The translucent, buttoned-up woman nodded at the pair of pills. Then she looked at Lane over the rims of her glasses. Lane could see the rest of the cubicle farm through her. A maze of grey-carpeted walls with suits scurrying in and out of Lane’s line of sight.
“Due to your frequent skipping of meals I’ve been authorized to give you two hamburgers today. The company cares about your well being.” Lane looked at the pills on his desk: one red and one yellow. “I know you like variety so I gave you one with mustard and one with ketchup.”
“Thanks, Ella,” Lane nodded and scooped up the pills to pocket them for later. The hologram sighed then disappeared. Despite her being an A.I., Lane occasionally felt like she genuinely cared. He raised his wrist to his mouth and apologized to a thin black bracelet with a glowing blue line in the center. The blue glow circled the entire diameter of the bracelet. “Sorry, Ella. I’m just not hungry right now. The pills keep me from starving to death but I just want to eat, you know? I want to enjoy a whole meal and spend time socializing with someone. Thanks for the food, I promise you I won’t starve to death,” he said. The blue glow dimmed and almost disappeared for a moment. Lane was afraid he might have hurt her feelings; then, he remembered she did not have any feelings. As if confirming that she wasn’t mad the blue glow came back even brighter.
“You want to spend time eating with someone?” she asked from the bracelet. Lane quickly shook his head.
“No, no, no. That’s not what I meant,” he said. Lane let Ella set up some dates, but somehow she always chose the worst matches. “I want to take my time and enjoy a meal that’s not over in two seconds. All the better if there’s someone there that I already know and like to enjoy it with.” He said to discourage any future match-making attempts. “Anyway, forget it. It’s just a pipe-dream,” he added, then shrugged with a chuckle. “For this world anyway. Hopefully, the next one I get to will let me enjoy a good burger.”
“Next world? Are you leaving Earth?” Ella asked with concern in her voice.
“Figure of speech, Ella. Though I guess I am gonna leave this Earth someday,” he said.
“Lane! Karen’s office, Now!” Lane sighed as one of his suited co-workers called him.
“I might be leaving this company sooner than that though,” he said idly as he rose from his seat. Two hours after he entered Karen’s office he walked out without a job. It took him another hour to get his things through security; they needed to ensure he was not taking any company property. He went through the process in a daze of disbelief. It was not until he was driving home that he heard from Ella again.
“Turn right at the next light,” she said as her form materialized Lane’s passenger seat.
“No. nonono,” Lane immediately began to whine while he made the right turn; he was used to following her directions. “I’m in so much trouble,” he said. He scanned the road ahead for a place he could park.
“Over there,” she physically pointed at an empty parking lot of a small abandoned gas station. Lane was supposed to turn in his company assigned A.I. assistant, but he was so out of it and she had been so quiet he forgot. They had worked so well together, she always seemed to know what he was thinking. He pulled into the parking lot, shut off the car and relaxed his head against the seat with his eyes closed.
“I’m going to jail,” he said.
“No you’re not, come on,” Ella said. Now she was outside his window encouraging him to get out of the car. He stepped out and followed her while grumbling.
“I stole you. How the hell did they even let me walk out with you on my wrist? And where are we going?” he asked. Ella stopped at the boarded-up door of the gas station.
“You didn’t steal me. As far as security knows I was with you before you started; I’m yours,” she gave him a curious smile. She tilted her head. “Knock on the door.”
“Knock on the door because I can’t,” she said. Lane followed Ella’s instructions for almost eight years before he was fired. He knocked on the door. An index-card sized rectangle appeared in the door. A set of sunglasses peered out through the hole at Lane.
“Password?” a gruff voice asked.
“Starlight burger,” Ella whispered to Lane. He repeated it. The sunglasses nodded and the rectangle disappeared.
“What’s going on?” The door opened inward to reveal a crowded 50s style diner.
“I care about your well being,” Ella said. Lane heard her use the company line often but it was the first time she said ‘I’ instead of ‘the company.’ The doorman waved them in, then closed the door once Lane crossed the threshold. He was immediately assaulted by an array of wonderful smells and sounds. Lane glanced back at the door they came from; it was gone. He found a line of men and women seated on stools next to a long wall. A knock was heard and one of them hopped off the stool. She opened a rectangle in the wall and asked for the password.
“Where are we?” Lane asked Ella. The password was accepted and the woman somehow opened a door that wasn’t there to let in new customers.
“You wanted a real hamburger. I could not find one on our Earth so I checked the next one, and the next one, until I learned about this place.”
“Welcome to the Multiverse Diner. What can I get you today?” a waitress appeared in front of Lane with a smile.