It stands to reason that there are aspects to this world well beyond our limited perception. The human experience entails us experiencing time as a linear stream of chronological events. I know, however, that this is not always the case. I know this because of what I do for a living. There is, in fact, a place totally immune to the straightforward function of time. A place that moves at a completely different rate to the world around it – where you can see life accelerating, whizzing past right outside your window – while your cubicle entraps you in a box where time stands completely still. This place is more commonly known as a call centre.
I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here, now. In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably just a mere spec, though it feels like eternity. The sad fact is, I once aspired to be so much more. I always had a knack with computers. At the mere age of 14, I was hacking into the most protected servers with the scariest ease. Don’t worry, I never did anything, I just wanted to see if I could. Bypassing a government firewall was merely practice. For what, I’m not sure. Truth be told, this started as a way to make money on the side while I pursued my dreams. Dreams that disintegrated all too fast as my go-nowhere job became my go-nowhere career.
It seemed like an exciting way to pass the time when I applied for a job with the emergency service; the extreme, cutthroat realm of the call centre world. Calls constantly ringing in and out, people’s lives on the line, and your once inconsequential customer service skills ultimately splitting life or death in some cases. But you repeat any task a certain number of times and it becomes pure reflex. Your fellow man in peril becomes a mere fraction in your statistics, and each terrified voice that beckons on the other end of the line is nothing more than a way to distract yourself while you round out the days. Weeks. Years.
The top bar of my screen is flashing. This indicates a caller is awaiting my service – they have made it through phase one. Phase one is the initial routing of a call, handled on the ground floor. They determine the nature of the emergency, and then transfer them through to one of three departments: Police. Ambulance. Fire. The latter is mine. I press the button to let them through. Cue spiel.
“Fire services, what’s your emergency?” I ask. This is a shortened version of the actual script, but I’ve been there far too long to denote any more time out of my life to saying the full sentence.
“It’s the Japs!” screams a frenzied, male voice. “They’re bombing us… The whole damn harbour’s engulfed!!” I don’t even need to check what year this guy’s calling from, Pearl Harbour calls are probably our most frequent after 9/11. Still, I have to humour him.
“Okay sir, tell me, where are you?”
The guy proceeds to rattle off a long list of details I already know, laced with the occasional racial slur. It’s a good thing he doesn’t know our system was made in Japan. I type up an utter cliché of emergency service boilerplate (excuse the fire pun), and send out yet another fire engine to December 7, 1941, before refilling my coffee and slumping back into my swivel chair.
…Fuck, I hate my job.
Granted, it could be worse. They may not mean anything to me anymore, but I’d still rather be helping people than selling them shit… Salesmen. The parasitic leeches hocking absolutely anything to the unsuspecting victim on the other end, accruing as much profit as they can so they can drown out the misery of their own existence with frivolous material goods. My callers may be victims, but at least I’m not the perpetrator. I might pawn off the occasional stupid person, and I’ll admit I don’t always give my full, undivided attention to people whose lives are at stake, but that doesn’t make me a bad person… Does it?
My next caller is a frantic woman from Manhattan in the mid 60’s. High-rise apartment building on fire, toddler trapped in an upper floor, you know the drill. After sending half the brigade her way, I search for an archive of the incident online and learn that her child did, in fact, survive the ordeal. Guess there’s still a slither of sympathy left in me, after all. This was followed by a couple of calls from the near future; the Californian valleys have once again ignited in a ferocious blaze. How that turns out is anyone’s guess – sadly, the call centre’s time impunity doesn’t extend to virtual information. The day was continuing at a gruelling pace as per usual, entrancing me in a stupor for what seemed like a lifetime. This was, until I received the most extraordinary call that would change everything…
“Fire services, what’s your emergency?”
“What’s your emergency?” The voice on the other end fires back sardonically. I pause. I’m almost certain this is a prank caller, yet the shiver running down my spine suggests otherwise. Heavy breathing ensues.
“I’m sorry?” I ask, perplexed. “Look, this line is for emergencies only, there are genuine victims waiting on the line right n-“
“I’ve got my victim right here,” the brooding voice interrupts. My mind goes utterly blank and I’m just sitting there in stunned silence, thinking of something to say. This seems to happen every damn time a call deviates from the norm.
“I know about your clever little set-up over there… The impenetrable time vortex.”
The hairs on the back of my neck are standing on edge.
“You’re not the only one who can play about in the space-time continuum, you know. And if my demands aren’t met, I’ll make sure a landmark crumbles to ash on an annual basis… Or, one every hour, by our watches.”
