Atomic

rating: +103+x

'I know you're there,' said the voice in Sofia's ear.

She said nothing. There was nothing to say.

'I can hear you breathing.'

She held her breath, pointless though it was.

'You can't avoid me forever. I'll keep calling. Whatever it takes, you will listen to me.'

Click.


Buzz. The intercom. Someone wanting to be let into the building.

Sofia stopped scrolling her phone, rose from her bed, stretched. She picked up the receiver.

'Who is it?'

'Maria.' The voice was rich and smoky, and Sofia remembered it like it was yesterday, because it was.

'Oh. Oh fuck.' Sofia leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. What had she expected?

'I remember, mystery girl. I remember everything.'

'Right. Yeah.' Fuck.

'They tried to slip me something, but I-'

Sofia rushed to interrupt her. 'No, don't. Don't talk about it.'

There was a quiet moment, with just the hum of the intercom.

'Aren't you going to invite me up?' said Maria.

Sofia held her breath. 'I really shouldn't. I'm not meant to.'

'But you want to.'

Sofia said nothing.

Then she pressed the button that unlocked the door.

Click.


'What do I have to do to get through to you people?'

'I've been on hold for an hour, you're just passing me around.'

'I'm a paying customer. You'll be hearing from my lawyer.'

'Goddamnit! You're useless. Fucking useless.'

Click.


The words scrolled in one by one from the side of the screen, the speaker wagging a finger in time: 'Remember: nothing you hear here should leave here!'

Sofia was sitting with ten operatives in a presentation room. Dimly, Sofia remembered it as where she'd had her first interview.

The man presenting was short, balding, and on autopilot. His name was Felix.

'You'll know about your clearance. That gives a general level of how much you're allowed to know, a level of trust in which you're held, based on how much the Foundation knows it can trust you. But as important as clearance is, it's not the real key.

'The word is compartmentalized. This is what really protects the Foundation, and what protects you: you only know exactly what you need to know, no more, and no less. And that's true of everyone who works for us.'

Clip-art of a cardboard box dissolved in.

'This way, if any information does get where it shouldn't, the damage is contained.

'So, don't ask about your co-workers' jobs, or the calls they've been on. You can know their names, exchange pleasantries, but fraternisation outside the workplace is prohibited. Think of yourself as being in a bubble, rolling around the office. If you need to discuss cases you can do that with your supervisor.

'On the plus side: this is one job you never have to take home with you!'

He chuckled at his own joke. 'Seriously though, if you ever do take any materials from the office home with you there are very strict sanctions you'll be subject to, so please don't do that.'

He coughed. 'Okay, next slide.' He pressed a button.

Click.


'God, the cell coverage here sucks. You keep dropping in and out.'

'I think I'm losing you. Have I lost you?'

'Damnit, I'm going through a tunnel. If you can hear me, I-'

Click.


Maria was standing in her doorway, in a furred coat that covered her to her knees, and heels. She looked Sofia up and down, and smiled.

'Do I get your name now?' she said.

'Sofia,' said Sofia.

'Sofia,' she said, sounding each syllable out carefully. 'I knew it would be a pretty name.'

Maria walked in with the easy confidence of someone who'd been in this apartment before, which, of course, she had. She gestured expressively with her hands, thin bangles clattering as she did so. 'So, hey. What the fuck, right? What was this?'

Sofia took a breath. How much did she already know? She thought back through their encounter, how she'd talked her through the advancing shadow and the city turned to slush.

'It's my job,' she said, simply.

'Your job. You're with the police?'

'No. I'm not meant to say.'

'And you, what, you.. talk to people when they're being chased by shadow monsters?' By now, she was sitting on the kitchen counter, swinging her legs around as she talked.

'No. I mean. Normally I just listen. I don't usually get to talk. You were my first.'

Maria raised an expertly-shaped eyebrow. 'Lucky me.'

'Look, I'm glad you're okay. And, and I'm glad you remember. But I can't be- I shouldn't be talking to you.'

'Because this is all some big secret?'

'Because I don't know what they'll do if they find out.'

Maria looked at Sofia closely. Sofia was slumped sitting against the wall.

'So this is some sort of black ops thing? They're gonna disappear me if I poke around?'

'I don't know! Maybe? I just do the phones.' Sofia swallowed. 'We're told to keep it all quiet, not tell anybody, we have to sign stuff, and it's big, maybe even global. There's at least a hundred people just at our office, and there must be more.'

'All that just for shadow men hunting people in cities made of goo?'

Sofia shook her head. 'No. There's more than that.'

'Like what?'

'I really can't tell you. Even I don't know what most of it is. There's layers and layers above me, I'm… I'm not really anyone.'

Maria looked at her.

'You saved me.'

Sofia looked at the floor. Slowly, she said: 'I don't think it's safe for you. To be here, I mean. I think… I think you have to leave.'

Maria pursed her lips. Then she rummaged in her bag: white, leather, looked expensive. She retrieved a business card.

'I get it. But look. I work at this club, right? I'm there every night except Tuesdays. If you want somewhere else to talk, if you want to see me again…'

Sofia said nothing.

Maria placed the card on her side table.

'I hope you do,' she said, over her shoulder. And then she was gone.

The door closed.

Click.


'Hello?'

'Hello?'

'Hell-oh?'

Click.


Morning staff meeting for the incoming level one shift. Sofia sat on a folding chair with ten others, while Felix and his moustache went through his slides.

'Okay, quick heads up: we've had reports from Fourteen that intermittent phenomenon Turquoise Sunset is back again-'

A few of the employees groaned.

'So if you're getting calls that say OPERATIVE TO LISTEN, just listen to the call through. Remember, they're not real calls, it's all coming from inside the system, but they have to hang up on you. Listen all the way through.'

Sofia raised a hand. 'Sorry… what is this?'

'Ghosts in the phones,' said another operative, and there was some scattered laughter. Felix shot him a look, and harrumphed to regain control of the room.

'For the newer staff members, Turquoise Sunset is the assigned name for a phenomenon in which our office receives telephone calls that originate from within the telephone system itself. The calls complain about various things; technical problems with the phones, not being able to get to the people they want. Procedure is to listen to the calls in full. Further information is, everybody now:'

'Above your clearance.' they chanted, in ragged unison.

'Okay, next slide.'

Click.


'Am I getting through?'

No, Sofia thought. You're not.

'The line is bad.'

Worse than you know. she thought.

The voices were different each time, and all they ever said was this kind of thing: they were trying to get through, they got disconnected, there was something wrong with the line. The computer marked them as 'unknown caller - unknown source'. And then simply 'Operative to listen.'

'There's so much interference. It's…. it's all messed up'

They always sounded weary. Some were angry, or confused, or frustrated, or despairing. But mostly, they were tired.

'I can't hear you. I'll have to hang up.'

Click.


Sofia stood behind a colleague, a curly haired girl in large round glasses, forming a queue of two for the drinks machine. A warm, stuffy silence stretched, uncomfortably

What the heck, Sofia thought. 'So how's it going?' she said.

The girl squeaked and spun round. 'Oh. Um. It's fine.'

'Beats telemarketing, right?'

The girl smiled weakly.

'Sorry,' she said. 'I make it a rule to talk to nobody but my supervisor. It's just easier, right? Nothing personal. I just… don't do anything personal.'

And she left.

Easier. Sofia thought. She hit the button for a Diet Coke.

Click.


'Delivery, please.'

'Are you there? Delivery? It's about my grandson's cake.'

'Oh dear. I think I pressed the wrong number at the robot lady.'

'These modern systems are so confusing. I just want to talk to a human being.'

'I'll try again, I suppose. Sorry I got it wrong.'

Click.


'Any suicidal thoughts?'

'No,' Sofia said.

'Depression?'

'No. I mean, life sucks and all, but I get through it, you know?'

The psychiatrist made a note.

"Mandatory psychiatric evaluation twice a month." was how one of the introductory seminars had described it. There wasn't a couch. Sofia felt like there should be. Instead, there was a chair, a desk, and a checklist.

