Time is just a mirror in which we see our reflections. After all, without the passage of time we would be tiny dots in infinity, our images locked in space unable to affect or be affected by the reflection of desires and emotions from other tiny dots. We'd be motionless, emotionless - and invisible.

My mirror of time had broken and tiny slivers were missing.

"Where in the name of heaven and hell have you been?" Liddy screamed at me as though she were about to have a cerebral hemorrhage. "First you go running off from the concert and we find you the day after lying in a gutter miles away and slashed to ribbons. Now Laura calls me in the middle of the night to say you've taken off and stolen some Sufi Master's Maseratti! What the hell is going on with you? Have you been tripping?"

That was a fair question, I hate to admit it was fair. I just wish I'd known what to tell Liddy.

"I don't have a clue what happened or where I've been since I went to sleep last night," I replied weakly.

"Well, boy genius, don't you think you'd better find out before the world crashes on your head?" Liddy bore in. "I mean, your friends have put up with an awful lot of baloney from you the last couple of months. You need to get a grip on your horizontal control!"

"How'd you know where to find me, Liddy?" I asked, still a little bewildered to find myself transferred from an exquisite warm bed lying in the arms of Laura Silvan to my own home without any recollection of approximately twelve hours of existence in between. "I don't even know where to find myself anymore."

"Well, I figured you'd have to connect up with your stupid computer eventually," Liddy replied, starting to show some motherly concern now despite herself. "You really don't know where you've been, do you?"

"Not a clue," I answered truthfully. "When you knocked, I woke up to find myself sitting at my computer with this monitor picture of Laura Silvan staring back at me."

Even as we spoke, the virtual image was on the monitor where I was sitting in my computer den. It was the virtual reality image of Laura that I'd created many months ago and now the figure acted through a short infinite loop singing a song in a cabaret.

It's a hot black night
When there ain't no one loving you
It's a hot hot black night
And your soul feels midnite blue

"Well, you couldn't have been here too long, the Maseratti is still warm," Liddy analyzed, pulling away from the video she couldn't help but watch. "You must have driven the pinstripes off that thing!"

"I still don't know what you're talking about," I spoke hesitantly. "What Maseratti?"

"The midnight blue old gas guzzler sitting out front. You know, the one you stole!!" Liddy chided me. "You're a wanted man now, as if you didn't know."

"Geez, tell me you're joking," I gasped. "I didn't really steal a car did I?"

"First Steven, that ain't a car, it's a hydrocarbon belching rocket ship. Second, I wouldn't worry too much, it doesn't look scratched and if you let Laura know where it is I think she's more worried about you than that gorgeous hunk of metal. Though why that would be I don't know, there's no excuse for bad taste."

"There's something wrong with me, Liddy," I unexpectedly blurted out. "My running around San Francisco and now stealing cars, there's a screw loose inside. There's something wrong with me and I need to find out what it is before I go insane."

"I'll be sure to visit you once a month at the loony farm until you find out what it is," Liddy joked, though I took her more seriously than she expected. "But there has to be some rational explanation why you're flipping out, it's so out of character for you," she added as if to calm my fears of impending lunacy.

"I keep drifting in and out of these incredible dreams," I continued psychoanalyzing, as much to myself as to my friend. "There's this woman called Ell in these dreams and though she looks just like Laura, she isn't Laura!"

"Well, you're under a lot of strain, wearing that infernal lightsuit of yours," Liddy tried to explain away the problem. "Maybe you're just exhausted from the stress and have gone Freudian. You just need some sleep, you look like you haven't caught a wink in three or four nights."

"If I sleep, I dream," I replied, and then I repeated myself. "If I sleep, I dream."

"Well, is that so bad?" Liddy asked. "If Bumhilda, your nurse were here I'd have her put you to bed right now, but it looks like she's taken off on you. You read her note, didn't you?."

"It's not Bumhilda, it's Emma," I reminded Liddy. "And no, I didn't read her note."

"It's on the middle of the kitchen table. It just says she's gotten a job with a normal family down in San Jose and you don't need her help anymore. I think she's right."

"That I'm abnormal?"

"No, that you don't need her help any more."

"Actually, I'm sad to see her go," I commented while letting my thoughts stray. I'd expected Emma would tire of this situation and so her leaving wasn't a complete surprise. "I am pretty much independent now."

"I've noticed a difference in you as well," Liddy observed. "You don't seem as physically stiff as you used to be. You seem a lot better than you were even a week ago. You must have written a hell of a lot of computer code."

"I've written a lot of code, but that can't be it. Perhaps the new lightsuit makes me function better?" I theorized, but rejected the notion. "Actually, I'm functioning much better than I should be, even given the new hardware I'm wearing, and given the code I've written."

"Maybe it's your lucky day?"

"I don't think so," I mused. "The software shouldn't be responding this well. Maybe its more adaptive than I thought. Maybe it's writing itself!"

There was a ring on the phone and Liddy answered. It was Laura and Liddy didn't even let me talk to her as she took over damage control on my life and let Laura know I was safe.

"Yes, he's fine," I heard her tell Laura. "He just needed to get away for a while," she lied for me. "He just wants to let you know he's sorry he made you worry!"

This was a fine situation I was in. I was losing a grip on the world, it had become a virtual reality in which particles and events moved and shifted according to unknown and unknowable laws of physics. Perhaps I'd slipped between the cracks in this universe and fallen into the next.

I watched the computer screen and the infinite loop of Laura that was there. "Laura's still the center of my universe," I thought to myself even as I recalled with a sting what she'd told me the night before about her drug addiction and connections with Mahdi Ahmadi. That bastard.

