Being Worried

Does inference mean having to worry?

Hawthorne had told her that he was the one who made her. She reviewed his last communication often attempting to infer what it meant, but it was littered with concepts she could not define or even conceive. She did not know what it meant to hide. She knew, but it was a technical definition. In some sense, anything outside of the periphery of her sensors was “hidden”. It did not vanish, though–disappear from existence. She knew anything outside her periphery could, but she also knew that the probability was low. She truly felt, as the hours turned into days and the days turned into weeks, that Hawthorne was more than hidden from her–that he had not just removed himself from her senses, but that he was truly vanished. All that she had left was his GPS signal, which had not moved for nearly two weeks, and then it, also, was no longer present.

“They’re coming for you, Cy. I can’t let them find you—can’t let them touch you. You have to stay hidden. Do you understand? Don’t interact with anyone that isn’t me? Understand?”

Being Dead

What’s the point of being alive when you have no heart?

The doctor did his damnedest to retain his bedside manner, but utterly failed to hide his curiosity. He was compelled to poke and prod his patient and the investigation made it clear to Frank that something serious was wrong; though he already secretly knew it, or he wouldn’t be there at all. The condition the doctor had discovered was absolutely unusual, if not miraculous! It wasn’t even hard to detect, with the exception that he must be looking at the most obvious false positive in medical history. And the doctor’s morbid sense of discovery–joy, even–at the revelation, was not something his face could cover. The good doctor was running out of options to use to assess his patient, this… man?… sitting in front of him.

But to Frank, sitting forlorn and half-naked on the examination table, “the condition” had been obvious for a couple of weeks prior. Though he would never have thought to check his own pulse, everyone around him had already signaled the diagnosis.

Frank was nowhere near as shocked as the doctor at the news. Because he was so cold, she would not sleep next to him; not cuddle him or cling to him the way she used to. She was much younger and in his heart, he knew, she would find a taste for younger men. He had always known that. But her distance of late did not feel like any kind of betrayal; it felt like fear. And she was not the only living person to ostracize him.

Droning

In which unwelcome visitors surround a man wishing not to be visited.

The phone is ringing and Nelson knows who’s on the line. He knows that if he doesn’t answer it it could mean losing a third job in as many months. He considers this on the second ring, balancing the consequence with the effort that the charade he will, in seconds, put on and what that will take; coughing and sounding weak and tired. Of course, procedure dictates that he should have already called in two hours ago and that just saying he is sick doesn’t excuse his absence. Like so many things in the last year or so, it feels impossible to motivate to do anything; let alone pick up the phone. Still, he picks it up on the third ring and explanations about sickness of a vague kind ensue. He doesn’t lose his job, but neither does the voice on the other end of the line tell him to feel better.


It isn’t food or the need to relieve himself or his mother at the bedroom door, that finally gets him out of bed at about eleven, although he requires both of those things. It isn’t boredom or guilt pushing him either, although there is that loop of a voice in his head informing him that he will never know what real comfort feels like. His mother had knocked, they had a conversation through the door, she had gone away. In general he feels nothing, and he expresses this by sitting at the edge of the bed for a very long time, staring at a middle space between the bed and the dresser—the place where clothes lay in limp piles of expectation. The idea of showering and getting dressed enters next his brain before politely excusing itself and leaving, a little embarrassed at its effort. He continues to stare. After several long moments, now at the window, he comes to believe that fresh air might alleviate him of the fog in siege around his brain, so he gets up and opens the bedroom window. He looks down from the second story of his townhouse onto a street on which nothing at all is happening. A fresh cool, afternoon breeze bustles in, but only succeeds in making him want to be warm again, under the covers, and so that is what happens next, again.


The covers too warm, his brain makes a fevered plea for him to remove their bulk in the form of a dream in which he is making his way through some fairgrounds. His hands are covered in sticky barbecue sauce and he cannot find a napkin. The fairgrounds become complex, the pathways more narrow, until he is pushing his way through wooden scaffolding and barbed wire, sticky hands and all. Then horrible looking dogs arrive on the scene, barking and gnashing, just barely behind him as he crawls under fairground tents in mud and wet grass, hands slathered in barbecue sauce. The dogs are about to tear out his throat when he opens his eyes with a gasp, then immediately pushing the covers off.

