by Heather Masterson
A Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue Story
(Author’s note: This story takes place parallel to the events of There’s No Such Thing as Vampires.)
In the Loop
It goes like this:
At six fifteen, the alarm sounds. The buzzing is perfectly pitched to drill into the human ear, creating a resonance that makes the very idea of getting “just a few more minutes” impossible. His brain thrums, his nerves sing, and he rises out of bed feeling shell-shocked. To make sure that he is absolutely aware that it is, in fact, time to get up, the infernal device also projects the time in ghostly blue numerals all over the ceiling and walls. They begin to fade almost immediately, slowly dimming until they are gone.
He stumbles into the bath cubicle as the ghost numbers fade. He cleans his teeth with a sonic brush that first loosens the detritus on the teeth and under the gums, and then sweeps it away. It is almost painful, but not quite.
Teeth attended to, he steps into a small alcove to be bombarded with tiny particles that clean him thoroughly. He doesn’t understand the science behind this device. He only knows that it feels like he is being pelted by billions of grains of invisible sand. After a minute, he steps out. He always feels as though grains of sand have gotten into places that grains of sand ought not to go. He walks a bit funny at first, though he knows that the sensation is all in his head. It is not real.
Or so they say.
He passes his hand over a mirror on the wall next to the bed. A wardrobe unfolds from inside the wall, an eye-twisting event that he tries very hard not to watch. It looks impossible, and it makes him queasy. A complete outfit slides forward. The outfit is different every day and always matches, though it is always a bit on the drab side. He once tried to figure out how many combinations of different pieces of clothing the closet was capable of producing and what sort of formula it followed. The outfit was never the same two days in a row, but the wardrobe also seemed to avoid obvious repetitions. It did not always dress him in the same outfit on Mondays, for example.
The wardrobe defeated him. After a few days of zealously recording the shirt/pants/tie combinations in a little log, he forgot to keep it up.
He dresses and then walks to the other side of the long room. Here we find a small kitchen cubicle. Adjacent to it is the living cubicle, but it is irrelevant to his morning routine. Precisely at the moment his foot crosses an invisible line between the bedroom and the kitchen, an opening appears in the wall of the kitchen cubicle. It dispenses a perfectly balanced breakfast (again, never the same thing two days running) and a travel-ready mug of coffee.
A table and small bench emerge from the wall as he picks up his breakfast and sits down to eat. He sips sparingly at the coffee, wanting it to last through his commute. He eats the breakfast.
At six forty-five exactly, he stands, walks to the entrance, and exits the apartment, the door giving way and then closing behind him with a soft whoosh.
The breakfast will vanish while he is out, the apartment returned to its pristine state for his return.
And so it goes.
On this particular day, Bob felt a bit hung over when the alarm stabbed him in the ears. He sat up, yawning hugely. The alarm turned itself off and the numbers began their tasteful retreat. He swung his feet over the side of the bed, stood, and lumbered into the bath cubicle.
A moment later, he turned and peered at the numbers on the wall. They were now so faint that he couldn’t make them out. He squinted across the room to the appliance itself.
“Six-twenty?” he said. “How can it be six-twenty?”
“Answer: The mean time as determined by the Haines-Gerkley nuclear clock…”
“Cancel query,” he said. “I didn’t mean for you to answer.”
The androgynous voice did not respond.
Puzzled, he turned back to his teeth. I must’ve been in a daze.
He shook his head briskly in the shower alcove, trying to shake off the odd funk. “Perhaps I’m getting sick?” he mused.
“Schedule: The Westminster Pod clinic has available appointments for general diagnoses at eight…”
“Cancel query,” he said, now irritable. He stepped out of the alcove and walked to the wardrobe wall. As it slid open, he thought he spied something in the mirror, just at the edge of sight.
He turned around quickly. There was nothing to see. The apartment was still and quiet.
He padded to the other side of the room and peered about.
There was nothing to see.
I’m definitely coming down with something.
He dressed, exited, entered the vertical tube, and then emerged onto the thoroughfare. He was feeling a bit run down. He let the sidewalk carry him to the station, forgoing his usual brisk walk.
On the train, he stood patiently until Charlie jostled up against him. There was no sensation of movement on the trains, but Charlie always behaved as though he expected to be thrown off his feet at any moment.
“Morning, Bob,” Charlie said.
“You should hold on to the rail, Bob,” Charlie said. He said it every morning. “If the train stopped suddenly, you’d go flying. Break an arm, or your neck, maybe.”
“The train won’t stop suddenly,” Bob answered. “You know that. It’s not even really a train.”
“Big long tubes on rails, sounds like a train to me,” Charlie said. “Trains crashed all the time, before.”
“That was before. And they didn’t crash all the time.” Bob wished he could let Charlie’s exaggerations wash over him. He wished it every morning. He never could seem to stop himself from attempting to correct Charlie.
Charlie never heeded him. Charlie didn’t care about particles or vibration control or artificial gravity. Charlie didn’t care about the realities of any given situation; he only wanted the potential disasters. “What if something crashed into the train? Something really big? What do you think your precious stabilizers would do about it?” He peered closely at Bob. “You look like hell.”
“Thank you very much!”
“No offense, but you do. Like hell. Late night? Little celebrating?”
“I think I’m coming down with something. I just feel a bit off, nothing to worry about.” Bob stifled a yawn, and then suddenly realized that he wasn’t holding a mug. “I don’t have my coffee!”
“No, you don’t. Maybe you are coming down with something.”
“I don’t think the kitchen made it,” Bob said. “I don’t remember seeing it. I would have grabbed it if I had. Just like every morning.”
“See? Your precious technology can fail. There’s proof, right there.”
“A missing cup of coffee is not the same as an entire train crashing.” Bob stared at his hand, bemused. “I don’t understand how I could have walked out without realizing it was missing.”
“Stupid thing to worry about,” Charlie told him. “Worry about flying through the car and smashing your head against the glass.”
“It’s not glass, it’s all made out of plastics,” Bob said. “You know that.”
The train doors opened. They filed out onto the platform while Charlie continued to chatter about the imminent failure of the entire infrastructure, and Bob wondered if he really should see a doctor.
Bob’s job was to monitor the maintenance systems in the Department of Maintenance building. The Department oversaw maintenance operations for the entire city: trash removal, bodily fluids cleanups, carcass removal, facilities washing, and so on. Bob oversaw maintenance operations within the building itself. Trash removal, facilities washing, sterilization of surfaces, and so on. A halfwit at a party once told him, “So you’re the janitor for the janitors? Is it possible to sink any lower?”
Most people had laughed. A few had looked uncomfortable, and one very nice woman had scolded the halfwit for being rude. Bob paid little attention. He’d heard that one before, of course, but he wasn’t ashamed of his job. Someone had to do it, and it might as well be him. It paid well, and he’d never have to worry about unemployment or losing his lodgings.
He had stopped going to parties, though.
He couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling in the back of his head that kept insisting that something here was very wrong. It was better to ignore that feeling, so he did.
He parted with Charlie and took the vertical tube down to the maintenance level. He walked into the control room in time to see Rafe jump up from his chair with a curse.
Rafe shouted, “No, no, no, you stupid bot! You’re supposed to…” He threw up his hands and sat down again, hard.
“It’s not that new model again, is it?” Bob asked.
“Damn thing was buggy from the start. They supposedly patched it yesterday, said the software would be fixed now, but that piece of crap is still identifying everything that’s smaller than a chair as garbage.” Rafe pointed at one of the monitors. “It just tried to collect some guy’s briefcase.” He punched a button on the console with an emphatic flourish. “That’s it. I’m calling the thing in and putting the old model back out. If Tetradyne can’t fix it, they can take it back.”
“I was ready to pull it off the floor yesterday, but management said to give them a chance to patch it,” Bob said.
“Fat lot of good that did. One of the vendor reps was up in Sampson’s office. The rep slipped her feet out of her shoes when she sat down and the stupid bot scooped her shoes up and disposed of them before anyone could stop it.”
“Why did she take off her shoes?” Bob thought this was a silly thing to do in a business meeting.
“She was showing him some new thing to keep you from getting tired feet. You know, for the guys in the field who’re on their feet all day. Do you know how much they say those shoes cost?”
“More than they should,” Bob murmured. His eyes had been flicking across the screens rapidly, assessing the current state of affairs. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah, hold on a minute.” Rafe gathered up his things and stuffed them into a duffel bag. He pointed at the screens and talked while he did it. “The personal facilities on twenty-eight developed some kind of malfunction. They’re trying to fix it now, said it’ll take another hour or so. The rest of the bots are just on routine patrols.”
Bob nodded and said goodbye, sitting down in the chair that Rafe had just vacated.
Rafe paused on his way out, looking at the clock on the wall. “So… world’s ending today, is it?”
Rafe pointed at the clock display. “Every single day you walk through those doors at seven-fifteen exactly. Today, you came in at seven-twenty.”
Bob nodded. “Oh. Sorry. Running a little late. I think I’m coming down with something.”
From seven-thirty to five-thirty, Bob watched the monitors. Each bot had a camera, and every camera had a screen. Other screens showed static views of the building. All of the cameras were at floor level. They cycled through the floors one by one in an endless loop. He kept an eye out for messes and malfunctions, directed the bots when necessary, and took comm calls from employees reporting problems.
Next to the chair was an exercise machine. It could transform into several different machines. You could tell it to give you a weight machine, or a cycle, or a treadmill. Each configuration adjusted itself so that he could monitor the screens while he exercised. He was required to spend at least thirty minutes on the machine, but on an average day, he exercised for more than two hours on it. He liked to set the treadmill to a casual walking pace and just stroll along as he worked.
Bob had the distinct feeling that he missed walking. Not walking on the treadmill, but real walking. Walks through forests, over hills and dales, amongst ruins, along beaches. And running, of course. Sometimes, he thought he had dreams about running from bureaucratic wankers who were all chasing him with quills and pieces of parchment, screaming about services rendered… or not rendered. But it was walking that he felt he really missed. Which was impossible, because it had never happened. The dreams were impossible, too. Everyone had dreams, of course, but no one ever remembered them.
At the back of the room were personal facilities that he could use while watching the monitors. (When the personal facilities were in use, the system temporarily locked the door to the room so that there weren’t any embarrassing incidents.) A small kitchen unit delivered light snacks and a lunch. He ate in the chair, watching the monitors.
A small panel in the wall slid open, and the new X3255 unit rolled through it. It hummed almost inaudibly, waiting for further orders.
Bob eyed the unit. He saw no visible damage. He shrugged mentally and punched in a dock-and-deactivate command.
The unit emitted a weird, high-pitched screech. It was short, but ear-piercing. The sound startled Bob. The unit then hummed away to another panel, where it docked, deactivated, and was whisked away into storage by the utility tube. Tetradyne would automatically be notified of the maintenance deactivation and would send a tech out. Eventually.
Bob documented the strange electronic bleat in the unit’s log. The techs would want to know about it. It certainly wasn’t routine bot behavior.
He went back to watching the monitors, but his mind kept turning back to the sound the unit had made. Almost like it understood what it meant to be labeled as malfunctioning. Like it was afraid.
Bots couldn’t be afraid, of course.
There’s definitely something wrong with it.
No point dwelling on it.
He watched the monitors, answered the comms, ate his lunch, and strolled on the treadmill. Just after noon, a woman on the eighty-second floor (the public relations department) tripped over a decorative vase, spilling her hot soup all over the floor. A man walking by slipped in the spilled soup. The man’s lunch was a messy (and completely synthesized, of course) shredded barbecue beef sandwich. It splattered all over the floor and the wall, and it fouled the mechanism of the bot that arrived to clean it all up. The man let loose with a loud string of curses at the woman for her clumsiness. Bob dispatched a heavy-duty cleaning bot to finish picking up the mess, and a repair bot to remove the damaged cleaning bot. Management dispatched a counselor to escort the foul-mouthed employee to a therapy room to discuss his inappropriate outburst.
“Swearing is not good public relations,” Bob mused aloud, smiling a little.
The rest of the day was boring and routine and at twenty after five Jan, his replacement for the swing shift, arrived.
“Anything hot?” Jan asked.
He told her about the man and the woman and the sandwich and she threw back her head and laughed. Bob admired Jan. She was pretty — but not too pretty, if she’d been too pretty, Bob would never have been able to get through a sentence without stammering — and she was very open and frank. Sometimes, he felt like the stodgiest of old codgers when he talked to her, though they were only a few years apart in age.
“Got anything fun planned for tonight?” Jan asked. She always asked.
“Not really,” Bob said. He always said that. Suddenly, being boring seemed a terrible thing, the worst thing ever. He was a boring blot standing stupidly in the shadow of her bubbling laughter. He cast about for something else – something interesting – to say. “I thought I might stop by the clinic,” he said. “I think I might be coming down with a cold.”
Then he hated himself for saying something so stupid.
Jan flung herself into a spare chair and peered at him. “You do look a little tired. Maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep?” Her eyes were hazel. He hadn’t noticed before.
“Maybe,” Bob said. “I did have a hard time getting up this morning.”
He fished around for a reason to continue the conversation, but couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t be equally as stupid. It was five-thirty. He stood up and she bounced over to the chair he’d just vacated.
He was almost out the door when she spoke behind him. “The X3255 is down? What the heck? Didn’t we just buy that thing?”
“Sorry, I forgot to mention it.” Bob was glad for the excuse to linger. “It’s been misidentifying anything small enough for it to pick up as garbage. Rafe said it made off with a vendor’s shoes. They patched the software last night, but it was still malfunctioning afterward.” She was staring at him oddly now, and she hadn’t laughed when he’d mentioned the shoes. He started to feel uneasy. “What?”
“You forgot to mention it?” Jan asked. “I think you are coming down with something. You never forget to mention anything!” Her words reminded him eerily of Charlie’s, when Bob had discovered that he’d forgotten his coffee. “And what’s this about it ‘emitting a high-pitched bleep’?”
Bob shifted uneasily. “It was unnerving,” he admitted. “When I sent the D and D code, it made this noise. It was almost like a… like a scream.”
She stared at him a moment longer, then shook her head. “You did have an eventful day.”
Bob had the feeling that her words were an insult. Unintended? Possibly. Insulting nonetheless. “For me, yeah, I guess it was eventful,” Bob replied. His tone was sullen. “Not so much to other people, I’m sure.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Jan protested, but he had already turned and walked out.
He fumed on his way to the tube, forgetting to stop and wait for Charlie. When he remembered, he almost turned back, but at the last moment, his anger and embarrassment drove him onward.
Stupid Bob and his stupid little life. Spilled lunches and a bot that screams, he’ll have to write it in his diary! The most exciting day ever, for the most boring man ever!
Bob knew he was being unjust, and the guilt of it quickly beat down his anger, leaving only the embarrassment. He would apologize to Jan tomorrow, mumble some excuse about not feeling well.
The plan did not alleviate his embarrassment, but it made him feel a little better.
He arrived home four minutes later than usual. As the door to his apartment slid open and he stepped inside, a shadow flitted across the edge of his sight.
Something had just whisked out of the living cubicle and around the corner to the bedroom.
His heart pounding, he fought to think clearly. It had been the merest flutter, like a piece of cloth. The corner of a coat?
He tried to listen, but all he could hear was the pounding of his own blood in his head. He took a deep, quiet breath, trying to calm himself, but the racing of his heart continued unabated.
He was about to turn, go back, take the tube down to the lobby and report an intruder, when the anger suddenly returned.
Dull, stupid Bob, too scared to do anything for himself.
Before he could think twice, he opened his mouth. “Hello? Is someone there?”
He instantly berated himself even as he held his breath, waiting for a reply. Stupid, DEAD Bob, calling out ‘Who’s there?’ so the killer could find him.
There was no sound.
The apartment was as silent as ever. The almost-but-not-quite audible hum of the appliances – something that you felt, and almost thought that you could hear – was the same as it ever was.
Bob stood there, breathing as shallowly as he could, listening hard, ready to bolt back out the door if anything happened.
But nothing ever happens, he thought, and that was enough to propel him to rash action again. He found himself taking four long, lurching steps to the corner and looking around it.
When his breathing had calmed and his heart had slowed, he searched the entire apartment. There wasn’t much to search. With the privacy screen on the bath cubicle turned off (as it always was, since he never had guests), that literally left nowhere to hide.
He sat down in an armchair in the living area. It unfolded itself hastily, just in time to stop him from tumbling to the floor.
Now that the whole thing was over and done with, he found himself vaguely disappointed that there had been nothing to it.
I used to be someone else.
Where had that thought come from? It was preposterous. Nearly as preposterous as the notion that he’d ever taken a walk through a forest. There were no more forests.
He awoke at precisely six-fifteen, brushed his teeth, cleaned up, dressed, ate breakfast and was out the door at his usual time. He met Charlie at the tube, endured his dire predictions of crashes and blood and bodies tossed about, and arrived to work on time. Rafe briefed him on the night’s work (nothing of interest to report other than that the X3255 had still not been looked at) and bid him a cheerful good day.
Bob sank into the chair, relieved to be back on track.
The words took on enormous significance. They symbolized and summed up the entirety of the last twenty-four hours. He’d had an OFF DAY and now he was, quite sensibly, BACK ON TRACK. It was a simple hiccup, a small glitch. No life could be precisely the same every single day without fail. There were bound to be deviations. He had a cold, which had caused him to oversleep by a few minutes, and he had let those two facts color his entire day. Today would be different. This evening, the clinic would confirm that he did have a cold, and he could therefore be forgiven for having an OFF DAY. He would get better, and things would return to normal. He’d be BACK ON TRACK.
He sipped his coffee, watched his monitors, and wondered what might be wrong with the X3255. The replacement bot (the old bot that the X3255 was meant to replace) was working, but might not be for much longer. In a building this size, even one bot not working up to capacity could cause a problem. Having one go down entirely would make things a little bit tricky. Bob had written a number of memos urging the purchase of spare bots, arguing that the cost of having replacements programmed and sent over in a hurry would be far higher than simply maintaining a few extras against future need. The company always politely thanked him for his contribution, assured him that employee innovations were desired and valuable, and continued to refuse to buy spare bots.
At five-twenty, he apologized to Jan for his behavior the day before and told her he was on his way to the clinic. She smiled, reached out, took hold of his forearm, and squeezed it briefly.
“Everyone has bad days,” she said, still smiling. “I hope they give you something to get rid of it. You do look a little pale today.”
Bob mumbled a reply, but promptly forgot what he’d said. The warm feeling on his arm persisted as he walked down to the tubes; the memory of her brief touch carried him all the way to the clinic.
She’d never touched him before.
The clinic quickly banished all thoughts of her. The waiting room was crowded, noisy, and somehow managed to seem dirty even though it was aggressively clean and sterile. He fed his ID into a slot and was instructed to sit in chair 37G to wait.
He located chair 37G, sat down, and proceeded to wait.
Though everything ran on a twenty-six-hour day, the clinic was always crowded after six o’clock in the evening. There were several adults with children in tow waiting for appointments. Though the children remained in their assigned seats, as required, many of them pushed their liberty as far as possible. A particularly small and annoying child in the seat in front of his was hanging over the back, hooting and cawing at him unpleasantly. He waited for the mother to say something. She never did. Her eyes appeared to be locked onto the newsfeed in the corner of the ceiling.
He waited, wishing he’d thought to load a book onto his personal datapad. The newsfeed gave him a headache. The women who read the feeds over the air always seemed bright and brassy, and they lilted at the end of every sentence, as though seeking approval for everything they said.
“Today, the Minister of Information announced that six new info-feeds will be going online this week? Sources say the feeds will feature the new direct-data link? Making it the most eagerly anticipated release this year? While the direct-data hardware is not yet available to the public, it has been implanted in volunteer members of the government and media, who will be testing the system before it is made widely available?”
His seat vibrated soundlessly. He stood, ignoring the child (who was now hanging almost upside-down over the back of the chair and looked well-positioned for an imminent fall on its head) and following the faint green line that lit up in the floor at his feet. The line directed him to a door on the wall to his left. He passed through it, went down a hallway, turned left, walked further down that hallway, and finally ended at a small examination room.
The door shut behind him, and letters began to glow from the walls.
TAKE OFF SHIRT. DO NOT REMOVE PANTS UNLESS INSTRUCTED. SIT ON TABLE.
He followed the directions, feeling self-conscious about removing his shirt. He knew many people thought nothing of disrobing in front of medical personnel, as if they didn’t count as people. He wasn’t one of them. He sat on the table.
The glowing letters changed.
REMAIN STILL UNTIL THE COUNT EXPIRES. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1.
THANK YOU. MEDICAL STAFF WILL BE WITH YOU SHORTLY.
He waited. He stared at the ceiling. When that grew boring, he studied his feet. He wished again for something to read, and then realized that he didn’t have his coffee mug with him.
Did he have it when he entered the clinic? The tube? He distinctly remembered sipping from it after he arrived at work that morning – had he left it at work by mistake?
The door slid open again, and a medic stepped through. The medic smiled a plastic smile at Bob and walked to the wall. He waved his hand over it and medical jargon began to appear. “So, Bob, number two-four-seven-six-three-dash-J-twenty-two. Thirty-six years old, employed by the Department of Maintenance. Standard ten-hour shift for non-physical labor. Yes?”
“Correct,” Bob said.
“Says here you always meet the minimum thirty minutes exercise during your shift?”
“I usually try to do at least two hours of walking.”
“That’s good. According to the readouts, you’re in pretty good shape. Heart and lungs look fine. No danger signals from your organs in general. No sign of toxins, no pharmaceuticals.” The medic tapped a finger on the wall next to a series of incomprehensible numbers, and Bob realized that the man hadn’t introduced himself. “But here’s where we’re seeing some areas of concern.”
Bob’s irritation vanished. “What areas?”
The medic turned away from the wall and sat down in a chair nearby. “First, why don’t you tell me why you’re here today? According to the computer, you said you thought you might be coming down with something. Why did you think that?”
“Well, I overslept by a few minutes yesterday morning. And I was all the way to work before I realized I didn’t have my coffee. My routine is… well, I’m very…”
“Set in your ways?” the medic suggested.
“Yes. Set in my ways. I’ve never forgotten to bring my coffee with me. Then I forgot to mention something that had occurred at work to a co-worker at the end of my shift.”
“Was it very important?”
“No, not particularly. It was just that we’d deactivated a bot and put another out on the floor. It was in the logs, she would have seen it. But I always remember to point these things out. Just in case. And right now…” Bob suddenly had an overwhelming sense of how pathetic and silly he sounded. “Well, I know I had my coffee mug with me when I got to work this morning, but I don’t have it now. I don’t remember where I left it.”
“Uh huh,” the medic said. He sounded thoughtful. “Anything else?”
Bob hesitated for a moment. He was suddenly afraid that he was going to sound crazy. “Well, I’ve had these incidents – only two, not many at all – when I thought I saw something. Out of the corner of my eye, I mean. But there was nothing there.”
“What did it look like?”
“I didn’t see anything, really. It was like shadows at the edge of my vision. I was looking in the bath cubicle mirror and I thought I saw something. Last night when I got home, I thought something whisked around the corner. This sounds stupid,” he concluded, turning red.
“Not at all, and it makes sense, given what I’m seeing,” the medic said. He pointed to the wall again. “Those numbers are fluctuations in your brain waves and the energy being generated by your synapses. They show a minor deviation from your normal readings. When I see small deviations like this, it usually means the person is upset, or under stress. Sometimes they’re just very unhappy. It also can indicate that the person is having trouble sleeping, which would explain those things you think you’re seeing.”
“I haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night, or having trouble going to sleep, nothing like that,” Bob objected.
“You could be, and not know it,” the medic said. “People often don’t realize they have trouble sleeping until they start noticing the effects. It doesn’t always mean you’re waking all the way up, or that you’re waking up at all. You might go to sleep easily, then have very shallow sleep. You could be waking up every thirty minutes and just not remember it. Your mind isn’t properly refreshing when that happens. It would explain why you’ve become a little absent-minded, why your routine has been disrupted. It can also cause visual disturbances like the ones you’ve mentioned. The good news is that it amounts to a very minor problem we can nip in the bud before it turns into a big one.”
The medic slapped his hands and rubbed them together. “We’ll give you a supplement. Take it with your evening meal and it will smooth out the edges. It basically primes you to sleep well. It won’t put you to sleep, and it won’t make you feel slushy. It just puts the chemicals in your brain into an ideal state for proper sleep. It helps you to re-establish a healthy sleep pattern.”
Slushy? Bob thought, amused. “No side effects?”
“Only one major one,” the medic said. “You may have dreams.”
“Everyone has dreams,” Bob said, puzzled.
“Of course they do. I mean you may have dreams that you’ll remember.”
Bob stared for a moment. “No one remembers their dreams,” he said.
“No, of course not,” the medic said, smiling. “That’s all taken care of by supplements. But what we need here is a reset of your system, and the supplement you’ll be taking to do that will counteract the supplements that suppress dream memory. Some people find it a bit unsettling, but it will only last a few days. A week, at most.”
“Is that legal?” Bob asked. He felt somewhat horrified. “I mean, they suppress them for a reason!”
“Of course it’s legal. It’s a prescription, after all. The goal is to make you as efficient as you can be. To be efficient, you have to sleep, and sleep well. It isn’t like you’re the first person who’s ever had these kinds of problems. In fact, it happens to most everyone at one time or another. Sooner or later, they all get worried, like you, and come in.” He tried to turn the plastic smile into a reassuring smile, with limited success.
“What happens if they don’t?”
The medic’s brow furrowed for a moment. “They all do, sooner or later.”
“But what if they didn’t?”
It was clear that the medic restrained himself from rolling his eyes only by a supreme effort. “They all do, sooner or later. If you don’t come in, they’ll bring you in.”
Bob wanted to ask him another question (and probably another one after that), but the medic stood and looked pointedly at the time display on the door. “I have other patients to attend to. Trust me – these supplements will fix you right up. Give yourself a couple of weeks to get into the habit.”
“That’s all we’re doing here,” the medic said on his way out the door. “Letting your body and brain relearn the habit of sleeping well. Have a nice day!”
Bob left the examination room feeling a bit dizzy. He did not feel quite as BACK ON TRACK as he had earlier. They’ll bring you in? What does that mean?
He signed the pad in the reception area to acknowledge that his appointment had been completed. The pad advised him that the prescribed supplements would be added to his food automatically.
As he walked to the tube station, he tried to decide if having trouble sleeping was more or less embarrassing than having a cold.
When he arrived home – much later than usual, of course – he was still trying to decide if he should tell people that he didn’t have a cold, after all. He walked to the kitchen wall, absorbed in his musings, and waited for his dinner to be produced.
When nothing happened, he snapped out of his daze and stared at the unit, puzzled. It remained closed, dormant, unresponsive.
Frowning, he said, “Produce dinner.”
“Response: The evening meal has already been produced, consumed and disposed of. Repeat command to confirm.”
“Consumed? I just got here, I had an appointment, I haven’t consumed anyth-“
The thought occurred to him in a flash and he whipped around, convinced that a cold-smiling killer would be standing behind him, a friendly look in his eye as he raised a sharp dagger…
He walked softly and cautiously to the bedroom. It was silent, waiting. The bath cubicle was empty.
He returned to the kitchen, suddenly buoyant. “Confirm, produce dinner.”
“Caution: consuming a second evening meal will cause the recommended caloric intake to be exceeded. Warning: records show that a prescribed medical supplement has been consumed. Please confirm if the meal is to contain the supplement or be produced without it, and state the reasons why for the record.”
“Produce meal with supplement,” he told it. “Begin recording reason now: I believe my kitchen unit is malfunctioning. Request service call. I have only just arrived home, no evening meal was consumed.”
“Response: reason has been recorded and the request for a service call has been noted. A technician will arrive in seventeen point eight minutes.” The panel slid upward, and a steak-and-potatoes dinner was revealed.
He ate the meal mechanically.
The day before yesterday, he thought. The day before yesterday, everything was fine. Everything was normal. It was all on schedule. It was all ON TRACK. Then it all went wrong.
He was starting to feel sorry for himself when a soft chime came from the door. He rose and walked to the panel, which was displaying a readout of the technician’s credentials. He waved the door open and gaped at the man standing outside.
He was easily the tallest man Bob had ever seen. His head bobbed within two inches of the ceiling, which meant he was over seven feet tall. Bob tried to remember exactly how high the ceilings were, but he couldn’t think of the number.
“You called about your kitchen unit?” the man asked. His voice was deep and sonorous. He peered at Bob patiently from deep-set eyes surrounded by purple shadows.
“Uh, yes,” Bob said. “I’m sorry, come in.” He moved aside and the man stooped over to keep from bashing his head on the doorframe. “I think it started yesterday. It didn’t produce my morning coffee. Today, it told me that the evening meal had already been produced and disposed of, except it hadn’t.”
“Ah,” the man said. He walked into the kitchen cubicle. The bench slid out and he sat on it, facing the panel.
Bob hadn’t seen him wave a command. “How did you do that?”
The man was diffident. “They know what to do.” Ghostly blue schematics began to appear on the walls.
“Well, er… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Didn’t give it. I am Bjarnarsonar.” As Bob’s mouth opened, then closed, the tall man smiled, the expression spreading slowly across his entire face. “Everyone calls me Mister B.”
“Ah. I see. Well… uh, Mr. B… how is it?”
Bjarnarsonar traced the tip of one finger along an invisible path in the air. “Is nothing wrong.”
“Nothing?” Bob squeaked. “It can’t be nothing. I’m telling you, it said I’d already eaten when I wasn’t even here! You can check the clinic records, I was there!”
“Maybe. But there is nothing wrong with this unit.” He stabbed his finger at a column of numbers. “Coffee was made yesterday, just like every day, and taken from the unit.”
