The days were getting shorter, Johnny thought as he walked home from work, the afternoon sun already fading into a blue twilight, the streetlights already coming alive to light the sidewalks and streets of San Francisco. At the same time, Johnny’s days were getting longer. Important clients at the bank, putting his ideas into practice, saving the bank a bunch of money, it all took so much more than a normal, nine-to-five workday to do.
And no one had even mentioned his birthday yet, Johnny moped as he trudged back to his condo. Even the promise of Lisa, his future wife, waiting for him on the sofa, ready to make him feel beloved and special, was beginning to seem hollow. Some days, Johnny wasn’t even sure she’d still be there when he opened the door.
Johnny climbed the stairs outside to the condo and pushed open the door to see only blackness. His heart sank. This was the night. Lisa had already packed up and left, leaving the condo they had shared cold and empty.
Then the lights clicked on.
“Surprise!” came an excited, welcoming chorus of voices. A crowd of Johnny’s friends stood in front of him, smiling and holding up drinks to toast him.
Everyone was there, Mark, Denny, Claudette, Mike, Michelle… And at the head of the pack, his future wife Lisa, smiling with joy and wearing the little black dress he had bought her for her last birthday. She skipped up to her future husband, laying a warm hand on his arm, giggling. Johnny grinned back, overwhelmed by the outpouring of love.
With a wave of her hands, Lisa conducted the group in a cheerful, off-key rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ The notes and chords flowing over him, Johnny waved, happily greeting everyone even as they sang.
“Thank you, alright,” he told them as they finished up, starting to blush from all the attention. The thanks continued as Mark passed him a glass of champagne and they all toasted, standing in a huge clump, patting Johnny on the back and offering him hugs. Reaching across the group, Johnny made sure to clink glasses with everyone, letting no one go missed.
At his right, Denny griped about his lack of champagne with which to toast. “You want to drink this one?” Johnny asked him, holding out his own glass teasingly before snatching it away and taking a sip. Denny mouthed silent protest, and Johnny promised him, “Later.”
Later, the party was in full swing, and Denny had managed to steal unattended, half-full champagne flutes from other inattentive guests. The sweet liquid was stronger than he’d thought it would be, but the rush of confidence it gave him reminded him pleasantly of the small baggie of amphetamines waiting back in his apartment, carefully rationed out to last him the next few days.
The other guests had split off into their own separate conversations, laughing and smiling with each other as they relaxed. Johnny sat next to Claudette on the couch, his future wife’s mother gesturing as she spoke, while Lisa was giggling to Peter near one window. She wasn’t consciously aware of it – no one at the party was – but ‘Peter’ looked completely different. The hologram was now controlled by a different observer, one who had been deemed more stable, more able to fulfil his mission, and he had slipped seamlessly into the life his predecessor had painstakingly set up. The only change was the pulses of energy he now emitted, scrambling the humans’ brain waves, telling them that he was their close friend and they had always known him.
From an isolated seat in the corner, Mark’s eyes were drawn to Lisa. Everything about her was perfect tonight – the black dress, her crimson lips, the tangled curls of her blonde hair. Even the way she was laughing, joy seeming to bubble up from deep inside her and radiate into the space around her, was beautiful. Mark could barely stand it.
Until her shadowed gaze fell upon him. Then he couldn’t stand it at all, and motioned with his chin for her to come over. Lisa turned away, going back to her conversation with replacement Peter. It was only the briefest of glances, but it was long enough for Johnny to notice.
The coffee table, covered with snacks at the beginning of the party, all arranged like a Martha Stewart photo shoot, was almost empty of almost everything but empty plates. What was still left was a messy jumble of chaos, picked over and disarrayed. One of the last, small slices of chocolate cake was sitting on a paper plate in Mike’s hand. He stood next to Michelle, one arm slung across the mantle of Johnny and Lisa’s fireplace, and held up the cake for her to see, raising his eyebrows and miming enthusiastically eating the delicacy. Michelle grinned, too brazen to blush, and scooped up a piece of icing in her fingers, feeding it to her boyfriend before licking the excess from her thumb.
Mike was about to return the gesture when, behind his girlfriend, he saw Lisa approaching and hurriedly brought his hand to his own mouth. Quickly swallowing the piece of cake he’d intended for Michelle, he tried to put his arm back on the mantle nonchalantly. Finding it too high to make the motion appear casual, he changed tack and put his elbow on Michelle’s shoulder instead.
Seeing his whole charade, Lisa giggled. “Hey, everybody,” she called out, addressing everybody in the tiny living room, “Let’s go out for some fresh air.”
