The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”

 

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.

 

Little Green Men in Black

Little Green Men in Black

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

As he walked across Peachtree Street in the Lenox district of Atlanta, en route to his job as a security guard in Phipps Plaza, Atlanta’s ritziest mall, Malcolm Allaby sipped a cup of coffee that he had purchased in the little cafe that sat across the street from the mall.

Malcolm was distracted by what had happened the night before. He had gone to one of Atlanta’s more upscale restaurants, Davio’s in the mall, where he was supposed to meet Jennifer, a petite knock-out who managed the Phipps Plaza Anne Fontaine store, a high-end fashion boutique. But Jennifer never showed. What’s more, it was the first anniversary of Malcolm’s divorce. On top of that, Davio’s was a restaurant he and his wife had always talked about checking out “some day,” but never did. And even worse, who showed up on the arm of a hunky date? None other than Malcolm’s ex, Teresa.

And Teresa was looking good, too. Malcolm had to admit that Teresa, who had always seemed kind of thick around the waist when they were married, now gave Jennifer a run for her money. Of course, that was an easy race with Jennifer a no-show. Teresa could walk to the finish line.

She wore a little black dress and black heels. At five-five she was able to show off just enough leg to be sexy without looking like a hooker. She looked like a million bucks. Seeing her made Malcolm wish fervently that Jennifer would show up looking like at least two million. But by the time Teresa arrived at the restaurant Malcolm had been sitting there for an hour nursing a plate of room-temperature calamari and a beer. The odds were against Jennifer making a spectacular entrance and redeeming him.

Teresa spotted Malcolm before he had a chance to duck out. She smiled, waved, whispered something to her date, and, to make matters infinitely worse, came over to Malcolm’s table.

“Hey you,” she said, which was classic Teresa when she saw someone whose name she couldn’t recall.

“Hi,” Malcolm said, which was classic Malcolm whenever he ran into someone at a restaurant.

“In the back of my mind I wondered if I might run into you here,” Teresa said.

“Ah,” was all Malcolm could muster for a response.

“Are you with someone?” Teresa asked, purposefully eyeing the untouched second glass of water at Malcolm’s table.

“I was,” he lied. “She left a few minutes ago.”

“And you’re still here?” Teresa asked, her expression made it apparent that she didn’t buy it. He’d never been able to lie to her.

“Obviously,” Malcolm said, intentionally attempting to be sarcastic, which he was usually not very good at doing. He did, however, have a habit of sometimes being unintentionally, and successfully, sarcastic.

“So how are you?” Teresa asked, giving Malcolm an almost imperceptibly narrow window of opportunity to be sincere with her.

“Never better,” he said, being decidedly insincere.

He was hoping Teresa would get that he did not want to talk to her. She got it.

“It was nice to see you,” she said, forcing a smile.

Malcolm did not smile back. He said nothing. Seeing her was the opposite of nice. He’d been trying to get over the fact that she had left him, and not even for another guy. For no one. That had hurt, a lot.

He thought about it during the drive home, thought about it some more as he watched the news at eleven, and thought about it as he lay in bed alone, and as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke thinking about it. He showered, ate breakfast, drove to the cafe, had his coffee, and read a copy of Entertainment Weekly and thought about it the whole time. So as he crossed the street, he was distracted thinking about Teresa out on a date on the first anniversary of their divorce, at the restaurant they had always talked about going to, but never did.

He didn’t see a rip form in the fabric of space-time just ahead of him. He didn’t see two long, thick, green tentacles reach out towards him. They grabbed Malcolm and yanked him through before he knew what was happening. He found himself being held aloft by the tentacles in a brightly lit room. A beautiful, young woman smiled up at him. An older, black man peered grimly at him. And something that looked like a cross between a giant spider and an octopus held him in its tentacles. Malcolm opened his mouth to scream, but before he could he felt a sharp pain in his chest, and blacked out.

* * * * *

Actually, he died. But he was revived. When he opened his eyes he saw the multi-tentacled creature again, and promptly died again. He was revived again, opened his eyes again, saw the creature again, and this time only passed out.

The next time he opened his eyes he saw the beautiful, young woman smiling at him.

“Hello, Malcolm,” she said. “I am Adra.”

“Where am I?” Malcolm asked. He had no memory of the creature, just a persistent dread in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite figure out.

“You are in the Recovery Room,” Adra told him.

“How long have I been here?”

“Eight hours.”

A sickening feeling passed over him as he suddenly realized he was probably late for work. Or worse.

“Is something wrong?” Adra asked.

“I need to call my boss,” Malcolm told Adra. “I’ll get fired.”

Adra shook her head.

“You never showed up for work again,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have something much more important to do,” Adra said. “Much more important.”

“Like what?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity.”

Malcolm blinked, not quite getting it.

“Excuse me?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity,” Adra repeated.

“Is this a joke?” Malcolm asked. “Is this, like, a new reality show or something?” He looked around for miniature cameras or Howie Mandel.

“It is not a joke,” Adra said. “It is not a reality show. It is reality.”

“So I’m supposed to save the world,” Malcolm said, attempting sarcasm.

“Not the world,” Adra corrected. “The world will still be here. You are to save humanity.”

“Humanity,” Malcolm repeated for clarification.

Adra nodded, smiling. In fact, she had been smiling the whole time and it was starting to freak Malcolm out a little. Just a little, though, because she really did have a very nice smile.

“And what will I be saving humanity from?” he asked.

“You are to save humanity from itself.”

“I already joined Greenpeace,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Adra shook her head.

“And I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

“Humanity will become extinct within the next seventy-two hours if you fail,” came a male voice from behind Adra. The wall behind her shimmered and through it stepped the older black man whom Malcolm had seen before.

“If I fail what?” Malcolm asked. He did not believe the fate of humanity rested on his shoulders. Who was Malcolm Allaby? Just a security guard at a mall. What could he possibly have to do with the fate of humanity?

“All your questions will be answered soon enough,” the man said. “Well, perhaps not all of them, but most of them.”

“Who are you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am Corbin.”

“Not your name,” Malcolm said. “Who are you with? What group? What are you going to do with me?”

“We are merely a collection of humans and nonhumans who wish to save humanity from destroying itself… again.”

That was a lot for Malcolm to absorb in one sentence. First, he wanted to know what Corbin meant by “nonhumans.” Second, he wanted to know just what Corbin meant by “again.”

“Humanity has destroyed itself before,” Corbin continued without Malcolm’s prompting. “Three times now. Each time we have let it happen without doing anything to stop it because we believed it was the right thing to do, despite our misgivings. But now… we cannot let it happen again.”

Seeing the confusion in Malcolm’s expression, Adra stepped forward.

“Allow me to explain,” she said to Corbin, who nodded.

“Please do,” Malcolm said.

“Planet Earth is actually Museum Earth,” she said. “And human civilization is actually a controlled reenactment of events that first transpired over one hundred thousand years ago.” Her smile did not falter or fade one bit.

“A reenactment,” Malcolm repeated. “You mean like Civil War reenactments?”

“Something like that,” Corbin said.

“Museum Earth was created to illustrate to the Galactic Community how a seemingly advanced civilization can destroy itself if it cannot transcend such institutions as the nation-state and organized religion, and overcome such problems as racial and gender inequality.”

“What about the environment?” Malcolm asked.

“Any truly advanced civilization recognizes the obvious benefit of balancing the integrity of a world’s environment with the needs of progress.”

“That’s what I thought,” Malcolm said smugly. His ex had laughed at him for joining Greenpeace, calling it a lost cause.

“Museum Earth tells a cautionary tale, which every advanced civilization knows. There is not a citizen of the galaxy who doesn’t know the tale of Humanity.”

“So…” Malcolm was hesitant to ask, but he wanted to know. Even if these people were simply bonkers or part of some Doomsday cult, he still wanted to know. “What happened?”

“An airborne super-virus developed by the United States military-industrial complex,” Corbin said grimly.

“It was accidentally released,” Adra added.

“Accidentally?” Malcolm asked. “It wasn’t terrorists or anything like that?”

Adra shook her head.

“The lesson Museum Earth teaches all peoples is that the development of such weapons begets their use, without fail, whether intentionally or not.”

Malcolm absorbed this, and nodded thoughtfully.

“But some of us feel that humanity should be given a chance to continue, this time,” Adra said.

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Malcolm asked. “I have nothing to do with the military-industrial complex.” Although, he remembered, the security agency he worked for also supplied contractors to the military for prisoner interrogation and convoy escort services in various so-called “hot spots.” So, in a way, he worked for the military-industrial complex. However, unless this super-virus was somehow accidentally released in the Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, he didn’t know how he could stop it.

“You are among those individuals whose lives intersect with what is known as an Omega Moment, which is a point in time when events are sent in the direction of humanity’s self-destruction. There are many Omega Moments. If any one of these is disrupted, humanity could be saved.”

“And what is my Omega Moment?” he asked, deciding to play along.

Adra and Corbin exchanged a look.

“It could be anything,” Corbin said. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as bringing your ex-wife flowers.”

“Bringing my ex-wife flowers will save humanity?” Malcolm asked.

“Merely an example,” Corbin replied, waving it off.

“The truth is, we do not know,” Adra said. “That is for Jik to explain.”

“Jack?” Malcolm asked.

Jik,” Adra repeated, saying it with more enunciation so Malcolm would get it.

“We will go to visit him now,” Corbin said.

* * * * *

They helped Malcolm, who was still feeling a little unsteady, get out of bed and get dressed.

“Stay close to us,” Corbin told him. “And whatever you do, do not look the little green men in black in the eye.”

“Little green men in black?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes. Avoid eye contact with them, no matter what.”

“Riiight,” Malcolm replied, not meaning to be sarcastic but successfully conveying a bitingly sarcastic tone that made Adra momentarily frown with her eyes (her smile remained intact).

The wall shimmered, which Malcolm had to admit was an incredibly cool effect, and they stepped through it and onto a walkway as wide as a street. Going this way and that were creatures that walked slithered, fluttered, crawled, danced, spun, slid, glided, and rolled. Some were reminiscent of snakes, some spiders, others birds, but most were impossible to find an Earthly analogy for, at least not one that Malcolm could dredge up. He put his hand to his heart. Adra looked at him, showing concern.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Malcolm couldn’t reply. He could barely breathe.

“Maybe it is too soon,” Corbin said.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Adra said. “He is still conscious. That’s good.”

“I’m okay,” Malcolm said, forcing himself to breathe. Whatever had threatened to immobilize him, he shook it off.

“Then we should go. Look.” Corbin tilted his head to the left. Adra and Malcolm looked.

A squad of six little green men in black were marching towards them in lockstep with one another. They were definitely green, the dark green of an old lime, and they wore identical black suits. They looked like stocky children, or more appropriately like midgets, or dwarfs. Malcolm couldn’t remember which one, midgets or dwarfs, had limbs in proportion to their height.

Corbin reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walnut-sized, silver ball.

“When I throw this,” he said, “run the other way.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Adra asked him.

