From: Niall Winchester <email@example.com>
Sent: 26 November 2039 09:00
To: Veronica Reeves <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: Incident #329 logs
Final logs attached as requested.
I can’t do it. I can’t stay awake. It’s impossible.
I’ve tried every night for four nights. I finish work, I go upstairs, I lock myself in my room and then…I don’t know. It’s all a blur. I wake up in bed the next morning and suddenly remember what I was supposed to have done.
I can’t stop the thoughts from whirling and whirling around in my head. It’s bleeding into work as well, this frustration. One of the office workers took a step back from me this morning – even though I was smiling, I swear she could feel the heat coming off me. The rage. The desperation to know more.
I keep looking out for the man with the note. I’ve actually been walking around the office, tidying areas that don’t need tidying, dusting skirting boards, cleaning light switches – anything to try and get a glimpse of him. I need more information. But I can’t find him anywhere.
I’ll do it tonight, though. I will stay awake.
I didn’t do it. AGAIN. I don’t even remember getting into bed last night.
I went upstairs, crossed the communal kitchen and then…then what? What happened? I don’t even know. Did I even walk upstairs? I can’t think. I can’t get my head straight.
It’s early morning and I haven’t started work yet. I can’t face it. I don’t want to go downstairs and pretend I care.
No. I have to focus. I need to finish this. In just over a month I’ll be able to retire. When I look back, this will all seem so stupid. I’m just going stir crazy in this building, that’s all.
I need to go outside. That’s what I need to do. That’s all that matters now. Tonight, the second the office workers leave the building, I’m going to bite the bullet and ask Karen how she got outside. Screw it. What do I have to lose?
Once work finished and the office closed for the night, all the pourers went upstairs together. By luck I was trailing a little way behind with Karen. Before she could get to the door, I grabbed her arm and pulled her down a few steps. I put my hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t scream, but she didn’t make a sound. She didn’t even look shocked. She just stared at me, almost sleepily as I held her up against the wall. I ushered her down a few more steps so the others couldn’t hear us.
“I need to go outside,” I said. She raised an eyebrow. Then I realised I still had my hand over her mouth. I took a step back.
“Why?” she asked.
“I just do. I need to go outside. For a walk. For air. Anything.”
“Go on then.”
“But my code doesn’t work. I can’t get out.”
She smiled. “The door doesn’t need a code.”
“We’re supposed to use the keypad to make the workers feel safe. Didn’t you listen in training? It’s one of those smart doors controlled at a terminal, and it automatically allows access to whoever’s permitted. I mean, the office workers are clever, I’m sure they know a smart door is just as secure as a locked one, but it’s all psychological. We need to keep them feeling safe. Everything we do is about them, after all.”
I took another step back and hit the wall behind me. Was she lying? I can’t remember anything about door codes in training.
“Well, I don’t have access then,” I said.
“Yes, you do.”
I waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. “I don’t. It didn’t open for me.”
“Or you didn’t want it to open. It’s a scary world out there, Larry.”
Her grin widened. I half expected her to start cackling like a movie villain.
“It’s like you’ve been programmed to be a goody-two-shoes,” she said, starting to make her way back upstairs. “It’s all in your head. If you want to go outside, go outside. No one’s stopping you.” I saw the smirk then, the one she’s given me before. The one that shows she knows more than I do.
As soon as she had closed the door, I went straight down to the kitchen. I even went against the rules and ran most of the way. Once I got there, I didn’t put the code in the keypad. I didn’t even push the door very hard; I just gently turned the handle.
The door opened easily. I pushed it open wide and looked out. It was dark, but I could just about make out the half mile or so of grass in front of me, then the thick clump of trees swaying in the breeze. The edges of the forest. I had looked up at those trees as I was driven to the office for the first time, thinking about the long walks I was going to take during my time off.
I slammed the door shut and went back upstairs. I walked straight past Karen and the others without so much as glancing at them. Once I had got to my room, I started writing. I did it so I wouldn’t forget. Because I can’t trust my memory anymore.
They could still be playing tricks on me. Did Karen secretly lock it before? Is she messing with my head? I don’t know. All I know is I need to sleep tonight. Screw what that note said. I just want to stop thinking.
There’s something wrong with Jerry.
What do I care? I don’t. I hate them all. Bullies, that’s what they are.
But he’s not quite with it. I can’t put my finger on it, but something hasn’t been quite right with him since he’s been back.
I don’t care.
Just over a month left. I’m so close now.
I gave someone a cappuccino today when they asked for a latte. I did it on purpose. I did it to see if they’d complain. But they didn’t say anything.
