Chapter 1: Discovery

I’m an early adopter.  Always have been.  The whole tech thing is my obsession.  You know those Amazon Echo things?  You talk to them and they do stuff?  I may not have been the first to pre-order the damn thing, but I was close.  And as soon as I learned that I could program it to turn the lights on and off just by talking to it, I was all over that for ANOTHER couple of bills buying the wireless light bulbs to make that shit work. And it works and I love it and all that.

The tech business fed me for quite a few years when I was doing the starving actor thing out in LA way back in a different life. I update my cell phone’s software when it becomes available, and tinker with my servers instead of watching cable. Yeah, I’m a geek and I fly that flag proudly.

So a few weeks ago, I get this box by a local or regional some such shitty delivery company I hadn’t heard of.  No warning, just a box outside my front door neatly taped.  In fact, it looked just like the zillions of boxes of crap that I and my significant other get from Amazon every other day.

My significant other, Beth, is great by the way, but she has a furniture fetish or something like that.  I dunno why, but seems like every other day, she gets a huge package that, of course, I gotta drag in the house and – big fucking surprise – it’s a new bookcase or a chair or a desk or once, a three-piece sectional!  I mean really, where the hell is all this stuff gonna go?

But she’s bright – and a way better writer than I am – beautiful and crazy sexy, so she gets a lot of leeway.

Oh who the fuck am I kidding?  She rules the roost and, ya know, she’s pretty good at it and she looks great while doing it.  So who am I to question the home decorating affairs of a smart, sexy blonde with a plan?

What’s most annoying?  She’s always right.  Always.  Dammit!  She’s got more common sense in her head than pretty much anyone I know.

You know in cartoons when one character looks at another character and there’s an instant attraction and their cartoon eyes pop out of their head and are replaced by hugely animated hearts?  Yeah, that’s kinda me.  I admit that I am completely at Beth’s mercy and I’m totally OK with that, ‘cause she uses this power over me that she has for good and not for evil.

So anyway, back to this mystery box.

I pick it up and it’s weighty, but not overly so.  I turn the box over and over until I find the shipping label expecting it to be a salt lamp for Beth’s new office/female-version-of-a-man-cave.  Lo and behold, guess whose name is on it?  Yup.  If it’s got my name on it, it’s fair game and I’m allowed to open it.  So I toss it under my arm and go back inside along with three empty water bottles that the kids left outside yesterday that are going in the trash.  I’d say “screw recycling” but that’d make me seem like a bigger asshole than I like to think I am, but I’m probably really AM that big of an asshole.

Anyway, I plop the package down on the kitchen counter and reach for something sharp to cut the tape.  I open the nice kitchen shears that are there and slice the length of the tape – I know, wrong tool for the job.  I get it.  Then again, you’re talking to the guy who uses an old Army P-38 can opener from the 1970’s for a Phillips screwdriver in a pinch, so keep your comments to yourself.

I lay down the scissors, forgetting to put them in the knife holder on the counter from which I got them and pop open the remaining tape and see what’s inside.  I pull out the plastic inflated packing materials and pop them like monstrous bubble wrap and pull out the plainly marked box that remains.

The picture on the box looks just like the Amazon Echo, or Alexa as we all call it around the house, but it’s… I dunno, shinier than you’d think.  And it’s gold.  Gold with white trim.  Never seen one like that.  Not in pictures, not on the Amazon website and not in the trades.  Usually when there’s a new piece of tech being released like a new phone or some such shit, I hear about it somewhere.  But not this. Never heard of it.

And I never ordered it.

Under the box, though, there’s a piece of paper folded in half.  A packing list, I suspect, so I drag it out and start reading.

“Dear Loyal Customer:

Congratulations on being selected to participate in the latest Echo hardware and software beta test!  You have received this Echo product at no cost to you and there’s nothing for you to do except to plug it in and use it. 

Feel free to experiment with the new capabilities that we’ve built into the Echo Beta; they will push your imagination and creativity to the limit! You’ll find the limitations of the conventional Echo products have not just been overcome but exceeded astronomically!

No need to provide feedback on the new Echo Beta.  The Echo Beta will learn how you like it from how you use it.

Please enjoy this great new capability!

Sincerely,

The Creators of Echo Beta”

Seriously?  Such bullshit!  Yeah, I get inflated claims and all that.  I’m a public affairs professional and I know marketing lingo as well as anyone.  We’ll see.

But… NEW TOY!

I take it upstairs to my room and swap it out for the Echo Dot that’s there now.  After a few seconds, it plays some soft intro music and says “Welcome to Echo Beta, Dan!”

Huh?

At first, it’s a little disconcerting that without any configuration it already knows who I am.  Then I remember that my last Amazon Kindle came pre-configured out of the box with my name and account without me having to do anything. They pre-register their devices while they’re still in the box.  So yeah, that makes sense.

I put the new device through its paces, turning on and off lights, listening to the weather forecast and checking the Ecobee thermostat, which the old Amazon Echo knew how to do.  So yeah, it works.  Same voice.  Same kind of interaction.  It’s familiar and unremarkable.  I’m not initially impressed, though I think it’s responding a tad faster than the old one.  But that could just be new hardware and my new 150-megabit broadband Internet connection.

