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According to Plan

by Kevin Gilbertson

 

The white-bearded man who called himself "Captain Ahab" pointed toward the distant spray emerging from the ocean surface as the old-fashioned whaling boat crashed over the waves. The boat was part of the last fleet in the world allowed to hunt whales legally. It maintained that status by having no modern equipment on board. This was to give the whales as good a chance to kill as be killed. Since the whaling-tour company's helicopter had deposited Robert on this ship a few days earlier, "Ahab" had led them all on a wild chase across the ocean in search of their prey. During this time, the crew had mostly left Robert alone -- apparently, no one recognized him. Robert thought this odd, but he didn't question his new lack of notoriety. He chose to enjoy it. When he returned to shore, he would deal with the mess that his sudden disappearance from public life had caused.

"Looks like we found us one grand-daddy of a whale," Ahab shouted gleefully at Robert over the sound of crashing waves. "Sure you want to go through with it?"

"This is what I asked for. Anyway, I can't turn back now," Robert shouted back, even though his words did not reflect his feelings.

Ahab looked out at the sheer size of the behemoth, just now breaking the ocean surface ahead of their ship. "Son, ain't nobody ever told you? Be careful what you wish for!" The captain grinned wildly at Robert, his beard whipping about in the wind. At that point, Robert realized that Ahab probably had a great deal in common with his namesake.

"Yeah," Robert shouted, "but I guess I should have been a little more specific."

Ahab threw back his head and laughed as he unconsciously shifted his weight to adjust to the pitching deck. Robert maintained a death grip on the rail to avoid being thrown about. Steadily, they were closing in on their prey. Robert held his breath until he could see the whale. It was not white. That would have been too much.

In the next instant, Ahab, eyes glittering with excitement, was ordering the crew into the boats. Robert slowed a bit to make sure he didn't end up in the same boat as the madman who was captain. As his boat was lowered to the surface of the ocean, he could do nothing but think of what got him into this mess in the first place.

***

One day, a little over six years earlier, Robert stepped onto a bus, ready for his first day of work. As a recent business school graduate, he had been able to land an entry-level position selling software over the telephone for a start-up telemarketing company. It wasn't glamorous, but it was a start. With his average performance in college, and the weak economy, he had been grateful to find a job.

Robert looked around at his fellow passengers. A cross-section of humanity was sharing the bus with him. Some of them obviously were eyeing him, making it clear that he didn't belong here. He had to ignore the unspoken rejection. This neighborhood was the only place he could afford to live. His salary at his new job was marginal at best. Breaking down and asking his parents if he could stay with them in the suburbs was not an option.

It was going to be a long ride through the city before Robert would be let off at his new place of employment. To pass the time, he pulled his one extravagance out of his briefcase. It was a Legerdemain Flight Attendant 6000. The wintry proprietor at the hole-in-the-wall shop where he bought it said that it was the latest in hand-held PC technology. In fact, he had guaranteed that nobody else Robert knew would have one. Robert was convinced the deal was too good to be true, especially since the unit had been so inexpensive, but he decided to take a gamble and buy it.

Like other palmtop computers, the Flight Attendant came with general productivity software. He briefly played with some of the features, entered his parent's address, and entered his checking account balance in the money-manager package. While the features were easy to use, Robert didn't see anything out of the ordinary. He was beginning to suspect that he had been swindled.

When launching the activities list, the Flight Attendant asked Robert if he first wanted to launch the Life-Planning Wizard. This was something that he had never seen before in any computer.  He seemed to remember the shop's proprietor mentioning this feature, but he couldn't recall what else the proprietor had said about it. At the time, he had thought it a useless gimmick and dismissed it. Now, he tapped the "Yes" button with a newfound excitement.

The words "State your goal" appeared on the screen, along with a little empty box for him to supply text.

Robert thought to himself how ambiguous that statement was. He had spent six years in college trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Exasperated, Robert entered, "Rule the world."

"Enter priority," the Flight Attendant prompted.

Robert tapped the list and selected "Highest."

Once again, the Flight Attendant prompted him to enter information. This time, it wanted a due date.

"I guess I would like to rule the world by the time I am thirty," Robert muttered to himself. He wrote "6 yrs" with the Flight Attendant's plastic stylus.

"Enter another goal?" the Flight Attendant prompted.

Robert looked up and saw that the bus had almost made it to his stop. He tapped "No," and the FA/6000 stated that it was populating the activities and meetings databases. Robert switched off the palmtop computer and stored it in his pocket.

Seconds later, the brakes of the bus screeched to a halt at his stop. Robert started to move, but the Flight Attendant began emitting a beeping sound that reminded him of an alarm on a digital watch. Robert pulled the PDA out of his pocket to see what was up.

The display showed a short message: "Action inconsistent with goal. Temporarily shutting down host system to correct problem." The Flight Attendant only offered him an "OK" button to respond to the message.

Robert frowned, ignored the OK button, and put the palmtop in his pocket. When he tried to get up, his vision began to blur and he started to feel dizzy. He sat down to regain his equilibrium, but the world went black.

Robert awoke to the alarm of the Flight Attendant. He took it out of his pocket to see the same message he saw before blacking out. He tapped the "OK" button, and a new message appeared on the screen. It said, "Task Reminder: Proceed to library to prepare for meeting with Congressman Smith."

Puzzled, Robert got up and exited the bus. It was only after the bus had pulled away that he realized he was standing in front of the city library. Once again, he looked down at his Flight Attendant. It displayed a list of articles for him to review.

