Neil Watts stared at his computer screen. Another job, another report to write. Company policy. Except this time, his partner wouldn’t be there to help. She’d already gone home. She deserved it, of course. Always a hard worker. Not like himself. He checked the clock. 12:16 A.M. Wait, no, that said 1:16. Neil sighed and cleaned his glasses with his coat corner. I really need more coffee for this, he thought. And a higher lens prescription, seems like.
It was particularly cold in the Sigcorp building that night. The fluorescent lights above him flickered as the PC fan whirred. The robust smell of coffee, the low hum of electricity, the absence of noise in the offices... Neil had always preferred working like this. His fingers tapped lazily on the keyboard. Company policy was to deliver a concise report, of at least 700 words. Concise, my ass. Eva always told him to strive for “at least 1000.” Well, Eva’s not here. I’m gonna go for my favorite. 500 words it is. He paused. Eva... He thought of their last conversation. Eva’s words echoed through his head.
“Just go home, Neil. We can finish it together tomorrow. You and I both know it’s going to be a hell of a report.” Eva leaned on his desk, staring him down from above his monitor. She’d already picked up her belongings from her office, her sling bag around her shoulder and her keys resting on the table. She tapped her fingers on it while waiting impatiently. “C’mon, I’ll even drive you to your apartment while I’m at it.”
“No can do, Eves. Company policy and all.” He took a sip from his mug. “Besides, I’ve got all the help I need. Just me, my caffeine, and I.” He grinned a little too wide. And the ever-present painkillers in my pocket.
“Since when have you ever been one for company policy?”
“Since right now.”
“You’re not even working on it, are you.”
Neil closed the open GoGoAnime tab. “Definitely am.”
She sighed. “Well, don’t let me stop you.” She picked up her car keys from the desk and made her way to the door. “Just make sure to check the time every now and then. I still want you to get home before morning, y’know.”
“And take stretch breaks when you need them.”
“Won’t be needing them, but okay.”
“Write at least 300 words while you’re at it.”
“And for corn cob’s sake, drink some water instead of that gross—“
“Ooo-kay, that’s enough talk from you.” Neil got up from his chair and gently nudged Eva toward the door. “Out you go! Out, I say!” He declared with a smirk. That earned him a well-deserved eye-roll.
“Right, right, I’m going,” she said, stepping out awkwardly and turning around to close the door. But she hesitated.
“Just... call me if you need anything, Neil,” Eva muttered under her breath. “I’m worried about you.”
“What was that?” He feigned.
“I... I said—“
The door shut too quickly, and the digital and physical locks followed soon after. Beep. Click. Neil stared at them. Curious little things. Separating himself and the outside world. Himself and other people. Himself and... A familiar pressure built in his forehead. His breathing quickened. Shit. Here it comes.
Why did he always do this to himself? Why did he push people away when he needed them the most? Why push away his partner, of all people? Why? What’s wrong with me? What am I trying to prove?
Neil swallowed down the fears with a painkiller. Ah... That’s right. I’m trying to prove... that I don’t need anyone... It was routine at this point. No reason to question it. Soon enough, he didn’t think about it anymore. He listened to Eva’s faint footsteps trail away. He heard the elevator door ring. He went back to his desk and opened a new document. It was 10:47 P.M.
A pair of reflective glasses mirrored the report document on the screen. 204 words down, 296 to go. Neil yawned and propped his head up with his hand. Instinctively, he reached for his coffee mug. Empty. Damn. And it was still only 1:32 A.M. Ah, wrong again. 2:32. He sighed and got up. Stretched briefly for Eva’s sake. Rubbed his tired eyes. Looks like it’s time for some more caffeine.
