The Old Man

Maeryn Lamonte Copyright ©️ 2024

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming tonight. I realise it’s a little bit of an imposition for me to ask you..."

Everyone laughed politely, which only seemed to confuse the Old Man. I mean this was the New Year’s party, wasn’t it? And he’d all but told us attendance was obligatory. So surely he must have expected a good turnout.

Except he was a bit of an enigma, our boss. Every time I’d spoken to him in the three years I’d been working for him, he’d given me the impression that, whilst he understood each individual word he spoke – and he had quite an exceptionally broad vocabulary – he seemed uncertain of the meaning when they all joined together in a sentence. A little like a foreigner who’d learned the language but still struggled with the colloquialisms, except more so. It was almost like he was foreign to our reality.

There had been three if us on that first day. Three people who’d responded to the advert, and he’d hired all three of us.

“Call me Mr Tumnus,” he’d said.

Alice had laughed. She’d been the best educated of us. “Like in the children’s story?”

“Is that wrong?” he’d asked his expression abruptly worried.

“Not if you have hairy legs and horns,” Alice had responded, still thinking it was a joke.

“Well, my legs are a little hairy,” he’d said, “but I don’t know about...”

“It’s alright sir.” Keith had interrupted. “You’re the boss. We’ll call you whatever you want.”

Ever the brown nose, he’d dived straight in and started burrowing. This seemed to disturb the old man even more.

“We could simply call you sir,” I suggested.

“Yes. I’d hoped for something more informal. I wanted to engender something of a more familial relationship.”

See what I mean about the vocabulary?

“We could refer to you as The Old Man,” Alice suggested. “Or you could choose a less unusual name. Smith perhaps, or Jones.”

“No, no. Too generic. Besides, I wasn’t aware that changing one’s name was so easy, after it’s on all the documents and such. I do approve of your suggestion though. An idiom would promote informality.”

It had set the scene for every future conversation we’d had with him; just a little off key. He never quite lost that sense of quiet discomfort when talking to others, so we became his representatives in almost all interactions.

It was hard to say precisely what we did for him though. There didn’t seem much rhyme or reason to what he asked us to do. Buy this, sell that, ask so-and-so to make us so many of such-and-such. Even when we discussed our assignments with one another, we couldn’t fathom the overall purpose of what we were doing.

It must have been successful though, because the salaries kept being paid, complete with random bonuses and occasional pay rises, and we took on more staff. By the end of our third summer we were all reasonably well off and had stopped wondering about what we were doing.

That’s when things started to go wrong though. Mr Tumnus appeared more often on the office floor, looking around at us all distractedly and muttering to himself. Around mid-October he called us together for a brief meeting in which he apologised that there would be no bonus for the quarter.

He looked each of us in the face and then abruptly turned towards the door to his office, muttering something along the lines of, “Oh dear, oh dear.”

We didn’t see much of him over the next few months. Christmas came and went with the usual office party, which he only attended briefly in order to give us our gifts.

That had been something. The gifts. In our first year, he’d given each of us a car, or rather presented us with three cars and let us choose.

Keith had gone straight for the Aston Martin, laughing at us and saying, “You snooze, you lose.”

I’d protested that they were too much for a gift, and he’d said they represented the value he placed on us.

Meanwhile, Alice made her choice and took the series seven BMW SUV.

That left me with the shocking pink Mini Cooper convertible, which had Keith laughing all over again and Alice grinning at me. There was some apology in her expression, but not much.

Then the Old Man had handed out the keys, each with a key fob. Keith’s was plain leather, Alice’s consisted of a strip of what looked like platinum embedded with a couple of modestly sized but remarkable clear diamonds, and mine was also diamond encrusted, but with a pink diamond the size of my little finger nail in its centre.

“Do with them what you will,” he’d said. “They do count as a business perk, but I’ve paid the tax on them for you.”

Alice and I had our bling valued and it worked out the cost of the jewellery more or less made up for the difference in value of the cars. More than, actually. Alice ended up ten thousand quid ahead of Keith and me twenty.

“I’d offer to swap,” Alice said, “but I don’t suppose you’ll want to.”

“I wouldn’t want your fuel consumption,” I said, “and I think mine’s a better vehicle for city traffic.”

