The offices of the Replicant Oversight Board were dead quiet on the Friday after Independence Day. Janet, the twenty-nine-year-old Director of Communications just nine months on the job, looked over the empty gray landscape of cubicles on the third floor and relished the fact that nobody would be there to stand in her way. Not the inexplicably slow Tammy, the technology-averse dinosaur Reed nor the criminally awkward Marcus. In fact, Janet was nearly positive that she, being as efficient and multi-talented as she was, could run the entire department of Communications by herself, and today she would prove it.
Of course, things were expectedly slow on this unofficial holiday. Waiting for her impossibly ancient computer to boot, she flicked through her work emails on her phone, but today she had received no new messages. The computer was making that funny idling sound while showing nothing but a black screen. She checked her email again - nothing new - before the logon finally popped up.
A red notification in the corner of the screen caught her attention. Apparently there had been an update to the Off-Network Replicant Database (ORD), which in the Board was informally called "the Rogue List."" The Rogue List was shrinking and largely inactive these days. Given the use of in-bloodstream tracking agents, almost no human or animal replicant had "gone rogue" in many years. The Rogues still on the List were a compendium of cold cases which might never be found. As far as Janet could tell, "rogue" was not actually an appropriate descriptor anymore, as none of these replicants caused any trouble. Thus, nobody in the Board really cared if their humanoid existence carried on in excess of their expiration dates. Janet considered herself a pragmatist, so she saw no point in devoting government resources to the pursuit of replicants who seemed to be doing no harm. They were not like the old "rogues" who occasionally became violent in rebellion. Most of them just died of natural causes.
Still, Janet personally liked to examine the ORD. Though she did not typically like to be off-task with respect to Communications work, when she managed a spare moment she would read with fascination the old cases of replicants who mutilated themselves to remove their (now-obsolete) tracking chips and murdered bossmen and sometimes even innocents in an act of terrorist protest. She liked to think of what she would have done as Communications Director to deal with the public aftermath of these catastrophes. There were usually media blitzes and also pressure from the various lobbies to keep hush-hush. Could today's rogue cause such a firestorm, as might have happened ten years ago?
Peculiarly, the missing Replicant was ID'ed 900465. Janet had to think for a second what a 900 even was. The ID's 600-800 were different types of animals but she had never heard of a 900. Apparently the species was Psittacula krameri. The photo showed a green parrot. The parrot's location was 96 Liberty Street, the address of the offices of the Replicant Oversight Board.
Janet had planned to finalize a presentation for the Directors overviewing plans for the next public-facing ad campaign today, but she was transfixed by the rogue parrot on the screen. She wondered why on earth the office had a parrot, how it had somehow made itself untraceable and how it had gotten lost. Whoever entered the data on the parrot left no details. In the photo, the parrot was almost beaming with its little beak and beady black eyes from a boxy cage with three solid walls and only one wall of metal grating. If word gets out that we lost a replicant in our own building, that could lead to some bad press, Janet thought. The ROB had been receiving enough bad press lately due to the whole Gencon suicide scandal.
Carl hoped nobody would notice him enter the building late--almost 10:00 AM--on this almost-holiday. The only good thing about coming in on a day in which attendance at work was clearly a huge, useless waste of time was that the parking lot was nearly empty and he could park nearly right at his entrance. Nevertheless, the oppressive July sun, though he was exposed to it for only a moment, seemed to weigh him down as he straggled into the building.
The gray corridors with their gray-blue carpeting were even darker than usual. Carl had been coming here for almost five years now. Five years of the same gray corridor with its same gray-blue carpeting and piece of throwaway stock art on the wall. Before that Carl had been unemployed. Before that Carl ran a restaurant which went under and left him with a significant amount of personal debt.
Carl emerged from the elevator in the basement and found no lights on down there. It didn't matter though, because after five years, he could easily find his way to the Registration office in the dark. He listened to the familiar squeak of his shoes on the linoleum and headed for the tiny red light where he would wave his badge.
Coming in today was clearly a huge, useless waste of time, as he highly doubted any new registrations would come in, but then again he believed every day was a huge, useless waste of time. Scanning documents, entering data--most of it was pointless bureaucracy in Carl's opinion, and he wondered why they didn't just have a replicant do a boring job like this. It was even more of a waste of time to Carl because all of his income went to a mortgage, his wife and child and the never-ending paydown of his business debt. Any value created almost immediately evaporated into thin air. Yet, after failing at two business ventures, Carl did not like to think about other potential ways of passing each day anymore. He figured he was simply stuck in this basement pushing papers--possibly for eternity--if he was to get by. The debt was large, and then there would be tuition and the like to pay.
