Ten Science Fiction Short Stories
Chapter title – Ad Campaign
Paul R. Wonning
Randy Bellows studied the proposal from his top project leader, Skip Jenson. He had, against his best intuition, okayed the project. After looking at the costs involved he was having second thoughts. This was totally new technology and he would not pretend to understand it. He shrugged. It was too late; the project was already ready to test. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead and thought of Sarah Billings. He longed to be walking the beach with her at Cancun. Maybe if this project were successful it would be time to hand the company over to someone younger. Skip and his assistant Barbara Dinker were the obvious choices. He would call Bob, his lawyer and oldest friend. He would have the papers drawn up and ready. All he could do now was hope for success.
The cold rain running off his cap reinforced an already damp mood. Carl Lutz slogged along the street, his shoes and the bottom of his pant legs wet from the rain. The words of his boss, Jake Swinn, swam in his head like the cigarette butts swirling around the storm drains he passed. It wasn’t his fault that the Meany account had been lost. His boss knew it wasn’t his fault. It was that interfering idiot Walter Knoss that lost it. However, Carl was Walter’s immediate supervisor and so it reflected on him.
A street light blinked on as he passed in response to the deepening gloom. Carl glanced at his cell phone and noted the time. 5:30. It was hard to get used to the time change this time of year and the earlier nightfall. He turned up his collar against the wind. A woman swung into step beside him. He glanced at her and noted the long brown hair tucked into the scarf that wrapped her neck and the deep brown eyes, which glanced up at him for one brief moment. He was aware of the light coconut fragrance of her body in the cold, wet air.
“You don’t remember me do you,” she said.
He glanced down again, a question in his eyes. “No,” he said, “I can’t say that I do.”
A low, musical laugh escaped her full, red lips. “I didn’t think you did. We are close to Applebaum’s. Why don’t we go in out of the cold and get a drink.”
Carl hesitated for a moment. Applebaum’s was his favorite bar and he frequented the place at least twice a week. It was only Tuesday. He usually went on Wednesday with his wife for lunch and Friday nights after work.
“Sure,” he found himself saying. “I guess it will be a guessing game.”
“You got it,” she said with another laugh. “I am not telling you. You have to remember my name.”
The crossed the street and went into the bar. He glanced at the woman as the maitre de approached. “I think I would like to sit at a booth,” she said.
Carl looked at the maitre de and said, “Do you have a booth near the back?”
The woman smiled and nodded, then walked off at a brisk step with Carl and his mystery woman following close behind.
Skip Jenson peered into the monitor on his desk, watching the proceedings as they unfolded. His assistant, Barbara Dinker, sitting beside him, was also engrossed in the scene.
“It’s working, Barb,” Skip said, his voice tight with excitement. “He followed her in.”
“Remember, Skip, he has to spend at least one hundred bucks to make the advertiser happy.”
“He is intrigued by this woman,” said Skip. “He will spend that much and more.”
“We had better hope so, Skip. We are the ones who went out on a limb with this project. Randy has spent a lot of money developing this prototype and will not be happy if it doesn’t deliver.”
“It will deliver, Barb. Look, the mark is buying her another drink and they are looking at the menu.”
“So she has finagled dinner with him,” said Barb. “This could be a gold mine for us, Skip.”
“It had better be, Barb. We have spent a gold mine developing this thing. It has to work.”
Carl ordered a couple of more drinks as the waitress took the plates away. His eyes wandered over the woman across the table from him.
“I still haven’t guessed your name or where I have met you.”
The woman leaned forward, the top of her sweater falling away revealing a hint of the soft, white mounds of flesh it concealed. “Carl, how can you not remember me?”
Her hands lay on the table in front of her. Carl reached for her hand and said, “I should remember you, and I wish I could. But I swear I can’t”
As his hand touched her, the woman flickered and disintegrated into a million shards of light which swirled around, growing smaller and smaller until they were gone.
Carl watched in disbelief. A small, silver craft of some sort hummed in space across from him. The thing blinked once, and then flew off, leaving Carl with two drinks to drink. The waitress laid the check on his table. Carl glanced at it in disbelief. The tab was just over one hundred dollars. The woman was gone.
It took both of those drinks for him to convince himself that the incident did not happen.
Skip studied the computer screen. What the hell just happened there?”
Barbara had a puzzled look on her face. She answered, “I don’t know. She was supposed to just get up, use the restroom and not return. Instead she disintegrated when he touched her.”
Skip frowned. “We never anticipated that. It was never part of the test. Should we abort the test?”
