by BJ Neblett© 2007, 2012
Yellow darts of waking sunshine pierced the dusky den, carrying with them welcomed warmth. They also brought with them Butch’s daily ranting.
Kevin stretched and yawned in his big orange chair. His back was disjointed. His eyes were road mapped. His left foot was numb. The screen’s digital clock melted from 6:18 to 6:19.
“Woouph! Woouph! Yourself,” Kevin cried out. Despite the stiffness, he felt great. With Eris’ help the story was finished. As before, while he typed, the computer asked questions, made suggestions, and provided charms to enliven and richen the story and fill in needed details. Happily, Kevin mashed the print button, rose, stretched again, and headed out of the den. The laser printer awoke and began to hum. When Kevin returned, refreshed from a shower, with a large, steaming mug, a stack of neatly printed pages awaited him in the printer’s out tray.
“Damn,” Kevin exclaimed between pages and sips of frothy mocha. “This is great!”
Relaxed in the big orange chair, his bare feet propped up on the desk, Kevin read over his story. He was impressed.
Once again Kevin recognized his work. Once again it wasn’t his work… exactly. Several passages, even whole sections, were foreign to him. He didn’t remember writing them. But they worked; worked perfectly.
Curious, Kevin checked the laptop’s screen against the printed pages. They were identical. Then Kevin noticed some sections on the screen were in a different font from the rest. These corresponded to the sections he didn’t remember writing. Upon closer investigation, Kevin found his work, the sections he recalled as his, saved under a separate file name. They had been replaced by the new, vastly improved passages. His story had been revised and edited. This was just the first draft. Yet it read like a completed, polished manuscript.
Kevin eyeballed the laptop.
Eris’ web cam peered innocently back at him.
The phone broke Kevin’s concentration. It was Nanny. Susan was in the hospital. Kevin made sure his work was saved, cleared the program, and bolted from his chair.
The LCD screen blinked. The hard drive hummed. The wall paper photo appeared. The icons which once covered a part of Susan’s tanned right leg were replaced by ugly red and blue and black marks.
Singer Doris day’s lush version of Secret Love flowed from Eris’ speakers, filling the empty room.
“She’s alright, more shaken that anything.” By the time Kevin arrived at the hospital, Susan had been treated and taken to her room. “They just want to keep her overnight,” Nanny said, trying to relax. “She’s fine, Kevin, fine.”
Out of breath from jogging up three flights, Kevin collapsed against a wall. “Thank God,” he managed between gasps for air. “What… what happened?” Kevin pulled his inhaler out of his jeans pocket and took two deep puffs.
Nanny’s face soured. “It’s that damn apartment of hers! I warned her when she moved in… people put too much trust in these new fangled gadgets these days. Imagine… machines talking to machines… running our lives for us!”
“I know… I agree…” he replied, finally catching his breath. “That apartment of hers gives me the creeps. But what happened?”
“Well, Susan was in the middle of her morning routine. Apparently she was about to get into the Jacuzzi tub. She says she set the automatically controlled thermostat thingy. It must have malfunctioned. When she stepped in, the water temperature was near boiling. Her right foot and calf are pretty badly scalded.”
“Is she awake?”
Nanny painted on a thin smile. “Yes. They gave her a sedative. But she’s awake right now… don’t know for how long. Thank heavens you are here, Kevin.”
Kevin returned the woman’s smile and entered the semi-private room. Susan lay in the far bed next to the window. Her right foot and leg were bandaged and resting on a large pillow. Her left ankle was wrapped in a wide ace bandage. She looked up from under heavy eyelids, “Hey, you.”
“Hey, yourself.” Kevin kissed her forehead, brushing back strands of uncombed hair. “How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
“I’m… I’m ok… just kinda sleepy.”
“The doctors gave you a sedative.”
“I must look a sight…” Susan winced in pain as she tried to raise herself in her bed.
