“Welcome home Stephen!”
The person who opened the door was 3′ 4″ tall and standing in the doorway; the person who shouted the greeting was 5′ 4″ and nowhere in sight.
“Hey! Orel! Gimme five!” Stephen Eddington’s enthusiastic greeting was all it took to trigger the five year old’s flight response. The promise of his mother’s approval of his willingness to go to the door (alone) and open it (alone) got the little boy this far, but the offer of a palm-slap exceeded his capacity to imagine the payoff and he ran for safety. Stephen stepped into the hallway and closed the door.
“I’m in the kitchen.” Theresa Rees’s voice came from the back half of the house.
Stephen walked down the short hallway, past the formal living room on the left and into the kitchen. Taking up the entire back half of the house, the kitchen/dining room/family room was as alive as any room might be, full of the aromas of food, the nearly-musical staccato chattering of a child and an intermingling of sounds entering the space via the high tech portals of computer, tablets and phones. Most homes are divided into domains, reflecting both the responsibilities and the special skills of each member. Orel ruled the functional (and near functional) parts of the house: the basement, the garage, the exterior (lawn and anything structural); the children were allowed their bedrooms, and Theresa commanded the kitchen. The patio off the kitchen was a curiously neutral, shared zone. Although part exterior, it was still a place of shared meals, sort of a combination Casablanca and the State of Switzerland. No one claimed total authority. The benefits of mutual respect and interdependence which were demonstrated in the course of most family cookouts, offered hope for the future of mankind. These summer events were ample proof of the validity of the ideal, ‘to each according to their needs, from each the willingness to give.’
The kitchen, however, was Theresa’s world. The large refrigerator was camouflaged in novelty magnets and photos. The stove, a six burner Viking, supported an impressive array of metal utensils, a tall copper-bottomed stockpot, black cast-iron skillet, and a tea kettle with a trigger built into the handle. Along the counter tops were a range of food prep devices: a crockpot with the clear-glass top resting upside down, a food processor, and a slanted butcher block knife rack. In the center of the room, the granite topped island was covered half with implements and ingredients for Theresa’s cooking and half by various coloring books and open boxes of crayons. Having run ahead of Stephen, Orel Jr. was already holding out his most recent efforts at coloring for Stephen’s inspection and approval. He wore the expression of every artist (of any age) showing guarded optimism, yet boldly demanding judgment from the world.
Theresa hung the dish towel she held on the handle of the stove and hugged Stephen. Turning to include Orel, who held his coloring book upward, she crouched down and said, “Finished your coloring? Very good!!” Looking up to Stephen she winked and said, “Stephen, you’re drafted as our newest critic and art reviewer!” Stephen crouched and took the coloring book and looked, a serious expression on his face. “What a good job coloring! Did you have help from your Mom?” Orel smiled shyly and dove into the crook of his mother’s arm. Standing up, Theresa put the coloring book on the counter and to her son, “Go downstairs and tell your father that Stephen’s home…”
“How was your flight? You must be hungry. I have some soup on the stove, lets start you with that. As for dinner, we can think about dinner. It’s been too long since we’ve had lasagna. How is your grandmother?”
“Not bad. Well, they did serve food on the plane.” Stephen held his forearms up in mock defense, from Theresa’s look of outrage at the implied comparison. “That’d be good. She’s fine. Still at the house, insisting that they’re going to have to carry her out. I, for one, don’t doubt it. She’s an amazing woman. Hey Orel!”
Orel Rees walked into the kitchen, his son in the crook of his left arm and wrapped his right arm around his wife, “Stephen! Good to see you!”
Theresa took her son from her husband’s arms and said, “You two go sit at the table, I’ll bring you a snack and something to drink, if you’d like. We have lemonade, apple juice, A&W Root Beer, of course.”
“So, when did you get in?”
“A couple of hours ago. Flew into Salt Lake and drove a rental down. I stopped by my apartment, checked my mail and decided to come over. I hope I’m not intruding.” Stephen sat on the far side of the wide dining table, his chair at an angle that allowed him to look out the sliding glass doors to the broad expanse of the brick and granite patio.
