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Repetitive Motion Injury

by Gordon Sun

Derek switched off his tablet, disappointed; another failed test. The glare of the fluorescent lights buzzing overhead exacerbated his already severe headache.

“Hey, man, don’t worry about it,” his friend Nick said, patting Derek on the shoulder as they left the lab. “They poured so much money into this project, they’re not going to just tie it off. Your job’s totally safe. Totally.”

“Nick, you always say that.” Derek massaged his sore temples. Maybe water and an aspirin would help.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not true. Bro, let’s go get a beer afterwards. Happy hour down at that new pub.”

“Weren’t we just there recently?”

“Yeah, so? It’s a cool place.”

“All right, fine. Just got to write up this report first.”

“I overheard Jill and Megan from Operations are going too, so make it snappy.”

“Dude, I don’t need a wingman.”

Nick shook his head, chuckling. “Who said I was going to be your wingman? Just meet up there at 5, all right?”

Leaving Nick at the elevator, Derek went to the staff lounge to pour a paper cup of water from the cooler. Sipping the water, he headed back to his office, buried in the midst of a maze of identical low-walled, gray cubicles. As he pulled out his chair, he noticed another paper cup, also filled with water, resting by his keyboard.

Must’ve left it there this morning, Derek thought, shrugging. Scrounging through his desk drawers, he found a small bottle of aspirin, shook out a tablet, and swallowed it with the rest of the water he had gotten from the cooler. He stacked the now-empty cup underneath the full one on his desk.

Derek plugged his tablet into his workstation, staring at his two widescreen monitors. Figures, charts, and graphs were strewn everywhere, a haphazard clutter of raw, unprocessed data. The images seemed to bleed off the screens and sear themselves onto his retinas.

He exhaled, blinking and rubbing his temples again. Another long day of pushing buttons and watching dials flicker, programs sputter, machines drone, co-workers curse. Another status report that he was positive no one read. How am I getting away with running so many tests in a row without any obvious successes? What constitutes a successful test run, anyway?

Derek strapped on his black wrist brace, opened a blank page on the word processor, and began typing. Words blurred together, eventually forming coherent sentences, then paragraphs, following the internal corporate style manual. His hand maneuvered the wireless mouse over its pad, clicking, scrolling, highlighting, as he reviewed endless tables of data in the tiniest fonts, correlated trends, identified outliers, summarized “areas for future exploration.” Long ago, he’d stopped counting how many times he’d done this.

Derek sank deeper into his chair, leaning against the headrest and letting his fingers fly over the keyboard. The headache settled into a dull but manageable throb. Tap, tap, tap. Click, click, click...

Around Derek’s cubicle, bland-faced men and women in suits briskly walked to and fro, carrying their own tablets to other meetings. A few people held a quiet conversation in a corner conference room. Phones in colleagues’ cubicles rang periodically, though Derek’s thankfully stayed silent.

What seemed like hours later, Derek stood up, stretched, and flexed his fingers. He glanced at a huge digital clock on the wall. No, it didn’t seem later: it was later. 4:50 pm, to be exact, over four hours since he had left the lab. Nearly everyone on the floor had headed out for the weekend.

Now what? He’d already prepared the action plan for the next experiment. The bench scientists would be there, doing their part. Same with the boys from Engineering and IT, plus the prim gray-haired woman from the DOD, trying to ascertain the potential military applications of their project.

Derek emailed his boss, Max, the daily report and logged off. He unstrapped his wrist brace and tossed it on the desk, grabbed his jacket, and left.

* * *

Nick was already deep in conversation with the ladies from Operations when Derek entered the bar. Derek assumed they must have snuck out of the building early. “And speaking of the mad scientist himself...” Nick said loudly, noticing Derek’s approach.

“Hardly,” Derek said, putting his hands up.

“Dude, lose the tie,” his friend said, more quietly this time.

“Yeah, yeah.” Derek undid his blue tie and shoved it into a jacket pocket.

“I’m Jill,” said one of the women in a slightly husky voice. Petite, raven-haired, dark-rimmed glasses. Nick was leaning awfully close to her.

Her friend chimed in, holding out her hand. “I’m Megan. What was your name again?”

“Derek. I’m just another corporate drone,” he said wryly, shaking Megan’s hand.

“That makes four of us,” Megan cheerily replied, sizing Derek up. She was a cute, perky redhead, totally his type, too. He wondered why he’d never noticed her before. On the other hand, SiGen Technologies’ headquarters was 55 stories tall. It was practically a small city.

“Another round?” asked Jill, tapping a red-painted fingernail on the bar counter.

“Sure,” said Nick. “Think you can handle it?”

“You’re going to be under the table before I am, buddy.”

“Big words from a little lady,” Nick scoffed. “Derek, you’re up.”

“Fine,” said Derek. He requested four beers from the bartender. The booze was delivered in frosted mugs with satisfyingly large heads of foam.

More and more workers from nearby offices began crowding into the pub, bringing chill gusts of evening air with them, and the four of them retreated to a luckily empty booth. As Nick and Jill argued good-naturedly about the finer points of the best microbrews from Santa Clara County, Megan leaned in, her large hazel eyes twinkling.

“So, what is it you do, exactly, Mister Mad Scientist?” she asked, her cheeks dimpling. “You don’t seem the type, but I’ve been wrong before.”

“I’m actually in R and D on the fifteenth floor. Lead analyst for Project 6012.”

“Oh, really? 6012?” Megan arched a sculpted eyebrow. “So, you figure out time travel yet?”

“It’s not time travel, really.” It was a common misconception among those out of the loop.

“Well, then what is it? They don’t tell us anything in Ops.”

“It’s more of a time... window? No. More like a time snapshot, or maybe a video. The thought is that you can look backward into history, any time, any place, any duration, as a passive observer. You just need the right coordinates.”

“Backward only? Not forward?”

“That’s right. Going forward, there are too many potentialities, too much uncertainty. But backward in space-time... well, the past has already happened. Thanks to our new suite of quantum computers, we’re really just retracing our steps. Well, supposedly.”

“Oh, is that all?” Megan smirked, drinking from her mug. “What are you all looking for anyway? Historical figures? Signs of the apocalypse?”

“Are you kidding?” Derek laughed. “Is SiGen the kind of company that cares about that stuff? Megan, all management wants to do is scope out the competition, find out what they know, and when they knew it. Then, management magically wants to develop a business strategy around that. It’s crazy, but ever since Sokolov and Jennings published that paper in Science, every company is trying to monetize it first.” He drank deeply from his mug, setting it down with a solid clunk.

“So, you’re saying you’ve done it, then? Looked into the past?”

“No, no. Haven’t seen jack yet.” Derek snorted. “Just a lot of static so far.”

“And snooping around doesn’t affect the future?”

“Well, it might. But even if it did, we’d never know for sure anyway. The future is fluid. We’re going back to observe the past, not, ah... not change it.” Derek felt his cheeks warm up as the alcohol settled in.

“Dude, are you talking about work?” Nick interrupted. “Can’t you leave that crap where it belongs? You’re killing me.”

“Well, I happen to find it interesting,” Megan replied, smiling. “I mean, I could start talking about the exciting nuances of procurement and shipping policies and procedures—”

Nick groaned and rolled his eyes.

“Seriously?” Jill said, examining her already empty glass with interest. “I’m going to need another drink.”

“I’m ordering at the bar, just to get away from these two nerds,” said Nick, getting up from his seat.

“I’ll come with.” Jill looked back at Derek and Megan. “We’ll be back in a few.” Jill and Nick disappeared into the crowd.

As Megan started talking about her job, located somewhere on the 8th floor, Derek smiled serenely, resting his chin on his hand, soaking in the atmosphere of the pub. He’d forgotten how much of a lightweight he was. Derek’s gaze started to wander down Megan’s rather low-cut blouse, but he retained enough presence of mind to blink and resume eye contact.

He murmured a soft noncommittal response to something she said about the annoyances of street parking. Megan’s lilting voice, the blaring Top-40 music, the bustle of the crowd, the clinking of silverware, the warm lighting all melded together into a pleasant, embryonic haze.

A while later, Jill and Nick returned with a few mixed drinks, distributing them around the table. On autopilot, Derek grasped his, some sort of brownish-colored liquor sloshing in a highball, and raised it.

“Cheers!” Derek said. He suddenly hiccupped, spilling a little booze on the table. Megan raised an eyebrow again before lifting her martini glass. The others followed suit, and they clinked glasses.

Derek’s face flushed and his vision swayed. The figures around him grew indistinct, blending into each other with abandon. A waiter with elaborate sleeve-like tattoos on both arms set a large tray of chicken tenders and celery with ranch dressing in the center of the table. Who ordered that? Derek thought.

Megan leaned over to her friend from Operations and whispered something unintelligible, giggling. Jill tilted her head at Derek, muttered something back in Megan’s ear, and returned to her conversation with Nick. The background music seemed to crescendo as they talked, the electronic melody going beep-beep-BEEP-BEEP---

* * *


Derek rolled over and slammed the snooze button with an outstretched palm. A moment later, with great reluctance, he opened one eye. The red digits on the clock swam into focus.


He bolted upright, the covers flying off the bed. Dammit, I’m late!

Forty-five frantic minutes later, Derek rushed into the SiGen lab on the 15th floor, unshaven, disheveled, grasping the edge of his tablet in his fingers. The room was filled with technicians in blue and white lab coats and observers in dark suits, most of whom looked away awkwardly when he entered. The DOD woman stood to one side, stone-faced and ramrod-straight.

