Clutter filled the cramped room; obsolete electronic gizmos, computer gear, among piles of boxes that had been patched far too many times. There was so much of it that little paths had been cleared to get to the kitchen and bedroom areas of the tiny compartment, while a sole cobweb-swept overhead fan struggled to stir the musty air but mostly succeeded in just moving the dust around. That was not the only reason the room seemed cramped.
Standing among, sitting or perched on the piles of junk were a number of female display figures, window mannequins, and dress forms. Some were naked and bald, others missing fingers or limbs. Most of the still, posed, figures were in good condition and a majority were clothed, after a fashion. Ranging from attractive business or casual attire with fitted blouses, short skirts, hose, and high-heeled shoes or leather boots to very skimpy party dresses, sexy revealing lingerie, bodysuits, or transparent robes, the costumes had carefully been chosen to flatter -- and be flattered by -- the elegant mannequins that displayed them.
Hunched over the only working computer system was the room's sole active inhabitant, an intense-looking fellow who did not seem to get out very often. Slouched at the screen in a dust-streaked T-shirt and faded jeans, he peered intently through smudged glasses at the images being displayed as his fingers flew in the air, sketching patterns, words and numbers in empty space. Every few seconds he would bark a command in crisp graffittalk. Totally focused on the display, he watched and continued to play his bids as the online auction wound down to its final tense instants. There was a moment of suspense, waiting for the final refresh, then a shouted "Damn!" as the results came back. "Lost for that skank in Lunopolis again," he protested to his motionless audience, mentally chastising himself for being just a microsecond too slow. This time. There would be other times.
Looking up, he glanced over at a slim blonde in a silvery micro dress who he'd always thought resembled a bygone movie star as he gave her the bad news. "Grots, Cameron, almost snagged your sister today." The lovely mannequin was impassive, as always, staring glassily into the distance. "Ya two gonna be smashing, together again. Ya sure be lika that," he concluded, not caring that she would never answer him or that he had given a name to a shapely assemblage of fibreglas and plastic. People named their speeders, didn't they?
His eyes caught another unmoving effigy, this one a trim olive-skinned brunette dressed in the latest officewear tunic-and-leggings style, posed near the entryway. Suppressing a smile, he wound his way around the piles to approach the stock-still figure from behind. "Hmm, wonder what I was thinking on this one," he said softly as he shifted the position of the arms to a more dramatic stance. "Gonzo; much better, though duds gone dullside for sure." Facing the still figure, he watched her lovely face closely while starting to undo the front closure. She was shapely enough to be wearing a jumpsuit at least.
Suddenly, her frozen features broke into a broad grin and the girl chuckled as she relaxed from her pose. "Chill It!" she pleaded. "So tickles."
"Hai, wanta see ya in something mega tractive, like more skin - less cloth…" he laughed.
"We don't have time for that, now. I have to get to work," she said, her smile fading, as she clasped the front of her tunic again and picked up the shoulderbag from the floor. As much as she wanted to skip today, the account balance had made the choice for her instead. Online auctions alone hadn't supplied the rent, again.
"Don't overtime tonight, though?" he asked. "There gonna be a nice gown here for your modeling. Very turn-of-century. Ordering out dinner so we have more time, ya know?" He smiled in anticipation; after all, the mannequin modeling she always did was only the first act of the evening and the night.
"All right, I can dig out early. You want me to get my hair done, too?" She was looking forward to their unusual foreplay as much as he was; the thought of wearing period clothes excited her in ways difficult to rationalize as something normal. But being 'normal' didn't interest her. Oddly enough, their individual quirks seemed to complement each other's.
"Not this time; found a golden tress that you be looking great in. Just like all fairytale princess!"
"See you in a few, then," she concluded, with a quick peck on his cheek. Then turning and leaving before he had any more diversions, she let the door cycle end the conversation for her.
On the interior side, he closed his eyes and sighed, wishing silently for the time to fly past.
There was a metallic chime from behind a pile of boxes packing fluff; his attitude switched instantly from gloom to delight. An incoming shipment always had that effect on the reclusive entrepreneur; the prospect of a new opportunity or a neglected treasure was something to look forward to. A high point in an otherwise tedious and already disappointing day.
