Tag Archives: robots

Chapter 15: Team Beñat-Herrera

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hats?”

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

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

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

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

“Granddad!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should start,” he said.

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

“By all means, you be in charge.”

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

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

“Poor Grandma!”

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

“Granddad!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever,” Gillilander muttered.

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

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

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

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

“You sound like you’re outside.”

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

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

“I was being honest.”

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

“Your husband doesn’t want me to.”

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

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

“I love you, too, Oso. Always have.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I will always be numero uno.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Gilly glowered.

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

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

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

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

Gilly still glowered.

“Peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that.”

“There’s a market for that.”

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

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

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

“Backers. That I’m going to find.”

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

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

Gilly’s shrug was listless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oso stood solid with his cane, unamused.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 14: Defying Gravity

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman screamed. “B-b-bomb!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not real?”

“Nope.”

“I took off my shoes for fake guns?”

Oso squeezed Mark’s shoulder in consolation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know you have money, but…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on,” her granddad urged.

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

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

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

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

“That, son, is a prime rib sandwich.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nor do I,” Stephanie added.

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

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

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

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

“Your granddad’s got it all set up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must be difficult for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

“Because you play a fraudulent game of soccer.”

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

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

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

Devon clapped his hands and whooped in mimicry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Chapter 13: Drop the Load

In which the world turns on the spinning of a ball!

 

Stephanie left her granddad’s house in a bit of a funk. Who wouldn’t be in one after having heard that story? Her worst fears had been confirmed. Well, perhaps not her worst, as the story really turned its wretched head against her uncle Gilly, who wasn’t a real relation, rather than against her granddad. But his silence—and her grandma’s silence!—felt like complicity.

Complicity in what? Gilly hadn’t meant to burn an old man alive. Gilly, for all his genius, had done something foolish. Not well thought-out. How very strange. That, too, cast a new and sulfuric glow over Gilly. Gilly was supposed to be the long-term planner. He never did anything unless he’d thought about it for years and years. That was why he’d required her granddad in order to be successful at a young age, as her granddad didn’t need to sit for years thinking about a project before embarking on it.

And it was also why Stephanie, who generally planned extensively before doing anything, albeit, not for years like Gilly, had already embarked on this biopic. It involved her granddad, and he wouldn’t sit around waiting for her. He’d lose interest if she didn’t do it immediately.

As the car drove itself toward the winking lights of Albuquerque, she shook off her reverie. She needed to type up the day’s shorthand once home, and then go to bed. That would be her Friday night, but then, they were rarely more exciting unless Mark was involved. Speaking of the man of her heart, he’d somehow managed to twist her arm into setting up a stupid little Saturday man-date with him and her granddad.

She and Mark were going to meet Oso at one of the city’s many community tracks that wrapped around a “worker-bee robotics farm,” as Tomi Corp’s robotic factories were known. Due to the lack of work for humans created by the new world of robotics, the AHA and DHS had mandated that running and/or walking tracks be laid to loop around factories, along with green spaces for the playing of pretend, ball-less sports.

Remembering that her granddad had paid her direct deposit through her ring bling, she veered toward the Drop the Load Store, averting the downtown strip near her apartment. The downtown area had been consumed by free-roaming Minäs who had no home and no owners. Occasionally, the cops would round them up with a bullhorn, which caused them to cover their ears and cringe due to the loud noise permeating their extra-large ears, and then put them in the Minä pounding station, where they would be disengaged if nobody claimed or adopted them.

The Salvation Station had funded a grass-roots movement to integrate the Minäs into bunkhouses, with regular nutritious meals specifically designed to meet Minä needs. Some people believed Minäs could grow their missing brain parts if given enough protein and EFAs, but when biologically created humans couldn’t afford enough protein and EFAs, even the Salvation Station had to back off from its most idealistic efforts. And despite their programs, the streets, especially on Friday nights, were clogged with all manner of “Devons” who would someday be picked up by the cops.

They were all so perfect looking, too. They were perfect, all except for their gigantic ears. And, of course, being incredibly stupid. It might be nice to be that stupid. They were happy, loved or abused. Their sadness brain part had apparently gone missing when they were given their lobotomies.

After directing her car to the Drop the Load store, she manually parked the wretched beast because she didn’t want it to miscalculate yet again and try to drive through the parking meridian and into another car, as it had done in times past. It had gotten a little beat up before she’d retaken control.

Outside the store waited the usual suspects. One person rang a bell for the Minä Education Fund—a useless waste of money said every scientist everywhere. Another asked her to sign a petition to classify TransMinä as a brain identity, which was in contrast to last week’s petition, which was to classify a recent hailstorm as a real emergency so that those who were pinged on the head by the hail could get a free supply of pain meds.

Not that TransMinä hadn’t already been deemed a unique identity by law thirty years previously. This was a different slant on TransMinä. In addition to being humans who identified as Minäs since birth, these were people who were wired to believe they were Minäs who believed they were humans. Essentially, they lived as humans, albeit they were Minäs, who were clearly human, who…

Stephanie shut her eyes. She tried to figure it out, but the man/Minä/man speaking to her had confused her at some point. “No, thanks,” she said to his request that she sign.

“The police are always hurting us,” the man said, “brutalizing us. We need laws in place to give us the same basic respect as all people get.”

“Everybody gets the same respect from cops.” Everybody who’s human, she wanted to add.

The cops were trained to beat up anybody who annoyed them. And, sure, some people annoyed them more than others. That was to be expected. Now, Minäs—they were a different story. They would disengage real Minäs. Humans couldn’t be disengaged, even TransMinäs who were humans who believed they were Minäs who believed they were humans. A Minä could be disengaged and re-engaged through the reconnection of their brainstem and the playing of infrasound. A human would be disengaged and never engaged again because they would be dead at that point. Some TransMinäs had gone through disengagement as martyrs for their cause to be taken seriously as a unique identity. They were hardcore, in other words.

The man blinked. “You don’t care about us? Here, take this stat sheet to see how often we’re brutalized by cops. Numbers don’t lie.”

She snatched the sheet from him and pasted on a smile. No, she supposed numbers themselves, as the concepts hiding behind tangibles, didn’t lie. But humans did. Minäs, true ones anyway, were too stupid to lie. Sometimes, she wished she were stupid like a Minä and not just clever enough to get by in life. Intelligence was a bewildering concept, especially if one was the granddaughter of one of the most brilliant men in history.

Of course, part of lacking this brilliancy was the lack of ambition to do anything brilliant. She really didn’t care to. At the same time, she had a lack of care for possessing a unique identity like a TransMinä. She wondered if she could get a petition going that would establish the ordinary people such as herself as a legal special interest group. Sure, she had special interests…in being able to keep her job as an independent journalist and still pay her rent and bills, maybe get committed someday and have babies.

Yes. Get committed. She had done exactly as her granddad had suggested and looked up the origins of both words. A marriage was a fusion of elements, a commitment an obligation. If words made any difference at all in the ability to move independently in the world, then marriage would greatly restrict freedom.

As she wandered the aisles, going through the usual sticker shock of seeing the prices on food she desperately wanted, she found herself imagining what her and Mark’s babies would look like. She jolted out of her daydream. Babies? With Mark? She couldn’t even afford the cheapest white bread before it expired and had to be sent to the bread thrift store.

Then she remembered the money her billionaire granddad had paid her for her work so far, and her heart felt light, while her head suddenly spun. She couldn’t spend this money on food. She couldn’t. She needed savings. For the down-payment on a house. She couldn’t spend it on delicacies such as fresh bread and…her stomach turned over in desire. She wanted meat. Before she knew what she was doing, she had placed a voice call to her Grandma Gonzales and asked her if she knew how to make New Mexico traditional green chile enchiladas.

Yes, of course her grandma knew, and soon Stephanie had punched in the order button for tortillas, chile, cheese, and meat so that her cart could be filled back-room and brought out to her by a Minä, who, although not smart enough to load the order—that was done by mechanical arms without biological brains—most of the time could wheel it out to the front, where the purchaser’s name was writ large on the side. It was not perfect, of course, because the Minäs usually forgot to collect the receipt and often gave the orders to people who had purchased nothing at all.

These non purchasers were known as Drop the Load Leeches. They were officially recognized as “needy” and “deficient” by Welfare Act 10,400 and could not be prosecuted. But they were just one of many groups the cops got annoyed with, as they were belligerent in their due diligence to fight for their rights. So, thankfully, they suffered the occasional beating. For everybody else, they had to be ready to grab their order and run with it. Shopping had become a sport.

Her cart was quite a bit fuller than usual. She could see the leeches salivating and moving forward en masse, until they noticed she had no health code junk food, no alcohol, no vitamin soda, and no wacky cigarettes. Another bout of dizziness caused her to see black spots when she filled the trunk of her car. This was the down payment on her house, and it would all be consumed within a few days. For unknown reasons, she had not stopped at the enchilada ingredients, but had gone on to purchase the type of coffee and cream that her grandfather’s assistant had served to her earlier that day.

It would be okay, she reassured herself. Her granddad would continue to pay her, and then she could get a book contract because she was writing the biography of a celebrity who normally didn’t give journalists the time of day. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The future would be okay, and she would eat well in the interim.

It was too bad she didn’t know what to do with some of the ingredients, such as dried pinto beans. Ah, well, she would have to call her grandma Gonzales once again and ask for advice. Her mouth felt dry, and so she unscrewed the top off the new bottle of orange juice. Orange juice?! Was she insane? Had she really punched in the button for this delicacy?

She sipped a very, very small portion and sat down to work.

Mark picked her up at precisely 2 P.M. Due to it being mid spring, her granddad insisted on meeting at the track in the afternoon—less chance of being hit with a biting cold wind. At first, he’d suggested 5 A.M., before the wind had picked up at all, but even Mark, who worshiped Oso Beñat, had balked at the idea. He was going out drinking with his buddies and didn’t want to show up still drunk.

Buddies. That was the archaic term Mark used for his friends. Nobody who cared about microaggressions used that word for anybody but Minäs in this day and age, as the original Tomi Corp ad name for their creations was buddy. The coinage pet was also considered derogatory; however, the names window-licker and retard were nearly terms of affection, as they had no context in the modern-day environment. Screen-licker, on the other hand, was a derogatory term for old-school geeks who preferred old-fashioned computers. Oh, and for grass-roots journalists and newspaper editors who couldn’t afford to do anything better than sift through silicon wastelands and scrap together old hard drives, screens, and computer boxes.

