The Cold Red Eyes of Home
It was dark and very cold as Fred pulled back onto the highway. He had stopped at a small gas station to get something to drink from one of the grimy worn out machines that was propped up against the wall outside the shed. It seemed like Fred always stopped here for some reason. The station was closed now and no light came from the incandescent bulbs on the telephone pole.
The phone booths faded away as Fred turned up the music and prepared for another hour of driving. Sometimes he just had to get in the car and drive somewhere. A car is one of the few places where one is in complete control thought Fred as he tapped the rhythm to one of his favorite songs. Fred sang “Benny had a bad cat put on a red shirt” just like the guy on the recording did. In another hour he could be fast asleep in his bed. Fred finished his drink and threw the container to the back seat.
Nobody could see him on this stretch of road. There were never very many people traveling this way so late at night. This was the kind of road Fred loved most. He would push the little car to its limits and thrill at the forces due to its acceleration.
As Fred flew down one particularly long straightaway, he noticed how bright the moon was that night. And there were two stars that seemed to be brighter than the rest. They were both equal distances below and to the side of the moon. Together, they formed a sort of triangle in the sky. As Fred thought about this, it seemed as though there were eyes surrounding him in every direction. It was as if every point of light that he could see had somehow become an eye that stared at him and waited for his every move. When Fred blinked, it was as if they all blinked. All this frightened Fred even more by the fact that the moon and the other two stars in the triangle were the only objects that did not appear to him as eyes. These three lights kept shimmering and getting brighter and Fred had to slow down the car. It was getting difficult to think because of the overwhelming awe that Fred felt for the eyes and most of all for the triangle of suns. For a moment they appeared to represent the points on a crucifix and then they were a triangle again. At the moment when Fred felt that he must stop the car before he had to puke, the eyes vanished, and quickly reappeared just long enough to blink as Fred stared, motionless toward them. He quickly lit one of his cigarettes and started to breath again. In a few minutes, he would be home.
Fred unlocked the door and stepped inside. Sydney the “dog” recognized him and started racing about the room excitedly. Fred said “lights,” and the lights in the room came on. A small screen recessed into the far wall indicated the consumption of energy in a map of his house. He could see the dot that represented him blinking on and off in the little square that was this room. Sydney “the dog” approached Fred and handed him an envelope and a glass of water. Fred took the envelope and removed two capsules. Fred swallowed them and drank the water. Sydney always sensed when he was nervous although Fred couldn’t remember telling him to. Sydney had begun as one of Fred’s projects at the university. Since then, Fred had added more articulate arms, several sensory detectors and a laser matrix holograph generator. Fred felt compelled to build onto the robot whenever he wasn’t busy. He had grown quite fond of Sydney over the past few years and couldn’t bear the thoughts of living without him. Fred felt his way clumsily to the bed and climbed in. As usual, Sydney roamed all over the house looking for things to do.
At about the break of dawn, Sydney pulled the covers off of Fred and nudged him in the side a few times. Typically, Fred would not yet wake up, but at this instance, he leapt up from the bed and looked all around the room like a man expecting to be hit from behind. The screen in his bedroom was flashing something at him and he could hear the voice from behind the wall saying “appliance 13774 approach the screen…appliance 13774 approach the screen.” Was it Thursday already? Fred walked over to the flashing and it acknowledged him with a quick scan of light and the opening of a small door. The voice said, “Receive packet.” He reached into the door and removed a plastic box, which contained a small bottle. Fred removed the bottle and turned it to see the label. It said “PsyDel 6.2 maintenance dosage. QUICK SET APPLICATION PACKAGE. Apply to fingertips. SEE ILLUSTRATION.’ As he read this voice was saying “CEE YEE-LUS-STRAA-SHUN.” On the screen was a picture of someone’s hand and a small swab wetting the extended fingers in a circular motion. Fred removed the top of the bottle and withdrew the swab. In one sweep, he coated the ends of the fingers on his left hand with the liquid. The screen went blank for a moment and then returned with a calendar showing that Fred had no appointments for another 48 hours.
