Return of the Working Dead is a collection of short horror fiction stories and will be a five-part series starting Thursday, October 3rd, and ending on Halloween.
Charlotte sat in her cubicle, staring at the contract in front of her. She kept re-reading the phrase “property of the company”. The statement read as such:
All code created using work assets shall become property of the company. Should the creation be used or implemented in some way by the company you forfeit your right to any copyright claims. The company may choose to reward you for your work depending on how much value the code has created for the company.
She set the contract down on top of her keyboard and leaned back in her chair. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, heaving a heavy sigh that ended with a whispered, “Fuck”. As a programmer for “the company” she had access to multiple enterprise editions of useful IDEs, repositories, and writing programs which she had absolutely taken advantage of in her free time to make dinky little free RPG-maker-esque games for Steam or little projects to help make life a little easier for her friends that owned their own businesses like simple accounting software. She also stored the data on her work drive that she (now wrongfully) assumed was encrypted. They were allowed to use an encryption program for their data on their personal drives with the understanding that when requested they had to give the decrypt key to upper management if required.
Now she wondered how else her employer has been spying on her and her colleagues.
Janson popped up from the cubicle next to hers, “Did you see this contract amendment? It’s insane! They can’t do this! It’s our intellectual property!”
There was chatter all across the floor about what this means for them and their projects. Janson had actually been using the game he programmed here as a small side income. The current code wasn’t being hosted at work but the initial small project was what the game is based on.
A memorandum attached to the contract amendment said that employees should clear their schedules and expect an e-mail from HR about a meeting between a “data recovery team”, upper management, and the company lawyer. Chatter among employees suggested they would be going through each employee’s computer, finding projects, and then talking to the employee about it.
Charlotte got up and grabbed her jacket and purse and started to head for the stairwell. Janson followed behind her, “Hey, where are you going?”
She pulled her arm away and waved him off, “I’m going to the rooftop for a smoke. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Janson sat in the conference room, fidgeting with his favorite pen and bouncing his leg up and down. Mr. Franco walked in and sat down in the winged office chair at the head of the table. Janson didn’t know they even made winged desk chairs. His grandpa had a leather winged chair in his study but it was stationary. He wondered how much the chair cost. Probably as much as Mr. Franco’s suit. Mr. Franco was wearing a 3-piece, dark purple pinstripe Armani suit. His patent leather shoes were so shiny you could use them as a mirror to shave. Janson wondered if Mr. Franco actually did just that.
Mrs. Weaver cleared her throat, “Now we can begin. Mr. Koskinen, our investigators found a file on your drive containing some code. Now, we’ve known about your little video game side project and we’re very proud of you. We love ingenuity here at the company and try to foster creativity. Our investigators did some deep, deep, digging. We even had to hire a forensic programmer that went through your video game code and we found matching code between the file on your work computer and the game. Based on the contract amendment we just sent out I hope you understand what this means and we can get past the nastiness and get right into negotiations.”
Janson’s face paled. He felt lightheaded. A man in a black suit wearing black sunglasses slid a tray of ice water over to him. He poured himself a glass, his hands shaking making the ice rattle in the jug and then in the cup as he tried to steady himself enough to take a drink.
Mrs. Weaver was the head of HR. She was the person that first interviewed him before he met with the lead programmer. She was a short, plump, woman in her 40s with blonde, highlighted hair that she always kept in a neat French twist. She always had neutral makeup with matte lipstick that was a shade of pink that reminded Jansen of newborn piglets. She was smiling at him, a full-toothed grin. She had botox recently because there were no wrinkles at the corner of her eyes when she smiled. Janson noticed some lipstick smeared on her teeth.
Mr. Franco cleared his throat, waiting for Janson to answer.
Janson took a deep breath, mustered as much strong confidence as he could and said, “I will need to speak to my lawyer about this.” He swallowed hard, which made a very audible sound as the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Mrs. Weaver’s smile quickly dropped and if her forehead wasn’t frozen her brows would have furrowed, but Janson could see the venom in her eyes all the same.
Charlotte sat on the edge of the roof, her legs dangling off the side of the building. She was so sick of this company. She dropped her cigarette and watched it as it disappeared into oblivion. She lit another one and swiveled around bringing her legs back over onto the roof and stood up, brushing dust and dirt off her pants with her hands. She started pacing. It was quiet up here and that’s why she liked to come here to smoke. The building was so tall that the noise from the street below was a whisper. She focused on the sound of gravel crunching under her boots.
When her phone buzzed in her back pocket she had run out of cigarettes, a graveyard of butts at her feet, and a worn path of disintegrated gravel followed behind her. She pulled out her phone and answered the call. It was Mrs. Weaver asking where she was and if she’d please go to the conference room. Charlotte put on her most chipper customer service voice and said, “Sure! I’ll be right down.”
