“No,” says Melanie, says you. You like it plain.
“I can bring some other sandwiches if these are not to your liking.”
“This is fine,” Melanie says. She taps one chrome-tipped high-heeled boot on the parquet floor. “When is Ms. Gregorian going to get here? I’ve been waiting for an hour.”
“Ms. Gregorian will not be conducting your interview. She is a very ill woman. Your interview will be conducted by her son Nicholas.” The cyborg checks the inlay on the back of his hand. “His rocket’s touching down just now.”
Melanie takes an egg salad sandwich from the offered tray and leans back in the chair. The chair squishes under you with a jellied substance that’s warm on your pressure points. You look down at the floor. It’s polished to a mirror finish, showing off Melanie’s jet-black hair escaping from the bun at the nape of her neck. When she bends down, the pendant of her best necklace points south. An Old English M, struck in steel painted with flaking gilt. “I don’t mean to rush you. I mean… I’ve just never done anything like this before.” She rubs the back of her hand, wondering how it will look with a computer insert.
Slam, clomp-clomp. Melanie looks up sharply to face a chubby blond man with wireframe glasses. Anachronistic medical appliances, the latest style. “You must be Miss Zielensky.” He holds out his hand. “I’m Nicholas Gregorian. You can call me Nick.”
“Pleased to meet you,” you say, extending your hand. Nick Gregorian’s palms are sweaty and sticky, and when he releases his hand, Melanie is pleased to be rid of it.
“You’re here for the job.”
And you are.
Flash back to five days ago. You held the tissue-thin holopaper out on your lap, watching the classified ads squirm. One of them popped out at you, written in bright red sans-serif letters.
“PERSONAL ASSISTANT WANTED—Competitive Pay Rates—Utmost Discretion Required.” Trailed by an identity string.
Melanie knew—knows—what this means. Either some richy was looking for a maid, or some richy was looking for a prostitute. Either way, Melanie was looking at some new hardware.
But when your husband is dead and your kid’s in the freezer and you’re working sixteen hours a day on recycled busywork just to fulfill your debt to the government, what choice do you have? If you’re someone like Melanie Zielensky—and you are—you take what you can get.
Melanie walked to the public terminal four flights down and three blocks away and put in her request for an interview.
“We need someone to start immediately. Can you move in tonight?”
“I have the job? What about the interview?”
“Oh, you’ve passed that.”
Melanie looks around her, confused. Suddenly, she flashes on the chair. It’s been monitoring her bodily functions all this time, testing her weight, her height, the way her muscles moved when she shifted, her pulse and digestive system. She didn’t come in here for an interview, she came in here for a physical, and she’s passed. You’ve passed. “Yes, I can start tonight. Just let me call my building and tell them I’m leaving.” That’s not really necessary; if you’re not in your bed when you’re supposed to wake up the government will confiscate your apartment and hand it off to another desty. But she wants to get away from Nicholas.
“Very well. Reynolds will show you to your room.”
“Are they going to do the installations tonight? Because I’ve already eaten, and I know you’re supposed to wait six hours—”
Nicholas almost chortles as this, but stops it with a hand pressed to his mouth. Melanie notices that his fingernails are dirty and well-chewed. “You’ve got it wrong. You’re not going to be a cyborg. My mother wants a human assistant, to help her with her everyday functions.”
“I see. Well, I don’t really have much experience—”
“You’ll do fine,” Nick says to you. “You’re the one. Reynolds, take Miss Zielensky to her room.”
The cyborg takes Melanie by the arm and steers her through the door. There’s a prick like a bee sting; an access chip has just been injected into your upper arm.
Your name is Melanie Zielensky, and you just got your first real job.
The next morning you wake up with orange juice spilled across your chest. Melanie curses as she cleans the remains of the surprise breakfast tray from her lap.
“Let me get that,” Reynolds the cyborg says.
“I’m so sorry,” Melanie says, flustered.