“Two evening meals were produced, taken and consumed. One at the usual time, one later.”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t…”
Bjarnarsonar turned and looked at him calmly. “Procurement verified that the amounts produced and consumed match the output levels.”
Bob was diverted from his protests. “What does that mean?”
“It means that the amount of proteins, nutritional ingredients and forming agents used today matches the amount of food produced. If only one meal had been produced, the numbers would not match.”
“Maybe the procurement numbers are off…” His voice dwindled to nothing as he realized how unlikely it was.
Bjarnarsonar confirmed it. “For your unit to be malfunctioning, and the procurement inventory and usage reports to be faulty at the same time is almost impossible.” His expression as he gazed at Bob was not unsympathetic. “Is possible some other had access?”
The tech’s changes in speech were unnerving. One moment, he sounded normal; the next, he almost had an accent, which was impossible. Bob shook his head violently. “No one but me has access.”
“We see.” Bjarnarsonar stood and walked to the entrance; a new series of numbers and notations appeared on the door as he approached. He studied the output for a moment, and then grunted. The information disappeared obligingly. “No one been in here but you, then I.”
Where is this guy from? No one has an accent anymore. Bob opened his mouth to ask, but Bjarnarsonar spoke before he could form the words.
“Nothing I can do here.” He looked at Bob almost sadly. “There is a glitch here. Nothing I can do.” He nodded as though that settled it, turned and exited through the door.
“Wait!” Bob exclaimed, rushing to the entrance. “A glitch? Will it happen again?”
Bjarnarsonar strode away, tossing his response over his shoulder. “That be up to you.” With that last cryptic comment, the tech vanished down the vertical tube.
Bob stood on the threshold staring after him for so long that the door began to beep impatiently at him. He stepped back, startled, and it closed in his face.
He turned and looked around the apartment, bewildered and a little angry. He chose to go with the anger; he was tired of being bewildered. “Well, I am reporting him!” he announced to the apartment. “Glitches can be fixed! He has a lot to answer for, I’ll tell you that!”
“Query unclear. Confirm: do you wish to file a complaint, report a glitch, or answer an advertisement?”
“Shut up,” he said, and the voice, obediently, did not reply.
He sank onto the bed a few minutes later, his head still spinning. A cold that wasn’t a cold, sleeping issues, a kitchen unit gone mad, tardiness!
I’ve had a bad couple of days. Tonight, the supplements will work, and tomorrow everything will be back to normal. Everyone has a bad day or two now and then.
He went to bed somewhat early, hoping to start on the plan to get BACK ON TRACK immediately, but his mind kept picking over the events of the past two days. He couldn’t shake the uneasy thought that most people would have shrugged it all off, or even laughed about it.
He was running down a long tube station platform jam-packed with commuters. They walked quickly, purposefully, while they smiled and nodded to each other. He was dashing from one stop to the next, trying in vain to board a train. When the doors opened, masses of people rushed inside, but he was continually jostled to the back until the door had closed and the train left without him.
Then the platform was empty and deserted, and he sat down on a bench with no clue how to proceed. A voice came from his left.
“You’re going to miss your train,” it said loudly, annoyed.
He looked over and down to see a large mouse – or perhaps a rat? – addressing him. “Are you speaking to me?” he asked.
The mouse (rat?) twitched impatiently. “Who else? You have to hurry. You’ll miss your train.”
“But the trains have all gone,” Bob said. He felt like he was speaking with a mouth full of molasses, slowly and stupidly.
“Not yours. But you’re on the wrong platform, of course.” The mouse/rat pointed one paw toward the wall. “Go to the platform!”
He looked where the creature was pointing and saw a ragged hole in the wall. He stood and walked to it, then got down on his hands and knees to peer through it. It was large enough to crawl through, and he saw that it appeared to be a hole torn in a very large piece of paper.
Beyond the hole was a dark, dirty, smelly train platform. Smoke hung over it so thickly that he could hardly see to the other side. A man sitting near the hole grunted at Bob. The man’s clothes were buried under layers of grime. His head was bent over a newspaper – a newspaper on actual paper! – that he held in his lap. “Get in here, then,” the man said.
“I don’t think I belong here,” Bob said. “This doesn’t look like my platform at all.”
The man looked up and Bob saw that his eyes were ringed by inky black smudges. “It is your platform. If not here, then where? Noplace, that’s where. Do you want to be forever in noplace?” Bob tried to tell the man that he wasn’t noplace, he was in the world, as he should be, but the man shook his head back and forth, back and forth, and a chittering sound behind Bob made him afraid that something was sneaking up behind him, but he couldn’t back up or turn around and he didn’t want to go onto the filthy, dark platform, and then he woke up and realized that it was the alarm he’d been hearing.
The alarm cut off a moment later, and Bob had the strange feeling that he was getting out of bed, except that he hadn’t waved at the alarm or told it to shut off and he was still lying on the bed.
After another moment, his head was clear. He stared at the numbers on the ceiling and wondered if the supplements were supposed to make him feel so disconnected when he woke up.
A few minutes later, he was flying through his morning routine, feeling better than he had in days. He sang a half-remembered snatch of song and practically danced to the wardrobe.
“I feel better!” he announced. “Today is going to be a great day.” He noticed the time and realized that he was running a couple of minutes late. “Not to worry. An adjustment to the supplements. Two minutes is nothing.”
“Two minutes is equal to one hundred and twenty seconds, or one hundred and eighty-seven seconds in revolution standard…”
“Shush!” he called out. The voice fell silent. He reached the wardrobe, waited as it slid open, and then reached out his hand for a pair of pants that wasn’t there.
His good mood evaporated instantly. The closet had opened at his approach, but no clothes had been offered. He stared at it, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Produce workday clothing,” he said. His voice sounded small and dismayed.
He expected a comment from the wardrobe (the kitchen unit wasn’t shy about sharing its views, after all), but it mutely offered up an outfit. He took the pants from the hanger, and then paused.
“Why was… why were clothes not offered until I requested them?”
The wardrobe responded. “Clothing for the current workday was already removed. Do you require laundry services?”
“No,” he said, puzzled. “Why would I…” It dawned on him after a moment that the wardrobe had assumed that he had soiled the first set of clothing. “No! I mean…” He leaned his forehead against the wall, overwhelmed again.
First the kitchen unit, now this. Could it be the whole apartment is breaking down?
He knew that was impossible. Or it should be. Each unit was separate, distinguished by the same voice in slightly varying pitches. Unless…
“Query,” he said, his voice slow as he pondered. “Describe logical situations in which multiple units in a single dwelling could fail in the same time frame.” He winced. The question had been poorly worded, but the system understood.
“Answer: Odds of simultaneous hardware failures when factoring in the age of the units and the service record is one in…”
“No numbers,” he said hastily. “Summarize. In simple terms.”
“Modified answer: Simultaneous hardware failure under the current circumstances is nearly impossible. Simultaneous software glitches or failures is nearly impossible. Most likely scenarios, in order of their likelihood, are operator error or sabotage.”
His mouth dropped open. Here was a possibility that he had not considered. “What kind of sabotage?”
“Answer: Software can be reprogrammed. Software sabotage can be accomplished from a remote location. The units could be programmed to falsely log that items were produced. This would require a high level of skill. It would also require breaking the numerous safeguards built into the system to make this type of tampering nearly impossible. Likelihood that this has occurred: virtually none.”
“In other words, you think it’s my fault,” Bob muttered.
“Answer: It is most likely that such an occurrence would be the result of user error.”
Bob glanced absently at the clock and was startled to see that another ten minutes had passed. He dressed quickly and went into the kitchen, where he again had to override the unit’s insistence that he had already eaten. He rushed to the tube station, knowing that Charlie was long gone. That was fine: no Charlie meant no uncomfortable questions. He arrived at work five minutes before his shift began.
