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This is how you lose an office feud

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Red knows Blue.

She knows her real name, too, but with the office she works in, she’d never dare to even think it. Her boss—The Commandant, as they call her outside her hearing range—dislikes them all to even consider Garden Enterprises, except when considering how to sabotage their attempts at monopoly, their attempts of sabotaging the Agency right back. But Red sometimes does consider Blue. It seems somehow that she and Blue are always working on competing projects. Sometimes she comes out on top, and sometimes Blue does. Sometimes they both succeed, and that can chafe even more than outright failure.

Blue is the thorn in Red’s shoe, the grain of dirt in her eye, the pollen in her nostril. Blue is the reason Red will someday get fired, or that the Agency will utterly collapse. Blue…

Blue has been writing to Red for the past six months. Red has been writing back.


 

They don’t do anything as asinine as emailing each other. Company emails can be read by the employer; it’s in their employment contracts, and both Red and Blue did read their contracts before signing on. They’re detail-oriented.

(Red can almost not imagine a world where she would not work for the Agency. But there was a time she did imagine it.)

So certainly they don’t email each other. They don’t send paper letters either. Sending letters to the workplace would be worse than emails, and sending letters to a home address still isn’t entirely safe. Their home addresses are known by their employers, and they both know—oh, they damn well know—about industry spies, the lengths to which they’re willing to go. They’re not trying to turn each other, to recruit each other, but if the Commandant knew Red corresponded with someone from the Garden, she’d probably be fired or at least have slim chance of receiving a raise, bonus or promotion for the foreseeable future. And the Garden would probably make Blue go through one of those training courses they have, the weird ones where instead of anger management or appropriate interactions they talk to employees about company loyalty for hours and hours on end. A fate worse than death.

They aren’t taking these kinds of chances.

Instead, sometimes Red will find a spare pencil lying on her desk, a pencil defaced with fingernail creases, ugly indentations almost as bad as chewing. When she asks her coworker who put it there, they will not have an answer.

She will look closer. Morse code. Dots and dashes. She won’t copy it out, but will read it carefully.

“Dear Checkmark on a Harlequin,

“I wondered today whether you at the Agency ever feel hunger. I’ve heard about your lack of lunch breaks, though perhaps these rules do not apply to a woman of your standing in the company. I was eating an apple today—I need not write out the color of its skin—and wondered what you eat. Or whether you eat at all, or subsist only on lab reports and pie charts.

“You mentioned our famous Garden dining hall last time, though only in passing. I think about showing you how we make stir-fry, with any ingredients you like—even those pie charts, if that was what you wanted. Of course, if you were seen here, you’d probably get arrested for trespassing. And you’re too meticulous for such a thing, aren’t you? After how that last advertising campaign went… but I won’t talk shop…”

When she is done reading, Red bites the pencil herself. This is for multiple reasons. The first, to obliterate the text. Industry spies are everywhere—she doesn’t trust even the new intern, who seems flighty but might in fact be diabolical beneath those half-rimmed glasses. The second—Blue talks about hunger.

Red is more hungry, in so many more ways, than Blue can possibly imagine.

She keeps the pencil and writes with it for days and days until the sharpener has erased every last mark of the interaction.


 

When they actually see each other in person, it’s a thrill like no other. This occurs occasionally at social mixers hosted by third parties. Red never tells Blue she’s planning on attending one, and Blue never tells Red. They still run into each other surprisingly often.

(Maybe because Red has been attending more and more of these mixers lately. Maybe all of them. But the Commandant has not yet guessed anything is out of the ordinary, though she has made some offhand remarks on how much Red must like the free shrimp cocktails.)

Blue is talking to a captain of industry and Red slides up on his other side. He introduces him. Neither says they have already met. They do say, “Pleased to meet you.”

They shake hands. Blue’s hand is slightly clammy, her expression unreadable. She holds Red’s hand for just a moment too long, a more audacious message than any sent before. Red is equally daring: she smiles.

The captain of industry talks about himself, and Red and Blue make their appropriate responses. Meanwhile, Red resorts to Morse code again, in the crudest way, tapping her fingers against her opposite elbow, arms crossed. Blue does not respond, except to the captain of industry. But when he asks what they would like to get at the refreshments table, she says, “I was thinking of grabbing some of the cubes of rare steak, perhaps with some Bordeaux.”

Red.

Red’s face is heating. She excuses herself, saying she has to use the ladies’ room. When she returns, Blue has vanished. Off to flatter some other millionaire, form some other connection. Plant seeds for her garden.

There aren’t any blue foods at the refreshments table. Red has lost her appetite for the evening.


 

“But I sometimes wonder why we never collaborate with Garden,” the intern says earnestly. “I mean think about some of the projects you’ve done this year. That work on cheaper insulin—if we worked together with Blue’s team, for example…”

Red lets the words wash over her, prepared to rebut them whenever the intern is done babbling. It’s probably a test. She still doesn’t trust the girl. And even if the girl’s serious, Garden and the Agency will never mix. It’s a stable fact about the universe.

But today a book on pharmaceutical ethics was delivered to the office. Some of the pages were dog-eared. She will sift through it later, work out its code. And then she will talk to one of her friends who is a hacker, and they will send an email to Blue’s address that appears at first glance to be nonsense spam, but can be interpreted with a certain cipher.

…an email might be risky and lazy, but they can be expedient. Sometimes. If she’s careful.

And someday, when they’re sure no industry spies are watching them, if they take simultaneous vacation leave or perhaps sick leave, they may even be able to speak to each other out loud, and Red may dare to speak Blue’s name.