Mission Control

Ben stepped through the door into his small office and collapse into his chair as it automatically adjusted itself to his profile. As he rubbed his eyes and waved at the coffeemaker on his desk, the lights flickered on, adjusted to his morning profile, and powered up his workstation. The surface flowed into the shape of a keyboard and the screen projects started through their power-on routine, cycling through every color and configuration. It was pleasant to watch, but made his head hurt, so he turned to his wall.

One light on the wall, positioned where there should be a window, slowly changed from the standard full-spectrum white to a square of his favorite vista back on Earth, a section of the Grand Canyon that glowed as the sun rose over the rim. The sun in the picture he’d used to create the Smart Window warmed to a bright ten thousand lumens, helping to push the sleep from his eyes and mind while he waited for the gurgling coffee maker to finish it’s job.

While he waited for what his coworkers called his “old-fashioned dirty bean water,” Ben tapped through the log-in on his desktop and cycled through his team’s off-hours messages. There wasn’t much of interest, just the usual memes and links to YouTube videos for research ideas, so he spun himself around in his chair a few times before switching to his internet browser and checking out a couple of forums. Once the coffee was done, he poured it into the ceramic mug on his desk and set it aside to cool.

He sent a few follow-up messages to one of his coworkers who’d sent him some direct messages and was just about to start digging into one the issues he’d been assigned when someone rapped on his wall. Ben lazily spun around, grabbing his now-drinkable coffee as he went. “What’s up, Christine?”

“Hey, Ben. We’ve got a conference call coming up in ten. Lewis scheduled it half an hour ago but forgot to invite anyone but me, Vince, and Landon. I’m going to need you on that.”

“Really?” Ben sipped his coffee and arched his eyebrows at his senior coworker. “Did he ‘forget’ to include anyone else, or did he actually forget?”

“The universe will never know.” Christine shrugged and leaned against the wall. “But you need to do your thing today. He’s got something to drop on us.”

“Yeah?” Ben sighed and put his coffee down. “You sure? I’d love to not need to be a part of this today. I’d really like to do something else with my first hour of work today.”

“Yeah. He managed to include the right manager and the two people who he’d be able to override, so he’s got something he wants done.”

“You’re too nice, Christine.”

“I mean, he is my boss. I can’t exactly tell him no.”

“Fine, then Vince is being too nice.”

“Landon isn’t going to like it, but no one is listening to him about Lewis anymore. They all think he’s got a vendetta at this point.”

“Yeah, but he’s our manager. It’s his job to represent us to everyone up the chain.”

Christine shrugged and pushed away from the wall. “You’ve got ten minutes now. Best get yourself ready.”

“Fine.” Ben shifted in his chair and it molded to his new position. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Ben. You’re the best.”

Ben waved a hand and the room’s light changed so his face stood out as the chair raised itself, pushing him into a standing position in the open corner of his office.  When he turned around to look, Christine was gone so he waved the door closed. As the glass pane sealed with the rubber frame, there was a hiss of air from the corner as his temperature preferences got priority over the lab settings. Dropping everything else from his mind, he focused on preparing the right attitude for a call with Lewis.

It was a mixture of frustration, weariness, and assertive stubbornness. Lewis could talk circles around almost anyone and those he couldn’t talk his way past would eventually give up because he was more willing to waste time in a pointless argument than anyone else. Except Ben. Ben was the only person on the team who was more stubborn than Lewis and could keep up with him. Which means he got pulled into meetings sometimes just to tag in for people during long discussions or arguments when Lewis wouldn’t stop talking over people.

As he prepared himself for his least favorite part of his job, he straightened his tie, adjusted his top button, and took a deep breath. Two minutes of organizing his thoughts later, the wall in front of him beeped as it was fed into the conference call Christine was managing. The display showed everyone standing awkwardly as they self-consciously preened in front of the camera. As the youngest by two decades, Ben was the only one who’d never known a phone call that didn’t involve video, so he locked eyes with Lewis and smiled in greeting just as he began to talk.

“Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to see you all today and I wanted to share some good news. We’ve made a new sale to a big customer, TerraFirm, so we’re supporting their first launch to the Mars colony.”

There were a lot of shocked faces on the screen and Ben’s was among them. The first person to speak was Landon, who started very slowly. “Lewis, that’s incredible.” He paused for a moment, clearly searching for words, and then carried on. “But who authorized you to make a sale?”

“No one, Landon. I merely facilitated two people communicating.”