Barbara shook her head. “No. We have too much research invested in this. We have been tracking this guy for a month and have logged all his movements using the GPS in his cell phone. We know where he is all the time. We know all the places he visited. We have advertisers who paid good money to be part of the pilot period of this project. We calibrated the device to the GPS in his phone. We can’t just lose all of that time and expense because of a minor glitch.”
Skip glanced again at the computer monitor. “He usually has lunch with his wife on Wednesdays and that is our next target.”
“I say we continue, Skip. We have it all set up. There is now way that anything can go wrong there.”
Skip shrugged. In reality, he did not relish going into Randy Merth’s office to tell him that they were aborting the project.
“Okay, we will continue.” He glanced at the clock on the computer. “It’s been a long day, Barb. Let’s shut down and go home.”
Barb stood up. “Yes, it has. We will have to get in tomorrow early to set this thing up again.”
Skip powered the computer down, got up and put on his coat. Tomorrow would be another day.”
Carl sipped at the glass of water the waitress placed in front of him as he waited for his wife, Caitlin. The incident from the night before still haunted him. He realized that he was in the same booth as he and the mysterious woman sat at last night. For a brief moment, he considered moving, and then berated himself for his fear. His wife’s smiling face caught his attention and he smiled back. She sat down.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, as she brushed her hair back from her face.
“That’s okay,” Carl said. “I got here a bit late myself and haven’t been waiting long.”
The conversation that followed was pure husband and wife talk that has no bearing on the story. As they talked, Carl noticed a woman approaching their table. She resembled Caitlin a bit, but there was something funny about her that he could not quite focus on. As she swept by their table, she stopped suddenly and turned to face them.
“Hi Carl,” she said. She opened her coat, revealing a very sexy teddy complete with garter belt and black stockings. “I just wanted you to know that Penelope’s Secret Drawer is running a 25% sale off on all lingerie. It’s a great time to purchase something to go with that little thing you bought Caitlin last month.”
The woman glanced at Caitlin. “I know you looked just divine in that little camisole and matching stockings. Wouldn’t you just love another?”
The woman started to close the coat when Caitlin stood up and grabbed at the woman’s arm. “Who are you,” she said, her voice cutting like a chainsaw.
As Caitlin’s hand touched the woman, she faded and flickered. A cascade of shimmering lights replaced her, swirling around and finally disappearing. The silver craft that Carl remembered seeing the night before hovered a moment, then flew off. As the woman disappeared, several diners cried out in alarm as they watched the device whirr towards the door. It hovered by the door for a moment until someone entered Applebaum’s, and flew out into the street.
Carl jumped up and followed it out. He watched in helpless frustration as the device disappeared from sight.
Caitlin appeared beside him. “What was that thing?”
Carl shrugged. “I don’t know. I have never seen anything like it before.”
The two reentered the establishment and walked towards their table. “I don’t know anything about what just happened,” Carl said to the onlookers as he and Caitlin returned to their seats.
As they sat down, Caitlin glanced at him. “What did you buy me at Penelope’s Secret Drawer?”
Carl fidgeted inside. The lingerie had not been for Caitlin. It had been for Carol Donovan. She had looked fabulous in it. His eyes met Caitlin’s eyes. Thinking fast, he said, “It was supposed to be a surprise. Our anniversary is next week.”
“You never buy anything that far ahead, Carl.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I looked at the calendar and realized it was coming up. I decided to buy something while I was thinking about it. I usually forget and didn’t want to this year.”
Caitlin smiled. “Okay, I will forget, so it is still a surprise.”
Carl smiled back at her, after making a mental note to go back to Penelope’s Secret Drawer to buy more lingerie.
“It happened again, Barbara. Caitlin Lutz touched it and it just disintegrated. That cannot keep happening. It attracts too much attention. We have to recall the unit and find out what is going on.”
“You’re the boss, Skip. That makes you the one to go in and tell Randy that the project is a failure and we have to abort.”
Skip paused and considered Barbara’s words. To abort, after the resources invested in this project would probably mean Randy would fire him, something Skip did not want.
He clicked an icon on the program and studied the scheduled events.
“There are only two more items left on the itinerary before it is over. If we can get through those final segments of the test, then we can safely pull the unit back in for evaluation.”
“That will give us time to investigate this glitch and get it fixed.”
“Look at the tracking screen, Barbara. Carl is going into Penelope’s Secret Drawer. He is going to buy something.”
Barbara opened another program on the computer. Carl’s credit card account came into view. After about thirty minutes, a charge appeared for Penelope’s Secret Drawer for three hundred sixty three dollars and seventeen cents.
“It’s working, Skip. So far we have generated over four hundred dollars in sales for our clients.”
“This is sweet, Barb. I can’t wait to study all the data from the unit so we can fine tune our ad campaigns.”
“We have to get that hologram generator fixed so it stops disintegrating when someone touches it.”
“Yes, but the homing device works great. It finds the target with unerring accuracy.”
“As long as their cell phone is on, it can find them anywhere.”
“Isn’t technology great,” said Skip with a smile. “We are going to make a fortune with this thing.”
“The possibilities are endless,” said Barbara. “Let’s compile the information we have so far. I can’t wait to show this report to Randy.”
As they worked on their report, the device waited until its next assignment.
As he exited the store, box of lingerie and a special blend of chocolates under his arm, Carl’s mind were on the flying device that was haunting him. As he wondered, what was going on a man came up beside him and matched his stride step for step. Carl at first paid no attention to the man other than a cursory glance at him. It was a young man, well dressed and with short blond hair. As they strode along the young man struck up a conversation.
“Have you seen those stupid commercials for ZapBoy, the new video game?”
With another glance at the man, Carl said, “Yes, I have.”
“I just bought one of those games at Zueller’s Electronics. It is a great game, in spite of those stupid commercials.”
“I was just in Zueller’s the other day. I bought a new game console and looked at that game. I didn’t buy it though.”
“You have to go get it,” the man said. “They are running it on sale and the sale ends tonight at seven. I got it yesterday and played it when I got home. I stayed up until three o’clock. I just couldn’t put it down.”
“I may have to go back in there and check it out,” said Carl.
“Hey, man, you won’t regret it.”
As he said this, the man dropped behind Carl and disappeared into the crowd. A moment later Carl heard a shout arise in the crowd behind him. He stopped and turned around. He saw a small silver craft rising above the crowd, turn and vanish behind a building.
The coincidence was just too much for Carl. This was the third time he saw that thing. Each time it zeroed right in on him. Whatever it was, it knew where he was and what he spent money on. A chill coursed down his spine. Who was controlling that thing? How could it project those images making it look like a person? Could it be a hologram?
Carl shook his head. No hologram projectors that he knew of would be small enough to fit on a craft so small. They needed a special platform to project up from and the images, though realistic, were nowhere as realistic as the ones surrounding this craft.
The puzzle receded in his mind as he got to his office.
“It happened again,” said Skip. “The thing disintegrated.”
Barb studied the computer screen. She pointed to it with a red polished nail. “But it happened a distance away from the target. It’s possible that he didn’t see it.”
“All the same, he has to be getting suspicious. I think we should abort.”
“There is only one more test, Skip. I think we should complete the project. We will have more data to study.”
“The unit is defective, Barb. Someone jostled the hologram in the crowd and it disappeared again.
Hours passed as the two discussed and argued. A low beep from the computer caught their attention. Barb again pointed at the screen.
“The target is on the move,” she said.
“He has gotten off work, Barb. Let’s see what he does next.”
The two watched as the screen shifted, matching Carl’s movements as he went to the parking garage and got in his car.
“Look, he’s going into the strip mall that Zueller’s Electronics is in.”
Skip watched as Carl’s car parked and the blip that marked the location of Carl Lutz advanced into the electronics store. A half hour later the credit card account indicated that, he had indeed purchased the electronic game.
“Fabulous,” said Skip as he and Barb exchanged high fives.
“One more test, Skip, and we bring it in. I cannot wait to show Randy the report. We are three for three.”
“Wait, he is going into another store in the mall.”
“H’mm that is Nature’s Way. He has never gone in there before.”
“It might be another account,” said Barb.
About twenty minutes later, the credit card account indicated another sale.
“I hate stores that use abbreviations instead of the full name of the item,” said Barb. “What the hell id BF NT3600?”
“I don’t know,” said Skip. “When the test is done we can go on their web site and look it up. There is a stock number there too.”
“It looks like the target is going home now,” said Barb. “I say we call it a night.”
“Righto, Barb. I am tired. I will complete this preliminary report Randy asked for and we can go.”
Barb powered the computers down and Skip flipped off the lights. They both eagerly anticipated the results of the final test. Skip laid the preliminary report on Randy’s desk as the two walked out into the night.
As he walked down the street towards his office, Carl got many a strange glance from passersby. Indeed, he did feel a bit foolish carrying a child’s toy under his arm. He wanted to be at the ready if someone accosted him again.
