Fellow Tetrapod: speculative evolution, office politics, and cookingby
2 The Grid of Faces
At the time the first news of the Swiss Signal was breaking like an egg across the upturned face of the world, Mark Cafarelli was occupied with shame and interior decorating.
He swung around his apartment like a gibbon in a too-small cage, opening windows and closing them, hurling pizza boxes, picking up clothes and strewing them elsewhere. Every few minutes, he would run to the laptop computer open on his kitchen table and lean over it, squinting. Anyone looking through the camera would get a view of Mark's stove and the IKEA book case beside it.
A pot and a pan rested on the never-used kitchen appliance, and there were more prop cooking implements in the book case, as well as many books. The books were on subjects that Mark believed other people thought were important. There were a few stains and dents on the wall from where Mark had punched it during fits of rage, but Mark repositioned the camera and lights until the dents at least vanished from camera-view.
Mark jogged in place, getting his heart pumping. He blew out a breath, ran his hands through his hair, and sat in the cheap, uncomfortable chair in front of his laptop. From this vantage, he could see the mounds of clothes and food delivery boxes behind the computer, as well as the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the rest of his apartment. Mark smiled blankly at the piles of garbage before his eyes slid to the camera lens.
The meeting did not begin immediately, of course. There were several minutes of tedious "can you hear me?"s and "is everyone here?"s before he could finally begin.
"Good morning," Mark said into the camera. "It is tomorrow morning in New Delhi, right? The world hasn't ended yet, right?"
Some of the faces in their little squares on his screen smiled. They hadn't watched the news yet, either.
"I wish I could be with you in your country. But the world doesn't need another airplane ride for some white guy in the States."
Mark realized he was fiddling with his pen, and moved his hands out of sights of the camera. He pinched his left hand with his right. A slap, he had found, could be heard on the mic. Pinches were safer.
"I don't matter," he said, his patter repeated so often it had become second nature. "What matters is you all! You're together in the same space, and you're a family. You're better than a family because you chose to be together." He clasped his hands together. "All right?"
He checked the expressions on the faces on the screen. A few looked confused. Were they having trouble following his English?
"And you know, I apologize for not speaking to you – " A moment of panic where he wondered whether he should say "Hindi." What if that wasn't what they spoke in New Delhi? " – in your language. It really should be an Indian person helping you build your team. We still have a long way to go." He nodded and breathed out, giving his belly a pinch under the table. Mark told himself that at least he wasn't fat. A fat American lecturing a bunch of Indians would look even worse.
"Okay," he said. "Here is your first exercise: I'm going to PM each of you with a random number. Then each of you will stand up from your desk and find the person with the same number. Talk to that person to find out what the two of your share. What's the same between you? Okay? If you have any questions, put them in the chat."
Mark scanned the chat. It was all in English, though not always perfect grammatically.
"Atharv asks, 'if they are random numbers, how are two being same?'" read Mark. "I mean, you'll get a number, and someone else will get the same number. If two people have the same number, they're partners. Uh...Aditi asks 'what shall we share with our partner?' No, Aditi, I mean there is something in your life that is the same as your partner. Like, you both came from the same village." Was that racist? Saying |village" like that? "Or you have the same favorite color," Mark hurried on. "That's a bond." He interlaced his fingers in front of the camera. "It's bonds like that, that build human relationships. That build a team."
Mark scanned down the chat. His eyes snagged on one message. His hand went back to his belly and pinched it. Here was a question he would not answer out loud. A "Miss Khushi M." asked "What is Mr. Mark Cafarelli doing here?"
Mark's heart beat faster, and his breath came quicker. His eyesight sharpened. He was being judged.
There was the face in the grid on his screen. "Miss Khushi M." was strikingly beautiful, which made everything worse. Mark swallowed and blood rushed into his face. His heart beat even faster, pumping blood doped with hormones that prepared him to fight, mate, or both at once. He had to strike first, before she could.
"I'm sending those PMs now," said his professional mask. "Have fun learning about each other, and we'll meet back here in fifteen minutes."
Mark did send those private messages, but he also messaged the client company's HR coordinator. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this," he wrote, teeth clenched, "but one of your employees was very unprofessional and offensive to me just now. Miss Khushi M. clearly thinks that my 12 years of experience are not enough to justify 15 minutes of her time. Is this how she talks to the other experts your company brings in? If so, you should ask yourself what sort of reputation she is giving to your company."
Mark pressed his thumb into the button under his touch pad. Many thousands of years ago, one of his ancestors had popped out the eyeball of a rival with similar relish. He made sure this enemy was no longer a threat.
Mark jogged in place for ten minutes, and when he got back to the screen, he scanned down the chat. "Miss Khushi M." had vanished from the class.
But someone had answered her question, too: "Mr. Mark Cafarelli is a team builder. He is making our team stronger and more friendly."
Mark squinted. He scrolled up and reread Khushi's original question.
"What is Mr. Mark Cafarelli doing here?"
And the answer: "He is making our team stronger."
Mark licked his lips and darted his eyes around, as if looking for an audience in his apartment. What if Khushi hadn't been attacking his expertise? What if she'd just been curious, and didn't know that in English "what are you doing here" meant "you shouldn't be here"?
He considered sending another message to Khushi's boss and apologizing. He thought about how foolish that would make him look.
Mark straightened his shoulders and stretched his neck. He had been storing a lot of tension there. He got a drink of water and went on to the meeting and its next team-building activity, which was of course cancelled because by then someone had messaged someone in the New Delhi office with the news about contact with aliens and the new era of human history.
A new path in Mark's career also began. He never spoke to anyone about Miss Khushi M.
Khushi, for her part, was furious. Fired, she raged down the street from the bus stop to her family's apartment, vowing never to work with an American ever again. This limited her career for a couple of years, but once Earth had established its permanent communication link with the Convention of Sophonts, Khushi had more work than she knew what to do with.
Years later, she would look back fondly on her run-in with Mark the team-builder. He'd taught her a valuable lesson about intercultural communication, and prepared her well for dealing with the Quotidians. The Quotidians were a real bitch to work with.
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Bio: Daniel M. Bensen is an author of science fiction, alternate history, and fantasy.