May 8-10th, Ottawa
Chapter One: Alice Visits the Mailroom for the Very First Time
"Good morning, Alice, we have..."
Alice spun around in her office chair. "Good morning, Welly. So nice to see you! How was your post-mission R and R?"
"... a new assignment." Welly leaned over her desk and added a 'Don't forget, Odyssey is a paperless organization' memo to the teetering pile of papers beside her computer. "My furlough was fine, thanks for asking."
"Just fine? Where'd you go? I went to British Columbia to visit all the New Age communes where I grew up. Except the one that's now producing 'organic pornography', whatever that means. Anyway, it was an awesome month of communing with nature." Alice frowned at Welly. "I bet you spent your time off buried in some dusty old museum."
"I did visit the British museum, but it's not that dusty."
"Welly, that museum's in London, half a mile from your front door! After six weeks chasing a magician through the sewers of Lichtenstein, you deserved a real break. You should go somewhere different and have fun. You do know what fun is, right?"
Alice had worked with Welly for almost six months now, and not once had she seen him completely unwind and enjoy himself. She was genuinely concerned he might have forgotten how.
She took in Welly's overpriced but conservative three-piece grey suit, and his almost certainly overpriced but conservative hair cut. His only rebellion from the image of a respectable gentleman circa 1955 was his refusal to wear a tie. Hardly surprising, Alice thought, given the number of people who'd tried to strangle him.
"Vacations are also a good time to experiment with your look," Alice added. "You might notice something different about me." With a flourish, she pointed at her head.
Welly sighed. "Yes, your hair is significantly shorter and less colourful than usual."
"My hairdresser said if I had one more chemical treatment, it would fall out. So she cut off all the damage and left me with this new, sophisticated, I'm-over-twenty-five-now look."
Welly glanced at his watch. "As I said, significantly shorter and less colourful. Now, we really do have a new... "
"Okay, so it's brown and boring." She tilted her head. "Like yours."
"... assignment, and our first order of business is visiting the Mailroom."
That got Alice's attention. She glanced nervously at the pneumatic tube that delivered mail to her desk. The sounds she'd heard coming out of it had been disturbing. And there were rumours that were even more troubling.
"Why do we have to go to the Mailroom?" she asked. Odyssey International's Head Office was a vast and sprawling complex, most of which she hadn't explored. The historic library was at the top of Alice's list of places she wanted to visit. Whereas the Mailroom was at rock bottom because it sounded like it was inhabited by the living dead.
Which was a ridiculous idea, of course.
"We need to consult the Mailroom chief. Ken has rejected all forms of modern communication; he believes they're dehumanizing or some such nonsense. Seeing him in person is a great deal quicker than writing him a letter."
Considering some of the weirdoes Alice had met since joining Odyssey International, Ken sounded relatively harmless. She'd worked with Mick in Medical, who was a lunatic, and she was partnered with Welly, who despite his good looks and dreamy British accent, was mad as a hatter.
Welly rested his briefcase on her desk and opened it. "Of course, we'll have to be armed." He took out a large, heavy-looking, black Taser with an enormous, yellow cartridge over its muzzle.
"Oh no, it's your job to be armed," Alice said. "I'm the one who goes around being all psychic."
"Sensitive," Welly corrected, using the Odyssey-approved term.
"Whatever. Anyway, I doubt I could even lift that... thing."
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Welly caressed the Taser. "Shoots up to six darts in parallel trajectories, and has a laser beam option for sending electroshocks through ionized streams of air. Lady Jane did herself proud on this upgrade." He rustled through his briefcase and took out a smaller device. "Now, this Taser requires physical contact to stun, but only for two seconds instead of the usual five. Also, there's an attachment I can get for you that can charge a net electrically to-"
Alice held up her hands. "Please, just tell me why we need Tasers to go to the Mailroom. It's not like I've needed to be armed to the teeth to visit other sections. Although it'd probably be a good idea when going to see Mick." And the Admiral, she thought, but nobody ever said anything bad about the boss. Not where he might hear it, anyway.
