Chapter 13: Drop the Load

In which the world turns on the spinning of a ball!

 

Stephanie left her granddad’s house in a bit of a funk. Who wouldn’t be in one after having heard that story? Her worst fears had been confirmed. Well, perhaps not her worst, as the story really turned its wretched head against her uncle Gilly, who wasn’t a real relation, rather than against her granddad. But his silence—and her grandma’s silence!—felt like complicity.

Complicity in what? Gilly hadn’t meant to burn an old man alive. Gilly, for all his genius, had done something foolish. Not well thought-out. How very strange. That, too, cast a new and sulfuric glow over Gilly. Gilly was supposed to be the long-term planner. He never did anything unless he’d thought about it for years and years. That was why he’d required her granddad in order to be successful at a young age, as her granddad didn’t need to sit for years thinking about a project before embarking on it.

And it was also why Stephanie, who generally planned extensively before doing anything, albeit, not for years like Gilly, had already embarked on this biopic. It involved her granddad, and he wouldn’t sit around waiting for her. He’d lose interest if she didn’t do it immediately.

As the car drove itself toward the winking lights of Albuquerque, she shook off her reverie. She needed to type up the day’s shorthand once home, and then go to bed. That would be her Friday night, but then, they were rarely more exciting unless Mark was involved. Speaking of the man of her heart, he’d somehow managed to twist her arm into setting up a stupid little Saturday man-date with him and her granddad.

She and Mark were going to meet Oso at one of the city’s many community tracks that wrapped around a “worker-bee robotics farm,” as Tomi Corp’s robotic factories were known. Due to the lack of work for humans created by the new world of robotics, the AHA and DHS had mandated that running and/or walking tracks be laid to loop around factories, along with green spaces for the playing of pretend, ball-less sports.

Remembering that her granddad had paid her direct deposit through her ring bling, she veered toward the Drop the Load Store, averting the downtown strip near her apartment. The downtown area had been consumed by free-roaming Minäs who had no home and no owners. Occasionally, the cops would round them up with a bullhorn, which caused them to cover their ears and cringe due to the loud noise permeating their extra-large ears, and then put them in the Minä pounding station, where they would be disengaged if nobody claimed or adopted them.

The Salvation Station had funded a grass-roots movement to integrate the Minäs into bunkhouses, with regular nutritious meals specifically designed to meet Minä needs. Some people believed Minäs could grow their missing brain parts if given enough protein and EFAs, but when biologically created humans couldn’t afford enough protein and EFAs, even the Salvation Station had to back off from its most idealistic efforts. And despite their programs, the streets, especially on Friday nights, were clogged with all manner of “Devons” who would someday be picked up by the cops.

They were all so perfect looking, too. They were perfect, all except for their gigantic ears. And, of course, being incredibly stupid. It might be nice to be that stupid. They were happy, loved or abused. Their sadness brain part had apparently gone missing when they were given their lobotomies.

After directing her car to the Drop the Load store, she manually parked the wretched beast because she didn’t want it to miscalculate yet again and try to drive through the parking meridian and into another car, as it had done in times past. It had gotten a little beat up before she’d retaken control.

Outside the store waited the usual suspects. One person rang a bell for the Minä Education Fund—a useless waste of money said every scientist everywhere. Another asked her to sign a petition to classify TransMinä as a brain identity, which was in contrast to last week’s petition, which was to classify a recent hailstorm as a real emergency so that those who were pinged on the head by the hail could get a free supply of pain meds.

Not that TransMinä hadn’t already been deemed a unique identity by law thirty years previously. This was a different slant on TransMinä. In addition to being humans who identified as Minäs since birth, these were people who were wired to believe they were Minäs who believed they were humans. Essentially, they lived as humans, albeit they were Minäs, who were clearly human, who…

Stephanie shut her eyes. She tried to figure it out, but the man/Minä/man speaking to her had confused her at some point. “No, thanks,” she said to his request that she sign.

“The police are always hurting us,” the man said, “brutalizing us. We need laws in place to give us the same basic respect as all people get.”

“Everybody gets the same respect from cops.” Everybody who’s human, she wanted to add.

The cops were trained to beat up anybody who annoyed them. And, sure, some people annoyed them more than others. That was to be expected. Now, Minäs—they were a different story. They would disengage real Minäs. Humans couldn’t be disengaged, even TransMinäs who were humans who believed they were Minäs who believed they were humans. A Minä could be disengaged and re-engaged through the reconnection of their brainstem and the playing of infrasound. A human would be disengaged and never engaged again because they would be dead at that point. Some TransMinäs had gone through disengagement as martyrs for their cause to be taken seriously as a unique identity. They were hardcore, in other words.

