The light on his desk meant that someone upstairs wanted to yell at him about Anne Marion. LaMarr stabbed at the light, and it blinked off. The agents would take care of that; that’s what they were for. Besides, he wasn’t behind on Marion, and besides that, he was going to do it right, however long that took.
He spread his hand out, and watched bits and pieces of Anne’s life dance across the mirror-screen of his desk. College transcripts and elementary school report cards, dating profiles and corporate evaluations. Pictures. Pictures of her as a girl, high school pictures, pictures from her cousin’s wedding. Some shapers didn’t like to look at pictures at all–they felt it was a distraction.
Shapers who didn’t look at pictures couldn’t make a trap worth spit.
A picture at the corner of the desk was yellowed; overexposed or something. LaMarr reached out to move it to the center, enlarge it, but it was yellow, and the right size. His hand froze. Yellow covers red unless it’s near gray or pink. The other pictures twisted and shrunk and shifted, and he was making patterns in his head.
Someone was yelling. Something about agents. Slowly, LaMarr came out of it. It was one of the bosses. Stouffer? Dan Stouffer. “And fuck you,” continued Dan, “if you think this is some sort of game. You are working for us, Harker, and I’ll be damned if this whole business–”
LaMarr shook his head, trying to keep the colors from moving and shifting like they were supposed to. Two-twenty by the desk timer; he’d been out for almost an hour. “Trance,” he said. “You know I get trances.”
Dan’s face was puffy with rage. “Maybe you were tranced, and maybe you weren’t. But goddamn if you haven’t been putting us off. There’s a double priority rush on this Marion, and I want her in the can tonight. Tonight, you hear? If you can’t–”
“If you want her out for a week, I can give that to you now,” said LaMarr. “If you give me the time I was told I would have, she’ll be out for two months, minimum.”
“Minimum?” asked Dan, deflating. “Two months is more than any syndicate will guarantee. Are you sure that–”
“If I have the time to get this right,” said LaMarr, “my estimate is that Anne Marion will be catatonic for two to three years.”
Dan took a step back. “Two years? Even the best government blanks only–”
“Mr. Stouffer,” said LaMarr. “Look. It took me almost a year to climb out of a very good government blank, and I’m still trancing. This is going to be better. If you don’t think I can deliver what I–”
“It’s not that,” he said. “It’s that you’re slow, LaMarr, and you seem to think that we’re running this syndicate for your amusement. We don’t need the perfect trap. Just get this woman out of the picture–”
“It’s a custody fight, isn’t it?” asked LaMarr. He moved the pictures around on his desk, enlarged one of Anne and Eric Marion, going boating with a three-year-old Jason Marion. It was about a month until Jason would be four. “Being catatonic for a month would hurt Anne’s custody chances, and after-trances would hurt it more, but two years ends the case. There isn’t a court in the world that’s going to give a child to a mother who has been catatonic for two years, and will be likely to trance out for at least another four.”
“That won’t matter,” said Dan, “if they track it back to us.”
That was the problem. It fit like a purple tile between two reds, when there was a red and– LaMarr cut that line of thought short. “Look,” he said. “You hire good people. The investigators got me everything I needed, and more. You know the sort of work I do. I’m sure the insertion team are just as good at their job as the rest of us. They’ll get it in clean.”
Dan winced. “Nobody is as good at their job as you are at yours, LaMarr. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are new patches every day. The insert team has an exploit, but if it’s closed, it’ll be touch and go getting–”
“If it’s closed, they’ll find something else,” said LaMarr. “There are always holes. You can’t attach a brain to the net without leaving a door or two open. Now, if you’re really worried about getting this done, let me work.”
“Tonight,” said Dan. “I want it out tonight.”
“Tomorrow,” said LaMarr. “Three o’clock in the afternoon. That’s the time frame that I was given, and that’s what I’m going to meet. Unless you want an inferior trap.”
“Please,” said Dan. “Have it done tomorrow morning. For my sake.”
“I will give you a five thousand dollar bonus if you have this done before nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
LaMarr considered, and gave a brief, single nod. Dan slipped out, presumably to badger the insertion team, and LaMarr forgot him, slipping back into Anne Marion.
A government operation would start with more–closed files, tax returns, all types of official documentation–but there was so much of a person on the net that LaMarr wasn’t missing much. The investigators had assembled it, organized it as best they could. So much information, so much raw material. There was an Anne Marion in his desk, a ghost, a shell, a face. She didn’t like being called Annie, she had been a serious child, and a serious adult. Eric had been her one big mistake, and she’d make the same mistake again if she had the chance. LaMarr knew it, and knew that she didn’t know it.
With what he had learned, he could . . . well, he could do many things. She wasn’t a pretty woman, not really, but it was a face he had grown accustomed to. He knew her moods, he knew her loves. He could slip himself into her life as easy as a gray square into a gold. Instead of doing that, he would finish his trap, give it to Dan, and cut her down. For the moment, he loved her.