"We're not allowed to use deadly force in the Mailroom," Welly said, with an air of grievance.
"Are the Mailroom staff armed?"
"No, but I'm sure Ken would love that. He's a raving nutter."
"Uh-huh." Alice took the smaller Taser from Welly and stuffed it into her purse. Tired of craning her head back to look up at Welly, Alice stood. This improved matters, but only slightly. She wasn't short, but even in heels, standing next to Welly always made her feel tiny. Alice was never sure if she liked that or not, but then she couldn't decide if she entirely liked Welly either.
"Earth to Alice?"
"Oh, yes, I'm ready," she said. Alice straightened her new, bright yellow summer dress, part of her whole 'I'm over twenty-five' makeover, and grabbed her purse. "At least, as ready as I'll ever be." She followed Welly as he headed for the stairs at a brisk pace. Like all doors in Head Office, the one to the stairwell was decorated with the corporate logo; an art deco Greek sailing ship with a wide-open eye on its prow. In Alice's opinion, it was a nice design that had been thoroughly ruined by the garish company colours of orange and turquoise. 'Odyssey International' was emblazoned above the logo, and below was the motto, 'Conservo Pondera', Latin for 'maintaining balance'.
"Is the elevator broken again?" Alice asked.
Welly glanced back and nodded. "Some fool in Maintenance tried to fix the wiring without removing the protective spells first."
Alice shuddered. She'd learned about the dangers of touching magically charged things without adequate preparation during her training on Survival Island. After seeing one trainee lose a hand, she'd never broken the rules again.
Well, almost never, she thought, recalling the time she'd rubbed that black cat's fuzzy belly on their last mission. But really, how was she supposed to know that touching a magician's familiar gave the man unrestricted access to your most embarrassing inner thoughts?
After going down what felt like the twentieth flight of stairs, Alice began to wonder just how big Head Office really was. She hadn't been allowed to explore it thoroughly, but she knew the Admiral's office was on the top floor.
The next floor down belonged to Borislav and his private army of security guards. And the level below that was Mick's lab of healing and human experimentation. Underneath Medical were the Offensive and Defensive Technology labs, also known as 'Guns and Germs'. Alice suspected they'd organized things that way in order to make it easier to ship the wounded employees from Guns and Germs up to Medical.
And then there was her own section, which so far in Alice's experience was all about rounding up stray unicorns and getting far too familiar with demons and rogue magicians. Her business cards read 'External Investigative and Enforcement Division', but not even Welly could explain exactly what that meant.
And with that, Alice realized she'd exhausted the limits of her personal knowledge about Head Office. Somewhere below her own floor she knew there was a research library and offices belonging to accountants, lawyers, and the custodial staff, but she'd never been allowed in any of them. There were rumours of an Odyssey jail somewhere in the lower levels, and Alice supposed something had to happen to criminal magicians who weren't accidentally tripped into magma pits. She was still embarrassed that her biggest contribution to saving the world had been a complete fluke.
In any event, she was quite sure she and Welly had already passed all these places, and every level of the enormous parking garage as well.
If parking was in the basement, she thought, the Mailroom must be in the sub-basement. Or possibly the sub-sub-sub-basement. Alice checked her lucky Hello Kitty watch. They'd been walking for at least fifteen minutes.
"Can we take a break?" she asked Welly, plaintively.
Alice sulked. If she'd known about today's trek down into the depths, she would have worn sensible shoes. But advance notification wasn't part of Odyssey's corporate culture.
What was part of the corporate culture, however, were numerous strict and occasionally baffling rules. Only wear Odyssey-approved underwear (no lucky Hello Kitty panties allowed). Sweep out your cubicle every New Year's Eve. No unauthorized pregnancies for the ladies or impregnations for the men. The newest version of the Odyssey Employee Handbook was forty-seven volumes long and would take the better part of a decade to read. So most sections opted to print up the rules specifically pertaining to them on helpful posters.
Alice knew they must be close to their destination when she spotted a poster detailing in pictograms how to correctly use the pneumatic mail tubes without losing important limbs in the process. The blood dripping from the arm stumps of the unlucky stick man in the poster was needlessly graphic, she thought.
