Replacement Parts -Excerpt

dhezjaet

I’ve not revisited this one in a long time. I’m feeling the itch though–the story here is just too good not to tell, though this first bit just scratches the surface.

This is the first real novel I began working on. Portions of it go back to ideas I threw down shortly after graduating back in ’96. It has evolved since then. I took a lot of inspiration from Vonnegut, Walter Miller, and Asimov–Irving and Palahniuk to taste. It’s also my first attempt at world-building. As a near-future piece, it required a lot of logical prognostication and research. I would love to live in this society–for a bit.

For those of you that have read a reasonably sized chunk of my work, you’ll notice some recurring themes. Well, this is where it all started, and in a way it’s where it all connects. Everything I’ve ever written connects back to this story in some way.

Ulysses, upside-down owls, The Great Gatsby, Tubeway Army… this semi-completed novel has it all.

Here is Chapter One.

When the unusual sound first echoed through his flat, Waldo Peterson waved it off as the typical background noise of the GoodeLife Sector #34821 Residential Building. He gave it a nanosecond of consideration before continuing his absorption of culture through the MultiFeed. The brief halt gave his body a moment to readjust itself in the Ulysses Mark II Tranzend Lounger, and with the readjustment came a release of built-up gas from his bowels and a few deep cracks from his joints.

When the same sound – a staccato rapping against a hard surface – increased in volume and continued, Waldo shut off the MultiFeed and sat up from the lounger, his FeedGoggles reflecting the blue of the Disconnection indicator. His appearance was vaguely insectoid, the tubes and wireless receiver antennae completing the alien look.

Fear struck him and sweat began to bead on pale and hairless skin.

“What is that?” he shouted out to his empty flat. “What’s that noise?”

Waldo ripped the FeedGoggles from his head, and quickly scanned the room in a panic. It took a moment for his eyes to readjust to real life after a 72-hour session connected to the MultiFeed.

“Hello?” he shouted, his voice cracking.

The rapping continued, and exceeding it in tempo was his heartbeat. With a great struggle against gravity, Waldo extricated himself from the Lounger and the Waste and Syntho Tubes and managed to stand for three seconds. Then he fell to the ground, his legs forgetting how to handle the weight of a human – made even more difficult by the daily increase in Waldo’s mass.

He managed to lift himself from the ground and his panic increased. Whatever was in his flat, he would not be able to defend himself from it.

“Jesus God! What is that noise?! Someone help me!” he screamed. Beyond the rapping, he could hear the sounds of the thousand or so other flat tenants also absorbed in the MultiFeed. There was little chance anyone would hear him scream during this peak time. Most of the best feeds were online at the moment. If the source of the demon noise were to set upon him, no one would hear his death rattle, his final agonizing scream.

He felt his heart pounding against his chest. His adrenaline kicked in and pushed him to face the source, no matter what the cost. If he were going to die, he would meet it on his feet, not strapped into a Tranzend Lounger watching Japanese Reality feeds.

He trekked through his living room, following the sound. He hadn’t been in this part of his flat in weeks and it smelled stale despite its pristine condition.

“My God … it’s the door,” he realized. A thousand scenarios fired like salvos in his head. Anarchists, evil robots, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Republicans, punk kids, Reformers, Endtimers, Rebooters, Freeminders, a hundred other groups whose purpose it was to oppose the GoodeLife society he was a part of, and the way of life that made it so appeasing.

The knocking stopped.

“Mr. Peterson?” a voice asked behind the door.

Waldo screamed.

The door to his flat opened. How could it have opened? There were locks, safeguards, security protocols. It must be his death!

Only the maintenance robots could open his door without authorization, only …

A man peeked his head around the door. He looked nice – clean cut with a pleasant smile, middle-aged, neatly trimmed beard.

“Mr. Peterson,” the man said again. “I’m with the LRC. I’m here to repair your MultiFeed.”

LRC? Waldo had heard of the Labor Replacement Corps, but he had never seen a Lurker in person.

“The LRC?” Waldo whispered timidly, the words sounding strange coming out of his mouth.

“That’s right, Mr. Peterson,” the man said politely, still smiling. “My name is Edward.”

“The robots …?” Waldo questioned.

“The number of repair jobs currently in the system exceeds the number of AI technicians currently available. To keep our level of service at a pleasing level to customers like you, Ulysses Corporation has recruited the LRC to help relieve the workload.”

Edward smiled again, apparently he had given the speech many times before.

Waldo vaguely nodded his understanding.

“Now, Mr. Peterson,” Edward said, closing the door as he backed into the hallway. “If you’d like to put some clothes on, you can let me know when I can come in and service your MultiFeed.”

Waldo gasped, suddenly realizing his nakedness. The last human he had seen was his uncle who visited every few months, the last visit being six months previous. The door shut and Waldo quickly grabbed what he called his “Receiving Robe” which he kept on a hook by the door. He hastily wrapped it around his naked obesity, noting that he would need a larger robe soon due to his increasing size.

“Come in,” Waldo said aloud to the door.

Edward entered completely this time and carried with him a small portable NodePad and a mechanic’s toolbox. He paused a moment just inside the door and looked around.

“This is a very nice flat you have here, Mr. Peterson,” he remarked. “Very tidy and well-maintained.”

Waldo was caught off guard. All flats were pretty much the same in the GoodeLife sectors. He had never considered his home to have endearing individual qualities beyond what might be found in every other home.

“Th-thank you,” Waldo replied.

Edward moved purposefully into the rest of the flat with his equipment.

“You’d be surprised how many GoodeLifers let their lives go straight to hell,” he said as he kneeled down by the Data Core of the Multifeed. “I mean take this guy that lives next door to you, Wilson, right?”

Waldo had no idea who lived next to him, but nodded his head quick enough to jiggle his second chin.

“Now there’s a man who is abusing the system. We live in an amazing age, you and I. Every man, woman, and child on the planet has the right and privilege of the basics. Nice flats, running water, Synthofood, 24-hour entertainment … hell, it took the global governments half a century just to agree what constituted the ‘Good Life’ and here it is, just given to you. Yes, this is a golden age of man, indeed.”

With a metallic clang, Edward popped open the maintenance panel and began sorting through the mass of wires it held.

“Were your parents GoodeLifers, Mr. Peterson?” Edward asked.

“Uh … yes. Third Generation,” Waldo answered. “I think.”

Edward stopped his work and smiled up at the GoodeLifer.

“That’s just great, isn’t it?” he beamed. “I mean, you’ve never known anything but the peace and security our grand civilization has been able to provide you.”

With a flourish he twirled a small penlight out of his belt and bit down on it to free his hands, then went back to sorting through the wires. From the corner of his mouth he mumbled, “Tehw mwe aboud yewselb … malvweed?”

Waldo blinked, not understanding. “I’m sorry, what?”

Edward secured a bundle of wires with one hand and with the other pulled the penlight out of his mouth a second. “Are you married? Any kids?”

“Oh!” Waldo exclaimed, chuckling. “Good Lord, no, never.”

“So you’ve got the bachelor package,” Edward replied, nodding enthusiastically. “Now there’s the life – assuming you intend to use it. Take Mr. Wilson next door. All that given to him, and he’s not even a contributor.”

Edward shook his head gravely and began plugging various wires into his NodePad.