***

Robert looked out of his office window. The last couple of years had been a whirlwind of activity. Since Congressman Smith had reluctantly added him to his staff, he hadn't taken a break. He thought that the Flight Attendant would give him a chance to rest after the Congressman passed away suddenly, but before he knew it, he was serving out the rest of Smith's term of office. Later today, he was meeting with the President to discuss the latest bill he introduced -- just as his Flight Attendant had predicted two years earlier.

Throughout the past couple of years, he had tried to defy the Flight Attendant. He had first tried to delete tasks from the activities list. Then he had tried to delete his original goal. He had even tried to smash the Flight Attendant against a wall. And he went as far as trying to commit suicide. Each time, though, Robert's control of his body would fail him until he returned to working on accomplishing the tasks in the activities list.

And, of course, he had attempted to return the device. Robert had been amazed that the Flight Attendant let him go back to the store where he bought it. He had planned to plead for help from the man who had sold him the demonic device. But he had arrived to find a vacant building with a "For Sale" sign displayed in the window. The sign was faded from exposure to the sun, and the shop's floor was coated in dust.

Robert sighed and looked away from his office window. He picked up the Flight Attendant to see what he needed to accomplish before his meeting that afternoon. He was supposed to call John Fenton, his opponent in the coming election. At least he had been his opponent until polls showed that Robert was leading by a 10 to 1 margin earlier that day.

***

Robert walked into the Oval office to get away from the throngs of dislodged White House staffers demanding his attention. Not that his own office was any better. His advisors were waiting for him there. It still had not sunk in that he was the President of the United States of America. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had just been confirmed as the Speaker of the House. Twelve hours ago, every ranking official between him and the President had been assassinated. He himself had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.

Overnight, Robert had become leader of one of the largest empires in history. Over the past two years, his endless political campaigning had resulted in the addition of sixty-seven new states to the U.S.A. Because of global crises and widespread famine, many countries had been forced to seek aid from the United States, which had just produced the most abundant crops ever. Robert had pushed these countries' assimilation into the Union as a condition for aid. The U.S. now covered half of the globe. And now, in five minutes, Robert would perform his first duty as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. He was about to declare war on the other half of the world to avenge the death of his predecessor.

***

Robert sat calmly as General Jarvenov signaled the attack on Berlin. His thirtieth birthday was five minutes away, and Berlin, the last free city in the world, was expected to fall any second. The Flight Attendant hadn't let him sleep for three days. He didn't feel he could keep his eyes open any longer, yet he was unable to sleep.

Private Dixon's head punched through the opening of the tent, oblivious to the conversation Robert and the General were having. "Word from the front, Your Majesty."

"Yes," Robert replied.

"Berlin surrendered."

"Thank you, Private." Robert didn't know whether to be relieved or saddened.

In his pocket, the Flight Attendant started beeping. Robert removed it to see what was so urgent. The screen said: "Goal accomplished. Create another goal?"

This was the moment Robert had been waiting for. He knew the goal he chose had to be something simple, or he would likely end up in another situation like the one he was currently in.

"Your Majesty?" General Jarvenov inquired, referring to the smirk on Robert's face.

"Private joke," Robert replied, as he entered a new goal. With deep satisfaction, he entered: "Go fishing."

***

The crewmen from Robert's boat had managed to sink two harpoons into the monstrous humpback, Ahab's boat had managed to secure three lines, and the third boat had not managed to score yet. At present, the lines were tight, and the animal was pulling both boats with no indication of slowing down. Not for the first time, Robert wondered why the lines were secured to the boats. However, it seemed to fit this sordid mission. A man who called himself Ahab would most certainly insist on lashing himself to a whale.

As their prey pulled them through each wave, water poured into the boat, and those bailing could not keep up. If something was not done soon, it was evident that they would sink. The other members of his craft seemed to acknowledge this at the same moment, and, before he could ask what the best course of action would be, he found himself alone in the sinking vessel. The others, all experienced seamen, were already expertly swimming back to the ship.

Robert was about to abandon the doomed craft as well when he had an epiphany. Lunging forward, he grabbed the knife from his belt and started sawing at the taut lines attaching his boat to the whale. In short order, he was able to free the boat. Ahab looked over at him from the other boat and laughed. The remaining boats continued to pursue their prey.

Robert collapsed for a moment in a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. He pulled his Flight Attendant out of his shirt, and took it out of the waterproof case. As he had suspected, it reported that his goal had been accomplished. He thanked every deity he could think of that he had not set out to actually catch fish. His goal was simply to go fishing, though why whaling was classified as fishing, since a whale is not technically a fish, was beyond him. He would ponder that later.

Looking up, Robert realized that he was alone. The ocean had quieted to a dead calm, and the ship and the other boats, including Ahab, were gone. On that score, he was not surprised; however, he was certain that he would meet the madman again. His last glimpse of the captain had made Robert realize why the man had seemed so familiar. Without the beard, he was a dead ringer for the fiend who had sold him his Flight Attendant.

Ignoring the Flight Attendant's insistence on creating a new goal, he shoved it back in its case and started bailing. He realized that he would probably need to create a new goal that would get him back to shore. However, without the immediate threat of sinking, he thought it best to take some time to work out exactly how he would phrase it.  *

Story copyright © 1998-99 by Kevin Gilbertson <Gilbertson@pwrh.com>

Artwork "Nutai" copyright © 1999 by Eric Seaholm <seaholm@cyberramp.net>

 


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