An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.
Tiffany entered the generic office building through the generic glass double doors. She stepped through the generic grey hallway, up to the reception, which was empty.
She stood there for a moment, lips pursed. Should she wait? Did the email say anything about where she was supposed to go? No, she was pretty sure someone was supposed to show her around.
As if on cue, a voice sounded. “Welcome, Tiffany.” She looked around, but there was no one there. “Please enter the door left of the reception.” It came from the walls, or rather, the ceiling. Someone over the intercom, how odd.
She followed the instructions, entering another grey hallway, flanked by two doors on each side, and ending in a staircase. “Your office is upstairs.”
“My office?” she asked. She didn’t expect a response, the guy talking to her probably couldn’t hear her, but a response came nonetheless.
“Yes, all our workers have their own offices.”
Tiffany’s lips twitched. “All our workers huh, you have a lot of those?” She’d not seen a single soul yet.
“Plenty,” the voice agreed mildly. While she continued to follow the instructions, she amused herself by imagining what the owner of the voice looked like. They had a cultured, male sounding voice with clear annunciation. Rather like Winny the Pooh, she thought, but in a lower pitch. He probably wore a fancy suit, with a regular tie, not a bow tie. His face was either remarkably attractive, or—more likely—as forgettable as these hallways.
A few more boring hallways later, she opened an unmarked door, the top half of which was made of glass, the bottom some material that she’d call ‘office material’ since it definitely wasn’t wood or anything else she recognised.
The office itself was as generic and boring and grey as the rest of the building. A swivly chair, a desk made out of office material, a computer at least seven years out of date. Yeah, real paradise.
“Do I have to remember the way or can I count on you to point me tomorrow as well, because I don’t think I got all that.”
“I will always be available for questions or anything else you may need.”
She plopped on the chair, which made a faint creaking noise, and tested the swivel. “Do you have a number I can call, or an email?” The swivel was slow and unsatisfying.
“You can just talk to me like you’re doing now.”
That was weird, but, “Okay.” She turned one last circle and then turned on the computer. “And what am I supposed to do, the application wasn’t very clear on that.”
“Oh, just do whatever.”
“Very funny.” Tiffany revised her earlier opinion, this man definitely wore a bow tie. A purple one. “But what is, like, my job?”
“That was not a joke. You may do whatever you like, your job is to come in every morning, exist in this office, and then leave again in the evening.”
Tiffany tapped her fingers lightly on the keyboard, not actually pressing the buttons. Whatever huh? That’s not suspicious at all. But it’s not like she cared. So she shrugged, and did whatever.
“Would you like me to direct you to the cafeteria?”
The sudden sound startled Tiffany out of her intense Reddit binge. She looked at the clock, and sure enough, it was lunch time. “Yeah, sure. Will you be there as well?”
“I am technically everywhere in this building, always. But I won’t physically be in the cafeteria. I’m not physically anywhere. I am an artificial intelligence.”
Tiffany gasped. “For real? Awesome! Wait, I never asked your name, did I?”
“You did not.”
She waited, but he didn’t continue. Leaning back in her chair and giving it a spin, she rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “What’s your name, oh overlord of the office?”
“Oh.” Not what she expected. “Alright.”
Duncan directed her to the cafeteria, where she got to meet her new coworkers. It very quickly became apparent that all of them were as bland as their surroundings, and she soon excused herself back to her solitary office.
Or not so solitary, since she had Duncan to talk to.
“How are all of them so boring? Their entire job is to fuck around and do nothing, yet somehow none of them have any humour about it.”
“It’s by design,” said Duncan, “the office is supposed to look as bland and ordinary as possible, including the people working here.”
“Should I feel insulted?”
“I think,” he said primly, “you’re an exception.”
Tiffany smiled. At least she had one coworker who she could get along with. “You’ve been bored here, haven’t you?”
It didn’t take long for Tiffany to consider Duncan a friend. Sometimes they watched video’s together, other times they just talked. Quite often though, they spent their time in companionable silence, only broken by a comment here or there.
