For the last one hundred thirty-one years my job at Mundo Perpetuo has been to stop all the probable and improbable apocalypses that people accidentally invoke. I've worked my way up from junior meteor diverter to viral containment specialist, and now, as the most senior staff member, I get to run the Department of Mixed Ends of the World. If the dinosaurs return, or civilization as we know it is threatened by falling anvils, Old Joe steps up to bat.
And still, some days the world takes me by surprise, like the day when Paula Johnson greeted me in the lobby with these words: "Mr. Inflectus. I am to inform you that our new CEO, Mr. Halen, has called a meeting of all department heads at 9:00 a.m., and that you are now five minutes late."
Around the office I just go by the name of Joe, so her salutation stopped me dead in my tracks. "And, eh, a very formal morning to you too, Ms. Johnson. New CEO, you said?"
Paula just cracked her knuckles, a gesture I knew as danger incarnate. Her magic was capable of manipulating physical objects in disturbing ways, which made her the best security chief in the northern hemisphere. She was also an archivist of unrivalled skills, and both abilities had saved my life time and again. If she felt threatened, I did, too.
I power-stepped up the stairs, one flight at a time, wondering what we needed a CEO for. We'd been without a nominal leader for the last eight years since our former director had fired himself for being redundant. But when I entered Conference 2, I knew right away that our new CEO would never reach a similar conclusion. He was a young white guy with flashy teeth, a black Armani suit and a shave so close he must have had his hair follicles surgically removed.
"Joseph Inflectus? From Mixed Ends of the World? Glad you could finally join us," he said, mistaking acidity for authority. "Please have a seat. Now, as I was telling everyone before you chose to show up, I am your new boss, and you may address me as Mr. Halen."
I'm not big on self-imposed authority, and I'm afraid it showed in the way I sat down next to Antonio Suarez from Pandemics: as slowly as I possibly could, I waited until Mr. Halen drew breath to speak again, and then found my most casual voice.
"Have you ever directed a magical department before, Mr. Halen?"
"Of course not. You're the only one in the country."
"That you know of," Ingrid Blunt corrected him. "Do you have any experience with enchantments, summoning, or protection spells?"
That got a laugh and a flash of those bright, shiny teeth. "Don't worry, I'm leaving the hokus pokus to the professionals. My qualifications are in leadership. I've got an MBA from Yale. When I was office intern at WaterHome Crunch, I took a BPCD at BPCC and soon graduated to internal office department HoC. After WaterHome Crunch I moved on to--"
Speaking of hokus pokus. I cleared my throat Archwizardly, that is to say, in the way that made people Pay Respectful Attention.
Mr. Halen just looked annoyed. "Yes?"
"Mundo Perpetuo has prevented every conceivable apocalypse in the last seventy-five centuries, saving Earth and mankind at least a thousand times over. Proof of our efficiency: you've not been turned into a vampire, infected with a deadly virus, irradiated, flattened by a meteor, smothered by a vengeful deity, or drowned in an antediluvian tide. We intend to keep you and the rest of the world that way. The question is, Mr. Halen, what you bring to the table."
He showed his teeth and steepled his fingers. "I'm going to increase turnover. Together we'll make profits skyrocket."
The last word made B.S. Belamy, head of Alien Invasions, flinch habitually. The horror I read on the other faces had been conjured by another phrase.
"You may be CEO, Mr. Halen," said Manfred Parsons, head of Undead Outbreaks. "But continue to think that way and you'll be DOA." Working zombie apocalypses for half a century had blunted Parson's sense of humor and situational awareness. Zombies need a firm hand, not subtlety.
"What Parsons means is that we don't need increased turnover." I stressed the last word. "The fewer apocalypses we have to prevent, the better."
"That's where you're wrong," Mr. Halen said. "As of today, Mundo Perpetuo is paid for every alien/nuclear/zombie/rapture disaster we prevent. It's all in the new guidelines from the Board of Directors."
Only Flower Agyll, head of Supernatural Endings, crossed her arms as if to indicate further resistance. "Let me guess," she said. "Your bonus depends on the bottom line."
He beamed. "My PowerPoint presentation will explain everything in detail."
Everybody's eyes glazed over until Chai Chen from Natural Disasters mouthed the words of the 3P protection spell.
