The room smelled faintly of wet wool and fabric cleaner. Luther sat on the white leather couch, not quite letting his spine touching the cushions, and held a mug of rapidly cooling herbal tea. Dr. Harrison sat across a short distance of beige carpet from him, in a white leather easy chair. She held a stainless steel pen lightly in her left hand, poised an inch above a pad of yellow legal paper. Her face was impassive, and she tilted her head slightly, and looked over the rim of her glasses. Luther tapped on the side of the mug with his thumbnails, then cleared his throat of a rather ample frog.
"I uh, well I'm not sure how much more...how longer...it's so monotonous," he said.
"Tell me about your typical day," said Dr. Harrison, without any emphasis on any particular syllable.
"I get up. I go to work. I eat. I go home. I go to bed. What everyone does. I guess." He paused, then leaned forward a bit and continued, "This is weird, but it's almost like I have a voice in my head, telling me what do...not just the big things, but everything. Brush your teeth. Clean the crumbs from your plate. Straighten your tie. Don't forget to tell the kids about Tycho Brahe's copper nose. I don't know, it's just everything."
"How's your job. Are you satisfied?"
"Satisfied? Working at a planetarium is what I've wanted to do for as long as I can remember, but..."
"It almost feels like I've always done it. Like my childhood was...constructed somehow."
Dr. Harrison glanced down and quickly scribbled with her pen.
"Is that unusual, doctor? Do other people feel that way?"
"All the time." She flashed a quick smile. "I'm afraid our time is up."
"Yes...of course. Thank you." Luther stood hesitantly, careful not to spill the tea on the carpet. He placed the mug on a side table. He crossed the room, his footsteps completely muffled by the biege carpet, opened the door and left, closing the door quietly behind him. He waited for the latch to click then turned around.
"Hey there," said a young woman, dressed in bright red coat and blue sunglasses, sitting cross-legged in one of the waiting room chairs, reading an ancient, crinkled Time magazine, opened vertically as if it contained a centerfold.
"Excuse me?" said Luther.
The woman jumped up and flung the magazine haphazardly to the chair. She leapt over to him and hooked her arm under his, and pulled him to the outer door of the office.
"Come with me, quickly," she said.
"You're life is boring? Give me five minutes. You won't regret it, but you have to come quietly. Don't scream."
"Wha?!" he blustered, but allowed himself to be tugged out into the hallway, and into the empty elevator. Once the door closed, the woman slammed on the stop button. She shoved up her glasses, which turned into a brown headband, and whipped off her coat, turning it inside out, it turned into a short bomber jacket.
"How did you...what?!"
"Interesting, yes?" the woman chortled.
"Is that some sort of magic trick? Are you a magician or something?" Luther scratched his head.
"No. Well...no. Not even metaphorically."
She offered him her hand.
"My name is Lucinda. Well, this go-round at least." She smiled broadly.
Luther tentatively shook her hand, his jaw slack, and an eyebrow raised.
"Wrong question. Move aside, please," she said, pushing past him to face the back wall of the elevator. She banged twice on the wall with her fist, and a baroque doorknob popped out of the wall. She twisted it, and the back wall opened into a vast, sunny room with no furnishings. "Come along," she said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him through the doorway. She carefully closed the door behind her, which from the room side, was a pair of glass french doors that looked out onto an overgrown French garden.
"Where...what...am I having a stroke?!" blurted Luther.
"No, not all. Your reality is though. Or, at least your conception of reality. We're relatively safe here. You can wander around a bit if you like."
Lucinda walked to the nearest window and pushed up the sash. A gush of warm air fluttered diaphanous curtains.
"It's beautiful," said Luther quietly.
"Thanks. It's my home. Well, part of it."
"I don't understand anything that's just happened," said Luther.
"Of course not, but let me explain."
Lucinda shucked off her bomber jacket and flapped it in the air until it became an overstuffed leather sofa. She motioned for Luther to sit, and they both did.
"Now," she said, laying her arm across the back of the sofa until her fingertips gently touched Luther's shoulder, "I should tell you that I'm trying to recruit you--and yes I see by your quizzical look that you don't have the faintest clue what I could be recruiting you for. But the answer is nothing short of freedom. You're a rational man, yes? You work in a planetarium?"
