The Younger Model

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The young model was immaculate. Black hair spiraled down a broad forehead. Her skin was pale as if she had been conceived in moonlight and had never strayed from under the cool beams.

In truth, this was the first time she had sat under the hot sun and the corners of her eyes began to crease behind the dark glasses.

“Stop that! Wrinkles can’t be unmade. Don’t squint, don’t smile, don’t laugh. Just sit still!”

“Yes, mother,” the model answered again. She sat with her hands gently crossed in her lap, often smoothing the red silk gown when her mother wasn’t watching. It felt beautiful under her fingers. She was nervous and excited as she thought of her mother’s promise.

“Everyone in the world will see this. It’s high art, beauty in transition, and you’re doing it in my place, for me.” She tried to imagine how many people filled the world. There were a lot here, the most she had seen yet.

“Come on, come on. Let’s prepare,” said the photographer. His voice sounded funny in her ears, her mother’s bestowed memory summoned the thought, “faux French”. He walked down the lawn and crouched before a long case at the end of the lane.

The model rose with the grace that only a modern god could endow. The grass seemed to rise to her feet, to carry her to her place. Her body glided before her mother, who moved equally beautifully, though tempered by age.

She took her place and removed her glasses, her blue eyes meeting the full light of the world for the first time. She blinked rapidly, fighting the urge to squint and looked down the lane. Rows of cameras formed its boundary before converging to swallow the grass path. She would not have to run that far.

Her eyes drifted up to the sky, a few clouds drifting past the setting sun. The photographer was watching as well.

“One shot. Only one shot, that’s all we have. Make this work,” he bellowed to the assistants manning the equipment.

He looked back up to the sky and watched it take on a slight rose tint. He held up his hand and waited until he found his moment. She took a breath and listened to her mother’s last instructions.

“Don’t mess this up. Just run. Keep your hands to your side. Don’t trip on your dress. And for god’s sake—”

“Now! Run,” the photographer shouted.

She was running. The unspent energy of her day-old life rushed into her sixteen-year-old body. The shutters snapped at her heels and drove her on. She ran frantic, determined, beautiful. This was her one moment; she was built for this one shot. The model was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen.

The small bullet pierced her body, slicing though her heart. Her blood misted out behind, staining her dress a darker shade. Her body leaned forward, but its natural grace carried on. It fell, no less beautiful. The model’s body lay on the grass, her life gone before it touched the earth.

All the cameras had captured her fall, one even trained to catch her blue eyes as the light faded from them. The blood soaked into the grass, and as the sun began to set, the cameras continued to catch the last reflection of the rosy light on her pale skin.

“That was very nice. Vogue will be pleased,” said the mother.

“Yes, she almost did it right,” the photographer responded as he placed his rifle back in its case. “Have the next one ready for the fifth. Have her at fourteen this time.”

The clone was left, sublet for decomposition on the Biology Channel. The mother, and DNA original, would be paid well by both parties. Of course, the channel would keep the identity hidden. After all, she was famous and was, or had been, the most beautiful model of her time. It would not do to soil her image on a cable show where anyone could see.

 

The Broker’s Deal

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

John Bishop crouched above the skylight as the sour rain dripped off his dark hair and streamed down the glass. He watched the bright lights and lasers blind the audience below. They jerked and bounced as if hardwired to the erratic rhythm pouring from the speakers. He found the singer, her shadows surrounding her feet like black petals. He watched her dive into the crowd, swimming until they threw her, like a breaking wave, back on stage. She sprawled, still screaming into the mic.

Bishop stood up and crossed the slick plastic roof, searching for the right window. The building washed bright with light and he dove to the floor, sliding under an old vent pipe. A small security scout drifted above him. It shot a picture of the roof and continued up to the adjoining high-rise on its routine pass. Bishop slid out from the shadow, spitting foul water out of his mouth. The taste of oil and acid lingered on his lips. Had he taken his toxin pills today? He couldn’t recall, and it headed the long list of errors that he chalked up later that night.

He wiped the rain from the next skylight and peered in. Costumes were strewn across the floor, vomited out of a large chest in the center of the room. He smiled. This job could be done by a gutterpunk.

“For what she makes, she sure doesn’t value security.”

