Jeremiah and Max walked through the small, lush park where all paths led to a central rectangular reflecting pool, still and black like the shadow of a monolith. On the far side of the pool a lone waterfall gave the familiar sound of artificial peace. The skyscrapers on all four sides of the park cradled the men, permitting them only a small, neck-wrenching peek at the sky above.
Jeremiah and Max had different faces, but they walked through the world like twins—same lanky build, same black suit, same sleek black hair. Max had delicate, rosy, almost boyish features, while Jeremiah had a face too long with a bulbous nose that hung over his lips vulgarly. Nonetheless, when they were together it was somehow impossible to see the difference between them. Everyone asked them if they were brothers and at some point they just started saying yes.
Max paused, searching around with squinting eyes as though there were something to be found. After a moment, he looked at Jeremiah, dropping his shoulders in a micro-motion of defeat. “You know, we could just not go back in today. Play hooky. Like the old days.”
A smile rose on the right side of Jeremiah’s face. “Just stay here forever?” he asked, not looking at Max.
Max laughed uncomfortably, “Yeah.” And they began walking in stride again. They tucked their hands behind their backs, bowing their heads pensively. A silence fell over them.
Finally Jeremiah spoke, “We have that meeting with Julia at two.”
“That’s right,” Max responded.
“I’ve always liked Julia,” he added after a pause.
“Me too,” Jeremiah said and they swooped right like two birds changing course, leaving behind their small rectangle of freedom and allowing the burden of the city to swallow them whole again.
At two, Julia walked into the top floor office. Jeremiah was leaning back comfortably in his desk chair. Max was to his right, leaning on the window ledge. Through the window, a black skyscraper jutted up, piercing the otherwise clear blue sky.
“Julia! Come on in,” Jeremiah beckoned.
Max made an empty gesture as though to stand up, “Coffee? Tea?”
“I’m fine thanks,” Julia said, sitting while tugging her beige skirt to better cover her knees.
“So, Julia,” Jeremiah began, clearing his throat only for effect. “We have been hearing great things about you from your supervisor.”
Jeremiah flipped pensively through a folder, then looked up at her, raising one eyebrow. “The projects you’ve spearheaded in the last quarter have been your most innovative yet. Really clear thinking from someone so junior.”
Julia smiled a wide, blank smile and sat up just a little too straight. “Thank you,” she said.
A long pause followed, while Max and Jeremiah gazed at Julia, squinting and expectant. “I love working here,” she finally added, smile still wide.
“Glad to hear it,” Jeremiah said and Max nodded in agreement. The two men briefly glanced at one another.
“So, as you know our company prides itself on its competitive rewards programs,” Jeremiah said.
“And we feel you’ve earned a bonus,” Max added, leaning in from his window perch.
“Great,” Julia said, shifting in her seat.
“Julia,” Jeremiah said, “We would like to offer you free treatment in our new patented Neurosleep technology. After the treatment, you only need one hour of sleep a night.”
“Or seven hours of sleep once a week,” Max added.
“You can do either,” Jeremiah confirmed.
“Or any combination thereof,” Max added.
“You never feel tired.”
“And you get seven extra hours each day!”
“That’s two hundred extra hours each month. Almost three thousand a year,” Jeremiah continued, “The company only asks you to contribute two of your seven extra hours daily. But the other five are yours to use however you like.”
They both paused, hands folded together, looking at Julia expectantly.
“Um…” she began, “You know, I’m good, thanks.”
Dismay quickly flashed across Jeremiah’s face before quickly turning back into a tight smile. “It’s almost two hundred thousand extra hours of life.”
Julia shrugged nonchalantly, “Yeah,” she said casually, “but I like sleeping.”
Jeremiah looked unhappy, while Max gazed at Julia with an uncharacteristic depth in his eyes. When Jeremiah noticed, his upper lip began to involuntarily curl, and suddenly the stark difference between their faces was clear.
Jeremiah finally spoke. “People don’t usually reject bonuses, Julia.”
Julia opened here eyes wide, “Is it a problem?”
“No, no,” the men murmured.
“Just surprising is all,” Max said.
“Okay, well thank you. Am I free to go?”
“Sure, sure,” Jeremiah said with a dismissive wave.
After Julia left, Jeremiah and Max turned to each other slowly, a look of interested perplexity crossing their faces.
Six lab workers stood watching three white rabbits, one awake, one sleeping and one that appeared awake while sleeping.
As Jeremiah and Max turned down the hallway in approach, the lab workers scurried like the animals that they themselves worked on, leaving behind only the chief Technological Psychologist, Marcus. When Jeremiah and Max came to their lab, it only meant one thing: there was a problem with Marcus.
As they approached the lab table where Marcus stood, they split apart, rounding each side of the table, landing on opposite sides of him. Marcus took a step back.
“Marcus,” Jeremiah stated putting a hand on Marcus’ back, with a smile so big that it seemed like a threat. Jeremiah did not have a face designed for smiling. Max had his arms tucked behind him, feet shoulder-width apart like a henchman. Marcus just stood there, looking side-to-side to each man.
