Day 5 :: Fee :: The Box

A casually smart woman in a blue shirt and jeans hands me a box. “Please take a seat” she says, indicating a green chair facing a white wall. This positioning seems strange but everything about this place has a slightly odd ring to it so I decide to just go with it.

“Hold the box with both hands. Make sure both feet are firmly on the ground”. I snap to attention; there’s something about this woman’s voice that just makes a man obey.

My mate Joe told me about this place last Christmas; he calls it the freaklab. “It’s a bit spooky,” he said one night in the pub, sleepily nursing his Guinness “but they give you a grand just for sitting there pushing a button every time a red light goes on. You should come with me next time; it’d be much less boring with two of us there.”

It’s not been a good year, financially speaking. In fact it’s been a bit of a crappy year all round. The factory I work in was taken over a few months back and the new owners just asset-stripped it into the ground. With the economy how it is I’ve been struggling to find a new job and the mortgage payments aren’t going away anytime soon. My girlfriend has been pretty patient really, but she gave me an ultimatum last week: get some money in before Christmas or it’s over. It was then that I remembered Joe’s freaklab.

I hear a noise behind me – the woman is leaving me alone in the room. I feel foolish asking, like a dirty beggar, but I need to know “so… when do we get paid?” The footsteps stop in their tracks, hesitant. She clears her throat and replies matter of factly “that depends on how many sessions you’re booked into.  If it’s just one then we pay you $100 on the way out. But if you go for the whole 7-day package it’s a grand, paid at the end of the program”. “And you pay in cash, yes?” “Yes Sir.” “Then I would like to book for all the sessions possible, please”. “Certainly, Sir. I will make the appropriate arrangements…” and then a pause “…if… if you are sure, Sir?” “Oh yes, quite sure, thank you for your assistance.” Soft shoes drum her escape to the door & I’m left alone in this sterile white room with its faint scent of bleach.

I’m here to do a PVT – a “psychomotor vigilance task” – to test a new product prototype (some weird gadget that measures human concentration) before it goes out to the medical research market. At least that’s what the waiver form I filled in said, but it doesn’t look very much like a hot new digital gadget to me. Its ugly design (if you can call it ‘design’) brings old computer switcher boxes to mind; looks like it cost about a tenner from parts bought at Dick Smith but will probably retail for a few grand a pop. Its stylish beige metal case features a power and serial port at one end and headphone sockets at the other. The ‘special stuff’ takes place on the top where… wait for it… there is a small red LED readout, a slightly bigger LCD screen and two black buttons. Seriously, no expense spared (not).

My job is to sit in a chair facing a wall (so I have no distractions, apparently) holding the box in both hands against my knees. This forces my neck forward in a simultaneous pose of passive submission and early arthritis. Then I wait. Eventually I’m given the command to click a black button and the box ‘leaps’ into action… displaying the word ‘Testing’ along its LCD screen. So far so good, I assume. (I’m not much of a geek but this is already the most boring piece of kit I have ever used. They obviously don’t think much of their target audience).

I wait, patiently, watching the LED readout, trying to focus, waiting for action, but my mind drifts thinking about all the pretty things I’ll buy for Sarah for Christmas. I accidentally press the button again, triggering an “FS” which they told me means ‘false start’ and should be avoided. Distracted, I drift back to Sarah; that blue dress she tried not to let me see her eyeing up last weekend. Maybe a weekend getaway… Suddenly the red LED counter flashes into life, its red stream of numbers rapidly increasing. “Shit!” I yell, jumping from my painful slouch to thump the black button. “Got it … 1400”.

A voice comes over the tannoy “try to press the button as soon as possible, Sir, without any False Starts” and I realise I am under surveillance. Well I suppose they are paying me for this, I’d better put some effort in. I shuffle in my seat and frown my focus toward the readout. After a couple of minutes I’m doing much better, down to 440 with the occasional 280 thrown in – my reaction times seem to be speeding up to match the device’s demands. It reminds me of when I first started playing computer games. Every time I wasn’t fast enough at shooting my attacker I’d die and have to start the level all over again. At least with computer games I now get an instant gratification reward and can move up to the next level; with this I’m just numb. Must. Try. Harder.

