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With the buses lined up along the side of the school, I went to the front gates to wait for Dad. Silver Lexus SUV, Rocky Road 24825 Fig. Yup, that was it.
I opened the door and Dad looked at me. “I’ve gotta meeting to get to and I promise, we will get something after,” Dad said. “Your choice as long as it’s not something like tarantula pizza or maggot casserole.”
Up a highway that led to a backlog of traffic that dissipated before another street we had to turn down. Pluto Communications Corporation, in gold letters on a black sign. The guard at the gate seemed nice. At least he smiled.
We parked inside a parking garage on the second level and stood in front of an elevator. It dinged and he put his hand on a black panel. It took maybe a second before we stopped. We walked on a walkway above the street.
He slid a card into a slot by a set of sliding doors. He took wide steps down the hall while I ran next to him. We stopped by a hallway and he pointed. “Look, my office is down the hall. Last door on the left. Can’t miss it. It’s OK to use the computer in my office. Authorization not necessary. Bathroom’s attached. Just stay there and do whatever it is you have to do. Be done as soon as I can.”
“Yeah. OK. And Dad, Ew. Maggot casserole and tarantula pizza?” First Mom, then Dad had a meeting. Brian doesn’t count because… he didn’t.
Dad went one way, and I another. I pushed the lever, and the door opened. The light switch was easy to find. Dad’s posters were all the same. An enormous blue bubble in the middle of a black piece of paper. As if whoever saw it was supposed to understand. He told me once that his colleagues thought it was great. The poster had to be the most uninteresting picture I ever saw.
I sat at his desk and finished my English homework in under an hour. I could type it up on my laptop at home. That left math.
Math was the subject I had the most trouble with. Beyond basic math, I always got lost. Mom helped with math and got me through whatever my math teacher didn’t.
Mr. Barbonski’s lecture about absolute values went through my head as I looked at the page. When I got to the assignment, however, that lesson might as well have been a dream. Out of desperation, I turned on the computer and an enormous picture of the galaxy appeared. There were icons, but no labels. I clicked the one with the picture of a satellite and hoped it was somebody’s idea of an internet link. A blinking cursor at the top left almost beckoned me to type in something.
I remembered my manners and plugged in my problems. After whoever helped me by explaining the process, I finished my homework. Before I had a chance, the page disappeared. I couldn’t find it again.
I turned off the computer and counted to thirty before turning it back on again. I hit the satellite icon and typed in a basic math problem without a response. Someone out there helped me with this issue, and it was my duty to find out who. Problem was, I couldn’t think of a TV program with a similar issue.
Then the screen turned red. “Warning. Unauthorized access. Warning. Unauthorized access.” A loud horn sounded at the same time as the room flashed red.
I turned off the computer and packed up all of my stuff. About as sudden as it started, the lights and noise stopped. One Mexican man and a Black woman came into the office. “Evening. What are you doing here? You realize this section is for personnel only,” the woman said.
“My dad, he dropped me off. He’s supposed to be in a meeting right now. I’d call him for you, but I don’t know what the number is. I’m sorry. I just wanted to play a game.” You’re a big fat liar.
“All right,” the man said. “Nothing going on in here?” He came inside along with the woman. They inspected every desk drawer and the long cabinet in front of the desk to be concluded with the filing cabinet. I had no idea what they were looking for. They stood in the doorway. “Just be sure you don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to. Understood?”
“I understand.” I smiled.
I could tell he didn’t believe me because he raised his eyebrow. That and I had a hunch. They left the office and closed the door.
I took in a deep breath and let it go. Nothing happened, and at worst, I’d get a Dad lecture about faith and values and ethics. That was when my stomach growled.
Maybe I should’ve asked them if they had vending machines. Of course, I could get their attention again. No, that wouldn’t be a good idea. I had to hang in there until Dad finished. Oh, I wished he’d hurry it up. Nature called. Wait a minute, he said it was attached.
Once I found the door, all was right again except my hunger.
Dad came into the office. “I heard about the incident. Explanation?”
“Sorry Dad, but I was just trying to finish my Algebra homework. When I found something, it shut off before I could thank them. That was when the sirens and lights went off.”
He walked to his desk and turned on the computer. “What exactly did you do?”
“I turned on the computer, clicked the satellite link, and typed in: If anybody is out there, I need help with absolute values. I would greatly appreciate any help you can give. Please? Thank you.”
I watched him and he got nothing either.
I shrugged. “It happened.”
“Yeah. Yeah. OK.” He typed in a string of letters and numbers that didn’t make sense. Nothing came up after that. He made a phone call and stared at the screen.
He looked at me and stood from the desk. “Well, I’m not sure what you did. I’m not saying you’re lying. According to a coworker, they had dismantled the satellite tower. All links to it should have been scrubbed, but it wasn’t. I’ll look into it in the morning.” He turned off the computer. “So, what would you like? Remember your vegetables.”
Right. Sure. Why is it I had to remember my vegetables but nobody else did? “Ms. Huang’s Chinese Food. They have awesome soup dumplings, also their fabulous vegetable chow mein, sweet and sour pork, walnut shrimp, their shrimp siumaai is to die for and that would be about it. Oh, and Iggy’s Ice Cream for their strawberry cheesecake ice cream.”
“I got everything but the ice cream. You have that and you will be rolling instead of walking. Let’s go.”
I took the hint but still groaned about the loss of ice cream. Strawberry cheesecake ice cream was the best. Everybody had to have it.
“I need it.”
“No, you want it. You need food. You want the ice cream.”
“Yeah, I need it.”
