“I didn’t want oyster sauce,” Simco said. “I wanted miso.”
Above the sneeze guard streaked with mustardy residue, the cafeteria jock’s brown face tilted down to her, pulpy as pudding, without edges. Simco leaned against the tray rails and peered through the acrylic panel, her breath misting a circle on the acrylic that overlapped someone else’s nose print.
Stir fry bubbled in a line of industrial pans that gave off clouds of oily-smelling steam. The jock’s plastic-wrapped hand dropped grey tofu lumps into the first pan and greenish chicken cubes into the next three. His other hand, ungloved and permanently dingy, sloshed a ladle of grainy, tan liquid across all the pans.
Simco looked up at the spongy face. Beads of sweat collected at a hairline receding under a navy bandana worn pirate-style. Simco could not picture the jock’s life outside the Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd. company cafeteria. He seemed a creature born into a steam table habitat; an organism adapted to a job not even androids wanted. He wiped his moist cheek on the shoulder of his shirt, dumped the to-go container that held Simco’s screwed up order into the recycling chute, and rubbed the mustard streak with a grey rag.
“Been a while.” He seemed surprised Simco still worked at Bottle This.
“Big project,” she said. “Lots of meetings. They usually bring lunch in.”
He raised a coarse eyebrow and squirted water from a squeeze bottle, the kind used for ketchup, into a pan of gurgling vegetables and bean curd. Steam hissed and billowed. “What do you do here?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Simco said.
“No fooling,” he said. The bloated lips wormed a smile, exposing a darkened tooth outlined in gold. “My uncle’s a lawyer in East Palo Alto. Personal injury? Emotional distress?”
“No,” Simco said, unsure for a moment whether he was asking about her life or her legal practice. “Commercial transactions.”
“Nice,” he said. “Big project, huh? Important deal?” The stir fry slithered into the Neo-foam clamshell box. He set the open box on the sneeze guard.
“I can’t talk about it,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.” She wrested a pair of wooden chopsticks wrapped in red paper from the plastic basket next to her lunch, eyed the stir fry, nodded, and closed the container.
Back in her beige-walled cubicle, Simco sat in front of her data screen and un-wrapped the chopsticks. Her tiny desk barely gave her enough room to open her lunch. It seemed like forever since Simco could stretch her arms out without hitting something, but she’d only been in this new, smaller cubicle for a few months. The Bottle This bean counters had redrawn the floor plans again to save real estate.
Cost-cutting had been a way of life in Pharma Row since the last century, when Pharma Row was known as Silicon Valley; before the IT industry moved wholesale to China, leaving bio-tech companies poking up like vertebrae along the San Francisco peninsula’s thin commercial backbone.
Through the low wall close behind her, Simco heard a voice murmuring and a muffled chuckle. Her neighbor, a junior lawyer, was gossiping and trying not to be heard, perhaps, or data screen chatting with his wife.
Simco had first learned about Bottle This almost 20 years ago when her psychiatrist, Dr. Nimmer, prescribed Energy. Colorless, tasteless, and without texture, the medication smelled of salt and musk and hummed like an electro-magnetic field. Simco had tried to read the scientific product information, but the letters crawled like bugs along the bottle’s info-screen and her weary, ailing mind refused to make sense of it.
She’d tapped the info-screen until she came to the customer brochure, written at an eighth-grade reading level and illustrated in garish color. This she could handle, even from the depths of depression. “In the 21st century, our great-grandparents had a saying — ‘If only we could bottle this and sell it!’ Now, thanks to Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd., their dreams are your reality.”
A video clip played, boys chasing a ball down a soccer field. More words scrolled. “Feeling unmotivated? Run down? Depressed? Derived from the activity, growth, and metabolic levels of primary school-aged boys, Energy may be just what you need. Use only as directed: full strength for extreme sports or diluted with Bottle This Calm for daily use. All natural. Prescription only. No boys were harmed in the creation of Energy — they have more than enough to go around!” She’d felt too tired to wonder why Dr. Nimmer hadn’t prescribed Calm as well.
Simco titrated to a therapeutic dose of Energy over several days. Before her next session with Dr. Nimmer, she’d been alone in his waiting room, listening to the shushshush of the white noise machine in front of his door and the elevator’s plaintive dinging in the hall outside. She noticed, for the first time, the orchid in the waiting room’s far corner.
