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A Mirror, Brightly - Ch. 1

By Guest
Created: 2023-03-21 03:27:55
Expiry: Never

  1. The clock at the bottom corner of the screen read 4:37 PM, but Paul could have sworn it said the same thing ten minutes ago.
  2.  
  3. For a moment, he thought his computer might have frozen. It wouldn’t have been the first time; his company-issued desktop might’ve been older than he was and had aged about as gracefully as milk. It was still running Windows Vista, for Christ’s sake. A quick shake of the mouse ruled out that possibility, however.
  4.  
  5. No, it appeared Paul was just in his own personal Twilight Zone, a time dilation bubble where seconds stretched out into hours, forcing him to endure endless ennui as a part of some ironic punishment for a past misdeed.
  6.  
  7. Or it was just Friday afternoon at the offices of Network Management Solutions, LLC, and Paul was all out of busywork to distract himself with. There’s only so many times he could reorganize his files before he ended up with more subfolders than it was worth.
  8.  
  9. Normally he’d surreptitiously whip out his phone to kill the remaining time, but he’d gotten an earful when his supervisor caught him doing just that last week, and he wasn’t keen on turning a verbal warning into yet another reprimand on his file.
  10.  
  11. 'Oh, who cares,' he sighed, drumming his fingers on the cheap, sterile metal of his nondescript desk. 'If they wanted me to work, they’d have given me something to do. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before they kick me outta here one way or another.'
  12.  
  13. Honestly, he was surprised they’d kept him around this long, given how many times his performance evaluations decried his “poor attitude” and “lack of enthusiasm.”
  14.  
  15. Paul snorted derisively. 'Because mindlessly plugging numbers into spreadsheets really makes for a happy camper, right? Give me a fucking break.'
  16.  
  17. Mindless was an understatement; if someone held Paul at gunpoint and demanded he tell them the significance of any of the work he spent forty hours a week doing, he would be dead. Hell, he couldn’t even tell you what the company itself did, and neither could anyone else he shared office space with that he’d asked. Personally, he thought the whole operation was a front or shell company for some larger corporation or government agency to disguise its shady dealings.
  18.  
  19. Not that it was any of his business one way or another; unless NMC’s mission statement involved kicking puppies or sacrificing virgins to the dark gods or something equally nefarious, he’d be just fine quietly pocketing his check every month.
  20.  
  21. Well, maybe he’d care more if he thought he’d still have his job by the end of the year, but word around the water cooler was that the suits upstairs were about to replace all lower-level data entry positions with AI, a trend which had become increasingly prevalent since the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence the early ‘20s brought. Paul knew he couldn’t compete with an unfeeling robot, no matter how much his job made him act like one.
  22.  
  23. The only thing he’d miss would be the paycheck, meager as it was. Without an undergraduate diploma or any marketable skills to speak of, he’d have to go back to bagging groceries or waiting tables for minimum wage, and even those jobs were quickly being swallowed up in the rising tide of automation and the falling of the economy in general.
  24.  
  25. Maybe it was finally time to learn to code.
  26.  
  27. A quick glance back at the clock showed that exactly one minute had passed since he last checked. He barely suppressed a groan, but he did let his head hit the desk a tad harder than he meant to. Wincing more from the noise than the pain, he let his eyes drift over to the one bit of personality allowed in the prison cell masquerading as his cubicle: a pin-up poster with a tabby cat dangling from a tree branch, captioned, “Hang in there, baby!”
  28.  
  29. 'Believe me, I’m trying.'
  30.  
  31. Paul’s brooding was cut short by a pair of loafers quickly making their way down his aisle. With a start, he righted himself, switched the tab on his computer over to a random Excel file, and stared at the jumble of numbers as though he could actually divine some meaning from them. Just in time, too, as the heavy steps stopped right behind his chair.
  32.  
  33. “Working hard, Jensen?” a smoker’s rasp chortled mirthlessly. It’s the same thing his supervisor always asked, like a private joke neither of them found particularly funny.
  34.  
  35. “As always, Mr. Lawson,” Paul finished the punchline with an equal dearth of humor, spinning around in his chair with a false grin plastered on his face. It nearly matched the one the pudgy, balding man in a slightly-too-small pinstripe suit bore, though Paul hoped he did a better job of hiding his contempt.
  36.  
  37. “Right…”
  38.  