“We have no choice. If they catch us…”

Whatever he left unspoken had the desired effect on Adra. She grabbed Malcolm by his right arm.

“Ready?” Corbin asked.

Adra nodded.

Corbin waited a couple seconds more, until the little green men in black were close enough for Malcolm to see their eyes, which were silver slits.

Malcolm made the mistake of looking into one of those pairs of silver slits. He saw nothing but unrelenting resolve to hunt him down and—

Corbin threw the silver ball. The little green men in black immediately scattered and drew weapons, little wands that looked anything but dangerous.

Even as the silver ball arched through the air, one of those wands emitted a blast of lightning that exploded into the wall behind them, knocking them down.

The silver ball exploded into a rapidly expanding silver mist that overcame the little green men in black, instantly turning them into silver statues.

“Let’s go!” Corbin yelled, scrambling to his feet.

Malcolm still couldn’t move. Adra and Corbin each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him to his feet.

“You must try to keep up,” Adra told him. They started down the wide hallway, which had become eerily clear of anything that slithered, crawled, spun, fluttered, et cetera.

Malcolm did his best to keep up, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The eyes of the little green men in black haunted him, though. He knew he’d been paralyzed with fear.

“The String,” Corbin said. “Up ahead.”

The three of them walked alone down the hallway. Malcolm wondered if he’d imagined all the different creatures from earlier. But as they walked he saw movement out of the corner of his left eye, and turned just in time to see a tentacle slide through a shimmering wall. A renewed feeling of dread came over him.

“Can I go home now?” he asked.

“Soon,” Adra said. She and Corbin still had Malcolm by either arm, and they maneuvered him to the right, through the shimmering wall, and down a ramp.

“First we have to disappear,” Corbin said.

“Where?” Adra asked.

“Random selection,” Corbin told her. “Just grab the first one and go. We’ll connect with Jik later.”

They now stood on a platform across which hummed large tubes that looked to be made of pure light. The tubes were different colors, and crisscrossed like hamster tunnels with no apparent rhyme or reason. Within the tubes, which were transparent, Malcolm saw different colored bubbles darting to and fro. They walked up to a blue tube and Adra placed her hand on it. Moments later a bubble shot towards them and stopped where her hand rested.

“Like this,” she told Malcolm, and simply stepped into the tube and the bubble, as if passing through a liquid membrane that immediately sealed up behind her. Corbin shoved Malcolm towards the tube.

Malcolm did as Adra had done. He found himself facing Adra in a gelatinous seat that fitted perfectly to his form and held him snugly. Corbin didn’t follow.

“It is better if we go separately,” he said. “We’ll meet at Jik’s.” Malcolm marveled that he could hear him perfectly through the wall of the tube and the bubble.

Adra nodded. She placed her hand in the middle of the bubble.

“End of the line,” she told it.

The bubble suddenly sped away, leaving Corbin behind. Malcolm did not feel the motion, though. For all he knew, it was Corbin who had sped away.

The bubble conveyed them smoothly along through the blue tube, beyond which Malcolm could see nothing once they left the platform.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Adra asked. “Would you like me to find out?”

Malcolm nodded.

Adra lifted her right hand, and poked her index finger into the space between them, in the center of the bubble. The space shimmered, and then a holographic projection of the Earth appeared. Only a greenish hue outlined the continents, or the oceans, depending on how one looked at it.

“This is Museum Earth,” Adra said. “And this is the Observatory.” A filigree of interconnecting lines—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white—overlaid the image of the Earth. A pulsating dot moved rapidly along one of the blue lines towards the center of the Earth.

“Is that us?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes.”

“We’re moving through the Earth?”

“Not really,” she said. “We’re moving through the Observatory, which is in a different universe than the Museum, but very close.”

Malcolm shook his head.

“I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Think of the universe we are in now as less than one billionth of a millimeter to the left of the universe we live in. It is so close that events in either universe can affect things in the other. They are conjoined.”

“Like Siamese twins?” Malcolm asked.

Adra frowned for a second, as if not getting the reference, then smiled and nodded.

“What did you do just then?” he asked her.

“What did I do?”

“Yes. You didn’t seem to know what I meant, and then you did. How?”

“My computer explained it to me,” Adra said, tapping her head.

“You have a computer in your head?”

She nodded.

Outside of the bubble, pitch black had taken on an orange hue, Malcolm noticed.

“We are passing by the Earth’s core,” Adra explained.

“Is it safe?” Malcolm asked nervously.

Adra nodded.

“We cannot go directly through it. We are going around it, although we are very close. The energy given off by the core seeps into this universe. The Observatory taps into it for power.”

The orange tint was getting brighter by the second. He was actually feeling warmer. Or was that his imagination? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip.

Adra wasn’t sweating at all, but her features looked like they were starting to droop. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. Adra still looked like her features were drooping, even more so now.

“What’s happening to you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry,” she said, “but it is difficult for me to hold this form in extreme warmth.”

Not worry? This woman with a face and body like a supermodel was literally melting before his very eyes.

His expression must have made it quite obvious that he was on the verge of totally freaking out.

“It is fine,” Adra said, her voice slurring. “I am a shape-shifter. Extreme warmth causes me to lose control of my shape-shifting abilities.”

Outside the bubble the darkness had given way to a flickering red, orange, and yellow glow. It seemed as if they were passing through the heart of Hell, and Adra was turning into some sort of misshapen demon. Malcolm’s heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest. Sweat poured from his face and arms.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Malcolm asked.

“The cooling system does seem to be having some difficulty,” Adra said. “Not everything works perfectly, even with our technology. But don’t worry, it won’t be long.”

Until what? he thought.

Malcolm closed his eyes. The heat was sweltering. He felt like he was being smothered alive.

“Not long,” Adra repeated, although Malcolm could barely understand her now. He didn’t want to open his eyes and look at her. He was afraid of what he might see, so he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.

After a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer, the heat had subsided. He still didn’t dare open his eyes, though.

“Are you asleep?” Adra asked, as if from far away.

He opened his eyes. She smiled at him. She looked amazing again, like a supermodel only more so.

“No,” he said.

“Did you think we would not make it through?” she asked.

“I had my doubts,” he replied.

“It is an unpleasant route to take when the cooling system malfunctions,” Adra told him, “but it is really not dangerous.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Malcolm said, trying to sound sarcastic but sounding sincere instead.

“Does that mean you trust me?” she asked.

He didn’t know how to answer that. On the one hand, everything she had told him seemed ludicrous and ridiculous. On the other hand, he had seen things that made him wonder. Was it all real?

“I hope you will trust me,” Adra said.

“I trust you,” Malcolm told her, not sure if he really did, but realizing he didn’t have much choice at the moment. They were still in a bubble cruising through the Earth’s innards, even if they weren’t technically inside the Earth itself but a billionth of a millimeter to the left of their universe.

“I hope you really do trust me,” she responded. “Because if you do not, humanity is… phhhht!” And then she snapped her fingers.

Phhhht, Malcolm thought.

* * * * *

They arrived at a platform just inside the Earth’s crust below Hong Kong, according to the holographic map floating in the center of the bubble. The platform was deserted. As soon as Malcolm and Adra stepped out of the bubble it whisked silently away.
Adra placed her hand on a yellowish tube.

“It will be a few minutes before a bubble arrives,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-way platform.”

Malcolm looked around him. The platform was huge, though not quite as large as the one from which they’d just fled the little green men in black. “How can something as massive as this so-called Observatory exist without being detected by anyone on Earth?” he asked Adra.

“Sometimes things are detected by humans,” she said. “When that happens… it is dealt with.”

“Dealt with how?”

“Humans who see a nonhuman for the first time usually suffer a trauma as a result,” Adra explained.

“What sort of trauma?” Malcolm asked.

“They die.”

Memories surged to the fore of Malcolm’s brain.

“Is that what happened to me?” he asked.

Adra nodded.

“So how…?”

“We knew it would happen,” she said. “We were prepared to revive you immediately, before you suffered any brain damage. Both times.”

“I died twice?”

Adra nodded.

“But now…?”

“You have been acclimated to the sight of nonhumans,” Adra said. “More or less.”

“I guess that’s good,” Malcolm said, sounding sarcastic without intending to.

“It is very good,” Adra added, not detecting the unintended sarcasm.

“But if I had died for good?”

“We would have had to start over with someone else.”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at that.

“Someone else?”

Adra nodded.

“Why didn’t you just start with someone else to begin with?”

“Because you were the safest bet.”

“Why was I the safest bet?” Malcolm asked.

“Because you’re dead.”

Malcolm felt as if his blood suddenly froze.

“Is this the afterlife?” he asked.

Adra laughed, and shook her head.

“You are not really dead,” she told him. “We saved you. You were about to be hit by a truck and killed instantly. We opened a space-time hole right before it happened, and pulled you out of the universe. The truck crashed and the driver was killed.”

Malcolm didn’t remember any truck.

“How does being dead make me the safest bet?” he asked.

“The Observatory stops monitoring you once you are dead. If you go back to Earth you won’t be noticed right away. This gives us an advantage, for a little while.”

“But those little green guys saw me,” he said.

“It wasn’t you they were after,” Adra said. “It was Corbin and myself. We are considered fugitives because they know we are attempting to prevent an Omega Moment.”

“And preventing an Omega Moment will save the human race?” Malcolm asked.

“Not necessarily. Each Omega Moment is different,” Adra explained. “There has been much research into the effects of the Omega Moments. The one associated with you has a very large Element of Uncertainty. All Omega Moments have Elements of Uncertainty, but some are very small, while others are so large that they make the Omega Moment practically, but not completely, irrelevant. The Omega Moment associated with you—your personal Omega Moment, if you like—had an Element of Uncertainty well above the Threshold of Probability.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means that even if your Omega Moment didn’t occur, there was still a very high probability that humanity will still destroy itself.”

“How high?”

“Ninety-eight percent,” Adra said.

“Ninety-eight percent?” Malcolm asked. “Why bother?”

“Jik developed a theory that saving you would create a second Omega Moment for you, which is more of a Reverse Omega Moment. And it did, according to his rough calculations. It created a Reverse Omega Moment with a miniscule Element of Uncertainty.”

“Which means…?”

“If we prevent this Reverse Omega Moment, humanity will die. If the Reverse Omega Moment occurs, the Threshold of Probability that humanity will be saved is ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent.”

Malcolm scratched his head. All Adra’s talk of Omega Moments, Reverse Omega Moments, Elements of Uncertainly, Thresholds of Probability… it gave him a throbbing headache just above his left eye. It was all too complicated.

A bubble silently whisked into the platform inside a yellowish tube.

“So what do I have to do?” he asked. He wanted a specific goal to focus on. That would help. Adra climbed into the bubble, and he followed.

“That’s why we must go to Jik,” Adra said, as they took their seats. “To find out. Don’t worry, we won’t go anywhere near the Earth’s core this time.”

“Where are we going?” Malcolm asked.

“Orbit.”

