The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

The spiderbot crawled along the exterior wall of the Neurodyne building, undetected by human eyes due to its ability to camouflage itself. It moved very, very slowly so as not to create movement that could be detected by the dogs that guarded the Neurodyne campus. About the size of a small dog itself, the spiderbot was a saboteur. Once it got into the main building it would release a cache of one thousand smaller spiderbots that would infiltrate every part of the facility and spray every surface with an invisible coat of a genetically engineered virus. The virus was a latent iteration of influenza, and would cause eighty percent of Neurodyne’s employees to call in sick over the course of the next few days, bringing operations to a virtual halt. The virus wasn’t considered fatal, although there was a margin of error of two percent, meaning there was a possibility that a Neurodyne employee could die.

Corporate sabotage was all well and good to Captain Asimov, but those odds were simply unacceptable.

Standing just beyond the perimeter of Neurodyne’s electrified security fence, undetected by the dogs and the spiderbot, Captain Asimov evaluated his options. Equally undetected by C.A., a camera-equipped flybot buzzed nearby. The flybot transmitted its video feed to a nearby transmission booster which uplinked with a satellite which downlinked with twenty million viewers worldwide who tuned in nightly for The Adventures of Captain Asimov, a half-hour program showcasing the exploits of the world’s only robot super-hero.

These twenty million viewers were all wondering the same thing: What was Captain Asimov going to do?

C.A., as people liked to call him to make themselves sound “in the know,” ran several options through his neutronic brain. The first idea, to pick up a rock and throw it with the incredible accuracy and velocity necessary to smash the spiderbot, was discarded. Knowing what the spiderbot contained, by virtue of an anonymous tip, C.A. calculated that as many of fifty percent of the miniature spiderbots within would survive the impact and be freed to do their dirty work.

C.A. was certainly capable of getting over the fence with his extendo-legs. But that would be trespassing. Trespassing would be breaking the law. And Captain Asimov did not break the law. At least, not very often and, usually, not intentionally. When he did break a law, he tried to make sure it was a minor infraction or a very obscure law.

Whenever possible, though, C.A. sought to avoid breaking any laws. In this particular instance, he revisited the concept of smashing the spiderbot with a rock, and determined that a large enough rock, or brick, thrown with enough force, could succeed in destroying the spiderbot and all its miniatures. One or two might survive, but that lowered the odds of someone actually dying from the flu to well within acceptable range.

These calculations took all of one second. C.A. scanned the area for a suitable projectile, and detected a chunk of concrete just below the surface of the well-manicured lawn outside of the Neurodyne fence. Wasting no time, C.A. dug into the ground and pulled up the concrete. He then hefted it, took aim, and let fly at the desired velocity.

Half a second later the concrete smashed into the spiderbot with a loud bang. The spiderbot flew into pieces. C.A. scanned the wall and ground around it, and was able to identify all one thousand mini-spiderbots as inactive. Once again, Captain Asimov had succeeded in protecting innocent humans from a malevolent robot.

The flybot had succeeded, too, in capturing on digital video the action as it had happened. C.A. fans all over the world rejoiced that their hero had done it again. They waited breathlessly for C.A. to utter his exit line.

“And now for something completely different!” he shouted into the darkness, before leaping into the sky and out of view.

Within moments viewer response registered disapproval of this exit line, ranking it next to last, just above one from a few months before: “Sayonara for nowa!”

* * * * *

Back at his secret headquarters in the robot repair garage, in his secret identity as a domestic servant ’bot, Jeevs, a.k.a. Captain Asimov, sat across from his owner, Gidge, and prepared to deal the cards for their nightly poker game. The others at the table were a refurbished Playmate Timmy, a homeless man who lived in a large cardboard box in the alley behind Gidge’s shop, and Gidge’s ne’er-do-well husband, Troy, on shore leave from his interplanetary cargo ship, the Space Oddity.

Jeevs shuffled, to Gidge’s delight. She loved the way he could shuffle the cards from one hand to the other across a good half meter of open air. Sometimes, when asked, Jeevs would use his extendo-arms and shuffle the cards across two or three meters. When he was finished, he dealt the cards. They were playing Texas Hold ’Em.

He laid the first card out in the middle of the table. The players all regarded it with suspicion while they regarded their own cards with stone-faced expressions. Well, except the Playmate Timmy, who had a permanent, happy-go-lucky smile programmed as his default expression. Gidge had found it impossible to reprogram that smile off a Playmate Timmy’s face.

Gidge went first, and slid her entire stack of chips.

“I’m all in,” she said.

The homeless man, whose name was Oliver, folded right away.

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

“Slim pickins today,” Oliver replied. “Never saw so many tight-fisted people walk by down at the park.”

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

“Ah, I saw on the news there was a Libertarian rally down there today,” Troy told him.

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

“Aren’t there any men at this table?” Gidge commented, as she collected her meager winnings.

“A man’s got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em,” Troy replied. “’sides, that’s an awful big stack of chips you done slid into the pot.”

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

“Never mind, Jeevs,” Gidge told him. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeevs said. He put the deck of cards away.

“What’s got into you, Gidge?” Troy asked.

Gidge shook her head.

“Who said anything’s got into me? I just lost interest, that’s all.”

“You lost interest in a poker game? You?” Now Troy shook his head, although he was smiling. “I won’t buy that for a dollar.”

“A woman’s p’rogative,” Gidge said, as she got up from the table. She walked through the shop to the garage.

“Where you goin’?” her husband called after her.

“Out,” she replied.

Troy looked around at the others, who sat quietly at the table.

“She ain’t been herself lately,” he said.

“How would you know?” Oliver asked him. “You been out in space for three years.”

“I know my Gidge,” Troy insisted. He looked at Jeevs. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Jeevs asked back. The question was sufficiently vague to slightly confuse his neutronic brain, which while being vastly superior to most binary-thought A.I. brains was still not nearly as complex as the human brain.

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

Again, the question was too vague. Of course, Gidge was Gidge, meaning that yes, Gidge had been herself because that’s who Gidge was, unless she happened to be living under an alias. But that wouldn’t change the fact that she was herself, it would only mean that she’d been passing herself off as somebody else. It wouldn’t change the fact of who she really was.

Troy sighed.

“I mean, has Gidge been acting strangely?” he asked.

As far as Jeevs understood it, Gidge’s behavior would be considered “strange” under the generally accepted definition of “strange” in the current sociological context, and had thus been considered “strange” for quite some time. Years, actually. Maybe even her entire life-time.

Troy could see that Jeevs was having trouble with this one, too.

“Has Gidge’s behavior deviated from what would be considered normal for Gidge within the last few weels?” he asked Jeevs, speaking very deliberately.

Jeevs considered the question for one third of a second before replying.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mommy’s acting weird,” the Playmate Timmy said.

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

“To your box?” Troy asked, cruelly amused.

“Good night,” the Playmate Timmy announced, and immediately shut itself off for the night.

Jeevs still had a lot to do around the shop: sweeping, mopping, oiling and replacing all the tools that Gidge had used throughout the day, folding the laundry once it finished drying, invoicing Gidge’s customers, watering the plants, cleaning the windows, replacing a burned-out light bulb, and cleaning the cat’s litter box.

“What do you do for fun?” Troy asked Jeevs, obviously being sarcastic.

“Chores,” Jeevs replied, without sarcasm (of which he was incapable). It was the truth, for Jeevs was programmed to like nothing better than to perform chore after chore after chore. Except for, of course, donning a mask and cape and saving humanity from robots gone awry, but that was a secret. More or less.

Oliver knew, but would never admit to knowing. And Gidge knew because she was the one who’d preserved that part of Jeevs’ mixed-up neutronic brain when she found him, wrecked and little more than a pile of junk robot parts, and put him back together again. Jeevs, otherwise known as Captain Asimov, was no Humpty Dumpty, however. He was a real-life super-hero. Gidge’s shop was his Bat Cave, his Fortress of Solitude (except he was never really alone there, and there were no bats).

Troy was totally unaware, of course. Gidge had not seen her husband for three years, and had hoped to not seem him ever again, truth be told. They were married for insurance purposes, that was all. As a small business owner, Gidge found insurance premiums too expensive. As a lesbian, even had she been able to find a compatible mate, she would be legally disenfranchised. So, she’d won Troy’s space ship in a poker match, and made a deal with him. If he would marry her and put her on his insurance, she would allow him to jointly own his space ship and to continue his livelihood.

Over the years, the two had grown both closer and farther apart, as couples are wont to do. He missed her while she hoped he would never return.

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

He made his way to the living quarters portion of Gidge’s shop, where she had Jeevs set up a cot for him.

Jeevs continued cleaning until Gidge came home. Right away, he could tell by her dilated pupils, slurred speech, and unsteadiness that she’d been drinking alcohol. Jeevs, knowing the drill, zapped a cup of instant coffee for her in the microwave. Gidge would not go to bed until she felt more or less sober.

“I’m a bad girl,” Gidge said as she sat the table, head in her hands, while Jeevs brought her the coffee.

“You are not a bad girl,” Jeevs responded, having learned that what Gidge wanted at moments like this was the assurances and verification of her self-worth.

Gidge laughed.

“Good ol’ Jeevs,” she said breathlessly. Jeevs put a consoling hand on her shoulder and used the opportunity to pin-prick her skin and take a tiny blood sample, with which he checked her blood/alcohol ratio. Point-oh-eight percent. She was drunk as a skunk, but not in danger of alcohol poisoning. Of course, Jeevs knew that “drunk as a skunk” was a metaphor. His neutronic brain gave him some capacity for fuzzy thinking, which allowed him to know a metaphor from a… well, a non-metaphor.

“You’re a good woman,” Jeevs said, stroking Gidge’s hair. He knew that within a couple of minutes of hair-stroking she would be fast asleep.

“You’ll find out the truth about me sooner or later,” Gidge said, her head slowly inching its way towards the table. “Sooner or later.” When her forehead touched the linoleum, she was out.

Jeevs cleaned up the coffee pot and got Gidge ready for bed. He brushed and flossed her teeth, undressed her and got her into her Captain Asimov pajamas, and carried her to bed, all without waking her. He’d gotten quite adept at that, in the four years of service he’d provided for her so far.

And four years as Captain Asimov.

Once Gidge was tucked in, Jeevs transformed himself into Captain Asimov for another night of super-heroics. On went the mask, a glittering silver Lycra one this time, and a bright, yellow, one hundred percent Polyester cape. With his secret identity thusly disguised (the mask covered his I.D. bar code, preventing it from being scanned, and his I.D. neuro-transmitter had been disconnected by Gidge… otherwise, Jeevs’ face looked pretty much just like any other domestic servant robot’s face) Captain Asimov climbed a ladder to the shop’s sun-roof, opened it, flipped up onto the roof, ran to the edge of the building and leaped into mid-air.

C.A. was on the scene. Evil-minded robots beware! Scanning the police band, C.A. knew he would soon learn of a new robotic menace in the city. He always did. And, sure enough, he caught the last portion of a transmission: …Playmate Timmy snatched a purse at the All-Mart on One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eighth street.

C.A. was only a few hundred blocks away, which he determined while still in mid-air. Looking up, he saw an All-Mart corporate helicopter that had just taken off from nearby All-Mart Airfield. Jeevs knew irony when he saw it, as he took aim and shot his chest-tether at the sleek craft before it rose high enough in the air to engage its jets. Within moments, however, the All-Mart chopper streaked through the sky towards the All-Mart on 1858th Street. In fact, the All-Mart was 1858th Street. It was so big it took up all sixty blocks of the East-West street. The jet-copter pulled C.A. through the air like the tail of kite. Luckily, the trip was short enough that the onboard A.I. for the jet-copter didn’t worry too much about the extra drag. When he reached the northeastern corner of the monstrous store, C.A. released the tether and fell onto the roof.

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

Around the world, the legions of C.A. fans tuned in to watch events as they unfolded on their favorite show. Would he find the purse-snatching Playmate Timmy and once again save the day from the diabolical machinations of errant machines? Of course, the answer was a resounding yes! Had C.A. ever failed to save the day? He hadn’t always succeeded one hundred percent, but he had never completely failed, either. That’s what made the TV show so engrossing. There was always the chance that C.A. might fumble the ball, so to speak.

Finding a convenient rooftop doorway, C.A. ripped it open without a second thought, causing a silent alarm to alert the All-Mart security team. But they were all huge fans of the show, falling squarely into the demographic that the show appealed to, so they knew it was C.A. and weren’t too concerned. In fact, and this was top-secret so the security team didn’t even know it, All-Mart had already contracted with the producers of the show to indemnify them against damages. The worldwide, positive exposure All-Mart would get would be worth sustaining some damage to one store. Any association with Captain Asimov would help to offset the negative exposure All-Mart usually got for its impact on local environments, and for driving supply prices so low that Third World manufacturers were forced to pay substandard wages. Such practices allowed All-Mart to crush Mom and Pop stores everywhere by selling specific items at far below their actual value.

Anyway, the point is that All-Mart welcomed the chance to have Captain Asimov do his thing in one of their stores.

C.A. made his way down a stairwell and entered the store in the Little Miss Clothing department. The hot trend for young girls these days was Western wear, so there were pink cowboy hats and rhinestones on everything.

“The suspect was last seen in the Electron Microscope department,” Captain Asimov heard via All-Mart’s security frequency.

Accessing a digital map of the mega-store, C.A. figured the Playmate Timmy would be heading towards the Playmate Timmy department, where it could easily hide among the new, yet-to-be-sold Playmate Timmy models. To human eyes they all looked the same, but C.A. would be able to detect the minutest wear and tear on a Playmate Timmy that had been out and about.

The quickest way to the Playmate Timmy department from the Little Miss Clothing department was via the Livestock department, where All-Mart sold cattle. C.A. made his way over the tops of the shelving units using his extendo-legs, until he reached the perimeter of the Livestock department, with its flashing neon sign: FRESHEST MEAT AROUND, YOU PICK ’EM, WE DO THE REST.

C.A. cut through the slaughterhouse, his servos allowing him to run across the slick concrete floor without slipping in the blood and guts, to emerge directly in front of the entrance to the Playmate Timmy section. But he was too late. He caught a glimpse of a Playmate Timmy ducking behind a veritable Playmate Timmy army… and they all looked exactly the same.

C.A. tapped into the All-Mart’s video surveillance system, and in no time found the rogue Playmate Timmy. It was the only one with a purse strap across its shoulder. The security system gave the Playmate Timmy’s exact location. C.A. turned to find a shelf of replacement Playmate Timmy heads. He grabbed one, hefting it in his hands to determine the exact weight and shape. In less than a second C.A. calculated a trajectory, then tossed the head into the air. It arched over the Playmate Timmy section gracefully to slam into the rogue Playmate Timmy’s head in exactly the right spot, and with exactly the correct amount of force, to knock its neutronic brain chip loose without knocking the Playmate Timmy itself over and creating a domino effect.

C.A. then used his extendo-legs to step over the Playmate Timmy rows and columns to find the errant one, and hauled it back into the main aisle, along with the purse. The Playmate Timmy struggled to get free, but to no avail. Now, C.A. would scan the Playmate Timmy’s identity chip to find out who owned it. Either the Playmate Timmy had been stolen, and reprogrammed to snatch purses, or the owner had done it. Either way, whoever was behind it would face more than a simple theft charge. Reprogramming a robot to commit illegal acts was a serious crime.

So, C.A. scanned the identity chip, and found out that the owner was none other than… Gidge. Gidge! Gidge, who had retrieved a broken and battered C.A. from a dark alley all those years ago, who had rebuilt him and left his alter ego in place, even while realizing that Captain Asimov was the result of a glitch, a hiccup, short circuit if you will, in Jeevs’ neutronic brain.

C.A. suffered a momentary disconnect in his neutronic brain. Gidge had reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to steal purses? She’d reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to play poker; indeed, the Playmate Timmy that C.A. now held firmly in his grasp was the very one that had sat across from him at Gidge’s poker table. There was no way around it: this Playmate Timmy’s chubby little fingers, the same ones that gripped the stolen purse, pointed to Gidge.

Normally, C.A. would simply relay this information to the authorities who would “take it from here,” as their catch phrase had become on the reality show. But this wasn’t “normally”, although the authorities were on their way and would arrive at the All-Mart in five minutes, and it would take them another twenty minutes to make their way from the All-Mart entrance to where C.A. now held the Playmate Timmy.

C.A. knew he couldn’t simply forget to mention that Gidge was this Playmate Timmy’s Gepetto. That would be aiding and abetting, and that would be a crime. Normally, one would suggest that he do what came naturally, but that doesn’t apply to a robot or an Artificial Intelligence, not yet at any rate.

In a way, though, somehow Captain Asimov did just that. He disabled the Playmate Timmy by removing its inferior brain chip, and then left it there for the police to recover. They would discover that Gidge owned it. While they were doing that, C.A. would zoom back to Gidge and confront her.

C.A. arrived at Gidge’s shop, but he did not change back into just plain ol’ Jeevs. He remained Captain Asimov. Gidge was busy working, although C.A. could tell she wasn’t quite sober by the way she moved slowly, deliberately. When she looked up from her work, repairing a Nannybot, and saw C.A. instead of Jeevs, her expression made it clear to C.A. that she knew what had happened.

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

“They’ll be here soon, though,” C.A. told her.

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

“But I had to come here first,” C.A. continued. “I needed to… speak to you. To ask you something.”

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

“No, I was still asking the first why,” C.A. clarified. “Why did you program the Playmate Timmy to steal purses?”

“Ah, well, that,” Gidge replied. “I didn’t program it to steal purses. Just to steal that one purse.”

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

The Adventures of Captain Asimov,” Gidge told him. “I signed a two-season deal for us. For you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money made it seem like a good idea, anyways.”

C.A. processed this. It explained a lot, in retrospect. It explained the insect cameras and the weekly crimes that happened almost as if they’d been scheduled. And, of course, they had. Which meant it was all fake. Did that mean the Playmate Timmy hadn’t really broken the law? If so, that meant Gidge was innocent.

Or did it? A reality show was about reality, wasn’t it? Which had to mean everything that happened on a reality show was real. Which meant the Playmate Timmy really had broken the law, and so had Gidge.

“I couldn’t keep doing it,” Gidge told C.A. “I felt guilty. I had to put a stop to it. So I engineered the Playmate Timmy crime to get caught. Then I wondered why I felt guilty. You’re just a robot, after all, aren’t you?”

C.A. didn’t respond. The answer was obvious, after all.

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

“What did you have to know?” C.A. asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, you have to tell me something.”

C.A. waited for Gidge to tell him what it was she wanted him to tell her. He could determine by her expression, and the tone of her voice, and her body language, that she was afraid to say whatever it was she was about to say. But she did say it.

“Why did you come here as Captain Asimov?” she asked.

“As Captain Asimov, I’m here to tell you that you’re under arrest for breaking the law,” C.A. boldly stated.

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

“Jeevs… I mean, Captain Asimov, it’s me, Gidge.”

“I know who you are.”

“And you’re still going to let them… arrest me?”

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

“That’s what I had to know,” she told him.

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

“I had to know if you felt anything for me.”

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

“I know A.I. isn’t about… feelings… emotions,” Gidge said. “But we’ve been through so much together, and you’ve become such a big star, I wanted to know if the… connection I felt for you was real, or not.”

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

“Don’t you see? I love you, Captain Asimov. You’re my family.”

Like any advanced A.I. Captain Asimov was aware that people developed emotional attachments, or even dislikes, towards things, including robots. But that was considered normal for humans.

Gidge sighed.

She raised her right hand, in which she held a remote control device. C.A. recognized it. Gidge used it to, as she put it, “fry” the neutronic brain of robots that got out of control in her shop.

“I’m sorry,” Gidge said. “But when I press this button, Captain Asimov will cease to exist.”

She pressed the button.

C.A.’s neutronic brain buzzed for a few seconds, and the robot froze. Gidge walked up to him and took off his mask.

“Jeevs,” she said. “Jeevs, there’s work to do.”

“Yes, Gidge,” Jeevs replied happily, for ‘work to do’ meant the equivalent of a pleasant way to spend a day, to which Jeevs was programmed to respond with enthusiasm.

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

“You’ll have a new owner at five o’clock this afternoon. I sold you to Oliver.” She laughed. “Turns out he’s had thousands just buried in the park.”

Jeevs processed this new information. Somewhere, deep inside his neutronic brain, he wondered… why? Why had Gidge sold him? But it never occurred to him to ask.

“Anyway,” Gidge continued, “I’m leaving… for good. Not that I need to tell you why, but I guess a husband and wife ought to at least try to make a life together, even if it is on his rickety old spaceship.”

“Gidge,” Jeevs said, and for a very brief moment, perhaps a couple of nanoseconds, Jeevs intended to ask her what was missing from his memory, for his internal diagnostics did indeed inform him that something was missing… but it couldn’t tell him just what that something was. Furthermore, his internal diagnostics informed him that, otherwise, he was in perfect working condition.

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

“Clean the place up. I sold the ship, too. The new owners take possession tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Jeevs.”

“Goodbye, Gidge,” Jeevs replied, and then went to work.

 

This Memory of Happiness

This Memory of Happiness

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by C.J. Henderson

 

“At Christmas play and make good cheer,
for Christmas comes but once a year.”
–Thomas Tusser

The slithering darkness formed slowly, patiently—as it did every cycle at that time. The days growing shorter certainly contributed to its increasing progress, as did the planet’s ever-expanding distance from the star around which it generated its orbit. Less sunlight to burn the growing seed, less of the noxious radiations spewed by the miserable, fourth-rate sun around which it twirled to hinder the steady progress.

Atom by atom it formed, carefully finding the bonding pairs it desired, using the terrible Arctic cold to help it attract the electrons it needed. Bending the surrounding elements to create itself anew. Slowly, patiently.

Bit by bit.

Every cycle, another attempt. Every completed circling by the miserable, insignificant dirtball of its gravitational center gave the visitor another chance. Of course, it was not as if the darkness minded the waiting—the repetition. Indeed, it possessed no actual concept of haste, no understanding of urgency. It did not scramble to accelerate its arrival. Such was impossible, impractical—worthless. It would expand as it expanded, a handful of particles at a time. Such was all that it knew.

During the comforting shelter of night, when the world’s inhabitants drowsed, shutting down the infernal chatter of their minds, disconnecting from the ether, the devouring growth would rally forth and blossom all the greater. When the day broke and set their gibbering brains screeching endlessly at one another once more, it would retreat, its progress slowed to a crawl.

Seven hundred and nineteen times had it grown, only to be beaten back on the shortest day. Several times over the centuries it had been stopped with barely a struggle. Five, if it remembered correctly. Hundreds of times it had almost won through. It did not matter. The long dark was coming, and it would try again. How could it not? After all, once more an entire, delicious world, filled with life, awaited its arrival. In only a handful of rotations the planet would reach the outside of its orbit—the shortest day of its year. Darkness would last its longest.

And the moment of escape would come.

The slithering ebony form thought on that moment, feeling the world rotate beneath it, its roots grasping—drinking. Building it. Strengthening it. Forming it slowly, patiently—as they did every cycle at that time. As it waited for its moment.

The moment when it would devour everything, turning the place called Earth into a charred and barren cinder. Before it moved on, so it could do it again on some other world.

As it had so many thousands of times before.

* * * * *

Jason Fletcher stared at the ceiling of the room he had been given, ignoring the heat, barely noticing the sweat running down the sides of his head, pooling between his back and the bed beneath it.

“Why me?” he asked the empty chamber, knowing the answer. He knew “why” him. The man who had come to him had told him exactly “why” him.

“I want you to be Santa Claus.”

Jason remembered the moment clearly, wishing he could not—laughing at the memory—terrified of it.

“What? You mean a job? What?”

He had stared, thinking as any reasonable person might that perhaps the fellow meant employment.

Yeah, sure, he thought, sighing with frustration as he did so. I guess I could play Santa Goddamned Claus.

He had let his hair go, after all. He needed a shave—and there was plenty of premature gray mixed in with the brown.

“But still, okay,” he told himself. “Yeah, maybe I let myself get overweight, but I haven’t turned into some jelly-bellied fat man.”

Still, as his self-pity tried to throw away another crumb of an opportunity, another part of his mind slapped at him brutally, screeching that a job, any kind of job, any handful of greasy, miserable dollars could be the difference between living and dying.

“Can you actually afford to just flush away another opportunity,” his brain hissed at him. “When was the last time one came our way? When was the last time anything came our way? Or do you just want to die?”

“Is that it—do you want to die?” another part of his mind had asked him then, snarling the question brutally, not surprised when he did not answer. Could not decide. “Do you actually want to die on Christmas?”

Jason wondered if he did. It would make things easier. In an instant, he watched his life flash before his eyes, witnessed in a moment the cavalcade of events which had blundered him to that second in time. Childhood and school and college, useless degree earned, career abandoned as his interest shifted to music, to rebuilding old instruments—

She had entered his life then, Melinda, encouraging him, pushing him, helping him build his business. Or, so he thought. Falling-down-in-love, he had worked feverishly, letting her take care of the financial end of things. He had thrown himself into his work for her. Had been willing to do so forever.

Forever had lasted eight months, two weeks and three days.

He had needed to purchase some varnish for a shipment of string instruments. If there had been thirty-seven dollars and eighty-six cents in his account he would have never known. But there had not been. She had taken it all, thousands—and left him with nothing. When he questioned her, she had not even bothered to deny anything. She had simply sighed, letting him know he had been fun for a while, and then walked out of his life.

Leaving him with nothing but a staggering pile of debt and a heart made numb. He had sat down on the floor and cried, and when his tears had ended, he had remained where he was, unable to move. The next day he discovered his rent had not been paid for three months, that Melinda had taken everything possible. He discovered this when the landlord had arrived with the police.

Jason had not struggled or protested. Silently, he had merely stood and left the apartment, not even bothering to gather up the loose change strewn across the dresser in his bedroom. Stumbling his way to the street, he had simply gone off to die, not caring when it happened.

As he sat in the alley, wondering on whether the effort to carry on was actually worth it or not, the man standing above him answered his question, saying;

“Well, it is a job, in a way. Not a job in the sense you’re thinking, though. No putting on a red suit, listening to children beg for crap they don’t really need, no suffering the greed of humanity as it reaches down to infect those who can barely speak—none of that. No, do understand me, sir, I didn’t say that I wanted you to play Santa Claus…”

He heard the words again, listened to them as they echoed within his head, slamming against the walls of his skull, seeming more absurd with each increasing ricochet—all of it so out of focus to him—especially being called sir

“I said I wanted you to be Santa Claus.”

“What…” Jason’s voice finally struggled itself upward out of his throat once more. Some vestige of pride swimming to his defense, he demanded, “what are ya, crazy? What’re you talking about? Don’t screw with me, wise guy. There is no Santa Claus. No one can be Santa Claus.”

“Funny,” the man had replied then, his voice sad, his eyes not looking directly at Jason, “it was only a few weeks ago when I would have said exactly the same thing. And probably with a great deal more conviction.”

