Puppet Strings

Puppet Strings

“I don’t think you love me enough.”

Sure, it sounded innocent enough. But if Tag had known how much trouble that little phrase would start, how it would eventually twist not only his life, but his mind, into something unrecognizably mutilated, he would have laughed and shown the girl, cute as she might have been, to the door the second the words had left her mouth.

If he’d had just a little more backbone, things might have turned out differently. But then, before long it was Caira who was in charge of the stoutness of his backbone, anyway–along with almost everything else about him. It began with that one night together.

“’Course I do, babe,” he responded and patted her leg as he stared impatiently at the screen. Caira sat beside him on the couch as they waited for Thirteen Days In Winter’s Bliss to download so they could have a movie night.

“Theirs was a love like nobody before had ever known,” the trailer gushed as it played over and over again while they waited, “but it was to be shorter lived than they could have dreamed.”

Outwardly, Tag rolled his eyes. He was looking forward to the flick as much as Caira, but it was important to keep up appearances so he could score some points by agreeing to watch “her” movie. “I agreed to watch this thing with you, didn’t I?”

She grabbed him and shook him. “But I just don’t feel it, honeybuns! If I don’t feel your love, it’s not real. It might as well not be there at all.”

Tag didn’t take his eyes off the projection screen. Download was at 75 percent. It had taken a lot less time before all movies had gone to Ultra-Supra-Mega Hi Definition. The size of this one was listed at the bottom of the screen as 70 terabytes. For Tag’s money, he couldn’t tell the difference between Ultra-Supra-Mega HD and plain old Supra-Mega HD, but the standard was the standard–you couldn’t get the new movies in any other format.

“And you only agreed to watch because you knew you’d get the sex.”

Tag smiled. “That’s always the goal.”

“Let me see your Record.”

He stared at her, shocked. “No!”

“Come on, Taggie! Anne showed me this great trick.”

“Anne’s a mental case because she messes with hers too much. Forget it.”

“Don’t you love me?”

He looked away, irritated.

“See? That’s just the kind of look I don’t want to see. It says, ‘No, Caira, I don’t love you–get away, you stupid bitch.’”

“It does not!”

“Just let me do this one trick! If you don’t like it, you can change it back. I promise.”

He didn’t respond.

“It’s not even a big deal! Just a teensie weensie adjustment. But it’s reeeeeeally neat. You’ve got to let me do it! Pleeeeeease?”

He hesitated a moment longer, then he reached into his pocket and fished out his keys. Attached to them was a black plastic case about the size of a matchbox. He unclipped the case from his keys and handed it over.

Caira snatched the little device from him and eagerly opened it up. The case flipped open into two halves–on one side was a tiny LCD, and on the other was a set of buttons with numbers on them. This was Tag’s RCRD–his Remote Cortical Realignment Device. Most people called them Records.

Five years earlier, Tag had been hospitalized and put on a suicide watch during a debilitating episode of depression. As there had been no real cause for the depression–no deaths in the family, no grand upheavals or traumas–it was determined that he had a chemical malfunction in the brain. Talk therapy in such cases had long since been given up on as ineffective. In the old days, the docs would have prescribed an antidepressant like Prozac or Zoloft. Such treatments were still common for smaller troubles, but as the the doctors probed deeper they found that Tag also had serious anxiety problems, sleep disorders, and had possibly already experienced a schizophrenic episode or two. With a case like his, the way to go nowadays was with manual electronic cortical realignment. Surgery was required to plant an electronic chip inside the brain, just behind the thalamus. The chip monitored chemical levels and used electrical impulses to activate or deactivate individual neurotransmitters throughout the brain. But it had to be adjusted from the outside to prevent it from malfunctioning and frying the whole burrito. That was what the RCRD (the Record) was for. It was programmed by a technician following the implantation surgery then left in the hands of the patient. It was suggested to the recipients that they use it only in emergencies–during panic attacks and such–but of course the devices were tinkered with constantly. Why bother with drugs or alcohol, when you had your brain’s entire natural chemistry set at your fingertips?