After a while I begin to feel a bit queasy. Ten minutes in (or so – time moves weirdly in here) I’m finding the intense focus on a tiny petulant screen held far away from my craning head to be increasingly unpleasant. I look up toward the surveillance camera “how long do you need me to do this for?” No answer. I look back to see the counter spiralling through 4500 and my right eye twitches as I race to punch the button and stop the clock “Dammit!”.

“Just a bit longer please, Sir. The buzzer will sound when the test sequence has finished. Just keep all your concentration on the numbers and try to catch it as early as possible for us, will you?”. I sigh, a deep, questioning, weary type of sigh. This is not going to be the easy grand Joe had inferred. And it’s actually making me feel weak. The pauses between numbers are so erratic that it’s hard to stay focused or remember to breathe, like waiting for a phonecall that never comes. Each stream hits like an electric shock so intense that I’m seriously beginning to judder from the effect.

…233. 330. 173 (personal best!). pause. 380 (spoke too soon). 256. 301. 288. long pause. 445. 189.

Eventually the box beeps to indicate the end of the session. I am utterly drained, as though each trigger response has taken something from me. The woman enters quietly, taking the box from me with a tug; my tension has apparently resulted in a vice-like grip around the thing. “Same time tomorrow, Sir?” she asks, avoiding eye contact. “Err, yeah, sure” I reply, still trying to regain focus against the jumble of numbers burnt on my retina.

My friends think I have the best paid slacker post in the world but I hate this job. They’re partly right – this is certainly the best salary I have ever had – but they don’t see what I see every day. The subjects come in, a bunch of poor saps already looking bedraggled and desperate, hopeful for a quick fix of cash. An easy exchange, they think; a few hours of their time in return for a decent wedge of notes. If only I could tell them what is really going on. If only I knew what was really going on.

What worries me most is the rapid deterioration of these guys after just a few visits. It’s like this box is sucking out their souls. Yeah, I know, I sound like a total kook. My mates just brush me off, saying my minimal-effort-for-super-high-salary job has burned away my brain cells and I should shut up and buy another round. Maybe they’re right.

The box looks innocent enough and, sure, pressing a button a few hundred times is a dull but simple enough task. I think it’s the design – or lack of – that makes me the most suspicious. I’ve worked in medical research long enough to know how high profile this industry is. A new prototype can easily sell for several thousand dollars each, considerably more when they look the part. This box looks like it was made in a shed. That’s just… not right.

Somehow I manage to return the next day, Sarah’s ultimatum apparently enough to counter my hatred of such inane repetition (I guess this must be love, eh?). The woman checks me in at the counter. I smile and try to make smalltalk, but she seems distracted, eager to get away. Oh well, just trying to be friendly.

I enter the whitewashed cell hoping that it won’t be so painful this time. Maybe I’m better at it after yesterday’s practice and I can just play it like a game. But this headache is making my right eye twitch. Oh well, here goes…

…191. 289. pause. 438. 226. 939 (whoa! where did that come from?!). FS (shit, another false start). 220. pause (these pauses are getting longer, I swear…). 880 (twitch).

This week’s subject seems… different, somehow; he’s definitely not like the usual losers. He even turned up in a suit the first day, like he was attending some kind of job interview. On a Saturday, too. I feel for him more than the others, he seems to be really trying. But I spotted that unmistakeable twitch by his right eye today – that’s the first sign. Should I say something? Get him out of here before it is too late? But what would I say? It’s not like I even know this thing is causing harm, it’s just a feeling I have. Ugh, maybe it’s time to quit this job…

By the end of my Wednesday session I’m really not feeling so good. The headaches are constant now and I’ve noticed the light phases when I stare at anything for too long. I saw fractals on the box yesterday; that was weird. And I’ve noticed the retinal burn stays a lot longer, and the streams of red numbers are now permeating my dreams.

I woke up last night in a cold sweat, one hand clutching the bedspread, the other pounding an imaginary button – Sarah was totally freaked out. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t know about all this. I don’t want her to know how I’m doing it, I just want to surprise her with a decadent Christmas so she can see how much I want this, us, to work out. It will be worth it. Only a couple more days, then it’s all over. I should ask Joe if he went through the same thing next time I see him. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Joe for a while…

I can’t believe this guy’s resilience. It’s Friday morning and here he is, regular as clockwork. He’s been in every day this week – most don’t come back after the second or third session. They don’t even come back to collect their money, the poor bastards. And then there was that guy who had to be carried out on a stretcher. They told me he had a medical condition he hadn’t declared, but even so, that stupid box can’t be doing anyone any good.

They came in with a “new improved” box today – they seem pretty impressed with this guy’s results & want me to get him to come back for another round. I made it clear I didn’t think that was a good idea and asked them what they do with the data anyway. They just looked at me with the kind of sneer that makes you wish you’d never asked and didn’t reply. So, like the coward I am, when ‘resilient guy’ comes in I just keep my mouth shut, hand over the new box and try as always to avoid noticing his increasingly bloodshot eyes.

Finally, Friday – my last day. Today I got handed a “new improved version” (it looks like exactly the same ugly beige box to me, but, whatever). I just want to get through this final procedure, pick up my cash and get the hell out of here. I have an appointment with a jeweller this afternoon. I’ve decided I’m going to make the ultimate gesture tonight… so I’ll need a ring!

The rarely-used tannoy system crackled into life “URGENT PHONECALL FOR THE RESEARCH LAB; PLEASE COME TO RECEPTION IMMEDIATELY”. She looked up, confused. There is a direct line right here by the lab, why was she being asked to go to reception? Still, they said it was urgent, she’d better go. Looking up at the camera she figured ‘resilient guy’ was doing just fine, she’d only be a minute anyway, surely.

… 151. 264. 191. pause. 363. pause. FS. 222. 341. gzzzscht – ouch! wait, what the heck was that?

I look up to the surveillance camera, hoping the woman is there, watching. “Um, hello?” I bleat, pitifully, “The box just gave me an electric shock. Can we stop the procedure please?”. Nothing.

I sit there, letting the numbers stream past, unwilling to have another electric shock but seemingly unable to put the box down. …1409. 2203. 3449. gzzzscht. OUCH! There is was again, but stronger now – and I hadn’t even touched the button! “Hey! Is anyone out there?”

Several shocks later my eyes are watering and I’m beginning to panic. The red numbers refract through the tears and drill like lasers into my skull. Just like in my dream, my hands are unable to let go of this damn box – some kind of electromagnetic connection, perhaps? What the hell is going on here?

… 5772. 6448. 7032. gzzzscht. I can feel the room lights phasing – or is that my imagination? I’m hoarse from yelling, resigned to the fact that no one is coming and I can no longer move my legs.

It’s at this point I notice the drops of blood on my shirt; my nose is bleeding – shit, I’m totally falling apart. I try to stem the flow of blood with my elbow, realising with horror that my hands are now becoming absorbed into the box. Unexpectedly (I only shaved this morning) I brush up against stubble, long bristly stubble, the type I only grow after several days. Thinking back, the waiver I signed said something about ‘temporal distortion’ but I assumed that was just marketing-speak. How long have I actually been here now? I yell one last time into the void, hoping that someone will hear me, that there is a tape recording somewhere and a message will get to her “Sarah… I’m sorry, I love you …” and then everything goes black.

Sarah & Joe sit on either side of a red and white checked tablecloth, a wine bottle candlestick dripping molten wax over unused cutlery.  They awkwardly nurse untouched glasses of wine and full plates. It’s late; the staff are hovering, all the other tables have been cleared, chairs stacked away for the morning clean.

“So, do you think it’s over now?” Sarah asks, her gaze fixed on the glass she twists between forefinger and thumb. “Yeah, I think it’s over now.” Joe answers, glumly. She inhales a deep breath, downs the whole glass in one gulp, looks Joe straight in the eyes and says “Let’s go home”.

Fee Plumley

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