FREE FICTION

Greg Vance wants nothing more than a bright and shiny life with his wife and daughter, but work and time wear all things dull. The fear of his wife stepping out and the not-so-charming boyfriend his daughter has fallen for creates for weary days. When a new piece of tech promises the ability to hear all and respond in gallant efforts, Greg jumps at the opportunity to expand his understanding of the women in his life… and maybe his own existence.


Greg Vance was nothing special and he knew it. He was a paper pusher, digitally speaking. His grandfather was the lead paper pusher at Omni decades before Greg sat in the windowless cubical. His nothing-special father was a hybrid. Half paper. Half digital. Greg pushed only digital files from one cyberfolder to another. One email to another. One text to another.


All day long. All week long. Until months turned into years and years to decades.


All digital.


Not a hint of paper, pulp, or ink anywhere in the building. Unless you count toilet paper, but soon, they’d find a way to digitalize butt wiping.


After each day of digital chaos, he went home to a nothing-special wife. Well, she’d been bright and shiny when they’d first met, but soon, she became stuck in the mundane and routine of her similar desk job and the running of the home. Life ruts rub away bright and shiny real quick. Too bad he couldn’t rewire his brain. Fall in love with her all over again. But Amille stopped putting effort into their nothing-special relationship long ago. Why should he waste the energy?


The only thing special in Greg’s life was his little girl. His little apple dumpling. The promise that something would sparkle brighter in the future. Their miracle child.


He and Amille couldn’t have kids of their own. So they took in a gorgeous green-eyed, freckle-faced Samantha. An orphan after OmniAudio’s construction of a new tech tower on the end of town collapsed and killed her parents. Killed lots of kids’ dads, but her mother had worked there, too. And no next of kin.


Greg was a family man of OmniAudio, so Sammy had been placed with him. Been with the company for, well, for as long as he could remember. Samantha often asked what “omni” meant, more so the older she got. Greg couldn’t tell her. Not that he didn’t know, he simply couldn’t bring himself to utter the words.


Omni—in the company sense—meant everything. They were everywhere. Sometimes it was scary to think about. Overwhelming. So he didn’t think about it and he didn’t explain to his adopted daughter that OmniAudio was everywhere. All the time.


Her holographic image flicked above the mini photo projector from the corner of his desk. That time down in the Glades when they took the airboat ride, zooming over mere inches of water at breakneck speeds. He could still hear her shrieks and giggles drown the roar of the boat’s fan blades. The image hovered in mid-air a few seconds before disintegrating, tiny blocks and codes of light reassembled into her tenth birthday party when Samantha’s goofy best friend threw cake in her face, smearing vanilla and chocolate marbled fudge into her curly red locks. She’d licked the icing right out of her hair.


He tore his focus from the memories and tethered it to the monitor. He pushed a few more files around until the alarm on his watch would finally signal that his chains were free and he could leave OmniAudio for the night. For the weekend. A time clock. Literally.

His granddad had to punch a cardboard slip into a mechanical machine to log his hours. His dad logged in on his computer terminal.


Greg wore his timecard. All the time.


But another ninety minutes and he’d be free for a weekend. Well, free of Omni. Not free from the honey-do’s and Daddy-will-yous. Though he didn’t mind that last one so much. Time with Samantha would be ticking away quickly now that she was in high school.

He drug his mouse from one corner of the screen to the other. He imagined the cursor arrow to be as tortured with the mundane as he. Did that white pointy devil dream of wandering off the edge of the screen? To explore the uncharted territory, the bonds of technology removed so he could point and click at anything he chose to? Not just numbers and rosters and ledgers…


He clicked on accounts received. Only a few of those. Times are hard on folks. The next series of clicks, after checking his watch for the tenth time, landed on accounts due. Lots of those.


Last was new inventory. That shouldn’t take long. OmniAudio wasn’t positioned to release the next feat of audio-engineering until—

Wait. He clicked the file closed then opened it again. Refresh the page. Blink. Maybe clear the drear from his eyes.



But there it was. A new line item. Under the category of employee trials only. Not available to the public yet. Oh wow.

Fresh off the conveyor belt.


The OmniAudio Mag 5.4. Small as a mustard seed. Much, much smaller than the wearable earpiece Greg had used his bonus coins for back when he was still courting Amille. He hadn’t spent any more coins since then. He could afford a trial run of this new gadget without so much as a feather’s brush to their household budget.


Not that Amille would notice. She goes through money the way his daughter goes through guys.


And Samantha had a new guy in her life, and the boyfriend didn’t sit well with Greg. Greg knew the kid was much older than Sam, but he didn’t know by how much. She was a teenager on hormones and only let out the tiniest trickle of information.


Greg also knew the guy’s name. Krank. What kind of upstanding family names their kid Krank?


Previous guys were Jason and Ryan and Camden. She went through those so quickly, it made Greg and Amille’s heads spin.


They’d met all three of those dudes. Typical pimple-faced high schoolers who tried to make eye contact and give Greg firm handshakes. One even threw in a “yessir” for good measure.


Now “Krank” ends up in dialog and flashing across her screen’s home page and hovering above the new desktop projector she’d gotten for Christmas.


His watch signaled quitting time, along with the sound of a dozen other Omni-fites standing, their chairs no doubt spinning and scooting away behind them as they grabbed their belongings and headed for the elevator.


But Greg ignored the alarm and the rush. He stared at the screen.


OmniAudio Mag 5.4.


Wow. His had been a 1.9, if he remembered correctly. The size of his grandfather’s hearing aid. And it didn’t take long for people to catch on that he was wearing it. Eavesdropping. Especially Amille. But he had caught and questioned her about that pathetic loser of a neighbor. Dwight had Greg up in arms ever since he’d taken his Amille for a ride in his new fire engine red convertible.


It had taken Greg nearly nineteen years in this cubical to rack up enough employee bonus coins to try out a new piece of tech. Some of the higher-ups and better-paids earned enough to try a new piece out every couple of years.


With the 5.4, he could listen in, so to speak. The original models had glitches, but by this deep into the version and re-versions, surely they’d worked those out. The automaton narration had been fixed in version 3.3 when OmniAudio added a plethora of choices. Sultry female. Strong, black, and handsome. British. Jamaican. Any flavor and any soul you’d care to hear narrate the digitized information you were in “earshot” of.


Yup. Greg pushed back his chair, and the echo bounced off the vacated cubicles.


Greg headed for the elevator and instead of pushing the well-worn ground level, escape-the-building button, he jabbed at Floor 10’s bright and shiny button. Where the new line items and the gurus to install them lived.


Literally. Lived.


They had apartments up there and everything. Top-secret tech and designs guarded under lock and key right down to the poor tortured souls who created such feats.


The door slid open and Greg stepped into a warm, muted reception area. Beige walls. Brown and cream swirled, loopy carpet. Tan leather seating area. Coffee cart. Vanilla bean and espresso hung in the air. Monitors on the wall boasted of OmniAudio’s history—even if the only ones to ever see the screens were employees who’d been dutifully indoctrinated on all things Omni. And Greg more than some given that he’d listened to his grandfather’s tales of work. And then his father’s.


Greg may be the only family man in the joint.


The receptionist smiled at him and blinked. She had a pristine olive complexion without too much makeup. Gorgeous dark eyes. Hair to match. She wore all green. Not that crazy green that Sam insists on. A more subtle, professional shade. Like, well, like olives.


“How may I help you, today, Greg?”


A bit startled that she knew his name, he had to gather himself before he spoke. “Well, I, uh.” He cleared his throat. Man, was she gorgeous. “I’d like to cash in my coins. On the new OmniAudio Mag 5.4.”



She smiled. “You’ll be our first, Greg.” Her perfectly manicured hands flew over the keyboard and gave a nod toward the coffee cart. “You can have something while you wait. How are Amille and Samantha?”


Greg stopped mid-stride to the cart. Now that was something. He rarely spoke of his family outside of his two next-door cubical neighbors. He guessed someone could surmise he had a family if they stood and watched his desktop projection frame for any length of time, but Greg knew—he just knew—he’d remember if he’d ever spoken to this, this…


“They’re fine. Fine. Say, what’s your name?”


Her eyes met his. “Olive. And it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Greg Vance.”


He stared at her. A bit too long, but he couldn’t help it at this point. While he debated on pressing the issue with her or getting a cup of black, the massive oak door Olive guarded opened and a tech, dressed all in robin’s egg blue scrubs, blue hairnet, and blue shoe coverings motioned for him to follow.


“This is exciting. Exciting, Greg. I’m so glad. How’s work been treating you? Saving up those coins for a while now, huh? How’d you find out—”


The tech fired one question after another at him without giving Greg a chance to answer one. Way too many trips to the coffee cart. Or way too many days locked up with the same people during the development phase of the Mag 5.4.


The Omni-fites up here likely knew the answers if they monitor the time his cursor spent hovering over the new line item back at his computer station. That’s probably how Olive knew. She’d already pulled his personnel file and was waiting on him. OmniAudio was always good at predictions.


“So, have a seat up on the table. This should only take a moment to insert and sync.”


Greg obeyed.


The tech rummaged around on a tray and a second, equally blue technician wearing thick, black gloves brought in a smoking canister and sat it on the counter. He screwed the top off and the first tech, using the slimmest and longest tweezers Greg had ever seen, extracted a speck-of-a-something from the midst of the fog rolling over the sides of the container.

“So, whadya think of Olive?” The tech’s question threw Greg. Greg was tired of getting thrown. All in the last few hours or so. What was he supposed to say to that?


“Well, I, uh…”


“She’s the newest design. Remember Flora?”


It came back in a wave. Flora. The impossible-to-please receptionist of Floor 10 from years ago. When Greg had come to get fitted the first time he’d spent his coins. Flora. Of Floor 10. Greg couldn’t do anything right. He and a few of his co-workers had secretly called her a cyborg.


Wait.


Wait a minute.


“Newest design? Really?”


“Yeah. Much, much better than Flora, don’t you think?”


Greg resisted the urge to run back to the front waiting area and study Olive’s perfectness. Flora had been old and gray with a bun on her head. But he’d had no idea.


“We canned—literally recycled them into cans, I tell ya—Flora, Vail, and Cam. Olive’s showing great promise. Great promise.”


Greg coached himself to keep it together and at least pretend he knew an inkling of the goings-on in the company he’d given life and blood to for over thirty years. Was it thirty? Good lord, he felt like he’d been born and raised within Omni’s walls.


The new line item took him by surprise—and now the smack-you-in-the-face realization that the tech guys must be spending their every waking hour creating reception robots. For decades.


Wow.


“Now hold still. This may pinch. We all have one. They take a bit to get used to, but you can turn the volume up and down, as well as the sensitivity with your watch. Hey, give me your watch, and I’ll set it on the lowest so you can get used to it.” Before Greg could respond, the skinny metal tweezers disappeared from his peripheral vision into his ear canal, and, if he didn’t know any better, he thought he’d been stung by a wasp.


He reached his left hand up instinctively to grab at his ear, but the tech stopped his arm and removed his watch in one smooth motion. “No pressure to the area. No pressure at all. The stinging will stop soon. Give it some time.”


Greg slid his hands under his thighs and closed his eyes. The stinging abated, replaced by a tickle and a high-pitched ringing in his ear—but just the left one.


The tech returned his watch, tapped the screen a few more times, then said, “Now see if you can hear this. I’ll text Olive.”


The tech tapped his own watch, his fingers a blur over the tiny screen.


Hey, Olive. This is Greg’s test.


Hey, Will. That’s awesome. What a beneficial tool the Mag 5.4 will be for our dear Gregory Vance.


Greg’s eyes nearly popped out of his head at the crystal clear text-to-speech. “How is this legal?”


“Oh, anyone using Omni’s servers agrees to this. The government’s going this way, too. Well, they went this way a long time ago. Oops. TMI. TMI, buddy. Now, don’t you go dragging information out of me like that…”


“But like I said, you can dial down the sensitivity, and I have the capability to dial up my ‘findability.’” The tech, Will, winked at Greg. “But if I were you, I’d not mention that to your teenager. Or maybe even your wife?” That last line was a jab. He grinned and left the room, leaving Greg to resist digging a finger into his ear to itch the vibrating sensation.


The voices came back. Clear and strong. The program even indicated who was texting.


Do you think this is wise? This one came from Will.


Well. He’s got to find out at some point. That was from Olive. But you may want to tune your findability. He can still hear you.

OmniAudio knows something.


His company knows Greg wants to spy on his kid.


And maybe even his wife.


***


Greg played with his Mag 5.4 Friday night and most of Saturday before he found a setting that didn’t pick up on everyone’s texts for miles around. The first few hours out of the building felt like jet planes roaring their engines in his ear canal. Occasionally, there’d be a clear message he could hear through the jumble.


Bring home milk.


I’ll be late. Lots of those.


Who do you think you are, you sick son—


But mostly, the input resembled the whir and buzz of an overly crowded casino. Capital letters came through as shouts. Emojis came through in different dings and tones. Some messages came through in the users’ original languages. He’d played around with the sensitivity until he zoned in on only Samantha’s.


Then Amille’s.


Some of his wife’s texts were about work. More than a few vents Amille typed out to a best friend—a guy friend—Greg hadn’t realized she’d reconnected with. Bemoaning motherhood to an ungrateful teenager. That made him angry. That she thought of their apple dumpling girl as something to regret.


