Icy gusts assaulted Snoqualmie, whipping the town with fury on this dark and merciless night. Between the lashes of sleet and hail, a frigid electricity poised in the atmosphere like a wide-eyed serpent hungry to bring calamity to the tranquil town.
A swirling shimmer dove from the storm onto a roof and slithered down a gutter as if searching, hunting. It left a curious green glow as it wound around the downspout, along the siding, behind the pink rhododendrons swaying in the wind. It froze momentarily at the sight of a long skinny black snake with no head and no tail which appeared to be entering the house. The sharp pang of fear unmasked its camouflage to reveal the frosted anger on its dragon-like face, tongue slithering to ward off the perceived threat. But like our frigorific friend, this black beast was as cold as ice, and, in fact, no snake at all.
But it was alive. It was alive in exactly the right way. He could feel its vibrant pulses and hums. Wriggling around the black beast in a carnal embrace, he transformed into a nebulous mist as he effused into the walls of the home. Within the musty darkness of this slim space, the pulses and hums reverberated, quivering at the place where his soul should have been. Blinding ecstasy pulled him to the source of this magnetic climax. Here, the black beast had been wounded, his skin gnawed with his sparking entrails exposed. The misty marauder engulfed the wound as he transformed into a current of electrified mischief. Here, within the skin of his dark friend, he perched at the crossroads of her destiny and her fate.
What Shall Be
Anne slumbered under her comforter. The sensors and pressure points within the mattress had adjusted to her body’s needs perfectly. Her sleep quality had improved drastically since they integrated the AI enabled mattress and pillows. She hadn’t rested this well in years. The pillow was especially helpful since she and Dillon no longer needed jolting alarms to wake up in the morning. Now, a gently growing vibration from the pillow along with gradually increasing light levels woke her smoothly without instigating the morning panic attacks she had learned to accept since she was 15… 15, awoken by the sound of two fatal gunshots separated by the cries of her father.
The low hum of the smart air filtration system lulled her to sleep. The atmosphere in the room consisted of a comfy 77 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity level of 53%. Anne knew doctors suggested a sleeping temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal health, but Skuld had learned from Anne and Dillon over the first month of its operation in the house that 77 was much more comfortable for them.
Skuld managed operations for all smart devices in the home. She even connected Anne and Dillon to various services that made their hectic lives easier. To Anne, Skuld was a godsend. Without Skuld, Anne would still be in that dark place shackled by anxiety, tortured by mordant triggers, anesthetized by depression. She was thankful for the life-saving features Skuld provided in her newly reclaimed life. Friends and family had warned her about the potential risks of so much personal data being collected. But to Anne, the risk was trivial compared to the hell she had endured over her life, until now, until Skuld. And so, this is what shall be.
IoT for Two
Out of the stillness of the tranquil night, the thunderous vibration of a huge gong resounded from the speakers in the corners of the room. Anne jumped out of bed, face arrested with terror, every muscled cocked like a loaded gun. It was 3am.
The throng was nearly deafening. She covered her ears as she screamed for Skuld to turn off the speakers.
Why wouldn’t Skuld respond? In a half-woken panic, she riffled through the bedside table to find her phone. Finally, there it was, sitting on top of its wireless charging station. It was dead.
“LISTEN TO THE SOUNDS OF THE RAINFOREST AS YOU PEACEFULLY DRIFT OFF TO A DREAMY SLEEP. BREATH DEEP ABDOMINAL BREATHS AS YOU FOCUS ON THE SOUNDS OF TRANQUIL WATERFALLS.”
The booming of the narrator’s voice and the sharp crashing of raging waterfalls rumbled the very air. Skull-crushing vibrations shook her brain. She ran out of the room only to have sonic tremors chase her through the halls via the intelligent sound system and the smart cameras.
“GENTLY HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A FEW SECONDS AS YOU NOTICE THE HAPPY CHIRPINGS OF THE RAINFOREST BIRD CHORUS.”
In a fevered pitch, she ran to the control room. As she reached for the door handle, she heard “Click”. The door had locked.
