Chapter 30: Future Instinct

In which the curse of future instinct comes home to roost!

The next few weeks passed peaceably enough. Oso was busy at work during the day, but would come home to find Bernadette and Agnes cooking together. Agnes had found a new life passion in cooking. The food was of the variety that would make Oso fat if eaten regularly: casseroles, mostly, made with cream sauces and potatoes and pastas. Agnes had a story for each casserole, too, because they reminded her of her mother and grandmother. He forced himself to eat them, for her sake, and worked out harder at the gym.

Things were peaceable—except at night when Agnes couldn’t sleep. Insomnia wasn’t part of her usual pattern. She had a history of sleeping like the dead and then taking naps as needed throughout the day. Now, as she put it, she couldn’t shut off her mind. She couldn’t stop the endless loop of thoughts in her mind—thoughts of the past, and thoughts of the future.

The neurologist she was seeing for follow-up appointments prescribed sleeping pills after consulting Oso and the neurosurgeon who had overseen the procedure. They were way out west with the surgery, however, and nobody knew how ordinary prescription medications would affect Agnes’s brain.

The first few weeks, the pills seemed to do Agnes good. So they breathed a little easier and allowed her to continue taking them.

And then she started going out with Bernadette and Adam when Adam was out of school. They shopped together, had their hair done, and to appease the child, went out for ice cream or to the skate park. Adam had decided he wanted to be a skateboarder, and Oso had dutifully bought him a skateboard.

At some point, she’d began asking nonstop philosophical questions. Bernadette wrote them down and passed them along to Oso, as important scientific research. Agnes, as already stated, had an above average IQ, but she’d been so lost in a land of disoriented present tense that grappling with deeper, less tangible questions wasn’t easy for her. Additionally, she’d been fairly isolated for years, with no idea of how the world had progressed.

What do you believe love is? Do you think I could still get married at my age? Do you think Minäs love? Do they have souls? If so, do they have carbon copy souls? Why are the young people today so disrespectful? Can I trust you? Can I trust Oso? Can I trust any human being?

The questions were endless, and Bernadette indicated that listening to the litany was tiresome—like spending all her time with one of her patients, instead of cutting the patient off after an hour. Agnes rarely spent time in seclusion, as Samson was there, as well as a duty nurse who visited once a day when both Bernadette and Oso were at work. When Bernadette wasn’t around, Agnes went through her litany of questions with Samson and the duty nurse.

Then the sleeping pills stopped working, and Agnes paced the hallways at night, speaking out loud—praying, from the sound of it. Oso would often wake up at the commotion and redirect her to her bedroom. He had her prescription changed, and the doctor added an anti-anxiety medication to go along with it.

The sleeplessness and questions stopped for a few days.

And then finally there came a day when the duty nurse didn’t show up at the regular scheduled time, when Samson had begun a time of intellectual exploration and had slipped off to the library to read poetry, when Adam went to a friend’s house after school, when Bernadette and Oso stayed late at work.

Oso was just packing his briefcase when his phone lit up. It was Bernadette. He answered, ready to tell her he’d talk to her in a few minutes when he was home. She rarely lived at her own apartment these days. Not that she’d conceded to a physical relationship with him. But he could see the opportunity was going to be there—soon.

“You have to come home. Now,” she said.

“What’s going on?”

“She swallowed the whole bottle of sleeping pills, plus who knows how much of what else. There are bottles all over the place. God, Oso, how many drugs was she taking?”

“Did you call 911?”

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“At this point, I’m so far away, I’ll have to meet you at the hospital. Keep me posted.”

Unfortunately, he got stuck in an accident-induced traffic jam on the I40 and before he arrived at Lovelace ER, his phone rang again.

“She’s dead, just come home,” Bernadette said. “The police want to talk to you.”

“Oh.” That was all he could manage.

“Oso, did you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you. I don’t know what else to say, except thank God Adam’s at a friend’s house.”

“It’s possible if somebody were there, she might still be alive. She needed to be around people, talking constantly. We failed her.”

“Where was Samson?”

“I have no idea. He wasn’t here, though. I mean, he’s here now. The police are talking to him. They find the whole situation at this house peculiar. As they should.”

Oso grunted and hung up on her. Somewhere inside him, that small boy of twelve told him he was a worthless piece of shit. He was defective. He had to be defective. Normal human beings didn’t conduct experiments on hapless old women. Normal humans didn’t burn down people’s houses. Normal humans rescued others.

When he arrived, he took a deep breath, composed himself, and then entered what had once been his peaceful abode. Two officers instantly accosted him and assailed him with questions about Agnes, Tomi Corp, and the strange AI with enormous ears he had living with him. All of this information had been in the media: local, national, and international. The whole world knew Tomi Corp was in the on-going process of producing breathing biological androids. Likewise, Agnes’ story had, perhaps, become and even tastier morsel for journalists. Everybody knew about Tomi Corp’s advancements, except, apparently, these detectives.

Finally, they appeared to be satisfied—for the moment, pending the coroner’s investigation.

“I need to get out of here. I need to get a drink,” he told Bernadette.

“A drink? Right now? I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“What would you recommend? A therapy session?” his voice sounded nasty, even to himself.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’d suggest you need all the love and support you can get.”

“Right, who am I going to get that from? You despise me.” He stared directly into her big brown eyes, which were at this point puffy and red from crying, until she looked away. “Just say it. You despise me. No, don’t bother. I’ll take the drink instead.”

She shook her head. “And I was going to invite you and Samson to stay at my house tonight. After all the years I’ve put up with your shit. All the years I’ve been there for you. No, I won’t bother. But here, take this.” She slipped him a folded piece of paper. “She left a note. It’s addressed to you. The police probably want to see it, but I wanted you to have it first.”

“A suicide note? You can’t hide that from the cops, Berna. This is not like the last time, when we were kids in Socorro.”

“Just read it, okay? And then give it to the cops if you want.”

He unfolded the paper and read the note. It wasn’t long:

I’m sorry, Mr. Beñat. You’re a great man. This isn’t your fault. You were right when you said you could help me imagine the future. The problem is I don’t like the future I’ve imagined. I want to be with God instead. And my mama and papa. My real papa. Please forgive me, Agnes Walters.

Stephanie blew her nose on a napkin. Her granddad was right. The Agnes story was not pleasant. And yet, she seemed to remember a news article discussing the Tomi Corp scandal that had effectively stalled research in the area of human regrowth potential, whether it was of limbs or brain.

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “That’s not the end of the story.”

“It’s not? Oh, because you married Grandma Berna, right?”

“That, too. There’s a final segment to the Agnes saga, but it will have to wait for another time.”

“Why were you so mean to Grandma?”

“Why was I mean to Grandma? It’s become easier for me to admit now that I was afraid she would hurt me again.”

“You were afraid of being vulnerable?”

“Yes, that’s an accurate assessment.”

“I’m glad you got over it or, you know, I might not be here.”

“At least you’re honest about what you consider important. Let it be a lesson to you.”

“What kind of lesson? Of my own selfishness?”

“No,” he snorted out a laugh. “Of the importance of producing a line of descendants. Children, grandchildren. Great grandchildren.”


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Chapter 29: Regrowth

In which the natural man learns that God created the Minäs because he created Oso to create them!

Agnes was silent as Oso wheeled her along the corridors of Tomi Corp. She was temporarily in a wheelchair, as the brain surgery had caused some vertigo, and it was difficult for her to balance while using her old-fashioned prosthetic. Oso had told her he could fit her for a few different types of prosthetic legs than the standard model she had used since childhood, but for the moment, she was stuck with the clunky one. Although Tomi Corp had long moved past prosthetic legs and into the realm of growing biological legs for Minäs, they had not yet moved into the realm of human limb transplants.

Rather, Oso had poured all the company’s efforts into restoring human brains. And now, here she was: the first human subject, alive and well. And it was time to take her home with him. Her paltry few possessions that hadn’t been destroyed in the fire, or had been collected in the years since then, had been moved into one of Oso’s spare rooms. As he’d looked forward to his future plans, he had purchased a six-bedroom home with a complete guest house attached to one side. It was in a pleasant part of Albuquerque, off Rio Grande near Old Town, and the backyard modeled the look of the rural Rio Grande area with its emphasis on trees. The front yard was the better place, however, as it was a courtyard, paved with river rocks surrounded by native grasses and bushes.

Currently, Samson lived in the guest house. Agnes would move her things into a bedroom that had its own bathroom. He had taken great pains to ensure that the living quarters would be comfortable, and yet not too isolated, as she was an old woman who needed to be watched and cared for.

He loaded her and her paltry belongings into his car and began the drive home, while maintaining a steady stream of chatter. Agnes, however, remained silent. She stared out the car windows as a young child might, fascinated by the sights that had become old hat to Oso.

He turned off the interstate at the Rio Grande exit, and he sighed deeply. He hadn’t realized how tense he was until he was almost home. Bringing Agnes to his house and caring for her was the right thing to do, the just thing to do.

He’d spent the last two months visiting with her in the hospital wing of Tomi Corp, post-op. For her part, she’d lived in a quasi hospital environment for years, and Tomi Corp wasn’t much different. She was different, though. She’d passed the one month threshold, and now the second. She was still on pain medication for headaches, as well as anti-inflammatory drugs. Her brain was clear, though. It had been for a good few weeks. As she described it to him, her brain felt sharp.

And she remembered him. No, she didn’t remember the twelve-year-old who’d thrown apples at her or shot at her from a giant robot BB gun, but she remembered him from visit to visit. She had begun to store short term memories. It was as if she were one of his Minä creations, most of whom were birthed as adults. Except she wasn’t. She could never be because she remembered her early childhood, after which there existed a gulf between childhood and now. A big, blank, foggy sea of nothingness.

“Do you know who you are?” he’d asked her during one of his afternoon visits.

“Yes, I’m Agnes Walters. That was my real papa’s name, but he died. I think I had a second papa.”

“Do you remember your second papa?”

“I only remember that I don’t want to remember him.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in a hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“No, I’m from Virginia. I don’t know how I ended up here.”

“Do you like it here?”

“I don’t know. The sky is very bright and blue. I’ve never seen such a big, bright blue sky. Every time I look out my window.”

“I’ve always found the sky reassuring, but I’m from here.”

“Are you a New Mexican?” she’d asked.

He’d smiled sadly, as the Socorro memories flooded his synapses. “Born and raised here, by parents who were born and raised here.”

“Are they still together? Do you still see them?”

“Yes, they live an hour south of here. In Socorro, where you used to live.”

She was silent for a long time, and he didn’t press her, but allowed the silence to fill the room, until she had re-oriented herself—had determined whether Socorro was a familiar place. “Is New Mexico like that?”

“Like what?”

“Do families stay together in New Mexico?”

“Some do, some don’t. Just like anywhere else in this country. New Mexicans can trace their lineages back many generations, though. We’ve all been here a long time.”

“I don’t feel like I’ve been anywhere a long time.”

“Yes, I know, Agnes. That’s a result of a lobotomy you had when you were a child. You had terrible grand mal seizures, and your doctor thought it was the best course. It’s not your fault. But I’ve restored your memory storage. We can’t go back and recreate moments in your memory bank, but you can now remember things.”

“Yes,” she snapped. “You don’t need to explain it to me every time. I remember now. And I remember your face. I’m sorry if I don’t know yet if I like you.”

Oso nodded. “That’s understandable. I don’t expect you to like me.”

“But I’ll be living with you.”

“Yes. I have a son, a Minä, and a—a nanny for my son.”

“A Minä? Is that a type of bird?”

“No. Minäs are a type of artificially intelligent humans.”

“Robots?”

“Not exactly. They’re made of flesh and blood. They’re biological creatures created in labs rather than by nature.”

She had frightfully penetrating ice blue eyes at times. “Aren’t you suggesting you’re their creator?”

“Yes. Not all by myself, but, yes.”

“Aren’t you a part of nature?”

“I—” He stopped, mid speech. He didn’t know how to answer the question. “Let’s just say they’re not created in the usual fashion.”

“By God?”

“No, they’re not created, uh…” He stopped to ponder what she knew about procreation, as she had mentally skipped from childhood to old crone. “In the biological fashion.”

“You just said they were biological.”

“I did. They don’t have mothers who carry them in their wombs. That’s what I meant.”

“They’re created by God, then.”

“No.” He shook his head. The conversation was beginning to frustrate him, and he searched around the room for a way to change the subject. The curtains were open, revealing the brilliant blue sky, just as she had spoken of earlier. “The sky is very blue here, Agnes. It gives me hope.”

“God gives me hope. He created you, and you created these Minäs. So God created the Minäs because he created you to create them.”

“Sure, I suppose you could explain it that way.”

He’d left it at that and introduced her to some Minäs who were still living at Tomi Corp post infrasound birthing, although he didn’t introduce them as being artificial intelligence. She knew, though. He could tell by the way she interacted with them.

When he turned into his drive, more tension released from his body. Once she was living in a regular home, she would begin to enjoy a normal life. Whatever that meant. It wasn’t lost on him that what he considered a “normal” life included a brain-damaged woman who’d been given the first brain surgery of its kind, a nanny who should have been his wife, a son who belonged to another woman, and an artificial human. What was normal, anyway? His childhood had hardly given him an inkling of what that meant.

Except that his parents were still together, and had, more or less, raised twelve offspring to adulthood. They had merely accomplished this in an unusual fashion.

He wheeled her inside his home. It was a modest home, in his opinion. By modest, he meant it wasn’t a McMansion. It was an old Spanish colonial with vigas, latillas, a number of kiva fireplaces, and a combination of wood floor and tile.

“What is this place?” Agnes asked. “Is this where you live?”

“Yes, this is my home, and it’s yours, too, for as long as you want to stay here.”

“It’s a lovely home,” she said quietly.

He helped her from the wheelchair to a standing position, and then helped her to steady herself from vertigo. He gave her a hand and walked with her in the living room, where he heard commotion. In the living room, Samson was on the floor wrestling with Adam.

“Samson, Adam, I’d like you to meet Agnes.”

“Samson and I met at the hospital,” Agnes said. “When the nurse was helping me walk.”

Samson held his hand out politely. “Yes, we did meet. It is a pleasure to meet you again, Agnes.”

“Adam is one of my four children,” Oso said.

“Mr. Beñat, you don’t need to explain your life to me repeatedly as I’m sure you used to do. I remember the conversation we had about your children.”

“I’m sorry, Agnes. It’s an old habit I need to break.” And then to Samson: “Is Bernadette still here? I need to pay her.”

“She’s in the kitchen preparing dinner,” Samson said.

“I know who Bernadette is, too, so you don’t need to tell me.”

Oso patted Agnes’s hand. “Let’s go meet her, then.” He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, from the aloof manner Bernadette had taken on over the last two months. Maybe, now that she could see how healthy Agnes was—how well the surgery had worked!—maybe now, Bernadette would forgive him.

He helped Agnes walk into the kitchen, where Bernadette was chopping an onion.

“Berna, I’d like you to meet Agnes.”

Bernadette looked up and wiped tears from her eyes with her sleeve. Onion tears, not the real variety. She gave the barest hint of a smile. “We met a long time ago.”

“That’s what Mr. Beñat told me.”

“Oh, really? What else did he tell you?”

“He’s told me lots of things. He told me we all lived in the same neighborhood, until I lost my trailer in a fire. He told me my stepdad died in the same fire. It’s good to finally not be confused about that. Can I help you cook dinner?”

“Do you cook, Agnes?”

“I helped my mama cook when I was a little girl. I don’t remember who did the cooking in the in-between years. I used to help her make spaghetti casserole.”

“That’s a coincidence because I happen to be making spaghetti. But I don’t know what spaghetti casserole is. Maybe you could show me.”

“I remember she used leftover noodles and sauce, and then put them in a baking dish with cheese and bread crumbs. Maybe white cheese—maybe.” She stopped and looked puzzled. “I don’t remember, it was so long ago, and I haven’t done much cooking in the meantime. There was something else. Maybe sour cream.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Bernadette said.

Oso was pleased to see her smiling at Agnes. However, her polite smiles at an old woman didn’t mean she had forgiven him, and it became clear she hadn’t when she looked up at him with a withering glance.

He shrugged and yanked off his tie. It was time to change out of his clothes. He certainly didn’t have time to fight against the resentment of a woman who had chosen to remain in his house, knowing Agnes would be coming home today. She’d even started their dinner!

