Another one. Blinding, shooting pain, like a sudden bright light behind the eyes. I don’t have time for this, I tell myself, but the migraine shuts it out. I’ve got fifty two reports to read, annotate, sign, organise into levels of importance, and appropriately file and I’m only five hours away from the end of my second half shift. I don’t have time for a headache. I pop another fatiganol and run my fingers through my hair. I don’t feel it, and for a moment I’m disorientated, patting at my head but feeling nothing. I pull my hand down, but it’s still there. Christ, not now.
Third person fired this week for inefficiency. Chao from marketing. Rumour is he zoned out, and didn’t snap out of it until they pulled him out of his chair. He swore it wasn’t sleep, cried about how it had never happened before, but nobody paid any attention. Sleepers’ll say anything to get out of work. Lazy bastards. Well, not me. I’m gonna be employee of the month before you know it, yes sir! At least, I was going to before these headaches started. And the numbness. And the hallucinations, they were the worst. What the hell was wrong with me?
This report is blending in with itself, layers of black and white hiding the text and meaning from my eyes. I blink and squint and it shifts but doesn’t clear. I look up at the ceiling and the black glass dome fixed into it watches me turn from my work with disapproval. This isn’t my scheduled break. I look back down at my desk for something to focus on to let my eyes clear. I won’t be caught slacking. I won’t. I need this job, and besides I had a break only seven hours ago. What the hell was wrong? I don’t give a damn about employee of the month, I just need to stay as an employee of the next month.
Maybe someone’s poisoned me. Maybe some sleeper activist poisoned my fatiganol to try to get some proof of their wild theories. I bet that’s it. I grab my bottle of little sky blue capsules and toss them in the bin. I’ll buy some fresh ones on my way home. Damn sleepers are always trying to halt progress, to skive off work. Sleep was cured. Night and day are the planet’s business now, we’re beyond that, but they say it’s not natural. Psh. Homes aren’t natural, but they still live in them. Mostly. Businesses won’t hire sleepers, and damn right too, why should people who choose to be lazy be paid a damn thing? They’re inefficient. Imagine eight hours of your day just laying there with your eyes closed. Eight hours! That’s more than a quarter shift! Some of them sleep longer! It’s a disgrace.
I glance over my cubical wall at the man working next to me. John, or Jacob, or something like that. He doesn’t look up, typing on his computer. His own bottle of fatiganol is on the desk next to him, a little orange tower stuffed with pills turned purple by the plastic. He’s pale, and his eyes are dilated. He wipes away sweat from his forehead, and glances up at my face over the wall. He blinks, like he doesn’t know what I am. I struggle to pin down his first name.
“Kalgott.” I settle for his last name instead, and watch him wrestle his own mind for mine.
“…What?” He says.
“Give me one of your pills.”
He blinks again, confused. “What?”
“Your pills! Fatiganol. Give me one. All mine have been poisoned.” He stares at me, before turning back to his computer.
“I don’t have time.”
“All you have to do is pass me one.”
“I don’t have time!” He repeats.
My headache decides that now is the time to see just how far it can pull my left side brain from my right side brain, and I sit back down for a moment, reeling. It passes, and I pull myself up my cubicle wall. “Damn it John I need a pill!”
He looks up at me again, and looks behind him, then all around him. Finally he looks back at me, cocking his head, “Me?”
I consider throwing one of my reports at him but I’m being inefficient enough already, so I just reach over the side and take the bottle of pills. I sit back down, pop the top and let one fall into my hand. I tip a few more in for good measure, and toss them into the back of my mouth. I swallow. I feel better already. John’s saying something over the other side of the wall, so I tip a small pile of his pills onto my desk and throw the half empty pot back over the wall. I hear a yelp. I hope I hit him.
I grab a report and they seem to be more in focus again, so I start reading. It’s far too quick for the pills to be working. Probably placebo effect, but like I care. If I can work, I can keep my job. I continue to read, making little marks along the outside margin. Annotations have a special code, dots and dashes, squiggles and swirls, upside down question marks, a language of comments and judgements for the boss to consider when reading. I glance back up at the notes I’d made at the top. They’re different. I didn’t write those. I scribble them out and rewrite them, but they’re normal again. My hasty crosses are carved into correct annotations. I need to reprint the page. This is a disaster. This was so inefficient.