Keith went into a sulk over it all. So much so that we started calling him the Grinch. He retaliated by calling me Bubble-gum – for the pink car, you understand – and Alice the Godmother, which wasn’t highly imaginative, but something in his mind associated that sort of vehicle with organised crime.

The next year we took on another five employees, the three of us interviewing and hiring to the old Man’s requirements. He’d have probably hired them all, and since we had about a hundred candidates, that could have been problematic. As it was, we had one clear choice each and a vote on the remaining two.

Christmas came round for the second year and again the gifts were inordinately generous. Less so, thank goodness. I’m not sure I could have accepted another hundred thousand quid’s worth of gift. This time round we had a choice of any single clothing outfit from a prominent clothing store with a value up to a couple of thousand pounds. That buys quite an exceptional tuxedo, I’ll tell you, but this year it was my turn to be jealous.

We had to wear what we’d bought to the office New Year’s party though and, much as my first choice would have gone very nicely with my car, I suppressed my innermost desires and bought something conventional, albeit exceptionally so.

As a work force, we hit the demographic of fifty percent male and female, with twenty percent being from minorities. The former statistics meant the Old Man could, and did, pair us up for the meal.

Keith – blond haired and blue eyed – objected to being seated next Lynn, a pretty Eurasian girl who’d been Alice’s exclusive hiring choice, so I offered to swap places with him, if only to keep the peace.

At one point, the conversation drifted into equality laws and the question of whether we ought to have someone from the LGBTQ community represented in our small group. Keith suggested that we didn’t need to worry, since I obviously qualified in that regard, laughing loud enough to make up for his being the only person to do so.

Lynn looked ready to go to bat for me, so I placed a hand on her arm.

“Not worth it,” I said. “If you ignore him, he’ll shut up. If you rise to his bait, he’ll never let it go.”

Besides, he wasn’t entirely wrong.

Keith was the only fly in the ointment when it came to working for the Old Man. He did everything asked of him, so it wasn’t as if anyone could complain about his work, but his attitude left a lot to be desired.

It wasn’t just the way he behaved around Lynn and David – David was black and counted as our second minority – but he seemed to look for opportunities to make snide remarks about almost anyone. He’d been making homophobic jokes at my expense all year, since I’d chosen to keep the Mini.

Alice directed the conversation onto a more neutral topic, rescuing the party atmosphere. Mr Tumnus had arranged for a live band to follow the meal so, having eaten our fill, we had the choice of dancing or drinking our way to the turn of the year. Keith chose the latter course, as he had the previous year when he’d discovered his Vantage hadn’t been the pick of the presents he’d thought it was.

Alice and I hadn’t helped matters when, following a conversation with the Old Man in which he’d made the suggestion, we each sold our piece of jewellery – which he admitted hadn’t been particularly practical in the first place – and used the proceeds to put a down payment on a house. By pooling our resources, we’d been able to afford something we both liked. We’d offered to let Keith stay with us, and had been relieved when he’d refused. It meant the two of us would have to find more each month to cover the mortgage, but on the plus side, we only had to endure his presence at work. We’d extended the invitation to the new recruits once they were hired and two of them took us up on the offer. After that, not only were we paying less than Keith’s rent, but the money we were spending was going towards ownership of our property rather than lining a landlord’s pocket. When it came to shares in the house, mine was slightly larger.

I mean, I had paid more of the deposit, but we shared the mortgage repayments evenly, so it was fair my share should be only slightly larger, don’t you think?

Anyway, the evening passed pleasantly enough for those of us who chose to enjoy it. Lynn and I kissed at midnight, but we both knew it was partly the booze and partly living in the moment. We’d go back to being colleagues in the morning.

In the third year, the Old Man had us increase our numbers to a couple of dozen, but instead of seeing profits grow, Mr Tumnus’s face grew graver by the day.

He maintained our salaries, but as mentioned, there were no bonuses in the latter part of the year. No matter what tasks the Old Man gave us to do, no amount of effort on our part seemed to turn things around.

Christmas came and with it the oddest gift of all. To each of us he gave a small velvet case of the sort that might hold a bangle or necklace. In this case each one held a cheap plastic bracelet of the sort you might find among a young girl’s toys.