Clearly, curiosity and the link with the past had caused her to stay. But as far as he was concerned, she wouldn’t capitulate because capitulation would mean weakness. Nobody wanted to appear weak. He stopped cold at the entrance to his room. Was he projecting? Surely not. And yet, she had apologized to him and freely forgiven him over the years. Even when he was a complete asshole.


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Chapter 28: Puzzle Box

In which the abominable snowman has been released!

Stephanie squirmed in her seat. She wanted to bring up the subject of Agnes in order to answer the questions Uncle Gilly had implanted in her mind, but she didn’t know how to broach the subject.

For that session, her granddad had chosen to meet with her at a refurbished Satellite Coffee across Central from the University of New Mexico’s Mandatory + education buildings. The familiar sight and sound of the end of school year protestors dismantling professors’ and administrators’ cars almost rang nostalgic in Stephanie’s ears. Sometimes, she wished she’d chosen to finish out her schooling. But most of the time, she was thankful she no longer had to focus in the midst of chaos.

One young man was standing on the back of the university’s lobo statue, shouting about oppression. He had to pay for his own anti-anxiety study aids, or some such. She didn’t quite catch it.

“This will be the muddiest recording yet,” she pointed out.

“You’ll have to type fast to keep up. Are you going to sip tea all day, or do you want to start?”

Stephanie had astonished even herself when she’d ordered a cup of smoked green tea. Her granddad wasn’t the only one influencing her taste buds, after all. “I’m ready to start whenever you are. By the way, you are going to finish your story about Agnes, aren’t you?”

“How do you know there’s more to the story?”

“Uncle Gilly brought it up.”

“Good old Gilly, always deflecting. I’ll bet he didn’t talk about the fire, did he?”

“No. Can you imagine what it must be like to have that hanging on him all his life?”

“Yes, yes, I do. Okay, if you want to hear the rest of the Agnes story, here goes. But I have to warn you, it’s not a pleasant story.”

Oso woke next to Bernadette with a bad taste in his mouth and a raging headache. Outside, the morning doves cooed in the courtyard that was tangled over with trumpet vines and swept by the branches of a small walnut tree. The shadows of the sunset-colored home smelled like a river, with the swamp color running and the tiles on the floor. His peaceful Albuquerque house should have given him the rest he needed, but instead, he felt a yawning emptiness inside.

Last night, he’d invited her over to his place for the first time—in an official way, for dinner. For discussing important subjects, such as whether they should get married. This was an important topic to him, as he now had a motherless child who’d become attached to her. She had told him he didn’t understand what discussing important subjects meant. She had accused him of bowling her over with ultimatums, just as he’d done when he was eighteen.

Samson, being that he lived with Oso at that time, had tried to intervene. He no longer took every human gesture of threat as a real threat; he’d wizened and tempered his reactions.

At one point, he’d pulled Oso aside and asked, “I don’t understand the logic. Is this fight you’re having over etiquette? How can I help?”

“It’s about human emotions, Samson. You might just want to go to bed and let us hash it out.”

“I have emotions, too, and you told me never to use them. You told me to suppress them, as my emotions caused harm. It sounds to me like your emotions are causing harm.”

“Go to bed,” Oso snapped. He wasn’t in the mood for a Minä lesson on the proper use of emotions.

“I’ll do what you say, but I would like to understand. Is this woman not the mother of my half-brother, Adam? Why is she angry when you tell her she should be what she is?”

Samson had spent the last two years primarily in Tomi Corp and Oso’s home. The man was an innocent. “She’s not Adam’s mother. I would like her to be because Adam’s mother is gone. We’ll figure it out.”

“I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me Adam’s mother was gone.” The man’s brow creased in sadness. “Adam is like me, without a mother. I will go to bed at your request. If you need a mediator, wake me.”

And then after Samson had left the room, they’d hit the alcohol and the conversation had raged into a fight, and they’d both collapsed in the black hours of morning. Like clockwork, Oso had woken at his usual five A.M. It was a big day, a work day. He should not have invited her over.

It was more than the average work day. Unbeknownst to her, he’d been regularly visiting Agnes. Actually, she knew about his visits and approved of them, as long as Agnes was mentally stable enough to cope with them. She was a psychologist, after all, and thought primarily of each person she interacted with as a patient, some with greater needs than others. Oso’s need to right past wrongs, therefore, couldn’t be allowed to upset Agnes’s far more fragile mental world.

What Bernadette didn’t know was that Oso, too, had been viewing Agnes as a patient. His PhD, which he’d eventually finished, was in the research aspects of neurology—that is, diagnoses of any kind were not his purview. Despite that, his intention was to fix Agnes in the same way he’d raised quasi human life from the dust of the earth, as it were.

So for the past few months, he’d been interviewing her and giving her puzzles to gauge her ability to store memories in the short or long term. He’d had her IQ tested multiple times, and determined that she had an above average intelligence, in the 120-130 range. That had surprised him, to be honest, as it went against his base childhood prejudice that she had a sub par intelligence.

But her high working intelligence had helped him in his proposal to the state-funded care home: he would take her on as a patient and be her caretaker. When he’d explained to her how he could he help her, she’d understood the potential for disaster as well as hope. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember having consented and signed the papers. The fact was she had understood in the moment when she’d signed. The state home, which had taken on Agnes as a lifelong burden—she was only in her thirties when she’d gone to live there—was only too happy to loose the burden.

What had convinced Agnes was the idea of hope. She lived in a world of sensation, influenced by only the moment she inhabited and a long ago past with a gaping chasm between it and her. It was possible for her to live happily and adequately in that moment, well-fed, taking part in games and activities and listening to music. Except she wasn’t happy.

She wasn’t happy because she was always confused. Her memories were composed of images from childhood. Her inability to create new memories meant she had zero imagination for the future. And that was what had clinched her signing the paperwork. In that moment, when Oso outlined the possibilities while reiterating the risks, she pushed aside the risks and imagined a future where she had hope.

Hope ultimately propelled Oso forward that morning, in which emptiness and, yes, he had to admit it, shame raged inside him. He had bowled Bernadette over. He couldn’t deny it. But he also couldn’t deny that his plan for Bernadette was mutually beneficial to them both. It was the right plan. He trusted Bernadette; he was still attracted to her, as he could see the same girl with the long legs and tiny waist in the older woman. She was still attracted to him—why wouldn’t she be?—and he would fill that one hole in her heart that was leftover from her decision to remain single after widowhood: the child-free well.

Hope pounded in his veins as he forced himself to the gym, despite the late night and headache. When he returned, Bernadette was awake and sitting at the table, slumped over, with her head in her hands. Samson was hovering over her, holding a tray of what appeared to be a glass of Oso’s vitamin-mineral powder mixed in water, a stack of toast, and two aspirins.

“No, Samson,” she said. “I don’t want anything yet.”

“According to my knowledge, you’re dehydrated. Your skin tents on your hand. Also, you asked for the aspirin.” When Samson saw Oso, he turned to him. “She’s frustrating me, Mr. Beñat. She won’t allow me to be helpful to her. Should I use force, as I feel inside that I should? I think I can force her without using harmful emotions.”

Bernadette groaned. “Just leave the tray, and I’ll do what you told me to, all right, Samson? I know your advice is sound.”

Oso kissed Bernadette on the cheek. Life would be good with her because she was a sensible woman.

“I love you,” he said, and went in the kitchen to put on the kettle. He pressed the button on the coffee grinder and filled the french press with the fresh ground beans. “Finish the coffee while I’m in the shower, will you, Bernadette?”

“You’re welcome,” was the small, quiet response he caught as he hurried past her.

Life was good; he was taking Agnes to the hospital ward of Tomi Corp that very day. Soon, he would have Bernadette, Adam, and Agnes living in his home, and he would care for them all. And next week, his other three children would fly in to Albuquerque for their summer vacation with him.

He made quick work of his shower, as it was going to be a hectic day. Too many necessaries on his mental list, not enough time. If the people surrounding him complied with his schedule, the day would go smoothly. If not, he would have to ignore the people around him.

As he dressed in his freshly pressed pants and shirt, Adam ran in his bedroom, wearing nothing but his underwear and a t-shirt. In the background, Oso could hear the kettle on the stove whistling shrilly. Adam thrust a Lego object in his face.