Fred wondered what he would do next. Would he go get something to eat, or would he take a shower first. Sometimes it was so hard to decide what to do. Sydney decided for him and rolled up beside him. Fred pulled a glass from the table and filled it with orange juice. Fred took the glass and “decided” to have breakfast.
Fred threw some “Eggs-N-Ham” packs into the microwave and set the coffee maker. Sydney switched on the big TV screen by the window. A man was interviewing someone who kept talking about something that was particularly popular with everyone lately, but Fred wasn’t paying enough attention to tell just exactly what they were talking about. He was flipping a potato chip can lid up in the air repeatedly trying to see if he could get it to land on the back of his hand. After about four tries he succeeded, but it fell off. The men on the TV were arguing now about whether red was more popular with the merchandising industry than blue was. Fred grew tired of this and said “channel five.” Immediately a large bus was thundering toward Fred and then it turned down a side street to reveal an avenue of jewelry stores and china shops on the big screen. Fred was trying to make his way through the crowd toward a girl who was looking at some rings through a store window. As Fred neared her, she turned to leave and saw him. She smiled and said “where have you been?” Fred looked aside and said “I had breakfast and went for a walk.” She nodded and they started walking down the street toward a small cafe. They got a table and sat down.
As he finished his coffee, Fred got up and leaned toward the girl. He said “want to go take a shower?” She got up and followed him across the street. In a moment he was undressing while the room filled up with steam. After a moment it was impossible to see more than a meter in the thick fog. The tiles were unbearably slick. After Fred got in the shower he adjusted the temperature of the water to a cooler level. He found it hard to keep from smiling and his throat muscles were getting sore from his grinning. The water felt wonderful on his skin but Fred felt it somewhat disturbing to look at the water coming out of the shower head. It seemed to be alive, writhing and twisting and making grotesque contortions in a malevolent manner. Fred turned off the shower and stepped out onto the slick tile floor. He switched on the exhaust fan to clear the steam.
In a moment the steam cleared and Fred could see himself in the public restroom staring down a long line of vacant urinals. On the other side was a row of sinks with mirrors placed as if one were supposed to be running back and forth between the urinal and the sink. Or maybe I’m supposed to be able to use the sink from the urinal thought Fred.
He kept walking until he pulled the door all the way back. The slick white tiles stretched into the next room to where a chair with one armrest awaited him. He sat down and placed the strap around his wrist. He flinched as the machine took a sample from his palm.
Fred just knew the sample would be used to make more of himself. That is, it would be used to make several replicates of himself. He wasn’t sure what they would do with them though. He had never seen one of them. Perhaps they would be used in case he ever needed an organ transplant. But why did they need so many of them? They must have thousands of them by now. Maybe they were changing the cells with some genetic engineering process to create new individuals. Maybe they were just making copies of Fred to do his job in case anything happened to him. Fred could never be sure. There was nobody to ask about it now anyway. He could imagine about fifty people who all looked exactly like him, crowded into his kitchen, all of them trying to sweep the floor with one broom. About twelve of them would be struggling with who should hold the dustpan.
Fred changed channels on the TV again. This time there was a small man with long dirty hair crouched up in a tree. He kept saying “pairoo pairoo” as a man on the ground with a hypodermic needle tried to get him to climb down. The little man kept shaking the limbs to make things fall out of the leaves, but the man on the ground wouldn’t leave. He just kept on holding his hands in front of his face and occasionally he would spit grit and bark out of his mouth.
Fred got up and went over to his workbench. He had been working on a new set of ears that would enable Sydney to have stereo hearing. Sydney would be able to judge the distance of objects and people with them. Fred felt too disoriented to deal with trying to power down Sydney and get him up on the bench to install the ears. He decided to go for a walk instead.
He pulled on his blue overalls and walked out the door. Sydney watched him leave through the window. Fred saw the girl from the cafe leaving her house next door and he ran up beside her. She said, “hey, where are you going?” Fred said, “I don’t know. What do you have in mind?”
