Vince walked over to Eric's desk to check out the new functions he'd just created, and while he waited for Eric to bring up the appropriate data, Vince rested his hands on his shoulders, gentle, easy.

As one of those people who do not need rules of standard behaviour, there was nothing wrong with Vince putting his hands down like that. They are good hands, strong, restful.

I could have wept for someone's hands on my shoulders, protective for no reason. Easy.

People underestimate the need for the touch of another. It feels like I haven't been touched, truly touched, in ages. I was so thirsty for something that I didn't even know that I needed, but an easy need to fufill. All it took was a simple hand on my shoulder, a hand on my wrist, a plea to stop my tears. Reassurance that I am real, that I have a physical presence, becoming aware of a need at the same time that it's fufilled.

And how was I to know, much later, that you felt it too, that you felt more with that touch than I did. That night, you took my hand and confessed an attraction to me, I stared dumbly, not sure what I should say. And two nights later we had our first kiss at five in the morning.

And months, almost a year later, it's still about you. We sit in the movies together, my left hand crosses my body and grips the edge of the cupholder between our seats and your right hand is doing the same. There are mere millimeters between our skin, but it feels like miles, and I ache for you. Your hand brushes against mine, and I nearly pass out from the contact.

Just friends.

Years now I've spent on this thing. Bits of data. Lines of code upon lines of code. The time slips away very quickly. Yet I don't seem to have much to show. Maybe that's why I'm obsessed with productivity.

I'm here... In this cold computer world I've helped to build. I spend days looking at the artificial... that which is made by hands before mine, the godfathers of code, as I shall be one day. I look at nothing but this mound of human thought brought into being, and with something so totally human, it is at the same time so cold, and uninviting. The sharpened perfection of it all. The standards held high to make our tools more precise and more intelligent. It's an edge we balance on.

I miss her. She's hours away now. We used to share the same bed, the same thoughts, the same embrace at night. We are still together in spirit, but I'm wrenched apart from her once more. She made this world have a heart; she gave it a soul. She gives me a reason to explore this cold cave of intellect every day.

To spend these fleeting minutes knowing that there is humanity somewhere in my life. To know that the same human hug from her smiling person can make all the cares fall apart. The same simple act that has warmed mankind for centuries still has it's wonder. To remember what it was like to sleep soundly feeling her nestled safely in my arms. The quiet rise and fall of her breast; the gentle beating of a soothed heart. Knowing that I was her contentment was contenting in itself. To know that it is gone for now, and a part of my humanity on hiatus, until I can get that back.

People just aren't the same. I see what it does to people in my profession. Those who don't find someone are warped, changed... It's hard to describe. I see them driven by a cold, cruel sense of purpose. Their machine becomes their contact... their soruce of warmth, and they never quite find their soul apart from the cycles they spin.

I don't want to become that person. Not again. Never again. I drive my life, my day, and my ambition around that. To be able to tackle the world seems more managable, more appealing, more full, if I could feel that comfort surround me, even for half an hour. It gives my life more meaning...

just to have some human contact.

<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

Human contact
Park Ethereal - Chapter 13

We ate our sandwiches while sitting against the wall where I'd first met her. That was where I risked her labeling me crazy. I looked at her, sitting next to me; she was finishing her sandwich, licking mayonnaise off her fingers. Through that sense the human skin has to detect a fixed stare, she turned to me.


I answered slowly, with a question. "What's the date?"

"What's the date?"


Slight comprehension showed in her eyes. "Oh, is this from the, um…the…"

I rescued her. "No, but let's say it is."

Obviously confused, she told me. It wasn't 1974. It wasn't the present I'd expected, though. I guess, actually, I hadn't really expected it due to the lack of snow. I gazed back at her levelly.


"Um, ye-e-es." Her smile was radiant, a slightly crooked tooth making it completely memorable and recallable in this age of plastic beauty and affordable physiques. "Was that what you thought it was?"

I leaned back against the wall. "No. No, not really." I shook my head.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm just…confused." I rubbed my face, forgetting about supper; grimaced, and did it again with a napkin to remove the mayo. "I really have no idea what I'm doing here. Now. Whatever."

She eyed me. "You're eating a sandwich. You're talking to me."

I smiled at her. "You're right. Doing a poor job of it too." I cast about me and came up with the second half of my sandwich, took a bite and thought fixedly about the visible reality of the food. I wondered if it'd still be in my stomach in 1974, whenever that was next to be?

