GENRE: Suspense. LENGTH: 2,716 words. SYNOPSIS: The year is 2018. Television is obsolete. Everything is web-based. Watch any show whenever you want. And thanks to massive computer databases and powerful processors, all data is now saved. Place your grocery order. You don’t have to specify what you want—they already know. Fries with that? They don’t even need to ask. Everything can be personalized. Even The President of the United States.
Liz unlocked the door of her new apartment, swung it open, and tried to push her suitcase through the doorway. It got hung on the threshold and stopped abruptly—but she didn’t. She tripped over the suitcase and rolled to the floor.
When she realized she wasn’t hurt, she began to laugh. The three jumbo Margaritas still had her a bit loopy. She’d just completed the first week of her first job out of college, and it had been stressful. So, when a group of her female coworkers had invited her to join them for dinner, she happily accepted. By the third round of margaritas, the language and the jokes were raunchy, and the laughter was raucous. They nearly got thrown out of the place. But it was all great fun.
Her phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me.”
“I just walked in the door, Marci.” She laughed at herself for claiming to have walked in.
“What are you laughing about?”
“You’re at your new apartment?”
“Yeah, I just dropped in.” She hiccuped and started laughing again.
“You’ve been drinking.”
“How can you tell?” Liz giggled. “Okay, I’m sorry.” She stood up, pulled her suitcase inside, and closed the door.
“So, what’s your apartment like?”
Liz began to walk around the apartment as she talked. “Well, let’s see: small living room…small bedroom…tiny kitchen. All of the walls and ceilings are painted metal. But the floors are carpeted. It looks exactly like the model they showed me when I signed the lease.”
“How about the bathroom?”
She opened the bathroom door and turned on the light. “Oh, wow. I don’t remember it being this small. But I do have a place to sit while I put on my makeup.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“Yeah—I’ll just have to remember to put the seat down.”
Marci laughed. “Well, at least you’ve got your own place.”
“And my own pot.” She giggled.
“Liz? Are you okay?”
“I mean, you know—my own toilet. And I won’t be mooching off my parents anymore.”
“And it must feel great to finally have your freedom.”
“Yeah—so I can do stupid things, like getting drunk. Stupid.” She tried to shake off the grogginess. “So, when are you making your move, girl?”
“I don’t know. But my dad’s been hassling me about getting my own place. And he says if I don’t, he’s gonna start charging me rent. Maybe I could get an apartment in your complex.”
“I’m sure you could—it’s cheap.”
“But it’s government housing, right?”
“Yeah, it’s a Federal POD.”
“Pod—that’s sounds icky.”
“Well, it’s not that kind of pod, silly. POD stands for Personal Occupancy Dwelling. They’re super-efficient. They started building these things four or five years ago.”
“So, you’re stuck with outdated electronics?”
“No, they’ve updated everything. There’s a thirty-inch screen in every room except the living room, and it’s got a sixty-incher.”
“Hey, that’s not bad at all. So, even if you can’t afford to go out, you can at least watch all your shows—assuming you’ve got good bandwidth.”
“Well, you know I wouldn’t have rented an apartment without high-speed internet.”
“So, you’ll have to invite me over. We can do a C.S.I. Mars marathon. You buy the wine, and I’ll bring the chips and dip.”
“It’s a deal,” Liz said. “Have you seen that new show, Law and Order: HC?”
“No. I haven’t even heard of it. What does the HC stand for?”
“Hard Core. Miley Cyrus plays this super-tough judge, named Willa Flushem.”
“Ha! Love the name.”
“I know, right? And it’s so fun watching her go after these creeps. One time, after she’d sentenced this pedophile to seventy-five years, he promised to track her down when he got out. He said he’d start by cutting off all her fingers and toes with a bolt cutter.”
“Yeah. But you can’t scare the judge. She told him: ‘By the time you get out, I’ll be long gone, resting comfortably in my grave. But you can come dig me up, if you’ve still got the balls.’”
Marci laughed. “I love it.”
The screen on the living room wall came to life, causing Liz to flinch. “What the—?”
“What’s the matter?”
“The living room screen just came on all by itself.”
“Maybe you sat on the remote.”
“Well, I need to go, Marci.”
“Wait. Did you remember to vote?”
“I remembered, but I haven’t done it yet.”
“Come on, Lizzy. You still haven’t voted even one time, have you?”
“Look, Marci, you’re a political activist. You live and breathe this stuff. But I’m just not that into it.”
