“Sandwiches or Thai?” I ask aloud, out of habit.
I can imagine Moira’s reply: You’re not on track with your calcium and folic acid targets today. Spinach is advised. Maybe a green curry?
But today there’s no level, pleasant voice in my ear. Moira is, as they used to say, “in the shop” today for her annual updates and maintenance. I don’t know why they can’t just upload the stuff into them, but these maintenance days are a fact of life we all deal with. I guess even artificial intelligence is entitled to one vacation day a year.
Most people just sleep through it. Sometimes I do, too, but this year I was curious.
“I’ll be fine,” I told Moira before she went dark. “You’ve taught me well. I’ve probably absorbed you into my own interior monologue. I won’t ruin what we’ve worked for,” I promised her.
And so I stayed awake and went to work. I made it just fine through the morning. I chose my own outfit—some fitted black slacks and a lavender silk blouse that Moira had pieced together before, but I hadn’t worn for a couple of months. Something that had inspired a co-worker to say, “You look nice today.” I don’t know, probably his AI prompted him. Still, it’s an outfit I trust.
Most “choices” are a matter of habit, anyway. Routine. Moira had helped me form a healthy morning routine tailored to my metabolism, hormone levels, sleep patterns, life values, and five-year goals. There’s my two-mile run that follows the same bike path through my neighborhood every day, and my routine breakfast of hard-boiled egg with mashed avocado on whole-wheat toast, iced coffee with a dash of stevia, and an eight-ounce glass of water that my sink measures out. My shower is on its own timer so I can’t mess that up. Then feed the cat and out the door by 8:30.
Getting dressed was really the most dangerous part of the morning routine without Moira—the most subjective. But I think I pulled that off.
“You look nice today,” Andy Disung said as we walked into the office at the same time. He was the same person who commented last time.
That’s when it got complicated. Without Moira to suggest an appropriate reply, I felt like I may as well not have been wearing anything at all.
When in doubt, keep it simple, Moira would probably say, so I muttered a quick “Thanks,” while walking to my desk.
“There’s something different about you…” Andy continued. His slow delivery and the hand he briefly rubbed through his dark brown curls gave me the feeling he was a little off-script himself.
“Maintenance day,” I told him, without halting my steps.
He chuckled. “Of course. I’ll just leave you alone.” He plopped down in his chair across the aisle from my desk and then, as if he’d changed his mind, stood up and raised the height of his desk. He looked over at me and smiled. “Better for the lymphs, I guess.” He paused only a beat before adding, “I’m surprised you’re here at all today.”
I paused at my desk, wondering whether I should sit or stand. “Some things just can’t wait,” I said. “Like the Axonics proposal.”
“Do you think you can do it?”
I felt like Andy’s eyes were staring right into me. It was so rude, this inquisition, when he knew I was solo. I felt my muscles stiffen and decided to remain standing.
“In my sleep,” I replied with a smile.
“Good luck,” he said. “I’ll leave you to it.”
It was not quite as easy as that. Without Moira I dithered over my word choices and sat down a while to try to remember the rules about semicolons. I lost track of time and hadn’t accomplished nearly enough by the time the co-workers around me began to stir for lunch.
Cynthia and Erin paused by my desk on their way out. “Hey, Neoma, come with to the salad bar?” Erin asked, adjusting a large leather purse over her shoulder.
“I shouldn’t,” I told them, and immediately wondered if they’d be offended at my declining. Would they stop at my desk the next day? “Maintenance day,” I quickly clarified with a shrug I hoped seemed friendly and casual.
“Oh, got it,” Cynthia said, recognition registering as her brown eyes widened. “You’re so brave to be here. I would never!”
“Say no more,” Erin said. “Next time, then.”
I sighed in relief as the two women’s shoes clicked down the polished cement floor and I let my shoulders slump. I felt as winded as if I’d just completed my morning run. But I was confident I had handled the situation well. I imagined Moira’s reaction.
Great! Eighty percent chance they’ll be back tomorrow. Ask them what they’re working on. Promoting friendly office culture is a productive step toward management.
