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Chapter 34: Javi the Androgyne

In which the two spies meet!

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

“Uncle Adam?” she sleepily said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Apologize for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice to meet you, Emmett.”

“Always a pleasure,” Emmett mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you love her, for real, Javi?”

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

Stephanie shoved him on the shoulder in response.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know a few things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?”

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

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

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

“Granddad has spoiled me with real food.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Chapter 11: The One-Legged Nemesis

In which one-legged Agnes rides bicycles and two wheels ride little men!

 

The summer between seventh and eighth grade came on like a bang. That is, there was little snow in the winter, and no early signs of rain. March and April had been utterly dry, but served up dust carried on scorching winds. The hot, dry weather simply made it easier for Gilly and Oso to remain inside his mom’s outbuilding or at Gilly’s computer, working on the robot. Sometimes, they slept in the outbuilding.

For the record, it was called an outbuilding because it had been given no specific purpose. It was shed, garage, workshop, and barn all at once. It held chicken feed; that was why it was a barn. It smelled of dust, wood, and the vitamin-y corn of the feed. To Oso, it was a relief to sleep there rather than in a house full of siblings. His mom had just popped out a new one. She would squat, and then there would be another crying baby in the house.

When the spring winds finally calmed into the easy heat of summer, the robot took its act out of doors. They had finally gotten it programmed so that it could balance on the bicycle. But they didn’t know how to stop the damn thing. It had no brakes.

“We should have programmed it to ride instead of just balance,” Gilly said. “If it were a more complex robot, it would put its feet down and not fall over.”

“I like it,” Oso said.

Gilly glared at him. Gilly had an awful glare at times. He was so…judgmental. Not that Oso wasn’t judgmental. He rarely let people off the hook. No, it was more that Oso could see an achievement for what it was. He could see that if they could design a robot to remain upright on a bike, they could design a robot to do anything, anything at all. In fact, he had some future premonitions of the sort, much like the one occurring in the middle school library, but he could no longer separate what was planning and what was memory. Most of his future memories were as attractive as his plans—emphasis on most.

Along the dusty road, Oso let the robot move with the bicycle. It was, as Alex had said earlier before she’d disappeared back behind her book, adorable. She was still mad about her Barbie bike, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t admire the robot. Eventually, Bernadette meandered out of her house and across her backyard to see what they were doing, and her sentiments were much friendlier than they’d been regarding the life-sized bot that had shot at her and Oso.

The robot could speak a few phrases, too, including, “Nice day for a ride”; “Hey, there, babe, wanna ride with me?”; and “I’ll race you!” When Bernadette walked over, it whizzed by her feet and shouted the last phrase at her. Soon she was off running, while it chased her up the alleyway running by Agnes’ house, and then back again.

Oso’s heart popped as he watched her. She was so pretty—warm with clean skin and big dark eyes, long swinging brown hair. She had nice legs, too, just a slightly too large derrière and no boobs. Ah, well, no girl was perfect.

In an odd incongruity, as Oso used the remote to keep the girl running in circles as much to keep the bicycle moving, Agnes appeared from the back of her trailer wheeling her own bicycle. Full-sized, of course. Nobody had seen Agnes ride a bicycle, but a secondhand bicycle shop had opened up on the plaza, right next to the coffee shop. And as nobody had ever seen Agnes driving the beat-up Oldsmobile, either—it was assumed she was too crazy to drive—perhaps she had found freedom with two wheels.

The surprise caused Oso to stop propelling the bicycle forward, and it toppled over. Bernadette halted in her run and stood there, panting, as Agnes wobbled down the road on the two-wheeled vehicle. She wobbled and stopped and started again, the handlebars veering dangerously into the middle of the road.

“Where do you think she got a bike from?” Gilly asked.

“Some idiot who doesn’t know she can’t drive a wheelchair or walk a straight line.”

“Who wouldn’t know that, asshead?”

“Maybe it was an anonymous donation.”

“From the local retard club,” Gilly finished, but for some reason, Oso was compelled to smack him on the back of the head for it.

