A first shot at love and a last chance at living.
Ever since the Loveborne virus wiped out half of humanity decades ago, people steer clear of each other. Twenty-four-year-old Alias Novar is no exception. He lives alone in a windowless apartment with a robot he fixed himself, working two remote jobs and barely earning enough to eat, let alone take care of his sick mother. He’s a great runner, but he can’t outrun the half-life he leads, enslaved to fear.
He also can’t keep paying hospital bills on his meager salary. When a lucrative but risky job opportunity presents itself, he’s desperate enough to apply—even if his prospective employer is none other than Deon Dehive. Everyone knows Mr. Dehive. He’s the business mogul whose mysterious offices lie in the woods outside of New York. And unlike most, he encourages social interactions, claiming that people have gained security with antivirals but haven’t regained what they need most: each other.
Miraculously, Alias gets hired as Mr. Dehive’s personal assistant. From a technical standpoint, the job’s easy enough. It’s the constant interactions that keep him on edge. Deon’s teasing smiles and challenging questions reveal kindness and a keen interest that Alias shouldn’t return but is helpless to deny. And therein lies danger. Medicine may have come a long way, but love still kills.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 3 - Moderate
Genre: drama, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, romance, sci-fi
Orientation: bisexual / pansexual, gay
Tone: exciting, intense, realistic
Themes: acceptance, angst, anxiety, artificial intelligence, celebrity / fame, commitment, duty, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, first time, fitting in, geeks / nerds, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, isolation, kids, mental illness, natural disaster, pining / UST, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues, workplace romance
Kinks: barebacking, body worship, dirty talk, frottage, masturbation, praise, rimming / anilingus, virgin
Settings: America, cabin, city, hospital / clinic / medical office, lab, New York (state), New York City, office building, woods / forest, workshop
Careers: assistant, business owner, IT specialist, office worker, scientist / researcher / inventor, secretary, secretary
Risk and Opportunity
The star-shaped Mortella General Hospital loomed above Alias, its five branches casting more darkness than the clouds gathering overhead. His stomach tightened. He glanced away from the two black-and-white-uniformed NID officers guarding the main doors and hurried toward the crowded lift, eyes cast down. Strangers may be deemed safe even for the unlucky souls who couldn’t afford Avida—and Alias had been on antivirals his whole life—but there were exceptions to the rules.
The ride lasted eight seconds, and it was eight seconds too long. He rushed out of the lift and shuddered when a man dressed in a doctor’s white coat brushed his shoulder.
Don’t look. Don’t feel a thing.
But he didn’t need to look at the man to overhear him on his watchphone.
“We just lost her.” The doctor sounded angry. “She was only four. Avida shouldn’t have failed a child . . . I really hope it’s an isolated case again . . .”
Alias stopped abruptly in front of a tall window that offered a view of New York City. He was looking straight at the black towers owned by McCarthy Ltd., but with the doctor’s words gnawing at him, he saw the traditional family unit—a child holding their two parents’ hands via the curved bridges linking the three uneven towers. A social structure of a bygone era: the promise of affection that became an open door to the most lethal virus humanity had ever known. The Loveborne virus had killed more than four billion people during the initial outbreak fifty years ago. In 2145, that had meant half the population.
Avida was supposed to keep the survivors and their descendants safe.
Alias slammed a fist against the pristine glass, startling the woman beside him. He apologized in a half-whisper. Visiting his mother always made him feel so sad he ended up angry. Mad at the virus and at the doctors who offered his mother less and less support, but mostly at himself.
But there was still hope, wasn’t there? Despite the worsening symptoms over the years at Mortella General, his mother hadn’t fallen into a coma. The doctors had no scientific explanation as to why she’d survived for so long, only the usual triteness: love was too complex to understand fully, and the virus was unpredictable.
Alias had meant to come sooner this month, but with two jobs and yet nowhere near enough money, he’d postponed until he started feeling guilty for a whole new set of reasons. Did Lyra McCarthy, the woman at the top of the pharmaceutical company manufacturing and distributing Avida, also have trouble sleeping at night, crafting worst-case scenarios?
He shook himself and headed for room E-8986. To get there, he first had to go through Wing A, where people who showed minor LBV-typical symptoms were grouped together. A man whose partner had just tested negative let out a joyous shout. Alias couldn’t stop a pang of envy any more than he could quell his profound dislike of hospitals.
Wing B, next to it, catered to patients who’d been officially diagnosed with the virus. Some of these patients insisted on going back to their life for as long as they could. When the worst symptoms kicked in—crippling migraines, respiratory distress, fever, and extreme fatigue—they inevitably returned here. Alias almost tiptoed through Wing C and D, depressed once more by the aura of inevitable death that clung to them. Wing C was reserved for terminally ill patients who needed around-the-clock care, and Wing D for those who’d reached the last stage before death: coma.
Those who couldn’t pay the astronomical price tag of Wing C or D ended up in Wing E, with mediocre care and overpopulated rooms.
Alias pushed the door marked E-8986, a comforting smile popping into place. “Hello, Mother.”
Kira Novar, 46 years old, AB, the small screen at the foot of the bed read.
The woman covered in white sheets appeared at least ten years older. Her blond hair was cut just under her ears, straight and pale like straw left outside under a blazing sun. Her jaw and cheekbones had become prominent lately. She’d always been delicate, but with so little fat left on her tiny frame and chalk-white skin even a blush failed to color, she had more in common with a ghost than with the only child she’d borne.
Alias worked a chair between his mother’s bed and the one of a middle-aged man who often complained of hunger. “How are you feeling today, Mother?”
“Very good,” she said, which was obviously a lie.
Her brown eyes were a perfect mirror of Alias’s own. Although tentative smiles played on two pairs of lips, one was wan and honest, while the other was forced but nonetheless fond.
“Don’t worry about me, my dear boy.”
Alias couldn’t help it. He worried about her every day, about what she could and couldn’t do. His mother shouldn’t talk too much, the doctors said. She shouldn’t walk, shouldn’t do anything that might strain her frail body and failing immune system. As a matter of fact, she shouldn’t see anyone, but most patients didn’t care about that rule.
And no one seemed to care about his mother, least of all the doctors, whose only interactions with her were limited to tests. For them, she was a mystery to solve, having been one of the few that lived for so long despite viral reactivation.
His mother never said anything, but he knew how seldom she got treated with gentleness or was offered a hearty meal, how often she went without a shower because she needed help and didn’t get it, how little she saw the sun because this room had no window. She used to have a better room she’d shared with fewer people and much better care beyond occasional rounds of symptom-alleviating medication, but she’d been downgraded a year ago after Alias had lost the only well-paying job he’d ever had.