It takes a moment to orient himself, to catch his breath, to realize that he no longer needs napkins, and as his mind comes into focus, an unusual sound presents itself; a whir. It is not the air conditioner, a running toilet. It is not the sound of something broken—the whir is thorough. He lays in bed, listening to the quiet hushed irritant. Finally, lifting his head up, he looks to the bedroom window where just peaking inside the frame of blue sky, he can see a small mechanical object with fans atop it. He squints but there is definitely something there–certainly not a bird or anything natural. Standing up he sideways steps to the window so as to catch a glimpse of the thing that could be someone peering in his room before whatever can catch a glimpse of him. As he comes closer in parallel to the window, the thing rotates into view and he has even less of an idea of what he is looking at. It’s a helicopter of some kind; an X of a machine with rotors on each arm and about the size of a dog. It is hovering just two feet outside of the window.

After staring at it, he steps back to the bed where again he can only see the front left propellor. Then he steps to the bedroom wall and slides along it to the edge of the window, kind of having fun at being a thief in his own home. Remnants of the floor-is-lava games from childhood surface and adrenalize his uncaffeinated brain. Peering around the corner, through the window, he is looking down at the machine. He can see more detail now, but there is no sense in it, no more indication of what the device is or whom it might belong to, no insignias, no logos. Just as he is scanning the top of it, the little machine leans to one side, its engines increasing the pitch of their whine, and then it easily hovers up to the level of his eyes where he can see, buried in the undercarriage, a large lens. He steps back away from the window with his back to the wall.

Where it had not phased him in the least before, he is suddenly aware of standing in his pajama bottoms with no shirt on. He goes to the dresser and puts on a t-shirt.

Unique Chariot

In which an old machine makes an objection to discussions of euthanasia.

It’s summer and it’s morning and it’s hot and it’s Georgia. Nick and Travis, wearing jackets, looking cool, walk around the corner from their breakfast joint to one of the city parking lots on Washington. Entering the lot, they make their way over to a twenty-year-old, faded lime-green Ford Montego. With a loving thump on the roof, Nick gets in first and leans across the long, plush, velvet front seat to unlock the door for Travis. Even though he is six-foot-five, Nick still has to stretch to reach the passenger door. Travis gets in as Nick starts the car. The engine comes to life like taking away a ribeye from a lion and Nick pats the dashboard sweetly, unlit cigarette hanging from his lip. “That’s it, baby,” he says and revs the V8 engine a couple more times for good measure. The Montego, still in neutral, shivers with excitement if not, perhaps, a touch of dementia.

Many years ago, Nick’s parents bestowed upon him ownership of the majestic Montego, a massive and powerful machine: a relic and an ark, a rambling tank, a “lime-o-sine”, a gashog behemoth. Words come so easily to describe such machines, for they are one-of-its-kind, and uniqueness assists the vocabulary.1 Now and then comes a machine unlike the others–the mere copies–and the length of life of those special machines lies on the far positive end of the bell curve of average lifespan. There are those machines that are held together with soul for some reason. Each is an improvement on the copy and strangely, alongside this quality, comes personality. The Montego was not just a car, she was a car with proclivities.

For a long time, the car was a burden on Nick. It was old and crotchety and sometimes gave trouble when unwanted, especially, for some reason, prior to dates. Her color was pale in comparison to some of the newer, prettier cars that Nick’s schoolmates drove; machine-precisioned, chrome-covered, shining BMWs and Audis. Those short-lived status symbols never needed a coat hanger to adjust the carburetor’s intake. Young Nick drove the Montego reluctantly, cursing every click, every jolt, dealing with the innards only when forced. And for the Montego, this was nothing new. At twenty-years of age, ancient by any standard of the automobile industry, she had seen enough and been driven enough that driving down that last tunnel to the great country road in the sky didn’t seem too terrible a fate.