There were shrugs and scattered Yeahs throughout the room, and everyone quickly streamed out the door. In less than five seconds, the living room was almost totally deserted. As Mark followed the flow of people, about to go outside, the door slammed in front of him, pushed by a delicate, lithe hand. He followed the arm up to see Lisa, smiling sweetly as she blocked his path. Mark smiled at her, nervous and confused.
“Wait,” she bade him. “I have something I want to show you.”
“Oh really?” Mark asked, raising an eyebrow, pretty sure it was her tits.
Lisa led him over to the couch, where he sat on one of the sheepskins that blanketed the sofa. A moment later, she fell into his lap, keeping her glass of champagne balanced even as she draped over Mark. Her soft fingers caressed the back of his neck.
“So,” he started. “What do you want to show me?”
“It’s a surprise,” Lisa grinned as she set her wine glass aside. She put her hand, the wrist swathed in a glittering diamond bracelet from Johnny, on Mark’s clean-shaven cheek and kissed him softly, gently, on the lips. The diamond engagement ring on her finger shining, Lisa’s hand moved down, rubbing Mark’s chest.
Shifting to move away from her, Mark gaped in confusion at Lisa. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I mean, are you crazy? Everybody’s here.”
“No they’re not,” Lisa giggled, shaking her head at Mark’s fearfulness. Indicating the empty living room with her chin, she told him, “They’re all outside.”
Mark returned her laugh and let his head loll back, gazing at the ceiling. “She-devil,” he cursed her, “You planned this all along.” Marvelling, he reflected on the deviousness, the sheer cunning Lisa had needed to buy them this moment to be together, completely alone and secure. With a smile, he faced her again, returning her affections.
Out of nowhere, the door opened and replacement Peter came in. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. Caught off-guard and completely surprised by this development, Lisa and Mark sprang out of the couch and onto their feet. Mark blanched, but Lisa glared defensively. “Why are you doing this?” replacement Peter continued, his predecessor’s far-too-detailed notes telling him he should be concerned.
Searching the grain of the hardwood floor for answers, Mark stared down, chastened, but Lisa didn’t flinch. “I love him,” she sneered, draping one arm across his chest.
“I don’t believe it,” replacement Peter retorted, his eyes burning with the fury his memory banks told him he should react with.
Looking from Lisa to replacement Peter, bewitched by the pair of sparkling, pleading green eyes that stared up at him, Mark rounded on replacement Peter. “You don’t understand anything, man,” he told the replacement psychologist calmly. Then, with a sudden burst of rage, added, “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”
He pushed past the hologram, shoving him out of the way as he stormed out of the apartment and leaving Lisa and replacement Peter alone. Replacement Peter stalked forward, focused intently on Lisa.
“Do you understand what you’re doing?” he asked her. “You’re going to destroy Johnny. He’s very sensitive.”
“I don’t care,” Lisa pouted. “I’m in love with Mark.”
Reacting with theatrical disgust, replacement Peter wrinkled his nose and raised his shoulders to his ears as he shook his head. “How can you do this? You make me sick!”
There was a chuckle as the door opened and Johnny entered, following Michelle inside. He grinned at his future wife. “Thank you honey, this is a beautiful party,” he enthused. “You invited all my friends,” he continued, putting a loving arm across Michelle’s shoulders, “Good thinking!”
Giving a look that said, ‘Oh, it was nothing,’ Lisa shrugged. “You’re welcome, darling.” Her mouth opened in a warm smile and her voice turned saccharine. “You know how much I love you.”
Revolted, replacement Peter turned to stare at Lisa in horror. He hadn’t been given the reasons for his predecessor’s reassignment, but he could understand if the previous observer, overcome with distaste, had been unable to maintain neutrality. The humans were even more disgusting than he had imagined. A large part of replacement Peter’s mission was determining whether total obliteration was a valid course of action in dealing with the newly discovered species, and he found himself suddenly looking forward to recommending that particular treatment. If these humans were indicative of the whole, xenocide would be a mercy.
“I do,” Johnny answered blissfully, oblivious to replacement Peter’s shocked reaction.
Lisa looked at Peter, her eyes pleading for him to not give anything away, and he managed to relax. “You know, it’s getting really hot in here. Why don’t we go back outside,” she suggested.
Replacement Peter nodded, biting his lip, his posture tense with rage. “Mmhmm,” Johnny agreed, opening the door. He chuckled as everyone streamed outside, but his smile had already faded by the time he left the living room.