Mark was looking a little yellow in the face, as he always did when he spent all night drinking cheap beer. Stephanie had tried, using her investigative skills, to find out what was in the piss-bitter stuff, and had not yet been successful. The beer corporations, which had taken their names from last century’s microbrew craze—Bluebird Ale; Purple Mountain Stout; Green Orphan Amber; etc—were clinging tightly to their proprietary recipes and filtration systems.

“Did you have fun with your buddies?” she asked, after he laid his head back and told his car rather viciously to drive, you mother flipper.

He snarled at her. His bad mood combined with her good one inspired her to sing the Minä theme song from the old ads calling them buddies: You can hug ‘em, give ‘em lovin’, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven. And: You can bug ‘em, give ‘em shovin’s, just don’t force ‘em in the oven.

“For the love of God, stop,” he told her.

She couldn’t help it; she was in a good mood. Good food did make a difference. Her granddad had advised her well. “You’re just dehydrated, that’s all,” she said. “Do you want to know what I drank for breakfast? Orange juice.”

He groaned.

She whistled. Or tried to. She had never really learned.

The car pulled up to the chosen track. This one formed a figure eight, with the bottom half circling around a factory, and the top half around a field, where a group of boys were practicing airfoot.

“Airfoot!” Mark said, as though it were a curse.

“They do look a little silly, but only marginally more than the sports you watch.”

“It’s all fake. All of it. I really wish this aspirin would kick in. I want to leave a good impression on your grandfather. This is not good, really not good. I think I’m going to throw up.” He promptly bailed from the car and vomited in the garbage bin.

“How much did you drink, anyway? I set up this date because you asked for it.”

“James is getting committed. He and Lola are engaged. Do you hear that, Stephanie? Some people in the world are still getting committed.”

She was silent a beat. James was his best friend from high school. “You drank yourself into oblivion because you were happy for James?”

“Yes, toasted him. Over and over and over. Wish it had been me we were toasting.”

She was about to say, You’d prefer to vomit over your own engagement?, but didn’t have a chance to, as her granddad’s classic electric Roadster rolled into the parking lot.

Mark’s head perked up. “Wow, what a car,” he moaned, as if the envy made him as sick as the bad beer. “I love those early electrics. So much style. If I were a billionaire, I’d drive one, too.”

“If I had a decent income, I’d just buy an economy car that could get me from one place to the next.”

“Some of us have style.”

She shrugged at that, as she didn’t know what to say. He’d chosen the least stylish of all the young females at the Albuquerque Daily—that is, herself. Perhaps “having style” was subjective. Oso’s style was objective, however, as he stepped from his shiny white vehicle and stood to his full height. He was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes. Even Devon, following behind his owner, was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes.

“If you have even a pinch of style now, you should stop hanging your head. And try to look less yellow,” she advised.

Her granddad immediately grasped Mark’s hand in a firm handshake. “Mark, my man. I’m happy to meet the writer who entertains me every morning of the week.”

Mark’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Thank you, sir. And you. It’s astounding to meet you.”

“You’re pastier than I expected,” Oso said. “What did I expect? You’re a writer, not a real sportsman. There aren’t any more of those.”

Mark groaned and put his hands to his temples.

“Hungover, are you?”

Mark just groaned again.

“It’s that poison you young ‘uns call alcohol these days. Stephanie, wait here. I’m taking young Mark with me for a trip around the block.”

“I, uh…” But her granddad had already whisked Mark away in his shiny car, leaving Devon in her care. “Hmm. I guess I’ll just watch the boys play airfoot,” she said.

“Me too,” said Devon

An hour later—after she had given up on understanding the game the boys were playing and had begun to walk the track with Devon—the Roadster reappeared, and soon the men were out of the car, running into the half field the boys weren’t using, with what appeared to be a ball. When Devon spotted Oso, he took off like a shot to catch up with him. Minäs could run, if nothing else.

But Mark, who was vomiting an hour ago, was now running. And how could an old man run like that—an old man who used a cane? Not to mention that he was now kicking the ball. Stephanie was confused.

She veered into the field and jogged over to them, where they were all three bunting the ball back and forth with their feet. Mark’s face had been re-spirited with its usual glow.

“Look at this, Steph! I’m kicking a ball! A real ball! The sports stars can’t even do this.”

She shook her head. “What happened to you in the last hour?”

“Mr. Beñat took me to this club. It was hidden in the basement of a shop in Nob Hill. I’m not allowed to say which one.”

“Why not?” she asked. “Wait, there are basements in Nob Hill stores? Since when?”

“It’s a secret men’s club. And you don’t even know. There’s a basement system linking together…oh, wait. I’m not supposed to tell.”

“Good, well, I’ll never tell you where my secret knitting circle is, then.”

His eyes bugged out in surprise. “You have a secret knitting circle?”

“No.”

“Ah, you were trying to be funny. It’s not funny. This club’s the real deal, legit. The bartender made me a hangover cure called the Silver Fizz. What was that recipe again, Sir, Mr. Beñat?”

“The first part is never drinking that trash you call beer. The rest is simple: egg white, dry gin, lemon juice, sugar, and club soda.”

Stephanie didn’t want to consider how much that beverage would cost at a club. “Yeah, because Mark is going to stock those ingredients on his salary. Good thing you gave him the recipe.”

“That’s why,” her granddad coldly replied, “the first part is never drinking that trash again. Now, would you, darlin’, like to learn how to play soccer with us?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Pass!” Mark shouted as he suddenly kicked the ball in her direction.