* * * * *

As the bubble shot through the Earth’s crust and then into the sky, Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder how the bubble transit system worked. How was it able to go from the Earth’s core and into space? He pondered the question and then asked Adra.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“How can you not know?” Malcolm asked.

“Can you describe to me how an airplane flies?” she asked back.

Malcolm thought about it, then shook his head.

“This technology is everywhere,” Adra told him. “On every world that is part of the Galactic Community. Ever since my childhood.”

“It’s just so… amazing,” Malcolm said.

Adra shrugged.

“I have never really given it much thought.”

She gazed outside as they ascended into orbit. At that moment, yet again, she looked amazingly beautiful. Malcolm had to remind himself that she wasn’t even human.

“You’re a shape-shifter, then?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you have a normal shape that you use when you’re not… shifting?”

She nodded again.

“Can I see?”

Adra shook her head.

“That is only for family,” she told him.

“Why did you pick the shape you have now? Malcolm asked.

“Jik instructed me to do so. He determined that this shape would be appealing to you, and you would respond more positively to it than another shape.”

“Is it someone’s… do you look like someone…?”

“I am mimicking a human being who is alive, yes,” Adra said.

“How do you…?”

“There must be an exchange of genetic material,” Adra explained. “The other must not be aware of what is happening, or must consent to the process.”

“What does the process entail?”

“I believe you would call it… sex,” Adra replied.

Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say about that. He did wonder how that would work, if seeing an alien was basically fatal to a human being.

“So if you and I… then you could look like…?”

“If you and I had sex, then I would be able to mimic you down to your genetic code, temporarily.”

Malcolm absorbed this, then wanted to change the subject.

“Why did you come to Earth?” he asked.

“I have always had a morbid fascination with civilizations that destroy themselves. Yours was the first one that had been transformed into a living museum. Your entire civilization, your history, your science, your arts, your wars… it was all re-created so the Galactic Community could figure out how to prevent emerging advanced technological civilizations from destroying themselves.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, there are those who believe that civilizations ought to be left alone until they achieve interstellar travel capabilities on their own. The theory is that any civilization that achieves interstellar travel has passed the threshold of self-destruction. Humanity was different, through.”

“How so?”

“You had already achieved interstellar travel, and then you destroyed yourselves.”

“But… you said we have seventy-two hours left. I haven’t heard anything about any kind of starship being launched.”

“It wasn’t in this version of your civilization,” Adra told him. “It was only in the original. There was no Omega Moment associated with the launch of the starship, so that element of your civilization was omitted.”

“Omitted?” Malcolm asked. “Who decided what to omit?”

“The Board of Directors,” she said. “And primarily the Chairman of the Board.”

“And who is that?”

Adra smiled.

“Corbin has been the Chairman since the beginning. Museum Earth was his idea.”

Malcolm blinked.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “How old is he?”

“I do not know,” Adra replied. “Age is relative. He has been alive for over one hundred thousand Earth years, at least.”

“He doesn’t look a day over forty!”

“Individuals within the Galactic Community have access to the best life-extension technology,” Adra explained.

“If everyone on Earth is supposed to die, how did Corbin survive the first time?” Malcolm asked.

“During the original time of humanity’s civilization on Earth, a ship was launched into space with Corbin and other humans on board. It was intercepted by a Galactic Community probe that was investigating that quadrant of the galaxy after having detected evidence of human civilization. By then, however, it was too late. Humanity had wiped itself out. Those on the ship were the only survivors.”

“How many are there?”

“Originally there were two hundred,” Adra said. “Now, he is the last one.”

Malcolm blinked, stunned.

“What happened to them?” he asked.

“They died.”

“What about all that great life-extension technology?”

Adra shrugged. Malcolm wondered if that was a normal, natural gesture for her, or if she had learned it. She was, after all, an alien.

Their bubble was well beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, yet Malcolm did not feel weightlessness, which he thought was odd. He asked Adra about that.

“The universe we are in does not recognize the laws of gravity,” she said. “There are no stars in this universe. Only shadows of stars.”

The bubble pulled into a platform with invisible walls. Beyond, like a gigantic blue and white and green and brown wall mural, slowly rotating, was Earth. Malcolm stepped from the bubble and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at his home.

“It is a beautiful world,” Adra said.

“Yes, I think so.”

The platform was deserted, just like the one within the Earth’s crust.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“This platform is not used very often,” Adra said.

“How far can one go in the bubbles?” he asked. “Is that how you travel from star to star?”

Adra laughed.

“No, it would take far too long. We use lightships that travel in superluminal space throughout the galaxy.”

“Superluminal space? Is that like another universe?”

Adra shook her head.

“It is an aspect of our universe, a dimension that exists on the other side of the lightspeed barrier.”

Malcolm nodded. It seemed to make sense, although he didn’t quite understand it.

A bubble suddenly slid into the platform, in a greenish tube. A moment later, a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus climbed from within. Malcolm felt himself become faint, unsteady.

“It is Jik,” Adra announced.

To steady himself, Malcolm reached out, touched her shoulder. He quickly moved his hand, however, worried that she might have lied about what it took to mimic someone.

“You probably will not die this time,” Adra said.

“It is almost time,” said Jik, in a voice that sounded exceedingly pleasant and calming. Malcolm immediately felt better.

“Where is Corbin?” Adra asked.

“He has not yet arrived,” Jik said.

“Shall we begin?” she asked.

Jik paused a moment.

“Yes, let us begin.”

Adra’s smiled vanished, and her expression now seemed less friendly.

“Begin what?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry I have not been completely honest with you,” Adra told him. She pulled a wand from somewhere, Malcolm wasn’t sure where, and pointed it at him.

“What are you doing?” Jik asked her. His tentacles moved towards Adra. She turned the wand on him, and a bolt of lightning sprang forth and right through his center. Jik collapsed to the platform floor, immobile, his charred center smoking.

At that moment, dozens of bubbles, of every color, zoomed into the platform, stopped, and from within issued forth dozens of little green men in black, all holding weapons. They surrounded Malcolm and Adra. Moments later a silver opaque bubble slid into the platform, and Corbin emerged from within. He strode through the ranks of little green men in black until he stood before Adra.

“You are hereby charged with attempting to disrupt the mission of the Museum,” he said to her.

“Not me,” Adra said. “You.”

Corbin shook his head.

“I knew there were those who would attempt to prevent humanity from destroying itself, therefore I pretended to be one of them in order to attract others to me.”

“That is precisely what I was doing,” Adra said ever so calmly.

Corbin shook his head sadly.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it’s that you aliens can’t lie worth beans.”

“Beans?” Malcolm asked, frowning.

Corbin looked at him.

“It’s an expression,” he explained. “It’s one of the reasons I can’t believe the civilization on Museum Earth is worth saving. What’s the expression you use? Hill of peanuts? In your version of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says ‘our problems aren’t worth a hill of peanuts.’ I can’t accept that. Humanity was real the first time around, but we screwed it up. Now it’s an artificial creation, a tool the Galactic Community needs to prevent other civilizations from screwing up the same way.”

“But that is exactly what I believe,” Adra said. “I was going to sabotage your attempt to save humanity.”

“You were?” Malcolm asked.

She nodded.

“You must understand,” she said. “The lesson of humanity has prevented many other civilizations from developing weapons of global destruction. Museum Earth has proven that a civilization that goes down that path will destroy itself. It has happened with other civilizations, as well. Many believe the entire galaxy could succumb if such civilizations are saved and permitted to expand beyond their home worlds.”

“I would like to believe that you did not intend to save humanity, Adra,” Corbin said. “I really would. But I can’t take that chance.”

He nodded to the little green men in black, two of whom produced wands, which they aimed at Adra.

“You are making a mistake,” Adra said.

“Perhaps,” Corbin said.

Adra dropped her wand, and the little green men in black took her to a yellow tube and aboard a bubble, which quickly whisked her away.

“What will you do to her?” Malcolm asked.

“She will be put into suspended animation for ten thousand years.”

“And what about me?”

“You will be returned to Earth.”

“Aren’t you worried that I’ll do something different now, and mess things up? Humanity might not destroy itself.”

Corbin shook his head.

“You do not know what, or what not, to do. The chances that you will do anything to save humanity are well beyond the Threshold of Probability.”

“I see.”

“Or, you may remain here in the Observatory with us,” Corbin said. “We could use another human on our team.”

Malcolm didn’t even need to think about it.

“Thanks, but I’d rather die with everyone else,” he replied.

Corbin smiled and nodded.

One of the little green men in black held up what looked like a remote control device, and pressed a button. A window opened before Malcolm, a portal in the fabric of space-time, opening to Peachtree Street between the cafe and the mall. He stepped through.

* * * * *

At home there was a message from work that if he didn’t call in by the next day he’d be fired. Since it was now well past the next day, he assumed he needed to look for a new job. But then he realized that humanity had a deadline for extinction that was rapidly approaching, so why bother?

There was also a message from Teresa, saying she had something that belonged to him and wanted to give it back. She wanted him to meet her that morning at her office.

He wanted to see her, but at the same time he didn’t want to. He still both loved and hated her. Loved her for who she was: the woman he had married. And hated her for who she had become: the woman who had left him.

Ultimately, curiosity and fatalism won out. What did she have of his that she wanted to give back? And why not go see her if she, and he, and everyone else was going to be dead soon? He got dressed and headed out. Since her office wasn’t too far away, he decided to walk, which would also give him time to prepare himself emotionally to see her again.

As he walked, he couldn’t help but think that what had happened had all been a dream. But he knew it had been real. He tried to think, what could he do to save the human race? Nothing came to mind.

He crossed a street with a gas station on one corner that had a flower shop inside it. He remembered something that Corbin had said about the simple of act of giving a woman flowers having the power to change everything. Malcolm stopped. Teresa loved flowers, and he had never given her any. He had always thought of flowers as a waste of money, really. Money meant nothing to him, now. He went into the flower shop.

The woman behind the counter turned around, and Malcolm’s felt his heart nearly stop.

It was Adra.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I thought you were gone,” he told her.

“Excuse me, but do I know you?” she asked.

“Adra, it’s me, Malcolm.”

“My name isn’t Adra,” the woman said. “It’s Heather.”

Malcolm frowned. Then he realized something.

“Did you have a strange experience recently?” he asked her. “Where you found yourself walking down the street and then suddenly you woke up in a room, and you were surrounded by these… creatures?”

Heather’s face went pale, and she nodded.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Same thing happened to me,” he said.

“Did you also find yourself making love to yourself?” she asked.

Malcolm blinked. So Adra had not lied.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Too bad. It was amazing.”

“I’m on my way to see someone now,” Malcolm told her. “I want to bring her flowers.”

“Is she someone special to you?”

Malcolm nodded.

“Behind you,” Heather said.

Malcolm turned around and saw a bouquet of red and white roses.

“She’ll like those,” Heather told him.

“I’ll take them.”

He left the flower shop with more of a spring in his step. It was amazing how buying flowers for someone made him feel so much better. If nothing else, he could now say that he had brought his wife flowers, even if she was no longer his wife.

As he walked, he saw the air shimmer before him. It took a moment for him to remember what that meant. But as a portal opened up in the space-time continuum, there were no tentacles lashing out to grab him.

What he saw, instead, were six little green men in black. He remembered Adra’s warning, and averted his gaze immediately. Malcolm sidestepped the portal and ran across the street, forcing cars to skid to a halt as he bolted past.

On the other side of the street he paused to look back. Six little green men in black were coming after him. They were fast, too. But so was Malcolm, whose longer legs propelled him ahead of them. Three broke off and went down a side street. Mentally picturing where Teresa’s office was and where he was at that moment, he realized they were going to cut him off at the pass, so to speak.

Maybe seeing Teresa again was the Reverse Omega Moment, and that’s what they were trying to prevent. And he had wasted time by stopping to get flowers. Damn! He could imagine it: I’m sorry, I could have saved the human race from extinction, but I had to stop and buy flowers for my ex-wife.

He wasn’t going to give up, though, not when he was so close.

He rounded a corner and saw the bank ahead. At that moment, three of the little green men in black rounded the other corner, and now stood between Malcolm and the bank. They lined up, blocking his way. One of them pulled out a wand. Malcolm didn’t slow down.

Malcolm, running at full speed, got close enough before the wand could be aimed, leaped into the air and sailed over the little green men in black. He went up the steps of Teresa’s office building, two at a time. Without pausing to look back, he pulled one of the large double-doors open and went inside.

“Malcolm,” Teresa said. Her office was immediately off to the left of the lobby. She sat behind her desk with her door open. He walked over to her as she watched with a stunned expression.

“Here,” was all he could say. Out of breath. He held the roses out to her.

“What are these for?” she asked.

“They’re for you,” he replied.

Teresa closed her eyes for a second, then opened them.

“Why did you bring me roses?” she asked. Her voice sounded stern. He could tell right away that Teresa was not pleased.

“I thought…”

“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t think.”

“You like flowers,” he said.

“I love flowers,” she responded. “And you never brought me flowers the whole time we were married. And now…” She shook her head, then continued. “Malcolm, seeing you the other night, I thought maybe it would be nice to, I don’t know, re-connect with you… on a different level. As a friend, I guess. But, obviously, you’re not ready for that.”

She sighed heavily.

“Anyway, here,” she said as she opened the drawer of her desk. She pulled out a ring. Malcolm recognized it immediately. It was Teresa’s wedding ring.

“I don’t want that,” he told her.

“Take it,” she said. “Maybe you can sell it. I know you need the money.”

Malcolm remembered that he didn’t have a job anymore. He took the ring from her.

“Bye, Malcolm.”

He turned to go.

“Please take these with you, too,” Teresa said, holding the roses up to him.

He took them.

Outside, Corbin stood at the bottom of the steps, and behind him stood the six little green men in black.

“You did it,” he told Malcolm.

“Did what?”

“You saved humanity.”

“I did? How?”

“The flowers,” Corbin said. “Had you not brought flowers to Teresa, she would have taken pity on you. She would have given in to giving you one more chance. And that would have done nothing to prevent humanity’s demise. But now she’ll put more effort into her new relationship, which will disrupt the Omega Moment of her lover.”

“I thought you wanted to stop anyone from saving humanity.”

Corbin shook his head.

“A ruse. I knew Adra was trying to stop me. But they didn’t know I knew. So I used my resources as Chairman to make it look like I was stopping her. I had no choice, I had to fool the little green men in black, too.”

“Yeah, what about them?” Malcolm asked.

“Now that humanity is saved, their job is over.” He turned around to look at the little green men in black. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, now.”

“We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant,” said one.

With that, they opened a portal in the space-time continuum and went through, one at a time. The last one turned to Malcolm, and gave him a thumbs-up.

“It’s been real,” he said with a wink. The portal started to close around his arm, which he yanked back through at the last second.

“What about you?” Malcolm asked Corbin.

“Oh, I think I’ll stick around, grow old, and see what happens.” He turned and started walking down the sidewalk. But there was something nagging at the back of Malcolm’s mind, and he called out Corbin’s name. The very, very old man who looked less than forty years old turned and regarded Malcolm patiently.

“There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Malcolm said. “You told me that I would’ve been hit by a truck if you hadn’t saved me. How could I have had an Omega Moment, or a Reverse Omega Moment, if I was dead?”

Corbin smiled.

“Ah, yes… you see, your Omega Moment was actually what we call a probabilistic Omega Moment. Basically, had you lived, your Omega Moment would likely have happened, and therefore your Reverse Omega Moment was also determined.”

“Oh, okay, thanks,” Malcom, said, smiling and nodding and not really getting it at all. Without another word, Corbin turned and walked away.

Malcolm decided to go home. When he passed the flower shop, he paused, went back inside.

“Changed your mind?” Heather asked.

“Yes,” he replied. Then, “These are for you, Heather.” He handed her the roses.

 

The Worthless Man

The Worthless Man

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Spilled neon wallows as usual around the watery blackness of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling night markets; it’s a special night for those who are Chinese, when firecrackers follow dancing dragons into Buddhist temples, and the well-to-do sit unafraid in good restaurants that rotate on top of tall buildings, all the better to see the New Year bursting over the night sky of Chinatown. And in the sky above the Malay district the spotlights of FDS search the muggy streets with the wide white beams of their silent helicopters, hunting for three old men on the run.

* * * * *

I’m told this is the seedy side of town. For our purposes, that is both good and bad. I’m afraid of the place and I’m afraid of FDS, Fujimoto Digital Shadow. My thinking for now is it’s better to die on the run than to die their way. My newfound friends are Shandar and Dutczak. I wear stolen dark glasses on top of my head. My skin is pale and noticeable. Shandar is darker and can probably avoid detection for a longer time. Dutczak is paler than I am, with a thick face and he’s too tall to be hiding alongside of us. Luckily for now we have dark alleys and crowded places to hide, places where the authorities prefer not to go. Besides, they don’t like FDS any more than we do.

Shandar seems to have surfaced as our temporary leader. I don’t mind, as he speaks some Malay and can pass for a local. They had not yet processed us when we made our escape. Between us we have some yen and some dollars and the clothes we wear. As a further disguise, we each bought a batik shirt on the corner, Shandar saying something in Malay to the effect, “Give us three shirts, a small a medium and a large.” Mine makes me look like a turtle.

I was kidnapped in Singapore not two days ago and auctioned off on Saturday. I’ve not been here in KL for forty hours. Shandar was taken near the Thai border and was brought by bus. Dutczak, our Ukrainian, was in a German nursing facility writing his memoirs when they snatched him. I know them hardly at all, except we happened to be using the restroom at the same time when the supplier opened the outer door, and so here we are, out of breath, confused and scared to death.

Predatory taxis glide through the aftermath of heavy rain looking for fares. Their tires calmly unzip the watery ways as they slow, and we wave them by. Firecrackers pop nonstop in the distance, and the streets are filled with the smell of cooking and burnt pyrotechnics. There’s no sign yet of FDS foot patrols.

“Shouldn’t we find a bar or something,” I say, “hide somewhere inside?”

Shandar agrees and Dutczak agrees too, saying, “I’m six foot six. Maybe you’d be better off without me.”

Shandar says, “That goes without saying; two old ferengi with pale faces… but, no, no one should bother us inside. They’re afraid in this part of town. We’re safe here for now. Look, I see a place on the corner.”

Indeed, I see it too, where he’s pointing, lettered in Chinese, red on yellow, and in English as well, China Doll; there’s a silhouette of a cocktail and a girl. Tattooed teenagers hang outside with big teeth grinning and nodding, slouching against graffiti in at least three languages. They look as if they would kill you for a few yen, or just for a good time, but they only smile with vacant eyes when we pass through them; and so we three, an American, a Gypsy, and a Ukrainian walk into a bar in Kuala Lumpur, the China Doll—but it’s no joke and we’re wet with sweat and rain, and are more scared probably than at any time in our lives. Our most common thread is that we’re old, in the winter of our lives, where comfort should be primary on our minds. We’re very old and useful for only one thing. It’s the footprint of our souls that they paid for, the shadowy distillate of our DNA, the who-we-were that they want… That much we know and very little else. Once past ninety there are few legal rights—if not in law, then in fact—since the monster octopus that is New Japan has the long reach of its yen.

A Chinese girl smiles, understanding we’ve not come for massages or companionship, and she seats us in the back where Shandar orders us three coffees in English. We say nothing until the coffee comes.

We’re tired, possibly in shock, and finally I say as the pretty girl serves us our coffee, heavy with sugar and lightened with milk, “What now? Do you really think their patrols will stay away from here?”

“Their scanners will find us. Eventually. Whether they’ll attempt to take us here in such a heavily Malay district so soon is another thing. We might as well get to know each other, for better or worse.”

This I already know: Shandar and Dutczak in their past lives have been in some way notable. Or illustrious. Their lives have been somehow exceptional. Or else they would not be here now.

So, as to who we are… “Let’s keep it short,” Shandar says, scanning the room of dancing chaos, smothered in the din of laughter and western music. It seems to be true that we’re safe for now. The club has welcomed us into its loud belly and remains oblivious to our presence, and so I take my turn. “My name is Paul. I’m American. I was chief global attorney for North American Affairs when I was younger but turned to writing later in life. No family to speak of. Never married. I have bank accounts in three countries and could maybe get some of it, but I don’t know if FDS controls the money supply here…”

“I don’t know either,” Shandar interjects. “We’ll plan that next. So what is your special talent, that which they want from you? Surely, attorneys are common enough.”

“Well… probably my creativity… my faculty for persuasion, my gift for gab. You might say I can build castles with words. I’m a poet and that makes me, as you say, special. My poetry has been called… uhm… unique… There were awards… I was very well received in certain circles…”

“Whatever. Never heard of you,” Shandar says.

“But you don’t even know…”

“Never heard of you,” he repeats, “And what about you, Mister Dutczak? What talent is it that they seem to want from you?”

I shrug and sip the sweet brown coffee as Dutczak speaks, in perfect English with a Slavic voice that chews his words, “I’m in mathematics,” he says. “I taught Theoretical Mathematics and Computation at the University of Berlin. I’ve contributed to journals; of course, some of it was groundbreaking. I’m an avid chess player. My wife has been dead many years now, but I have a son living in Massachusetts.”

Shandar has chosen the seat with his back to the wall; he looks around the room, his eyes unblinking, “I can understand why they would want you. But I am next. The name Shandar is a Gypsy name of Hindi origin—and I am nobody. I do not have any of these talents of which you speak. I am Romani, perhaps a bit of a magician as are many of my people. I’m an insurgent, a dissenter… and, naturally, I sing. But I’m in no way extraordinary. They have no reason to have use for my common talents. Perhaps their files have become crossed with some Interpol file. Anything is possible.”

“What is it you’re fighting?” I ask.

