In the early afternoon of his first day of work at Reliant Data Services Corporation, Henry Hassenlopf suffers a massive cerebral stroke. It happens as he sits in his newly assigned cubicle, in front of his PC workstation. No one in the cubes surrounding Henry’s notices what has happened to him.
Henry’s initial panic slowly gives way to a cooler internal assessment. That there is still something of a mind left to self-referentially consider his own plight, he takes as a positive starting point. Under the negative column, he notes that he is completely paralyzed–no, not quite so, he realizes. As he takes sequential stock of his body, bottom to top, Henry realizes that he can still twitch the big toe on his right foot, flex his right thigh muscle, and move the first two fingers on his right hand slightly. His eyes and facial muscles still function. But he cannot utter a sound, not even a grunt. And he can’t twist his neck; his head remains fixed in position, staring at his computer monitor. Its screen clock reads 2:09 P.M.
What a pisser, Henry thinks. Sixty-four years old. After having searched so desperately for decent work in my field for the last three years. And I blow it on my very first day!
Henry sits and waits. He figures someone will eventually notice his problem and get help. Surely they will notice, he thinks. Eventually, they will.
But as the long, lonely minutes pass, he remembers how aloof his co-workers had been when his new boss, Mr. Williamson, had introduced him around that morning. Many of them hadn’t even bothered to turn away from their monitors to face him; they had simply thrown up a hand over their shoulder in a half-hearted, half-irritated acknowledgement that something was trying to break their concentration. It was a gesture much like one makes to wave away a pesky fly. And most of them, Henry noticed, appeared to have been idly surfing the web or chatting to friends on the phone, rather than doing any actual company business. If Williamson had also noticed this, he made no sign of it.
Henry’s eyes gimbal down to look at his right hand, resting on his PC’s mouse. Maybe this is my lifeline. If I can manage to make my fingers obey my mind, I can send out a message for help. In a supreme exercise of will, he makes his second finger move the mouse to the left, then moves it rightwards with his first finger.
The screen cursor moves a pixel or two in either direction. Henry is fretful at this result; he doubts that he can move the mouse efficiently enough to access the entire screen without losing grasp of the device totally. And if that happens, he is dead in the water. He realizes that he needs to change the mouse settings to make it more responsive to movement, before trying anything else.
Battling fiercely to control his two fingers, Henry finally manages to open the PC mouse settings control utility. He feels discouraged. It has taken him almost an hour to get this far, based on the clock in the lower corner of the screen. While he struggles with the mouse, his mind drifts back to the start of this horrendous workday.
“OK, Hassleflop, let’s get you started off here.”
“That’s Hassenlopf, Mr. Williamson,” Henry said.
“Right. First off, call me Will.”
Williamson’s eyes didn’t seem to be able to stay focused on any one object for more than an instant; they flitted around as if there was a basketball game occurring in front of him, one which Henry was somehow missing. Henry felt like he wanted to duck when he saw Will’s eyes run in a quick arc over the top of his head.
“Brandon in HR thought very highly of your resumé, and your interview went well with him. You’ve got a good background in IT data security, that’s true. Quite frankly, I myself wondered if you were going to be, well, quick enough on your feet to keep up with the pace around here. This is a fast-growing startup with a young, vibrant organization, you know. But Brandon held fast, and he’s got more power around here than me, so . . . well, that’s that. Let me introduce you around, now.”
Brandon in HR had, in fact, gone out on a limb by hiring Henry. He had said so himself, after making the job offer: “Off the record, Henry, you’re a bit of an experiment. I want to prove to this organization that we can benefit from workers with a historically broader perspective in the field. Solid, mature people with a good work ethic and a proven record of trustworthiness.”
Brandon was the oldest person he had seen in the entire company. Henry had judged him to be a few years shy of forty.
Williamson strode out of his office with Henry in tow. They stopped at the secretarial station nearby.
“Here’s the most important person to know, Henry. This is Audrey, our department’s Administrative Assistant, and she basically runs the office show. Anything you need, see her. Audrey, this is Henry Hassleflop.”
Henry opened his mouth to give his correct name, but thought better of it. There’d be time for that later; no sense seeming paranoid about it now. First impressions were always important, he thought. Audrey, holding a telephone to one ear with her shoulder, sat polishing a nail. She gave a brief, wan smirk back in a faux greeting, then swiveled her chair around, away from the distraction.
After a few more perfunctory introductions, they came to Henry’s office cubicle. Williamson swung his arm at the opening in a quick, jerky arc.
“Home at last. Everything should be set up for you. I’m afraid this job won’t be as glamorous as some you’ve had in the past, Hassleflop. But you do have full database access, starting today. I want you to read the company’s online policy manuals before you do anything else, though. We’ll talk more about your specific assignments tomorrow. Any problems, just call or text-page me.”
Henry entered his tiny cube. “Thanks, Mr. . . . thanks, Will. I do appreciate the opportunity.” He turned back around, extending a hand to shake Will’s. “I’ll do a good job for y–”
Williamson had disappeared. Henry sat down and booted up his PC to begin reading the online manuals.
“And it’s Hassenlopf,” he said aloud to nobody.
Since the time of his stroke, Henry has noticed an increasing dizziness, nausea, and a slight narrowing of peripheral vision. And he has never before experienced a headache so painful. He cannot honestly detect a reduction in his mental acuity. But how would I know that, if my own brain is the thing that’s judging itself? Henry knows that a cerebral stroke kills large numbers of brain cells. He also knows that he will need help soon, before he begins to lose the autonomic functions that control his heart and his breathing. Henry’s life is hanging on a wire–the thin cord that connects his mouse to his PC.
He hears his cubicle neighbors leave for their afternoon coffee break. None bother to invite him to join them. Bastards, Henry thinks. Self-absorbed, self-contained, cliquish bastards.
Now endowed with better mouse control, Henry opens the PC’s email program and clicks “New Message.” He slowly and agonizingly scrolls down the company email list, name by name, to find his boss’s text pager address. Why did the sonuvabitch have to be named “Williamson,” rather than “Adams” or “Ardmore”? At length, he reaches it, clicks on it, and stares at the blank message field. Then he looks mournfully at his PC keyboard, which, as far as his paralyzed body is concerned, might as well be located in a distant galaxy.
Henry weeps silently; he knows he will have to use the mouse-based “Insert Symbol” function from the PC’s word processing application to compose his message there, one painful character after another, then copy and paste it into the email. He looks at the PC’s clock; it reads 3:54 P.M. He is running out of time.
There is nothing for it, but to try. Henry blinks away a few stray tears and forges ahead. As he does so, another unwelcome recollection from earlier that day surfaces in his mind. He wonders why those particular brain cells couldn’t have been the ones to die.
*** TO BE CONTINUED ***
Gary Cuba lives with his wife and an unruly horde of domestic critters in South Carolina, USA. Now retired, he spent most of his career working in the commercial nuclear power industry, and holds several US patents in that field. His speculative fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Grantville Gazette, Abyss & Apex, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Visit The Foggiest Notion to learn more about him and to find links to some of his other stories.