Being that she wasn’t prepared for it, it hit her in the shin. In return, she picked it up and hurled it at his head. Unfortunately, he dodged it.

“No, no, no!” her granddad shouted. “That’s not how to play the game. We’re going to go over the rules first.”

Stephanie giggled. She felt like a child. “All right, Granddad, Sir, Mr. Beñat!”

And for the first time in months—years, perhaps—she gave up her day and had fun. That wasn’t to say she didn’t trip over the ball multiple times. She did. She was clearly not meant to be a soccer player, but Mark picked it up rather well. Devon never really understood the rules, but he did manage to ape Mark’s every move. Her granddad, too—how could he kick the ball that way? It was incredible to watch him. How many octogenarians could do that? How many people of any age could? Nobody had balls any longer. As far as she knew, they weren’t sold in stores.

As they passed the ball to each other up and down the field, Stephanie realized the boys’ team was no longer playing airfoot. No, they were watching the strange phenomenon of ball-kicking, something they’d only seen on TV, and which some people, such as the local sports editor, insisted was faked.

Well, right before them, it was real. They stared, their jaws slack, their eyes wide in shock. To the side, somebody’s buddy Minä was jumping up and down, flapping his arms, and whoop-whooping. Stephanie couldn’t help it; she was so overjoyed by the moment that she collapsed in the grass and stared up at the sky.

“Stephanie, lying in the grass is not what a team player does,” her granddad shouted.

She didn’t care, though, at least not until her infamous grandfather invited all the boys to play with them, and she was in danger of being trampled to death by a bunch of little, obnoxious feet that were apparently aching to kick a real ball.

When Oso finally called it a game, as nobody was keeping score, the adults stood talking in the parking lot. Mark’s cheeks were flushed from exercise and excitement.

“Now this is real sport, something real to write about,” Mark said. “I wish the Daily would pay me to go to professional games rather than reporting what I see on screen. That might be some real sports reporting, too. I could find out if they use physical balls or not. I mean, only the elite can afford those games, so they’re the only ones who know what’s really going on. And then, the elites usually have shares in the players.”

Oso smiled. “I could get us into a game if you’d like. There’s one tomorrow.”

“Do you often go to games?”

“I’ve been to a handful. It’s a waste of money I try to avoid.”

“As if you have to worry about money,” Mark said.

“I’m not one of the richest men in the world because I spend money on frivolities. If I did spend money on entertainment, I’d expect it to be entertaining. Which the games aren’t.”

Mark leaned forward in eager anticipation. “Because they’re using holograph balls?”

“They make spectators sign a nondisclosure contract before buying tickets,” Oso said. “But if you wanted to do an expose, you could take one for the team. The journalism team, that is.”

Mark’s eyes were wild with anticipation. “I would seriously love, sir, to take one for the team. What do you think, Stephanie, you wanna come too?”

Stephanie thought about it. She was a cautious team player, but still, she didn’t see how Mark’s actions would affect her career. After all, there was no such thing as guilt by association. That was wishful thinking on her part, especially if she conceded to become committed to him. Guilt by association was more often than not assumed by the public. She knew this from interviewing people.

“Do they still serve hotdogs at games?” She’d always wanted to eat a hotdog, which was a food popular at games in the last century. Hotdogs looked tasty in pictures.

“Yes, they sell organic, ethnically sourced, two-inch micro dogs on crusted German-import mini-loaves with Hollandaise and Havarti. Does that sound good to you, m’dear?”

The exercise had made her even hungrier than usual. “Um, I’m not really sure I like the sound of micro dogs.”

Oso snorted. “Well, they also offer kale chips, seaweed strips, sushi, and caviar. Sometimes lobster, if it’s the right season.”

“All right, I’ll go with you guys,” she conceded, as if she wouldn’t jump at the opportunity. Not because of the food, though—the food sounded bizarre, like nothing she’d ever tasted. Or even the sport. As a Journalist of Integrity, she had a curiosity that was rarely sated, the same as Mark.


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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 10: Degrees of Freedom

In which All Hail Robot is code for Barbie Terminator!

 

It was one of those days that was bound and determined to deflate Stephanie’s confidence in herself. For a start, she’d risen at the crack of dawn in order to dash off a query letter and send it to dozens of licensed literary agents, before she went to work creating bylines and writing yawn-inducing local news stories.

But when she sat down, she couldn’t think of a single clever hook. Hours later, she had written and erased a single paragraph fifty times. All she had going for her, really, was her career as an unacceptable journalist and her connection to Oso Beñat. He was her hook. She had to accept that. And so she sent the query off, hesitantly, to five of the most likely candidates. After that, she had one hour to produce her assigned work for the Albuquerque Daily. All the while, as she produced barely-acceptable work, she kept reiterating in whispered undertones that her granddad was her hook. Everything would work out because of him.

But once she’d driven out to his house, the one and only Oso Beñat wouldn’t take Stephanie’s phone call. She’d been barred from entering his premises, even though she had set up an appointment with him. So she tried again to call him from the comfort of her car, and again she failed at the most basic task of getting him on the phone. His assistant, who hadn’t existed before Grandma Berna’s death, wouldn’t put him on. The woman boldly claimed that Mr. Beñat was old and convalescent and couldn’t take visitors. She had a distinct chill to her voice when she said it.

“I’m his granddaughter. I have an appointment with him,” she patiently explained to Dame Assistant through the call box on the gate.

“Sure you are,” she said. “You all are.”

“Everybody is my granddad’s grandchild?”

“He either had a lot of children, or there are a lot of liars in the world.”

Well. It was true; the world wasn’t the beautiful land of Nod it used to be. Scamming for cash was the way of people in a crap economy. Nevertheless, she couldn’t understand how pretending to be Oso Beñat’s grandchild would benefit anyone. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford a DNA test.

She sighed. She wasn’t making headway with the gatekeeper, and she suspected her granddad wouldn’t be happy with her for being late to their mutually agreed upon appointment. Desperation mounting, she determined to break in. She would just…climb the gate. It wasn’t exactly the climbable kind, what with its iron bars and sharp end points piercing the sky high above her head. Then there was the problem of her hip-hugging skirt, not to mention the treadless dress flats.

And didn’t billionaires with locked gates generally have rabid guard dogs that would tear intruders limb from limb? He’d owned a pair of rottweilers once upon a time, but she hadn’t been up here much in the past few years. The air was, fortunately, curiously silent of barks. She heard the call of a vulture, not that she was an expert on bird sounds. It sounded predatory, though, and she could see its black bird body wheeling in the deep blue sky.

She could do this. She began walking the circuit of the fence. Anybody who was looking out a window would see her, as the grounds were a meticulous xeriscape. The house itself was low to the ground, solid, and plain—like a fortress with large modern windows. Its only elegant touch was the handful of arches that led into a central courtyard.

The act of sneaking around gave rise to fear. Her granddad, despite her familiarity with him, was fearsome. Indeed, she had a niggling doubt about these interviews: What if she learned something about her granddad that would change her vision of who he was, who she was, who her grandmother and mother were? Would she want to publish the truth and nothing but the truth?

No, nothing could change her perspective of him. He was a good man. A generous man. He’d helped her parents out of numerous scrapes. With her thoughts back in a reassurance loop, she took a deep breath of the fresh pine air that was to be found in the Sandias, high above Albuquerque.

Soon, she heard water splashing from the fountain off the rear porch. She continued, following the sound of the water and an undetermined scratching noise, until she abruptly halted at the sight of someone reclining in a deck chair and staring out at the view, which she had suddenly become part of. It wasn’t just any someone, but Granddad himself. The scratching noise came from Devon, who had apparently been told to rake the stones around the fountain into a Zen stone garden. Or something. When Devon saw her, he guffawed and jumped up and down.

“Hey!” her granddad shouted. “What are you doing?”

His tone was hostile enough that she guessed he hadn’t recognized her. She smiled and waved.

He took off the glasses he was wearing, put aside whatever he’d been reading, and grabbed for the cane leaning against his chair. He was up faster than she could yell out a greeting. On his way to ostensibly shoo her off, he stopped cold a couple of feet from the fence.

“Stephanie?” He shook his head and wiped his eyes, fished in his pocket for a different pair of glasses, and then put them on. “There you go again, looking like your grandma’s ghost. You shouldn’t scare an old man like that.”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“What are you doing? You’re late. I thought you chickened out.” His gaze was disconcerting—cold, steady. No wonder people were afraid of him.

She pinched her lips together, trying desperately to maintain her smile. “Granddad, I’d really like to do this. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“First piece of advice. If you want to make it in this world—” He reached out with his cane and banged an iron rung. “Show up on time. And don’t go nosing around trying to sneak in my yard like a thief. Act legitimate. Always keep your business in the open and above board. Got it?”

“Yes, Granddad, it’s just that…”

“You may call me sir, Mr. Beñat, or don’t address me at all. As clearly, being my granddaughter has made you lose sight of your professionalism.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Beñat. It’s just that your assistant wouldn’t allow me to talk to you. She reminded me that you were old and convalescing.”

“So you thought you would sneak in and climb through the window and take advantage of a convalescent old man?”

It was springtime, and consequently not that hot, but her body temperature was getting hotter by the minute. She could feel sweat stains collecting on the sleeves of her shirt.

“Something like that. Except you clearly aren’t convalescent.”

He laughed out loud. “That must have put a crimp in your plans.”

“What about the interview, the bio? You agreed to it.” She smiled and went for a sincere, maybe even slightly naïve, tone. To be honest, she was slightly naïve about the world, as she’d never left her home state. And she was as sincere as she knew how to be. “I’d much rather not climb over gates or into windows. Could I please come in through the front? Above board and all that?”

His penetrating gaze, direct to the eyes, weakened and drifted to her shoes. He hunched forward and leaned heavily on his cane, as though his age had just fallen over him, draped him like a blanket. It would seem he couldn’t keep up the domineering facade too long. He took a deep, shaky breath. And then he chuckled under his breath. He was playing with her. The jerk.

“Stephanie, didn’t I advise you to get yourself a decent pair of heels? You got legs like Berna, but you don’t know what to do with them.”

“Granddad, I mean, sir, Mr. Beñat. Why would I do anything with them? These are my work clothes. I really am trying to be professional.”

“It has nothing to do with me. It should be your life method as a journalist to show off your legs. Because the average man likes to admire nice legs. That’s why I hired a woman who dresses well as my assistant, whose jealousy forces her to field my phone calls. That’s also why I have a private phone she’s not allowed to answer.” He pulled a remote control from his pocket and fiddled with it. “The front gate’s open. Go to the front door and knock like you’re an actual relation of mine and not an upstart. Beñats do not sneak around.”

