Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

When We Were Jung

When We Were Jung

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Bud Webster

 

“Good Taste?’” The woman at the table was well-dressed, if a bit perky for my liking.

“Yes, that’s right, and this is my wife, Sophisticated Wit.”

She gave us our name tags with a bright smile and waved at the double doors behind her. “Go on in, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.”

“Thanks,” I said, peeling the paper backing off the tag and sticking it carefully to the lapel of my tailored tuxedo jacket. My wife shook her head ruefully and put hers in her evening bag; nobody really needed the damn tags, but most of us at least made the gesture.

We pushed through the doors and into the ballroom. It was full: we were, of course, fashionably late—tastefully so, you might say. There was a string quartet in one corner, sawing their way through something unutterably poppish. I’d hoped for Mozart, or perhaps even Beethoven, but no one else seemed to be bothered.

I felt a touch at my sleeve. “What-ho, my lad. Damned good to see you.” It was Insincere Joviality, whom I detested, not that it mattered to him. He grabbed my hand and pumped it three times, then said loudly, “Can’t stay and chat, I see someone over there I really must speak to. See you later on, perhaps?” And then he was gone, much to my relief.

I looked around for my wife, but she’d been spirited away by the Humor twins, Droll and Dry. They were standing with their heads together talking in low voices, then all three leaned back and laughed airily. Well, she’d be happy for the rest of the evening.

I moved through the crowd, heading for the bar. I passed Conspicuous Consumption in her Dior original and insanely flashy jewelry, and smiled at the sure knowledge that she would never wear any of it again. If I knew her at all (and I did, we’d dated in college), she’d have been driven to this do in a gold-plated Rolls. She was so predictable. But then, weren’t we all? Wasn’t that our single defining characteristic?

“Wine cooler, sir?” It was the bartender. I blinked at him and then moved so that my name tag was visible. He had the… well, the good taste, I suppose… to look abashed. “Sorry, sir. Would you care to see the wine list?”

“Thank you.” I took it and glanced at the glossy pages. “I’ll have the Pinot Blanc 1974, please.”

He smiled. “An excellent choice, sir.”

“Yes,” I said, a bit more tersely than I’d intended. “It is.”

While he opened and poured the wine, I nodded to the man next to me, whose name tag bore the name Recovering Alcoholic. He was sipping a glass of club soda morosely. “Will this bother you?” I asked, holding my wine glass up.

“Not in the least,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.” He waved his glass towards the dance floor. “Look at him. That’s my older brother, you know. Ancient as hell and still going at it.” I looked where he was pointing.

There was a line of dancers, moving noisily and awkwardly against the beat of the quartet, led by the oldest of us, Drunken Sot. He’d been around forever, it seemed, showing up at all the parties and meetings; plump, red-faced and jolly, with the remains of an ancient laurel wreath still caught in his hair.

At least, I thought to myself, he has the good taste not to pick fights like his younger nephew, Drunk and Disorderly. We’d finally had to simply stop telling him where and when the Gatherings were. Of course, he still showed up as often as not, and whenever he did, there was trouble.

“Yes, he always seems to have a good time,” I said, a bit inanely. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”

Recovering Alcoholic just looked at me. “Do any of us?” I didn’t answer him; it was, after all, a rhetorical question. I smiled at him and made my way through the crowd.

Off by herself in a corner—as usual—was Paranoia. She sat and watched, sat and watched. She’d been around a long time, too, but not as long as Sot. Used to be she would come with her sister, Wisdom; as a pair they were mainstays of almost any Gathering they came to, bringing an engaging perspective to conversations about current events or art. Paranoia had even managed to be sociable when Wisdom was with her, but no one had seen her sister for years. Without her, the younger of the two never danced, never spoke, never did anything but sit and watch. But she always came, afraid of missing something, no matter what. I bowed slightly to her and raised my glass, but she just looked alarmed, so I didn’t press it.

I thought back to my first Gathering, when I was just out of school. At first, I was daunted by the sheer magnitude of power and majesty the other, older ones represented. I remember how impressive War was, larger than life and so graceful; and how struck I was by Seduction’s beauty, even if I could never quite tell if it was a man or a woman. It was overwhelming, and I felt quite lucky to be part of it all.

But over the years, it became painfully obvious that all that they were, down to the last and least of them, was what was written on their tags, neither more nor less. I include myself in that, of course.

It may seem that I’ve been listening to my cousin, Wry Cynic, far more than is probably best, but that’s not the case. Why else would Wisdom leave us? Or Prudence? Or so many of the older ones? Foolishness, I remember, took me aside a few years ago and said quietly, “Taste, this is no place for me. There’s plenty of foolishness here already. You, you belong here, and you’re welcome to it.” He grinned at my expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you well. But it’s time I was going.” And I never saw him again. The next time the rest of us gathered, there were three new faces present; the Humor twins and Sophy, my soon-to-be-wife.

I felt a hand on my arm and knew without looking that it was her. “So many new faces,” she said quietly. “I hardly know who to speak to these days.” She smiled tightly, and I noticed for the first time the lines at the corners of her mouth. She sipped her drink. “Earnest Zealot was holding forth on literature a moment ago, and I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s comment about the wallpaper as he lay dying.” She shook her head. “Do you know, he’d never heard of Wilde? What are we coming to?”

What, indeed? Patience, Trust, Intelligence—all gone now, or seen so rarely that their presence was like a walk-on in an old film; something to be marveled at, but of no real importance. I missed Wonder most of all, I think. He told the most breathtaking stories, made up right on the spot. They were… well, wonderful. War had gone, as well (although I suspected he was simply busy elsewhere), and no one at all knew what had become of Seduction.

I picked at a bit of lint on my lapel. We had to be here, I supposed, just so that our presence would be felt, but I sometimes wondered why? What exactly was the point? In the old days, we were clearly influential. We were there because people needed us to be, because they couldn’t navigate the treacherous reefs of their lives without us. Was that true anymore? Did we have an influence over anyone but ourselves, if we even had that? The idea was discomfiting at best.

I looked around the room, trying to enjoy the bouquet of the Pinot. When had the trivialities snuck in? When had Joy and Honor been replaced by Instant Gratification and Situational Ethics? War was off somewhere, his place taken, bizarrely, by Right-Wing Gun Nut; and most degrading of all, perhaps, Teenage Prostitute stood across the room surrounded by men, a sorry substitute for Seduction. It was a cruel, surreal jest—or so my wife and her friends would think. I had a disturbing thought: how soon might my wife be replaced by E-Mail Joke?

It was undignified, to say the least. I drained my glass, unwilling to dwell on the idea for too long. Instead, I headed back to the bar.

There was a small crowd there, most of whom I knew. A man I didn’t recognize stood to my left, wearing what might have been an exaggerated knock-off of my own formal jacket, deliberately frayed at the seams and worn over a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band. Instead of dress trousers, he wore jeans. I knew without asking that they were pre-washed, pre-stained, pre-aged. Pants without an honest past, only a present. His hair was spiky, thick with some kind of preparation, and there was some kind of tribal-looking tattoo on his wrist. His name tag read “Post-Modern Chic.” I turned away, suddenly cold.

“Yes sir, Mr. Taste,” the bartender said with a smile. “Another glass of the Pinot Blanc?”

