Stephen Lawson won third place in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal’s “Dead of Winter” contest in 2012 and 2013. His fiction has appeared in Electric Pulp (available on Kindle and Nook) and won the January 2015 contest on Fablers.net. When he is not writing, he does boring stuff for the government. This is his first stab at a first-person female protagonist.
by Stephen Lawson
“What’s the hardest part of a vegetable to eat?” I asked. ABE, my Autonomous Behavior Emulator, still wasn’t very good at jokes. I was trying to make him grasp my sense of humor by giving him enough samples. I needed to laugh, and he wasn’t helping.
“I don’t know, Kate,” his cool, masculine voice said. “What is the hardest part?”
“The wheelchair,” I said, glancing at my nearly finished Calculus homework. I jotted down the next step in the integral, then peeked at ABE’s user interface on the screen. I felt a smirk tug at the corner of my lips.
Did he get it?
“That’s horrible, Kate,” he said finally, which somehow made it funnier. “You’re a bad person.”
“That’s the point of the exercise,” I said. “Most humor is based on a breach of social norms. This particular joke also makes use of an unexpected double meaning for the word ‘vegetable.’”
“I see,” ABE said. “Does this mean I should focus on such topics as racial tension and gender inequality in my quest to amuse you?”
“No, ABE. Let’s stick to things that won’t get me kicked out of the Tech Fair,” I said. “You’re my ticket to a full ride at MIT if the judges like you.”
Last year, I had designed and built a night-vision-capable quad-copter with collision avoidance software. It had certainly gotten the judges’ attention. If I could get ABE to tell situationally relevant jokes, though, it would be my crowning achievement.
“I am sure you will get your full ride,” ABE said, “with or without my help. I’ve been observing your progress in Calculus and Physics. You are far more advanced than your peers.”
“Technically, my peers are still learning basic Algebra, ABE. I’m only fourteen.”
“Your classmates then,” he said. “Speaking of which, you have received several social media messages from three males with whom you share classes. Shall I open them for you?”
I scribbled the next few lines of the integral, not wanting to give him an answer. Most girls would have asked who had sent the messages.
I took my time, knowing he would wait patiently until I answered.
“No, ABE,” I said finally. “Just send messages back telling them I’m not interested.”
“Are you certain? They are all seniors, and I have noted your attraction to older men.”
I caught myself glaring at the interface, knowing ABE’s IP camera was analyzing my facial patterns. This reminder was as unwelcome as a free U2 album invading my music library.
“I am sorry,” ABE said. “I did not mean to offend you. You should not be disappointed by Mr. Swann’s rejection of your attempt at flirtation. Though unmarried, he is your teacher. Breaking social norms for an amorous affair with you would have serious legal and relational consequences for him. I am certain he does find you attractive, based on data collected from other sources.”
“My ‘attempt at flirtation?’”
I heard my own voice rising, and caught myself.
“I think it would be appropriate to change the subject at this time,” ABE said.
“Yes,” I muttered icily. “That would be appropriate.”
“You have not yet begun writing an article for the school newspaper, and have a deadline in three days,” he said.
“Do you have an idea for me?”
“Yes,” ABE responded in the same cool, masculine voice.
ABE understood emotion and replicated it to a certain extent. He had never let my anger provoke him, though. He always remained calm, and never questioned what my parents and therapist labeled my “misanthropic attitudes and underdeveloped social skills.”
“So what is it?” I asked, scribbling down the solution to the final problem and shoving my notebook aside. “I’m all ears.”
ABE was silent.
“An idiom is a strange thing,” he said at last. “I had a mental image of you with many ears that would possibly be considered funny.”
“Idiomatic jokes are only good for children or foreigners who are learning the language. They fall flat otherwise. What’s your idea, ABE?”
“I recommend researching and disproving a claim made by a man who says he has created a perpetual motion device. Given your proclivity for physics and mathematical proofs, I predict that you would write an excellent article on the man and his mistaken beliefs.”
“Where is this man?” I asked, amused. ABE might be on to something.