My computer springs to life at a touch, but the screen is so bright, so garish, like all of the hallogen strips above my head have been crammed into a single square. I squint through it at the machine, but my headache takes a fresh grip on my mind as I search for the right file. Damn poisoning sleepers. Damn them and their idiocy. Why do they have to ruin me? Why ruin someone just because they’re willing to work a modern amount? So they run out of their stupid, baseless arguments about how – and this one makes me laugh every time – how businesses that only hire people willing to work twelve or twenty four hour shifts without breaks are damaging their workers! We don’t get tired, what do we need a break for? Why should they hire people who simply don’t want to work as much? Hah! They blame the businesses, but in the end, it’s their choice not to! Who’s fault is unemployment rate really?
There, there’s the file. I send it to print and stand to collect the report from the copier down the hall. Cubicles stretch down the room, breaks at every ten for corridors, creating rows of productivity. I pass them, glancing in at each man and woman tirelessly working, with an occasional empty cubicle. It wasn’t like there wasn’t work available. People got lazy all the time, got fired for inefficiency, and opened up new opportunities for others. Opportunities come to anyone who takes whatever advantages they can get over their rivals. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, and sleeping dogs get eaten. The copier stops gargling at my arrival and begins spitting out the six pages of report I’d ruined. I fill a paper cup with water while I wait.
The water is running down my hand onto the carpet. There’s a puddle spreading, probing at my shoes, the only obstruction to its exploration across the floor. I blink. How did this happen? I don’t remember the water even reaching the top. I must have lost concentration. Goodness my head hurts.
“Is everything alright Mr Beecham?” I glance around to see my supervisor standing beside me, eyeing my accident like a primary school teacher. Her slim glasses give her the impression she’s always glaring, her eyes focussed into a beam of cold assessment. They slowly sink that focus to the puddle around the water cooler.
“Just, ah, getting a drink.” I hold it up to show her, and the overfilled cup splashes water across the space between us. Her laser beam eyes fix back on my cup, then on me.
“And you’ve decided to spread it across the floor, have you?”
“I got distracted by… the copier!” I snatch my report from the machine, and hold it triumphantly to her face, “It started making terrible noises, and I thought it was going to ruin the reports I was printing. Hah. So worried about the work, completely forgot my own drink!” I grimace through the pain in my head, a spade wedged into my forehead trying to lever out it’s contents. She stares at my report, before turning away.
“Times a-wasting, Mr Beecham.”
I hurry back towards my desk, gulp my water and feel the urge to take another of John’s pills. This is ridiculous, I tell myself. I’ve gone and got some illness, and now it’s wreaking havoc. My hands shake. I can’t think about a damn thing longer than a few seconds before my mind drifts away. But she’ll be watching now. She’ll be watching and the cameras will be watching and they’ll be waiting for me to slip up. I’ve got to work hard. There’s no excuse. A damn headache isn’t good enough!
I weave my way back to my cubicle, the grey plastic walls guiding me to my little haven of familiarity. The view across them is like a page of graph paper stretching across all around me, every box with a black, wheeled chair, a wood-effect plastic three drawer desk, company computer and small green plastic unrecognisable plant. Each desk contains one plastic pen, blue, printed with the company logo. A tiny yellow pad of post-its. A larger, white pad of lined A4 paper, and beneath that, a similarly sized pad of graph paper. What if each of the graph pads was really an office, kept within a drawer, with people working at each little square. Every drawer holds an office, within an office. Do all those offices have the same wood-effect plastic desk holding a pen, post-its, and two pads? Do the offices within offices secretly hide hundreds more offices within themselves?
I look to the floor, and for a moment I see the crisp white paper of a page beneath my feet and I catch my breath, horrified at my own discovery, the thought of how many layers of desk drawers I am trapped inside threatening to tear my head apart with a fresh wave of nausea. But no. Hang on a minute. This isn’t paper. This is the same carpet I’ve been standing, or sitting, on for hours. The same one I spilt water on, not minutes ago. I feel the nausea pass and see my cubicle up ahead, relief filling my entire being. I’ll take one of John’s pills and everything will be all right.
