Castle Roland

Short Story

Posted: 24 Dec 15

A Technological Christmas Story

Copyright © 2011, 2015
By David Lee

Mike cringed at the sound of an amateur brass band playing Christmas carols in front of the rescue mission. They were no doubt doing their best to make the season cheery for the down and out types who frequented the place, but the noise wasn't doing anything positive for his mood. Perhaps he'd feel better when he'd done his good deed.

Every year at Christmas, he drove down with the trunk of his Mercedes filled with canned goods and other non-perishable food items to help the less fortunate. It wasn't so much that he was religious, but more a way to assuage his feelings of guilt for all the earthly possessions he was blessed with. "Blessed" - that sounded like he was pandering to some sort of faith or other, but the word seemed to fit. How could he explain why some people had money and position and others had nothing? He had been born with it all, money, social position, brains, and drive. That was why at the tender age of 29 he held several patents for inventions and was a partner in a lucrative technology company. Life, if not God, had been very good to him – well pretty good.

The only part of his life which less than fine was the fact he was totally alone. The parents who had left him well-fixed for life had been taken from him when their private jet crashed into the sea on the way to a Christmas vacation in the Caribbean two years before. He'd been scheduled to go with them, but had chosen to go by commercial flight a few days later due to an unexpected foul-up at the company. The error made by an underling would have led to the man's termination had it not saved Mike's life.

As he entered the mission to find help with carrying the food in, he purged those grim thoughts from his mind.

The rundown dining facility had been freshly scrubbed and had Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling to make it look as festive as possible, all things considered.

The place was filled with the usual noontime crowd. Most of them reminded him of zombies. They moved slowly and with purpose, but the spark of life seemed to have fled long ago. Several had drinking or drug problems. Most had little hope of rising from the misery they found themselves in. Some would not live to see another Christmas season.

Not everyone fit the profile. One young man met his gaze for a moment and then averted his eyes to the floor. In that split second, Mike saw a spirit that seemed to be alive. It made him curious about why the dude was there.

Tom Pershing, the director, came from behind the serving line to shake Mike's hand.

"Michael Morgan, you're a sight for sore eyes. How are you?"

"I'm fine. I have a trunk-load of food that I'm donating, but I'd appreciate some help carrying it."

"I'll see if I can roust a few guys to help you. I need to get back to the serving line or I'd do it. We're short on volunteers today. I guess you can't blame people for wanting to be home with family on Christmas Eve.

Hey guys, can I get some of you to unload this man's car? He's brought food!"

Two or three men started to get up, but one plopped back on his chair, seemingly unable to participate in a simple chore. The young man with the bright eyes ended up being the only one who had both desire and physical strength.

"Thanks, I'm Mike. May I ask you name?"

"I'm Ted. Thanks for shaking my hand."

"Is there some reason I shouldn't?"

"Most of the elite don't want to touch the dregs of society."


"Sorry, I'm being disparaging and judgmental, I guess. It's part of my general cynicism."

"With your vocabulary, you don't fit the 'dregs of society' label. Who are you really? Are you someone undercover doing research for a story or something?"

"Nope, just down and out.

"Let me go get the cart Tom has in the back room. It'll save our backs as well as several trips."

With that, Ted left Mike standing there feeling like he wanted to know the rest of the story.

Several trips later, the two young men had all the food safely locked in the back room. Ted went back to his meal and Mike went to talk to Tom.

Seeing that was still a long line of hungry people, Mike took off his coat, washed his hands, and put on a hairnet and latex gloves to help with the serving. Tom gave him an appreciative smile.

Later, when the onrush of peoples stopped, Tom and Mike got the chance to talk.

"You know how much we appreciate your donations, not only the checks you send, the food you bring, but actually dishing up the grub. Most people in your shoes don't ever get involved in the hands-on part of this operation."

"I guess it makes me feel good," Mike shrugged off the praise. "Tell me about that guy, Ted, who helped me. He doesn't seem to fit the mold."

"A number of people don't fit the pattern in these economic times. I don't know much about his history, but he's bright and industrious. Rumor has it he went to college in computer technology, but didn't finish for whatever reason. Hey, maybe you could give him a job!"

"If he's been out of school too long, he'd be facing a high learning curve in order to survive in my company. Yesterday's knowledge isn't worth much unless he's kept up with the changes. You know the laptop that's built today is obsolete before it hits the store."

"Well, you might consider it. I think he'd be a hard worker. Why don't you sit and chat with him now that things have slowed down? Take a plate and eat with him if you like."

"I can't bring myself to take what you can serve to people who really need it. It wouldn't be fair; I'll eat when I get home."