“Our robot rides better than she does,” Oso said.

“Correction. Our robot doesn’t ride. It’s not much better than Barbie,” Gilly said. “At least when she wobbles, she’s using her legs. And one of her leg’s fake, too. She has what our robot doesn’t. A brain.”

“You’re such a downer. You’re like a little girl. Watch this, you little beyotch.” He shouted at Bernadette to set the robot aright on the bicycle again. Then he put it back in motion, while its small tinny voice said on repeat, I’ll race you.

And race it did, though it couldn’t achieve great speeds. Oso ran behind the robot with the remote in his hands, as though that would make it ride faster. He hollered like a madman with a deadly toy. Agnes, who’d finally managed to balance on the bicycle, directed herself right into the mess of dust Oso had kicked up. Disconcerted, she ran her bike straight over the friendly robot on its bike, and then slammed into a parked car in order to avoid hitting a moving one.

She jumped right up and tried to ride off again, clicking her tongue and mumbling all the while, but the bicycle’s wheel was bent, causing it to scrape the rim. She picked it up and proceeded to accomplish a very uncanny task, given her usual stupor. Oso watched open-mouthed as the woman wheeled her bicycle, which now limped about as much as she did with her prosthetic leg, into Oso’s yard, through the pecking fowls, and leaned it against the fence.

That wasn’t the uncanny part; given her odd behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have surprised him if she confused the Beñat family house for hers, despite that it was a shotgun adobe and frame structure, while she lived in a trailer. They were shaped virtually the same. The Beñat house was simply a lot bigger.

But, no, she wasn’t finished with her task. She then examined a row of dinged-up and scraped-up bicycles, found the biggest and nicest of the bunch, and wheeled it from the yard.

“Dude, she’s stealing your bicycle!” Gilly shouted.

“What the…hey!” Oso shouted at her, but she either didn’t hear him or pretended she hadn’t. “I worked my ass off for that bike! You think we get anything nice at my house? We don’t!”

Her vague eyes looked in their direction, but they appeared to see right through the boys, as if they weren’t part of her universe. She wheeled the bicycle into her own small yard, foul free, and bumped it up the rickety trailer steps and in through the front door.

“Just go get it from her,” Gilly said. “She can’t be that strong.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she’s not strong, but I don’t want to mess with crazy.”

Gilly looked disgusted. Oso didn’t care. He felt…he wasn’t sure what he felt. Guilty? No—confusion, maybe. Guilt wasn’t his forte. He wasn’t guilty. For anything.

“What’re you going to do now? I thought we were riding into town today. I’m not walking. It’s too far,” Gilly said.

“I have to babysit my mom’s brats, anyway.”

“Wow, you’re the one turning into a little girl, now, aren’t you?”

The look Oso gave him was meant to melt steel. “I’ll get my bike back.”

“When?”

“When I’m ready.”

Oso examined the downed robot, now lying in the dust along with its bicycle. The damage was minimal, but for some reason, he wasn’t so proud of it any longer. He kicked it once and walked off, just like that.


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Chapter 9: Balls and Bow Ties

In which the reader discovers Mark and his penchant for plots!

 

Stephanie was exhausted after visiting with Gilly all day, which is what it had turned into—an all day affair. When she arrived at her apartment building, she caught Mark slouching down the outer stairs. Did they have a date? It certainly appeared they did, as he was wearing his favorite hat, a rare thrift store find of a 1980s Cardinals ballcap, and his JOI-issued, multi-pocketed journalist jacket.

She parked in a hurry and ran after him, shouting his name.

He turned around and grinned at her. “And there she is, the reporter at large!”

She stood on toe and gave him a kiss. “I’ve had such a day. You won’t believe.”

“Can I hear about it later? The game’s about to start. I just thought you might want to go Casey’s with me for a drink and dinner.”

“I don’t know, Mark. I’m trying to save money right now, and I’m on a diet, too. Do you think I have a fat ass?”