“How about some ice cream?”
“I’m not hungry now.”
“Well, let’s go to the park.”
Fred hesitated for a moment. The park was a terribly dirty place these days. Nobody bothered to pick up the trash anymore. Why does she always want to walk in the park he wondered. Finally he said, “OK. Let’s go to the park.”
They walked in silence for some time down the empty streets across broken pavement and down long grassy sidewalks. They reached the little footbridge that was the entrance to the park. As they were going across she stopped and leaned over the rail.
The water was rushing urgently toward some destination downstream. Fred put his arm around her as she flicked the paint off of the rail and it fell into the swift running water below. For a moment, everything slowed down, and he pulled the hair back from her eyes and touched her face. Then she said, “what time is it?” He fumbled in his pockets hopelessly for a while. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to find my watch.”; he wondered why she was always so worried about the time. She always spoiled a perfectly good moment by worrying about the time. She straightened her back and started across the bridge. He stood for a moment and then followed. The flowers and trees were waving about him wildly like they were being wrenched up by a cyclone. He closed his eyes and turned around to face the wind. He could see that the sun was setting now. He looked over his shoulder and the girl was nowhere to be seen. She was gone.
Fred walked all the way home, enabled the stereo, and poured himself a scotch and water. He sat on the edge of the bed and drank the vile mixture down quickly. As he lowered himself onto the bed and closed his eyes he was asleep.
Then he was startled by a noise from outside the window. He looked out the window and he could see a glowing red light that was pulsating toward him. As it approached the window, he could see the object that looked like an old vacuum cleaner with a red light on top. It came right up to the window and then started going through it. The glass didn’t break, but the vacuum cleaner came right through it. Fred tensely sat up in his bed as the vacuum cleaner hovered over to him. He felt paralyzed and yet something was making him lie down on the bed. He felt numb and speechless but he wanted to scream. The vacuum cleaner started to talk. It said “HELLO. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF DEATH. WE WISH YOU NO HARM. YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED FOR MODIFICATION. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE…” At this, Fred closed his eyes and as far as he could tell he passed out for some time.
Fred awoke feeling as if he had been asleep for weeks. His head felt odd and he held his hand to it and it was bald! He had no hair on his head. There was a numb spot at the base of his skull and another one on the top to one side as if the nerves had been cut to those areas. He tried to speak and found that he was unable to make a sound louder than a whisper. He poured a glass of water and drank it down, savoring every drop. When he could speak, he said, “What day is it?” The voice from the screen said, “Today is Sunday.” Fred resigned himself to the fact that he had to work that day. He put on some coffee and threw a couple of packs into the oven.
The television was saying something about bad weather and storm warnings, but it looked particularly sunny outside to Fred. He ate the eggs slowly, contemplating each bite as if he had not eaten in several years. The coffee was refreshing and soon he was wide-awake again.
He stepped into the shower, being careful not to slip on the tile. The telephone rang at about the same time he got shampoo in his eyes so he didn’t bother to answer it. He didn’t have time for anyone right now anyway. He had to be at the office in thirty minutes.
Fred stepped onto the sidewalk inside the complex and lurched forward as the sidewalk carried him past fountains and trees toward the computer center where he worked. He got off near the door and walked in through the air wall that kept the humidity stable and the dust out of the air inside. Fred sat down at his terminal and saw that he had only enough work to last the morning so he would be off this afternoon. How wonderful Fred thought. He hadn’t had any big assignments since last month when he was working on some defense programs for the government. This week he was writing a program to control robot ducks at the city’s new indoor park.
By three o’clock he had finished and cleaned up his work area several times so he decided to leave. He waved at Leonard who was watching him from behind the glass wall of some experimental station. Inside, there was a small robot who was “learning how to walk.” Leonard was one of the few programmers who were selected to teach the “infant” programs new things like colors and the names of shapes. Fred looked over his shoulder at the clock and walked out the door.
The crowd outside was gazing past him in a slow rush. He weaved his way to the parking lot and got into the car. He pulled out onto the street and he was gone.