Waldo began to tire and scanned the room for a chair he soon realized he did not have. The Lounger was the only seat in the entire flat. He decided against returning to it and leaned heavily against a wall.

“If you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Peterson, what is your contribution?” Edward queried.

Waldo panicked. He knew good and well that he had never contributed a thing since his Age Separation from his parents. He attempted to remember what his Academy-level contribution was but found his mind only able to flash through past episodes of “Killer Finder People Squad Investigations”

“Do you bring something fresh and new?” Edward asked, smiling disarmingly and staring directly at Waldo’s quickly reddening face.

“Oh … uh … no, the thing that I do … uh … is not very new,” he stammered, “just a little thing, that I happen to … bring …”

Jesus God … he was blowing it. This damn laborer had him cornered. The Lurker would probably purposefully screw up his feed because of his old world morals – he must be a damn Rebooter or worse.

“A poet?” Edward asked, his eyes twinkling.

Waldo’s heart burst, the doors of his mind opened as he realized his fortunate rhyming. He ran with it.

“Yes!” he joyfully exclaimed. “I am a poet.”

Edward jumped up so quickly that Waldo started, bumping his head against the wall. Dropping his penlight into the growing pile of wires, Edward pressed a hand to his breast and gesticulated with his free hand while spouting:

“Hedgerimmy flimey poragus!

Cried the thrimdilly gaspaggo flumicus,

Had his flimm taken dammily costicus at heart,

Mosticus,

Tosticus,

And Rabinifeltillo trabinny plarghed

Like a Glumglimmitimmilful, a frong to be barghed”

Silence followed. Waldo had no idea what to do. For a moment he thought that perhaps the man had just accused him of lying in some language of the Justicars, or cursed him in some foul tongue.

“Well …” Edward finally said, looking a bit disappointed. “It’s not nearly as good as your own work, I’m sure. But I guess that’s why I’m with the LRC and not a poet.”

“No no, it was very good. You should keep working at it,” Waldo offered. His confidence returned a bit as he finally grasped that he was dealing with a simpleton here, a laborer, a man unworthy of the social benefits a contributing member of the GoodeLife Society merits. “With skill like that, why are you a Lurker and not –“

Waldo froze. Lurker was a derogatory term that GoodeLifers used to describe the small unions of manual laborers that Ulysses Corporation used to supplement the robot workforce. The term came from the name of their governing union, LRC, along with the fact that it was a common occurrence to see members of the LRC loitering around the Ulysses Corporation Human Resources division offices, waiting for contracts.

Edward just smiled and continued his work while he explained.

“I’m cursed with needy hands, Mr. Peterson,” he said, expertly running diagnostics on each feed wire in the Core. “I just can’t sit idly and do nothing. Sure, I dabble in the arts and maybe I could find some happiness in choosing the GoodeLife scenario. But, honestly –“

Alarms sounded from the Data Core and lights flashed on his NodePad.

“AHA!” he shouted in triumph. With deft hand movements he cut and spliced several wires from his own toolbox into the Core. In just a few seconds, the alarms stopped and the MultiFeed Activation indicator blinked its green light happily.

“Honestly,” he continued, “it would drive me insane not to be able to work with technology, and I’m not intelligent enough to be a Customizer.”

Waldo nodding knowingly.

“All done. Have a pleasant rest of your day, Mr. Peterson.”

“That quick?” Waldo asked. “What was the problem?”

Edward began packing up his things as he explained. “The fact of the matter is, no matter how good our technology is, it doesn’t last forever. This generation of MultiFeed Data Cores has about a 20-year lifespan before some connections start to go bad. Most of your core has been replaced by the semi-annual maintenance from the robot force, but occasionally we get a batch of faulty wires that need fixing before the regular maintenance schedules. And that’s why the LRC has been called in, there’s a fairly substantial batch of bad wiring that came out in this sector a few years back that are now failing – too many for the robots to handle alone.”

Waldo blankly listened to the man, hoping he would leave soon.

“Go ahead and plug in, Mr. Peterson,” Edward gestured.

Waldo obliged, settling his weight back into his Lounger and placing the FeedGoggles on his head.

“Can you tell a difference?”

“My God … it’s so much more intense and brilliant!” Waldo exclaimed. “I had no idea I was missing this much detail.”

“Try several feeds at once and give the tiered panes a try,” Edward offered. “You should be able to handle as many as sixty feeds at once now.”

Waldo was gone from the real world by then. His bulk was settling back into the Lounger as his hands absently reconnected the Syntho and Waste Tubes.

Edward smiled brightly and let himself out. He typed in a few notes on his NodePad in the hallway of the GoodeLife Flat Sector #34821 and walked next door where he started knocking patiently.

 

 

On the fifth floor of a nondescript building overlooking the Charles River in Boston, Edgar Tenser perused through the last month’s User Request polls. His eyes slid right over the usual garbage – the ridiculous requests for more religious programming, the borderline prank requests for various forms of pornography, the flood of cries for “more racing cars” and “better game shows” and “steamier soap operas”. His brain had practically reprogrammed itself to not recognize certain combinations of letters like “reality” or “talk” or “shopping”. Occasionally, he found a feasible request and jotted it down. From this last month, his only note was “More avocado green in the home décor feeds”.

As Chief Expansion Executive of GoodeLife Choices Inc., a subsidiary of the Ulysses Group Human Interests Division, child of the planet-blanketing Ulysses Group in all its glory, it was Tenser’s duty to personally sort through the top one thousand requests keyed in by MultiFeed users in the GoodeLife sectors. It was a silly task that should have been delegated to a turd down on the second floor, but Tenser’s superiors felt it was “good business” to have the CEE of GoodeLife personally sort through the requests under the eyes of the entire userbase, should they choose to tune in. Tenser didn’t know it – because they wouldn’t give him the information – but the average viewership for these precious moments with the CEE was about one user out of six hundred million.

Tenser glanced up and sneered at the tiny camera hanging from the ceiling of his office and immediately the red Attitude light flashed on his desk node. He obsequiously reversed the sneer into a pleasant trained-seal grin as he pretended to stew over a particularly intriguing request. The Attitude light winked out.

GoodeLife executives spent two weeks in Reno, Nevada every year to relearn what the geniuses at Ulysses Group called The Attitude. While half of each day of those two weeks was spent by each executive individually striving to surpass the previous year’s apex of debauchery and depravity, the rest of the time was spent with Ulysses Group Attitude Coaches. The executives weren’t so much taught how to smile, beam, grin, nod, while on a live feed as they were programmed like Pavlov’s canines by the android coaches. It was both humiliating and painful – the Coaches punished excessive red-lighting with NerveStim bursts.

Tenser had two minutes left of live feed time before he could go back to preparing to receive the representative from the Global Federation’s Anti-Marketing Commission. To be honest, Tenser knew he needed at least a day more to prepare to face a GloFed rep. Just because most of his answers were going to be the typical “You will have to direct that inquiry to my superiors at the Government Relations division of the Ulysses Group”, the grilling was still going to get pretty intense. Tenser knew exactly how much Ulysses Group was marketing GoodeLife to countries within GloFed jurisdiction, and it was well over Federation limits.

The trained seal suddenly dropped the ball and frowned.

The Attitude light blinked red. In response, Tenser’s frown turned to a lopsided sneer.

