Day Thirty-Five – The Everlasting Mister Rolo

sorayama_gynoid

A treat for you today. Another story I’m retiring from the submission circuit.

I hate to let it go, but I realize I’m not going to write anything new if I keep hanging on to the same threadbare teddy bear.

Please let me know what you think. While I’ve received tons of critique on this piece, and it has seen numerous rewrites over the years, I still don’t feel like I truly know if this story works or not.

Regardless of his exit from the game, Rolo will live on.

Record 2 – Pushing Daisy

The building was small and tucked between more architecturally pleasing constructions. It was bare – grey and featureless, save a small logo positioned haphazardly just next to the building’s single door. When Rolo had first been contracted to perform services for Ulysses Robotics, he had difficulty finding the location. He missed his assignment and lost a good paying job because he couldn’t believe that a branch of the Ulysses Group would be headquartered in such a nondescript locale.

As he had numerous times since then, Rolo entered the door at the front of the building and waited in the small room just inside it.

Some might consider it a room, but to Rolo it was a closet. He was unable to raise his arms to the side, and if he were to happen to faint, he would hit the wall in front of him before he hit the floor.

A green light switched on in the corner of the room and Rolo knew from experience not to look directly at it.

 *

 “What’s the difference?” Rolo asked the diminutive technician before him. The Ulysses employee was dressing what appeared to be a teenage girl in front of him; he snapped his fingers and the girl raised her arms.

Rolo didn’t flinch when the technician removed the simple shirt the girl was wearing, revealing pale naked flesh beneath.

“Homebase assumed you’ve been keeping up with the industry,” the technician said. He snapped a bubble of chewing gum as he did his job.

“I haven’t,” Rolo admitted.

“The difference is significant,” the technician said, pulling a new t-shirt over the girl. This new piece of clothing had a genial panda on its front. Again, he snapped his gum and Rolo visibly flinched. “If you’d read the manifest you’d know that. I’d suggest you study it.”

“It looks like any other I’ve seen,” Rolo stated. The girl’s eyes stared straight ahead and did not blink.

“This isn’t the unit I’m talking about. You’re taking two on this trip.” Snap, snap.

“Well, would you be so kind as to elaborate on the difference between one droid and another?” Rolo asked impatiently, clinching his fists.

“There’s a DataNode on the table just there,” the technician gestured. “You can read it on your flight. And don’t forget the manifest. There’s special instructions on this delivery.”

Snap.

“I don’t get paid to read.”

Snap.

“Then it will be difficult to continue in this line of work,” the technician said.

“What I meant to say is that I don’t care,” Rolo replied. “And if you snap that gum one more time, I’m going to punch you in the face without having to think about it first.”

*

As his plane touched down, the guard named Rolo mused upon his choice of career.

After sixty-three successful contracts, Rolo had seen and experienced more than most people would in a lifetime. As a professional guard under contract with Ulysses Robotics, he was most often tasked with escorting and overseeing final delivery of high-quality androids from Homebase in Osaka to purchasers on and off the planet Earth – a job in which his emotional investment was marginal, and interaction with human beings was minimal.

Rolo half-listened to the feed playing on his DataNode:

Ulysses shipments of their newest therapy droids have reached record levels. The latest advance in reactive therapeutic intelligence, now fully supplanting the disastrous implants of the previous decade as the first choice in neuropsychopharmacological care, Ulysses therapy models have become overwhelmingly popular due to their impressive reactionary communication skills, which as the number of interactions with their masters increase, begin to evolve the droid’s social interface into a near-human personality. Dr. Housenberg, the advanced intelligence engineer who pioneered the Reaction Tables that bear his name, has been pleased with the first rollout of the new models, but has faced increasing scrutiny as more reports of unpredictable droid behavior, a result of the open programming –

Rolo switched the DataNode off and slipped it back into his threadbare pack. He grunted with frustration at his own unconquerable distractions, genuinely devoted to his job enough listen to the scientific jargon further, but unable to focus on it. He pulled the fastening laces to his old pack with slightly more exertion than he planned and one snapped in his hands.

Rolo watched the broken lace dance in his hand as his body shook with barely controlled rage.

“Should I have ordered a drink to seem more human?”

The question came from Daisy, the more advanced unit in his charge, and Rolo set to grinding his teeth in response.

The teen unit Rolo had already delivered had been a mannie, a unit programmed only with basic locomotion. It was an easy assignment, the type Rolo preferred. Daisy was fully programmed and had talked most of the flight to Amsterdam before Rolo finally asked her not to speak to him until they landed in Dallas.

“It doesn’t matter, and I don’t care what you do,” he snapped at her. He craned his neck over her to look out the window and see how much longer they would be taxiing. Rolo had never been to the airport in Dallas, so was unable to determine anything from the layout of the terminals and the direction they were rolling. He preferred the Amsterdam airport, where he had dropped off the easy part of his current job.

Rolo casually chewed the gum he used on flights. On a whim, he folded it over itself and snapped it.

With a dissatisfied grunt, he spat the gum onto the floor under the seat in front of him.

The majority of the airliners trundling about the tarmac were newer Avery HyFusion A12 models. Rolo would be taking one of these supersonic jets to New York to pick up a return before getting on an older model A7 jet to cross the Atlantic back to Germany.

“Should I not speak to you?” Daisy asked. Her eyelids blinked silently over her green eyes three times before she added, “It’s only that you said not to speak to you until we reached Dallas, and now we’ve arrived.” With a casual and very human movement, she combed her auburn hair behind her ear and regarded him with what could only be described as a look of concern.

Rolo glanced at her before tearing his eyes away to regard the older-model plastic droid moving down the aisle unlocking everyone’s seat restraints. Plastics he could deal with, but this Daisy just really set him on edge. For good measure, he pulled an antacid from his pocket and chewed on it violently.

“Talk all you want. I don’t care,” he said away from her, tonguing the chalky residue from his teeth. “You’ll be gone in a few minutes. Go nuts.” Rolo looked one last time at the broken lace he still clenched in one hand, and let it drop to the floor of the cabin along with his concern for it.

Reaching for the small cup of water he had saved to wash down the antacid, he found it missing.

“Do you think Mr. Hinsdale will find me acceptable?” Daisy asked him as she offered him the cup he was looking for.

Rolo snatched the cup from her and hastily gulped the remaining water down.

As he did so, Daisy nervously crossed and uncrossed the first and middle fingers on both hands repeatedly, a habit nearly as irritating as her blinking.

“He’d better,” replied Rolo, pressing his lips into a line. The plastic in the aisle was taking way too long. “I’ve only got one ticket to New York, so you’re stuck here if he doesn’t take you.”

*

“She’s completely wrong,” Hinsdale explained. “What more do you need to hear from me?”

Rolo busied himself by scrolling through the manifest a third time. He had been in this situation so many times that he had the routine down. Ulysses wasn’t perfect – sometimes orders were screwed up.

This wasn’t the worst reaction Rolo had seen, either. The withered old man before him was barely raising his voice. Daisy was a leisure purchase, not like some of the labor droids he escorted. Her absence wasn’t holding up terraforming or asteroid mining. Regardless, Rolo knew he wasn’t going to get rid of this droid easily.

“Hmm,” Rolo politely stalled, scanning information on both the DataNode and the manifest. His impatience erased entire paragraphs before his eyes. Important data vanished as his mind refused to focus. “Yes, it appears the documentation is correct. Unit 738294QZ-HIN.” He checked the barely visible unit tag on the nape of Daisy’s neck. “Same here.”

Hinsdale shook his head, a momentary look of sadness glazing his eyes before he sighed and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Rolo. I cannot accept her.”

The old man pulled a wrinkled photograph from the inside pocket of his weathered coat. Silently he held it out for Rolo to take. Curious, Rolo took the relic from him. A stunningly beautiful woman looked back at him, one that looked nothing like Daisy.

“My wife,” Hinsdale said softly. “She died thirty years ago. I took that picture with an old film camera we bought at an antique store. I’m surprised it’s lasted so long.”

“She’s very beautiful,” Rolo said, and he meant it.

“It’s odd, but I have thousands of digital photos of her, and none of them make her seem as real as that. She meant very much to me. So, you can see why I cannot take this droid.”

Rolo looked at Daisy and then the photograph. “Honestly, this is the worst bungle I’ve seen Ulysses make. They look nothing alike.”

Daisy remained silent during the exchange, looking in turn at both of the men as they spoke to each other.

Rolo gazed at the photograph a few more seconds, strangely feeling as if the woman was looking back at him.

Handing it back to Hinsdale, Rolo politely relented. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hinsdale. It seems we’ve wasted your time today. Can I call an aircar for you?”

Hinsdale smiled. “I prefer to drive myself. Like the photo, it feels more real.”

As the old man turned and departed, Rolo looked over the paperwork again, shaking his head. “I should probably upload your full specs and run them against this manifest.”

“That is not necessary,” Daisy stated. “During your conversation, I checked the original order myself through uplink to Ulysses. I have also filed a refusal of delivery claim. You should call Osaka to complete to the process.”

Rolo’s anger flared a moment. “I don’t need a droid to do my job for me. Just shut up and start looking pretty. I might need to push you off on another buyer.”

Daisy blinked. Thirteen point four seconds later she blinked again.

 *

 “We thank you for delivering the unit to Amsterdam, Mr. Rolo; however, we either need a fingerscan for 70,000 credits to show up on our records by tomorrow, or we need Daisy back in Osaka in mint condition.”