Flower Agyll guessed right, which became very clear four hours into the presentation when Mr. Halen laid out a long list of expenditure cuts. Those included the demand that everyone put in extra hours, a preliminary 10 percent staff cut, and a plan to use cheaper materials for our spells.
Which was why I made it my first priority to visit Madison Stars, Chairman of the Intact Foundation. The foundation was our meal ticket, a money hoard directed by seven imaginative people, who understood how many different ends the Earth would see if it weren't for Joe and the crew. Madison Stars herself knew just enough magic to do no harm, but her real skills lay in finance and leadership, where she had an efficient yet caring way with people.
But the minute I laid out my grievance, her friendliness evaporated. I suddenly felt like a tool in her presence. Like a coat stand, albeit a specially commissioned, one-of-a-kind coat stand.
"Harlan Burgeson and Tara LeGoff resigned last week to spend more time with their families," she explained. "Instead we got two guys from a bank, and they pointed out that we could save a lot of money and use the surplus to support another charity, like cancer research or new antibiotics. These guys just can't wrap their head around the idea that your organization takes precedence over all others."
"I'd love to wrap their heads around something for you."
"Except we have those pesky rules, don't we?" Meaning the Wizard Code and the death sentence awaiting any out-of-line magic user.
"Look, we can try Halen for a while," I said. "Some of the Vietnamese reagents he's ordered really are a bargain compared to the handpicked organic kind. But I don't see how bringing in a CFO and a HR department is going to save money, and trust me, you don't want to risk us being underfunded."
"It's new times, Joe. Everybody's underfunded."
She put a hand on my shoulder, squeezed it firmly. The encouraging touch of an experienced leader who knew that change could tax an employee, but also the firm grip of a leader bent on her current strategy. For all my respect for Madison, it still felt like being held from the scruff of the neck by a very big hellhound. And trust me, I know how that feels.
Mr. Halen's HR department fired twenty of our two hundred wizards the next week. Fortunately, it was a light week with only one massive meteor impact to prevent and one invasion of an algae-like species that threatened to cover the oceans in a rock-hard surface, and we had advance warning against both apocalypses.
All magical apocalypses siphon off a lot of energy from the magical field that separates the Earth's inner and outer core. It doesn't matter where on Earth the apocalypse is going to start, or who starts it. A trained apocalypse wizard can sense the waning magical field as a weakening in their own powers.
We call it advance warning when the siphoning starts long before the actual spell is called down. That means the energy gathers in a particular area--just where a crazy cult is about to light a bonfire and read out loud from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, for instance. It's easy to pinpoint the energy, so I can just show up on the night of the bonfire, call up a rainstorm to put out the fire, and voila: the world doesn't meet a culinary end, and the energy is reabsorbed in the Earth's core.
In other cases, we have no warning. That's when we get to stop rifts in the fabric of reality, and that's where having extra magicians on your payroll is usually really handy. And of course, our next six weeks were filled with such incidents.
Flower Agyll and her Supernatural Endings staff worked around the clock to stuff fire-breathing imps back through rifts appearing all over the globe and manipulate people's memory to allow them to sleep again. At one time she even had demons invading her office, and we all had to pitch in with salt and banishing spells before Mr. Halen found out and told her to work from home over the weekend. I also got to spend an eventful Thursday night in the Rocky Mountains where a cult was trying to call down the Rapture using a black cat and a pentagram of albino rats. Their amateur chant would most likely only have ignited Mount St. Helens, but I stopped them anyway on principle.
I attended to my own Ends, too. An evil breed of supervillains summoned from a comic book decided to rid the world of humans. Whacking bad guys with fireballs was great therapy for my frustrations, but then a new species of intestine-eating worms threatened Earth's water supply. For five days straight I teamed up with Chai Chen from Natural Disasters to cleanse every drop of H2O on the planet, so when the office closed up on the seventh Friday after Mr. Halen's arrival, I felt about as archwizardly as a molten slice of cheese.
Times were when I'd devoted Friday nights to studies, or quizzing librarians and movie critics about what kind of Ends to expect. That Friday, though, I just wanted to sleep. I wasn't even up to power-stepping down the stairs.
As I waited for the elevator, Mr. Halen caught up with me.
"Hey Joe, I wanted to ask you: How do you start an apocalypse?"