When his mother tried to sit up, Alias forgot all about his bitterness. He rushed to arrange the pillows at her back and held out the sheet she was trying to grab. Tremors ran through her hand. Alias pressed his own atop hers, rubbing aimless patterns over her knuckles. The tremors were nothing new, but every time the symptom showed, his chest tightened. The condition of hospitalized LBV patients tended to worsen unpredictably, as did his mother’s episodes of respiratory distress.
He didn’t cry. In front of her, he never did.
His morning run was a sacred ritual and a special kind of relief after brushing elbows with so many doctors. Focusing on the light strides of a casual jog helped dim his awareness of others. Under the vast, unthreatening sky, he got to be the cause of his quickening heartbeat. His mind became a simple extension of his body, and his body an enabler of his will.
Fortunately, only a few people were visiting the park this early on a Tuesday morning. Alias slowed to a walk as he neared the forty-feet-tall statue, finding immediate comfort in the familiar, striking mix of copper and steel. The woman gleamed brightly under the sun, the rain droplets weaving a shimmery gown on her naked form. Her long hair flowed around her shoulders, the strands weaved with cogs and other watchmaking mechanisms of extraordinary craftsmanship.
She reminded him of his mother a long time ago.
He dropped to one knee in front of the pedestal. October had already collected its debt, undressing poplars, birches, and linden. He felt equally stripped of his strength. The hospital bill was due in a few days, and he wasn’t sure any amount of self-imposed starvation would make a difference this time.
His hands started shaking. They were fine-boned, like the rest of him, and for a moment, he felt so dizzy from the lack of sleep that he saw leaves instead, their five blades a rare skin color. He looked up at the sculpted woman’s hands, willing his own to stop shaking. She had one outstretched like a shield, and the other splayed over her round belly. Lady Love, bearing hope. She was more than a reminder that love could kill—she was a beacon of fortitude, and a homage to the people who’d borne children despite the risks.
People like his mother.
A flying gardening bot, small compared to the others tending the various flower beds and gathering the fallen leaves, whirred past him. Sparks flared under its left wing. As tempted as he was to fix it and prove to himself that he was good at something, he knew better. One unregistered bot was enough.
He got up. The digits on his watchphone told him he had plenty of time to cover the last two miles, take a shower, and even have breakfast before he was due for his next dose, but he had more than one reason to hurry today. He breezed through the final stretch of his run, barely slowing down on the stairs inside his apartment building. When he reached the dark, narrow hallway leading to his shoebox of an apartment in Lower New York, his humanoid robot was already opening the door.
“Welcome home, Alias. Did you have a nice run?” Ben inquired. “You were very agitated when you left.”
“I wish I could be paid to run.” Alias toed off his shoes and shed his shirt, which he used to wipe off the sweat dripping in his eyes. “My wages barely cover Avida, rent, food, and my mother’s hospitalization, and that’s before Mortella decided to increase the fee for the third time this year. I have . . .” He grabbed his bottle of antivirals on the kitchen counter and popped a pill into his mouth, washing it down with what was left of his water from the run, trying very hard not to think about what that doctor had said about the little girl. “Ben, I have two jobs and it’s not enough.”
“I am certain you will find another well-paying job again, Alias.” Ben did the head-cocking motion Alias had taught it.
Alias tossed his shirt to the floor and got rid of his shorts and underwear, his movements slow and defeated. “Yeah, well, I’m good with numbers and computers, but who isn’t? There’s a reason I haven’t gotten lucky twice.”
“I am searching for an opportunity nonetheless as we speak.”
Being wirelessly connected to the internet, the hubot was always a flicker of processor away from the global network. Alias left Ben to its futile search. His run hadn’t energized him, and the pang of hunger just made the nausea worse as he recalled the tremors in his mother’s hand. The kitchen seemed to shrink, and it was quite small to begin with. Alias sagged against the counter, his white-knuckled grip on the chipped dark melamine the only thing keeping him up. Everything was gray or black in this windowless space he could barely afford, with only specks of white in the bathroom, where a crack ran down the one mirror he owned.
Staring at his wild-eyed reflection and wondering when he’d ended up in the bathroom, Alias witnessed how the unease within splashed outward, tightening the delicate features he’d inherited from his mother. He wasn’t happy. Every day, he worried about triggering the dormant virus, and what the virus was already doing to his mother. There was also this emptiness within him that he couldn’t explain, something missing, a whole dimension of his life lacking.
His pounding heart missed a beat as Ben came up behind him and squeezed his shoulder with the five fingers of its right hand. Its lipless mouth didn’t move when it spoke, but its voice cut through the ringing in his ears. “I will find a solution for you and Kira. For now, focus on me.”
Alias did, pressing his sweaty palm on top of the cool metal hand. Ben was a good two heads shorter than him but seemed taller and sturdier than its dented, flat torso and toeless feet implied.
“You are doing well, Alias.”
From an actual human being, these words would have elicited unease rather than comfort. Fortunately, there was really nothing human about a humanoid robot. All hubots looked like machines—a mandatory design requirement—to prevent an emotional reaction strong enough to trigger the virus.
So Alias allowed himself to be comforted. He breathed through his nose, slow and methodical, as he listened to Ben count down from one hundred. The hubot’s mechanical voice conveyed little in the way of intent, but the color shifting in its eyes, twice as big as a human’s and reminiscent of manga aesthetics, more than made up for it. They were blue now, the color of approval.
“. . . three, two, one.”
Ben’s index finger twitched. Somehow, the glitch was what finally allowed Alias’s mind to settle. He picked up the hubot’s hand and frowned at the misbehaving digit. He’d meant to fix it for ages, but something always came up. He traced the metallic articulation back and forth until the knot in his gut didn’t make him want to throw up. Ben remained quiet. While any hubot could mimic and learn, even take initiative, there were still situations where they didn’t know how to react. Ben used to “draw a blank” a lot more often, but it had gotten better at handling Alias. Not that Alias expected anything. He barely knew how to deal with himself some days.
He cracked a weary smile. “Thank you, Ben.”
“I am here to help.”
After a quick shower, Alias put on his most comfortable clothes—threadbare pants and a shirt two sizes too big—and set up his round-the-clock-office in his tiny bedroom, putting the single bed away to make room for the table and chair. Ben retrieved his laptop for him, perfectly able to multitask.