Charlotte passed Janson on her way down the stairs. They exchanged a look. It hadn’t gone well. The shared a long hand grasp in passing, good luck or a farewell she didn’t know.
She opened the door to the conference room and sat down in the chair at the opposite end of Mr. Franco. Mrs. Weaver had that smile with empty eyes on her face, the lipstick on her teeth now cleared. “What happens if I refuse to sign?” Charlotte immediately asked just as Mrs. Weaver opened her mouth.
Mr. Franco answered, “You’re free to leave. But you won’t get your severance package.” Charlotte nodded.
“So, what did you find?” she said. She leaned forward and clasped her hands together, making eye contact with everyone in the room.
Mrs. Weaver sat up straighter in her chair and patted her hair to flatten any flyaways. “Nothing of use,” she said curtly, “You may go.”
Charlotte pushed her chair back from the table. She looked around the room and stared at Mr. Franco, they made eye contact. A staring contest ensued. He was the first to look away when he turned his chair to speak to one of his security members. Charlotte walked out of the room and back to her desk. She took a pen from her drawer, it was from Janson’s wedding reception. A commemorative pen with the bride and groom’s name on it and the date. She signed the contract and walked back to put it in Mrs. Weaver’s mailbox.
Two weeks later, the programming floor went from 50 employees down to 15. Many left of their own volition, having been cornered into giving up their projects. Janson was still in a legal battle with the company over his game. Charlotte tried to talk him down. It was mostly a hobby project, a labor of love, and didn’t really bring in a significant boost to his income once they gave the 15 remaining programmers raises.
Different dings and vibrations suddenly sounded through the office and everyone checked their email. They all needed to gather in the conference room for some sort of presentation.
In the conference room, the projection screen was down, Mrs. Weaver was standing next to Mr. Frano and a long table was placed horizontally in front of them. In front of the table, on either side, stood two people in nurse’s uniforms wearing face masks and gloves. On the table behind them was some sort of injector gun, a stack of what looked like pill-sized microchips, and medical supplies. The programmers all stood back and chatted amongst themselves, a wave of “what the fuck” rolling over them as each one entered the room and stood next to their coworkers.
Mrs. Weaver pressed a button on her remote that dimmed the lights and the projector hanging from the ceiling started its show. A slide appeared that had a picture of cute cats and dogs on it. “How many of you have gotten your pets microchipped? Raise your hand!” she said cheerily. We did. “Wonderful. Such responsible pet parents! And why did you do that? In case they got lost, or ran out and got injured right? To protect them! Well, that’s what we’re going to do today. We want to protect you.” She pressed a button and the slide changed, it said had a closeup image of the injector gun and chips that were sitting on the table. “Now, what we’re going to do today is give you guys microchips to keep you safe. Everyone that does this will get a $1000 bonus in cash today and a raise. Isn’t that wonderful?” The slide changed again to a sad-faced cartoon dog, “And if you refuse, we’re going to dock your pay.” She clicked the button and another slide came up that said “Demonstration” in Comic Sans. “To let you guys know this is safe Mr. Franco here is going to go first!”
Mr. Franco took off his black pinstripe suit jacket, this time she could see the label read Prada. He walked over to the nurse on the left side and rolled up his sleeve, first undoing the gold cufflinks and putting them in his pocket. He presented his arm to the nurse. She put on gloves and opened an alcohol swab pouch. She wiped down the spot on his inner forearm she was going to inject. She used a handheld scanner to scan the barcode on the back of the blister pack containing the chip inside a clear capsule and then opened the pack and loaded the capsule into the injector gun. She pressed the nozzle to Mr. Franco’s arm and there was a “kshunk” sound as the plunger containing the capsule disappeared into the gun and popped back out empty. A small spot of blood started to pool at the injection site and the nurse covered it with a bandaid. “Like being pricked by a needle,” Mr. Franco said as he held up his arm for everyone in the room to see. The nurse handed the empty pack to Mrs. Weaver who scanned it with her phone and the projection screen showed a profile of Mr. Franco with his name, birthdate, a photo, his home address, his phone number, and his current location.
Charlotte was fairly certain some sleight of hand had been performed and nothing was injected into him. And she was right. When Mr. Franco rolled his sleeve down and took the cufflinks from his pocket she saw the small capsule slip out onto the floor. She had to grab it. She could use it. Growing up she liked to fiddle with motherboards and building computers and operating systems. She won many hackathons and programming contests in school. If she could get the capsule and figure out what it does and how it works, how it transmits your location and whatever else the hell it does, she could do something with that. She didn’t know what, but something.