We finished our meal in silence. I stuffed the remains into the plastic bag we'd brought everything in. We sat back against the wall together, quietly, and after a few moments, she startled me by leaning against my shoulder. I swallowed my gasp, and lowered my shoulder slightly to a better height. Then we sat there for and hour, a day, an eon. Things that happen in Planck time - the time it takes light to cross the diameter of a proton - happen, some say, entirely outside our rules of reality. The rules don't apply there; you might be able to create from nothing, to destroy without loss, to live a thousand lifetimes or watch a universe birth and die, as long as you don't go over the magic Planck limit. Once you do, the universe notices you, and sternly forces you into Einsteinian physics, or whatever schema Albert was reaching for with his theories.

Her voice was small against my shoulder, a girl's voice, finally.

"My name is Tracy."

From the slight shuddering, I think she was crying. I didn't break her privacy by making her raise her eyes; I just put an arm around her and hugged her slightly.

"Call me Max, Tracy."

My life, I mused, could be said to exist in Planck time.

We sat there for perhaps half an hour before she would look me in the eye again. When she did, it was with a look that was half apology and half defiance. "I'm okay, you know."

I wasn't about to argue. "I know."

"Are you okay, Max?"

It was…strange, really, to hear someone address me by name, even if it was one I'd just chosen out of the air. "I don't know. I suspect so."

Tracy smiled and sat back, her stiff expression subsiding. She turned so that she was sitting with her back directly to my side, and leaned. I just sat there, unsure of what the world was trying to do. This lasted perhaps ten seconds, and then she began to wriggle slightly, uncomfortable. "Hey, you've got something…" She turned and examined my jacket- "…in your pocket." Her hand dug into said pocket before I could realize what was happening, and by then it was far to late. "It's hard, whatever it is, and…" she stopped, her face freezing up. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and slid back a few inches away from me. "Is that what I think it is?"

I sighed. Reaching into the pocket, I withdrew the Smith and Wesson carefully, holding it by the barrel so Tracy wouldn't be spooked. "Yeah." I ejected the clip and worked the slide once to clear the chamber, catching the bullet and reinserting it into the loose magazine. Tracy looked at the gun. Then she looked at me.


"I can't really explain. I'm supposed to have it."

"Supposed to have it? For what? What're you going to do with it?"

"I don't know. I think I'll know when it happens."

She slid back a few more inches. "When will that be? Standing in some store? Waiting for a bus? What then? What about everybody around you?"

"No, wait…" I turned to face her, putting the now-empty gun and magazine back in my pocket. "…look, it's not like that. I'm not looking for a crowd to fire into, or a store to rob. It's just that my life's been a little…" I trailed off, unsure of what adjective would fit. "If it makes you feel any better, a friend of mine who's a cop knows I have it. NYPD cop, that is."

Tracy considered this bit of information. "I guess it does, a little. He trusts you with it?"

I nodded.

"But it's not licensed, or anything?"


"And you want me to trust you with it, too."

"Does that imply you're going to be around me in the future?"

"Whether or not I am!"

I thought about it. "Yeah. I think so."

"Maybe you'd better tell me about it."

"I don't know. That'd take an awful damn long time, and I don't know if I have that long."

She laughed and waved an arm at our empty surroundings. A traffic light clicked softly to itself. "Do you have somewhere to be?"

Thinking of the date, I shrugged. "I don't always have full control of where I am." Realizing how that sounded, I added hastily, "…because things keep happening to me."

"Maybe you could start to tell me, and if something happens then we'll deal with it."

That sounded reasonable. "Okay. Sure. But not here."

She looked around again, incredulous. "Why not?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know. Just not here."

"Where, then?"

I pointed at the dark bulk of 775 Park, visible on the opposite corner at the end of the block. "There."

She followed my finger, then looked at me. "Over there?"

"No, in there. Look, I guess I should just show you." I stood, dusting myself off. After a wary look, Tracy stood as well. I nodded, and headed west down 72nd towards Park with her following. Reaching Park, I crossed uptown, with her still right behind me; stopping at the manhole caused her to bump into me as she hadn't expected the stop. I reached down and lifted the manhole, straining slightly and thanking whatever stars were watching over me that the seat on it was loose, otherwise I'd have needed a crowbar to lift it.

"Hey, didn't I see you come out of there that first time?"

"Yep, you did. Down we go."

"You want me to go down there. With you."

"You did ask. You don't have to come, but then you won't get the story."

She looked into my eyes carefully, then nodded and descended. I followed, gratefully letting the manhole slip back into place, and lit my mini-Mag. Tracy was silent during the brief trip up the laundry drain, not speaking until we were both inside the boxhole and the door was shut. I carefully arranged boxes behind us until we were surrounded, then turned. She was looking interestedly about us at the various accoutrements of my existence.

Wait a minute. The thought was sudden. This has to be present day, or the boxhole wouldn't be here. Yet she thinks it's not. Who's right?