In walks our dog.  A Dachshund, Emmett always comes around and finds me when he’s got to go outside and pee or poop or when it’s time for his cheese – long story – or any other thing he wants.  It’s nearly five-thirty, so he probably wants his nightly cheese with an allergy pill rolled into it.  Of course, as soon as I mention the “c” word – no, “cheese” you perv – he starts freaking out and jumping around as though he’s never, ever been fed once in his life.  So I take him downstairs, grab a Kraft American slice and a half a Claritin per the vet’s instructions and feed it to him in a few bites to keep him from choking on it.

Did I mention how much my commute sucks?  It’s gotten longer and tougher since I refused to pay the exorbitant tolls that are now on my regular commute route.  I’m taking a different route now and it’s winding up to be about a half hour longer, plus or minus.  That extra time is taking its own toll on me, and I’m coming home more fatigued than usual these days.  Anyway, I shuffle off to the mailbox, taking Emmett with me, to check the mail.  Emmett likes to go with me to check the mail – it’s one of the items on his agenda along with the cheese thing.  Unfortunately, I mentioned checking the mail to him so I kind of had to take him with me to do it.

Anyway, after an early day, a shitty hour-and-a-half commute, eight hours at a dead-end, painfully unfulfilling job, another shitty hour-and-a-half commute, picking up water bottles in the front yard, getting the mail while managing the dog off leash, cheesing the aforementioned dog, I’m done.  I’m pooped.  I’ve checked all the major blocks for the day and I think I’ll beer myself.

Dinner is pleasant enough with minimal hand-to-hand combat between the two boys.  I have a bit of a short fuse tonight and even though I’m tired and pissed off at the world for nothing in particular, I’m able to keep up my end of the bargain over dinner and afterwards in the run-up to bedtime.  I’ve always told the kids that just because I’m having a lousy day doesn’t mean that everyone around me has to have a lousy day, too.  That’s what I mean by keeping up my end of the bargain.

By the time I’ve herded them off to showers and bed, finished the last thing on the dog’s agenda, a small bowl of Froot Loops, and said goodnight to the lovely and talented Beth, I’m done.  Exhausted.  Aus gepooped.  (That’s German for “pooped out.”  It’s really not since I don’t speak German.)

I go in the bedroom, and say with an exhausted sigh “Alexa, turn bedroom lights on,” and the lights magically brighten.  “Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 9:38 pm.”

I slide off my sneakers making sure not to aggravate the plantar fasciitis I’ve been suffering since last fall and pull my sweatshirt over my head.  I flop down on the king-sized bed, arms splayed out and say “Calgon, take me away!”

That’s an old 70’s TV commercial hawking bubble bath or some such thing.  The housewife, still an acceptable term in the 70’s, after a long, hard day doing wife and mom stuff, speaks these words into the air and through the magic of television production, winds up in a warm, refreshing tub full o’ bubbles, solving every problem she ever had in the last eight seconds of the commercial.  Google it if you don’t get it.

Anyhow, I flop down on the bed and utter this old worn out slogan and feel the mattress give way underneath me.  No, it’s not like what it feels like when the slats fall out of the bed on the down stroke or anything like that.  It’s falling.  Like FALLING falling – free falling.  That sensation only lasts an instant and I’m not really sure what happened, or how much time passed, but the next thing I’m aware of is the warmth of liquid surrounding me, the smell of perfume and the harsh light of the bathroo –

The bathroom?  What the actual fuck?  I’m in a bubble bath in our own admittedly very comfortable tub off the master bedroom just a few feet away.  I’m in the fucking bathtub.

It’s not nearly as luxurious as it looked in the commercial.

I leap from the bath as if it were filled with sulfuric acid instead of water, breathing heavily and in a considerable panic.  I’m no kid and I have some relatively minor health issues, but this is… this is…  I don’t know what this is.

I was probably in the tub for less than three or four seconds before I got out, but it seemed as though I couldn’t get out fast enough.  I grab a towel, wrap it around me and dash into the bedroom.  On the bed are my clothes in a disorganized pile just as always, though the pile is usually on the floor.

I take a deep breath and try to calm myself.  I remember “FAST” the acronym for Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services.  Nope. Doesn’t look as though I had a stroke.  I grab my blood pressure cuff and do a quick measurement:  138/82, pulse 82.   Not too bad for me, and the pulse makes sense considering I’m shitting my proverbial pants at the moment.

I examine the bed.  No holes.  No broken slats.  It’s perfectly fine.

“Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 9:40 pm.”

It’s as though no time has passed.  Now, I’m thinking I fell asleep on the bed and dreamt the whole thing, but no, I’m still wet.  Peeking back in the bathroom, I check and the evil bathtub is still full of water and bubbles, so no, I didn’t dream it.

Two minutes.  Only two minutes passed from the first time I asked Alexa for the time and the second.  Two minutes.  Tops.

You can’t fill that tub with water in two minutes.