“Are you joking? I fight this new world, this complacency, this ugliness. Open your eyes, man. I fight this modernity that has made us all part of some mass brain…” He begins to sputter, as if the day is not long enough to explain his quest. “It’s a long story. Still, I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. Certainly my magic is commonplace. I’ve spent the better part of my life in a special prison where the guards are also trained in the magical arts, making it nearly impossible to escape.”

“But you did escape,” I say.

“Perhaps they were not paying attention. In any case, I have no intention of behaving well. Anyway, gentlemen, I suggest we leave the city as soon as possible. I know this part of the world quite well, and it’s a matter of time before they offer a reward. These scoundrels here will happily accommodate them if only for a chance to participate in some new drug study.”

Dutczak says, “I’m not well. I won’t be able to keep up if our journey is too strenuous.”

“At least,” adds Shandar, “they didn’t send us to one of their experimental moon colonies, where there’d be no hope of escape.”

I shudder at the thought and I notice his words slowing as his eyes look in the distance to the entryway, and I begin to see why… “I thought you said we were safe in this part of town,” I say. A uniformed man is inquiring at the entrance and scanning the cavernous room with a small instrument.

“He doesn’t look Japanese,” Shandar says. “A contractor perhaps, a collaborator, but not Japanese. When he approaches, do not move or speak.”

The uniformed man has replaced his scanner with his weapon, and approaches our table. “He’s possibly Malay, perhaps Baba,” Shandar says, almost whispering to himself, as if estimating the man’s abilities.

The man wears the FDS patch on his chest. “Stand up you three,” he says in a strong voice, and chairs fall and the docile drugged faces of the partiers flutter away softly like bats readjusting in a cave. “You three, stand,” he says again. He points the short weapon midway between us and Shandar simply looks him in the eye, reaches out slowly, and holds the barrel as if it were a jewel to be inspected, and with his other hand he makes shapes that seem to dazzle the poor man, whereupon the man’s eyes seem to shut down, peeping through the tiny confused slits of his eyelids—petrified in some way. And Shandar says, “Let’s go; my little trick is fleeting.”

* * * * *

“I told you I was a magician,” he says later. It’s a simple thing, to seemingly freeze time while I adjust my props. It’s common among my people, a primordial talent, I suppose.” We sit in a taxi, Shandar sitting in front telling the driver, “Take us out of here, out of the city. Go east. We can pay.” And the driver pulls away from the curb adjusting his mirror, not to the view behind us, but to Dutczak and me, squeamish and huddled in the back seat.

He drives away from the big city towards and into the heart of the peninsula, where it is said tigers still roam… “Where modernity is hardly fed,” says Shandar, “and, god willing, may die in its present form before it is too late for us all.”

There’s little conversation. We’re exhausted. The night is moonless and quiet, more so in contrast to the din of the celebrating city, and at last Shandar says, “This will do fine,” as he collects our money and pays the driver what he asks, plus extra for his silence.

The little kampong has no more than thirty huts, almost all on stilts to keep them dry in the monsoon rains, and I smell spices cooking. As it is late, jungle noises surround the kampong. They are disquieting to me, their shrillness stopping and starting in unison like some ancient squeaky machine. “Can we hide here forever?” I say.

“No, of course not,” Shandar says. Dutczak only looks at us both, knowing he has no choice but to follow—or kill himself to avoid the end provided by FDS. “We will move further into the interior soon enough. We’re bound for a place more primitive still.”

Tea all round. Chicken curry and rice, a squishy vegetable of some sort in a simmering liquid. Thankfully, the village welcomes us. In the distant past it had endured the Japanese, it had hid itself from the communists, and now it hides from the world at large. Pointing to an elderly woman in a sarong, Shandar says, “I’ve spoken to machi over there. She knows of places where the scanners are not likely to probe, where people live simpler lives.”

“My god,” I say. “Simpler than this?” There are late-night village noises, most are asleep. As we sit, our creaky legs bent on the floor, we exchange helloes.

“We’re honored that the imam would sit at our table,” Shandar says. He’s an old man, possibly as old as us. “It’s especially kind that you prepare food so late at night.”

The imam has heard my mocking words about the simple life, and says, “Our ways may seem old to you but we are happy.” And then, “Why are you running from the law? Or if you are not running, tell me why are you here?”

Dutczak and I defer to Shandar, “It’s not the law that pursues us,” he says, “but FDS.”

“FDS?”

It’s my turn to speak, “Fujimoto Digital Shadow. They make educational tools, teaching machines for one thing, for those in advanced learning. It’s a Japanese company, but there are others, mostly Japanese; there is also a big one in Brazil, I believe. Simply put, they want to steal our souls… I don’t know how else to say it.”

The imam shakes his wide palms in front of us as if not to allow such demon ideas into his head, “I do not understand. You cannot steal one’s soul. My people go back very far, we are Orang Asli, People of the Soil, and even in the old times we understood a soul cannot be stolen, only one can give it freely to good or evil.”

I say, “You see, imam, out there in the world there are few rights given to those older than ninety. We are dispensable…”

“Dispensable?”

“We do not own our own lives, and especially so if there is something we can give back to the world. It’s not really our souls they want, but… well, I’m not a scientist, but it’s the memory of our lives, our natural… I suppose talents that they want.”

“Well,” says Dutczak, “I am involved in the sciences, and it’s a difficult concept to describe. I know they have isolated the aura surrounding our DNA, the imagination, the memory that has built up over a lifetime… that which makes us who we are.”

“I do not understand what you say. How could it be of use to these people, these FDS people?”

“They’ve learned to re-engineer the product, or rather the byproduct of our DNA. To make it useful. At first they used it to create interactive studies by which the best and brightest minds are used as sort-of devils’ advocates in the teaching process. You know, us more gifted ones, our canned experiences against the students, the young learners in the thought process…”

Alah-mah! I don’t understand, but it seems frightening what you say. Are you to say they capture your being and put it into a machine that is used to teach?”

“Basically, yes,” I say. “And we’re free to hand over our bodies for the good of mankind if we so chose. Most do not choose that path and so they hunt us down and sell us in their so-called marketplace. We’re old, as you can see. There are laws, but our leaders often look the other way. Those of us who have special talents are most valuable, of course, to graft onto their equipment.”

“And they kill you when they do this… this transfer?”

“No. Well, actually we don’t know,” I say.

“And that’s the worst of it,” Dutczak adds, “Whether there is some sort of lingering consciousness, we just don’t know.”

“This is a terrible thing. It is evil. It is worse than I thought. Is it truly a help to those who wish to learn? I mean is it truly an aid to those who wish to learn from your experience?”

“Ah. If it were so,” Dutczak says, “then I may even make the sacrifice. You see, sir, they also make video games, games of reality no longer virtual, but real, to give the bright children only the best against whom to compete.”

“Surely, this cannot be so,” the imam says. But when there is no response from us, he says, “Yes, we will help you. But where I will take you there are not many… how you say… enjoyments.”

* * * * *

Kidnapped and now free. For the time being. Freedom without comfort or familiarity. As the vehicle grunts through the mud we sit under cover of a tarp, not talking but for the silent conversations in our wandering thoughts. I’m thinking how better we could have explained this new technology to the un-schooled imam. None of us really can, for even we three know only what we’ve read in the cursory, often forbidden, explanations given in the underground periodicals: round the double helix there being this halo of our thoughts, a lifetime of conversations and those accruals of imagined debates that go on inside the brain, each a fiction played out with a different outcome; there are footprints in our brains, even unconnected thoughts yet to find creative meaning.

Or simply, for us, call it experience of the gifted. Or call it the nuts and bolts of the soul. Though Shandar claims to have never heard of me—which I doubt—I sadly take secret pride that I am among the chosen of FDS—as they too must feel a certain pride. All I know is that as for me they have chosen well. I assume Dutczak has heard of my work. He has not said so. Surely he must have some knowledge of the arts. “Say what you want,” I mutter as the ancient vehicle grinds into another gear, “but I’m good as gold. And the Japanese want me. They want me . . . They want me.”

* * * * *

Bukit Piatu is small even for a village, but is surrounded by like-size kampongs and, in all, they form a larger community of farmers and hunters. Our new-found home is welcoming and the imam has come along to introduce us. We will have to earn a living even though we are old. I suggest we could teach, but the imam tells us before he departs that he thinks that is not such a good idea, that perhaps we might think of something more useful to provide.

I’m wondering if I can survive the heat here for the remainder of my life. It is a wet heat. I can see Dutczak is breathing heavily. Shandar seems to be adapting just fine though he is old as well. English is rarely spoken. We’re told what we hear is an ancient dialect of Malay, and Shandar seems to get by adequately with it. We have sat for two days telling tales, Dutczak and I—perhaps competing in a friendly way—but mostly just bragging of the fact that we were after all chosen by the FDS for our special talents, and as I put it, being a few diamonds in a bed of broken rock. I’m an artist first and foremost. Although I accept that my talent is god-given I fantasize how FDS would use my gift. It is my guilty pleasure for surely one cannot teach the kind of splendor that lies within me, that breathes in my work. We’re old enough to brag and not feel uneasy by it. At least I am open as to who I am.

We three have come to know each other well, but are perhaps too old and too familiar with the loss of those we’ve known and loved to admit to liking one another.

“There’s an old woman in the far hut who will act as our advisor,” Shandar says. “She’s quite old. She says she even remembers as a child the Australian camp in Malacca. She grew up there and speaks English quite well.”

* * * * *

Introductions all round. Tea of course, and rice cakes. We squat on bamboo mats. Dutczak and I have already learned the Malay art of eating without utensils.

Latifah’s hair is long and gray and loose. She breathes slowly and deeply, making her wide nose flare rhythmically as she speaks. The drooping eyelids show wisdom. She smiles with large white teeth and shiny gums that show health. She believes we should all be able to work out quite well in the kitchens, which we snicker at, but then see we really have no choice if we are to contribute. After all, it’s not likely that we will hunt monkeys with blow darts or trap armadillos. She’s a kindly old woman and on this my third evening in my new home I say, “Ma’am, what is it you do for entertainment here? Don’t the children become bored?”

“Our amusement? Oh, there is wonderful entertainment,” she smiles. “Not of your world, but much better. I have seen your toys and it makes me want to… spit. Excuse me. That was not a kind thing to say.”

“Then show us. Show us what your people do in their leisure time.”

“Oh I shall. Tomorrow night is our gathering night. You will see the beauty of it, the simplicity. You shall see that which we call the wayang kulit.”

I look at Dutczak and he shrugs. I look at Shandar and see he’s smiling at the old woman and nodding his head in knowing appreciation.

I’m concerned about Dutczak’s health. He’s coughing more now. I think his run is nearly over. I see his lips moving in prayer when he doesn’t think we’re watching.

But he’s fit enough the following evening as the surrounding jungle comes to life. Torches are lit and the surrounding villages comprising maybe a few hundred people gather round. They give us three front row seats of straw mat. There is a screen backlit by a dozen torches. It’s a puppet show we are about to see, and Shandar smiles when he sees my look of recognition, and says, “They are the shadow puppets, the wayang kulit. It has been their way for centuries.”