“Look, it’s not my fault Ulysses screwed this droid up,” Rolo barked at the voice on the other side of the phone. “Hinsdale said she was wrong. That’s your problem. I’m not under contract for returns on this job.”

People milled about the passenger drop-off, carrying their luggage, looking lost until their rides arrived. Daisy stood awkwardly among the moving crowd, staring at her escort as he made his phone call in the small semi-private combooth. Rolo himself was losing focus as the movement of people began to distract him. He wanted off this call and on to a bar where he could relax.

“Your contract states that in the event of refusal of delivery, you are liable for the return of the unit back to us. Have you made any adjustments to the unit’s programming, or altered her appearance in any way since picking her up?” the voice on the other line inquired.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin. She looks just like she did when I picked her up.”

The distraction of his surroundings was causing him to halfway tune out his employers.

“Mr. Rolo, are you certain the unit has not changed in appearance since you received her in Osaka?”

“Auburn hair, green eyes, blinks every seven seconds,” Rolo stated impatiently, banging his head against the booth. “I think I’d notice if that had changed as much as I’ve had to look at this walking chatterbox since then.”

“We either need a fingerscan for –“

“I know that! Listen, pal, you can keep repeating that all you want, but the problem is that I have a job in New York tomorrow night and I don’t have a ticket for this bot. I’d have to foot the ticket myself and I don’t have the credits,” Rolo lied. He had the funds – he just wanted free of this droid.

“You will not take Daisy with you to New York. You will promptly book a flight directly back to Osaka for both of you. If we do not receive her back within 72 hours, we will pull the 70,000 credits from your broker directly,” the voice demanded. Its tone was becoming less monotone and increasingly angry.

Rolo pleaded, “Look, how’s this: I get a local guard from Dallas to take care of her until I can get back in town to bring her back to you. My broker has connections here.”

“Ulysses does not have approved guard contacts in that area, Mr. Rolo,” the voice stated flatly.

“I know this guy, an old friend of mine –“

“We will see you in Osaka in 72 hours, Mr. Rolo.”

The line went dead.

If it had been possible to murder the receiver of the combooth, Rolo’s staccato beating would have done the job.

 *

 Daisy did not protest when the prospective buyer, a weasel-faced man with greased hair, began squeezing various parts of her body.

“What’s your fluid situation?” the man asked her, roughly grabbing her waist and pinching the skin there.

“My saliva comes in three flavors: Morning, Smoker, and Mint,” Daisy replied. Rolo looked on from the other side of the table. “My other fluids are as close to the real thing as possible.”

“Jiminy Christ, she’s a sex bot?” the man queried.

“I have been engineered with that option,” Daisy said. “Level Seven realism.”

The man whistled in awe. “I’m intrigued. So, what’s your main function if riding pole’s just an option?”

“Therapy droid. I can simulate a beneficial emotional response for a number of different stimuli according to Housenberg’s Reaction Tables.”

“Not a companion droid,” the man stated rather than asked Rolo. “Unusual for a non-companion to have the sex feature, unless it’s a fetish request. You know, affair with the shrink and all. I see it on occasion, but I’ve got none in my line-up right now. Was the doctor a freak or something?”

“Hinsdale wasn’t the type,” Rolo said. “From what I could gather before he backed out of the deal, Daisy was supposed to be a copy of his dead wife – a very successful psychologist who smoked.”

“How’d she die?” the man asked.

“How should I know? I didn’t have time to sift through the guy’s closets right there at the terminal,” Rolo snapped. “I just saw a photograph.”

“Fine. With specs like this, I don’t care. I’ve wanted to get my hands on a therapy droid since they came out. I’ve got too many redheads and they all ride the same way – bad for business. Never thought I’d see one with sex features.” Rolo was beginning to get irritated with the man. “Of course, with all I’ve been hearing about therapy droids, I ought to be more suspicious. I heard that one even manipulated his master into-“

“70,000 credits,” Rolo said, already knowing the reaction.

The man stood up without a word and walked away, a reaction that had been repeated four times previously since Rolo had started to try and push Daisy to a buyer.

In silence, Rolo swiped through his DataNode looking for another local escort service.

 *

 Of all the nights Rolo could have been stuck with a droid he couldn’t push, it just had to be St. Patrick’s Day. The lilting pipes and monotonous drumming of traditional Irish folk music pounded into his thoughts, obliterating any chance of thinking through the situation he now found himself in.

With a grimace, he threw back the cheap scotch on the rocks and ordered another.

On the barstool next to him, Daisy was drinking a green beer.

“This beverage is not naturally green,” she stated. “I believe it contains artificial colors.”

“No shit?” said Rolo sarcastically.

“I wonder what effect the food coloring will have on my waste gel reservoir,” Daisy asked to no one in particular. “Bartender, can I have an empty glass please?”

The bartender handed her a highball glass and then leaned aside to Rolo. “Look buddy, I’m not completely dim. I know what she is, and we normally don’t allow them at the bar,” he warned in a conspiring voice. “But, seeing as how she’s so realistic, I suppose we can let it slip. Okay, chief?”

Rolo nodded his imaginary gratitude.

Daisy reached under her blouse and procured a small plastic tube. She shut her eyes for second and a thick dark red substance ran out of the tube and into the highball glass she held up to its end.

“Jesus, that looks like blood,” Rolo said in disgust.

“Normally, it is an orange hue,” Daisy explained. “The green beer is affecting its color. Certain fruit juices have the same effect.”

Most modern droids could simulate food and liquid intake. Their pseudo-digestive systems would extract whatever tiny amount of fuel it could from was eaten or imbibed and the waste became a thick gel that could be released safely into any wastewater system.

Daisy set the glass of her waste on the bar and two young men seated on the other side of her from Rolo promptly got up and left.

The bartender shot Rolo an angry look and pointed to the door.

Realizing she had worn out her welcome at the bar, Daisy quickly stood up.

“I apologize, Rolo. I suggest you let me have the key to your room. I will go there and wait for you. I should be safe. You should enjoy yourself.”

“You’re not staying in my room,” Rolo stated gruffly. “You’ve got your own across the hall.”

Impatiently, Rolo pulled the pass key from his pocket and tossed it at her. With lightning quick reflexes, Daisy snatched the key out of the air and slipped it away out of sight.

“While I am aware that it is against your agreement with your employer to leave me unattended, I understand that you hold a certain grudge against androids, and will agree to sleep separately from you.”

Rolo didn’t acknowledge her statement and took a long drink from the glass of scotch he had just been served.

“Before I go, I want to tell you something, Rolo. I’ve been accessing your records and I notice that your great-grandfather was jailed for leading a sect of anti-droid terrorists during the AI riots several decades ago. I understand that often the core beliefs of these groups grew from resentment that robots had taken jobs away from humans.”

Rolo turned slowly and stared incredulously at the droid as it spoke at him.

“I find it true that sometimes the illogical fears and hatreds of one generation can pass down through the next without reason – even lacking sufficient provocation or indoctrination from society or one’s family. While many researchers feel this behavior is more commonly found in genealogical lines where repetitive instances of sub-par intelligence is prevalent from one generation to the next, I have often felt that perhaps this irrational distrust comes from –“

Rolo left his barstool and grabbed Daisy’s blouse. Twisting sharply, he threw the android roughly against the bar and spat in her face.

“Stay out of my files, and stay out of my life,” Rolo growled at her.

The fist that connected with Rolo’s head came from the side. Reeling, he let go of Daisy just as another fist struck his jaw from the other side. Three patrons had come to defend Daisy, and proceeded to drag Rolo roughly from the establishment once a flurry of blows had further subdued him.

Daisy followed the group nervously as they passed through the shocked whispers of the crowd.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” one of her rescuers asked once they were outside.

“I am an android,” she explained. “He is my protector.”

“I know that,” the man replied quickly, but with a guilty stutter. “That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be respected just as equally as any, uh, human.

“Thank you,” Daisy replied curtly. Her attention was on Rolo, who had extricated himself from the two other patrons and was now walking away from the bar, down the crowded sidewalk of revelers.

“Can I call someone for you?” the man pressed. Daisy, however, noted the way his eyes fell to her body more often than they turned to look her in the eye.

“That is unnecessary,” Daisy replied, and walked swiftly to catch up to Rolo.

Looking over his shoulder, Rolo noticed her following and stopped.

“Go back to the hotel,” Rolo said wearily. “I’d like to get properly drunk now.”

“May I accompany you?” Daisy begged, her voice subtly different in tone.

Rolo heard a minute high-pitched buzzing in his head as he contemplated the request for a moment. He almost began to form an apology in his mind when a young college-age female sauntered past him with an inviting smile. His contemplation and impending apology were stopped short.

“I want to be alone,” he replied and walked away.

Daisy watched him continue down the sidewalk and disappear around a corner. She blinked her eyes several times as her next actions were formulated based on her recent experiences. Using as much relevant data as was available, she settled on one of two reactions laid before her by her programming.

Reaching into a small compartment hidden away beneath her blouse, she removed a small wad of gum from it. She rolled the gum between her fingers, allowing the small sensors there to register its surface, the cracks and particulate food materials trapped there, an impression of one of Rolo’s teeth. After a moment, she tucked it away again. She stared blankly ahead of her briefly before walking away.

As she navigated her way through the increasingly rowdy crowd, she observed hungry glances from three drunken males who had surreptitiously begun to follow her.