“What’s your code?” Caira asked him.

“I really don’t think I should. . . .”

“Give me a break. I know you play with it. Why else would you keep it on your key chain? Just let me tinker.”

“No. Give it back.”

Her face immediately displayed her hurt. “You don’t trust me.”

“Of course I do!”

“My God, Tag, we’ve been sleeping together for three months, and you still don’t even trust me with this one little, little thing. That’s just great. It really says something about your character–you’ll have sex with a girl you wouldn’t even trust with the key to your noodle.”

Tag crossed his arms. When it came to manipulation, Caira was about the best he’d ever seen.

Thanks to the slow download, he had some time to consider what she was saying. They had been dating for a little over six months. And yes, they had been sleeping together for half that time. Plus, she was right about him fooling around with it on his own. His personal favorite program was one that almost always gave him lucid dreams. He used it almost every night.

Tag looked at the projection screen. The movie was still only 88 percent downloaded.

“Six one one four,” he sighed.

She smiled greedily and punched the numbers into his Record. “’Kay, let’s see what we can do, here.” She began entering codes from memory. Tag wondered just how much she had been anticipating this, waiting for the perfect time to bring up the subject.

She spent a long time fiddling with the device. Enough to make him very nervous that she was really going to do some damage to him. There were safety mechanisms in place, of course, to keep a person from inflicting utter lunacy on himself, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t still wreak some mighty fine havoc on a person’s noggin if you weren’t careful.

After a while, Caira finally stopped pressing buttons and said, “How do you feel?”

“No different. Did you push en- . . . whoa jeez.”

A change washed over him. It took him back to ninth grade, when he’d had a gigantic crush on the girl he’d sat next to in Algebra. Becky. Her smile was what he remembered most . . . she’d had a gap between her two front teeth that Tag had found for some reason adorable. Every time he had thought of her, this feeling of nauseous ecstasy had stolen over him. He had that feeling now.

He looked at Caira. She hadn’t done anything to herself, but just the same, she looked different. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought some trick had been played on his eyes. There seemed to be a glow coming off her body, making her a hundred times more radiant than before. Her blonde hair, which had seemed dully yellow to him, now seemed to shine like polished gold. Her fair skin was so milky and pleasant to gaze upon that he found it almost physically painful to look away. And it wasn’t a cliché–he could swear there really were stars giving forth warmth from her bright green eyes.

She must have liked whatever she saw in his expression at that moment. She giggled like a schoolgirl and cried, “That’s the look I’ve been waiting to see!”

“I’ve taken you for granted,” he said in wonder at her beauty. Again, she giggled. “I can’t believe I have you.”

“Know what Anne calls it?” Caira said.

“Know what she calls what?”

“The adjustment I just put into your Record.”

Tag just looked at her. The thought of his Record was a hundred miles away. Every time the memory of what she’d done flickered into view, it was pushed out again by thoughts of Caira.

“She calls it ‘Love Potion Number Nine.’ Isn’t that cute?”

“You’re cute.”

“Oh, stop!” But she giggled again, clearly enjoying her newfound attention.

“You are! Do you know how gorgeous you are? I don’t tell you enough.”

Now she just blushed.

“Download complete,” came the computerized voice from the speakers around the projection screen.

“Neatie cabinie! Now we can really enjoy the movie!” Caira said.

“Movie?” Tag looked blearily at the projection screen. A menu of options had appeared, with “Play Thirteen Days in Winter’s Bliss” highlighted in the middle. Tag could only vaguely remember renting it. He didn’t want to watch it. He only wanted to look at her.

“I’ll bet you really get into it now,” Caira said. “Now that you know what love is.”

“Do I.” He was staring at her again. He couldn’t stop himself. Caira giggled uncontrollably.