“What the hell?” he muttered to himself.

Quickly he laid out the last four pages of requests that made up the top 200 requests. They were all essentially the same, just subtle variations. Tenser was at a loss. The Attitude light was on past its polite period of visual suggestion and switched to its annoying audio alert.

Please adjust your perceived attitude. Please adjust your perceived attitude.

“Hockey?” read Tenser aloud. The words sounded funny to him. He had never heard of such a thing.

Please adjust your perceived attitude.

He continued to run down the list of 200 requests. National Hockey League. Hockey -NHL. Hockey – Bruins. Hockey – Red Wings. Hockey – Sharks. Hockey – Jaguars. Hockey Puck. Hockey – Stanley Cup. Hockey – Gretzky. Hockey – Howe. Hockey – Nehaske.

Tenser buzzed the personal assistant assigned to him and in a few brief seconds, a bouncy young intern practically skipped into the room.

“Yes, Mr. Tenser?” she squeaked at him.

“What is Hockey? Do you know?”

Please adjust your perceived attitude.

The intern shrugged her shoulders and cheeks simultaneously into an innocent and ignorant smile.

“Get out!” Tenser barked.

The intern left, a bit less bouncy than when she had entered.

Next, Tenser fed a message to Parker, his Vice CEE, to come over at once.

A few minutes later, Parker strolled casually into the room. He was much younger than Tenser and a bit too slack-jawed for the cut of his suit.

“Hockey. Heard of it?” Tenser asked.

“I think it’s an ancient sport. A couple hundred years gone I think.” Parker was one of these lazy execs that had started drifting up through Ascension Programs. His family had been GoodeLifers for at least three generations and that entitled special treatment – also known as field-flavoring – for the eldest of the third generation. A GloFed idea, spawned from the notion that Customizer Level fields were becoming bland and repetitive due to a degeneration of creativity and a lack of new vision. Tenser thought it was garbage. Let these Feedzombies keep to their hives.

“What the hell is it doing all over my top thousand?” Tenser asked him.

Parker’s shrug was similar to the intern in only the movement of the shoulder area, his face was baked clay. He didn’t get it either.

Please adjust-

Tenser snatched the hardline to Data Control and in doing so caused the live feed to break – a security precaution for sudden urgent messages through secure channels to come through to the CEE, the only scenario in which the Top 1000 Request Review could be cut short.

“Get me someone up here now!” he screamed into the phone.

It had to be a bug. How could a CEE possibly be out of the loop enough that two hundred requests from the MultiFeed users didn’t ring a bell?

One of the droids from Data Control burst through the door, rolled halfway the distance between the door and Tenser’s desk, and suddenly made a 180-degree turn and left.

All Data Control droids were equipped with Attitude sensors that immediately directed the droids to extricate themselves from possibly violent confrontations. In this case, a call immediately went to Ulysses Group Human Resources and a request for an LRC tech went through in two nanoseconds.

A Lurker was assigned the case and immediately jumped into an LRC ground unit. The Lurker casually pulled the wheeled van into an empty thoroughfare and drove five miles per hour over the speed limit, easily surpassing the hundreds of deadlocked vehicles in the airlanes.

The Lurker’s comm unit buzzed.

“This is Michael …” the Lurker spoke. Garbled words came through the receiver. “Nope, I’ll have to get back to the list later. I’m headed to Tenser’s office.” More garbled marble-in-the-mouth talk. “I imagine its about hockey.”

By the time Michael pulled into a ground level parking space in front of the GoodeLife Choices, Inc. building, Tenser had already pulled a full report from Data Control on the sport of hockey. He was reading about the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs when Michael knocked politely on the door.

“Come in,” Tenser grunted from his desk.

With his usual smile Michael entered the CEE’s office carrying his NodePad and toolbox. “Trouble with the feeds, sir?

Tenser started, obviously not expecting the man standing in front of his desk. Quickly, he readjusted his presentation in line with the Attitude.

“A Lurker, eh?” he surmised, turning back to his Desk Node. “I suppose you’re going to give some excuse that Ulysses Group doesn’t have robots available.”

“The number of repair jobs currently in the system exceeds the number of AI technicians currently available. To keep our –“

“- to keep your level of service at a pleasing level to suckers like us, Ulysses Corporation has recruited the LRC to help relieve the workload. Yeah, I know the routine.” Tenser shooed him on to do his business. “I assume you’re trained well enough to do the job without bothering me, like the robot you’re meant to replace, so please do so and shut up.”

“I’ll need to know the issue, sir.” Michael stated, business-like.

“How the hell should I know what the issue is?” Tenser threw at him. “You’re the technician, you figure it out. A robot wouldn’t need to be told.”

“Actually, sir, there was no malfunction alert transmitted to Ulysses and the robot that was originally sent to respond to your request was turned away.”

“What? I didn’t see a robot in here! A damned lie!”

“No, sir,” Michael responded, his voice calm and sure. “The truth is that your inability to maintain the Attitude caused the robot to flee for its circuitry.”

Tenser cut his eyes to glare at the Lurker.

“Now why don’t you tell me what was so shocking as to bring a CEE to below a level of social expertise even an Ascender could master.”

“You’ve got a sharp tongue there, Lurker,” Tenser said. “But I can see you’re not an average laborer. Much too smart for GoodeLife, not creative enough to Customize, I’ll wager.

Michael stood silently, waiting.

Tenser motioned for him to come around the desk to view his Desk Node. “Come take a look at this.”

Michael did as requested, setting his toolbox and node on one of the two seats open to Tenser’s occasional guests.

“What do you make of this?” Tenser asked, gesturing to the open page on his node.

“I’m not sure I’ve heard of such a thing,” Michael lied to him, though it was difficult for him not to peruse the document. Hockey in the late twentieth century was something Michael was very interested in. “What is hockey? Some illegal form of pugilism?”

“Pugilism? Hmph. Once again you surprise me, Lurker.”

“Michael.”

“Why are you a Lurker, anyway?”

Michael ignored the question and went back to the other side of his desk.

“Well, nevermind. Here’s the deal, Michael. As you may or may not know, it’s part of my job to read and assess the feasibility of bringing additional media to the MultiFeed based on user request. I only read the top thousand requests, and half of those I just skim over.”

“I’m familiar with the procedure, sir. I’ve watched the process more than once.”

Tenser resisted the urge to express his increasing awareness that Michael was much more intelligent than most Lurkers.

“Then you know that very rarely do I implement media expansion based on these requests unless there is a sudden spike in interest for a new or retro genre. Today I received this.” Tenser tossed the last four pages of the list across the desk where they lay precariously on the edge of the expansive wooden desk.

Michael casually picked up the papers and glanced at them.

“Looks like the people want more hockey.” Michael remarked.

“More hockey? They want hockey, period, man. There has never been hockey on the MultiFeed. Never.”

Tenser stood up from his desk and paced a bit as his agitation began to mount again.

“There hasn’t been a professional hockey league in operation in three hundred years and even then it was Junior League garbage. Pick-up games were gone long before that. That last league was full of those last hardcore athletes willing to play for no pay. They’re all dead.”

“The polarization period surely didn’t help.” Michael added.