He squinted his eyes and rocked back on his heels. “Yes. No. Whatever it is, it’s fine, and you can get a salad and skip the beer. I’ll pay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, we just got paid today, and I want to go to Casey’s and spend time with you. A win, win, right?”

“Oh, wow, I forgot it was payday.”

“Yeah, if you’d gone to the office, you would have seen the hate stares.”

“Why?”

“The League fees went up, which means everybody had smaller paychecks. Oh, and Mr. Mast made one of us stop the centipede and add an exposé on Tomi Corp. So I did it. It’s just a stupid machine, not a monster.”

The centipede was their printing press. It had been built especially for their paper and its grassroots status. However, the engineer who had created it was subsequently diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder due to a chronic psychosis whereby he saw robotic arms everywhere. Because of the visions he couldn’t eradicate from his mind, the printing press had been built with a hundred arms. It appeared to be the monster mechanical version of a centipede.

The entire staff of the Albuquerque Daily was afraid of it, except Mark. Stephanie was terrified of it. It had, in fact, shown up in several of her nightmares. If she’d been at the office, she would have happily let Mark do the dirty deed. Her own hateful stares would have been inspired only by the fact that she had been given the Tomi Corp assignment. Mr. Mast should not have given her assignment to another reporter.

“Why did somebody else write my story?”

“I don’t think anybody else wrote it. Mr. Mast cobbled it together from other newspaper headlines because he didn’t want his paper to look out-of-date.”

“My story was going to be in depth, a true New Mexico story. It was supposed to come out the same week as the retro bots. He assigned it to me because I’m good at what I do.”

“He’s never been known for his savvy intelligence, Steph. I wouldn’t worry about it…until the paper suffers from his idiocy, our wages stagnate again, while the League fees continue to rise.”

Stephanie groaned. “And you want to go out to eat? I have perfectly good Toaster Tacos in my freezer.”

“Yes. I’m not sacrificing my life to the League or Mr. Mast. When was the last time we went out?”

“You mean, really went out, or went out to Casey’s? I don’t think we’ve ever gone to a real restaurant together.”

He wrinkled his nose as though contemplating the thought. “Sorry, even I’m too cheap for that.”

She shoved him lightly on the chest. “Don’t worry about it. If you took me out to a nice place, I’d have to buy a new dress.”

“What’s wrong with the one you’re wearing?”

“According to my grandfather, everything. He doesn’t approve of my wardrobe.”

Mark took her arm and steered her down the street toward Casey’s, which was a few blocks away. “Well, who’s your grandfather, anyway, and what does he think you should wear? Clothes from last century? I’ve seen the floofy dresses they wore, with all the bows and big skirts. And that hair!”

“Oso Beñat.”

“What about him?”

“He’s my grandfather.”

Mark stopped dead in the sidewalk, which was kind of awkward, as he was walking at a fast clip while holding onto her elbow. “You’re shitting me.”

She shook her head. It wasn’t that she was hiding her family relations from him or anybody else, but that she avoided talking about him. So did her brother Javi. Oso Beñat was either revered or hated, and Stephanie could never tell, either, not even by political persuasion.

“You’re not joking. You were holding out on me. On all of us. You’re out there getting a scoop none of us are capable of. You devious little slut.”

“Mark, we’re going to be late for your game.”

“Why are you so freaking poor, if the richest man in the world is your near relation?”

“My dad mismanages money and can’t stay employed. Mark…” She pointed half-heartedly in the direction of the sports bar.

He did begin walking again, though this time at a slower pace. He had a dreamy, meditative look in his eyes. Stephanie hated that look. It meant he was scheming, and his schemes generally either came to nothing or caused all sorts of problems, like the time he’d crashed the governor’s son’s birthday party because he—Mark, that is—was dating the governor’s niece, and the little strumpet had promised him there was going to be a major league football game kickoff there.

Not only was there no kickoff, but when he’d broken in through the back gate with a six pack and the niece, he’d disturbed an eloquent birthday speech by the Legislative Environmental Analyst of New Mexico. The governor went all out for his son’s tenth birthday, and he was not happy to be disturbed, especially by his sister’s spoiled daughter. It turned out she’d been begging, to no avail, to plead her case to him and have him pardon her twenty-fifth ticket for OSDVWI (Operating a Self-Driving Vehicle While Intoxicated). She also wanted her car back, which he’d seized.

That was Stephanie’s precise problem with Mark and why she put off giving him a positive answer to his commitment proposal. Yes, of course, he’d asked. Mark was impetuous that way. He was a journalist of the fine, old impetuous school. He’d asked her to commit to him after just a few dates (at Casey’s).

Truth be known, she yearned to tell him yes, but she was at war with her more practical nature, which, by the way, constantly reminded her that Mark had a steady job in a field outside of robotics, one he’d kept for a full three years now. Even her practical side was losing the battle.

Once at Casey’s, she ordered a chef salad. She was lucky Casey’s served a chef’s salad, as not that long ago, they’d had nothing but fried food and alcohol. That was after the Heart Association bans were lifted—they along with most workaday restaurants went hog wild. Literally.

During Mark and Stephanie’s childhood, food regulations had become such a trying bore to the average person that they began to picket for french fries dipped in beef tallow. French fries were American! They were traditional! And being that heart attack and obesity rates didn’t decrease substantially on the hog-feed rather than eat-hog diet era, the AHA in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security eased up on their bans.

Remnants, of course, still existed, such as the new Nutrilla-is-all-American-all-day-long ad campaign. Nutrilla was the new peanut butter—a spreadable yeast product similar to Marmite, but enhanced with vitamins and bran, and given a cheesy texture through edible plastics to please the American cheese palate. It was also very cheap and staved off hunger when spread on bread or stuffed inside Toaster Tacos. That was why Stephanie lived off it.

She carefully chewed her iceberg lettuce, ham, boiled eggs, cheese, and green chile silently, watching as Mark’s excitement escalated with the beer and the game. By the time he’d downed a few pints, he’d forgotten about Oso Beñat. Or at least stopped talking about him for the present.

She hadn’t, of course. She was lost in the story, ruminating on Gilly’s versus Granddad’s stories. Nothing really surprised her regarding Gilly. If he claimed to have beaten up her granddad, she believed it. While he’d never done anything unseemly in front of Stephanie, she’d always held a simultaneous fascination and disgust for the malevolent look in his brown eyes. Those eyes said he was capable of anything: creating a grotesque soothsayer, for example.

Somehow, she had to pull herself away from these bios for a while and sit in the office mass producing enticing bylines and stories. That was what she was paid regularly to do, after all. In point of fact, she was also paid to refab others’ stories and headlines to make them more enticing. She had a real gift whenever she managed to sit her big fat butt in a chair, dull her mind, and conduct some serious output.

She sighed, both in satisfaction and exhaustion. She had a good life, composed of honorable work, a small but warm apartment, and a boyfriend. Of sorts. She watched him as he watched the screens. He was taking notes, as usual. He was the consummate sports writer. And conspiracy theorist.

Back in her grandfather’s day, the powers that be had outlawed balls in school, just as her grandfather had spoken of. The trend had started with a small school in rural New York, and the way trends spread, it had skipped the entire country, hit the West Coast, and then spread throughout the Southeast and Southwest (except for Texas), before infecting the Midwest. Finally, Texas, not wanting to seem out of date or backwards in a way that might harm children, had capitulated.

But the professional sports teams swore they still used balls. Mark, however, had different ideas. He had analyzed sports videos repeatedly, using the best tech he had available at the struggling Albuquerque Daily, had frozen thousands of milliseconds of action and had finally come to the conclusion that sports were now faked and played with invisible balls. The balls were computer generated.

That was all that was needed, really—nothing too fancy or difficult since live sporting events were rare these days. The threat of thousands of Americans sitting together in one place was too great. The charity ball events marketed at politicians and other famous people were considered to be proof against Mark’s worst suspicions. He stuck to his guns, though. It was all fake, according to him, every game more precisely choreographed than a Russian ballet.

