Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 18: The Prototype for Love

In which Gilly’s ghosts dance with an ice queen!

Gilly peered out the spyhole on his door. Of course, he’d already spied her on his video feed, emerging from her decrepit vehicle and stepping like a ballerina up to the gate and through the weeds. What did she want? Why was she here?

He’d already determined that he wanted nothing to do with the book any longer. It was Oso’s story. It wasn’t his. If he wanted to tell his side of the story, he’d do it himself, write his own. He’d already written many. Why he’d ever given in to the cockamamie idea of an Oso biopic was beyond him. His granddaughter was green, and not simply because one video was set to night vision. The other was set to thermal, and in that one, she appeared a glowing angel radiating energy.

His phone buzzed. He looked at it in disdain. It buzzed again. Finally, he hit the speaker.

“What do you want?”

“I want to have an interview. Didn’t we set this up? Come on, Uncle Gilly. There are bugs out here.”

“I’m busy tonight. I’d prefer it if you went away.”

“I’ll go away if you give me an interview. This book was supposed to have your perspective.”

“My little bit part, you mean? That is what you mean.”

“Oh, Gilly, just let me in! It’s chilly out here, and I hear you have some delightful tea inside. I want you to tell me your feelings about the fire.”

“You aren’t going away, are you?”

Her image outside the door was obviously distorted. It gave her a look of innocence: big eyes looking up at him, hands in pleading prayer form, one ankle crossed over the other. He remembered when she was a child. Gilly didn’t like children. Sure, he’d had three of his own—boys—but he still didn’t like children. She had always been sweet, though. Her eyes were…special. He groaned.

“Uncle Gilly?”

“All right. You can come in, but no tea, and I’m not talking about the fire.”

“Okay.”

He unlatched the door locks and bolts and let her in. Remaining true to his threat, he took her straight through to the seating area, bypassing the kitchen. He wanted tea. He loved his tea and crackers. However, he wanted to keep this interview as cold and concise as possible. In his heart, he was punishing her for…for…he could hardly admit it to himself. He was punishing her for being Oso’s beloved granddaughter. No other reason necessary—that was it.

“It’s kind of cold in here,” she said. “No heat or fire tonight?”

“If you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s springtime. I don’t heat my home in the spring.”

That wasn’t precisely true. Most of the time, he got up early, put on his sweater and slippers, made tea, and started in on his work, forgetting about the cold. Sometimes, he forgot to eat. That was why he had crackers. Of course, he liked the way they tasted, too. They were delicate and crispy on the tongue, with a mild salt tang.

Sometimes he drank milk or went out for a hamburger at the reopened Blake’s Lotaburger. For a number of years, it had been transformed into Lotasalad. Now it was back to the taste of his childhood, so warm and happy. No, his childhood had never been warm or happy, but he’d always been warm and happy when his mom chose Lotaburger over her poor excuse for cooking.

In fact, he realized he would like a green-chile cheeseburger right at that moment; he had been preoccupied with his work and had forgotten to break open the fresh package of crackers. He had eaten nothing that day.

“Uncle Gilly?”

“What?” he growled.

“I was just asking if you would like to talk about any of your romantic adventures.”

“You mean when I moved out to San Diego to be with Oso?”

The look on her face was priceless. She might have even gasped a little. “You had a romantic adventure with my granddad?”

“Yes, we created our first prototype. She was beautiful. It was such an elegant design. Mine, of course. Oso doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body.”

“No, I meant romantic interests with women. Real women. You were married once upon a time.”

Gilly felt the sneer crawl from his lip to his eyes. “I was married twice before I got over it. Women. Vile creatures.”

“Do you really believe that? Are all of us vile?”

“Yes. All of you. But if you’d like to hear about my first marriage, I could bore you to death.”

“I don’t find romantic stories boring. This is the kind of human interest part that the public wants to read.”

“You would know about that. All right, then. She was a high dollar prostitute. The most gorgeous woman I’d ever met. She also kept her mouth shut and stayed on her back where she belonged.”

Stephanie might have shuddered a little. “Why wouldn’t she stay on her back if you were paying her to? This is not the kind of human interest that will get you sympathy.”

“Who said I wanted sympathy? I’m hungry. I’m going to have some milk and crackers. Can’t talk about my first marriage on an empty stomach. Do you want some?”

“No, but I’ll have some tea. It’s kind of cold…”

“No tea. Snack, and then we get started.”

Just as Gilly was getting married for the first time, Oso was experiencing drama with his second divorce. He’d had three children with his first wife, and they’d unamicably worked out a scheme whereby Oso would have the children over the summer vacation. His wife had tried to block him from having even those not-quite three months, but as Oso had made his first millions by that time and was therefore able to hire a very good lawyer—the same lawyer who had, in fact, put together a prenuptial agreement favoring Oso before the marriage had ever occurred. According to the prenup, his wife would get nothing from him if she was proven to be unfaithful. As she was. Oso had the ability to hire a very good private investigator, too.

The same was true regarding the second wife, except they’d only had one child together.

But this part of the story was not meant to be about Oso, despite that Oso’s life often threatened to eclipse Gilly’s. Gilly had also become quite rich by that time, as Oso had offered him the use of his own lawyer for the purpose of patenting and selling his designs. They’d also worked up their own start-up, called Tomi Corp after Oso’s christened name. Yes, it was the very same Tomi Corp that continues to build robotics to this very day.

After they’d been married in a private ceremony, Gilly and his bride Cameron went home to Socorro to visit his mother. Despite what Gilly claimed, she was not a prostitute, but a highly paid escort. According to her—and she was adamant on this point—she didn’t provide sexual services. She had slept with Gilly after he had hired her to be his date at a business dinner, but only because she’d immediately fallen in love with him. Or so she claimed.

It was more likely that the business dinner had enlightened her to the possibilities of being married to him, but it was all the same to Gilly. It was clear he was not only moderately wealthy, but had the way paved for him to becoming one of the wealthiest men in America. And suddenly she was his.

She was flawless to look at, too. He could almost imagine he loved her. Of course, he didn’t, and he ditched her long before he became one of the wealthiest men in America. Not that he didn’t settle a good chunk of change on her. Unlike Oso, he had no desire to find out whether she was unfaithful to him, so he paid out what his own prenuptial agreement had promised he would in the case of a friendly divorce.

She was happy; he was happy. They had no children together, and there were no further complications, according to Gilly.

Before the divorce, though, when he gazed on her and pretended he loved her, he wasn’t sure he was happy. Unlike his first attempt at living with a woman, this situation didn’t violate his standards. Cameron was far too placating and people-pleasing to leave her things on the floor or bring cats into his house. She also dieted perpetually and wouldn’t travel within ten feet of the ice cream aisle. This woman was first and foremost a businesswoman. She wouldn’t jeopardize her position by eating ice cream, even in secret. Or if she did (keyword being secret), Gilly found no traces of it.

This didn’t make Cameron a particularly fun woman. She was only exciting to look at. The intelligent look hidden in the depths of her gray eyes remained hidden; conversation with her was perfunctory, and always directed back at Gilly and his projects.

That was why, while visiting his mom after their wedding, he left Cameron and his mom to chat over coffee. Maybe Cameron would say something real or meaningful if she were speaking to another female in a modest manufactured home. Maybe. Gilly had no idea. He’d informed her of his modest origins, and she hadn’t blinked an eye. When she saw the trailer and property it sat on, she still didn’t blink an eye. When he introduced her to his mom, she shook hands and treated his mom with utmost cordiality.

He had to hand it to her: she was a gorgeous blonde ice queen who never stepped out of character. At least she wouldn’t be a hindrance to his work. He reassured himself with that notion as he walked through the same old neighborhoods he’d roamed as a child. He didn’t need a woman to love. He needed one who wasn’t a hindrance. Who needed love, anyway? Love was for teenagers and pop music.

There was Oso’s house. The crazy parentals still lived there. He might visit them if he felt like it. He could share a joint with Oso’s dad. That might be nice, like having a beer with an old friend. Bernadette’s parents still lived in the same place, too. They’d built a fence, though, and the back porch and all its foliage was now hidden from view. All Gilly could see was the new single wide someone had placed on the property where…the property where…Agnes had once lived with her stepfather.

Gilly swallowed hard and tried to remain impassive. Agnes had disappeared after that day, and he had no idea where she was now. He glanced over at the fowl pecking around in the Beñat yard and thought again about going over there. The household was bound to be even more chaotic since Oso and Alex had flown the coop. There were eight younger siblings, though Gilly had no idea how many were still living at home. He shuddered at the memories of the filth and clutter in the house. By contrast, his mother had always kept an impeccable home.

In a fit of despondency, he walked down the alley that had saved their asses. Anyone could have tossed a cigarette from the alleyway. It had been so dry, and the weeds were overgrown. It was inevitable that the house went up like dry tinder. He tried to block the thoughts. He would never forgive himself. No, he couldn’t really, could he? He was responsible. He was twelve and knew that playing with fire was foolish. He had no excuse. None.