  39. His supervisor narrowed his beady eyes at Paul’s computer screen. Paul’s grin widened just a hair. “Actually, I’ve just finished up with the Fetterman account. Would you like to take a look?”
  40.  
  41. “...Not at the moment. Got more important things to do.” Mr. Lawson shifted his attention away, and Paul subtly released the breath he’d been holding. While he didn’t lie about having the work done, he knew that Mr. Lawson would find some mistake, or make one up wholesale, and demand Paul stay another hour to fix it out of spite. Fortunately, his supervisor was almost as eager to avoid actually doing his job as Paul was. “Carry on, Jensen.”
  42.  
  43. “Yes, sir. Have a nice weekend.” Paul resisted the urge to mock-salute as Mr. Lawson grunted an acknowledgement and waddled out of the cramped confines of the cubicle. Only once he was safely out of sight did Paul let his strained smile droop. “...Dickhead.”
  44.  
  45. Grumbling, Paul turned back to his computer to check the time: 4:40.
  46.  
  47. Paul groaned for the umpteenth time that day.
  48.  
  49. ---
  50.  
  51. Rush hour on a Friday was predictably a madhouse, to put it mildly, but the gods must have been smiling on Paul, because he only had to add an extra half-hour to his usual hour-long commute to the suburbs. “Affordable” living space anywhere closer to the city proper hadn’t existed since the last housing bubble burst, and he was damn lucky as it was to have even found a rental he could actually make the payments on outside of the shadiest neighborhoods.
  52.  
  53. Paul breathed a heavy sigh as he pulled his trusty Honda Civic into the driveway of his humble abode, near identical to the homes surrounding it save for the color of paint, a tacky mauve that was fading and peeling with the years. Paul had neither the money nor the motivation to replace it with a more palatable color.
  54.  
  55. He turned off the car and gathered his belongings, bumping the driver door closed with his hip, not really focused on much at all. That is, until he noticed that something was standing next to his front door.
  56.  
  57. Whatever it was, it was tall, flat, vaguely rectangular, and completely covered by a thick white tarp which rippled in the light evening breeze. The tarp was secured by several thick bungee cords pulled taut around it.
  58.  
  59. 'I don’t remember ordering anything,' he thought as he approached the entrance, 'Maybe Lucy did and forgot to tell me?'
  60.  
  61. It probably wasn’t a mail bomb or anthrax or what have you, but Paul approached with caution anyway. Once he was close enough, he spied a note pinned to the sheet which he at first assumed to be some kind of shipping label. But no, it was a letter, hand-written with elegant, flowing strokes he didn’t immediately recognize.
  62.  
  63. "Hey Paul!
  64.  
  65. Hope you’ve been hanging in there, bud! Sorry for dropping off the face of the Earth all of a sudden, but when opportunity calls, you have to follow, know what I’m saying? And let me tell you, this was one doozy of an opportunity! I’d tell you all about it, but, well, I think it’s better if you see it for yourself.
  66.  
  67. What I’ve sent to you, and what you’ve hopefully received intact, is simply magical. Literally! I found it gathering dust in an attic at an estate sale, as cliché as that sounds. Trust me, though; it’s the real deal. I guarantee your life will never be the same (in a good way!). I know mine isn’t!
  68.  
  69. Have I piqued your curiosity enough that you won’t just chuck it out with the trash the second you put down this letter? I hope so.
  70.  
  71. Paul, I know things aren’t great right now, both in your personal life and in the world at large, but that’s why I sent this to you before anyone else. If anyone deserves what it can give you, it's you, bud.
  72.  
  73. As for what it does, well, just touch the glass and you’ll see.
  74.  
  75. That said, I should warn you NOT to unwrap it in public. Maybe I should have put that first. Oh well. And do try not to break it; I really don’t want to know what happens if you do.
  76.  
  77. And here’s one last piece of advice, free of charge: just do what feels right. You’ll understand what I mean soon, I hope.
  78.  
  79. Anyway, I’ve got a working cell phone again, so give me a call after you try it out! Can’t wait to hear your voice!
  80.  
  81. All the best,
  82.  
  83. Uncle Dane"
  84.  
  85. Paul rolled his eyes. He should have known; Uncle Dane was always foisting off all kinds of random crap he picked up at flea markets and garage sales. He always meant well, of course, but Paul would never forget the previous Christmas, when Dane gave him a beat-up Alvin and the Chipmunks blender that sang snippets of squeak-ified hits of yesteryear while it blended. Paul hadn’t liked those helium-voiced little bastards since he was four years old. The only reason he didn’t throw it out was because, well, he needed a blender, and it made banana smoothies just fine.
