Nina hunched over her desk with her wings curled around her. Three more files, and then she could take a break. Name on the file: Jared Edgecombe. Software designer. Cheated on a college entrance exam, but his mother was sick — extenuating circumstances. No one had caught him. He’d done well, gotten into the college he wanted. Learned that life didn’t always punish you for taking a shortcut. Became the sort of person who expected life to give him chances it didn’t give to others.
Nina rubbed the bridge of her nose. It was easier when they’d done something truly evil. Those files took no time at all. But what did you do with a collection of small cruelties, small kindnesses, all jumbled together with no dominating goal or throughline?
“Just flip a coin!” said Gloria.
Nina’s wings banged the back of her chair. “I can’t flip a coin! These are people’s lives!”
“Let me see.” Gloria took the file and scanned it for seven seconds. “Ant.”
“His mother was sick!”
“She outlived him.”
“He couldn’t know that would happen.” Nina’s hand hovered over her row of stamps. “Squirrel.”
Gloria raised an eyebrow.
“You know it takes them forever to work their way back from ant.”
Gloria squinted at Jared’s file. “1998? Nina, these people have been dead for decades! Why didn’t you tell me you were this behind?”
“Everyone’s behind.” Nina inked the stamp. But what if she had missed something? Perhaps it would be better to go back and read the whole thing again from the beginning.
“Nina. I say this with love. Set a timer. Five minutes per file, tops. When the timer rings, make an assignment and move on.”
“Five minutes! For a person’s whole life!”
“Hutchins on Floor 732 can do it in two.”
“I’m not Hutchins.”
“Obviously. Now file that, and let’s go. I’m starving.”
“I can’t — I said I’d finish three more before I took a break.”
“And that will take you, what? An hour?”
“No!” Nina did some math in her head. Okay, maybe. She laid her head back down on the stack of folders.
“Suit yourself,” said Gloria.
As she walked out, another batch of files materialized in Nina’s inbox.
There had to be a better way. Nina only had one set of eyes, could only read so fast. And she wasn’t objective. She always worried she was missing something, or being unfair. She looked down at Jared Edgecombe, software designer, soon-to-be squirrel. Was squirrel really the right assignment? What about this moment, here, just a few months ago, when he sat in his office alone after everyone had gone home, head in his hands, wondering whether he was living his life right? If he had more time, maybe he would have figured it out.
She set Jared’s file aside. Maybe she could knock off an easy one, some corrupt politician or soulless serial killer. She picked up the next file, then put it down. Useless. She could spend hours, days, reading each file, and still she would miss something. And the part that really irked her was people like Hutchins, just assigning people willy-nilly, with no thought or consideration.
A system. What they needed was a system.
“Gloria! Wait up!” Nina tore down the hallway. Her wings crackled with energy. “I have a completely crazy, brilliant idea.”
It was Gloria who came up with the name: GreenLight Reincarnation. Their first problem was finding someone with the expertise. Neither Gloria nor Nina had any experience building something like that. And no one on Floor 746 could even really grasp what they were talking about.
Gloria burst into Nina’s office. “Okay, promise you’ll hear me out before you judge.”
A guy followed her in: rumpled black hair, something slouchy about the eyes. A visitor’s badge pinned to his shirt.
“Hi, I’m Charles.”
“Gloria, can we talk privately?” said Nina. She pulled Gloria into the hall. “What level is he from?”
“Not even that deep! B-25 I think? Maybe 27.”
“B-27, are you kidding me?”
“Well evidently no one on any of the upper levels has even heard of programming! We need him!”
“We can’t trust him!”
“The lower levels have just as much incentive to give everyone what they deserve! Come on, Nina. This project is going to change the world. Literally.”
“You know I can hear you.” Charles stood up and cracked his shoulders. “I understand your concerns. But imagine this: an algorithm that analyzes all the factors of a person’s life and assigns them to the exact rebirth they’ve merited — everything held in perfect balance, births and deaths. You have vision, girls. I can build it.”
“We’re not girls,” said Gloria.
“Right. How long are you spending on each file now?”
“When you think about it, what is time, really?” said Nina. “It’s all relative and the markers are completely arbitrary.”
“A fraction of a second. That’s how long it would take with GreenLight Reincarnation. Your backlog could be up to date in minutes. I mean, just think of those poor souls.”
There was a 2 a.m. Red Bull buzz to it all at first. GreenLight Reincarnation 1.0 was all any of them thought about. The program took shape, lines and lines of code. The green computer light blinked on Charles’s face long into the night.
Once, Nina stumbled into her office after falling asleep in the break room. Charles and Gloria were making out, their wings a jumble of feathers. They sprang apart. Gloria had an odd half-smile on her face, wouldn’t meet Nina’s eyes.
Nina spun around and walked straight back to the break room, her stomach bubbling up into her throat. She swallowed. Her files were stacked on the break room table — their new home ever since Charles had moved his equipment into her office. Management had given them permission to work on GreenLight, but they still had to do their jobs. Even if only Nina remembered.
“What are you thinking? Is this some sort of bad-boy thing?” she said to Gloria later.
“My personal and professional lives are totally separate. It won’t affect GreenLight, I swear.”
“If we mess up the first trial, we’re not going to get funding to scale it. Management is skeptical enough already.”
