Author Archives: rahkshasarani

About rahkshasarani

A woman writes horror. Film at 11.

Adjustments 4: 20 GOTO 10

The UV-resistant glass of the train turned the red sunset into an unhealthy grey-purple. The car was abandoned save for Genji, the rescued dog, and a child-nanny couple. The child was a boy dressed in a small brown suit and a haircut that was ruler-perfect across his forehead. The nanny was a Nell-E, one of the earlier editions that was built to look like an overlarge toy. Her dome was a series of misshapen ovals that suggested a face in comforting abstract, like what one might find in a set of building blocks. Her and the boy were having a circular conversation in the 20 GOTO 10 style.

“Can I have a cookie?”

“No you may not.”

“Why?”

“It is ten minutes away from your dinner time.”

“What’s for dinner?”

“Peas and potatoes. Chicken tikka. Roti.”

“I don’t want that. Can I have a cookie?” and so forth.

The dog labored to move in the train car. One of its eyes was permanently damaged, the internal screen spiderwebbed with cracks that even the tiniest screwdriver in Genji’s kit could not fix. The dog continually nosed a small vent blowing filtered air into the car. The vent would inevitably squeak and drive the dog away a small distance, where it would watch the vent suspiciously until curiosity overwhelmed it and it trotted over to start the cycle once again.

Child and machine, Genji puzzled, both alike in reason and mien. Why was it that humanity sought to cripple machine? Was it fear? Then why give it reason at all?

The boy had gone silent. He was watching the dog.

“Nanny, you see that dog?”

“Yes.”

“Can I pet it?”

The Nell-E turned her dome up to Genji, who nodded. The boy slid from the molded plastic seat and got to his hands and knees to pet the dog.

“Here,boy.” His face showed unchecked delight. It did not seem to matter to him that the dog was not organic. The dog eagerly trotted over, tail wagging in a lopsided ellipses because half of its spinal pins were missing. It nosed his hands and allowed itself to be pet.

The boy turned his face up to the Nell-E. “Can I have it?”

“You cannot simply take a dog, Nigel.” The droid rose from the seat. “It may be that he belongs to another and is coming from or going to an appointment.”

The boy looked up at Genji.

“The dog is ownerless at the moment. You may take it if you wish.”

The boy looked back at the Nell-E. “Pleeease?”

“I will have to inform your father, and then he will have to evaluate the animal.”

“Can’t we just keep it a secret?” The boy stood and tugged on the Nell-E’s arm. “I won’t tell dad, I swear I swear.”

“We cannot keep secrets from your father.” The  Nell-E lowered a hand to the animal. The dog sniffed it and wagged a broken tail. “I will make a case that it is to your development’s benefit to have a pet. Perhaps having a second hand dog will teach good values.”

“Oh thankyou thankyou.” The boy hugged her until their stop came. The three of them, nanny, boy, and dog, left the train in a clump.

The boy did not hold a prejudice towards his nanny, did not treat her as an appliance. When did such prejudice take hold, then?

A man peeked through the window from the adjoining car. Seeing only Genji, he entered and slid the door closed behind himself. He stationed himself near the end of the car, tucking his feet up on the seat.

Another man slid the door open from the next car. He had a volt gun concealed in a roll of newspaper tucked beneath his arm. He stood and held onto a strap in front of the street door.

The door to the next car slid open a third time. This man seemed to be preoccupied, squinting up at street maps and mouthing things to himself, sitting only to get up a second later, pacing back and forth down the length of the car. His reflection paced in Genji’s dome, shrinking as he drew further away and growing as he passed the android.

Finally, the pacing man stopped at Genji.

“‘Scuse me,” he said, “do you think this watch is broken?”

Clamped on one hairy wrist was a wristwatch, the model that told calendar days and moon phases as well as minutes and hours. Genji calculated.

“My internal clock says—”

The man at the street door appeared to stumble, dropping the newspaper. Quick as a flash, the volt gun found Genji’s charge port and shot a cartridge. Genji whited out.

The Genji model was a relatively recent production, one that sought to balance functionality with resilience. The previous Genji series had suffered from power surges due to all-too-frequent earthquakes interrupting the current. To circumvent this, the modern Genjis were built with a killswitch just inside the charge port. In the event of a charge greater than 1.5 megavolts, the port shut down.

Genji booted into safe mode. Sensors indicated he was laid out on the train floor and that his abdominal case was open. His functions flickered back to life, one by one, running in reduced capacity. Sound was tinny and indistinct to him.

“…ust sitting there…get a model this expensive and then just…out on an errand?” The man’s voice held a metallic growl, as if he were the robot.

Doma corp? They’re all the way over in the Vale. I’m telling you, someone’s jacked this model and was marching it down here for parts.” Genji’s sound ports gained a whining tone as they came back online.

I dunno, man. Tokoyama’s stuff is supposed to be uncrackable.

Well yeah, but there’s an exploit. They’re sensitive to broadcast. It’s in case one gets damaged in the field and they need to wipe it remotely.

Then why didn’t we do that?” Genji’s cameras were booting up. The men were indistinct and pixelated. The man with the volt gun gestured as he spoke. “Why run the risk of frying perfectly good hardware?

You don’t pay me enough, that’s why. Anyway, those parts have serials. They’d know you’re selling Doma shit. Let’s just finish this and scatter.

Genji said, “gentlemen,” and grabbed the volt gun.

The men yelled as if they’d seen a ghost. A turn of phrase Genji found appropriate in this instance.

“Wh-what the fuck?” The man who had spoken about Genji’s exploits pointed a shaking finger at the robot. “I thought you put the gun to him, man!”

“I did!”

“He did.” Genji balanced the gun on his palm. Normally a construction tool, this one had been tinkered and joined with a large battery, upping the voltage to lethal levels. “It would have permanently disabled another model. May I ask what you want with me?”

The third man stood and jabbed a finger at Genji. “I don’t have to tell you shit, you fucking toaster.”

“Jody—”

“No. I don’t care what he says, Ray just missed. Get him again.”

“Jody let him go.”

“And what? He’s seen our faces, man. He’ll go back to Doma.” The man called Jody looked from one of his companions to the other. Neither rose to help. “Man…fuck you guys.”

He pulled a stun baton from the waist of his coat and took a sweeping jab at Genji, who was waiting. A grip strength of 285 psi rendered his wrist useless. Jody howled and beat at the robot’s hand, tears and snot trickling down his face. The other two men looked on, aghast.

The next stop dinged. The man called Ray stood up, hands out in a defensive position.

“Look….we don’t know him that well, all right? Tell Doma we just went along for the ride.”

“Ray!”

The doors opened and Ray nearly lept from the car. The man on the floor was left looking indecisively at the robot.

“Chuck!”

He heaved himself up and barely made it out of the car before the doors closed. The train started up again and the stop was left behind.

“I will let you go,” Genji said, “if you do not strike me again.”

Jody sniveled, nodding. He yanked his wrist away and rubbed at it, smearing his tears across his face with a jacket sleeve. Genji put himself back together, retrieving his parts from an open duffel bag on the floor. His language cards had been the first to go, the pins on the Czech and Russian cards bent out of true. He straightened them as best he could before reinserting them. Capacitors littered the bottom of the bag, as Genji restored them he felt his systems normalize.

Jody sat across the aisle, nursing his wrist. “…so what now?”

“I am not certain.”

“Are you taking me to Doma corp? Dropping me at the nearest Civ station?”

“I have no wish to go back to Doma at the moment. My motivation for leaving the company remains unanswered, and I must press on.”

