By Zvi Zaks
Chapter one - Thursday
Aaron entered his apartment, slammed the door shut and tried to calm his churning stomach. He walked to the bedroom and stopped short. Sandra, his fiancée, was pushing the top down on a fully packed suitcase.
"Dan just fired me," he said. "Are you leaving also?"
"What the hell do you think? I'm not gonna marry a philanderer, let alone a potential rapist." Dried tears streaked her makeup, and her beautiful auburn hair fell to her shoulders in disarray.
A pendulum clock on the wall chimed the quarter hour. Aaron clenched his fists and jaw. "I didn't do it."
She yanked the bulky suitcase off the bed, sending ripples along the water-mattress. "I saw you ogle her tits at the office party last week."
"Everyone ogles her tits. The way she sticks them out at you, how can you not? But I didn't attack her. Christina has already cost me my job. I can't lose you too?"
She turned to the bedroom computer, hit 'print', and, without a word, handed the paper to Aaron.
Aaron says I lied when told Dan how he tried to rape me, but if so, how would I know all what he told me. Like that your breasts are only the size of apples? Or that you had a D and C last month? And if he hadn't taken his cock out in front of me, how would I know he's circumcised? Everyone in the office says you're a nice woman. I don't want you to get hurt. Stay away from him or he'll make your life miserable.
Sandra put her hands on her hips and clenched her teeth. "Well?"
His head swam as he tried to remember the details. "Remember about a month ago, you felt less feminine after the operation so I bought you those sexy bra and panties? I had asked Mrs. Ferguson how to tell a woman's bra size. She said to compare it to fruit, and said an apple would be a 'B' cup. Christina could have been there and overheard. Come on. Be reasonable. Why would I make a play for Christina? You're much nicer and also prettier than she is." Even angry as you are now, you're prettier than Christina.
Her mouth was straight, and her lips were pale. "How would she know about my surgery?"
"People asked why I took two days off when I stayed home to take care of you."
"And you had to tell everyone exactly what kind of surgery I had."
"Well, maybe I shouldn't have, but I didn't attack her."
"How does she know you're circumcised? That's not common nowadays."
"Gimme a break. My name is Aaron Goldberg and I take time off work on the Jewish holidays. It doesn't take a genius to guess."
Sandra looked at her suitcase and shoved the clasp into the lock with a savage snap. "You're good at rationalization, but your boss wouldn't have fired you without reason."
"He's sleeping with her. You know what a vindictive bastard Dan is and you know what a fight we're having about the bridge."
"Why would Christina do all this just to hurt you?"
Pain like a band squeezed his head. "I have no idea. I wish I did."
"I'm sorry, Aaron. I used to think you were an honest guy, but I can't believe people are making this up just to hurt you. I'll be at my parents' house until I find a place to stay. My brother will pick up the rest of my stuff." She left, slamming the door on her way out.
Aaron wanted to scream. He had no job, no money since paying the lawyer he had talked to, and the rent was due in three days. He had no relatives who might help, and, according to his shyster lawyer, he faced criminal charges. And now his fiancée thought he was an immoral bastard and had left him. With her encouragement, he might be able to manage. Without her, he felt like he was drowning. Why had all this happened? What had he done to deserve this deluge?
Although it was nighttime, Aaron stomped out of the apartment to his car, a ten-year-old Sunbeam, and drove to the Golden Gate Bridge to inspect his find. The auto-pilot had died months ago. No matter; right now, Aaron didn't want to wait for the slow navigation the law demanded of cyber-cars anyway. An ominous rattle warned that the vehicle needed a mechanic for more crucial repairs than the auto-pilot, and he didn't have money. He drove the car into the lot, climbed out and trudged onto the bridge. A warm breeze blew, and the mournful sound of a tug wafted over the waters. A rocket, probably a lunar shuttle, lifted off from San Francisco Airport, its glare casting shadows from the bridge onto the waters of the bay, and transforming them from black to aquamarine for several seconds. Red lights outlined the span's graceful curves with a soft glow. This view usually soothed tense nerves, but not tonight. Not with his current problems.