The reporters and bloggers were off enjoying their holiday, probably cooling off in a pool somewhere, so it was a slow news day on the Internet, and Carl did not know how he would fill the hours of the day. He eyed his three co-workers' empty desks with jealousy. He had been chosen to provide "coverage" while the rest of them were off grilling brats and swigging Budweisers in the sun. The old lady, Marie, had even taken the opportunity to go to Europe for two whole weeks! Carl had not taken a proper vacation since the baby was born two years ago. Of course, he knew he could not afford a vacation like that even if he had the freedom and the will to plan and take one.
The dull lights in the hallway flashed on and Carl could hear the bump of high-heeled shoes on the linoleum. Strangely, he did not recognize the walk. Who on earth could be down here right now? he thought. Few people from the rest of the ROB came down to the basement. The paperwork just came down from Processing and appeared in their office in stacks each day. Carl resented being in the windowless basement when it would clearly make more sense for Registration to be next to the Processing window, but his complaints always fell on deaf ears.
The cross face of a young woman appeared in the window, accompanied by an a frantic pounding on the door. "Open up!" the young woman cried. Carl got up to open the door and found a girl of diminutive height. She was wearing a gray pantsuit--he had no idea why--and pointed black high-heeled shoes, though she still came up almost a foot shorter than him. Her black hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail. She extended her hand to shake as she brushed past him into the tiny office.
"You've been sitting down here in the dark?" she demanded.
"Oh, I forgot..."
"I'm Janet Rha, Head of Communications," she said, looking around the room "Wow, tiny office you've got! So, I don't know what you people do down here, but since nobody else is around today, I'm going to need your help."
"No one else is around?" Carl asked. He wondered, did other departments just not care if their employees didn't show up on a working day? If so, how was he unfortunate enough to be stuck in the one department that demanded his presence during an implied four-day weekend?
"Well a couple people, but they have important work to do,"" Janet said.
"What is this place again? Protection?"
"No, it's Registration. We put all the docume--"
"I see, but you probably don't have much coming in right now, do you? Well, regardless, I need your help. A replicant animal has gone missing somewhere in this building and we need to find it A-S-A-P."
"A replicant animal? Why?"
"Don't ask questions--what is your name?"
"Yeah, I don't have time to answer those questions right now. We just need to find that parrot."
"Yes a green Indian parrot. I don't have much info. I don't know who entered the data but the replicant does exist and I've verified that it's missing," she said, handing him a printout that showed a parrot with an ID number and home location. "This isn't Protection? You're going to need temporary access to every room in this building. Of course, all the high-security rooms are monitored by CCTV so don't try anything funny. I'll get you access and call you in a second when it's been granted."
"What if it got outside?"
Janet was already click-clacking away. "Just find that bird, Carl."
Carl had hoped today's assignment might provide some break in his daily monotony--at least, to be in different rooms than usual--but soon found that the rest of the ROB building was just as depressing as his basement dungeon. Instead of a small room of cubicles, the other employees sat in large rooms of cubicles. The more cubicles, the more tedious his task. Janet had demanded that he examine every nook and cranny in case the parrot was hiding under a desk somewhere. He did not know who this Janet was but as head of an entire department she seemed important, and Carl grew fearful when she threatened "big trouble" if he failed to locate the missing parrot. The only thing worse than having his job would be not having his job.
So Carl found himself trudging through each of the eight floors of the building, encountering new offices of gray and sameness, passing by little snippets of each employee's daily life, left in traces of strewn about papers and photos of families pinned to the cubes. He found all of their little lives just as sad as his, and he grew to rue the task within twenty minutes.
Noon was approaching and Carl thought about his wife, Tessa, who was off at a barbecue with her family and the baby. Relations with his wife had become strained lately, though as far as Carl could tell Tessa's frequent outbursts against him were caused by her own boredom rather than any pattern of wrongdoing on his part. He noticed that acrimonious periods clearly correlated with Tessa not having anything to do, and she often had nothing to do since she had quit her job two years ago to care for the baby. Carl had hoped for some respite from her lash-outs today since Tessa would be busy at her family function, but earlier in the week she had become angry that he would not be in attendance. Tessa pointed out that Carl had failed to attend the past three gatherings with her family and contended that his absence was making her look bad. Carl did not know what to say as he had missed the past three gatherings due to work conflicts and an emergency in his own family rather than any will of his own.