He could see the hairbrush on the cluttered dresser, clothes left in the open. Makeup masks lay scattered about, one fallen and crushed under the foot of a chair. This was not a careful target, all evidence of her existence collected and destroyed to leave the room sterile and empty. He could do this the easy way, but he had brought the spider, and the spider made him eager. He liked the edge of the close retrieval and its personal touch. Besides blood was the sure thing. Residual samples don’t always cut it, he thought, rationalizing his riskier choice.

He looked closer at the pyramid skylight. The club wasn’t much better, sun panels added, but the window left ignored. Perhaps they add to the decor.

He pulled a small, steel-gray rod from his shoulder holster and adjusted the slide switch. He held it away from him and pressed the button. The rain, passing inches in front of the rod, seemed to evaporate.

“Good, we’re golden.” He’d meant to charge the batteries all week, maybe he had. He angled the rod to meet the windowpane and a darkened corner in the bright window caught his eye. He scrubbed the grime away from the scarred glass and his heart jumped. There was the alarm system. He might as well have punched through, for all the good cutting would have done. The thin panel could feel vibrations even on the molecular level. His finger dropped off the button and the tight sound waves sunk back into the rod. Damn, no easy ride after all. He circled the skylight, scanning the room for another entrance.

There was only one door into the room; a bouncer on that, guaranteed. The walls were force plastic, stronger than steel. The sonics would be useless.

The room seemed sealed tight until he spotted the air duct above the far wall. It was older than the glass windows and just as outdated. He looked over his shoulder at the old piping. If the skylight was rigged for security, the vent work should be, too. But that was the next step.

Bishop crept back through the blowing rain. There wasn’t an alarm panel on the outside. Probably twenty inside, all rigged with explosives.

He decided to take the chance and cut his way in. The sound waves slid out from the rod and tore at the molecules of old aluminum. The metal split apart and fell away at his feet.

Bishop pulled a mirror out of his vest and peered inside the three-foot hole. If he climbed into a motion detector, he could be knocked out by a sound wave, or liquefied if it was an old model. He wouldn’t put that past the club, though older detectors had been deemed “cruel and unnecessary force” by the U.N. East in 2110. They were no longer in production, but they could be found in the right markets. Most had just never been removed, like the skylights, and they were just sitting around waiting. Bishop couldn’t see much of anything in the dim light but climbed in anyway. Nothing moved, no high pitch winding up.

Maybe this won’t be so bad. The wind sucked the stale air out of the new hole. He quickly changed his mind as he inhaled the dank smell of sweat and dead rot. The system wasn’t in working order, but it was still in use, a vault for problems.

The rain had made him cold and wet but it also had made him slick, and he slid through the tunnels until he found the grate. The dressing room below was still vacant and he glanced at his watch. The band was still going; the beats were shaking the tools out of his pockets. Knocking the grate loose from the wall, he threw it into a cluttered corner were he guessed no one would notice it.

Bishop pulled a small tin box out of his breast pocket and opened it. Inside a brown spider, the size of an old one-hundred dollar coin, laid spread out. He rubbed its back like a favorite pet, and it came to life, climbing out of the box and into the open palm of his hand.

He extended his arm over the mess and waited. The spider turned in circles, scanning the area, and then froze.

“All right, you know what you’re looking for.” He tossed the spider toward the makeup table. It fell with its legs spread out to catch the air and slow its fall. Bishop winced, as he watched it hit the large mirror above the table and slid down, landing on its back.

“Sorry about that.” The spider flipped over onto its feet and scurried under the clutter. Bishop sat back to wait. He had uploaded the target’s information into the spider and when the singer entered the room, it would be ready for her.

Almost an hour passed before the music changed to the house techmachine mix. He sat up and peered out. He expected this to go easy, even if the Broker’s brief had neglected the window alarm.

“Stay there,” a raspy voice shouted, “I’ll be out when I’m friggin’ ready.” The door slammed shut and Bishop saw the singer kick her way through the clutter. She stripped off her wire and chains, tossing them into the mess around the chest. Pouncing into the chair before the makeup table, she tore through the mess of containers and clothes.

Bishop looked down at the naked woman. Her body was beaded in sweat from her performance. She was thin and bony, but muscular enough that she was still attractive. Her fingers curled tight around her prize and he saw her body relax as she placed it over her head.

The singer tightened the nodes around her temples, flipped a switch on the side, and immediately fell back in the chair, as her brain clouded over in an electronic orgasm.

Who would be attracted to someone so screwed up? Who ever it was, they would be rich. They had to be to afford the Broker.

