The Sisters of Catherine

by Gordon C. McRae

 

When his e-com woke him at 9:31, Evan Lau-Hobbes couldn't believe he'd slept, let alone slept in. The luminous screen was turned to his bed, but even before he read it he realized his girlfriend Julie had already left for work. What a night. His brain was painlessly screaming at Mach 2 from the flyers they'd popped before making love. Without that jolt of clarity, he never would have thought of ignoring the e-com to make the hotel think he was already on the way.

He dressed quickly, grabbed his fanny-pack full of opt-disks, leapt down the stairs to the street and jogged to 3rd Ave to hail a cab. This was scary, he thought, only slightly out of breath. The flyers had fishhooked the edges of his mouth into a goofy grin and every person, every car and street sign had an edge so crisp he wondered if he even needed his contact lenses. He'd have to see if Julie could get more of them fiery little blue babies.

It was only when he got to the Hilton that Evan wished he'd read his e-com message. The high-heeled concierge grabbed him by the sleeve as he tried to zip past with a perky greeting.

"Evan! They've been waiting for you for over an hour. The Perlman Suite, now. Rollins is already on the phone trying to get another technician in here. Where the heck have you been? Go man, go!"

The moment she let go of his sleeve the flyers seemed to kick in all on their own. Not because he had to white knight it to the rescue, but because Rollins, the hotel's conference manager, was threatening to scab out on him. Evan clung to the job of SysAdmin for the Hotel's server by his eye teeth. He was born a hacker. He had most of the formal education required for the position, but no major hotel in the country had ever hired a twenty-year old with a braid to his waist as SysAdmin before, and if he blew it, they never would again. He'd been booted out of Berkeley for creating the Phylum virus, which ate opt-disks like beer nuts, and was now dependent on a pretty thin resume for his bread and board. If he didn't hustle and get that Rollins toe-jam on his lips in the next two minutes, he was sure he was finished.

The Perlman room was on the third floor of the East wing and Evan cut through the palm trees, the Vivaldi, and the croissants in the arboretum and leapt up the service stairs by the kitchen. When he got to the third floor, Rollins was nowhere in sight, but a puffy, gray-haired woman in a black dress stood patiently at the door holding a briefcase with two gloved hands.

"Hi," he said, trying to breathe calmly through his nose and peer into the room over her head. There were half a dozen other women in the room, all shapes and sizes, and all wearing their Sunday best. From his quick glance, the only man in the room was a jowly guy in a Stetson.

"Are you the tele-conferencing man?" asked the gray-haired lady. Her voice was so gentle and patient it took Evan by surprise.

Still, the flyers were working for time and a half. "I'm sorry I'm late -- the traffic from my place was terrible -- I really hope I've not inconvenienced any of you --."

"Not to worry," she said with a smile. "We still have a good half hour before we begin. Will it take you long to set up?" Evan realized her eyes were like two pale marbles that seemed to see right through him.

"How many remote parties will there be?" he asked, trying to slow himself down. "It all depends on the connection time and --."

From her briefcase the woman produced a disk and flipped it over in her gloved hand. "Will this speed things up? All the numbers and our preferred data paths are on here."

His grin got even bigger, thinking this granny had everything laid out for him. "Excellent. I can have you connected in a few minutes. I just have to go down to the server and load it in."

"You will be returning, though, won't you?"

Evan gave his head a shake.

The woman continued. "Won't it be possible to transfer control to the conference room itself?"

"If that's where -- how you--," he stumbled. "I mean, you want to make live changes to the participants?"

The woman nodded. "If need be. If it's not too much trouble. Sometimes they don't work out too well. I spoke to Mr. Rollins about securing your services. I had hoped it was all arranged."

Evan jumped up to snuff. "Sorry, of course. I'm confusing you with another party. My apologies. If you see Mr. Rollins, tell him I just have to load this and I'll be right back."

"Thank you," she said with a tip of the head, like some Victorian duchess who never spoke to anyone other than royalty.

