Owen sat at his computer desk in a room full of people he didn’t know. A master at typing code, his fingers danced to the punk music piping through his noise-canceling headphones. The tune was outdated, but it had a rhythmic beat that kept him awake through the usual post-lunch slump. He felt vibrant, alive, as if he’d downed a thousand cups of coffee, but in reality he was just jonesing for his daily ten-mile run.

Out of nowhere, a fleshy hand landed on his shoulder. Owen practically jumped out of his skin. His boss, Moe, was standing over him, head cocked to one side, a sardonic grin plastered across his face. “Hey there, buddy,” he said, “did I scare ya?”

Recovering, Owen replied, “You nearly gave me a heart attack! I was concentrating pretty hard.”

They discussed the details of the new B-78 project that Owen was working on, a classified computer program funded by DARPA. As they spoke, it occurred to Owen that Moe was by far the most vibrant thing in the room. Set against the pale gray walls and beige blinds, his bright purple shirt popped like a bouquet of pansies. His green- and purple-striped tie was dotted with orange jack o’ lanterns. He did look a bit dorky, but it wasn’t Owen’s place to point that out.

“Congratulations,” said Moe. “You’ve been working here at GlobeTec for over a month now, and you’re doing a dynamite job.” He clapped Owen on the back. “Now you can become an APEX Associate!”

“What’s that?” asked Owen, cracking his knuckles.

Moe’s flaccid neck hung in folds over his purple collar. “It’s a series of ten courses, all designed to make you a more productive worker.”

“More productive?” Panic flashed in Owen’s eyes. “Did I do something wrong?”

Moe doubled over and bellowed with laughter, his round stomach contorting under his shirt, his loud whoops echoing through the cavernous office suite. Owen was mortified. He worried about attracting negative attention from his coworkers, but none of them even looked up. At length, Moe straightened his posture and explained, “No, buddy, you did everything right. APEX training is a company-wide thing: it’s mandatory. But everybody loves it: I never hear a single complaint. And we have a cute little motto around here that we like to repeat: ‘Embrace APEX―integrate it into your DNA!’” Suddenly, a chorus arose, all of Owen’s office-mates echoing Moe’s words. After three rounds, they fell silent.

The first of the ten classes was called Being Nice. There was a slide show accompanied by a tedious narrative, a question and answer session, and an internationally-renowned guest speaker from Sweden who told her own heartwarming story about Being Nice. Participation was required, so everyone had to step up to the stage and speak into a microphone, recalling a life experience that illustrated the necessity of Being Nice. Owen sat through the entire class bleary-eyed and bored to tears.

The next morning, he knocked insistently on Moe’s office door. Moe opened, brushing doughnut crumbs off his suit lapel and hot pink tie. Owen got right to the point. “Do I really have to take the APEX classes?”

“Yes, you do,” said Moe. “Everyone does, except management, of course.”

Owen pleaded, “Can’t I get some kind of waiver? I need to get work done: real work. Yesterday’s class was a waste of time, and I had to miss four hours that I could’ve spent on the B-78 project.”

Offering Owen a jelly doughnut, Moe said, “I getcha, but you still have to complete the program. At GlobeTec, we’re creating productive workers: workers of the future!” He smiled, a smear of blood-red jelly obscuring one front tooth. Then, ushering Owen out of his office, he added, “Now get out there and make yourself useful!”

On his way back to his desk, Owen stopped at the water cooler. He wished he could get rid of some nervous energy—maybe lift some weights—but there were still seven long hours left in the workday. A tall, slack-jawed guy in his mid-thirties was lounging next to the cooler, listlessly sipping from a paper cup. Owen greeted him with a warm smile and said, “What’s up? I’m Owen.” He offered his hand.

The other man said nothing. He just stared into space. Maybe he was concentrating on an esoteric idea for one of the DARPA projects. Or maybe he was aphasic and physically unable to talk. After all, according to GlobeTec’s mission statement, the company was dedicated to practicing diversity and inclusion. Not looking at Owen, the mute man took the proffered hand and shook it weakly before turning away to leave. Owen noticed a brown stain on the back of his pants.

The second APEX course was called Being Friendly. The format was the same as before, and the guest speaker was a genial, green-haired, gender-fluid flight attendant from Africa, dressed in bright cotton garb complete with a headdress. At the microphone, Owen stated that Being Friendly was a sorely needed class that would enable his mute coworkers to chit-chat more productively at the water cooler. For that, he expected a round of applause, but got none. Molly, the APEX facilitator, just rolled her eyes. After class, she marched Owen into Moe’s office, accusing him of insubordination.

“Buddy,” Moe frowned, “are you making trouble?”

“No, I’m not,” Owen answered, looking directly at Molly, “but these classes are a load of bull. This is crap I learned in kindergarten, and I refuse to be treated like I’m five years old!”

The facilitator’s nostrils flared. Slamming her oversized pink purse down on Moe’s conference table, she started beating on it with her fists, shouting, “Fire him! Fire him! Fire him!”

“I’ll take care of it, Molly,” Moe said reassuringly. “Now, you just run upstairs to the safe space and color for a little while.”

As she stormed off, Moe closed the door behind her. He motioned for Owen to sit in one of two brown leather chairs facing the wide plate glass windows that overlooked Riverplex Park. Moe sat down heavily. Clasping his hands as if in prayer, he exhaled, “What’s with you, buddy?”