“No,” I answered wearily. “Not this time. Just a wine cooler, please.”

 

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).

There I Was…

by Davyne DeSye

 

So, there was a scientist, a New York cabby, and a woodsman. That was me—the woodsman.

I know, sounds like a bad joke, and I guess it was.

The cabby had picked up his fare at La Guardia—this scientist-type from England: Real fine suit, real nice accent, soft-voiced and polite, and wearing the biggest glasses on his honker I’ve ever seen—looked like television screens if he looked into the light, with us as a whole group of characters reflecting off the lenses. Then the cabby’s copter wrecked—something about the maintenance team, but I had the impression he was just spouting off to keep from getting sued.

I was at the lodge, enjoying Selma’s stew with a big warm hunk of her heavy brown bread, when these two came stumbling in. I looked up, but most of us didn’t, and Selma kept mopping up the table nearest me as she said, “Howdy, folks.”

The cabby marched forward two steps, said, “Say,” real loud, looked around and then said, “Say, who runs this joint,” doing his best Rodney Dangerfield impression. It was pretty good. I chuckled. That was before I knew it was the only way he knew how to talk.

To make a long story short, they needed a guide, and I happened to be sitting there, so Selma led them over to me. She raised an eyebrow to ask if it was okay to interrupt me, and I almost said no, because the cabby was already annoying me with the way he was crowding her. For some reason—maybe the quiet way his fare was looking at me—I didn’t.

The cabby pulled a chair away from my table, spun it around, and sat with his legs spread around the back of the chair, leaning over toward me aggressively.

“Hey, pal,” he started, with an expression on his face like he was getting ready to pick a fight with me, “I’ll tell you what we need.”

“I know what you need,” I said very quietly, wondering if he’d shut his mouth if I stuffed my half loaf of warm bread in it—but not wanting to waste Selma’s cooking like that. “Why don’t you let your friend talk?”

The cabby just looked startled, said, “Hunh,” and looked up at his fare.

“May I?” said the fare, in a voice so quiet I felt like he was trying to make up for the loud mouth.

“Sure,” I answered.

“You see, sir, we are in need of a guide. Would you be the gentleman who can assist us?” Real nice manners. I liked that.

“Guide to where?” I asked.

“Kendrow Peak.”

Criminy.

I think I must have stared for a moment, because he said, “I see you’ve heard of the place.”

“Yeah. Why don’t you just call for another cab?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t the time to wait for another to reach these outer climes. It isn’t too great a distance is it?” He lifted his chin to look more closely at me through the bottoms of his glasses.

“There are a lot of strange things that go on up there,” I said.

The cabby spoke up in his bellowing voice. “Strange? Strange like how?”

I glared at the cabby whom I had nearly forgotten was still with us. Wishful thinking on my part.

“Excuse me for living!” he muttered, while straightening his collar and shooting non-existent cuffs.

The Englishman quietly said, “Indeed.”

“Why Kendrow Peak?” I asked. Wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“I am a scientist. A specialist of sorts. I am sorely needed at the facility there and am running a bit late. You will be well paid, I assure you, if you can assist.”

We dickered over an exorbitant price—I didn’t really want this job—which got even more exorbitant when I found out he didn’t carry cash (what was he planning? to slide a credit card in and out of my mouth real quick?) and I’d be paid only on getting him there. At least part of the price was compensation for having to bring the cabby along, since the copter that was picking him up was already headed for the Peak. Within half an hour, I knew I hadn’t asked enough to make up for his loud mouth. Live and learn.

I had my kit, and Mr. Sanders, the scientist, was in a hurry, so we set off. It was only just noon, and I figured I could get them there and hike back down before nightfall. The cabby, unsurprisingly named Spike (I had guessed Mack or Spud, and ruled out Fat-Headed-Ignoramus only because I didn’t think he could handle that many syllables) spent the first half hour trying to sell us athletic shoes like his own (he “had a deal with a guy”) since my well-worn hiking boots were unfashionable (not that he used the word “unfashionable”—he had called them “hard on the eyes”), and the Brit’s polished shoes were not for hiking. I recited Robert Frost in my head to keep from braining the guy.

We came out of the trees at the top of a rise, stepped around a copse into a bright meadow, and nearly came face to face with a largish black bear.

The scientist whispered “Oh, my,” and loud-mouth stopped talking mid-word. In a normal voice, I said, “It’s fine. Just keep talking. We’re going to move up-wind slowly to give him a whiff of us. He doesn’t want to mess with us. We just need to let him know we’re human, and he’ll move on. Keep talking. Talk normally.”

Needless to say, this was the moment when the cabby couldn’t think of anything to say. Useless idiot.

The scientist whispered, “Are you sure this is quite alright?”

“Don’t whisper. Just talk. Yes, we’re fine. Back off and slide to your left. Stay close to the trees.” I slowly pulled the pepper spray from my pocket.

I had to pull on the cabby to get him to move. His eyes looked like cartoon pop-outs, glued to the bear, and his color looked like he was getting ready to attack the beast with projectile vomit. But he shuffled along with us, while Sanders and I talked about the weather. His voice shook a bit, but he was a trooper.

The bear stuck his snout in the air, snuffled a bit, and then growled his complaint about an interrupted lunch, and lumbered away.

It took a bit to convince the two neophytes that the bear wouldn’t be back, that we weren’t really in too much danger, that I run into bear pretty regularly in these hills.

“I was quite convinced we should run,” said Sanders. “It was only your calm response that stilled the instinct in me.”

“You can’t outrun a bear. They may look slow, but they run thirty, thirty-five miles an hour. Besides, that might have convinced him that you were prey. Bad idea.”

Sanders just raised an eyebrow at me, shoved his glasses higher onto his nose, and gestured for me to lead the way. It didn’t take many more minutes before the cabby came out of his funk and began regaling us with how he would have taken apart the bear if it had made a wrong move. “You shoulda’ seen the time a bunch of Hell’s Angels…” I went back to Robert Frost and counting backwards from ten million and such-like. I toyed with tracking the bear down and feeding Spike to him, but didn’t want to create a man-eater in the hills where I live.

The mountain lion we crossed paths with went much the same way. Sanders listened carefully when I told him to raise his arms and hold his suit coat out, in order to look bigger. Spike fell on his knees and started saying Hail Marys.

“‘Bigger,’ I said! Get off your knees!” This had no effect, naturally, so Sanders and I waved our arms and talked, until the lion darted away, thankfully deciding we were too big to attack.

I wanted to clout loud-mouth on the back of the head, but frankly, he looked pathetic at the time, down on his knees with his head bent over his hands.

The worst moment came when we walked up on a moose and calf. Mama stood six feet high at the shoulders, at least, and there’s no more dangerous animal in the woods than a fourteen hundred pound block of muscle with hooves protecting her baby. So what does the idiot cabby do? Just pretend you had no brains at all beyond those needed to make the ridiculous noises he calls speech, and you’ve guessed it.

“Yo! Now THAT’s an animal!” he said. Then he pointed at the calf and said, “Looks like my dog!”, and started walking toward it. What was he going to do, pet it?

“Stop!” I yelled, but too late. The fur on the back of Mama stood up, she started snorting, and I yelled, “Run! Run behind a tree!”

