She paused outside her office door, carefully checked the long, dimly lit hallway in both directions, then hurriedly slid her key into the lock—so quiet now, she could hear the tumblers click—and entered. Not that she didn’t belong here, not that she wouldn’t have a reasonable explanation for returning, even at this hour, and if it came to that, she might be ready for a confrontation, some opportunity to explode into righteous indignation that would provide the perfect excuse to quit. But if she met someone, if she encountered Security, there would have to be that explanation, and she was already late: her pulse had begun to race, and her throat was thick with anticipation.
She moved inside, shrugged out of her coat, tossed it aside, traced her way to her desk by feel, nudging her way past the conversation area and the vague nimbus of the sofa, skirting the stone-slab coffee table and the huge puff of the down-stuffed chair, gliding the notch of her hip along the edge of her desk, quite aware of the sleekness, the teasing heat of that motion through what she wore. She kicked her heels off, dug her toes into the thick carpeting, felt a tingle rise from the flesh of her insteps to the back of her throat. She paused, closed her eyes. She could see the room in the ghostly light of her mind, every last detail of it. She ran her tongue over her dry lips, reached out to press her palm to the cool marble of the credenza behind her desk. She found the switch she wanted, pressed it down. She opened her eyes and waited. The screen came alive first, with a tiny pop and crackle, and then a soft blue glow of light that spilled out into the room like mist, and she heard the grinding of the processor soon after. She realized that these sounds, so familiar to her by day, had taken on a new, almost human tenor, as if the machine itself knew what she was about. Illogical to think so. But it was night and even the muscles of her jaw were like tiny coils, quivering with a current of their own, and she felt as though she could be forgiven for thinking of this collection of microchips and circuitry as something approaching flesh and blood.
She waited impatiently as the machine cycled through its initial sign-on procedure, entered the password that gave her access to the master computer, an unfathomable bank of cards and boards and micro-circuitry lodged somewhere beneath her in the bombproof bowels of the building. When the machine had finally settled, she reached into her pocket, withdrew what anyone else might have assumed was a calculator, or some strange sort of television remote. She aimed it at the screen and pressed a series of numbers—her numbers—which the device would encrypt.
Prompted by this transitory code, the bland graphic painted by her organization’s master computer vanished, and a series of vague images flittered across the screen, each one colorful, but too quickly gone to be discerned. She listened to the hiss and cries of the machine’s electronic dialing, closed her eyes again as she waited, felt the flashes of color washing out over her, cleansing her in electronic light.
When the pulses had stopped again, she opened her eyes to find that the machine had squirreled its way along, as it had been taught, through the many points of choice offered in cyberspace, dropping her out precisely where she had left off her normal work only hours before. I don’t work in this room, she thought. I work out there, somewhere. Out there, in the vast infinity of machine space.
Her machine sat quietly now, its screen bathing her in a film of deeper blue, and she imagined that she could feel the light’s cool touch as she pulled the ties of her robe loose and sat down before the machine to take a different path.
“You feel more comfortable here?” he asked her, and she found herself nodding in response.
But it was a question pulsing before her on the computer screen, after all. She glanced across the dimly lit room to the door of her office. Locked. Yes, she had locked the door. Of course she had. She smiled at herself as she hurried to tap out her response.
“Is ‘here’ in Norway?” She watched her own message unfurl below his question, tiny electronic characters laid out against the dark blue of computer space.
“Yes, I think Norway,” came his answer.
“Well, it seems very warm in Norway,” she typed. It was true. She felt a thin trickle of sweat inching its way down the flesh just in front of her ear. Another time she might have brushed it away in annoyance. Now it felt like a tiny finger tracing its way down toward her throat, toward the plane of her chest. She willed it on its way, and her breasts tightened in response.
“…and how is the situation of your work?” she read.
A tick of sound from somewhere, she thought. But it was just nerves, her imagination.
“I am still deciding,” she replied. “Such disillusionment. Maybe the best thing is to leave. But time will tell.” Then she added, “I don’t want to talk about work tonight, please. I am feeling too comfortable now.”
“Ah, good,” was his response.