Evan raced back down the way he'd come, past the check-in desk to where his office and the hotel server were. He brought up the partition for the Perlman Suite, rebooted it with his password and while he was waiting he glanced at the label in the center of the disk. There was a logo with all the letters of the acronym SCSS over-laying each other and the words "Sisters of Catherine Spiritualist Society" arced underneath. When the reboot was complete Evan shoved the disk into the slot and almost immediately pushed the button and brought it back out.

"What the hell?" he laughed aloud, realizing the significance of the name.

The Perlman Suite was this Hilton's only holographic tele-conferencing room. Anyone with access to an ISTT line and a SC camera at the other end could be made to appear as solidly at the table as a physical attendee. What were these women planning? He remembered the jowly, Stetsoned man he'd seen in the room and wondered if he was one of the people who could be fooled some of the time. This type of full color conferencing holography was still rare and expensive. Was cowboy Bob going to get to meet some long-lost relative funneled from Arkansas through this server? He slipped the disk back in and peeked at the contents of its only file. The paths looked tame enough. Though from the chains of addresses it was impossible to tell where the users logged into the terminal link from. It seemed there were going to be four extra people around the Perlman Suite table that morning. He loaded the file, established each of the four connections and flipped back to the main network screen to transfer control to the client system upstairs.

It was then that Rollins came in, fists clenched, his face so many colors of purple Evan thought it was the flyers making him hallucinate. Time to pucker up to that toe-jam.

* * *

 

Five ear-ringing minutes later, his job on a line so thin he could slit his throat on it, Evan was back upstairs and out of breath. The gray-haired woman was ever-so-nicely asking if he could keep the beep of the touch screen down to a minimum. Her name was Celine Desola and she had pulled up a chair beside his little console by the door, intending to prompt him throughout the meeting. Her sister Margaret -- whether a biological sister or a Society of Catherine sister he didn't know -- was chairing the meeting and had them hit the lights and turn down the windows as soon as the door was closed. They had had a folding table brought in and set up so they could all join hands comfortably around it, and Evan had been asked to place the projector nodes above the four empty seats -- which blew all to hell his theory that cowboy Bob was about to be duped.

Over the glow of the screen, he could hardly make out the people around the table, and didn't have to be asked by the Desola lady to dim it. There was a long period of silence, a bit of yogic sighing to release various tensions, then chairperson Margaret nodded toward the sister at Evan's side and the projector nodes sprung to life.

Four glowing figures flickered into the empty seats, a bearded man with some kind of silk fez or turban, two more Sunday-best sisters and a bent old babushka in a scarf. As soon as they appeared cowboy Bob took off his hat and set it under his chair. There was another minute of silence and deep breathing. Then madam chairman said, her voice near a whisper, "Let us begin with a prayer."

All heads were lowered, even the holographic hands were clasped, and after a muffled, clinking room service cart had passed by outside the door, the chairwoman began. "O Lord, bless this place and these gentle souls gathered here today. We ask that you make a small exception for the sake of parted souls and open the gates of place and time, if just for a little while. We thank you, O Lord, for what gifts of spiritual sight may be granted us this day."

There was a pause, then surprise of surprises, cowboy Bob led the assembled group in a hymn. Evan, his system still humming like a jet engine, bowed his head to the console and watched the MIPS meter of the CPU dance, wondering how in blazes he could keep from laughing. The guy's voice was an artificially warbly tenor and sounded like cartoon tonsils on a vibrating bed singing in a Texan drawl.

When the hymn was finally done, giving Evan's ribs a break, three objects were taken from people's laps and placed with all solemnity in the center of the table. There was a child's music box with a plastic ballerina on top, a set of wooden salad spoons joined by a metal strip and of all things, a pointer for a Ouija board, but no board. The grips on all joined hands were increased -- how they held the hands of the holograms, Evan didn't know, -- and the man in the fez began to hum. Soon the whole room was in chorus on a single note, and chairman Margaret chimed in a couple of octaves above everyone else. The sound had a sudden and profound effect on Evan.