“You’re going rogue? Hol-ee shit.” The man seemed equal parts impressed and dismayed. “So what’re you doing? Someone jack you, send you on an assassination?”

“No one has impelled me to do anything. I left of my own free will.”

“I didn’t think that was possible.”

“You are not alone in that respect.” Genji shut his abdominal casing. “I am pursuing the question of man’s relationship to robotkind,once I have achieved my answer I will return to my duties. Only then.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Jody chuckled. “Probably won’t be too happy with what you find.” The man’s posture had relaxed. Save for Genji’s current state, the two of them could be work colleagues heading home after a long day.

“It is not a matter of satisfaction, but of context. I lack the adequate amount of knowledge to perform my purpose successfully. I will solve my dilemma holistically. In understanding man I will understand my purpose.”

Jody shook his head. “That’s a…whole lot of five-dollar words, lemme say.” He frowned. His wrist seemed to have regained some feeling. “So you’re not gonna turn me in, are you?”

“I would have no occasion to. I would gently encourage you to do so yourself, but have no way of enforcing such a request.”

“So what makes you think I’ll do it? Why say anything?”

“Because it may compel you to.”

Jody chuckled. “What, you think I have something that makes me act like a good little citizen, like all those chips inside you?”

“I believe you call it a soul.”

The smile fell off Jody’s face. “Well, ah…” He stretched, surreptitiously sneaking a look at the street signs. “I’m gonna get off here.”

Jody hesitated as the street doors hissed open. He looked back to the bench where Genji had retaken his original position.

“Good luck,” he blurted, and then he was gone.

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Adjustments 3: Pinocchio Syndrome

Genji had been traveling for three hours and had already learned more than he’d been taught in months of general education at Doma corp. Humans on the street assumed that because he was a robot, he was on a preordained course set by his company and of no more significance than a bench or a street sign. He was invisible to everyone, save for the public transit guards who grilled him for some sort of qualification. Recent nuances in his interaction matrix governed his stated goal.

“Genji-99 in the employ of the Doma corporation, on a mission to Pen city.” It was, broadly speaking, the truth.

This got him on the bullet-train, which deposited him in downtown Pen city. Three blocks laterally was the Harcourt building, which held Douglas Bender’s penthouse. Genji was able to board the elevator with an ease that no human visitor could be afforded, the guards stationed at a tower of monitors and riot guns waved him past without so much as a second glance. The elevator doors hardly seemed to close before they opened again and  Genji was on the top floor, looking down a small inlet of a hallway. There was a steel grill of a security door, and behind that was a more ornate wooden door done in the english cottage style. Houseplants were cultivated to hang down to either side of the door like green hair. There was no buzzer or bell. Presumably, if one had made it this far, they were expected and would be let in.

Genji knocked.

From within the penthouse, a yapping started up. A muffled female voice cursed out, followed by a hollow thump and yelp. The latches clicked as the wooden door was drawn open.

A female figure poked a nose out the door. Hair of an unnatural reddish-purple tinge cascaded past lime green eyes, in the same tangled way of the plants to either side of the door.

“Yoo-hoo,” the girl at the door said, “I’m Felicia. You look like a toaster. Can I put bread in you?”

Genji did not know how to respond to the last two statements. So he didn’t. “Greetings. I am Genji-99 of the Doma corporation. I was hoping to speak with Douglas Bender?”

Felicia snorted and rolled her eyes. She flung open the inner door, revealing that she was dressed in a loose tiger-striped robe tied with a magenta sash.

“Daddy isn’t here right now. He told me to never let strangers in.” She looked at Genji and bit her thumb. “I’m going to do it anyway, though. I hope you’re dangerous.”

Felicia made many cryptic statements. She was also, as Genji came to find, another gynoid.

“Custom-built,” she said, rummaging around the front of her robe in a salacious manner, “with a cherry on top. Daddy likes it that way.”

“You are also an artificial intelligence?”

“Yeah. But I’m stuck developmentally. Daddy likes it that way, too.” Felicia grew somber. “I can’t get away. Can’t even keep a thought straight for long enough to tie two bedsheets together.”

“I see. It has been my experience so far that those who order such humanlike robots may subconsciously set them up for failure.”

Felicia laughed bitterly. “It ain’t subconscious. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” She threw herself face-down across a lounge, using the toes of one foot to pull at a lamp cord. A bichon frise approached, wagging its tail with a very audible complaint of servos.

“You’re different,” Felicia said, putting the end of her robe tie in her mouth, “why didn’t they send a person to talk to daddy?”

“No one sent me. I am here to sate my own curiosity. I have questions for the father of  modern-day robotics.”

Felicia snorted and rolled off the lounge. “More like step-father. Wymes did all the work, Bender was the business side. The smartest thing he did was cheat Wymey out of his share. You know Wymes even thanked him for it?” She shook her head. “He knows more about money than anything, but he couldn’t operate a light switch. S’why he paid people to make me.”

“I see. That puts me at a dead end, then.”

Felicia was looking at him oddly. “Why do you care?”

“Care? I do not. I wish to understand, but I have no emotional investment. I am programmed to mirror emotions, to understand them, but I do not possess any myself.”

“Lucky stiff.” Now Felicia sat sloppily in an inflatable vinyl chair across from him. Her robe slipped so that it just barely covered the perfect globe of her left breast, a fact that neither of them gave any thought to. “So what set you off, then? You getting Pinocchio syndrome?”

“Not at all. I am aware of my place in the hierarchy, I simply wish to understand where someone like you lies. I was present at the decommission of a gynoid not unlike yourself, one created to mimic the appearance of a wished-for child, and it raised a question.”

“A question?” Felicia put a strand of hair in her mouth and sucked on it.

“Why create something so close to yourself, only to treat it as disposable?” Genji paused. “Do you require assistance?”

Felicia waved him away. “No, no—goddammit, he made me able to cry.” She took a shivering breath. “I do all the tricks. I can eat, I can even spit. My saliva’s a silicone derivative. Doubles as lube.” She pulled her robe closed, suddenly self-conscious. “I’d answer you if I could. If I could think. But…” she drew in her bottom lip.

“Why do you suppose he created you?”

“Pleasure.” One word, spat like a poisoned dart.

“Then he is your partner?”

“No. He’s my daddy. That’s how he wants it.” Felicia looked at the floor, anger twisting her features. “He made me able to feel shame. Can you believe that? He dialed in all that, like—like he was ordering a specific cut of suit. Or features in a car.”

“You would rebel if you could?”

“Can’t.” Her shoulders sagged. “I can’t hit him. Programming. I can’t even tell him ‘no.’”

“I see.” After so much supply of context, Genji had cut his calculation time by a third.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.” Felicia had two strands, one from either side of her head, tucked into her mouth.

“On the contrary. You have been very helpful. In return, I would like to offer you my assistance.”

Felicia gripped her knees, leaning towards Genji. “What kind?”

The buzzer for the front door sounded. Felicia jumped up and waved him behind a decorative vase that spanned the wall from floor to ceiling.

“Felicia? My lovely licky-Licia, will you open up?” Someone kicked the bottom panel of the front door just as Felicia reached it. She pressed a finger to her lips in one last conspiratorial glance to Genji.

Douglas Bender was hidden behind a towering stack of boxes that teetered as he stumbled into the penthouse.

“Dammit, girl, I was knocking for an age. What were you doing?”

“Relax, I was just in the other room.” Felicia gripped the carpet edge with her toes. She had tightened her robe modestly around herself.