What was going on? Anger and confusion battled in her mind as she sprinted to the laundry room. As she opened the door to the breakers, high-pitched songbirds screeched along with the narrator’s instructions:
“RELEASE THE BREATH GENTLY, SLOWLY, AS YOU FEEL EVERY MUSCLE OF YOUR BODY MELT INTO THE MATTRESS. FEEL YOUR BODY AS IT UNITES WITH THE UNIVERSE SURROUNDING YOU. SURRENDER INTO PEACEFUL SLEEP.”
She flipped the switch for Skuld. No response. The once serene birdsongs assailed her eardrums with their piercing peeps.
“MEDITATE ON THE SOUNDS OF THE RAINFOREST UNTIL YOU HEAR THE FINAL GONG.”
“What in God’s name…. Why isn’t this working?!?” She glared at the panel for a stunned moment. Then, she remembered the kill switch. They had never had to use it. Where was it?!? Wasn’t it in some weird place? Right… in that creepy closet next to the water heater. She darted out of the laundry room and toward the water heater closet as she broke into a cold sweat.
The kill switch was nestled behind large bottles of bleach, vinegar and huge bags of baking soda used for cleaning. Grimy dust crusted the normally clear polycarbonate case surrounding it. Luckily, the bottom latch was a simple metal clasp. She flung it open and hit the kill switch as the crescendo of songbirds, waterfalls and gongs came to a faded halt.
“SLEEP WELL. NAMASTE.”
Breathless, Anne fell to the ground as a dizzy spell hit her. After a moment of dissociation, she got up and found the emergency satellite phone. She grabbed a duster out of the coat closet and went to the backyard to call Dillon.
“Were we hacked?”
“No. The security for the system is pretty robust.”
“What about updates?”
“There might have been an OTA firmware update on Thursday night, but…”
“But it’s Saturday morning. Wouldn’t the problems have started sooner?”
“Not necessarily. I need to check this out with the team. If it were the result of a firmware update, they would have also had weird shit happen. But it’s 4am, so I can’t do it right now. More importantly, how are you now?”
Anne released a heavy sigh. She closed her eyes briefly, then looked up at the stars. “I’m ok. It was just such a shock because things have been going so well. I wasn’t expecting it.”
“I just want to make sure you are feeling ok. Do you want me to come home?”
“No. I don’t want to ruin another of your guy trips. I’ll be fine.”
“I can always go fishing next weekend.”
“Next weekend isn’t a 3-day weekend. Have fun. I’ll be fine. The girls are coming over for a tea party.”
“Ok, now, you girls don’t get too crazy. I don’t want to come home to murdered crumpets all over the kitchen counters. That raspberry syrup stains everything.”
He loved to tease her about her tea parties. They sounded so matronly but, often ended in roaring laughter and red faces for those who were still standing at the end of the night.
“Oh, can it! We’ll be fine. It will be therapeutic to see them. We haven’t had one of these parties since the smart system was installed. I need this.”
He guided her through the process to manually unlock the control room door through a locksmith device he had developed. Then, he stepped her through the process of resetting the system and assuring all components were operating correctly.
“Ok, sweetheart, I want to try to get a few hours of sleep before I get ready for the party. Thank you for listening to me. You’re always there for me like no one else. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Anne. Now, go get some sleep.”
Making her famous Sweetheart Crumpets had become a meditative ritual for Anne. To her, it represented how thankful she was for her close-knit circle of friends. She loved to make them by hand with as little smart device involvement as possible. It was more personal that way. It was her way of practicing gratitude for those she loved so dearly.
In her PJs, she walked to the kitchen instructing Skuld along the way.
“Skuld, play something from my New Age music, preferably something without birds or waterfalls… or gongs.”
A moment later, soothing harps played softly in the background as she headed to the kitchen. While she gathered the ingredients for the crumpets, she continued her conversation with Skuld.
“Skuld, run a diagnostic on the events listed in your logs last night, specifically between 2am and 4am.”
After a brief pause, Skuld replied, “The logs indicate I was disconnected at 2:57am. There are no logs from 2:57am to 4:19am when I was reset.”
Anne stopped stirring the batter in shock. “That’s impossible. Skuld, analyze the logs for the speaker system, the internal cameras, and the lock on the control room door for that time period.”
