Disappearing Act

by Clayton L. Stephens

 

My job was about thirty-five miles away. There was never any traffic on my route so it always took about forty-five minutes to get there. At first, I didn’t mind the commute. It gave me a chance to listen to the news or to hear a favorite album… but after a few months it became extremely monotonous.

Day after day, the same forty-five minute drive. I ran out of music, got tired of the news, and began to just zone out in a daydream. When I would wake up it would feel as if I’d been driving for an indeterminate amount of time, without paying any attention at all to the road.

Along the way to work, there was a mountain that I had to cross over. The road over the mountain was long and winding, and when you reached the top, you could look down onto the farms and houses in the valley below. You had to watch your brakes as you crossed over the summit and began the steep descent. I always focused somewhat intensely on that part of the drive, but I guess after a while I even got used to that stretch.

One day, after I’d held my job for about six months, I zoned out again. During my morning drive I lost myself in another daydream and a strange occurrence happened. When I snapped out of my daze, I realized that I had passed the mountain, yet I had no recollection of it whatsoever. How is that possible, I thought. How could I traverse the mountain without paying any attention at all to my driving? Then, I looked at the time; I was ten minutes away from work and I’d only been driving for fifteen…

I didn’t understand why or how I could shave twenty minutes off my route to work. Mathematically, it would only have been possible if I were traveling at 150 miles an hour for the whole trip. But being that I drove a Volkswagen Fox, that wasn’t a possibility. Perhaps, I thought, something was wrong with the clock in my car, or I read the time wrong when I left in the morning, but the “time warp” kept happening. More and more, I kept losing myself in daydreams and when I woke up somehow I would have traveled three quarters of the way to work (a distance that should have taken at least thirty minutes) in ten or fifteen minutes. In the next month, the “time warp” occurred three more times. In the month after that, it happened twelve times.

Quickly, what should have been a forty-five minute drive became a twenty-five minute routine. Though I lacked comprehension, I knew what was happening was real, and I began to have faith that it would work. I set the alarm clock fifteen minutes later, left with only a half an hour to get to work, and I never had any problems. The more I believed in the “time warp,” the more relaxed I was about getting to work on time. With every passing day, it became easier to put the stress of being on time out of my mind. Without stress, it was easier to slip into another daydream, and with the daydreams came the “time warp.”

* * * * *

I worked in a large corporate building, located in a quiet business park just north of Santa Barbara. Every morning when I stepped out of my car, I looked up at my place of business in awe. I couldn’t imagine how people did it, how they built fifty story buildings that appeared to be made up of nothing but dark reflective glass. The blue logo at the top floor said McMurphy Technologies. Well, Mr. McMurphy must have had quite a bit more ingenuity than I, because it was all I could do just to walk through those glass double doors (the logo was also emblazoned on them in white), grab myself a cup of black tasteless coffee and head to my cubicle to push papers for eight hours. The work itself was even more monotonous then the drive, and one thing I hated was monotony. I wanted desperately to be free from the bondage of the 9 to 5, but there was something besides work that kept me coming back each day, something that put a smile on my face.

Her name was Rhonda, and she was fine. Her hair flowed over her shoulders in long thick strands of wavy brown that matched her eyes. Her skin was tan and she had a smile that could always make my knees wobble. The clothes she wore always walked the fine line between sexy and demure. My favorite dress was the red one she liked to wear that cut off just above the knees and a few inches below the soft valley of her neckline.

Rhonda worked in the cubicle across from me, and her job was a little bit more intricate than mine. She was one of three people in charge of marketing McMurphy technologies to hospitals and contractors—anyone who might use lasers (that was our product). Boy, could she sell. She made me want to buy a laser, just listening to her on the phone. I’d hear her through the thin fabric partition that separated us, while I zoned out in my own cubicle. Her voice was soft and alluring. I’d listen until I heard…

Clickety clack… Clickety clack. That was the sound of Eric Wilson’s fingers tapping on the top frame of my partition. “How are the contracts for the Municipal Hospital coming?” he’d ask, or some other mundane question that really meant, get back to work before I tell on you for slacking. Nothing like a middle management boss with nothing to do but harass the people like Rhonda and I who actually made this place run.

