Opportunity knocks once, they say. Not for me; sometimes it never seems to stop knocking. I don’t mind, each and every one is a chance to preserve some fleeting beauty in this increasingly sorry world.
Today’s opportunity arrived wrapped in a miniature tornado as the aircar settled to the ground in front of my shop, blowing yellow dust and dry weeds everywhere. Small stones peppered the weathered tin siding of the old building like a brief summer hailstorm. As the swirling haze cleared, the hulking shape of an antique Roller appeared. This elegant automobile, a dowager empress from an earlier age, had clearly had never been intended for the indignities of flight but she bore it well. From the driver’s (no, chauffeur’s, I corrected myself) door appeared a tall figure dressed in black. Attracted by the racket, I peered out one of the cobweb-rimmed windows and watched as he slowly walked to the rear of the vehicle, removed a rolled red carpet from the boot and proceeded to lay it on the dirt path leading from the passenger door to the entryway of my shop.
Clients. Somehow they manage to find me without benefit of advertising or brochures, I reflected; I’m certain there cannot be much word-of-mouth promotion either. It had been only a couple of weeks ago that a friend had let me set up my stuff here in an unused storage building behind his paintshop. There wasn’t even a real sign yet, just a brochure taped in one of the windows. I wasn’t really prepared to receive customers yet; certainly not those well-off enough to arrive from above.
The driver went about his task leisurely, almost cautiously, and my first impression was he was very old. Then I caught the glint of dusky polished metal from his angular face and realized that the driver was a droid.. The affluence scale of my visitors just went up a couple of orders of magnitude – free ranging humanoid robots were cutting-edge, uncommon, and extremely expensive. In fact up until now they had been utilized almost exclusively in space operations where it was too risky for long-term human exposure. To assign one of these magnificent machines to drive a limo seemed incredibly extravagant.
Visitors? Make that ‘visitor’ – the droid eventually opened the car door and out of the cavernous darkness emerged a long shapely leg wrapped in diaphanous pale nylon, then a slim arm that grasped the outstretched hand of the chauffeur for support. The striking girl that followed literally took my breath away as she stood on her spotless carpet, taking meticulous care to straighten her short dress and check her hair. I realized she could not see me through the cloudy glass as she strolled with a catlike grace the few steps to the weathered entrance of the shop and raised a small-gloved hand to rap on the peeling paint of the door.
I was acutely aware of my torn jeans and paint-pocked T-shirt as I welcomed her in, trying to avoid making a complete (more complete) fool of myself by stammering or drooling.
"Good Morning; welcome to my studio. Please, enter. It’s safe." My attempt at a light greeting sounded to me so trite and lame; I could feel the warmth of my blush spread across my forehead.
"Why, thank you! I’m sure there is nothing to fear." Her voice was musical and sunny; her smile dazzling. Her violet eyes held a mischievous twinkle. She pranced across the threshold and into the darker interior of workshop. Looking back towards the car, I could swear the droid was glaring at me with distaste despite the lack of expression on his metal face. He closed the limo’s door, slowly, and began to follow the girl in.
She stopped him cold with a curt "Please remain with the vehicle now, Stiles." Glaring at me with those dead-fish eyes, the robot stayed put as I shut the door in his face. Maybe I slammed it a bit too hard; the loose glass rattled in the frame.
Paying the driver no concern, this goddess, this vision of loveliness, had moved into the workroom and was browsing the display area. Young and beautiful she was, like a breath of fresh spring air. The lady was a tall, leggy redhead who moved with the grace of a dancer or model, measuring each step and seeming to pause for an instant on tip-toe before setting her foot down. This gave an enticing sway to her hips that her tight short dress only emphasized. Everything about her appearance was perfect, from the way the light garment hugged her shape to the coppery belt and bracelets that matched the color of her hair. Even her shoes and nail polish were coordinated. It was as if she had been dressed by a world-famous designer. Maybe she had been!
Realizing I was ogling her like a moonstruck kid, I pulled a rag from my pocket and busied myself dusting one of the smaller cases which sat alone in a pool of light on a flat white pedestal. The girl did not seem to notice me. Taking her time, she stepped leisurely around the room, looking into each showcase and reading the placards quietly. While my designs have never been well known, they *are* distinctive. Very distinctive.