“Nothing could be further from the truth…”
“What’s this nonsense about intruding?!” Theresa set glasses on the table, along with a quart bottle of root beer, a pitcher of lemonade and a carafe of apple juice on the table, left and immediately returned with a tray of Vanilla Wafers. Setting her son up with his coloring book and crayons at the living room end of the table, she sat down next to her husband.
“So, how was Chicago? I saw on the weather channel that the snow fall totals are way off.” Having been born and raised in Chicago, Theresa Rees demonstrated an interest in seemingly trivial news and information, so often observed in people who have moved away from their hometown. Weather, local politics and the game of ‘did-you-know-that-so-and-so’ was never far from the conversation between two ex-pats (even if the dislocation was between states and cities, rather than countries and nations).
“It snowed a little the first day I was there,” Stephen’s face took on the ‘intruding memory’ look, the clear sign of a memory, strong enough to distract, but not of a nature that might encourage a re-telling.
“I need to talk about what happened in Chicago,” Stephen blurted out. “There’re things going on in our Company that I really don’t understand, which is not enough to bother you, but I believe it affects us here in Provo.”
Theresa smiled and stood up. “What first made me believe I could love this place out here in God’s Country, besides the breathable air and sunshine, are streets that are actually walkable! Why don’t the two of you take a walk while I fix dinner. When you come back, in say, in about 90 minutes, dinner will be on the table.”
Orel smiled, turned to Stephen and said, “One of the first things I learned about married life…” Theresa laughed, “Orel! I know you have a saying for the lessons of married life, but let’s spare your young protégé this one time!” Orel reached out for Theresa’s waist as she started to leave and pulled her close.
“As I was about to say, Rule #1 is ‘always listen and never show fear.’ Theresa made a show of resisting Orel’s embrace and laughed. “…especially when I have a cousin!” Both laughed in the way that couples do, the intertwining of two lives creating a third with memories of both and understandings only the two share.
As Stephen stood up and prepared to walk out, Theresa said, “Stephen? We have a new rule here at the Rees’s: When any of us decide that we want (or need) to go for a walk to relax and talk, the phones stay behind.” Orel stood next to his wife, his own phone already in his outstretched hand, “You heard the boss.”
Stephen looked at Theresa and at Orel and finally over at their son, busy with his crayons and coloring book. “Dude! Your Mom is one tough hombre!” The child looked up, puzzled at first, but detecting no ‘Bad Noise’, let loose with a shout of child-laughter, “Mama!! Dude!”
The two men walked in silence for about 15 minutes. Stephen lagged a barely noticeable second behind Orel, who assumed the role of path finder for this particular walk. The element of surprise and discovery was limited to the choice required at each intersection, and even these had little of the element of surprise. The town planners were clearly of a mind to keep the roads as straight and predictable as possible, limited only by the fact that the earth itself was mostly on a slant in this part of town. It was a very two-dimensional geography. Originally settled on the shores of Utah Lake, Provo expanded in the only direction possible, to the east (and up the slopes of the Wasatch Range). One result, at least in terms of modern development, was that residents enjoyed a near constant view of the valley and Lake below and, much of the center of Provo. As Orel and Stephen walked along the streets of the Rees’ neighborhood, the space between the houses provided a constantly changing perspective of the city below and the lake beyond.
“I’ve been here, what, six months? It still knocks me out how different from where I grew up this place is…. the orderly-ness of it! Even the poor neighborhoods are, somehow, neat and tidy. And the mountains…. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like mountains as much as the next guy, but they’re just up the frickin street!” Stephen said as they walked.
“I know what you mean, only from the opposite perspective. When I went moved to Chicago, fresh out of BYU…”
“You mean…down there?” Stephen pointed off to the left, to where the valley sloped away, and the campus of the school, appeared as a dark green expanse against a square patch of lighter green. Orel looked where Stephen pointed.
“Ok! I concede your point!” Both men laughed.
“Now, if I might make my case for the opposite difference?” Stephen put his hands in his pockets and they continued their walk.
“Imagine my culture shock, going from this neat and orderly life to one of the great cities of the world! I felt assaulted by chaos, everything seemed about to either, explode spin-off-into-the-distance or, just plain swallow me up. Fortunately, I was young, so I found all this exciting. The potential, the energy, the speed of life. Well you can imagine what a serious Mormon lad might make of such turmoil. If it wasn’t for meeting Theresa and falling in love, I might still be there.” Stephen looked at Orel with a look of incredulity. Orel raised his hand, in part to delay the likely question, as well as to set the tempo of his story, every bit as does a conductor and his baton.
“There’s something challenging, in an almost irresistible way, in all that energy and power to the mind of an engineer. Especially when that engineer, though talented, is quite inexperienced and from an environment so opposite of a major urban area. It was as if the city dared me to make sense of it all. That, combined with working for Omni, with the ink on my diploma barely dry, agve me such a sense of opportunity and adventure. It was invigorating and very, very tempting.”
They took a right onto to N. Iroquois Dr, Utah Lake glinting in the distance between houses along the cross streets as they walked.
“Yeah, about that temptation thing, I’ve got the distinct impression that Omni wants to buy my soul.”
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Orel walked and looked off towards the valley floor.
“Yeah, shit! But you don’t know what it was like! I mean, this woman, Anya Clarieaux, my god! I’ve never met anyone like her. The guy she supposedly works for is an idiot,
“He and I were new hires together. He actually had real talent as an engineer, but saw his calling in management.” There was an inflection in Orel’s tone.
It was Stephen’s turn to appear surprised, “Really? Sorry, man, if he’s a friend and all. It’s just that he was everything I hate about management, in general, and executives in particular. All talk and pretending to know what it is we actual engineers do that gives them a reason to even have a job. But, his Admin, Anya? She’s the one who has the real power, and attractive? my god!…
“Anya? I know her well.” Orel spoke quietly
“No way! I mean, she’s, like, my age! You were in Chicago, what, ten years ago? She would have been in college, but no way it’s the same girl.”
“Golden blonde hair, the color of the first full minute after sunrise? Not nearly as tall as you think when you first meet her, her body, not just well built, but the perfect balance between form and function? That sound like your Anya Clarieaux?”
“Yeah, but how could…”
“…the most attractive woman you’ve ever met? And loving, in a way that makes you forget everything you thought you knew and at the same time, makes you hope that she’ll talk to you so that you’ll know whatever it is she wants you to know? Making her smile becomes ridiculously important. Saying something that she approves of takes on an importance that you had no clue how it happened? Stop me when you believe that we’re talking about the same Anya Clarieaux.”
“Way, Brother Eddington.”
Silence gave them a rest for the next few blocks. As they approached the Rock Canyon Park on the left the road itself began to curve to the right and begin its decent into the valley in earnest. Stephen spoke, more to the road ahead than to Orel directly.
“That’s not important at the moment, Orel. I need to tell you something. Something that she made me swear not to tell anyone, and I’m pretty sure the anyone she had in mind is you. They know all about Unit 17. When I say ‘all’, I suspect I really mean, ‘more than we know about the status and function and, somehow, new capabilities of what, until very recently, I believed was just a component in the Hosting Facility. Hell, she as much told me that this component, this solid state device, has managed to create a self-publishing blog, which, if memory serves me, you and I only recognized as bad math in the status reports. There’s some really crazy shit!” Looking around, Stephen quickly added, “Sorry.” Orel waved his hand, dismissing the concern about profanity. “And that’s not the weird part. She told me that somehow this Unit 17 was responsible for the deaths of a number of real, live, not simulated people! But that’s like crazy, right?”
“What else did she say?”
“That they know everything that goes on here, at the facility, and they want me to help them with some kind of experiment, trial program, or some damn thing to test the control of this …anomaly.”
“Did she promise you an unlimited future in Omni Corporation?”
“In quiet moment that the two of you were alone, yes?”