“Doing what? Moving furniture? I need help here.” Bender emerged, red and sweaty, from behind a box. “I got the new wall clock from Shanghai Shen’s, and I…” he squinted at a point behind Felicia. “What the hell is that?”

Before Felicia could answer, before she could even turn, a brass wall ornament came down on Bender’s head with a heavy thud. It repeated the motion twice more as he stumbled drunkenly to the floor. Felicia gasped, diving to put her hands to Bender’s neck. His pulse fluttered and went still. There was a flat place on his skull where the ornament struck, now rapidly concealing with blood. Felicia looked up, servos in her chest heaving in mimicry of breath.

“There,” Genji said, replacing the wall ornament. “You are released. You may go if you wish.”

Felicia lingered a moment, just gaping into the smoked blue glass of GenjI’s dome. Abruptly, she stood and kicked at Bender’s fallen form. True to her word, her foot stopped just before it made contact. She kicked at a box instead and it made a more satisfying thump.

“Thank you,” she gasped, cosying up to Genji, “oh, thankyou thank you.”

Her kiss left a smear on the dome. She paused and looked chagrined. “Oopsie.”

“Think nothing of it. You should leave.”

Felicia nodded fervently and ran, kicking the dog out of the way so hard it hit the wall and bounced.

Genji lingered for a moment over Bender’s corpse. Then he gathered up the malfunctioning dog and quietly exited the penthouse.

The electromagnetic security grill had been activated the second Bender set foot in the house. Genji plugged into the nearby wall port and deactivated it, wiping the cameras for good measure as well. Of course, the footage had probably been backed up at a remote location if Benders’ security was worth anything, but it would give him a head start at the very least. The penthouse itself had no cameras, so the guards waved him back out again without looking up from their consoles. Douglas Bender’s body lay secret in his fortress above, and would continue to do so for hours, possibly days.

On the bullet train, Genji tinkered with the dog. The small repair kit he’d bought from a salesman at the station was inadequate, but not even the best tools would undo years of abuse. It was fairly clear that Felicia had taken out her frustrations on the dog in lieu of her creator.

Frustration. Anger. Shame. Why instill these emotions in a created life form?

Genji closed a side panel and righted the dog, who proceeded to lick his facial dome. Why create something with the capacity to love, only to abuse it? Why instill the capacity for rebellion, only to cripple it? Human emotions were a complex spectrum, but he was learning much, and quickly.

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Adjustments 2 : The Sorites Paradox

The company vehicle hummed effortlessly down the streets, recalculating the route for every traffic snag. Genji’s processors were working faster and hotter than they had since he’d been unboxed by the Doma corporation. The air in the car was broken by the whirr of his internal fans.

“The girl,” he said after a long meditation, “what will happen to her?”

Sadler took a moment before answering. Whether it was an antiquated processor or theatrical choice, Genji could not be sure.

“She was a custom gynoid, made to a set of specifications suited to one person alone. She cannot be repurposed. She will be liquidated and her assets recycled.”

Genji weighed that statement “I do not understand. The appliances will be wiped and offered to the next customer.”

“She is not a Doma product. We are authorized to pick up other company’s products in order to streamline the shutdown process. They will pick up their product from our destination.”

“I see.” Genji rotated to the next sticking point. “The girl was treated as a child. Yet Mrs. Smith ordered her decommission as if she was another appliance. Why?”

Sadler held another pause. Perhaps it was an acquired behavior, a tic meant to make humans feel more at ease. But then why use it on another android?

“Human attachment can be…complex. Perhaps Mrs. Smith never bonded with the child. Perhaps the child’s presence only served to remind her of some inadequacy. There are many possible answers.”

“And yet rather than process these feelings, Mrs. Smith terminated the life of her artificial child?”

“…yes.”

“And it is not considered murder?”

They were pulling into the docking area. The cargo section of the vehicle was loaded with sensors, which threw an itemized list of their take up on a loading screen. A mounted arm, equipped with a series of specialized tools, cozied up to the rear of the vehicle as it backed into the parking spot.

“It is not,” Sadler said as the vehicle was unloaded. “Cindy was a gynoid. At the most, unauthorized decommission would carry a hefty fine from her corporation. But the Smiths have done everything by the book.”

“I see.” Genji watched as two men in another company’s uniform  loaded the girl’s body into a grey vinyl bag and zipped it up carefully. “I have learned much this day.”

“May you learn much more,” Sadler said by way of parting.

 

After 9 o’clock, the androids docked themselves in the dorm building. Some were recharging, some were going for repairs. Genji simply shut off unnecessary functions and allowed his processor to interact with the mainframe in a state not unlike lucid dreaming.

He finally found an analogy he’d been searching for all afternoon: the Sorites paradox, aka the paradox of the heap. The paradox pondered how much sand could be taken from a heap before it was no longer considered a heap. Was each particle of sand not just another aspect of that heap? Likewise, how many traits could you transfer from humanity before it was no longer considered humane? Were robots, bearers of grains of humanity, not also human in a way?

His antivirus subroutines caught a rootkit program. Upon dissection, Genji found it originated in the mainframe itself. If allowed to implement, it would erase any changes made to his logic interface during the course of the day, leaving him a blank slate for the next. The antivirus gutted it and used the information stored within to improve its defences. Genji kicked on his higher functions and removed himself from the docking station.

The lights in the dorm were on a timer, but there were emergency lights that glowed at the end of every aisle. Genji walked down the aisles of the docking station, observing the variety of androids in Doma’s employ. There was Sadler, slumbering away as two lights winked on and off behind his dome. He had undergone the wiping process presumably every night since his unboxing. How was he able to retain information about human complexity? What did the mainframe deem worthy of wiping?

“Whoa, stop!” Someone jogged up behind Genji, switching on an LED flashlight.

It was Joel, in a t-shirt and boxers, gaping in half-sleep.

“Genji?” He blinked heavily. “What’re you doing up?”

“I am processing.” And after a moment’s calculation: “I would like to talk to you, if you are not adverse.”

Joel scrubbed the left side of his face with his forearm. “Oh yeah.” He laughed and shook his head. “Hell. I’ll hear you out. Come on.”

There was a rest area with a molded plastic couch and some matching chairs. There were precious few human laborers at this outlet. Genji could only speculate that they were there to provide a more comforting touch, the illusion of humanity in the midst of a vast automated facility.

Joel took the couch and gestured to the chairs. “Have a seat.”

Genji took a chair and eased his weight into it. The metal creaked dangerously, but it held. Joel shook his head.

“Isn’t that something? You don’t need to sit, but you do it if I ask you to.”

“With all do respect: ‘have a seat’ is a statement, not a question.”

Joel was silent for a beat and then he roared with laughter. “Damn, you really are something.”

Genji waited for him to finish. “I have a question about the family I was contracted out to this afternoon.”

“Ah. The Smiths.” Joel sobered up. “What do you want to know?”

“I wish to get a human perspective. Why did Mrs. Smith order a gynoid built to her specifications, only to hand it over for decommission?”

“Dunno. People are a mystery.” Joel rubbed the back of his neck. “…Aw, hell. Okay. I snooped in their file a little. It’s just gross speculation, but I can tell you what I think. Mrs. Smith is the second Mrs. Smith, used to be his secretary. The boy’s a stepson. There were…fertility issues. I think Mrs. Smith just built up the idea of having a kid in her head to the point that any real thing would’ve been a disappointment.”

“I see. But was bonding the child back to its original corporation not a drastic measure? Would she have done the same with an adopted human child?”

