Mack was in the bathroom at work. He did not particularly need to use the bathroom. He just needed a different place to sit down and do nothing. Despite the many unpleasantries of the surroundings, it was worth it. Fifteen minutes closer to five o'clock was fifteen minutes closer to five o'clock. And that was a good thing. Well, on a weekday it was.
Mack, as were the rest of his co-workers on the floor, was a contract attorney, aka "a coder." Coders represent the dark underbelly of the legal world. A collection of weirdoes, freaks, incompetents, slackers, disenchanters, unfortunates, and the-until-recently successfuls. It was a mindless, monotonous job that required a law degree only by way of technicality. The work itself involved little to no legal skills or education. The coder simply glances over a document, utilizing his or her invaluable ability to read, and then fills out an electronic form, utilizing his or her invaluable ability to manipulate a computer, that summarizes the document. The only upside to the job was that it was a job. It did also have the qualities of very casual business attire and little to no interaction with one's boss. These were seen as tremendous advantages by many sects of coders.
Mack had managed enough nerve to reach for the newspaper lying on the floor in the next stall. Anxiety about the grossness of such an act did occupy his mind but always dissipated after he was holding the paper. Mack was folding the paper and getting ready to read the comics that he never, literally never found funny, to the point that he was inevitably left questioning the reason for which they were called "comics" and wondering about the monumental lameness that must be the comic strips that get rejected.
"Attention. Attention, please. Good morning, everyone. I need to make a few brief announcements."
Mack exhaled in disgust. His boss, Peter McGee, an attorney, a former coder, whose job was now to oversee the ménage of coders on the floor, had intruded on Mack's alone time via the intercom, speakers for which had even been placed in the bathroom. Big Brother was alive and well, and he was an obtrusive ass.
"First, the refrigerators in the break room will be defrosted and cleaned tonight. If you have any items that you would like to save, please take them with you when you leave this evening, otherwise they will be thrown out."
Mack grinned. He knew that his cubicle row-mate Carl would be working late tonight, simply to scavenge for any foodstuffs left behind by his co-workers. He would battle the cleaning staff for them.
"Second, as for the fire drill yesterday afternoon, you shall not bill for that time. The firm understands that it was not your doing or your fault, and that exiting the building and remaining outside for two hours was ordered by the building security, but, again, it was for your safety. It was for your benefit."
Mack cringed. This tactless announcement now meant that he would be working late too in order to make up for the time he had spent for his benefit sitting on the sidewalk listening to Nancy ramble about the positives and many negatives of her niece's wedding the weekend prior. He had soothed her clearly aching soul by reminding her that if her niece were happy, that's all that mattered. Nancy appreciated the clich&eacyte; counsel to such an extent that she kissed Mack on the cheek and even teared up. Mack hated every second of the ordeal. Yes, he saw the conversation with his co-worker as an ordeal.
"And last, and most importantly, I have been informed that due to the economic downturn and internal restructuring, unfortunately, we will have to reduce the number of contract attorneys by fifty percent."
This garnered Mack's attention. He had no expression on his face.
"Employee records are being evaluated on an on-going basis and those who will be laid off has not yet been determined. Now, people, let me say this. We here at the firm, especially myself, are disappointed that this has to happen. But it is the circumstance we face. Some of you, half I guess, will be leaving us. But half of you will remain. Keep that in mind. Basically, fight people. Fight for your jobs. Fight for your livelihood. It's economic Darwinism. Only the strongest will survive. That is the law of the jungle, and the free market. It applies to nations, corporations, and you, the individuals. Those of you who fight for your job will surely keep it. Show us how much you want it. Produce. Produce results. Eliminate your competition. Fight. Good day, people."
Mack had been prepared to finish his complete waste of time in the bathroom, but after the final announcement, he decided to extend it for a few more minutes. He wanted to avoid the worst of the distraught reactions that were certainly spreading through the office.
Eventually, his right leg started to go numb and the general odor was becoming unbearable. He exited his stall, pretended to wash his hands, and shook his head in the mirror. Of all days to have to work late, this would be the worst possible circumstance under which to do so. He approached the bathroom door, hated his life momentarily, and prepared himself for the panic of his co-workers. He was ready, or so he thought.
Mack pushed open the bathroom door and rounded the corner into the office. His senses were absolutely blind-sided, despite his mental preparation. Lights were flickering that had not been earlier that morning. He heard the sounds of people screaming obscenities and unknown items crashing onto desks and against the walls. He thought that he smelled smoke. Another fire drill, so soon? Was someone overcooking popcorn, for breakfast?
"Mack! Mack! Get over here! Now!" Mack recognized the sound of the voice, but he was confused by the tone of it. Did his cubicle neighbor, Carl, not think that he had heard the announcement in the bathroom? Surely Carl had spent as many meaningless moments in the bathroom as Mack had and was well aware of the intercom. Mack saw Carl and several other row-mates huddled behind an overturned desk where their cubes had once been. Mack was still confused. After the sound of a three-hole punch crashed over his head, Mack excitedly ran and dove behind the overturned desk.
"Mack, Mack. Glad you made it, buddy. You don't know how lucky you are."
"What? What's going on?"
"We're still not sure. It's chaos at the moment. That's why we're all glad to see you?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Why me?"
"Jesus, Mack. Open your eyes. You heard the announcement, right?"
"Yeah, lay-offs. I heard it. So?"
"Well, Mack, not sure how to break this to you. We're at war."
"We don't know who fired first, them or us. All I know is that I saw Cityside take poor old James Crafton and throw him to the ground. They started kicking him and pushed him into their mob. Poor bastard."
"After that, things just escalated. We took cover here. I sent Cindy and Steve over there to barricade the left side of the office. And Kevin and Lou are working on the right side of the office. But, we need you. And now."
"Dude, you were in the ROTC in college. You are trained in the art of warfare. We need a leader."
"You can't be serious. I just . . ."
"Dude, Mack, you are our leader. You always have been. You are the person every coder in our row goes to for advice and counsel. Look at Nancy. She told us that you comforted her and showed her reason just yesterday during the fire drill."
Mack glanced around the office. The office was circular. The kitchen and break room were in the middle of the office separating it into two halves. Mack and most other coders on his riverside of the office had either never been to or rarely visited the cityside of the office. Each side had its own entrance and exit. They were co-workers separated by a wall. They hardly knew the other side existed.
On Mack's riverside of the office, he saw his co-workers hiding and crying under chairs and in corners. He saw Little Sammy nursing a cut on his forehead. He saw terror and agony. He had to keep reminding himself that things were really happening. It seemed far too unreal.
"Carl, everyone, we need to stop this. Seriously, I have a cell phone, right here. I can call the building security, or the cops, or, you know, any rational human being in the world, and they can help us put an end to all this. Nobody has to get hurt."
Carl turned toward the others within earshot. He raised his hand to stop their objections.
"Mack, buddy, that's not gonna happen. That's not good enough. You heard the announcement. We have to fight for our jobs, our livelihoods. Some of us need this job. Some of us can't do anything else but this job. And the rest of us owe our co-workers loyalty. And Cityside, with what they did to poor old James Crafton. Mack, this is a fight. This is our fight."
"This is ridiculous. Insane. That's what it is. You must be kidding. You are all insane."
"Hey! Hey, is that Louis Finkle I see!?" It was the voice of Dillon. He was the longest tenured coder on Cityside. He was cocky and loud. He was the only Cityside coder known to all Riversiders. He would occasionally stroll through the Riverside for no apparent reason except to look distastefully at the other coders. "Damn, that must be Louis Finkle! I could spot that giant nose from three blocks away!"
Louis Finkle was in the group gathered around Mack. Louis was small and weak. He was extremely intelligent and competent but so awkward looking and sounding that he had failed every interview he had ever been on. Louis had also had a crush on Melody the entire time he had worked at the firm. Melody was sitting beside Louis and to Louis' ever-lasting agony, she had been sexually used by Dillon on a number of occasions.
"Hey! Louis Finkle!? Is that Melody I see sitting beside you!?" Dillon started laughing. "Damn, that must be Melody! I could spot those sloppy tits from five blocks away!"
