Just Another Day at the Office
The day starts like all the others, then everything changes...
John paused and turned away from his screen to glance at the steaming cup of coffee. Something felt a little off but he couldn’t place his finger on it. The systems all checked out normal and yet, still. He ran his hand through his hair and swivelled his chair around.
“Hey Susan”, he said. She sat at the control panel on the other side of the room.
“Yes, John”, she replied, turning her attention away from her screen and shifting around to look his way. She smiled at him. He couldn’t believe his luck – every day he walked into this Station control room and spent the day with her. There was no way she should be working here in the London Underground. She was gorgeous and he bit his lip and wondered if this might finally be a good moment to ask her out. He paused, and then thought the better of it.
“Yea, I just feel like I’m missing something here – how is the system working at your end?”, he asked.
“All good John, just door 7 seems to be sticking a bit.”
Maybe it was the war that made him nervous, just kept him on edge that extra little bit – you just never knew exactly what was going on up above. Certainly it had been a long time since they had let passengers use this station. How long had it been? It had been lonely just waiting and waiting for word on when things would start up again like the old days. At least he had Susan for company otherwise who knows how he would have coped. Today they had finally started the trains moving through again. It had been a nice feeling, while it lasted.
A stuck door was no cause for alarm though. After all, it was 2047 and if you could fly to the moon for a holiday then surely they could cope with a slightly malfunctioning door!
“OK, well that’s probably fine, but why don’t you go just check it out”, he said.
“Sure thing boss” she said, standing up and walking out the control room door and down the stairs.
He saw her show up a minute later on screen, walking along the platform. The first northbound train had pulled in and he saw all the doors open and people emerge out beside her. He almost lost her in the crowd but then saw that she was still walking steadily on through all the people until she got to door 7. He saw her reaching out to touch it.
“Something is wrong, John”, he heard her in his earpiece.
“It’s jammed, but I can’t seem to force it. We should probably notify Control and put out a sign”, she said.
“Agreed, I’ll dial it in,” he answered back.
He clicked a large button on the left of the screen. “Control, come in Control,” he said. Silence. “Control, come in Control,” he repeated. That was strange. Normally they didn’t stop chattering to him, asking him all sorts of questions. There was no error at his end that he could see though.
Suddenly he heard Susan’s voice: “John, did you see that?” She sounded frightened. He turned back to the screen where she appeared by door 7.
“No, didn’t see anything – I was calling Control, what is it”. He asked.
“Well, you had better get down here, I … oh wait, here comes another train, just watch”. Susan said.
John could see the train pulling in and imagined the relative quiet as it swept in swiftly on the magnetic tracks. A man was now standing beside Susan, waiting to get on board but not aware that those doors were not working.
He heard Susan say, “Excuse me sir, we are having some trouble with this door…”. But he just seemed to be ignoring her, focussed on a book he held open in his hands.
All along the platform the doors opened except for door number 7. The man still stood there. Tidily dressed, unassuming in a grey suit and an old style retro hat. He still stood patiently, waiting for the doors to open. Then he began to move forward. John reached for his coffee which had now cooled down and no steam was rising anymore. He took a large sip anyway. He was intrigued by this guy’s behaviour. Surely he could see the doors were shut. What was he going to do now? Suddenly John choked on his coffee and gagged. It must be a glitch on the screen, surely, because the man had disappeared, almost as if he had walked right through the door, as if it was not even there.
Susan’s voice came back to him, “Did you see it? Did you see it that time?”
“What….what was that, Susan. What did you see?” John asked as calmly as he could.
“He just sort of – I don’t know, it was like the door wasn’t even there and then he was inside,” she said.
“I’m coming down”, said John. He got up and glanced at the clock. Time always passed slowly when you were underground – there was no light, no sun, no moon to give you bearings. It looked like the clock itself had a problem too as it was showing the wrong year. He walked past it down the stairs and along the platform. He got caught behind a woman with a baby in a double stroller and paced himself, walking slowly behind her. The woman ended up settling on door 7 where he saw Susan standing waiting. She was clearly scared but despite that was smiling at the small baby in the stroller and making faces. Susan heard him approaching and turned to him.
“John”, she said, “what’s going on – did you see that? Before? What was that. How is that possible?”
She was shaken up. Had tears in those blue eyes of hers. He reached out to her and gave her a quick hug.
“I don’t know, Susan, but I am sure we can work it out. We were trained for this – to keep this station running and deal with this”, he said, sounding more confident than he actually was. He could feel her hold onto him and relax a little. They could hear the distant hum of the next train. He turned from Susan to the woman with her baby.
“Excuse me, Ma’am, but this door is malfunctioning and we need to ask you to use the next door along,” he said.
The woman ignored him. Nothing seemed to add up and an ominous feeling grew, as if he was being driven through a heavy fog that changed the usual surroundings.
