Friday, January 23, 2015


It felt like falling, a slow descent from a feeling of safety into a persistent, steady insecurity. I knew the ground was below me, but there was no reassurance I would survive the impact. I suppose it depended on how far I had fallen.

"You can put your personal belongings in this drawer," he told me, while cleanly marking the box on the checklist next to the line item that he had just completed by telling me so. The desk was a tiny white rectangle, elevated by four chrome struts. There were only two drawers in the desk. One of them was locked shut and would remain so for "safety reasons," I was told. The drawer for my personal possessions did not look large enough to hold anything of consequence.

"We do not _encourage_ you to bring personal belongings to work," he stated, checking off the next item on his list. "At most, you are limited to one personal photograph on your desk, restricted to 3x5 or 5x3, however you choose to orient it. It must be in a plain frame matching the office color scheme." That left little choices for color, but it didn't matter. I didn't have a picture to display anyway.

"Talking is restricted to break time and off-hours," he said while his pencil precisely marked another checkbox. "You will be given assigned times for breaks and meal by your group supervisor."

"Do you have any questions?" he asked, not bothering to look up from his checklist as he made another mark. "We do not _encourage_ asking questions."

I had intended to reply verbally, but I simply shook my head "no." He did not look up in time to see the gesture, but my continued silence seemed to be sufficient for him. He marked a final time on his checklist and walked away stiffly. I listened to the whir and click of his servomotors.

The chair slid away from the desk along the single track and I sat down. There was a small pad of clean white paper to my right, just beside the computer keyboard. A pencil had been carefully positioned across the middle of it. The computer monitor was attached to the back of the desk, at a comfortable height to gaze at. The keyboard sat uncluttered in the center of the desk, directly in front of the monitor. Laying gently across the keys was a white envelope with my name cleanly printed on front.

As I reached for it, I winced at the tattoo on the back of my right hand, the clean lines of the barcode and the numbers underneath were still fresh and the skin around it was still raw and red.

The envelope was unsealed. Nestled inside was a single white card.

"Your compliance ensures the survival of your species. Thank you."

I tucked the card back into the envelope and set it to the side.

The monitor before me gently woke up as the computer attached to it quickly cycled through its boot sequence. Around me, rows and rows of other desks remained empty, their monitors quiet. Dozens of keyboards sat undisturbed, pads and pencils unused, envelopes unopened. There was no dust in the room. Everything was clean and sterile. The temperature was warm, but not uncomfortably so. There were no windows in the room.

But I knew that outside it was cold.

The computer finished its sequence, screen flashing for a final time before it finally cleared and I was left staring at a single prompt.

>\ |

The cursor blinked slowly.

My hands hovered near the keyboard, waiting anxiously as I stared at the screen.

Time crawled by. So much so that I began to worry, until my nervous fingers carefully tapped out a greeting.

>\ Hello? |

-sys: Hello?: command unknown
-sys: do not interact with the system until prompted

>\ |

My fingers clenched up, balled into my fists, withdrawn from the keyboard.

I watched the cursor blink at me until I felt my attention wander after many long minutes.

There was sudden a banging nose from the locked drawer on the table, sending my heart into a wild rhythm. It was chaotic, but muffled, like an old alarm clock was trying to sound. It lasted for a few moments and then was quiet.

It took a few minutes for my heart to calm down.

There was a tone overhead. Then the lights brightened slightly for a second. The tone repeated and so did the lights. A soothing voice came over hidden speakers.

"Begin your rest cycle. You have ten minutes. Please report to the rest area."

Behind me I heard another tone. I turned to see an arrow illuminated on the wall above a closed portal. A moment passed and the tone chimed again shortly before the arrow flashed gently.

"Your rest cycle will last for ten minutes," the soothing voice informed me.

A bitter chill charged into the room as the door slid open slowly. In the room beyond the warm lights, there was darkness and noise. The wind howled like a wounded beast. From my seat, the darkness flickered in the tilted view I had through the portal. It was the edge of a hole, a large one from what I could tell, a ragged hole exposed to the cold outside. There was another chime and the door closed.

My arms were goose flesh from hand to shoulder. I felt chilled both inside and out.

The illuminated arrow had disappeared, but I stood watching the portal for several minutes, trying to sort out this experience and the feelings that had welled up in my chest... fear, confusion, excitement...

I spun around in my chair to the keyboard.

>\ There is a hole in the wall |

-sys: There is a hole in the wall: command unknown
-sys: input during the rest cycle is prohibited
-sys: remain at your station for discipline

>\ |

My eyes went wide. Why had I done that?

The locked drawer of the desk was louder this time. The muffled buzzing was now a frantic vibration that I could feel in my palms where they rested on the desktop. It felt like something was trying to fight its way out.

I jumped up from the desk, reflexively trying to distance myself.

The noise stopped after a moment, but my heart did not. I heard the blood rushing in my ears.

The overhead tone and flashing lights returned, just as they had before, a gentle alert for a coming announcement.

"Your rest cycle is ending. Please return to your workstations."

I turned to see the portal. Instead of an arrow, a red X flashed gently above the portal. It flashed a second time before the door slowly slid open. Once more an icy knife of wind cut down the middle of the room. I moved to the edge of the door this time. The hole was easy to see now, even with the lights in this room extinguished. Outside the rough wound in the side of the building, I saw gray and purple, stormclouds rolling and seething, flashes of lightning rippling through them.

"The rest cycle is ending. Failing to return to your workstation will result in disciplinary action," the voice informed me politely.

Behind me, I heard the entrance open. I assumed they were coming to discipline me.

How much further did I have left to fall?

I heard the soft chime signaling the ending of the rest cycle.

I stepped through the portal into the room with the gaping wound to the world beyond.

I let the door close behind me.