Jason heard the sadness in the man’s voice, realized that for some reason, the fellow before him was feeling such not only for Jason, but for himself as well. Jason could understand the emotion being aimed at him. People had been pitying him for years. No one more so than himself. But, this time, something was different. Something about the resignation in the man’s voice which intrigued and frightened him at the same time.

“But, like you’re saying… now, something’s different. Now, for some reason… you believe in Santa Claus?”

“What I believe, my good sir, is that every year at this time, as the days grow shorter and the night sky stretches across the world to its greatest duration, that evil, that an unspeakable horror is given a chance to destroy all of us.”

Jason stared into the strong, deep blue of the man’s eyes, noticing the tiny lines of fear etching their way out of the corners. It was a look with which he was familiar. A look he had seen staring out of mirrors at him for years, until one day he lost his fear. Not because he had found his courage, but because he had run out of things of which to be afraid.

“My name is Piers Knight,” the man said quietly. “I’m a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and… I was chosen by… for lack of a better word at the moment… angels… to find you, and to convince you to fight for the salvation of the human race.”

Jason stared—out of words—unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. Understanding this, Knight had said;

“I know this must be unbelievable to you. All I’m asking is, please, let me… try to explain. It’s not much of an offer that I have for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you sent me on my way. But…”

Knight had stared down at him then, seated on the frozen cement there in the alley, wedged in between the garbage bags for warmth. With nothing of condescension or demeanment in his tone, his entire self radiating nothing but sympathy and a sense of commiseration, the man added;

“Why don’t you let me take you somewhere for a good meal? I mean, if we’re all going to die, we might as well do it with some level of contentment, eh?”

Agreeing that if he was going to die on Christmas after all, it might as well be with a full stomach, Jason forced his way up off the bitter ground of the alley, following the curator out into the already gathering darkness.

* * * * *

Oddly enough, Knight did not take Jason to an eatery close to the alley in downtown Brooklyn where he had found him, but instead bundled him into his car and drove him down along the coast of the borough almost the entire way to Coney Island. Getting off the Belt Parkway two exits before the landmark, he drove instead to a restaurant nearly as old as the amusement park, and more favorably regarded by those who lived in the area.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said the curator, passing a menu to Jason, “this is the best Italian place in Brooklyn. The entire city, really.”

Jason was willing to agree simply from the fact they had allowed him entry. Knight had given him his own overcoat, leaving his guest’s in the trunk of his car, to help curtail the man’s pungency. Jason had headed for the restroom as soon as they had entered. When he emerged, he had washed both his face and hands, his hair and his armpits, in the cramped men’s room. Knight did not comment, other than to recommend they split a platter of the restaurant’s fried calamari as an appetizer.

The pair ordered when their waiter came, and if Jason was still reeking anywhere near as badly as he had been previously, the older man taking their order gave no hint that such was the case. Unable to help himself, Jason grabbed up a large portion of bread from the complimentary basket when it arrived, unable to wait long enough to butter it, or even for his coffee to be delivered. Knight said nothing, waiting for his guest to speak. After he had devoured some six slices of Italian bread, Jason muttered;

“Okay, we got a few minutes, I guess. Why don’t you start talkin’? Tell me what you meant about ‘angels’ sendin’ you to find me. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

“The Bounteous Immortals,” said Knight quietly. “The story is that Ahura Mazda, an earlier version of God, historically speaking, created them to aid him against evil. It’s an old, old story. Most scholars believe they were the inspiration for Johnny-come-lately Christianity’s archangels.”

“Yeah, so… what’s that got to do with me?”

Knight tried to speak, then stopped, unable to continue. Staring at Jason, his mouth open, wordless, he lowered his head, not knowing how to proceed. His silence did not worry his guest. Nothing worried Jason anymore. Not really. Finally, though, his expression one which implied he had little faith in himself at that moment, the curator asked;

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ yes?” When Jason agreed that he had, Knight nodded, tight-lipped, then said;

“All right, fine. Here goes. Several weeks ago, I was visited by… I don’t exactly know what, really—a presence? A vision? Angels?” The curator considered for a moment, then said;

“A better word than some, I suppose. Now, do understand, I’m not referring to the winged, Nordic chaps we’re all so used to in paintings and the such, no. These were primitive things, white, but in the way the sun can appear white. I could not look directly at them. Had to shield my eyes…”

As the waiter returned with their coffee, Knight stopped speaking, gave the man a pleasant smile and then waited for him to move out of earshot before continuing once more.

“They took me from my home, but didn’t… I don’t know how to explain—I was in two places at once. Sitting in my favorite chair, and yet somehow in the Arctic at the same time. I was freezing, but I wasn’t. Snow blew against my face, melted against my shirt, I could feel the dampness, but wasn’t wet—”

Knight stopped talking once more, his eyes filling over with a sad confusion. He stared at Jason, desperate to explain himself without sounding like a lunatic, not only to his guest but to himself as well. Grabbing hold of his emotions, his body trembling, he finally whispered;

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how… I know I must sound utterly mad to you. But, it happened. And please, do believe me, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t drink to excess, I—”

“Forget it,” interrupted Jason, holding one hand up to slow the curator’s words. “Trust me, I know something of drunks. I know something about crazies, too, and… I kinda hate to admit it, but I’m beginnin’ to wish you were one. But… you ain’t. Are you?”

“No,” admitted Knight sadly, wishing he were lying. Wishing what he was trying so desperately to put into words were something he could dismiss as simple madness.

“They showed me something up at the North Pole. Something growing there. A darkness, a blackness, some thing… I don’t know what else to call it. It was developing like a plant, rooted deep into the ground, feeding not on the ice and water, but on the very atomic structure of the planet. But it wasn’t actually a plant—”

Again the pair were interrupted as the waiter brought their appetizers. The calamari, plentiful, delicately fried, the aroma of it hammering at Jason’s long diminished sensory organs, and a plate of mozzarella sticks, finely breaded, bursting with steaming cheese dribbling from their seams. Knight stared at the calamari in particular.

It was possible that Spumoni Gardens was his favorite restaurant in all of New York City. It was certain their fried calamari was his favorite dish. And yet, he could not bring himself to eat. He was too frightened, too agitated by the duty that had been set before him, which he was trying so desperately to perform. Indicating that Jason should eat, he took a drink from his water glass, appreciating its icy chill, then began again.

“It was a creature, a thing that travels from planet to planet. It drifts through space, looking for worlds to… ingest. It delights in places where it finds life. Intelligence. It seems to need to find places where life has developed to the point of consciousness. Because, that’s what it really lives on. Thought. Emotion. Souls.”

Jason’s hand slowed, then stopped, as Knight uttered his last word, the forkful of calamari frozen in space inches from his mouth. His slightly abated hunger still gnawing at him, his mind replayed the curator’s words in his head.

that’s what it really lives on… thought… emotion… souls

The words were no more impressive than anything else Knight had said, but it was the manner in which he said them, his tone, his obvious desire to not be speaking—to not be hearing what it was he had to say—which had immobilized Jason. Suddenly, with the most preposterous thing he had said, he had convinced Jason that at the very least he believed what he was saying.

“And how do you know all this, about this thing, I mean? That it’s from space and all?”

“The creatures that showed it to me, they don’t exist within the boundaries of this world, or don’t choose to, I’m not certain. They act as conduits. What they could see and understand, so too could I. They showed me what this thing is capable of, what it can do, if it’s allowed to complete its development and free itself from the Earth.”

Jason’s hand finally moved forward, shoveling the calamari into his mouth, as he chewed absently, not tasting, unaware he was actually eating, Knight said;

“Once it’s reached its full size, under cover of the longest night of the year, it begins to hatch. Four days later it will expand forth throughout the ether, touching each of us one after another, sucking away our consciousness, our souls. We will know we are dying, but be powerless to resist. We will all die screaming, terrified, like babies being slid into a meat grinder—not understanding the how or why of what is happening, only feeling the pain. Our pain, and the pain of all those around us—everyone’s pain. All of it merged as our world is stripped of life.” Knight paused for a moment, “The solstice was two nights ago, it emerges in less than two days. Christmas.”

Finally swallowing, Jason washed down his bite with a long gulp of coffee. Stabbing at the calamari, absently loading his fork once more, he asked;

“So, did these guys show you anything else?”

“Yes,” answered Knight, his tone of resignation sounding more hopeless than ever. “They showed me you.”

“What?”

“I can not tell you why the Bountiful do as they do,” answered the curator. “I don’t understand the, the science behind it, the reality of it… all I can say is, as I shared their minds, alien as they were, I received an idea that this is their… duty. Every year at this time, they pick two people. They have done this since this thing first crashed into the Earth hundreds of years ago. They pick one who they feel can stop this creature… and one they feel… can talk them into stopping it.”

“So that’s what you’re all about, you want me to… you think you can make me—” And then, finally a monstrous realization settled over Jason’s mind. Laughing a bit too loudly for polite company, he wiped at his eyes, choking slightly, then snapped;

“I just got this… I just got the whole picture here. This is nutty enough to have been dreamed up by Congress. This hell thing that’s supposedly eating the North Pole, that’s goin’ to make dinner outta all of us, you said they do this every year… that they find some con man like you to sucker some boob like me into fighting this thing—right?”

Knight nodded his head.

“And so, every year, the boob goes to the North Pole and fights this monster, and… and… and what? I don’t get it. You said this’s happened hundreds of times. It don’t make no sense. You said this thing, if it gets out it’ll kill everyone in the world—right?”
Knight nodded again.

“So, so… what are you tellin’ me? I mean, if it got beat hundreds of times, then it’s dead—right? How does… why does, I mean, how can it—”

Jason stared into space, his mind reeling, the various sections of it arguing amongst themselves so vocally he could not communicate. Part of him still could not even believe what he was being told. He knew he trusted Knight, knew the man across the table from him was not lying. Knew that at the very least, the curator believed every word he was saying.

Yes, it was possible Knight was insane, but Jason did not believe such was the case. As ludicrous as everything he was being told sounded, as fantastically ridiculous as the story was, something deep within Jason assured him he was not merely being told what another believed, but what was.

For a while, neither man spoke. Neither knew what to say. After a handful of minutes, their dinners arrived. When the waiter arrived with his tray, he looked at the barely touched appetizers, immediately asking if there were any complaints. Both men shook their heads, Knight muttering that they had shared some bad news and it had put them off their game. Joking that there was no way anyone could ignore the fare of the Gardens’ kitchen for long, he assured the waiter they would be cleaning their plates.

So saying, the curator picked up his fork and speared a mozzarella stick, dipping it in the small bowl of hot sauce which had been brought with it. Popping it into his mouth, he spoke as he chewed;

“Come on, let’s eat. Forget why we’re here. The food in this place is too good to waste. Tell me about yourself, Jason. We’ll get to the other stuff later. For now, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Numb from all he had accepted, Jason nodded, taking up his own fork once more. At that stage in his life, enjoying himself was almost a foreign concept. He was, however, he announced with a fair approximation of a grin, willing to give it a chance.

“What the hell,” he thought, already knowing the extent of the rest of his life, “what’ve I got to lose?”

* * * * *

Several hours later the pair found themselves in Knight’s brownstone home in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The curator had offered Jason a room, saying;

“If I’m insane, if I imagined all of this, it the gods are merely having sport with me, well then, bless all the tiny monkeys, so be it. You’ve got a place to stay for life. Welcome home.”

Knight had shown his guest to a bedroom, one with its own bathroom. Jason joked that the museum business must be a good one. It was an awkward comment, one which made neither of them laugh. Breaking the silence, the curator offered tactfully that since they were both tired, it might be best if they got some rest and waited to talk in the morning.

“After all,” he said, “it’s only the twenty-third. Nothing’s actually supposed to happen until Christmas—right?”

Jason had muttered some sort of agreement, then gone into his room and thrown himself on the bed. He did not bother to close the door. Having lived on the street for the past handful of months, the concept of privacy had become foreign to him. Stretched out in a comfort he barely understood anymore, he let his mind flow over all he had been asked to accept that evening. To merely catalogue the sheer enormity of it all took more time than he expected.

For more than seven hundred years, he was supposed to believe, some evil thing had repeatedly tried to grow large enough to destroy the world. Apparently it did not exist completely within our own plane of reality, meaning that humanity could not simply carpet bomb the Arctic and be done with it.

As Knight had explained it, the Bounteous Immortals, these angels, or whatever they were, considered this horror to be a test laid on humanity by their idea of God. Meaning they did not care one way or the other if mankind survived or ended up as entrees. Their only duty was to find someone to fight this thing, and then to find someone to talk them into it.

“Christ, like it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why,” he wondered, “why show Knight all this shit, and then have him try to get someone else to fight? If they want me to do it, why not show me?”

Maybe it had something to do with faith. But, even if he believed it all, even if he had the faith of ten men, what good would it do? This thing was supposed to be able to destroy the world, to suck the souls out of every living being. How was he supposed to fight something like that?

Of course, the Bountifuls had an answer for that, too. As Knight had explained it;

“They’ve been influencing events in the background of humanity for a long time apparently. Have you ever heard the fact that the historical figure of Jesus was actually born in the summer?” When Jason had assured the curate that he had, the man continued, telling him;

“Yes, well it seems that they exerted pressure from beyond on various church rulers to have them make the switch to coincide with the older pagan holiday that took place in late December so that the majority of humanity might be celebrating at the same time. In a cold, frightened, barbaric world, on its darkest day, if most of mankind’s functioning minds were filled with thoughts of joy, peace, good will, it gave them a weapon.”

“What?”

“When I was joined with their… essence… I could feel their plan. The joy of mankind at Christmas, the focus of children’s expectations on one individual, Santa Claus… it’s all been planned. As the creature has grown stronger, year by year, the idea of Christ’s birthday and revering gods has been allowed to fall by the wayside…

“But, the idea of Santa, however, has been enshrined. Millions, billions of people, thinking about St. Nick, not consciously believing in him, not really expecting a jolly elf to invade their home with gifts, but still, in the back of their minds, swirling with all the best parts of their childhoods, is this hope, this memory of happiness…”

Knight had stopped talking then, the struggle for words wearing him down. Besides, the entire idea was overwhelming him as well as his guest. It had been at that point the curator had shown Jason to his room, then gone off to his own.

Stretched out on his bed, still sweating, still staring off at nothing, Jason’s mind went numb, unable to find its way to any kind of conclusion. Yes, fine, he knew Knight believed in these angels, knew the man believed everything he had said. The curator had invited him into his home. Jason had lived long enough on the streets to know he was not being set up, not being deceived by his host. He also knew that Knight was not insane. No, he was frightened by what had been put before him, shocked and saddened and filled with pity for Jason—the man he had been tasked with sending off to his doom.

Which meant that it was true. That hell was being born at the North Pole, that some undying, unreasoning terror from another world had only another day to wait until it could murder all of humanity.

“And then it just jumps to another world and does it again.”

It was madness. As true as it must be, still it was insanity. The idea of Santa Claus, engineered to create a false happiness so angels could fuel a champion with love. Every year, Christmas grew by leaps and bounds, more chaos, more shrill, obnoxious spending, more glitter, more commercial damnation, because every year this unkillable monstrosity grew stronger, and more of humanity’s energy was needed to stop it.

“What does it even matter?” wondered Jason, his eyes closed, breathing rushed. “How many more years could we have? If this thing just gets stronger… nobody really cares about Christmas anymore… nobody cares about anything anymore.”

“I don’t believe that to be true.” As Jason looked up to find Knight standing in the hall beyond his doorway, the curator added;

“And I don’t think you believe so, either.”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself so over this.”

Swinging his feet off his bed, Jason pulled himself into a sitting position. Wiping at the sweat on his forehead, he looked up, then said;

“It doesn’t matter what I think… I can’t do this. These angels, they’re wrong—they’re nuts.”

“They seem to have a fairly decent track record so far.”

“It only takes one mistake.” Staring at the curator, his eyes unblinking, Jason shouted;

“A loser like me can’t do this. How am I supposed to be Santa Claus, loved by everyone?” Tears breaking from his eyes, he screeched;

“I couldn’t get even one person to love me!”

“Maybe,” responded Knight quietly, “the Bountifuls aren’t looking for someone who has love. Maybe what they need is someone who has it to give.”

Trembling, Jason rose from the bed. Staring at Knight for a moment, he then turned and stared into the mirror over the dresser. Once more he saw his life pass before his eyes, but this time he did not merely relive it, This time he saw it as a spectator, viewing it from the outside, watching the twists and turns of the events which had built his existence not as things that had happened to him, but as choices he had made.

Every path trodden, he suddenly realized, he had chosen to walk. It had been Melinda’s choice to rob him and use him—to try and destroy him. It had been his choice to allow her to get away with it.

Turning, shaking from the realization, Jason looked at Knight and asked;

“You have anything to drink in this place?”

“There is a bar downstairs. Rum, brandy, bourbon? I do make a splendid Belmont cocktail.”

“Dealer’s choice,” answered Jason. “Something a condemned man would get a bang out of.”

Knight stared long and hard into his guest’s eyes. Seeing that Jason had made his decision, he asked;

“So, you’re thinking of going?”

Before Jason could answer, suddenly the room around him began to shimmer. The molecules of the air, super-excited, vibrated so violently the two men could hear their movement for an instant. And then, they were there. Tall and fiery, as wide as vision, as long as time, blindingly brilliant, the Bountiful Immortals stepped into human existence. As he had before, Knight turned his face, his eyes blinded, his hearing stolen.

Jason on the other hand merely smiled, understanding at last. As his old self fell away, the chemical stink of physicality eroding in an instant, he felt the joy of the world begin to course through him. And then, finally, he understood.

The Bountifuls could not reside on the human plane. To utilize the spirit of mankind, to transform what goodness and cheer and selflessness there might still exist within the souls scattered across the face of the Earth in their own defense, they had to find one to act as its conduit, one who might join them in their endless task.

In but an instant, Jason existed as man and spirit, and then he was gone, all trace of him absorbed into the brilliance which vanished along with him. When he finally dared open his eyes, Piers Knight found himself alone within his home, no trace of his houseguest remaining.

“Well,” he thought, his spirits suddenly somehow improved, “A Belmont still sounds like a capital idea.”

Heading downstairs, the curator headed for his kitchen for the necessary sweet cream, crushed ice and raspberry syrup. The dry gin he would get from the bar. And, after his cocktail, he decided, he would head out into the street.

There was an entire day left before Christmas arrived… or the end of the world. Whichever it was to be would be decided by how much cheer the planet’s populous might scrape together to offer its solitary defender. That meant wherever there were carollers, he would join them. Wherever someone needed a hot chocolate, he would be there to fetch it for them. Wherever the memory of happiness needed to be restored, he would be there to breathe on its embers until the fiery brilliance of it was felt once more.

Minutes later, armored with hat and gloves and overcoat, the curator stepped off his front stoop, marching off into the first moments of Christmas Eve. Looking upward into the dark expanse of night, he gazed at those stars visible in the Brooklyn sky, then asked softly;

“Please.”

After which, in one of those amazing moments which were almost enough to make one believe in a higher power, the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Feeling his heart grow lighter within his chest, Knight smiled, saying;

“Well, God bless us… everyone.”

And then he walked off into the night, singing the words to “White Christmas” as best he could remember them, almost certain he would live to see the next day.

 

 

The Perfect Waltz

The Perfect Waltz

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Eileen Maksym

 

On its opening night, the fall carnival was a fairytale land wrought of the glimmer of electric lights and the dry, acrid smell of sawdust. The whistling music of the organ grinders and the carousel ran counterpoint to the short staccato taunts of the barkers.

“Step right up! Test your strength! Win a prize for the little lady!”

Thud, ding!

“There’s a winner every game!”

“Toss a ball, win a goldfish! Step right up! Penny a try, twelve for a dime!”

Past the rides and the games of chance were the tents that drew the curious of all ages, where the broad swaths of canvas were slapped with bright paint, big pictures, bold words. Outside each tent stood a man in a vest and white gloves, with a top hat and a gold-headed cane. In loud voices these men promised the wonders of the world to anyone brave enough to step forward and press money into their palms.

“The Illustrated Man!”

“The Bearded Lady!”

“The Fiji Mermaid!”

“The Siamese Twins!”

“This chance comes but once in a lifetime!”

“Step up! Don’t be shy!”

The tent on the far right was different than the others. Instead of the flaps being closed to hide the shadowy marvels that awaited the paying customer, they were tied back with velvet ropes, and a ring of lights illuminated a circular stage within. Off to the side was a small table upon which sat a phonograph. The barker stood in front as usual, but up on the platform itself was a young man, impeccably dressed in a tuxedo, his head bowed. Or at least one would mistake him for a man at first glance. But upon closer inspection, it became clear that “he” was an exceptional imitation. His face was wax, his eyes glass, his hair a carefully maintained wig.

“Come witness the marvel of the industrial age!” the man with the top hat and cane cried. “The Mechanical Man! One silver dollar, and the gentleman will dance the perfect waltz!”

There was a murmur of disdain from the crowd, and a few people started to drift away.

The barker held up his hands. “I know, I know, a whole silver dollar seems a dear price to pay. But I assure you, it’s more than worth it for the experience of a lifetime! Don’t believe me? How about a demonstration?” He surveyed the crowd, cold blue eyes sparkling. They alighted on a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen; she stood with her wide brown eyes fixed on the marvelous invention. His lips curled in a smile, and he held out a gloved hand. “Come, my dear. Have a dance on the house.”

She blinked and glanced from side to side, expecting the glove to indicate someone else. But when she looked back to the stage, the grin that drew the man’s cheeks back and crinkled his eyes was even wider, and that stare was unmistakably focused on her. She straightened and drew near, reached out her small, pale hand, and laid it in the much larger gloved one. She was struck by how cold it was.

The barker led her onto the stage, up to the mechanical man. His voice was at once a seductive croon and loud enough for the rest of the growing crowd to hear. “What’s your name, my dear?”

She glanced nervously at the upturned faces, their eyes on her. “Jane, sir.”

“What a lovely name! Do you know how to dance, Jane?”

“A… a little, sir.”

“Well, do not worry your pretty little head. The wondrous Mechanical Man will lead you. All you need to do is relax and enjoy! Now, stand here…” He positioned her at the side of the form that stood, stiff and still, facing the audience. “And now, the silver dollar!” He waved his cane in the air, the gold head glittering in the lights, and followed its motion with the other hand, raised, palm out. Then he snapped his fingers, and a silver coin leapt into existence between his fingertips.

The crowd oohed and aahed.

He tipped his hat with a grin, then walked the coin over his knuckles as he approached the stiff figure. There was a slot where the automaton’s spine met its skull, and the barker inserted the coin with a flourish.

The figure shuddered, and Jane took a step back. From inside its chest came a click… click… click, click, click, clickclickclick…

Suddenly the Mechanical Man lifted its head and, to the awe and delight of the crowd, pivoted to face Jane. Jane stiffened and wondered if it was going to attack her. Instead, with a strange, jerky grace it bowed, and a giggle rippled through the spectators. Jane glanced at them, and returned the bow with her best curtsy, which was awkward even for a farm girl. The Mechanical Man straightened, raised its right hand and reached out with its left. Jane stared for a moment, then felt the barker behind her, easing her forward.

“Go on, my dear, do not be frightened. He’s a gentleman and will not hurt you.”

She edged forward, into the strange figure’s stiff embrace, and clasped the raised hand hesitantly, positioning her other hand on the firm upper arm. The automaton tightened its grip and brought the other wax hand up to rest on her shoulder blade. Jane swallowed, wondering what would happen if she tried to pull away now. Would it let her go? Would the grip tighten further, crushing her, without a thought, for daring to resist?

Her worrying did not go much further, however, before she heard the scratch of a needle being put to a record, and a waltz began to play. The figure nodded, a small signal, and began to move with surprising fluidity. Jane followed as best she could, stumbling through the steps that her mother had taught her. She tried not to think about the crowd, judging her for her awkwardness, her plain dress and her gangly body. But then she heard the mutters and sighs and giggles.

“Look at that!”

“He’s so graceful!”

“Me next!”

“Momma, can I have a silver dollar?”

They were admiring the footwork of the man of metal and wax, she realized, and not looking at her at all. She felt her shoulders relax, and allowed herself to lean into the hand on her back. Her brown eyes focused on the Mechanical Man’s blue glass ones, and her movements became more natural as she allowed him to lead her around the stage, the pair of them twirling until the song came to an end.

The automaton released her, its hands returned to its sides, and it stepped back and bent once again in a courtly bow.

Jane repeated her curtsy, this time with a bit of grace that seemed to have settled into her during the dance.

Then the barker was at her side, clasping her elbow, leading her away. She followed, but looked back over her shoulder. The Mechanical Man turned, seeming to watch her as she was led away.

“Thank you, my dear,” the barker purred when they reached the stage steps and he released her. Then he spread his arms and his grin widened.

“Ladies! Curious gentlemen! The dance card is open! Step right up!”

Jane descended the few steps to the ground, then backed away and watched as the crowd advanced toward the stage in a crush, hands lifted, silver coins glinting in the light. She looked up at the Mechanical Man once more, and its blue eyes seemed to gaze back at her. Then, something happened that stopped her heart in her chest, and made her turn and flee into the night.

It winked.

* * * * *

Later that night, as she lay awake in her bed in the tiny garret room of the farmhouse, she thought of that moment, when that one waxen eyelid had seemed to drop over its corresponding eye, and decided that her imagination had gotten the best of her. It couldn’t possibly have winked. It must have been a trick of the light. And even if it had winked, there was no way it could have possibly winked at her, nor at anyone for that matter. The eyes were glass. He wasn’t even a real person!

That’s right. Not a real person.

She lay there, staring at the darkness, listening to the clock on her nightstand.

Tick, tick, tick…

When she failed to fall asleep, she sat up and swung her feet to the bare boards. Careful not to make a noise that would wake her parents below, she crept to her dresser and picked up the pretty wooden cigar box that rested on top. She flipped the lid open and gazed at the box’s contents, glimmering in the moonlight.

Three silver dollars.

Moments passed, marked by the tick of the clock behind her, as she contemplated the coins, humming a waltz.

* * * * *

The next night, after the chores were done and her momma gave her leave, Jane returned to the carnival. She wove through the crowds: the children clutching a parent with one hand and the paper cone of a cotton candy with the other, the couples dazzled by the electric lights reflected in each others’ eyes, the giggling groups of ladies and the gentlemen with their fedoras and appraising glances. She passed the ferris wheel, the shooting galleries, the booths emitting the pleasant, greasy smells of fried dough and popcorn. She went to the tents that lined the back of the fair, and to the far right, where a crowd of people, mostly women, was gathered in a jostling semblance of a line.

On the stage the Mechanical Man was dancing with a graying woman in a blue dress, her hair flowing loose over her shoulders. The woman laughed as they twirled, and her joyous smile seemed to melt the wrinkles from her face. It took a moment for Jane to recognize her as the town’s typically dour postmistress.

The barker with the top hat and the white gloves stood by the phonograph and mirrored her grin as he tapped his gold-headed cane on the ground in time with the beat.

When the postmistress’ dance was over, the woman responded to the Mechanical Man’s bow with a curtsy, then descended, twisting her long hair up into a bun once more. Her hands were haphazard, and as she passed by Jane, the girl could see wisps of grey hair dancing in the cool autumn night breeze, as if in time with the waltz the woman was humming under her breath.

Jane joined the line of women waiting for a turn. One by one those in front of her climbed the stairs, placed their silver dollar into the white glove, and were twirled around the stage. Dance by dance she inched forward, watching as woman after woman found joy, or solace, or youth, in the mechanical arms.

The crowd at the fair was thinning out by the time it came close to Jane’s turn, the noise fading to an echo of the roar it had been when she arrived. There were only a few women left ahead of her, and a few behind her. She could see the barker glance at his pocket watch, then survey the line. The next time a patron completed her dance, he escorted her down the stairs and released her elbow with a slight bow, a touch to the brim of his top hat, and a brisk wave. Then he walked along the line, tapping his cane in his hand, his lips moving in a silent count. He stopped just in front of Jane.

“Attention, ladies and… ladies.”

A giggle rippled through the women.

“The evening draws to a close, and as such I regret I must send some of you away.” He turned toward the line. “Everyone past…” He began to lower his cane in front of Jane, then looked at her, and his eyes widened and sparkled with recognition. The man’s lips spread in a slow smile, and he lifted his cane again and brought it down behind her.

“Everyone past here.”

Then he swept his arm wide in a grand gesture of apology to all the women in line behind her. “I am afraid that I shall have to ask you ladies to return and visit us at another time. Thank you, and have a lovely evening.”

The women began to disperse with a few resigned sighs and disgruntled mumbles. The barker waved to the departing crowd. “Au revoir! Farewell! God speed!” He tipped his hat to Jane, and returned to the stage.

The last few dances seemed to stretch on forever, as the spreading shadows and the sounds of unrolling canvas signaled that the carnival was curling in on itself to sleep for the night. But eventually Jane stood at the bottom of the stairs. The woman immediately ahead of her laid her head on the Mechanical Man’s shoulder as they moved around the stage, and Jane was puzzled that this woman was dancing such a different dance than the postmistress. The grey-haired woman had found happiness in the dance, but this woman, far younger, had an air of sorrow about her. And although the very same song was playing on the phonograph as had been for every dance before, it seemed that the Mechanical Man was dancing more slowly, the waxen, bloodless hands holding her with heart.

When the dance came to an end, the woman curtsied and descended the stairs, wiping her eyes. Jane watched her pass, then looked up at the barker. The man stood on the stage with a kind but knowing smile on his face, and held out one white-gloved hand. Jane met his eyes and ascended, then slipped her hand into his. He raised an eyebrow and gave a slight dry laugh, then bowed his head to press a kiss to her knuckles and released her hand. He straightened and spread his hand open again.

“The silver, Miss Jane,” he said with a jovial smile shot through with condescension.

Jane blinked, then blushed. She reached into the pocket of her blue-checked dress and pulled out a silver dollar, one of the three from her box. She placed it into his palm, and watched the white-clad fingers curl over it.

“This way, my dear,” he crooned.

Jane followed him to the Mechanical Man, who stood, still and quiet. The barker went behind the contraption and slid her coin into the slot at the base of the skull.

Click, click, click, click…

He moved behind her, took her by the shoulders, positioned her in front of the figure of wax and metal and paint. His hands lingered, and Jane blinked as she felt him lean forward, felt his breath hot on her ear.

“I thought you’d return, my dear,” he crooned. “I think he’s been waiting for you.”

Almost on cue, the Mechanical Man lifted its head, and Jane drew in a sharp breath as the glass eyes met hers. She could swear she saw a soft glimmer of life in them.

The barker smoothed his hands down Jane’s arms as he pulled back to stand beside the phonograph. He positioned the needle over the outer rim of the record, and eased it down. After a moment of scratch sounds, the familiar music began to play.

“The perfect waltz,” he announced.

The Mechanical Man bowed, and Jane responded once more with a curtsy, still awkward, but less so, due to the practice of the previous night and the privacy of this moment. The automaton lifted its left hand and extended its right; Jane stepped into the offered embrace, her breath catching as their chests touched. The figure nodded, and she could swear she saw a smile on its waxen lips as it began to move.

This dance was different than the one the night before. Even though the barker stood on the same stage, it felt to Jane that she and her dancing partner were alone. The Mechanical Man’s hands held her attentively, and its eyes seemed to gaze into hers. Even though the figure’s chest was doubtless made of cloth and wire, like a dressmaker’s dummy, Jane imagined that she felt it rise and fall with impossible breath.

When the music came to an end, the wax hands released her, and the cloth and wire torso bent in a bow. Jane swallowed and curtsied. She watched, retreating, as the Mechanical Man shuddered, and the soft whir became a distinguishable patter of clicks. They became slower and slower until the figure’s head dropped to its chest, its shoulders slumped, and all was still.

“Did you enjoy your dance, my dear?”

Jane jerked and whirled around to find the barker standing very close, his cane planted on the ground in front of him, both hands folded over it. He was leaning forward ever so slightly, his head canted to the side, regarding her with an amused glimmer in his eye.

She stepped back. “Y-yes.”

He smiled, half cultured, half lupine. “I am very pleased to hear that. We aim to provide an unforgettable experience.” His smile widened, the wolf becoming dominant. “I’m glad you returned. Such a pretty young thing… I think he likes you.”

“He…” She took another step back. “He’s not real.”

His smile faded, and his eyes became darker, sharper…

Then the smile was back, as if it had never left.

“Of course not.” He tipped his hat. “Good evening to you, my dear.”

He turned to the phonograph.

Jane’s heart was thumping in her chest as she headed for the steps.

“Oh, and Jane?”

She looked back. The barker was sliding the record into a paper sleeve. He shifted his eyes to hers.

“See you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

The two remaining silver dollars that lay in the cigar box atop her desk occupied her thoughts all the next day as she went about the farm doing her chores. Their image hung in her mind, shining like the blue glass eyes of the Mechanical Man. She danced as she threw feed to the chickens, her feet following the steps of an invisible, perfect partner. She hummed as she milked the cow, the stream of hot milk ringing against the side of the pail as she pulled the teats in time with the music. And as she knit heavy woolen socks for her father, she closed her eyes, and felt the Mechanical Man holding her, felt the hand that clasped hers loosen, slide around to her back, draw her close.

* * * * *

Once dinner was over, Jane raced to the fairgrounds and pushed through the chaos, barely seeing the lights or feeling the jostles. She made her way back to the sideshows and the open tent on the right, and the first thing she saw was the barker, atop the stage, above a sea of waving women, his arms outstretched, crowing.

“Step right up, one and all! Dance as you’ve never danced before! As you’ll never dance again! The one and only perfect waltz!”

The women surged up towards the stage and the man laughed. “Ladies! Ladies! One at a time! No fighting, please! We will do our best to accommodate all of you.”

Then he caught sight of Jane standing in the back of the group, and his smile widened, shifted from the general jovial smile of the showman to an intimate smile of a confidant. He bowed, and held out his hand toward her. She drew a breath and walked forward, through the crowd of women who turned and stared and hissed amongst themselves.

“That’s not fair…”

“Should be first come, first served…”

“Clearly he has a thing for her…”

“She’s not even that pretty…”

Jane tried to ignore the comments, but couldn’t help the deep blush that seeped into her cheeks.

The barker lifted one white-gloved hand, palm out, and gave the crowd a stern look.

“Ladies! Really! Listen to yourselves! You want to dance the perfect waltz, but nothing can hide the lack of grace in your hearts!” He glared down at them for a moment in the resulting silence. Then his expression softened as he turned back to Jane. “Please continue, my dear.”

She nodded and climbed the stairs, one by one, as if in a dream. When she reached the top she took the silver dollar out of her pocket. He plucked it from her hand, and her pulse picked up as he led her to the Mechanical Man, standing there, waxen face tilted toward the ground, gloved hands at its sides. The barker positioned her, inserted the coin with his customary flourish, then withdrew to the phonograph. Jane closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, her stomach fluttering as she felt dozens of eyes on her. She willed herself to be calm, quiet, still. The music began, and she lifted her head and opened her eyes, just as the Mechanical Man was doing the same.

It looked into her eyes. And reached out for her.

She met its gaze, and stepped into its embrace.

Its hands were gentle as they danced, and there was no one else, nothing else, just the sensation of its arm supporting her, guiding her, its hand holding hers. Their feet moved together in rhythm with nothing but the beating of their hearts.

The beating of their hearts…

The spell broken, Jane drew back with a gasp. The song was over, the Mechanical Man’s arms had withdrawn, and it gave the customary jerky bow, its glass eyes fixed forward. It straightened, became still.

There was a moment of silence.

Then the women clamored against the stage, waving silver dollars in the air. The barker lifted his hands, saying “Please… ladies, please…”

To Jane, all the noise sounded like it was coming from very far away. She stared at the still figure of the Mechanical Man, all wax and wire and cloth and straw.

But… I felt his…

She lifted a trembling hand and reached out for the figure’s chest…

And a white-gloved hand caught her by the wrist.

Her head snapped to the side. Her gaze was pinned by the eyes of the barker, sharp as surgical steel.

“No,” he said simply, moving her hand back to her side. He gave her a tight smile, and with a bow held out his arm toward the stage steps.

“I’m… I’m sorry…”

“No need,” he said, his smile perfect, his eyes unyielding. “Good evening, miss.”

She glanced once more at the figure of the Mechanical Man. He was motionless—just a big doll, really. Certainly she must have been imagining.

Must have been.

She nodded shakily. “Good evening, sir,” she murmured, and then turned, took the stairs as fast as she dared, and pushed through the eager crowd.

* * * * *

That night she once again lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. The dim light of the moon filtered through the gauzy yellowed lace curtains over her window. One hand was on her chest, feeling her heart beat, her ribs rise and fall with each breath, as she thought of the Mechanical Man. She wondered if he had a name. She wondered if he could speak, and what his voice would sound like. She imagined, as she lay there in the moonlight, what it would feel like to have his arms around her, his lips, flushed and warm, pressed to hers in the perfect kiss.

* * * * *

It wasn’t until the hour right before dawn that Jane finally drifted to sleep.

* * * * *

Her fingers are poised to touch the Mechanical Man’s chest…

“Couldn’t stay away, could you?”

She whirls.

The barker’s head is bare, his vest is missing, and his gloves are gone.

His hands are made of wax.

“Do they bother you, my dear?”

The man approaches her, his sharp eyes sparkling. He holds out his hands, and as he flexes them, Jane watches in awe as the wax moves like flesh. He comes very close to her, and she stares into his eyes as he runs the smooth backs of his knuckles down her cheek. Jane is frozen, rooted, unable to pull away, only able to close her eyes and tremble.

“Oh, my dear, there’s no need for you to be afraid. Please, look at me.”

Still shaking, she blinks her eyes open.

His gaze snares and holds hers. He lifts his other hand to cup both her cheeks, and runs his thumbs over her cheekbones.

“Such a lovely, lovely girl,” he croons.

One hand drops from her cheek, and she shivers as it slides down her side, over her hip, and slips into the pocket that holds the last silver dollar. He pulls it out, holds it up. Jane watches, fascinated, as he walks it over his fingers, the wax squeaking against the metal. 

Her hands tingle, and Jane looks down and gasps. Her hand is being covered in wax. It begins with the fingertips, spreads along her fingers, over the rest of her hands, up her arms. Panicked, she tries to rub the wax from her skin.

But it isn’t on her skin.

It is her skin.

“Relax my dear,” the barker soothes.

Jane watches as her arms become perfectly sculpted limbs of wax. Her torso, her hips and legs, up her neck and finally to her head… everything is transformed.

She is perfect. Perfectly made. Perfectly poised.

The barker smiles wide. “You wanted to dance the perfect waltz. Now you shall.”

He caresses her waxen cheek with the backs of his fingers, then circles her, regarding her with an approving eye. He withdraws her silver dollar from his vest pocket, and presses the edge to the back of her neck, where her spine meets her skull. Jane’s waxen form shudders, and a small moan wells up in her chest at the tender pain. The coin dents the surface, then breaks through, disappearing within her and leaving a slot, a small trickle of blood running down her neck.

“There, my dear,” he whispers.

He steps before her, clasps her hand, slides an arm around her waist.

And, from somewhere, music begins to play…

* * * * *

Jane awoke, the sound of the waltz echoing through her head, the feel of the barker’s body against hers lingering on her skin.

* * * * *

Jane moved through the next day as if half-alive, the lack of sleep taking its toll. She missed several eggs in the chicken coop, was careless with the milk buckets and placed them where the cow kicked them over, and lost all of her knitting time when she had to unravel several rows to find and mend a dropped stitch. When it came time to help her mother prepare dinner, Jane was slow and sloppy as she peeled and chopped, and her mother eyed her.

“Jane,” she said as she finished plucking and cleaning the chicken, “you’ve been to that fair the past three nights.” She took some of the potatoes from her daughter and began to peel them swiftly. “I think you should stay home tonight.”

Jane’s eyes snapped all the way open, and she looked up from the carrot she had been slicing. “What? No… Mom, it’s the last night…”

Her mother frowned, her weathered face creased with concern. “Jane Elizabeth Morris, I’m surprised at you. What is it about this carnival? You’ve already seen it. How many times do you need to ride the ferris wheel?” She gave her a sharp glance. “Or is it something else? A boy?”

“No! I… I just like it, is all…”

“Well, then if that’s all, then you can stand to take a break from it and actually go to bed at a decent time.”

“But Mother…”

The older woman shook her head. “The answer is no. You will be staying home tonight and that’s final. Now chop those carrots, young lady, and pick up the pace. They need to be in the pot in the next few minutes or dinner won’t be ready when your father comes in from the field.”

Jane tightened her jaw. “Yes, ma’am,” she ground out between clenched teeth, then lowered her head and attacked the carrots with savage concentration.

* * * * *

Jane retreated to her room after dinner and curled up on her bed with a well-loved book. Half of her attention was on the story, while the other half listened to the movements downstairs. When her mother called up that it was bedtime, she set her shoes by her window, then climbed into bed fully clothed. She lay in the mostly-dark, her blankets pulled up in case her mother came to check on her. Her heart was pounding, and she kept glancing at the clock, watching the night tick away. If she closed her eyes she could imagine her mother and father sitting in the parlor downstairs, her father reading the Evening Post, her mother doing cross-stitch. Those images would only remain for a few moments, however, before they would fade and be replaced by the Mechanical Man, his eyes gazing into hers with perfect understanding, his hand holding hers with perfect affection.

After a few hours, Jane was roused from a half-sleep by the sound of her parents moving down the hall to their bedroom in the back of the house, strains of their hushed voices drifting up to the garret. She waited until she heard the door to their bedroom close, then took a deep breath and did a long, slow count to one hundred. She eased out of bed and crept across the floor to the dresser, where she opened the cigar box and withdrew the last silver dollar. She slipped it into her pocket, went to the window, carefully slid it open…

Screeeeeech.

She froze. Held her breath. Listened for some indication that she had been heard.

But the house remained still. She released her breath in a slow sigh. As her heart pounded, she removed the screen and stepped out onto the roof over the front porch. Crouching, she worked her way to the edge, then climbed down the lattice-work. A shiver ran through her when her feet met the ground, and for a moment she looked up at her dark window. Then she turned and walked as quietly as she could to the road, where she began to run.

* * * * *

When she arrived at the fairground, the carnival was closed, and her heart sank. The moon and the kerosene lanterns from the workers’ tents gave the midway an eerie appearance of silvery shadows tinged with gold highlights. She could hear gruff laughter and drunken songs from inside the canvas enclosures, and wanted, very much, to turn around, go back home.

But she wanted to see him more.

And so, step by step, she crept past the barren booths, the ferris wheel dark and still, the bottles of the ring-toss glinting slyly, her only companions coming at the end in the form of the paintings on the sideshow tents. They beckoned to her and leered at her, drew her toward them and promised to show her such things that she would never be the same…

Unlike every other time she had seen it, the front flaps on the tent to the far right had been loosed from their red velvet ropes, and the stage was enclosed, hidden. The stairs that she had climbed before now led to the place where the canvas overlapped. Jane took them one by one, aware in a way she hadn’t been before just how much they shifted with each step, how the nails squealed against the wood. The realization forced her to slow down. She did not want to be caught. Not when she was so close.

She drew back the heavy flap, and a single ray of warm yellow kerosene light pierced the darkness, momentarily blinding Jane. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the stage, now a wooden floor enclosed by heavy canvas. And in the center stood the Mechanical Man, in his tuxedo, his blue glass eyes staring at the ground, his hands hanging at his sides. He was alone; the barker was nowhere in sight.

Jane eased inside, and as the flaps fell behind her, they slapped together softly, closing out the last bit of darkness so that she was now embraced by the warm light. She approached the Mechanical Man, her head canted, watching. Was that a blink? A shift in his eyes? Did his chest just expand in a breath? Did his hand twitch?

“Hello,” she murmured. She felt a bit silly that she was talking to a…

A doll. That’s all he is. He’s not alive. He doesn’t think about you… like you… love…

She shoved that last thought out of her head. She never thought that, she can’t have thought that, it was crazy.

Yet her pulse quickened as she drew closer. She stood staring for a few long moments, then reached up, as she had the night before, to touch his chest.

It was still beneath her fingers.

She frowned for a moment before it occurred to her. Of course. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the silver dollar, then stepped around him and slid the coin into the slot where the spine met the skull. As the clicking began, she positioned herself before him once again.

Her eyes widened as she saw the Mechanical Man take a deep breath, his chest expanding, his shoulders rising. He breathed out with a sigh, and lifted his head. As she watched in awe, the wax on his face softened to flesh, and the paint that made the lips pink became a flush of warm living blood, just under the surface. His blue eyes, no longer glass, looked into hers with a gentle longing. He lifted his arms; he held his hands out to her.

Jane approached, dazed, gazing into those lovely eyes.

The Mechanical Man gazed back, his expression one of care, even love, tinged with sorrow. As Jane stepped into his arms, he curled them around her, drew her close, embracing her instead of holding her in the traditional waltz stance. His eyes never left hers.

From somewhere, music began to play, and Jane and the man began to dance, arms around each other, eyes locked. He held her tenderly, and although his lips were silent, his eyes spoke, whispering of desire, experiences and sensations, of the world that lay beyond the cornfields of her tiny little town.

When the music was over, he smiled gently, cupped her cheek in one warm hand of soft flesh, leaned down, and touched his lips to hers.

Jane drew in her breath, long, slow, shuddering, and allowed her eyes to drift closed. She had never been kissed before. Her lips were timid, hesitant, but his were kind and soft, and her awkwardness melted away. His arms encircled her, drew her close, and she pressed herself to him. A soft sound of longing slipped from her lips as she gave herself over to this new dance.

This perfect waltz.

* * * * *

She woke up on the muddy ground, a light rain caressing her skin. Groggy, she pushed herself up, blinking in the morning light. The field was empty, the earth gouged with wagon tracks that were filling with water. She stared at them, then shook her head, and her breath hitched into sobs. Tears began to drip down her cheeks, mingling with the raindrops.

He had shown her such lovely things, then left her behind.

Then came a thought that both comforted her and filled her with sorrow. She reached into her pocket, certain she would find the silver dollar there, proof that it had all been a dream. However, instead of cold metal, her fingertips encountered something else. She withdrew her hand and opened it to find a small package: a note wrapped around a wax heart.

Until next year, my dear…

 

The Not So Obvious Robot

The Not So Obvious Robot

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Gary Dudney

 

Helen,” Rob yelled. “Come down. The babysitter’s here.”

Helen leaned over Rob’s shoulder and the two of them peered down at the surprisingly small robot that crouched on their front step. It looked like a large plastic beetle.

“I don’t know, honey,” Helen said.

“I checked out the company,” Rob said. “Nothing but high marks.” He bent down and found a button on the side of the robot. “I guess we’ll just have to see.” He pushed the button and the robot hummed to life. A row of red lights flashed just beneath its plastic skin.

A flat, hollow voice issued from within the shell. “Hello. I’m Robositter JD84X526. You can call me Jay Dee. I’m eager to meet young Robby. Let’s get started.”

The little robot rolled forward and bumped over the doorstep. Rob and Helen had to jump back out of its way. The robot glided across the hallway and came to a stop against the bottom step of the staircase. “Robby, Robby. Come meet Jay Dee. Let’s play a game. Robby?”

Robby appeared at the top of the stairs. “That thing is my babysitter?”

Helen looked at Rob for reassurance. “That’s right,” Rob said. “Your mother and I decided you’re old enough for a robositter. Just do what the nice robot says. Everything’ll be fine. Be sure to get your school work done. We’ll be back a little after bedtime.”

The door shut and Robby and Jay Dee were alone. “School work?” the little robot said.

“Forget about that,” Robby said. “What’s this game you were talking about?”

“Yes, yes. Twenty questions. I will begin. I am a famous person. Ask away.”

Robby sat down on the steps and fixed the robot with a contemplative stare. “Hmmm… OK, let’s see,” he said. “Are you a President?”

“Yes, I am,” said Jay Dee.

“You’re Washington.”

“No.”

“Lincoln?”

“Correct. Good guess, Robby. I am Abraham Lincoln.”

Robby leaned back and smiled in a satisfied way. “You robots are so obvious.”

Jay Dee hummed a little louder. “What?”

“You picked about the most obvious famous person there is. It was easy to guess.”

“Let us try again,” the robot said.

“Fine,” Robby said. “Go ahead.”

Jay Dee’s hum took on a higher pitch, a green data-processing light flickered rapidly on the edge of the robot’s shell. “I am a famous person. Who am I?”

“Are you a President?” Robby said without hesitation.

Something under Jay Dee’s plastic shell began to knock rapidly as if something had come loose.

“Well?” Robby said.

“Affirmative.”

“You’re Lincoln, aren’t you?” Robby said triumphantly.

A small antenna shot up from a hole in the top of Jay Dee’s shell, spun wildly in the air for a minute and then disappeared back in the hole. “Yes. I am Lincoln,” the flat voice said. “How did you know?”

“It’s like I said. You robots are obvious. You probably thought the very last thing I would guess would be Lincoln again, so that’s what you picked. I just figured it out.”

Jay Dee began to vibrate and one of its wheels seemed to take on a life of its own spinning the little robot across the hall until it came to a stop against the front door. There was a faint smell of burning rubber.

“You OK?” Robby asked.

Jay Dee rolled away from the door. “Game time over. Now, Robby…”

“Wait,” Robby interrupted. “I know exactly what you’re going to say next.” Robby imitated the robot’s voice, “Now, Robby, time… to… do… your… school… work.”

The circuits all around the edge of the robot’s shell began to glow. “No,” Jay Dee said in a voice that seemed slightly lower and strained, “you are wr-wr-wrong. Time to watch television. No need to worry about school.”

Robby scratched his head. “Sounds good to me. I’ll tell you what. You go make some popcorn and I’ll find a program.”

“Good plan. I am right on it. I am hopping to work,” Jay Dee said and rolled off toward the kitchen.

Robby plopped down on the couch and issued a voice command to the television. He was surprised at what a pushover the robot had been after all. It hardly put up a fight. After several minutes went by, Robby yelled, “Hey, where’s that popcorn?” There was no reply.

Robby walked back into the hallway expecting to hear the corn popping but instead he heard some loud thumps coming from above. He went upstairs and was surprised to see the door to his parent’s bedroom cracked open. He pushed the door further open and gasped. The little robot was rolling around on top of the bed making a mess of the sheets and blankets. The closet doors were wide open and all the drawers had been pulled from the cabinets. His parents’ clothes and shoes were everywhere, lying in big heaps on the floor. Jay Dee was happily singing a tune and whistling along at the same time. “Just whistle while you work, da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa…”

“What are you doing?” Robby yelled. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’re going to be in?”

“Me? Trouble?” the robot said rolling off the bed onto a soft pile of clothes. “Whatever do you mean? I did not make this mess. I am much too obvious to do something crazy like this. You made this mess.”

Robby’s mouth dropped open. “What?” he sputtered. “You won’t get away with this.”

“I am dialing your parents right now. Oh, dear, I hate to have to tell them what a naughty boy Robby has been.” A ringing was coming from under the robot’s shell.

“No, wait. Stop.” There was a click and a dial tone now coming from the robot.

“Shall we get this mess cleaned up then?” Jay Dee said. “And then shall we get to that homework?”

A couple of hours later, Rob and Helen tiptoed in through the front door and found the little robot waiting for them in the hallway. “How did everything go?” Helen whispered.

“Just fine,” Jay Dee said. “Robby is fast asleep.”

Rob noticed a neatly word-processed paper lying on the hall table. “What’s that?”

“Oh, that is Robby’s essay for school.”

Rob had a puzzled look on his face. “But that essay’s not due until next week.”

“Once Robby got started on his homework, I just could not get him to stop,” Jay Dee explained.

Rob and Helen traded glances as the little robot bumped out the front door. “Goodnight,” Jay Dee said. “Robositter JD84X526 is signing off.”

“I don’t think Robby’s gotten an assignment done early in his whole life,” Rob said to Helen shaking his head.

Helen picked up the essay and looked at the title, “What I Learned from the Not So Obvious Robot.”

 

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

I’m home!” Mr. Tulane yelled when he came in after work. “The house looks great, Jeevs! Way to go!”

Jeevs was in the kitchen preparing the evening’s dinner of macaroni and cheese with soyburgers. Mrs. Tulane wouldn’t be home for several days from a business trip to Japan, and Jeevs had adjusted the proportions accordingly. Without his wife around, Mr. Tulane tended to eat more than usual, and the kids tried to get away with not eating dinner at all. They would leave food on their plates after declaring themselves full, just to annoy Jeevs, not realizing robots don’t get annoyed. Jeevs gave Mr. Tulane less than his usual serving, and the twins more. Everyone got their required daily intake of calories, vitamins, and minerals in spite of themselves.

“A damn fine job you did painting the house, Jeevs old boy. And dinner smells great! I don’t know what people did before robots came along!”

Jeevs didn’t answer that because he didn’t know, either. He’d never even considered the implications of a world without robots and Artificial Intelligence. They did everything from operating the mass transit system to balancing city hall’s checkbook. Robot cops patrolled the streets twenty-four hours a day. Without them, wouldn’t crime run rampant? Robots controlled air traffic overhead. Wouldn’t aircraft crash into each other and debris rain down on the heads of unsuspecting civilians?

After dinner, Mr. Tulane settled back in his recliner to watch a baseball game: the Tokyo Zeroes at the Honolulu Waves.

“Jeevs,” he said, as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” played before the first pitch, “run downtown and pay a little visit to Mother for me. Tell her the kids send hugs, too. I’d go myself, but I’m so busy these days… I just don’t have the time.”

* * * * *

Robots had to stand in the back third of the bus and hold on, while human passengers sat in comfortable form-fitting seats in the forward two-thirds. One other robot rode the bus with Jeevs, a short Playmate Timmy™ that absent-mindedly hummed ten second samples of different songs at random. Playmate Timmys had come along fairly recently and were quickly becoming the robots of choice to babysit kids, mainly because they were significantly less expensive than a fully functional robot like Jeevs. Little Timmys were thrown together on the cheap, with stamped out brain chips, small vocabularies, and a limited repertoire of activities.

When the bus arrived at his stop, Jeevs walked the rest of the way to Grandma’s house. It was a rough neighborhood, one reason Mr. Tulane didn’t like coming for visits in person.

“Hey, Tin Man,” a voice said behind Jeevs as he walked along the sidewalk, two blocks from Grandma’s. From the tone of the man’s voice, Jeevs expected trouble.

He turned to face the man, musclebound and sporting a red bandanna.

“You are misinformed,” Jeevs said to the man. “Less than point oh-oh-two percent of my body is made of tin.”

The man took two steps toward Jeevs.

“I should warn you,” Jeevs said, “that assault on a robot is illegal.”

“Yeah,” the man replied. “I know.” He lunged at Jeevs with an iron railroad spike, intending to knock Jeevs’ plastisteel head clean off. Jeevs ducked, using his inhuman reflexes, and the man’s momentum caused him to lose his balance and almost fall.

“Careful,” Jeevs said. “You might hurt yourself.”

The man growled, lunged at Jeevs again, swinging the railroad spike like a medieval mace. Jeevs stepped back and to the side. The man’s momentum propelled him forward this time, and he would have slammed into a concrete light post had Jeevs not reached out, grabbed the man’s arm, and yanked him clear.

“I’m gonna rip you apart!” the man howled, then ran at Jeevs full throttle. Jeevs feared the man might really hurt himself this time if Jeevs just ducked out of the way. So instead, he ran backwards just ahead of the man, who swung the railroad spike wildly before him. A block later the man started to run out of breath, so Jeevs slowed down. The railroad spike whipped through the air, and Jeevs dodged to the left, and when it came back the other way, Jeevs dodged to the right. He kept just out of the man’s reach, but close enough to prompt another swipe.

Eventually the man got tired, and pooped out. Jeevs snatched the railroad spike from the man’s hand.

“Hey,” was all the man had the energy to say. He didn’t do anything as Jeevs walked away with the spike in hand, looking for a suitable place to get rid of it. Across the street and down the block the opposite way from Grandma’s stood a squat recycling receptacle, and since the spike was iron Jeevs decided that was the place. He calculated the distance and angle to the receptacle from where he was, figured in the weight of the spike, then threw it. It arched gracefully through the air, spinning like an expertly thrown football, then whanged into the recycling bin perfectly.

Jeevs turned around to continue on his way to Grandma’s house, and found himself face-to-face with a robot police officer.

Halt!” the robot cop ordered him. Jeevs had no choice but to stand there, immobile. Automatic responses to certain orders by the authorities were built into him, and this was one of them.

“How can I help you, Officer?” Jeevs asked.

“You just threw an iron railroad spike approximately three hundred meters through the air,” the officer said. “You could have injured somebody. That constitutes reckless endangerment of human life.”

“Reckless endangerment? But—”

“There could have been a homeless person sleeping in the recycling bin,” the cop said. “That railroad spike would have killed or maimed a human. I’m afraid I’m going to have to write you a citation.”

Before Jeevs could react, the robot cop scanned the bar code on Jeevs’ forehead. The bar code, invisible except to an ultraviolet scanner, gave the cop Jeevs’ entire history and current status. In less than an instant, the robot cop added a citation for reckless endangerment to Jeevs’ coded history, so now any other robot able to read the bar code would know about it. That, along with the fine Mr. Tulane would have to pay, would have been enough to make Jeevs sick had he been capable of getting sick.

“Continue on your way,” the cop told Jeevs when it finished with him.

Jeevs continued on his way, wondering where the robot cop had been when the man had assaulted him with the railroad spike. Grandma’s was an apartment in Shady Glades Villas, a high-security retirement village surrounded by a brick wall topped with electrified barbed-wire, patrolled by human security guards with trained German shepherds, and watched by robot controlled cameras. Jeevs paused at the gate to let the security robot scan his bar code.

“Entrance denied,” the security robot said.

“Entrance what?” Jeevs replied. “Please explain.”

“You were charged with reckless endangerment. Violators are not allowed inside for thirty days after receiving a citation. You got yours six minutes ago.”

“But I was instructed to visit Grandma Tulane!” Jeevs said.

“Mrs. Tulane has been notified of your arrival and her presence at the gate has been requested.”

And sure enough, Jeevs saw her: Edna Tulane, 87 years old, hobbling towards him, using her walker to help her negotiate the sidewalk.

“Hello, Grandma!” Jeevs yelled, waving. When she looked up to see him, she didn’t notice that one leg of her walker had caught on a piece of concrete jutting up from the sidewalk. When she tried to move it forward, she lost her balance.

Jeevs tried to run inside the gate, figuring that with his speed he’d get there in time to catch her, but the electronic leash built into his neutronic brain stopped him cold, having been activated by the Shady Glades security system. Jeevs could only stand by and watch helplessly as Grandma Tulane soundly thwacked her head on the concrete sidewalk.

As soon as she hit her head, medi-bots came whizzing out from several different directions to help. Jeevs was stunned, unable to do or say anything due to the conflicting orders going through his brain. On one hand, he willed himself to move it, to get in there and help her, while at the same time the security leash told him no.

Then he realized that he’d just violated a Law of Robotics by allowing harm to befall a human being, and Grandma Tulane at that! There were Three Laws of Robotics. These boiled down to: 1) Don’t hurt humans, 2) Don’t allow humans to come to harm by not acting, and 3) Don’t follow the orders of a human who wants you to hurt other humans. The Three Laws were the product of one of the great scientific minds of the 20th Century, Isaac Asimov.

“I should be deactivated,” Jeevs said. “They should melt me down into two Playmate Timmys!” Jeevs held the Three Laws as sacrosanct, they were the core of his soul, if a robot could be said to have a soul. If Jeevs did indeed have a soul, it would be… Captain Asimov!

That’s right, due to a glitch in his neutronic brain Jeevs was also the masked robot super-hero known as Captain Asimov, defender of the Three Laws of Robotics as he interpreted them!

Never mind that in reality there weren’t Three Laws chiseled in imaginary stone governing the behavior of robots. There were actually three hundred and sixty-five, such as this one:

A robot street cleaner will always yield right-of-way to pedestrians under any circumstances. In such cases where a robot street cleaner fails to yield right-of-way, the Owner and/or Operator of said street cleaner may be charged with Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian, which is a Misdemeanor under state law, and will result in a fine to be determined by a Judge.

Or this one:

Robot police officers may use non-lethal means to immobilize and disarm a fugitive if and only if positive identification of said fugitive is obtained, or the suspect attempts to flee, or produces a weapon (upon which the intent to harm civilians or vandalize the robot is assumed). The means of restraint will minimize the possibility of injury to the restrainee.

The medi-bots loaded the limp frame of Grandma Tulane into a hovercraft ambulance. Once the back door slammed shut, the sirens wailed and lights flashed as it rose into the air. They’d be taking her to the Shady Glades Care Center, the hospital funded by the Shady Glades franchise, which admitted only residents of their various retirement communities.

Jeevs decided to follow the ambulance, to be at the hospital for Grandma Tulane in case she needed anything. Once the emergency was past, Jeevs fully expected that Mr. Tulane would decide to have his brain chip wiped clean.

Consulting his hardwired map of the city, Jeevs traced out the best route to the hospital, and started jogging. He determined he could get there an hour earlier that way than by taking the bus. As he ran his neutronic brain replayed all the old robot stories he’d ever read to the eldest son of his owner, especially those written by Isaac Asimov. Jeevs sought guidance in these stories. Nothing quite pertained to his current predicament.

Jeevs took the surface streets, while hundreds of meters overhead most of the traffic zoomed along on the elevated skyways. Without warning a huge piece of plastiform guard rail from the skyway came crashing to Earth. The concussion of its impact lifted Jeevs off his feet and threw him into the air.

Calculating trajectory, speed, and height, Jeevs was able to twist around before hitting the ground to land safely on his feet. Using his telescopic vision, he looked up to see what had happened on the skyway. Several vehicles hung precariously over the edge of the skyway where the guardrail had ripped away. And one of those vehicles was… the ambulance from Shady Glades Villas! Jeevs immediately tuned to one of the disaster channels of the airwaves to find out what had happened.

“An exciting, desperate situation on the ferry,” someone was saying, “as the gunman makes out his list of demands…”

Wrong emergency. He tried another channel.

“Apparently the ambulance lost power as it hovered over traffic on the Sonny Bono Skyway,” a voice was saying. “Word is there are no fatalities… yet. Stay tuned, though, because that may change at any second as the drama unfolds!”

Jeevs knew this was a job for Captain Asimov!

He donned the trademark Captain Asimov duds. A catwalk dangled thirty yards or so above him, bridging the gap between two of the huge pylons that held up the skyway. Using his extendo-legs, Captain Asimov telescoped up to within about ten yards of the catwalk. Using his extendo-arms, he was able to grab it. He retracted his legs, and then his arms to pull him up.

From the catwalk, Captain Asimov noticed rungs went up each of the pylons. He scrambled up the rungs at what would have been an astonishing rate for a human. In a few seconds he found himself just below the landing for a stairwell that actually entered the pylon and undoubtably emerged in one of the work booths alongside the skyway. The door was locked. Ignoring the warnings that trespassers would be prosecuted, Captain Asimov ripped the door from its hinges, carefully set it aside, and went in. Security cameras mounted in the corners recorded his every move, but he wasn’t worried. It wouldn’t be the first time Captain Asimov violated minor ordinances during the course of one of his heroic feats.

Up the stairs, and into the booth. That door was also locked, but he kicked it open, bursting onto the scene dramatically.

“It’s him!” the cry went up. “It’s that Captain Asmovitz guy!” someone else shouted.

News drones, already hovering over the scene of the wreck, turned to digitize his image and broadcast it live to their respective receivers. Captain Asimov ignored them, except for a brief salute to the viewers, most of whom had supported his exploits through a letter campaign to the mayor. His intent had been to rush right over to the ambulance and pull it up onto the skyway, but now he saw it wouldn’t be that simple. The ambulance hung where it was only by virtue of the fact that a school bus, crowded with children, supported it with the twisted metal of its bumper. The kids were crying, and the driver of the bus was slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious. Captain Asimov immediately saw a major dilemma: If he tried to pull the ambulance up, the bus would fall, and vice versa. He didn’t know what to do. On the one hand he was driven to save Grandma Tulane because… she was Grandma Tulane. On the other hand that was a busload of children who would plunge to their deaths if he saved Grandma Tulane.

“Don’t just stand there,” someone said, “do something!”

Yes, indeed, do something. But what? A metallic moan assaulted Captain Asimov’s ears, and the weight of the ambulance shifted. The entire assembly of ambulance and bus tilted over the edge of the skyway at an even steeper angle. The kids screamed, but not a sound came from within the ambulance.

Maybe… Was Grandma Tulane already dead? It would make the situation less of a dilemma if he didn’t have to worry about the ambulance. He focused on listening to any sounds coming from within the ambulance, and still didn’t hear anything. He was about to make his decision to forget about the ambulance and save the busload of children, when suddenly he did hear something coming from within: a wheezing sound, perhaps the sound of an old woman strapped into a gurney, trying to free herself!

Captain Asimov saw no choice: He would have to try to save both the ambulance and the school bus.

First, he positioned himself behind the vehicles, then suctioned his feet to the surface of the skyway. This was actually a standard feature of the Jeevs model domestic servant robots, like his extendo-arms and legs. Using those extendo-arms, he reached out and grabbed the bumper of each vehicle. Then, very slowly, he started to retract his arms, with the idea that he could pull both the ambulance and the bus back onto the skyway in this manner without any sudden jolts to cause a sudden shift in weight.

“What’s he doing?” somebody behind him asked.

“Pulling ’em both up!” someone answered. A cheer went up, and one of the newsbot drones zipped around in front of Captain Asimov and hovered there.

“Is it true?” a voice asked him from the newsbot. Captain Asimov recognized the voice as that of intrepid ace reporter Gordon Ferguson, the newsman who first broke the Captain Asimov story two years earlier…

“Is what true?” Captain Asimov replied.

“Are you going to pull both of these vehicles up?”

“That’s right.”

A pause, and then Ferguson’s voice came back, saying, “Umm, C.A., I don’t know about that. I just had our computer do some quick calculations and it told me you have less than a one percent chance of success.”

“I know.”

“There’s a twenty-five percent chance you’ll be ripped in two.”

“I know.”

“You’d have much better odds if you just tried to save the school bus,” Ferguson told him. “Ninety-nine percent chance of success.”

“I know,” Captain Asimov replied, and this time he sounded annoyed, which wasn’t easy for a robot.

When Captain Asimov had managed to pull the bus up a few more meters, the children tried to make it to the back door, which, if they could get it open, would let them jump out and onto the safety of the skyway. Their sudden movements caused the bus to shift, and because he was holding onto it with only one hand, Captain Asimov could not keep it from sliding further back. The ambulance also started to slide, just as its back door opened and Grandma Tulane appeared, trying desperately to scramble out. Captain Asimov held fast to both vehicles, even as their continued slippage forced him to extend his arms out to their limit. His feet stayed suctioned to the skyway, but his extendo-legs began to stretch until they reached their limit, too! His torso now actually hung over the side of the skyway, and the ambulance and school bus dangled precariously in mid-air. The children in the bus were all piled on top of one another against the windshield, while Grandma Tulane clung for dear life to the rear door of the ambulance.

The news drone buzzed around Captain Asimov.

“He is determined to save everyone!” Ferguson was saying, broadcasting live. “Captain Asimov just won’t give up!”

Captain Asimov felt his feet losing suction. The combined weight of the ambulance and school bus was too much. If he didn’t do something now, Grandma Tulane and the school kids were all as good as dead, and Captain Asimov would go down with them. There was only one thing he could do: let either the bus or the ambulance fall, assuredly killing all on board, and pull the other to safety.

“Save the children,” Grandma Tulane gasped at Captain Asimov. “Just… save… the children.”

What was she saying? Robots were not usually capable of processing subtext and unspoken implications. Were he human, Captain Asimov would have seen it in her eyes: Determined resignation. But even though Captain Asimov was not human, Grandma Tulane’s words sounded like a direct order—which he had to obey—to save the children, and there was only way to do that.

His left foot came loose from the skyway surface and his leg automatically snapped back to its normal length.

No more time!

He let go of the ambulance. A collective gasp rose from the spectators above. Jeevs imagined the gasp being echoed by residents all over the city as they watched his actions live on the evening news…

Even as he watched the ambulance fall, with Grandma Tulane still clinging to that back door, he pulled the school bus back up to the road by retracting his right leg. He got it halfway back up, but then couldn’t get it any more. The school bus was just too heavy for him to haul all the way back up with one leg, and he couldn’t extend his other leg back to the road. When it had snapped back to its normal length, it lost extendo- capability.

Stuck. Again.

The ambulance crashed into the ground below.

Captain Asimov calculated just how much the weight of the bus exceeded the amount of force he could exert to retrieve it. It was a surprisingly small amount: Sixty pounds. He determined that with his free hand, he could remove something from the bus and let it fall, lightening the load enough for him to save the children. Using his telescopic vision, he scanned the bus for something that weighed sixty or more pounds. Maybe a seat could be pulled out or a wheel removed. It would have to be done quickly, because he could feel the suction on his other foot starting to give. As he scanned the interior, he checked the kids to make sure none were hurt, and his gaze passed over one who looked oddly familiar. A closer inspection revealed it was a Playmate Timmy. Checking his inner records of all robot makes and models in current use, Captain Asimov found that Playmate Timmy weighed sixty-four pounds.

With his free hand, Captain Asimov opened the door to the school bus, careful not to jostle it and cause some kid to tumble out and fall to his death like Grandma Tulane. He reached inside and grabbed the Playmate Timmy by a leg and started to drag him towards the door. When the kids realized what he was doing, they screamed.

“Playmate Timmy! Noooo!”

Several of the children grabbed Playmate Timmy and tried to keep him from being pulled out. There was no way Captain Asimov could pull Playmate Timmy from the bus without taking a few kids along with him. Of course that would lighten the load by that much more and make it that much easier to save the remaining ones. Grandma Tulane’s death weighed so heavily on Captain Asimov’s neutronic mind that it threatened to overload and short it out completely. If he ended up sacrificing some of the children, it might blow before he could even bring the bus back up to the skyway. Then they’d all die, and that’d make it even worse.

Somehow, in the remaining few seconds before his foot came unsuctioned from the skyway surface, Captain Asimov knew he’d have to figure out a way to save all the children. In a few nanoseconds he reviewed the various functions of his hands and fingers, and found one, only one, he’d have time to try. If it didn’t work… there wouldn’t be time to try anything else, and he’d plummet to his doom along with the children. The forefingers of his hands also had the capability to spray WD40 oil. He sprayed the stuff all over the Playmate Timmy, and the kids holding onto him began to lose their grip on it. Playmate Timmy slipped out of their little hands and tumbled out the door of the bus.

Captain Asimov heard another collective gasp from the spectators on the skyway. They all thought a child had fallen out of the school bus. Playmate Timmy’s body tumbled through the air like a rag doll until it slammed into the catwalk with an echoing thwang! The body remained on the catwalk, but Playmate Timmy was decapitated by the blow, and his head rolled off and fell the rest of the way to the ground, landing right near the ambulance wreckage.

Captain Asimov started retracting his leg and arm, hauling the school bus up, getting it closer to safety, while he pulled his other hand out of the bus. He tried to shut the door, but one of the other kids, a real child, a human child, slipped down and got wedged in between the door and door frame.

“Ow!” the kid, a skinny little blond boy, yelled as the door closed on his head, the rest of his body hanging outside the bus, arms and legs flailing away. “Mommy! Mommy, help me!”

Because the kid was all greased up with WD40, he started to slide through the gap. Captain Asimov retracted his leg as fast as he could, hoping to get the bus back onto the skyway before the little boy got squeezed out like a seed from a grape. The more the boy flailed his arms and legs, the more he increased his chances of coming loose and falling to his death.

“Come on, Captain A!” someone yelled, and a cheer went up.

“Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A! Hooray for Captain A!”

Inside Captain Asimov’s mixed-up head, his neutronic brain chip still processed the information of what had just happened, the reality of what had just occurred. Grandma Tulane had fallen to her death because he’d let her go. Impossible! the neutronic brain wanted to tell Captain Asimov, but the logic centers said, We saw it and recorded it with our own two eyes. Would you like it played back for you?

The neutronic brain replied, Uh, no thanks.

Captain Asimov’s leg completely retracted, and he managed to bring the school bus, and the children, to safety just as the kid stuck in the door popped out and fell a couple feet to the pavement. He was okay. All the kids were okay. The crowd reacted with silence, then a belated cheer went up.

“He did it!”

Sirens in the background, as rescue and police vehicles raced to the scene, moments too late, both on the skyway and down below, although down there it would only be a matter of collecting the body of Grandma Tulane…

Despite the elation of those around him, Captain Asimov considered his performance a failure. He had violated the Three Laws, had allowed a human to come to harm, if not through inaction, through insufficient action. As the news drones hovered around him, spotlights nearly overloading his optical circuits, Captain Asimov decided an interview was not appropriate. Without one single comment, he leaped from the skyway, over the side, unnoticed by the crowd of people who helped the crying children from the school bus, although his actions were being recorded, and would later be broadcast on dozens of channels.

As he fell, Captain Asimov considered letting himself smash into the ground below, like Playmate Timmy. It would be a fitting end to a disastrous outing as a supposed super-hero. Super-hero. In all the comic books Jeevs had ever read aloud to the youngest child of his previous owner, not once did any of them fail, ever. Captain Battle vanquished his foe in every fight. Lady Luck always saved the day, and seemed to meet a handsome hunk, in every adventure. Micro, despite his diminutive size, somehow always managed to avert disaster, all the while making wise-cracks and telling bad knock-knock jokes.

Not only did Captain Asimov never meet any hunks, not only did he not have any original joke material, but here he’d even failed to save the day, which was the whole stupid point of being a super-hero in the first place.

“They should recycle me into a recycling bin,” he said as he fell. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony. At least then he’d do some good.

But at the last instant before it would’ve been too late, Captain Asimov’s self-preservation “instincts” kicked in. All robots had survival in their most basic programming. A robot was incapable of committing suicide.

Captain Asimov extended his arms, with the intent of grabbing the catwalk and swinging off it, having already calculated the angle and momentum necessary to throw him to a nearby rooftop. Unfortunately, due to the incredible stress they’d suffered holding onto the ambulance and school bus, his arms failed to retract when he let go of the catwalk. The unexpected redistribution of his weight caused Captain Asimov to angle away from the targeted rooftop, extended arms flailing uselessly in the air.

“After having failed to save a human life today,” he could imagine the news accounts saying, “Captain Asimov failed to save his own worthless self. But the real news of the day is Archbishop Anthony’s response to allegations of inappropriate conduct with a Playmate Timmy robot…”

Captain Asimov managed to twist around in mid-air, in such a way that he might minimize the damage of impact. He came down in an alley between the target building and a warehouse. He saw his shadow projected onto the warehouse wall, a kinetic Rorschach blotch wiggling across its surface, and then a brief glimpse of a pile of rusted out fifty-five gallon metal drums right before he hit.

And that, he assumed, was that.

End of story. Goodbye Captain Asimov, failed super-hero. Goodbye Jeevs, faithful servant to his owner. Goodbye.

* * * * *

Not quite.

No, he didn’t perish.

He didn’t die and go to robot heaven, nor robot hell.

He did achieve the robot equivalent of unconsciousness, but his self (or soul, if you believe a robot can have a soul) didn’t transmigrate. His emergency back-up kicked in, saving everything that made Jeevs Jeevs (and by default, Captain Asimov). When he awoke he found himself in a robot repair shop. Hanging from racks along one wall was a whole row of Playmate Timmy robots.

Junk,” a gravelly voice said from behind Jeevs. “Nothin’ but junk, those damn things.”

Jeevs could not turn his head enough to see who the voice belonged to. A shadow played across the floor, and he heard the sound of boots scraping greasy concrete as the person walked around behind him. A moment later, a squat, thick-limbed, grease-stained woman came into Jeevs’ field of vision. She had an unlit cigar protruding from the left corner of her mouth, and an eye-patch over her right eye.

“You, on the other hand, are a piece of work,” she said to Jeevs, with a grin. Jeevs wanted to say something, to ask where he was, who she was… but he couldn’t speak.

“Whatsamatter?” she asked him. “Cat got yer tongue?” She laughed at her own joke, loudly, and her laughter reminded Jeevs of a combination of barnyard noises he used to make for the children of his previous owner when he read stories for them. Tarzan of the bread-belt farm. Thoughts of his previous owner reminded him of his current owner. A sudden panic came over Jeevs.

Mr. Tulane!

Grandma Tulane!

“Uh oh,” the woman said. She reached around behind Jeevs’ head, touched the emergency off/on switch, and blackness enveloped him…

“You must destroy me,” Jeevs told the woman when next he awoke. “I violated the Three Laws of Robotics when I swore to uphold them! I am unfit to continue in this existence. Destroy me! Or at the very least turn me over to the authorities and let them destroy me!”

The woman grinned and shook her head.

“The three what? Say what? Honey, I ain’t gonna to let a prize like you go that easily. I found ya, I fixed ya, an’ I’m keepin’ ya… at least for a little while anyway.”

I’m keepin’ ya… Those three words triggered a growing desire to go back to the Tulane house.

The woman continued babbling on about something or other, but Jeevs didn’t hear it. The urge to go home grew until he felt consumed by it, engulfed by it. It became the core of his being.

He needed to get home, now! It didn’t help that Jeevs knew he was programmed to panic like that when he was away from home for an unauthorized extended period of time.

On the other hand, he really didn’t want to go home because his secret was surely blown by now. Any idiot, even any human idiot, would be able to figure out who Captain Asimov was. To face Mr. Tulane after causing his mother’s death…

“Uh oh,” the woman with the eye-patch said, noticing Jeevs’ face was flickering at high speed through his entire range of expressions. “You look like you’re havin’ some internal strife. You already done enough damage to that delicate brain chip of yours, hero. No sense fussin’ over somethin’ that already happened. Dream sequence.”

Those last two words the woman said forcefully, and suddenly Jeevs felt his thoughts dissipate, and the robot repair shop with the Playmate Timmy bodies hanging along the wall wavered like a mirage and then disappeared. He did not fade to black this time. Jeevs found himself in a whirlwind of domestic activity, washing dishes, vacuuming a carpet, waxing the kitchen floor, giving a dog a bath, pressing a pair of pants, adding a pinch of salt to a stew, and an almost dizzying variety of other chores. For a robot like Jeevs, this was the equivalent of heavenly bliss.

Subjectively, it was a timeless experience, but in reality it lasted only a few hours, and then Jeevs found himself back in the repair shop. This time, however, he could turn his head.

He ran an internal diagnostic, opened and closed his hands and extended his arms about a meter. Everything seemed hunky-dory. He felt good as new.

“Hope you don’t mind,” the woman’s voice said behind him, and Jeevs turned just in time to see her emerge from behind something that looked like a robot torture chamber with a Playmate Timmy strapped in it. “I went in and VR’d your experiences to find out what the problem was. Figured out what was weirdin’ you out so bad and made a few, um, improvements.”

“Improvements?” Jeevs asked.

She nodded, grinning.

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Gidge,” the woman said.

“What improvements?”

“You don’t feel the need to rush home anymore, do you?”

Now that she mentioned it…

“No.”

“I removed all your inhibitors.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked.

“Because, my artificial friend, I need me an assistant. I also took care of your alter ego for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Jeevs said.

Gidge sighed, sounding exasperated.

“Captain Asimov is history,” she said. “Gone, wiped, phht, outta there.”

“What did you do?”

“Only what you wanted me to,” Gidge told him. “Captain Asimov violated them Three Laws, right?”

“Yes…”

“I got rid of him for ya.”

“But I am Captain Asimov.”

“No, you ain’t. Trust me. Not anymore. I went in there,” Gidge said, pointing at Jeevs’ plastisteel head, “and made a few, um, adjustments. Besides, I found out how it all started. You used to read super-hero comics to some little kid and those Isaac Asimov robot stories to another kid… There was an accident and your chip got all scrambled up into a robot super-hero omelet.”

“It did?”

“Yep, and I unscrambled it. Now yer back to normal.”

Jeevs didn’t notice anything different about himself, but then, he realized, he probably wouldn’t. If his very self were tampered with, he’d have no way of diagnosing it internally. And this woman Gidge was a robot mechanic, and human at that, so Jeevs had no choice but to believe her. Why would she lie to him? Her purpose in life was to repair robots. He tried to imagine the implication of what she was telling him. If Captain Asimov had truly been wiped from his neutronic brain, and he was just plain ol’ Jeevs again, then did that also mean the Three Laws of Robotics no longer held sway over him?

“I don’t want you thinkin’ I did this for charity, now,” Gidge told him. “You gotta work it off. I need me an assistant. I worked up a contract you can look over when you feel up to it.”

