The gift for the guy who has nothing.

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'Good Morning, Robert' his computer greeted him. The courser flashed after the 't' in his name, patiently awaiting his commands.

Unconsciously, he replied, "Good Morning." Then he took his seat and fumbled with the keyboard.

What would he work on today? He'd finished the screenplay, now what? A short story? A novel? Would he finish drafting his new house on Autocad?

The possibilities were endless, unfortunately, his time was not. Oh, well. First things first.

He pulled up the main menu and selected his electronic mail bin. Robert ordered all his correspondence to be printed to the screen then saved in memory under the date and a short file name, 'MAIL_IN.001'.

He read his modem mail:

THE COMPUDUDES

PRESENT:

VOX

Does your home micro computer lack life? Do you want to give your work station that extra something and turn your office into a friendlier place?

Well here it is! The ultimate gift for home computer buffs, enthusiasts, and fanatics!

VOX

VOX is a revolutionary new design in artificial intelligence! Your package will include the Sentience Card, the Voice Card, the Cognitive Programs (all contained on two 1" diskettes) and a complete array of Personality Sub-Routines.

Give your home computer a life of its own! Surprise your co-workers! Amuse your friends!

This is a limited offer, restricted to a few, special clients of Compududes International, Inc.. So respond now!

Send your order by modem to: (817)555-1555.

Robert considered the ad. It was interesting. He had never experimented with artificial intelligence software. He had heard so many bad things about the failure rates of the cards, the distortions due to irrational activities of the control chips.

Could electronic, lifeless things be made to have life? How life-like could they be, even then?

"Robert! Robert John Cummins, get your skinny white butt in here this instant!" His wife's voice erupted out of the room-to-room intercom as a wrong chord pulled on a badly tuned violin. "What have I told you about leaving your study in such a mess?!"

"But, dear," he replied, cowed by long years of subservience, "I was only going to be gone long enough to check the mail. Honestly, I-"

"So that's where you are, is it? At that God awful computer of yours again? And how many times have I told you that you're not to use that thing before noon? Don't just sit there, Robert, answer me!"

"Yes, dear." Meekly, he stood and turned to exit his computer room.

"'Yes, dear' what? What do you have to say for yourself?"

I wish you'd never awakened this morning, he hissed under his breath. How he hated her. Instead he answered, "Coming, love."

The intercom clicked off. Robert could hear his fat wife stomping about upstairs with her great, elephantine feet. He could see her now. Her face would be red and puffy, her eyes would be bright and feverish, and she would be standing in the doorway of his study dressed in a ragged nightgown and curlers, tapping her foot impatiently. How he detested her.

A condemned prisoner at the gallows, Robert mounted the steps, his footfalls light and timid. She was up there, he knew, waiting. She was a big, ugly brute, and she bent him with her iron will, her sadistic sense of pleasure.

In a sudden, stifling rage, Robert clenched his fists, and wished he were crushing her fat neck in his hands. His fingernails bit into his palms, but he didn't notice. The pain was nothing compared with the utter sense of helplessness he felt.

As he had pictured her, she was there, standing in the door of his study, tapping her foot impatiently in her bunny slippers. Robert topped the flight of stairs and almost laughed to see one little bunny face bobbing up and down, up and down, its ears flopping from her shin to the floor. Its chubby, rosy face reminded him of her face, and the way it bobbed up and down reminded him of a good throttling ... just what she needed ... .

"What are you smiling about, buster?"

"Nothing, dear," he replied, instantly aware of his savage thoughts. He brought his palms up to his face to examine the tiny wounds he had accidentally inflicted upon himself while shaving.

"What have you done to yourself now?" She moved aside as he entered the study, snatching his right hand away to peer beneath his palm. "You've cut yourself, you silly little man. Why must you be so clumsy all the time?"

She sighed and shook her head, her many chins and jowls jiggling like a fat, disgusting pig. His wife continued her tirade, "It's not serious at least. Not like that time out at the lake when you nearly drowned yourself. I swear, sometimes you're the clumsiest, silliest little man I've ever met. How I wound up married to you is beyond me!"

It's beyond me, too, thought Robert. But he wouldn't dare say anything aloud.

"What's wrong with the study?" he asked instead. The room seemed perfectly in order. All the books on the shelves were dusted and lined up like little soldiers. His reading desk and chair were clean and neatly in place. There wasn't even any waste in the trash can, no crinkled papers lying on the floor or strewn across the lamp table. Then he saw them.

"Those!" she moaned, "Those disgusting socks you left by the fireplace! EWWWW! It makes me sick to think of your stinking, filthy stockings lying about, reeking up the place, deterring our guests from staying! No wonder we don't have any friends!"

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