There was a smile on Tag’s face and a bounce in his walk as he headed out the door the following morning. He got to his car, knowing he was running late but feeling quite unconcerned, and jumped into the driver’s seat. It was painful, leaving his love behind–but it would make it all the sweeter to see her again. And he would. Tonight. He couldn’t stand the thought of going an entire day without seeing Caira.

After he placed his thumb against the user recognition panel just to the left of the steering column, the lights and radio came on as usual, but when he thumbed the ignition, nothing happened.

“Eh, wouldn’t you know,” he said out loud, thinking there might be a dead battery, before the computer screen below the radio flicked on.

“Ignition denied,” the computer proclaimed through the radio speakers in the sexy female voice Tag had chosen upon buying the car. For the first time, Tag wished he’d chosen a different one. It made him feel guilty–like he was cheating on the girl he loved. “Excessive gamma-amino butyric acid levels detected. Please adjust RCRD accordingly and try again.”

The screen provided a readout of the trouble. It listed his GABA levels at fifty percent above the legal limit for a person with an ECR implant. Legally, Tag was only allowed to drive if his car was equipped with such a restriction device in the computer, tied to his implant using the same radio waves to communicate with it as his Record.

Tag pulled his key chain out of his pocket (his keys were mostly used for drawers and cabinets at work, since his house and car operated on user recognition) and flipped open the Record. But after he typed in his code, the LCD simply read, “Invalid access code, please try again.”

Stunned, thinking his mind must really be screwed up if he couldn’t even enter his code properly, he tried again. And again, he was denied access.

Still not terribly worried, he sprung from the car and bounded up the porch steps to go back inside the house.

He found Caira in the kitchen, frying some eggs over the stove. She had ended up spending the night following the movie. They hadn’t had sex, but they’d cuddled for over three hours.

“Something wrong, sweetie?” she asked. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she was dressed in a t-shirt and panties. The sun glinted off her hair, lending it a divine glow. Tag wanted to get on his knees before her, she looked so like a goddess to him at that moment.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, almost forgetting why he’d come in.

She giggled and blushed.

He remembered his point in coming back. “My car locked me out of the ignition, and I can’t get into my Record. Did you change my access code?”

Caira smiled slyly and laughed. The sound of it made him smile. “It’s just that I’m running late for work, is the thing,” he told her.

“I forgot all about it–I messed with your access code. Just a little joke, you know? I thought you’d have tried to use it before now. Here, I’ll fix it.” She took the Record from him and punched in some numbers. As she did, Tag had a feeling like snapping out of a trance, or waking suddenly from a dream. It was probably for the best that his car hadn’t let him drive. He could have driven straight off a cliff and not even cared.

“All better?” she asked. He took his Record back from her and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Much.” He started away from her in a rush, aware that he was now almost certainly going to be late.

“Tag!” she called after him. He stopped and looked back at her irritably. “How ‘bout a smooch, huh?”

He went to her quickly, gave her a peck on the cheek, and ran out the door.

“Optic Ventures service center, how can I help you?”

“Um, yes, I just bought a brand new scan drive from you guys last week, and it’s already acting weird. Are you guys gonna fix this thing, or do I have to go to another company?”

Tag rubbed his temples. He covered the microphone on his headset, took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“Hello? Are you there?”

Tag uncovered the microphone. “Sure. Why don’t you describe the problems?”

“It’s screwed up.”

“OK, I was under the impression we’d already established that. Let’s move to the specifics.”

“What kind of specifics do you want? The thing is utterly jacked!”

“Did you try resetting the internal reader parameters?

“The what now?”

“It’s the first item in the troubleshooting manual. Do you have your manual handy?”

The caller paused for a second. “This thing shouldn’t be screwing up on me after a week.”

Tag clenched his teeth before giving the mandatory spiel. “On behalf of Optic Ventures, I apologize for any problems with your device. Let’s see if we can get it working better, does that sound all right?”

“Don’t talk to me like a child!”

“I didn’t mean to-”

“I’ve got a degree!”

“Then you shouldn’t have any trouble going over the troubleshooting checklist with me.”

Click. The caller was gone. Tag couldn’t have said he was sorry about that, but he was probably going to get written up for failing to defuse the man’s anger. Nuts to it–he’d tried.

A tone in his earpiece signaled another incoming call. He tore off the headset and tossed it on his desk. He couldn’t deal with another one. Not right this minute. He felt like the veins in his temples were on the verge of exploding. Easy enough to fix, though.

He pulled his Record out of his pocket, opened it up, and typed in his code. This was a regular routine–whenever the stress got just a little too bad, he had a simple chemical fix he’d programmed in as a favorite, so he only had to hit one button.

One button, that was, after the access code was entered.

When he tried, he only got the same message he’d gotten earlier: “Invalid access code, please try again.” Caira had fixed her alterations, but she hadn’t bothered to reset his code.

Tag rubbed at his temples some more, determined not to let the stress get the better of him. Where was Caira now? It was her day off–that was why she’d stayed over the night before.

He looked at the clock. It was after twelve. She would be back home by now.

He put his headset back on and typed in a command on his console to reconfigure it for outgoing calls. Then he dialed her number.

“Hello?”

“Caira!”

“Hey, Taggie!”

“I need the new access code you used when you messed with my Record.”

“I love you, too. What’s that? It’s good to talk to me? Why thanks! It’s good to talk to you, too!”

“Don’t mess around with me. Not . . . not really . . . not feeling myself here.”

“Then maybe you should think about being a little nicer to the girl who’s got the key to your magic box.”

“Damn it, just give me the code!”

“I have to say, I think I liked last night’s ‘lovey dovey’ Tag a little better than this ‘Bossy, gimme gimme’ Tag.”

Tag closed his eyes and tried not to notice the fact that his hands were both balled into fists so tight his nails were biting into his palms. “Give me the code, huh?”

“No.”

He didn’t respond. He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, barely believing her gall.

“Tag? You still there?”

“Yes,” he said through clenched teeth. “Yes, I’m still here. And I’m waiting for my code.”

“Ask nicely.”

“Caira, the next words I hear out of your mouth had better be a series of four numbers. I’m not listening to anything else.”

Caira waited a while before finally responding, “Five two one nine.”

Relief flooded through him. With a huge sigh, he said, “Thanks, Caira, I really didn’t mean to-” Then he noticed he was talking to a dial tone. He felt bad. He honestly hadn’t meant to upset her–he’d just been irritated about the whole thing.

No matter. He punched the code into his Record. And got the same “invalid access code” message.

Anger surged high in his blood again. He dialed Caira’s number. After four rings, her answering machine picked up.

“Tag, I really don’t appreciate the way you were talking to me just now. Don’t bother leaving a message, I don’t want to talk to you, and I’m not giving you your code until you apologize. In person. Maybe that’ll teach you something.”

Tag slammed his hand down on the hang up button, furious. He still had over half the day to get through, and he didn’t know if he could do it without either blowing up or freaking out. He hoped it would be the former and not the latter. The last thing he needed was a panic attack. He hadn’t had one of those in over five years.

“Optic Ventures service center, how can I help you?”

“Uh, hi . . . is this the right place to call for a problem with my motion sensors?”

“Are they OV models?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuckin’ A, you hit the jackpot!”

Tag leaned back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. In one hand was a cluster of freshly sharpened pencils. He was throwing them one at a time at the far end of his cubicle, trying to get them to stick in the wall. So far, none had. The damn things were too heavy.

“. . . I . . . I’m sorry?”

“I said yes, dimwit. Yes, I can solve the problem. It’s probably something you could have figured out on your own if you’d had half a brain to look in your troubleshooting guide, but you probably didn’t keep it, did you? They never do.”

