She can't let Joey suffer— but does she have what it takes to do right by him?
|"No sneaking off between customers, all right? Unless you check with me first." Madam Olga swished a scarf in her young employees face, and pinched her cheek.
I don't need you—or your fake-gypsy dress. The sharp old primitive lady had to get by on her looks, but Morgan did not need to pose as a psychic; she had the quantum net. Still, putting up with the Madam Olga beat running her own store. "Yes, Madam Olga. Got it."
"Good. I should fire you, but such talent you have." She sighed, staring into the distance. "Hire a viper, stock up on antivenom. When you going to tell me how you get their names so fast?"
Morgan puffed up and smirked, thinking, Wouldn't you like to know? Then she caught sight of a sad young man walking into the bookstore, and snapped a pic with her phone.
"Ooh, say no more!" Madam Olga grinned and put her hands up, then gave him a sideways glance. "Poor guy. Kiss him once for me."
The app revealed all: "Joey Hunderson. Work: stable. Health: excellent. Legal: good. Love life: single, involuntary: dumped by Faye LaRue. Internet activity: recently joined seven dating sites."
She missed the panache of the wand and crystal ball, the drama of the torches and pitchforks. With a wistful sigh, she tucked it back in her pocket, where it vanished. "Phones are so drab."
Joey wandered listlessly about the store, staring helplessly at the astrology section.
He's dreamy when he's lost. She looked him up and down one more time, and decided to show him a good time before taking his money. She rushed over, laid a hand on his corduroy blazer, above his heart. "I am getting a message: Joey? The spirits, they have brought you to me."
She thought about the sparklers, but decided to go low-tech. It would be more intimate that way. She liked the feel of her fingers on his shirt.
He stepped back. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
She pointed to her temple, gazed at him until he got dizzy. "Forgive me. I, Morgan, am a little bit psychic. The spirits worry for your heart. You have been abandoned." She waved her other hand to catch his eye, touched her fingers to the center of her t-shirt, then up to his chin to guide his gaze to her eyes.
"I don't know what I did!" He blanched, and swayed from side to side. "The note didn't say. Just, 'Goodbye, Joey.' But, why?"
Morgan stroked him in rhythm with his swaying, then slowed until he matched her tempo. Her eyes steady, focused on the bridge of his nose so they would bother his without being truly engaged, she teased his gaze with her own. When she had him, she answered. "The spirits guided Faye to abandon you, so that you could come to me. You feel this, do you not?" Then, to be sure he felt something, she poked him in the shoulder.
Joey nodded. "Yeah, sure."
I've got you now. She put her finger over her pocket, and traced a sign on her phone through the denim, telling it to text Madam Olga and the Cybercaf, then her arm slithered about his elbow. "The spirits move me to take my break now."
Joey nodded, dazed, but smiling; Morgan dragged him along by his arm, and felt a pang of regret. Primitives today, too trusting. Anybody could hypnotize them.
At the Cybercaf,the old man had their coffees ready. "Joey, why don't you take a seat? I need to talk with Sabrina here."
He squinted at the old man's name tag. Merlin, Proprietor. "Uh, Merle? Her name's Morgan."
Merlin handed Joey a decaf. "Like you like it, that extra jolt. Give me a minute."
As Joey left, Morgan glared. "I don't hinder you when you're meddling in politics."
The old man looked at Morgan like she planned to draw a pistol on him, watching her every move. "Take his money, but let him down easy, Sabrina."
Morgan's nostrils flared and her head tilted back as she stepped closer. "You know I don't like it when you call me that."
"Want to be treated like an adult?" He looked around. When nobody else was looking, he made a pinching gesture aimed at her cup. "Clean up your messes."
A pinch of some special ingredient fell from thin air. She caught the drop in her cup, smelled the coffee, and smiled. "I am way older than you, old man."
Merlin glared. "Act like it."
"I don't know why I bother watching television, they cancel everything: X-files, Star Trek, Jack Blaize on the mid-morning news." Joey sneered. "No end of reality TV, though — this thing should come with a helmet. Reality shows cause head trauma."
"No, that's the wall." Morgan stood behind him, ran her fingers through his luxurious, black hair, too short to get messy, too long for a soldier. She massaged his shoulders, waiting for him to acknowledge the joke.
He just tapped away at his keyboard.
Then, finally, "You don't need to beat your head against the wall. I've got an app for that: Alterniflix."
Morgan saw him raise his eyebrows in the polished brass vase she'd set strategically in front of him. "What's that?"