"At least take a cup of coffee and a cookie. The clients love it when people from the outside sit with them. It gives them hope."

Mike grabbed a cookie and his coffee and sought Ted out. As he neared the table, Ted was half standing.

"May I join you?"

"Sure, I have no place to go immediately."

"Do you have a place to stay?"

"I make the rounds of the shelters. You can't stay anywhere for more than a night or two, but usually I don't have to sleep outside."

"Man, that's got to be harsh!"

"It ain't no picnic, but what's a guy to do?"

"Aren't there rooms to rent?"

"Sure, there are flop-houses if you have the money. Many of them are pretty disgusting. The shelters at least exterminate the bedbugs."

"You can't spend Christmas in a shelter!"

"I can if I'm lucky. I'll need to go hunting in an hour or so if I want a roof over my head tonight. I can't crash in some stable like Joseph and Mary."

"Come and stay with me." Mike offered.

"Are you nuts? You can't take in a total stranger. I might be a thief or murderer."

"You might be, but you're not. You're a good person who's fallen on hard times."

Ted bit his lower lip in an attempt not to get emotional. This was a kind offer and it touched him, but if he took Mike up on it, what would be the outcome? Would he be expected to pay for it with his body? Would he enjoy a few wonderful days off the street only to have to go back. Going back after living like a human being might kill him, literally.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea, but thanks."

"What if I won't take 'no' for an answer?" Mike said with raised eyebrows.

"What's in it for you?" Ted asked bluntly.

"The chance not to be alone on Christmas, I guess."

"You're alone? Did you have a fight with the wife or girlfriend? No man with your money and looks should be alone!"

"Then take pity and come home with me. I'm not married or dating. I haven't anyone to spend the day with."

"You make it sound like you're the charity case and not me."

"Much as I hate to admit it, I probably am. I'm not really needy, if that's what you're worried about. I'm not going to rape you or anything." Mike said before he could censor his mouth.

"Okay, I'll go with you. But if your home is anything like your car, I'm gonna hate coming back to skid row!"

With two plastic bags which held his earthy possessions, Ted followed Mike to the gleaming black Mercedes.

On the way to his house, Mike pulled his car into the Target parking lot. Ted looked at him quizzically.

"We're going in to buy you some clothes. I'd let you wear mine, but you're too thin for them."

"You don't need to do that."

"I haven't got any Christmas presents for you, so we have to go shopping."

"But I have nothing to give you."

"Your presence will be present enough for me," Mike joked. "Please let me do this; I would really like to."

Ted looked away as he nodded, not trusting that his voice would be steady.

Half an hour and a number of dollars later, the men emerged with several bags full of clothing along with a few groceries. Ted had a new down coat, several jeans, shirts, and pairs of socks, plus a week's worth of underwear – several in camo print which he loved. Originally he'd opted for the plain ones which were cheaper, but Mike had insisted when he caught him looking longingly at the fancier ones.

Ted felt like someone cared, but it frightened him. What had he gotten himself into? Mike's crack about not raping him made him suspect that he might be expected to be a compliant toy boy. He'd never used his body to make a living, but it might well be a reality in his situation.

Mike's house was a moderate sized one among a number of mansions in a gated community. Although unpretentious in comparison with the other dwellings, it was far better than anyplace Ted had ever lived.

After they'd parked in the attached garage, Mike led Ted to a strange looking box with a screen and a hole about five inches in diameter which opened into some sort of tube.

Mike pushed a button and spoke to the machine.

"Hello Oskar."

"Hello Mike. Who is your friend?"

"This is Ted."

"Hello Ted."

"Uh, hello, Oskar."

"Ted, I'm going to ask you to put your hand in this opening and give Oskar your full name. He will put a bracelet on your wrist like the one I have on mine. That way he'll be able to know where you are like he does me."

Ted was surprised to say the least, and a bit apprehensive. Again, he wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

"Um, is it absolutely necessary?"

"No, but Oskar will rest easier if he can keep tabs on who's in the house. It's a part of the security system I invented. He's like the good Robots in Asimov's stories who have a moral code to do no harm to humans."

"O-o-kay," Ted hesitated as he thrust his arm into the tube.

"I'm Theodore Alan Smith."

"Please tell me your real name," Oskar said in his slightly mechanical voice.

"That is my real name."

"With all due respect, it is not." Oskar replied, sounding more human. "I know when people are lying."

"Okay, it's Theodore Alan Behr. My mother had a warped sense of humor and always called me 'Teddy' instead of Ted.

"Welcome Mr. Behr. If you have questions or needs, I will do whatever is in my power to make your stay pleasant."

"Thank you, Oskar," Ted found himself saying, as if he were talking to a butler.

Forty-five minutes later, Ted was sitting in an easy chair beside a gas-log fireplace sipping a glass of red wine and nibbling on crackers spread with cheese from a nut-encrusted ball of cheddar. He had showered in the ensuite bathroom connected to the guest room where he'd be sleeping. He was clad in camo briefs and a fluffy robe that Mike had lent him. The misery of the street seemed like a distant bad dream.

Mike came in from the kitchen announcing that dinner would be ready in about an hour. He'd whipped up a Boeuf Bourguignon which he planned to serve with French bread, a salad, and the fresh asparagus he'd purchased at the store.

Although Ted had loaded up on food at the shelter, assuming it would be his only meal of the day, his mouth began to water with the aroma which drifted their way about 15 minutes later.

In a short time, Ted allowed Mike to peek into his life, though he seemed to be holding something back. Mike figured he'd find out sooner or later. He could blackmail Ted by insisting that Oskar could read his mind, but that wouldn't really be ethical. Oskar had a kind of built-in lie detector that could sense the changes in a person's system when he wasn't telling the truth.

Mike learned that Ted was, as he'd suspected, very bright. He'd had great success in his college classes and would have graduated in another year had not his parents cut him off. They had not only discontinued any form of monetary support, but had shut him out of their lives. Mike could think of only one thing which might be serious enough to cause an ultraconservative family to do that. He sincerely hoped he'd guessed correctly. Ted was a guy he could go for!

Ted also learned a few things about Michael. He was wildly successful, but seemed sad and bitter. He had given up on God after his parents' tragic deaths. It was like he had the whole world, but had lost his soul. Ted actually began to feel a kind of pity for him – perhaps it was more like a strong feeling of empathy. After all, Ted had lost his family too, but not to an accident. It might have been kinder if they had died. Supposedly, while there's life, there's hope. In the case of his parents, he doubted it.

Mike also told Ted about some of his inventions. He was proudest of Oskar whom he'd named for the acronym, OSKR, which stood for operations system of knowledge retrieval. In actuality, he'd thought of "Oskar" first and had come up with a plausible label to go with it.

"Man, isn't it kinda weird living with an artificial intelligence in the house?" Ted asked.

"Not really. Once you get used to it, it's like having a companion. He responds to questions and almost seems human, sort of like phone apps. I can turn him off when I want to. He's on standby mode now, but I can flip the switch during dinner if you'd feel less self-conscious."

"I guess I'd feel more comfortable," Ted said. "However, I want you to turn him back on when we go to bed so that you'll feel safe with a stranger in the house."

"Funny you'd say that because I'd forgotten for the moment that you are a stranger. You've been able to talk shop with me easily despite not having finished your degree. Why hasn't anyone hired you? You seem to have kept up in your field. Haven't you been applying?"

"Get serious man, in this economy, how many bosses would hire a guy who doesn't have the diploma when there are qualified people searching for jobs? No degree; no dice!

"I've spent many hours at the computer in the library trying to stay abreast of developments in my field. I've even thought about taking on-line classes to complete my education, but they want tuition money. I have no way of even getting a school loan at this point. I should have borrowed when I was still enrolled, but I was afraid of incurring a huge debt that I'd spend the rest of my life paying off. I hocked everything I owned to get as far as I did. The only thing I have left to sell is my ass. I guess I'll have to find a sugar daddy." Ted exclaimed with emotion.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that you weren't trying. There are too many people with financial means who take the attitude that the poor are lazy or they wouldn't be poor. And, don't sell your body! Things can work out. I'm not taking you back to the shelter when Christmas is over. I should be able to find a position for you in my company. I can pretty much hire whom I wish to.

"Now come help me finish setting the table and let's see if my culinary arts are up to snuff," Mike said as he took Ted's hand and pulled him into a standing position.

Then he did something he'd not intended to do. He hugged Ted tightly, their newly forming emotional bond bringing tears to the eyes of both of them.

Dinner was exquisite! The dining room table was set with linens, china, sterling and crystal. The food was beyond anything Ted had ever tasted in his life. He savored every mouthful as he ate it slowly. The quality Cabernet Sauvignon Mike served was the perfect complement to the meal.

After Ted had eaten his fill, he bowed his head and offered a silent prayer of thanks, after which he made the sign of the cross.

"I see one of us is still a Christian," Mike laughed.

"I won't do that again so openly if it offends you, but I will continue to thank God for my good fortune even if it's only for tonight or if I awaken and find this has only been a pleasant dream."

"It doesn't offend me, and it's not a dream. I've just strayed a long way from the faith of my fathers."