Rafe was jogging on the treadmill when he arrived. “Woah. Late night?”
Stressed, upset, and confused, Bob did not have the wherewithal to prevaricate. “They gave me supplements to regulate my sleep,” he said. “I had a hard time waking up.”
Rafe slowed to a walk and nodded. “Trouble sleeping?”
“That’s what they said.”
Rafe nodded again. “My sister had trouble sleeping last year. Said the supplements threw her off for a few days, and then she was good to go.” He looked curiously at Bob. “Did you have a dream? That was the part that really freaked her out. Remembering her dreams.”
Bob nodded. “It was… very uncomfortable,” he admitted.
Rafe shook his head. “Uncomfortable. Man, I’d be freaking out.”
“Hell, yes. There’s a reason they suppress ‘em, you know. Makes you all crazy, seeing and thinking about weird things that never happened. Good thing it only lasts a few days. At least, that’s what my sister said.”
Bob punched in at the terminal and sat down while Rafe cooled off. “Anything to report?”
Rafe laughed. “Yeah, you should see a Tetradyne tech or two here this morning. That X3255 went nuts last night.”
“I deactivated it!”
“Yeah, I know. It’s all in the log. Somehow, the thing reactivated itself and started running all over the building collecting anything that wasn’t nailed down. Had to pull the brain chip to shut it off. They think there’s some kind of faulty circuit.” Rafe grinned. “They’re still trying to sort out all the stuff it picked up. It got ahold of a VP’s datapad, and he called Tetradyne and screamed holy hell at ‘em. They’re sending someone over a-sap.” He shrugged. “That was it, though.” Rafe waved on his way out the door. “Good luck with those supplements.”
“Thanks.” Bob hardly heard him. He punched up the X3255’s log and started reading through it.
There wasn’t much to see. At two fifty-three in the morning, the unit had powered on and acknowledged a reactivation order that didn’t exist. After that, there was a long list of items the unit had collected, and then a final entry when the chip was pulled.
Strange, he thought. My problems started right around the same time the unit began to malfunction.
The thought was unsettling.
The morning proceeded uneventfully, until the Tetradyne tech arrived just after ten. She was small and cute and Bob found himself immediately flustered by her.
“Hiya!” she said. “I’m Faith. Heard you have an Exie misbehaving?”
“Exie?” Bob asked.
“Ex-thirty-two-fifty-five got shortened to Exie,” Faith smiled. “One of those things that just happens, you know?”
He didn’t, so he punched up an order on the console. “It should be here in a minute.”
She looked around, interested. “Neat set-up. Bet it doesn’t kill you to work here, huh?”
Bob was surprised. Generally, people just said things like “Ah” and then changed the subject when they asked about his job. Others joked about it. He looked around the room with fresh eyes. “It’s not bad,” he said.
“Stuck in the same room all day, every day, though, that would drive me crazy. I like being a techie, I get to travel all over and see things. Bet you’ve got some good stories though. Fun stuff.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Garbage, you know, trash. There has to be some funny there. People spilling things on other people, bots zooming around. You can’t tell me you never see anything funny happen!”
“I suppose,” he said, a little taken aback by her enthusiasm. “That X3255 collected a pair of shoes right out from under a sales rep.”
Faith laughed, scrunching up her eyes. “See? That’s funny. Even if the Exie isn’t s’posed to do that.” A panel slid open and a repair bot trundled into the room dragging the X3255. She clapped her hands together, rubbed them briskly, and crouched next to the unit as the repair bot detached and bumbled out of the room. She opened a panel and started waving a small probe-like device inside. “This is the Pokey,” she grinned up at him. “Stupid name, but that’s what everyone calls it. The Pokey. Ok, I’m going to plug this bad boy’s chip in and see what he does.”
“He?” Bob had a vague notion that most people referred to bots as ‘she’.
“Yeah. If they’re working properly, they’re girls. When they get naughty, they’re boys. That’s my theory, anyway.” She winked at him. Actually winked at him. Bob began to feel a little warm. She pushed on something. There was a small click, and the X3255’s lights began to cycle on. While the unit powered up, Faith pulled a datapad and a stylus from her bag and looked at it. “Ok, I’ve got him on my screen now. He’s power cycling nicely, no problems there. I’m queuing up a standby order, so the first thing he should do is nothing.” The unit’s power system settled into a steady, almost inaudible humming, and then it suddenly lurched forward. “Uh oh.” She worked furiously with the stylus and the bot stopped again. “Huh. The standby order was bypassed and it went back to its usual program, which is wonky.”
“Wonky?” Bob knew that repeating her words sounded stupid, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Wonky,” Faith repeated, frowning at the datapad. “It is programmed to pick up anything it can collect. Its discernment programs are missing. That means it doesn’t know the difference between a briefcase and a ham sandwich,” she clarified. Faith sat back on her heels, drumming the stylus on the pad. “I don’t understand how it could ship like this. The very last thing they do with them at the factory is check the programming a final time. No way would they miss holes in the software this big.” She chewed it over. “I’m not sure how those holes could be there in the first place. It’s not a bunch of separate programs, it’s all one piece of software. Well, the collection functions, I mean. It has separate modules for power management and the like… hmm.” She stared at the bot, thinking.
Bob stared at her. Jan was attractive, and there were times when he dimly thought that she wanted him to ask her out, but Faith was something else entirely. She practically vibrated with energy and good humor. She was small and cute and Bob supposed that if he had a type, she’d be it.
He flushed a little. Bob had never had a successful date in his life, and what few dates he’d had were set-ups engineered by his friends, back when he had friends. He had no idea how to ask for a date. He suspected that she was used to being asked out. Everywhere she went, she probably had offers, or at least a lot of hopeful suggestions. The blush crept up to his forehead and he wondered if she’d notice, which made him blush harder.
Bob had a sudden vision of himself. In his vision, he sidled up to Faith with an engaging grin and plied her with stories. She hung on his every word, teased him, smiled at him. He slid a drink across the rough wooden plank that passed for a bar, and made a suggestion…
Where the HELL did that come from? For a moment, it hadn’t seemed like a vision at all. It felt like a memory.
Thankfully, Faith hadn’t notice his abstraction. She was still chewing on her lip and staring at the bot.
“What can be done?” he asked.
“Well, nothing easier, really. I could just have it reprogrammed in a few minutes and bang, you’re back in business. But I think the company’s going to want to try to figure out how this happened, so I should probably just have them send you a replacement and take this one back for testing. They can pull the manufacturing logs and run diagnostics, see if we can figure out where it went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. Could just be a glitch, could be something wrong on the manufacturing end. Hard to say.”
“How soon can the new one be here?”
She stood and stretched, a process that fascinated Bob and made him blush again. “Couple of hours. I’ll try to put a rush on it, since this certainly isn’t user error. If they’re on the ball, you might have a new one within the hour.” She bent over, reached inside the panel and pulled the chip back out again. The bot powered down quickly.
As Faith began punching orders into the datapad, Bob had a sudden thought. “This may not be your area, but… can I ask you something?”
She looked up from the datapad and smiled. “Sure.”
“I’ve been having problems with my home units,” Bob said. “The kitchen unit keeps telling me it’s already produced and disposed of meals when I wasn’t even home to eat them. My wardrobe did the same thing, told me that it had already produced clothing when I hadn’t gotten dressed yet. I had a tech look at the kitchen unit and he said nothing was wrong.”
She looked interested. “Did he check the central procurers?”
“He said something about the protein output matching up, or something like that.”
