting to look like a very realistic animatronic doll. The Accounting director is taking furious notes, a crease forming between her eyebrows, and Smyth is staring across the room out the window and clicking the cap on his pen.
Clark goes on for another five minutes. He almost shows them a PowerPoint, but Pryce gives him a Look and he demurs.
"Well," Cutter says, when he's done. "That was very educational David, thank you."
Clark smiles and returns to his coffee.
"Warren, why don't you go next?" Cutter says.
Kepler sighs internally. "Of course, Sir. I've already mentioned our work in Russia. We've also strengthened our relationship with North Korea, specifically in regards to AI development," --he nods to Pryce and then, grudgingly, to Clark-- "and as a result have been able to fill in a large amount of missing information on the country's sociopolitical and economic background and climate. My agents within Google and Microsoft have been able to provide me with forecasted product launches over the next ten years."
Accounting moans softly, dropping her face into her hands. Smyth pats her gently on the shoulder. "That's called corporate espionage, kids," she says through her fingers, fatalistically cheerful.
Everyone ignores her. "Well!" Cutter says, clapping his hands together. "That's quite the list, Warren! Russia, North Korea, Google and Microsoft! Can you top that, Rachel?"
Young leans back in her chair and starts ticking things off on her fingers. "Well Sir, Special Projects officially launched the first Wolf 359 revitalization mission. Launched them into space, for those of you who haven't been reading your email. We're effectively managing our resources by moving the Decima research out there as well, with the understanding that a certain percentage of the crew are present as experimental subjects. If this is successful we're hoping to work with R and D to move more of our high-risk research into outposts off-planet in order to reduce loss of human capital."
Pryce actually glances up briefly before she goes back to typing.
"Anyway," Young says, smirking smugly at Kepler. "Hopefully we'll be strengthening our relationship with some extra-terrestrials in the near future. Oh, also, SP won the company softball tournament. Results are official as of 8:30 this morning."
Kepler grinds his teeth. "I'm sure we'll all be holding our breath in anticipation of *that* happening," he says, barely able to keep himself sounding sincere.
"I know I am," Cutter says, something unsettlingly eager flickering in his eyes. "How have mission logs sounded so far, Rachel? Do you think you made good choices for the crew?"
Young leans forward, and Kepler recognizes the shift from hunter to hunted. He's experienced it plenty of times himself when Cutter asks questions in that particular tone of voice.
"So far Captain Lovelace has proven an excellent commander," Young says. "Given the crew is still stuck in the transport shuttle, they are already a remarkably cohesive unit. We may see some slight friction between Officer Lambert and the rest of the crew, but that was to be expected."
"Hmm," Cutter says, and nothing else. Everyone sits in silence for a few very uncomfortable moments.
Finally, Pryce says "Marcus, why don't you give us your report? Have you finally figured out what the kids think is hip these days?"
The meeting drags on for another two hours. There's a team-building game. Young almost pushes Smyth out a window. Clark somehow manages to engage Pryce in a conversation interesting enough that they're late coming back from the fifteen-minute break. Kepler makes the painfully depressing discovery that he can quote, from memory, the first three pages of the 2010-14 business plan.
Kepler has the start of a migraine by the first hour, and by the two-and-a-half hour mark he's breathing carefully through his mouth and closing his eyes whenever Cutter isn't looking at him. Young sends an invitation for online chess to his tablet and he accepts just so he has something else to focus on.
Much to Pryce's consternation, Cutter somehow manages to drag the meeting back around to personal growth and development. From between gritted teeth Kepler tells everyone that he's gotten better at encouraging his staff to engage in self-care, and that he's attended a half-day seminar on the importance of active and open listening. It's just as much bullshit as Young announcing that she's gotten better at asking for help and delegating, or Accounting's claims of learning to not stress too much about things out of her control (i.e. the entire Goddard Futuristics annual budget). In all fairness, Kepler really had attended the fucking seminar.
Finally, finally at 11:30, Cutter flicks his tablet off and tips his mug back to swallow the last dregs of his chai. "Well, team," he says, beaming around the table. "Good work, keep it up, keep striving to be the best you can be, keep dedicating yourselves to moving Goddard Futuristics forward into the future, stop asking the AIs in the SI department to help you with insider trading. Remember performance reviews are coming up, I expect a copy of your self-evaluations by November 1. I'm going to be out of the country, so anyone booked for a 1:1 after November 15 will be seeing Dr. Pryce. And everyone remember to schedule your 1:1s with Mr. Larsson. Of course, as we know, the job of a CEO is very busy, so I encourage you all to keep your conversations brief and very high level. Don't want our fearless leader distracted by day-to-day operations, do we?!"
Pryce pushes her chair back, and everyone else takes this as their cue to escape. Smyth clears his throat over the rustle of papers and jackets. "Mr. Cutter," he says. "I heard that it's a bit of a tradition for everyone to go for lunch after these meetings, and I was just wondering if you and Dr. Pryce would like to join us?"
Kepler's entire bloodstream flash freezes. He catches Young's eyes and mouths "WHAT?!" but she looks just as horrified as he does. Clark is staring at Smyth like he's watching a car crash. Accounting has already left the room. Kepler really needs to figure out what her name is.
"What a fabulous idea!" Cutter says. Pryce shoots him a look of such pure disdain that Kepler wants to take a step back to get out of the blast radius. "What a fun way to wind down! I can't believe I've managed to miss this tradition!" Cutter makes deliberate eye contact with all three of them, Rachel, Clark, and Finally Kepler. Kepler was kind of hoping he'd live to see 40, but he supposes he's had a good run, all things considered.
"Wonderful," Smyth says. "If it makes you feel better, Sir, I didn't know about until yesterday. I heard a few of the folks in marketing chatting about the quarterly lunch date, so I did some asking around."
Smyth gives Rachel a little victorious smirk, which at least reassures Kepler that they aren't going to get a heartfelt lecture about how they'd really hurt Smyth's feelings by not inviting him.
"Don't worry, I'm sure our colleagues will be happy to share this experience with us," cutter says.
"ecstatic," Clark says, weakly, once it becomes clear Young and Kepler aren't going to say anything.
They all troop out of the conference room in a painfully awkward little cluster, and Kepler hangs back until he can speak to Young with less chance of being overheard. "I'm going to shoot him," he says, nodding toward Smyth.
"no," Young says.
she pats his shoulder condescendingly. "Settle down, Warren, I'm not saying you can't shoot him. I'm just saying you can't shoot him here. Try somewhere quieter. Like the parking garage of his apartment complex. Next Thursday. At 9:30 PM. I wanted to do it myself but I'm going to be in New York."
"And where the hell in your job description does it say human resource management?"
"I'm Cutter's favourite. It comes with perks. Don't worry, he'll trust you with the fun things one day."
Kepler breathes deeply. "Listen, I... unfortunately won't be joining you for lunch today. I've got a number of... urgent. situations. which I need to address sooner rather than later--"
She shakes her head sadly. "I always knew you were a coward, but this is a new low even for you. It's just lunch, Warren."
He counts to ten in his head. "One day, I'm going to kill you. And I'm going. to enjoy it."
She laughs. "Of course you are, Warren. Come to lunch and you might even live long enough to try."