Amelia has got nothing done on a workflow that was due three hours ago. When she’d started, the sun had been bathing her stapler. Now the lights are humming, and her radio is not enough to drown it out unless she puts on her headphones.
“…hey, lunch. Hey? Lunch?” There is tapping on her shoulder. She takes out a headphone. Mahood’s arms are crossed. “Food? Cafeteria? Now?”
“Have to finish the workflow,” she tells him. Mahood’s desire for intake momentarily pauses as he thinks about the time.
“Listen,” he says. “There is a bug on this floor. I saw it on the carpet, fornicating with a piece of cookie. I tried to squish it, but fear it’s still about somewhere.” He looks around. “I’m warning you, just in case.”
“I appreciate that,” she tells him. “But I have to get the workflow done, no matter how much I’d like to go for lunch with you.” He nods. Amelia whispers so that he can’t hear, “There is no bug. There is nothing to fear. Don’t fret. Don’t let the critters scare you into space.”
“After work – drink?”
“Yes,” she says. “Okay.”
She turns back to the screen. Light-flashes guide her fingers.
On the way to the coffee room, Amelia stops at the bathroom and washes her face. There are brown eyes staring at her, black curls that droop rather than hang, and a twitch in her cheeks that is felt rather than seen, unless she brings her face close to the mirror to study the skin that conducts all that nervous energy. Someone flushes and a stall door rattles, and soon she is alone. There is a glow behind her, she thinks. A warming of the air. When she turns around, a glass elevator filled with red light has arrived and is sizzling against the wall tile, the door open, the invitation as clear as silver bell music.
There is a duty laid upon her, Amelia knows. There is the way that you are supposed to be. In part, this is embodied by a span of cubicles and the rubber band debris that litters the carpet connecting it all, the coffee room where one drinks beverages that make your breath feel like death and the soul convulse with the desire to be clean again; and it is embodied in the watching of a stopwatch progression of seconds, until you are done, until you are momentarily free prior to your next day-long sentence, your fresh incarceration that you never asked for except that you spent every moment of your life building up to these moments, to these successes, to this wondrous drowning sensation that sees you alone in a bathroom, staring at an elevator to the stars.
Amelia steps in. Amelia has to step in. And she closes the door and bakes in the infrared heat of the light, and wonders if there is enough oxygen to get her to the place that she needs to go. The elevator rises, slipping through the atoms of the roof, distorting matter until she cannot see what she is passing. When she is above the building, she is only in the outside world for a moment before the elevator careens sideways.
Over the city she flies. There are roads below, black arrows pointing in the directions you are permitted to take. But Amelia is above it all. When the city ends, the elevator plummets towards the grass and lands on a hill. The red light fades as she puts on a flight suit that is laid on the grass. The helmet locks with a twist and a click, and the visor turns the world purple, as though this is the way reality is supposed to be seen. She is alone. The ladder clings to her gloves as she pulls herself into the cockpit of her craft.
The panel of control buttons comes alive when she taps a screen. Lights blaze, and the engine hums. A roar of fire frees her from the ground. She angles the ship upwards, because that is the only place for Amelia to go, even if she seldom sits back to think about it or realize that this is her destiny now – not the shackles, not the platitudes of every day sameness, not the road and the building at the end of it, not the office tower and the dim things that are done within it.
Clouds? Nothing. Oxygen? Unreal. Atmosphere? A rumour, a fake requirement that Amelia is leaving behind. The nose of the ship sparks with speed, the type of heat that the old explorers felt when they returned from their trips, but this in reverse – this is the speed of Amelia’s acceleration as she departs. Departs what? Well – us, or herself, or the twitching desire that at times like these overwhelms her with possibility and exuberance, but for some reason is only allowed to occur in fits and starts, at the edge of the day, in a moment alone – and the sadness of not feeling like you are flying all the time is the only way that Amelia has ever written it down, has ever tried to record the problem that besets people.
The ship shudders as the world loses her. Now it’s space. And there before the moon, there is a massive ship made of metal tentacles, and in its middle a red heart that leads to hungry teeth, as though this ship is an octopus. The kraken sweeps towards her home, her world, the world of the mundane and the formulaic, the world that invented those words and used to try and break free of them with anything, any song, any sound, any few words linked together trying to assert that it’s okay to be, as is Amelia, different. She aims her ship at the kraken, right at its red heart – because there is always a chance that a different song will come, a long fall of poetry that sets us back on the right path. If even for the chance, Amelia will fly. If just for the opportunity, she will steer her ship at that thing.
There are ships beside her, too. “We are outnumbered,” says a voice in her headphones.
Amelia increases the power to the ship and readies her weapons. “Fly faster. They will never see you coming.”
