Chapter 4: A little Katherine Hepburn, maybe

The next morning when he came downstairs he stopped to look at the tank again. Still nothing. Perfectly clear. No knobs. No buttons. Very anti-tech-high-tech. Like those Macs with flat screens on swing arms a few years back.

He ate breakfast, got changed, and on his way out the door, hollered over his shoulder, “Have a nice day, Giant Glass Slab! See through you when I get home tonight.”

Since he was outside and unlocking his car, he didn’t hear the tank say, “Randall?”

* * * * * * * * *

Work that Monday was… work. As his dad used to say, “If it was fun all the time, they’d call it ‘camp’ and make you pay them.” He thought of Dad’s sayings often. It was funny, because for years he hadn’t even remembered any of them. But once he’d become entombed (as he thought of it) in his first “real” job, all the old zingers had come back to haunt him:

· You’ll never go broke if you always bet on “dumb.”

· You’ll often do for money what you’d never do for fun.

· If you can’t tell who the dumbest monkey in the room is… it’s you.

· Never pet a burning dog.

That last one always confused him, but he supposed it was sound advice. He also supposed that it would eventually make sense to him.

Why does Stan get a fun job and I get to design better ways of keeping corporate data safe from hackers and disgruntled employees? Randall thought. Because I wanted a safe job and a decent place and an OK car and he lived in a burlap sack under a bridge for five years while pursuing his dream.

He remembered a conversation with his Dad about a year after he’d taken the job.

“What is it you do again, Randall?”

“I write software that lets people’s networks share the data they want without opening themselves to crap they don’t want.”

“Gatekeeper stuff, it sounds like.”

“That’s a good way of putting it.”

“Is it fun?”

“It pays good.”

“Not much fun.”

“How much fun was it being the head accountant for a public school system for fifteen years?”

“It came with a good pension.”

“Not much fun.”

“No,” Dad had admitted. “But you always liked the computer stuff so much. You and Goober…”

“Gunther.”

“Whatever. The German kid. You were always writing those game programs and putting your mom’s Christmas letter in weird fonts and stuff.”

“I can’t get a job crafting goofy looking Christmas cards, Dad.”

“I know. You just need to find something… with more…”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

And he was fine. And he was easily amused, and just about as introverted as someone could be and still function in an ever more densely populated society. Which meant he didn’t feel lonely often. More often than when he’d been in school, but he’d been surrounded by people then. Which hadn’t made him comfortable… just not lonely. In fact, he’d been violently uncomfortable with some of the living conditions at times.

Why, he continued in his vein of whiny thought, did Stan get the great girl?

But he knew the answer to that one, too. Because Stan, while a geek, is not a dweeb.

Out of nine hours at work that day, he spent three in meetings, two on the phone, one at lunch and the rest checking email. He didn’t actually get any work done at all. Par for the course.

* * * * * * * * *

As soon as he entered the boot room that night, he could tell that something was different. The quality of light in his living room was unusual. He took off his jacket as he climbed the two steps into the living room, and saw that he now had another, smaller living room in the middle of his own living room.

He remembered the first time Stan had showed him the original, one-foot-cube prototype for his display system. The images inside were perfectly three dimensional, and not at all semi-transparent, as they had been in all the other previous 3D display experiments. The effect had been entirely, completely life-like.

“Creepy-cool,” he’d told Stan as he circled the cube, examining again and again the virtual model of a flower that dripped tiny drops of dew onto the virtual dirt floor of the box.

“Ain’t it?” Stan had been so clearly torqued up and on the edge of happy hysteria.

“It even seems to reflect the ambient room light,” Randall had commented.

“Not ‘seems,’ bro. It does reflect ambient.”

That had floored Randall as almost no other detail of the system could have.

“How the fuck did you manage that? Sensor arrays? Telepathy? Virtual juju?”

“Nope. It’s actually a byproduct of the process itself. For some commercial uses we may have to install some light sensors to actually compensate and remove the effect.”

“Jeez. But for most applications…”

“Yeah. You can use the display for point light, diffuse glow, even out-of-box spot.”

Again, Randall was floored. “You can shine a light OUT of the thing?”

“Well, crap, sure. If you’ve got true, interior adjustable reflectivity, all you need is…”

“An internal light source, which is core anyway, and then you just bank it…”

“Off a more reflective portion of the display.” Pause. “Randall, you get this shit quicker than some of the guys who’ve been here for eighteen months. You sure you don’t want to come work for me?”

That had been an uncool moment. Randall knew that he’d never be the creative force that Stan was. He also knew that he would go crazy as a cog in Stan’s machine. They’d been such good friends… still were… that would screw it up big time.

Randall knew that, too. “Sorry, sorry, I know,” he’d said. “But if I decide I need some security code for one of these muthas…”

“I’ll consult.”

“Good. Now, check this out.”

Stan leaned forward, took a deep breath, and then blew onto the cube like it was a birthday cake topped with candles. The petals on the flower rippled, a drop of dew spun away from the stem, and the whole thing leaned slightly away from the force of Stan’s breath.

He’d looked up at Randall with a, Whaddya think of them apples? grin.

“Sound activated or did you push a button?” was all Randall had said.

Stan laughed. “You’re too fucking smart for my own good. Sound.”

Randall nodded. “Still… pretty cool. You could hook up a bunch of different sensors and really fake people into a greater sense of… what do you call it again?”

“Solidacity.”

“Right. ‘Solidacity.’ The belief that something that’s not there really is.”

“And the belief that you can fuck with it.”