  86.  
  87. Shipping Paul some random junk certainly fits his uncle’s M.O., but something seemed off. For one, the letter looked like it was written with the kind of script you’d see from a noblewoman from the 1800s, a far cry from his uncle’s usual chicken scratch. Either he improved his handwriting to a substantial degree, which Paul sincerely doubted; he had someone else write the letter for him; or someone was poorly impersonating his uncle.
  88.  
  89. Paul frowned. To what end would someone pretend to be his uncle? Revenge of some sort? He, Paul, was a nobody, a corporate drone whose days in that position were numbered and rapidly ticking down; the only person who he’d ever really wronged was Mr. Lawson, his supervisor, and if he wanted to make Paul’s life even more miserable he’d just fire him. A prank from one of his few office buddies, then? He didn’t think he’d ever mentioned Uncle Dane to his co-workers except in passing.
  90.  
  91. And what was with all the “it changed my life” stuff? Uncle Dane was eccentric, sure, and prone to falling off the grid for weeks at a time gallivanting off God knows where, but this was teetering on the edge of true-blue crazy. Maybe it was some cult thing.
  92.  
  93. As Paul ruminated on the letter, the sun began to dip below the horizon, and the wind picked up an additional bite of early winter cold, cutting through his thin dress shirt and setting him shivering.
  94.  
  95. Well, might as well bring it inside and see what the fuss is about.
  96.  
  97. Paul unlocked the front door and stepped inside the darkened home.
  98.  
  99. “Lucy! I’m home!” he announced with all the faux-enthusiasm he could muster. When no cheering 50s sitcom audience materialized from the aether to applaud, he sighed and flicked on the living room lights, revealing a space that could charitably be called sparse despite his girlfriend’s best attempts at livening up the place. An old, ratty couch, covered with quilts that hid the worst of the tears and stains, faced an old flat-screen TV perched on a stand against the far wall. Otherwise, there wasn’t much else: a fake potted plant here, an end table there, scattered framed photos of moments both important and inconsequential since Paul and Lucy met five years ago.
  100.  
  101. Paul set his stuff down on the couch for the time being and went back for the mysterious object. While unwieldy, it wasn’t too terribly heavy, and with a bit of careful maneuvering he set it down in the middle of the living room. He quickly scanned the letter one last time in case he missed any warnings, and, satisfied he hadn’t, began unhooking the bungee cords.
  102.  
  103. It was silly, but as he worked, Paul’s heart began to beat just a little faster. He didn’t like how cryptic his uncle’s letter was, and his warning not to reveal it in public…was it some kind of nude portrait or something? Was his uncle’s life-changing epiphany a sexual reawakening? He shuddered just imagining it.
  104.  
  105. The last bungee cord fell free, and Paul gripped the edge of the tarp with both hands. Some dramatic part of him was tempted to yank it off with a flourish like a stage magician, but he didn’t want to risk breaking whatever was underneath. Instead, he tugged gently, watching the fabric recede inch by inch until it at last fluttered to the floor.
  106.  
  107. 'Oh. It’s just a full-body mirror.'
  108.  
  109. Admittedly, it was a very nice mirror, certainly pricier than any of the other furniture in the house. It was taller than he was by a good few inches, at least six-and-a-half feet. The frame and stand were a dark lacquered wood, latticed by weaving gold etchings and engravings. These ran in rivulets to the top of the frame, upon which rested a rather detailed carving of a winged horse…or rather a winged unicorn, if the horn jutting from its forehead was any indication.
  110.  
  111. 'There’s probably a term for that…pegacorn? Nah, that’s stupid.'
  112.  
  113. In any case, if it was an antique, it was remarkably well preserved -- except for the glass itself, which was too clouded over to reflect anything. Was the mirror really that filthy?
  114.  
  115. Frowning, Paul took one step toward the mirror, intending to try and wipe away the grime, and froze. As soon as he approached the mirror, the fog clouding the glass -- which he realized had begun moving, swirling like a vortex towards the center of the mirror -- suddenly cleared, and in its place was…huh?
  116.  
  117. Standing in a mirrored image of Paul’s living room was most certainly not his reflection.
  118.  