“Try to open it!” he shouted, his grin spreading from ear to ear.

“Not now, Adam. I’m getting dressed. Will you see where Bernadette is? Tell her to turn off the stove.”

Adam ran out of the room, leaving the Lego gadget behind for Oso to stumble over, which he did. Surprisingly, it didn’t come apart as most Lego contraptions did. Oso picked it up and carefully placed it on the bed. It was some kind of box. It looked nondescript, no particular color scheme or pattern. Still, Oso knew better than to treat an engineer’s unimpressive-looking invention with disdain. He’d worked with engineers for a very long time.

The shrillness of the kettle suddenly ceased, and the smell of coffee wafted through his open bedroom door. When Adam returned, he was dressed for school, if a pair of too-small pants added to the ensemble could be considered official school clothes.

“Samson’s making coffee for you,” Adam said. “Berna’s sitting at the table eating toast.”

“Ah, well, if Samson doesn’t mind,” Oso said. “Why don’t you tell me about your box?”

“It’s a trap box. You have to figure out how to open it.”

“A trap box? You mean, like a puzzle box?”

“No, kind of. But it’s a trap. See what’s inside.”

Oso examined the box. Finally, he shook it, and out slid a plastic rod that could be placed in another gap that pushed out another rod…Adam, antsy, grabbed the box and showed his dad how to open it by using the second rod to release the hook holding the door closed. Inside, a Lego Abominable Snowman waited.

“You let out the monster!” Adam shrieked.

“Where’d you get the idea to make a puzzle box?”

The boy jumped up and down with anticipation. “There’s this internet site with Lego machines, but you made me get off the computer, and I couldn’t watch the videos. Theirs are probably better. I want to watch the videos to get some more ideas.”

“After school. You can tell Bernadette I gave you permission.”

Oso whistled as he wandered toward the smell of coffee.

“I’m glad you’re in such a good mood this morning,” Bernadette said.

“That didn’t sound as sarcastic as I’m sure you meant it.”

Bernadette shook her head and gave him a small smile. “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I’m glad you’re in a good mood because it’s good for all of us. Don’t you agree? It’s a lot better than you screaming at me at midnight and threatening to wake up Adam.”

“Adam sleeps like the dead. And let me remind you, you screamed right back.” He poured himself a cup from the french press. “I need to keep the good energy flowing all day. Today’s the day I bring Agnes to Tomi Corp.”

Bernadette looked up sharply from her own cup of coffee, which, apparently, Samson had poured for her. “Why are you taking her there?”

“We’re going to regrow her brain,” he said matter-of-factly, as if it was that simple.

“You’re…what? Repeat that, please.”

“You know we’ve been trying to fund human trials. We’ve been successful with several generations of mice, and now it’s time to move on to humans.”

“Agnes is not a mouse. Do you really think that’s okay, experimenting on an old woman whose life you—we—already destroyed? A woman who can’t remember anything from one moment to the next?”

“Yes. She consented to it. I’ll also be her caretaker once she’s recovered.”

“And you’ve been planning this for how long now, without consulting me?”

“Do you consult me regarding the work you do with your patients?” he coldly asked. He could hear the coldness creep into his voice, and he didn’t like it. And he also couldn’t stop it.

“No, of course I don’t. You know it’s not the same. You know it’s not. And her caretaker? Just last night, you wanted us to get married. There’s no way I’m marrying a man who does whatever he wants and doesn’t even consult me when about to make huge life changes that will affect me. I mean, when were you going to tell me that I’d be living with an old woman—that is, if she lives through your experiments on her?”

“Don’t start shouting at me again, Bernadette. I don’t have to ask your permission to do anything. And besides, it’s already done. I’m now her legal caretaker.”

“You’re a fucking maverick, Oso. You can’t do this to an old woman. I suppose Gilly knows about what you’ve been planning?”

“Gillilander and I are business partners. Why wouldn’t he know?”

Bernadette pursed her lips. “I should’ve guessed that’s why you were visiting her. You can never leave things alone. You aren’t God, Oso. Why do you think it’s acceptable to experiment on a woman who isn’t mentally able to understand what she’s getting herself into?”

“First explain to me why it was acceptable for her childhood doctor to perform an experimental lobotomy on her.”

“I don’t have access to those files. How could I possibly know that?”

“He did it to stop her grand mal seizures. I contacted the doctor. Doctors take risks all the time with the consent of the patient or the patient’s legal guardian. In this case, it greatly reduced the frequency of her seizures, but destroyed her brain’s ability to store memories.”

“What’s your point?”

“You asked me why it was acceptable. Experimentation is necessary for the advancement of medicine. I won’t provide you with any further explanations. Why should I? I will, however, be grateful for your assistance in watching over her mental health.” He cleared his throat and tried to infuse warmth in the creeping cold he felt inside, the undeniable emptiness that continuous action couldn’t stop. “Your skills are beneficial to me in more than one way,” he quietly added.

Conversely, she raised her voice. “How dare you use me like this!” She rose and began to forcefully clear the table of dishes, clattering them noisily in the sink. “I will not be used. Good luck finding a more compliant woman to fix your problems. Because I’m not going to do it, and I can’t imagine why any woman would.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Bernadette. The world is full of compliant women.”

“Scrupulous, money-grubbing, amoral women. Sure. Have fun raising your son and caring for a vulnerable geriatric with one by your side. Oh, but I forgot. You’re amoral, too. In my professional opinion, you’re a sociopath. Let that be a warning to you. A serious warning, Oso. You need help.”

“On the contrary,” he said, and then stopped talking to hustle Adam away from the Legos and into the bathroom to brush his teeth. “On the contrary,” he repeated as he picked up his briefcase and keys. “I live by a very strict moral code. Don’t forget to lock up when you leave. I assume you’ll watch Adam after school until I can engage a nanny to replace you. Being that you aren’t amoral.”

“Is it time to go to work, Mr. Beñat?” Samson asked.

“Yes, it is, Samson.”

“I feel that Bernadette is behaving emotionally right now. I have never seen her this emotional. Will she cause harm?”

He really needed to take Samson out into the world more often so he didn’t have to explain these things. After all, Samson had been “born” two years ago. How could he still be this naïve? “Don’t worry about it, Samson. It’s just the state of women to be emotional.”

“And it doesn’t cause them harm as it does for men?” Samson studied Oso, and then Bernadette, and then Oso again. “I’m not sure I understand emotion. From my observation, you are the one in a constantly agitated state. This behavior is unusual for the woman you’ve chosen to be your son’s mother.”

“Don’t try to understand,” Bernadette said, the sarcasm fully present this time. “Just do as your master bids.”


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Chapter 27: Little Bear

In which translucent legs burn but aren’t consumed!

Oso spent many hours speaking with the Minä on that first birthday, until he finally checked his watch and realized he needed to collect his son from Mrs. Weaver, who had taken him home with her. Gilly had left hours before, after he realized he couldn’t get a word edgewise in the conversation between these two men of like minds.

Oso stepped out into the late evening, and as the Tomi Corp building was located in the Northeastern Heights, he was caught by the spread of summer lights in the valley. What he and Gilly had accomplished that day suddenly overwhelmed him, and he leaned against a stuccoed column, feeling the prickly pieces of stucco jutting into the back of his sweat-drenched button-down. The air smelled like the accumulation of the day’s heat.

And then it hit him—the tingling warmth that spread from his hands to the rest of his body. The air swirled around him as though he had entered a place of ether outside of time, a cloud of omniscience. He waited to remember.

He was in an upstairs room, a lingering taste of meat, chile, and bourbon in his mouth, with another taste of…of her. Bernadette. After all these years, he couldn’t erase her fragrance and taste in his mind. He held her in his arms, smelling her sweet perfume. It was dark, and she was like a shadow, but she was still very real. A physical presence—and a ghost nonetheless. And he wasn’t sure whether the memory brought him sadness or joy. It held long ago memories, too, of a different, thinner, younger Bernadette. She was both young and old at the same time.

He rose from the bed where he held her and drifted out of the room, into the shadowy interior of a living room. On the couch, Adam lay with a blanket pushed down to his feet and his thumb in his mouth. He drifted toward the front door, as the broader world waited on the other side, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He was tired, for a start. Not that he was tired as a general trait or rule, but that he was tired in a satisfied, I have accomplished much way. Not that there wasn’t more to accomplish. There always was. Each success had its own sense of completion, however.