Before they even made a move to corner her, Daisy recognized the intention of the group of men was to rape her. She then attempted to counteract that occurrence by turning down a dark alley.

 *

 The woman Rolo took back to his room hours later was aggressive beyond his experience. His shy and clumsy attempts to woo her back to his hotel room were met with the girl’s automatic usurping of his control.

The blur of alcohol that had slowly been drawing thick, wet curtains over his consciousness was swiftly cast away and the fierceness of the girl’s attack once they locked his hotel room door was like the sun suddenly hitting the bare ground of a landscape that had been buried under ice for a decade.

She clawed his back and bit wicked tattoos into his flesh as she directed his body into the positions she desired. He quickly reached the pinnacle of his physical tolerance, but she dragged him along further into the experience like a troglodytic human dragging its prey into a deep, dark lair of bones.

Again and again he felt near death, only to be resurrected and revived with her passions.

Finally, he fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of the woman in Hinsdale’s photograph.

 *

 When Rolo opened his eyes the next morning and felt an arm draped over his chest, he smiled to himself. For once, he felt satisfied with a one night stand ending with two people still in the bed in the morning. For Rolo, it was a rare thing.

He turned to regard the lovely thing he had managed to coerce back to his room the night before.

It was Hinsdale’s dead wife’s face that looked back at him.

After seven seconds, she blinked.

Rolo gasped and backpedalled out of the bed and onto the floor. He backed himself against the wall and looked upon the naked android in horror.

The android smiled at him seductively.

Daisy lithely slipped off the mattress and into a burgundy-colored robe that had been tossed on the armchair near the bed. As she did so, her flesh rippled – her eyes grew slightly larger, the size of her breasts decreased, and her hair turned from dark brown to auburn. She had reverted back to the form she had taken when he picked her up from Osaka.

“I believe I killed a man last night, Rolo.”

She pressed her hands against his chest and he instantly felt himself reacting just as he had the night before. It was against his will and he fought it, but her touch and her voice were soothing.

“I’m really no different than any female you’ve slept with. You didn’t know the difference then, but now you fight a useless battle with revulsion. I know you, and I know this is what you want. Would you like to see everything I am capable of?”

Rolo was trembling and within his mind he was locked in a fierce combat between that revulsion and rising ecstasy.

“Jesus,” Rolo panted. “You killed someone?”

“He tried to rape me. I believe I was within my rights to defend myself. Have you not also killed men before? Colonial Rangers do not exist that have no blood on their hands. I know you well enough to know it excites you, and that a woman who kills excites you even more.”

The smile playing across her lips was more human that Rolo wanted to imagine. It read just like cheap fiction – casual sex and violence.

“Do you know the most amazing feature of therapy droids, Rolo?” she asked, pressing her lips against his neck. “I can see your dreams. I can sense your pain. I can read your mind. I can taste your fear.”

Rolo shook his head, but he felt a part of himself give up, the possibilities burning away his fears and distrust. That same part was slowly gaining dominance in his consciousness and he giggled with the thought of so perfect a thing being given to him. His mind continuously flashed back to what he had experienced with her through the night. He heard a series of beeps from inside his head, and they echoed unnaturally.

Something snapped within him.

Something switched all the anger off, and slowly he began to feel a sense of serenity as he stared back at Daisy. She performed to her specifications as she was expected to.

With a final exhalation of surrender he kissed her and tasted the smokiness of the night before. His hands pressed her against him and the passionate force of the embrace brought him to tears. They fell to the floor together and did not rise from the carpet for several hours.

 *

 “Your accounts have been frozen. While we understand her appearance at the proposed time of transfer may have been different than the specifications the buyer was expecting, you were given details as to Daisy’s model and all of her abilities. You should have been aware. We find it hard to believe that Daisy would have willing deceived her buyer, so we can only assume you have engineered this event for your own purposes.”

Rolo just listened with grim acceptance.

“We registered the vaginal seal being broken during the night and, since no funds have been transferred as we have requested, the funds have been extracted from your broker’s accounts. We have learned that your broker is now in conference with the authorities to track you down to pay the 70,000 credits through forced labor in incarceration.”

Rolo terminated the communication.

He silently looked out from the balcony attached to his room on the thirty-seventh floor of the hotel, and felt suddenly empty and emotionless. All noise was off now. Cars flitted back and forth along the avenues beneath him. Occasionally, a private air vehicle would gurgle past along the airlanes that only the richest people could afford to traverse. He would never be one of those people.

Behind him, he heard Daisy step through the threshold into the open air, but he did not look at her.

Silently, he turned away and walked past her, back through the sliding glass door into the room.

The android remained on the balcony and sipped her orange juice casually. She didn’t register the taste of it – she was just reactions to stimuli. She didn’t feel the coolness as it slid down the plastic tubing that led through her waste processor and into her waste gel reservoir. She didn’t feel sympathy for the humans too poor to afford air vehicles whizzing by in front of her, or too wrapped up in their repetitive and pointless lives to live a meaningful existence.

The hands on her back – expected hands – were nothing more than data to her, recorded, analyzed.

She didn’t feel the impact of her naked android body against the concrete, thirty-seven floors below Rolo’s balcony.

A substance not unlike blood ran from her broken body.

A short time later, it mingled with real thing.

#

Interjection – Ulysses

“Terminated.”

A pause.

In answer: “We have a replacement in mind.”

#

Record 3 – Happy Face

As Miles Taggart approached the perimeter of the scene of his latest assignment, he noticed four or five aircars hovering above the hotel. Squinting, he tried to make out whether they were Dallas Airspace Authority or just the morbidly curious citizens that made a habit of lurking near death. About forty stories up, Taggart caught a glimpse of yellow police tape fluttering off a balcony.

Taggart flashed his badge at one of the two plastic units holding the perimeter and did not wait for them to officially clear him. Typically, thanks to recent initiatives to replace corruptible human agents, efficient android investigative units were assigned to murder cases. Obviously, the scene Taggart was entering was a special exception.

The bodies were nearly on top of each other. By some twist of fate, their hands were just barely touching. Taggart saw immediately why an android had not been assigned to investigate this particular murder. One of the bodies was still smoking.

“That’s not blood,” a man crouching over the female body stated flatly.

Taggart glanced down briefly at the red liquid pooled near his feet, then turned his attention to the man who had spoken.

“Toby,” the balding, pudgy man said without prompting. “Forensics.”

“I expected a plastic,” Taggart replied.

Toby stood, removing his gloves, and held a hand out to Taggart. “Not today. Today I get paid.”

Taggart sighed and shook the man’s hand without effort, noticing Toby’s subtle assessment of his features. Harmless and automatic as it probably was, Taggart imagined Toby was looking at his greying hair, his unkempt beard, the vast tributary system of wrinkles around his eyes–too old for this work.

“Miles Taggart, Independent Human Investigations.”

Toby shrugged. With little regard for maintaining the integrity of the scene, he hopped around the two bodies, bending over occasionally to lift random appendages and drop them again.

“Should you be contaminating the scene like that?” Taggart queried.

“Plastics already got a deep scan on it before GloFed took over. I like to get dirty,” Toby answered, opening the mouth of the male.

In the periphery of Taggart’s vision, a red flash of light indicated his wife was calling. He blinked twice to dismiss the call only to have an urgent message hover across his vision. “You forgot the kids, again,” it read. In response, he tapped his fingertips together impatiently, turning his communication status to private.

Taggart bent down, looking more closely at the liquid on the pavement. Two separate puddles of thick red liquid were meeting between the bodies, but it was obvious that one was different than the other. The male had obviously hit the pavement second. Enough of the android’s fluids had run out for the body to have partially landed in it.

“Orange juice,” Toby said, lifting the dead female’s head and twisting it roughly back and forth.

“I beg your pardon?” Taggart asked, confused.

“Makes it look like blood.”

“Makes what look like blood?”

The other man laughed, dropping the head with a morbid thud. “I thought you said you were I.H.I., man. How’d you get past the plastics?”

Taggart sighed and reached for the Hungarian Import cigarettes in his pocket. Standing, he looked around, hoping to find someone else to speak to besides Toby.

“Waste gel,” Toby explained. “This female’s an android. Must have been drinking orange juice before she died. Turns the waste gel dark red.”

“Jesus,” Taggart grunted, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Toby grinned up to the investigator. “Wait until you see this.”

Lifting the android by the shoulders, he leaned its upper torso against his chest and opened a panel in its back. After Toby made a few adjustments, the android’s face changed to that of a different female.

“How’s that for technology?” Toby chuckled. “I’d love to get my hands on one of these. Forget LiveCube, man.”

Taggart shook his head in feigned disbelief. Staring at the naked android body, Taggart blinked his right eye in rapid succession and uploaded the figure into his personal files. “What about the human?”

Toby shrugged in response. “Man, I just got here. Like I said, the plastics already scanned the scene.” He wiped the blood-like substance on his shirt, leaving handprints on the fabric. “There’s a couple of feds up in the hotel room. You should ask them.”

“I’m asking you,” Taggart said, lighting his cigarette. Quickly, he captured a few more stills of the scene with his DataLens and uploaded them to his files. “What happened?”

Again, Toby shrugged, but decided to humor Taggart. Standing, he looked at the bodies, and then cocked his head to look at them from a different angle. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked up at the hotel, counting floors with a pinky.