  119. The first thing he noticed were its eyes. They were huge, with the hue and warmth of a high-dollar latte, and stared back at him owlishly, almost apprehensively. They rested above a short, rounded muzzle dappled with white freckles and beneath loose, cream-colored curls of hair which cascaded down its neck. Its hair--mane?-- was parted by a pair of pointed ears which were folded back against its scalp. He noticed a flick of something white behind it--a tail, maybe? Its entire body seemed to be covered in short fur, a rich shade of milk chocolate, and it stood on four legs which ended in rounded stumps. Hooves?
  120.  
  121. The horse-thing, so named because it most closely resembled a small equine, stood about as tall as a very large dog, its muzzle just about level with Paul’s belly button. If Lucy were here to see it, she’d probably be squeeing about how adorable it was, but the creature’s aesthetic appeal wasn’t as important to Paul as why the hell he was seeing it in the first place.
  122.  
  123. Wasn’t this thing supposed to be some old mirror? Was Uncle Dane fucking with him and sent him some kind of augmented reality screen? Paul tried to blink away the apparition, but it refused to dissipate. In fact, it blinked along with him.
  124.  
  125. Paul frowned, puzzled; so too did the horse, its nose scrunching slightly with the effort.
  126.  
  127. Paul raised his right arm; the horse followed suit, lifting its foreleg up in a way no normal horse could possibly do.
  128.  
  129. Paul raised his left arm as well; the horse, somehow, reared up and balanced only on its hind legs to match, giving Paul an inadvertent eyeful of the slightly rounded curve of its belly and the noticeable lack of any, ahem, equipment.
  130.  
  131. He let his hands drop, and it--rather, she--uh, the horse-thing returned to its original stance in tandem, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion.
  132.  
  133. Paul spun slowly in place, keeping his eyes on the mirror. When the horse twirled in tandem, he spied some sort of picture on her flanks which stood out against its fur. As best as he could tell, it was some kind of pastry topped with a thick glaze and some manner of powder sprinkled on top. A cinnamon roll, maybe? Who the hell would tattoo a horse with a cinnamon roll?
  134.  
  135. He didn’t check what was under her tail; he really didn’t want to know how detailed the projection was.
  136.  
  137. In any case, clearly the mirror--or whatever it actually was--had some kind of motion-capture sensor and face scanning. The image looked real enough, but AR tech had come a long way since he was a kid; some of the more upscale clothing stores he’d poked his head into had similar setups in lieu of fitting rooms, virtually projecting clothes onto the prospective customer almost seamlessly. It was basically just a more advanced version of Snapchat filters, which he was barely old enough to remember had been all the rage with the youth of the day.
  138.  
  139. Tentatively, Paul took a step forward, the horse still copying his every move. He wondered how, exactly, the program or whatever translated his movements onto the wildly different skeleton. If he didn’t think he’d throw out his back trying, he’d have been tempted to do a cartwheel or something equally complex just to see how the little equine would react.
  140.  
  141. “Touch the glass,” his uncle’s letter had said. Paul was skeptical that it would answer any of his questions, but he might as well try it. Whatever happens, he was definitely giving Uncle Dane a call, if only to ask what the fuck this thing was supposed to be.
  142.  
  143. He lifted his hand, index finger inches from the glass. The horse followed suit, ready to press the underside of its hoof against the pane. Paul paused when a gnawing pit in his gut signaled that something was very, very wrong with this whole situation, but he dismissed his instincts as the faulty products of his irrational lizard brain. It was just a mirror; either nothing would happen but leaving a smudge, or something interesting would chase away the week’s lingering monotony and bring some much-needed excitement to his life.
  144.  
  145. 'Yeah, if only.'
  146.  
  147. Rolling his eyes, Paul pressed his finger against the glass, meeting the horse’s hoof. He tensed, prepared for…something.
  148.  
  149. But nothing happened. Paul felt some of the tension trickle out of his body, and he sighed. Of course nothing happened. He was being sill--
  150.  
  151. A shock like a lightning bolt arced through his entire body, setting every nerve ending alight with crackling energy. It was like he stuck a fork into an electrical outlet, but without any of the agonizing pain. He felt the power gather in his body, building and building into something incredible, a molten furnace of bliss threatening to tear him apart at the seams. Tears streamed down his cheeks out of fear, out of joy.
  152.  
  153. The sensations came and went in a heartbeat. Then, before he could scream, cry out, or do anything else, his world went dark, and he felt nothing at all.

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