Wednesday October 9, 2002:
Otis must’ve heard about the microwave incident, because at lunch today he chapped on my door and invited me round to his place after my shift. Apparently Wednesday night is poker night for some of the guards. I said “sure.” Bit of solidarity with the other workin’ stiffs is what I need right now.
My shift ended at three, so I had enough time for a nap before I pulled on a t-shirt and jeans and went up to Otis’. He welcomed me inside, wearing a day-glow-green visor and a Hawaiian shirt. Sat around the kitchen table table was an old Mexican guy wearing an even older tuxedo, and the dude I’d met on the train after my interview.
“Hunter aint it?” I said, hoping he’d go easy on me.
“Newbie,” he said. “You find time to go over that small print yet?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Especially paragraph 10, clause 8: ‘do not engage with the assholes in labcoats.'”
“I hear you on that one,” he said.
“Okay-dokey fellas,” said Otis, laying down all the chips and dips at his side of the table. “Let’s play!”
The old-timer turned out to be Cuban, not Mexican, and introduced himself as Chico Torres while Hunter shuffled the deck.
“Chico’s the longest-serving security guard in Black Mesa,” said Otis through a mouthful of tortillas. “Aint that right Chico?”
“Si,” said Chico, “I been a guard here since ’78. I retire in June.”
“Wow,” I said.
Chico nodded, but his eyes were on the cards. I could tell Wednesday nights were serious business. Not the winning or losing, but the playing itself.
We played a couple of games. Poker’s not really my thing: I’m too much of an open book. But it was fun to shoot the shit and bitch about work. The guys all had the same complaints as me and then some:
“Those damn system crashes. Every day it’s like the computers wanna commit suicide.”
“I tell ya, I can’t stand those dang TPS reports. Can’t make head nor tail of em.”
“You met Dr Keller yet? Don’t ask if he needs help with his chair. I learned that the hard way.”
“All I say is this amigo: if we changed the A-shift from six to three, to seven to four, everyone would be happier.”
Eventually we came to our last game of the night. We’d all had few too many beers, and we were getting to that point where the booze makes you play recklessly. At a lull in the game I turned to Chico.
“Hey Mr Torres,” I said, “I bet you’ve seen some crazy shit in your time. I mean, I’ve heard all kinds of stuff about this place on the internet.”
Nobody said anything, but I felt the temperature in the room drop a couple of degrees.
“Ah, I see nothing here,” Chico shrugged “I work in Waste Processing. Garbage is garbage.”
“Come on man,” I said. “Nothing? No secret weapons?”
“Nada,” said Chico. “Now, my last job; there I could tell you some stories.”
“Where was that?” I asked.
“Janitor at Aperture Science,” he said, “At their place in Michigan. The boss man there-” he tapped his head. “He was loco.”
“Aperture Science. Don’t they do shower curtains?” I said.
“No,” Chico answered. “Mantis men.”
I tried to absorb this, wondering if it was some kinda language-barrier thing. I looked at Otis for help, but he was busy trying to open a jar of salsa.
“Mantis men?” I said.
“And cubes,” Chico nodded, “Cubes to be your amigo.”
I realised that Mr Torres was probably senile at this point, so I decided to drop it.
“Hey,” piped up Otis. “Whatever happened to those guys? They were competing with us for grant money for years.”
“Heard they went bust,” said Hunter. “Poured all their money into AI, once they realised they couldn’t compete with our quantum-“
Suddenly he cleared his throat.
“What about you Hunter?” I asked, “Where do you work?”
“Sector F,” he said, looking at his cards.
That piqued my interest. Sector F is the Lambda Complex. You need the highest security clearance to work there, and those guards make twice what I do. At least.
“Ever seen anything weird in there?” I said, trying to sound casual. “Any cool science stuff?”
“Nah,” he said, folding. “Nothing.”
We played out the last hand and Chico won. We said our goodbyes and took off. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Hunter had said. Or rather, the way he said it. His poker face isn’t as good as he thinks it is.