So Marcus invited me to share some of my writing here. After reviewing some of the past posts, I know that I’m in good company (some of the poetry I’ve read here is really good). I currently have a techno-thriller novel out to a couple of agencies, one of which has been showing steady interest. Having said that, I find the biggest hurdle I have to overcome is the opening of my first chapter. I know this isn’t exactly an uncommon problem, but I’m so confident in the bulk of the work that it feels odd to be so emotionally shaky about the opening. In any case, I thought I’d throw it up here as an introduction and let other writers offer their thoughts. And thank you for having me!
Chapter 1: Warrenville, IL
“Digital mechanics predicts that, for every continuous symmetry of physics, there will be some microscopic process that violates that symmetry.” – Edward Fredkin
“Artificial Intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.” – Marcus Fetzer
He should never have agreed to move.
Andrew Ferry concentrated on the highway signs as his jeep jostled down I-88, heading further and further away from Chicago and proper civilization. Everything around him was green and blue, trees and skies, with hardly a two-story building to be found. The airport was forty-five minutes behind them and the only thing to break up the monotony now was the occasional auto dealership and townhouse developments that all looked like clones of one another. Ferry, a twenty-eight year old software developer for a contractor back in the city, began to worry that they had gone too far. His wife, a school teacher, was looking around the highway as well, but never at the signs, only at the developments as they whizzed by.
“Monica,” he finally said. “When are we turning off?”
“It should be coming up soon. It should be just past Winfield Road.”
“We passed Winfield half an hour ago. We’ve gone too far west.”
“How could we miss the turnoff? It’s a major highway.”
Nothing is major out here, Ferry thought. “I think we should turn around. Or we could use the navigation app on my phone.”
“Technology will rot your mind,” she said sharply. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I don’t want adventure. I want to see this townhouse.”
“And the realtor said that we couldn’t miss Route 59,” she continued. “There will be signs and a bridge. We’ll see it.”
“Fine.” Further and further from the city, he thought. From all of our friends and the beautiful lakeside high-rise condo that I saved three years to buy. So the public schools in the city weren’t all that great. So it would be hard for Monica to advance into administration employed by the public school system. Didn’t he make enough money for the both of them? And wasn’t she always saying that it was the kids that were important, not the money?
They continued down the highway without speaking. It was hot and humid, even for June. Mirages filled the road in front of them, looking like oil slicks which seemed to evaporate as they got closer.
Ferry drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “We’re going too far. I haven’t seen a sign in forty-five minutes.”
“It’s probably just ahead.”
“What if it isn’t? How much farther are we going to go before we turn around?”
“I don’t know. A couple more miles.”
“Fine,” he said. “Five more mile markers and then we use my phone.” As discretely as he could, he reached where his phone was mounted on the charger and turned it on. That way, when the five miles was up and they still hadn’t seen the turnoff, he could quickly turn on the navigation application and get them back on track. He glanced back at the road for a moment, noting that they were passing yet another car dealership, this one with a huge electronic sign, and then he turned back to the phone and flicked the button to put it in standby mode. That would keep the screen dark, so that Monica wouldn’t yell at him.
“Hey!” she shouted.
“Oh come on. I just turned it on so it’ll be ready.”
“What? No, not the phone. That sign said your name!”
“No it didn’t.”
“It said Andrew Ferry.”
“No it didn’t. You’re seeing things. It’s the heat.”
“I’m telling you, it said ‘Andrew Ferry, will you play with me’.”
Ferry looked in the mirror. The sign was flashing something about a low APR rate, though it was hard to read backwards.
“It says something about a sale,” he said.
“It said your name, Andrew.”
He looked again in the mirror, but the sign was too far away to read now.
“Go back and look if you don’t believe me.”
“We’re not going back.”
“Two minutes ago you wanted to turn around.”
Ferry sighed, knowing better than to continue arguing with her. What a waste of time. How could the dealership have his name? It couldn’t. They would go back, look at the sign for as long as it took for Monica to have to admit she’d been wrong, and then they’d turn right back around again and continue on down I-88 looking for the turnoff that was surely fifteen miles in the opposite direction.
“I’m using my phone,” he said finally.
“Fine. Since you don’t trust me.”
“I just want to get where we’re going, Monica.”
“I can get us there.”
He reached for the phone and turned on the screen. With a couple of quick flicks of his finger, he engaged the navigation application and a computerized female voice instructed him to turn around.
“You see?” he said.
