In which he didn’t always hit the Old Gold, but when he did, he got in a fight!
Through long hours and the inspiration of the New Mexico blue sky they rarely saw, Oso and his team of researchers were able to build organic parts of the brain through the use of stem cells. Oso’s goal was a little different from Gilly’s, albeit no less daunting. He wanted to use the technology they were creating for androids in humans. What had plagued them was creating a viable way to get blood cells inside the tissue they had managed to build, layer by layer.
Then Oso had asked himself why. Why grow these parts that may never be viable inside an actual human skull?
It would prove a far better resolution to inject the braincell solution inside the damaged parts of the brain and allow the brain to regrow and regenerate on its own. All he had to alleviate were the miniscule problems associated with neurogenesis, namely, having to shut down growth-inhibitory ligands while also preventing inflammation.
Very small problems—but no problem was too small for Oso.
It had been a long hard day of working and thinking. For some reason, Gilly was tetchy all day. They were so close Oso could taste it. Surely, Gilly could, too. So why was he stalling? The team of scientists had all left for the day. Oso was alone with images of spinning brains on the monitor screens, which exactly represented his turbulent core.
They had leaped over their first big hurdle, creating their first real pre-Minä prototype, a female, of course, matching Gilly’s idealized Nordic blonde. Not that she didn’t have a few glitches, but who said creation was a perfect process? Humans weren’t perfect. Why would creatures made in their image be perfect?
She was jumpy and prone to headaches, due to a combination of her pain censors and her highly sensitized ears. Oso knew they had a window to go to press with her before a competitor created a better android, maybe one with smaller ears. It was hard to hide the ears, to be honest, even behind a mane of white-blonde hair. Big ears would become the new beautiful. That was all there was to it, and this darling with the big ears would seductively reel in the funding needed to fix the Minä glitches, as well as offset production costs.
He couldn’t concentrate. Gilly had taken the prototype and her personal physician home with him, as he usually did. Somebody had to be the babysitter. It wasn’t as if one could create life and then turn it off every night. She wasn’t a computer—she breathed oxygen. Her heart beat steadily, racing when she was excited, slowing when she rested. She was as close to human as a creature without a belly button and vital reproductive organs could be. Of course, one could knock her out with drugs via an IV and remove the drip when one wanted her cogent again, but it would be painful and unnecessary.
Speaking of babysitters, Adam was still with Bernadette. Bernadette picked up the boy from school and kept him at her psychiatric practice until Oso finished work for the day.
She was far too patient, to be honest. He had resolved to give up being a workaholic in order to be a father, but his best resolutions went to pot as they came closer and closer to press release. He should pick up his boy. But he was too tired or wired, or both, and he sank into a chair and picked up the tablet one of his assistants had left there. It was open to an insider journal of the industry, which gave him an idea of what his competitors had achieved, if not what they were hiding away in their labs.
And that’s when he spotted the image that sucker-punched him in the gut: it was from a corporation that had headquarters in both China and the US, of their upcoming release, which appeared an exact replica of Tomi Corp’s pre-pre-Minä android. Gilly’s design fingertips were all over it, except for the big ears. Gilly was an artist, and artists left fingerprints. Somebody could have managed a very good knockoff—a fake Gucci handbag type of android.
But his gut told him this wasn’t a knockoff. The woman stared at him from the screen, impassive. It was as if she was challenging him. No, it was as if Gilly was challenging him in an open daring kind of way. Perhaps he’d left the tablet for him to find. It was a distinct possibility.
For the record, they hadn’t actually brought the damned thing to life. Instead of infrasound, the developers had been experimenting with bringing her to life with water. So far, her lungs filled before life emerged, effectively drowning her. Also, the water had shorted out her battery pack. Battery pack? Why did she have a…?
Oso shook his head. It wasn’t the android and her visage, which cried Gilly!, that bothered him. It was Gilly’s sneaky ways. This was not the first time a competitor’s android parts bore Gilly’s fingerprint of design. Sure, he never gave them everything, essentially getting rich by selling them an almost-but-not-quite. It was the principle of the matter. The principle!
His mouth went dry. He reached for his phone to call his lawyer, and then stopped. For all his ability to remember the future, he couldn’t force the memories to pop unbidden in his mind. And yet, he might have seen this one coming. But he was blind to Gilly’s faults. Gilly was his best friend. Gilly would never betray him.
“I need a drink,” he said aloud.
The spinning brains didn’t answer him.
Alcohol and introspection was a pairing that never went well with Oso’s constitution. In this case, it was exactly what was called for. He called Bernadette and asked if she could keep Adam for a couple of hours. He had some trouble at work, he told her. Not surprisingly, she agreed.
If she knew he was going to a bar, she might not have agreed so readily. However, if she understood his current murderous feelings, she would have agreed readily and tried to alter his plans and get him to talk through his problems in her office. That was not what Oso needed.
