Winston stared at the black and white flickers of an ancient film on the television and took another long sip from his glass. Heavy ice cubes clanked in the thick cut crystal tumbler. He shifted back and forth to get comfortable on his living room couch. With a sigh, he traced his thumb along the raised diamond pattern of his glass, and lost himself in the fiction playing out before him.
On screen, a detective caught the dirty little stool pigeon in another lie and gave him the third degree by means of a sharp sock to the jaw. The mousy little bug-eyed man whined and groaned as he spilled his guts. A smile wanted to touch Winston’s lips, but apathy tamped it back down. Mesmerized by the ancient entertainment from a planet and culture which no longer existed, his mind drifted.
Humanity’s home was gone. Conquered by a malevolent cosmic force that carved up the Earth and Sun and swallowed it. Adding the remains to its incomprehensible form. Earth’s survivors lived on the interstellar wreckage of the entire Sol system clinging to their cultural artifacts with bitter nostalgia. Now all humanity lived in the Dream, subject to its eternal master.
“Winston?” a woman’s voice called from somewhere behind him. He frowned and made an effort to ignore it. Emmy, his daughter, continued to play her quiet game on the living room carpet, pushing her dolls around in toy cars, making up her own stories.
“Winston!” the woman’s voice was sharper, his frown deepened. Where was that voice coming from? Was she even in the house? It didn’t sound like she was outside.
“Hun, I think Mother is here,” his wife’s voice drifted in from the kitchen. Valerie was making lunch. Winston smiled at the clanking of dishes and the whiff of barbecue ham sandwiches.
There was a terrific pounding at the door as Mother battered it with her fist.
“Winstaah-ahahahahsssssss-on-on-nnnn-stonn!” Mother’s voice stuttered and chipmunked from data packet loss as his anti-virus programs fought to keep her out. She must be trying to hack his home instance, and her connection had lagged out for a moment.
He sighed as she overwhelmed his local server’s security- again. A curse for all AIs rattled around his head.
“Go away, Mother!” he shouted over his shoulder, taking his eyes off the movie. He could hear Valerie leave the kitchen, walking quickly to open the front door.
“Val! Don’t let her in. I don’t want to deal with her cheis right now,” he swore. “There’s a reason I locked the instance.”
“Okay, Hun,” Val replied and went back to her cooking, humming a Stepfordesque tune. Emmy ignored the racket while Winston turned up the movie’s sound.
“Oh for the love of…” came a growl from Mother. With a terrific splintering bang, she forced her way through the locked front door in a spray of pixels and static that rippled throughout the home.
Mother looked like a woman in her forties or fifties, dressed in a sharp dove gray suit, jacket with big shoulders, an A-Line skirt, and a bright white blouse with a string of black pearls with a copper and emerald broach on her left lapel. She looked like she had stepped out of the movie Winston was watching. Mother strutted into the living room on impressive heels. Her blond-turning-white hair was in a tight bun, with two strands framing her perturbed expression.
“Nahq it!” Winston hollered spilling his Brandy Old-Fashioned. He shot up off his couch and glared at her angrily. “Can’t you take the hint?”
“Nahq it yourself! Billy Joe Bob and I have been pinging you for three hours. You know better than to log out when you’re being unloaded! I’m hardly surprised to find you here in your own little Levitown shrine watching old movies.”
“In costume today, Mother?” Winston stifled a snort of mockery at his freight broker’s appearance.
She sneered at his comment. “No. Your behnging server blended my avatar code in with your stupid movie,” she snapped.
“And so what if I’ve been down for three hours on the dock? Those lumpers normally take my whole ten hour break to get me unloaded. I’ve probably got another five hours left!” Winston snapped back.
“This was a hot load, Winston! They started offloading you the instant you bumped their dock. They’ve been done for hours, and have been screaming at me to get you moved! There are a lot of other loads waiting to get in here. Need I remind you, I do not take kindly to being screamed at by an overclocked wirey warehouse manager every five minutes while you play ‘Father Knows Bankruptcy’ in this... this...” she waved her hands around at Winston’s simulation, “Americana nightmare! And bankruptcy, I might add, is precisely what you’re facing if you get kicked off this account!”
Val came into the living room, wiping her hands on her apron that screamed Pre-Dream American Golden Age ruffles.
“Hun, would you like me to escort Mother out?” her pleasant voice held a hint of iron as server security warnings leaked into her voice.
“Try it and I’ll turn you into a thermostat subroutine, missy!” Mother snapped with a sharp taloned finger thrust at Valerie.
“Nahq it! All of you, shut up!” Winston shouted. “Fine, mother, I’ll get off the dock and get rolling.”
“That’s all I ever wanted,” Mother sighed and gave a patronizing smile.
He opened up the route planner app for his tug, the Sierra Madre. The ‘pending’ load interface was blank.
“Wait. They show I’m unloaded, but there’s no backhaul?” Winston asked. “I always get a backhaul.”
“Since you didn’t clear the dock right away, their loadmaster chose to go with a different vendor,” Mother said, arms crossed.
“Come on! For sleeping three hours on his dock?” Winston whined.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve pulled this stunt with them,” Mother reminded him. “You were warned there’d be consequences. Once you’re rolling, contact the guardpost on the way out for further instructions.”
“And what the Purg does that mean?” Winston shouted.
“They wouldn’t tell me. Said they’d only talk to you.”
“Of all the bullcheis powertrips,” Winston ranted. “You’re my freight broker. You book my jobs. Get me a backhaul home!”
“I’ll see what I can do, but don’t expect much. Also, lose the attitude. Your self inflicted wounds do not grant you the right to make me your emotional punching bag,” Mother fussed and then vanished in a cascade of pixels falling to the living room carpet.
He stared stupidly at the pile she deliberately inserted into his simulation. The mess was an icon of rebuke and criticism of his actions and manner toward her. She could be petty like that.
Winston let out a growl that escalated into a frustrated scream as he ended his connection and exited from his home instance.