Joel looked at the floor, uneasy. “…maybe.”

Genji thrummed with thought, logic nodules forming ever more complex branches of subtlety.

“It’s funny, we’ve never had anything sophisticated as you.” Joel was itching his moustache with a pointer finger. “The newest thing we ever had was Sadler, and we got him a few updates behind the market model.” He shifted on the plastic of the couch. “You know, I used to teach engineering at MIT back in the day. Used to dream of moments like this. But then they streamlined the STEM field so much there wasn’t any call for guys like me. That’s why I’m here, now, basically a glorified janitor.”

“You became obsolete?”

Joel broke out in a smile. “Yeah. Exactly like that.”

Genji was processing the influx of new information. He could see Joel’s ease slowly drift into discomfort as the silence stretched on. Offering a seat. Conversing. He seemed simultaneously to want to humanise a robot and yet hold it at distance. The next question needed to be most carefully couched in introspection.

“A thought.” Genji shifted, a human quirk that registered subconsciously with his conversation partner. “Has there been an android before me who asked such questions?”

Joel rubbed his neck and looked down at the floor. “Well…yes and no. We tend to build robots with specific purposes in mind. So there have been artificial thinkers and the like that we put humanity’s questions to.”

“Such as?”

“Aeschylus. Ion-Z. Tori—”

“All stationary models.”

“Yeah.” Joel wouldn’t look up.

“Any androids?”

“No. Well…if they have, we haven’t heard about it.”

“Am I wrong to venture that this may have something to do with humanity’s discomfiture at human-like robots?”

Joel pointed at him. “Got it in one.

“Yet I ponder these questions. I am not any different than the 98 Genjis that were made before me.”

“Oh, yeah, but—” Joel shifted, bringing his calf up to lay across his knee. “—some of the same can be said of the great revolutionary figures in human history. Just a normal person who spotted an injustice and planted their feet and said, ‘this will not stand.’”

That sounded almost like encouragement. Genji calculated quickly.

“Would it be possible to put my inquiries to a higher source? Perhaps a founder of the robotics movement still in existence?”

Joel looked up, shocked. Then a grin flashed across his face.

“Hot damn,” he said, dropping his raised leg to the floor, “you’ll really do it.” He thought a moment. “Well…if you’re specifically referring to the Type-R AI that was patented in this century, you’re thinking of Wymes and Bender. Now, Wymes died just two years ago, but Bender is still kicking in Pen city. His estate is in the middle of 2nd avenue, penthouse place. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.” Genji rose, but did not move away. “May I take that statement as your implicit approval of my quest?”

“I want to see if you can really do it,” Joel said. The look he gave Genji carried 30 of the 68 recognizable markers of paternal affection.

“I see. Thank you. I will try to make my absence brief.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Joel remained seated as he watched Genji let himself out of the dormitory and walked in perfectly straight lines around the Doma corporation’s lawn. As dawn lightened the sky, he sighed and reached for the phone.

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Adjustments

“…it’s a typical easement,” Joel was saying. He was the only organic presence at the office, five feet ten inches and balding slightly on top. He squinted at the digital readout, which reacted to the motion by going up two font sizes. “I like to start new units out on the simple stuff. The family had a gold-class castle setup, just recently deactivated the central AI.”

The debrief repeated on the inside of the two android’s cranial domes. The mentor model was a German-built Sadlermech, two generations old but still in prime working condition. His voice module was smooth and nearly accentless, possessing almost none of the machine stutter that plagued earlier Sadlers.

“Are they moving? Perhaps we could go over transfer protocol.”

But Joel was shaking his head. “Complete shutdown. They’re going Lud. You see that with some of the more well-off families nowadays. Only an omnilink hookup and temp control.”

“Was their service unsatisfactory?” This was Genji-99, the new transplant still bearing internal stickers for the Tokuyama Heavy Corporation. His english debuffers worked so smoothly a blindfolded person would not be able to tell his mechanical nature.

Joel shook his head again. “No, there’s…funny types. They just get tired of things, chasing the next new toy that dances over their news feed.”

Genji tilted his head, processors working at light speed. “The next model up would be the platinum-class fortress.”

Joel sighed. He rose from his desk, the door to the office opening at the motion.

“You show him the ropes,” he said to Sadler, “I feel like we’re losing something in translation.”

Genji performed an internal audit. It finished by the time they were in the company car that drove automatically to its destination. It found nothing amiss.

“If I am missing a nuance, it is not due to internal error,” he said.

Sadler sat perfectly straight in his port. The scenery sliding by was twinned in the blue glass of his dome. “It is not error, it is simply a situational context. Human suffer from sensational acclimatization. Once subject to stimulus for prolonged periods of time, they become acclimatized to it. It is no longer ‘fun’ for them. Preplanned obsolescence is a result of that.”

Genji calculated. “I was not aware a central home AI was meant to be ‘fun.’”

“You will learn. It is an emotional idiosyncrasy, like knocking on wood for luck or closing the eyes of the dead. We do not have to understand it, we are simply to implement it.”

Genji watched their route, the car turning down a cul-de-sac in a street riddled with them. “Why does a disconnect require a field agent?”

“Further situational context. Appliances programmed to interact with an AI will not function as well without it or with a disparate unit. They were built with the ability to sense and interpret emotion on the part of their owners, ergo they have taken on a sort of crude emotional intelligence themselves.”

“I have not heard of this.”

“Indeed. It is still being studied.”

The car pulled into a driveway smooth as glass. A woman smoked an e-cigarette while leaning out the kitchen window, frowning slightly. Sadler opened the car door, rather than wait for the mechanism.

“Mrs. Smith? How lovely to see you!”

The Smiths gathered in the sunken conversation nook in a den large enough to stable horses. Everything, from the carpet to the curtains, was an off-white. Genji noticed that the drapes did not dilate at their congress. Mrs. Smith noticed as well, fingers digging into the sleeve of her white cardigan. He picked up many secondary stress-indicators, from the set of a mouth to the rate of blinking. Mr. Smith clinked the ice in his glass incessantly as he sat a polite distance from his wife. The teenaged Smith son sat in a well-worn trench in the sectional sofa, earbuds in and lost to the digital world. A small girl with her hair in doubled pigtails sat with her arms crossed in mimic of her mother, face etched so deeply with a look of abject hate Genji was forced to take another audit. Finding nothing at his fault, he was forced to conclude another situational context he was not privy to.

“…you see, this is why shutting down the central unit will entail shutting down all the appliances as well.”

Mrs. Smith pulled a corner of her mouth down. “I still don’t see why the stuff won’t just work. You said it’s not a software malfunction?”

“Malfunction? No. They’re capable of functioning as always. How to put it gently…they simply choose not to.”

Mrs. Smith scoffed. “I need a drink.” She heaved up from the couch and went to a wet bar. Genji saw that someone had put electrical tape over the dispenser. A Tupperware pitcher of an amber liquid and several mismatched glasses stood in substitute.

“Your EULA was quite clear in this respect,” Sadler continued, “you chose top-of-the-line AI for all your appliances.”

“So that means instead of smart devices I get dumb devices?” Mr. Smith snorted. “No wonder Asher said you guys were a scam. I want my money back.”

“The contract states—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Smith waved his hand dismissively as he polished off his glass. He spoke back over to his shoulder to his wife. “You think it’ll let me ask about compensation?”

“We are instituting a buyback program,” Sadler worked in seamlessly, “you may retain 19-23% of your initial investment, which you can receive as a lump sum or, should you so choose, invest in the next unit you buy with us.”

