Playing God

Science Fiction Romance

104,000 words


"Prologue"

February 8, 1975...

Miss Brenda Hayward
Chase Park Plaza Hotel, rm 2231
New York City, NY

Dear Miss Hayward,

If you are free this afternoon, I would be honored to have your company for lunch.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel White

"What's this?" Brenda was irritated by the note written on hotel stationery, the fifth such she received in the last twenty-four hours. The bellcap didn't have any answers, this being one of dozens of deliveries he made in a day, but explanations were hardly needed. He mumbled an apology, forewent a tip, and faded, leaving her to deal with yet another horndog on the make. Included in the envelope was a brochure from one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York City. Apparently whoever was offering to buy was ready to spend big. There was also a business card, not that it gave her much more to go on:

Daniel White, Phd
Seattle, Washington
Research

Louise, her official 'assistant'—chaperone—from the magazine, came out of the restroom. "Whatja got, hon?"

"Another big shot," she grumbled.

Louise took the note, glanced through it, and made a rude noise. "Yeah, another stage door Johnny. They never give up, do they?" Louise was a dead butch dyke from the look of her, and a martial artist to boot. She certainly held a dim view of men in general. She looked the business card over with a disdainful sneer. "He's probably some Wall Street top dog who figures anything can be bought for the right price. I wonder what the going rate for centerfolds is these days?"

"I'm not for sale," Brenda muttered as she flopped on the couch in a funk.

This wasn't the first proposition she'd received since her photo spread was published earlier in the month, and she was heartily sick of all the guys hitting on her. She always was popular in high school—not surprising with her figure—but what was annoying on campus could get unpleasant at times out in the real world; hence Louise, assigned to escort her on her publicity tour. Still, it was a constant hassle and depressing at times. Nineteen is too young to be thrown into a bear pit, 'chaperone' or no.

"That Daniel White can go to hell for all I care."

"Well good for you, girl friend. You're learning." Louise tossed the card in the trash can.

"Just because he's got money doesn't mean squat. I'll buy my own lunch."

Louise gave her a sardonic look. "Well perhaps you shouldn't be so hasty. After all, you'll get a free meal out of it."

Brenda looked at her, surprised. "You're not serious?"

"Why not? The moment he steps out of line, you rip him a new one right there in front of everybody. Collecting scalps does wonders for the mood." Louise had a vicious streak in her; her evil grin said volumes. "And you've got nothing else today, so you might as well have a little fun."

"Well...yeah...maybe." She didn't share Louise's sadistic streak, but she knew she needed to toughen up if she was going to make a career in Hollywood. It'd be good practice, and she could use a chance to vent. And there was nothing else going on today for a change...which disturbed her vaguely. This mister White's invitation came right in the one hole in her busy schedule of interviews and appearances. It seemed menacing, somehow.

She should have been used to this by now, the fifth day of a PR tour of the New York TV shows and media outlets following her big splash as a centerfold. She appeared on the Carson show last night, which would have been awesome a year ago, but now was just another round in the spotlight with the cameras fastened firmly on her boobs. She was scheduled to do a live appearance at the local Playboy club tomorrow, then off to New Orleans, Dallas, and eventually Los Angeles. The experience—especially all the scumbags who came crawling out of the woodwork—had already disillusioned her about the glamorous life of a starlet.

"God, sometimes I regret ever taking my clothes off," she sighed. She'd needed the money at the time. "There's times I wish I'd never left Cincinnati."

Louise sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You gotta hang tough, babe." She was always there to offer a sympathetic ear at least. "It's all part of the drill. You need to get used to this, and the worst of it will pass in time. Trust me."

"Yeah. I know." Brenda sagged on the couch, feeling the weight of the world, of her sudden rise to fame as this month's sex symbol. "I just wish I could find a nice guy I could trust, is all."

"That won't be easy now."

"It never was." She gave her protector and one close friend a weary sigh. "Being hot can be a curse at times."

Louise snorted. "Especially with high school jocks. Been there, girl friend." She handed the note back. "You ought to take up this offer. It'll give you a chance to get out, and if the guy gets fresh, you can let him have it. What's to lose?"

§

What's to lose, indeed? The restaurant was only six blocks from the hotel, but she was half frozen by time she got there. New York City was still digging out from under a snow storm, and the wind was bitter. The joint was everything one could expect from an exclusive New York eatery: posh, secluded, tastefully Art-Deco, uniformed staff ready to answer any whim of their elite patronage. The entrance was blocked by the Concierge, who greeted her with correct reserve. "May I help you, miss?"

"Um...Brenda Hayward. I'm meeting someone for lunch."

"Yes. Mister White is expecting you." That seemed remarkably presumptuous of him she thought as the Concierge led her to a far corner of the room and a table overlooking the Hudson. The mysterious mister White turned out to be a disappointment, not that she was surprised: he must have been sixty if he was a day. He was tall and thin, only a bit taller than her, with receding snowy white hair and a face creased with worry lines. His eyes lit up at the sight of her.

"Miss Hayward, it's a pleasure to meet you at last." He gestured to the opposite seat and signaled for the waiter. "Thank you for coming."

"Yes, well, I'm not one to turn down a free meal," she muttered absently as she hung her coat over the back of the chair and settled in the seat.

"So, what would you like?"

She was shocked by the menu prices; this was a long way from the Burger Barn near her old high school where the kids used to hang out. As long as she was here... "I'll have the lobster," she said to the waiter. It was the most expensive item they offered, and she'd never had lobster before. The corner of mister White's lip twitched, almost as if he was smiling at a private joke.

Once the waiter was gone, Brenda settled in her chair and confronted her host. "So...mister, ah, White...to what do I owe the honor of your company?"

He smiled wistfully. "That involves quite a story; one you won't believe a word of. In fact, I'm sure you'll think I'm utterly mad."

This wasn't what she was expecting.

"I suppose I should start at the beginning." He paused and pondered for a bit, which made him seem more intellectual somehow. "There was a young man, recently graduated from high school with honors, who received a full scholarship to MIT. Like all young men living the dorm life, he bought girly magazines. One day he came across a centerfold of a truly lovely young woman, someone who was more than just another pretty face, someone who had a particular quality which caught his attention. He fell in love with that young woman—foolish lad—and cherished the memory of her ever after. Sad to say, this youngster was a hopeless geek; smart as a whip, but woefully lacking when it came to the ladies. He never would have dared approach his Dream Girl, even if he had the chance. After he graduated, again with honors, he carried the image of that young woman like a wound in his heart."

This was an odd one by any standard. "So, what? Are you trying to set me up with your kid, or something?"

He sighed. "Not exactly." He picked a leatherette case up off the next chair, and pulled out a slim off-white object about twelve by fifteen inches by half an inch thick. "Here's a little something which should establish my bonafides. I think you'll find it interesting." It opened like a book, and he set it flat on the table facing her. A moment later the top half lit up like a small television. The bottom half looked like a typewriter keyboard, only with some unfamiliar buttons.

This was another surprise; this mister White was full of them, it seemed. "What is it?"

"It's a computer, what's known as a laptop."

"A computer?" She studied the slim plastic case, fascinated by its futuristic look. From what little she knew about computers, they were gigantic things filling whole rooms and needing dozens of technicians to run them. This was getting interesting all of a sudden. "Where did you buy this? Are they expensive?"

"Oh, they're not so costly, really, if you're in a profession which needs such. You can buy them in any office supply store—if you know where to look." He leaned over the table and pointed to a small symbol of an apple in the upper left corner of the screen. "Touch that icon."

She poked it hesitantly with one finger. A white rectangle appeared in the middle of the screen:

Macintosh 'Palladium'
KSe42 1550 mb quad processor
1650 gig memory
System 11.6.9
Built 3.2014

It took her a moment to see it, and when she did, she flat didn't believe what she saw at first. "Two...thousand fourteen? You mean the year?"

"I told you you wouldn't believe me," he said with a chuckle. "You see, that young man was me. I kept that magazine for years. After it wore out, I pulled your pictures off the internet." He reached over and tapped an image like a small file folder; it opened to reveal several more tiny images. He tapped again, and there was her centerfold. "It was foolish of me, I know, but a young man's first love..."

She was shaken. "You're telling me you came from the future? You're right: that is crazy."

A shadow seemed to fall over his features. "Crazier than you can imagine." The look he gave her was filled with pain for some reason. "Yes, I came here from 2015."

This was an original, all right. She couldn't see what he hoped to gain in offering her that wacky tale, and his cluelessness annoyed her. "So what is this? You figure you can come on with some cockamamie song and dance and score with me?" Despite her earlier determination to ream him out, she was too disconcerted by this to raise her voice.

"No, nothing like that. I'm old enough to know better...now. It's...well...I wanted to finally meet you, is all. A first puppy-love, I guess. I always wondered who the young woman behind that photo really was. I had the means to come here, and I knew you had this opening, so I took the chance."