Stephanie turned her eyes to one of the many screens and tried to focus. Maybe the beer Mark drank helped. She’d never actually tasted beer. It was outside her budget. “Hey, Mark, can I have a beer?”

“Why wouldn’t you be able to have one? Just order one,” he tersely said. He didn’t like to be interrupted while examining a game.

She ordered a beer and took a swig. It was bitter and sweet at the same time. It was like bitter-sweet soda pop, like the lo-cal variety they used to serve in elementary school. She guessed it wasn’t high-end stuff.

As the alcohol hit her blood stream, she giggled at the men on screen. It was a soccer game, for heaven’s sake, but it fit well Mark’s analogy of the Russian ballet. At some point, soccer players had discarded their shorts and shin guards for reinforced breeches. They looked like they were wearing tights.

“Mark,” she said, “they’re wearing tights.”

“Might as well be. They’re showing off their dancing skills. Watch in a minute. DeSoto has the ball. He’s going to dance. Looks like a goddamn male model. I bet that’s what they are, put up for tryouts by a whole different set of scouts. Disgusting.”

“Sounds like another one of your conspiracies,” she said, but then was silenced when a Latin-looking player kicked the ball toward the goal and missed, and then gyrated his hips around as though he’d scored. “Is that—?”

“DeSoto.”

DeSoto continued to perform what appeared to be a free-form salsa for the next five minutes. He was sleek, coordinated, and as flexible as a trained dancer.

“He’s going off script,” Mark explained. “I’m telling you, there’s a script, and it’s trending now for these models to defy the script and dance instead.”

“Unless the dance is part of the script.”

“Uh huh, I don’t think so. I’m an expert on game scripts by now.”

Stephanie took his word for it because she didn’t know what else to do. She gazed around to see how the other men were reacting to the off-script dance. The man to the right of her—Mark was to the left—was nodding emphatically.

“Amen!” the man shouted. “Now there is a true artist!”

“Mark, do you think DeSoto is a true artist?” she asked.

Far from being annoyed with her many interruptions this time, he looked pleased that she was interested. He turned to her and smiled wryly. “Absolutely. This is theater, and they’re doing impromptu. Impressive. And stupid as hell because it’s not soccer. Almost as stupid as those bow ties the football players wear.”

“The girls at work gurgle over the men in bow ties. I don’t really get it, they don’t look attractive to me. And now all the little boys are emulating them. At least I think so. Didn’t I see the players from the Jefferson Broad Gap School wearing bow ties on last week’s sports page?”

“Since they don’t have balls, I guess they gotta have fashion to keep them going,” Mark said in his flat tone of voice that often tricked Stephanie into thinking he was joking. “Be quiet for a minute. This is where the rising action is taking place. I can predict the climactic moment when either DeSoto and Kimbal are going to get in a tussle, or DeSoto’s going to score. Those are the two protagonists this game. I don’t know which one will come out on top.”

Stephanie refocused her attention on the screen, trying to see what Mark saw. In the past, he’d written articles about the games having plot lines that were modeled after the soccer field and its halfway line, its ten yards, its penalty area, etc. Stephanie wondered if Mark represented the archetypal writer, finding and discovering plots everywhere.

Stephanie didn’t have the imagination to find plots everywhere. Most journalists did, though. The Albuquerque Daily, in fact, published farcical news stories side by side with the bona fide ones. Readers had to search out the fine print to determine what was real and what was fiction. Critics complained that this trickery triggered the populace to violence, but the paper’s legal department suggested otherwise.

Sometimes, Stephanie was relieved to be branching out to biographies. No plot lines there—no need for them. At least she didn’t think so.

“Mark, do all stories need plots, even nonfictional ones?”

“Huh?”

“Do all stories need plots?”

He looked over at her, his eyes glazed. “Life is a plot that ends in a plot,” he said. And then he turned his eyes back to the plot of faux green grass on the screen.