Finally, Welly stopped at a landing and opened a door. Before Alice could breathe a sigh of relief, she spotted two of Borislav's security guards at the end of the short hall. Their creepy, all-black uniforms and menacing assault rifles were never a welcome sight. The huge metal doors behind the guards' desk looked like the entrance to a supervillain's lair.
As usual, one guard was male and the other was female. Male/Female pairings were the standard at Odyssey, especially in Security and Alice's own section. The practice was supposedly part of 'maintaining balance', although Alice felt it was old-fashioned to believe men and women were automatically opposites. But this belief was far from the only old-fashioned thing about Odyssey.
"Wellington and Alice from Section Five," Welly said, by way of introduction. "We're here to see Ken."
The male guard typed their names into the computer, while the female guard began waving a turquoise and orange metal wand over Welly's limbs. The embroidered white and black badge on her shoulder read: Dura lex sed lex. The law is hard but it is the law, Alice mentally translated and shuddered.
Now it was Alice's turn to be scanned, and the static charge caused by the wand made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. A warm, tickling sensation followed the wand's path over her body, and Alice felt like she was being irradiated. If she was, that would explain the rule restricting pregnancies, she thought.
"She doesn't match her photo," the man said, stabbing a forefinger at the monitor. The woman gleefully slammed down the scanner and shrugged her rifle off her shoulder and into her hands.
"She's the only Alice in Section Five," Welly said, impatiently. "Alice Murphy, look it up."
"Really," Alice added, keeping her eyes on the armed woman. "This happens every time I dye my hair. Okay, I know what you're thinking, my hair doesn't look dyed, and you're right, this time I went for a new, sophisticated, I'm-over-"
Welly cut off her nervous babbling. "Just compare the scan results to her employee record."
The male guard did some quick typing and frowned darkly at the monitor. Alice felt sweat break out on her forehead, but didn't dare wipe it away.
"Confirmed," the man said, disappointment in his voice. "Alice, Section Five. Both of you are cleared for the Mailroom." The woman slung her rifle back over her shoulder with a sigh.
"Thank you," Welly said, coldly. "Is Ken in?"
The male guard rolled his eyes and smirked. "Not like Kenny would let us inside to check."
"Kenny?" Welly raised an eyebrow. Alice watched, curious. Almost everyone here went by their first name, but this nickname didn't sound complimentary.
The woman sniggered. "As in, 'You killed Kenny, you b-'"
"Save the explanation." Alice jumped in before the guard could swear. "South Park is way past Welly's time. He hasn't watched TV since the nineteen-seventies."
"And save the attitude," Welly said, glaring at both guards. "Now, let us in please." His tone was polite, but it was clearly an order.
"It's your funeral," the woman growled, as she hit a large, red button. Emergency lights began to flash down the length of the hall, and a loudspeaker crackled to life. "Warning, doors to Mailroom are open. Warning, doors to Mailroom are open."
Alice sidled closer to Welly. "Um, the rumours about the Mailroom, they're not true, are they?"
Welly took out his Taser and walked through the doors as soon as they were open wide enough. Alice hesitated a moment and then followed, not wanting too much distance between them. She didn't like to think of herself as a damsel in distress, but Welly was supernaturally strong.
She blinked rapidly as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dimmer light inside the Mailroom. From the stories she'd heard, Alice had expected some sort of demonic hellscape. Instead, there were green plants hanging from the ceiling, a pleasant smell of vanilla in the air, and small fountains burbling at regular intervals along the walls. Alice was impressed by how healthy the hanging plants appeared to be, as she'd been under the impression nothing could grow inside Odyssey's Head Office.
She'd brought in an African violet once to brighten up her desk. By lunchtime, the plant had caught fire and exploded. She still occasionally found fragments of charred petals in her computer keyboard.
Ahead of them was a large poster declaring in bright orange letters, 'Odyssey International is an equal opportunities employer.' Another poster cautioned in red, 'Respect our employees. Severe penalties are enforced for hazing.' Yet another read... Alice frowned. "Little House on the Prairie TV Night?"