On a white marble pedestal table, in a China blue glass pot, the flower’s beauty had made her heart swell to the point of pain. Dainty clips kept the plant erect against a stick wrapped with floral tape. Above the last clip, a graceful parabolic bend of green stem held white, purple-veined blossoms that shone under a soft, recessed spotlight. It looked like love. Perfect, but fragile and out of reach.
A miso-saturated tofu cube dropped from Simco’s chopsticks onto her lap. She cursed and reached into the bottom drawer of her small, grey-enameled steel credenza for an Eradi-towel, just as her data screen woke from hibernation and Cunningham’s face appeared with that fish-eye look that data screen cameras gave to even otherwise handsome men.
Cunningham was a smart, even visionary, R&D VP, and Simco’s favorite client at Bottle This. He respected her legal skill, business judgment, and career potential, while her own senior management saw her as a solid worker, but too old and too introverted to promote.
Simco couldn’t say exactly when her career had gone off the rails. It started well: a law degree from Harvard, a few years as an associate at a big firm. But she’d never found a mentor at the firm, or in the two legal jobs she’d had since. Maybe her career had faltered while she struggled with her grief over her mother’s death, or during her divorce – both in 2135, 15 years ago, leaving her an adult orphan as well as an only child. Or while longing for children and despairing of ever having them, or while adjusting to motherhood.
However it happened, one day she woke up feeling vulnerable instead of valued, worried about keeping the job at Bottle This that fed her kids, Cal, eight and Miles, six — a feeling more acute now that her live-in boyfriend, Steven Barrow, had been laid off. Every school kid knew the economy had never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. With androids now entering the medical, dental and legal professions, the situation was grim, especially for older humans in these professions.
“Jessica, you there?” Cunningham was English, of African descent, and about ten years younger than Simco. His shaved head and penetrating golden eyes made him look younger still. Simco found the quieter tones of his British-accented speech especially appealing. Once — only once — she’d allowed herself to wonder what might have happened had she been younger, and had he not been married with two daughters older than Simco’s sons.
Behind Cunningham, a nursery school room full of two- and three-year-olds of various colors and ethnic origins sat at low tables, finger painting. All the children wore aluminum helmets with spidery tubes winding from them to steel collection vats that droned a metallic engine noise.
Simco gave her lap a once over and decided the Eradi-towel had cleaned her up enough to avoid embarrassment. She tapped her data screen. “Go ahead, Roger.” A spot on Simco’s screen made it look as though something was hanging from Cunningham’s left nostril. She reached for a screen wipe and rubbed it away.
“Has the government deal been inked yet?”
“Not yet. We’re on track for month-end.”
The big deal Simco had mentioned to the cafeteria jock was a government contract for a newly-released Bottle This product, Anti-Bigotry. Under the contract, Bottle This would supply enough Anti-Bigotry to enable all US Federal employees — from the armed forces to members of Congress — to take daily doses as a condition of employment. Washington watchers geared for the inevitable free speech challenge over the “right to hate,” but pundits agreed that the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, a former white-supremacist turned civil rights champion, would swing the Court to uphold the policy.
Ordinarily, Simco negotiated transactions with private hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and sometimes individual medical practices. This government contract was unprecedented. Bottle This would exceed expectations with Wall Street for its next quarterly numbers on the strength of this deal alone, just when the market had taken another downturn. Simco’s top priority was to close the deal, and the end was finally in sight.
Cunningham pulled his chair closer to his screen and lowered his voice. “Can you delay?”
“What?” Simco felt her blood pressure spike. If Bottle This couldn’t report revenue from the government deal this quarter, someone would take the blame. An image flitted through her mind of a target blossoming on her back, like a time-lapsed video of a rose blooming.
Cunningham’s soft-spoken, patient voice launched into a technical explanation. Simco heard the soothing tones, but only absorbed one word in three. “Young kids generally don’t discriminate on racial, gender, religious or other grounds, and with no understanding of sex they can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. But we’re finding, quite unexpectedly, that some kids pick up on parental biases before age two.”
