The computer screen blinked. An animated goat in the corner crowed “You’ve got meh-eh-eh-ail!” A timer appeared and began counting down from fifteen.
Penelope sighed, and opened her inbox. She knew from experience an unopened email would result in the fiery combustion of its resident computer as soon as it had determined someone was ignoring the message.
Last week a cockroach who’d missed the company memo had sent the entire Advertising Department up in flame with its negligence. It was not a great loss, partly because it was impossible to market the plant’s products when nobody knew what they were, and partly because the Advertising Department had been staffed with paper-doll cut-outs of human forms inhabited by ancient vengeful spirits. Still, efficiency came first, and the system had remained.
Penelope had not yet succumbed to the common practice of marking all incoming mail as spam and draping the terminal in one of those cute asbestos designer blankets from Bed, Bath and Table.
Re: Hey! read the subject line, and Penelope bit her lip as she opened it and scanned the contents.
Hey! it read. You should know how horny I am. Come warm yourself up with me in this hot little hellhouse. We’ll try something new and forget about that light-headed loser you’ve been rolling around with XXXO P.S. I can’t contain my horniness so I attached a pic 😉
The attached picture showed a terrifying eldritch beast with thousands of sharpened, gore-dripping horns sprouting in rippling, gnarled protrusions from all over its monstrous body. Penelope could discern a smarmy, leering wink in the maddening void where its face should have been. The fires of dread Shadrach’s inferno burned playfully all around the nightmarish fiend, framing it handsomely.
“Ugh!” she said aloud, deleting the message. “They’re all just after one thing.”
She shut down her computer and leaned back in her chair. For weeks now, she’d been receiving these unsolicited messages from deities, geeky demigods and intangible forces of nature, all promising her fame and fortune and a really good time if she would just drop her worship of the Force Divine and get with their program. And until a few weeks ago, she’d have just smiled smugly to herself and closed her eyes, secure in her faith feeling the reassuring pull of the Force Divine that kept her firmly tethered to earth.
Penelope stood up and nearly sobbed as she floated an inch above the ground, feet planted firmly on air that was solid only to her. She air-walked despondently to the door, gazing jealously at the hat-stand anchored so surely to the company-patterned linoleum. Hers was not a depressive nature, though, and as she mounted the stairs towards the factory floor her mind drifted to thoughts of her girlfriend, Lana.
“Don’t you listen to that floozy Janine Ravensburger,” Lana had said, referring to the Lodestone of Spasming Hill’s local Church of Overwhelming Gravity, whom Penelope had approached for guidance when the problem began. “You haven’t done nothing to deserve this light-handed treatment you’ve been getting. Now get down here before I pull you down!”
Consequently, when Penelope emerged onto the factory floor of the plant a few minutes later, she was all smiles and gumdrops as she drifted around the area, exchanging kindly words with the workers going about their business, whatever that might be.
She said hello to Thaddeus Bandersnatch, who lived in the land-locked lighthouse by the lonely road out of town, inquired after the health of Pablo Rebus’ brother, Plural, who’d been involved in an accident at the Researchatorium last week, and sent intimations of pleasant days in sun-drenched parks to Ursula, the plant’s telepathic slug. Polite as ever, none of the employees even mentioned her gravity-deficient condition, though Ursula did waggle her antennae in a manner which could have meant anything.
Soon, Penelope was beaming, troubles quite forgotten. This was her domain, such as it was. Let others mock and ridicule her; here upon the factory floor, she, the manager, was sovereign — and none could take that away from her.
So buoyed was she that she floated over to the expressionless man in the silly hat who always haunted the factory floor and oversaw the workers at their tasks, even knowing full well he would probably dissipate violently like morning’s first dew once she got near, like he usually did. This did not bother her. Busy, unspecified industry was buzzing around her and all was right with the world.
The PA system clicked on and an announcement filled the hall. She recognized the voice of her boss, Daniel.
“Would Penelope Glumbutton please report to my office. It is Auditing Day and a representative of the Tax Office is here. Penelope, please come here and free me from this hell I now inhabit. Please, please, you’ve got to come, you’ve got to, please –” The last please was drawn-out and gargling, fading to a choked whisper as Daniel’s breath and courage failed him.
As the echoes of the final gargle died away to nothing and the PA system clicked off, Penelope’s heart grew heavy amidst a widespread stunned silence. She glanced around the room, feeling weak, but the workers, jovial, genial spirits mere moments before, would not meet her gaze, staring guiltily down at the equipment of unknown purpose before them.
Only young Nellie Dustbiter, daughter of the great Chief Librarian, would return her searching glance. With unshed tears in her eyes, Nellie raised a quivering hand to her forehead and gave a short, sharp salute: brief, hopeless, and full of regret for the things that would never now come to pass, and experiences forever beyond Penelope’s reach.
Choking on words little more than the air she trod on, Penelope turned and fled through the crimson confetti the expressionless man in the silly hat had left behind when he’d vanished. She climbed the stairs towards Daniel’s office, thinking how unfair it was that he could put this upon her and shirk his sacred duty as plant manager. Why he thought she would fare better against the Tax Office than him, she had no idea.
Her path took her past reception and the unfortunate souls trapped in limbo in the plant’s broken revolving door that never slowed down. Flustered, she didn’t even stop to say hi to Karim the mechanic, who was snacking on a small pot-plant cactus and listening meditatively to the screams issuing from the door.
When Penelope arrived outside Daniel’s office, she pressed her ear up against the smooth yellow wood and listened intently. She could hear nothing apart from the usual scuttling of fist-sized spiders in the ducts overhead, and so she slowly pushed the door open. Inside, she saw the pale form of Daniel, sitting frozen behind his desk and asbestos-draped computer.