“They don’t look like much, I know,” he said, “but here’s how it’s to be. There will be a New Year’s gathering as usual, in the same venue as usual – it should be large enough for us all. My gift to each of you this year is to meet your innermost self and those of your companions.

“It is your choice whether to come or not. If you decide against attending, I will consider it your notice of resignation and you need not return to work here after the New Year.

“If, instead, you choose to join me, then come wearing your bracelet. It will ensure you are admitted. Also wear comfortable clothes, but nothing you’re too fond of.

“Until then, I wish you a peaceful break, and I shall see as many of you as choose to attend on the last day of the year, when we will resolve the issues that have plagued us this year.”

Which brings us back to the present.

“So, since you’re all here,” the Old Man said, “that must mean you’re all wearing your bracelets.” He held his own left arm high, displaying pastel plastic on his wrist. He continued to hold it up, looking around expectantly.

Eventually someone in our small crowd picked up on the idea and raised a braceletted wrist. With one more arm in the air, others followed the lead and before long, everyone had an arm held high. Some of the guys evidently felt self-conscious about wearing little girl play jewellery and needed to fish in their pockets first, but we got there.

“Excellent. Now I promised you all an encounter with your innermost self. This device will ensure you have just that.” He indicated a piece of machinery that resembled an airport security gate. “It’s perfectly safe. All you need do is walk through. The device will scan your mind and transform your appearance to match what it finds there. Perhaps I could ask for a volunteer?”

No-one moved, other than to look nervously at one another.

“I should make it clear that everyone who wishes to continue working for me will submit themselves to the machine. Perhaps I might designate someone then. Alice, would you care to do the honours?”

“How does it work?”

“Let us assume that if I were to explain in any more detail than I already have, that you wouldn’t grasp more than a tenth of what I told you.”

“Try me.”

“It reads your mind...”

“How?”

I understood considerably less than a tenth of what he said next. From her expression, Alice was the same. He mentioned something along the lines of a dimensional splicing quantum interlocked phase discriminating pattern interpolator. I’m not sure if I remembered that exactly right, but it was close. It gave me an inkling of what it might be like to understand the meaning of individual words, but not understand their meaning when strung into a sentence.

“What this amounts to,” he continued, “is that we do not share enough common language for me to explain how it does what it does in a way that would mean anything to you, so all I can do is tell you in broadest terms what it does, which I have, and assure you that it is entirely safe, which I also have. What remains is for you to decide whether or not you trust me, and I hope you do.”

It turned out she did. She walked up to the machine and stepped through.

There was a disjointed moment. Alice seemed to flicker briefly and change. She was slightly slimmer, with a bobcut and slightly clearer complexion than usual. The old skin tight jeans and sweatshirt she’d been wearing were gone, replaced by a tailored trouser-suit and silk blouse with sensible but elegant heels.

“Not particularly imaginative,” Mr Tumnus said, “but not entirely unexpected either. Alice is one of my oldest workers and has proven herself to be a hard working and dedicated professional. It hardly comes as a surprise that she should see herself as the executive you see here.

“Keith, perhaps you’d like to try next?”

He shrugged and stepped forward. Seeing one person successfully navigate the device unharmed was enough to give anyone courage.

Once more reality flickered. Once more it was Keith standing there, a little slimmer with his blond hair cut in a neat short back and sides. Once more his clothing had been transformed, this time into a black uniform complete with peaked cap, jack boots and jodhpurs. The lapels if his jacket were decorated with badges showing a stylised double S, resembling bolts of lightning as much as letters. A red armband around his left bicep was emblazoned with a white circle and swastika. The outfit was completed with a black leather belt and shoulder strap.

“Once more, not a surprise. To see you dressed as an officer reflects your competence and willingness to carry out instructions. The choice of uniform reflects your antipathy towards those who do not share your genetic lineage. There are those here who will not appreciate your appearance, but please remember, it is not the individual’s choice that dictates how they are changed, but an honest evaluation of the person within.”

He turned to me and raised an eyebrow.

I hesitated, but I wanted to keep my job. Besides, I had the impression that no-one in the room was going to get away without passing through the machine. Better to do so willingly regardless of how embarrassing.