“Hey, take it easy.” Kevin fluffed her pillows and laughed to himself. He always thought Susan looked more attractive with little or no make-up, and told her so often. And he knew how she hated to leave her apartment without her lipstick and eye liner. “You are prettier than ever… do you need anything?”
Susan groaned and settled back into the pillows. “I’ll probably need a cane… or crutches,” she replied sourly.
“I thought Nanny said it was your right foot.”
“I sprained my left ankle jumping out of the tub,” Frustration shown on Susan’s sleepy face. “Oh, Kevin… I don’t know what happened. I know I set the temperature correctly. And it’s designed not to get that hot.” She sighed, her eyes slowly closing. “I don’t know… these last few days… it seems…” With that she was asleep.
Kevin learned from the doctors Susan’s burns were not too serious. She’d have a few small scars, but there was no internal damage. He could take her home the next day.
That afternoon, Kevin and Nanny drove over to Susan’s high rise. While Nanny collected some items for her daughter, Kevin spoke to the building’s super.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Mc Colgan. I’ve been over the entire system three times. I can’t find anything wrong.”
“Obviously something did go wrong,” Kevin said flatly. “The doctors said the water must have been near boiling temperature to burn like that.”
John Batista was the building superintendent since the modern apartment’s inception. Everything in the imposing building was controlled by computer, from the elevators, to lighting and climate control, to security, to the built in toasters. The computers were linked back to a massive central control across town which continually monitored and automatically adjusted the building’s complex systems.
Batista gave Kevin a distrustful look. The last thing he needed was an irate tenant and a law suit. “It’s impossible, Mr. Mc Colgan. Water temperature is set to a max of one hundred degrees, and is checked by no less than three systems: one in the boilers; one in the individual apartment hot tanks, and one in the tub. The only way for the water to have gotten that hot is if somebody at central control reprogrammed the computers. And no one did… I checked.”
Unsatisfied, Kevin thanked the man. None of this made sense. But Susan was ok and that was all that mattered.
After dropping off Nanny, Kevin drove home for a quick nap and shower before returning to the hospital. From the oldies station on his car radio came the dark, prophetic lyrics of an old Zager and Evans tune: … your legs won’t find a thing to do, some machine’s doing that for you…
Two days later, Kevin and Susan sat in Susan’s living room. Her foot and leg wore a large wrapped bandage, and she did indeed have crutches, although she was given strict instructions to stay off her feet for a week. Kevin insisted on taking care of her, making himself a bed on the comfortable couch.
“Yes… yes, Mr. Batista… yes… I know… I’m sure… yes, sir, it was just some burnt bread…. no need for the fire department. Yes, sir… I understand… yes, the smoke detectors did work perfectly… yes, thank you.” Kevin punched end and dropped the cell phone. “That superintendent irks me!”
From her position on the sofa, her foot propped up on the ottoman, Susan began to giggle.
“You… you’re red faced,” she managed between bursts of laughter. “And you look so cute in my apron and oven mitts.”
Shaking off the embarrassment and the paisley pattern mitts, Kevin flopped down next to Susan. “I don’t understand. The toaster is set for light, just the way you like. Even if the bread got stuck, the unit should have shut down. But it kept on. I finally had to flip the circuit breaker.”
“Now, do you see what I’ve been telling you? Things have been screwy in this apartment for the past week, since a day or so after your birthday.” Susan began to tap a cigarette from the package, and then tossed them back on the coffee table. “I can’t even smoke… every time I light up the smoke detectors go nuts. They never did that before. Mom and dad were here Monday. I had a nice ham baking. The oven switched to self clean mode and locked up tight. Dinner was burnt crisp. And that Mr. Batista insists he can find nothing wrong.”
“Oh, sorry… I was just thinking out loud.”
“You said something about… gremlins?”
Kevin relaxed back into the plush sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “During the second World War bomber pilots blamed mechanical problems they couldn’t figure out on gremlins.” He grinned and patted Susan’s hand. “You either have gremlins or a poltergeist.”
“Thanks… thanks a lot. That makes me feel a lot better.”