A young lady soon came alongside him as he walked. She glanced at him and smiled.
“Your anniversary is next week,” she said.
Carl glanced at her and said, “How would you know that?”
“I am Cindy, a friend of Catkin’s. She said you always forget. I just wanted to remind you.”
“Well you did and I already have something.”
“The lingerie?” She said, and then added when Carl glanced at her, “We talked last night. She will love it I am sure, but that is really for you. You want to get her something nice.
“And I suppose you have something in mind,” said Carl, suspicion darting across his mind.
“Truin’s Jewelry is having a sensational sale,” Cindy said.
“I suppose they are,” said Carl. He pulled the butterfly net from under his arm and brought it down over Cindy’s head. The woman flickered at the touch of the net, then faded and exploded into a million shards of light. Carl looked at the small silver craft now nestled in the folds of the net. He had it. Now what should he do with it?
“We lost it, Barb. What happened?”
“I don’t know. If it crashed for some reason the safety switch would have shut it off.”
“What do we do now?”
“We know where it was when it disappeared from the monitor. I say we go look for it.”
“Let’s grab our coats and go,” said Skip.
Carl examined the small craft. He found an inscription on the side that read, “Property of Merth Marketing Company.”
Carl smiled. He knew just what to do.
Barb and Skip, after performing an exhaustive search of the area the craft was last known to be, returned to their office empty handed.
As they walked by Randy Swinn’s office, he called out to them from the open door.
“Skip, Barb, you are the ones I have been wanting to talk to. Come on in.”
They entered. A decanter of wine and three glasses stood in the center of his desk. “Do you like wine,” Randy asked.
Both Skip and Barb nodded. Randy poured the glasses full and indicated that they should drink up.
As Skip sipped his wine, he asked, “What’s the occasion?”
“I have been going over the preliminary report you handed in yesterday on this new project. It seems that it really has been going well.”
Barb and Skip nodded. “Yes it is, Randy. It is quite successful so far.”
“Um, I have been thinking about this. This little project of yours beckons the dawn of a new day in advertising. It is a new day that I know very little about.”
“I am sure you could learn, sir,” said Barb.
“No, I am getting to the age where it would be too much. I am now a dinosaur in my own company.”
“No you aren’t, sir,” said Skip. “Your experience is needed.”
“No, Skip, my experience doesn’t mean anything anymore. It is a new day with new ways of reaching customers. You two, on the other hand, are ripe with ideas and are fully knowledgeable about this new technology.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Barb as she wondered where all of this was going.
“That is why I have decided to turn the company over to you two.”
“What? I don’t think I understand, sir,” said Skip.
“I am handing over all operations to you two,” said Randy. He thrust a paper across the table. “Just sign it and you two are the two new owners of Merth Marketing.”
“What about you, sir?” Barb’s eyes flickered from the paper in front of them and to Randy’s impassive face.
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I have received adequate compensation. When you sign you can have my office.”
Skip picked up the pen and scanned the paper. He signed and dated it and slid it over in front of Barb who followed his lead.”
Randy held his glass of wine out. “I propose a toast to the new owners of Merth Marketing.”
Barb and Skip clinked their glasses with his and all took a drink.
Randy then opened his drawer and took out an envelope. He slid it across the table.
Skip glanced at it. The letter was addressed simply to the owner or owners of Swinn Marketing and had a local law firm on the return address.
Skip picked it up and asked, “What is that?”
“Oh, that is a lawsuit directed at the owners of this company by a man named Carl Lutz. It is for over 100 million dollars.”
Barb jumped up. “A lawsuit?” She grabbed at the paper that Randy swept away.
“I will fax this to my lawyer immediately. By the way, one of the provisions of this agreement absolves me of all legal obligations due to creditors, lawsuits and other claims. It also pays me a severance package of one hundred million dollars. That is all the cash assets of the company.”
Skip jumped up and shouted, “You can’t do that.”
“I just did,” said Randy. He pushed a button on his phone. “That directed my lawyer that the transaction is now complete and he has cashed a cashiers check and deposited it in my account.”
“We will fight this,” said Barbara.
“Good luck,” said Randy. He glanced at his phone. “If I hurry, I can just make my flight to Cancun with Sarah.”
He glanced at his two former employees. “Good luck, you two. I am off.”
Randy strode out the door.
As he walked down the hallway towards the street, he was glad of the luck that guided this Carl Lutz to the same lawyer that Randy used and that this lawyer was an old high school friend. The contracts were all ironclad. He was free and those two were left to hold the bag of crap they had filled.
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