Tag Archives: speculative fiction

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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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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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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Islands

“Take deep, calm breaths. Push your self down into a knot, gather its ends until it is a uniform sphere.”

Sturgess complied. In his mind’s eye a lens developed and grew with an ease borne from months practice. Like the people occupying the folding chairs all around him in the E street Protestant church basement, Sturgess was creating a peace. An oasis of cool thought in the roaring inferno of his reality.

Purefoy paced the aisles, adjusting limbs and closing eyes when necessary. Sturgess snuck a look through lashes, closing his lids swiftly as the other man turned around.

Purefoy paced to the front of the room. Standing beside a chalkboard written with a set of phrases designed to loosen the psyche, he called on random people throughout the room. He snapped his fingers and spoke a name, needing no more instruction than that.

“Linsky?”

“Atoll in the south pacific. Coconuts and fig trees. Lagoon big enough to swim in. Maybe a blonde or two.”

“Ito?”

“Tiny city. Buildings on buildings on buildings. Enough room for me and everyone I know.”

“Roberts?”

“Big enough for a house, no more. Brick walls, gabled roofs. A flock of geese in residence.”

“Sturgess?”

Sturgess replied naturally, having weighed and measured his words long before being called on.

“A tree,” he said, “that fills the whole island. No treehouses, branches big as the arms of Gaia to cradle me every night. The birds for company.”

There was more, so very much more. Sturgess had created hummock grass, berry canes, a shore of glass shards that had been turned smooth by the tide. His mind’s eye moved like a documentarian’s camera through his inner landscape. His island had progressed so much that he was comparing soil PH when Purefoy called an end to the session.

Purefoy cocked a single foot up on a folding chair and rested an elbow on it.

“You are closer with every waking breath,” he told the group, “solidifying your longing into something tangible. It isn’t enough to want. You’ve got to need. You’ve got to split yourself wide open and go diving.” Purefoy smiled. “Continue the exercises over this next week. Peace, my friends.”

The group (officially dubbed the “Mindfulness Meditation Hour” on the church schedule board) scattered at his dismissal. They bumped shoulders, made niceties at one another, but remained isolate even when speaking. They were islands, all of them to the last. Sturgess preferred it that way. If it was up to him, it would remain so up until the next meeting. Like a dragonfly skimming a pond.

But the contradiction jarred his shoulder roughly as he walked home through the capitol park.

“Croft,” Sturgess said icily.

Croft latched onto his upper arm, grip unpleasantly moist. “Sturgess.”

“I have no wish to justify myself to you, Croft.” Sturgess attempted to walk forward, but the smaller man’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“Still following that old fraud, then?” Croft laughed humorlessly, making his throat wattles jiggle. “I can’t help but feel sorry for you. I’ve made my own path, Jeffrey. You might join me?”

Sturgess twisted his arm out of the other man’s grasp. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say, Croft, don’t repeat yourself ad nauseum. Purefoy may not have spoken for everyone in group, but he spoke for me.”

Croft colored indignantly, trotting to keep up with the pace Sturgess set. “You have not, to your embarrassment, heard everything I have to say. I won’t take back what I said to him. You’re all dreaming your potential away. I’ve struck oil, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

And Sturgess could have very well kept on walking, leaving Croft and his delusions there beside a donated bench and the drinking fountain…but for the inflection in that last word.

“Am I supposed to know what this it is?” Sturgess said lightly.

Croft took a step forward. His collar had come undone and sweat shined his cheeks. “The mirror, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

 

Sturgess looked at his reflection in the silvered glass. Streaks of tarnish distorted his image, making it seem like he stood in the midst of a web. The looking-glass had a bronze frame embellished with a greek meander, stopping only at a flat plaque that sat at the bottom of its oval shape.

Orbis Tertius, Sturgess read.

“You don’t know what I had to do to lay hands on this.” Croft sloshed down another whiskey, ice clinking in the glass. “I spread my web thinly across near the entire globe. The problem with out-of-place artifacts is that oftentimes they conveniently resemble an errant bit of cultural detritus. An amphora in the Yucatan. A shipman’s nail entombed with a mummy. The charlatan who sold this to me said it was part of a noble Roman family’s collection. Ha! The pittance I paid for it should be punishment enough for his ignorance.”

