I wanted to let people get a taste of what they're buying with the eBook bundle, so here is the opening of Digilife, which is my most recent completed work.
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 on the horizon. The airport was forty-five minutes behind them and the only thing to break up the monotony now was the occasional auto dealership and the 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 schoolteacher, 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,” she said. “It looks like it's 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 condominium that I saved three years to buy. So the public schools in the city were not 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 telling him 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 that 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 sat on the charger and turned it on. That way, when the five miles was up and they still had not 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 would not 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 could not. They would go back, look at the sign for as long as it took Monica to have to admit she had been wrong, and then they would turn right back around again and continue 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 had 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 had not 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 much time would they have to waste before he could come up with an excuse not to buy the townhouse? They would 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 she were 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 could not help but be impressed. That feeling did not change as they continued through the townhouse. Each room had 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 would not 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, 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 did not 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 stood and stared as numbers appeared slowly across the screen.
Ferry was now certain he had seen that last number before, but wherever that information was stored in his brain he could not quite get at it. As for the other numbers, they were meaningless to him. The expression began repeating itself in quick succession, filling the screen. Just seeing them appear by themselves gave him a chill. It could be a random memory dump. Perhaps the computer was performing this diagnostic sequence on itself. On the other hand, it could be some kind of network traffic spillover, node handshakes that were accidentally displaying on the screen.
However, none of that explained why two of the expressions had also appeared on the temperature control box.
When the screen had finally filled 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.
Then, 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 jumped away in surprise, stumbling over the chair and backing away.
“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.”
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.
“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 crazy. That confident look was gone now, replaced by disappointment.
“Go ahead and try,” 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 could not 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 about 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 cried out.
“Why won’t you play with me?”
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.
“What’s that smell?” 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 designs that would take several strikes to break.
He thought he just about had it when the electronic igniter in the fireplace clicked and the fire consumed them.