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You walk into the room. There are two people on a low futon couch watching a film. They rest comfortably against one another. They have cold drinks -- gin and tonics, you think -- sweating on the floor. One reaches into a bowl of popcorn on the other's lap. These two people look familiar. Is one of them you? Is that your spouse? They become aware of you and one of them gives you a questioning look, then gestures for you to come in. You step forward. The couch, the carpet, that spider plant, aren't they just memories?

Perception becomes reality when competing decision elements are taken away. This can be accomplished by removing conflicting stimuli; by carefully destroying the frontal lobe (this has other, wider, problems); or by building an incontrovertible chain of evidence. Utilizing all (or any) of these three approaches, we have found the process works best if begun when the subject is at a young age. We have never found a shortage of children for our needs.

You take a couple of steps backward, turn and walk quickly toward the front door. Inside, you are at war. You cannot turn from this, yet you should not be here. You close the door carefully and quietly behind you. It is red. You have never had a red front door. You look around. Wisteria is wrapped around the porch stanchions; a squirrel is running along the top of the chain-link fence surrounding a decent-sized garden. You walk down the wooden steps and follow the path around the house. It is almost familiar. Isn't this your house? That looks like the birdhouse you hammered together last March. That basil in the kitchen window, isn't it your spouse's?

We agree this method is expensive and the odds are slim that we will be preparing for the appropriate event. We are acting on realities as perceived by our forecasting and planning departments. We also agree that perception is often interfered with by memory, abused by hope, betrayed by expectations. To neutralize these effects is to reach toward the bedrock of objective reality that observers rarely acknowledge. Our business is forming that bedrock.

You walk to the corner store. It is what you expected, where you expected it to be -- but the political placards in the window are new. You pull at the heavy door, knowing it always sticks. You say hello to Ali behind the counter. He glances at you but does not respond. You hear rain beginning outside. You look down; you are wearing shorts and old, scuffed sandals. You are not ready for this. You do not know what you are ready for. Facing you is a magazine rack: Cosmopolitan, Elle, FHM, and Playboy. You reach for one, but stop. This is not something you would do. You turn away, wander through the small store. You know Ali is watching you. You cannot remember what you usually buy.

We keep most of our resources in reserve. The Department of Defense is, has been, and always will be jealous of our funding. We plan for the most unlikely of events. That is our alpha and omega, and the individual who understands that is always offered a position here. We have placed men and women in situations of the utmost importance. Sometimes the reasons for our placements are more obvious than others. We can afford a high level of attrition and wastage because our payoffs can be incalculable. No President has ever even mentioned cutting our funding.

You walk out of Ali's shop into the rain and look down the street. Nardini's Pizza, Hot Launderette, and the Liquor Market are all as you expected. Yet you feel that inside the corner shop there is an answer to a question that you cannot formulate out here. You are unsure whether you should go back in. There are too many questions without and within. You look at the newspaper box beside the shop. You can read the screaming headlines, understand the captions. Part of you wonders if you have ever read this language before.

We are what you perceive us to be. We are surprising to most, unbelievable to many. We could show you our records. They are impressive. We store them at a private university in New Mexico. It is known to be very hard to get into. Those who grade these things have no idea how hard. We are very, very picky. We are interested in your perceptions. You are on the cusp between knowing and not-knowing about us. We appreciate your answering our questions. When we are done we may answer some of yours.

You know everything is wrong. You cannot put your finger on any concrete details. If you were in a hurry none of the tiny differences would stop you. Now you focus on them. Ignore the old man mumbling behind you, the bicycle messenger who almost runs you over. You are sure your memory is slipping. When you approached the shop you went in without noticing the ugly yellow brick façade. Wasn't it brown?

We have been known to make the occasional mistake. Not those you might imagine. Small things. One of ours went drinking with this person on that night and caused this to happen to that person -- which had awful repercussions. Minor events. Ignore anyone who hints we are a transtemporal agency. We do not have knowledge of What If This or That? However, our work is getting more complicated. We find it hard to know when to act; difficult to distance ourselves from our actions, to achieve perspective on our results.

