Where Are You Going?
by BJ Neblett
© 2011, 2012
Vivian tried relaxing back into the plush bucket seat. The expensive Italian leather creaked and groaned as if in protest to the squirming body. The driver’s window was open slightly and the humid summer air was causing the car’s windows to fog.
“Humph…” Vivian muttered, glancing at the steam clad windshield. Despite her annoyance, the sight caused her rose lips to curl, nearly forming a smile.
“Pretty In Pink,” she said softly. A long buried memory flashed through the woman’s mind, like the scattered streaks of lightening which were even now fading rapidly into the dark eastern skies. “Pretty In Pink,” she repeated.
It had been what, ten… no, fifteen years. The perky cheerleader reluctantly agreed to a date with Tom Balcom, Millard Fillmore High’s most eligible nerd. Actually, it was Vivian’s best friend Gail who set her up with the cute, bashful electronic genius. For some reason Gail liked Robert. Robert was best buddies and science club co-founder with Tom. But Robert would only date Gail if she would fix up shy Tom. And so, on an overcast Saturday night the unlikely foursome agreed to meet at the Easton Drive-In Theatre.
The skies were already cloudy and threatening by the time Tom reached Vivian’s. When he finally did arrive in his beat up Reliant K with the rotating parabolic antenna affixed prominently to the roof she almost changed her mind. A weird looking tangle of wires, circuits and flashing LED’s sitting on the dashboard of the Plymouth greeted her.
“What’s wrong with your radio?” Vivian asked, trying to get comfortable in the cramped passenger compartment.
“It’s not a radio.” Tom fiddled with a dial, causing a high frequency squeal to jump from the speaker, and Vivian to jump in her seat, covering her ears. “Sorry,” Tom sighed.
He glanced at his date and then turned his attention back to the device and the road ahead. “It’s an ASAP, an Automatic Satellite Assisted Positioning device.” The boyish grin grew, his face flushed and he began to speak in rushed breathless fragmented sentences. “Isn’t it cool? It’ll guide us directly to the theatre… the quickest route… turn by turn…” His excitement escalated as did the pitch of his cracking voice. “All I have to do is feed the theatre’s coordinates into it… I invented it… well sort of… the aerial on the roof is in contact with satellites up in space. They can tell where we are at any given time… and guide us to where we are going! I got the idea from a Popular Science Magazine article… the government is experimenting with them… someday every car will have one.”
Vivian rolled her baby blue eyes and lazily twirled a lock of long honey blonde hair between two fingers. She knew a date with Balcom the Brain would be weird. But this was beyond the code of friendship. Gail owed her big time.
Just then a metallic robotic voice filled the car, as a green LED flashed. “Right… right… right…” it repeated with a stilted, high pitched drone.
Tom raised his arm slapping the air a high five and then pounded the steering wheel. “Yes! I knew it… I knew it!” The grin was now a full faced toothy smile. “I knew those surplus voice-aux parts would work! I knew it! Robert said I’d need more power, a larger transformer. But it works… it works!” The near madman expression now shadowing his face frightened Vivian. “It’s alive… it’s alive!” Tom cried out, twisting the steering wheel, causing the tiny car to skid onto a side street.
“Are you sure this is the way to the drive-in?”
Two hours later they pulled up next to Robert and Gail. “Where have you been?” Gail cried out, leaning from the rear window of Robert’s van and adjusting her blouse. “The first feature is almost over.”
A steady drizzle was now falling and the little Reliant’s windows were beginning to fog. On the screen a painted Molly Ringwald pouted in her pretty pink party dress. Vivian slumped in the seat. Maybe none of her friends would see her. As the side and rear windows clouded over another thought panicked her: Oh my God. That Gail is such a blabber mouth! What if she thinks we’re in here making out?”
Tom and Vivian did make out that night; and Gail did blab to the girls at school; and it hadn’t been ten or even fifteen years ago but more than twenty. Somehow the oddly matched couple stayed together, marrying after Tom graduated from college. They had an inquisitive teenage daughter, a beautiful lavish house in the country, and Tom was the CEO of a very profitable company which manufactured high end GPS systems for home and military use.
Despite the warm June night, the recollection sent a comforting shiver through Vivian.
