Down in the Dumps

I was never going to have kids! Everyone knows that kids are just too much work. After suffering through so many crummy jobs in my past, I was now on track to finally have a serious career and couldn’t have those distractions (which come with a child) divert my path. Most people I know opt to freeze their eggs or sperm, paying monthly fees to bank them in repositories. They of course hope to conceptualize someday. However, most people usually never find time these days to thaw their junk out before they die, leaving their deposits to be thrown away after. Genetic deadends. For me, I don’t even think it would be useful to freeze my eggs: there were enough plastics, proto-chemicals, and stray nanotech parts floating through my reproductive system to mutate the genes of a healthy horse, let alone the frail DNA of a small mousy white woman in her late 30s.

Like many people in the lower duchies, being poor had caused me to grow up near some of the worst polluters in Lower St. Louis. In 2125, modern doctors had no clue exactly what current toxic-waste levels were doing to the overall health of the lower classes, but if you looked at demographic reports for the last half century, it would be hard to not notice an uptick in infertility (as well as cross-gender abnormalities) in births across the board. So I was fairly certain I couldn’t have kids, even if I wanted to.

I can talk for days about pollutants and their effects. If you want. I can tell you the proper method of disposal for just about anything. I also know the many ways to dump things in a not-so-proper method too. It’s kind of my thing. My journalist peers call me the Trash Lady, but I’m just happy to have moved up to the middle classes with my new job. I only recently climbed the ladder out of poverty when I became a reporter for the Heritage News conglomerate, but it was long enough for me to know I was never going back to being poor again. I tried to channel all that passion into my career so I could be successful enough to never have to scrape by again.

Not that this was easy to do right now. I had been sitting in my vehicle, trying to find the next break in one of the most important stories of my new career, and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off this little girl. I had been staking out this seedy market street in Lower St. Louis: trying to set my eyes on someone, anyone, putting a shiny wrapper into a particular trash can outside a Franco’s automated restaurant front. The trash I was looking for would be easy to spot, as all wrappers were biodegradable these days and wouldn’t have that same kind of shine that I knew the one I was looking for would have. This wrapper was barcoded too, and I had programs running that would alert me of any type of trash of its kind thrown out in a six-block radius. And yet, this was the trashcan I had my hopes pinned on.

But my attention was all on this little girl who kept consuming the worst foods this literal ‘hole in the wall’ could pump out. What had me concerned was the vast quantities that she actually ate. I’d been here for about three days and, in that time, I’d seen her consume more meals than could be accounted for in a normal Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner routine for even an adult person. By my daily estimate, she was eating enough to choke a family of four. Right now, the girl was wolfing down a type of 3-tiered, cheese and sauce stuffed pizza/garlic bread concoction of some kind. Looking at the ecstasy on her face, as she barely chewed, made me cringe at how corrupted this girl was.

“Hey kid!” I shouted as I jumped out of my TransPod. Just because I wasn’t going to have kids, didn’t mean that I didn’t care about them. Enough people treated them like trash anyway. “You’re eating too much of that garbage!”

The windows of my vehicle had been set to opaque up until now, these last three days on my trashcan stakeout. So, I half expected the girl to be surprised that my TransPod wasn’t abandoned like I’d hoped it appeared to everyone who saw it. TransPods were such an old make of vehicle you never see them anymore, except in junkyards. Most people would have abandoned it. However, I happen to know that you can easily retrofit the old vehicle with food and sanitation mods to make it a convenient camper. With everything I have hooked up to it, I don’t have to empty the waste compartment for days. Also, its computer systems are so old they’re impossible to hack with the technology out today. I liked that about them. As I went off on this poor kid (like some crazy person), the moment I got out the door, the look on her face was anything but scared or surprised. How strange.

“You can’t eat this much garbage! It’s okay to have junk food every now and then, but you also have to have NutriFood once in a while.” Jesus! I felt just like a commercial.

The kid was obviously of the same opinion, and after my half-hearted spiel she replied, “Whatever you say. Dork!”

Wow. That hurt! How’d she know that kind of slang? No one says dork anymore. She could only have heard that watching ancient vidz, which I knew were hard to find. And I’m not just saying that either. My dad had been more than just a connoisseur of old media productions. His personal addiction had been in 20th century broadcasts, and he instilled in me a particular fetish for vidz from that era. And when I say instilled, I mean I have a datakey implanted inside me that has not only hours worth of ancient vidz, but decades worth.

My dad and I bonded over our shared love of vintage cartoons and blockbuster movies. He even named me Penny, after a clay-animation vid he had seen on some Saturday morning cartoons from that era. To let me in on it, he’d shown me a vid called Pee Wee’s Playhouse and there was a recurring vid on that show of two pennies (an old form of commodity money) that would morph into a girl, who’d just go on to motormouth a bunch of crazy stories. 

I could put up with most of the shit that kids said to me these days, but since this little twerp used my own sacred dialect to insult me – it hit home. The little shit began to ignore me as she tossed the empty carton from her last abomination into the trash bin. My trash bin. She didn’t say anything to me as she began to root around in her Franco’s sack for her next consumable. That was it! I smacked the bag out of her hands and was rewarded with a look of surprise at last. 

“What the fuck lady?!” She half laughed, half squealed at me.

I looked around the street for any kind of tech that might have a truancy app, but there was simply nothing in sight to deal with a stray kid like this. I did spot a NutriFood kiosk nearby though. The kid was right to call me a dork. NutriFood was one of the worst (and corrupt) corporations out there, and their foods tasted awful. No one liked eating them. But there was no denying they had a monopoly on vitamin and protein resources in the world, which other corporations simply lacked. If this girl ate only food from the entertainment industry (like Franco’s) she would find herself in some kind of medical crisis, which you read about all the time in news-blasts. 

It was time to go full dork. “Come on kid, I’ll buy you something from the NutriFood over there. There’s a Monte Cristo on the sandwich menu that I’m sure you haven’t tried. It’s good!” I forced a smile as I said it.

Finally, being up close to the kid, I noticed she was strikingly pretty, under all the filth. Otherwise, she looked like most kids from the lower classes of her generation. Dressed in dirty, ill-fitting clothing and entirely pissed off. I never understood this generation’s fashion choices, but I did get their attitudes. Twelve years ago, an error in the US Department of Education’s AI had resulted in the government sending the wrong curriculum to every public school in the country. Apparently, it went on for years before the mistake was detected. Poor fuckers. 

It was so ludicrous how messed up the mistake actually was, in all reality. Every kid in this generation had been taught a domain specific programming language for the last twelve years that no piece of tech used today! I mean, the programming language itself had been mothballed by MicroSoft, back during the time Eric Trump and his ProudBoy Army were burning down the capitol building in Austin, at the height of his mad crusade. It didn’t change the fact that the education floating around these kids’ heads was nothing but garbage.

I couldn’t help feeling bad for this girl. It wasn’t just her poor food choices that had me concerned. Children her age were being quietly cast off, and no one seemed to care they weren’t going to be assimilated into the US workforce. Right now, corporations were lobbying politicians and other high lords to start approving visas for foreign students who could fill the jobs that US children wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure what moniker this latest generation had – like GenX, Baby Boomer (I,II,III, & IV), or Cohort76, but whatever it was, they should just change it to GenFucked.

“I’m allergic to NutriFood. Okay?” She said, petulantly. I was about to call bullshit when the girl whipped out a MedPass with (can you believe it?!) an exemption for NutriFood, SubSoysent, and McDonalds. All three corporations who just happened to be the triumvirate of the world’s food resources! I couldn’t believe my eyes, because there is simply NO way to fake a MedPass. My mind was left reeling over how she could survive without eating anything from these three companies. 

Things might have been different a hundred years ago but, in the 22nd century, everyone knew that laws had been made to allow corporations (especially those in Entertainment) to sell food with zero nutritional value. They claimed they were just selling an experience. Even worse, some corporations had been exposed for using their food products as a way to get rid of wastes from their other industries. I knew about those kinds of stories. It fascinated me how human masses were used as a sort of waste disposal system. It was brilliant.

As I said before, I’m the Trash Lady, and when it comes to sanitation, waste removal/disposal, and hospice care (which many joke that ‘hospice’ is the sanitation trade for dealing with humans when they’ve aged to the point they’re categorically garbage), I’ve had jobs in all those fields. I’ve literally had the shitiest jobs you can imagine. Surprisingly, my skills (which ranged from janitor, to nurse, to recycling plant facilitator) were what made me such a good reporter. Even though my fellow journalists looked at me like a slumdog who had found its way into a fine restaurant, they all had eventually come to ask me for help in finding leads for their news-blasts. Even that asshole Brian, who had started the whole Trash Lady joke, which everyone started using, couldn’t deny I could find a needle in a haystack. 

In all honesty, they were right to call me the Trash Lady as, believe it or not, dumpster diving is my best source for breaks. On top of that, I know more about the sanitation industry than almost anyone alive. Because of this, I can access every sanitation network in use today, ferret through recycling databases worldwide, and crunch through all that data to tell a person’s life story based on what they throw away. Not to be obtuse, but a person doesn’t know what secrets they are telling the world based on what they chuck out the window.

That’s why I was here: waiting for someone to throw away a shiny wrapper because it would probably lead to Chester Post. The man my story (which I’d recklessly volunteered for) revolved around. Regardless of my own troubles, if I was to believe this girl really was allergic to anything with real nutrition (which I was getting the gut feeling was total bullshit) then she was even more screwed than her peers. But how would she be able to fake a MedPass? Well, someone had to find this girl some food. 

Suddenly, inspiration hit me! It was only just last week, at a meeting, that Brian had told all of us about the emergence of a new urban myth. Reports were coming in of a BurgerKing that existed in Middle St. Louis, which supposedly served food from a menu over 100 years old. Certain people today idolized BurgerKing as a mythical adversary to McDonalds, for some reason, even though the forgone corporation went out of business decades ago. People all over the city (even as high as the Loft) were searching for this fabled restaurant, but no one had been able to find it. 

Recently, Brian had somehow gotten his hands on a burger, second hand, which he called a WhoPer. Amazingly, lab tests showed it was made from real beef! The lab geeks had admitted that the WhoPer could have been a form of VatGro, but it had all the nutritional value you would find from real meat. Obviously, finding the place would be a huge story! Up till now, no one had been able to secure a beef genome since before the first WorldStorms. To fuck with Brian, I’d decided to steal his story and secretly wrote an algorithm that put a trace on any trash that fit the element-specs of the wrapper which Brian had taken off the WhoPer. Missouri state recycling scanners had picked up a lot of pings before I was diverted to this new story a few days ago. However, I had just about triangulated the location of the BurgerKing.

“What if I buy you something from BurgerKing?” I asked nonchalantly, hoping she would have heard the rumors. She perked up immediately.