It’s Hard to describe what it felt like walking through that gate. My awareness of the world around me stuttered, light and sound flickering on and off while my perception of myself flickered back and forth between the way I’d come and...

Everything felt a lot heavier. The weight of a lot more hair cascading down my back, but more than that, the considerable weight of the dress. The bodice held me tight including twin mounds that felt very much a part of my chest. Long white gloves covered most of my arms, very much more slender than I was used to, all the way up to the short, puffed sleeves covering my shoulders. From the waist down my legs were wrapped in layer upon layer of embroidered silk, all in multiple shades of pink. I had a blue pendant about my neck and could feel the weight of additional jewellery hanging from my ears and perched on the top of my very full head of hair.
“Well, this is unexpected, though perhaps explainable.” The Old Man beamed at me. “As I understand it, Princess Peach is the epitome of feminine independence. An unashamedly girly girl with the strength and fortitude to stand up to every problem she faces, and yet with the wisdom to seek out the assistance of others when the problem requires it. I have noticed all the latter in you, my dear, but did not suspect the former.

“I’ve disliked the names you chose for one another from the outset, so permit me to rechristen you. Alice, henceforth you shall be known as Boss Lady. Keith, I believe a more appropriate term for you would be The Fascist. As for you, my dear, I hope you will be content to be known as Princess.”

I looked around nervously. Apart from Keith, whose mocking grin had given way to a scowl at the boss’s new name for him, everyone seemed to be looking at me with a mixture of shock, awe and supportive appreciation.

“Why is everyone looking at me like that?” I asked, my slender hands shooting to my mouth at the new tone to my voice – at once lighter and gentler.

Alice dug in her handbag and pulled out a compact, flipping it open to show me my reflection. I could see faint echoes of my former face, but with larger eyes of startling blue, a button nose and a perfect Cupid’s bow of a mouth, painted unsurprisingly pink.

Lynn stepped through the machine and came to my side, dressed as a ninja.

“I suppose this explains why you never stand up to Keith and his homophobic slurs,” she said. “I wish you’d told me though. You have no idea how this changes the way I feel about you.”

“What, that I’m some kind of gender bending freak?”

“Like I said. No idea.” She pulled her mask aside to show me the smile on her face. There was no mistaking the depth of feeling there. It left me feeling warm and soft inside.

The parade continued with most of the group submitting willingly. Dave’s transformation didn’t look that comfortable, consisting of little more than a grass skirt and war paint, but he wore it well. The rest were a mixture of characters from different bands of fiction, all wholesome in their own way and recognisable in the way they matched their personalities. Then we were down to the last three, no four, including the slender girl lurking in the shadows behind the potter plant. They were all that remained, and none of them looked pleased at the prospect of submitting to the machine.

“I promised everyone here they would see their innermost self and that of everyone else. I won’t have kept my promise if I allow you four to leave without passing through the gate, will I?”

“You can’t make us,” said one of the group of three men standing defiantly by the door.

“Is that what you believe? Well, much as I dislike to disabuse you, you leave me little choice. I didn’t want to do this because it will leave you suggestible and prone to telling the truth, even against your will, at least for a day or two, but since you refuse to act of your own free will.”

He took something out of his pocket and pressed it. All four of them, the half-hidden woman included, stood suddenly upright and rigid, then walked woodenly towards the gate.

The men passed through, each transforming into a soldier. Old fashioned. German. Grey with a steel helmet shaped like a urinal.

“Interesting,” Mr Tumnus said. “Wehrmacht. Not the same as your, Keith, but German Second World War even so. Were they yours?”

“It’s like you said, they’re not dressed the same as me.”

“So, maybe we should ask them. You know, during this particular war, your kind were known for acting on their own initiative, quite often acting unconscionably. Their kind did the same but always claiming to act under orders. It didn’t keep them from being tried for war crimes.”

“What are you implying?”

“Nothing, but let’s ask them anyway.” He addressed the grey clad soldiers. “What instructions did any of you receive from Keith here?”

Their responses went into quite a lot of detail, none of which matched up with anything I knew about. After three years I still had no idea what the Old Man was doing, but I’d become better at spotting links and patterns, and these were well outside anything I knew about. I exchanged a glance with Alice. Her expression said much the same.

