"She's upstairs," Marian whispered to her husband.
"So what are we going to do with her?" he whispered back.
"What can we do, Reginald? She's a distant cousin. She's been a source of shame to this family , but we all take turns taking her in."
Reginald programmed the dishwasher, requesting the computer to set up for low-water levels for moderately soiled dishes. It should start during a time of low electric use yet not before 10:00 pm. The dishes must be finished and dried before 7:00 am the next morning. Marian studied her husband as he keyed in the instructions for the machine.
He's a good man, Marian thought. He would know what to do.
The quiet was shattered by a burst of noise. Their son, James, carried his Unipad into the room and was busy keying in data.
"James," Marian shouted to her son, "Turn that thing off."
Surprised by his mother's voice, James flipped off the music but continued, intent on his tasks.
"James," Marian said again, "I know you have to use that thing at school but you need to rest now. If you don't rest, you'll never heal."
James paid his mother no mind. He just received email from his buddy that Veronica Poule was scheduled for an Internet chat later in the evening. He still had to fax his homework to his Math teacher and he wanted to leave an air phone message to his girlfriend. In addition, he still had not keyed in the orders to properly park his car. Tonight he wanted to key in a command for a car wash.
A cool hand pulled James' hand from their frantic tasks.
"James," his mother said softly. "I said to give it a rest. You will not heal unless you rest."
Marian reviewed James' wound, retrieved a tube of panmedical salve, and began to clean the sore. James winced in irritation.
When his mother had finished her ministrations, James grabbed his Unipad and stomped from the room.
"Don't program in a car wash tonight, son. You'll only be disappointed. I've programmed for dish washing tonight."
James stopped outside of the doorway. This was just his luck. He'd key the command in anyway, although he knew the house computer would ignore it.
At the soft whir of the elevator's ascent, Marian raised her eyebrow to entertain comments from her husband.
"Does that wound look to be getting better?" Reginald asked at this opportunity.
Marian busied herself keying in the Videovision's selection for the night. She hated the anxiety in Reginald's voice when he inquired about James' wound. Would he hold her forever in low esteem due to the defective gene in her bloodline?
Reginald sighed, picked up the Videovision keypad, and accessed the Internet. He would check his stocks first and maybe call up a replay of last night's ball game.
"You know Marian, we can't keep her here forever. And she's got three kids, right? All of them defective?"
Marian nodded affirmative.
"They can't even get through school, Marian. We've been through all this before. Studied it. Debated it. Nature took care of most of the defective but there will always be people like us with defectives hidden in our attic and left to deal with the problem as best we can. We can't possibly keep them here for the rest of their lives, you know that?"
Reginald grabbed his Unipad to send off an email to his boss. He forgot to mention that he would be late the following morning. The car was due for a shell re-fitting. This time, Reginald thought, he might have them pull off the shell and put on a new one. The thing was scratched and dented in such a manner that the yearly re-fit could not cover the blemishes. It's been three years, Reginald considered. Cost extra, he thought, but worth it.
"I know we can't keep them here, Reggie. But just like everyone else in this world, I have to do something. I thought you could help me with this."
"So how come your distant relatives sent her and her defective kids to live with us? Oh don't tell me. They don't have fire privileges, right?"
Marian nodded. Only a few had fire privileges and Reginald was one.
Reginald grabbed the Videovision keyboard and keyed in his responses to a survey currently on the screen.
Marian left Reginald to his activity and went to the kitchen . She keyed in the code of the refrigerator compartment she wished to access and pulled out food to prepare the meal. After keying in the code, the door to the meat compartment slid open and Marian pulled out a package of three chicken breasts. Just as the door slid shut, Marian realized she would have to re-enter the code. For a while, Marian's meals would have to be doubled to feed her distant cousin and her three children now hiding in her attic. Marian keyed in codes that allowed her to retrieve additional chicken, some fresh produce for a salad and potatoes for baking.
I just don't know why this has to happen to me, Marian thought as she set the food in front of the microrange cooking center. She keyed in the code to start the broiler. She removed the lettuce and tomatoes from their self-destructive wrap and placed them on the appropriate holder in the cutting bin of the microrange. Such was her anger at her terrible situation that she shoved the cutting bin too hard and the handle became dislodged.
"Be careful with that, honey," Reginald said. Marian jumped at the sound.
Reginald fiddled with the handle of the cutting bin and only when he had it properly repositioned did he notice his wife was crying.
He pulled her into his arms. "Aw, Marian, Marian," he said softly. "I know it's unpleasant and truth is, we are lucky that we haven't had to deal with this problem until now." Reginald pulled away from Marian and ran his fingers through his hair.
"We've done nothing wrong, Marian. We are a generation that has to deal with the problem like no other has. So many of the defective are still left. They just can't cope, damn it, and it isn't our fault!" Reginald exclaimed and pounded his fist on the table.
Marian placed the potatoes in the peeling bin, pushed it into the cooking center and keyed in the code that would activate the mechanism. She held back tears as she continued to prepare the meal. Pulling some trays down, Marian prepared to transport four meals to her attic guests.
Sharon answered the door immediately at Marian's tentative knock. The children were occupied with the extra Videovision Marian had moved into the attic for their entertainment.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am. We are all so hungry."
Marian placed the trays, each with a meal of chicken, fresh salad and roasted peeled potatoes, on the small table. The children put their Videovision game on pause and ran eagerly to the meal.
"I need to know how to open the window," Sharon said. "It gets a bit stuffy in here at times."