Anyway, one day after Wilson got done hounding me, Rhonda whispered to me through the thin blue fabric. “He’s a jerk,” she said. “Don’t listen to him.” Her words put a smile on my face, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to communicate with her through a cubicle anymore. I stood up and pushed my blue four-wheeled chair back towards the wall. Then, I stepped out of my sanctuary and took about three paces to where I could look at Rhonda.

She looked up from her desk and smiled at me as I stood there quietly at the entrance to her cubicle. “How ya doin’, Arty?” she asked.

“I’m fine. How are you, Rhonda?”

“Fiiine,” she replied, stretching the word out and tilting her head as if to ask, why are you standing there?

Then I asked her, “Would you like to go to lunch with me today?”

“Sure,” she replied with a friendly smile.

Rhonda and I had lunch together at a little café in Goleta. It went beautifully. We talked about everything from the weather to our dreams. Hers was to just make enough money to travel to exotic places. She wanted to see the Pyramids, and the Sistine Chapel.

“But I could see myself living in Spain,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, but it seems so magical.”

When it was my turn to share, I told her about all my dreams to get out of my cubicle and become a musician or an author, some kind of artist. I wanted to travel the world too and soak up as many places and experiences I could, then pour them back out into my songs or stories.

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

“’Cuz I can’t write and I can’t sing,” I said, with a subtle shrug of my shoulders.

Then I told her how all I really wanted was a beautiful woman at my side. The flirtation made her laugh a coquettish laugh. Then she touched my hand gently and smiled at me while batting her eyes.

* * * * *

The next morning I got up early because I had a stop to make before work. I put on my fake beard, beanie and sunglasses and headed over to the Solvang branch of the Bank of America. I parked down the street from the bank, out of range of any security cameras. It was 8:20 a.m., when I took a toy gun (one from the eighties that looked oh so real) out of my glove compartment and went inside to make a withdrawal.

I approached the counter, pulled the gun out of the inside pocket of my coat and pointed it at the clerk.

“Everyone put your hands up and keep them up,” I yelled. Then, I looked down at the clerk’s nametag and saw that her name was Betsy. “Betsy here is going to find me fifty thousand dollars. If anybody drops their hands before Betsy gives me the money, I’m going to redecorate the walls with her head. Any questions?”

Everyone shook their heads “no” and kept their hands up, and Betsy went about her task. “Don’t go trippin’ any secret alarms now Betsy. If the cops show up too soon, it’s your ass, understand?”

Betsy nodded yes, and acquired my funds quickly and painlessly. She brought over a bag full of money, but I told her I wanted it in a briefcase. Betsy was very helpful. She did as I asked without any crying or stammering. I thanked her kindly for a job well done, and went on my way. But before I left, I yelled, “Nobody leaves this bank for five minutes. If I see anyone walk outside, I’m poppin’ a cap in ’em!”

This gave me time to stuff my beard, beanie and sunglasses into my pockets, and morph into a typical businessman walking to his car.

The freeway was only about a block away, and soon as I turned onto the southbound on ramp, I began to think about Rhonda. I thought about running away with her, traveling the world for years, and then maybe settling down in Spain where we’d buy a villa overlooking the ocean. We’d raise our kids in a world where our kids wouldn’t have to worry about gangs or drugs and Rhonda and I wouldn’t have to worry about being slaves to the 9 to 5. I got lost deep in my daydream, and when I woke up, I was pulling into the parking lot at work, and a little early no less. I punched in at 8:50 am.

* * * * *

As the days went on, Rhonda and I began to get closer. I’d spend less and less time working and more and more time flirting. Sometimes, when Wilson was standing over her, bothering her about work, I’d call her number.

She would tell Wilson to hold on as she reached for the phone, and he’d stand there impatiently as she answered, “Hello.”

I’d whisper something like, “Hello, beautiful. What time you getting off work?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know… the numbers look good. Maybe we can get you five.”

“That sounds good to me. I can’t wait to get you alone.”

“Is the offer still the same?”

At this point, Wilson would have had enough standing and waiting. He felt as if he should never have to stand and wait for someone else, so he’d take off, and Rhonda could stop pretending to talk business.

“Yes. Dinner for two at Ristorante di Tuscani, followed by a night of wine and dancing.”

“Sounds marvelous. Pick me up at six honey, and don’t for get to wear that Calvin Klein cologne.”