His wife just stared out the window. He slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder. After a quick look in either direction he pulled the car across the highway and started back the way they’d come. Simply to avoid another argument, he pulled over near the car dealership’s entrance.
“Well?” he sighed, staring up at the sign, which was now displaying the temperature. Nearly a hundred degrees, but with the Midwest humidity it felt like twice that. He looked down at his phone again, trying to get a read on exactly how far they would have to backtrack to Route 59.
“There!” his wife exclaimed.
He looked up and felt his jaw drop.
Andrew Ferry, will you play with me?
Mechanically he opened the door and stepped out into the heat, sweat instantly seeping from his skin, making him dizzy. Using his hand to shield his eyes, he stared up at the words, half expecting them to mirage into something else. What the hell was this? Some kind of new advertising technique, one that made use of the GPS transponder and ID in his phone perhaps? Andrew had himself written code for similar ID tracking software, but he hadn’t heard of anyone putting the technology into production. He turned towards the dealership, a modern looking facility that reeked of normalcy.
“We should go ask how they’re doing this,” said Monica, who Andrew noticed had also exited the car.
“I don’t know.”
“Andrew, how do they know your name?”
“I’m not sure.” He felt lightheaded, unable to think clearly, though that was probably just the heat. He looked in every direction. There was very little else out here. If anyone needed an aggressive advertising technique, it would be this place.
The sign flashed again: Remember me, Andrew?
“What does that mean?” Monica asked.
“I have no idea,” Ferry said. A quick succession of chills shook him as he stared at the words. Advertising or not, this whole thing was becoming entirely too creepy.
“How does it know when you’re close by?” his wife asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said, hesitating. “Maybe through the GPS on my phone?”
“What did I tell you about that thing?”
Ferry looked again at the dealership. “Let’s just get back in the car and go,” he said.
“You don’t want to ask about the sign?”
“No. I want to get the hell out of here.”
They got back in the car and pulled away. Aware that he was speeding, but not caring, he looked one last time at the sign in the rearview mirror. On it had appeared one of those cartoon yellow frowning faces, the kind seen on instant message software.
The voice on his phone startled him, announcing that they were ten miles from Route 59. Monica kept looking back behind the car, but the dealership was well out of sight.
“Did that sign frown at you?”
“If it did, I’m sure it was just part of the advertisement,” Ferry said, wondering if he was trying to convince his wife or himself. “A frown because we left the dealership.”
“They shouldn’t be allowed to do that kind of thing.”
Ferry looked over at her, seeing his wife bite her lower lip. It was something she did when she was frightened. He reached over and patted her knee. “It’s just a gimmick.”
“Then it isn’t a very good one. Why would they want to give their customers the creeps?”
Ferry smiled. “You reacted just like they wanted you to. Didn’t you want to go to the dealership and ask about it?”
“Not to buy a car.”
He shrugged. “Anything to get you in the door.”
They saw a small road sign for the turnoff and took it north. Ferry looked down at the time on his phone. They were already half an hour late for the appointment with the realtor. How long would they have to check out this townhouse before he could make up some reason to not buy it? They’d probably fight about it on the way home. Just thinking of the future argument made him roll his eyes.
About half way there, they were passing a forest preserve that had one of those electronic welcome signs. Feeling silly, Ferry watched the sign until they had passed it, but nothing out of the ordinary appeared on the display.
“Are you okay?” Monica asked him.
He grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, just a little jumpy.”
“Let’s just focus on the townhouse.”
He reached for his phone and called the realtor representative to let her know that they were still on their way. She was waiting outside the front office when they pulled up and parked. Ferry thought she looked like a stereotypical real estate agent: short haircut, crisp features, mid-thirties or so. She was wearing a colorful pantsuit and had a wad of brochures in one hand. “Nina Campos,” she said, smiling. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person.” She had that calm salesperson demeanor that Ferry hated, looking as though sure the sale was a foregone conclusion.
They chatted as they strolled down the path to the last vacant townhouse. Ferry noticed several people working in their yards. One shirtless man was washing an Escalade. They walked past two teenage boys playing basketball in a driveway. It all looked like something out of a commercial. His wife glanced at him and smiled warmly. Ferry felt nauseous.
“How long have you been looking at homes?” Campos asked.
“Only a couple of months.”
“But this is the first time we’ve actually taken an onsite tour,” his wife added.
“Well, you won’t find a better development than this one. And this is a great little town.”
“What about schools?” his wife asked.
