Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 21: Speakeasy

In which he didn’t always hit the Old Gold, but when he did, he got in a fight!

Through long hours and the inspiration of the New Mexico blue sky they rarely saw, Oso and his team of researchers were able to build organic parts of the brain through the use of stem cells. Oso’s goal was a little different from Gilly’s, albeit no less daunting. He wanted to use the technology they were creating for androids in humans. What had plagued them was creating a viable way to get blood cells inside the tissue they had managed to build, layer by layer.

Then Oso had asked himself why. Why grow these parts that may never be viable inside an actual human skull?

It would prove a far better resolution to inject the braincell solution inside the damaged parts of the brain and allow the brain to regrow and regenerate on its own. All he had to alleviate were the miniscule problems associated with neurogenesis, namely, having to shut down growth-inhibitory ligands while also preventing inflammation.

Very small problems—but no problem was too small for Oso.

It had been a long hard day of working and thinking. For some reason, Gilly was tetchy all day. They were so close Oso could taste it. Surely, Gilly could, too. So why was he stalling? The team of scientists had all left for the day. Oso was alone with images of spinning brains on the monitor screens, which exactly represented his turbulent core.

They had leaped over their first big hurdle, creating their first real pre-Minä prototype, a female, of course, matching Gilly’s idealized Nordic blonde. Not that she didn’t have a few glitches, but who said creation was a perfect process? Humans weren’t perfect. Why would creatures made in their image be perfect?

She was jumpy and prone to headaches, due to a combination of her pain censors and her highly sensitized ears. Oso knew they had a window to go to press with her before a competitor created a better android, maybe one with smaller ears. It was hard to hide the ears, to be honest, even behind a mane of white-blonde hair. Big ears would become the new beautiful. That was all there was to it, and this darling with the big ears would seductively reel in the funding needed to fix the Minä glitches, as well as offset production costs.

He couldn’t concentrate. Gilly had taken the prototype and her personal physician home with him, as he usually did. Somebody had to be the babysitter. It wasn’t as if one could create life and then turn it off every night. She wasn’t a computer—she breathed oxygen. Her heart beat steadily, racing when she was excited, slowing when she rested. She was as close to human as a creature without a belly button and vital reproductive organs could be. Of course, one could knock her out with drugs via an IV and remove the drip when one wanted her cogent again, but it would be painful and unnecessary.

Speaking of babysitters, Adam was still with Bernadette. Bernadette picked up the boy from school and kept him at her psychiatric practice until Oso finished work for the day.

She was far too patient, to be honest. He had resolved to give up being a workaholic in order to be a father, but his best resolutions went to pot as they came closer and closer to press release. He should pick up his boy. But he was too tired or wired, or both, and he sank into a chair and picked up the tablet one of his assistants had left there. It was open to an insider journal of the industry, which gave him an idea of what his competitors had achieved, if not what they were hiding away in their labs.

And that’s when he spotted the image that sucker-punched him in the gut: it was from a corporation that had headquarters in both China and the US, of their upcoming release, which appeared an exact replica of Tomi Corp’s pre-pre-Minä android. Gilly’s design fingertips were all over it, except for the big ears. Gilly was an artist, and artists left fingerprints. Somebody could have managed a very good knockoff—a fake Gucci handbag type of android.

But his gut told him this wasn’t a knockoff. The woman stared at him from the screen, impassive. It was as if she was challenging him. No, it was as if Gilly was challenging him in an open daring kind of way. Perhaps he’d left the tablet for him to find. It was a distinct possibility.

For the record, they hadn’t actually brought the damned thing to life. Instead of infrasound, the developers had been experimenting with bringing her to life with water. So far, her lungs filled before life emerged, effectively drowning her. Also, the water had shorted out her battery pack. Battery pack? Why did she have a…?

Oso shook his head. It wasn’t the android and her visage, which cried Gilly!, that bothered him. It was Gilly’s sneaky ways. This was not the first time a competitor’s android parts bore Gilly’s fingerprint of design. Sure, he never gave them everything, essentially getting rich by selling them an almost-but-not-quite. It was the principle of the matter. The principle!

His mouth went dry. He reached for his phone to call his lawyer, and then stopped. For all his ability to remember the future, he couldn’t force the memories to pop unbidden in his mind. And yet, he might have seen this one coming. But he was blind to Gilly’s faults. Gilly was his best friend. Gilly would never betray him.

“I need a drink,” he said aloud.

The spinning brains didn’t answer him.

Alcohol and introspection was a pairing that never went well with Oso’s constitution. In this case, it was exactly what was called for. He called Bernadette and asked if she could keep Adam for a couple of hours. He had some trouble at work, he told her. Not surprisingly, she agreed.

If she knew he was going to a bar, she might not have agreed so readily. However, if she understood his current murderous feelings, she would have agreed readily and tried to alter his plans and get him to talk through his problems in her office. That was not what Oso needed.

He drove to the Analgest, as the witch-from-the-forest’s words had left an impression in his mind: the Analgest was a speakeasy, and women weren’t allowed. He didn’t know about that; once there, he found the usual hipsters, who disgusted him. But Oso, as a man whose fame had landed him in the likes of Wired, Sci Am, Huff Po, and the New Yorker, was royalty to the hipsters. The word had gotten around that Oso was back in New Mexico doing business, and everybody in tech wanted a job.

Oso was not in charge of hiring. He had a department that dealt with such niceties, although he was the first one to sort through applications and discover the promising candidates before they ever reached the hiring division. But he could humor the hipsters—if he felt like it.

Due to one man’s lucky recognition and the subsequent whispering of his name, Oso had potential mini-marble pool competitors to last the night. For some reason, a mini-marble competition wasn’t satisfying, and he suddenly realized why. It was lacking Gilly. That was why. It had nothing whatever to do with the need for spy glasses, or any glasses at all, in order to play.

So he called Gilly. “Hey, Gilly, old buddy, come meet me for a game of pool at the Analgest.”

“Um, are you serious? I’m at home relaxing.”

“What, with your woman?”

Silence. Of course he wasn’t relaxing with his woman because his woman had moved out “to take a breather,” all very amicably. Gilly hadn’t acted like the change in scenery even affected him.

“Well?”

“That was a low-blow,” Gilly said.

“You’re alone. I’m alone. Let’s play some pool.”

“Fine, I’ll be there in fifteen. We haven’t gotten drunk together in…years. There was that time I got stoned with your dad. One of the finest nights of my life.”

“Get a move on.”

Twenty minutes later, Gilly appeared, and Oso smacked him on the back. Hard. “Get yourself a drink.”

Although Gilly had walked in with his usual smirk, a sudden glare narrowed his eyes. Still, Gilly obeyed, choosing an amber-bottled beer.

“Are you making any bets?” Gilly looked around him, as though assessing the competition: bearded studs wielding tiny cue sticks. “What are we playing at, anyway? Is there a tiny pool tournament going on?”

“Who knows; we’re playing real pool. You know I’m a gambler. Winner takes all.”

“All of what?”

“Winner takes all is our philosophy. That’s how we do business. Neural networks. Circuits. We are a business, aren’t we, Gilly?”

“Um, sure?”

Oso marched down the row of antique pool and snooker tables, under the moon that shone through the skylights. At the bar, he slapped his hand down. “We need a pool table, a real one,” he told the bartender, who wore a waxed mustache and wire glasses.

“The marbles and sticks come from the coin-op machine.”

“No, I mean real pool. The real deal.”

The bartender raised his eyebrows. “You’re Mr. Beñat, aren’t you?”

“Are you asking me, or telling me?”

“There’s a cover charge.”

“Yeah?”

“Today I’m feeling generous. Hundred dollars for me, hundred for the bouncer. That doesn’t include play.”

Oso, however, had no intention of paying any of these little twits to play pool. “How about you pay me to keep quiet about your men-only club that breaks a number of laws and no doubt doesn’t exist to the IRS?”

“Yes, sir, well,” the man looked nervously at his pocket-watch, while his mustache twitched. “It’s still early arrival time. I’ll show you to the door.”

The door he showed them to was not the door out. It was the door in. Hipsters were hipsters, after all. They had waxed mustachios and no weapons. And who knew what Oso was capable of? He had 3D printers. Enough said. This special door was behind the bar—it slid open when the hipster pushed down the handle for a beer called Old Gold.

Inside the enclosed space, there were three men smoking cigarettes. They looked up briefly when Oso and Gilly entered, but resumed their play without much curiosity. They were fat and quite old, and no doubt suffering from emphysema. Oso and Gilly suffered from none of the above, as they kept healthy habits, such as regular exercise, the use of condoms, rounds of antibiotics, etc.

The pool tables inside this room were not in the best shape. In fact, the room was not as aesthetic as a secret male-only club ought to have been. It had warped, paneled walls, a scruffy carpet littered with the detritus of peanut shells and other unsavory snacks, and an odd pattern of cracked and grease-smeared mirrors. Oso didn’t think he’d patronize it in the future.

“What a dive,” Gilly said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

The man who no doubt passed himself off as the bouncer grunted and ushered them to the proper side of the bar counter, where he took their drink orders and charged them a high price for their game. As they were already inside, Oso paid up.

Unlike his soccer-deprived youth, Oso had not grown up deprived of pool, as his father had traded one of his goats for a pool table with balls and cues. In fact, although Oso didn’t like the feeling of being amped-down rather than amped-up, he and Gilly had played their share of pot-induced pool games. Now, they were entirely sober, as Oso had not taken a sip of his drink, and Gilly had done little more than take an initial swig from his amber bottle.

Gilly had a pained look on his face as Oso racked the balls. “You do remember how to play?” Oso asked him.

“Yes, how could I forget? You always won.”

Oso forgot his vindictive anger for a minute. Gilly could be so self-defacing it was almost embarrassing. “That’s not true. You beat me that last game we played together before I moved to LA.”

“When your back was turned, I cheated.”

The anger flashed through him again. How many times had Gilly cheated? Was this a practice of his? Did Oso’s loyalty and honor mean nothing? He took a deep breath and counted to ten. “I lost $150 on that game. To you.”

“I know.”

“Does that make you proud? The one time you got the better of me?” Oso stared him straight in the face until Gilly averted his eyes. It didn’t take very long. “Why don’t you break?”

Oso noticed Gilly’s hands were shaking and his jaw clenched as he aimed his cue. He recognized what that was—Gilly’s way of expressing anger. Gilly’s anger, however, never made him sharp. He botched the break, scratching one of the balls. But it was all right. He’d have more opportunities…to make a fool of himself.

“Skip the beer, Gilly, have a drop of bourbon. It’s Jim Beam. Not bad.” He shrugged. “It was all they had. Not even Jim Beam Black.”

Gilly glowered. “I know how to pick my bourbon. I don’t need you to guide me.” And he henceforth drank his shot.

The two proceeded to play a few games, with Gilly losing very badly each time, which inspired him to buy more shots of Jim Beam. Finally, Gilly was so drunk he had to prop himself on the table itself, and somehow managed in his next futile play to jab the cue so hard into the surface of the table that the cloth ripped. Needless to say, he didn’t manage to knock any of his balls anywhere.

“You know, Gilly, old buddy, you’d get the better of me if you won honestly even once in your life,” Oso said. “But you can’t, can you? That’s why you have to go behind my back. You’re a fucking turncoat. A disloyal cheater.”

“Get the better of you? You wouldn’t have shit without me. Compared to me, you’re just a goddamn researcher. You create nothing of value. You just jump on everything I do ever since we were kids. And you get rich off it.”

“You know what I wouldn’t have without you? A business partners who sells our designs to the competition. That’s what I wouldn’t have. But rest assured, I would find other engineers. I already have them. They’re a team. We’re a team. You and I used to be a team.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Oso,” Gilly said, and hurled his tumbler at Oso’s head. It missed its mark, very nearly whacking one of the old men. “Your loyalty theory is sickening.”

“There you are, throwing things at me from a distance. How’s that working for you? Why don’t you come over here and fight me face to face if that’s what you want?”

Gilly stumbled blearily toward the old men, shouting, “Hold me back! Hold me back!”

The old men just coughed and moved to the side of the room, apparently hoping for entertainment without getting into the fray. Oso grabbed Gilly by the shirtfront and pushed him so that he fell back on the table. He jabbed a cue stick in Gilly’s face.

“You’re such a little bitch,” Oso said.

Gilly pushed back against the stick and kicked his legs drunkenly at Oso. “Don’t ever forget that you let a man burn alive; don’t ever forget that.”

“You started the fucking fire, Gilly. I take responsibility for my actions; you take responsibility for yours. Got it?”

Gilly seemed to deflate at those words. He stopped kicking, ceased putting pressure against the cue stick, the point of which slammed into the table by his ear. Oso dropped the stick and walked away. He was done with Gilly. Gilly wouldn’t fight him, and there was no point to a fight, anyway. What would it solve?

But Gilly must have decided differently. Before Oso was aware of what had happened, Gilly finally made contact, cracking the back of Oso’s skull with the stick. It was hard to miss, being a damn big stick going after a tall man with a big head.

Oso fell hard, and Gilly ran for the door. “Run you little bitch,” Oso moaned. “That’s what you do.”

The old men had the decency to help him up, but the bouncer, who had mysteriously disappeared during the fight, materialized from behind the counter. He had been hiding. Now, however, he asked Oso, in a very polite manner, if Mr. Beñat wouldn’t mind leaving so that the police would not have to be dispatched.

Oso snorted. The speakeasy wasn’t going to call the cops. Still, Oso had no desire to stay. He had a splitting headache, for a start. He plunked down some cash to pay for the damage and walked out via the Old Gold.

When he plunged into the brisk night of Albuquerque, the stars singing above and the moon waxing full, he wondered if he could find the witch’s house. He wondered if she would be there. Then he thought better of it and pulled his phone out of his pocket with a wry smile on his face.

It didn’t take long for the female on the other end to answer; it was as Oso had suspected. She had left Gilly and was waiting in desperate anticipation for him to call.

“Hey, Cameron,” he said.

“Oso.”

“Sweetheart, I’m down at the Analgest with a crack on my head and I’m too drunk to drive. How would you like to rescue me?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“I knew I could count on you.”

After the phone call, he slumped to the curb and held his head in his hands. The pulsing pain sent waves of nausea to his stomach. The knot on his head was his own fault, he reminded himself. He had invited Gilly to play a game of real pool. If he’d stuck to the hipster game, he would have emerged unscathed, as there was no way Gilly could defeat him in real hand-to-hand combat.

He ran his hands over his daily beard. He did have the hipster beard, though not intentionally. He hoped Cameron would like it. Wait—what? He didn’t care whether she liked it. She would have to deal with it as she gently and tenderly nursed the wound on his head.


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Chapter 20: The Spirit of New Mexico

In which the woman calls down the frogs to rain upon the land!

The sun was casting its reddish glow on the Sandias by the time Gilly’s call came through. Oso had hopped in his car the night before and made the run for Albuquerque in twelve hours. At first, he didn’t know where he was going, only that he had to get away from his wife. Dolores. He loved Dolores. Or he had, until his private investigator had shown him definitive proof she was cheating on him. Her response? He worked too much and gave her nothing for her efforts.

He’d wanted to smash her face in. Instead, he’d thrown an overnight case in the car and hit the road to New Mexico, the place of his heart, the place he’d made great pains to leave behind when he’d graduated from high school. Bernadette lived in Albuquerque; he’d stay with her, if she’d have him.

She wouldn’t. She said yes to an afternoon date over coffee, but wouldn’t allow him to spend the night at her place, even on her couch.

“Get a hotel,” she told him.

He scowled at that. He didn’t like hotels. They were opposite to everything he’d grown used to in childhood: pristine, (mostly) quiet, and (purportedly) sterile, but worst of all, lacking in aesthetics. So he drove around until he found a liquor store, where he purchased a bottle of Booker’s bourbon to console himself in his lonely hotel room sans wife. He found a room at the Andaluz, and just as he was settling in with a tumbler of Booker’s mixed with a splash of distilled water, Gilly called.

Gilly was, of course, his favorite person. And although his ramblings were slightly incoherent, the phone call still sparked hope in Oso’s heart. This hope made him antsy, and he found himself changing out of his standard black leather oxfords and into his Saucony running shoes, his replacement for the barefoot sprinting he’d done as a child.

Sprinting cleared his head and reset his mental pathways so he could envision his tree of time, hanging with globes. He would sprint in a pattern: short sprint, reset; medium sprint, reset; long sprint, reset; start over. On that day, he did this along the Paseo del Bosque, a sixteen-mile trail through Albuquerque, as the cottonwoods composing the Bosque offered both shade and peace.

Due to his flat feet, he suffered from mild pronation that stressed his ankles. Despite that, he’d managed to keep running for years. He was physically capable. That was who he was. Nothing set him back. That is, until that evening, when the unthinkable happened.

His left ankle collapsed underneath him at the height of his sprint. He flew forward, catching himself on his shoulder, and instantly rolled over onto his back, off the path. He had, perhaps, sipped a little too much of the 120 proof alcohol and lost his edge.

He wasn’t in pain, though. And it was pleasant on this path in the shade of the branches drifting above him. But this wasn’t a time for sleep, and he tried to rise and fell back as the earth below him tingled with warmth, spreading heat through his fingers and arms and head.

Instantly, he recognized the feeling and waited for it. The air buzzed, his ears rang, and the ether swirled. He was in a bright lab, an unrecognizable one, and there was a small boy there. What was a child doing in a secure lab? The boy turned, and he groaned at the sight. It was his son, Adam, his child with current wife Dolores. Dolores the cheater. When he’d packed his overnight bag, his son had followed after him, asking him what he was doing, where he was going. The boy was too young to cope with his parents’ divorce.

The Adam in this memory appeared a year older, though, and he ran toward his father. Or so Oso thought. At the last minute, the boy turned, attracted by something in the corner. When Oso looked, he jolted. It was an image of the matrix Gilly had waxed on about over the phone. For a second, Oso thought it was on a computer screen, but then realized the matrix hovered in midair. It was spread out before him in intimate detailed honeycomb like mesh, interwoven with a structure of human cells.

“Adam!” he shouted. Even though the situation was preposterous—graphene didn’t suspend itself in ghostly waving images—he sensed his son’s danger.

