With faith as my guide,
I step into the unknown;
No fear of falling.
"Good afternoon, Stan-My-Man. Good afternoon." I greet the security guard with all the irreverent flare I can muster.
The guard's eyes widen at my bright yellow top hat, borrowed from a theatrical stage somewhere in Manhattan, which does not agree with my red tank top and knee-length khaki shorts. But the real kicker's my purple slippers.
"Nice footwear, there.”
"Why, thank you, Stan. Fuzzy and straight out of hell's bedroom, right? Only the best for Virtual Design, my friend. Only the best." I dance a little jig through the metal detector. "Which is why I'm here, no doubt." I smile at the expression on Stan's face, a study in begrudging respect. But I can afford to rattle people like Stan, as I am the director of Professional Recess, the number one corporate party consulting firm on the east coast, if not the world. A specialized business niche, yes, but also a very lucrative one. And tonight is going to be more lucrative than most, as the tech company being served (Virtual Design) seems quite happy to spend like there's no tomorrow.
"Getting paid overtime tonight, Stan?" I know the answer but ask the question just the same.
"Press your thumb, please." Stan can be seriously professional when he wants to be.
"Sure." I allow the pedestal reader to confirm my identity. "'Now I'm just a number.'"
Ignoring my lyrical reference, Stan waves me along. "All your stuff is in the next room."
"Good to hear, Stan. Now, tell me, are you going to be having fun at this little shindig tonight, or are you just going to frown as everyone passes you by?"
"I have my duties."
"Yes, you do, Stan. Yes, you do.”
No reason to continue to torture the security guard – he's not as much fun as my girlfriend Cherise - so I open the door in the back of the room and exit the windowed foyer of Virtual Design's Executive Building as swiftly as I arrived.
On the other side, I find everything set up just as I planned it. There's a computerized podium in the middle of the first floor antechamber, and a table standing next to it with dozens of white gift boxes on top. The boxes are all tied with blue ribbons, and I shake my head. Damn, that's a lot of money.
Money. Now there's something to think about. What fool would decide to throw the most expensive party in Virtual Design's history right after their stock prices have dropped – across all sectors – for the fourth quarter in a row? What fool, indeed. And the answer to that question would be none other than Condit, of course. The top dog. Or naked prince, depending on how you want to look at it.
Naked in his love for projects that are nothing more than resource absorbing black holes. Throws money and influence around willy-nilly. Or that's what I've been told. I've even heard his latest "secret" project psychologically damaged its participants. Phillip H. and Emily F. - the twin stars of Project Immersion - apparently suffered so much that now they're speaking with lawyers looking to sue. Crazy.
Of course, rumor's not always right. And I'm pretty damn sure that the director of Virtual Design still has an ace or two up his sleeve. After all, Condit did tell me a few things. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot. "Stan," I advise through my earbud PDA, already hooked into the building's system, "Give Phillip H. carte blanche through security. No such thing as contraband in his case. Good. Thanks, Stan. Kisses." Sorry, I can't help it. He's just asking to be fucked with.
And, speaking of fucking, I wonder if Cherise will be here tonight. After all, I do have "free" access to floor number seven, and it'd be a shame to let that go to waste. Virtual Design's own little replica of a Japanese love hotel. What more could I ask for?
A lot, actually. Like reassurance. See, Condit wants me to spy on the party's attendees. And to be sure I don't shirk my detective duties, he's decided to hold Cherise hostage. How? By threatening to station her in France, of all places, in some kind of lockdown facility. And he can, because her job is the one thing Cherise values in this world more than me. Damn. But, oh well, this is what I signed on for. And the pay is nice. Just need to be careful with Condit.
What he wants seems easy enough to do. At least, that's what I tell myself. I just need to keep an eye out for anything unusual. Particularly anything relating to Phillip and Emily, who might not even show up tonight. And why would they? I know I wouldn't want to attend a party held by the company that'd damaged my mind, not unless I had a pretty good game plan. But what game could they possibly play that Condit wouldn't find out about?
God, I'm getting nervous.
Boaz and Jakin are the first arrivals to really spark my interest. Since they were in charge of the failure called Project Immersion, I need to dig a little. Jakin's face is sunburned. I heard they were on vacation, yet, here they are. Together. Which is doubly curious because I also heard they hate each other.
Like a vampire in sunlight, Boaz squints under the bright yellow fluorescents shining down and searing the room free of shadows. "Festive," is his one-word commentary on both the room and my attire. "Are these they?" He motions towards the gift boxes.
"Yes, in-deed-y. Now, let's see here. Boaz." I mark the podium with my finger. "And Jakin." 101 and 201. Locating the proper boxes, I hand them over.
Boaz and Jakin, never really acknowledging one another's presence, silently engage themselves in unwrapping their party favors. Afterwards, they both don the visors they find inside, which are like the black visual sealants normally used for online entertainment, only with a twist.
"Clear glass, huh?" Jakin surveys the room through his visor.
