Last Day At Work
Tech Support — Station One
This is an emergency meeting. There’s only one item on the agenda, and the item is you.
You sit and watch as people file into the boardroom. You don’t know any of them, except for Bob, your supervisor, who’s seated opposite you across the round table. Ghostly pale, sweating from his every pore, Bob looks like he might throw up.
You scan the room and realise Bob’s anxiety is the predominant mood among the dozen attendees, and admittedly you’re not feeling great either — this meeting can only bring bad news. For a start, it’s a meeting, and you hate meetings. You beat nearly two million applicants for your job, and one of its driving incentives — for you, in any case — was the absence of meetings. Four years into your five-year contract, this is only your second face-to-face ordeal. The first was the introductory meet-the-team session: you and Bob, over in five minutes.
The second reason why this meeting doesn’t bode well: it’s three in the morning. Good news is rarely broken at this hour.
And there’s the snappy agenda. Most people would’ve hit full-blown panic by now, but you have an innate ability to keep strenuous emotions at bay — a perk of being a bit lazy, or, as you put it in your job application, of possessing a ‘calm, level-headed disposition.’
Everyone’s seated now, but still nobody speaks. And while it might be the middle of the night, no one seems the faintest bit tired. Everyone’s wide-eyed and jacked up on… fear? That’s it. Everyone’s shitting themselves. You stifle a yawn.
Next to Bob, a bald man in a beige turtleneck gulps, loud enough to catch everyone’s attention. He checks his watch and opens his mouth, when a sliding door cuts in with a sharp intake of breath and a young brunette in a power skirt storms in.
Miss Zoehler-Musk? In a room with you? With Bob?
She takes the last remaining chair, on the other side of Bob, closing this awful, silent circle. Those closest to her shrink in their seat, especially Bob. No one dares meet her gaze — except for you: you’re star-struck.
You’ve never been in the presence of someone famous before, and she radiates confidence on an unparalleled level, as if blessed with a whole extra dimension. Or maybe she just saps dimensions from others — presently you feel two dimensional at best. She’s taller and more imposing sitting at the table than standing up; the boardroom is her environment, the one she was precision-engineered to rule. Jaw clenched, hair pulled back in a bun so tight it gives her a face-lift, her head is like a balloon about to pop. Her cheekbones could pop a balloon. And punctuating the most severe expression you’ve ever witnessed on a human being is the inky darkness of her eyes, two black holes sucking up light into their all-crushing void. And those eyes, as it happens, are staring right back at you.
The bald man gulps again. He clears his throat for added emphasis. His lips part.
“Why didn’t you notify us?”
This is Miss Zoehler-Musk.
You squint, as if peering through fog. It’s your turn to gulp.
Gulps sweep around the table. Miss Zoehler-Musk turns to the ever-shrivelling Bob.
“The log was generated an hour ago,” Bob says. “That’s — that’s the first we knew of it.”
Her head swivels back to you.
“I was in bed,” you say. “The fire alarm woke me.”
“We set if off,” Bob adds, “because you weren’t answering our calls.”
“Well I’m not sleeping great at the moment, so I had a herbal infus — ”
The wall behind Miss Zoehler-Musk flickers and in an instant she’s backed by a dense grid of figures.
Now, really, there’s not much wrong with the log. To the untrained eye, the log might appear just fine. But your eye is perfectly trained, as is every other eye in the room. You throw it the briefest of glances. Blood drains from your face. You’ve spotted the figure, the one higher than it should be.
Miss Zoehler-Musk doesn’t turn to look. Her withering gaze stays fixed on you.
“It’s your job to monitor the magnetic field, is it not?”
“Well, I mean — I just monitor the equipment which monitors the — ”
Bob shakes his head. You catch yourself.
“Yes. It’s my job.”
“I… no — I don’t know.”
“But you know what it means, right? You know everything relies on the stability of the magnetic field?”
“Yes. Of course. Maybe it’s just a glitch?” you offer. “If the next log shows — ”
“Please! If this log’s correct, the next one won’t be of much use now will it.”
