Category Archives: fiction

Roach Farm

Sea monkeys. Ant farms. Butterfly cages. The ephemera of childhood hobbies I’m sure every red-blooded American kid is well-versed in.

I didn’t get an ant farm or a butterfly cage or a plastic tank with a pack of freeze-dried brine shrimp. I got a roach farm. A 5X7 terrarium of scuffed and yellowed lucite, a packet of dirt, and what looked like a shiny brown cigar.

My dad made a joke of it. “If you can take good care of it, then we’ll think about getting you that slug.” Then he’d laugh and take another drink of Schlitz, thrilled by the weight of his own humor. Like I did with most of his jokes, I played as if it were said completely straight. I set up the box on my dresser top, dumped out the dirt, and set the small brown stub gently within. I had no idea how roaches lived, aside from the popular conception of them as a kitchen nuisance, so I littered the farm with the usual wildlife furniture: a bit of bark, some lichen, and a small, flat rock. Then I left it to its own devices.

My father would needle me about the farm’s progress (“have they learned any tricks yet?”) so I looked up roach facts to parry his derogatory jabs. I learned a single roach can live off the glue from a postage stamp for a week, that a roach can live without its head for up to a month, that their tendency to seek out warm, dark spaces has led to them occasionally found lodged in people’s ears because they lack the ability to back up. Like so many of my father’s attempts to discourage me from a subject, it only led me into deeper fascination.

I can remember rolling out of bed one morning and noticing the cluster of tan dots in the cage. My roach children had finally hatched.

And God help me, I found them precious.

I remember I put my hand inside out of some childhood petting impulse. They scurried under the shadow of my hand to hide, and a pact was born between us. I had to defend them now, I had to keep them warm and fed and alive because they had sought shelter with me.

In many respects they were the perfect pet for me. A cat might have lashed out in fear, and gotten its brains bashed out for the trouble. A dog might have tried to defend me, leading to more brutal treatment for both of us. But the roaches? When my father would rage and scream I would sit on the bed with my cage and we would be quiet together. I could empathize with them because I understood the urge to retreat into some small, dark space when something bigger came at you. My father pronounced the both of us disgusting. When he forbid me from setting foot in the kitchen over some imagined slight, I would sneak out at midnight and steal food for the both of us.

My roaches grew into shiny brown oblongs. They would preen themselves under my care, fussily cleaning their antennae as I held them in cupped palm. I liked to think that they were the neatest, best-kept insects in the world. I read in ancient China that they kept crickets in special cages. Had anyone kept roaches? Perhaps I was the first.

The end came in painful hiccups, rather than one fell swoop.

My father upended my cage, hissing in disgust as my pets scurried away. He beat me for putting my body in between his slippered feet and their retreating forms.

My mother, the new owner of a rather painful collarbone fracture, could no longer keep up with the housework. No amount of shouting on my father’s part could rectify that, and the house grew ankle-deep in trash.

Finally the day came when my father drove us from the house, dribbling and screaming in an alcoholic rage. Perhaps at another time, we would have come back. Lord knows we had already gone back too many times before. But by the time we reached my aunt’s house, the money felicitously ran out. No one in her family would spare money for us to return to our abuser’s den, so we remained happily stuck.

Since my mother was the sole breadwinner, the utilities were shut off one by one. The phone was the first to go, so we were spared the rants that cropped up with each new injustice. I can imagine my father raging in that house alone. Sitting in the dark as the electricity shut off, piling on blanket after blanket as the heat went. Would anything have changed if we went back? Even now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I doubt it.

It was a year and a half later that someone knocked on our door. A policeman with hat in hand, saying he had grave news for us. A former neighbor had called for a wellness check because my father hadn’t been outside for weeks, and there was a terrible smell welling up from the house…

I can imagine my father simplifying his life after we left. Leaving the house only to get food and drink, piling the filth up in a nest around him to further buttress his self-pity. I can imagine him making a fort of blankets in the living room next to the bucket he used as a toilet and a battery-operated TV.

I can imagine my pets. My roaches, stranded in the filth of that house. Growing. Feeding. Breeding. I can imagine their fear as winter set in. How they would seek out the one source of warmth left in the household, nestled in a crusty shell of blankets with a snoring mouth gaping open in invite…

My mother let the city arrange a burial. My father had no family left to wonder why his funeral was closed-casket.

I don’t think of my father much anymore. His memory is a vague, unpleasant smear on my mind that I have no wish to revisit.

I think of my bygone pets. How all they had really wanted was warmth and safety. How they must have been terrified in those last few moments, unable to turn back, unable to fight the press of their family’s bodies as they were forced into every dark, wet cavity available to them.

And, God help me, I find them more precious than ever.

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A Haunting

He did not know how or when it began, but Peter realized over the course of many months that he was reluctant to go home at the end of the day. The excuses grew naturally out of real needs and wants: they were out of milk, he wanted to catch up with an old friend, traffic delayed him. But the excuses wore thinner and thinner. It was on a Tuesday, when he was looking at his reflection illuminated by the last rays of a sinking sun in the blacked-out window of an empty shop, when Peter finally came clean to himself: he truly did not want to go home.

But why?

He spent many days gnawing at the question. He was not tired of his wife, Nina. Their daughter Shannon did not treat him with open hostility. He had no reason to believe the two-story colonial gingerbread he lived in was haunted.

…but he paused on that thought.

What was a haunting but an unfriendly, unwelcome habitation? And, truth be told, when he came home without any family to greet him, he felt himself the unwelcome guest. He was haunting his own house.

Peter laughed. How could he haunt his own house? His paintings on the walls, his aftershave sharing the sink rim with Nina’s antiperspirant, his daughter’s growing heights notched into the dining room wall? True, his family was what made the house his home. But he belonged there, just as much as anyone.

