The Lorelei Signal
Congratulations on Your Apotheosis
Written by Michelle Ann King / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
As a life coach, Abby Fowler strongly discouraged magical thinking. It was better for people to take responsibility for improving their lives, rather than wait and hope for supernatural assistance. Better, and a lot more reliable.
So Abby would never advise anyone to use a spell, even one that came with impeccable provenance and the crackle of real power in every square inch of the ancient parchment it was inscribed on. Even one that was purely for divination, nothing more than a harmless bit of information-gathering that might, say, help someone with preparing a five-year business plan for their coaching practice in order to apply for a bank loan. She would never advise it because she knew that kind of thing never ended well.
‘So it’s do as I say rather than do as I do, is it?’ said the figure that appeared in her client chair between one blink and the next. ‘Hi. I’m Sharon, and I’ll be your omniscient supernatural assistant today.’
‘Shit,’ Abby said. ‘I mean—’ she cleared her throat. ‘I’m sorry. I think there’s been a mistake.’
Sharon leaned forward and peered at the spell sitting on the desk. ‘Paperwork looks in order to me.’
‘That?’ Abby said. She slid the parchment under a client file. ‘I thought that was a recipe for moisturising cream.’
Sharon rubbed her thumb over the ring in her lower lip. ‘You do know the meaning of the word omniscient, don’t you?’ She shook her head. ‘You, of all people, trying to get a sneak peek. Tut, tut.’
A copy of Abby’s book flew from the stack on the display stand and landed in Sharon’s hand. She turned it over and read from the back cover. ‘Abby Fowler will teach you to stop worrying about the future and have faith in your ability to cope with whatever may happen.’
Abby sighed. ‘Thank you, yes. I know the meaning of the word irony, too.’
‘Okay, let’s crack on, then, shall we?’ Sharon closed her eyes. ‘Joe Callaghan is going to ring up in a minute and ask if you can fit him in this afternoon. He’s distraught because despite being genuinely good at his job and having doubled his efficiency using your time management techniques, he’s been passed over for promotion again.’
‘He’s starting to think it must be personal, that his boss resents him. And he’s absolutely right, because subconsciously Joe reminds her of a cousin who used to piss in her bed when they were kids. So it honestly doesn’t matter how good Joe is, it’s never going to happen, and he’d be better off cutting his losses and getting another job.’ She leaned back in the chair. ‘How was that? Pretty good, right? You don’t get that sort of granular detail with goat entrails and tarot cards.’
In the outer office, the phone rang. A few seconds later, the door opened and Donna poked her head around it. ‘That was Joe Callaghan, Abby, he wants to know if—oh, sorry, I didn’t realise you had a client with you. I’ll tell him you’re busy.’
She withdrew, and Abby laid her hands flat on the desk. ‘I’m sorry, I really think this was a mistake.’
‘Don’t you mean learning experience?’ Sharon opened the book. ‘It says here—’
Abby pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘Right, yes. Absolutely. And what I have learned from this experience is that I should take my own advice. So let’s just forget all about it. I release you from any obligation. You can go. Sorry for any inconvenience.’
‘No inconvenience, no obligation. I like having something to do.’ Sharon put her hands behind her head and grinned. ‘You have no idea how hard it can be, as an immortal, omnipotent being, to occupy your time after the first few billion millennia. Everything starts to get a bit samey, you know? Creation, destruction, wars, lovers, children, pets—’ she paused and held up a finger. ‘You haven’t got any pets, have you? I’ll sort that out for you—every sentient being ought to have a pet of some kind. I’ve got just the thing, you’ll love it. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, so all the big spectacle stuff starts to wear a bit thin after a while. That’s why I thought I’d try a more intimate approach. Like I said, it’s the granular detail that makes the difference.’ She looked around. ‘You could do with a bigger window in here, don’t you think? Get a bit more light.’
The left-hand wall of the office shimmered, faded and became glass. ‘Although it’s a bit low to the ground. A higher elevation would be better. Hold on to something, we’re going up.’
Abby grabbed her desk as the building instantaneously gained thirty floors.
‘Maybe a few more,’ Sharon said, and they shot up again. The wall behind Abby became glass, too.
Sharon pointed over her shoulder. ‘There. You can see the London Eye, now. See it? Over there? That’s much—’
‘Stop,’ Abby said, her voice muffled as she clamped her palm over her mouth. She didn’t turn around. ‘Stop.’