Welly shrugged and led her further into the Mailroom, toward a huge conveyer belt carrying boxes and envelopes of all sizes. The belt fed numerous smaller conveyors that were sorting the mail by size and sending it down chutes into bins marked with Odyssey's sailing ship logo. Eight staff members in turquoise and orange overalls were slowly moving the filled bins onto large steel carts. Once full, the carts were pushed through a beaded curtain into another room. Despite the machinery, the noise was muted, and a mellow ballad could be heard playing in the background.
"The music sounds vaguely familiar," Alice said.
Welly nodded. "Barry Manilow."
"Who's Barry-Oh my God!"
One of the staff had dropped a bin, and now turned in the direction of Welly and Alice to retrieve the scattered mail. He had no nose and his dislocated jaw hung open, wagging with every move. He moaned, and his eyes rolled back into his skull.
"Alice, don't blaspheme," Welly said, calmly.
"But that's-A zombie!" Alice gasped.
"Yes, but where are the human supervisors?" Welly asked, waving at them with his Taser. "Ken has no respect for standard safety precautions."
Alice stared at the zombie who was now joined by another. This one still had her nose, but had large bald patches on her very pale skull. Both zombies wore heavily padded overalls, which covered all of their bodies except for their heads. Even their hands were covered with thick, orange mitts, which were now interfering with their ability to pick up the mail.
"This can't be real," Alice said. "Zombies are figments of George A. Romero's twisted imagination. This is Odyssey's Mailroom, not the set of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, or Lap Dance of the Dead!"
Welly spared her a concerned glance. "I don't think it's healthy to watch so many of that kind of film."
"And I don't think it's healthy to have zombies in the Mailroom!" Alice resisted the urge to dissolve into hysterics.
"If I had my way," Welly growled, "every last one of them would be chucked in the incinerator."
Another staff member entered the room. He wore similar overalls, but no mittens and he looked very much alive. He headed toward the overturned bin, but Welly flagged him down.
"We need to speak to Ken right now."
The young man looked over at the now four zombies trying to pick up mail with their padded mitts. "I'm not sure. He's very busy."
"Just tell Ken the acting head of Section Five is here. That'll light a fire under him."
"Uh, okay." He skittered away. He'd seemed very nervous, but Alice figured if she worked with a bunch of the undead she'd be jumpy too.
Now all eight zombies had stopped working and were milling around the overturned bin. Alice was surprised by how non-threatening they seemed. Instead of acting like bloodthirsty cannibals, they appeared to be just confused and more than a bit OCD.
"So you throw around your rank and Ken jumps to attention?" Alice asked, not taking her eyes off the zombies.
"Hardly. Ken hates me."
She gave him a knowing look. "What did you do?"
"It's nothing personal," Welly said. "Ken hates all Enhanced Agents. Don't worry, he isn't as unreasonable when it comes to Sensitives such as yourself."
"I wasn't worried, but you still haven't told me why Ken hates Enhanced Agents."
"Because Enhanced Agents treat my Mailroom like a twenty-four-hour practical joke shop," a tall, thin man announced. His blond hair was thin and straggly, but was more than made up for by his thick, drooping moustache. In his cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, and unbuttoned, embroidered denim shirt, he looked like a very unhappy rhinestone cowboy.
"Every month," Ken continued, in an irate tone, "Enhanced Agents sneak in and steal fingers and ears to stick in each other's coffee. Last December, twelve zombies were kidnapped and decorated as Christmas trees."
Welly raised his free hand to his mouth. Alice would have suspected he was hiding a smile, if she didn't know him better. Welly rarely smiled for any reason and certainly wouldn't at rule-breaking.
The Twelve Days of Corpsified Christmas were before Alice came to Odyssey's Head Office, but she was all too familiar with Enhanced Agent hijinks. Not only were Enhanced Agents stronger, faster, and longer-lived than the average human, they had triple the testosterone. And that included the women, Alice thought, remembering how the adorably petite Enhanced Agent Lei had tried to strangle the six-foot-plus Welly after he'd changed her vacation schedule.
"And let's not forget the year before," Ken growled, "when several zombies were decapitated and their heads used as Halloween jack-o-lanterns!"
Alice took a deep breath and tried to send out calming energy. Her trainer on Survival Island had referred to this as the Kumbaya approach to conflict management. A big part of her job as a Sensitive was keeping all the testosterone-fuelled squabbling under control.
"I had nothing to do with that incident," Welly said. "And if you bothered to remember, I exiled both Frankel and Washington to the branch office in Outer Mongolia."
Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya.
"Under protest, as I do remember," Ken shot back. "And just like all Enhanced Agents, you kill zombies every chance you get!"
Ooooh Looord, Kumbaya.
"Of course I kill zombies. Anyone with a scrap of common sense would kill zombies, instead of dressing them up and treating them like people!"
"Enough!" Alice shouted, stepping between them. "You're both giving me a headache and-Eep!"
"What is it?" Welly asked, raising his Taser.
She pointed at the floor. A finger was lying there, a metre away from where they were standing.
"Damn it," Ken cursed, and scooped up the finger. "Scott, are they all wearing their safety mitts? How many times do I have to tell you... "
As Ken stormed over to the unfortunate Scott, Alice let out a sigh. She'd learned a lot about picking up on other people's thoughts and feelings, but so far all her attempts to manipulate their emotions had been a complete letdown.
Alice looked at Welly, who was fingering his Taser with an unsettling gleam in his eyes. "Can you please behave like you're civilized?" she said.
"I am civilized," Welly said, offended.
Ken returned, his face red. "Now, take your damn-"
"You really shouldn't use that word," Welly interrupted. Before he could launch into his all-too-familiar lecture on the evils of swearing, Alice intervened.
"So Ken, what inspired you to hire zombies for the Mailroom?"
Both men looked taken aback by her enthusiastic question, but Ken recovered first. "Zombies suffer from diminished mental capacity, but that doesn't mean they can't lead full, productive lives." He shot a nasty look at Welly.
"But why sorting mail?" Alice asked, forcing Ken's attention away from her partner.
"Unfortunately, only a few zombies can handle complex tasks. However, this Mailroom is highly automated, with computerized scanning and sorting, so the zombie mail clerks just handle the heavy lifting and filing. Of course, I also encourage them to develop hobbies and other interests, but nothing too stimulating. Overstimulating a zombie is never a good idea, I'm sure you'd agree."
There were now three human staff members in the room, and they'd managed to get all but one of the zombies back to work. The last zombie had walked into a corner and apparently couldn't turn around. He was chewing on a Boston fern and its macramé holder. Alice wondered if that qualified as a zombie hobby.
Ken needed no further encouragement to continue lecturing Alice and Welly. "Many of the zombies who work here are very fond of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Of course, most of them can't see well enough to read anymore, but they really enjoy the series on our two-hundred-inch plasma TV." Ken pointed to Alice's yellow dress. "Zombies really like bright colours too, but be warned they don't always understand the concept of personal space, especially if overstimulated."
Alice swore to herself she'd wear black if she ever returned to the Mailroom. However, she decided to say something positive, to keep Ken on his even keel. Welly appeared willing to let her take charge for the moment, and she was beginning to feel like a real Sensitive, building consensus and promoting harmony between people. This was why Odyssey had recruited her from her old job as a telephone psychic. She always knew exactly the right thing to say.
"Your zombies are so laid-back. They're not at all what I imagined the living dead would be like," Alice told him. She watched as a very large woman disentangled the plant-chewing zombie from the macramé hanger. "I keep expecting them to start moaning. Brains, brains, brrraains!"
"Stop that!" Ken said, sharply.
"Why-" Alice began, but then noticed the zombie closest to them had started repeating "brains" over and over again. Soon, all of them were droning the same word, and the effect was more than a little disconcerting. Her confidence vanishing as quickly as it had arrived, Alice backed up, closer to Welly. To be honest, she hadn't been a very good telephone psychic.
Ken went over to them and started a new mantra, chanting, "Peace, peace, peace."
