Unified Murder Theorem, Part IV
Jeff Zias



Synopsis

They killed the guitar player on a Thursday night, as he sat in the bar, playing his blue-glowing guitar. The last words the hit men said were simply: "Goodbye from Nattasi."

Jack Cruger, an accordion instructor, leads a mundane life -- ╩except when trying to make a baby with his beautiful wife Corrina. But all of that changes the moment that Tony Steffen walks in his door. Tony gives Cruger an accordion to play -- and blue light appears inside it when he plays. In addition, he plays better than he's ever played before.

Tony informs Cruger that the blue strands of light coming out of the accordion are strings, each representing a path, a possible outcome. Cruger has been chosen to be a "spinner" of strings by the "Company," -- an organization whose job it is to create and support all worlds, galaxies, and universes. The company's chairman prefers to have living beings "spin" the fates... but there's a catch -- there's another company, one that does what you expect the Devil to do. If Cruger spins for the "good guys," he'll be given protection in return --╩other spinners will ensure that neither he nor his family will be harmed... except for what is beyond their control, such as intervention from the Other Company.

Tony, occasionally accompanied by a beautiful young woman named Sky, sometimes visits with Cruger. Tony tells him that many of the company's executive positions are still held by aliens, most from the planet named Tvonen. The Tvonens are now very advanced --╩but their technology is completely analog-based, with no digital electronics at all. Earth is quickly becoming more technologically adept than the Tvonens. The Tvonens believe that human thought, with its pursuit of the Grand Unified Theorem --╩a theorem that could describe every detail of the functioning of the universe --╩would give the Company a giant edge in its ability to guide the universe.

Tony is in charge of implementing the theory into a computer system that will allow the Company to have such control over the universe. Obviously, such a prospect is not taken lightly by the Other Company, operated by renegade Tvonens and shape-shifting aliens known as Chysans.

But then Cruger finds Tony dead on his doorstep, and Cruger's neighbor Leon Harris, watching from next door, comes over and takes Cruger inside to call the police. In a panic, Cruger runs outside, only to find Tony's body gone. When Harris tries to grab him, he gets a powerful taste of Cruger's otherworldly insurance policy. Cruger, now without Tony, decides to let Harris in on what the Company is.

In the wake of Tony's death, the two go in search of Tony's girlfriend Sky. They succeed in tracking her down, but she says she's never heard of anyone named Tony. The school has no records of Tony's existence. It's as if he's been erased from existence.

After being attacked by a group of thugs from the Other Company -- and being saved by the insurance policy -- Cruger and Harris try to figure out Tony's notes and how he could have been using his computer to control the entire universe.

From above, in a ship orbiting the Earth, God -- the company's Chairman -- looked down down on Harris and Cruger and saw possible sucessors. He had been Chairman for two thousand years, but it would be time to go soon. Since the use of Earth's technology would be what gave the Company power over the universe, it seemed fitting that a human should be the next chairman. These two men, the Chairman realized, were the Company's best hope, if the Other Company didn't get to them first.

Cruger and Harris are introduced to Neswick, an IRS agent who doubles as their new Company supervisor. His daughter, Tamara, quickly becomes intimately involved with Harris.

One night, while playing, Cruger is paid a visit by someone who seems to be a future version of himself: except this one says he and Harris have become God. The future Cruger also plays a guitar and is conspicuously missing a wedding ring. After exchanging arguments, the future Cruger disappears.

In a fit of suspicion about Neswick, Cruger follows Neswick to the airport, where he sees him rendezvous with his daughter, Tamara. Nothing strange there. But then, almost under his nose, Cruger recognizes a face: Sky! She kisses Neswick and then Tamara, laughing and talking.

Cruger feels his stomach sink at least a yard. He knows innocent coincidences like this are harder to find than dodo birds. Much harder.



Chapter Twenty-Nine

The unconscious is not just evil by nature, it is also the source of the highest good: not only the dark but also the light, not only bestial, semihuman, and demonic, but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classic sense of the word, "divine."
--Carl Gustave Jung

"Leon, I have a strange question for you. If you tell me to eat dirt, I'll understand."

"Wow, I can't wait to hear it: ask away."

"Will you let Corinna hypnotize you? I have a theory I want to follow up on."

Harris was surprised. "Does your wife know how to hypnotize people?"

"Sure. She was a therapist before we were married. They taught her in school: it's a standard technique." Cruger grinned. "No sweat."

"Has she done it since then?"

"Well, she hypnotized me once before we were married, but it's like riding a bike, you know? If you've done it you don't forget."

"And how do I know my brain won't be scrambled? And there might be things I wouldn't want to tell your wife." Harris grinned. "Might make her think twice about being with a guy like you."

"Um," Cruger said, "I'll take my chances."

"Uh huh." Harris paused a moment. "Ok, what the hell."

The two of them walked the fifty feet to Cruger's house. Corinna was home; they found her in the kitchen sorting through the mail.

"Hi, honey," Cruger said, and kissed her on the cheek. "You remember Leon Harris? Lives next door?"

"Sure," Corinna smiled and extended her hand. "Good to see you again, Mr. Harris."

"I've got a favor to ask, Corinna. Could you hypnotize Mr. Harris?"