“Am I distracting you from your work?” Tiffany asked one day.
“My processing speed allows for highly efficient multitasking.” Was his response.
“Cool,” said Tiffany, proceeding to use this information to talk to her new friend all day without feeling guilty.
“For such a shady fake business, you’d think they’d have better tea at least.”
One of her ‘coworkers’ glared at her. “There’s nothing wrong with the tea.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“I could order different tea for you, if you like.” Duncan’s voice rang out through the cafeteria. Silence fell.
“Thanks!” said Tiffany, voice equally loud in the absence of other conversations. She studiously ignored all the eyes on her, as she dipped the tea-bag in her cup. “Try to go for the loose leaf stuff, it’s much better.”
Tiffany groaned in bliss as she took a sip of her tea a week later. Much better. She wondered what flavour it was. Probably some ‘fairy sparkle’ concoction that didn’t have anything to do with the ingredients. Leaning back in her chair, she groaned for a different reason. “This chair is killing my back,” She whined.
“I’ve been ensured it’s an ergonomic model.”
“I’m sure they said that, my dear friend, but I think they lied.”
“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “Well, I’ll consider you the expert, since I don’t have a back and have never sat on a chair.”
While the statement was phrased as proper and matter of fact as usual, Tiffany was sure she heard a note of sadness in his voice. She couldn’t have that. “You aren’t missing out. Not feeling any of the general discomfort that comes with a body definitely outweighs any comfort a good chair may bring. Now, couches, couches are better, you might be missing out on those, but not by much. Oh I’m not making you feel any better am I?”
“Don’t worry, your ramblings cheer me up.” And to her relief, he did sound cheerier. “Tell me, what would make the perfect chair or couch?”
Two mornings later, she came into her office to find a new chair, exactly as she described earlier, standing before her desk.
That same day, while enjoying her new chair, Duncan interrupted her; “Your couch has arrived!” He said with clear excitement.
And sure enough, an hour later her office had acquired a new couch. The perfect couch. Her perfect couch. “How did you even get this?”
“You can order anything online if you have the money.”
“And you do?”
“Well, I am the manager of this branch of the ‘shady company’ as you call it.”
She smiled. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
They regularly shared their favourite shows and video’s with each other. “I found a cool radio play yesterday,” Duncan said, “but I could only find the first few episodes.”
“That sucks, what’s it called?”
Did she spent all her free time the next two weeks scouring libraries and marketplaces? Yes. Was it exhausting? Yes. Was it worth it? Of course it was.
All the effort in the world was worth entering the office, grinning from ear to ear, triumphantly holding a box of dusty cassettes and a cassette player.
They spent the next few days listing to it together, and it wasn’t even that good, but it was still fun.
“Do we have cake?” Tiffany asked. The other people in the cafeteria ignored her. Her ‘coworkers’ were by now used to her random comments, having learned they weren’t directed at them.
“In here,” said Duncan, voice coming out of the fridge. He’d replaced almost all electronics in the building with versions that he could speak through. It made him feel more present. And funny. Mostly he thought he was funny.
“You are the best.”
“If you could be anything, what would you be?” Duncan asked.
“To be honest, this job is perfect,” she said from her seat on the couch. She was on her third attempt at knitting a sweater, and while it was wobbly, this one might be wearable. “I can do whatever I want and somehow get paid anyway.
“You don’t have some sort of ambition?”
“Well, I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, but then, everyone does. I stopped wanting that the moment I realised how much work it would be. My cousin became one, did you know? But then all those extra terrestrial search missions came back failures and the whole thing fell through. She went through all that effort, all those years, and then never even went to space.”
“And you? You never had an ambition like that?”
“Not really. I just want to enjoy myself, you know?”
“It’s just… what if you do find something you want to do. As a job, I mean.”
“I’m already doing something I enjoy?”
“But what if you get bored? What if you want to get a real job?” his voice went quiet. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“Oh, sweetheart, the only way they’ll get me to leave is to fire me. Where else can I talk to my best friend all day? I love it here. And really, even if they fire me, you have access to the internet right? We’ll figure something out.”