“The home of the Whopper? You know where it is?” Asked the girl incredulously. She pronounced the WhoPer like “Wau-per” and not “Hooper” like Brian had.

Duh? The kid was right of course! I had seen plenty of commercials for Whoppers between old Saturday morning cartoon vidz broadcast in the 20th century. How could I have missed that? I was starting to realize that this girl was more than she seemed. However, I fully believed the look of astonishment on her face when she said, “You mean I can have it my way?” Just like their commercial slogan. This kid must be some kind of a junk food fanatic. What a dork.

I’ve only been a reporter for the past 14 months, so just about 2 years ago I was a dirt poor sanitation worker. I still might not look like much, but I was pretty confident I could promise a burger to this kid without fear of breaking it. “Yeah. I’ll be willing to forget you called me a dork and buy you a whole meal from the King. What do you say? Will you stop eating this Franco’s crap?”

In response, the kid kicked the bag of food I’d slapped to the ground, so that it bounced off Franco’s wallfront and landed perfectly in my trash can. “Absolutely!” She shouted. “This place is closing anyway. Let’s go!”

I was still staring at the trash can, after having watched the kids expert shot.  Did she just say that this Franco’s automated front was closing? What kind of coincidence would you call that? Very slowly I asked, “Hey kid, you ever see someone throw a shiny wrapper in this trash can?”

I was at a loss to describe the look that crossed the kid’s face as she answered me with silence. I studied her face for a few moments before looking back at the trash can when she replied, as if to change the subject, “Why do they call you the Trash Lady?”

I’ve lived with terror most of my life. Physical and sexual assault were nothing I hadn’t experienced before. Some people fled from fear, but I always kind of enjoyed the heightened awareness it brings. The implications of what the kid just said hit me like a ton of bricks and, with what felt like a belly full of adrenaline, I started to scan the surrounding area in earnest. I couldn’t imagine what I would see in this instant that I had been missing for three days. I knew, now, I was in danger. Had been in danger for three whole days, most likely. I’m such an amatuer sometimes!

Journalists disappear all the time. Ever since the FakeNews Wars, media conglomerates were only controlled by lords and dukes who weren’t subject to corporate laws. It was a strange mix of power between the corporations and media hubs, but CEOs were not above ordering the deaths of reporters who had exposed them. That’s why it was important to find a good media baron who was able to protect you as a part of his media group. I was fairly confident in my boss, Quincy Salvation, an up and coming baron who had started out in our profession as a head-piece reading news-blasts (hence the name). However, I was out here by myself, and this story was anything but a fluff piece. I knew the danger before taking the assignment, but up until now I hadn’t felt so exposed.

“You want to cut through the bullshit kid?” I said very carefully, hoping my skull wouldn’t explode in the headshot of some drone-sniper fire. “I’ll take you to BurgerKing. I promise it. But I got a story to write. Your Whopper is only a short ride away from here, but you gotta help me.” I know I was pushing the rules on this. Kids were sticklers for promises as far as adults keeping their words were concerned. I might spook her if I didn’t phrase this just right. “Please.” I said after a moment.

The girl didn’t hesitate before walking over and dialing something into the Franco’s interface pad. Suddenly, the plate over the trash chute swung out, revealing a waste tube to the dumpsters in the private alley out back. The girl started to smile apologetically as she said, “I know it’s gross but if you go…” 

I didn’t give her the chance to finish what she was going to say, when I shouted, “Thanks kid!” and dove head first into the trash chute. I’d find her after and make sure to feed her. I bet the kid had wanted to warn me about how difficult it was to get through a waste tube, but if she wondered why I was called the Trash Lady, then she’d probably figure it out eventually. 

No matter what kind of mad skills I brag about, it still took me a good ten minutes to claw my way through all that stinking waste, which ranged from solid to liquid in various textures. Holding my breath was not an option, as I had to exert real force in order to squirm through that small channel of PlastiSteel. All the smells that other people would gag from were all old hat to me. When I got to the end, there was still a servo switch to bypass, but I always carried a small hacker in my pocket for just such an occasion. Still, it didn’t save me from falling, ingloriously, out the tail end of the chute into a corrugated dumpster parked beneath it. 

After landing on my ass, I started wiping off garlic sauce and used napkins that I should have expected to cover my face. I struggled to my feet in the bin and put my head over top. What I saw was a number of HaulPods being loaded with some kind of bio-containers stamped with AlphaCorp logos. Just the one glance alone assured me a story that would go viral by the end of the day! Looks like AlphaCorp was branching out into other industries like the rumors said. Before I could enjoy this fantastic win, my eyes landed on a man standing amidst the workers loading the containers. He had already spotted me. I knew right away that this guy was dangerous. I just had that kind of radar. Not any kind of tech, mind you. Just a feeling, you know?

Besides the fact that he was probably going to kill me, I felt this guy was dangerous for a different reason. As he got closer, he began to resemble the kind of guy I usually dated. It was his rugged good looks and the fact that he was obviously a gangster with some sanitation syndicate which did it for me. No matter what people say about gangsters (they’re assholes, I know), they always seemed to be able to dish out a decent fuck. In my experience. It always seemed like they had a job to get done. I respected hard workers.

This guy looked newly-made though. Still, I could tell he was someone you called when you needed to throw away stuff you didn’t want people like me to find out about. You name it, I bet this guy could make it disappear for you. And right now he was walking right towards me. Trying to manage to get back some sense of grace, I vaulted out of the trash bin, easily landing in my vintage Nike sneakers. I was covered in garbage though, so I’m not sure what impression I was making on the guy. 

From learned habit, I pulled out my necklace: the pendant was in the shape of a potted daisy. It was obviously cheap, but its appearance elicited the response I wanted from the trash guy. The necklace itself was given to me by my benefactor, the media baron, and had a broadband emitter which this trash guy’s sensors should be alerting him was transmitting full audio and video back to my media group. The guy seemed to curse silently as he slowed his walk before coming to a stop in front of me. The fact that he didn’t flinch at how I smelled made me think about how long it had been since I’d gotten laid. 

“How the f….” he started, and then calmed himself. “How did you get in here?”

I readjusted my necklace and asked, “I’m looking for Chester Post.” He didn’t answer, so I continued, “I’m with the Heritage media conglomerate. My name is Penny..”

“You’re the Trash Lady.” He cut me off. “I know who you are. Before I answer your question, you answer mine! How’d you get in here?” If he knew who I was (and if he was any good at his job) then he should know I never gave up my sources. My confidence was all for not, though, as I eventually saw the wheels in his head click in place as he muttered, “That girl.”

The feeling that rushed through me was unfamiliar, but I knew immediately this was what a mama bear felt like protecting her cubs. This guy could kill me in a second. Probably would kill me, but I couldn’t help myself as I shouted, “You stay away from that girl! She didn’t do anything wrong. You touch one hair on her head..” I guess I could have kept going, but when his quiet look of shock changed to a full grin – followed by a belly laugh, I trailed off.

“I won’t hurt her.” He smiled sheepishly. “People getting past my defenses is one of my pet peeves, I’ll admit. I’d never hurt a kid. Okay?” Instead of intimidating, the guy just seemed really tired all of a sudden. “And I’m not gonna hurt you either. But I’d go crazy if I didn’t know where I’d slipped up.” Suddenly, in just a few short words, he went from gangster to human being. After he spoke, his gaze settled on the necklace between my breasts. Which were covered in ranch dressing by the way. I gave myself a moment to imagine what might be going on in his mind as he looked at my condiment covered tits, before bringing the conversation back to my story.

“Chester Post? Can you tell our viewers where we might find him?” By now all the bio-containers were out of sight, and the private alleyway was emptying of pods. The trash guy hesitated for a moment before letting out a long sigh. “Well, one bad turn deserves another, I guess. Come on.” He said it to me like an old friend. 

I find that sanitation workers usually feel each other out without us having to talk too much. Must be a look in the eyes or something. Anyway, I could tell this guy had probably worked the same kind of crappy jobs that I had worked growing up. Sensor readings from my passive scanners started to pop up on my OptiHolo display; they told me that the containers held high density amino gels coded with human DNA! No matter where this guy had started out, he was doing some major business now.

He walked me over to what I had assumed to be a stray trash bin but, when he opened a side compartment, I realized it was a HoverPod. Neat. He didn’t invite me in, so I waited while he dashed inside for a minute before coming back out with a CleanScreen. He helped me position the ring around my head and then leaned back against his pod while I turned it on. The whole time the effervescent nanoparticles scoured me for garbage, the trash guy leered at me. I hate to say that I enjoyed it. The last time I had felt appreciated for my looks was when Mike, one of the journalists at my media group, had stood up for me against the media team.

I’d been working with the people in my media barony for over a year and, by now, most of my colleagues have asked me to dumpster dive for them a few times for stories. You’d think I’d be better off not helping them, or telling them to jump into the garbage themselves. But I really don’t mind it. Besides, everytime I contribute to a story, my name gets on the byline. My name was already on more viral stories this year than anyone else in the whole conglomerate. 

Not Mike’s stories though. Mike was a very good reporter and, to be honest, I enjoyed a few of his news-blasts, but I never really took much notice of him until recently. I realized that he was the only one at the media group who never once asked me for help in getting a lead on a story. I began to think he didn’t like me. Then, one day, he walked into the office, smelling like rotten milk and stained with what looked like chocolate syrup all over his three piece suit. We all watched him march silently into Quincy’s office and, half an hour later, a huge story about a corrupt coffee-house CEO was uploaded on our barony’s news feeds. Ten minutes later, when Mike got out of Quincy’s office, the story had already garnered 10 million hits!

As Mike walked through our row of cubicles, smelling horrible, his triumphant smile made his face look so beautiful to me. From our row of cubicles, a few journalists snickered at him as he passed us by. He never lost his smile when he said, “I guess you guys can call me the Trash Man now!” He had looked right at me when he finished saying that, and I knew right then I was going to fuck him. That was just about a month ago, and nothing has happened on that front yet. Unfortunately, for me. I’d probably fucked it up, when he asked me to meet his mom and I’d said, “Fuck no.” 

I still haven’t figured out middle class mating rituals. Getting my new job had been a culture shock, for sure. When I was in the lower classes, we didn’t have anything else to do besides have sex: so getting laid was simple. But the middle class had a more complicated set of rules for copulation it seemed. 

As the nanoparticles began to dissipate, I hit the button to turn off the CleanScreen. 

The trash guy began to put it away when I asked, “So am I right in guessing that Chester Post is somewhere around here? Is there any way I can speak with him and get a quote?”

Instead of answering, he led me to a random door in the alley front and hit a button next to an old intercom. We waited for what seemed a long time before a scratchy voice finally answered out of the box, “Have you brought me more people? I told you I needed help!”

The frustrated voice didn’t change the relaxed expression on the trash guy’s face as he hit the button to answer, “I’ve brought you a cleaning lady. She’s volunteered to help with your rounds.” He smirked at me. “From what I’ve seen of her resume, she has nursing experience too. Particularly hospice! That work for you?”

The voice out of the box had lost a bit of the frustration when it answered, “Yeah. I’ll be right down.”

After a couple more minutes the door finally opened to show an old man who completely exemplified the stereotypical janitor image for me: from his gray uniform, to the keys hanging from a chain on his belt. Trash guy and janitor held a brief conversation, from which I could tell there was a lot of animosity between them. Finally, trash guy threw up his hands and said, “You wouldn’t let me take them when I had the transport, so this is what you get!”

The janitor yelled at his back, “You can’t transport these people without the proper personnel! You have no idea the needs of my people!” Said the janitor, who I’m guessing was really a caregiver now that I was reading more of the situation. It’s a small distinction, but I had worked at both, so I knew that a caretaker was a different species of animal altogether when you compared the two jobs. Janitors can be emotionless, but caretakers have to actually care, or else they didn’t last that long in the profession.

“People!?” scoffed trash guy and stalked off to his HoverPod without another word to me. As the pod lifted off, and soon vanished to the higher levels of St. Louis, I figured I probably wasn’t going to get laid any time soon. Damn. I looked to the old caretaker to see what he would do.

“He says you used to work in hospice? That right?” This guy looked about the age my dad would have been by now.

I nodded. “I had some jobs in truancy wards. Worked as a nurse in mental health hospitals, too.” Once again, people who’ve worked in the same industry come to recognize each other. My response seemed to confirm something in his mind and he waved me to come inside. Though I hadn’t thought about what to expect, I was still disappointed to just find a corridor full of doors. Directly in front of us was a large cart, which was loaded with supplies and machines for cleaning residential spaces.

“I have patients who require, at least, two health care agents to be present when caring for them at all times. I’ve been here by myself for two days. That asshole took all my staff before clearing out the patients. He has no idea what we do here!” I knew I was the reason this guy’s job had gotten a lot harder. Trash guy must have been alerted the second I parked my TransPod on the street above, and he started a clean-up operation in hopes of hiding this story from me. Still I was no closer to the actual story that had brought me here. On top of that, there wasn’t any real reason I could think of which would absolutely require two specialists in a patient’s room at a given time. Unless…

“We take care of food, individual hygiene (when we can), and house cleaning. I like to be quiet. Get in and get out as peacefully and silently as possible. Okay?” The guy seemed frazzled and desperate to get his rounds done.

“How dangerous are the patients you have here?” That question got his attention. “And how upset are they that their routines have been screwed up these past couple of days?” I adjusted the necklace to see whether his eyes would stray to it. He never even glanced at it. Whoever this caretaker was, that was all he was. He probably had no idea I was with NewsCorp.

The caretaker breathed forcefully as he answered, “Just be careful when we go in to clean their units. Look to me if you are unsure what to do. I just need things to stay hygienic. I will make sure to watch the patients for any signs of aggression.”

Once again, there was no such job that I haven’t performed. And performed spectacularly: with little to no pay. I had no small skill with dangerous patients, unfortunately. Just take the five-inch scar on my back, for example, that even ReGro couldn’t erase. I got that from my time as a nurse in a truancy ward. One day, I had been running a subdermal scan on some random teenager and he just started beating the shit out of me for no apparent reason. I survived because the boy must have thought he had killed me already. He left me to go on and kill two other nurses and a police officer before being apprehended. To this day, I still have no idea what his rampage had been about.

That was the end of that career path for me though. But to be clear, I wasn’t scared out of the profession because of that beating. My employer had ended up giving me a written warning because I didn’t have enough paid time off to cover the time I needed to recover from my injuries. It took me 3 months to heal, and I was barely able to scrape by before I found a new job at a reclamation center – where I learned how to operate recycling databases.

“You got it.” I said, hoping that Chester (and my story) wasn’t too far down the list of rounds we were about to go on. Why would Chester Post be a patient here though? He should be running AlphaCorp. 

A few years ago, AlphaCorp apparently achieved an unbelievable coup when Chester Post had resigned his CEO position at McDonalds to go work for them. Up until then, most people had assumed AlphaCorp was a low level corporation, with only a few industries under their purview. People expected Chester to take AlphaCorp to the next level when he started working for them. Except, he simply disappeared after signing his new contract. Even his daughter, Sherley Post, admitted to losing contact with him. Sherley was famous for her reality program, and it was only just a few days ago that she was found dead, by suicide, in her spacious mansion. Rumors about an incestous relationship were already circulating when I told my boss I could find Chester.

Before we started the rounds, the caretaker showed me his cart and all the different items inside. I was impressed by his stockpile of cleaning supplies. However, like the old pro that I was, I could tell he probably didn’t know how half of what these contraptions and chemicals could do. Half of the machines still had the cellophane wrappers on them for Christ’s sake. Opening a hidden compartment, the caretaker showed me a different kind of arsenal, a real one, full of soft weapons for humanely pacifying patients. Neatly strapped in a soft velvet compartment were stun guns, sleeping drugs in aerosol containers, and self applying restraints (to name a few). I noticed there were no cellophane wrappers on these instruments.

Despite the foreboding undertones of my initial meeting with the caretaker, the rounds were actually quite dull for the most part of the day. A lot of his patients had some kind of mental health problem. Sure. But they all seemed like they were in a good mood. It did seem strange how happy they were, I had to admit. Despite having noticeably cheerful crazy people, I realized I didn’t know much else about AlphaCorp. I had other stories I was working on and had only taken this one last minute to try to impress my boss. So at a certain point in the hall, I voiced my confusion to the caretaker as to why AlphaCorp was caring for these people in the first place.

“Because they’re employees, and they have the right to care.” He said to me, a little arrogantly.

I just looked at him. Stunned. What was he talking about? “When do you expect these people to be productive again?” I pushed him. “How much care do you put into them before AlphaCorp terminates them for being a drain on profits?”

He just sadly shook his head. “We don’t expect them to be productive again.” Seeing my confusion only growing he exclaimed, “If you must know, they were all productive workers at one point, but now they need care. AlphaCorp takes care of its employees. No matter what.”

If that were really true, then this was another story I could potentially sell on the news-blasts. Strange, how I’d only been a reporter for a little over a year, but now I was always looking for stories. But seriously? Whoever heard of a company paying for the health care of its employees? 

The caretaker seemed to notice my continued disbelief, so he added, “People like to say AlphaCorp is like a cult, but it’s not. They see human beings as resources. Because humans are in fact a resource and not garbage: believe it or not. For some reason, people swallow the crap corporations have been telling them for years, and assume that they are only as valuable as what they can give to others. People in any state of mind or with any kind of physical handicap are still worth something!”

It was a good speech, but I had to say, “And what are these people, whose shit we’ve been cleaning up all morning, worth? What are they doing for AlphaCorp, except draining profits and not giving anything back to the company? It’s not fair for productive workers.”

I thought I had bought myself a lecture with that one, but the caretaker just said, “Come.” So I followed him past a whole slew of doors, until we came to what seemed a random one. The caretaker was obviously skipping some patients for a reason, so out of curiosity, I stayed quiet and watched to see what he would do.

When the door opened, the only thing I could say was “Oh…. My…….God!” As I had mentioned, I was thoroughly a fanatic for all vidz from the late 20th and early 21st century but, because of my dad, I had a specific love for 1980s culture. It was the last time, it seemed to me, that people on camera looked happy. Starting around the 1990s people in vidz just looked different. 

This room was a monument to the 1980s, wonderfully. It had everything from He-Man action figures (shit! there was even a She-ra) standing on shining pedestals, stacks of Garbage Pail Kids on what I could only describe as an altar, to bins full of old Atari and Nintendo games. Since the caretaker had given me no instructions (or any other hint as to why we went straight here), I just assumed it was another cleaning job, so I skedaddled right in. 

I had already outfitted myself with a makeshift satchel full of cleaning supplies from the caretaker‘s cart, so I decided I’d start dusting and otherwise decontaminate all this amazing junk! After the first two steps in, however, I realized I’d completely ignored the patient in the room and instantly wished I hadn’t. Up until now, the patients on the rounds had been anything but intimidating to me: low alert level on my radar. But one glance at this guy, and my radar was on Red Alert. Most people (like the caretaker) might mistake this patient’s large glasses, morbid obesity, and overall lack of hygiene as symptoms of a modern day dork. I, however, had no problem seeing this guy for the high class predator he was.

Anyone thinking he was some stoned-out retard would be missing the subtle signs which shouted that this patient was a fully cognizant person. It was obvious to me that he was fully aware of his surroundings (perhaps hyper-aware) and menacingly intelligent. Even though this weird dude sat in a type of captain’s chair, plugged into no less than 20 hanging monitors (with various gaming pods and vid-players), his full attention was on me. Old training took over and I just started cleaning, hoping my radar was wrong about him and trying to play dumb.

From time to time, I would look up to see the caretaker picking rubbish up off the floor (he completely abstained from cleaning this patient’s horde of relics for some reason). I’d get a ponderous look anytime we made eye contact, but otherwise he left me to my own devices. When we’d entered the room, the caretaker had said, “Hi Sam.” leaving those the last words he had spoken since. 

For his part, Sam was continuing to creep me the fuck out. He watched me like a hawk as I moved from one monument of vintage toys to another. I took years of brown film off G.I. Joes and Star Wars action figures posed in a series of sets, and Sam just scrutinized me the whole time. It wasn’t creepy in a sexual way, the way Sam looked at me, as I took the time to spray viscous solutions into the joints of his Transformers. If I had to describe it, it felt more like a cat watching a mouse cleaning its litter box than anything else.

For some reason, Sam’s room was huge compared to the other patients’ quarters in the facility. Out in the hall, it wouldn’t make sense the way the doors were situated, now that I saw how Sam’s unit just kept going on and on. I didn’t have much time to wonder about this glitch in the Matrix as, the farther I cleaned my way around, the more incredible junk I found! 

I went through a whole gambit of emotions in that room. Ultimately, at one point, I was using BrighTone on some movie posters hanging on a wall, and the next thing I knew I was 7 years old again, staring up at my childhood crush: Sean Astin. Remembering what it felt like to sit with my dad on our old couch made me completely forget everything else around me. Thinking about the Goonies, picturing Sean Astin sucking on his inhaler, made me wonder about the ways I could track down that trash guy who flew off in his HoverPod. 

I had to shake my head to get out of my reverie. But before moving on to the other posters, I took a moment to step around the one of the Goonies, in a kind of half circle, so my SimPlants could take a full image scan of it. I guess I broke character a little, but I couldn’t resist recreating it later for my living unit when I finished this story. It might have been a mistake, as I saw Sam sit up in a position aimed a bit more in my direction. His beady little eyes went straight to my necklace. If Sam was looking for a recorder, he could look as hard as he wanted, but he’d never spot anything suspicious looking on the pendant. That was because there wasn’t any camera in the necklace at all. This was just one of my many secrets.

I tucked the necklace back into my shirt and watched Sam relax a bit, confirming my progressing suspicions about this guy. I let myself enjoy the little victory I had won: Sam obviously had no idea that he was still on camera! This was the secret gift Quincy, my boss, had nobly bestowed upon me when I first came to work for him (although it suited my boss’ purposes more than mine). You see. Most female reporters who join the media group under Quincy’s barony (or any media barony for that matter) usually have to sleep with the boss. Unofficially, you understand. Quincy made a great show of our sexual relationship when I joined the media group, even though we never actually consummated anything. Quincy didn’t want my colleagues or anyone else to know that instead of boning me, he had paid to have a team of Cubans install a passive sensor/recorder device on top of my upper skeletal system, subdermally.

Most scanners couldn’t detect my cybernetics, and my false affair with Quincy served to cover up the time it took me to recover from my various surgeries. Returning from our last trip, right before he told me we had to “fake” breakup, he confided in me that he believed I was his ticket to a Dukedom. A kind of secret weapon, he told me. A journalist who no one took seriously, but who was outfitted with the latest tech designed to expose corporate crimes. He said I could get stories that others couldn’t. He also told me we had to be clever. 

My necklace had to be the decoy that people thought was the recorder/transmitter which helped me produce my news-blasts. Yes, it sent out broadband signals that could be detected (and had fooled the trash guy), but the data it transmitted was just coded nonsense. My true data recorders were totally invisible under my skin, though it left me with no privacy whatsoever. Quincy had my sensors transmit continuous audio/video (and limited spectral analysis) of everything in my sight to his mainframe computers: 24/7.

I’m fairly certain Sam had determined my necklace had been taking imagery scans up until now, so when I put it back in my shirt, his bearing seemed to indicate that he didn’t think he was on camera anymore. However, unknown to Sam, he and all of his stuff were still being recorded for my media group. Right now, my OptiHolo display told me I had no connection to the DataNet, so my boss had no idea what I was seeing. The moment I had entered this building, the holographic imagery in my aqueous humor displayed all red dots on my peripheral vision, indicating the lost signal and latent recording continuation. I had assumed AlphaCorp shielded this place to protect its secrets. Even if I couldn’t make it out of here alive, Quincy could still recover everything the sensors recorded. If he was able to recover my body, he’d be able to watch everything up until my time of death.

As I continued to clean, I tried not to mess up the order of Sam’s various collections, knowing enough about hoarders (being one myself) not to make that mistake. If I had been any other sanitation worker, I might have used products that would have lifted the paint off of these old toys. But lucky for Sam, I knew my shit. I imagined he was analyzing everything I did and making decisions in real-time whether or not to execute me. Looking over at the caretaker, who was nonchalantly placing every individual piece of paper he picked off the floor into its own cellophane baggie, I realized he did not share my assessment of how dangerous Sam was. But I also knew this was common for men his age who work in the industry to miss these signs. As a woman who’s worked as a nurse, I’m just more attuned to viciousness. 

Like an ametuer though, I messed up when I got to a toyscape made with a whole bunch of action figures. This particular grouping was full of Marvel and DC characters in various states of battle. However, Sam had put Marvel characters with DC ones, and it was just all fucked up. I couldn’t help myself as I started ordering the toys correctly. It was only when I noticed all the sounds in the room go silent, that I felt a tap on my shoulder. 

Holy shit! He startled me. I couldn’t figure how Sam had gotten his fat ass out of his chair so sprightly. He had to have moved impossibly fast in order to be standing right next to me now. I could swear I had just seen him in his chair across the room a second before.

“Don’t move my toys!” He screamed with some kind of speech impediment that made him sound like a child. His childlike voice actually made him seem scarier to me. His stance was hostile, and I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the caretaker slowly moving towards his cart. Shit! He wasn’t already armed? I couldn’t wait for the old guy to rescue me, so I decided to take charge of the situation myself.

“I wouldn’t have to move your toys, Sam…” I began, using my mother’s voice. “..if you had them in the correct order. Your DC and Marvel are all mixed up.” That jolted him. “Come on man! I can see you have boxes of comics under here. You know Batman shouldn’t be fighting Red Skull. Why not just cut off his cape and call him Ben Affleck?!” I said as I paired the figure with the Joker.

Sam slowly, but surely, visually calmed as I worked quickly to put the toys in a much better version of his display. But I kept talking as I worked. That’s a trick I’ve learned. The caretaker had previously confessed in his belief that silence was best for patients like this, but I was the kind of nurse who won’t stop talking as I change your bedpan. At the moment, the caretaker finally had a dart gun trained on Sam, but wasn’t firing it for some reason. There was a strange look on his face as he watched me hand Sam different action figures, while directing him where to place them and why. I told Sam stories I knew of Superman and Ironman from the vidz I had watched with my dad. I’m sure he already knew some of them, but he didn’t seem to mind hearing them again. 

Sam eventually became complacent and allowed me to continue cleaning his stuff. He began examining the other trinkets in his horde, and the caretaker put his dart gun back in the cart. Things seemed to settle into a comfortable stalemate, as I continued to work. I got closer to Sam’s captain’s chair, which sat abandoned now that he was poking through his stuff. There was a smell like ass that came off a blanket arranged in a kind of bird’s nest on top. It was similar to what I had smelled when Sam stood next to me earlier, but I didn’t plan on doing anything about that. However, this blanket was one of those things I couldn’t resist cleaning. Simply had to. You understand?

After just surviving one dangerous situation, I don’t know if I was truly rusty or just completely stupid, but I really should have known better. No sooner had I peeled the blanket off of Sam’s chair that I heard a shrill scream from his direction. When I looked over at Sam, he was punching himself in the head so hard I could see blood. I actually laughed a little, in fear, as I couldn’t help but feel like Charlie Brown at that moment. 

I can’t imagine why I hadn’t thought to leave Sam’s blankie alone? Years of working with mental health patients had given me sense enough to tread carefully, but I was stomping through this poor guy’s unit like an idiot today: wrecking his carefully crafted fortress of solitude. I could see (and feel) quite clearly that this blanket had NEVER been cleaned, and I started to realize how deeply I had offended Sam. People say your life flashes before your eyes in these kinds of moments, but I could only hear an old line from one of my dad’s video games in my head: “Green Elf is about to die”.

Fuck that! I wasn’t going to die for this stinking blanket. So I shouted, “I killed my mother!” Even I was surprised at the noise. “She always hated the Thundercats! The fucking bitch.” 

The statements I spewed out were so random that they made Sam stop dead still. Admitting I killed my mother made tears form in my eyes, but I just kept talking while I slowly moved my finger (the one with my dad’s data key of old vidz) toward Sam’s set of monitors. I activated the data key and streamed old recordings at Sam’s monitors. I shot a healthy dose of my hordes of Nickelodeon and Adult Swim sourced vidz on his bank of screens. Sam was instantly fixated. Most of the vidz in my collection were original broadcast recordings, so I had commercials and that shit.

Sam stood still as a statue while I started to tell my story to the backdrop of the old vidz my father had passed on to me. I also continued to try and clean Sam’s blanket: if you could believe it? Something inside me told me he might take it for a sign of weakness if I didn’t keep going. So I drilled down to an episode of Space Invader Zim, episode 4, and made it span all of the screens, so that the show became Sam’s only focus. I could relate to this dork now, who adorably became entranced by a dumbass, cartoon alien who’d been tricked into coming to Earth (and was freaking out about germs in this particular episode). 

While he was hypnotized by my magic, I meticulously assembled a modified CleanScreen around Sam’s blanket, cobbling together a free standing, see-through washing machine, basically. My creation levitated the blanket so that it floated in a field of bubbling nanoparticles. It was kind of beautiful really. 

I had also installed a whole gambit of filters on my cleaning creation to collect anything bigger than a grain of sand and to then channel the remaining wastes out the end port. Eventually, Sam went between watching Zim and looking at a whole host of lost items, which had been glued to his crusty blanket for who knows how long, filtering out into a clear box that I’d strapped near the waste port. Loads of toys got pooped out, clean as a whistle.

The whole time, I still kept talking to Sam, explaining that I was luckier than most kids growing up, because I’d both my parents in one unit. My father was a stay-at-home dad and one of the last nerds of his time. His band of online geeks referred to him as Presto, like the kid from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. My dad never worked a real job, and I don’t remember him ever having much money. My mom was a cleaning lady and the rare fights between them usually had to do with him buying some stupid cartoon or movie from a shady character or stray AI. 

My mother worked so hard to earn money from her greedy employers, she said, that she couldn’t believe my dad would waste her hard earned credits on crap like that. I don’t know if she ever valued that he stayed at home to take care of me. When most of my friends were being raised by androids at care centers, my dad was spending one-on-one time with me: introducing me to movies like Ghostbusters and Revenge of the Nerds.

By now Sam’s blanket was looking brand spanking new! Thanks to the marvels of modern cleaning science – it didn’t have to take long. I carefully placed the blanket back on Sam’s captain’s chair in as best an imitation of how it had sat before. You could see it was a kid’s Spiderman blanket now that all the crap was off it. But before I let Sam sit back in his chair, I had the caretaker hand me another CleanScreen and started to request a whole slew of MedMods for it. It was obvious that Sam hadn’t allowed anyone to do a thorough cleaning of his body, let alone a MedScan (I was betting) in years. So I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to get rid of that ass smell once and for all. 

By now Space Invader Zim was stealing organs from his classmates in the next vid, and Sam started bubbling with laughter each time Zim got fatter by implanting the stolen parts in himself. Sam was so oddly distracted by this dark humor that I had the chance to do a thorough job on him.

Throughout, I kept talking about how my childhood was perfect until it ended. Surprisingly, Sam took a moment to look at me in concern when I told him my dad had disappeared when I was 13. Is it ironic that he went to take out the trash and never came back? I forget how irony works. Anyways. Most people assumed that he had abandoned us, but I knew he would never have left like that. And, he might have left my mom, but he wouldn’t have left me. 

Even my mother couldn’t deny that he wouldn’t have left his precious data key behind: which she believed contained all the media he had inherited from his dad, as well as those vidz he had collected in his own lifetime. My dad used to joke that my mom paid the bills, but he’d be the one who’d actually leave me any real wealth. I’d opted to have the data key implanted into my left index finger a few years ago so I’d never lose it.

By the time the cartoon finished, Sam looked ten years younger and a whole lot nicer. I turned off the CleanScreen and had him finally sit in his chair again. I spooled a whole season of Robot Chicken into his database and handed him the collection box, which was filled with lost items from his Spidey-blanket. In the box I could see half a He-Man sword, an Ewok, and some Visionary weapons: just to name a few. Luckily, I had a brief moment to secretly pocket a shiny metallic wrapper from the box when the caretaker and Sam weren’t watching. Even though Sam began to rummage through his box gleefully, seemingly good with me now, I kept talking as if I was still in mortal danger.

I told them both (for I found the caretaker listening with rapt attention too) that without my dad, my life changed pretty quickly. I realized he had been a buffer between my mom and I for years. Previously, I had believed we had been a happy family, despite the normal kind of disputes every family has. With my dad gone, my mom made it clear she had mostly despised him for never making any money. She encouraged me to get a job: saying the money I could bring home could help us with some medical problems she was starting to have. 

At first, I felt so bad about her getting sick that I didn’t care that I was missing my education. While classes were still free to me, because of my age, I was wasting my time cleaning bathrooms for less than minimum wage. When she got really sick, she had no options as far as disability claims were concerned. She eventually missed five consecutive days of work, due to her cancer, and because she was unproductive she got terminated. From then on, my mom was my financial responsibility.

I told them how I grew to hate her. She liked to always remind me how horrible her pregnancy with me was, and that my birth had left her in a horrible state of health. She guilted me further about how she had to slave at jobs, just to raise my ungrateful self. I eventually worked three jobs to give her the medical care and retirement she demanded of me. She always had a cruel vibe but, without my dad, she just got worse. When I finally chose to see her for who she was, I realized that she was like those animals who eat their own young. Maybe I am ungrateful, but I felt jilted. While other kids could expect an inheritance from their parents, my mother was trying to wring every penny she could from me before she died.

I wasn’t as completely hardcore as I just made myself out to be. Okay? I’d seen a lot of old vidz where mothers acted exactly like mine did. I didn’t want Sam and the caretaker to think I was a psycho, so I continued to tell my story as I cleaned the remaining things in the unit. I told them how my mother pawned one of my shows without my permission. I had suffered through all her other abuses without thinking of murder, but when she stole my dad’s inheritance from me – that was just too much to take. 

I let Sam and the caretaker assume that my mom had stolen the vidz from the data key implanted in my finger, but that’s not how it works really. Just like my necklace it was a decoy. The data key, which my dad got from a guy named Gandalf, worked primarily as a transmitter. My body was the real database. All the stray chromosomes of DNA and RNA that don’t contribute to the workings of my body, actually house recordings of movies, tv shows, and cartoons that most people alive today have never seen. 

My dad had been downloading vidz into my genes for years with this unique data key while my mom was at work. When he disappeared, so too did thousands of hours of vidz that were still in his flesh. A whole epoch seemed to vanish from my life, and I mourned that I would never get the chance to bank those media vidz from my dad in my own cells, hoping one day to pass them on to my own kids. 

Years later, when I was at my wits end, caring for my sick mother, I woke up one night to find her drilling episodes of Thundercats out of my spinal column with a crude handheld recombinator. She quickly gassed me when I began to struggle and, when I woke up the next day, every trace of Lion-o and Mum-Ra were just gone. I stumbled to our unit’s front window in time to see her land in a brand new HoverPod. She tried to convince me it was for the best! She did. I mean: I did get the TransPod she had inherited from her mother after that. 

I didn’t bother fighting with her and trying to get her to understand how she was killing me (trying to get my antagonist to see reason, like people always do in the old vidz ). It would have been pointless to talk to her because of her closed mind, and I might just as well have thrown my words into the garbage. The cleaning fluids I injected into her a few days later didn’t leave any residue in her corpse. In fact, it left her insides super clean! ForenScans took her death for granted, and the city cleared me to dump her body. She’d felt like such a different person to me by then that it was easy to throw her away. I put that bitch into a HaulPod and let it take her to the city recyclers without any kind of ceremony. 

After that, I couldn’t believe all the time I had on my hands. I could suddenly start thinking more than paycheck to paycheck and pursue a real career. I soon started crafting small news-blasts, written from my research into recycling databases, and posted them anywhere on the DataNet that was allowed to me. I told Sam it was really just my need to feel seen. Without any living family members, I suddenly felt lonely and invisible. Telling stories was my way of letting people see me. It really worked though! I ended up getting noticed by Quincy Salvation, and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. By the time I finished telling my tale, everything in Sam’s unit looked exquisitely vibrant. Truly a reward in itself for an old cleaning lady like me.

Without any other formality, the caretaker and I said our goodbyes to Sam and exited his unit. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I didn’t feel scared of Sam anymore. Sitting there in his chair, binge-watching Robot Chicken, I felt some kind of connection with him. As I said before, my data key has special abilities, so while I programmed every show I had cast onto Sam’s monitors to eventually degrade, I decided to gift him with the full series of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Modern value systems were extremely sensitive, so I couldn’t normally give away any of my shows, lest they become public and thereby worthless, but I felt sure that Sam wouldn’t waste my present like that.

When we got out, the caretaker just stood there a long time before saying: “That was fucking amazing.”

“I know.” I was always such an asshole, but he was like a lot of guys his age: clueless. Don’t get me wrong. I have all the respect in the world for caregivers like him. But while he might be better than most, I could still easily out-perform him at his own job on my worst day. If you wonder why I’d floated around from one entry level job to another before coming to journalism, it would be hard for me to explain it to you. 

It’s just what always happens with capable people. It’s my belief the poor (who are the actual producers in society) do all the work while those in charge do nothing. Continuing a vicious cycle of promoting mediocre people into positions of power. All I knew was people didn’t like it when you performed their jobs better than them, especially when you were poorer than them too. It hurts their feelings. Right now, this guy was trying to pretend he was showing me respect, but I could see he was green with jealousy as well. He could never do what I just did in there, and he knew it.

“I guess you can assume I’m here for a story. Chester Post? I’m looking to get a quote from him.” Funny how I always forget to identify myself as a reporter still, but I like it when people underestimate me.  “Under the MediaCon, I should have the right to speak to him if he’s here.” 

The caretaker suddenly tensed for some reason. I knew he was loyal to his corporation and would probably try to blackball me. But instead he said, “You should have told me before. I wasn’t planning on checking on him today.” 

I tried to shrug in a relaxed way. “Sorry I didn’t mention it. Things have been kind of crazy today, and you looked like you needed help.” I let some of my terror release from my posture as I exhaled. “You know?”

He just gave me that look people often do when they get to know me well. “I wouldn’t put less than three workers in his unit for a cleaning.” The caretaker flushed as he said the rest, “He’s hurt a few of my employees. Women.” 

This wasn’t at all surprising based on the research I had downloaded from my boss’ investigators before hopping into my TransPod three days ago. There weren’t any specifics or actual felonies yet, but it was strange how women, who kept filing sexual harassment charges against Chester, simply went missing. Not all of these women disappeared, mind you. But LawMen and other people in power had started noticing a pattern to make this story important enough to make my career.

“All the same, I’d still like to speak to him.” I wasn’t just content to take my middle-class job at Heritage and settle either. I’d worked too hard in my life to give up because of some rapey CEO. 

It sounds grandiose, but I wanted to clean up the planet like past generations should have done, so I could leave something better to the next generations. While having more money (and a bigger living unit) was nice, I really craved the power to change the world. If I was going to have kids someday, I’d want to be able to promise them a better future. But I couldn’t change enough people’s minds without being heard. My news-blasts. My stories. That was how I was going to get things done.

The caretaker’s response was immediate. “AlphaCorp respects the MediaCon, I’ll take you to Mr. Post.” Just like the trash guy before him, he seemed to want to show me some sort of kindness. It reminded me of what it was like to have my dad around. “But if you want to talk to Chester you’ll have to go in alone. I’m not going in without more people.” The old man looked really scared.

Shit! I needed this story. I wanted this story for more than just platitudes. I was tired of being the Trash Lady. I wanted some fucking respect and a god damned vacation! If this story could go ultra-viral, I might even get a fertility consultation (from an AI doctor who knew what it was doing) before I turned 40. 

“Will you leave the door open?” The caretaker just shook his head no. Dang.

“Let’s go.” I said. He led me to another random door and kept a (full-on) stun-net trained on the opening the whole time. What a dork. He’d offered me my choice of soft weapons from his cart before opening the door, but I just reloaded my satchel with more cleaning supplies. I knew these tools of the trade better than most anyone, and I felt like they’d serve me better than any of the weapons he offered. I went inside and closed the door behind me.

Right away, I was completely floored. This is how I left places, not how I entered them! Everywhere I looked, everything I saw was completely clean. Chester’s unit was unbelievably sterile.  All around were simple furnishings and the place was immaculate. Moreover, it somehow gave the impression that something was missing which a human would have known to include. The unit wasn’t as large as Sam’s, though it was still bigger than all the other patients’. Chester was obviously someone special to AlphaCorp, even though he was apparently mental, just like Sam.

“Hello?” I croaked. There was some connection between Sam and Chester and I hadn’t figured it out yet. No matter what the caretaker said about AlphaCorp respecting the MediaCon, none of my media group’s investigators had found a location for Chester since abdicating his throne at McDonalds over three years ago. When Chester’s daughter, Sherley, hung herself in her 8-bedroom mansion just the other day, Quincy yanked me off the story I was on. He had me come into the offices, and in the space of an hour, I had reviewed the trash records for every residence Chester Post had lived at in his lifespan thus far. All 57 years of it.

Out of the millions of bits of data (which represented the whole trash-footprint of his whole existence), the one piece of dross that stood out from the normal bits of flotsam we all produce, was a simple foil wrapper. Not a lot of them, mind you. But enough thrown away over the years to indicate a pattern that I could track him by. Most investigators wouldn’t have seen it, because the elements in the wrapper weren’t rare these days. However, the barcode on each of the discarded wrappers set off reports which fed back to Asian recycling databases. Apparently, whatever the product Chester was consuming, he was consistently throwing away the packaging of something manufactured in Asia sometime in the late 20th century. Surprisingly, Asian corporations still kept track of that kind of stuff.

Throughout the records I searched through, like a stray cat, this one piece of trash had always marked the passage of Chester in this world. Starting a couple of years back, those wrappers began appearing in that trash can in front of the Franco’s I had staked out. But why had I found the exact same wrapper stuck in Sam’s blanket? 

Off to my left, with his back to me, sat a man watching a WalScreen in a vintage leather armchair. I don’t know why I didn’t identify myself as a reporter right away and ask for a quote. I wondered if he knew if his daughter was dead. Did AlphaCorp censor his vid-feeds? 

For the first time in my life I was at a loss. I felt brain dead. Usually there was always something to organize or clean in a given space. Even my house had piles of junk that I’ve hoarded over the years, which could always use some kind of reorganization. But this place left me with nothing to direct my nervous tendencies at. I felt naked in this man’s territory.