A daydream floated on the current of Cunningham’s voice. Simco sitting in a sandbox, her vibrant red plastic shovel swooshing through pristine sand. Her mother watching, her smile warmer than the sun on Simco’s bare arms. “We’re focusing on San Francisco and Seattle, where the problem is less severe. And we’re looking into using younger donors. But the parallel play ability must be established to collect the right material, and it doesn’t show up much earlier than two in most kids.” A little black boy with a shaved head crawled into the sandbox next to Simco. He pushed a toy earth-mover while Simco shoveled.
Simco became aware that Cunningham had stopped talking. She forced her mind to pick through the words she’d heard and make sense of them. “It’s a supply problem?”
“Potentially.” If Cunningham, ever the optimist as the best executives were, was admitting to a potential problem, this was huge. “We think we can extract the contaminating attitudes, rather than having to re-collect the raw material we’ve been stockpiling these last few months. Going forward, we’ll filter the contaminants out at the source. It’s just a question of when the filter will be ready, and when we can confirm extraction works. If we can do that in the next two weeks, we can still fill the initial orders.”
“You want to put off signing for two weeks?” Simco brought up her calendar. Bottle This’s quarter ended in three weeks. Even if nothing went wrong, they’d be cutting it close.
“By then we’ll know whether we can make the first ship date or have to go back to the table.”
“What do you need from me?” At the bottom of Simco’s data screen, an appointment reminder popped up. Couples therapy with Dr. Nimmer’s colleague, Dr. Tribe started in thirty minutes.
Cunningham ran his hand over his smooth, brown scalp. “I’ve got it managed. I’ve put some other projects on hold and redeployed two teams. I’ll keep you posted.” Cunningham signed off, leaving a ghost silhouette dissipating slowly on Simco’s data screen. She wiped the screen again where Cunningham’s face had been.
Simco reached into her credenza’s bottom drawer for her handbag. At the edge of her vision, in the lockless drawer’s back corner, was the miniscule vial of Bottle This’s highly controversial and long discontinued product, Eternal Peace.
She’d found it in one of the less used R&D labs a few years back when she’d gone to meet with a client, slipped the vial under her suit jacket and hid it in a dented tea canister under stale Dragon Well leaves.
Simco wasn’t sure what made her filch the death-in-a-bottle, and even less sure what made her keep it. Her symptoms had improved with Energy and other bottles Dr. Nimmer prescribed, particularly Self-Esteem and Optimism. She’d even applied for a job at Bottle This out of gratitude.
But there were still those moments when even Cal and Miles, her islands of joy — the kids she expected to be smart, but not beautiful and who surprised her by being both — could not fill that empty space she felt, sometimes less, sometimes more.
In those moments, she tried not to dwell on the thought that neither her ex-husband nor Barrow loved her enough to father her children. She’d inhale Self-Esteem and fantasize about the anonymous sperm donor she’d chosen as a 42nd birthday present to herself after Barrow told her he still wasn’t ready to be a father.
When Simco thought of destroying the Eternal Peace, her empty space dilated to cavernous proportions, making her reach for her bottle of Relax.
Barrow sat across from Simco in Dr. Tribe’s office, an ocean of blue-green industrial carpeting between them. Barrow had been going on at length, and at high volume, about the many ways in which Simco made him furious.
Most sessions, Simco defended herself. Today, she couldn’t even hear Barrow, let alone listen to him. Her mind drifted into a blank space, a deep, dark pit. She felt pressure behind her eyes that might be the beginnings of tears.
Simco was trying to think of her mother when, from the corner of her eye, she registered Dr. Tribe’s shoes, moving. He wore soft leather moccasins when his gout flared. Today he wore new mocs in a lurid shade of clearance rack orange-brown that made even expensive leather look like cheap synthetic.
Dr. Tribe extended his long, thin legs between Simco and Barrow and crossed them at the ankle; a dividing line, like a tennis court’s net. Barrow immediately lobbed an emotional nerve-gas grenade over it. “I fell in love with you because you made me feel more like myself than I did alone. Now, being with you, I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
An image of the androids that ran across-court snagging net balls at tennis matches flashed through Simco’s mind, a memory of herself at Cal’s age on its heels. Her mother, five feet of unselfish kindness, opening her arms to a sobbing Simco whose best friend had just said, “I hate you. You’re not my friend anymore.”