I was checking through my last page, ensuring no Oxford commas had slipped through my fingers against the company style manual and missing the red highlights Moira would usually send to my smart lens, when I felt a presence by my desk and looked up to find Andy again.
“I know it’s risky,” he said, “but do you want to walk downtown with me for lunch?”
I didn’t need Moira to tell me that my pulse was fast, or to remind me to take a deep breath before I answered. “Really? Today?” I tried to keep my tone even, but with a slightly accusing edge.
I think it worked. There was his hand in his hair again.
“Especially today,” he said. “If you’re going to live this day, you might as well really live it. You could order a cookie and your blood sugar would be back to normal by the time she came online again. She’d never know.”
I didn’t mean to laugh. I guess it wasn’t a decision, really.
Andy smiled. “So how about it? You’re not going to ruin your life in a day. And if you do, it’s your life, in the end.”
This was the reason most people stay home on maintenance days. Some decisions matter more. Their effects ripple through life like a stone hitting the surface of a pond.
I tried to replicate Moira’s quick analysis. If I went (did I want to go? I tuned in to my elevated vitals and admitted that I probably did), then I’d have a whole hour to fill with Andy, and no one to guide me through. I’d probably say something awkward five minutes in, or worse I’d be boring, fail to recall the interesting facts I’d picked up throughout the week, or freeze up entirely, and I didn’t know him well enough for companionable silences to feel comfortable. I would overcompensate and over-share. Chance of a successful lunch? I don’t know, two percent? Is that what Moira would say? Then rumors about my social ineptness would fly, I wouldn’t get lunch invitations, and I wouldn’t get promotions.
And what if I declined? It wouldn’t be as tactful as with Cynthia and Erin. He knew this was my maintenance day. It was why he asked. Chances he’d ask again another day? Maybe forty percent?
And is this a date? I wanted to ask Moira. Through my smart lens, she would observe his stance, leaning in to my desk slightly, and the tense smile frozen on his face. She would probably read his body temperature and heart rate and, though she couldn’t share the data with me, she’d turn it into an answer: It’s not advisable to date co-workers.
“I could ruin your life, too,” I said quietly, keeping a pleasant smile on my face.
He laughed—a nervous chuckle. “Your instincts can’t be that bad,” he said.
“No, probably not,” I agreed. “Just boring. I’m afraid you’ll regret it five minutes in.” Yes, over-sharing. It was already a disaster.
“Truman tells me the chances are only twenty-one percent. It’s worth the risk to find out.”
I’m pretty sure I blushed. Moira would have had three to five witty suggestions for changing the subject. On my own, I said, “Truman? Is that his name?”
Andy brought his hand to his head and said, “My AI. Yes.”
“What did Truman tell you about asking me to lunch?” Maybe that question wasn’t a choice, either. I asked it without thinking.
Andy laughed and shook his head. “Chances you’d go along were thirty-five percent. It was another risk I was willing to take.”
“That sounds about right,” I said. “Truman is very honest.”
“Yes,” Andy said. “It usually works for us. What about your...um…” he gestured vaguely around me.
“Right. Is Moira honest?”
It wasn’t a question I’d considered before. I might have called her incisive, motivating, accurate, responsible, ambitious. These were the life values she was programmed with. My solo brain scrambled to come up with an appropriate answer. Would an appropriate answer be the same as an honest one?
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. The honest answer. “Listen, I think you and Truman are at an advantage, being a team today. And I’m sure Moira would like to join the party—”
“Like is an interesting word choice. Assuming they can like anything,” Andy interrupted.
I may have blushed again. “Right. I don’t think she would have had me say that. Anyway, could we do this another day?”
I watched Andy’s shoulder shrug, and his cheeks deflate. “Sure,” he said, and I wondered if that was appropriate or honest.
After my morning at work, a part of me wants to sink back into the comfort of habit. “Sandwiches or Thai?” I ask Moira out of habit, but another part of me is already thinking about the next step.
Imaginary Moira tells me green curry, but when I pause, it doesn’t feel honest. I don’t feel excited about it.