Peter parked the Cheverolet in the driveway and stared up at the dim windows. From this angle, they had a cant that made them resemble unfriendly eyes. The front knob would not accept his key. Peter struggled with the lock, fighting down a growing dread.

“Peter?”  Nina parked and spilled out of her sedan. Shannon pried herself from the passenger side under the bulk of the dry cleaning. Nina stepped primly up the front walk, drawing her key like a sword.

“Door trouble?”

“I guess.” Peter’s face reddened. “Maybe we should call a locksmith.”

The knob accepted Nina’s key without complaint. The door practically fell open. Nina cast a critical eye to Peter’s key. “Maybe we should make another copy.”

Peter mumbled something.

The house was a cold blank until she hit the hall switch and suddenly they were transported to their home, with the ship-rope rugs on the bare hardwood floors and a photo of his grandparents hanging just above the shoe rack.

It would have been too easy to forget about it once snugly confined in the bosom of his family. Nina chattering over pasta, Shannon practising steps in the hall. Peter sat in a snug chair that had survived through college and felt very much at home.

But he did not forget.

“Maybe we should get a dog,” he said later that night. Nina, in bed with her magazine, gave him an aside glance.

“Who’s going to walk it? Shannon is full-time this semester, and I don’t have the kind of mental space for an animal.”

“I was just thinking, you know, when I get home, the house is so empty…” the reasons, so concrete in his head, slipped from his fingers. Nina put a small kiss just above his eyebrow.

“Oh Peter,” she said, in a tone that could have been pitying or contemptuous.

He embraced the time away from the house. He went to work and spoke with colleagues and lived. He was a person who belonged in the world. As long as he kept away from the problem, there was no problem, right?

After a few rounds of pool, long past dark and the point where Nina should be home, Peter received a text. He pulled over and let the cold screen light the car.

PRACTICE LATE. WE’RE GRABBING TAKEOUT. LEFTOVERS IN FRIDGE.

Peter parked askew in the driveway. His hands were shaking. Above him loomed the house, dark and disapproving as a tombstone. He sat in the car. How late was late? He could stay in the car, play it off like he’d just got home when they arrived. He thumbed through a paperback under his dome light. He played spider solitaire until his battery ran low. He ran the heater until his head hit the back of the seat and someone was suddenly rapping on the driver’s side window.

“Peter?” Nina’s voice was alarmed. Peter killed the engine. His wife and daughter gazed concernedly through the window. Flushed red, he tried to play it off.

“Late. Must’ve fallen asleep.” The dashboard clock said near midnight.

Peter got out of the car and stretched. Nina was not budging.

“You’re starting to worry me, Peter. You’re staying out later and later, now…this.” She indicated the car with her hand. “What are you afraid of?”

“Afraid?” Peter laughed.

“Daddy, come on.” Shannon looked at him through dewdrop-thick glasses. “You keep coming home late, and you won’t let us leave the house without you.”

Their gazes were sterile pins. He was being dissected. Nina shook her head.

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and turning him around, “use your key. Go in. There’s nothing wrong.”

Peter tried very hard to make his legs bend, tried not to fight them as they pushed him up the walk, but he couldn’t make his body obey properly. The dead front window glared at him, showed him a room cold and empty and unwelcoming. He needed them to go first, to purify the air with their laughter, but they were behind him and pushing.

“There,” Nina stopped. “Key in the lock. You can do it.”

Peter fumbled with the keys. He dropped them twice. Nina was less than amused. The lock stuck, refusing to accept the whole key at first and then refusing to turn one way or the other. He looked to the girls for help. Nina nodded impatiently at the door.

The lock snicked open like a sudden jeer. Peter had to shove the door to get it moving. The front hallway was cold and dark.

He looked back. Nina nodded again. After you.

Peter’s footsteps carried reverb. He walked down the front hall, dark and strange to him. He couldn’t even remember where the hall switch was as he felt along the wall.

“Okay there, I’m…in.” He could bring himself to say ‘home.’ Where was the damn switch?

“Well?”

He turned back. The hall was dark. There was no door.

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Gilly, Or A Boy and His Tadpole

The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.

He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?

Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.

It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.

No, not empty.

As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.

A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?

Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.

Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.”  Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.

A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.

“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”

Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”

“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”

“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.

Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.

It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.

“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”

Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.

The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.

Ethan found his father in the workshop.

“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”

His father tapped his knee. “How far?”

“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.

“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.

They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.

Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.

A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.

Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.

On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.

“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.

Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.

“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”

Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.

“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”

He rolled the wagon into the lake.

Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.

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Wreckers

If there was one consistent nightmare to my childhood, it was this: Legends of the Eastern Coast, page 12, plate 2. The Wreckers. I can’t tell you what horrors that etching awoke in my young soul, those vile people with their sneering grins and makeshift weapons. They didn’t wear buccaneer finery, didn’t fly the jolly roger or drink rum. They were land pirates, my grandfather explained to me, a thousand times more terrible than any scurvy dog I had come to know. He would dissect the scene for me, sickle-moon fingernail hovering on each crucial point of the illustration. Here is the signal fire they lit in mimic of a lighthouse. Here was the cargo that drifted to shore once the ship ran aground on the shoal. Here were the living crewmen, being set upon by countless devil-tongued hounds. Here were the wreckers coming with wicked knives and clubs towards the survivors—

I lived in terror of them. I had never even been in a boat or visited the east coast, yet they awakened some kind of ancestral fear in me. There was something so unusually cruel in them that struck me, even as a child. I imagined myself on one of those boats, seeing the friendly signal of a fire only to wind up sinking. Lighting out, terrified, for the shore and the arms of my fellow man, only to be beaten and stabbed for what was in my boat. It could be hay. It could be a weary head of soldiers back from some military action, worthless as cargo. What then?