A gaunt, balding, middle-aged man wearing rimless glasses glanced over as Derek paused, gasping for breath. “You’re almost two hours late, Murphy. Too much partying last night? Don’t answer that.” The man muttered something under his breath to an aide, who nodded and left the room. He then returned his attention to Derek. “Hey, why are you just standing there? We don’t have all day.”

“Sorry, Max.”

“I ought to just fire you for repeated tardiness. I don’t care how great Thompson says you are, your performance of late has been anything but,” Max snapped. “We’re starting calibrations.”

“On it.” Derek connected to the corporate wi-fi, logged into his tablet, and pulled up the necessary files. Nick, who was sitting at a nearby booth, keyed something into his workstation.

Servers in the room thrummed, tiny LEDs blinking green, blue, and white, fans whirring furiously. The wall-screen flickered, glowing faintly. Everyone waited. And waited.

“Hey, Nick, is the program running?” Derek called out.


“Why’s the screen blank, then?”

“I don’t... Wait, hold on.” Nick put up a hand. The crowd watched the monitor as various objects came into focus. The image crystallized, sharp colors popping out in high-def resolution.

A curious murmur swelled through the room. It was a view of their very laboratory, the vantage point somewhere near the back of the room and high up. A few people glanced behind them, where a small black dome concealing a video recorder was indeed installed in the ceiling. Someone waved a hand, and a brief moment later his doppelganger on the monitor did likewise.

“For Chrissake, it’s just a camera feed of the lab.” Derek was annoyed. He closed his eyes, feeling a mild headache coming on. “What are the coordinates? For the calibrations?” He impatiently walked over to where Nick was seated and bent down, peering over his friend’s shoulder.

“Derek, I got it,” Nick mumbled under his breath. “Just give me a sec.”

Derek quickly scanned the code. “Scrub that part,” he hissed, pointing to a block of text on the screen. “You’re not supposed to incorporate those subroutines into the executable. It’s probably why we’re picking up garbage from the security cam.” He instinctively reached down to hit the appropriate keys.

“Wait, hold on.” Nick tried to brush him away.

“Nick, everyone’s waiting, hurry up,” Derek said. His headache was intensifying.

“Then let me fix that—”

“There, done.” Derek pushed one final key and stood up, rubbing his forehead.


“Is there a problem, gentlemen?” Max interjected.

“No, we’re fine,” Derek responded.

“Dude,” Nick muttered, his gaze intense. “You hit ‘enter’ before I was done importing the new figures. Look.”


They peered at the workstation. The program was now running with no parameters specified. Up on the wall monitor, the visuals had degraded to a dark gray fuzz, like a dirty snowbank by the side of a road. Even so, the Project 6012 computer bank, arcane and inscrutable, hummed with activity.

“Is it actually running?” Derek mumbled, his headache kicking in.

“Yeah. Even though we didn’t even set any restrictions or definitions.”

“Your facial expression says that’s not supposed to happen.”

“The program should’ve stalled out.”

“So, how’s the computer executing the program then?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Nick whispered helplessly. “I guess we didn’t think it would work if everything was left blank.”

“You can’t cancel it?”

“You know management hates when we run unnecessary jobs on 6012, says each one costs a fortune. Also, I don’t know what’ll happen if we—”

“Ugh, forget it, just let it finish. Worst case scenario, we waste a few hours of computing time on literally nothing,” Derek said. He called out to the rest of the group, pretending nothing was wrong. “We’ve started the first test run for today. Record and share any unusual findings you receive, please.”

Despite Nick’s initial alarm, the rest of the cycle was unremarkable. Derek’s team, as well as the guys from Engineering and IT, failed to note anything unusual from that morning’s session. All in all, the unexceptional outcome was hardly any different from previous runs.

A few hours later, Derek switched off his tablet, disappointed. Despite the morning’s bit of excitement, it was shaping up to be yet another failed test. His now-splitting headache didn’t help matters. Even the fluorescent lights were bothering him.

“Hey, man, don’t worry about it,” Nick said, patting his shoulder as they left the lab. “They poured so much money into this project, they’re not going to just tie it off. Your job’s totally safe. Totally.”

“Nick, you always say that.” Derek massaged his sore temples. Maybe water and an aspirin would help.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not true. Bro, let’s go get a beer afterwards. Happy hour down at that new pub.”

“Weren’t we just there recently?”

“Yeah, so? It’s a cool place.”

“All right, fine. Just got to write up this report first.”

“I overheard Jill and Megan from Operations are going too, so make it snappy.”

“Dude, I don’t need a wingman.”

Nick shook his head, chuckling. “Who said I was going to be your wingman? Just meet up there at 5, all right?”

Derek headed to the kitchen to get a drink of water. He was finally looking forward to a night of going out, followed by some well-deserved rest this weekend.

Copyright © 2020 by Gordon Sun

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