Bewildering Stories

Change the text color

Change the background
color to:

Diabolus ex machina

by Caroline Misner

Blink. Pause and don’t blink. Blink twice again.

Lloyd Elam gazed at the wall of the conference room where a flat white screen hung like a curtain.

“Ladies and gentleman, you are looking at the technology that will put Microsoft out of business.” Lloyd smiled and turned to look at the investors sitting along the polished mahogany table like rows of roosting hens. Some gaped at him, others stared dully with jaws clamped shut, unable or unwilling to comprehend what had just occurred, others slowly shook their heads in bewilderment or disbelief. No one spoke and the cavernous room was as silent as a sealed tomb.

“I don’t believe this.” an elderly gentleman in an immaculate grey linen suit finally spoke. “This is some sort of trick. You set this up before we arrived.”

“This is no trick.” Lloyd said and leaned his beefy arms onto the surface of the table. “This is the new technology. This will put Microsoft out of business and make the keyboard obsolete.”

“And you’re saying this new software can actually read people’s minds?” a woman at the far end of the table asked.

“In a way.” Lloyd explained. “That tiny red light you see at the bottom of the monitor screen captures your thought process via the retina in the eye. The computer itself sorts and deciphers the information and puts that information onto the screen. All you have to do is think about something and the words appear right before your eyes.”

Heads swivelled as everyone turned to gawk at one another. A low murmur rose around the table as Lloyd grinned smugly at the investors. The software was Lloyd’s baby now, his pride and joy. His former partner Alex Wayne had named it the Athena Project, after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom who emerged fully formed from Zeus’s skull after Hephaestus cleaved his forehead with an axe.

Now Athena was free to spread her knowledge and sapience throughout the globe, and in the process usurp Bill Gates and make Lloyd a few billion dollars. But Wayne was gone now, dead at the young age of thirty-four after labouring for years on the technology that would revolutionize the computer industry and make them both wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations. Lloyd took it upon himself to carry their dream to its very end.

“How does it work?” Asked a man sitting so close Lloyd could smell the expensive cologne on his neck.

“Simple.” Lloyd replied and turned his gaze back to the flat white screen with the letters splattered across it. “Just stare into the tiny red light and think of something, anything you want, and the words appear right there on the screen. If you change your mind, just think the word erase and the screen will go blank. To start a new sentence, just think the word write; to go on-line, just think the word e-mail and the person’s name and e-mail address; to access the internet, just think of the website you wish to visit and the computer automatically accesses the site.”

“But how does it work?” the man repeated.

“Brain waves.” Lloyd smiled. “That little tiny red light reads the subtle changes in brain wave activity with each new thought. When Wayne first developed the technology, the subjects had to wear tiny wires strapped to both sides of the head. Wayne managed to eliminate the need for those wires when he developed what we like to call the Scarlet Cyclops. Allow me another demonstration. Say perhaps I wish to purchase speakers for my stereo. I merely turn and look directly into the Scarlet Cyclops and think Buy Speakers Online, and the computer does the rest.”

Lloyd turned and gazed intently into the unblinking Scarlet Cyclops. The screen went blank and was immediately replaced with the website for Global Electronic Supplies. Lloyd purchased a pair of car stereo speakers, paid for them with his memorized credit card number, logged off the site and printed his receipt within seconds.

“And there you have it.” Lloyd grinned and turned to address his audience as the screen went blank once again behind him. “I have purchased a pair of speakers for my car in less than three seconds. They will be delivered to me in a couple of days, and I didn’t even have to lift a finger to do it. I merely thought of the speakers I wished to purchase and it was done.”

“This is incredible.” the elderly man said.

“It is,” Lloyd agreed. “Just think, ladies and gentleman, how this technology will revolutionize the way we do things. Disabled people who can’t even move their hands can obtain anything they want, anytime they want. People who have never used a computer system before in their lives can do and see things merely by thinking of them. There’s no limit to the possibilities.”

“But what about privacy of thought?” asked a stern looking woman who tapped her pencil annoyingly on the surface of the table. “How does the computer screen out all the miscellaneous thoughts that creep into our minds when we are, say, typing a document or researching information on the web? How does it know not to bring up my grandmother’s recipe for oatmeal cookies while I’m composing a letter to the president of a major corporation, whom I don’t care for personally but cannot put those feelings into the document?”

