A Glitch in the System

by d.k.g. Goldberg ©

Work. "Work will make you free." What the hell is that from? She couldn't remember. Adeana did a few desk wiggles to loosen her neck then sipped coffee. By the clock, she had five more minutes of break time. She stared out the window at simulated pine trees shading the stream that rushed over granite boulders and splashed past Johnny-jump-ups that were always in bloom. Supposed to be soothing. The pseudo cardinal, a flash of red against the verdant mountain scene, on schedule, flapped by every five minutes. Freaking default setting, she thought, I don't really care enough to change it.

Time to work anyway. She plugged one end of a slender cord into the shunt hidden by her hair. A few minor adjustments made to her chair made the controls easier to reach. Folding her legs beneath her butt, she visualized transportation networks -- freighters carrying durable goods across the globe, enormous aircoaches full of people going places. She wrinkled her nose. Adeana couldn't imagine why anyone would actually go anywhere. Her slim fingers clutched the controls on her chair as she steered an air coach into the North African docking station. The Red Sea, Pyramids, sheesh. What kind of atavistic freak actually went to see things?

Jiggling her right foot she thought her code and waited for the flash of internal light that joined her to the next ship. With an intake of breath, she focused on the journey plan that skittered across her mind. Eyes squinched shut and brain focused; she lifted the ship out of a dock in the sub-Sahara region and headed toward Paris.

Her last lover had brought her eclairs from Paris once. They were soggy and smashed. She could order better ones delivered to her door with the regular food supply.

At the end of her shift she looked up -- same insipid mountain scene. Well, what do you expect, Adeana thought. You haven't bothered resetting it in ages. Her home at the back of the enclave seldom got foot traffic. The banal mountain scene was seldom marred by human intrusion. She shrugged her shoulders, loosening muscles cramped after hours of work.

Exercise time. Adeana was a creature of habit; she walked out to her deck and positioned herself by the rail. Holding onto the rail she moved into first position and began a series of plies and stretches. The motion soothed her aching muscles, releasing the tension and kinks generated by hours of work.Second position, bend, stretch, and extend. The exercise routine was the antithesis of work. No thought, no choice, no responsibility. Ritual and routine were soothing.

Unlike the virtual mountain brook with the perpetual annoying babble. What demented touchy-feely type decided that running water was universally soothing? A clean space, silence, solitude, these things were soothing. So what, so what, so what, she thought as she pointed her toe and lifted her leg in time to unheard music. So what? What'll I have for dinner? What I will have for dinner today and tomorrow? "Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, life is a tale told by an . . ." Oh, shoot! Fa La La La La and fiddle dee dee. Not much difference between Shakespeare and nonsense syllables when you got down to it.

After 45 minutes of exercise, she popped dinner into the microwave. Her clothes hit the floor. She stepped under the shower and scrubbed her skin with a foamy jasmine scented sample of new, improved goo. Jasmine scent made her sneeze -- she wouldn't order the goo.Wearing clean leggings and a T-shirt, she went back on the deck with her dinner and a new novel. She put the book aside after checking out the cover. The heroine wore a jumpsuit. Adeana hated jumpsuited heroines -- it was a minor obsession of hers -- heroines in jumpsuits. She hated jumpsuits, damn inconvenient things. Who in the hell thinks women want to wear the silly things? Fa la la la. She fretted about the jumpsuit, chewed her rubbery chicken, and fumed at the virtual water bubbling around the virtual rocks. She picked up the book. She always read while she ate.

The man appeared to come from behind a pine tree and seemed to walk past the mountain laurels. The system must be malfunctioning. Adeana shut the book and watched the man move closer to the edge of the deck. He had a holo-star smile and an over-gymed body, his hair flopped too artistically around his shoulders catching bits of light and reflecting them like a perfectly drawn animation. Adeana sneered, what program was this booger? Romance and Seduction 8.0? She avoided real people assiduously; she certainly didn't want replicas running about.

"Hello," he said. He had perfect teeth, but then everyone did nowadays, didn't they? Not like the slum where Adeana grew up decades ago. He looked to be nearly thirty. Who didn't? Adeana had herself fixed at midtwenties without giving the matter much thought. Emitting an irritated grunt Adeana walked quickly into her cubicle and began adjusting the environment.