I make cases. Large ones, small ones, crafted from a variety of materials and finishes. It’s my passion and without boasting overmuch I can say they are admirably executed. A certain artistry is clearly evident in how I’ve refined what are basically glass-walled boxes. As elegant as these case are, their appearance is not what makes them distinctive. Indeed, it is what happens to the contents; or rather what doesn’t happen to them.
Inspecting one of the few occupied enclosures, my bewitching visitor walked slowly around all sides of a tall shower-sized case and gazed at the motionless figure within. Posed elegantly on the inside was a woman who could have almost have been her twin sister; except that this mannequin-like statue was blonde and younger. Exquisitely detailed, the figure held an expression of slight surprise mixed with joy. She was, in a way, my very best salesperson.
Giving my customer some space, I meandered around the pedestals and displays; dusting, straightening, trying to ignore the increasingly obvious looks that she was giving me when she thought I did not see.
Finally the lady walked the remaining few steps to the counter where I waited and finally got to the point. Looking straight into my eyes with her own jade-hued orbs, she had my full attention in an instant. I could feel my blush returning, along with a stirring in my pants that thankfully my shop apron masked from her gaze.
"Good Morning; I’d like to purchase one of your exhibit cases. A custom one, if I could," she began, with a glance back to my standing display model. "Like that one, but maybe a bit larger?" Smiling, she licked her lips. "Don’t you have a big one around somewhere…" As she said that she glanced at my hidden crotch.
I smiled back. "All of my showcases are hand-crafted individually, to your exact specifications. Careful attention must be paid to the shape and proportions," I replied, paying attention to her superb shape and proportions. "This requires slightly more time, but allows...."
She interrupted me, "That might pose a problem; there isn’t much time. Can you build one by Friday?"
"An unusual request, miss, ah..."
"Ventura; Lisa Ventura. You probably have never heard of me but my father is the founder of VenTours."
"Yes, I know of the firm." Only by reputation – they had finally made commercial space expeditions feasible and were one of the fastest-growing corporations on the planet (or off it). There was talk of their purchasing what was left of NASA. Croesus was a pauper compared to the wealth of her family!
"So; name your price," she said, skipping any more small talk. "For delivery by Friday, no later. Let me give you a deposit." Opening her handbag, she pulled out a thick sheaf of paper.
I blinked; it was not often you saw cash anymore, and certainly not that much of it in one place. She took my astonishment as hesitation and added another bundle without asking.
"Miss Ventura, that’s quite sufficient. Though it will take me some long hours I believe Friday is possible."
She sighed, her chest rising and falling in a very attractive way. In fact, there was very little about her that was not attractive. Even her forthright manner. Closing her eyes she smiled; relieved. "Good, very good."
"Since I have to start almost immediately, can you give me the specifications? Will this be for yourself?"
I said, glancing at Lisa again. My heart leaped, I could only hope – she was so breathtakingly lovely. The thought of her preserved forever was particularly inspirational. This case would be my best one ever!
"Myself, and one other. But it should be smaller than that double one in your online catalog. Maybe about a half meter wider than the one in your showroom. The height is about right."
I wondered about the ‘one other,’ and absurdly felt jealous but did not feel comfortable asking her. Stick to business, I told myself even as I wondered who it was. "Materials? Usually the glass is fairly standard, and you can have a choice of woods for the frame and pedestal..."
"Don’t use regular glass; I’ve got some lexan on order for you. The frame has to be very lightweight; I’d prefer magnesium, or titanium if possible."
"Not in a week. Would aluminum do?" I started to think of how the case would look that way.
"Spacecraft grade, please. Cost is no object." She reached into her seemingly bottomless bag again.
"That’s not necessary. All part of the usual price." Which we hadn’t set, although my mind was thinking of what this girl could afford. It was like the sky was the limit. Or even beyond.
"But I would like one special feature..." She hesitated.
"Can you build it so the door closes automatically and latches?" She seemed embarrassed for some reason.
"Of course. Many of our patrons request that option," I lied. Having a self-locking entry was sort of strange; I wondered why Lisa would want to avoid someone helping her and the ‘other’.. Well, that was none of my business really. "No problem at all." I concluded.
"Then we have a deal? Delivery by Friday?"