“Grace would have said something to me about a sale that high profile. Who gave you the authorization to make a sale?”

“I just said no one authorized me, but I didn’t make a sale.”

“If I call Grace right now, she’ll tell me you didn’t make the sale?”

“Correct, Landon.”

Landon made a few gestures, typed on the light keyboard that appeared in front of him, and then a new person was added to the call. Grace, the head of sales, was still climbing out of her chair when Landon started talking. “Grace. Sorry to interrupt your morning, but Lewis says you did a sale with TerraFirm for a Mars colony run.”

“What?” Grace’s face went slack in shock. “No! I think I’d know if there was something that high-profile in the works.”

“Could you make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.” While everyone waited for Grace to return to her computer and start cycling through the sales database, Ben kept his attention on Lewis, watching him keep the same placidly neutral face he wore whenever he was lying out his ass about something. Lewis noticed and gave Ben a small smile, throwing in a cocked eyebrow when Ben didn’t react. Just when Ben was about to say something, Grace turned back to the call.

“I don’t understand. We got a payment today from TerraFirm but I didn’t make any sales.”

“I managed that conversation.” Lewis nodded his head and Grace stared at him. After no one said anything, he continued. “Richard was on the email change when negotiations because, so sales was involved.”

“Lewis…” Ben shook his head and stared at the floor for a moment. “Richard died two years ago. You attended his memorial.”

“So I did, but the deal had his blessing.” Lewis gave the entire call his small, placid smile and Grace abruptly vanished. “I don’t see what the issue is. Dealing with customers is part of my job.”

“No, Lewis.” Landon emphatically shook his head and stepped closer to the camera. “You job is to figure out what they want and bring it to the project team for approval.”

“TerraFirm wanted us as their guidance system for their Mars colony trip and here’s the project team plus several extra people. I don’t see how this is a problem.”

“The problem is, Lewis, that you’re not allowed to make decisions or commitments on behalf of the guidance team!” Landon’s face was almost as red as Ben’s tie as he shook a finger at the camera, now less than an arm’s length from Landon’s red face. “This is the last straw, Lewis.”

Landon’s camera shut off and everyone but Ben and Lewis quickly followed suit. Ben stood where he was, eye’s still locked onto Lewis’ face as Lewis looked around at where each of the other callers would have been as they hung up. After the last of them had disappeared, Lewis pursed his lips in bewilderment. “I don’t see what has everyone so upset.”

“We had a meeting less than twenty-four hours ago about our development plans for the next year and you didn’t bring this sale or customer up. You even agreed to our plan. And now you’ve go-”

“We can still do all that stuff you wanted yesterday.” Lewis’ brow furrowed as he looked away from the wall, toward his computer. “There’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Ben’s face was still pleasantly neutral but he had his hands behind his back and they were clenched so tightly it looked like his tendons were about to break. “You’ve gone and not only made a commitment we aren’t prepared to meet, but you’ve given us less than six months to meet it. TerraFirm’s launch is in one hundred forty days and we have no idea what systems we’ll be integrated, let alone what hardware they’re working with.”

“We do launches all the time. This is just one more.” Lewis waved his hand dismissively and the camera switched to a head-only view for a moment before he remembered to set it back to the full-body picture. “What is so difficult about that?”

“We do low-Earth orbit launches and the occasional lunar mission. Mars is a different beast entirely and we haven’t even run simulations on how to manage something like that. We have no test data and we literally just powered down half of our supercomputers to do firmware and hardware upgrades. It’ll be another month before we have them back up and running again.”

“That’s all development time. Vince is already working on it.” Lewis took a seat in his chair, clearly signalling that he’d like to end the call.

Ben sighed and shook his head. “You’ve got no idea how this works, do you?”

“I used to be a developer, Ben. Of course I know how the process works.”

Ben laughed and smiled. “You’re so out of touch you don’t even know you’re out of touch. Good luck digging yourself out of this one, Lewis. It’s been awful working with you.”

Lewis was pulling himself out of his chair, a startled expression on his face, as Ben waved to terminate the call. Once he’s sat down, grabbed his coffee, and swapped his office back to its standard settings, he saw Christine appear on the other side of the glass as it went transparent again. She nodded to him and swiped the door open.

“I heard that.”

Ben shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s fine. I’ll say it to anyone.”

“Yeah, but he’s worked here for twenty-five years. You’re on year three. Do you think they’d listen to you or to him?”

“I don’t really care. I don’t want to work for a company that’d pick an employee with an HR record like Lewis’ over a new, promising employee who has had three glowing reviews and several commendations from his peers.”

