The voice-activated lift by Pippa Goldschmidt

Pippa Goldschmidt. Picture: Neil Hanna
Pippa Goldschmidt. Picture: Neil Hanna
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ASTRONOMER-turned-author Pippa Goldschmidt provides the latest in our series of short stories, the sci-fi tale ‘The voice-activated lift’.

When my department moved into a new open-plan office, the managers asked me to work out the seating arrangements. I was given a large sheet of graph paper and I drew little boxes on it in a grid formation and wrote a name in each box. Each box was a desk and each name was a person. I thought it worked quite well, I’d even managed to allocate space for the pot plants as well as for ‘break-out’ areas with coffee machines to encourage the staff to relax. We were allowed to purchase sofas for these areas and by all accounts they’ve been highly successful. The plants are thriving.

My own desk happened to be next to the only window in the office. Unfortunately, although this was merely a coincidence, my colleagues noticed and they stopped speaking to me.

They never spoke to me very often anyway, so it hasn’t made a lot of difference to my life. But I don’t feel I can sit on the sofas, and people only visit me when they have to pass on some work.

My desk is quite near the lift, which is the first voice-activated one I have ever used. There are no buttons to press, just a small metal grill and when someone gets into the lift a voice comes out of the grill and says, ‘Speak the number of the floor into this grill slowly and clearly. Zero is the number of the ground floor.’

Sometimes the lift’s voice is the only one that speaks to me all day. The voice is female, nice and gentle-sounding, and I enjoy listening to her.

On the first day in the office I decided to try out the lift. ‘One,’ I said and it worked. The journey was smooth, the lift’s motion almost imperceptible.

I became curious about the lift’s abilities so I decided to test it, ‘Two. No, perhaps I mean three. I’m not sure.’ But it managed to ignore my attempt to mislead it, it just picked out the essential information and delivered me to the correct floor.

The managers were pleased with my seating plan. But the next piece of work that they gave me is somewhat more demanding, I must write a report with a definition of outer space. I’ve been working on this for weeks, trying to understand the views of all the different experts. When I get stuck I’m able to stare out of my window at the city, at all its roofs and metal buildings with the sky above always busy with planes and clouds.

The managers and the Minister need to know where outer space is so they can regulate it. All I can say for certain is that outer space is a long way above this Government department. When I’m working on the report I can picture myself floating around freely up there, a long way away from all this ordinary stuff.

Monday morning and on the way to work I treat myself to a café latte with hazelnut syrup. When I get into the lift I’m feeling like I don’t really want to go to my desk yet, so I tell it, ‘A half’. It starts to move and then slows to a halt in that secret no-man’s land that always exists between floors. It stops there for precisely the same length of time that my colleagues used to spend politely laughing at one of my jokes, and then without either of us saying anything it delivers me to my own floor.

All day as I sit trying to work on the report I can see the lift out of the corner of my eye. Its doors open periodically to reveal its inner metallic space, and I can hear my colleagues telling it numbers in slow, solemn voices like children in primary school learning to count.

I still haven’t finished the report although my managers are waiting for it, the Minister is waiting for it, everyone out there is waiting for it. But I don’t know what it will say. None of the numbers make sense to me. I spend my day gazing at Excel spreadsheets, and when I’m not doing that I stare out of the window and try not to imagine things crashing out of the sky onto the people below.

Last month a Russian satellite fell to earth in the Outer Hebrides and every news site around the world had pictures of the remains of the dog walker (and his dog) being scraped up off the machair. After that there were calls for something to be done. Laws to be passed.

In order to regulate something, the Government has to know what it is or at least where it is. And nobody can agree on precisely where normal, everyday space stops and outer space starts. My report is supposed to make the definitive pronouncement, but each expert that’s been consulted has a different opinion. So the report is still imaginary. I have a title for it, and headings for the different parts of it. I’ve even typed my name at the end of it. The rest of it is just blank white space.

At lunchtime I’m looking forward to escaping for a bit. Talking to the lift is the first time I’ve spoken today, so I test it again, ‘One minus one.’ My voice is a bit croaky from lack of use, but the lift doesn’t hesitate. It’s clearly able to do maths, and so it takes me to the ground floor.

That afternoon, there’s another e-mail from the managers. Parliament has been waiting for the report for so long that they suspect there’s been some sort of cover-up, and they’ve summoned me to give evidence to the outer space committee. I’ve never heard of this committee before, perhaps it’s made up of politicians bobbing around in spacesuits.

When I was young, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and I fantasised about being an astronaut. After that, whenever I felt lonely at school because the other children weren’t talking to me, I’d imagine being all safe and snug inside my spacesuit and doing a spacewalk outside my rocket, completely surrounded by space. That thin layer of the spacesuit would be the only barrier between me and infinity. But now I’m stuck because I can’t find the line that I always assumed was there. Perhaps there is no obvious barrier and it’s more of a gentle thinning out of daylight and air to darkness and vacuum. Perhaps each astronaut must learn how to travel upwards through the prosaic clutter to beautiful emptiness.

I feel agitated by this summons to the committee, so I leave my desk and wander over to the break-out area. Even though we haven’t been in this office longer than a few weeks I’m dismayed to see that the sofas have already acquired a layer of food stains and crumbs. They look thoroughly used. And when I return to my desk a few minutes later, I can tell that someone’s disturbed it. The stack of papers has been ruffled, the array of biros is out of kilter, my coffee mug has been moved. I look around but everyone appears to be hard at work. No way of telling who has been here, disturbing my space.

I can’t work anymore, I have to leave the office. In the lift I become calmer as I experience its slow but sure motion down through the building. I place my hand on the wall of the lift. It feels warm and it’s vibrating slightly, making me think of a sleeping body curled up next to me in my bed. I’m capable of imagining such a thing.

The next day there is nothing on my desk. No paper or biros or in-tray, even my computer and keyboard have gone. All that’s left is a smooth, flat surface to contemplate. Perhaps the managers have moved me to another office, or perhaps it’s an extension of yesterday’s disturbance. There’s no way of telling. It’s sort of restful, in a way, to sit at an empty desk when everyone around me is working away.

But after a few minutes I get bored. I go over to the lift and I stand in the middle of it, not particularly near the grill, so that I have to speak in a loud voice and all of my colleagues can hear me, ‘Pi.’

‘Pi,’ the lift’s voice repeats softly.

Pi is the beautifully endless number that can never be completely known. Perhaps it’s odd to stand in the metal cube of the lift and be reminded of pi, but there is something about the unreal voice in the lift that is better than any other voice I have had to listen to in my life.

The doors shut. I lean against the wall and feel the lift’s tiny judder travel through my body as it tries to calculate my command. It creeps from approximation to approximation in search of mathematical perfection without once complaining. I know it will take an eternity to calculate pi. I can relax in here.

• Pippa Goldschmidt grew up in London, and now lives in Edinburgh. She worked as an astronomer for several years at Imperial College, followed by posts in the civil service, including working in outer space policy. In 2012 Pippa was awarded a Scottish Book Trust/Creative Scotland New Writers Award. From 2008 to 2010 she was writer in residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel, The Falling Sky, about an astronomer who thinks she’s found evidence contradicting the Big Bang theory, was published in April by Freight Books.