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.”

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