He was still standing there. Something must be really wrong with the system. He didn't dissolve. She hit the relay to send in an error report. She started grinding her back teeth. Her jaw tensed. She really hated the sensation of being around other people, even replicas. It was entirely too much like her stinking childhood -- literally stinking with the smell of beer, piss, and tamales choking her when she walked up the slippery stairs to the cold apartment full of shouting. Clenched teeth time -- mildewed laundry, rust stains, in the tub, the friggin eighties, cheez, forever and a day ago.She turned on the night outside. Black it out. Block it out. Make it all go away.

Tapping on the French doors that opened onto her deck. "Hello, hello, Miss? I'm so sorry, I don't mean to intrude. I've had an accident. I'm unarmed." He stepped back from the door to display himself. Hands in the air, palms outward. His blue shirt had streaks of grease on it. "Look, I understand if you won't let me in, would you send a message for me? Please?"

She took a good look at him. Shit, he wasn't a replica. He was real. With one hand resting on the keypad, Adeana opened the door. Why am I doing this? Impulse? Death wish? Shit if I know. "Well, come on in then." She stepped back from the door turning slightly, keeping her hand on the keypad. Her voice sounded squeaky, peculiar, unused. She seldom spoke.

"Thanks," He ran a large hand through his reddish brown hair. "I really appreciate this. Stupid hobby I have, old gasoline combustible cars. Wrecked one near the boundary of the enclave." He rubbed his hands on his denim-covered thighs and offered her his right hand to shake; "I'm Josh."

"Adeana," she answered. She looked at his hand curiously before recalling social conventions from her childhood. Awkwardly she shook his hand. She didn't remember ever actually doing that before.

He laughed a short self-deprecatory comment. "I'm into anachronisms, old manners, cars, I even cook occasionally. Have you lived here long? I don't think I've ever seen you in the common areas. See, I'm really into anachronisms, that's the sort of thing men used to say to women." Again, the small laugh like a bit of lint brushed off a collar.

Adeana tightened her stomach muscles. She had the feelings that other people usually inspired -- she felt rodent-like, small, in need of cover. "A message." she said. Her tone was that of a teacher prompting a student, trying to get the class on task. She gnawed her lower lip. Why had she let him in? What message could he need to send?

"Yeah, I have a friend with a tow truck. Can you imagine? A tow truck. We're re-enactors. Every few months we have huge gatherings, we do traffic, in person shopping, singles bars, you ought to try it, it's an incredible party. Last time a whole bunch of people put on a real disco. This year we're going to do a New Orleans style Mardi Gras, unreal."

Adeana mashed a button and the message unit appeared mid-wall, she indicated it with a tilt of her head.

"Oh, yeah. Thanks ever so." He looked at the unit, his brow furrowed, he stared a moment. "You don't use voice?"

"No, email or code call only. I don't talk to people." She knew she sounded snotty. Folding her arms defensively across her chest, she watched Josh press in a call code and enter a message. The room was twilighting. She tapped the wall, and it brightened to afternoon. Adeana exhaled. Josh's back was to her. The fabric of his shirt strained across his shoulders.

"Great." Josh said. "Tomorrow he can help me get my car. Thanks so much.

"Adeana tensed all over, she wondered why he'd even asked to use her message center. Something in the air felt malignant to her. Why hadn't he just gone to his own module?

"Well, I'll be off now. Thanks again." Josh made eye contact with her and smiled.

Adeana's cheeks flushed and she folded her arms across her small chest again. He seems to think that all he has to do is smile that disgusting smile and I'll pull down my leggings. Bastard thinks he's too cute by half.

"Well, I'll see you around then," Josh said, as if they had been having a real conversation. He let himself out through the French doors and clunked off on booted feet.Adeana leaned against the wall wheezing asthmatically. She hated him. Bright spots of red appeared on her cheeks, her chest felt hot and tight. She scurried to the doors in rodent-mode and double locked them. Breath sounding like the rip of cheap fabric, hands twitching spasmodically, she hated him. The hum and whir, the white noise of the house equipment ruptured the silence. Each click and buzz seemed ominous, a dunning reminder of all the billions of other people on the planet. She hated him for coming into her home, violating it with his otherness. The air was stained like donated clothing with a darkened collar or yellowish crotch. Gulped juice, hastily swallowed pills passing the lump in her throat, Adeana sat at her personal console and spent money until she felt the pressure lift. She bought books by the dozens, a half dozen pair of leggings, and an equal number of tunics until she spent her way free of the charity child blues. God, she hated other people.