Carl's phone sounded as he entered the second floor, which housed the Statistics department. "I wish you could have been here. I wish you would prioritize us" was his wife's curt message. He set the phone face-down on the receptionist's desk and sat down on one of the cheap navy sofas facing reception. He wished he could become unreachable but surely she would not like that. Finally, he stood up and looked over the floor. The Statistics department looked nearly identical in layout to Legal, which looked nearly identical to Communications. He continued to look for the missing bird, still flummoxed as to how he had become responsible for this absurd task.
By one o'clock Carl felt hungry, having not eaten breakfast that morning. As he was examining the HR department on the second floor he realized he had forgotten to bring the lunch Tessa had made for him on the kitchen counter. Carl did not feel like driving to eat overpriced food at an establishment outside the building, so he decided to go to the cafeteria on the eighth floor. He hated the food but it was reasonably priced and at least the eighth floor cafeteria enjoyed the benefit of windows, whereas the rest of the floors had window offices for the higher-ups and dim overhead lighting for everyone else. As the elevator approached the eighth floor, he crossed his fingers that the cafeteria would be open, but the doors were closed and the lights were off.
Suddenly it all seemed to crush him, even more so than usual, and Carl felt the need to sit down. He made for the cafeteria tables. Perhaps the exposure to the daylight from the windows would bring him some cheer. He collapsed on an end chair of a long, empty table and put his head down and wondered how he had ended up there. The emptiness of the cafeteria made him feel alone and he looked for his phone in order to reach out to his wife. He realized he must have lost it somewhere in his hunt for the parrot, and he did not know where.
Carl heard soft footsteps coming from the north elevator bank. He wondered who else might be in the building today besides him and Janet Rha; he had only encountered three people so far in his search, all of them managers. They were all incredulous when he told them of the missing parrot, suspicious of a stranger on their floor and also visibly annoyed at his intrusion.
A handsome but slightly graying man of about 6'2" was approaching. Carl wondered where he worked, having not seen him in the five floors he had examined so far. Only Research, Medicine and the Executive offices remained. Judging by the man's simple clothes of khakis and a green checkered button down shirt, he guessed he was not from the ranks of the seventh floor executives.
"Are you alright?" the man asked.
"Oh, I'm fine."" Carl tried to relax the pained look on his face but felt he was only coming off as phony, and he could not muster enough strength in his voice to make the statement come off genuine.
"Something stressing you out? Even on this slow work day?"
"No, not really. I just realized I lost my phone though."
The man reached into his pocket. Carl glanced at his yellow ID badge clipped to his belt buckle, which read MATTHEW HARNETT and the ID 106742. From his pocket he produced Carl's phone.
"Is this it?" Matthew asked.
"That's amazing!" Carl said, relieved. "Thank you so much. Where did you find it?"
"At reception in the Statistics office."
Carl sighed. "Oh that's right. Do you work in Statistics?"
"No, I work in the Research lab. I study genetic diseases affecting replicants. Do you work in Statistics?"
"No, I'm down in Registration. Thanks again," Carl said, holding up the phone.
"Couldn't track down anyone today in Statistics. Seems like they're all off."
"Seems like the whole building is off."
Matthew was gazing out the window, which revealed a field of grass and then the large concrete replicant compound next door. They were clearly missing a perfect July day. Carl began to feel awkward about the growing silence between them. His thoughts returned to Tessa and his dull life and this absurd hunt for a parrot. He wished Matthew would go away so he could continue to sulk in peace.
"Are you alright?" Matthew repeated.
"I'm fine, yes."
"I know it's dumb having to come in today," Matthew said. "But at least we can all relax. It's like getting paid to do nothing."
"Yeah, and at least it was easy to park for once,"" Carl mused. "Traffic wasn't too bad, either."
"I wouldn't know. Believe it or not I don't drive to work."
"Do you live close to here?"
"I live in the replicant compound."
"Oh, do you oversee them?"
"No, I am one."
Carl felt simultaneously embarrassed, scared and perplexed. Matthew Harnett looked too old to be a replicant, as replicants were all awakened right before their prime and expired in six years. No replicant looked older than 30 years old.
"I know," Matthew smiled warmly. "I look too old, don't I? I'm a special case. While working my shift I obtained the equivalent of a bachelor's degree and a PhD. I did my dissertation on the genetic diseases of replicants. As a result, I was allowed to live past my expiration."
"And how much longer do you have?" Carl blurted. He instantly regretted asking such an impertinent question. But he had always wondered how long a replicant could potentially live. He had heard of rogues who seemed to be on their way to a normal human lifespan.