She murmured a prayer of thanks. In fact, she was greatly distressed about “the situation of her work,” but she was determined to bury her feelings, for tonight at least. As their scheduled day and time had neared, she’d found herself burning with anticipation, and she did not want anything to spoil it. The suspicion that her passions might possibly have risen in direct response to the greater urgencies in her life had occurred to her, but she did not care. Comfort was where you could find it, she had decided, and nothing was going to deter her from that tonight.
Besides, the fact was that she did feel more comfortable here, in this new meeting place. They had met in a much different arena: “on line,” as it was referred to, in one of the chat groups on the Internet, nothing like alt.sex.bondage, of course, but one of the more innocuous ones, where she had been lurking quietly in the background, keeping an eye out, not for cybermates, but for lost souls who might profit by what her organization might provide. She had read about all these groups. What better source of converts? How patronizing she had been, she thought now.
Torsten, his name, and though it bespoke of Scandinavian open-mindedness, even sexual brazenness and amorality, she’d been touched by the innocence of the messages he had sent when he’d first appeared on-line: “I am new to this,” he’d said. “I am alone…but not lonely,” these messages popping onto her screen interspersed into the chat of three women complaining about the rudeness of men they’d met on-line.
“…I am being amazed at how the world has changed to allow such a thing as this…,” she’d read that and more and finally felt somehow so taken by this Torsten, whom the other three steadfastly ignored, that she’d found herself tapping out her first truly “personal” message in response, surprised by how her fingers trembled as she pressed the keys.
Things had progressed rapidly with Torsten, and beyond her wildest imaginings. She knew it was partly to be accounted for by her own loneliness. She hadn’t had what might be termed a “date” for more than a year, having come to prefer the predictable, low-grade boredom of her own company to the inevitable disappointment she’d become accustomed to in her relationships, the last, of course, worst of all.
There were men around, other men in the organization, of course, and she hadn’t sworn off them, but the organization was growing so rapidly, and the responsibilities of her position had increased, and she felt that she’d needed no distractions, not for a while at least. And somehow the weeks had become months and those had strung together into a year or more…and then, suddenly, there had come Torsten, from nowhere, or from out of cyberspace, to be more exact.
They had discovered common interests in reading (biographies and histories, primarily), in cooking (the medium-fat diet and a little wine never hurt anyone), in thinking (how vast the world had become with these machines leading the way, how difficult it seemed to feel an important part of things). She could have him on her terms, or on equal terms at least, no more at the mercy of his whims as to when to be together than he was at hers.
Though they had shared vague physical descriptions (she had subtracted a few pounds from her true weight and five years had somehow vanished from her age; he, on the other hand, had called himself a better-looking Sigmund Freud), she was free to imagine him physically as she preferred (these imaginings becoming steadily more intense), and she was free to speak with him without fear, for she was ultimately just a few letters and symbols, as ultimately untraceable by him as he was by her. And though it had been Torsten to guide them gently out of the common group where they had met and into a private “room” where they could talk more intimately, she’d soon discovered a latent desire to speak openly of things she’d barely allowed herself to think about, much less express.
At first, he’d questioned her about her work (he was an accountant, in a large city, and though he’d never said, something in his odd syntax suggested it was in some European country), her upbringing (his a pastiche of anonymous boarding schools, exact locales unnamed; hers inconsequential, in a city of the American South, she’d told him, and never said how far south, nor how misleading that expression was, in her case). In the beginning, she’d been extraordinarily cautious, as if any chance detail she might let slip would lead to this unknown man tracking her down, across continents, perhaps…she’d come home late from work one night to find a sex fiend, a killer slavering in the bushes by her doorstep.
But little by little she’d lost her reserve. He had become her friend, after all. And she had begun to confide in him. At first she’d shared the vaguest hints of her unease about her job, and then, at his gentle prodding—“We all have passed through these periods of doubt about what we do”— she’d confessed graver concerns. She’d told him nothing specific, of course, but spoke of matters she had discovered that, if not outright criminal, at the least seemed at odds with the very mission of their organization.
“In this new world order,” he’d tried to reassure her, “perhaps what seems untoward is just the way of business.” No, she’d told him. She knew the difference between matters of simple exigency and what was downright wrong. Was there no one she could talk to about these matters?
Torsten had asked. No, she told him. There was no one. Of course that was not exactly true. There was one person, and she had taken certain steps, but she had not seen fit to tell even Torsten that.