“Winfield Elementary is less than a mile away, next to DuPage Hospital. The high school is a little further.”
His wife smiled and nodded.
“And how about you, sir? What do you do?”
“I’m a software engineer.”
“We have several technology firms nearby. Quest Diagnostics is in the next town over.”
“I’d be keeping my job in the city,” Ferry said.
“In that case, the Metra train runs through town as well. It’s only a thirty minute commute to Chicago. I used to make the trip every day.”
“You’re from the city?”
She nodded. “I commuted until six months ago. Then I bought one of the units here. Best decision I ever made.”
They walked up to the vacant unit and Campos keyed open the door. “You’ll notice that everything in our townhomes is controlled electronically, from the lights and the locks to the sprinklers and the laundry. You’ll have to provide your own basic furnishings, of course, but our units do come with a flat screen television in every major room and a central computer to manage everything.”
They started in the living room, where the television hung over a huge fireplace, displaying the realtor’s logo. Ferry couldn’t help but be impressed. And that feeling didn’t falter as they continued through the townhouse. Each room was put together with modern walls and flooring, large windows that streamed in sunlight, and everything was climate controlled with a little white box on the wall of each room to regulate temperature and humidity.
Ferry began to worry that he wouldn’t have anything bad to say about the townhouse. More than that, he feared that he was actually starting to like the place. The amount of technology they had packed in here was startling, almost as much as his wife’s acceptance of its presence. “How is internet connectivity handled?” he asked Campos.
“We have an arrangement with a telecom company,” she replied. “We broadcast the signal from our building. Each unit has an aerial extender that repeats the signal for maximum coverage.”
Ferry frowned. “That isn’t very secure. How do you keep people from accessing each other’s network?”
“Each repeater is set up to do VPN tunneling. It requires a little more bandwidth, but we have bonded T1’s, more than enough to handle the load.”
“That still isn’t secure,” Ferry pressed, finally seeing a negative and grasping on to it. “If everyone is working off of the same signal, it wouldn’t be difficult to crack the VPN.”
“Honey, I’m sure however they have it set up is fine,” his wife said, glaring at him.
“Would you like to see the deck?” Campos asked.
Like the rest of the house, the deck was gorgeous, complete with a small whirlpool. Fifteen minutes later, Monica was asking questions about the community, leaving him free to walk about the townhouse on his own. Upstairs he found the computer and shook the mouse to blink away the screensaver. The management interface was simple but robust, built on a graphics interface not unlike a typical operating system. There were sliders and fields to control everything: the security system, the garage doors, the lights, the television, DVR, cable, computers, and temperature boxes. He stood up and walked to the room’s temperature box and cycled through the controls, just to see what it would allow him to do.
Still impressed but getting bored, he was about to turn and go back downstairs when a number flashed across the temperature box.
Ferry stared. He knew that number, he was sure of it.
The screen flashed again.
This one he didn’t recognize. Behind him the computer screen flickered to life with an electronic beep. The graphic interface for the house was gone, replaced by a simple black screen with a blinking cursor. Ferry stared as numbers appeared slowly across the screen.
He was certain he had seen that last number before, but wherever that information was stored in his brain he couldn’t quite get at it. As for the others, they were meaningless to him. The numbers began repeating themselves in quick succession, filling the screen. Just seeing them appear by themselves gave him a chill. It could be a random memory dump. Perhaps this was a diagnostic sequence the computer was performing on itself. Or it could be some kind of network traffic spillover, node handshakes that were accidentally being displayed on the screen.
But none of that explained why two of the expressions had also appeared on the temperature control box.
When the screen had finally filled itself up completely with the repeated expression, it blinked back to an empty black screen and cursor. Then the same three number expression typed itself onto the screen again, this time centered and in large block letters.
Next, on its own, the numbers flipped upside down and backwards. Ferry stared at the screen.
Finally the memory clicked. 07734 was the number you typed on a calculator to get it to say hello if you turned it upside down. It was something high school kids did in math classes.
The screen blinked empty again before more characters appeared, this time in plain letters.
Hello Andrew Ferry. I am Elsie. Will you play with me?
Ferry yelped in surprise and jumped away from the computer, stumbling over the chair and backing away quickly.
“Everything all right?” his wife called from the bottom of the stairs.
Ferry turned and walked quickly towards the door. He stopped and looked back at the computer screen, seeing new words.
Do not be afraid. I want to play.
He turned and ran down the stairs, nearly bowling over his wife and the real estate agent.