The pen scratched over paper. 'Do you feel like you've seen, or heard, anything that wasn't real?'

She laughed. 'Every day, because that's the job. This morning I had a caller screaming about a vampire. What counts as real for this question?'

'Not what you hear on calls. Anything that other people around you didn't seem to see, or hear.'

Sofia tried to remember the last time she'd really had people around her. 'No,' she said.

'Any feelings towards your coworkers? Rage, fear, anything like that?'

'I don't know anyone here enough to get angry at them.'

'Mm,' said the psychiatrist. He ticked a few boxes. 'Well, that's us through the checklist. You're all clear to continue working. Anything else you need to talk about?'

Sofia considered the man. He wore a moss-green jacket and a blue tie. He looked about fifty, already grey. She didn't know his name. She'd never seen him in the building before and it wouldn't surprise her if she never did again. His desk was bare of personal effects: this wasn't even his permanent office. He was just here to do a job.

'Anything that's bothering you?.

'No,' said Sofia.

'Okay then. You're free to go.' He signed the sheet and then hit the button on his pen, to retract it.

Click.


'Help me.'

'Please. Help me. I can't feel my legs.'

'I'm all alone, it's dark. I can't feel anything.'

'It's all gone. Please.'

'I'm so cold.'

'Please.'

'Please.'

Click.


'Carlos?'

'Yes?' Carlos spun round, drumming his fingers on his armrest. Her supervisor was wearing a clean shirt with buttons, for once, although they still weren't done up all the way.

'The ghost calls. Have we tried talking to them?'

'Probably? Who knows. You're not…

'…cleared to know, yeah. They must have tried, right?'

'Maybe they tried and it made their heads explode.'

'Does that happen?'

Carlos gave Sofia a long look, and said nothing.

Sofia pressed on. 'I'm just saying, people call because they want something, you know? More than just to be heard. They want to connect.'

Carlos shrugged. 'Did you have a problem or..?'

'No, I'm.. just making conversation.'

'Well, it isn't working.'

Sofia blinked. 'Woah, okay. Are you mad at me?'

Carlos rubbed his temples. 'I don't have the time or the interest to be mad at you, Sofia. The higher ups are on my ass. Apparently someone suggested I'd been letting things get too lax around here, and so now it's Protocol City, population this poor fucker. Which means sit down, shut up, and do the work in front of you. Alright?'

He span back around, and pressed a button on his headset.

Click.


'Hello? Hello?'

Hi. Sofia thought. You have reached the Foundation. How can we help you today?

'I'm sorry, I can't seem to…'

Thank you for your patience, she thought. We are working to resolve your issue.

'Do I have the right number?'

No, and you never will.

'I think I'm losing you.'

You already lost.

'I keep trying to reach you, but you're gone.'

Feels about right.

'Maybe my phone is dying.'

Maybe you're dead.

'Please don't die.'

'Please.'

Sofia stared at the screen.

'I just want to get through to you. Please don't die.'

It wasn't talking to her. It was just words.

'I can't tell if you heard me. I'll keep trying.'

The call hung up.

Click.


'Please place your head into the semicircular area on the viewing device,' said the synthesised voice with a programmatic calm. It was coming through the oversized, disconcertingly moist headphones she was wearing. Sofia obeyed.

'Memetic inoculation program will begin in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…'

The train of images flashed onto Sofia's retinas, most leaving almost zero conscious impression. Sofia supposed that was the point, as far as she understood it. A few images lingered long enough to actually think about: a rose rendered in false colour, sickly greens and blues; swirling, abstract patterns, in a riot of rainbow shades; a desolate landscape. Some of the images were accompanied by bursts of static, or beeping tones, or more rarely a few words.

One of the longer exposures was a picture of a crying infant. She stared at it, as sounds whistled and buzzed in her ears.

Who even was this baby? she thought, absurdly. Some stock photo? Or did it need to be a specific baby? Is it here to make me feel something? It isn't working. she thought.