He drove to the Analgest, as the witch-from-the-forest’s words had left an impression in his mind: the Analgest was a speakeasy, and women weren’t allowed. He didn’t know about that; once there, he found the usual hipsters, who disgusted him. But Oso, as a man whose fame had landed him in the likes of Wired, Sci Am, Huff Po, and the New Yorker, was royalty to the hipsters. The word had gotten around that Oso was back in New Mexico doing business, and everybody in tech wanted a job.
Oso was not in charge of hiring. He had a department that dealt with such niceties, although he was the first one to sort through applications and discover the promising candidates before they ever reached the hiring division. But he could humor the hipsters—if he felt like it.
Due to one man’s lucky recognition and the subsequent whispering of his name, Oso had potential mini-marble pool competitors to last the night. For some reason, a mini-marble competition wasn’t satisfying, and he suddenly realized why. It was lacking Gilly. That was why. It had nothing whatever to do with the need for spy glasses, or any glasses at all, in order to play.
So he called Gilly. “Hey, Gilly, old buddy, come meet me for a game of pool at the Analgest.”
“Um, are you serious? I’m at home relaxing.”
“What, with your woman?”
Silence. Of course he wasn’t relaxing with his woman because his woman had moved out “to take a breather,” all very amicably. Gilly hadn’t acted like the change in scenery even affected him.
“That was a low-blow,” Gilly said.
“You’re alone. I’m alone. Let’s play some pool.”
“Fine, I’ll be there in fifteen. We haven’t gotten drunk together in…years. There was that time I got stoned with your dad. One of the finest nights of my life.”
“Get a move on.”
Twenty minutes later, Gilly appeared, and Oso smacked him on the back. Hard. “Get yourself a drink.”
Although Gilly had walked in with his usual smirk, a sudden glare narrowed his eyes. Still, Gilly obeyed, choosing an amber-bottled beer.
“Are you making any bets?” Gilly looked around him, as though assessing the competition: bearded studs wielding tiny cue sticks. “What are we playing at, anyway? Is there a tiny pool tournament going on?”
“Who knows; we’re playing real pool. You know I’m a gambler. Winner takes all.”
“All of what?”
“Winner takes all is our philosophy. That’s how we do business. Neural networks. Circuits. We are a business, aren’t we, Gilly?”
Oso marched down the row of antique pool and snooker tables, under the moon that shone through the skylights. At the bar, he slapped his hand down. “We need a pool table, a real one,” he told the bartender, who wore a waxed mustache and wire glasses.
“The marbles and sticks come from the coin-op machine.”
“No, I mean real pool. The real deal.”
The bartender raised his eyebrows. “You’re Mr. Beñat, aren’t you?”
“Are you asking me, or telling me?”
“There’s a cover charge.”
“Today I’m feeling generous. Hundred dollars for me, hundred for the bouncer. That doesn’t include play.”
Oso, however, had no intention of paying any of these little twits to play pool. “How about you pay me to keep quiet about your men-only club that breaks a number of laws and no doubt doesn’t exist to the IRS?”
“Yes, sir, well,” the man looked nervously at his pocket-watch, while his mustache twitched. “It’s still early arrival time. I’ll show you to the door.”
The door he showed them to was not the door out. It was the door in. Hipsters were hipsters, after all. They had waxed mustachios and no weapons. And who knew what Oso was capable of? He had 3D printers. Enough said. This special door was behind the bar—it slid open when the hipster pushed down the handle for a beer called Old Gold.
Inside the enclosed space, there were three men smoking cigarettes. They looked up briefly when Oso and Gilly entered, but resumed their play without much curiosity. They were fat and quite old, and no doubt suffering from emphysema. Oso and Gilly suffered from none of the above, as they kept healthy habits, such as regular exercise, the use of condoms, rounds of antibiotics, etc.
The pool tables inside this room were not in the best shape. In fact, the room was not as aesthetic as a secret male-only club ought to have been. It had warped, paneled walls, a scruffy carpet littered with the detritus of peanut shells and other unsavory snacks, and an odd pattern of cracked and grease-smeared mirrors. Oso didn’t think he’d patronize it in the future.
“What a dive,” Gilly said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”
The man who no doubt passed himself off as the bouncer grunted and ushered them to the proper side of the bar counter, where he took their drink orders and charged them a high price for their game. As they were already inside, Oso paid up.
Unlike his soccer-deprived youth, Oso had not grown up deprived of pool, as his father had traded one of his goats for a pool table with balls and cues. In fact, although Oso didn’t like the feeling of being amped-down rather than amped-up, he and Gilly had played their share of pot-induced pool games. Now, they were entirely sober, as Oso had not taken a sip of his drink, and Gilly had done little more than take an initial swig from his amber bottle.
Gilly had a pained look on his face as Oso racked the balls. “You do remember how to play?” Oso asked him.
“Yes, how could I forget? You always won.”
Oso forgot his vindictive anger for a minute. Gilly could be so self-defacing it was almost embarrassing. “That’s not true. You beat me that last game we played together before I moved to LA.”
“When your back was turned, I cheated.”