"Certainly. Miss Ventura, I did not quote you on the total expense, but..."
"Oh, let’s say five hundred thousand," she mused, "with a hundred-percent bonus for delivery a day early."
"Ah, that will be fine. Very generous, actually." I could not believe it; almost ten times my usual fee and she had offered it without haggling. I was flabbergasted and a bit dazed. Between the fortune she was paying me and my growing desire for her in any way she would have me I did not know what to do. Which was good.
"You’ve just saved my life," she sighed, then reached over and kissed me. Warmly. Very warmly. It was as if she had read my carnal thoughts. The kiss drew us closer into an embrace; as she nestled into my arms nothing felt more right. The sunny, flowery scent of her perfume was intoxicating. Her hands flew across my body hungrily as I pulled her closer and tried to undo her wide copper-mesh belt one-handed. It did not seem to have a clasp. Lisa was having better luck with my apron and had reached up underneath my shirt, running her hands down my chest and grabbing my ‘package’.. I was rock-hard down there already and the sensation of her long fingernails on my shaft almost made me come on the spot. She touched what looked like a brooch on the dress and the belt fell away along with whatever was holding her blouse together. Underneath she wore no bra and needed none; her breasts were supple and firm in my hands. Her nipples came erect under my lightest touch as Lisa arched her back with pleasure. I thought impishly that probably I should have swept the floor better this morning; it didn’t seem like there was time to move up to my flat above the workshop.
"Pardon me, Miss?"
Both of us turned at the metallic sound of the chauffeur’s unperturbed voice. Lisa jumped with a sharp gasp as if she had been stuck with a needle, but recovered her composure quickly despite being ‘en flagrante delecto’. "Stiles, I specifically told you to wait by the car!" She scolded, pulling her hand from my crotch and sealing the front of her dress with a sweeping motion.
"Yes, Miss. However your meeting with the Founders Association is less than fifteen minutes from now." The droid seemed not to see me as I fumbled with my pants and apron. Lisa had finished already and was cinching her belt tightly around her slim waist. There was just the barest ‘click’ as the two ends met and latched. She became cool; it was as if our recent passion had never really occurred.
"Stiles, return to the car and prepare to depart. Oh, then secure the previous fifteen minutes of your real-time log as ‘Personal and Confidential’ under my codeword and remove all active memory of that period."
"Very well, Miss." The chauffeur turned and slowly exited the workroom.
"I’m really sorry, but I must be going now." Lisa said, almost formally. I don’t know if she was embarrassed by what had happened but she did not show it one bit. She certainly did not seem fazed. Then I noticed she was still breathing heavily. Coming up close to me again, she beamed that dazzling smile. "I have to see you again, soon. Perhaps we can meet in the evening? Tomorrow? Stiles will come by to pick you up."
"I’d love to, Lisa, but I can’t see you and finish your order by the deadline. Sorry…" As soon as I said that I knew it was a mistake. Never slight a lustful lady. Old foot-in-mouth strikes again.
Her expression turned icy and the smile switched off. My passionate lover of a few minutes ago had vanished and her voice was all business now. "Fine, then. I’ll stop by on Wednesday afternoon to check on your progress. Good day, sir." She spat that last word with no small contempt, then turned and strode out of the shop without so much as a look back. She disappeared into a waiting limousine, which sped off.
For a minute or two I just stood there, stunned. In all the years I’ve been a case-builder, of all the gorgeous women who have crossed my threshold, none could compare with the vision who had just left. In a figurative blink of an eye I had fallen deeply in love with Lisa and now deeply regretted that within a week she would step into my case and become a statue. A few minutes before I had eagerly anticipated that very same act.
My world had turned upside-down and now I didn’t know what to think. But there remained a job to do.
The secret of the marvelous cases was a legacy passed to me by my father as it had been passed to him by his, and so on back into the mists of trackless history. None of my ancestors, nor myself, knew why they worked the way they did or why that particular odd combination of materials had such an extraordinary effect:
Anything placed inside one of the cases entered a kind of limbo, where time seemed not to pass. Forever.
It was a truly magical effect, though one might say magic is unknown technology, but whatever you called them, stasis boxes worked. Penelope in my showroom was an eternally mute example of their effectiveness. That was my first, my journeyman, case (I have done much better work since) and she was my girlfriend at the time. Over thirty years ago. I remembered back then how terrified I was, not sure if it would even work, and of course she didn’t understand what I was doing either. That’s why when she stripped down to her lingerie and stepped into the almost-finished case to surprise me, Penelope has no idea what was going to happen.
Which explained the look of bemused wonder that had been frozen on her face all of these years. What were her last thoughts as she felt her body stiffen into place and realized that all of the legends I had told her were true? She was becoming a living statue, suspended, held absolutely still in the span of an endless moment. Her body and thoughts were perfectly preserved for as long as she stayed inside the case, or at least that was supposed to be the way it worked. But she remained stiff and motionless even when outside the chamber. Something had gone wrong.
My mentor explained later – too late – that the mechanism had been mis-tuned and created a ‘timesink’ inside the case instead of the expected balanced null time effect. It was an eternal timeless vortex; the temporal equivalent of a black hole; anything (or anyone) that fell into its inexorable grip could never move in this spacetime plenum ever again.
I placed lovely Penelope’s rigid figure back into that fateful chamber, which is where she has remained ever since to keep the secret of my failure secure. I’ve maintained her hairstyle and makeup looking up to date and changed her outfits periodically. She will always appear beautiful and ravishing. That’s the very least of the debt I owe her soul. One day, maybe after I retire, there will be time to work on the null device, apply new kinds of knowledge, and try to release her from oblivion. Maybe someday, she can come alive again. Maybe.
Until then, she remains a constant visible reminder of the dangers possible in my chosen craft.
People require the cases for various reasons, I don’t ask anymore. Many private individuals, and not a few corporations, have patronized my art over the years. I know for a fact there is a huge mansion in Southern California that has an entire art gallery full of them, all occupied.
My reverie was wasting time; a cool mil’ awaited me at the end of the week! Without further delay I got to work. The metal frame could be fabricated elsewhere; I made a few calls and spread some of Lisa’s seed money. As always the tricky part was the mechanism; what I called a timestopper. Whether it worked or just sat there looking like a twisted metal sculpture depended on a lot of things. One of these was the size of the chamber, and the rest I’m not going to tell you anyway. Trade secrets, after all.
So I laid out the dimensions and built a mockup out of plywood that looked worthless but was enough to fit the apparatus into. The next two days (and nights) were spent ‘tuning’ the various parts of the device and getting it to even function. Clocks placed inside the chamber were affected too; anything was as long as the enclosure was complete, so I was able to achieve the essential absolute – reversible – null point without needing any test subjects.
For once, things happened the way they were supposed to. The plastic panels were delivered on time, and the framework was on schedule. More importantly, I had at last achieved a null with the chamber. Whatever force or effect results in the stopping of time is influenced by the shape and size of the enclosed area; some shapes, curves mostly, never null out. Even though cubic volumes are best I’ve never found out what makes for a ‘good’ configuration or a ‘bad’ one. Part of the art of building them it seems.
Sweeping into the shop late on Wednesday like a whirlwind wrapped in a black Lycra bodysuit, Lisa chatted only briefly before zooming off again. She was almost ecstatic when I reported that everything would be ready tomorrow. Her face lit up like a little girl’s on Christmas morning and I half expected her to hop up and down with joy. Or kiss me again. After a moment’s celebration her businesslike demeanor returned. A truck would come by at fourteen hundred to pick up the finished unit, she said by way of parting. I did not even have a chance to tell her how I really felt about her, particularly since in a few days she was going to be embedded in a timeless limbo for who knew how long.
On Thursday things started to unravel. The frame arrived, but the channels in the walls for the plastic panels were too narrow. The fabricators had expected I’d be using my usual glass. So I spent a frantic few hours building a jig and trimming the precut window pieces to fit. Then the dimensions of the resulting chamber turned out to be slightly different than my test one. For some reason getting a null with the new size was not working and it took me most of the night to make it come right. Finally, the automatic closing mechanism was not strong enough with the thicker, heavier, panels in place and I had to hastily beef up the hydraulic cylinder. It closed slowly at best. I was still fiddling with it when the truck arrived. I had to send them away until the next day and kissed five hundred K goodbye. Sometimes Murphy Wins.
She didn’t even come by in person to complain, simply left a curt message with the phone reminding me of the terms. I wondered why she was in such an all-fired hurry. Early Friday the truckers returned and loaded the finished case quietly. The driver handed me a letter-sized envelope before leaving.
Inside was a short note in what had to be Lisa’s handwriting:
‘Thank you for completing my display case on time as we agreed.
Payment in full has already been deposited to your account.
Including the promised bonus.
Au Revoir, L. Ventura’
So that was that. Goodbye and see you in the next life.
While I was now richer than I could have hoped for, I was profoundly sad as well. It’s not every day that the love of your life is found. Or lost.
I don’t remember if the champagne was part of the celebration or a commiseration, but by the evening I was fast approaching a true fugue state. I closed my eyes, trying to remember how she looked and smiled in the brief minutes we were together. Whether karma or coincidence, the phone chimed.. It was Lisa, agitated.
"I need your assistance at once. Please come to my residence immediately!" She named an address, then rang off without saying anything further. She had sounded at wits end; what had made her so upset?
In the aerocab over, I replayed the conversation and wondered what was wrong. Just to be on the safe side I brought my portable toolkit and the plans for her case with me. Circling the estate once, the vehicle entered an unmarked service entrance and dropped me off at a side door. A servant was there to meet me; she led the way deep into the immense mansion. Glancing at rooms as we strode along, I glimpsed some of the riches that were part of Lisa’s world. The million she had paid me was only a drop in the ocean of her vast wealth.
The maid left me outside a huge double-door of real mahogany wood with only a light knock by way of announcing my arrival. A few seconds passed before Lisa’s voice sounded from within: "Enter!" She said, and finished with a bubbly giggle. The solemn Stiles acted as doorman. I walked into an immense two-story atrium lined with books, fine artworks, and more but all I saw was she.
Lisa wore a light robe that molded itself to her curves. She looked radiant, glowing, then I understood that her body was coated all over with some sort of sparkling oil or powder. Her lithe, catlike movements were a symphony of beauty to me as she led the way onward.
In the center of the library rested my case. The door was slightly ajar; there was a figure already inside. Young, very female, and nude. The girl was already suspended in partial timestop, arms held as if in an embrace, with her eyes closed. As I looked at her she opened them very slowly, taking possibly twenty or thirty seconds. A blink. That meant an incomplete suspension, maybe only a hundred to one or so.
Lisa’s voice was concerned, not angry. "Earlier, we could not close the door completely and it seems the full effect did not occur. The case may have been damaged in transit. However, Sophie seems to be at least somewhat affected inside," she angled her head to indicate the motionless figure. "I need you to help finish the job. Stiles can assist as well..."
I could only nod; I knew what was going to happen next.
She dropped her robe and stood naked in front of me. Lisa was ravishing, her tanned body fit and toned by countless hours of exercise. Her legs were long and muscular; it seemed to me her hairstyle had been trimmed and set into an almost classical style. She looked like a sculpture come to life; it was then I realized that what she was planning was exactly the opposite..
"Give me a few seconds to get into position, then please latch the case," she said. Seeing how I was gawking at her, Lisa came up to me and kissed me lightly. I breathed in her scent, which was sweet like lilacs, and touched her soft waist briefly. Lisa smiled back, "I know how you feel, but I must do this. Appearances can be very deceiving; there is a tumor growing in my head and this may be my last day of life. But new medicines and procedures come along all the time; maybe sometime in the future I can be fully cured." A shadow of fear crossed her features. "It may even be already too late!" Her face sagged and she began to weep. "Ohh….."
I was at her side in a split-second, cradling her head in my arms. Her slim body shook like a leaf, suddenly seeming very small and fragile.. My own eyes were misty too as I kissed her lightly on the forehead, knowing this was the last time I would ever see her as an animate being.
Lisa’s moods swung yet again as she tilted her head back and redirected my kiss onto her lips. The fire of our earlier meeting in my shop returned with a vengeance as the shaking leaf transformed into a stalking tigress in the blink of an eye. She pulled herself to me with surprising strength, almost leaping into my arms, and pressed her lips against mine hungrily. I could feel the darting wetness of her tongue in my mouth.
Somehow we ended up on the floor, actually a really scratchy Persian carpet that must have cost a king’s ransom. Lisa was on top, tearing the clothes from my body. She, of course, was already naked, which gave her a decided advantage. Soon I was too, and fully at attention. Lisa flicked her warm tongue over my penis and continued to lick my torso and chest as she slid onto me. Her pussy was slick with juices so I entered her easily and she began to gyrate. She was an incredible athlete, in every sense of the word, and had fantastic control of her body. Lisa reached her first orgasm and cried out just as I came too, driving her into a second spasm of ecstasy. I wondered for a moment if anyone else in the mansion had heard her joyous exclamation.
Out of the corner of one eye I glimpsed the immobilized figure of the girl in the case and realized she was watching us! To her slowed-down perspective we must seemed to be writhing like rabbits on amphetamines. Lisa picked that moment to roll over and she dragged me, still inside her, along as we switched places. With a little belly-dancer move she brought me back to full erection as I plunged deep into her once more. Now it was my turn to express my love to her in the language of touch and rhythm. This time I was more deliberate, as I paced my thrusts to the sound of her light melodic gasps. Her climax was one long "Aiieeeeahhhhhh….." that seemed to go on for minutes. I knew then there are other ways to suspend time.
We lay together for minutes afterward on that priceless carpet, just breathing together, feeling each other’s warmth and sweat-slick bodies. Lisa seemed to be drifting off to sleep; she seemed very drowsy.
This was not good. I shook her lightly, then more strongly, to gain her attention. "Who… Whazzat…?" she mumbled.
"Lisa, it’s time. You have to get in the case now!" I pulled her to her feet, where she swayed unsteadily.
"Dizzy… Everything’s spinning…." She threw her head back and looked directly into the overhead lights that illuminated the atrium. I thought she was going to pass out, but after a few seconds the seizure passed.
"Better, now." Lisa took a couple of deep breaths that might have distracted me at any other time. "I can walk on my own," she alleged, taking a few wobbly steps before I held her arm to steady her as we moved towards the waiting display case. Stiles (where had he been all this time?) opened the door to eternity.
She turned towards me one last time, tears in her eyes, as she started to say something.
I beat her to it, so my "I love you" sounded out first.
"I know…." She responded. We both knew.
I reached to kiss her one final time, but Lisa understood where that might lead and held her hands up in a silent denial. As Stiles held a hand mirror up to her she straightened her hair and made herself presentable.
"See you later," I fibbed, hoping it was not goodbye. But it was…
"Farewell." She stepped into the case daintily, not touching any of the glass panels. Entwining herself around the younger girl, who was just beginning to reanimate, Lisa Ventura completed her provocative pose. She nodded one last time to me, then closed her eyes and kissed her companion lightly, who responded.
I was torn between my desire for her and the reality of the situation. There was literally no way out for Lisa; time had already trapped her. At least now there was a chance, a possibility.
With the strength of Stiles pressing the case back into alignment, I closed the door and heard the latch snick into place.. The full suspension took only a few seconds. Floating lightly, a feather from the collar of her robe was the first sign as it hesitated in mid-air like a leaf trapped in amber. Watching Lisa’s exquisite body closely, I could see the field establish itself as surely as it had in all of my tests. Except here was no clock with its slowly pausing second hand, here was a living woman who suddenly stopped breathing and seemed to freeze into place like a statue. Their lips met and held; Lisa’s left hand on Sophie’s delicate breast would lightly caress it forever now. The girl’s enigmatic knowing smile became immortal. The two had become sculpture; a living work of art for all time.
Silence reigned for what seemed like minutes, then I could finally say "Farewell" without breaking down.
There was an envelope on the writing desk; my name was on it. Inside was a brief note from Lisa; a message from a statue. It said, simply, ‘Join me.’ The paper held her flowery perfume. Suddenly it all was clear.
Stiles showed me to the door of the library. Just before he turned away, the android said, "I love her too."
* * *
Years have passed since that fateful night; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Lisa. At first I could not bear to see her in the case, then events conspired to place us apart. The sculpture is now on the orbiting habitat, displayed in the spaceport rotunda. The two embracing figures are now known as ‘Eternal Lovers.’
I have not yet built my own case, but there are days now when it seems particularly seductive. There has been no apprentice to continue my craft; the secrets remain locked in my memory alone. Where should I take them; into the Grave or into the Future?
There are always possibilities....