Travis Stein looked like a complete and utter fool standing on his right foot, en pointe and with his left leg stretch awkwardly out in an attempt to raise the security badge on his hip up to the card reader, as though he were a less than mediocre ballerina. He should have thought this through, it was just that normally he either had both lunches sent up by courier or he got them separately because Eluria had been unresponsive since he’d been hired and his lunch was always cold by the time he was done feeding her.
Dr. Stein was in the middle of shuffling his payload from one hand to the other in an effort to better position himself to badge himself into his office, Why don’t we have some sort of retina scanner or something for this, when he felt a small tug at his waistband – he nearly dropped both lunches when he saw his security badge detach itself from his pants and float up to the sensor to disengage the airlock. Thank you, Elruia He thought to himself as he blundered his way through the doors and into his office proper.
He set his paper plate, slathered in pizza slices, and Eluria’s pre packaged “Daily Caloric Requirement Box” on his desk. Well, desk was a misnomer. It was really more of a console, or a work station. A stainless steel with an array of screens, buttons, toggles and dials that took up a large portion of the center of the room in an L shape and a very boring black swivel chair as the desk’s only companion. As far as Travis knew, there was no rule, official or otherwise, that would prevent him from making his office his own and decorating it for as long as it was “his”, but he just never could bring himself to personalize the space. He always felt like it wasn’t his office, but just an anteroom for Eluria’s dormitory. If anyone should have been personalizing the space for their own enjoyment, it was her – Travis had a house all to himself that he could decorate to his heart’s content, but all Eluria had was her dormitory. Her apartments were large, by single person housing standards, but no matter how you measured it, her living space would still be called an apartment if it weren’t in the middle of a secure underground facility.
Travis had much less trouble getting through the airlocks to Eluria’s quarters with only one lunch at a time – he knew how clean his desk was and clean or not, he knew it wasn’t a floor. As he passed through the airlocks, Travis really consciously took in Elruia’s living space for the first time in the context of a child’s room and not just an extension of his job and office. It was sad in a way. Lavish, but impersonal and ultimately empty and with a design aesthetic that implied someone dangerous, perhaps to themselves or perhaps to others, lived here. There was a massive flat screen television that had been put up as part of the wall itself – completely flush and likely made of some synthetic compound that would both be hard to break and nigh impossible to cut yourself or anyone else with a shard. The couch that sat opposite was large enough to seat a family down its length and large enough to seat two comfortably in its depth, clothed in plane black fabric of no particular significance. No removable cushions, no slip covers held on by zippers. With the facilities budget, Travis assumed if the couch was ever so dirty as to warrant cleaning, it would just be replaced outright. There was a small kitchen, but it was little more than a decoration at this point. No cutlery, all the appliances set flush into the walls – as though who ever made these decision has been afraid of Eluria concocting some harebrained scheme to sever a chemical line and eliminate her caretakers with a bizarre Rube Goldberg machine of death, cobbled together from the odds and ends of her television, microwave, refrigerator and soap dispenser. Be afraid, terribly afraid, of the havoc she might wreak if a coolant line were exposed and pay no attention to the girl behind the curtain of comatose you see sitting in the corner rocking, the girl who could easier will the walls not to exist than tunnel through them. The whole place felt flat, as if everyone outside this room were living in high gloss and Eluria was only living a matte life. There was no color here. Her clothes, again free of buttons, zippers and snaps, were all pristine white. Her walls were another boring shade of white that isn’t actually white that only people who watch HGTV marathons or work in a paint shop know the name of. Her television was black like her couch. Her appliances were all immaculate stainless steel.
“It is, isn’t it?” She said to him, bringing him back from the swirling abyss of his own thoughts.
“What now, I missed that?” He’d heard her voice, knew she was speaking English and directly to him, but in the depths of his musings all he’d heard was a far off sound that really wasn’t language at all.
“My room, it’s boring isn’t it? I’ve never really been bothered by it, I’m not actually here very often. That’s what the rocking is – I’m not overwhelmed by all the sensory input, I’m just not here because I’m out there, finding more. There’s just this tiny little shred of effort I push out that keeps everything here working the way it should, making sure by heart still beats and my lungs still breathe.”
“That’s really interesting. I had no idea. I’m sorry about that, by the way. I try to be kind and respectful, but you have been pretty far gone for my time working here and all I know about you is what i’ve been able to access from your files – pity little, I was surprised at how much of your file was above my security classification as your caretaker. I guess, what I’m trying to say is I’m only human, so I’d like to apologize for hurting your feelings, or offending you while I was taking care of you.” Travis said, as he handed Eluria her DCRB – one nutritionally complete full meal for a girl of her age, height and weight all able to be eaten without a single utensil, without cooking and without any added ingredients.
“These taste like fucking sand.” She blurted out.
“Yeah. I’m usually not here, but I hung out one time for lunch just to see what these tasted like when you fed me. They taste like fucking sand. It’s awful. It didn’t bother me before, when I wasn’t here. It was just something keeping my body alive and I was in Maine having fresh lobster, so I didn’t care, but I’m awake – I’m here and I can taste it. Please don’t make me eat sand?” She looked so sad. She really thought Travis was going to make her eat sand. She’d spent so long here in the facility, as just a burden, just someone’s job, it was like she’d completely forgotten that people could be compassionate and could care about each other. That they didn’t make their friends eat sand. He slid paper plate laden with artery clogging, heart attack inducing cheesy goodness so that it sat directly between them.
“Here. I brought plenty. I’m a little bit of a fat kid at heart and I love pizza. Just be ready though, after having your body live off the DCRBs for years now, all this grease and cheese and shitty processed “pepperoni flavored meat product” is going to declare world war three on your stomach.”
“Oh god, that’s going to be awful.”
“Now, I might be the tiniest bit biased, but I’m going to say it’s worth it. Say what you want about this place, the job, the people – they make good damn pizza.” Eluria laughed heartily and for a moment everything was good. She really felt like she was just living a normal life, hanging out a pretty cute older man, eating pizza, just joking around. She would have liked to say she missed it, but the truth was she’d never had it. She’d lived more of her life in the facility than out of it, she’d never had friends, gone to the movies, ridden bike – everything Elruia knew about the world she had stolen from someone else’s consciousness. Sometimes it made her feel like a monster, that she was some metaphysical cat burglar, stealing the most intimate moments from unwitting stranger’s lives.
“I’m sorry. You came in here earlier to tell me about that meeting. It was driving you crazy earlier. I keep distracting you.” She’d almost forgotten about it herself in the blush of her brief normalcy.
“How did you know it was driving me crazy, I thought you didn’t peak?” Travis asked her jokingly, giving her a small shove away from him.
“I don’t, honest. It was all over your surface thoughts. Imagine a painting – a huge canvas with something famous and distinct on it, very busy, very intricate. Those are your surface thoughts. A thousand little pieces of the things in your head all day, every day. Some are bigger than others, some are clearer – the things the artist wanted you to focus on more, the things you’re more focused on. When you came in here after the meeting, it was like your entire canvas was painted one solid color.”
“Wow, that bad huh?” He blew out an exasperated sigh. “It was pretty bad.”
Travis relayed his entire day – the meeting, the general being upset with him. He spoke about Eleanor possibly literally threatening to kill him over his answer in the meeting, about how his coworker’s were trying to intimidate him in to changing his answer. He fessed up to telling Eluria about how’d he told Eleanor that Eluria was finally responsive.
Eluria almost couldn’t speak, before she collapsed against Travis and began to sob into his chest, the only thing she’d said was “What am I going to do?”