When Rhonda and I went out, it always felt like the world belonged to us—as if all the land was a movie set and we were the stars. They could have made a movie about us; we had the kind of romance that, up until we went out, I’d only read about. It was flowers and candy, dinner and dancing, boat rides on the lake, anything the cheesiest supermarket novelist could dream up. But it was more. Rhonda and I related on something that no one else seemed to understand. We both felt like caged birds, and work was our cage. It wasn’t steel bars, but our jobs that kept us confined to a small radius, only getting the chance to fly free every now and then when our masters opened the door.

We both had a great passion for this world… Hers was for its wonders and mine for its art, but we both felt as if we were missing out on so very much.

* * * * *

By October, I had the “time warp” down to an exact science. All you had to do was daydream, and if your body knew the route, which mine did, it was as if you could fly. I was getting to work faster and faster; I robbed two more banks, and pocketed another fifty thousand dollars each time. After the third robbery, the cops questioned me for the first time. Two detectives showed up at my job one day. Eric Wilson asked how he could help them, and he was all too happy to show them to my desk.

One was a tall, older black man with a scraggly half-white beard. He walked with a limp as he approached my desk. His partner was a younger white detective with wavy brown hair. His face was clean-shaven and he had a bit of a belly. They both wore the same ugly brown pants and white button-down shirts, but the older one had a black overcoat and the other’s was beige. “Sir, we’d just like to ask you a few questions,” said the older detective; I believe his badge said Jones.

“What’s this about?” I asked innocently.

“We’d like to talk to you about the recent robberies in Lompoc and Solvang,” Jones said.

I got up from my desk and allowed them to lead the way to the coffee room where they intended to question me. Apparently, there was a witness that saw a man with a briefcase get into a Volkswagen Fox near the crime scene, and they said he sped off pretty fast. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. After all, I had an airtight alibi…

We entered the break room and I offered the detectives a seat. Then I went over to the coffee maker to pour myself a cup. I offered the detectives some as well. Jones passed, but his partner, Detective Regal, was more than happy to sample our fine brew.

“So what can I do for you, gentlemen?” I asked as I handed Regal his cup and took a seat at the other end of the white plastic table.

“Well, I’m sure you’re aware that the robbery of a federal bank is a very serious matter,” Jones said. “We have a witness that links your car to the crime scene, license plate and all. Now, you have no criminal record, but unless you can prove to us that you were somewhere else and that witness made a mistake, we’re going to charge you.”

I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled a leisurely smile. Detective Regal smiled back at me and raised his coffee cup a little to show he appreciated the taste. “Well, what time was the robbery?” I asked Detective Jones.

“8:35 a.m., yesterday,” he replied.

“Well, then that’s that… I believe it was 8:48 when I punched in yesterday. That would mean I got from Lompoc to Goleta in thirteen minutes.”

Jones and Regal looked at each other with uncertainty. They thought they had their guy, but in light of this new information, they weren’t sure how to proceed. “Do you have your punch card?” Jones asked.

“Yes, detective, it’s at my desk, and you can verify the time on the company’s computer system.”

Jones motioned with his head for Regal to go check the timecard. He did so, leaving Jones and I alone in the coffee room. “So, how ’bout this weather?” I asked.

“It’s Santa Barbara. The weather never changes,” Jones replied. He was all business until his partner came back and exonerated my name.

“It all checks out,” Regal said, as he let himself back in. At that, Jones stood up, his large frame looming down over us. “Well, sorry for the inconvenience,” he said. “We just have to check all our leads.”

“I understand,” I replied as they left. Regal took his coffee cup with him and bowed slightly at the neck once more to me. I reciprocated and shut the door behind them.

When I was sure the detectives were out of range, I began to dance around the break room and laugh, “Hahahahahah!” I got off scott free, and I doubted Jones and Regal would show their faces again… Rhonda and I were going to have everything we ever dreamed of.

* * * * *

A week later, I went to pick up Rhonda for another date. She and I usually spent a good deal of time talking about all the things we longed to experience, but on this particular evening, we skipped the talk altogether.

She opened the door for me, and before I could even say a word, she had pulled me inside. We started kissing deeply and passionately. We tore at each other’s clothes, ripping them off our bodies until they lay in a heap on the living room floor. Before I knew it, she’d led me into the bedroom where we began to make love for the first time.