Alias cracked his neck and got to work. Time rolled by swiftly, the tapping of his fingertips on the keyboard the loudest sound in the room while he coded. At some point, Ben got him a meal bar. It tasted foul, but Alias needed the calories and couldn’t keep skipping meals, or he wouldn’t be able to earn any credit at all. Several hours later, he clocked out of his first job and started on the second one. There was little challenge in his work, and he missed the good mental stimulation his old job offered.
When he next glanced at the time on the screen, it was past 10 p.m. He put the desk away into the wall to get his bed back and flopped down on the hard mattress with a yawn. His body was tired, his mind was too, but sleep refused to come. Ben was standing nearby, completely immobile—still searching. Alias rolled onto his side and stared at the blank wall. Someday, he would liven it up. Put up a picture of the Grand Canyon, perhaps, or reproduce the live feed of that geyser in the Yellowstone National Park . . .
He stiffened. What was he doing indulging in wishful thinking when the base of his Maslow’s pyramid was crippled?
Alias pushed himself into a sitting position and brought up his finances on his laptop. The third time he sighed, Ben perched on the edge of the small bed and twisted its torso in Alias’s direction. It could do a whole three sixty with half of its body if the fancy struck.
“Were you not promised a raise?”
“At my two jobs, yes, but any extra credit won’t help much if the hospital increases its fees again. And let’s not forget that, unlike my employers, my landlord never mentioned rewarding me for thinking outside the box. Just last month, the rent went up again. I have no idea how I’ll pay the bill. It’s not that cold yet, is it? I could cut down on the heating. Do more overtime . . .”
“I am sure your mother would prefer you to be healthier than—”
“We’re not discussing this.” Alias glared at the digits, glaring harder as an ad popped up at the corner of his screen. Exotic dancer. Sweat beaded at his brow as he pictured himself on stage, rock-hard for the show and shriveling inside while strangers’ hands reached for his swaying hips. Interactions of a sexual nature, or repeated nonsexual interactions involving attraction, were considered a limited risk, but a risk nonetheless, even on Avida. Only risk-seekers, or “riskeers” as they called themselves, indulged in promiscuity without a second thought.
“Alias? I believe you should watch the news.”
The data on screen morphed into the figure of a man in his midthirties with short, dusty-blond hair and a suit that probably cost more than what Alias earned in a year. His white shirt stood out against his black pants and jacket, the buttons gleaming like obsidian under the sun. Snug at his neck, the red tie drew attention to his face. And what a face it was: a masterpiece of decisive lines, the nose straight and sharp, the cheeks well-defined, the jaw rough and masculine, the lips full and sinfully red, curled up into a confident smile. He had this air about him, as though he owned the keys to a safe most people didn’t suspect existed.
Even though Alias had only seen the man in tutorials on robotics, he recognized him immediately: Deon Dehive, CEO of Dehive Inc.
But it wasn’t the nature of Mr. Dehive’s innovative work in robotics that held Alias’s attention right now. He could deny the attraction all he wanted, but it was there in the dryness in his throat, in the clenching of his belly. His palms were clammy too, but this had more to do with the fact that Mr. Dehive stood in a very familiar park with an equally familiar statue in the background. He pressed his palm to the screen, focusing on the distance. There was no contact, like this. He was safe. Technically, he could look all he wanted.
Technically, his mother never should have ended up in the hospital.
Breathe, he told himself sternly, pretending it was Ben’s voice keeping his thoughts in line. Between two of his fingers, the three towers of McCarthy Ltd. jutted out like claws behind Deon Dehive’s smiling face. The superposition reminded him of an article he’d read last month. Did Mr. Dehive really dislike his former employer, Lyra McCarthy, as much as the rumors said he did?
“It’s been a few months since Dehive announced an upgrade or a new product, and you are usually eager to share your plans for the company,” a woman’s voice said. “You’ve had the public intrigued by the creation of a virology department three years ago. Dehive belongs to the ten top sellers of hubots in the world, so why spread out your resources?”
“Because I could. And I was curious.”
“What about the public’s curiosity? You haven’t issued a single statement about your virology department since its opening.”
“I couldn’t very well spoil the surprise, you see. And besides, I’m a perfectionist.”
Alias dropped his hand. The close-up of Mr. Dehive turned into a forest and what lay within: Dehive’s main offices. From above, the structure brought to mind the word fractal—a hexagonal shape formed from smaller versions of the same geometrical figure. It was three-stories high, although many said it spread deep underground in a maze-like fashion. The architectural marvel was well-known as “the Hive,” a play on the CEO’s last name more than a reference to bees, although rumor had it that actual beehives could be found in the building.
The journalist painted a portrait of Dehive’s accomplishments over the last couple of years while showing the Hive and its surroundings under various angles. Alias took in the fall foliage as he considered Mr. Dehive’s cryptic words. He wasn’t well versed in business matters, but the secret surrounding Dehive’s virology department stuck him as odd for a man otherwise so . . . open.
“Are you ready to reveal to the world what you’ve been up to in the shadows, Mr. Dehive?” the journalist asked, echoing Alias’s musing.
The feed shifted back to the park. A few passersby had stopped, no more than seven, but that kind of attention would have put Alias on edge, even if the onlookers kept their distances. Of course, Mr. Dehive showed no sign of being bothered by his in-person public, and nodded at those he could see.
“Not quite just yet. However . . .” Mr. Dehive consulted his watchphone. “As of right now, thirteen new positions are open at Dehive Inc., including personal assistant to my very busy person.”
“Is that the reason you are here today, talking to the world?”
His gaze returned to the journalist, or rather, to the bot she controlled remotely.
“Yes and no. I’m also here to remind anyone who’s watching that we do things differently at Dehive,” Mr. Dehive said. “These social work openings, so to speak, are opportunities for you to find out that spending time with your fellow human beings on a daily basis can change your life for the better.”
“Are you actively encouraging citizens to have more of a social life than is recommended?”
“Humans are social creatures,” Mr. Dehive replied at once, seemingly unbothered by the journalist’s aggressive tone. “There is a reason Dehive is flourishing, Ms. Lopez. We need one another. And we need our common dream to become reality.”
“And what dream would that be, Mr. Dehive?” the journalist prompted, not quite as aggressive now.
Mr. Dehive cocked an eyebrow. “Why, to change the world, of course.”
“Is that what the creation of a virology department was about? The concretization of an old dream?”
“I believe we all have the same dream. We all want a world without LBV.”
“Avida is a good shield against the Loveborne virus, but it’s an incomplete solution.”
“An incomplete solution it may be,” Ms. Lopez argued, “yet it has worked well for more than fifty years. And you, Mr. Dehive, disregard the consensus and encourage your employees to work in close quarters with one another. Is that how you plan to change the world? Or do you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t? Are you still denying that your sickness one year ago is unrelated to your promiscuous tendencies?”