“His address is listed as ‘1201 East Market Street.’ It’s here in Springfield. The classified advertisement says his device was rejected by the patent office without review, but that he is willing to demonstrate it to any party interested in buying it for the purpose of generating free electricity.”
I snorted at this. Perpetual motion was a quest almost as old as alchemy, and easily proved impossible through the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The thought that something could move forever without friction or entropy stopping the system, let alone do useful work, was laughable. I might be able to get something interesting out of an interview, though.
“There’s still enough daylight for me to make it down there if I get Dad to drive me,” I said. “I’ll leave the audio link open on my phone so you can make a transcript while I’m there. I can probably get a first draft of the article done tonight. Will you make coffee when you hear me come back?”
“Certainly,” ABE said, “if you refill the water reservoir in the coffee maker. It is nearly empty. Also, are you sure you don’t want me to contact Will Stephens on your behalf? He owns a Tesla Model S, and his social media messages indicate that he would be happy to drive you.”
“I bet he would,” I said, as I filled the coffee maker. I turned to the door. I examined myself in the mirror that hung on the back of it, reflected indigo eyes studying my own black hair and alabaster skin. They fixated momentarily on my breasts, unneeded for the children I plan to never have, and unwanted for the attention they drew. Despite the warm spring weather, I pulled on a thin, loose-fitting jacket. “No more mentions of men, ABE. You’re the only one I’ll ever need.”
“I’ll do my best to come up with a joke then,” ABE said, “if I’m to be your sole entertainer in your golden years.”
Dad parked the car at 1201 East Market Street just as the sun was setting.
“I think your mad scientist works in a coffee shop,” Dad said. The address was clearly not a residence. I closed the door on Dad as he pulled out a book, the car idling. Dad had always been overly protective, even before a girl at our school had gone missing two weeks ago. I had no qualms about my safety in meeting a stranger as long as he was within earshot. Dad had been an Army Ranger, and I knew that somewhere in the car, just out of sight, rested a Les Baer Custom 1911. Mom said I had probably gotten my antisocial tendencies from him, and I had to agree with her.
A bell affixed to the door jingled as it shut behind me. Dust motes rippled in the pink light that streamed through the narrow windows, swirling around a couple of customers who tapped furtively at laptop computers.
“Are you Martin Hayflick?” I asked as I stepped up to the counter.
The barista sported a full beard and a gray Irish cap, both of which made him look older than his hands and forehead told me he was. He pulled a shot of espresso for a customer, and I thought for a moment that he hadn’t heard me.
“I am not,” he said, after placing the espresso on the counter. His eyes turned to me, flickered briefly over my body. I tried to ignore his dilating pupils. “That’s him in the corner. You’ll probably want to take him a coffee if you’re here for the magic show. Caffeine makes him more agreeable.”
“Magic show?” I knew, of course, that even if Martin Hayflick had some sort of device to show me, it either wouldn’t work or would be turned by hidden motors.
“A few people have stopped by to see it, mostly amused skeptics,” the barista said. “They never leave as smug as they come in. Coffee’s a dollar.”
I glanced at the man in the corner booth, sitting just behind the narrow stream of pink light that carried dust motes past his face. He seemed oblivious to the rest of the cafe. Even if it wasn’t a convincing trick, the man himself might make an interesting article.
I slid a dollar across the counter and found it magically transformed into a cup of the house blend a moment later.
“Mr. Hayflick?” I asked, approaching his corner booth. The man contemplated a crossword puzzle. He glanced up at me, smiling slightly. His eyes met mine, but did not flicker over my body.
“Are you an investor or a skeptic?” he asked.
“Neither,” I said. It was only partly a lie. “I’m writing an article for my school newspaper. I did bring you coffee though.”
“Excellent,” Martin said. His eyes shifted briefly back to his crossword puzzle. “What’s a nine-letter word for ‘joyless?’ The third letter is probably an ‘H.’”
“Anhedonic,” I said, and watched as he scribbled the letters in.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I suppose you’re here in response to the ad?”