She hated Josh even more a few days later when his shadow crossed the imitation sunlight pouring in through the French doors. His shadow profaned her smooth wooden floors. "Hi, I thought I'd stop by and see if you wanted to go out to dinner."

"Why would I want to do a thing like that?" Adeana wished she hadn't opened the door to him. They were a curse, those windowed French doors; people could see her sitting in her module. She'd change them; she had to change them.

Smiling like an insurance salesman, he laughed at her comment. "Yeah, I know how it is, you guys that work at home get cabin fever. But, all work and no play." He sat down, his long legs eating the free floor space, his huge shoulders eclipsing half the room. "So, what are you reading?"

"A book." What did he want? Why had he come? Adeana froze like a china figurine; she knew how to wait people out. The quiet child is the last one slapped. He wanted something. He reminded her of the snake eyed guys lounging in the hall ways of her junior high, slumped against the lockers in the windowless gloom, grabbing at her breasts and squeezing them until she squealed in humiliation and pain. They would snicker when she scurried off. The rodent self had been born in junior high.

He laughed again. Screw his charm offensive. "Look, I know it seems like I'm intruding but you're an incredibly attractive woman, and, well, I believe in fate and stuff like that, the other day when I asked for help, I felt some thing. Some thing said, Josh, you need to know that lady." He leaned back in the chair; it creaked beneath his muscular bulk. His flannel sleeved forearms rested on his thighs; his long fingers were loosely woven together. He looked at her through his fringe of red brown hair with a hero smile; a blue eyed wonder ain't I a helluva sincere guy smile. She didn't trust him. Tiny nerve endings in her skin tingled with alarm. A four AM caffeine consciousness took over, the crinkles around the edges of his eyes, the anonymous accent, the relentless smile, all of it added up to sociopath. She thought about making some comment to indicate that she knew he was a serial killer or kin to one and backed off thinking it unwise. "Thank you so much, but I really don't enjoy going out." She cast her eyes down to her own small hands. She worried a bit of cuticle, tearing at the dry flesh for something to do while he sat there.

"So, what is it you do, anyway? I see you telecommute."

Adeana ripped off a piece of dead skin; tiny rubies of blood seeped across her thumbnail. "Oh, I just do data relay." She didn't want him to know that she was a pilot. Pilots made too much money.

"Um," he said, a non-committal noise that told her he knew she lied. He leaned back in the chair, entirely too comfortable. He looked around the room with a proprietary air. A small gold clock with a lapis face seemed to catch his attention. It was a very expensive clock. Adeana bought expensive things.

"Well, I suppose you need to go," Adeana said. Her voice had the false cheery tone of an exercise tape.

"Huh?" he said."Have dinner, you need to run along and have your dinner."

Confusion flickered across his features. He regained his balance and smiled again. "Oh, right, some other time then." He was out the door before she could rise to open it, she saw him striding through the mountain scene hands in his pockets, whistling, jaunty bastard.

Figure this out girl: you live in an expensive enclave. He couldn't get in unless he had a unit here or unless he's a hell of a con man. So what does he want from you? Adeana paced back and forth -- hamster on a wheel. Faster and faster, trying to run from her own thoughts. What did he want? What could he want? The ticking of the ornate clock on her bookshelf set her pace.It must have to do with work. Something about her job. Maybe he wanted to beguile her into crashing a ship; maybe he was a flashy failed businessman who needed the insurance loss on cargo. Maybe he was one of those Don Juans who seduced isolated women and gradually took control of their salaries and savings.

Her mom had had a string of pimps; mom had worn bruises round her neck like pearls. Uncle This and Uncle That, in and out of the paint peeling apartment. Uncle Whoever didn't even pay for mom's funeral. State agency burned mom up in a cardboard box with six other poverty stricken dead. Adeana didn't even have an urn of ashes in a warehouse to visit on the few days that she escaped the confines of her foster family. Bitter cold when they burned up Mama. Adeana's toes cramped inside her too-small shoes as she stood with a clump of equally ragged children, pinch faced and poorly washed. Her social worker had shiny hair cut in a pageboy and smiled incongruously at Adeana as if she were offering encouragement to her, supporting a Little Leaguer swinging a bat at fast balls. The social worker held her hand. While they were burning mama, Adeana needed to pee.