It seemed easiest to ignore the question, as I had blithely done so often before. After Tracy had made herself comfortable on my bed of pads and looked at me askance, I sighed and began.

Telling the story for, now, the fourth time? Well, it was getting polished, anyway. She didn't interrupt, and she didn't look away for pretty much the whole hour it took me to tell. I didn't tell her every little detail, of course; that would've taken a hell of a lot longer, and I wasn't sure I could remember every detail in any case.

At the end, there was a silence. I sat back against the box wall and looked at her. She had ended up on her stomach on the pads, chin in hands, listening; now, she slowly rose and stretched, then moved back to sit against the boxes on her side before speaking.

"What does the apartment in this building have to do with everything?"

I shrugged helplessly. "I wish I knew. I just know it does. I've been in it, I've seen Ellyn, I've seen myself, and I've seen it a crime scene in present day."

"What's present day?"

"Um…" I said cleverly, "That's a bit nebulous."

"What do you think the date is now?"

I winced. "Cut to the chase, why don't you. I have no idea."

"Sure you do. You kept saying 'present' like you knew when that was."

Throwing up my hands, I said "I don't know the date. I'm homeless, remember? I know it's winter, the year of somebody's Lord 20__."

She slid down a bit further, almost lying on her back, still looking at me thoughtfully. "Okay."

I looked at her there, on my bed, still in her fairly sheer dress, knees slightly apart, and (I could see through the material) nipples erect from the slight chill of the basement. Feeling my face flush, I looked away. "Why do you care about the apartment?"

There was no answer, so I was forced to look back.

She'd pulled the covers up to her side, and was holding out a hand to me with a half-smile. "Max?"

"Yeah." I tried desperately to look away; failed miserably.

"Come to bed."

Crossing the four feet of floor took something like an eternity, I think; but when I got close enough to take her hand, I hadn't moved at all. We sat there for a moment, me on my knees, holding her hand, before I gathered up my tattered ego and knelt slowly to kiss her.

Her lips were soft and slightly dry. Mine felt like sandpaper. I couldn't muster up the spit to swallow, but I made myself kiss her anyway.

To my shock, it felt completely natural. As did the rest of it, and her, and me; clothes vanished in some supernatural trick, sliding around a dimensional corner into fantasy. I drew back, once, to look at her lying on the bed, marveling at the beauty, before pulling the covers over us and slowly resting myself on her warmth.

She smelled of soap and some herb I couldn't name; tasted of dry skin and marzipan, slightly. Her stomach quivered under my tongue, her breath drawn in involuntarily as I traced her breasts with my mouth. However much I wanted to hold out, when I came to her nipple and gently sucked it, she seized my head in her hands and pulled me up to meet her kiss as her legs clamped around my waist and drew me in, her need and mine singing in a sort of harmonic rhythm. She was warmer, inside, and her hips moving against me were the slow push of the sea and the tide, while my hands pressed her soft buttocks to me and the symphony of sex drowned out the boxes and the winter and the misery and the cold.

Incongruously, I thought, she began to hum a tune as she reached orgasm, and I found myself humming it with her, knowing it but unable to identify it (and I was busy, anyhow). As I felt her muscles clench at me in short, fierce bursts, I came, her teeth clamped about my left earlobe and nothing at all in my mind that resembled conscious thought.

Like zen.


Later, I remember, I cried into her breasts while she shushed me and stroked my hair.


Even later, after we'd cleaned up and were just sleeping, intertwined in the pile of padding and pillows, I came awake suddenly. Tracy's legs, entwined with mine, pressed together against my left leg in her sleep, and she moved her head slightly in the hollow of my shoulder. The thought was almost at the forefront, now and I tried to entice it by not thinking of it; just as I was drifting off to sleep again, I smiled and said "Clapton." Then I sank back, humming "…But I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time / and I'm wasted, and I can't find my way home…"

Then nothing.

When I woke up, she was gone, naturally.

I pulled on clothes and looked out the crusted windows; no daylight showed behind the filthy panes. The same night? The next night? No way to tell, no time to waste. I looked out the door, left, right, then scuttled for the laundry room and the drainpipe that opened into the greater runoff of New York.

She wasn't on the corner, and she wasn't on the street between 72nd and our favorite deli. I looked about me helplessly, caught by the realization that the search was futile (uptown? Downtown? East? West? Upstairs in that building, or perhaps downstairs in this one?) and that I had no idea where to begin. Finally, shoulders slumped, I returned slowly to 72nd street and sat heavily against the corner of 775 Park, looking down Park avenue. I found my eyes closing despite having just woken up; try as I might, I couldn't keep them open and I found myself drifting off, mumbling Tracy's name to myself in a wishful invocation.

<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

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