The man blinked. “You don’t care about us? Here, take this stat sheet to see how often we’re brutalized by cops. Numbers don’t lie.”

She snatched the sheet from him and pasted on a smile. No, she supposed numbers themselves, as the concepts hiding behind tangibles, didn’t lie. But humans did. Minäs, true ones anyway, were too stupid to lie. Sometimes, she wished she were stupid like a Minä and not just clever enough to get by in life. Intelligence was a bewildering concept, especially if one was the granddaughter of one of the most brilliant men in history.

Of course, part of lacking this brilliancy was the lack of ambition to do anything brilliant. She really didn’t care to. At the same time, she had a lack of care for possessing a unique identity like a TransMinä. She wondered if she could get a petition going that would establish the ordinary people such as herself as a legal special interest group. Sure, she had special interests…in being able to keep her job as an independent journalist and still pay her rent and bills, maybe get committed someday and have babies.

Yes. Get committed. She had done exactly as her granddad had suggested and looked up the origins of both words. A marriage was a fusion of elements, a commitment an obligation. If words made any difference at all in the ability to move independently in the world, then marriage would greatly restrict freedom.

As she wandered the aisles, going through the usual sticker shock of seeing the prices on food she desperately wanted, she found herself imagining what her and Mark’s babies would look like. She jolted out of her daydream. Babies? With Mark? She couldn’t even afford the cheapest white bread before it expired and had to be sent to the bread thrift store.

Then she remembered the money her billionaire granddad had paid her for her work so far, and her heart felt light, while her head suddenly spun. She couldn’t spend this money on food. She couldn’t. She needed savings. For the down-payment on a house. She couldn’t spend it on delicacies such as fresh bread and…her stomach turned over in desire. She wanted meat. Before she knew what she was doing, she had placed a voice call to her Grandma Gonzales and asked her if she knew how to make New Mexico traditional green chile enchiladas.

Yes, of course her grandma knew, and soon Stephanie had punched in the order button for tortillas, chile, cheese, and meat so that her cart could be filled back-room and brought out to her by a Minä, who, although not smart enough to load the order—that was done by mechanical arms without biological brains—most of the time could wheel it out to the front, where the purchaser’s name was writ large on the side. It was not perfect, of course, because the Minäs usually forgot to collect the receipt and often gave the orders to people who had purchased nothing at all.

These non purchasers were known as Drop the Load Leeches. They were officially recognized as “needy” and “deficient” by Welfare Act 10,400 and could not be prosecuted. But they were just one of many groups the cops got annoyed with, as they were belligerent in their due diligence to fight for their rights. So, thankfully, they suffered the occasional beating. For everybody else, they had to be ready to grab their order and run with it. Shopping had become a sport.

Her cart was quite a bit fuller than usual. She could see the leeches salivating and moving forward en masse, until they noticed she had no health code junk food, no alcohol, no vitamin soda, and no wacky cigarettes. Another bout of dizziness caused her to see black spots when she filled the trunk of her car. This was the down payment on her house, and it would all be consumed within a few days. For unknown reasons, she had not stopped at the enchilada ingredients, but had gone on to purchase the type of coffee and cream that her grandfather’s assistant had served to her earlier that day.

It would be okay, she reassured herself. Her granddad would continue to pay her, and then she could get a book contract because she was writing the biography of a celebrity who normally didn’t give journalists the time of day. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The future would be okay, and she would eat well in the interim.

It was too bad she didn’t know what to do with some of the ingredients, such as dried pinto beans. Ah, well, she would have to call her grandma Gonzales once again and ask for advice. Her mouth felt dry, and so she unscrewed the top off the new bottle of orange juice. Orange juice?! Was she insane? Had she really punched in the button for this delicacy?

She sipped a very, very small portion and sat down to work.

Mark picked her up at precisely 2 P.M. Due to it being mid spring, her granddad insisted on meeting at the track in the afternoon—less chance of being hit with a biting cold wind. At first, he’d suggested 5 A.M., before the wind had picked up at all, but even Mark, who worshiped Oso Beñat, had balked at the idea. He was going out drinking with his buddies and didn’t want to show up still drunk.

Buddies. That was the archaic term Mark used for his friends. Nobody who cared about microaggressions used that word for anybody but Minäs in this day and age, as the original Tomi Corp ad name for their creations was buddy. The coinage pet was also considered derogatory; however, the names window-licker and retard were nearly terms of affection, as they had no context in the modern-day environment. Screen-licker, on the other hand, was a derogatory term for old-school geeks who preferred old-fashioned computers. Oh, and for grass-roots journalists and newspaper editors who couldn’t afford to do anything better than sift through silicon wastelands and scrap together old hard drives, screens, and computer boxes.