Another brief silence. “There are no logs for these devices for that time period.”
Anne covered the dough in the bowl and set it aside to rise as she jerked around scowling up at the speakers in response to Skuld’s reply.
“So, there are no records at all for these devices during that time period?”
“That is correct.”
Perplexed, Anne poured a cup of perfect coffee. It had been customized for her preferences and started as soon as her head left the pillow at her normal waking time. After a few pondering sips, she wrinkled her nose and looked up at the speaker again.
“Skuld, analyze for all unusual internet and device behavior at or before 2:57am this morning going back to… the last updates: firmware, software, operating system, etc. Look for any outliers in the internet traffic for that time period. Also, examine all incoming and outgoing emails and service requests. Aggregate all this information and send a report to the app as soon as possible.”
“Certainly. This will take….”
The low hum of the interconnected devices exhaled a dying breath as the system shut down. The speaker from which Skuld had been speaking crackled as the wires behind it sparked. Various beeps sounded from around the house and lights flickered as everything defaulted back to manual mode.
Anne was livid as she called Dillon.
“What the hell is going on with this thing?! I thought you said it had worked perfectly in the lab!”
Dillon was a bit flabbergasted. “It was running perfectly. We had worked out all the bugs, and…”
“Oh, did you?!”
“Hey, I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s not anything that happened in the lab. Chuck got back with me and said his system is working fine. He didn’t have any sort of glitch last night, and he lives just a few streets away.” Dillion was silent as he mulled over all the possibilities. With a heavy sigh, he said, “Ok, just leave it disabled for the moment. I’ll head home. I should be there by 6pm.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“Eh, the fishing sucks this weekend. See you around 6.”
Subversive Error: 734
Dainty chamomile flowers danced with lemon slices at the top of an amber concoction consisting of freshly brewed chamomile tea, honey, and a warming dose of bourbon. It was Anne’s favorite Saturday night brew since it had such a mellowing effect. She placed the delicately designed punch bowl in the center of the living room table right next to her Sweetheart Crumpets. The table was filled with delectable snacks, but none quite as striking as the heart-shaped crumpets slather in butter and drizzled with homemade raspberry syrup.
The girls had settled into comfy chairs with their tea, snacks and two perfectly crispy-chewy crumpets each.
“These crumpets are outstanding, Anne. I don’t know how you make them so consistently fantastic. Mmmm-mmm!” Makayla closed her eyes as she savored the next bite.
“Thank you! I just think of how thankful I am to have you all as friends when I make them. It’s not easy to find true friends these days.” Anne blushed a little as she flushed with emotion.
“Isn’t that the truth!” Rebecca said vehemently. Asha agreed as she sipped her chamomile brew.
“I always make them by hand as a meditative gratitude exercise. It’s very calming. This morning was a little different, though,” Anne said rolling her eyes.
Makayla tilted her head as she prepared to eat another scrumptious bite, “Well, I don’t know what happened this morning, but they certainly don’t taste like you had any trouble.” Makayla winked at Anne as she took another bite.
Anne retold of the events of the previous night eliciting gasps and frowns from her friends. As she came to the point where she had asked Skuld to do some deeper analysis, the lights flickered, a low hum surged, and bleeps sounded throughout the house. Anne’s eyes grew 3 sizes as she nearly dropped her plate. She stood and looked toward the control room. Her shoulders tensed and her mouth gaped as her thoughts ran rampant. The girls expressed concern as she raced over to the control room, but Anne didn’t hear them. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and called Dillon.
“Hey, did you restart Skuld?”
“No. I’ve been driving the last couple of hours.”
“It just came back on by itself. Why would it do that?”
“I don’t know, honey. Are you sure you didn’t reset it somehow?”
“No, I haven’t touched it, or any controls, since it shut down this morning.”
“Weird. I’ll check with Chuck to see if anything happened with his system. Just… don’t touch it. If it starts acting up again, hit the kill switch.”