The woman seemed almost dead, except for the twitching under the electronic stimuli. Her face went slack in a look of uncaring bliss, as her eyes rolled back into her skull.

Bishop watched for the spider. Before long, it crept out from under the mess and toward the singer’s naked skin. It crouched down at the end of the table, and sprung to the ragged leather chair. The spider crept slow onto the hand and climbed up the arm. Usually it would take blood at first chance, but the spider knew to draw from near the heart if it could. The singer registered near dead under the wire and the spider continued on, crawling across her shoulder. It made the throat, before the singer suddenly sat straight up.

The spider fell between her legs and Bishop pulled back into the shadows of the air duct. The girl searched the room as if each corner hid something in it. Bishop saw the fear on her face, but knew wire stimuli carried some strange shit along with its pleasure. He waited, wondering what the next step would be if she sat on the spider. It was strong, but he would have to retrieve it and do the job manually if she had pinned it underneath her.

The girl collapsed back into the chair, her head rolled back and vacant eyes stared into the air. The spider was already back to work, climbing its way up her thigh. It slowly crossed her slick stomach and stepped up her protruding ribs. It looked as excited as Bishop felt, scurrying between her breasts in a dash to the heart. Bishop saw the spider bear down and bite through the flesh of the girl. She snapped forward, and fell forward on the desk, all but the first of the scream stolen, as the sedative took effect. Bishop started to climb out of the vent, just as the men burst into the room. One looked sculpted from steel, even under his long black coat. The other was almost as gangly as the girl.

Damn, bodyguards. They weren’t in the brief, either. The men pulled the limp singer off the table and back into the chair. They didn’t miss the bite marks.

Bishop pulled the rod back out of its holster and set the side switch for a knockout. He hit the button and nothing happened.

Aftermarket Reds? Bishop adjusted the device back down to its cutting level. The huge guy slammed his fist down on top of the spider, hidden among the junk of the table. He howled in pain as the plastic shards of the broken skeleton impaled his hand. He cried out something that sounded like a cross between babbling water and electricity shorting out through a frying cat. Whatever was said, Bishop caught the word “Cloner” and knew he was made. The monster tore off his jacket, and Bishop also knew he was right on the Red. They were black market soldiers, gene charmed and red hot, while they lasted.

Bishop saw the second set of muscle-bound arms, each gripping an electromagnetic gun. If they found him, the steel would rip through him and the only sound would be his breath slipping through the holes in his lungs.

The smaller soldier was searching the room and Bishop jumped, just as he looked up. He locked his knees, coming down on the thing with a full 240 pounds right between the eyes. The smaller Red fell straight down, bones snapping under Bishop’s weight. He landed in a crouch, just as the larger bodyguard whipped around. Bishop leapt forward, covering the short distance between them, trying to get inside the heavy guns before they came to bear.

Just as the soldier grabbed him out of the air, Bishop rammed the modulator against the large head, sending the concentrated sound waves into the skull.

The giant Red fell backward, pulling Bishop with him, and knocking the unconscious girl out of the chair. Bishop pried himself out of the grip of the spasming muscles and stood up. A group of onlookers had gathered in the door, their holographic passes dangling from their necks.

“Brilliant,” one of them said, his eyes stoned and his mouth grinning. Bishop slammed the door and locked it. He turned back to the desk, looking for the remains of his spider. What was left of her was still pierced through the upper fist of the big guy. He pulled out the small container of blood. He checked it for cracks, that it was enough DNA for the Broker, and placed it into a zippered pocket. He stooped and pulled some hair from the back of her head, hoping the bleach hadn’t hurt it too much to use as a backup specimen.

“Done and done. Out of here,” he said. Bishop turned around just in time to recognize a four-fingered fist meeting his skull. He reeled back, falling over the singer and slumped against the wall. The rod was still in his hand and he pointed it at the slim soldier. It snapped and went quiet, forgot the batteries after all.

The Red knocked the rod out of his hand before he even had a chance to flinch. Smaller than Bishop by half, it still lifted him off the floor, tossing him to the other side of the room. He felt his right leg collapse under him as the femur snapped. Bishop kicked the large chest, what strength he had left draining from his body. The chest slid across the floor, catching the bodyguard off balance as he stepped over the singer. He tumbled back, cracking his head against the wall.

Bishop looked above him. Dim flashing lights streamed through the murky glass, heralding the city security teams. He looked at the Red, back on his feet, and decided the skylight was his best bet.