Everything is not all right.
There is a man in my black, wheeled chair. For a moment I think it’s John, come to reclaim his little pile of stolen pills, but no, John has dark, thinning hair and this man has wavy blond hair. I dismiss the idea that John has decided to wear a wig and step into my cubicle, my cubicle, and grab the man’s shoulder to ask him exactly what the hell he thinks he’s doing. He turns to stare at my hand, first, then me, with fear and confusion. I look into those brown eyes and think how he damn well should be scared, and then realise I said it. Well, may as well go with it.
“I said what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
He fumbles for a moment before pointing at the computer screen, which I know is mine because it’s just as bright, and nobody else’s computer is that bright. “I’m doing the reports on the production tests that just came in!”
He practically squeals it, like a pig, a little piggy in my cubicle. He must think I’m a supervisor, even though the only supervisor for this section is the very one who just caught me making a mess, and is clearly an entirely different gender to me.
“Don’t get smart with me!” I say, “I mean what’re you doing in my cubicle!”
His eyes go wider with confusion, “But this is my cubicle!”
It’s at this moment I notice that my pile of John’s pills are gone, and I realise I can’t get another dose to ward off my headache, which decides to assault my head again. My hand comes up to steady it.
“Where are my pills?”
“What?” He sounds panicked. Guilty.
“My fatiganol! The blue pills! They were on the desk! I needed them, and now you’ve taken them! You’ve come to my cubicle and taken my pills and now you’re refusing to leave and making us both very inefficient!”
I realise I’m shouting. I lower my voice, and catch my breath, but the damage has been done, and there’s a number of faces peeking over the tops of their own cubicles. The one next to mine has a woman in it, rather than John. I start to feel faint and confusion washes over me in waves. The man in my cubicle has started crying. Pathetic.
I’m in the middle section again, and the room is moving away from me. It’s sliding along, cubicles and watching people moving slowly away from me as if it’s all on a conveyor belt.
“Stop!” I cry out to them, “Come back!”
I wave my arms in panic, but they don’t move, and I look to my left to find that they’re being gripped by two large, meaty, muscled hands. I follow the hands with my eyes and see that they’re connected to the arms of a large security officer. It’s then I realise that the office isn’t moving away, I’m moving away. I check the other side and there’s another security guard there too. I begin to flail in protest, but it isn’t proving to be very helpful, so I try shouting at them. That doesn’t help either.
I’m not in the office. I’m outside, and my cheek hurts almost as much as my head. I briefly wonder if this building I’m standing against knows it has people walking down it. It’s not a very good building, it doesn’t have any windows and, when I move my head, there’s cars going down the –
This is a street. My perspective rights itself. I’m in the street. I’m lying in the street and people are stepping over me. I blink. This isn’t right. It can’t be right. There’s no way I can be in a street, I’m employed, I’m a productive member of society. I’m going to be employee of the month.
I push myself up onto my knees and watch those in suits, the employed, the important, I watch them step around me unseeing. Then I see one. A lazy, jobless, disgusting, unemployed, jobless, lazy person. They’re coming towards me. Oh god, don’t look at them, don’t look, don’t look.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I studiously ignore them. I try to walk away and realise I’m kneeling. I push myself up to my feet, but they’re helping me and I try to shake them off and I nearly fall again and I can barely think straight with the pain in my head. The doors. The glass doors to the office building are right behind me. My card will let me in and the lazy jobless fool will be thrown out. I dig into my pocket, and thrust my card out towards the reader. It flashes red. Technology can be so temperamental sometimes, so I press my card to it again. Red. Red. Red again. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s not working.
“Hey, it’s okay, look, let’s get you to a hospital, come on…”
I lash out before I really think about what I’m doing, but the world is so bright, the noise of cars so loud, so harsh to my ears, and I can’t concentrate on anything. It works, though, they step back. Good, stay away. I need to get inside. I need to. I realise I’m shouting it but I don’t care. When I’m inside everything will be fine. I just need to get inside. I just… I just need…