“Thirty-seven stories, maybe a couple of twists.” Toby paced around the two naked bodies, leaving shoeprints in the blood. “Android hit first. Then the human jumped.”

 *

 Taggart recognized one of the feds in the room as Jacen Smythe, an agent formerly from Taggart’s old precinct. Smythe gave him a nod of recognition as he spoke to the other fed in the room, and motioned that he’d be with him momentarily.

The room was in disarray. The bed showed recent sexual activity, a little more liquid apparent than was typical. To Taggart, it seemed as if someone had a good time there. At a quick glance, Taggart noticed the arrangement of a few chairs coupled with hand and ass prints on top of the small table and surmised that the good time had taken place in several places in the room.

On a bureau, Taggart found a single one-way ticket to New York and a DataNode. He attempted to switch the DataNode on, but the batteries had apparently run down. Looking around the bedroom again, Taggart did not see any obvious signs of a struggle, or other violence that may have taken place in the room. Moving past the two feds still talking, he walked out onto the balcony.

A half-full glass of orange juice was on a post of the railing. A burgundy robe lay in a pile on the balcony floor. Again, there was no sign of a struggle or violence.

Peering over the edge of the balcony, Taggart looked down and saw Toby with the android’s legs draped over his shoulders.

His forehead crumpling in confusion, Taggart managed, “What the—“

“Careful,” Smythe barked behind him, pretending to push Taggart.

Taggart lost his cigarette over the edge and swung his arm wildly around at the joker, who deftly dodged the half-serious blow. “Son of a bitch! Those cost me eighty credits a piece,” Taggart spat.

Smythe backed away, his hands raised in innocence. “Your fault for still smoking, Miles.”

Automatically, Taggart produced another cigarette from his pocket and lit it. His face stony, he coldly regarded his former contemporary.

“Been a while,” Smythe said with a smile. “I heard you’re a lurker, now.”

Taggart struggled not to show his embarrassment and walked back into the hotel room. “Is that the latest derogatory term for people run out of their jobs by plastics?”

“Hey, I’m sorry, Miles. I know it’s tough. I’d be lurking around Labor Replacement Corps with you if it weren’t for the AI riots.” Smythe followed him into the room, waving off the other fed who was about to say something. “I asked LRC for you specifically, by the way.”

“For what reason?” Taggart countered, absently digging through a pile of clothes. “To gloat? I know you’re with the Global Federation hacks now. News after the riots had your face plastered all over it. Good for you. Stick it to those no-men, patriot.” Taggart’s tone had descended to scathing sarcasm.

The other agent in the room cleared his throat.

“This is Robbie Lawson,” Smythe explained. “We’re not just with GloFed – we’re with Human Interests.”

Taggart puffed on his cigarette momentarily before turning around to face the other two men.

“Why me?” Taggart asked directly.

“Why do you think?” Smythe responded. “Homicide, with an android involved.”

“The creep downstairs says the droid hit first. Seeing as how the one that’s not smoking landed in a pool of waste gel, I’m inclined to agree.” Leaning against the bureau, Taggart folded his arms. “Oh, I get it. Who’s the stiff? Visiting dignitary? Sex-crazed politician? I didn’t know they were making robowhores that real, at least not ones meant to make suicides look like murder.”

“The creep downstairs seemed like a flake to me,” Smythe replied coolly. “Doubt we can trust his judgment.”

“I got some stills too,” Taggart shot back. “Tough to argue the point, I think.”

Lawson grabbed Smythe and pulled him aside. “I thought you said he was a humanist.”

“I’ve got a grudge,” Taggart replied, hearing the comment. He blew a cloud of smoke towards Lawson. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t play by the rules. You want to run a dodge, that’s fine. My feeling is that you know you need to be absolutely sure what happened before you doctor it up. That’s why I’m here. You’ll bring in the storytelling crew later.”

Lawson glared at Smythe for another few seconds, before briskly walking out to the balcony.

“So, who’s the stiff?” Taggart asked again.

“Former Colonial Ranger, now a courier for Ulysses Robotics. He was a guard for mannies mostly, but this one was a therapy droid.”

Taggart whistled in surprise. “I guess he didn’t make the delivery. Any idea why?”

“We’ve got people in Osaka now. We should know more in a couple of hours,” Smythe explained.

“That DataNode would tell us a ton,” Taggart suggested, pointing to the device with his cigarette. “Know where the charger is?”

“Are you on this case, or is that grudge really against me?”

Taggart grunted and smirked. “I wouldn’t be here if those credits hadn’t already hit my account.”

“His name is Rolo,” Smythe revealed.

 *

 At home, Taggart slipped into a full body suit and stepped out onto the trampoline-like, shiny red surface of the top of his LiveCube unit. Before he could initiate the sequence that would start his session, his wife Tabitha entered the room.

Seeing his intentions, she sighed and shook her head. “You were supposed to take Molly and David to get ice cream.”

“This is for a case, Tab,” Taggart explained evenly. He pulled a pair of tight fitting goggles over his eyes, and pushed two nasal plugs into his nostrils. Draping the tubes extending from the goggles and the nose-plugs over his shoulder, he made sure they wouldn’t get tangled in his descent into the cube.

“Miles,” Tabitha snapped. “That’s twice in one day. I’m not going to put up with this shit again. Not for all the credits in the world. We were just getting used to having you home.”

“This is my life!” Taggart shouted, his voice more nasal due to the plugs, and his volume a bit louder than he intended. “I’m not going to sit around knitting socks and watching multi-feed all day. I need to work!”

His wife turned and exited the room, slamming the door behind her.

Using the sensors built into his bodysuit’s gloves, Taggart locked the door behind her.

Initiating the sequence he had loaded into the LiveCube, Taggart positioned his body for the descent. The trampoline-like surface rippled slightly as it adjusted for his weight, and then slowly Taggart began to sink into the surface. As he descended, the material fit snug against his body, attaching itself to the suit he wore. After a few seconds, Taggart’s head disappeared under the material which pinched like a sphincter, allowing only the tubes to lie along the top surface. Had the cube Taggart now floated in not been full of reactive gel, one would have witnessed him hanging there, very much like if someone had jumped into a pool that had a plastic cover over it.

The scene loaded before him, and he took a minute to orient his body in the three-dimensional environment being streamed to his goggles. Reaching down, he touched the body of Rolo as it had been scanned by the plastics. The reactive gel surrounding him hardened around his fingertips just as he appeared to touch Rolo’s lifeless hand. It simulated the exact texture of skin through the sensors in the suit’s gloves, and the hardness offered the resistance of solidity. The simulated body even felt cold to the touch.

Taggart circled the scene, then had the LiveCube core processors run a few simulated scenarios of the possible series of events that led to the death of Rolo and the destruction of the female android.

Taggart watched as twenty possible paths were enacted for him. He watched Rolo collide with the concrete twenty times. He watched a struggle between the two on the balcony. He saw each of them jump separately.

Taggart stopped the last simulation, and stared at it for several minutes. In it, Rolo was pushing the android over the balcony, and the android was smiling.

His voice muffled by the material pressing against it, Taggart asked the LiveCube’s AI, “Why is she smiling?”

Through the small earbuds in his ears, Taggart heard a voice reply, “The data retrieved from the android’s memory indicates it was emulating a smile at that time.”

Taggart ran the simulation forward several seconds, floating next to the android as it tumbled downward.

“Why is it still smiling?” he asked.

“The android’s memory indicates simulated pleasure algorithms in process. Sequencing the reactive programming indicates the android had just completed its priority assignment.”

“What is the likelihood of this simulation being what actually happened?”

“Ninety percent,” The LiveCube AI replied.

Satisfied, Taggart ended the simulation.

“Run program 9, passcode E3912AQ,” Taggart said. “Give me some slack in the groin.”

With only slight difficulty, Taggart was able to open a flap in his suit and pulled his penis and testicles through it.

“Alright, tighten up again,” he commanded. The material formed snugly around his appendage, using sensors and the pliable gel material to allow movement as needed, but not tight enough for his liking. “A little tighter.”

Satisfied after final adjustments, Taggart opened his mouth and initiated full immersion. The material pushed gently into his mouth and formed around his lips, teeth, and tongue. Taggart had once gagged during the procedure and nearly drowned in his own vomit, but had since grown used to the sensation.

Before him, the scene changed. Lush forest appeared around him as he was elevated on a stone pyramid that grew beneath him. When it had reached his desired height, stairs formed in the pyramid leading down to the forest floor.

As Taggart waited atop his personal paradise, a dozen naked females began to ascend the steps toward him. One of them looked like the female android whose image he had captured earlier.

 *

 It took Taggart three hours to go through security screening at GloFed Security Regional Headquarters near Downtown Dallas. He spent an additional forty-five minutes in the waiting room of the Human Interests division.

His imported cigarettes had been seized, but only after he twice tried to light up in the building.

“Sorry about that, Miles,” Smythe offered when he finally appeared through a heavily secured door. Taking Taggart’s arm as he stood, he ushered him out into the hallway. “Let’s take a walk.”

“You know, you could have just met me outside three hours ago,” Taggart complained.

“That’s more your fault than mine.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Taggart said, stopping in the hallway.

Smythe gestured with his head and snapped, “Outside. Not here.”

Taggart, recognizing the tone, clammed up and followed.

Once outside, Taggart immediately produced a cigarette he had hidden and lit up.