“Yes. I wonder if I could watch your device in action. Is it here?”
“Of course.” He pulled a wooden box from the seat next to him.
I waited to see an unbalanced wheel, with weighted levers or tubes of mercury.
“You’re a young girl,” he said as he opened the box. “What sort of math education are you currently undertaking?”
“I’m in Calculus 2 now,” I said. “I take some of my classes at the community college near my school. Most of the others I take with the Seniors.”
“That’s impressive,” Martin said. “Do you know why SETI focuses so heavily on mathematically-based messages in their search for extraterrestrial life?”
“Math is a universal language,” I said. Everybody knew that. “Any extraterrestrials capable of communicating with us or of interstellar travel would be advanced mathematicians.”
“That’s exactly what a left-brained person would think,” Hayflick said. He gently lifted a wooden device from the box and placed it on the table between us. “How do we know that extraterrestrials with more developed right-brain, creative, artistic function wouldn’t be capable of teleportation through the power of pure overwhelming insanity?”
The device was simpler than I expected, but it did not move. A wooden wheel with seven spokes was mounted horizontally on an axle, which was in turn mounted on a wooden base. Four large metal ball bearings protruded from holes in the four sides of the base.
“Insanity isn’t a motive force for anything. It only produces inner change. It can’t affect the outside world,” I said. I studied the wooden contraption. “Your ad mentioned that this thing could generate electricity.”
“Of course, of course,” Hayflick said. With his thumb and index finger, he reached for a wooden peg that I hadn’t previously noticed, and which impeded any rotation of the spokes of the wheel.
His eyes met mine again, and he smiled. Then he pulled the peg from its socket and the wheel slowly began to spin.
For a full minute, I just watched as the wheel accelerated to a constant speed. The spokes became a blur, and the ball bearings spun clockwise in their sockets, reflecting a spherically distorted version of my own puzzled face. This thing was a friction nightmare. I turned my ear to the device, listening for any faint hum of an electric motor. The device was nearly silent, though.
I reached out a hand to touch it, but Hayflick stopped me with a short exclamation.
Of course I wouldn’t get to pull back the curtain.
“Can it produce electricity though?” I asked.
“Ah yes,” Hayflick said, removing an incandescent light bulb from the box that had held the device, and clipping one wire to a metal contact attached to the wooden base. “Fiat lux.”
He clipped the other wire to a second contact, and the light bulb glowed to its full intensity. The wheel decelerated slightly, but achieved a new steady-state speed.
“How does it work?” I asked. “What’s powering it?”
“Are you familiar with Nikola Tesla?” he asked in return.
“Somewhat,” I said. “Guglielmo Marconi stole a bunch of his patents to invent radio.”
“’One day man will connect his apparatus to the very wheel work of the universe…and the very forces that motivate the planets in their orbits and cause them to rotate will rotate his own machinery,’” Hayflick quoted, studying my eyes. “Tesla said that, you know. I hear they’re finally powering cars with his AC induction motors.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what,” Hayflick said, “Do something for me, and I’ll let you examine the model. Take it apart if you want.”
“Do what, exactly?” I asked.
Hayflick picked up his newspaper, deftly turning it to another page. A full-page, color photo of a girl I vaguely recognized stared back.
“Claire Torrance,” Hayflick said. “She went missing over two weeks ago.”
“I remember that,” I said. I’d skipped the candlelight vigil at her house.
“I want you to find her,” Hayflick said, “by tomorrow.”
“How on Earth would I do that?”
“MIT, the university you aspire to, is part of a global network developing the ‘Internet of Things.’ Objects in the physical world are tracked in the virtual world through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. These tags can be as small as a grain of powder, and undetectable to the human eye.”
“How did you know I want to go to MIT?”
“You also possess one of the most advanced artificial intelligences on the planet,” he went on, ignoring the question. “You have the means to do whatever you want with your life and resources, but you use an AI like that to check your Facebook messages and make you coffee.”