Simco remembered the steady heartbeat, the quiet voice resonating in her ear, pressed against her mother’s chest. Her mother repeating a little nonsense rhyme she said when she tucked Simco into bed: “I love you better than stars or water, better than the King’s fat daughter.”
Dr. Tribe had turned his attention to her. “You went somewhere while Steve was talking just now. Where did you go?”
She shrugged, fixating on a faint miso spot the Eradi-towel had missed as she blinked back tears. Her tongue went heavy in her mouth.
She and Barrow had been together 14 years, starting after Simco’s divorce. For four of those years they’d been in couples therapy. Simco had begged Barrow to go, hoping to reclaim their initial happiness. Now she just hoped the constant yelling would stop. Once, Dr. Tribe had asked why she didn’t leave Barrow, an easy-sounding question with no easy answer. Dr. Tribe had not pressed her when she said, “Love. Hope. I left my marriage rather than work on it. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again.”
Dr. Tribe said Barrow’s anger, a “typical male expression of depression and fear,” had been “modeled in his family of origin.” He urged Simco to see the scared little boy inside Barrow, uncertain when his raging father would hit him next. Barrow had also agreed to see Dr. Nimmer and had started using Calm. Things seemed to get better for a while, but Barrow was still so angry all the time. Dr. Nimmer said he might be one of the .0004 percent for whom Calm provided no relief.
The room had gone quiet. A siren wailed outside the building, Doppler shifting as an ambulance passed. “Where did you go, Jessica?” Dr. Tribe asked again.
She sighed, her breath shuddering like a death rattle. “I was thinking that I haven’t felt loved — really loved — since my mother died. My kids love me, but it’s not the same. I can’t put a name on it.”
A well of loneliness pooled in Simco’s heart, pulling like a cold, iron weight. Moisture seeped from her eyes and nose, and she heard her own shaking voice ask Dr. Tribe, “Can you?”
Dr. Tribe tucked his legs under his chair and leaned toward Simco. “Unconditional love.” He handed her a tissue and smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
When Simco got back to her cubicle, a woman she didn’t recognize was in her chair. Late 20s, with blue-black hair that hung in a curve around her face, the woman wore a spotless, white linen shirt and a short, black gabardine jacket. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They told me you were in meetings all day. I’m Janet Wu. From the Princeton office.”
“I’ve heard your name,” Simco said, conscious of her facial muscles as they formed polite words. Wu, it was rumored, was being groomed for promotion.
“I’ll pack up.” Wu started to gather her things, and Simco noticed, with an odd sensation of relief, that the tomato-red polish on Wu’s manicured nails had chipped off at the right index finger and the left thumb.
“No worries,” Simco said. “I’m not feeling well. I’ll work from home for the rest of the day.”
“Hey, thanks,” Wu said, as Simco hurried away.
Barrow was out when Simco got home. She tossed her hover car remote and handbag onto the kitchen counter and kicked off her shoes in the hallway as she raced to her home office.
She unrolled her data screen and navigated to the Bottle This product bible, the group of databases listing all Bottle This products: current, former and in development. She ran searches in all the databases, even those requiring security clearance (which she’d received while working on a deal for Mental Acuity a while back and no one had bothered to revoke).
After an hour, she was sure. Bottle This had never had an Unconditional Love product, nor was the company developing one.
As she sipped a cup of malty, motor oil-colored Assam, a form message blinked on her data screen reminding all employees that the annual competition for best new product idea started next month. The person or team that could show proof of concept on the most promising new product would win a bonus, an automatic highest rating at next year’s review, and lifetime job security.
Simco almost deleted the message reflexively, as she’d done every year for the 14 years she’d worked at Bottle This. Instead, she contacted Cunningham.
He didn’t laugh at her idea as she’d feared, and the more they talked it through, the more his entrepreneurial instincts took over. He even started mentally staffing the development effort, ticking off which engineers they could trust with the proof of concept and which might steal the idea.
Cunningham said he found the idea so compelling, he’d ask his best engineer from the Anti-Bigotry project to lead the team, which he’d cobble together by killing some of his own skunk works projects. “I’ll look after that myself,” Cunningham said, when Simco expressed concern about the two-week window for solving the Anti-Bigotry contamination problem.
“What’s your take on the key question, Jessica? What donors produce enough unconditional love to spare?”
Simco thought of Miles, ignoring her warning against running at the community center swimming pool, slipping on the slick tile, and banging his head. Of Cal disobeying Barrow, taking the cash chip with all of his savings — allowance, gifts, Tooth Fairy leavings — to school and losing it. How she felt their pain, rather than dwelling on how their limitations produced it.
She’d held the crying boys, felt the tickle of Miles’ brown curls, Cal’s soft blond waves on her cheek, and inhaled the salty warmth of their skin. She’d recognize them from that smell alone, even if she lost all her other senses. She remembered saying something about better choices next time. She didn’t have the heart to berate them for disobedience and poor judgment.
“Mothers,” she said. “I’d start at playgrounds.”
Two weeks later, Simco arrived at work to find a young man she’d never seen before, golden-skinned and wearing a turban, sitting at her desk. A display screen reading “Reserved for Pradeep Singh, April 18-20″ had been pinned to the exterior wall of Simco’s cubicle next to her name plaque.
“You’re here,” he said, flustered. “I’m a new intern.” He shook her hand. “They told me I could sit here while they set up my cube. I can move somewhere else.” Singh looked all of 25, gangly as a fawn and as likely to freeze if a bright light hit his pupils.
Simco had become used to finding strangers in her seat. She’d spoken to her android assistant, Joel 5, about it. Joel apologized for the error. The android department manager had gone in for maintenance the day Joel told her Simco’s meetings were over, and the data had been lost during servicing.
“It’s okay, Pradeep,” Simco said. “I owe a client a visit.” Singh let out the breath he’d been holding. He seemed to shrink two inches before her eyes. A smile tweaked at Simco’s mouth as she headed to the south campus.
Cunningham, back from his Anti-Bigotry-associated travel, was in full headset mode on a data screen conference. He motioned her into a project room and joined her ten minutes later.
He set coffee in front of her. Fancy coffee, from the gourmet kiosk near the cafeteria. “Milk, no sugar. I know how you feel about sweetened coffee.” If she’d still been young and lean, his attention to how she took her coffee would have sent her stomach a-flutter. As it was, she took the kindness as something he’d do for anyone.
“Softening me up for bad news?” she said. The coffee scalded the roof of her mouth and she winced. A brown drip and a lipstick smear stained the cardboard under the cup’s lip.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “Though we’ve run into a hitch with Project Mum.”
Anxiety trickled down Simco’s neural pathways. She rummaged in her bag for her inhaler, shook it more vigorously than necessary, and breathed a whiff of Relax. “Go on.”
He sipped his coffee, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon. “Surprisingly, some mothers do not love their children unconditionally. We had to add a screening process to the donor sample on the front end to sift those out.”
“That doesn’t sound fatal,” she said. Her fingers drummed on the table like the galloping hoof-beats of tiny horses.
He opened a small tin of mints and pushed it toward Simco. “They go well with Relax. Synergistic effect.” When she waved them away he asked, “When was the last time you took a day off? Gave yourself a treat?”
Simco stared at a greasy black scuff on the cream-colored wall. If she looked at Cunningham, she’d cry or spill her guts about her personal life, both things she’d regret. “There’s more to the hitch?”
“Unconditional love is specific to a mother’s children. It doesn’t scale to strangers. We tried birth mothers and adoptive mothers. Same results.”
“That can’t be right,” Simco said. “There’s got to be a way.” She snatched a mint from the tin and bit down on it. Volatile oil burst from the mint, rushed through her soft palate and burned her sinuses. Her eyes watered.
“I’m not giving up yet,” he said. He dropped another mint into her hand, his finger brushing against her palm, and smiled. “It works better if you let it melt in your mouth.”
If she didn’t sob, he’d think the mint caused her tears. She let herself look at him; let the tears come. How absurd that simple civility and the mere ghost of a touch could move her so. How had she come to this? She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and cleared her throat.
“And Anti-Bigotry? Are we ready to sign?”
Cunningham went to an electronic white board on the wall and began drawing diagrams with a stylus, leaving lines the color of sour apples. He narrated a detailed description as he drew, the refuge of scientists who want to avoid getting to the point. Simco wished he’d just look her in the eye and tell her they were screwed.
He stood by the finished diagram, fingering the stylus. “We’re going to come up short. We need to negotiate the first two deliveries down, or slip the start date a month. That’s the bottom line.”
Simco pushed her knuckles into her temples, but the pressure didn’t relieve her pounding head. “Don’t worry,” Cunningham said. “I’ll run interference with the sales team and the executive committee, and I’ll put in a word with your management as well.” He cocked his head and winked. “After Unconditional Love wins the contest, they won’t be able to sack you.”
She folded her arms on the table and laid her forehead on them. She knew she had felt unconditional love not directed to Cal or Miles. But when? Why didn’t it scale? Cunningham patted her shoulder. “Jessica. How else can I help?”
And then it clicked. Simco lifted her head, and for the first time in months, smiled. “Pregnant women. Before they’ve seen their babies. Before they think of them as individuals, or even know whether the fetus is male or female. That’s our donor pool.”
The meeting invitation had winked onto Simco’s data screen a few days after the conference with her manager, her manager’s manager, and Cunningham, in which she and Cunningham had walked them through the events leading to the Anti-Bigotry contract’s delay.
She hadn’t thought much about it until the day before the meeting, when another participant — Roberta 3, the human resources android that supported the Bottle This legal department — was added to the meeting invitation. This was not an irony unique to Bottle This, Simco knew. For the past 50 years, most large companies had outsourced the human resources function to androids. Incapable of emotional investment, pity, or concern over death threats, androids had proved uniquely well-suited to handling terminations.
Simco would not have noticed the change if she hadn’t overheard a manager in the cubicle across from her talking about an upcoming layoff. She strained her ears but didn’t hear her name. When she passed that manager in the hallway later and he avoided meeting her eyes, she immediately checked her calendar.
Roberta 3′s name had been added to the meeting without a flag to announce the change. Simco inhaled a double dose of Optimism and went outside, waiting for it to kick in. She found herself walking toward the R&D building, to Cunningham’s cubicle.
“Project Mum is looking up,” he said, opening a tin of heart-shaped sugar cookies his wife and daughters had baked. The unevenly shaped cookies, scorched black on their bottoms, had been decorated with red, pink, and white sugar crystals that bled color onto their beige surfaces.
Simco declined a cookie. Cunningham smiled at a large red heart before he bit into it.
“I’m expecting a working prototype in a few days.”
“How many is a few?”
“Anywhere from one to four, depending on how much testing my blokes can jam in after their day jobs,” he said. “The deadline isn’t for another week. We’ll make it.”
Sugary crumbs clung to the corner of Cunningham’s mouth. Simco reached out to rub them away out of habit, as she would with Cal or Miles. When she realized her mistake, she made an awkward transition to rubbing her own mouth. “You have something there.”
He smoothed a finger against his lips. “Now?” he asked.
“Gone,” she said.
She wanted to tell him about the meeting with Roberta 3, but he’d already done what he could to absolve her of fault. Telling him would just make him feel sorry for her, the last thing she wanted.
When Cunningham appeared on her data screen three days later to say he’d submitted the prototype, Simco didn’t answer.
She couldn’t face him, knowing, as Roberta 3 had told her that morning, her job was being eliminated. Knowing, as she did from watching this happen to others, that her job in another guise would open up to younger, less experienced, and more “hail fellow well met” applicants as soon as her termination went through. Knowing, as she wished she could tell him, that those applicants would lack both the judgment and expertise she’d developed over a 30-year career and the knowledge of his group’s business she’d gained over the six years she’d supported it.
And knowing that when she finally told him she’d been let go, he’d wish her well and say they’d keep in touch, but that in the fickle, superficial social environment of Northern California, they never would.
Simco put off going into the office to turn in her data screen and gather her personal belongings until the day before her termination became effective. She spent most of the intervening time in bed, staring at the wall, wondering whether Eternal Peace smelled like mint. Barrow, to his credit, took up the slack and made sure Cal and Miles got their homework done and to school on time.
With no more run way, Simco made herself shower and dress that morning for the first time in a week, which was fortunate because Roberta 3 contacted Simco at home while Barrow was taking the kids to school.
Roberta 3 was a short, stocky android with features modeled to suggest a mixed-race human. Simco took the communication in the family room.
“I’ll be in today to get my stuff,” Simco said. At least Roberta 3 would report to Simco’s management that she had presented a professional image after being fired.
