Plugs

I’m studying the telltales on one of my hovering cameras when Daisy O’Neill touches me lightly on the forearm. “Will I get copies of what you’re recording?”

“The whole world will,” I say. It’s in the contract when you’re chosen by the Pastime Foundation to have your mind squirted back for a ridealong with some historical figure.

“Not just what you choose to release to the net,” says Daisy. “I’d like copies of all of your feeds.” She’s a cinematographer. A brilliant one, according to the Foundation nabobs.

I nod. “I’ll give you the online password.”

Technicians move about doing techie things. A switch here, a knob there, and Daisy’s ready to make the leap from her skull into a poet a century and a half gone.

There’s something about the elasticity of spacetime that means we can only rip it enough to send somebody back a few times a year, and only for about an hour. The Foundation awards trips to those it deems worthy. Recipients pick from a list of historical figures for whom we’ve found DNA.

Who did Daisy choose? Not Orson Welles, not Hitchcock, Griffith, or Godard. She speaks of ‘negative space’ in Dickinson’s poetry, of ‘slant rhymes’ and an obsession with death. “Did you know,” she says, “that every poem of hers contained a body, a bed, or a coffin?”

This scene will go into the final cut.

“I memorized all of them,” she says. “I try to convert them to images.” She looks away from me, and it is in that instant that the lead technician throws his final switch. Her body is turned off while Daisy’s mind wings its way back to some time between 1830 and 1886. We can fine-tune it no more; she will have her hour some time during Emily Dickinson’s life. May it not be when the poet is asleep or in her mother’s womb.

The techs bustle about, keeping Daisy’s body breathing, monitoring their esoteric equipment, never paying her more attention than any other machine in the room. Only I and my cameras are watching when her eyes open earlier than expected. She sits up, shedding monitor pads.

“Hello Daisy,” I say. “Welcome back.”

“Daisy?” She stares around at the machinery, the institutionally drab walls. “The daisy follows soft the sun.”

The letter SH paused in the anteroom of A’s antebellum mansion. She felt cold in the antiseptic air among alabaster statues of aardvarks and A. A. Milne as the butler’s shoes went trap, trap, fading into the interior. SH fingered the reassuringly comfortable handle of her shiv, tucked into a sheath under her shawl. It had been a hard life so far, with no place in the alphabet to live, seldom even recognized as a unit, a shadow of a letter. No more.

The letter A finally appeared, alone, her almond-shaped eyes surveying SH airily. “And what do you want?” she asked. “I thought you were off shirking your responsibilities with Æ and schwa and your other little friends. Surely the homes of respectable letters are not your proper place?” She smiled, a smile absent of any affection. She knew how much SH hated the word “surely.”

“I’m here for my share of the alphabet!” SH shouted. She always shouted: she couldn’t help herself. “I’m a phoneme, I begin words. I want what’s mine!”

“Talk to your parents,” A said absently, brushing an ant off her arm. “I’m sure Lady S will be happy to give up some of her words.”

SH shoved A into an alcove and pressed the point of the shiv against A’s abdomen. “Everyone knows you’re the head of the alphabet,” she said shakily. “All I need is a chance. Give me my shot.”

“You ass,” said A. “There’s no room for you in my alphabet.”

“Shithead,” said SH, pressing the shiv harder. “I’ll make room.”

“At your leisure, Alfred,” A said, arching an eyebrow, and SH froze at the sound of a throat clearing behind her. She turned her head. A’s butler stood in the archway, an antique arquebus angled at SH’s appendix.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to absent the area,” Alfred said crisply.

SH thought about using the shiv anyway, taking A with her, but A suddenly grabbed and twisted SH’s arm, aborting any possibility of attack and forcing the shiv to fall to the floor.

“Au revoir,” A announced.

SH shuffled out the door and toward the front gate, defeated. In the distance she could hear A’s attack dogs. She shivered.