I was no virgin, but no experience I’d ever had compared to the first time with Rhonda. We were intertwined for hours before we finally stopped out of sheer exhaustion. We lay in bed together, her head resting on my chest, and my arm beneath her neck. She rubbed her hand up and down my stomach as we listened to the silence.

It was at that point I decided to tell her my secret…

“There’s something you should know,” I said softly.

Rhonda just looked up at me with her eyes as if to ask, what?

“Well,” I continued. “Do you remember when those detectives came to question me?”

“Yeah, about the bank robberies,” Rhonda replied curiously.

“Yes, about the bank robberies.”

“Well…”

“Well, what if I told you that I really had robbed those banks?”

“Hahahaha! C’mon… what are you kidding me?” Rhonda asked incredulously, but my facial expression told her I most definitely was not.

“But how, you said you punched in only thirteen minutes after the robbery and the location of the robbery was at least forty-five minutes away.”

“Have you ever zoned out in a car while you were driving someplace you’d never been before…” I went on to explain to her about the “time warp”—what it was and how I’d learned to control it. She was still reluctant to believe me… so I proved it to her.

The next morning, we met up at my place, and we raced to work. We left at 8:00 a.m., and forty-five minutes later I greeted Rhonda at the office with a cup of coffee and a punch card that read 8:20. I just shook my head at her and said, “I can’t believe you made me get to work forty minutes early.”

From then on she believed me, but it still took some work to convince her to go along with what I was about to ask her.

We met again on the weekend. Saturday turned out to be a lovely beach day, so I took Rhonda for a picnic at the Gaviota State Reserve. It was beautiful, but chilly enough to keep the tourists away. We had the beach all to ourselves.

Rhonda and I found a place in the sand close enough to the water where we could look up and down the coast for what seemed like an endless stretch. We could see the odd shape of the beach, which made some spots face south rather than west, and we could see blue waveless water shimmering out into eternity. I carried a small basket, from which I pulled a bottle of wine. I poured Rhonda a glass and we sat down in the sand.

“All this,” I said while looking deep into Rhonda soft brown eyes, “is nothing… If you stay with me, I can offer you the world. We can see the ocean from the shores of Spain, and we wouldn’t have to wait for the weekend.”

“We can go to Spain?” Rhonda asked curiously. I could tell she was wearing down. Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be hard. She wanted to be free from work too, and she wanted us to be together.

“Yes, Rhonda, and we can we stay as long as you like. I told you, we’ll get a villa overlooking the ocean. I’ll even take you to the bullfight.”

“NOOOOOO!” she exclaimed coquettishly, and smiling all the while. “I don’t want to see the bullfights. I can’t stand to see all the death.”

“Ok then,” I replied. “You can see Dali’s art museum with me.”

“Ok,” she replied, her smile now even wider.

“Do you mean you’ll go?” I asked.

Rhonda turned her head and batted her eyes, pretending it was a hard decision to make. But quickly, she turned back to me. Her expression had changed into one of passion and desire. Her mouth became a soft red palette and here eyes burned right through me as she said, “Of course, I’ll go with you. Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.”

I leaned into her and we kissed. All the world stopped turning as our tongues swirled round in a symbiotic dance. When we parted, her eyes burned through me again, as she asked, “When do we leave?”

I looked at her intently and replied, “I just need one more big score. Then we’ll have enough so that we’ll never want for money again… I’ll do it Friday, when the banks have the most cash lying around. We’ll leave on Saturday.”

* * * * *

Friday came and I awoke early. I knew that all my dreams were so close to coming true. I headed to the Lompoc Branch of Washington Mutual, where I was to make my final withdrawal. As per my routine, I parked about a block away from any security cameras on the bank’s outer wall. I put on my beanie, beard and sunglasses and pulled the toy gun from the glove compartment.

Everything went as planned. The teller didn’t want any problems and neither did anyone else behind the counter. They put their hands up and didn’t move a muscle while Andrea went in the back and collected two hundred thousand dollars. She found a nice leather briefcase (by then I had developed quite a collection of briefcases) for the money and passed it across the counter. I took hold of the handle and turned to walk out, pointing my plastic gun at the customers and guards. “Stay where you are!” I yelled at the two gentlemen standing off to the left. Then I faced forward and yelled at the guard, “Don’t you try anything funny old man!” Then I turned to the left…

I should have noticed him there. I guess I just became too complacent. It was Detective Jones. He was there in plain clothes waiting to make a transaction just like the rest of the customers. The only difference was that he had a gun. It must have been in a shoulder holster beneath his jacket. As I turned towards him pointing my gun, he was pointing his. He fired quickly, not knowing that mine was only a toy, and shot me right in the chest.