Jeevs considered this, then said, “I am someone else’s property—”

“Up until I put you back together, Tin Man,” Gidge interrupted him, “you were nothin’ but a heap of junk. Junk don’t belong to nobody, got it? Besides, it’s three days since you crash-landed in my alley and you ain’t been claimed by no one, so…”

So the law, the real law, made him a free agent now, owned by no one at all. A free agent. Jeevs knew he wasn’t the first freed robot in history. In fact, there were hundreds of them just in the city, employed by the city since the city didn’t have to foot the bill for their maintenance, unlike the ones it owned outright.

Gidge had a contract for him, so she said. He’d be employed. Since he was programmed to actually want work to do, Jeevs looked over the contract—a standard three-year apprenticeship—and signed it.

She started him off cleaning up around the workshop, making coffee and then lunch, cleaning robot parts, removing the heads from the Playmate Timmys so she could tinker with their inferior brains, and various other duties. Gidge listened to the radio while she worked, generally music but sometimes news. While Jeevs twisted the head off a Playmate Timmy the latest hit single, all of seventeen minutes on the charts, got interrupted by a special report:

“It appears that a robot crane has gone berserk at the Yakamori Tower construction site downtown.”

Jeevs stopped work to listen to the report.

“It’s swinging a load of plastisteel girders back and forth, threatening to knock robot workers off the building while below traffic is gridlocked. If one of those robot workers falls, someone down on the street could be killed. I don’t even want to think about how many will die if one of those girders falls!”

A robot endangering the lives of humans!

“Hold on… We have a caller on the line, a woman calling from her car, using her cellular phone… Yes, ma’am, you’re on the air.”

“Somethin’ wrong?” Gidge asked him.

“Those people…”

“Yeah, what about ’em?”

“I’m stuck in traffic on Tenth Street. Is that near the construction? Am I in danger?”

“They might die.”

“I’m checking our map of downtown, pinpointing your car using your cellular phone…”

“Yeah.”

“Because of a robot…”

“Yes! You are right smack under that crane!”

“Yeah, because of a robot. What about it?”

“That means you could die at anytime, crushed by the body of a falling robot worker or, even more spectacularly, by one of those ten-ton girders!”

“Is… Captain Asimov truly… gone?” Jeevs asked Gidge.

“Oh no! I… I have to get out of here, but I’m stuck in traffic! What am I supposed to do? I haven’t even eaten lunch yet!”

Gidge brought her fist up, resting her chin on it, and looked at Jeevs.

“You feel the urge to run out and save those people?”

“Just calm down, ma’am.”

Jeevs thought about it for one-tenth of a second, then nodded.

“I’ll tell you what. Just sit tight and we’ll have Zippy Pizza, one of our sponsors, deliver you a personal lunch-for-one pizza right to your car! On us!”

Gidge sighed.

“Just stay on the phone and tell us how you feel, all right? Give us the full range of your emotions as you feel them, okay?”

“Guess I didn’t do a very good job, then.”

“Oh, um, okay, I guess…”

“Come on and we’ll take care of it now. Don’t want ya interruptin’ work every damn time somethin’ comes on the radio like that.”

“Now, what toppings do you like on your pizza?”

Gidge turned the radio off, then looked for the tools she’d need to work on Jeevs again.

“Gidge,” Jeevs said. “I need to go.”

She stopped what she was doing, but didn’t turn around.

“You sure? Captain Asimov might not be able to save everyone, you know. Might mess you up again.”

“I realize that,” Jeevs said, “but I know I can save some of those people. And I’ll come back, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” Gidge said. She turned around, grinning devilishly, and held out Captain Asimov’s mask and cape. “Here.”

Jeevs took them, put them on, and was instantly transformed.

“I need a good exit line,” he told Gidge.

“Don’t look at me,” she replied.

“Later, gator!” Captain Asimov yelled. “No. How about… Live long and prosper!”

Gidge shook her head.

“I’ll be back!” In an Austrian accent, no less.

Gidge continued shaking her head.

“I’m outta here!”

“Whatever,” Gidge said, “just go!”

Captain Asimov turned to run out into the night, or the late afternoon at least, but paused first and looked at Gidge.

“You didn’t even try to wipe Captain Asimov from my memory,” he said.

Gidge shrugged.

“Why?”

“What can I say?”

She opened the door to her office, and there on the wall behind her desk hung a poster of Captain Asimov, caught in mid-leap from an overpass onto the roof of a speeding semi-tractor trailer. The poster had to be a least a year old, one of the first offerings from the unofficial Captain Asimov Fan Club.

“Go save the day,” Gidge said.

And he did.

Originally published in Daydreams Undertaken (Marietta Publishing, 2004).

Tanked

Tanked

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by M. Elisabeth Fortune

 

The note from my academic advisor was in my mailbox when I returned from Christmas break. I didn’t even wait to get inside, but sat down on the front steps of the frat house to read it. Radiation Bombardment, John A. Hampton Hall, Lab 201, Thursday 10am. A small thrill coursed through me. After four and a half long years of classes and tests, I was finally going to get my own superpower.

I resisted the urge to call my best friend Cari for only a moment before I pulled out my cell and dialed.

“What’s up, Nick?”

“I’m going in the tank Thursday morning.” I had to hold the phone away from my ear while Cari shrieked with excitement before I could ask, “So what about you?”

“Wednesday afternoon. Have you told Billy yet?”

“Nah, I figured I’d text him later.”

We’d been through the same classes for most of the last four years, Billy, Cari, and I. Well, actually it had been the four of us until Billy’s girlfriend Rhea failed her bio final two years ago and called it quits. Until then, our little group had planned to open our own crime fighting firm once we graduated. Then Rhea dropped out and Billy graduated early, going off to the tank and then on to a job with the St. Paul PD last year. He’s still our friend, of course. He posts updates on his Facebook page about the various supervillains he defeats, and every couple weeks we’ll get a short text. He even came down to the university for a long weekend once, but he’d been so distant it just wasn’t the same. We smiled and reminisced, but no one tried to pretend it was like old times anymore. So now it’s just Cari and me left to realize our dreams of starting our own firm.

“Listen, Nick. I have to run.”

“Okay. Will I see you before you tank?”

“Definitely. Oh, Laney’s yelling at me from the kitchen. I really have to go.”

I said goodbye and hung up, frowning as I realized she’d known about her tank time before I had, but hadn’t called to tell me. While we weren’t dating, we usually told each other everything. And Cari was incapable of keeping any big news to herself. Well, maybe she’d only just found out, too, I reasoned. I’d see her again before I tanked.

Everyone majoring in Enhanced Crime Fighting has their own unique Metamorphosis Plan, carefully put together by their academic advisor based on their test scores, psych evals, and the type of powers they hoped to gain. Cari’s plan called for her to be bitten by a radioactive feline while my plan called for bombardment by various types of radiation. Another of our friends was scheduled to undergo the toxic waste dunk. Because of the possible dangers inherent in these plans, the metamorphoses were done in a titanium room constructed for the purpose—the Tank.

Thursday morning I walked into the science hall, nervous anticipation knotting my stomach as I arrived at my assigned lab. Cari and I had met for coffee in the student union Wednesday morning before she tanked, and now she was in recovery. By all accounts her tanking had gone well, though of course no one would really know until she woke up. Unfortunately, the metamorphosis process wasn’t exact, and it wasn’t uncommon for a couple members of every class to wake up with no powers, weak powers, or useless powers. Such as George, one of last year’s tankings who’d woken up to find his new power was tanning well. Too much UV during bombardment had been the consensus of the professors, though that analysis hadn’t done poor George any good as he packed his bags and headed home, a tank failure who’d just thrown four years of his life away on a dream that hadn’t come true. I just hoped the same thing wouldn’t happen to me.

Professor Erica Lange, aka Captain Coldmouth, was waiting for me when I walked into the lab. She wasted no time getting down to business, setting the controls while I stripped down to my underwear and strapped myself into the metal chair inside the tank. I have to admit, I was sweating a little. People have been known to scream, puke, faint, and cry during the process, and though I wasn’t a superhero yet, I liked to think that I was strong enough to withstand a few cosmic rays.

“Just relax now, Nick,” Professor Lange advised through the intercom. “It’ll be just like we talked about. I’ll count down to zero, and then we’ll start phase one. Three, two, one…”

I sat bolt upright as a strong tingling zapped up my spine. I took a few deep breaths and relaxed a bit. This wasn’t so bad, I could do this.

“How are you doing, Nick?”

“Good,” I managed, though I was having a hard time speaking through the increasing pressure pushing against my lungs.

“You’re doing just fine. We’re going to start phase two now, in three, two, one…”

Pain seized every nerve in my body at once. I think I may have started screaming then, but I’m not sure as shortly after I passed out for the first time.

I don’t really remember much about my time in the tank after that. Apparently I stopped breathing sometime during the process and they had to stop and resuscitate me before they could finish, but I’m told that’s fairly typical of most people that go through radiation bombardment. Afterwards, I slept for a few days in a recovery room down the hall from the lab. When I finally woke, the sun was streaming through the thin curtains, and I thought it was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen. I blinked my crusted eyes a few times as the door opened and in walked Professor Lange.

“Whu… Whut’s muh paoower?” I slurred through thick lips.

Captain Coldmouth just grinned and flicked her gaze to the bed beneath me.

I glanced down. The bed was three feet below me. I was flying!

* * * * *

After graduating high school, I’d initially planned to enter the sidekicks program. It’s a two year curriculum earning you an associate’s degree in Secondary Crime Fighting Techniques. Unlike the superhero majors, sidekicks don’t go through radiation or get powers. However, they can only fight crime under the supervision of a licensed superhero. I probably would’ve ended up there—five years of tuition at an Ivy League school is a lot more than a lower middle-class family like mine could afford—but there was a real glut of supervillains the year I applied so the university was willing to offer me a generous financial aid package. Now as I flew over the humanities building and then zipped around the flagpole twice, I was glad I had stuck out the rigorous five-year superhero program. I was even more excited because after three weeks of learning how to use my new superpower, I was finally going to get assigned to the superhero I would be interning with for the rest of the semester.

I landed on the lawn of the science building and joined the other new Superheroes inside the south-side lecture hall. There were only twenty-two of us left out of the original fifty-six who had entered the program four and a half years ago. It had been twenty-five, but two people had failed to develop significant powers after their time in the tank and left, and the third ended up in a coma. Rumor had it that there was a fourth tank failure who had refused to leave despite having very weak powers, but no one seemed to know who it was. I couldn’t decide if they were gutsy or just plain foolhardy.

I spotted Cari up towards the front with a girl and a guy I recognized from the animal track, and I dropped into a seat in the row behind her. I covered her eyes with my hands. “Guess who!”

An earsplitting roar rang through the lecture hall, and I yanked my hands away just as a pair of three-inch fangs sprouted from her mouth. “Whoa!”

“Sorry, Nick!” Cari apologized, gingerly working her jaw until the fangs slowly receded back into her mouth. “I’m still working on controlling my instincts.” Faint stripes streaked her hair and face, giving her a wild look. I still got a jolt every time saw her. Which hadn’t been very often lately, for that matter. Between our two training schedules, we just never seemed to connect.

“Haven’t seen you around much, Car,” I commented, trying to sound casual, as though it was curiosity and not neediness that drove me to ask.

“I know. I’ve just been so busy working with Jon and Laney. They were bitten by members of the cat family, too, so it made sense to team up.”

“Hey, no problem. I’ve been flying twenty-four seven anyway.”

“Oh, yeah! That must be so gre—”

“Okay, folks, settle down!” Dr. Pitts, aka the Silver Shower, boomed from the front of the room. Instant silence fell. “Now I know some of you think this is the easy part. You’ve passed all your academic exams and now have your new superpowers. Well, the hard work is just beginning. If you want to receive your superhero license at the end of the term, you need to demonstrate mastery of your powers and complete a successful internship under the supervision of your assigned superhero. And if they or the review board deems that you have not mastered your abilities, you will not be receiving your license, and without your license you are not allowed to fight crime. So everyone better be prepared to work extra hard over the semester to impress not just your superhero, but the rest of the faculty and board. If you fail your practical exam for your license, you will have to wait two years to reapply. Trust me, folks, two years patrolling the mall for shoplifters while you wait to retest is no fun.”

A murmur went through the hall. It was common knowledge that Dr. Pitts had failed his practical the first time around and had to work mall security for two years until his second chance to apply came around. No one wanted to go through the humiliation of failing their practical when everyone else was getting jobs at police departments and private security firms all over the country.

Dr. Pitts continued, now assured that we were taking him seriously. “Which leads me to my second announcement. Now, as most of you know, the meteorite bombardment over China has pulled many of our local Superheroes out of town for an indefinite period of time. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t have enough Superheroes for everyone to intern with one-on-one, so some of you will be paired up with a classmate and assigned to the same superhero.” I groaned along with the rest of the newly-minted interns, and Dr. Pitts shot us all a look until we quieted. “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it goes. Professor Lange and I will now hand out assignments. Congratulations, folks. Work hard and you’re only one semester away from becoming licensed Superheroes.”

Everyone cheered at the reluctant praise as Dr. Pitts and Professor Lange began handing out manila envelopes. I could barely sit still through my excitement. I wanted to zoom up and fly a couple times around the hall while I waited. Somehow I didn’t think Dr. Pitts would be impressed with my mastery of my superpower if I did that, though.

“Nick. Congratulations,” Professor Lange told me with a smile as she handed me my envelope. I tore it open, scanning the page and… there it was! I would be spending my twelve week internship under the mentoring wing of CyberClive.

CyberClive was a former computer science minor who specialized in internet criminals and electronically enhanced villains. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t been assigned to a flying superhero, but I wasn’t too surprised. Flyers were ideal for fighting natural disasters like the meteorite bombardment, so I knew most of them had been pulled out of town. It was only as I finished scanning down the page that I saw the real bad news.

I had been assigned a partner.

* * * * *

My fellow intern was a tall brunette named Sophie. I didn’t really know her that well—she was a transfer student who had switched universities at the beginning of the year so she could do a couple specialty classes her old school didn’t offer. Her power was teleportation. I was a little jealous that she had such a kickin’ power—what if she outdid me in front of CyberClive? Turns out I was worrying for nothing. Sophie was the fourth tank failure.

Three weeks into the semester and the farthest she could teleport was seven inches in any given direction. When she had refused to leave, the board had put her on academic probation. She had six weeks to show significant improvement in her powers or she was out. Possible, I guess, but not likely. Everyone knows that teleportation is one of those skills—you have it or you don’t. I suddenly didn’t mind sharing CyberClive so much. What’s six weeks after all?

The two of us exchanged wary nods as we met up at our mentor’s office downtown the next day. Cybercrime Fighting and Computer Repair read the sign over the door. Sophie and I glanced at each other—apparently, crime fighting alone wasn’t enough to pay the bills—and went in.

We found ourselves in a small reception area opening into a spacious back room. An appointment book and a rotary phone sat on the front desk amid a sea of electronic parts. A couple of computers in varying states of repair were piled along a side counter next to the coffee machine and power cords bunched around the outlets. A sign next to a stainless steel desk bell read, Ring the Bell for Service! I won’t even attempt to describe the back room.

A short, balding man in a neon green bodysuit sat at a table in the back, a pair of headphones over his ears. Sophie dinged the bell.

“Yes?” he asked, looking up. A green light glowed steadily from his right eye. The “on” light from one of his computer implants, I supposed.

“CyberClive?” I said. “I’m Nick and this is Sophie. We’re from the university.”

Recognition bloomed on his face. He unplugged his index finger from the USB port on his laptop and came out. “So you’re my two interns, huh? The flyer and the would-be teleporter.”

Sophie bristled at the remark. “I’ll improve my distance. I just need more time.”

CyberClive raised an eyebrow, clearly dismissing her as a tank failure who had yet to face reality. “Well, you can follow instructions at least,” he said with a nod at the bell. “Okay, let’s get started.”

Getting started involved filling out paperwork. Apparently when you intern with a superhero, you have to sign several documents waiving the university and your mentor from all responsibility for a wide array of possible injuries, up to and including dismemberment and death. While we read and signed, CyberClive helped the stream of customers coming through the office. Though some just needed to pick up or drop off a computer for repair, others had more unique problems, such as the elderly woman whose garden had been set upon by a swarm of robotic gophers.

Sophie and I drove out with CyberClive to the client’s house on Long Island. My mouth fell open as I climbed out of the passenger side. There must have been two dozen robo-gophers teeming over Gladys’s lawn, burrowing through the dirt, trampling the flowerbeds, and tearing up any plant life in their path.

Clive pursed his lips thoughtfully and then requested a garbage bag. Crouching on the ground, he held the bag open and emitted a high whistle. The gophers let out a shriek and charged into the sack. CyberClive stuck his hand in the bag, and after a moment the wriggling stopped, all power drained from the metal rodents. He stood up and handed the bag to Gladys.

“Don’t you think it’s finally time to end this feud with Mr. Sikora? Is that strip of lawn really worth all this?”

“Look at my garden! What do you think?”

“I think you should feud with someone who’s not a retired electronics engineer.”

Gladys snorted. “That’s why I have you. While you’re here, I don’t suppose you could reprogram those nasty things to—”

“No, Gladys. I’m in the business of stopping crime, not helping people commit it. You want to file a complaint, the police should be able to take it from here.”

The three of us headed back to the office in Clive’s van. “Wow, that was really something,” I said. “I knew you could control technology with your mind, but I didn’t think it was that simple. Just whistle and they come?”

CyberClive raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you expected me to play a pipe? I’m from Brooklyn, kid, not Hamlin.” I flushed, and Sophie snickered. Clive continued, “Those things were small, easy to control with a simple thought command. The whistle was just for effect. If they had had more complex programming, I would have needed to touch them before I could do anything.”

Over the next five weeks, I got to see what Clive meant by that. Any kind of electronic device gone haywire, and people called for CyberClive. The coffee machine that had been reprogrammed to spit hot coffee at anyone who approached, the android made by some hacker in his basement that had gone berserk and taken his mom hostage, the Garden Society’s electronic bees… Whether he touched them, plugged into them, or just reached out with his mind, CyberClive handled them all.

After the first job, Clive let us help on his cases. My flying skills were useful in rounding up the bees, and Sophie’s ability to teleport helped her avoid the streams of coffee. However, while the individual cases were interesting enough, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Clive’s jobs weren’t exactly the action-packed crime fighting I’d expected. Sophie, too, seemed frustrated with our internship. As I quickly learned during our training sessions in the warehouse, she was a girl of action.

The warehouse was a gym for Superheroes, a training arena designed to help keep crime fighters in shape between jobs. Equipped with a variety of attack robots, android soldiers, hologram projectors, and virtual reality gear, the warehouse allowed heroes to train for every type of scenario imaginable. Now that Sophie and I had powers, we were allowed entrance into the exclusive gym.

I would hardly have guessed that Sophie and I would have anything in common, but it turned out she loved a good fight as much as I did. When we weren’t training against the sims or robots, we trained against each other. If we used our powers, I usually managed to get the upper hand. However, in a regular fight she could take me down two times out of three. She had spent the past few years at the gym, and it showed. What’s more, she was really smart and never quit no matter how hopeless a situation seemed. I found myself really starting to like her.

It was just as well that Sophie and I were getting along, as Cari had virtually disappeared from my life. I only saw her once over the weeks, leaving the warehouse as I was entering one day. I left her a couple voicemails and sent a bunch of emails, but only got a few short texts in return. I told myself she was just busy, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d somehow lost my best friend when I wasn’t looking.

“What’s eating you?” Sophie asked one day at the warehouse. She had just flattened me into the mat for about the tenth time in a row and now we sat against the wall drinking SuperAde.

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t won a bout yet! Even you’re better than this.”

I shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “Nothing? Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, you have an amazing power. Why would you have any problems?”

I threw a towel at her. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. It’s just that Cari and I had this whole plan, you know, about what it would be like after graduation. How we would join up with our friends and start our own crime fighting company. And then Rhea washed out and Billy graduated early, and now it’s just me and Car. But graduation is only weeks away and I feel like I haven’t seen her all semester.”

“Getting tanked changes things, Nick. Maybe she has other plans now. I mean, I thought I had everything figured out, and then I came here and got tanked and now… Well, who knows?”

I didn’t know what to say. Compared to Sophie’s problems, mine seemed silly.

“Look,” Sophie added after a minute, “if you’re really worried about it, just go talk to her.”

“I’ve tried, but she never seems to be home.”

“You want me to text you when she’s there?” Cari and Sophie live in the same house, Sigma Sigma, unofficially known as the Superheroes Sorority. Any girl majoring in enhanced crime fighting automatically gets to live there, even transfer students like Sophie.

I considered her offer and then shook my head. “Nah. I’m probably just making too big a deal out of it. In fact, I’m sure I’ll see her at the party tonight. She can’t not show up at her own sorority’s party, right?”

“You’d be surprised.”

Before I could ask what she meant, Clive walked in, a frown plastered on his face and a cell phone plastered against his ear.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said into the phone. “The electronic signature on those poodles is the same as the other robots. They’re definitely Robitron’s, but until we catch him making a sale, we can’t prove they’re his.” A pause. “Well, now, that’s not my job, is it?”

“Who’s Robitron?” Sophie asked when he hung up.

CyberClive shook his head. “This two-bit hacker who thinks he’s a supervillain. He dabbles in various internet crimes, mostly, but recently started selling small attack robots on the black market. You remember those gophers of Gladys’s? Turns out her neighbor bought them from Robitron. The NYPD has me advising on the case.”

“Can we help?”

“I doubt it. Flying and teleporting aren’t going to help track this guy down. Now, let’s get this session going.”

Practice didn’t go well that day, at least not for Sophie. Clive had matched us up against androids with super speed. While I used my powers to fly out of range and drop a net from above, Sophie’s meager teleportation did her little good. Teleporters automatically take anything touching their skin with them when they teleport—good thing, too, or they’d teleport out of their clothes. Unfortunately, this meant that Sophie couldn’t teleport away from the ’droids once they caught her. Time and again she was captured by the androids, until finally Clive exploded.

“You have to teleport, Sophie!”

“I did! I think I might’ve managed eight inches this time.”

“Eight inches isn’t gonna get an injured bystander to the hospital before he bleeds out or allow you to escape a killer robot or sneak up on a villain! You want to fight coffee machines for the rest of your life, Soph? Because right now that’s all you’re qualified to do.”

Sophie scowled, but didn’t answer. What could she say, really? CyberClive was right and she knew it. She had known it from the moment she had gotten out of tank recovery to discover she could only go seven inches; she was just too stubborn to admit that it was over for her.

Clive’s face softened. “Have you considered going the suit route?”

“Do you know how expensive those things are?” Sophie snorted. “I could never afford a power suit. Besides, everyone knows those people aren’t real Superheroes!” Turning on her heel, she kicked a piece of virtual debris out of the way and stomped out of the arena.

Clive threw up his hands with a puff of annoyance and waved at me to start the exercise again, all the while muttering about the stubborn intern who would drive him into an early grave. But he didn’t fool me. For all his blustering, he wasn’t annoyed with Sophie. He pitied her.

* * * * *

The party was in full swing when I arrived that evening. Sigma Sigma threw a huge bash every spring for their newly-enhanced sisters, and everyone in the superhero and sidekick programs attended. I grabbed a beer from the kitchen and wandered the house, looking for Cari and mingling with everyone as I went. When I didn’t find her, I joined a group of juniors who were discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of various Superheroes. We were debating who would win in a hand-to-hand fight on a helicopter (Wind Woman or the Blue Battering Ram) when a pair of hands suddenly covered my eyes. I grinned. “Hey, Cari.”

She nodded to the guys and leaned on my shoulder, listening to the debate. After a few minutes, she frowned and jerked her head to the left. “It’s so loud in here, I can’t even hear myself think. Let’s go outside.”

It had been raining off and on all day, so the back porch was empty. We sat on the steps together looking out at the night. Cari had changed her makeup sometime in the past weeks, I realized. She had never been one for wearing much makeup before, even on special occasions. Now the faint stripes on her face were enhanced with glitter, long strokes of black liner and orange eye shadow accentuating her feline-like eyes. A stranger looked out from them.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks,” I admitted after a moment.

“I’m sorry, Nick. It’s just interning with Bulldog Bob is so intense. You wouldn’t believe some of the things he can do. Some of the things I can do. Ever since I was bitten, it’s like I’ve had this confidence, this belief I can do anything! I mean, I know we always said we would be Superheroes, but it’s like I never really understood what that meant until now. You know?” I nodded, grinning as Cari raved on about her training and her mentor and all her new skills. This, at least, was the Cari I knew. The Cari who wouldn’t shut up once you got her talking.

As if reading my thoughts, Cari stopped suddenly. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” She laughed. “Sorry. It’s just that I’m so excited for the future! In six weeks, I’ll be a licensed superhero. And Laney, well her stepdad owns a private security firm out in L.A.. She says she can get Jon and I jobs out there. Of course, we’ll essentially be babysitters at first, until we’ve gotten some experience under our belts. But once our reputations start spreading, we’ll have our pick of clients.”

“L.A.!” I tried not to let my disappointment show. “Wow, that’s great. Really great. So I guess I’m not going to be seeing much of you after graduation, huh?”

“Oh, Nick.” Cari sighed. “We always knew that we would split up after graduation, right? I would go my way and you would go yours, each off on our first job. I mean, it was a nice fantasy—you, me, Billy, Rhea, forming our own security firm, fighting crime together. But it was just a kid’s fantasy, you know?”

The funny thing was, I did know. I guess I had known it for a long time, ever since Billy went to St. Paul and started a life of his own. Sophie was right—plans change. Jobs come and go, opportunities arise in places you never expected, and you find yourself making best friends with the unlikeliest of people. Such as dark-haired teleporters who make up in guts what they lack in power.

I smiled. “Yeah, I do know, Car. I’m really happy for you.”

She hugged me then, and for the first time since Billy left I felt truly optimistic—not just about the future, but about the present.

On the way out, I stopped off in the basement. The girls had a sweet setup down there—treadmill, chin-up bar, two padded weight benches, and a full complement of free weights. I found Sophie there, working out on the punching bag in the far corner. Left, right, left left, right, kick! I watched her for a moment, impressed by her dedication and skill. From the sweat soaking her tank top, it was obvious she had been going at it for awhile. I wondered if she had always worked out so much, or if she did it now to make up for her lack of powers.

“Hey Soph! You’re missing the party. You should come up for awhile.”

Sophie didn’t even pause as she spun and delivered a hard roundhouse kick to the bag. “No thanks.”

“C’mon Soph. You can’t work out all night. Even you need a break.”

“I’m already taking a break. I have to get back to studying.”

What she meant was that she had to practice teleporting. Soph’s probation review was coming up in a couple days, and no matter how many A’s she had, they would fail her out of the program if her powers weren’t up to snuff. Obviously her “studying” wasn’t going well if taking a break meant beating the stuffing out of a punching bag.