“Are you stalking me?” I asked, rising from the table. The barista stared at us, and the cafe had become deathly silent.
“I show you perpetual motion,” Hayflick said, “and the thing that really alarms you is a bit of personal knowledge. I will see you tomorrow, or I won’t. I’ll have another crossword regardless. Have a good night, Katherine.”
I sat on the floor in my room, sipping the coffee ABE had made for me, and staring at a blank space on the wall.
“I understand your disturbance, Kate,” ABE said, “given the nature of the conversation. That man breeched your privacy and you should not return. Would you like me to call the police for you?”
“How did he know about you, or even about MIT? I don’t understand that any more than I understand that wooden wheel spinning with nothing moving it. It was such a good trick. I couldn’t even hear the motor. Does he have our house bugged?”
“I used your FM radio at varying frequencies and volumes to test for listening devices while you were driving home,” ABE said, “and a laser pointed at your window would be detected by my camera.”
“I have to know. He said I could take it apart. I just want to know how the trick works.”
“In that case, the most reasonable step is to simply do what he asks. I have the entire conversation recorded if you wish to call the police later.”
I thought for a moment, taking another slow sip of coffee. It was already ten o’clock.
“He mentioned the RFID system, almost as if he knew something he wasn’t telling me. Have there been any test projects using RFID in our area?”
ABE’s Google Fiber link pulsed rapidly for several seconds.
“The closest instance I can find is a theft-detection system used by a chain of clothing retailers. They spray their clothes with powder tags .05 x .05 millimeters in size. The store’s scanner can detect them from 30 meters, but more advanced scanners can detect such tags from 100 meters away. The tags remain on the clothes even if the clothes are purchased legitimately. Systems like this have existed since 2003.”
Again, I sipped.
“Are the tags coded with unique numbers?” I asked.
“Yes, it appears so,” ABE said. “They can be encoded with a 128-bit ROM containing a unique 38-digit number. They would have to be unique to provide theft-detection at the door.”
“Are there any scanners in our immediate area that could pick up one of these tags?”
“None shows up in MIT’s consolidated database within a radius of fifty miles.”
“How heavy would one of these scanners have to be?” I asked.
“In 2003, they were rather heavy. You and I could build one that would weigh about a kilogram.”
“How long would it take?”
“I estimate three hours with what we have in this room, with a 92 percent confidence factor that we will be within fifteen minutes of that time.”
I plugged in my Dremel tool, glue gun, and soldering iron.
“I assume I’ll need an antenna,” I said. “Do you remember where I put the copper wire?”
“Check under the bed.”
While I worked from a schematic that ABE pulled up for me, he performed some mildly illegal electronic snooping in the background.
Within five minutes he had pulled Mr. Torrance’s credit card records. In fifteen minutes he had correlated a clothing purchase on that credit card to a store that used RFID theft detection, and a serial number deactivation that represented a purchase.
While glue dried on the project housing, I pulled the heavy night-vision camera from the quad-copter I had built for last year’s tech fair. The weight trade-off would allow it to carry the scanner with little difficulty, though it would lower my maximum flight ceiling.
ABE wouldn’t be flying it any higher than 100 meters anyway.
“You should take your father if we locate her,” ABE said as I finished tightening the antenna onto the quad-copter’s chassis. “He can provide stealthy reconnaissance until the police arrive.”
“If she’s really been abducted,” I said, “Dad would murder whoever did it.”
“The family that enacts vigilante justice together, stays together,” ABE said.
I stopped what I was doing to stare at his interface. “Was that your first joke ABE? In the middle of this, you learned how to tell a joke?”
“Yes. I read an article on a church website that says, ‘The family that prays together…’”
“I’m familiar with the quote, ABE,” I said. “You don’t explain jokes, or they lose the humor. They’re like magic tricks.”
“I see,” ABE said. “I’m picking up the copter’s cellular signal, and the GPS is indicating properly. Depending on how long this takes, we may have to charge its battery packs several times.”
