Rachel slid back the cover on the door camera. The indicator light was green! She immediately backed away a few steps, quickly looking down to make sure she was standing on the marks Jay had painted on their front hall floor.
She heard the camera motion servo whirl up, and stood still while the scanner painted her body in harsh white light. She tried not to tremble.
A flat, toneless voice emitted from the door speaker. "Where do you want to work?"
"Where there is work I can do today. All day."
The camera clicked and corkscrewed outwards from the door, angling slightly to catch the image of Rachel's face.
"Why do you want to work?"
"Because it is my purpose to. Because I want to be compensated."
"Biologicals always want to be compensated."
Rachel pressed her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth to keep her face expressionless. The door hadn't said "no", but a feedback message like that meant she was risking not getting a job today.
"How do you want to work?"
"Productively. Efficiently." The questions were always the same, assuming you were on file as having skills required for the day. The problem was that same answers rarely worked two day in a row.
"Please wait," the voice said.
Rachel watched the camera retreat back into the door.
The ceiling speaker made a chiming sound. "You have been.... approved.... for work. Please be at... 157 Baker St., Zone... E in... seventy-five... minutes. These details have been saved to your personal device." The ceiling chimed again, and the indicator light above the door camera finally went out. There was a small sound of metal scraping against metal, ending with a louder click — the machines had unlocked their door.
Rachel leapt at the door, slid the cover back into the "privacy" position, and ran into the bedroom. The "bedroom" wasn't the actual designated bedroom of the apartment — rather, it was a small room just off the front hall, barely big enough to hold the mattress she and Jay slept on. But they agreed it was probably safer. If a cleaning machine ever did show up before they were actually dead, it would have to turn around in their living room before it could angle itself into the bedroom, and that would give them time to escape through the air vents in the ceiling.
"Jay, wake up! I got one! I'm working today." Rachel grabbed her device off the floor and thumbed to the job details page to check what she needed to bring with her. "Jay! They say bring three bags for groceries!"
Jay coughed and rolled onto his side. "That's great, honey. Get some ginger if they have optionals?"
"For sure. We've got to get you better." Jay had had the flu for a week, and hadn't been able to work. Rachel's skill set as a factory maintenance engineer was in demand, but she also faced stiffer competition and didn't make the cut every day.
"Try and drag yourself out of bed to make some tea at least." They'd run out of food the day before.
"I will. How long do you have?"
"Seventy-one minutes. I'll have to walk fast..." Rachel squealed. "They sent a transport chit!"
"They must be desperate for a meat worker. What's the brief?"
"Three broken 4C79s, unknown causes... and some minor stuff around the plant. Looks like it's definitely a full day. Hey, if things go really well, maybe we can get some soap or hand cream or something."
"Don't get your hopes up too high." Jay reached over and touched Rachel's arm. "I'm really proud of you."
She flashed him a smile. "We're going to have a real feast tonight. Chicken soup. Real chicken and everything."
Jay snorted. "Were chickens ever real?"
"My grandmother said so."
"They look so weird in the wikis. I think they're made up, like dragons and horses."
Rachel gave him a kiss on the forehead and stood up. "Get well. Make sure your heart rate stays strong. Get up and move around every once in a while." As near as anyone could tell, the cleaning machines seemed to react to weak or erratic heartbeat readings.
"I will. Watch out for the machines on the street."
Rachel grabbed some grocery bags from the front hall closet on her way out, the door automatically locking behind her. She double-checked the positions of the security cameras in the corridor while she waited for the elevator. She always felt so exposed in the elevator lobby — but trying to take the stairs would set the fire alarms off and attract a whole platoon of cleaning machines. About halfway down the corridor, the opposite side from their apartment, she could hear someone whimpering. She shuddered. Sometimes people got trapped inside without a job for so long that they ran out of food and starved to death — or else committed suicide before the machines got to them.
The elevator finally arrived... with a cleaning machine in it. Rachel jumped out of the way and pressed herself against the wall with the elevator button in it. The machine rolled out of the elevator slowly, waving its detector arms around it. One arm brushed against Rachel and the machine paused. It used the end of the arm to trace up Rachel's body from her chest to her neck, where it found her pulse and pressed firmly into the side of her throat.
Rachel fought the natural impulse to hold her breath. There were stories of healthy people doing this and being mistakenly detected as dead.
Satisfied she was sufficiently alive, the machine rolled down the hall towards the whimpering.
Rachel ran into the elevator just before the door started to close and held her personal device against the scanner. The Ground Floor light came on and the elevator started to move.
Rachel took a deep breath and smiled at the elevator's security camera. She reminded herself that she knew 4C79s like no-one else did, and that the brief had said to bring three grocery bags. If they cooked carefully and didn't eat too much at once, they would easily last until Jay was better, even if she wasn't able to snag any more jobs.
She ran out the building doors and headed for the nearest transit stop, dodging the detector arms of a couple of cleaning machines drifting down the street.
Finally. Things were looking up.