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Camus Kaze and the Best School Project Ever

The world, at times, is not a happy place. So it was for Al Camus from the time he was a small girl. If he was a girl -- which he doubted. He was also never small. Large, tubby, corpulent: these were the adjectives that described Al.
 "Alberta!" his mother hollered from the bathroom. "You used the last tampon and didn't tell me!"
 It was useless to explain to his mom that he couldn't have told her he'd used her last tampon because boys didn't use tampons. Al's mom believed he was a girl. Al's mom was frustratingly unenlightened about the world.
 Often, and especially at times like these, Al wished his mom were Japanese. Oh, she was Japanese; she just wasn't uber identity-based Japanese. She was American and had slovenly American ways. When Al passed the bathroom, he had to turn his head because the bathroom door was cracked open, revealing the mess of clothes and towels on the floor. At dinnertime, Al generally wished his dad were really French, too, so they could eat decent food.
 Put it all together, and Al was disgruntled with his life. He snagged a package of Nutter Butters and a bag of Hot Cheetos, and made his way to the back patio table where he could work on his homework in peace. He swept off his dad's beer cans and cigarette butts and spread out his books. He opened his math book and closed it. Al hated math. He opened his science book, and then shut that one, too. He was failing science, and it was too late in the year to fix it.
 But Al had a bigger problem. Tomorrow, he had to give his oral report for history class. The students had drawn World War II topics from the teacher's disgusting greasy ballcap; he had drawn "kamikaze pilots". At his peak performance, Al was a mediocre student. He had resigned himself to this reality years ago. Someday, he would no longer have to be a student. For now, he put most of his effort into keeping his head above the social waters.
 Oral reports were not the best way to prevent this particular style of drowning. By now, it was standard practice for someone to make farting noises at him while he walked up to the front. Last year in English, someone had oinked like a pig, while Al had stumbled, blushed, and forgotten what his topic was mid sentence. It didn't matter that the teacher had sent the oinker out of class because the damage had already been done. Even the teacher couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.
 This year, he'd prepared ahead of time by dying his hair black, and then adding white stripes. Sick dyed hair was a good way to gain instant street cred. Until oral report day, though, he had to wear a beanie. He didn't want the shock value to be lost.
 Al's phone bleeped at him, and all thoughts of schoolwork fled from his mind. Well, not exactly. Al was trying to recruit the class gamer boys to help him with his presentation by doing cosplay. So far, two wanted to be samurais, and the third said he would come as a sumo wrestler if it wasn't blatant cultural appropriation.
 "But I'm Japanese," Al reminded them.
 They'd all laughed uproariously. "Sure, you are, Alberta."
 They'd repeated his name several times, as if it was relevant to being Japanese or not.
 One of the samurai volunteers had just texted him to ask him where his sword was. Al had promised to provide real swords in exchange for their help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, an easy prop to acquire -- surely, something the school would allow once they realized it was for a history lesson. Because kamikazes. Because kamikazes had nothing to do with samurais, but they were both Japanese, and Al was Japanese, so...
 "I'll have them on the day," he texted back.
 "You'd better," was the response.
 Al racked his brain, trying to come up with a secondary option. If he couldn't get a hold of real samurai swords, maybe he could empty his mom's change jars and buy Nerf swords at Wal Mart. If he couldn't get anyone to drive him there, he guessed cardboard and foil would look snazzy.
 His phone bleeped again. "Hey, ur going to be the sumo, right? Lololol."
 That was all the text said. Al's face heated up, and his heart pounded. Didn't the gamer boys like him? Wasn't he one of them? Maybe they wanted to include him in the cosplay. Maybe it wasn't a dig on his weight.
 Who was he kidding? It didn't matter, anyway. What mattered was their making him look cool.
 From the kitchen this time, Al heard his mom hollering at him. "Al, get in here and clean up this mess! I want the kitchen clean when i get home from work."
 His mom worked nights at Circle K. Since his dad was still gone God knew where, nobody would be around to take him to Wal Mart. Al would have to make cardboard swords. If he worked really hard on the design, they might look even better than real ones.