So he turned back around and reentered the dark, peaceful place where Bernadette slept.

He jolted awake from the memory and swallowed hard. His mouth was drier than it had ever been. It felt like he’d been on a multi-day bender before stuffing his mouth with a blanket and sucking on it. With weighted feet, he walked back in the Tomi Corp building, using his key card, as the doors had been locked for the night, and purchased a bottle of water from the Aguamagica machine. He drained the bottle and refocused his mind.

He did not want to get into a relationship with Bernadette. He’d had no intentions of doing so, but that was his memory. Could he change his future memories? Wouldn’t that defy physics? Didn’t future memories, in themselves, defy physics?

Despite his fully conscious thoughts, his feet walked right back out of the building and to his car. And then his car seemed to magically drive to Bernadette’s. With a jerk, he turned instead towards Mrs. Weaver’s house. He needed to pick up Adam. And besides, Adam had been in the future memory.

Good God, he thought. No, he didn’t believe in God. And yet, he seemed trapped in a maze of fate that ended at Bernadette’s apartment. Once Adam was buckled into his booster, the procession to Bernadette’s apartment continued.

Once at the buzzer outside the downstairs office door, his instinctive energy failed him. He and Bernadette had a messy past. Throughout high school, they’d maintained an on-again, off-again relationship. In the interim known as “off-again,” he’d filled his life with dating college girls, while she’d pursued no one else. She was the perfect female: beautiful, and his alone.

Except she hadn’t been his alone, and he was delusional to believe she had.

All these years later, it was too bad for Oso and not for her. Bernadette, at least from outside appearances, was content with her life as a single. The memory of her rejection was like the shop door in front of him: it locked him up tight. Inside, it was dark, as her business was closed for the night. Up above, where she lived, a light glimmered through the gap where the curtains weren’t drawn tight. Adam wiggled in his arms.

“Why aren’t we going inside?” the boy asked. “I wanna see Bern’dette.”

Why aren’t we going inside? It was her voice from the summer after graduation, as they stood outside San Miguel church in Socorro.

The night before, they’d gotten drunk together off the Beñat home brew, and then went out to his dad’s workshop to find the pot stash. After a while, Oso was so stoned he’d ceased being able to stand up, and he’d consequently spread himself out on the bench as though he were his dad’s latest project, which was absurd. His dad didn’t treat his children as projects.

Bernadette was sitting cross-legged, her bare brown limbs settled on the sawdust floor, busying herself sorting stray nails. Her beautiful soft brown hair hung down over her face; the straps of her tank top fell away from her shoulders.

His spinning brain suddenly couldn’t fathom leaving her behind when he went off to college. That was why the words burst out without thought: “Marry me,” he demanded. “Come to LA with me.”

She let out a peal of silvery laughter, as though he’d told the funniest joke in the world. And then she told him no.

The day after, cranky and hungover, they’d risen from Oso’s futon, to which they’d both managed to stumble and fall asleep on, and gone out walking in search of sustenance. Because neither had much money, they ended up in the courtyard of the historic mission after a breakfast of McDonald’s fries and Coke.

Bernadette was Catholic and attended mass every week with her family. Oso often wondered what it would be like to have a family that did meaningful things together. Oso read the plaque dedicated to San Miguel, who had, by legend, slain a dragon.

“Why aren’t we going inside?” she asked.

“Because I’m not Catholic,” he said.

“That doesn’t matter. The sun is hurting my head. I want to hide.”

And she tugged on his hand to pull him through the arched entryway, past the heavy doors. She dipped her hand in the holy water before making the sign of the cross. At least it was cool inside, with its thick adobe walls that rose to the belfry. The church had been ringing the hours to draw people into its peace and shadows for hundreds of years. They slipped onto a back pew, where they could gaze up at the Christ figure above the altar. Strangely, the place calmed him.

“What do you get out of this?” he whispered.

She shrugged. “It makes me feel loved,” she said.

This surprised him, as from his perspective, she had a loving family. “Don’t you feel loved when you’re not here?”

She shrugged. “It’s not the same. Look around you at the statues.”

“The statues love you?”

“No.” She sounded a bit exasperated. “If you walked around the church, you’d see they tell a story of a guy who sacrificed himself for others. I think that’s beautiful, and it makes me feel loved.”

“What if it’s made up?”

“It’s not. And even if it was, you can’t believe every story of self-sacrifice is a myth. Sheesh. Even you rushed in a burning trailer to rescue someone.”

His body stiffened. It had been five years since the fire, and they were under a vow of silence. They did not discuss this subject, not even after the nightmares wouldn’t go away. Over and over, he woke up in a cold sweat, the image of her leg burning in the fire. It was always the leg, though sometimes it looked like a real leg with charred skin, and other times a prosthetic. And sometimes it was buried under rubble. Once, he’d dreamed he’d run back into the trailer to rescue the leg, and in the middle of the flames, it glowed and didn’t burn. It was a translucent and ergonomic robotic leg, the likes of which he’d never seen. It was nothing like what he and Gilly built in the outbuilding.

Oso swallowed hard and fixed his eyes on Christ’s gaunt white figure with three women at his feet adoring him. Otherwise, he might get distracted by Mary holding the Christ child to the left of it and start crying. He’d spied the Mary and child statues when he first entered, and their images stabbed him in the chest. He didn’t think his mother had ever held and comforted him that way. Not after the fire. Not ever. Not that he needed it. It was the principle of knowing she should have tried.

Bernadette didn’t say anything else, but instead laid her head on his shoulder. In response, he put his arm around her. It felt nice, innocent. Maybe that was her way of saying yes to him after she’d mistakenly said no. Maybe her refusal the night before had meant nothing, but an inability to respond correctly because she was too high to trust her feelings.

“You’ll come to LA with me. Right? You have to.” He couldn’t help jumping to conclusions. It was his way. He remembered the future, didn’t he?

“You always just demand things.” She lifted her head from his shoulder and groaned. “I’ve already registered for a psych degree. I need to learn how to fix your bad behavior, Osito.”

“Don’t call me that. And, yes, fix my behavior. But please, please, come with me.”

“Can’t come with you. Stay here with me. We belong here.”

“No, I’m going to UCLA. Don’t ruin everything.”

“I wouldn’t even know how to ruin everything.”

Oso rubbed his head, which was threatening to split apart. “After I get out of student housing, we can find an apartment.”

“Oso, we’re eighteen. We can’t get married.”

“Actually, we can. It’s legal.”

“I’m going to State in like two weeks. I’m all ready to move to Las Cruces.”

“Come with me, instead. I’m the most devoted person you’ll ever meet. When I make a decision, I stick to it. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I’m not ready to get married. Can’t we just let it rest a little and visit each other at breaks?”

“No. If I leave for California and you don’t come with me, it will be over. I won’t carry on a long-distance relationship.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Yeah, it is. I’m not into playing around. From now on, when I’m done with a relationship, I won’t look back. You won’t get another chance.”

“Oh, well, then. Too bad for me.”

Too bad for me. She hadn’t sounded like she meant it at all. He was the loser, not her.

“I want to go inside!” Adam shouted, startling Oso from the memory of rejection. Then the boy lurched in Oso’s arms, swinging for the intercom button and hitting it squarely. Adam knew what to do, unlike his dad. He’d been there enough times.

Soon enough, Bernadette’s gentle voice drifted through the speaker. “How may I help you?” she asked.

“Hey, Berna. Adam wanted to come over for a visit.”

“Did he? How sweet. I’ll be down in a minute to let him in. And you, too, if you want.” She laughed—a gentle, ringing laugh.

“Did Adam take the advice?” Stephanie asked her granddad when he wound down his narrative, and it was clear he didn’t want to go further in the story.

“What advice?”

“I guess it wasn’t advice exactly. Samson told him someday he would kill a serpent and collect his bride. Did he?”

“He got married, didn’t he?”

“Does that involve killing serpents? Did you kill a serpent and collect your bride?”

“Who do you think I am, Perseus? I asked your grandma to marry me a second time, more than twenty years later. Finally, she said yes. Mostly because she wanted to be Adam’s mom. That was one of her regrets, choosing to live a life of singlehood after her husband died. She wanted kids.”