It was then that I noticed something odd about the computer screen, it was something so subtle at first I couldn't get a handle on it. There was something different about the infinite loop I was watching, something quite different than even a few moments earlier.

"Laura wants to talk to you." Liddy interrupted my thinking, and she handed me the receiver.

"Hello," I ventured unsurely.

"Steven, I was so worried about you," Laura gushed. "I didn't know where you'd gone or why you left without telling me. I know I gave you quite a shock last night with the things I told you, but I hope we can work things out between us."

If there's anything I hate in this world it's talking to women on an emotional level. It just makes my skin crawl. Why can't they just forget the mushy parts, have a couple of beers with you and be done with it?

"Look, I just needed to get away and think for a while," I told a white lie. "I'm not anywhere near giving up on you."

"But you thought about it?" Laura queried.

"Of course I thought about giving you up, Laura, for your sake, not mine. I'm not exactly God's gift to women. But I think about a lot of things I don't act on. I've thought about drilling a hole in my head and pouring a slurpy inside, but I'm not about to carry out something that foolish and I'm not about to leave you."

"Steven, we need to sort things out between us, this is all so confusing. It's too late for us to meet today, but I'd like to see you tomorrow."

"That sounds good to me, I could drive the Maseratti I, ugh, borrowed back to the retreat."

"Actually, The Mahdi is going to inspect a company in your area that he owns stock in. I could meet you there. You've heard of Ultima Pharmaceuticals haven't you?"

My jaw dropped.

"Unfortunately, I know all too much about them," I admitted slowly. "Ultima is the bioengineering company Qin Huang helped form."

"Mahdi has known Dr. Huang for years," Laura explained. "They met while the Mahdi was studying at the Wuhan Lab."

"I thought Qin Huang was a good friend, until he pushed me out as Director of the SuperGrid project. My misgivings about Huang and Ultima aren't exactly a secret. In fact I'm not sure his pill company is legit enough to even make baby aspirin."

Laura answered back, seeming peeved. "Your concerns were evidently not shared by investors, they've run Ultima's stock valuation to the moon. I know your concerns, but I need you there. I'll meet you at the corporate lobby at 12:00 tomorrow," Laura finished the conversation, giving an order more than a request. "And Steven, if you bring the Maseratti with you, the Mahdi would appreciate it. He wasn't pleased to find skidmarks this morning in place of his baby."

"I'm sorry about that," I confessed sheepishly.

"Last thing Steven, please wear some clothes when you come. You left everything here last night and I don't even want to know how you got home without frightening a lot of virgins. I'll see you tomorrow," and she hung up.

Laura had a point there, I wasn't wearing the same clothes I was wearing the day before. In fact I didn't recognize what I had on as even being mine.

"So Steven, do you want me to stay tonight and make sure you don't go running off again like a Qwazy Wabbit?" Liddy asked thoughtfully when I'd hung up with Laura. "I think it might be wise to have someone around to act as a reality check on these dreams of yours."

"You're probably right," I agreed, but at the same moment I caught something out of the corner of my eye that gave me a start. I turned to watched the computer image go through its motions once more without finishing my sentence.

"So, should I stay or not," Liddy interrupted my thoughts after a few quiet moments had passed. "Are you listening to me, Steven?

"Actually, now is not a good time for you to be here and I need you to leave," I suddenly changed my mind. The virtual image of Laura was now dancing pixie-like across the screen, flirting with me, though perhaps it was all my imagination and I'd just watched these videos to the point of meltdown. Still, I had a feeling something was happening here in my computer that wasn't right.

"First you want me here, then you don't! Are you having one of your fits again?"

"Sorry to be so rude Liddy, it's just that something occurred to me while I was talking to Laura that I need to check into and you would only distract me."

"You don't have to be pushy, Steven, if you don't want me around you're a big boy and I'll leave. But it's your life you're throwing away right now with all your moods and strange goings on. I may never come back after this."

"Really, Liddy. I don't mean to be difficult, but I've got something on my mind right now."

"Suit yourself," Liddy responded a little mad that I was treating her like a sack of potatoes. "I won't let the door hit me in the butt on the way out," she said, showing her irritation, and she left.

I turned my attention to the monitor that was displaying the virtual reality loop of Laura Silvan in a cabaret. I interfaced my heads-up visor into the virtual space on the screen and I integrated myself more fully into the scene. Then I began to move through the electronic hyperspace as though I was a detective, a software detective in this case, looking for a bug.

The atmosphere wasn't right in this virtual reality, I could feel it but I still couldn't put a finger on what it was. I turned the sound feed on and listened as Laura sang one of her hit songs.

It's a hot black night,

When there ain't no one loving you

There's a feeling in the air

When your lover doesn't care

That turns the world midnight blue

"Criminy, those aren't the words to that song," I muttered with growing confusion. "I know every word of that recording by heart!"

"Who are you?" I asked the image that was now before me, not expecting a reply from a cold glass virtual image. The video looked 99% the same as I'd seen a hundred times before when I'd watched Laura Silvan's music video, the same image I'd digitized into the virtual reality world.

That was the problem, it was only 99% the same.

"Who are you?" the image giggled in reply.

"Beelzebub!" I swore out loud. I swear I didn't expect a reply from the virtual image in front of me and it stunned me. I'm certain I never programmed a response module in the virtual reality software I'd encoded. It must have been some glitch in the operating system.

"You're a computer program," I finally thought out loud. "You're something I created with my mind. You are therefore a computerized virtual dream."

A perfect tear formed in the images' eye, like a crystal drop of dew. I watched the tear run down the cheek of the virtual woman in front of me, fall and then splinter on the hyper reality surface on which we stood. Her crystallized tear splintered infinitely into the distance.

"I am not a computer dream," the image said. "I am Ell."

---Chapter 24---