You go back into the shop and see that Ali is studying a shopper you had not noticed before. How could you not have? She is almost as tall as you. She's wearing a bright green summer dress and has a worn blue backpack slung over her shoulder. Her shoulder is red where the backpack strap has rubbed. She might look a lot like your spouse. When she looks over at you, you quickly look away. You study a box of Cheerios. You do not expect your attention to be caught, but it seems as if there are clear differences here. These are not the ingredients you remember. Surely no cereal box ever gave away such prizes? You want to sit down.

We have decided to initiate a top-to-bottom reassessment of our position. In the quest for self-knowledge we ran teams against one another and set professors to pinpoint to us our place in the world. We could not quite get the true perspective. Self-examination is ineffective. We are trained to look outward. To look and to act. Where can we find the truth? We have spent uncounted years influencing the world. We need the perceptions of an outsider to tell us what reality is now.

Basket in hand, she approaches you and speaks. Puts a hand on your arm. Comfort and fright war within. You say what you think might be her name. She does not react. You listen as she speaks again. You can hear familiar rhythms and responses in her voice, but you do not know her. You try to tell her but she stops you with a look. You are impressed with her power over you even as you wonder where it came from. She tightens her grip on your arm and guides you around the shop. She picks out dry biscuits, finds some fresh grapes, and selects a smoked Dutch cheese that you would definitely have ignored. Ali smiles at her as she takes you to the counter. You unload the basket and slowly join their conversation.

We have had problems dealing with the world. There is no purity of data. By observing us, you change us and we change you. There is the problem of what to do with the observers once they have completed our assignment. We suspect this fact strikes them and thus they change their actions and therefore their data. Do they realize the inevitability of the result? Will they ever finish their assignment? Would you?

The rain has stopped and you are walking with the woman. You are carrying a plastic bag of food and the strange newspapers. Ali bagged everything and took the credit card you proffered without blinking, all the while discussing basketball -- basketball? -- with the woman whose hand slipped down your arm until she was holding your hand. You signed the credit card slip automatically. The slip is in the brown hemp wallet in your front right pocket. Later you will look at the receipt and see if the machine printed you out a name. You walk close together, still holding hands.

We recognize that you are trying to hide your fear of us. We would be remiss if we did not point out that presently you are safe, as our attention is focused inward. We have temporarily ceased activating agents. Indeed, we are bringing them back in while we wait for the final recommendations of our last focus group. Contrary to the opinion penned on the men's room wall of the Maryland Welcome Station on I-95, we do not believe we have lost our way. We are investigating our relationship to the world. We are reassessing our place, as we believe this knowledge is deeply important regarding our future actions. Despite this, we are not paralyzed. True, events do not slow without us, but we have assets as yet untouched. When our way forward becomes clear, we will not hesitate to act.

You open the wooden gate and motion for her to go first. She smiles and you are almost sure you know her. She holds the front door open. You bow gracefully and go through. You follow the noise of the TV. The house feels empty, but as if something has just happened. Two beers sweating condensation and a half-filled bowl of chips sit on the pale wood floor beside a worn high-backed couch. You look at the Persian-style rug and the dark wooden bookshelves. The sides are scraped and there is a drop of white paint on the front. If this were your house, you would have better furniture. You walk over to the bay window as she sits on the couch. Someone walking by looks in the window. He is familiar -- is he your neighbor? You wave to one another. She says a name and you realize it could be yours. You sit beside her. You have never heard of the film, but you are glad to be at rest.


Reader Comments

Gavin J. Grant's fiction has appeared in SCI FICTION, s1ngularity, and Altair. He is a reviewer for BookPage and Xerography Debt. He and his wife, Kelly Link, live in Northampton, MA, run Small Beer Press, and publish the zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. For more about him and his work, see his website.

Gavin J. Grant started a zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, in 1996, cofounded Small Beer Press, an independent publishing house with his wife, Kelly Link, and in 2010 launched, an ebooksite for independent presses. He has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Bookslut, Xerography Debt, Scifiction, The Journal of Pulse Pounding Narratives, and Strange Horizons. He lives with his wife and daughter in Massachusetts.
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