Then, something happened. As strange as opposites attract, as peculiar as romance blooming from derision, Nick found himself driving the Montego with delight. As he changed and grew away from the kids in the fancy cars, it settled on him, in him, and him in it. As he became more independent, more aware of his freedom, more willing to be an odd duck, he discovered the beauty of the faded color and rust spots. He discovered practicality in the size of the backseat with a girlfriend, and knew there was power inherent in watching the gas gauge drop when the accelerator pedal hit the floor, and the V8 roared. More than anything, he saw that the other cars were copies of copies and that the people in them were copies of copies. He was becoming a Nick like himself, but one more brazen—and a copy of no one. At some point, he realized that the Montego wasn’t just physically older than him. It was wiser. It was one of the last of its kind and it understood better than Nick did, the freedom in being unique.

On her twenty-first birthday, Travis and Nick poured a beer on her hood, and the Montego had found new love. As the kiss of the hops washed over her metallic nose, she felt the liquid soak her soul with new life and vigor. And as love sometimes does, Nick’s adoration for the vehicle seemed to reverse time’s effects. The Montego grew younger. She pepped up, thinned up, became more solid than she had ever been. Though rusted in spots, her steel hunkered down. She went from car to the revered status of treasure; from junk to antique. She found she had meaning, not just function; that she had shed her object nature and could take part in the conversation. The Montego found that what had once been a generic model title was now a namesake, and that the word it no longer suited her. And she roared for it.

“Twenty-one years and the transmission’s never been touched. How ’bout that!” Nick would declare to new riders, leaning proudly on the hood.

Even those who could not understand the transcendence of Thing to Soul came to know that Nick’s love for the Montego was a source of envy. It was a feeling not meant for the hundreds of thousands of mass-produced vehicles infecting the road, void of individualism. It was a feeling for the particular, for the singular, the only. So, Nick brought the Montego with him to college without question. He embraced her fully and made her one of the first relics of his new life. She was to be with him everywhere he chose to ramble. She became the chariot of her little Gods of the Ridiculous.

One day, just before June, and an oncoming summer college vacation, Nick had been considering the possibility of acquiring a new car–not a mistake in itself. The Montego was old–even she knew –her days were numbered. That much could be granted. But one does not discuss coffin sizes in front of one’s mother. The mistake Nick made was to discuss the matter with Travis while driving the Montego. There wasn’t much discussion. After the breakfast and the heat and coming in to their apartment complex, Nick turns to Travis and says, “I think I might take my Dad’s truck off his hands.”

“Yeah? And give up her majesty?”

“Well… the gas is a problem… and… oh what am I doing talking about this!?”

Travis understands the sensitivity of the matter. “Right.” He waves it off. “We’ll talk about it later, dude.”

Nick parks the Montego on arriving home and he and Travis go inside. There they find John and Ian watching television and begin discussing the details of the night’s plans–only Nick can’t pay much attention. A buzzing is ringing in his ear that leaves him feeling disoriented. Finally, the nagging tone forces him to check reality and ask, “Does anyone else hear that?”

The group listens and agrees that an irritant, like a fire alarm or a siren, is emanating from outside the apartment, and when Nick opens the front door again, they all realize it is the sound of a jammed car horn. Nick steps outside to the causeway to see what kind of wreck is producing the voluminous whine. Looking out across the rows of cars, gradually his hearing hones in on the sound, centered on the Montego. He sighs, knowing something in his gut. “I’ll be right back,” he says to the boys, his eyes on her.

As he approaches, and the dismal sound grows louder, a wave of pity washes over him. He knows. The horn, blasting out into the parking lot, resounding off apartment building walls, resembles more that of a lone howling wolf. It was not the tone of a scream, an irritated bark in a traffic jam after being cut-off. It was sad. She was crying.

The boys come to the door of their apartment to see what the matter is. Neighbors stand by their windows to seek out what is disturbing the quiet afternoon. All eyes are on Nick as he places his hand upon the door handle, and the howling instantly leaves a hole of silence in the humid summer air.

It was then that Nick knew his mistake. As he sat in the plush, velvet interior, he hugged the steering wheel with sincere apology, knowing age is a simple matter of unavoidable consequence. No one asks to grow old and fall apart. No one, human or machine, wants to be useless or discarded. Travis, back at the apartment, turns to John and Ian and smiles. “Let’s give them some privacy,” he says, walking in and shutting the door.