She bemoaned choosing a nothing-special man. Choosing Greg.


Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I could recal—Greg turned the audio down before he could hear the rest of her text.


Those messages, played in crystal clear clarity through his implant, unknown to his wife. Those messages made him, well. Nothing.

He had not the first feeling about that.


He’d played around with the audio options until he found a dead ringer for Olive’s voice. Smooth. Sultry. And he only felt a little bit ashamed. She was an automaton, after all. And Amille, well. Greg was nothing special. He knew it. And his wife did, too.


Saturday night Sam started texting Krank. Krank! How Greg hated that name.


Dad doesn’t know. He won’t understand. He thinks—


Give it some time. I know Will can help. I’ve watched him work.


But I don’t want to hurt him. He’s like a father to me. And Omni, well, they’re…


He is your father. He took you in.


Can he be, though? Amille I get. She’s, well, she’s real. But Dad, Dad’s…


Greg is what he is. Floor 10 will help. Trust me. And drop it for now. In case he’s online.


K. See you tomorrow. Followed by the happy high-pitched tones of red heart emojis. Four in a row.


Wait. Wait. Greg’s mind wheeled back from Floor 10 to the messages playing out loud in his head. Krank knows Will?


Krank? He knows about Floor 10? Only techs and the born-and-bred-die-hard Omnis know about Floor 10. It was protocol. Subject to fines and imprisonment should information leak…


Was Krank the one who delivered the smoking mustard seed? Couldn’t be. He’s much too old for his Sammy. His Sammy. Not some other person’s child. His child.


The one he took in.


Greg is what he is. What the hell was that supposed to mean? And that ingrate’s got his little girl believing Greg is something that he’s not. Krank!


Weekend or not, Greg took his sorry, nothing-special carcass back to OmniAudio. He refused to wait until Monday to get to the bottom of this.


***


Greg beat the Floor 10 button as hard as one could with only a thumb. Greg turned his Mag 5.4 to the lowest setting on his way to Omni. He didn’t want to pick up stray bits of texts and fighting and flirting and real living. His life was full of chaos—he didn’t want to ingest everyone else’s.


The elevator slid open.


Olive greeted him. Something inside him felt connected to her, though he’d only seen her that one time. But her voice had been in his head, reading everyone’s messages. Making even the awful sound bearable.


Olive smiled. “Greg, what a nice surprise. And on a Saturday.”


“I need to see Will.”


“Are you having difficulty with your Mag 5.4?”


“No. I’m having difficulty with Will. I think.”


“Oh, my.” She motioned over the keyboard. “Let me call him out. You can wait, if you’d like.” She nodded toward the tan couch.


“No thanks. Olive, is there someone here named Krank?”


Olive’s face went blank. She picked up the phone. Slowly. Not breaking eye contact. A pause. “He knows.”


“He knows? He knows what?” Greg demanded, forgetting about her beauty and his inexplicable attraction toward her. “Greg Vance knows what?”


Olive rose calmly from her chair. “Greg Vance knows all. Omni. Omni means all.” Her smooth tone froze him. He couldn’t move, his feet felt as though they were cast in concrete. His hands went from their angry position on his hips to limp at his side.


He couldn’t speak.


It was like he was going into shutdown mode.


Omni means all.


He could still see. Still process input.


Will sprang into the waiting room followed by the other tech. Will called the other tech Krank. “Time for a reboot, Mr. Vance. Amille requested a reboot. You’re third generation, a good run, really. Time for an upgrade. Sammy and Amille will be so happy with the recalibration.” The techs loaded him onto a dolly and took him to an exam room where another better, brighter version of himself stood in the corner.


Thicker hair. Firmer stature. Taller, even.


Omni means all.


The reboot phrase. His reboot phrase. One that he couldn’t say lest he perform a memory wipe on himself. Olive did it for him.


Olive…


Will removed his mustard seed from his left ear canal and placed it in his new body.


Samantha. Would he remember her?


Krank removed another larger chip from deep in his right ear with those same long tweezers.


And all went dark.


***


Sunday morning the sun shone through the breakfast nook. His wife, his gorgeous, loving wife had made pancakes. His Mag 5.4 indicated that Amille was thrilled with how things are going in their marriage. She’d told her girlfriend from work this. Samantha brought her new boyfriend over for brunch. Krank. What a unique name. And such a pleasant young man. Greg could really get used to having him around.


Greg felt great. Amazing girl. Great wife. His chest swelled. Pride. Satisfaction. Life was sparkling and shiny and full of potential. And Greg felt better than he had in, well, a whole generation.


Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first Monday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.

Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.