“You want to tell me why you were running simulations through a LiveCube last night?” Smythe demanded.

“I’m doing my job,” Taggart retorted. “Which shouldn’t even be my job, apparently.”

“I brought you in because I needed you.”

“You brought me in because you needed a stooge, and you’d never be able to get a plastic to go to bed with the lame story you’re spinning,” Taggart rasped. His voice caught and he doubled over, coughing.

Smythe shook his head and shrugged his shoulders with exaggeration. “I don’t understand you, Miles. I get you a job, more credits than a human could ever dream of getting for as little work as you need to do, and you’re spitting it back in my face?”

“I’m doing my fucking job!” Taggart raged.

In the heavy silence that followed, Smythe let his head sag.

After a sigh, he said softly, “I had hoped this would mean more to you than money. You, of all people, should want what this could give us.”

“Just who is ‘us’, Jace?” Taggart quickly countered. “I didn’t ask a lot of questions when I saw where this was going. I knew what this was as soon as I saw that idiot playing in blood puddles.”

“All I need is for you to sign off on the case as a murder, not dig up all you can on this drunk.”

“I’m going to do my job, Jace. It’s all I have left.”

“Well then, evolve!” It was Smythe’s turn to lose it. “When someone slams a door in your face, you find another one to go through.”

“Easy sermon from one who hasn’t had a door slammed in their face,” Taggart slapped back. “Don’t feed me that ‘evolve’ shit. If your people really believed that then you’d find a way to coexist with plastic, instead of framing them.”

“Don’t you want your life back, Taggart?”

“I like my life as it is.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen your life, you sick bastard. How many of those woman know you violate them every chance you get in that LiveCube of yours. Does your wife know what you make her sister do to you in there?”

Taggart’s punch had an unbelievable amount of force behind it. Years of tension, stress, and disappointment collided with Smythe’s face, not just Taggart’s fist. The blow threw Smythe backwards as his feet left the ground.

Faster than Taggart could follow up, Lawson appeared from around a corner and intercepted him. Two other agents followed him, their hands sliding inside their jackets where stun weapons were likely to be hidden.

Taggart held his hands up in surrender.

Smythe, still barely hanging on to consciousness, waved the others away. “Leave him. He needed that.”

Lawson helped his associate to his feet, his eyes on Taggart the entire time.

“Last chance, Taggart,” Smythe mumbled, his jaw protesting the movement. “Tomorrow, you wrap up the murder line, and you make it neat. I’d hate to make you regret it.”

“Regret this,” Taggart quipped, leaving the group with his middle finger in the air.

 *

 “That data has been erased from memory,” the voice said in Taggart’s ear.

“No, I said rerun the simulations from last night,” Taggart repeated impatiently. Darkness engulfed him as he sank into the LiveCube. Nothing appeared through the goggles but a deep void of nothingness.

“That data has been erased from memory,” the voice replied.

A chill ran up Taggart’s spine.

“Reload the crime scene from my saved images,” Taggart directed.

“That data has been erased from memory.”

“Tell me how that’s possible if it’s stored in my thumbchip,” Taggart demanded.

“Security override GF3.”

“Show me David’s sixth birthday party,” Taggart said quickly. His heart began to beat violently as he considered what might be happening. The press of the reactive gel felt slightly more intense.

“Access denied.”

“Let me—“

Before Taggart could finish, the surface material pressed into his mouth, choking him. In a panic, Taggart thrashed. The material fought against him, simulating resistance.

“Safety parameters overridden,” the voice said to him.

Taggart could not scream, and quickly was losing his ability to move as the reactive gel around him hardened. He felt it pushing in against his chest, restricting his breathing while the material in his mouth advanced down his tongue to block his throat.

Popping his double-jointed thumb against the resistance that would shortly have prevented it, Taggart activated his thumblade, a memento of his service in the Colonial Rangers. The blade cut through his skin from the spring sheath attached to his bone. The pain was fleeting, and Taggart barely noticed it as he quickly forced his thumb through the hole in the material attempting to kill him. Using the blade, he slashed wildly until he was moving his hand through the reactive gel directly.

Ignoring the pain, Taggart cut the material pressing against his face and the blade cut deep into his cheek. Finding purchase with his free fingers, he was able to pull the material away from his face. The material slid out of his mouth, but the gel replaced it. Reaching above him, Taggart slashed with the blade and severed the material completely, effectively cutting him loose from the surface.

The LiveCube registered the failure of the surface material and immediately began purge procedures. The gel turned to its most fluid state and quickly drained out of the cube, leaving Taggart in the bottom of a giant empty aquarium.

Removing himself from the material still surrounding him, Taggart vomited the gel that had made its way down his throat. His lungs heaved for air, and he collapsed on his stomach in a fit of coughing.

He took fifteen minutes to recover enough to walk. Five minutes later, he was fleeing his neighborhood with a backpack of food and an old Smith & Wesson 1911 he normally displayed as a relic.

Ten minutes after Taggart entered the closest speed-regulated freeway, GloFed agents entered his home with intent to finish him.

 *

 The story broke the next day. Five of the major multi-feed corporations ran censored video of Taggart’s sexual paradise as supposedly downloaded by GloFed agents who had been tipped off by an anonymous informer. A sixth multi-feed corporation, the only one not currently sanctioned by Global Indecency Initiatives, decided to show the unedited video of Taggart’s LiveCube virtual world. All versions had the adult women of Taggart’s fantasy replaced with children, including Taggart’s own.

By the time Taggart’s stomach began to growl, it wasn’t safe for him anywhere in the Global Federation.

 *

 “How did you find us?” the interviewer on the other side of the desk asked.

Taggart answered honestly.

“I stole Rolo’s DataNode from the hotel room. I had intended just to keep it safe. After what they did to me, I decided to see if I could use any evidence from it. That’s where I found you.”

“Mr. Taggart, Ulysses Robotics is just a small part of the larger Ulysses Group, and as such we must stay true to their philosophies in all things. While we certainly do have a need for someone with your skills, intelligence from our security divisions indicates that you were at one time a humanist. Is that true?”

“If being a humanist is wanting to find a place for yourself in the bigger picture, then yes. If being a humanist is wanting to be superior over all things synthetic or organic, then no.”

The scar on Taggart’s face had not healed well, and his attempt at a smile ended in a facial disaster.

“You knew Rolo?” the Ulysses interviewer asked.

“I know that’s not his real name. We were stationed on Mars Colony 3 during the dome collapse,” Taggart said stonily.

“Would you say you knew him well enough to understand why he committed suicide?”

Taggart tilted his head slightly. “I thought the official word was that the android murdered him.”

The Ulysses interviewer nodded his head slowly. “That is the story intended to incite fear of synthetics, yes. We know what really happened to Daisy and to Rolo. We watched it through Daisy’s eyes as it happened. Unfortunate, yes, but a successful test, nonetheless. Likewise we know what the Global Federation, and specifically the Human Interests division, has done to you to make sure the story did not meet detraction.”

Taggart rubbed his scar absently.

“How does that make you feel, Mr. Taggart?” the interviewer asked.

Honestly, Taggart was uncomfortable speaking to a faceless android, but he did not vocalize that discomfort to the android on the other side of the desk.

“I need a purpose. I had hoped you could give me one, like you did Rolo.”

The interviewer leaned back in its chair. A door opened in the wall behind it and a very human male stepped into the room. The man appeared to be in his sixties and was fit. He wore a solid white coverall uniform with the upward pointing arrow logo of the Ulysses Group printed on it.

The man bowed and smiled to Taggart. “There is one final question we have for you Mr. Taggart. How did you recognize your friend Rolo even after we gave him a new face to hide his identity?”

“There’s scar on his chest where he was stabbed.”

“Did you know that it was Rolo who set the charges that caused Mars Colony 3’s dome to collapse?”

“I’m the one who stabbed him for it. It took ten years for my thumb to heal after they reset the blade,” Taggart said with a sigh. He assumed they would turn him down, knowing his connection to Rolo.

“Do you have an idea what you’d want to look like for the rest of your life, Mr. Rolo?”

“The name is Taggart.”

“Not if you work for us, Mr. Rolo.”

Taggart hesitated for a minute, thinking it over. He didn’t know who these people really were or what they intended for him.

As if reading his mind, the interviewer droid stated, “You’ll be asked to commit what some people would consider crimes against humanity. We believe what we do here is quite the opposite. We are futurists, and the future is and always will be our concern. You have no place in the present world, but we will provide you a place in the future.”

“Your face, Mr. Rolo,” the man prompted.

Taggart smirked as much as he could with the scar fighting mightily against it. “Give me a happy face, Doc.”

Day Thirty-Four – The Mysterious Flamingo of the Tundra

y22

They say space ruins relationships. I believe it.

I’m not talking about personal space, even though they might be. I don’t mean that his demand for guy time away from her coupon clipping is the spark or spur to the inevitable divide. I don’t suggest that two people perpetually intertwined for twenty-four hours out of every day is the key to a successful relationship either.

What I am saying is that beyond the influence of the beautiful blue orb beneath us, there is a siren call that will always pull man from woman, son from mother, brother from sister, casual acquaintance from casual acquaintance.

In the early days, I’m sure it wasn’t noticeable. I mean how far were the astronauts and cosmonauts really away from the Earth. There were always eyes on them, always a tether leading back to a vast complex of supercomputers and supergeeks, military installations and generals, news anchors and other assorted talking heads. You were never truly alone.

