An Interval of Time

I finally attempt to wring out the weariness from my eyes.

I will have been here, sitting in this desk chair, for at least twelve hours, having spent all that time reviewing reports. The cup near my computer is empty, save for some dregs that I will always be averse to sipping. The ticking of the corrected clock is becoming unbearable again.

“I need to stretch my legs.”

I pull my swivel chair back and slowly rise, weighed down by the mistakes of my now unreachable past. I correct my tie, reach past my gut to ensure that my shirt is tucked into my pants, and begin the arduous walk to the Cafeteria.

Before I close the door to my office, I give it one last look. Closed windows and covered blinds sit behind its desk, where my large high-resolution monitor is perched, demanding full attention, a Dream feed still on display. The keyboard is and, it seems, forever will be, stained with the grease of my fingers. I’d sworn to myself I’d clean it many times, but I always forget. Next to the keyboard sits a letter titled “A Warning to Myself,” which I do not see, have yet to begin writing and will never finish. I shut the door and lock it, not that I have any need to.

The Hallway to the Cafeteria is always the same, not just architecturally, but atmospherically and experientially as well. The Hallway itself is clean and sterile, shades of beige differentiating its walls from floors and ceilings. Ceiling lights mounted every couple of yards along with the covered windows ensure that everything always looks the same, for the Dreamers’ benefit. Their procession of lost souls, those expelled from their First Lives, their Minds and their Dreams, walk with me, mechanical in their movements. They are a sea of husks, different in their minutiae yet impossible to tell apart. I attempt to breathe through my mouth as I follow them on their pilgrimage to a meal.

As we make our way, I look among the crowd and smirk to myself. The carrion work only to fulfill their most base desires, their Lives nothing but a repetitive sequence of events they are doomed to watch unfold forever. The cosmic punchline being that this existence, if it can even be called that, in itself is nothing but a stretch of tiny moments which each last an eternity longer. Infinity becomes squared.

I have to focus hard on hiding the curve of my smile as I enter the employee food line, which is placed a couple of feet away from the Dreamers’ line. Blonde, the cute woman who works the Cafeteria, slowly makes her way over to me and begins loading my plate with my usual order, an unhealthy helping of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, submerged in a cloud of gravy, some toast, bacon, fried eggs, along with a bit of ketchup and mayonnaise to give it all a bit of extra flavor. And a diet coke.

“Hey, what if I joined you for lunch?” she suggests once my tray is fully loaded.

As she says this, she puts one hand against her hip, on the border between her white tank top, stained yellowed apron and jeans, then smiles slightly. Her smile makes me melt on the inside. I can’t refuse, though a question always burns away at me.

“The Dreamers won’t care?” I reply, inquisitive. I rarely got the opportunity (or interest) to examine their waking psychology.

“Of course not. To them, every moment lasts until something shakes them out of it.”

She points to the line, which now extends to beyond the Cafeteria’s doors and into the Hallway outside. Every person there is stood still, focused on the feet of the one in front of them. Though they are not motionless and even look around on occasion, the sight still unsettles me. This feeling is not helped by the one at the front of the line, whose hands reach towards the counter where trays would normally be stacked, but which is now empty. It stands there, staring at the empty space as though it were about to cry.

I look to Blonde, and she smiles slightly.

“They’re conditioned to always Live in perfect repetition, play by play. If something isn’t right, they break and just stare at whatever it is that’s ‘wrong’, waiting for it to fix itself. Until then, they can’t do anything.”

I smile back, having reacquired this bit of knowledge.

“Alright then, I’ll wait for you to get your food ready, then we find a place to eat?”

“That’s the plan,” she says, reaching behind the counter to pull out one of the trays that the Dreamer at the front of the queue hopes would appear before it, before loading it with a slightly more modest meal and following me to the finite number of tables that stretch on into infinity. We sit down and begin eating.

Once the food’s haze has left me and I find the plates before me licked clean of even the tiniest spoonful of grease, I lean back in my chair and give Blonde a look. She had finished eating much earlier, which is to be expected, and seems to have spent this time studying me.

“What is it?”

“’Life is an inescapable monotony, Dream is the unattainable longing exercised throughout its course, and Mind is, in light of these discoveries, a useless distraction.’”

“Yeah, so the One says. What’s your point?”

“They say this applies to the Dreamers, but what if they aren’t the only ones?”

“Who else could this apply to?”

“To us. And the other staff.”

“Seriously…? Look, I think you’ve been working with the husks for far too long. Try going to Human Management, tell them about these doubts you’ve been having, and they’ll probably give you a vacation or something.”