The barrage of questions made Alias dizzy, but Mr. Dehive remained perfectly composed and articulate, his poise one of complete confidence.
“I never lie to the public,” Mr. Dehive said. “Or to my employees, present or future. And I want each and every one of you to feel safe, because humanity as a whole has lost that, and it’s a loss I mean to address. As the head of Dehive Inc., I may take risks to get there, but that’s not what I’m asking of you.”
The camera zoomed in on his face. Blue eyes filled the screen.
“Trust me. That’s the only risk I’m asking you to take.”
Alias blinked at the screen. He couldn’t shake the sense that Mr. Dehive had been looking at him, asking him if he was willing to that the risk. Challenging him.
Alias pursed his lips together. Deon Dehive slept around right and left, cultivating lovers in his own workplace. The riskiest of all riskeers, according to the tales about him. But he was also filthy rich, and maybe, just maybe, one of those job offers could help Alias secure the care his mother needed.
He propped himself against the wall and set the laptop on his thighs. The thirteen job offers were easy to find. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the qualifications for any of them.
“Not even this one?” Ben prompted, putting the first offer back on the screen.
Job title: Personal assistant
Salary: Starting at 350K credits/year, based on experience, meals and accommodations included.
Schedule: 50 hours+/week
Note: The PA has to be available on short notice for day, evening, night, and weekend work ranging from three- to eighteen-hour shifts. Must show efficiency, discipline, versatility, good interpersonal skills, and resistance to stress. Will work in close contact with other people.
“I can’t do that.” Alias looked between the screen and Ben, trying to convey his disbelief—and ignore the nauseous mix of hope and fear in his belly. “I can’t be an in-person personal assistant.”
“You could. You think outside the box and you are adaptable, which you proved more than once in your previous job as a personal assistant.”
“Remote and occasional assistant,” Alias corrected. “And unofficial to boot. I only ended up organizing a couple of things for my boss because I wrapped up my work early.”
“Which shows efficiency and discipline.”
“I really don’t have the experience, Ben.”
“It costs nothing to apply.”
Alias buried his head in his hands. Three hundred fifty thousand credits a year. Three hundred fifty thousand. That was a fortune. Oh, what he could do with all that credit . . . and what he would risk, too, working for and with a man who thought nothing of close contact. With a screen between them, he’d felt relatively safe from his attraction. If he were to work with Deon Dehive in person . . . His antivirals might do their job, but they could fail him, too, just like they’d failed his mother.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Alias.”
Three hundred fifty thousand credits a year. Working as an in-person assistant. Being constantly in close contact with people.
He would never need to worry about his mother not getting the care she deserved ever again.
He would never be hungry again.
He might be able to have a place with windows.
Alias drew in a ragged breath. “Mr. Dehive never answered the question about what’s going on in his virology department. Perhaps they’re experimenting on the employees. That must be why there’s so much money offered.”
“This is your fear speaking. You are safe with your Avida.”
“As safe as anyone can be, and that seems to be less and less the case.” Alias stared at his hands. “Still, it doesn’t . . . It can’t change . . .” He felt thirsty and tired, his mind running in all kinds of directions, and he just wanted . . . He wasn’t sure what he wanted. “People have been taking antivirals for decades and are still reluctant to work social jobs because a risk remains. Except the lunatics. Do I look like I’m as crazy as Mr. Dehive clearly is?”
Ben’s metallic mitten-shaped left hand landed on his shoulder. Alias hugged his knees to his chest and let his head rest against Ben’s arm. With all that complex circuitry running under its metallic veneer, Ben really was well attuned to humans. Alias glanced up. Ben’s big eyes had gone yellow—the color of doubt. Because of Alias’s resistance or the position itself?
He got to his feet using the wall for support. No matter where he stood in his apartment, a wall was always close by.
“I’ll be in the shower.”
A headache was building at his temples. For the second time that day, he stepped into the minuscule shower under the single flickering light and started rubbing his torso hastily under the lukewarm water. In his pulsating skull, the same word echoed over and over: riskeer. Deon Dehive was such a person. The riskiest of all, if the tales had any truth to them.
He reached for his feet, which required some gymnastics. The water ran cold now, but his body didn’t get the memo. His eyelids fell shut. Solitude was a price he paid willingly to increase his chances of staying alive, but it wouldn’t be enough for his mother. And Alias wasn’t about to lose the one person it was safe for him to care for and love.
He pictured Deon Dehive’s face—the easy smile, the confidence his whole being radiated. What if he was telling the truth?
When Alias returned to the bedroom, his computer was still on his bed. He sat down gingerly and clicked open the appropriate window. Ben opened the lid of the multi-vitaminized protein jelly that was the main part of his diet and handed it to him with a spoon. Alias dug in, but the taste was lost on him.
In-person personal assistant.
“That’s the only risk I’m asking you to take.”
He started filling out the application form. There were many, many questions, and his confidence wavered as he stumbled upon sections titled “Previous Experiences” and “Recommendations.” Ever logical, Ben gave him advice based on similar applications found on the internet. Alias inserted the suggestions within his answers.
“Sent,” he whispered. It sounded like a challenge. “What do you think, Ben?”
The robot picked up the empty bowl, eyes shining blue. “The included meals would take care of your huge appetite, at any rate.”
Alias glanced down at his belly. Its flatness had little to do with muscle definition. That he’d managed a growth spurt in his teens and reached five foot seven was a miracle.
He flung the wet towel across the chair bolted in the wall and stretched on the bed, eyelids growing heavy.
“I hope I didn’t just make a huge mistake.”
The call from Dehive on Friday had been unexpected, to say the least. Alias wasn’t the most likely candidate, no matter how often Ben listed his strengths for him. A personal assistant was a social job, and Alias Novar had never been good with people on purpose. He was adept with a computer and well-organized, but surely such skill sets were commonplace in the twenty-second century? He truly was no one special.
Or so he’d thought.
The identity of the caller had been as surprising as the call itself: Jaden Angelius, Deon Dehive’s current personal assistant until a replacement was found. Alias had stuttered through the whole conversation and expected Ms. Angelius to hang up on him in annoyance.
He still wasn’t sure why that hadn’t happened.
“What am I even doing here?” he whispered aloud Saturday morning. The address he’d been given was close to Upper New York, and he could have jogged there, but first impressions were very important, so he’d taken the tram instead. Rubbing elbows with people hadn’t exactly helped with his stress level.