“That’s why we keep you around. To worry, so we don’t have to.”
Nina dug her fingernails into her palms. She could do this. She could put up with them, for GreenLight.
When they turned it on for the first time, all three of them held hands so tightly that Nina’s knuckles were turning white.
“I think it’s working,” said Gloria.
“Don’t jinx it!”
The program started spitting out assignments: beetle, parrot, postman, Instagram influencer, tree.
“It’s working,” said Charles. “It’s working!”
“Wait,” said Nina. “Why are there all these people being reborn as cabs? What does that even mean — sentient cabs? Guys, there’s a serious problem. There are way too many cabs now, and they’ve got personalities! Turn it off, turn it off!”
Charles tapped out a command and GreenLight whirred to a stop. He kept typing. “I see the problem. Whoever input the data for ‘cat’ — I’m not saying who — must have made a typo, wrote ‘cab’. It’s a really common bug.”
“A typo.” Nina pinched the bridge of her nose.
“There are some interesting implications, actually. Have you thought about using inanimate objects on purpose? It could solve the problem of increasing species extinction.”
Gloria put her hand on Charles’s shoulder. “The important thing is the theory is sound! We’ll get it working on the next update.”
“Well—” said Charles as he shut the office door. “That could have gone better.”
“Could have gone better? They shut us down!” said Nina.
“People on this floor have no sense of humor,” said Charles.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Gloria. “Heaven forbid some of us take our work seriously.” She grabbed an eraser and scrubbed at the whiteboard, which was covered with the desperate scrawls of their plan to convince Management that GreenLight could work, with just a little more time and funding.
Charles slouched into his chair and put his feet on the keyboard. “I’m the only one here doing any work at all.”
“My role is vital!” said Gloria.
“Yeah, Management really loved all the posters you made! Oh, wait.”
“I have vision! This was all my idea!”
“Hey — technically it was my idea,” said Nina.
“Shut up!” said Gloria, at the same time that Charles said, “Stay out of this!”
Nina went to the break room. Files were stacked everywhere now: the counter, under the table, in tottering towers against the wall. She sat in a narrow, clear space of floor and put her head in her hands.
She couldn’t really fault Management for pulling the plug. GreenLight Reincarnation 1.3.7 had glitched to a halt because the number of souls was off by one from the number of bodies available. A baby was born without a soul, which no one noticed until he was thirteen. GreenLight 1.6.2 had a dangerous memory leak that caused memories to be stored rather than released at death. Nina had finally figured that one out when the number of crippling existential crises exploded exponentially; one intrepid blade of grass remained convinced it had once been a Broadway star and sang “Send in the Clowns” whenever the wind blew through it.
Even Gloria couldn’t spin that to Management.
Nina picked up a file at random and opened it. Jared Edgecombe. She gasped. She had stamped this one ages ago, before GreenLight — hadn’t she? No, here he was. Here they all were. Still waiting.
She picked up a stack of files and walked down the hall. Through doors slightly ajar, she saw heads and wings bent over stacks of files. Reading, stamping, reading, stamping. Maybe there was no easier way. Maybe this was how it was meant to be.
But she couldn’t go back.
Gloria and Charles were sitting with their backs to each other, wings hunched up. The air was full of the sounds of aggressive typing.
“We have to try again,” said Nina.
“They shut us down. We don’t have any souls to work with,” said Gloria.
Nina threw her stack of files on the desk. Charles sat up, a grin curled in the corner of his mouth.
Gloria gasped. “We can’t use those!”
“Listen. It has to be perfect,” said Nina. “We go back to the beginning. Check everything — every typo, every stupid bug. GreenLight 2.0 has to work. We’re too close to give up now.”
“Do it,” said Nina. None of them had slept in weeks.
Gloria covered her eyes. Charles pressed the return key.
Nina pulled the screen toward her and zoomed in. Somewhere in Central Park, a squirrel was born, tiny and terrified. Nina swallowed a hot flare of triumph. A squirrel — she’d been right. And it was working.
“Nina,” whispered Gloria. “What’s wrong with that squirrel?”
There was a popping sound and the squirrel vanished, replaced by a llama. Another pop: an orchid. Pop: a giant squid.
“Zoom out!” said Charles. “Is that happening to all of them?” He began typing furiously.
Nina’s heart was pounding. All over the world, souls were reborn again and again and again. Souls she’d stolen.
“Oh no.” Charles ran his hands through his hair. “It’s looping.”
“What does that mean?”
“Ah — somehow a line of code got deleted, and we lost the specification that they had to die before getting reborn. So they’re stuck in an infinite loop.”
“Turn it off.”
“Maybe I can fix it live before anyone notices,” said Charles. “People forget weird things really easily.” He continued typing.
Tourists visited Jared Edgecombe’s looping soul in Central Park. A new religion was founded. A scientist won a Nobel prize for his theory on what was causing the phenomena (incorrect). The looping souls, unable to move, were born and born and born.
Gloria pulled the power cable.
Charles stood up. His black wings opened with a snap, the tips of them right against the walls. “You could have seriously damaged the program!”
“You could have seriously damaged the world!” said Gloria.
The fight continued, but it turned to noise in Nina’s ears. She stared at the blacked-out screen. She thought of Jared, alone in his office that night, thinking about his life.
All you could do was keep going. Always just one version away from getting it right.