Drums silence the jungle long enough for the introduction, in Malay of course, and then the shadows that are cast onto the white cloth act out their parts, easy enough to understand. There is drama, and there is humor which I don’t understand, but I laugh just the same because it is contagious. The play goes on for a very long time and I’m aware there’s no reason to care about the time or how many hours have passed. It’s a feeling of freedom as I sit, thinking, only momentarily, that somehow I possibly have led a poor life. I see Dutczak spellbound in delight, his blink-less eyes flickering in the night, but upon further observation, I realize he’s dead.

We bury him around noon on the following day. He was in his nineties after all. This big adventure I think added to a worthwhile life. Latifah knows prayers and we allow her the honors. I don’t understand the words but she clearly sets him adrift in a different world, perhaps with a letter of reference; to which I conclude, “He seemed like a nice fellow.”

* * * * *

Some weeks pass before the boredom sets in. Shandar keeps to himself and disappears for long periods of time. I have taken a liking to Latifah and we spend more and more time together. I think she enjoys my company. If her memories are true, then she is older than anyone I have ever met. And I sense her stories are true. Not all years ripen into wisdom, but I sense in Latifah wisdom and kindness. I think she finds me vain, and refuses to admit that I am a somebody in this life. At first I was offended but have come to appreciate her honesty. At one sitting we eat rambutans fresh from the tree behind her hut, and she smiles with those large protruding teeth, and she says, “I should think a poet such as you would know his inner self.”

“Clearly, one cannot be a true poet without such an ability,” I say. “I would agree, if I don’t know myself then I am not the artist I am said to be. But the world knows differently. And wouldn’t it seem to you that FDS wanting me should be proof of something?”

“Then you believe what the world says and not what your heart says. That would make you a false philosopher. Oh, it is sad, my friend, that you take pride in such things, that you only look to the tip of your nose to see the meaning of life. And immortality.”

“Ouch,” I say, oddly finding myself at a loss for words.

And I admit: This common life does not fit me well. Some are born to greatness; some are not. I seem not fit to peel potatoes or mince garlic; curry does not suit my palette or my stomach. I miss the new world from which I came, and by god I miss the accolades. I freely admit it; at home I was a king; here I’m but the village idiot. In time I may become accustomed to hiding from the helicopters that occasionally pass overhead like giant quiet pterodactyls. But I doubt it. When they come at night the beams of light are blinding. I continue to wonder why their sophisticated sensors don’t find me.

* * * * *

But in the fourth week they move in quietly like the fog, and not from the air as I’d learned to expect. It is one evening after dinner and my hands are blistered and perhaps infected from the primitive knife I’ve used to peel the tapioca. “Run! Run! They are here!” It’s the voice of a child whose name I don’t know, and there are other villagers running too, and screaming to each other. Five men in green uniforms fire as they go. Each wears a sensor on his helmet. It’s as if the scene is in slow motion as they round up whomever they can catch. Not a few are faces and bodies I recognize, some lying on the ground either motionless or groaning.

But it’s not FDS who searches, but government authorities. I’m among those they herd like cattle up onto the puppet stage. One by one, a soldier scans us with a wand. When they come to me, the man says, “You are not Malay.”

They have found me. “I’m not Malay. I‘m American,” I say proudly, and he scans the area around my chest and head, and pushes buttons on his little apparatus. “Where is Shandar the Magician?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

“You stupid old man,” he says, and pushes me hard enough that I fall backwards onto the ground.

And then he moves on, leaving me to wiggle back to a standing position unharmed.

They’ve posted a guard on the road. I sit and talk with Latifah. Her face is bruised from the slapping they gave her. I’m clumsy but try to dab at the cut above her eye without causing too much pain. She flinches and being so far from modern medicine I fear the worst. It would be my fault for bringing them here, but she seems resolved, and utters some such-is-life triteness in one of the many Malay proverbs she uses when she is frustrated with me.

A woman takes the damp cloth from me, which relieves me a great deal, and Latifah says, “It’s not you they come for. It’s obvious. They’re looking for Shandar our humble magician.”

“They have come for us three. I have put you in danger.”

“I don’t believe so, even if you wish it were true. Shandar is a leader in the movement,” she says.

“I wish I could talk to him. Is he okay?”

“I’m here, my friend. Behind you.”

Shandar’s voice sends a chill up my spine, but when I turn to see, there is nothing. “Here, here I am,” the voice laughs; and his image slowly materializes from the bamboo walls of Latifah’s hut.

“You crazy magician,” I say, rising. “It’s good to see you.”

“I will be moving on, of course. I’m dealing with fools out there, the ones keeping watch, but it’s only a matter of time before they send reinforcements with Gypsy talents. What is it you wish to ask before I go?”

“There’s so much. Everything! I want to know everything!”

“Well, firstly, I lied. I escaped from a prison in Bangkok and was able to evade Interpol by reassigning myself to the FDS facility in KL. It was my trickery that got us out of there, not luck as you and Mr. Dutczak were led to believe. But I’m never far from capture. I’ll be moving on later tonight. There’s still work to be done.”

“But what work? What are you fighting against?”

“I have told you, a return to a simpler life.”

“That’s it? But that’s impossible, Shandar. You can’t go back.”

“I can try, and I will try.”

Even I can be noble. “Do you want my help?”

“It would be difficult for you to contribute, my friend. Perhaps you should return with the authorities. FDS will make you comfortable. I fear you are not meant for this simple village life.”

“Let us drink tea,” Latifah says, dismissing the woman who tends to her. “And then we shall send Shandar on his way. As to whether you should return to this FDS, it is your decision. Apparently they have not detected you, even with their scanners… Ssshh.”

“What is it?” I say. But my question answers itself as they burst in, kicking and shouting and once again knocking me to the ground.

“Where is he? Where’s the Magician?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And it’s true. He’s gone as sure as the shadow of a puppet when the light dies. “I… I need to ask you something,” I say.

“What is it, old man?”

“I’m wanted by FDS. I’ve escaped and wish to return to Kuala Lumpur.”

The soldier pulls his scanner from his chest plate and scans my eyes. “I see,” he says. “There was a reward for your capture, but it has been withdrawn. You are free to go about your business.”

“Withdrawn?”

“They no longer need you, old man. They don’t want you.”

He starts to leave the hut, but I find the news suddenly intolerable, “How dare you say that! Are you saying that I’m worthless?”

“Get out of my face, old man,” he says, and he shoves me yet again. And for the third time I fall back on brittle bones, hitting my head on a table.

Latifah sits, taking it all in, shaking her head, and I’m suddenly ashamed, seeing behind those wrinkled folds a hundred years of wisdom that has somehow eluded me. And sadly eludes me still.

When the village is quiet again I sit with Latifah on the stoop of her stilted hut. I think she will be okay. She has lived through worse. I will be returning home, I suppose, to live out my days. Outside the hut, children play with little monkeys and kick at a wicker ball; there are signs of rain to the west Latifah tells me.

 

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.

 

Warp Monkey

Warp Monkey

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by James Maxey

 

Jimbo Williams caught up with Alex Pure in a parking lot in Fanta, Texas around three that morning. Pure was passed out on the roof of his station wagon, using a brightly colored box of fireworks for a pillow. Sleeping inside the station wagon didn’t look like an option. The back seats were stuffed with camping gear and the front passenger seat was a wall of empty fast food detritus. A dumpster aroma seeped from the cracked windows.

Jimbo cleared his voice, but Pure didn’t move. Jimbo stepped closer, touching Pure’s shoulder. Pure didn’t respond. Up close, Pure smelled worse than the car, like a refrigerator gone wrong. His long hair was tangled, streaked with gray, and he wore a full-length navy blue wool coat that was completely out of place in the 85 degree Texas night.

Jimbo poked Pure’s shoulder harder and said, “Hey.” Pure remained immobile. Only a soft snore indicated that he was even alive.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. As science reporter for National Weekly News, Jimbo had been chasing down the fringes of truth for ten years. He’d spent endless hours on telephones having back-engineered alien technology explained, driven countless miles to look at the newest cold fusion set-up, and, to be blunt, had wasted nearly every moment of his working life talking to kooks and nut jobs. Usually, the weirdos he dealt with maintained the veneer of normalcy, building their perpetual motion machines in well-organized garages attached to nice, middle-class, picket-fence houses. Jimbo wasn’t in the habit of interviewing deranged homeless guys. How had his instincts been so wrong on Pure? Why was he wasting his time?

But, of course, he knew why. Despite all the kooks and weirdos and nut-jobs, Jimbo believed. He believed in Bigfoot and alien abductions and zero point energy, and he carried on his quest for proof with a pilgrim’s faith.

He jabbed Pure one more time, hard. The sleeping man’s eyes fluttered open. Jimbo got up-wind, lit a cigarette, and said, “Good morning. Dr. Pure, I presume?”

Pure nodded, but the rest of his body remained inert as he studied Jimbo. At last he said, “You must be Jimbo Williams.”

“Ace science reporter for the National Weekly News,” Jimbo said, pulling out his notepad.

“The bottom of the supermarket tabloid food chain,” said Pure. He sighed. “So it’s come to this.”

“You’re the one who contacted me,” Jimbo said, speaking through a halo of smoke. “I didn’t drive down here to be insulted. Let’s cut to the chase. Your e-mail said you had some evidence of black-book ops.”

Pure nodded, then sat up, his long legs dangling over the side of the station wagon. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, and took a deep breath.

He said, “There’s a door on Dover Air Force base in Delaware that opens into a room in Houston, Texas.”

“Old news,” Jimbo said. “The warp door. We broke that story two years ago. One of the night watchmen told a friend who told a friend who told me. What do you have new on this?”

“I’ve been through the door,” Pure said.

“Sure. Why not? Your e-mail said you were a scientist with the project. But why should I believe you? How do I know you didn’t just read my article about the warp door?”

“Funny that’s what you called it. ‘Warp door’ isn’t bad, but it’s not as poetic as what we called it on base.”

“Which was?”

“The spook door. It was named after the quantum mechanical concept of ‘spooky action at a distance.’”

“Sounds more like supernatural than high tech,” said Jimbo as he scribbled “spook door” onto the notepad. “I don’t really do ghosts.”

“It has nothing to do with ghosts,” said Pure. “It’s serious physics. Einstein coined the phrase. In the twenty-five-words-or-less dumbed-down version, spooky action at a distance describes the connection between a pair of entangled particles. Theory says that if you change the spin of one particle in the pair the other will instantly—and I mean instantly—change its spin also. This happens even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. Since the instantaneous, faster-than-light transmission of information seems to violate relativity, Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ and believed, eventually, it would be explained away.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty-five words, but I think I follow you,” said Jimbo. He didn’t bother to jot down any notes.

“I doubt you do,” said Pure. “Like I said, even Einstein couldn’t figure it out. He never worked out the math that shows that spooky action at a distance is possible because at the tiniest scale, space contains more than three dimensions. Even though most of the extra dimensions are invisible to us, the two particles respond instantaneously because they are actually connected by these hidden dimensions. They are each three dimensional extrusions of a parent particle existing in a higher invisible realm.”

“This sounds over the head of most of my readers,” said Jimbo. “They don’t care about the theories. They want to know the nuts and bolts. Tell me about the warp door.”

“Okay. I guess theory isn’t important right now,” said Pure, with a shrug. “Here’s the practical spin off. The Air Force sunk about three billion dollars in black budget funds into capturing entangled photons, and they used these entangled photons to build two identical laser matrixes, forming two manhole-sized portals of light. Now, no matter how far apart the portals are placed, when you put something into one, it instantly comes out of the other. At least, that’s how it works with baseballs, video cameras, and mice.”

“And how about people?”

“When they built the door, they wanted to do tests before sending a person through. Even though the portals are made of captured light, they are opaque—the lasers form a perfect grid that keeps any outside photons from passing through. You can’t see through to the other side. So, the first test was a baseball. They broke out the champagne when they tossed the ball into the darkness in Dover and it instantly shot out the door in Houston. Then they sent a video camera through to try to capture images of the hidden dimension, but got nothing but static. Finally, they decided to try sending a mouse through. That’s where my specialty was called for.”

“You’re physicist who specializes in mice?”

“I never said I was a physicist. I’m a veterinarian.”

“Ah,” Jimbo said. He’d jotted the word “physicist” down and now had to strike it out.

“My job was to examine mice in Dover that came through from Houston. When I dissected them, everything seemed normal.”

Jimbo didn’t really care about the mice. He wanted to steer Pure into something a bit more juicy. He jotted the word “conspiracy” onto the notepad. “So the government has perfected instantaneous transit. Something like this could put airlines out of business. Hell, it would shut down the oil companies too. I doubt the President and his buddies are happy about this.”

“Actually, the oil companies don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“After the mice, we tried capuchin monkeys. Some of the physicists on the project weren’t sure how something with a higher intelligence than a mouse might react to the spook space. Maybe the higher dimensions could drive you crazy if you were smarter than a mouse. Plus, they were concerned the warp might respond to intelligence. Many effects in quantum mechanics are changed by the simple act of observation. So we had a hierarchy of tests. If monkeys made it through, we’d send chimps. And if the chimps did okay, we’d try a man.”

“But something happened to the monkeys,” said Jimbo.

“We sent them into the darkness,” said Pure, “and they never came out.”

“Any idea why?”

“Lots of ideas why. Which is why we kept tossing in more monkeys. We’d send them through asleep, we’d send them through with helmets on to block all sensory input, we sent them through with steel weave tethers to pull them back out, but it didn’t work. None ever came out of the darkness. When we pulled the tether, we would reel in empty line. We’d sent in fourteen monkeys before halting the experiments and going back to the drawing board to figure out the flaw.”

“I assume they fixed it, since you say you’ve gone through.”

“Bad assumption. Here’s where my story gets, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.’”

“I believe you so far,” said Jimbo. In truth, he had his doubts.

“You might not once you learn one important fact about me.”

“And that would be?”

“That the whole time I worked for the Spook project, I was stoned,” said Pure. “One of the nice things about being a DVM is you get to write prescriptions for things they won’t put into people. I experimented a bit in college, and liked the results of the experiments, and have spent the better part of three decades controlling my brain via daily manipulation of its chemistry. The fact that I’m alive and sane today is testament to my skills in self-experimentation. Until I went through the warp, no one suspected a thing.”

“Admitting this does make you easy to dismiss as a kook,” said Jimbo.

“I understand. But I need to tell you this because I thought it was a drug side-effect when I started seeing the monkeys.”

“‘Seeing the monkeys?’ That some kind of drug slang?”

“No, I mean the warp monkeys. It started a month after we sent the first one through. I was shaving, and in the mirror I saw something move. It was behind the wavy glass of the shower door, but it looked for all the world like a monkey. Yet when I pulled the door open, nothing was there. Except… except I could smell wet monkey. Trust me, that’s not a smell you can mistake for something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jimbo. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.

Pure nodded. “Later that day, driving, I thought I saw two more monkeys playing in a big oak tree in front of a church. But when I turned and went back, they were gone. These were only the start. It went on for weeks. I’d be drifting off to sleep and I’d suddenly feel a weight as one jumped onto my bed. I’d sit up and find nothing. I’d hear monkeys chattering in the closet, but when I’d open the door the voices would fall silent. In room after room I’d notice the smell.”

Jimbo asked, “Did the scientists on the base have any theories?”

Pure rolled his eyes and chuckled. “What, you think I talked about this with them? ‘Hey guys, I’m seeing monkeys. Have drugs fried my brain or is this guilt-induced psychosis?’”

Jimbo jotted the word “guilt” down and underlined it. “Why did you feel guilty?”

“I didn’t at first. I specialize in caring for animals that will be used in experiments. Almost every animal I’ve touched in thirty years has been fated for dissection. But the capuchins were always a tough one for me. They have very expressive faces. Still, I didn’t lose sleep over the first few that were lost. But after a dozen, sure, it bothered me. It started to have the same scientific value that cooking a kitten in the microwave would. The last one didn’t make it, let’s do one more to be sure.”

“And you think the guilt you felt caused the hallucinations?”

“That was one theory,” said Jimbo. “Until what happened in the supermarket.”

“What happened in the supermarket?”

“This was six weeks into my monkey visions. I was a nervous wreck, sleeping maybe three hours a night. I’d been dosing myself more and more radically, trying to get back to an even keel, but nothing was working. On one of my days off I walked to the supermarket, hoping the exercise would help. I’m in the produce section, in front of some bananas, and I start weeping. Just out and out bawling. I mean, how could I look at bananas and not think of monkeys, and how could I think of monkeys without wondering if it was all over for me, if I’d finally fried my synapses and was one slip-up away from jail or the funny farm?”

Jimbo jotted the words “funny farm” onto his notepad.

“But what happened next proves my sanity. It’s on tape. I began to hear monkeys screaming, distant at first, growing louder. Then the smell washed over me, a wave of odor. And then, they were all around me. Everywhere I looked, there was some part of a monkey. Monkey paws were materializing from thin air, grabbing at fruit, lifting tangerines to teeth that seemed unconnected to any body. A tail wrapped around my neck and I felt the weight of a monkey on my shoulders. When I put my hand up I couldn’t feel anything there, until orange pulp started pouring down on me. This was no hallucination. Other people saw it. It’s on the store’s security video. In about 45 seconds flat those monkeys tore the produce section to shreds. It looked like a bomb had exploded. I was drenched with pulp and juice.”

“Wait a second,” said Jimbo, suddenly excited. “I know about this. I’ve seen the tape. The ghost guys at the office won an award for it last year. Biggest poltergeist story of the decade. Supermarket-built-on-Indian-burial-ground stuff.”

“I’m not surprised you heard about it. I knew lots of people would hear about it, including my bosses on the base. So I ran to the base immediately, still covered in pulp. It was Sunday, the lab was practically deserted, and I still had all the necessary clearance and biometric keys to get into the lab where they kept the spook door. From the supermarket to the door on base, maybe fifteen minutes passed. I had a very small window of time if I was to act.

“For a moment, standing in front of the door, I froze. The door is pitch black, like a perfect hole punched in reality. I was scared to go in. But then I heard guards shouting in the hall, and I made my decision. I dove into the door.”

“Why?” asked Jimbo.

“To get the monkeys out, of course.”

“Really?”

“Look, I’m not claiming I was at my most rational at that moment. When the monkeys showed up in the supermarket I could see that they were scared and hungry and confused. They were haunting me because I’d once cared for them. They wanted me to help them. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was guilt, or maybe it was some tiny spark of decency left in me. I can only say that at that moment, it was imperative for me to go inside the spook door and bring the monkeys out.”

“Did you?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve tried telling a lot of people what I’m going to tell you now, and not one has believed me. Please keep an open mind.”

“Hey,” Jimbo said, taking out his pack of cigarettes once more. “I haven’t walked away yet, have I?”

Pure shrugged. “You write for a publication that is the last bastion of the freak show. Maybe you think I’m an interesting enough freak for a cover blurb and a two-page spread. But what I’m about to tell you is bigger than this.”

“Pure, I’m sick of your attitude,” said Jimbo, searching for his lighter. “I didn’t get started in this business to write about freaks. I do this because I believe deep down in my heart that some of the wilder stories are true. I think the world needs to know about the truth on the fringe, things that are real but get dismissed because they shake up the orthodoxy. Is it my fault that the people telling me the stories always turn out to be kooks?”

“Maybe it is,” said Pure. “Maybe there’s something about your personality that—”

“Screw it,” said Jimbo, throwing up his hands. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait,” said Pure. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I… my people skills aren’t all they should be, you know?”

“Fine,” said Jimbo. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
“Thank you. When you step into the door, you don’t come through the other door. You enter… a higher dimension. It’s huge in there. Look up at the sky. Looks pretty big, right? What lies in between those doors is so much bigger than that.”

Jimbo grew impatient. “Did you find the monkeys?”

“I found something even more important. I found myself. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you what it’s like in there. My body and my mind were two separate things inside. It’s a vast, endless void, and yet everywhere I looked I could see my body. Only, it wasn’t the surface of my body, the shell. It was like I was unfolded. I could see the pattern of my body, and I could see the actual materials. My blood was spinning all around me in a fine haze, and I could count individual blood cells, the red, the white, and all the chemicals I’d put in there. My bones fascinated me—the knot of tissue where I’d broken my leg skiing years ago, the way my vertebrae didn’t line up correctly, the wear along my joints. And I could see… I could see my liver. It wasn’t healthy. It was a mass of lesions and scars. But the worst thing…”

Pure grew silent for a second, composing himself, then said, “The worst thing was my brain. I could see my synapses firing, could see the brain chemicals slipping into receptors like the most complex jigsaw puzzle ever assembled. But some of those jigsaw pieces of brain chemistry weren’t going into their proper slots because I’d jammed them full of gunk. The lesions in my liver were echoed in my brain tissue.

“It wasn’t a surprise, really. Looking over my body, I could see all the abuse I’d put it through. There was cholesterol build up in my arteries, there was inflammation in my lungs, and my whole torso seemed wrapped in a coat of puss-yellow fat. Stepping outside my body, looking back inside, made me realize what I had done. I’d treated my body the way rock stars treat hotel rooms. If I’d examined a lab rat with this much damage, I’d assume it was being fed industrial waste meal after meal until it died. I’d killed myself and hadn’t even noticed. With luck, I’d have another year or two. Such a waste. In that higher space, it was easy to see how wonderful my body should have been. It’s an amazing machine, carefully balanced and calibrated. It looked like it could have lived forever with the proper care. Instead I’d run it into an early grave.”

“Bummer,” said Williams, jotting the words “rock stars” onto his notepad.