"You are in for a treat," Morgan purred, anxious to show her tricks. She sat down beside him and bumped shoulders. "Move aside."
He stood up and rested his hands on the back of the chair. "What is it?"
How to explain? Short version: "Ever watched a show about alternate realities? Alterniflix streams their television via the Quantum Net." She chuckled at the thumb drive; so little advanced beyond the metal sticks of the ancients.
Joey snorted, and grabbed a towel. "That's not a real thing."
"But, how? Computer animation?"
She threw back her head and gave it a shake of frustration. Then she eyed him and smiled. "Yeah, that's probably it."
Joey crinkled his brows and nodded.
People these days liked everything to make sense, no sense of magic or adventure. It made them too easy to manipulate. "But hey, there are ground rules. It's not exactly a safe website..."
"That Alterniflix sounded great, but I'm beginning to get why they canceled these shows. Trained monkeys would do better."
She chuckled. "You're getting bad versions."
"I'll say. UFO's on 'Dragnet' was bad enough, but this Casa Blanca series, where she stayed and married Bogart?" He shuddered. "The laugh track keeps going off at the wrong time."
He's so cute, I could just eat him up. She put her arms around his waist from behind. "Keep hitting control - b for thumbs down, until it gets your number, and—"
He stood up and turned around inside her arms. "Why does it need to?" He pulled her close, buried his nose in her shoulder.
She caught her face blushing in the mirror, and turned to hide from her own view.
"I have all I need right here." His hands remained high, caressing her shoulder blades and her lower back.
She longed to stay there, in the moment. She kissed him a few times, drinking in the heady aroma of his primitive passion, the waves of pleasure that radiated from his aura. At last, she pushed him away, with her hands and her words. "Talk a good game, lover boy."
His eyebrows twitched. "What gives?"
She pretended not to notice the pain in his face, pain she had put there. He would recover soon enough. "Some of us work weekends."
He kissed her. "Some of us can afford to keep you."
She put her finger on his lips. "Keep hitting the thumbs til it works. Whatever you do, don't ever click on the links."
Joey scowled. "Hey! I've probably been at it longer than you've been alive, Sabrina."
She had to stifle a laugh. The boy was what, maybe thirty five? Then she caught a reminder of her own features in the picture on his desk — set somewhere between sixteen and twenty five — and wondered if she should have set it somewhat older. Still... Talk to me on your five-hundredth birthday, kiddo.
"I know my way around a computer."
"I'm serious, Joey. Don't buy anything, no matter what." She kissed the scowl off his face. "I trust you, I do. Just be careful: people get hooked. And, don't call me Sabrina."
"Whatever you say, Samantha." He grinned.
"That's better, Derwood." She kissed him again, and swung a pillow at his face. "I'm older than you think."
"Sorry I'm late. Had to close the store." Morgan threw her keys in the dish and plopped onto the couch. "Madam Olga says, 'I can't foretell the future!' Sheesh. The cat could have told her Roland was going to bail."
Joey didn't look up.
"Hon, you been at this all day?"
He rubbed his eyes, staring. "Guess so. Lost track of time."
She waited, then closed the laptop. "You know why they invented on-demand, right? So that you could come to bed with me." She grabbed his wrist, and gave him the look, the one she had used to hypnotize him.
"I was watching that!" Then he caught her eyes, and his glare melted to a silly smile. "I guess that makes sense. But..." He looked back longingly at the laptop as she dragged him away.
"That party is not available. Please leave a message at—"
With a low growl, Morgan clicked "end." Seventeen calls, six messages, seven days: she did not need another. He'd never been home. Morgan had been dumped before, but never like this. "No, this is something serious."
She walked up to the receptionist. "I need to speak to Joey Hunderson."
"Joey don't work here no more." The receptionist blew on her fingernails. "Got canned last week."
Morgan shook her head fiercely. "That's wrong. I checked the portents, he should be here for at least—"
"I know, right? He had the inside track for awhile." She picked up the polish, and thought better. "Dangdest thing. They carried him out clutching that laptop for dear life."
Morgan grimaced. What had he done? "Oh, Joey, no." She rushed through the door, past several empty cubicles.
"Uh, Miss! Ya can't go in there!"
She knew his desk from the picture of herself, glaring up at her. She slapped it down. The trash was empty, so she checked the filing cabinet.
There was a watch box. The label read, "USB, Galvanic Skin Response, Human Interface Device." Based on a lie detector, this sensor could read him in real time: thousands of times more effective than the keyboard. In hours, the software would know him inside out, and every second would be heart-stopping, must-see TV. His brain would be helpless, overwhelmed. She suppressed a gasp, and whined, "I told you not to click the links."