“You’re damn right, Michael. By that time, the whole country was too busy dividing itself into Customizer and GoodeLifer classes. No time for sports. Customizers were too intelligent for them, and GoodeLifers were too interested in Virtual Reality coming in on the MultiFeed. Why would they waste their time watching other people run around with sticks, when they could do it themselves? Football’s different, even in virtual reality the fun is in watching, not playing.

“So I’ve got to know, Michael. Why the sudden surge in interest? We don’t even know if it was user generated or a glitch.”

“Doubtful that a glitch would be that obscurely specific,” Michael noted. “I could look into it, but I’ll need access to Data Control.”

“Not possible.” Tenser said immediately and with finality.

“Sir, if I am to-“

“Whatever tests you need to run, you can do so by linking through this Desk Node. It is not permissible for you to link your Node Pad to our system.”

“Understood.”

“And you’ll be using a vanilla login. You can only observe. No data transmittal and you’re not getting any detail, just what is relevant to the user requests.”

Michael tried desperately to conceal his disappointment.

“Now don’t be offended. That’s our policies for Lurkers. GoodeLife does have competitors, you know. And Ulysses is not an impenetrable fortress.”

“Understood,sir,” said Michael, and began the slow, manual process of investigating the glitch through data logs from Tenser’s Desk Node.

The CEE gave him room and walked over to Michael’s tool box. Without hesitation, he pulled out a few wire splicer tools and a feed meter.

“I don’t understand this junk,” Tenser remarked. “And I feel as a Customizer, that it should at least be familiar to me.”

“Don’t feel bad, sir,” Michael replied. “We can’t all know everything.”

Tenser grunted dismissively and made his exit, leaving Michael alone in his office. The CEE strolled casually through the main common area of the Fifth Floor and nodded politely to the interns and assistants. His Attitude was perfect, a necessity outside the private offices due to the periodic cyclefeeds that were a part of the GloFed Ethical Business Practices Act.

There were no robots visible as all synthetic personnel were confined to tech closets practically hidden from view. The presence of robots outside a service request was frowned upon here. With the exception of the robot Tenser summoned to his office earlier, there had not been one seen on Fifth in two weeks.

All personnel on the Fifth Floor were either Ascenders or Customizers – all the Customizers were natives, with a few exceptions. The Ascenders came from different places. The largest concentration of GoodeLife Sectors was in the Mid-West and after the initial exodus of GoodeLifers to that area, most of the Sectors on the East and West Coasts disappeared. Boston contained one of only three sectors in the Northeast, the other two being in New York and Washington D.C.

“Mr. Tenser, there’s a message for you from the West Coast Office,” a secretary said to him as he continued his stroll.

Boston and New York held the largest number of Lurkers. The LRC headquarters was in Boston, and the monthly General Assembly was held in Faneuil Hall. The East Coast differed greatly from the West in that the old labor unions still held a vague resemblance to sway in how the Customizer society integrated with the GoodeLife sectors. They were instrumental in getting the Synthetic Labor Limitation Act passed which limited the number of new robot laborers that could be produced each month per state. This Act also was mirrored in an edict by the Global Federation which stopped short of dictating limits to production numbers, but enforced such high-cost regulations on synthetic labor that countries were forced to place limits on themselves. And so, regardless of the logic behind a vast worker army of highly trained synthetic laborers, human workers held on by a thread and made the world continue to work for them.

“Tenser,” the CEE spoke into a public comm unit in the wall.

A brief message appeared on the small screen. Tenser glanced at it shortly before completing his small jaunt to Parker’s office.

Tenser entered without knocking.

“Switch on my office feed, Parker,” he stated as he took a seat on Parker’s long sofa.

Parker sat up in his chair where he had been lounging with his fingers steepled, daydreaming of a girl he had met in a virtual reality game through the MultiFeed. Both executives were required to know each other’s Security Codes in case something happened to the other one. Parker keyed in Tenser’s code and a live feed to Tenser’s office popped up on Parker’s Desk Node.

Tenser, from the distance between the desk and the sofa, was seeing his office in reverse from Parker’s holographic projector.

“I think that man is an anarchist, Parker,” Tenser stated flatly.

“How can you tell?” Parker was scrutinizing the image before him as if he could read the Lurker by watching his movements.

“He uses words.”

Tenser glanced absently at the ridiculous choice of endtable Parker had made. He casually tipped over a glass container of small glass cubes and did not react as the container shattered, spilling glass and cubes over the endtable and onto the floor.

“I use words. Am I an anarchist?” Parker pondered aloud, seemingly ignorant of the endtable disaster.

“The man is a Lurker, but he’s too sharp for a Lurker. Too smart for a GoodeLifer, and definitely not the typical LRC face.”

In the image, Michael was bent over Tenser’s desk, seeming to examine lines of code running across the Desk Node.

“He looks normal to me.”

“You obviously don’t know what to look for,” Tenser observed, now quietly pulling a loose thread from a seam of the sofa, opening up the armrest to expose the stuffing like a doctor rewinding his own stitch-work. “Not to worry, though, Parker. I will teach you.”

Parker smiled inanely at the CEE.

“I want you to put a call through to GloFed Security,” he said as he tossed a small black plastic card onto Parker’s desk. “And I want you to scan and transmit them that.”

“What’s this?”

“That is our Lurker friend’s LRC identification card that I swiped from his toolbox. Now, hurry,” Tenser said, rising from the sofa to stand and stare out over the Charles River from the window. “I need to get that back to him before he realizes it’s gone.”

“What about Ulysses? Shouldn’t we inform our own security people?” Parker asked, hesitating with his hand over the Desk Node keypad.

“LRC may take Ulysses handouts, but that doesn’t mean that they are their dog. We need a bigger eye.”

There was no movement on the river that day. A few airships passed over it, but they were the uniform grey color of the pre-programmed GoodeLife personal transports – GoodeLifers on their way to social events like group spas, touch gardens, and sit shops.

Parker made his call as Tenser looked out over the cityscape.

“Ants,” he muttered to himself. “This city needs an exterminator.”

“Not exactly what I would expect to hear from a GoodeLife Executive,” said a voice from the doorway.

Tenser jerked his head to the source of the sound and saw first the gold pin on the man’s suit denoting his rank in the GloFed hierarchy.

“You must be the AMC rep,” Tenser said to him, then raised his gaze to meet the other man’s eyes. “Let’s adjourn to my office.”

“Not necessary,” the rep stated. His chin elevated visibly and it was very apparent suddenly that this man held himself and his organization in higher regard than anything else in the world, including two Customizer executives. “I have one question for you, one direct order for you, and then I’ll need unrestricted access to Data Control.”

“As you wish,” Tenser responded in a cold tone.

“Are you responsible for the sign on your building labeling it as GoodeLife, Inc – East Coast Headquarters?” the rep queried.

“Yes, but –“

“Take it down. It is a violation of the Anti-Marketing laws. And don’t argue with me. If a person wants to know what business resides in this building, he can look it up himself. He doesn’t need six feet tall letters in red assaulting his senses.”

The rep, who still had yet to provide any sort of identification beyond his visible gold pin, pulled out a small NodePad, made a quick entry, and replaced it back into his inside suit pocket.

“Data Control now, please.”

Tenser nodded and led him out of the room. The pin was enough.

 

***

 

Michael never missed his Identification Card while it was in the possession of Edgar Tenser. He had done what he could, made a vague report, and left the building on the Charles River. He did not speak to Tenser again even after the CEE had quickly escorted him out in favor of a stiff-looking GloFed rep. He did not notice Tenser deftly slipped his Identification Card into Michael’s pocket.

Michael’s ride back to LRC headquarters was uneventful and unimpeded by traffic, though the sunlight beamed through his sunroof in intermittent bursts as the immobile shadows of the airships stuck in traffic overhead gave way to the occasional opening.

It was a typical trip for him, so he did not notice the GloFed cruiser following him at a discreet distance.

LRC Headquarters was a spartan three-story building of grey brick with no windows. A handful of darker grey doors without handles or knobs were dotted along the four sides of the near-cube building. The only entrance was the revolving opaque door jutting out of the street-side face.

Michael stepped out of his Ground Unit with toolbox and NodePad in hand at the front curb and let the Ground Unit park itself. Two fellow lurkers stood outside smoking – a sight not mirrored at the Human Resources building where sometimes a hundred or so LRC workers waited for their name to be called and a job to be assigned to them.

Michael pushed through the revolving door that had activated as soon as he was in range. It would only open for LRC workers with an identification microchip implanted in them. The foyer was undecorated. Two doors broke the monotony on each of two walls to his right and left. Elevators were the only inhabitant of the far wall.

For the most part, the LRC Headquarters were empty except during the month or so leading up to the yearly General Assembly, though all LRC workers were required to report in at least once after assignments were completed. Consistently, the LRC Headquarters itself was able to tack on additional jobs once an initial assignment had been issued to a Lurker by Ulysses Human Resources.

Michael encountered no one between his entrance into the building and his entry into a small waiting room tucked away on the third floor. He pressed his finger to a metal plate next to the only other door out of the waiting room and took a seat in one of the six folding chairs lining the walls, which were a flat grey shade, only slightly lighter than the grey of the folding metal chairs.

After five or so minutes, a buzzer sounded and the door leading further in to this department of the LRC Headquarters opened.

Michael arose and entered a narrow hallway, the door shutting behind him. A loud click indicated it had also been locked behind him. Running lights illuminated the hallway and dimmed slowly behind him as he walked. After sixty yards, the hallway terminated in another door. As he approached, the door clicked open and Michael entered a brightly lit, solid white room.

All six walls were bare save one, not counting the one with the door which also closed and locked behind him. Directly opposite the door were two keycard slots. Michael set down his toolbox and missed his identification card. Panicking for a second, he patted his coveralls and soon found the card in a pocket, though he couldn’t remember placing it there. He slid his card into one of the slots. Next, he opened a panel on his Node Pad and removed a similar card which he then placed in the other slot.

After a few moments, a voice spoke from an undetectable location.

“Why was your Node Pad not used for the task assigned to you?” the voice said.

“The man, Tenser, said it was against their policy to allow me to use my Node Pad,” Michael replied.

“Did you manually code our maintenance sequence into the Desk Node you used?”

“I was not given access. I was only allowed to view the logs.”

The door behind him clicked open and the voice said, “Thank you.”

The two cards then popped out of the slots to be retrieved. Michael placed his identification card back into his toolbox and then replaced the other card in his Node Pad. He then switched the Pad on.

“Hey,” he said loudly to the room. “This is empty!”

“Thank you.”

Michael banged his fist on the wall containing the slots.

“You didn’t load another assignment. I’ve got six hours left on this shift!” he yelled at the wall.

“Thank you.”

Michael punched the wall in frustration and picked up his things and left. When he stepped back in the waiting room, another Lurker was there.

“Hey, Gerald,” Michael said to the other man. “Good luck getting anything. I think the system’s sapped.”

Gerald was an older man, one of the oldest active LRC workers in the system. He’d been through many a dry spell.

“That’s unusual lately,” replied Gerald. “With the 560X Unit changeovers, you’d think there’d be plenty of work.”

Michael nodded his agreement.

“But maybe it has something to do with Freddy dying,” Gerald offered. “Safety issues and all.”

“What are you talking about?” Michael asked. He had known Freddy Odle for fifteen years. They were close friends when the job allowed them time to fraternize.

“Shit, Michael, I thought you heard,” Gerald said, now uncomfortably shifting in his folding chair. “I sure as hell didn’t want to be the one that told you.”

The buzzer sounded and Gerald got up to enter the now open door. Michael put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

“Wait a minute,” he said, not looking at Gerald. “You don’t just leave me like that. What the hell happened to Freddy?”

“Man, Michael, I really can’t –“

“Tell me!” Michael shouted.

Gerald stopped attempting to flee and his shoulders slumped.

“I don’t know details other than he was on a routine changeover at GoodeLife hive and a power surge hit the Node he was working on right as he was testing the power link.”

Michael’s hand fell from Gerald’s shoulder and the older man didn’t hesitate to slip away. Before entering the doorway, he stopped and turned back to Michael who still hadn’t moved.

“Man, I’m sorry about your friend.”

Michael stood silently and Gerald disappeared into the hallway. The door clicked shut behind him.

Michael waited a few beats and then exited the room. He made his walk back to the outside in silence, running through past times in his head, as if trying to conjure up the dead man to question him directly.

Once outside, he shuffled over to where two Lurkers were still smoking. One of them he recognized, the other smaller man was unfamiliar – most likely a new recruit.

“Either of you guys get stiffed today after you reported in?” Michael asked them.

Both men shrugged.

The larger of the two spoke first, “I ain’t done my first scan yet, but I know a couple of guys ain’t had problems getting repeats out of the box.”

“Why don’t you go back to Human Resources and get another initial job?” the other said.

The larger man elbowed him in the shoulder and said, “You idiot, you can’t pull two initials in one day.”

Michael looked at both of them, not sure he had even expected answers – mostly he just needed another human to speak with.

“Ain’t you Freddy’s pal?” the big guy asked.

Michael shook his head slowly.

“Oh, I thought you was someone else,” he said. “Good thing I guess.”

Michael looked down to his feet, his eyes dry from not blinking. “Because he’s dead?” he asked the man.

“Well, there’s that … “ the large man chuckled. “But mostly ‘cause I hear those two weirdos was fucking faggots. And anarchists on top of that. Fucking serves him right.”

Michael didn’t know which derogatory statement triggered it, but, with the speed and power only a lifetime of manual labor can create, he reared back and slugged the larger man in the jaw. Due to the surprise and force of the blow, the man slumped to the ground, out cold.

The other Lurker’s cigarette hung loosely from his open mouth as Michael casually strolled away.

Michael knew they’d send a counselor to his flat, assuming they figured out who he was. With the security around the LRC Headquarters it would be doubtful that the scene went unnoticed.

When Michael reached the parking lot, his ground unit was gone.

 

***

 

Edgar Tenser left work early that day. He didn’t make it home any faster – the traffic between his office and the Free Airlanes moved at the same pace no matter what the day and no matter what the hour. While letting the airship carry him home, he watched the streets below where the ground units drove by in a lackadaisical waltz of obliviousness to the maelstrom of metal above.

Tenser wouldn’t be caught dead in a ground unit. Neither would any of the Customizers or GoodeLifers in this city. Ground units were for robots and laborers. It was similar to how in the twentieth century, no respectable upper class citizen would be seen riding a mule to work, or pumping the pedals of a bicycle. The airships were a luxury, and customized airships even more so.