Sanders didn’t hesitate, Spike did, and I somehow managed to see the shocked expression on his face when Mama charged him. I’ll give him this. The man can run and dodge through trees like a professional running back. He nearly got hit twice by sixty pound antlers before Mama gave up to return to her calf, snorting threats all the way.

After I caught my breath, I took the time to explain to Spike just how stupid he was. I don’t think he heard a word, because he just clapped me on the back when I finally wound down and said, “You’re a funny guy!”

Thankfully, we were nearly to the foot of Kendrow Peak. I say ‘thankfully’ because the trip was nearly over—not because I wanted to go near the Peak. We all know better than to wander near Kendrow, what with the stories that circulate.

I paused for a water break, putting off the inevitable.

“So, professor, what’s up there?” I indicated the peak with my head.

“A crossroads of sorts,” he answered cryptically.

“Crossroads,” I repeated.

“I am, eh, needed to assist in translation.” A smile flickered faintly over his face, and he looked apologetic. “I am terribly sorry. I am afraid I cannot explain further.”

“My money’s at the top of the peak, right?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” he answered quickly.

“Cash?”

“Indeed. I would not deceive you, dear fellow. With perhaps a bonus for your excellent guidance thus far.” He smiled again.

I grunted and started leading them uphill.

We were nearly to the top, the cabby finally and thankfully quiet, when we heard a distinct rustling from the bushes ahead of us on the trail. I put an arm up and admonished silence. Then the damnedest thing happened.

This… creature steps out of the bushes. It wasn’t faintly like anything I’d ever seen or even had nightmares about. Looked like it had three heads, red leathery skin, and tentacles coming from the stomach area. It had no arms and big pear-like stumps, wider at the bottom than the top, for legs. I think it was drooling some kind of slime.

The cabby fainted like a tree crashing backward, and I took a step backward, ready to make the three-hour trip back to the lodge in ten minutes flat, when Sanders said, “My dear sir, please do not run. You will only entice it.” Or something like that. My head wasn’t working too well at the moment.

“I, uh… I, uh…” was all I could say.

“Please, do as I do,” he answered. “Flap your left elbow up and down,” he said, and started doing a one-armed funky chicken. I hesitated, and then decided that since I was dreaming, I could dream-flap my elbow, too.

“Now, plant your right foot, and walk in a circle around it, like this.”

I followed his lead.

“Rock your head back and forth from your shoulders,” he went on. I waggled my head. I didn’t try to copy the strange squealing sounds he was making, since I didn’t understand how anybody could possibly make such a noise.

In seconds, the creature was gone, back into the bushes. I could hear it crashing through underbrush for some time after that.

I stood frozen for a bit after the crashing finally faded away. I might still be standing there if Spike hadn’t sat up just then and said, “What the heck am I doing down here?”

I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip up, and then back to the lodge. The cabby caught his return copter, I got a pocket full of cash it’ll take a while to spend, and I figure I know what to do if I ever run into a Flapdoodle, or Humblebug, or whatever the heck that thing was.

That’s it. That’s the punchline.

When you figure out what’s funny about it, you let me know. Okay?

 

Ruby Reds and Baby Blues

by Sean MacKendrick

 

Saturday morning, and the sun was shining brightly. There was hardly a cloud present to dampen the rays of light gushing from the robin-egg blue heavens down to the smooth tanned shoulders of the pedestrians making their way along the off-white Plasticrete walks twisting in gentle curves through the city. The sunlight glinted off the silvery multitude of spotless windows covering the skyscrapers along the streets where a few quiet, clean and efficient electric cars whispered along, coated with polish that further reflected the perfect sunlight until the whole city was awash with so much light you’d think God himself was beaming down on the happy populous.

There were birds chirping, of course, singing their tributes to the perfection surrounding them. Sparrows in the green trees and geese in the blue sky and ducks in the blue pond and on the green grass around the pond that sat like a mirror in the middle of the park on the opposite side of the building where I made my home and workplace, where lovers sat on soft blankets with their picnic baskets, feeding each other fresh strawberries purchased from the friendly street merchants and listened to the birds and to the laughter of children running barefoot in the park and to the old man playing his wooden flute at the pond’s edge. There was no sound from the streets, hadn’t been since the city traffic grid was fully computerized a couple years ago to synchronize the movement of vehicles and cutting out any need for shouting and gesturing and honking and making the walking public stay on their toes and try to avoid the sweeping scythe of the grim reaper for one more day. All that was gone, and you could hear the birds and laughter and music waft through the fresh quiet air that breezed softly through the city. Birds and children singing and lovers smiling and the fresh air soaking all the stress and care out of the world leaving only joy and peace and calm serene contentment. That’s the world outside my building. It’s like this every day.

All of which I mention to explain why I’ve had my windows blacked out and sound proofed for years. A private dick can’t have constant good weather and cheer running rampant through his atmosphere when he’s entertaining a client. A customer expects the works when they step into the Lone Eye detective agency and shovel out a few hundred greenbacks to yours truly, and the works is exactly what they get. You won’t see none of that phony “It’s my pleasure to help you and please enjoy this cool beverage while you bask in the glory of the day” garbage when you ask Trigger Steel, P.I., to find the guy that bumped off your Aunt Trudy. It’s a dark and gloomy office I work in, and that suits customer and crime fighter alike just fine, thank you.

Case in point: the dame I been working over verbally and visually all morning is looking at me right now with those big baby blues of hers, and she’s doing it through a curtain of tears. No way she’s looking for someone to flash a big white smile at her and tell her to relax, they’ll find the murderer. Nosir. I keep my pearly whites locked up out of sight behind my lips the whole time, so she knows I’m just as cheesed as she is at a society that would produce a member capable of murdering a friend of the stunning example of bosomy perfection sitting on the other side of my desk. And I sit her where she can see the 3-Deo screen on my wall and look all she wants at the night-rain effects pelting down on the images hustling across the dirty artificial streets with their hair all matted down in their faces. And look she does.

But I only bring this up to set the stage. This story should really start at the beginning, as all good stories do. So now let me begin in earnest the story I call (Note to self: Think of a good name for this case. Incorporate the word “Bloody” if at all possible.)

It was early. Too early. An hour when all the decent folk are asleep. I was celebrating yet another case closed with my long-time companion Jim Beam when the motion sensors registered movement in the hall and buzzed a warning. I grabbed my Plastisteel Saturday Night Special model and slipped it into the holster under my charcoal-grey raincoat. A guy can make quite a few enemies when he puts scum behind bars at a regular pace like myself, especially when he steps on a few toes in the process, and the waffle tread of my size 12 has been pressed into more than one set of toenail polish.

A figure stepped into view on the opposite side of the dirty frosted glass on my outside door. I tugged down my battered fedora and set my features in their best scowl. The door crept open slowly, with a distinct non-squeak, I noticed with dismay. Something to fix when the next meal ticket pays off. My landlord thinks he’s doing me a favor, always fixing my door. I needed to pick up a new batch of old rusty hinges.

I release the grip on my Saturday Night Special as two globes walked in, so round and perfect Magellan would have dropped to his knees and begged for permission to be the first to circumnavigate them, had he been sitting in my chair. Their owner stepped through the door a full second later.

