Glass House

My world is weirder than your world.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Answering Phones 3: Interview

(Middle of a flashback here. If you haven't read the entries below this, then none of this is going to make any sense. Of course I make no guarantees even if you have.)

So Alyx works on 'my' body for a little while, taking my suggestions just to humor me. It's kind of fun, really -- like playing with one of those face composite programs on an actual body. I think Alyx is amused, too, if the two inches of manhood she gives herself is any indication.

"It's supposed to be you, right?" she says when I complain. "Do you have a mirror in this lair?"

"Of course not," I say. "What the hell would I do with a mirror?"

"Have more women stay the night? I can't go any further with this unless I can see what I'm doing. I think the face is coming out all lopsided."

"It is, but it's cool. You're just going to burn it up anyway, right?"

She insists, so she grabs her duffel bag and we go upstairs into the house proper. Jon's fixing breakfast in the kitchen, and shows no surprise whatsoever at the naked deformed man in a state of prepubescent development. He was clearly expecting us.

"Hello, Alyx," he says, and waves a spatula toward the stove. "I didn't realize it was Tuesday. Big day for James, isn't it? Pancakes?"

Alyx is a little unnerved. (Sorry Jon, but you have that effect on a lot of people.) "No thank you. James and I just came up to use your bathroom."

Almost anyone else I know would have eyeballed that body and made a kamikaze rush for a punchline. It doesn't even occur to Jon. He's one of the nicest guys in existence, but a lifetime of time-hopping has left his sense of humor lost somewhere in the continuum. "Suit yourself," he says. "I'll make some extra in case you change your mind."

"Don't you know if we'll have pancakes?" she says. I hear kind of an edge, so I take her elbow and say "Come on, big guy." Up again to the second-floor guest bathroom, and I shut the door. "Keep quiet," I whisper. "Jenna's still asleep."

She makes some disgusted noises at the look of her face, and sets about straightening it out? Within a minute or two she's a generically good-looking blonde man of my height, exceptionally thin, with vivid blue eyes. Not bad. Hell, maybe it is what I look like. (Except for the two inches. On that I've got proof.)

"Does it work?" She's got close to my voice, too, though it's a bit deeper and raspier. We'll tune that later.

"It works," I say. "Let's make it hideous."

The burns turn out to be extraordinarily difficult for her. She's used to skin just being skin; she's done different colors, but texture's a brave new world. She overdoes it on her first attempt, and breaks out in hideous bright red, shiny as glass.

I'm amused. "Not bad for a Joss Whedon demon. But, uh, let's take it down a little."

Alyx stares at the mirror.

"Yeah, I agree, it's cool, but -- Alyx?"

"I'm stuck!" she yells in that gravel voice.

"Seriously? That's not gonna work. Shit, you look like the BSD mascot, and this is a Linux job--"

She starts shaking, and she grips the sink counter, still staring daggers into the mirror. I grab her by the shoulders, but it isn't easy; that skin doesn't just shine like glass, it's as smooth as glass. There's a crack as the veneer on the counter splits -- she's also very hard. And on the edge of panic.

"Deep breaths, Alyx, deep breaths."

"You bastard! This is your fault!" She swings backward in a fury. If she'd connected, she'd have leveled me. But you don't make it through society invisible without getting really, really good at dodging. Her fist smashes through the tiles by the shower instead.

The door bursts open, and there's Jenna with a shotgun. It takes her about a nanosecond to assess the demon in her bathroom and raise the shotgun to its face.

Jenna says, "Don't move. Explain."

I say, "Jenna, it's cool. That's Alyx. Things got a little confused, is all."

The two of them lock eyes for a moment, and Alyx -- restored to her senses by the calming effects of a shotgun -- says "James was being a prick. I'm all right now, except for this fucking skin."

"James was being a prick? You trashed our bathroom!"

"I was being a prick. I'll get it fixed," I say quickly. Then the shotgun lowers.

(I must reiterate here that Jenna is indeed awesome. She'd never shoot a demon in the face without giving it a chance to explain. But she's extraordinarily protective of her family, her friends, and -- as I learned that morning -- her interior decorating. God only knows what she'd have done if that countertop had been marble or granite.)

"I'm sorry things went wrong, Alyx. Is there anything I can do to help?" Jenna says.

With a little patience and our encouragement, Alyx figures out that while she can't just unredden herself and go back to Simulated Me, she can flip back to cute female Alyx. Her standard body's practically automatic; but her shapeshifting's not quite a reflex, and she'd choked herself off from it while she was freaking out.

So we're back to square one. Jenna goes to get her a bathrobe, and I say, "Hey, I shouldn't have gone sarcastic on you. You did a lot for me just coming here. And if you don't want to do this anymore, I understand."

"Don't be a fool. I'm not quitting." She's still got that male voice, a little deeper than mine. It's bizarre coming from that sweet girl, but divorced from the way she looks, it sounds natural. I wonder if it's her original voice. "I'm ready to try again. I just need something to concentrate on."

So while she redoes all that work on size and body shape, I go to Jon's computer and spend a few minutes Googling on face burns. (Today's helpful hint: you get a lot more out of Google Images if you turn "Safe Search" off.) I print out some stomach-churning images on the inkjet and tape them up on the mirror next to Alyx.

She doesn't break herself again, but she never can get anything close to realistic. It's past 9 AM now. Eventually Jenna says, "We may have to settle for close enough. I have some medical bandages -- it's sort of a stereotype, but could we wrap you in those, and only leave a little of the scar tissue showing? That could be enough to suggest the rest of it."

Alyx rolls her eyes, now surrounded by pink pustulent blobs, but I think it's a great idea. "It's what everyone's used to seeing in movies anyway," I point out.

"Whatever," Alyx says. "Get whatever you think you need. I have to get dressed." That's what was in the duffel bag: a somewhat wrinkled business suit. She'd thought ahead -- Jon wouldn't have one the right size, and I just wouldn't have one.

"It's business casual," I tell her.

"They always say that. It's always better to overdress."

"You mean with bandages, a trenchcoat, and a fedora?" That's what Jenna's just brought out with a smirk. By the time everything's arranged, Alyx looks exactly like Liam Neeson in Darkman. It's uncanny. And a little silly, but time is short. As the one sign of more ordinary geekdom, she lets that long blonde hair drape down behind the bandages.

I give my thanks and goodbyes to Jenna and Jon -- who is surprised to see Alyx looking so Hollywood Gothic; perhaps he jumped probabilities when he offered us pancakes -- and we get into Alyx's car. As she drives, she adjusts her voice to match mine. "I don't know how I'll get through the interview," she says. "I don't know jack about computers."

"I'll take care of that. Just move your mouth underneath those bandages, and don't mind me if I get close."

She chuckles a little, but of course I can't read her expression.

After all that, the interview is practically anticlimactic. The Linux company's got two floors of an office building on Piedmont, and we pull into the parking lot with five minutes to spare. People look at Alyx as she lopes into the place, her coat swishing dramatically, but she pays nobody any mind. I follow behind.

We're shown to Kaydia's desk, and she greets and gazes at Alyx with a clinical You are utterly full of shit expression. She's not buying the Darkman thing; but she doesn't argue it either. Alyx sits (I stand nearby) and reads magazines until Mr. Brooks calls us in.

I call him Mr. Brooks because, although he clearly wants to be called Paul, he just doesn't look like the kind of guy you can think of in first name terms. He'd old enough to be my father, and even in a golf shirt he looks more like a dentist than an IT executive. But it turns out he's sharp as a tack, and he doesn't just know Linux, he was part of the original LSB spec authority. If I'd done my homework properly instead of worrying about body doubles, I'd have known that.

He shakes Alyx's scarred hand and greets her warmly. He's not thrown by the bandages thing either, somehow. "The hat's a nice touch," he says.

"Thanks," Alyx replies. "It was a good movie. If I'm going to get out at all, I might as well entertain people doing it."

I rarely see Alyx at work, and every time I'm struck by her comfort in whatever role she's playing. More than comfort: she's got charm. She never turns it on for us, the people she sees as friends, colleagues or peers (more or less). But when she wants it, it's there.

The two of them make small talk for a few minutes, and then the techie questions start. "So what distribution do you favor?" this nice old man asks.

I slide up behind Alyx so that my head's on her shoulder, and her own head tilts a little. She opens her mouth, and I say, "I think all the focus on distributions is kind of a distraction, Mr. Brooks. My main machine was put together from scratch. If I'm in a hurry I use Slackware. If this is for a client, then my favorite distro is whatever the client wants."

His lips pull down, but he's nodding. "So you don't believe in vendor admin tools?"

"Personally? No. But most users do, and it's not my place to deny their religion."

It goes on like that for a while -- he probes me about security policies, about managing networks, about prior work I've done. Most of the questions aren't so much technical as social; he trusts that I know the job, or can learn it. He wants to be sure I can communicate it to other people. The whole time I'm talking, he's scrutinizing Alyx. He knows the sound isn't quite right; it isn't coming from the right place, it isn't matching up perfectly. Almost everyone shrugs this off, as they shrug off most minor weirdness -- and having a distracting source of major weirdness, like a man dressed as a Sam Raimi character in your office, helps. I think he shrugs it off too. Like his assistant, if he isn't, he's not saying anything.

Finally he says, "Are you sure you're just interested in the phone job? Someone like you could really do well here -- never mind the appearance issues. You wouldn't be the only employee here outside the ordinary."

The way he says it tickles a question out of me, but before I can formulate it Alyx says, "Thank you, Paul, but I'm sure. I'm happy to have met you, but this is sort of a strain for me. I'm not sure I could do it every day."

"Well, all right. We'll give you a call -- probably this afternoon." The two of them shake hands again, and Alyx strides out. I sneak behind her.

When we're back in her car, it's safe for me to speak again. "Thanks again, Alyx. Do I owe you one now, or--?"

"Only if that dog of yours has eaten my clothes. Otherwise, we're even."

"Works for me." Naturally, I've totally forgotten about the damaged bathroom; and when I call Alyx later, she reminds me we're even and she won't pay a thing.

But the call does come that afternoon, so I can afford a handyman (Do it myself? No. Invisible people should not work with hand tools.) and start catching up on rent again. And the job...well, it's as I said yesterday. It could be a bit more interesting, but it doesn't suck.

And that's just another day for me.

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