Mack and his troops could hear Dillon laugh harder and high five his Cityside coders.
"You know what," Louis Finkle spoke up, "Mack is right. This is insane. This isn't real. Dillon over there? He's a coward." Louis looked down at Melody to ensure that she was listening to him. "Nobody talks to me like that. Well, most people do. Everyone, actually. But nobody talks to Melody like that. Not while I'm around."
Louis rose to his feet, unafraid, well, pretending to be unafraid.
"Louis," Mack responded, "what are you doing? Are you nuts? Get down here."
"No. No, Mack. I've had enough. I'm calling Dillon's bluff." Louis once again looked into the eyes of his dream girl, Melody. "You know what I think? I think that . . ." Louis paused for effect and punched his right fist into his left palm, "it's time to make some eye contact."
Mack tried to reach for Louis and forcefully prevent him from making an obvious and enormous mistake. But it was too late. Melody had already blown Louis a kiss in gratitude. Louis Finkle was determined and inspired.
Louis walked strongly away from the overturned desk. He disappeared to the right. Mack and his co-workers, even the sobbing Melody, could hear Louis clumsily traverse the barricade aptly constructed by Kevin and Lou on the right flank. They even heard him squeal like a girl at one point. And then, silence.
Mack, Carl, Melody, and the rest of the nearby Riversiders tried to not make eye contact with one another. They all expected to hear a sobbing Louis come charging back to the overturned desk at any moment holding his broken glasses in his bloodied hands. It would be terrible and awkward. The reality, however, was far worse. It was, in fact, the worst.
Intrigued by the sound of distant noises, Mack, Carl, Melody, and the rest of the nearby Riversiders lifted their heads to see what was happening. They all saw a braided collection of computer chords being thrown over a water pipe inches from the ceiling. Nobody knew what it meant. Their minds raced but refused to realize the obvious.
"You watching over there," exclaimed Dillon. "You watching, Melody!? You watching, Mack!? Yes, Mack, we know who you are!"
Nobody said anything. Mack felt his heart stop. He felt that he should say something. That he should say something to his Riversiders. That he should respond with authority to Dillon. But he could not muster a single word. ROTC be damned. He was at the extreme disadvantage that inherently accompanied a lack of wartime intelligence. He did not know his circumstance. Dillon was in control.
The Riversiders all simply watched as the makeshift chord tightened. They all simply continued to watch as the makeshift chord was evidently being pulled down from the backside. And they all horrifically continued to watch as the makeshift chord on the front side exposed that it had been secured around the neck of Louis Finkle. The neck of a then naked Louis Finkle, whose head had fallen unnaturally forward with his eyes open and unblinking, and whose chest then contained the image of a smiley face produced by multi-colored thumbtacks jammed into his skin with a letter opener stabbed in the center of the face where a giant nose otherwise would be. Louis Finkle was bleeding from his actual large nose, the corners of his mouth, and the fake large nose of the smiley face on his chest. Louis Finkle was dead.
Melody started crying hysterically. Screams of horror could be heard throughout Riverside.
"You see! Do you see, Mack!?" Carl was again trying to reason with his friend in a most unreasonable situation. "That is a distinct message, Mack! That is the London Tower! William Wallace's head and limbs hanging from the corner of the British Empire kind of crap! This isn't a game, Mack! This is real!"
Mack glanced around his Riverside of the office again. Things were in slow motion, much more so than they had been earlier. He saw his same co-workers hiding and crying under chairs and in corners. He saw Little Sammy still nursing a cut on his forehead. He saw terror and agony. And then he saw something that had escaped his notice a few minutes prior. He saw Marie Munza, an octogenarian grandmother of nine, lobbing a Statue of Liberty paperweight over to Cityside while screaming, "Die, you Cityside motherfuckers! Die!"
Mack knew what he had to do. This was his office. These were his co-workers. This was his side. Riverside. He had not chosen it. It had been assigned. But it was, nonetheless, his side.
"Ok, people, listen up!" Mack made eye contact with everyone who had the nerve to open their eyes and look forward. He was waving them in, not with his hands, but with his fierce determination. Those who could gathered around the overturned desk.
