Permanently Out of Order

Greg Pulaski knew there was something odd going on when he awoke that morning. It wasn’t the moment he woke up either—but a little while later—which made the whole thing seem even odder. Instead of the usual bugle sounding “Reville” and digitally enhanced sunrise that played from the media unit in front of his bed every morning at  exactly 6:30 a.m., this morning the wall remained coolly silent. In fact the entire apartment was unnaturally quiet. The double-paned, reinforced windows did a terrific job of keeping out noise, and the typical blips and whirls that came from the various mechanisms of his automated living unit were all silent this morning.


What finally caused Greg to awake was a dream. In the dream he was standing in front of a vending machine and inside the machine was a beautiful, exotic looking bird. The bird had brilliant gold-and-red plumage and it was singing with full-throated ease except the song was obscured by the thick glass of the display case. Greg was besotted. He longed to hear the bird’s song. He took from his pocket a large wad of money and began feeding it into the machine. With each bill he inserted the perch on which the bird stood moved a fraction of an inch closer to the retrieval slot and then stopped.


The retrieval slot was a rectangle roughly the size of the bird, and it had a door that opened and closed for a few moments every time a bill was inserted. The door lead to a long chamber on the side of the machine that opened up to the expansive ceiling above. During the moments the door was open, Greg could hear snippets of the bird’s song. What he heard sounded incredibly beautiful to him. He longed to hear more. He continued to insert money at a more rapid pace until he was down to his final bill. The perch was practically touching the retrieval door – all the bird had to do was fly to freedom. With the insertion of his final bill, the door to the retrieval slot opened and the perch pushed through it. The door remained open this time. The magnificent bird just stood on the perch and continued to sing the same soulful melody. Greg hit the glass display case with his hand and yelled. The bird did not react. Greg started to become angry. He began to hit the glass with increasing force, yelling louder and louder, until finally the glass case shattered in front of him.


Greg awoke with a jerk. He was disoriented and perspiring. “What time is it?” he yelled at the wall. The wall remained silent. He yelled again, “What time is it!?” Again the wall remained silent. Greg got out of bed and went to the window. He pressed the switch to turn the dimmer off, but the window remained opaque. He pressed the button to open the window and it remained shut. Greg reflected for a moment. In the entire time he had lived in this unit, twenty-three years, it had never once lost power. In fact that was one of the number one selling points of these cooperative units when they first came on the market fifty years ago: Never fix a light, never replace a fuse, never lose service! All the wiring and pipes for the entire building were hooked directly in to the Central Power and Depository System of the Municipal Public Works Authority, and all the appliances, heating, cooling, water, and waste transmissions were controlled by the Central Regulation Service.


At the beginning of every month, Greg received a bill from the CRS. The amount of this bill fluctuated a few dollars now and then, but never greatly, and was rolled directly in to his fifty-year Non-Adjustable Rate Mortgage. This was auto-debited from his bank account every month on the 1st. Greg never looked at his CRS bill, as it was now automatically filtered in to another folder in his electronic mail service, and he never bothered to open it anymore. Because he had never needed to call the CRS the entire time he had lived in this unit, he had no idea who he should call in circumstances like these. He didn’t even know what number he should call. He supposed there was a number in one of his bills somewhere but with the wall being totally unresponsive he was not able to check his email.


Greg pondered matters for a moment. My phone, he thought suddenly. He went over to the bedside table where the phone was docked, hoping it had been charged sufficiently from the previous evening. It was close to dead but still working. He looked at it. “Shit! No reception. What the fuck is going on!?!?” Greg exclaimed. His heart rate began to quicken. Was this related? Or just a coincidence!? He couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t have phone reception at home. The unit came equipped with its own hotspot, and his phone had always just worked.


Greg went to the Single Unit Regulator located in the hallway. It controlled, among other things, the heating and lighting for the apartment. He pushed a button on the touchscreen panel and a message appeared: Error 438. “What the hell does that mean!?” Greg spat. He pushed another button. Error 438. He started pushing random buttons with increasing agitation. Error 438. Error 438. Error 438. Greg ran down the hallway to the bathroom and pushed the button on the auto-vac unit of the toilet. Nothing happened. He pushed the button on the water faucet to full blast. Nothing.


Greg’s mind began to swirl. He reached his arm out toward the wall to steady himself. Slowly he let go of the wall and walked down the dark hallway. From the kitchen down the hall an eerie green light emanated. The light came from the Automated Nourishment Panel, the apparatus that provided food to the unit. On a normal day the Nourishment Delivery Portal would already be open, and Greg’s morning coffee would be sitting inside—piping hot and ready to go. The ANP would display the date and time, the breakfast specials, and perhaps a motivational statement or an important reminder about the day’s events. Today, though, only a short message glowed in the dark kitchen: Error 438.


Greg turned around and strode purposefully back down the hallway and stopped at the front door. He pushed the button that called the elevator. The panel above the door that indicated what floor the elevator was on flashed the same ominous message: Error 438. Greg cursed. He pushed the button a few more times and received the same message over and over again. He turned around and walked hurriedly down the hallway to the farthest end where the “utility” closet stood. In the entire unit, this was the one room that required manual effort to open—the door had a handle and required the user to push it to the left to allow for the door to slide to the side, like a cumbersome fossil on rails. Greg had never needed to open the door since the real estate agent had shown him the closet more than twenty years ago. Inside among the empty shelves was another door which was illuminated by a red lit panel that shined above it. The panel read Emergency Exit.


The door didn’t have a handle like the one to the utility closet. Instead, in the middle of the door there was a small gray box with a cover on it that was held closed by a latch. It looked like a fuse box from the days of old. With trembling hands Greg undid the latch and opened the door. He let out a slow gasp. Inside the gray box, which he had never bothered to look at in all the time he had lived there, was a red button about the size of a half-dollar. In the red light of the sign above, he could just make out the message printed above the button: In case of emergency, press button to release the door. Greg pressed the button. Nothing happened except the message on the panel above the door changed. It read Error 438.


Greg’s breath caught in his throat. He stood absolutely still for a moment as the terror began to set in. “What the hell is going on here”, he thought. “How the hell did I never bother to check if this door even worked!?” He probed his mind for a possible solution to his predicament. He thought about yelling at the top of his lungs but realized the futility of that immediately – these units were designed to be entirely sound-proofed. The real estate agent made a point of demonstrating by banging pots and pans from the neighboring unit. Nope, no one was going to hear his cries for help. If there was even anyone still in the building.


He took his phone out of his pocket. It was flashing now which meant the battery was practically dead. Still no reception. He put it back in his pocket and stared at the button again. “YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” he yelled and began hitting the button with all his might. Over and over again he pounded the red button with his fist. Sweat began to collect on his brow and drip down the sides of his face. After a while he stopped hitting the button, his hand was raw and bleeding. He took a step back and gave the button a final exasperated kick with the heel of his foot then collapsed against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. Sitting with his back to the wall and facing the emergency exit, Greg cradled his head in his hands.While he sat there, Greg had failed to notice that the sign above the door had changed. In place of the continuous Error 438 message a new message was now glowing in red letters. It read Permanently Out of Order.