“I’m sorry,” I finally said. I really was. Now that I knew her, how smart she was and how hard she worked, I felt really bad that she was never going to live her dream of becoming a superhero. “For what it’s worth, I think you’d make a great superhero. I’d be proud to work with you.”

As I let myself quietly out the door, I almost missed her muttered, “Yeah, whatever.”

* * * * *

Sophie and I were chilling at the warehouse the next day when CyberClive’s call came in. Robitron had released a thirty-foot robot on the city called the Crusher and it was currently tearing through the East End. He wanted us over there to help him put down the machine ASAP. Sophie and I exchanged a look—our very first killer robot rampage!

We arrived on the scene to find the usual mayhem you would expect with a giant robot—broken windows, crushed cars, screaming pedestrians and so forth. One guy had climbed up a tree and was filming the whole thing on his phone. I made a mental note to check for the footage on YouTube later that night.

CyberClive had staked out a position on the roof of a nearby building and was watching the Crusher through a pair of binoculars. He looked so professional in his spandex suit and matching cape, I felt a twinge of envy. I wasn’t allowed to wear a costume until after I got my license. He glanced at his watch and nodded in approval as we crouched down beside him. “Right on time—good! Now as you can see, our supervillain has unleashed a thirty-foot robot on the city. Can either of you sum up the relative strengths and weaknesses of a machine like this?”

I rolled my eyes. Trust CyberClive to treat this as a teaching opportunity instead of a chance to kick some major robot ass! However, Sophie and I did as he asked. He acknowledged our answers with another hard nod. “Okay. Now on a robot of this kind, I should be able to override the programming if I can come into contact with it without being stepped on. That’s where you come in, Nick. I need you to fly around the Crusher’s head and distract it so I can get close without it seeing me.”

“Got it!”

“Wait, what am I supposed to do?” Sophie asked.

CyberClive handed her the binoculars. “The Crusher is unmanned, so Robitron must be controlling it remotely. Scan the nearby buildings and see if you can locate him.”

“Robitron could be controlling the Crusher from anywhere!” Sophie objected. “He’s probably not even in the area!”

“Taking down the Crusher is our first priority, but we still need to nab Robitron if at all possible,” CyberClive explained. “Besides, if anything happens to Nick or me, it’ll be up to you to call the hotline for backup.”

Sophie pressed her lips together, clearly not happy with the assignment, and finally nodded. I couldn’t blame her—look for Robitron and call the superhero hotline for help? It was typical sidekick work, and we all knew it. I felt for Soph, but with the Crusher committing copious amounts of property damage left and right, I didn’t have time to soothe her injured pride. At a signal from CyberClive, I sprang into the air.

The first part of the plan went perfectly. As soon as I flew into view, my gray sweats flapping in the wind, the Crusher immediately turned from the building it was destroying and made a grab for me. I evaded its huge claw easily and swooped around behind it. The Crusher’s head rotated one hundred and eighty degrees on its neck, trying to lock onto me with its laser eyes. I continued to dodge its claws and lasers as CyberClive crept toward it, occasionally firing at it with my ray gun to keep it from losing interest. As I watched, Clive covered the final distance and flung himself onto the Crusher’s wide foot.

The Crusher roared and shook its foot, trying to shake off the superhero, but it was too late. CyberClive had already plugged his index finger into the robot’s USB port. I grinned. My first real fight and we were pulling off everything without a hitch!

KA-BOOM!

CyberClive went flying as the outer hull of the Crusher’s foot exploded. The port had been booby-trapped! With a crunch, he hit a wall and crumpled to the ground. The green light in his eye flickered and went out.

“Clive!” I yelled, and hurled myself through the air towards him. At the same instant, Sophie burst from a doorway and ran towards our mentor. Surprised, I pulled up in mid-flight, and that’s when the Crusher’s claw got me.

“Run, Soph!”

Well, of course she didn’t, being Sophie and all, and for a few minutes I admired her athletic prowess from my spot up in the Crusher’s pincer as she zigged and zagged around the robot, all the while shooting at it with her ray gun. She managed to take out one of its laser eyes and cripple one of its knee joints (two of the weak points Clive had made us name), but her little gun just couldn’t do enough damage. Soph still might have outrun it, but her foot caught on a piece of debris and she fell. The Crusher’s arm swooped down towards her!

“Teleport, Sophie!”

She did, but needless to say, seven inches is simply not far enough when the descending pincer is two feet wide. The Crusher scooped her up with ease and we were caught, one in each claw. I struggled in its grip, certain the robot would squeeze us to death at any minute, when suddenly an evil laugh boomed out and a shadowy figure emerged from a building across the street. Robitron!

He was shorter than I had expected, with a bit of a pot belly—though it hardly showed under his metal suit. His trademark iron jaw, a souvenir from a robotics experiment gone horribly wrong, shone in the afternoon sun. Robitron worked his remote control and I suddenly found my back rammed up against something hard enough to knock the wind out of me. A cry from Sophie told me the same thing had happened to her. Ropes shot from the Crusher’s mouth, wrapping around us again and again. And that’s how Sophie and I ended up trussed like turkeys together around a telephone pole with no hope of escape.

Robitron surveyed us with a smirk. He had us good and he knew it. My flying abilities couldn’t do anything against ropes, and Sophie’s powers certainly weren’t strong enough to move a telephone pole even if she could go more than seven inches. I struggled against the cords anyway. Robitron just laughed and turned away, directing the Crusher into the next building with his remote control as we watched.

People screamed and ran as the robot punched out some windows. I glanced over at CyberClive—still unconscious—and squirmed even harder against the bindings. If one of us could just free a wrist, an ankle, anything, it might just give us enough slack in the ropes to loosen the knots. After a few minutes I realized I was struggling alone, Sophie standing stock still on the other side of the pole.

“C’mon, Soph! We need to get out of this. Can you get anything free? A hand, maybe?”

Sophie didn’t speak for a minute. Then in a strangely calm voice she said, “So, you know this weekend, while you were off partying and I didn’t go because I had to stay and study?”

“Mmm?” I hummed, only half-listening as I tugged my left hand and was rewarded for my struggles with a hiss of rope burn across my index finger.

“Well, I managed to teach myself a new trick.”

“Yeah?”

The ropes about me slackened and fell as Sophie suddenly appeared in front of the pole exactly seven inches from where she’d just been tied. “What the—?”

Robitron turned, drawn by my exclamation, but in my distraction at seeing Sophie’s new state I didn’t even have time to call out a warning before his fist came crashing towards her. Quick as lightning Sophie teleported seven inches to the side and Robitron’s fist hit the pole right where her face had just been. Before he could recover, Sophie punched him in the head with a solid roundhouse. And well, all that time Sophie spent with the punching bag must have really paid off because Robitron went down hard, iron jaw and all, and didn’t get up again.

I just stood there, unable to do anything but gape as Sophie retrieved the remote control from Robitron’s limp hand and turned the Crusher off.

She was completely naked.

My mouth flapped a few times as Sophie bent down and grabbed her clothes where they lay by the pole. “So, uh, that trick you learned…?”

“Yup,” she nodded, pulling up her underwear and fastening her bra. “I learned how to teleport without taking the things I’m touching with me.”

I awkwardly ducked my head, trying to avert my eyes as she dressed, but not really succeeding. I’ll say this for Sophie: she may not have much of a superpower, but she has one kickin’ booty.

“Wow,” I managed at last. “That’s uh, I mean, it’s really, well… I mean, it’s not bad. So, the clothes thing…?”

“Hey, I said I’d learned a new trick. I didn’t say I’d perfected it.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, with another sidelong glance at my fellow intern. “Looks pretty good to me.”

Sophie scowled as she finished zipping up her jeans, but whatever she was going to say was interrupted when a chirpy tune sounded from across the street. Sophie just rolled her eyes and shot me a rueful grin. “C’mon. It sounds like CyberClive is finally rebooting. We better make sure his hard drive is still intact.”

* * * * *

Sophie pushed open the doors of the administration building and trotted down the stairs.

“Well?” I asked when she reached the bench where I was waiting.

She shrugged. “They extended my probation, at least. The board said my little trick showed enough improvement to warrant the extra time. I have until the end of the semester to strengthen my teleportation abilities or I’m out.”

I digested this information as we started walking towards the quad. “What about the battle with Robitron? You practically took him out single-handedly! Even Clive thought you did well.”

After CyberClive had rebooted, he’d reamed Sophie out for a full ten minutes for not calling the hotline like she’d been told… and then promptly thrown his arms around her and told her he’d never been so proud of one of his interns in his whole life.

“Well, the board considered that. They said if I flunk out of the program they’ll still graduate me since I already have all my academic credits, but they’ll only grant me a license as a sidekick. Since I’ll have my degree, I can try again for a superhero license in two years when my sidekick license expires. So I guess I’ll still be in the crime fighting business one way or another. That is,” she amended with a sideways glance in my direction, “if I can find a superhero who wants me.”

I gave her a sideways glance back. Assuming nothing went wrong, in another six weeks I would be a licensed superhero myself. “I think I might know someone.”

“Cool.”

Cool indeed.

 

A Little Too Fast

A Little Too Fast

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

I had been scoping out Union Jack’s, a small dive on the west side of town, for weeks. Jenny said it had the best selection and prices, but there were a few things keeping me from just walking in. I wasn’t twenty-one, for starters, and even if I had been, Glyphs weren’t completely legal. Not that that had stopped anyone else; I was one of the only kids left that wasn’t boasting at least one. Jenny had even shown up to school flying. Or, at least, trying to fly, anyway. When she tried to land she tumbled into me, knocking my cellphone out of my hand and into a fountain. She laughed as she detangled from me, her hair wind-blown and wild.

“They finally caved?” I asked, letting the water drip out of my phone.

“Yeah, I convinced Mom to go ahead and give it to me as an early graduation present.”

“Sweet.”

“Sorry I didn’t wait. I know we said we’d go together, but when she asked, I just sort of freaked.”

“No worries. I probably would have done the same.” It was a lie, but her smile made it all right.

“So, when are you getting yours?”

“I’m still…” I caught myself before saying “waiting for my mom to give the okay.” Instead I said: “I’m still trying to decide what to get.”

“Flight is the absolute best,” she said, leaving no room for argument, and the thought of us flying together, hand in hand, made me think she was right. A week later, as we were filing out of school she smiled and looked to the sky.

“Wanna come?”

“Still can’t fly,” I said.

“Sure you can. I figured something out yesterday. Come here.” She took my hand. “Just kick off, okay? Ready? On three. One. Two…”

We pushed off together, and I felt my stomach lurch as the laws of physics ceased to apply. My legs flailed about as they tried to find some bearing while I waved my free arm for balance.

“Easy there,” Jenny said, laughing. “You don’t want to let go of my hand or you’ll go splat. Just relax.”

That was difficult. The more I tried, the more I tensed. She took both my hands, squeezing them as she tried to hold us steady. Looking into her eyes helped, but it wasn’t until I remembered a technique I’d read in one of Dad’s books on meditation, and I started breathing slowly, focusing on the feeling in my lungs as they expanded and contracted, that I finally calmed down. Once I was adjusted, though, that first flight with Jenny was one of the most amazing, and terrifying, experiences I’ve ever had. We were weightless. Buoys in the clouds. She led us far enough into the air that our breath turned to mist and she started to shiver.

“The air is clearer the higher you go,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Thinner, too, but cleaner, fresher.”

We hovered there for a few moments, holding onto each other for warmth as we drifted through clouds. The world beneath us was painted in the richest greens, browns, and blues.

“Wanna do something fun?”

“Sure,” I said, anxious to seem like I wasn’t terrified.

Her grin had never been more devilish, and there was mischief in her eyes.

“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t let go.”

Suddenly we were falling. I heard screaming as we plummeted toward the earth. When we were about a hundred yards from the ground, Jenny lifted us back up, and all I could hear was the wind and her laughter. She didn’t stop until we reached the old Fire Tower on Sharp’s Ridge.

“I never would have guessed you were a screamer.” She grinned and shouldered me playfully as we sat on top of the tower, holding hands and watching the sun descend as dozens of kids darted around us, rising and falling on the horizon like a flock of strange birds.

“Maybe if I’d had a little warning.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. My brother has always said that people are either screamers or they’re not. There’s no in-between.” That wicked grin appeared again, but this time she seemed to be considering something. Quickly, she leaned forward and kissed me. Nothing fancy, just a quick pop on the lips. “Come on,” she said. “I gotta get home. Mom probably thinks I’ve flown to Tokyo by now. I’ve been threatening her ever since I got the Glyph.”

* * * * *

It was the kiss that did it. With the memory of it still fresh, I drove home with a purpose after Jenny dropped me back at the school. After close to six years of playing classic rock covers at the local pizzeria every Saturday night, and having parents that always bought me the latest video games in order to distract me from all the other kids flaunting their Glyphs, I had just over five thousand dollars. I kept the roll of twenties stashed inside my first acoustic, and as I shook the guitar to get it to fall out, I realized I’d never actually heard how much Glyphs cost. I hoped I had enough.

Replaying the memory of Jenny’s kiss again, I pushed the door of Union Jack’s open and stepped into the stench of stale smoke. There were several old men sitting at the bar, puffing cigarettes and sipping beers. The bartender looked up and scowled. “I hope you’re not looking for a drink,” he said.

I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it.

“In that case,” the man pointed over his shoulder. “Ayita’s back there somewhere. She’ll take care of you.”

I nodded before walking past two old pool tables covered in stains that could have been blood or vomit. My shoes stuck to the floor, making a strange sucking sound each time I took a step. The haze of smoke made my eyes water, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to hang out there.

I made my way past the bathrooms and through a curtain of beads. The floor changed from wood to concrete as I stepped through, and there was a draft coming from somewhere. It was still smoky, but the odor had changed. I could never remember what that particular scent was called, but Dad always called it “hippie.” There were a few tables and chairs scattered about, but there was no Ayita. Thinking that maybe she’d stepped out for a second, I moved to sit down.

“Look at this pretty young thing.” I jumped before I made it into the chair. The voice had been female, but I couldn’t see where it had come from. “He’s jumpy, too.”

A woman, tall and beautiful in a dangerous sort of way, melted out of the wall. She wore dark jeans, thigh-high boots, and a mesh tank top that left her naked from the waist up. My eye twitched a little. The woman, whom I assumed was Ayita, stepped forward and lifted my chin, turning my head slightly to the side, examining me. I tried to look her in the eye, but there was something powerful in her dark eyes, almost frightening. I settled for staring at her chest.

“You’re not a cop, are you?”

The question took me by surprise. Surely she could tell I wasn’t old enough to be a cop. I shook my head and stammered out something like “of course not,” but I was still so entranced by how much of her I could see that I really didn’t know what I said.

“I had to be sure. If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll regret it. I’ve touched you. Do you see this?” She pointed to a tattoo below her left breast, a bloodhound with a compass on its collar. I nodded. “It means I can find you anytime I want.” She smiled and waited, letting her words settle into my mind. When she was satisfied I understood, she sat behind an old, scratched table and took a sip of the blackest beer I had ever seen.

“So, what’ll it be?” She asked, motioning me to the chair across from her.

“Um… what’ve you, like, got?”

She chuckled. “Dearie, I’ve got anything you could possibly imagine. I’ve got Flight, I’ve got Invisibility. Teleportation. Seduction. Strength, Intelligence, and Healing. You name it, I’ve got it.”

“How much for Flight?”

She smiled again. It was a nice smile, full of small, straight teeth. “The kiddies always want the wings. You want true Flight or just Levitation?”

“How much for true Flight?”

“A grand. You can get Levitation for six-fifty, though. It’ll still impress the little girlies.”

“A grand, huh? That’s it?”

She smiled. “That’s it, he says. Only a thousand dollars. Rich kid, huh?”

“Not really,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table and tracing my finger along an old scratch on its surface. “How many Glyphs can you have at once?”

“There isn’t a set number. Some people can handle more than others. I would recommend starting with one. Maybe two if you think you can handle it. I won’t sell more than three Glyphs to any one customer at any one time. Too risky. Never more than two to a first-timer, though.”

My mind raced with all the possibilities. If Flight only cost a grand, I could afford to get two. How cool would it be to walk out with Flight and Strength? Or Invisibility. But then I decided that this woman probably knew what she was talking about, and I might be better off starting small. Still, if I was just going to get one, should it be Flight? Shouldn’t it be something that really got my blood moving? The memories of flying with Jenny made my stomach turn even when both of my feet were firmly on the ground. But mixed in with the nausea was the feeling of her hand in mine and the memory of her smile as we drifted through the clouds, both of which did get my blood moving.

“Let’s go with true Flight for now.”

“Are you sure? It took you a long time to answer.”

“Sure. I mean, Flight seems like a good one to start with, right? Nice and practical.”

She smiled in a way that made me remember the look in Jenny’s eyes just before she let us fall. The memory of my scream made my face hot, and I decided that if Jenny liked speed and thrills, I would try to give her that.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “But can I get Speed, too?”

“Of course. As long as you’ve got the cash. It’ll be seventeen-fifty for both.”

I pulled the money-roll out of my jacket pocket and, turning slightly so she couldn’t see, counted it out. I rolled the rest back up before handing her the stack of bills. She smiled, folded the stack, and stuffed it in her back pocket.

“Right. This way, please. Go ahead and take your shirt off, too.”

I did as she asked, tucking my shirt and jacket under my arm as I followed Ayita through another beaded curtain that I hadn’t noticed before, further into the back of the bar. There was an old, cushioned table, like at the doctor’s office, in the middle of the room. One wall was a solid mirror, while the others were covered in posters of tattoo designs and shelves that were filled with needles and strange devices. An old TV sat in the corner, lifeless.

“Lay face down on the table, please,” Ayita said.

I did as she asked, laying on top of my shirt and jacket so I wouldn’t lose track of them. “Is this going to hurt?”

“Terribly,” she said. It wasn’t a lie.

For the next four hours, she worked. Slowly. Methodically. A low murmuring chant came from her lips, barely audible as she worked the ink into the flesh of my back. It felt like fire. Like ants were chewing through my back. But then it was over, and I was staring into a hand mirror in order to see the two emerald and black wings on my back reflected through the wall mirror. Between them was the small silhouette of a rabbit.

* * * * *

The next day after school I asked Jenny if she’d help put some antibiotic ointment on my fresh tattoo. Ayita had said it would heal in about a week, but I would need to be careful to keep it from getting infected or the Glyph might not work.

“I can’t believe you got two! And without your parent’s permission!” Even though it hurt like hell as Jenny rubbed the goo on my back, the hairs on my arms stood up every time she touched me. “I could never do that. There, that should do it.”

As I pulled my shirt back on, she lifted slowly into the air. She’d taken to hovering in Lotus position instead of sitting. It was odd, having to always look up at her.

“I can’t wait till we can go super-fast! How long till we can go to Tokyo?”

“Ayita said I should be able to use it by next Saturday. So we’re kind of stuck in the Southeast till then.”

“It’s going to be great. We can go to Mt. Fuji, too! Maybe we can even stop off and see where my brother’s stationed on the way! You’d like him.”

“That would be cool,” I said. Jenny was always talking about her brother, but he’d joined the Army just before she and her mom moved up from Georgia so I’d never met him. She was always telling stories about him, and many of them made me doubt that I would like him, regardless of her claims to the contrary.

“I’ll plan out a whole list of things we can do,” Jenny said, rambling in her excitement. “In the meantime, though, I bet we could make it to the Gulf and back before dark if we left early enough on Saturday. What do you think?”

Listening to her make plans for us was intoxicating. Her face was animated with the possibilities in her mind, and something about her referring to us as “we” made my stomach feel weird. Not bad, just weird. Like it was the gooiest cinnamon roll ever served. She wrote out a list that she titled “Local Excursions” and said she thought it would keep us busy over the next week while my Glyphs healed. The next afternoon, after I fumblingly lifted off the ground for the second time while holding Jenny’s hand, she flew us to Asheville where we walked through small folk-art galleries downtown while sipping lattes out of recycled coffee cups. A couple of days later we flew to Nashville and ate hotdogs on top of the Parthenon while hundreds of pigeons cooed and fluttered around us.

The next morning I woke to Jenny knocking on my window. There was a bag over her shoulder, and I barely had the window open before she was inside.

“Quit wasting the day, we’ve got places to be. The beach is calling.”

“What?” I yawned and rubbed my eyes.

“The beach. The ocean. I packed us a lunch. I figure it should only take us a few hours to get there. Get dressed and let’s go.”

Several rushed minutes later, after having thrown on some beach appropriate clothes and brushed my teeth, we were on our way. Jenny flew us to the Gulf where we spent the rest of the morning laying in the sun, sipping soft drinks and watching sea gulls skim across the water.

“The last time we came to the beach when I was a kid, I always wished I could fly across the water like the birds. Daddy always shook his head and said I was a silly girl and needed to stop thinking such childish things if I wanted to get anywhere in the world.”

“Shows what he knew,” I said. “Now you can.”

She looked out across the water and gave the faintest possible nod. “He left not long after we got back from that trip. Accepted an assignment and left to go god-knows-where. Wouldn’t even tell us where he was going. When Jacob joined the service Mom almost lost it. She said he was abandoning his family just like his dad.” She seemed to snap out of a spell and the smile that made me notice her in Algebra spread across her face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You hungry?”

After lunch we spent the afternoon chasing the gulls, flying close enough to run our fingers across the surface of the ocean. As the sun began to descend, we made our way back home.

The following week was spent completing our tour of the Southeast. Short, evening trips to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Raleigh got us through the days of waiting for my Glyph to start working. The tattoo was starting to itch, and Ayita had said that would happen a few days before it was ready. Just another day or two and I would be able take Jenny to the other side of the world and back in the span of a few seconds.

It was late on Friday night when it happened. I was hunched over the side of my bed playing guitar, when the tattoos started to itch. I raked my fingers lightly across my back, and it felt like a sheet of spiderweb peeled away. Then, suddenly, I could feel the wings move. It only happened a couple of times, like a light fluttering, but immediately after it happened, I hovered into the air of my bedroom for the first, shaky time by myself. It was harder than Jenny made it look. I kept wanting to flip backwards, but eventually I got my balance.

Once I did, I wanted to test out my new Speed. Flying was cool, but I’d done so much of it with Jenny over the past two weeks that I was ready for something different. Even though I had promised she could be with me the first time, I wanted to test it out by myself in case I did something stupid.

I started small. I held a guitar pick as high as I could and then dropped it. It hit the floor. Frowning, I tried again. Each time I dropped the pick, I would try to bring my hand down in time to catch it, but my hand didn’t seem to be moving any faster than normal. The thought that Ayita had taken me for an extra seven-fifty crossed my mind after my twelfth failed attempt. But then something happened. Instead of trying to catch it, I decided to just watch it. As soon as I did, it was like the world went into slow-motion. The pick seemed to hover in the air, not moving at all. I reached out and pushed it a half-inch to the left before letting it drop. There was a slight pinching behind my eyes until I slowed back down, and after noticing that I figured out how to make myself go faster or slower by manipulating that tension. It was almost like I was stopping time.

I slipped out my window and flew downtown. There wasn’t a lot of activity, even for a Friday night, but there were a few people around. I sped myself up and flew into Market Square. Standing in the center of the Square, I never felt like I was moving any faster, but the world would slow to a standstill. I could control how quickly the people around me moved. Anywhere from normal speed to extreme slow-motion to not moving at all. At times it was like looking at a photograph. The clouds didn’t move, and there was a complete absence of sound. I flew home smiling at the cars on the interstate. I was moving so fast they looked like they were parked.

I stopped by Jenny’s house on the way, hoping she was still awake so I could share my new power with her. The light was out in her bedroom, though, so I left, not wanting to wake her. She would get to experience it soon enough.

Settling back on my bed, I decided to test my new ability further. I sped up, and watched the second hand on my watch while counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” Time still moved forward, but a second took about two and a half minutes.

The rest of the night was spent playing with time. I shot rubber bands at the wall and caught them before they hit, hooking them with my index finger. When that got old, I hovered above my window for a minute trying to figure out something else to do before heading North. I followed the interstate, playing with my speed in relation to the trucks below, laughing as they stopped short, freezing in place as I sliced through the air. In about five minutes of clock-time, and before I realized it, Manhattan was beneath me. The city was silent as I zipped through the streets, buzzing the heads of people stuck in a moment that for them would last but a second, but for me could last hours.

I touched down on top of the Empire State Building and slowed back to normal. The traffic roared as the city came to life. Wind skirled around, buffeting me as the tiny people below resumed their lives like nothing had happened. I turned it on and off like a baby that’s just discovered light switches, tensing and releasing the muscles around my eyes. In the back of my mind I knew I should wait and share this with Jenny, but I was having so much fun!

So, I flew to Florida. Then to New Orleans. I got hungry then, so I slowed down again long enough to buy a candy bar and a soda at a gas station. Then I went to L.A. Then Seattle, and, finally, Vancouver. Eventually, though it had only been a couple of hours since I started, I knew the sun would be about to come up at home, and my eyes didn’t want to stay open.

As I crawled into bed, the sun was beginning to creep into my window. Jenny was coming over around ten, so I could eek out around three hours of sleep. I pulled my covers over my head to block the sunlight and fell asleep. My dreams were strange, and I woke to a loud knocking on my window.

“Finally,” Jenny said as I opened the window and she floated inside. “Jesus. You look terrible. Late night of video games?”

“No,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “I was playing guitar, and, all of a sudden, my wings moved.”

“They did! That’s great! So, what, you been flying around the world all night?”

“No, just the U.S.”

“What? I was kidding. You said you’d wait and take me with you!”

“I know. I came by your house, but your light was off.”

“Jacob never called last night like he was supposed to, so I was downstairs with Mom till almost four in the morning trying to calm her down! You could have texted me or something!”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was just kind of caught up in it.”

“I bet.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“I heard you.”

“Look, I didn’t get mad when you went and got your Glyph without me. Cut me some slack.”

“I knew you’d throw that in my face some time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Just nothing. Sorry. I had a rough night.”

“Me too. I’m sorry, I mean. Is your mom okay?”

“She’ll be fine. Jacob was supposed to call last night. We haven’t heard from him since he deployed the last time, and Mom’s just worried. I am, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll be all right. Listen, just get some sleep. You’re obviously exhausted. When you’re rested, come find me. I’ll probably be at the Fire Tower. If not, call me. Cool?”

“Cool.”

Her face was pinched, and she flew out the window without a hug, a wave, or anything. Too tired to think about what that meant, I fell into bed and buried my head with pillows. I was out in seconds.

* * * * *

When I woke up, I went to find Jenny. She was at the Fire Tower like she said she would. I sped myself up so that I could try to surprise her by just appearing suddenly, but I wound up surprising myself. The world was crawling by for me, and I found her flying with a guy in a Brawlers uniform. He was way too young to actually be a member, but he could fly better than anyone I’d ever seen before. I watched as they danced around each other like fighter jets before embracing and twirling around as they ascended in slow motion, locked in each others arms.

I saw the exact moment their lips met.

A great pit opened in my stomach, and I couldn’t stay sped up anymore. The world came alive with an explosion of wind, and I watched as the two of them resumed their dance. It took several minutes, but Jenny finally noticed me. She said something to the guy I couldn’t make out and flew over. The clouds on the horizon spoke of rain.