“That requires concentration of thought; focus, if you will,” Lloyd explained. “It’s really quite an easy skill to master. My dear friend and partner Alex Wayne spent thousands of hours learning to focus his thoughts while developing this technology. I only wish he were here today to demonstrate our prototype to all you fine people.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed. “We’ve all heard. We’re very sorry about what happened.”

Heads nodded in agreement around the table.

“It’s a shame,” the elderly man replied, “How a brilliant young mind like that can just snap one day. I guess there is some truth to the notion that it is a very fine line between genius and insanity.”

No one at the meeting wanted to broach the subject directly with Lloyd and most of them were relieved that he mentioned Wayne himself. The tragedy was broadcast over the entire country; it made the front page of every major newspaper in North America. A brilliant young scientist employed at the research and development department of the Wyerside Software company snapped early one Sunday morning and killed his wife with a pair of freshly sharpened gardening shears as she slept in their bed. He then proceeded to butcher his two young children as the oldest fled screaming from the house. Wayne chased him across the front lawn before plunging the blades deep into the child’s belly and dragging the small body into the garage where he impaled it on the antenna of his new car.

The paperboy discovered the carnage an hour later as he delivered the Sunday Sun to the Wayne family home. He followed a bloody trail across the grass to the garage where he found Wayne dangling from a bicycle hook in the ceiling and the little boy’s body still twitching involuntarily on the hood as blood drizzled down the side of the car and pooled on the grey concrete floor.

The details were too gruesome to report on the six o’clock news, but gossip abounded. Lloyd’s favourites included the report that Wayne had decapitated the baby in her crib with the gardening shears and the little head rolled like an apple across the nursery floor and the rumour that Wayne had gutted his son like a fish and fashioned his noose with the little boy’s intestines.

“It’s a tragedy.” Lloyd admitted and shook his head sadly. “He was a very sick, disturbed man. Unfortunately we’ll never know what caused him to snap that day. All I can say in his defence is that on the outside he appeared completely normal. You never would have guessed what might have been going on inside his head. I would like to dedicate the Athena Project to his lovely young wife and those two innocent little children who lost their lives that day.”

Everyone around the table nodded and bowed their heads in silent personal prayer.

* * *

Stella blinked twice, paused and blinked once again. She sat at her desk and watched as the words appeared on her monitor. There was no keyboard before her, no mouse, none of the regular accoutrements required to run an office efficiently; only a flat monitor screen and a mug with a soft pink smudge of lipstick on the rim and a puddle of congealed cream floating on the surface of the cold coffee. A slight smile curled the corners of her mouth as she read.

Lloyd Elam is a self-centred conceited little prick with a teeny tiny penis.

She liked that. Though she never had the personal pleasure, she knew every word in the statement to be absolute truth. Stella had been Lloyd’s personal assistant for almost ten years. She had seen him through many lean years; when creditors hounded the company for payment, she had successfully kept them at bay; when Wayne and Lloyd had first developed the Athena Project, she had encouraged them at every step; when Wayne went berserk and slaughtered his family, Stella had been there to comfort Lloyd because he was a bachelor and Wayne’s family was the only family he knew. Now they were on the edge of a major technological breakthrough that would change the world and Stella couldn’t have cared less; she just wanted the cash. Wayne was gone and all the glory would fall on Lloyd, who prior to his partnership with Wayne could barely turn on a computer. It didn’t seem fair and Stella wanted no part of it.

She blinked again and the words vanished from the screen, though it was not her intention. Staring at her Scarlet Cyclops all day had created a throbbing headache in both temples. She felt irritable and edgy. She had been plagued with severe PMS for months and she reminded herself to make an appointment with her gynaecologist. The screen immediately blipped into life and displayed her doctor’s appointment schedule. Stella blinked a few more times, secured an appointment for the following Thursday afternoon and the screen went blank.

Stella glanced up just as Lloyd entered the office, swinging his leather briefcase in one hand.

“So how did it go?” she asked as Lloyd helped himself to a drink from the water cooler in the corner.