Was this even the right place? The unassuming two-story building showed no outright sign of its owner, and the wide windows and modern style weren’t exactly unique in the area. There was no number on the door, holographic or otherwise. For the third time, Alias checked the GPS location. Yes, this was undoubtedly it. He just had to cross the street and open the door.
Never before had a door looked so imposing.
He wiped his hands on his best trousers and was immediately reassured by the familiar bulge of his vial of Avida pills in his right pocket. His next dose was in the evening, but feeling the bottle was doing wonders for his anxiety. Most people carried theirs on their person at all times. It wasn’t just him or his all-encompassing paranoia.
What about Mr. Dehive’s claims, then?
Alias gripped the bottle through the fabric and exhaled through his nose.
He had to stop overthinking this . . . opportunity.
The sudden appearance of a shuttle startled him. It had private transportation written all over it, despite the lack of any distinctive sign or logo. Did it belong to Dehive? Two women exited it. Despite himself, Alias found himself staring wide-eyed at the duo. Those women were talking and laughing together, hands brushing as they walked away from the shuttle.
Probably employees from Dehive.
Alias rushed inside the building, as if speed could make up for sheer stupidity. The door hissed closed at his back. Alias slowed to a tentative walk, befuddled by the bare white walls and the lack of, well, everything he associated with wealth. He hadn’t expected anything like the Hive, but still, Dehive’s name should be somewhere. Unless this was merely a rented space? With all the secrecy surrounding Dehive and his work, it would make sense that interviews would be conducted somewhere bland and unassuming that couldn’t hint at corporate mysteries.
The place smelled faintly of fresh paint and something flowery. The only furniture amounted to a handful of chairs and an imposing desk behind which stood a hubot. Alias breathed a sigh of relief. After Mr. Dehive’s speech about his employees’ habits, he’d dreaded a human receptionist.
“Mr. Novar? Alias Novar?” the hubot asked.
“Welcome.” When the hubot gestured behind itself, the sun hit the dark triangle fashioned with a twin D between its glowing eyes. “Mr. Novar, if you’ll follow me.”
Alias tucked his hands into the cheap polyester pants he’d bought only yesterday after skipping a few meals. At least the tie, which he’d found at one of the many all-hubot-staffed thrift stores in his neighborhood, matched his brown eyes.
The hubot led him through a door in the back. Alias matched its pace, pretending that clutching his Avida bottle wasn’t a feeble attempt to find his bearings. Was he going to interview through a screen or in person? He tried to turn his focus to his surroundings, but the narrow corridor offered no distractions. His feet made hardly any noise on the tiled floor, and the hubot made none at all. A more pronounced note of sweetness wafted to his nostrils as they reached a nondescript door.
“Good luck,” the hubot told him by way of a farewell.
The door chimed open. For a second, Alias was tempted to follow the hubot back to reception, but a human’s voice—a more melodious voice—froze him in place.
“Good morning, Mr. Novar.”
The voice hadn’t come from a sound system. There was an actual person in this room.
Even though he’d never seen her, Alias had heard this melodious voice once before, and could only assume he was standing in front of Jaden Angelius. As the former personal assistant of one of the most powerful businessmen in the country, and one of few people to have done this job in person, she must be taking the matter of her replacement seriously.
Alias knew he ought to look at her face. There might be no screen between them, but it was relatively safe still. He wasn’t familiar with her.
He hardly knew Mr. Dehive either, but that would change if he got hired, wouldn’t it?
The polite words he’d rehearsed with his mother died in his throat.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you in person, Mr. Novar.”
Alias willed himself to speak up, but his tongue seemed to have doubled in volume, and the only thing he could convince his body to do was lift his chin and look at his interlocutor.
Ms. Angelius stood from behind a large black desk, hands clasped in front of her. The matching chairs on opposite sides of the desk were probably the fancy kind that would fit a body’s shape. Nothing further decorated the room. The bright white lights embedded in the ceiling matched the impersonal walls.
The woman wasn’t nearly as color-shy. Her red hair flew in wavy flames down her delicate shoulders, with a few strands braided together. She wore a combination of red and brown fabrics in complex superposition that couldn’t quite be called a dress, but Alias couldn’t put any other name to it. She wore no makeup, but she didn’t need any, with the vivid pink of her lips and the warm chocolate brown of her eyes.
Patience and understanding laced her tone, implying that she hadn’t taken any offense by his staring. Maybe she suspected he didn’t get out much.
“T-thank you for considering my application,” he managed to say at last.
Inwardly, he cringed, but a smile flashed on Ms. Angelius’s lips. His sigh of relief was cut short when she extended her hand.
Alias didn’t step back, but it was a close thing. He understood what a handshake was, of course. He’d read about them. Alias told himself that touching someone he felt nothing toward was way down the risk scale. Barely higher than engaging someone in conversation.
Alias took a fortifying breath and grasped the offered hand gingerly. Ms. Angelius’s hand, the first human hand he’d touched in years that wasn’t his mother’s, was dry but smooth. The handshake barely lasted a couple of seconds, but Alias held his breath the whole time.
“Please have a seat.”
He waited for her to sit down before sinking into the other chair. Burying his hands under his thighs didn’t stop him from squirming, but at least it kept him from fiddling with his clothes.
“May I ask why Dehive is hiring when he already has you?” he blurted out.
“I am not being replaced, not exactly,” Ms. Angelius said before Alias could make even more a fool of himself by asking questions at random. “I will continue working for Mr. Dehive directly, but I will be more . . . independent. Mr. Dehive needs someone who’ll follow him around, and I am not suited for that role anymore.”
Alias frowned but kept his mouth shut.
“Let’s say I have done enough mothering for a lifetime,” Ms. Angelius added, correctly interpreting his confusion. “Deon Dehive is a great man, but he needs someone at his side at all times, and I have other projects . . . You’re not used to conversing with actual people.”
It wasn’t a question, so Alias didn’t reply. Ms. Angelius’s expression was indecipherable, except for a flash of pity. Alias blushed, shame and rightful anger warring inside of him.
“You will need to work on that, if you want the position.”
“I-I understand.” He needed the credit. He really did. “I can do better,” he said more firmly.
“Good.” The pity was gone. “Your application says that you work two jobs currently. Could you explain to me what you do?”
“I-I develop software for a think tank overseas, and I help manage the sales of a local import-export company.”
“Which is unrelated to the job you are applying for,” Ms. Angelius replied, not unkindly. “You are a hard worker, but so are plenty of other people. What makes you a good fit for Dehive?”