Shapers who didn’t love their targets couldn’t make traps worth spit.
LaMarr always tranced hardest when a trap was close to being finished. Once it was done, the colors and shapes would be less compelling. The sense of things about to come into proper shape did it, and Anne Marion’s trap was coming into shape.
Some shapers thought of their traps as games. They were wrong. Some of them used imagery that connected to the real world, cartoonish and otherwise. That was also a mistake. If you reminded the target of the real world, they would miss the real world; they’d remember what they had left behind, and look for it. LaMarr worked with geometry, patterns, with systems as close to mathematics as the target’s personality would allow.
Anne was a good target. She had liked math in school, though she had never gone beyond second year calculus. She liked order. A well made bed, a properly set table. That was what LaMarr was going to work with. Or, more accurately, that was what his agents were going to work with. He would sketch the broad outlines, and pseudo-AI would do the rest.
It was time. He plugged in, and started sketching.
The trap for Anne Marion was based on circles. The size and the shape would change, shifting up to red or down to blue depending on how much attention she gave it, and when a circle looped other circles, it would grow, and shift onto other planes. For her wedding china, Anne had chosen a pattern with interlocking circles around the border, and she had blogged about watching the bubbles rise and change in the saltwater tank her parents kept when she was little.
On that level, it would have caught her for a week, maybe two weeks. But LaMarr didn’t stop there. At the higher planes, the circles tended toward the color of her baby blanket. The lower planes had the purple-blue of bruises, which would force her to consider her fears, which Anne hated to do. The other sensory stuff, the smells of the circles, the sounds they made as they expanded and contracted, they were all tied to her interests, to her hobbies, to her loves and her fears.
LaMarr tranced four times in the last stages of work on the trap, once for three hours. Some of that time would have been lost anyway, waiting for the agents to finish coding, but most of it was time that was really wasted. He couldn’t help it. The slick-gray mind feel of being plugged in brought on trances, but more than that, it was a good trap. It felt like it could be perfect.
It was hypothetically possible, but nobody had come anywhere close. A mind trap that would last as long as the mind it trapped. Something that could evoke a permanent catatonic state. This one . . . this one was very good indeed.
LaMarr checked the agents’ work, and sealed up the program, and unplugged. The insertion team would have to get it in, and . . . he was tired. He had been up all night, working and trancing, and now he was done. His back hurt, and his wrists hurt, and there was a dull pain from the plugs at the back of his head. He leaned back, stretched, and Dan came in the door, all smiles.
“Good work,” he said, sitting himself down in the chair opposite LaMarr’s desk. “We’re in; no problems.”
“Good,” said LaMarr.
“And,” added Dan, “we got the client to agree to a bonus for every week she’s under, up to a year. He’s expecting a month, tops, so we’ve got him cold.”
LaMarr realized that something was expected of him, so he smiled. “Do I get any of that bonus?” he asked.
“That’s where your five thousand dollars are coming from,” said Dan.
LaMarr nodded, and started cleaning up his desk. Some shapers kept trophies, but that didn’t interest him. He was done with Anne Marion; looking at her pictures made him feel faintly ill.
“Do you ever wonder,” asked Dan, after a pause that had gone on so long that LaMarr had almost forgotten he wasn’t alone, “about what we’re doing?”
“How do you mean?” asked LaMarr.
“I mean . . . well, Eric is a client, right. But he’s not . . . I mean, Anne wasn’t a bad parent, really, despite what our guy says. At least I don’t think–”
“Morality?” asked LaMarr. “From upstairs?”
“Sure,” said Dan. “Why not?”
“Because I’m not the one working with clients,” said LaMarr. “If you have a problem with who we work for, pick them better. But to answer your question, no, I do not have a problem with what I’m doing.” He got up, found his jacket.
“You’d have to be in a trap to understand,” LaMarr said, putting on his jacket. “When you’re in a trap, there’s no pain, there’s no worry beyond the context of the trap. Everything is solvable, everything is manageable. You can leave whenever you want, Dan. If Anne Marion wanted to leave the trap that I’ve built for her, she could do it now, this very instant. She’s won’t. She’s in the trap because it’s better than being outside the trap.”
Dan was still sitting, and he had to swivel his chair around to watch LaMarr as he walked towards the door. “Anne Marion was a good person,” said LaMarr. “So I built her a heaven.”
“And the kid?”
“Get me a profile, and I’ll build one for him too.”
Outside, it was a spring day, and the streets were crowded with people enjoying the sun. The light glinted off the windows of an office building across the street; blue squares and white squares.
The day would come when he’d have the money and expertise to build a trap for himself. A proper, perfect trap. For now, his work was enough; matching people with what they wanted, fitting them into place as smoothly as a purple tile between two reds.
Alter S. Reiss is a field archaeologist and scientific editor who lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife Naomi, and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies. Alter’s work has appeared in Daily SF, Abyss & Apex, Ideomancer, and elsewhere.