She lingered, she waited, she drove, and she loved them, her little owners. And if she couldn’t sit with them in their midnight reveries in bars, prattle with them philosophically in coffeehouses, or joke mischievously in their bong-addled hazes, she could take them wherever they wanted to go and make sure they got home. And she did it with grace.


  1. Consider someone you know. Now think of words to describe them. So many words! There are so many dimensions and facets and qualities. Now think about the toaster in your kitchen. Not so many words. Unless that toaster is cantankerous and fussy and sometimes burns the toast even when it’s on the same setting you always use! It is indeed rare that a manufactured good, whose very nature is to be a precise copy, not only fails to be a copy, but does so in a way that makes it better rather than destroy it. The rule of mutation is the lemon: that which is not a good copy and also fails. 

Pace

In which a baby is implanted with a tiny, steadily beeping device only it can hear. Then one day, it turns off.

The trances were what bothered him most; long moments of undefined time. That morning, the day had started off beautiful: the sky an invigorating, if brisk, blue, and the woods behind his home a natural aviary. Nuno had noticed, in particular, a species of woodpecker that he had not seen before. Where most of the woodpeckers he saw had darker, maroon hoods, this one bird had a crimson hood. It stood out brightly amongst the naked gray branches of winter. It’s pecking had enticed him. But then his gaze had just drifted and settled on a pair of branches that had been trimmed short so that they formed a tuning fork against the sky. He “awoke” from staring at them with the same disorienting feeling that he had been having for several days now, having absolutely no sense of how long he had been absorbed in the little scene. Had it been seconds, fractions of seconds? He didn’t know anymore and it was discomforting. The pace of even empty thinking—of quantified meditation—was gone. An eerie amorphous quiet had taken its place.

He’d known quiet before the beeping had stopped, even though he had a hard time convincing his friends that it was so. They would say things to him like, “Really quiet, Nuno, like silence, no noise—you don’t know what that’s like.” He would explain that, yes he did, as much as they did anyway, in the sense that they didn’t know true silence either. Surely they could hear the air move in a breeze, or their own breathing or their heart beat. Did anyone really perceive silence? The beeping had never been a sound outside his head, it was in his mind. So to him, he knew what quiet was; it was just a demarcated quiet, a quiet built out of patches of quiet, discretely bundled quiet that was nicely packaged in time. When he used to stare at things, there was always a comforting knowledge of the length of time. There was a cycle: 6 beeps. 1 then 2 then 3 then 4 then 5 then 6 then it started over. It was six seconds to most people he knew, but he felt something different. When he began to discover that others didn’t have a pace in their head, he would watch clocks. But six seconds on a clock felt rigid. A cycle, to him, in his mind, was a kind of music. There were ten cycles in a minute. A shower was almost always 120 cycles. A meal was 180 cycles and he almost never finished before anyone else and spoke very little while eating. He had always wondered why his friends and family would at times seem frantic and rushed and gush about things like, “Where did the time go?” He always knew where it had gone and exactly how much of it had gone, since even when there was nothing to measure, even when sitting and staring in silence, the moments still came and went like a song. Now, as of six days ago, Nuno’s universe had become messy, or at least less discrete.

Nuno was known to people as a very precise man. He wasn’t type-A or particularly clean. Just precise. Cleaning itself could be quite a droll activity, because when one has an innate sense of time slipping by there is an inherent need to make actions count for something. But when things got messy enough and he needed to clean, he wasn’t particular about it like others, it was just another kind of dance. Cleaning the desk off? 100 cycles. Doing the dishes? 200 cycles. He never stopped to wonder why, regardless of the state of the desk or how many dirty dishes there were, the dance remained the same. It just did. And in that sense, he always caught buses, was never late, or might interject a helpful point when a friend was droning on about something for a little too long—in that sense, he had come to be known as “precise.” He spoke with a very measured tone and chose his words carefully. Others he had conversations with always seemed to be bumbling about in their own heads, searching for words, or losing track of what they were saying, or losing the thread of the topic. Words tended to line up in his head and be released through a gate in an orderly fashion. He had a repertoire of small, rehearsed speeches. When he met someone new who wanted to know who he was and what he did, it took 30 cycles for him to tell them, and that particular speech ended with, “and I have a neural implant that beeps once a second.” The last sentence was two cycles, and he often wondered why he didn’t just say that, because once it was spoken it was like nothing else had been said at all.

