It began like any other day. I awoke in a fog, the remnants of an equation that promised to unify string theory, or at least solve our current propulsion problems, threatening to dart back into my unconscious. I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower. I spun the dial into the arctic zone, trying to shock my mind into clarity, but only succeeded in shocking my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
Shivering uncontrollably, I cut the shower short. It’s not like I had a job where my coworkers cared about my personal hygiene. Actually, considering how my coworkers were all mainframe computers, if they started caring about my personal hygiene, I’d have bigger problems than unwashed hair. Three unknown variables buzzed around my head, but I couldn’t get them to land in the proper order.
I’d already started the coffee maker and the toaster before I noticed anything odd. Those three variables had been joined by a host of integers, all taunting my mental ambiguity with their significance. I grabbed the grocery list off the fridge, intending to ink those little alphanumeric buggers into some sort of permanence, pulled a chair out, and realized said chair already had an occupant.
“Miss Grabau, is it?” the woman said, smiling calmly despite my recent attempt to unseat her.
“Uh, yes.” I said. I then noticed the other chair also had an occupant- a man in a red flannel shirt.
My toast popped up with its usual, and somewhat disturbing, clang. Despite the dark sunglasses they wore, I could tell the pair regarded my modified toaster with mild alarm.
“May I offer you some toast?” I asked.
“No, thank you. But you could offer us a tour of your marvelous lab.” The woman said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, turning to retrieve my breakfast before it burned.
“Oh, let’s not play games.” The woman said. “The university may have fired you last year, but you’re still in touch with Dr. Ellis, aren’t you?”
I calculated the probability that the woman was bluffing. It was possible, given that Derrick Ellis was widely regarded in the scientific community as being off his nut, but the hint of danger in her voice led me to err on the side of caution. I kept my mouth shut and pretended to fight the toaster for my precious last slice of bread.
“She’s not going to give it up.” I heard the man say. Even with my back turned, I could feel the heat of the glare he got in response.
“Fine, Miss Grabau. You show me mine, and I’ll show you yours.”
When someone says something like that, it is very difficult not to respond. “What?” I asked.
“You show me where you’ve hidden my computers, and I’ll give you this.” The woman held up a napkin. Scrawled on it was the equation that had been haunting me for weeks, in full and completely balanced.
“Huh. Would you look at that.” I said.
“Now,” said the woman. “About that tour.”
I shoved my now-burned breakfast into my mouth and placed my palm on the concealed switch behind the blender. The wall behind me slid away smoothly. I could hear the soft whirl and hum of my many mechanical coworkers far below.
The pair rose and peered into the darkness. Red flannel shirt man took a step down, his hand groping the wall in search of a light switch. The woman braced herself on the door jamb with her right hand. Her left hand held the napkin loosely, like it was a simple bar sketch rather than the key to my more than twenty years of research. If I reached out now, I could grab it.
So, that’s what I did. I grabbed the napkin, watched the woman spin around and take an involuntary step backward into the stairwell, and removed my hand from the pressure switch. The panel slid back into place silently, just as I had designed it to do.
I could hear the pair scuffling behind the wall. They’d probably find the light switch soon. Then they would walk down the spiral staircase, take in the majesty of my beautiful lab, and have exactly 42 seconds to appreciate what I’d done with their computers.
After all, the toaster wasn’t the only machine I’d modified.