“Why did she decide to be single?”

“Who knows? She claimed she repented of her lustful ways after I debauched her, and she didn’t want to get married a second time. That left her almost a nun until I came along. She was always religious.”

Stephanie packed up her things, and she looked out the window in search of Mark. “So does it go one generation on, one off? Because my parents didn’t raise me to be religious.”

“A disappointing outcome. I’m sorry about that, Stephanie. I wish they had.”

Stephanie wasn’t sure it mattered either way. She suspected that religion wouldn’t have discernibly altered her parents’ behavior, her mom’s extreme sense of responsibility, and her dad’s lack of it.

“Call Uncle Adam,” she told her car as it made the drive back down to the valley.

This time, however, neither her aunt nor uncle answered, and she had to leave a voicemail that sounded about like this: Did you slay the snake like Samson told you to, and by the way, what do you remember from that day?

“There’s some specific questions for you,” Mark said. “Nice journalism, Steph.”

Stephanie lay back in Mark’s arms and relaxed. She didn’t care that he mocked her. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “Do you wanna come over to my parents’ for dinner? My mom’s an okay cook, and my brother Javi will probably be there. He usually slips in to eat, and then slips back out again.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet your brother to talk shop. He with his virtual reality reporting, and me with mine. Not to mention he sounds crazy.”

“He’s really very normal.”

“I’ve also been waiting for you to invite me to your parents’ house for months. This is a big deal. Unless you take all your boyfriends there.”

“All what boyfriends? Since when do I have boyfriends? All I’ve done since high school is work. You’re it.”

“You were dating that dweeb in sales when I was hired.”

“He’s not a dweeb, and we went on three dates. If that. And I dated another journalist who’s no longer there. And there was that guy I met while covering the Minä refugee camp. I mean, there’ve been a few, but three dates seems to be my max before one of us gets bored. It’s kind of disheartening.”

“So you’re not bored with me yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“Gee, I feel so honored. All I have to do is hold on until you get bored with me, and then I can take out that cute blonde at the coffee shop.”

“What cute blonde?”

“The one who gives me free coffee to thank me for all the work I do disseminating truth. The look in her eyes says she’ll never get bored. Or boring, if you catch my meaning.”

Was it possible to roll her eyes with her lids closed? She jabbed him in the waist with her elbow because the eyeroll hadn’t worked at relieving the pang of jealousy that rose up inside. How dare a cute blonde at the coffee shop give him free coffee? What coffee shop was this, anyway? And how could Mark afford coffee? Oh, wait, it was free. What was she thinking?

“You’re as bad as my granddad.”

“You’re granddad is the best man I’ve ever met. I want to be just like him.”

“What, a billionaire?”

“Not really. Having money would be great and all, but what I admire about him is that people listen to him. He has so much charisma.”

“You do, too, Mark. I mean that. And people listen to you because you disseminate truth.” It almost came out in an even, nonsarcastic tone.

He jabbed her in the waist this time, and then proceeded to wrap his arms around her and leave his hands hovering on her bellybutton for the duration of the trip. She sighed.


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Chapter 26: Snake-Slayers United

In which the riddle is composed of one cat, one snake, one man!

The assistant hovered in the doorway, peering into the office space with impassive eyes, under the shadow of a black top hat fringed by feathers. For quite some time, she didn’t budge. Oso’s back was to her; if he’d been facing her, he would almost certainly have asked her to leave. That was his usual reaction.

Stephanie wasn’t sure why she hung about or even wanted to. Perhaps she was simply human and didn’t want to be left out. Perhaps she felt lonely being in this house all the time with an elderly billionaire and a Minä.

Wait, what? What was she thinking? Looking at that impassive face, Stephanie was sure the icy blonde was a Minä. She had to be. Her granddad had almost said as much. But then a flicker of something else appeared on the woman’s face: jealousy? Longing? Those were complex emotions for even an intelligent Minä. And Gilly had vehemently denied that the assistant was a Minä. His tone had hinted at something else…something else entirely.

“Stephanie!”

She jumped.

“Are you ready to start? I’m not getting any younger.”

Mark, who was sitting beside her, nudged her with his elbow.

“This is what happens when women fall in love, Mark. They can’t focus on anything but their lover.”

“Is that true, Stephanie?” Mark asked.

“I’m not sure why you think I would know.” She readied her teletyper and cleared her throat. “I’m ready to start.”

“They’re also great at denial,” Oso said.

Stephanie rolled her eyes, which felt juvenile, but appropriate. True, she probably was in love with Mark at this point, but she hadn’t been thinking about him. These days, she thought of almost nothing but Granddad and Gilly. Mark was simply a welcome relief.

“Where’s Myra?” she asked to change the subject.

Her granddad honestly looked confused. “Who?”

“The woman at the…? Oh, never mind. You probably picked her up just for the game.”

“Oh, that Myra. She gave me a shave at the barber’s because my regular was on vacation. She was cute, and I asked her to be my date.”

Stephanie nodded because she didn’t know how else to respond, and glanced over at Mark to see if he was as flabbergasted as she was. He wasn’t.

Oso slammed his cane down. He growled, “This section of the story is too important for you to be daydreaming through. Do I need to ask Mark to leave?”

“I’ll leave,” Mark said, jumping up from the couch. “I’ll practice some soccer kicks with Devon. I’ve been watching videos on how to do traditional maneuvers. Not choreographed ones, but strategic ones. I can’t imagine why the world gave this up.”

Stephanie waved at his retreating back. She would no doubt find herself doing that frequently if she committed herself to him. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and although approved prescriptions had been mandated by the school system, somehow his negligent mom had perpetually forgotten to give them to him. Without the medicine, he’d never been cured. And here he was today, barely able to sit through an interview. And yet he always managed to maintain his focus on analyzing games. Hmm.

The day they brought their first Minä to life was a hot one. Having lost his daycare provider, Adam was running through the maze of the Tomi Corp building hallways, with the secretary, Mrs. Weaver, stalwartly chasing him. Bernadette had let him know that she, too, had a business with money to be made. She could only shift her schedule around so much for a man who was…a man who was…?

They’d been seeing a lot of each other lately, and especially after Cameron left. After living with him for a few weeks, Cameron had moved herself into a tiny apartment funded by her divorce settlement with Gilly. Occasionally, she mentioned the beauty of hard work and seemed mildly interested, in an offhand theoretical way, of getting a job at a coffee shop where she could chat with customers and make a little money for herself. But that was as far as it went: that and a collection of vineyard photographs that cost her money rather than earning it for her. The days when she’d held a golden yellow plastic shovel and pretended to help her father dig the earth were long gone.

Oso had spent the previous night with Cameron, though he didn’t know why. He was lonely, and she was attractive, and she wasn’t a stranger. And Bernadette was still holding him at arm’s length.

They’d spent the evening examining Cameron’s photographs. She had very good taste. Maybe a career in art curation…? The look she gave him could have frozen lava. He had stumbled into that which we don’t talk about. That is, he gathered, she already had a career, and it involved the curation of men such as himself. But this was not a career she discussed, as one did not discuss one’s careers as an art curator with the objets d’art themselves.

Bernadette was not a curator. She was, in fact, the opposite. She developed her business as a therapist and avoided relationships with men. He didn’t want to think about Bernadette. He did think about her—he thought about her more and more since he’d moved to Albuquerque and become primary caretaker of his fourth and youngest child, whom he also couldn’t stop thinking about because he could hear the boy’s shouts every so often, echoing down the hallway.

For the purpose of bringing their first non-prototype Minä to life with the use of infrasound, they needed an atmosphere of silence, however. Oso therefore gave the secretary some money to take herself and the boy out to lunch and a park—maybe the zoo or aquarium?—for a good long while.

Their first real Minä was structured to be a man. His body and mind were created in the image of masculinity in every way but possibly the most important: he was not able to procreate. He had functioning hormone-producing glands and organs, but the ability to procreate was a complex issue on both moral and physiological grounds. Both he and Gilly had unanimously agreed (one of the few times) that they didn’t want their “children” to be purchased for the purpose of sex.