“It’s quite all right.” He pulls a hose from his side and sweeps the mess. “I’ll call for another. In the meantime, why don’t you get showered and dressed? Ms. Gregorian is waiting.”
You watch the receding back of the cyborg. When he is gone, you pull your shirt over your head and walk to the bathroom.
The click of tiny cameras as you tap across the floor.
Melanie steps into the shower and the water turns on automatically. It’s like the dirt and dust of her old life is being sloughed off, revealing a second skin underneath: fresh, clean, new. You have never felt so very alive as you do this second.
When you go back to the main room, a fresh tray of food has been set out on your desk. A paper-thin screen sits opposite the tray, balanced on a crystal easel. So this is the good life.
“Good morning, Miss Zielensky. I hope you slept well.”
“I did.” And except for being scared half to death by the morning welcome wagon, she did. “Are you Ms. Gregorian?”
“Call me Amanda, please.” She winks. Are you trying to seduce me, Ms. Gregorian?
“I thought you’d actually be here. Not in a screen.” She flushes as she realizes what she’s just said. “Not that it’s not a great privilege to see you no matter what form—”
“Don’t bother with the pleasantries. We’re all equals here.”
“In that case, I mean if you really don’t mind my asking, what is my job? I’m afraid I didn’t really ask, I was—”
Gregorian smiles, her red lips spread wide, her gunmetal-gray eyes twinkling. “You were desperate to get it. That’s all right, I understand perfectly. You are to be my assistant. You will handle my paperwork, my public appearances. Be the face of my company. Since I can’t be.”
“You’re younger than I would have thought.”
“I don’t really look like this. Not anymore. Once, maybe.”
“Not to pry, I really don’t want to pry, but I thought you were ill.”
“Nobody’s ill in a computer program.”
Melanie is starving, but she doesn’t dare eat, not in front of her boss. She touches the edge of the real china plate. “I’m very sorry for asking. Please forgive me.”
“Don’t you want to eat your breakfast? It’s good to have a bit of nourishment before you begin your tasks.”
With that bit of permission, you start to eat. The food tastes better than you ever could have expected, and you wolf it down in five minutes flat.
“That’s better. Good girls always clean their plates.”
“Will I get to meet you sometime? I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it would be an immense privilege.”
“Perhaps,” Gregorian says, “in due time.”
And that’s good enough for you.
The work is ridiculously easy. At eleven you sign Gregorian’s name to various documents and bits of memorabilia. At one you pose for pictures in her stead. You wonder why she doesn’t just send out a projection, but remember what Nicholas said. The human touch, that’s what she wants. Any fool can use technology to simulate his or her presence, but she wants an assistant. A human assistant. And if doing Gregorian’s PR work is going to get Melanie’s kid out of the freezer, then that’s what she’s going to do.
At three she meets a vice president of the company for tea. Remembering Gregorian’s words, she eats and drinks every bit of food on her plate. Reynolds smiles and pats her on the shoulder.
“You appear to be working out quite nicely.”
At seven, right before dinner, you send one month’s advance pay to the nursery. One payment down, eleven to go. When she goes back downstairs, Gregorian’s projection is there, sitting between Reynolds and Nicholas. She gestures for Melanie to sit at the head of the table, and you do.
“This is such an honor. I can’t possibly—”
“I insist on it. Reynolds, bring in her plates.” The cyborg lopes away.
Melanie studies Amanda Gregorian and her son. The projection is younger than Nick is; in fact, she’s just about Melanie’s age. And, now that she can see her clearly without the edges of the screen and the haze of first-day jitters blocking her view, you see that she is quite beautiful. This projection is a first-rate job.
When you have the resources of the largest corporation in the world at your fingertips, every day is a good hair day.
As Melanie digs into the real foie gras, Gregorian tents her fingers and leans forward, that same broad, pleasant smile on her lips. “Melanie, do you know what we do here at Gregorian Enterprises?”