“And why not? Do say.”
Your head droops in shame. You stare into the table’s shiny surface.
“Because you’ll all be dead, miss.”
This eases the tension somewhat. Everyone’s relieved it fell upon you to speak the dreaded words.
Bob squirms. His chair squeaks. He peeps:
“Reset the sensors and trigger new data outputs. From both stations. We can’t reach Keith or get remote access, so you need to get over there as quick as you can.”
“Sure. In the morning I’ll drive to — ”
“RIGHT NOW,” Miss Zoehler-Musk erupts. “Fucking Christ. Get back to us before the fucking morning!”
“Right now. Yes, miss Zo — ”
She stabs a manicured nail onto the table’s central touchscreen, and she vanishes. Everyone vanishes. The boardroom vanishes, and you’re left sitting alone at your kitchen table, in your flannel pyjamas.
You reach up to remove your BUBL. You place the wrap-around VR glasses on the table. You pick some lint from your sleeve and roll it between your fingers.
Your ears hum. A vein throbs in your temple, competing for attention with your twitching eyelid.
Being admonished — by Miss Zoehler-Musk of all people — isn’t how you hoped your first proper interaction in years would play out.
You get to your feet, but what you need right now, more than anything, is a sit-down, so you slump back into your chair. You’ll get going in just a minute, if your head stops spinning.
You feel drained, hollowed, not just from the meeting but also from lack of sleep — truth is, you were up late watching episodes of Friends. The show’s VR conversion is top notch, and the ‘Through The Eyes Of’ feature is superbly implemented. You usually pick Joey’s point of view, but a few months ago you started to alternate between Ross and Rachel to get a better sense of their complicated romance.
Across the room, SPI-CLEAN, your automated cleaning robot, is doing its thing. You stare, repulsed, as it begins to scale the wall. Did it really need eight legs and a bulbous abdomen? Its two frontal appendages are vacuum nozzles, the back six are wheeled polishers/suction pads. On the floor, SPI-CLEAN glides, nice and smooth, but on walls, or when climbing obstacles, it scuttles like the 20-inch titanium spider that it is. Truly it’s a marvel of engineering, but it terrifies you, even though you’ve shared your dwellings with it since day one. Plus, it seems to know you’re a committed arachnophobe: yesterday morning you woke up with it crawling on the ceiling of your sleeping alcove, right above your face, and you shrieked, just like the other hundred times it happened. At least once a week you jump out of your skin when you enter the toilet and find it squatting over the bowl, emptying its dust compartment. The only reason you haven’t demolished it with a metal rod is because it really does keep the place clean. It does a terrific job — you don’t have to lift a finger. With a shudder, you look away.
Your stomach rumbles. This excursion could take a while — you should eat something first. But all you’ve got left is your lifetime supply of GRUEL. You‘ve been living on three shakes a day for a while now. The last long-life sandwich is but a distant memory. As discussed with Bob in your appraisal, your main objective for the coming year is an improvement in your rationing. Thank God, then, that the annual delivery of supplies is coming first thing tomorrow — the unmanned shuttle is already on its way.
Food can wait. You grab your BUBL and enter the airlock.
You perform the usual safety checks and wrestle into your suit. It feels softer and more comfortable than usual, and you realise you forgot to change out of your pyjamas. The life-support systems boot up. You put on your BUBL, click your helmet into place, open the hatch and step out onto the barren surface of Phobos.
Above, Mars looms, filling up a good quarter of the sky. The planet’s main biospheres — tiny pockets of vibrant green — stand out against the copper-red vastness.
They look nice, those biospheres. Imagine calling them home... You spend a lot of time thinking about the charmed life of the 0.001%. You used to think they were lucky, but maybe you’re the lucky one. Considering your near-total lack of anything of value — money, brains, gumption— to contribute towards the advancement of civilisation, it’s a minor miracle you’ve come even in gazing distance of this fortunate lot. For sure, you struck gold when you got the job. If all goes well, your contract will roll on for another five years and you’ll retire on Mars. You haven’t been there yet. Training took place during the trip from Earth, and as the recruitment company explained, it was cheaper, fuel-wise, to drop you off on Phobos first.