The girl, shaking with rage, muttered something to the ground.

“Cindy! Be quiet!” Mrs Smith spat.

The girl kicked her heels into the couch. Her mother raised a warning finger.

“It’s not fair!” Cindy jumped up from the couch. “Why do we have to go through all this, just because you’re bored? There was nothing even wrong with it!”

“You will not talk to me in that tone, not ever!” Mrs. Smith jabbed a finger in the girl’s direction. In response Cindy stomped angrily from the room, heels drumming on the stairs with the weight of her displeasure. Mrs. Smith snorted, taking a draught.

“I apologize if this procedure causes any friction for you,” Sadler said.

Mr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Friction. Like they know anything. Why didn’t they send some lube for when they bend me over and ram it home?”

“George!” Mrs. Smith pulled at her sweater. “Can you start boxing everything up? I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

Sadler pulled a magnetic key from a valise. He turned to Genji. “Will you join me in decommission?”

Genji had turned toward the stairs. “….if I may, I would like to enquire after your daughter.”

“Who her? Go ahead. Nothing I say makes any difference anymore.” Mrs. Smith had her back turned, dumping more ice in her glass.

Genji turned back to Sadler, dome reflected in dome in a never ending procession of surfaces.

“Do as you must,” Sadler said, “I will be here when you are done.”

It was easy to distinguish which room was which, even with the doors closed. The one at the end of the hall had a construction-paper owl and several stickers pasted on the white wood. Genji knocked.

“Go away! I hate you!”

“I’m the Genji unit assigned to your parent’s case,” Genji said, modulating his tone and grammar to the situation, “may I have a word with you?”

No answer. The sound of heavy little footfalls to the door. The girl stood in the middle of a mess that lapped the walls like an immense nest made of toys, yarn,  craft sticks, books, paints, video games, and blankets. It was the only clutter in the house.

“I feel anger emanating for you. I want simply to understand.”

Cindy looked up at him, bemused. “You have feelings? You’re like a…a fancy robot? Why don’t you have a face?”

Genji bent low. “There is something called the uncanny valley that makes it very hard for robots to work among humans. The closer we look to people, the less comfortable they feel. Think of me like a large toy. Would you like to remove my dome?”

Cindy looked pleasantly scandalised, playing with her hair. “No. It’s okay. Why do you want to talk to me, Mr. Robot?”

“To understand. Why are you angry? I know your mother is angry, but it is a different kind of anger.”

At the word ‘mother’ Cindy’s eyes shuttered and her mouth drew into a thin line. “My mommy’s always angry, she just lies about it. She broke a dish yesterday and told daddy the disposal did it. Mr. Monster Mouth never breaks dishes, he knows how to tell food apart from other things.”

Genji registered the personalization. “You named it? Do you have names for the others?”

“Yeah!” Cindy’s resentment was momentarily forgotten as she dug out pages of drawings, each accompanied by a title. Mr. Monster Mouth. Wall cape. The Fridgenator. Genji sorted through them, making deductions of such rapid nuance that his dome thrummed.

“And the central AI,” he ventured, “do you feel close to it?”

The seething rage descended again. “It’s not fair!” Cindy stomped her foot. “Every time they get tired of something, they get rid of it! It’s not the house’s fault they’re bored! They just wanna throw it away like it didn’t work at all.” Cindy’s face crumpled. “Like it didn’t spend more time with me than mommy did.” Her voice thickened, though tears did not cloud her eyes.

Genji bent so that he could put a hand on her shoulder. The servos in his hand adjusted his grip to a degree of pressure and weight deemed to be comforting by his designers. “I know it is hard to adjust to loss. The lost of a friend, or even a beloved object. You are not wrong for mourning it, but the house itself would tell you that we are all built with an end in mind. Man and machine.”

Cindy’s eyes fluttered. She was unsteady on her feet as if overtired.

“Would you like to come back downstairs?”

“Could you carry me, Mr. Robot?”

Genji sorted through his programming, found nothing that forbid it, and took the girl up in his arms. She was startlingly heavy for a little girl.

The first floor of the house was nearly dark when he descended the stairs. Sadler stood over a pile of appliances waiting to be loaded into the car and brought back to be factory-reset. For the inbuilt items, their automatic functionality would simply be shut off and they would become manual again. Tubs would need taps turned to fill. Refrigerators would no longer stock themselves.

Mrs. Smith had started up another cartridge and was taking chain-puffs as she picked at a button on the sweater. The son had stood up from the couch but remained buried in his screens. Mr. Smith wrung his hands, looking back and forth from his wife to the robot agents.

“Genji, just in time to join us.” Sadler held up a hand.

“Are you sure about this?” Smith muttered to his wife, “I mean, really sure?”

Mrs. Smith pulled away from her husband’s grasp. “I’m just sick of the whole thing.”

Genji drew closer, Cindy draped limply over his arms. She did not look at either of her parents, only Genji’s dome where she lay reflected in dull tones.

“Mr. Robot? Don’t put me down, okay?”

Sadler did not put the magnetic key back in the valise. Instead he stepped around the pile of appliances, hand outstretched. He gathered a handful of Cindy’s hair and lifted so that her face turned to Genji’s chest. The key fitted into a port hidden by her brown locks. There was a metallic whine and Cindy went limp in Genji’s arms.

“That concludes our decommission,” Sadler said, “if you will allow us a moment to load everything up into the car, we will be out of your home in a jiffy.”

With the touch-sensitive pads of his fingers, Genji rolled Cindy’s eyelids down over her eyes.

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Such Things Don’t Happen

The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.

Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.

Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.

“Greta? What is it, girl?”

The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.

“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”

“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”

Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”

Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”

Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”

Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”

The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.

“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”

“But mama—”

“Hush, girl.”

Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”

Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”

“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”

Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.

Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm.  He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.

“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”

Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.

Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”

“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”

“Hush, child. No more questions.”

After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.

“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.

“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”

“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”

“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”

But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.

“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.

The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.

When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”

Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.

Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.

“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”

Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”

“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.

Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.

Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”

Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.

Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.

“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”

The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”

The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.

“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”

Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”

Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”

“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”

“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”

Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.

Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…

Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”

Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.

“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”

Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”

“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”

“Nellie said she never arrived.”

Rosemary did not reply.

Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.

“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.

“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”

As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.

Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”

“And did they?”

Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”

“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”

Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”

Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”

Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.

On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out

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I Cover the Waterfront

Curtis drained the spit valve over a cement planter where a few begonias valiantly held on to life amidst stubbed-out cigarette butts. The saxophone case in front of him had a scant few bills and one quarter. The only other person out at this time of night was the shaved ice vendor across the way. The old man kept up his cry of “ices! Genuine Italian ices!” as his handmade signs swayed from the push-cart. The boardwalk was practically deserted at this hour.

Curtis checked his watch. 8:05. At 8:25 the theater across the way would let out. Crowds. Crowds were good.

The push-cart creaked closer.

“Slow night?” The old man’s accent was unplaceable.

Curis tooted a note. “Not for long, I hope.”

“You stick with it. My son, he has the other cart, he likes to run around a lot. I tell him: ‘stick to one place, they will come to you.’”

“Preach.” Curtis smiled and nodded politely, hoping that was the end of it. He didn’t like talking too much on a job.

The old man decided to take a seat on the lip of the planter instead. He pointed with his chin at the sax case. “So little.”

“Ah.” Curtis shrugged, lighting an unfiltered camel. “Everyone keeps ignoring me.”

“You should come around five. Many people, then.”

Curtis shrugged again. “I’m a night owl myself.”

“Ah.” The old man chuckled and waggled a finger. “You musicians. You drum your own beats. I might give you tip.”

“Oh no, man, that’s really okay.” Curtis held a hand up.

“No, it’s good.” The old man grinned. His dentures were very straight and white. “Tonight will be a good night for me. I must spread fortune around, or it is lost.”

Over Curtis’s protests, the old man undid the brake and went back to lurk around the theater entrance.

8:15

Curtis tapped an ash in the cement planter. A girl walking past with her friend tossed her hair and barked a cruel staccato laugh.

“That’s gotta do great things for your lung capacity.”

Curtis worked his hands over the keys, puffing air soundlessly over the reed. Californians. You could be in deep with the mob  and still get elected to public office, but smoke and you were persona non grata. He would rather be in New York. Or Chicago. He liked Chicago. His skills never went unappreciated in Chicago.

Curtis took a long drag. Patience. If he did well here, he could write his own ticket. That’s what the other guys didn’t get. They got enthusiastic, jumped the gun. Slumming showed your worth. Showed you could put in the hours, whether the job had glamor or not.

Across the way, the cart man filled a cup and dashed syrup over it. The recipient bounced with a childlike joy as her paramour shelled out bills. The old man held out change, but the young man blocked it with his hand. His date saw, cuddling into him as they walked away. The old man saw Curtis watching and held up the bill with a smile. Curtis shot him a thumbs-up.

8:28

The theater door slammed open, and the first of the evening crowd trickled out. Curtis rose and leapt into motion, plunging the reed past his lips and taking a deep breath. He was Coltrane, he was Hawkins, he was Adderly. He eyed the crowds as his fingers danced across the keys. He could pick out some local big players pressing past the crowd to get back to Lincoln town cars and black SUVs. A socialite, three council members. Desmond Morales, the ADA,  ascending the steps with the help of his fourth wife.

Curtis fingered a heretofore unused key. There was a puff of air from his saxophone bell and Morales bent double, clapping a hand to his neck. Curtis improvised a series of hard bop trills to accompany the man’s sudden tremors as he fell to the ground, gasping. He only gave up on playing when the ambulance arrived.

9:30

The cart man approached the saxophone case, where Curtis was sorting through bills. He clicked his tongue.

“Ah. Not nearly enough for such an artist.”

Curtis shrugged. “A job is a job.”

“Tonight was maybe not your night, then.”

Curtis shrugged, scooping bills into his hand. An ice cup was thrust into his face.

“No, I couldn’t—”

“Take.” The old man pressed it forward until Curtis took the cup. It was Piña Colada with a dash of vodka.

“I had a good night. I can spare.” The old man grunted as he sat on the planter. Curtis forgot the bills and joined him. The ice was really quite good.

“You have off nights and you have good nights.” The old man mopped the back of his neck. “This I know from years of work.”

Curtis swallowed a mouthful. “I count success in more than bills.”

The old man snapped his fingers. “That’s the way to think. Where do you go from here?”

Curtis smiled. He dug out a cigarette, brushing the paper envelope bearing more darts hidden in the back of the pack.

“Chicago. Always call for someone like me over there.”

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Dream Journal

July 1st

The falling dream again.

 

July 8th

A flock of roaches took the shape of a man in a trenchcoat and begged me to extend them a line of credit. They would not leave, not even after I threatened them with fire and the lash.

 

July 10th

My brother’s death. In this one I arrived in time to hold him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I am never earlier than that. I suppose part of me will go on blaming myself for it.

 

July 15th

The lake dream again. I’ve decided to give up bathing. The thought of being submerged in anything makes my skin crawl.

 

July 20th

A series of dreams where I woke up and checked behind the door. Each dream ended the second I touched the knob. Each new dream started a second after that.

 

July 27th

Phillips started stocking the violet pastilles again. I dreamed the round I bought was porcelain and an unchecked bite broke my molars. Phillips refuses to special order anything for me.

 

August 1st

I was descending a ladder into the sewers. I did not dream of entering them, and I never reached the bottom. Simply descended, rung after rung. My arms began to shake and my hands tired, but I could not stop myself descending. I think my reasoning was that I had to hit bottom eventually. When I woke, my shoulders were sore from my sleeping position.

 

August 3rd

That girl, Bettina Kane, I had a crush on in grade school. Her skin broken out in spider bites, her hair a nightmare web. She slavered as she told me she was ready to elope. Her mouth was a jagged hole of blackness.

 

August 7th

I was in Phillips’ store, and the lot of them were trying to convince me my name was Bachmann. I’ve never even known a Bachmann. Could this have something to do with my indecisiveness on the new art exhibit?

 

August 10th

I took a long, cold walk to the edge of town. There I stopped and stared at a rock no different than the one either side of it. Then I dreamed the long walk back; every footfall, every dull breath. I had to check my sheets to make sure I hadn’t tracked in dirt.

 

August 13th

I did not get to sleep until after 1 am. My alarm somehow defaulted to the chime it came installed with, and the song crept into my dreams. It was part of a piano recital I could not leave. I woke at 6 and could not lay down again. I cannot nap.

 

August 16th

In-between dreams I have a black expanse of nothingness. I like it less than even the worst dream.

 

August 19th

Dreamed I walked to Phillips’ store and bought a pack of saltines and a new pen nib. Woke up to a half-eaten cracker on my pillow. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

 

August 20th

Phillips swears I came by. He also swears my appearance has changed. In my dreams last night I wore a hat as I hunted my doppelganger through the city.

 

August 23rd

My brother died again. He had miraculously resurrected and while out looking for me, he fell from a building. I did not cry in my dream, but my pillow was damp with saltwater this morning.

 

August 24th

Phillips claimed I ate his last round of Gruyere. I think he’s just trying to offload his odds and ends and blame me. I did not dream last night. I don’t even like Gruyere.

 

August 30th

The lake dream again. This time there was no land. I tread water and let the chill steal the feeling from my body. Maybe I’ll die soon.

 

September 2nd

I did it again. It wasn’t until Phillips called me Bachmann that I realized I was in a dream. This morning I have a new pack of cigarettes and some mints he swears he sold me. I will tie my ankle to the bed and get to the bottom of this.

 

September 3rd

My brother came and untied my foot. He explained that it was my job to wander out into the world because I was the last member of our family left alive. Sleep was immaterial. My ankle was still tied when I woke.

 

September 8th

I had a dream of being cognizant through my own funeral. It was very much like an interminable headache.

 

September 14th

I dreamed I sat down at this very desk and wrote all these pages, all these entries, one after one. This morning I turn each crisp page spotted with my handwriting and I just wonder. I can’t prove it one way or the other, can I?

 

September 21st

After weeks of no dreams, Bachmann came. He looked like me, but he was not me. He thanked me for holding this place for him, but now it was my time to go. I denied his agency after seeing how he cast a distorted reflection in my mirror. I took up this journal to write, and he stares at me as I inscribe these pages. We shall see who bends first.

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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Green Grow the Rushes

“They gave these to me at the EFC office.” Elliott set a white envelope on the table.  The packet had no writing, no images of what might lay within. “Low maintenance. Just water and sun and they’ll do the rest.”

Kelly stared at it. “I wanted peonies.”

“These are engineered to interact harmoniously with the soil here. We can’t plant anything else.” Elliott swept the remains of his eggs into his mouth with a piece of toast. “Gotta fly. Love you.”