He kept going until he was standing in front of Bernadette’s family home. It was such a nice home, so comfortable looking. He walked up the front walkway, which was created with stones, and then found himself numbly climbing the steps to the front door. He knocked before he realized what he was doing.

Bernadette’s mom opened the door. She looked at him in confusion for a few moments before recognition lit up her beautifully warm brown eyes. “Gilly!” she said. “Look at you! You’re such a man now. Come in! Do you wanna Coke?”

“Sure,” he said.

She led him through a living room full of potted plants and a few Catholic icons and images, including an image of Jesus with a poem written across the front. It was so familiar and so unfamiliar at the same time.

“Iced tea or soda?”

He smiled at the soothing words. Having a Coke in New Mexico meant having any refreshing beverage you could find at the usual mini mart beverage fountain.“Iced tea would be nice, thanks.”

He sat at the kitchen table as she poured him a glass from her iced tea pitcher. “So how are you?” she asked. “I hear you and Oso are doing well out in California.”

“Yes, business is good. How’s Bernadette?”

“Oh, she’s fine. Doing better since Steve’s crash. Re-started her therapy business in Albuquerque. Don’t you guys talk to each other any more? I know things didn’t work out between her and Oso, but you three used to be such good friends.”

Gilly laughed under his breath. They were good friends, somehow in spite of the botched romantic relationship Oso had with her. Oso had always bragged he’d sacked college girls when he was thirteen, but Gilly didn’t believe it. Bernadette was his first, had to be.

“We still talk sometimes. I haven’t talked to her since she had her Italy vacation.”

“You should call her up. She’d be happy to hear from you.”

He wasn’t so sure. Since her husband—Steve—had died, she’d been reticent to call up Oso, the one person from childhood she previously talked to several times a month. “Maybe we’ll get together while I’m in New Mexico,” he said, even though he knew he wouldn’t.

“What brings you back home?” she asked, just simple curiosity. Or was it? Maybe she hoped he would get romantically involved with Berna. He was rich, and he wasn’t the boy who’d stolen Berna’s virginity. That was probably enough.

“I’m here with my new wife, Cameron.”

“Oh! Congratulations. You little devil, never telling anyone. Why didn’t we get invited to your wedding?”

“We didn’t invite anyone, not even my mom.” It was true; the people who’d shown up had done so despite not being invited. That included Oso and the aspiring actress he’d hooked up with post divorce.

“You didn’t invite your mom?” Her neck craned forward, her eyes opened wide, as though flabbergasted at the disrespect of the young generation.

But Gilly was not going to be guilt-tripped into apologizing for his personal wedding decisions. “Nah, it was nothing special, nothing to make her fly out to SoCal over.”

“I’m sure your mom’s happy to see you now. If Bernadette ever remarries, I won’t care if she has a wedding. I just want grandkids.”

Gilly nodded, feeling grim. Bernadette had suffered a miscarriage, which had spawned hours of angsty conversation with Oso when Oso had better things to do. But would-be grandmothers were notorious for wanting the impossible. That was the totality of life for them—the continuation of the generations of men, and specifically their generations.

Gilly had to acknowledge there wasn’t much to life without actual life. The furtherance of the human race still made him gloomy, though. He didn’t want to raise a child in this world. Furthermore, he didn’t want to raise a child with Cameron, who was too cold for motherhood. Even at the start, he didn’t imagine the marriage would last, anyway. Why bring kids into the mix?

As he stared at the older woman sitting opposite him, he realized she didn’t think or care about that reality. Or it didn’t appear she did, as unconcerned as she looked, drinking her tea and tapping her manicured nails on the tabletop. Gilly didn’t think anyone in Bernadette’s family had ever divorced. Maybe there was a black sheep, somewhere. There had to be. But Gilly remembered standing at the fringes of their neighborhood barbecues and watching the intact couples dancing to music together, laughing, drinking. Their intact culture made him cold. Even if he had it, he wouldn’t want it.

He cleared his throat and tried to sound friendly, conversational. “Do you know what happened to Agnes?” he asked. “Do you know where she is?”

She gave him the same confused expression she had when he’d appeared at her door. She had creases between her eyes, not deep ones, but creases nonetheless.

“Agnes?” It was more of a vague statement than a question.

And the look wasn’t actually confusion. It was contextual. People came and went in Socorro, but her culture remained there, intact. They were like Hobbits. They never left the Shire. Anyone who left the Shire was no longer a part of the culture. Agnes’s family never had been a part of the culture, as they had been implants from the East—while, of course, Gillilander’s family had longer roots in this state than even the Spaniards. Still, his dad was an Anglo, and he was part Anglo. And he had eventually left, just like his dad.

“Yeah, do you know where she went after the fire? I’ve always wondered.”

“Huh. How interesting. I thought there was an agreed on silence with you three. Or one of you might have asked before this.”

“I saw the new trailer there, and I…just wondered.”

“Honest to God, I don’t know. I didn’t know her when she lived in front of me, and I didn’t know her after that. I heard she got moved to a care home in Albuquerque. She’d had a lobotomy, you know. Before that happened. I used to think she was mentally ill, and then Lynette from mental health told me she’d had a lobotomy when she lived with her stepfather in Virginia. Her real dad died in a car accident, and she lost her leg and got brain damage that caused seizures. That was what the lobotomy was for.”

“A lobotomy? I didn’t know they did those anymore.”

“They do for special cases. Not here. But in some places.” She chuckled. “That was a pretty good rhyme.”

Gilly paused for a moment. He hated to bring up the past, what had been eating away at his soul for years. But there was a dark shadowy compulsion inside his gut.

“You look troubled,” Bernadette’s mom said. What was her name, anyway? How could he be so ignorant? Sophie. That was it.

“Did you ever meet Agnes’s stepfather?”

Sophie shook her head. “Yes, I met him, but didn’t know him.” She paused. “He was creepy. She was always trying to run away from him.”

“Oh, really?” His tone sounded flat, even to his own ears.

“Look, it was a long time ago now, Gilly. You kids did what you could. You rescued a woman and weren’t able to rescue her stepfather. You could’ve died. And don’t think I don’t know that my own nephew was out there smoking that night. Not that he started the fire. I’m just saying, he could have. I think you kids knew that, right?”

“No,” he said, before he could stop himself. “I don’t know.”

God, he hated himself. All these years later, he couldn’t admit what he’d done. He stared into the murky glass of tea. Sophie was saying something else, but her voice was suddenly fuzzy.

“I mean it, Gilly. You have to forgive yourself.”

The room grew silent, except for the background hum of the swamp cooler. He wasn’t sure what she meant, as he hadn’t been listening. He looked up at her and forced a smile.

“You going to bring that wife over here so I can meet her?”

“Sure, maybe. I should probably go rescue her from my mom for now. You know how my mom can talk.”

“Yes, when she has something to say, she’ll talk for hours.”

Gilly thought about that. He supposed that was right. But she had always had something to say to him. And Cameron wasn’t much of a talker, so…he could only imagine.

He thanked Sophie for the tea and cast his eyes around the homey space. While part of him wished he’d grown up in a house like this—with potted plants and Catholic icons; with china ornaments and antique doilies; with a father who hung his camo jacket on a hook by the door—he also felt suffocated by the space. It was time to leave. Only Bernadette could have survived such a perfect childhood as this.


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Chapter 17: The Spacetime Savant

In which time runs backwards, except for those who can’t stop it!

Stephanie sat across the table from her granddad in the retro bookstore cafe, which had, along with traditional food, made a comeback recently. It wasn’t the quietest place for an interview session, but her interviewee hadn’t wanted to stay home. No more holing up in the mountains for her granddad.

They pushed two stacks of books and magazines to the center of the table to make room for their cappuccinos and croissants. Her stack consisted of the JOI Journal, the Budget Guide, and two recent biographies she meant to read for inspiration. Her granddad’s consisted of Daily Prayers and Meditations, which seemed like the choice of a sentimental old woman, and a few tech journals.

They were blessedly alone, sitting at a pale wooden table, the surface of which was gouged and dirty, listening to the sounds of the espresso machine whining, the people speaking in hushed voices, the newspaper pages crackling. A man to their left hid himself behind the Albuquerque Daily. He might be reading one of her stories or bylines or…nah, he was reading Mark’s work. He was definitely on the sports page.

She smiled to herself and lost her train of thought. Technically, she was supposed to be typing shorthand. Wake up, Stephanie, wake up! Her granddad could talk for hours. Even if she only listened to a quarter of what he said, she would have plenty to fill a book. The problem was she wanted to fill a book with the right words. She smiled again, as she realized Gilly’s worst nightmare was being confirmed. Her granddad was controlling the narrative.

“Are you paying attention, m’dear?” her granddad asked her, loudly and abruptly.

She cleared her throat and tried to appear businesslike, whatever that meant. “Did you ever make money off your internet browser? What was it called again?” she asked.

“ItSe. And yes, that was primarily how we funded our start-up. We kept numerous shares in the company, but sold out to Hardwire, who immediately changed the name to Traction, which is why you haven’t heard of it. If you had done any kind of research like a proper journalist, you would know this.”

Stephanie, however, didn’t notice the insult. She didn’t know what to say. Traction was now the mainstream internet browser, the one she wasn’t allowed to use as a Journalist of Integrity. It was one of the biggest government control centers in modern days. It was like the Stasi in the closet with a recording device, except it was in everybody’s closets all over the country. And her grandfather had invented it.

“Don’t look so dumbfounded. I lost control of it when I sold it. It was strictly a moneymaking venture.”

“Strictly? What about the fluidity philosophy or whatever that was about?”

“Yes, in a sense, I wanted the world to know what it was like to think as I do, to see a 4d reality in the mind.”

“Is that what you call your ability to remember the future?”

“Would you like another croissant? Another coffee?”

“No,” she groaned. “I’ve gained five pounds since we started doing this.”

He looked down his nose at her in his patronizing way. “It’s apropos, don’t you think? It’s to live in timelessness, as we understand time, which is naturally 4d.”

“I don’t know. You lost me. I though there were three dimensions, and then time was the fourth.”

“No, not at all. Spacetime is four-dimensional. Time isn’t one dimension, but an intrinsic part of space. Now, I think you can understand this if you try. Past, present, and future are just mental frameworks for how we understand time. Chronology is a way to explain material change. My framework happens to be different.”

“How is that actually true, though? I mean, you’re born a tiny baby, and then you grow old, year after year. We aren’t our older selves when we’re young, and vice versa. We go through natural changes. The world is different from when you were young. You proved that by changing the world.”

His smile was tolerant. “That’s the framework you view the world through.”

“There was a point in time when your technology didn’t exist.”

“From your perspective.”

“You’re frustrating me. Evolution involves chronology. The geological record involves chronology.”

“Yes, we do live in a material world that changes.”

She shook her head. “How do you know your framework is different from other people?”

“Finally you bring up a relevant question. I could be a prophet, for all I know. Right?”

“I’m not sure I believe in prophets, just good predictors.”

“When did you get so banally logical? You’re starting to sound like Gilly.”

She licked some foam off her coffee stirrer. She wanted more creamy milk foam, she really did, but she had to stop eating all these rich foods. This was why she wasn’t like Gilly. She never could focus on anything except practical issues, such as preventing herself from growing a bigger, fatter ass. “Gilly is a genius. I’m just practical. I would never design things just to design them. In fact, I wouldn’t design anything at all. I live to pay my rent.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. You are a Beñat, though. And Beñats are anything but ordinary.”

“Okay, whatever, you were going to tell me how you know your mental framework is different from other people. How do you know you aren’t just a few higher IQ points above the average, plus have a lot of confidence and imagination?”

“IQ is meaningless. I have no idea what my IQ is. I know what Gilly’s is because he cares about being smarter than everyone else. His is…that would be telling. He cares about intelligence, I care about results. I know my framework is different because I discussed this with a fellow neurologist. She tried to put me on the new autism diagnosis spectrum, which incorporates what she called ‘spacetime savantism.’ I laughed at her and asked her to do brain imaging. I also asked her if she’d ever done imaging on people she diagnosed with this peculiar form of autism. She admitted she’d never met one before.”

“Spacetime savantism is a thing? Does that mean there are other people in the world who have your framework?”

“In my research, I’ve come across none who are alive at the time. There were a few hopefuls, but when I interviewed them, they turned out to be New Age gurus selling lectures or books.”

Out of the corner of her eyes, Stephanie caught sight of the tall figure before the tall figure spotted them at their table. She waited for it. She expected it. And there it was—

“Mark!” Her granddad’s voice was big and booming.

Stephanie didn’t have to experience prophetic visions of the future to understand this. Her granddad and Mark were going to be best friends.

Mark held out his hand, and Oso shook it. Then the young man pulled up a chair next to Stephanie and sat down.

“What are you doing here?” Oso asked.

“Steph invited me. Sorry I’m late. The Bulldogs’ game was extra exciting tonight.”

“Was it really?” Stephanie asked.

“No, but I did get an interview with Coach Termagant. I asked him what he thought of the choreographed dance moves the boys were doing in imitation of the professional players.”

“Yes?”

“He said he was all right with it, it was just part of their unique self-expression as a team. He was proud of their choreography.”

Oso snorted; Stephanie felt bemused. She didn’t know whether to root for the team or not. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand sports,” she said.

“I can’t believe you’re still trying after that travesty of a game we witnessed,” Mark said. “I’m going to get some coffee while I still have a few dollars in the bank.”

“Can I ask you another very relevant question?” Stephanie asked her granddad. Mark was stuck in a lengthy coffee queue, and so she took the opportunity to finish out the day’s interview before sports distracted them yet again. “Is this the future you intuited?”

“I never intuited the future, m’dear. I experienced it. I remembered it.”

“Did you ever get your brain imaging done?”

“Yes, I had several types of imaging done. I have what appear to be extra neural connections in my brain. A lot of them. I have a very dense neural network between brain hemispheres. I have what appears to be an extra ridge in the mid frontal lobe. But speaking of expressing uniqueness, professional athletes be damned. The brain actually does develop unique traits. I’m not sure that my brain is any more unique than the average brain. It seems to have developed fluidity in processes, a plasticine ability to adapt. I suspect that’s what makes it special.”

“Is that the case with other spacetime savants?”

“You mean the ones who have overdeveloped their abilities to deceive?”

“There are no other true spacetime savants out there?”

Oso shrugged dismissively. “If there are, I lost interest in finding them ages ago. I was never looking to find my special tribe. I was always looking to create better technology based off my special abilities.” His bright eyes glazed over as he appeared to stare gloomily into the rows of books.

“Granddad?”

Mark hit his knees against the table as he sat down with his coffee. Oso’s eyes snapped back into focus.

“That’s the subject for another day.”


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Chapter 16: A Cubist Vision

In which Oso realizes he can speak with the voice of God!

 

As Oso’s premed degree worked its way into a neurology degree, his boredom with academics began to take a toll on his health, so much that he relieved his stress through nightly visits to chic LA bars, where he could pick up hot, purportedly natural chicks. Okay, he would have done that, anyway. That and fine whiskeys kept him going.

“You’re really becoming a stereotype of yourself,” Gilly told him, when Gilly finally made the trip out to LA to visit his friend.

Oso had taken Gilly out to a chic LA bar. That was after he’d dressed him in a decent set of clothes. Gilly sneered at the clothes, but wore them well on his tall lean frame. And he sneered at the women, whom he insisted were all idiots, although he wore the women on his arm rather well, too.

“When are we going to move beyond prototypes? Let’s get this business going, Gilly, old buddy.”

“Don’t call me that. And how else are we going to start a business without creating prototypes? I’m creating great artwork. What’re you doing for the business?”

“Your work is too clunky to be art. It doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything without a lot of noise and trouble.” Oso peered in the bottom of his empty tumbler. He was starting to feel drunk. “As far as your question, I’m getting funding. Making money.”

Gilly fell into silence and a malicious glare. The two had recently had a fight about a very slender bionic leg Gilly had developed for his continued work in robotics. It was pretty to look at and would certainly give speed to a human amputee who had previously used a clunkier version. However, Oso had rejected it; it could never be controlled the way Oso wanted it to be controlled, by a fluid central network. In fact, to prove his point about fluidity, he’d gotten together with a computer science grad student he’d met at UCLA, and the two had collaborated to create an internet web browser that operated in a fluid manner—a CS brain. Oso wanted it to operate very much like his own mind, to see time and space as a great tree with golden globes of fruit hanging suspended from its branches. And together the two had managed something very salable. They called it the “ItSe”.

Oso could see the jealous glint in Gilly’s eyes, despite the engineer’s attempt to cover it over. Oso would always succeed where Gilly would fail. Oso intrinsically understood this, just as he understood that Gilly had a higher IQ than he had. Gilly waited too long, worked in small incremental steps, and Oso was too impatient for that. Oso wanted achievement now—not tomorrow. Not ten or twenty years down the road. Now.

“How’s that going for you?” Gilly asked—much too late to connect the question to the previous conversation.

That was exactly like Gilly. He was always too little, too late.

“How’s the funding working out, you mean?” Oso clarified.

“What else would I mean?”

“Yes, I’m doing well on the funding front.”

Gilly harrumphed. “What? From your dad? He sell a table?”

“I told him I was inventing a browser, and he said he’d trade it for a hand-carved abacus. Oh, and I have some buyers interested in your bionic leg.”

“What? My leg? The one you didn’t want for the company?”

“No reason to let a good design go to waste.”

Gilly’s face turned a peculiar shade of purple. “How dare you? It’s my design,”—and then—“Who wants to buy it?”

“Gena Core.”

The corner of his mouth rose in a smug little smile. “Gena Core.” His face scrunched up and turned purple again. “How dare you? What if I had a buyer for it?”

“Because I know you by now.”

“Actually, I did have a buyer for it. I don’t really need you to make a living.”

Oso looked up in surprise, from the spot he’d been centering himself on. He was staring at one spot on the bar surface in order to keep his mind focused and not admit he’d drunk too much. Oso didn’t drink too much. Or at least, he never admitted to it when he did.

Was Gilly pulling his very real, not prosthetic, but slow and powerful high-jump style leg? It didn’t appear Gilly was. Gilly could be wily. Still, he was the type of engineer who was never satisfied with his designs, always taking them back to the drawing board and refining them.

Gilly, who’d kept up shot for shot with Oso, rubbed his eyes. “I can see you don’t believe me. But it’s true.”

“What company?”

“I don’t know, can’t say, I… ”

“Yeah, you don’t have a buyer.”

Gilly spluttered but said nothing.

Oso held out his hand and kept it as steady as possible while shaking Gilly’s. “Let’s buy another round to our success. First principles, my friend. Money is the first principle. And we’ve found a way to make it.”

“True. I wanted the leg for our company, though. It’s really a great design.” Gilly hung his head, which pricked Oso’s harsh exterior a little. But only a little.

“It is. But it’s not what we want. It’s not the vision.”

“What is the vision?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Oso said, and he raised his hand to signal the bartender. As he did so, he caught sight of their reflection in the mirror over the bar. And he stopped, his hand in the air, stunned.

“That’s it,” he said.

“What’s it?”

The bartender, responding to the gesture, asked them if they wanted more of the same. Since Oso was too preoccupied to answer, Gilly went ahead and affirmed they’d take the same. Oso heard Gilly order. He heard the sounds the bartender made, the clinking of glasses; he sensed all that was happening around him, but it was as if he’d been frozen in time. His mind hung from his 4d tree.

It was an effect of the mirrors. It was a glitzy bar, as that was where glitzy women were found. And there were mirrors hanging everywhere. Oso suspected this was so that someone looking for a prospect could chat one person up while watching the other pretty people in the place. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair. His spatial awareness was skewed by the alcohol and mirrors. The fruit on his geometric tree hung like a postmodern dream. His reality had become a landscape formed by cubists.

And that was when he saw her. She was a sculpted blonde, approaching the bar at a fast clip, gaggles of her reflected in the mirror to infinity, just as he was, just as Gilly was. There was nothing special about her. She had a nose that had been cut by a plastic surgeon, and a Botoxed smile. Her breasts, rising up like tanned balloons, were certainly implants. He also suspected her cheeks were fake.

If he wanted to, he could take her home with him. If he spoke, she would jump-to at the sound of his voice. Instead, as she sidled up beside him at the bar and put in her order, her eyes looking at him sidewise and begging his attention, he ignored her.

“That’s it,” he said again. “We give them life through sound, the hum of life. We speak, and they become.”

“God, you’re really drunk, aren’t you?”

“I’m not God. I am drunk. But I know how to create fluidity in our robotics. Smart, plasticine materials, triggered by sound waves, just like that dame.”

Gilly just stared in his tumbler, his last round untouched. Oso’s round was, too, to be honest. At first, Oso thought his friend was simply ignoring him, as he might ignore a raving lunatic. When Gilly looked up again, Oso realized Gilly was just as stunned as he was.

“No such technology exists.”

“Not yet,” Oso said.

“Maybe not ever.”

Oso smacked his friend on the back. Doubters needed to be smacked, as they were severely handicapped by logic and couldn’t understand anything but pain. “It will exist because we are going to create it. I know. I just saw it. It was hanging on the tree.”

“All parts of the robot will be triggered this way? Or just their skeletons? Will their skin be smart plasticine fibers? What about their minds? How will you create their minds? This is too much. We’re going to need time and money we don’t have.”

“I like that you’re thinking big, Gilly, old buddy, but time and money are never a problem. And won’t be after I start selling shares of ItSe.”

“And grad school?”

“Screw grad school.”

“But you have a research fellowship.” Gilly moaned. “You got a research fellowship. I got a one-time scholarship for my contribution to a robot that’s basically a moving computer. You are operating out of my league at this point.”

“I’m not a designer. I’m an idea man. I couldn’t do this without you.”

“I couldn’t get these babes without you, either. I almost married a frumpy civil engineer until you stopped me.”

“I didn’t stop you. You decided she wasn’t your type. I convinced you not to take the job at Sandia Labs.”

“She did have some bad habits. She rearranged things on my desk. She touched my keyboard. She left her clothes on the floor. The floor. And then she picked them up and wore them the next day. She brought her cats inside and kept them inside to shit and shed and sleep on everything. Cat hair on my computer!”

“Exactly.”

“I have standards, Oso!”

“That’s why I like you.”

“She had no boundaries. She ate ice cream from the tub and expected me to dip in with her. She walked around in her ratty underwear, her jiggly bits getting more and more jiggly, as she was forced to eat all those gallons of ice cream by herself. She gained twenty pounds the year we lived together.”

As Gilly had begun to rock back and forth on the stool, flapping his hands, Oso patted him on the back. “It’s all right, friend. It’s over now. You have your white walls, your clean apartment, and your office to yourself.”

“I don’t want to pick up chicks tonight. They might contaminate the moment.”

“Picking up chicks isn’t mandatory, but you have to admit, it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t stay the night.”

Gilly snickered in his old, awkward, and somewhat creepy way. “Yeah, maybe we should find some dumb hussies.”

Oso blinked a few times to clear his head. “And then again, maybe we shouldn’t.” Gilly had fallen into Gilly-land and would end up making a fool of himself, if not both of them. “Maybe we should just go crash to preserve the delicate beauty of the moment.”

“It’s a moment as delicate as a virgin.”

“That’s true, and there are none of those here.”

“Right.” Gilly shook his head and pushed his glasses up his nose. “God, you are really just…God. Smart robots birthed by infrasonic sound. I think I need to sleep on this. Forever.”


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Chapter 15: Team Beñat-Herrera

In which a social engineering major threatens to socially engineer Oso’s vision!

 
At the next interview session, Oso found himself entirely amused at the confab he’d created: Devon was happily stacking a box of colored playschool blocks Oso had given him; Gilly was glowering in a chair, but still quite happy to be included, if Oso knew his friend. His granddaughter sat primly and prettily, her teletyper balanced on her lap as she sucked up the fruits and cheeses and coffee and cream his assistant had brought them. After prodding her with his cane, the woman had brought Gilly his green tea and crackers.

Ah, and then there was Mark. Mark was the son-in-law he’d always wanted. Out of all his children and children-in-law, only Adam had the creative energy of Mark. He wished he could experience a future memory of a wedding between Stephanie and Mark which he would attend as the head patriarch, but he would suspect it to be wishful thinking.

“Granddad,” Stephanie said, “before we get started, I have to ask you a very relevant question. Is she, or isn’t she?”

“I’m sorry?” he asked, pretending obtuseness. He knew what she was asking; the question had been written all over her face since the first time he’d seen her interact with his assistant.

“Your assistant. She’s not a Minä. She’s too cunning to have gone through the typical lobotomy. You and I both know it’s illegal to create intelligent humanoid AI. Out of all the people on the planet, you have the resources to create it, and who would stop you? I mean, she’s just a little too perfect and artificial. A 5’10” size zero blonde who doesn’t respond to the world as she should. Who wears hats.”

“Hats?”

“Yes, hats. Today she’s wearing a hat indoors, and the last time, she was wearing a scarf. Is that to hide her big ears?”

“First of all, if I were to create intelligent humanoid AI, nobody would ever know, would they, darlin’?”

“So what you’re saying is because I know, she can’t be AI?”

“But you don’t know, or you wouldn’t be asking. She could be AI, by your logic. But you’ll never know either way, because if I were to do such a thing, nobody would ever know. ‘Nobody’ being the operative word.”

“Granddad!”

Oso snorted. “Why don’t we get started,” he said, looking sidelong at the glowering Gilly. “You ready to start, Gilly, old buddy?”

“I am not your buddy,” Gilly said, accidentally spewing cracker crumbs from his mouth, which disgusted him.

“’You can hug ‘em, you can love ‘em, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven…’” Stephanie sang out.

“Good God, man! Do you always indulge your granddaughter this way?” Mark had, of course, already forgiven Oso and now felt comfortable addressing him in that chiding manner. They might as well have been buddies. “Make her stop singing that song.”

“I’m not a dictator,” Oso mildly said. “But—” and here he pounded his cane on his own very expensive desk— “we need to start if we’re going to get this book written. All of you need to be quiet, including Stephanie.”

“Except for you, clearly,” Gilly said. “I won’t get any say in this story.”

“The story wouldn’t exist without you, old friend.”

“No, it wouldn’t. I was always the brains behind everything. I’m the reason you have any resources.”

“Gillilander. Friend,” Oso said, his voice a low growl. The low growl always happened when he tried for soothing—nothing he could do about it. “How could I deny that? And you wouldn’t have two dimes to scrape together if not for me.”

“Sure, you know how to work the system, file for bankruptcy and start all over again. It’s the people paying the price for it that don’t have two dimes to scrape together.”

