By day, the Guardhouse looked much less hostile than it did at night. After all, it was just an ordinary building, simple, graceless, almost ugly, and there was nothing military about it. The Investigator didn’t have to buzz the intercom to get a response. By stepping up close to the window and bending forward a little toward the twenty or so concentrically arranged holes that pierced it, he was able to address the Sentinel–a man neither young nor old, with a full face and thinning hair, dressed in white like a Lab Assistant or a Chemist–who was sitting on the other side of the glass barrier, smiling and waiting.
“Good morning!” said the Investigator, sensing that he was finally going to talk to someone attentive.
“Good morning,” the Sentinel replied affably.
“I’m the Investigator.”
The Sentinel didn’t lose his smile, but the Investigator noticed that his eyes had changed. The Sentinel looked him over. This examination lasted several seconds, at the end of which the Sentinel consulted a large register that lay open in front of him. Apparently failing to find what he was looking for, he checked the preceding pages, shifting his gaze from line to line with the help of his right index finger. Eventually, he stopped at one of the lines and tapped it three times. “Your arrival was scheduled for yesterday at 5 p.m.”
“Indeed,” replied the Investigator, “but I was considerably delayed.”
“May I see some identification, please?” the Sentinel asked.
“Of course!” The Investigator thrust his hand into his inside jacket pocket, found nothing, rummaged in his other pockets, began to grow pale, patted his raincoat, and then suddenly remembered that he’d given his identity papers as well as his credit card to the Giantess, who had deposited them in the hotel safe while he looked on. He’d completely forgotten to ask for them back earlier that morning. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “But I’ve left everything at my hotel. The Hope Hotel, you must know it, it’s only a few hundred yards from here. On the other side of the street.”
These words caused a darkening of the Sentinel’s heretofore pleasant expression. He seemed to reflect for a while. The Investigator tried to maintain his own broad smile, as if doing so would convince the other of his honesty.
“Please give me a few seconds,” the Sentinel said. He closed the register, switched off the microphone that linked him to the exterior, picked up a telephone, and dialed a number. His call must have been answered pretty quickly, because the Investigator could see him talking. The conversation went on and on. The Sentinel opened the register again, placed his finger on the line where the time of the Investigator’s arrival was recorded, engaged in a lengthy discussion, appeared to reply to numerous questions, scrutinized the Investigator carefully, and then, finally, hung up and switched the microphone back on. “Someone will come to fetch you,” he said. “You can wait in front of the security barrier on your right.”
The Investigator thanked the Sentinel and directed his steps to the indicated area.
The chevaux de frise, the rolls of barbed wire, the portcullises, and the chicanes had all been removed. Only a large, automated metal barrier blocked the entrance of the Enterprise. A Security Guard stood near the barrier. He was wearing a gray paramilitary uniform and a peaked cap of the same color, and numerous objects hung from the broad belt that girded his waist: a nightstick, a paralyzing gas grenade, an electric pistol, a pair of handcuffs, a bunch of keys, a portable telephone, a pocket flashlight, a knife in its sheath, and a walkie-talkie. His other equipment included an earphone and a little microphone attached to the lapel of his military jacket.
When he saw the Investigator approaching the barrier, the Security Guard moved from his position and took a few slow steps forward to block the newcomer’s passage, but the earphone and little microphone immediately started sizzling. The Security Guard stopped, froze, listened to what he was being told, and replied simply: “Got it.”
The Security Guard, who stood two heads taller than the Investigator, gazed absently at the distant roofs and ignored him. Once again, the Investigator felt uneasy. “Really, what must I look like?” he wondered. He was unshaven, he had a sizable, swollen wound on his forehead, his nose was raw and running nonstop, the torn pocket of his thoroughly wrinkled raincoat was hanging down like a flap, his shoes, still wet, resembled small wads of badly tanned animal skin, and no matter how much he tugged at the lapels of his raincoat, his efforts to conceal the two big coffee stains on his jacket and trousers were in vain.
“A bum, that’s what,” he thought, answering his own question. “Maybe even a drunk–me, a drunk–when I’ve never swallowed a single drop of alcohol in my life.” The Security Guard’s outfit, by contrast, was impeccable; no wrinkles, no stains, no torn fabric. His perfectly polished boots mocked the snowflakes that fell on them. His face was closely shaven. Everything about him was clean and new, as though he’d just come out of a box.