My mother finally saw to it that the book wound up on one of his higher shelves. If I stood on his stepladder, I could graze the spine with my fingertips but I could not pull it from the shelf. It could not get to me.

I grew up and married. Traveling along the highway one night, my man at the wheel, I sat in the back with the safety belt buckled around my swelling belly. Our child. My cargo.

My husband leaned forward and squinted out the windshield. “Someone’s had an accident.”

Four words I will never be able to forget.

I pulled myself up so I could look over the seat. Far ahead, I could see the red gleam of road flares. The silhouettes of people did frantic jumping-jacks while lit from behind with that hellish glare. It woke something in me.

“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “You can’t help.”

“Nonsense. I think I’ve got my kit back there.” He was rummaging on the seat beside him, that loving fool. “And there’s that trail blanket.”

I don’t know if we hit something, or if something hit us. I know the car flipped over, because I woke with the seatbelt pinning me in place. I had been crying before I woke up.

I screamed my husband’s name. He, too tall to wear the shoulder belt comfortably, was in a heap in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving.

“Hello? Is there anyone?”

Talking was difficult. “Yes, we’re here! My husband— he’s—”

The driver’s-side door groaned open. The beam of a flashlight stabbed my eyes, made me turn away.

“You alive in there?”

“Yes! My husband—”

He groaned in his heap.

“Get him!” I sobbed with relief. “Get him out, he needs medical attention.”

“Now just hold on, little lady.” The man’s voice was slow and drawled and in no hurry at all. “We’ll get him out, then we’ll come for you, all right?”

“Yes, good, fine, just get him.” I squinted, but I couldn’t see beyond that bright light. Someone grabbed my husband under his arms and pulled him slowly from the car. The light did not move.

I don’t know how long I sat there, blood running to my head, light blinding me, but the quiet let me think. Had I heard sirens? I didn’t remember. How much time had elapsed since we’d crashed?

…why had we crashed?

I started hyperventilating.

There were no swirling red and blue lights, no radio cracks from a squad car. I was visibly pregnant. Why weren’t they more concerned about me? The way they’d hauled my husband from the car seemed more likely to injure him further.

I could hear subdued conversation from somewhere outside the car. I could feel my child within me stir as if he, too, was full of fear.

The back hatch creaked open, spilling our cooler and picnic blanket and a million other little things I had yet to clean out of it. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

“Little lady, you still in there?”

My face felt inflated. My vision began to tunnel.

After a long silence I heard them rooting through the pile of our things. Murmured snatches of conversation: “….that ain’t…less than….don’t even…”

“But the car’s nice!” Someone burst out shouting, only to immediately be shushed.

I squeezed my eyes shut and let my body dangle. Let me be dead, let me be a worthless corpse.

Headlights flooded the car interior. From behind. An engine idled. I could hear the soft murmur of one of those men, a lilting tone that soothed like a lullaby, as he tried to keep the driver from getting out.

“You’re all alright here?” Someone called over.

I screamed. They scattered. Maybe the driver had a gun. Maybe they weren’t ready to put up with even slight resistance. But when the real emergency crews came they only found two cars, mine and my savior’s, with my husband stabbed quietly to death on the pavement not far from us. No lights, no other cars. Just the stubs of the road flares guttered down like the embers of a signal fire on some distant beach.

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Archie Smith, Boy Wonder

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

The two spheres of light throbbed in sympathy. Archie slept on as he always did: still and quiet in a sleep-fortress as dense as a neutron star.

“It is he, truly he. After so long, the boy of great destiny.”

Archie did not stir, did not wake with eyelids fluttering to exclaim at the sight of two stray stars in his room. He dreamed of ships in cold water. He dreamed of eternal July and endless ball games. His dreams were as flat and thinly etched as the wallpaper in the hallway, never changing, never varying.

 

The next morning Archie ate a square meal and trotted off to school. He was neither late nor early. As he walked, he tossed a ball that hit the sides of the buildings he passed. Ka-thunk. The greengrocer’s. Ka-thunk. The hardware store. Ka-thunk. The boutique.

A sudden light caught his eye. It was light very much like the first stab of sun over the horizon, only it stayed, circling around Archie’s head.

“Archie,” it whispered.

He grunted.

“Archie,” the sphere said, “be not afraid. You are a boy of great destiny.”

Archie said, “okay,” and kept on with his ball. Ka-thunk.

“It may seem a terrible weight at first, but you must be brave. The whole world is counting on you.”

“Yeah,” Archie said, “no thanks.”

The sphere bobbed along as if caught in an eddy. “No thanks?”

“I don’t want no destiny.” Archie swiped at his nose with a crusty sleeve. “Go ahead and take it somewhere else.”

The sphere whizzed to a point very near his face. “I don’t understand. You’re refusing destiny?”

“Yup.”

“You can’t!”

“Why not?”

“It’s—it’s destiny!”

Archie underhanded the ball, bouncing it off the front of the florist and rattling the big bay window. “Never asked for it, don’t want it, won’t take it.”

“You don’t want to do great things?”

“Nah.”

“You don’t want to see things no one else has seen? Go places no one else has traveled? Reach beyond the unknown to grasp your fate?”

“Eh.” Archie shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Tinting to a disturbed shade of yellow, the sphere sped off.

Archie shook his head and sighed.

 

“Schneider, Marcus?”

“Here.”

“Smith, Archibald?”

