It couldn’t be. Grenshaw squinted at the man in the doorway. “Tommy,” he said, “how is this possible? Even if this is just a computer simulation, I don’t understand how–”
“Do you remember the GCF slogan, Mr. Grenshaw?” Tommy interrupted.
“Tommy, I assume you are responsible for this vision. But how do you know what that man looks like?” Grenshaw said, pointing toward the figure in the doorway.
“The slogan is “˜Powered by the state of your mind.’ Do you know what that means, Mr. Grenshaw?”
“No, Tommy. I have no idea what that means. I only know that what is currently happening cannot be real.”
“As you know, Mr. Grenshaw, the computer itself isn’t powered by your mind. But the software is. Thus, I am.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means this is not a conspiracy. There isn’t some faceless man at GCF headquarters pushing buttons and manipulating you. You control me.”
Grenshaw pondered the words briefly before saying, “Okay, then, tell me what’s going on here.”
“Oh, no. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Do I need a password?”
Tommy gave a half-grin. “Perhaps I should rephrase. You determine my actions. But the Universe controls me.”
“The Universe?” Grenshaw glanced at the four dark figures as he tried to decipher Tommy’s words. They weren’t exactly frozen, but all four had stopped their activities. It was like they were waiting for something, or maybe like they were eavesdropping. “Tommy,” Grenshaw asked, “can they hear us?”
“On a conscious level, you are not paying attention to the Universe. But on a subconscious level, you are attuned to the Universe. Mr. Grenshaw, I am here to help you move beyond your own self-deceptive consciousness.”
“Was that an answer to my question?”
“No,” Tommy said, “they can’t hear us. But they are listening.”
“There you go again with these damn riddles. You realize I don’t understand a word you’re saying?”
“You don’t need to understand what I’m saying. What you’re about to witness will speak for itself.”
Grenshaw opened his mouth to reply, but one of the boys drew his attention away when he said, “Did you hear that?” By the light of the torch, he could see the faces of both children more clearly. One of them looked alarmingly familiar.
“Tommy,” he said, “that’s -”
Tommy shushed him and said, “I know. Listen.”
“But that’s me!” Grenshaw exclaimed. When Tommy shushed him again, Grenshaw heard a tinkling of water and a distant sound like the rush of traffic.
“Boys,” the man in the doorway yelled, “it’s not safe out here. Come in.”
The ground suddenly began reflecting the torch light; Grenshaw looked at his feet and saw liquid parting around his shoes. The man in the blue coat grabbed a torch and began running awkwardly down the alley, toward the open street, yelling, “Everybody run!” From the doorway, the larger figure stepped into the alley. He grabbed the nearest child and said, “Come on.”
The boy dropped his torch and responded, “But Dad, what about all our earnings?”
The rushing sound was getting louder. “That doesn’t matter!” the father shouted, grabbing both children, yanking them towards the door, and causing them to drop their bags of shards.
Grenshaw felt a spray of liquid on his face just as the boy escaped his father’s grasp and stepped into the alley again, pawing at the ground for his lost “earnings.”
“Tommy,” Grenshaw shouted, “are we safe?”
The sound was now a deafening roar. “No!” Tommy shouted back.
The stream seemed to erupt as if from a fire hydrant. Preceded by a loose gathering of large droplets and stinging needles of liquid, it came with full force and knocked the boy and Grenshaw off their feet.
Grenshaw gasped before being carried down the alley, flipped upside down, slammed against the buildings on either side. His final thought, before everything went completely black, was that the liquid tasted like orange juice.
to be continued . . .