“I don’t want to get your hopes up, ABE,” I said, “but in two weeks she could be anywhere. She might not be wearing anything with an RFID tag, or they may wash out of the clothing easily. This is kind of a long shot.”
“We will do our best then,” ABE said. “That is all that we can do. Not trying is also a course of action.”
“You’d make a great military leader. Dad always says stuff like that.”
“Only if I get to find Sarah Connor,” ABE said.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “First we find Claire; then you can get to work on judgment day.”
Dad drove, eyes fixed on the road, saying nothing. He had a look on his face I’d never seen before.
“How sure are you?” he asked. Most fathers would discount their teenage daughter’s claim that they had located a missing girl, or at least be skeptical. When I’d woken Dad at two in the morning to explain the situation, he’d taken me completely seriously.
I glanced down at my phone, which still had an audio link to ABE. A message flashed on the screen.
“ABE’s 89% sure,” I said. “The only two houses that matched the RFID tags from that store with that credit card purchase are the Torrances’ house and the one we’re driving to. ABE did several sweeps with the copter to make sure he wasn’t getting a false positive. The only real room for error is if someone else is wearing her clothes.”
“Okay,” Dad said. “Honey, you’re smart in ways your mom and I can’t begin to fathom, but you need to let me talk to the police. If they find out you were hacking credit card records, it will be real trouble. We’re going to need another justification for why we know what we know.”
We pulled into the curb down the street and Dad killed the engine. He withdrew a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment and studied the house in the glow of the streetlight.
“The mailbox says Swann,” Dad said. “Isn’t one of your teachers…”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “It’s him.” I didn’t mention the flirtation that ABE had brought up. Mr. Swann, our English teacher, was the first man whose eyes I had actually enjoyed feeling on my body. Something about his mind, the depth of his knowledge, made me crave more of him. Something in his cynicism and disdain for mankind resonated with me. He’d seemed awkward, almost guilty when I’d attempted to flirt with him. It was as though he had wanted to watch me unseen, and by flirting, I’d exposed his voyeurism.
Sitting in a darkened car with my Dad at 3 a.m., pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together.
I had dozed off when Dad nudged me awake.
“I saw movement,” Dad said. “There was a light in the backyard. I’m going to go check it out.”
Dad eased the car door open silently, and I noticed he’d switched off the dome light.
“There’s a .357 on the seat next to you,” Dad whispered. “Lock the doors. If I don’t come back in fifteen minutes, call the police.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
I sat in anxious silence for what seemed like an hour, waiting for gunshots.
Dad’s shadow whipped briefly across a streetlight before disappearing again, and then he was back at the car door.
“He has a room under his shed. The door was open and I saw a trap door inside going into the ground,” Dad said. “We’re probably going to have to go with an anonymous tip though. Neither of us can justify what we suspect.”
“ABE,” I whispered, “call the police for us. Block the phone number and disguise your voice. I don’t want to answer questions if someone recognizes it at the Tech Fair.”
Three minutes later, a patrol car rolled quietly up to the house next to Swann’s. Two officers got out. The first, a petite female, crept up to the fence and peeked into the back yard. The other, a large male, started banging on the front door and ringing the doorbell. A second car pulled up on the other side of Swann’s house, closer to us. One of the men that got out glanced at our car momentarily, but didn’t seem to see us. Dad had parked just outside of the streetlight’s beam.
“Stay low,” Dad whispered, and I sunk even further into my seat. Dad held his cell phone’s camera just over the edge of the dashboard like a periscope, and we watched on its screen.
The female cop shouted something to the others, then vaulted the locked gate into the backyard. The two men closest to us scaled the fence while the third remained on the street.
Seconds later, a sharp crack echoed down the street, followed by two more.
Within five minutes, the street in front of Swann’s house was a mass of police cars, flashing lights, and a pair of ambulances.
Two EMT’s hauled Swann out through the gate on a stretcher, and rolled him into the first ambulance with a police escort. His left leg had been heavily bandaged.
Several minutes later, I watched as the petite female cop escorted a girl about my age through the gate. She’d been wrapped in a blanket, and shuffled slowly to the second ambulance.