Kevin rose and kissed Susan’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’ve got some errands to run. And I want to pick up my computer. Rauch’s been screaming for more stories. I’ll drop the MG off at the shop for you. This is a good time to have it serviced, while you’re laid up.”
“You’re my hero.” Susan began to laugh again.
“Maybe you’d better take off my apron first.”
Kevin couldn’t concentrate. The recent unusual events kept repeating over in his mind: his renewed interest in writing; Susan’s accident in the tub; the strange occurrences in her apartment; even the baffling but beneficial Eris. Whatever was going on, Susan and he were closer than ever and Kevin was enjoying the relationship again.
He stared blankly at Eris. The laptop and printer were on Susan’s coffee table.
It was 12:30 AM.
“You seem distracted tonight, Kevin,” Eris said in a concerned tone. “May I help?”
“No… no, I guess I’m just tired. I think…” Kevin caught himself in mid sentence. “Great, now I’m having conversations with a machine.”
Eris beeped sharply and cleared her screen. Key word? appeared followed by the winking green eye cursor. Kevin thought for a moment and then typed gremlins and hit enter.
Eris’ hard drive hummed, her infrared WIFI communicating with Susan’s internet connection. The LCD screen began to melt into free flowing shapes of lines and colors. Kevin watched intrigued. The slowly dissolving and changing patterns had a hypnotic affect. In minutes Kevin was asleep.
Eris blinked and clicked and Susan’s apartment grew dark. The only light shone from Eris’ screen as she silently worked into the night.
“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to wake you.” It was morning. Kevin lay under a blanket on the downy sofa. Susan’s affecting laughter filled his ears as daylight filled the modern living room. “This is really funny…”
Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Kevin could see Susan seated across from him. She held a quarter inch thick sheaf of printer paper.
“I don’t know how you do it, Kevin. You seem to be able to draw inspiration from the simplest things.” Susan set the papers down and rose with the aid of her crutches. “And I think it is sweet, you used my little problem here to base your story.” She blew him a kiss. “I have a doctor’s appointment this morning. There’s coffee on the counter, sweetheart.” With that she hobbled off to the bedroom.
Kevin’s body was sore from his night on the couch. Shaking his head to clear it, he poured himself a cup of black coffee, then settled into a chair and reached for the stack of papers.
Specter Of Love
Kevin Mc Colgan
This time Kevin had no recollection of writing anything. The last thing he remembered was putting Susan to bed around 11 PM.
Sipping the steaming coffee, he began to read the story of an unusual love triangle. It involved a World War Two American pilot stationed in England, the British country girl he loved, and a playful, overprotective goblin with a crush on her.
Despite himself, Kevin was laughing out loud when Susan entered the room. “I never realized you enjoyed your own work so much,” she remarked. “You sound like you are reading it for the first time.”
He set the last page down. “It is good, isn’t it? I mean, really, really good.”
Susan looked at him puzzled. “Why, Kevin, I’ve never known you to fish for compliments like that. Yes, I told you. It is very good. Your writing gets better with each story.”
Kevin stared blankly at the innocuous laptop. Try as he may he just couldn’t remember writing Specter of Love. Yet it was his work, his style: a funny, romantic story he certainly could have conceived and written.
But he hadn’t.
Or had he?
“Hello… earth to Kevin.”
“Huh… Oh, I’m sorry…”
Susan lowered herself onto the sofa, propping up her foot. “You’re still half asleep. You must have been up all night writing. C’mon, jump in the shower. You’ve got to drive me to the hospital, and then you can do some grocery shopping for me.”
The grocery store was just a half a block from the computer shop. After loading several bags into his car, Kevin wandered down the street.
“Afternoon, Mr. Mc Colgan.” John the owner glanced up from the mini-tower he was working on. “Haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Hello, John, how’s business?”
“Not bad, I guess… you know. By the way, how’s that Beta working out for you?”
Kevin gave the store owner a perplexed look, “Beta?”