“Okay.” Christine sighed and leaned on the door frame. “Whatever you say, Ben.”

“Can you really believe he sold a Mars mission?” Ben drained the last of his coffee and set his mug aside. “It’s impressive, considering we’ve only done local traffic.”

“Sure.” Christine folded her arms across her chest and looked down the row of offices to our asset management area with a giant “Mission Control” sign floating over it. “It’ll be a fun project to test, I suppose. I just can’t believe he expects us to have it ready to go in four months.”

“It’ll be awful.” Ben nodded and then turned to face his wall as the call-waiting chime rang in his office. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

As Christine closed the door, Ben rose to his feet and gestured to take the call. Landon appeared before him, still red. “I don’t know what you said to him, Ben, but he’s pissed.”

“Lewis always is, after one of our talks.”

“Well, good job. You got him to quit.”

“Oh.” Ben’s eyebrows rose and Landon laughed.

“Congratulations, there’s a new opening in project management and I know you’ve been looking for a chance to move up.”

“I mean, sure.” Ben shrugged, trying to regain control of his face and failing. “But I’d rather do any other job than this.”

“That’s good.” Landon nodded. “Lewis hasn’t formally tendered his resignation, so I imagine we’ll still see him tomorrow.”

“Ah.” Ben’s was no longer struggling to control his face.

“Yeah. I suggest preparing a timeline for the development he wants since it seems like we’re going to need to do it. Grace says we automatically processed their money as it came in since no one can send us money without a signed contract, so we’re stuck doing the dev and support.”

“Shit.”

“That’s it? I had a lot more colorful words than that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Landon. That’s all I’ve got right now.” Ben lowered himself into his chair and put his head in his hands. “I can’t believe this.”

“Well, just make sure to get the software proposal done in the next couple days and maybe trick the weight sensors so it’ll not notice an extra two hundred pounds of tall asshole.”

Ben chuckled and smiled at Landon. “I’ll get right on it, bossman.” Landon smiled back, nodded, and hung up. Ben leaned his chair back and closed his eyes, already feeling like it was time to go to bed. After a few minutes of that, he got up from his chair, walked out of his office, and strolled down the row to Christine’s office.

“So, I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” Christine spun her chair around to face Ben.

“I’ll need you to help me get Vince to go along with it, but I think the three of us can pull it off.”

“Pull what off?”

Ben winked and smirked. “I’ve got a new mission for us. Operation ‘Lose Lewis.’”

Christine groaned and slapped a hand to her face. “That’s a terrible name. Why would you do that.”

“If we absolutely knock this project out of the park and point out every single instance of Lewis trying to mess up the project, I think we can finally make a strong enough case to have him removed.” Ben pulled out his phone and started tapping notes into the company’s app. “I just need Vince to set up a few things for our daily calls with Lewis and I think he’ll do it if you ask him.”

“Okay, sure.” Christine pulled up her phone and looked at the notes Ben was writing on her virtual wall. “This all seems pretty straight-forward, but how do we get it to stick?”

“We threaten to quit less than an hour before launch. Hold the whole thing hostage until he’s removed.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Landon’s office on the mezzanine above. “I think Landon would love a reason to do it and no amount of screw-ups is enough to overcome everything Lewis did before he started on his current streak of assholery.”

“I suppose.” Christine starting adding notes to her wall and then waved Ben away. “You get the speeches and proposals ready. I’ll get Vince started.”

Ben gave her a thumbs up and walked back to his office. Once he was inside, he dimmed his lights to his preferred working level, shut the door, put on his favorite synth-rock album, and pulled out his personal phone. It took a moment for it to connect to the satellite network through the metal building, but he was able to open a few personal files when it did.

He set his phone down on the desk and set it to projector more. Once it popped the document up on front of him, he started adding a couple of notes, crossing out items in a list, and humming along to the music. Once all his updates were done, he saved the file and reviewed the events and notes listed in the document.

He scrolled through it a couple of times before checking the box next to a line item that read “Lewis makes a sale he wasn’t authorized to make,” Once the animation finished it’s run, he checked the next three. “Provoke Lewis into threatening to quit,” “Turn down joke job offer from Landon,” and “Convince Christine and Vince to help set up Lewis for launch-day ousting” all had a line drawn through them before fading until they were almost transparent. Lewis looked through the last few items, ending on “Lewis quits job and you are in a position to become a line manager” as he smiled and muttered “all according to plan.”

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