It didn’t last.
“This is his entire fault,” Vivian huffed as the memory faded. She cleared a circular spot on the driver’s window with her hand. Through it she spied the approaching State Trooper in her rear view mirror. Vivian pressed the button that lowered the electric window. The trooper’s figure became silhouetted against a yellow flash of lightening as he leaned into the car.
“Where did you say you were going, ma’am?”
“Pine Valley, I was trying to get back to the highway.” She shot the GPS perched atop the dashboard a menacing look. “I thought I was supposed to turn right… back there.”
“No ma’am, the highway is about fifteen miles the other direction.”
“Well, tell that to that thing!”
“Yes ma’am.” Suddenly the officer let out a long low whistle of admiration. “Wow, a Finder 6300! I’ve only got the 5100 model, but I swear by mine.”
“It’s some new, proto type thingy,” Vivian sneered. “And I swear at it a lot myself.”
The officer straightened, returning Vivian’s driver’s license and insurance. “Well, you just turn around here. You’ll see a sign about six miles back pointing you to the highway. You can’t miss it. You take it easy and drive safely. You’ll be home in no time.”
As Vivian swung the big Lincoln SUV around, a metallic voice filled the cabin. “Oh, no, not again…” she sighed.
“Sondex X33,” the mechanical voice droned, “coordinates 93, 66, 33, dash zero one two.”
Vivian punched the touch screen of the annoying device. A soft, feminine voice gently urged, “Please turn around you are going the wrong direction. Please turn around when safe to do so.”
“Oh, shut up!”
“Mom’s looking for you.”
Tom looked up from his work bench. “Figures, I heard her come in late last night. I pretended to be asleep. I think she’s mad.”
Jenny smiled and shook her head, the long brown braided pony tail whipping from side to side. “Oh, she’s mad alright.” She moved further into her dad’s workshop. “This is what, the third time this week? And can you guess at whom her wrath is directed?”
A puff of grey smoke wafted up from the electric soldering iron. Tom frowned, “Why do you think I’ve been hiding out here all morning? Did she happen to mention what bee’s gotten into her bonnet?”
The teen laughed out loud. “What do you think?” Assuming the stiff bodied stance of a robot she mimicked, “Sondex… Sondex reporting…”
“Oh, no, not again…” Closing his eyes and summonsing a deep, cleansing breath, Tom settled back onto his stool while his response settled back into his gut. “There’s nothing wrong with the Finder 6300,” he said patiently, “It’s state of the art… beyond state of the art. It has advanced circuitry and programming years ahead of the competition. It works perfectly.”
“Oh, yeah…” Jenny’s soft hazel eyes moved to the mound of tiny parts sprawled across the bench top. She grinned broadly. “Then what’s that you are working on?”
“Don’t you have some chores to do or something?”
“Chores, it’s the weekend! I’m off to volleyball practice.” She threw her father a quick finger wave. “Anyway, mom’s headed this way. I thought I’d give you a heads up.”
“You can run… but…” With a luminescent smile she bounded out the door.
Minutes later the sound of the shop door opening gave Tom a start, pulling him from his concentration. “Ouch! Dang it…”
“Ah, the sweet, sultry smells of burning flesh. Hey, don’t you know you’re suppose to solder the parts together, not your fingers?”
“Oh, it’s you,” Tom said, licking his stinging pinky. “I thought it might be Viv.”
Robert took Tom’s hand, examining the burn under a lighted magnifying glass used for close intricate work. “You’ll live. So, tell me, things not so copasetic in the Balcom abode this sunny day?”
Tom and Robert had remained close friends. While Tom forged his future at MIT, Robert attended Harvard, earning his MBA. After two aborted attempts, the friends finally found fame and fortune with Tom’s revolutionary system for gathering and correlating satellite information, and Robert’s astute business acumen for marketing a product in a very competitive field. Finder GPS systems quickly began finding their way into the lexicon of necessary automotive gadgets, and the pair were enjoying the fruits of their labors.
Ignoring the probing inquiry, Tom set back to work. “It’s those dang X-C circuits… they’re the heart of the system.” He examined the tiny electronic piece under the lighted magnifying glass. “I just can’t seem to get the things tuned properly.”