Marian pulled a Unipad out from under the sofa and gave Sharon the code to raise and lower the windows. Sharon struggled to enter the commands and Marian winced. Sharon was only 35, but her defect made her unable to cope with even this small task. Her youngest son, Timothy, took the Unipad and entered the access code and command with ease.
It was an effort for Marian to hide her tears. He looked so healthy and robust right now. In ten years, he would be as defective and useless as his mother.
It was bad enough that people like Sharon had managed to hang on, but how on earth had she managed to reproduce? How could anyone be so irresponsible to bring children into the world when they know they are genetically programmed to a premature death? If this bit of selfishness was not enough, Sharon and her ilk forced normal people like Marian and Reginald to deal with THEM.
The family ate their meal. Marian marveled that they looked for all the world like normal people. Sharon, of course, had to be helped with her food.
"So how are they doing?" Reginald asked when Marian returned with the dirty plates. Marian could only shrug a response.
Reginald put the dishes in the dishwasher and keyed in the code for the Multisink to dispense a glass of water.
"It's a hectic time of year to be dealing with this," Reginald commented. "I'm working on the election campaign you know? All day I'm busy with citizen complaints, sending email commands to time stoplights, get potholes fixed, investigate thefts. I feel especially busy because I'm keyed in for the preliminary vote next weekend. Nothing I hate more than having to deal with this. I hope my constituency understands".
"They will, Reginald. Everyone understands and everyone has either been there or knows someone who has. We do it to be kind."
Reginald put his glass in the dishwasher and pulled down a can of peaches. "Let's have some peaches and ice cream," he said. "That'll make us feel better."
Marian grabbed a few bowls from the cupboard while Reginald keyed in their personal code that allowed the electromagnet to release and open the can.
"Remember the time the grocery store entered the wrong code on all of our cans and we couldn't open our own food?"
Marian stifled a laugh. "That was terrible."
Reginald reached across the table and placed his hand on Marian's.
"As funny as this was, Marian," he said told her, "it was a little bit like what it's like to be THEM. They can't even open a can of food, Marian!"
Marian nodded her quiet acknowledgment.
"Just think what it was like during the great shakeout," Reginald said, scooping a mouthful of vanilla ice cream into his mouth.
"That's so irreverent, Reginald. It was a Syndrome Plague and it was worse then not being able to open a can."
"Call it what you want. Those that could, coped. Those that couldn't, died."
Marian nodded. Sometimes when she helped James with his homework, she saw the histovideo of the worst years of the Syndrome Plague. People died by the millions. Yet though so many died, many lived to thrive and prosper. It was a repeat of Dickens' best of times and worst of times. The historians have had time to digest the great shakeout, as Reginald and many other pundits called it. The general conclusion is that as horrible as the changeover was, it was a natural phenomena and the fittest who survived had no reason to feel guilt.
As with most major plagues of history, some of the defective survived. While Reginald and Marian lived in a time when the Syndrome Plague was a distant memory, some survivors have lived on to leave good people like them to do the right thing.
"Got some guests in my attic," Reginald responded to his assistant's greeting the next morning. His assistant regarded Reginald soberly.
"I know, I know. Next week's the preliminary election. I'll do what I have to do, Mike. Let's hope the public's as liberal on this issue as we think. I'd like another term as Public Service Commissioner. So we'll see. I'm having a new shell put on my car today, Mike. Think you could pick it up for me at about three o'clock? Will my car, collapsed of course, fit in your trunk?"
Mike laughed. "It's supposed to, according to the hype. And it's about time you had that shell replaced. Thing was getting shabby."
Reginald gave a quick chuckle and went right to work. There was much to do.
He spent the morning at his Unipad, sending email in response to citizen questions and complaints, faxing civil documents to the attorneys for review and sending air phone press releases to the media. At 12:30, Reginald air phoned his request for a fire permit.
"I've got some visitors in my attic," Reginald told the governor. The air phone was silent, then the governor keyed in the command and faxed the permit to Reginald's Unipad. Mike came into his office just as the permit flashed across Reginald's screen. Reginald flipped the Unipad to overhead so Mike could see.
Mike scanned the fire permit and nodded. "It'll be all right, Reginald. These things are never pleasant."
Reginald turned off the Unipad after keying in his order for lunch delivery from the delicatessen across the street.
"How's the son doing?" Mike asked just before exiting Reginald's office. The question bought another concern to Reginald's immediate conscience.
"They almost never go back," Mike said in response to Reginald's furrowed brow. "It's so rare, believe me. James will be all right. Keep putting on panmedicine. It'll cure anything."
Reginald held Marian tightly as their house burned brightly.
"It's for the best, Marian. It's better than dying slow. We'll rebuild the house in a few days and life will get back to normal. They didn't suffer. I made sure."
Marian burrowed her face in her husband's shoulder and pulled James in close. With a force of habit, she examined James' fingers. The wound had healed nicely. The webs between his fingers had become infected, that was all. Since James' wouldn't give them a rest, he couldn't heal. Finally, at Reginald's constant anxiety, Marian took James' Unipad from him and kept him from school. In a few days the sensitive webs that allowed his fingers to perform the repetitive tasks demanded of them with no damage to the nerves, had completely healed.
Marian looked at the blaze that was once her house. All of their precious memories and important documents were stored in their Unipads. Reginald was right. In a few days life would be back to normal. The attic visitors, with their defective hands that ceased to be useful after ten years, were gone.
A flash of Sharon's horrible claw hand streaked through Marian's mind. There was no way they could have survived.
Reginald pulled Marian close and whispered into her hair. "Carpal Tunnel. I was so worried about James. I'm so glad he's not defective."