“Let’s get a move on, I’ve got a getaway car waiting,” Oso said. Stephanie was frozen, however, her tear-stained visage staring at the spot where Samson, aka Gerald, had disappeared. “Granddad, how did you know I was here?”
“Gilly told me.” Oso ushered the two dazed youngsters with his cane when it became clear they weren’t going to move on their own.
The two looked a little beat-up, bruises here and there, but walking upright. In fact, Oso might have gone so far as to say Mark wasn’t just upright, but his body shook with a vibrancy he’d never seen before in the young man.
“Well, Mark, why are you looking so vibrant after all that?”
“Good to see you, too, Mr. Beñat. I didn’t know I looked vibrant.”
“You’re positively glowing,” Stephanie said with a shaky laugh.
Mark, however, shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. It might have been smashing people with a baseball bat. Not really Minäs because they’re fools.”
“Mark!” Stephanie protested.
“What? They were trying to kill me. And you. They wrecked my apartment, your car, our workplace. And I feel alive. Isn’t that incredible?”
Oso smiled. He really liked this kid. “You know, I had a future vision—one of my memories. I haven’t had one of those in a long time. I assume that’s because I don’t have much future left to remember.”
“Ah, Stephanie, be quiet, and quit with the feigned horror. In my memory, I attended yours and Mark’s wedding. I’ll be alive long enough for that, at least. Isn’t that marvelous? It was a beautiful outdoor wedding. Summertime.”
Stephanie and Mark froze again and stared at him, speechless. Finally, Stephanie snapped to and said, “I’m glad you’ll be alive for my wedding. But where did that come from? Mark was just saying how alive he felt beating people with a bat. Non sequitor.”
“Maybe because I’m an old man and don’t have time for your procrastination with the future.” Oso waved them out the back door impatiently, as though he were going to drop any minute now. He gave a signal with his phone, and the classic roadster pulled out from behind a row of dumpsters.
After the couple had climbed in the backseat, and he in the front, he pulled a card from a hand-held recording machine and handed it to Stephanie. “I recorded the rest of my story for you. Just in case.”
“Oh.” She took the card, but her face fell. Clearly, she was disappointed. “We’re done having meetings?”
Oso decided to be straight with her. “These interviews have taken a lot out of me. I had a good run, and now I’m done.”
“But you’ll still come to my wedding, right?”
“Yes, you’d better get planning.”
She looked questioningly at Mark.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “The last time I asked you to commit to me, you hedged. You wouldn’t answer me. I took that as a no.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe you can ask again.”
“I’m not going to because you never answered me the last time. The question is still open.”
“It was the wrong question,” Oso interjected. “The proper question is will you marry me? That’s the one she’ll answer.”
“What difference does it make?” Mark asked.
“All the difference in the world.”
For the first time, Mark stared at him in that you’re just a crazy old man way. Then he shrugged and said, “Fine. If your granddad thinks one question is better than another, I’ll ask it. Will you marry me?”
“Okay, yes,” Stephanie said.
This cheered Oso’s heart. So what if he’d manipulated the situation a little? Of course, he’d had no such future vision. Some youths simply needed prodding. He sat up a little straighter and gave the car directives. Although Cameron was in the driver’s seat, he was the driver.
Oso let his car drive any which way it could find an open route not blockaded by protestors, while Mark and Stephanie made out in the back seat. He cleared his throat and ignored them. Making out while in a vehicle, due to the impossibility of telling who was driving, was officially illegal, but nobody cared at that point. A lot of things were illegal, or so prone to social shaming they might as well have been. The world was filled with rules and regulations. Most citizens were scofflaws as a matter of course.
In the days of the food regulations, many working adult scofflaws would sneak off to illegal pig roasts on their lunch hours and compete for door prizes that included delicacies like a crispy ear or tail. Mark and Stephanie, however, were kids during those days, and their childhoods were bereft of pigs put on stakes and turned over fire. There was a generational gap to becoming a scofflaw: the younger generation preferred to make out in their self-driving cars; the adults still attended pig roasts and matanzas. While it was now legal to sup on pork, it was not legal to consume meat that hadn’t been inspected, packaged, and shipped to Drop the Load stores.
Stephanie and Mark kept at it until the car said, “Must become stationary in order to avoid mandatory police traffic stop.”
The car’s computer had been set to self-protection mode when Oso and Cameron first entered Albuquerque’s riot scene. For its own protection, it now parked in the first safe space it could find: a little strip mall on NW Central.
“What kind of traffic stop?” Oso asked.
“Free-for-all,” the car said. “The police are searching for an intelligent Minä on the loose in the Albuquerque area. He incited protestors with his guitar and then disappeared. He is wanted on multiple charges of property damage, assault, and arson; and inciting Minäs to property damage, assault, and arson. Description pending.”
An image of Samson appeared on the car’s console.
“But that man calmed the protestors down,” Stephanie said. “He didn’t incite. He—he outcited. Is that a word?”
“I don’t think that’s a word,” Mark said.
“They’ve still got it backwards, though.”
The car continued, “According to regulation Z1098 of the Protestors’ Guide to Protesting, published by Little Penguin/Times, New York, when more than a hundred protestors have breached protocol, a scapegoat must be arrested as a symbolic representation of a group’s message.”
“Is there a route back to Stephanie’s apartment where we can avoid a mandatory stop?” Oso asked. Mandatory stops, which had started out in the early days as quick DWI checks, could take hours. “Also check routes to my house and available riot-proof hotels.” A hotel would be the last measure, as Devon couldn’t be left unsupervised for very long. And the kid woke up early, just as Oso did.
“Now engaging possible routes,” the car said. It spun its dash wheel for approximately five minutes. “No routes found. All roads entering and exiting Albuquerque blockaded. What would you like me to do?”
“Find a twenty-four diner that isn’t smashed up,” Mark grumbled, in a tone of voice that suggested he was demanding the impossible and didn’t much care.
The car, however, didn’t understand the concept of impossible. It quite helpfully complied. “The opening of the new restaurant chain, Red or Green?, occurred yesterday at lunchtime. It is owned by Tomi Corp and features traditional New Mexican cuisine, as well as riot proof glass and security. There is a location at the north end of the strip mall.”
“Whoa, Granddad, Tomi Corp is trying to be the Owl Cafe now?”
Mark perked up. “Tomi Corp or not, it has to be better than sitting here and starving.”
For his part, Oso found the idea of a Tomi Corp restaurant to be tediously stupid. “If I take over and manually drive, I can get us out of this mess. I’ve lived here for a lot longer than the car computer.”
“That is highly unlikely,” the car said, with the barest hint of sarcasm.
Oso snorted. “I’ll take that as a challenge. Manual override. Let’s get the heck out of here.”
In his mind, he was developing a route through alleys and back streets, and was about to peel out and wend his way through the traffic piling up as protestors tried to escape, when Cameron’s quiet whisper caught his attention. She was so quiet, in fact, that it was easy to forget she was there: a pale, thin wraith, lost in the depth of the bucket seat.
“Oso,” she was saying, “Oso, please stop.”
“But I can get us home,” he insisted.
“I need to take my medication. It won’t be pleasant on an empty stomach, and if we get stuck in traffic…” her voice trailed off. “You know I wouldn’t normally bother you with my problems. I apologize.”
He studied her tired face. Why had he brought her? He hadn’t been feeling great; that was why. And he’d felt compelled to be the hero and rescue Stephanie and Mark. None of this was her fault. “All right, my eponymous corporation,” he said. “Let’s see how you do with the New Mexican cuisine.” With that, Oso commanded the car to shut down and flung open his door.
The restaurant was an automat, much like the Drop-the-Load, where orders could be placed via buttons on the wall. A sign declared that a Tomi Corp android would be happy to bring their food directly from the four-star chef hiding in the kitchen. At the front desk, a retro android waited to be enlisted into his designated activity. At the moment, the android sat almost perfectly still. He was programmed and moving, though, if one stared at him long enough. Every minute or so, he blinked or touched the phone in his hand. He appeared to be slow-mo texting.
They scanned the menu items by image—Stephanie chose a beautiful green chile enchilada plate. Cameron, a single smothered burrito. Mark, twelve tacos. Oso wasn’t hungry, so he ordered a cup of coffee.
“Tacos?” Stephanie asked, her nose wrinkling. “Tacos are frozen toaster food.”
“I want the retro droid to bring them to me, just as advertised,” Mark said.
They sat down and waited. They looked at the retro droid, who didn’t budge from its seat. They waited twenty minutes, thirty minutes. Several crowds of protestors ran past the riot-proof windows. The line of traffic on Central grew longer. They were the only customers in the restaurant, and still the android didn’t budge.
“Hey, android, you alive over there?” Mark shouted. “We ordered some plates of food.”
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, the android turned to stare at them. He seemed to roll his eyes.
“When does our food come? Do I need to go back in the kitchen and get it myself?”
“Why are you suddenly so aggressive, Mark?” Stephanie asked. “Maybe you should calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down. We’re paying customers,” Mark said, and jumped to his feet.
“Customers aren’t allowed in the kitchen,” the android said. “I’ll get it when I’m ready.”
“Oh, my God. A lazy android.” Oso shook his head. “Change your name, Tomi Corp. I no longer wish to be associated with you.”
“Maybe he meant he’ll get the food when it’s ready,” Stephanie suggested.
The android stared blankly at her. “The food is ready. I was created with battery packs. Moving too quickly will lower my battery charge, and we are projected to have a large dinner crowd. It is illogical to work hard for four people, when Tomi Corp will make more money speedily serving many families.”
“Maybe we should just go somewhere else,” Stephanie said.
“You have already ordered your food. You will be fined or possibly jailed for not consuming,” the android said. “Wasting food is subject to the DHS food regulation manual, rule number….”
Mark marched over to the front desk, grabbed the android by the scruff of the neck, pushed it forward, and yanked out its battery pack before the much stronger titanium creature could put him in a headlock, as androids were wont to do.
“Mark, what…? See what I mean about the aggression?” She looked at Oso, as if for confirmation. “Now we’ll be jailed for damaging Tomi Corp property. You know that will set off an alarm, and this whole place will be swarming.”
“I didn’t damage it. I just removed its battery pack. And besides, all the cops are occupied, remember?”
Oso sighed. “You kids are going to wear me out. I’m sure Tomi Corp will back down from pressing charges if I tell them to, but we’re not going to eat in peace now. Get the food. Let’s go somewhere else. Old Town plaza maybe.”
They snuck in the kitchen, where they saw their order sitting under heatlamps. No chef appeared to be present. In fact, no humans or androids appeared to be present. Instead, the kitchen was composed of a conveyor belt and robot arms that hung still from the ceiling, as there were no more orders to fill.
Mark scraped their dinners into to-go boxes. He laughed. “Secure? This is the stupidest setup I’ve ever seen.”
They left on foot, carrying their food boxes with them. Oso carried Cameron’s food, meanwhile hoisting her up with an arm. She was limping along in her usual high heels. Old Town would be the nearest destination where they could find a place to sit, albeit a cold one, as they would have to sit outside.
He looked sidelong at Cameron and puffed out a sigh. “Looks like we might even catch the sunrise. Let’s just hope the plaza isn’t blocked off.”
Old Town was a historical landmark and, therefore, was often blocked off during violent protests. Erecting barriers, however, couldn’t prevent foot traffic from entering without the aid of police, and as the police were out searching for a roaming intelligent Minä, the plaza would likely be deserted.
Oso couldn’t help it; despite the harrowing events of the night, he chuckled as they passed the lines of cars with the people stuck inside waiting to be intently searched. That was the difference between himself and others. Wherever they ended up, he wouldn’t stand in line waiting to get there. His little group turned toward Old Town after the junction between Lomas and Central, and from that distance, he could see that something was blocking their path toward the plaza. It wasn’t, however, a police barrier.
“Is that a…?” Stephanie began.
“Giant foot,” Mark finished.
Indeed, lying on its back, half on and half off a truck trailer, rested the giant twenty-seven foot tall Oso Beñat statue. Some protestors had apparently gotten their hands on a set of real tools and dismantled the once-upon-a-time lumberjack. What the perps expected to do with it was another question altogether. In this case, they had abandoned it along with the truck trailer.
Stephanie climbed on the statue’s leg. “When I was kid and sat on your lap, I thought you were twenty-seven feet tall, Granddad.”
Oso snorted. He sat next to her on the blue-jeaned leg of the statue. “Would apropos be the proper word, my young journalists?”
“I’m not sure,” Mark said, as he stuffed his mouth with one of his tacos. “Seems like a bad omen to me, sitting on a downed image of yourself.”
“Well, at least the tacos are good,” Oso said.
“Delicious. I don’t know what this meat is. Never had anything like it. Who would’ve thought robotic arms could make such great food?”
Oso peered inside a taco. “That would be brisket.”
Stephanie murmured, her mouth full of food, too. “These enchiladas taste just like the recipe my grandma Gonzalez taught me to make. I guess Tomi Corp isn’t that bad after all.”
“Do you actually mean that?” Oso asked, nudging her with his shoulder.
“Of course. You started it, along with Uncle Gilly. And neither of you are that bad.”
“Your loyalty is touching.”
“Not undeserved,” Cameron whispered again, barely loud enough for Oso to hear.
“What a strange moment this is. Strange, but good,” Oso mused. “I suspect we’ll want to capture this one for posterity.” When Mark reached for his phone, Oso added, “Not in that way. This goes beyond the visual. Maybe one of you can find the words to capture it. Maybe for the biography, Stephanie. There’s no reason why all of us shouldn’t be a part of my story.”
Silence fell on the group, as it seemed they were digesting Oso’s words along with their food. Even Cameron, who didn’t want to be part of the story, was silent. The silence lasted for a good long while, as early morning doves cooed, the sky turned golden, and the solid outline of the Old Town church, San Felipe de Neri, waited for a new day to begin.
And then the profundity of the moment was shattered by a group of merry-making Minä protestors, who ran through the traffic jam, whoop-whooping. They appeared to be—could it be?—kicking a soccer ball.
“Where do you think they got that?” Mark asked. “Hey, wait a second. One of them’s wearing my Cardinals hat! And my best JOI jacket! They scavenged my apartment!” He jumped from the statue’s leg and ran after the hooligans.
What had Stephanie just been saying about Tomi Corp not being so bad after all? Oso set his coffee cup aside and massaged his temples. Before Tomi Corp, the world was normal. As if to rub it in, the church bells began pealing out the first morning chimes, which caused the Minäs to cower with their hands over their ears.
Due to the spectacle of Mark and the dummy Minäs, Oso almost missed the vision of the tall stocky man with the cowboy hat who tore after the poor dolts, as though part of a Minä convoy. Next, a crew of ordinary cops, lacking riot gear, appeared. Clearly, the search for Samson was over…if they could catch him. The cops looked worn out, and why wouldn’t they be? They’d probably been up all night. They looked worn out enough to take Samson down and be done with it.
“Samson!” Oso shouted, allowing the birth name to pop out unbidden. “Stop and drop! They’re going to shoot!”
Samson, however, was in full fight-or-flight mode. Oso wouldn’t be able to stop him. And he couldn’t stand that Samson was going to be taken down like a dog, lose a limb or his life, because he’d done Oso’s bidding one last time.
Oso swallowed back his exhaustion. He shot up without considering his geriatric heart, bolted toward Samson, and tackled him. As Oso and Samson—the man modeled after Oso’s own physique—hit the ground together, fire erupted in Oso’s leg. He couldn’t help it; he let out a primal moan of frustration. Two falls, twenty-four hours apart. This time around, the pain was too much, and stars danced in his eyes before he passed out.