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Computer monitor

11:30 am.

Dreary.

Heartburn.

Brain ache.

Tired eyes giving way to a dull throbbing, but never drifting closed. We sat in silence around our monitors and typed, when suddenly, the office room silence was pierced by Lola’s break alarm. It blared its flat, electronic tone on repeat a few times until she stood up from her chair.

“Which room would you like to visit today?” the hateable robot spoke, emerging from the ceiling. It was a black, spidery thing with a low-hanging body, capable of turning in any direction at will. With a short buzz, it flashed a kaleidoscope of Colour from its circular screen, brilliant blues mixing with vibrant greens and yellows. On and off they blinked, back and forth, awaiting a decision. Lola watched, unamused, the bags beneath her eyes lower than ever.

“Blue.”

The robot retracted out of sight. She departed stage left, and I watched from my peripherals as she walked briskly around the corner. Her skin and clothes camouflaged her against the grey, monotone walls as she went, and the further she got, the more her outlines faded, until she was hardly distinguishable at all.

It was 11:31 am.

Glenn sat down at the desk next to mine, his break having just come to an end. The last traces of Green were still draining from his eyes, a watery, forest-y hue sloshing through his sclera before fading to a familiar eggy white. He blinked, shaking his head as if to dispel those last few drops.

“So, Glenn…” I whispered, leaning in. “The Blue room, it’s uh…”

“I’ve never been,” he muttered quickly. Already, his fingers had returned to his keyboard, and he was typing, typing, typing, the words flying across the page in a blur.

“Yeah, me neither. Me neither, Glenn. And understandably so. But, uh…it seems, Lola, Lola’s quite fond of it, no? As of late?”

There was a short deliberation. His frantic pace slowed, and I could virtually see the loading bar hovering in front of his face. 70% done. 90% done. 99%...

“People have their preferences.”

Hardly a satisfying response. Gingerly, I decided to press further.

“Do you think it has anything to do with Da-

“It really isn’t my place to say,” Glenn interrupted. The firmness of his tone was diluted by a tinge of fear. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather be getting on with my work.”

The roar of a head-splitting klaxon filled my ears, one that I knew only I could hear. I let out a reflexive, mildly embarrassing yelp before a dark pop-up box appeared on my computer screen:

“YOU HAVE EXCEEDED THE MAXIMUM EMPLOYEE TALKING TIME. PLEASE RETURN TO WORK.”

Begrudgingly, I did as the message commanded, straightening up in my chair. A few seconds passed, and it disappeared, allowing me to continue.

I wanted to be annoyed. I wanted to feel the sickly bite of frustration in my bones, to yell and scream and smash my keyboard over Glenn’s stupid, bald head. But nothing happened. I sat there, empty, and got on with my job.

While my hands scanned effortlessly across the keyboard, I took a moment to survey the room, to confirm what I already knew. Before me sat a sea of impassive gazes, transfixed on their monitors. Some of my co-workers flicked their eyes up at me as a kind of awkward acknowledgement, but like myself, they could only afford to break concentration for a moment. Already, the constant stream of words flowing through my mind was jumbling into a mess of incomprehensible gibberish.

‘APPTECTIONS’.

‘INTICTIVE ANALYSIS’.

‘CHANTIMISED LEARNING STRATEGIES’.

I gritted my teeth and focused. Separating the words, putting them into their own little boxes and segments…recently, it had been harder than usual. They left my brain through a series of tubes that carried them all the way into my fingertips. Continuous strings of indecipherable code, perpetually descending. Falling. Falling. Falling…

Another 30 minutes went by. With the sound of the lunch alarm came the whoosh of the single sliding door at the back of the room, letting us know that the cafeteria was open. Silently, we stood up and siphoned through in single file.

The cafeteria was probably the most agreeable room of the building. Its comparative largeness and singular window gave respite from the cramped office cubicles, and there was even a medium-sized plant in the corner, wilted as it was, and nearly dead. Glenn approached it as we came in, wordlessly mourning its drooping leaves before sitting down with the others. They were in their own little group with their own little discussions, just like everyone else. I, on the other hand, was alone in the corner, observing. There was never very much to talk about, but today, I could tell that I was the subject of their conversation. Blaine, a stout, arrogant man who typically commanded their midday talks, was thrusting an accusatory finger my way, with a scowl.

I thought it was funny. Gradually, the room filled, and different workplaces always sat apart from each other. Whole lives, worlds, gathered under one roof, but never overlapping. Maybe it’s a tribal thing, I thought as I rested my head in my hands and listened to the whispering hum of the fluorescent lights, wishing I could fall asleep.

“I’ve been visiting the Purple room quite often. I think it’s my new favourite.”

I glanced up. Mary, an elderly woman with a shaky arm and long, flowing hair had sat across from me. A weak smile was spread across her face, more for appearance than anything else.

“We have a Purple room? Wow. They never tell us anything, do they?” I replied with an absent chuckle.

“No, I suppose they don’t.”

A low droning noise started from above us. Slowly, a metallic tube made its way from the ceiling to our plates, and out from its pointed tip slithered an appropriately sized portion of wet, greyish meat. It paused, beeping twice for confirmation before continuing down the table.

“Meat again? Fourth time this week. I miss having a little variation,” said Mary.

“I would hardly call this meat,” I retorted.

Mary shifted in her seat. Though she could still muster the constitution to eat, there was no denying it; the layer of slop that had been dispersed to us could scarcely be considered food. It resisted the touch of her fork as if it were still living, slimy and gelatinous, pre-packaged and pre-processed, barely needing to be chewed. It was disgusting, and yet, neither of us felt disgusted. Still, I resisted, refusing to pick up my cutlery.

“What’s it like there? In the Purple room. What’s it like to feel…Purple?” I asked, in an attempt to distract myself.

She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, as if trying to relive some far-gone memory. The shaking of her arm calmed to a mild tremor.

