Niall has a boring job. Every day he does the same thing but, for the first time in years, he’s begun to question it. What will he discover when he pushes against the limits of his seemingly meaningless life?
The alarm sounded and, after a few seconds with his eyes screwed shut, mind willing itself back into the dreamy half-slumber he’d been enjoying, Niall finally reached across the bed and turned it off. Then he lay there for at least ten minutes, as he always did, trying to find the will to get up. Every morning the same. Every grey, cold morning, lost in the same indifferent haze of boredom. If someone ever cared to ask him, he’d probably recall sunny days, but all he could ever summon images of, lying there in his little grey bed in his little grey room, were overcast skies and relentless drizzle.
How had his life reached this point? How had everything become so tired and meaningless? As he dragged himself up and padded listlessly around his tiny flat, he tried to focus his brain on the recent past, but always he seemed to shy away from it. It was like he couldn’t focus through the haze. It was just the morning he told himself, but it never got any better throughout the day. What could he do though? This was life. This was what you did.
Niall showered, put on his grey suit, left his grey block of flats and walked a little way into the grey city to catch a grey, rusting train to his grey office. The same the same the same. Every day the same. But there was something different about today. A sense of unease. A feeling that things were just a little…off somehow. He stared out of the train’s window, through the sea of hair and faces and tinnily buzzing headphones out to the colourless suburbs that slid by, and tried to articulate the sensation in the pit of his stomach. It was like a slowly rising sense of dread – not the existential dread he felt every day at the banal misery that had somehow engulfed his life – but something much stronger and definite than that. He hadn’t felt definite about something in as long as he could remember. Conviction simply wasn’t on his radar now.
Still feeling a bit odd, Niall reached the office. It was a big, square block of a building, reaching high into the lead-coloured sky. A faceless, windowless mass of concrete, in which he laboured for eight hours a day to no purpose he could see. Sometimes he thought about quitting and just finding something else to do, but he literally had no idea what that would be. He couldn’t think of anything he’d rather be doing. In fact, he couldn’t think of anything at all. For years now, he’d been working on this same project, cycling through endless permutations of data, trying to move things forward, but it was like wading through treacle. No progress, no satisfaction, no sense that this day was any different to all the others he’d endured. “What am I doing here?” he asked himself aloud as he walked through the lobby. No one even seemed to hear him speak. No one ever paid any attention to him.
He rode the lift to his floor. It was crowded with people, but no one spoke. They all had the same blank expression that Niall wore. What were any of them doing there? There must be thousands of people working in this building – did they all have projects of their own, mired in the same inertia? Did they suffer silently as he did? He didn’t know. He didn’t know their names, or even the names of their departments. He didn’t know anything and, for the first time, he started to question that. “What am I doing here?” he asked again as he sat down at his desk in his tiny, bare cubicle, cut off from everything except the empty grey corridor outside, the featureless ceiling and the pale fluorescent strip lights that gave him a constant headache. He turned his computer on. After logging in, he began to work, typing numbers from one spreadsheet into another. They used two different programs and it wasn’t possible to copy and paste from one to the other. All the data entry was done by hand. This was essential to the project his manager had told him in the beginning, whenever that was, and it had to be done this way. So he went on, day after day, filling the rows and columns and then saving it, and coming in to a fresh, blank sheet the next morning.
The project was something to do with their IT system, held on the servers somewhere in the basement. He didn’t know any more than that.
“Hi,” the technician said as he was admitted into the facility, “my name’s Tim.”
The security guard grunted something and showed him through to the control room. Tim smiled at the woman who was waiting for him there and shook her hand. “Hi, I’m Tim.”
He looked around at the glowing computer screens and tried to take it all in. He was a freelance IT specialist and he was used to dealing with this kind of software, but everyone set their systems up a little differently. “So, Jolene, if you could just take me through the problems you’re experiencing and I’ll try to see if I can help.”
“Well,” she sighed, “we’re getting the same problem with a few of the units.” She gestured for him to sit at one of the computers and pulled up a chair beside him. “They seem to be…well…for want of a better term, freaking out.”
Tim lifted an eyebrow. “Freaking out?” He opened up the interface and clicked around a little, trying to see if anything immediately jumped out, but there was nothing. It felt odd to be cooped up in a little control room – he preferred the more modern facilities, maybe with an open-plan office and access to the subjects themselves, but this was a much older installation, one of the first to use the system in fact. He didn’t like being underground at all. “So what’s been happening to the subjects?”
“Increased heart rate, elevated stress levels. We came close to shutting a few down.”
Tim shook his head. “That shouldn’t be happening. Lack of excitement is the whole idea…”
“I know. That’s why we need you to take a look and see what the problem is. Is it a software issue? Hardware? Wetware? Is it just something ridiculous at the data input stage?”
He smiled and cracked his knuckles. “Whatever it is, Jolene, I’m confident I can solve it.”
She returned his smile and he decided she was quite cute. Maybe this could be an interesting day after all.
Niall asked to see his manager. It took him quite a while to pin her down to a time, but when he did she took him through into her office. It was only marginally larger than his cubicle, and there was a picture hanging on one of the walls that showed a grey, windswept moor. A lonely sheep grazed off to one side. It was a profoundly depressing piece of artwork.
“Sit down, Niall,” Sarah said with no tone whatsoever. She was a flat, humourless person whose facial expression never seemed to change from its customary blank indifference. She wore a grey trouser suit not unlike his own.
“Thank you.” He sat in the grey plastic chair on the other side of her desk.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“No, thank you.” Her own cup looked like it had been sitting there for a while. It was a sickly grey colour.
“So what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Well, Sarah, I’m feeling a bit strange…”
“Oh? Is it interfering with your work?”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I just…I don’t know how to explain it. I just have this funny feeling I haven’t had before. Sort of…scared…like something really awful is happening.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” She wasn’t very reassuring. She wasn’t really very anything.
“I really feel like it might be important.”
“I don’t have time for this to be honest, Niall,” she said, and there was almost a hint of frustration in her voice now. Almost. “I have a lot of work to do.” She gestured to a basket on her desk that held a pile of papers covered with meaningless figures.
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just…why am I here?”
“You’re a very important cog in our machine, Niall.”
“Sure, but what am I actually doing?”
“You’re helping with the IT project.”
“Yes, but what is that?”
“These are all very good questions, Niall. Perhaps you could raise them at your next appraisal?”
“I…when is that?”
“I’ll have to check my diary, but I’ll let you know. Is that everything?”
“Uh…yes…yes I suppose so.”
Sarah smiled flatly and then took the top piece of paper from the pile and started to type something on her computer. After about thirty seconds of her ignoring him, he got up and left.
Tim sighed as he played around with the computer, trawling through the system to find the problem. The issue wasn’t that he couldn’t find it – more that he couldn’t find which of the myriad problems was the main cause, or whether it was all of them in combination. He gave Jolene a sidelong glance, and she at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “You’ve…uh…you’ve got a lot of junk data in your system, Jolene.”
“Yeah, I know. We’ve been running continuously for a long time now though. We’re one of the oldest facilities in the country.”
“I know. But you know the manufacturers always recommend you build some downtime into your simulation routines. You gotta defrag the system or it gets totally gunked up with all the trash.” He gestured at the screen, where lines of meaningless code were displayed. “The latest upgrade would help too.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. And we’re trying to get it installed, but who has the time? We’ve got over two-thousand subjects plugged in here.”
“That’s at least fifty percent over-capacity for a system this size,” Tim said.
“That’s what I keep telling my supervisor! Believe me, I know all this, Tim. But budgets are tight. We can’t cycle any of the subjects out for any length of time to do a defrag. We just have to deal with it, you know?”
Tim sighed and drummed his fingers on the desk as he clicked around the screen. It was a mess. “Who’s inputting your numbers anyway?”
“Some drone upstairs.”
“Well he’s doing a shit job. This should be checked every fortnight at least. There’s errors all over the place. The upgrade lets your automate this.”
“I told you, we can’t install it.”
“Right. And, to be fair, I wouldn’t want you installing it onto a system this corrupt. We’ve got to rebuild this architecture from the ground up, recode everything, maybe do a full reboot.”
Jolene massaged the bridge of her nose. “And what’ll that cost?”
“A lot. And you’ll need to unhook them all while we do it.”
“Well that’s not going to happen.”
“I thought you’d say that.” He brought up another window. “Look, maybe we can do a little fire fighting at least. It won’t solve your problem long term, but it’ll at least free up some processing power, maybe keep the medical crew away?”
“Sure. Anything you can do to help.”
“Give me the name of one of the affected subjects…”
Niall was sent to a counsellor. He’d been causing trouble with his questions, and apparently some of his colleagues had gone to Sarah to complain. He didn’t even know his work had a counsellor, but now he was sitting in a drab office, on a more comfortable chair than he was used to, talking to her.
“So, Niall,” she said in the same emotionless voice everyone who worked here used, “what seems to be the problem?”
He thought about it. “Well, everything really.”
“That’s not very helpful. Try to be specific.”
“Okay…well…um…I’m not happy here.”
“What makes you think you should be happy?”
He didn’t really know how to respond to that. “What I mean is,” he said, trying a different direction, “is I feel like there should be something more.”
The counsellor – she hadn’t offered her name – held up her hands and made a face like he was crazy. “More? More than what?”
“Than…than this. Than this job, in this place.”
“Don’t you find your work rewarding?”
“No, not really.”
“Maybe you need to lower your expectations.”
He shook his head. This wasn’t getting him anywhere. “I don’t want to lower my expectations. I want what I do to mean something.”
The counsellor consulted her notes. “You’re working on the IT project, aren’t you?”
“That’s very important.”
“Is it? No one seems to know anything about it. I’ve asked.”
“Yes, that’s why you were referred to me.”
“But why can no one answer that simple question? I’ve been working on this project for…” he tried to think back to when he’d started, when he’d been ushered by Sarah into his cubicle and told what he was supposed to be doing. When was that now? “It must be almost…almost…”
“It’s not important,” the counsellor interrupted.
“No, it is. It must be five years. Almost five years.” Niall tried to think of events that had occurred in those five years, ways of gauging exactly how much time had passed, but he couldn’t come up with anything. There must have been birthdays, Christmases, and if he didn’t think about it too hard, he was sure there were. But when he tried to focus…just grey haze. “There has to be more to life than this,” he said.
“In what way?” The counsellor seemed genuinely curious.
“Well, there must be fun and hope and joy and love and…you know…all those sorts of things. Sometimes…sometimes when I’m dreaming I think I can remember a time like that…but…but I don’t know when it was…”
“You don’t have those things in your life,” the counsellor said coldly. “You never have. You should really go back to work and stop asking difficult questions. It would be better that way.”
What else could he do? He went back to his cubicle but this time, instead of working, he thought about the conversation he’d just had. He’d been sent to the counsellor because he’d asked about the IT project, the one that was going on down in the basement, where all the servers were. Why did asking about that get him in trouble? Why had she just told him to get back to work and stop being difficult? He frowned at his screen with its hateful spreadsheets. What were they hiding down there?
Tim had been in the basement for what felt like hours now, and the artificial light was starting to bother him. Jolene had made them coffee and now as they sipped silently together, they monitored one of the subjects. Tim had never seen a feedback loop quite this bad. He pointed at the window showing his vital signs. “He’s showing increased heart-rate, like you said, but I’m also picking up decreased serotonin levels. He’s depressed.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
He smiled slightly. “I guess. But I the idea is to induce a coma-like state. The simulation should keep them passive. Remember these are violent criminals. Signs of depression mean that the simulation is fluctuating.”
Jolene looked alarmed. “Fluctuating? You mean this might not just be a problem with life support?”
“I don’t know, to be honest, but it’s certainly possible. It’s all connected, you know? All that junk data going in, it could be corrupting what this guy’s experiencing. I mean, it’s a very limited program, so there’s only so far astray it can go, but it’ll just be little things, almost subliminal. I’ve seen it before, although never to this extent, and never in a system this large.”
“Could it be dangerous?”
“If it carries on. You said the others calmed down, but let’s watch this one and see what happens.”
“He’s showing the same signs the others did before they…you know…”
He smiled at her. “Freaked out?”
“Okay, so let’s keep an eye on him, I’ll see if there’s anything I can pinpoint as a direct cause.” They watched for a minute, seeing how his vital signs jumped alarmingly towards panic. “Any idea what he did?” he asked her absently.
“No. We don’t have access to that data here. It’s a big facility. Easier to keep it anonymous.”
“Makes you wonder though, huh?”
“I guess,” she shrugged.
Niall didn’t know when he reached the decision, but once it was made there was really no way he couldn’t go through with it. He didn’t think he could take another day of endlessly entering the meaningless numbers into his database, surrounded by blank grey walls and blank grey people. He had to find out the truth. Somehow, over the last few days, he’d convinced himself something really strange was happening in the basement. On his lunch break, he’d tried to take the lift down there, but it’d gotten stuck halfway between floors and he’d been there for hours before a bored-looking workman had helped him out. When he’d tried to catch the eye of an IT guy in the canteen, they’d just looked right through him. He even tried to see if there was window at ground level somewhere on the outside of the building he might peer through, but he hadn’t been able to find one and he was so scared he’d miss his train home that he ran all the way back to the station afterwards. There was only one train he could get, according to the timetable, something he’d never even questioned before, but which now struck him as quite a strange thing.
So, now his plan was to use the stairs to sneak down. As he left for lunch he went the other way down the corridor, watching over his shoulder for anyone following him, then ducked into the entrance to the stairwell. He started going down and he he’d gone a few flights before it occurred to him that he wasn’t even sure what floor he worked on. He’d never been the first one in the lift, and he just got out when everyone else did. How would he find his way back? “It doesn’t matter,” he said aloud to himself, something he seemed to be doing more and more now. He’d found his voice getting a bit croaky and it took him a while to realise that he’d spoken more in the last few days than he had in probably years. Had he really just sat there, silently entering data in a cubicle for nearly five years? How had he not gone insane? “Or maybe I have,” he whispered.
He reached ground level and poked his head out of the door. The corridor was very dark, lit only by a few faint green signs showing the way to the fire exits. He wasn’t sure which way to go. He’d never been down here before, of course. He’d never been anywhere except his own cubicle, the canteen, Sarah’s office and, most recently, the counsellor’s room. That was weird, wasn’t it? How had he not noticed that before? He picked a direction at random and walked towards a set of doors at the end. As he got closer, the corridor seemed to get darker and darker. He began to feel a bit uneasy. The doors had only looked like they were about twenty feet away, but now as the gloom deepened he began to think he should have found them by now. The ground felt uneven, and after a while it felt like he was trying to wade through mud. He dragged his feet along and tried to feel his way along the wall, but he only found thin air. It was totally dark now, and he felt like he was frozen in place, trying to pull himself through solid ground. He tried to reach down to his legs, to see if he was stuck in something, but he couldn’t find them. He couldn’t even find his arms. It was like he was trapped in nothing. “Help me!” he called out. “Somebody help me! I’m…I’m trapped! I don’t know what happened!” He wasn’t even sure his voice had made a sound – maybe it was all in his head? He started to panic. Was he dying? Was this how it happened? Maybe a security guard had shot him through the head and he hadn’t even noticed. What was in that basement?
Tim sat up. “Shit, is this the freak out?”
Jolene nodded. “Yeah, and it’s the worst one I’ve seen.”
“There’s a lot of bad data being fed into the simulation,” he said as he tapped quickly, flicking through multiple windows, taking in what was happening. “I don’t know what he’s experiencing, but it can’t be good. I don’t know if I can fix this…”
She goggled at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s going into cardiac arrest! We might need to get a medical crew!”
“Shit, shit, shit!”
“It’s okay, I think I can get out of it.” He brought up the command window. “There’s a back door I can use. They build it into the system.”
“Yeah, a sort of emergency escape. They don’t tell you about it because you really shouldn’t use it without a professional on hand.”
She gave him a flat look. “Like you?”
“All right, we’ve got bigger problems now. Look, what I’m going to do isn’t going to make you happy.”
“I need to do a reboot.”
“Just on this guy. It’s not going to be much fun for him, but we don’t really have another choice.”
She shook her head. “No way. He’s almost to the end of his sentence. If we reboot, it’ll start everything again. You want to keep him in there for another five years?”
“If we don’t, he’ll die, and that’ll be an even bigger administrative headache. We’ve got to do this, and let the guys upstairs figure out how to deal with the fallout.”
She looked torn, but finally gave a curt nod. “Do it.”
Tim bit his lip, and keyed in the command.
The screen turned off. They both held their breaths for a second and then…
“It worked,” he said, tilting his head back and closing his eyes.
“Is he okay?”
He pointed. “Still breathing, still thinking. All signs returned to normal.”
“Was there a chance that might not have happened?”
He gave her a crooked grin. “Rebooting is always dangerous. But it’s fine. He’s going to be okay.”
“Eventually,” she said darkly.
Sarah, his manager, showed him to his cubicle. “And this is where you’ll be working, Niall.”
He bobbed his head gratefully. It wasn’t much, but it was a job. “So what will I be doing?” he asked as he sat down at the desk.
“Turn the computer on. Use the password I gave you to log in to the system, then transfer the numbers from the first spreadsheet to the empty one.”
“Can’t I just copy and paste?”
“No. It’s old software. Enter them by hand.”
“It’s for a new IT project.”
“Oh. What project?”
“It’s not important. The boys in the basement with the servers are dealing with it. Just enter the numbers, Niall.”
“Okay.” She went away and he got started.