As my gun fell to the floor and my white shirt suddenly dampened into a dark crimson red, all I could do was look at Detective Jones with big stunned eyes. Then, all the dreams I had for Rhonda and I flashed before my eyes, and I grasped at a last straw of hope…

I turned and ran. Jones ran after me, but he was old and whatever caused his limp also kept him from running very fast. I made it to my car, which was parked across the street facing the freeway on ramp. I saw Jones standing on the parallel sidewalk, his gun drawn. I thought he’d try to shoot the tires, but there was too much traffic from the opposite direction. It blocked off any shot he had. The light turned green and I peeled out. I quickly shifted up the gears into fourth and floored it. The car screeched as I rocketed onto the freeway, trying to outrun death.

After about a minute, I heard the loud whine of sirens approaching behind me. I looked in the mirror and saw their flashing lights speeding towards me. But the road opened up in front of me, and I cleared my mind of all my worries—the police cars behind me and the wound in my chest. I thought only of Rhonda and all the things we would do together. Quickly I became lost in another daydream and the “time warp” began.

I wonder what the policemen must have thought as they trailed me. All their eyes would have been peeled on me, locked in and focused, and then… Gone. Gone into some other dimension, some other plane of existence. But this time, I didn’t make it through to the other side.

They never found my car or my body, and Rhonda still waits for me to this day.

 

Firewall

by Scott D. Coon

 

Her tongue invaded his mouth. Ken pulled back. “Stop. Really, promise me you won’t do anything stupid this time.”

Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re no fun any more.” She closed her spacesuit’s faceplate. Her metallic grey suit moved easily with her as it hugged her body.

As she reached for the airlock release, Ken quickly sealed his helmet. His suit, considerably less expensive than hers, was a bit harder to move in. “I’m serious. Please.”

The airlock opened and she kicked off into the darkness. The tether yanked Ken along behind her. The orbiting skyscraper they had just left disappeared into the forest of buildings that crowded the sky. Below, the artificial ring peppered the equator with shadows but Ken saw none of it. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried not to think.

There was nothing like this (or her) back on his colony. His colony was just a little place collectively owned by the settlers, a dull place, a lonely place, a place he hated after he found himself alone with only his parents’ graves tying him to the land. (How could they leave him like that! It still screamed in the back of his head when he thought about them.) By the time his mother died, he already knew he was a psychic and he already knew about the schools for psychics like him. What he didn’t know was how fast his money would run out. At least he had taken those college courses on firewalls. It gave him just the right skills for Zoe.

Zoe.

The last time they pulled a job, she ended up in a sonic bath for two weeks while her shoulder blade grew back. Ken pressed the safety on his gun again; if he could, he’d push that little slider right into the metal casing to make sure the gun never went off again. After that last job, after watching Zoe fall to the floor covered in blood, after watching the security guard fall right next to her, a hole in the guard’s leg from Ken’s gun even though Ken didn’t even remember pulling the trigger… Did they really need to be doing this? When would it be enough?

Back in his one-room apartment, which orbited about a hundred miles away, he had a book of homes that were for sale down on Earth. He had plenty of money for one and for his school and even a car and still more left over. There was plenty of money for two… and perhaps even three, someday.

Ken felt his helmet clunk against a metal wall. He threw back his hands and boots and magnetized himself to the building. The usual shiver rattled down his spine. But there was no time to catch his breath. Zoe was already at the end of the tether pulling him up the wall. He scurried to catch up. By the time he reached her, she was crouched outside the lab’s window. She even had the window bugged, already. The voices inside filled their helmets.

“Are they coming tonight?” asked one voice.

“Quiet. Let me finish,” said another.

Zoe set up the drilling tower. It looked like a toy rocket ship from the early twentieth century. A cable coiled out of her back pack to the back of the robotic drill bit. When activated, the drill bit would eat though the building’s skin and root around inside the walls for a computer junction to splice itself into. It was supposed to be used for hacking into disabled ships for rescues or salvage. Zoe wasn’t interested in rescuing anyone and salvage was yawn city.