Only two of the twenty-six cars adjacent to his twenty-foot-square “space” were customized. All the airships currently authorized for travel in the airlanes were built by Ulysses Transportation Systems. Every registered citizen in the entire Global Federation of States was issued the basic model – the Ulysses Factotum. Factotums were easily upgraded, but only by those skilled enough to customize them. GoodeLifer’s had no monetary system and therefore could not buy the services from a Customizer; however, a contributing GoodeLifer could earn vouchers to trade for the service. Regardless, a Customizer who would accept these vouchers as payment was rare.

Mostly GoodeLifers then, Tenser surmised. It was just as well. Being surrounded by a swarm of uniformly-white airships made his gradient orange liquid-crystal shell that much more noticeable. He imagined fat-laden FeedZombies slouching in their Factotums, one eye on the small MultiFeed screens on their consoles, the other eye on his status symbol. He pictured them discombobulated in the midst of watching reality feeds and planning what gossip to spread at the Spiritual Group meetings they most likely all were headed to. He could see them staring in awe at his –

He caught a glimpse of two small boys pointed excitedly at another customized Factotum from the banality of their own inferior airship. The other customized ship had protrusions like fins and its plasma shell was sharp enough to make it appear like a dragon’s hide.

Tenser quietly fumed with jealousy and loaded the flame logarithm on his own shell. The logarithm froze and Tenser’s airship displayed a red scrolling text across all its sides that said “ERROR”. Tenser cursed and tried to disable the shell altogether but the system was bogged down. Tenser caught a glimpse of the two boys laughing at him out of their window. In a fit of rage, Tenser pushed the panic button by mistake and a loud wailing issued from his airship. Around him people pressed their faces to their windows to see who had lost control of their ship.

Tenser desperately jerked the manual controls back and forth, but the airship was now in landing mode. Below him, the airships were separating having received the Emergency Override Signal from Tenser’s vehicle. At a painfully slow pace the ship began weaving its way automatically through gaps opening up in the traffic just below him.

Tenser was helpless. At least fifty people had seen his initial error, and even more saw his disabled craft slowly descend like a delinquent child being escorted by his ear to the principal’s office.

After fifteen minutes of total embarrassment, the craft set down on the sidewalk near a plain grey building and shut down. Tenser emerged in shades of purple and kicked the ship furiously. Once his rage was spent he re-entered the vehicle and attempted to restart it.

A message scrolled across the console:

“Vehicle Locked Down – Awaiting Diagnostic Service – Estimated Time of Arrival 45:00 minutes”

Tenser bashed his palm against the console repeatedly and did not notice the figure now standing outside his door.

“Need some help?” the figure asked.

“No! I don’t need your damn help!” Tenser shouted without looking at the speaker. He tried activating the communications console but it too was disabled, displaying the same message.

“Are you sure?” the voice asked. “I might be able to help you get out of this.”

“Leave me the hell alone!” Tenser screamed, spinning out of the ship in fury.

The man offering help was Michael. Michael was smiling politely at him.

“You.”

“I had a bit of bad luck myself. My Ground Unit was redirected elsewhere before my shift was over.”

“I don’t understand your Lurker talk, boy,” Tenser said, abandoning his vehicle and walking in the direction of his house, seventy miles away.

Michael let him get a distance away before speaking again.

“I can get your communications console to work.”

Tenser stopped and stood still for several seconds before turning around.

“I’m not giving you vouchers for this,” Tenser stated gruffly. “I’m not in the business of handouts.”

“Unusual choice of words from a man whose company’s entire purpose is handouts.”

Tenser’s brow crumpled up like continental plates colliding.

“I’m sorry,” Michael said, quickly attempting to placate. “I’ll just get it working.”

Michael entered the vehicle and popped open a maintenance panel. With his bare hands he pulled on a few wires, disconnecting them.

“You’ll pay for damages with your job, Lurker,” Tenser barked, now back at the ship and standing over him.

Suddenly, the main console lit up red and scrolled a new message:

“EMERGENCY SERVICES EN ROUTE”

“Don’t worry,” Michael explained. “It’ll be a robot unit at first. I just disconnected the oxygen detector. Your ship thinks there’s an internal fire.”

“Well, it’s nice to know humans can still be considered important when their life is on the line,” Tenser offered.

“Actually, the emergency unit is expedited to save the airship which can be salvaged and refurbished. Some Customizers pay a fortune for good spare parts.”

Tenser stood over the worker and their eyes locked. A thousand alarms went off in Tenser’s head screaming that this man was an anarchist bent on destroying civilization as the world knew it. Yet, the man was polite enough to help a Customizer he knew to be influential and the embodiment of everything anarchists hated.

A great number of Michael’s traits did not sit right with the orderly logical mind of the CEE of GoodeLife, Inc.

“Can I make a call to my wife?” Tenser asked him.

“Just a moment.” Michael made a few more adjustments within the maintenance panel and soon the communications console indicated it was now active.

Tenser said “home” aloud and the screen immediately flickered on to show a view of a fashionable kitchen complete with antique cookware hanging over a granite-topped island. Shortly, a petite female half Tenser’s age came into view with a beaming smile.

“Hello darling! Staying late at the office?” she asked her husband.

“Molly I need a ride and –“

Michael softly touched his shoulder and Tenser turned to stare at him.

“I can get us a ride. Don’t bother her. We’ll have you home long before she could even get a hundred yards in the airlanes.”

Tenser hesitated, then nodded.

“Cancel that, Molly. I’ll be home shortly and …” Tenser once again met eyes with Michael, whose smile had never diminished. “ … we’ll be having company for dinner.”

“Wonderful!” Molly exclaimed. “I’ll start cooking and will have cocktails waiting when you arrive.”

Tenser quickly shut off the feed.

“Your wife cooks?”

“Family skill passed down through countless generations,” Tenser said, stepping out of the ship again. In the distance, they could see an emergency ground unit heading their way.

“I’ve never met a Customizer level cook before,” Michael admitted, his voice not hiding a slight amount of awe.

“She’s the only Customizer cook on the East Coast,” Tenser replied.

The emergency unit pulled up and a vaguely humanoid robot exited the vehicle.

“Please step away from the flaming vehicle. If you are on fire, roll on the ground.”

Michael casually walked up to the robot and flipped a switch at the seam of torso and neck. The robot collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk. Michael opened the door to the emergency vehicle and held it for Tenser.

“After you, sir.”

Tenser’s eyebrow bent upwards and he entered the commandeered vehicle.

 

***

 

Molly Tenser welcomed Michael into her home like an old friend. She spared only a brief glance at the emergency vehicle parked on the front curb before immediately transitioning into her hostess roll.

“Edgar has an architect friend who he helps advertise himself to other Customizers, in return he built this house for us,” she said leading Michael into the spacious foyer. Edgar left them alone, presumably to change out of his work clothes.

The house was a retrospective of the “cookie-cutter” houses of upper-middle class suburban America – circa 2000. The foyer was large and octagonal, each face opening to space via doorway or window. It was typical of the foyer to have housed an oversized Christmas tree during the holidays, the bigger the better. Some tree lots specialized in grossly misshapen trees that were proportionately grotesque – thirty feet tall with foliage extending in a diameter of two feet at the widest. The fashion of the day brought a rainbow assortment of custom foliage. A thousand different shades of green and red were the most common, but occasionally you saw such bizarre colors as gunship grey. Couple that with the thirty by two foot monstrosities and you had what looked like a ballistic missile.

Molly walked him through each room in turn. To the left was a study done in natural dark wood. The sofas were decked out in ornate handcrafted wood designs, again a favor from another Customizer, specializing in woodworking this time. A wide assortment of books lined shelves built into the walls. Michael couldn’t read any of the spines and didn’t allow himself time to investigate further as he hung on every word Molly said about the people who helped contribute to the home he found himself in.

Not all Customizers chose to live in stand-alone housing like this. A good number lived in apartments similar to those built by GoodeLife, Inc., and more still lived in group houses – most often with other Customizers whose skills complimented their own. For example, a writer might live with graphic artist, a programmer, and a producer.

The study connected to a small sitting room that could easily be used for afternoon tea, or an intimate group activity. Molly then lead him into the kitchen, which though appearing spacious in the video feed he had seen, was quite cramped. Michael couldn’t spot a sustenance generator unit anywhere and soon surmised that the Tensers actually ate real prepared food all the time. A pot of beans boiled away on what Michael remembered was called a stove.

“Don’t worry, Michael,” she said to him, all smiles. “That’s just a side dish. There are cheeseburgers on the grill and I’ll throw some French-fried potatoes in the fryer once we’ve finished our cocktails.

Michael listened to her words like a man catching the echoes of the Burning Bush speaking to Moses. Cheeseburgers were something he had only seen in documentary feeds on the history nodes.

Edgar rejoined them in a pair of workout pants and a t-shirt. In his hands he carried two scotches, neat, and a vodka martini which he handed his wife.

“Like what you see, Michael?” he asked, handing him one of the glasses.

“Very impressive craftsmanship, sir,” he responded.

“Hell, call me Edgar in my own home.”

Michael did not need prompting to imbibe the drink handed him and took a slow exploratory taste of the scotch after getting a good noseful of it.

“Jesus God,” Michael said, “Is this Talisker?”

Edgar choked on his sip and liquor leaked out of his mouth in shiny rivulets.

“How did you know that?”

“LRC General Assembly two years ago. My friend Freddy had inherited some and –“

He stopped speaking. He had already forgotten Freddy. The lapse disturbed him.

Edgar seemed to catch the gist of the sudden silence and ushered Michael into another room. Michael acquiesced and soon found himself in a sparsely furnished living room. A giant fireplace emerged from the largest wall which stood directly opposite him as he entered the room. The Fireplace was done in a clever combination of marble and granite, both of which twisted in and out of each other in a manner that reminded one of ocean waves of blue water and white foam. Excessively expensive furniture provided more than adequate lounging space, but Edgar led him straight through the room and out a sliding glass door opening out onto a patio overlooking a descending slope of well-manicured grass terminating in a dense timberline.

Molly had followed them out and tended to her burgers on a grill on the patio.

“What sort of work do you do, Mister –“

“Michael, just call me Michael.”

“Lurkers choose not to have family names, dear,” Edgar explained.

“I know that,” she said in retort. “What do you specialize in Michael?”

“Mostly the networking and communication protocols and pertinent systems for MultiFeed units.”

“Sounds like it’s complicated,” she opined. “Don’t you find it hard to compete with droids that can directly interface with the networks?”

Michael nodded knowingly, having been asked the same question many times before. “It’s not really competition. Sure, the LRC does what it can to minimize the bot impact on society, but we’re not actively competing with them.”

Edgar listened with interest, still attempting to break this man apart into pieces he could readily understand. He was caught off guard when Michael asked him a question.

“What is your specialty, Edgar?” Michael asked, before sipping his scotch again.

“They’re bad words now, but basically marketing and advertising. Specifically I evaluate consumers’ probable reactions to certain stimuli and attempt what is known as a “long con” in derogatory terms. I get them to want to need certain items I need to get rid of.”

“That’s illegal.”

“Does it look like that’s something I am worried about?” Edgar said, gesturing to the house behind them.

“Isn’t GloFed a little tricky to avoid?”

“I have them under control. Those Anti-marketing laws are just to make the everyday consumers feel as if they have free will when it’s absolutely not true. Humans rely too much on what other people think of them to dictate the choices they make.”

“Yes, but the whole idea behind the anti-marketing movement to begin with was that with a Global network, consumers now had all the data they need to make informed decisions about what product to buy.”

Edgar ignored him and traipsed down the yard towards a Live Node extending out of the ground on a pole.

He keyed a few strokes and eventually music began to play across the acreage making up the Tenser abode.

Michael did not recognize the music. It sounded vaguely like an orchestral arrangement, but the instruments being used seemed cacophonic and completely wrong.

The smell of meat cooking on the grill wafted across the backyard. It made Michael’s throat clench in a strange way he had not experienced before. The saliva glands in his mouth were doing their job and then some.

Tenser returned to him and did not continue along the same path of discussion they started with.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I brought you here, Michael. And even if you are not, I am going to tell you why I brought you here. You see, up until a few minutes ago I thought you were an anarchist.”

Michael looked shocked.

“Yes, I know. A damn fool mistake. The music you hear is somewhat of a musical manifesto of the anarchist’s creed. They all know it by heart – it is part of who they are. The fact that you didn’t comment on it at all was the final nail in the coffin.”

Michael still struggled to find words. For the second time in one day someone had accused him of being an anarchist. He was beginning to not like it very much.

“Mr. Tenser, I’m a simple man,” he said in unnecessary defense.

“I must have offended you,” Tenser surmised. “You’ve gone back to ‘Mr.’ again.”

“I just don’t see how anyone could possibly confuse me for an anarchist.”

“I’ll tell you what it is, Michael. You’re young. You have a youthful exuberance in your eye. You look as if you’re about to jump out a window any second to save the universe. But you’re wise – that’s what confuses me.”

“Why is that?” Michael asked, finishing his scotch.

“You know things you shouldn’t, and then you present your knowledge as if you’ve experienced these things first hand. You don’t seem like the type of person who would sit, read, and then regurgitate data. You are intimately a part of the knowledge you glean and then just about anyone would believe you knew these things to be true because you must have been there first-hand.”

“Again, I’m just a simple man with simple hobbies.” Michael replied.

“That may be so,” Tenser said, noticeably loosening up. “Is hijacking public service droids one of those hobbies?

Michael smiled, but kept silent.

“Right,” Tenser conceded. “Let me get you another scotch.”

As Tenser returned to the house, Michael took the opportunity to look around. The backyard was immense and could hold a nice-sized wedding reception party quite easily. He could see where small trails cut paths through the dense trees and walked toward one of them. He was about to examine some markings in the soft dirt of the trail when he heard a voice above him.

“It’s a game trail,” said the voice. “Deer mostly.”

Michael looked up and saw a teenage girl in a tree, her legs dangling from the limb she was sitting on. He smiled politely at her, but then noticed she held in her hand a red water balloon.

“Hello,” he said to her. “I’m Michael.”

The girl hefted the water balloon in her hand – its shape changing from tall to flat and back again with gravity. He watched her, not sure if the balloon was meant for him or some other victim.

