[Editor’s Note: Read the entire story from the beginning!]
As his eyes blinked open at sunrise on Thursday, Tucky untangled himself from a knot of sheets and discarded clothes, sat up on the edge of his cot and paused to wonder what was happening to him. Was he “following his destiny” as he planned, or was Destiny on the verge of ripping him apart? A faint glow tickled the corner of his left eye and made him glance over at his workbench, where the tablet still rested. He stood up on a pair of trembling, sore legs and stumbled over to examine it. The milky-white display grew steadily brighter as he drew near.
Like a waking dream, the character strings engraved on the components appeared in his mind with razor-sharp clarity. Without giving it a thought, he began entering them with the tablet’s odd little buttons. As he went, he followed his hunches, just as he would with the guts of a broken radio, about the order of each string. Yet as Gerd’s cuckoo-clock collection struck noon in unison, every pattern he entered so far had no effect on the glowing device.
Or so it seemed, until the tablet encircled his latest character string in a red cartouche. Tucky flinched as a brief flash of red light shot out of the reddish-brown sphere that lay on the metal shelving where Olga had tossed it the night before. Suddenly, Olga herself appeared behind him, with an arm stretched across his shoulders and a knee posed coyly between his legs.
Little by little, Olga’s whispered suggestions spelled out the language of the symbols into his ear. What she knew, she claimed, was based partly on Inga’s analysis, and partly on intuition. True, Inga’s frantic reactions could only mean she had prior knowledge of the components. But nothing Olga could intuit explained how his own grasp of “tablet-ese” had come to him so suddenly.
Tucky didn’t care. Any thought of Olga was accompanied by a persuasive surge of warm, addictive sensations that quickly soothed away every trace of Reason. She was … everything … and as a fresh set of equations streamed rapidly across the tablet, her melodious voice averred that they had their roots in a larger mathematical pattern.
Occasionally, Olga brought him a meal or a cup of coffee; otherwise his feverish eyes reflected nothing but the milky white glow of the tablet’s display. Had days passed, or weeks? The concept of time seemed to have slipped out through his ears.
Yet where was Olga now?
He looked up from the pile of loose leaf sketches and calculations that spread across his workbench, Tucky vaguely remembered the sudden flash of light that had cut her off in mid-sentence … hours before. It was as if she’d disappeared, like a mythical genii — except how could that possibly make sense? Ponder that thought as he might, it wasn’t long before that brief interlude of mental clarity faded and Tucky was once again completely absorbed in the task at hand, of which he still had only a foggy, inductive understanding.
Regardless, as daylight faded away, nothing mattered to him but the satisfaction he felt each time the reddish-brown sphere flared up in a tiny arc of red light. So it went until, at last, the larger pattern he’d sought for the last two days emerged — arising from a subtle arrangement of characters on the tablet screen.
“It’s a machine,” he croaked, his voice dry and cracked as his parched throat.
At that, Olga loomed into view, spun him around by the shoulders and pressed him close to her soft, warm body.
“What is a machine?” she asked. Tucky’s eyes widened. Where had she come from? He hadn’t heard … but the feel of Olga’s hands inside his shirt drove all wonder from his mind. His heavy eyelids drooped shut.
“Components. After they … after they fit together,” he said.
Olga broke out in a broad smile and laid his head down gently on to the workbench. Had Tucky not fallen asleep a moment later, he would have seen something to change his perspective on her completely. As it was, he slept until Friday morning. He woke only as the Samsung Galaxy buried in his jeans chimed in, with the perky ringtone Carla had chosen for him, one playful night last June. But what a coincidence that her name should appear in the caller ID.
“Carla?” his voice rasped.
“Don’t you ever go home?” asked Carla’s smoky, resonant voice. “I’ve been over to your place, like, twenty times this week to drop off the crap you left at my house.”
“Could have called….” he started to say.
“Why?” Carla snapped. “You never check your phone either. Your Aunt Inga has been calling you for days and now she’s calling me. I don’t even know how she got my number.”
Tucky sat up on the edge of his cot.
“Aunt?” asked Tucky
“Right,” said Carla. “The one you never told me about. Lying bastard. ‘I have no family,’ you said. Well you do and you … you have to call her!”
“Not … lying,” sputtered Tucky.
Carla’s voice was weary.
“I have to go. I’m leaving your stuff in front of your door,” she said. “Call your aunt and then go see a doctor. You sound terrible.”
The phone went dead. Tucky’s eyes filled with tears. If he could succeed at something, if he could just prove to her … that what? “Not crazy, not irresponsible, not emotionally withholding” didn’t add up to a perfect Zoosk profile. Besides, even if he did work out the secret of the components, how would he explain the sheer weirdness it involved — not to mention Olga.
He pursed his lips, wiped his tired eyes with the sleeve of the blue flannel shirt he’d thrown on … sometime … and checked his phone for voicemails from “Aunt Inga.” There were eight of them. He chose one at random, put it on speakerphone, and sat motionless as the elderly woman’s voice echoed through the clutter around him. Listening through the cloud of his obsession with Olga, all he could grasp was the urgency in the Inga’s voice.
The word “device,” figured into Inga’s message in a way he also didn’t understand. Yet one phrase cut through the dense fog that enveloped his mind.
“It may present itself as a persona … “
Inga’s voice had trembled on the last word and it was this that lodged itself most firmly in Tucky’s mind. Even though, he’d understood very little of what he’d heard, the urgency of Inga’s messages continued to haunt him. Maybe if he tried another one of her voicemails. Again, the old woman’s voice echoed in his ears, as he shuffled over to his cot.
” … but the energy requirements are too great to be sustained indefinitely. Periodically, it must recharge.”
As he passed the metal shelving on his left, Tucky paused to pick up the reddish brown sphere.
” … at those moments, the animus will withdraw into the device and that’s when it’s vulnerable … “
What was the old buzzard talking about? He’d have to ask Olga when she returned. For the moment, he settled back down on a cracked, oak bar stool near his workbench, preoccupied with discovering the next step.
” … I suggest you use a blunt object … “
Enough, He had to think. The text crawling across the tablet was clear. He cupped the reddish-brown sphere in one hand and twisted its top half gently to the left, as he’d seen Olga do, until the red light emanating from it narrowed into a focused beam. Next, he aimed this new stream light at the tallest of the sculptures he’d cobbled together out of the components, which he now knew by name and function. Immediately, a holographic image appeared to the right of sculpture. It was an image Tucky recognized as one of his other sculptures, one lying halfway toward the door to the shopfront.
Following a hunch, he re-aimed the sphere’s pale light at that corresponding sculpture, and felt his face curl up into a smile. The holographic image that appeared next to the second sculpture was an exact likeness of the first. And no sooner had the second hologram appeared, than the second sculpture floated into the back room and aligned itself with the first sculpture. Elated, Tucky turned the sphere this way and that, catching each of the sculptures in its light and clicking his tongue gleefully at each new image.
Now Tucky spun around on his heels, working feverishly to align the sculptures and watching as they welded themselves together with astonishing precision. Hours passed, and at length Tucky marveled at the intricate, graceful framework that now rose from the floor and took up nearly all available space in the back room. All along, he’d assumed the components would add up to a new kind of computer or maybe even a transmat device, like the one he’d seen in the movies. But from one angle, he thought, its shape suggested an aircraft of some kind. What, he wondered, was he supposed to do with that?
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Design by Steven S. Drachman from an image by xusenru / Pixabay