Enclosed, for your reading pleasure, a sneak preview of The Volunteer, available for preorder now and out everywhere 5/31.
A terrible screeching sound fills the room, and suddenly I’m awake.
I stare, uncomprehending, at the clock next to my bed, sure that I know how to tell time and yet completely unable to decipher the glowing red lines staring back at me. Something inside me is shouting: “You can’t wake up! The sleep world needs you,” and I’m slowly coming to a realization. That sound isn’t my alarm clock. I’ve simply chosen the worst ringer in the world for my cell phone. My hand reaches out to the nightstand, over the alarm clock that isn’t going off yet, and closes around the phone, while a tiny voice in the back of my brain begs me to ignore the call and seize what little chance for sleep I have left. But people don’t call before five AM unless they have a good reason.
“Ah, yes, Abhi, good morning. I’m sorry if I woke you.” This is the voice of my manager, Debbie. Debbie has never called me so early. She’s talking fast; I’m having a hard time comprehending what she says. “I meant to just leave a voicemail. Listen, the lab is closed today for some emergency repairs, so you needn’t report into work. You won’t be charged any vacation time.”
A free day off. The voice commanding me to go back to sleep is only growing louder, but something about this seems wrong. All of Hamlin closed for emergency repairs? Did it burn down in the night? What happened to the subjects? I can’t ask those questions on an unclassified phone, though. While violent, uncontrollable test subjects roam through the flaming countryside in my sleep-addled brain I settle for asking the vaguest possible question. “Is everything all right?”
She answers quickly. “Yes, yes, of course it is. We don’t know how long the site is going to be closed at this point. Just assume, if you don’t hear from me, that you’re not to come to work indefinitely. If you had any food you left in the refrigerator let us know, and we should be able to compensate you if it spoils. Do you have any other questions?”
If she’s worried about food it’s unlikely that the apocalypse I’m imagining is real. Unable to bring my mind up to full speed this early, I mumble something to the tune of, “No, I understand.”
“Good, that’s good. I don’t mean to rush you off the line like this, but I need to call everyone in the group before they arrive and find the street closed. Enjoy your day or days off; I’ll give you another call to check in soon.” She doesn’t even wait for me to say goodbye, just hangs up as the last few words come out. Or, perhaps the more likely possibility, I fall asleep before the conversation closes, and she hangs up once she realizes I’m no longer responding.
It’s just after seven when I wake up to my actual alarm. I’m feeling substantially more coherent, to the point where I’m able to complete such complicated tasks as hitting the “dismiss” button on the clock. I don’t actually remember the call until I’m getting ready for a shower, and it dawns on me that I could simply go back to sleep again with no consequences. Something about that seems wrong—or perhaps wasteful—so I choose to go out for coffee instead. From then on I follow my normal morning routine as if I were getting ready for work, and am out the door at quarter of eight with my laptop bag over my shoulder. It’s a cold morning, still dark, but the coffee shop is only a few blocks away. I spend most of the walk reminding myself that I’m not going to be accosted by a roaming group of volunteers, and only realize that I’ve forgotten my coat when I’ve practically arrived. There’s no point in having a mental argument, just like there’s no point in imagining what happened at Hamlin.
I get my drink and a breakfast sandwich, and set up with my computer in a comfortable chair facing a large window. From there I can watch the sunrise if I so choose, or look at…something…on the Internet for a while. But I can’t actually think of anything I’d be interested in looking at. Cat pictures, maybe? The first thing I see when I log in is my notebook, still open from the night before, on gradual neural pathway redefinition.
I’m not going to work first thing on my unexpected day of freedom; that would be a huge waste of time. But, at the same time, I’m likely very close to a breakthrough, and if I’m going to be out of work for any appreciable period I’ll probably lose track of my thoughts and be set back hours upon hours. Working on this now is really the only responsible thing to do, and it’s not as if I had any grand plans for the day as it was. I nod to myself, as if I need some physical affirmation that the cat pictures can wait, and begin studying my notes and drinking my coffee. It’s in this position that I pass the better part of the morning, and I resume work back in my apartment after lunch, and before long the entire day is gone. Perhaps I’m not built for days off.
Two weeks pass in much the same way, without any further contact from work. At this point I’m relatively sure I’ve been fired, and they simply never bothered to tell me. My mother, who’s been calling every day since I told her what’s happening, is convinced I should give up on the job and move back home. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to fend her off, but I have no interest in sharing an apartment in Queens with her after several years of freedom. My brother would spend the rest of his life laughing at me. Besides, my paycheck arrives on time and ungarnished in my bank account. It appears that the government is content to pay engineers to stay home and waste time. Not that I’ve been wasting time. Even without access to our lab, or any of the test data, I’ve been nearly free of distractions and had no meetings. I’m making great progress on all the unclassified work on my plate. When—if—I finally receive the order to return to work, I’ll be ready to dive back in. Even if I’m weeks behind schedule on cat pictures.
One day, when my imagination is running particularly wild, and it’s unseasonably warm for December, I hop on my bike and take a ride up to Hamlin. It’s a short and scenic trek, so even if I can’t find any hints about what happened I can enjoy watching the birds as I ride. The access road is closed—just as Debbie said it would be—walled off by a few layers of the portable concrete barriers they use for blocking off lanes on the highway. Someone wanted to be sure no one came to work, I suppose. I turn my bike around at the barrier, curiosity still chewing on the back of my skull, and start to ride back. Only something catches my eye as I start pedaling, a trail that leads up into the woods on the right. I wonder why I’ve never noticed it before.
With this new subject to focus my curiosity on, I lean my bike on a tree and follow the trail into the woods and up the rather steep hill that borders the site. This land probably belongs to someone; I’m probably trespassing right now—to say nothing of the chance that someone could be wandering these woods—so every few steps I resolve myself to stop, turn around, and head back to my bike. The resolution finally takes hold when I get to the top of the hill and the trail seems to vanish. Right, so there was nothing to that, the notion has been satisfied, and I can get back to work. Only a big, old tree perched at the top of the hill catches my eye. It has rung after rung of strong branches, like it was grown specifically to be climbed. Up in that tree, maybe twenty feet off the ground, there’s something hanging from a broken limb. I watch it swing back and forth in the wind a few times before deciding that it’s a massive set of binoculars. Weird. My nerves bubble up again, and this time I’m able to convince myself to retreat down the hill to my bike without any trouble. It’s just a bird watcher or a hunter or something; none of my business.
I get back home and bury myself in my work. With the nagging weirdness of the situation hanging over my head I find that it’s best to do as much math as possible to keep my mind too busy to wander. I’m drawing a diagram by hand at my kitchen table when my phone finally does ring, late on a Tuesday morning, and I’ve gotten so used to the all-consuming quiet that the horrifying screech of the ringer—which I seem to be physically incapable of remembering to change—nearly gives me a heart attack. I take a deep breath and steady myself, then pick the phone up without looking at the incoming number.
“Good morning, Abhinav speaking.”
It’s Debbie again, the first human voice I’ve heard that is neither my mother nor a cashier since the last time we spoke. “Ah, good, hello, Abhi. This is Debbie. I’m so sorry we’ve kept you waiting. Have you been enjoying your time off?”
Frowning at the paper in front of me, I carefully erase a covalent bond. “I, what? Yes, I guess. I’ve been wondering, you know.” I didn’t just wake up this time, but I’m still struggling to form a coherent sentence. “Is, I mean, work ready? To reopen, I mean.”
She takes a sharp breath and hesitates before responding. “That’s what I’m calling about, actually. I can’t get very deep into the subject on an open line, but suffice it to say Hamlin will not be reopening.” My heart seems to seize itself up a bit, and suddenly I’m all cold inside. “The damage, apparently, was too great to repair, and the site is being closed.”
I could have climbed that tree and seen exactly what the lab looks like now. That perch probably has an amazing view of the whole site, especially with all the trees bare. Not that that would make a difference, but I would know. I could see the burned out husks of buildings, signs of a breakout, something. “What does that mean? For the project,” I walk over to the window while I’m talking, like there are going to be any answers out there. “What happens to the project?”
“As I said, I can’t get very deep into this subject on the phone. We’ve reserved a conference room on Friday at 2:00 to have a proper meeting and discuss where we go from here. You’re not being laid off or anything like that, so don’t worry yourself too much. Are you able to make it Friday?”
If they want to see me Friday that means I’m not fired. Though, actually, they might just want to fire me in person; I’m not sure how firing works. Can I still be fired if I’m not laid off? Are those things different? I should ask if those things are different. “Absolutely. Yes. I can be there.” Or my mouth can just say whatever it wants to say.
She sounds genuinely pleased by my answer. I think it’s a good sign. “Excellent. I’ll email you the address right after we hang up. And I look forward to seeing you again on Friday, and starting to return to some semblance of normalcy.”
“Right. I’ll see you Friday. Thanks, Debbie.” I move the phone away from my ear to hang up, but hear her call out at the last second.
“Abhi? Are you still there?”
I bring the phone back so quickly it kind of hits me in the side of the head. “No. That is, I didn’t hang up. I’m still here.” I somehow manage to stop talking after that, fighting the urge to apologize for just how poorly I’m communicating.
The happiness in her voice has been replaced by a stern gravity, and she’s half whispering like someone nearby might hear. “Please don’t discuss this with anyone else from work. Not everyone is being invited to the same meeting, you understand, and we don’t want to give people the wrong impression.”
That feels vaguely ominous, but it’s not as if I’ve been spending my days off hanging around with a bunch of coworkers. They’ve all disappeared along with my other obligations, so it shouldn’t be difficult to comply. “I understand.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Abhi. I’ll see you Friday.”