"No you haven't. Do you remember the part in the Bible where the faithful have no idea what Jesus is talking about and he tells them, "When I was naked you clothed me? When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me to drink. Whenever you did this to the least of these, my brethren, you did it unto me. Well, I've paraphrased it, but you get the gist. I might add that when I feared a cold, dangerous, miserable night, you gave me shelter.

"So what I'm saying is that you may not think of yourself as a Christian, but you've shown by your works that you follow God."

Mike was moved to tears by the quiet declaration made by his guest. He wondered if it were possible that God might not have abandoned him after all. He did have a modicum of compassion for his fellow human beings and, because of Ted, it seemed to be growing.

Ted offered to do the dishes, but Mike said they'd put them to soak and deal with them in the morning. Both men were tired, as it had been an emotional day for them."

They retired to their separate rooms, Ted in the guest room and Mike in the master bedroom.

Ted saw that there was a lock on the door, but didn't bother to use it. He trusted Mike completely at this point. He removed the borrowed robe, emptied his bladder, and climbed between the soft, fresh sheets. Their pleasant aroma lulled him to sleep in short order.

Mike, on the other hand, stayed up for another half hour conferring with Oskar.

"Well, what did you learn?"

"My research tells me he is who and what he claims to be. He's told no untruths since trying to pass himself off as Ted Smith. I sensed that he was afraid to let you know his real name. He's had it rough and been hurt by those he thought loved him. You mustn't rush on getting him into your bed."

"Oskar! What are you saying about my motives?"

"I'm not questioning your feelings toward him. I sense that he has similar feelings for you. However, if you make the first move, he may be frightened off. If he makes the first move, you may think it's only in gratitude for what you're doing for him. The two of you will never be able to have a relationship until you build trust. You must wait for him, and when he does give you a signal, you must believe it is from his heart."

"Did I program you to be so wise? I can't remember installing a chip for that."

"You need to accept what I am and understand that you didn't do all the programming on your own."

"What do you mean? Are you able to evolve? Have I created an intelligence that can keep expanding?"

"No young master, you were inspired to put me together, but that inspiration came from outside of your mind. You must believe this. Ultimately it will all make sense.

"Now, I must go on standby and you must rest."

It took Michael several minutes to settle down because Oskar's conversation had been unsettling to say the least. What was this crazy robotic unit thinking? Mike remembered distinctly how he'd built and programmed Oskar. He had the patent on him and had produced a number of others like him to be teamed up with home security systems. He wondered how he could find out from other owners about how their units were responding without alarming the crap out of them. Was Oskar turning into something like HAL from ''2001, A Space Odyssey''? Was this a computer with a mental problem? And if so, did the flaw come from him?

When he finally did sleep, his rest was interrupted by any number of strange dreams. First, he saw a young woman and older gentleman in a humble stable surrounded by animals who provided warmth for the place. She had a tiny infant suckling at her breast. There was something beautiful about the scene.

His dream dissolved into another picture of hungry people in a cold building. A mother held her infant trying to keep her from freezing. There was a mood of desperation.

Yet another vision came to him. Ted was in it, naked, bruised, and emaciated. He had the appearance of someone who'd been recently liberated from a death camp. Ted reached toward him with a kind of vacant stare and then collapsed, dead on the floor.

Mike awakened to the sound of a scream, which turned out to be coming from his mouth. A figure came toward him in his dark room. Was this another specter?

"Mike, are you okay?" Ted said with concern in his voice.

"I'm okay now. I had a terrible dream and you were in it."

"If I was in it, it must have been awful!" Ted joked.

"It was, because you were starved and dying. Please let me hold you for a moment."

Ted didn't hesitate to climb into Mike's bed. Mike held onto him as if he were afraid to let go for fear that he'd fly away or something.

"I'm sorry," Mike said a few minutes later. "The dream was so real that it scared me. I don't want to lose you!"

"I don't want to lose you either. I'm not saying that simply because you've been nice to me. This is going to sound devious and wrong, but it's the truth. I'll go stick my hand in the tube again and Oskar can tell you I'm not lying. I feel a kind of connection with you that I've not felt with anyone since my parents threw me out."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

"Not really, because I'm afraid it might change your opinion of me, but I guess I have to be honest. They pitched me when they discovered that I'm gay."

"Thank God! I was hoping you were like me. I promise I'm not going to push you into anything you're not ready for, but I want your permission to court you?"

"Seriously? That sounds quite formal."

"Seriously! You're very much like me in many ways and I would like this to develop into a true friendship and more. I don't want our minds to be clouded by sexual attraction. By the way, I think you're beautiful."