“Power to the people,” had been Randall’s comment. After that night, he hadn’t seen any of the other test models until the night of the dragon.

And now he had one in his living room. And it was a wee living room in his living room.

He sat down on his footstool and put his nose almost up against the glass. Yup. It was a small living room, all right. About one-sixth scale, he thought. Hardwood floor with a really nice oriental rug. Bookshelves filled with tiny books and a few gimcracks. A couch, a love seat, a wing chair with ottoman on the oriental. Floor lamps on either side of the sofa. A small, roll-top desk with an antique-y looking wooden chair against one of the glass walls. A baby grand piano and bench in the opposite corner. Another floor lamp, this one a Tiffany, near the piano. A magazine rack between the couch and the love seat. He could even see a few magazines tucked in there. No TV. No stereo that he could see.

Basically, it looked like a room from a very detailed doll house. The difference in the lighting that he’d noticed was from the Tiffany lamp. It was on, and threw a very soft, diffuse pattern of subtly colored light out into his living room.

Cool, but… so what? A dragon that flew around and ate bunnies was cool. You couldn’t do that with balsa wood and Testors paint. But a doll house?

Randall stood up and looked down at the room in the tank. He clapped his hands twice. Nothing. Stan had rigged all the lighting in a school auditorium to a Clapper once. Not this time.

“Hello?” he said, feeling foolish.

Nothing.

Fuck it, he thought. If Stan wants to play it slow, I’ll play it slow.

He got some leftover pizza from the fridge, heated it in the microwave, and ate it on the couch in front of the TV. He had about two-hundred or something satellite channels, and didn’t really watch any one program all the way through. Some sports, some news, some entertainment stuff, some videos.

He had started to drift off while watching the History Channel and was in that weird, semi-floaty state of almost asleep when he heard her voice:

“Randall! You’re home!”

Shit-fuck-what? was the rough translation of what his brain said as he came out of his black-and-white, WWII-newsreel induced slumber.

He almost fell off the couch as he sat up too quickly and looked for the sound of the voice.

“Down here, Randall,” said the voice again.

He looked down, and there she was. A nine-inch tall woman standing on the oriental rug in the living room in the tank in his living room.

The first thing that struck him was her hat. She was wearing an off-white (Taupe? his brain sparked. Ecru? Fawn?) beret. It mostly covered her quite-short, straight, dark-brown hair and matched the color of her jacket. The jacket looked like suede.

She took off the jacket and draped it on the back of the wing chair. She was wearing a white silk blouse underneath it and black pants. Slacks, Randall thought. Women call them slacks, I think.

She looked up and raised an eyebrow. He actually could see her raise one eyebrow. Like Mr. Spock. Randall could do that, too. He didn’t now, though.

“Close your mouth, Randall. You look like a fish, and I’m the one in the tank, so that ain’t right.”

Her voice was a little raspy. A little Katherine Hepburn, maybe? he thought.

He closed his mouth. Then it hit him.

“How the fuck did you know my mouth was open?”

“Ah. Stan said you were a quick study and not easily fooled by the wiles of modern science.”

She took off the beret, put it on top of the coat, and sat down on the love seat, tucking her legs up underneath her, one arm thrown over the back of the chair.

“Stan said…”

“Yeah. Stan. He said you’re a quick study. He likes you, you know. A lot. Even though you never call him.”

He could see the tiny buttons on her tiny blouse. He could see that she was wearing four rings, one of them on her left thumb, all of them silver. She was wearing pearl studs in her ears. He couldn’t tell if they were pierced or clip on… but then, he wouldn’t have been able to had she been a real woman, actual size.

“I never call him,” Randall repeated.

“No. Never. You never call anyone.”

He thought about it. Other than his dad on Fathers’ Day… she was right. He talked to people when they called, but…

“So,” he finally said.

“So… nothing,” she replied. She unfolded one leg and sat more firmly on the other.

No reply from Randall. She did the eyebrow again. Randall just kept staring.

“That’s really not polite, Randall,” she said, after about 30 seconds of complete silence.

“What? Checking out the detail level of a display unit?”

She shook her head. “Don’t start that right away, please Randall? I know what I am, so you don’t need to revert to ‘reality’ every time you don’t know exactly what to say.”

That miffed him a bit. “What do… I don’t… I wasn’t…”

“Yes you were,” she said quietly. A touch of scold in her tone. “If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine. But don’t talk to me like I’m a badly scanned picture of Heather Locklear or something. Don’t talk to me like you’d talk to a pet. If you do that, I’ll leave.”

That messed with his head. But he was just cheesed off enough to take her up on it.

“So leave, Miss Pixels.”

She gave him a dead-cold look, flipped him the bird with the her left hand (the one with the thumb ring), and stood up. She walked halfway towards the wall with the bookcase, then stopped to come back for her coat and hat.

Randall watched as she spun on one foot and headed back toward the wall. As she was about to hit the wall, she put out her free hand at about the level a doorknob would have been. And where a doorknob suddenly was. While she was touching it, an entire doorway appeared that Randall had never seen before. She stepped through, and as soon the door shut behind her (with a slight bang), it disappeared again.

Randall sat there for a moment, unsure of what to do.

Before he could decide, the door appeared again. She walked back into to her/his living room, strode quickly to the Tiffany lamp, turned it off, and left again. This time, there was a distinct slam when she shut the door.

Randall waited for five minutes. Not doing anything. Just sitting and looking at the now dark living room, as the sounds of war in the Pacific droned on in the background.