Besides, by then they had begun to speak of other intimate matters, discussions of things that had swept her into utter dizziness as she tapped and read, tapped and read. It had started with his admission that he had found himself thinking of her lips as he read the words she typed, how her mouth would move as she formed the words, and she’d quailed at first, but then thought, well, yes, they had the words between them but not the sounds, not the lips…
…and then discovered as she typed her timid response that her thighs were bathed in warmth. They’d somehow passed on from lips to skin to hands and what those might do…
…and had anyone suggested to her a month ago that she would find herself admitting to a total stranger that yes, she had in fact touched herself in those ways, and found it intensely pleasurable, she would have called it unthinkable. But now, what would have been a flush of embarrassment or shame had become a heady, heart-pounding rush of exhilaration as she responded to his inquiries: “Tell me how…tell me how it feels…tell me that you can feel me there with you, in your office, my hand with yours…”
Even now, her hand had moved to her breast, was squeezing the knotted flesh of her nipple to the very edge where pain took over pleasure. She swallowed thickly, saw that her robe had fallen entirely open, that she was fully bared before the glowing machine. She closed her eyes and arched her neck up to the blue light, and thought that some soft sound had escaped her throat.
I am in Norway, she thought…in Tibet…in Oz…I am floating in clean, clear space where nothing can hurt me, nothing can trouble me, where I can be just as I wish to be…
Glorious freedom here, then. And thanks be to Torsten, who had told her of the need to move their meeting place again. He read the magazines, the specialists’ reports, kept up with such things, it seemed. When he’d discovered that others had invaded their “room,” to “lurk” invisibly while they spoke of such intimate matters, he’d been not so much incensed or embarrassed as saddened. While she had felt a sudden pang of fear—imagine if the others with whom she worked were to ever learn or overhear—he had reassured her. The two of them were just as anonymous to those electronic voyeurs who “watched” as they had ever been.
Still, the dynamics of their meeting had been altered dramatically. Certainly, there had been no more discussions of her work. And even their sexual conversations became awkward, truncated, interrupted by signals that others had slipped into the “room,” or by Torsten’s manipulations to check for such intrusions.
Then he had discovered the safeguards. First, the device she’d used when she logged on, a tiny computer itself, actually, which converted her password into a different, encrypted code each time she used it.
And now, as a double safeguard, this new place, this Comnet. A “remailing” service. In reality, a computer somewhere in Scandinavia, where their messages would arrive, after leapfrogging along the Internet, to be stripped of their original identifying codes, and receive new, randomly assigned names. Here, in some room within a room within a room of an indifferent Nordic machine, they could converge, safe from any prying eyes.
Insulated now. Insulated and insulated again, disembodied spirits trysting in some mythic ice cave of the future. In real-world space, she might find herself confused, doubting, uncertain, but here in the place the machines had created, she could come to be with Torsten, and for now at least, be free.
“…something different…something you have never done…,” she read on the screen before her now. Her hand had moved to her thigh, then slowly up to a fold of flesh that seemed almost agony to touch. She felt her ankles lock against the spokes of her chair, felt her pulse thudding in her ears.
“…my hand is your hand…”
Her lower lip was caught in her teeth, her fingers truly were another’s as they probed and stroked…and yet something was nagging at her, fighting for attention: in your office, he had said. Had she slipped, had she told him where she was? She’d been so careful all these weeks, no clues, no hints…but perhaps he’d just assumed. It was natural, wasn’t it. He was in his office, so she’d be in hers…
She threw off the thoughts, silly, silly, found herself urging upward now, lifting herself out of her chair toward an avalanche of release as great as any she had ever known. She knew that she was speaking aloud now, any thought of typing a distant memory, but it did not matter, for Torsten would have joined her in his own turn, and they were connected over the vast, impossible stretches of ether…her very being had disintegrated, spread across this unknowable space, her consciousness filling with one explosion of light after the next. “Oh, dear God,” she said, and might have spoken the words again, had she not heard from somewhere the sounds of the door lock clacking, the rush of feet upon carpet, the spoken reply.
“Harlot,” came the voice. “Blasphemer. Jezebel!” The words hissed in her ear.
At first the words meant nothing. They might have been elements of her fantasy, imagined sounds that barreled out of the tunnels of the ethernet along with the images of light and color that rocketed about her brain…
…and then she felt the arm about her throat, and realized that she was being pulled backward, brutally lifted from her seat, her ankles raking the spokes of her chair.