He pulled out his EMT cuff and slipped his hands through the ring to grab the controller rod. Bishop activated the emergency magtransporter, as the Red jumped. The EMT pushed off the steel undercarriage of the elevated city block and shot him up through the room, through the skylight. The cruisers were climbing from street level as he soared into the sky. Far below, he saw the bodyguard rising after him.

The Red gained speed, rocketing out of the room. He cleared the shattered skylight just as a security car skimmed over the opening in the roof. The car rocked up and flipped over as the Red hit it from beneath. He fell back, twisted and broken onto the rain-soaked roof.

Bishop laughed through the pain at his luck, but said a silent prayer to whatever god was favoring him. Luck was the only thing that had got the job done; he certainly hadn’t been on top of his game.

No one followed, so he slipped through the air toward a brightly lit bus stop on the next elevated block. It was empty as he landed, and far down below he could see the flashing lights of the security teams.

“How long for the bus?” he asked the empty platform. The pain was making his head swim. He knew he had no strength to avoid the cops if they searched here; if they found him, they had him. He probed his pockets and found a syringe.

He pulled his shirt down from the neck and drove the needle it into his chest. The fluid automatically injected into his heart and he felt a wave of ease encompass his body. The pain sliced out at him, but it was far below, like lightening viewed from space. As he looked up, the open door of a bus lay before him and he pulled himself in, collapsing unconscious in the first seat.

* * * * *

When Bishop’s head finally cleared, he was lying sprawled in front of his own apartment. He tried to remember how he arrived, but after the bus stop, his memory slurred. He was still wet from the rain, and his vision was blurry. He brushed dried blood from his face and felt the deep cuts in his head, recalling the crash through the old glass skylight.

Bishop started to stand and his right leg gave out. In a rush of pain he fell back to the ground. Now he knew he had at least laid there long enough for the shot to wear off. He braced himself for the pain and pulled himself back up to the lock. His fingers tapped out the code on the blank door and a blue square of light appeared. Bishop set his eye before the glowing window. The laser shot out and bounced around his cornea as the computer matched his signature. The door clicked open and he fell inside.

“Good morning, John,” a soft voice said. As the light level slowly rose, Bishop saw a young dark-haired woman dressed in 1940s attire, complete with black seamed stockings and a rolled crown of hair. She stood facing Bishop with her patented look of concern and question.

“Hi darlin’,” he replied, and started to drag himself across the front rooms toward the back of the apartment.

“You look hurt,” she said. “Shall I start the medic system?”

“Yes, wind it up.” She turned and walked ahead of him into one of the two back rooms. He pulled himself up on an end table and followed, discarding clothing as he went. Bishop entered the bedroom and sat swaying on the bed. He cut through the leg of his pants, stopping more than once as the pain tore deep into his crotch, crawling up into his gut. He pulled off his shirt and opened its zippered pocket, tossing the plastic vial into an opening in the wall.

“Store that for me would you?” The woman smiled and nodded. The vial disappeared into the storage system.

“Is there anything else, John,” she said?

“No, just put on Holiday and wake me up well done.”

“Sure, doll.” She walked out, and he watched her fade gently out of existence as she left the room and the image returned to the computer’s memory.

Bishop lay back, naked on the bed as Billie’s voice wafted over him. He hummed against the pain as the bed’s surface pulled him down to swallow his body, conforming to its shape. He tensed as he heard the bone snap back into place, but the medical system had already numbed his nerves, and he felt nothing. His face alone stayed above the surface as the bed worked at his wounds. The lights slowly dimmed as Holiday softly sang him to sleep.

* * * * *

Bishop awoke slowly to the motion of his bed opening, raising him to the surface.“Helen?” he called, his mind still folded in sleep.

“Coming, sir,” she replied from the other room. The dark-haired woman entered the room and the lights rose to a dim level.

“Get my robe and turn off the music,” Bishop asked.

“Sure,” Helen said, her lips pursed and her eyebrow setting a dark furrow across her brow. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wipe off the pull of sleep. The music faded out. A drawer opened from the wall close to him, revealing a dark blue robe. Bishop wrapped it around himself.

“How long did I sleep?” he asked.

“Four hours,” she replied, “I woke you early because the Broker is here to see you. He asked…”

“…How you are doing,” a voice interrupted from the doorway. Bishop jumped slightly, surprised to see anyone in the apartment, past his own security systems. The Broker stepped into the room. His tall thin frame was dressed in the same business suit. Bishop stood, testing his leg. It was still weak, but the pain was gone.

