Plugs

Maddy was asleep, a smile on her face. Cliff slid out of bed and padded, naked, to the hall. Curiosity always got the better of him in a new place, and most girls didn’t seem to mind. He had already seen every room of Maddy’s small apartment except the spare room. Maddy was … perplexing. Tall, dark, her face oddly proportioned, as if she had been made by someone who had had women described to him but who had never seen one. Different in bed too. Earlier he had felt like his entire body were about to explode. Afterwards he had patted himself down, just to make sure he was all there. Her décor…. Her books had never been opened, the TV was dusty. Only the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen had seen any use at all. He eased open the door of the spare bedroom and slipped inside. The only light came from the hall.

He took a few steps in, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There was not a sound except his own breathing, but he felt as if the room were crowded. This might have been a bad idea. The door closed with a snick and the light came on. Maddy pressed herself against him from behind, pinning his arms with hers. He was staring at a stone idol that almost brushed the ceiling. It sat with legs crossed and arms curved forward as if to catch whoever stood in front of it. Its teeth were large and sharp. Eight eyes, or, rather, empty sockets where they should be, seemed to stare right at him. Masks, censers, diverse weapons, and other paraphernalia lined the room, but he could spare no attention for it. The idol seemed to be flexing its muscles. Maddy was flexing hers too. She whispered in his ear.

“It’s me or the god,” she said. “Join me, worship him, or join him a different way.” She turned him around and stared into his eyes. “Choose.”

“You’re freaking me out.” He pulled back and she let him go.

“Goodbye Cliff,” she said sadly.

“Wait.” He licked his lips. Rough hands seized his shoulders. The nails were sharp and long.

End

Night bled to day. The glare off all the chrome of the buildings and the cars shifted from reflected and redoubled neon to a blazing ultraviolet-edged glare. Still a day and a night to go.

She tinted her lenses down darker than the night had been. The road so flat, so straight, she was glad the car could do its own driving. It sang to her as it went, airfoils and antennae on its metal skin vibrating with the wind, an app in its wiring turning all the swooping downdrafts from the mile-high arcology towers and all the little traffic-spawned crosscurrent eddies into a choir of susurrant near-voices, howling and humming.

She had a vintage neoDAT running; told herself this would be the soundtrack for her summer. She resisted the urge to number the tapes as they filled, just tossed them in a paper bag. She put a title on the bag, “The Road to Stellavista.”

The app distracted the climate control; she could tell it was getting hotter. Mouth dry, she stretched on the passenger couch and didn’t think about what she was leaving, or how many of the lives in those towers were reflections of her own–how many were there in the metacity her age, her gender, with the same schooling, same tastes in work, furniture, clothes, music, in friends, in lovers… She had the time on the trip, she could have run the stats, worked out how unique she wasn’t.

She rolled over, restless. How many had wanted to get out? She knew the number of applicants for the colony to the nearest million. The others were finding other exits even now–exits positive and negative, immersion in friends, family, community, intoxicants, viddies, all the distractions, destructions, constructions of life. She would have applied herself to her organitechture work, breeding new buildings. She didn’t know what she’d do in the desert where nothing would grow.

When she arrived at last, she saw a single cloud beyond the low reach of the apartments, beyond the sandflats, a twist of white dissolving in the heatshimmer a long way away, and she looked at it hard, a long time, thinking it might be the last one she saw for a few months, trying to think what it looked like, but metaphors failed her, and then was gone to blue. A sign, she decided, although she couldn’t say of what.

Jeremiah Tolbert

“You will come with me now,” said the alien. 

“You speak English?” I said. I was still reeling from being sucked from my bed, out through my window, but a ray of ochre light. I was sprawled on the metallic floor of a triangular room that was windowless, doorless, unfurnished, and featureless except for some faint raised patterns on the floor, walls, and ceiling. My clothes hadn’t been transported with me. I was just about scared enough to pee myself.

“Your question is a kind of stupidity,” said the alien, a tall, rubbery, bulge-eyed, gray thing. “Come with me now or we will encourage you.”

I didn’t want to think about what kind of encouragement I might be facing. I scrambled to my feet and followed the alien as the wall split open to admit us.

The alien led me down a tubular hallway that was hard to wall in because of the curve of the floor. Part of the wall split open for us, and we stepped through into another room, which looked identical to the one I had just left except that it contained a small table with four black, triangular plates, each holding a different-looking piece of cheesecake. There was a clear, glittering fork lying beside each plate, probably a foot long.

“You will taste the cheesecakes now and render your opinion,” said the alien.

I stared at the cheesecakes. Was this a joke? No, nobody I knew had such a sick sense of humor–or access to the kinds of drugs you’d need to make me imagine something like this.

“Cheesecake?” I said.

“You will render your opinion. It is why you are here.”

“You abducted me to taste test some cheesecake?”

“All other methods result in adequately random focus group sampling,” said the alien. “We will take over your earth by monopolizing your economic assets through sales of cheesecake. We must know which is the most triumphant recipe.”

You might not have immediately tasted the cheesecake, on the idea that it might be laced with some kind of weird chemical or a trap or something. Me, I assumed it was dangerous and decided to eat it anyway. It was obvious that I wasn’t in a position to set conditions, so the best possible thing that could happen to me was just eating a piece of cheesecake.

I’ll spare you the details–the involuntary groans, the amazement and delight and rapture. The short version is that numbers 1, 2, and 4 were much better than the best cheesecake I had ever had, but number 3 made me literally fall to the floor crying with sheer wonder.

“It is number 3, then?” said the alien. “Number 3 is very popular.”

I nodded. “How can you make something like that?” I said. “That was a religious experience!”

“It is also zero calories,” said the alien. “And now we are finished.”

“That’s it?” I said, disbelieving. “I’m done? I can go home?”

“You are done,” said the alien, reaching for me. “But you will not be going home.”

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