Amelia takes aim at one of the million little ships that the kraken has released to contest with its attackers. As she fires, the ship shudders. Beams of light erupt to left and right, searing a path towards her target. She never sees the face in the other ship, never understands that person’s humanity or whether they have any recognition of what that word means – never learns if they have a parallel word in their language for who they are and how they got here, to a place under a sun that is new to them. The ship fragments and she flies through the debris, but Amelia is firing constantly now, aiming at others that are crossing her path.
Some of the kraken’s ships come so close to her that she gleams their ideas in the way that they spin and turn, even in the way that they come apart as she destroys them. She is at the head of the spear. She is the spear. Space is full today, thinks Amelia. It has been completely consumed with matter, hers and the kraken’s, every inch occupied by flying madness and errant light beams. She fires and things die, and behind her, far away, someone is writing a note, and someone is waiting in a line, and someone is slipping on the ice and dropping a machine on the hard crust, where it shatters – and then they are lying on the cold, salted surface and looking into a frigid eternity, and they are wondering if there is anything beyond this, anything better to do with their time; and they are wondering if anyone is looking out for them, standing up for their dreams, keeping them safe from the nightmarish size of space that we routinely ignore in favour of the pores on our face.
Amelia is turning and ships are crumbling around her. The light-beams soar as she approaches the kraken – and soon she can see what’s inside it, that red heart, the mechanical expulsion of light that has taken on an organic shape in her eyes as she aims for it. She could fly into it. She could discover and be part of the red light. She could sit before one of the kraken’s windows and explain her race’s concept of humanity, and how that word translates to those born under this sun or not, those who have come from far away or not. She would explain these words, too. She would explain that they are just different, that they don’t care about the norm or where it came from, that sneaking madness that also came out of the oceans around the same time we did, but didn’t materialize into walking talking beings – no, the norm is just a sludge, she would explain to the kraken’s inhabitants, a primal composition that consigns us to snowy battlegrounds of computer madness and digital sameness, to the paucity of life and love, the detriment of dreams. To the fear of flying. To the inability to go far, or fast.
She is firing and she is screaming as the red heart of the kraken flames before her. Its gnats are still coming at her, blocking her view, and the kraken itself is firing slender bolts of metal towards her. Around her, the spear has fragmented and will soon fail. Voices of her comrades come to her, then end. The red heart flares with the effort of having come so far, so fast, and for nothing more than this. Amelia is soon alone, and alone she takes aim at the red heart, firing everything that she has left, not because she hates or wants to despise, or because she is desperate or cruel – but because she understands what she has left behind, who she dwells with when she is with us.
Red light flares. A billion stars coalesce into one moment in time, as though they have all turned to look in one direction at one time – at Amelia flying through the gnats as the red heart expands with the energies she has injected into it. She turns and sweeps away as she is buffeted by what she has done, the woe she has delivered in the name of an existence that is a box, a corked bottle, a sea shell buried so deep in the strata that it has forgotten that it came from the ocean. The pulse waves of the kraken’s death make her turn, then end her forwards flight until she is flung backwards at a blue circle just past the moon.
Amelia flies. The atmosphere of the world reaches out and grabs her greedily, sucking her inwards in a long arc of fire. The ship is heavy. The air burns. She is falling. She is flying. Before her, a sea of green grass opens up. At its end, there is a city.
Back on the hill, the ship becomes silent. Amelia climbs to the grass and pulls off her helmet and flight clothes. The wind dries her sweat. She steps into the clear elevator and pushes the button for home.
The red light warms her as the elevator takes her over the land, back to that building. She is in a bathroom. It is empty. She is staring at a mirror. She is back. She is just back.
“Do you have the workflow ready?” asks Inge, outside. She is standing in front of the coffee machine. Amelia reaches for a mug and puts it into the machine. “It was supposed to be ready this morning. Technically, at the end of the day yesterday, but why quibble.”
“Why quibble,” repeats Amelia, pushing a button. The machine hums to life.
“Are you going to be finished soon?”
“I am going to be finished soon,” she says, as liquid pours into the mug.
“You look terrible, by the way,” notes Inge. “If you need some time, please take it. But after the workflow is done.”
Amelia sips the coffee. “And after that, what? Another workflow? What else do you have for me?”
Inge is forty five, maybe fifty, and is the type of woman that does not know how to wear anything except dresses. She goes to the gym. Sleeps with younger men. Overdrinks at the company parties and declares love for her employees, which she never remembers later.
Inge pushes off the counter. “What do you mean? What are you expecting? Why are you expecting anything?” All Amelia can do is edge away. She is slow at first. But Inge pursues the question, and so Amelia goes faster. She goes further.