Even those poor guys locked aboard an orbiting station for months with no contact were still bound to the Earth by necessity. Mankind is not oblivious to his sanity or lack thereof in the extended absence of social interaction.

No, it was later in the human space race that man first felt the detachment. Once the Earth was no longer hanging there, fat and happy in the field of stars, always in view–once it was no longer discernible among the other dots of light–the connection failed, and the siren song began to play.

I suppose at first, we probably mistook the lost ships as the victims of accidents. The solar system is a constant five hundred mile an hour burn down a dusty highway behind a rock truck. We felt it was inevitable that accidents would occur, and we did not question the occasional loss of communication, especially once the private space race opened up unregulated access to the stars.

When the numbers ranged into double digits each month, we started to take notice. The first time it hit us that something might be out there was when the cargo ship Erasmus IV ejected its synthetic assistants on its way to Titan. Traffic through that sector of space at that time has heavy–treasure hunters were convinced that some of Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons might have diamond core, which is ridiculous. So, it wasn’t too long after Erasmus IV went missing that an explorer ship happened upon a cluster of disabled droids floating alone in space.

Reactivated, they spilled the story.

The crew of seventeen had, without explanation, shut the droids down one by one. They displayed no symptoms of mental distress, but all had ceased their daily duties two days before they ejected the droids. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may soon be seen to be, the last droid shut down happened to record within its memory banks a heading that was programmed into the navigational computer.

The first five ships we sent on that heading disappeared.

The first ship fully “manned” by droids found a whole lot of nothing.

The first ship of droids that followed a ship of humans in that direction was destroyed by unknown means.

Double digits turned to triple digits on the list of the missing, and people stopped going beyond the asteroid belt.

Thrill seekers found a new deep dive.

It happened slow for me, I could still see Mars quarter-sized in the distance, and I felt it, a soft suggestion at first, but increasing in intensity with each second. I didn’t have the specific heading memorized–hell, space is always moving, so its not like it would be the same heading the droid had seen on the Erasmus IV.

Without knowing why, I put the heading in, and, like those before me, I ejected my droid assistant out the airlock.

By the time I passed Titan, I had no need for sustenance, I was running on a thread of energy invisible in the void.

Alone in my ship, the feeling was a symphony in my head, the deep caress of a mother’s hand, the press of breast. Life stretched out to eternity on that journey, and though I couldn’t see the siren mother, I could feel the umbilical cord of the soul regrowing, entwining, reaching out.

The Oort Cloud hides many things, some dark, some glowing.

But out there, surrounded by a black cloud, a mass of flesh pulsates, human bodies separated from their ships and mutating together into the massive body of an elder god, its eye turned ever toward the sun where it eternally calls to Earth’s children, like Baba Yaga, like the Pied Piper.

I float in space, naked, waiting to feel the final touch that is death and life as I become part of the god of all death and all life.

Space ruins relationships–husband from wife, brother from sister, man from Mother Earth.

Day Thirty-Three – The Mysteries of Porcine Aeronautics and You

kaks

I’ve not written an Inner Wild piece in a while. I’m not sure where this fits, or what planet this is on, or who Meretricious Mandy really is. I just know she’s a Solarian, and I know why they call her Meretricious Mandy.

Not bad for an hour worth of work, eh?

Limping back from a long day on the hunt, Meretricious Mandy made a pit stop at the old laundromat, hoping against hope that perhaps a rodent or two had set up a home there and would be caught off guard by a stealthy approach.

The old glass doors were nothing but metal frames, bent by force, blackened by fire. Most of the building was scorched, and Meretricious Mandy didn’t have the sort of knowledge one would need to be able to delineate whether or not the fire that licked this building was from one of the ground blazes sparked by ordnance, or perhaps arson. To Mandy, it didn’t matter anyway. She carefully stooped and stepped through one of the door frames, careful not to crunch the brittle glass beneath her feet.

At first glance, the place looked untouched. Being a laundromat, there wouldn’t be much to salvage. The region wasn’t known for the presence of some of the more inventive raider gangs, or the place might have been stripped down to nothing. As it was, the walls were still lined with dryers, starved of power. In the center of the long main room, the lines of washing machines were off kilter; some had tipped over, other were crumpled mounds of metal, scorched and twisted. Judging from the angles interrupting the arrangement of the washers, it looked like the chaos was a result of a blast coming through the front window.

Too open, Meretricious Many thought to herself. Nothing would hole up here, not with that gaping front window, no doors.

She took a good long pull at the scent of the place, flaring her nostrils and trying to filter out the musty stench of disuse and decay. There was something there, hiding just behind the mildew, masquerading as the delicate fragrance of spring flowers, but most definitely the bouquet of death, sweet and only days old. That alone wouldn’t mean much, but behind it, there lurked something more sinister. Metal. Heat. Oil.

Mandy’s fists clenched at her sides. With painful slowness, she raised both arms and unsheathed the twin blades from their scabbards crisscrossed on her back underneath her pack. That first tickle of sweat seeping out of her pores was difficult to discern against the constant irritation of salvage rash she sported. What really gave away her growing fear was the way her hands trembled slightly, causing the swords to waver in that silly look-it’s-a-rubber-pencil way. She knew what that smell might mean, and she knew the subtle nuances of it enough to be able to differentiate between a dead animal in repose among machinery and something worse.

Stepping carefully through the center of the main room, she moved with precision through the carcasses of washing machines. Occasionally, she allowed herself a glance inside the dark maws of those machines, but found only darkness alone. Likewise, the dryers were all empty as well, but her assessment of this fact was mostly the result of her attempt to convince herself that this was still a normal salvage scouting. A closer look at one of the dryers put that fallacy to rest.

The dryer had been stripped of all vital components. There was nothing but a shell left. The work was neat and methodical, the dryers had been disassembled and reassembled with precision.

Sweat began to drip from the tip of Meretricious Mandy’s nose. A barely perceptible tremor had begun at the base of her spine, and it slowly spread throughout her body.

Stupid, stupid stupid! she reprimanded. No way out!

She waited for it, that killing blow. She wanted it, not having the stomach for what was more likely. She froze, her feet crunching against the glass as her body turned to stone. Death was there, around the corner, beyond the next washer corpse, just beyond that wall, waiting.

Her breathing fell in line with the tempo of her heart, and this cadence of bodily processes reminded her of what exactly it was that she was likely to face in the next few moments. Hands down, she had no chance of surviving. She’d battled raiders six against her one, fought off the worst of the deadland predators, and survived in this hell she was forced to suffer through every day. But, this was worse, this was different, this was fatal.

Why do they call you Meretricious Mandy?

Her foot moved, a jerky start at first, but then with the fluid movement of a predator as she resumed her course. Fuck it, she mused. Might as well go down doing what I do best.

The press of silence was tangible, like the stifling suffocation of a thick cloth soaked in tar. Mandy could barely even hear her heartbeat anymore. With her swords poised for offense, one at an angle over her head parallel to the other in her other outstretched arm, she stepped over to the counter where the tatters of someone’s finest suit still hung from a hanger, as if the customer and clerk had just stepped away for a moment, for a drink, for a bathroom break, for an apocalypse.

Rounding the corner of the counter, Mandy spied human bones, long since gnawed to white beneath the blackened surface suggesting a fiery death. Old news, she surmised. A door stood slightly ajar just beyond an overturned cash register, and through the filthy porthole glass at its center, she thought she could make out machinery–automated dry cleaning?

Poking a blade against the warped wood of the door, she pressed it open, clenching her whole body against the possible shriek of disrepair. In silence, it swung back revealing a room full of hanging plastic, cloudy with dust, melted at times. Automated rails ran in curvy courses over head, still holding people’s Sunday best, moth-eaten or burned to a crisp.

The trembling started again as she picked up a nearly imperceptible noise further back in the room–a subtle sound of something rising up from the ground, of shifting against the wall of impatience and maneuvering. She braced herself for the attack, clenching both hilts with all her strength.

The smells were confusing for her in that room. The sweet death and metal scent was definitely there, but something else was in front of it, something closer.

Meretricious Mandy’s nostrils flared again, taking in the room, but not so much that her inhalation was audible. Sweat, blood, semen.

Something stupid, she cursed.

The sound again, this time definitely from two separate areas, registered in her head, and she quickly crouched and readied herself.

The two raiders lunged out from two separate clumps of hanging clothes and charged her with crude machetes. Between the two of them, Mandy spun, swinging her razor-edged blades in rising spirals, and both men received mortal wounds in their stomachs and necks. They fell dying on either side of her.

More trouble as the room erupted into a symphony of sound. At least six more raiders revealed themselves from behind machinery, underneath boxes, or swung down from perches in the high ceiling among the pipes and conduits.

Obviously blind, these idiots. And not just to my blades and the two dead bodies at my feet. They don’t even know what’s here; what’s worse than me.

The shot came from a pistol, and Mandy heard the slide of the trigger before the gun went off. Her blade was there when the bullet was only a foot away. The spark illuminated her wicked smile as she stared around the blade at the raider who had fired the shot.

Three more shots in quick succession, each one ricocheting off Mandy’s shining steel. After the fourth blocked bullet, the raider gave up and turned to run. With a quick lunge, Mandy closed the distance and insert both blades into his back.

Footsteps behind and to the side.