She would have screamed, but the arm was pressed too tightly against her throat, her chest burning, her strength so suddenly sapped that her kicks and thrashings seemed pitiful, even to her.
“Such a disappointment,” she heard, a voice, familiar now, ripe with bitterness. “Did you think I wouldn’t learn what you’d done? Did you think I’d let you threaten everything?”
She felt her heels fly over the back of the chair, felt them bounce against the soft carpet. He was holding her upright, pressed close to him now, and the pressure at her throat seemed even tighter. She fought to get a look at him, but the grip that held her was unyielding. She saw a shoulder, the shadow of a face, the glint of a poster on her wall, a train rolling through the heartland with a message that assured her that life was a journey and not a destination, and then her eyes had come unfocused, were rolling back in her head. The little ticks of sound, the untoward phrase, “there, in your office,” how had she let herself ignore the warnings? “I trusted you,” he said, and his voice was nearly a sob.
“I trusted you!”
He squeezed more tightly, and as she began to lose consciousness, she thought his voice had become mocking, echoing the words she had read moments before on her computer screen: “…what is the situation of your work,” he hissed. “…my hand is your hand!”
He was beyond outrage. “…godless…ungrateful… abomination…” The words cascaded in an unintelligible litany, and the words no longer mattered.
How had he known, she wondered? How could he have possibly known? And then, in the next terrible instant, though her mind thundered with agony, she knew the very worst.
That this very man, the man who held her, who squeezed the life from her body, who would kill her now…
…he was the one…he was the only one who could have known…
…he had sent those words…
The outrage of it burned through her, galvanized her into one final act of resistance. She drew up her foot, slammed it down hard on his instep. She heard him gasp with pain, felt his grip loosen. She brought her head forward, found the soft flesh of his hand, bit down as hard as she could. She shook her head violently, her teeth still fastened, until she heard him howl, and his hands flew away. She felt blessed air rush into her lungs, swung her elbow back, felt a satisfying crack as it struck his face.
She heard him cry out again, saw his shadow, cast by the glow of the computer screen, flash across the wall in front of her as he went down, tumbling over her desk, scattering files, the pictures of her family, the spray of summer flowers she’d learned to dry herself. She was already running for the door, her hands grappling for the handle, the metal slipping in her hands like some object from a dream you just can’t hold…
…until mercifully she had it, the door opened, slammed behind her, and she was out in the long hallway, alone. She glanced at the door helplessly—no way to secure it—then bolted away down the hall, her bare feet slapping the cool tile, echoes that died behind her as she run. Door after door flashed past her, bland titles, no comfort in any of them: Media Research, Communications Services, the several portals into Archives. She reached a broad intersection, hesitated, heard a door slam down the hallway behind her. She drew a kind of sobbing breath, turned left, ran down the wide hallway toward the Convocation Center. A huge arena, two dozen exits there, out to the vast parking lot, her car…and then she remembered with a pang that nearly took her legs from under her: the keys. Yes. Still in the pocket of her coat, back in her office.
Her lungs were burning now, her side ached, her throat was raw. Footsteps pounded behind her and she had to keep going. Going somewhere.
She fastened her gaze on the big double doors fifty yards away and forced her rubbery legs to move. She could make it to the hall. And then she could get outside. And somehow she’d find help.
She glanced behind her, found her pursuer had not yet reached the turn. She turned back, thinking she had thirty yards, twenty-five…
If she could just make it through those doors before he saw her, perhaps she’d have a chance. She was gasping when she reached them, clawing at the handles, the first door unyielding, but the second—yes, yes, thank God—swinging open at her touch. She glanced back to see the hallway still empty, then she was through the doors and closing them quickly behind her.
She paused inside the silent cavern of the arena, steadying herself against a stand that held a marble baptismal font, a stack of collection plates, an usher’s candle damper in a notched sleeve. A series of life-sized saints, figures from biblical lore, and some characters who were the outright invention of the Reverend James Ray Willis seemed to stare down at her from their niches along the walls of the vast arena. All the accoutrements of salvation, she thought, none of them much good to her now. She’d lost her claim to grace, that was plain enough. She’d been found out, discovered wallowing in sin and degradation, proven herself unworthy, never mind that she’d been tricked. And damn it, that was still no reason to die.
