Setting up the room had been what finally convinced me to hire Fitz.
It was small for a corner office. The style was distinctly industrial, with Art Deco flourishes that invoked the Golden Gate Bridge – a copper bass-relief of which was hung against one wall.
The floor was sections of metal grille with soft colored lights glowing up from below; the lighting above was recessed into a rather low ceiling. Two imposing chairs sat before a sweeping chrome desk that curved around and along the wall to surround a small chair, also on metal. The desk adjacent the wall was presented as the primary work surface, with a bulky keyboard and trackball set permanently therein below a monitor that was itself set into the wall, behind clear glass as though a museum display.
What I expected to be a two-day project with the three guys I hired, had taken six days – and half of that was having them re-do what they did wrong. I could have done most of it myself in ten hours with a second guy to do some of the lifting. Managing others remotely was infuriating sometimes.
It was a quarter to noon, 8:45 Pacific time. I had already turned the video conferencing camera on remotely, but not the display, when Leo led the Gardner twins into the room.
Except for some very evident nerves, Georgia Gardner managed the picture of the young Latina professional. Her tan business suit was pressed, her long hair tightly done up in wrapped braids at her neck. She managed not to call attention to the gloves she wore, or the thick insulated soles of the work boots that hid under her suit. I noted, mostly for confirmation of the extensive research and preparation I had done, that the pleats of her pants and the tail of her jacket hung oddly, seeming to stick to her or flare out at different moments. She took in the room with perplexed appreciation – she liked what she saw, but didn’t understand it.
Matti Gardner also wore a professional suit, in navy blue, but her appearance drew away from her choice of dress. In place of skin, she was covered in layers of small overlapping scales, each about the size of a paperclip. She had no hair, although the scales from her crown down the back of her head were thicker and longer, forming a downward cascade that suggested spikes or frills. She didn’t bother with gloves like her sister – her hands were scaled as well, with flared scales along the backs of her hands running up her fingers like extended claws.
Unlike her sister, Matti’s expression didn’t betray any glimmer of hope or excitement. She was stern, and increasingly wary as she looked around the room.
“This will be the COO’s office,” Leo said as he moved around the desk to sit in the large chair. “Please have a seat. The owner thanks you for your patience in conducting the process at arm’s length up until now, and is excited to meet with you today. We have about ten minutes. Did you have any questions I can answer in the interim?”
While he was speaking, Matti had taken her sister’s arm and helped Georgia slowly and carefully sit down in her chair. Georgia furrowed her brow as she settled into her seat, and I saw her casually moving her sleeved arm against one of the high chair arms. Matti dropped into the other chair without ceremony.
Georgia spoke up. Her voice carried well and had a full, high tone. “To be honest, Mr. Palfrey, we have enough unanswered questions that I’m not sure why we agreed to come.” She glanced at her sister, received a small nod, and continued. “We signed your nondisclosure agreement a week ago. We’ve had multiple meetings with you together and separately, answered all your questions. And we still don’t know anything about this new company or who the owner is.”
Matti added, “Or anything about what we would be expected to do!”
I stared at the screen in surprise. Leo had gotten them into the room cold, with no information about me or the job. I had hired him based on second-hand recommendations; he was supposed to be the best consultant in Silicon Valley for launching a start-up. I had certainly not told him to leave my best candidates in the dark through multiple days of meetings and interviews.
But looking back, it was quite possible I had. When Leo and I first discussed staffing my new company, I explained that secrecy was of paramount importance until we launched, particularly with our candidate hires. I had assumed that he would fill the Gardner sisters in once I had them sign the NDA, but I had never explicitly told him that.
This was going to make today’s meeting quite a bit messier.
“… certain he will fill you in himself, as soon as he calls in,” Leo finished. I decided that was my line.
I shut off my one-way feed to the office’s systems and dialed in. The video feed resumed after only a short delay, with Leo’s fingers on the track ball where he had answered the incoming call.
“Good morning, Mister Delphic,” he said brightly. “How are you today?”
“Hello, Leo. It has been an eventful day so far. How was your Thanksgiving?”
“Tiring,” he admitted with a smile. “I’d like you to meet Matti and Georgia Gardner.” He let the chair roll back slightly, placing himself and them closer to the same frame in the camera view. “Ladies, this is Delphic, the CEO of Delphic incorporated.”
“Hello to both of you,” my synthetic voice said over the built in microphone system. I was using my classic avatar, a still image of an ‘Omphalos’ coin believed to have come from ancient Delphi.
Matti’s expression hadn’t changed, but Georgia’s had passed quickly from bewilderment to anger. “Who put you up to this?” She asked. She had moved forward in her seat and was balanced to stand up at any moment, but she kept her seat. “Someone’s recording, I assume? A prank for social media?”
“Georgia, I assure you, this is no prank,” Leo insisted. He, too, seemed ready to get up, presumably to chase the women if they did. “What makes you think that?”
Georgia’s face was screwed up in something combining fury and embarrassment. “I don’t care why! It’s seriously not funny. Putting us through all of that for other peoples’ amusement-”
I needed to intervene. “I can see we have a misunderstanding here,” I quickly typed, “and I expect it’s my fault. Leo, do you mind leaving me alone with Georgia and Matti?”