“Why don’t you use the old T-C’s? They’ve worked fine for us for years.”
“I know I know… but if I can just get the fine tuning right on those new X-C’s they will push the Finder light years ahead of the others.”
Robert pulled up a stool next to his friend. “Ever hear anything else from that place they came from up in Salem?”
The electronic whiz sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. “No… nothing. It’s like they never existed.” His brow knitted in thought. “It’s odd how the schematics, diagrams and samples just showed up in the mail one day. And that cryptic one line note granting us full patent and exclusive rights to the part… it’s all very strange.”
“Who knows, maybe it was just a joke, some wise guy over at Tom Tom or Gulliver trying to throw us off track. Maybe the darn things just don’t work and they know it.”
Tom scrummed back a lock of thinning black hair. “No… no, I don’t think so. And even if that’s it, I know I can get these things to work. It’s in the fine tuning.”
“Ok, old pal, you figure how to make it work.” He surveyed the small work shop located behind the Balcom home. “And I’ll figure how to explain the escalating cost of research and development to our share holders.”
Both men laughed. Suddenly Robert turned and darted for the exit. “See you Monday at work. Good luck ‘ole buddy.”
“Coward…” came the reply.
Robert squeezed through the doorway past Vivian, giving her a polite but forced smile and was gone. Meanwhile, Tom tried to burry himself in his work.
“Two AM! That’s what time I finally made it home last night… this morning… two AM, thanks to that diabolical doohickey you installed in my car! I think the thing hates me!”
“And good morning to you, Viv…” Tom knew better but couldn’t resist. “Sleep well?”
A sharp right jab to the shoulder confirmed his original feelings. “Don’t you dare try your sweet talk on me! That contraption of yours sent me to goodness knows where!”
Tom swallowed a sagacious grin. He knew he was playing a dangerous game. The proto type 6300 he was trying to develop would be the most intuitive, powerful and simple to use GPS system on the market. But he had to get the fine tuning right and he had to have definitive proof that it worked. What better way to have it field tested? Vivian was nothing if not electronically challenged. She had trouble working the microwave, and playing a DVD was a comical exercise in frustration. And although a good driver, Mrs. Vivian M Balcom couldn’t find her way back home from the mail box.
Balcom blinked his eyes innocently, pulling his wife to him. “You know I’d never do anything to put you in any danger, darling. It’s just that we have a lot riding on the 6300. The GPS market is crowded with products that are difficult and confusing to the average user. I need for ours to stand out.” He placed a tender kiss on her forehead. “I know you can master it. I’ve got faith in you.”
The ploy almost worked… almost. For a moment Tom felt his wife’s tense body melting into his. But then she stiffened, pushing herself away and free of his embrace. “And don’t try to flatter me either! I know how to work the stupid thing! That’s not it… it’s something else, something in its program or whatever you call it. It makes weird noises and sounds. When I can understand what its saying it sends me in the wrong direction… on purpose I swear. I think the thing is haunted or something.”
“I’ll take care of it, I promise. Just give it a little more time. I’ll work the bugs out of it, you’ll see.”
“Ok, Ok…” Vivian playfully slapped Tom’s chest, looking up at the tall, lanky inventor. “You know I can’t resist those puppy dog eyes. I’ll try and get along with your monster Dr. Frankenstein.”
Monday at work Tom canceled all his meetings and normal activities. He concentrated his time working on the proto type 6300. He was determined to have a functional production model ready to introduce to the public at the next SEMA show in Las Vegas.
“You know we pay very talented techs a lot of money to do that.”
Looking up from a desk cluttered with diagrams and schematics and hurriedly scribbled calculations, Tom stretched. His back popped like kindling. “I know, but this has become personal. I’m that close, I know I am.” He allowed himself a smug smile. “I’ve even improved it. With its smaller size and internal battery you can take the 6300 with you… it fits in your pocket.”
“Any more tweaking and that thing will be able to guide you to the moon.”
“Mars,” Tom shot back much too eagerly. At the realization of his comment his expression softened. “Well… maybe…”
“Great, that’s what we need, Martians directing our traffic.” Robert patted his friend’s shoulder. “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch. They’re serving your favorite in the company cafeteria, beanie weenies.”