"Yep. Each visor is individually attuned to the mind of the wearer and will overlay the real world as seen through the glass with virtual images projected on the glass. Plus, there're earbuds for sound." Having explained this a few times already, it rolls right off my tongue.
"So, the virtual meets the real, eh?" Jakin shakes his head, appreciating the technology.
"Nice sunburn. Why aren't you still out at the lake, or wherever you were?"
Jakin straightens. "Heard this party would be too good to miss, Aleph. That is your name, right?"
"Right." So, I'm not the only one who's been asking questions. I wonder what these two are up to. "Decided to come to this shindig together, did you?”
Jakin smiles and then coughs. Boaz is the one who answers. "We've got a little business to attend to. Nothing major. Just something unfinished.”
I wait for him to elaborate, but he doesn't. So, I decide to make a little joke as they head towards the stairs: "Do please be sure to immerse yourselves completely in the festivities!"
Neither Boaz nor Jakin give any visible reaction, but I'm sure they're wondering just how much I might know about Project Immersion and maybe even about their agenda for tonight, whatever it might be.
I leave a voicemail for Condit, hoping that I'm doing a good enough job to keep Cherise working here in New York, rather than that Paris lockdown. Not sure, though, as I didn't really learn too much. I'm not the world's most effective interrogator.
Others arrive. Quite a large number of others, as a matter of fact. And, amazingly, everyone is given a visor, although not all of them are personalized. Most are, though. And the most personal of all the visors are the two I am about to hand to my most important and surprising guests: Phillip and Emily. Now I really must pay attention, so I can make myself useful to Condit.
As Phillip holds the door open for her, Emily steps through, only to stop and gaze distrustfully about the brightly lit room. She visibly heaves an inaudible sigh. Phillip nudges her forward from behind. He has a small black backpack slung over his shoulder. Backpack? Odd. As for Emily, she has a fresh white rose tucked in the yellow belt cinched around her waist. Attractive couple, really, although their body language speaks of distance. When they finally approach, I give a little bow. "And you would be?"
Saying her name, Emily runs her eyes down my impeccably dressed self from top hat to slippers, blinking a bit at my show-stopping footwear. Yes, these babies are the best things I have ever worn.
Phillip and Emily, like Boaz and Jakin, must have some agenda for being here, an agenda that Condit probably wouldn't like one little bit. After all, what makes you want to party with a company you're planning on suing?
Phillip looks towards the stairs and asks about the "JUMP HERE" sign. I turn around and announce, "That's the way up, or down, depending on your perspective. Forward is the general direction understood by people in your situation."
"Situation?" Phillip sounds off balance.
"With impetus." Cryptic, I know, but hey, that's just me.
Phillip crosses his arms. "So, do you give riddles to all the guests, or are we special?"
My answer is nothing more than an enigmatic smile, and this has the desired effect. Phillip breaks eye contact, and Emily shifts her weight from one foot to the other.
I hand over their visor gift boxes, playing a little game by first giving Phillip Emily's visor, which of course doesn't work on Phillip. When he notices this, I pretend to have made an honest mistake, which I immediately correct.
But I do more than just mess with these two lovebirds' minds. I also remind them that the visors are all connected to a computer network that monitors everything. The visors effectively see what their wearers see, both in the real world and in the virtual.
"Kinda creepy." Phillip swallows, and I think he may be having second thoughts about whatever it is he and Emily have planned.
I then watch in amusement as they discover what happens to be, in my humble opinion, the visors' most amazing feature: visual erasure. When you don a visor and look at someone else who is wearing one, you can't see the visor that the other person is wearing. You just see their face. There's the slightest bit of distortion, but it's really quite negligible.
"Wow," says Phillip.Emily seems not so impressed. "Let's get things started."
Chastened, Phillip asks me if there are any more needed preparations.
I see this as my golden opportunity to give my prepared script, the one Condit gave me a few days ago, just in case: "No, no more preparations. Of course, some things you can't really prepare for. Takes all the fun out of it. Just don't be afraid to jump. You've got twenty-one more floors to fall up through, and you will find, when you reach the top, that you were really ready for everything all along. That, or your climb will end prematurely. Best of luck to you both."
"Is this the same script you give all the guests?" When I don't answer, Phillip turns to Emily. "Well, let's go before I change my mind. I've got calls to make, people to see. Hell, we might even run into Boaz and Jakin, don't you think?"
Emily answers something or other, but my mind begins to race. Phillip and Emily and Boaz and Jakin? Could they be here for the same reason? Something having to do with Project Immersion? I need to call Condit.
As Phillip and Emily head up the stairs, I leave another voicemail and then wait for more guests to arrive. After a fairly uneventful hour, Cherise comes walking in. Yes! And she is wearing, below the hem of her bright yellow dress, her own pair of purple slippers that complement mine just perfectly.
"They picked someone else for France. I have to stay here."
"Oh, baby, when did they tell you?"
"Really, on a Friday night?"
She just shrugs and looks into my eyes. "How much longer do you have to man this podium, babe?"
"Why? You want to get me out of these slippers?"
She smiles. "Oh yeah."
Thank you, Condit!