Adeana had a tiny hushed voice, "Ma'am is there, I need to . . ." Adeana blushed. The social worker smelled like flowers. It didn't seem likely that people who smelled like flowers said, "need to take a piss."

"It's all right honey," the social worker patted the girl's shoulder, "you go right ahead and cry."

"I don't need to cry, I need . . ." Adeana couldn't go on. The social worker hugged her, mashing her against a fuzzy sweater that made her sneeze. It took all of Adeana's concentration to sneeze and avoid wetting herself. Somehow she held her bladder until the social worker stopped at MacDonalds. One thing Adeana learned growing up: whenever social workers want to tell you something difficult they take you out for a hamburger. At least they fed me, she thought. Fed me and sent me to school and now I have work. Module full of books and work, Adeana stopped pacing and stood at alert, looking for something to do, an area to dust, books to straighten -- something. The blinking light on her message machine filled her with a sick dread.

Him again, Josh, she just knew it.On tiptoe, softly as if she was spied on, she crept to the machine and looked at the message. Persistent bastard, what did he want? It's becoming a blood sport she thought, and I'm a fox on the run. Fox on the run? Wasn't that a song? Some where in the past, out of the pissy apartment and in a hot box trailer, Uncle Somebody drank too much beer and the CD player blared a song called "Fox on the Run." So long ago.Slumped against the wall, this is too much, she thought. I have to find out what he wants. She tapped in a message. Yes, he and his infernal pizza could come by this evening, poisoned pepperoni, and all.

Pulling dresses out of the closet and tossing them on the bed. Not that one, no I don't have the right shoes. Hair this way, hair that way. Adeana twisted her mouth like an old lady having a stroke. A date, she thought with a flash of hostility. I'm getting ready for a date. In college, she had thought she had a date. Another engineering student, a slight man with thin features, had asked her out. Nothing like the hairy handed boys from junior high, the student had wispy blonde hair and pure un-acned skin. Adeana had burned her ear with a borrowed curling iron. He had wanted to borrow her notes from statistics, wasn't doing well in that course. In the bathroom, Adeana contemplated eye shadow. It looked weird on her face. She wondered how it was that other women seemed so finished when they used cosmetics. She looked painted. She scrubbed her face bare and brushed her hair shiny. Footsteps on her deck, an assertive knock on the French doors. She left the bathroom door open and wished that she'd shut it as she undid the lock and let Josh into her home. He was balancing a pizza pouch, a bottle of wine, and a bouquet of daisies.

"Hello," he thrust the flowers at her.

"Thank you." She saw no need to direct him to the table, it was right there in front of him. She got a vase from the cabinet over the sink, filled it with water and put the daisies in it.

He didn't put down the pizza or the wine. He was so large; he seemed to fill the room.The silence stretched, Josh smiled his Teflon smile."Oh, right. You can put the pizza here," Adeana indicated the table and got out plates and wineglasses.

"Thanks." He sat down and opened the foil pouch. Removing a slab of pizza he shuffled the plate beneath it and caught the stringy cheese. He used a Swiss army knife to open the wine and poured them each a glass. "Dig in," he said shoving the pizza across the table to her.

Dutifully Adeana bit and chewed."So, have you been busy lately?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Man, work has been a bitch lately, we've all signed up for the crisis of the day club. My manager, weasel face, won't give a straight directive to save his soul, first he wants this, and then he wants that. Shit!"

Adeana wondered how Josh could chew and smile at the same time. She nodded and made a little umm noise that encouraged him to continue."He seems to think that we all live for work. Yesterday he kept us going ten hours. We spent the last five undoing everything we did during the first five. But, it pays well, and I've got a long weekend coming up. There's going to be a great reenactment, we're doing a Times Square New Year's Eve with costumes, neon signs, everything. I don't suppose you'd want to come? Well, I guess it would be overwhelming for a first time. But, you're welcome to try it."

Adeana sipped her wine. She supposed this was a date and she didn't much like it.

"Hey, you're a bit into anachronisms. You read print books. What do you have, three four hundred? I don't read much myself. Love old movies though. I think they're getting popular again, it tires you out to go to a holo-show, not like a movie, with a movie you can just lean back and watch."

