Surrounded by the long grass swaying in the breeze, the office seemed forever away. Helen could hear the gentle babbling of a stream somewhere nearby. Far up in the sky, a bird of prey hovered, looking for dinner. She felt the warmth of the golden sun on her face. She needed this.
This morning had been a busy one, with four hundred and seventeen emails landing in her inbox, most marked urgent and needing immediate action. As she had waded through them, another fifty three had arrived.
The way Helen saw it, every department had their turn in the fire and it was her turn now. Phaethon needed to give her a pay increase. The world needed to thank her for providing escape.
The launch of the stimplant under the name New Realities three months ago was the source of the stress. Helen had to attend a meeting about the progress this afternoon. All they needed to say was it was doing very well indeed, far better than they could keep up with. Unlike the headsets, what they offered was indistinguishable from reality. Who wouldn’t want to escape into perfectly created simulations? Especially given the sky situation.
Usually Helen ate a sandwich at her desk, but today she had decided to retreat to her garden. She needed it.
She stretched out her arms, feeling the warm earth beneath her fingers. A gentle breeze danced over her. Here, there was nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it.
Beside her left ear, fairly close, she heard a male voice scream ‘Oh shit a brick!’ She sat up with a start. She looked around the field. Nothing. She was alone, the only human for miles.
‘Wanker! You utter prick!’ came the voice again, breaking the silence.
Helen sighed. She crossed her arms in an X shape for ten seconds, then nodded. The field faded slowly, becoming transparent. Blades of grass vanished. The far hills were slowly replaced by grey walls. The warm light was replaced by a cold white panel above her. She shook her head. The last remnants of the meadow faded from view and she was fully back in the break room.
The dull grey walls were even more disheartening after spending time in her garden. No table. No window. Two plastic chairs.
On the other chair, a man sat. He had a badly receding hair line and a self satisfied smirk. His eyes were closed and he held imaginary guns in front of him, twisting and jerking as he tried to avoid invisible bullets.
Helen tapped him on the shoulder. No response. He pretended not to feel it, continuing with his stupid war stim. She shook his shoulder with more force, shaking him until he finally sighed. He crossed his arms in front of his face and held them for ten seconds. Eventually, his eyes flickered open and he focused on Helen.
‘Oh.’ he said, not even trying to hide his disappointment. Helen was stunned. He had not only invaded her time but he was now being a condescending prick.
‘I had this room booked off.’
‘I didn’t see it on the schedule,’ he lied.
‘You should check.’
The man looked at her and sighed.
‘This is the only time I have free,’ he said.
‘It was my time.’
‘Look,’ he said, speaking to her like she was a particularly stupid child ‘I have a very stressful job OK? I need to blow off steam.’
‘Do you mind,’ he said, only it wasn’t a question. He pushed a finger into the back of his skull, holding it there for a couple of seconds. With that, his eyes flickered closed and he drew up his imaginary guns again.
‘I do mind, actually! Do you?’ Helen said, but she knew the man was choosing not to listen. He probably had room noise turned right down. Blocking everything out and immersing himself in the other reality.
She should have argued with him more. She should have hit back at the stressful job comment, as if only men were busy. Clearly, he had got this far in life without being challenged. The cocky smile and tailored suit said that much. The way he looked at her like she was a receptionist or some inconvenient waitress come to take a drinks order was ridiculous. Of course, if she was a man, he would never have spoken to her like that. She should have told him that he owed everything he was doing to her.
All this flashed through Helen’s mind as she stood there, unsure of what to do. She gave up. Tiredness overtook the moral high ground. So she went back to work and tried to forget about it. Just another prick she had to deal with.
The next week passed in a blur of unanswered emails, missed meetings that had to be rescheduled, endless small tasks and very little focused work of the type Helen enjoyed. She spent long hours at the office trying to clear the backlog but it her todo list was infinite. The next Friday, Helen decided enough was enough. She booked the break room for a full hour. In the morning, she even printed off a sign to stick on the door.
‘Break room booked 1.30-2.30pm by Helen in New Realities. Please do not use!’
Lunch time rolled round. Helen went down the corridor to the break room. Her carefully worded sign was lying face down on the floor. Her heart sank. She pushed open the door and entered the small windowless room. Of course, he was there. Playing his stupid game.
Oh no, she thought as soon as she walked in. She screamed to herself, wanting to smash the stupid plastic chairs to pieces.
Helen lingered. She had booked this room and was going to use it. She shouted ‘Hey!’ in his ear. Clicked her fingers in front of his closed face. Nothing.
After what seemed like forever but was probably just a minute, she’d had enough. She jammed her small heel down onto the man’s right foot. That made him pay attention. He yelped like a wounded animal and immediately held the X shape in front of his face. As he came back to the room, he was furious.
‘What the hell?’
‘This room is booked.’ Helen said. She was furious but still trying to project an air of being calm and rational. Morally, she was in the right and she knew it. She stared at the man as if he was nothing. He didn’t seem to get the hint.
‘So what? I’ m here now. Deal with it.’
There was a long uncomfortable silence. Helen didn’t know what to say. How dare he.
At that moment, as she was simmering with rage, the first stirrings of a plan formed in her mind.
Helen tossed her hair back, smiled and laughed.