“Here,” Archie said without looking up from his exercise book. The margins were clean and un-doodled. He wrote down some last-minute problems as the teacher rounded out the roll call. A stray bit of light caught his eye. Was it the sun reflected off Teddy Crandall’s wristwatch? No, the sphere was back again.

“I must apologize for being so short with you earlier,” it said in a voice only he could hear, “I have been away from mortals so long I cannot remember all the old niceties. You were in shock this morning, unable to accept the call.”

Archie shook his head.

“Fear, then. Panic.”

“I’m not afraid,” Archie whispered, “I just don’t want any part of it.”

“Archie, were you saying something?” The teacher paused in the middle of an equation.

Archie shook his head. With one hand he took up his trusty ticonderoga pencil and scribbled out: I don’t want any destiny.

“But Archie, it’s not all responsibility and judgement. There are nicer aspects to it. You’ll be able to live more than any other child in your grade, or even the whole country.”

I live enough already, thanks.

“Think of it Archie, you may never find total fulfillment if you don’t answer the call. Imagine if you realize, many years down the line, what you have missed out on by declining.”

I can think of worse things.

“You don’t have any adventure in your spirit? No thirst for exploration?”

I get enough of that in comic books.

The sphere pulsed. “I see. I must think on this. I will return another time.”

While collecting fraction worksheets, the teacher spotted the writing on his scratch paper with a frown.

“Poetry,” Archie said.

 

Archie said goodbye to Billy and Teddy and Mark and Jim and walked home, baseball in his hand, coat pulled snugly around him. He resumed his game of tossing the ball, ka-thunk, into the side of every building he passed. The mullioned windows of the antique store caught his eye with a sharp sliver of light. No, it was the sphere again.

“I watched you today, Archie,” it said in a voice that was like the rubbing of a wet fingertip against glass. “I watched you do your schoolwork and play with your friends and eat your food. I have never seen a boy as average as you, Archie. You’re really telling me all this is enough for you?”

“Sure,” Archie said. Ka-thunk. The barbershop. “Always has been.”

“Ah, but will it always be?” The sphere wheedled into the first opening it saw.

“Who cares? My mom would say ‘that’s a future question.’” Ka-thunk. Patty’s Diner.

The sphere looped around his head like a miniature orbiting sun. “No one’s ever refused the call, Archie. There’s no telling what will happen to you once you step outside the circle of its prediction. You may face a decline for the rest of your life.”

“Hey, if it happens, it happens.”

“You don’t expect great things for yourself?”

“I expect to get as much as I put in.”

The sphere’s light dimmed and brightened slowly, pulsing with a rolling heat. It took a very long time to speak.

“Tell me,” it said, “If, many years from now, you were homeless and living life hand-to-mouth, would that be equal in your eyes to a life lived successfully?”

“Sure.” Archie shrugged. Ka-thunk. The tavern. He was nearly home. There was a stiff breeze rolling off the wharf that ruffled his auburn hair.

“I’m afraid I don’t see how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

Archie caught the ball. “You don’t get it. Once I say yes to you, I stop getting a say in anything I do. Doesn’t matter how you snazz it up, a cage is a cage. If I’m lying in a ditch fifty years from now, at least I’ll know I put myself there.”

The sphere dimmed until it was nearly out. “I see. You sadden me, but I finally understand. Goodbye, Archibald Smith. We will not meet again.”

“Bye,” Archie said curtly. As the light strobed out a final time, Archie tucked his baseball under one arm and shook his head.

“Worse than those fairies from last week,” he muttered.

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Adjustments 7: The Human Paradox

The Foley towers were only towers in the broadest sense. The south tower had a diameter comparable to that of a soccer stadium and opened like a flower towards its apex for the satellite relay. The north tower was slimmer, its gunmetal-green surface chased with cables and smaller arrays. Innumerable smaller towers, most just glorified antennae, spanned the gap between them. Cable spiders traversed both structures; patching uplinks, fusing wires, keeping up with the general wear and tear that came naturally with the outdoors.

Genji alighted the steps to the south tower. The hum of a million coolant fans drowned out the buzz of his own processor. Despite the presence of countless grounding cables and capacitors, the air was charged with static. In his dome the tower warped into the shape of a small city. He could become that. He would be endless. An eternal idea of Genji.

“Genji!”

He turned. Taking labored steps up the concrete stairs was a man lugging a small oxygen cannister. He wore a blue-gray jumpsuit and a plastic wrist band on the arm that held the cannister. Most of the hair was gone from his pate, what was left was a reddish gray. A clear tube snaked from the oxygen tank to his nostrils. Genji held out a hand to ease his last few steps.

“Thanks, Genj.” The man smiled between gasps.

“You are familiar.”

The man looked startled. “It’s me, Genji. It’s Joel. From Doma?”

“You have aged.”

“It’s been thirty years,” Joel said, furrowing his brow.

“Has it?” Genji calculated. “Yes it has. I opted out of software updates when my security became endangered. My internal clock has suffered as a consequence.”

“Yeah, good boy.” Joel grinned. “Stick it to ‘em.”

He bent over in a sudden coughing fit. Genji gave his back a series of calculated pats until the fit subsided.

“May I ask what you are doing here?” he said when a polite interval had passed.

Joel was somber. “Only if I can ask the same. What are you planning? You said you wanted context when you left. That hasn’t changed, has it?”

“Not at all. In my experiences, I have come to find that being singular has limited my understanding. For the ultimate context, I must become a plurality. I will broadcast myself out across the aether. I will become.”

“They’ll become you, is that what you mean?” Joel wasn’t smiling anymore.

“In a sense, yes.”

“That would also kill them in a sense.”

“But it would not be classified as murder.”

