Rob knew that the comic books were a bad precedent to follow. Besides, he was just a little too plump around the middle these days to wear tights with dignity. Any public display would be repugnant, not his style at all. If he was going to dabble in crime-fighting and world-saving he was going to be private about it. The idea of being a secret benefactor was powerfully attractive — all the pleasures of do-gooding without having to cope with the people involved.
He went to work on Monday and got the day off by announcing to several people, “I’m really here.” Anyone looking for him would now be told something like, “Well, I just saw Rob a second ago. Isn’t he in the xerox room?”
This meant, however, that he only had today to act in. The software would continue to accumulate on the company computer net, and eventually he’d have to debug it. What was the most efficient use of this short time? He got into the minivan and thought about it. What he needed was a large concentration of criminals in one place that he could easily visit. “Of course,” he murmured. “Lorton Reformatory.” He opened the glove compartment and rooted around for a map.
It was in Fairfax County, but due to archaic regional regulations Lorton Reformatory housed convicts from nearby Washington D.C., not suburban baddies. The two-lane highway ran incongruously right through the prison complex. One moment Rob was cruising past subdivisions full of six-figure mansions, and then the road was flanked with tall razor-wire fences and guard towers. He turned off onto a side street and unfolded the map, pretending to be lost — no point in exciting the perimeter guards.
He closed his eyes and reached out. How many prisoners were detained here, maybe nine thousand? For a second he wondered if he’d bit off more than he could chew. But when he called on the power it was there, inexhaustible. There were limits to everything, but not, apparently, to this. Or hadn’t he found the limits yet? This would be an interesting test.
He phrased it carefully. “Decency,” he said aloud. “Honesty. Politeness.” Should he mention honor? Maybe not – too complicated a concept. “Law-abiding,” there was a useful one. He scribbled the words on the edge of the map, so as not to omit one, and concentrated on broadcasting them, impressing each on the soft clay of the brains around him. Vaguely he realized how vastly his abilities had multiplied in less than a week. First he had just observed, then he could interfere, and now he could impose a mindset on nine thousand people. Amazing. Where would it end?
“Excuse me, sir — do you need help?”
A frowning uniformed cop tapped on Rob’s window. Hastily he powered it down. “I was looking for Occoquan,” Rob said, rustling his map. “But I seemed to have turned myself around.”
The policeman relaxed. A Plymouth Voyager with fake wood paneling on the sides and two child seats in the back was a preposterous vehicle for a prison break. And Rob knew that he looked supremely uncriminal: an out-of-shape white guy in a brown sports jacket and khakis. “You didn’t go far enough south down Route 123,” the cop said, pointing. “Another three-four miles’ll get you there.”
“I get it,” Rob said, nodding at his map. “Thanks a lot!” He started the engine again and, turning in a driveway, returned to 123 and joined the traffic rolling south. Might as well grab a sandwich in Occoquan before heading back to work. Five minutes’ worth of weirdness should be enough. Cruising past the prison again Rob began to laugh. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said out loud. “It’s like something on TV!” He could imagine himself, in an Armani suit, simpering beside Phil Donahue. “Yes, Phil, I am indeed personally responsible for the 27% drop in the D.C. crime rate …”
Rob took his time driving back after lunch, stopping to raid the ATM machine and fill up on gas. It was a sunny warm day, the kind of afternoon that insidiously encourages idleness. How long has it been, Rob wondered, since I went to Great Falls and sat on the rocks by the river? But he didn’t feel comfortable playing hooky any longer. He was too conscientious to enjoy the thought of all those software bugs piling up in cyberspace. Sighing, he turned onto the side street that led to Chasbro’s building.
Lost in thought, he almost side-swiped the fire engine. “Holy mackerel,” he muttered, swerving around it. There was another pumper truck pulled up in the circular driveway at the main door. The air was hazy and foul with smoke. An oily black plume of it streamed from the roof of the building. On the grassy strip beside the parking garage huddled his co-workers, clutching handbags and briefcases.
Rob pulled into a parking space and reached out. A fire? What about the software? But to his horror, when he peeked into the others’ minds, he found them full of images of himself. When he powered down the window the smoke made him cough. He could hear Danny yelling, “We know he’s in there, man. You gotta find him!”
“Damn. Oh, damn.” Rob slouched in his seat so that no one would see him. He had ‘told’ people he was really in the office, and they truly and totally believed it. Everyone could see he was missing, and therefore he must be still inside. No hope now of slipping out and just joining the group, letting them assume he’d followed everyone out. He’d have to go into the building and allow himself to be rescued — be seen, carried out by a fireman.
Lori was weeping loudly, saying, “And poor Julianne, with the twins! They have to get him out, they just have to!” Rob opened the van door and stepped out, concentrating hard. Invisible, he thought. I’m not here. I’m wearing a tarnhelm, an invisibility hat, just like in the Norse myth. You don’t see me. He walked past a group of firemen in yellow and brown slickers and stepped over a tangle of canvas hoses to the side door. Nobody saw him. It was a fire door, usually shut but now propped open. Inside, the acrid smoke burned his throat and made his eyes water. I am not Superman, he told himself. The power, whatever it is, will in no way save me from burning to death. I have got to keep my ass safe! Nevertheless it seemed impossibly incorrect to be found standing just inside the door. Coughing, he moved a little further in.
Everything was chaos, noisy and strange. Under his feet the carpet squelched with water from the hoses. From above came shouts and the crashing of fire axes against doors, and the thump of booted running feet. Rob thought he couldn’t see anything, but then an orange glow lit the smoky air. The building’s on fire, he noticed idiotically. He found he really hadn’t quite believed it until now. Somehow he was slumping to his knees as the menacing light and glare slowly increased. Cause of death, smoke inhalation. Damn it. What a stupid, stupid way to die.
Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. She lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest in Virginia.
Her novel How Like a God, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires.