By Steve Stanton
The game was on, but I had trouble with my interface the moment I landed in quantum hardspace. His heart stopped, for one thing, which put all vital organs in immediate distress. He fell to the floor and flopped around in spasm before I got biosystems under control and secured the domain. Just my luck.
I looked up from polished tile to peer at a small crowd that had gathered: a bald guy with his grey-haired wife, a young couple holding hands with horrified faces, a cute blonde girl with grim lips and wrinkled brow. We were in a supermarket--just at the end of aisle seven according to the sign. I finally found the referee standing in front of a colourful display of breakfast cereal. He was using a stock boy with tawny skin and bristly hair, but I recognized the blue aura and know-it-all smile. It was Fitz; I knew him well from several past missions. He scored fairly but wasn't much help when my luck turned to slag. I gave him my start signal with a two-finger touch to my brow.
I stood up shakily, testing my legs and faking nonchalance. The interface had a reliable body--thin and wiry, but strong, perhaps mid-forties. His heart seemed stable now, his lungs heaving with steady rhythm, but his reaction time was slow, his lymphatic system brimming with the toxins of industrialization. In my business you take what you can get.
A brunette with panic on her face pushed between the cute blonde and the hand-holding lovebirds. She grabbed my arm. "Honey, are you all right?"
"Fine," I mumbled. "Sorry," I said to no one in particular. I kept my face down and demure as I scanned my surroundings. For a twenty-first century grocerateria, this place was a labyrinth of indulgence, a vast cavern of suburban opulence overflowing with fresh produce and foodstuffs.
"What happened?" the brunette wanted to know--my wife, Wendy, I suddenly realized.
"I fell," I said, brushing nonexistent dust from my pant-leg to defuse her agitation. "Just dizzy for a moment. Where's your cart?" Wendy appeared well manicured and expensive, her hair coiffed and streaked with color. She smelled clean and subtly aromatic.
"Over here," she said with a quizzical frown.
I began moving in the direction of her pointing arm, darting my eyes in search of portent, some clue to my mission target.
"You look weak," Wendy said. "Have you had anything to eat today?"
Memory systems were a bit slow coming online for some reason. I wondered if the cerebrum was faulty. "I guess not," I said.
Wendy shook her head with exasperation and began fumbling in her shopping cart. She was wearing a short, tweed suit-jacket with black dress pants fitted tight to her hips. She worked in an investment office, I remembered now as I struggled with the lagging memory download. She juggled numbers for an affluent lifestyle. At her insistence I dutifully began chewing a honey-nut-marshmallow confection that a monkey would have thrown back.
The referee had slipped away from view, but I knew an invisible crowd of scorekeepers tracked us faithfully to the checkout line. My target should have presented by now, with so many observers bending probability vectors in my favour. I gazed from face to face carefully.
We stopped behind a shopping cart with a little human boy sitting backwards in the front, hot and sweaty in his purple windbreaker. He turned to spy me and locked bright brown eyes on my face, his pupils like pinpoints in the harsh fluorescent light. Kids can always tell a user when they see one. I put my hands up over my eyes and peeked through my fingers. He did the same. We played peek-a-boo for a minute while my wife's stuff chirped through the scanner. The mother smiled happily, the kid laughed--Fitz would give me extra points for this; he was a sucker for interspecies relations.
I followed Wendy outside to a minivan where a chill wind whipped the parking lot with disdain. I loaded paper bags into the back hatch and pushed the empty cart under a nearby canopy. I moved to the passenger door, but stopped at the warning in her eyes.
"You brought your own car, remember?"
I followed her gaze and saw a classic, ruby-red Corvette waiting in the next row with an hourglass figure that made me shiver in amazement. I almost laughed out loud when I found the keys in my pocket.
"I've got some errands to run. You sure you're okay to drive?"
"No problem," I said as I turned to jump in the car like a comic-book superhero. I climbed into the cockpit mere inches above the ground, behind and below a throaty 350 V-8, and gunned the speedo to get a feel for it. The car torqued with pleasure, wanting to go. I punched an ancient CD player on the dash and got Jimmy Hendrix in a full quadraphonic arena of sonic massage--Foxy Lady! I felt like a secret agent.
As I exited the parking lot I let first gear hang out long and luxurious, pushing me back into the seat with solid American engineering. Already I was up to the suburban speed limit as I notched into second, feeling ready to go for the moon with exuberance. I noticed a billboard out of the corner of my eye, did a quick double-take and slammed on the brakes as I finally recognized my target. I careened off to the side of the road in a cloud of smoke as millimeters of rubber scraped onto the asphalt.
I got out of the car for a better look.
The billboard depicted a leggy model in red lipstick and pink lingerie, bent over seductively on her knees like a sex kitten, advertising high-cut steel-toed workboots and toting a carpenter's hammer. This in itself was disconcerting, but what stopped me was her face--it was the cute blonde girl from the supermarket that had frowned with worry as I lay convulsing and gasping for air! The billboard glowed with cosmic resonance like a tree on fire. The quantum potential tingled on my skin like a static charge and left no doubt of the intended signal. The target had presented and I hadn't even noticed! I had been too busy trying to stabilize an unruly interface. Then I had almost driven by the confirmation in my boyish reverie. A commercial billboard for heaven's sake. How subtle could the Mediator get? I was a bumbling fool and even God knew it.
A young man stood underneath leaning against a support post, his blue aura like a beacon--Fitz, that old weasel. He tapped his wrist meaningfully. Phase Two had begun, and timing was critical now. Kraknarok had gone from confirmation to culmination in thirty-nine minutes during an early playoff round. Now in the finals I would have to match that or better to win top spot among the messengers. I had less than thirty-nine minutes to induce in my target a personal epiphany sufficient to produce a visible nimbus of spirituality--no easy task in rudimentary hardspace! My body hummed with destiny, with the delight of competition. I vaulted back to my sports car.
A vintage Corvette drives like an ox-cart on a rough road and is not relaxing to handle even on a straightaway, but it comes in handy when you want to try a tricky move or two, like a u-turn in city traffic or a needlepoint pivot up the exit ramp into a parking lot. And that's how I found my target packing her groceries into the trunk of a green compact car just outside the supermarket. I nosed up and bumped her shopping cart with my ruby-red proboscis, almost but not quite knocking it over.
She stared in awe at my vehicle, toying with the idea of outrage as I stepped out to face her, but I quickly smothered her in apology and heartfelt respect. I begged her forgiveness, I helped pack her groceries in the trunk of her car, I commented on the fine fuchsia color of her ski jacket and how it made her blonde hair glow with auburn highlights when the sun hit at just the right angle, and I managed to steal a bag of fresh vegetables and kick it under my car.
Then I followed her home.
At a safe distance, of course--no sense alarming the poor girl. She drove downhill into an older part of the city where the roadway was cracked and the houses smaller and more widely spaced. She pulled into the driveway of a brick bungalow that wore neglect like a bad odour, the painted wood trim grey and bare in spots where the blistering sun had done damage. The late season garden of spindly deciduous twigs and dead flowers looked like decoration for a haunted house. I backed away and hid out of sight while she entered her dwelling.
For a few precious moments I practiced my mantras to give her time enough to get settled inside before parking on the road in front and bounding up her narrow laneway with a bag of groceries. She opened an inner wooden door in response to my knock and beamed recognition at me, but kept the outer screen door closed.
"You left this in the parking lot. I'm so sorry," I said, panting just enough to be noticed.
"How did you find me?"
"Followed." I thumbed absently at my car. "Almost lost you."
I smiled with all the sincerity I could paste on the interface as she pushed the screen door open. "Where do you want this?" I asked as I stepped inside. "In the kitchen?"
I followed her pointing arm and ducked around the corner into a clean and cozy kitchen that smelled of soap and lemons, the heart of a woman's home, the inner sanctum. I set my package on the countertop with care. "Smells nice in here," I said. "Kinda fruity or something." What an artless line, I thought to myself, desperate now at the crux of my mission, wondering what the Mediator could possibly want with this young human.
She peeked in the bag of fresh vegetables on the counter. Her other bags stood on the floor at my feet. "Thanks for bringing my groceries. I'm sure it's put you out of your way."
"Naw." I signaled a dismissive shake with my right hand. "I could use a cup of tea, though . . ." I paused and looked away, letting it sink in comfortably before turning for eye contact. ". . . if it's not much trouble."
"Sure," she said. "I'll put the kettle on." She stepped past me to the stove, into the safety and comfort of her household womb, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in.
"Great. I'll help you put some groceries away," I said as I opened the fridge behind her. I quickly began the job, squatting with a brown paper bag between my knees, taking her assent for granted now.
"Well, thanks," she fumbled. "What's your name?"
"Steve." I stood and offered my hand. "Steve Stanton."
I gave her a good dose of illuminata on the handshake--well within the legal range, but I'm sure a bit unsettling for her. A numinous white flash sparked between us and I bent down to unpack groceries while she blushed.
By the time I had finished with the fridge and freezer, she had a pot of tea steeping for both of us, and cream and sugar on a chrome serving tray. I followed her instructions for the canned goods and cleaning products and left the few remaining personal items on the counter. We settled into the living room to sip some fresh brew, and I perched on a well-worn sofa with a lavender floral design.
"So how's your life, Krysia?" I asked right off the bat.
She could see that I wasn't just joking around, that I really wanted to know. She had no idea of the breadth and depth of my need. I was in the playoffs. I was in the zone. I could feel a vast cloud of invisible spectators watching over my shoulder.