“What are you doing in here?” Bishop asked.

“I heard there was some trouble at the club last night. I thought I would check in on you and see if you were all right.”

“You’re here for the vial.”

“Two birds, they say. I thought it might save you some time,” said the Broker. The memory of the job, how bad it had gone, came back to Bishop and his temper stepped forward.

“Let’s talk in my study,” Bishop said. He turned, walked to the next room and sat behind his desk.

“Very nice,” the Broker said, looking about at the antique decorations. “1960s?”

“40s and 50s,” Bishop replied. His voice was steady, but his eyes stared hard as if to pin the man to the wall. The Broker rapped his knuckles on the desk.

“Real wood,” he said. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

“What exactly are you here for?” Bishop asked. “I always bring you the samples. That’s the deal.”

“Yes, but the buyer wanted the clone in a hurry, so the company thought I should come and collect.”

“Why would any buyer want this girl?” Bishop asked, “She is not what you call ‘idol’ quality.”

“Who knows?” Grant replied, sitting down in a leather chair. “Some desire their companionship, some lust after them, some like to collect. They all have a reason, but that’s never a requirement. Anyway, the buyer paid in full and wants the clone. So, how about it?”

“I’ve got the sample in storage, but there were a few undisclosed hazards not in your brief,” Bishop said. The Broker shifted in his chair.

“You know your price is always set before the job has begun. There’s no changing it now, besides—”

“Wrong, boyo,” Bishop interrupted. “Your information concerning the building, the target, the security? All of it shit. I almost had to scrap the mission.” He sat forward in his chair, staring hard across the desk. “I want double for my time and hassle, or your client gets nothing. The sample is still my property until handed over.”

“We feel differently about that,” the Broker said. “We feel you should have adapted better. You used to handle surprises fairly well. You wouldn’t even have requested a brief for so simple a job ten years back.” Bishop sat back in his chair, collected his thoughts and tried again.

“I want an extra five percent on my future jobs. I am your best, after all, and I’ve earned it.” The Broker stood up from his chair.

“I sympathize with you, and I believe you are in the right. We should have been paying you more,” he said, looking around at Bishop’s expensive wood furnishings. “However, some think you are past prime. This job may have hardwired their opinion. You seem to be having a hard time of late, not to mention the easy target you missed during the Vid Awards season.”

Bishop’s temper hit the top and simmered at rage, pulling him to his feet. He had contracted with the company for twenty years and always managed to finish the jobs the other collectors couldn’t.

“That job was totally different. You know—”

“Sit down,” said the Broker. Bishop stood there, his anger tightening his gut. “Please?”

Now he saw the sonics rod in the Broker’s palm. His leg suddenly felt weak again, and he sat back on the edge of the chair.

“Thank you,” the Broker said. “Now, one of the security officers was kind enough to turn this in to us, instead of impounding it. Had someone less enterprising found it, we could have lost the sample. I’m afraid the company has decided it would be best to cancel our contracts with you, Bishop. Your Value/Risk ratio has run pretty poor.”

Bad collectors died during a job, the good ones stepped down. Bishop thought he had been far better than good. He looked at the angle of the rod and wondered, though, at the validity of comfortable retirements. Tensing his muscles slow, he prepared to vault from the chair if the Broker’s hand even twitched.

The Broker fired. The sound waves shot invisible out of the newly charged weapon, turning Bishop’s chest into putty. He fell out of the air in the middle of his lunge, and lay bleeding on the wooden desk as his organs collapsed.

The door to the living room opened and in stepped another man. Bishop let his head loll to the side to see him. He wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating from the pain, or from the loss of blood, but it was himself. It was a younger version, John Bishop—Version 2.0.

“You are right,” said the Broker, leaning down to speak into his ear. “You are the best, though your talent has been spent, or worn down with age. It was a hell of an expense, building your clone with a full life range. He’s one of our greatest, certainly in the top three that we’ve created. You should be honored that they chose you for your own replacement,” the Broker whispered, the words chasing Bishop down into death.

* * * * *

John Bishop stood above the desk. It’s a little awkward watching yourself die. I wonder if I should say something. The Broker turned to face him.