It wasn't fair. He had found a fault in the bridge's safety netting; it would give way if a potential suicide jumped there. He should be getting pats on the back and a raise, but his asshole boss, Dan, said he was over-interpreting the scans, the city didn't have money for the repairs, and the likelihood of someone going over the rail at that exact spot was negligible anyway.
Disgraceful. In 2037, exactly one hundred years after the bridge was built, a suicide risk still existed. Aaron had nagged Dan until, with his usual bad grace, the supervisor agreed to more testing. Then Christine said he assaulted her. Could Dan have put Christina up to it to shut Aaron up? The idea sounded paranoid, but…
He had half a mind to jump from the bridge at that spot to prove them wrong. Then he wouldn't worry about jail, a career, being alone, or anything. His parents were dead, he had no brothers and sisters, and now Sandra was gone, so no one would care. He was twenty-six. A week ago, he had a rosy future. Now he had nothing.
He shouldn't be thinking that way, but the idea of ending his problems wouldn't leave him be.
Further ahead was the location of the safety-net fault, and, damn, someone had placed a yellow flag there, as if to mark the spot for anyone wanting to jump. Worse, a woman stood by the rail where the flag was attached, staring down at the dark waters beneath.
He ran to her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." She kept staring at the bay. "No."
"What's your name?"
She raised her head and looked at him. Her nose was a little too big, her lips thin, and her cheeks too gaunt. She stood about five and a half feet, a little shorter than him. A bulky overcoat obscured her figure. "Despair. Hopelessness," she said. A tear trickled down her cheek.
She turned back to the water, now coal-black except for red and white dots of beacons and boat lights. "It's my problem, and I'll take care of it tonight."
Her voice held a fatalistic calm that made Aaron shiver. "Nothing can be bad enough to kill yourself for." An ironic comment since he himself had been thinking of suicide a few minutes ago. "Besides, there's a safety net to keep people from falling all the way down."
"This yellow marker means it's safe to jump to your death here." She produced a wan smile. "Perhaps 'safe' isn't the best word to use."
Aaron's stomach clenched. If this woman killed herself because he had found where the net was defective, he would never forgive himself. He prepared to lunge and grab her arm if she showed signs of going over the rail. "What has you so upset?"
She shrugged. "No job. No money. Turns out my boyfriend always loved his first wife and went back to her. I would have died for that man, but he left me. No home. I haven't slept in a normal bed for days."
"There are shelters."
"I'd prefer sleeping on the streets. It's less humiliating, but I can't do it another night. Besides, everyone hates me."
"Wow! I was feeling the same way a few minutes ago. But I don't hate you. Why not stay at my place tonight. No funny business--you sleep in the bed and I'll sleep on the couch. Maybe we can cheer each other up."
She wiped a fresh tear from her cheek. "I don't know."
He put her arm through his. "Come on. You have nothing to lose. After all, the bridge will still be here tomorrow." Though that yellow marker won't. He started walking away from the flag, pulling her with. Her pace was slow, but she didn't otherwise resist. "By the way, you never did tell me your name."
"Barbara," she said. "Barbara Manhig."
His apartment--at least until he was evicted--had only one bedroom and one bath, enough for him and Sandra, but uncomfortably small with a strange woman spending the night. "Feel free to use the shower. I won't come in. That's a promise." Since she had only the clothes on her back, he considered offering her one of the nightgowns Sandra hadn't taken, but that would be gauche.
She looked down at the floor. "I'm taking advantage of your kindness. I'll sleep on the couch and you take the bed."
"I won't hear of it," he said, and, feeling good for the first time in days, closed the bedroom door and went to the couch, salvation-army chic like the rest of the furnishings. He took off his shoes, and lay down. Though big enough for him to stretch out, the couch felt unfamiliar, and he kept shifting his position before dozing off.
He woke in the middle of the night to find Barbara sitting next to him. The glow from outside streetlights showed that she had taken off her coat. Her skirt and blouse seemed too neat for a homeless person. She rubbed her hand over his chest and belly. "Thank you for being so nice to me."
