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First Dates and Other Action Items

Jenn Reese (she/they) writes stories for readers of all ages. Their middle grade novel, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, was an NPR Best Book of 2020, a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and the Mythopoeic Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and Oregon Spirit Book Award. Her other recent novels include Every Bird a Prince and the Above World trilogy. Jenn's short stories have been published in Uncanny, The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, Fireside, and numerous other magazines and anthologies, and she is part of the writing team on "Echo Park," an upcoming serial audio show from Realm.fm. Jenn lives in Portland, Oregon where she makes art, plays video games, and talks to the birds.

On day 543 of the Great Crunch, I do something foolish: I arrange to meet Tara by the coffee machine, the most dangerous place in the entire office. It's too high-traffic, too exposed, too close to the glass door behind which the Boss lurks. Laugh too loud, look idle for a second too long, and the Boss emerges, assigns more work, condemns you to a dozen new meetings when your schedule is already overflowing. I staple some Post-It notes and old printouts to my shirt as camouflage.
The rendezvous is risky, but Tara is super cute with her silver nose-ring and her penchant for always assuming recursion is the straightest path to algorithmic epiphany, and if I don't cling to this life raft of potential joy I will drown in the relentless beige ocean while the flickering fluorescent mirage of solid ground taunts me from the bottom of my to-do list.
So I go to meet Tara by the coffee. I don't even like coffee.
I pass the hum of the server room, its floor covered in makeshift bedding and the detritus of sleep, and wind my way through accounting, a safer route than dealing with the nearly feral members of the marketing department.
By the time I reach the kitchen, Tara is already pouring sludgy black liquid into her "Debug or Die" mug, which has become an un-ironic witchery in recent days. The stench of cold pizza battles with the burnt coffee in a makeshift aroma Thunderdome. Free food seemed generous in those first days of the Great Crunch, but now we know the truth: it was fairy food. We are trapped here forever, kept alive on caffeine and cardboard calories.
"Nice shirt," Tara says, which is funny because I've been wearing it for 543 days.
"Cool bangs," I say, because yesterday her hair was long and today it's in an only slightly lopsided bisexual bob.
"Cut it during a long compile." She tousles it into unkempt perfection. "How's life in QA?"
I shrug. Every version of the game fixes bugs and creates others. We are the Sisyphuses of code, growing no closer to freedom no matter how hard we work. Which is why I've asked Tara to meet me.
My hands twitch like the cursor tethered to a dirty mouse. My heart races like lines of code in an error log. "Tara, we need to leave."
"Ashley!" Tara looks frantically at the glass door, but the Boss has not noticed us.
I take a step closer. "The sun is still out there. The rain. The snow. They boarded up the windows, but the outside still exists. I've seen it on Instagram."
"They use filters on Instagram. You see a waterfall, but it's some kid's basement. All special effects. You've visited the graphics department. You know the illusions they create."
I think back, trying to remember the last picture I snuck through the company's security filter. How many eagles normally soared around a mountaintop? Maybe ten was too many.
I try to shake off the doubt, and all I do is rustle the memos stuck to my shirt. It doesn't matter, because I've lost Tara.
"We're so close to finishing," she says. "We'll be out there again soon. We've come too far to give up. Think of the players."
The Prayer slips from her lips. The Boss delivers it every night and we repeat it, adding our amens and god willings and by the power of Greyskulls. It hurts to hear it from Tara now, and it hurts even worse when I hear myself whisper, "So say we all."
I think of the photo of that eagle-encrusted mountain to fortify myself, and I take Tara's hand. This is a low blow, but I'm desperate.
"Tara, you have a cat."
A spark hits her eyes. She whispers, "Mephistopheles...."
"He was a kitten before the Crunch. Do you remember?"
She pulls out her phone and starts scrolling through hundreds of cat photos. I had no idea her roommate had found a way to sneak them in. Tara could trade them for almost anything she wanted in the office ecosystem. Hell, she could maybe get a fresh highlighter or a few days with the last surviving office plant. But she hasn't traded a single pic, not even one precious toe bean.
Suddenly, Tara looks at me. "You and I... we were supposed to go on a date, weren't we."
I'd asked her out two days before the Crunch began. Timing has never been my strong suit. "We still can," I say. "We just need to leave."
She looks down at Mephistopheles and I can tell she's considering it.
Which is, of course, when the Boss emerges. He's clean and neat and I wonder if he teleports to hell for a shower each night, or if, with enough stock options, one gains the power to transcend their mortal form. Mostly likely, he just gets to go home.
"Ashley. Tara. I see you both need more to do. We're in the final push, about to cross the finish line. If everyone keeps their head down and digs deep, we'll all be home for the holidays." He does not specify which ones. That was a mistake they learned from long, long ago.
I grip Tara's hand tighter. We can do this. I open my mouth to say something I've wanted to say for months, but Tara stops me. She jerks her hand from mine, grabs her coffee mug, holds it to her chest--not like a shield, but like a white flag.
"Of course," Tara says. "We're almost there. We'll work harder."
I've failed. A hole appears in my life raft. I feel myself sinking.
"Good. That's what I need to hear," the Boss says, and returns to his office.
I can't even look at Tara. Not even at her tiny perfect nose-ring.
And then warm fingers slip into mine. "Midnight," Tara whispers. "Past the empty vending machines. Under the broken ping-pong table. I'll bring pictures of my cat."
My heart buoys. It's not the escape I wanted, but it's something. It's enough. I can Sisyphus a tiny bit longer.
I squeeze her hand. "I'll bring the pizza and coffee."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 18th, 2022

Author Comments

This story was inspired by my own experiences working for start-ups, and by articles about crunch time at gaming companies. It's not even much of an exaggeration.

- Jenn Reese
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