“Listen, if there’s some kind of problem-”

Tag sat up straight. “Hey buddy, I don’t have any kind of a problem. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to be the good tech support guy, holding your hand while we get to the root of your little world-ending crisis. Now what’s the fuckin’ problem, bitch?”

“I . . . is there someone else there I could talk to?”

“Nope, I’m the only one! Just me and an empty forty-four story building. Sure is lonely . . . why don’t you come out here and bring me some fuckin’ lunch, huh? Then I can shove your little motion detectors up your ass. That should fix the problem.”

“I think I should speak to your supervisor.” The guy was trying to be a hard case. Tag just laughed.

“My supervisor says for you to take a flying leap, dullbob! God, I’m sick of you prissy little shitlogs ruining my day. Get a life, you fucking retard! And while you’re at it-”

Tag had a bad feeling. He slowly swiveled around in his chair to see half a dozen of his fellow Optic Ventures employees huddled around the entrance to his cubicle. He smiled weakly at them, noticing that Gray Holton, the division manager, was among them.

Tag carried his few personal items in a box as he walked through the parking lot back to his car. He would not be needing to come back here again.

When he got to his car, he tossed the box in the back seat and tried to start the engine. It wouldn’t go. The computer flicked on, and the voice came through the speakers: “Ignition denied. Excessive adrenaline levels detected. Please adjust RCRD levels accordingly and try again.”

Tag’s fists tightened around the steering wheel until his knuckles felt ready to crack open. Slowly, he released them, trying very hard to calm himself. He still couldn’t access his Record, but there was more than one way to affect his chemistry. He took several deep breaths, spent almost a minute envisioning a dark, quiet forest with a cool breeze blowing, and tried again.

“Ignition denied. Excessive adrenaline levels detected. Please adjust RCRD levels accordingly and try again.”

Tag punched the dashboard hard enough to make his knuckles bleed.

What am I going to do?

The thought went through his mind over and over again as he sat in freeway traffic that was barely moving.

It had taken him over an hour to settle himself down enough that the car would allow him to start it. He had wound up taking a long walk several times around the block to work the adrenaline out of his system. But as the juice faded, he was overcome instead with helplessness.

What the hell am I going to do?

Would anybody want to hire him again after losing his job with Optic Ventures? OV never fired anybody! And everybody knew it! He was never going to work again. He may as well get out on the street right now and start begging because that was what it was going to come to. This was how he felt.

He knew he could deal with things a little better if he could just access his Record. He wasn’t even going to bother going home. He would drive straight to Caira’s place. If the Godforsaken traffic would ever start moving again.

He could have just gone to the outpatient center to get a new code installed into his Record. But it was all the way across town, and there would undoubtedly be a fee. Caira would fix it for him. All he had to do was apologize. Then everything would be all right.

His right hand, resting lightly on the shift selector, began to tremble. The tremor tried to work its way up his arm. He lifted the offending hand and used it to grip the steering wheel. That seemed to stabilize it, at least a little.

His head began to hurt. His eyes became blurry. His breathing quickened. The muscles around the back of his neck felt like they had turned to stone. His grip on the steering wheel grew tighter and tighter.

What am I going to do?

He hunched over, struggling to fight off the feeling that was steeling its way over his entire body.

He had lost his job. He had never lost a job. Not one he hadn’t wanted to lose. He had bills, for crying out loud. Car payments. House payments. He had no money saved.

There was no way out. His life was over. He was screwed.

Tag drew in a deep breath, braced himself, and screamed as loud as his lungs would allow.

Tag’s car rolled into the apartment complex parking lot, drifted lazily toward an empty space, and parked crookedly, the back end sticking over a foot into the next slot.

Then, nothing happened for a few minutes. Tag sat in the driver’s seat, focusing only on his breathing. His hands twitched from time to time. Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.