The anger flashed through him again. How many times had Gilly cheated? Was this a practice of his? Did Oso’s loyalty and honor mean nothing? He took a deep breath and counted to ten. “I lost $150 on that game. To you.”
“Does that make you proud? The one time you got the better of me?” Oso stared him straight in the face until Gilly averted his eyes. It didn’t take very long. “Why don’t you break?”
Oso noticed Gilly’s hands were shaking and his jaw clenched as he aimed his cue. He recognized what that was—Gilly’s way of expressing anger. Gilly’s anger, however, never made him sharp. He botched the break, scratching one of the balls. But it was all right. He’d have more opportunities…to make a fool of himself.
“Skip the beer, Gilly, have a drop of bourbon. It’s Jim Beam. Not bad.” He shrugged. “It was all they had. Not even Jim Beam Black.”
Gilly glowered. “I know how to pick my bourbon. I don’t need you to guide me.” And he henceforth drank his shot.
The two proceeded to play a few games, with Gilly losing very badly each time, which inspired him to buy more shots of Jim Beam. Finally, Gilly was so drunk he had to prop himself on the table itself, and somehow managed in his next futile play to jab the cue so hard into the surface of the table that the cloth ripped. Needless to say, he didn’t manage to knock any of his balls anywhere.
“You know, Gilly, old buddy, you’d get the better of me if you won honestly even once in your life,” Oso said. “But you can’t, can you? That’s why you have to go behind my back. You’re a fucking turncoat. A disloyal cheater.”
“Get the better of you? You wouldn’t have shit without me. Compared to me, you’re just a goddamn researcher. You create nothing of value. You just jump on everything I do ever since we were kids. And you get rich off it.”
“You know what I wouldn’t have without you? A business partners who sells our designs to the competition. That’s what I wouldn’t have. But rest assured, I would find other engineers. I already have them. They’re a team. We’re a team. You and I used to be a team.”
“Oh, cut the crap, Oso,” Gilly said, and hurled his tumbler at Oso’s head. It missed its mark, very nearly whacking one of the old men. “Your loyalty theory is sickening.”
“There you are, throwing things at me from a distance. How’s that working for you? Why don’t you come over here and fight me face to face if that’s what you want?”
Gilly stumbled blearily toward the old men, shouting, “Hold me back! Hold me back!”
The old men just coughed and moved to the side of the room, apparently hoping for entertainment without getting into the fray. Oso grabbed Gilly by the shirtfront and pushed him so that he fell back on the table. He jabbed a cue stick in Gilly’s face.
“You’re such a little bitch,” Oso said.
Gilly pushed back against the stick and kicked his legs drunkenly at Oso. “Don’t ever forget that you let a man burn alive; don’t ever forget that.”
“You started the fucking fire, Gilly. I take responsibility for my actions; you take responsibility for yours. Got it?”
Gilly seemed to deflate at those words. He stopped kicking, ceased putting pressure against the cue stick, the point of which slammed into the table by his ear. Oso dropped the stick and walked away. He was done with Gilly. Gilly wouldn’t fight him, and there was no point to a fight, anyway. What would it solve?
But Gilly must have decided differently. Before Oso was aware of what had happened, Gilly finally made contact, cracking the back of Oso’s skull with the stick. It was hard to miss, being a damn big stick going after a tall man with a big head.
Oso fell hard, and Gilly ran for the door. “Run you little bitch,” Oso moaned. “That’s what you do.”
The old men had the decency to help him up, but the bouncer, who had mysteriously disappeared during the fight, materialized from behind the counter. He had been hiding. Now, however, he asked Oso, in a very polite manner, if Mr. Beñat wouldn’t mind leaving so that the police would not have to be dispatched.
Oso snorted. The speakeasy wasn’t going to call the cops. Still, Oso had no desire to stay. He had a splitting headache, for a start. He plunked down some cash to pay for the damage and walked out via the Old Gold.
When he plunged into the brisk night of Albuquerque, the stars singing above and the moon waxing full, he wondered if he could find the witch’s house. He wondered if she would be there. Then he thought better of it and pulled his phone out of his pocket with a wry smile on his face.
It didn’t take long for the female on the other end to answer; it was as Oso had suspected. She had left Gilly and was waiting in desperate anticipation for him to call.
“Hey, Cameron,” he said.
“Sweetheart, I’m down at the Analgest with a crack on my head and I’m too drunk to drive. How would you like to rescue me?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“I knew I could count on you.”
After the phone call, he slumped to the curb and held his head in his hands. The pulsing pain sent waves of nausea to his stomach. The knot on his head was his own fault, he reminded himself. He had invited Gilly to play a game of real pool. If he’d stuck to the hipster game, he would have emerged unscathed, as there was no way Gilly could defeat him in real hand-to-hand combat.
He ran his hands over his daily beard. He did have the hipster beard, though not intentionally. He hoped Cameron would like it. Wait—what? He didn’t care whether she liked it. She would have to deal with it as she gently and tenderly nursed the wound on his head.