The boy, however, ignored him and ran straight into the honeycomb mesh, where he was not swallowed up. Nor was the mesh altered. Instead, Adam pulled out a spherical structure that appeared to be a soccer ball composed of pentagons. Soccer balls were composed of pentagons. The boy threw the ball and then chased it out the door.

Oso peered into the clinical looking hallway, with waxed linoleum and drab fluorescent lights flickering overhead. The boy’s running feet made a syncopated echo up the hallway, interrupted only by the occasional scuffling and punting.

“Adam!” he shouted again, but to no avail. The boy had disappeared around a corner.

Oso’s body jerked at the sound of a woman’s voice. As his mind tried to comprehend the voice, he snapped awake to his surroundings. He was in Albuquerque’s Bosque, under the shade of trees. Gnats whined in his ears, crickets chirred, frogs croaked. The dry packed dirt beneath him held a distant odor of the Rio Grande. A trail of long dark hair flowed down toward him. The woman had long lean legs in a pair of jogging shorts.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes, sweetheart, I am. I tripped and fell and then managed to doze off.” He smiled and slapped at a mosquito that was biting her leg.

She jumped and shrieked.

“Mosquito,” he said.

“Thanks.” Her brow creased. “Can I help you up?”

“Nah, I’ll wake up in a minute.”

“It’s getting dark. You should be careful jogging when the sun’s setting like this.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“I carry pepper spray and a whistle,” she said in a strange playful tone.

He slowly stood up with all the grace he could muster. It hadn’t been his intention to take a woman back to his room, but this one had presented herself to him out of thin air, as it were, or nanocarbon. Women were rarely as afraid of him as they ought to have been. Not that he would do anything worse than seduce them. But still, he wasn’t a small man. Shouldn’t she have been afraid? He could see her precious whistle hanging between her breasts. He shook his head.

“What were you dreaming about?” she asked—again with the playful voice.

“Nanocarbon.”

“Oh?”

He hated the falsified tone of interest, but could forgive a lot in an attractive woman. He had one niggling doubt of conscience. When he was in a relationship, he was faithful. Period. When he wasn’t, he played the field. For what it was worth, it was about his only moral code. But Dolores had cheated on him. She had broken the marriage contract, and he was therefore free. He didn’t know why he had any lingering doubts.

“You must be hungry after going for a run,” he said. And then it occurred to him that it might be difficult to be hungry in this heat. “Maybe a fruit ice? Or a margarita?” he said with a laugh.

She laughed, too. “Maybe.”

He casually began walking back to where his car was parked at Alameda, and she fell in step beside him. Find a strange man sleeping in the forest, go home with him. Oso almost snorted but just stopped himself.

She was a New Mexican; he was a New Mexican. It was all good, according to her. She had family in Socorro. Once, as a kid, he’d attended her granddad Rosario’s yearly matanza.

They bought green chile smothered burritos at the Frontier and then drove over to the Analgest for drinks.

It felt good to be at a cozy bar, despite that he almost sat on somebody’s lapdog that was curled on a gold plush chair. From the vantage point of the chair, he could see a long line of pool and snooker tables stretched into the distance. They were antique tables and not meant for use. However, on top of them sat the ubiquitous modern mini pool sets that a man named Jacob Armstrong had begun creating about a year ago. They were played with marbles and mini cue sticks.

Surrounding these mini tables were hipsters of all varieties, wearing glasses and monocles, even—no doubt to see the marbles better—and chugging beer. Every man had a beard, every lady a dog. Both ladies and men and ladies with men’s clothes and men with ladies’ clothes quaffed microbrews, while the sleekest among them drank from beer cans bearing generic red and blue labels.

Oso had a five o’clock shadow because he hadn’t shaved for the night—he hadn’t been planning to go out. But the beards on these men were intense, scruffy, long. As they imbibed their brews, their beards caught the droplets, thereby sending back the molecular aroma of the hops to their noses.

It was fascinating to watch them. They leaned over their mini tables with deep and studious devotion to their art, cracking their marbles at precisely the right angles. Then, they would high five or shake hands.

“I hear this is a speakeasy,” the woman said as she sipped a margarita.

“In what way?”

“I hear they have a secret pool hall in back, where men play the real deal with big tables. But I don’t think women are allowed in.”

“I’ll have to check that out sometime.”

“Really? Your type of thing to hide in a back room being stupid without women?”

“It’s a lot safer than being stupid with women.”

Her laugh was contrived. “Silly.”

“The only constant is male stupidity.”

Another contrived laugh.

He stared at her for a few beats. After two margaritas, she was flushed but not entirely wasted. She was humoring him, and he didn’t like being humored. That was okay; he was at the point where he didn’t care, where he wanted only to take her back to his hotel. After a couple hours of mellow talk and laughter about their mutual love for New Mexico, they emerged into the night together. The air was a bracer. That is, it embraced him. God, he loved it here. He had to return. This was his home.

“I’m staying at The Andaluz,” he whispered in her ear.

She lightly touched his face and smiled, no contrived laughter. “My house is just up the road.” Then she began walking, pulling gently on his hand until he followed.

What was happening? He didn’t follow women anywhere, and yet he felt tugged along by an invisible force. True, she wasn’t a supermodel or an aspiring actress. That was an attractive force in and of itself. She had nice legs but was about five inches too short and ten pounds too heavy to be a model. Oso was sick of model behavior, his soon-to-be ex a prime example.

But still, the mysterious force pulling him along was inexplicable to the one constant. It was as if she folded him up inside her and her house, and he had no way out. She took him in her arms, and he relaxed for the first time in months and eventually fell asleep in her bed. He never slept over. This was wrong, but he was so tired. Perhaps, he thought, as he fell asleep, she was a forest witch who’d woken him. New Mexico was a magical land, and the magic hovered over the Rio Grande. He’d experienced the magic with Bernadette, years ago.

“The night it rained frogs,” he muttered sleepily.

“Huh?” the woman said with a sigh.

“I heard frogs on the trail. They bring magic.”

She murmured and didn’t answer, as she’d apparently fallen asleep. He wasn’t sure if he was asleep or awake, but he dreamed of sleeping with Bernadette in his backyard. He dreamed of the warmth, the fluidity of being outdoors, the cottonwood tree blowing above them. The night smelled of the damp wind that blew off the irrigation ditches. Making love to Bernadette was a relaxed and natural process. She wasn’t a stick figure as his soon-to-be ex wife wife was—not then, nor now. In her youth she was very much as she’d been over coffee earlier that day, only more innocent.

He dreamed of whispering his ideas in her ears, while she listened to his every word in her calm unemotional way.

“You should be a psychologist. You’re good at this,” he told her, the compliment falling easily from his unsuspecting lips. At the time, he couldn’t fathom her choosing a career over him.

“Maybe I will.” She yawned and said nothing else.

His mind felt his fingers in her soft brown hair, running down her face, her neck, her breasts. Why? Why had it ended between them? His body suddenly ached for hers. But it was a dream, not reality. The summer of the frogs was a dream. And like dreams, they ran to the bizarre, even if the pleasantly bizarre. On that summer night, hundreds of tree frogs coalesced and stormed them. Hundreds of tiny green frogs found them and hopped around them.

Bernadette woke from her reverie and shouted with delight, forgetting their tryst was meant to be subtle. She rose from the blankets they’d spread out, her body a silhouette in the moonlight. And she scooped a frog into her palm and she brought it to him, leaning over his prostrate form like a child, her hand outstretched.

“Do you want me to kiss it?” he asked her.

“Kiss it?” Her laugh matched the silver quality of the night. “Do you want me to find a prince who isn’t you, or do you want to find a prince for yourself?”

“I want to be your prince.”

“No need to kiss a frog, then. Where do you think they all came from?”

“The water? Maybe from the pond my dad created for his ducks.”

“You would ruin the magic, being Mr. Logical.”

“They rained from the skies!” he told her. “Mark this night on your calendar because it will be forever known as the night it rained frogs!”

She let the frog go and somehow wasn’t disgusted by the hundreds of tiny creatures hopping around the backyard. She slipped right back under their blanket and cuddled with him, and they listened together to the sound of the frogs that rose above the usual din of cicadas.

He had no idea whether she’d marked it on her calendar. He hadn’t marked it on his, and he’d subsequently forgotten it. How strange that his mind would dream the memories awake tonight, in a strange woman’s bed in Albuquerque. Yet, it was the same river running through Albuquerque, and the same moon and stars that hung in a Southwestern sky that couldn’t see fit to hide the beauty of the night.

The next day he and the woman exchanged numbers. He was moving back to New Mexico, he told her. But the magic had disappeared, and he knew he wouldn’t see her again.

“Frogs, Granddad?” Stephanie asked.

“Tree frogs. The rain falls, hundreds of tadpoles turn into frogs and cascade over the land. Go at the right time, and you’ll see them traipsing down California Street in Socorro.”

“Are they really magic?”

“Do you believe in magic?”

“No.”

“That answers your question. If you don’t believe in magic, you also won’t believe the woman was the spirit of New Mexico calling me home, either.”

“So, she was a witch?”

“I said she was the spirit of New Mexico.”

“What was her name?”

He shook his head. “Don’t remember.”

“You got drunk with a woman and had a one-night stand with her, and that makes her the spirit of New Mexico?”

“She woke me from the memory just as Adam disappeared with his buckyball. I thought I was leading her, but it was the other way around. She informed me the memory would happen here.”

“Did it? Did Uncle Adam play with a…buckyball in your lab? I don’t even know what a buckyball is.”

“A buckyball is a spherical fullerene. No, Adam never played with one. The alcohol skewed the memory. What happened is that he came to live with me in Albuquerque, where Gilly and I set up headquarters. After stealing my son from me, Dolores gave me full custody and I never saw her again.”

“Tell me about it.”

“There isn’t much to tell. Her new boyfriend didn’t like kids. I had my lawyer draw up a consent order giving me full custody and childcare payments ceased immediately. I didn’t strong-arm her, so don’t look at me like that, darlin’. She did it of her own volition.”

“Like what? How was I looking at you?”

Oso glanced at his actual time-telling watch, and then at the hologram on the wall. “Let’s get back to the important part of the story. Right on cue, the assistant’s going to come clear away the coffee tray, and then we’re done for the day.”

“You know, the assistant sounds a lot like the type of woman Uncle Gilly was attracted to when he was young. Like Cameron.”

“Don’t you mean is attracted to? He designed the look he wanted. His first pre-Minä prototype looked like that. He’s never wavered in his taste.” He cocked his head toward the door, as if indicating that the assistant was waiting on the other side. “She’s all right, but I’ve never been a one-trick pony, myself.”

“Wait, what? Are you admitting she’s an intelligent Minä designed by Gilly?”

He cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “We need to keep going with this story. We haven’t even gotten to the part where we bring our first Minä to life.”


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Chapter 19: The Graphene Got Him High

In which love and graphene create life!

Back in his childhood home, he found the women laughing over his childhood photos. His mom’s house wasn’t cluttered or feminine. Nor did it show any signs of a male figure. It was really quite sterile, nearly empty. The two women sat at the rustic pine dining table, cups of Nescafe Cafe Con Leche in front of them. That was his mom’s apparent attempt at moving up in the world, after she’d discovered the powdered milk and instant beverage can at the new Wal Mart.

An inexplicable impatience crossed by frustration tensed his insides.“Let’s go, Cameron,” he said.

“Huh?” She looked up from the photo album. “Why?”

There was no reason, just as there was no reason not to invite his mom to his private wedding. He scowled. “I want you to meet Oso’s parents.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?”

“You’ll come back for dinner,” Gilly’s mom said.

“Mom, we’re going back to Albuquerque tonight. Plane to catch. Work.”

“Gilly!” His mom’s generally stoic face showed faint glimmers of pain.

Cameron’s icy blue eyes bored into his soul.

His shoulders hunched, he swiveled around and marched out the door.

Cameron eventually followed him. As usual, she said nothing. He sensed something from her—disdain, perhaps. But then, he’d felt her disdain from the first moment. A man in need of an escort-for-hire wasn’t worth much, except in cold hard assets that purchased material goods.

He bypassed the Beñat house and went straight for the workshop. In his mom’s perpetually empty outbuilding, he’d constructed robots with Oso. This was a workshop of a more traditional variety, where Oso’s dad cut, shaped, and buffed wood for beautiful furniture. The rustic pine table, in fact, had come from this workshop in trade for cash the Beñat family had owed his mom. The table was worth three times the cash, as with most of Jerry’s trades, but nobody in the Beñat family had any sense for money, except Oso. The rest were happy enough to be impoverished.

Gilly peered in the open door to see Jerry painting a finish on a headboard carved with poppies. “Jerry?”

The paternal figure with his scruffy face and Che tie-dye didn’t look up or pause in his work. “Well, look what the cat’s dragged in,” he said.

“I brought my wife Cameron to meet you.”

“Come in and sit down, just dust off the wood curls. I’m sure your wife’s too much of a high-roller to dirty her pants.”

Gilly laughed nervously, but Cameron took the insult in her usual soundless way. Everything she did was soundless. That was why Gilly liked her. It wasn’t her icy blonde appearance. No, he wasn’t that shallow. However, he was a little shallow about the look of his own pants and proceeded to brush the dust and wood curls from a chair before sitting on it. Cameron could care for her own clothes.

For an indeterminate time, silence filled the workshop. Jerry kept right on working until he came to a stopping point and meticulously cleaned the brush he’d been working with. He cleared his throat, pulled a bag and rolling papers from his shirt pocket and rolled a joint. He took a few tokes and then passed it to Gilly.

It was like old times. Gilly took the joint and then passed it to Cameron, who turned up her lip a little before giving a half-hearted inhale.

“What did you say your wife’s name was?”

“Jerry, meet Cameron. Cameron, this is Oso’s dad Jerry.”

“Nice to meet you, Cameron. I take it you know my eldest son.”

“Yes, through Gillilander.” Her tone was icy, with only a hint of contempt. Gilly smiled to himself. Her voice was like fine wine; its tones could only be detected by serious aficionados.

“Does it work like that in your world?” Jerry asked.

It was an ambiguous question, one that could’ve been taken any number of ways. However, Gilly suspected it meant Gillilander could only get close to a woman of this caliber through Oso, and not the other way around.

“Yes, it does. Gillilander asked me to be his date at a business dinner. Oso was there, as well.”

Gilly smiled again and took another hit off the joint. She had failed to mention the money that had exchanged hands. Of course, she didn’t want to be viewed as a prostitute, but he also sensed a wall had gone up between her and the senior Beñat. He sensed…what was the subtle flavor? He ran his tongue over his lips, leaned closer to Cameron to better feel her vibrations, and then handed her the joint.

She took a deeper drag this time and hiccuped.

“How’s Oso doing in the limelight of Southern California these days? We haven’t heard from him in—. I don’t remember how many months.”

Gilly thought the question was not quite honest. They both knew that Oso’s focus never changed. “The usual. Working. Recruiting engineers. Demanding the impossible from them.”

“Tell me something new.”

Cameron hiccuped again and put her hand to her chest. “He’s divorcing Dolores.”

“Something new.”

“He decided to invest his funds in a homeless shelter in Skid Row.” Her face somehow remained impassive.

“Really?” Jerry said.

“No.” Cameron giggled.

She actually giggled. Gilly had never heard her giggle before. Nor had he heard her make a joke. This was an interesting development. He guessed she didn’t smoke much pot. Not that he did—he hadn’t since he was a teenager living next door to Oso’s dad. As a younger adult, he’d instead taken up the binge-drinking, which had developed into the more professional having an occasional drink with the boys. But Cameron—he had never seen her imbibe more than a few sips of a glass of wine. The wine was for show, of course. The woman was hell-bent on keeping her cool.

“He’ll always be my most successful child,” Jerry said. “I’m proud of him. Someday, he’ll be a man after my own heart. He’ll start that shelter on Skid Row.”

“Are you sure about that?” Gilly asked.

“He’s always been generous.”

Gilly had to admit Jerry was right. Oso was generous in a way Gilly couldn’t comprehend, as Gilly preferred to pile his money in the bank and live off cold broth. Oso was both a giver and an investor. No, he hadn’t invested his money in a homeless shelter on Skid Row, but Cameron no doubt wasn’t aware that Oso invested his money in ventures, while giving generously from his gains to whomever he saw fit.

“Skid Row’s for other people,” Gilly said. As Jerry passed around another joint, Gilly toked it a few times before reclining with his legs up on the work bench. “Oso’ll come back to New Mexico and invest in his home state.”

“You think so? Hey, get your feet off the work bench.”

Reluctantly, Gilly complied. The pot was making him groggy. “He’s sentimental. He always talks about coming back. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it Cammie?” God, he’d never called her a nickname before.

“If Oso moved far away from us? No, that wouldn’t be bad.”

Did she really dislike Oso so much? Gilly had never noticed this before. “I meant, if we all moved to New Mexico. Albuquerque. We could move operations here. It’s too busy in LA. I don’t like it. It eats away at my soul.” And then, in a fit of sudden pot-induced tenderness for the women in his life, he said, “If we ever have kids, my mom will be closer to her grandkids.”

Cameron made an almost imperceptible but indignant throat noise. “We’re not having kids, and I don’t want to live in New Mexico.”

“I do,” Gilly said and realized that almost imperceptible throat noises might as well be Cameron coming unglued. He searched for a way to change the subject. “Who’s the bed for?” he asked Jerry.

“I’m not sure. I have a booth in the Alamo Gallery. I might just display it there. Nobody will buy it, but that’s not why I build things.”

Here was a point of understanding Gilly could have with the elder Beñat, which was something Oso had no patience for: creating for the sake of creating. “Maybe I’ll buy it. For our New Mexico house. How much?”

“I don’t know. Five-hundred?”

“That seems fair for a headboard. What would the rest of the frame cost?”

“I was going to go with $500 for everything.”

“Not $1500?”

“There’s no money here in Socorro. We’re not Santa Fe, you know. Everything’s gotta be cheaper.”

“Yeah, but you can take advantage of us LA dwellers. Fifteen-hundred sounds like a steal to me.”

“I’ll take $1500. The footboard’s not done yet.”

“When it’s done, then, have it delivered. I’ll pay up front. Tomorrow before we leave.”

“I thought we were leaving tonight,” Cameron said, her voice sounding sleepy.

“For some reason, I lost the incentive after being here. Thanks, Jerry.”

“Hey, anytime,” Jerry laughed. “This is the den of unwinding, where the chaos isn’t allowed in.”

“I don’t have chaos in my life,” moaned Gilly. “I have Oso. God, he’s like a force of nature. A freaking hurricane. I can’t stop him.”

Jerry stroked his long gray beard, giving off an air of the befuddled wiseman. “Tell me about it, son. Tell me about it. I tried to mellow him out. Tried, but it didn’t work.”

“He takes advantage of you,” Cameron said, her voice soft, but still audible.

Gilly looked at her through his bleary eyes. Was that an actual opinion she’d just given? It seemed to him she’d also given a declaration earlier, too. She didn’t want to live in New Mexico, and she didn’t want to have children.

“Or you could say it’s the other way around,” Gilly said. “Maybe we take advantage of each other.”

“All the inventions he’s making money off of are yours,” she said, a little louder.

“And I wouldn’t know how to patent, sell, or market them without him. I wouldn’t know how to hire the best engineers to help me. Without him, I’d be like Jerry, here—no offense, Jerry. I’d be an artist creating beautiful costly goods by myself, without a market.”

“No offense taken, Gilly. I prefer the simple life.”

“In other words, Cammie—” he studied her icy but beautiful Scandinavian face, watched her subtle telltale shudder at the diminutive— “I wouldn’t be rich without Oso. And would you have wanted me as a poor man?”

She raised her delicately pruned eyebrows and shrugged. Of course she wouldn’t answer that question. They never would have met if he’d been poor. How could he have afforded an escort of that caliber without a lot of ready cash? He would’ve had to solicit one wearing a tawdry skirt and heels on a street corner. To be honest, he didn’t know what an average street corner prostitute would cost, as he’d never picked one up. Honestly.

He stared at the various planks of wood lying about, and at the headboard he’d decided to buy, while imagining the woman he’d be sleeping with under those poppies: his icy Scandinavian queen. Artistry was a strange and mysterious process, in this case, brought about by carving away at the outer parts to create and hone an inner part.

“Do you plan what you’re going to carve before you do it?” he asked Jerry. “Sketch it out, picture it? What?”

“Nah, but I plan it out in my head. I can picture it. There’s some element of the muse, too. She guides my hands.”

“The muse. How interesting. I don’t work with wood. You know what I don’t do? I don’t carve things. We play in opposition to each other.”

Jerry spent a few moments gazing at the loveliness of the ice queen. “Gilly, my old friend, I doubt we’re playing in the same playground.”

But Gilly didn’t care about Cameron at that moment. All right, he kind of cared in an offhand way. At that moment, he could only see wood. Wood everywhere. The wood of the workshop; the wood inside the workshop; the dust and wood curls that hadn’t yet been swept up, even though there was a shop broom leaning against one wall. All that mess was created by a process that found the essential object inside another one. It seemed so messy. Gilly didn’t work that way. Rather, he built his projects layer by layer. Or, to be more exact, he designed them and sent his designs to his 3D printer, which built his creations layer by excruciating layer.

It was fine work he, Gilly, did. It was fine work that imagined the world being built on a nano-level. It was art more akin to creation, elemental at core.

“Sure, we do. You know what I do? I take the sand from your playground and build it into something, while you create sand cutting materials down.”

“Very profound,” Jerry said, and coughed as he choked back a laugh.

“I’m like God. Top that.”

“You didn’t make the sand any more than I made the trees.”

“I think I created Cameron from my mind. I don’t think she actually exists.” Cameron, however, was so spaced out from the unusual effects of being stoned that she didn’t respond. He nudged her with his elbow. “I created you, Cameron. I projected you.”

She snapped out of her reverie. “Fuck you, Gilly. Did you know I have parents, too? A mom and a dad. We didn’t even invite them to our wedding. I’ve got to invite them to LA.” And then she fell silent again, staring at an indiscernible something or other on the wall.

“All I have to do is print a big ass ear. A big ear made from cartilage and graphene. I can wake up my creation with infrasound waves. Oh, my God. I need to call Oso. I know how to do it. I can picture it in my mind. Where’s your phone? You do have one, don’t you?”

“Kitchen. Good luck. Cameron and I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about us.” And a big slow smile spread itself across his face.

“Don’t touch my wife,” Gilly said.

“What do you take me for, a pervert?”

Gilly just glared at him. He had no idea; he only knew that Oso’s mom was into polyamory and orgies and hippy circles. He wasn’t clear about what Jerry was into.

He entered through the kitchen door as he’d done when he was a boy, and rather than any shrieking at the strange man who’d just walked in unannounced, the wild-haired young adults present barely glanced at him. There were a couple of toddlers running around—grandchildren? It was hard to say.

The kitchen smelled like heaven or Indian food. At the stove, Oso’s long-haired mother stood, stirring a pot of what appeared to be lentils. She swayed her hips from side to side. She was like a strange feminine apparition of Gilly’s best friend, dark and hairy and very substantial in her body. By comparison, Oso’s dad was tall, thin, and fair—a true Basque.

“Phone,” Gilly managed.

Oso’s mom turned from the stove, pushed a pile of papers from the table, and revealed the phone. She handed it to him. “Oh, Gillilander,” she said, and rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “So happy to see you again. You smell like you’ve been in the workshop. Do you wanna dance?”

“Huh?”

Before he could stop her from embracing him, she’d taken him in her arms and begun to dance a cumbia, as that was what was playing from the speaker mounted in the corner of the kitchen. Clearly, the speaker was a trade, as it was at odds with the level of poverty around the house.

Gilly gagged a little, as the spinning dance and the smell of the unwashed hippy woman made him dizzy. While they spun, Gilly managed to dial his friend’s number from memory, which took him a bit.

Oso didn’t answer the first time, and it went straight to voicemail. He no doubt filtered his phone calls. “It’s me, come on, Oso. Answer your damn phone.”

Moments later, the phone rang. “Oso, you mother fucker, so glad you called.”

“What are you doing at my parents’ house?”

“Smoking weed with your dad and dancing with your mom.”

“You’d have to be wasted to dance with my mom. Poor boy, having the mother creature take advantage of you.”

“I can hear you!” his mother shouted.

“That’s great, Mom. Will you let him go? I imagine you have food cooking on the stove or something. Let’s not burn dinner just because Gilly’s visiting.”

The Beñat matron laughed. “Did he say something about burning down the house? I thought that was what young boys did.” At that, she spun away from Gilly and danced her way back to the stove, where she stirred her pot of lentil dahl.

Gilly felt like he’d been smacked and reeled a little until Oso talked him back to reality.

“How’s married life treating you?” Oso asked.

“Great.” Gilly closed his eyes for a moment or two to recenter himself. “I figured it out.”

“Oh, glad. It’s about time you figured out how all the parts fit together. Makes for a more satisfying sex life.”

Gilly ignored the jibe; it was typical Oso. “I did figure out how all the parts fit together. I can picture the matrix. It’s a matrix made of graphene nanotubes and biological cells.”

“What is?”

“Our robot. The one that comes to life when you speak. Except it doesn’t come to life when you speak exactly. That would cause problems, I think. It has an advanced ear that’s tuned to infrasound. I mean, that might cause problems, too. People respond to infrasound, they just don’t know what they’re responding to. We use infrasound waves to vibrate the graphene matrix. We can instigate life.”

“Gilly, did it occur to you that you’re stoned and this will be preposterous tomorrow?”

“Of course it’s not preposterous. You started it. It can work, theoretically. We just need to figure out the small details, such as how infrasound will continue to affect the graphene eardrum.”

“Just a few kinks,” Oso said drily.

“Let’s move our company to Albuquerque. You know you’d like it better, away from the first and soon to be second ex. I need to come back home.” There was a lengthy silence, as though Gilly had lost the connection with Oso. “Oso?”

“Yeah, buddy? Would you believe it if I told you I was in Albuquerque right now thinking the exact same thoughts?”

“That’s because we’re all in the same playground. You, me, your dad.”

“Let’s talk about this again when you’re not high, okay?”

“Yeah, buddy. Will do. Because I’m onto something big. The playground’s big enough for you, me, the universe. We’re going to do this, Oso. We’re going to move on from my beautiful works of prosthetic limbs and onto life. Real life.”

“Meet me in Albuquerque tomorrow, and we’ll talk about it over lunch. I don’t expect blueprints tomorrow, but I will expect them if I’m going to take you seriously.”

“Oh, yeah, they’ll be so fucking blue you won’t be able to escape my world.”

“That’s great. I’ll look forward to it.” Again with the dry tone.

Gilly threw the phone on the table and after helping himself to some dahl and chapatis, he stumbled back out the kitchen door and into the inky blackness of the Socorro night. He sucked in the air and recognized his destiny. This was it. New Mexico. Life. A matrix of life he would create. Destiny. It was a beautiful thing.

Back in the workshop, he found Cameron and Jerry in the same seats, but Cameron’s frame had relaxed greatly, and she was talking and laughing in an animated way he’d never heard before, though oddly, it appeared that tears were also streaming down her cheeks.

“Hey, Gilly, make your phone call?” Jerry asked. “Cameron and I are getting to know each other a little. She grew up on a farm. She knows about growing things. Grapes, specifically.”

Gilly looked at Cameron, and seeing her flushed face, he could also envision her as a farm girl. But it was a passing moment. “I know,” he said. “She grew up on a vineyard in Sonoma Valley.”

“Yeah, but did you know she worked the land with her dad? Helped him transplant his first grapevines?”

“No, Cameron never told me that story.”

He hadn’t asked, either. Cameron was using him for his money, and he was using her so he would always have an attractive woman on his arm. It was mutual, their relationship. Why did it have to go beyond this mutuality? Cameron was happy talking about her childhood; that was why.

“Tell me about it,” Gilly said.

Her face fell back into its usual mask. “It wasn’t much, really. My parents bought a small plot that expanded over the years. I helped my dad plant his first vine. I watered it every day with my little toy watering can. And it grew, and their vineyards grew, and my parents made me believe I was part of it. If not for me, they wouldn’t have had such bounty. That’s the way they made me feel.”

“That’s a lot,” Gilly said.

She shrugged, and her face lit up again. “We’re going back to California soon, right? That’s what you told your mom. We can visit my parents’ vineyard.”

“I’m having lunch with Oso tomorrow in Albuquerque. We’ll go home after that.” And then they’d move back, Gilly wanted to add, but he didn’t. “We’ll visit your parents’ vineyard. We should have invited them to our wedding. I’m sorry, Cameron.”

She looked up at him, her pale blue eyes suddenly like a child’s. “Thank you, Gilly. But where will we stay tonight? We told your mom we were leaving. We can’t go back over there.”

“My house has a spare futon,” Jerry said. “Or there are a few motels in Socorro. The mayor owns a decent one.”

“Let’s sleep in my backyard,” Gilly said. “And watch the stars.”

Cameron’s jaw dropped. “But what about scorpions? And snakes, and…?”

“We’ll see them in the sky. Constellations. It’ll be beautiful and perfect.”

“I’ve got some sleeping bags for you,” Jerry offered.

Before Gilly could change his own mind, let alone allow Cameron to protest more, the two spread a bundle of sleeping bags in a spot brushed clear of weeds and prickly things. Jerry had left them with a joint, and they passed it back and forth and stared up at the sky.

“The stars are visible. I can’t believe the stars are visible,” she said. “I hate LA so much because the stars aren’t visible. Thank you, Gilly, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m just stardust myself.” He laughed. He felt young again. Well, technically, he wasn’t old yet, just not as young as he’d been back in high school and had slept in the yard.

He grabbed Cameron and pulled her to him. For the first time, he felt free embracing her. He felt free kissing her, and he pressed her closer, and she relaxed into his arms.

“I love you,” she said.

“Likewise.”

It was the first and only time she said it. For his part, it was the closest he ever came to expressing the sentiment. The actual words, however, never fell from his lips.

Finally, as they were getting to the meat of the story, Gilly unceremoniously stopped talking and invited Stephanie to show herself to the door. Stephanie left, albeit a little irritated. He was an old man, she reminded herself. And so was her granddad. Time was of essence. She had an appointment with her granddad the following evening, she reminded herself. She would simply show up a little early.


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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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