“Did you find the sample?” Bishop handed him the flask he had retrieved from the wall storage. The Broker dropped it in his breast pocket and headed for the front door. “All the data on your last twenty years has been placed in your long term memory. It should be coming back to you in the next couple of days. It won’t come back as firsthand experience, though the subconscious tends to dream up pictures to make them mesh comfortably. Don’t rely on the generated images, just the facts. Anything else, you can find out by asking your secretary.” The Broker headed out the door.

“What about him?” Bishop asked. Grant looked back through the door at the body on the desk.

“You will probably want to get rid of it,” he said and walked out of the apartment, leaving the door hanging open. Bishop closed it behind him. He walked back into the study and looked at himself lying on the desk. The blood had run off the surface and had now soaked into the antique Persian rug.

“Uh… miss,” he said, trying to dig up her name. Helen entered from the bedroom and surveyed the room.

“I suppose you want me to clean this up,” she said, raising one eyebrow to fulfill her exasperated expression.

“If you would. Anything that is stained, go ahead and get rid of it.” He entered the bedroom, lay down, and stared at the ceiling until sleep took hold and the past twenty years began to surface like cartoons traced on thin paper.

 

Dean’s Caretaker

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The shovel stung Dean’s hands with each hit. The metal-on-metal impact jarred his arms, but the caretaker was still squirming and Dean’s fury was just peaking. It thrashed about, trying to get to its feet, until the chest plate cracked and the exposed servos bit down on the shovel’s edge. The handle ripped from his grasp and his rage lessened. It was not a moment too soon. The gears locked and the current popped and cracked as it welded the shovel to the caretaker’s frame.

Dean remembered little of the fight between his rally cry, “to the death, you stupid robot,” and when the shovel left his hands. The curse sounded stupid now, better in books than spoken out loud, but Dean had never been a fighter, never picked a fight. His last battle had been in third grade and he had been knocked down, sat on, and had his face rubbed in the snow until his nose had bled. That finished his fighting days, and Dean had shied away from trouble since.

His heart was calming, but slow. It jumped again, trying to kick back into anger as he surveyed the remains of his garden. There was little left, the bonsai lay crushed in the compactor, red maple leaves looking like chunks of bloody meat mixed in with the junipers and willows. His water garden, months of work and salary spent, no longer filled the backyard. Desert rock and sand flowed in its place. One twitching goldfish battered in dust was the only evidence that it had ever existed. The outside walls, displaying his Japanese landscape, had returned to the dry desert range that was the default display model for his condo. It had been nice enough when he bought the place, but now it made him ill.

The caretaker robot, “designed to keep your world in pristine perfection,” had been one of the selling points on the condo, but it had caused Dean nothing but trouble. After walking in on its destruction the first time, its metal clamps feeding the water plants into the compactor, he had cancelled his subscription for it at the office. They had talked him back into the payment, promising that it would be reprogrammed. Dean had conceded, not one to cause waves. Twice since, he had found it back to its work, drying out the gardens, shoveling rock over the grass, and always a desert landscape spread out from the unseen wall into the faux distance. He had managed to cut off the subscription, e-mailing rather than face the managers again and fold under their insistence that the problem could be fixed. Regardless the robot had come back, sometimes just sitting, staring at the fish like a cat, or flipping through the hundred landscapes, trying to find the desert that Dean had long since deleted from the condo’s memory.

“Do you think it loves the desert, or just hates all things Japanese?” Trinidad had asked, when Dean explained his trouble.

“What do you mean? It’s a robot, emotion doesn’t come into the equation,” Dean said, annoyed that he was making light of the situation.

“I’m joking, Dean. Look, something’s definitely wrong with it and you have to confront them about it. Get them to pull it from the complex if it won’t stay out of your place.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Not if you would quit wimping out,” Trinidad said, his mouth full of food to disguise his disgust. Dean had heard him, but did not want to start an argument.

He had put off talking to the management, dreading the return to the office. Trinidad had been right, that would have been the best way to handle the situation, but when Dean saw the robot standing by the compactor he lost his head. It was plucking the leaves from the real oriental orchids that had been bought only after a summer of saving. The caretaker turned to stare at him with those blank monitors, plucking away until all the leaves were gone before tossing them in the trash. The shovel was in Dean’s hand before he realized it and he was swinging away.

Once Dean had again deleted the desert scene, how the robot had returned it to memory he couldn’t guess, his anger finally disappeared. It left him exhausted, his muscles ached, but despite the loss of so much money and effort, he felt good. He had won, even if it was over a midget service robot, and he felt strong, powerful, like a man. He left the robot and went straight to the condo’s office. His confidence would only hold as long as his anger, and this glorious feeling of victory, stayed. He knew himself well enough to know that he must face them now or not at all.