Ken pulled a small hand mirror from his pack and looked in it. All he saw was his own eyes looking back. “Damn.” He looked away then quickly looked back again trying to induce an image. Still nothing.

Zoe smacked his thigh. “Quit playing with that thing.”

Ken put the mirror away. It’s not like he was playing a video game or something. This was serious. He didn’t need it anyway. He angled his head to catch the light on the inside of his faceplate. In the warped reflection, he tried again to see the future, to see if Zoe would be okay this time. Still, no image.

“Is it on this one?” asked that first voice they had heard from inside.

“It’s the only one here,” answered the second.

“Are you turning off the other systems?”

“If I did that, what good would this test be? Come on, it’s all set.”

A door latch clicked. Zoe peeked in the window. “Clear.” She started the tower. It drilled through the steel and snaked the cable through the wall. The robotic bit found its mark, a nice juicy computer junction. Zoe screwed the other end of the cable to the jack in her helmet that connected to a plug surgically implanted in her skull. Her skull plug then fed the computer signals from the cable to her brain. Closing her eyes, Zoe saw herself inside the computer disabling the alarms.

“There’s one… and two… and three. Got ’em.”

Ken pulled the portable airlock from his pack. It was just a crinkly, yellow bag with rubber seams and two Velcro openings but they needed it to get through the window without decompressing the building. As he reached over to stick it to the window, Zoe smacked his hand. “I found two more.” The bag spun as it slowly drifted away.

“Look, you really don’t have to be so…”

“Shut up!” She closed her eyes. “Four…”

Ken reached for the spinning bag. He brushed it, sending it spinning further from his reach. Reaching, he accidentally looked down. The vomit rushed to the back of his throat. He plastered himself against the wall.

“…and five.” Zoe opened her eyes to see the bag, the very goddamn important bag, drifting away. “If you weren’t a psychic…” she growled. The pixy girl kicked off the building, grabbed the bag, and tugged herself back with their tether in a smooth summersault, just like swimming. Like the bag, the swimming lessons came from daddy’s wallet. She stuck the crinkly bag to the window. “Now get in there before you lose something else.”

Both inside the bag, they set off a couple of oxygen grenades and waited for them to pressurize the portable airlock.

“Sorry about that,” said Ken, his eyes unable to meet hers.

When he finally peeked up, she had that look again and Ken found himself trapped in her vice like thighs. Leaning back, she started to grind her hips. “Zoe… please… stop…” he pleaded in short breaths as he tried to watch the window. “Someone could… come on…” His mind was gone, lost in her antics. It was no longer new to him but she could still melt his brain on a whim. Of course, it had never been new to her.

By the time he realized she had stopped, she was already cutting through the window. They entered the room. It was definitely a lab with that dry, dustless air that sucks the life right out of your nostrils. Ken never had nosebleeds until he left the open air of his colony. Now, he missed that sweet swampy smell of spring and that crisp scent of snow about to happen and that cool musty smell of imminent rain.

As Zoe scanned the place for more security, he stood against the wall scratching his arm, anxious. His hand nearly reached out to help her but pulled it back. He knew better by now.

“It’s good,” she said finally.

Relieved, his shoulders dropped for the first time since they kicked off from the other building.

“Quit screwing off and get to work,” she barked.

His shoulders tightened right back up. He rushed forward to the gray cube in the middle of the room. It was a Kasakah 942, standard off the shelf stuff… if you consider mainframes that can only be accessed by natural psychics as off the shelf. The mainframe had only one wire and that was a power cord. No keyboard. No mouse. No microphone. No cranial outlet for Zoe’s skull plug. The only way in was through someone like Ken.

Ken placed a small gray cube on top of the big one. It was a mainframe just like the big cube only smaller. Putting himself in a meditative state, Ken rechecked the small cube. Yup, the hard drive was absolutely blank and it would have to be. The client had said “everything”. No one asked for “everything”. They at least narrowed it down to a file type. He hoped the little cube would hold it all.