“You build spaceships,” she says, after washing her mouthful of food down with a glass of Reisling. “And components for magna-rail lines. And hydrogen fuel cells. Everyone knows what your company does.”
“That’s right. I’m the richest woman in the world, the richest person, actually, and I did it all on my own.”
In truth, Amanda Gregorian was the recipient of a vast family fortune which she just happened to be able to control and expand with innate business acumen. But Melanie’s not about to point that out.
“I’d give it all up, though, for one day of good health. Treasure your health, Melanie. And your youth. They’re both gone far too soon.” Amanda’s face still holds the smile, but there is sadness in the voice carried from a microphone at the mouth or in the mind of a sick woman a few yards or a few hundred miles away.
You think of your husband, mashed flat by a drunk driver five years ago, the guts and blood fanning out like a Rorschach blot, while you could only look on, clutching your pregnant belly. “I will, Ms. Gregorian.”
“We’re on a first-name basis here, Melanie.” That smile again.
“Sorry, Amanda.” You finish the rest of your food, and it is delicious. Reynolds clears the dishes away from you and Gregorian’s son. The cyborg and the richest woman in the world have no food, of course.
“Let’s go into the game room.”
You go to her side. “Yes, let’s. Aren’t you coming, Nick?”
“I don’t think so.” His face is downcast, and his depression combined with his chubbiness makes him pathetic.
“Don’t you mind my son. He’s antisocial, always has been. Can’t be helped. Believe me,” he says, chuckling, “we’ve tried.”
Melanie gives Nick a hopeful smile and follows Gregorian to the game room. Behind her, Reynolds is down on all fours, polishing the Italian tile.
And Melanie wonders why Nick doesn’t look her in the eyes.
And Melanie wonders how she knew the meat before her was foie gras.
You have a desk with a bronze nameplate bolted to it. You have a fountain pen. You have that day’s itinerary up on the screen. The first order of the day is a publicity stunt, a personal appearance at the lithium-xenon battery factory, one of Ms. Gregorian’s—scratch that, Amanda’s—holdings.
Melanie shutters herself in the closet and pages through the racks of smart pressed suits. Selecting a conservative peach number, she finishes it off with a kicky pair of backless sandals. It amazes you, how there is no wrong answer in your new wardrobe.
You pull on the sleek, form-fitting pants and reach for the sandals. A loud rip.
Melanie has split her pants.
Reynolds, watching from his hand screen, scuttles in. “Miss Melanie, I am so sorry. Let’s find something else for you to wear.”
The breeze tickles your butt through your underwear. “I guess I’ve gained some weight. Too much rich food.” Rich person food.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
And Melanie, studying her body in the mirror, has to concur. You’re not growing outward, you’re growing different. Your skinny ass and flat chest are plumping. You wonder, offhand, if someone can notice if they’re growing taller. If it’s gradual enough, probably not.
“Reynolds, can I have a tape measure?”
“For your measurements? I’ll take care of that.” He begins to move his hands about Melanie’s body, spanning her, scanning her.
“No, for me. So I can take them. Whenever I want.” Reynolds’ face blanked. “Oh, forget it.”
Within the hour a new suit has been cut for you, and when you return in the evening, your wardrobe has been replaced. You decide to feel grateful.
You’re walking down the hall when you come across a locked room that will not open with the access chip in your bicep. You call for Reynolds.
“I want to get in there.”
“You have a meeting with the owner of—”
“My access chip opens every door in this estate except this one. Why can’t I go in there?” And all of a sudden Melanie realizes that this is Amanda Gregorian’s room.
“Come on,” Reynolds says. “You don’t want to be late.”
You make a mental note to never come this way again.
Amanda talks with you every night as you get ready for bed. She is always kind, always interested in everything you have to say.
“I don’t feel like myself,” Melanie says. She runs her hands over her body. “My muscles feel hard. And I’m always exhausted.”
“You’re just becoming more toned from all the exercise you’ve been getting, running around my meetings for me like a good girl.”