Her breath thundered in her ears, and she forced herself to rest another moment, savoring the silence that surrounded her, the familiar tang of new carpet and bindery glue and whatever vague residue of beingness still hovered in the air from last Sunday’s visit: 10,000 faithful souls who’d come to hear James Ray Willis proclaim God’s word and would come again the next and the next.
She edged herself up to the tiny window set high in the door, used the breaker bar to balance on her tiptoes until finally she could see. There was a gold-filigree mesh that reinforced the glass and tinted it somehow, giving an undersea cast to the light that streamed through from beyond, but there was no mistaking it: the hallway lay glistening and empty. Perhaps she’d lost him after all. Perhaps he’d lost his nerve, was even now retreating…
She was almost dizzy with the possibility of safety when the face shot up before her, the twisted features no more than an inch away from her own. The snarl he gave when he saw her vibrated the glass between them, and she fell back screaming as the door began to buck in her hands.
She felt herself being pulled outward, into the hallway, and leaned back with everything she had, digging her toes into the carpeting for purchase. She managed to get the latch engaged again, and, still hanging desperately to the breaker bar, pulled the lock switch down by dragging her cheek painfully over it. She was still hanging to the bar when she heard glass shatter above her, and looked up to see his bloodied hand groping wildly her way.
She fell back, felt herself emitting little grunts that were as much expressions of rage as of fear. He gave up trying to reach her then, and began to paw about the inside of the door. The latch, she thought. He’s going for the latch.
She watched him grope about for a moment, feeling mesmerized, as if she were some poor bird caught in the gaze of a snake…and then her gaze landed on the baptismal font. She staggered to the stand, unsheathed the brass candle damper, and found it satisfyingly heavy. She measured herself, drew back then, and swung, closing her eyes at the moment the thing struck home and his scream echoed down the long hallway outside.
She listened to the curses and moans issuing through the broken window for a moment, realizing that she’d managed to peel away a layer of skin on her own cheek, but the pain and the trickle of blood were nothing to her now. She tossed aside the heavy candle damper and ran up one of the broad aisleways toward a glowing exit sign.
She banged through the swinging doorways into the atrium, and stifled another scream when she saw the figure standing in front of her, hand extended in a gesture of fellowship. A cardboard cutout of the Reverend James Ray Willis, welcoming all who approached into the blessed fold. She slammed the thing aside with a swipe of her arm, sent it tumbling into the always babbling Stream of Mercy that coursed the granite inlay of the entry.
She hurried across the chilly slabs, banged against the breaker bar at the central bank of glass doors and staggered out into the crystal-cold midwestern night. She nearly wept at the sight of her little red sedan, nestled under a vapor light at the edge of the nearby parking lot, for she had remembered something in there as she completed the arc of her candle damper swing: her father’s practical voice echoing in her ears as he handed her another of the gizmos he was fond of bestowing on his children. “You put yourself a key in this magnetized little box here, stick it up under the fender like so, you’ll never have to worry about locking yourself out again.” No matter that she’d never done such a thing in her life, and that he never had either, better safe than sorry his motto, and wasn’t she happy for that now.
She ran across the strip of brittle grass, her bare feet going fiery with the frost that lay there, the pain easing as she reached the warmer asphalt. Moments later, she was kneeling at the rear bumper, her hands groping through a crust of dirt and road grime coating its under edge. Five years since she’d stuck it “just so,” but magnets didn’t wear out with time, did they?
Right beneath the license plate, wasn’t that where she’d left it? Or was it the gas cap? Or the trunk lock? She’d nearly given up, was ready to run on across the lot, not more than a mile out to the highway and there would surely be someone to help there, even at this hour…when her hand found the little case under a mound of dried mud and she wrenched it free, shearing off one of her fingernails in the process.
She tried to open the rusted case without success, banged it a couple of times against the asphalt, tried again. She held the thing to the light, realized she was pushing the top of the case in the wrong direction. This time pried it back at the cost of another nail. Key in her palm now—safe, safe, I’m going to be safe—she rose and, seeing the lights of a car approaching across the vast expanse of parking lot—it couldn’t be him, no way it could be him—and ran to the door of her faithful sedan and felt her feet strike a patch of ice on the asphalt.
