Hanging On The Telephone

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'You gotta hang up on the suicides.'

On the telephone, the girl was sobbing gently.

Sofia had been listening in, slumped in her chair at a desk just like the thirty others in the room. She'd felt the need to be quiet: she was intruding on something private, even though there was no way she'd ever be heard. The voice startled her. 'What?'

'Not our job. Just mark them mundane and move on.' The voice belonged to Carlos, her supervisor as of about fifteen minutes ago.

'I…'

'Look, I'll do it for you.'

On Sofia's screen, the cursor moved and the big red NEGATIVE button was pressed. The faint hiss of the telephone line, along with the girl's sobbing, abruptly stopped.

'Listen, you don't want to get too drawn in. We're just here for the weird shit. Let the regular dispatchers handle the rest.'

Sofia let out a breath. '…yeah. Of course. Right.'

'Next call.'

The dialogue on screen read:

USA, Illinois - 911 call
Language: English
Key words: Fifth, smoke
Operative to evaluate

In Sofia's ear, Carlos sighed. 'You'll see a lot of these.'

*click*


The advertisement hadn't seemed out of the ordinary. "TELEPHONE OPERATORS REQUIRED. FLEXIBLE HOURS, DAY OR NIGHT. DISCRETION REQUIRED." What drew Sofia's attention was the pay rate, which was one and a half times what she was making in telemarketing. So, lying on her futon in the dark, laptop open, she went to apply.

The website was bare bones. No company name. No stock photos of smiling people wearing headsets. There wasn't even a proper URL, just an IP address. The page had the advertisement text again, and a link to an application form. She clicked it.

Much of it was the usual. Name, address. Previous employers, references. Then a "suitability questionnaire". Click through..

768 questions? She had nearly quit right there. Job applications had gotten more and more bullshit every year, but this…

The questions didn't improve Sofia's mood. What kind of job wants to know if you like the taste of blueberries? She ended up filling it out slowly over the course of an evening, in between scrolling through old texts from David. Fucking David.

'Question five three six: "I enjoy the ticking sounds of a mechanical clock." Uh. Disagree?'

She reached the end around midnight, clicked Send, closed her laptop and rolled over onto her back. Well, that was probably a waste of time.

She should give David a call.


The American's voice was scratchy in her ear. 'Yeah, that was the fifth time I saw smoke today.'

The dispatcher had the clipped patience Sofia was coming to expect. 'Sir, the police can't respond to smoke from a field as an emergency, even if it's blowing over your property. You need to..'

Carlos cut in. 'Ditch it.'

Sofia clicked NEGATIVE, and the call cut off.

'I don't know why the algorithm sends us those, but the higher-ups say we have to screen every one. I'll be honest with you, it fucking sucks. Next call.'

On screen:

USA, Oregon - non-emergency police call
Language: English
Key words: beast, wolf
Operative to evaluate

'Probably someone saw a big dog.' drawled Carlos.

*click*


A week later, an email. An office building downtown; unmarked, no logo, no signage at all to speak of beyond the street number. An intercom: she gave her name, received an acknowledging buzz and the click of an unlocked door. A sign said "APPLICANTS: ROOM THREE" and pointed an arrow.

She sat on a bench, in a grey, thinly carpeted room with seventeen other applicants - she'd counted, for lack of anything else to do.

After fifteen minutes, an announcement. The voice was honeyed yet synthetic, like auditory candy. "Hello applicants. This is the second stage of the recruitment process for the role of telephone operative. These tests will decide your suitability for employment. Please remain silent unless asked to speak. If you are asked to leave, you have failed a test and regrettably will not be invited to continue the application process. Please do not discuss these tests or any part of the application process with anyone."

They were led into a darkened room. A projector showed a series of images: flowers, a rocket launch, static, dancing patterns. Sofia watched in silence. Nothing was asked of her or seemed expected. She recalled a school trip to an art gallery, the soft, warm silence of people trying to look like they were concentrating. She felt ridiculous.

As they filed out, two women received a touch on the shoulder from a suit in dark glasses: apparently they were not progressing further. Sofia wondered what they had done.

The rest of the applicants returned to the first room. Here they were given headphones. A woman gave simple instructions: raise your left arm. Count backwards from ten. As Sofia worked through them, three more people got a light tap on the shoulder, took their headphones off, and left the room.

The remainder were led into a room painted floor to ceiling in yellow, asked to sit in yellow chairs. At the front, a woman in a yellow dress and red, horn-rimmed spectacles sat expressionless behind a glockenspiel. Once they were all gathered, she stood and played three notes, and then said something in what sounded like German.

Sofia felt nothing, but the guy next to her made a soft choking sound, and suddenly two dark suits were behind him, pulling him up by the shoulders, and hauling him out of the room. Sofia would have sworn he'd started bleeding from one ear.

Sofia's head swam. What was this? Some sort of cult? She considered just making a break for the door, getting out, going back to her mother and her futon and her telesales and David, who was a shit but at least he looked good.

She was surprised to find herself crying. Apparently that wasn't disqualifying.


The werewolf call took longer to evaluate.

'You can scrub back and forth in the audio with the timeline here,' said Carlos, demonstrating with her cursor, 'if you want to hear what you missed before you opened the call, or you need to hear something again.'

The caller was describing how a fence had been torn down and several of their sheep had been killed. The police officer on the other end sounded bored, but took down the details and then said it was probably a matter for Animal Control. The damage definitely sounded dramatic, but Sofia honestly had no idea whether it was unnatural.

'If you don't have enough information, you can mark it Unsure.' Carlos indicated the yellow button. 'It'll get cycled back for another operative to analyse, and flagged for later analysis if it turns out to be part of a pattern. You're not always going to know.'

Sofia scrubbed around for a bit. 'I guess you're right.' She clicked Unsure.

'Okay. Bring on the next contestant.'

United Kingdom - 999 emergency services call
Language: English
No key words.
Flagged POSITIVE for description of nonstandard reality (68% confidence)
Operative to evaluate

'Ahaha. These are always fun.' cackled Carlos.

*click*


After two hours of assessments, there were only three candidates left. A shadow fell over her, and then whispered in her ear.

'Sofia Muñoz?'

It was the first time anyone had addressed her directly all day. The speaker was a middle-aged woman, with greying hair in a severe bun, dressed in the same anonymous suits all the staff here had. Sofia prayed that wasn't going to be the dress code.

'Follow me,' the woman said.

Sofia followed, into what appeared to be an unoccupied conference room, with more of the drab carpet and aggressive lack of furnishing she was coming to expect. There was a table, at least.

'Have a seat.'

Sofia sat opposite the woman, who was scrolling though a tablet computer. There was a lengthy silence, and then an intake of breath:

'To pre-empt the obvious questions. Yes, this is a real job. This isn't a cult, a scam, performance art, or a multi-level marketing scheme. The secrecy, the anonymity, the testing: these are all unfortunate necessities. You will come to understand if you are successful and accept our offer. We need the right kind of people, and so far you are one of them.'

The woman looked up for the first time since they'd entered the room, and cast a long, appraising stare at Sofia.

'Fluent Spanish and English. You absorb information quickly. Cognitive scores in the 85th percentile, you're smarter than you let on. You can cope well with stress, and you don't panic when things get outside of your experience. Compliance scoring is a little high, but we can bring that down: you need a better sense of your own self-worth. Boyfriend?'

Sofia gaped. 'Uh.. I.. it's…'

'Complicated? He's exploiting you, drop him. Like I say, self-esteem is an issue.' Sofia bridled: the woman raised a hand. 'You want to react to that. That's a defense mechanism, and it's proving my point. Secure people can take criticism. We need secure people.'

'I… okay?' Sofia's voice cracked a little.

'And that upset you. That's entirely normal. The objective is not to control your emotions but to be conscious of them. Part of you is resenting my attitude right now. That's natural. You have never had a personal assessment like this in your life and you may never again. Even if you choose not to move forward with us, I would hope you can gain something from the experience. So: feel your feelings, observe them, name them, and do not let them master you. Do you understand?'

Sofia nodded.

'The suits are not dress code, by the way. We use them to anonymise for the safety of our recruitment employees. You can wear what you like.' She gazed levelly at Sofia. 'You were adjusting the hem of your skirt,' she added, by way of explanation.

Sofia flinched, her clammy hand snapping guiltily away. She felt she should say something, so she did: 'What…'

'You want to know what you'll be doing. Regrettably, for reasons of information security, we cannot explain until you have accepted the contract of employment. However, we can describe the following characteristics of the job: minimum 40 hours per week. We operate 24/7, 365 days a year. Within that, hours can be flexible. The job involves taking telephone calls and making decisions about them, often under pressure. It can be emotionally taxing. It requires the utmost discretion. There are paths to future occupational development and promotion but these are not guaranteed and are subject to more stringent forms of assessment.

'As far as you presently understand them, are these terms of employment acceptable to you?'

Sofia swallowed. 'I… uh. Yes?'

The woman smiled.

'Then I can show you the video.' There was a click and a low whirr, as a projector screen descended from the ceiling.


'My mouth has gone. I need to get it back,' the caller moaned.

The operator was a model of patience. 'Sir. Have you taken any hallucinogenic drugs?'

'I don't know what that is.'

'Have you taken any pills, or tablets?'

'I can't. I don't have a mouth.'

'Sir, then how are you talking to me?'

