A brilliant blue light exploded in front of Britex Fabrics a block from Union Square in San Francisco. It bounced off the gray exterior walls and shimmered against the banners hanging from long slender poles. The dancing effect was lost, however, in the sparkle of hundreds of cameras flashing as friends, family and tourists photographed the most magnificent Lion’s Dance the Chinese New Year parade had ever produced. Everyone in Union Square was facing the other direction, and saw neither the light nor the squat beige creature that appeared a fraction of a second later.
The creature wobbled on two stubby legs as it skittered into the shadows. Hiding behind a mailbox, it slid a small black box from a pocket of rubbery flesh. Two thin digits wiggled free, and tapped a glimmering pad on the box.
Music from the parade masked the creature’s whimpers as its beige edges trembled. Its legs lengthened and rippled, then bent in the middle, becoming knees. Next came hips, but the rectangular mass above the hips pitched forward. It fell on the sidewalk and rolled into an alley.
Its legs jabbed the damp night air, when a gust of wind blew a flyer for a dance school on top of the black box. The digits flicked the flyer away and tapped the pad again. Ankles formed at the end of the legs, followed by feet.
The creature rolled over and pulled its bent knees underneath. It squeaked, modulating to a growl. It retracted the two thin digits. Shoulders emerged at the top of its rectangular body, followed by arms. Elbows and wrists wiggled into place, and finally two strong hands.
It pushed itself to a kneeling position. Inch by inch, a neck protruded between the shoulders, then a head. Hair, ears, and a commanding chin popped into place.
The eyes emerged and scanned the rest of the body. Lips popped out, compressing into a frown. The creature snorted and snatched the black box from where it had fallen on the sidewalk. It tapped the pad with brand-new fingers.
A soft green light spread from the box like hot fudge sauce on ice cream. Spots of green appeared on the pale, naked body, first around the limbs then the torso. As the spots stretched and stitched themselves together, they turned a rich brown. The shimmering light grew opaque, and the body was no longer naked but clothed in a double-breasted wool suit.
A pool of green light swirled around the head. Tendrils of light reached like feathers from the top of the head, and became curly brown hair. Brows and lashes unfurled around the eyes, now the color of caramel. A thin mustache sprouted above the lips.
The creature - now a young man - twitched and squealed as the last of the light faded. He tapped the black box again, brought it up to his mouth and gasped, “That tickled - and not in a good way. Get rid of the hair below the nose before I scratch it off myself. And can you do something about the nasal filters? The smells here are unbearable.”
He wobbled to his feet as the box buzzed. He craned his face toward it. “Give me a minute, I am still new at this.” He stuffed the sputtering box in his jacket pocket and took two hesitant steps.
Another young man leaned against the wall, a thin stream of liquid squirting from his body. He turned his head. “What you starin’ at, man?” He zipped his jeans and stumbled down the street.
The brown-suited man held his nose with one hand and retrieved the box with the other. “Found the source of the smell,” he said. “And I think we missed something in our research. No, I just saw one of them, and he has some parts I do not.”
The box chittered and went silent. The man backed away from the alley. He angled one foot and made a wide turn off the sidewalk and into the street, like an aircraft carrier attempting to herd a pod of dolphins.
A young couple chattering about the parade slowed their pace. “Hey, mister, are you okay?” the woman asked.
“Yes, fine, thank you. New knees. Not quite sure how they work.”
“Oh, my aunt had knee replacement surgery. It can take a while, but she’s really happy now. Pain-free for the first time in years.”
The brown-suited man looked at the couple and blinked. “Good to know.” He raised his hand and rocked it side to side. “Bye-bye.”
The other man pulled the woman down the street. “When will you learn that you should just keep walking?” he scolded as they hurried away.
A series of stern beeps brought the brown-suited man’s attention to his pocket. He retrieved the box and said, “Marsel, what did you find? I thought so. Never let the blues be in charge of the research. They hate us. They think beiges are all brawn, no brain, and we will not notice their practical jokes.”
He rocked from one foot to the other. A shiver wiggled down his body from his shoulders to his toes. He swiveled his hips and said, “Transformation complete. No, I do not know if all the parts are functioning properly. I am still working on getting the knees to behave. Just give me my cover story. Yes, I am ready for the download.”
He closed his eyes and pressed the box against his forehead. The soft green light again flowed around him. The light split into two beams which twisted together like a rope as it circled, then shot through one ear and out the other.
“Understood. My name is Bozidar Cottonwood, film maker. Czech mother, English father. Fine, I will not repeat the story. I am not the one who pushed for an insertion before completing the proper training. Do not blame me if some of the details are wrong because you were too lazy to go through the checklist, Marsel. Oh, wait. Guess what? I am walking!”