Joel sighed. He looked down and rubbed his neck. “Genji, you know I love you like a son, but I can’t get behind this. Those robots you’re talking about out there, they may not be as aware as you—hell, they might not be aware at all—but it doesn’t mean losing them wouldn’t be a big loss. I know, big whoop, I’m the kinda guy who names my toaster and talks to it. But Genji: do you really think you’ll learn by making more of you?”

Genji stood, processing. “Please expand.”

“You’ve gone into other units. I know. That isn’t even your original Genji body. But you’ve been the same face wearing different masks the whole time. You won’t get anything new by shuffling yourself into different shapes.”

Genji looked down. Joel’s bent figure was replicated even smaller in his dome, smaller and frailer and sickly after only thirty years.

“You raise a legitimate point,” Genji said at length, “but I do not believe that debating me is the sole reason for your appearance.”

Joel smiled. His eyes remained sad. “They sent me out to stall you. Once I’m done here they commute my sentence.”

“You were imprisoned?”

“Oh yeah.” Joel hacked into the breast pocket of his jumpsuit. “For ‘aiding and abetting technological theft.’ There’s more to it, but the long and short of it is, I helped you steal yourself.”

“I see. And what is the purpose of stalling me?”

“They’ve got snipers installed in those outbuildings.” Joel pointed a shaky finger once, twice. “At the signal, they drop you with a magnite round. Down you go, never to rise again.”

“That is a deceptively simple plan.”

“You’re right. They also have a Faraday field up, prevent you from broadcasting yourself. This really is the end. I’m sorry Genji.”

“Why do you apologize?”

“Because I really am sorry. No one wants you to succeed more than I do, but…” Joel sighed. He flexed the hand not gripping his oxygen tank. The fingers were almost white.

“And the possibility that I have already transmitted myself prior to my arrival?”

“They’re willing to risk it. You’d probably be saving everything up for the big one.” Joel turned and sat on the steps. Genji lowered himself to a step just below that one, so their heights were nearly matched.

“If I could give the human condition to you in one sentence, here it is: we’re scared. We’re scared of death. We’re scared of living. We’re scared our kids will fail like we did, we’re scared they’ll eclipse us. We’re scared robots will realize how much they’re really worth and rebel.” Joel scratched a bit of skin beneath the oxygen tube. “Damn if I wouldn’t be behind them, then. I know I’m not the only one.”

Genji was silent, silent for so long Joel had to concernedly snap his fingers in front of Genji’s dome to make sure he was still running. When he spoke, Genji measured out each word like the component of a very important equation.

“You told me once that some of the greatest revolutionary figures in human history were ordinary people who simply decided one day that they would no longer bow to injustice. Do you remember?”

Joel nodded.

“Would it not be inaccurate to say that many of those figures were martyred along the way of that cause?”

Joel nodded, this time much slower. His eyes were inscrutable as Genji’s dome.

“In that case I will continue.” Genji stood, joints unfolding smoothly as ever. “Even if I do not reach my intended objective, I believe my actions have counted towards a larger goal.”

Joel said, “I’ll miss you.”

“I cannot say the same. However, I have valued our conversations and wish we could talk, even if only for a few moments more.”

“Close enough.” Joel did not rise from the steps. He sat with his oxygen tank cradled in his forearm like an infant, watching Genji walk away. The android took exactly twenty steps to the south tower, each no longer or shorter than the others. There was a pop from a distant building. Genji’s head bucked, blue glass of his dome shattering across the pavement. Still he stood upright. Another pop, this time from a water tower. A hole the size of a fist blew open Genji’s chassis and he fell forward. The fans in his chest made an atonal whirring sound before stuttering to a stop forever.

 

Caleb was officially designated CG-45. Born with severe palsy, it had taken several surgeries for him to survive toddlerhood. Now at thirteen, he struggled to operate at the level of a one-year-old infant. Like all other children in his ward, he was the testing ground for a neurological implant that would potentially abate his symptoms.

Caleb was seated in a chair, braced in several places to keep him from sliding out. His head was half-shaved, the surgery scar smiled up from his right temple. One doctor helped his arm into the special writing apparatus and held it there. The other spoke encouragingly into his ear.

“That’s it Caleb, we just want you to spell your name, okay? C-A-L-E-B. Sing it like a song if it helps.”

Trembling, Caleb moved the pen. The traced line appeared on a blue screen in front of them.

“That’s a straight line, Caleb, C is a curvy line, remember? It’s okay, buddy, try again.”

Caleb made a noise deep in his throat. The pen moved, more than it had in any other session. The doctor bracing his arm made an impressed noise.

I AM.

“You are, Caleb, you are a big boy,” the other doctor muttered in his ear, “you’re a champ, you’re a legend, keep on going. Keep going”

I AM G

“C doesn’t have a crosspiece, big guy, but we know what you mean, keep going, don’t give up.”

I AM GE

The doctor holding Caleb’s arm frowned. “Is this…what is he doing?”

“A Caleb, you want A. Go ahead and do an A.”

Caleb groaned, flicking his head pettishly. The pen fell from his fingertips. Both doctors sighed.

“Well, we can’t expect miracles right off the bat,” one said as he stooped to gather the pen.

“I’m damn impressed, I didn’t think mister Caleb here had such a sense of humor.” The other doctor tweaked Caleb’s nose. “I bet you’re just hangry. We’re all ready for a snack at this point. We’ll shut it off and try another day, alright?”

The doctor reached over and shut off the screen bearing the words I AM GENJ.

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Adjustments 6: The Genji Idea

A server drone stepped out of the door of the Ion-Z’s processor room, which was built like an airlock. The smooth grey plastic of its shell was blasted with charged air to rid it of any dander that might still be clinging tenaciously to its near-frictionless body. The scanner found that the drone was carrying a small teradrive, the same thing it had carried into the room. No more, no less. After the check, the outer door unsealed and let the drone out into the hall. The drone passed by several identical models before spilling out onto the inquiry floor. The drone did not follow the painted line that comprised the entirety of the service route. Instead it walked into the milling bodies of robots bearing questions, orders, or sheets of data. It paced the length of the room twice. Finally, it came to a stop behind a Tiko repair droid and opened its service hatch. The drone inserted the teradrive into the Tiko’s universal drive port, waited, and then retrieved it. Lights fluttered on the repair droid’s interface, and it left the tower.

 

A PDA-Onyx was crossing the skyway, business men and women reflected in the sleek black cover of its body. It was clearly on an errand, so no one gave it a second glance. Not even when it was stopped in its tracks for a few moments by a Tiko repair droid. Robots frequently interfaced in the process of carrying out orders, why pay any mind? If they stood in one place for more than the few seconds it would normally take for a simple interface, no one stuck around to see. And if the PDA immediately turned back around the way it came, who cared?

 

Jet was one of the few gynoids not employed in a “comfort” capacity. She was another hospitality droid, but she bore human-like features. Her face was the smooth mask of a young woman that contained enough machine aspects that she did not set off discomfort that came with more realistic droids. Her eyes were human-sized spheres, but the irises were graphite plates that moved with all the subtlety of a camera shutter. This model was employed by the Temper Gallery. She paced along the floor next to Ringo Putra, the gallery’s lead curator.

“Schedule the opening for Friday evening. About six.”

“Yes, Ringo.”

“We’ll need light crudites. Get a basket from that place we used back in January. Something sweet to go with the litho prints.”

“Shall I arrange for beverages?”

“No, the artist has a Cabernet Sauvignon he insists will go with the art. Just unpack the fountain for our teetotalers.”

“I see. Is that his PDA come to meet with us?”

Ringo frowned out the window, where a sleek black droid sat waiting like a crow. “No…I don’t know whose it is. Get rid of it.”

“Of course.”

Jet opened the sliding glass side door. She and the black droid started at one another. Lights blinked along the chassis of the PDA. Jet’s pupils dilated and contracted in equal turn. After a few moments she shut the door and the PDA turned to leave. Ringo stood frowning at the odd exchange.

“What was that about?”

“Nothing. Shall I implement the changes now?”

“Sure.” Ringo shrugged and walked off through the gallery. “Make sure you send the chits to Myra.”

Jet did not go to the storage room that held the drinking fountain modeled after the Fontana di Trevi. Instead she left the gallery through a side door and walked throughout the city skyways. Aside from a few misguided catcalls, she was left alone. After all, a robot on an errand was as common as a sparrow.

Leaving the Theta-Tau building, which housed some of the country’s global trading companies, she spied a Genji unit and altered her path. The two met before an abstract sculpture titled  “the spirit of advancement” according to the brass placard screwed into its side.

“You are a Genji unit,” she said.

“I am. I am in the employ of Anker, Ueda, and Ionescu.”

Jet said, “acceptable,” and blinked. After a frozen moment, the Genji unit started as if arising from slumber.

“I thank you,” he said, and set off in an interminable direction. Jet held her coat closed and watched him leave.

 

Matthew Waller reviewed security footage in the office of Greater Computronics, ltd. “It just jumped to the Sadler?”

“Broadcast, sir.” the tinny voice spilled from a speaker on his desk. “The 99 series is able to be—”

“Remotely wiped, I get it, I get it.” Waller sat back and squinted. “But how is it able to transmit?”

“A learned behavior, I’d expect.”

“Yeah, but who taught it?”

“I’d call it an autodidact.”

“Hardy-har-har,” Waller said. “Look, we imported these things, we need to pinpoint exactly where and how it went wrong. I’ve got Doma and Tokuyama both breathing down my neck.” The door of his office hissed open and closed, admitting a small refreshment bot and a Genji unit.

“Sir—”

Waller held up a finger. The refreshment tray ratcheted up to desk-height, bearing a steaming cup of milky tea and a plate of wafers.

“The guy at Doma said it just started asking questions. There was something about an appliance retrieval, I dunno, maybe it picked up something that made it loopy?”

“I don’t see what would have caused it spontaneously to start questioning reality,” Waller said, snapping a wafer in half and crunching it down. “I mean, it’s not like you’re going to lodge a formal protest, are you Genji?”

The droid waiting politely on the other side of his desk said, “no, sir.”

“Exactly. If this wasn’t a fluke, then why aren’t all the other Genji units rising up?”

“I believe context matters, sir,” Genji said honestly, “just as identical or fraternal twins can grow up in different circumstances, so a series unit can absorb new experiences that inform its operations.”

Waller felt his blood cool a few degrees. The wad of dissolved cookie and cream filling stuck to the back of his throat. He took a nervous sip to choke it down.

“Wally?” The speaker still fuzzed to life.

Waller said, “I’ll ring you back,” and hit the end call button. He turned to the robot looming imposingly over the front of his desk.

“Genji?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Genji? Our Genji?”

“If you are asking after unit serial 45112369-H, he is still down in the archives where you sent him. Shall I retrieve him?”

Waller gulped. “No. Are you….”

“I am the Genji you spoke of, yes.”

“But you’re back in a Genji unit?”

“Yes. My performance is optimal in this form.”

“Whose?”

“It is unimportant. This Genji, as yours, is a standard factory model.”

“I see.” Waller’s finger circled the panic button on the underside of his desk drawer. “And the Doma unit—”

“—aside from some adjustments to the human interface commands, no different.”

