This isn’t the call Joan is waiting for. The call she’s waiting for, as she stares into the guts of the vintage purple GameCube she doesn’t have the skill to fix, is from Miku. Miku, who wears half of her hair in a ponytail and uses too much garlic when she cooks, who knows exactly which of Joan’s shit to call her out on and which shit can’t be helped, who understood Joan better after one year than Joan’s family had after twenty-eight. She can’t help but pick it over, the moment she noticed the blot of dissatisfaction in Miku three nights ago.
Joan had been slumped on the couch in her apartment, giggling as Miku finished her impromptu performance of “It’s Your Move” by Diana Ross. Miku took a bow, perched across Joan’s lap, and placed her hands on either side of Joan’s face. The ceiling fan clicked rhythmically. An upstairs neighbor slammed a door. Miku smiled lopsidedly, bringing her face closer to Joan’s. A flush burned Joan’s cheeks and she looked away. After a moment, Miku sighed. She detached herself from Joan and stared at the ceiling. “I guess you’d like for me to go, then,” she said, her eyebrows raised.
“No, no,” Joan had replied, too quickly, “You don’t have to.”
“Hey, tell me something.” Her tone brought a twitch, a tremor to Joan’s fingers. This was a test. “Why should I stay the night? Why do you want me to stay?”
Joan fumbled over the beginnings of several different sentences. You’re a vision. You smell like mint shampoo. I’ve never known anyone like you.
“Look, I’m not good at…” She foresaw herself going on for several minutes, dry mouth smacking inelegantly, saying the same thing over and over. “I’m just not good at this, okay?” Miku was smart; she’d understand.
But Miku had risen, made for the door, and said, “I’d like it if I didn’t have to read your mind.”
Joan is sure Miku should be calling now to tell her she’s coming over, to say that she understands it’s not easy for Joan to articulate herself under pressure. But Joan is not calling now.
This call is from Elliott, the intern from the office, nearly two hours before anyone else usually arrives. His image projected from her earpiece betrays dark circles under his eyes. He wants to get an early spot in the queue, he says. What he wants, Joan infers, is credit for delivering a basketful of palm-sized 3D-printed publicity doodads for BooleBean’s advertising director to approve. Elliott rubs his eye with the heel of his hand. A sharp streak of turquoise eyeliner blurs. In the middle of a yawn, he asks for confirmation on the tagline for a new micro UI update she’d been working on.
“BooleBean Micro 20.20,” she tells him, “see the world through our eyes.”
“BooleBean Micro 20.20,” he repeats, “see the world through our lies. Wow, that’s bold. Thanks!” Before she can correct him, the feed goes dead and his status changes to ‘busy.’ Half an hour passes and her message remains unopened.
Maybe Joan will get fired. That way, everything would be over quick and there’ll be no uncertainty about whether or not she seemed at all competent an employee, no scrabbling to explain what she thought was a perfectly sensible pitch, squeezing her brain for every potential misinterpretation. She’ll take her time this morning. Let the anxiety burn slow for once, take the freakout in small, steady doses. Is that still a freakout or would that make it just a well-adjusted way of responding to stress? She runs a quick inventory: feeling of impending doom, jaw tension, cold toes even though he stood on the thick Persian rug she had accepted from her grandmother in a gesture of hip irony and which dominated her shoebox of an apartment, one edge of it dipping into the kitchen where it had gathered spots of curry and beer? All present and accounted for. A freakout, but a slow one. A background process running cool.
Now she would have to walk to the office if she wanted to stop Elliott. At 9:00 in the morning, like some kind of savage. A glance out at the city points to rain in the future. Gray sky, flashing purple and orange billboard lights cutting through fog, no elderly drivers who must’ve read the forecast and forgone their unknowable but seemingly critical early morning errands. Joan grabs an umbrella and locks the door behind her. She takes the elevator from the 9th floor to the basement, so she can exit on the side of the building closest to her destination.
As she steps into the forest of concrete pillars in the basement, she hears a grunt followed by an impassioned shout of, “I only wanted an elderflower tonic, you piece of gutter tech!”