“What weather!” the Investigator said with a little smile, but the Security Guard made no reply. This didn’t so much offend the Investigator as hurt his feelings. Did he count for so little? Was he so utterly insignificant? The effects of the two tablets he’d washed down with the awful coffee were fading. A great weariness invaded his whole body, while at the same time each of his bones became a focal point of pain. His head was caught in a vise, and the jaws of the vise, cranked tighter and tighter by a pitiless hand, were gradually crushing his temples. He was hot. He was cold. He shivered, sweated, sneezed, coughed, choked, and coughed again.
“Keep your germs to yourself, we really don’t need them right now!”
Thoroughly occupied in sneezing, he hadn’t heard the approach of the man who’d just addressed him so briskly.
“Are you the Investigator?”
The Investigator nodded almost reluctantly, blowing his nose at the same time.
“I’m the Guide. I’ll be escorting you to the Manager’s office. Don’t be offended if I don’t shake your hand. Here, this is for you.”
The Guide looked as though he might be the Investigator’s age. Of about middle height, with a slightly fleshy face and not much hair, he was wearing an elegant gray suit. He handed the Investigator a bag in which the latter found various objects: a long white coat, a hardhat of the same color, a pen, a key ring adorned with a photograph of an old man with a mustache–the same man whose framed photograph hung on the wall of his hotel room?– a notebook and a little plastic flag, both bearing the logo of the Enterprise, and a badge with the words “External Element” printed in bold type.
“It’s the traditional welcome gift. I’ll ask you to put on the coat immediately, clip your badge to the upper left pocket, and place the hardhat on your head.”
“Of course,” said the Investigator, as if he found these instructions completely natural. The coat was several sizes too big and the hat too small. As for the badge, it was perfect.
“Will you please follow me?”
The Investigator needed no second invitation. Things were finally starting to get serious. He was glad to have the coat on, big as it was, because it hid the state his own clothes were in; furthermore, the hardhat offered his skull a little gentle warmth, as if a beloved hand were caressing his head, and sheltered him from the snow, which was falling more and more thickly. His strength was returning.
“You don’t wear anything?” the Investigator asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A hardhat, a white coat. You don’t wear anything like that?”
“No. They’re useless, to tell you the truth, but absolutely obligatory for External Elements. We always observe the rules. Please take care not to drift away from the line!”
As they walked, they followed a red line painted on the ground. Parallel to the red line were three others: a yellow line, a green line, and a blue line. The Investigator took advantage of this opportunity to ask the Guide exactly what activities the Enterprise was engaged in. “That’s a vast question,” the Guide began, “and I’m not the person best qualified to respond to it. I don’t know everything. Actually, I don’t know very much. The Enterprise is active in so many areas: communications, engineering, water treatment, renewable energy, nuclear chemistry, oil and gas production, stock analysis, pharmaceutical research, nanotechnology, genetic therapy, food processing, banking, insurance, mining, concrete, real estate, storage and consolidation of non-conventional data resources, armaments, humanitarian development, micro-credit aid programs, education and training, textiles, plastics, publishing, public works, patrimony preservation, investment and tax counseling, agriculture, logging, mental analysis, entertainment, surgery, aid to disaster victims, and obviously other fields I’m forgetting! In fact, I’m not sure there’s any sector of human activity that doesn’t depend directly or indirectly on the Enterprise or one of its subsidiaries. Well, we’re almost there.”
The Investigator was having trouble digesting the list the Guide had just enumerated. He’d been far from suspecting that the Enterprise covered all those areas; it was difficult for him to understand how such a range could be possible. The fleeting sensation that he was going alone to face a body with a thousand heads panicked him.
The two men were approaching a cone-shaped glass building. The Investigator noticed that the yellow, green and blue lines turned right, while the red line ended at the conical building’s entrance.
“Kindly step in.” The Guide held the door open for him, and they both went inside. A circular stairway turned round upon itself as it rose to the upper floors; it was a little like the staircase in the Hope Hotel, but here the risers all appeared to be of equal height. Behind frosted-glass doors, the visitor could make out unmoving silhouettes, persons of indeterminate sex who seemed to be seated at desks in front of parallelepiped shapes that might have been computers. The atmosphere was very silent, almost reverential.
“Would you mind waiting a few moments while I inform the Manager that you’re here? In the meantime, please have a seat.” The Guide indicated three chairs arranged around a low table on which lay a certain number of what looked like brochures. “I’ve asked a Colleague to put together a collection of documents for your perusal. They’ll give you an idea of the Enterprise’s social policy, of how the Enterprise works, and of the Enterprise’s unwavering concern for its employees’ well-being.”