"Ok, people. Listen, and listen good. First things first. The door."
"Oh, Mack," Carl spoke up. "It's taken care of. I sent Matt over to keep an eye on it."
"Not good enough, Carl. Not even close. Jeremy, Melissa, go help Matt barricade the door. When you're done, Jeremy, get back here. Melissa, you stay and help Matt keep an eye on it. If there's a problem, Melissa you run back here and report to us. No, report to me. Order Matt to stay and fight to keep it closed. Fight till his death." Mack could hardly believe his words, though he meant them.
Jeremy and Melissa scurried away while remaining kneeling for cover. Mack cautiously stood and looked over the top of the desk at the kitchen in the center of the office.
"Now, people, look. The kitchen and break room, that will make or break us. This is war. The kitchen and break room provide sustenance, potential weapons, and the vantage point for attack. If we do not secure a threshold in the kitchen, at least, we are doomed. We might as well kill ourselves. It looks like the Cityside realizes that too. I just saw the Thompson twins approaching the entrance on their side to the break room. Now, ideally, we need both. But, without question, we must secure the kitchen on our side. They're already ahead of us."
Mack knew that they needed a plan. They could not just walk into the kitchen and expect no resistance. He could not think of anything. He was frustrated. He titled his head back. People were counting on him. He saw the air vents stretching across the ceiling of the office. That was it. That was the answer.
"Little Sammy, get over here." Little Sammy immediately followed Mack's command. This stunned Mack, as those were the first words he had ever spoken to Little Sammy. "Little Sammy, I know you're wounded. I know you're hurt. But suck it up. Take Cindy, retreat back to safety out of sight of Cityside. I need you to use a desk, a chair, whatever, and squeeze up there into that air duct. Grab as many lukewarm to hot coffees as you can. You will need them."
"Mack, what are you talking about," Carl questioned.
"Shut up, Carl. We do not have time for your questions. This is a battle on all fronts, including aerial. Now, girls, grab your purses. Hand over all mace, pepper spray, rape-defending devices you have. Except for whistles. Those are ridiculous."
To Mack's surprise, every female nearby provided one, if not two or three, such devices. And Carl even handed one over. After everyone looked at Carl quizzically, he explained that he parked in a bad part of the city because it was cheaper, and that he was planning on working late tonight, and finally admitted that he was planning on doing so in order to steal food.
"Fine. Good. Little Sammy, Cindy, here. Take a few of these, each of you. Now, Jimmy, Fat Steve. Get over here. You two, you are our saviors. You are our armored tanks. You will take the kitchen. Grab three of the other biggest guys on our side and start to approach the kitchen. Little Sammy, Cindy, once you're in the vents, crawl until you're over the vent nearest the break room. Once in place, dump the coffee on the Thompson twins over there, those jerkoffs. Jimmy, Fat Steve, that will be your cue. If Little Sammy and Cindy are successful, and pray God that they are, charge. Charge as far into the kitchen as you can. Secure a location. If you can make it through to the break room too, that's gravy. But you must, you absolutely must, secure the kitchen. And after you do, not when, after you do, barricade the kitchen and remain there. Use your collective girth to fight, to become human blockades. You hear me?"
Mack heard a few hesitant "yes" responses.
"Are you screwing with me!? I said, do you hear me!?"
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
"Good. That's better. Little Sammy, Cindy, get going. Jimmy, Fat Steve, get going. Text me with updates. Get the number from Carl if you need it."
People followed Mack's orders without hesitance. This continued to baffle him.
"Now, Carl, how are our flanks? We can't let them break through on either side."
"Good, Mack. I think. I haven't . . ."
"You think!? You think!? Not good enough, Carl. You're better than that. Go check it out and report back." Carl sped off, though seemingly a little disappointed in having to leave central intelligence. At the same time, he was second in command. He loved the position and his standing with Mack.
"The rest of you, start gathering materials, anything. We need weapons. Staplers, pocket knives, metal pens, broom handles, silverware, plastic ware, girls, your high heels, paper cutters, fingernail clippers, anything. Come on, people. Dare I say it? Think outside the box, you glorious nine-to-five sons of bitches."
Part One of Four