Today's delivery brought a two-meter long rectangular box and a book-sized package wrapped in the golden mylar that meant it had come from offworld. Pulling them both inside, he left what was certainly another display figure for later and concentrated on the smaller one, clearing off a space on the workstation for it. Checking the shipping label, he saw the sender hadn't left a return addy. Risky. But then, not everyone in this business was on the up and up.
Inside, packed in moulded foam instead of the usual fluff or airbags, was his latest acquisition. It glistened in the lights, every bit as unspoiled and precious as it had looked on the offersite. "Prima, maravilloso!" he exulted, picking it up eagerly, feeling the weight and cool smoothness of the object. It felt genuine, not some kitschy reproduction or prop for an entertainment. Every switch, button, and display panel was exactly as he recalled from that long-ago newscreed that had launched him on a quest to find it.
That quest was almost over; he could hardly wait to try the device out.
Off to one side, in a grouping all their own, were three display figures too striking to be labeled with the routine tag of 'mannequin' or 'window dummy'. They were more like life-cast reproductions or the old-time waxworks in their level of accuracy and fine detail, including shading around their nipples and precise anatomic form to what normally would be a featureless void between their legs. The fact there were no joints either led him to believe these figures were actual artworks and not mere display dummies. They had come as a trio, billed in the auction screed as "artist's models".
Up until he came across the news article, he hadn't thought any more about the gorgeous mannequins or their history prior to showing up in his delivery chute. He appreciated them for their beauty, expressions, and poses, making sure their costumes provided some trace of modesty, lest his girlfriend take notice and start asking pointed questions he could not hope to answer. Until now.
The trio of lovelies were all about the same age, body type, and height. Willowy and long-legged in the standard of attractiveness at the time they had been created, each of the three had different faces, figures, and hair color. Therefore, it was not just one model that had posed for the artist in various ways and been sculpted, but three unique models instead. Another interesting factoid that had become key as the mystery unfolded.
His favorite had always been the redhead, the one he'd named "Tiffany". Both her sultry expression and dynamic stepping-out pose had made her especially alluring to him. She was clothed in what once had been called a slip-dress; a slinky wisp of silky fabric that clung to her figure but barely stretched to upper-thigh of her shapely legs. Her feet were typically angled to wear three-inch high heels; he had found a pair in perfect condition in a color that went well with the dress. As with the majority of the costumes on the mannequins, his girlfriend had freeze-modeled this particular outfit beforehand. He fondly remembered how deliciously retro she had looked in it. However, Tiffany looked even more enticing in a mystifying way, as if somehow the clingy garment had been made to hug her curves personally.
Placing the figure apart from the others, in a somewhat clear location, took some effort. Tiffany's stiff body seemed heavier than most of the other mannequins he had acquired and the fact there were no separation joints was made all the more obvious when he had to maneuver her around the various obstacles without being able to change her stance. Like the other two, this figure could balance freestanding with the right footwear. A good thing, since there was no apparent socket for a support rod anywhere on her flawless body. Brushing the shoulder-length coppery hair from the figure's green eyes was an easy courtesy; he always tried to have his mannequins looking their best. Hoping against hope, he wondered if it would be repaid.
Standing well back, he took up the gizmo from the desk, aimed it at the mannequin, and pushed a button. There was a short electronic 'blip', but otherwise nothing. Trying another button likewise had no effect; neither did a third, though the tone of the 'blip' changed a little. Tiffany possessed infinite patience, but several minutes later, his was being quickly exhausted. Cursing the fact there wasn't any kind of reference guide for the gizmo's many buttons, he began to think that this might be another elaborate hoax. One that had just cost him a month's living expenses.
"Damn all!" he grumbled, throwing the cylindrical device down in frustration as he turned away. There was a different sort of 'eep'-ing sound that caught his attention; he turned back just in time to see the magic happen: Tiffany seemed to soften and then she took one step forward before pausing with a gasp.
"When are….Hey!" she blurted. It took her a few wide-eyed seconds to take in the confined surroundings and the other still occupants of the small room, then the strange man standing there. "What in holy hell just happened? Mac? This isn't funny!" Her slightly nasal voice had an odd accent to it; formal-sounding somehow. Old.
"Do not be frightened, Tiffany," he said carefully, trying for oldstyle phrasing before realizing the gaffe of using his name for her. He looked at the gizmo on the floor between them. "I can explain everything," he tried to soothe her, without believing it himself.