One after the other the zombies slowly followed his lead, abandoning "brains" for "peace". Now it was as if the Mailroom had been taken over by zombie hippies. Alice heard Welly make a disgusted sound under his breath
Not for the first time, Alice wished she'd majored in science or business instead of English and classical literature. People with sensible university degrees didn't work for Odyssey. They had normal jobs, sane bosses, and living co-workers.
Ken came back and fixed her with a disapproving glare. "Zombies are very prone to peer pressure, so you have to be careful what you say or do around them. Of course, I'd expect negative cultural stereotyping from an Enhanced Agent, but I really hoped for better from a Sensitive."
"You call them zombies," Alice countered, stung. "So you're asking for stereotyping."
Ken sighed. "We're trying to reclaim the word 'zombie' as a positive label, but it's been an uphill battle. I tried alternatives like 'life-impaired' and 'differently living', but they just led people to assume zombies are dead."
Alice mouthed the word 'assume' to Welly. He just gave her a smug 'I told you he was a raving loon' look in return. His hand was flexing on his Taser.
"'People of decomposition' and 'virally abled' were more accurate labels, but they never caught on," Ken continued, sadly, "giving me little choice but to help my staff reclaim their proud heritage as zombies."
"And you'll have more joining this misguided movement of yours," Welly broke in impatiently. "There's a reliable report of a Stage Two zombie outbreak in Wales. I'm going to need you in the North Atlantic Briefing Room in an hour."
Before either Ken or Alice could respond to this announcement, an alarm sounded in the next room.
"What's happening?" Alice asked.
"A.A.'s mailed another bomb to Odyssey," Ken growled, stomping off.
Welly followed Ken, and Alice tagged along after him. "Alcoholics Anonymous is bombing Odyssey? What did we ever do to them?" she asked.
In the next room, a metre-high beige cabinet was emitting the klaxon sound. Alice barely heard Welly's response, "A.A., in this case, 'Agitators for Antichrists'."
"Hang on, antichrists?" she asked, but if Welly heard her, he gave no sign. He was on high alert, checking exits, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the zombies in the room behind them.
Ken was consulting the computer display on top of the cabinet. "It's a confirmation, definitely an explosive!" he shouted at Scott, who looked like he was going to faint.
Alice was feeling pretty tense herself, but she was less worried about the bomb than she was about the agitated zombies who were milling about the room. Their numbers had grown too. Human staff were trying to herd the zombies away, but they kept coming back to gape at the howling cabinet.
A zombie missing both of his ears lurched toward her, and she jumped back with a frightened squeak. Welly instantly levelled his Taser and fired.
The earless zombie went down, and two others close by also fell to the floor and began to jerk spasmodically. The remaining zombies stampeded in multiple directions, ignoring the shouting human staff.
As Welly disconnected the used Taser cartridge, Ken abandoned the bomb detector and elbowed his way through the zombies. He swung at the Taser in Welly's hand with a package of mail. "Get out, you barbarian! Get out, get out!"
"Don't forget, the North Atlantic Briefing Room. Not the South Atlantic, the North." Welly attached a new cartridge to his Taser.
Enraged, Ken drove Alice and Welly out into the main room and toward the metal doors. "If I ever see you anywhere near my Mailroom, I'll take your Taser and-"
"The meeting's in one hour!" Welly shouted back.
"I'll be there, but not for you! I won't let you near those poor Welsh zombies!" Ken pounded a large red button, and the metal doors slowly opened, adding to the cacophony of sound and light.
Welly strode out through the doors. Alice heard a dull whump behind her, and a shockwave sent her stumbling after Welly into the hall.
"Have a nice visit?" the female guard asked.
Alice ignored the guards' laughter and focused on her relief at getting away from exploding mail and rampaging zombies. She was also grateful to be away from all those little fountains. The sound of trickling water made her want to pee.
Alice caught up with Welly on the stairwell and was glad his Taser was out of sight. "There are zombies in Wales?" she asked.
He nodded. "And it's vital we get them cleared out of there before the World Bog Snorkelling Championships next week."
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