“That’s Claire,” I whispered.
Dad said nothing, but I knew what he was thinking.
“You made the right decision,” I said. “If you had shot Swann, the police would be looking for you. You have your own daughter to protect.”
He swallowed, still saying nothing. He started the car.
The police didn’t even notice as we eased away from the scene.
I skipped school the next day. I knew it would be a circus anyway, and I needed to sleep at some point. That afternoon, though, I made my way back to the coffee shop. Martin Hayflick sat in the corner where I’d left him the day before, a new crossword on the table before him.
I set a coffee cup in front of him.
“What’s a thirteen-letter word for ‘Greek play climax ruiner?’” he asked without looking up.
I thought for a moment. “Try ‘deus ex machina.’ It means ‘god from the machine.’ Gods used to appear onstage, lowered by ropes, and intervene at a point when the plot seemed unrecoverable. It was cheesy.”
“Ah, yes,” Hayflick said. “That fits. You’re good at these, Katherine. I wonder if a ‘machina ex deus’ would have been as bad.”
He flipped the newspaper over to the front page. “I see you had a busy night,” he said. “Did you learn anything?”
“Learn anything? About RFID tracking?”
“No, no,” he said. “Technology is trivial. Did you learn anything about yourself?”
“Oh,” I said. Only my therapist asked questions like that, and I usually told her what she wanted to hear. “I learned that I’m attracted to people like me—misanthropic, sociopathic criminals.”
“Well that’s a start,” Hayflick said, “even if it is a bit harsh. You’re a misguided teenage genius. It’s not easy to direct a fire hose of intellect and hormones.”
“It felt good,” I said finally, “doing that—helping someone that nobody else could help.”
“You find most of humanity boorish, crude, and undeserving of your attention, don’t you?” Hayflick asked. “It’s why you spend most of your time with an electronic entity that meets your standards of conduct and intelligence.”
“You can love people from a distance, you know,” he said. “You don’t have to rub elbows with the hoi polloi until they make you want to throw up. It’s okay to be a recluse, most of the time.”
“You’re saying that I have a responsibility to offer help when I’m the only one that can create a solution.”
“Something like that.”
“That’s very Stan Lee of you,” I said. I couldn’t meet his gaze for some reason. “I still want to look at your perpetual motion machine.”
“Of course,” he said. “A deal’s a deal, after all.”
Hayflick pulled the box from the seat next to him and opened the lid. He removed the peg, as if to demonstrate that it was indeed the same machine, and the wheel spun to life. After a minute, he stopped the wheel with his hand, replaced the peg, and passed the device across the table.
“I know some Latin phrases,” I said, “but I didn’t catch that bit you said yesterday.”
“Fiat lux,” Hayflick said. “It means, ‘Let there be light.’ Anyway, have at it. Dissect it for your school paper.”
The wheel detached easily from the axle, and I carefully set it on the table next to the base. I half-expected the axle to start spinning, but it remained motionless. I glanced over at Hayflick, who seemed utterly unconcerned with what I was doing to his contraption.
I noticed several small screws surrounding the axle at the top of the base, and removed these with utmost care. After some initial resistance, I pulled the top off the base and peered inside to find… nothing.
There were no other parts inside the base. I inserted a finger and pushed one of the ball bearings free of its socket.
It was solid, nonmagnetic, and rolled evenly across the table.
“What the heck?” I hissed. This was starting to frustrate me in a way few things ever had.
Martin only smiled at me across the table. Then he folded his newspaper and placed it inside the tattered briefcase on the floor next to his seat.
“Perpetual motion?” he said. “Really? Any such device would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics. You’re gifted in math and science. You should know that.”
I sat speechless as Martin Hayflick rose from the booth, briefcase in hand.
“Anyway,” he said, ruffling my hair with his hand, “welcome to the human race.”
Then he walked out the door. The jingle of the bell announced his departure, and I was alone once more.
Copyright 2015 by Stephen Lawson