“We seem to have a problem with the SSS,” Jeremiah stated flatly, referring to the Subconscious Suggestion System. “We’ve got an anomaly.”
“Someone turned down a bonus,” Max added.
“Oh?” Marcus said, trying to appear calm.
“We want to know what can be done.”
“What can be done to…?” Marcus asked, missing the point. Jeremiah and Max glanced at each other.
Jeremiah put his hand on Marcus’ back again and leaned in, speaking softly, “To get her on board Marcus.”
“Ah,” Marcus said, stroking his chin pensively. “If only we knew,” he chuckled. “An anomaly is an anomaly. Cases are rare, but when people aren’t susceptible, they’re just not susceptible. We’ve looked at every case and as of now, there’s no common denominator.”
Jeremiah placed his finger tips together, pressing them up to his lips, pensively glancing at his partner.
“Marcus,” Jeremiah asked still speaking softly, “What’s your job here?”
“What?” Marcus asked.
“Your job what is it?”
“Well, uh, Chief Technology Psychologist.”
“Do you remember why we created this job for you? Do you remember what you said in your interview?”
“Well, I said a lot of—“
“You said you wanted to solve the problem of ultimate compatibility threshold between consciousness and computer.”
“Yes, yes, but uh—“
Jeremiah slapped him on the back hard and leaned in again, “So solve it.”
The two men walked out the same way they had walked in.
The next week, Jeremiah and Max found themselves in the park again, eating ice cream cones like two children who had escaped their overbearing parents. The sound of the fountain surrounded them, when suddenly the auditory monotony was pierced by the erratic sound of rattling shopping cart wheels. A homeless man wandered through the park, winding seemingly unnoticed past people on lunch breaks and phone calls, wagging his finger in the air, giving an incoherent sermon to no one in particular.
“We read the WORD!… between the words.” He yelled with a rasping voice.
Jeremiah and Max watched, somewhat amused.
The man continued on, his eyes focusing on something no one but himself could see, “The word between the word is the so. called. LAW.” He staggered drunkenly and his voice became angry. “But the word between the word is artificial…” he took a deep gulp and leaned back, hand on his shopping cart, “…insemination.” He burst into laughter, clutching his overgrown gut.
The men watched as he pushed his cart away. Max turned to Jeremiah, asking in idle curiosity, “My god, how far gone do you have to be to become like that?”
“We should bring him in,” Jeremiah said, smirking. Max looked up at him in surprise.
Jeremiah finished his ice cream cone in large snarling bites, wiped his mouth with the side of his hand and turned to leave the park. Max trailed after him, suddenly having something he wanted to say.
“Wait,” Max said. Jeremiah came to a halt. “We could just not do it.”
“Do what?” Jeremiah asked.
“The customized program for Julia. I mean, who cares? She’s an anomaly, so what? So she won’t always follow behavior protocol, but so what? She’s one person.”
Jeremiah looked at Max with a look not unlike disdain.
“Wouldn’t it be nice?” Max asked.
“Wouldn’t what be nice?” Jeremiah responded.
“To have someone, you know, on the outside, like us? Someone else at the company who can make their own… She could be our friend! She could come to the park with us. Sometimes, it’s just that we only have each other, and it just seems, so—so—“
A faint look of insecurity passed through Jeremiah’s eyes. He shrugged, and put his hands in his pockets, looking down for a moment. “Well, it’s too late anyway,” he answered quietly. “And besides, it’s a bonus.”
Max nodded tightly and the two men headed out of the park. Jeremiah slowed his pace for a moment, allowing Max to catch up with him so they could walk in stride again.
Back at the office, on the thirty-eighth floor, Julia was called to the Technological Psychology department to see if she might have some input on an undisclosed project. Julia entered the lab, posture still slightly too straight and smile too broad and blank. She should have been pretty but there was something so annoying. Marcus looked at her, thinking it was ironic that such a straight-laced type would be the one with the anomaly.
In the lab, she looked into a screen that rapidly scrolled very small words while red dots appeared on a green background, and green dots appeared on a red background. Her job was to watch the screen and say “red” every time a red dot came up and “green” every time a green dot came up. At some point she felt she started to say other words: fire hydrant, apple, coffee, tea, bonus, bonus, dog park, but she wasn’t sure whether she was saying those words, but hearing herself say the colors, or saying the colors but hearing herself say the words. She left the lab in a daze, not remembering why she had been there, or for how long, and then forgetting that she had ever been there at all.
That night, Julia entered her nondescript brick building, her heels falling silent as they moved from tile to carpet. She padded down the hall, unaware of the soft resistance of carpet under her feet. Everything had dulled although she would never know it. The sound of heels tapping she would never hear. The pattern of the wallpaper she’d never notice. The light shining underneath the neighbors’ door, the smell of someone cooking steak, an itch on her right ear—all these small things she would never see, smell or hear again as the world folded in on itself into a simpler and more streamlined dimension.
Time passes. Cooking rice, the sound of the news in the background. Green dot, green dot, green dot, red.
Why are we here? What am I? What is the point of this? Is this how I want it to be? These are questions Julia would never think to herself again, subconsciously repeating a quiet script to which she could never quite hear the words.