He pulled into the driveway just in time to see Genita leaving her house. He turned off the car and walked next door. She locked the door and said, “I was just going to the store. Do you want to come?” He thought for a moment and tried to decide. Finally she said “That’s okay. I’ll see you tonight.” “See you later” he felt himself say as she walked away. He felt thirsty and walked back to his house for a drink.
Sydney was waiting for him inside. There was some mail on the table also. He decided not to open it yet. It was probably junk anyway. He poured a scotch and water and plopped down into the soft chair. “Stereo, video, AC and Sydney go get me some ice.” In a moment Sydney returned with some ice in a small bucket. Fred dropped some into his drink and picked up one of the envelopes on the table. It was an advertisement for a sweepstakes where they were giving away a trip to the Caribbean. The phone rang. He got up out of the chair and spilled his drink on the floor. Sydney wheeled off to the kitchen to retrieve a towel, and Fred answered the phone.
Fred always hated it when people called him in the afternoon, but he cleared his throat and said “hello?” “Fred, what are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing I suppose. Why?”
“I’ve got something very important to talk to you about. Could you meet me somewhere for dinner?”
“Yeah I suppose so. What time?”
“Meet me in the coffee shop around eight.”
“Alright, see ya later.”
Leonard always blew everything out of proportion. Fred hardly thought about whatever it was that he wanted to talk about.
Fred settled back down in the chair and was wondering what to do for the rest of the afternoon. The stereo was playing “somewhere there must be a big smiling face trying to put me back into my place,” and Sydney as usual was searching for something to do. Fred wished there was some way to program the boredom out of his own life. Without hesitation he got up and walked over to the screen. He thought for a moment and said “access code thirty-two. Request supplement.” The screen blinked off for an instant and then the voice began “Appliance 13775. Approach the screen.” Fred received the envelope with eager anticipation.
Fred could see the table that Leonard had reserved for them as he walked up the sidewalk to the cafe. Leonard was one of those people who was never late for anything. “Fred, Fred, over here.” Fred pretended not to notice as Leonard waved frantically toward him.
“Hello Leonard. What are you drinking?”
“Oh, its just water. I was waiting for you.”
“What’s all this you were going to tell me about?”
“It’s about the project I’ve been involved with. We’re about to enter the final development stage and we need someone new.”
“New. What do you mean new?”
“As you know, the same three individuals have been teaching the system everything so far. But now that we are about to enter the cognitive development stage we would like to have someone new so that we can be sure there is no contamination from the personalities it has been in touch with up until now. Anyone in our department can take the position. It would increase your salary I’m sure.”
Fred smiled and thought for a moment. There was something very attractive to him about that thing. It was one of the most closely guarded research projects going on in his department. And he knew there was only one like it in the entire world. God only knows what they’re going to do with it Fred thought as he said “That sounds fantastic!”
Fred walked into the office that day with new enthusiasm. He walked down the long corridors past the micro and biological sections. Inside one cubicle, he could see an experiment where monkeys were being taught to carry out certain tasks. There were several levers that the monkey was supposed to touch at certain times and some that it was supposed to touch at other times. The light would come on and the little monkey would run over to the slot where the food pellets came out. The monkey received the pellets with eager anticipation and quickly went back over to the levers.
Fred walked into the room where the machine was. Leonard wheeled around in his chair and glanced at his watch. “Good morning Fred” he said as if it were a direct command. “I’d like you to meet Alex. Alex, this is Fred. Why don’t you say hello.” A distinctly timid voice said “Good morning Fred, How do you do?”
Fred grinned broadly and replied “Just fine. How ’bout yourself?” There was no response. Leonard nodded at the little device on the floor between them; “It doesn’t really know just how it is yet. We haven’t given it very much sensory input until now. Its still trying to figure out what it all represents.” In a few minutes the little device that was Alex rolled over to Fred and began making “sniffing” sounds. “You mean it can smell?” Leonard looked insulted and said “Not really, but of course it has some similar analog to what we call smell.” Fred couldn’t take his eyes off the thing. It looked sort of like a collection of desk lamps on a little set of tractors. “What do you want me to teach it?” Fred inquired anxiously.