You walk down a gangway, to your vehicle parked at the end. The jetpack on your suit keeps you anchored to the ground with a gentle downwards push; here, gravity is so weak that you weigh the equivalent of 2.5 ounces on Earth. A small jump could send you thousands of feet into space. You happen to know this first-hand; one day you were bouncing around outside, doing those satisfying, slow-motion jumps over mounds of rocks, when your jetpack sputtered out and died on you in mid-air — the battery was flat but a buggy software update had frozen the indicator (Bob was very apologetic). For the longest ten minutes of your life, you floated off into the humbling infinity of the cosmos, flapping your arms and howling into your helmet. Half a mile up, just as you were coming to terms with your untimely demise, Phobos kindly pulled you back to its surface. It was quite a rush, although you had to change your pants and deep-clean your suit afterwards.
Sensing your approach, the vehicle’s door opens. You climb in, buckle up, and give your instructions: “Go to Station Two. Quickest route.”
The vehicle sets off. You sit back and tell your BUBL to load up Friends. You should probably be doing something else — run some scans, try to reach Keith — but after last night’s season 2 finale, you’re eager to delve into season 3, where the show really comes into its own.
As your BUBL transports you to your favourite place — mid-90s New York, Monica’s apartment — your vehicle transports you across Phobos’ bumpy terrain, tracing a trench through deep deposits of moon dust. The surroundings are far from inspiring, but it could be worse. At least you didn’t get posted to Deimos; thousands of miles further, only one station there, and one schmuck of an engineer. What a loser! Phobos isn’t much to look at, but Deimos — now that’s a dump.
The vehicle ploughs on. Joey and Janice are having a hard time getting along, when a call comes through on the suit’s comms. It’s Bob. You switch your BUBL to Glass Mode before answering.
Bob is frantic. Miss Zoehler-Musk is nowhere to be found. He’s convinced the old rumours about a secret bunker for the elite’s elite were true after all. In any case, Bob and his team are losing their minds because they’ve uncovered evidence of hacking on all monitoring towers and satellites, and the new readings are nothing short of apocalyptic. If they’re to be believed, only hours remain before the magnetic fluctuations reach tipping point— the consequent chain reaction has been explained to you many times before, of course. It’s complex stuff, way above your pay grade, but you get the gist of it: it ends with radiation. Lots of radiation. Bob’s on the verge of tears now as he rambles on about his family and the imminent extinction of all lifeforms. You drift off. Clearly he’s overreacting. It’s got to be a glitch. You switch your BUBL back to VR Mode, and as Bob weeps you watch Friends on mute. There’s no doubt, Janice is incredibly annoying, but you feel for her. Breaking into such a close-knit group? She never stood a chance.
Things aren’t what they used to be. Supposedly you’re a Tech Support Engineer, but really you’re just a caretaker. Decades ago, long before you arrived, Phobos was a hive of scientific experiment. Jobs here were the preserve of the best and brightest of cosmonauts. Now, it’s just you and Keith, plucked from the desperate masses on Earth to watch over a bunch of automated systems — because no one on Mars will do it. And really, anyone could do it. You’ve barely had to carry out any repairs — so far your most challenging bit of maintenance was unblocking the sink after pouring down some GRUEL. You hadn’t mixed it right, and it clogged the pipes like wet cement.
Station Two used to be manned by Ivan. You and Ivan had a great working relationship: you stayed out of each other’s way. It had got off to a rocky start when he’d dropped by to your station unannounced to welcome you to Phobos, but after you’d shared some tea and an awkward silence, he left and you never saw him again. Two years ago, a message from Bob informed you that Ivan had retired and been replaced by Keith. Your working relationship with Keith has been even better: you’ve never met. Not even so much as exchanged a message. Two modern recluses respecting each other’s boundaries — as it should be. Jobs like yours don’t exactly attract the gregarious types, and you certainly didn’t come here to be a social butterfly.