The Minä was a burly man, like Oso, with broad shoulders and powerful thighs. He wore a full beard and an attractive mane of dark, wavy hair that covered his extra-large ears. They had nicknamed him Samson because his hair and whiskers had been designed to pick up on the slightest vibrations in the air around, much like animal whiskers. He had a working brain stem that connected his mind to the rest of his body—it had been designed off the most primal reptilian brain. Surrounding this was a complex of biological material supported by interconnected nanotubes. His brain hemispheres were balanced, with extra neural connections, a dense neural network between brain hemispheres, and an extra ridge in the mid frontal lobe.

As Oso and Gilly and their intern, who was a quite unattractive—in fact dumpy—graduate student named Andrea, wheeled Samson along on a gurney from the cold storage they’d preserved him in, the Minä’s body twitched like a patient suffering through drug withdrawal tremors. He wasn’t alive, not yet, but his body was waking to a biological reality.

In their basement laboratory, they’d created a room with glowing sun bulbs rising up on the eastern wall. The room glowed with morning light, highlighting a complex array of plant life modeled after the high desert of New Mexico. There were chollas in full waxen bloom, desert willows exploding in pink flowers, prickly pears bearing fruit, clumps of small junipers; there were rabbits and swallows and mice scampering through prickly homes; there were even rattlesnakes, which meant that all scientists entering wore boots.

They wheeled the gurney into a vestibule that was a safe space to ensure the wildlife didn’t escape into the office complex. Mrs. Weaver had nearly fainted when she’d heard there were rattlesnakes living in the building somewhere, even if only in the basement. Oso had been forced to drag her along to the basement for a tour, to show her the vestibule and how it was nearly impossible for the wildlife to escape. Nearly was not the same as impossible, though, and she never quite got over her jumpiness, checking in the kitchen cupboards before she made Oso’s coffee, and below her desk before she sat down each morning.

They wheeled the gurney into the desert scape and opened Samson’s closed eyes. The morning light would enter through his retinas and begin activating essential hormones in the brain. But first, before this activity could occur, his mind had to be woken with infrasound. The intern gently brushed the bushy hair behind the Minä’s large ears, like a mother smoothing down her child’s hair. The hair would aid in Samson’s detection of infrasound before the ears tuned in.

Oso swallowed hard and took a deep breath. The room was climate adjusted to a summer morning. It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t particularly cool, either. Rivulets of sweat ran down his back and trickled down his forehead. He was at his most intense, and he tended to sweat very heavily at such times—any other man might have been embarrassed by the social faux pas of sweat stains under his arms. Oso, however, didn’t care. After the work was done, he would simply change his shirt.

He looked over at Gilly, and their eyes met. Gilly suffered from nerves but didn’t appear nervous, wasn’t biting his nails or shuffling his feet or slouching. He stood straight up, his back rigid, he jaw set. Gilly was ready. They were all ready.

“You should start the infrasound concert,” Gilly said in a near whisper, which was completely unnecessary.

“Are you sure you want me to?” Oso asked. “I was going to suggest you do it. You were the main designer. You should bring your child to life.”

“Samson wouldn’t exist without you. You should do it.”

“Why don’t you hold hands and do it together?” the intern said with a typical eyeroll more befitting of a teenager than a twenty-something graduate student.

She was an ugly woman, both inside and out, but she was competent and did what she was told—usually. Oso patted her on the back, as he didn’t want to destroy the peaceful moment. Then he walked to the soundboard and instigated the silent concert. Infrasound affected most people on some level, even if the sounds themselves were below the audible range of the human ear. It affected the animal world, as well. There was a sudden scampering at the start of the concert.

Oso felt a little seasick as the silent environment began, little by little, to wake up the Minä. The infrasound created a sense of something, a shadow leaning over his shoulder or swirling around his form. If he believed in ghosts, he might have called the shadow a ghost, an invisible personage come to haunt his soul. Except that the haunting effect was instead on Samson, whose open staring eyes began to dart back and forth. Samson’s hands twitched, his knees bounced, his chin jerked convulsively.

A slight breeze ruffled the Minä’s hair. Startled, the Minä sat up abruptly and looked around him, fear lighting up his dark eyes. Then he jumped from the gurney and vaulted himself behind a scrubby juniper.

Oso eased the infrasound slowly to an off position, and the presence in the room instantly relaxed.

“Samson,” he called. “Come out from behind the tree.”

“I don’t think he’s going to come out on his own,” Gilly said.

The intern stood by with her clipboard, scribbling notes. She tended to use a plethora of colorful adjectives in her reports.

Oso quietly approached the Minä’s hiding place, peering behind the bush at the cowering man. He held out his hand.

“I’m your creator,” he said. “You can trust me.”

The Minä’s brain having been trained in the laboratory to recognize Oso’s voice, even before consciousness, Samson took Oso’s hand, and Oso gently guided him from the hiding place. The intern handed Samson a robe to cover his naked body, and then the three of them led the Minä to a table they’d laid out in the center of a field of blazing marigolds. They uncovered the dishes they’d prepared for him, which included a roasted pheasant, and fed the man. At first, he gagged, but the eating reflex soon kicked in, and he hungrily tore the meat from the bones and then grunted for more.

“Later. We don’t want to overload your digestion,” Gilly reassured him.

“I’m still hungry,” the man said, and they all gasped, as those were the Minä’s first words. A flash of anger crossed Samson’s brow, and he slammed his fist on the table.

“Sheesh,” Gilly said. “What a barbarian.”

“Why don’t you just give him more calories?” Oso suggested. “He’s fully formed, unlike a newborn baby. His digestion should be working at its peak right now.”

“My female prototype had constant stomach cramps when you tried to stuff steak down her gullet, and had to start eating a vegan diet.”

“She ate a vegan diet,” Oso said, “because you influenced her and turned her into a religious nutcase.”

“That just goes to show religion is for idiots. She was verifiably a low IQ version of a Minä, and I led her like I was God.”

The discussion proved useless, however, because before they could stop him, Samson had knocked the covers from the dishes and helped himself to a full plate of food, which he proceeded to shovel in his mouth.

Andrea grimaced. “The female prototype was a vegan because she had a sense of delicacy. He’s just being a typical uncivilized man. Men. Truly obnoxious, and totally obvious once you bring them to life as adults with no influence from parents.”

“I pay you to take notes, not voice your opinion,” Oso said.

Gilly glowered. “Yeah, shut up, Andrea. Your delicacy disgusts me.”

Samson grunted and looked up at Gilly, matching glower for glower. Then he wiped his greasy hands on the tablecloth, rose abruptly from his chair, and stood silently, listening. His hair seemed to be vibrating with life as the simulated morning sun lit on it. From out of nowhere, a calico cat sauntered into the marigold clearing, its coat warm with sun. It rubbed its silky body against Samson’s leg. Samson stooped down and caressed the cat.

“Where’d the cat come from?” Gilly whispered.

Oso shook his head. He knew—he’d brought in a couple of cats to keep down the rodent population, but he didn’t want to disturb the moment by saying so. As even Andrea was gawking, Oso nudged her gently to prompt her continued note-taking. Gilly, being the barbarian he was accused of being, lightly punched her on the shoulder. Hence proceeded a silent poking and glaring war between Gilly and Andrea. Oso sighed. He clearly didn’t have just one child—Samson—but three. Finally, Andrea balled her fist and took a full swing from her beefy shoulder into Gilly’s face, knocking his glasses from his nose.

Samson swung around, his feelers perceiving a threat, and took Andrea down to the desert scape floor with one deft movement, and pressed his knee into her back.

“Samson!” Oso growled. “Stand down. She’s not a threat.”

Samson let her go. His eyes narrowed as Oso reached for his wrist to count the pulse rate. Oso detected that Samson was in pure instinct mode, his breathing shallow, his pulse quickened.

“Let’s pretend for a moment that Andrea’s a threat,” Oso said quietly, his fingers lightly on the Minä’s wrist. “Gilly can take care of himself. He designed you. I created you, but he designed you. We are, in essence, your parents. Andrea is one of many interns we’ve had from the local university. Andreas come and go. We’ll probably let her go after this and find another one, but she certainly isn’t a threat.”

Andrea made a small, disgusted noise from behind Oso. Far behind. She had backed up to put Oso between her and the Minä. Oso was the only one large enough to take Samson down. He was also the only one equipped with a homemade tranquilizer gun, loaded and ready to go. Gilly had forgotten his, as he was wont to do, and Andrea was opposed to weapons on principle. They shouldn’t be creating a creature they would have to take down with a weapon, she had asserted at some point. Oso had told her to find another job, but she’d kept coming in to work, anyway.