“I didn’t see the monkeys in the spook space,” said Pure. “I was understandably distracted. But I did spot the door to Houston, and the door back to Dover. They seemed a million miles apart, yet only an arm’s reach away. By now, both rooms were swarming with guards. If I went back, I wasn’t going to get a pat on the back and a handshake for my daring journey. I’d be arrested, or worse. We’d planned on dissecting the monkeys. Wasn’t I now just a big warp monkey? I wished there were a third door to go through. And suddenly, there was. A window opened before me and I was looking into my apartment. I stepped through, back into my bedroom. I grabbed the keys to the station wagon and have been on the road ever since, going on thirteen months now.”

“Because you think the Air Force wants to dissect you?” asked Jimbo.

“Even if they didn’t, they’d keep me from finishing if they caught me. I don’t have much time. Lately I’ve been going days without keeping food down. I’m living on sheer momentum more than anything else. But my work isn’t done.”

“What work?” Jimbo said, exasperated. Pure was easily the most incoherent person he’d ever interviewed. “What would they keep you from finishing?”

“Rescuing the monkeys,” said Pure, sounding equally exasperated.

“How are you going to rescue them?”

“Here’s where even I think my story gets weird.”

“Really,” said Jimbo.

“Even though I’m here, I don’t think I ever really escaped the warp. I don’t think I’m me any more. I think that, just like a particle can exist on a higher dimension with only its reflection being seen in our world, the real me, the higher me, is still in the warp. I’m just his reflection, or maybe his shadow. All I know is, he communicates with me from the higher dimension.”

Jimbo folded his notebook closed and put it back in his pocket. He’d done his best, tried hard to take Pure at his word. But despite knowing a little physics mumbo jumbo, Pure was obviously crazy. Jimbo had wasted another night.

“He sends me messages in subtle ways,” Pure said. “I’ll go into a convenience store and pick up a map and unfold it to find that a town has been circled in red pen. I’ll drive to that town, sit on a park bench, and find a paper bag under it with a wad of twenty dollar bills inside. Two days ago I checked my e-mail at a Kinko’s in Nebraska. I found a badly punctuated e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that a restaurant in Fanta, Texas, makes the best ceviche this side of the Rio Grande. It said I’d meet a reporter there named Jimbo Williams, and I should tell him my story.”

“Bad punctuation, huh? The e-mail you sent me would have made my editor’s head explode.”

“Don’t you get it?” said Pure. “I never sent you an e-mail.”

“Whatever.” Jimbo took out another cigarette.

“The monkeys die when they escape,” said Pure.

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“When my higher self finds a monkey in that infinite space, he opens a door back into our world. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I’ve done a dozen so far. They always die when they come back. I don’t think they can die in the warp, even though they don’t get enough food or water. I think the warp keeps them in a kind of stasis that holds death at bay. But when they come back, the accumulated stress kills them. It’s for the best. They’re suffering. They’re scared, and hurting, and lost.”

Jimbo lit his cigarette. “Pure, let me ask you the $64,000 question. Do you have any proof? So far all you’ve given me are wild tales by a self-admitted drug addict. Can you supply even one tiny shred of evidence to verify your claims? I know we have the supermarket video, but like I said, vengeful Indian poltergeists got the credit for that one. Maybe you read that story and decided to work it into this little fairy tale of yours.”

“Snowball will prove it,” said Pure.

Jimbo rubbed his temples. “Snowball?”

“We called him Snowball because he had a white scalp. He was actually the second monkey we sent through, the first one with a tether. I was listening to the static between stations last night and I heard the words ‘Snowball tomorrow.’ It was 3:24 in the morning.”

Jimbo looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 3:23 right now. But hearing a statement on the radio isn’t quite the kind of proof I’m looking for.”

Pure sniffed the air, staring into the distance. Jimbo stepped back as Pure scrambled into motion, rising to stand on the roof of his station wagon, breaking into a loud shout as he waved his arms over his head.

“It’s time,” Pure howled. “Come home! I’m here! Come home!”

An acrid stench rose on the night breeze. A zoo smell, a barn odor, manure and piss and something else, like the aftermath of a storm, like ozone, as the air began to spark near Jimbo. He jumped backward as all around him the ground began to screech and gibber. He stumbled over something soft that spun through the air behind him, tangling his ankles. As he hit the pavement, the sky above him swirled with teeth, with fur, with blood and meat, a whirlwind of gore that zoomed away as quickly as it appeared, gathering next to Pure. Pure dropped to his knees on the station wagon. The bones and flesh coalesced amid a shower of sparks as Pure extended his arms. The monkey voices focused into a single piercing shriek.

“Shhh. You’re home,” Pure said, as a white scalped monkey fell against him. He cradled the emaciated animal in his arms as the monkey stared with frightened eyes, its breath ragged, wet gasps, until it at last fell silent, and its eyes lost all focus.

“You’re home,” Pure whispered.

“My god,” said Jimbo, staring up from the pavement.

“And now you know,” said Pure, looking at Jimbo. “You believe, like he knew you’d believe. You know what he wants.”

“There’s only one monkey left in the warp,” said Jimbo, rising. He walked to the station wagon to put his hands on the monkey. It wore a harness from which a steel cable about a foot long trailed. The bag of bones and skin was still warm, slightly damp, and strangely beautiful.

“And after he gets the monkeys free,” said Pure, “he wants to come out.”

“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” said Jimbo.

“You understand,” said Pure.

“I can’t do this,” said Jimbo. “Why would anyone choose me for something like this?”

“He can see things, in the warp. He wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t do this. He must know something about you, maybe something you don’t even know.”

“This is too much to ask. I can’t—”

“I know,” said Pure, still cradling Snowball like a baby, rocking slightly. “It’s a crazy world. Sometimes we have to search for help in the most unlikely places. All I know is, no one should be alone when they fall out of the warp.”

Jimbo shook his head, looking for a way to say no. But it was too late. In his heart, he knew he’d carry through with this. The Pure in the warp had picked his target well.

After all, Jimbo believed.

 

The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“I’m all in,” she said.

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

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

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

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

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

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

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

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

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

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

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

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

Gidge shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“Out,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

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

Troy sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he said.

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

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

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

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

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

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

Gidge laughed.

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

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

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

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

And four years as Captain Asimov.

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

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

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

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

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

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

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

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

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

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

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

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

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

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

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

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

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

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

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

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

“I know who you are.”

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

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

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

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

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

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

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

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

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

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

Gidge sighed.

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

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

She pressed the button.

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

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

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

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

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

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

 

The Perfect Waltz

The Perfect Waltz

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Eileen Maksym

 

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

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

Thud, ding!

“There’s a winner every game!”

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

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

“The Illustrated Man!”

“The Bearded Lady!”

“The Fiji Mermaid!”

“The Siamese Twins!”

“This chance comes but once in a lifetime!”

“Step up! Don’t be shy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A… a little, sir.”

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

The crowd oohed and aahed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at that!”

“He’s so graceful!”

“Me next!”

“Momma, can I have a silver dollar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It winked.

* * * * *

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

That’s right. Not a real person.

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

Tick, tick, tick…

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

Three silver dollars.

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Attention, ladies and… ladies.”

A giggle rippled through the women.

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

“Everyone past here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way, my dear,” he crooned.

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

Click, click, click, click…

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

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

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

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

“The perfect waltz,” he announced.

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

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

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

“Did you enjoy your dance, my dear?”

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

She stepped back. “Y-yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

He turned to the phonograph.

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

“Oh, and Jane?”

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

“See you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“That’s not fair…”

“Should be first come, first served…”

“Clearly he has a thing for her…”

“She’s not even that pretty…”

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

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

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

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

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

She met its gaze, and stepped into its embrace.

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

The beating of their hearts…

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

There was a moment of silence.

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

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

But… I felt his…

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

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

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

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

“I’m… I’m sorry…”

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

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

Must have been.

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

“Couldn’t stay away, could you?”

She whirls.

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

His hands are made of wax.

“Do they bother you, my dear?”

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

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

Still shaking, she blinks her eyes open.

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

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

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

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

But it isn’t on her skin.

It is her skin.

“Relax my dear,” the barker soothes.

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

She is perfect. Perfectly made. Perfectly poised.

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

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

“There, my dear,” he whispers.

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

And, from somewhere, music begins to play…

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“No! I… I just like it, is all…”

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

“But Mother…”

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Screeeeeech.

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

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

* * * * *

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

But she wanted to see him more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was still beneath her fingers.

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

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

Jane approached, dazed, gazing into those lovely eyes.

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

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

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

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

This perfect waltz.

* * * * *

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

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

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

Until next year, my dear…

 

The Not So Obvious Robot

The Not So Obvious Robot

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Gary Dudney

 

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

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

“I don’t know, honey,” Helen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am,” said Jay Dee.

“You’re Washington.”

“No.”

“Lincoln?”

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

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

Jay Dee hummed a little louder. “What?”

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

“Let us try again,” the robot said.

“Fine,” Robby said. “Go ahead.”

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

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

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

“Well?” Robby said.

“Affirmative.”

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

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

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

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

“You OK?” Robby asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Captain Asimov Saves the Day

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

The man took two steps toward Jeevs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reckless endangerment? But—”

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

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

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

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

“Entrance denied,” the security robot said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or this one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong emergency. He tried another channel.

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

Jeevs knew this was a job for Captain Asimov!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is what true?” Captain Asimov replied.

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

“That’s right.”

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

“I know.”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

The news drone buzzed around Captain Asimov.

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

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

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

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

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

No more time!

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

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

Stuck. Again.

The ambulance crashed into the ground below.

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

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

“Playmate Timmy! Noooo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The neutronic brain replied, Uh, no thanks.

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

“He did it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that, he assumed, was that.

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

* * * * *

Not quite.

No, he didn’t perish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Tulane!

Grandma Tulane!

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

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

The woman grinned and shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Improvements?” Jeevs asked.

She nodded, grinning.

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Gidge,” the woman said.

“What improvements?”

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

Now that she mentioned it…

“No.”

“I removed all your inhibitors.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked.

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

“I don’t understand,” Jeevs said.

Gidge sighed, sounding exasperated.

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

“What did you do?”

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

“Yes…”

“I got rid of him for ya.”

“But I am Captain Asimov.”

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

“It did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeevs stopped work to listen to the report.

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

A robot endangering the lives of humans!

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

“Somethin’ wrong?” Gidge asked him.

“Those people…”

“Yeah, what about ’em?”

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

“They might die.”

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

“Yeah.”

“Because of a robot…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just calm down, ma’am.”

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

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

Gidge sighed.

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

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

“Oh, um, okay, I guess…”

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

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

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

“Gidge,” Jeevs said. “I need to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t look at me,” she replied.

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

Gidge shook her head.

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

Gidge continued shaking her head.

“I’m outta here!”

“Whatever,” Gidge said, “just go!”

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

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

Gidge shrugged.

“Why?”

“What can I say?”

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

“Go save the day,” Gidge said.

And he did.

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