He grabbed her hand and held it still. "You don't have to thank me. Believe it or not, you've helped me also, and I don't want to take advantage."
She bent down and kissed his lips. "You wouldn't be taking advantage. It's been too long for me, at least with someone decent." Her tongue started probing.
She was a person in trouble, not someone to be exploited. Aaron's tried to push her away, but his own pain and loneliness was too great. They loosened their clothes and made love on the narrow couch. His urgency surprised him. Then they undressed, went to the bedroom, and made love again, this time with slower kisses, more leisurely explorations of each other's bodies, and gentler caresses. She smelled of lilac, not like someone who had been sleeping on the streets. He wondered at that.
The next morning, Friday, he lazed in bed. The smell of coffee and cinnamon came from the kitchen along with the sound of feminine humming. My God, how could he ever have considered suicide last night? Yes, there were problems, big ones, but he had ability. He could solve them.
The phone rang. "Hello, Mr. Goldberg? This is Rosie from the offices of Dewey, Howe and Cheetum. Mr. Cheetum asked me to give you a message. It seems the file of the complainant's original interview has been corrupted, and the DA has decided to drop the charges against you."
"What? That's wonderful. What happened to the file?"
"If you want to make another appointment, Mr. Cheetum can give you all the details."
No thanks. Not at four hundred bucks an hour. "That's all right. But does that mean I'm a free man? I don't have to worry about jail?"
"That's right." Her voice had an annoying sing-song.
"And is my record clean?"
"You don't even have an arrest record. Just don't molest any more coworkers."
"Damn it. I didn't touch her."
"Of course not. Have a good day."
Infuriating that even the secretary presumed him guilty, but not important. He wasn't going to jail. That was the main thing. He didn't even have a criminal record, so he could still get a decent job. Now all he had to do was find that job, get some money, and locate a cheaper apartment. No small tasks, but even if he and Barbara ended up homeless together, there were worse fates.
He grinned. Maybe it was too early to think of the two of them being a pair but there was something so alluring about her.
He jumped out of bed and went to the kitchen. She stood there, dressed in one of his shirts, and flipping pancakes. She glanced at him and laughed. "My, my. You're looking perky this morning."
He looked down, saw what she meant, and grinned. "Just morning wood."
She put breakfast on the table. "Was the phone call good news?"
"Great news. I had been…well…I had been accused of rape. I didn't do it, but the cops took the claim seriously. But now, something happened to the file so the DA dropped the case."
"How wonderful," she said, but didn't sound surprised. "Come sit down for breakfast."
"Those pancakes look delicious. How'd you make them? I don't even have an auto-serve."
She grinned. "Well, auto-servers are convenient, but I'd rather not have to depend on fancy electronics."
Lots of people felt that way, but something in her expression and tone of voice sounded ironic. "Good, because I don't have much of anything fancy here," he said.
"You have enough for me. Eat up, and then we'll make love again."
"I don't know if I'm up to more lovemaking, no pun intended."
She winked. "We'll see."
Aaron hadn't expected to be able to so soon, but Barbara showed a unique ability to arouse him. Afterwards, they lay with her snuggled in his arm. Her head was light on his shoulder, and her body positioned so not to press too hard on his arms or legs. What a woman. She wasn't particularly pretty and she had plums, not even apples, but she was the sexiest person he had ever known.
After about thirty minutes, she sat up and pinched him in the side. "Time to look for a job, my sweet."
He stretched. "Hey, you too."
"I've already been on the computer. I have an interview set for tomorrow for some contract work with the army." She giggled. "That wouldn't be my first choice of employers, but since there've been no wars for the past ten years and none appear to be brewing, it should be all right."
He got out of bed and opened the dresser drawers. "What kind of work? You never told me."
"I'm an organizational coordinator."
"Which must mean you coordinate organizations."