"Fine," she said.
"If you could change something, anything, what would it be?"
"Oh, things are fine. I have a good life. There's a lot of turmoil in the world. I'm just thankful for what I've got."
What a sweet kid. But this was getting me nowhere. Why couldn't I get some drug-addled witch who would give me a quick miracle and get me to the buzzer before Kraknarok?
"And work's going okay?" I sipped my tea and looked around the room. No children's toys or signs of a partner.
"I'm a D.S.W."
I peered at her blankly. No wedding ring on her left hand.
"I work with people with disabilities--occupational therapy, that sort of thing?" She added an inflection to see if I was on track. "It's very rewarding work."
I smiled to hide a burgeoning grimace.
"That's a fancy car you're driving, Steve. What do you do?"
"I, uh . . . I'm looking for a model."
"Really?" She brightened considerably. She looked positively cherubic. I was onto something. The illuminata had inspired her. "Like a fashion model?"
I wondered for a moment whether to confess the truth, but subterfuge would get me in sure trouble with the judges. "Well, it's kind of funny. A lingerie model, actually."
"Really," she said, throaty and without the inflection. "I did some modeling in high school."
"Let me try out," she said. "I've got something upstairs I could put on." She jumped across the room like a gazelle and fled up a flight of steps to disappear from view.
I ambled around the furniture in her absence, looking for ashtrays or empty whiskey bottles or books on astrology. All I found was a collection of well-thumbed romance novels and a TV remote. No obvious source of spiritual discontent. What in the world was going on here?
The sight of her coming back down the stairs made me gasp audibly. She stopped halfway and struck a pose in response. She batted her eyes. I stared dumbfounded at such an astonishing change in demeanor. What had happened to the mild-mannered tea-drinking social worker? Before me now stood an exact duplicate of the scantily clad woman on the billboard, her pert breasts framed by pink-satin bodice, her face haloed by golden curl. How could I forget the high cut of that hip, the legs that seemed to go on forever? All that was missing was the steel-toed construction boots.
Instead she wore white high-heels that looked like they had never touched ground. She sauntered toward me with a sway of gait that would have made any barroom dancer proud, seductive and dangerous like a tigress on the prowl. I must have overdone the joy juice when I sparked her with the illuminata! Kraknarok's record would never fall if I gave in to the natural and growing urges of the interface. I jumped up on the sofa and crouched protectively.
She stopped and swung a hip at me, her bare skin like alabaster. "What do you think?"
"Incredible," I stammered.
"I have never seen such absolute destiny," I told her, floundering way off the page of any game guidebook, completely and artlessly devoid of strategy.
"Dance with me," she said as she reached for my arm.
I recoiled too late to avoid her touch and the illuminata sparked unbidden between us like a blinding snap of flash powder. It came from deep in my abdomen like a wild torrent unleashed, a psychic explosion that left me momentarily stunned and confused. Krysia rolled her eyes up and fell face forward into the couch, then bounced off unconscious and flipped onto the floor before I could catch her.
Oh great! Just my luck to kill a human during the playoffs. I lifted her gently and placed her on the couch as best I could, her long legs a tangle of possibilities. I checked for a pulse.
"I feel like making love," she whispered with whimsical abandon. "Are you my soulmate?"
This would not go over well with Fitz and the crowd of witnesses. I might just as well concede, the way things were going. I was over thirty minutes into my mission and still didn't have a plan. How could things get any worse?
My answer came in the front door wearing a faded denim jacket and a carpenter's utility belt, a hulking obelisk of a man. He stomped and shuffled at the entranceway, then bent to unstring a brand-new pair of leather construction boots. "What's for supper, hun?"
"Krysia," I whispered as I pulled her to her feet. "Krysia?"
I rubbed her cheeks, and she fluttered her eyelids in response.
"Someone's here," I said and shoved her forward.
I followed behind at a safe distance. I did not want to face the giant alone.
We met in the kitchen: the husband, the unknown stranger and the bleary-eyed lovestruck wife. The rest would be history, I told myself with righteous fatalism.
"Hi, hun, what's for supper? What are you wearing? Who's this?" The questions came rapid fire, the emotional intensity building with each one.
"This is Steve. Steve, this is my husband Larry." Krysia seemed somnambulant, totally spaced out.
"Hi," I said.
"You're home early," Krysia offered.
"No, I'm not. Are you on drugs? What's going on here?"
Larry was getting ready to bust my face in, I could tell. He looked like a football player at the line of scrimmage, big and beefy and mean. He could snuff the life of my interface without breaking a sweat. He pointed a thick finger at me. "Who the--"
My wife, Wendy, interrupted him by dashing through the front doorway.
Deus ex machina, thank God.
"Steve, honey, are you okay? I saw your car outside and thought you must have had another episode." Good one, Wendy.
