Chapter 10: Degrees of Freedom

In which All Hail Robot is code for Barbie Terminator!


It was one of those days that was bound and determined to deflate Stephanie’s confidence in herself. For a start, she’d risen at the crack of dawn in order to dash off a query letter and send it to dozens of licensed literary agents, before she went to work creating bylines and writing yawn-inducing local news stories.

But when she sat down, she couldn’t think of a single clever hook. Hours later, she had written and erased a single paragraph fifty times. All she had going for her, really, was her career as an unacceptable journalist and her connection to Oso Beñat. He was her hook. She had to accept that. And so she sent the query off, hesitantly, to five of the most likely candidates. After that, she had one hour to produce her assigned work for the Albuquerque Daily. All the while, as she produced barely-acceptable work, she kept reiterating in whispered undertones that her granddad was her hook. Everything would work out because of him.

But once she’d driven out to his house, the one and only Oso Beñat wouldn’t take Stephanie’s phone call. She’d been barred from entering his premises, even though she had set up an appointment with him. So she tried again to call him from the comfort of her car, and again she failed at the most basic task of getting him on the phone. His assistant, who hadn’t existed before Grandma Berna’s death, wouldn’t put him on. The woman boldly claimed that Mr. Beñat was old and convalescent and couldn’t take visitors. She had a distinct chill to her voice when she said it.

“I’m his granddaughter. I have an appointment with him,” she patiently explained to Dame Assistant through the call box on the gate.

“Sure you are,” she said. “You all are.”

“Everybody is my granddad’s grandchild?”

“He either had a lot of children, or there are a lot of liars in the world.”

Well. It was true; the world wasn’t the beautiful land of Nod it used to be. Scamming for cash was the way of people in a crap economy. Nevertheless, she couldn’t understand how pretending to be Oso Beñat’s grandchild would benefit anyone. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford a DNA test.

She sighed. She wasn’t making headway with the gatekeeper, and she suspected her granddad wouldn’t be happy with her for being late to their mutually agreed upon appointment. Desperation mounting, she determined to break in. She would just…climb the gate. It wasn’t exactly the climbable kind, what with its iron bars and sharp end points piercing the sky high above her head. Then there was the problem of her hip-hugging skirt, not to mention the treadless dress flats.

And didn’t billionaires with locked gates generally have rabid guard dogs that would tear intruders limb from limb? He’d owned a pair of rottweilers once upon a time, but she hadn’t been up here much in the past few years. The air was, fortunately, curiously silent of barks. She heard the call of a vulture, not that she was an expert on bird sounds. It sounded predatory, though, and she could see its black bird body wheeling in the deep blue sky.

She could do this. She began walking the circuit of the fence. Anybody who was looking out a window would see her, as the grounds were a meticulous xeriscape. The house itself was low to the ground, solid, and plain—like a fortress with large modern windows. Its only elegant touch was the handful of arches that led into a central courtyard.

The act of sneaking around gave rise to fear. Her granddad, despite her familiarity with him, was fearsome. Indeed, she had a niggling doubt about these interviews: What if she learned something about her granddad that would change her vision of who he was, who she was, who her grandmother and mother were? Would she want to publish the truth and nothing but the truth?

No, nothing could change her perspective of him. He was a good man. A generous man. He’d helped her parents out of numerous scrapes. With her thoughts back in a reassurance loop, she took a deep breath of the fresh pine air that was to be found in the Sandias, high above Albuquerque.

Soon, she heard water splashing from the fountain off the rear porch. She continued, following the sound of the water and an undetermined scratching noise, until she abruptly halted at the sight of someone reclining in a deck chair and staring out at the view, which she had suddenly become part of. It wasn’t just any someone, but Granddad himself. The scratching noise came from Devon, who had apparently been told to rake the stones around the fountain into a Zen stone garden. Or something. When Devon saw her, he guffawed and jumped up and down.

“Hey!” her granddad shouted. “What are you doing?”

His tone was hostile enough that she guessed he hadn’t recognized her. She smiled and waved.

He took off the glasses he was wearing, put aside whatever he’d been reading, and grabbed for the cane leaning against his chair. He was up faster than she could yell out a greeting. On his way to ostensibly shoo her off, he stopped cold a couple of feet from the fence.

“Stephanie?” He shook his head and wiped his eyes, fished in his pocket for a different pair of glasses, and then put them on. “There you go again, looking like your grandma’s ghost. You shouldn’t scare an old man like that.”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“What are you doing? You’re late. I thought you chickened out.” His gaze was disconcerting—cold, steady. No wonder people were afraid of him.