She was tall, blonde and had enough curves in her possession to make a figure eight turn green with jealousy. She barely wore a black dress. The fabric seemed to be struggling for all its might to cover the beauty queen with its meager surface area. The hem sat a few inches below her belt while the top plunged down in a tasteful fashion to stop just shy of her belly button. The whole getup was so tight you could count her freckles through the silky fabric.

She paused in the doorway to look at me briefly with her big blue eyes and tried to stop the tremble in her ruby red lips, which had apparently been stung by some damned lucky bee in the recent past. Then she stepped forward and tripped the light beam I have set up for just such an occasion, and a lonely trumpet sighed out some muted notes from my stereo speakers in response. She paused once again to look for the source of the music, then set forward again with so much sway in her walk I heard a fizzle and smelled smoke as a motion sensor blew a fuse trying to track all the movement in the room. I was vaguely surprised that there was no thumping drum accompaniment. That kind of walk usually carries one.

“I hear you’re the kind of guy that solves problems, Mr. Steel,” she said when the trek from door to desk ended, much too soon for my taste.

I pulled the brim of my Fedora down another notch to make sure my eyes were properly shaded from the dirty light bulb I keep swinging slowly from my ceiling, and leaned back in my chair. After an appropriate pause I leaned forward again and nodded. “You might say that, doll face,” I said, letting the artificial Plastipaper cigarette surgically implanted on the surface of my lower lip bob as I spoke. “You just might say that. When you spend as much time chasing trouble as I do, you can’t help but learn a thing or two about problem-solving.”

I flicked the brim of my hat with my thumb to lift it up, so she could see me narrow my eyes thoughtfully before I continued. “Seems to me that anyone asking a question like that probably has a reason for asking. Could it be that you have the kind of problem that needs special attention like maybe I could provide?”

The leggy hourglass of a prospective client bit her luscious ruby lip with perfect teeth so white I could see the swinging light bulb above slump in shame at the amount of light they reflected while her pendulous walk carried her over to my 3-Deo screen. She stared at the buzzing neon hologram flickering on the side of the fake building next door, reading “MOTEL, va ancy”. I rumpled my raincoat a little more while her back was turned, and turned up the control under my desk to give the room a touch more haze. A puff of smoke floated from the ashtray-shaped smoke puffer on my desk while Dollface sighed at the false window. She turned just enough to say, “There’s been a murder.”

I suppose she thought that would shock me, to hear that someone could get bumped off their mortal coil in this day and age of happy citizenry and high-tech safety, but I solve a murder case a week, and that’s during the slow times. She could have told me the world was round for all the shock I felt. I said, “It’ll cost ya two hundred a day, plus expenses. If I feel like taking the case.”

That got her to turn around entirely. She looked at me in surprise with her bedroom eyes roofed by the kind of eyebrows Michelangelo neglected to paint on the Mona Lisa. “But you haven’t even heard the story yet, Mr. Steel,” she breathed. It was a good thing she had so much room for her lungs; her voice was so breathy she was probably losing a liter of air for every word she spoke.

I smirked and took a long pretend drag on my artificial cigarette. “I just wanted you to know what you were in for before you got started. If you want cheap, don’t even waste your time forming those plump puckerers into another syllable, because my price tag is as firm as those headlights of yours. If you want good then sit right down and spill the cat out of its bag of beans. You want cheap you’re in the wrong place, sister. So go ahead and pick which item in this room has more appeal to you, the door or the chair.” She didn’t hesitate one second before gliding across my hardwood floor and planted herself into the green Plastivinyl chair opposite my little desk. She seemed to have a little trouble sitting still, probably because her legs were too smooth to offer any sort of friction with the chair to keep her in one place.

“Well, let’s get started then,” she sighed. Her batting eyelashes were long enough to knock a few papers of my desk with the resultant breeze. She swallowed heavily once before continuing. “It’s my grandfather. He’s been murdered.” I took out my battered notepad and scribbled Grandfather = dead on it. It’s a move that a client usually finds reassuring. Shows I’m paying attention.

“He was visiting us for a week, just a friendly visit while he was on the East Coast.” A tear dropped from her cheek and ran down her cleavage. “He lives in Kansas, Mr. Steel, and doesn’t get much of a chance to see the family, what with his business and—”

“Just hold it right there,” I interrupted gruffly. “Let’s take this one step and a time. First of all, my mother calls me Mr. Steel. You can call me Trigger. And second, I need a name to call you by, too.”

“Bambi Smith,” Bambi said, smiling for the first time. She ran her velvety tongue over her lips, which somehow pouted even as they smiled, and said, “You can call me Bambi.”

“That’ll work just fine, Bambi. Now let’s get back to the case at hand. You said ‘visiting us’. Just who is it exactly that the old guy was paying a visit to?”

“Well, let’s see.” Bambi gazed at the perforated tiles in my ceiling and tapped the desk with one rounded red nail. “There’s my sister Candy, her husband Englebert and their son Peter, and myself.”

I wrote the names down in my notebook. “All of you live in the same house?”

“It’s a big house, Mr. Steel.”

“I’ve asked you to call me Trigger. If this house is so big, you must have some kind of help to keep the place up.”

Bambi shook her head, working loose a strand of woven gold that made up her hair. “Not really. Just the autoservants.”

“Mm-hm.” I scribbled a little more in my notepad, a doodle of a bunny in a top hat, just moving the pencil to maintain Bambi’s interest. “Cleaner, cook, the usual package?”

“Yes. We’ve got a Maid XLc and a Butler 3200. And a dog, named Spot.” Bambi grimaced. “It seemed like a clever name at the time.”

I wrote the three new names down in my notebook and pondered the suspect list as I had it so far. Two years ago I had surgery to stop my facial hair at three days length so I could scratch my whiskers thoughtfully at times such as this. I slowly did so as I spun the mental wheels. After a while I scratched off the dog’s name as a possible suspect. “How old is this boy Peter?”

“Two months.”

I scratched off Peter’s name as well.

“This granddaddy of yours,” I muttered. “Rich?” Of course he was. There are certain rules a good mystery case must abide by. But a little confirmation always looks good.

Bambi nodded. “Yes, he is. He was, I mean.” Her lips trembled, and she sighed heavily. Her lips stopped trembling, her chest stopped a half minute later. “The whole family is rich. Except for Englebert, maybe.”

I glared at my notepad, pondering. The bunny stared back, mockingly. I normally aim for one small page worth of names and doodles as my meter. Too much info and I run the risk of solving the case before I’m properly dragged into it by the proper intrigue and noir. Two possible lines left to fill in, but that seemed like enough. At any rate, I was running low on metaphors. Gathering up the baggie of cigarette butts I keep ready for traveling with me to crime scenes, I muttered, “Let’s take a walk, sister.”

Bambi looked up at me with those baby blues, questioning. “Nothing left to do but visit the sight itself,” I growled. Bambi sighed, and I had to lean back to give her room to inflate.

The sun greeted us with its normal infuriating brand of cheery goodness as we stepped free of the building, darkening my mood another notch. I pulled Bambi quickly to the safety of my car, where the severely tinted windows keep the fiendish solar glow at bay. Once in I opened up the ashtray to expose the old cigarette butts, which Bambi was kind enough to notice. I started the motor, wincing at the quiet hum the car gave off as it idled. One more thing to look into, when the clams come in from the successful and stylish completion of my passenger’s mystery. Fortunately I always have a backup. I started the misfiring sound effects, and pumped in some burning oil fumes from the spare canister of smells for good measure.