“Approaching Station Two,” your vehicle announces, and you lower your BUBL to the sight of Station Two poking out in the distance, its cluster of geodesic domes silhouetted under the stars.
You remove your suit in the airlock. The door to the living quarters slides open, and as you step forward, you notice two things.
First: this station is much, much nicer than yours. It’s bathed in a sort of soft focus and a downy half-light diffused by small lamps glowing around the room. Your eyes, accustomed to the strip-lit, morgue-chic of your station, take a moment to adjust, to unsharpen. Then you start to see the sheer amount of stuff that’s been crammed inside. It’s not messy or cluttered — far from it. The decor would be best described as reverse-minimalism, off-trend and laughably obsolete, but the careful choice and placement of objects coalesce into something quite extraordinary. The walls are lined with shelves — holding actual books. A plump sofa is hosting an orgy of cushions. An ancient, chunky laptop, the kind they don’t make anymore, rests open on a wood-effect coffee table. A turntable spins. Floor-standing speakers murmur what you guess is either jazz or classical music; the music’s low frequencies burrow into the pit of your gut, and the faint crackle of the vinyl makes your skin tingle. Hearing music like this — not conducted through the bones of your upper jaw by the arms of your BUBL, but rich and full and present in the room — is a disconcerting experience.
Your station is just a station. You never made any changes. You came with hardly any possessions. Your BUBL covers all your needs.
But here, it’s not just a station. It’s a home. Just like in Friends. Like virtual reality, but for real.
You stand a moment longer, frozen in the doorway, transfixed by this alien yet oddly familiar environment.
You look at Keith, who’s watching you from the kitchen.
You notice the second thing.
Keith is a woman.
And she looks like this: short, stout, an explosion of red hair, owlish eyes magnified by inch-thick glasses, sandals, calves like hams and knee-length dungarees hooked over sloping shoulders rampant with freckles.
She is, quite simply, the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.
“Coming in or what,” Keith says.
You snap out of it and enter, not so much walking through than floating in — you feel extremely light for some reason — either a side effect of love at first sight, or she’s been tampering with her gravity generator.
“Keith,” you say.
“Yeah. Expecting someone else?”
“No, it’s just — unusual name, no? For a woman.”
“Not where I’m from. Short for Keithette.”
You nod, as if you had any idea where she might be from.
“Nice pyjamas,” she says. “I’m making tea. Is it prescription?”
“Your BUBL — is it prescription glass?”
“Oh — no.”
“You can take it off, then. No need for it here.” With a frown, she adds, “You’re not a BUBL-head, are you?”
“God, no — I mean, I use it now and again. It’s not like there’s much else to do around here.”
You laugh nervously. Clearly she’s found loads to do around here. As she pours out two cups of tea, you remove your BUBL just before the big moment — you’d left the audio playing, and Ross was sitting in bed, humming the Star Wars theme, waiting for Rachel to make her entrance and fulfil your special fantasy. You fold your BUBL and stash it away in your pyjama’s breast pocket.
“Take a seat,” Keith says.
The sofa swallows you whole. Keith hands you a cup and pushes the laptop aside to perch on the coffee table. Something cold and hard slips between your legs and rubs against them. You tense up, fearing the worst. Yes — it’s her cleaning robot. But this one’s shaped like a cat.
“I programmed it to do that,” she says.
You relax. Steam drifts from the cup as it warms your hands. You bring it to your lips but, thinking it’s probably too hot, you bring it back down, and you remember why you came.
“Oh — did you speak to Bob? Did he get through to you? There’s something going on up there.”
“Shame about Bob,” she sighs. “He seemed like a decent chap.”
She sips her tea.
“Wait — ” you say, “so it’s really happening?”