Faith nodded. “Yeah, that’d be one way to figure it out. Wardrobes and kitchens are separate units, though, so if one malfunctions, there’s no reason for the other one to mess up.”
Bob felt deflated. She was going to agree with the other tech. “But they are! I had an appointment, so I was later than usual getting home, and the kitchen unit said I’d already eaten. Then in the morning, I got out of the hygiene unit and went to get clothes and it said they were already taken!”
Faith cocked her head. “This happened more than once?”
“The wardrobe thing is new,” he admitted. “But the kitchen unit has been wrong several times.”
“Always at evening meals?”
“No, my morning coffee has been an issue as well.”
“Hmm.” The stylus tap tap tapped on the pad. “Do you remember the tech’s name?”
Bob thought about it. “It was a hard name. Bjar… something.”
She smiled a big, sunny smile, but something about it seemed off. “Bjarnarsonar. I’ve heard of him, guy’s supposed to be a real wizard. Talking to the bots and all that. I bet he checked to see if anyone else had entered your apartment.”
Bob nodded. “He said no one but me had been inside.”
She tilted her head the other way. “He’s supposed to be the best, so he’d know what he was talking about. Still…”
“He said something weird, too,” Bob told her. “I asked him if it was going to keep happening and he said it was up to me. What is that supposed to mean?”
Faith’s eyes suddenly slid away from his. She bent over and busied herself with her bag. “I don’t know. Guy’s supposed to be all Zen or something. The interconnectedness of the universe, and all that.” She stood up and smiled at him. This time, the smile definitely did not reach her eyes. “You should ask him.” She nudged the X3255 with her foot. “Someone will come pick this guy up when they drop off the new one. Let us know if you have any further problems. Have a nice day.”
Bob watched her walk out of the room, confused. She’d been so bubbly and friendly, and then something had changed.
Did I say something?
Tetradyne sent a delivery agent an hour later. The agent was chewing gum, a habit that disgusted Bob. He digitally signed the invoice the agent offered him, and ushered the man out as soon as he could. The new X3255 cycled up and went to work without a hitch.
When Jan arrived to relieve him, he responded mechanically to her questions and wandered out the door, still thinking about Faith.
Charlie was waiting outside. “Long time no see!” he drawled. “What’s the what?”
“I don’t know.” They walked to the tube station, Charlie chattering about trains and mortality rates. Bob interrupted the steady stream of doom and gloom.
“You know a lot of techs, right?”
Charlie was thrown. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You ever hear of a guy named…” Bob thought carefully, and said it slowly, “Bjarnarsonar?”
Charlie laughed. “Heck yeah. Everyone’s heard of Mr. B. He’s the man. Talks to the machines. Train probably wouldn’t crash with him on it. Why?”
“He came to fix my apartments units, but he couldn’t find anything wrong.”
Charlie nodded. “If Mr. B. says there’s nothing wrong with the unit, there’s nothing wrong with the unit.”
“He had an accent,” Bob said.
“Accent?” Charlie looked at him, a faint smile on his face. “Nobody has an accent.”
Bob thought about arguing, and then let it go. “Do you know where I can find him?”
Charlie looked faintly surprised. “You want to talk to him about your units again?”
“No, no,” Bob assured him. “It’s just that he said something odd when he was leaving, and I want to ask him what it meant.”
Charlie looked at Bob for another moment, intrigued, then shrugged. “He lives over in the…” Charlie paused, and his head tilted quickly to the side. “Fourth circle, sixth section. Seventh or eighth level, I think. In the evenings, you can usually find him in the park at…” Charlie hesitated again, his head ticking to the other side. “Four-nine-six. He hangs out, plays a little chess, reads, sometimes just sits and watches people.”
“Four-nine-six?” Bob asked carefully, and Charlie nodded. “I think I’ll head over there.”
“Whatever he said must’ve really gotten to you.”
“I just don’t understand what he meant. I want to know.”
Bob and Charlie boarded the tube. Charlie got off at twelve, like usual, waving to Bob as he hopped off. “Good luck!” Charlie shouted.
The doors hummed shut and the tube raced on.
Bob stared at nothing, frowning. Had Charlie suddenly started acting oddly, or was he imagining it?
Bob counted the stops as they went: eleventh circle, tenth circle, then nine and eight at the same station (from there, unlucky travelers would have to board other trains to get to their respective circles) until, finally, the number four ghosted over the tops of the exits and the tube came to a slow, smooth stop.
Bob got off and walked briskly to the verticals. Every circle was constructed exactly the same as every other circle, so getting lost was virtually impossible. Though the park address on file would be “Fourth Circle Section Six Level Nine”, when you gave directions, you followed the order of the tubes you had to take to get there. Four-nine-six meant to take the main tube to the fourth circle, the vertical tube up to the ninth level, and then a small horizontal pedestrian tube to section six. Residential addresses (and some of the smaller businesses) would have an additional unit number.
Bob arrived at the park without mishap and walked down a faux stone path that led into the center. Every community park was laid out identically to every other park, and Bob found the chess tables quickly. He didn’t see Bjarnarsonar anywhere. He sat on a bench to wait. Twenty minutes later, Bob asked one of the chess players if they’d seen Bjarnarsonar.
The large, beefy man tilted his head to the side and jerked a thumb over his shoulder, his eyes never leaving the pieces in front of him. “He went that way. Go down the path, first fork on your left. By the pond. He sits on a bench over there when he doesn’t feel like playing.”
Bob thanked him and walked down the path. He took the left fork and soon found the pond. It was small, but the water was clear and still and pretty in the late afternoon light. They worked hard to make the lighting in these “outdoor” areas as natural as possible. Bob rarely spent any time in them, and he’d never been outdoors in his life, so he had no idea if they succeeded.
He spotted Bjarnarsonar quickly; the tech was the only other person in the area. Bjarnarsonar was sitting on a bench looking out over the water. He was facing Bob, but he didn’t react to Bob’s presence at all.
Bob forced himself to walk around the side of the pond and sit down on the bench next to Bjarnarsonar in spite of the voice in his head screaming at him for disrupting the tall man’s privacy. It’s a public space, he argued. I have as much right to be here as anyone.
Bob stared at the pond, trying to think of something to say and hoping Bjarnarsonar would speak first. As the silence stretched on and became unbearable, Bob blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“My wardrobe unit is malfunctioning now.”
Bjarnarsonar nodded slowly. “That is a great thing, for some. Or perhaps not. For you, I think, a pity.”
“A great thing?” Bob was incredulous. “You think it’s a great thing for a person’s wardrobe to have a breakdown?”
“Why do you care so much? Can you not choose your own clothing, decide for yourself if this color matches that color?”
“It’s not the wardrobe, ok, it’s not the wardrobe, it’s the whole thing. First the kitchen, then the wardrobe. It’s a sign of, of something, of a malfunction somewhere!”
Bjarnarsonar nodded. “This is what I am telling you. There is a malfunction.”
Bob stopped cold. “You said there was nothing wrong with the unit!”
“There is nothing wrong with the unit. The malfunction is not in the unit.”
“Well, where is it, then?”
“In everything. In the everywhere. The sky, the earth, these plastic and metal buildings. It is all around us, malfunctioning.”
Bob stood up, fuming, too angry to be afraid. “I came here to ask about what you said. About it being up to me if these glitches keep happening? But you just want to spout nonsense! Is it a religion? Are you selling something? I don’t want to know, I have my answer. My answer is that you are crazy, so nothing that you said means anything!” Bob turned to sweep out, taking his indignation with him, but Bjarnarsonar looked up and made eye contact with him.