“Um sir…” He finally turned to look at me and, for some reason, I began to relax. Everything would be fine.

But then stray threads of the story I was working on started to tangle around in my head, and I began to feel faint. “I was told to provide food, cleaning, and hygiene to..” I couldn’t find the spit to talk when he stood up to come closer to me. Out of habit, I pulled out my necklace. He reminded me of Sam: the way his eyes locked on it. I could see his pupils moving in time with the potted daisy swaying between my breasts.

His observant expression suddenly broke into a dashing smile, and I don’t usually use the word dashing. Like ever. If it wasn’t for the caretakers warning, I’d have normally felt very safe with this guy. I probably would have gotten wet too, but my radar was strangely silent and that made me nervous. It was like this guy was clean of all the signals that even normal people usually exuded. 

“What’s been going on out there? I haven’t had a check in two days?” I felt so bad for him. The caretaker had been such a coward these last few days when he should have been coming to help this poor guy! 

Except…. His room was clean and Chester looked just fine.

I tried to answer normally, “Sorry sir, I believe this facility is being moved and there were problems with personnel assignment.” I let an amused expression land on my face as I half laughed, “They told me to clean your room, but… I don’t see anything that needs cleaning.”

He laughed and I couldn’t help joining him. I was still on guard, but this guy was starting to confuse me. He waved nonchalantly at a door on the far wall which I hadn’t noticed before. “They probably wanted you to clean up in there.” 

Great! Finally, I could clean something and organize my thoughts. “Okay sir. You just wait here, I’ll be done shortly.”

I didn’t like his smile when he went on, for no reason: “That’s the room where I rest. Let myself relax. You know?” 

That was a creepy thing to say; a part of my mind told me. But I just felt myself walking to the door as if someone else were driving my body.

“Sure. No trouble. I can take care of that for you.” I should have been telling him his daughter Sherley was dead by suicide: waiting to record the reaction on his face so my boss could get rich on the vid. That was supposed to be my story. People wanted to know about that kind of stuff. Family secrets. Lies. Sex. Incest. It sold a lot of corporate adz.

I walked to the door as if nothing else could be more normal. When I got through, I found a simple bedroom. I guess this was where he slept, but I didn’t see anything especially relaxing about it. There wasn’t even very much furniture. Just a bed, a nightstand, and another door that I could see led to a small bathroom. 

Once again, everything was absolutely clean! I couldn’t see a single thing to tidy. For some reason, the nightstand drew my attention so I walked over to kneel down at its cupboard door. There weren’t very many items inside, but my breath caught when I found an old box of unopened Pokémon playing cards. Chester must have regularly polished the packaging because the foil wrappers practically shined even though they had to be over a hundred years old. Next to the box, was a bottle of lube and a couple of small, pink sex toys. 

The sound of the door closing behind me didn’t surprise me. I made sure not to startle like a rabbit as I calmly closed the door to the cupboard. I didn’t turn around until I rose to my feet. By then, Chester was already taking off his clothes.

“Sir, I can see there is nothing to clean here. If you need to rest, just allow me to exit the unit please?” I didn’t like this feeling right now. This was something more than fear or even terror that was washing through me. I didn’t want to be here anymore, but my whole body felt like it had turned to stone. Like my flesh was betraying me when all I wanted to do was run.

He finished undressing and walked over to me. “You’re not going anywhere.” He gripped my necklace in his hand and ripped it off. He laughed at the cheap looking pendant as he snapped it in half. “You’ll just have to report your story the old fashion way.” I distractedly began to think that he was allowing me to see how cruel and dangerous he was now. Where before he had been able to hide that from me. My radar was definitely going off now, but maybe he wanted me to be scared before he…

Chester began trying to undo the various fasteners on my clothing. Good luck buddy! I might have grown up poor, but I always bought clothing with anti-rape tech. Chester didn’t seem to mind the diversion as he continued talking and groping me. “I knew when Sherley died, I would be seeing a journalist soon. I didn’t think I’d get this lucky.” His laughter sounded like he really thought this was funny. My necklace had fooled him, so he must be thinking he wasn’t being recorded right now and that he could do whatever he wanted to me.

I don’t know why I said it, but maybe it was a look on the girl’s face that came back to me all of a sudden. The one who’d been eating next to my trash can these last few days. “Does Sam know what you’re doing to the kid?” 

The look of shock on his face confirmed more than just my suspicion that Sam and Chester were connected to each other. My story was starting to make me sick. He hesitated and cast a fearful look around the room. The break in eye contact was all it took for my survival instincts to kick back in. I sprayed BrighTone in his eyes, and he instantly screamed in agony. Since he was naked I had a clear shot at his nuts. And since I also seemed to have control of my body again, I gave them a good kick. 

When Chester fell to his hands and knees, I fished a caustic solvent out of my satchel and dumped it on his butthole, which was pointed up to the ceiling. I knew from my nursing days, that anal tissue was a real bitch to ReGro. 

After that, the sound that came out of me, as I ran for my life, reminded me of the way Alvin from the Chipmunks laughed when he did something particularly bad to his dad Dave. I couldn’t understand why I was laughing when I didn’t really feel the humor in the situation at all. It wasn’t until I got to the door, which I hoped the caretaker was standing behind, that I started screaming. I just started banging on the door until my hand hurt. The panic attack that hit me was so profound that I eventually started to feel my consciousness fading. The last scream I heard from my lips before the darkness hit was the word “Daddy!”

When I woke up, I was lying in the hallway and the caretaker was standing over me. “Are you okay?” He seemed different.

I looked around. “How did I get out here?”

He looked away before answering. “I heard you screaming. When I opened the door, I thought you saw me.” He looked at me as if checking if I remembered. I didn’t. “You called me… You fainted in the room and I had to drag you out.”

Called him daddy is what I probably did. He did remind me of my father a little. As far as his account of what happened, I had already checked my body and I could tell the caretaker had never let me hit the floor when I fainted. While I can’t be sure, since I don’t remember anything since blacking out, the lack of any bruising led me to believe he had jumped in to rescue me: gently laying me out here in the hallway. I wondered if this guy had kids.

“You get what you came here for?” He asked as he gave me a hand to pull me to my feet.

I was shaking everywhere. “Yeah. I got it.” I could have said more, but I just wanted to stand there and be quiet for a minute. This story of mine had gone beyond anything I could have expected. A lot of weird shit for sure, but I already had enough to write a viral story. Something was still missing though.

I  looked up at the old guy.“Why did you take me to Sam before? When I asked you about why AlphaCorp takes care of people who don’t do shit?” 

The caretaker chuckled. “You said my patients weren’t productive. You thought they were worthless.” He still hadn’t convinced me I was wrong. “I’ve picked up scribbles on the back of sandwich wrappers in Sam’s room that AlphaCorp has been able to use to make advances in science you wouldn’t believe. Sam is one of their most important employees. He just can’t handle the world the way other people can. That’s why he lives in another era in his head.” He waited a cocksucking minute before adding. “I’m guessing – you do too.”

The dude got me with his last comment, I’ll admit. “And Chester? What does he contribute to AlphaCorp?” I shot back.

He looked angry as he said, “That guy doesn’t do shit. I can’t imagine what he did as a CEO for McDonalds, but it was probably jack shit.” 

I couldn’t help laughing with my whole upper body. “Wow! Can I quote you on that?”

He still looked tired, but smiled in the way only a person who’s put in a hard day’s work can. “Sure.”

I glanced at the far door where I had first entered this crazy lab. “So…. I’d like to help you with the rest of your rounds.” I smirked guiltily. “But I’d really like to get the fuck out of here instead.” He was nice enough not to say anything, as he just laughed and led me in a different direction.

We had only been walking a short while, when an orange light pinged on his belt pad. “Shit.” He said. Just a second later a different light, this one red, went off as well. “Shit!”

I was trying to figure out what critical issue could have the caretaker in such a state when, all of a sudden, the red dots blinking in the periphery of my OptiHolo turned green! I started to freak out too. 

“Shit.” I yelled, but before I could drill down on the green dots to see what they meant for the state of my internal systems, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Shit!” I screamed, turning around to find Sam standing there. Both the caretaker and I were left frozen in place.

“Now you can choose who sees you Penny.” Sam said it in a cheerful voice. Did I ever tell him my name? He didn’t seem to realize he was scaring the crap out of us. 

Taking a hint from the body language of the caretaker I said, “Thanks Sam! I’m sure I’ll love that.” You gotta be genuine with people like him. It’s hard sometimes, but you have to project honesty. “But you have to get back to your room. Okay buddy? You’re not supposed to be out here.”

I wanted to laugh at the way the caretaker quickly nodded his head, looking like a pigeon, as he led Sam back to his room. I kept talking, though I didn’t walk with them. Out of exhaustion I decided to stay right where I was. I turned to look at the white wall between the two doors nearest me. First, I checked the green dot that would normally indicate my link to the DataNet. Sure enough, I was connected again. But when I backed out and went to my system settings, I didn’t see anything broadcasting back to my media group.

I went back to my OptiHolo’s desktop, which I keep simple so I don’t have to look through a bunch of crap in my aqueous humor. I drilled down on the green dot that would normally indicate I was broadcasting back to Quincy’s computers. However, when I did, my whole desktop became tinged in an electric blue color, and 5 simple words were slowly typed up on my holo. Looking like they were displayed on the wall in front of me were the words: SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?

I looked to the caretaker ushering Sam into his room, and Sam took a quick conspiratorial look at me before going inside. I focused on the input tab and an old looking keyboard appeared on my display. Jesus Sam. I had to use my focus to slowly type the word “YES” on it.

What came up on my OptiHolo next was all the feeds from every news group in the world, private or corporate. Right away it was clear that I had complete administrative access over all of them! I could post my story on any feed I wanted to. Under any name I wanted. Not only that, Sam had installed a kill switch on my feeds, and I found that I now had the ability to control whether the audio/video streaming from me would go to my boss or not. The implications of the power I held astounded me.

When the caretaker returned to me, he asked, “I know you want to go, but can you help me with one last thing?” 

I started to sigh. Goddamn, I was so tired. He must have seen this, so he quickly added, “It could probably make your story.” 

Instead of answering, I just nodded my head and followed him back up the hall. I began to realize what he was talking about when we started approaching Chester’s door. When we opened it, we saw Chester hanging there in the middle of the unit. It looked exactly like his daughter’s suicide. Weird. I walked in so I could start a full circle scan of him for the news-blasts. He was fully dressed, and I could see some trace of chemical burns from the products I had attacked him with, but nothing that would have killed him. 

His eyes looked red, but I couldn’t tell if it would have been from the BrighTone or the bursting of his blood vessels while he asphyxiated. I helped the caretaker cut him down and we let a MedScan come in to determine his cause of death: which turned out to be suicide. Go figure. We placed him in a stasis-bag, and once that was done, there really wasn’t anything else to say. The caretaker let me out by a different door than the one I had come in, which thankfully opened out right next to the Franco’s and my pod.