She sighs, closing her eyes, then reaches into one of the pockets of her jeans and pulls out a key card and flashlight, then sets them between our trays.

“This key will open the way to one of the Secure Areas for Dreaming. Take a look.”

“Wait, where’d you get this card?”

She takes hold of both our trays and gives me another golden smile.

“I have to go take care of the Dreamers now. Stay safe.”

She leaves the table.

We are surrounded by an ear-piercing cacophony of silenced voices. Wherever we look, we see an endless line of people unaware of our existence and our pain. We feel we must cry out, express it in some way that they might acknowledge, yet we are not allowed to, not yet.

My eyes don’t leave the card all throughout. It has our logo on its side, and a note, saying the card opens SAfD 3B. I’m as yet unaware that I’ve been to SAfDs, much less of how pivotal a role they play in my Life at this moment. I grab both items and make the same mistake as always.

I take the Elevator down to floor -39, Research and Dream Development, and begin wandering around like a lost lamb. This place is far less sterile than the Hallway and Cafeteria, less like an IKEA showroom and more lived in. The floors are poorly cleaned wood, the walls some garish red and the lights keep flickering. I turn on the flashlight and begin searching. A sign outside the elevator says: "Warning: Floor is slippery with blood."

After walking around a while, I finally find 3B written on the nameplate on one of the doors. Pushing the corpse of a lab technician who’d died here off the door’s scanner, I place the card against it and watch as the door slowly slides open.

In 3B, the lights never work, but the flashlight Blonde had given me remedies this. The room is a dozen yards wide, with large pods, stacked on top of each other, lining the walls, but neither its end nor its ceiling is in sight. I begin trying to reach the room's end, taking note of the pods along the way.

Some pods are empty, while in others I see a naked man, in each the same exact one, floating in a vat of yellow liquid. Eyes closed, with bags underneath. Large, bulbous red nose. Round face. Second chin. 5 o’clock shadow. Fat. Fingers like tiny sausages. Short brown hair, floating freely in the yellow liquid.

Me.

I must’ve been walking for at least fifteen minutes before the realization finally hit me. I am no closer to the end of the room, but now I know that it has no end. I stand there, motionless, staring at one of me.

I open my eyes and look back at me. All of us do. All of us know, knew and are going to know, what is going to happen, happened and is happening. I would stand there for a while, in ironic parallel to the Dreamers we once thought we were not. Then I would run as fast as my fat body would carry me, running back to my office. I’d begin writing “A Warning to Myself,” but realize that is impossible.

I would stare at the piece of paper and wait for tears that never come. I’d cry out in pain but know that it can never have an effect. That my fate is, was and will be, sealed. I would realize that I was doomed to return.

We would wonder, are wondering and have wondered, who is to blame for our fate. We had, are and will, blame ourselves for taking Blonde’s card, but maybe she had known what would, is and had, become of us. Maybe the One…? We would always follow these same thoughts and they never matter.

All the lights in the room turn on for one single moment, during which we can see the room stretch on infinitely in three of the six dimensions.

I break out of my reverie and begin running. I must warn myself. By the time I reach the Elevator, I’m already completely out of breath. I wait for it to come back to my floor, then jump in and smash the button for the 39th floor. I lean against it and begin thinking. None of us ever ask, have asked or will ever ask, the right questions.

The doors open and I run through the parade of carrion, pushing against all who come in my way until I’ve finally made my way to my office. I unlock the door, push in, unnecessarily lock it again, then grab a piece of paper and pen. I write, in bold letters:

A Warning to Myself

I place the tip of my pen on the next line and begin thinking. I question how I could communicate with who I had been, warn myself of what had yet to come. For the first time since I’d found us, I wonder if I hadn’t already asked myself this. I was, am and will be, right, of course, but I don’t give in yet.

I realize I have a unique opportunity. A uniquely infinite perspective, one that affords me… nothing. With a shock, the same thought that had, is and always will, come over us, occurs to me. I come to the conclusion that my Life is now monotony, doomed to repeat forever. My Dreams are unattainable. My Mind is a distraction.

Could this fact be a consequence of our thinking so? Could we have escaped our snare, had we more of a spine, or maybe less of one? We don’t know.

I try to scream.

I set aside the paper, place it next to the keyboard, where it will never be seen. The past will already be written, I needn’t have bothered.

I give in to my eternal fate and walk back to 3B.

The other Dreamers never notice us, they’re also stuck in their own worlds.

I walk along 3B’s infinite walls, until I find a spot I like.

We follow me with our eyes.

I press the button on the side of the pod, and it opens with a hiss.

We think this is our one moment of true choice.

I strip down and step inside.

We see the pod close down over me and slowly fill with the yellow liquid.