Back in the day, a man in my position could afford to waste a little more time on the set up. A case like this, maybe I could have sent her away twice before allowing Ms. Smith to lure me into her bosomy embrace, at which point I could play the proper reluctant hero and begrudgingly accept the challenge. Nowadays, with everything so backwards, the Feds barge their way in immediately. Wait a good hour, and you’ll probably miss out on your chance.

Pulling up to the house, I saw it was a mansion, of course, resplendent with a dark wrought iron gate to keep riffraff like me out. Bambi pushed it open and sauntered to the door. Being at least two-thirds leg, she made it in a few steps. I hurried to catch up. Bambi pushed the door open when I reached her. I dug out a cigarette butt and threw it on the step, grinding it under my heel before entering. We paused in the lobby to give me time to pull out my notebook and scribble something official in it. To let Bambi know she was getting her money’s worth, I took several minutes to scowl at various objects and scratch my whiskers. I even went so far as to chew on my pencil while glaring suspiciously at an umbrella stand, a move I reserve for select clientele.

“Any clues here?” Bambi asked with a quaver when I turned from the canister. I smirked and slapped the notepad shut.

“There may be, Dollface. There just may be. Where did this dastardly deed take place?”

Bambi nodded towards the stairs. “In the guest bedroom.”

She led the way, struggling against the fabric of her dress, which afforded little room to move. As she grabbed the banister, the varnish oozed underneath her warm grip. A few stitches burst as she sashayed, sending shrapnels of thread in every direction. I tipped down my battered fedora to protect my eyes, steadying myself against the wind generated by her swaying posterior.

We were already too late. The bedroom was crawling with Feds. I recognized one snake in particular and snuck up behind him. As he turned I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against a wall. “What’s the deal, Kirker? Not enough satisfaction failing at your own cases, now you gotta butt into my gig?”

Kirker gasped in fear, thinking he was dealing with the devil himself. He wasn’t, quite. I’m not as easy going. “Christ, Percy, what are you doing here? I thought they took your license away.”

I twisted the end of my fake cigarette, which spat out smoke dutifully, billowing into Kirker’s face. “Don’t need a license to find the truth, Kirker. Why not stand back and let a pro show you how it’s done?” I let him go to dig out another cigarette butt and grind it into the floor. “By the way, the name’s Trigger, pal, not Percy. You’ve got me mixed with some other sap.”

“Whatever. Anyway, we’re done. There was no foul play, of course,” he sighed at me. “The old guy’s heart failed.”

I turned to Bambi, who was misty eyed with awe watching a real man like myself in action. “Maybe that’s what someone wants you to think, Kirker. Ms. Smith here thinks different.”

Bambi nodded and sighed, knocking down a few of the Feds in the room during inhalation.

“Nope,” Kirker said, looking through a sheaf of plastipapers. “Full enzymatic profile, biochemical analysis, genetic sweep… no intruders or suspicious physiological condition. Heart attack.”

“You trust your fancy schmancy technology, Kirker,” I growled as I glared at each of the Feds in turn. “I’ve got a different kind of tool. It’s called instinct, Kirker. A man in my profession learns to trust his gut.”

“Whatever you say, Percy.”

“Trigger, Kirker. The name is Trigger Steel. I think someone in the family fixed Pops an arsenic omelet for breakfast. And I think it was Candy.”

Kirker looked through his report. “Who’s Candy? There’s no Candy in my records. Will you please back off and let us finish up here?”

I smirked. “Probably because she wanted it that way. Candy doesn’t want to be noticed. And why would that be?”

“Because she doesn’t exist? Go away, please?”

“Because she killed Pops, that’s why.” I nodded to Bambi. “Something Ms. Smith told me earlier gave me the clue I needed. Seems her husband Englebert is less then successful in financial respects. Set herself up as a recipient to Granddaddy’s fortune, then slipped him a terminal Mickey. Nice and neat.”

“Who’s Englebert?” Kirker sighed, fearing my inevitable solvation of the case.

“That’s right,” Bambi said from the doorway. Her chin dropped to rest on the platform of cleavage just underneath it. “Candy was in the will…”

“We did a full genetic sweep of the house, Percy. No DNA but the victim and the lady right here. Heart attack.”

I scowled. Everything fell into place in my mind like the pieces of a well-oiled jigsaw puzzle. “No, Kirker, that’s just what someone wanted you to think. Someone in this room.”

“He was 106 years old, Percy!” Kirker shouted in desperation, trying to stave off my crime-solving geniusness. “His heart was way overdue to give out!”

“How did you know Candy was on Granddaddy’s will, Bambi?” I asked quietly. “Unless, perhaps, you saw the will yourself. Maybe while checking to see what your cut was, just before you bought him a one-way ticket to Never Ever Land.”

Bambi broke under the relentless pressure of my gritty questioning. “It’s true!” she wailed, shaking with sobs. Everyone in the room grabbed for something to support them while the air shook with her tremors. “I killed him, and tried to pin it on Candy! I wanted to hire a detective to make sure I had a convincing story to tell.”

“You made just one mistake, Dollface,” I said gruffly. “You hired Trigger Steel to solve the case. And Trigger Steel always does just that.” I checked my watch. Solved the case in a less than thirty minutes, and still had time for a brief bout of intrigue. Not bad, Trigger.

“City monitors put you at lunch in a deli four miles from here when the heart attack occurred, Ms. Smith,” Kirker said. “I think you’re innocent.”

“No one’s innocent in this life, Kirker,” I said while fixing Bambi with a withering glare. “No one.”

“He’s right, Mr. Kirker,” Bambi sobbed. “He’s right.”

Kirker looked back and forth between us, gumshoe and goddess. “You’re as delusional as he is, aren’t you, Ms. Smith? You actually enjoy all this detective pulp nonsense?”

“Just take her away, boys,” I said. “She’s got a date with a judge and an electric chair.”

Bambi kissed me suddenly, mashing herself against me. “I’m sorry, Trigger,” she sobbed.

“You call me Mr. Steel.”

“Or call him Percy Slechthauser, since that’s his name,” Kirker muttered, ever the sore loser. “I’ll take her away, but only so she can get some help. God knows we don’t need more of your type.” He escorted Bambi to her destiny.

As for me, I left the Federal boys to clean things up. Let them get the kudos. I had a promise to keep to an old friend who was waiting patiently in a flask back at the office.

Behind my desk once more, Jim and I got intimate while I marked a folder “Bambi” and stuck it in the Case Solved file cabinet. I no sooner sat back down at my desk than a pair of stiletto heels walked into my office, carrying a set of legs genetically engineered for those heels. The owner of the gams stopped just short of my desk, and two dark pools of chocolate milk posing as eyes stared at me from under a long wavy curtain of raven hair. “I hear you solve problems, Mr. Steel,” the slightly pouted lips breathed.

“You might say that, Angel,” I said between pulls on my flask. “You just might say exactly that.”

 

A Domestic Disturbance

by Bernie Mojzes

 

“We’ve got to tell Dad.”

The response wasn’t a unanimous “No!” but it was a resounding one, echoing off the marble floor, off the polished granite ceiling, filling the Great Hall.

“Oh, come on,” Eris said with a mischievous smile. “Do tell Dad. That should be fun.” She elbowed Dionysus hard in the ribs. “Tell them.”

The handsome, olive-skinned god opened his eyes and rubbed his side. He looked around the room, burped delicately, then lowered his chin to his chest and resumed snoring.

Hephaestus grumbled through his copious beard. “You don’t get a vote.”

Eris batted her eyelashes. Aphrodite rolled her eyes, and kissed her husband softly on the neck.

Hephaestus cleared his throat.

“You don’t get a vote,” he repeated. “You or that drunken sot sitting beside you.”

“Hear, hear,” said a striking, severe woman with a longbow draped over her shoulder. “About time someone put you in your place.”

An older man rose from his aqueous seat in the corner, approaching the woman who had just spoken. “This is your fault.” He poked her with a dripping finger, hard enough that she stepped back. Briny water splashed. “Giving her ideas.”

“Ideas?” Artemis reached for her bow, but checked herself. “Pray, Uncle, what manner of ‘ideas’ do you speak of?”

“Just look at you! Running around dressed like a man. Riding a horse like a man. Running wild in the woods. It’s not proper.”

Artemis dropped her gaze to the seaweed draped strategically around Poseidon’s loins and raised her eyebrows. “And that is?”

“I think,” Eris said before Poseidon could formulate a retort, “what she’s trying to say is showing off works better if you have something to show off.”

Poseidon seized her throat, dangling her from his thick fist. She giggled and clapped her hands, even as her face grew red and mottled.

“We are forgetting why we are here.”

The voice was soft, but commanding. Athena laid a cooling hand on Poseidon’s wrist. Cursing, he released his grip, letting Eris drop, gasping, to the floor.

Athena crouched next to her sister. “This is why you don’t get invited to parties, dear.”

Athena stood. She glowed softly. Elegantly.

“We’re here to solve a problem. Preferably without involving Father. He’ll be angry enough as it is, even if we manage to solve everything without his help. If he has to intervene, heads will roll, and it won’t just be Demeter’s.”

Athena’s twin brother spoke up. “We have to find her. And if she won’t listen to reason, we must force her to take up her duties.”

Athena narrowed her eyes. “You can’t force someone to do something she doesn’t want to.”

Persephone bit her lip, turning her face away.

Apollo banged his fist on the wall. “Well, we can’t just go on without a Goddess of Fertility, now, can we? Who here wants us to be the Gods of the Desert? Leave that for Yahweh, and see where it gets him, a couple thousand years from now. I hate to say this, but we need her.”

“Perhaps someone else could do it?” Athena looked around the room at the assembled Olympians. None would meet her gaze. The room filled with the sound of nervous throat-clearing. “Just for a while, until she comes back.”

Apollo looked at his sister. “Brilliant idea. You should volunteer.”

“Hello? What part of Virgin Goddess don’t you understand?”

“That,” said the quicksilver boy in the shadows, “is a curable malady.” Hermes elbowed the blind boy sitting next to him. “C’mon, back me up here. Maybe your mom can help.”

“No.” Athena’s tone held indisputable finality.

She turned to Apollo. “Brother, who was it that suggested that Demeter would come back to us on her own?”

Apollo looked at his shoes.

“What’s that? I can’t hear you. Who was it that said it was just a phase she was going through? That she didn’t know how lucky she had it, and this was just the thing to teach her to be happy with her lot? That ‘women just get this way sometimes, and you just have to wait it out until they come to their senses’?”

Apollo bit his lip. “I didn’t…”

“You did. No, Brother. You let her go. You take her job.”

Apollo glared. “Harvest? Fertility? Marriage?

Athena nodded, an odd smile on her face.

“You tread on dangerous ground, Sister.”

“Do I?”

“You’d have me do women’s work? I am both god and man, and—”

“That’s also curable.” Hermes grinned and shrugged. “Just sayin’.”

Eris shook Dionysus. “Wake up, you’re missing all the fun!”

“I’ll not do women’s work, and I’ll not be made a mockery of by the likes of you!”

“Bit too late for that.” Eris’ eyes glittered.

Apollo’s fists clenched. “The answer is no. If one of us has to do it, it should be Persephone. After all, it’s her mother that caused this mess.”

“Oh, right. Pick on the girl who won’t defend herself.” Hermes leaned back in his chair, tipping it back on two legs. “C’mon, Athena, be my fertility goddess.”

Athena rolled her eyes.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, babe. My rod has wings.”

“I think Persephone is the perfect choice.” Poseidon’s words crashed like the surf against rocks. “Let Demeter’s daughter suffer for her crimes.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Artemis said, but before she could continue, Hades stood.

“I will not allow this.”

“But think about it,” Apollo said. “She’s already got the fertility goddess genes, and she’s already married, at least half the time. It’s a perfectly logical choice.”

“I find myself in reluctant agreement with my brother,” Athena said. “She is a good choice. With her consent, of course.” Athena turned to Persephone. “You do see how this is really for the best, don’t you, dear?”

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s not your choice, Hades,” Athena said.

“I think you’re outvoted.” Ares’ mocking sneer reflected in his voice.

“There is no vote.” Hades took a step toward the God of War. “She’s my wife, and that’s it.”

“Only for half the year.” Ares leered. “The other half…”

Hades’ fist connected squarely with Ares’ jaw, knocking him backward. Ares came back with sword drawn. Eris leaned against the wall, smiling contentedly. At least, until Ares’ sword vanished mid-swing.

“Looking for this?” Hermes dangled the great blade between two fingers.

With a roar, Ares launched himself at the God of Thieves. Had he reached where Hermes stood, he would have found himself clutching empty air, but he never made it that far. Hades and Hephaestus tackled the God of War to the ground. Coming to Ares’ rescue, Poseidon grabbed the two gods by the scruff of their necks, but his hands were slick with algae, and they slid free.

Scrambling, Hephaestus lost his footing in the puddle that accompanied Poseidon wherever he went. He grasped Hades and Ares for support, and all three tumbled against Poseidon’s legs, spilling him to the slippery-when-wet marble floor. Poseidon’s flailing arms caught Apollo and Athena, who went down with an offended shriek.

Artemis, reliving her tomboy youth, waded into the fray, punching anything that moved.

Eris grinned and clapped. This was more fun than Troy.

Aphrodite frowned as she watched the melee, then jumped when she realized someone stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Hey, babe,” Hermes said softly in her ear. “Let’s blow this joint. If you ask nicely, I’ll even let you play with my sword.”

Aphrodite pursed her lips. “That’s not your sword. It’s Ares’, and it’s the one he uses for sticking boys. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not a boy.”

She ran soft, electric fingers up Hermes’ spine, and knotted them in his curly brown hair. Hermes’ breath caught. The wings on his feet curled with pleasure.

“You’ll have to get your hands on his other sword,” she whispered in his ear. Her breath upon his ear brought goosebumps to his flesh. “It’s in there somewhere.”

With her fingers still twined in Hermes’ hair, Aphrodite pulled sharply and pitched him into the middle of the scuffle, where gods wrestled and slipped and beat each other bloody.

Aphrodite smiled and leaned back against a wall, safely out of harm’s way.