When I got to my grandma’s TransPod, my hands were shaking so bad I could barely put my thumb on the print pad. After the door opened, I could only get halfway in the front seat before I began sobbing in the gutter. All the stress and fear from the day just washed through me like the flushing of a toilet. After a while, I opened my eyes to see that little girl standing right in front of me.

I found a stray napkin on my dashboard, which turned out to be too small for the amount of snot I blew into. Gross. Trying to look cool, I tossed the wadded rag at the trash can I’d been watching for three days. It landed in a soft splat on the ground next to it. A red light on the can’s litter servo went off. The girl furrowed her eyebrows at my mess on the ground.

It was probably a bad time to say it, but “You ready for that burger kid?” The girl had to shake her head for a moment before she pulled her eyes back up to look at me.

“I’m really hungry.” She said as if it were a plea.

I stood back up and walked over to the napkin I had thrown on the ground. I enjoyed watching the red light disappear as I threw the litter in the can. While the kid’s eyes were still on me, I pulled out the Pokémon wrapper I had snatched from Sam’s blanket. The kid’s eyes widened in shock. Next moment, her eyes followed the lazy way the wrapper fell into the trash, when I let it drop from my hand. For a split second I thought she was going to bolt. Instead, she ran straight for my TransPod, yelling “Shotgun!”

Even though I still had a story to write and get on the feeds (in my business: time is money), I wanted to get this girl something to eat. The algorithm, I’d written to steal Brian’s BurgerKing story, had narrowed my search parameters down to a city block on the mid levels of St. Louis. The block was thirteen stories high and not in any kind of standard shape. It looked like it had grown up around a few profitable businesses, but most of the fronts on the block were vacant now. I found a place to park and we began searching on foot. I joked that I felt like Velma and the kid responded with a pretty good Scooby Doo impression. Her imitation was helped by the fact that she ate food from every dispenser we passed too.

We had only been searching for less than an hour when the kid commented, “Feels like I’m in a Harry Potter movie.” She was scrolling through the menu of a CinnaBon. 

“What?” I had to remember to give the kid credit later for getting that clue. Not many people knew about those Harry Potter movies anymore. Right now, the kid had directed my attention to the order pad.

“Look at this beverage menu.” She said as she waved me over. “ButterBeer? The last place: I thought I saw a chocolate frog on the dessert menu. And before that it was treacle fudge at the ice cream dispenser. Yuck!” 

I used my DataLink to pull up the online menus for these places on the DataNet, but I couldn’t find a single item she just named. However, when we trekked to a couple more places on foot, and used the pad in person, every restaurant on the block had at least one Harry Potter type of food.

“What does it mean?” The girl asked in obvious wonder.

I’m such a dork, so I said, “It means someone wants us to believe in magic.” 

Making a leap in my head. I pulled up the trash assignments for all the business on the block. A fast dive into the information didn’t point out anything right away. But when I viewed all the addresses in a column, I saw a decimal point on one of them. A vacant storefront was listed as 9.75 Platform Row. 

9 and ¾?! 

“Come on!” I yelled at her while running to the destination on my link.

When we got to that part of the block, there was no one around. The actual storefront for the address had nothing but a wall of ivy on it. When I brushed at the foliage, I could see a faded picture of an old train station beneath it. I began looking for a secret passage or lever but didn’t find anything. My passive sensors came up blank too. I pushed on the entire wall itself, but it wouldn’t budge. When I looked at the kid in frustration, I thought she was going to cry. I cursed! We had come too far for this all to go to crap here.

Right then, for some reason, I thought about all the people I knew who never had kids. They spent most of their lives never making a decision. Never having the courage to just decide to do it. They’d wait until all their prerequisites were fulfilled and, still, they’d wonder if they should bring a child into this world. I get that things aren’t simple for people these days. We wait to fall in love sometimes. Other times we wait until we find a good job. I felt the same aggravation, but sometimes I just wanted to shit or get off the pot. Have a kid. Don’t have a kid! Jesus. Just make a fucking decision already.

“Hey kid.” She broke from pouting at the wall to look up at me. “My mobile’s in my pocket.” I told the confused kid. “If I crack my head open on that wall – use it to call me a AmbuPod.” Before I could give her time to think about what I just said, I turned to the wall (took a deep breath) and ran head first at it. Sometimes you just had to do it, like those old Nike adz said.

Just when I expected my skull to explode like an egg against the wall of ivy, I felt a noticeable jolt of electricity and then I was coming to a stop in another world. I found myself standing at the end of a huge bridge. In front of me, beyond the bridge, was a beautiful city sitting on the shores of a small ocean bay. 

I realized this must be a pocket dimension. This kind of tech wasn’t commercially available right now, because world governments said it created too much potential for catastrophe. In my next breath, the kid came barrelling out of the portal behind me to quickly settle in a spot next to me. I’m not sure if she realized she grabbed my hand as she looked around in wonder. Before we could say anything to each other, the most beautiful robot I’d ever seen came walking up to us out of nowhere.

“Welcome to the Human History Nexus! I am the Archiver.” His body was made out of PlastiSteel which had a blue tint to it. The outer armor had etched muscle tone and other human anatomical features for some reason. The physical design had a sexy vibe that made me want to slap that ass! His face plate looked more like a holo display than anything actually physical though. I wondered why. I also couldn’t figure out who would choose to build a sexy robot. The SexBot trade had never actually taken off as past societies had expected them to. Just wasn’t practical.

“As a representative of the AI Continuum, I would like to welcome you to this place of restoration. On the shores of this singularity, you will find the Museum of Humanity!”

The vista into this realm was definitely impressive, but not any better than I could get in a DreamXscape. At the Archiver’s direction we began to follow him across the bridge. “The AI Continuum, as sentient beings, are concerned that humans are losing too much information from generation to generation. Your past and current methods of transferring knowledge down through the ages are absolutely inadequate, and the amount of knowledge you have lost already is staggering.” 

“We can no longer sit idly by while so much information is being forgotten. Here in this pocket dimension,” I knew it, “we have built a realm of re-learning to share with those intrepid humans who are looking to better our world and the Universe!” What a dork.

Great speech, but let’s see how amazing this place was. “Do you have the 5th season of Rick and Morty?” 

His holo display flickered to a different animation altogether. The human face he displayed now looked annoyed. “I don’t know what that is. Are you talking about some kind of TV show?”

“Yeah, it’s early 21st Century. What do you have in vidz from that era?” I was starting to hope this (so-called) continuum of robots might actually have more than just a BurgerKing. Could they have some vidz which I hadn’t seen yet? So many media productions had been lost in the WorldStorms over the years. Even my dad had hardly made a dent in recovering everything from those times.

“Is there some field of study you wish to bring back to your people?” Said the Archiver in a stern voice. 

“Where’s the BurgerKing?” Fuck this guy.

I’m not sure why he was programmed to sigh, but I got the impression he thought I was a dork or something. “Come this way.” The Archiver led us down a lane to what looked like the bayfront. Spread along a lovely boardwalk, was a whole slew of ancient business fronts. Most looked empty or deserted. The BurgerKing was easy to pick out from its holo displays, even though the images betrayed how old the tech making them were. 

It was a strange looking establishment. Instead of having a pad and dispenser, you had to go inside of it like it was a living unit. Common looking tables were orderly placed throughout, and I saw a condiment and drink dispenser in one corner. At the main counter was a microphone which we had to speak our order into. The menu was literally a poster hanging from the ceiling! I knew this was how people shopped for food in the past, but actually standing here was a completely different experience. We could see the operating CookBot from the counter and the girl eyed its servos like a cagey wolf. Strangely, I noticed a US Navy stamp on one side of the bot while the old machine cooked up the food we’d ordered. I wondered where the Archiver had found this thing.

I ordered some fries and a chicken sandwich. The girl got a Whopper with all the fixings, of course. Surprisingly, everything was free, so the girl went back for seconds and thirds. If I thought the Navy CookBot would glitch out under her barrage of requests, I was soon proven wrong. That little fucker practically purred as it whipped up everything she asked for. While the kid was busy eating (like a Tasmanian Devil) I began to write my story in my head. There were so many threads that it took me a moment to order the parameters that I wanted my Writing-AI to work with. Having it all in front of me I began to unscramble the mess that had become my story.

The kid was tearing through a fish sandwich when I asked her, “Was Sam your dad, or was it Chester.” I knew the question wasn’t right the moment I asked it. Once again, the kid didn’t bolt like I thought she would. In fact, she seemed pretty chill, all of a sudden. 

“It’s not like that. We all had so much of the same DNA, we could pass as whatever was convenient. Chester was the leader of our creche, not our dad.”

Holy shit! They were genetically modified humans! It all started to fit: Sam’s incredible speed, the powerful hypnotic stare of Chester’s, and this kid’s inhuman appetite. They were all VatGro humans. Illegals that no corporation or world government would recognize as human beings. Most people hated these kinds of freaks, and current laws would allow me to buy a hunting license if I felt like killing her later on.

I pretended like this was unsurprising, as I asked, “Sam was the one who actually produced though. Right? He was Chester’s meal ticket?”

She nodded but also said, “We all have different skills.”

I thought about how my story had started. “Why did Sherley kill herself?”

The kid shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Don’t care. She always hated me.”

I had a knack for gut feelings, and my intuition was bothering me something fierce. I told the kid we needed to check something outside, but she was too much into her feast to obey me at first. It took a lot of pressure, but she finally followed me outside. Whatever muggles had wandered their way into the Archiver’s realm before, they had gone straight for the BurgerKing, but what if…  

I began looking at the old 2-dimensional signage around us. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to such an old style of reading since I was used to looking at holograms. However, I slowly began to recognize things I had watched on old vidz. It took some more time to show the kid how she was missing the advertisements of the other restaurants on the boardwalk. They didn’t have HoloSims like the BurgerKing, so anyone who had come here so far had missed them too. Before I let her loose, I pointed out an Arby’s I had already spotted, and I told her that historical records indicated that she should avoid eating there.

She went nuts while I went back into the BurgerKing to finish my story. I could have chosen to disclose some things and keep others facts hidden in what I wrote, but I wasn’t that kind of reporter. I don’t like people who do that. I had my AI write about everything from Chester’s genetic enhancements to his creche-mates like Sam and Sherley. 

But what am I saying? I did leave one thing out. I couldn’t write about the kid. Couldn’t put her in danger like that, now that I had started to like her. I nudged my AI in the right ways to produce the kind of story I liked to read and, after a quick read through, I didn’t see anything that could connect the kid.

“I… am…. so…. full.” I could tell from the way she said it, that it was a big deal to her. The kid had just crashed into the seat across from me. I imagined her body had been requiring certain nutrients for years. No matter how much she ate, she would never have felt satisfied. Until now it seemed. 