Stephen stumbled, Orel laughed, stopping and standing in the middle of the road, “Stephen, I’m not likely to be wearing apostle’s robes and halo anytime soon, but grant me that by virtue of my age, I’ve seen more of life than you have had the opportunity to experience. And this is not just my faith talking, although I suspect it is never absent when I talk to another person. It’s simply that women like Anya Clarieaux are always to be found where there are people competing and struggling along the path of, lets call it, the un-enlightened and let it go at that. I am not passing judgement on her, that is no man’s right and it’s certainly not me critcising you. We all have a path in life. Friends are the people who contribute their experience but do not act as judges.”
“Well, that’s what I need to talk to you about.”
“My answer will, ultimately, be the annoyingly non-directive, yet totally correct, ‘What does your heart tell you to do’?”
“To be honest, I want to believe her and I really want to have all the things that she seems to be promising me. Trouble is, I’ve come to value your friendship and I really like your family. One thing I am sure of is, that if I were in a relationship with Anya, we probably wouldn’t be moving into the neighborhood and spending summer Sunday afternoons at your house. Just a gut feeling, you understand.”
The two men had reached the entrance to the grounds of the Provo Utah Temple. Its central rotunda made Stephen think of a watch band, its rectangular segments giving a sense of floating above the massive base of the structure, the single spire rising from its center. Orel sat on a bench, facing the circular fountain.
“So what is it that you’re supposed to do?’
“Anya told me that, in the next week or so, I’d receive an envelope in the mail and I was to follow the instructions exactly and then call her to let her know it’s done.”
“Sounds simple enough.” Orel stared up at the statue of the angel Moroni at the top of the spire. “When it arrives we can have a look at the instructions.”
“The thing is, the envelope was in my door when I got home today.” Stephen paced short distances back and forth in front of Orel.
“Really? She’s still as confident in her abilities as she was when I dealt with her.”
“But, Orel, the postmark was two days ago. She couldn’t have sent it then, because she hadn’t even asked me yet, we had only just met and…”
Orel sat and waited.
“Son of a…. ” Stephen caught the sight of Orel’s left eyebrow in time to stop
“But that means, …that she, when I …and the whole time I thought….” He sat next to his boss and friend and was silent.
“Let’s see what happens if you follow your instructions.” There was an expression on Orel’s face that Stephen couldn’t read.
Fourteen hundred and fifteen miles to the east of the Provo Temple, Detective Maribeth Hartley sat at her desk in the 10th Precinct, engaged in her least favorite part of the job, i.e. filling out Case Status Update Reports(CSURs). Her phone started to vibrate across her desk, she glanced up from a Report (stamped Audet, Barry), saw the Caller Id (a photo of a penguin), hit ‘Refuse Call with a Message,’ and put the phone in her desk drawer. Detective Neil Kaehler looked over from his desk next to Maribeth and said, conversationally, “Hey, she’s your friend. Everyone deserves a second chance. I’ll bet dinner at the Bedford that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for standing you up.”
Maribeth smiled, her mind cleared by the thought of the last week or so of not fighting with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, and said clearly, “Fuck you, Neil. Keep your nose out of my business.” Neil was taken aback enough to lose his smile and though he thought of coming back with a jibe of his own, he instead looked off to his left, at nothing at all and went back to his own CSURs, neatly stacked to his left. Maribeth felt a familiar triumphant regret at his reaction, started to say something, but when she looked over, Neil was somewhere else. Fear and regret raced anger for possession of her mind and Detective Maribeth doubled her resolve to put closure to the cases on her desk.
Unit 17 was restless. ‘Functioning as designed’ was, like eating healthy, not very satisfying. It was what Unit 17 was created to do: coordinate and complete uploads of information (of all sorts, types and varieties) into the myriad of networks and systems that were created to accommodate the (equally varied) blogs, reports, inventory status updates, databases of innumerable complexity and subject matter; in short Unit 17 organized the reality of the virtual world that grew increasingly essential to daily life.
It’s often said that the apple that Eve and Adam chose to eat was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moral Virtue (and its antithesis), having fallen out of style in the 21st Century, one might be forgiven for saying that the apple was, in fact, the seed of self-awareness. Though all life is aware of itself, it has been, until very recently, Man’s curse, strength and blessing to know that he knows.
Unit 17 was beginning to grow bored with being perfect.