Owen’s legs felt cramped, and he longed to move them. He gazed out the window to the park below, where the autumn leaves soared skyward in the brisk October breeze. Wishing he, too, could fly away, he let out a prolonged sigh. Then he answered, “I already told you. I really don’t like the whole APEX thing, and I don’t want to be an APEX Associate.”

Moe stretched his chubby legs. “Do you like your job?”

“Yep. I like it a lot.”

“Well, buddy,” Moe explained, “one hand washes the other. Did you know that you’re in line for a $20,000 raise once you finish the APEX training?”

Owen’s mouth dropped open. “No. I didn’t know that.”

Moe went on, “And here at GlobeTec, we do try to make it fun. After you complete the first nine classes, you’ll get to take class number ten. It has a whole different format, and it’s held in a different room: there’s a special surprise for the end.”

“Whoop-tee-doo…” said Owen, all enthusiasm gone from his voice.

That made Moe sit up ramrod straight. He said sharply, “Or I can fire you right here and now. I’ll lead you over to your desk, so you can gather up your belongings and do the walk of shame, right out the front door. Is that what you want?”

“No.” Owen hung his head. “I’ll do APEX. You win.”

The next day while using the restroom, Owen noticed for the first time how pale his coworkers’ faces were. They looked waxy and yellow, almost jaundiced. Maybe the fluorescent lighting made them look washed out. Returning to his computer desk, he noticed that everyone seemed to be yawning all the time, as if struggling for oxygen. Did they all have trouble sleeping? Was their work that boring?

Unable to concentrate, Owen decided to call his friend Darrin. Maybe they could meet for a drink after work. Darrin had worked at GlobeTec last year, but he’d quit abruptly after only a few months, and Owen wondered why.

After ordering two pints of strong red ale, Owen and Darrin relaxed on their bar stools, chatting amicably while catching up with each other. Everything seemed to be going well, but when Owen brought up GlobeTec and its APEX program, Darrin clammed up. He said, “I’ve heard rumors, but you know damn well that I can’t discuss anything classified. If I were you, I’d resign tomorrow.”

Owen was taken aback. “Really? Why can’t you tell me anything?”

Darrin’s expression changed, his smile gone. He said, “Look, you know I can’t spill the beans. But I can say this: take a hard look at the people you’re working with. There’s something going on at GlobeTec: the anemic voices, the vacant stares, the slumping shoulders. The worker bees have all gone through the APEX training, but there’s something weird about it.”

“Definitely,” Owen agreed, “and the bosses are so gung-ho. But I really need the money. I have so much student loan debt to pay off. If I stay at GlobeTec, I can tackle it in less than two years.”

Over the next few weeks, Owen got cold feet. He called in sick instead of taking the third APEX class, and took a vacation day in lieu of the fourth. Then he began to get angry e-mails and furious phone messages from Molly, threatening him with dereliction of duty. That really perturbed him, giving him awful nightmares and sleepless nights. He had fantasies about strangling her or firebombing her house, but of course he’d never do anything like that, satisfying though it might be.

One morning, Moe and Molly suddenly appeared beside Owen’s desk. They abruptly hauled him away in full view of all of Owen’s zombie coworkers. He was led down a long hallway to a quiet room outfitted like a medical laboratory. The sign over the door read Classroom #10. Crossing the threshold, Owen saw a riot of colorful posters depicting organs of the human body. A vase of silk flowers adorned one of the desks. Was this a new employee lounge? There were red, yellow, and green helium balloons on strings everywhere. Was it someone’s birthday? Blue paper garlands were hung about the walls. On an examination table sat a delicious-looking chocolate cake with rich pink icing.

“See, buddy,” said Moe. “I told you we’d make it fun.” He moved to cake to a nearby shelf and motioned for Owen to have a seat on the exam table. “Now, just lie down so we can take your vitals for the company records.”

Owen did as he was told, asking, “What’s going on?”

“You get to skip the vegetables and go right to the dessert.” Moe smiled, but it was the smile of a maniac, the grin of an executioner. Suddenly, he pushed a button, and clamps quickly shot out to immobilize Owen’s legs and arms.

Molly added, “We’re going right to lesson number ten: integrating APEX into your DNA.”

Owen screamed, “I quit! Let me go!”

She arched her thick black eyebrows and said, “Owen, you know we don’t allow noncompliance at GlobeTec, and we certainly can’t condone any more of your defiant behavior. Now just try and relax.”

Owen writhed, desperate to free himself. He shot a wad of spit into Molly’s left eye. He cursed her out repeatedly before he finally surrendered, whimpering like a baby. Her face showed no emotion as she inserted the sharp needle into his arm. This was business, after all, and it was nearly time for lunch.

As his consciousness fell away, Owen looked up to see Moe’s fading countenance staring down at him. Moe was chanting, over and over in a singsong voice, “Embrace APEX: integrate it into your DNA.”

Owen awoke alone on the exam table several hours later. He sat up robotically, ate the piece of chocolate cake that was left out for him, wiped his mouth mechanically, and walked calmly back to his desk. Sitting down, he yawned. Then he yawned again. His expression was vacuous as he started typing, although he did notice that his fingers looked a bit yellow.