"I don't," I said truthfully. "Only idiots call down the End of the world, and most do it unawares. We interpret the signs and set out to stop the Ends before it's too late. Usually a summoning takes a couple of weeks to fully appear, but . . ."
I swore inwardly--wizards really shouldn't swear out loud--when I saw in his grin what he'd concluded from that statement: That we had plenty of time.
"But how do those idiots do it?" he asked. "Do they read Lovecraft novels out loud? Look in the mirror and say 'Zombie' five times, or what?"
"Mindless shambling scumbag," I said. "Technical term."
Oblivious to the double entendre, Mr. Halen put an arm around my shoulder and pulled me into the elevator.
"We really need to generate more business, Joe. Since you're in that Mixed department, you can't have much to do. I'm putting you in charge of calling down new Ends of the world, but keep it to one or two a week for now, alright? We must be able to break the records in the next fiscal quarter."
The elevator 'dinged' and he exited. I had to take the elevator up and back down in order to not violate every paragraph in the Wizard Code at the same time.
I could live with saving money. I could live with hard work and sacrifice. But if you have ever stood on the brink of having land-walking squids appear in every city, town and hamlet of the world, no one is going to talk you into summoning a single cephalopod.
When I finally left the elevator, I had made up my mind. Board or no board, Mr. Halen would have to go.
I came in on Monday to find Flower Agyll arguing with Mr. Halen outside his office. I'd made a couple of plans that weekend to get the entire firm behind me, and Flower Agyll had been aboard from the beginning.
"I'm down three wizards," she said rather loudly. "If two of my staff call in sick at the same time, and three Raptures are called at once, I won't answer for the consequences."
"Don't worry!" Mr. Halen beamed. "I'm hiring a secretary for all department heads. That'll give you more time to handle your little disasters. Besides, all companies allow for a margin of error."
"You're saying we should be content with a 5 percent Ragnarok? Ask Suarez. He'll tell you that's the kind of thinking that led to the Black Death."
"You can't," I said. "He called in sick."
"Well, he better get his ass in here, because his department is underperforming by several percent, and I'm not . . ." Halen stopped. Doors were opening all along the hallway, and department heads swarmed our little gathering.
"Suarez called in sick?" Belamy asked. "It can't be the L'ln'qi virus. We dispelled every trace last week, and the incubation time is only fourteen minutes."
"It's not a zombie infestation," Parsons said. "And even if it were, I gave him that baseball bat for his birthday."
"Nothing flooded his house, neither sea nor lava," Chai Chen said.
"I watch CNN," Mr. Halen said tersely. "But let me assure you, it's all taken care of. Suarez will be back soon, and if it's long term I'll get HR to find a middle manager to take care of things while he's gone."
"Mr. Halen," I intoned. "It is the first time the head of Pandemics called in sick. Ever."
"I'm sure it's just a cold. Joe, I read your resume. Level sixty-six technically gives you the skills to cover for him."
But he didn't flash his teeth, and I could all but see the worry in his mind. Not about Suarez, of course, but about living up to his contract with the board.
"There's something I'd like to ask your advice about," I said, nodding towards his office.
He closed the door behind us. "What?"
"I can call up the extra apocalypses you asked for. But I looked over some of the newest research this weekend . . ." (Like hell I did. The best research was done in the sixteenth century, but guys like Mr. Halen like their research new, not good.) ". . . and I found something about a condition we call a Cosmic Resonant Simultaneous Conflux."
He looked blank, which was to be expected. After all, I'd made up the Conflux theory myself. However, I needed him to believe it, so I switched to acronyms.
"A CReSiC happens when we have too many different apocalypses at the same time and they start to influence each other. Falling pianos start causing strange new diseases, vengeful deities use nuclear weapons, and meteor impacts bring the dinosaurs back. In short, the cost of dealing with disaster triples."
I had his full attention now.
"And sometimes we have to go to truly extreme measures to save the world," I added.
I opened my briefcase and handed him the package I had prepared over the weekend.
"Your predecessor left this," I said, lying through my teeth. "I didn't give it to you before because I didn't want to worry you, but I'd really hate for anything like this to happen again. But we're only two disasters away from a potential CReSiC."
I put on my best remorseful smile and stalked out before he could ask any questions.
Back in my office I cast the spell that let me listen in while Mr. Halen rummaged through the package. It contained apocryphal summoning schematics, detailed descriptions of the human sacrifice necessary to dispel a CReSiC, and a diary. The latter, written over the weekend by a couple of very imaginative fantasy writers, purported to show the escalating panic of our former CEO as more and more ends of the world overwhelmed Mundo Perpetuo. In the final entry he pleaded with his employees not to sacrifice him, and the diary ended abruptly, blood smearing the former CEO's handwriting.
It really ought to make Mr. Halen resign.
For a long time I didn't hear a thing--no surprised yells, no nail biting. The only sound was a little scratching, a bit of muttering and humming, and what sounded like the flick of a lighter.
When Mr. Halen finally spoke, he was chanting in a deep, commanding voice: "More middle management. Intern recruitment policies. Armed security guards. Non-disclosure agreements. Internal review procedures."
As I heard that chanting, it dawned on me that Mr. Halen didn't need to work in apocalyptic magic to get to us. All he had to do was use ordinary summoning spells that called in his hordes of managers to smother us all--that, and the deception that he knew no magic at all.
No sooner had I figured it out before two armed security guards burst into my office. "We have orders to escort you from the premises," said the guard on the right. "Your desk will be cleared out, and any personal effects will be sent to you."
I stepped between them and bowed my head, partly in admiration of Mr. Halen's trickery, partly in order to fool the guards. They were armored in Kevlar and force fields that looked capable of withstanding ice, fire, water, air, scalding coffee, and every other basic element, but once I started probing the layers of magic, I found just the kind of weakness I'd expected from an amateur magician: no anchoring. As soon as the guards put their hands on my shoulders, I teleported us all to a pocket dimension where Chen Chai had relegated a particularly nasty invasion of immortal carnivorous plants. Then I teleported myself back, making a mental note to retrieve the guards before their protection spells wore out. If my mood had improved.
When I entered Mr. Halen's office, I found him standing in the middle of a pentagram, blood dripping from his palms in what must be a spell to summon a demon, or perhaps a tax lawyer. His magic was indeed as real as any that my colleagues and I could perform, and I brimmed with anger for not having seen through his sham.
"How clever of you to use a teleportation spell," he said. His smile widened until his teeth gleamed so sharply white that I had to shield my eyes with my arm. By the time I could see again, he had vanished.
It didn't matter whether we were dealing with an actual apocalypse or just a freaking disaster. Mundo Perpetuo stood together. It was clear that Mr. Halen couldn't have worked alone, and the logical place to look was the Intact Foundation.
By nightfall Suarez was back, his health drastically improved by Mr. Halen's disappearance, and we were prepared to pay Madison Stars a visit, all except Ingrid Blunt, who had four nuclear warheads to dismantle on Manhattan that night.
Outside the Foundation's offices, we all sensed the spells that had been cast over the large conference room on the top floor. We stepped up there, me in front with Chen, Agyll, Suarez, Belamy, and Parsons in tow, and Paula Johnson guarding our rear in case someone was crazy enough to sneak up on a septet of angry wizards.
I knocked Archwizardly on the door to the conference room (that is to say, I evaporated the hinges) and caught the strangest sight I'd seen since the oyster invasion of '69. The entire room had been cleared of furniture and was instead filled with perhaps 300 young men in Armani suits, shirts, ties, Lloyd shoes, and gleaming white teeth. Everyone had the same sharp haircut. They were chattering away, but once in a while the buzz rose in volume and ended with a single word: "Revenue" or "Turnover" or "Growth". And every time, a new young man appeared in their midst. Overseeing the ritual was Mr. Halen and Madison Stars, who both raised a hand in mock greeting.
To see Mr. Halen here convinced me that Madison Stars had hired him to begin something big. And there could be no doubt that it was big: We were facing a Master of Business Apocalypse in full flow. It wouldn't be immediately devastating, but add several millions of full-of-themselves CEOs and civilization would surely collapse.
"Guess they're just another kind of zombies," Parsons said. He started mumbling an enchantment, threw spell components into the air and started to gesture in a way that seemed inspired by Bruce Lee or perhaps Kermit the Frog.
Nothing happened. Parsons looked confounded, and I had a sudden suspicion that the new Vietnamese spell components Mr. Halen had ordered for us had come a tad too cheap.