“Yes, I know. But why didn’t you give me your private number to begin with?”

“I didn’t know my assistant would be so stupid as to turn away my own granddaughter. I told her you were coming. She added the appointment to my schedule.”

“I’m sorry.” She lowered her head in humility, though she didn’t know what she was sorry for.

He banged a rung with his cane again, this time so hard, Stephanie jumped at the noise. “Opportunity knocks. Run, before I change my mind.”

“Yes, Grand…sir!” She called out and hurried off as fast as she could go in the tight skirt. It was a good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. She was a klutz and would have fallen on her ass if she’d been wearing anything higher than an inch.

By the time she made it around to the front gate, she was slightly out of breath. The gate was, indeed, open. She walked in, confident this time, and marched up to the door, where she lifted the knocker and gave the door several loud bangs. No answer. Maybe he hadn’t hobbled that far yet. She banged again. This time, the door opened to a tall, skinny blonde wearing a headscarf that fit on her head like a cloche. Stephanie knew nothing about fashion, but even to her, the scarf seemed an odd choice.

The blonde looked down on the shorter, darker woman, her lips pursed in distaste. “May I help you?”

She handed the woman her press pass, complete with name and credentials—something she’d failed to do before, as she’d not thought it necessary. As a child, she’d practically lived her summers in this house. She’d played in the indoor pool and run around the hallways as though they didn’t belong to a wealthy tycoon. “I’m here to see Mr. Beñat. I have an appointment.”

“There are no appointments on his calendar for today.”

“You might want to double-check that.”

She was about to shut the door in Stephanie’s face—Stephanie could detect the glint in the steely blue eyes—when Mr. Beñat, followed by his buddy Devon, finally strode up with his cane.

“That’s my granddaughter. You will treat her with respect,” he snapped.

“Stephanie!” Devon shouted with glee.

The assistant opened the door and stepped aside, as though graciousness was her general method. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

He picked up his cane and gently smacked the woman’s scrawny ass with it, to which, the woman barely responded. Devon, of course, copied, smacking her ass with his hand because he didn’t have a cane. That time, the assistant couldn’t hide her annoyance.

“Go make us some coffee,” her granddad commanded. “And Devon, go play. I’ve told you never to touch my assistant.”

Devon’s face fell. “I want to see Stephanie,” he said.

“You were created to obey. Now do as you’re told.”

“Isn’t it too late in the day for coffee?” the assistant said, her voice oozing with the condescension of a care nurse. “You never sleep if you drink it past ten.”

“I didn’t hire you to tell me what I can and can’t serve my guests. Go make the coffee.”

The woman’s eyes darted in Stephanie’s direction. “Would you like any other refreshments, or just the coffee?” she demurred.

“Bring a sampling of fruit and cheese. This working girl clearly needs a little more meat on her bones.”

First she had a fat ass, then she was too thin, and now she needed more meat on her bones yet again. Huh. Some men just couldn’t be pleased. At the sound of fruit, though, her mouth watered. And her stomach growled—loudly.

He motioned for her to follow him. “You live off crumbs, m’dear, and I don’t mean food. I mean your articles. I meant to talk to you about them the other day. You write tawdry stories about pop stars and actors. You write the whole gossip page. Granted, under a few pseudonyms.”

Well, she couldn’t deny it, even if the truth made her wince. “And bylines. And occasionally something more serious, like the retro bot release by Tomi Corp. That’s why I’m here, remember? I’m going to change the face of journalism.”

“You should be careful trying to change the world. You may have the power to do so. I did. And then it came back to bite me.”

“Some things are worth changing, don’t you think?”

“I thought so, yes. I made one central mistake.”

“What was that?”

“If I answered your question now, it would be telling the story from the end.” He shook his head and fixed his penetrating gaze on her. “I decided to go along with this because I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve been contemplating hiring somebody to write my book for some time.” He waved his hand at her dismissively. “I don’t know if you’re good enough, yet. I’ll determine that as we make progress.”

She opened her eyes wide in alarm. Hadn’t he already said…?

“Stop!” he said in his forceful manner. “You have those great big eyes, just like Berna. Bambi eyes. Don’t play the large-eyed doe game with me, batting your lashes in wondrous surprise.”

“I wasn’t. I…”

“Don’t pretend to be Miss Innocent with me.”

Stephanie tried to keep her gaze level, her eyes at normal width, no lash-batting. “I’m just here to get original contacts. I’m not playing games, I promise. I can’t conduct searches. Since you know everything already, you should know that, too.”

By searches, she meant on the various offshoots of the original net, including on the investigation channels. They were time-consuming, costly, and heavily regulated by the government. In other words, any search activity coming from a newspaper was subject to censorship, unless one went on the shadow net. The shadow net contained all info for all time, both true and false. But if one went on the shadow net, one might lose one’s job in journalism and/or go to jail.

Without a lot of resources, the story range went from local interest to tawdry gossip, just as Granddad had said. And farcical news stories. The farcical news section was tucked in between the gardening and the business section. Most people didn’t realize it was actually a farcical news section, as the disclaimer was in small print at the very end. Despite that, it was supposed to be humorous, and for that reason, Stephanie didn’t bother trying her talents there. She had no talent for humor.

“Money can buy you private access to just about anything. Not that I have the need for it any longer. I used to have friends who stayed one step ahead of the government. I didn’t care to keep those contacts, or I’d pass them along.”

