Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 42: The Fallen Lumberjack

“Let’s get a move on, I’ve got a getaway car waiting,” Oso said. Stephanie was frozen, however, her tear-stained visage staring at the spot where Samson, aka Gerald, had disappeared. “Granddad, how did you know I was here?”

“Gilly told me.” Oso ushered the two dazed youngsters with his cane when it became clear they weren’t going to move on their own.

The two looked a little beat-up, bruises here and there, but walking upright. In fact, Oso might have gone so far as to say Mark wasn’t just upright, but his body shook with a vibrancy he’d never seen before in the young man.

“Well, Mark, why are you looking so vibrant after all that?”

“Good to see you, too, Mr. Beñat. I didn’t know I looked vibrant.”

“You’re positively glowing,” Stephanie said with a shaky laugh.

Mark, however, shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. It might have been smashing people with a baseball bat. Not really Minäs because they’re fools.”

“Mark!” Stephanie protested.

“What? They were trying to kill me. And you. They wrecked my apartment, your car, our workplace. And I feel alive. Isn’t that incredible?”

Oso smiled. He really liked this kid. “You know, I had a future vision—one of my memories. I haven’t had one of those in a long time. I assume that’s because I don’t have much future left to remember.”

“Granddad!”

“Ah, Stephanie, be quiet, and quit with the feigned horror. In my memory, I attended yours and Mark’s wedding. I’ll be alive long enough for that, at least. Isn’t that marvelous? It was a beautiful outdoor wedding. Summertime.”

Stephanie and Mark froze again and stared at him, speechless. Finally, Stephanie snapped to and said, “I’m glad you’ll be alive for my wedding. But where did that come from? Mark was just saying how alive he felt beating people with a bat. Non sequitor.”

“Maybe because I’m an old man and don’t have time for your procrastination with the future.” Oso waved them out the back door impatiently, as though he were going to drop any minute now. He gave a signal with his phone, and the classic roadster pulled out from behind a row of dumpsters.

After the couple had climbed in the backseat, and he in the front, he pulled a card from a hand-held recording machine and handed it to Stephanie. “I recorded the rest of my story for you. Just in case.”

“Oh.” She took the card, but her face fell. Clearly, she was disappointed. “We’re done having meetings?”

Oso decided to be straight with her. “These interviews have taken a lot out of me. I had a good run, and now I’m done.”

“But you’ll still come to my wedding, right?”

“Yes, you’d better get planning.”

She looked questioningly at Mark.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “The last time I asked you to commit to me, you hedged. You wouldn’t answer me. I took that as a no.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe you can ask again.”

“I’m not going to because you never answered me the last time. The question is still open.”

“It was the wrong question,” Oso interjected. “The proper question is will you marry me? That’s the one she’ll answer.”

“What difference does it make?” Mark asked.

“All the difference in the world.”

For the first time, Mark stared at him in that you’re just a crazy old man way. Then he shrugged and said, “Fine. If your granddad thinks one question is better than another, I’ll ask it. Will you marry me?”

“Okay, yes,” Stephanie said.

This cheered Oso’s heart. So what if he’d manipulated the situation a little? Of course, he’d had no such future vision. Some youths simply needed prodding. He sat up a little straighter and gave the car directives. Although Cameron was in the driver’s seat, he was the driver.

Oso let his car drive any which way it could find an open route not blockaded by protestors, while Mark and Stephanie made out in the back seat. He cleared his throat and ignored them. Making out while in a vehicle, due to the impossibility of telling who was driving, was officially illegal, but nobody cared at that point. A lot of things were illegal, or so prone to social shaming they might as well have been. The world was filled with rules and regulations. Most citizens were scofflaws as a matter of course.

In the days of the food regulations, many working adult scofflaws would sneak off to illegal pig roasts on their lunch hours and compete for door prizes that included delicacies like a crispy ear or tail. Mark and Stephanie, however, were kids during those days, and their childhoods were bereft of pigs put on stakes and turned over fire. There was a generational gap to becoming a scofflaw: the younger generation preferred to make out in their self-driving cars; the adults still attended pig roasts and matanzas. While it was now legal to sup on pork, it was not legal to consume meat that hadn’t been inspected, packaged, and shipped to Drop the Load stores.

Stephanie and Mark kept at it until the car said, “Must become stationary in order to avoid mandatory police traffic stop.”

The car’s computer had been set to self-protection mode when Oso and Cameron first entered Albuquerque’s riot scene. For its own protection, it now parked in the first safe space it could find: a little strip mall on NW Central.

“What kind of traffic stop?” Oso asked.

“Free-for-all,” the car said. “The police are searching for an intelligent Minä on the loose in the Albuquerque area. He incited protestors with his guitar and then disappeared. He is wanted on multiple charges of property damage, assault, and arson; and inciting Minäs to property damage, assault, and arson. Description pending.”

An image of Samson appeared on the car’s console.

“But that man calmed the protestors down,” Stephanie said. “He didn’t incite. He—he outcited. Is that a word?”

“I don’t think that’s a word,” Mark said.

“They’ve still got it backwards, though.”

The car continued, “According to regulation Z1098 of the Protestors’ Guide to Protesting, published by Little Penguin/Times, New York, when more than a hundred protestors have breached protocol, a scapegoat must be arrested as a symbolic representation of a group’s message.”

“Is there a route back to Stephanie’s apartment where we can avoid a mandatory stop?” Oso asked. Mandatory stops, which had started out in the early days as quick DWI checks, could take hours. “Also check routes to my house and available riot-proof hotels.” A hotel would be the last measure, as Devon couldn’t be left unsupervised for very long. And the kid woke up early, just as Oso did.

“Now engaging possible routes,” the car said. It spun its dash wheel for approximately five minutes. “No routes found. All roads entering and exiting Albuquerque blockaded. What would you like me to do?”

“Find a twenty-four diner that isn’t smashed up,” Mark grumbled, in a tone of voice that suggested he was demanding the impossible and didn’t much care.

The car, however, didn’t understand the concept of impossible. It quite helpfully complied. “The opening of the new restaurant chain, Red or Green?, occurred yesterday at lunchtime. It is owned by Tomi Corp and features traditional New Mexican cuisine, as well as riot proof glass and security. There is a location at the north end of the strip mall.”

“Whoa, Granddad, Tomi Corp is trying to be the Owl Cafe now?”

Mark perked up. “Tomi Corp or not, it has to be better than sitting here and starving.”

For his part, Oso found the idea of a Tomi Corp restaurant to be tediously stupid. “If I take over and manually drive, I can get us out of this mess. I’ve lived here for a lot longer than the car computer.”

“That is highly unlikely,” the car said, with the barest hint of sarcasm.

Oso snorted. “I’ll take that as a challenge. Manual override. Let’s get the heck out of here.”

In his mind, he was developing a route through alleys and back streets, and was about to peel out and wend his way through the traffic piling up as protestors tried to escape, when Cameron’s quiet whisper caught his attention. She was so quiet, in fact, that it was easy to forget she was there: a pale, thin wraith, lost in the depth of the bucket seat.

“Oso,” she was saying, “Oso, please stop.”

“But I can get us home,” he insisted.

“I need to take my medication. It won’t be pleasant on an empty stomach, and if we get stuck in traffic…” her voice trailed off. “You know I wouldn’t normally bother you with my problems. I apologize.”

He studied her tired face. Why had he brought her? He hadn’t been feeling great; that was why. And he’d felt compelled to be the hero and rescue Stephanie and Mark. None of this was her fault. “All right, my eponymous corporation,” he said. “Let’s see how you do with the New Mexican cuisine.” With that, Oso commanded the car to shut down and flung open his door.

The restaurant was an automat, much like the Drop-the-Load, where orders could be placed via buttons on the wall. A sign declared that a Tomi Corp android would be happy to bring their food directly from the four-star chef hiding in the kitchen. At the front desk, a retro android waited to be enlisted into his designated activity. At the moment, the android sat almost perfectly still. He was programmed and moving, though, if one stared at him long enough. Every minute or so, he blinked or touched the phone in his hand. He appeared to be slow-mo texting.

They scanned the menu items by image—Stephanie chose a beautiful green chile enchilada plate. Cameron, a single smothered burrito. Mark, twelve tacos. Oso wasn’t hungry, so he ordered a cup of coffee.

“Tacos?” Stephanie asked, her nose wrinkling. “Tacos are frozen toaster food.”

“I want the retro droid to bring them to me, just as advertised,” Mark said.

They sat down and waited. They looked at the retro droid, who didn’t budge from its seat. They waited twenty minutes, thirty minutes. Several crowds of protestors ran past the riot-proof windows. The line of traffic on Central grew longer. They were the only customers in the restaurant, and still the android didn’t budge.

“Hey, android, you alive over there?” Mark shouted. “We ordered some plates of food.”

Slowly, ever-so-slowly, the android turned to stare at them. He seemed to roll his eyes.

“When does our food come? Do I need to go back in the kitchen and get it myself?”

“Why are you suddenly so aggressive, Mark?” Stephanie asked. “Maybe you should calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down. We’re paying customers,” Mark said, and jumped to his feet.

“Customers aren’t allowed in the kitchen,” the android said. “I’ll get it when I’m ready.”

“Oh, my God. A lazy android.” Oso shook his head. “Change your name, Tomi Corp. I no longer wish to be associated with you.”

“Maybe he meant he’ll get the food when it’s ready,” Stephanie suggested.

The android stared blankly at her. “The food is ready. I was created with battery packs. Moving too quickly will lower my battery charge, and we are projected to have a large dinner crowd. It is illogical to work hard for four people, when Tomi Corp will make more money speedily serving many families.”

“Maybe we should just go somewhere else,” Stephanie said.

“You have already ordered your food. You will be fined or possibly jailed for not consuming,” the android said. “Wasting food is subject to the DHS food regulation manual, rule number….”

Mark marched over to the front desk, grabbed the android by the scruff of the neck, pushed it forward, and yanked out its battery pack before the much stronger titanium creature could put him in a headlock, as androids were wont to do.

“Mark, what…? See what I mean about the aggression?” She looked at Oso, as if for confirmation. “Now we’ll be jailed for damaging Tomi Corp property. You know that will set off an alarm, and this whole place will be swarming.”

“I didn’t damage it. I just removed its battery pack. And besides, all the cops are occupied, remember?”

Oso sighed. “You kids are going to wear me out. I’m sure Tomi Corp will back down from pressing charges if I tell them to, but we’re not going to eat in peace now. Get the food. Let’s go somewhere else. Old Town plaza maybe.”

They snuck in the kitchen, where they saw their order sitting under heatlamps. No chef appeared to be present. In fact, no humans or androids appeared to be present. Instead, the kitchen was composed of a conveyor belt and robot arms that hung still from the ceiling, as there were no more orders to fill.

Mark scraped their dinners into to-go boxes. He laughed. “Secure? This is the stupidest setup I’ve ever seen.”

They left on foot, carrying their food boxes with them. Oso carried Cameron’s food, meanwhile hoisting her up with an arm. She was limping along in her usual high heels. Old Town would be the nearest destination where they could find a place to sit, albeit a cold one, as they would have to sit outside.

He looked sidelong at Cameron and puffed out a sigh. “Looks like we might even catch the sunrise. Let’s just hope the plaza isn’t blocked off.”

Old Town was a historical landmark and, therefore, was often blocked off during violent protests. Erecting barriers, however, couldn’t prevent foot traffic from entering without the aid of police, and as the police were out searching for a roaming intelligent Minä, the plaza would likely be deserted.

Oso couldn’t help it; despite the harrowing events of the night, he chuckled as they passed the lines of cars with the people stuck inside waiting to be intently searched. That was the difference between himself and others. Wherever they ended up, he wouldn’t stand in line waiting to get there. His little group turned toward Old Town after the junction between Lomas and Central, and from that distance, he could see that something was blocking their path toward the plaza. It wasn’t, however, a police barrier.

“Is that a…?” Stephanie began.

“Giant foot,” Mark finished.

Indeed, lying on its back, half on and half off a truck trailer, rested the giant twenty-seven foot tall Oso Beñat statue. Some protestors had apparently gotten their hands on a set of real tools and dismantled the once-upon-a-time lumberjack. What the perps expected to do with it was another question altogether. In this case, they had abandoned it along with the truck trailer.

Stephanie climbed on the statue’s leg. “When I was kid and sat on your lap, I thought you were twenty-seven feet tall, Granddad.”

Oso snorted. He sat next to her on the blue-jeaned leg of the statue. “Would apropos be the proper word, my young journalists?”

“I’m not sure,” Mark said, as he stuffed his mouth with one of his tacos. “Seems like a bad omen to me, sitting on a downed image of yourself.”

“Well, at least the tacos are good,” Oso said.

“Delicious. I don’t know what this meat is. Never had anything like it. Who would’ve thought robotic arms could make such great food?”

Oso peered inside a taco. “That would be brisket.”

Stephanie murmured, her mouth full of food, too. “These enchiladas taste just like the recipe my grandma Gonzalez taught me to make. I guess Tomi Corp isn’t that bad after all.”

“Do you actually mean that?” Oso asked, nudging her with his shoulder.

“Of course. You started it, along with Uncle Gilly. And neither of you are that bad.”

“Your loyalty is touching.”

“Not undeserved,” Cameron whispered again, barely loud enough for Oso to hear.

“What a strange moment this is. Strange, but good,” Oso mused. “I suspect we’ll want to capture this one for posterity.” When Mark reached for his phone, Oso added, “Not in that way. This goes beyond the visual. Maybe one of you can find the words to capture it. Maybe for the biography, Stephanie. There’s no reason why all of us shouldn’t be a part of my story.”

Silence fell on the group, as it seemed they were digesting Oso’s words along with their food. Even Cameron, who didn’t want to be part of the story, was silent. The silence lasted for a good long while, as early morning doves cooed, the sky turned golden, and the solid outline of the Old Town church, San Felipe de Neri, waited for a new day to begin.

And then the profundity of the moment was shattered by a group of merry-making Minä protestors, who ran through the traffic jam, whoop-whooping. They appeared to be—could it be?—kicking a soccer ball.

“Where do you think they got that?” Mark asked. “Hey, wait a second. One of them’s wearing my Cardinals hat! And my best JOI jacket! They scavenged my apartment!” He jumped from the statue’s leg and ran after the hooligans.

What had Stephanie just been saying about Tomi Corp not being so bad after all? Oso set his coffee cup aside and massaged his temples. Before Tomi Corp, the world was normal. As if to rub it in, the church bells began pealing out the first morning chimes, which caused the Minäs to cower with their hands over their ears.

Due to the spectacle of Mark and the dummy Minäs, Oso almost missed the vision of the tall stocky man with the cowboy hat who tore after the poor dolts, as though part of a Minä convoy. Next, a crew of ordinary cops, lacking riot gear, appeared. Clearly, the search for Samson was over…if they could catch him. The cops looked worn out, and why wouldn’t they be? They’d probably been up all night. They looked worn out enough to take Samson down and be done with it.

“Samson!” Oso shouted, allowing the birth name to pop out unbidden. “Stop and drop! They’re going to shoot!”

Samson, however, was in full fight-or-flight mode. Oso wouldn’t be able to stop him. And he couldn’t stand that Samson was going to be taken down like a dog, lose a limb or his life, because he’d done Oso’s bidding one last time.

Oso swallowed back his exhaustion. He shot up without considering his geriatric heart, bolted toward Samson, and tackled him. As Oso and Samson—the man modeled after Oso’s own physique—hit the ground together, fire erupted in Oso’s leg. He couldn’t help it; he let out a primal moan of frustration. Two falls, twenty-four hours apart. This time around, the pain was too much, and stars danced in his eyes before he passed out.


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Chapter 41: Whack-a-Mole

In which the centipede comes unglued…literally!

The wall beside Stephanie vibrated with sudden energy. The centipede had finally received the go to press message after she’d shut it down. She knew from experience that it had to clear its cache of the old print before starting a new one. Well, at least she’d been successful in sending the new edition to print. It would continue to print the entire run, unless the barbarians afoot viewed the centipede as an enemy and destroyed it. It appeared indestructible, but clearly was not. It operated off a computer that would be easy to destruct.

A great smashing sounded above her, and a low-tech, old-school monitor fell on her lap. When she looked up, a face reminiscent of Devon leered down at her. Except Devon would be happy to see her. This Minä might be, too—it was difficult to tell. He hollered and whoop-whooped and pointed at her.

“Girl! Girl!” he shouted and smacked her on the head with a stick.

She crawled out of his way, but was met by more people or Minäs—probably Minäs, as they copied the first one, banging her on the head. Minäs didn’t know their own strength, although they were beating her in a syncopated rather than brutal fashion at this point. The humans, on the other hand, had the fighting instincts of little girls. They wouldn’t be much to tussle with if there weren’t so many of them.

A human activist made himself known by shouting, “Down with the JOI! Down! Down! Down!”

Holy…! She couldn’t stand up. They were all beating her. She cowered and covered her head with her hands until she realized she was carrying two quasi weapons. She jabbed a Minä on his exposed ankle with the letter opener, and then went for his knee with the paperweight. The Minä’s surprise pain cleared a path momentarily, and she crawled out and tried to run.

Unfortunately, there were too many protestors, and she was yanked back by the hair. She could feel as well as hear her phone vibrating. So apparently could a woman next to her, who reached in Stephanie’s jacket pocket and pulled it out.

The woman held the phone up like a trophy. “Down with the JOI!”

From her vantage point, Stephanie could see her granddad’s face on the phone, and her heart sank. If she could see it, so could everybody else in the near vicinity. It didn’t help that there was an identifier: Granddad Beñat.

“Down with Tomi Corp!” another woman shouted.

Forget the phone; she let the woman keep it and turned around and jabbed and punched her way through the crowd. Somebody else grabbed at her hair. She yelped involuntarily. Her head was really starting to hurt. A man grabbed her around the chest and held on.

“Here she is, proof the JOI is controlled by the 1%!”

In her peripheral vision, she caught the swing of a weighty object crash into the man’s head, and he went tumbling down, taking her with him. She pushed herself up, ready to bolt, assuming the blow had been meant for her head. But the crowd had turned away from her and was looking instead at the infamous Mark Anderson, holding a baseball bat.

He grabbed her hand and yanked her through the hallway while the truth caught up with the protestors. Not only was she in cahoots with Oso Beñat, but with Mark Anderson, too. Because the back exit was blocked, Mark darted in the press room and slammed the door shut. There were several windows in the large industrial space, but they were high up on the wall. If they attempted to climb out of them, they’d end up on the roof of the lower part of the building.

They didn’t have time to find a ladder. The Minäs with their sticks and the human protestors hurled the door open, shouting as they marched. What did they think was going to happen if they shouted at an audience of two? Or maybe they really did want Mark Anderson’s head in a physical rather than figurative way, and hers by extension.

Mark pulled her down on the opposite side of the centipede and its swiftly moving arms. He crouched in front of her with the bat. Black spots reared in front of her eyes, dizziness overcoming her. She reminded herself that fear of the centipede went in the irrational box, despite her proximity to its mechanical arms. That other fear, of the people chasing them down—that one went in the rational box, and she needed to stay rational for her own self protection.

A Minä ran at them with his stick, whacked Mark with it, and Mark whacked the Minä back. Harder. One down. Then another ran at them, and another. It was like playing whack-a-mole. The humans, by comparison, seemed unsure what to do now that two notorious JOI journalists were cornered behind a frightening monster. One of the Minäs tried hitting the centipede and his stick snapped in two. When he fell on the machine, the bloody mess the arms made of him caused the humans to back up further.

The Minäs, on the other hand, copied their comrade in arms who had just died, and turned their attention to whacking at the beast. The machine began to tremble and shriek as its work was interrupted; splintered shards of wood and metal flew in every direction. Both she and Mark backed up as far as they could go before hitting the wall, which was about two feet.

Her mind had gone numb with the fear, as though she were watching a slow-motion movie of bleary, unfocused actors. And the movie had a soundtrack. A pleasant soundtrack. A peaceful soundtrack. The show moved forward to the gentle strumming of a guitar. La libertad for the freedom of la gente, she heard a gruff but beautiful voice sing out. The flowers se han marchitado. Necesitan florecer again and again.

One at a time, the Minäs went rigid and dropped their sticks in the claws of the beast, which finally was so jammed up that it screeched to a halt. It would do no more printing without being repaired. Silence ensued as the song ended. The Minäs looked around, their bodies vibrating, but at peace. The crowd parted as a burly old man wearing a cowboy hat, long shaggy hair, and a bushy beard drifted through the doorway, a guitar in his hands, and a music player with a large speaker strapped to his back.

Stephanie felt queer, as though a shadow stood behind her, peering over her shoulder. “Granddad?” she asked, even though she knew the man with the guitar wasn’t her patriarch. He looked like her granddad, but not quite—younger, more agile, somehow, and with a peaceful glint in his eyes.

He looked straight at her. “You must belong to Oso Beñat,” he said. “Stay where you are. All those with sticks—I want you to line up along the wall. That’s right.”

The movie had just taken a surreal turn. Who was this strange man who could direct and round up Minäs without a SWAT team and tranquilizers?

“Everybody else, disburse from this place. You’ve done enough damage for one night. If you refuse to go, I’ll have you know the police are on their way, and they have weapons. And they’re all fired up from having to round up protestors like you all over the city. Move to the exits slowly. That’s right. There’s no reason to panic.”

The humans, subdued, began to vacate in small clusters. At the end, there was one voluptuous skunk-haired woman left, holding a phone in her hand. The shadow of a tall man stood behind her. Granddad. He pushed the woman forward.

She yelped. “Fascist,” she said in a tiny voice.

“Return the phone and apologize,” he growled.

“Sorry,” skunk-hair said in a small voice, and handed Stephanie the phone before scuttling off.

Stephanie clutched it in her hand. She didn’t care about the phone. She cared that her mission had failed. “I tried to help you, Mark,” she sobbed. “The new front page was for you, but now it will never be delivered.”

“That’s all right, Steph. I was ready for a change, anyway.”

She nodded at him, tears streaking down her face. She didn’t brush them away. “Who are you?” she asked the bearded man.

“Gerald Intxausti.”

“Huh?” Now she was even more confused. “Are we related?”

“I’m just a little known family relation. Ask your grandfather who I am.” The man pulled off his hat and shook his shaggy hair out of his face, revealing a pair of giant Minä ears.

Stephanie gasped. “Samson?” she whispered.

She looked up at her granddad for confirmation. He said nothing, but instead shook the shaggy Minä’s hand and thanked him.

Likewise, the Minä didn’t answer, just smiled sadly before drifting away with his guitar.


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Chapter 40: Samson Awakes

In which Oso calls forth Samson!

Oso’s phone rang, and then it rang again. It was Gillilander. Gilly rarely called, and he never called this late at night. Piqued with curiosity, Oso peered at the phone. To be honest with himself, although he wouldn’t admit it to anyone else, he had felt ill all day. It was hard to be an old man when one never wanted to appear weak. Finally, he answered the phone. If Gilly’s phone calls were rare, letting the phone ring in an endless loop of call-disconnect-call was even more rare.

“What’s up, old buddy?”

“Your granddaughter’s in trouble. I feel it in my bones.”

“How so?”

“She’s trapped inside the Albuquerque Daily alone with protestors smashing out the windows. You know they’ll kill her—unintentionally, of course. But they’ll still beat her to death. Men and Minäs, both. They don’t know when to stop.”

“What on earth is she doing there alone at this hour?”

“Being devious. Changing the front page spread. I knew she couldn’t be as sweet as she looked. Women never are.”

“Save the commentary, Gillilander. How do you think I’m going to drive down fast enough to rescue her? It’s a good thirty to forty minutes away. You’re closer to her than I am.”

“I’m not the two-fisted stud I used to be.”

Oso refrained from his own commentary. Gilly had never been a two-fisted stud…except that one time when he’d gotten the better of Oso. Oso pushed that out of his head. Twelve-year-old boys were notorious savages, unlike decrepit octogenarian men. “Did you call the police?”

“Of course I did. There are riots all over this godforsaken city. They’re booked up, to put it mildly, but dispatch took note that there was a young unarmed female at risk. I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“What did you have in mind when you called?” As soon as he asked the question, Oso knew what Gilly had in mind. There was only one person he could count on for help of this nature.

“Get a hold of Samson. Do it. He’ll know how to calm the Minäs down.”

“Get a hold of Samson,” Oso repeated.

“You still have his number, don’t you?”

“I have an old number. Don’t know if it’s still accurate.”

“You of all people should know that time is of essence. Your granddaughter’s life is on the line. Why are you hesitating, Oso? Samson will do it for you. He may have cut off ties to you—I don’t blame him—but you’re still the only man he recognizes as being greater than himself. His creator.”

“You’re his creator, Gilly. You designed him.”

“Can we not play the humility game right now? You’re the top dog, and the only man he recognizes that way. I’m just your partner.”

“All right, I’ll do it. He’s old, you know. He was biologically eighteen when we birthed him. He may be dying of cancer. He could be dead.”

That last protest wasn’t much of a possibility; if he’d died and a coroner had taken more than a quick glimpse at him, he would’ve known. And it would have hit the news: Minäs Living Amongst Us As Intelligent Beings, even though Oso only knew of one: Samson.

“Do it for her. Not Stephanie. For Bernadette. Bernadette loved her daughter and granddaughter. Those three had a special connection.”

“God, you’re getting sentimental, Gilly. I can almost see tears oozing out your eyes. I love my daughter and granddaughter, too. Which means this conversation is over. I have to call Samson.”

So Oso had told one minor lie in his biography. He’d never put Samson in cryogenics. Instead, he’d had Samson’s Tomi Corp barcode removed and let the man go and discover himself as much as he could—not being a real man, after all. If Samson was still alive and living in Albuquerque, Oso didn’t want the world to know about it.

He suspected the last known number was no longer active, and he commanded his phone to find the number for one Gerald Intxausti, as Oso had dubbed the Minä with his family’s original surname on the fake birth certificate and ID cards. There was, thankfully, only one known man with the name in Albuquerque.

He called the number, and a sharp, not very happy voice answered almost immediately, “Yes?”

Oso hadn’t hidden his ID. Despite the unfriendly tone, the immediate pickup was a good sign. “I need your help, Samson.”

“That’s no longer my name.”

“My granddaughter’s in trouble. The protestors have picked up Minä followers and have trapped her in the Albuquerque Daily building. You’re the only one who will know what to do. Everybody else in this country’s gone mad.”

“Is this Adam’s daughter?”

“No, Olivia’s daughter. Your youngest sister’s child.”

“Olivia was always very precious to me. A beautiful child who grew up to have her own. I couldn’t have my own kids.”

“I know. Please forgive me, Samson.”

There was a weighty pause, and then: “These creatures should not be out destroying buildings and people, but it’s not their fault. It’s not your fault, either. The government turned them into mindless animals.”

“I share some of the fault.”

“If I go down there and calm the Minäs down, the police will still kill them.”

“Yes.”

“But I might save your granddaughter.”

“Yes. Are you healthy, Samson? Can you manage this?”

“No, I’m not healthy, Oso. I can manage, if this is what my creator is asking me to do. I take note of the fact that you haven’t contacted me in twenty years, at my own request. I take note that this is very serious, that you love your granddaughter very much.”

“I do.”

“I may show up too late and fail you, but I’ll still be able to calm the Minäs down and prevent them from further destruction. I may not be able to calm the humans down.”

“I already know this.”

“I know you do. I wanted you to know that I know.”

“Of course. You were created to be intelligent and to understand future consequences.”

“My brain is still very much alive, Mr. Oso. I’ll be on my way now. I will make waves as I walk.”

“Thank you, Samson.”

“I was created to help humans, and I’ve never been able to stop. You wired me well.”

After Oso disconnected from his model Minä, he walked through his study, agitated. He called his granddaughter’s phone and got no response. He wasn’t the type of man who sat around waiting for other people to act; he was an actor. What if it did take a half hour to drive into the valley? Why couldn’t he drive there just to do something, even if the drive might prove ineffectual in the end?

“Cameron!” he shouted.

Cameron materialized as if out of nowhere. “Is Devon in bed?” he asked.

She gave him a funny look. “I’m not Devon’s nanny. But, yes, I think he’s fast asleep. As you should be.”

It was their way—ever since Bernadette had died, and she’d shown up at his door, she’d bossed him around like the kind of nagging mom he’d never had, and he had conversely verbally abused her for it. It was the way she wanted things. Tonight, he didn’t have the energy to play.

“I’m not going to bed. Prepare my car for me. I’m driving into Albuquerque.”

“At this hour?”

“Yes, I—” He paused. His bravado had suddenly failed him. With a deep inhale, he re-invigorated his constitution.

“Oso?”

“You’re going to drive me to the Albuquerque Daily building,” he barked at her.

“What about Devon?”

“Leave him. He’s fine.”

“Maybe you should sit down and stop shouting while I get the car started,” she said in an icy voice that hearkened back to her younger years.

Astonishingly, he obeyed. “We need to find my granddaughter,” he said. “If something happens to me along the way, a heart attack, for example, you have to be the one to contact my family.”

“And Gilly, I should think,” she unemotionally added.

He patted her hand. In the beginning, she was an imposition. Now she was an asset. Life had a funny way of working out like that.


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Chapter 39: Stop the Centipede!

In which Stephanie must conquer much more than the centipede!

Stephanie became her own cheerleader. You can do it, Stephie! She stopped at that because she couldn’t think of a rhyme. Maybe she should call herself Julia, as her brother had done. Stephanie was tired and wanted to go to bed, but Julia was a hard-hitting reporter with a story to nefariously print on the front page—and here Stephanie’s tired, cynical voice broke in—of the tiny, irrelevant, grassroots Albuquerque Daily. And yet, Julia’s voice told her, SportSlut hadn’t found Mark’s article too irrelevant to steal. They wouldn’t find her Emmett the halftime clown article irrelevant, either, as it would be forced on them.

She glanced at her watch. After moving the spread around for tomorrow’s Daily edition, she might not have time to drive all the way to Gilly’s and have him help her work it to the front page of SportSlut. Perhaps she could text him the article through his messaging account on the Shadow net, and he could do the rest.

Stephanie lived in Southeast Albuquerque in the old Warren apartments, not that far from her brother’s place off Zuni. The newspaper office was located in the Northeast. Albuquerque proper was not that large. However, when she pulled her car from its usual parking spot, she could see it was going to be a hell of a long trip. Protestors were marching through the streets. There were always protestors, rabble-rousers, people looking for a good night’s carousing—but marching through the streets? That was some serious business. For a few minutes, while she stood at a standstill at the entrance to Louisiana, she racked her brain trying to figure out what they were protesting.

Then she remembered: Tomi Corp’s retro robot release. Good God, she had things to do. She didn’t have time for this. She turned on the car’s riot voice. Make way! Make way! With her horn bleeping, and the riot voice on full, she shot out into the street, forcing the protestors to back away or be struck down. They shouted and pounded on her car. When she spied a man swinging a hammer at her window, she gunned her engine and drove like a maniac, weaving around the clumps of people all the way to the Albuquerque Daily building.

What a surprise—more protestors there. Make way! Make way! It was getting late, but these riotous sounds were so common in the city that nary a person would complain. Car riot settings, bullhorns, shouting—these were noises akin to fire and police sirens. Sometimes, it was a wonder anybody slept. Only the rich could afford riot-proof homes.

Thankfully, the area directly around the Daily building was clear, and the protestors there seemed to have gone back to their usual rantings against JOI papers. The situation regarding Mark had been subdued, at least for the present. Above the entrance to the newspaper office hung a giant back-lit banner that read Mark Anderson is no longer employed with the Albuquerque Daily.

Stephanie gazed up at the words in distaste. Was this her fault? She had told Mr. Mast to announce Mark’s disemployment from the paper. Her stomach turned over at the thought. But then, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything except Gilly’s crackers and milk. It was therefore natural for her stomach to roil; it didn’t mean she was responsible for the banner. Except that she was, in her heart of hearts. She had wanted Mark to apologize. She had wanted him to grovel. She hated her treacherous self.

Pitying herself, which she was mollified enough to do, wouldn’t solve the problem. She spread her arms wide and raised her chest to the sky. She was capable and competent, and she had a plan to carry out! Already, she felt better.

Just as she was about to enter the building with her keycard, the managing editor exited. He did a double take when he saw her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. He sounded a little worried. “Don’t tell me you’ve brought changes. Because everything’s done, and it’s already gone to press. I had to do all Mark’s work because the stupid dolt quit. No changes, please, no changes.”

She thought about her position with the managing editor. She’d never given him cause to dislike her, as she’d always turned in her stories on time and done her own editing. It might be helpful to bring him in to help her; he could expedite the process of moving stories around, not to mention stopping the printing press with its hundred arms. She swallowed back her fear when she pondered stopping it, which was necessary for her mission.

“I have a new front page lead story,” she said. “Mr. Mast wants to get rid of the GM aphid article.”

“No way. No new front page articles. Mr. Mast must be insane if he thinks I want to stay here all night. It’ll have to run another time.”

“It’s an interview with Emmett the halftime clown defending Mark Anderson’s honor.” Stephanie looked pointedly up at the banner.

The managing editor looked up at it, too. The man had been Mark’s friend, even if just of the office mate variety. He scratched his head as if contemplating a late night. “I can see why Mr. Mast would want to run that. But still, no deal. If Mr. Mast wants it in, he can do it himself. I have a girlfriend, you know. Dinner plans. That sort of thing.”

“What about Mark?” she asked, annoyed. “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”

“Stephanie, I know you’ve helped with layout before, but you’ve never touched the press as far as I know. You aren’t approved to do this. I’ll have to call Mr. Mast. This is highly irregular.”

“No, don’t call him. If we work together, we can get it done quickly. Mr. Mast doesn’t like to be disturbed at home.”

“Neither do I.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Mast didn’t approve this, did he? This is all you. You’re a little saboteur, and you want to bring me in on your crimes. No deal.”

“Go home, then. I care about Mark. In fact, I’m getting rid of the stupid banner, too.”

She jumped up, but was too short to reach it. She jumped up again, grabbed an edge, and yanked. As it was a hastily created paper banner, it tore down the middle. She grabbed both sides, pulled them down, crumpled them up, and threw them at the protesting crowd, which booed at her. She flipped them off. It felt juvenile and freeing at the same time.

“I care about Mark, but not that much. You’re inviting trouble. Look around you. This city is coming unglued.”

“So are you going to stop me from using my keycard and going in there and making the changes?”

With a panicked gleam in his eyes, he stared at the protestors who had been a dull din up until Stephanie had pulled the banner down. Now the din was growing, the crowd moving forward. “Do what you want. I’m going home where I have bars over my windows. I’d advise you to do the same.”

“Thanks, but I only take advice from my granddad and Mark. They’re the only men I trust.” And Gilly, she reminded herself. She trusted her Uncle Gilly to be a misanthropic revenge artist. Knowing she had so many great men at her back, she stood up straight again, turned her back on the managing editor, and swiped her keycard.

“Hey!” he said. She paused and turned back around. He held up his wristwatch, which had his scan drive open. “Scan me. Then you won’t have to hack my password once you’re in. Cuz at this point, yours is going to be on lock-out.”

That was worrisome. How could she be on lock-out? “Why?”

“Oh, nothing personal, I lock-out all passwords except mine after deadline. I had problems with writers going in and re-editing their stories after deadline. You’ve never tried to re-edit, or you would know my dirty little secret.”

She nodded and opened her wristwatch scan device; their wrists and eyes met. There was a ping as the document loaded.

“You stop the presses by putting in this key.” He handed her what looked like an antique relic from a windup toy. “And the password #NoosKrawl! Along with my ID, which is my birthday backwards. Don’t touch the actual machine. It will reset itself when you go to press again. Got that, Stephanie? Don’t touch the centipede.”

“I’m terrified of the centipede.”

He nodded, as if satisfied. “I admire what you’re doing, but I’m not putting my job or life on the line for Mark.”

She slid in her keycard again and finally slipped inside, allowing the door to lock behind her, against the forward moving mass of protestors. She didn’t pause to allow any other considerations, even though Mark’s sudden dislike of her was a shadow that attempted to seep around the barriers she had put up against it. She also didn’t pause to pay attention to the protestors who were now banging against the glass. Let them bang. Surely they wouldn’t smash the windows. Nobody ever did that during a riot.

She shuddered and quickly made her way to the back bowels of the building, where the centipede’s arms were swiftly moving along the next day’s papers. Fears could be placed into irrational or rational boxes, she reminded herself. Fear of a machine that had no intent to harm her, and with a protocol for usage, could safely be placed in the irrational box. With that in mind, she urged herself forward, put the key in the marked key console, which then prompted her to make a choice: what did she want to do? Stop the press. It reminded her that she needed to have permission which was given by means of the managing editor’s ID and password. Here, she came to a full stop. She knew his birthday. They’d just had an office party for him on February 28th; he was born on the 29th, and everybody had made jokes about how he was a quarter of his actual age. What she didn’t know was the year, but being that he was supposedly twelve, then he was actually forty-eight. She subtracted, put in the year, and waited for the machine to respond.

Press stopped!

Next up—she was on to the bigger job of changing the front page layout. From the managing editor’s own computer, she opened up the layout files and deleted the aphid article. No harm done. The aphid article was ostensibly written by one Dorothy Alonzo, who had quit two years ago, and had since become the purview of Stephanie. Being Dorothy, she didn’t care about hurting her own pride for nixing the silliest front page story she’d ever written. Then she remembered she needed this to happen concurrently with the SportSlut hack.

“Call Uncle Gilly,” she commanded her phone.

“What do you want?” he said.

“Uncle Gilly, I’m stuck at the Albuquerque Daily office. I’m going to send you my story. Will you get it on the front page of SportSlut for me?”

“Can you give me a more difficult challenge, girlie?” he said.

“Um, sure, maybe later, but can you do this for me right now? I don’t have a long of time to talk. I’ve got to hurry.” She looked worriedly at the front windows, and then toward the front door, where it seemed people were banging to get inside, as if she would open up for them to do—? She wasn’t quite sure what they had in mind.

“What’s that confounded ruckus?”

“The protestors are banging on the windows. I think they’ve got a bunch of Minäs with them. You know, it’s not just Mark and the JOI any longer. A bunch of people have come to Albuquerque for the release of the retro droids.” She tried to keep her voice from shaking, but it didn’t quite work.

“Are you there alone?”

“Yes, that’s why I have to hurry, Uncle Gilly. Before they break in. I don’t know what they want to do in the first place. I’m scared to find out.”

“If they’re Minäs, they don’t even know. They’ll just smash the place apart before the SWAT team comes and hauls them off to be disengaged.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s why I’ve got to go now,” she said in her best happy-go-lucky sing-songy voice.

“Call that boyfriend of yours to rescue you. I’m too old to do it.”

“Uncle Gilly, I’m not asking you to…never mind. I’ll call him, but he’s still not talking to me. I doubt he’ll answer. Gotta go!”

She heard him harrumphing as she disconnected the call.

Mr. Mast and the managing editor were going to hate her because she was about to make a mess of their front page. She didn’t have time to finesse it. She jammed in the interview with Emmett the halftime clown, which was about twice the length of the aphid article. Quickly, she moved the rest of the front page spread to other pages, deleting photos and ads she considered to be not worth newspaper space. There was a lawyer, for example, who extorted the ad lady for free ad space. His ad was the first to go.

Now all she had to do was give it a quick glimpse and save it all, before sending it to the centipede’s numerous arms to print and stack into piles for the vans to pick up and deliver. That is, they would deliver if the protestors made way for the delivery vans.

She was on her feet, hitting save and the rather more time-consuming go to press, ready to dash for the back exit, when somebody finally went from pounding to smashing. It was a young man, probably a Minä, judging by the goofy grin on his face. As others joined him in the fun, there was shortly no longer any glass in the window.

On the way to the back exit, she darted into Mr. Mast’s office and peered out at the parking lot. This time, not only were there Minäs jumping up and down on her car, but somebody had punctured her tires and smashed out her car windows. Okay, she would have to slip through back alleys on foot, leaving the protestors to break into the Daily office, unaware of what they were really after. She wasn’t a target; Mark and the JOI were targets. Why would they chase her? She wouldn’t be a target until her article, under her real name, appeared on SportSlut.

It was a good thing Minäs were easy to fool. It was the fully functioning people who had given way to their reptilian brain stems that she feared. She could feel her carotid artery pulsing as she gently pushed open the back door. Of course, stealth wasn’t an option when the back door triggered the fire alarm. A dark shadowy arm reached in with a piece of rebar and slammed her on the head with it. She reached above her head, grabbed the bar and yanked, but the man on the other end yanked back. When he’d pulled it completely out of the way, she slammed the door shut and backed away. She bit her lip to keep herself from screaming.

“Call Mark!” her voice, trembling from adrenaline, shouted at her phone. When he didn’t answer, she left him as desperate a message as she could manage: “Mark, help me. I’m trapped at the Albuquerque Daily, and they’re coming in through the windows. They have rocks and sticks and rebar.”

If he didn’t bother to listen to the message, she’d have to fend for herself. Even if he did listen, she’d have to fend for herself. It might take him an inordinate amount of time to get there, depending on how aggressively he drove to her rescue. That was assuming he would come at all. Her gut roiled over with emptiness and anxiety.

She searched the area for a weapon and picked up a paperweight. What a silly weapon. But what else was there? This was an office—it had computers and printers. The only thing remotely dangerous was the horrifying centipede, which would shortly be printing tomorrow’s paper. After rummaging on Mr. Mast’s desktop, she found an engraved letter opener. It wasn’t the sharpest tool out there, but it might get her by.

Armed with a paperweight and a letter opener, she ducked into the darkness behind Mark’s desk—Mark’s ex-desk. One desk drawer hung open to reveal an empty cavity. Either he’d cleaned out his desk, or somebody had done it for him.

At least the people and/or Minäs hadn’t made it this far in the back, in that place where sports editors dwelt because they didn’t want to join in the office banter, and where the odor eater vacuum bot couldn’t quite reach to rid the corner of acrid deadline sweat. It still smelled like Mark back here, and she almost whimpered in her desperation for him. The protestors seemed to be busy at the front of the Albuquerque Daily, ransacking the receptionist’s desk and upturning the poor old woman’s potted plants. One of them had decided that smashing an old-school monitor would stick it those bastards of the JOI.

Stephanie’s phone buzzed. A quick check flooded her with relief: Mark. Instead of answering, she texted him another plea for help. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

He texted back, “I need help, too. Can’t leave apartment. Doxxed. People keep coming up fire escape. Keep hitting them back with bat.”

First a soccer ball, and now a bat. She was floored. She wished she had such a handy weapon. “Bat????”

“Bought it at that defunct firearms store, Central. Been practicing.”

“I stole Mast’s letter opener. Am hiding behind your desk. They’re smashing computers and desks up front.”

“Maybe I should flee on fire escape, beat them down. Have advantage. Make a run for it. Been practicing running.”

“Please? I could use your bat.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it. Sit tight.”

She had actually meant she could use him while he wielded said bat, but the details weren’t important at that point. He was coming for her, and somehow, she had to sit tight as the whoop-whooping and smashing breached the spaces around Mark’s desk.


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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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