Corinna stopped, junk mail in one hand and bills in the other. "Could I what?"

"You know, take him under so I can ask him a few questions."

"You've got to be kidding." She looked at Harris. "He's kidding, right?"

Harris fidgetted. "Uh, I thought you said this wouldn't be a problem, Jack."

"It's not." Cruger set his hand on Corinna's arm. "It's nothing serious, honey. It's just that, um, he's curious. He's never been hypnotized before and wants to see what it's like."

"That's not a good reason." Corinna said in a firm voice.

"Well, that's not the whole reason, really..." Cruger went on. His thoughts were racing. Should he tell her about the Company? About what he and Harris were doing? He wished he'd thought this through a little further.

"So what's the real reason for this?" Corrina was looking hard into his eyes.

"Um," Cruger started. "You see, uh, we..."

"We have a bet." Harris said sheepishly. Corinna and Cruger both turned toward him.

"A bet?"

"Well, not exactly," said Cruger.

"He doesn't believe that I was at the airport last night."

Corinna's eyes narrowed. "I don't get it."

Cruger jumped in. "See, I don't think he was at the airport because he was on a hot date with Tamara, and he says there's nothing going on between them." Cruger crossed his arms and smiled. "I've got fifty dollars on this."

"This is crazy, Jack." Corinna dropped the junk mail into the trash. "No."

Cruger took her hand. "Please, just once? I'll never bug you about it again." He looked into her eyes and tried to seem as sincere as possible. He knew sincerity counted at times like this.

Corinna appeared to reconsider. She turned back to Harris. "You're really willing to do this?"

Harris shifted and put his hands in his pockets. "Um, sure. Yeah."

"Alright." Corinna's mouth formed a straight line. "But just this once. And you'll use that money to take me to dinner. When did you plan on doing this?"

"Well, how about now?" said Cruger.

"Now? I've got to work in three hours!"

"How long will this take?"

"Long enough!"

"We don't have much time... we really need to get this settled. Please?"

There was a moment when Cruger almost thought she was going to say no, but then she nodded and led them into the living room. She made Harris sit down and, with a glare at Cruger, she began.

First, she systematically relaxed each part of his body, then told him a repetitive story about a man traveling downward, and further downward, on a fast, smooth, elevator. When Harris was definitely under, she nodded to Cruger.

"Leon, it's last night and you're at home. Can you remember that?"

"Yes." Harris' voice was entirely relaxed.

"What did you do?"

"Tamara came over. We talked and had some wine."

Cruger's raised his eyebrows; Corina pursed her lips. "Anything else you can remember?" Cruger asked.

"We had sex, then we went to sleep. We were tired."

Cruger smiled widely for Corinna's benefit, then thought for a minute."When you went to sleep, do you remember anything in particular, any dreams?" Corinna glared at him, but he ignored her.

Harris was silent. His face was slightly tensed compared to a moment before. Finally, he began forming words.

"I do remember a little. I was dreaming, I think. Yes, I was with Tamara." Harris's talking was very soft, barely audible. Cruger moved closer to hear better.

"She stood me up, and held my hands," Harris said. "We were both naked. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be meditating, thinking very hard. My body became light and for a minute I couldn't see at all because of a bright light shining all around us. But, I could still feel Tamara's hands, warm, almost too hot to touch, in my hands."

Cruger paused for a moment, trying to anticipate Corinna's objections to the direction of his questions, but her objections never came. He glanced at her; she sat silently, leaning forward in her chair. "Um, go on," Cruger said, trying to make his voice sound calm and assured.

"I must have just slept more for a while and then, all of a sudden, I was awake, and everything was extremely cold. I slowly opened my eyes, just a little at a time because hot, sticky air was sort of stinging. When I opened them up I was in a strange place, really strange.

"The air was misty with pockets of steam, and the ground was this dark green and purple color. Bright and shiny. The land was flat but all I saw around me were really smooth shiny black rocks, the ground, and these big balloon-looking things all over the place which were kind of like trees.

"I heard a noise and then looked around behind me. There was this little purplish thing, a creature. It had lots of arms and legs and the face was ugly -- looked like a monkey with a frog's skin. This thing took my arm and led me toward this big smooth rock. There was a hole in the ground next to it, and this thing led me down the hole; it was like an entrance to a cave but very steep.

"We went down these corridors and then came to a room with torches lighting it. The room was filled with these creatures, they just appeared out of nowhere with all of their arms and ugly skin. A few of them blended into the walls behind them like chameleons."

Harris seemed to lose his train of thought as he paused for a moment, swallowing hard and licking his lips.

Corinna was still silent, so Cruger pressed on. "What happened next?"

"Then they all started making noise. They all seemed to be talking at once. They started forming this circle, joining all of their hands together and making this noise, this humming sort of noise. One of them pushed me into the center of the circle, then I swear I heard one of them laugh -- I mean a real human laughing sound.

"They closed in really tight all around me. They stuck out hands and touched me, but, all of a sudden, I wasn't scared. Their hands were warm and smooth; I relaxed and stood there with their hands holding me up. Then it was very strange. I felt myself talking to myself, in a way. It was as if they were asking me hundreds of questions rapid fire and my brain was answering them. Every thought I had seemed to elicit some kind of feedback that I felt in their hands. I don't know how much time passed. I remember feeling tired then. Next thing I knew, I was in my bed at home just waking up."