The young woman from the shadows also stepped through the gateway. By the time she stepped out the other side, she was clad in a skin-tight PVC cat suit, complete with mask and ears. A short series of questions established that she’d dug after information Keith had directed her towards and removed it from the office. What had happened to it after that was unclear.

“That should do it,” our boss said to Keith. “I don’t think I shall be requiring your services any longer.”

“You going to fire me just like that?”

“No, I’m not going to fire you. You and your friends here are going to resign.”

“We are?”

“Well, your friends don’t have much of a choice, because right now they’ll do anything I tell them to. Watch.

“You four. Come over here.”

Three German soldiers and one cat woman approached. He placed a couple of sheets of papers and a pen on the table in front of each of them.

“The first is a transcript of your confession, the second a letter of resignation. Read them, sign them, walk back through the gate in the opposite direction and leave.”

We watched them follow the instructions, the gate transforming them back into their original appearances on their way out.

Mr T turned his attention towards Keith, handing him an unsigned letter of resignation.

“Just like that?” Keith queried. “Three years’ loyal service counts for nothing. You’re going to take their word over mine.”

“You don't understand how this works. Your co-conspirators were rendered incapable of lying or withholding information, so I know with a certainty what you have done, and whilst I cannot fault you for the manner in which you have carried out all the tasks I assigned you, you have also chosen to make use of the privileged information I made available to you in a manner I consider to be most disloyal.

“Your actions have destabilised much of what I have been seeking to achieve, and I no longer trust you to be a part of this endeavour. So, if you would be so good as to sign your letter of resignation and leave.”

“Or what? You’ll turn me into a zombie like the others?”

“I don’t like resorting to that. Your companions will recover in a few days, though they may retain something of a tendency towards honesty that they may find awkward in their line of work. In your case I now possess sufficient evidence to dismiss you for gross misconduct. Should I do so, you would find it exceedingly difficult to find future employment. The choice is yours.”

Angrily, Keith grabbed the pen and stormed out without passing back through the device that had changed us all.

Mr T shrugged his shoulders. “That too was a choice. I fear he will encounter a great many individuals who will take exception to his costume and seek to apprise him of their dislike, but that is no longer a matter for our concern.

“Princess, Boss Lady, perhaps you have someone in mind to replace him in his role?”

Alice and I shared a look. It was like each of us knew the other’s thoughts. As one we turned our eyes on Lynn.

“Ah,” the Old Man said. “Ninja. Most agreeable. Three lovely ladies to head up my efforts. Very well, so it shall be, though I foresee a challenge with the equalities laws. No matter. Enjoy your evening. I will address you all after midnight.”

We did. Certainly I did. Every person present made a point of giving me some supportive comments. Lynn stayed with me through the whole evening, even accompanying me to the ladies where I discovered the full extent of my transformation, along with the awkwardness of making use of a cubical in that costume.

Midnight came and went and this time Lynn’s kiss promised more than a one-night stand. Mr T gathered us for one more announcement.

“I shall be putting this device away,” he said, “in the hope I shan’t require to use it again. Your transformations earlier this evening made some physical changes. Minor for most of you but more extensive for others. In all they are changes to help you better become your innermost selves.

“I won’t impose such changes on anyone who does not wish them though. If you desire to return to your former selves, then all you need do is pass through the machine in the reverse direction. Either way I shall see you in a couple of days when I hope we will all come with renewed resolved to see our work succeed.”

“Just what is that work, sir?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.

“Stay behind, the three of you. It would be as well if you, at least, know.”

Everyone dispersed, some passing through the machine, most choosing not to. In next to no time all that remained were Alice, Lynn and myself. And the Old Man, of course.

He stepped through the machine backwards, emerging quite different. Taller, slimmer, altered in some indefinable ways. Human still, but somehow less so.

“I come from a future where we are struggling with the consequences of some bad decisions made by mankind as a whole. I and others like me are trying to rectify at least some of this. I won’t be able to explain your tasks any better in the future, but I hope you will trust they will be in the best interests of future generations.”

None of us had any difficulty believing him. We all left without using the machine, Lynn joining us with a view to spending the night and showing me how much more limber her body had become.

Which left me with just one problem. What was I going to wear tomorrow?



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