A flick of her wrist, and another raider staggered back holding a newly widened smile. The other attacker bowled over Mandy’s pack as she ducked and kicked out behind her. Before the man hit the ground, her blade had met him and bid the wasted life it extinguished farewell.

Not eight, more like twenty.

More raiders flooded into the room from doors leading out, some carried crude tools, and at least one had a gun.

Gun first.

Mandy vaulted over a folding station, and kicked out with her feet, meeting a raider as he charged at her. He stumbled back several steps, giving Mandy enough time to behead another raider who had followed her over the table.

A blade swung up to met a descending crowbar while the other jabbed at poorly wielded butcher knife. Still no gunfire. No bullets?

Boots hit Mandy hard on her shoulders as one raider swung down from the rails. She rolled with the impact and sliced through an assailant’s femur as she tumbled into a pile of clothes.

Trigger.

On one knee, Mandy deflected the well-placed shots, but quickly realized they were not as careless as the first shooter’s wasted blasts. More raiders circles her, but they kept their distance. The man behind the leveled gun was smiling. His wicked eyes were–

Fuck.

–glowing.

Three shots in rapid succession, stretching her abilities, timed and aimed to beat the speed of her arms and blades. Calculated.

Inhuman.

Blocked. Silence. The raiders stood there, waiting.

Drones, and some still-human cronies. But where’s the big daddy?

The first few thuds sounded like the first crackles of thunder, but then the rails began to shake overhead as each successive thud grew louder and closer. With an explosion of cinder blocks, the massive scavenger droid, nearly as tall as the high ceilings of the automation room, barreled through the wall, taking a good portion of the automated dry cleaning assembly with it. Most of it’s body was scavenged metal from cars and farm machinery in the area, but Mandy recognized a dryer motor in the mix.

The pseudo-raiders renewed their attack as the droid rolled on toward her. The drones meant nothing to it, it was after Solarian flesh and would happily crush its minions beneath it if need be.

In two moves, she had disabled three men and had just enough time to scramble on the folding station as the droid hit. Leaping away, Mandy narrowly avoided the hulking monstrosity’s charge. Grabbing a rail above, she managed to swing out and land atop one of the conveyors along the wall.

The droid spun and resumed it’s juggernaut onslaught, charging directly at her again. At its sides, the subjugated raiders charged forward like loyal soldiers.

Mandy dodged to the side at the last minute, but the droid’s collision with the wall broke a large chunk of cinder blocks loose that held together, spinning it so that portion of the wall hit Mandy and threw her back into the machinery with force. A couple of raiders had followed her trajectory and pounced on her. One sword had been lost in the impact, and she just barely raised her remaining blade to parry a quickly descending lead pipe.

Too slow, need to move!

She kicked out with her legs and toppled one raider, but the move left her right side vulnerable. A machete blade bit deep to the bone at her shoulder. Screaming out in pain and rage, she stabbed the attacker through the eye.

Recovered, the droid bounded back in through the hole it had created. Seeing its prey down, it thudded over to her and swung down with a mighty patchwork arm of twisted metal. Mandy rolled out of the way and scrambled to her feet as the droid’s other arm swung in a wide arc sideways. The blow caught her shoulder and she flew away, spinning in the air. Her remaining blade clattered against one of the dry cleaning machines and disappeared behind it.

A claw descended to her crumpled body and grasped her by the neck. Raising her body so that her face was level with its optic sensors, the droid glowered at her as best it could. Having captured its prize, it methodically stepped over and around the dead bodies and machinery, now with the calculating steps of an artificial intelligence that saw no reason for disorder and disorganization once its primary directive had been satisfied. It carried her through the wall and out into the harsh sunlight of the deadland.

Old model, Mandy noted as the hot metal burned the skin of her neck. Pre-Reckoning, I’ll wager. It doesn’t know how far removed it is from what I had feared. Hope you like surprises, Tin Man.

The droid made a strange series of sounds as pieces of metal grated against each other deep within the warped metal of it’s chest. The shriek repeated, this time with slight harmonics, but definitely a different sound than just random metal against metal. And then, having mastered the movements and vibrations needed to communicate with what parts it had available, it spoke within those vibrations:

“Solarian. You have been apprehended and will face the maximum penalty of death for your crimes against the Hegemony of the Inner Wild”

Mandy smelled her own flesh burning, could see the cold visage of death looking out at her through the deadlight optics of her executioner, but, there was another scent growing in prominence. It reminded one of the biting fragrance of summer rain on hot asphalt, sparks off car batteries, plasma.

“Do you know why they call me Meretricious Mandy?” she choked out beneath its scorching embrace.

The robot did not answer.

Her hands extended in front of her, Mandy closed her eyes and focused inward to trigger the energy helices within her arms. The pinkish glow started just below her elbow, shining through her skin and illuminating her flesh so that one could see her bones. She felt the energy coursing through the center of her body and being routed to those helices, where the energy accumulated. The glow spread down to her hands, and Mandy opened her eyes.

She smiled.

The release of energy from Mandy’s hands blasted the droid’s body into ash and molten metal. The arms, without a body to be attached to, fell to the ground, taking Mandy with them. Still being choked by the robot’s final spastic grip, Mandy struggled to free herself. Light flashed in her eyes as her airways collapsed to pinholes. Her arms began to glow again and she grabbed the metal crushing her neck. Her own energy burned her worse than the hot metal of the droid and her skin blistered at her fingertips. The droid’s metal finally gave way, and she ripped it’s claw from her.

Gasping for breath, she forced herself onto her feet.

The droid lay in a smoldering heap, the metal still white hot in places. It’s blank optic sensors stared up at her as she walked over and stood looking down at it.

“Because you’ll get fucked,” Meretricious Mandy croaked, answering the riddle.

She spat, and her saliva sizzled on the dome of the droid’s head as the last flickering lights of the power than ran through it died out.

Mandy turned back to the laundromat where five raiders stood with wide eyes.

“You should be running,” she stated.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Meretricious Mandy was the only human left in the town proper.

That is if one can consider a Solarian a human.

Day Nine – Biggles Splits the Atom and Other Quaint Tales of Death

baron

Daphne rises out of bed, leaving it still occupied as she does so, and drags her toes in graceful steps towards the bathroom. The light was left on during the night, and she does not remember if it was the scotch-drunk male in her bed that had last visited the tiled closet. She kicks a pile of her own clothes and looks into the reflective surface of the mirror before her. Daphne scratches at her short red hair, then heaves her breasts upward with a sigh. He seemed not to care during the night that she was thirty-nine and an abuser. At this age, she thought to herself, abuse is more fun than gallantly declaring age is meaningless. Her breasts fall and jiggle slightly. Daphne sighs. The phone call had come around two o’clock, and the voice on the other end was one that formerly whispered sweet sexual commands in her – well before the self-abuse began. The caller, a former lover, had been a social dictator, much like herself. While she angled towards the spangled spires of the realms of advertising executives, he had casually let himself maneuver into a position as the premier literary agent of the late metropolis they had defiled by their presence. The last time they had spoken, he had given her instructions on preparing a perfect vindaloo. The sex that followed had been awkward as he had refused to remove the silver cross from around his neck. As Daphne had listened to his voice on the other end, she regarded the man she had chosen to sleep with that night. The unlucky drunk was in his late twenties, that age when the male species, if not already married, begins to doubt their worth, that age of mistakes and regrets. The funeral was in a small town far from the alleys and board rooms where Daphne sold people their own shit-stained greed back to them. The occasion called for proper attire, and, from a pile of filthy, wrinkled clothes, Daphne acquired a red Tubeway Army t-shirt and jeans she knew were too tight. Absently, she scratched at her red hair and dressed herself. The man in her bed would wake and leave as she expected him to. Without giving him another thought, she turns off the bathroom light and departs her townhouse apartment, pausing only momentarily to scratch her cat’s head on the way out. Once outside, she makes her way to her red Ford F-150, a gift from an ailing former fling, now in a coma somewhere in the Middle East. She recalls, standing there in the mist of the morning, the last time she had spoken to that particular man of the hour. He had just returned from Iraq, or Korea, or Assyria, carrying that deep glow that spoke of atrocities – APCs rolling over dead bodies, shivs in the streets, and, gods above and below, the golden stench of fallen despots. The coma had come on gradually. Daphne remembers seeing it in his eyes one night when he had requested they mimic random pornography and film it with outdated equipment. The coma was yellow in his pupils, a putrescence obtained deep in the jungles of a man’s fear of other men. He had killed many men by that time, all of them himself. Daphne reluctantly scratches at her red hair and enters the truck to depart. As she starts her vehicle, she looks up in time to see the blinds of her front window click shut. It may have been the cat, but it is possible that her guest has finally shaken off the gluey blanket of the scotch’s morning comforts. Rolling out of the parking lot, she angles her tire to crush a discarded plastic cup and begins her journey. The small town is well out of her familiarity and twice Daphne becomes lost. The first diversion ends at an Asian market an hour out of the city. Daphne rolls up in her red truck and exits the vehicle, scratching at her red hair, and rubbing at her green eyes. A couple of Apaches have landed on the roof of the strip mall and Vietnam vets patrol the parking lot, looking for tuna. Tongue is on sale, but Daphne is disappointed when she learns the market will not kill the soft-shelled turtles in front of her. She offers to perform the service herself, but she is quickly escorted from the noodles and tom yum crisp by a young marine, who then deposits her roughly onto the hood of her truck. The distraction over, Daphne continues on her way. Secondly, she stops at a fruit stand where she is offered a child to take with her, in addition to the pomegranates and kumquats she has already purchased. Daphne politely declines, but scratches at the child’s golden hair before she departs. The price is quickly lowered, but again Daphne refuses to take the child off their hands. Without warning, a young marine rises from the melons and escorts her to the hood of her red truck. Daphne departs. The cemetery is at the end of a serpentine dirt road. Daphne passes by several Cadillacs and APCs that have become mired in the ditches on either side of the treacherous road. She passes a van with blinds in the windows, and as she does so, the blinds click shut. Someone inside has been watching her, and Daphne nervously scratches at her red hair. Parking her truck at the gates of the cemetery, she is disappointed to see that the majority of the plots in the cemetery have been overrun with snakes and weasels. They bite and scratch at her as she makes her way to the open grave at the far end of the rolling graveyard. Daphne has forgotten to wear shoes, and she can feel the squish of mud up through her toes. Her former lover, the agent, is in the back row of folding chairs, holding a small terrier in his arms. He winks at her, scratching the terrier’s ears as he does so. She does not give him a moment of consideration as she passes by him and down the small aisle between the two groups of folding chairs arranged for the funeral. Pausing for a moment, Daphne scratches at her red hair. She feels she should say something to the people gathered there. Turning to face the crowd, she clears her throat and speaks: “There was a time when I loved myself. It had nothing to do with the number of ribs I could count, or the rarity of hanging skin on my face.” Daphne scratches at her red hair, which falls away in clumps,. “I apologize for obsessions and my eccentricities, but I ask you all, with malice, could you have done any better with the men this life provides to us?” Not hearing a response, Daphne turns and climbs into the open grave. The epitaph on the granite marker reads: Here truths a liar. As the spiders weep, the rain begins to fall in a torrent, and Daphne slips into the last warm embrace of mankind.