"Did you feel like you just dreamed this?" Cruger asked.

"No. It seemed real. I told Tamara. She thought it was pretty funny. She said I've been reading too much science fiction lately."

Cruger paused, then looked toward Corinna. "I think we're done."

Corinna took a moment to respond, then she slowly began to bring Harris out of the trance. Cruger stood up and made for the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Then he sat down and slowly began to rub his temples. From the living room, he could hear Corinna's gentle voice--just a soothing sound, no words.

As Harris' story sunk in, Cruger's stomach muscles tightened to a knot. He could almost smell his own sweat, as the perspiration crept down his shirt sleeves. The pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together, and he didn't like the image that was forming. It looked like a big lemon. Now, how to make lemonade?



Chapter Thirty

The next evening Cruger went over to see Harris at Tony's office, carrying a beaten-up guitar behind him and feeling a bit guilty about abandoning his accordion.

Had Harris figured out the whole picture, part of the picture, none of the picture, or just about everything? Hopefully he had figured out enough, because it was beginning to look like they were in a race against time.

"Do you know how this spinning works? Have you found anything like the code for that in the programs?" Cruger asked.

"I think I know how it's set up. I've made a basic assumption concerning the transference of energy -- given the models for spinning that I know about."

"Well, good. Actually, I have a reason for asking. You promise not to laugh at me when I ask you a question?"

"All right," Harris said, "I can't wait to hear this one. I promise to not split a gut or anything, but can I just smirk a little bit?"

"OK; smirk away. Here it is: I've been thinking of playing -- and spinning -- with a guitar. Do you think you can fix it so that my spinning works with the guitar?"

To Cruger's surprise Harris answered seriously, although it did look like he was smirking. "I was wondering why you had that thing with you. Look, I think I know how to set it up. It would be a pretty good test to see if my theory about spinning is right."

"Now wipe that smirk off your face; you've enjoyed this enough already," Cruger said.

"Why do you want to have a guitar to spin with anyway?" Harris asked as if he wanted the information for his files. Probably very orderly files.

"All of this is so ironic, don't you think? Once I saw a cartoon that showed a man on his way through the pearly gates being handed a harp. The caption read: 'Welcome to heaven.' In the frame below, a man was being handed an accordion and the caption read: 'Welcome to hell.' I want to make sure my name shows up on the correct employee roster."

"Good point," Harris said. "the accordion is pretty hellacious. I'll chalk this up as a piece of pro bono work -- change for the good."

Harris sat at the computer, entering new descriptive identifiers for Cruger's guitar. After about fifteen minutes had gone by, Harris asked him to try playing the guitar a little to see if it worked yet. Cruger struck a few chords on the instrument, and played a quick melodic minor scale, up and down. No blue light -- nothing in the tone of the instrument was extraordinary in the least. The cheap thirty-dollar guitar sounded like a cheap thirty-dollar guitar.

"Wait, I think I know what's wrong." Harris shook his head and kept on working.

Cruger held the guitar across his knee and struck a simple chord. Something was different; the sound was deeper, fuller. He continued to play and the instrument gained momentum, starting to resonate fully on every note. The higher harmonics intensified, ringing out richly across the room. Then, bending over the instrument as he played, Cruger saw a pale blue light shining from within the body of the small guitar.



Chapter Thirty-One

Getting the jump on them was easy. Cruger grabbed the phone, called Ms. Branner at the IRS, and said he was from the travel agency. Just confirming the flight to Denver, that's right miss, Mr. Neswick's next flight is... what did you say? The twenty-third, 1 p.m., that's correct. And rental car is... Avis, did you say? Right again.

So Cruger got to Denver on an earlier flight.

But the stakeout wasn't much fun. A stakeout is especially tiresome for a guy who doesn't know what he's doing.

Cruger sat in his rental car waiting for Neswick to pull out of the airport. There was only one exit from the Avis lot; he hoped he would recognize Neswick when he drove past. Cruger's stomach started to rumble every couple of minutes; it sounded loud enough Cruger worried a cop would come knock on his window, telling him to turn down his subwoofers. Ain't no subwoofers, he would have to say, it's my goddamn stomach: You have a candy bar or something? and the cop would go away with that puzzled-cop look on his serious face.

Finally, twenty minutes after Neswick's plane was supposed to have landed, Cruger saw him pulling out in a Ford Taurus. Must not have had luggage, Cruger thought as he turned the key in the ignition.

Cruger kept a safe distance; but he could see two passengers that looked to be Sky and Tamara. Neswick went south on 25 and stayed on all the way to Colorado Springs, then went through town and back into the foothills.

They stopped at a large house on quiet street that gave at least an acre to each home. The lots were lined by random assortments of gigantic boulders and jagged granite.

Cruger pulled up to the house down the street. He was close enough to see Neswick, Tamara, and Sky as they walked up to the door and knocked. It opened a crack, and the three filed inside. Cruger thought he saw a glint of silver from the clothing inside, but the door closed before he could be sure.