“That is, unless you give me the blueprints to your shit-hole call centre.”
I have never been so fucking dumbfounded in my entire life. I barely understand our service’s time vortex set-up as it is, much less how anyone else got their hands on similar technology, or just how the hell I was supposed to give them the secrets to ours. Doesn’t he realise I’m just some nobody with a headset, sitting in front of a computer screen?
“Let me… put you through to my supervisor,” I respond after some heavy thought. This is met with a click. Then a dial tone sounds. Oh, God. What have I gotten myself into?
After the call, I make my way through the sea of faceless drones, scared and bewildered. I tell the supervisor everything that happened, but the concern falls on deaf ears as they hand me a bomb threat procedure and tell me to mark it down next time he calls. The fucking bomb threat procedure. Never before have I seen a list of such asinine questions. Does the caller sound aggressive or passive? Yes, funnily enough, the person threatening to blow up innocent civilians by the thousands sounds fucking aggressive!! But there’s nothing more I can do, other than sit back down and take more calls, pure dread festering in the darkest corners of my mind. And surely enough, catastrophe eventually forges its way onto the calendar, and we’re met with an influx of calls from a brand new past tragedy.
R.I.P. Sears Tower. Firebombed to rubble December 21, 1984.
I press the button. Some idiot’s gone to work leaving her curling tongs on, only to come home to a pile of ash-black debris. I press the button again. Grease fire at a fast food restaurant. I press it again. Arsonist at the zoo, that’s a new one. The clock ticks forward slower than ever as I just keep pushing the same fucking buttons and saying the same fucking lines over and over again. I stare at my clock-off time of 8 written on a tiny slip on my desk, but the image turns sideways in my head and the end of my shift becomes forever away. The sad fact is, I almost miss talking to the firebomber. At least he was interesting. Sadly, with the employee count here well into the triple digits, and our average call length being less than a minute, the chances of me actually getting the bastard – should he even call again – are borderline infinity. Or so I thought…
It was exactly 59 minutes since the firebomber first rang. When you have a job as shit-fuckingly boring as mine, you count time by the minutes. Seconds. Milliseconds.
“So, did you get what I asked for?” the gravely voice interjects not one syllable into my spiel. I recognise him instantly, hesitating cautiously before I respond.
“You blew up the Sears Tower…”
“No shit. Already got everything set for target #2, too.”
I don’t know why, but I skim through the bomb threat procedure again. Can you ascertain the caller’s whereabouts?
“Where are you?” I ask, if only for the fact that I can’t think of anything else to say.
“Please! You don’t even know when I am,” the voice shoots back. It was true. All his information was blocked; he must’ve somehow found a way to scramble our system. Which would explain how he came back through to me. That was no coincidence. He could’ve had his eyes on any damn landmark, too. The Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the White House… He could pre-date them all right now, for all I know. Or God forbid, be outliving them.
“I don’t know how you expect me to get the information you want,” I respond. “This place is just one huge bureaucracy, the amount of clearance needed to find out about it… I don’t even think anyone on this floor has that level of authority.”
“I didn’t ask for anyone on your floor to do this!! I asked you. It has to be you, got it?”
“You’ve got another hour. So, you can either spend it trying to comprehend this, or you can get me what I asked for, and spare your country from mourning the collapse of landmark number 3. Okay?”
”Number 3?! What about num-”
A deafening explosion sounds on the firebomber’s end for a matter of seconds before the line goes dead again. Turns out, landmark number 2 was the Washington Monument. Blown to smithereens a measly 16 months after being built.
This was serious. The firebomber was only going to keep going, leaving a trail of destruction as he struck more places. The death toll would just keep rising and rising. And, for some reason, I was the only person who could put a stop to it all. Why me? Was I special in his eyes? The chosen one, if you will? He could’ve just been trying to keep himself on the down low by only dealing with one person, and I was merely unfortunate enough to have answered when I did. To my callers and my co-workers, I am nothing more than another faceless drone. A cog in a gigantic, stupid machine. Whether it was destiny or pure bad luck, I would never know. There was no time to ponder, action had to be taken. It was all in my hands now, and I had no fucking clue what to do. My mind was utterly blank. This seems to happen every damn time a day deviates from the norm.
