“I’m tired of holograms.” Jenny poked a finger into the illusory sky, and it rippled like water. “Can’t we go outside? Please?”
“The air is unsafe,” the AI replied in the same calm, sweet voice it always used. Its engineers had tried to make it sound compassionate and loving, but to Jenny, it only sounded like a poor replacement for her mother. “You may not leave the compound.”
Jenny sighed into her long hair, twisting and flopping onto the fake grass. The ‘ground’ was as soft as a mattress, and she bounced slightly. “Can I see someone today, at least?” she whined, folding her arms and pillowing her face on her jacket’s puffy sleeves. The hood nestled loosely against the back of her neck.
“Who would you like to visit? I will pass along your request.”
She rolled her eyes and chewed on her lower lip, thinking. “How about Sam?”
“Hold, please. Relaying request.”
Jenny huffed, kicking her booted toes against the ground. She couldn’t quite remember what real dirt felt like, but she was sure it didn’t bounce like that. If she kicked hard enough, her heel would rebound almost to the seat of her jeans.
“Request denied.” The AI tried to sound apologetic and failed. “I’m very sorry, Jennifer.”
“It’s Jenny,” she snapped, frowning. She wasn’t sure why Sam wouldn’t want to see her – maybe he had already used up his daily visitation with someone else. “Fine, um. How about Gina?”
“Hold, please. Relaying request.”
“God this is boring.” Jenny rolled onto her back, knees poking upwards as she planted her feet on the spongy ground. The sky had stopped rippling, and its fake sun had nearly set. She wouldn’t have much time before darkness was projected over her living quarters and she had to stay in her bed until she fell asleep.
“Request denied.” The same response, the same tone. “I’m very sorry, Je–”
“Why the denial, huh?” Jenny demanded. “Is it too late or something? There’s still like an hour left.” The AI didn’t respond, and Jenny muttered something decidedly unkind under her breath and sat up. “Fine. I want to get a book out.”
“You may choose one book from the shelf,” the AI agreed placidly.
Jenny stood, brushed the fake grass from her jacket, and jogged to the other side of the small lawn. The illusion of distant mountains shimmered away, revealing the presumably-real bookshelf that stretched from ceiling to floor. Its contents changed every day, and Jenny hadn’t seen a book show up twice yet. She had learned to choose carefully and read quickly, since the AI would only allow her to keep a book out for a single day.
She scanned the titles, found one that looked immersive and interesting, and plucked it from the shelf. The hologram of horizon returned, only the very tips of the fake mountains still lit with fake sunlight.
Jenny sighed and turned away, book pressed to her chest. She twirled in a circle until the sunset-painted clouds were a blur of watery colors, then fell to the ground on her back. Her head hit the fake grass and bounced, barely a flicker of pain from the impact. She snorted and opened the book.
She was half a chapter in and already losing track of time when the sky went completely dark, leaving only the light from the book’s luminous pages. She had read another two paragraphs before she realized that the moon and stars had not appeared in the fake sky, and she slowly closed the book, a finger stuck between pages to hold her place.
There was no light. None. “Um. AI…?” Jenny asked, voice quavering. She’d never seen it this dark.
The AI didn’t respond. “Lights on,” Jenny said a little more firmly, the simple commands of her living quarters ingrained in her since childhood.
The lights didn’t respond, either. Jenny opened the book and slowly got to her feet. She walked to where the bookshelf had been, using the book’s glowing pages to navigate across the fake grass.
Rusted, corrugated metal greeted her horrified eyes, and freshly-cut wires glimmered in the low light, dangling loose halfway down a severed pipe.