“There’s been a change in your status,” Roberta 3 said. Simco could learn nothing from Roberta 3′s eyes, but she stared into them anyway. “Your invention with Roger Cunningham placed first in this year’s competition. Because you’re an active employee until tomorrow, the award supersedes your termination. Take the rest of the day, but please report for work tomorrow.”
Simco clapped her hands, jumped up and let out a scream. Roberta 3 had no reaction, not even a blink. Simco thanked the android and signed off just as Cunningham appeared.
“And get this,” he said. “I’ve never seen a prototype need so few improvements. We start ramping production next week.”
“You have no idea how great this news is, Roger.” Her eyes drifted from Cunningham’s beaming face to the framed image on the red brick family room mantle. Simco standing with her mother, arm in arm, next to a purple-veined orchid in a China blue pot.
Dr. Nimmer sat in his usual boxy, grey upholstered armchair, but Simco had risen from the couch. Someone had moved the orchid from the waiting room corner into Dr. Nimmer’s office, in front of the picture window. Simco ran her finger over a petal, tracing the purple vein. Its softness, perfect and delicate, finally within her grasp.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I hope by now I’ve earned your trust, Jessica.”
“But Dr. Tribe said it’s what’s missing.” Simco let her hand drop from the petal to her side. “The only reason Bottle This even has an Unconditional Love product is because of me. I took responsibility. I went after what I needed, just like you’ve always said I should. Why are you doing this?”
A drop of blood beaded on a hang nail Simco had tried to tear off with her teeth. Dr. Nimmer’s watery, blue eyes peered up at her, sad and dog-like. When had he become so ancient? She felt a surge of panic that he might reach 115 in the next year and retire. Or was 115 now the new 105? She hoped so, and if not, that she’d be able to find another human shrink who was still taking on new patients. She couldn’t face the idea of telling her problems to an android. She longed for someone with body heat and a pulse to listen to her.
“I’ve read the literature, and I’m concerned,” he said. “You’re putting all your hopes for a good life into this product. I find no indication that it will do what you think it will. It won’t replace your mother, Jessica. It won’t even make you feel loved, as she loved you.” Dr. Nimmer walked to Simco and put a warm hand on each of her shoulders. “Science can’t solve everything, Jessica, even in the 22nd century. It can’t solve feeling alone, feeling unloved. That’s one reason some people still turn to religion. Still believe in God. Come. Finish your session.”
Simco brushed past Dr. Nimmer, sat with a violence that caused the couch’s spindly legs to screech and carve a two-inch gouge in the wood floor, and crossed her arms and legs. She felt the muscles and veins in her neck bulging, her skin burning red.
She knew she looked the picture of hysteria, a picture that two centuries of feminism hadn’t eradicated from the collective consciousness of men. But she was too angry to worry how Dr. Nimmer saw her and what he’d write in his notes. She jabbed her bloody finger at him. “How many times have you told me not to be afraid to ask for help? That I settle for less than I deserve? This is me asking for help. If you won’t prescribe it, I’ll go to someone who will. That will be me not settling.”
Dr. Nimmer sighed and shook his head. “Do you honestly think this will solve everything?”
Yes, she said to herself. Oh yes, yes. That pit, that hole, I’ve had for so long. Filled. Gone. The missing part, found. Once it is, how can everything else not click into place?
She looked over her shoulder at the orchid, remembering its feel.
“Of course not,” she said, her gaze hanging on the orchid as she said what he wanted to hear. “It won’t bring back my mother.”
She thanked Dr. Nimmer and left his office, while a prescription for Unconditional Love pulsed its way from his data screen to the pharmacy across from the Bottle This offices.
When she imagined the moment she would first hold Unconditional Love in her hand, Simco saw herself savoring every millisecond. Taking in the shape and color of the bottle, how heavy it felt in her palm, the size and shape of the product information’s font, how the promo video had been shot and cut. She imagined taking notes with every sense like a wine connoisseur, likening the color within the bottle to mahogany or tangerine, the aroma to stone fruit or leather, the sound to distant tides or the flutter of wings, the taste to citrus or rose, and the feel to a perfect orchid petal.
But as soon as she was in her hover car, she tore open the packaging with trembling hands, without so much as a glance at the bottle or what was in it. Instead, she closed her eyes and attacked, gulping the substance into her lungs like a woman too long under water, starved for air.