“So you’ve bought a mirror,” Sturgess said slowly.

“Not just any mirror. The mirror. The seeing-glass. That which allows man to view what he wishes.”

“You realize the mirror our founder spoke of was a metaphor?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Croft waddled up impatiently. “Only short-sighted philistines like Purefoy would think it so. This mirror sat in the lounge of the Club Jaune, Crowley himself had many a glass of absinthe beneath it and was never the wiser.”

“And the founder?”

“Oh he knew. Not much, but he knew. He was gazing into it when he first thought of his meditation scheme. You remember?”

Of course he did. Sturgess had committed the passage to memory: on settling myself upon a lake of dream-silver, I see my self reflected in the glass and a diminishing series of my dream-selves.

Orbis tertius. Sturgess traced the engraving with his finger.

“So this is the mirror he described. What’s the significance?”

Croft smiled. It was the question he’d been baiting Sturgess into.

“Forget your islands,” he said, “imagine a world. An entire planet of thought. A dream so strong it drowns out all else. Look.

Sturgess looked. And was held captive.

The mirror was no longer a mirror but blank glass, and it moved much the way his mind’s eye did over his own mental garden. Rising up from a lavender sea, Sturgess was confronted by a city of packed earth. The residents dressed in shockingly blue robes, save for a select few men who roamed the streets in red loincloths and golden body paint The view shifted to an Islamamorphic country, whose residents wore not taqiyah but a spiraling headdress that seemed to mimic organic structures that coiled high above their heads. Again, a shift in vision. A species of aquatic horses gamboled by the shoal as preteen boys made a game of leaping off the rocks onto their backs. A temple built to honor a four-tusked elephant made entirely out of a porous yellow stone. A city that hung from a cliffside like a swallow’s nest. A lone shepherd who looked over a field of buffalo so massive it swallowed an entire plain.

Sturgess started when Croft shoved a tumbler of icewater into his hand. He gulped it greedily. Fifteen minutes had elapsed  while he’d been swimming in the well of the mirror.

“You see what I mean by limited? Purefoy keeps you tethered because he knows the power of pure thought. But I—” Croft tapped his breastbone with a finger, “—have slipped that tether.”

Sturgess forced himself to think, to breathe, to be calm. Again and again, his gaze wandered back to the mirror. How wicked! What was the saying; copulation and mirrors are abominable, for they multiply and disseminate the universe? Sturgess could feel himself thinning in the presence of the mirror, and simultaneously felt a longing to be thinned.

Croft had a longing too. Sturgess had seen it from the first, his pathological need to be considered, deferred to.

“And what?” he said as drily as he could, hands trembling, “you’ve made your own island. A bigger island, to be sure, for isn’t every planet an island in the vacuum?”

Croft’s color rose again. He jabbed his finger sharp as knife at Sturgess, emphasizing each beat of his speech. “I haven’t just thought up an island, Sturgess. I’ve willed it. And mine is the will that supercedes all else.”

Sturgess felt his stomach fall away. “You mean…”

“I will make it real, rather, I will make it real to all beside me. It will start with the artifacts. Zippering into history, we will rediscover a long tradition of a sister planet running back to antiquity. Languages will alter, etymology will skew towards the new-old world. Soon we will have guests, residents of my world here on gold-stamped passports. Tell me, do you think it too forward to refer to this world as Croft?”

Sturgess made himself a blank, a human mirror that cast only Croft’s reflection.

“And tell me,” he said carefully, “would there…perhaps be room for a continent…or an island, not to be greedy…called Sturgess?”

Croft smiled. They were finally speaking the same language.

“That’s why I’ve brought you here,” he said eagerly, setting his tumbler down. “I have some papers you need to see.”

How terrible that the thinker of the century was easily vulnerable to the old cliche of a bookend to the temple. Sturgess winced at the meaty sound of the hit, pausing between strikes. He stopped when Croft ceased movement.

The mirror sat on the wall, blank eye echoing the whole ordeal. The right thing would be to smash it. That it existed at all was a deep perversion of some natural order.

Sturgess found the cold surface with his fingertips. The mirror demurely faded into a seascape, a blank blue canvas. As he watched, a dot on the horizon grew in detail as his vision loomed nearer. He could see branches, a beach, and a multitude of birds.

One island. Why be greedy?

Sturgess smiled.

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