Without her pleasant voice in my ear, I walk under the sandwich shop’s blue awning and find an empty chair. The restaurant looks familiar, but somehow empty without Moira’s golden halo in my lens around the perfect chair. I wonder if the one I’ve chosen has the ideal sun exposure, the optimum sound isolation. But it’s empty. It will do.
The server approaches my table with a warm smile. “Hi, Neoma. Would you like your usual?”
The turkey pesto sandwich here contains the perfect balance of calories and nutrients for me. It’s what Moira would recommend, but if I listen to my own body, the pull in my collar bone tells me it’s not what I want right now.
“Actually, can I see the menu?” I ask.
This is why people go to sleep, the imaginary Moira says in my head.
Ten choices come into my lens. Without Moira’s pleasant voice and golden halo, they all carry equal weight. The world feels so wide. And heavy. It makes my heart beat faster, like back in the office.
I wonder if this feeling is the reason I stayed awake today, not the Axonics proposal. I have time—it isn’t due until Friday. But this rush is available once a year. Maybe, like Andy said, it’s worth the risk.
Moira would tell me that the grilled cheese with tomato and micro greens on sprouted bread could make me sluggish in the afternoon and possibly lead to digestive disturbance, and the chocolate chip cookie would result in a crash around 4pm. Not optimal for productivity. I order them anyway, because Moira is on vacation and so, I decide, am I.
Andy is at his desk when I return to the office after a slow walk back from uptown. He doesn’t look up when I sit down.
“I had the cookie,” I say across the aisle. “It was amazing.” It feels less awkward.
“And you’re still alive,” he notes with a smile that makes me think that maybe his “sure” really was honest.
“Here I am,” I agree. “Though maybe not for long. I’m not at my peak today. I’m not even supposed to be here. I was thinking about skipping out and going to the beach.”
“That cookie was the gateway to hell!”
I laugh. Not a choice. “Maybe. Did Truman tell you to say that?”
Andy nods. “Eighty-two percent chance of success.”
“And what would Truman say if I asked you to come to the beach with me?”
“He’s advising me very strongly against it.” Andy’s smile never wavers. “But I don’t always listen.”
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Even though I feel myself speed reading through your stories (I can't help it I have to KNOW), I always have to sit with them a minute or 5. Honestly a few of them have filtered in and out of my brain at random times. It's not just the plot that is so intriguing, but how elegantly you weave it all together? I don't know. Even the most mundane tasks keep my attention focused. For this story in particular, because relying so heavily on an AI for every decision felt commonplace and habitual, it was only later that I realized how utterly ...
Those names were very deliberate! So was Neoma, which I think means pleasant. And Andy's last name also means some version of truth. Every once in a while there's a random name that demands to be put in one of my stories, but more often every name has a justification in its meaning or backstory.
Ugh. Yep, Disung means a worthy and truthful person. Now it's EVEN. BETTER.
Honestly, I just have to say that I loved the way this story opened up. The introduction was witty, clever, and so dark, but also very glossed over and layered with a sense of normalcy. This was such believable science fiction, well layered and the character was so well developed. The hints towards how the future and world is, really nice done. It's a story that to me almost surpasses fiction, not just because of the Alexas in our homes, but because the details were so believable, enriching and "modern". I really enjoyed this.
Thanks. I enjoyed writing that interplay between light and dark, making a technology that's kind of cool and helpful, but also scary.
HUZZAH! CONGRATZ. This story was so original, a deserved win for sure! Another member (a rare sight) on here with the triple crown!!
Agree 100 percent , scary prediction of the future.
i agee the story is dark i so in to it
Congratulations Anne! A third win is so exciting. I don't know why but your inclusion of the menu items and descriptions of them is immensely satisfying to me. And now I'm hungry. Deserved win!
Ooh. I had fun writing the food in this one. I figured since the AI paid such attention to the contents of food, that I should, too. And it was important to imagine what restaurants might serve to people with voices helping them to make sure that every calorie counts. I really questioned whether there would be cookies on the menu at all, but people do have their maintenance days and strategic cheat days. Or maybe I was just hungry.
I have logged in today, saw first story of yours and started reading it i did not realise how much i took time for it because i was enjoying your incredible imagination. in the end its great to read, thanks cheer! looking forward more likewise, take care
Eek, winner again? No words to say, A.
