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Dr Harold Smith knew how many rules he was currently violating.  Being a thorough scientist, he was aware that he often did not follow regulations.  He did it in the spirit of conscientious objection:  if a regulation did not make sense to him, he did not follow it.  This was practical.  After all, there was no one there to remind him or to catch him, or so he had thought.  This cold, young woman seemed certain that she was dealing with either an idiot or a genius.  A chill went down his spine.  Either she knew how many rules he was violating or she didn’t, and it was clear to him that he had to go either one route or the other:  full disclosure or a full cover-up.
“Harold?”  Geraldine crossed her arms.  “Are you going to answer my question?”
“Well, I,”  He tapped his fingers against the table.  “I’m not exactly sure what to say.”  He fiddled with the collar of his shirt.
“You seem flustered, Harold.”  She nodded.  “Yes, flustered.  I would call you flustered.”  She rose from her chair.  “Would you like a glass of water?”  When he didn’t respond immediately, she exited.
Instead of looking through the documents Geraldine left behind, Dr Smith contemplated the best way to leave this room in a hurry.  He could call for the company car at the reception desk and be on his way back to the lab to get enough work done by sundown to go home.  
Geraldine entered and slammed the door shut behind her.  “I got myself water.”  Setting the glass down, she stood for a second and placed her hands on her hips.  “Were you thinking of leaving?”
“Oh, no.”  Dr Smith shook his head.  “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Good.”  She sat and picked up  the first piece of paper in her pile of documents.  “This is going to take some time. ”
He checked his watch.  “I think I’ve only got fifteen more minutes.”
“All right.”  She tapped a manicured nail down on the desk once, a dull, plastic sound.  “I’ll get to the heart of this matter as soon as possible.”
“What are we discussing?”  Dr Smith straightened himself to his full height.
“Your termination.”  Geraldine tapped her nail down once more.  “Or rather, the ongoing messy nature of your termination from the Company.  You don’t have to say anything while I tell you these things.  Its part of my job to tell people these things.”  She looked into Dr Smith’s eyes.  “I’m with the human resources division.  I want you to know I don’t get any pleasure from this, but we’re required, by state and federal laws to give you all the information in this packet I will hand you now.”  She reached under the table and pulled out a manila envelope.  “If you have any questions, I will stay here until you leave the room.  At that point, my obligation to you ends.”
“Obligations?”  Dr Smith slumped over.  “I didn’t know I was going to be fired.”
“Is that a question, Harold?”  She leaned back in her chair.
“I didn’t know I was going to be fired.”  He repeated.
“More of a statement, I suppose.”  She began to pack up all of the documents into her briefcase.  
Dr Smith rubbed his eyes.  “Are you going?”
“Well, I can’t leave until you leave.”  She shrugged.  “So, no, I’m not going anywhere.  I’m just tidying up a bit.”  She pushed everything besides one piece of paper in her briefcase.
Dr Smith couldn’t resist.  “What’s that?”
“This?  I’m so glad you asked.”  Steepling her fingers, she nodded.  “This is an agreement, an agreement of sorts.  Before this company merged with about five other companies, you could have been fired and had many things done to you without any preamble.  This, Harold, is a preamble.”  She indicated the room and herself with a wide sweep of her arms.  “Unless you sign the agreement.”  She held the thin, white sheet of paper up to his face.  “If you sign the agreement, you owe the Company nothing.  They cannot sue you for work you didn’t do, or negligence or even work you did do here.  You get your severance with interest, as negotiated at the time of your hiring, which was approximately forty years ago.”
Dr Smith nodded, placing his left hand on the document.
“Are you wondering what the catch is?”  Geraldine laid a pen near his right hand.
“Everything the Company paid for research purposes belongs to the Company.”  She licked her lips, then took a sip of water.  “This means you must leave your lab coat and identification card with me.  Everything in your lab will be repurposed for current work, if you sign the agreement.”
“Everything?”  Dr Smith picked up the pen.  “In exchange for protection from legal action.”
“Yes, legal action within the Company.”  She sighed.  “I’m afraid this doesn’t protect you from legal action without.  However, considering that you’re not high profile, I doubt any private citizens or the government would want to file any suits against you.”