I want to know what the office workers do. I don’t know why, but I really want to know now. I asked my supervisor if the pourers get replaced on rotation every three months, and if the building has the same office workers all year round. I was hoping that might give me a clue, but he said he didn’t have time for my questions and walked away. He’s usually so nice to me, and now he’s being dismissive. Like the others.
It just makes me so angry. I work hard. I could be replaced tomorrow, and none of them would even ask after me. I could be dead. I could die right in front of them, and nothing. They wouldn’t even blink, just step over my corpse.
I hate them.
I’m doing it tonight. I woke up this morning and decided. I’ve figured out how to do it.
I have so much coffee in my pockets! I stole it. The stuff they have in the kitchen upstairs never seems to do anything, so I thought the office coffee might be a bit stronger. I have so much from the coffee machine – I’m going to have to try and make it in my room, maybe filter it through some fabric, but it’s fine. It’ll do.
It’s my turn to wash up after dinner. That’s when I’ll collect the hot water.
10pm. I’m so tired. This coffee isn’t doing anything. I keep jumping up and down, trying to stop myself from dozing. I won’t sit, not for a second.
12am. What am I expecting to happen? Don’t go to sleep. It might have been an actual threat, and all I’m doing is increasing my chances of being demoted.
It’s 3am. About half an hour ago I heard a noise coming from my bed.
It was a whirring sound, and it lasted about two minutes. I looked underneath the frame and underneath the mattress, but I couldn’t find anything.
I’m going mad. I must be.
It started again. That whirring sound. This time I realised it was coming from the top of my bed, near my pillow.
I threw myself onto the bed. As my pillow fell to the floor, I saw a small wire retracting into the wall, then a little cover flipped over it, covering the hole.
I’ve tried picking at that little plastic cover, knocking it, I’ve even kicked it with the heel of my shoe. I can’t open it.
Why the hell would a wire come out of there? What does it do? I’ve been thinking it could be a retractable needle that’s been filling me with some sort of drug, but I’ve felt the top of my head and there’s no scab from a needle prick, no pain or bruising. And why would they do that?
I don’t feel tired anymore. Just…I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like I’m fizzing. I don’t know what to do.
If anyone’s reading this, I expect to be demoted tomorrow. I won’t cause a scene. I just need to know.
Well, I wasn’t demoted. But I’ve just worked for the past 24 hours straight. There was an emergency and the office workers needed to stay all night.
I’m so tired. But I’m going to try and sleep the other way on my bed tonight. Or maybe even on the floor.
Tried pulling my mattress onto the floor last night but haven’t slept a wink. And I’ve just been told I have a fifteen-hour shift today…
Didn’t hear the wire.
Tried sleeping on the floor again. Couldn’t. Didn’t hear the wire either. Worked ten hours.
Fell asleep in the chair for a few minutes and then worked a normal shift. Didn’t hear the wire again.
Damn. Damn damn damn damn damn. I fell asleep in bed last night in the normal position. I slept for nine hours. I feel better than I have done in days. That wire must be doing something, maybe it’s emitting electronic frequencies? Is it screwing with my brain? I feel like I should talk to someone about it, but I don’t know who.
I’ve tried searching for the guy with the note as often as I can, but I’m so busy. I feel like he’s the only one who can give me answers, or the only one who’s willing to. Where the hell is he?
I know what I’ll do. I’ll leave him a note! In the boardroom they have a white board. I’ll put something there so he’ll know it’s me.
I don’t know what to put though.
I went downstairs last night before going to bed and wrote on the white board. I wrote, ‘Didn’t sleep.’ It was the vaguest thing I could think of that might make sense to him.
The other pourers know something’s up. They’ve been circling. They can smell it, the change in me. Even Jerry looks jumpy.
Maybe they’re in on it too. But why me? What do they all want from me?
Karen came to my room last night.
I tried to stop her but she rushed me, slamming the door shut behind her. I saw the others watching from the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“You’re making things difficult for everyone.”
“Again, I don’t know what you mean.”
She sat on my bed and crossed her arms. I thought she was going to pull the pillow off and reveal the wire, but she didn’t. I was about to mention it when she started talking again.
“There’s less than four weeks to go, and you decide to start malfunctioning now. Why? I won’t let you ruin this for the rest of us.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“Yes, you are.”
I moved slowly towards the door. “What are you going to do?”
“Me? Nothing. But they’ll demote you for sure.”
“What for? Anyway, they’d have done it by now if they were going to.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “You really don’t see it, do you? I’m trying to help you.”