Ken closed his eyes. Soon, like Zoe with her brain cable, he’d be inside the computer. Taking a deep breath, he focused his mind and pushed it into the big, grey mainframe’s CPU. A static stream erupted from the computer… a good one too. It got into his head before he even saw it coming. With little effort he wedged his thoughts. The stream parted around him. Then another one started and another. His wedge held. He pushed in. A noise emitter cranked up. He blocked it and continued deeper into the AI consciousness. He could feel the CPU. Soon he’d be in control of its data and its flow. The firewall started a shaker. Like that ever stopped anybody… but Ken had to give this firewall credit, it was trying everything. A feedback loop echoed his thoughts back at him. Ken almost laughed.

But then his head started to hurt. The feedback was just a carrier. He shut it down but his headache stayed as if the feedback was still on. The CPU stood naked but he couldn’t concentrate into it. A mob of memories rioted under his skull. He broke off and staggered back.

“Done already?”

Ken gripped his head. His pulse kicked at his forehead. He expected his brain to explode at any second… and wished it would just to end the pain.

“Ken?” Zoe’s voice seeped in like an echo.

“Just… Just give me a moment.”

“What happened? Did you get the data?”

Ken groped for something to steady himself. “Firewall… head…” He found a table. It was steel, nice and cool. He bent down and pressed his forehead to it. The throbbing slowed.

“For the love of…! You didn’t get it, did you!?”

Ken waved her off. Slowly, he lifted himself and fluttered his eyes open. Below him, something was happening in the brushed metal table. He blinked and squeezed his eyes. Fighting past his headache, Ken figured out what he saw in the reflection in the table. An image! Someone getting shot!

Swimming through the swirling specks that filled his eyes, he made his way to his pack. He dropped to his knees and dug for the mirror. Zoe’s echo still drifted from beyond the fog around his head. Concentrating as much as he could, he peered into the mirror… A bullet. Blood. Zoe looked shocked. But who was shot?

He looked again. Same disjointed images. Bullet, blood, Zoe. He took a deep breath and… the mirror flew from his hand. Zoe’s boot hung in front of his face. She had kicked it from his hand. Silver shards spread across the floor.

The fog lifted. “Zoe!”

“Quit playing and get back to work! We’re on a schedule here!”

On his hands and knees, Ken looked into the shards. In the dozens of tiny images, an image played over and over like a movie stuck in a loop. Someone held their guts as they sank to the floor. Was it Zoe?! Was it him?! He couldn’t tell by looking in the tiny fragments. That cold feeling, like a blade of ice, gutted him. “We have to get out of here.”

“You got the data?”

“No.” He looked up earnestly. “Please, we have to go. Now.”

Zoe grabbed his collar and drug him up the wall. “We have a job to do. Get on it!” She shoved him toward the mainframe.

He staggered then caught himself. Maybe it wasn’t her in the image. Maybe it wasn’t even a real one. Maybe he could get this done before it’s too late. He grabbed the grey box with both hands and threw his entire mind at it. Like a drill, he powered past its defenses and into the CPU. He could feel the circuits revealing themselves to his mind. But something gathered in the background. He paused. He could feel it swelling. Suddenly, it rushed him all at once and flung him from its world.

Ken’s brain burned.

He stepped back from the box and pried his eyes open. In the reflections on the dark windows to the outside, in the reflections in the blank computer screens around the room, in the steel tables and the polished, metal tools, in every reflective surface in the room he saw the vision. For just a moment, Ken was surrounded by the vision of Zoe dying.

He turned and grabbed her. “Get your helmet!”

She just looked at him, confused. He grabbed her helmet and tried to force it on her. She shoved him back. “What the hell is the matter with you?!”

“We have to go or you’ll die!”

“What?”

Ken seized her wrists and pleaded, “I saw a vision of you getting shot. Here, in this room, tonight. Please, let’s go.”

Zoe threw off his hands. “How often are you wrong?”

“I’m not wrong this time.”

Zoe scowled. “Yeah, right. Quit pussing out and get the data.”

“I can’t. That thing is too tight. Let’s go, please!”

“You’re pathetic. I swear, if you don’t… what’s the point? Screw you. If you can’t hang, then screw YOU.” She turned her back on him and started throwing gear in her bag.

Ken’s jaw dropped. He inched up behind her. “What are you saying?”

Zoe turned to glare at him. “Exactly what you think I’m talking about.”

Ken wanted to reach out to her but his hands just wouldn’t move from his sides. “But… us?”

Zoe folded her arms. “What us? You’re not playing right. Game’s over. What us?”