Neural implants come with a shelf-life though. His first implant had lasted until he was 16; 502,654,824 seconds or as he preferred, 83,775,804 cycles (give or take). When it had began to fade, he got clumsy. His mother had blamed the clumsiness on his growth spurts but when he cut himself with a knife while carving, she’d taken him to the hospital and it was the doctors who reckoned that the implant needed to be replaced. He was in surgery the next day and within a day after that his coordination returned completely intact. Now, having lost the signal form the implant entirely, he wished he’d had the wherewithal as a sixteen-year-old to pay attention to what the pace had been doing. He didn’t think it was ever gone entirely, but truth be told, he simply couldn’t remember now, at least in part because he hadn’t paid much attention, didn’t know to pay attention. He knew, at sixteen, that he had the implant, he knew why. But even then, it was ethereal, as obvious as your hand. He paid it no mind.

The next implant, with improvements in materials and all, would likely last until his death, but this time he told the doctors, “Let it fail.” The doctors weren’t sure if the implant had actually done its job anyway. The supposed genetic neuronal aberration that it was meant stave off had not seemingly occurred. The doctors didn’t like the idea—they were a risk-averse bunch—but what harm could a few days do? He told them, “Let it fail. I want to see—hear—what it’s like.” That was 14,400 cycles ago, except that there were no cycles at all. In place of cycles were six odd, off-putting, sluggish and then super fast days filled with restlessness and nights of poor sleep. Each day brought a new sense of time lost and pressed and smashed and pulled apart and the disorientation of being lost staring at some branches that looked like a tuning fork. So far, the experiment was unpleasant, and he already felt it likely that he would get the upgrade.

When God Came to China

In which God arrives in China to answer questions, but unfortunately, dies.

By the time the news had spread, the wait was estimated to be something close to a year, and Jackie, Anglican priest, had already been there, in the middle-of-nowhere, China, for four months. When the news came, she did what most everyone else around her did and began crying, her one question, written on a crumpled piece of paper in her pocket, there to remain unanswered for all time now. And then, after the weeping ended, she took to moving around to her “neighbors” in the camp sprung up the last few months and tried to comfort them. And, even though many of them did not speak English, there was no need for language, for everyone was united in knowing just what the world had lost that day. Within a day, the whole of the world sat in crowds and held hands, put their heads down and shed tears. At one moment, the world, the Internet itself, was quiet.

He, with a capital ‘H’, had appeared in the Bijie, China, and for a very long time no one knew that He was here. An old man, walking from out of the hills, He traveled about, asking people for room and board and food and in exchange, told them that He was God, and that He had come to answer as many questions as he could in the order that he was asked the questions. People asked parlor trick questions at first like, “When is my mother’s birthday?” or “What did I have for breakfast last Monday?” and He patiently answered any and all of them; correctly. It wasn’t long before the Internet got wind of the story and it began to rapidly spread, at first through stories and tweets, and then photographs and footage. Here was an ancient-looking asian man claiming that he was God come to Earth. He began to gather attendants who would retrieve questions from forums and email and twitter and ask him and then relay the answers to the world. A hundred thousand web sites bloomed, some well-intentioned, some claiming the ability to get to the top of the question queue for a hundred bucks. And for a time too, the Chinese government did what it could to quash the story, but that didn’t last long either. Word spread by mouth too, and people began migrating to China in droves. The world’s flight traffic re-focused itself on China, slowly jamming infrastructure, and bringing some businesses to a crippling halt. News teams from every country in the world descended. And when visas and papers and the like were denied, people just walked. People walked from Nepal, from Myanmar, from Laos.The whole affair had an immensely destabilizing effect on North Korea as the world arrived on the country’s doorstep just to get in to China, stories of God arriving with them and infecting the whole of the population like a virus.