Larry hesitated, confusion etched like a cartoon on his face.
"I've been doing some modeling, dear," Krysia told her husband sweetly. "Steve is looking for a model."
Larry glanced at her and back to me.
Wendy's eyes grew bright and wide as she appraised my new friend in her pajamas.
I didn't dare flinch.
"Modeling?" he asked. "Like for a girlie magazine?"
Wendy put her hands on her hips and turned to face me, waiting for an answer.
I winced under pressure and composed myself with standard discipline. "No, nothing like that." I smiled with innocence as I dredged through memory data looking for something that wouldn't be an outright lie. "I have some friends doing animation in the city. They're always looking for models." I shrugged at my wife in a plea for sympathy.
Wendy tilted her head askew and squinted at me. Larry nodded soberly. Krysia seemed to be coming back to earth. She noted Wendy for the first time, flung a hand up to cover her gaping cleavage and blushed a rosy crimson.
"You think she could be a model?" Larry asked with an undertone of disbelief.
Insight hit me like a carpenter's hammer to the temple as my game plan suddenly came into focus. Somehow, husband Larry had convinced himself that his wife was undesirable. I looked back to Krysia from his viewpoint and saw quantum hardspace bend like rubber. I watched her firm muscles soften as thin straps of fabric pressed into swelling flesh. Her posture bent forward as her confidence dissipated. Small blemishes appeared on her face as her eyes darkened with sadness.
She sustained this false reality herself, I could see it plainly. She had etched her own soul with disappointment by harboring negativity instead of freeing it to the Mediator. She gave in too easily to a pretense, not daring to resist her own spiritual entropy. No wonder she had experienced such release under the illuminata--she held her natural beauty inside like corked champagne.
This young couple simply did not understand the creative power of the entangled universe, the innate prescience of human expectation. Trapped in their three-dimensional world, they could not see that they touch the veridical cosmos with each thought, that they direct the very nature of quantum hardspace with their prayers. What a waste.
With the revealed eyes of the Mediator I could see now that their unborn child was destined to undertake great reform of human consciousness, that the fruit of my mission would not be seen for a full generation hence. From this poignant cusp the future would be altered irrevocably in that direction by providential Observation. I could see spiraling trails of probabilities compounding with time, spinning sub-atomic sands of potentiality, and a single scarlet thread of order in a maelstrom of chaos.
I drew up my game Voice to full spectrum, feeling the excitement of the hunt like electricity in my veins. "You can plainly see!" I commanded with all the force I could muster. "Krysia has been blessed with regal beauty and kindness," I told him. "The joy of heaven radiates from her spirit like a glow of warm firelight in her face," I proclaimed. "She will hold her charm long in years and raise children fair and delicate and wise," I prophesied.
Stunned by the power of my Voice, Larry turned pale as he looked at his young wife with new and holy vision. The quantum architecture shifted around him like sliding panes of overlapping crystal. Cosmic strategy lines altered retroactively and dark princes fled into shadow. Just one little nudge, precisely placed, can change a lifetime.
Krysia straightened with pride and threw back strong shoulders as a new facet of her character emerged. She took her hand away from her throat as her complexion cleared and her face brightened with animation. Her spirit soared like a white dove from prison bars broken. Oblivious now to Wendy and me, her eyes fastened on her young husband, seeking for her home in his soul, his deep sexy soul.
I stepped out of the way as she sidled toward him. I stood in silent awe and witnessed the ceremonial signs of love rekindled. The illuminata sparked a white flame between them and a nimbus flashed briefly around their heads. I could scarcely believe my luck.
I cupped my palms together above my head to give my finish signal for the record as a chorus of invisible spectators echoed my celebration in heaven. Kraknarok's record had fallen!
Wendy stepped forward to break the spell. "Look, this has gone far enough. Steve is not in the modeling business. He writes books. He has a vivid imagination."
"Books, eh?" Larry said and looked thoughtful. "You're gonna put us in a story?" He hugged his wife sideways, his lover, his best friend.
"I could do that," I assured him. "We'll be in touch," I said and offered my hand to seal the deal. "Very nice meeting you both." I pumped his arm and moved toward the door.
"Did you get all your errands done?" I asked Wendy as I took her elbow firmly.
"Are you sure you're okay?" she challenged in return.
"Never felt better," I told her without a doubt.
After a few moments of pacification and a loving, lingering embrace in the driveway, Wendy climbed in her minivan and drove off with the promise that I would be home shortly.
I stood out on the street, jingling the keys to the Corvette in my pocket, and waited for an elderly gentleman with a blue aura who was slowly walking a long-haired Belgian hound down the sidewalk. As he passed, my fellow angel Fitz nodded with respect and gave the holy signal I had been hoping for, a triple tap on an upraised thumb. I grinned with joy and cast my eyes skyward in exultation. Bonus Round!
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