“John, we haven’t been stationed down here so long that we have forgotten what season it is, have we?” asked Susan.
He turned to her, leaving the woman staring ahead at the door.
“I mean, it is Summer still, isn’t it, I mean up above?” She asked, hesitating, as if she were responding to a hard question in a job interview.
John nodded. He turned back to the woman and he realised why Susan had said this. The woman was dressed for winter – long scarf over the top of a heavy winter coat, stockings, long dress. The baby too was all wrapped up in blankets, almost as if they had come in from the snow. It made no sense. She was also dressed a little strangely, in colours and cuts that had been out of fashion for years, decades even.
As the train pulled in the baby started fussing and the woman reached down to pass a bottle which it took.
John said again, “Excuse me, Ma’am”, and reached out his hand for her arm. His hand passed right through her. He pulled it back quickly and turned to Susan.
“Did you see that?” he asked. Susan nodded, she now held her hand over her mouth.
The train had stopped and John watched closely. The other doors down the platform opened except for number 7 but he watched with his own eyes as the woman pushed her baby and stroller right through the closed door and she saw them settle down on the other side in the train before it pulled away again.
Susan and John just looked at each other. Finally John said, “let’s get back to the Station Room”.
They walked along the platform past the people there, each too afraid to try reaching out to touch them. Before they went up the stairs John tried one more time and it was like before. His hand simply passed through the man who stood before him, looking up at the timetable that flashed on the board. This man was dressed in shorts, a t shirt and was barefoot.
They hurried up the stairs to the Station Room and sat down in their chairs. Neither spoke for a while. John tried to raise Control again but there was still no response. Suddenly he had a thought and stood up and went over to the clock on the wall. 2156 it said. Impossible. He tapped it, wondering if there was a short circuit.
“Hey Susan,” he said. “In your menu in the main screen what does the clock say.”
“10:43 am” she replied.
“And the year?” he asked. She didn’t answer.
“The year”, he asked again.
He moved over and leaned down beside her, looking at the screen.
“I don’t understand”, she said softly. He looked at the year. 2156.
“Pull up an internet page, something like a newspaper”, he said.
She pulled up The Times. “I was reading it just before”, she said.
The date at the top was 17 June 2047. It was all news about the war and the latest threat of a massive strike by the enemy. John felt himself breathe a little easier. At least one thing made sense today. Those headlines and what might happen if there was such an attack were in the news all the time.
Susan hit the refresh button on the page. It went blank. She couldn’t access anything else either. It was like all the connections were down.
His day had started so well – relief that the trains were finally running and he would be useful again. He went back to his desk, his senses all alert and on edge. He looked around for anything that was out of place. His coffee was there, steam rising slowly from the edge. He looked at the coffee again. When he had first been talking to Susan he had a sip of that coffee and it had been going lukewarm. He reached over and picked up the cup. Hot to the touch. He placed it down.
He ran his finger across the table and felt a thin layer of dust give way leaving a trail behind.
“Hey Susan, is your desk clean?”, he asked. No answer. He turned around. Susan wasn’t there. Instead it was Thomas, the other guy he worked with sometimes in the night shift.
“Hey Thomas, where did Susan go”, he asked. Thomas turned around.
“What?” he asked.
“Susan, where is Susan.” he said again.
“You’ve been down here too long, man” said Thomas, “it’s just me. The program is working well though, glad we got power again and it got started up.”
John stood up and walked across the room again to stand before Thomas.
He said slowly, “What is going on…” he held out his hands towards Thomas, resisting the urge to panic.
Thomas just shrugged, clearly unsure what John was talking about. “All fine. We just have a stuck door down below – do you want me to go have a look at it?”, he said. He wore a shirt that was just like John’s. It had his name at the top left, “Thomas – AIAC”.
Something came back to John. He had seen those words before. He ran to the end of the room and opened a cupboard. It was all messed up inside, almost as if someone had recently been there searching through it quickly. He finally found it – a black folder with the same words on it. AIAC.
He opened it up and read the first paragraph. “Welcome to your Artificial Intelligence Assisted Control system. Incorporating the most sophisticated AI we have ever developed the system comes complete with a variety of simulated holographic passengers so that your station will always be busy. We guarantee satisfaction ….” It went on but John had read enough. He looked at the clock, looked at the screen and the year displayed. He felt like he was at the edge of discovering something, of some realisation about what was going on. He waited for it all to fall into place and kept staring at his console and hoped for a clue.
John paused and turned away from his screen to glance at the steaming cup of coffee. Something felt off but he still couldn’t place his finger on it. The systems all checked out normal and yet, still. He ran his hand through his hair and swivelled his chair around.
“Hey Susan”, he said. She sat at the control panel on the other side of the room.
“Yes, John”, she replied, turning her attention away from her screen and shifting around to look his way. She smiled at him.