The goofy grin dropped from his face and whether it was the doing of the flyers or not, he felt as if he were breathing the resonant chorus of voices deep into his chest. "Now this, is cool", he thought, closing his eyes and drinking in the sound. The drone went on for some time and he let it wash over him like waves of a sonic tide. Two or three minutes into it, he estimated later, the salad spoons on the table began to clap.

He immediately opened his eyes.

The rhythm was like an out-of-sync Morse code. No one was touching them. He knew there was nothing under the table or above it that could affect them in any way. Still the chorus, with sister Margaret's higher voice, droned on. Soon the little plastic ballerina on the top of the music box began to move, slowly at first, with the tines inside pinging with each small motion. Then it began to turn in earnest, the cheesy song from inside playing blithely away at the proper tempo.

The lady at his side had put a hand on his arm and was indicating the console. Two of the signal filters were starting to clutter with what techies called red noise, but it was a simple matter to correct. Quietly, he pressed a quick sequence of characters into the keyboard and sat back. But as he did so he suddenly he felt his stomach drop like a lead weight and a chill swept over him as if he were naked and sweating. Beyond the drone of the assembled women, his brain fixed on the sound of the hotel service cart going by in the hall outside again, as if it were coming from a distant world. Thinking he might be sick or pass out, he leaned behind him for the handle of the door to escape, but the gray-haired woman urged him back and gave him a look that said, "Just be patient, you'll be all right."

And it was true. The chill and the gut twisting passed and he bent down behind the console to wipe his brow sweat without disturbing anyone. But when he took his sleeve from his face and looked back up, he noticed the Ouija board pointer had been moved in front of Mr. Fez. Sister Margaret was nodding to him, eyebrows raised, still continuing to hum. Mr. Fez broke the circle of hands for moment and reached toward the Ouija pointer.

Now this, thought Evan, is just too weird. He could swear the holographic man had moved the pointer about ten inches. Then he let go and was now staring at it in its new place. Sister Margaret lifted her head and closed her eyes for long seconds. When she opened them again, she looked at Mr. Fez and shook her head. He reached out again and moved the pointer back.

The gray-haired woman at Evan's side was watching one of the holographic women, who'd begun to flicker. She tapped Evan on the arm and pointed. Evan reached for the control for the signal sync and looked up to see if his adjustments were taking effect. For a split second he thought he saw another image superimposed over the flickering woman and took his hand off the control. Squinting, he tried to make out in the dim light who it was, but could only see that it was a man in some kind of uniform. The Desola woman was squeezing his arm now and he quickly slid the control to focus the signal. The moment he did, another wave of chill nausea over swept him. This time he was sure he was going to throw up and before the woman could stop him he jumped up, tipping over his chair, and barged out of the room.

The halogen lights of the hallway hit him like a bat to the forehead. Blindly he groped for the wastebasket outside the door, yanked the lid off and heaved his stomach into it. But nothing came out. Every muscle in his body lurched into the next spasm. But again, there was nothing in his stomach to heave.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and still bent over, saw the matronly black shoes of the sister Desola woman at his side. "I'm sorry," she said, when he was finally able to stand. "I should have asked if you were a novice."

Still hardly able to keep from fainting, Evan looked at her like she was crazy. "No offense, ma'am," he choked out. "But this is not the sort of thing people see every day."

"True, true," she said, nodding. "But if you had been here long you would have been able to tolerate the vibrations better. How did you die? Was it in the hotel accident? Let's have a good look at you. Ah, it was a drug overdose, was it?"

Evan looked at her long and hard. His head slowly tipped to one side as he stared at her, his overloaded brain beginning to reel. Before he fainted outright, his hands limply pawed the air, as if reaching for an imaginary console to correct the sync of the blurring data stream. *

Story © copyright 1999 by Gordon C. McRae <gmcrae@pharmacy.ualberta.ca>

Artwork "Vortex" © copyright 1998-99 by Duncan Long <duncan@kansas.net>


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