"You are never going to contain this one." Madison Stars' voice cut through the chatter as she approached us. "Leave now and you can keep your jobs and keep saving the world. If you don't, I turn this pack loose on Mundo Perpetuo. They're human, by the way, so you can't harm them."
"Why, Madison?" I asked. "You could have asked Mundo Perpetuo for anything."
"I'm tired of funding a charity. I want to be connected. I want to know the inside deals before the market rises and crashes. These are the new times, and these are my people. They will all report to me, and the power will be mine!"
"She sounds religious," I whispered hopefully to Flower Agyll.
"Don't wipe this off on me. Mixed End. Your department."
As with any baffling incident, the true question was how the ritual was powered. Anyone in the wrong frame of mind can call down the End of the Earth, but it's damn complicated to summon destructive powers and control them as well.
And then it struck me. When an apocalypse was building, I sensed the magic field between the outer and inner core of the Earth diminish. But I had never really checked if the energy actually returned to the Earth when I stopped an apocalypse. If Madison collected the returning energy, she'd have plenty of undetected power for her plan. And if we all felt a little drained, well, Mr. Halen was easy to blame.
I pulled out my phone and called Ingrid Blunt.
"Ingrid, join us, please."
"Joe, I'm sitting next to a sixty megaton bomb with a five minute countdown, and the wire-cutters Halen bought for us suck."
"That's somebody else's problem," I said. "We're on strike."
A slight pop, and Blunt appeared next to me. "Did you say strike?" she asked.
"Keep summoning," Madison Stars ordered, and her suits obeyed. But no new MBAs were called into existence no matter how many times they shouted 'Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization!'
"That's what a strike works like," I said to Madison. "Without our apocalypse prevention, you don't have the energy to expand your management layers."
"I know you, Joe," Madison replied. "You won't let the Earth come to harm."
"Your immediate problem isn't the Earth." I nodded to Blunt, who summoned up a picture of the hydrogen bomb counting down in the sewers under Wall Street. "No apocalypse prevention, no New York."
"You're not the kind of man who'd sacrifice a city to make a point."
I knew she was right, and worse, so did she. But I hadn't lived to become an Archwizard of the sixty-sixth level without learning how to bluff. And I had a room full of wet-behind-the-ears suits to get on my side.
"You're right. We'll contain the blast to the Wall Street area," I said. "It's after closing time, so few people will be hurt, but the financial sector will collapse, and the rest of the economy will follow. And then where will all your suits go?"
Confusion broke out among the suits and I turned to address them. "You heard me, gentlemen. You were summoned with the promise of ruling the world. I cannot banish you since you are human, but I can make sure you'll have nothing to lord it over. So here's your choice: depose your leader and take your chances as free men. Or rule the radioactive ruins of Wall Street in your master's name."
Outrage spread through the crowd as Madison Stars' creations understood how they'd been lured into this world by false promises, and one by one they turned on their creator while a low growling filled the room. Madison's face stiffened as the suits closed in on her.
"I made you what you are," she screamed. "You'll do as I say. I'm the chairman. I. Am. The. Chairman!"
But despite those words of power they still swarmed her, chanting a damning curse of their own. "Vote of no confidence. Vote of no confidence." Over and over again.
I'm sorry to say we couldn't prevent all those MBAs from rising, but at least we had the room fully contained. And I mean, how much harm can 300 MBAs do? We modified their memories to make sure they forgot the summoning spells, but from the way I hear it, most have worked out mundane ways to call the shots. Middle management, HR departments, non-disclosure agreements, hokus pokus.
We still keep an eye on their activities, and we've observed a solid rise in the number of people claiming that bottom lines are the most important thing in the world. Yes, most of these people actually go through college, and most of them behave as human beings instead of magically created automatons. Still, I can't help but wonder if we have a magical leak somewhere.
Parsons still insists they're zombies. Suarez likens them to the flu--ubiquitous but mostly dangerous to people who are already weakened by circumstances. Me, I just consider them a freak of fate. The kind of thing you have to learn to live with, even if you don't like it. I can do that, as long as they don't get in the way of my job.
Which reminds me, we have a new board of directors. Funding is back up, apocalypses are back down, and even if the world has this new problem to contend with, we're all a little safer.
Sure, the end of the world is still coming. But Joe and the crew have it covered.
This story originally appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects.