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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