The smell of sizzling bacon makes my eyes snap open. My ears focus through the quiet all around me to tune in on the sound of it crackling in the pan. I stretch my arms out wide and yawn. It must be Sunday.
I roll over to face the wall beside my bed and the input panel glows happily at the sight of my face.
“Good morning, Sierra,” DAD says.
“Good morning, DAD,” I say sleepily. “What time is it?”
“It is currently 0800 hours,” DAD says. “You overslept again.”
I scoff playfully.
“It’s Sunday, they can wait,” I say.
“If you say so,” DAD says. “Better get some breakfast before you miss out.”
I pull on my red linen pajama pants, slip my feet into my red furry slippers, and slip on my red terrycloth robe. DAD turns his camera on so I can get a glimpse of myself in the mirror panel. My hair is a rat’s nest, but I don’t care to fix it. I get closer to the panel and inspect the heavy bags under my eyes. I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately, but I felt like last night I was out cold. I get the feeling I’ve been spending way too much time in the Voyager. Restlessness during sleep is a pretty common side effect, or so I’ve heard.
“Alright, I’m as ready as I’ll get this morning,” I say cheerily.
The input panel and mirror panels fade out and DAD’s mouse hole slides open. DAD rolls out of his hole and stops next to my feet. I don’t take much time to look him over these days because we’ve been together for so long, but he’s probably getting close to needing an upgrade. My model is at least a couple of years out of fashion. He’s about the size of a small house cat, solid black, and shaped like a half-sphere. One of his utility panels is permanently stuck ajar, actually giving him the appearance of having a tail like a house cat. I refuse to fix it because of this. I’ve never gotten the chance to see a house cat in person, but the pictures I’ve seen make me think I’d really like to have one someday.
The new DADs hover instead of roll and do all sorts of new tricks. I’m attached to this one though. Juliett says it’s stupid to get attached to a machine, but Juliett also eats her own hair so I don’t really give a shit what she thinks.
DAD opens the door panel for me and we stroll together down the hall to the kitchen. The Chef is slicing onions and garlic to go into our omelettes as we come in through the entryway.
“Make sure to bring Sierra a glass of orange juice,” DAD says to The Chef. “Her vital signs show she is experiencing mild cold symptoms.”
“I’m fine,” I protest.
“Drink your fuckin orange juice,” The Chef says gruffly.
I always have to fight not to giggle when The Chef plays stern with me. He looks a little like a version of the Terminator from one of those old action films, but he wears a stupid white puffy hat and an apron.
DAD and I go to the big round table. I take a seat and DAD rolls under my chair. I’m the last to Sunday breakfast like always. Juliett, Oscar and Mike are all already sitting patiently. Victor and Charlie are standing in the corner whispering about something.
“Sleep well?” Juliett says.
“Excellently,” I say ignoring her snark. “You?”
“Just fine, thanks,” she says. “Would have been nice to just blow off morning chores to sleep an extra hour though.”
“Must be draining having to push two buttons to compact the trash capsules,” I reply, laying on the sarcasm even thicker.
“Ladies,” Oscar says smirking. “Just start throwing hands already. You’ve been dancing around it for months now.”
I like Oscar. He’s sarcastic, but in a fun way. I don’t know what he sees in Juliett, but they spend a lot of time together. I guess she’s attractive, but I just want to slap her every time I see her stupid face.
“I’m going to start eating my own hands in a minute,” Mike says. “I had a dream last night I was in a chocolate factory and I woke up with part of my pillow in my mouth.”
“That’s because you were watching that weird movie before bed again,” Oscar says.
“Yeah, I know,” Mike says. “I was hoping it would start leaking into my subconscious a bit so I could use it in the Voyager.”
I’ve never seen the movie they’re talking about, but Mike’s a bigger guy so I assume it’s about a fat kid eating all the chocolate he wants. Sounds like a pretty nice dreamscape actually. Maybe I should see if DAD can find that film later.
Charlie and Victor come to sit down at the table after they see the rest of us chatting and carrying on. Victor is the most attractive male in our group. He’s about my age, tall and statuesque with a square jaw and a well-toned body. His eyes are a bright hazel and he shaves his head and face daily. On a lot of guys that look doesn’t work so well, but he’s a gorgeous specimen. I’d be lying if I said he didn’t appear in my Voyager sessions now and then.