“Well, you should be. The things they do in Washington and in the state capitol have a direct impact on your life. And there are so many more opportunities to vote now—”
“Because of the one-year presidential terms. Yes, I know—you’re right. And I’m planning to vote this time. I just haven’t decided who to vote for yet.”
“Well, you’d better figure it out soon—the deadline is midnight. You want me to tell you who I voted for.”
“No, thanks. I’ll make up my own mind.”
“Well, it’s important, Liz. It’s our right and our duty.”
“Enough. Goodbye, Marci.”
“Sorry, Liz. Call me tomorrow. Bye.”
The animated avatar on the screen had paused mid-sentence while Liz was on the phone. Suddenly he began to talk. “—and I want to continue be your president. But this time I want to go even further: I want to be your personal president.”
President Alfa was running for re-election. Liz had seen and heard his campaign slogan a bazillion times: I want to be Your Personal President.
The screen went black.
Good, thought Liz. She would take a quick shower and then try out her new bed. Tomorrow was Saturday. No alarm clock needed.
The screen came back on, and Senator Baita went into his spiel. “A vote for me is a vote for the future. There are only two hours left to cast your vote.”
This ad must be live, she thought, because Senator Baita was referring to the deadline in her time zone. But, of course, they could easily do that now that campaigns used avatars. They could target regional areas—or even neighborhoods since the ads were computer-generated.
And because they were created on the fly, the latest polling data or other pertinent information could be incorporated into the message. The only limiting factor was the cost to get the message to the right ears and eyeballs. So, it was still true that the side with more money had the advantage.
“Remember, it’s all about the future of our country,” Senator Baita’s avatar said.
President Alfa took over the screen. “Don’t listen to him, and his hollow promises. Remember—I’ll be your personal president, Liz.”
A cold chill run up her spine. How did he know her name?
Liz had never seen an ad this targeted. The president’s campaign was apparently mining public records databases—right down to whose name was on a lease.
President Alfa’s avatar continued, “You’re a beautiful young woman, Liz. You just graduated from college and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. So, what you need is someone in the White House who will look out for your own personal interests. My challenger, Senator Baita, makes vague promises about the future. But what I offer is a personal relationship. What do you think, Liz? Will you allow me to be your president?”
Her jaw dropped. Her lease application didn’t contain that level of detail, did it? They must be tapping into everything, she thought. They probably had the guest list of her Sweet Sixteen party from five years ago.
“Don’t be shy. Tell me what you think,” President Alfa’s avatar said.
Liz snatched up the remote, turned off the screen, and walked out of the room. She went into the bathroom and shut the door.
This was crazy. Her mind was playing tricks on her. She’d had those three drinks with dinner, but…just relax, she told herself.
She needed to pee anyway. But no sooner than she sat down, the mirror above the sink that was directly across from her lit up. It was a mirror/monitor combo.
“I’m counting on you,” Senator Baita’s avatar said.
President Alfa’s avatar broke in, and now the two were together, in split screen mode.
“Do you mind?” Liz screamed. “I’m kinda busy here.”
“Well, normally I wouldn’t mind,” the senator’s avatar said. “But this is critical. The survival of our nation could depend on your vote.”
“He’s right about that,” the president’s avatar said. “This could be very close, Liz. Your vote could decide this thing.”
“Can you see me?” Liz asked.
“Yes,” the president’s avatar said, “I can. But Senator Baita can’t. He doesn’t have access to Department of Defense technology, thank goodness.”
“But I can hear everything,” the senator’s avatar said, “and Mr. President, I plan to launch a congressional investigation into your abuse of power.”
“Cool it, Baita, or I’ll appoint you Presidential Fisherman to Antarctica.”
“There’s no such post. And even if there was, I wouldn’t accept it.”
“You won’t have a choice.”
Liz screamed. “Get out of here. Get off. Leave me alone!”
“While it’s true that I can see you,” the president’s avatar said, “I’m not a real person. I’m just electrons in a computer. So, please don’t be offended. We’re both just political avatars—advocates for our candidates.”
“I know what you are. Get out!”
The screen went black.
When she got back to the living room to get her suitcase, the screen came on and a female avatar appeared, saying, “You will now test your remote to make sure the voting buttons are working properly. Please press either A or B. This is only a test.”
“I’m not participating in any test,” Liz shouted. “Just leave me alone.”
The screen went black and Liz heard the woman’s voice say, “You have successfully cast your ballot for Senator Baita. Thank you for participating in this presidential election test.”
“I didn’t even push a button,” Liz said.
The two candidates reappeared and began to argue with each other.