Anne hung up, too distracted by the busy hums coming from the control closet to finish the call. She opened the door timidly. Recessed in the dark chilly closet, tiny blinking lights highlighted a mass of cables coming in and going out of Skuld. The peculiar illumination in the darkness made the cables and the box look like an old, knotted tree. There was an acrid odor as she stepped closer to the box. Her voice faultered as she spoke.
Still struggling for breath, Anne addressed her again. “Skuld, how did you come back on?”
A red light flashed from overhead revealing a dark oozing substance on the floor under Skuld. Anne thought maybe it was oil. There was something in the substance, but she couldn’t tell what it was with the light flashing and the object being halfway obscured by hanging cables. She reached for the flashlight on the shelving next to the door. On the floor under Skuld was a thick, dark red substance. She walked closer. A faint metallic aroma filled the air as she squatted to examine it. Cloaked within the sinister crimson pool lay two bullets and a revolver like the one her dad had used. Anne shrieked, dropped the flashlight, and ran back to where her friends were at the entrance to the control room. Anne’s lungs were frozen. She couldn’t breathe.
A devilish voiced echoed through taunting laughter over the speaker in the control room, “She didn’t!”
They ran toward the front door, sweaty with fear. As they ran, the all-weather blinds secured the windows and the locks bolted. They were trapped. The temperature in the house rapidly started getting icy cold. The floor buckled and cracked creating a huge gap across the living room. In the large mirror above the buffet, a glowing green face emerged.
“Poor little Anne, so filled with fear. How will you ever survive any better than your parents?”
Two blue figures and a dark hooded woman arose from the fracture. The two blue figures flanked Anne as the dark woman approached the mirror.
The woman locked eyes with the green figure and pointed to the fissure in the ground. “Leave, Loki! You know as well as I her fate is none of theirs.”
Skuld’s harrowing stare made Loki flinch a bit. Although she was not a goddess, she controlled future fates, including his own.
“Fate… Destiny… it’s not set in stone. Doesn’t it depend on the soul’s choices? I was actually helping her to realize her destiny sooner. Is not adversity the seed of enlightenment? It was all in good fun. No one got hurt.”
Skuld’s stare was like a cosmic ray searing his soulless eyes. “Leave.”
Loki’s eyes drifted down away from Skuld and up to Anne. “Bye-bye, Anne. I hope we meet again someday.” Loki winked and disappeared.
Skuld turned and waved to reveal Anne’s parents beside her.
They spoke in one voice. “Anne, we are so sorry our curse has hurt you. We are sorry we left as we did. We did not mean to hurt you. We were confused beings, but we are at peace now. And we are here for you, even when you don’t see us. We believe in you, Anne. We love you to the ends of time and space.” With smiling souls, they vanished into the ether.
Skuld smiled silently. As she disappeared, she whispered, “And so, this is what shall be.”
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I enjoyed this story. The calming messages were very funny and I liked the way you gave hints as to what was going on right from the start. Some great description. I particularly liked "misty maurauder" and "electrified mischief". (Also good bit of foreshadowing there) Well done.
Thank you, Rachel! I thought using the calming messages would give it an interesting twist. 😁 And thank you for the feedback about descriptions and hints. I was trying to describe the entity/character without telling who he was, and also trying to indicate his unique characteristics, features, nature. These are great complements coming from such a great writer as yourself. Congrats on getting shortlisted!
Awww thank you! 😊
This is well written. I like the part about the AI bed and pillows that’s a really cool idea. This story sounds like you’ve improved and it shows. Great job! Robert
Thanks, Robert! :-)
Good story, I was particularly impressed with your sentence structure. Very varied which is nice to read. I like the mythic twist at the end, I thought for sure this was going to be a love unanswered between the robot and the woman's husband. Lol most of all at the beginning I like how you gave me a sense and feeling of what the story was going to be about, without having to tell me too much. It was great showing and amazing comedic value shouting the tranquility messages. 😂
Thank you! This is a great complement. 🙂 I've been trying to practice "show, don't tell", but was told I didn't give enough detail for the reader to determine what I was suggesting. So, this is progress! The love triangle would have been an interesting avenue! I've been reading a lot about norse mythology lately, though, so the box and cables made me think of Yggdrasil. Thank you. ❤️