The man looked perplexed but he didn’t hesitate. With a nod he stood up and walked past the women, into the empty floor space of the office proper. I waited until he was well out of earshot.
“I need to apologize,” I sent, “to both of you. I thought Leo would have filled you in on a number of details before today, and he thought I wanted to do it myself.” Georgia’s expression softened slightly; Matti looked as stone-faced as before. “I did not intend to spring this much on you today. I expected you would already know who I was and my plans for this space. Today was just supposed to be the day I met you, showed you the office, and explained your positions.”
Matti asked, “You’re for real? You’re actually the superhero, Delphic?” Other than a slight narrowing of her eyes, I saw no change of expression.
“I am very much real. This isn’t a prank. Although I can understand why you might think it is.”
“Why’s that?” Georgia challenged.
“Both of you are active on internet sites that discuss superheroes. Both of you hold yourselves out as being fans of my work.”
Georgia blanched. “You know who we are online?”
“On the main fan boards you are KuteKittieLAX, spelled with a k, and Matti is OmicronJunkie.” As they heard this, Georgia whipped around to watch her sister, whose face finally had a real expression – her eyes were wide, and the scales around her face were lightening. It took me a few seconds to realize she was… embarrassed. That wasn’t the response I was hoping to have. “There is nothing for you to be embarrassed about. You said very nice things about me, and speculated as to some interesting ways that I could use my powers. Some of which I’m hoping to put into effect…”
Georgia was biting her own hand, snickering, while Matti had bent over enough to bury her face in her arms. The reaction didn’t seem to fit what I was saying.
“Can I ask what is the matter?” I asked. “I didn’t realize I had said anything insulting.”
Georgia calmed down enough to ask, “How much of the forums did you actually read? How many of… ah, OmicronJunkie’s stories did you…?”
“Stories, meaning fanfiction?” When I got a nod, I answered. “I hadn’t paid attention to those sites, no. I read your comments on the discussion boards, speculating about powers.”
“Ah.” Georgia settled down a bit, and reached out to place a reassuring hand on Matti, who was composing herself.
“I take it Matti has written… what’s the term, celebrity fanfiction? With me as a character.”
“You could call it that,” the scaled sister muttered.
“That’s very flattering. Again, I’m sorry to have embarrassed you.”
“People just… ah, sorry,” Georgia fought down giggles. “People just don’t expect to get that stuff tagged to their real life. Anonymity, you know?”
I certainly did – that was the reason for the whole ‘Delphic’ identity in the first place. “Will this impact your willingness to work with me?”
Matti’s coloration was almost back to normal as the two of them shared a glance, and then nodded at the same time. “It’s fine,” Matti insisted.
“Then I’d like to get into the details. Georgia, you’ve been working with the Mitner Group on lateral recruitment and also retention consulting, is that correct?”
I could see a little bit of her earlier nervousness returning. “That’s right.”
“No it’s not,” Matti interjected. She pulled herself up and back, focusing her full attention on my avatar – avoiding her sister’s indignant gaze.
“Matti, what are you-” Georgia began, the other twin cut her off.
“They’ve been dumping off the hardest projects on her for years now.” Matti’s tone had moved from flat to angry, although her face didn’t move with it. “Full department moves. Company mergers. Impossible clients.”
“Matti,” Georgia tried again, “we cant-”
“Ms. Gardner,” this time it was I who cut her off. “I would like to hear Matti’s impression of your time at Mitner, if you please.”
Emboldened, Matti continued. “They convinced her that she shouldn’t do any of the facetime, because of her condition,” she gestured at Georgia’s gloves; Georgia tugged on one nervously.
“Involuntary capacitance,” I sent.
“She builds up charges. It wasn’t bad when we were teenagers, or even in college, but it’s gotten worse. And her colleagues have used it as an excuse to work her dead while taking her credit.”
“Georgia,” I asked, “is this an accurate description?”
“Would you prefer a job where you managed assets and clients face-to-face, and handled your own cases?”
“Yes, but,” she licked her lips, holding up a gloved hand, “the shocking problem is real. I really can’t take meetings in person unless I keep my distance. I can’t even be around computers for more than a few minutes.
It was time to pull out my first Ace. “Can I ask you, how many discharges have you felt since you entered this room?”
Her eyes widened as she thought back. “Well, none, actually. That’s why I wore the insulated gloves and boots.”
“Take them off.”
Georgia looked to her sister, who gave her a ‘go on’ nod. She took her gloves off, one at a time, to reveal long fingers painted a deep blue. It took me a moment to realize why the color seemed to fit so well – it matched Matti’s scales.
She reached down to pull off her boots, revealing socks the same cream color as her blouse. Reluctantly, she put one foot on the floor, then the other.
“Do you know how lightning rods work?” I asked, and they just shook their heads. “A common misconception is that their primary purpose is to attract lightning strikes. But their main benefit is reducing the frequency of strikes in the first place.