“Oh, Aphrodite,” Eris called sweetly from off to the side where Dionysus still snored.

“What now?” Aphrodite turned to face Eris, and found herself blinking through a thick, creamy foam. She wiped sticky meringue from her eyes.

“Oh look!” cried Eris with delight. “An anachronism! Eep!”

Hades hath no fury like a goddess pied; Aphrodite tackled Eris like a born wrestler. They rolled over Eros, who groped blindly at anything he could reach, and broke Dionysus’ chair, nearly spilling his wine. Bits of lemon meringue flew everywhere. Dionysus found another chair, pulled it away from the bulk of the fighting to the corner where Persephone sat biting her nails, and promptly fell back asleep.

Only to be woken abruptly by a fierce thunderclap. Spots floated in front of his eyes. “I was in Sparta!” he cried. “I’ve got witnesses who’ll back me up!”

Eris sat up, wiping blood and pie from her lips. “Hi, Pops,” she said with a gap-toothed grin.

Zeus towered over the Olympians. “What is the meaning of this?” Each word was tinged with lightning.

Everyone answered at once.

“SILENCE!”

Eris rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, making cricket chirping sounds until Aphrodite slapped her hands. Zeus scowled at the assembly. “Athena? What’s going on?”

“It’s all Demeter’s fault. You see, she…”

“Demeter isn’t here.”

“Exactly. That’s why it’s her fault. You see…”

“If she’s not here, it can’t possibly be her fault.”

“But…”

“No. You’re the oldest. You should know better. You’re responsible. Whatever the problem is, you take care of it.”

Athena’s spine stiffened. “There’s nothing in my job description…”

“YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION IS ANYTHING I SAY IT IS!”

“But…”

“And that’s the last I want to hear about it. If you say another word, you’re going to be so sorry you’ll wish you were back in my head.”

Athena opened her mouth, then shut it.

Zeus nodded his head in dismissal. He turned away, grumbling into his beard. “Why did I ever let Edith talk me into writing job descriptions? Nothing good can ever come from job descriptions.” He took a deep breath, and turned to face the older Gods. “Hades. Poseidon. My dear brothers… If you are ever involved in anything like this again, we will have a brief lesson about why I’m in charge, and you’re… well, we won’t go there in front of the children. Let’s just say that a very hungry eagle has hatched some very hungry chicks.”

And then Zeus was gone in a haze of ozone, leaving the assembled gods and goddesses in stunned silence.

Athena straightened her helm and adjusted her clothing.

“Don’t worry,” Hermes said, the quicksilver boy sidling a little closer to Athena. “It’s a quick and easy fix, and I’m really good at quick. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know, but we all must do our parts for the greater good, and I’m here for you in your time of need.”

“You’re right,” Athena said, after a moment’s concentration. She stepped back to assess the quicksilver girl, Goddess of Thieves and Messengers, and now of a few other things. “That was quick and easy.”

Hermes’ hands moved in hesitant self-discovery, tracing unexpected curves. “Oh. Well. I suppose this could work, too.”

 

General Order No. 1

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

The commander looked over the new recruit with some amazement. He was a squat little guy with orange hair and three eyes. He’d seen this type before in the vids and knew they were a large part of southern society. Mostly farmers and basic laborers, they’d recently won the right to better themselves. The commander didn’t care. He wasn’t a fan of the caste system himself. He was born to the military life and often dreamed of being just a simple merchant; he looked at the recruit with wonder, this was the first southerner he’d ever seen up close.

“New to the Martian Defense Fleet?” he asked.

“Yes, sir!” the recruit replied with the typical southern Martian treble.

The commander nodded with approval. Most new recruits, northern or otherwise, gave a less than enthusiastic reply. For them it was mandatory to spend two standard years in the service.

“So, are you ready to become a space hero?”

“I am ready to serve the Martian Empire!”

“Then tell me General Order Number One!”

The recruit opened his mouth and then closed it.

The commander smiled and nodded. “They don’t teach that.”

“They don’t, sir?”

“No, it is something you only learn out here in space.”

The recruit nodded and looked at the commander for the answer.

Grinning, the commander said, “General Order Number One is, ‘When in doubt, kill all humans.’ If you follow that out here you cannot go wrong.”

“Are we at war with them?”

“No, but remember: We may be green but we aren’t Earth friendly.”

 

The Ghost Lost Ship

by Scott D. Coon

 

Ed was cool.

His body filled the space behind the round table. The wall buckled as he leaned back, smoking a menthol cigarette. Only Ed smoked menthols; that made him even more cool. He had salvaged them from an old space freighter. Of course, to him, they were just freighters. I mean, he’s in space so why would he call them space freighters? Really? It’s just a writer’s device to let you know this is science fiction and he’s in space.

But, I digress.

He got the menthols from a “space” freighter. He got his muscles there too. He had a forty-five inch chest, a thirty-two inch waist, and biceps that he hadn’t gotten around to measuring yet. They came from moving heavy cargo off of derelict “space” freighters before he realized that if he turned the gravity off before he looted… I mean… salvaged the cargo it would be soooo much easier. And so he did.

Next to him sat Bob. Or, rather, Bob’s head since the table only came up to Bob’s chin. The guy’s short. Really short. There was something definitely wrong with Bob beyond the disembodied head at the table thing. You could tell just by looking at him. He had a face that demanded he wear one of those beanie hats. You know the kind, the ones with the little propellers on them. Yeah, the rainbow colored kind. Just looking at him without it made people want to scream, “I just can’t take it any more! Put the damn beanie on!” It was very useful in interrogations.

So, where were we? Oh yeah. Ed was slowly compromising the integrity of a wall in a sleazy bar while Bob just sat there freaking out the other patrons just by looking the way he does. Just then, a man in full Egyptian regalia walked in—white linen dress, gold neck thingies, sandals, the whole bit. “There’s going to be a bar fight,” Ed said to Bob.

“Yeah?”

“One of Them just walked in.”

“Them?”

“You know… ‘Them’.” He made the curling-finger bunny-ears quote thingy with his fingers. “They’re going to be fighting The Leather Spies.”

“Who?”

“Those guys over there by the bar. The ones in the trench coats and fedoras. They wear them to cover up the leather body suits. You can spot them because you can see the leather going up the back of their necks, and covering their faces, and who wears trench coats and fedoras anymore, really?”

“Oh.”

“They’re both chasing The Lost Ship. It’s filled with all kinds of lost nifty stuff. I read in Salvager’s Monthly that it was believed to be drifting through this area about now.”

“Is that why we’re here?” asked Bob.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s just an old science fiction story,” said Ed as he watched the Them march in unison to their table. “There’s no such thing.”

“What if it does exist?” asked Bob, his fingers nervously gripping the edge of the table. “Would that mean we’re in a story?”

Ed took a long, slow drag of menthol. “We are in a story. Look out there. Someone’s reading us right now.”

“Hello out there Mr. Reader Person,” said Bob, waving at you. “I thought The Ghost Lost Ship was coming. Ain’t that the thingy we’re going after?”

“You mean The Lost Ghost Ship?” asked Ed.

“No, it’s a ship that was lost that became a ghost ship,” explained Bob, “so it’s The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“That’s stupid.”