“It’s…it’s strangely radiant, but in a kind of softened way. Like being wrapped up in a fresh blanket. It’s not quite the same as the energy you get from other rooms. Purple is more of a presence. As if something’s actually there with you, something spiritual and…elusive. I felt…I felt like I understood myself better. Like the fog had been lifted, and I could see things clearly again.”

“Did it make you feel brave?”

“Hmm. No, it’s not really that kind of Purple. That’s not how I experienced it.”

I sighed a redundant sigh. “Thanks, Mary. I’ll have to give it a try sometime.”

She opened her eyes, a spark of inky violet illuminating them for but a second before being blinked away.

“Anytime, kid. Aren’t you gonna eat your food?”

“No. Not today. I’m not hung-

I was cut off by the unexpected bursting of my skull. That’s what it felt like, at least. An excruciating pain shot through the back of my head, throbbing mercilessly. Muscles twitched and flailed like they were trying to break free, and I clutched my skull in agony, digging my nails into my hair. Tried as I did, I couldn’t make a sound. They wouldn’t let me.

The spasm subsided about as quickly as it had begun. For a moment, everything seemed normal again, until my eyes were assaulted with bursts of a violent Red. The flashes of crimson were interspaced with waves of garish Yellow, pounding through my head, knocking me sick. Without warning, a bottomless chasm opened in my stomach. I snatched my fork from the table and began shovelling the “meat” into my mouth, entire forkfuls at a time, until my plate was empty.

The colours faded to nothing as I swallowed my last mouthful. Wanting to gag, I dropped my cutlery and took a sharp breath. People were staring, I could tell.

“Sorry,” I croaked, dislodging a rubbery chunk from between my teeth. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that hungry in my entire life.”

“You should know better by now,” Mary spoke. “You can’t cheat them with that anymore. Remember the hunger strikes all those years back? We were all doing it, ‘til they released that new ‘update’.”

She gestured at the back of her head.

“Though I suppose young’uns like you might not have been around for that. Strange, though. I don’t think it’s supposed to be painful. Must be a new feature.”

We sat in silence for the next few minutes. Watching Mary eat made me feel ill, so I looked towards the window and stared out at the sprawling layers of blocky skyscrapers, shadowed by a blanket of flat, ashen clouds. All shared the same bland, concrete shape, differentiated only numerically by a collection of faded, two-digit numbers. Far below, out of sight, were the chaotic rows of housing that lay just beside the offices, escaping the sterility that encompassed every other structure. Logically, I should have envied those who had the luxury of living apart from their work, but my brain could not conjure the feeling on its own.

“How’ve the headaches been, generally?” Mary suddenly spoke up.

“Manageable, I suppose. Not really getting any better.”

“Is it, like, a constant pain?”

“Flare-ups. That’s what I would call them. Fine one minute, then…”

Lola walked in, catching my eye. Instead of sitting down, she paced up and down the room restlessly, never taking her eyes off the floor. Not that anyone noticed, of course. They were all too busy with their own nattering.

“Do you see her, Mary?”

“Who, Lola? Yeah. There she is.”

“Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one that sees her.”

“She looks…distraught.”

“She’s in trouble, I think. Wasn’t here at the start of lunch. Not the first time it’s happened, either.”

“How can she get away with just walking around like that? She’s not even eating.”

“Beats me. Maybe they’re cutting her a break, because of the whole-

“The David thing?”

“…Yeah. The David thing.”

Mine and Lola’s eyes met momentarily. For a brief few seconds, she stopped, taking a step towards our table before moving to the door with a conflicted look. Inexplicably, it obeyed her presence, sliding outwards to allow her passage back into the workroom.

“How did she-

“You’ve got it again now, haven’t you? The box shift?” said Mary.

“Uh, yeah. I’m trying not to think about it.”

“Well, what she’s doing, the way she’s been acting, it’s got to have something to do with that. Either way, you should check up on her. Talk to her, if you can. If you care so much.”

I rotated my gaze back towards Mary. She was still finishing her meal. Looking at the deep wrinkles on her face, years of life displayed palpably on her skin, my curiosity got the better of me.

“Have you ever been to the Blue room?” I asked.

“Once, when I first arrived here,” she answered, after a short delay. “After I was demoted. Gosh, that was a long time ago. It felt right, given the circumstances. But in hindsight, it was stupid. That’s nowhere you want to be spending any amount of time.”

She finished eating, and was now resting her arm on the table, playing with a lock of her hair.

“Why do you ask? You’re not thinking of going there, are you?”

I stammered the beginning of a new sentence, not quite able to get my words out.

“It’s just…I want…I wanted to-

My stammering was interrupted by the end of lunch alarm. “I’ll-I’ll see you tomorrow,” I finally managed to blurt out.

Mary nodded and bid farewell, though with an air of concern. I did an awkward half-jog to catch up with my peers, and we left through opposite ends of the room.

“She’s not gonna be around for much longer,” a voice spoke from behind me. I saw who it was through the reflection on the steel door: Blaine, with a shit-eating grin on his face. “You should see how slowly she types. Probably something to do with that busted arm.”

“Say that again and you’ll be eating that rotten shit through a tube.”

I turned around and he wasn’t smiling anymore. The surprised look on his face, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, told me that my use of profanity had fazed him, though he must’ve known the threat was empty.

“Huh?” he said, clearly taken aback. I glared at him and walked ahead, unwilling to continue the exchange.

The work room was not at all the same as how we had left it. What was earlier a tight, squarish office space was now akin to an enormous warehouse of sorts. Thick, evenly spaced pillars supported the weight of an endless ceiling, with a fleet of winding conveyor belts snaking their way across the floor. There was a constant vibration in the air, no doubt the result of many unseen mechanisms at work, and at the far end of the room, a huge machine was depositing box after box after box to a fleet of busy female workers. It was a sizeable thing, the height of and width of around three people. A similar model sat on our side of the room, newly repaired, but missing its outer casing.