“All of the decorations you see, the furniture, and even the floor itself. They’re all made of electrically conductive metal, and they’re all grounded. Every surface in here drains the electricity from you as quickly as it can build up, the same way that lightning rods drain excess charge out of the air.”
Georgia took in the room with new eyes, and saw how I had chosen copper and bronze decorations with angular features. Her eyes went to the base of one knick-knack where a bit of the grounding wire was barely visible.
“Come sit behind the desk,” I invited her. She gingerly stepped over the grilles in her stocking feet, and eased into the more giving chair. “That’s aluminum mesh microplated in silver. Springy, strong – and highly conductive.” She bounced the seat up and down, testing it. “Come over to the keyboard.”
Georgia rolled over to the part of the desk up against the wall. I could see her start to object… and then think better of it. She waited on me instead.
“Try it. The keys are heavily insulated elements. I couldn’t get a conventional optical mouse to work reliably, hence the trackball. But the monitor’s far enough recessed to avoid contact, and the box itself is in another room.”
I was enjoying my explanation, and Georgia certainly didn’t seem bored yet, so I kept typing and sending. “None of this is new technology, by the way. There are engineering labs that deal with high voltage devices and volatile components. Building the proper work environment is a solved problem.”
“This seems like a significant expense to go through for one employee,” Georgia said.
“It’s actually less expensive than many COO offices in the Valley,” I retorted.
That got Georgia jerking her head up in surprise again. “Leo said that, didn’t he? COO? Chief operating officer?”
“That’s correct. I hope you want the job, because the office is already here.”
Georgia turned and made eye contact with her sister again. From the placement of the camera, I couldn’t see her face when she did that. Matti’s was still impassive, but she did give a small nod.
“What would I do, exactly?” She turned back to face the screen and the camera as she asked. She looked genuinely pleased, with a broad smile she seemed to be trying and failing to suppress.
“You would seek out and manage the company’s projects,” I said. “They will fall into three categories. Revenue, benevolence, and research.”
“That’s quite vague,” Matti pointed out.
“It is vague,” I agreed, “because I want Delphic Incorporated to be flexible. It’s a business, and I intend to provide high-valued services so that we turn a substantial profit.”
“Revenue projects,” Georgia said.
“Correct. I have three years to demonstrate to my investors that I can run a company this size and make a profit.”
“Who are your investors?” Matti asked.
“Two venture capital firms in the area. Collectively they contributed thirty-five million with a projected return on investment of one hundred percent.”
“We have to turn thirty-five million into seventy million in three years?” Matti sputtered.
“I am sinking five million of my own money into the company, and I want to be able to pay off the investors and still have thirty million to continue operations.”
“I stand corrected. We turn forty million into a hundred and ten million. Piece of cake,” she quipped. Her scaly features really were quite striking, beautiful even, when she let herself show emotion.
“So we need high-value projects. Finding, landing, and managing those clients will be the bulk of your job, Georgia. If you take it.”
The woman nodded thoughtfully. She reached a hand toward her opposite wrist as though to adjust her glove; her hand froze when it felt nothing there, then dropped into her lap. “The benevolence projects?”
“A set of clients we don’t charge for. There are situations where my abilities can uniquely help someone. Times when other options will probably fail, or have already failed.” Both sisters nodded while I clarified. “I don’t mean donating money. The company may do that, too, but I will handle that directly if so. Benevolence projects should be limited to situations where Delphic Incorporated would be sought out to help if there was money involved. Something we’re suited to use our talents on.”
“It may be hard to balance paid and unpaid projects,” Georgia mused.
“True,” I agreed, “but that’s the job.”
The silence stretched out a moment, and it was again Matti that broke it. “I understand you had a job for me as well?” She smiled somewhat harshly. “Did you build an office that makes me not look like a freak?”
My heart really went out to her, noting the deep hurt underlying her attempt at levity. “I haven’t furnished your office,” I typed. “You’ve seen the space here. How to apportion out and furnish it is a job for the CPO.”
“Chief procurement officer?” Georgia was indignant. “My sister has an established background in finance and has audited major corporate departments, and you’re asking her to be your personal shopper?”
“Not hardly,” I replied. I typed quickly to diffuse the negative reaction. “Matti will be CFO, CPO, and personnel manager. I fully expect her to hire a half dozen employees to manage these roles.” I looked and saw that Georgia seemed mollified, but Matti’s expression hadn’t changed. “Within the first year, Matti’s role will grow into multiple full-time jobs. But I believe with her expertise I’m better off handing her the keys to all of it and letting her hire subordinates to handle the details.”
Georgia and I both looked to Matti, and she smiled. Not a big smile – small and quiet. But I swelled with pride anyway.
“You have contracts for us to sign?” Matti asked.
“I’ll call Leo back in,” I typed and sent. “Let me say one more thing. If this endeavor works, it will be because I found the right two people to run this company.”
Georgia kicked back, letting the chair lean with her. “If anybody can make this work, we can.” She met Matti’s eyes one more time and got another nod. “That’s not a brag; it just the truth.”
She was right. I made the call to Leo.