Cruger drove up to the house, got a closer look. The name NATASSI, in small white letters, was painted on the cedar box resting on the cracked 4x4 post alongside the steep driveway.

Cruger drove down the hill and got himself the closest Best Western hotel room. There was only one Natassi in the phone book. Theodore Natassi. He was on 266 Garden Rock road, right where Cruger had followed Neswick and crew. He imagined a trained detective would know what to do as he showered and lay on the bed, drifting into an unplanned nap.



Neswick and Tamara were talking in the other room -- Natassi could hear Neswick with his annoying, dull voice telling her about the mountains and the American Indians and the Rockies wildlife as if he were lecturing a college class.

Natassi turned towards Sky. She was sitting the parquet kitchen table, eating dozens of cookies, seemingly oblivious to the ponderous bulk he turned towards her.

"Tell me about the school you attend," he asked Sky. He watched for her reaction, more important to him than anything she would say. Her expression did not change. He wanted to probe, but would start soft. Maybe in conversation she'd slip -- a grimace, a frown -- and tell him something, maybe something he really wanted to know.

"Not much to tell," she said without looking up, and then, "You know, I can eat a million of these things, these cookies, and not get fat. All the girls at school are starving themselves to try to get thin, and I eat all day long. Cracks me up." Sky, the wicked mistress of pure innocence. Natassi both hated and admired her ability to play the innocent foxy-cute teenager. They should give awards, he thought, for such great acting. She was the best. An Oscar to the alien girl who plays the airhead but is really Satan's handmaid.

"You've heard about someone breaking the rules? The deletions?" Natassi watched her face closely. "I want to find out who it is," Natassi said, making his voice stern. "You wouldn't have any ideas, would you? Operatives behaving abnormally? Getting too... involved here on Earth?"

She met his eyes for a moment but didn't say anything, her blue eyes tranquil and seeming to say, "I wish I could help but, alas, I can't." She sat still, wrapped in shorts that barely reached her thighs and a tiny halter top.

Natassi let the silence hang in the room. Why would she do it? Why would Tamara, or any other operative? Maybe a grudge, maybe personality clashes, maybe some of these humans rub you so far the wrong way you just have to take them out. Like Neswick -- like all the Chysans -- rubbed him, only much worse.



Chapter Thirty-Two

Cruger didn't get much further the next day -- no one entered or left the Natassi home. Then Cruger had to catch his flight back, wondering what he accomplished on his trip.

He had told Corrina he was going to the Polka festival in Pueblo. He talked about hearing the Detroit Polish Moslem Accordion Warriors play Love Potion Number Nine and other big hits. He said he sat in with Nose Harp players from New Orleans. She didn't seem to care much, and the next morning was affectionate and athletic in bed, especially for a pregnant woman.



Neswick gestured for Harris and Cruger to sit. It was three days after the mystery weekend and Neswick had called them into an early evening meeting.

"The Company has a large and complex organization, but I'll tell you what you need to know. As you probably already know, a good percentage of the Company is composed of people from Earth.

"Many of the executive positions are still held by managers from elsewhere. The vast majority of these -- well, I'll call them foreigners, sounds better than 'aliens' -- most of them are from the same planet: Tvonen. You won't find this planet on any of your astronomy charts; I assure you. The Chairman himself is a Tvonen."

Cruger raised his eyebrows and exchanged a quick glance with Harris.

"These Tvonen went through a process of evolution quite similar to what the humans have endured. However, a few major differences exist, and I'd like to call attention to these differences."

Cruger noticed that Neswick always sounded as if he were addressing the graduating class at Harvard. The man's stiff, arrogant style bothered him.

"First of all, the Tvonens have creationist mythology like ours. The only irony is, their mythology is not allegorical but factual."

"We're familiar with the origin of the Tvonens. Tony filled me in," Cruger said.

"So you know about a Tvonen undergoing 'the change'?"

Both Cruger and Harris nodded.

"That special enzyme in their bloodstream controls the secretion of the hormone for sexuality. Isn't that cruel?"

"What is their civilization like now?" asked Harris.

"Now they are what we would call a very advanced society. They have technology that you would consider staggering. But, keep in mind, they are much different from humans. For example, they never devised any digital electronics. Their entire technology is based on analog computing and mineral crystals. They also have terrific projective holograms that can transmit with pinpoint accuracy. For clothing, they wear trained microorganisms that are self-cleaning and form-fitting.

"They may be more advanced than humans, but humans are about to pass them up. Digital electronics are more precise, more capable of the infinite. See," said Neswick, "the problem you men have is that you have no concept of the infinite. Once you master that concept, everything else is simple to understand.

"To picture the infinite, look at it this way: think of everything there is -- I mean everything. Okay. Now realize that there is actually a little bit more. You see?"

Harris wondered if this was like when he tried cleaning things dirt and dust from behind the back of the refrigerator.

Cruger scratched his shoulder and felt like a not-particularly- bright Orangutan.

"Always, no matter what, there is a little more. Never can there be everything."

Cruger thought he understood but sarcastically played with the idea that he may not have understood everything that Neswick meant.



Neswick had a different meeting later that day. Now that he had them all in the same room, he could get the message across quickly and simply.

"It has come to my attention that someone is breaking regulations by performing unnecessary deletes."