* * * * *

“I think someone’s in love,” Trinidad said, as the little robot chased after Dean, knocking against his shoes like a persistent terrier after some special time with his leg. It charged his foot again, almost tripping him up and sending his lunch tray careening out of his hands. Dean turned, waited for its next charge and kicked. The little maintenance robot crashed against the wall, bounced flipping across the floor and stalled, wheels up. They spun forward and backward, but it was stuck until rescued.

“I like the new Dean, Destroyer of Robots, Conqueror of Androids, Master of All Thing’s Machine.”

“Here’s a dollar, Trinidad. Now get back in line and get a cup of shut the hell up,” Dean said, laughing only once the surprised look on his friend’s face spread into an embarrassed grin.

“Right then. Point taken.”

Trinidad rambled on through lunch regardless. Dean nodded where appropriate, but his mind was still on the little robot. His toe throbbed and he reminded himself not to kick a solid metal object again. He would have dismissed the event as a common malfunction, if it had been the first.

Yesterday morning, a broom had smacked against the glass elevator as he rose through the office lobby. A woman beside him had spilled her coffee and everyone laughed, that half-chuckle when some frightening shock has passed. They laughed it off, but Dean had seen the robot standing on the granite floor, watching their ascent. It was three floors below and a chill had run through him as he wondered what would have happened had the glass not been there. He had shrugged it off and refused to think more about it, tucking the event away in that vault where all conflicts had been placed to keep his mind peaceful.

Dean spent more time inside, ordering delivery, shopping for his garden replacements on the wall screens. He left the house only for work, calling ahead for a taxi and rationalizing the extra cost against getting to work a little early. It all served to keep him out of sight from the machines, the blank stares from the litterbots on other side of the subway platforms, the metal dishwashers stopped in mid-action and watching from the kitchens of the coffee shops. He buried his face in the morning paper as he sat in the back of the taxi. He avoided them as he did all trouble; he did not think of it.

Trinidad caught him on a good day, Dean’s early arrivals noted by the boss and complimented; otherwise he would have stuck to the self-banishment of his cubicle and not accepted lunch out of the office. The crowd was thick on the street. Dean was just one more body packed in the stream of noon migration. He enjoyed the lunch, tired of his own leftovers, and was in the first fine mood in the week since his garden had been destroyed. That was why, at Trinidad’s comment, he had turned to look over his shoulder without thinking.

“You have any parking tickets unpaid?” Trinidad asked.

“No, haven’t driven in a couple of years.”

“Maybe you have another crush on your hands.”

Dean turned and saw the traffic android stepping onto the curb behind them. The opaque monitors flashed. Perhaps it was light off some passing windshield, but to Dean it seemed the mark of recognition when someone finally places how they know you. There was just enough time for the fear of that flash to turn his smile into a tight grimace. Then the cop swung out with his long arm, hand still clutching the ticket book, and slapped Dean across the face.

The arm swung slow, but it was a mass of heavy metal and it sent Dean sprawling across the sidewalk. He rolled and stopped, a thin alleyway of blue between the buildings catching his blurry eyes. The sky is so far away, he thought, for no certain reason. He felt the step of the heavy machine through the sidewalk, it was much larger than the simple maintenance robots, and then the blue sky was hidden behind the mass of metal law enforcement.

Dean was lifted into the air, plucked up by the front of his jacket like an errant toddler. The front of the cop’s chest, a screen of fines and infractions, flickered a rosy red. Dean saw dark sand and the dim outlines of a mesa at sunset, and then he was in freefall.

The tide of the lunch crowd had turned, but not diminished in size, and he went down in a crater of arms, legs and curses. The crowd cushioned his fall, but only set the pain of impact aside for a moment. The cop came forward with limbs flailing. I may be the first to know what it is to be beaten up by a major appliance, he thought, some odd defensive mechanism turning the sickening crunch of a broken arm into dark humor.

He scrambled as best as he could, trying to flee with all the other screaming people. They ran, leaving him in an open circle where they watched the fight like a group surrounding some spontaneous schoolyard brawl. Another hit broke his ribs. Dean tasted the grime of the concrete as his face smacked against the sidewalk and then the skyscrapers closed in, smothering him in darkness.

