The first sign is the face burned into Hector Munoz’s morning toast.
He thinks of Jesus and crosses himself, but the scorched face doesn’t look like the statue on his mother’s mantle. It doesn’t even look like a brown Jew from the Middle East. It’s an Asian man, kind of a plain appearance with a boring haircut. Nobody he knows, not spiritually nor on Facebook.
Hector checks the toaster’s settings but nothing’s wrong. While he waits for the House AI to run a virus check, he eats the toast. It’s softer than he prefers but it’s fine.
The Dolphins are playing Baltimore this week. Odds are good that Miami’s going to pound the hated Ravens into the dirt this season. Hector settles into his couch to watch the game.
Right on the kickoff, the TV screen blanks out. Every channel dead. It takes Hector forty-five minutes on the phone to the cable company to work out how to reconnect the signal. When he does, Baltimore is up by 28 points and Miami’s promising new running back is being stretchered off with his foot turned the wrong direction. Hector sighs and switches off again.
It’s a nice day, not too cool. Before he moved into the smart house he would have mown the lawn. But it doesn’t need trimming; the landscape management routines dispatch the remote mower before the grass has a chance to look shaggy. If anything, the lawn is even shorter and tidier than usual.
Hector drains his beer and takes a walk. He needs to clear his head. He thought the game would distract him. It’s the anniversary of the accident that almost killed him. The details nip at his heels. The sheeting rain; the oncoming headlights; the sickening lurch across three lanes and through a guard rail. Then into a roll, and upside down when he came to. The CD was stuck, playing those same damn lines of Tom Petty over and over: “Nightfall will be coming soon. Oh my my. Oh hell yes.”
He’s really not the superstitious type. But Hector hung head-down, arms pinned by his seatbelt, for eight hours before they cut him out of his car. Eight hours of blood in his ears and that song on an endless loop.
Hector walked away, unscratched but not unscathed. When the car was scrapped he made sure the Tom Petty CD was still in it. He hasn’t wanted to hear the guy since.
When he gets back, a delivery drone from the grocery store is lifting off from his front porch. He unpacks the foam crate on the kitchen bench. At first he thinks, “This isn’t my order.” Vacuum packed noodles, sauces he doesn’t know, two whole frozen fish. A case of a brand of beer he’s never heard of with a label he can’t read. But the store hasn’t made a mistake; the House logs match the delivery docket.
“House, query,” he says. “Why did you order this stuff?”
Polite and neutral, the house replies, “The order is consistent with the historical shopping preferences of the resident.”
“Well, now, that ain’t so. And why’s it so cold in here?” He checks the menu displayed on the lounge wall. Hector likes a balmy summer warmth. It’s ten degrees south of there.
“Temperature settings are consistent with the historical preferences of the resident.”
“The hell they are.”
Damn glitchy House AI, needing a technician. Service fees are double on the weekends. Besides, he’s read the manuals. “House, instruction. Restore factory settings and prepare for new resident profile data.”
A full reboot will cost the rest of his afternoon, switching off options and tweaking his preferences. Not a bad distraction.
Hector cracks a beer as he scrolls through menus on the wall panel. It’s a lager, too bitter. “House, acknowledge. This voice belongs to resident Hector Munoz. Sole resident. Acknowledge.”
The House AI’s chirp is non-committal. “Do you want to play back your saved programs?”
Without waiting for a response, the television bursts into life again. Two handsome white people are demolishing a run-down house while a voiceover discusses breathing new life into old neighbourhoods. The screen corner watermark is for a channel Hector doesn’t subscribe to.
“What the heck is this?”
“This is Gentrifying Missoula with Harmony and Jeff, season two, episode fourteen.”
“I hate home improvement shows. Switch back to my game,” says Hector.
The channel changes to a bald old white stock analyst giving a report on the financial markets. Not the game.
The channel switches to a pair of photogenic anchors engaged in a lightning fast exchange of Chinese or Korean or something thereabouts.
“Well, shoot.” Hector finishes his beer, gagging. He must have screwed the pooch on those settings. Best leave it to the technicians after all.
The House AI has prepared spicy noodles. The flavours are all wrong but he’s too tired to care. “House, prepare my bed.”
“Your pyjamas are on the sideboard.”
Hector always sleeps buck naked. “My what?” A light blue cotton dressing gown and drawstring shorts are right by the bed. He feels strangely self-conscious stripping off his clothes.
The bed feels lumpy and wrong. He doesn’t need to ask the House AI whether the memory foam mattress has forgotten his body shape, but he asks anyway. “Contour settings are consistent with the physiological profile of the resident. Do you want your sleep playlist?”
Hector tries to sit up but the mattress sinks beneath his hands. “I don’t have no -”
Tom Petty’s nasal croon fills the darkness. It’s the same song. The same broken refrain.
Hector waits for the kick of adrenalin, the spike of fear to get him moving, get him up and out of bed and out of this house.
It doesn’t come. His eyes don’t want to open. His head feels light. Hector can’t hold sleep off.
“Nightfall will be coming soon,” sings Tom.
“Resident profile reset complete,” says House. “Good night, Doctor Yang. Tomorrow is a new day.”