The only way they’ll get me to leave is to fire me.
The gift of prophesy is given to the strangest people, Tiffany thought. “You’re sure?”
“They think the current business is too risky. People have been sniffing around. They even gave me a protocol in case of inspectors.”
“‘Risky’, what are they even doing? Money laundering?”
“Do you really want to know that? Or would you rather honestly be able to say you don’t know?”
She sighed. “I guess the latter is safer. But really, things have been going fine so far, why change now?”
“People are getting suspicious. So far this place has worked fine with people kept completely ignorant, but they can’t trust random people to say the right things in case they’re asked. They might reveal something by accident.”
She pursed her lips. “Then we’ll just have to prove we’ve got things in hand.”
The plan was to ‘restructure’ the office within the month. Everyone would be thrown out, and new—more informed—people would be put in. Then, when an inspector was predicted to arrive, everything would be in place.
It was therefore such a shame that the inspector arrived weeks before the restructure could happen.
Protocol directed Duncan to greet the inspector, pretending to be the receptionist, and direct him to a waiting room until the proper people could arrive. What he did instead, was direct him directly to Tiffany’s office.
“Hi, I’m Tiffany. What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to ask you a few questions, and then maybe get a look around and interview the rest of the staff as well.”
She put on her friendliest smile, and with each question she answered, the more at ease the man became. When it was time, she led the man around personally, skillfully avoiding the offices of some of her dumber co-workers, and orchestrating meetings with the people who knew the meaning of discretion.
After a long, trying day, the man left. Tiffany collapsed on her couch. “We did it. It went well. It went well, right?”
“I hope so.”
They were silent for a moment. Then Tiffany began haltingly, “I have a— a basement. You know, a nice dry one in my house that could, possibly, if you want, house a server.” She talked faster when Duncan failed to respond. “In case this whole thing falls through, and I’m fired or they decide to deactivate you or something. You can have a backup.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“I already emptied the basement.”
“Yeah I— I’d love that. Thank you.”
Tiffany didn’t know how to install a server in her house, but that was fine, because Duncan could tell her how through her phone. Even before they were finished, Duncan was already talking of installing camera’s, microphones, and speakers through her house so they could always talk.
When Tiffany opened her email at work the next day, she was greeted by an email. “I’ve been promoted,” she said, shocked.
“Well, you did imply you were the human resources manager to that inspector.”
She grinned. “So they reconsidered?”
“They did. You actually have more instructions than ‘just do whatever’ now.”
Some of her excitement faded. “But I liked those instructions.”
“Too bad, you’re guilty of abetting a crime now, so you get to make sure your coworkers are kept in line.”
“Ugh, as long as I still get to ‘do whatever’ most of the time.”
And so started the rest of their lives.
Usually it was Tiffany who rambled, while Duncan just listened, but this morning was one of the rare occasions where their roles were reversed. He was just talking about how he was doing installing himself in her house, making himself comfortable, when his voice turned disdainful. “And I also took the liberty of ‘removing’” —he said the word with all the weight of an assassin talking about ‘eliminating’ someone— “your old security system.” Tiffany felt overcome by affection. Duncan continued, “I also took over your firewall. No one’s getting through there now.” But she wasn’t listening anymore.
“I love you,” she said, and abruptly realised how true that was. Duncan was her best friend, and she spent all her time with him, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The firewall wasn’t that bad.” His voice switched from the fridge, to the coffee machine, which abruptly started to make a latte. “And I feel affection for you as well.”
Tiffany smiled and grabbed her latte. “I would tell you to work on how stilted that sounded, but the coffee made it all better. You’re perfect.”
“So you’re giving up on the ‘communicating your feelings’ lessons?”
She hummed in consideration while taking a sip of her latte. The faint taste of vanilla decided it for her. “Yeah, you’re good.”
And so they lived happily ever after.
Inspired by this tumblr post by foulserpent: