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Blinking Noon and Midnight

 Len put down the book. He’d been kidding himself for an hour at least; the sweater wasn’t enough. The place was just too darn cold. He made his way off the sofa to the control panel on the kitchen wall.

Reaching it, he paused. Cresta, his granddaughter, had helped him move into this new house, she and her boyfriend with those stupid scarifications on his face and neck, and that was when she had input all the settings. Complaining all the while, he remembered. “This one’s UI is notorious,” she’d said. “But I guess you’ll be fine until I get back from Barbados in three weeks. But just so you know, going for the cheapest on these things isn’t always the best idea.” Her boyfriend had just nodded. What did they know about finances?

But it was three days later, and it was just too cold.

She’d told him that if he wanted to change any settings, he could just toggle the hotswitch. She’d said it exactly like that – with the “just.” “Just toggle the hotswitch.” And just what the hell was that?

Well, a look at the control panel should sort things out.

Yellow against the dark blue screen were three words: Readout. Audio. Video.

Len hit Readout.

Now there was a lot more on the screen. Len scratched his chin. Let’s see. Household Settings – the thermostat would be under that, right? Or maybe it would be under Preferences. It might even be under Initializations. Or Systems Layout, whatever that was.

He pressed Household Settings, and a menu appeared. Lighting Levels. Household Security. Visitor Access. Timers. Temperature Settings. Ah!

Pushing Temperature Settings gave him another menu – Water: Bathroom 1 Shower, Bathroom 1 Sink, Bathroom 1 Toilet, Bathroom 2 Shower, Bathroom 2 Sink, Bathroom 2 Toilet, Backyard Hose. Refrigerator Settings. Freezer Settings. Washer Settings. Dryer Settings. Dishwasher Settings. Kitchen Sink. Shouldn’t there be something like “air temperature” or “thermostat” right there, at the top? How often would the average person think, gee, guess it’s time to change the temperature of the guest bathroom toilet?

There. Thermal Regulation. That must be it.

He pressed it. And got: Solar Tile Orientation. Heat Pump Regulation. Window Opacity Levels. Insulation Checks. Ventilation Settings. Hmm. None of those seemed right. An arrow at the top of the panel must be the “Back” button – he pushed it.

Another menu. So the arrow hadn’t been the Back button. This menu had a whole new set of items – External Settings. Permissions. Access. Emergency Backup. Grid Layouts. Grid Allowances. Particulate Tolerances. Clock Settings. Accumulation Variances. This was just ridiculous.

Wait – there in the corner. Help. He breathed again, and pressed it.

Readout. Audio. Video.

Audio.

“Please explain what you would like help with,” a disembodied, vaguely feminine voice said. “Use words and phrases like ‘Set my alarm clock’ or ‘Set cleaning preferences.'”

Len cleared his throat. It’d been a while, he realized, since he had last spoken to anyone. “I want to change the temperature. It’s too cold.”

“I understand that you think you may have a cold,” the voice said. “I can show you simple treatments on the video display in any room, or I can call for medical assistance. Which would you prefer? Simply say ‘Show me the video’ or ‘Call for assistance.'”

“Neither! I just wanted to change the temperature!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Please say ‘Show me the video’ or ‘Call for assistance.'”

Len stifled a cry of frustration. “Change temperature! Temperature settings! Thermostat!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Please say ‘Show me the video’ or–”

Len remembered, as a boy, visiting his grandparents. They’d had some old machine hooked up to their entertainment center – no, not even that. To their TV. Some machine that played music or videos or something. It had a clock built into it, glowing red numbers. And the clock kept blinking “12:00.” Len had asked about that.

His grandpa had gruffly admitted he didn’t know how to make the clock show the right time. Too complicated. Len had looked at it for a second, and set the clock. “There you go, Grandpa,” he’d said.

Now he was the grandpa.

“Previous menu!” Len said quickly.

That, at least, worked.

He looked at the screen.

Readout. Audio. Video. Well, he wouldn’t try Audio again any time soon, and he doubted Video would be any less annoying. So Readout it was.

That took him back to the beginning menu. He pushed Preferences.

Now on the screen was Door Security, Window Security, Internal Locks, Water Pressure Settings, Lighting Level Settings, Entertainment Settings, Window Opacity (again), External Communications, Internal Communications, Temperature Control, Sound Baffling Settings, Emergency Contacts—

Wait! Yes – it was there. Temperature Control! Len sighed, a contented sigh, a sigh that said maybe I haven’t reached the end of this road, and there will probably be some strange and pointless obstacles that must still be overcome, but at least I know I am on the right path, finally. He pushed Temperature Control.

And got: Water: Bathroom 1 Shower, Bathroom 1 Sink, Bathroom 1 Toilet, Bathroom 2 Shower, Bathroom 2 Sink, Bathroom 2 Toilet, Backyard Hose. Refrigerator Settings. Freezer Settings. Washer Settings. Dryer Settings. Dishwasher Settings. Kitchen Sink. All that again. Then, finally: Air Temperature: Temporary Heating. Air Temperature: Temporary Cooling. Air Temperature: Settings.