She pinched her lips together, trying desperately to maintain her smile. “Granddad, I’d really like to do this. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“First piece of advice. If you want to make it in this world—” He reached out with his cane and banged an iron rung. “Show up on time. And don’t go nosing around trying to sneak in my yard like a thief. Act legitimate. Always keep your business in the open and above board. Got it?”

“Yes, Granddad, it’s just that…”

“You may call me sir, Mr. Beñat, or don’t address me at all. As clearly, being my granddaughter has made you lose sight of your professionalism.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Beñat. It’s just that your assistant wouldn’t allow me to talk to you. She reminded me that you were old and convalescing.”

“So you thought you would sneak in and climb through the window and take advantage of a convalescent old man?”

It was springtime, and consequently not that hot, but her body temperature was getting hotter by the minute. She could feel sweat stains collecting on the sleeves of her shirt.

“Something like that. Except you clearly aren’t convalescent.”

He laughed out loud. “That must have put a crimp in your plans.”

“What about the interview, the bio? You agreed to it.” She smiled and went for a sincere, maybe even slightly naïve, tone. To be honest, she was slightly naïve about the world, as she’d never left her home state. And she was as sincere as she knew how to be. “I’d much rather not climb over gates or into windows. Could I please come in through the front? Above board and all that?”

His penetrating gaze, direct to the eyes, weakened and drifted to her shoes. He hunched forward and leaned heavily on his cane, as though his age had just fallen over him, draped him like a blanket. It would seem he couldn’t keep up the domineering facade too long. He took a deep, shaky breath. And then he chuckled under his breath. He was playing with her. The jerk.

“Stephanie, didn’t I advise you to get yourself a decent pair of heels? You got legs like Berna, but you don’t know what to do with them.”

“Granddad, I mean, sir, Mr. Beñat. Why would I do anything with them? These are my work clothes. I really am trying to be professional.”

“It has nothing to do with me. It should be your life method as a journalist to show off your legs. Because the average man likes to admire nice legs. That’s why I hired a woman who dresses well as my assistant, whose jealousy forces her to field my phone calls. That’s also why I have a private phone she’s not allowed to answer.” He pulled a remote control from his pocket and fiddled with it. “The front gate’s open. Go to the front door and knock like you’re an actual relation of mine and not an upstart. Beñats do not sneak around.”

“Yes, I know. But why didn’t you give me your private number to begin with?”

“I didn’t know my assistant would be so stupid as to turn away my own granddaughter. I told her you were coming. She added the appointment to my schedule.”

“I’m sorry.” She lowered her head in humility, though she didn’t know what she was sorry for.

He banged a rung with his cane again, this time so hard, Stephanie jumped at the noise. “Opportunity knocks. Run, before I change my mind.”

“Yes, Grand…sir!” She called out and hurried off as fast as she could go in the tight skirt. It was a good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. She was a klutz and would have fallen on her ass if she’d been wearing anything higher than an inch.

By the time she made it around to the front gate, she was slightly out of breath. The gate was, indeed, open. She walked in, confident this time, and marched up to the door, where she lifted the knocker and gave the door several loud bangs. No answer. Maybe he hadn’t hobbled that far yet. She banged again. This time, the door opened to a tall, skinny blonde wearing a headscarf that fit on her head like a cloche. Stephanie knew nothing about fashion, but even to her, the scarf seemed an odd choice.

The blonde looked down on the shorter, darker woman, her lips pursed in distaste. “May I help you?”

She handed the woman her press pass, complete with name and credentials—something she’d failed to do before, as she’d not thought it necessary. As a child, she’d practically lived her summers in this house. She’d played in the indoor pool and run around the hallways as though they didn’t belong to a wealthy tycoon. “I’m here to see Mr. Beñat. I have an appointment.”

“There are no appointments on his calendar for today.”

“You might want to double-check that.”

She was about to shut the door in Stephanie’s face—Stephanie could detect the glint in the steely blue eyes—when Mr. Beñat, followed by his buddy Devon, finally strode up with his cane.

“That’s my granddaughter. You will treat her with respect,” he snapped.

“Stephanie!” Devon shouted with glee.

The assistant opened the door and stepped aside, as though graciousness was her general method. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

He picked up his cane and gently smacked the woman’s scrawny ass with it, to which, the woman barely responded. Devon, of course, copied, smacking her ass with his hand because he didn’t have a cane. That time, the assistant couldn’t hide her annoyance.

“Go make us some coffee,” her granddad commanded. “And Devon, go play. I’ve told you never to touch my assistant.”

Devon’s face fell. “I want to see Stephanie,” he said.

“You were created to obey. Now do as you’re told.”