The receptionist clicked around the corner, and put her hands on her hips. "Well, I guess if you want to clean out his desk, you'd be doing us a favor. We're short handed, you know."
Morgan gripped the box, and slammed it in the trash. "I have what I was looking for."
She gave Morgan the once-over, and a lopsided smile. "Well, hon, you'd better scram then. Leon, the security tonight, I think he'd be all too happy to 'help' you out the door, if you know what I mean."
She pulled her phone out of her jeans and began to claw at the screen as she stalked away.
Leon leered at her, fingers in his belt loops, leaning back, blocking the door.
Morgan stopped, snarled, and traced the contours of his jugular down his throat, visually tasting for the best place to bite. "Really?"
Leon's skin paled, his hand shook near his gun, and he stood aside.
She had learned that from a mother jaguar. It always won the day. She pushed through the door.
At the Cybercaf, Morgan flung the glass doors wide. "Where is he?"
Merlin pointed at her with his cane. "You calm down now, Sabrina."
"Don't fool with me!"
"Sit down, have yourself a cup of coffee." He walked out from behind the counter. "We don't need any trouble."
"You don't want trouble? How about I shut down your servers, your wi-fi, your electricity, and have you declared a terrorist? Their machines are easier to bewitch than they are; you know I can do it."
Merlin gripped the broom in his hand.
He looked as though about to launch a fireball at her. Morgan was not impressed. "Where. Is. He."
Merlin threw up his hand. "Have it your way. He's in the closet, all the good it'd do you. You really did it this time."
Joey sat, cross legged, in the dark closet, hunched over his display, rocking. A wire connected his 'watch' to the laptop, wiggling as he muttered to the screen. "Morgan, no! It's a trap."
She pulled out a fingernail clipper and cut the connection.
Twin hourglass symbols appeared, in the watch and the display. Joey squinted at her, eyebrows raised, and blinked at the light.
Morgan breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, the video resumed, immediately capturing Joey's attention. A green dot flashed in the watch crystal.
"Wi-fi mode? Really?" She kicked the laptop against the closet wall.
Joey scrambled to catch it.
Merlin dragged her by the shoulder. "Accept it, Morgan. You killed him. Not your first, won't be your last."
"You know I can't do that."
He walked behind the counter. "Like you've ever done anything responsible in your life."
"You're supposed to be the good guy. How did you get to be so hard?"
He got a far away look and shrugged. "They die. You get used to it, eventually." He hit the blender.
"That's no excuse. I'm older than you, and I still feel."
He raised his right eyebrow. "People don't die back home. Avoid Quantum Enforcement long enough, you'll see for yourself. Mortals don't have anything, anyhow."
She shook her head and drew a pentagram on her phone, muttering all the while: "We call them primitives, these days."
A red skull appeared. "Welcome to the Quantum Web. How may I divert you?"
"You know bloody well what I want."
"Accessing." The head looked away from her for a second. "Alterniflix provides top-notch entertainment. To that end, we had to upgrade the interface."
"The human mind cannot handle that level of stimulation. That's why I told—"
"My records show that you agreed to the terms of service."
The way the video sprite smiled, sent shivers through Morgan. She raised her finger to wave it at the sprite.
"Perhaps I can interest you in a link to Quantum Enforcement?"
She stumbled back, slid down, paused, and clutched her forehead. "You know what they'll do to me."
The sprite nodded. "Indeed. Perhaps you would prefer to try our Matchmaker app?"
She clicked the phone off and tossed it aside. It skittered and vanished, with the sprite.
Merlin crouched beside her. "I know how you feel, better'n you do, really. Mine mostly get assassinated." He squeezed her on the shoulder.
"I had better hopes for Martin Luther King, though. You get over it. It's going to be okay. Let me fix you something."
She grimaced and ran out the door, before Merlin could see the tears on her face.
Morgan wandered through the city, ignoring the biting cold, the looks from people she nearly walked into, even the horns of people that nearly ran her over.
Finally, she sat down at a bus stop, and pulled out a phone like the one she had dissolved in Merlin's Cybercaf.
A blue sprite head appeared. "What's on your mind?"
"I have a dilemma I need you to help with."
The sprite reacted visibly. "Error. I am a journal, able only to interview and record. Would you like another app?"
"Merlin says I should give Joey up. That can't be right."
"He's a person. It's one thing to take his money, play with his heart. But, you know, he deserves a chance at life."
"You believe he deserves to live?"
"That's right! I do." She sniffled, and wiped her eyes. "But, I just got back here. There's so much I want to do. I can't do a thousand years back home. It's so boring."
"It's boring back home?"
"You know it. I mean, come on. But, at least I'd have a life to live."
"You would be alive."
"And Joey, he's going to die if I can't get him reprogrammed. I don't have that technology here, only QE does."
"Only Quantum Enforcement has the technology to save your friend?"
"I have to get it for him."
"Do you have to get it for him?"
Frowning, Morgan nodded, and slid the phone into her pocket, where it vanished.
Back in her apartment, a bald, green sprite-head projected in the air. "Morgan, I am very disappointed in you."
"I know, your honor." She stiffened her spine.
"It says here you had yet to disclose your true nature to him. Surely, even you would not be so reckless..."
"It's true, your honor. I skipped a few steps, but I warned him not to click the ads."
"In reference to twenty-first century frame, your warning was deceptive, Morgan. There's a reason we don't let the primitives access the Quantum Net."
Her sigh ground into a groan, and she put her face in her hands. "I understand."
"They're not video sprites, you know. These are people."
"I know. I'm willing to accept the consequences."
"Are you? Or is this newfound 'responsibility' the latest of your legendary attempts to buck the inevitable?"
She gulped. "Can't it be both? I mean, you could show mercy."
"I suppose it could." The Judge huffed. "Valuable as you are, for your resourcefulness, a rogue like yourself must not be allowed among the natives. If I intervene, I will have to discipline you. Do you wish to proceed?"
“No leniency, then?” She hung her head, nodding. "I don't have a choice."
His eyes softened, and he nodded, grim. "I approve of your new understanding of the role of law. I will help you appeal the revocation of your parole."
Joey sat cross legged on the floor, hunched over his monitor, still wearing the rumpled, musty pinstripe suit he'd been fired in. His bloodshot eyes glared at the screen, showed no awareness of what Morgan was doing.
Morgan inserted her thumb drive and punched a few keys.
The screen sparkled, bathed his face in bright green and yellow light as he received his download.
Morgan looked at the judge, then at Joey. Her toe tapped for a few seconds. "Revocation? I could never come back?"
"You show no signs of rehabilitation. The knowledge you possess gives you an unfair advantage."
"But the knowledge? That's the danger, not my character?"
"Affirmative." The Judge reviewed her file. "In fact your character appears slightly better than average for the local population."
Fear flared in her. She bit her lip, and looked at the reprogramming light reflected in Joey's eyes, then at the judge. "I'm sorry, your honor. I can't give this world up forever." She knelt beside him, to watch the screen.
"Morgan, no! You will be reprogrammed, stripped of all knowledge regarding our...." The Judge rolled his eyes, understanding.
She took hold of Joey's hand, and stared into the flashing lights.
Back at the CyberCaf, Joey clutched his mug with both hands. "I'm sorry, Morgan. I don't know what came over me. I mean, me?" He pantomimed smoking a pipe, and shuddered.
"It's okay, Joey. I understand. Addiction..." She stroked his knuckles. “I'm not exactly innocent, either. I was gonna take you for everything you're worth.”
"Well, I don't." He tested his coffee, and set it down. "Understand, that is. You deserve better."
"You'll do." Morgan gave him a warm smile, and laced her fingers with his. "I still have my job at the Crystal Epoch. If she has any honest work for me to do."
"Sabrina, can I get you another coffee?"
"I told you, Merle. Just because I work at the Crystal Epoch, doesn't mean I'm a witch. I'm just good at research."
Merlin tilted his head, and frowned. "Okay, if that's how you want to play it." He checked his phone, and made two quad iced lattes. His fingers twitched, ready to conjure a pinch of Morgan's favorite additive, and then thought twice about it.
Joey coughed, embarrassed. "Um, we're broke?"
"Never thought Sabrina would go native. You're a lucky man." Merlin slapped Joey on the back, but gave Morgan a sideways glance. His voice had a hard note. "I'll take care of the coffee. You watch out for my girl here."
From behind Joey's back, Merlin made the "I'm watching you" sign.
Morgan and Joey exchanged puzzled looks.
Merlin squinted at Morgan again, shook his head and went to looking something up on his phone.
Morgan cleared her throat. "You know what I'm thinking? This could be a good thing, a wake up call. I'm not going to live forever."
Joey gazed into her eyes, and picked up his coffee. "To second chances."
How did I get so lucky? She picked up her cup, and looked across the room. She caught a glimpse of an Aquarius tattoo, and it gave her an idea for a con. "You know, I don't have to go straight right away...."