She fell so quickly she hardly had time to brace herself. One hand struck the ground, sending a bolt of pain up her wrist, her cheek bouncing off the ice. She lay stunned for a moment, blinking as the lights of the approaching car washed over her. Key, she thought, key! And felt the key still clutched in her good hand. She tried to scramble to her knees, but her wrist crumpled and she was down again, her face, her lips, dragging the asphalt as she desperately scooted and clawed.
A car door opened and slammed closed. “Here, here,” she heard from somewhere above her. A woman’s voice, soothing, kind. She caught a glimpse of sensible black shoes, stockings that ended at the knee, a hemline of dotted Swiss. It might have been her grandmother, someone’s grandmother, she was thinking…and then felt hands lifting her up.
“What’s all this?” the woman’s voice came to her. She stared at the woman, who propped her against the door of her idling car. It was a grandmother: felt hat, crumpled veil, spray of flowers. And there was another figure coming out of the driver’s side and through the glow of headlights: a tall, gaunt, balding man in an ill-fitting dark suit, the very uniform of a farmer-parishioner, and that was the stock in trade of the Reverend James Ray Willis.
She felt a surge of relief, safe now among the salt of the earth. “I’m all right,” she managed.
“Of course you are, dearie,” the woman said. She turned to her husband then and smiled. “She says she’s all right, hon.”
“Why, heck, yes, she is,” the man said, and he was wearing the same smile.
“Wait,” she said. “Are you…?” But she would never finish the thought. For there was an arm about her throat once again. And a terrible pressure. And a bombshell of light that loosed her across the skein of space at last.
# # #
The next service, a Saturday, they arrived early, found seats in the vast center section of the Convocation Center, on eye level with the pulpit. These were the best seats, they’d decided, trial and error over the past several months. Sitting elsewhere, you could get the effect, sort of, but it was a lot like trying to watch a big-screen TV from the corner of a room.
“It’s a waste of time getting here so early just to sit,” the tall man told his wife.
“Did you have something better to do?” she asked him. “We got us traveling on our agenda. We could be at the airport, watching this on TV.”
“We’ve got plenty of time,” she said. “Besides, what if it was the Reverend himself today?”
He glanced at the stage. “It hasn’t been the Reverend himself for over a year now. Why would it be today?”
“Just a feeling,” she shrugged. “All that’s going on.”
She turned her gaze back to the stage, where dozens of people in black skirts and white blouses or black trousers and white shirts were bustling about, armloads of flowers here, little settees and couches there, all the cables, and the cameras, the lights coming up for testing and then dying away, and all the while the people filing into the vast hall, the hundreds turning into thousands. How many of them wanting the same thing, he wondered, that the Reverend himself would come to them on this day.
All the bustling, and the wondering, and the filing in, and the waiting, and then, finally, the lights went down, and a hush descended upon the crowd, and he felt her hand on his arm, her grip growing unconsciously tight, almost painful in anticipation. She wishes he would come so bad, he thought, and it was a wistful feeling that grew in him as well as the lights got dimmer and the ghostly cone of light that illuminated the pulpit grew brighter.
It was amazing, he had to admit, watching the light surrounding the pulpit grow milky and opaque, something swirling around in that beam as if creation itself were under way. Creation it was, of a certain kind, for what it must take to pull off the illusion was well beyond his reckoning.
But still…but still…he thought.
The swirl had become a sinuous twist of smoke, the crowd humming now, the smoke a vague shape, the shape a form, and the form finally revealed itself: the Reverend James Ray Willis standing there, or at least a version of him. Ten feet tall, maybe twelve, maybe more, hard to tell at this distance, his arms lifted in benediction, his smile promising everything good and everlasting. Once upon a time, the man himself had stood in that pulpit, he’d beckon the unwashed forward, lay on hands, heal the sick, soothe the sick at heart. But times had changed.
“Hallelujah,” called the shimmering, holographic image to his flock.
“Hallelujah,” the flock roared back, a sound that would rock them bigger than any cheer out of the football stadium at the college down-state.
“Hallelujah,” his wife called along with them. And so did he, just a moment late, and all the while the man was thinking, still, wouldn’t it be better if it was the Reverend himself? Just once? The devil with all this, all this technology. Was that so much to ask?