“It won’t last long. I’ve made some projections. The data’s clear. After the worst of it, it’ll be like a fresh start — a clean slate. The field will re-stabilise. Should be back to normal by tomorrow. Unlucky for them, really —it’s a once in a millennia event.”
“But Bob says it’s all been hacked — the logs, the instruments — to stop them from knowing until it was too late.”
“This station, it was the first to register anomalies,” she says.
You throw a glance at the laptop’s screen: a stream of computer code. You look into your cup. The tea is a burnt orange shade— strong but milky. You ran out of powdered milk ages ago.
“The funny thing is,” she continues, “because no one could possibly want to compromise those readings, the network was left wide open. Completely unprotected. The whole thing, I mean — so precarious. Like a house of cards.”
You take a careful sip and find the tea colder than you expected.
In your pocket, your BUBL beeps: the alarm you’d set to wake you before the shuttle’s arrival. There’s still time — it’s due to land here first with Keith’s supplies before flying to your station. You give Keith an awkward smile as you fumble to silence the alarm.
“You want to go to Mars?” she asks.
“Yeah, of course.”
“They don’t just let anybody in, you know.”
“But — it’s in the contract. Ivan’s there now. It’s in the contract.”
“I don’t know where they sent Ivan, but he’s definitely not on Mars.”
You stay silent and finish your tea. The music plays for a while then fades out and slips into a soft, scraping rhythm as the record reaches its end, trapping the needle in an endless loop.
“Staying here for a bit? The shuttle will be here soon.”
“I think — I think I’ll head back,” you say, extricating yourself from the sofa.
Keith’s unblinking eyes follow your cup to the coffee table as you place it by her side.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that, last year, I let the shuttle unload by itself, and it damaged the loading bay. And some of the crates. This time I need to be there.”
“Right,” says Keith.
A moment passes, then she gets to her feet and takes the empty cups to the kitchen. “You best get going then.”
“Yeah. I’ll come back later?”
“Sure, you do that,” she says, facing the sink.
You haven’t been entirely honest. The reason you want to oversee the delivery is because you ordered a new BUBL. And boy, are you excited. This next-generation model supports PERFECT RES — resolution so high it’s indistinguishable from reality. Tech reviewers are calling it the single biggest leap in technology since last year’s model. That’s the one you’ve got, and it pales in comparison: it only supports TOTAL RES. High time for an upgrade.
The vehicle trundles along, winding between craters. Rachel opens her robe to reveal her gold bikini. Her side buns look fantastic. But Chandler has ruined it — all you can picture is your own mother dressed as Princess Leia.
Back in Station One, you sit at the porthole and adjust your BUBL to 50% opacity; the VR Mode becomes see-through, allowing you to watch Friends while keeping an eye outside. As Ross tries to get everyone dressed and ready for the banquet at the museum, the shuttle rises over the horizon. You expect it to curve back down and head towards your station, but it doesn’t curve back down. It keeps going up. Towards Mars.
How could it? Has its course been altered? No — that would be impossible without manual control. And what about your supplies? You send a message to Keith, to ask if they’ve been dropped off at her station. You wait for her reply.
At this stage, you wouldn’t put money on Monica and Chandler becoming a couple. It doesn’t seem like she’ll ever get over her breakup with Richard, and Chandler, on the face of it, isn’t her type. But their friendship will turn out to form the solid foundation of a true and enduring love. Right about now, people on Mars must be having a rough time, and you feel a fleeting sadness for Joey and Phoebe, who will never get to pair up like the others. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
You want to call Bob, but Bob is dead, and Phoebe’s dress is covered in hummus. This is quite a setback. Well — from now on that’s just how it is: you don’t have a supervisor. Or a job, come to think of it.
You make yourself a pint of GRUEL and sit at the kitchen table. SPI-CLEAN curls up on its charging mat. Joey bursts in wearing all of Chandler’s clothes. Tech reviewers say TOTAL RES isn’t as sharp as reality, but, to be honest, it’s close enough that you can’t tell the difference.