The glass of water on the table is far more interesting than it should be. It shimmers in the too-yellow, too-bright light of the overhead panel. I wish they'd turn it off. I don't need it to stay awake. Not to mention it makes us look like we're in the middle of a jaundice epidemic.
I look up to find Karl peering at me from behind the cubicle divider. Typical. With theatrical flare, I open the bottle in my hand, take two pills, and swallow them down with the water. I think he likes watching me take the meds, like it's some kind of sick fetish, and who am I to disappoint?
"Karl," I say.
"Yeah, Hells?" He means it to sound casual, but his words come too quickly. I think he overdosed himself again. I figure his theory is: Why take two pills, when I can take three and be more awake and productive and talk really, really, fast even when I don't mean to?
"Do you remember darkness?" I ask, "Remember dreaming?"
"Not really," he says, "It's been so long. And the lights are so bright. I think it makes me not remember things. Like it's searing my scull, burning a hole right through my brain. But it's not so bad. It goes all the way out the other side. Just take the pills, keep going, get the work done. Some day they'll figure it all out. Some day thing's will be back to normal. Just keep working, doing our little part to save the world."
I stare at the paperwork I still have to do. It's getting harder and harder to care. I don't know why anyone cares about anything anymore, really.
Karl's disembodied voice floats to my ear. "Hells. Hells...?"
I know it's the damn drugs. I never used to zone out like this. They won't let me opt out. If I don't take the pills, they'll stick a needle in me, and I hate needles.
"Yeah. I'm good." The pills are chalky, painful. They write hate messages on the inside of my throat.
"Listen, you know that new kid that's starting?" Karl grins at me, chinless. I hate that I can't see his chin. He always hides it behind the top of the cubicle. I think he's self-conscious about his stupid chin because there's a mole on it with three thick black hairs, each pointing in a different direction.
"Yeah," I say, "what about him?"
"He's... uh... well, he's here. And you got to train him."
Stupid chinless Karl. He should never have been promoted to supervisor. He was all right before, when he was just an overachiever. Now he's an overachiever who gets paid more.
I take another sip of water, more to swallow my animosity than to wash away the bitter aftertaste of the pills. "Fine. Where is he?"
A second, younger, head pops up beside Karl's.
"Hullo, new kid."
"Why'd Karl call you Hells? Is it really your name? That's a strange name, you know, but I kind of like it. You're pretty. I mean, pretty pretty, not really beautiful exactly, but I'm glad you're going to be training me, because it's better to be trained by someone who's pretty pretty than beautiful because it'll be easier to concentrate. Don't you think so? I do because--"
"Karl, just because you can handle three pills, doesn't mean everyone can."
"Yeah," says Karl, "Well. You might have a point there. Anyway, take the kid and see what you can do with him. Find him a place to call home."
"Anything for you, Karl." He knows as well as I do that I don't mean it. Sometimes I'm such a bitch. He shoots me a smile that looks remarkably like a raised middle finger would look if it was a bunch of crooked teeth. I grin back. He shakes his head and disappears behind the cubicle. The kid comes around to my side, dragging a chair.
"The name's Jones," he says, "Well, that's my last name, but people call me by it. My first name's Jones, too. My parents filled out the form wrong and didn't get around to changing it because they said it was back when sleep was first outlawed and they were too ti--"
"Listen. Kid. Skip the sob story. Have some water and calm the fuck down."
I pass him my glass and he takes a sip. At least he's obedient.
Then he asks, "Is your name really Hells?"
"Fine. I'll answer that, and then we're going to get to work. My name's Ella. Karl calls me Hells--"
Karl pops up again, chin-level. He'd probably been listening in all along. "Because in the early days, she'd always say, 'this must be what Hell's like.' Like it was her motto or something. And now it's her name."
They laugh. I don't.
"Pile of papers to go through. Computer to input the data. Piles of paper you've gone through." I point to each in turn.
"What are the papers for?" he asks.
I smile. "It doesn't matter what the papers are for. Your job is to feed them in here. Confirm input. Move them to the other pile. Repeat until your shift is over."
"Then go home and sleep?"
I raise an unimpressed eyebrow. "You're too young to make jokes about things you don't even remember."
"I remember sleeping! I was --"
"How many times do I have to tell you I don't want to hear your sob story? Don't answer that. Just nod you understand what the job entails as I've described it."
"Hells?" he says, not nodding.
"Do you -- Karl says this'll help with the nightmares. He says the computer'll figure it out, how to make it so people who fall asleep don't die. And then sleep will be legit again..."
"And you believe him?" I laugh. "Of course, you do. You took the third pill."
He smiles the self-confident, over-medicated smile of the next generation, a smile that says he believes things will change, must change.
I want to roll my eyes. Instead I tell him what the papers are for.