“But, I saved my share. I’ll take care of you. I have plenty of money.”

“Look, jackass,” she shook her bag of expensive equipment at him. “You think I got this for free? I have money, jackass. I don’t need your piddling share. My daddy bought this… though he didn’t really know it,” she added with a little chuckle. “I do this for fun. I got shot last time for fun. Before I met you, on one of these jobs, I killed a security guard. It was fun. You’re no fun anymore. Bye.” She turned back to her packing.

“But… but…” The floor fell from Ken. He floated as if jumping from building to building untethered. Somewhere far off, her equipment continued to clunk as she chucked it in her bag. “But, what about us?”

Zoe tossed her bag over her shoulders and snorted. “What us?”

“But…” He reached for her across the expanse, to pull her from this nightmare, to bring back the Zoe he thought he knew. “But, I love you.”

She slapped his hands away. “You and every other perv’ with a woody. God damn psychics. ‘Oh, we’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!’” she said waving her arms like Chicken Little. “What pussies. You and the last psychic I had to put up with, too. You’re worse then him!” The equipment clinked and rattled in her bag as she locked it to her spacesuit. “Pussy. Now I have to go and find another psychic, damn it!”

The moment closed on Ken like an iron maiden. Who was this person? What happened to the Zoe he knew, the playful Zoe, the girl who had told him she had to do this to get by? She had never existed. Once again, Ken was alone. This Zoe had taken his Zoe away and she would never return, just like his parents. Why did everything have to go away!

He drew his gun.

Zoe laughed. No, cackled. She cackled right in his face and said, “Oh, big man psychic gonna shoot me? I dare you.”

Ken wanted to. His hand really wanted to.

“I double-dare you!” Again she laughed.

Ken shuddered. His face twisted with hate.

Zoe leaned in and whispered, “I double-dog-dare you.”

The gun fired.

A curl of smoke spun from the hole in Zoe’s suit. She dropped to her knees and rolled to her back. Ken froze. A dark red mirror spread beneath Zoe. In its reflection, Ken saw the future—two men standing over her body; one of them mentioned the police. Ken turned his eyes to the gun in his hand. The fog lifted but Ken was still alone and in more trouble than ever. What the hell had he done!

Leaving everything, even the gun, behind, Ken dove through the window, scrambled out of the airlock bag, and launched himself across open space before he knew what he was doing.

Standing in the airlock where they had started, his body safely back inside the artificial gravity, he looked across the open space. How had he come here? Had he really done that? Had he really crossed so much open space alone? What just happened? He shot her and then… Had he really killed her?

With the airlock still open to the vacuum of space, he sank to the floor, his back against the inner door. He felt like he had gone too high on a swing and was trapped at the top where gravity no longer holds you in your seat, where your guts rebel and nothing is as it should be.

The blackness of space, cluttered space, spread before him as he sat there in a daze. There was nothing like this back on his colony… or like her. It was boring back there, on his colony.

There was something to be said for boring.

After a while, Ken picked himself up off the floor, went to his apartment, and packed. He cleaned the place out, took everything he owned except for two things: a book of houses that were for sale down on Earth and his schoolbooks.

The next morning, Zoe woke to someone fondling the back of her skull. She tried to jump up and defend herself but nothing moved. Even her eyes wouldn’t open. Her body just ignored her.

“Holy crap!” said a voice. It was that first voice from the night before, the one she had heard through her bug on the window. It sounded far away as if she were at the bottom of a deep, deep hole and sinking.

“She’s got a computer plug in her skull so she’s not the psychic,” said another voice, the other one from that night. “The psychic must have killed her.”

Zoe tried to yell that she wasn’t dead, that she needed help, that her daddy would reward them for helping her. Every effort drove her deeper into the hole, further and further from the voices.

“What the hell… Damn it! You said… You promised…”

“So,” replied the second voice calmly, “what you want to do with her?”

The voices barely reached Zoe’s ears.

“You killed her—you figure it out!” yelled the first voice, still growing fainter. “I didn’t want to test the firewall this way! You promised… damn! I knew this would happen.”

“At least we know it works. I wonder what memory or idea it used to get the psychic to shoot her. I wish we could record that—that would really be something.”

The voices trail off in wisps. The darkness settled in like a warm blanket. Zoe was alone in the silence, and then she was gone.