She swung herself out of bed and giggled again. "That's absolutely right." She donned her clothing with the grace of a princess. "I need to do some shopping before tomorrow's interview, but I'll be back in time to make you dinner."
"Do you need money? I'm not completely broke."
"Thank you, but I have enough."
"I'm not a bad cook. Since I don't have an autoserve, let me make dinner for us."
She kissed him on the forehead. "I enjoy cooking for a man."
If she had money for shopping why had she been sleeping on the streets? He watched her leave, and when the door shut, thought, something about her isn't real.
The computer screen daunted him, daring him to brave repeated rejections from potential employers. He did have an excuse to delay his job hunting. He could remove the yellow flag from the bridge in case Barbara returned to that spot, but she sure didn't look suicidal now; she acted like a different person. The flag could wait. He turned to the employment search. After an hour, he took a break and went into the kitchen for coffee. When he returned, a message filled half the screen.
I found a job opening that might interest you. Could you please click on the link and tell me if it's helpful?
Below was a link to a page on the Virtualics.com website. What the hell? Virtualics was a software company for virtual reality programs. He was a structural engineer, not a software engineer, but the website announced openings for his specialty to help design androids. From the description of the ad, he would be a perfect fit. He called the number and, to his amazement, reached a vice-president, Brian O'Neal, who listened to his qualifications and invited him for an interview the next day.
"But it's Saturday," Aaron said.
"Ah, the Jewish Sabbath. From your name, I should have guessed. We can make it Sunday."
"No, that's okay. I'm not religious. I'll meet you tomorrow. Just tell me when and where." He couldn't breathe. First the criminal charges being dropped, and now the possibility of a job. This good fortune overwhelmed him. What next?
That evening, he told her about the job interview. She was pleased, but again, didn’t seem surprised. She cooked a delicious salmon dinner, then they went to bed early and made love until he begged for mercy.
The next morning Barbara woke him. "No lying in bed late today, my love. We both have job interviews." She dressed with no sign of nervousness over her impending meeting, applied makeup, and cooked oatmeal with nuts and spices--the perfect meal to avoid sluggishness during a meeting--all before he had finished shaving. After eating, they kissed each other goodbye.
Aaron said. "Good luck in your interview. I'll see you this evening."
"This will be a wonderful day. I hope you enjoy your new job."
Driving to the Virtualics office, Aaron kept thinking about this woman. She radiated a self-confidence he had never seen, one that suggested she could easily take over someone's life. Why in the world had she been standing on the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide?
She was an impressive and intriguing, but he couldn't figure her out. That made him uneasy. Sandra, his ex-fiancée, was--what word to use--more comfortable.
Brian O'Neal was a relaxed black man with a goatee. He asked questions that sounded pro-forma and then offered Aaron a job at an increased salary plus a sign-on bonus.
Overwhelmed by his good fortune, he left the Virtualics building and walked to his car. The phone rang. "Aaron, this is Dan. You know, your old boss."
He grimaced. "I know who you are."
"Look, Aaron, you know, uh, really, I've always liked you."
"You have a strange way of showing it."
A sigh on the other end of the line. "Someone sent me email saying Christina has been sleeping around."
"You just found that out? She fucks half the office."
Another sigh. "I confronted her, and she blurted out a lot, including how she had framed you. Look Aaron, I'm really sorry about this. I wanna offer you your old job back. At a higher salary."
What blissful gratification. Aaron wanted to tell him 'Fuck you, asshole.' So he did.
"Okay, I deserve that. Look, Aaron, something happened to the file you made about the bridge, and we can't find where the fault is. You got my boss interested in that defect, and he wants answers."
"Go out on the bridge and look. The yellow flag is still there."
"Huh. What flag?"
"The flag one of your flunkies put up to make it easier to find the spot."
Dan spoke to people at the other end. "No one put up any flag. The workers were out there just this morning. Who would do such a dumb thing as to mark the spot where you could kill yourself?"
So the file showing the location of the bridge safety net fault was corrupted. Plus a convenient email to Dan about Christina. Too many coincidences. And if no one on Dan's staff had put out that yellow flag, how did it get there? "Okay, I'll take a temporary contract to locate the defect, but it'll cost you."