Adeana glanced at the clock. This made no sense. What was he doing? Did people do this kind of thing? "I've never seen a movie," she said.

"Oh, not even when you were a kid? Well, we'll have to change that." He put another piece of pizza on his plate. "A lot of the classics are still available, I collect movies. You'll have to come over and let me educate you."

The pizza disgusted her. His conversation bored her. She wanted him to leave. She yawned. He finished the pizza and poured more wine. His pager beeped. Saved by the bell, she thought.

Josh looked at the code. "What did I tell you? Weasel face thinks we live to work. I got to run, babe." He plastered a loose lipped kiss on the side of her face and galloped off.

Her skin felt slimy. She locked the doors before clearing away the debris from the pizza. The rodent feeling grabbed her, she had to stop this man, she had to keep him away. Doors locked, messages unanswered, cowering in the bedroom when the knock rattled the French doors. Each hair follicle on Adeana's scalp seemed an antenna, hypervigilant and anxious she waited him out. One date. Only one date. Josh would give up, she knew he'd give up.

When she was 12 she packed to leave her fourth foster home. Adeana's elective mutism drove her foster mom to despair, "I can't get through to a child that won't even talk," she'd said to the social worker. Her faded skirts and ragged underwear went into big green garbage bags. Adeana carried the photos of mamma in a shoebox.

"I'm not going to give up on you," the social worker said, "you're going to be okay."The next week a new social worker introduced herself to the sullen child. "Hi Adeana, I'm your new caseworker, your old social worker has been transferred." Adeana stated at her with opaque eyes, unblinking and dry.

Josh would stop calling. She knew it. Why had he bothered her in the first place? Adeana fretted. She fidgeted and worried. The messages came four or five a day, then every few days, then not at all. Discontent. She hoarded her anxiety. Shopping, reading, cleaning her sterile module, nothing distracted her from the stab of anger whenever she thought about Josh coming into her home, sitting in her chair, and having a conversation at her. She needed to know what it was all about. Why had he done it? She dressed to go out. She was going to spy on Josh, turn the tables, find out something about his life that would make sense of his interest in her. Adeana locked the door behind her and walked through her pseudo yard until she came to a corridor hidden by the holographic mountain scene. Fiddling with the strap of her shoulder bag she nodded at the folks she passed. Adeana hunched her shoulders a bit, protectively sheltering her chest. She felt like a small furry creature, a woodland animal crossing an interstate.

Josh had repeatedly given her directions to his module. Come by anytime, we'll watch a few movies. A sharp left turn brought her into an open area, a hologram of a European city square was back ground for the people chatting a tables, the children chasing balls, the crushing, parading and flirting that humans seemed to need. Adeana sucked in air and clutched the shoulder strap tightly.Bits of conversation floated past her like dust in sunlight. Scraps of talk littered the air. Meetings, movies, who's doing who and where they go to do it. She was near Josh's module. He had chosen to live facing the common courtyard flooded with other people.

A woman holding hands with a giggling little girl brushed against Adeana. The woman and child had identical auburn curls, mother, and daughter. Adeana had no memory of holding her mother's hand.Adeana ducked behind a virtual column, she did not intend to knocking on Josh's door. She wanted to wait and watch. Sports scores, clothes, music and food, the driftwood of dailiness, the poetry of the mundane. It wasn't long before she saw him emerge from his module. Hands in pockets, sickening smile, the loping king-of-the-hill stride. Long legs carried him across the square quickly.

He stopped abruptly when he reached a woman wearing a blue jacket. His smile broadened. He looks like he is going to split his silly face Adeana thought. He swallowed the woman's shoulders in his huge hands. The woman was laughing, she tilted her head back, blonde curls contrasted with her blue coat. Josh leaned over and kissed the woman. He slipped one arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head inwards, as if she was telling him a secret. They walked off together leaving a trail of laughter like glitter spilled from a child's artwork. The couple moved to the far side of the square and disappeared behind a column.

Adeana leaned back against the column and shut her eyes. I have the life I designed, she thought. I have my life. I won't cry. Adeana never cried. She did not know how. Gnawing her lower lip she walked back to her module neither noticing nor caring about the people she passed. Something felt different. She walked faster to attempt to outrun the feeling. What she felt was called sadness but she didn't recognize it. She was in a hurry to get back to work.


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