When she opened her eyes, Simco was lying in the back seat of her hover car, a puddle of drool sticky between her cheek and the ivory leather seat. The burl walnut dashboard’s data screen said 11:30 a.m., two hours since she’d arrived in her office parking lot. She had no memory of those two hours and braced herself for a rush of panic. But none came.
She climbed into the front seat to look in the mirror. Except for her tousled hair, she looked fresh and rested. She peered into her middle aged face and felt the sensation of looking at a child -– a child who needed, and deserved, her love. Her heart went out to that child, full of silent promises.
Inside her office, Simco opened her credenza to stow her handbag. The Dragon Well tin, shinier than she remembered, caught her attention. Hadn’t there been a dent on the front? She picked it up. Yes, the dent was right where it should be, in the slick, silver finish under the last, graceful Chinese character. No more than a slight bend in the tin’s surface, really. It had seemed so much larger before.
Her aisle was empty. She suspected everyone was at lunch or in meetings, but just in case, she held the tin under her desk where no one could see her open it. The tea leaves’ scent wafted to her nose, fresher that she remembered, sweet, green and vegetal, though the long-expired date on the tin hadn’t changed. She took a stylus from her desk drawer and poked among the leaves, intending to dig out the vial and, finally, destroy it.
It was gone.
Simco closed the tin and set it on her credenza next to the images of Cal and Miles. She thought of Janet Wu, Pradeep Singh, and all the others who’d sat in her cubicle over the past months. How many had found her credenza drawer unlocked when looking for a place to park a gym bag or a lunch box? How many, curious and unwatched, had given in to the impulse to go through her belongings, even so far as to open her tea? One of them, with his or her own secrets and hurts, had found the Eternal Peace she’d stolen and pilfered the vial.
And Simco, who hours before would have begun to sweat and hyperventilate upon finding the vial gone, sat with a steady pulse of 60 beats per minute and felt her heart overflow with love and concern for Janet, Pradeep, and the others, the children they’d been, and the mothers who loved them.
“You remembered.” She smiled at the cafeteria jock.
He smiled back. He must have whitened his teeth, she thought. His brown skin, firm across his cheekbones, glowed with a healthy sheen, as though he’d just taken steam after a brisk swim. Simco watched through the spotless acrylic as he ladled the miso over pink-white chicken cubes sizzling among crisp, bright broccoli, carrots and mushrooms. He moved deftly, cooking by feel, with confidence and pride.
Simco imagined him as a boy, playing with pots on his mother’s kitchen floor, presenting her with pretend crab ceviche and mushroom flan. She imagined him this evening, going home to his wife and baby, cooking real mushroom flan with cilantro fresh from their small garden.
“How’s your big deal going?”
“It’s done,” she said. “Hey, I don’t think I know your name?”
He stopped mid-stir, shifted uneasily on his feet, and then smiled again, like a shy child. How many of the hundreds who ate here daily took the meals he prepared without asking his name? How many saw him as a creature of the steam table habitat, or worse, didn’t see him at all? “I’m Emilio.”
“I’m Jessica,” she said.
He poured her stir fry into her to-go container with an artful flourish. Why had she thought his hands were dirty? Even his nails were even and clean.
“Looks delicious,” she said, as he placed her open container on the sparkling acrylic. “You could be a chef at La Montagne.”
“Nah,” he said. “All the top restaurants have android chefs now. The owners prefer it that way. No food-borne illness, no sick days, no prima donnas. If you’re a human who wants to cook for other humans, this is where the action is.”
A tide of love and pride washed over Jessica. For Emilio, and for the mother who encouraged him to follow his star. When the tide receded, it left forgiveness for Steven, the beaten boy whose mother failed to protect him. Forgiveness, like a perfect, gleaming shell on a beach washed clean.
She thanked Emilio and went back to her cubicle to prepare for her one o’clock with Roger. She thought she might bring him fancy coffee from the kiosk, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
J. J. Roth’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aoife’s Kiss, Every Day Fiction, and Mad Scientist Journal. When not chauffeuring two young sons or working at a large technology company, J. J. writes fantasy and science fiction in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information and updates, visit her web site at jjroth.net or find her on Twitter @wrothroth.