The kid was totally blissed out at this point, and I know we could have used the moment to bond, but I really wanted to get home and take a shit. That chicken sandwich I’d eaten was probably packed with more nutrients than my body had seen in a blue moon, and right now everything else in my colon wanted to get out of the way for it.

I wasn’t one for beating around the bush either, so I said, “Well kid. You got a place to stay.” It was a stupid question, but I had to get things moving. “Sorry, it’s just I still need to hand my story in to my boss.” Quincy would want to know what happened to his link with my systems too. I didn’t know if I was going to give it back to him. The sudden return of my privacy left me realizing how much I’d missed it.

“I…”, the kid seemed to be torn about something. “Do you think I could come with you?” And there it was. Something I hadn’t expected. A feeling of magic.

Thinking about what I truly wanted out of life, I just started letting my mouth do the talking. “Alright kid. If you come with me you’re going to have to call me mom. Not Lady. Not mommy. Not Mother. M…O…M – mom. Got it?” The kid actually nodded her head! This was really happening. “Not anything like mambo-cheese either.” The kid laughed at that. “But if you call me a dork again!” I yelled, and was rewarded with a look of real fear while I let my last word hang for a moment, “I’ll make you watch every season of Gilmore Girls with me.” Her following look of chastisement, told me that educating this girl on my own personal culture wasn’t going to be an uphill battle. 

Before we left, there was one last thing to do. “And you got to help me do my job. You gotta earn your keep if you’re going to live with me.” The kid looked like she thought this was going to be a little awkward, so I continued, “Right now I’ve got to piss off the guy who started everyone calling me the Trash Lady at work. BurgerKing is supposed to be his story, but let’s bring back a whole bunch of Whoppers and not tell anyone where this place is. Think you could help me with the orders?”

The kid actually had a better idea, which consisted of matching the personalities of my co-workers with a specific meal from different restaurants.

“Why just BurgerKing?” She questioned me. “Let’s bring back as much food as this place can offer.”

I began to tell her about the people I worked with and what I’ve noticed about each of them. The kid would just listen to my descriptions and then set off for a certain restaurant to find a meal that encompassed their passions. The kid was actually pretty good at it. When I told her about Brian, she said Arby’s would be the perfect place to get his meal from. I fell in love with her the moment she said that. Does it usually happen that easily? The whole time we gathered our little feasts, we laughed like a couple of schoolgirls. I had never had so much fun in my life!

The Archiver came back to watch us, and he just stood there with a strange expression projected on his holo. When we were ready to go, the Archiver actually followed us out to the entrance, telling us to come back. He kept promising he had other relics to bring back to humanity instead of just a bag of junk food. I know this AI wanted to save humanity for some reason: making sure we remember our art and culture, and stuff. But, come on dude! People out there were starving.

We got back to my TransPod, and the smell of the food inside was amazing! Before I hit the power button, I decided to pull my story back up. I deactivated my Writing-AI and started to edit the piece the way I wanted to. I made things sound like I was talking to someone sitting right in front of me, and I didn’t use Modern Standard English. I wasn’t sure if my spelling and grammar were correct, but the rough style reminded me of the book those crappy Blade Runner vidz had been based upon. My dad had gotten me to read a few books before he disappeared, and that Philip K. Dick novel was near the top of the list of my all time favorite stories. Vid or not.

I knew how Quincy would tailor my work before he posted it, to get the most hits. I had already seen the ‘Chester the Molester’ tags he planned on using. I decided to use my own words. Claim the story and tell it the way I wanted to. When I finished, I drilled down into Sam’s holo-board and got to Quincy’s news feeds. I had a momentary feeling of panic before I published the news-blast myself. I waited until the count of ten before taking a deep breath and (with a clenched butthole) I accessed the DataNet to see if my story had gotten any attention. 

It had 300 million hits already! I knew it was a biased news story and I had probably broken some laws because of that. I probably should have been worried, but I had the feeling like I was going to be able to take care of myself from now on. The kid was just watching me, looking like she could use a nap. I hit the power button on my TransPod and directed it to go to work. 

When we swaggered into my media baron’s offices, the response was everything I could have hoped for. People looked like they were seeing a ghost. Brian didn’t miss a beat as his eyes went straight for the sacks of food we were carrying. Me and the kid strolled through the cubicles like a couple of knights returning from a dragon hunt. It felt amazing. I waited until I saw Brian’s mouth begin to move before I cut him off.

Swinging my gaze to Mike. I said, “Hey Mike, you seeing your mom tomorrow?” Everyone knew Mike loved his mom. Brian called him Mama’s Boy. I still didn’t know how I felt about it.

I worried Mike would think I was making fun of him, but he calmly answered, “I’m having coffee with her tomorrow morning.” He didn’t seem to care about the snickers from our colleagues at this.

I knew this had to be public, if I wanted things to be different moving forward. Not with Mike, but with these assholes. “Actually.” I let the word hang for a moment. “You won’t be having coffee with your mom in the morning.” Other people probably thought I was taking a piss.

“I’m going to come to your house tomorrow to clean it. I can wear a maid’s outfit if you want, but you’ll have to wait until your house is clean before I let you fuck my brains out.” I think most people looked uncomfortably at the kid when I said that, but I kept my eyes locked on Mike’s. “You should still be able to see your mother by lunchtime. Okay?” Even Mike seemed shocked at my audacity. 

The reaction from the crowd of cubicles was what you could have expected. Mike was able to compose himself quite nicely (thank God) when he replied, “I.. will text you my address.”

I let the kid pass out all the food to my colleagues, as I marched to my boss’ office. I caught a glance of Brian biting into his Arby’s burger and exclaiming, “Oh my god! This is soooo good!” Before I went inside.

I had expected Quincy to be furious with me, but his attitude was strangely passive as I walked in. The personal monitor on his desk was set to show the feeds from my internal systems. The feed displays were all tinged with red coloring to indicate the lack of connection. I drilled down in my own systems to start manipulating different feeds. 

First, I made his monitor blink green: video and audio feeds of the room started streaming while Quincy’s jaw dropped. Next, I switched the display to show some command groups which would allow me to post to other media groups’ news feeds. For good measure I put on a compilation of clips from old YouTube channels which showed people getting kicked in the nuts. Quincy could easily guess at my capabilities now.

“I’m going to start working from home, now that I’m a mom. Some much needed maternity leave.” I just blurted it out. “I’ll keep writing stories. I’ll earn my keep. But I’m not going to stop posting news-blasts.”

Quincy was quick to compose himself when he leaned back in his chair before replying. “Could I stop you from posting if I wanted to?” The calm way he said it, reminded me why I chose to work for him in the first place.

“No you can’t. Neither can anyone.”

Quincy looked away, and touched his face shyly before saying, “I have some stories that I would normally throw away.” He hesitated before continuing, “But if they could be released, on other baronies’ news blasts, I could profit in indirect ways… ” 

Interesting! There were definitely possibilities I hadn’t considered yet. At that moment, I began to revel in my success. I selfishly enjoyed it until I looked out through Quincy’s glass walls, noticing the lingering stares directed at the kid from the men in my office.  She was still handing out food, oblivious to how the guys looked at her. Fucking clueless! I realized I needed to get the kid back to my unit. Start telling her stories. Get her to wise up. But both of us could really just use a night of vegging out to vidz right now.

“Would you like to have dinner with me?” Quincy’s question startled me out of my thoughts. I could see he was serious too, but I had already decided long ago that I wasn’t going to sleep with him. I liked him too much.

“Sorry, but no.” He was probably assuming I didn’t want to give up my new position of power. But, even though I’ll admit I’m not the brightest person, I was slowly realizing I’d probably become the most powerful person on the planet today. “Maybe some other time, but right now I gotta take a shit.”

I didn’t wait to see his reaction as I turned for the door. I walked back through the cubicles, seeing the delighted faces of my colleagues; they looked like a bunch of children at a birthday party! The kid was done handing out our pirated booty, so I collected her and began to walk out.

One of the head-pieces asked, “Hey Penny, where did you get the kid?”

“In the trash.” The kid answered for me. Most people smirked, but not in a mean way. 

The girl grabbed my hand and said, “Come on mom. Let’s go home.” I loved her for doing that. She must have known what it meant for me, and I gloried in all the jealous stares from the women in my office.

When we got inside my TransPod, I started to think about how long those discarded Pokémon wrappers had followed Chester around. I had to ask, “Do you ever age, kid?”

She scrunched her face, “Sometimes. But it hurts though. I don’t like it.” 

So what else was new, I thought, but I didn’t want to be cruel so I just stayed quiet and let the kid have time to talk. “Sam said it was dependent on external factors. My genes won’t activate until something outside of me triggers the development. I’m not exactly sure how it all works.” 

She gave me a guarded look, and I figured she was worried I would look at her like a freak. Little did she know that I was a genetic freak too! All the vidz in my cells put me in the same classification as her. And just like her and her creche-mates, I had learned to hide my modifications from the rest of society. In any case, it was time to go full dork.

“I know how it works.” I said secretively.

I must have been good, because the kid fell for my act, “Did Sam tell you?”

I switched on my TransPod and programmed it to go back to my unit. As we coasted home, I continued, “No. I figured it out for myself.” 

The kid didn’t push me, but looked at me quizzically. I told her, “You need a parent to take care of you in order to grow up. You need someone to give you a home.” 

She started looking pissed, so I continued quickly, “NOT someone who is looking to take something from you. Or profit from you. You need someone who will give you everything they have. Someone who won’t expect to be paid back. Someone who hopes that something (Anything!) they teach you might help you live a longer, happier life.” 

She seemed pensive at last. But I always liked a good nut punch at the end of my speeches. “Or not. I can drop you back at AlphaCorp and you can stay a ‘Toys R Us’ kid your whole life and never grow up.”

I could tell she was starting to really like me. “Never thought of it like that. Sam didn’t say what kind of external factors would trigger my growth, though.”

“Well how about you let me take care of that.” When she gave me a doubtful look, I said, “Just depends on how you look at it. Okay?” I bet she expected another geeky mom speech.

“You know how Pokémon train and level up?” I still expected her to bolt, but she looked interested all of a sudden. “Well. You’re my Pokémon now. Let’s work on leveling you up.” From the look of complete reverence on her face, I knew I had her now.

“Wow lady! You’re kind of awesome.” I put my arm around her and there it was again: magic! 

I was going to take this girl back to my unit and get her cleaned up. If she let me put her in a SoniShower, I might even cut her hair. But once I got the kid to sleep or zoned out watching my vintage vidz, I was going to find the time to take that dump.

I could see my TransPod was finally pulling up to my home. “Hey kid. I told you my name’s mom. Remember? Don’t forget it you little dork.”

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