Thousand Words for August 12, 2017

Despite the fact that it was the middle of the day and the middle of the week, the store was full of people. What job do these people have that they can shop at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday? the man thought as he paced up and down the aisles dodging carts. His contact was due in at 2:15 pm; Marley liked to be early, and he was walking around the store, examining the well-appointed shelves, marveling at the high prices of everything. Even after six-months of period training, forty-five years of inflation came to him as a bit of a shock. {i}Eight dollars for a gallon of milk? {/i}{i}How do these people do it?{/i} he thought.

As he was considering the vast array of frozen, Heat ‘n Serve Mexican food inside one of the glass-front standing freezers, he suddenly became aware of eyes on him, and he turned to see a child, perhaps eight years old, clinging to the side of a cart and staring at him. Marley knew from his extensive pre-mission training that children could often be accurate indicators of the quality of cover because of their lack of inhibition. The child’s mother was busy comparing brands of frozen chicken, a box in each hand, but the child herself had eyes on Marley.

He stared back, then took a step toward the child; this startled her, and she clutched harder at her mother’s cart. He took another step and she moaned. 

“What’s the matter with–” the mother started. In a moment, she saw that the girl’s eyes were frozen, and then she looked up, seeing immediately that a strange man was staring at her daughter.  She didn’t speak, but she gave Marley the What the hell are you looking at? face, which is equivalent in every language and culture. Marley found something else to occupy his glance and stepped off down the aisle, the woman’s eyes on him as he turned the corner.

Once out of sight, he looked down at himself to see if anything obvious was wrong, something that the girl might have noticed, but he couldn’t see anything, and since no one else was looking at him funny, he decided that he must have reminded the girl of someone–her father, maybe–and moved on. He was in the coffee aisle when the girl rounded the corner, saw him, and stepped forward.

“I know who you are!” she said. She said it in the taunting, sing-song, nyah nyah nyah that all eight-year-olds know. Then she repeated it, louder and more sing-songy–the other people in the aisle were looking and Marley decided that he had to do something before she got any louder.

“Are you referring to me?” he asked calmly, and immediately he realized his mistake. 

His calm, rational question was an approach that might have worked–almost certainly would have worked–with an eight-year-old in the 24th century, an eight-year-old that had been fortified in the womb with hormones and enzymes to accelerate the development of rationality and self-awareness, then stimulated with bio-plus radiation and stimulants in toddlerhood to improve dendrite growth and connection, and finally machine-taught with implants and speed-scanners to organize and harden the neural pathways. But none of these things had been done for this girl; this was the 20th century, and the girl responded as a 20th-century eight-year-old would. She screwed up her face, shot her tongue out, and disappeared around the end of the aisle.

Marley looked at his watch–or what purported to be a watch. It told the time, all right, as well as performing a host of other functions, but for now, the time was enough. He saw that it was precisely 2:14 and 58 seconds, and just as the digits clicked over to 2:15:00, his contact came around the end of the same aisle that the girl had ran around. 

To Marley’s surprise, the contact recognized him immediately and walked straight up to him, the scowl on his face growing sterner with every step. “Dammit, man,” he said, his British accent a little iffy, “you screw this up and we’re going to have to go to a lot of trouble to fix it.”

“What do you mean?” Marley responded, genuinely surprised–and feeling more vulnerable by the second.

Muza midoka ib possica’d prendku sha fiqu’dom Masjosam smashily, the contact said sharply, using the language the two men shared in their own timeline. 

Uquida’lee! Meoridasa! Duer duer! he continued, uncomfortably close. Then he stepped back.  “Get yourself together, Masjo,” he said, using the agglunative of Marley’s 24th-century name. “Let us meet and do our work together at the Fourth Alternative, yes?”

“The Fourth Alternative. Yes, of course,” Marley replied.

Possica’d prendku sha’l, the contact repeated. He turned on his heel and stepped back down the aisle, the way he came. As he rounded the end and disappeared, the girl’s mother, still pushing the cart, came into view. The girl was nowhere to be seen, but the mother had her eyes locked on Marley and she pushed the cart right up to him.  

As the woman approached, Marley noticed her hair. It was properly disheveled, it was properly tied up, but–when she got close, Marley noticed the tie had slipped a little, exposing a very thin strip of shiny metal. 

Platstro klacki plum celic’ster, she said as she passed. He turned, but the woman didn’t look back. 

Then the girl appeared in his peripheral vision; she too was staring at him in disgust as she passed. “I know who you are,” she said–not tauntingly this time, but flatly, rolling her eyes.  “And so does everyone else.”

“No, they don’t,” he protested, but already she was turning the corner to join her mother.

Marley stepped up to the shelf, grasped the first item his hand fell on—a jar of pickled capers—and started moving toward the checkout, dreading the close-in contact he’d have with the cashier and reviewing the procedures mentally as he shuffled along: Put the item on the belt, step up, don’t speak, but answer back if spoken to. He was mentally reviewing appropriate responses to the range of likely greetings the cashier might offer when out of the corner of his eye, he saw the signal card. 

It was stuck in between two gallon-sized coffee cans on Aisle Four.  To the untrained eye—and in the 21th century, all eyes were untrained—it looked like nothing.  A piece of a merchandising coupon perhaps, or part of a cast-off wrapper.  To Marley’s eye, it screamed.

He looked around, decided there were no Watchers in sight, and stepped down Aisle Four toward it. 

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