* * * * *

The pinging sound of some machine pulled him from the thick blackness. He shied away from the sound but it drew him toward consciousness, one beat marking each fathom he rose. As light began to swim in his eyes, other sounds intruded. Muffled voices, slurred as if drunk, mixed with the quiet noises of people moving somewhere outside the room. The wall screen babbled on and the words drifted across his mind, only patches penetrating his thoughts. He concentrated, stringing the words together and trying to wake fully.

In local news, IntelGrid stock… contract with the city last month. Their BroadNet server now connects 90 percent of the area’s robots… shared memory and task recognition… increased efficiency by 100-fold, says IntelGrid. The company… 24 major cities… federal contract is under consideration.

The words turned something in Dean’s mind, some dread was forming, but he couldn’t put it all together. He was in a limbo of mist and smoke and his thoughts raced around just out of reach.

“Does that mean I can rely on my housekeeper for car repairs, Julie?”

“Well, that remains to be seen Charles, but I do know that the coffee-maker here at work has finally figured out how to make my mocha-cino.”

“Wonderful. In Bridgeport today…”

As he came closer to waking, pain followed the light and sound, but just as blurred. It lay deep in his body, constant, but disconnected. Dean’s eyes flickered open. A blue gel-cast surrounded his elevated leg. Through the bright syrup he could see the scars across his thigh and the pins rising from the skin like miniature towers reaching for the fake blue sky.

He reached to poke at the cast, tried twice, expecting to see his finger prodding the gel, before he realized his arm wouldn’t move. He decided against looking at it. It would be the same; more towers of metal, as if some small race had inhabited his skin while he was gone. My garden wasn’t enough. They’re terraforming my body, too, his mind thought, twisted by the thick layer of painkillers padding his brain from his body.

“Dean, are you awake, buddy?” Trinidad whispered. Dean grunted, his tongue too dry and swollen to talk. It came out with a whistle, like when he had lost his front tooth as a boy. He wondered how many were gone this time.

“You’re going to be ok. The doctor said that in a few days you will be back on your feet. You want me to get him?” Dean grunted, but wasn’t sure if he meant yes or no. He could barely understand Trinidad and he was so tired.

“My lawyer, Lonnie, says you have a pretty good case against the city, especially against the condo managers. He checked a few places and it seems that your gardening robot had been marked for teardown. Full of viruses, he said. Anyway, the condo people must have picked it up illegally. Lonnie’ll be by later for your statement. He’s trying to figure out how you got attacked. He thinks the virus must have spread somehow, using your identity as a trigger. What exactly happened with that gardener anyway?”

To the death, you stupid robot. The words rose from the fog surrounding his mind. What a stupid thing to say. But it should have been over. He had killed it. The fight was done, but it hadn’t finished.

Dean’s mind began to turn, remembering all the blank stares from the other robots. He had ignored them, but they had recognized him and their fight was unfinished. Dean began to cry. How could he step out of this room, a fight waiting with every robot in the city? It would never end.

“Easy, man. It’s going to be all right. You’ll be back on your feet in no time, the doctor said so. Let me go get him, and he’ll tell you himself,” Trinidad said. Dean heard the door click shut somewhere out of sight. Faces of robots swam across his vision. The small trash robots, little dog-like creatures didn’t bother him. What kept returning were the traffic cops, the enforcement robots, construction androids with their huge limbs, steel treads to run him over. They raced toward him. He pulled at his eyelids, dragging them wide open so the light of the room flooded in and washed the images away.

The door clicked open and shut again.

“Nurse, the patient is in recovery status.”

That must be the doctor. Maybe he can give me something to sleep again. I don’t want to see these things.

“Monitor the progress of his fractures and internal injuries. Coordinate the Nanopacks by the Priority Set. Administer IV 722 every four hours, as well as the other meds on your list. Come forward and recognized patient 27668, Dean Herman.”

Dean caught the reflection of chrome out of the corner of his eye, and the nurse rolled forward. The doctor began to introduce himself and update him on his condition, but Dean only heard the faux voice.

“Patient 2768, Dean Herman. Recognized.”

The doctor continued talking, but Dean was watching the flash in the nurse’s dull eyes and the list of instructions fade as its screen turned a dusty rose sunset. Dean’s grunting whistle grew to a frantic pitch.

“It’s all right Mr. Herman. Your injuries are already healing well. Calm down, Mr. Herman. No need to get upset,” the doctor said, and stepped aside to let the nurse get to work.