He slowly walked to his cabinet and pushed aside some books on the shelf. How to Code for Dummies, a copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes, Machiavelli’s The Prince... What boring reads. Behind them lay the real treasure, the most important part of his job, his pride and joy: his hidden automated coffee maker. Neil rummaged through his coat pockets for a bit before pulling out a medium roast coffee pod. He placed his mug under the dispenser, and put the pod into the holder. Click. As he listened to the sound of coffee brewing, he took out a copy of Plato’s Republic from the shelf and opened it. The pages were cut into, making a hollow interior. Inside lay a small plastic tupperware of sugar, a spoon, and a jar of creamer. When he heard the maker hiss and stop, he dashed in some creamer and mixed in two spoonfuls of sugar. Despite his need for the caffeine and his love of the smell, he detested the bitter taste of coffee. But before he could take a sip, Neil glanced at the other object of notice, sitting behind the shelf. His tampered Sigmund machine stared back at him.
It was illegal, of course. A number of things he did were illegal, like running a VPN for pirating software assets, storing personal flash drives of the company’s memory data, and keeping a coffee maker in his office. But this was different. And besides, was it really illegal if he was a technician? It was his job to mess with machines, right? Twenty-nine times he’d tried to use it. Well, technically thirty, but the last one had caused a power outage, so he didn’t count it. And every single time, he failed.
The goal was... Neil himself didn’t even know what the goal was. But he always knew of his terminal condition. In the beginning, he’d applied for a job as a technician at Sigmund because he knew what they did. Granted wishes, changed memories, made people happy. It was the second part that really stood out to him. To change someone’s memories, at the very end of their life... what kind of crazy technology would that require? Neil decided he would be the one to find out. He also decided that he’d be the first to make it into a fully automated process: no memory traversal, no outside inference... and use himself as the first test subject.
The first step was to remove the stabilizer. Doing so would allow for a higher, faster performance rate, at the cost of possible external takeover. It would also negate the machine’s ability to draw from public domains and rewrite any illogical inconsistencies. The result would be a world steeped in fantasy, created from pure imagination. A factory to manufacture impostors, to pretend their own versions of their lives in fictional memory. This first step took years to accomplish on its own. There were legal hoops to jump through, namely the request of a spare company machine, as well as the request of the original blueprints. Despite his certified Sigmund technician badge, Neil barely passed under the scrutiny. Not to mention with all the jobs assigned to he and his partner, he scarcely had time to work on his machine. This led to the countless nights spent “overtime,” or “just finishing up some papers.” Eventually, Eva accepted it, though she never knew what he was really doing. More times than not, she would clock in the next morning to find him passed out on his desk, his monitor in sleep mode and a cup of coffee that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. But she would always write it off with a quick “nevermind.” And so the days passed.
Neil would work out the bugs that popped up in each patch of his software, and he would try again, and he would fail again. But he was missing something. His interface was almost perfected and several “special features” had been implemented, but he still needed the motor behind it all, the thing that would make it all work. He needed an automated software to run the memory traversal sequence. And without the subjective input of a human being to critically analyze those memories... well, that was nearly impossible.
That is, until Faye arrived.
Faye had changed everything. After Neil managed to convert her data in the machine into an AI process... well, he was practically done. She was connected via neurotransmitter to the machine’s processor, so the next step would be to test it, once and for all. Faye now held the ability to alter someone’s entire reality in the blink of an eye. To write an entire history, without the interference or restrictions of real life. Without the hindrances of, say, a terminal illness. Maybe he could really help people this way. He could give them new lives, new identites as impostors of themselves. An over indulgence of fantasy.
Neil adjusted his glasses. Of course, this would never fly with the company. The ethical implications were astounding. To let a computer determine the final moments of a dying person was surely unthinkable. But not for Neil. For Neil, it may as well be his last resort. He coughed. The cough turned into a fit. When he finally calmed down, he looked back at his machine. My last resort, huh.. Not like I had much going for me in reality, anyways. What’s the point if it’s all going to end? Why not make the most of it?
No matter how hard he worked to keep the thoughts at bay, they always found some way to seep back in. Always when he would least expect it. His mind would never let him rest. Neil dropped back down in his seat, taking out the painkillers. Three disappeared into his gloved hand, then slipped down his throat with some coffee. The taste wasn’t exactly pleasant, but he stomached it.