“I’m adaptable and well-organized, and I learn fast, which was crucial in my previous job as an occasional personal assistant.”
Ms. Angelius didn’t seem to mind the use of occasional. “Could you expand on that?”
Alias had worked on his answer to this particular question with Ben for so long he almost sounded confident listing off everything he’d done for his previous employer, which had gone far beyond the scope of his employment contract.
“Sometimes I would handle his emails and help him work out the kinks in his busy schedule. He also requested my input on some financial aspects of his business, as I’m good with numbers. I was told I see solutions in unexpected places, which made me invaluable for him.”
“You only worked there—” Ms. Angelius scanned her computer screen. “—six months.”
“My employer died.” Alias bit his lip. “From LBV.”
He tried hard not to think about his suspicions that his former employer’s death had stemmed from his tendency to forget his Avida doses, despite the reminders Alias had set for him.
“An irregular schedule does not intimidate you?” Ms. Angelius asked.
“That’s the only schedule I’ve ever known.” A smile tugged at the corner of his lips despite the sweat gathering at his nape. “I’ve always worked at odds hours with strict deadlines, and that’s— I’m all right with that. I’m not . . . unfamiliar with stress either.”
More questions followed. Alias pretended he was talking to a screen, and after a while, the unfamiliarity of chatting with someone in the flesh turned from an instant danger to a low-key threat. He managed a couple of smiles while he outlined his assets and motivations as best as he could. Ms. Angelius smiled back at his use of the word autodidact.
“Why do you want this job?”
Alias had expected this question, but the answer he’d carefully crafted earlier had left his mind. Possibilities bounced around in his head.
“I—” Despite the coolness of the office, sweat trailed down his back. He shifted in his seat. “Because I need it.”
Alias’s gut instinct was to mention his mother, but he wasn’t sure that was what Ms. Angelius was after. He wasn’t quite clear on how he knew that either.
“I don’t really have a life,” he said, cheeks reddening. Oh, that had come out wrong, even if it was true. He shook himself. “I think . . . I’d like to do something useful that doesn’t just involve numbers. Help—” My mother. “—p-people. And . . .”
Ms. Angelius hummed in what might be approval. “And the salary is interesting, isn’t it?”
“It really is,” Alias hurried to agree before he could think better of it. His face heated up further, but thankfully, Ms. Angelius only seemed . . . amused? “I mean, it is a lot of credit. But I-I’m also interested in the company’s innovations in robotics. The facial recognition software developed at Dehive is incredible. Just last week . . .”
To his own surprise, he managed not to stutter over the next several sentences and even kept it simple—there was no need to gush about nanites, a technology still in its infancy despite nanobots having been in development for almost two centuries. His enthusiasm probably showed, if Ms. Angelius’s quirked lips were anything to go by.
“I believe that concludes our interview, then,” she said when Alias decided he’d talked enough about his passion. “Do you have any questions?”
Of course Alias had questions. Many, many questions. What was Dehive aiming to accomplish through his other department? Research on LBV? Would his mother be awarded some form of insurance credit if Avida stopped protecting Alias and he was too sick to work? Did he have to spend time in Mr. Dehive’s presence every day? Would he need to up his bidaily dose of Avida, even though his maximum dosage was two pills per day? Was Mr. Dehive really sleeping around with his staff?
The thing was, those were not questions he could ask.
“No,” he said, and almost tripped on his own feet as he stood up. Stretching out his hand wore away what little was left of his courage, but the approving smile it earned him was worth it.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Novar.” There was a new softness to Ms. Angelius’s expression that Alias didn’t know how to interpret. “I’ll be in touch.”
Alias didn’t think that would happen.
A week later, on the last day of October, Alias almost accepted a third job. He hadn’t applied for it, but someone at the software firm must have liked his work, because he got a call. He was tempted to accept because it meant more money.
“You have not had a full night of sleep in weeks,” Ben reminded him quietly while Alias struggled to form a coherent answer.
He really was at the end of his rope, but he couldn’t say that, so he thanked the caller and burst into tears as soon as the line cut.
“Sleep,” Ben encouraged him.
But Alias didn’t find sleep that night and spent Sunday juggling his two jobs in a daze, barely able to function. When his watchphone rang in the evening, he was half-asleep at his desk.
“Alias Novar speaking,” he said in a wobbly voice.
“Good morning, Mr. Novar. This is Jaden Angelius, from Dehive Inc. We met for an interview.”
Alias’s mind went blank. If the interview on the Saturday before last had been unexpected, it was nothing compared to this call. He stared at Ben as the hubot did its best imitation of a thumbs-up.
“Y-yes.” Alias sat straighter in his chair. “Did you . . . Did you have other questions?”
“Actually, I have an answer for you, Mr. Novar. If you are still interested, the job is yours.”
“It is?” Alias winced at the note of disbelief in his voice. “I— Of course, I’m still interested.”
“When are you available to start?”
Alias opened his mouth and closed it again. After paying the last hospital bill, he’d eaten less than usual, and he couldn’t imagine going through several days of fasting.
“I wish I could start tomorrow, but . . .”
“It’s customary to give a two-week notice? I’m fairly certain that my employer and yours can come to an arrangement.”
“That . . .” Alias quickly wiped away the single tear of relief trailing down his cheek. “That would be great,” he croaked.
“Then I will see you tomorrow, Mr. Novar. You will find the details enclosed in the email I’m about to send you.”
Alias thanked her, twice, and didn’t even stutter. Ms. Angelius’s chuckle as she hung up sounded amused rather than mocking, but Alias couldn’t be sure. He didn’t spend enough time with people.
That was about to change.
He spent the rest of that day distracted during working hours—and outside them too—because of the hope burning inside him, the kind he hadn’t felt in much too long. He would be able to take care of his mother and himself. The prospect of dealing with people all day, and with Mr. Dehive on a regular basis, terrified him, but fear was nothing new in his life. He would handle it.
On Monday morning at five o’clock sharp, he met Ms. Angelius in the lobby of the unnamed building from his interview. She leaned back against the desk, typing away at her tablet. Her red hair had been made into a single, thick braid that rested on one shoulder. The complex dress-thing had led way to a black blouse and dark red pants.
Meeting her gaze was still hard, and Alias hoped he managed to appear less uncomfortable this time around.
“G-good morning, Ms. Angelius.”
“Good morning, Mr. Novar. I hope you slept well.”
Alias hadn’t slept at all, but he wasn’t about to expose himself further. Thankfully, Ms. Angelius didn’t insist, and she didn’t comment on his choice of clothes, not that he had a choice. Together, they stepped outside under a clouded sky.