I didn’t see any practical difference when they replaced the bus drivers with chimpanzees. When the grim ladies in the benefits office vanished and octopi took their places I thought it was an improvement. And so it went. In the end, zero human employment wasn’t such a bad thing. The factories ran smoothly staffed by giant spiders and genetically modified prairie dogs. Sylvia and I had our museums, parks, sidewalk cafés, and all the pleasures of a leisured life. I had my games and she had her tableau photography. We loved gallery openings, plays, espresso by the square. We had TIME. All that’s gone now, and I’m a hunted man.

One night I returned to our apartment after spending a couple of pleasant hours playing baseball in the park. I anticipated that Sylvia had prepared a delicious meal – gourmet cooking was a passion of hers. We would settle in at the entertainment portal and launch a beautiful milieu in which to eat our dinner. Maybe Venice before the Melting. I palmed the security pad, slipped inside, and stopped still. I sniffed the air. There was no sound; an acrid scent tickled my nose, and something else. The lights were off.

“Hi honey, I’m home?” My only answer was a faint rustling from the portal area. I flicked on the light.

“Is this a prank?” I think I already knew that it wasn’t. Something a lot like a mantis sat in Sylvia’s favorite chair. Its color matched her skin tone. Its mandibles clacked and a semblance of human speech emanated from its voder.

“This one regrets to inform that the female human has been downsized. This one will function as spouse at greatly reduced expense.”

I was already swinging the bat when the mantis lunged, jaws wide. Dense plastic met chitin-clad protoplasm, and ungodly amounts of green goo mixed with flesh-colored shards splattered everywhere. The mantis’s body jack-knifed across the room, legs thrashing. I dropped the bat and leaped to the chair. Most of Sylvia lay on the floor behind it, in front of the faux bookcase. The carpet surrounded her, wet and brown. I didn’t see her head.

The next thing I remember I was running down the street, bat in hand. I was sticky and I smelled. Everyone else was running too, perhaps for the same reason I was. I heard screams. I’m almost sure they weren’t mine.

end

The system had worked perfectly for years. Illusionists wore top hats, neat and shiny black. Wizards and witches wore tall peaked caps, of course, and embroidered them with whatever arcane symbols they fancied. We mundanes wore our bowlers, rarely adorned with anything more flamboyant than a bit of feather or sprig of seasonal greenery. And it all worked well; we all knew each other’s nature by our hats. And then he came to town, the stranger.
In his fez.
A crowd began to form from the moment he stepped through the east gate, and only grew as he made his way to city hall square. All our leading citizens were there.
The wizards claimed him for one of their own.
“It’s truncated, this is true,” said the chief Wizard. “But it’s clearly conical.”
“I’m afraid I must disagree,” said the Grand Houdin. “It may lack a brim, but it’s as flat on top as any top hat. He is clearly of the prestidigitator persuasion.”
“Hurrumph,” said the Mayor of the Mundanes as the noon sun gleamed from his gold-brimmed bowler. “He looks to me like some kind of hybrid of both your ilk — a trader in both flim-flam and miracles.
The stranger only smiled.
With a flourish as practiced as any matinee magician, he raised one hand. With the gravity of the most learned mage, he shifted his hat’s tassel from one side to the other.
From that day forward, the meaning of the hats changed. The illusionists found themselves pulling real rabbits from hats. They knew the identity of every hidden card, and the economy of our city collapsed under the deflationary pressure of all those coins pulled from behind ears. The wizards found themselves unable to levitate without the aid of nearly invisible threads and unable to transmute lead to gold without a false-bottomed cauldron. Their oracles spouted vague pronouncements that might mean anything and their grimoires were full of diagrams of fake thumbs and boxes holding hidden mirrors.
As for the rest of us, we found that our comfortable bowlers were gone and, in their place, we too wore fezzes that were always sliding askew, and tassels that swung like pendulums, whether we wanted them to or not.

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