Norman's sitting on his couch in the dark, watching the Man U game through his smart eyes, when Marion clops past his apartment; he knows the sound of her favorite boots. As she enters her place next door, Norman manipulates the control nubs under his temples and hacks into Marion’s smart eyes.
The game switches to her apartment, the mirror of his. She bolts the door, hangs her jacket and bag in the coat closet, and goes into the kitchen. It's Tuesday, so spaghetti. She fills a pot with not enough water and no salt, then sets it to boil.
Marion doesn't go into her bedroom, though, to change. Instead she flops down on her couch not three feet from Norman and stares at the ceiling. She had an awful day. Her boss kept putting her off. Her work friend cancelled their lunch, which meant a sad desk salad while switching through better lives on Instagram. And the heel of her boot got stuck in a grate on her way home. Norman couldn't bear to watch anymore and turned on the game.
He'd like to go over and pour her some wine, then make her pasta properly, but he knows Marion barely well enough to say hello at the mailboxes. So he lies on his couch as if inside her and matches his breath to the heave of hers.
Then Marion presses her temples. Before Norman can be shocked that she knows how to hack—and learned to do so without him knowing—her ceiling switches to another apartment. Someone is bringing two plates of veal piccata to a candlelit table. Marion's boss is sitting there, lifting a glass of wine to the chef: Marion's work friend.
Marion shrieks, and the dining area switches to her kitchen as she slams the pasta pot into the sink. The clanging comes through the wall, and Norman considers knocking on it and asking if everything's alright.
No. That would be creepy.
Marion crouches, staring at the kitchen's linoleum floor, which could use a good scrubbing, and calls up a list of protected memory files. A woman of secrets, Norman thinks. Marion selects one. When she blinktaps the password, he records it.
The linoleum switches to her sitting in that dining area. The candles are taller. The wine is white, not red; the tablecloth red, not white. Marion watches her work friend set down two plates of duck confit with roasted potatoes. They toast, they eat two bites, then the work friend comes around the table to kiss Marion deeply.
Marion closes the memory; her work friend’s warm face switches to her coldly-lit kitchen. She stands and yanks a chef's knife from her dusty block, suggesting to Norman what kind of memories the other files contain. When Marion grabs her coat and bag, he knows he’s got to do more than knock on a wall.
He uncouples from Marion and opens his door as she rushes by. He should've bumped her, maybe dislodging the knife or getting stabbed in a terrible meet cute. Or simply blocked her way, giving Marion a chance to relax and reconsider. Instead Norman stops, ever the gentleman, and lets the lady pass. She doesn't even notice him. Norman watches her clop down the hallway, then the stairs.
He'd chase her if he were built for running. He'd call after her if he could remember any words.
He has to stop her, though, and save her from herself. But how?
If he contacted her work friend, Norman would give away his own game. If he did so while spoofed as Marion, he might still get her in trouble.
He could report a gas leak in her work friend's building, but that could get Norman in trouble.
He certainly couldn't beat Marion to her work friend’s apartment. He’s half-dressed, an UberLyft would take forever to arrive, and rush hour traffic is terrible.
Frustrated, Norman plops down on his couch so heavily it creaks—which gives him an idea.
He hacks into Marion's eyes and scans her contacts. Her work friend lives at 90 Bedford. Marion's just catching the 1, so she won't arrive, according to Google Maps, for twenty-one minutes.
Just as Norman found a neighborhood taskrabbit to assemble his couch, he searches for any available immediately in the West Village. He finds 57 and hires them all, using a pseudonymous digital wallet and paying extra for an NDA. He sends each rabbit an eyesnap of Marion he took at the mailboxes, and instructs them to wait for her outside 90 Bedford. When she arrives, they should tell her, "Marion, stop. Don't do it. Go home. Please."
Then Norman rides downtown in Marion. She looks out the subway window; her reflection looks at Norman. It’s cold. Stiff. Empty. He’s not put off. That’s how most people look at him.
Marion gets out at Christopher. Heads down Seventh. Turns right on Grove. Crossing Bleecker she's recognized by two rabbits going her way. They deliver Norman's message, but she ignores them. He should've expected that. It's the city, after all.
The mob at the corner of Bedford, that she can’t ignore. A dozen rabbits point at her. A dozen more yell Norman’s message. When she pushes into the mob, everyone does. She looks around jerkily, probably scared. The message becomes a chant. Norman mouths it. Marion shakes. Tears glaze her vision. But she stops. She looks at the front door. Looks up at her work friend's window. And spits on the sidewalk. Then Marion elbows free and returns to the subway.
Norman, relieved, waits in Marion on the platform. She presses her face into her hands, covering her eyes. Their eyes. All is dark. Norman places his hands on his face as if laying them over hers.
I've got you, he wants to say. You're safe with me.
Perhaps he finally will once she gets home.
Then he'd cook her something nice, better than spaghetti. She must be famished.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The trade paperback edition of Stephen S. Power's novel, The Dragon Round, is now available from Simon & Schuster. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Analog, Future SF, and New Myths, and will soon appear in Hybrid Fiction. His site is stephenspower.com, and he tweets at @stephenspower.