The black shuttle from last time was waiting. To Alias’s profound relief, the vehicle was empty and self-driven. He followed Ms. Angelius’s example and set his trembling palm on the biometric scanner. It blinked green.
“You have your pick of seats. There’s usually a dozen other Dehive employees boarding at this hour, but I’ve arranged for an extra ride.”
They sat on opposite sides near the middle. Alias barely had time to register how comfortable and plush the seat was, how easily he could have fallen asleep in it had he been any less nervous, before the shuttle took off. He watched the tall towers of McCarthy Ltd. shrink in the distance with a sense of foreboding.
“There are several departures every day,” Ms. Angelius said. “Your schedule isn’t going to be set in stone, because it will follow Mr. Dehive’s, but I recommend the five o’clock shuttle as your default morning ride. The last shuttle to depart from the Hive leaves at two in the morning, so rest assured that you will have a way home no matter what. The ride takes around forty minutes. I sometimes sleep on the way. You may too . . . Just not today.”
Alias wished he could share her amusement. “That’s convenient,” he offered, and tried to sound grateful even though his insides churned at the prospect of spending that much time surrounded by people, asleep or otherwise.
“As I mentioned on the phone,” Ms. Angelius continued, “you will first go through a test period. If afterward Mr. Dehive still believes you are a good fit for the company, you will stay. No matter what the final decision turns out to be, you will be paid for the duration of this period. Later today, you will also sign your first nondisclosure agreement. I’m sure you understand that Dehive can’t have his employees disclosing sensitive information to the general public.”
Sensitive information probably revolved around the virology department more than the robotic one, considering how open Dehive Inc. was about the latter. But there would be time to embrace his curiosity when he wasn’t toeing the line of a panic attack.
“What do you do in your spare time, Mr. Novar?”
Alias noticed he’d been twisting his hands together and forced them apart with a heavy exhale. “I, er, jog.”
“Do you jog every day?”
The memory of Deon Dehive standing in the park came back to him. “Yes.”
Ms. Angelius kept the conversation going for the rest of the ride. Alias assimilated the information and did his best to come up with intelligent questions. It took some concentration. He hadn’t slept, and this was the first time he’d left the city center, and the first time he’d engaged in a lengthy conversation with someone who wasn’t his mother. And what about the firsts yet to come?
Forty minutes or so after the shuttle left the city, they were dropped at a path leading into dense woods.
“There’s about half a mile to the entrance,” Ms. Angelius said.
She moved with a confident grace, unbothered by the uneven ground despite the challenges presented by four-inch heels. The path must be very familiar to her. Would it become like that for him? The prospect both terrified and intrigued him.
They walked side by side, with a comfortable five feet between them. Alias tucked his hands into his pockets. Willing his fists to unclench a little more with every step, he took in his surroundings. There were trees in the parks he ran through, but this was a forest, a microcosm of sights and scents, a world of its own. Some of the tree species he recognized from his morning runs, and a ridiculous sense of pride stirred in his chest.
Alias braced himself for an encounter with other Dehive employees, but the road remained empty. The wind rustled through the leaves, a constant hissing jazzed up by the stridulation of locusts and the chirping of birds. Tilting his head back, Alias took in the delicate lines of sky branching out in between the colored treetops high above. To avoid the spread of leaf-eating larvae, some fully stocked trees kept their crowns from growing into each other’s space. The phenomenon even had a name: crown shyness.
Alias could certainly relate.
All thoughts of trees left his mind as his place of work appeared before him. The Hive was more magnificent than video had conveyed, the black and gold of the metallic hexagonal structure shining brightly. He slowed down. He’d walked the whole time, and yet he felt like he’d just completed his usual jogging circuit—if such a circuit had consisted of uphill sections only. Had Ms. Angelius not kept a close watch on him, he might have braced himself against his knees.
“How about we start with a tour, Mr. Novar?”
The main doors were twice as wide as they were tall, and Alias could have jumped and not brushed the top. Voices filtered through the tinted glass, and some of the shadows—definitely people—went still.
A press of Ms. Angelius’s palm parted the doors for them. Alias spotted four people and an equal number of hubots. He startled as the doors closed at his back, and tried to school his features into something he wasn’t feeling while every pair of eyes seemed to zero in on him. Conversation stopped. Alias didn’t know how to react, but he was sure of one thing: skipping breakfast had been the right decision.
“There’s nothing to see here.”
The calm authority in Ms. Angelius’s voice sent people scurrying back to their work. Alias silently berated himself for being nervous. It could be so much worse. He wasn’t required to touch anyone, to make friends with the other employees.
“Look around, Mr. Novar.”
Alias forced himself not to startle again as Ms. Angelius’s heels clicked loudly in the sudden quiet. His heavy breathing was embarrassingly loud in the lobby.
And what a lobby this was. The boring white from the building in New York was nowhere to be seen. Gold, yellow, beige, brown, and black occupied the space in perfect proportions, granting the vast hexagon a sense of warmth. The irregularly shaped bench to his right was made of wood, and the main counter appeared to have been crafted by the same artist. A candelabra of vines hung from the ceiling and spread in wide hoops around golden fixtures that allowed them to spill even lower, halfway down from the twenty-ish-foot-tall ceiling.
“Are you ready?”
Alias nodded. The coziness and the sheer beauty of the space had helped drain some of his nervousness, and it was with renewed determination that he followed Ms. Angelius down the first corridor.
True to the rumors, the Hive was a maze. The building spanned close to two million square feet split on five floors, two of which were underground. Ms. Angelius also told him that the meeting rooms, offices, laboratories, and factories were connected by a network of vertical and horizontal lifts. The latter bemused Alias, but he supposed that not everyone was used to reaching their destination on foot. Every corridor branched out in two or three duplicates. The intersections were hexagons, and so were a lot of the decorations—abstract wooden and metallic structures arranged at random.
If the idea was to get a stranger lost, it worked splendidly.
His guide never hesitated, gesturing right and left, painting a general picture of the place with ease. Given that everything else was meticulously labeled, Alias wished Ms. Angelius would explain the occasional unmarked door or sector, but he reined in his curiosity.
He did ask about the bees, though.
“Oh, yes,” Ms. Angelius replied, and waved at two men passing by. “There are certainly bees around.”
The men returned her wave. One of them nodded at him, but by the time he gathered the courage to do the same, the duo was long gone. Ms. Angelius retrieved her tablet from the pouch at her hip and tilted the screen to show Alias what looked like a map of the Hive.
“That’s your office. It’s very close to Mr. Dehive’s office, for practical reasons.”