“How come they’re already here? We didn’t finish late, did we?” someone beside me asked.

“No, those lot are just starting early. Must’ve effed up last shift or something like that,” another voice replied.

I swallowed and leaned back against the wall. Lola was stood uncomfortably in the corner with crossed arms. She moved to join the rest of us as she saw me spot her.

“Hey, how did you get in-

Another robot poked its head out from above and interrupted me. This one was gravelly-voiced and less polished looking.

“MATTHEW. SCANNING.”

Small circles marking evenly spaced booths along the conveyor’s path showed us our respective work areas. Matthew, a lanky, younger guy with freckles, marched quickly to a booth at the end of the conveyor, where a rectangular scanning gun lay in wait.

“SAMUEL. STAMPING.”

Some middle-aged man I only vaguely recognised pushed his way through the crowd. He ducked under a descending conveyor and turned sharply to grasp a hand-operated stamping machine.

“GLENN. UNBOXING.”

Glenn moved to a spot near the machine. He took a quick look around his workspace, seemingly puzzled. There was an opened compartment on the table, one where a tool ought to have been.

“I don’t have a box-cutter,” he announced.

The robot swivelled on its axis and aimed itself squarely at him. He let out a tiny whimper before his chest was targeted by the light of a laser. Then another. Then five more. All at once, they started to move, scanning, dancing in and around his booth and across his body like a light show. He waited, tensed, eyes closed, expecting the worst. A couple of people sighed and looked away, but the rest of us stared expectantly. Lola looked almost guilty.

“MISSING EQUIPMENT DETECTED. REPLACEMENT ISSUED.”

A long tube reached down from the robot’s maw and spat out a box-cutter. Glenn flinched at the sound of the metal hitting the conveyor. Only when he was absolutely sure the moment had passed did he open his eyes and take it.

“ROOM TIME DEDUCTED BY: 15 MINUTES. PLEASE BE MORE CAREFUL WITH COMPANY HARDWARE.”

His face held a subtle blend of relief and annoyance. With that, the thing spun back around and continued assigning us our spaces.

One by one, we were each given a job to complete. Naturally, some were more satisfied than others, but no-one spoke a word of complaint. Though the designations were supposedly random, you couldn’t help but think that the robot, the cold, emotionless hunk of metal and polymer, was playing favourites. The more productive ones amongst us tended to receive the most consistent roles, while slackers were silently reprimanded by being swapped between jobs. My eyes stayed glued to the two spots that refused to be filled as the robot worked its way through the list. Surely, they wouldn’t, I assured myself. Not after what had happened.

But soon, only me and Lola remained, and the awful reality of the situation collapsed upon us.

“LOLA. LEFT FLANK. JOHN. RIGHT FLANK.”

We both saw it coming. If I could’ve, I would have ripped the damned contraption out of its socket right there and then.

I wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come to me. I might have been about to attempt the impossible, to ask the bot to reconsider our allocations, but Lola started moving and before I knew it, I was following behind her. She walked a little awkwardly on her left foot, like she had a bothersome cut or splinter, but I paid it little mind. We passed Max, the new hire, the one at the start of the conveyor, and shuffled into the shallow holes that made us responsible for keeping the machine alive.

The actual task itself was simple enough. Operating the machine was really just as easy as any other role on the conveyor. All you had to do was zone out and let your hands do their thing. The left lever brought the first box down from the ceiling, the middle button removed the barrier between the box and the ramp, and the right lever pushed the box down onto the conveyor. Easy. Lola had the same controls and a separate conveyor, which allowed for the processing of two boxes at once. For 'peak efficiency’, as I’m sure they’d told us once.

“COMMENCE OPERATION.”

A cheery, two-note tone echoed through the room. Me and Lola pulled the starting lever simultaneously, and the machine heaved into action, the first boxes lowering themselves down onto it. I began my mantra.

Left lever, five seconds.

Middle button, three seconds.

Right lever, five seconds.

It was hard to tell from the angle at which I was sitting, but it looked like Lola's conveyor was lifeless. I could see her through the little gaps in the thing’s mechanisms; for whatever reason, the outer shell of the machine had yet to have been reapplied, so I caught the occasional glimpse of her through all the whirring parts and apparatuses. She was mirroring my actions, and though I heard her pull the start-up lever a couple more times, it was to no avail. Her side just wouldn't spring into action. No problem, I thought. Someone will come and fix it for her soon.

Left lever, five seconds.

Middle button, three seconds.

Right lever, five seconds.

A sweeping, sinking feeling of anxiety washed over me as the stench of oil and friction burned my nose. Something wasn't right. The air felt thinner, less oxygen-rich, or tainted somehow, infused with poison. Thick beads of sweat swept down my forehead, obscuring my vision. I wiped them aside and ran my hands through my shoulder-length hair, brushing it out of the way.

Left lever, five seconds.

Middle button, three seconds.

Right lever, five seconds.

My tongue combed the inside of my drying mouth like it was trying to escape. Why couldn’t I just relax? Everyone else had already settled into their own routines, but my mind was racing like a crashing symphony, set to the beat of a pounding heart. My pounding heart. I couldn’t help but glance around me every few seconds, reaffirming my safety. Everything was fine. Everything was normal. They told us it would never happen again.

It would never happen again.

Left lever, five seconds.

It would never happen again.

Middle button, five seconds.

It would never happen – wait, what?

Right lever, five seconds.

Oh no.

Already, I had made a mistake. Now, the boxes were coming out of turn, unsynchronised. Less efficient. No-one had come to fix Lola's conveyor, either. She flashed me a look, but I couldn’t read her face. Was she concerned? Annoyed? Did I not look calm, collected? Was my inner turmoil really that evident?

Left lever, five seconds.

Middle button, one second.