“You know… the laptop… Eris.”
“Oh, Eris… alright I guess.” A fond smile formed on his lips, “Quite different from the old Wang.”
John laughed out loud. “I should think so.”
“What did you mean by Beta?”
“Beta… it’s a computer term… kinda like a proto type. When a company has a new product ready for field testing they send out a few to businesses like mine for evaluation. They call ‘em Betas.” His manner turned serious. “You didn’t know?”
Kevin shook his head. “No”
“Gee, Mr. Mc Colgan, I’m sorry. When Susan told me what she wanted I thought of Eris right off. I figured it would be perfect for you.” He looked down, shuffling his feet nervously. “I didn’t mean for you to be a guinnie pig or anything.”
“No… no… that’s ok. Actually Eris, the laptop, has worked wonderfully.”
John let out a sigh of relief, “Oh, well… glad to hear it.”
“Tell me, where did you get her… err… Eris from?”
The computer man scratched his thinning hair in thought. “You know, that’s the oddest thing. It just showed up on the UPS truck one day, from some company I’ve never heard of up in Salem, Massachusetts. When I called the number on the invoice a woman answered and said she owned the company and built and programmed the machine herself. She said she only produced a couple of them and would appreciate it if I could evaluate it for her. Since it was designed for writers I figured… well… you being a writer and all.”
“Not giving you any problems is she? I hope she’s not living up to her name.”
Kevin’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
The store owner laughed again. “Eris, she was the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Eris isn’t giving you a hard time is she?”
“No…” Kevin replied in an unsure voice. “Actually just the opposite, she’s very helpful.”
Kevin headed to the door and then stopped and turned. “There is one thing, the reason I came by. The picture of Susan you used, I think you call it wallpaper? It seems to be deteriorating, distorting or something.”
John smiled up from the counter. “Oh, that doesn’t sound serious, just a second.” Moving to an operating computer on a desk, he typed a few keystrokes. Seconds later he nodded his head. “Here we go…” Typing again, he studied the monitor. “It looks like just a glitch in the programming somewhere. One evening when you won’t be using her give me a call and I’ll trace it out for you, no charge.”
Kevin stared at the man, his mouth open. “You mean you… you can fix it… from here? I don’t have to bring her in?”
A broad grin crossed John’s face. “Sure, I just call up Eris from here via the internet. All I need is an IP address and the software to remotely control her.” He beamed like a cat that’d just caught a mouse. “I see Eris is at Susan’s house.”
“Naw… just technology… machines talking to machines. It goes on all the time. They are getting smarter than us.”
The week passed uneventfully. Susan’s leg healed and she was ready to return to work. Kevin’s publisher raved over Specter of Love and Tears of A Fool, and was eager for the third story. Even Susan’s apartment didn’t give any more trouble. Sunday night after dinner the couple sat talking on Susan’s sofa, drinking Chablis.
“So… I’ll drop you off at the auto shop tomorrow morning and then head on to work.” She sipped the wine and looked at Kevin over the rim of the glass. “You sure you don’t mind me using your car?”
“Not at all, sweetheart. You can’t work the clutch with your ankle still sore and weak. Use my car as long as you need. I’ll drive the MG.”
“You know, honey, you’ve really been wonderful, taking care of me and everything.” Susan leaned into Kevin, love in her eyes.
“I’ve enjoyed the job,” Kevin replied, blushing. “Here’s to us.”
They clinked glasses and drank deeply. Kevin set the empty stem wear on the end table. He ran a hand around the back of Susan’s neck, drawing her close. They kissed.
On the coffee table, Eris’ web cam blinked. The laptop beeped and squealed, its screen flashing erratically.
Suddenly every light in the apartment switched on. The room burned like a noon day sun.
A table lamp bulb shattered.
Other bulbs began to explode.
Kevin tried his best to shield Susan as glass from the modern ceiling lamp rained down. Just then the smoke detectors howled and the security system began to wail.
Conclusion next Week!