‘I guess so. I think we got off on the wrong foot- so to speak! I’m Helen.’
If he was confused by this sudden change of mood, he didn’t show it. Instead, he flashed a grin of white teeth and thrust his hand out.
‘Matt.’ His handshake was perfect, enough squeeze but not too tight. He was well practised.
‘I’m so sorry about your foot, it was a mistake. Clumsy me.’
‘I haven’t seen you around, are you new?’ Helen’s voice was light and breezy, the opposite to the rage that burned inside her.
‘No, I work in accounts, but their room is always busy.’
‘They must not be doing any work,’ Helen said with a laugh. She played with her hair and stared into Matt’s eyes, all the time thinking how much she hated this prick who had dared to encroach on her only break time. Matt from accounts. She repeated it in her head over and over. Matt from accounts. You don’t know who you’re messing with, she thought. I’m going to destroy you.
She spent about twenty minutes flirting and laughing with him, putting on a fake laugh she hadn’t used since university. She hated herself for it. At least it was for a good cause. Revenge.
Eventually, she made her excuses and strode back to her desk, a smile on her face.
‘Good break?’ Janice asked her.
‘The best.’ Helen replied.
That evening, she stayed late once again. No one said anything, they were used to her being the last one in the empty office. Even though Phaethon expected employees to work long hours, Helen was often the first in the office and the last at night. It’s not like there was any difference between night and day any more. For a long time they hadn’t figured it out, but the nanobots fed unlimited electricity into the grid. A shell of solar panels around the world. They were in the dark but at least they still had light.
She started by accessing the employee records, then filtered it to employees with the stimplant fitted. Technically, she shouldn’t still have access to this. It was a ‘breach of contract’ and if caught she could face ‘appropriate disciplinary action.’ She had needed access to the records during the accelerated testing phase of the stimplant, after the incident with the nanobots. Things had been so crazy in the last few months that no one had thought to revoke her access.
With practised skill, she searched for the accounts department, then searched for Matt. Two results, no employee pictures. The HR team had been slacking off. One of the Matts was twenty five, the other was thirty three. She thought back to the man in the break room. He was poised and confident. He had a few wrinkles around the eyes. Yes, playing video games was a younger thing to do, but he seemed older. He had constant stubble and his hairline was receding. She chose the one that was thirty three.
From there, it was just a case of getting admin access to his stim database. She dragged over a test file she had been playing around with for a bit. A failed experiment. Then she scheduled an update for next Friday, when he would be back in the break room. Around twelve pm ought to do it.
A friendly pop up appeared on the screen.: ‘Do you want to save your changes? Yes/ No.’ Helen’s finger hovered over the yes button. Sure, he was annoying, but was it worth this? Maybe she should go through the proper channels, make a complaint to HR. Wait for them to take action. Maybe in nine months she would have a consolidation meeting with him which would go on forever and nothing would be solved.
Well, you’ve come this far, she thought to herself and clicked Yes. It was done.
Next Friday, Helen couldn’t focus. Tasks poured into her inbox and she flicked between them like a hummingbird, never staying on one long enough to actually finish it.
Hours crawled by. Helen felt like a child on Christmas Eve, waiting to open her presents. She was dizzy with anticipation.
Finally, twelve pm came round. She have it a few more torturous minutes while she waited for the update to take effect, then said to Janice that she was off for a break. With a smile on her face, she practically skipped down the hallway to the break room. Outside, she took a deep breath, tried to erase her smirk. Bracing herself for what she might find, she pushed open the door.
There, in the small room, was Matt, wearing the same navy suit. He seemed unaffected by the update. He was sat there firing imaginary guns at imaginary aliens. There was no change. The programme was a dud.
Helen slowly left the room, feeling her heart sink. She had thought her program was fool proof. It was her way of reclaiming a little bit of peace in this world. Goodbye garden. Goodbye relaxation.
Just to have something to do, Helen went to the water cooler. She took a sip and tried to imagine the running stream. She could load up the program here in the office she guessed. Some of her colleagues accessed their stimplants at their desks. They sat for half an hour with eyes closed, not responding to anyone around them. But Helen felt her garden was too private for that. She needed space and time to unwind and if people were around it would ruin it. The break room was her only choice. Now it had been snatched away from her.
As she stood at the water cooler, plastic cup in hand, lamenting her misfortune, two paramedics ran past. Surely not…
Walking back to her desk, she asked her colleagues about the paramedics.
‘What was all that about?’
She didn’t have to ask. She could have just gone back to work and ignored the commotion around her. There was a nagging doubt in the back of her head.
Janice looked up from her screen.
‘Just got a message from Ian in accounts. Seems like some poor bastard has collapsed. His stimplant glitching or something. I don’t know.’
Helen just nodded.
There would be an investigation and she would have to avoid being discovered. It would be their job to hunt for errors. It was a new technology. There was bound to be bugs. Helen could wipe it before anyone realised.
The paramedics dragged him down the corridor on a trolley. A man in his early thirties, blond hair and an innocent face. He was writhing in strange rhythmic jerks of his arms and legs that repeated themselves over and over. He was stuck in the program Helen had designed. An endless supermarket.
Human error, Helen told herself. Could happen to anyone.