Mark was looking a little yellow in the face, as he always did when he spent all night drinking cheap beer. Stephanie had tried, using her investigative skills, to find out what was in the piss-bitter stuff, and had not yet been successful. The beer corporations, which had taken their names from last century’s microbrew craze—Bluebird Ale; Purple Mountain Stout; Green Orphan Amber; etc—were clinging tightly to their proprietary recipes and filtration systems.

“Did you have fun with your buddies?” she asked, after he laid his head back and told his car rather viciously to drive, you mother flipper.

He snarled at her. His bad mood combined with her good one inspired her to sing the Minä theme song from the old ads calling them buddies: You can hug ‘em, give ‘em lovin’, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven. And: You can bug ‘em, give ‘em shovin’s, just don’t force ‘em in the oven.

“For the love of God, stop,” he told her.

She couldn’t help it; she was in a good mood. Good food did make a difference. Her granddad had advised her well. “You’re just dehydrated, that’s all,” she said. “Do you want to know what I drank for breakfast? Orange juice.”

He groaned.

She whistled. Or tried to. She had never really learned.

The car pulled up to the chosen track. This one formed a figure eight, with the bottom half circling around a factory, and the top half around a field, where a group of boys were practicing airfoot.

“Airfoot!” Mark said, as though it were a curse.

“They do look a little silly, but only marginally more than the sports you watch.”

“It’s all fake. All of it. I really wish this aspirin would kick in. I want to leave a good impression on your grandfather. This is not good, really not good. I think I’m going to throw up.” He promptly bailed from the car and vomited in the garbage bin.

“How much did you drink, anyway? I set up this date because you asked for it.”

“James is getting committed. He and Lola are engaged. Do you hear that, Stephanie? Some people in the world are still getting committed.”

She was silent a beat. James was his best friend from high school. “You drank yourself into oblivion because you were happy for James?”

“Yes, toasted him. Over and over and over. Wish it had been me we were toasting.”

She was about to say, You’d prefer to vomit over your own engagement?, but didn’t have a chance to, as her granddad’s classic electric Roadster rolled into the parking lot.

Mark’s head perked up. “Wow, what a car,” he moaned, as if the envy made him as sick as the bad beer. “I love those early electrics. So much style. If I were a billionaire, I’d drive one, too.”

“If I had a decent income, I’d just buy an economy car that could get me from one place to the next.”

“Some of us have style.”

She shrugged at that, as she didn’t know what to say. He’d chosen the least stylish of all the young females at the Albuquerque Daily—that is, herself. Perhaps “having style” was subjective. Oso’s style was objective, however, as he stepped from his shiny white vehicle and stood to his full height. He was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes. Even Devon, following behind his owner, was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes.

“If you have even a pinch of style now, you should stop hanging your head. And try to look less yellow,” she advised.

Her granddad immediately grasped Mark’s hand in a firm handshake. “Mark, my man. I’m happy to meet the writer who entertains me every morning of the week.”

Mark’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Thank you, sir. And you. It’s astounding to meet you.”

“You’re pastier than I expected,” Oso said. “What did I expect? You’re a writer, not a real sportsman. There aren’t any more of those.”

Mark groaned and put his hands to his temples.

“Hungover, are you?”

Mark just groaned again.

“It’s that poison you young ‘uns call alcohol these days. Stephanie, wait here. I’m taking young Mark with me for a trip around the block.”

“I, uh…” But her granddad had already whisked Mark away in his shiny car, leaving Devon in her care. “Hmm. I guess I’ll just watch the boys play airfoot,” she said.

“Me too,” said Devon

An hour later—after she had given up on understanding the game the boys were playing and had begun to walk the track with Devon—the Roadster reappeared, and soon the men were out of the car, running into the half field the boys weren’t using, with what appeared to be a ball. When Devon spotted Oso, he took off like a shot to catch up with him. Minäs could run, if nothing else.

But Mark, who was vomiting an hour ago, was now running. And how could an old man run like that—an old man who used a cane? Not to mention that he was now kicking the ball. Stephanie was confused.

She veered into the field and jogged over to them, where they were all three bunting the ball back and forth with their feet. Mark’s face had been re-spirited with its usual glow.

“Look at this, Steph! I’m kicking a ball! A real ball! The sports stars can’t even do this.”

She shook her head. “What happened to you in the last hour?”

“Mr. Beñat took me to this club. It was hidden in the basement of a shop in Nob Hill. I’m not allowed to say which one.”

“Why not?” she asked. “Wait, there are basements in Nob Hill stores? Since when?”

“It’s a secret men’s club. And you don’t even know. There’s a basement system linking together…oh, wait. I’m not supposed to tell.”

“Good, well, I’ll never tell you where my secret knitting circle is, then.”