“Isn’t it too late in the day for coffee?” the assistant said, her voice oozing with the condescension of a care nurse. “You never sleep if you drink it past ten.”

“I didn’t hire you to tell me what I can and can’t serve my guests. Go make the coffee.”

The woman’s eyes darted in Stephanie’s direction. “Would you like any other refreshments, or just the coffee?” she demurred.

“Bring a sampling of fruit and cheese. This working girl clearly needs a little more meat on her bones.”

First she had a fat ass, then she was too thin, and now she needed more meat on her bones yet again. Huh. Some men just couldn’t be pleased. At the sound of fruit, though, her mouth watered. And her stomach growled—loudly.

He motioned for her to follow him. “You live off crumbs, m’dear, and I don’t mean food. I mean your articles. I meant to talk to you about them the other day. You write tawdry stories about pop stars and actors. You write the whole gossip page. Granted, under a few pseudonyms.”

Well, she couldn’t deny it, even if the truth made her wince. “And bylines. And occasionally something more serious, like the retro bot release by Tomi Corp. That’s why I’m here, remember? I’m going to change the face of journalism.”

“You should be careful trying to change the world. You may have the power to do so. I did. And then it came back to bite me.”

“Some things are worth changing, don’t you think?”

“I thought so, yes. I made one central mistake.”

“What was that?”

“If I answered your question now, it would be telling the story from the end.” He shook his head and fixed his penetrating gaze on her. “I decided to go along with this because I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve been contemplating hiring somebody to write my book for some time.” He waved his hand at her dismissively. “I don’t know if you’re good enough, yet. I’ll determine that as we make progress.”

She opened her eyes wide in alarm. Hadn’t he already said…?

“Stop!” he said in his forceful manner. “You have those great big eyes, just like Berna. Bambi eyes. Don’t play the large-eyed doe game with me, batting your lashes in wondrous surprise.”

“I wasn’t. I…”

“Don’t pretend to be Miss Innocent with me.”

Stephanie tried to keep her gaze level, her eyes at normal width, no lash-batting. “I’m just here to get original contacts. I’m not playing games, I promise. I can’t conduct searches. Since you know everything already, you should know that, too.”

By searches, she meant on the various offshoots of the original net, including on the investigation channels. They were time-consuming, costly, and heavily regulated by the government. In other words, any search activity coming from a newspaper was subject to censorship, unless one went on the shadow net. The shadow net contained all info for all time, both true and false. But if one went on the shadow net, one might lose one’s job in journalism and/or go to jail.

Without a lot of resources, the story range went from local interest to tawdry gossip, just as Granddad had said. And farcical news stories. The farcical news section was tucked in between the gardening and the business section. Most people didn’t realize it was actually a farcical news section, as the disclaimer was in small print at the very end. Despite that, it was supposed to be humorous, and for that reason, Stephanie didn’t bother trying her talents there. She had no talent for humor.

“Money can buy you private access to just about anything. Not that I have the need for it any longer. I used to have friends who stayed one step ahead of the government. I didn’t care to keep those contacts, or I’d pass them along.”

She didn’t know what to say. “Granddad, I mean, sir, thank you. Since you’re familiar with my stories, then you know I write short and catchy summaries. Please give me a chance on your biography and allow me to become good enough as we go along. I’m not a real writer…yet.”

He snorted. “A real writer, huh? I prefer short and catchy. No need for any of that profound literary nonsense a ‘real writer’ would use.”

She was about to protest, but the blonde assistant drifted smoothly in on her three-inch heels, gracefully balancing a wooden tray. She set it down on the coffee table in between Stephanie and her granddad, and hastened to pour out a cup of coffee for him, as well as fix him a plate of sliced peaches, halved apricots, blueberries, and all manner of cheeses Stephanie didn’t recognize. Gorgeous cheeses—from the Hague Marketplace, no doubt, which was a pan Afro-Asian-Euro deli for the rich. Occasionally, Stephanie splurged and bought a small package of American cheese from the regular supermarket chain everybody else shopped at, the Drop the Load store.

“Cream or sugar?” The assistant managed to maintain a delicate balance between iciness and politeness.

“Both. Neither.” Stephanie couldn’t decide. “Both.”

She poured Stephanie a cup of coffee from the urn, placed it ceremoniously on the end table, and then delicately splashed cream in the top. With a pair of tongs, she dropped in one, then two lumps of brown sugar.

“Could I have one more?” Stephanie asked.

The icy blonde pursed her already thin lips and dropped in another lump.

“Thank you.”