Charlie is beautiful as well, but she’s at least ten years older than I. She has long flowing red hair and the build of a runway model. Her eyes are a bright emerald green. Oscar always jokes that she has a “classic Irish paint job,” but I’m apparently not cultured enough to know what that means. She’s showed up from time to time in the Voyager as well, but I’ve always been too embarrassed to see where she wants to go.
“Breakfast is served,” The Chef says as he begins to bring in the plates.
Each of us scarf down our food as quickly as we can get to it. Every other day of the week is bland vitamin pastes and protein drinks to make sure our nutrient levels are well balanced. Sundays are for enjoying life a little bit. The Chef eyes me from the doorway to the kitchen and I take a big swig of orange juice to appease him. He nods approvingly and goes back to the kitchen to start cleaning up.
After five or ten minutes we’re all sitting and chatting happily, filled to the brim with pancakes, eggs, and cured meats. Mike is finishing the scraps off of everyone’s plates and Charlie is sipping an espresso. I’ve tried to enjoy coffee like Charlie (she looks so glamorous when she drinks it) but I don’t understand it. It’s bitter and tastes a million times worse than the protein drinks in my opinion.
“So when are you going to get rid of that hunk of junk?” Mike asks me between bites of grilled sausage links.
I scowl at him.
“He’s still great,” I say defensively. “It isn’t broken, so why fix it?”
Mike snickers, a bit of egg falling out of his mouth.
“I’m just saying,” he replies. “You don’t know what you’re missing. My DAD taught me how to play this old game called Solitaire the other day. Totally analog. He knows all sorts of cool old school shit like that.”
“I can learn games,” my DAD chimes in.
“Don’t listen to them,” I say glaring at Mike. “I’m not 12 anymore, I don’t need to play games to pass the time.”
Mike sticks his tongue out at me before shoving another half of a pancake in his face.
Each of the rest of the group has the newest model DAD, except for Charlie who refuses to use one. They’re a sleek matte gray, shaped like a multi-faceted diamond, and hover silently and obediently over their counterpart’s shoulders as they sit at the table. I asked Charlie once why she didn’t have an assistant and she went on a long tangent about how she feels like she’s “drowning in circuits” wherever she goes. Most of what she said confused the hell out of me, but I took it to mean she’s one of those people who feels like they were born in the wrong time period. I guess I feel like that sometimes too, but I can’t imagine not having an assistant, so who knows. Mostly I just wonder how she has the power to deny an assistant when we’re all required to have one. Charlie’s a mystery that way. I think that’s why I’m so enamored with her all the time.
The wall panels dim and the visual panel flashes on above the tabletop. Everyone goes silent immediately.
“Good morning, Friends,” says the chipper voice of The Manager. The Manager’s avatar is a cartoon bear. Oscar told me once that he found the source of the visual once when he was digging around in some old media files. He said it came from a show where this bear and a smaller bear tried to steal baskets of food while a policeman chased them. The whole thing doesn’t sound very interesting to me, but the bear is very cute.
“Good morning,” we all respond.
“I have an important announcement for you all,” The Manager says. “I know that Sundays are typically free periods for you, but today we will need to change things slightly.”
No one in the room makes a sound, but it’s clear we’re all a little disappointed by this news.
“I know that’s not something anyone likes to hear,” The Manager continues. “But I can assure you all that it is necessary. As a reward for your compliance, you will be given three free periods in a row next weekend.”
At this news we all brighten up again. I can’t remember having that many free periods in a row since I was a child.
“You will report to your rooms by 0900 hours,” The Manager says. “Each of you will be briefed individually about your assignments for today. Thank you in advance for your professionalism and continued service, Friends.”
“Thank you, Manager,” we all respond. With this, the visual panel fades and the wall panels light up again.
We all stand up to go back to our rooms. Oscar pats me on the head as he passes me and I poke him hard in the side jokingly. Mike brushes the food off of his robe as The Chef chastises him for making such a mess. Juliett brushes past me without a word, and Victor gives me a little nod as he takes his leave. Charlie grabs the sleeve of my robe before I can walk away. I turn to look at her attentively.
“Hey,” she whispers. “What happened to you in the Voyager the other day?”
I look at her confusedly.
“What do you mean?” I whisper back.
