February 2092 AD
Trevor loved the way her hair smelled when she walked by—clean and fresh, like the smell of waking up next to someone you love. It wasn’t the after-a-shower smell, although that was nice too. No, she smelled of sleepy mornings and sunlight on a white pillow. Of skin mixed with eyelashes and smiles. He pictured her smile now. The brilliant flash of white teeth, and her eyes, oh God, her blue eyes.
A blinking red light flashed on his console and jerked him out of his daydream. Back to work, back to the job, back to real life. He pressed the blinking light, and it stopped. A 3D picture popped up with a customer’s face, and he tapped the switch that activated the wireless sound-linked headphone curled around his ear. The company was too cheap to spring for the modern sub-vocal version for its workers.
“Thank you for calling WelCo. This is Trevor. What is your first and last name, please?”
The 3D-vid showed old withered skin wearing a pair of glasses with a thin floral doily for a dress. “What?” Her voice creaked and cracked with age.
He swore he saw a moth fly out from somewhere. Dusty oldies. They couldn’t hear or see most of the time. He didn’t know why they even bothered getting a WelCo Personal-Health-Bracelet. They never used it right and ended up calling the ambulance when they wanted to call their daughter and calling their daughter when they really needed an ambulance.
“What is your first and last name, please?” he repeated.
“What… my name?”
After he spent fifty grueling minutes repeating the same questions and instructions a gazillion times, the old lady finally got her PHB set up and online. She was part of the system now. Her heart rate, cholesterol levels, even how many calories she burned when she brushed her teeth, all of it would now be monitored and recorded on the Net. It’s the wave of the future. You’re welcome, Grandma.
“Thank you for choosing WelCo. Have a nice day.” They’ve got you now.
Click. End. Finally. He hoped another call wouldn’t come right away. Sighing heavily, he put his hands over his eyes. Trevor hated this job, but at least he had work, and in Seattle at that! A city that wasn’t a complete hellhole like Detroit or the shrunken remnants of the cities that remained in SoCal. And having a job was the only way you got citizen status in the good old US of A, in the year 2092.
“Psst Trev, wanna go on break?” It was Bobby, the guy working at the station next to his. He was a nice kid, scrawny with wild wiry black hair. Not more than nineteen years old. Some kind of computer genius who dropped out of school thinking he’d get snapped up by some tech firm––make a shit-load of money. Instead, he ended up working for WelCo.
“I haven’t even been here an hour yet, dude. I literally have taken only one call,” Trevor whined through his fingers.
“I know, man, but I got something to show you.”
Trevor took his hands off his face, noticing that Bobby’s eyes were darting back and forth and his left knee was bobbing up and down so fast it was like his leg was going to come right off.
“What’s up?” He sat up, interested but wary. If Bobby was antsy about something, it probably meant he’d forgotten to take his mood stabilizer meds. If so, Trevor was in for a very long day.
“Come on, man; let’s go.”
“All right.” He unhooked his headphone, marked his console as “off-line,” and followed Bobby. They had to go the long way around to avoid passing by Carmen, their section lead. She would make them go back if she saw them off-line, but there wasn’t a whole lot she could do if they just weren’t at their stations. Employees were supposed to have only three ten-minute breaks in every ten-hour shift, but nobody was strict about it. A person would go insane working those kinds of hours. Trevor thought the leads knew that. So as long as they were sneaky and didn’t do it too often, they could go grab an energy drink and hide in the bathroom, and no one said anything. He knew they were lucky for that. He’d had other jobs that hadn’t been so lax about the rules.
Trevor and Bobby walked past rows of tables, all with consoles and all with 3D-vid screens, with faces of customers and red and green lights blinking on and off. Each station was separated by flimsy temporary-looking partitions. This was to give the customer privacy. But it did little to hide the vid screen and nothing to block the murmur of a hundred conversations going on at once.
Bobby and he managed to get out and down the hall without Carmen noticing. After grabbing two cans of pure caffeinated adrenaline from the vending machine in the hall, they snuck into the men’s room. Trevor jammed a dented, grey-green trashcan against the doorknob so they wouldn’t be surprised by one of the leads coming in to take a leak.
By this time, Bobby was practically coming out of his skin. He kept wiping the palms of his hands on his pants, and his eyes couldn’t stop looking around for some invisible foe. Yep, must be out of his meds, damn it. Trevor really wanted a good day. Popping the top of his can and taking a sip, he watched as Bobby fumbled to get his drink up to his mouth. A layer of sweat shone on his co-worker’s forehead, and he drank half the can in two gulps, his right hand fingering an object in his jacket pocket the whole time. Nervous. Nervous. But what was he so nervous about?
Finally, Trevor said, “Did you get some bad news, man? Why are you wigging out?”
“I found something.”
“Oh yeah, like what?” It wasn’t like Bobby to be so melodramatic.
“This is serious,” he said.
When Trevor looked into Bobby’s eyes, he saw fear, paralyzing terror, just staring back at him, and a cold chill went down his spine. He couldn’t help but shiver.
Thankfully, Bobby broke the stare and looked at his hands. “I took an extra shift so I’ve been on since four yesterday.”
His words were heavy with guilt, but guilt over what, working so hard? Trevor didn’t get it. “Four in the afternoon? Dude, you’re on a fifteen-hour stretch. You got to get some rest.”
“Just stop talking. That’s not important. What I’m telling you is important.”
Bobby’s voice had a depth and urgency in it that Trevor had never heard before. He stopped talking.
“It was really slow between two and four in the morning, and nobody else was here.” He was staring blankly, seemingly at nothing, as he spoke. “I got bored. So I started messing around on the cloud server. You know, just seeing where some of the root files would take me.”
Trevor was good with computers, but Bobby was a genius. No wonder he was bored. It really was a shame he’d chosen to work at WelCo instead of going to college to get an advanced degree. Although it had been decades since a degree actually ensured a decent job.
“I think I found something. And I think it’s big.”