I got angry then. “Will you stop being so cryptic? Just say what you mean or get out.”
She got up and slowly walked towards me, trapping me in the corner of the room. “What’s your real name?” she asked.
“I’m Larry, you don’t need to know my real name. That’s the rules.”
“Fine, don’t tell me your name, just think it. Think about your real name.”
Then she walked out. I was fuming at first, my fists clenched.
But then I realised.
I can’t remember my real name.
I paced all night. I kept peering under my pillow. Nothing has come out since that night.
Larry. Larry. Larry. Larry. Larry.
I worked ten hours today. When I came back, I noticed my pillow has shifted. Is someone looking for my log book? I’ve started keeping it with me. Because they’re circling and getting closer and closer, all the time. And I need to keep track of my thoughts.
Stick to the script.
After my shift last night, I didn’t go upstairs with the others. I stayed in the kitchen, opened the door and stared out for a few hours, trying to think. Lack of sleep is making everything foggy. Although it had frightened me before, staring into the dark felt peaceful then.
Perhaps it was the calmness that reminded me of the message I’d left on the whiteboard.
I went to the boardroom. I felt like I was floating all the way there, like my toes were skimming the floor.
But when I got there, the board had been wiped clean. And there was no reply. I was livid. Why did the man start this, only to leave me? Where was he? Why abandon me after only telling me half the truth?
I grabbed a chair and threw it at the whiteboard. It was only fastened to the wall by a small screw, so it fell immediately to the floor and cracked in half.
I went over to pick it up and saw the back of the board had been scribbled on in black marker.
Meet me outside. Friday night.
It’s Thursday today. I buried the whiteboard in one of the bins outside.
My mind needs to be clear for tonight, so I slept in my bed to get some proper rest. I even woke up a little late. My supervisor grabbed me and combed my hair back when he saw me. “You’re pushing it, Larry,” he had said. Karen scowled at me too. I just got on with my work.
I’m sitting outside the kitchen door. It’s 10pm and I finished my shift fifteen minutes ago. The dark is causing shapes to dance in front of my eyes.
Eleven. Nothing. Not a sound.
Midnight. I need to get up and start walking or I’ll fall asleep. I need to find him. Where will he be waiting? I wish he’d given more of a clue.
It’s so dark out here. I can barely see my own feet. The light from the log book is the only thing I have to guide me. I’m not going to walk too far from the office, I’m frightened of getting lost.
I found him.
He was waiting outside the entrance doors. He looked petrified.
“Let’s walk,” he said. “We need to keep moving in case they hear us.”
“They?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.
So we walked. And walked. And walked. And finally, he started talking.
“I take it you’ve figured it all out by now.”
He looked at me expectantly, so I lied. “Yes.”
“How are you feeling about it?”
“I’m…a bit worried.”
“Well, you’re taking it a lot better than some of the other pourers did.”
I nodded, searching his face for clues on what I was supposed to be reacting to.
There was silence for a long while. He kept glancing at me – I realised I should have been asking questions, so I said, “What now?”
“I told the others to sit tight. Getting you all out will be the easy part, but I don’t have the means to look after you all yet.” He stopped walking and turned to me. “I hope you know how sorry I am. For all of this. If I’d known even the tiniest detail of what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have taken the job. I didn’t know they were building something so…complex.”
“It’s okay,” I found myself saying.
“But it’s not, is it? Unless I come up with something really fucking smart in the next twenty-three days, they’re going to kill all of you. It might be enough time, but…”
I stopped listening then. The rush of fear made my knees buckle, and I dropped to the damp grass.
“I’m retiring in twenty-three days,” I said. I winced at how stupid it sounded.
He kneeled in front of me and grabbed me by the shoulders. He shook me. “Larry, listen to me. Be honest. Do you actually know what’s going on here? Because I can’t tell you. I don’t know what will happen if I tell you. Larry, are you listening to me? You do know what retiring means?”
Larry isn’t my name. But what is it? It sounds like Larry, I think. Why can’t I remember?
“You know something’s wrong, don’t you, Larry? I can see it in your face.”
“I can’t tell you, I wish I could. Try to think of your name. Your name before Larry.”
“I’ve tried, I can’t remember.”
“I’m all muddled. It’s the drugs they’ve given me to sleep, they…”
“The drugs that come out from my bed at night. I’ve seen the wire.”
He looked really sorry for me then. I clenched my teeth and looked to the ground to stop myself from screaming at him.
“That’s not drugs, Larry.”
