Author Archives: Jill

Chapter 38: No Rest For the Weary

In which she hasn’t quite fulfilled her evil duties.

Finally, Stephanie made her way home to her cozy apartment, after she’d turned in her first farcical news story and slammed the web with horribly pithy attacks on Mark’s opponents—that is, the physical riot leaders in Albuquerque and their cohorts online who were currently concocting spurious articles about Mark, about the JOI league, and conservative JOI papers such as the Albuquerque Daily. Mr. Mast would have laughed in her face if she tried to convince him he was anything other than a pure, enlightened liberal Democrat, and the paper an offering of his Jeffersonian vision.

What was wrong with these people? They lied about everything. That was why she was a JOI. She had the integrity to only mildly fudge the truth in the farcical news section, and even that gave her angst. To be honest, she didn’t want to know what was wrong with them. All that mattered was that Mark wouldn’t see what she had written on his behalf, being that he’d been banned from the internet.

She strolled around her apartment, discarding her clothes. Soon, she was happily wearing nothing but her underwear and relishing the silence and loneliness. She went around picking up and straightening things; she watered her potted cacti, as they needed a few drops every now and again. She was like the cacti, apparently, needing a few drops of time to herself every now and again.

With a sigh of relief, she collapsed onto her bed. Although her body enjoyed the reclined position, and especially the fetal position, her mind still buzzed with activity. Mark could read her articles, if she sent him links to them…on the shadow internet. Did she want to risk going to jail so Mark would know how much she loved him? Gilly hadn’t seemed too concerned about consequences, but he was in his eighties. And he’d invented the shadow net. Or so he claimed. And surely, he had special blockers that would prevent the government from ever knowing about his internet activities. Gilly was paranoid; why wouldn’t he?

Gilly wasn’t paranoid. He was delusional. He believed in aliens. She was the one who was being paranoid.

Perhaps she should do what Javi had advised instead—apologize to Mark for nothing in particular. There was always something to apologize for, such as introducing Mark to her Granddad. If she’d never done that, none of this would have happened.

She reluctantly pushed herself up from her bed. “Call Mark,” she told her phone.

Not that she expected him to answer and, indeed, he didn’t. He didn’t want to talk to her. That was all there was to it. She was in such a desperate state when his voicemail picked up the call that the apology popped out before she could stop it: “I’m sorry, Mark. Please forgive me. I’m going to make everything right again.”

She hung up and threw the phone across the bed. There were now two men who would no doubt not respond to her desperate sounding voicemails—although she didn’t understand why her uncle Adam wouldn’t, unless he’d lied about their family issues not coming between them.

As the phone lay across the bed from her, she noticed it was blinking with unread messages. She snatched it up. Well, Uncle Adam still loved her. He’d called her back—according to the time stamp, when she’d been writing her farcical article this morning. She put the phone on speaker to hear the content of his message:

What are you talking about, Stephie? I’ve never killed a snake in my life. When we were still in New Mexico, I used to put rattlesnakes in a bucket and move them off my property. I’ll tell you what, though. Samson was something else. He was your granddad’s helper and constant companion, before he ran away. He was a great dude. I practically grew up with him.

She closed her eyes. She would sleep for a few minutes, and that was all, and then she would send the links to Mark through a proxy server. The farcical news story would go to press tomorrow. As she drifted off to sleep, something inside her begged her not to sleep because she wasn’t yet satisfied with her efforts.

So she’d condemned JOI-Mark haters on the internet. Who cared? So she’d written an article that was clearly supposed to be farce. It wasn’t enough. If she wanted to make a bold statement, she had to write another front-page Albuquerque Daily article that would be stolen for SportSlut by yet another identity she created, as she was fairly certain the ones she’d used earlier would already be blocked.

Heart pounding, her mind snapped fully awake. Everybody loved Emmett the halftime clown. Emmett would give her the content for her front-page article. “Call Javi,” she told her phone.

The dear brother answered immediately, as if he’d been expecting to hear from her.

“I need your help,” she told him. “Can you set me up an interview with Emmett the halftime clown? And time is of essence. I need this to go to press tomorrow.”

“She’s right here, sitting beside me, watching me blow up the universe. At least in this game. Playing as Mark. Come over and proceed as before, Julia.” He snickered.


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Chapter 37: Living Memory

In which Oso visits Agnes one last time.

The following is the end of the record, as transcribed by Stephanie Mirabel Beñat Gonzales, though not the end of the one and only Oso Beñat, aka Tomi Beñat, as in Tomi Corp; grandfather of the aforementioned author, and one of the worst men who’s ever lived—in Mr. Beñat’s most humble opinion.

Bernadette was the therapist who suddenly needed therapy from one of her colleagues. She couldn’t cope with what had happened to Agnes. After undergoing therapy for several months, she took an extended vacation with her family in Socorro. Oso suspected that she confessed everything to the current priest at San Miguel, including the fire. That was all right. Some secrets were never meant to be kept.

For his part, he just kept on keeping on. He threw himself into work, raising his son, taking all his children camping when they visited him that summer. He sorely missed Bernadette, but she was better off without him. All those weeks she’d practically lived in his home, laughing over homemade casseroles with him and Agnes, had left her with emotional scars. That was how she couched it, anyway.

He put the Rio Grande house on the market and rented a smaller place until he could sell the beautiful colonial off. He had his real estate agent fishing for wealthy outsiders, as no local person was going to plunk down a good bit of cash on a house where a suicide had occurred. The place was essentially cursed to locals.

One night, a week after his three elder children had flown back to their mother’s place in San Diego, and hours after Adam was in bed, he found himself reaching for his bottle of Booker’s. He’d been doing this every night: drinking too much and stewing in his thoughts because he was afraid. For the first time in his godforsaken life, he was horribly afraid.

What had he done to the world? He had wrecked it. He had wrecked Agnes. He had wrecked his children’s lives. The eldest was a teenager now. Her attitude toward him said it all. She despised him, just as Bernadette despised him.

He held the bottle of bourbon and poured out a measure, but before he could drink it, allowing the potent liquor to do its work, his hands grew hot and shaky. His body tingled, and the air swirled around him. It was happening, another future memory. Another ridiculous memory that would mean nothing, that wouldn’t inform him how to get a bike back without burning down a house or how not to kill an old woman. And by the very nature of his visions being memories, he understood that he couldn’t change them. If he could change them, they wouldn’t be memories.

And then there was Bernadette. He’d had a vision of her, and sure, he’d gone to her house, had held her in his arms while Adam slept on the couch, but nothing had come of it. Nothing at all. Yet, the memories would come to him regardless of their usefulness.

The world around him grew very bright, almost painfully so. He was in a strange house he’d never seen before, in a breakfast room filled with the brightest morning sun he’d ever encountered.

“I’ll be right there,” a voice called.

He jolted. He recognized the voice, but it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be…she walked in the room carrying a tea tray, but with no odd gait. She had one fleshly leg, while the other appeared to be made of light or glass. And yet, it was still her. Agnes. His mouth went dry in a way that even tea couldn’t quench.

“I knew you would make it here,” she said. “I knew you would come visit me once I had my own house. My heart knew all along. Tea?”

“Yes, please,” he said with a hoarse voice.

“I’m so glad,” she said, her smile bright, “that I can finally serve you. I always wanted to when you came to visit me. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have my own tea tray.”

He reached for the cup and could feel the heat wafting from the china. A delightful steam rose, carrying the bright fragrance of Bergamot.

“Please sit down,” she said.

He obeyed her. But as he pulled the chair out to sit, he realized one of his own legs was also made of light or glass. Somehow, it seemed right that way because it was, after all, true.

And then the memory faded almost as quickly as it had begun, without his tasting a drop of the beverage. He stared at the undrunk bourbon on his desk. As far as he remembered, he hadn’t drunk any bourbon yet that night. He’d tried not to. He’d tried to be master of himself. How was it, then, that he was having future memories of dead people? Only a drunk could manage that.

He shook his head. “Snap out of it!” he shouted.

There was no snapping out of it. A feeling of dread wrapped its tendrils around his legs, moving upward to his chest. He tried to rise and make his way out of the office and into his bedroom, but he couldn’t because the tendrils of dread were wrapped so tightly around his stout fleshly legs. He stumbled and fell forward, onto his face.

“God!” he shouted into the carpet. “You aren’t real. She can’t be alive because you aren’t real.”

He worked his way back to his desk on his hands and knees and reached for his phone. With shaking fingers, he called Bernadette.

“Oso?” Her voice was groggy from sleep.

“Bernadette.”

“Are you okay?”

“No. I just saw Agnes.”

“You’ve either been drinking or dreaming.”

“No. You don’t understand. I have memories of the future. I’ve been having them since I was twelve.”

“That sounds like schizophrenia to me.”

“Don’t diagnose me. Last time, you called me a sociopath, now a schizophrenic. You need to listen to me, instead. Agnes used to get saved every week at the chapel. She believed in an afterlife. If she’s alive, that means her God is real, and I’ve completely lost. What am I going to do?”

“What did Agnes say when she spoke to you? Was she in your house, or what?”

“No, she was in an unfamiliar house. It was very nice and homey, with bright morning light coming in through the windows. She said, ‘I knew you would make it here. I knew you would come to visit me. My heart knew all along.’ And then she offered me tea.”

“She offered you tea?”

“Yes, it was beautiful. It was a home like she never had in life. Like I’ve never had, either. My mom never served her friends tea. Coffee if they were lucky. A joint or homemade brandy more likely.” He stopped, overwhelmed by the ache of longing in his chest. “Whatever she has, wherever it is, I want it.” He couldn’t stop himself. He began sobbing because the memory gave him the oddest sense of nostalgia he’d ever experienced.

“Oso, are you crying?”

There was no sense in lying to Bernadette. He’d known her too long. “Maybe. Yes.”

“I do believe you’ve found God.”

“How can that be? God isn’t real.”

“Apparently he is.”

His head spun with the new idea presented to it. He suddenly wanted to believe in God just so he could find that memory again. “Bernadette, I love you. I’ve always loved you. And I find myself in uncharted territory. Tell me what I should do.”

“You’re an explorer. Uncharted territory is your favorite place. But I’d be happy to go along with you for the adventure. If you want me to.”

“Does that mean you’ll marry me?”

“Yes.” She paused. “Oso, it should’ve always been you.”

“That’s what I tried to tell you years ago,” he said, the tears now rolling unchecked down his cheeks. “Make sure you listen to me in the future.”

Her only response was an indignant harrumph, but Oso didn’t care because he knew he’d finally won.


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Chapter 36: Deciduous Spring

In which only the weak get lonely.

Oso was in a deep, dreamless sleep when she woke him. She had done that one other time, when her pain was so intense she needed to be talked through it until her pain meds kicked in. He’d wrapped her up in a hug and fallen back to sleep while she talked; there was nothing sexually intimate in their relationship after all these years, but she was a human being, after all. And he had lost his wife. It felt nice to hold someone. He pushed back the blankets, inviting her in.

But this time, she appeared to be in another kind of panic altogether. Or what passed for panic in a woman like her. He glanced at his clock. It was almost dawn, and, therefore, nearly time for him to arise and perform the calisthenics that kept his old body moving.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was wandering around, and I heard your phone ringing.”

“What were you doing in my study?” It was the one room she wasn’t allowed to be in, unless it was to bring him a tray of coffee and food.

“You left it in the library.”

Most likely, she was lying, but he let it pass. He never left his phone in the library, as he never took it there in the first place. “Is that why you woke me? To tell me my phone was ringing?”

“I answered it.”

“My private phone? The one you’re not allowed to answer?”

“I figured it had to be an emergency at this hour. Especially since it was your granddaughter on the ID, and her face looked pale and awful.” She cast down her eyes, humbled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”

“Was it an emergency? I assume it was, or you wouldn’t be shaking me awake. I had a late night last night.”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry, Oso.”

She made him impatient. Of course, Bernadette had, too. “Just get to the point,” he snapped.

“She asked me who I was.”

He swung his feet over the side of the bed, and she handed him his cane. “That’s your emergency?”

“That wasn’t all she said. She was doing research for the biography, and she found a wedding picture of Gilly and me. She knows. If you don’t stop her, she’ll put it in the book.”

“I find myself not caring if she puts it in the book. But if it matters that much to you, I’ll make sure she doesn’t. Also, rest easy. She doesn’t know, or she wouldn’t be asking. This is how journalists trap you. They’re like cops. They make you think they already know the truth.”

“Your granddaughter would do that?”

Oso snorted. “She’s a journalist, isn’t she? Now leave me be while I exercise.”

“Isn’t it a little early for you to be up exercising?”

Her question didn’t deserve an answer, and so he gave her a long stare down until she retreated from the room. Once dressed in his sweat pants and jacket, he drank his usual energy beverage composed of raw eggs, mixed vegetable juices, and Tabasco. His morning exercise was done out of doors unless there was a crust of snow and ice on the ground, in which case, he used his sunroom. At his age, he had to worry a little about slipping and falling. Old people were always breaking their hips, and that was the end to their active lifestyles. Being spring, it was chilly, but not freezing, and he embraced the morning air with exuberance, his ear searching for the sound of cooing doves.

The sun was rising, the air was clean, and the world was not going to end today simply because his granddaughter had decided to conduct her own research. Of course she conducted her own research. What kind of journalist would she be if she relied solely on his and Gilly’s stories? He stretched upward and proceeded to move through a flowing series of Tai Chi poses.

No, he was not concerned in the least. After she discovered the truth, assuming she hadn’t already, he would command her to leave Cameron out of it. She could choose not to listen, but then he could choose not to put his stamp of approval of it as the official biography. Not that anyone would care.

It was the principal of the matter. It always was.

And at that thought, he lost his balance and landed on his ass. For a moment, he wasn’t sure he could get up. His heart pounded in his chest, his jaw ached, and his head hurt. He breathed in and out, meditating on nothing but the clear air of morning. Soon, the moment passed. He knew he could manage to push himself up, but at what cost?

He pressed the paging button on the fob in his pocket and waited for Cameron to rescue him. This was what life came to: needing an old woman to bring him his cane and a hand up.

“Oso! What happened? You have to stop this early morning exertion.”

“I have flat feet and bad balance. Just give me a hand up, will you?”

“Of course.”

“And then walk with me to my study and leave me be. Make sure Devon doesn’t disturb me. I’m going to make a recording for Stephanie with the end of my story. Make sure she gets it if something happens to me.”

Her gray eyes stared coldly at his face. Did he detect a hint of desperation, or maybe even sadness? “What do you expect to happen?”

“I’m tired. My doctor’s been warning me about my blood pressure. I expect to have a heart attack, to be frank with you.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your frankness.”

She turned quickly away, but not quickly enough. Oso had a sixth sense for others’ primal emotions, and she was experiencing fear in its most basic form. The cloud of fear emanated from her body.

“I’ll make sure you’re cared for after I’m gone,” he reassured her.

“I have money, Oso,” she said. “I have savings and a retirement account. When I saw your advertisement in the paper for a personal assistant, I didn’t inquire about it because I needed the money. I was lonely and needed a friend.”

He almost laughed at the irony—but then reminded himself that life was too short for irony. Why give the woman more pain to endure? So she was her own self-fulfilling prophecy. Most people were.

Instead, he smiled and took her hand. “I’m not dead yet. And neither is Gillilander.”

“Gillilander.” She cocked her head, as if he was an idea to ruminate over. “I suppose he might accept me if I made his tea properly.”

“He might.”

She tugged her hand from his, and her demeanor settled back into its steady, unemotional frame. “I’ll let you get your work done.”

“Yes, bring me a pot of coffee and a pitcher of water. I’ll be dictating for a while.”

She nodded, dressed to the nines as always, her heels click-clacking down the hallway.


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Chapter 35: Gilly’s Shadow

In which Gilly finds his youth again!

Gilly had gotten a bee in his bonnet, as the saying went, for an old CAD design of his. He’d spent his day thinking about his youth, those beautiful heady days. All right, he’d hated life just as much then as now, but he’d had a vision when he was young. It was purer, simpler than creating beautiful, tortured, lobotomized creatures that had later morphed into the mindless robotics of today.

He ransacked his garage until his back cramped from bending over file boxes. And then he found the right era of files and finally, finally, there it was. He didn’t know if he was joyful or disappointed by its reappearance in his life. What if he could start fresh with simple designs such as this? It was basically a smooth, sleek, athletic leg prosthetic. It was ergonomic rather than robotic.

He could—he gasped at the thought of it—fire up an old 3D printer and produce them himself. If he could get a hold of the materials, it would be simplicity itself. And then he could go out to the Minä camps and fit them on the Minäs who had lost their legs to cancerous tumors. Perhaps he could design hands and feet, too.

He sat with a cup of tea, a plate of crackers, and his thoughts spinning with good ideas he hadn’t been enlightened with for years. Long about nine in the evening, the doorbell buzzed, startling him from his delightful reverie.

At first, he didn’t move from his comfortable chair. Anger got the best of him, though, and he had to find out who would dare knock on his door at this hour. What if it was the government? What if they had finally come to confiscate the literature he’d written on true conspiracies?

He checked his videofeed. It was none other than the granddaughter of Oso Beñat, the man who had distracted him from the purity of his imagination in the first place, the man who wanted to be like God, if there was a god, which there wasn’t.

He opened the door a crack. “What do you want?”

“Uncle Gilly, I need your help.”

Her voice sounded desperate. His being needed by such a young woman softened him up a little. “With what?”

“I need to hack into the shadow internet. I know you know how to do it, and I can’t use my home computer or office computer. If I did, I would lose my job.”

“I might lose my job!”

“You don’t have a job. You’re retired.”

“I could spend my last days in prison.”

“Are you telling me you don’t already regularly hack into the shadow internet?”

He sniffed, indignant. “Hack into it? Why should I do that? I created the shadow internet.”

“You did not.”

He opened the door and let her in. “I did. I was one of the original creators. All the years and years worth of free information was going to be lost forever if the government had its way. It would have been internet apocalypse. Oh, by the way, your boyfriend just received a lifetime ban from all versions of the not-shadow internet.”

“What?” Her doe eyes opened wide. “You know about what’s going on with Mark?”

“Would you sit down? My back is killing me.”

“This is no time to sit down and relax! Why was he banned from the internet?”

“I’m almost ninety, for Pete’s sake. Stand if you want, but come in the living room where I can sit.”

“All right. What are you doing there?” she asked, pointing at his CAD drawings. “Designing something new?”

“No, it’s an old design. A beautiful ergonomic prosthetic leg. I was thinking of firing up the old 3D printers and printing some to help people who’ve lost their limbs. Minäs, too. As annoying as they are, I’m like your granddad. I think of them as my wayward children. What do you think of that?”

“Uncle Gilly, that’s a great idea. Why don’t you adopt a Minä like granddad did?”

Gilly glared at her, which apparently inspired her to jump from the chair she’d sat in for all of thirty seconds.

“What about Mark, though? Why was he banned?”

“I’m surprised you don’t know. He’s your boyfriend.”

“I’ve been busy. Talking to Granddad. Talking to my brother. Not talking to Mark because he broke up with me.”

“What an idiot. Who needs him? Let the boy rot.”

“Uncle Gilly, I want to help him. That’s why I need your hacking skills. But I need to know the whole story. Please tell me why he was banned.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“My undying love?” she tried.

“Useless. SportSlut offered him a job with the caveat that he post a rebuttal of the article they stole from him. His so-called rebuttal turned out to be worse than the first. Before SportSlut could pull it, it had already gone viral. So he got the ban. First things first. The Daily should be suing SportSlut for copyright infringement.”

“They won’t. They can’t afford to sue, unless a rich benefactor offers to pay for a lawyer.” She smiled sweetly at him.

Gilly narrowed his eyes.

Her smile turned to a frown. “Mr. Mast is a wuss, though. He’ll probably try to pretend that Mark never worked there and keep going just like before, hoping everybody will forget about it.”

“And what do you want the shadow internet for, pray tell? What are your plans, girlie?”

“Can I have some crackers first? I’m so hungry I could die.”

“Get them yourself. You know where they are. Just don’t make a mess.”

He couldn’t stand the thought of her grubby paws rummaging through his cupboards, though, so he hefted himself up with his cane and followed her into the kitchen.

“I assume,” he said, “what you want is to find all the background information you can on the ringleaders who are after Mark, write articles on their secret pasts, and post them on the front pages of every major news site on the internet. Expose them.”

She looked at him in what was clearly feigned surprise. “Uncle Gilly, you read my mind.”

“Plant that research everywhere, but remember, it won’t be your primary mode of attack.”

“What do you mean? What’s my primary mode of attack, then?”

He chuckled. “You actually thought that would be it, huh? That good journalistic exposés would sway the populace?”

She had the dignity to blush prettily. “Um, yeah?”

“So young and naive.” He rubbed his hands together in glee. “What do you do for a living exactly?”

“Write bylines, mostly,” she muttered. “I want to do serious journalism, though. That’s the point behind the biography.”

“Stick to the serious stuff with your book. Don’t mistake me, girlie; you’ll still write those exposés and plant them everywhere. But you’re primary mode of attack will be writing something like your bylines. Memes, we used to call them. Punchy images and expressions that will puncture them to their very hearts.”

“Oh.”

He could see the wheels turning in her eyes. If he was sizing her up correctly, she was excellent at being punchy and on-point. Oso used to know exactly what to say to hurt his detractors, too, in a way that Gilly couldn’t fathom. Not that Gilly would admit his own shortcomings to the darling granddaughter sitting before him. At the moment, Gilly would pretend to be the guiding expert, prodding her to success. “Can you manage?”

She nodded. “Yes, if you set me up with a few new writer identities. Those sites will take any unpaid writers who provide them with money-making content. The hard part will be getting them to the front page.”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong. That’s the easy part. I have a few identities of my own that leak conspiracy theories to the public.”

“Why am I not surprised?” she asked, as she carefully arranged the crackers on two plates with her bare hands.

“You should be wearing gloves. You’re contaminating the food.”

“Whatever, Uncle Gilly. I’m also going to write human interest stories demonstrating that the athletes identify as androgynes, just as Mark said, and furthermore, that they view Mark as a hero. That’s true, by the way. Javi knows them. But I’m going to post them in the farcical section of the daily, and then leak them one by one to the major news sites, who don’t know the difference and don’t check. The farcical section is the only way I’ll get them past Mr. Mast.”

Gilly rubbed his hands together in anticipation and tried not to cackle. Being altruistic to sick Minäs was well and good, but this was more fun. His heart skipped with joy. He felt young again—her energy was contagious.

After they imbibed their snack of crackers and milk, she cleaned up the plates and glasses—under Gilly’s supervision—and then they both sat at Gilly’s work machine, researching the databases on the shadow net for every little piece of condemning information they could find. Long about dawn, after he’d dozed off in his chair, she shook him awake. The face gazing down at him was pale and tired, certainly, but more than that, it was confused.

“What do you want?” he asked her. She had woken him from a pleasant dream, in which white butterflies were circling in a cloud around a mammoth, friendly bear.

“I just got curious. You know, biographies should have pictures, right?”

“Memes, you mean?”

“No, I’m done with those.”

“One is never done with memes.”

“For now I am. I went searching for a wedding picture of you and your first wife to put in our bio.”

“‘Our bio?’” He tried for snide, but his voice warbled a little too much. “Did you find one?” he asked in a distant, measured tone.

“Yes, but…”

He studied her, reading the questions in her face, but preferring not to answer.

“Cameron looks just like Granddad’s assistant. Is she a daughter? A Minä designed to look like Cameron? Granddad hinted at something of the sort.”

“Or perhaps just a nuisance that won’t go away. You should learn to leave some things alone. This is like the Agnes story. It isn’t going in your biography.”

“I never said it was. I won’t put it in unless it’s relevant.”

“That’s exactly like you journalists. It doesn’t matter if it’s relevant. Ask your granddad. I’m not telling you.”

“Fine, I will,” she said, and pulled out her phone. “Not that I haven’t asked a gazillion times, but now I have more information in my arsenal.”

Stephanie hung up the phone, after having a fruitless conversation with someone other than Oso.

“Well?” Gilly asked.

She answered. I…” He watched as the truth hit her, lighting up her face.

She turned back to her search and typed in the terms: Telomerase anti-aging study participants. The medical articles wouldn’t give participants’ names, though, so the search would turn out to be a dead-end for her. Still, she had figured it out.

“Did they all die of cancer, Uncle Gilly?” she asked, as she scrolled through the articles.

“I’m sure you can find that out from your reading.”

“The injections were halted after the participants began to develop tumors, it says.” She read a little further down the page. “Most died of cancer eventually. A few held out longer. One woman, who refused to take part in further studies, didn’t develop cancer for almost fifty years. When she was diagnosed, she admitted to having taken part in the original study. That’s Cameron, isn’t it? She’s the anomaly. It all makes sense now. The assistant is Cameron, and she looks like she’s in her forties, but instead she’s old and dying of cancer. What I don’t understand is why she wears those hats if she doesn’t have big ears and hasn’t lost her hair. Unless she doesn’t like her wigs? Oh, maybe that’s it. She wears wigs and hats because she’s bald.”

Gilly neither denied nor confirmed the story. It was best not to. In a distant way, he still cared for Cameron and knew that what Cameron desired above all—perhaps even greater than money—was privacy. She had chronically ditched her monetary relationships before her vulnerability could be unmasked by love. He was lucky he’d gotten as far as he had with her. As long as he lived, their night together in Socorro would be one of his best memories.


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Chapter 34: Javi the Androgyne

In which the two spies meet!

After the goosebumps faded, however, she was exhausted. At this point, she wanted to do nothing but sit all day in the office, back to her bylines. She drifted to sleep to the lull of her vehicle, while meditating on the most boring bylines she could imagine: Local Woman Discovers GM Aphid on Prize-Winning Rosebush; Governor Sanchez Delivers His Most Engaging Political Speech For No One to Hear While Riding in Hot Air Balloon. When her phone rang, it shook her awake from black and white dreams.

“Uncle Adam?” she sleepily said.

“No, it’s Javi. Were you asleep while driving?”

“No. I was expecting a call from Uncle Adam.”

“Yes, you were. You were asleep while driving a car that could malfunction at any second and drive you off a cliff while coming down the mountain. That’s right. I know about you visiting Granddad.”

“I did tell you about it when Mark and I came over for dinner.”

“But you thought I wasn’t paying any attention!”

“Whatever.” Stephanie cleared her throat and stared at the road her car was staying on with all the precision a clunker like this was capable of. “Why are you calling me? You haven’t called me for…what is it, three or four years now?”

“I heard what happened with Mark, and I want to help.”

“You heard he broke up with me? How? Nobody knows but Granddad. And Mark.”

“Hold it there just a second, little sis. Mark broke up with you? He’s perfect for you. I felt it the instant I shook his hand. How can that be?”

What had he heard about, then? Oh, probably the controversy over his front-page story on the true nature of sports. Idiot. Stephanie smacked herself to wake up her mind. “He won’t apologize, and he thinks I’m a whore.”

“Did you sleep with his friends, or what? You don’t really do that, do you, Steph? You’re one of these prudes who avoids relationships.”

“No, I didn’t, and no, I don’t avoid relationships.” She didn’t dignify the accusation of prudishness with a denial.

Javi heaved a gusty sigh. Relationships outside the virtual world were not his forte; he was probably sorry he’d called. “Look, I don’t care. I’m sure he’ll take you back if you apologize to him.”

“Apologize for what?”

“It doesn’t matter. But don’t wait around for him to apologize to you. If you want him back, just apologize for whatever and I’m sure he’ll accept it. Don’t even give specifics. Just say, I’m sorry.”

“I can’t believe I’m taking relationship advice from you of all people.”

“I didn’t call to give you relationship advice.” His voice rose with his typical shrill impatience. “Come over to my place, and let’s talk.”

“Now? I’m hungry, tired, and I’ve had the worst day of my life.”

“God, Steph, the man you love just lost his job and all you can think about is yourself. Emmett’s bringing pizza. You can have some.”

Emmett? The clown he’d de-committed himself from? “Pizza will make me fat.”

This protestation, however, was met with silence. Javi always did this. He branded people with the most cutting assessments and then never repeated them again. He didn’t have to—a branding never faded. And he was right. All she could think about was herself. And Gilly. And Granddad. And Mark. What he said wasn’t true, the manipulative brat!

“All right, I’m coming over. Where do you live, again?”

Nobody knew where Javi lived, except Javi. And Emmett, apparently. Stephanie was astonished that he cared enough about Mark’s fate to give her directions to his game testing lab, where he also slept. To be fair, he had to keep his lair secret because he had the ability to make or break people in the gaming industry. There were a number of people who wanted him dead, in fact. Nobody knew quite how it had happened, how Javi the Androgyne had become the voice of the industry, but some said it was because his visage, in his video commentaries, was so pretty and yet so boyishly handsome at the same time that he resembled the latter models of Minäs—the Devon variety before they’d been lobotomized. His ears were a little oversized, too.

It turned out that Javi lived in a regular stuccoed house, in a regular neighborhood off Zuni. In other words, he was hiding in plain sight under an assumed name, which was why he didn’t invite his family over. If he did, his cover would be blown. He advised Stephanie to park two blocks over and to enter through his back gate that faced an alleyway. And their code names would be Burt and Julia.

Stephanie hoped she had fully understood the directions, as she didn’t want to break into a stranger’s backyard. She needn’t have worried. Her brother was waiting in the alleyway to make sure she chose the correct yard. He was smoking a cigarette, and judging by the pile of cigarettes at his feet, this was a regular habit of his. There would be no eyebrows raised over unusual behavior, such as being an androgyne or wearing a clown suit, although Stephanie was certain there had been many eyebrows raised over the smoking habit. The bans over fat food may have been lifted, but the stigma attached to cigarettes went above and beyond government regulations—which, by the way, hadn’t been lifted regarding cigarettes.

“Julia!” he preened when he saw her, air-kissing each of her cheeks. “I love you, darling! That’s my girl.”

“Burt!” she cried out in mock flirtation, while inwardly shuddering. Her brother was anything but charming, and she was anything but flirtatious.

He ushered her inside, his generically pretty, yet boyish visage not letting on to the game until they were safely ensconced away from probing eyes and ears, inside his New Mexican haven, complete with fake horno fireplace and sunset-scapes on the wall. Then his usual misanthropy fell like a veil over his fine cheekbones.

“You remember Emmett from TV, I’m sure,” he said, with not an ounce of politeness or charm.

Stephanie examined the woman sitting on the couch, absorbed in a game. No, she really didn’t remember this Emmett, as this Emmett was lacking a red bulb nose and makeup and baggy clown clothing. This Emmett looked startlingly like…Stephanie’s brother Javi. Stephanie blinked to make sure she wasn’t seeing things after the long day. The two could have been twins. Not only twins, but identical twins, as they both appeared to be the same nondescript sex.

Emmett lowered her VR goggles and looked up at Stephanie with a scowl, just as Javi might have done if she’d interrupted his game play.

“Nice to meet you, Emmett.”

“Always a pleasure,” Emmett mumbled.

Stephanie had always suspected that clowns weren’t merely sad under all that makeup, but grumpy as well. Emmett confirmed the suspicion, at least as a single case study.

Javi led her to the kitchen, where there was a homemade pizza cut into squares on a cookie sheet. “Help yourself,” he said.

Tears sprang to Stephanie’s eyes as nostalgia overwhelmed her. This pizza appeared to be a recipe from the DHS health guide recipe book, one with a cauliflower crust, tomato sauce, Nutrilla cheese substitute, scrambled tofu, asparagus tips, and one olive slice per square. The olive slice was supposed to provide a day’s worth of essential fatty acids, while the tomato sauce provided a fruit source to balance the nutrition.

The year Stephanie was born, the government changed the legal designation of tomatoes from vegetable back to fruit, based off scientific analysis as well as in conjunction with the DHS health guide recipes, which were short on low-carb fruit sources. It caused massive upheaval in tomato growing regions, with rioters hurling cans of tomatoes through the windows of shops they’d set on fire.

“You’re crying over pizza,” Javi spoke the obvious.

“I’m worn out, and it looks just like mom’s.”

“Which means it’s disgusting. Emmett’s a vegan. She loves these old recipes.” He slid a piece onto a paper plate and took a bite. “I eat it because I love Emmett.”

“Do you love her, for real, Javi?”

“Yeah she’s like the sister I never had.”

Stephanie shoved him on the shoulder in response.

He smiled slightly and air-kissed her cheek. “Javi has a silly sister named Stephanie. Burt has no siblings. Let’s get started.”

He slammed on his sunglasses and sat down at the dining room table. For unknown reasons, Javi, aka Burt, always wore sunglasses indoors. He was wearing his hair bleached blonde these days, and with his green eyes, he might have passed for a Germanic type, if it weren’t for his brown skin and Castillian nose.

“The only way of dealing with these twats that are tormenting Mark is to turn the tables on them.”

“What do you mean? Are they tormenting Mark? I mean, I know they were protesting outside the Daily building, but he already quit his job. What more do they want?”

Javi shook his head as if in disbelief. “Stephanie, Stephanie, do you know nothing about the world?”

“I know a few things.”

“You haven’t been on the internet today. The masses outside Albuquerque are piling on. They’re asking for his head. He’s getting death threats. He hasn’t been doxxed yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”

“Why? All he did was write an article for an Albuquerque paper that isn’t even part of the mainstream news.”

“The article was picked up and run in full by SportSlut. It’s gone viral.”

“Shit. He’ll never get a job anywhere.”

“Eh, non issue. Heck, I’d give him a job, put him on video or something doing gaming news.”

“He does have a sparkle in his eyes, doesn’t he? He’d look good on video. His eyes are bluer than any other eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Javi cleared his throat. “Focus, Steph. Now what you need to do is make use of that stupid farcical news section you have that the average person believes is real. First step: do some biopics on those androgyne sports stars. Get the public behind you.”

“Won’t that just make things worse? Maybe give someone leeway to sue?”

“It’s the farcical section; it has a disclaimer for a reason. Besides, they’re all behind Mark. Maybe not Toby Mann, who’s one of the idiots demanding his head. The other sports stars. They loved Mark’s article. They rarely get acknowledgment for their art.”

Millions of dollars, apparently, weren’t enough acknowledgment for them. “How do you know they’re behind Mark?” Stephanie glanced over at Emmett, who was absorbed in her game, not paying attention to the world at all. Normally, Javi was, too. How did he know any of this? Stephanie’s mind reeled.

“I know most of them in the virtual sports world. You might say we’re good friends. Look, Mark has become an overnight star. People are role-playing him, using him as their identicon. Of course, there are trolls who are out nuking all the little Marks, but that’s irrelevant. Mark is a minor deity now.”

“Then what?”

“After you get the public on your side, then you play dirty.”

“I don’t know what it means to play dirty.”

“You’re such a liar, Stephie,” Javi said, and pushed the pizza tray toward her. “For someone too hungry to come over, who practically cried at the sight of nostalgic pizza, you’re showing very little interest in the food.”

“Granddad has spoiled me with real food.”

“Ah, well, don’t let him spoil you from your devious ways, if that’s even possible. You remember your subterfuge as a child? You were like Wormtongue, and you always got me in trouble. Quiet and deadly.”

Stephanie’s heart sank within her. Although there was something in the way of truth in the accusation, at least pertaining to her childhood self, she refused to admit it to her brother. “Whatever.”

Silence filled the space, just as with the previous accusation. This branding gave her some discomfort, however, because of its truth. She couldn’t cast it off as she’d done with the last one.

“You know what to do,” he said, finally. “They’re androgynes. We’re all androgynes. Figure it out.”

“I’m not. And neither is Mark.” Javi laughed at her. Sometimes, she hated her brother. “I need to talk to Granddad or Uncle Gilly. I’m not sure if Mark will talk to me. I need to go. I need to sleep. No, I need to talk to Uncle Gilly.” She rose from her seat. “Thanks, Javi. I mean Burt. See you later, Emmett.”

Emmett raised her head, but didn’t remove the goggles. “I just fucking hacked this football game and created a team of 5000 Marks. I’m so getting banned,” she said.

“Nice!” Javi high-fived his twin. “Don’t forget to use the back gate. Would you like some pizza for the road?”

She waved to him, but didn’t answer. Sometimes her brother didn’t deserve an answer.


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