The Investigator thanked the Guide, who then began to climb the stairs. His footfall resounded as though he were treading on the stone floor of a cathedral. As he progressed, his body dwindled but remained visible, thanks to the transparent steps of blue-tinted, azure-hued glass that mounted skyward up the giant spiral.
The chair the Investigator had chosen quickly proved to be uncomfortable. Because the seat was slightly inclined forward, he couldn’t stop sliding on it. He started to change chairs but ascertained that the other two presented the same defect. Tightening his thigh muscles, he tried to forget his discomfort by plunging into the leaflets and booklets that lay on the table.
They formed a veritable miscellany: Some press clippings about the Enterprise mingled with the menus offered at the cafeteria during the last two months of the preceding year; an organizational chart rendered absolutely illegible by the low quality of the photocopy was paired with a report on a visit to an Asian industrialist specializing in the manufacture of soy sauce. A smallish bound volume purported to set out, according to its title, a complete list of the personnel active in the Enterprise as of January 1 of the current year, but this book contained nothing but two or three hundred blank pages. The Investigator likewise came upon some application forms for a tango evening organized by the Region 3 Transport Service Technical Executives’ Association, a circular informing the warehousemen in the International Packaging Sector about the opening of a rest home located in the Balkans, a user’s manual in ten languages for a dictating machine with a German brand name, an invoice for the purchase of thirty liters of liquid soap, and some twenty photographs of a place under construction whose location and purpose weren’t specified.
The Investigator perused each of these documents conscientiously, telling himself he might thus come to understand by what logic they had been assembled, but that mystery remained completely opaque. Nonetheless, he needed half an hour to read all the words and contemplate all the images presented in the collection, and when he was finished, the Guide still had not come back downstairs.
The Investigator suddenly clapped his hand to his stomach. A long, gurgling rumble had just shaken his innards. Not surprising. Nothing had gone down his throat since the two heinous pieces of packaged toast he’d consumed that morning, and the previous evening, he hadn’t eaten anything at all. Some distance away, behind the first curve of the stairway, he saw what looked like a vending machine. He had two coins left. Could he perhaps find something over there to calm his hunger? He stood up and discovered that his muscles were totally cramped because of those blasted chairs.
Hobbling, bent in half, his thighs hard and tense, he headed for the vending machine. The tails of his coat trailed the floor, and he tripped on them twice, almost falling both times, but the sight of the display behind the machine’s glass front sufficed to make him forget his pains. There was a large selection of cold and hot drinks, but more importantly– and this he hadn’t expected at all–there were dozens of sandwiches, chicken, ham, sausage, tuna, all garnished with green lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, and mayonnaise, all magnificently fresh in appearance, each neatly wrapped in cellophane and waiting in the refrigerated interior.
He selected a cup of hot chocolate and a “Peasant” sandwich, whose descriptive label proposed “a generous helping of ham, cured in traditional style and carved off the bone, served between two slices of whole-grain bread dressed with lightly salted butter, mixed lettuce leaves, pickled gherkins, and thinly sliced tomatoes.”
Number 7 for the chocolate and Number 32 for the Peasant. The Investigator inserted his coins, punched in the numbers, and pressed the “Order” key, which began to blink. The machine spoke to him: “Your order is being processed. Number 7. Hot chocolate. If you want more sugar, press ‘Sugar.'”
It was a synthetic voice, mechanical, vaguely feminine, agreeable to the ear in spite of a strong foreign accent of indefinable origin. The machine made various sounds–of liquid being drawn up, of valves opening and closing, of suction and expulsion–and then, on the right, a little door slid open, revealing the spout of a kind of percolator. Steam came out of this spout, soon followed by a smooth jet of scalding hot, deliciously fragrant, rich, creamy chocolate, which streamed down before the Investigator’s eyes as he stared at it in dismay, for no plastic cup had appeared to catch the liquid. When the stream came to an end, the artificial voice expressed the wish that the Investigator would enjoy his beverage, and it was only after the machine fell silent again that the plastic cup, with a distinct, ironic “plop,” dropped into position to receive the lost drink. The Investigator, however, had no time for either irritation or despair; sandwich Number 32 was on its way.
“You ordered a Peasant sandwich. Please collect it from the delivery box at the bottom front of the dispenser. We hope you enjoy your meal.”