She peers past the elevator into the alcove containing a lone AI operated vending machine that she’s never bothered to use. The machine’s screen is black. On the floor in front of it, a woman sits with her shoulders hunched and her arm reaching up through the machine’s dispenser area. Her cheek squishes against the LCD, pushing a ripple of distortion into it.
Her eyes cut in Joan’s direction. “Hi. How’s it going?” she says, “My name is Pepper and apparently this is my life now. Why don’t you pull up a seat? I’d offer you something to drink, but…” She points up with her free hand.
“Are you stuck?”
“I wish that was the problem,” she yells, her voice echoing in the empty basement. “Get this, though. I reach in to get my drink and her little pinchy claw yoinks my ring right off my finger. Then she has the audacity to laugh in my face and shut down. You ever heard of a Vendo doing that?”
She doesn’t have the posture of the dangerous weirdo, only that of the standard one, so Joan steps closer. She feels it call her, this pocket of the universe where things don’t work as they should. A should lead to B, should lead to C, but something has gone wrong. A has led to ⚠. She feels revolted by it. This pocket should be sewn shut. Her own can wait for a while anyway. “That’s bizarre,” she remarks.
“You’re telling me.” Pepper deflates. “That was my granddad’s ring. I had to rifle that thing out of his dresser when he died because he kept saving it for a grandson that wasn’t going to exist. And dammit, I loved him anyway.”
“And you’ve tried asking for it back?” It’s obvious, but the first step in solving this problem is clear communication.
“Nah, I just really like fisting robots,” Pepper says, “Of course I tried asking. She’s bugged to hell and won’t give it back.”
Joan can’t resist. Here’s a problem, one that looks like the solution will be clean and simple. Here she is, willing and able. “Can I try?”
She extracts her arm from the Vendo and throws her hands in the air.
“This is an old Qatherine model, right? Sometimes they respond better if you call them by name.” She squares her feet. “Hi Qatherine.” The Vendo’s screen lights up blue and her (˵ヘwヘ✿) face fades in.
“Thirsty? Time for tonic!” the Vendo says, after an ascending three-tone tune plays. A row of dancing bottles appears below her mouth.
“Qatherine, there should be a ring in your claw. Would you mind dropping it?”
( •́ – •̀ ) she says. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand the command ‘aren’t you a pretty baby’.”
“Can you please let your claw down so we can get the ring, Qatherine?”
Qatherine blinks. Her face snaps into a ୧༼ಠ益ಠ╭∩╮༽ and the screen goes blank.
“You see?” Pepper flails her pointed finger at the side of the machine. “I even called the number there, and you know what they told me?”
Joan shakes her head. She’s invested. How could Qatherine’s code have misunderstood itself so badly?
“They told me there aren’t any Qatherines left in the city and I must be mistaken.” She pauses for full effect. “It’s like…I’m searing the image of one onto my retinas right now, what’re you trying to say? And then I asked if they’d at least accept a video stream from my earpiece so they could see her right here and they go ‘hm no.’ No explanation, just ‘hm no.’”
Joan’s heard her fair share of hm no. “God, it’s like they don’t understand and they don’t even want to try,” she says.
In the moment of quiet connection between them, Joan squirms internally. It’s not something she’s used to. She leans down to examine the plate near the back of Qatherine’s side. “Her distributor’s in the office complex a couple of blocks from BooleBean. We could go –”
“Go there and shove the proof right in their faces?” Pepper’s fired up. Her teeth show when she speaks.
Joan pops a quick snapshot with her earpiece. “Both of us show up, say ‘Look, here she is in all her splendor.’ What’re they going to do? Tell us we’re wrong when we’ve both got the pictures with timestamps and geotags to prove it?”
Pepper gathers her slightly stringy, beanie topped hair into a low ponytail. “Let’s go.”
She smiles, conscious that it’s the smile that makes her look like a dingbat. Too much gums, too eager. But it’s the one she can never stop. They start down the street. The occasional gust of wind blows mist their way, but their umbrellas stay down.
“So,” Pepper breaks the silence, “you said something about BooleBean.”
“Oh, right.” She sighs. Part of the appeal to taking on a new problem was that she got to ignore the old one. “I work there.” Still no notification that Elliott read her message. She sends another.