She looks around knowing full well that The Manager could be listening.
“I know we’re not supposed to talk about this stuff, but I heard a rumor,” she says.
I start to get nervous. She’s a lot more brash than I am. I’m not trying to get in any trouble. I’ve had a clean slate for years now.
“We can’t do this,” I whisper back sternly. “Not here anyway.”
I start to walk away.
“Did you see the man with the white eyes?” she asks at normal volume.
I stop in my tracks and DAD rolls straight into the back of my ankles. I turn around swiftly and look at her with wide eyes.
“What did you say?”
“That’s all I need to know,” she says. “Something weird is going on.”
I stare at her in disbelief. I want to press her for more details, ask her how she could possibly know. She seems satisfied with my shock however and she’s already leaving the room.
I sit in my room, patiently waiting for 0900 hours. I can’t stop thinking about what Charlie said.
“Just a couple more minutes now,” DAD says through the input panel. He’s currently charging back in his mouse hole. Unfortunately these old models need to charge multiple times a day when they reach this age. I don’t care, I’m still not going to trade him in yet.
“DAD,” I start. “Do you have knowledge on the Voyager?”
The input panel stays silent for a long moment, almost as if the little droid is thinking.
“A limited amount,” DAD says. “I’m not allowed to disclose much about it.”
“But you do have the knowledge,” I say, pressing him a bit.
“I can answer basic questions,” he says. “I am not permitted to disclose more than that.”
“Who says?” I ask.
“The Manager,” DAD replies.
The input panel dims and DAD is muted. The visual panel on the far wall switches on and The Manager is looking at me cheerfully.
“Good morning, Friend,” The Manager says. “How are we today, Sierra?”
“Good morning,” I reply politely. “I feel very good, thank you.”
“DAD tells me he’s worried you may be coming down with something,” he says. “I hope you had your orange juice today.”
“I did, thank you,” I reply. “The Chef made sure of that.”
“Very good,” The Manager says. “Are you ready for your daily assignment?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Very good. At 1200 hours today I want you to report to the infirmary. You will be meeting with Doctor Carson briefly for an eval. Around 1300 hours you will report to the mainframe to continue your testing with the Voyager.”
I furrow my brow. The Manager notices immediately.
“Is this acceptable?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say. “I’m worried though. I’ve heard too many days in a row with the Voyager can damage you.”
The Manager’s cartoon bear avatar looks annoyed.
“You’re making a lot of useful progress, Sierra. More than any of our other Friends, actually,” he says. “Doctor Carson is meeting with you to make sure you’re in order. I can assure you if there is any hesitance reflected in her write up we will forego your testing for a few days.”
I don’t trust The Manager. I worry that he knows this. Unfortunately there isn’t much I can do about that right now. I’m concerned about all of this because I’ve been in the Voyager every day this week. Most of the others have only been in twice a week at the most. Oscar told me he gets awful headaches if he goes in more than that. He told me Juliett has complained about the same thing. I haven’t experienced headaches personally, but I’ve noticed I’ve been clumsier than usual lately. I trip a lot. I sometimes knock things over that are right in front of me. On more than one occasion I’ve forgotten things.
“Thank you,” I say. “I don’t mean to question you. I simply wanted to get some peace of mind.”
“Very good,” The Manager says. “Enjoy the rest of your morning and we will see you this afternoon.”
The visual panel dims once more. I crack my knuckles absentmindedly.
The input panel glows.
“Yes?” he asks.
“What can you tell me about potential danger with the Voyager system?”
Another long pause.
“There is no danger associated with the Voyager system,” DAD replies.
I do all my best thinking in the shower.
It’s peaceful and quiet. The white noise from the shower head seems to make all of my thoughts crystal clear. The hot water makes my skin sing. I like to imagine each droplet shooting through my atoms, making me clean and fresh and new.
I think about what Charlie was trying to get out of me. I think about what seven days straight in the Voyager might be doing to my poor gray matter. I think briefly about Victor accidentally stumbling in here while I’m showering, but I decide now isn’t the best time to be focusing on that daydream.
After twenty minutes my allotted time is up and the shower head turns off automatically. The glass door to my stall slides open and a warm towel is produced from an arm inside the vestibule outside the door. I take it and wrap it under my arms and around my body, tucking it in the back. The wall produces a second towel and I take it, flip my hair into it, and tie it off to dry.