“Well, we don’t actually want you to “teach” it anything. We will be subjecting both of you to a set of stimuli and Alex will learn from your responses. Its as simple as that.” Fred was severely disappointed. What did they need a specialist like himself for? This sounded like some kind of job for a guinea pig. “Won’t I have anything to do or write? Something to work on?”
“No. No, not actually Fred. I understand your reservations, but we needed someone of your background and intelligence for this position.” Fred felt a little better with that. Even if Leonard was just patting his ego, it still sounded good coming from Leonard.
“Well, can we get started or what?” he said as he looked down at Leonard’s watch.
The first day consisted of a series of movies, which they both watched while Alex carefully studied Fred’s reaction to the scenes in the movie. Fred kept wondering how they knew his responses would be the right ones. Later he found out that Alex had already been told the correct responses and was watching Fred to record any deviations. It was also somewhat puzzling as to what sort of “responses” they were looking at. Fred was wearing a huge bundle of electrodes attached all over his head, face, chest, and back. He supposed they were measuring his brain waves and heartbeat, etc., but nobody would ever tell him exactly what was going on. They said it might contaminate the control conditions whatever that meant.
Fred was feeling quite used as he left the office, past the rows of monkeys who were resting now. He stepped onto the pavement like a man leaving prison. He got into the car and turned the music up. After he got on the open road, it felt like only a moment before he was home. Sydney gave him a message that Genita had called. Fred pressed her number and a click was followed by “Hello?”
“Genita? This is Fred.”
“What happened to you last night. I thought we were going to do something?”
“We were…I must have forgotten the time or something.”
“Why can’t you ever pay attention to what time it is? You’re always late for everything.”
“Genita, time is nothing. It merely rearranges your memory.”
“Oh come on Fred. Don’t start that alternate reality shit with me again.”
“You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about do you.”
“No. I don’t…I don’t think you do either!”
“Okay, well goodbye Genita.”
Fred poured himself a scotch and water and vowed to himself never again to speak with Genita Lensee.
Sydney pulled the covers off of Fred at dawn as usual. Fred peeled himself up out of the bed and looked over at the screen as if someone in there had ask him a question. In a few minutes the light blinked and the voice behind the wall “Appliance 13776. Approach the screen.” Fred walked over and waited for the next line. Sydney was looking for something to do in the kitchen, and Fred could hear his tractors ticking across the tile floor. Fred took the little vile and pulled out the swab and then he soaked the ends of his fingers liberally for several minutes.
The television was still on from the night before when Fred sat down and poured himself some orange juice. There was a rerun of some old family show playing that Fred had seen countless times. It was set in a living room and there was this whole family sitting there listening to The Beatles White Album. The old grandmother and grandfather were sitting in rocking chairs and several generations of grandchildren were scattered all over the room. The old man was obviously smoking a cigarette and passing it back and forth to a couple of his sons who were visiting that afternoon. Most of the small children were violently bored and couldn’t care less about the music that the elders were tapping their feet to. Two of the children were having an argument about who was stronger, Jesus or John Lennon. One of them was saying that Jesus was stronger because John Lennon couldn’t walk on water. His mother overheard this and pinched his ear. She admonished him for “laying bad vibes on John Lennon on Crystal Sunday of all times.” Fred always hated religious shows so he changed the channel.
The President was giving an address or a speech or something. Fred couldn’t remember whether this guy was The President of the Corporation or The President of the United States or what. It didn’t matter anyway did it? The President never did anything bad that Fred knew about. He had everything he wanted so what did it matter? Fred finished the orange juice and sighed loudly. His feet seemed to stretch miles out in front of him. Sydney appeared on the horizon and was slowly making his way across the great prairie field that was the room. Somewhere in the back of Fred’s mind he was aware of an eye that was watching his every move. There was an eye hiding somewhere that was always just outside his field of view and it blinked whenever Fred blinked.