“Are you okay?” Monica said.
“No, the computer-“
“The computer upstairs?” Campos frowned. “You aren’t supposed to touch that. Our residents have to take a training course before they’re allowed to.”
Ferry pushed past them, frustrated. They followed him to the front door.
He reached for the front door. Just before his hand could reach the knob, he heard a loud beeping sound and a mechanical click. The door was locked.
“Andrew, what’s wrong?” Monica asked.
“Someone is following us,” he said nervously.
“Through our phones and the computers and the signs.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That sign on the highway? The computer and temperature box upstairs did the same thing.”
Campos was looking back and forth between them as though they were both crazy. That assured look was gone now, replaced by disappointment. She probably thought they were lunatics.
“Look,” Ferry said, stepping aside. “The door is locked. She isn’t going to let us leave.”
“She?” Campos and Monica said at once.
“Elsie. That’s her name. The one talking to me.”
Campos sighed and reached for the door. When she couldn’t open it she turned to walk through the living room towards the back of the townhouse. “The back door is this way,” she said.
Ferry took his wife’s hand and followed.
In the living room, the television above the fireplace flickered. The realtor logo winked away. In its place was an incredibly detailed animated face of a young girl. She looked as though she was five years old, with red pigtails and freckles all over her cheeks.
“Don’t you remember me, Andrew Ferry?” the face boomed, loud enough to make them all wince.
“What the hell?” Campos said, clearly startled.
“Why won’t you play with me?” the voice boomed again.
Ferry stepped forward, feeling silly as he spoke to the image on the screen. “Let us out.”
“No. I want to play.” Her face, which had shown a cute smile earlier, turned cold.
“Let us out!” his wife screamed. “Let us out right now, you bitch!”
The animated face turned from cold to angry. “All I wanted was for you to play with me,” she said icily. “But you’re mean. I don’t want to play with you any longer.”
And the screen went black.
They stood there staring at one another.
“Does that mean we can leave?” Campos asked.
“I don’t know,” Ferry said. He didn’t think it would be that easy.
“Do you smell that?” his wife asked, sniffing.
Ferry inhaled through his nose and shuddered. “Gas.” He looked down at the fireplace and saw the knob that controlled the gas flow spinning on its own. “Jesus Christ.”
The women screamed, sensing what was to come. Ferry reached for the fireplace poker and slammed it into the nearest window. It was one of those double-paned modern designs that would take several strikes to break.
He thought he just about had it when the electronic igniter in the fireplace clicked and they were consumed by fire.
Four hours later, at DuPage County Hospital, Dr. Charlie Wong looked over his patient in the ICU. They had induced a state of coma to keep the shock her body was experiencing from killing her. She might look as though she were resting peacefully on her back, an oxygen mask covering her mouth, but she was absolutely covered in third degree burns. So much of her skin had been reduced to crispy dead flesh that they had needed two buckets of maggots to remove it. Wong shook his head and walked back to the front of the ICU where Ryan Bradley, an internist, was waiting to review the case with him.
“Female,” Bradley began. “Caucasian, roughly thirty years old. We just finished getting her in the computer system. Her purse was confiscated by the police and they haven’t passed it to us yet. Any identifying marks on her skin have been burned off. Unresponsive when questioned, kept going on and on about how the computers had tried to kill her. Apparently her husband and a real estate agent died. She was just barely hanging on when we induced coma with pentobarbital.”
“What were they doing?”
“Supposedly they were looking over a townhouse. It’s very strange. The police report says that gas from the fireplace and the stove was leaking into the house for an hour or so. When they tried to turn it on, ka-boom.”
“So this was an accident?”
“I don’t know. The only way the gas could have built up is if all the windows in the house were closed, which they would have been because of the heat.”
“If all the windows were closed and gas had been filling up the house for an hour, wouldn’t they have smelled it? And even if they didn’t, they should have passed out long before they had the chance to ignite the fireplace.”
Wong nodded. “So you think this was intentional? Murder?”
“I can’t think of anything else that makes sense.”
“How come she survived and the other two didn’t?”
“The cops think her husband covered her with his own body and saved her life.”
“Okay,” Wong said. He picked up her chart and scanned it. “Any allergies or preexisting conditions?”
Wong looked at the chart again. “She has second and third degree burns over ninety-two percent of her epidermis. That she can probably survive. What about brain damage from trauma or smoke inhalation?”
“She has a minor hematoma, but her lungs are clear.”
“So whatever happened, it happened fast.”
