The first sight Oso Beñat witnessed on an overdue visit to his Tech Expo was a twenty-seven-foot-tall lumberjack bearing his own likeness. Once upon a time, the lumberjack had towered over the Vietnamese May Cafe on Louisiana Avenue, a great big ax in its hands. Then, in one fell swoop, a windstorm had torn the forearms and ax off, leaving Bunyan with stumps. As Bunyan was on private property and couldn’t be repaired through public funding, it remained stumpy until a wealthy artist purchased it, refashioned the face to resemble Oso’s; restored the arms and ax, and had it erected outside the Expo building.
The statue gazed stolidly into the blue sky of Albuquerque, ignoring the group of much smaller protestors who hacked away at its lumberjack boots. The protestors were like all of their ilk these days—annoying, like whining mosquitoes that evaded squishing.
Fortunately, their hacking did little good, as they had, to all appearances, lacked the stamina to complete the fifty pages of paperwork required to buy a potential weapon, settling instead for the symbolic gesture of beating the lumberjack with the padded toy variety.
After Oso directed his self-driving classic electric roadster to park itself in his VIP spot, the octogenarian, a frail six-foot version of his counterpart, stood leaning on a cane rather than holding an ax. It was always better to ignore the protestors, even those who were attacking him. Unfortunately, his Minä-brand android Devon never could ignore the potential for fun. The Minä ran over, whoop-whooping, and banged on the lumberjack’s legs.
“You’ll need a stick,” Oso said, tearing a piece of plastic tubing from the poorly constructed protest zone surrounding the ankle-hackers, who paused briefly to let out a litany of screaming insults about Oso’s being an establishment shill.
With zeal, Devon swung his newly acquired pipe at the giant’s ankles. The protestors backed up for their own self-preservation—one of them right into the staunch form of Oso himself, which, unsurprisingly, caused the small man wielding a soft ax to cower like a child and run off. But that was all right. The protestor’s cause still stood a chance at relevance, as there were a hundred more versions of him around. There were always more, especially when a big event loomed right around the corner.
And one did loom. In precisely three weeks, two days, and seven hours, Tomi Corporation was set to release their much anticipated line of retro androids that had one great skill: delivering to their owners tacos, made with Nutrilla brand yeast product, direct from the Tomi Corp brand Taco Toasters. This marketing maneuver was meant to bring healing to their image, as the androids were a patchwork of ebony and ivory, possessed no noses, and had small lumps in relevant areas that gave them an aura of being either male or female.
From advanced biological Minäs to taco waiters, it was a long fall into oblivion for the company Oso had founded. A coalition of young humans and their Minä-android buddies were gearing up to coalesce on Tomi Corp’s home city of Albuquerque and protest the release of the retro androids. Their main reason for protesting was the same as it had always been: after seventeen years of mandatory education, they couldn’t find the kind of employment that would allow them to purchase $500,000 taco-bearing vanity bots.
“All right, enough fun, Devon,” Oso said. “Relinquish your weapon. We’re here for a serious reason.”
“Tech Expo!” the Minä shouted, jumping up and down, his unruly hair flopping away from his endearingly large ears. All Minäs had large ears. That was how they were created.
“Yes, but first, we’re going to meet my granddaughter. Do you remember Stephanie?”
Of course, Devon wouldn’t remember. Minäs lived perpetually in the moment, and it had been almost a year since Oso had visited the girl, as he’d holed up in his home in the Sandia Mountains to heal from the death of his wife, Bernadette. For a while, Oso thought he’d die in his sad, downcast hibernation until Stephanie called him and begged for his help in her career. First, a press pass to the Expo. Second, an official interview with him.
The Minä was game for any kind of potential excitement, though. “Stephanie!” he shouted, still jumping up and down.
Oso smiled tolerantly. And then he froze when he caught sight of Stephanie across the street. She was the spitting image of her grandmother—short, but with long legs, tiny waist, doe eyes. He shook his head to clear the ghost image, but there she remained. The young woman had grown up a lot in the last year.
The shouting behind him cleared his heart of the bittersweet sensation that filled it. His granddaughter, being a Journalist Of Integrity for the Albuquerque Daily, could very well be in danger. The protestors had a list of rules to follow, which were posted on yellow signs, most of which had been torn down and were fluttering along the sidewalk.
Remain in your designated identity space inside the yellow police tape;
Make certain businesses within reach of the designated identity space accept liability for any damage done to their storefronts;
Expect passersby to carry the requisite medical insurance in case of injury from walking too close to rocks being thrown at them.