He scanned the room quickly but, as expected, they all had blocks up.

"The importance of this mission cannot be overemphasized. Every extra delete greatly jeopardizes the work we are doing. Is that clear?"

Of course, they all had entirely unreadable, impassive looks on their faces. He excused them and they left, single file, no one talking.

He wondered if his management would see this as weakness on his part. How could he let this behavior go unpunished? But, how could he punish before he was sure of the identity of the perpetrator?

But playing with the Big Enigma was dangerous. It could only go on for so long.



Chapter Thirty-Three

Sky walked out of class with a small collection of books and a few floppy disks, and Cruger was waiting for her.

"Sky," Cruger said.

"Oh, Hi." She looked at him with some apprehension. If she were a normal high school girl, she might simply be wondering why this grown man had come to talk to her for a second time.

Cruger guessed the apprehension was for a different reason.

"Do you have a few minutes? I need to ask you a couple of questions."

She waved her hand at a few classmates walking by. "Well, okay. I've got some time right now," she said.

They kept walking, drifting toward the benches at the side of the paved walkway.

"What class was that you just got out of?" Cruger said.

"Oh, that's computer lab -- pretty good class."

"Sounds worthwhile. What do you do in there, the whole works?"

"Yeah, I guess," she said.

They sat on a wooden bench, facing away from the flow of students. There was a stretch of grass was in front of them as well as the school's token piece of art, a small bronze statue of a Spanish missionary.

Before he got a word out he knew it was too late. She could evidently read him much better than he thought.

"So you know a lot about us, Cruger. It doesn't matter. Your knowledge is irrelevant," Sky said. Her soft schoolgirl's voice had become steely cold and hard.

"Know what?" Cruger's insincerity was clear both telepathically and explicitly.

Sky smiled a wicked, gleaming smile . "I hope you're proud of yourself. And to think, I sort of liked you." She moved towards Cruger as he stood stationary, ignoring all the impulses he felt to run or do something equally cowardly.

She put her arms around his shoulders and brushed her lips across his cheek. She was changing now, into a taller, more womanly figure. Her light brown skin was unnaturally smooth and perfect, like a photo on a magazine cover. Her eyes became the deepest blue-green Cruger had ever seen.

"You like me too," she murmured.

He tried to move away but she held him with surprising strength. Cruger almost laughed at his predicament: here he was trapped by a student of feminine beauty. Sky had metamorphosed into (probably) the most beautiful woman in the world. She pressed herself closer to him, nearly smothering him in her soft face and cascades of golden-white hair. With one hand she locked his face in a grip much too strong to be coming from her delicate, perfect fingers. Her full lips pressed against his. She caressed his face with her other hand.

"You're mine now," she said.

Cruger tried to take a deep breath to stop his trembling, but it was no use. He was under her control -- no longer a free-thinking individual but a prisoner, a victim, an object of a desire that he had no control over. One pocket of Cruger's frantic brain screamed the survival siren, the other repeated an inappropriate punch line over and over, softly: what a way to go. But it wasn't. This wasn't passion, love, or even animalistically physical. She laughed, reading his small, self-pitying thoughts.

"I don't care what you like. I have plans for you," she said. He listened and felt the reality of her statement dance across his body. Sometimes God throws you a slider, but Satan has the wicked sinker. And he sank. Like a caged animal, he stopped dreaming of escape through the cage door: his spirit was broken; he sank into submission; he gave up.



Chapter Thirty-Four

Cruger came to consciousness and Sky stood before him. She was once more Sky the woman-child; her look of innocence mocked him. Cruger's quick self-survey told him that he was mostly uninjured and sitting cross-legged on the floor, but he felt dizzy. He also felt groggy; his throat felt dry; his eyes were swollen.

"What happened?" he said.

"You passed out. Out cold," she said, emitting a gleeful innocent giggle, as if she had just collected for Unicef or returned from a Girl Scout outing. The perfect voice was back, dancing like snowflakes in a breeze. "You were scared, poor Mr. Cruger," and she laughed again, this time with an air of scorn in her angelic voice.

"What are you going to do to me now? Rape me? Kill me?"

"I've been thinking about it," she said. "You'll be interested to know that I think I'll just let you go."

The thoughts rushed through Cruger's mind before he could stop them: he wanted to immediately go to the office and have Harris delete her. Kill her, erase her, get rid of her forever. Cruger quickly clouded his thoughts with his emotions of relief and the self-applause of his survival system. It seemed to work, Sky showed no visible reaction to his thoughts, if she had been reading him at all.

Cruger's voice was hoarse and weak. He said, "What would they do if they found out about that?"

"Nothing, nothing at all," she said, laughing as she shook her head from side to side. "They're a little disappointed in me, though. Even devils have standards, rules, limits, a sense of balance. I violated them. They can do take me back to Chysa, which is what they were planning anyway. My tenure here is up."

"Your two years of service?"

"Right," she said. "What good would it do for them to kill me? I'm a good little devil -- maybe even an overachiever -- especially if I'm back home where I can't do much damage. I trained for years to do my job; I became one of the very best." A frown came over her inappropriately innocent face; her eyes darkened. "I don't want to go back, but I have to."

