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A Short Story by Chris Riker

View from ruins of a church in Monolithos castle, Rhodes island, Greece

Sherlyn psyched into the meeting net at thirty seconds to eight o’clock and then waited thirty seconds. Serv would open the meeting at eight Park Avenue, NYC time. Eight. As expected, the attendance figure on her readout hit high four digits. No middle manager wanted to miss this, even if, secretly, they all wished they could. To fail to attend would be noted by Serv. To fail to participate would be noted by Serv. To ask a dumb question would be noted by the Boss. Sherlyn had developed a strategy to compensate for never once having any interest in any meeting.

“Good morning, Vice-Op Sherlyn Ketts. Today will be a productive day,” Serv said warmly. It was always frustratingly polite.

Serv’s was the first voice she heard each morning, having not had anyone else to talk to during breakfast for some time. Leopold didn’t count. He crunched his kitty cookies. Chemicals supposedly made them taste like mackerel. Not that he cared; cookies were cookies. He was her sole companion. WolfeCorp rewarded productivity, but work left little time for a family life.

Eight. Sherlyn was no longer in her own apartment in Quebec. She was in an amphitheater of the ancient Greek type, because of course it was. She felt the heat of the Mediterranean sun and even smelled the sea in the distance. Scattered about were her colleagues, all looking more or less like they did in real life except for wearing a chiton and a himation. She knew a few of the assembled members on a face-to-face basis, and she knew her own body. It belied the illusion – Serv added here and subtracted there to make the person suitable to the flimsy garment.

Fiona Wolfeschlegelstein, Sol System’s one-thousand-fourteenth wealthiest intelligence, aka the Boss, spoke. Something about “enfriending” customers and clients, her word. Everyone’s word now. “Enfriend” Sherlyn tapped into her pad, which appeared as a plain ivory fan in the amphitheater – others held fans, shields, plates, scrolls.

In truth, this meeting could have been sleep-loaded into their minds. She had calls to make. Bendrix in Madrid. Viola in Tycho – with that frustrating time lag. And she needed to get that sales datapac off to Enceladus, which would take one hour and eighteen minutes to arrive. Her pad would beep a confirmation two hours and thirty-six minutes after she hit send. She’d love to visit the moons. Or the Med, for that matter. Or anywhere, if she only had the time. Maybe meet someone for a wild fling. Instead, she attended meetings and compiled figures.

No one ever complained, of course. No one was that stupid in this economy. Some sat in practiced rapture, absorbing every syllable uttered by the Boss. Others fidgeted, trying to get some actual work done while not looking like they were working. Those in a distant time zone swayed from sleep-starvation. Sherlyn had occasionally seen a man act much too pleased for a business meeting. When that happened, Serv took note. Such men – it was always the men – were gone by the next meeting.

The question period began forty-five excruciating minutes into the meeting. Sherlyn watched the tally light up, waiting until it showed more than three-hundred questions. She then keyed in her request to ask a question, something that would archaically enough be done live. The Boss would take between ten and twenty questions, then politely but firmly decline the rest. In nine years with WolfeCorp, Sherlyn had never had to actually pose her question. No one asked her to submit it in writing. Should the Boss actually call on her, she was prepared to ask, “What can we, your employees, do to prepare for the big challenges next quarter?” It was servile, empty, mindless. Perfect.

For every inane corporate plan there is a clever human response, she thought.

Sherlyn looked over at one attractive young executive, who noticed her attention, but quickly turned away. Sherlyn wondered whether he lacked confidence or worried about company rules against fraternization. Either way, it was yet another miss to add to her score. Maybe one day, if she ever earned vacation time, she’d take Leopold to the real Mediterranean.

Sherlyn felt relieved and a little self-satisfied at having survived another Monday round-up. She prepared to ask Serv to psyche her back to her Quebec apartment, where her own domestic serv would have her standing order of coffee (light, no sugar) waiting.

Instead, Serv spoke directly to her. Since no one on either side of her reacted, she concluded Serv was using his private channel, drilling directly into her head. “I have taken the liberty of adding your query to today’s session.”


“Vice-Op Sherlyn Ketts,” the Boss called out, causing every eyeball in the amphitheater to turn her way.

Sherlyn’s mind went blank. That is, she struggled to compose her long-prepared question, which was more like a statement, and a bland one at that. Instead, her skull rang with Serv’s distractingly gentle voice. “The Boss is waiting, Vice-Op Sherlyn Ketts.”

She beseeched any gods available for inspiration. The fabled golden sun that once tanned Ulysses’ skin to bronze warmed her to the point of perspiration, and then to the point of pain.

Sherlyn jumped up from her seat, her chiton suddenly displaying a wet brown stain. She tugged at her clothes, flapping the sodden material to get it away from her skin, and as she did, for a split second, she was back in her Montreal apartment. Leopold looked up at her from one corner of the room, where he had retreated after knocking her coffee onto her.

In the next second, she was back in the amphitheater, thousands of miles and thousands of years away. There was no stain on her garments. There were, however, thousands of curious faces.

Unable to form any other thought, Sherlyn blurted out, “Coffee!”

The crowd mumbled, a rolling sound not unlike the Aegean waves. The Boss cocked her head to one side and then to the other. “Vice-Op Ketts, would you care to elaborate? What about coffee?”

“It’s hot,” she said in a straight forward manner. This was how she addressed troublesome contractors, reflexively speaking as if she were on top of things whether she understood their complaints or not.

“Yes, coffee is hot,” repeated the Boss in a non-descript tone of voice.

Sherlyn looked up to the rim of the amphitheater encircling her head like the lip of a grave.

“Go on, Vice-Op Ketts,” Serv said to her and only her. “You have piqued the Boss’ curiosity.”

That would be a splendid accomplishment if Sherlyn could take a private moment inside her own head to formulate a plan. She had nothing intelligent to say. Drawing herself up like a boss, she spoke anyway. “What if we reformulated coffee so that it tasted and even felt hot, but was actually cool?”

The Boss’ mouth hung open. The gathering went stone silent, with the exception of someone two rows down who giggled.

At last, the one-thousand-fourteenth wealthiest intelligence in the solar system spoke. “Fascinating.” She then turned and stepped behind a Doric column and vanished from the meeting.

A moment later, the Mediterranean winked out of existence. Sherlyn was home. Leopold jumped into her lap, butting his head against her hand until she stroked him. She was once again covered in coffee.

Serv spoke. “An intriguing concept, Vice-Op. Or should I say, Op Ketts? The Boss instructs you to assemble an R&D team to realize this special insight of yours. Coffee that is both pleasingly hot yet safely cool at the same time would be worth trillions system-wide.”

“I’m promoted?”

“I always had faith in you,” said Serv. “The Boss expects marketable results within six months, so there is no time to waste. WolfeCorp’s full resources are at your disposal. You will need to work round-the-clock to make this happen, but if you succeed, your future in the company is assured.”

“That’s great.” She then asked Serv for some privacy so she could change her clothes. It agreed, and she listened to the silence for a moment.

She went to her closet and chose another chic ensemble no human eye would ever see. As she dressed, Sherlyn sighed and told Leopold, “Thanks a lot.”