In front of the desk sat the auditor from the Tax Office, attired in the standard clown outfit that the Tax Office thought would help make their agents less intimidating. It was stylish, in many ways — the silly red clown nose matched perfectly the extra-dimensional flames burning deep in the pits of the agent’s eyes.
When Daniel saw Penelope, he stood up too quickly, upsetting the Newton’s Cradle on his desk and setting the steel balls clacking rhythmically against each other. Penelope glared at them. They would work, wouldn’t they. They hadn’t done anything to upset the Force Divine.
“Penelope!” shouted Daniel, giving a desperate, unprovoked laugh. “Jolly, jolly good! I mean, I’m glad… is she? Well, is she?” He directed this last rather worriedly to the auditor, which gravely inclined its head.
“She is sufficient,” confirmed the Presence in a voice like tortured whispers on a stillborn breeze. Daniel laughed again, wildly, then flung himself bodily out the window, plummeting three floors down towards the ground. As Penelope uneasily took his newly-vacated position, a sickening crack echoed up from below, followed by a gurgling, broken: “I’m all right!”
The Presence gestured; the door slammed shut and the window crashed down. They were alone.
“Now, Penelope…” intoned the Presence, shuffling the papers on the desk without actually touching them. “You are a manager at this plant?”
She shuddered, consigning herself to her fate with a terse nod.
“Good…” crooned the Presence, hungrily. Despite its latent threat, Penelope knew it wouldn’t devour her without due cause. It was a bureaucrat, after all, and bureaucrats, bloodthirsty as they invariably are, must follow proper procedure. “Then perhaps you can explain the plant’s Quarterly Profit Declaration Statement. It seems… incomplete.”
The fires in the agent’s eyes flared momentarily and a single sheet detached itself from the pile, floating fixedly in the air before her. She scanned the form, filled out correctly in Daniel’s red blood.
Value of goods received, unknown; value of goods shipped, unknown; manufacturing costs, unknown. It all seemed to be in order, but the Presence was clearly displeased.
“Y-yes, this is all accurate,” Penelope stammered. “To the best of my knowledge.” The Presence’s silly red nose honked humorously, and the temperature in the room seemed to rise.
“How can this be so? You are required to declare your plant’s production truthfully! The Taxation Office does not take willful infractions lightly. This is your only warning.”
Penelope shivered, though the room kept getting warmer. How could she explain? How could she explain that nobody really knew what the plant produced, not her or Daniel or even the expressionless man in the silly hat who quietly watched the factory floor?
Every morning at dawn, the plant’s storerooms were found filled with crates and boxes that had arrived mysteriously during the night, filled with unknowable contents. Every morning at 10 am these same packages and containers were handed to the workers, who then processed the contents in whatever way they could. Every afternoon, the workers passed new, smaller crates back to factory foremen, with no recollection of what they were or what they had been doing all day. Every evening, these finished, presumably artisan products were collected from the loading bay by helmeted figures on motorcycle that roared away noiselessly into the night, each clutching a single package to their side like the only source of hope in an otherwise hopeless life.
In short, nobody knew what the plant produced, much less the value of any of it. But Penelope could not explain this to the agent, and beads of sweat rolled off her face, evaporating before they hit the floor in the rising heat. The Presence mistook her silence for an admission of guilt. Licking its lips, it rose from the chair, which burst into flame. The paperwork on the desk did the same as the desk itself sank slowly into molten company-patterned linoleum. Penelope, suspended an inch above the ground, barely noticed the Newton’s Cradle’s clacking fade into a slurp.
“The Taxation Office always collects its due!” screamed the creature, its funny clown suit catching fire and disintegrating into charred clumps. Beneath, its unfunny mottled black skin became visible.
“This is all just a misunderstanding!” Penelope pleaded, but the Presence was no longer listening. Without the clown suit, it was really quite terrifying, and it chattered incessantly as the room burned around it.
“Death and taxes!” it chanted, eyes rolling back into its head, monstrous claws growing from quivering limbs. “Death and taxes! Death and taxes! Death and –“ Uncomfortably warm, Penelope grabbed the cute designer asbestos blanket from the remains of Daniel’s desk and tossed it over the head of the chanting creature, muffling its words and extinguishing flames which had been wreathing it like St. Elmo’s fire. Almost immediately, its maniacal chanting changed into a frantic scream, and the asbestos blanket writhed and rippled as the creature fought furiously to tear it off.
But Bed, Bath and Table’s blankets were made of sterner stuff than the Taxation Office’s arcanists could muster.
Penelope stared in wonder, floating safely above the conflagration that had been the floor, as the creature’s unsuccessful attempts grew weaker and weaker. Slowly, the floor re-solidified and the metal desk congealed in a misshapen lump as the heat in the room diminished steadily along with the shrinking creature. At last, all that was left was a crumpled bulge beneath the blanket. Dazed, Penelope stooped down and lifted the blanket, revealing a shriveled red plastic clown nose and the creature’s cold iron heart.
She was struck by a sudden realization.
She had been wrong. The Force Divine had not abandoned her. Instead, what she had perceived as an affliction had been a blessing in disguise, a wonderful gift that had preserved her from the auditor’s gibbering wrath. Penelope knelt down, resting on air that was solid only to her, and closed her eyes, muttering praise to the Force Divine and Angrav the Affable.
She resolved to drift down to the Church of Overwhelming Gravity after work and read a passage or two aloud from that holiest of books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. After that, she would probably go and rub her blessing in that know-it-all Janine Ravensburger’s face. She could just imagine the envy in the other’s eyes.
Religion, it has been noted, is largely a matter of interpretation.