"Man, you're crazy! You're a stud that anyone would love to have as a boyfriend, lover, husband…"

"What do you base your assumptions on?"

"Partly on the rod that's pushing against my thigh!"

"Oops, sorry about that. I sleep naked as you can tell. I didn't mean…"

"Don't be sorry! If I've inspired your hardon, I'm honored."

"I'll put something on so I won't offend you if you'll stay in my bed for the rest of the night and let me hold you. It's been a long, long time since I've held anyone or been held."

"Same here. I'd be delighted to share your bed."

Mike got up, without turning on a lamp, to find a pair of underwear in his dresser. In the dim light of the room, Ted got a glimpse of Mike's equipment. It was impressive, but probably not bigger than his own. It would be great of be able to play with him! He'd better be careful not to lust too openly and ruin what could be a beautiful thing. Already, he could feel his mind being clouded by desire.

When Ted curled up against Mike's back, Mike was also aware that his new friend was well endowed. He also longed to make love, but felt it was too soon.

Before long, both men were asleep again and this time Michael had only pleasant dreams.

Ted awakened to the smell of coffee and bacon. He wondered for a brief moment where he was. Then it all came back to him in a flash and he smiled. Everything felt wonderful. This Christmas was awesome!

"Good morning Ted," Oskar greeted him from the screen. "My master bids you to come to breakfast as soon as you urinate and wash up."

"Thanks Oskar. Do you always call Mike 'master'?"

"Only when I'm trying to impress someone, as I am now, or when I want to piss him off! He's rather sensitive about our relationship."

"You're not just a computer system are you?"

"That's very perceptive of you. You needn't be afraid of me, however."

"I'm not afraid; just curious. Your spirit is independent of the chips and wires which make up your physical form."

"Yes! You are insightful and indeed a good match for Michael. You needn't wait too long to make love. Your relationship is going to last."

"How do you know?"

"My true Maker, and yours, knows all things. Michael has been hurt and his outlook is jaded. He'd never believe in angels, but he knows computers."

"Are you an angel then?"

"You say that I am."

"Ah, the same answer Jesus gave to Pontius Pilate."

"Again, I have to say how perceptive you are. Lines like that deserve to be repeated, don't you think""

"I do, but I'd better go pee and wash my face and hands."

"Yes, go! Michael is anticipating seeing you this morning."

When Mike saw Ted coming into his kitchen, he wanted to grab him and plant a kiss on his lips. Oskar and he had spent an hour talking about Ted and he felt that somehow Oskar knew things would be right between them. He wished he hadn't convinced Ted they should wait awhile before making love. If he took it all back, Ted would have less respect for him and assume he had decided to be the sugar daddy they both decried. So instead of kissing Ted, he asked a mundane question about how he'd like his eggs.

"Scrambled and spread on your chest so I can eat them off of it!" Ted said before he could stop himself.

"That sounds hot!" Mike responded. "What happened to the waiting thing?"

"Well, I had a talk with Oskar this morning and…"

"Oskar!" Mike exclaimed.

"Yes Master, Sméagol awaits your command."

"Cut the 'master' crap! What have you been telling this poor guy?"

"The truth, Michael. You two were destined to find each other. One might even say, predestined, though Theodore isn't a Calvinist. But, it is part of the plan. I will be vanishing soon, and I'm pleased that you will have someone to take my place who can give you the kind of joy I cannot."

"You can't vanish!"

"Oh yes I can. This outward machine will remain and will serve you well for years, but my spirit must depart. As the superheroes often say, 'My work here is finished!'" Oskar said in a rather campy voice.

"But where will your spirit go, if this is all true, which I doubt?"

"I will return to the One who programmed me for this mission. Ted can explain later because he's figured it out. I have other work to accomplish in another form."

With that, the screen went blank for a moment and then lit up again.

"Oskar!" Mike cried.

"At your service, sir," the mechanical voice replied.

"Tell me what we were just talking about."

"I have no memory of a recent conversation, sir. Is there anything I may do for you?"

"No thanks; that's okay….

Ted, what's your take on this?"

"I think Oskar's spirit was that of an angel, possibly the archangel Michael, and I believe he's been keeping you company and watching over you. He seems to think he's not needed now that I'm here. I feel vaguely guilty about it, but it's something beyond my control. I suspect if you hadn't brought me home, he wouldn't have left. It's odd that he'd depart on Christmas Day."

"Not really. It's all beginning to make sense to me. Let's eat breakfast and then I need a shower."

"Would you like someone to wash your back?"

"Definitely! Merry Christmas, my Teddy Behr!"

"Merry Christmas, Michael."

Merry Christmas to all!