“Great!” he beamed as he gulped the water back. “Everybody seemed really interested in funding the project. There were a few holdbacks, though. Mostly stodgy old farts that think computers still involve punch cards. I let them play with the prototypes for a while and they had a blast. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on in people’s minds.”

“I think I could venture a guess.” Stella smiled and pictured how Lloyd might look with his head crunching under the wheels of her car, the eyeballs popping from their sockets and the skull snapping apart in several places like an eggshell.

Stella blinked and shook her head as though to dislodge the image from her mind. She had been besieged with morbid thoughts for months, which she chalked up to her chronic PMS symptoms.

I would love to butcher Lloyd Elam like the swine that he is.

The words flashed across her screen and quickly disappeared when Stella thought erase. She couldn’t afford to lose her job, not at this point in her life. She was a single mother with three small children to raise and a deadbeat ex-husband who had run off to Vancouver with a floozy from his office. The company was on the verge of making billions and she needed a slice of that pie.

“Something wrong?” Lloyd asked as he approached her desk.

“No.” Stella replied and thought the word off to shut down her computer. “Just have a little headache. I’ll be all right.”

“I’ve been getting them too.” Lloyd admitted. “I think we’ve been working too hard.”

“Probably.” Stella sighed and rummaged through her desk drawer for her car keys. “I think I’ll leave early today. I’m not feeling so great and I need to lie down for a while.”

And try to get these gruesome thoughts out of my head, she thought to herself.

“Good idea.” Lloyd replied. “I’m taking off too. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to close up early today. After all, this time next year we’ll be so stinking rich we’ll have diamonds dropping out of our assholes.”

“Let’s hope.” Stella forced a smile and crossed her fingers for luck. She couldn’t wait to get out of the dry stuffy office and into the warm fresh summer air, such as it is in downtown Toronto. She hoped a change of scenery would clear her mind. Lately she had even harboured thoughts of harming her children, something she would never dream of actually doing. Yet, seductive images of their small lithe bodies swinging by their necks from the banisters often slinked into her mind until Stella pinched her eyes shut and yanked at her hair in a futile effort to erase those scenes from her brain.

Lloyd left shortly after Stella. He stayed behind a few minutes longer and savoured a stiff drink from his office bar before locking the doors to the lab and the main office. He was feeling cocky and self-assured, like an actor who knows his name will be called to accept a prestigious award, yet he must act humble and surprised when his name is finally announced. Lloyd knew he stood on the precipice of greatness and it was just a matter of time before he changed the world.

It was a typical drive home on the Gardiner Expressway during rush hour for a summer afternoon. Waves of heat shimmered and undulated over the gleaming hoods of cars and trucks that crawled like queues of sickly turtles along the searing asphalt. Lloyd cursed softly under his breath and blamed himself as the thrummed his fingers impatiently upon the rim of the steering wheel. He should have known better than to take the Gardiner Expressway. He vowed to himself the first thing he would do when he became a billionaire was buy a cottage — a mansion — up north on the shores of Lake Rousseau where all the movie stars lived. The rest of the world could go to hell and die and shrivel in the summer heat.

His headache throbbed and he could feel bubbles of aggravation teaming throughout his body. It was a familiar sensation. For the past year Lloyd had found himself snapping irritably at people for the least of provocations, often envisioning murderous fantasies of revenge against the cashier at Loblaws who accidentally overcharged him for a box of cereal or the old woman in front of him in line who took too long counting out her change. Though he was absolutely certain they all deserved horrifying painful deaths, he dismissed his thoughts and visions as the result of stress. Once the Athena Project was established in every home and business on the planet he could retire in luxury and never see another harried day in his life or another insipid human being again.

He spotted the cyclist as she pedalled across the meridian and cut through the traffic as it temporarily stalled once again. She meandered her way between lanes before gliding onto the right shoulder and continued casually past the traffic, her rear end raised slightly off the seat for extra leverage. Lloyd scowled and craned his neck to get a better view of her. How dare she weave through traffic during rush hour? She wasn’t wearing a helmet or kneepads or any protective gear whatsoever; she even wore headphones and Lloyd could see her casually bobbing her head in time to the music. The stupid bitch was just asking for trouble. Lloyd was just the man to give it to her.

