Discarded wrappers littered the slate-grey countertop, rustling as small hands added one more to the pile. Maya couldn’t remember the last time a housekeeper prepared her meal―not that it took a lot of skill to unpack a thin, octagonal plastic tray and toss it in the Hydra. A minute later, four unidentifiable blobs in separate compartments had absorbed enough moisture to expand into a substance similar to the stringy meat-in-gravy she recalled giving her dog, plus a portion of green beans and mashed potatoes.
The only difference was how it smelled―the dog food was better.
A brown horror rested at the center of the tray in its own little chamber. It was supposed to be a dessert, but if she saved it for last, it would be rock hard. If she ate it first, it would scald the inside of her mouth. Maya stood up on tiptoe to reach into the Hydra, sucking air through her teeth as she tugged at the hot plastic tray, then scurried to the table and dropped it fast, rubbing her hands on her oversized beige sweater to cool them. With a sigh, she fell into the chair, staring at the comm terminal while picking at her dinner and letting one dangling foot sway. Endless weeks and months of the same three choices for dinner left her uninterested in tasting it.
Whatever meat sat under the heavy, brown gravy, its scent reminded her of having a dog. Tiny and white, he had regarded the pedestrian offering of rehydrated food as though it came from on high. Like Maya, he’d gotten the same unidentifiable substance every night, but the little guy had been excited as if each time was the first he’d had such a treat. A frown formed around the fist mushing her cheek to one side. She couldn’t recall the dog’s name or what had happened to him, catching only brief glimpses of having had a pet at some point in the past.
She left the empty tray on the table and plodded down the long corridor across the penthouse apartment and the four wooden stairs descending to the living room, a vast expanse of dimly lit sparsity. At a pair of sliding glass panels, she sat cross-legged on the tan carpet and gazed out over a glittering city of steel, glass, and neon light. Gusting wind pushed the scent of rain in around the closed doors.
Whirring, a little louder than the machine that cleaned and dried her hair, grew in strength to the right. Maya leapt to her feet, standing stiff at attention as a hovering drone skimmed along outside. Gleaming white shrouds, twelve inches around and emblazoned with the word Ascendant in silver, covered a ducted fan at each tip of the triangular machine. A large gun on its undercarriage swiveled at her, seconds before a grid of green laser light covered her body. After a momentary pause, a happy chirp accompanied its weapon returning to a neutral orientation, and the drone tilted forward, flying off. She lowered herself to sit once more, glaring at the slogan ‘Building a better you!’ below the name of her mother’s company until the machine drifted out of sight to the left.
She couldn’t hear the people far below in the street, but they seemed sad like her. Everyone kept their heads down and shuffled along, a river of grey-clad bodies indistinguishable from each other save for subtle variations in height. Most wore the same drab poncho and filter mask; everyone feared breathing in Fade. No one made eye contact with anyone. Several larger drones hovered over the crowd, patches of radiant light adding color to the blank world. Their frames as big as motorcycles, the four-fanned Authority bots on the hunt for criminals and non-conformers were double the size of the corporation-owned ones circling her building.
No one ever smiled; at least, not unless they happened to be selling something.
Overcast sky darkened, fast enough for her to perceive the change to night. Today had been a remarkable day; Mother had shown up at the penthouse apartment to check on her. Elation at gaining her attention, even for one solitary hour, had long ago turned to resentment. Mother hadn’t been as much concerned with her as she’d been with getting some good photos for use in the latest ad campaign.
Being the daughter of the CEO of Ascendant Pharmaceutical Corporation sucked.
An hour past dark, she gave up on waiting for the telltale glow of Mother’s helicopter coming in for a roof landing and trudged to her bedroom. Maya changed into a shin-length nightdress and started to crawl into bed, but stopped with one knee up on the mattress. She got down, went to the door and, as if sneaking up on a sleeping monster, crept to the comm terminal in the hallway. At the center of an eight-by-ten panel of dark metal, a round steel eye as big as her fist greeted her with a slow-blinking red light.
“Maya,” she said.
“Voiceprint recognized. Good evening, Maya Oman. It is past your bedtime.”
She sighed. “I know. Outbound call please, Vanessa Oman.”
The terminal remained silent for thirty seconds before the regal face of a woman in her middle thirties appeared, a midair hologram. Long, black hair cascaded around high cheekbones and perfect ebony skin. Every time Maya saw her, she felt self-conscious at her lighter tone. She wanted to be dark like Mother, not the medium brown she’d been stuck with. Always, Maya wondered if her appearance had something to do with her mother’s distance.
The cadence of a recording in a stern woman’s voice filled the corridor. “This is the private vid-mail inbox for Vanessa Oman, CEO of Ascendant Pharmaceuticals. If you have the necessary clearance to contact this number, leave a message. Otherwise, please disconnect this call and await the arrival of Authority Officers.”
“Begin message,” said a digital tone.
“Mother. It’s Maya. You didn’t come home… again. I guess you’ve gone to one of the other apartments. Good night.” Maya turned her back on the console. “Terminal, end call.”
The walls flickered and went dark as the holo-projector cut out. Maya spent a moment admiring moonlight glinting off the silver glitter in her raspberry toenail polish before emitting a soft sigh and heading to bed.