She was dressed in khaki shorts that rode just above the thickest parts of her thighs. Her pale yellow shirt was barely sleeved and was covered at the shoulders with her long brown hair.

“Do you know who owns these woods?” she asked him, still menacing him with the balloon.

“I assume they are connected to Mr. Tenser’s property, but I might be wrong,” he guessed.

“You are wrong,” she replied. “These woods belong to no one.”

“I see,” Michael said. “Are you their guardian, poised to pelt trespassers with your watery defenses?”

She smiled a bit and then cocked her hand back a bit further, as if about to throw the balloon.

“If I am, then are you not destined to become my next victim?”

“Perhaps,” he said, smiling a bit more. “But after all, I am only on the grass.”

The splash of water from the balloon hitting the ground before him came faster than he could react to, but only a few drops hit his shoes and the cuffs of his coveralls.

“Then consider that a warning shot across your bow,” she said and swung down gracefully from her perch, landing softly in the grass. Casually, she grabbed a knapsack full of balloons from behind one of the trees.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“I don’t have a name when I’m outside civilization,” she said matter-of-factly. Readjusting her knapsack over one shoulder she began to walk down one of the paths. Michael watched her as she disappeared into the thickness of the trees and he then turned away, deciding to return to the house.

The vaguely tribal music still played its cacophonic melodies across the yard and lent the scene an enveloping macabre miasma of sound that made the house seem to threaten him with its urbaneness – wielding its clever color schemes like an ax over his head. Michael felt suddenly ill. He noticed a strange acrid odor and thought for a moment that perhaps Mrs. Tenser wasn’t that great a cook after all.

“Are you coming or not?” a voice spoke behind him.

Michael turned back to the woods and saw the girl with arms crossed, tapping her shoe on the path.

“I really should get back to the house, I’m expected,” he said, though reluctantly. The girl had changed in a way but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Her hair seemed to throw reflective sparkles from the sunbeams, making it appear that her hair was made of tiny rainbows. He was vaguely attracted to her in a very animal sense – a predator-prey sense much more than anything purely sexual. He could see the roles reversed suddenly, seeing her as the predator – a widow spider, luring yet another morsel of food into her forest web.

Suddenly, Michael realized he had been drugged. The balloon had held some quickly evaporating liquid, the fumes of which he had inhaled. His cohesion to reality had become tentative.

“Follow me, Michael,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

Against all the voices screaming in his head to run from this place, Michael took a step toward her.

“There’s a good boy.”

He followed her down the path, staying ten feet or so behind her. He noticed then, for the first time, that the back of her shirt had an upside-down owl screen-printed on it. He focused on this and let himself be led deeper into the woods.

“If you were Alice and I were a white rabbit you’d be falling down a hole by now,” she said, suddenly very close to him. He blinked his eyes blearily and was able to focus long enough to see her looking back at him.

“He’s going to destroy you, you know. He thinks you’re an anarchist,” she said to him. “He’ll play with you a while, letting you think he’s off the scent. It’s his favorite thing to do – crushing little people like ants. But we both know the real problem here is that you’re not an anarchist. You’re just special and he hates those that are special because he doesn’t understand how you fit into things. He sees you as illogical.”

He was in a state of complete inebriation but her words pounded into his memory like cuts from an engraver’s chisel.

“You are special. That won’t keep you safe, though. I’ll protect you. Remember what you see here.”

“Who are you?” he said, his voice thick and too low.

“I’m his daughter,” she said, and disappeared.

A sudden pain erupted in Michael’s head and within a few seconds his vision was restored to normal. The drug was wearing off quickly. He looked around him, but saw no sign of the girl. He was in a small glade and sunlight broke through the boughs in mote-infested beams. The glade was circular and in its center a small yellow flower was growing. Michael had seen a flower like this many times before in botany feeds. The species existed only in a few laboratories in the world, and there in highly controlled conditions. Yet, here he saw one growing wild.

It was a dandelion.

Michael silently left the glade and walked back down one of the trails, hoping it to be the correct one to lead him back to the house. After a short walk, he emerged and was greeted by Edgar Tenser, holding his second scotch out for him.

“It’s a wonder you didn’t get lost out there,” he said to Michael. It was obvious that the man was frustrated with him. He may have been waiting there for one minute or thirty – it was hard for Michael to tell.

“On the other side of those woods is an old Freeminders commune,” Tenser said. “Or what’s left of it. I often would walk the trails through the woods and sift through the place looking for old coins, bottles, various trinkets. My grandmother called them gypsies, but she gets them confused with some other transient group from the past. Freeminders are just zombies – brains made mush with overuse of psychoactives.”

“What happened to them?” Michael asked.

“Who knows? Maybe a raid. Maybe they just moved on. They were just remnants of a past that knew better than to think it would win out.”

Michael stared at the woods, immediately envisioning the girl, Tenser’s daughter, wondering if she had found some stash of drugs in the old camp and used it on him.

“You’re a remnant too,” Tenser said to him. “Or at least, your organization is.”

“I know,” Michael replied. “My family can be traced back to the labor unions in the twentieth century. I guess we never learn.”

“That’s exactly it,” Tenser said. “Some people just don’t learn. But I’ve always had a bit of respect for you Lurkers. Hard workers, I’ll give you that. You just can’t beat the automation. You never could.”

Michael shrugged. “We do alright.”

“Well, at least you’re not one of those damn American Democracy nutcases,” Tenser said with a scoff. “Bunch of lunatics on a fortified island, cut off from the world. Remnants. Useless.”

Michael nodded vaguely, not familiar with the group.

“Dinner’s ready!” Molly called from the patio.

Edgar and Michael walked together back up to the house, both sipping their drinks as they walked.

“Are those woods attached to your property?” Michael asked him.

“Yes, they are,” Tenser said gruffly. “I normally don’t let anyone wander in there. Liability issues, you know. Those game trails are fresh, and where there’s safe game, there’s also predators.”

Michael smirked to himself thinking of the word “predator”. For some reason, his mind’s eye conjured up an image of the girl then a spider. The image then twisted to Tenser whose face suddenly became that of a wolf. Michael shivered uncontrollably and decided not to mention his experience.

The scent of the meal was overwhelming and Michael was ravenous. He bit into his burger with gusto and the juices erupted from the side of his mouth. He apologized and quickly wiped his mouth with a napkin.

“Hell, son,” Edgar said, “you can’t eat a cheeseburger without getting a little messy.”

Michael smiled and nodded in agreement, chewing with ecstasy and loving every burst of flavor assaulting his mouth.

Then the water balloon hit him with quite some force in the side of the head. Michael choked on his bite and struggled to breathe as the Tensers rose from their chairs and backed away, both equally soaked from the explosion.

The smell was different this time and it was overwhelming enough to induce retching.

It was urine.

Luckily, the gagging helped move the beef stuck in his throat, and Michael was able to breathe again.

“Now who in the hell threw that?” Tenser roared – his face reddening quickly with his realization of the balloon’s content.

Michael smirked a bit in spite of the situation and said, “I think it was your daughter.”

“Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?” Tenser demanded.

“A joke?” Michael said. “She’s already hit me once today.”

Molly suddenly realized what was soaking through her expensive Customizer-traded clothing and promptly threw up her burger.

“Explain yourself, you little shit,” Tenser yelled at him. “I don’t have a daughter!”

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