“Hey, same. What department you in?”
“What?” She draws out the a’s longer than is decent. “But you don’t look like some kind of Twitter junkie beach kid who blows giant clouds of piña-colada vape in public. At least, that’s what us QA drones think about you guys.”
“QA?” Joan replies, “But you don’t look like someone who’s sweaty all the time and signs their name in binary.”
Pepper cackles. “01010000,” she recites in a robot voice.
The humidity in the air makes their walk a particularly odorific one: brothy notes from a pho shop, sourness from alley dumpsters. These ground the neighborhood, working against the trendy high-sarcastic aesthetics of sunset colored crosswalks and storefront grates decorated with steel cutouts of Corinthian columns and cherry blossoms. Compared to their own purposeful direction, the straggles of people they pass seem to Joan listless, focused downward. Had she walked alone, this difference would have felt like exposure, but with Pepper and her long-legged, bouncing steps accompanying her, she feels bright.
Even with company, thoughts of Elliott and Miku resurface in waves, like heartburn. She knows she should go her own way, sort out her own misunderstandings first. But constantly correcting the way she’s misinterpreted – whether it’s as straightforward as Elliott’s mistake or as spiny as the situation with Miku – drains her resolve. The willpower to bully her way through a problem has always eluded her.
Pink granite wraps around the exterior of the Indu-42 building, providing a base for the smooth, gray bulk of the skyscraper. In the lobby, a chipper receptionist bot with a face more realistically rendered than Qatherine’s gives them a thumbs up and introduces himself as Willym. He directs Joan and Pepper to the Vendo Regional office on the 27th floor, and expresses his regret that his confinement to his screen prevents him from escorting them to the elevator, his mouth creasing at one corner in a dejected frown.
The elevator door glides shut. Joan’s earpiece chirps. Smith, her supervisor, calling. She flicks her gaze toward Pepper, who regards her with polite, but pointed interest. The earpiece chirps louder. The elevator display blinks for the 5th floor. She answers without deploying the face scan that would allow for a video feed.
“Why’ve you got your face turned off?” Smith says. He’s irritated. “Where are you?”
“I, uh…” Joan stammers. “I can’t…”
“You think you’re funny?” His consonants snap. “You think we don’t have enough PR problems and now you want to tell people we’re lying to them.”
“No, that’s not…Look, Elliott misheard me and I couldn’t –”
“I didn’t think it’d be you,” Smith says, “because you’re boring, but I knew one of you little mole rats would test me on this. One little broken promise to the investors and I’m Satan in the flesh, huh? One little lie and I’m branded for life. Isn’t that right? That’s what you’re saying?”
“Smith, I mean, Mr…” Every word Joan tries starts off malformed. “It was supposed to be ‘eyes’ not ‘lies,’ but –”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure. That’s why you won’t show your face, right? Because it’s all just a big misunderstanding?” Smith barrels on. “You know what? I’m sending you to the mailroom. I don’t want to see you around here.” Smith disconnects.
The elevator dings and opens to a yellow carpeted hallway. As she and Pepper enter the hall, Joan struggles to assign any fathomable quality to her mental state. Blank, that’s all she manages. Pepper stays quiet. “Does BooleBean have a mailroom?” she says, mostly to herself. “Of course we don’t. Who sends mail?”
Pepper radiates unease. “Everything okay?”
“I don’t know whether or not I just got fired. Sending someone to the mailroom? What does that mean?” Joan’s thoughts feel dense, one big mass of ⚠ collapsing in on itself and pulling the rest of her with it. It’s reached the level that requires her to bitch about it. She twists to face Pepper as they walk. “Why, Pepper, do people act like it’s so hard to connect the goddamn dots?”
Pepper pauses to think. “Maybe they’re not seeing the same dots you are.”
“That’s no good. The dots are there; they have meaning. Why do I have to catch the blame if somebody won’t open their eyes and look at them?” She remembers the way Miku had shut down as blackly as Qatherine. She steals glances at Pepper. “Does that make any sense?”