"Yes, but how did you know--"
"I've been...researching you. Anyway, the point is that you're a scientist. You like answers, but you also like questions...maybe more than answers. Its always the hunt for answers that fuel a scientist, and there's a certain...sweet pang when you realize you've been wrong about something. It's not painful, not quite, not to a scientist, though it would be to those who hew closer to...faith. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Yes. You have arguments and contradictions, and shades of gray, which is another wonderful trait of the scientist, is it not?"
"Mmmmhumn. Moving along. These are the traits that I'm recruiting you for, specifically. That and the fact that you've realized that something is a little off with reality. Something's not quite right."
"Well...yeah. How did--"
"Research. Keep up with me. You're booooored. You want something more. You feel like you're missing out, and you don't know what it is, because to you, from your perspective, that thing you're missing, doesn't exist."
"So, here's the kicker. I don't know precisely what it is that doesn't exist, that I'm missing. I haven't figured that out either."
"Doing strange things with space and matter?"
"Child's play. Literally. I figured out how do to, transformations, when I was a kid. I might be able to teach you how if you like, although I don't know if you have the talent for it. You need to have a bit of an artistic flair, left-brain bent for it, but you could probably handle some of the basics, like doorways, if practiced. The point is though, that I've come to realize that the structure that's around us, what we took for granted as reality, is not real."
"Are we in some sort of, I don't know, computer program or something?"
"What, like that movie?" Lucinda laughed. "I could never figure out the sequels. No, I don't think that's what it's like at all. In that scenario, humans did really exist, outside of the simulation. If this is a simulation or something like a program, there's no outside. It just is. And what it is, is highly, manipulable. Hah, say that three times fast!"
"Well, why would so many people just go about their lives, never noticing? Are there others like you?"
"That is the question to ask. Why? Why don't people...notice. And I don't know if I'm the only one or not. I've only started recruiting. Lurking around therapists offices seemed like it would be fruitful."
"So I'm the first?"
"No. I've shown others, but they questioned their sanity. That's the risk of lurking around therapists offices. Everyone assumes there's something wrong with them when that's not necessarily true. You haven't freaked out yet. That's positive."
Luther leaned back into the sofa, and placed his hands over his eyes. He sighed deeply.
"I'm at the end of my rope, to tell the truth." He let his hands fall to his sides, and stared into the corner of the ceiling above the french doors. Lucinda pulled her feet up underneath her, and gazed quietly at Luther. He continued, "It's not that I would have slit my wrists or put a bullet in my brain, but I've been feeling dead inside...worn down, like an old wind-up clock, and pendulum is on the last swing down. Not bored, just...tangentially existing. I guess maybe I'm ready to be open to something that challenges that feeling."
Lucinda reached out to his arm and squeezed his sleeve. She grinned and jumped to her feet, clapping her hands in front of her face.
"So...you'll help me?"
Luther smiled and nodded.
"Why not," he said.
"Fabulous," she beamed. "Now get off my coat."
"Wha? Oh." Luther stood.
Lucinda pulled on the arm of the chair and simultaneously kicked at the seat cushions. The sofa collapsed into pink silk dressing gown and several white doves flew out from underneath it.
"Oh, I was wondering where they went to," she said. "I assure you again, I'm not a magician, despite what that looks like."
Luther chuckled, and watched the doves beeline for the open window.
"Come with me," said Lucinda, pulling on the dressing gown. She skipped towards the french doors and threw them open, and instead of revealing the run-down garden, they led out into an empty department store.
"How...no, I need to stop asking that particular question..." said Luther, following her out.
"It's not a bad question to ask, and the answer is that every place has a shortcut to every other place."
"Well...the question I should ask, is why a department store, after hours?"
"Haven't you ever wanted to run around in one when nobody else was there? The answer is because it's fun and forbidden. I have a hunch that if we're going to figure out the precise nature of reality, you know, poking at the fabric of all stuff itself, fun and forbidden things, in the places and times that are normally hidden, might be where to start looking."
"Well, that's one hypothesis. But that's what you start with, isn't it? We have to focus our efforts though. Maybe look for things that are a little out of place. That might reveal some clues."
Lucinda snapped her fingers and grinned.
"That's what you're here for," she said. She grabbed his hand in hers and pulled him into the darkened depths of the store.