Liz ran to the kitchen pantry, opened the breaker box and began frantically tripping the breakers, one by one. All of the lights went off. Then the air conditioning stopped running. Finally the screen went off.
The apartment was completely black and dead silent. Liz took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
A loud knock at the door startled her.
She carefully felt her way over to the door and looked through the peephole. It was Maik, the POD’s autobot leasing agent. She opened the door and looked up at him. He was at least seven feet tall. Liz was five-foot-four.
“President Alfa is very disappointed that you did not vote for him.”
“Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous. I haven’t voted yet. It was just a test.”
“Did you believe him when he told you he wanted to be Your Personal President?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Then why didn’t you vote for him? What are your reasons? Please be specific.”
“I haven’t voted for anybody yet.”
His electronic eyes stared at her intently as he stood perfectly still. Not like a human stands still. There was no beating heart in his chest. Certainly no soul. He remained eerily motionless—like a steel mannequin.
Finally, Liz said, “Hey—I’m not gonna discuss this with you.”
She tried to close the door, but Maik’s foot was blocking it.
“I need to know why you did not vote for President Alfa,” he said. “You must give me an answer. You assert that you have not yet voted. This is correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And do you promise to vote for President Alfa?”
“So, now will you please move your foot?”
“I must watch you vote.”
“Hey—I’ll vote when I’m good and ready.”
“No. You will vote now.” He pushed the door open, knocking her back.
She ran into the short hallway that led from the living room to the bedroom.
He walked inside, closing the door behind him. His eyes lit up like lasers, scanning the living room.
She wondered whether he could detect her breathing, or sense the warmth of her body. Hopefully he was a low-end model.
“I am not going to harm you in any way,” he said, removing his pistol from its hidden compartment as he continued to scan the living room.
He was blocking the doorway, making it impossible for her to get out, so while he was looking the other direction, she ran into the living room and leaped onto his back.
“You have miscalculated, Liz.” He began to spin around—faster and faster.
She was barely able to hang on. If he was a low-end model like the ones who work at Walmart, she thought, there should be a power switch right about…here.
She clicked it.
His spinning slowed and then came to a halt. Thank goodness he was programmed to shut down gracefully rather than to just collapse. If his heavy body had landed on top of her, she would have been a goner.
Liz climbed down. “Consider my lease cancelled.”
She shoved him in the back, and he tipped over and crashed to the floor.
“Oh, I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t know you were home. I thought you were spending the night in your new apartment.”
Liz rolled over in bed. “Good morning, Mom.”
“Just go back to sleep, and I’ll leave you alone. I know you had a hectic first week on the job. You can tell me all about it later.” She closed the door.
What a nightmare, Liz thought. Her dreams weren’t usually so vivid. Maybe it was all that Mexican food she ate for dinner. No—it must have been the three jumbo Margaritas. Normally, she only drank one.
She remembered feeling tipsy when she left the restaurant. It was a wonder she had been able to drive home safely. How careless of her. She would never get behind the wheel in that condition again.
Liz sat up in bed and tried to visualize her drive home. But her memories were confusing. She pictured pulling out of the restaurant parking lot and getting on the highway. But wait—she was going the wrong direction. Then she saw herself stop at the Federal POD. But that was just a dream, wasn’t it?
She tried to block the false memories and see herself driving to her parent’s house, and then walking into her old room and getting into bed. But no matter how hard she tried, she could not do it.
Liz shook her head like an Etch-a-Sketch, hoping to erase what shouldn’t be there. It’s a scary thing when dreams seem more real than reality, she thought.
None of it made sense. Maybe she just needed more rest. Yeah, that was probably it. She lay back down, pulled the covers over her head, and tried to turn off her mind.
She was just beginning to doze off when she heard the screen on her bedroom wall come to life.
“So, today I begin another productive year as your president.”
Liz spun around in bed and yanked the covers off her face. It was President Alfa’s avatar. Couldn’t the actual human at least give his own acceptance speech?
“I would like to thank all of you who live on Maple Street. Each and every one of you voted for me.”
She knew her parents had voted for Alfa. And the name of their street was Maple. How creepy. And how could he know who voted for him?
“And thanks to those of you who live in the local POD. All of you voted for me, with the exception of one man who, unfortunately, had a heart attack last night, and YOU, Liz.”
She gulped. Her entire body began to tremble uncontrollably.
“But I know you’ll vote for me next year, won’t you, Liz? I mean, why would you vote for anyone else? You need a voice in the White House that speaks for you. And that voice is mine. Because now, Liz:
I am YOUR PERSONAL PRESIDENT.”