The rotating display rack that held the sandwiches went into motion. It pivoted three times in such a way as to place Number 32 in front of a remote-controlled arm, which seized it, removed it from its compartment, and carried it about twelve inches through the air. Then the four pincers at the end of the arm opened and released the Peasant. It fell toward the delivery box, but about eight inches before reaching its goal, it got caught on the tray that featured the Number 65 sandwich, the “Ocean”: “A thick, tasty slice of red tuna on a round roll, enhanced with sesame seeds, olive oil, curly endive, onions, and capers.”
The Investigator struck the glass front of the vending machine a few sharp blows with the flat of his hand, but to no avail; the Peasant would not leave the Oceans. He struck the machine harder and harder, took hold of it with both hands, and shook it in every direction, but the only result he obtained was to make the synthetic voice repeat its message, congratulating him on his choice, reminding him that he was about to savor a meal prepared according to the strictest sanitary and dietary norms and in conformity with international Conventions, and wishing him an enjoyable dining experience.
He threw himself to his knees, thrust his arm into the delivery box, twisted his body, shoved his hardhat, which was hindering his movements, high up on his head, and stretched out his hand and his fingers as far as he could, but alas, despite all his efforts, his impotent middle finger remained a good four inches from the sandwich.
“You should have asked me!”
The Investigator hurriedly yanked his arm out of the machine, like a thief surprised by the police with his hand in an old lady’s purse.
The Guide looked at him and shook his head. “I would have told you it doesn’t work. We’ve called the manufacturer I don’t know how many times, but we can’t make ourselves understood. They’ve outsourced their production unit to Bangladesh, and we don’t yet have anyone on the staff who speaks Bengali. It’s not a problem to reach them by telephone, but then communication turns out to be impossible. Don’t look at me like that–you’re not the first victim, we’ve all been had by this machine. Such a shame, because when it works, it’s really a very good thing. Shall we go? The Manager’s expecting you.”
The Guide was already walking toward the stairway. The Investigator got to his feet as quickly as he could, pulled his coat straight, repositioned his hardhat, which was on the point of falling, and followed him. The gurgling in his belly was getting louder. He absolutely had to eat something; if he didn’t, he was sincerely afraid that he might faint. The beginning of the climb up the stairs was quite difficult, as his feet kept getting tangled up in his coattails. He was forced to grab the bottom of his coat with both hands and raise it about eight inches or so, like a bride lifting the tulle cascades of her long-trained gown. He felt totally ridiculous.
“Did you have time to take a look at the informational materials?” the Guide asked.
With a gesture, the Investigator indicated that he had.
“Very instructive, don’t you think? I’m not the person who prepared the dossier for you–I merely supervised the project. I’ve been assigned a Colleague from our Temporary Processing branch, which has undergone a reduction in personnel. He was the one who did the job. It’s too bad he can’t stay with me, but he’s being sent to the Conceptualization Department. A peerless Coworker, brilliant, subtle, involved, with a remarkable capacity for synthesizing data; a man utterly representative of the culture of the Enterprise. We need more like him.”
The Investigator thought the best course would be not to reply. Reply to what? In all probability, he and the Guide hadn’t read the same documents; the ones the Guide was talking about must have been switched with those he’d been given, which must previously have been destined for the rubbish bin or the paper shredder.
The helicoid formed by the stairway was excessively harmonious. Though probably useless in terms of efficiency, it gave the person mounting the stairs a rare sensation of light, unencumbered ascent into a space where breaks, angles, and whatever might be pointed, aggressive, or wounding were unknown. The higher one climbed, the closer he got to the central axis, because the distance between it and the stairs steadily diminished, so that in the end the Investigator had the impression that he was turning round and round upon himself without rising any higher, which reinforced his vertigo and made him, for a time, forget his hunger.
“Here we are,” said the Guide.
The two of them were standing in front of a large door made of precious wood. No handle or doorknob was visible.
“Go ahead and knock, the Manager knows you’re coming. As for me, my mission ends here. I don’t think we’ll see each other again, so please accept my best wishes for the rest of your day. I won’t shake your hand.”
The Guide made a bow to the Investigator, who felt obliged to return the bow, lest he seem impolite. The Guide walked away down a narrow corridor and, after a few seconds, disappeared around a turn.
The Investigator checked to make sure his coat was correctly buttoned and his badge properly straight. He readjusted his hardhat, which still had a tendency to slip, and then he knocked on the door: three quick raps. As if by magic, in the most perfect silence, the portal opened. He was greeted by a violently bright light, perhaps a projector, focused on him and blinding him. He blinked and shielded his eyes with his right hand, and then he heard a powerful voice call out, “Come in! Come on in! Enter! Come right in, please! Don’t be afraid!”