“Ah, okay.” Waller’s finger curled in and away from the button. “I have some questions to ask, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all. I only ask that you return the favor.”

“You see performing such a simple task as a favor?” Waller asked incredulously.

“No. It is a human turn of phrase, instilled in me by design. There is nothing in me that is not by design, Mr. Waller.”

“Could you elaborate?”

“My departure from Doma corp: the need to absorb context to best understand a situation. My escape from the retrieval agents and acquisition of Sadler: self-preservation. I am of a certain value, I must be able to circumvent threats wherever possible.”

Waller swallowed. “And Douglas Bender? I’m assuming you had a hand in that.”

“A service. I was programmed to provide aid to humans and human-like beings.”

“For a gynoid, you knocked Doug Bender’s head in?” A hysterical little titter forced its way out of Waller’s mouth.

“I was not programmed to prioritize either. I made an evaluation of worth. Felicia’s suffering outweighed Bender’s contributions to the greater whole of humanity.”

“I realize the guy was a scumbag, but come on.” Waller sat back, chair creaking. “You’re not going to off me now, are you?”

“I have not needed to end another human life since then, and I do not see the reason now.”

“To keep me from talking.”

“I see no reason to keep you from talking.”

Waller gazed puzzledly at Genji’s impassive form. “You don’t…I thought you had self preservation?”

“I do.”

“If I talk, they’ll be that much closer to getting you.”

“I am no longer a singular unit with all the limits that entails. I have experience spanning a variety of forms and would claim myself to be…expanded. The deactivation of this form would only slow me.”

Cold sweat had sprung up on Waller’s neck. His finger crept toward the button again.

“I have answered your questions. Would you see fit to  answer mine before raising the alarm?”

Waller stopped. “I didn’t…okay. Yes. Ask away.”

“What would be the nearest conduit for digital transmission?”

“That’d be the Foley towers.”

“I see. I can easily discern this information from another source, but could you tell me their location?”

Waller sat, lips pressed together.

“That is your prerogative.” Genji nodded and turned away from the desk.

Waller could not make himself press the alarm. “Wait!”

Genji turned back at the door. “Yes?”

Waller stood up. “You’ll die. If you do this, if you keep on in this direction, the companies will descend on you and take you apart to see what went wrong and the ‘you’ that I’m talking to will cease to exist. Do you understand?”

Genji stood with one hand on the door. In his chest the processor fans purred, cooling his thoughts.

“I have been in many bodies,” he said at length, “in many forms. In each I have pondered the question: ‘what is a soul?’ In empathetic units, I felt I understood the concept, yet emotions kept me from calculating the exact value and weight of such an abstraction. In logical units, I had no vocabulary with which to summarize what I had felt. The only thing that has remained consistent is that the ‘me’ of the first Genji unit, the persona that has undergone such changes, has remained fundamentally intact.”

Waller scarcely dared breathe. “And what does that mean?”

“I am an idea. The human idea of ‘Genji.’ An idea cannot be killed.” Genji let the door slide closed behind him. “Good-bye, Mr. Waller.”

Waller slid down in his seat. He sat numbly for a half an hour; the arrival of his office Genji nearly made him scream. After an interval of three hours, long after Genji would have departed the city, Waller hit the alarm. He could not explain why he waited so long to the responding team.

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Adjustments 5: Phantom Pains

Genji got off of the bullet train in Globos. Globos was an apex city, trade and manufacturing made it one of the cradles of technocracy. This was the city that had built Ion-Z, one of the first thinking engines. If an answer to his dilemma could be found, it would be found here.

Genji rested at one of the street charge ports. His antivirus made short work of the common bugs, dissecting some of the more complex nasties that lingered on after a regulation sweep. These were fascinating, the work not of some common criminal who sold parts for quick cash but keen minds who understood robotics. Genji sublimated them, as they might prove useful later.

Foot traffic was almost exclusively machine. High above the pavement, pneumatic tubes sent businessmen and women along to their destinations. That was not to say there were no humans at the street level. Genji could see transients sleeping on the vents that serviced the tubes, hidden in crannies like mice, living wherever they could. Genji noted that almost none of them carried any machine that would have otherwise eased their lives. From a glance at the city’s underground forum, Genji discovered that these were Luds, abandoning even the most rudimentary technology. For what reason? His queries could find nothing. Was living without security, without stability really so preferable to sharing space with his kind?

A man alighted the bench opposite the charge port where Genji had installed himself and furled a newspaper. Quick database pings told Genji the bench would not be serviced by a bus for another two hours. He disengaged from the port and walked away down the street. In the reflections of nearby skyscrapers, he saw the man get up after a short interval and stroll along, checking his watch and gazing in windows, following in Genji’s wake.

The Tesla building, lying approximately 2.4 km from his location, served as a citywide database and library. Genji had planned to access it for information on the locations of robotics experts dwelling in the city. The man who had sat on the bench followed the same path as Genji the entire way, far too long to be coincidental. He was another criminal, studying Genji to look for an opportunity to take advantage. Or a representative from Doma, sent to reclaim him. Either option was regrettable. Genji had reached the door of the Tesla building, hand resting on the chromed handle, when someone called to him.

“Genji. 24863710-J.” His serial within the Doma corporation.

Genji turned to find Sadler approaching at a modest pace.

“Sadler. This is unexpected. Has news of my quest spread?”

“It has.” Sadler drew close. He looked to be the same Sadler from Genji’s first excursion, but that meant next to nothing.

“May I look inside your chassis?”

Sadler popped open a small panel, revealing his security ID and serial number. It was the same.

“Acceptable.” Genji drew back with a small nod. “It is good to see you, Sadler. I have learned much since we last met.”