“So what is it then? Just tell me! What is it?”
He paused, trying to think of the right words. “Have you slept properly anywhere that wasn’t in your bed?”
“No. I assumed the wire gave me sleeping drugs or something.”
“Come on, Larry, think.”
He waited, but soon became impatient. He stood up and start looking around for invisible enemies.
“Why can’t you just tell me?” I pleaded.
“Because I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how you’re programmed.”
It’s like you’ve been programmed to be a goody-two-shoes.
And then, as if something had taken over my body, I felt my right arm rise up. My hand landed on the back of my head. My fingers parted my hair, and then the nails pressed down onto something cold and plastic. The cover clicked in, then flicked open.
I closed my eyes. My stomach felt hollow. I pressed my fingertips down and felt the two small holes. I opened my eyes again.
The man was looking at me. He leant forward and gently pulled my arm down.
“Three two nine,” he said.
And then I ran.
I ran all the way back to the kitchen door, all the way up the stairs and into my bedroom. I slammed the door, heaved my bedside table in front of it and sat down.
There was a light knocking from the other side.
“Go away, Karen.”
And she did. And I started writing down everything that happened. I can’t forget, not again.
It’s three o’clock in the morning. I heard the whirring a few minutes ago, so I went over to my pillow. Resting on top of it was the wire, with two small metal rods at the end. It was feeling around, searching for me.
I pulled it out of the wall.
I didn’t go down to work today. They knocked for me earlier, but I’m still sitting in front of the locked door. They can’t come in.
I need to think.
My supervisor knocked on my door about two minutes ago. I ignored him.
Jerry’s outside. I can hear his loud breathing.
I heard him slide down the door, and I think he’s sitting on the opposite side to me. We’re back to back. He isn’t saying anything yet.
So, we spoke a few minutes ago.
“Larry? It’s me, Jerry.”
“Can we talk?”
I thought he actually did go away because he was silent for so long.
I said nothing.
“You know what we are, don’t you?”
I looked down at my hands. I moved them. They looked normal. I put my fingers next to my ears and wiggled them. But I couldn’t hear them working. I thought I would be able to hear them working.
What I want to know is why.
“I don’t know, Larry. I don’t think they even know why. Because they can, I suppose.”
I hadn’t realised I’d said anything aloud.
He sighed. “But the others told me this isn’t the first time. We’ve been here before, in one form or other. This is the sixth simulation, Karen said. The office workers thought it had gone well this time, except…”
“I ruined it.”
“No, you didn’t ruin it. The five pourers that left first – they ruined it. The office workers only allow for an 80% failure rate – I don’t know why they let this simulation continue. I think they were trying to be resourceful, because they tried to fix me. But that didn’t work, and now the other pourers remember, and it won’t be long before the office workers find out. They might do a seventh simulation with us, if they don’t retire us all and start from scratch.”
“They’re going to retire me. They told me.”
“You must be one of the original lot, then. But I have a plan. I think I know how we can all escape – and stay alive. Do you want to hear it?”
I didn’t say anything. I just let him talk through his plan. He thinks we should leave in the middle of the night and torch the place. We would then head to the woods. The office workers would think we’d try and get into the city, because that’s where the power is. There’s nothing in the woods for us, it would be suicide. But Jerry had figured out a way to get us energy. He started explaining how to do it in detail.
But I used the trick, the one I was taught in training. To block him out. I have no idea how I would survive in the woods. But I do know he, Jerry, is planning to escape tonight with all the others pourers. At two in the morning. They’re heading east of the building, will go straight for a couple of clicks, then head south towards the river. That’s where the source of their power is. But, like I said, I don’t know anything else.
That’s where you’ll find them. You, whoever’s reading this, you need to alert your superior.
Obviously I’m not going, so you don’t need to retire me. Don’t you see? I’m a success. I know everything, but I’ve chosen you. I’ve chosen to carry on working.
It’s quarter to two now. I hear them calling me. They’re bashing against the door. Karen is losing her temper, saying they have to go. Now. They’re about to start the fire.
I’m going to bed. I’m going to sleep. I’m going to wait for you.
Tomorrow is Saturday. I’ll clear up any mess they’ve made. I hope you catch them.
Thank you for letting me work for you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
From: Veronica Reeves <email@example.com>
Sent: 26 November 2039 09:32
To: Niall Winchester <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: Incident #329 logs
Thank you for sending the final logs over.
All devices have been deactivated. It was great working with you.
If you enjoyed Empty Worth, check out my novel These Unnatural Men, available in paperback and Kindle.