She didn’t know what to say. “Granddad, I mean, sir, thank you. Since you’re familiar with my stories, then you know I write short and catchy summaries. Please give me a chance on your biography and allow me to become good enough as we go along. I’m not a real writer…yet.”

He snorted. “A real writer, huh? I prefer short and catchy. No need for any of that profound literary nonsense a ‘real writer’ would use.”

She was about to protest, but the blonde assistant drifted smoothly in on her three-inch heels, gracefully balancing a wooden tray. She set it down on the coffee table in between Stephanie and her granddad, and hastened to pour out a cup of coffee for him, as well as fix him a plate of sliced peaches, halved apricots, blueberries, and all manner of cheeses Stephanie didn’t recognize. Gorgeous cheeses—from the Hague Marketplace, no doubt, which was a pan Afro-Asian-Euro deli for the rich. Occasionally, Stephanie splurged and bought a small package of American cheese from the regular supermarket chain everybody else shopped at, the Drop the Load store.

“Cream or sugar?” The assistant managed to maintain a delicate balance between iciness and politeness.

“Both. Neither.” Stephanie couldn’t decide. “Both.”

She poured Stephanie a cup of coffee from the urn, placed it ceremoniously on the end table, and then delicately splashed cream in the top. With a pair of tongs, she dropped in one, then two lumps of brown sugar.

“Could I have one more?” Stephanie asked.

The icy blonde pursed her already thin lips and dropped in another lump.

“Thank you.”

To that, the ice queen gave no response. After fixing a plate of fruits and cheeses, the assistant withdrew, her heels echoing down the hall. Granddad held up his finger. When the footfalls faded, he put his finger down.

“I’ll have my assistant put together a box of fruits and cheeses for you. Remind me.” He let out a sigh. “I could use the excuse that my memory’s going, but it isn’t. I still manage to remember what’s important.”

“That’s good. Otherwise you might have to make up your memoirs, and I want the real deal.” She took a big slurp of coffee. “Like this coffee.”

“You’re unlike your Grandma. Berna liked to spend money. She had a real gift for it. A sort of wild, passionate look in her eyes when she bought gourmet foods and liqueur and plied me with them. And I accepted them. To be successful, you must not only be healthy, but you must look the part.”

“Let me write that down,” Stephanie said, and wiped her now blue fingertips on a napkin. She quickly typed out the phrase. “I’ll put together a list of aphorisms as spoken by one of the most successful businessmen of this century. I could publish it as a companion edition to your biography. This is going to sell. I’ll revive your image, Granddad. Mr. Beñat. I’m really good at this sort of thing.”

“The grandkid’s a businesswoman, and she has a real gift for humility, too.”

“I just know what I’m good at, that’s all. That’s about all I know.”

He sipped his coffee, but appeared disinterested in the food. He’d always had a reputation for being a bit of the bulldog—big and tall and barging in with the force of his personality, even though his musculature would have been enough. Now, he was lean, almost gaunt. Yes, gaunt. He was almost ninety for heaven’s sake. He probably didn’t go to the gym, despite the bravado with his cane earlier. And that was the weird thing: his gauntness highlighted his eyes to such a degree that his gaze was perhaps just as intimidating as his physique was when he was younger.

Stephanie decided she wouldn’t allow him to intimidate her. That was all.

“Well, I do,” she feebly added.

“You youngsters don’t know much about anything these days. You haven’t known anything for over a hundred years. Your predecessors were paragons of knowledge and wisdom compared to you.”

“Well, true, I didn’t finish the mandatory seventeen years of school, but I did well while I was there.”

“And what did you learn before you dropped out?”

“I learned to memorize information for tests so I could go on to core college. I didn’t want my parents to pay the opt-out fine.”

“How’d that work out for you? I don’t seem to recall you going to core college. Or your parents sniveling around for the tuition money.”

Stephanie shrugged. She didn’t want to talk about this subject, as it had brought her to nearly being disowned by her parents. Aside from that, his gaze wouldn’t let up, and it made her squirm. “You already know I didn’t go. I was good at being clever, and now I’m one of the highest paid journalists at the Albuquerque Daily.”

“Good for you.” Was that a look of approval on his face? “And what are your future plans?”

Up to that moment, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t have her granddad’s skill for business. She was happy to stay at the paper as long as they would have her, not to mention continue paying her enough that she could keep her apartment.

What did she want? Mark? A better career? What was a career worth these days? With the improving, but still quite low employment rate for any jobs outside the fields of robotics maintenance, pharmacy, education, or war, she thought of herself as lucky to be a JOI member of the Free Press League.

But at that moment, she suddenly knew the answer. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a legacy. She wanted a connection. “To learn my history,” she said. “Of my connection to New Mexico. To this earth. And I’m going to start with you.”

Granddad cast her a small, sad smile. “That’s a more reasonable answer than I expected, Ms. Gonzalez.”

“Stephanie Mirabel Gonzales-Beñat, you mean. Did you really mean that was a reasonable answer, or were you being sarcastic?”

“Life is too short for sarcasm. It’s too short for endless irony.” He paused and furrowed his brows as he watched her type his words in her teletyper. “When it comes down to it, the legacy we leave is vitally important. We don’t have to be important people—that’s not what I mean. But we all leave legacies. Even the smallest act sends a message to future generations.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, Granddad,” she said. “Oops, I mean Mr. Beñat.”