"Who are you?" she demanded, "And where is that asshole McIntyre that put you up to this?" She circled nervously, her bravado fading with every passing second.
"Dinna know anybody with that name, Miss, but I fail think he's around to bother you anymore. My tag is Ezra Waller; you call me 'Flink', everyone else does. What do you go by?"
She ignored the question, replacing it with one of her own. "Where am I, then?" Tiffany remained achingly lovely, even when angry and frightened.
"Greater Missoula Arcology. A new city in…"
"Montana, I know," she concluded, not letting him answer correctly. "So, how did I get here from North Jersey?"
"Um, that's be a little complicated. What was last thing you remember before you saw me?"
"I was posing for that smarmy lecher Mac, letting him try out a new flash setup. It fired, but the lights seemed to stay on for a long time; when they faded, I was here." She paused, then added "What's going on, really?" with the first quaver of fear in her voice.
"You have been 'sleeping' for a long time, without knowing," he simplified. "Until a few seconds ago, when I woke you up. With this…" he picked up the button-studded cylinder.
"That looks like the control for Mac's flash units. He did something to me, right? I don't remember any kind of sleep or dreams."
"Well, it was more like you were - uh - turned off. Your body immediately went into a kind of stasis, became very stiff and hard. Totally motionless. You looked like…" he paused to glance at the other display figures posed around the room "…like they do now."
"Oh, shit! You mean to say he turned me into… into a mannequin?"
"In a manner of speaking. Not only yourself, either," he added, passing her a hardcopy of the news item that had started it all. She glanced at the faded picture of herself frozen in the same stepping-forward stance along with several other models posed stiffly on low platforms, over the caption reading 'They're No Dummies'. The article described a local entrepreneur's creation of lifelike display figures by "a new technique". The remainder of the old clipping was incomplete, fading off into a jagged edge before getting into any useful details. One other object visible in the image was a cylindrical control held in the man's hand as he smiled into the camera. The same object that Flink now held.
"That's Jenny Quentini and Ramona Esta…something… Estabon next to me in the picture," she supplied, "But that guy isn't anybody I recognize. Maybe he was somebody Mac knew, a silent partner or something. You have more surprises for me?"
"No, not so far," he replied. "You know pretty much same by moi. What happened on this McIntyre chap, have no idea. Until you ana other two showed up online coupla months ago in an estate auction I figger zip's all anyone ever knew about what happened to you back aways. Nobody fersure knew you were alive inside those rigid bodies.
"Showed up on-line?" she repeated, sounding a little dazed, catching up. "You bought me?"
'Hai. Well, you weren't so - alive - at the time. Got three figures, together, by that sale. Should know, I collect and restore mannequins." He swept his hand around the room, taking in most of the posed figures along with the clutter.
"I… I need a cigarette," she trembled as reality finally started to sink in. Her eyes glanced around nervously, stopping on each still figure in turn, as she imagined herself being just as cold and stiff.
"Sorry, cigs aren't existing anymore. All went away, well, were outlawed some time ago. How about some mood pills? Audible tranquility?"
"Maybe a drink, instead. Booze is still legal, isn't it?"
"Sure is; the local voddy is decent to any," he suggested. She nodded and started to follow him. "Wait here while I grab - hot or cold?" He wasn't sure what she would think of the kitchenn.
"I'd rather stretch my legs…" she countered, then gasped when she saw him raise the control gizmo. "NO— don't!" she pleaded. "I've been a mannequin long enough, let me have a little freedom at least. You can freeze me anytime you want, after all…" She did have very nice legs to stretch.
He said nothing, then dropped the controller into a pocket. She followed placidly as he wound his way to the kitchenn and told it "two vods, rocks." The liquor appeared behind a panel a few seconds later. Handing one to her, he sipped while she drained hers in a few short gulps. After downing another, her nerves seemed to steady down and her confidence returned, along with a slight flush to her cheeks.
"I betcha you never though you'd be having this conversaysun," she said at last, with a flirty chuckle.
"No, not really," he admitted, "though have dreamed about same from time to time, I never believed that a mannequin could come to life…"
"You musta have hoped, though. When I started moving, you called me 'Tiffany'. Do all your mannequins have names?"
"Ah, yes; well, most of them. At least the ones I keep around. Over there are Cameron, and Luti, and Katarina. Sister figure to her I call Katy. Sitting onna box is Astrid, then Monique and…"
"And I looked like a 'Tiffany' to you?" she chimed in.
"Sorta; when dressing your figure, the pose reminds to a classical pop singer I saw on the net once.
"You dressed me?" For the first time, she looked down to see the slinky dress she had been walking around in, the pantyhose on her legs and the heels on her feet. "Isn't that being a little naughty?"
"Well, I suppose. You weren't, ah…'
"…so alive at the time?" she finished the sentence for him; he smiled. "Nothing to worry about; in the modeling biz you're used to having people fuss over your appearance. Though not quite in this way, of course. Most of the guys are gay and the stylists want to feel you up instead."
He looked puzzled, then asked. "Gay? Meaning carefree? Old words are strange."
"No, 'gay' as meaning 'homosexual'. You know, guys loving guys and such?"
"Ah! Clear now — unisexers. Hai." He blushed slightly. "Not liking – ah sorry – you don't want to be touched by me?"
"I didn't mean that, really. I'm OK, it's just that being a mannequin takes some getting used to. Besides, I sorta like what you picked out for me." She pranced around the small space as if in a runway show, showing all sides of the dress and at the same time showing off herself to him, the same way his girlfriend usually did.
"You were – magnificent – when you arrived, gonzo naked of course; I didn't want to cover you up too much. Along with the other two, you already looked almost alive."
"For good reason," she nodded with a wry smile. "Where did you put these 'others' you mentioned?"
"They be over there." He led her back through the maze to the small display grouping that up until recently she had been a part of. The blonde in the cut-off T-shirt with orange hot pants and the dark-haired one in lacy lingerie stood to either side of a gap where Tiffany had been posed before.
She followed like a kid at Christmas; her eyes lit up when she saw the two other realistic mannequins. "Oh, Jenny, I can't believe Mac suckered you in, too, but I'm glad you're here!" she grinned at the blonde as she hugged her stiffened body. "Girl, are you going to be surprised when you wake up!"
Walking around the impassive figure, she taunted her statuesque cohort. "Always going on about your big plans of moving out West, becoming a movie superstar. The only premiere you've likely ever attended was the unveiling of the latest window display that you were part of."
Glancing at other still model, she admitted to Flink "I don't know her, though; she isn't one of the regular girls I used to pose with." She was looking over the third mannequin closely, touching the hard skin and smooth complexion. "I wonder what her story is? Can you wake them both up?"
"Um, well, not sure that's a good idea right yet," he hedged. "As strange as this all sounds for you, it will be double weird to the authorities, ifn they hear where you came from. All going to ask a lot of questions and I doubt they will believe the truth. It's just so fantastic; hardly believe it myself. Besides, they stay de-animated for mega while. Time doesn't pass, you know that. A few more days, or weeks, isn't going to make a big difference to them…"
'That's easy for you to say," she bristled, "you haven't been standing around like a window dummy for who knows how long…"
"Century or more, fershure," he said nonchalantly. "Newscreed was from early twenty-hundred."
She gasped as if gut-punched and seemed to sag. "Oh, crap; you said no more surprises, and that's a doozie. It's really been that long? So, everyone I knew before is dead; dead and gone…" Her composure cracked and she sobbed at last. "I'm all alone? Forgotten?"
"Past the moment you were de-animated… hai. May be some old pictures on the net, from displays with you in window. Cop history of missing persons case, also memorial services. After that, you vanished, as much they knew. Now you alive again, but do not exist anywhere. Like a ghost…"
"You're not helping to make this any easier…" she moaned.
"Truth is not always easy to take. The past is the past; you never going to get that back. Look forward, rather. See the good things. You still young, healthy, and gonzo beautiful."
"Yea, right. I'm sure everyone is gorgeous like a movie star now. Besides, I know nothing about this place and my only skill, besides being tricked into becoming a mannequin, is a clerk-typist. Probably not much of a call for that these days, is there?" she whined, turning maudlin.
"Dammit, what's 'hai' mean anyway? Sometimes I can barely understand you!"
"Sorry. Trying – er, I am trying – to use oldtime speech better. 'Hai' means 'yes'; is easy to say."
"Hai," she replied, her mood lightening again. "What do you do for a living, anyway, in this brave new world?"
"Buy stuff; sell stuff. Tinker some — ah, fix things up. Mostly mannequins and other collectibles. Since bodymods, not any need to display clothing. Folk just order online and all comes in the chute."
"And the clothes? I don't see many spacesuits around, and I'm sure that 'Headlights' waitress outfit you dressed Jenny in isn't present day either."
"The Plexus Provides," Flink quoted, looking at the long-legged blonde and remembering how he had to substitute white spike heeled shoes for the classic restaurant's trademark "tennis shoes" since her figure would not balance upright wearing anything else. "Have to say, some of outfits cost more than the mannequins. Lotta things are only collectibles, akin those fussy sheer leggings you wearing."
"Pantyhose. In the future, pantyhose don't exist anymore?"
"Not in future; now."
"Whatever. This is just too weird. I'm trapped like some kind of Rip Van Winkle, and the only people who might understand what's happened have become mannequins! If Rod Serling steps out from behind that pile of boxes, I am going to freak out big time."
"Doesn't matter; he's forgotten too. Another ghost." She turned back to the nearest stiff figure. "Maybe Jenny will know what is going on. Can you wake her up for me, pleeease??"
"Suppose so; no harm, really," he agreed, though he doubted that this second girl could help. Taking the control out of his tunic, he fiddled with the controls and found the same setting he thought was what had reanimated Tiffany. Pointing it at Crystal – the one she had called Jenny – he pressed the activation button. Nothing happened. He tried another combination, then a third. No effect.
Tiffany was now getting impatient while he fiddled. "What's taking you so long? Don't yo…." Her voice cut off mid-word; he looked up to see her stiffen once more. Crystal remained unaffected.
"Crap!" Flink griped, liking the sound of the ancient curse. A few minutes later, he had it figured out; there was a selector to pick which model the controls worked on. Tiffany turned out to be number five. He thumbed the reanimation sequence, then activated it.
"…ou… Huh! You did it, didn't you?" She turned back to face him.
"Did what?" He said with a hint of a grin.
"Froze me again. It didn't seem so strange this time, but had an odd feeling I was stuck."
"Getting the hang of this thing, kvach. No docco, ample wits. Watch now…" He pointed it at Crystal, pressed the button, and nothing happened. She wasn't on 'one'. A few tries later, he was rewarded by the shine of her skin fading and the resumption of her slow breathing. She remained in pose, however, with one hand at her hip and the other behind her head. Staring off into the distance.
"Psst, Jenny! You can relax now…" said Tiffany, stepping into the reanimated model's field of vision.
"Oh, wow, Shar! I didn't know they recruited you too," she bubbled vivaciously. "So, does Mac want us for a different display?" For the first time, she seemed to notice that things weren't quite as she had remembered. "Uhh, something's wrong. How did I end up in this bimbo getup? Where did all these other mannequins come from…"
"Ah, it's a long story, Jenny. Sit down, let Mr. Flink bring you a toot, and I'll tell you what I know."
A few minutes later, and two voddies onboard, Jenny was just as amazed as Tiffany – Sharon – had been, but less wound up about the consequences.
"This is the future, huh? Cool! Where's the flying cars, I always wanted to drive one of those? Do you have transporters, now, like on TV? Beam me up, Mr. Flink," she said to him giddily.
"Just Flink, please. Sorry, but no levitation or teleports. Some things always remain fictions."
"No biggie." Jenny turned to the other reanimated model. "Say, has he shown you around yet? There's hasta be something interesting to see, even without flying cars."
"Not yet, Jenny," replied Sharon. "You see, there's a little problem: We don't exist."
"Course we do, Shar," Jenny protested. Poking herself in one firm breast, she confirmed it. "Shee?"
"To authorities, you akin ghosts," Flink nodded. "Nix ID, in the brig it be," he repeated the slogan.
"How longzit take? Whatcha need?" Jenny seemed determined.
"That mega complicated, but are ways. Have to get fingerprints, retina scans, capacitance, and reprogram 'borrowed' credit chit. Weeks, maybe. Possible, fersure, just taking time."
"What are we going to do in the meantime?" Sharon demanded. "I'll go crazy cooped up in this broom closet."
Jenny chuckled. "Forgotten already what you've been doing the last hundred years or so?" She mimed a mannequin-like pose for a second to make her point; Sharon seemed surprised. Jenny continued "Have Flink zap us again. The time will pass in the blink of an eye. Or, not the blinking of an eye, I guess. Aye?"