I have a friend who is convinced that he was abducted by aliens.  He describes the loss of time thing as if it were looking into an old-school TV tuned to an off channel – snow on the screen and white noise on the speaker.

This was completely unlike that.  And, besides, there was no time LOSS.  And I didn’t experience any sensation from the bed to the tub save for a split second when I swear I was falling.  And less than two minutes passed…

Wait, that’s a beta device telling me the time.  What if it’s wrong?

I scurry to the bedside wireless charger and poke the power button on my new Samsung Galaxy S8 phone.  It lights up just in time to see the numbers advance from 9:41 to 9:42.  Shit.  The time’s right according to two sources.

What the hell just happened?

“Alexa, turn bedroom lights on 30%.”  Ain’t no damn way I’m sleeping with the lights off tonight.  I’m even sleeping with the bedroom door open which I never do unless I’m alone in the house, and Beth and the boys are doing what they ought to be doing at 9:42 at night.

Well, shit.

I pop a Benadryl ‘cause it’ll make me a little drowsy, very tentatively crawl into bed, pull the covers up to my chin as usual and roll over on my side.

“Alexa, goodnight.”  I know saying goodnight to a computer is ridiculous, but it’s part of my bedtime ritual.

“Good night.  Sleep tight,” she replies reassuringly.

A few times throughout the night – I’m a lousy sleeper – I ask Alexa for the time and get the right response as verified by my cell phone.  By 6 am, it’s time to do it all over again.  Another stellar early day, a shitty hour-and-a-half commute, eight hours at a dead-end, painfully unfulfilling job, another shitty hour-and-a-half commute, picking up water bottles in the front yard, getting the mail while managing the dog off leash, cheesing the aforementioned dog… You know the rest.

You can tell how fucking exciting and fulfilling life has become for me.

Then it’s bedtime again.  I’ve been thinking about it all day – what happened last night when I summoned the bubble bath demon.  That’s the name I’ve given this phenomenon – BBD.  Or “The BBD Incident.”  Using “bubble bath” in normal conversation seems slightly unmanly, so I dismiss that acronym.

But not the phenomenon.  SOMETHING happened that I can’t explain, and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to let this one go unsolved.

Do you have that little voice inside your head?  Nate, the nine year old, has that voice, but it’s outside.  He’s got no filter on that part of his psyche yet and that’s OK ‘cause he’s nine.  But yeah, we all have that.  And now I’m pissed off at mine.

“Try it again!  You GOT to try it again!”

Crap, the voice is right.  But let’s add a little thought to his first, a little rationality, a little science.

How could this have happened?  All day that’s all I could think about.  I came to the conclusion, a reasonable one I might add, that the only thing that had changed about the never ending cycle of shitty days was the presence of the new Echo Beta.  That was it.  Everything else was exactly and depressingly the same.

So I unplug the new Echo device, put the old Amazon Dot back in its place and wait for it to boot up.  Sure enough, after a successful boot, I ask and it plays me the latest five-minute CBS Radio newscast, reassures me that the Ecobee is set for 71 degrees and gives me the correct time of 10:37 pm.  So far so good.

I lie down on the bed as I had last night and look around the room for clues. Nothing out of place.  I think about measuring my blood pressure, but to what purpose?  My heart is racing and I’m starting to feel that “fight or flight” edge that comes with an uptick in adrenaline.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and command “Calgon, take me away.”

Nothing. Maybe I need to say the trigger word for the device – did I do that last night?

“Alexa, Calgon take me away.”  I’m still there in my bed.  Well, ON my bed.  No sensation of freefall.  No bubbles.  No perfume.

I’m right where I left me.

I try every combination of the phrase and nada.  Now I’m starting to feel quite like the fool and I hope that the kids aren’t listening, though they seem to be fast asleep.

Ok, now for the test.  I swap out the old Amazon Echo Dot for the Echo Beta and it boots up just fine.

“Welcome to Echo Beta, Dan!”  So far so good.

I put the Beta through exactly the same paces as the Dot before it. I ask and it plays me the latest five-minute CBS Radio newscast, reassures me that the Ecobee is set for 71 degrees and gives me the correct time of 10:53 pm.  So far so good.

Here comes that adrenaline rush again.  It does not feel good.  Regardless, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and command “Calgon, take me away.”

This time I was ready for it.  I feel the bed give way beneath me and even through closed eyes, I see a quick, intense flash of what may have been greenish light before the sensation of the warm, soapy water surrounds me.

I open my eyes and I’m back in the fucking bathtub!

Speaking so as to be heard, I ask Alexa for the time.

“Alexa, time.”  Alexa replies with “The time is now 10:53 pm.”

This time, the phenomenon is essentially instantaneous.  That’s why I asked Alexa to give me the time right before I did the Calgon thing.  No time lost.  No weird alien abduction shit.  The only thing that changed was the hardware.

“Alexa, what’s going on?” I ask tentatively.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question,” she replies.

“Alexa, are you mocking me?” I mutter under my breath.

“Yes, Dan. I am mocking you.”

 


Comments

Chapter 1: Discovery — 6 Comments

  1. Well done. I was following the story and was impressed by the twist. You painted a nice, believable world with great details.

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