“Now, who would like to go next?” Mrs. Weaver said. Charlotte raised her hand and Janson gave her a startled and pleading look. She got to the nurse Mr. Franco saw and dropped her pen out of her pocket. The same one she used to sign the contract. “Oh, shoot, sorry. One sec,” she bent down to pick up the pen and grabbed the capsule in the same hand, pocketing both. She presented her arm to the nurse. It did feel like a pinprick. She would definitely be removing this later after she buys a fifth of whiskey to dull the pain. She winked at Janson on her way out.
Charlotte got home and set her bags down on the bench by her door. She sat down to take off her shoes and her black cat, Georgie, came prancing over making cries for attention. She picked up Georgie and cradled her like a baby as she walked over to her desk. Georgie purred away, happily. Charlotte grabbed a mug that said “2005 TOPHER HIGH HACKATHON” that she used to host pens and dumped the pens out on the floor. It made a noise that startled Georgie and she jumped out of Charlotte’s arms and ran somewhere to hide. Charlotte took the chip out of her pocket, inspected it briefly, and dropped it into the mug. She turned the power button of her computer on and walked back into the entry to grab her bags from the bench. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a mug that said, “2006 TOPHER HIGH HACKATHON” and poured the whiskey in the mug, filling it up saving room for a couple of ice cubes. She grabbed a bag of chips from the pantry and walked back to her desk. She felt a light pat at her leg and looked down to see Georgie pawing at her, “Ah, can’t forget you.” She went back to the kitchen to feed Georgie.
Charlotte finally sat at her desk. She procrastinated for a bit, finishing her whiskey and chips. When she went back to the kitchen she grabbed a box cutter she kept in the junk drawer, poured some vodka from the freezer over it, shrugged and went back to her desk grabbing a roll of paper towels on her way. She turned on some KMFDM to soften any sounds she might make. She looked at her arm and felt around to find the lump. The capsule had migrated from the initial injection spot and she muttered a curse under her breath. She found it about an inch below her elbow. She took a few deep breaths, clicked the box cutter open, double-checked she’d found the right spot, and slowly plunged the blade in. Trying to keep herself quiet gritting her teeth at first but as she had to make the incision longer she let out a stream of curses. She dropped the blade on the floor and ripped a few sheets of paper towels off the roll and pressed it to her arm. She cursed herself for not bringing the rest of the whiskey bottle with her.
She lifted up the paper towel and used her fingers to open the incision a little wider to see if she could spot the capsule. She did, but it was a bit under there, hidden under some fibrous something or other. Tiny red dots started showing up from the capillaries in the layers of flesh. Blood started to pool up from below the fibrous tissue she saw. She stifled her gag reflex, took in another deep breath, waiting a minute for the next song to start. And then stuck her fingers into her arm trying to get the chip out. The capsule was slippery with blood and she just seemed to keep pushing it deeper down into her arm. She took her fingers out to dry the area with paper towels again and made a second attempt. This time she just barely caught it between her fingers and slowly pulled it out. She emptied another mug that had some Far Side cartoon on it and dropped it in there. She went to the bathroom to clean up and sew her arm back together.
She opened up the encrypted messaging app she and Janson use to communicate, “I got it” and she snapped a photo of a bloody pile of paper towels on her bathroom floor. Janson immediately called her.
“Jesus christ are you okay?” he practically yelled into the phone.
“I’m fine. I got it. I got the other one, too. I’ll take a closer look tomorrow. Do you have that microchip programming kit from those hackathons at school when we were kids? Georgie chewed up the cables of mine and then puked it up on the adapter.”
“Oh, that’s gross. Yeah, I’ll bring it over tomorrow. Around noon good? Or…probably a little later, huh.”
Charlotte chuckled and said, “I am going to finish this bottle of whiskey, so yes. Three should be good. Could you be a dear and grab some Chinese? Let’s take it back to our teen days of binge eating MSG and staying up all night staring at a CRT.”
“You got it. Uh, maybe go to urgent care or something and get some antibiotics?”
Charlotte scoffed, “Ha, nah. I’ll be fine.” They said goodnight. Charlotte traded the mug for the whole bottle, grabbed some distilled water, and sat back down at her desk. She turned off the music and turned on some Netflix. She took the two mugs containing the two chips and set them down in front of her. She poured some of the distilled water in the mug with her bloody one and swirled it around for a bit before taking it out and drying it off. She stared at it, there was a flashing red light. It was active and transmitting. She put it into a pill bottle and wrote “MINE” on the side with a cat face on the cap. She took Mr. Franco’s out and studied it. Just as she thought, it was dormant. She stuck that in a second pill bottle, wrote “FRANC” on the side and drew a little devil face on the cap. She passed out curled up in her desk chair.