Pepper’s forehead crinkles. “Yeah, dude. Why should you?” She’s fired up again, easy to convince. Joan relaxes. “We’re not asking for much.” They pass a door and a young woman in a silk half-cape leans out to scowl at them. “All we’re saying is maybe don’t steamroll somebody before you pay the situation a nanosecond of attention. That doesn’t sound too wackazoid to me.”
They’ve arrived at the Vendo office. The murmur of a weather broadcast suffuses into the hall. On the door, a notice reads ‘Excuse our mess. We’re moving!’
“You know where we’re going next?” Pepper delivers three percussive pokes of her index finger to Joan’s shoulder. “We’re going to BooleBean and we’re going to defrag your issues.”
Joan clams. “No, that’s not…”
She places her hand on the doorknob. “We’ll talk about this later.”
She flinches at the chumminess of the threat. They met barely an hour ago. Pepper swings the door open and they stride into the office. A gulf of space looms behind the one desk and one woman sitting at it, the last vestiges of Vendo’s former office. On one of the bare walls, a projected Willym slides around, pointing to low-pressure systems on a map of the state.
The woman swivels her chair to face them. “We’re moving,” she recites, “If you’re looking for somebody, they’re probably not here.”
“We’d like to report a bugged machine,” Pepper says. Joan nods.
“K,” the woman says.
Pepper and Joan exchange a hesitant glance. A bolt of anxiety hits her chest. It’s entirely possible that this will require her to stand her ground. She much prefers to sit her ground and hope everything works out. “We’d like you to send a technician to remedy the problem,” Joan says. Pepper nods.
“Did it steal your money or something?”
“Or something,” Pepper says.
The woman dismisses the Willym from the projection. She pulls up a spreadsheet. “What building?”
“Purple Palm,” Pepper says. “Basement. Qatherine model.”
“You guys work for BooleBean? I heard a lot of BooleBean guys live there.” She selects a filter at the top of the projection and the results compress. “Looks like no one’s been out there to restock in a whole year.” The woman selects another filter. The spreadsheet comes up blank. “There aren’t any Qatherines.”
They look to each other and nod. The moment has arrived. Joan draws a steadying breath. She pictures the ⚠, watches its pixels crumble away in chunks. They flip through their camera rolls and project their proof on top of the spreadsheet.
“I can’t send a technician out if we don’t have the machine on this list,” the woman says.
They gesture to the pictures.
“You could’ve taken those years ago, for all I know.”
They point at the timestamps, the geotags.
“You could’ve faked that.”
“What possible reason would we have to do that?” Pepper yells. “It’s got my ring!”
The woman shrugs and stares, fish-eyed.
For a heavy moment, Joan feels it, the groaning breath of ‘ugh’ passing through her scalp and running out the soles of her feet. A sharpened slice of malice straight from some cosmic database of bullshit. But then she remembers: this isn’t her pocket to sew shut; it’s Pepper’s. An outside party is what she needs for her own pockets, but in this case, she is the outside party. In light of this, she realizes what she can do. She tugs once at Pepper’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”
“What’s the matter with you?” she shouts, “I’m not leaving until…” The conspiratorial look Joan gives her hits its mark. Pepper squints. “We’re leaving now, but not because you’ve been helpful.” As they leave, Pepper swats a ceramic vase from the woman’s desk. The woman shrugs.
“Alright, what’ve you got?” Pepper asks, as they make their way down the hall.
“We’re going to kill Qatherine.”
“Dude.” Pepper’s eyes widen. “That’s supremely illegal. You know they’re like…almost people, right?”
“She’s bugged and they’ve abandoned her.” She summons the elevator. “It’ll be a mercy. Besides, you want your grandad’s ring back, don’t you? That’s how we get it.” If she disagrees, Joan’ll do it herself. She has to.
Pepper scrutinizes her with an intensity that cracks through the determined air Joan has assumed. She isn’t sure what Pepper’s looking for. They reach the first floor and she seems to have found it. She whistles a few notes in a major key. “I’ve got some thermite in my apartment we can use.”
“You have…thermite in your apartment.” She isn’t entirely sure what thermite is, but it sounds nefarious.
“Don’t worry about it,” her companion says, with a straight face.