 He pushed aside his largely empty 3x5 cards and spread out some soggy broken down boxes that were in a stack on the porch. So he hadn't gotten around to writing relevant facts and information on the cards. He figured he could fudge a little, as long as everybody was distracted by samurais.
 After working steadily for a couple of hours -- he'd never had any intention of doing what his mom had told him to -- his swords didn't live up to the image in his head.
 But he was tired now, and he had to live with what he'd prepared for his oral report on kamikazes, which included a few samurai swords and a vague idea that kamikazes were suicide pilots. He'd be fine.
 Alberta was never fine. When he rolled himself out of bed the next morning, he threw up. Nerves. Or too many Hot Cheetos. Why couldn't his parents make dinner like normal people? He opened a bottle of Red Bull and chugged it. After that, he pulled off the beanie he'd been wearing for a week and pressed his hair down with water. After that, he barely had enough time to make a run for the school bus.
 Once he'd managed the social nightmare of sitting down, he realized he'd forgotten the swords. It was no use asking the bus driver to stop so he could run home and fetch them. She waited for nobody.
 The school's air conditioner had broken, which made Al sweat profusely. That didn't even count the sweat that poured down when he thought of history class. He saw the gamer boys at their lockers, and he turned from them, afraid. They weren't popular. It wasn't that. They had a place in the world, and Al didn't.
 If they helped him, people would say, "Oh, I didn't know Al was a geek. That explains everything."
 But eventually, history class rolled around, like all dreaded classes did. And when he arrived, there was nobody there. A note hung on the door: "Meeting outside today at the lunch tables. Too hot inside!" Al groaned. Sunlight was the worst kind for his complexion.
 From a distance, he watched his classmates settled comfortably on the benches, including the gamer boys, who were leaning over their phones. Phones weren't allowed inside, but now they were outside, so...
 Al pulled out his phone. There was a single text: "No swords, no deal. But awesome sumo costume."
 He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with it. And that was when it happened, the sudden compulsion to squash them like the tiny insignificant bugs they were. Either that, or hurl himself from the roof and end it all. Conveniently, the air conditioner work people had left a ladder for him to climb.
 Wow, they really did look like insignificant bugs from up here.
 "Hey!" he screamed. "I'm giving my oral report up here!"
 Their pleasingly shocked faces stared up at him. Mr. Thorpe, the teacher, looked like he was sending for help, as his pet student went scurrying off.
 "Alberta, you need to come down from there!" he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.
 "My name's not Alberta!"
 The entire class was now huddled beneath him. They looked worried. Good. The teacher was on his phone now, completely ignoring Al. Or calling the po!ice. Oh, God, not the police. He hadn't meant for this to get out of hand. He paced nervously at the edge of the roof, huddled over in anxiety.
 One of the gamer boys pointed at him. "Oh, my God, she really is a sumo!"
 "I'm not a she," Al cried. "I'm not a..."
 This was going to be his best oral report. Melancholy filled his soul, as he now knew what he had to do.
 "I'm a Camus Kaze!" He declared, as the divine wind rushed through his godlike hair.
 And then he jumped, aiming himself right at the teacher.
 It was too bad he missed.
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The Minäverse

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This what a sample title page looks like.

Oso Beñat was born to be a hero. With advanced cognition and an ability to remember the future, he knows he’s meant for more than the subsistence farming his father scrapes out in rural New Mexico. Armed with an education and his best friend, a biotech engineer, he creates advanced biological androids that are awakened with the voice of infrasound.

When his beautifully intelligent androids, known as Minäs, are rendered window-lickers through government mandated lobotomies, his eponymous corporation turns to inventing mindless robotics, leaving the idiot Minäs to roam in a wasted economy.

Even with his future instinct, he fails to foresee this mess. Now that his life is nearly over, maybe it’s not too late to fulfill his destiny by helping someone besides himself. Sometimes, being a hero means passing the torch to his biological creations. His granddaughter seems willing. But what about those Minäs? There might yet be one left in the world who isn’t too stupid to care.

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