Then the fight broke out. I’m feeling lazy today so I’m not going to explain the whole thing about the pushing and the shoving and someone calling someone a poopy head. You just fill all that in for yourself and be glad I have enough coffee in me to write this at all. Now, get back to reading the story.

As the Them and the Leather Spies (no relation to the leather mafia, whoever they are) threw each other around the bar, Bob hid under Ed’s chair, crying and shaking, maybe wetting himself a little, maybe. Ed just smoked and nursed a beer. Then one of the Them fell in his lap. She was beautiful and familiar, so he said her name. “Egg!”

“Ed!” replied Egg, since he had gotten her name right.

“I haven’t seen you in…”

“A long time,” completed Egg.

“You’re as beautiful as ever. Why did I ever leave you?”

“To go salvage, jackass. You could have left me the key for the handcuffs. It took me three days to get out of those things!”

“I guess that’s why you weren’t home when I got back. I knew I had forgotten something that day,” said Ed scratching his chin. “How’d you end up with Them?”

“I joined for the uniform but I stayed for the game night. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Uno™ with Them.” She shivered at the very thought of it. “Bob’s here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“He’s sucking on my big toe.”

“My thumb was all pruny but I wasn’t done being scared yet,” called Bob from under Ed.

“After The Lost Ship?” asked Ed.

Salvager’s Monthly?” asked Egg.

“Yup.”

“Yup.” Egg stood up and wiped her toe on the carpet. “I have to get back to the bar fight.”

“Good luck finding The Lost Ship,” said Ed. “You know it doesn’t exist, right?”

Egg shrugged, “Everyone needs a hobby.”

And so she went back to the fight and Ed and Bob went back to their ship to get another beer for Ed. They weren’t serving at the bar during the bar fight, local statute and all.

A day later, or so, Ed and Bob cruised the emptiness of space looking for stuff floating around. While Ed went to the hold to get another pack of menthols, Bob saw something in the blackness and steered toward it. As he approached, he saw its registry, “NNN.”

“It’s The Lost Ship!” he screamed.

Ed came running up from the hold, struggling with the cellophane on his new pack. “What the hell are you screaming about?”

“The Lost Ship! The Lost Ship! Look at the designation! NNN! Nifty Nick Nacks!”

“That’s, um… yeah. Wouldn’t that be Nifty Knickknacks? Which would be NK?”

“You know I can’t spell.”

“But,” said Ed, holding his head, “the ship.”

“Ships can’t spell,” snorted Bob. “Let’s get it!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“At least we know it’s not The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“’Cause it’s not all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.”

“Bob,” said Ed, “shut up.”

They did all that technical docking stuff. You know what I mean. And then they were in the lost ship. Maybe it was The Lost Ship, we don’t know yet. Just hang in there and we’ll sort all this stuff out together.

Anywho…

As with most derelict ships, only the life support and gravity were still working. As with most cockpits on most derelict ships, there was a skeleton at the helm. Creepy, huh? Ed and Bob made their way to the hold where the good stuff was. It was full of boxes of various sizes. Bob picked up a small one, read the label, and opened it. It held an old, copper cup—filthy thing. Looked like it had spent a couple thousand years in a cave, kind of like the cups in that bar where the fight thing happened. You remember, it was in the first half of this story. Go check. I’ll wait.

Done?

Good.

Bob called to Ed, “We’ll have to open these boxes.”

“Why?” replied Ed still looking around for the gravity control so he wouldn’t forget to turn it off before moving the heavy boxes. I say “still” because he started looking for it while you were off checking the first half of the story just now.

“They’re labeled wrong,” explained Bob. “This one has just a cup in it and it’s marked ‘The Holy Grail’. It’s not a grail, just a cup, and not a hole in it.”

“Hmmm.” Ed picked up a small box for himself. It was marked “The One Ring.” He opened the box and said, “Yup, one ring,” and tossed it back over his shoulder.

Bob was scanning the labels on some other boxes. “The Golden Fleece, Cupie Dolls, Declaration of Independence… Hey, wait a minute. Ed!”

“What?”

“Check this out. The label on this one has been torched off. Isn’t that the thing on your girlfriend’s uniform? Not Egg—the new one.”

Ed took a look at the mostly torched-off marking. “That’s a swastika. And, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s a prostitute. Have some respect; the woman’s a professional. But, yeah, that’s what’s on her uniform.”

Bob sniffed the burnt crate. “Why would someone torch this?”

“They didn’t; it was torched from the inside. This is the Ark of the Covenant. I saw it in a movie once. This is what the Them was looking for. I guess this is The Lost Ship, after all. I owe you a dollar.”

“Told you so,” said the smiling Bob. Looking over the loot, something caught Bob’s eye, figuratively. He rushed to the back. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his tiny cheeks. “Twinkies™!!! Wonderful, glorious Twinkies™!!”

Ed stood over him and said mockingly so as to mock him, “Yeah, Twinkies™. Get off your knees, you look like a doof.”

But then Ed saw the label on the box next to it. He rushed over to it even though he was only two steps away. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his not so tiny cheeks. “A complete Jenna Jamison video collection!” He fell to his knees.

Before Bob could mock him in a mocking way for having mocked him before, someone kicked in the starboard door to the cargo hold. No, not the one into space. I mean, come on, try to keep up with the story here, we’re in outer space. It would have let all the air out or all the vacuum in, whichever. Then someone else kicked in the port door—and don’t make me go through all that again.

It was the Leather Spies and Them coming in through opposite doors. Once again the poopy head thing happened and they started fighting. Stuff just going everywhere and so forth and et cetera while Bob and Ed hid behind the Twinkies™ and a crate of naughty tapes.

“This salvage is ours!” called out one of the Them. Not Egg, one of the other ones. You don’t need to know who; he’s just a minor character. Go with it. “We’re taking the Ark of the Covenant and that’s all there is to it!”

“No, this salvage is ours!” replied an equally unimportant character from the Leather Spies dudes. “We’re taking the Maltese Falcon and that’s all there is to it!”

Did you catch that? They’re both after different things so they’re really fighting for no reason. It’s silly if you think about it.

They had lasers this time. And the lasers were just tearing things up. Ed and Bob soon became bored because all these people were bad shots. They just kept firing at each other and hitting everything else in the room. Worse of all, Ed was down to his last menthol. They had to get back to the ship. That’s when Ed noticed a switch on the wall behind them labeled Gravity

On

Off

…with that switch I mentioned before in between the “On” and “Off.” I know it doesn’t belong there at the back of the hold with no other switches around it but I’m writing this story at work and it’s almost lunch time so I want to get this done. You’re with me on that, right? Good. Let’s continue.

So, Ed hit the switch. The gravity went off. The poopy heads went floating around the room. So did all the boxes. In the floating confusion, Ed and Bob escaped with the Twinkies™ and the naughty tapes. I know you were expecting to see more of Egg in this part of story but there you go.

As they pulled away, the poopy heads battled for control of the things that only they wanted but were too rash to figure out. Safely away from the poopy heads, Ed offered Bob the dollar.

“Hold up,” said Bob. “Let’s go double or nothing on The Ghost Lost Ship.”

Ed snorted a laughing kind of snort. “Yeah, lets do that.”

As they left the area, another ship, also marked NNN, drifted by. Only this one was all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.

Ooooo, creepy!

 

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).