Bjarnarsonar’s eyes were so sad that Bob stopped cold, staring at him. “I may be crazy,” Bjarnarsonar said, scratching his head. “This much may be true. Who is to say who is crazy and who is not? Who decides? How are you sure that the man who decides who is crazy is not crazy himself?”
“Nothing you say makes any sense,” Bob said. “I just want to know why these things keep happening to me!”
Bjarnarsonar was silent for a moment, and then he motioned for Bob to sit down again. Bob did, his eyes never leaving the large man. When Bjarnarsonar spoke, Bob dimly noted that his accent had all but disappeared again. “There is a story they tell about a place. Maybe it was here. Maybe it was far away from here. This place had been a tribe’s home for many, many years. Their children were born there, and most of them planned to die there. Life was good. Simple. The land fed them. There were plenty of animals. The weather was mild. They lived as their forefathers did, in huts they built with their own hands. They hunted as their forefathers did, and passed along stories to their children.
“A large company came along and decided that this land was the perfect place to build something. They wanted to put tall towers there. The company bought the land and sent the tribe away to live in far-off, unfamiliar places. The tribe protested this treatment, but as they did not have little pieces of paper saying that the land was theirs, they were made to leave.
“One man would not leave. He was ninety-eight years old, and was an honored hunter in his day. He walked to the top of the little hill in the center of the village and stood there. He planted his feet in the ground and stood, and there he remained.
“For two days, the company tried to decide what to do about him. Some wanted him removed forcibly. Others felt sorry for him. He was standing directly in the center of the village. They could not destroy the homes without destroying him, as well.
“Because there were some who felt sorry for him, the company decided to try speaking to the old man first. They sent for a man who worked for them, a man who knew how to talk to people. This man had faced similar situations in the past. He was able to talk people into surrendering so that work could continue. This man went out to the hill where the old man stood, and he talked. He explained what the company was going to build and why they were building it there. He explained about all the jobs that would be created and all the families who would have a place to live. He explained all day and on into the night, but the old man never moved. Never twitched. Never spoke. He just stood there, gazing out over the village.
“The company man was determined not to fail, so he kept speaking. He tried to get the old man to tell him about his family. He asked why the old man was doing this. He scolded the old man for standing in the way of progress. He talked about the old man’s tribe, and how they must miss him in their new homes. He offered to bring the old man food and water. He talked all that day and again into the night, and still the old man did not move, did not speak, did not eat or drink.
“The company man had been given a deadline of three days. When the allotted time had passed, more company men arrived by air. They confirmed that the first company man had been unable to talk the old man into leaving, and then they shot the old man and dragged his body into their craft and hauled it away.
“The first company man had his own vehicle, so he remained behind. He stared out over the village, thinking about it for a while. Then he walked to the hill, folded his arms and stood in the exact spot where the old man had stood. He did not move. They found him there when they returned.”
Bjarnarsonar fell silent. Bob waited until he couldn’t stand it any longer. “Well? What happened to him?”
Bjarnarsonar shrugged. “That is not part of the story.”
Bob stared at the tall man. Bjarnarsonar continued to gaze placidly over the pond. Bob began to get an itchy feeling in his head. “Is this all just a joke?”
Bjarnarsonar looked at him, eyebrows drawn together. “Why would you ask that? Does this seem funny to you?”
“No. No, it isn’t funny at all. The med tech said I’m not sleeping well. My kitchen tells me that I’ve already eaten when I haven’t. My wardrobe says I’ve already taken my clothes and gotten dressed when I haven’t. My coffee is there, and then it’s not. Cleaning bots go crazy, the tech is friendly and then suddenly can’t get away from me fast enough, and I have you telling me it’s up to me whether my kitchen works correctly or not and then telling me stories that make no sense! A few days ago, everything was fine!”
“Why do you think the company man took the old man’s place?” Bjarnarsonar asked.
“I don’t know!”
“Did something happen? Did the old man talk him into it?”
Bob ground his teeth. “You said that the old man never spoke. The company man stood around talking, and then the old man was murdered and dragged away. Then the company man just took his place. None of that makes any sense!”
“So, the company man went there to convince the old man to leave, but instead took his place,” Bjarnarsonar said, still patient. “Does that not mean that something must have changed inside the company man, to make him do this?”
“I guess,” Bob said. Bjarnarsonar looked at him, saying nothing. “Are you saying that all this is because of me? That something has changed in me?” He shook his head. “The kitchen unit didn’t start malfunctioning because I changed. This is all crazy.”
“The kitchen unit is not malfunctioning.” Bjarnarsonar sighed. “When you understand that, you may understand what is happening. Good-bye.” Bjarnarsonar stood and started to walk away.
“Good-bye?” Bob shouted, beside himself. “Good-bye? That’s it? Good-bye?!” He stood, sat down, stood up again, and finally collapsed back onto the bench.
Bjarnarsonar stopped walking, turned around, and looked at him. “You’re of no use to anyone like this,” he said. “But more importantly, you’re of no use to yourself. That’s the point of all this.”
Bob stared at him, nonplussed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You said that your kitchen unit told you you’d already eaten. That your wardrobe told you that you’d already dressed. Is that what actually happened?”
“No, of course not,” Bob said. “It just told me… they told me food had been eaten and disposed of. That clothes had already been provided. They didn’t actually say who… but you said no one but me…” Bob stopped speaking as a new thought occurred to him.
“Yah,” Bjarnarsonar said. “You should look into that. Into all this. Into yourself.” He turned and left.
Bob went home.
He walked into the kitchen and stared at the unit.
“Confirm that two evening meals were dispensed yesterday.”
“Who removed the first meal from the unit?”
“The meal was removed and consumed by Bob.”
“And the second meal?”
“The meal was removed and consumed by Bob.”
Bob stared at the unit. “Were they the same Bob both times, or two different Bobs?”
“Warning: Resident malfunction. Remain where you are. Management has been notified.”
Bob felt something shift inside his head, and light spilled through his brain. Memories rose, and his jaw dropped. “You… I… you sons of bitches…”
There was a flash and a bang, and then Bob fell over, and everything went dark.
It goes like this:
At six fifteen, the alarm sounds. The buzzing is perfectly pitched to drill into the human ear, creating a resonance that makes the very idea of getting “just a few more minutes” impossible. His brain thrums, his nerves sing, and he rises out of bed feeling shell-shocked. To make sure that he is absolutely aware that it is, in fact, time to get up, the infernal device also projects the time in ghostly blue numerals all over the ceiling and walls. They begin to fade almost immediately, slowly dimming until they are gone.
He stumbles into the bath cubicle as the ghost numbers fade. He cleans his teeth with a sonic brush that first loosens the detritus on the teeth and under the gums, and then sweeps it away. It is almost painful, but not quite…
** ? **
“Dammit, this damned thing keeps… why the hell does he keep doing that? No, how does he keep doing that?”
“He’s a pain in the ass, that’s how. That’s why they built the damned thing in the first place. But this time, there was interference.”
“Interference? Who would dare-?”
“That rotten, misbegotten… why is he getting involved? Does that mean-?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he just feels sorry for the guy. He does like stories an awful lot. But maybe it’s something more.”
“We can’t afford… I can’t… you know what’s at stake!”
“Yes. But we may lose our grip. We may not have a choice. They’re going to need their witness.”
“Oh… oh, shit. Don’t tell me.”
“Of course it’ll be him. That’s why the other one came looking.”
“We’re so screwed.”
“Yes, we probably are.”
A Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue Story
Copyright © 2019
by Heather Masterson.
All Rights Reserved
Bob will return in Book 2! (Nope, I wasn’t kidding about the robots.)