Right lever…

I choked, letting go of the levers. Now I had really lost it. My hands were shaking too much to even hold down the button correctly. Two boxes were stuck at the top, and soon, a jam would form. A thick globule of saliva rolled down my throat, just as a crippling sting spread out from the back of my skull. Another goddamn headache. This was just too much to bear.

Trembling, I stepped back from the controls. I couldn’t steady my breathing. It was all too much. Too much light, too much noise. Inside, I was screaming at myself, but from the whirlwind of noise, I couldn’t pick out a word. I didn’t know what to do. I needed direction. An instruction, from anyone or anything.

“Sleep.”

A voice that wasn’t mine whispered in my ear. At first, I thought I had imagined it, but then it came again.

“Sleep.”

That second time, I recognised it instantly. The gentle tone of the evening voice, the thing that lulled us to rest in our pods each night. Except now, of course, it was hours off schedule.

Another word came to my head, this time from the reaches of my own brain. Loose. Something felt loose. Like a plug hanging out halfway, but still connected.

“Sleep.”

A soothing, orchestral tune began to play, from nowhere in particular. My prior unease was quickly replaced by a feeling of confusion. Tingles formed in the back of my head, and within moments, I felt faint and weak. My eyes fluttered shut before I shot them open again in fright.

“Sleep.”

My body was so heavy. I broke into a brisk walk in an effort to stay awake, but it was a battle I had no chance of winning. The noise, the song and the voice, it was as irresistible as the call of a siren. I found myself swaying back and forth uncontrollably, grasping for something solid to hold on to. I called out some slurred variation of the word “help”, but everyone was too wrapped up in their own business to notice anything was wrong. Only when I collided with the edge of the conveyor did they bother to turn their heads.

“Sleep.”

They were all looking now, and my side was burning. I’d have checked to see their faces if the entire room wasn’t spinning. The robot turned, too, just as I collapsed to my knees, then on my side, half of my face pressing against the floor.

“I can’t…” were the only words I managed to get out before my eyes drifted fully closed and a curtain of dark fell upon my mind.

“Sleeeeeeeep.”

When I opened my eyes again, things were different. I was back at the machine, back at the right flank, but something was pinning me against the wall, squeezing the air from my lungs. I must’ve shrunk, too, because the warehouse was now the size of some impossibly tall dome. Up and up it stretched, like a mountain without a peak, and as that thought came to me, it started snowing.

Other things were raining down from above along with the snow, little skinny things without many features, but I couldn’t tell what they were. They hit the floor loudly, with cries of animalistic passion. Some got up and walked away but most didn’t.

There was a conveyor, but it was doing all sorts of silly things like loop-de-loops and corkscrews, while not actually being attached to anything. Packages went flying every-which-where, and it almost made me laugh, had they not been full of some disgusting, gloopy substance that crawled across the floor. A growth of spit-soaked mouths was sucking them up, gleefully giggling with each one that slid past their rotted teeth.

In the distance, a hideous creature was devouring a fleet of terrified workers, sucking the brains from their skulls and discarding the dried-up shells of their bodies on the ground. My eyes wound closed if I looked at it directly, like they were sparing themselves the trauma of having to comprehend such a being, but from what I could tell, it was some abhorrent mishmash of flesh and metal, complete with round, bloodshot eyes that hung off its spindly frame.

An enormous panel of levers, dials, switches, and screens, many of which were out of my immediate reach, sat before me. Some were labelled with symbols I didn’t recognise that dodged my line of sight, infinitely rearranging themselves.

Panicked, I pressed a button at random. A continuous, high-pitched warbling sound reverberated through my skull, rattling me like a cartoon. “WHAT DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND TO SEE?” popped out of one of the screens in some bizarre 3D word art text. “What?” I tried to proclaim, but my mouth was full of foam.

With nothing else to do, I interacted with the panel once more. This time, I swept my hand across the width of the thing, catching a couple of knobs in the process. An old-timey whistle blew a cloud of steam in my face before emitting a noise like a foghorn. The creature in the distance stopped chasing its victims and let out some cross between a groan and a yawn. It fell on its side, seemingly exhausted, and the splattered remains of the bodies it had consumed got up and started chatting and eating, like it was all one big performance.

David…David was there.

He was stood in the middle of it all. Lola was there next to him, and they were embracing each other, tears in their eyes. He was mouthing words that I couldn’t quite understand, but through it all, he was serene. Together, they were a picture of perfect, beautiful sadness, like an oil painting.

It looked like they were saying goodbye.

Unable to control myself, I thrust some tool, maybe a wrench or a hammer, deep into the machine’s insides. Some revolving mechanism yanked it violently from my grip, and the entire thing began to shake and combust, tearing itself apart. Like a falling monument, it lurched forwards dramatically and broke off from its foundations.

David and Lola were positioned directly beneath it. At the last possible second, he flung her away from him and out of reach of the thing. It collapsed upon him in its entirety, and he was gone. No blood, gore, or viscera. Just there one second and gone the next. Lola tripped over something, or nothing, or her own feet, and smashed the back of her head against the ground.

I stared in pure bewilderment. “That’s not how it happened,” was my last coherent thought, just before the immense control panel fell flat against me, smashing my own head to the ground, and everything turned black.

“John! John, up here! John!”

I awoke with a start to the sound of the morning tone. It was pitch black, but the familiar firmness of my bedding made my surroundings instantly recognisable; I was back in my pod, in what felt like the middle of the night. Mouth dry, I stretched, though not completely, as my feet brushed up against the cold, white walls that, for once, actually provided some sense of relief. Here, I was safe. Here, there were no machines, no conveyors, and no control panels.

With blurry eyes, I glanced up at the display at the far end of the pod. As I struggled to pull myself into a sitting position, it flashed a notice:

“AN INCIDENT HAS OCCURRED. PLEASE REPORT TO THE MEDICAL CENTRE FOR A FULL MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EXAMINATION.”