This was too much. All of a sudden she was afraid of this mister White for some reason. His story was a load of bull...but there was her centerfold staring at her from that...computer...

"You don't expect me to buy this number?"

"Honestly, no. But I can show you..."

"Look, mister, I don't know what your game is, but this isn't funny!" She was starting to get scared, and that got her heated. "Whatever you want, I'm not interested!"

"All I wanted was to meet you."

"Yeah? Well you met me!" She jumped to her feet and wrestled her coat off the back of the chair. "And I'll thank you not to bother me again!"

"Brenda..."

She hesitated, and looked at him. "What?"

"Before you go, I wanted to give you something. Call it a token of what might have been." He took a bulky envelope out of his jacket and handed it to her. "Hang onto these; they'll be worth something someday."

"Fine!" She snatched the envelope from him and stalked out.

The elevator took her to the lobby before her temper cooled enough to wonder what was in the envelope. It was a stock certificate:

Microsoft, Inc
Initial Public Offering
1000 Shares Preferred
March 13, 1986

§

April 20, 1986...

"Microsoft, huh?" Gerald leaned back in his swivel chair and pondered the ornate certificate. Finally he turned his attention to her, and not just in a professional sense. "So, what? Was this a gift from an admirer?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter!" she snapped at him.

Gerald was one of the countless legions of horndogs who haunt the fringes of Hollywood trolling for starlet tail. She'd dated him briefly, then dumped him when he made his intentions plain. The only reason she was here now was because she needed his expertise as a junior stockbroker. He wasn't important enough to make the big trades, being one of the herd of flunkies who manned the phones at a local brokerage dealing in nickel and dime over-the-counter stocks. Still, he was as close to a real stockbroker as she knew, or wanted to know.

He gave her a smug grin, creep, pondered the ornate certificate for a bit, then turned to one of his rolodexes and fingered through it. "Hmph!" he muttered as he read the card. "It's an outfit in Seattle, something to do with computers." He perused the card curiously; this was way out of his league. "They made their initial public offering at twenty-one last month, supposedly a big deal." He put the card back in his rolodex, and studied the ticker flowing across the far wall of the 'boiler room'. "Well! It seems your stock has jumped from twenty-one to thirty-five. There's a tidy profit for you. Care to sell?"

It was a tidy profit; enough to put her through her nurse's school and then some. She was there in fact because she needed the money for a career change. Her supposed Hollywood career was going nowhere after eleven years. At thirty she was no longer the bouncy young centerfold she once was, and centerfold beauty is a perishable commodity in Tinsel Town. She was still firm and comely—she took care of herself—but after being rejected for three small parts in a month, she'd had enough. With the inflation these days she couldn't make it as a waitress any more. Jobs were hard to find, and no one could bother to offer her any sympathy. The bright vision seen so briefly back in '75 turned out to be a mirage. It was time to move on.

She considered his offer, the money was tempting, but something he said disturbed her. 'An outfit in Seattle, something to do with computers.' That rang an ominous bell, stirring all but forgotten memories of a luncheon date in New York City. The mysterious mister White gave her those shares eleven years before they were issued...

'Hang onto these; they'll be worth something someday.'

Why she held onto them all this time was beyond understanding. They were obviously worthless at the time, and that old man gave her the creeps for some reason, but his parting words still haunted her.

'Hang onto these; they'll be worth something someday.'

She never showed them to anyone, not even Louise, her escort from the magazine, who drifted away long ago. There was something about that old man's wild tale and that stock certificate which still troubled her. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she never could dismiss it either.

"You never can tell about IPOs, especially with some whiz-bang tech outfit," Gerald said. "It might go up, but the odds are it'll tank once the thrill wears off. Your best bet is to dump 'em now, and get into oil."

All of a sudden, selling those stocks didn't seem like such a good idea. The noise and hustle of the 'boiler room' struck a raw nerve, putting her off the whole thing.

'Hang onto these; they'll be worth something someday.'

There were other financial options for her schooling: those new Pell grants, and that program from the Peace Corps. It'd be a tough row to hoe, but she could do it. She was well accustomed to pinching pennies and making do.

'Hang onto these; they'll be worth something someday.'

Gerald was watching her expectantly, eager for the commission on a tidy sale and another shot at her, maybe. Bad joss either way. "Um...no, thanks." She folded the certificate and stuck it back in her purse. "I'll hang onto them for now."

*****


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