His eyes bugged out in surprise. “You have a secret knitting circle?”

“No.”

“Ah, you were trying to be funny. It’s not funny. This club’s the real deal, legit. The bartender made me a hangover cure called the Silver Fizz. What was that recipe again, Sir, Mr. Beñat?”

“The first part is never drinking that trash you call beer. The rest is simple: egg white, dry gin, lemon juice, sugar, and club soda.”

Stephanie didn’t want to consider how much that beverage would cost at a club. “Yeah, because Mark is going to stock those ingredients on his salary. Good thing you gave him the recipe.”

“That’s why,” her granddad coldly replied, “the first part is never drinking that trash again. Now, would you, darlin’, like to learn how to play soccer with us?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Pass!” Mark shouted as he suddenly kicked the ball in her direction.

Being that she wasn’t prepared for it, it hit her in the shin. In return, she picked it up and hurled it at his head. Unfortunately, he dodged it.

“No, no, no!” her granddad shouted. “That’s not how to play the game. We’re going to go over the rules first.”

Stephanie giggled. She felt like a child. “All right, Granddad, Sir, Mr. Beñat!”

And for the first time in months—years, perhaps—she gave up her day and had fun. That wasn’t to say she didn’t trip over the ball multiple times. She did. She was clearly not meant to be a soccer player, but Mark picked it up rather well. Devon never really understood the rules, but he did manage to ape Mark’s every move. Her granddad, too—how could he kick the ball that way? It was incredible to watch him. How many octogenarians could do that? How many people of any age could? Nobody had balls any longer. As far as she knew, they weren’t sold in stores.

As they passed the ball to each other up and down the field, Stephanie realized the boys’ team was no longer playing airfoot. No, they were watching the strange phenomenon of ball-kicking, something they’d only seen on TV, and which some people, such as the local sports editor, insisted was faked.

Well, right before them, it was real. They stared, their jaws slack, their eyes wide in shock. To the side, somebody’s buddy Minä was jumping up and down, flapping his arms, and whoop-whooping. Stephanie couldn’t help it; she was so overjoyed by the moment that she collapsed in the grass and stared up at the sky.

“Stephanie, lying in the grass is not what a team player does,” her granddad shouted.

She didn’t care, though, at least not until her infamous grandfather invited all the boys to play with them, and she was in danger of being trampled to death by a bunch of little, obnoxious feet that were apparently aching to kick a real ball.

When Oso finally called it a game, as nobody was keeping score, the adults stood talking in the parking lot. Mark’s cheeks were flushed from exercise and excitement.

“Now this is real sport, something real to write about,” Mark said. “I wish the Daily would pay me to go to professional games rather than reporting what I see on screen. That might be some real sports reporting, too. I could find out if they use physical balls or not. I mean, only the elite can afford those games, so they’re the only ones who know what’s really going on. And then, the elites usually have shares in the players.”

Oso smiled. “I could get us into a game if you’d like. There’s one tomorrow.”

“Do you often go to games?”

“I’ve been to a handful. It’s a waste of money I try to avoid.”

“As if you have to worry about money,” Mark said.

“I’m not one of the richest men in the world because I spend money on frivolities. If I did spend money on entertainment, I’d expect it to be entertaining. Which the games aren’t.”

Mark leaned forward in eager anticipation. “Because they’re using holograph balls?”

“They make spectators sign a nondisclosure contract before buying tickets,” Oso said. “But if you wanted to do an expose, you could take one for the team. The journalism team, that is.”

Mark’s eyes were wild with anticipation. “I would seriously love, sir, to take one for the team. What do you think, Stephanie, you wanna come too?”

Stephanie thought about it. She was a cautious team player, but still, she didn’t see how Mark’s actions would affect her career. After all, there was no such thing as guilt by association. That was wishful thinking on her part, especially if she conceded to become committed to him. Guilt by association was more often than not assumed by the public. She knew this from interviewing people.

“Do they still serve hotdogs at games?” She’d always wanted to eat a hotdog, which was a food popular at games in the last century. Hotdogs looked tasty in pictures.

“Yes, they sell organic, ethnically sourced, two-inch micro dogs on crusted German-import mini-loaves with Hollandaise and Havarti. Does that sound good to you, m’dear?”

The exercise had made her even hungrier than usual. “Um, I’m not really sure I like the sound of micro dogs.”

Oso snorted. “Well, they also offer kale chips, seaweed strips, sushi, and caviar. Sometimes lobster, if it’s the right season.”

“All right, I’ll go with you guys,” she conceded, as if she wouldn’t jump at the opportunity. Not because of the food, though—the food sounded bizarre, like nothing she’d ever tasted. Or even the sport. As a Journalist of Integrity, she had a curiosity that was rarely sated, the same as Mark.


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