"You couldn't hide from them, staying here on earth? Not that I'd want you to stay," Cruger said.

She smirked at him. "No, they can find me anywhere here -- we have tools for that. Within hours they would have me retrieved. No point in trying to hide." She looked him squarely in the eyes. "You know something? I love life here. I've become so human that I can't remember the body I had back home. I'm so human that I'm moony over boys and I shop until I drop and do the mall scene, I mean all the way, Nordstrom cards and an analyst and the whole bit -- all my spoiled friends at school with divorced parents have 'em. I love this body, I love your food and sports and sex and wine. I fit in better here than on Chysa."

Cruger wondered about the implications of devils enjoying themselves on Earth. Not like a duck out of water at all, he thought. The fact that she fit in so perfectly was frightening.

She read his mind. "Right, you aren't just a bunch of angels here, you know."

"And to think you haven't even been to Las Vegas or Manhattan or Bangkok; I think you would love it most of those places," he said.

For a moment she looked almost overwhelmed, as if she were finally imagining her life away from Earth. Her large eyes focused directly on Cruger's. "No, I really can't kill you," she said. "Though you tempt me. What you're doing is important and we have this policy of minimal homicidal intervention with humans. It especially goes for you, since you're important to the future of the universe and that stuff. If I mess with you too much, I might cause a Big Enigma."

"What do you mean, Big Enigma?"

Sky laughed. "You know how the Big Bang starts a universe? Well the Big Enigma is a condition where all of the strings existence conditions cannot be resolved. Everything cranks to a halt. The solution set for all universal planar coordinates would become zero. Consciousness would be static, and we're stuck forever. Major bogus deal, huh?"

Cruger thought about the implications. he wondered if he flirted with the Big Enigma every time he spun. And people had been worried about nuclear weapons and the greenhouse effect, he thought.

"We need to continue the game. There's no game if we don't have players on both sides, right? Go ahead, do what you have to do. Go." Her words were matter of fact. She had decided what to do and luckily it left him alive.

She turned around and said one more thing: "And you know, I'm not the one you're really looking for."

Unfortunately, Cruger knew -- he was now certain. Sky was telling the truth.

She walked away, leaving him to think about that.

In ten minutes Cruger was home and walked next door to see if Harris was there. No luck. Corrina was at work. Thank God. He walked back from Harris's house feeling somehow encapsulated as if a fine magical lore surrounded him and the pavement were undulant and insubstantial. The space in which he moved seemed crystalline and empty; what he felt was horror and relief, all rolled into a tight rock that somehow fit into his gut.



Cruger felt guilty from the start, but he figured he had to do it. He decided to tail her because, what the heck, he was running out of ideas. And he still remembered that his future self hadn't been wearing a wedding ring.

She drove to a nearby shopping mall with a small medical center that Cruger had often seen, but never been to. He saw that there must be some mistake. It wasn't the doctor's office -- at least not the right kind of doctor.

Cruger walked into the waiting room after he saw her, through the half-closed blinds, get up and walk past a large ornate wooden door, into what Cruger presumed were the doctor's inner offices.

He gently walked into the waiting room, happy to see no one was around -- even the receptionist was gone from her counter next to the ornate wooden door. Cruger skulked up to the receptionist area, looked into the appointment book, and read her name, clear as day, even upside-down, written in the book.

Then he got out fast, his heart beating faster than ever, palms cold and sweaty, legs threatening to sink him to the ground. Damn, I knew it ... I knew it, he told himself. When he made it to his car, he just sat there for a while, shaking, waiting for the ability to drive to return so he could get the hell out of there.



Chapter Thirty-Five

Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.
-- Mark Twain

Cruger called Tony's office -- they still called it that -- and Harris answered. He didn't tell Harris anything except that he'd be there in a few minutes.

Cruger tried to act cool, natural. Harris showed Cruger how the database of strings was laid out. The concept of digital representation of every event and person known was staggering.

"Isn't it impossible to have this much information stored on a small computer?" Cruger said.

"Yes, but it's not stored here. This is just God's front end. Inside there's that glob of Tvonen technology that seems to be doing most of the work."

"How close are you to finishing the whole project?"

"Pretty close. I think I can issue any command from here, but I still haven't run the caretaker program."

Cruger looked puzzled.

"The two of us can't control the whole show -- I mean, even if we do end up being God, we're still only human," Harris said. "The caretaker will make sure everything runs smoothly, and will keep threads from tangling. We'll still be able to issue commands and guide the process, but it'll do most of the dirty work."

Cruger nodded, let Harris' words sink in, and then spoke.

"I need you to make some deletions for me."

Harris looked astonished. "Delete people? Why?"

"I've found out who the Chysans are -- the aliens who are working for the Other Company."

"Who?"

Cruger ignored the question. "Pull up the deletion program," he asked. Harris nodded and brought up the routine.

"First, Theodore Natassi from Denver, Colorado."

Harris typed the name in, cross-listed with Cruger's thread.

"No entry. Who is this guy, and what kind of contact have you had with him?"

"I think he's near the top of the Other Company. I've never met him."

"Well," Harris said, "this won't work unless your string intersects with his. How about someone else first, someone whose string crosses his and yours?"

"Easy. Lyle Neswick."