On the way back to her cubicle, Amelia spills most of her coffee. She puts the cup on a partition wall, balancing it so that it has a real chance of staying there until someone with the gumption has a thought to stick it in the dishwasher. Around her, lights are humming. Across the space of the cubicles, there are people dancing: heads appearing and disappearing, moving mops of hair that stop and start, turn, spin in place. It is a dance, all these things and all the spaces that people around Amelia occupy. She watches them pirhouette through the land of offices and cubicles, until she sees a hunched figure at the very far end, a greyish, distorted figure with flapping wags of skin and pointed fingers that perch on the edge of a wall. It is staring at Amelia across the vastness of space.
She ducks. In front of her, a photocopier is humming and a table full of unwanted, despairing print jobs is awaiting their trip to the recycling bin. Amelia dashes down the aisle, passing the backs of people who are being eaten by their devices. No one seems to notice that there is a monster in the land of cubicles, a creature fitted with a deep hunger for the bones of those who work and die here. She reaches the windows and the long-rumoured view of the outside world that simply faces another office tower looking back at Amelia – and there in front of her is another Amelia, and another, and another, and they are pushing at the glass as though they too are being stalked and have no other way to escape the claws that are coming for them. Amelia waves at Amelias aplenty, Amelias sprawling, Amelias trapped and baking in the juices of their personal histories that have inexplicably become part of some seething global potion – a bubbling, viscous liquid that we never thought to create but drink anyway, one that we celebrate as success and tout as though it is the endpoint of our existence even as it corrodes our sanity and distorts our human-ness. Amelias for every window! shouts an Amelia on every floor, as other Amelias cheer them on.
Amelia runs and ducks into another aisle. Above the partitions, the creature is coming closer. Its teeth are bared, long wicked things pocked with black stains and a maw that has no end to it. The creature is staring at her. It is coming closer.
Amelia runs. When next she looks up, the creature is gone.
She is sweating. People ask her if she is okay. She asks them if they are okay. People ask her if she has finished what she has started. She laughs, wondering if they know about the beast that is lurking in the corridors.
She hears Mahood speaking, “There is a bug on the floor.” But Mahood is not there, and it is just a Mahood voice spoken in Amelia tones. “There is a bug on the floor,” she says, as she runs. Somewhere, a coffee is spilling; and somewhere, a great red-hearted kraken is descending on the world; and somewhere, an Amelia is wondering how these things are related, as a creature sinks its talons into the rest of us. As we watch and do nothing much. As we do nothing at all.
Amelia runs. She reaches her cubicle and sits on the chair. The workflow is on the screen.
The workflow is on the screen.
She taps on the keyboard, because the day is getting late and she has been delayed. Where are these Amelias, she wonders, that would comment on her progression through her own mind, as a bug scampers across the floor, as a Mahood wonders if they can eat together, as an Inge fantasizes about loving people – any person, that person, this person, herself, him, her, those, them, herself. Herself.
Amelia is typing. She is practicing for life. This is her trial run, she thinks. It has to be. It must be a build-up to something greater. A proving ground for the grand show that flicks through her mind every single time she closes her eyes.
On the screen, words dance, soon to be delivered into the wide world. And somewhere, a Mahood is still worried about something. And an Inge is concerned too. But Amelia is simply here. She is simply here.
When she smells the foul odour, it could be anything. It could be disease or destitution or despair or the hammering need for a fuller, bigger life. But that is not where the stench comes from, and Amelia knows it. Nevertheless, she keeps her eyes on the screen. She keeps them right there, centred and focused, intent. And in the reflection of the screen, she can see long, sharp fingers clutch the edge of her cubicle and pull the mass that follows behind. A head appears, hairless and wide-mouthed, eyes unblinking and the skin sagging as though it has lost all the fluids that once ran inside. A tongue flicks the air. The eyes fix themselves on Amelia, and the narrow body draws closer. Its hands reach out as it walks. Joints creak with disuse. Breaths wheeze, but these lips know about words. This beast can speak. As it reaches the girl in the chair, it touches her on the back to announce its presence, and very softly rests its chin on her shoulder and whispers into her ear, “Gently, gently. Not too fast. Not too far. My little girl, my creation, my representation of humanity – you wonder how I could be so abused and sickly and look the way that I do. I am horrid in your eyes. But I did not start like this. And I did not expect to get here, in this way. You have to remember that this is a journey. This is a trip along the pathways that have been prescribed for you. And so why should you be surprised that I am simply, I am merely, I am only, like you my dear, just an Amelia too.”
*** I was going to call this “Trent Loses His Mind”, but didn’t want to state the obvious… thanks, as always, for reading. All I know is that this is not a trial run.