Caira’s apartment was on the second floor. He went to the steps and began to climb, propelled forward only by the knowledge that his pain was soon to be over. She would fix his Record, and he would be himself again. It was minutes away. Seconds.

He didn’t need to knock. They had programmed one another into their domestic entry systems over a month ago. He simply put his thumb up to the recognition panel and the door opened right up.

“Tag!” Caira exclaimed and jumped up off the couch as he came in, tossing the book she’d been reading on the end table. “You should still be at work. Is everything-”

But she didn’t have to finish. She could see by the look on his face that everything was not OK. Tag just moved toward her like a zombie, his eyes dull. He reached into his pocket, retrieved his Record, and tossed it her way. She caught it in the air.

“Please,” he said. “Please, just fix it. I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying. But you do look terrible. Oh, you poor thing.”

“I . . . I’m sorry about the way I was talking to you earlier. I . . . wasn’t myself. Really. I’m very sorry.”

“Of course you are, you sweet little man.” She wrapped an arm around him and ushered him over to the couch, where she sat beside him and rocked him in her arms. He glanced at the end table. The book she’d been reading was titled Advanced Neural Biochemistry. He had only just enough clarity of mind to wonder if she’d already read the beginning version.

“Fix it?” he asked again.

“Of course. Of course. You poor, poor dear. Just let me fix you right up.”

She opened his Record and put in the code. Then she got straight to punching more numbers in.

“Are you changing my code back?” he asked.

“You shush, now. Just let me take care of everything.”

He had no choice but to trust her.

It took a good amount of time for Caira to finish her reprogramming, and every second seemed like an agonizing eternity to Tag. His mind began to war with itself. Part of him wondered what the hell was taking so long. Part of him wanted to apologize for being curt with her over the phone. The first part still wanted to smack her for changing his code in the first place. The second part just wanted her to hold him for an hour. A day.

“That should do it. Does it feel better, now, Taggie?”

In the span of only a few seconds, everything in his mind seemed to shift.

The anxiety was gone. That was the most important part. But it was much more than that.

As he pulled away from Caira and looked at her, he was overwhelmed with peace. It made him feel as though he never wanted to look away from her again. The feelings from the night before–the sensation of having a high-school crush, and the glow that seemed to emanate from her–were back even stronger, but they were accompanied by a surge of need. He still felt helpless, but she was suddenly the answer. She would help him when he could not help himself. There was no possible way in the world he could ever be happy again without her.

“Don’t ever be away from me ever again,” he said to her.

“I won’t.”

“You promise?”

“Absolutely.” She smiled slyly.

Tag tried looking away from her. He couldn’t stand it. It was like a piece of him had been ripped straight out of his ribcage. He had to look back at her. It was like gazing upon the sun. She giggled. Her regard provided him with sustenance to grow.

“Tell me about what happened at with your job,” she said.

“I. . . .” He had to stop and think. Job? It all seemed so unimportant now. “I guess I lost it.”

“No!”

“Yeah. I think they fired me.”

“That’s all right, dear. My poor sweet one.” She brought his head close to her and held it. He never wanted her to stop doing that.

“I need you,” he told her.

“I know! I know you do.” She stroked her hands through her hair. “You don’t worry about a thing. You don’t need some crummy old job. Caira’ll take care of you.”

“But my house payments . . . my car. . . .”

“You don’t need those things. You just stay here with Caira. I’ll give you everything you need. The only thing you need.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Some quiet, almost forgotten part of his brain whispered that there was still something he needed. “The code?” he asked.

“Shhhhh.” She stroked his head more, and held him even tighter. “You don’t worry about things like that. I told you, Caira’ll take care of you.”

He closed his eyes and let her take care of him. Soon, that quietly rebelling part of his brain faded altogether, and he forgot all about his Record. All he needed was her touch. Her face. He was content with that, and the idea that he might ever need anything else never occurred to him again.

All he knew was that he loved her. Damn, but he loved her so much!

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