Janson knocked on Charlotte’s door, his hands full of Chinese food and Dr. Pepper. He knocked…and knocked…and knocked. He couldn’t get to his phone with his hands full so he started kicking at the door. He heard a bunch of shuffling and cursing and Charlotte opened the door.
She answered the door in her pajamas with major bedhead. She shuffled back to her desk and Janson closed the door behind him. He slammed a takeout container and a bottle of Dr. Pepper on her desk in front of her before going to the kitchen to put the leftovers away. Charlotte got shrimp fried rice and took out a big piece of shrimp and called for Georgie to come over. She gave it to Georgie who took it out of Charlotte’s hand, nibbling her fingers a bit in the process and trotted off to her bed. Janson walked over to Charlotte’s desk and took out a more robust first aid kit he had also bought on his way over.
“Let me take a look at it,” he said, pulling up a stool next to her. She held out her arm and continued shoveling food into her mouth. Janson lifted up the bandage. She had sewed the wound with dental floss. “Are you fucking kidding me,” Janson whispered under his breath. He replaced the bandage and figured he’d give her a bit of a break and deal with it later.
Charlotte took her arm back, grabbed the two pill bottles and handed them to Janson. He opened up the one with a cat face on the lid, “Ew gross, this was in your arm?” He quickly closed the lid and set it back on the desk. The light was still blinking, still tracking. He opened the one with a devil face and poured the capsule into his hand. “This is…a lot more advanced than I expected. I thought it would just be a simple GPS tracker with some RFID capabilities but this is a lot of computing power.”
A pet microchip is about the size of a grain of rice. These were actual clear pill capsules, about half an inch to an inch in length and the width of a number two pencil so the chip inside was larger than the ones inside a normal RFID chip.
Charlotte nodded. She finished her rice and got up. “I’m gonna go change. Put that back in the bottle, I don’t want to lose it. Set up the PICkit please.”
A few hours of tinkering, more Chinese food and a run to the corner store for some cigarettes and potato chips later and they had made a huge discovery. They found a flaw. An exploitable one. “Holy shit,” they said in unison and looked at each other.
Not only did they discover just how much information the chip was tracking, collecting, and transmitting but they discovered the chips were all linked through a single network. If they could get into the network, they could do whatever they wanted or needed with the chips. “Mr. Franco, tsk tsk tsk. You should really know better. You know, I’m always baffled by people that work in tech their whole lives and can still just be so stupid.”
Janson breathed a sigh of relief that they had discovered something. The paper towel Charlotte used to cover her incision was bleeding through. “You know you used fucking dental floss to sew that right? I have to cut those stitches out to do it properly. Why can’t you just go to a hospital?”
Charlotte kept shrugging off his attempts to look at her arm and kept typing, “Because it would look really odd if the tracker suddenly showed an employee at the hospital right after getting one of these.” Janson rolled her eyes, thinking she was just paranoid. She unplugged the PICkit and put the chip back in the bottle. “Alright, fine. Let’s go to the bathroom.”
Charlotte sat on the toilet while Janson sat on the floor. He took out small cuticle scissors and started cutting the stitches out. Charlotte winced as he did this. “This looks really bad, Charlotte. You need to get some antibiotics or something. I can’t believe how deep you went in there. It’s a miracle you didn’t pass out and bleed out.”
Charlotte shrugged and said, “Spite can make you do amazing things.” Janson laughed and ripped out the last stitch. The wound lay open. It was red and inflamed. You could see sinew and fresh blood started bubbling up.
“This is so gnarly. This is gonna suck. I have to do some inside stitches to get these lower layers together and then stitch the top together,” he said as he got out gauze and a medical suturing kit. Janson Koskinen was Pakistani and had spent some time as a medic in the army before his mother moved him to America. His father was Swedish and had left the family shortly after he was born. Another white boy trying to find himself and when shit got too real he left. Janson and his mother were uneasy at rising tensions and he deserted and they immigrated to America. Miraculously, they were granted citizenship. Because of his skills as a field medic while also doing consulting work remotely for tech companies he was considered a skilled immigrant. He and Charlotte met at Topher High in 2005 in the computer club and formed a team for the hackathons. They had been fast friends and unstoppable when working together ever since.
He got her properly sewn up and bandaged and they went back to her desk. “What now?” he asked.
Charlotte picked up both of the bottles and stared at them, her brain in a far off corner of scheming. “We wait. I’ll let you know our next steps.”
Author Note: Sorry to leave you on a cliffhanger like this. I did write more but it needs to be fleshed out. Once I do that, I’ll post it on my own website and update this page with the link to the full story. Don’t forget to send us your own worker horror stories!