“That’s enough whining. I’ll cancel the Chinese food order and get a raw vegan meal instead.”
“You wouldn’t.” A complete meal with only vegetables? I’d die.
“You know I would.”
I crossed my arms. “Fine. I’ll just tell Mom.”
“And you know what the result of that would be.”
I looked at him and fluttered my lips to avoid the endless string of cuss words. I hated parents. I couldn’t get my ice cream.
On the way there, I imagined all sorts of torture I could inflict. He came back with the food and gave it to me to hold. The aroma that came from the bag made me think twice about torture. I used every restraint to keep from tearing the bag open.
About to pull out of the parking lot his phone rang. “Answer it for me, would you? Take a message. At this hour, everybody should be home and relaxing.”
A computer voice answered. “The string is incomplete. Please resend transmission.”
“We cannot proceed as the instructions are incomprehensible. You must fix and resend.” It hung up.
“Who was that?” asked Dad as he pulled into the driveway.
“I don’t know. It just said to complete the string and resubmit.”
“Yeah, Dad. It.”
He started the car again and left the driveway. Maybe I should’ve lied and said it was a wrong number. I’m going to starve to death.
We returned to Dad’s work, and I carried dinner. I was not going to starve on account of Dad. That would not happen.
He sat at his desk typing into the computer while I ate. I left enough food for him to eat. Although he would complain and declare he would learn how to cook Chinese food.
He looked up at me. “All right, call them again.”
“I didn’t call them to begin with. They called me.”
“How did they call you if you didn’t call them? You had to have contacted them somehow.”
Dad never watched TV. “It’s really easy to hack someone’s phone number. Because, hello, internet?”
“I can’t. I don’t know what number to dial.”
He stood and searched me for his phone. “Well, where is it?”
“Assuming you’re asking about your cell, it’s in the car.”
He ran out of the office while I wished I was home watching TV. I was missing my favorite show about vampires. The boyfriend was supposed to tell everyone he’s a real live vampire, and I missed it.
Dad came back and pushed a bunch of numbers. “Where is it?”
“Why are you asking me? I don’t know.”
Something beeped. Dad watched his screen. “What the—”
“Greetings. I am here to serve you. What would you like me to do? It is eighteen-thirty hours on two thousand and twenty the fifteenth day of the tenth month.”
“Dad, who was that lady?”
“That was the computer.”
“Computers don’t talk.”
“This one did.”
“There are two in this room. An older male and a younger female human. Have both been invited?”
Dad put his head on his hand. He stared at the screen while his mouth hung open.
“No response. Security protocols will proceed.”
Dad sat up. “No. No. Don’t do that. Everything is fine.”
“Understood. Anything that requires immediate attention?”
“No. Everything is fine. Thank… thank you.”
Oh my God he stuttered. Dad never did that before. Maybe the computer sucked his brain or something.
“Very well. Will shut down until further notice.” The room went dark. I couldn’t see anything.
Dad must’ve turned on the computer screen because that was the only light in existence. I found the light switch but it wouldn’t turn on. Dad got out his cell and turned on the flashlight.
Dad stood from the desk. “How about if we go home? Sound like a plan?”
“Uh. Yeah. Sure Dad. And Dad?”
“I have no idea what just happened or even who that was. I don’t even know how to explain. Did you need something?”
Did I need something? I looked at my hands and discovered I still held Dad’s portion of dinner. “No. I still have your portion of dinner.”
“Right. Dinner. And with any luck, Iggy’s is still open.”
I didn’t want to ask and make him realize what he said. I didn’t want to take my chances. I got my ice cream.
We left the building and climbed in the car. Dad took out his cell and plugged it in. I watched as bit by bit a smiley face materialized on his screen. That smiley face wouldn’t be on Dad’s phone. He hated them. They were too fake, he always told me.
We pulled up in front of Iggy’s and they were still open. He left the car and came back a few minutes later with a quart-sized container. He handed it to me and I peeked. Strawberry cheesecake ice cream.
I stomped my feet a couple times before I remembered Dad hated that. I took a quick glance and no reaction. Maybe he was still stunned.
He picked up his phone again and no reaction. After punching in something, he started the car and returned to the building.
“Let me guess, your office?” Where else?
“Yeah. I have to talk to someone about this. Just stay there.”
“Right.” I went into his office still unlocked.
They must have some security system not to lock their doors. I tried to turn on the light but it wouldn’t do anything. “How do I turn on the light when it won’t turn on?”
“Ah. Yes. Did you need servicing?”
“If you watch the monitor, I am here and ready to be of service.”
“Could you turn on the light? It’s pitch black in here.”
The lights turned on. I looked around and expected something to be in here. Something like a robot or an android, but nothing. So I did what I was told to do and holy macanoli. Another smiley face, but this one on his computer.
“Greetings. I am the interface with which you communicate. I am able to transmit anything to any place and assist with anything. What I need from you is a designation? A name, if you will.”
Uhm. Right. OK. “A name? I don’t know. I just can’t get over the fact that Dad’s computer is talking to me. A name? I don’t know. Computer comes to mind.”
“Computer it shall be then. You were the one that searched for assistance at seventeen thirty on this date. Confirm or deny.”
“Do you require more assistance?”
“No.” Oh boy. Brian would never believe this in a million years and neither will Mom for that matter. Holy macanoli, I only wanted help on my math.
Did I even want to find out if this thing could break into the government’s computer? Nah. I shouldn’t. It would be neat to try, but the boatload of trouble I would get into. I did not need another lecture from Dad. “So. Do you have any computer games? Dad might be a while.”
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