Dr Smith put the pen down.  “I’d like one more thing.”
“One more thing?”  Geraldine tilted her head.  “Of course.”
“I’d like to keep my robot.”  He chewed on his lip.  “Its not a part of any of the machines or equipment, it, it tidies up.  Its a cleaning robot, a janitor.”
“I gather it doesn’t have any research purposes.”  She gestured for him to continue.
“No, it, it never has been used for any research.”  Dr Smith straightened his shoulders.  “My work with cloning has absolutely nothing to do with robotics.”
“Although you have in the past used robotics to enhance your research.”  She tapped a forefinger against her upper lip.  “This robot has never been used for research.”
“No, never.”  Dr Smith shook his head emphatically.
“Sentimental value?“
Dr Smith nodded.  “Yes, I made it myself quite some time ago.  Now, in my old, bachelor life, I find it hard to bend over and such.”  He creased one of his arms creakily at the elbow in demonstration.
Geraldine harumphed.  “If I do this for you, you have to understand that you could only have the robot.  No file cabinets, no papers, nothing else.”
“Of course.”  
She pulled out a laptop and unfolded it.  “You and I will wait here while the robot in question is transported here.  I’ll make a personal assessment of the robot myself.  Meanwhile, I’ll modify this agreement and have it reprinted for you to sign.”  Busy typing, she denied him eye contact.  “If you could remove your lab coat and place it and your identification card on the table that will expedite things.”
“How long will this take?”  Dr Smith stood up began removing his lab coat.
“Approximately fifteen minutes or so.”  Pausing from her work, she glanced up at him.  “Where is the exact location of your robot?”
“Its in the office, next to my desk.”  Wanting to be helpful, he continued.  “It has its own lighted alcove.”
“Of course.”  She turned back to him after a moment of staring at the laptop screen.  “The team has it now.  They’re bringing it back.”
“Ah, so my lab is . . .”  Dr Smith settled his lab coat on the desk, then his non-functional identification card.
“Yes, your lab is now fully the property of the Company.”  She pecked at the keyboard.  “As it technically always has been.  I think its good that you brought up the robot now.”  She glanced at him.
Clutching his notepad, Dr Smith sat back down.
“May I see that notepad, Harold?”  She raised her hand, palm up.
“Well, its just a notepad.”  He looked at the small pad of paper as if seeing it for the first time.  “I figured I could hold onto it.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”  Geraldine walked around the table and lightly gripped the pad.  “Give me the notepad.”
“There’s nothing important in it.”  He gnawed on his lower lip.
“Do you want your robot or not?”  She raised an eyebrow.
Dr Smith reluctantly handed it over.
Triumphant, she walked with her prize back to her seat.  “I’ll flip through it and see if there’s anything of use to the Company.”  She opened it up to the first page with one hand and continued using her laptop with the other.  “Ah, the team should arrive in ten minutes.  Make yourself comfortable until then.”
As Geraldine rifled through his notepad, Dr Smith thought back to all of the times he had his work scrutinized.  Periodically, a team of well-dressed young men and women would go through his notebooks or files to see if there was anything “of interest.”  Dr Smith had probably spent more time being audited than getting help from the Company for brainstorming or new machinery.  In some ways, this was special, the last time Dr Smith would ever have to voluntarily put up with this kind of investigation.  He tried to clear his mind of bad thoughts and began to focus on his future.
In the immediate future, he’d have to get home.  He wouldn’t be able to use the Company’s car, as he had so often in the past.  Walking would be out of the question.  Dr Smith was one of the lucky people who had become a homeowner a couple of decades past, before owning a home became ridiculously expensive.  Still, it had been expensive enough when he had bought the house, a four square three bedroom, that it had to be an hour away from the city by car.
“Geraldine?”  Dr Smith cleared his throat.  “Could you find out for me the nearest bus to my house?  And, if I could get a glass of water, please.”
“Of course.”  She smiled her first genuine smile.  “I’m happy to see that you’re taking the news so well.”  Geraldine typed in a few things before standing.  “While the public transit webpage searches for a route, I’ll go get you a glass of water.  Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine, Harold.  While I’m gone feel free to read through the documents in the envelope I just gave you.  Today is a new adventure.”


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November 2010

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