To that, the ice queen gave no response. After fixing a plate of fruits and cheeses, the assistant withdrew, her heels echoing down the hall. Granddad held up his finger. When the footfalls faded, he put his finger down.

“I’ll have my assistant put together a box of fruits and cheeses for you. Remind me.” He let out a sigh. “I could use the excuse that my memory’s going, but it isn’t. I still manage to remember what’s important.”

“That’s good. Otherwise you might have to make up your memoirs, and I want the real deal.” She took a big slurp of coffee. “Like this coffee.”

“You’re unlike your Grandma. Berna liked to spend money. She had a real gift for it. A sort of wild, passionate look in her eyes when she bought gourmet foods and liqueur and plied me with them. And I accepted them. To be successful, you must not only be healthy, but you must look the part.”

“Let me write that down,” Stephanie said, and wiped her now blue fingertips on a napkin. She quickly typed out the phrase. “I’ll put together a list of aphorisms as spoken by one of the most successful businessmen of this century. I could publish it as a companion edition to your biography. This is going to sell. I’ll revive your image, Granddad. Mr. Beñat. I’m really good at this sort of thing.”

“The grandkid’s a businesswoman, and she has a real gift for humility, too.”

“I just know what I’m good at, that’s all. That’s about all I know.”

He sipped his coffee, but appeared disinterested in the food. He’d always had a reputation for being a bit of the bulldog—big and tall and barging in with the force of his personality, even though his musculature would have been enough. Now, he was lean, almost gaunt. Yes, gaunt. He was almost ninety for heaven’s sake. He probably didn’t go to the gym, despite the bravado with his cane earlier. And that was the weird thing: his gauntness highlighted his eyes to such a degree that his gaze was perhaps just as intimidating as his physique was when he was younger.

Stephanie decided she wouldn’t allow him to intimidate her. That was all.

“Well, I do,” she feebly added.

“You youngsters don’t know much about anything these days. You haven’t known anything for over a hundred years. Your predecessors were paragons of knowledge and wisdom compared to you.”

“Well, true, I didn’t finish the mandatory seventeen years of school, but I did well while I was there.”

“And what did you learn before you dropped out?”

“I learned to memorize information for tests so I could go on to core college. I didn’t want my parents to pay the opt-out fine.”

“How’d that work out for you? I don’t seem to recall you going to core college. Or your parents sniveling around for the tuition money.”

Stephanie shrugged. She didn’t want to talk about this subject, as it had brought her to nearly being disowned by her parents. Aside from that, his gaze wouldn’t let up, and it made her squirm. “You already know I didn’t go. I was good at being clever, and now I’m one of the highest paid journalists at the Albuquerque Daily.”

“Good for you.” Was that a look of approval on his face? “And what are your future plans?”

Up to that moment, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t have her granddad’s skill for business. She was happy to stay at the paper as long as they would have her, not to mention continue paying her enough that she could keep her apartment.

What did she want? Mark? A better career? What was a career worth these days? With the improving, but still quite low employment rate for any jobs outside the fields of robotics maintenance, pharmacy, education, or war, she thought of herself as lucky to be a JOI member of the Free Press League.

But at that moment, she suddenly knew the answer. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a legacy. She wanted a connection. “To learn my history,” she said. “Of my connection to New Mexico. To this earth. And I’m going to start with you.”

Granddad cast her a small, sad smile. “That’s a more reasonable answer than I expected, Ms. Gonzalez.”

“Stephanie Mirabel Gonzales-Beñat, you mean. Did you really mean that was a reasonable answer, or were you being sarcastic?”

“Life is too short for sarcasm. It’s too short for endless irony.” He paused and furrowed his brows as he watched her type his words in her teletyper. “When it comes down to it, the legacy we leave is vitally important. We don’t have to be important people—that’s not what I mean. But we all leave legacies. Even the smallest act sends a message to future generations.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, Granddad,” she said. “Oops, I mean Mr. Beñat.”

“That’s all right. You may call me Granddad again. I was a little harsh earlier. You’re also allowed to criticize me. I can take it.”

“All I was going to say was, aren’t you starting at the end?”

He picked up his cane and banged it against the floor, which naturally didn’t startle her this time. “I’ll start wherever I want to,” he shouted. “And as it happens, I want to start where we left off.”

“Okay, then.”

She drained the coffee, which tasted a bit like candy, and set aside her food plate. Food could wait if Granddad was ready to talk—or dominate the conversation. It was all the same to him.

The boys, Oso and Gilly, had tired of remote shooting with Gilly’s robot. Oso insisted they begin a new bot, and Gilly was ready, as well. Together, they figured they could create a robot that had various working joints.

“He should be able to ride a bicycle,” Oso said.