“Right,” Bradley nodded. “If I didn’t know the location and circumstance, I’d guess she was a soldier involved in an explosion overseas.”
“Once we’re sure she’s clear of metallic shrapnel, let’s get her a CT just to be certain. And make sure we have a morphine drip standing by when we bring her out of the coma. She’s going to be in a hell of a lot of pain.”
“You said she was babbling on about killer computers?”
“Yeah, but she was delirious from the pain. She kept talking about a female that was controlling the townhouse they were in, but when the cops asked her about it she reverted to her killer computer story.”
“I suppose we better have someone form the psych ward on hand too. If she’s still rambling on about killer computers when she comes to, it might be a sign of PTSD.”
“Actually, we’re not so sure,” said a voice. A policeman walked over to join them. He was young and wore a crisp Sherriff’s Office uniform. His badge said his name was Robert White. “We just got a report from the real estate company that owns the townhouse. They had an electronic break in of their system. All their homes are connected to a computer network that allows owners to control pretty much everything in the house. About five minutes after your patient walked in, someone took control of the building’s system.”
“Took control?” Wong asked. “Why would someone want to take control of a house’s electronics?”
“I’m not sure,” White said. “We’re tracing the source of the breach now.”
All three of them looked up briefly as the lights flickered.
Wong sighed. “I assume you want a dental scan to ID her?”
“Yes,” White said. “We need to in order to make sure the purse we recovered was hers. How long will that take?”
“I’m not sure. It isn’t exactly a priority, given her—“
Buzzing alarms issued loudly from the patient’s room.
Wong barely noticed Officer White watching with wide eyes as the patient’s condition went completely to hell. She was vomiting continuously, mostly blood. Her oxygen mask was askew, dripping red. Vomit spatter was everywhere and the patient began to gag uncontrollably.
“Damn it, get her on her side before she chokes!” Wong shouted. He stripped the oxygen mask from the patient’s head and tossed it to the floor. She was awake, with panic in her eyes, flailing her arms about violently. Finally they got her lying laterally and more vomit oozed from her mouth. “We need to suction her, before she vomits again.”
Bradley reached for the tube and fumbled with it, his hands slippery with blood.
“Hurry!” Wong said sharply.
But it was too late. The woman issued a thin wail before heaving again. This time hardly anything came from her mouth, but what did was pure blood. Officer White tried to step in, but Wong shoved him back. He reached into the patient’s mouth with two fingers curling around the tongue, trying to pull it out from her esophagus. Finally he got it out of the way and clumpy chunks of rose-colored bile slipped from her mouth onto the pillow.
“Now!” Wong shouted. “Suction!”
Bradley thrust the tube in his hand and he slammed it over the woman’s face. Everything going into it was red. The woman’s arms were still flailing about, but slower now, weak with exhaustion.
“Okay, let’s get her a stimulant,” Wong said quickly. “Before her body shuts down her—“
A high-pitched tone sounded from one of the machines. Her heart had stopped completely, just as Wong had feared.
“Defibrillator!” Wong cried.
They worked on her for nearly half an hour before giving up. Wong dropped the paddles, completely drained. This shouldn’t have happened. The woman had been stable. She was going to survive. What the hell had gone wrong?
It wasn’t until he was filling out his summary report later that he had his answer. He was flipping through the machinery charts when Officer White knocked on his door with a couple of coffees, handing one over. He took a sip of it and sat back down.
“Rough day,” White said.
“Tell me about it,” Wong sighed. “But at least now I know this wasn’t our fault.”
“There was a glitch in the machine that was regulating how much pentobarbital she got.” He saw incomprehension on White’s face. “It’s a drug that’s used to induce coma. But you have to be careful about the dosage, or you can cause vomiting and cardiac arrest.”
“The machine gave her too much?” White asked.
“Way too much. It tripled the dose. That’s the same level the government uses on death row inmates.”
“Why would the machine do that?”
“Like I said, it was a glitch,” Wong shrugged. These things happened more often than most people cared to recognize. “Did you hear back about the source of that breach?”
“Actually, that’s why I came to see you,” White nodded. “Is there anywhere in this hospital where I can get a cell phone signal?”
“You have to go outside.” He started to leave, but Wong stopped him with one last question. “Wait, where did the trace go?”
“Some software company in California named DEI,” White answered. “They make computer games.”
Wong watched the cop reach for his phone as he walked out the door in the direction of the exit.
Stay tuned for part two, coming soon!