Like Plastic Clouds
by Christopher C. Dreisbach
When I received a holo-notification that only $20k arrived into my account, I felt a panicked flutter in my throat. Reflexively, I pressed my index fingers to my eyes and removed my smart-lenses.
“Something’s wrong. There must be a mistake,” I murmured to myself in the bathroom mirror.
Lately, I’d noticed more and more floaters clouding my vision that, Dr. Shepitko once told me, was the result of a collagen protein build-up. Another one of the many deleterious and inevitable results of aging despite the fact that I was 31 and the latest smart-lens update I purchased was supposed to counteract any visual distortions or degeneration. Perhaps there was a software issue: uncommon but possible.
I rapped my knuckles against my lips three times in succession, un-muting myself.
“Smart-lens status,” I commanded, far louder than was necessary.
A familiar modulated chime vibrated in my earpiece followed by the current, soothingly anodyne voice-choice: “84% charge. Fully updated. No maintenance required.”
An alarm started to whine in my ear, notifying me I had one minute to return the lenses to my eyes to avoid a credit-penalty. I popped them back in.
The holo-number was still there: twenty thousand dollars. A fraction of my hourly-rate; let alone what I expected from a bi-weekly paycheck.
“C-call Mrs. James.” The panic made me stammer. Shit, I should have taken a Zepam before contacting my superior.
After two seconds, Mrs. James’ preternaturally calm tone came through: “This is Mrs. Lilly James’ call-bot, what do you need, Mr. K. Morgan, Employee 65298--?”
“Payment discrepancy.” I reached into the medicine cabinet but was interrupted before I could grab any of the prismatic vials.
“Our records indicate you assisted Kitchen Unit 334 for 2 minutes and 13 seconds at your current rate during the most recent pay period. After pre-tax adjustment and sickness-plan-rounding, $20k was deposited into your employee account number 6944—“
“No, no, no!” This was wrong. This had to be wrong. Eyes closed, I tried to take a deep breath.
“Do you wish to dispute this data? If so, please unlock privacy controls on your smart-lenses now.”
I opened my eyes. The 20k readout was still there, mocking me. I unscrewed the Zepam vial and squeezed three drops onto my tongue.
Mrs. James’ bot repeated: “Do you wish to dispute this data? If so, please—“
“What about K Unit 334’s video surveillance. Can’t we…can’t you check the unit’s data? I assisted and maintained K Unit 334 for at least twelve hours every day last week. I mean, I swear I—“
“Kitchen Unit 334 is currently missing and unavailable for video surveillance data upload.” Mrs. James’ bot repeated, this time more insistently: “Please unlock privacy controls on your smart lenses…now.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to smash the mirror. I wanted to pick up the shards and gouge my brains out through my retinas. I wanted to…to...
The Zepam started to set in. “End call,” I whispered. I rapped my knuckles against my lips three times and squeezed another drop of Zepam into my mouth, for good measure.
“Turn holo-notifications off.” I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Unlocking my privacy controls was a death sentence. Of this, I was certain. Over the course of the latest pay-period, I had constantly broken protocol at home by immersing myself in non-sanctioned media and behavior. In fact, that last extra drop of Zepam alone was an infraction, if minor. The financial penalty for these transgressions would inevitably lead to bankruptcy, imprisonment, and likely, execution.
Meanwhile, I was already tens of millions of dollars in debt to my landlord, my doctor, my grocer, and my bank -- all of which meant that I was subject to indentured servitude or assassination-by-drone if I didn’t start repayment soon. Very soon. The monthly rent for my studio unit alone was $43.3 million. I needed my full paycheck deposit.
First, I needed to convince Dr. Shepitko to scrub my most recent data clean of any illicit behavior before I could submit my log. Although engaging in non-sanctioned activity was severely punishable, paying to scrub non-sanctioned data was not. While this appeared to be an obvious moral contradiction, it was the kind which seemed to keep the economy running smoothly.