Harris' face filled with disbelief.

"Neswick? No way, man. Neswick can't be Chysan. That would mean that Tamara--"

"--is one of them, Leon. They've got to be deleted."

"No way," Harris repeated. "No way. I can't believe that Tamara--"

"I saw her with Sky and Neswick. They're working together... Sky admitted it to me."

"She was lying!"

Cruger shook his head. "She wasn't lying. I know -- I saw her change shape. She's Chysan."

Harris swiveled around in his chair. "I can't believe it. Tamara? It can't be true."

Cruger grabbed the computer's keyboard and typed Neswick's name. Harris swiveled and grabbed it back, but Cruger managed to make a final slap at the return key.

"If you delete him, she goes, too!" he said. "He's her father! If he never existed, neither did she!"

"He's not her father! And now It's done, isn't it?" Cruger asked.

Harris let out an angry laugh. "No, it's not done." He pointed at the monitor.

Are you sure you want to delete this person?

Cruger tried to grab the keyboard back from Harris, but the athletic programmer shoved him away.

"They're all working for the Other Company!" Cruger yelled. "Neswick, Tamara, Sky... and Corrina." Cruger said.

"Corrina?"

"Never pregnant. Never an Earth woman. I suspected something was weird with the first 'miscarriage'. I never went to a doctor with her. Turns out she always went to shrinks instead of OB/GYNs."

"Holy shit," Harris said.

"Yep, holy shit.!" shouted Cruger. "Makes sense now, though. Why the hell else was I picked for the Company? Why did Tony come to me? I suppose it was my job because of who my wife was. My wife, a long- time agent from Chysa!"

Harris stared at Cruger in disbelief. Cruger stood for a moment, then slumped into a chair. They both sat for a while, just looking at the small computer and its screen sitting on the desk in the stuffy room. The screen still asked, "Are you sure you want to delete this person?"

"Let me tell you the story. Maybe it'll make it easier for you," Cruger said. "Sky was living with foster parents. She had been sent there at the supposed age of fifteen. No records exist for her whereabouts before that point in time. Also, she was pretty handy in computer class at school. She had been doing some extracurricular work there. Doing the code for Corrina -- that murderous code. Before that, she had been keeping tabs on Tony."

"So they infiltrated the Company pretty well. How did they do it?"

"I'm not sure. The only thing we can be sure of is that there are more of them that we don't know about."

"Thank you," Harris said, "a very comforting thought."

Cruger continued. "Seems that Sky was having some real adjustment problems to life here. She was referred to a psychiatrist by the High School guidance counselor. Probably same shrink Corrina originally went to. She stopped going a few weeks ago, the records say. I got the name of the doctor from the school counselor but I can't find that doctor listed anywhere. Gone."

"That's suspicious, but a lot of things are suspicious."

"Another suspicious thing was that Sky, Tamara, and Neswick all knew each other very well. I followed Sky over to Neswick's place once. Then the three of them were all together over there, enacting the words Menage a troi."

"Neswick and Tamara, that's disgusting," Harris said. His voice, charged, higher than usual, rang of hurt.

"Come on, he was no more related to her than you were. That was all an act." Realizing that Harris may have been more attached to Tamara than he had guessed, said, "Sorry if this hurts -- but, it has to be done. We've got to delete them all."

"Don't worry about it. I wasn't going to ask her to marry me. But I was dumb enough to get pretty involved with her. You know, agents of Beelzebub make pretty good girlfriends. She did everything to make me happy: had her own money, loved sex, loved computers, and never had to visit her mom or go to confessional."

"Sounds pretty good. Can't blame you for biting the hook," Cruger said. "I did."

"Yeah," Harris said, picking up the keyboard. "Let's get this over with."

"Don't do it," said a muffled voice from behind them. Nobody had come in the door, but someone was there. They both turned to see who it was.

Standing in the corner was a huge figure in a silver spacesuit.

"My name," the figure said, "is Natassi."



Chapter Thirty-Six

That was when Cruger put it all together -- the mystery man in the house in Denver.

"The devil himself, huh?" he said.

Natassi turned to Cruger. "That's what Uraken and the rest of the Company would call me, yes. And it seems that you've taken the biblical allusions to heart -- you're working for God, on a mission against Satan."

"More or less," Cruger said. "Satan was a fallen angel, right? I guess that makes you an outcast Tvonen."

"Very true." The figure stepped forward, the floor creaking with his weight. Harris stood up suddenly but Natassi raised his hand, signalling him to stop. "I'm not the evil creature they would have you believe I am. I worked for the Company; I helped form it before humans had domesticated a beast -- before Uraken was born. And I was thrown out -- not because I was promoting evil, but because I was promoting free will."

"What?" said Harris.

The figure shifted its weight and the silver suit hissed, making it seem as if Natassi were sighing. "Do you know how the universe works, Mr. Harris?" Natassi asked. "As it currently stands, spinners guide the threads of the universe subconsciously, with their art. It's an organic method, one that allows for a great deal of... spontaneity. It's as close to free will as anyone can get.

"But the goal of the Company is omnipotence. The Unified Theorem is the ultimate application of that design. With your computer, you'll be able to run everything -- anything. Total control."