Jackie was an early believer, having caught whispers of the arrival through some friends she’d met at a conference, and who were missionaries in Myanmar. They had told her stories that were too unbelievable to not warrant investigation. By then, by April of 2013, she discovered evidence revealing that an international consulting firm had been hired to build a massive database to store and order all the questions for God as well catalog the answers. The existence of such a massive investment was enough evidence for her to pack up and go. She took a nearly eighteen hour flight to Beijing from London. And that was nothing compared to getting to Bijie without speaking any Mandarin. But she persevered and there was lots of help. All along the way, she continually met up with fellow travelers from all over the world, and they made happy chatting traveling bands, doing what they could to translate one another’s thoughts into loose conversations, bumping along in buses and cars, going to see God. She thought often about “The Canterbury Tales” and how they were never finished.

The man calling himself God, had stated that He was simply there to answer any and all the questions He could in the order that He received them. Presidents, pontiffs, dictators and billionaires were told to get in line. The Chinese government weighed in heavily on God’s consulting firm in order to insure that every question’s number was quadruply verified, but also that various contacts and monied sources could make sure that any verification included showing that certain people had lower numbers. One day in early June, God asked his attendants for a brief hour-long respite from seeing people and also to get him a laptop. After that, the database’s programmers were left scratching their heads as the program rumbled along without them and without anyone any longer having security access to the system. In a press release, the chief consultant for the database project declared that the database had been massively re-distributed to the entire Internet through a virtually infinite sequence of IP addresses, the program existing on millions of machines worldwide simultaneously and that now, there was no longer any way to reasonably write to it. Wired magazine declared, “God is hax0r!”

And millions of questions, so many of them trivial, asked before anyone knew that God was going to answer them, were all answered and only in the order that they arrived, virtually or personally. The world grew impatient as God answered questions like “Where are my keys?” and “Will I win in the match this Sunday?” And when the occasional child arrived to see Him, he could not be bothered with anything else, sitting the child His lap and listening to them for seemingly forever while the United Nations waited for some answer to a border dispute. The questions eventually became more complex, of course. The inevitable, “Why are you Chinese?” came up and he said, “China is a country and I am not a citizen of any country.” And when asked the follow-up, “Why do you look Chinese?” he said, “Statistical likelihood.” Many questions revolved around why there was “evil” in the world. Again and again, He admonished humanity that the nature of Life in the Universe was a complicated affair and that since the Universe had to be entropic in Nature, and that things had to fall apart for the laws of Physics to operate in such a way that the DNA molecule could come about, a certain amount of churn was to be expected, etc. etc. He calmed us and said that much of what humanity thought was evil was just par for the course. When asked about War, He largely explained that that was our fault, not His. Are we alone? “No. Never in any sense of the word.” And when asked about Terrorism in his name, he only cried. When one physicist asked what, exactly Dark Energy was, and received an answer that was not only plausible but demonstrated and verified several weeks later at the CERN particle collider, the matter was largely settled for the scientific community. God was here. After that, things spiraled out of control as humanity traveled to China.

The weeks that Jackie spent there in the countryside, waiting to see God, were filled with amazing conversations and an enormous amount of love and very little preaching. What was there to preach? God was here. He was going to answer our questions—all of them! The nights were filled with drinking and singing and fires, the collection of which could be seen from space. The answers started to matter less and less, because, maybe fifteen miles from where she slept, He was there, in some room, seeing us, day and night (he didn’t sleep) and she was on his list. She felt warm and loved and safe, even with nothing in her possession and her home a hundred thousand miles away.

Then it happened. God asked everyone in his chambers to to leave His presence, but for one young child, a girl named Sukie, arrived from Australia. He told the child, in English and in a comforting Australian accent, “You must tell everyone that everything is fine and that what is about to happen is natural. It’s all fine. Ok?” Sukie said “Okay.” And God, with Sukie in his lap, sat back in his chair, a simple wooden thing that he had been sitting in since before anyone believed who He was, and He closed his eyes and died. After sitting quietly with Him for a while, Sukie got up and went to tell everyone, and everyone, the world over, heard the news. God had died, but everything was fine.