“I think I’m getting sick.” You run your hand over your face and it’s like touching a mask. “And my eyes. I think I’m getting cataracts.” Even as you say it you know you sound like a hypochondriac. Your blue eyes might have traces of gray in them, but your vision is sharp as it ever was—sharper, maybe.
“Hush, now. It’s going to be all right.”
Melanie laughs, high and staccato-like. “Of course you’re right. I’m just a little homesick, I guess.”
“For the desty camps? You don’t want to go back there.”
“For my son.”
Broad smile. “Then maybe you should visit him. I’ll set it up for tomorrow. In the meantime, sleep tight, Melanie.”
When you wake up all the mirrors in the estate have been blacked out.
The Little Darlings Cryogenic Residential Center for Youth—the freezer—-is located out in the country, in an old sanitarium. You have never been there. When the black vans came for Tommy, when they spirited him away in the middle of the night, you were told not to visit. “It hurts them,” the sneering social worker had said as she thrust the paperwork into Melanie’s hands. But Amanda’s name is a skeleton key.
With Reynolds in tow, you navigate the cavernous center. White ice chests are jammed into rooms. The doors can’t close. A worker sits cross-legged on one, dealing solitaire. Finally, you locate Tommy’s chest, and key in the string of numbers that will clear out the ice.
Tommy is hunched, his arms and legs drawn up like a dead fly. A long dead fly. You wonder how the money you turn in every month can possibly revive him. It does not seem possible to revive him.
Reynolds waits on a chest, inert, waiting for you.
There isn’t really much for you to do. Melanie gives Tommy a kiss through the ice chest, turns to the cyborg, and motions to leave.
In your mind, he’s dead already. Less alive than Amanda, less human than Reynolds. As you think this, something in you breaks and lifts off. You feel good.
At dinner the following day Nicholas is more agitated than usual. You eat your plate of roast duck and try not to think about it.
When Reynolds steps out to get more coffee creamer, Nick leans in and grabs you by your lapels. “Get out. Go. Leave. Run.”
“What?” Melanie says, pulling away.
“Don’t you see what she’s doing to you? Haven’t you taken a good look at yourself lately?”
“Nicky,” Gregorian’s projection warns.
Melanie picks up a spoon to see her reflection, but all the silverware has been scuffed to a matte finish.
“Hurry,” Nick says, tugging at your hand. One of your fingernails breaks off and lands on your plate, a keratin question mark. “Before Reynolds gets back—”
But it’s not Reynolds that stops this, not this time. Two uniformed guards, employees of Gregorian Enterprises, come storming out of the other entranceway. Holding his upper arms in their augmented fists, their foreheads flash green for all clear.
“That son of mine,” she says. “Always so difficult. Never could fix him.”
“Antisocial,” Melanie says.
“God knows I’ve tried,” you say.
Another week passes, a week of contract signing and joyrides on the company rocket and an office party that rages on all night long, as you oversee it from your manager’s office. Nicholas is absent from the estate for the entire week. When he comes back he no longer wears glasses and there’s two dime-sized scorch marks on his temples. He lolls in an armchair under a thin green blanket as Reynolds spoons his dinner into his mouth.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Amanda says. “He’s fine.”
“What did you do to him?”
“I have some things to go over with you about the meeting tomorrow.” The projection snaps its fingers and an aide rushes over with a briefcase. “This is what I pay you for, after all.”
Melanie concentrates on her work, but she keeps turning away to look at Nicholas Gregorian. The hot cereal mush slides down his chin and drips on his satin pajamas.
“He’ll get better.”
“I don’t think I can work for you anymore, Amanda.”
For the first time, Amanda’s friendliness breaks. Her holographic mouth pops open. Melanie almost thinks that she’s going to summon the aide to grab at Melanie’s shoulders in supplication, but she doesn’t. “You can’t leave, Melanie. I need you. I’m a very ill woman—”
“I don’t know that for sure. I’ve never even seen you.”