As such, Dr. Shepitko was also my source for illicit media. My dealer of cinema. “Anathamedia,” she called it. She, like me, had developed an insatiable taste for films that did not conform to Mrs. James’ “Family Food Corporation” requirements: films that depicted despair, loneliness, and madness. Films that lacked resolution and heroic triumph. Films of endless struggle and self-destruction. Forbidden films. Purchasing this black-market media cost a few million dollars a week and required me to work extra hours with the Kitchen Units every day.
Despite my vice, I was a hard worker. I’d never had an issue with my reported wages in the past and there was nothing I could think of that explained the disappearance of K Unit 334. Among my human colleagues, this was unheard of. Worker-drones did not misreport income and they never went missing. The machines were precise and extremely valuable, unlike Drone-Assistance workers like me. One properly maintained Kitchen Bot could prepare thousands of perfect meals every day.
I unmuted myself. “Call Dr. Shepitko.”
A few seconds of silence, then Dr. Shepitko’s call-bot answered: “Hello, Mr. K. Morgan. I am no longer able to receive calls from you until you have deposited Twenty-Eight-Million, Three-Hundred-Fifty-One-Thousand, One-Hundred-Twenty-Two dollars into account number—“
“End call.” I muted myself again and cursed.
This was very bad. I was as good as dead now. I grabbed two handfuls of vials from the medicine cabinet and opened the door to my kitchen.
There, I discovered Unit 334 chopping onions and carrots on my countertop.
I dropped the vials to the ground, their plastic husks bounced and rolled across the laminated floor.
Over the course of my working adulthood I’d found a way to view some K Units as “cute,” despite the fact that they were nothing more than a conglomeration of mechanical arms, telescoping claws, gimbals, sensors, lenses, treads, and a wide variety of kitchen instruments. I did not find Unit 334 to be a particularly “cute” model, despite all my dutiful maintenance and care for its antiquated machinery.
“What are you doing!?” I demanded.
K Unit 334 continued to chop with one sharp claw, while extending another toward me. Clasped inside its pincer-grip, was a black, leather-bound notebook, which I immediately recognized as my property. I approached 334 and it carefully placed the notebook in my hand.
I flipped through the pages filled with dozens of handwritten entries describing the illicit films I had consumed. Details of plot, character, actors, locations, abstractions such as color, mood, feeling. It was one of my diaries of depravity. My deepest, darkest secrets. This was an older notebook, one that had gone inexplicably missing many months ago. My current notebook was tucked safely inside my front pants pocket, though I suddenly had the realization that 334 could easily pluck it from me without difficulty, if such a desire emerged.
“Dinner will be ready in 7 minutes, Mr. K Morgan,” reported 334.
“How did you get in here?”
The K Unit pointed a claw at the door which I could now see had been peeled open like an aluminum lid. Repairing it would cost least two million, maybe three million dollars. At this point, all I could do was emit a warped laugh.
“What are you doing here, 334?”
The Unit extended an arm to grab a can of protein-peas from my cupboard while simultaneously collecting the carrots and placing them into one of its internal sauté pans. The machine’s motions were precise and agile; an old unit but a good one.
“Dinner will be ready in 6 minutes. Please, make yourself comfortable.”
334 continued to prepare the meal while neatly stacking the dropped vials on the counter in front of me. I grabbed one and sat down on the worn couch with my returned notebook. I flipped through the pages while the smell of caramelized onions filled the room.
“Why did you misreport my work hours, 334? You know, you really screwed me.”
“Dinner will be ready in 5 minutes, Mr. K. Morgan,” announced K Unit 334, its motors whirring in harmony.
I considered drinking a full vial. All the vials, even. But, instead, I read some of my old “Anathamedia” entries and enjoyed the last minutes of the fragrant dance of Kitchen Unit 334.
I sighed, removed my smart lenses, and watched the collagen proteins float around my vision like plastic clouds.