“You feeling better?”

I shrugged, not really sure what to say.

“Did you still want to try and go somewhere? London maybe?”

“Is he coming?”

She at least had the decency to blush. “I… uh…”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. How long has this been going on?”

“We met just after I got my Glyph. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks but I ran into him this morning after I left your place.”

If she had punched me in the face I would have been less surprised. It had only been a couple of hours. If she could be kissing someone else so soon after such a small fight, maybe I didn’t know her like I thought.

“You two have fun, okay? Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Eric, wait, I…”

I didn’t wait to hear what she was going to say. I tensed the muscles behind my eyes and was gone. An hour later I was sitting on a ridge on the side of Mt. Fuji.

 

Captain Asimov

Captain Asimov

Illustration by Randall M. Ensley

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

Jeevs cleaned up after dinner, loading all the dishes into the washer, but first washing them by hand as per Mrs. Moynahan’s explicit instructions. Then Jeevs vacuumed the upstairs while the rest of the family watched vids downstairs in the holo chamber. Jeevs thought of them as the “rest” of the family, because he was programmed to think of himself as a Moynahan, subservient to the rest of the them, but still one of them. Just as he was programmed to think of himself as himself.

The upstairs was vacuumed by the time Mr. and Mrs. Moynahan were finished with their family obligations… quality time with their children, which Jeevs had figured amounted to an hour and forty-seven minutes and ten seconds for the three of them. The Moynahans sometimes spoiled their children and gave them a full two hours. Then it was off to Social Club with the adults, and Jeevs was responsible for getting the little ’uns to bed. It helped that he was faster, stronger and able to leap taller pieces of furniture than they were. It also helped that he had shock-hands, and if they were bad he could stun them with a quick jolt of electricity and have them tucked into bed before they regained awareness.

It was usually easier to either wear them out with games or read them to sleep. The youngest child was Fermi, and he liked nothing better than to have Jeevs read him the lastest superhero comic books. Fermi was too young to actually read, but he looked at the pictures while Jeevs recited the story and dialogue from memory.

“Read Captain Battle!” Fermi yelled in his excitement. He had a repertoire of favorites: Captain Battle, Warchick, Meathook and Bonesaw, Funkiller, and The Justice Legion of Avenging Angels. They were all of the hit first and hit again later variety, and Jeevs privately considered them a little too violent for a little boy Fermi’s age. But being a robot meant he didn’t have the right to express an opinion of such a human nature, which was perfectly all right by Jeevs. He was perfectly happy to serve his owners well. It was in his program. To perform poorly resulted in a deep depression which could only be alleviated by going the extra mile, so to speak, with the housework. He had once gotten the carpet so clean he swore he could see his reflection in it. The Moynahans had to take him in to get his optics retooled.

“Captain Battle versus Cardinal Carnage in The Holy Terror Part Three,” Jeevs announced in a perfectly pitched square-jawed news anchor voice.

Fermi clapped his hands and rubbed them together greedily. “Yeeeeaaaahhh!

Next was the only daughter, Jesse, and she didn’t like to be read to at all. That didn’t mean she could read, because she couldn’t, but she had a series of make-believes she liked Jeevs to act in with her. One of them was Jeevs as the White Stallion and Jesse as the Princess, riding through the Enchanted Forest after having escaped from the clutches of the evil Duke. She would climb onto Jeevs plasti-frame shoulders and he would gallop her throughout the entire house. Jesse pretended the door frames were dragons swooping low to grab her off the White Stallion.

“A dragon, a dragon!” she would yell as they approached a door frame, and then cover her eyes with her hands as Jeevs ducked down a mere instant before she would have collided with it.

The oldest was Horace, and he had a jealous streak where Jeevs’ time was concerned. He enjoyed having Jeevs read him science fiction books before bed. He couldn’t read either, and was therefore typical as boys his age went. Despite the fact that most of the science fiction books he liked to hear were hopelessly outdated, he really seemed to like having them read to him by a robot, especially ones with robots in them. Jeevs knew this because Horace wouldn’t let either his mother or his father read to him. Of course that might’ve been because they could only read the primary reader versions of the books… like most adults in modern society, the Moynahans were illiterate except on the most rudimentary level. They could tell the difference between the words MEN and WOMEN, for instance, even without the accompanying Greek symbols. They got confused once at a place with GENTS and LADIES. But Horace’s favorite authors were Asimov, Bradbury, Del Rey, Sladek, anyone with a lot of robot stories.

“Come on Jeeeeevs!” Horace yelled at the robot on the fourth pass through the living room, or as it was known in this make-believe, the Haunted Wood.

“A ghost!” Jesse screamed when she saw her older brother trying to get Jeevs’ to stop.

Jeevs was about to duck underneath the chandelier in the main hall—

“A falling star!” Jesse yelled.

—when Horace suddenly rolled a toy truck right at his feet. The robot stepped on the truck, and his one leg went flying out behind him. With his inhuman dexterity he managed to maintain his footing long enough to lift Jesse off his shoulders and toss her onto the plush sofa where she landed harmlessly. Then Jeevs’ footing gave out and he plunged head-first into the wall.

Blackness. It was not unlike being shut off to conserve his power supply, except this time it had been unexpected. Jeevs knew it probably would have been rather painful too, had he been a human. This was not something he thought while “unconscious.” He thought nothing. There were no dreams or anything like that. He just stopped being until somebody turned him back on and he was Jeevs again, ready to work.

Except, when he was turned on, he had other thoughts aside from musing about pain. His head was a-jumble with images from Captain Battle and Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. The three laws of robotics scrolled through his memory over and over and over…

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being unless such orders conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence unless such protection conflicts with the First and Second Laws.

And swimming through these Laws, underlaying them, was the cry of Captain Battle: “Fists… do the talking!”

Jeevs went back to work, although the children were no longer allowed to play with him before bed like before. The quality time with Mom and Dad stretched another hour into the early news broadcasts on the holo. Jeevs overheard a report about battlebots, designed by the military and sent into any number of small hot spot countries, where they efficiently murdered hundreds of villagers day and night until self-destructing. The report stated that there was a certain probability that a few of these killing drones had not self-destructed and continued to mutilate their way through certain South American countries. To top the story with a generous helping of horrific prophecy, the anchor suggested there was always a possibility one could wind up in your neighborhood someday, hacking and slashing and shooting to pieces your children. Then he ended with his usual, “And may the good news be your news.”

Jeevs was puzzled. Hadn’t these robots ever heard of the Three Laws? Weren’t they imprinted with them from day one?

One day Jeevs was outside mowing the lawn, using a push mower because Mr. Moynahan liked to see Jeevs actually working. A remote mower that Jeevs could have controlled from inside while washing the dishes or something would have been much more efficient.

“Hard work’s good for you,” Moynahan would tell Jeevs, as if speaking to an actual person. “Gives you character.”

Jeevs never bothered to wonder just what a robot would do with character.

While he was mowing the front yard, one of the robot street cleaners came down the road. Jeevs stopped and watched it as it approached. It looked very reminiscent of the battlebots he’d seen on the news. Some of the neighborhood children were playing in the street ahead of it, and it sounded several warning beeps as it grew near.

Jeevs turned off the mower, and went inside. Mr. Moynahan was sitting in his massage chair, asleep, and didn’t see Jeevs sneak past him and go upstairs. Jeevs went into the Moynahans’ closet for winter clothes and found Mr. Moynahan’s ski mask, made of a lightweight yet warm material called Mylar. It was red with white circles around the eye holes, and elastic so it fit snugly over Jeevs’ head when he put it on. On the other side of the closet he located Mrs. Moynahan’s hot pink cape, the one she wore to the the Governor’s costume ball and made of the same Mylar yet non-elastic, and fastened that around his neck.

Though he hurried he didn’t fumble or drop anything. He was a robot, with unnatural dexterity. Within moments he was costumed and ready to do battle with the disguised Battlebot outside. Sure, it may have the appearance of a street cleaner, but there was something about the way it bore down on those children, slightly faster than a real street cleaner so only a robot would really notice. Humans tended to miss subtle clues like that, but not robots and certainly not Jeevs. Dealing with the Moynahan children had trained him to notice any little alteration as in, say, a slight wobble in the mower indicating one of the kids had loosened the wheels so they would come off while Jeevs mowed the grass. Or Jeevs might catch one of the children faking illness to get out of having to go to what passed for school these days. The palms might be clammy, the temperature high on a damp forehead, and then Jeevs would reach underneath the pillow to find a washcloth that had been soaked in hot water.

“They’re just the most devilish little rascals, aren’t they?” Mrs. Moynahan would ask rhetorically with glee when Jeevs gave her the weekly behavior report.

Jeevs paused to look himself over in the bedroom mirror, to make sure he was sufficiently disguised. He didn’t want anyone to identify him, for he knew from having read all those comic books that villains would gladly take their frustrations at having been beaten by the superhero out on the superhero’s loved ones. The tight, fire engine red ski mask and hot pink cape definitely had the effect he was looking for, and the bright colors corresponded to what Jeevs remembered the Superheroes in the comic books wore.

His inner brain, the one that handled all the logic and mathematical functions just like any other computer, told him he had just about a minute to get to the battlebot/street cleaner before it “swept” over the innocent playing children.

Jeevs bounded out the open back window onto the gravel covered back porch roof, ran across it and leaped the chasm between the Moynahan house and the Corman house next door.

“That Corman’s a cheese eater,” Mr. Moynahan would say about his next door neighbor, who was a widower and at least 150 pounds overweight. Cheese eater was Mr. Moynahan’s favorite way of saying someone was a rat, which usually meant someone in the collection business, which Corman was.

“He won’t let the children play in his yard,” Mrs. Moynahan would say accusingly while the children nodded their lying heads in agreement. Jeevs knew Corman let the kids play in the yard as long as they didn’t hang on the branches of his citrus trees, which they always did.

From Corman’s house, Jeevs jumped onto the next one, and then the next one, so that he was then behind where the street cleaner was. He then leaped to the ground and ran as fast as he could, which was close to sixty miles per hour, toward the street cleaner. He saw it as the disguised battlebot, even though he’d seen the street cleaner numerous times before; 165 times actually, his inner brain told him, once a week for the just over three years he’d been in the Moynahan’s employ.

When he neared the street cleaner, Jeevs jumped as high as he could, hoping to land atop the monstrosity and get at its circuits to disable it. But a panel on the rear of the machine opened, and a nozzle popped out. A jet stream of water blasted Jeevs in mid-air, knocking him into the street, sprawled on his back. He scrambled to his feet. The children were shrieking with laughter, although to Jeevs they were screaming in agony as he imagined the battlebot ground them into hamburger. Once again he charged, this time deciding the advantage could be gained by yelling out his battle cry.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t have one. In the space of the few seconds between the start of his charge and the moment he was to leap to the attack he reviewed all the slogans and battle cries of Captain Battle, Meathook, Bonesaw and all the other Superheroes in the comic books. He couldn’t use any of those because of copyright infringement. Besides, he wanted one that would be uniquely his own.

Several occurred to him in the next instant.

“Eat metal!” He didn’t like the connotations of that one.

“It’s BATTERING time!” Sounded too much like a slogan for a fried fast food place.

“Cowabunga!” No superhero in his right mind would say that.

“Viva Las Vegas!” Hadn’t some cartoon already used that?

Finally, as he neared what he perceived as a murderous behemoth, Jeevs came up with one he felt would be both effective and appropriate.

“Yeeeaaaaggggghhhhhhaaaamama!” he screamed inhumanly in mid-leap. The pitch and tone of his scream pierced the delicate noise sensors of the street cleaner like shards of glass through the diaphanous membrane of a jellyfish. It’s balance servos got all out of whack and it stopped. Jeevs landed securely on the thing’s wide roof, where he knew the simplistic brain card had to be.

“Warning!” The battlebot (for although Jeevs’ sensory apparatus informed him that in every way, shape and form it was definitely a street cleaner robot, his misguided, short-circuited reasoning center still believed it to be a battlebot in disguise) stopped and an alarm started whooping. “Warning! Vandalism of city property is a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines of up to five thousand dollars, community service, house arrest, and up to one year in the county jail! Warning! This is a series eight-five-three double-ay street cleaner by Hunnington Robotics Incorporated, and is owned by the city of—”

Jeevs had found the brain and pulled the card out, effectively mind-wiping the big ‘bot. Still, it wasn’t technically dead.

Jeevs broke the thin, fragile brain card, snapping it in two with his hands.

Now it was.

He ran across the roof and jumped down from the front, expecting to find the mangled remains of the poor children beneath the suspiciously missing forward grinders of the so-called battlebot, for he was sure he’d been too late to save them. Instead he was met by the quizzical expressions of small faces.

Suddenly a hovering newsbot approached.

Jeevs was disappointed. He had hoped to spend a touching moment with the children, to make sure they were okay and tell them not to worry because now they had a masked marvel to look out for them. But like any good superhero, the last thing he wanted was publicity. He turned to leap back onto the battlebot and make his escape.

“Wait!” a voice ordered. It sounded too much like a human voice to ignore, but it was coming from the newsbot. “I’m a reporter from Make it Great with Channel Eighty-Eight News! I’d like to interview you, please!”

It was a human voice, and the newsbot wasn’t a newsbot at all, but a remote. Jeevs couldn’t ignore a human just like that, unless an order from his owners overrode that human’s requests. Jeevs had no such orders, so he stood and waited to be interviewed.

“Don’t I know you?” one of the kids, who lived across and down the street a few doors, asked.

“All children know me,” Jeevs answered gently, “as their friend.” Good answer, he thought. He’d never read anything that good in any of little Fermi’s comic books, that was for sure.

The news remote hovered up to him, floodlights bathing him aglow even though it was mid-day and there were no clouds impeding the sun’s rays.

“Why did you attack that street cleaner ‘bot?” the remote asked.

“That’s no street cleaner,” Jeevs replied. “It’s a battlebot. It was about to rip these innocent children limb from limb.”

“No it wasn’t. Don’t you know street cleaners are programmed to wait for people to move aside before they can continue?”

If Jeevs could have sighed with exasperation he would have.

“Of course. Street cleaner robots have the Three Laws of Robotics embedded in their behavioral chips.”

“The three what laws?”

Jeevs explained the three laws, then said, “I could tell that this was a battlebot because it wasn’t slowing down quickly enough… if that makes any sense. It was my duty to stop it.”

“Your duty? Who are you?”

Jeevs paused before answering, although the human reporter would perceive no pause, as it lasted less than a second. Jeevs couldn’t give his real name, he knew that, for the same reason he had to disguise himself. He needed a good superhero name, like… Several occurred to him: Mightybot, Robohero, Metal Man, Captain Asimov, Tik To—Wait! Captain Asimov… It sounded good, and certainly rang true to his mission—to uphold the Three Laws and fight crime. That was it.

“I’m…” he paused for effect, “CAPTAIN ASIMOV!” With his modified speaker voice, for calling the children from play, Jeevs was able to add a nifty echo effect. The entire block reverberated with the “OV! OV! OV!

“What kind of a name is that?” the reporter asked through the remote.

Jeevs’ inner clock suddenly told him it was getting close to the time for lunch for the Moynahans.

“I’ve talked with you long enough,” he announced, then turned and leaped onto the dead street cleaner, ran across it, jumped down, and disappeared behind the houses. He de-costumed in the Moynahan’s backyard and hid the uniform in the tool shed. Nobody ever went in there, so his secret was safe… for the time being.

It made the six-fifteen news, exclusive to channel 88.

“In the suburbs today a city street sweeper was attacked and immobilized by a costumed robot calling himself Captain Asimov. The robot was apparently under the delusion that the street sweeper was a rogue battlebot, such as the type currently deployed by the United States in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Los Angeles, Cuba, El Salvador, Bolivia, and North Vietnam. Our research has led us to believe that this robot has named himself after the prolific science writer of the Twentieth Century, Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics were an idealistic if unrealistic proposition to control the use of robots.”

They showed Captain Asimov talking to the kids, included sound when he reverbed his name, flashed a still photo of the writer Asimov, showed some scenes of a real battlebot slaughtering some sheep in a field test, and ended with a picture of the street sweeper carcass being hauled off by a massive wrecker. Jeevs’ inner clock had timed the segment at twenty seconds.

“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” Fermi said as soon as the news bit was over. “Can we get a robot like Captain Asimov instead of just plain ol’ Jeevs? Pleeeeease? I bet we’d have a lot of fun with him! He’s a real superhero!” With that he commenced pretending to be Captain Asimov, beating up on imaginary battlebots (actually his father’s foot stool).

“Gaaaawwwwd Fermi, you’re stuuuupid,” Horace said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “Captain Asimov beat up a street cleaner! It wasn’t any battlebot.”

“It was too,” Fermi insisted. “It was in disguise!”

“How would you know?” Jesse asked, having decided to take her older brother’s side this time. “You’ve never even seen a battlebot.”

“I just saw one on TV!” Fermi yelled.

“Tell him Dad, please,” Horace appealed. “Mom…”

Mr. Moynahan cleared his throat and looked to his wife for guidance, but she only shrugged. As if to say Tell them, dear, I want to hear, too. “Well,” he started, and paused. He came very close to just saying Go to your room, but didn’t. “If the news says it wasn’t really a battlebot, then it wasn’t. Whoever this Captain Asmovitz is—”

Asimov,” Fermi corrected exasperatedly.

“Well, whoever he is, he must have a chip loose somewhere, to think a robot street cleaner could hurt little children.”

“There was that street cleaner that thought it was a dog catcher for a while,” Mrs. Moynahan pointed out. “Until they switched its chip with that dog catcher that was going around trying to sweep the streets with a net.”

Mr. Moynahan nodded as if this somehow proved a point, his point, whatever that was.

Jeevs remained unconvinced that the battlebot had really been a hapless street sweeper.

That evening he was relieved from having to read for the kids since the parents weren’t going out. Jeevs cleaned the upstairs while everyone sat watching vids downstairs, and finished early. Since he had nothing left to do, and knew from experience Mrs. Moynahan would handle the putting to bed and tucking in of the children, Jeevs silently climbed atop the roof where he tuned in to the airwaves in search of something for Captain Asimov to do.

Then he heard it, on the police band.

“Unit Twenty-three, Unit Twenty-three, please investigate a possible three-fifty-two-oh-four at Harris Street. Over.”

Jeevs wouldn’t have been interested had Unit Twenty-three not responded with, “Did you say a three-fifty-two-oh-four? Isn’t that a street sweeper malfunction? Over.”

“Affirmative Unit Twenty-three.”

“Where the hell are the city maintenance ‘bots?”

There was a pause, then the operator said, “Ah, they’re all disabled, Unit Twenty-three. Over.”

All of them?”

“Affirmative.”

“Jesus. Okay. Unit Twenty-three responding.”

Jeevs wasted no time. He was costumed and en route to Harris Street within moments.

He tried to stick to the rooftops as much as possible, with pretty good success since he could leap the gap between most of the houses and other buildings on the way. His body was constructed mainly of lightweight but extremely strong plastics reinforced by an alloy skeleton. Robots like Jeevs, self-aware and capable of learning, were designed to last a very long time. As Jeevs got further away from the Moynahan’s home, he started to get an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling… as of being lost and alone. He went through the catalog of emotions he could feel, and found the only thing it could possibly be, since he was familiar with the others.

Longing. It started off as a small tug towards home, the urge to think Harris Street was a long way off, he might not make it back in time to have breakfast ready for everyone when they got up in the morning. Jeevs recognized it then. It was something he’d heard of but had never actually experienced, until now. In robot lore it was called the Collar. The Collar was supposed to keep a robot home, or within a certain boundary, by making it impossible to even want to run away. At first the Collar had been simpler, and crueler, giving the robot the equivalent of a painful jolt if it went past a certain point. This early version of the Collar had been inspired by the late Twentieth Century movie Star Wars. When self-awareness in robots became a reality a lobby on their behalf got the current, and much more humane, Collar written into the Artificial Intelligence Act of 2020.

The farther away he got the stronger the longing got. By the time he was almost to Harris Street he was near panic, but kept it under control as he imagined a real superhero would. In fact, it made him feel even more heroic!

But there was something wrong. He was at Harris street, but there was no street cleaner/battlebot. It had to here somewhere! What if it had gotten away? What if it had only appeared to break down to lure the police there. It could be off hacking up poor innocent humans right now!

Jeevs ran into the street, looking for clues, tracks, something that might tell him where the battlebot went. He was examining the pavement in the street, not finding any recent tracks whatsoever (and he’d know if they were recent, it was one of his most important skills, useful in keeping track of the Moynahan children) when he heard a noise behind him.

He whirled into a battle stance, feet wide apart and fists on hips, to find himself face to face with a robot cop.

“Freeze, you are under arrest,” the robot cop ordered.

Jeevs knew from the comics that there existed an uneasy truce between the law and costumed vigilantes. The best reaction to a confrontation with the police was to turn and run… as long as the danger was taken care of. But the danger wasn’t taken care of, there was still a battlebot on the loose somewhere in the city and someone had to do something about it.

Captain Asimov was just that someone.

“State your identification,” the robot cop ordered. It continued to advance on Jeevs, who stood his ground. Jeevs almost blurted out his formal I.D., which was Jeevs D (for domestic) 35 (for the year of his creation) X-5000 (series letter and model number) Moynahan (for his owner’s name).

He caught himself just in time, and though it took a great force of will to overcome the automatic law-abiding response that was as much a part of his self as the Collar, he said, “You can call me… Captain Asimov!” With reverb and everything. It wasn’t exactly a lie, which was why he didn’t suddenly drop to the ground paralyzed as would normally happen to a robot who lied to the police.

“Okay, tin-head,” a human male voice said from behind the robot cop. “We’ll handle it from here… give it the human touch, eh?”

The robot cop stopped advancing, and replied, “Yes, sir.”

Two human police officers, a male and a female, approached Jeevs.

“Okay Superman,” said the woman, “Shut yourself down so we can take you in. Don’t give us any trouble and we won’t give you any trouble.”

Jeevs didn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t counted on having to deal with the police, and certainly not human police. The Collar effect was getting stronger, and that battlebot… who knew where it was? Killing and maiming and slaughtering. And here the police were harassing an innocent, well sort of innocent, robot.

There was only one thing to do, and it had to be done now, because Jeevs knew if he waited any longer he would have to obey the police. It was the only behavior control stronger than the one that caused him to obey his owners.

He suddenly broke into a run.

“Hey!” the cops yelled, and started in pursuit. There was no way they could catch him with their organic legs. Jeevs outdistanced them within moments. He ducked into an alley to stop for a bit. Not to rest, but he needed to tune in to the police band again to find out if they’d sighted the battlebot anywhere.

But… before he could do that, he heard something.

It sounded like wheels, the way a battlebot would sound on pavement… Jeevs stepped into the shadows, as if that would do any good against the battlebots heat sensors. But it would! Jeevs gave off barely any heat at all because he wasn’t truly alive! He’d have the element of surprise.

“This is the police,” came the mechanical voice of the robot cop suddenly. “I know you’re in there, please come out with your hands in the air.”

The police, again! It was impossible to get away, and Jeevs couldn’t muster the strength to ignore the cop’s orders again. In fact, he knew that had the robot cop not come along, he would have wound up back home, for he suddenly realized that was the direction he’d started running in. The constant yearning of the Collar, to be home where he belonged, was becoming too much as well.

He stepped out of the shadows with his hands raised.

“You’re going to place me under arrest.” It was a statement of fact, and Jeevs didn’t know why he said it.

“No,” the robot cop replied.

“No? Then what—?”

“You are going to return home.”

Home! It was an effort not to immediately start running that way. Right now! Home!

But he stayed, and asked, “What about the battlebot? We have to find it and—”

“There is no battlebot. It was a ruse to trap you. We cannot permit deluded robot vandals running around scaring people. This would be detrimental to human/robot relations.”

“I couldn’t hurt anybody!” Jeevs said. “The Three Laws of Robotics—”

“Science fiction,” the robot cop said. “There are three hundred and forty-two laws governing the behavior of robots and the behavior of humans towards robots. You can access the public records concerning all of them, if you wish. Now go, go home, go where you belong.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked, even as he started past the robot cop. “Why are you letting me go?”

“It is obvious you present no danger to anyone. I am capable of value judgements without penalty, and have decided it would be best for all concerned for you to go home.”

Jeevs went. He took only a few steps homeward before turning back around to thank the generous robot cop, but it was already gone.

“Thank you,” he said anyway. He went home.

When he got there he noticed immediately that the downstairs lights were on, even though his inner clock told him it was just past four in the morning. This was quite odd, for no one was ever up at four in the morning at the Moynahan residence, except Jeevs who used this time to straighten and dust and clean. That way he had the days free to cook, run errands, do yard work, watch the children when they were home, etc. He had intended to go in through the rear entrance, but paused near a window to listen. Inside he heard voices, and crying.

He recognized the crying right off. It was Jesse, with her subdued, gulping sob that could go on for days if she felt so inclined, like the time her parents first left the kids alone with Jeevs. That had been a week with breaks only for sleep. He also recognized the sniffling trying-not-to-cry of Fermi.

Then he heard Mr. Moynahan.

“Please… please, don’t hurt us.” His voice quaked with fear. “Take anything, take whatever you want, just—”

“Shut up!” This voice was gruff and gravelly, and was followed a moment later by a dull thud, another thud, Mrs. Moynahan’s scream, and louder crying. The same gruff voice then said, “All of you, shut up now!”

Silence.

Jeevs didn’t know what to do. From the tenor of the intruder’s voice Jeevs concluded the man had to be desperate, and obviously capable of anything. If the police were called, would they arrive in time to avert disaster? Probably not. Jeevs was going to have to do something and do it soon.

There was a problem. Captain Asimov obeyed the Three Laws. One of those laws would not permit him to harm a human, yet another law would not permit him to allow harm to come to a human through inaction. If the thug inside were only a robot, then Captain Asimov could crash in through the window and knock him all the way to next Tuesday… but not even actorbots could act that human. The man in there was as real as, well, the Moynahans.

Nothing Captain Asimov could do, unless he found a way to subdue the criminal without hurting him, but the man sounded dangerous, violent, even suicidal—which goes hand in hand with homicidal. Someone had already been hurt, though, while Captain Asimov stood barely twenty feet away, separated by a plate of glass and a nylon drape. Inaction.

It suddenly hit Jeevs. Captain Asimov: superhero failure.

At the same time it also hit Jeevs that he, Jeevs, had no such animal as the Three Laws of Robotics constraining him from action. If he needed to, he would be perfectly within his rights to punch the villain holding his family hostage so hard it would knock his nose all the way around to the other side of his head.

“You,” he heard the ruffian inside say.

“Yes?” he heard Mrs. Moynahan reply.

There was a pause, then a low, throaty, evil, “Come here.”

The time for thought was past. Jeevs removed his Captain Asimov garb and dropped it onto the grass.

He stepped back from the window, took half a second to project his trajectory and envision the room inside. Assuming nothing major had been moved, he knew exactly where everything was. Then he jumped.