Lloyd pressed on his horn but the cyclist either chose to ignore him or didn’t hear over din of the traffic and the music on her headphones. The traffic began to move once again and Lloyd scooted into the right hand lane and crawled along. Cars blared their horns behind him but he disregarded them; he was on a mission and nothing and no one was going to stop him now. He pressed his horn again, and this time the cyclist heard him. She turned her head and glanced in his direction, smiled and waved before picking up speed and continuing along the sandy shoulder. How dare she dismiss him like that? Lloyd was incensed. He thrust his foot solidly down on the brake and squealed to a sudden stop right in the centre of his lane. The car behind him blared a long low beep and swerved around him just in time. The man in the passenger seat flashed him the bird but Lloyd ignored him. He would take care of that asshole later. He climbed out of his car and stomped after the cyclist, his fists curled at his sides and his jaws squared and set.

“Hey!” he called. “You over there!”

They cyclist glanced over her shoulder at the sound of his voice. She stopped and straddled her bike and gently tugged the earphones off her head as she watched Lloyd approach.

“What?” she had to shout to be heard over the din of the traffic.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Lloyd stopped directly in front of her and barked in her face.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked and backed away from Lloyd.

“You’re driving your bike between lanes in rush hour traffic!” Lloyd shouted.


“So?” Lloyd couldn’t believe the dumb bitch’s insolence. “That’s not allowed!”

“Who are you?” the woman asked. “A cop?”

“I don’t have to be a cop!” Lloyd hollered back.

“Look,” the woman sighed, “I’m just trying to find the off ramp onto Lakeshore. I’ll be off the highway in a minute.”

“You shouldn’t be here in the first place!” Lloyd said. “Look at you! You’re not wearing a helmet, you have earphones on, and you’re riding between cars!”

“So what?” the cyclist replied. “I’ll be off the highway in a minute and in the park on Lakeshore. It’s none of your business anyway.”

“I’m making it my business!” Lloyd hollered back.

“What are you going to do about it?” the woman turned away and placed a foot on one of the pedals.

“I’ll show you what I’m going to do about it.”

Lloyd ran back to his car and opened the trunk, ignoring the horns that blasted him from all directions by irate motorists who didn’t appreciate him blocking an entire lane during rush hour. The sword was in there. It had been a gift from his sister and brother-in-law after they returned from their trip to India. It was a magnificent souvenir, ornate with glass gemstones and intricate carvings. It was not his ideal gift but he accepted it with thanks and put it in the trunk of his car, wondering if he could sell it at a flea market. His sister had mentioned that it was an authentic Sikh sword used only for ceremonial purposes. Lloyd was going to show this bitch a ceremony, all right. He pulled the blade from its sheath and ran after the cyclist who was already peddling away from him. “Hey you!” he shouted so madly sticky spittle foamed at the corners of his mouth.

The cyclist stopped and turned just in time to see Lloyd, demented with rage, raise the sword with both hands over his head. She screamed and lunged off her bike just as the blade swished down through the hot dusty air and sliced a neat laceration down the side of her body. Her white T-shirt split in two and blood gushed like a scarlet torrent from the gash. The cyclist screamed again as she fell into the grainy gravel and rolled onto her uninjured side, desperate to get away from Lloyd. He casually stepped toward her and lifted the blade over his head once again, noting the tip of a white rib bone protruding from the cut, and hacked another slice into the woman’s shoulder.

“Help!” she pleaded. “Somebody help me! Please! Somebody help!”

Blood gurgled up from her throat and bubbled around her lips as Lloyd plunged the tip of the sword into her gut over and over again. He grinned. He was thoroughly enjoying what he was doing, noting the smell of blood and bile and other bodily fluids as they roiled from the woman’s wounds and mingled with the odour of dust and exhaust from the highway. It was the most natural thing in the world.

“Hey, you over there! Stop! You’re killing her!”

Lloyd whirled around. A man had parked his car by the side of the road and was stepping out of his vehicle, looking bewildered and mortified. Lloyd smirked at him. He was almost finished with the cyclist and this nosy little twerp would be next. Below him the woman gasped and moaned and struggled vainly to crawl away from Lloyd; a trail of sticky blood zigzagged behind her.