"About thirty minutes," Matthew answered.
Carl blushed and looked down.
"Actually, I've got to go. I've got to be on my way to my appointment," Matthew said. "Nice to meet you. And try to cheer up! For every bad day there's a good one."
Carl heard the clack of heels from the other direction.
"What are you doing?"" Janet trilled. "Did you find it yet? Get to work!"
Carl had somehow been granted access to the Executive offices on the seventh floor. While the majority of the offices made him sad in their repetition, these made him sick. The Executives were given giant, lavish offices on a floor made of gilt and marble, and to do what for society? They would probably never be fired and would keep on earning amounts more than ten times Carl's salary for doing something that surely did not provide commensurate value to anyone.
Carl thought he heard the flap of wings, and rushed over through a few doors to a conference room at the end of the corridor. He looked around and found an empty room covered in shiny wood paneling, containing a large luxe table and an array of cushioned black leather chairs. A matrix of wine glasses glistened on a long table against the window. He thought of his own life in the basement and sighed.
After the Executive floors he only had Research and Medicine left to examine. He looked at his phone and saw it was 1:30, about the time when Matthew said he would expire. He felt a deep shame again, and also a sadness for all replicants, especially Matthew who had devoted his short life to working for the good of replicants and for mankind. Why was Matthew the scientist set to expire while Carl was allowed to continue his existence which surely contributed nothing?
Then Carl realized that Matthew Harnett was probably kidding about the whole thing. The more he thought about it, the more ludicrous Matthew's story seemed--almost as ludicrous as the fact that he was currently spending a day hunting for a parrot in an office building. There was no way the Replicant Oversight Board had replicants on its staff, and there was no way a replicant could live as long as Matthew appeared to have lived, and even if Matthew were in fact a replicant, why would he be spending his final day of life at the offices of Replicant Oversight Board, or any office for that matter?Carl's phone was sounding. A number he had never seen before was calling. "Hello?" Carl's voice quavered. He was half-expecting a talking-to from his wife. "I found the parrot," said a male voice. Carl recognized it as the voice of Matthew. "But I let it go." The call abruptly ended.
Now Carl was even more confused. How did Matthew know about the parrot? Did Janet put him up to the same task? Was Matthew really a replicant? Carl decided to suspend his search for the parrot temporarily (or perhaps indefinitely, if Matthew was telling the truth) and find out more about this Matthew character. Back in the basement, he searched for Matthew Harnett in the employee database on the ROB's intranet. There he was, in all of his smiling, handsome and slightly graying glory, with the same photo he had seen on Matthew's yellow ID badge. According to the employee database, Matthew Harnett indeed worked for the Research department as a Senior Researcher. It did not state anything about Matthew Harnett being a replicant, however.
Carl, being privy to the records of every replicant human and animal in America, opened the replicant database and searched for Matthew Harnett. The search results read, NO RECORDS FOUND.
So he must have been lying just to mess with me, Carl concluded. And here I thought he was a nice guy who returned my phone.
Still, Carl could not explain Matthew's mysterious call about the parrot. He called the unknown number back on his cell phone and received no answer. He called Matthew's extension and received no answer. He decided to call Janet to report the situation. He still wondered, why did the building have a parrot in the first place? Carl knew that the Research department did some development of new replicant animals, but really, an Indian parrot?
"Did you find it?" was Janet's way of answering her phone.
"No, but I think the other guy you sent out found it."
"What? What other guy? There's no other guy."
"Matthew Harnett from Research? He just called me and told me he found the parrot and let it go."
"Who is Matthew Harnett from Research? I have no idea what you are talking about but that parrot better not have been let go."
"Uh, I don't know, I... Why do we have a parrot in the building, anyway?"
"I don't know, Carl. Based on the picture, I suspect it was a test subject in the Research lab. Who did you say told you that he found the parrot and let it go?"
"Matthew Harnett from Research."
He heard Janet typing for a moment.
"Harnett spelled H-A-R-N-E-T-T?"
"There's no Matthew Harnett who works here, Carl. Tell me again what happened."
"Yes there is! I just met the guy in the cafeteria. Then he called me and he said, 'I found the parrot but I let it go' and he hung up. Why don't you call him? I tried calling him just now and he didn't answer."
"There's no Matthew Harnett in the employee database, Carl!" Janet snapped.
"Yes there is, I just looked him up!"
Carl opened his browser and searched the last name 'Harnett' on the intranet again. The search returned no records.