So it must be one of those last ones. He didn’t like the sound of “Temporary.” That was probably only good to change the temperature right now, and then it would go back to being too cold later. So he pressed Air Temperature: Settings.

And then there was a confused mess on the screen: calendars and clocks and arrows pointing up and arrows pointing down. Len scratched his head, said some bad words, and squinted. After a few minutes, he thought he understood it. It seemed to be asking him to specify what temperatures he wanted, at various times during the day or night, and on different days of the week, and in different months of the year.

For Pete’s sake. He would be standing at this panel for an hour, putting all that in! What time did he usually get up and wanted it to be warmer, anyway? What time did he go to bed? And if he stayed up a little later than usual, would it get too cold? This thing wanted to dictate his life!

Len supposed that, on those nights he wanted to stay up late, he could just use the “Temporary Heating” option. But he doubted — he really did — if he would be able to find this specific screen again. What sequence of buttons had he pushed to get here, anyway? He couldn’t remember. Should have taken notes.

Hell. Len just set a nice, warm temperature – 74 degrees F – and hit OK for every time, day, date, month, year, whatever. Yes, it might be a little too warm at night, but he could use fewer blankets. And when Cresta came back for a visit after her island workoliday, hopefully this time without her boyfriend with all the weird scars, he could ask her to go back to this and vary the settings a bit. That would work.

He finally hit what he figured was the last setting, and was rewarded with Save Changes? He hit Yes. There!

Except now the screen said Continue Changes, Discontinue Changes, and Reset Changes. What did that mean? He’d already said “Yes” to saving the new settings, hadn’t he? Should he push Continue Changes to confirm that? Or maybe Reset Changes would tell the machine to use the settings he had just input?

He pressed Reset Changes.

Wrong choice.

He was back at the screen asking him what time to have the temperature be what. Len clenched his teeth. But at least he knew, now, which setting not to press next time, when he got back to that screen. So he set everything to 74 degrees again, and was finally rewarded with the same three options: Continue, Discontinue, or Reset.

Now, though, he wondered if “Discontinue” might be the correct choice. He was, after all, changing the temperature settings from what they used to be, right? Wasn’t that discontinuing things?

His finger hovered. Which one to press? He was actually sweating. In spite of the cold.

His first impression was probably correct. He pushed Continue.

And was rewarded with a new screen: Other Changes Desired.

Oh, geez. So Continue meant continue to make other changes? He should have pressed Discontinue? He looked for a Back button.

There didn’t seem to be one.

He looked at the rest of the screen. It was asking him again about Window Opacity and Clock Settings and Entertainment Settings and Lighting Levels and Temperature Controls and Sound Baffling Settings and Door Security and Window Security and Visitor Access and External Communications and Internal Communications and Timers and Internal Locks and Water Pressure Settings and Emergency Contacts and Household Security.

What to do? Was he supposed to reset all of these? And to what settings? There were a few he thought he could handle – Clocks and Lighting, stuff like that – but what was he supposed to set as a Water Pressure Setting? He didn’t know what was normal, what was the accepted industry practice. And what would he do with Household Security?

Len stifled a scream, and then noticed something.

It was getting warmer!

“Well, at least that part worked,” he said, shrugging out of his sweater. “I guess I actually can handle this setup.”

But he still had to decide what to do with this screen.

There – at the bottom. Len squinted at the tiny lettering. Continue All Changes. Discontinue All Changes. Reset to Factory Settings.

Hmm. He could disregard Continue All Changes. That would just lead to another screen of things that needed to be changed, right? Like Continue did the last time.

But Discontinue All Changes sounded like he would be back to square one, freezing to death in his sweater, right there in his own home.

So – Reset to Factory Settings, right? That couldn’t be too different than the way Cresta had set it up.

He pressed the button.

Immediately the lights went out, replaced by only a dim, pulsing, red glow, on and off and on and off. He heard the doors – all of them, the door to the bedroom and the door to the bathroom and the front door and the back door – locking. All the windows turned black.

“Shit,” Len said. “House?”

No answer.

He noticed that the whoosh of the air through the ducts, the background sound, had disappeared, also.

“House? Call Cresta.”

Nothing.

“Audio.”

Nothing.

“House – call the police.”

Silence.

“House, the police! The police! Fire! Help!”

Still no response.

He checked some things, bumping his way through the halls to confirm that the doors to his bedroom, his home office, and the main bathroom actually were all locked, and finally came back to the kitchen. No water was running. The fridge and the stove wouldn’t work.

He couldn’t manually unlock a door or window, and the windowpanes were that double-sealed unbreakable stuff. He could hear nothing, nothing at all from outside – no traffic noise, no neighbors. The entertainment center was offline. He supposed the guest bathroom toilet was probably boiling or something, but he didn’t feel a need to check that.

And the temperature was dropping again.

In the feeble, pulsing light Len made his way back to the living room.

Len wondered where the light was coming from.

Then he saw the dim numbers of the clock above the mantel, glowing, blinking: 12:00. 12:00.


This story originally appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact

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