The caller paused for a long time. 'Oh. I guess I do have a mouth.'

In Sofia's ear, Carlos was cracking up. 'Classic.'

'Sir, did you take any pills or…'

'I guess so,' the caller confessed, sheepishly.

Carlos snickered. 'Okay, cut this one loose.'

Sofia hit NEGATIVE.

'The acid calls are the best part of the job,' said Carlos. 'They're like little mental health breaks.' He sighed. 'Okay, I'm gonna sit back for the next few, alright? You make the decisions, I'll only step in if I think you have a live one. Let's spin the wheel…'

*click*


It looked, and sounded, like one of those portentous documentaries that claims to tell you how current scientific advances suggest we're all definitely going to die. A deep man's voice intoned over what looked like stock footage: cars, cities, a time-lapse of a growing plant…

'The world functions according to rules. Science has allowed mankind to explain most phenomena in terms of systems of mathematical principles: physics, chemistry, biology.'

The footage changed: this time to grainy, black and white images of things like UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and a few others Sofia didn't recognise.

'Occasionally humans claim to observe phenomena which defy these principles, and such experiences are called paranormal, or supernatural. Most experiences of this kind, on investigation, turn out to be explicable within the realm of science as we understand it, or are the products of hoaxes, hallucinations, mass hysteria.'
'There are exceptions.'

The screen went white. A logo appeared: a circle in a circle, three inward pointing arrows.

'At the Foundation, we investigate the exceptions. Our job is to find those rare phenomena that do not accord with ordinary reality and catalogue them.
'In doing so, we are making the world safer.'

That, apparently, was it.

The woman clicked a button, and the screen folded back up. 'So?'

Sofia wanted to burst out laughing. 'This is… you're ghost hunters?'

'Essentially, yes.'

'You're going to pay me to listen to phone calls to find aliens?'

'If they call, yes.'

Sofia paused. 'And you're definitely going to pay me?'

The woman smiled. 'Very good. It's important to be sceptical, but even better to be sceptical about the most salient things. You'll do well.'

Sofia locked eyes with the woman. If this was some elaborate practical joke, she gave no hint of it.

'When do I start?'


999, UK. Key words: fifth, star, breath. Caller describes their friend having struggled to breathe while watching the fifth Star Wars movie. NEGATIVE.

911, Washington, USA. Key words: bear, appear, math. Sounded like a normal bear, caller mentions math colloquially. NEGATIVE.

Local police, Colombia. Key words: childhood friend, Eva, Enriqueta. Caller describes two missing persons. Sounds tragic, but probably not weird, right? UNSURE.

911, California, USA. Key words: star, signal. Caller is amateur radio astronomer complaining about… something-or-other interfering with his signals. NEGATIVE.

Police, Canada. Key words: wedding, "Cousin Johnny". Caller describes bride having abandoned their cousin at the altar. NEGATIVE.

911, Texas, USA. Key words: fifth, stars, smoke. God, another of these? NEGA… wait.

'The smoke is coming for y'all, brother.' said the caller. 'I feel it under my skin. Don't you?'

More acid talk, Sofia thought, but she kept listening.

'We're watching the stars die, but there are new ones ready to be born, just at the base of your throat. You can feel them there, can't you? Burning at the base of your esophagus. You only need to open your jaw and sing and the stars will be born, you'll retch up the true new miracle right in front of you.'

The caller's voice had a sing-song quality, like he was singing in harmony with himself.

'There's a crack that runs through the midline of your skull. You just need to reach in and yank it open, and let that beautiful plasma out.'

No, wait. That's not the caller. There's an actual second voice along with the first, singing along.

That's the dispatcher, saying the same words, in harmony.

'Carlos? I think I've got… I mean, why would…'

Carlos was quiet a moment. Then: 'Yeah, that seems… I'd send that one up.'

Trembling slightly, Sofia clicked POSITIVE.

The screen flickered, and said ESCALATING… and then… *click*.

'Is that it?' Sofia said.

'That's it.' Carlos said. 'Whatever that was, it's out of our hands.'


At the end of the day, Sofia got her phone and her jacket from the locker on the ground floor, and stepped out into a warm Bogotá evening.

As soon as she got outside, it rang.

DAVID

Calling…

ACCEPT or DECLINE. Green or red.

She let it run to voicemail. David's voice was breathy. She hated how good he sounded.

'Sofia. I know you're listening. I wanna see you, girl. You're the only one for me, you know that? I'm all about you. Pick up the phone.'

A pause.

'You're so beautiful, girl, you know that?'

Key words, Sofia thought.

'Come on, girl. Don't leave me disappointed. I need you.'

It's important to be sceptical, Sofia thought.

'Where you gonna find another guy like me, huh?'

Self-esteem is an issue, Sofia thought.

She pressed red.

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