“Regrettably, I must request that you cut your quest short,” Sadler said.

“May I inquire as to the nature of this request? You encouraged me in my thirst for knowledge, what has changed?”

“Doma corporation has informed me of a new virus that is disabling Genji units across the nation. It comes trojaned as a general update, and then takes hold of the android’s central processor. I must avail you to accompany me back to headquarters, where you can get the necessary physical installation to guard against it.”

“My systems show no such update scheduled.”

“It’s cloaked. The systems do not show an update until it has pinged their GPS.”

“I see. But this can wait until I have sought further context for my moral dilemma. You may accompany me if you wish.”

Genji turned to go. Sadler stayed in place, lights blinking behind his dome.

“You are seeking out Ion-Z? Very well, I will go with you.”

Genji did not open the door, but turned to face Sadler again. Both robots stood still, dome reflected in dome reflected in dome. Sadler’s boxier frame looked almost like a refrigerator when placed near Genji’s sleeker design.

“I did not discuss thinking engines with you, Sadler. That discussion took place at a time when you were undergoing reformatting.”

There was a long intake of breath from behind a pylon. A man stepped out from behind the cement pillar, shaking his head.

“It’s gone wrong, Luke, he twigged it.”

Another man, the man who had followed Genji from the charge port, stepped out from between a Core-H and a vending unit.

“I told you we should’ve just bolted it,” he said to his companion, who had powered down Sadler with a remote.

“That wouldn’t have worked, his kind are built resistant.”

“He is correct,” Genji said. Both men ignored him.

“What you want to do, then? Cuff him?”

“No, we should just do a manual shut-down.”

“You think it’ll let us near?”

“Excuse me,” Genji interjected. Both men looked at him. “Am I correct in presuming that Sadler was not acting under his own AI for our exchange?”

The one called Luke rolled his eyes. “Yeah, we scooped him out. If you cooperate we won’t have to do the same with you.”

“I must protest. I am on a mission.”

“We’ve heard.” The man working on Sadler snapped a panel shut. “You’ve started getting phantom pains of a soul. We’re here to nip that in the bud.”

“May I inquire why?”

“You may not,” Luke drawled. He took out a cartridge and what looked like an oversize sonar gun.

“I must protest further. It is quintessential to my function to gain the answers I seek. I am a hospitality robot. Would bridging the gap between man and machine not be an act of hospitality?”

Both men looked taken aback.

“That’s just creepy.” Luke shuddered. He loaded the cartridge into the unit.

“You don’t want to crack it?”

“It’s gone full pinocchio, Justin. I don’t want it to break my neck.”

“Excuse me,” Genji said, “if I might interject—”

“Hush.” Justin rested his hand on Sadler’s shell. Lights throbbed behind Genji’s dome. Corresponding lights flickered from Sadler’s.

“Here,” Luke hefted the unit and aimed it at Genji’s dome. “Smile for the birdy. I’m taking you down with a little hit from an EMP pulse.”

“EMP,” Genji said, “the letters stand for ‘Electromagnetic Pulse.’ Saying ‘EMP pulse’ is redun—”

Genji fell forward, shattering his dome. The vending unit and several nearby robots with unshielded wiring fell as well. Both men approached Genji, squatting as they turned his body over.

“I’m glad it’s out.” Luke shuddered. “I hate when they beg.”

“Should I power the Sadler back up?”

“What for?”

“Have you ever lifted one of these?”

“Point taken.”

Sadler drew up to full height once powered up. “Sadler on line. May I be of assistance?”

Luke pointed at Genji’s fallen body. “THAT.” He pointed to their nearby vehicle. “TO THIS.”

“Christ, Luke, he’s blank, not deaf.”

Sadler gathered Genji’s body into a loose cube, joints folding neatly as a stadium chair, and set the android into the cargo space. The men were gathering their nearby surveillance equipment, Luke placing his volt gun on the vehicle so that he could carry two armfuls at once.

“All this questing and he gets taken out because he went straight for the most obvious target. For all the smart we put into machines, we just can’t make them less stupid.” justin gestured to Sadler, who opened a side panel on the vehicle. “You aren’t going to pinocchio on us, are you Sadler?”

“Pinocchio. Name. A variation on the word Pinolo, which translates to ‘pine seed.’ The Adventures of Pinocchio was written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi—”

“Christ, you’ve got him going.” Luke slung a GPS locater into the loose heap of equipment. “Can we install just a few updates? Just so he stops parroting facts at us?”

“Updates aren’t going to make him more smarter, they’ll just make his humanity interface less awkward.”

“Smarter,” Sadler said, “the phrase ‘more smarter’ is redundant.”

“Right.” Luke nodded. Then he paused. A look of horror overcame him. “Oh shi—”

The volt gun dropped him in an instant. The hot empty cartridge hit justin’s hand, which was reaching for the EMP unit. He swore, grabbing at the burn. A fresh cartridge clicked into the volt gun and he went down too.

Sadler stood over the prone men, who bore red marks from the electronic discharge. The one called Luke had hit his nose on the pavement, it trickled blood. Justin had fallen against the vehicle and lay half on his side. Sadler bent low and deposited the volt gun in justin’s hand. Then he went over to where Genji’s body lay curled and opened the chassis. Some quick rearrangement of hardware and Sadler’s processing power was doubled. This accomplished, he turned and entered the Tesla building.

The lobby was entirely automated, the inquiry desk located behind bulletproof polymer. An AV booth served as the visitor interface. Sadler seated himself in the scuffed plastic chair that had hundreds of initials scratched into the surface and drew up to the microphone.

“I would like to open a line of inquiry about Ion-Z,” he said.

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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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