In the grand perspective of things, nothing matters anymore. I’m not just bitching about my lack of purpose, or how this job sucks your soul out from under you. This is the closest thing I’d ever had at work to an epiphany. My career is meaningless in comparison to what’s at stake. It had been years since I’d even attempted to hack into anything. The knowledge is now just lying dormant in the back of my brain, rotting away like the rest of me. The work server was one of the most impenetrable in the state. Country. World. And breaching office security was a federal offence. But there was no other option left at this point. I know this will get me fired, and probably even imprisoned. I just have to hope I can uncover the relevant files in time and give them to the firebomber before my life is shattered to pieces. And, turning my monitor away ever so slightly to a more private angle, I start hacking like I never have before. If this was the only significant task I would ever do in my life, then I was sure as hell going to give it everything I had. The sad fact is, I no longer actually care about keeping my job. Nor am I perturbed by committing treason. Or even just what the hell this guy could potentially do with our secrets once he had them. At least it’s interesting.
I could bore you with the details of how I hacked into a top-secret government database, firewalled to all hell, and sifted through a slew of covert knowledge in order to uncover the reports and documents in question then save them onto my desktop. But when you have a job as fuck-cuntingly boring as mine, the last thing you want to do is drag others into the conscience raping abyss of boredom you’ve been swallowed by. Suffice it to say, it sure as hell livened up my day, and it was certainly nice to be challenged at work for once. And as I sit here, once again staring at the clock as I wait for the firebomber to call back again, I come to realise I’m probably not a good person. At least, not anymore. But, when he calls again, I will give him what he wants and then willingly accept whatever fate brings. After all, I am saving lives by doing this… Right?
I press the button and star letting calls back through. It begins with forest fires in Colorado, circa 2012. I press the button again. It’s the 40’s again, and a docked freighter has turned Texas City to smoulder. I press the button again. Boston 1872. I press the button again. A barn fire has set all of Chicago ablaze. I press the button over and over again, until finally I get a caller with all their details blocked. It’s him. I don’t say a word this time; I just sit there, waiting for him to speak.
“So, did you get what I asked for?” Sure enough, right on cue.
“I have all the specs on our technology. Plans, blueprints; everything from the design stages right through to the finished product.”
“And can you get it to me?”
“Well, that depends whether or not you’re in an era where email exists.”
“I can be. If you give me a few minutes.”
The firebomber proceeds to tell me his email address, and instructs me to send him the attachment in exactly five minutes. Which is a hell of a lot longer in call centre time. But I follow his instructions to a tee, and several calls later, I click the send button and I’m overcome with a flush of both relief and dread. There would be no more carnage. At least not by my hand, anyway. I hope. Wherever the third target was, whenever it was, it was safe. I still remember the final exchange I had with him in that call.
“You’re saving a lot of lives by doing this, you know.”
“Am I really?”
And then a dial tone rang through my ears, like white noise singing one to sleep on the operating table. There was nothing left to do but struggle through the rest of my shift until the aftermath came to rain down upon me.
Another lifetime passes by. Or, perhaps it already has. Even with the clock right in front of me, it’s still impossible to gauge time where I work. The sad fact is, I actually made it through to the end of my shift. The number 8 emanates from the corner of my screen and burns into my retina, tinging my final moments in the call centre with an acute sense of injustice. Nobody came to tell me I was fired for breaching security. I was not carted off to a state penitentiary, or even given so much as a slap on the wrist. The supervisor came down at one point, but it was only to take the bomb threat procedure back. They didn’t even ask if the person in question called again. Does the caller have a list of demands? Only one, and I sabotaged everything to meet them. And now… Nothing. I sit in dumbfounded silence for almost a full minute before getting up and clocking out. Grabbing my things, I walk slowly to the door and take the elevator downstairs, still half expecting my punishment to come on the way out of the building. Almost hoping for it. But still, nothing. It feels like I’ve been sitting in my shit-caked cubicle for an eternity, waiting for it all to lead somewhere, but all that’s left is the reminiscent echo of a dial tone, playing on an endless loop in my head as I make my way out of the building. At least my shift was over. I could finally leave.
As I step outside from the ground floor, I’m confounded with a wall of fire, flames snipping at my heels as I spy a mass of faceless drones somewhere in the searing red distance. There’s nowhere else to go so I step in line and proceed to follow them deeper and deeper into the dark pit of eternal despair. Side by side with the salesmen and the arsonists. Truth be told, my place in hell had been secured long before I committed treason. I’d resigned myself from all ambition many lifetimes ago; everything that followed was merely a way to round out the clock until it all finally ended. And yet, I’m confounded by an odd sense of satisfaction as the fire engulfs all that remains of me. In the grand scheme of things, it seems to be fitting. I no longer need to ponder whether or not I’m a good person, after all. And, hey. At least hell might be interesting.
…Fuck, I hate my job.