Nipa Singh sat on a ripped office chair and sipped bad coffee from a chipped mug as she watched Professor Fish tapping commands into the scrub station keyboard. Fish was a corpulent man with only a passing acquaintance with personal hygiene and grooming. Singh had been told he was a genius, a one of a kind intellect. What she saw was a man who only took occasional breaks from his typing to scratch himself, root around inside one nostril or another with one of his fat fingers, or to take an overly large bite from whatever food was on his desk. Singh enjoyed cooking, but she couldn’t identify exactly what Fish was eating. It might have been a burrito once, before it was mangled by the Professor’s ham-hock hands and grinding, crooked teeth. There were clues in his beard, meaty, saucy, sweaty clues, but Singh didn’t have the stomach to look closely at them.
In short, Fish was a pig. Despite this, Singh had found herself drawn here today, and drawn to Fish. It was only her fifth week as Director of Requests for the The Black Room, and this was her first bad day. She didn’t know it, but that represented something of a Black Room record.
“Does anyone ever resign?” she asked. “I suppose I should know if that’s possible.”
Fish smeared something from his nose onto his lab coat. “Yes dear, people have resigned.”
“And they’re scrubbed I suppose, before they go?”
“Of course. A deep scrub, a permanent deletion of every single memory related to The Black Room.”
Singh looked up at the scrub station. This one, the one in Fish’s lab, wasn’t the polished model that regular employees of The Black Room stepped through at the beginning and end of every shift. This one was different. It was Fish’s prototype, the original. It was his creation, his monster, and his baby all rolled into one. This was the one that he tinkered with, this was the one he took apart and put back together. This would be the one the new model was copied from when it was finished, but was always the original at the same time. There was something primal and brutal about it, like a monument from another time, its purpose lost to our knowledge but its power undeniable. It scared Singh, and she didn’t know why.
“I wonder what it’s like,” mused Singh. “To start all over again. To start your life again, I suppose.”
Fish looked up from his keyboard, fixing Singh in a stare across the top of his glasses.
“Is that what you want?”
Singh wrinkled her nose in disgust. “No, of course not. Why would I? I’ve got a fantastic job. An important job. I’m valued, what we do is important and…”
Fish took another bite of the thing that may once have been a burrito but now wasn’t as Singh turned her face away in a fruitless attempt to hide the fact that she was crying.
“It’s nothing, really,” said Singh, quickly regaining her composure, “Being Director of Requests means making tough decisions sometimes, that’s all.”
“All the time,” corrected Fish.
“Being Director of Requests means making tough decisions every day, doesn’t it? I can’t imagine it’s ever easy.”
Singh bristled slightly. Five weeks in, she was still treated like the “new girl” by most of the other staff in The Black Room, David Dare in particular. Their working relationship thus far had been built on a sold bedrock of veiled threats topped off with Dare’s occasional wild rages. Ever the diplomat, Singh had recorded in her journal that they had yet to “gel”, although she found it hard to imagine that anyone or anything could “gel” with David Dare.
“I’m tough enough to do this job,” said Singh, sticking her chin out and up. It sounded more like an affirmation from a motivational poster than the truth, even to her.
“I never said you weren’t,” said Fish. “But still, tell me what happened. There must be a reason you’ve come down here.”
Singh sipped at the coffee again. It was still bad, just cold and bad now instead of hot and bad. Fish wiggled a fat finger inside one ear, fishing for God only knew what. He retrieved it, inspected it, wiped it on his lab coat, then cleaned under his fingernail with his teeth. Singh wanted to wretch, but couldn’t look away. There was something about Fish. Something that made her feel… safe.
“The Machine did something strange today.”
Fish scoffed. “When does it not do strange things?”
“Well, stranger than usual, I mean. I was conducting a spot check, a routine comparison of a decision made by The Machine to the baseline and… well… there was a discrepancy.”
Fish finally finished the burrito, shoving two mouthfuls worth into his mouth in one, hammering the last of it past his beard with the heel of one hand. Singh took it as a sign that she should keep talking.
“The machine opted to send a super to a hospital to complete a ‘Make a Dream Come True’ request instead of sending them to a bus crash.”
Fish swallowed, banging his chest to help the gargantuan mouthful’s transit.
“People are sentimental,” he said, wheezing. “I’ve always said that was the flaw in the system.”
“I overrode the decision.”
Fish raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Why do you think?” said Singh defensively. “‘Make a Dream Come True’ requests are low priority and shouldn’t take precedence over a scenario where lives are at risk.”
Fish cocked his head. There were times when Singh sounded like she’d swallowed the rulebook and needed to vomit it back out.
“This doesn’t sound like a tough choice then.”
“It wasn’t. But it made me think. How many other decisions get made like that by The Machine that we never notice? We trust The Machine, but what if it’s making mistakes like that all the time? How many other times have we done the wrong thing?”
“And did it ever occur to you that The Machine was right?”
“How could it be?”