“That’s all right. You may call me Granddad again. I was a little harsh earlier. You’re also allowed to criticize me. I can take it.”

“All I was going to say was, aren’t you starting at the end?”

He picked up his cane and banged it against the floor, which naturally didn’t startle her this time. “I’ll start wherever I want to,” he shouted. “And as it happens, I want to start where we left off.”

“Okay, then.”

She drained the coffee, which tasted a bit like candy, and set aside her food plate. Food could wait if Granddad was ready to talk—or dominate the conversation. It was all the same to him.

The boys, Oso and Gilly, had tired of remote shooting with Gilly’s robot. Oso insisted they begin a new bot, and Gilly was ready, as well. Together, they figured they could create a robot that had various working joints.

“He should be able to ride a bicycle,” Oso said.

“That’s the stupidest idea you’ve had yet. Why a bicycle? He should be able to drive a car.”

“No, stupid. The bicycle demonstrates the use of ankle, knee, hip, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The joints just need enough flexibility for that. If we can do that, then all we have to deal with is momentum.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s all. Because every full-body robot I’ve ever seen can freaking run like in ‘Hail Robot’.”

“Who cares about ‘Hail Robot’? Sci fi writers are window-lickers.”

Gilly narrowed his eyes. “Shut up about things you know nothing about.

“I suggested he ride a bike, not run. It’ll be easy.”

“Yeah, because creating joints with that kind of DOF is so easy.”

“DOF?” Oso asked.

“Now who’s the window-licker? You know nothing. DOF stands for degrees of freedom. The joint has to have just enough freedom, but not be able to rotate past that. There are robots on the market that can already do that, anyway. What would be more difficult would be programming it to ride. It takes more than just momentum, stupid. It doesn’t have a human brain.”

“But we could program it, though, right?”

“I don’t know. Could you? It sounds complicated to me. I mean, do you honestly know how to program a robot to ride a bike?”

“You have an uncle who could help us, right?”

“Sure, I have lots of uncles who are off the Res.”

For Gilly, that was more than slang. His mother was from Alamo, and as she had graduated from high school with honors, she had made the effort to leave her home behind by, oh, moving an hour away to Socorro and attending New Mexico Tech. There, she met Gilly’s father, a man Oso had never seen, but whose name Gilly was cursed with forever. It was even worse when combined with his mother’s last name: Gillilander Herrera. It was not a name one accorded with success.

So with the help of several uncles and Oso’s dad, who knew how to both build and wire things, they created a bicycle-riding robot. It was not life-sized like Gilly’s silent but loyal sharpshooter. In fact, it was barely bigger than Alex’s Barbie bicycle, which the boys stole ostensibly for research purposes. Through Alex’s protests, they learned that the bike was designed to move Barbie’s articulated legs.

It seemed an obvious concept once they’d observed it. Barbie didn’t, after all, possess a brain or working muscles. But sometimes what seems complex—how does one program a robot to ride a bike?—becomes obvious through observation. The robot didn’t have to be programmed to ride. The remote control-operated bicycle would move the robot’s articulated legs. No, what became fairly obvious was that the robot would have to be programmed to do something far more complex: calculate for tilt and adjust for tilt by using the bicycle handles.

After a number of months—the entire rest of the school year, to be exact—they were ready to debut their bicycle-riding robot. Meanwhile, both their grades had fallen into the toilet, and Alex was given the assignment of tutoring them. This was a losing proposition, as they had broken her Barbie bicycle, a treasured toy from her younger years, after slamming it over and over again into the walls of the Herrera outbuilding for their research. The Beñat kids, being impoverished, didn’t have many nice toys. Alex had stored the Barbie and bicycle on her closet shelf so that the younger kids couldn’t access either. Oso was technically her younger brother, but he was bigger and taller and had stolen the set by force.

Therefore, Bernadette was enlisted to be the tutor, as she was a straight-A student who always, always seemed so willing to help. With a sweet smile on her face, which fooled even Oso, she fed them both true and false information from the books they hadn’t read, and they finished the year with Cs and Ds for all the classes she was able to tutor them in, which excluded math. Regarding math, she was not at their level.

Gilly earned an A in math because he always did, and Oso squeaked by with a B-.

“Grandma fed you the wrong answers? That is so awesome!” Stephanie clapped in glee.

“Yes, because we ignored her all year, and she had a crush on me.”

“How do you know she had a crush on you?”

He snorted. “It was obvious. And here you are as proof, our grandchild.”

“I wish you had passed your trait of self-assurance onto me. How did you just know things like that when you were twelve? I mean, aside from these supposed future memories you had.”

His face fell, although he managed a small wan smile. “I knew a lot, but not enough. I drove your grandma away for years. She married another man and was a widow before she finally relented to marry me. I’m tired, Stephanie. I’m done for the day.”

“Okay.”

“We’ll have another session tomorrow, after I’ve rested.”

A little disconcerted by the change in her grandfather’s demeanor, Stephanie packed her things up. She wasn’t too happy about having to drive up there on consecutive days. She did have a regular job. A good journalist had to make sacrifices, though. That became her new chant as she drove back into the valley.

And true to his promise, Oso had rested enough by the following day to conduct a new session. After ordering his flawless assistant to bring coffee and other delicacies, he dove in, no jesting, no small talk. He was all business, which disappointed Stephanie a little. She barely had time to pop a blueberry in her mouth.


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