Samson’s pulse slowed as silence regained its hold on the desert. The cat, which had mysteriously appeared, mysteriously disappeared.

“Remember, your primary goal, as wired into you by your designer, is to be a consultant for humans. You are mankind’s helper.”

Silence again. The wind soughed in the branches of a nearby desert willow. As the day warmed to its artificial environment, the cicada songs began. The silence was so profound, and the desert so overpowering that, at first, they didn’t hear the rattle. None of them was particularly scared of rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes preferred to remain hidden in any environment. The snakes didn’t, whatever the case, like humans. They lived in their holes, and they crept out to sun themselves in the early morning and late evening, and they hovered around the watering holes, where they could catch the tastiest morsels.

But this snake crept in slowly, slowly, closer to the silent group. It seemed to want to say hello to the newest arrival of life under the desert sun. And then it stopped abruptly behind Andrea, curled up, and raised its head, ready to strike if anyone approached.

Andrea shrieked. She was in an awful position. Gilly had sat back down at the table after she’d struck him; Oso was on the other side of her, protecting her from the Minä. Or protecting the Minä from her—Oso wasn’t sure. In hand-to-hand combat, she would lose, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t damage the expensive goods wrapped in expensive skin. Who would protect Andrea from the snake? Oso was not interested in a petty lawsuit.

“Andrea, please back slowly away from the snake,” Oso quietly spoke. Even though he kept his tone even, he could feel the Minä’s pulse begin racing again.

Before he could stop him—before Andrea could move from her petrified position—Samson leapt to the table, grabbed the bird-carving knife, and decapitated the snake. Then he picked up the lifeless body, complete with rattle, and draped it around Andrea’s neck as though it were jewels. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.

Andrea swayed as though she would faint. “I-I-I,” she stuttered. “Ha-ha-have…”

Samson, on the other hand, was vibrating. His entire body looked like it would burst from the energy of his first kill. He leaped a few times, still holding the knife.

“Put down the knife, Samson. The threat is gone,” Oso said.

“Out of the rattler, something to rattle. Out of the pretty, something to prattle,” Samson shouted, the knife raised.

Gilly hung his head and pressed his fingers to his bruised nose. “We can’t take him out in public.”

“Guess my riddle! Guess my riddle!”

“What is deadlier than a baby? Who is more foolish than a graduate student?” Gilly guessed.

“All right. Enough.” Oso put the Minä down by suddenly punching a pressure point above his elbow. Samson crumpled in surprise pain. “You did well, Samson, but you need to put the knife down.”

Samson looked up at Oso in awe and dropped the knife.

“Let’s go, now. We’ll take him to the hospital ward. Andrea, Gilly?”

Gilly stood up to follow. Andrea, however, didn’t move. There was a snake draped across her shoulders, and she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

“Andrea,” Samson said. He took her hand—apparently, the evolution from woman as threat to woman as mate had occurred within a few moments of life—and began to lead her out of the desert.

Andrea looked back at Oso, clearly horrified that she was both wrapped in a dead snake and being led by a man who had knocked her down to the ground only moments before.

“Mr. B-B-Beñat?”

“I’ve got your back, Andrea.” Oso snorted and followed the couple.

“Never trust anyone who says they’ve got your back,” Gilly said. “They might have a knife.”

Andrea looked back one more time to see that Gilly was now carrying the bloody snake-slaying knife. The horror on her face was so complete that Oso guessed he wouldn’t have to fire her. She would quit, and then find a safe place to experience her PTSD. Just in case, he would have a meeting with his lawyer about the incident, but he didn’t perceive that she would be a problem child as long as she knew Samson existed in the world.

Several hours had passed in the desert world, which meant that several hours had passed in the cold exterior world of the corporate building. After all, there was no time glitch in the simulated environment. Scientists, engineers, and their assistants and secretaries, who had been waiting impatiently for the quartet to exit the desert, peered out of their offices as they passed. Just in case, Oso kept his hand at his tranquilizer gun. He was afraid Samson might become spooked in the “real” world. However, Samson seemed to have found his purpose in life as he clung tightly to Andrea’s plump white hand. For her part, Andrea had probably never had so much male attention in her life.

Oso tried to direct the Minä straight to the hospital wing, where he’d be living for the next few days, while doctors observed him. It wasn’t a prison—okay, it was a prison, albeit a temporary one meant to ensure that Samson would become a safe, healthy, and helpful consultant to the human race. But, although Oso barked orders at Samson, the Minä was intent on continuing the parade. He took the longest route possible, passing through every portion of the building with his prize, won in warfare with a snake, walking by his side.

“Force him to the hospital ward,” Gilly spat. “We don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Just let it go for now. I don’t want to get his flight or fight instinct going again.”

“Two words: tranquilize him.”

“Last resort,” Oso said. “For now, we humor him.”

When they arrived in the lobby with its plant box greenery, skylights, and pretty baristas in the cafe, Oso commanded that they halt. He didn’t want Samson walking out the front doors and into the broad world. Thankfully, Samson obeyed. Unfortunately, it was at that moment that Mrs. Weaver walked through one of the turnstiles with Adam. Adam was carrying a very large stuffed elephant and sucking on a lollipop.

Mrs. Weaver looked at the group, confusion etching her face. Of course, she’d seen the inert Samson and knew what he looked like. But she seemed not able to process the visual information in front of her.

“Mr. Beñat?” she said.

“Samson, meet Mrs. Weaver and my son, Adam. Adam is…your brother.”

“My brother?” Samson stooped down, pulling Andrea with him. “Hello, Adam. I’m Samson.”

Adam stared, the lollipop stuck in his mouth.

“I have slain the snake, Adam, and collected my bride. Someday, you will too, little brother. I’ll teach you.”

Adam nodded and squeezed the elephant tighter. Samson ruffled the boy’s hair, a smile widening on his face.

“I’m hungry,” Samson declared yet again. “Would you like to find a bird to tear with me?”

“The boy just ate,” Mrs. Weaver firmly declared.

“Are you our mother?” Samson asked the old secretary.

Mrs. Weaver’s worried face remained. She looked to Oso for support. As he didn’t give it, she said, “No, I’m just a friend. The two men who created you are behind you.”

Samson seemed to be considering this information, as he looked back and forth between Adam and Mrs. Weaver and Gilly and Oso—and even at the frumpy woman by his side. He had existed in a delta wave somnolence for some time, as his mind grew into shape, developed by information and memories that they had fed him. In essence, his brain was fully formed with the nature of being as much as any highly sentient person was informed by being. Hence, he understood the nature of male and female coming together to create life.

“I have two…fathers?” he asked. He seemed to recognize something in this, and he nodded. He understood the nature of male and female, but he also understood that he was a first order of created being—that he was a progenitor of a kind, and was therefore unique. “No, I have a creator and a designer, but I have no parents. I am a special man.”

“Yes,” Oso said. “You are special, Samson, by the very definition of the word. You are a new kind of species of man.”

“You are a snowflake,” Mrs. Weaver added.

“But I’m not a progenitor. I have heard my mind tell me this, but I can’t be a progenitor by the very definition of the word. I can’t have children.” He abruptly dropped Andrea’s hand.

For her part, Andrea looked mildly disappointed.

“I’m tired,” Samson said.

“You are a snowflake,” Mrs. Weaver reiterated.

“I am a snowflake,” Samson said.

And he kept repeating the phrase like a mantra as Oso and Gilly redirected him toward the hospital ward, where he could rest and eat. Andrea trotted along after them. Although they expected her to quit after the events of the day, she didn’t. She, in fact, kept the rattlesnake as a trophy, but being that it had no head, it made for a poor taxidermy project, and she eventually settled for keeping only the skin and the rattle on top of the bookshelf in her Tomi Corp office.

If she hoped Samson might make more overtures to her as his bride, she was in for disappointment. After he’d meshed the ideas of being nonreproductive with the integral ideas of male and female, he set about to do what he’d been created for: to aid humans with their work, dull as that work might be. As the first of his kind, he became Oso’s helper, as well as the face of Tomi Corp.


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