“Please, Melanie. Stay. I don’t exist without you.”
And she’s right, you know she is. You are the human face of Gregorian Enterprises. You bring life to the company, vitality. When you’re around, the stockholders can forget that their real boss is a pickled old woman rotting away in a piece of machinery, her mind still intact but her body shot. If she abandons this job, Melanie will be forever consigning her boss to a lifetime of solitary confinement, surrounded by no one but Reynolds the cyborg and her legion of autonurses. Cut off, even worse than Tommy.
It’s been awhile since you’ve thought about Tommy.
“I was only playing with you,” Melanie says. “Of course I’m here to stay.”
“That’s a relief,” she says, and it’s written on her face. “You’re a vital part of Gregorian Enterprises, Melanie. The company wouldn’t survive without you, and neither would I.”
“I can’t leave,” you say. “My son.” But that’s not what’s keeping you here.
Melanie’s dreams that night are of a summer spent at her family’s summer home on the Yucatan. As her father watches from an enclosed germ-free balcony, she and her cousins fish for trout off the sides of the family schooner. You are all dressed in puffy astronaut suits. Yours is pink.
Her father calls to them, and Melanie turns to wave. The sun is setting over the Mexican horizon, illuminating the sky with brilliant rays of orange and red.
You awake, finding Reynolds in the room with you, patting your arm.
Nick has died.
You grieve silently, knowing how Amanda felt about her own flesh and blood. Knowing that Nick wasn’t exactly innocent, either.
“It’s been a year,” Amanda says. “How do you like it?”
You can’t respond at first. Do you like it here? The question seems nonsensical. There is nothing outside of here, no life before. Melanie’s life—your life—up to the moment you set foot in the mansion, was complete fiction. “I guess.”
“By the way, I have a gift for you.” Reynolds shambles into the room with a note in his hand. It’s a receipt from the nursery. Tommy has been freed. The receipt is signed by you, in care of Gregorian Enterprises. Melanie folds the note and tucks it in her pocket.
The best gifts are always the ones you give yourself.
“Do you want to see him? Do you want him to come live with us here? We can do that.”
“No,” you say, thinking of how much work you already have to do. A child would only complicate things.
“Then what should we do with him?”
“Get a nanny. Set up a house for him. But not here.”
Amanda seems momentarily shocked, then a big smile, really a leer, so big it almost breaks free of the screen. “Of course. You don’t want him reminding you of your old life.”
“He’s not my son. My son is dead.”
“I think,” Amanda says, “we should talk about extending your contract.”
The access chip in Melanie’s bicep gets her into more places now. Specifically, one place.
In the part of the mansion where you promised yourself you’d never go lives a giant beige egg with a window on the side. An autonurse with three arms on each side of her body looks up from the corner.
“Ma’am,” she says, cowering.
Melanie steps up to the egg. Suspended inside is the body of the richest woman in the world, tubes running through her mouth and anus, propped up by her hands like a dilapidated Christ. But you don’t look at your employer.
The window is reflective.
Melanie studies her reflection: her jet-black hair, her gunmetal-gray eyes, her wide red mouth. It was in the food, she thinks. She put—I put—the transforming agent in the food. She turns to the autonurse and gives a sad smile.
The nurse nods and a machine takes its last breath. The body in the egg slumps and dies. Overhead, a light flickers.
You are Amanda Gregorian.
“Reynolds, dispose of this,” Amanda says, indicating the egg. “It’s not needed.”
Your cyborg butler nods and turns, heavy feet clomping, to dismantle the egg. Your hands tremble as you fumble inside your smart polyester business suit, feeling your skin, so soft and downy, like a newborn kitten.
Amanda smiles. She loves a beginning.
I won’t lie, the point of view came first. Around that I built a story of identity loss at the hands of one’s employer, which resonated with the day job I had at the time quite a bit. Oh, hell, it still resonates.