“That’s the stupidest idea you’ve had yet. Why a bicycle? He should be able to drive a car.”

“No, stupid. The bicycle demonstrates the use of ankle, knee, hip, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The joints just need enough flexibility for that. If we can do that, then all we have to deal with is momentum.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s all. Because every full-body robot I’ve ever seen can freaking run like in ‘Hail Robot’.”

“Who cares about ‘Hail Robot’? Sci fi writers are window-lickers.”

Gilly narrowed his eyes. “Shut up about things you know nothing about.

“I suggested he ride a bike, not run. It’ll be easy.”

“Yeah, because creating joints with that kind of DOF is so easy.”

“DOF?” Oso asked.

“Now who’s the window-licker? You know nothing. DOF stands for degrees of freedom. The joint has to have just enough freedom, but not be able to rotate past that. There are robots on the market that can already do that, anyway. What would be more difficult would be programming it to ride. It takes more than just momentum, stupid. It doesn’t have a human brain.”

“But we could program it, though, right?”

“I don’t know. Could you? It sounds complicated to me. I mean, do you honestly know how to program a robot to ride a bike?”

“You have an uncle who could help us, right?”

“Sure, I have lots of uncles who are off the Res.”

For Gilly, that was more than slang. His mother was from Alamo, and as she had graduated from high school with honors, she had made the effort to leave her home behind by, oh, moving an hour away to Socorro and attending New Mexico Tech. There, she met Gilly’s father, a man Oso had never seen, but whose name Gilly was cursed with forever. It was even worse when combined with his mother’s last name: Gillilander Herrera. It was not a name one accorded with success.

So with the help of several uncles and Oso’s dad, who knew how to both build and wire things, they created a bicycle-riding robot. It was not life-sized like Gilly’s silent but loyal sharpshooter. In fact, it was barely bigger than Alex’s Barbie bicycle, which the boys stole ostensibly for research purposes. Through Alex’s protests, they learned that the bike was designed to move Barbie’s articulated legs.

It seemed an obvious concept once they’d observed it. Barbie didn’t, after all, possess a brain or working muscles. But sometimes what seems complex—how does one program a robot to ride a bike?—becomes obvious through observation. The robot didn’t have to be programmed to ride. The remote control-operated bicycle would move the robot’s articulated legs. No, what became fairly obvious was that the robot would have to be programmed to do something far more complex: calculate for tilt and adjust for tilt by using the bicycle handles.

After a number of months—the entire rest of the school year, to be exact—they were ready to debut their bicycle-riding robot. Meanwhile, both their grades had fallen into the toilet, and Alex was given the assignment of tutoring them. This was a losing proposition, as they had broken her Barbie bicycle, a treasured toy from her younger years, after slamming it over and over again into the walls of the Herrera outbuilding for their research. The Beñat kids, being impoverished, didn’t have many nice toys. Alex had stored the Barbie and bicycle on her closet shelf so that the younger kids couldn’t access either. Oso was technically her younger brother, but he was bigger and taller and had stolen the set by force.

Therefore, Bernadette was enlisted to be the tutor, as she was a straight-A student who always, always seemed so willing to help. With a sweet smile on her face, which fooled even Oso, she fed them both true and false information from the books they hadn’t read, and they finished the year with Cs and Ds for all the classes she was able to tutor them in, which excluded math. Regarding math, she was not at their level.

Gilly earned an A in math because he always did, and Oso squeaked by with a B-.

“Grandma fed you the wrong answers? That is so awesome!” Stephanie clapped in glee.

“Yes, because we ignored her all year, and she had a crush on me.”

“How do you know she had a crush on you?”

He snorted. “It was obvious. And here you are as proof, our grandchild.”

“I wish you had passed your trait of self-assurance onto me. How did you just know things like that when you were twelve? I mean, aside from these supposed future memories you had.”

His face fell, although he managed a small wan smile. “I knew a lot, but not enough. I drove your grandma away for years. She married another man and was a widow before she finally relented to marry me. I’m tired, Stephanie. I’m done for the day.”


“We’ll have another session tomorrow, after I’ve rested.”

A little disconcerted by the change in her grandfather’s demeanor, Stephanie packed her things up. She wasn’t too happy about having to drive up there on consecutive days. She did have a regular job. A good journalist had to make sacrifices, though. That became her new chant as she drove back into the valley.

And true to his promise, Oso had rested enough by the following day to conduct a new session. After ordering his flawless assistant to bring coffee and other delicacies, he dove in, no jesting, no small talk. He was all business, which disappointed Stephanie a little. She barely had time to pop a blueberry in her mouth.


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