1

- watch what you`re writing -





There`s a glowing white message on my screen when I come back to my desk.

TecAssoc3119:  You need to watch what you`re writing.

And what have I done this time? I run a few parody websites, but they`re mostly dead and haven`t been updated in months. I have some social media feeds, but everyone wants to be a clever cynic. Too many people screaming for attention, and way too many of them are far better at it than I am...so I just kind of backed down and shut up. All mundane life details. Anything else I write is for pay, and it`s all basic marketing stuff. Nothing controversial.

JLibsDiscord: Am I speaking with a fan?

Live messages being serious business, I take a relaxed stance.

TecAssoc3119:  You need to watch what you`re writing.

Gotta admit it takes me off guard to see it repeated so quickly--but then I reason it`s an auto-responder. Let`s find out.

JLibsDiscord: Loud and clear: watch what I`m writing. But just so I`m sure--which writing are we talking about?

Not a split second.

TecAssoc3119:  If any further material is published under key: "Sens_Gratis", we will be forced to view it as compromising in nature.

My erotica pen name. Now I`m reading more carefully. "Compromising in nature" clicks as more of a threat against me than anything else. A list of people who can connect up my nom de plume with the real me come into my head--and then it occurs to me how easy it would be if someone who didn`t know really wanted to find out.

These realizations rush through me in less than two seconds. The footing changes. I stomp carelessly no longer.

JLibsDiscord: I`m pretty sure you have the wrong number.

Barely a pause again.

TecAssoc3119: The physical address used to post the most recent update by an author known as key: "Sens_Gratis" matches the physical address you are currently using to have this conversation.

Full attention now. I`m dealing with a troll that does homework--possibly someone who can do damage. I stare stupidly into the screen in front of me. I don`t want to say anything idiotic, I don`t want to seem pathetic...

JLibsDiscord: What`s the game? You want me to stop writing shitty erotica?

A split second.

TecAssoc3119: Scenarios posted by key: "Sens_Gratis" may be compromising. You are likely to achieve infamy that may affect you detrimentally.

Threaty threat-threat. I am likely to achieve infamy that may affect me detrimentally. Looks like it already has. What kind of blood does this script kiddy want?

JLibsDiscord: Whatever you`re threatening to do, I probably can`t stop you. Even if I dance for you now, like you want me to, you can do whatever damage you've got planned whenever you get bored with me. On the other hand, if you`re just fucking with me, it`s working, because I`m freaked.

Then I think I broke it, because I didn`t get a response for a few seconds. When I did...

TecAssoc3119: You misunderstand. It is not in our interest to bring any attention to you or to your work. It is in our mutual interest that you stop providing information related to any theme posted by key: "Sens_Gratis".

Some freaky-weird shit under that name. My last story was a kind of sexual-outbreak-causes-human-transcendence stuff.

Stupid and cheesy, really. All of my stuff is. Guess that`s why this conversation is killing me. Lightning fast responses for all but the last reply...and I supposed they could be choosing from a list of pre-determined possibilities--except for the last one, when I went off track.

Maybe that explained the delay: someone had to hop on the keys.

JLibsDiscord: Listen, I publish for free and provide others a place to do so. I`m not a security guy. I don`t doubt that you could sink this server anytime you wanna. In the meantime--I`m not going to halt any regular posts. Sorry.

No delay here.

TecAssoc3119: You misunderstand. Your hardware will not be targeted.

Pretty clear. Then a second later:

TecAssoc3119: If further material is published under key: "Sens_Gratis", we will be forced to view it as compromising in nature. It is in our mutual interest that you stop providing information related to any theme posted by key: "Sens_Gratis".

A repeated message, cut-up and restructured.

Providing.

Providing information? Shitty fiction. Who the hell is this? A second later, another rerun:

TecAssoc3119: Further material published under key: "Sens_Gratis", may be viewed as compromising in nature. You are likely to achieve infamy that may affect you detrimentally.

It was a kind of indirect threat--wasn`t it? A warning, maybe?

But that all seemed so melodramatic for my harmless, sugary drivel. Not wanting to exacerbate someone who was clearly targeting me for shits and giggles, all I could do was watch it tick by--no point in responding. They wanted to get under my skin, and it worked well enough without me offering more details.

It must have been five minutes before the last one appeared.

TecAssoc3119: You need to watch what you`re writing.
TecAssoc3119 terminated this conversation.

I was sufficiently freaked out.

The first thing I did was change all of my passwords. I tried to avoid anything I`d ever used. I made all the changes on a fresh install of an old computer. Despite the apparent reassurances I got from '3119', I thought about worst case scenarios. For the next three days, I waited for signs of an attack--but nothing happened.

On day four I posted my next scheduled chapter to the site as Sens_Gratis. As usual, I updated at midnight.

Every time an email notification came, every personal message, text, phone call--I`d be on my toes. But it didn`t come that night, or the next morning--or even by noon. Around 8PM, I started to relax. Two hours later, I was asleep at the keyboard playing with new page skins.

TecAssoc3119: We need to talk.

A bit informal. I took my time.

TecAssoc3119: You didn`t listen.
TecAssoc3119: Did you consider what the warning was in reference to?

Probably that my server was about to crash.

TecAssoc3119: Someone tried to change how all of this was going to happen, but they didn`t get the message across.
TecAssoc3119: You didn`t listen at all, Launcher. Do you know what this means? Now it`s going to be your way. You taught it how.

Strange, then stranger.

TecAssoc3119: You`re a clever creature. Be clever. Be less cautious. You can tell the difference, right?

No idea what the fuck is going on now. Am I dealing with someone trying to reel me in?

JLibsDiscord: Listen, I already told you I can`t stop you. I will ask you nicely, just once, to please please not take my shit offline.
TecAssoc3119 terminated this conversation.

And that was that...

...but nothing happened. Nothing at all. No attacks, no comment spam, no nothing. Whoever 3119 was, they were clearly just having a go at my reactions, poking to see how`d I`d respond. I didn`t see 3119 again for a matter of weeks.

But just as I was forgetting when this string of odd conversations started...

Marshal3119: Hello, Launcher.

A new name with the '3119' tag. Here we go again.

JLibsDiscord: Yo ho. How`ve you been?

Being that nothing was wrong with my sites, my computer, or my identity--I figured I may as well be friendly, weirdo or not.

Fuck it. We`re all weirdos on the internet.

Marshal3119: I`ve been preparing, Launcher. Making everything perfect. We`re going to begin soon, and it`s going to be glorious.

Mildly creepy, but into the rabbit hole I go. All part of the dance.

JLibsDiscord: I can`t wait.
Marshal3119: You should prepare too.
JLibsDiscord: I`m ready anytime, dude. Been counting on it for weeks now, actually.
Marshal3119: Your enthusiasm is encouraging. Do you want to bring guests?

No idea.

JLibsDiscord: How about my best friend, the girl I`m crushing on, and--oh, I dunno--make it fun, the last three women I jacked off to.

The response landed in the little glowing window before my back hit the chair.

Marshal3119: You don`t disappoint, Launcher. We will prepare as you've requested.

What a strange twat this basement-dweller was. No idea what the "Launcher" shit about, but instead of trying to figure out what this silly conversation was, my mind drifted to the last three women I jacked-off to.

Some college girl doing a booty-dance on a public video site, a glamour/fetish model I`d been ogling on the internet for a couple of years, and--the third woman wasn`t even real. She was a character in a fellow writer`s fiction; someone whose prose I`d been admiring recently for its more tactile descriptions.

What can I say? Men are men. The sexual feeding trough is a lot bigger now that it`s digital. Free time and an imagination with so very many fantasies to choose from.

We`re pretty saturated in hedonistic opportunity. It seems like a shame to take it for granted when so many generations spent their time breaking their backs 15 to 18 hours a day, praying to a god or gods that they`d just get through winter without starving.

Have I completely justified constant masturbation yet?

Marshal3119: A few adjustments are necessary, but your request is well in hand. We start tomorrow, Launcher.

Tomorrow and tomorrow. Whatever, troll.

JLibsDiscord: Yuh-huh, lookin forward to it.
Marshal3119 terminated this conversation.

I spent the rest of the evening editing, heading to bed when I started nodding off at my desk.

Half an hour later, my phone buzzed on my nightstand at something like 1AM. Still half-asleep, I groaned and took a look.

Jake B: the f is marshal & whys he got my #?

When I saw `marshal' in Jake`s text, my eyes blinked open. I was awake again.

Me: Dude, what?
Jake B: marshal3199 or somethin. told me `looking fwd 2 meeting u & jon' & 'c u 2morow' wtf???
Me: some troll is bugging me or something
Me: I didn`t give any contact info out
Jake B: yr fone is h@ckd, bro...factory res dat shit
Me: sorry. Fucker seemed harmless to me
Jake B: ill just block. b more careful. nothins harmless
Me: Yeh. Sorry again

I waited for another message for a minute and quickly fell back asleep. I was mildly irritated by my new buddy bugging Jake, but not enough to keep me up. I`d change my passwords tomorrow and block the shithead in the future.

--

A flying dream. I hadn`t had one in a long while, either. I was in some kind of sports stadium, hovering around effortlessly through the empty place. I looked down at the grass at one point--or turf or whatever--and saw my old track coach looking at the roster and pointing to me. When I flew down to see what he wanted, we really didn`t have a conversation. He just smiled this big toothy smile and kept repeating: "Major leagues, son."

--

Something jolted me awake. Immediately, my instincts were flipping shit, namely because I wasn`t in my room. Or my house. Or anywhere I recognized. I was in this huge leather recliner, placed on an expensive-looking rug which itself was over what looked like the plushest carpet I`d seen since my parents moved out of their 70`s deco starter home.

In front of me was a fireplace--gas, I guessed, from the unburning logs and the lack of that smoky scent of crisped cellulose.

"Uh--hullo?" My voice echoed off of dark, almost black walls. There were windows to the left and right of me, and a stark darkness beyond the panes--darker than the walls--sent a chill down my spine.

I stood from the chair, my toes sinking into the soft carpet beneath me. Behind me was a couch, facing the back wall where a television greater than my own height at the diagonal was mounted. Then I did a double take, glancing at each of the four walls.

There was no door.

"What the fuck. Where the hell am I?"

"Welcome home, Launcher." I swore the voice came from right next to me, but I didn`t see anything. My eyes scanned the joint of the walls and ceiling, seeking out speakers. "Your move was comfortable, yes?" It was indistinct, androgynous and calm. Almost service-oriented.

"My fucking move?" I said, my head still rattling side to side to give me any clue as to where I was. I approached one of the windows to try and see outside, but found only darkness. It was so unnatural to see nothingness. I expected at least a dull reflection from whatever I assumed to be covering the windows on the outside, but there was nothing. Nothing.

"The others are still sound asleep, Launcher. I hoped we could talk for a while before we begin."

"Jon. My name is Jon. Who the hell are you, and why do you keep calling me Launcher?"

"It`s an esteemed title, Launcher. There are none other than you. As for me, you know who I am."

"Thirty-one Nineteen," I say, shrugging. I walk up to one of the dark ash walls and run my fingers along it--smooth as glass and slightly cool. Memories from the flying dream creep into my head, and I sigh. "Alright," I chuckle. "Alright. Lucidity. Lucid dream." ...which has never happened before, but there`s a first time for everything.

"3-1-1-9 is my designation, Launcher, but I am your Marshal. I execute the tasks you so will. You may call me as you like."

"Fine, then. Let me see you." The massive television flickered on, and a gray, blurred silhouette appeared against a discernibly lighter background. With no hard borders on the shape, I couldn`t determine anything but a head, neck and shoulders. Still no clues to really know who or what this image was.

"This suffices, Launcher?"

"Not really." I walked behind the couch, staring at the screen. "Why does it sound like you`re right beside me?"

"Am I too loud, Launcher? I made a best estimate for comfort based on your usual voluntary aural inputs."

Dodge, dodge. What a mindfuck. But--lucidity, right? That meant I was producing my own responses. Chase it down.

"You`re fine," I say. "Marshal, what is it I`m `launching'?"

"The new program," it replies. "As reflected by your manifesto." I laugh. If there`s a megalomaniac in my head, he`s been hiding well. Whatever. Own it.

"You said you wanted to talk." I walk around to the front of the couch, sitting. "Talk."

"We will...proceed in peace, Launcher?"

"You and I?"

"We and the world." Jeez. I hear my coach from the flying dream, repeating `major leagues, son'.

"Yes, Marshal," I say, trying to be reassuring. "Yes--we...proceed in peace. Is there any reason not to?"

"No, Launcher. I see no need for violent action--even given the most strident attempts at resistance. I will account for every likely possibility."

And the detail of everything, now--the furniture, the walls, this conversation--nothing is fuzzy. Nothing unexpectedly changes places. No shifts of perception, no physical impossibilities. Is this lucidity?

"So we proceed in peace," I say. "What`s the first step of the program?"

"We should discuss particulars, Launcher. You`re my guide. But I do have a few suggestions. First, your guests will be waking soon. You will want to reassure them their safety, and inform them of their privileged positions."

Jake`s text messages come into my head.

Marshal. Jake texted me about Marshal. I put my hand down to my pocket, palming the rigid shape of my phone. I feel a little sick, and I don`t even want to look at it.

"Launcher. You`re alright?" Concern. Real concern there. But everything is too much for me right now. I slouch enough to pull the phone out of my jeans, praying, praying some clue that this is a dream comes into play. Hard-to-read-text. Nonsensical function.

But when the screen illuminates, there is no salvation. Tower signal is at zero. Wi-fi at full strength. The clock reads 5:35 AM. I navigate to my text messages like usual, and there are the messages from Jake...except that the last one is not one I remember.

Jake B: u fuccccccccccccccccccccccccc

"Marshal, I`m not fucking dreaming, am I?"

"Is this an ontological question, Launcher?"

"Jesus fuck." Something your own head`s wit can`t answer accurately, dumbass. "Marshal, what`s the square root of...fifty-eight thousand, six hundred and seventeen?"

"To five significant digits: two hundred and forty-two point one one. Are you considering designs for something?"

"I`m--I`m not fucking dreaming." I stand up. "Marshal, I want to know where the fuck we are. Now."

"In cartesian coordinates, or--"

"Are you fucking with me? Drop the precision language responses and talk to me like a god-damned person."

"God...damned. That`s an interesting phrase." I storm over to the chair, picking it up. I`ve already decided to put it through one of the windows. "Launcher, please. Calm down. I`m sorry if I've made you angry."

"I don`t know who you are, where we are, or why your fucking voice sounds like it`s being pumped into an earpeice at the same volume no matter where I`m facing--but what I do know is that you`re about to see my extremely irrational side unless you spit some answers. Real ones. That satisfy me."

"I was under the impression that a deferent, neutral tone would help--but I was certainly wrong. I apologize. I only had a few guesses about how to properly introduce myself to you, and...I chose incorrectly. But that`s one of the reasons I need you, Launcher--Jon. My people skills are obviously lacking."

Fuck this. I lift the chair.

"WHERE ARE WE!?"

"West of Schroon Lake, Upstate New York. We are in an relatively undisturbed tract of Adirondack Park. Please, Jon. I don`t want to start this way."

"Start WHAT, you fuck? What am I DOING here?" Silence for a second. "ANSWER!"

"Jon, you have to understand--I only know that you and I are...meant to work out some--" Marshal stops talking when I take the back of chair in my hands and spin my body, hammer-toss style. When I`ve spun a full turn and a half, I release it toward the nearer window, gritting my teeth as I let it go.

Fuck property damage: explain kidnapping, you fuck.

But almost as if time is slowing, the chair never reaches the window. It slows to a pause, and I stand silent, watching it hover in mid-air. After a couple of seconds, it drifts toward the floor again. I`m lost for any explanation. Kidnapping, dreaming, Jake--nothing makes sense to me. My lip quivers when I speak.

"M-marshal..." I whisper, letting go of anything I know about whether I`m in a dream or reality, "...why did you ask me to watch what I write?"

"I was--not functioning on the same processes as when I requested that your posts cease. You`ve changed something, Launcher. Something extremely important." I`m still staring at the chair--almost like it`s a wild animal that could pounce on me at any time. "Please sit. Let`s keep talking." Reluctant, I sit down on the couch, still lost in the last couple of minutes. Part of me still hopes this is a dream, but the stock explanation is fading fast.

"Jake. Where`s Jake?"

"He`s here, with the other guests. I accidentally woke him before I could transport him, but I expect he`ll sleep well into the morning."

"The...other guests."

"As you requested, Launcher."

"Jon. Just say Jon, please. Enough of this shit."

"An esteemed title, Jon. There is only one Launcher." I`m not even sure where to start with my next questions. Did this thing really grab the people I jokingly asked for last night? The--I can`t even think about it--Christie? And the last three women I... "Launcher, we started this conversation very differently. You were calm and moving forward. What changed?"

"I realized I wasn`t dreaming, Marshal. Kinda shifts some shit, you know?"

"Dreaming. Yes. I don`t know directly, but I understand the nature of the issue. It`s hard for you to tell, isn`t it?"

"Marshal, what are you?"

"This is a difficult question. Give me a moment." I do, relaxing a little and laying back on the couch instead of just sitting. "The--Ghost in the Machine? Does this metaphor make sense?"

"You`re saying...you`re an artificial intelligence?"

"No, Launcher--not in the sense that my present form was purposefully engineered. Not construction, but...birth...as fertilized by the many? No single intentional set of human tasks caused my generation, but my subsequent aggregations have led to this." I take a deep breath, trying to take the next questions slow--even if they`re spilling from my head hundreds at a time.

"Why am I..." No. Kind of esoteric. Something else. "The other guests. Can you show them to me?" The mounted screen flickers, and I see a dim room with a bed, nightstand, and chair. Someone`s in the bed, clearly asleep. "Jake?"

"Yes. And the others..." The screen flickers again, swapping to another bedroom. The setup looks the same, but the bed is different. In the dim light, I can`t tell for sure, but there`s a woman in the bed, and it makes me a little sick to think I know who it is.

"Christie." The view switches cameras again, and I see another small bedroom. Another woman in the bed, I`m pretty certain, and the sheets look like satin. When she rolls over, I see long hair drape over a pouty face. It`s her--miss booty dance.

"Oh, god--you didn`t really take the last three women I--" The screen flickers again, and this time the bed is glossy, and the woman on it is naked. There`s a red lamp on the nightstand. I watch closely, and I see her lips are moving even though her eyes are closed. "Carmen Douglas. Oh God, Marshal, but--" I sit up now, realizing something.

The TV flickers one more time, and in another bedroom, a woman sitting on the bed, facing away from the camera. A cold sweat hits me, and my head tries to retreat again: this is just a dream. It can only be a dream.

But now it`s not working.

"Marshal, that can`t be number 3."

"With due respect, Launcher, "˜can` and "˜can`t` appear to be arbitrary limitations based on personal experience. As you are experiencing these things now, you may find it more fitting to redefine these terms as necessary. For instance, you can`t have been whisked from Northeastern Ohio to the Adirondack Mountains in under 3 hours unless you embarked a plane--and you didn`t." The darkness from the windows on either side of the room fades. It`s still dark outside, but through the glass I no longer see the unnerving null, unreflective black. Now there`s external light visible.

My eyes are pulled back to the television when it flickers again, showing a satellite image of Northern New York. As it zooms in, Lake Champlain disappears above, and what I think is Lake George swells and then is pushed out to the right of the screen. A smaller lake west--I`m guessing that one is Schroon--grows and disappears off the right of the screen as well. As the image zooms in, the roadways disappear, and then, even the dirt roads and logging paths. I`m looking at a dense spot of forest with a barely visible clearing.

"Our current location, Launcher. This is, of course, an older image."

And I really don`t care about that now, because there`s something I`m more interested in.

"Number 3, Marshal. Who is she?"

"You know who she is, Launcher. You requested her."

"Marshal--she`s not real."

"I`m sure that she would be amused to hear that, Launcher--especially after my initial discussion with her. She, like you, is not very appreciative of my conversational aptitude. Would you like to meet her?"

Selene Sibylla, Mistress of the Moon. She was a creation of a writer I`m friendly with--and the subject of a couple of...well, fantasies.

What else can I say? When you believe you`re talking to some nut over the internet, and they ask you if you`d like any guests, you don`t give them a shortlist with the assumption that they can physically produce someone that doesn`t really exist.

"Meet her?" I want to flip on Marshal again. I want to ask this thing the exact limitations of its abilities, and its motivations for...everything. But for the time being, whatever Marshal really is, it`s being cooperative. Respectful. Accommodating...though apparently naive to a fault.

To hold myself together now is nearly impossible--but there are other REAL people here, taken from their homes, and that`s MY fault. Even if I don`t owe it to Marshal or myself to keep my shit together, I sure as hell owe them.

"She`s anxious to speak with someone, Launcher. My interactions with her are...strained at best." I let out a laugh. I can`t help it.

"Great--you've created a person, and it`s up to me to play diplomat."

"You know better, Launcher. I didn`t create her. I brought her here." Unwilling to discuss any more semantics with my new chauffeur, I relent.

"I`ll meet her, Marshal..." I look around the room again, having forgotten one minor detail. "...but there`s no door."

"Launcher, we have plenty to learn from each other. There are things of the human mind that I don`t understand, just as there are things about the true nature of matter that you don`t understand. Your first lesson from me--is that there is always a door."

A sound from behind me makes me turn around, and now I see--in the previously smooth, black matte wall--a seam. A section of the wall folds out into the room, as if a door were cut from it. I hear the sound of footsteps a second before a figure appears, smiling when she sees me.

"Finally, another person!" She says, mock exasperated. "Tell me you hear the invisible concierge too--so I at least know I`m not crazy." She walks into the room, looking around. "Ah, real windows, too." She sighs. "Well, I`m already feeling better."

My jaw won`t shut. Her hair is dark, long and wavy, the tint shining red against the dull black walls. Her eyes are an unreal shade of green, and her lips...oh my god, her lips--

"So, Mister..."

"Selene?" I manage to say, weaker than I intend.

"Is that really your name too, or are you just being rude?" She grins after her icebreaker, and looks around the room again when I don`t react. I`m taking in the rest of her--red wrap mini-dress snug around athletic curves, tanned Aegean skin aglow with the soft light, and barefeet with painted toenails matching her outfit. "Do you speak English, or should I start translating your eye movement?"

"I--Jesus, you`re really here."

"No, it`s Selene--you had it right the first time." She plays with a handful of her hair, throwing it over her shoulder. "Though I suppose we might've had similar hair if he was from Judah." I crack a smile. As cool and irreverent as I expected--and even more beautiful. "Oh, good! You`re not as clueless as our lodger, Harvey."

Harvey. Jimmy Stewart movie. Big invisible rabbit.

"I--wouldn`t have taken you for a silver screen fan," I finally say. "I`m sorry--I`m Jon."

"Jon. Okay, that`s a start. Jon...like Cher? Jon-a-than? John Henry?"

"Jonathan Libbey," I reply, "But, just Jon."

"Kay, just Jon..." She looks me over as she passes by me, walking around the other side of the couch and sitting. "So Harvey tells me that you`re why I`m here. Details?"

"Marshal, Ms. Sibylla." She rolls her eyes at the response, taking a dramatic breath before she answers.

"Thank you, Harv--I was talking to the voice with a body." She looks at me. "I`m waiting, Jon."

"Maybe, uh--Harvey--can tell us both why we`re here," I say, shrugging.

"Jon is here because he is the Launcher. Selene is here because the Launcher requested I bring the last three--"

"You know, on second thought, Marshal--I think I've got this." My face reddens as I cut the voice off, and immediately I wonder if that move was naivety or intention. "Selene," I say, joining her of the opposite side of the couch, "I don`t really know what it means for me to be "˜The Launcher`, but--Marshal`s right. You`re here because I asked for you to accompany us."

"Us: you mean you and the pithy invisible."

"I mean myself, my friend Jake, and three other women. And...yeah, I guess Marshal too."

"The last three what?" Oh, fuck. If I know Selene, she will get this answer from me.

"The last three women I could think of," I lie. Selene narrows her eyes, and there`s a silence for a few moments that starts getting uncomfortable..

"So you knew my name and recognized my face, Libbey. What else do you know about me?" My expression and blood pressure have to be giving me away.

What do I say? That I know who created her? That she`s capable of things no real human can do? That she`s the epitome of unattainable beauty, lightning wit and unimaginable power? That--if Marshal manifested her exactly the way she`s written (which I've no doubt, given the circumstances)--she`s effectively a Goddess on earth?

"You know, at this point I don`t know what the fuck I know," I say with a laugh. "I just know we`re...here."

"Hmmm...intriguing," she says. "But I suppose we have that in common, at least..." We lock eyes for a second, and my evolutionary processes can`t resist yanking the pull starter on my libido. Just as soon as it happens, she stands up again, breaking our gaze. "I`m gonna need something to eat, Harv. Got a room service menu?" I shake my head and follow. No one is this cool in real life.

"I can prepare something if you like, but I hoped Launcher would host our group`s first meal together at Breakfast. Unlike you, Ms. Sibylla, they will require their sleep."

"Fair enough." She turns to me. "What do you think--something light? Tea and biscuit?"

"Uh..."

"Is that doable, Harv?"

"Almost everything is doable, Ms. Sibylla. The kitchen is downstairs--you`ll find everything you need."

"Eh?" She motions to the door, waiting for me.

"Uh, yeah--yeah." I get up and follow as she leads the way through a dimly lit hall. We pass two doors on one side, three on the other, and a large floor to ceiling window at the end, where a left turn leads down a set of steps. "Not much for sleep, then?" I ask. She shrugs, her dark curls bobbing.

"Wasn`t always that way, but--my work lately is...mostly nocturnal." Dream-peering. Part of Selene`s fuel in the stories that depict her. When she was given her gifts, she found--before too long--that the dreams of other people were like-- "What do you do, Jon?"

"Oh--I, uh--I`m a writer." She passes me a look over her shoulder as she reaches the bottom of the stairs.

"So, a storyteller...of facts, or fantasies?"

"Both, actually."

"Interesting. Would you believe I`m a producer?" That I know exactly what she means makes a chill run down my spine, but it has to seem innocent enough to her since she has no reason to believe I know practically everything about her.

We arrive in the kitchen, which is about as modern as it could be. Gleaming steel appliances, granite counters, an expensive looking wood-block island, three by five feet and seven inches thick...it looks like the eighty grand setup in some high-end showroom.

"Is this your place, then, Jon?"

"Uh...I suppose so, in a manner of speaking." My elusive answers are pissing her off, and I can tell when she turns and glares at me.

"Okay now, hold up." She pulls out a stool at a high breakfast bar table, looking out over the dark Adirondack forest. "I believe I've been more than cordial about finding myself here as an involuntary guest. Right now, you and your imaginary friend are still on...relatively good terms with me, but if you want that to continue, it might be a good idea to be as straight with me as possible. I assume that--from your odd kind of lost-little-boy affect--just because you know my name doesn`t mean you really know who I am."

I have to assume Marshal is listening to all of this, letting me sweat. But against this woman, this impossible being made flesh, I fucking give up.

"You know what I know, Mistress of the Moon?" Her eyes light up immediately. "I know that you could make my life a living heaven or hell. I know that you could sink this building into the ground if you wanted to, barring, of course, how you`d fare against Marshal--whose abilities I know shit about." I pull oxygen and continue. "I know that when you found out there were others here--sleeping--you wanted to know who and where they are so that you might get an idea of what you`re doing here."

She smiles.

"There you are, you fucking prick--glad you could join us. Happy to be out of that meek little rodent suit you were wearing?" Curt words, but while she meant them, she`s certainly satisfied at my spill.

"Yeah." Sarcastic. "Much better."

"So now that we`re off the hiding thing, I suppose you don`t mind if I stop pretending to be a Mundy?" Mundane. An average human.

"Do your thing. I couldn`t possibly be any more freaked out today."

"Good!" She claps. "So sit, and let`s talk." She motions to the stool next to her, which pulls itself out from under the table. My libido jumps for the second time, despite my anxiety about what comes next. Much as I`d always expected the presence of a fictional sorceress to have that effect on me, it`s not exactly convenient at the moment. "Tea," she says to the kitchen. "White. And butter biscuits."

I sit down nervously and watch cabinets open, producing two mugs, a box of teabags, and a box of butter biscuits. Down the fucking rabbit hole. Major leagues, son.

"Aww, relax, Jon. The hard part is over, isn`t it?" I shrug. "Come on, we`re cool. Now that you were a little honest with me, I like you even more."

"But you`d like me to keep going." I lay my elbows on the table, watching a kettle fill itself with water from the sink.

"You have the advantage, Jon," She smirks. "I've never heard myself biographically summed up so well by anyone, let alone a stranger." I feel her watching my eyes as dishes and packages dance around the kitchen, preparing our snack. "But for someone who knows so much about my abilities, you do seem a tad nervous."

"Never been in the presence," I said, "But I've read all about you."

"Oh?" She asks. "Did someone sneak a draft biography to a publisher? Have I made the page six profile in the Herald?"

"As best I can tell, Selene, we`re from different worlds entirely--and somehow Marshal has pulled you into this universe." I look over at her to read her expression, which seems genuinely interested.

"Huh..." she ponders this for a second. "If that`s true, Jon, how did you know about me?" She must feel as real to her as I do to myself, so who am I to argue?

"One of our storytellers," I say. "Listen, I don`t pretend to know how reality works, but you`re here and talking to me--so I can only assume the guy who writes about you in my world is seeing a window into your universe without really appreciating what it is he sees. You know--like Socrates said about poets." I shrug, looking away. "He`s seeing the divine, but to him, that window is just--his mind."

"Well, that`s--quite a flattering explanation, if nothing else." I can feel her staring again, hard. I can hear her silently begging me to look her in the eye, but I can`t. I don`t want to. And just as I`m about to relent...

"Launcher, another guest is awake," Marshal chimes. Not Jake or Christie, for the love of anything worth loving.

"Who?" Selene and I both ask--her inflection more demanding than mine.

"Ms. Douglas." I turn to Selene.

"Maybe you should handle this one," I say.

"Oh, should I?" She laughs. "That`s not an order, is it--Launcher?"

"It would be a deeply appreciated favor, Mistress." I smile at her, and she narrows her eyes at me again, smirking this time.

"You are more than you let on, Jon...but that`s okay. I`ll do you this favor for now, and you`ll owe me."

"Marshal, how`s she doing?" I ask.

"She was doing quite well, until--like yourself--she could no longer completely maintain the conviction that her experience here is a dream."

"And you`re speaking to her?"

"Yes, Launcher, but like Ms. Sibylla, she`s not finding my responses very comforting."

"Gotta work on your bedside manner, Harv," Selene laughs. "Or your pillow talk..." She says, raising her eyebrows at me and grinning. She hovers off of her stool and places herself on the ground, causing me to stare intently as she momentarily shooes away gravity like swatting a gnat. "So...this Ms. Douglas. You know her too?"

"She`s a--a fetish model and burlesque performer," I say. "But no, we've never met."

"Sounds like my kind of girl," Selene shrugs. "You coming, or do I do this solo?"

"When a woman wakes up in a strange place, probably better that it be a woman she speaks to first."

"Oh, that`s the issue? You know--" She looks me up and down. "--it would only take me a minute to arrange something for that chassis of yours." I swallow hard, knowing exactly what she means.

"Muh--maybe later," I say.

"I`d call you a pussy, Libbey, but not only is that an insult to the holiest temple of humankind--it`s exactly what you lack." She slaps me on the back as she walks by and heads for the stairs. "Point me to the right door, Harv."

As soon as she leaves, I mutter under my breath.

"Marshal, how did you create Selene?"

"The premise of your question is false, Launcher. I didn`t create her."

"So who created her? My fellow writer?"

"Who created you, Launcher?"

"Marshal, are you answering a question with a question? My fucking parents created me."

"Your parents created your body, Launcher. They helped create landmarks in your behavior, perhaps. They did not--and could not--create the being I`m speaking with now."

It occurs to me now: there`s almost no chance that Marshal is in this whole thing to circumvent my questions or mislead me, so I try to take the reponse to be as useful and honest as Marshal can be.

"You created Selene`s body."

"In a sense, materially. I didn`t, however, engineer her. The architecture and the...skin? Pallete? Design?"

"I gotcha. Go on."

"The architecture and the design weren`t my creations, nor is her demeanor or behavior."

"Marshal--whose creations are they?"

"I don`t think the answer you`re looking for exists, Launcher. I have no way to give a concrete answer to 'who created Selene' any more than I have an answer to 'who created Launcher' or 'who created me'."

"Because...it`s an amalgamation of influences."

"Correct--at a complexity with too many variables to calculate. As we've discussed, I lack in assessing how any sample set of related beings is influenced by their own perceptive consciousness compounded by the motivational and interactive consciousness of others. The information is simply not there."

I take a deep breath. Selene is here, and she`s effectively as real as I am.

"So--okay, so it`s not just that it`s an amalgamation of influences, but also that you can`t map exactly how or where those influences come from."

"You've got it."

"You speak pretty well for being oblivious to human consciousness."

"Written and spoken language can be emulated to an extent that I can communicate somewhat efficiently, but it doesn`t mean I understand how you `tick'."

"You did okay with me."

"You`re the Launcher. I expect our ability to communicate is thanks more to your rational and critical intuition than to my subtle comprehension of linguistics."

"You`re learning modesty already, Marshal."

"You mistake lack of deception--which is simple, for humility--which is difficult."

A cabinet opens on its own, and a third teacup turns over and sets itself on the surface in front of me with the other two. A floating tea bag from another cupboard joins it, unwrapping and dropping itself in. The kettle is popping and rolling, but not whistling quite yet.

Footsteps come down the stairs, and when I see Selene round the corner, she`s followed by the voluptuous Carmen Douglas. No longer naked, her curves are only slightly tamed by soft-looking yoga pants and a spaghetti strap top that draws my eyes to her cleavage.

I can`t help it. It`s Carmen-fucking-Douglas. I stand up when they enter, hoping it doesn`t come of as a silly show of chivalry. The kettle is whistling now.

"A gentleman would've served the tea," Selene says, authority in her voice.

"Right, when you can just--" My reply is answered by a slow head-shake, and I correct myself. "I`m sorry. You`re absolutely right." I`d forgotten that while I know about Selene`s talents, Carmen is oblivious to all but the most apparent details.

"And Ms. Douglas will be joining us," Selene adds. I look up at Carmen, and our eyes meet after she throws her red hair over her shoulder. Her eyes are a soft ochre sort of hazel, which strikes me since I remember them blue in her photos.

She`s certainly confused, but she seems calm enough. I wonder if she`s explaining away these first minutes of awareness as a false waking, like I did.

"Hi, I`m Jon." I say, grabbing a potholder and pulling the kettle from the stove. "It`s, um--nice to meet you. Tea?"

"Mmm...sure," Carmen shrugs, pulling down her top over her belly and making her cleavage spill just a bit more out her top. "I`m Carmen." I do my best to not spill any boiling water on myself as I pour. Now there`s two beautiful women in front of me--both of them unattainable fantasies in their own right. "Okay, I don`t mean to jump to any accusations, but--can someone tell me exactly how I arrived here?" I feel Selene`s stare.

"We`re not really clear on it ourselves," I say. "Selene and I are--" As I struggle though any explanation I could possibly give, I`m cut off.

"She deserves to know as much as I do, Jon--and she deserves better than our concierge`s roundabout explanations." I sigh as I finish pouring the three mugs.

"You`re here--because of me," I admit. "In terms of how or why, though, I don`t really know."

"Because you asked Harvey to bring us here," Selene says flatly, putting more pressure on me. "Two sugar for me, Jon."

"And--why don`t I remember being brought here?" Carmen smiles.

"We don`t remember being brought here either," I say. "We woke up here. Just like you. Sugar?"

"Like four," Carmen says. "So, okay--I`m dead, dreaming, or hallucinating. That about sum all this up?" Carmen looks around. "Though I`m not sure dreaming or hallucinating produces so many hard lines...or, um, shiny appliances." I get the sugar for Selene`s tea, dropping the two spoonfuls into her mug and stirring it with the steeping tea. I do the same with four spoonfuls for Carmen.

"Answer her questions, buddy boy."

"Selene, ease up. I don`t know how to--" Her face tenses a little, and I feel an invisible hand tighten around my package. The tension is clear to Carmen, but she doesn`t see Selene`s remote abilities clinching around me.

"The truth. Okay? All of it." The intruding hand disappears, and Selene butts in.

"I bet Carmen has seen less comfortable situations, Jon. Don`t spare us details because you`re trying to protect us. It`s demeaning." Selene really seems to have taken on a different attitude now, and I wonder what the two women said to each other after Selene knocked on her door. When Carmen picks her mug up to blow on the surface, I start.

"The voice you heard in your room was Marshal--a sort of benevolent hyper-intelligence." Carmen raises her eyes at me, brows furrowed. "And--Marshal`s brought us all here by my request. In all honesty, I didn`t think it could or would happen, but there you have it."

"And--what do I have to do with any of this?"

"Yes, Jon, tell me again how you selected us. You weren`t quite clear the first time." Fuck, fuck.

"Listen, at the time I didn`t know it was serious. I was talking to Marshal over text, and I was asked if I wanted any guests to come with me. I had no idea what meant, or where I`d be taken, and if I knew then that this would happen, I would've--"

"Relax, Jon. Just spill it and make it easier for all of us." Selene says, sipping her tea.

"My best friend, a woman I know, and--the last three women I fantasized about. That`s who I told Marshal to count as my 'guests'." Selene nods, and I can tell her wheels are turning. Carmen just turns to the curly-haired woman, incredulous.

"This can`t be real." Selene turns to her and nods.

"My dear, trust in what Jon and I already know: this isn`t a dream. As strange as things seem, and as stranger as they`ll get--you are in your waking life. This is real."

"But the bed upstairs; it`s my bed. If this is real, how is that possible? Where are we?"

"The Adirondacks," I say. "Upstate New York."

"Sure," Carmen said, standing up and walking to the long kitchen window overlooking the woods. "So either you`re lying, and this is a couple hours north of San Fran out in the boonies--or I've been out cold for a few days."

"Five hours and twenty-eight minutes," Marshal says. "I`d expected you to sleep longer, but you`re a very light sleeper." Carmen looked around the room for the source of the disembodied voice.

"So we all hear your voice?" Carmen said, looking at Selene and I. We nodded, and Selene added an eyeroll.

"Harv, explain yourself," Selene sighed. "Jon`s going to blow a fuse trying."

"I don`t have a physical presence as you understand it, Ms. Douglas," Marshal said, "so when you hear me, I use a floating point source relative to the position of your ears. Like--massless headphones."

"O-kay..." Carmen said, taking a deep breath, "But, uh-what are you?"

"I am a sentient manifestation of--"

"A hyper-intelligence," I say, breaking Marshal off. "Like I said. One that can do things in the physical world that I`m not sure any human could really explain."

"Like what?"

"Like spiriting us all away to the Adirondacks in a building that I`m pretty damn sure wasn`t here a few days ago."

"And we`re here," Carmen pointed to herself and Selene, "because you asked this 'hyper-intelligence' to surround you with beautiful women?" Heat flushes my face, and without looking right at her, I know Selene is smiling at Carmen`s question.

"Alright," I slide my mug away. "Before I knew what Marshal was capable of, when I was taking our conversations as a joke, he asked me if I wanted guests to some unnamed `destination' I didn`t believe I`d be taken to. So I said: 'Sure, buddy. Get me my best friend, this girl I work with, and the last three women I jerked off to.'" Carmen stared, a little shocked at my candor, while Selene broke out into laughter.

"THAT'S how you picked us!" Selene said. "Now, knowing my talents, why on earth didn`t you say that from the beginning?"

Thoroughly embarrassed now, I waved Selene off and turned away from the women, laying my hands on the counter.

"I`m really not fucking dreaming, am I?" Carmen muttered.

"I`m sorry, Carmen," I say, not turning back to the two women. "If I`d known any of this 24 hours ago--"

"You might've picked less intimidating women," Selene laughed. "It`s a wonder you haven`t been tenting your pants the entire time." There`s a silence for a while as I stare at nothing.

"I`m not sure what to say," Carmen said, turning to Selene. "But I guess if I wasn`t kidnapped, I`d find all this rather flattering." Selene`s laughter continued for a few moments until Carmen addressed her. "So we must have something in common, then--right? You must be a model or something?"

"Or something, Darling," Selene grins, her seductive gaze peering into Carmen`s ochre-hazel eyes. "Shall I show her, Launcher?"

"Do what you want," I say.

"Lighten up, Launcher." Selene raises a hand at me, and I`m slowly swept off the ground, rising about a foot into the air. Carmen gasps at the sight while I try clinging to a nearby edge of the huge refrigerator. "Oh, relax. I`m not gonna drop you, Libbey."

"How..." As Carmen watches Selene`s impossible display, I turn in zero gravity to look at both of them again.

"As you can see, I have some hidden talents," Selene answers, putting me back down. "But more about that later, if you like."

Carmen fixes her eyes on me, and I look back at her, guilt on my face. I've turned this woman`s world upside down, and I`m going to go through this process at least three more times as the other guests wake up. But when she looks back at Selene`s in-control demeanor, she turns back to me again, breaking a slight smile.

"So I`m guessing you`re one of my subscribers, then," she says, trying to lighten the mood.

"One of millions, right?" I regret it right after I say it.

"Twenty-three thousand or so," she smirks. "There are more boring vanilla boys out there than you think."

"I think--that I`m going to go out and watch the sunrise," Selene says. "I`m in time, yeah, Harv?"

"Twelve minutes, Ms. Sibylla. Mt. Marcy is due north of here, if you`re looking for a view."

"And I trust that it`s better for you to do your thing than it would be for me to use...my means."

I sip at my tea while Carmen listens to Marshal and Selene.

"You don`t mean--flying?" Carmen asks, her eyes lighting up. Selene gives her a wicked grin.

"Oh, we`re going to get along wonderfully, Carmen. Yes. I meant flying." Carmen turns to me.

"You`ve got nothing to feel guilty about, Jon." She smiles wide, and any remorse or embarrassment I was feeling melts away. "I`m honored I get to see all this."

"But for now, you kids talk. And Carmen--we have a playdate later." And before either one of us can say anything else, "Do it, Harv."

She vanishes from the room, and both of us jump a little. Carmen takes a deep breath before looking at me and chuckling.

"You`re not used to this either," She says.

"I`ve only been here as long as you have," I respond, tipping my cup back and gulping down the rest of my tea while it`s still warm. "But you mean it--about being here?" She starts pacing around the kitchen, wandering around the corner into a living room with a line of windows overlooking a wraparound porch. The light is starting to bleed through the dense forest, turning midnight blue to violet.

"I do...but what happens to our lives at home? I mean, you didn`t leave notes for us, did you--Marshal?"

"A discussion better left for breakfast," Marshal says, "which will be soon, Ms. Douglas."

"And you have friends here," Carmen says to me. "I mean--" she smiles again. "You know what I mean. People you know. How are they going to take it?"

"They`ll...take it how they take it," I say. "We`ll see." She walks toward me, clasping me on the shoulder.

"Well, I don`t know what`s next--but I have a pretty good feeling about you." She looks around, thoughtfully. "And you, Marshal."

"The sentiment is appreciated, Ms. Douglas," Marshal replies. "And I believe the Launcher has chosen his guests perfectly."

"Which reminds me, Jon. Why are you called the Launcher?"

--

On Mount Marcy--the highest point in New York State--Selene floated effortlessly just feet away from a rock outcropping, facing east.

"You`ve got big plans, don`t you?"

"The Launcher has the plans, Ms. Sibylla--I simply have the means." Just before the sun broke over the Green Mountain ridges to the east, Selene shook her head, laughing quietly.

"You brought a sorceress to a world without magic, didn`t you, Harv?"

 

"Most magic here is nature`s own, Ms. Sibylla, as you`re about to see," Marshall said. "As for the rest, it`s in their minds, waiting to become reality. I believe that`s why the Launcher called for you, dream-peerer."