It was the last rule that concerned him; the Journalists Of Integrity, or JOIs, were not popular with the standard media crowd. To one side of the Expo center’s turnstile doors, the JOIs were rioting because their papers hadn’t been accorded the Truth In Reporting designation. Stephanie would be safe with them, if they bothered to look at her press pass. To the other, the mainstream journalists were rioting the existence of the Journalists Of Integrity by burning JOI papers, including the locally popular Albuquerque Daily. At this point, they didn’t appear to be roughing up any people, but they’d been known to for the sake of Freedom of the Press.
Across the street where his granddaughter was tentatively weaving through the crowd, however, a much larger group of rioters were smashing dummy shop windows because the CEOs of Tomi Corp were rich and had created mindless robotics to unemotionally do the jobs their window-smashing counterparts used to get paid for. Most of them hated Oso, as he was the original CEO of Tomi Corp, but some of them saw him as a hero or, similarly, a martyr to government oversight as well as a man who had done great things before retiring to a quiet life in the mountains.
Oso didn’t know what they thought of JOIs with visible press passes swinging from their necks, who were forced to step inside the protest space to avoid the traffic on the street. Stephanie appeared calm enough as she pushed her way through a line of topless women who had pasted protest stickers on their nipples. One of them had written FREE MY NIPPLES across her chest; another STOP RACSISM. It appeared the protestors were ignoring Stephanie, until a group of men bearing signs that said STOP FACSISM surrounded her.
“Devon,” Oso snapped. “Stay where you are. I’ll be right back.”
“Stay? Stay here? I should stay here?”
“Don’t leave the square you’re standing on.”
Oso hurried across the street. The protestors seemed in mellow spirits today, and he wasn’t especially worried. Nonetheless, he was prepared to rescue Stephanie if worse came to worse.
He bent down and ducked under the yellow tape, his daily tai chi style exercises serving him well. With his cane, he prodded people aside, pausing only to tell one of the young topless women to stop being a fool and put a shirt on.
“Equality,” she said. “You put yours on first.”
He curled his lip at her. It wasn’t worth it to explain that he was, in fact, wearing a sport coat due to the gusty spring winds, under which was layered a shirt.
“Excuse me,” he told her and waited for her to move aside. And then he repeated the mantra until the rest of the crowd parted like the Red Sea at his forceful tone.
Finally, he shoved aside a STOP FACSISM man, who was in the process of yanking Stephanie’s press pass from off her neck.
“Hey, watch it!” the man shouted at Oso, before a look of recognition dawned in his eyes. “Oh.”
“Yeah, oh. Return the press pass.”
“I was just trying to figure out who sent her. We don’t allow reporters in our protests.”
Stephanie let out a deep, gusty sigh. “Granddad, I told him three times I was here to cover the Expo. He didn’t believe me, even though my press pass says so.”
“All right. No need to be dramatic, either of you.” He turned to the illiterate protestor. “Apologize to my granddaughter, and we’ll be on our way.”
“I’m sorry,” the man mumbled.
“I’m sorry, Miss Gonzalez, just as her pass says.”
“I—I’m sorry, Miss Gonzalez. I couldn’t read the pass. I can’t read.”
Oso shook his head. “Seventeen years of schooling.”
“I only went to twelve,” the man said, hanging his head in shame. “My parents pulled me out early.”
Satisfied with the lack of danger from FACSISM man, Oso guided Stephanie back under the yellow tape, and across the street to where Devon waited. The poor Minä was staring at his feet that were trapped disconsolately in the square.
“Hey, Devon,” Stephanie said, and hooked elbows with him.
Devon tried to kiss her, but the positioning made it awkward. “Girl,” he said. “Pretty girl.”
The bittersweet sensation filled Oso’s chest again. Up close, Stephanie resembled her grandmother just as much, even down to the rather too large derrière. Except Bernadette wouldn’t have been caught dead in the shabby, unfashionable clothes Stephanie was wearing—old tweed skirt, weird braided leather flats.
“I don’t know, Devon,” Oso said. “She has a fat ass. And her clothes could use some work.”
“But she get points for not protesting with her shirt off,” Oso concluded with a snort of amusement.
The thought of Stephanie taking her shirt off was clearly too much for the young Minä, and Oso had to physically restrain him in order to enter the Expo. Security was tight there. Security was always tight, like a pair of pants one couldn’t quite peel off.