My Life Story, or Orphic Distraction (Revisited with a Mallet)

I wrote this a while back, and I change it every time something significant happens in my life – new clay, new vision. You won’t get the orphic reference until the end, but I insist the entire piece is merely a riff on inverted reflections of lyrical cubism in a variegated temporal dysphoria as seen through orange glass during a supernova hurricane of the soul.

Head of Orpheus on the Water or the Mystic - Odilon Redon - 1880

Dead.

I am…

punched in the back of the head on the track during off-season. I’m thirteen and running in a white t-shirt and light grey warm-ups and tears are streaming down my face. A cadre of ne’er-do-wells defends me from the attacks of the hillbilly fuck whose daddy beats him, but I disdainfully brush away their pity, and I run until my asthma attacks me and I collapse on the track. I can see my house just across the street and think to go home is even worse. And I am …

death on five horses. Blades descend. I live in tents and roaches crawl over my skin. The rats eat my pet spurns. I suffer and love the pain and I start to lean. I start to lean towards the hillbilly death machine. I intersect myself with returning soldiers, newly integrated into society with tales of atrocities. I politely decline a continuous stream of meth, but my resolve begins to break down. I catch my hand extending, but then a little boy tells me how he killed a guy he was in basic with and he pulls from the bottle of vodka, and i see blood flow back down the bottle neck. And I am …

a greaser – candy cigarettes under a tight hanes. A girl who will be a broken woman hangs on my shoulder for pictures that will be black and white and faded. Behind the shades I am eight years old and raucously addicted to the unending pursuit of being a god damned supergenius. And I am …

not yet me, but I am close. There are paths that must be taken, no matter what the cost. We see phantoms in our own shadows, vestiges of shades we once were and never will be again, but there is always the infinite. I am in love with the infinite, and I find the infinite in only myself these days. I am the companion that I now share my life with. I can see all that I had the potential to be, and all that society doesn’t want me to be. And I have been loved and worshiped. I have been supported and held back from being who I know I should be. And the column supports me, just as I tip back a glass, and scribble into my Moleskin. And I am …

no one in a sea of teenage angst – a face in a wall of brighter faces. At fourteen, I endure duct tape turbans and become intimate with the bottom of trash cans. I imagine the word “spurn” as a physical entity, an urchin-like creature used by the opposite sex to constantly remind me of who I am not worthy to consider myself a possible suitor for. I start to enjoy the spurn creature and let it feed off of me. And I am …

still eight years old, burdened with cheap glasses my parents cannot afford. The lens are heavy, a result of reading too much at a young age. The glasses wear me down until I’m groveling at the feet of humans desperately in need of someone to feel superior over. And my popularity wanes, and the candy cigarettes were eaten long ago, and later I’ll want that broken woman. And I am …

an adult by some standards. Eighteen, but not free to do as I please. I operate on a pinball table of things to do – ramps to climb even though I don’t have the momentum, bumpers to rattle my senses, and I’m paddled, and paddled, and paddled, and paddled, by the patterns of everyone else but me. The glasses are gone, but the scene is blurrier than before. Jesus is there for me, and so is vodka. And I am …

back in the real world at twenty-five. My friends are building families, smoking pot in the small yards of their cookie cutter houses, bragging about their Rangers tickets, and reciting the internet meme of the day to weed out the has-beens. They’ve lived the life and are quick to act shocked when they ask what I do these days and I say “I want to write forever”. I start a new collection of spurns. My phone becomes my glasses. I try to make friendly with the natives and it turns into the track again, and I’ve got an Apple logo-shaped bruise on my head. The message of the day is “this is what you could have had before it was too late” and it suddenly comes back to me that I used to have potential but these people beat it out of me to keep me below them. And I am …

failing miserably. I’m twenty and I follow my friends to college, but never enroll. I roll down hills in the nude and collect grass clippings to decorate my collection of spurns. My friends follow the directions, and I follow a plastic table and chairs off a second-story balcony into oblivion. Glass tables break underneath me, I swim in blue curacao and vomit fish and chips into someone’s lovely fern … err, wait … into someone’s face. My fingers are yellowed from the hanging butt, forgotten in between the middle and forefingers. I see many beds, and none are mine. Women ask me to smile, and I tell them to make me. I take what people give me to smoke, to eat, to swallow, to binge on, to devour, to imbibe, to dive into, to hit, to bleed over. I spin in crowds of knife-wielding college kids and we spin to the sound of heroin on guitars, pills played on Wurlitzers, a marijuana fucking hoedown on the frying street. And I wake up with people, and I wake up with guns, and I wake up with mustard mustaches and have to jump out windows to flee authority figures and angry boyfriends. I rip my flesh on chain link fences and cure the wounds by pouring Taddy Porter over them. I sit in apartment rooms for hours waiting for deliveries while wigged out hillbillies trade guns and play xbox on futons. The parties bleed into each other and my friends wean themselves off the vomit spirals, but I keep going. I’m backstage and commanding attention. I ride in a car and fall out the passenger side into traffic and I remember flying naked through a cul-de-sac with a rose in one hand and a flaming fucking dildo in the other. It’s a thousand degrees at festivals and I roll over people and suck my own brains from the parasites that feed off me in the grass, on the blankets we bought in San Antonio. And I wonder where my car is. And Austin beckons and I answer. And I am …

done with this shit. And I leave that place in a boat full of my belongings. I have nearly sunk too low to leave, but I make it. And I am …

done with this shit again. And I leave another place in a whirlwind of wasted time. I choose the nuclear option for the lovely glow, not the guilt. But guess which burns hotter? My ego is unaffected, but my heart withers, mutated and black. And I ascend. And I am …

holding up the bar. Thirty years old and I find a nice column to lean against and I begin to write. I smoke a pack a day and I love to smoke. I am “that guy”. My bar tab is named “Dude” and its perpetual. I am a regular and regularly beyond those that sit next to me in the dark. I find enemies and nemeses and allies and occasional bodily collisions, and I write everyone down in a little book. I become a writer. I see the chapters written on people’s faces. I see the stories in their wasted lives. Scotch is my friend. I wake up in my car at 4:00am and vomit fish and chips out my window. I am nostalgic. I daydream of running naked through laundromats, and china shops, and Christian bookstores. I am finally me again, but I am alone. And I am …

furious. I destroy a few lives and wreak havoc in the suburbanite warrens of lassitude. I crush them. I am an agent of chaos, operating on the sly, beneath the radar, and I ruin people’s futures with my strategies. The world has become a chessboard and I am undefeated and beyond the skill of anyone I meet. No one sees this in me, no one knows what I have allowed to grow inside. I breach security to write soliloquy on the inner chalkboard of people’s mind with sharpies. And I am …

waking up. I meet regret in my closet in the house that I share with my father. I commit one last crime against the suburbanites to free a caged bird whose song is no longer appealing. I start to realize that I am still not myself. I think I’ve locked myself away, deep down. I have lost that key. I wonder who the fuck I am. And I am …

five years old, or maybe six. I’m learning how to swim. I’m hanging off the end of the high platform over cold water. I’m seeing girls laugh at me. I’m scared. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. And I am …

happy at last. I start to think I’m halfway through my life, but I think instead, “fuck that … my life’s a third of the way over. I can live to be 102.” And I start to plan, but I need the old me, the old me I was supposed to be, to come out again. It’s harder to coax him out now that I am alone again.  And I am …

pulling my old self deep from the chasm within. I’ve found the key and rescued him, and cleaned him up, and given him a palette to work with. But he’s moving ahead of me – I’m distracted by couches, and good food, and beer. He’s at the gates and he looks back. And I am …

alive.