"Double the going rate, okay?"
"I'll phone you," and he ended the call. The upward spiral in his life since he had meet Barbara made him dizzy. He wanted to call her, but they had never bothered to exchange phone numbers. He sped home, laughing at the clank in the car's motor. "Tomorrow you go to the garage."
Barbara hadn't yet come back from her appointment. In the bedroom, standing in front of an open suitcase stood Sandra.
Awkward. "I thought your brother would come for your things."
She looked at the suitcase. "I'm trying to decide if I should unpack. I want to move back in, that is, if you'll have me."
What? Yes, he wanted Sandra back, but he couldn't treat Barbara like a disposable sex toy.
Sandra handed him an envelope. "This was taped to your door. It seems you didn't waste any time in finding a replacement for me." For a moment, her face grew tense, but then it softened. "The way I dumped you, maybe I shouldn't complain."
The envelope was marked, 'For My Dear Aaron' in graceful script and smelled of lilac. He looked up and took a step toward Sandra. "I wasn't looking for anyone. I swear it. I was on the bridge to check out the fault I told you about, and she was right at the spot and looked like she was going to jump and I couldn't let that happen and we started talking and one thing led to another…"
Sandra put her finger on his lips. "I'm not condemning you. Read the letter."
Aaron opened the envelope.
My Dear Aaron,
These past days with you have been nothing short of delightful. You have done more for me than I know how to describe. But a voice from the past has unexpectedly called for my help, and I must respond.
Sad to say, you will never see me again, and to look for me would surely bring unhappiness to you and those you love. I will never forget you.
She had beautiful handwriting, perfectly straight and even. He stood with his mouth open. No one likes being dumped, but the truth was he could now re-unite with the woman he loved, Sandra.
Sandra bit her lower lip. "What does the letter say?"
"That she's leaving and not coming back."
Sandra nodded and, a faint smile on her lips, took some clothing out of the suitcase.
Aaron said, "I'm delighted you're back, but what changed your mind?"
"I got a second letter from Christina. It was slipped under my door this morning." She handed it to him.
My priest told me to write you and apologize for trying to drive you away from Aaron. I'll be honest. I tried to seduce him, but he wouldn't do it, and I was so mad, I told everybody he tried to rape me. Dan, our boss, hates him anyway, so I figured I would kill two birds with one stone. But now Dan knows I've been unfaithful to him also, and everything has gone wrong, so I went back to church and took confession, and I'm writing you like my priest said. Please forgive me.
He stared at the letter. "Christina didn't write this."
She came to his side and looked at it. "Why not?"
"It's legible. Christina's scribbles at the office are impossible to read. Also, she never writes letters. Emails and texts, yes, but not written letters like this one. Also, the crudeness sounds like her, but I don't believe anything would make her go back to church." He took Barbara's letter and compared the two. The shapes of the letters were different, but both were written in straight, regular lines.
Like two handwriting fonts generated by a computer.
Sandra took his hand. "She didn't write it? I came back because of that letter. Now you're saying it's a fake. Who wrote it? You?"
"No, absolutely not. I want you back, but not on false pretenses. I don't know who wrote it."
For a moment, Sandra stood motionless. "So you told me the letter wasn't hers. That might have driven me away again."
"Yes, I know, but if…if you're going to stay with me, it shouldn't be because of somebody's tricks."
She stood on her toes and kissed him on the lips. "You really are honest. So tell me, do you want me back?"
"Yes, definitely." Aaron sat down on the bed, his body limp. These past two days have felt like Alice in Wonderland. But what rabbit hole did this Barbara come from?
<End of Chapter one>
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Barbara, in case you haven't guessed, is an android, and her history (A Virtual Affair) Is summarized in Chapter two. The rest of the story shows how she uses her brains--uh, CPU--and crotch to improve the lives of others, apprehend two criminals, and save the world from a massive terror attack.
If you think the story is not completely serious, you're right.