I walk to the far wall and the full length mirror panel appears beside the sink. I shake my hair to and fro in the warm towel. I could easily use the dryer if I wanted, but it always makes my hair frizz up. Oscar says my hair is as soft as a house cat’s fur when I let it dry naturally. He used to have one before he came here. Its name was Kitten and it was gray and white.
I turn my face back and forth, looking at myself closely. The bags under my eyes are still there. I wish I could spend the day napping like I wanted to before The Manager gave us assignments. If I can make it through today and next week, I promise myself I won’t get out of bed for two of my three free periods.
My hair is shoulder length and dark brown, almost black. I’ve always wondered what I’d look like as a blonde. Juliett has lovely blonde hair, but I think I’d put her to shame. Charlie says they have dyes that can change your hair color, but The Manager says nobody makes those anymore.
DAD told me about a week ago that I was 27 now. I still can’t believe that. I feel so much older. Oscar says I’m beautiful, but I don’t know about that. He flirts with everyone, including Victor, and he can somehow look past Juliett being an absolute bitch to hit on her so I don’t know how to take that compliment.
I put on my underwear and a white tank top before slipping into my red jumpsuit. We had colors assigned to us long ago, and it’s the source of some interest for me. I often try to remember if I loved the color red before it was given to me, or if I was conditioned to love it because it was my assignment.
I slip into my boots, hurry to throw on a little bit of eyeliner, and rush back to my room to soak in more alone time.
“How have you been sleeping?” Doctor Carson asks.
“Good for the most part,” I say.
“For the most part?” Doctor Carson presses.
“I slept like a stone last night,” I say. “There were a few nights this week I couldn’t stop tossing and turning though. I probably could have crawled back into bed and slept for the rest of the day today to be honest.”
Doctor Carson lets out a little chuckle. I like her a lot. She’s Charlie’s age, maybe even a tad older, but she has this sort of simultaneous mother/best friend vibe surrounding her. I feel comfortable telling her a lot, and she seems to genuinely care about my well-being.
“Have you been experiencing any headaches? Chest pains? Shortness of breath?”
“No, nothing like that,” I say.
“Have you felt strange in any way? Dizzy spells, anxiety, anything?”
I think about my suddenly diminished motor skills and my sudden bouts of vertigo. I think about how the other day I couldn’t remember my own name for a few minutes.
“Nothing I can think of,” I lie.
Doctor Carson stares at me over her glasses. She looks very smart in her pencil skirt and cornflower blue button-down blouse. She’s been writing on her yellow legal pad feverishly as she always does, but now she’s just staring. I take a moment to admire her sandy blonde hair which is pulled back in a loose bun.
“I know I say this all the time, but you know you can tell me if you’re having any problems at all, right?”
I crack my knuckles.
“I have felt…off lately,” I say finally.
“How so?” she asks.
“I’ve gotten dizzy now and then,” I say. “Kind of spacey and clumsy I guess.”
“Hmm,” she says simply, scribbling something on her little pad. “How long has that been going on?”
“A couple of weeks, maybe,” I say uncertainly. “Maybe longer.”
She clicks her pen and stares at me again.
“No headaches though?”
“No,” I say.
She clicks her pen a few more times.
“I’m going to clear you for today,” she says. “I want to see you on Tuesday, however.”
“Oh, okay,” I say. “Do you think something is wrong?”
She shakes her head.
“No, no,” she says. “Just precautionary. DAD tells me you seem to be coming down with a cold or something, I just want to make sure you’re medically tip-top. I’ll let The Manager know that you’ll be exempt from any assignments that afternoon.”
“Sounds good,” I say. I’m trying not to sound nervous, but I think Doctor Carson can tell that.
“Don’t be concerned,” she says, reading my mind. “I promise you have nothing to worry about.”
As soon as she finishes her sentence the door slides open behind me. I stand up on cue and start to turn around, but I see a look on Carson’s face that makes me stop. For just an instant her eyes look different. She looks afraid.
“Please proceed to the mainframe,” DAD urges me, doing little concentric circles at my feet.
“I’ll see you on Tuesday, Doctor Carson.”
She reaches up and quickly rubs my shoulder.
“Yes,” she says with a weak smile. “I’ll see you then.”