There was seldom any warning when Mr. Bleeker’s screen would flicker to life, his floating visage perfectly preserved in high definition.
“There were no olives in my martini, Grace,” the floating head rumbled irritably, a slight nasal twang to the words that had always grated my ears when he was up and walking about. I’d been a mere 18 years then, just an intern when the exodus had occurred.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. The virtual module didn’t mention a drinks menu, but I should have thought to check.”
The image sighed. “Well, correct it. I haven’t tasted a decent cocktail since the Ice Age started.”
“It’s usually referred to as the exodus,” I said carelessly, and my employer scowled.
“Sounds like something an Illotus would say. They’re usually melodramatic about these sorts of things. There can’t be an ‘exodus’ if we haven’t left.”
I bit my tongue, as I’d done for years, and tried to think gratefully of my employers, stretched out in frozen beds upstairs to preserve their lives from the crop blights while they screeched about olives and the latest trends in virtual reality.
Apparently even uploaded personalities needed to socially drink. It was one of the first things they’d tried to replicate, but getting the specifics of taste and smell and the chill ice of a glass in your hand had taken almost six years of research.
Stupid of me, not to check for olives.
“Of course, sir. I’m sorry. I’ll take care of it immediately.”
“Stick it on my account with them, I’ll review it later. I’ve deposited your daily credit with Herald’s Market, as usual. I think Dahlia might have some errands for you later, once you’ve finished with the daily redundancy checks.”
“Of course, sir.”
The screen flickered off again, leaving me standing in an impressive office that boasted a lovely view of towering skyscrapers and the sparkling river below. It was otherwise devoid of charm, but by now I’d spent so many waking hours here that I almost didn’t see any of it anymore. Just the screens, the river, and the incessant demands for more.
I took the elevator upstairs, passing by Dahlia Bleeker’s latest hire as I moved down the hall to check on the cryopods. She looked miserable, which is about what I’d expect. The exodus – no, the Ice Age – hadn’t sat well with everyone, and Dahlia was particularly cranky about it. Her first assistant had been with her for years, but had only lasted a mere six months after the wealthy, famous, and fortunate had fled to their digital elysiums for refuge. Ever since then, she’d fired someone nearly every month for failing to meet her “standards.”
If I’m being honest, I think she’s just bored. Boredom is such a lavishly stultified privilege, nowadays.
“Uh, excuse me?” Dahlia’s assistant said as I hurried past. I hadn’t bothered to learn her name; it was obvious this one wasn’t going to last any longer than the others had.
“…Yes,” I said, coming to a reluctant stop.
“How long have you worked here?” the girl said, a slight wobble to her voice. “I, well, I’m not sure Madam Bleeker is happy with me. I think she won’t renew me for tomorrow.”
Well, at least this one is self-aware, I thought, then sighed internally. Come on, be nice. No reason to make her life worse than it already is. “Almost seven years. May I make a suggestion?”
She nodded, and I sighed. “She’s bored. They all are. They can’t go to work, or dine, or entertain, so we bring it here.”
“I don’t want to be Illotus again,” she whispered, almost too quietly to hear. “Not again.”
“Everyone has been, in this house,” I said gently, too tired to summon as much empathy as I should have. “That’s why they send credit to the shops, understand? You can’t save what you don’t have, and you can’t bargain when five others would gladly replace you for even half of that.”
“She’s my 15th mistress this year,” she said, drooping visibly.
I didn’t know what to say to that. It wasn’t an unusual amount, not with daily contract renewals and store credit, but I understood the desperation. “Mr. Bleeker’s fired me at least every six months, but he keeps having me back,” I said finally. “Because he realizes he’ll just have to train someone again.”
“I have to get going,” I said. The words sounded too abrupt, too cold, but I had to find those damned olives or face another spell as an Illotus myself. Mr. Bleeker might be marginally more reasonable than his wife, but only just.
I turned away and fled into the nearest room on some imagined errand. By the time I’d composed myself and remembered the olives, a soft pinging noise was intruding on the typically silent quarters. The cleaning staff had already finished their jobs for the morning and left, wiping every speck of dust from furniture that was frozen in time.
Everything spick and span, like some unnatural dollhouse.
It sounded like the cryopods were sending one of their maintenance alerts, so I shuffled down the hall to check on them, like I’d meant to do before Dahlia’s servitor had stopped me.
The chill room was immaculate as always, pods neatly lined up and plugged into a veritable spider’s web of sensors and power couplings.
I tried not to jump out of my skin, and failed. Dahlia’s servitor stood there, tears running down her face, eyes empty, and I darted a glance back at the pods, finally seeing the neat order of Jim Bleeker’s cabling and the unplugged chaos of Dahlia’s.
The pinging died down to a steady wail as the pod began running critically low on power, and I stood there, as frozen as my employers.
“Dahlia’s still in the network,” I finally said, almost conversationally. “They all are.”
“And now they can stay there,” she said, voice flat.
I thought of the years. The Illotus. The day after this one, and the one after that.
Those damn fucking olives.
And I reached for a cable.