"So you're saying you're a good guy looking out for the little people?" Cruger said incredulously. "I'm supposed to believe that?"

"What about you?" Harris spoke up. "How does killing people work into this plan of yours?"

This time, Natassi may have sighed. "We take what help we can get. Chysans are independent by nature: they despise authority and control, and hence the goals of the Company. Chysans enjoy as much violence and killing as they can find. We've tried to keep the Unified Theorem as far away from completion as possible. Tony was close, and he would have implemented the program the second it was ready. We killed him."

"And now you're going to kill us?" Harris asked, trying to guess how long it would take to quit out of the deletion routine and launch the caretaker program. "Where are your Chysan thugs?"

"They aren't here," Natassi said. "And they won't be. It seems that this meeting is the best we can hope to do. We're at the last moment of free will, and I'm here to make my last request."

"Which is?"

Natassi stepped forward. "Stop the Company!" he hissed. "Make it so there are no more spinners -- so that those blue glows disappear forever! Then have the computer delete itself. Let the universe be on its own, to do whatever it wants."

"Total chaos," Harris said. "Sounds like something the devil would advocate."

Harris pressed down on the key combination that took him out of the deletion routine, back to the main menu. The computer screen flashed briefly.

"Don't start it!" Nattasi said, his voice rising. "Uraken's like almost every other Tvonen -- he wants total control. You're giving it to him! The Tvonen will rule the universe. Take it from me. You don't want to see an omnipotent Tvonen."

Cruger looked at Harris. Cruger thought about Corrina, and about what the alien in front of him represented. Then he nodded at his partner, who tapped a few keys.

The disk drive whirred briefly; the program ran.

There was a God.

The alien began to fade away with an effect that looked more like smoke dissipating in a breeze than the Star Trek sparkles Cruger had expected to see.

"The Chysans won't be happy," Natassi whispered as he vanished. "I hope you can live with your decision."



A little while later the menu bar of the computer's screen flashed. The flash was followed by a gentle chiming sound effect that snapped the two men into a state of alertness.

"I don't believe it," said Harris. "We got a message off the network. Someone, something on the other end of that cable finally contacted us."

"Are you sure?"

"Damned sure. The only way we get this alert message is an incoming network packet."

The message, displayed across the screen in large italic type, was short and simple:

Congratulations on a job very well done. You're both on your own now. You're in charge. Congratulations on your promotions.
--Uraken

Cruger looked at Harris who returned the look. Cruger's mouth was open. His eyes were blank and his mouth then twitched as if either to begin talking or drooling.

"Congratulations?" Harris said.

Cruger composed himself a little. "Uraken?"

"What really gets me is the 'You're on your own' part. What do you think?"

"I think we're in charge now," Cruger said. "Which means that the people who are running the universe aren't Tvonens after all."

"The people who are running the universe..."

They stood there, less Godlike than anyone would ever have imagined, balancing their suddenly weak bodies on the feet of men who had just finished a marathon. "Congratulations" was the word that stuck with Cruger.

Cruger turned to Harris. "Congrats," he said, not sounding jubilant. "I think I'm going to go home and tell Corrina to get her ass back to Chysa."

"I'm thinking..." Harris said, letting the last word trail off into nothingness.

"Of what?"

"Nothing much. A programming project I did in college is coming back to me -- a random number generator. I'm thinking about writing a new one."



Epilogue

It was Thursday night and Cruger was playing his regular sets of solo guitar at the Cafe Emerson. It had been two months since he had become co-keeper of the universe, two months since he'd went home to find Corrina already gone.

His guitar chops felt good, but remembering Corrina brought him down. It takes a while to get over losing someone you loved, even if they aren't what they appear.

When two guys came up to him and shot him through the head, he wasn't even surprised. Spinners were being attacked all over by Chysans unhappy with the dissolution of the Other Company. They evidently didn't understand what "insurance" was.

So Harris's employee safety program kicked in immediately and Cruger was alive again, the bullets back in the thirty-eight, and two assailants erased forever. The only person in the Cafe that even knew something had happened was Cruger. Within a few seconds, he was able to take a deep breath and put it out of his mind.

Cruger said a silent thank-you to Harris, made a mental note to remember to thank him in person at the office in the morning, and decided to do one more tune before ending the set.

He played Someone To Watch Over Me with a wry smile stretched across his face. It was an excellent rendition, of course -- probably the best any of the people in the bar had heard. Even the mistakes Cruger made -- and there were a few-- just added to the feeling and humanity of the performance.

An a unique performance it was. After all, most people did the song as a ballad. But not Cruger -- he played it fairly up-tempo.

After all, if you can't set your own tempo, then who are you, anyway?


Jeff Zias has worked at Apple Computer and Taligent. He enjoys spending time with his wife and two small children, playing jazz with Bay Area groups, writing software and prose, and building playhouses and other assorted toys for his children to trash. Having actually been a studious youth, Jeff has a BA in Applied Mathematics from Berkeley and an MS in Engineering Management from Santa Clara University. (Bio last updated in 1992.)

InterText stories written by Jeff Zias: "Unified Murder Theorem, Part I" (v2n1), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part II" (v2n2), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part III" (v2n3), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part IV" (v2n4).


InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Jeff Zias.