A bitter, metallic taste entered my mouth as the words dripped off my mind, like my body was anticipating the experience to come. The bottom wall of the pod slid open, allowing me to exit, as much as I wished I could stay.

I had noticed something wrong even before I wriggled out onto my feet and glanced about my surroundings. The entire bedding complex was darkened in a way I had never experienced before. Everything was still and silent and the lights were dimmed to allow nothing but a tiny trace of white to filter through, enough to see the outlines of the walls and not much else. It truly was the middle of the night.

I peered back into the pod, convinced a mistake must have been made. No business was ever conducted after hours, not even medical examinations. To my surprise, however, was another message on the display, one that simply said “GO.”

Tentatively, I started around the corner.

It definitely felt like I should’ve known where the medical centre was. Escaping the dreaded yearly check-ups was impossible, and it had only been a few months since they were last performed. In this foreign environment, however, I was helpless, endlessly reappearing where I’d started as I tiptoed from corridor to corridor. Every room was sealed off, and my eyes refused to adjust to the darkness, leaving me wandering through what felt like some sort of well-kept catacomb.

The urge to call out to nobody in particular was hard to resist, but the thought of being discovered at such an hour scared me even more than being alone. Several times, I felt tempted to slap the back of my head, or at least give it a good knock. Even if I didn’t know where I was going, I should’ve been receiving guidance, some sense of direction. Instead, there was nothing. In the crushing gloom, I could hardly tell left from right.

Rounding another corner, I found myself staring at the bedding chambers for the umpteenth time. I considered waking someone else up for guidance, but the potential ramifications of such a thing worried me to inaction. They surely wouldn’t be pleased, and besides, if it was my day-night schedule that was broken, there was no need to ruin someone else’s. Better to suffer in silence.

I stopped in the middle of some unremarkable hallway. Something had caught my attention; where I swore there had been only smooth, featureless wall a moment ago now stood the entrance to the Red room.

I spun around fully in an effort to obtain some degree of geographical bearing. Somehow, subconsciously, I suppose, I had led myself here, to my typical hangout spot, where I spent break after break during usual operating hours. Though a little confused, I disregarded it as some harmless cognitive phenomenon and went to continue onwards.

Unless…

I almost didn’t notice at first, but it wasn’t there. That usual tug to compliance, the one that drowned out any form of dissent. The urge to do what was wanted, what was expected of me…it was absent. Entirely. I took a deep breath as the possibilities weighed down on me. Right then, right there, my options felt limitless. It was both liberating and intimidating, and something that I knew definitely wasn’t supposed to happen. Was that also why I couldn’t find my way? Because of some sort of malfunction?

Footsteps. Soft, rhythmic footsteps, reverberating down the steel walls, leaving me without a moment to think. Not someone in a hurry, I reassured myself as I crouched down to the floor, heart pumping. I was at a T-junction, and whoever was there was about to pass right in front of me.

It was too late to do anything else. Acting on pure self-preservation, I grabbed the handle of the Red room door and pulled with all my might. It gave way, miraculously, and I slipped through the opening just as the footsteps reached the beginning of the adjacent corridor. They slowed to a halt as I finished shutting myself in, and I held my breath, terrified that I’d give away my position.

The footsteps receded, and I had never been so relieved in all my life. My relief soon turned to puzzlement, however, as I pondered upon who else could possibly be roaming the halls at such an hour. I had never heard of any kind of night patrol, but then again, perhaps that was purposeful.

Whatever the answer, I didn’t fancy my odds finding my way back to my pod, at least not immediately. If one person was out, who was to say that I wouldn’t run into anyone else? What if I was being followed that whole time, and had only just lost my pursuer? I backed away from the door, deciding that I’d bide my time in here instead.

If only I could find a way to turn on the lights…

“I don’t believe you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You spent the whole night there, didn’t you?”

The cafeteria seemed a lot quieter that day. Less people were talking and more people were looking, even more than usual. Mary had her back to them, but I could see them staring past her at me, judging. She looked the part, too, leant back, arms crossed, eyes analysing. I could scarcely meet her gaze as I sat rigidly in my chair with a cup of water, gripping it so tightly, it was almost spilling.

“How can you tell?” I asked her.

“Your eyes are still Red.”

“Shit, really?” I muttered. A little panicked, I blinked and rubbed them with my fists.

“It’s fine, it’s hardly noticeable.”

You noticed it.”

“And you told me you weren’t going to the Red room anymore. You promised.

“I didn’t mean to stay that long, okay? I just lost track of time.”

“We’ve been over this, John. I know a lot has happened recently, but it’s not good to fill your mind full of negativity like that. Trust me, it doesn’t help. You may feel like it does, but it doesn’t.”

“I thought it might be different this time.”

“Well, how do you feel?”

“Angry.”

“Even now?”

“Yes. But not as much as I was when I was in there.”

Mary looked down and put her palm over her brow. The disappointment in the air was inescapable, even if her face didn’t show it. It was true that I was angry. Angry at my job, angry at my co-workers, angry at my life. But right then, more than anything, I was angry at myself.

“How did you get out, in the end?”

“I snuck out at some point in the morning and got back to my pod. Tried to get back to sleep but the alarm sounded before I could drift off.”

“You must be very tired.”

“Yeah, in more ways than one. But look, it doesn’t even matter, okay? Forget what I did. The point is that there’s some seriously weird shit going on. That’s what we need to focus on. I mean, who else could’ve been awake that late? Any ideas?”

“Keep your voice down! You know how they feel about swears, you’ll set off the sensors.”

I glanced behind me at the loudspeaker, not even realising I’d begun almost shouting. Thankfully, it remained silent. The looks from my peers were still ever-present, but they hadn’t changed much.

“And as for your mystery companion, I don’t know. Probably just a guard or something.”

I could tell she was frustrated. Today’s meal was a bowl of dry, salty greens that I always thought tasted like seaweed, but it was her favourite. She had hardly touched it, though.