“The people who pay the price leave available resources untouched and then complain when others use them. They’re like children in nursery school who can’t see the potential of a toy until another child plays with it.”

Stephanie straightened and opened her doe eyes wide as she pulled her teletyper closer, so as not to miss a moment.

Gillilander sat, impassive, his tea cup gripped in his claw-like old hands. “At least you’re willing to admit you’re just a big child.”

In answer, Oso merely laughed. The confab was, indeed, enjoyable, even Devon who clapped his hands for no obvious reason. Above Oso’s head, the holo-tattooed saying rested like a forever etched-in-stone truism: Mr. Beñat was the best one time cowboy I was ever with. I would sleep with him again and I’m sure he would agree I look great for 70, but then I would have to permanently delete this review. Stephanie had asked him during the last session who had authored the sentiment, and then had proceeded to put on her mock indignation when he insisted he had no clue. Yes, life was good.

“We should start,” he said.

“Just a minute, Granddad. Don’t start yet,” Stephanie said. “Now that I’ve got that conversation down, I’ll need to consult my notes.”

“By all means, you be in charge.”

“I wasn’t—oh, never mind. I already asked about your assistant and you didn’t answer. Oh, I know. You said Grandma Berna was married before she met you. Can you tell me anything about her first husband?”

“Yes, but he’s irrelevant. She married a New Mexican who wanted to remain in New Mexico. He was unremarkable, except for his expensive hobby of building airplanes. He died in an airplane crash. She was pregnant by him once and had a miscarriage.”

“Poor Grandma!”

“If she’d married me in the first place, she might not have suffered.”

“Granddad!”

“It’s the truth. But none of us can change the past. Thinking about it is destructive.”

“And yet here we are, thinking about the past,” Gillilander said.

“I’m not trying to change anything. I’m giving the raw, unadulterated facts. Contributing to the historical record.”

“Sure, your side is the raw, unadulterated facts. What a load of crap, Oso. Old friend.

Stephanie cleared her throat. “If you two stop arguing for a little while, we can get started.”

“Whatever,” Gillilander muttered.

Oso jogged up and down at Socorro’s Clarke Field while waiting for Gillilander to show up. He had Bernadette on the phone; they spoke several time a month, keeping a distant but friendly relationship. Normally, he let the conversation go, as it was pleasant to have a woman around only to listen to him talk. But today, he wanted to hang up with her before she found out he was in New Mexico. He didn’t want to visit her. He didn’t want to lay eyes on her husband, the unremarkable dope she’d chosen over him.

Gilly had stayed in Socorro to study mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech. Tech was a good school, and it made sense for Gilly to study there, as his mom worked in administration. And despite Oso’s drive to get the hell out of Socorro, he regularly drove back home from LA to visit his old friend, who didn’t do the same for him. Since Oso had moved to UCLA, Gilly had visited him precisely zero times. If nothing else, at least Oso was a loyal friend.

Bernadette, in a rare fit of chattiness, was detailing the horror of her senior year, her desire to be done already, and her appalling decision to go on for her master’s degree.

“Hey, Berna, I have to go,” he said. “I have a friend coming over.”

“You sound like you’re outside.”

“I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a friend coming over.”

“Oh.” She paused. “Oso, would you just be honest, okay? You don’t have to make excuses at this point. If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”

“I was being honest.”

“My best guess, you’re in Socorro for spring break visiting Gilly, and you don’t want to visit me here in Cruces.”

“Your husband doesn’t want me to.”

She sighed. “You’re right, but I’m going to be home next weekend for Easter. Going to church with my family.”

“If I were a church-goer, I might see you.”

“I love you, too, Oso. Always have.”

He snorted and didn’t bother with a goodbye before disconnecting the call. If she’d always loved him, she should have married him and not the builder of small aircraft.

To forget about her, he quickly turned his attention to gathering his surprise gifts for Gilly. These were a real leather soccer ball he’d discovered at a specialty shop in Los Angeles, and two team jerseys he’d had made up. They were emblazoned with Team Beñat-Herrera because it was time to start that team and move some revenue into his pockets. And Gilly’s, of course.

Ever since Oso had entered UCLA as a premed student who meant to go into neurology, he’d been bored. School would take him eight years or more to work his way through. He wanted to do something now. There was no time like the present and, although he could see the value in an advanced degree for those who would become surgeons and the like, he had no aspirations to such. He was in it for the research. Even that was only for…he wasn’t sure. But it had to have a practical, real world purpose, or it made him impatient.

By contrast, Gillilander had gone into a degree that led to a practical real world outlet, and yet Gilly would have spent all his time in research if he could. He couldn’t care less about immediate results. Gilly’s lack of care for real world results in fact frustrated Oso. Gilly was so smart in ways that Oso wasn’t. Oso sometimes felt like shaking him.

Today, however, he was simply happy to see his friend again. He clapped him in a big hug before Gilly pushed him away. Gilly wasn’t much for physical contact. Oso handed him the jersey.

Gilly held it up and looked at it. “Team Beñat-Herrera? Are we a team? Why am I number 00?”

“Because I will always be numero uno.”

“In your own mind maybe,” Gilly said, and sneered. He put on the shirt, though, and smoothed it out over his running shorts. It was a little big for his lanky frame. “Are we going running, or what?”

“I have something much better. A real soccer ball.”

“I don’t believe you. I haven’t seen one of those since…I don’t remember exactly. Was it sixth grade?”

Oso produced the beautiful, untouched leather orb from the trunk of his car. It was actually not untouched, as he’d practiced a little back in LA before bringing it home to Socorro. He didn’t want to appear a doofus, though trying to remember the types of kicks he’d learned before the airfoot days was a challenge.

The two dribbled the ball and passed it up and down the field for a while before Gilly volunteered to be the goalie. The problem, of course, was that Gilly had never been a goalie and certainly not with a real ball, and he appeared to have no sense of what Oso would do with the ball. If Gilly tried to block the near post, Oso would aim for the far post. It was the same for the far post. When Gilly tried to block both at once, Oso would kick the ball between his legs. Playing with Gilly was like playing with a child.

When they switched roles, Gilly got barely a ball in. As Gilly’s frustration was palpable, finally Oso stopped, threw his head back, and laughed.

“What?” Gilly glowered.

“You always give yourself away. Every time. Your body language is terrible.”

“I thought we were going to run, dipwad. Let’s go! I’ll race you to the other side of the field!”

If Gilly hadn’t tripped over a tuft of grass and nearly lost his glasses, which were strapped on as it was, he might have won. Oso gave him a hand up.

“I already know you’re faster than I am,” Oso said.

Gilly still glowered.

“Peace.”

“Whatever. Why in the world would you want to be on a team of two with me?” Gilly asked.

“Because we’re going to start a business together.”

“Nice of you to consult me before making that decision.”

“Aren’t you bored of school? I am. We’ve been in for almost four years now. I can’t do this for another four years.”

Gilly appeared to study the sky for a moment. It was spring, a bit brisk out, but the sky was clear. There wasn’t a lot to study in the sky, to be honest. Finally, he shook his head. “No, I’m not bored of school. I love it. I made a drone the other day.”

“A drone? We should build stuff and take it to market. Make some money.”

“I have some designs, but they’re not ready.”

“What kind of designs? You should show them to me.”

“No, I told you they’re not ready. They’re just more silly robots like we’ve always made. I’m working on some sensors for this skin I’ve managed to 3D print, though. If you have to know.”

Oso felt his skin prickle with excitement, as though his own body were detecting sensors. “Telehaptic memory.”

“Something like that.”

“There’s a market for that.”

“What market? For expensive robots that aren’t yet functional? How? Who’s going to buy that?”

“No, you’re not thinking big enough. Yeah, robots are big, but why wait until we develop one for the market? What about getting into assistive technology?”

“How are we going to fund a business like that?”

“Backers. That I’m going to find.”

“You do that, Oso,” Gilly said, and while it seemed Oso was momentarily daydreaming, he kicked the ball toward the unprotected goalposts.

Oso shot his leg out and nicked the ball just enough that it went off course. “You wanna go to the Cap and get a beer? I’ll buy.”

Gilly’s shrug was listless.

“We can talk more about our future business. Look, I need you. I don’t have your creative mind.”

“All right. You can buy. But I don’t want to discuss our future business because I don’t want a future business with you.”

Oso tried to hide his disappointment. Actually, Oso was never disappointed. He tried to mask his hurt. No, he was never hurt either. “Why not?”

“You’re too pushy. I don’t want you pushing me around. I was enjoying designing robots without you, like in the days before seventh grade. It’s been nice not having you here.”

Oso’s body stiffened. “I thought we were best friends.”

Gilly chewed on his fingernails, the same nasty habit he’d had for years. “We are. You’re just a little…overbearing at times. Without you around, I go on dates. With girls who look at me because you aren’t around. I’ve been dating this one girl for a while now, and I think it might be serious. But she thinks I’m going to take that job offer at Sandia Labs and settle down to a stable life. Starting a business with you isn’t stable, is it?”

“Hmm. Sounds boring. Why haven’t I met this girl?”

“Because you say things like that. She isn’t your type, so, yeah, I’m guessing you’d find her boring and unattractive.”

“I’m not going to steal her from you. Why would I do that? And I wasn’t saying your girlfriend was boring. Marry her if you want. It’s the stable job at Sandia Labs that’s the big yawner.”

“Married? We’re not that serious. We were just going to try living together up in Albuquerque after I graduate. She’s got a year left of her social engineering degree at UNM.”

“What the hell kind of degree is social engineering?”

Gilly shook his head. “Social engineering? I didn’t say that. Civil. She’s studying civil engineering.”

Oso couldn’t help it; his eyes glazed over. “Tell me you don’t find your future plans the tiniest bit stifling.”

“Yes, they’re boring. But they’re my plans and not yours. You see the difference?”

“We could make plans together. Like right now at the Cap.”

“You know, you sound like you’re proposing.”

“I am, Gilly, old buddy. I’m proposing we start a business together. With my brilliant business skills, and your brilliant designs. It’s a win-win.”

Gilly visibly cringed. Oso grinned. He knew his friend hated being called old buddy, but he was also pretty sure that wasn’t why he’d cringed. Gilly was going to cave, and they both knew it, and Gilly would hate Oso for it. And love him—in a purely platonic way.

“So, meet you at the cap, or what?” Oso said, and he climbed in his car and slammed the door before Gilly could respond.

“Granddad,” Stephanie said, “would you please refrain from correcting me when I interpret your story descriptions? If you were heavy inside and felt defeated, you were disappointed. If you felt like you were going to cry on the inside, you were hurt. Now my text sounds ridiculous: Oso tried to hide his disappointment. Actually, Oso was never disappointed. He tried to mask his hurt. No, he was never hurt either. What does that mean? It’s meaningless.”

“It means he admitted he has the emotional fortitude of a little girl,” Gilly said. “He always has.”

Oso shook his head. “It means that disappointments happen, and still I have hope. And working memories of the future. I knew we were going to start a business together. Maybe I was a little hurt, but not enough to stop trying.”

“That’s not what you said,” Stephanie pointed out.

Gilly took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. “Get used to it. He never says what he means, but he always dominates the conversation. Notice how I didn’t get any say at all.”

“On the contrary, I always say what I mean. And next time, you can have the floor.”

They all stretched and rose from their seats. It took them a minute to realize that Devon and Mark had disappeared. When they peered out the french doors off the study, they found the two drawing with chalk on the patio. It appeared Mark was trying to teach Devon to write his name.

Oso looked down at the writing like an implacable father. “It’s useless. He’ll never write because he hadn’t been trained to do it pre-lobotomy. There’s no muscle memory for him to rely on.”

“He wrote it, though.” Mark grinned, clearly pleased with himself, and pointed to a group of almost legibly formed letters done in purple chalk.

“Yes, of course, you can teach him to write it. He’ll do anything you tell him to do. He won’t remember it. You’ll have to teach it again the next time you’re here.”

Mark’s face fell. “I thought if he attached the color purple to the letters, he’d remember.”

“A kind of simulated synesthesia? It’s an interesting thought, but I don’t think it will work. He’s missing too many parts of his brain to make connections.”

“Why do you keep him?” Mark asked. “What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing. I created him. Or, my technology, plus government regulations, plus the corporation bearing my name created him. He’s my son through no fault of his own.”

“Technically, his body is my technology,” Gilly said.

Mark watched as Devon continued to write the letters of his name through copying his first try. The second copy was almost unreadable. “There are thousands more like him roaming the streets. Are they your sons, too?”

“In a sense, yes. But I can’t adopt them all. Nor can I change government policy. I’m just relieved Tomi Corp has gotten out of the business of making them. The novelty of human pets wore off long ago. No, instead, they found it more useful to create mindless, emotionless robots that would toss humans out of the workplace. Much more practical, destroying human industry like that.”

“There was a startup last year that created an app that would automatically add new legislation every time a baby cried,” Gilly said.

Oso stood solid with his cane, unamused.

“And then there was the one that created new industry through the federal reserve printing presses. Printing industry instead of useless moola. Good stuff, that. Very creative.”

“Oh, shut up, Gilly,” Oso said, almost under his breath. “Time to refocus so we can finish this blasted interview for the day.”

“Interview?” Gilly said. “Don’t you mean, you talking endlessly about yourself?”

“No, I’m talking about both of us. And now I’m going to tell Stephanie about my profound thoughts in the LA nightclub.”

Gilly spluttered. “Your…? Oh, would you just…?

 

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Chapter 14: Defying Gravity

In which men become images, and big things turn small!

 

Just as he’d offered, Oso procured tickets to the game for them. Oddly, though, the normally self-composed granddad appeared agitated as they stood in line at the stadium, a strange brunette he’d introduced as Myra balancing her stiletto-enhanced height on his arm. She was maybe ten years older than Stephanie. If that. Still, Stephanie eyed her with interest rather than any kind of ill will. Where had he found her since the last time she’d met with him? There’d been no Myra then. Or at least, not that she’d been aware of.

They stood outside the entrance gate of what once had been Arroyo del Oso park, and was now an enclosed stadium called Del Oso. The stadium still had the Arroyo del Oso’s original walking trail surrounding it, where frumpy women attempted to walk or unwittingly run off their pounds while listening to the silence, as the stadium was silent throughout much of the year.

They unwittingly ran because of the refugees from the local Minä camp. This particular Minä camp was located on the Del Oso golf course, where it had become, over time, part of the course’s level of difficulty. Golf itself was extraordinarily difficult, as it had adopted bionimals—tiny robotic animals—when balls became security risks. But bionimals were unwieldy to hit with the new and improved bamboo supported foam sticks. Del Oso golf course, fitting with its name, used hundreds of bionomic Teddy bears that liked to grab onto and cling to the bamboo sticks instead of being hit by them.

By law, these bionimals were not allowed to be wired with the traditional pain censors that Minäs had. Because they were part biological and part nanotube mesh, just as Minäs were, it was considered inhumane to cause them pain. So rather than go backwards in mankind’s evolution away from playing with inherently risky spherical objects, the golf class of bionimals were wired with pre-deadened pain censors.

Indeed, golf had become a great sporting event, with bonding between man and beast. Men would choose their favorite bionimals, and the favorites would smugly go out to play the game, while the less desirable bears were left behind. It was par for the course.

The less desirable bears often snuck out to play, however. It was difficult to contain these cute and cuddly creatures. They knew where the Minä camp was, and they’d run there, dragging broken or unused bamboo foam sticks with them, to play with their android counterparts. Inevitably, the Minäs and bears would take their sport outside the rolling green of the course and find sport in targeting the women who walked along the trail. To avoid being hit with wild swinging bears, the women would run away. The Minäs and bears, being mimics, would run after them.

The walking trail, then, was silent for much of the year, the silence punctuated with shrill screams as middle-aged women took to running to avoid being whacked. The surprise factor turned out to be good for muscle fitness, and that in itself made the trail a popular exercise spot. One local woman named Angelica had been featured in the Fitness Utopian Quotient Journal for losing nearly a hundred pounds after becoming a popular target for Minäs and bears. Although the article had meant to be emotive, discussing the plight of refugees, reject bears, and the female victims who were assaulted by them, many people suggested that Angelica had brought on her own victimhood by wearing neon shirts with targets printed on them.

She insisted it was a fashion statement and had not been intentional. She sued the Del Oso golf course and won one-point-five million dollars, which she used toward a trans-android surgery. Stephanie knew all this because she had done an expose on the woman and her struggles with being born a female human with the mind of a male Minä. She was a nice enough woman, for a money grubber—nice, but misunderstood. As part of Stephanie’s research, she had even played a round of golf and visited the Minä camp.

Those were the good old days. No, really, they were. Those were the days when she could do exposes as well as writing bylines. Now, she spent all her spare time outside of bylines with her granddad. This was a good thing, a connection with the past and all that. It was a good thing. She sighed tiredly and smiled as she felt Mark take her hand. Her heart skipped a beat.

“Granddad, what’s the matter? Why are you acting nervous?” she asked.

Before he could answer, a scream split the late afternoon air. A woman, chased by no fewer than three Minäs with bears on their shoulders and sticks in their hands, ran past. Devon, who had been absently bouncing a red ball, perked up his head and tried to run off after his fellow Minäs, but Oso grabbed his arm and held him fast.

Oso clenched his jaw. “I’m not nervous. I’m never nervous. Impatient would be a better word. If you write about this in your little book, make sure you choose your vocabulary appropriately.”

Myra laughed. Stephanie just looked at her granddad, unsure how to respond. For what she could read of human emotions, and she did believe she had a knack for it, nervous was the appropriate term.

They had arrived early to be at the top of the line when the gates were open. Stephanie soon understood why they had arrived early and why, perhaps, her granddad was nervous. As the line formed behind them, composed of the conspicuously rich, their whispering of the Beñat name became like a wave formation behind them. Oso was here. Oso Beñat, the man himself. The despised. The loved. The man who, as an octogenarian, could make young women swoon and intellectual women melt into fatuous blobs.

The rich, always displaying themselves in public as enlightened philanthropists, wanted nothing to do with Oso Beñat, while in private, they were quite happy to drink his bourbon and hint at devious world domination plots.

The modern day internet was full of world domination stories, which ranged from campaigns to destroy Oso to conspiracies about Oso’s backroom dealings with the world elite. Stephanie knew because she’d read all about it—in her private time, of course, since it wasn’t allowed for League members.

A woman with a purple beehive jostled against Oso as though it were an accident. Oso ignored her. The lanky man with Purple Beehive glared at their group, narrowing his eyes at Devon, who had resumed jumping up and down. Meanwhile, the screaming jogger was rounding the trail loop again, the Minäs still chasing her.

“What idiot brings their Minä to a game?” lanky man muttered to no one in particular.

Well, no wonder he was in a bad mood. He was a rich dupe with an unattractive wife. Stephanie was startled at her own thoughts. It was as if her granddad’s voice had entered her consciousness.

“Do you leave yours with a babysitter?” she retorted.

“Pardon?” the man coldly said, his bloodless lips pressed into a thin line.

“Do you leave your Minä with a babysitter? Because my grandfather wouldn’t do that. He treats his like a son.”

“I don’t have a Minä, young lady. The technology is inhumane.” At that point, the man’s eyes darted to Oso’s tall figure. Clearly, the man, who was no more than fifty, was nevertheless afraid of an octogenarian.

“There should be a law against them,” Purple Beehive said.

Unexpectedly, Devon threw his ball at her and whooped and jumped up and down a few times.

The woman screamed. “B-b-bomb!”

In an instant, security surrounded them, very real explosives pointed in their direction. Devon tried to fetch his ball, which had rolled under a very frightened couple’s feet. The couple appeared frozen to the pavement in shock, the look on their faces understanding that certain death was near.

“Call off your Minä!” a security officer in full military armor shouted.

“Devon,” Oso said. “I told you not to bring the ball. No, you may not fetch it. We’ll let the security officers do that.”

Devon hung his head, but mercifully remained frozen in place in mimicry of the line of people behind them. Meanwhile, several security officers circled in closer and closer to the ball, their weapons pointed at it. Stephanie, who was also standing stock still, couldn’t help but to move the muscles of her forehead into a confused wrinkle. Pretending for a moment that the ball was actually a bomb, Stephanie wondered why threatening its inanimate self with different types of explosives would be effective. But what did she know of warfare? Maybe this was the way it worked.

Eventually, one officer was close enough to use an extended robo arm to reach out from a safe distance with a materials detection reader, which he pressed lightly against the red ball. He then retracted his arm and studied the reading.

“Rubber,” he said. “Hollow. Non explosive. This may be a real ball, ladies and gentlemen. It will be immediately confiscated and the gates will proceed to open. The game will not be delayed.”

A collective sigh of relief filled the air. However, the people near the front of the line still appeared frozen and petrified. Clearly, they weren’t sure if they should move while the ball was still in the vicinity, albeit in the security officer’s pocket.

“We’ll let it go this time,” the gate security officer said to no one in particular, as his gaze was glazed and distant. “Single file, please. Shoes off. Bags open.”

Mark and Stephanie separated, pulling off their shoes. This was the usual routine, occurring in courthouses, schools, airports, bus terminals—everywhere that could be considered public. As reporters, they were used to the treatment. Stephanie was immediately frisked and groped between the legs, as was Mark, before they were given back their shoes. Neither of them had brought bags. Oso did not remove his shoes, but walked through the gate, pulling Devon and Myra with him. Nobody attempted to stop him, as the stadium and nearby athletic fields wouldn’t exist without his patronage.

Mark’s face was redder than usual. He appeared livid. “He grabbed my junk. That man grabbed my junk and kept his hand there for thirty seconds. They never do that at the courthouse.”

“Calm down, son,” Oso said. “In the future, don’t obey. It’s as simple as that. Those that obey are pussies.”

In fact, speaking of, a woman giggled high and loud as a guard groped her.

“They have guns. Some fights are losing propositions for those of us who aren’t billionaires,” Mark said.

Oso snorted. “Those guns aren’t real. This stadium has been privately owned for ten years. They aren’t allowed to have real guns. I’d be surprised if they turned out to be paint guns. Not that paint guns wouldn’t scare the living daylights out of every woman here wearing a $5000 dress.”

“Not real?”

“Nope.”

“I took off my shoes for fake guns?”

Oso squeezed Mark’s shoulder in consolation.

“He held on,” Mark said. “I feel violated.”

“Being sports editor has its advantages. Name the guard when you write about this event. I assume you noticed the name on his tag.”

“Yes, Jordan Haught. What if he sues the paper for libel?”

“That’s precisely why I employ the best lawyer in the nation, Mark. Now lighten up. This place has the most god awful expensive champagne known to man, but I have a flask of Booker’s—two flasks, to be precise.” He pulled one flask from his hip pocket and handed it to Mark. “Take a drink and get ready for the show.”

Mark stared at the flask, admiration writ large in his eyes. “This is so beautiful,” he said, as he ran his thumb over the pewter bottle engraved with a simple bear.

“The bourbon is even more beautiful. Stop getting your fingerprints all over it and take a healthy drink.”

Mark did so. He closed his eyes. “That is not what I’m used to drinking,” he whispered.

“No, it isn’t. Myra, Devon, Stephanie? Shall we enter the stadium proper?”

Their group of five entered into what appeared to be a traditional sports stadium, as Stephanie had seen in photographs. It was enormous, with graduated seating, food stands, manicure stations, and waiters in tuxes hawking organic, ethnically sourced, Toulousain peanuts roasted in artisanal small batches. There were a number of people in classic evening wear already lingering at the food stands, holding champagne glasses and micro-hotdog sushi boxes.

“Wow, I think I should have eaten earlier. I can’t mix with these people.”

“Don’t worry, my dear. I wouldn’t want you to. I have ways and means,” Oso said.

“Yeah, I know you have money, but…”

He clapped her on the back. He had gone from nervous to jovial as soon as they’d entered through the gates. “Money that I don’t propose to waste on button sized dishes that cost $1000. I’m having my favorite chef deliver us food.”

They made their way to their seats, which were quite high up in the stadium. Stephanie swallowed. The view made her dizzy.

“Why are we up so high?” she asked. “I feel woozy.”

“Ah, sit down, darlin’. We’re up this high because I want Mark to have the aerial view. And, here, there’s no reason, a good dose of Booker’s won’t help you, too.” He handed her the flask.

“Really? By the way you handed it to Mark, I thought it was a manly ritual.”

He nudged her with his elbow. “I’m sure Mark will like you better when you’re not so uptight.”

She scowled a little and took a tiny sip. It burned her mouth.

“Come on,” her granddad urged.

She looked up at Mark, who was smiling. She tried again, took a deeper drink that made her hack. She downed one more just to prove she could. By the time the food was delivered—by her granddad’s favorite top chef—she was not merely sick at the height, but euphoric, too. She dipped into the sandwich handed to her, after spreading the sauce from its little cup all over the top of the meat.

“Yow!” she hollered, as her nose hairs were singed.

“That’s some good horseradish,” her granddad said.

Mark looked at the sauce skeptically, but eventually tried just a little on the tip of his sandwich. “What is this piece of heaven you’ve brought us?” he asked.

“That, son, is a prime rib sandwich.”

With her belly full, and her head spinning, Stephanie watched the beginnings of the game, the rules of which she only understood from what she’d learned from her granddad yesterday. However, the game wasn’t starting as they’d started it on the green. It was starting as every professional televised game started: with the players doing their signature dances. It was fascinating entertainment. In real time, the audience of purple-haired types clapped and stomped thunderously for their favorite dancers.

One man, who appeared to be stepdancing with an outer pair of Irish tiger underwear, suddenly tore off his shirt and slid to his knees, though the turf prevented the dance move’s completion. Still, the audience roared their approval, and then roared some more as various clothing items were ripped off and thrown to the crowd amid hip gyrations and leap-cross-steps. By the end of the dance ritual, the team players were left wearing nothing but sturdy sports underwear and bow ties. One team wore green bow ties, the other orange.

Stephanie wasn’t surprised exactly. Okay, maybe a little. What she saw on TV, though like in spirit, was a little more subdued. And truth be told, she’d never seen so many grown men in underwear before. For some reason, she didn’t find them attractive at all. But, again, she assumed it was her lack of understanding for sports. Mark, no doubt, understood. She glanced at him and saw his mouth hanging open in astonishment. Her granddad handed him the hip flask.

Eventually, the game commenced. The men ran to and fro, kicking at what appeared to be a spherical ball with a black and white pattern of hexagons and pentagons. From this perspective, it seemed a real ball. Stephanie was kind of surprised, especially when she considered the reactions to a much smaller rubber ball outside the stadium. Perhaps this ball was not threatening because the men were making goals in their underwear.

And speaking of goals, every time one was made, attempted, or deflected, Devon shot up from his seat and did his usual whooping and cheering. And every time he did, the people of the stadium, in their evening clothes and opera glances, turned to stare at their little group. It was odd how subdued they were now that there was a game on, rather than a lot of men ripping off their clothes and dancing.

Even Emmett the halftime clown wasn’t entertaining compared to the male strippers. Emmett the halftime clown. She was tumbling with the cheerleaders, and it wasn’t even halftime.

“Granddad, that’s Javi’s commitment ex.”

“Huh?”

“The clown. She’s Javi’s commitment ex. She’s a national star, and here she is, cheering for a game in Albuquerque.”

Mark rubbed his face. “By Javi, you mean your brother?”

“Yes, Javi my brother. I don’t know any other Javis.”

“You were holding out on me again, or what, Stephanie? How come you never told me your brother was committed to the halftime clown? I could have interviewed her a long time ago. I didn’t know it was a her. Hard to tell in those clown clothes.”

“She’s an androgyne, and I don’t really know her,” Stephanie calmly explained. Or she tried to stay calm. “Javi doesn’t like us interfering with his life.” By life, she meant, virtual reality beta sports game tester. For a few weeks, he’d lost track of what was real and what was virtually real and had thought Emmett was a virtual clown. That was the only reason he’d committed himself to her.

The next time the hip flask was pulled out—this time a leather one that emerged from the opposite hip—Stephanie grabbed it and poured some of the oh-so-smooth, yet fiery liquid down her throat. She didn’t know if she could understand what was going on if she remained sober. Just when that second shot hit her stomach, it happened. The event. Stop action. One of the players was frozen in midair, kicking the ball. And then he reversed, and he kicked it all over again and hovered in the air, his leg powerfully extended, the ball in a perfectly arced trajectory. Devon was so excited, he couldn’t contain himself. When he leapt up to shout, there was a wet spot on his pants.

“He’s defying gravity?” Stephanie said, her voice squeaky from exertion.

“Sure, darlin’, that’s what’s going on. Very good interpretation.” Her granddad patted her knee.

“Oh my God,” Mark said. “They’re all holograms. All of them.”

“At least the ones defying gravity are,” Oso said in his low, yet somehow charming growl. “They have to have some real sweat drenched men to greet their fans at the end of the game.”

Mark’s face fell. “Not just the balls, but some of the players are shams, too.”

Oso didn’t hand him a flask this time. “Why so glum, Mark? You already knew this.”

He shrugged. “I guess as sports editor, I hoped for a good game. Not a conspiracy, proved or disproved. Just a good game. I don’t know what this is, but it’s not that.”

“Stick it out to the end, and I’ll introduce you to one of the players. A real player, not a hologram.”

“Will he still be in his underwear?” Mark pitifully asked. “Because I really don’t want to interview a man wearing nothing but underwear and a bow tie.”

“Nor do I,” Stephanie added.

Oso nodded and sighed. “You two give me hope.”

Myra, silent up to that moment, suddenly piped up, “I’ll do it. I wouldn’t mind meeting one of those men in underwear. Preferably the one up in the air. He’s amazing.”

They all just eyed the poor glossy brunette. Nobody dared breathe a dumb brunette joke, which had become all too common. But Stephanie couldn’t help it. Her brain reeled off a few select ones, even if her mouth didn’t. It didn’t altogether matter that she herself was a brunette. Brunettes, as a general group, were tiresomely stupid. Two brunettes fell down a hole. One said, “It’s dark in here isn’t it?” The other replied, “I don’t know, I can’t see.”

And soon, she couldn’t see, either, as she laid her head on Mark’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Granddad’s liquor was potent, and the game had worn her out. Stepdance. Stop action. Men in underwear who defied gravity. It was too much for her poor head. Mark put his arm around her shoulders and held her tight. She woke to him shaking her and telling her it was time to interview a player named Toby Mann.

“Your granddad’s got it all set up.”

She felt like a bear that had been woken from an unseasonal hibernation caused by red meat and alcohol. A bear. God, no. Now she was thinking of herself in terms of her granddad. And grandma. The realization took her by surprise in her just-waking, theta-wave mental state. It suddenly dawned on her that Bernadette meant little bear. How was this possible? She was the descendant of a family of bears.

“Come on, sleepyhead.” Mark tugged her to a standing position and guided her up the bleacher steps.

When they reached Toby Mann, he was already being interviewed by an official reporter, that is, not a JOI belonging to the League. While on the field, he’d had his hair drawn back in a ponytail. Now it was down, flowing around his carefully made-up face. He was wearing more makeup than Stephanie, but that was to be expected, as the game had become a kind of theater.

“You defied government regulations to be yourself?” the reporter was asking him.

“Yes,” Mann said. “Yes. I knew in my heart that I’d always been a six-year-old Minä child and could be nothing else. It was the way I was wired from the time I was a little girl.”

“Mr. Mann, can you tell us honestly, did you or did you not undergo an illegal lobotomy?”

“No, much to my frustration. The few doctors who are willing to put their reputations at risk are booked up until the end of the year. My appointment is months off.”

“That must be difficult for you.”

Mann let out a broken cry before tears flowed down his cheeks. “You don’t know. Until you’ve been trapped in skin that isn’t who you are inside, you couldn’t know. These doctors who bring us hope are being castigated, punished. This needs to stop.”

“They are very brave,” the reporter said. “As are you. You’re brave to continue to get up each day, knowing you aren’t the person God made you to be. But Mr. Mann—may I call you Mr.?”

“For now, yes, for that is how I’ve been known all these years.”

“And what will you be called after your lobotomy?”

“Tabitha is the name that is written in my soul. Miss Tabby Mann.”

Mark’s hand was twitching; Stephanie could feel the twitching, as it caused him to clench and unclench her hand.

“You okay?” she whispered.

“No.” He cleared his throat, pushed his way forward while dragging her with him, and interrupted the interview with a loud authoritative voice. “Maybe you want to change your identity because you feel like a fraud.”

Toby Mann was clearly startled by the interruption. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”

“I’m Mark Anderson, sports editor at the Albuquerque Daily. I had an appointment to meet with you.”

“I don’t feel like a fraud. Why would I feel like a fraud?”

“Because you play a fraudulent game of soccer.”

“Football,” Mann corrected. “I don’t play a fraudulent game. I went through a harrowing process of interviews and tryouts for this position. I made it against all odds and am here today, playing by the rules of the game. I didn’t invent the rules, Mr.—I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Mark Anderson, local sports editor. You don’t argue like a little girl, let alone a Minä. You’re a fraud in more than one way.”

Mann put his hands to his face and cowered. “Mommy,” he said in a tiny voice. He clapped his hands and whooped. “Please don’t hurt me. I need a lobotomy.”

Devon clapped his hands and whooped in mimicry.

“I’m not going to…” Mark’s face fell. “Why would I hurt you?”

And then his face turned a peculiar shade of furious as he stomped off, pulling Stephanie with him. The rest of the crew followed. Oso chuckled.

Unexpectedly, Mark turned on him. “You knew that was going to happen. You knew! Why did you set that up? I’m a serious journalist, not a fraud like everybody else in this place. Why did you mock me like that? And that man. Why did you want me to mock that poor man?”

Oso stopped Mark with his cane. “For a start, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had no idea Toby Mann was a…whatever he is. I wanted you to get the full scoop. That’s why I set it up, not to mock you or him. Don’t take your disillusionment out on me.”

“You created this mess. All of it. Society has been mentally ill since you created mankind in your own image. Like you’re God or something.”

Oso’s eyes were intense as they held Mark’s gaze. “I agree. I messed up. May God have mercy on my soul.”

The air around them went silent, as though every sound of the champagne drinking crowd had been sucked up into a vortex, except for Myra and Devon’s noise. They were, for no explainable reason, playing a hand-clapping game. Down, down baby, down by the roller coaster…

Stephanie shook her head. “That’s not true. My granddad didn’t cause this. I’ve studied history. The new sports came out when he was a child. Long before Minäs.”

“I’m not going to erase my responsibility,” Oso said.

“Fine, Granddad. Whatever. But you didn’t cause that man’s problems. I’ve been reading conspiracy theories. The government may be putting drugs in the water supply. According to some, they’ve been doing it for more than fifty years.”

While Oso looked at her kindly, the look coming from Mark was one that could only be described as disdainful.

“You don’t actually believe that, do you, Stephanie?” Mark asked.

“You, the king of sports conspiracies, have the nerve to look down on me?”

“I never wanted to believe in those conspiracies,” he spat. “I wasn’t trying to give anyone an out with them. I was just seeing things I wished I wasn’t seeing.”

“All right. Enough,” Oso said. “We should go home and relax. This has clearly been a traumatic experience for all of us.”

Stephanie looked over at Myra and Devon and watched them as they playfully laughed and clapped, and then back at her granddad, who appeared entirely unruffled. Well, it had been traumatic for some of them, anyway.


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