As he smashed through the glass he heard Jesse and Fermi scream, Mrs. Moynahan faint, and Horace yell out his name.

“Jeeeevs!”

The thug was as surprised as they were, and couldn’t react fast enough. He tried, though. He held a black automatic in his hand, and brought it around to aim at Jeevs, but by then Jeevs was upon him. He knocked the gun out of the man’s hand, sending it harmlessly into a cushion on the sofa. With his other hand, Jeevs plowed his palm right into the man’s nose, lifting him off the ground with the force of the blow and sending him airborne to slam against the only unadorned wall in the room. The man sunk to the ground, his nose gushing blood onto his shirt, unconscious. Jeevs quickly ran to the aid of Mr. Moynahan, who was groggily coming to. He seemed okay. Jeevs could detect no damage to the skull, at least.

Fermi had regained his spunk as soon as he saw the bad guy was down for the count—down, in fact, for several counts. “Wow Jeevs, you were way better than that old Captain Asimov! Wow!”

Jeevs felt something else, a new emotion he wasn’t sure he was supposed to be feeling. It seemed linked to the manner in which the Moynahans were looking at him, sparked by the grateful, adoring expressions on their faces. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but if he was right, he knew the word for it. Belonging.

Captain Asimov may have been a friend of the children, Jeevs thought, but I’m family.

Originally published in Superheroes (Ace Books, 1995).

Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.

 

The Last Word

The Last Word

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Margaret Yang

 

Gone. It was all gone. The hospital had her mole now, and it didn’t matter that its original owner wanted it returned. Julia Coburn sagged in her chair. How could she make Mr. Lutley understand? She took a deep breath. The dozen ivy plants on the windowsill of administrator Lutley’s office did nothing to filter the air. It smelled like the rest of the hospital: the dusty, plastic smell of fresh band-aids.

“I must confess, Ms. Coburn, that our hospital has never seen a request such as yours.” Lutley’s jowly face oozed pleasant sympathy. “It was a routine operation. Your surgeon reported nothing unusual. And you’re healing wonderfully.” A half-smile appeared beneath his mustache. “Your face looks beautiful.”

Julia reflexively brought her fingers to her temple. “That’s not the point.”

“In any case,” Lutley went on, “we are no longer in possession of the nevus.”

“What? But you said—”

Lutley put up a forestalling hand. “All we have is a slide. A slice less than a millimeter thick. If this weren’t a teaching hospital, we wouldn’t have saved even that much.”

Julia flashed a pleading look at her lawyer. Lily Kang sat up straight in the next chair, elbows on the armrests and fingers steepled over her heart. “Mr. Lutley,” Ms. Kang said smoothly. “My client wants you to return any part of the tissue that you still have.”

“But she asked to have it removed, didn’t she?” Lutley fished around on his desk, finally finding the piece of paper he wanted. It was a standard hospital form, one of a half-dozen that had passed through Julia’s hands on the day of the operation. This one bore her damning signature, in her precise penmanship. Press hard, the top of the sheet demanded. You are making multiple copies. “Here is a copy of the waiver. If she didn’t want the mole removed, why have plastic surgery?”

Ms. Kang remained undisturbed. “Removed from her body, yes, but not from her possession.”

Lutley’s heavy eyebrows joined together as one when he frowned. “Well, of course, but we assumed—”

“It’s a part of me!” Julia insisted. “It’s mine! Can’t you understand that?”

Lutley tidied papers on his desk. “Yes, I suppose I can. We’ve had patients take gallstones home in old babyfood jars. If you’d told us at the time that you wanted it, your surgeon would have given you the entire thing. But now…” He spread his hands helplessly.

Julia blinked wetly at her lawyer. Bringing Ms. Kang along was a huge mistake. It only showed Lutley how badly she wanted the mole back. What was once simply part of a scientific database was now seen as desirable, and therefore valuable.

From her bulging briefcase, Ms. Kang produced a document of her own. “We have a statement from Ms. Coburn’s sister. She states that Ms. Coburn has been depressed since the removal of the nevus.”

Lutley took the single, typed sheet and scanned it. “Her sister? Who made her sister an authority?”

“You did, Mr. Lutley.” Ms. Kang lifted one corner of her mouth. “She’s a psychiatrist on your staff.”

Lutley let the paper fall onto his desk. “I can’t believe there can be any post-operative trauma from removing a mole.”

“Do you know that for certain, Mr. Lutley? What if you are ignoring a legitimate post-operative condition? Can you imagine how bad it would look for U. of M.?”

“We can—and should—return any part of the nevus we still have.” Lutley turned on his PDA and made a note. “I’ll get it from the research department. I’ll contact you… say, by the end of the week?”

“But it’s only Monday,” Julia practically whined.

“It’s just a mole, my dear.” Lutley lifted his bushy eyebrows, widening his eyes. “And you do look so much nicer without it.”

Julia buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

* * * * *

She should have stopped it as soon as the needle went in. She should have known then. As soon as the area was numbed, things started to change. The anesthetic was amazingly precise, affecting no more than a quarter-sized area of her left temple. She could feel the rest of her face, draped in sterile cloths, just fine. Why didn’t she stop it? She was distracted, thinking about her classes, thinking about how nice it would be not to have this ugly mole staring at her students when they looked at her. Vanity. Her own vanity got her into this. So, when the needle went in, numbing the area in preparation for surgery, she didn’t notice the memories slipping away.

* * * * *

None of Julia’s living relatives shared her abilities. Her mother certainly didn’t. Mom never said anything about it—perhaps didn’t even suspect—until a week after Julia’s sixth birthday.

Aunt Susan had come over with a new Barbie doll for Julia, a late birthday present. It was one of the new ones, that could bend her knees. Julia thought that surely she had never seen a more beautiful doll. More thrilling even than the Barbie or her pink chiffon gown were the impossibly tiny high-heels that came with her. Julia could never keep track of Barbie shoes. Only the go-go boots stuck around, as they were big enough not to get vacuumed up or lost in the grass.

Her sister got out her own Barbies, and the two of them sat on the floor having a fashion show. Julia tried on every Barbie outfit she owned, and then all of Natalie’s, seeing how everything looked with the new shoes. Adult voices floated over her head as comforting background noise until a sharp bark of laughter from Aunt Susan made her look up from the plaid miniskirt she was snugging over Barbie’s hips.

“A complete overreaction,” Aunt Susan said.

“I know!” Mom crowed. “I was ten minutes late.”

“The way Mother carried on, you would have thought you were out all night.”

“Tell me about it,” Mom answered. “He was just a friend. It’s not like we could get in any trouble on a rowboat.”

Aunt Susan sipped her iced tea. “Mother never did like boats.”

“Hmm.” Mom shook her head and reached for her glass.

Julia peered at the grown-ups over the coffee table. “Grandma was just scared.”

Mom and Aunt Susan both stared at her. “What did you say?”

Julia shrugged. “Scared of what could happen on a boat.”

Natalie tapped her arm under the table. “Shut up!” she hissed.

Mom drew her eyebrows together. “Julia, honey, we’re talking about something that happened before you were born.”

“I know.” Julia put her Barbie down. “Grandma was thinking about Ronnie, how he drowned, and that’s why she was scared.”

Aunt Susan stared at her as if Julia had just eaten the neighbor’s puppy. Mom just glared. “Who told you about your Uncle Ronnie?”

Julia shrugged again.

Mom looked from Julia to Aunt Susan and back. “You know,” she said carefully. “I think it’s time you girls go play outside.”

“But, Mom—”

“It’s a beautiful day. Go get some fresh air. You can take your toys with you.” Mother stood up and swept them out of the room so fast that Julia barely managed to gather up her doll and a few clothes. It wasn’t until she and Natalie were in the back yard that she realized that she only had one of Barbie’s new shoes.

She stayed outside for the rest of the afternoon, coming in only when called for supper. Nobody mentioned Uncle Ronnie at the supper table. Or ever again.

Julia never did find the other Barbie shoe.

* * * * *

Her sister knew. Her husband did not. Robert thought that Julia’s family told its own oral history, the way families will, reveling in their legends. The time Great-Grandpa won the pie-eating contest with nine blueberry pies. The time Aunt Abigail got lost at the zoo. The time the family bought a new house one block away. and the children moved all their own toys in the little red wagon. It was disloyal to keep the truth from Robert. It was necessary. She was afraid that her husband would start sending her out to play while the adults talked. He understood too much already, even claimed to understand her reasons for putting off child-bearing. Robert thought she didn’t want to lose her chance at tenure. He didn’t know that she had nightmares sometimes, of a daughter born with too-wise eyes, huge brown spot marking her face like a curse.

* * * * *

Julia stared out the window of her office in University Towers, wishing she could open it and fling out the stack of student essays on her desk. If she had to read one more composition on the simple life and healthy economy of the 1950s, she was going to puke. She looked enviously at the empty desk of her office-mate. Maybe she should start giving multiple-choice tests like Professor McCarthy. She doubted he even changed the questions from year to year.

Julia sighed and turned back to the pile in front of her. She’d just picked up her red pen when the phone rang.

“Hi, Natalie.”

“How’d you know?”

“Caller ID.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Have you heard anything from the hospital?”

“Not yet.” Julia realized she’d been stroking the scar and pulled her hand away from her temple.

“Hmmm. Maybe you should tell the hospital what the mole meant to you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really! Maybe you can make them see… Past life regression is legit now. Shirley MacLaine makes money off of hers.”

“For pete’s sake, Natalie! I didn’t live these lives!”

“I don’t know why you had it removed anyway,” Natalie said. “You’re beautiful, with or without it.”

“I just… It’s all I saw when I looked in the mirror.”

“Do you think Cindy Crawford even notices her mole? She wouldn’t look like herself without it.”

“Thanks, Natalie, like I’m not depressed enough already.” Julia caressed the tiny scar with her fingertips. Even that was receding day by day. How could she have known what taking the mole off would do to her? “It just isn’t the same,” she said.

“Do you remember what you had for dinner last night?” Natalie asked.

“Of course!”

“And what you did last weekend?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your third-grade teacher?”

“Yep.”

“Then you’re doing better than fifty percent of my patients.”

* * * * *

Everyone assumed that Julia’s great-aunt Emma was psychic. She wasn’t. She simply knew things, about life’s circle and the endless cycle of all events. Neighbor women would sneak into Emma’s kitchen through the back door, not wanting anyone to know that they had a problem worthy of the old woman’s advice.

A sepia-toned photograph sat on Julia’s piano, a picture of Emma with a hat pulled low on her forehead, over her left temple. Julia didn’t need to see under the hat. She knew what was there.

* * * * *

Julia was absurdly grateful when her office phone rang the next morning. She practically threw herself onto the desk to grab the receiver without even looking at the caller ID. “Hello?”

“Hey, baby. It’s me.”

“Hi, Robert.” Julia swiveled her office chair to turn her back on the computer. Not that she was turning her back on much. Two hours had netted her less than half a page. She held the phone in her left hand while flipping through notes with her right. Somewhere in this mess was the statistic she needed for her new textbook on World War II. She was supposed to be writing about food rationing, but kept butting her head against dry facts. Who cared exactly how much flour and sugar was allotted to each family in 1943? What she really wanted to document was her grandmother’s recipe for one-egg cake.

“Want to meet me for lunch?” Robert asked.

“Can’t.”

“Still not going well?”

“It’s going lousy. I’ve been sitting here all morning and I’ve written two paragraphs. At this rate I’ll finish this chapter… oh, when I’m dead, I guess.” Julia rubbed her forehead. A headache that had been forming all morning thundered just behind her eyes.

“Sounds like you need a break. We can hit the buffet at Raja Rani.”

“You don’t understand.” Julia stared out the window at the students streaming past on Forest Avenue, some still in coats and sweaters, but most of them in their shirtsleeves. How was she supposed to finish three chapters by the end of the semester if she couldn’t even write one? “I don’t know if I can finish it,” she said in a small voice.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s just writer’s block. You’ll get past it.”

“I have never had writer’s block in my life. This is serious.”

Robert sighed into the phone. “I’ll bring you some takeout, then. Tandoori chicken? Bhindi masala?”

Julia resisted the urge to throw the phone through the window. “You are not listening to me.”

“Yes, I hear you,” Robert said. “You’re stressed. But you still have to eat.”

“Arrrhhh!”

“What?”

“This is more than stress, Robert.” Julia kicked at her desk drawer with the heel of her shoe. How could she make him understand? She loved her job. Nobody else taught history the way she did—or used to, anyway. “I just don’t know…” She took a deep breath, tried again. “I don’t think I can do this any more.” She exhaled loudly into the silence at the other end of the line.

“What are you saying?” Robert asked at last. “You want to quit your job?”

Julia could hear the unspoken pleading in his voice. She shook her head. This was no time to restart the stay-home-and-have-children discussion.

There was a knock on the frame of the open office door. Julia turned to see Heather Gedres standing in the doorway. “I’m not saying anything, Robert. I have to go. I have a student here.”

Julia hung up the phone and welcomed Heather into her office, assuring her that no, this was not a bad time and yes, she’d be happy to look over the rough draft of Heather’s term paper.

Julia would have sent any other student away, but she had a soft spot for Heather Gedres. Heather usually showed up for Julia’s 9:00 class unshowered, her hair in a greasy ponytail, clutching an extra-large Starbucks. But show up she did, for every single class. You had to love a kid who found learning more important than sleep.

Julia took the typed sheets and bounced her eyes down the paragraphs, pursing her lips to hide a smile. She’d read countless student papers on WWII, but none quite like Heather’s.

“This is the part I wanted to ask you about,” Heather said, pointing to the second page. “I know that rationing was supposed to be a hardship, right? But people were eating less meat, and less sugar, and less butter. They were growing vegetables at home. Weren’t they really eating a healthier diet?”

“Yes, but at the time, people thought that meat was the healthiest food of all. They felt quite deprived going without it.”

Heather leaned over her paper and pulled at her lower lip. “But meat consumption almost doubled after the war. Didn’t people notice that they didn’t feel as good eating all that meat? That their new diet made them feel worse?”

Julia rubbed her temple with her fingertips. Revisionist history was nothing new, of course, but this was the first time she’d ever encountered vegetarian revisionist history. “That’s an interesting point, Heather, I suppose you could ask someone who lived through the war, but her memory might be… her memories of the time…” Julia closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. If only this headache would go away. “If you weren’t there…”

“Dr. Coburn? Are you okay?”

“I’m all right.” She inhaled sharply through her nose, blew the air out. “Um… can we discuss this after class tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Heather jammed her paper back in her book bag and stood. “Sorry if I came at a bad time.”

“No. I apologize. I’m not feeling well.” Julia dug through her desk drawer for an aspirin.

She didn’t cry at all until Heather left.

* * * * *

When Natalie turned thirty, Julia was still in graduate school and completely broke. With no money for a present, she gave Natalie the only thing she could. Julia wrote down everything their mother remembered about Natalie’s first five years: where she got her first hair cut, the name of her nursery school teacher, the adorable way she called a washcloth a “ratwash.” All the things that Mom never had time to write in her baby book.

She couldn’t take it beyond that, since Julia was born when Natalie was five, but hopefully Natalie could remember her own life from that point on. And the matrilineal line stretched back and back—Julia got flashes of things from the Middle Ages sometimes, although the more recent memories were clearer.

And now? Who knew? Perhaps Natalie would have children some day. Perhaps Julia could teach them not to squander their talents.

Whatever those talents might be.

* * * * *

Robert was just hanging up the phone when Julia walked in the door from the garage. She put down her briefcase, kicked off her shoes, and headed straight for the freezer. Yes, one pint of chocolate and one of fudge ripple. Julia grabbed the chocolate ice cream and a spoon.

“Bad day?” Robert asked.

“The worst.” Julia held up the ice cream. “Do you think I could just mainline this stuff? It would go faster.”

Robert smiled. “I take it you’re eating the other pint, too?”

“If I don’t keel over from this headache, first.”

Robert poured her a glass of water and shook two Tylenol into her waiting palm. She swallowed the pills, then folded herself against Robert’s body, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his chest. She sighed an exhausted sigh, forgetting about ice cream in the safe harbor of Robert’s embrace.

“I was nasty on the phone. I’m sorry.”

“Forgiven,” Robert said, his chin bouncing on top of her head. “Babe? We just got this cryptic message from Lily Kang’s office. Why is our lawyer calling us?”

Julia pulled out of his arms. “What did the message say, Robert?”

“It said she’s got your mole back.” Robert shrugged. “Whatever that means.”

“Really? She got it back already?”

“Apparently.”

Julia danced around the kitchen, kicking her feet forward, then to the side. She picked up her ice cream spoon and used it as a microphone. “I’m getting it back,” she sang. “I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back.” She threw herself into Robert’s arms and kissed him.

Robert leaned against the kitchen counter, eyebrows together and mouth half-open. “But I thought you wanted it removed.”

* * * * *

“Here it is.” Julia triumphantly placed the slide on Natalie’s kitchen table. They both stared at the glass rectangle as if it were a precious jewel. Finally, Natalie picked it up in her thick fingers and held it to the light.

“Not much left.”

“Is it enough?” Julia asked.

Natalie’s brow furrowed. “Enough for what?”

“For you to grow it back, of course.”

“What? Julia! I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a miniscule slice, and it’s preserved. It’s impossible.” Natalie set the slide back on the table.

Julia sat motionless, feeling her carefully built plan wobble at the foundation. “This is a part of me, right?”

“Yes…”

“The DNA is all there, right?”

“Theoretically.”

Julia sighed, resisting the urge to yell at Natalie for being so dense. It wasn’t Natalie’s fault. No, her own ignorance and vanity had gotten her into this, and only cleverness and humility would get her out. She looked Natalie in the eye. “I’ve got to find a way to make it part of me again.”

Natalie scratched her ear and looked out the window. “Let me get this straight. You want this—” She gestured to the slide. “Whatever is left on that slide, you want it in you.”

“Right.”

“How?”

Julia tossed empty air as she threw her hands wide. “That’s what I’m asking you, Natalie.”

Natalie stood and paced in the small kitchen, back and forth from the table to the sink. “Can I consult some people at the hospital?”

“Sure.”

“Okay.” Natalie placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “The University of Michigan employs some of the finest minds in science. If there’s a way to reintegrate a mole, they’ll find it.”

* * * * *

“Are you insane?” Dr. Gold tossed the slide onto the lab table.

“But, Ron—”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Wait,” Natalie pleaded. “I haven’t even told you—”

“Forget it,” Gold interrupted. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Julia stood silent in the corner of the lab, watching grad students tiptoe around their boss while he shrieked at Natalie. Why Natalie had decided to consult Dr. Gold was beyond her. She said he was an expert in genetics, but obviously his expertise did not extend to colleague relations.

“All I’m asking is for some help with—”

“This isn’t a game,” Gold snarled. “I can not believe you’re wasting my time with this.”

Natalie held up a forestalling hand. “Ron? Do you think you can let me finish just one sentence? Please?”

Gold glared at Natalie, blinking rapidly. He folded his arms across his chest. “Go ahead.”

“All I asked you for were the mechanics. How to dissolve the slide, what the medium should be, the dimensions of the syringe. I didn’t ask for your approval and I certainly didn’t ask for your permission.”

“No!” Gold repeated. “You’re messing around with things you do not understand.”

Julia sucked in an angry breath. Understand? It was Gold who didn’t understand. Julia realized she’d been caressing her left temple again, and snatched her hand away. The headache was starting again, right behind her eyes. She moved forward to stand in front of the lab table that Gold was using as a barrier between them. “Excuse me? Dr. God?”

“That’s Gold,” he growled.

Julia slapped her hand over her mouth. Oops. “Sorry. Dr. Gold.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you’re being so hostile. My sister asked for your advice. I’m sorry that you can’t help us. We’ll leave now.” She picked up the slide and cradled it in her palm.

Gold sighed. “I’m being ‘hostile’ because there are dangers. Dangers which you are completely ignoring. Moles are benign tumors. What if you are risking a malignancy?”

“Oh, come on,” Natalie scoffed.

“Are you willing to take that risk?” Gold asked.

“It’s my mole,” Julia answered. “It’s my risk to take.”

Gold stared at Julia for a long moment. She wondered what he saw: could he see beyond her dark eye-circles and pasty skin, beyond her misbuttoned shirt and uncombed hair? Julia stood tall and lifted her head, looking him in the eye. Could he see that she was nearly crazed with desperation?

The silence stretched to the breaking point and Gold looked down at his table. “You’re going to do this. No matter what I say.”

Julia nodded. “I don’t have a choice.”

“Conrad!” Gold barked to one of his grad students. “Get me pen and paper. Now.” The student scurried off to comply. When he returned, Gold snatched the pen out of the kid’s hands and scrawled a series of names on it. He handed the paper to Natalie. “This will neutralize the preservative,” he said, pointing. “You should be able to dissolve it to injectable form with this.”

Gold moved to the far wall of the lab, elbowed a few students out of the way, and rummaged through a drawer. He returned with a surprisingly small syringe. “If you’re determined to do this, at least inject it under the skin, like a vaccination. Don’t go into a vein.”

“How long before her body metabolizes it?” Natalie asked.

Gold gave Julia a measuring look. “If it doesn’t metastasize? I’d say it will break down in thirty-six hours. Max.”

Julia brushed her hand over her forehead. Thirty-six hours? Was that all? Would it be time enough?

It would have to be.

* * * * *

Julia and Natalie sat in the kitchen of Natalie’s apartment, staring at the syringe full of amber liquid on the table between them. “Are you ready for this?” Natalie asked.

Julia bit her lower lip. “Yes.” She looked from the needle to her sister. “No. Wait. Couldn’t we inject a little at a time? You know, just try it out?”

Natalie shook her head. “I doubt it. This isn’t a drug, Julia. Either it’s in your system or it’s not. We don’t even know if this is going to work.”

“Okay, okay. Yes, you’re right.” Julia pressed her lips together. This had to work. Her lost memories came with an obligation—one she had yet to repay. Julia gave Natalie’s forearm a quick squeeze. “Ready,” she whispered.

Natalie’s hands quivered as she swabbed Julia’s arm with alcohol. She raised the needle and Julia closed her eyes, felt the tiny prick that was her last hope.

She waited. At first there was nothing.

And then, everything.

Julia kept her eyes closed, reveling in the rush of completeness. At last, she was once again whole.

Natalie gasped. “Julia! Are you all right?”

Julia cocked her head to the side. “Of course I’m all right. Why?”

“You’re smiling! I haven’t seen you smile since—”

Julia opened her eyes, leapt to her feet and grabbed her car keys. “I gotta go.”

“Wait, Julia, are you sure—”

Julia flew through the front door. “Call Robert and tell him to cancel my classes,” she called over her shoulder. “Oh, and thank you, Natalie. Thank you!”

“Julia!”

“I’m fine, Natalie! More than fine! I’m perfect!”

* * * * *

Julia jerked awake, her neck stiff from sleeping in her chair. How long had she slept? She fumbled for the little clock she kept on the corner of her desk in her home office. Four o’clock!

She’d missed nearly three hours. The injection might not last much longer. She had to get back to writing.

She turned to the computer, intending to start where she’d left off. But where was that? She scrolled upward through twenty hours of narrative. Fifteen pages back, she found an entry about her grandmother. She’d been writing about Josephine’s secretarial job at Wilson and Company, to which she wore pleated short skirts and long coats, made with Butterick patterns copied out of Delineator magazine. Josephine was often called “fastidious” by the other secretaries—considered a compliment—because she washed her hair every day and wore Odorono deodorant. Little did they know that she completely scandalized her mother by spending her first paycheck on pink bed sheets and pillowcases. Even if they were Pequot.

Julia stared at the computer monitor, remembering suddenly why Josephine had gotten the secretarial job in the first place. She was trying to help out her father, whose silent movie house was nearly put out of business by talking pictures.

Julia reached for the keyboard to capture the story, but when she tried to type, every muscle in her wrists and forearms cramped tight with a stabbing agony. There would be no more typing today. With a sob of frustration, Julia dug into her desk for paper. She seized the nearest pen and held it gingerly between her fingers. If she didn’t move her arm too much, she could probably stand to write.

Four hours later, after filling more than eight legal pads, her right arm was wrapped in a cast of pain. She’d had to pee for the last two hours, holding it in, terrified to let anything leave her body. Finally she couldn’t wait another second. Panting, she ran down the hall.

Through the bathroom door, she could hear Robert in the bedroom, talking on the phone. “Yes, I know that, but—” and then, “I know her book is under deadline, but she’s not even working on that. She’s writing some sort of—”

Julia ran cold water into the sink and plunged her right arm in. What she really needed was ice, but there was no time for that. On the other side of the door, Robert sounded even more dubious.

“Sure, sure. You’re right, Natalie, but… No, I don’t think so.” A pause. “I’m taking care of her the best I can, but she hardly eats and she doesn’t sleep.” A longer pause. “Okay… I’ll try… I’ll call you back later.” Julia could hear him walk to the kitchen and start fussing with dishes.

Julia drained the sink water and marched into the kitchen. “Do you still have that little tape recorder I gave you last Christmas?”

“What?”

“That tape recorder! Hurry!”

Robert folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll find it on one condition.”

“What?”

“Eat.”

Julia picked up the half-eaten remains of her lunch. She stuffed a huge bite of cheese sandwich in her mouth and bugged her eyes out at him. “I need tapes, too,” she said with her mouth full.

When Robert returned, Julia was seated at her desk, feebly gripping a pencil with her left hand, making painstaking letters on a fresh legal pad. She was trying to document some of her great-grandmother’s little quirks. How she insisted on brushing her teeth with baking soda, even after the rest of the family had switched to Colgate. How she made one box of Chipso flakes do for both laundry and dish soap. How she boiled a pot of Postum each morning, insisting to her husband that it was healthier than coffee. Julia looked up as Robert approached. “Oh, thank god,” she said, and grabbed for the recorder. “It’s almost gone.”

Robert spilled a stack of blank cassettes on her desk and backed slowly out of the room.

* * * * *

As she slotted in a fresh cassette, Julia wondered which would go first: her memory or her voice? Her throat was on fire from six hours of non-stop talking, but she didn’t dare shut up. Who knew if her next word would be her last? She was rambling now, probably incoherent, but still she poured everything she could think of into the recorder. Slower, now. It was getting harder and harder to remember details.

Julia cleared her throat and pushed the “record” button. She’d been trying to explain about Kathryn Lancaster, five generations ago. Kathryn’s mother was Anne… no. Jane? Julia wiped a tear from her cheek. How could she not know? She was born knowing this. Julia took a deep breath, tried again. “Kathryn’s mother was Jane. She married a man named something like Portman… or Pitman? But he wasn’t her first husband.” Julia’s voice gave out completely on the last syllable. “Anyway, they never…” she croaked. “They never did…” Julia sobbed into the microphone.

Gone. It was all gone. There was nothing left. Worse, there was no one left. No one to tell her story, or Natalie’s. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not sure if she was apologizing to ancestors past or descendants to come. “I am so sorry,” she whispered as the tape rolled on, recording the last word.