“Listen, Mary, there’s something else I need to tell you. Something important.”

“About the Red room?”

“No, about the shift yesterday. The box shift. I didn’t make it all the way through. I…collapsed.”

“Don’t tell me it was-

“No, it was nothing to do with the machines. It was me. I heard the evening voice.”

“…what?”

“I heard the evening voice, and I passed out. And listen, here’s the thing, right? I had a dream.

Mary leant forwards, stunned, probably thinking her old ears were failing her.

“It’s the same dream I’ve been having since it happened. Every night since the incident, without fail.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t wanna acknowledge it and I didn’t wanna worry you. Thought it might go away over time if I just blocked it out.”

“What do you dream about? Life outside of here?”

“I wish. It’s…I dream about the accident. It’s always that, always the accident. Never in the same way, though. Something’s new every time. It’s like…I don’t know, it’s like my brain is trying to piece together what happened. Running a new simulation each time. But it’s hopeless, none of it ever makes any sense.”

“I wish I’d have been there.”

“I wish you'd have been there too. I’ve been thinking about it, though, and I reckon it has something to do with this.”

I pointed at the back of my head.

“Gosh, John…I haven’t dreamt in 50 years. I don’t think many people here have ever dreamt, ever. I think you’re right. I think something is wrong.”

“So what do we do?”

Our conversation was interrupted by what I assumed was the whoosh of the cafeteria door opening to let us out again. Instead, we were greeted by the presence of a solid black booth which had materialised in the corner of the room.

“MARIA CORMACK, YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED FOR RETIREMENT. PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY INSIDE THE BOOTH.”

We both froze. There was a short silence, broken by her weak-sounding voice.

“Well, then. I think that’s for me.”

She began to stand up. I stayed seated in shock, unable to process what was happening.

“No,” I whispered. “No, Mary, please don’t go. Please.”

“There’s no use trying to fight it, John,” she said, resignedly. “We both knew this day was coming, and now it’s here.”

“You’ll probably just be reassigned, right? Like before?”

She shook her head gravely, and I felt like being sick. I jumped up onto my feet.

“Can I at least give you a hug?”

“No contact. You know the rules.”

We stared at each other for a few seconds. I couldn’t imagine what was going through her head, and I honestly didn’t want to. The sheer indifference of everyone else in the room nearly pushed me to breaking point. There wasn’t an ounce of empathy in the crowd. No-one cared, truly. A few people were sneaking looks, as per usual, but it was out of plain curiosity more than anything else.

“I’ll say this, John. You were a good friend. Don’t give up on living just because of me.”

She leaned in suddenly, putting her mouth to my ear.

“Go find Lola. Then get out of here, while you still can. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just don’t waste your life here like I did.”

My stomach dropped as she turned and made her way towards the booth. She seemed so vulnerable. When she finally got in, stepping through the open door, she looked like she was about to cry, like she had managed to break through the programming somehow. Her whole body was shaking, not just her arm.

“I’ll see you again.” I said, resolutely.

“I don’t think s-

The booth disappeared, and she was gone. I walked back to the table, where two uneaten bowls of salad were waiting, only to catch the eye of Blaine sitting across the room.

“Told you so.” He mouthed.

11:30 am.

Wearisome.

Tedious.

Sterile.

The next day had passed by uneventfully. I had spent it in a state as close to mourning as I felt was possible, stewing in quiet stoicism, not having spoken a word to anyone. I had no dream that night. No feverish nightmare. Somehow, that made me feel worse. Something is always better than nothing, I guess. But it made sense. I didn’t really care about what had happened anymore, or anything else, for that matter.

I couldn’t take my break when it came. I had been informed that morning; it was my punishment for failing to arrive at my appointment, a task that verged on undoable. A new one had been scheduled for me later that day.

Ignoring the loathsome robot when it asked me where I wanted to go made me feel almost strong. But it was a fleeting delusion at best. Deep down inside, I was feeble. And bitter, too, bitter as a sour lemon, the taste of which I had not known for years. It was a good thing I couldn’t go to any rooms. I would’ve only felt black.

I made a real effort to rid my mind of any conscious thought in the build-up to lunch, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Maybe some part of me thought I would forget what had occurred if I did so. The others had hardly known what it was like to have a break in their routine. Not in the way me and Lola had. They would probably self-destruct, be unable to process it. I bet it’d been minutes before they sent someone to scoop me off that factory floor.

I was trying not to think of anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Zoning out, staring at the meaningless words on my computer, some little nagging portion of my brain was crying out, trying to tell me something. I paid it no mind to begin with; I was too wrapped up in my desire to be at peace. What a silly notion that was. But then I remembered Mary’s words, what she had willed me to do.

Find Lola.

Get out while I still could.

It might have been insanity, but suddenly, that was all that mattered.

I broke out of my stupor. I hadn’t seen her all day, not in the filing room, the printing room, and now, not in the office room cubicles. There was an empty seat right across from me where she should’ve been, and I hadn’t even noticed.

“Where’s Lola?” I mouthed to Glenn, who presently occupied the seat next to hers. His blank gaze remained unchanged, even when I took my hands off my keyboard and leaned around to snap my fingers in his face.

I expected a reprimanding, but none came. No klaxon and no pop-up box. How bizarre, I thought. I considered quitting while I was ahead, but it begged the question: if I wasn’t to be scolded for that, then what else could I get away with?

I grabbed my monitor and threw it to the ground. The noise of its impact was unexpectedly loud, exacerbated by the quietness of the room. A plethora of newly exposed wires shot out from its plastic case as it snapped open, the glass screen shattering into a million tiny pieces. It was immensely satisfying. I found myself staring at the broken, busted thing on the ground with a kind of morbid curiosity, like I was observing a corpse. It was certainly dead in that sense, never to operate again, and seeing it lie there was kind of hypnotising. Soon, I realised I was panting, relishing in the tension of expecting something to happen.

Nothing did, however. My co-workers continued on as if they hadn’t just seen one of their peers commit mortal sin before their very eyes. As far as I could tell, they hadn’t. Still, maybe they were just being polite. Maybe they were too afraid to do anything else.

The reason why I was allowed to get away with any of this evaded me. I thought that there could be some ulterior motive to it, that right now, I was perhaps being watched more intently than I ever had been in my life, but at the same time, that felt improbable. I ran my hands through my hair and the word came again: loose. Unstable. Unsteady. Untouchable. Yes, that’s what I was, untouchable, drunk with power. I needed to do more, truly test my limits.

“What the fuck is going on?” I asked Glenn loudly, having leapt over the desk to stand next to him. No reaction. I unplugged his monitor and dropped it on the floor. No reaction. He just kept typing, focused on a screen that wasn’t there. His eyes were faded and cloudy, like he was in a coma, and I knew at that point that he wasn’t just ignoring me. I wasn’t even being seen.

The idea of living out a long-awaited fantasy came to me. Carefully, I dragged the keyboard from beneath Glenn’s dancing fingers. They were hitting invisible keys now, like he was playing some imaginary piano. A funny sight. I wished there was someone else cognizant enough to see it.

With great pleasure, I gripped the smooth, grey, rectangular thing in my hand and swiped it at Glenn’s head.

No sooner than it contacted him, he disappeared completely. The keyboard slipped out of my hands, and I was brought to the floor by a familiar pounding ache in the back of my head, the worst of them yet. One-by-one, the rest of the room’s occupants began to blip out of existence as I writhed beneath them. The whole room felt like it was crashing down, until…

Gasp.

I shot up in my seat. I was at the cafeteria, the pain in my head still present, but manageable.

“What’s up with you, man?” Glenn asked. We were all sat on the same table, me, him, Blaine, and a few other people I wasn’t sure I’d ever talked to. All part of Blaine’s pack. They looked like they had been talking about something between themselves, but my sudden return to reality had diverted their attention towards me.

“W-what happened? How did I get here?” I said, out of breath. I glanced down at my plate to see a splattering of some soggy, mushy substance, drenched in a nondescript sauce.

“Same way as the rest of us, dude.” Glenn pointed at the single door leading out of the office room. “You’ve been kinda twitchy, though. Have-

“Leave it, Glenn.” Blaine barked. Glenn obeyed, silently tucking into his food.

“I dropped your computer on the floor.”

“…No, you didn’t. You were typing. Faster than I’ve ever seen you. It was pretty impressive, honestly. I’ve always kind of envied how fast you type, y’know? I can never keep up myse-

“I said leave it.”

“Sorry.”

He licked up a bit of slop from his fork meekly. For once, I actually felt some pang of sympathy for him.

“Does anyone know where Lola is?”

“Who the fuck is Lola?” Blaine chimed in before anyone else had a chance to say anything. A cascade of spit molecules came flying from his mouth as he spoke, before he swallowed and wiped the back of his mouth with his hand. I waited for someone to fill him in, but no-one did.

“You know who Lola is, dude. Quit playing dumb.”

“…Whatever,” he said after a short delay. It looked like there was something else he wanted to say, like he wanted to let loose somehow, but he left it. “No, I don’t know where she is. None of us do.”

“Fancy you sitting here, though.” He began again, after another moment of silence. “Did you run out of people to talk to?”

His words had a sarcastic edge to them. I glared at him. “I want you to take back what you said about Mary.”

He snorted and took a sip from his drink. “Dude, I didn’t fucking say anything about Mary. I don’t even know who Mary is. She sounds like a bitch.”

A deep rage bubbled up inside me. My jaw clenched, almost involuntarily, and my face was burning. I felt a vein bulging from my head, like I was about to explode, and without warning, my vision was clouded by a burst of watery Red.

It intruded on all edges of my sight, blotting out the cafeteria, and when it had covered everything completely, it happened. I was blind, but my body began moving, and the first thing I heard was some sort of surprised shout. A cry of pain followed immediately after, and followed by that were two heavy thuds. It felt like I spent an eternity gazing into that Red, feeling it become a part of me, but before long, it faded, and I was now looking up at the cafeteria ceiling.

My shoulder was killing me. I picked myself up, dazed, and there on the ground beside me was Blaine. He was on his back, clutching his face, screaming cries of guttural anguish. Swears were flurrying from his lips, more than loud enough for the sensors to pick up on. I enjoyed the thought of him being punished for it, until I realised what he was swearing at.

A fork was lodged in his left eye socket. Not a fork, my fork, evidenced by the coating of my right hand in blood. The weight of what I’d done fell upon me like a pile of bricks when I spun around to see everyone’s slack-jawed faces. I had captured the attention of everyone in the room, and to say they were incredulous was an understatement. A good few of them must’ve thought they were seeing things, and more than that couldn’t bear to look.

I didn’t exactly blame them, especially when I saw Blaine grip the fork with his hands and pull it out, the entire leaking eyeball and stem coming with it. He stared at it, looking like some twisted, melting dessert, before passing out, the blood forming a pool beneath his head.

“VIOLENT ACT DETECTED.” The loudspeaker suddenly blared. “DISPATCHING SECURITY. PLEASE REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE.”

I took off running, leaving the grisly sight for my peers to gawk over. A shrill alarm pierced my ears as I sprinted down the corridors. I knew where I was heading. It was the only place she could be, the place she always was. The place I knew I would find her.

It didn’t take long to arrive at my destination at the middle of the Colour hallway.

The most accurate way of describing it would be pure melancholy. That’s what hit me as I side-stepped into the Blue room, heaving the great metal door shut behind me. I turned, and a great tidal wave of it knocked me to the floor, leaving me scratchy-voiced and teary-eyed.

“First time, it’ll do that to you.” A voice came from the middle of the room. I got to my feet and coughed, straining my eyes to see in the intense light. “But then you get used to it, and it’s…bliss.”

Lola was seated in the middle of the room. She had slouched down to the point where her head was barely visible from behind, and her hair was wet. I came to her side and saw that her back was awash with blood, oozing out from the back of her head. The sight of it should’ve panicked, or at least concerned me, but I felt nothing but calm. Peaceful, stable calm, like I was watching the ocean lap against a stretch of golden shore.

“What happened to your hand? Did you hurt yourself?” she asked.

“It’s Blaine’s blood. I stabbed him in the eye.”

“…Can’t say he didn’t have it coming. I heard what he said that day, about Mary. That wasn't okay. Maybe now, he’ll learn some respect.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“If you hurt him, we’re not gonna have much time. They’ll be here soon. What was it that tipped you over the edge? Did you ask about Mary?”

I was silent for a moment, trying not to choke up.

“Y-yes.”

“They didn’t remember her, did they? They won’t have remembered me, either. I got too far through the process.”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s what they do, John. They make people forget. It’s easier that way. Do you remember that day on the box shift? With David?”

She was staring off into nothing, though her eyes seemed to reflect some kind of movement. I paused for a moment of contemplation.

“Sort of. It’s…hazy, though. Like I don’t want to.”

“I remember. I’ve dreamt about it every night since. We hit our heads pretty hard, didn’t we? And the medical checks afterwards, boy, those were rough.”

“They never tested for internal damage.” I whispered, almost to myself.

“I wish we could’ve spoke sooner. It’s my fault, really. I was scared. Scared I wouldn’t be able to reach you. Scared I’d be putting you at risk. You seemed fine with Mary, and that put me at ease. That night I saw you in the corridor, I wanted to say something so badly, but I couldn’t work up the courage. I’m so sorry.”

She reached out a hand to touch my face, which was wet with tears. Her skin was so pale, it was practically white.

“Why here? Why not the Yellow room?” I asked her, hypocrite that I was.

“It’s more…appropriate, wouldn’t you say? It’s not that I don’t want to be happy. It’s that I should feel sad.”

“…I know what you mean.” I responded, voice wavering. She was so pretty in that moment, it was like she wasn’t real.

“There was one word that I couldn’t stop thinking about, since that day. It kept coming up over and over again, driving me crazy. More than anything, that’s what lead me here.”

She placed something in my hand. It was a metal boxcutter, sticky with blood.

“I…I tried. I thought I could do it, but I couldn’t…couldn’t get it out of me. Not strong enough. But you… you have to get rid of it. Fully remove it, finalise the process. It controls everything here, the work, the doors, everything. Without it, you’re free.”

“No, that’s…I can’t.”

“You have to, John. Not just for me, for yourself. And for David.”

I looked down at the thing, considering having to use it on myself. It felt impossible to even conceive.

“One last thing…before I go. I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened that day. Once this is over, you won’t need to be angry anymore.”

“…I understand.” I spoke, through sobs. Her hands were cold and moist as she caressed my hair.

“And, if you do see David again…tell him I died happy.”

I pressed my hands into my face and wept, unable to contain myself.

“I-I will. I will.”

“Ah…I can hear it again, can’t you?”

“Hear what?”

“The music. That wonderful sound.”

She leaned into my ear.

“Sleeeeeeep.”

And with that, she closed her eyes and became motionless. I held her body close in my arms and whispered how much I loved her. It looked like she was just sleeping.

I wasted no time after that. Gently, I took her in my arms and laid her on the floor. Two sharp, hard knocks came against the door as I pushed the chair underneath the handle, buying myself some time. From there, it was just a matter of willpower.

Hard and fast was the method I’d chosen. Easier said than done. I pressed the cool blade up to the back of my head, taking deep breaths. This was it. Now or never.

I took the first stab, feeling the triangular incision work its way into the base of my skull. The pain was unimaginable. It was searing hot, dizzying in its intensity. Blood was already beginning to pour onto my shirt as I went in for the second cut.

With an animalistic cry, I felt the metal contact the chip. I was reeling, struggling to keep on my feet, but the constant pounding against the door egged me onwards. I had 30 seconds, max. No time to waste.

“DROP YOUR WEAPON AND PUT YOUR HANDS UP,” came an emotionless voice from outside. The door was barely staying on its hinges as I twisted the blade upwards, pushing the flesh out and onto my shoulders. I screamed hard enough to rupture my vocal cords. I was so close.

The boxcutter came out, and I collapsed to the floor as the door flew open.

“John! John, up here! John!”

I came to in some dark, humid room, the boundaries of which weren’t well-defined. Intense pain pulsed from behind my eyes, and my heart was beating so slowly, I wondered if it’d stopped. I got to my feet and felt around the back of my skull. Nothing. No gash or opening, no blood, and nothing artificial.

The bodies of my co-workers lined the floor all around me. They were unconscious, but certainly not dead. I could tell by the way their chests rose and fell in unison. Their eyes were closed, and their heads were tied with thin strips of wire, leading into some gargantuan apparatus covered in blinking lights and status symbols. Two flashing, red dots were visible on the thing’s display, but no-one was around to do anything about it. I looked, but could see neither Lola nor Mary.

“John!”

My attention was diverted towards the middle of the room. David’s voice was coming from a trapdoor-sized hole in the ceiling. Beneath was a metallic spiral staircase that led straight up into it.

With legs that felt like they could give way at any moment, I moved to the bottom step and began to ascend. A blinding white light was shining from the opening, beckoning me onwards, as I heard David call again.

“C’mon, you’re nearly there. You’re so close now.”

Exhausted, I heaved myself along the banister until I reached the top. A blank, translucent screen was the only thing that remained in my way. I pushed it open with one hand, and the white light swallowed me whole.



Written by Cornconic
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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