Why bother staying here, when we could live our dreams in a machine? It’s the perfect solution, but... Neil looked at his phone. It was then he’d noticed he had seven missed calls. What would Eva think? He stared in silence. What would she think? She definitely didn’t know about his illness, or his secret project. Would she support him? Rat him out? Give him a “nevermind” and forget about it?
...She would hate me, wouldn’t she? The words were bitter. Acidic. Neil flinched just thinking about it. He looked out the window instead. It was one perk of his office room; a whole wall of floor to ceiling windows. The stars were just barely visible amid the city light pollution. They were one of the only things he remained in this reality for.
“Ah... I’ve only written 250 words,” Neil mumbled, sinking onto his desk, his eyes fixed on the stars. “Sorry, Eves...”
A bottle of pills fell to the floor with a quiet rattle at 4:03 A.M.
“Good morning, Dr. Rosalene!” The front clerk said cheerfully. “Eager for another day, I see?” The morning sunlight streamed through the open windows, showering everything in a golden tint. The birds outside signaled that the morning had come.
Eva gave her a quick nod and a smile and headed straight for the elevator. She checked her phone. Of course that idiot didn’t answer a single one of my calls... What could he have been doing, anyways? She stepped in as soon as the doors opened and pressed the second floor button. Neil... you better at least be alive when I get there. When the elevator arrived, Eva made a beeline to her partner’s office and took out her keys. Thankfully, she always had a copy of Neil’s key, due to the amount of times she’s had to come back to grab something he forgot. The knob turned without a problem, but the digital lock remained. Eva searched through her bag before pulling out a black keycard and held it to the scanner. Beep. Access granted. Thank cucumbers for Roxanne Winters, the tech genius, she thought as she opened the door.
“Neil, are you still he—? Ah.” There he was, in all his glory, unceremoniously slumped across his desk. Again. “What time did you fall asleep this time, I wonder...” Eva said aloud. She hugged her arms. It felt unusually cold in the building for the middle of summer. She glanced at her sleeping partner. He was shivering. The pity in her heart tightened.
“What am I gonna do with you, Neil?” She groaned, rubbing her forehead. But looking down, something caught her eye. A bottle of painkillers. It was becoming more and more common for her to see, but this was his second refill in the past few days. Were they prescription? Over the counter? She picked them up anyways and set them on the desk. Outside, the sun climbed higher into the sky. Its rays fell into the room gently, as if trying not to wake the sleeping technician. Light spilled onto the couch on the side of the room. Eva remembered when Neil had hauled it all the way upstairs, the reason being he “needed a sitting area for his adoring visitors.” She rolled her eyes. Well, it doesn’t look like there’s any better place for him right now, she thought.
“Right. Let’s get you over there, then,” Eva said under her breath, slinging Neil’s arm around her shoulder as she took him as carefully as possible to the couch. Seeing him lying there, shaking from the cold only filled her with pity. Eva sighed, took off her coat, and draped it over him. She yawned and checked her phone. Two texts from Roxie.
“hey rosie!! just wanted to let u know me n rob have an open shift todayyy just in case u need one :P”
“btw i left late last night and i saw neil on his computer! the dummy was watching anime or somethin.”
“Thanks, Roxie,” her response read. “I’m with him right now. Can I take you up on that open shift, please?” She put her phone away.
Eva huffed as she struggled to fit on the same couch as her partner. It wasn’t particularly big, and she was just about on the edge of the cushion, but she didn’t really care. She faced away from him, cause this would be really hard to explain if he woke up. She figured she could just leave early. She’d clocked in early today, anyways, so she could spare time for a nap. Neil didn’t stir one bit. Always the heavy sleeper. Eva’s eyelids fell slowly as she lazily perused the books on the shelves. The only thing that piqued her interest was something behind the shelf. She couldn’t quite make it out, but she recognized the boxy shape of a company machine. Was that always there? Eh... Not the time to think about it. Eva closed her eyes and let herself forget. The morning sun warmed the room and let the two sleep peacefully.
Neil hugged Eva’s coat tighter to himself and smiled weakly.