When Pepper meets her in the basement carrying two stacked terra cotta pots, Joan’s doubt rests at an abnormally low level. This is what needs to be done, so she’ll do it. Pepper hands her a pair of safety glasses. “Sorry, but I reserve the rights to these bad boys.” She taps her own glasses, the sides of which are electric blue shark shapes. “Ready?”
“I’ve checked the cameras,” Joan says, and she had, multiple times, “they’re street view. And only two pedestrians passed since you went up. We should be fine.”
She grins and the glee of it elevates Joan’s doubt a touch. She presses her heels into the concrete. Pepper stands on her toes and sets the two pots on Qatherine’s top, near the right edge. She bumps her eyebrows, puts on her glasses, and raises a lighter to the silvery strip draping over the side of the pots. Before she can light the strip, the Vendo’s default face fades in and her jingle plays. Joan and Pepper freeze.
“Friends?” Qatherine chirps.
“Don’t make any sudden moves.” Joan splays her fingers in front of her.
Pepper rolls her eyes.
“Did you gals know that damaging, defacing, or otherwise tampering with a Vendo is legally punishable with a smack-down whooping?” On Qatherine’s side, a panel flips open and out folds a metal rod, ending in a large pink boxing glove. The first swing of the glove thumps into Pepper’s stomach, doubling her over. Joan skitters forward to help, catching the second swing in her shoulder. She fumbles to catch the glove, taking a wallop to her chest, while Pepper wheezes, straightening up and clicking her lighter. Face shining with triumph, Pepper reaches up.
When the strip ignites, Pepper dashes away, shooing Joan back. Flame travels up the strip and disappears into the inside pot. A shower of sparks blossoms up. Qatherine’s aqua plastic shell must have been cheap. After the reaction burns through the clay pot, her outer layer begins gooping, running down, collecting in lumps and folding over itself. The process smells evil, so Joan pinches her nose closed. As the sizzling orange melts a path down her side, her face changes to . The melting nearly reaches the ground before the flame and Qatherine’s screen fizzle out. A small object clinks into the dispenser trough. Neither of them speaks for a while.
“Hell yeah,” Pepper declares. She approaches the machine cautiously and retrieves the ring, a green band carved with a meander pattern. She holds it over her head, sings a fanfare. “And all it took was a little destruction of private property.”
Joan’s dingbat smile sets in. She peers through the path of the flame, searches until she finds the hard drive. The outer edge is lightly toasted. She taps her fingertips against it to test the temperature, and, finding it cool enough, pulls it out and presents Pepper with the trophy. She knots off the thread in this pocket of nonsense, sticks the needle back into the pincushion.
“Now,” says Pepper, “let’s go get you out of the mailroom, uh…” she pauses, “I really should learn people’s names before I commit a misdemeanor with them.”
Her bubble of tranquility pops. “You don’t have to do that. I’m sure the situation’s past fixing, whatever the situation happens to be.”
“What are you talking about? Let me help.”
She shakes her head. “No, that’s very nice, but I’m going to go. I’m glad you got your ring back.” She hunkers her shoulders and moves toward the exit, heart thumping.
“You’re lazy,” she calls after Joan.
She stops. Pepper’s right, but why is she bringing it up?
“You’re acting all intense about this, like you’re at some kind of grand convergence where you’ll get cut free from humanity for the rest of your life. But dude, you’re just lazy. Maybe you do have to work a little harder to be understood and maybe it won’t work half the time, but you’ll do it.” Pepper’s voice is smooth. “You’re not going to cut the ‘chaotic neutral who cares not a solitary damn’ figure that you want to, but you’ll do it.”
All at once, Joan notices that strange thing, the one where she feels okay being still and being around someone, where she feels like she can slump if she wants. A different flavor of what she had with Miku. All at once, Joan notices what she’d been missing: an understanding of what Miku wanted. She stands still, feels herself open out.
“I’m lazy too, sometimes.” Pepper polishes her shark glasses with the tail of her shirt.
If she can kill a Vendo, march to BooleBean, demand her job back, she can look at Miku and say You’re a vision. You smell like mint shampoo. I’ve never known anyone like you. She opens a new message on her phone, types, “will you come over tonight?”
“Okay,” Joan says, “We should get going, then.”