Alias’s eyes zeroed in on the labeled box in between the two rooms Ms. Angelius had just indicated with one polished nail.
“And is that . . . a daycare center?”
“Don’t worry, the walls are soundproof. It’s actually on a different level too.”
“I’m not concerned about the noise. I . . . think it’s great that Dehive has a daycare center.” Alias ran a finger over the daycare label.
“The Hive is a very interesting place to get lost in, but I recommend you familiarize yourself with the layout as soon as possible.” With two fingers, Ms. Angelius zoomed out. “Your current security clearance gives you basic access to all main areas. A tablet including a generic map will be provided later today. Both your security clearance and the map may be upgraded in time should you retain the position.”
She traced a circle over an area in the far-right corner. “Robotics is around here. You’ll hear the staff refer to our main department as ‘the BotHouse,’ for obvious reasons.” Her lips twitched in a half smile. “You’ll learn more about the virology department in due time.” Or not at all, was left unsaid. “Any questions so far?”
If not for the timely interruption of three other employees, a man and two women talking in hushed voices, Alias might have answered with actual words. Their expressions were pleased, a fact Alias couldn’t begin to comprehend, given that there was barely a foot of space between them.
“I ought to remind you that this much human contact is nothing compared to what you will be experiencing as a PA,” Ms. Angelius remarked.
“I know,” Alias said, perhaps a little too harshly. He’d been in a constant state of unrest since he’d stepped into the shuttle, but that was no excuse—not for the fierce redhead staring him down, anyway. “I-I’ll get used to it,” he said, not quite convinced.
Ms. Angelius sighed. “Mr. Dehive has only the barest concept of personal space. He’s the one you’ll need to get used to.”
“I’m . . . I’ll do my best.” He had to stop his hands from fidgeting. His shirt was creased enough as it was. “You mentioned my office?”
Ms. Angelius handed him the tablet. “Find it for us.”
The distraction of finding his way through the maze worked like a charm. He didn’t notice the change at first, but as they closed in on his office, he found it easier to breathe. His initial panic at the beginning of the tour had dimmed to a prick of unease, and the few people crossing his path registered as obstacles he had to get around rather than threats. He should probably be proud. Or worried that carelessness had led to pride.
When he reached his destination, he turned toward Ms. Angelius.
Alias placed his right hand on the smooth metal of the scanner. The door slid open, letting him into the most beautiful room he’d ever seen.
“This is where you’ll be working, when Mr. Dehive has no need of you elsewhere.”
Alias stood rooted to the spot. The walls were painted a pale blue and slightly darker green, with wide stripes of textured brown weaving in between large windows like supple tree trunks. Small branches spread upward alongside vines to frame a domed ceiling made of stained glass, each panel depicting a landscape. The sun lit up the colored glass, and the sheer beauty of it all struck a chord deep in Alias’s chest.
Ms. Angelius’s heels clicked on the floor. Alias followed her farther into the circular room, unable to fix his gaze anywhere for long.
“Your job will be easy enough,” Ms. Angelius said in a tone that claimed the exact opposite, leading him to a desk displaying three computer screens set in front of a tall column. “As Dehive CEO’s personal assistant, you’ll handle every call directed to Mr. Dehive personally. There will be managers, high-level employees, representatives from other companies, business partners, politicians: all strangers, some of which will become quite familiar to you in a very short time. There will be files on 99.9 percent of them in the main database, notes detailing their affiliations with Dehive, how to address them, and if, at all, you should transfer them to Mr. Dehive. Never transfer a call to Mr. Dehive just because the person on the phone insists you should. Most of your callers will.”
Alias gulped. Was he supposed to argue with people now? He leaned into his workstation for support, trying not to appear as overwhelmed as he felt. The desk was made of a golden metal matching the twenty-inch statue standing with its back to the column. The soothing sight of Lady Love gave him strength.
“Is there any call I should transfer to you?” he asked in his best attempt at a level tone.
“It’ll be in the notes, but I can tell you the gist of it: the calls that Mr. Dehive should take but doesn’t.”
“That . . . happens?”
“Quite often, I’m afraid. It’ll be your role to keep track of those, and mine to smooth things over.”
“I understand.” At least, he understood the general principle.
She gave him an encouraging nod. “Very few people will visit you in person. The bulk of your visitors will be other employees, and they should be easier to handle than your average call.”
Was that supposed to reassure him? Alias’s legs wobbled. When Ms. Angelius nudged his shoulder, he bit back a squeal.
“How about you sit down? I’ll show you the ropes, and then you can sign the contract.”
He did as he was told and sighed in relief when the chair conformed to his body. An option for massages caught his attention just below his right thigh. At least he would be comfortable while he panicked.
“Let’s start with the various communication systems.”
There was nothing too alien about the software Ms. Angelius showed him, and he followed her explanations with ease, focusing on the zeros and the ones instead of the unknown number of people he’d be expected to deal with tomorrow morning. Afterward, Ms. Angelius practiced several scenarios with him, detailing the various dos and don’ts. Alias’s previous experience as an occasional and temporary personal assistant didn’t give him much of an edge, but he could be creative, which Ms. Angelius seemed to appreciate as much as the employer he’d lost.
After training all morning, they took a break and ate in his office. Alias tried not to make too many noises around his mouthfuls of hearty stew, but it proved difficult: the meal had to be the best he’d ever eaten. Unless it was merely the fact that, for once, he got to eat as much as he needed.
The afternoon was spent going over more scenarios.
“You’re quite the quick study,” she complimented as she brought the contract on screen at last. “Certainly more than I was on my first day. You’ll do fine.”
“You have more confidence in me than I do,” Alias said without thinking.
The admission startled a laugh from her. Alias found himself smiling as he read the contract. There was a lot to it, and quite a few unfamiliar turns of phrase, but Ms. Angelius didn’t seem to mind the slow reading, or the occasional question. Alias had to go through the nondisclosure agreement twice before he felt confident in his understanding of the finer points. It all boiled down to one thing: what happened at the Hive stayed at the Hive. Alias could only talk about his work to Ms. Angelius and, of course, Mr. Dehive. Considering how little Alias wanted to interact with anyone, that wasn’t going to be a problem.
When he was done reading, he signed everywhere required. He was disappointed, though not surprised, that the contract contained no hints about the work being done in the virology department.
“That concludes the first step of your hiring,” Ms. Angelius announced, and stood up with much more grace than Alias to shake his hand again. “Welcome to Dehive Inc., Mr. Novar.”
Word Count: 103,000
Page Count: 326
Cover By: Simone
Release Date: 05/29/2023