‘Okay, maybe that’ll do for now, then.’ Sharon patted Abby’s shoulder. ‘You take it easy for a bit, sort out poor old Joe Callaghan. I’ll go and see what else needs doing.’
‘What? No. Wait, I don’t—’
But Sharon was gone.
‘Shit,’ Abby said, and let her head drop. After a while she grabbed a packet of aspirin from her desk drawer and reached for her water glass. Between lifting it from the desk and putting it to her lips, the liquid turned red and the aroma of a full-bodied Shiraz caught in her nostrils. She put it down again, untouched.
She grabbed her jacket, told Donna she was taking the rest of the day off and went down in the newly-created elevator to the car park. Her Volvo wasn’t where she’d left it. Instead, the space was taken up by a sleek Ferrari in a shade of purple that exactly matched Sharon’s hair. When Abby opened her bag, she found the car keys inside.
She left the Ferrari where it was and took the bus home.
Where she found the car—or an exact replica—waiting in her driveway. It had a big white ribbon wrapped around it and tied in a bow.
‘Shit,’ she said.
Paul opened the door while she was still standing on the step and staring at the car. He whistled. ‘I’m guessing you have an extremely grateful—and extremely rich—client?’
‘It’s a little misunderstanding,’ Abby said.
He grinned. ‘Well, do you reckon I can take that misunderstanding for a spin before you clear it up?’
‘No,’ she said, and hustled him inside.
He went to the window and gave the car one last longing look, then turned around. ‘Okay, so do you—’ he broke off. ‘Um, Abby? What’s that?’
She looked up and saw him staring at her bag, which she’d dropped on the sofa. ‘What’s what?’
‘That,’ he said, pointing.
The bag made a chirping noise, then a small creature shot out and jumped into Abby’s arms. She shrieked.
It was a bit smaller than a cat, with white fur and a flat face that had large eyes and pointed, oversized ears. It reminded her of a cross between an owl and something she’d seen in a Disney film once. That one had been blue, and possibly an alien.
‘That’s—wow,’ Paul said. ‘What is that?’
The creature settled into the crook of Abby’s elbow and chirped happily, paws kneading the material of her coat. It waved its ears at Paul.
Abby swallowed hard. ‘Prototype,’ she said faintly. ‘One of my new clients, er, works for a toy firm. Research and development. She wanted me to test it.’
Paul took a step forward and peered at it. ‘Really? My god, it’s brilliant. My sister’s kids would love one for Christmas. Are they expensive?’
‘I don’t think they’ve set a price yet,’ Abby said.
The creature began to sing in a high-pitched, trilling warble. ‘I’ll just put it away for now,’ she said. ‘Maybe take the batteries out.’
The creature gave her wide eyes and clamped its mouth shut. Abby carried it into the bedroom and shut the door behind her. ‘What the hell?’ she said.
The creature flicked its ears, jumped out of her arms and onto the bed, where it grabbed the television remote.
Abby watched it channel surf for a while, before it decided on an episode of Man Vs. Food and settled back against the pillow. Adam Richman was attempting to eat a pizza that was twice the size of his head. The creature chittered approvingly.
‘I need a drink,’ Abby said, and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the creature was sticking a very long, very black tongue into a champagne flute and holding a second glass out to her. She caught a glimpse of small, sharp-looking teeth.
Abby hesitated, then took the glass and drained the contents in one go.
She sat on the bed and tentatively reached out a hand. The creature sniffed it, then rubbed its head against it.
‘So,’ she said. ‘This is happening, then.’
Abby’s glass filled itself up. She emptied it again. ‘I just wanted to know if the bank were going to approve my loan, that was all. And now I’ve summoned a—what? A genie? A demon? A goddess?’
The creature grinned at her, tongue lolling over those tiny pointed teeth.
Abby lay down on the bed and put her hands over her face. The creature snuggled up next to her and licked her cheek affectionately.
~ * ~
In the morning, from the perspective of ten hours sleep and a slight hangover, the previous day felt like a strange, hallucinatory dream. This thought—disturbing and comforting in roughly equal measure—sustained Abby through her shower and the morning papers, while Paul made a pot of coffee and Belgian waffles with raspberries and mascarpone. Until her furry houseguest dropped from the ceiling fan, where it had apparently been roosting, onto her head.
‘Oh, that’s where it got to,’ Paul said, putting a plate of waffles in front of her. ‘I was wondering. You’ve got to get a couple for the kids, Abby. You’d get a discount, wouldn’t you?’
The creature sniffed at her waffles, then picked up the plate, unhinged its jaw and tipped the whole lot inside. It swallowed, burped, and beamed at her.
Paul came back with coffee. ‘Wow, someone’s hungry. Want some more?’
‘No, thanks,’ Abby said. ‘I should get going. There’s someone I need to get hold of this morning. Urgently.’
‘Okay,’ he said, and dropped a kiss on the back of her neck. ‘I’ll see you later.’
The creature hopped off the table and came back with her bag, jacket and the keys to the Ferrari. Then it climbed in the bag and looked at her expectantly.
‘Right,’ she said, and headed outside.
She got in the car, which smelled of new leather and Sharon’s perfume, and put her bag on the passenger seat. The creature poked its head up and held out Abby’s iPhone. It was displaying her Reminders app, with a new entry at the bottom. It said Go to supermarket and buy big pizzas for Cthulu.
‘Cthulu,’ Abby said. ‘Seriously? Your name is Cthulu?’
The creature waved its ears.
Abby sighed. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Fine.’
She put her hands on the steering wheel but didn’t start the car. Cthulu gave an inquiring chirp.
Abby scratched behind his ears for a while. ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ she said helplessly. ‘With her? I mean, if she can do all this… should I be trying to get her to, I don’t know, eradicate hunger? Create world peace?’
Cthulu cocked his head, then opened up the Notes app on her phone. He typed, carefully and delicately with one black claw, Control by omnipotent power = eradication of free will and individuality. Create puppets, not peace.
‘Right,’ Abby said. ‘Right.’
She sighed, started the engine and drove to the office.
~ * ~
Sharon was waiting in her consulting room, sprawled in one of the puffy armchairs with her booted feet swung over the side. The reception desk was empty.
‘Where’s Donna?’ Abby said.
‘I gave her the day off. Don’t worry, you’ll get the credit.’ Sharon shimmered, briefly changed into a mirror image of Abby, then shifted back again.
Abby sank onto her own chair. ‘Oh, God.’
‘Yes?’ Sharon gave her an expectant look.
‘You can’t do this,’ Abby said.
‘The facts of the case would beg to differ.’
‘I don’t mean you can’t, I mean you can’t.’ Abby shook her head. ‘You have to stop.’
‘Because—because—control by omnipotent power means the eradication of individual will. We’re human beings, not puppets.’
Sharon shot a suspicious look at Cthulu, who was sitting on the desk and chewing on a paperclip. He spat it out and looked back with wide, innocent eyes.
‘Sharon, please,’ Abby said. ‘I didn’t want this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I called you, woke you, whatever. But please, can’t you just—go back? Go home?’
‘The thing is,’ Sharon said, ‘you’re totally right, what you say in your book—which is currently number one on the New York Times non-fiction chart, by the way, no need to thank me. The key to happiness is to keep learning, growing and experiencing.’ Sharon swung her boots off the chair and sat up straight. ‘But how do you learn when you already know everything? How do you grow when you already are everything? And as for experiences—I’ve spent a thousand years as a grain of sand, I’ve gone sunbathing inside the burning heart of a star, I’ve played with dinosaurs and ridden centaurs. I’ve watched civilisations, species, whole planets, come and go. But it all gets old in the end. I’m bored, Abby. I need direction. A sense of purpose. That’s why meeting you was so perfect, don’t you see?’
Abby looked down at her desk, at the notebooks and case files. Her own image smiled up at her from the cover of her book. A red sticker said ‘The Mega-Bestseller! As Seen on TV!’
A small sound escaped her. She wasn’t entirely sure if it was a laugh or a sob. Abby Fowler, Life Coach to the Gods.
‘Okay, then,’ she said. ‘Tell me, on a scale of one to ten, how do you rate ‘all-powerful superbeing’ as a career?’
Sharon spent some time considering this. ‘I suppose it beats working in retail,’ she said.
Abby wiped her eyes. ‘Okay. Fine. You really want my professional advice? Here it is. Nothing interests you because nothing challenges you. You need something that you aren’t automatically going to be good at, something you can’t control.’
‘You do know the meaning of the word omnipotent, right?’
‘If you can do anything, then that should include creating something you can’t do.’
Sharon scratched her neck with glittery fingernails. ‘Gah. Ontological paradoxes give me hives. But, you know what? You might just be on to something. Every story needs an antagonist, doesn’t it? Every hero needs an arch-enemy. A nemesis.’ She nodded, her eyes gleaming. ‘That’s exactly what I need. A supervillain.’
Abby pursed her lips. ‘Well, that’s not exactly what I—’
‘Two evenly-matched combatants, pursuing each other through time, space and multi-phasic trans-dimensional realities, constantly fighting an epic, eternal battle for dominance. What a great idea. I love it.’
She leaned back and crossed her legs. ‘Naturally, it goes without saying that the job’s yours.’
A card materialised on the desk. On the front was a satellite picture of Earth, with the words Congratulations on your Apotheosis! superimposed over the top. Inside, it said:
It’s going to be fun!
Abby laid the card flat. ‘No, thanks,’ she said.
‘So, I think the first thing we should do is—hang on, what?’
‘I said no, thanks. I’m quite happy here in my ordinary, non-phasic reality.’
‘You don’t want to be a god? I was joking earlier, you know. It’s a lot better than working in retail.’
‘No, I don’t want to be a god. I like my job. I like my life.’
Sharon pulled on her lip ring. ‘Ah.’
‘Ah? What does that mean, ah?’
‘You like Paul.’
Abby frowned. ‘What? Yes, of course I like Paul. So?’
‘Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.’ Sharon looked away.
‘I might not have omniscient powers, but I’m good at telling when people are lying. What are you talking about? What about Paul?’
‘Well—’ Sharon shrugged. ‘I just made sure all the boxes were ticked, that the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, that the—’
‘What are you saying? That you—what? Mind-controlled him, somehow? Changed him? Made him perfect for me?’
‘My God—all the time we’ve been together—how far back does this go? Did you go back in time and make him fall in love with me?’
Sharon rubbed the back of her neck. ‘No,’ she said slowly, drawing the word out. ‘Not exactly.’
Abby lifted her chin. ‘Whatever you did, undo it.’
‘You don’t really want me to do that.’
‘Yes, I do. Didn’t you hear what I said about free will? That’s important, Sharon. That matters.’ She stood up and folded her arms. ‘I don’t want some perfect, fake Paul. I’d rather take my chances with the real one.’
‘Yeah. See, there’s your problem.’
‘There isn’t one.’
‘There isn’t one what?’
‘A real Paul. There isn’t one. I made him to order.’
‘That’s not possible. I met you yesterday. I met him two years ago.’
‘Mm, no. It’s the happiness thing again, you see. Good memories are part of it. So I gave you some. Trust me, Paul is about thirty-six hours old.’
Abby’s knees gave way and dumped her back in the chair. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. ‘Then take it back. If that life isn’t real, I want you to get it out of my head. You must be able to.’
‘I can, if that’s what you want.’
‘I do. No, wait. What happens to Paul?’
‘Like I said. There isn’t one.’
Abby’s voice caught. ‘He dies?’
‘Technically, he goes back to never having existed.’
Abby’s stomach churned. ‘Get out,’ she said. ‘I don’t care what powers you have, if you come anywhere near me again I will kill you.’
‘Well, you see, I’m like energy, in that I can’t actually be…’ Sharon looked at Abby’s face and trailed off. ‘Maybe we won’t get into that right now.’
‘No,’ Abby said. ‘Maybe we won’t.’ She snatched her car keys off the desk and slammed the door behind her.
~ * ~
‘You’re home early,’ Paul said. He was stirring something in a wok on the hob, something that smelled spicy and delicious.
She nodded. ‘I dumped a client,’ she said.
‘Really? That doesn’t sound like you.’
She stood by the breakfast bar and crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Tell me where we first met.’
‘Tell me, Paul.’
‘On the early morning train to Glasgow, two years ago. You were speaking at a seminar on personal development.’
She closed her eyes. ‘What’s your favourite food?’
He licked the spoon in his hand and grinned. ‘Green Thai curry, obviously. Why?’
‘Same as mine. Your favourite book?’
‘Abby, what is this?’
‘Just do it, okay? Humour me. Actually, no. You know what? Don’t. Don’t do what I want. Because you always do, don’t you? It’s always perfect.’
Paul gave her a quizzical look. ‘Is that supposed to be a bad thing?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, it is.’
He laughed. ‘So—if not doing what you want is a good thing—maybe this is the right time to tell you I booked up for Trevor’s stag do in Ibiza?’
‘This is the trouble, you always—wait, what?’
‘It’s only for a week.’
‘You’re going away for a week? To Ibiza? Without me?’
He put his head on one side. ‘You do know what stag do means, don’t you?’
She gave a tiny shudder. ‘I hate Ibiza,’ she said. ‘And Trevor, come to think of it. What if I said I don’t want you to go?’
Paul grinned. ‘Well, since I’ve already paid my deposit, I’d say we’d have to agree to disagree for once.’
Abby let out a long breath and scrubbed her hands over her face. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Maybe we could do that. Maybe we really could.’
Paul took the wok off the heat and turned to face her. ‘Are you sure you’re all right?’
She found a smile from somewhere. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, ‘I just need some air.’
She slipped out the back door into the garden. A large leaf detached itself from next door’s apple tree and swirled in the air. Somewhere, a cat yowled.
‘Are you there?’ she said softly. ‘Come on, I know you can hear me.’
‘I’m here,’ Sharon said. She was sitting cross-legged on top of the shed.
Abby scuffed her heel on the decking. ‘All right. I still think it’s wrong, what you did. But he’s Paul. However he started out, he’s real now. So I want you to leave things as they are.’
‘You humans can really be capricious, you know that? But yeah, I can do that.’ She jumped down. ‘So, about that supervillain thing…?’
Abby shook her head. ‘No. Definitely not. I am not going to play Joker to your Batman, or David to your Goliath, or whatever it is you had in mind. So you can forget all about that idea. The answer’s no. One hundred per cent no.’
‘How about Buffy and Faith? I’ll let you be Buffy.’
‘The answer’s no, Sharon.’
Sharon scratched her ear. ‘Ah,’ she said.
Abby raised her eyebrows. ‘Ah? Again, with the ah? Now what?’
‘So you didn’t want to be given supernatural abilities that would enable you to interact with me on a more equal footing, then?’
‘No. I did not.’
‘Ah,’ Sharon said.
~ * ~
That night, Abby dreamed about going sunbathing inside the burning heart of a star. When she woke, she had a deep, all-over tan.
~ * ~
During the following six months, the bank approved Abby’s loan application. She gave the rest of the funds that had appeared in her account to charity and used the loan to lease another floor in her office building. Joe Callaghan was her first employee.
Cthulu discovered online grocery shopping, and she had to buy three new industrial-sized freezers to store all the pizzas. Paul went to Ibiza, and posted photos on Facebook that made Trevor’s fiancée call off the wedding. Abby made him sleep on the couch for a week, but in the end everybody agreed it was probably for the best.
And Sharon wiped out half of North America with a tactical strike launched from an orbital space laser, but Abby put it back before anyone really noticed.
~ * ~
‘Did you hear?’ Joe said as he put Abby’s coffee on her desk. ‘Some woman’s opened up another coaching service on the forty-eighth floor.’
‘Actually, I like to call it a facilitation service,’ Sharon said from the doorway. She’d dyed her hair brown and swapped the motorcycle boots for suede high heels.
‘What’s that?’ Joe said.
‘It’s a more hands-on approach,’ Sharon said.
‘Really?’ Abby said. ‘This is what you’re doing, now?’
Sharon shrugged. ‘You know what they say—if you can’t beat them, join them. And then beat them.’
Joe narrowed his eyes. ‘And what makes you think you’re going to beat us?’
‘I get results for my clients,’ Sharon said. ‘Whatever they want, I can make happen. In fact, I guarantee it.’
Joe snorted. ‘Good luck with the advertising standards agency on that one. Well, just make sure you don’t try to pinch our clients. Otherwise you’ll have a fight on your hands.’
Sharon grinned. ‘Oh, pet. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Michelle Ann King is a short story writer from Essex, England. Her stories of fantasy, science fiction, crime, and horror have appeared in over a hundred different venues, including: Strange Horizons, Interzone, Black Static, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.
Her collections are available in ebook and paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, and links to her published stories can be found at her website: www.transientcactus.co.uk