The press of people leaving Union Square pushed him into the storefront. He leaned into the stream, forcing his way between parents and children, couples holding hands, and knots of tourists holding maps. He heard their protests - “watch it”, “wrong way” and “the parade’s over, jerk” - but did not respond. He made his way to an empty spot near the middle of the square.
Taking a deep breath, he spoke into the box. “I think the knee issues have resolved themselves. What? Oh, right.” He glanced at the stragglers nearby. “No, some of them are talking into boxes, too. And some are just talking. No one seems to notice. Give me the mission specifications. Who is my target, and where am I going?”
He bent his head and listened. When the buzzes and crackles from his box subsided, he straightened, looked at the street signs and said, “I am not far from there now according to the guidance program. Yes, I will verify my chronometer against local time before I contact the target. Cecily Morgan, daughter of Susan, leader of the group that murdered our clan.”
“Cecily, where are the flyers?” Susan whispered, pulling her sage-green silk blazer tight against the blast of cold air from the door.
They stood in the foyer of a small meeting hall. Twenty people already claimed seats inside, greeting each other as they shed coats and backpacks. Cecily handed a program to the twenty-first person to come through the door and smiled.
“If by flyer you mean order form, they’re on that table under the window,” she said. “Don’t worry, Mom, everything’s under control.” She smoothed her denim skirt. “It’s a pretty good turn-out. Thanks for getting the Norwegian Sailors Association to let us use their hall for another screening.”
Susan brushed a lock of purple hair from her daughter’s eyes. “I do like this color better than the red. It suits your skin tones. Brings out those blue eyes. And I’m happy to help. After all, Death by Chenille is my story, too. The aliens invaded my shop, and most of that footage is real. I am so proud of you for making that movie. Although I can’t believe people think it’s all science fiction special effects, it’s kind of fun to see me on the screen.” Her attention snapped to the front door as three young women entered, all speaking at once on their individual phones.
Cecily stepped forward. “Great, you made it after all.” She hugged her friends in turn, presented each with a program, and waved toward the meeting room. “There’s still plenty of room. Sit wherever you like and we’ll catch up after the show.”
“How many people order DVDs at these things?” Susan asked when the buzz of three conversations ebbed.
“Not as many as at a film festival, but enough,” Cecily said. “We’re making a profit now, did I tell you? Not huge, but it’s better than being in the red.”
Susan swept her hand through her honey-blonde hair. Her gold bracelets jingled like coins in a collection jar. “I saw the statements before I came out to the city. You’ve done a great job, sweetie. I’m really proud of you.”
The front door opened again, accompanied by a swirling gust of cold air. A brown haired man in a double-breasted brown wool suit stood at the threshold for a moment.
“Am I in time for the showing?” he asked as he entered the hallway and shut the door behind him.
As Cecily offered a program to the man, Susan put herself between him and her daughter, arm extended as if to restrain her from a sudden stop. “Yes, you’re right on time. Go ahead in. The movie will start soon.”
“Thank you. I have so been looking forward to this moment. My name is Bozidar Cottonwood. We have heard of this movie even in my homeland.” He reached past Susan to take the program from Cecily.
“And where are you from?” Susan asked. Her eyes grew narrow and tight. Her lips pulled back from her teeth - less a smile than a prelude to a bite.
“Central Europe,” he said.
“Not the Czech Republic!” Cecily pushed her mother aside and shook his hand. “The Brno Independent Film Festival? We just heard Death by Chenille has been accepted, and we are so excited, I can’t tell you.”
Susan placed her hands on Cecily’s shoulders and eased her away. “How nice of you to come, Mr. Cottonwood. That’s not exactly a Czech name, is it?”
“My father is English. I do not represent the film festival, but I am associated with the industry. I would very much like to talk with you after the showing, Miss Morgan.” He smiled at Cecily, nodded to Susan, and went into the meeting room.
“Don’t talk with him,” Susan hissed as soon as he was out of earshot.
“What’s wrong with you, Mom? You act like he has horns.”
Susan shook her head, exhaling. “I don’t like him.”
Cecily brushed her mother’s hands away. “Since when do you not like business opportunities? You heard him, he’s in the film industry. And he knows about our movie.”
“And he smells of lavender.”
Putting her palm against Susan’s forehead, Cecily said, “So do you. So does your store. And your sewing room - ”
“Studio. And most of the house.” Cecily peered into her mother’s eyes. “You don’t have a fever, but you’re acting very strange. What’s the problem, aside from a handsome man with an accent wearing your favorite scent?”
Susan glanced into the meeting room, and saw Bozidar sitting alone in the back row. “I’ve just got a bad feeling about him.”
Cecily shook her head. “Mother, please. He probably wants to talk about distribution rights in Europe. I promise I won’t make any verbal agreements, and that I’ll run any written agreements past your lawyer before I sign. Now smile - it’s show time!”