She stared some more, at that tiny frozen rictus of pain and despair, calling out for comfort that would never come, stuck in that instant by the camera's eye. She'd heard that people had once believed cameras stole a piece of your soul, with every click. She had thousands of pictures of herself just on her phone. Maybe that was why she felt so hollow.

The child was still there. She thought: I hope someone held you, after. I hope someone reached out.

The program finished, and the shutter closed over the viewing device with a click.


'Come on, come on,' said the caller. 'This time, connect.'

Sofia's microphone wasn't on for these calls. There was no way even to switch it on; no button on-screen to intervene, to try and talk. They evidently didn't trust her with that. She thought about Carlos' exploding heads.

'They have to pick up. They have to,' it continued.

'They don't have to do anything,' Sofia said, under her breath. 'They figured you out enough to lock you away, and then they stopped trying.'

The voice paused. Sofia realised this one was breathing heavily. Or at least, it thought it was. 'Pick up, pick up,' it panted.

'I'm sorry,' Sofia said, uselessly. 'We shouldn't have given up on you. We should have kept trying.'

'Just work this one time! Damn it, this one time! I just need-'

Click.

Sofia felt tears in her eyes, and felt foolish for having them, and felt angry for feeling foolish.

She wondered what the voice had wanted.

She thought she knew.


The club was nearly empty, which made sense for a Monday. On stage, a girl Sofia's age leaned languorously against a pole, for the attention of whoever might be watching, which as far as Sofia could see was no-one.

She sat on a stool, at the bar. The drinks here cost twice what they should, but she'd ordered one anyway, to while away the time. Please be here, she thought.

'Hey.' came the voice.

Maria was next to her.

'You came!' she said.

'I did. I didn't realise you were this kind of dancer.'

Maria shrugged. 'It's a job, you know?'

'Really?'

'Mostly, yeah. You put in the hours and go through the motions. And the money's good.'

Sofia took her in, draped with easy confidence over a bar stool, wearing next to nothing. 'I don't think that's right,' she said. 'Sounds like you're making excuses.'

Maria raised an eyebrow. 'You think so?'

'I'm sure of it. Why do you really work here?'

Maria smiled, and looked down. 'Most of the guys who come here, you know? Sure, they're horny. But mostly what they want is for someone to focus on them for a few minutes. That's what people really want, I think. Just to have a person give them their full attention. Just to.. to…'

'Connect?'

'Right.'

'And you?'

'Dancing is when I feel most real,' she said. She shook her hair back and posed an arm, to illustrate her point. 'I feel part of myself, I'm reminded of my body. I feel.. present, in the moment, you know?'

'Not really.'

'That's a shame, Sofia.' She blinked, slowly. 'So how come you changed your mind?'

Sofia traced a finger around her glass. 'I don't know. Work is weird. Weirder than usual. I just… I wanted someone to see me.'

Maria put a hand to her cheek, and locked eyes with her.

'There. Now you're seen.'

They hung there in a long moment, the beat of the club's music drowned out by the beating of Sofia's heart.

'Now I gotta go change.'


A few minutes later she was sat on the bar, counting money. She was wearing a large, fluffy coat, and had swapped her stilettos for trainers.

'Barely made enough to cover house fee. Slow even for a Monday.'

'Sorry. I probably took you away from the paying customers,' Sofia said.

'It's okay, baby girl. You were worth it.'

Sofia blushed.

Maria got up from the bar and they walked out, Sofia trailing behind. The cool night air blew between them, blowing a few strands of hair into Maria's face. She swept them away.

'It's funny, you know? I never used to mind walking through town alone. But now, I keep looking at it and expecting it to go all mushy on me again.'

'I'm sorry.'

Maria shrugged, her enormous coat brushing up and down around her face. 'We've all seen traumatic shit, you know? You just keep going.'

They walked in silence.

'Maria?' Sofia said.

'Hmm?'

'Come home with me?'

Maria stopped, and turned to face her.

'I don't want to be alone tonight,' Sofia said.

Maria nodded, and extended a hand. 'Show me the way?'

'You already know. You've been to my place. Twice.'

'I know. Show me anyway.'

Sofia smiled, and took her hand, and they moved together.


rating: +103+x
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