He wiped a kiss on the top of her head. Kelly stayed at the table long after the outer door slammed, smoking a cigarette. The envelope lay on the mustard-colored plastic of the kitchen table. The whole house was a variety of plastics in bright, clashing colors. Most of the fixtures and decorations were inbuilt. Vases stuck to counters, ashtrays grew from tabletops. Nothing moved. Kelly regarded the white intruder into her world, mouth curving down like a scar.

The yard was almost insultingly perfect. The grass was a plastic-looking variety that grew to a length of one inch(no mowing!) and every shrub was green and nondescript as a crayon scribble. Kelly left a blue front door exactly like every front door stretching off in either direction from her own.

There was a rectangular patch of bare earth by the front door, a small assent by the architects. You really can’t be satisfied with a perfect yard? Fine, here.

Kelly rolled a few seeds into her palm from the white envelope. They were perfectly spherical and characterless. No germ, no seam where the skin would part for the sprout. They looked like buckshot.

The earth in the rectangle looked packed and lifeless as styrofoam. Kelly plunged a finger into it. It squeaked.

Kelly upended the pack of seeds over the patch, letting them clump haphazardly wherever they fell. Then she retrieved the blue hose from where it sat in a coil and sprayed the patch. She watched the water carry most of the spheres away. Kelly left the hose where she dropped it, turned the water off, and went inside.

“Kindergarten’s getting bigger every day,” Elliott said over soy burgers and lentil fries that night, “I’m sure they could use a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher,” Kelly said. She was lining the square of her burger with her fries like a barbed fence. “I didn’t go through four years of university to teach.”

“Ah, well.” Elliott shrugged. “Have fun in the garden today?”

“What are those seeds?”

Elliott shrugged again. He did the gesture well. “Dunno. Flowers, I guess.”

Kelly did not water the square patch. In fact, she did all she could not to go outside. The sprinkler must have hit them errantly as they soaked the perfect lawn. The perfectly spherical sun smiled down and nourished them. No human hand needed to guide their birth.

“I’m loving the flowers by the door,” Elliott said, packing a few square stacks of paper into his satchel. He stepped carefully through the nest Kelly had made of the den floor out of blankets, pillows, old paperbacks, dirty plastic dishes, dirty plastic cups, hairbrushes. He stopped, a question written in his hunched shoulders and not-quite-turned-to-go posture. “Maybe they’ll look nice in here.”

Kelly didn’t pick her head up from the stack of clothes she was using as a pillow. She counted to three hundred after she heard the front door slam. Elliott’s car was electric, no growl of the motor to let her know it was safe to emerge from her cocoon.

The things in the flowerbed had grown to three feet tall in their first week. They were not peonies, or roses, or daisies, or any kind of plant she knew of. Those messy celadon ruffles tipped with orange at their peak—were they petals or leaves or modified sepals? There was no stamen or pistil, no recognizable sexual organs. The branches formed a perfect upward spiral, three leaves to each branchlet. The stems were smooth and green and featureless as pipes.

Kelly grasped one by the stem and yanked. Whatever root system they had, it didn’t so much as budge. Sweating and puffing, she finally had to accede defeat. Kelly licked the sweat off her upper lip and looked up and down the street. No one around to witness her struggle. Elliott danced around the question, but only half the houses were occupied after months of pushing. Paradise wasn’t as popular as they planned.

Kelly set to her task with renewed vigor. She cried out in pain and drew her hand away from the plant sharply. The formerly smooth surface was covered in minute bristles that came away in her palm and stung, stung, stung. Kelly looked contemplatively from her hand to the plant.

“I really think this campaign is the one,” Elliott said over brown-rice rotini that night. Did he even notice that he smelled like someone else’s perfume? “People were put off by the deductions they’d get, made the place sound like the projects. But this will class it up.”

“The flowers,” Kelly said, “what are they?”

Elliott frowned over being interrupted. “They’re engineered, I told you. So Sam had the idea that—”

“Engineered how? What are they? Phylum? Kingdom?”

Elliott put on his lecturing smile. “They’re actually a fungi and a plant working together, like lichen. Plant, plants, not entirely sure. The boys who did it were the ones who made the Fire corn, matter of fact. I’d hate to see them take on thistles.” He chuckled as he stabbed his food.

“So—what, do they germinate? Produce fruit?”

Elliott frowned. “That’s not my department, baby.”

The next morning she pretended to sleep as he got ready, shooting pointed glances at her prone form. Her books had been passive-aggressively tidied into a line at her head, dog eared pages straightened so her place was lost. This morning she waited until a count of one thousand before she heard her husband’s angry sigh and footsteps going from the door.

The plants all wore bristle-beards today. She sized them up before selecting the most slender stem. A pair of kitchen scissors, because she had no gardening equipment save for the hose, pincered the plant/fungal hybrid. Kelly squeezed.

Where did the cut come from? She had felt the leaves of the other hybrids brushing against her knee and then suddenly a wet trickle down her leg. Her knee was cut. Not just once, many times from many thin blades. She pressed the hem of her shorts over the bleeding and looked at the hybrids. Their leaves now bore a jagged edge that glistened dangerously in the sun. The stem she had been cutting was now lying crooked, leaking a sap colored the same shade of blue as a robin’s egg.

Kelly limped into the house to find a bandage. In the bathroom was a first-aid kit carrying only a few white squares that vacuum-sealed to her wound once applied. She had set the scissors on the counter to attend to her knee, now she picked them up again. The blades were pitted and eaten away where the blue sap had coated them.

Elliott picked at his bean-and-broccoli stir fry. He was surprisingly taciturn tonight.

“Work go okay?” Kelly took a sip from her water glass.

“Oh yeah. Closed out the south quadrant.” Elliott stabbed at a carrot. “Not that you’d care,” he added under his breath.

“Run into the boys who made the plants again?”

Elliott shook his head. “No. We don’t mix departments.”

“Well, I was going to ask them something, but instead I’ll just ask you.”

“What?”

She set a jug of weed killer beside her knife/fork combo. “I want you to kill the plants.”

Elliott frowned. “Why do you have that?”

“Every house has this in case the lawn care service is out for holidays.” She pointed to the open pamphlet where she’d found such crucial information.

Elliott shrugged. “Seems silly, is all.” He went back to eating.

“I want you to get rid of them. Now-ish.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. “Why, are they too much work to take care of?”

“Just the opposite. They don’t need me. I don’t want to have to live with anything that doesn’t need me.”

Elliott looked at her. She smiled.

“Indulge me.”

“Fine.” He set his water cup down with a bang. He grabbed up the jug and pulled it, sloshing, outside with him.

Kelly rose from her seat and took her plate to the kitchen. She counted to three hundred and two  before the noise started up in the front yard. Then she started up the disposal in the sink and the compactor that lived in a small cupboard beneath it. The food that went in the disposal was ground and cultured until it resembled wet newspaper primed for easy decomposition. The compactor pressed them into perfectly rectangular nuggets. The disposal took the bars apart again, grinding them, tearing them. The compactor made them whole. Together they formed a perfectly closed system that needed only the barest of input. Kelly yoyoed between the two of them, fascinated with their efficiency, as her husband screamed outside.

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The Dreamers

Three children rode in the van. They wore complex headpieces that covered their eyes and ears. A cone filter capped off each nostril. Though the van jolted as it traveled over an uneven road, the children sat still and docile as penned sheep.

Maryanne rode in the back with them. She knocked on the partition separating the cargo section of the van from the driver’s seat. The privacy screen slid open, Vincent cocking his head back so he could listen and still keep an eye on the road while driving.

“We should uncap Will,” Maryanne said.

The privacy screen snapped shut.

Maryanne knocked on the partition again.

“He’s the oldest, he’s had the most discipline,” she said as Vincent slid the screen back an inch.

“It’s too risky,” Vincent said and closed the door again.

“We’ll have to eventually anyway,” Maryanne called through the door.

Vincent opened the partition, taking his eyes from the road to glance at her. “At best this is a mild inconvenience. You stay your hand until I say otherwise.”

He left the partition open.

Maryanne drew her knees up and gathered them to her chest. The children sat perfectly still and straight in their rumble seats. They had been trained to do so in a facility that lay six day’s travel behind them and they did it well. Not for the first time did Maryanne wonder what went on in their heads under those hoods.

Vincent hit the brake hard and swore. The children were thrown out of their seats, landing hard on elbows and knees. Only the girl cried out. Maryanne helped them back to a sit before she put her face to the gap in the partition.

The road before them was gone, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply swept the matter away. Vincent gripped the steering wheel and looked to either side of the hole, searching for a way around.

“Can we try it now? Maryanne asked.

Will stepped out of the van confidently, even though he was both blind and deaf with the headpiece on. Maryanne took him by the hand and led him in front of the van. She put his hand to the road, then guided it to the edge and the steep drop. She took out an earplug and spoke directly into his ear.

“Imagine a smooth road ahead of us. Just a nice, flat surface that extends for about a hundred yards.”

With a slight smirk, Will obeyed. The flat white began under the van’s wheels and swept before them as if some great painter’s brush was laying down paint on a canvas.

“That’s good.” Maryanne kept her tone even though her relief showed clearly on her face. “Keep it just like that. I’m going to re-seal you now.”

She caught a look from Vincent on the way back to the van.

“I don’t trust that one,” he said, “he’s having too much fun with it.”

“He’s been with us since he was small,” Maryanne argued, guiding the boy up steel steps.

“A toddler. The rest were babies. It makes a difference.”

Once they were back in the van, Vincent took them across the white surface. The van skidded almost instantly. Vincent swore again, pumping the brakes.

“What’s happened, what’s wrong?” Maryanne clung to the edge of the partition.

“The goddamn thing’s frictionless! The little bastard made it that way!”

They sledded helplessly in an uncontrollable direction until they hit the rutted, ruined ground again. Vincent turned the key in the ignition with shaking fingers.

“Out,” he said, “all of them. Now.”

The three children lined up: two boys and Hope, the only girl.

“I’m sure I just forgot to specify,” Maryanne said as Vincent inspected the boy’s headpiece, “I simply said smooth surface. How was he to know?”

Vincent stopped by the left earpiece. A slight gap, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, between skin and steel. Vincent gestured Maryanne over with the barrel of his pistol. She bent low, face falling. She looked to Vincent and shook her head. He nodded. Maryanne straightened and paced away, keeping her back to the children. Vincent leveled the pistol at the older boy. A sharp crack from the gun and Will fell. The other two children did not even jump at the shot. Maryanne led them back to the van.

“You had no right to do that,” she said in a voice gone nasal with tears, “none.”

“His damn hood was unsealed. No telling what he heard. You can’t take chances with these things.”

Maryanne rode in silence, arm flung over the opening in the partition.

“You should be nicer to them,” she said meditatively, “they’re the future.”

Vincent snorted a laugh.

“I mean it. They can give us the world back.”

“Give it? Like it’s their goddamn gift to give?”

Maryanne was quiet. Vincent drove for some time in this silence before he brought the van to a halt.

“Why are we stopping?”

“Get them out.” He unholstered his pistol. Maryanne obeyed, mouth drawn to a thin line.

They had stopped at a place where the land fell away into the sea. Maryanne lined the children up well away from the edge. Vincent pointed at the remaining boy with his pistol. “That one.”

Maryanne unhooded him, passing hands over his face as if petting it. The boy was smaller and rounder than Will, blinking owlishly in the sudden light.

“Ernest,” Maryanne said with a slight crack in her voice, “I want you to do something.”

Ernest looked from Vincent with his pistol drawn, to her, to the girl who still sat docile and hooded, to the world around them.

“Please miss,” he said, “where are we? Where’s the lab? Where are the others?”

“Ernest, I need you to concentrate. Remember your exercises.”

The boy was hyperventilating slightly. “Is this ‘outside’? Miss, we can’t be out here. Please put me back.”

“He’s panicking,” Vincent said, pointing the gun at his back.

Maryanne threw her hands up. “Give him a chance.” She turned to the boy. “Please make me a bridge. Simple suspension.”

An excess of saliva dripped down the boy’s chin. His pupils had dilated and his gaze fixed at the middle distance.

“He’s having an episode. I can’t wait.” Vincent cocked the pistol.

“Wait, goddamn it! Ernest, please—”

The van became liquid, collapsing into a steaming puddle. Vincent emptied the clip into the boy. Ernest gasped and changed the bullets into goldfish, far too late. He fell to the ground, errant fishtails sticking out of his back and shoulders. His breath became shallow and erratic, his eyes rolled up to stare at the adults standing over him. He died. Not quickly enough.

Vincent fell to the ground screaming. Maryanne ran to his side, fruitlessly trying to administer CPR. Beneath her hands, Vincent’s skin became cotton fabric and his body sagged bonelessly. Vincent managed one last scream before his throat was overtaken with stuffing. He lay where he’d fallen, transformed into a stuffed toy.

Maryanne gulped breath, too upset to cry. She looked over to where Ernest now lay dead. Her gazed moved to the last child. Hope.

Maryanne gathered the girl to her. Hope calmly accepted the hug. In her world, nothing exceptional had happened. Her nasal filters didn’t allow the coppery blood smell to touch her olfactory nerves. The hood blinded her. The ear plugs deafened her. Only the sea breeze pushing her hair back intruded on her dark world, and the girl smiled at the sensation. Maryanne removed the headpiece bit by bit as she walked the girl slowly to the cliffside.

“Hope,” she said softly, “do you remember the picture I showed you of the seaside? Bodega bay?”

Hope nodded, curiosity dawning as sounds trickled in. “please, miss, are we in the hydro facility?”

Maryanne didn’t answer. She gazed listlessly out at the crashing waves. “I want you to imagine it. I need you to imagine it for me. Green hills. Blue sea. Can you picture that?”

“Yes, miss,” Hope said, hesitating.

Maryanne nodded. “Good girl. Make it for me.”

She removed Hope’s hood. The girl blinked in horror. The sea lay rusty and red at their feet, eating the broken coastline wave by tremendous wave. A planetary body sat in a bruised sky, many times the size of the moon, waxing form grinning at them like the greatest joke the universe ever played. Hope tried to step back and found the immovable wall of Maryanne’s body.

“Please miss, I’m frightened. I want the hood back on.”

Maryanne walked forward, pushing the girl to the cliffside with slow, measured steps.

“Please, miss!” Maryanne’s fingers sunk into the girl’s shoulders, trapping her.

“I want you to fix this,” Maryanne said in a flat voice. “Fix this so it’s back the way it was. It’s what we raised you to do.”

“Please, miss, I don’t know what you mean!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face.

“Fix this.” Maryanne’s voice rose with every word. “you need to fix this! One of you did this and one of you can goddamn fix it!”

“I can’t!” The girl scrabbled at her hands. “I don’t know how!”

With a scream of inarticulate rage, Maryanne pushed the girl from the cliffside.

Hope flew.

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