"Know how this works, now," he agreed, slightly eagerly, touching the controls. "Ready?"
"Notso fast!" Jenny protested before Sharon could. "Have no problem getting frozen again, but could you please give me something else to wear, at least? I refuse to spend another instant looking like some cheap floozie from a ghetto streetcorner." Jenny was so adamant it was all Flink could do not to laugh. Besides, he was trying to understand all the old words the flustered model was throwing at him.
"Course you can; anything you want," he allowed, then gaped.
Jenny, true to her word, was already wriggling out of the tight shorts and had already un-knotted the bottom of the tee. As accustomed as he was to seeing his motionless ladies naked, seeing one live was a different story. She was down to her sheer half-bra and thong panties now, but had not taken off her shoes or the shiny suntan hose.
"Why not pose in those?" Flink suggested, fingers hovering on the controls. "Many on display in only lingerie. I can surprise you later with a gown, not ready yet."
"Sure! Let's do it. I want to do a sitting pose though, have been standing too many years already." Promptly planting herself on a dusty box that was about table-height, Jenny crossed her legs in a very seductive manner, then looked up while arranging her arms and hands in a flattering fashion but away from her body so she could be dressed fully later on. Clearly she had more experience in posing still.
"OK?" Flink asked as he keyed in the de-animation sequence. She gave the slightest of nods, then looked out into the distance and began to smile just as her body stiffened into position and her skin took on the hard sheen of the mannequin that she had again become.
They both looked at Jenny for a moment, taking in the beauty of her posture. Sharon spoke first.
"So, Mister Flink, what do you want to do with me, since I'm one of your 'collectibles' too?"
"Just Flink; no 'mister'.
I don't really know. Of course you can help explain all this craziness if
you stay active for the time, but I'm not sure what my girlfriend will think,
"Girrlfriend? Which one of your collection of display dummies is her?" she said, suddenly catty.
"None of them; she at work now, not in a window either, will be back in a couple hours or so. Maybe sooner…" he trailed off as their earlier conversation at the doorway came back, along with promises of an interesting night ahead.
"You have a real girlfriend. Great!" she said sarcastically, seeing one more possibility vanish into what would certainly become a rivalry. "So, what does she think of all your frozen friends, here?" She swept her arm around the room, indicating the tableaux of mannequins posed everywhere.
"She understands, and sometimes plays along as part of my collection," he replied, not knowing why he was being so open with this brash young woman from the past. "Lets me dress her, pose her while she freeze-models. Every outfit here she has displayed for me. Even one you have on."
"Sounds like your absolute dream girl…"
"In a way; we like what each other wants to do. Kinky, yet flexible."
"I'm flexible," she said, swaying as she approached to emphasize her suppleness. "Very flexible; when was the last time you made love to an honest-to-goodness mannequin?" She pressed against his chest, letting her lithe body continue the persuasion. "Or made it a threesome?"
He stepped back. "But, you aren't a mannequin anymore.' He fingered the controller gizmo in his pocket, seeking out the buttons by feel. Glancing up with a smile, Flink said "But you could be."
She started to take a step towards him, one arm raised in alarm. "No… wait," she appealed.
There was a 'blip' sound, and her features froze in position, along with her supple body. There was a subtle change as her skin hardened and it took on more of a sheen, like painted fibreglas. Seconds later it was over and she was once again a motionless display figure.
"Now you wait," he said wryly, though he knew she was beyond hearing him. "Let's just take things a little more slowly." She didn't disagree as he repositioned her in the grouping next to her sitting friend, then smoothed her dress and brushed the hair out of her glassy eyes. "You know, I never even found out your full name!" She was eternally still once more; there would be a chance to ask her again, later.
Back at the console, he started a new search for 'lifelike artists models' and another for 'McIntyre New Jersey' along with the names he knew to see what would turn up as a result. Tiffany (he thought of her by her mannequin name again) would have to be very patient; he could be patient, too.
As could his girlfriend, once he showed her the new gizmo he had just learned to operate. She'd be absolutely speechless, he knew for sure. He punched up dinner and tried to remember where that formal gown was stashed. Suddenly, tonight was starting to look a lot more interesting.
The End (for now)