Three days later Tom sat behind the wheel of his wife’s Lincoln. The 6300 seemed to be working fine. He was more than half way home from the office and the Finder GPS hadn’t missed a turn.
Without warning, a rash of static flowed from the 6300’s built in speaker. It sounded as if someone was trying to tune an old AM transistor radio. The static grew in intensity. Tom pulled a small screwdriver from his coat pocket and adjusted a hidden dial on the device. The static was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
“Humm… sunspots…” he said aloud, checking the cloudless sky through the open sunroof.
Beep… beep… crackle… Sondex X33… coordinates 54, 813, 064 dash zero one two…
The strange sounds had come from the Finder’s speaker.
Beep… beep… crackle… Sondex X33… coordinates… The tinny hollow sounding voice faded into a few garbled notes of static and was gone.
Tom eyeballed the Finder 6300 curiously. He tapped a couple of buttons on the device’s touch screen. “Left turn in point three miles, then take the second left,” a saccharine voice purred. “At present rate of travel and current traffic conditions, your destination… home… will be obtained in twelve point three minutes.”
The toothy grin appeared. “Ah, that’s better,” Tom said in an uncertain tone.
Sunday afternoon Tom and Jenny strolled through the peaceful woods behind the Balcom home. It was a weekly ritual the pair had observed since Jenny was old enough to walk. “This is nice isn’t it sweetheart?”
“Yes, it is, dad, very nice… but… it’s… never mind…”
“But what… Jenny?”
She sighed deeply, walking ahead few steps. “Nothing, never mind, it isn’t important.”
“Hey, whoa there,” Tom caught up to his daughter, taking her by the hand. “You know better than that. Now c’mon, give, what’s going on inside that pretty head?”
“I don’t know… it’s just that…” Jenny looked up at her dad, her wide eyes pleading. “I heard you and mom last night…”
Tom shuffled uneasily. “I think maybe the whole neighborhood heard. I’m sorry, pumpkin. Your mom and I… we…”
“It’s that damn GPS,” Jenny cried out, surprised at her own language. “It’s all you think about… care about anymore. It consumes all of your time!”
“Oh, now, I don’t think…”
“Yes,” the teen persisted, “Yes, it is! Tell me,” she looked about, “when was the last time we were here… had our time together?”
The question caught Tom of guard. “Well, ok, perhaps I have been a little busy…”
“A little busy… dad, can’t you see what your obsession with the 6300 is doing to this family? You’ve missed nearly all of my volleyball games this year. You’re AWOL from dinner most every night. And poor mom, she’s afraid to go anywhere… she swears that new GPS is out to get her.”
Tom’s demeanor turned somber. He recalled the panic in his wife’s voice just the night before. The Finder 6300 had led her into a frightening, sprawling dark industrial area and then abandoned her. It had taken a frantic call home and Tom’s calming guidance to get her safely back to the house. After, they had argued half the night.
“You’re right,” he said quietly. “You’re absolutely right, Jenny.” Tom pulled the Finder 6300 from his jeans pocket, examining it carefully. Sondex X33… the mechanism crackled, breaking the tension and causing the pair to laugh.
Tom shook his head. “This is crazy… from now on…” he smiled at his daughter, “from now on I’ll let our over paid techs handle product development. And as for the 6300…” Turning on his heels, Tom flung the enigmatic GPS deep into a clearing inside the woods.
Surprised and pleased, Jenny grinned, hugging her father. “Thanks, dad, I love you, daddy!”
Late that night an eerie crackling emanated from the woods behind Pine Valley. The battery powered Finder 6300 buzzed and shook and came to life. Through the static and hum a tinny voice could be discerned: Sondex X33… final coordinates 48, 723, 051 dash zero one two…
Some 300,000 miles away, a fleet of silvery metallic discs hovered in formation, hidden behind the Earth’s Moon. The occupants of the crafts tuned their mushroom shaped ears to the hollow voice, listening intently. Sondex X33… final coordinates 48, 723, 051 dash zero one two…
Inside the lead ship, a crimson colored creature turned to his companions. “We have conformation. First contact will be a large clearing behind the town of Pine Valley. Landing coordinates are as follows: 48,723,051 dash zero one two…”