“I have some very good news to report about the long-awaited reduction in force and offshoring of the documentation group.” The development manager’s voice came from a half-dozen speakers in the cubicles of the technical communication team. “It’s not going to happen.”
The whoosh of six simultaneously released bated breaths drowned out his next words. We’d been expecting the worst, and had spent more time during the last month helping each other polish our résumés than actually documenting the software. Nobody had noticed, lending an uncomfortable amount of credibility to the rumors. Of course, Cook hadn’t bothered to come down to give us the message in person, so the announcement didn’t mark anything like a sea change in corporate morale-boosting.
“Check your e-mail tomorrow for details of the new plan,” he said, followed by the click of his speakerphone disconnecting. Immediately, the prairie-dogging began, heads popping up over the tops of the cubicles.
“What happened to him?” Lakshmi wondered aloud, swaying dangerously on her knockoff Aero chair.
“Must’ve gotten religion.” The voice was muffled, the speaker not having joined the rest of us in craning our necks. Coming from Shiv, our resident atheist, that was funny. I smirked.
“I wouldn’t breathe easily just yet,” I observed. “Let’s wait to see the e-mail.”
“How bad could it be?” Lakshmi’s brows knitted; you couldn’t see the lower half of her face, even standing on her chair, but her eyes were frowning.
“Remember when he decided we’d save money if the developers wrote the documentation and we just edited and formatted it?” I reminded her.
“Touché.” Sanjay’s family originated about as far from France as it was possible to be without actually crossing a major ocean, but he lost no opportunity to add an “ay” to anything adjectival.
“Don’t you people have any documentation you should be writing?” Shiv chimed in. We didn’t formally have a group manager, the self-directed team fad having hit India years after it had been abandoned in the West, so he’d taken it upon himself to play that role. Heads disappeared below the tops of the cubicles. Nobody wanted to screw things up now that we had a good reason to pull hard for the company.
It took some time for Lakshmi’s how bad it could be to manifest. The next day, there was no e-mail, but Shiv was missing. This was unusual, since he had a near-perfect performance record. To the best of my knowledge, he had missed only that one day when the corporate clambake and team-building exercise went badly wrong. The ironically named Cook had harvested the clams himself, and he’d insisted they tasted just fine. He even ate them himself. Me, I’d stuck with the tofu tubesteak, claiming religious objections but really objecting to eating anything that had spent it’s life filtering shit from the unhygienic coastal waters. Cook never dared challenge anything we said about Hinduism for risk of offending, and couldn’t be bothered do the work necessary to learn when we were yanking his chain. We therefore ruthlessly exploited his traditional American hypersensitivity about anything to do with a foreign religion whenever the opportunity presented itself.
In the event, I was the only one of our group who’d missed the resulting bout of dysentery, which led to an unscheduled toilet team-building exercise. Potty jokes not withstanding, it said much about Cook’s own bathroom habits that what felled all of the documentation team (but for your humble narrator) and 90-odd percent of the developers, he seemed to take as par for his course. For three days, I wrote like a man possessed, doing the work of three and falling behind steadily until the others returned. I woke several times to a bad case of keyboard face, and my hands trembled from the caffeine overdose for days afterwards.
But we met the ship deadline. Possibly only because the developers were hit even harder than we were, proportionally speaking, but meet it we did.
Shiv was back the following day, but he looked worse than the day after the clambake. His pallor was more noticeable than usual, he barely looked up when the chai wallah came by, and the prominent veins on his forehead were scarcely evident. His eyes were dull, there was a white crust around his lips, and he responded to questions in incomprehensible monosyllables. One of the freebie donuts the company sometimes provided lay half-eaten on his desk. I shrugged, and returned to work. He’d either get better or he’d call in sick the next day. Either way, there’d be extra work for me.
A few hours later, Lakshmi stuck her head into my cubicle. “Hey… you’ve got to come see this.”
I got out of my chair, having hit a brick wall. Some things are just so stupidly implemented, you can’t save them with documentation, though that doesn’t stop you from trying. It’s why they pay you the big (by Bengaluru standards) bucks. I followed her down the narrow aisle to Shiv’s cubicle. I heard the frantic clicking long before we rounded the corner and peered in. Shiv sat slumped in his chair, but his fingers were flailing away at the keyboard as if he’d been possessed by the ghost of Abhishek Jain. A string of drool trailed from his mouth and pooled on the floor, and the armpits of his shirt were soaked.
“Shiv, you doing alright?” I nudged him, without so much as a blink in response.
“Here’s the fun part.” Lakshmi grabbed his left wrist in her tiny hand, bent his arm at the elbow, and put the palm on his bald spot. Both hands kept typing as if nothing had happened. “Weird, huh?”
“That’s more than weird. It’s scary.”
“In an amusing way.”
“You have a much crueler sense of humor than I do.”
“Men are the weaker sex. Admit it.”
I ignored her, having long ago tired of that particular argument. “I think we should call someone.”
“Yeah, like that will solve anything. At best, we’d get Shiv sacked for abusing recreational drugs on the job.”
“Probably. Maybe we should call the nurse?”
A familiar throat-clearing made us both jump. “There’s no need for that.” Cook was tall and thin, nearly skeletal really, and moved with uncanny silence. The way his forehead jutted out over his eyes exacerbated the cadaverous look and made it hard to meet his eyes. “It’s all part of the plan to avoid offshoring your group.”
Lakshmi and I exchanged alarmed glances.
“He’ll be just fine, as long as you put his hand back on the keyboard.”
Lakshmi reluctantly complied, wiping her hand on her jeans afterwards.
“Don’t you two have some writing to do?”
“Yessir,” we both chimed.
As we returned to our cubicles, the sound of typing redoubled.
A few hours later, Anjali entered my office, Lakshmi in tow. She tossed her iPad onto a stack of paper on my desk. “Look at this!”
I picked up the tablet, and had a look. Page after page of documentation, all new. “So?”
“It’s not perfect, but if it were all like this, I’d be out of a job.”
“So clearly it’s not my writing.”
“Clearly.” The corner of her mouth quirked upwards. “And not Lakshmi’s either.”
I knew where this was going. “Shiv?”
“Got it in one,” Lakshmi nodded.
“You’ve got to see this,” Anjali nodded her head back over her shoulder in the direction of Shiv’s cube. We trooped off together, and there he was again, fingers still flailing away at the keyboard. The puddle of drool on the floor had expanded, and the sour smell coming from under his desk told me he hadn’t been to the toilet recently.
“You don’t know the half of it. My cubicle is right next door.” She waved her iPad in front of Shiv’s eyes, and the typing didn’t even waver. “And it gets worse.” She grabbed my shoulder and steered me down the hall to Deepak’s cubicle. The same frenetic clickety-clack emerged, and when I poked my head in, there was Deepak, and he smelled about as bad as Shiv. That was something, since he ordinarily soaked himself in cologne. The front of his Lauren-knockoff shirt was soggy with drool; the sides and back were soggy with sweat.
“Brainnnnns,” moaned Lakshmi.
“Yeah, really. If it weren’t for the lack of rot, I’d be buckling on a helmet.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Not as long as you’re here, clearly.”
“Guys?” Anjali put a hand on each of us. “I don’t think we have to worry about them tearing the flesh from our bones. This isn’t the Romero zombie shtick.”
“So what is it—Luke Kenny?” I ignored Lakshmi, who’d distorted her face into a lopsided grimace and was reaching a clawed hand for my head.
I slapped her hand away. “Stop it!”
Unperturbed, Anjali continued. “I’m thinking it’s Haitian.”
“Haitian?” we both replied.
“Jinx!” I got out, a microsecond ahead of Lakshmi, and she shut her mouth, glaring at me.
“Yeah. You know the voodoo thing?”
“I thought that was a myth?”
“It’s not clear. Wade Davis did some fascinating ethnobotany work back in the 80s, but his methodology was shaky, and it was never clear whether he’d been analyzing real zombie powder or the fake stuff.”
Lakshmi was growing apoplectic, so I took mercy on her. “Unjinx.”
Her glare dimmed slightly. “There’s a difference between the real fake zombie powder and the fake fake zombie powder?”
“What do I know? I’m an editor, not a doctor, as mama-ji never stops reminding me.” She licked her lips. “The point is, I’m not sanguine about this. If it were just Shiv, it could be a coincidence. But…”
“… two points make a line,” I finished. She nodded.
“So what do we do about it?”
“Well, first thing is we stay away from the jelly donuts.” She pointed at some traces of white powder on Deepak’s desk. I bent over, and sure enough, the ruins of a jelly donut were visible under the desk.
Anjali and I both looked at our colleague. “Lakshmi, you didn’t!”
“Hey, they cut off the donut supply after the last quarterly review. I figured that with revenues looking up again…”
“We’d better get you to a doctor.” I licked my lips nervously, glad I’d held out for the chocolate glaze.
“And tell her what? That our boss is turning us into zombies? That would be well received.”
“It would if your doctor’s an empiricist. Tell her to keep an eye on you overnight and watch what happens.”
“I don’t feel very well.” Lakshmi’s forehead was glistening under the fluorescent lighting.
“We’d really better get you to a doctor. I’ll take her.”
I nodded my gratitude. “Meanwhile, I’ll do some research. Can I have your iPad?” Anjali handed it to me. Our computers were spywared to Redmond and back, and the network was firewalled worse than the People’s Republic of China, but there was a dental office two floors down that ran an open wi-fi hotspot for their patients, and the signal was strong enough to reach our floor. Anjali handed me the tablet, and took Lakshmi by the arm, stooping slightly to reach the shorter woman.
“Don’t eat the donuts,” she shot back over her shoulder.
Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to Offshoring: a Zombie Success Story .