Fish shifted in his seat. Singh realised that she hadn’t had his full attention until now. When he looked at her, she felt something… strange. Fish was repugnant, but at the same time… she was repulsed. She felt as if she’d known him her whole life. Sitting here, like this, surrounded by the carcass of a half-built scrub station, it felt like… home.
“What if The Machine knew something we didn’t? What if, sitting on that bus, was a serial killer, or a rapist, or the mother of the next great super-terrorist?”
“The Machine couldn’t know that.”
“Couldn’t it?” asked Fish. “We know so little of what it does. Your predecessor, now, your predecessor understood it.”
Singh sighed. She heard mention of her predecessor on an almost daily basis but, other than that this person had existed, she hadn’t been able to find out anything else. The Black Room files were sealed, despite her protests. She didn’t even know if her predecessor was a man or a woman, all anyone ever referred to was “Her Predecessor”.
“Think hard, Nipa,” said Fish. Singh felt a curious twinge in her stomach when Fish used her name. “Could The Machine predict the future? Could it?”
Fish leant forward and, for a second, Singh felt like he was going to reach out and take her hand. Despite herself, she wanted him to. She shook her head. Nothing about this made sense. The Machine, her strange desire to confide in Fish. None of it. She needed to get away, to clear her head. Tomorrow was a new day, she’d go straight to Dare and tell him what she’d done and all of her concerns about The Machine. Tomorrow.
Singh put down her coffee cup. “Thank you for the coffee, Professor,” she said politely.
Fish sighed, sadness on his face. “Very well, Nipa, if that’s how you want it. Epsilon Erasmus Quantum Seven Four.”
Nipa Singh stopped. Not just physically, but mentally, like a computer program locking up, a movie put on pause. Everything that was Nipa Singh stopped being Nipa Singh and all that was left was a body with nothing to drive it. A rudderless ship, Nipa Singh’s body slumped forward. Fish caught her before she fell and propped her gently against the wall behind her.
Grumbling to himself, he pushed papers and scrub station components aside on his desk until he had dug out his telephone. He lifted the handset, the operator answered.
“It’s Fish. Get Dare down here. Just tell him it happened again. ‘It’. He’ll know what it means.”
Fish put down the receiver. He didn’t have to wait long. If David Dare had a secret superpower then it was to always be were trouble was. He entered without knocking, a sour expression on his face.
“Anything?” he asked.
Fish shook his head. “Same as last time. The Machine made a call she couldn’t reconcile, she put it right, she came down here to talk about it. I thought I was getting somewhere this time though, I really did. I thought maybe she was remembering something too, but…”
Dare stuck his face in Singh’s, staring into her eyes, searching for the slightest hint of anything at all.
“Something about The Machine, I take it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dare turned. His eyes were colder than Singh’s.
“It means that I don’t care about your history with her. I don’t care how much you two loved each other. I don’t care that you built The Machine and the scrubs and half of the rest of the technology in this place together. I care about the fact that she was the only one who knew why The Machine made half the decisions that it did. I care that one night she came down and scrubbed her mind clean for no damn reason that anyone can give me, and I care about the fact that I’ve got this entire facility lying to her about who she is and where she comes from because you keep telling me that you can bring her memories back.”
“I can!” protested Fish.
“When?” asked Dare flatly. “Because right now we’ve been without a real Director of Requests for too damn long and I’m tired of pretending like it’s her first day, or week, or month on the job. We need Nipa Singh, Fish, the real Nipa Singh. Not this… toy doll of yours. We need her…”
“Predecessor, I know,” said Fish. “I need her too.”
“One more month,” said Dare. “One more month before we call it quits and I send her Downstairs to see what they can scrape off the inside of her skull.”
“You wouldn’t…” said Fish, his face and body trembling.
Dare turned and headed for the door. “Don’t make me.”
The door slammed, Dare was gone, and Fish sat in his dark, cold, dirty, untidy office and wept quietly. Nipa Singh’s body sat opposite him, silent and impassive, her eyes staring at some point the middle distance. When his tears had been shed, Fish turned back to his console and began to type again. Dare was right of course, he knew that. The Black Room needed Nipa Singh back.
“Well dear, I’ve been saving this version for a dark day and I suppose we’re finally there,” he said, hefting Nipa Singh’s body onto his shoulder and carrying her over to the scrub station. Her sat her down carefully inside it. He was gentle, as he had always been with her. He missed his Nipa, the one who saw past how he looked, saw past his bad habits. He missed the Nipa that just saw his mind and who loved him for who and what he really was. She’d said to him once that there were lots of different versions of ourselves, and which we were at any time was dictated by the situation we were in and the people we were with. Fish had always believed that he was the very best version of himself when he was with her.
He tapped at the keys and wondered what version of Nipa Singh would he get this time.
The scrub station lit up. A progress bar showed the slow, steady upload of new memories, new thoughts, a whole new person, into Nipa Singh’s dormant brain. The screen read “NIPA SINGH VERSION 17.2”.