“Help me!” she beseeched the man in a shaky jagged voice.

Lloyd twirled around and thrust the blade deep into her side, putting her out of her misery once and for all.

“Are you crazy?” the man lunged at Lloyd and tried to wrench the sword from his hand.

Behind them several more cars had stopped or slowed. Shocked faces stared through the glass; some people called for emergency services on their cell phones while others held their hands to their mouths and tried not to retch at the sight of the carnage on by the side of the road; mothers covered their children’s eyes. Lloyd ignored them all. He struggled with the man over possession of the sword. The man put up of valiant fight, but Lloyd was almost twice his weight and a good head taller; and Lloyd was maniacal with fury.

By the time Lloyd heard the sirens approach and the flutter of helicopter blades overhead, the man lay twitching in a puddle of his own blood next to the cyclist on the road. Traffic was stalled in both directions as more people gaped at Lloyd who stood panting over his victims, blood-streaked sword in hand. He hacked off a piece of the woman’s finger and sliced an ear off the side of the man’s head. He wanted trophies of his prey.

“Drop your weapon!”

Lloyd slowly turned and looked at the circle of police officers that surrounded him, guns poised in his direction. An ambulance with a blue light rotating and flashing rhythmically like a quasar waited behind them. He grinned and raised the sword over his head again and rushed at the row of policemen. No one was going to take his prizes away.

The officer who finally brought him down was a twenty-year-old rookie who had never discharged his weapon in the line of duty before. The young man was so distressed at killing Lloyd and witnessing the carnage on the highway he was forced to take a leave of absence for six months before quitting the police force altogether.

Stella would have watched the late-breaking news story on CITY-TV of the worst case of road rage ever reported that evening. She usually enjoyed watching the six o’clock news as she prepared supper for her children; but that evening no one would be eating at her house. She was too busy pouring kerosene on the bodies of her drowned children that she had piled up in a heap in the middle of her living room floor. It was so convenient and much less messy when you have your own swimming pool. Stella lit a barbeque lighter and set the corpses ablaze. She then sat on the floor beside them and patiently waited for the flames to engulf her children, herself and their home.

* * *

Lloyd’s attorney, Brad Crenshaw, unlocked office door and flicked on the light by gazing into the Scarlet Cyclops that shone like a beacon on the end of Stella’s desk. The detective followed him inside and gazed about the room.

“Is that some sort of sensor?” he asked.

“Sort of.” Brad smiled proudly as though he had invented the Scarlet Cyclops. “I don’t have a clue how it works, I just know that it works. Lloyd gave my office three of these things last Christmas and they’re great. They save so much time, I can do twice as much work in half the time.”

“Really?” the detective smiled. Behind him several officers filed into the office and stood ready to receive orders.

“You may proceed with the investigation.” Brad said. “But I assure you, there is nothing here out of the ordinary. I’ll check their computer files for you to see if there may be anything of interest, but Lloyd Elam and Stella Douglas were both the kindest, nicest people you would ever want to meet. Neither of them had a cruel or violent bone in their bodies.”

“Perhaps.” the detective nodded and turned to direct the officers. “But we must explore all avenues. You understand.”

Brad sat at Stella’s desk and turned on her computer with a few blinks of his eyes. The Athena Project was indeed a miracle. He didn’t know how his practice had managed without it. He had planned on purchasing several more models from Lloyd later that year, but with both Lloyd and Stella gone, he would be forced to sell the company. Besides, he had more pressing business. Tempers were flaring around the office and, like himself, several of his staff were besieged with headaches and macabre hallucinations. There must be a gas leak in the building somewhere, he thought, and immediately secured an appointment on-line with a contractor to come and investigate.

“I wonder what could have made them both snap like that?” Brad sighed and turned back to the detective who was searching through several files from the cabinet by the window. “And on the same night, too. Both of them just lost their minds and murdered all those people. It really makes you wonder what could be going on in their heads.”

“God only knows.” the detective replied and shook his head.

Brad nodded in agreement. He looked back down at Athena and read his thoughts on the screen.

I wonder how that lard-ass detective would look with his throat slit from ear to ear?

Copyright © 2004 by Caroline Misner

Home Page