What an incredible take on the prompt! Neoma’s inner dialogue is so well-written and adds a good bit of humor and levity into a world that’s frighteningly proximal to our own. I found myself relating to her more than I probably should—learning how to socialize after being cooped up for so long in a pandemic feels a bit like going without an AI for a day 😂 Anyways, right about now my AI would probably tell me to stop rambling already. It’s brilliant and really nicely executed, as always.
Oof, re-socializing. Maybe that's how it'll start--the immediate value proposition for this technology. There's probably a red over-share alert and beep that comes on to shut people up. Maybe they hear an orchestra playing them off. I for one would miss the rambling.
I think the judges ought to bite the bullet and just crown you the queen of Reedsy already 😂 Congrats on the deserved win!!!
Putting a crown on someone often leads to war. Let's keep reedsy peaceful and supportive 😅. Thanks for the sentiment, though. I do love crowns.
"Putting a crown on someone often leads to war" That could be the opening line of another short story.
What a fun way to use this prompt. It gave me Black Mirror vibes, but like one of the less intense episodes of Black Mirror. You approached the idea of AI being in their ears with levity in dialogue...but in the grand scheme of things it takes away their own choices. I really dug this!
Thanks. I've been reading a lot of stuff this week related to AI (fiction and nonfiction) so I thought I'd see how I could digest it. I mean for this one to be light heated on the surface, but dark at its core, at least for people in today's society who are removed enough from this to view it with some dramatic irony.
Yours was the first story I saw that grabbed my attention. And then held it all the way through. I even ignored my husband coming in and saying something to me. I think I answered but I don't remember what I said! Lol! I was riveted. Literally. Thank you. I am detail oriented and I loved all the rich little flavors you put in!
Very nice story and i like it
I feel like I walked into an episode of Black Mirror, one which ends on a high note!!
Feels very much like the movie 'Her', which is a compliment, because I loved it, and this story.
so well done! You had me hooked from the first sentence. Your unique perspective rang true throughout the story. Characters were so believable and I became attached even though.......... I could relate as a what if decision maker myself.
This was an amazing story and such an original and intriguing idea to think about! I love how Neoma was the representation of one kind of person who seems to more or less go along with her AI and I loved seeing her make her own choices as the day progressed. And Andy to me represented the type of person who doesn't fully conform - his AI doesn't really make his choices for him but just makes suggestions. I found myself getting really drawn into the story and when Neoma was contemplating Andy's lunch proposal I was even thinking, "Aah no you ...
Oh god! I loved your story. The future of the world😂😂. Well writen. The theme of your story was great. Well deserved win.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. A clever interpretation of the prompt.
Congrats. Another win great job
Nice story. I didn't really expect what came, deserved win!
Thank you. Honestly, I didn't know what was going to happen, either, when I say down to write this! Not till she was getting dressed.
Np! Your stories are great!
Im so glad you won because this story is amazing. I'd watch this as a movie as well. The AI in our mind made me think of how we would act if we were truly in sync with our gut, knowing that someone is giving good vibes but we allow fear to pause us midway. Or how we should choose better food but crave something else due to internal issues of comfort. But then also, all their decisions would be logic based... So much to think about and daydream here. Absolutely loved it.
What a terrific story! I was completed immersed in it. A society where people are so dependent on their AIs in all aspects of their lives is so disturbing and frightening to me. So I really liked how it shows that individuals can occasionally still make their own decisions, if they so will. Props to you! A well-deserved win.
Hm, yes maybe maintenance day is not technologically necessary, but more a socially engineered test of free will. Interesting.
I love that you have used AI in your story, that is what made it so much better. Well done and congrats on the win :))
Thank you! Yes, the prescriptive AI was a fun tool for me to explore decisions vs directions, and every the different levels of decisions, some harder and more consequential than others.
Yes, I can imagine because AI doesn't understand ethics and morals because they are coded machines and furthermore they don't understand the consequence of their decision so it makes it hard to write. Anyway, great story and you deserved the win. Congrats again :))