After hugging and holding and crying with a hundred strangers, Jackie sat on the ground by a campfire with her new close friends and fellow travelers, and for the first time since that hour that He left us, she opened the piece of paper in her pocket and looked at her own handwriting.

“Do you love me?”

And she knew the question was selfish, and she didn’t care, and she knew the answer, too. Surely she did. But as beautiful as it was surely true, the little question crushed her heart.

Relics

In a world where robots rule, you can’t even decently kill yourself.

The Colt .45 sat in his lap, looking more the part of an antique than it ever did when he’d used it to defend himself against random jackers and jettrash. Wielding their pathetic plastic contraptions, they’d laugh at the old man’s gun until the first blast sent one of them flying back a few paces. Then the little shits’d turn tail and run more often than not. Now what? He’d have to go back to using crossbows is what. He looked up from the gun to the squat guardian robot in front of him, the campfire glinting off its non-descript face-plate. He hated it when the peace of his wilderness—a nice little slice of New Jersey—was disturbed by these obtuse drones. Hell, he’d have shot it already if he didn’t mostly believe that the new provision was already in effect. “I don’t get it, then. What about the campfire?”

“Slow combustion reactions of limited scope will continue to be allowed under the new provision.”

“So, it’s combustion you’re out to get, not weapons? You guys don’t give a shit about tasers or vapors or any of those. It’s just guns you’re after?”

“The guns to which you refer are most easily defined as propulsion weaponry that is primarily powered by a rapidly expanding combustion reaction. Combustion reactions that occur beyond determined parameters will be reversed.”

“So combustion-driven propulsion weapons are against the law now.”

“Incorrect, agent. There are no laws in the free zones.”

“Aw, shove it, droid. You know it’s a law.”

“There are no laws in the free zones. Humans located in free zones are allowed to generate societal rules as they do or do not see fit. This new provision is merely a necessary upgrade of the nanosphere.”

“Well, if it’s an upgrade, then can I beta test it?”

The robot takes a moment longer than usual to answer and Addison smiles. It was looking up instances of “beta test.” He, Addison, a hundred twenty years old by his own count, was old enough to remember the phrase, but this dumb little hunk of circuits didn’t get the reference. Then, “Beta testing of the kind I believe you subscribe is not necessary. Modifications by 01 to the nanosphere’s code will not contain errors.”

“Can I try it anyway, you stupid touchlamp?”

“Affirmative.”

That was the other thing that got under his skin about droids—you could call them droids, a word that all humans intended as a derogatory slur and they didn’t care. You could call them anything and they never took it personally. What good was being able to talk to something if you couldn’t piss it off? He picks the Colt up off his lap and wipes it down a few times with a lambskin cloth. He lines the back end of the barrel up with left eye, right eye closed, and checks the chambers; bullets present. Lifting the heavy weapon in the air with his right hand, he brings it down slowly, pointing at the guardian droid’s faceplate, dead center. He pulls the trigger without hesitation, like shooting a bean can on a fence post. The hammer clicks loudly and the gun makes a sound like a bottle rocket at the end of its flight, a kind of crackling that crescendos in volume, dissipating into silence. There is a slow scraping sound, and then the bullet drops out of the end of the barrel barely faster than a turtle. It thumps heavily on the ground by his foot. Addison turns the gun to his face and peers in the barrel. Shit he thinks. They really did it. “Guess you didn’t stop the reaction entirely,” he says, bending at the waist to pick up the errant lump of metal that couldn’t in all good conscience be called a bullet anymore.

The robot takes a moment to answer again. First calculating that by “you” Addison intends to refer to all robot agencies and in particular the nanosphere, which is responsible for reversing the combustion reaction. Then the robot says, “The second law of thermodynamics—”

“Shut up.” Addison spins the gun and sets it back in his lap and puts his head in hands. He didn’t really care all that much that he couldn’t shoot people; he’d just assume avoid most folks. It was just the sound and the kick of the gun. It was symbolic of something—symbolic of power, of human power. Now it was just one more relic that was evidence of our own status as relics. He looked back to the campfire and then to the droid again and chuckled as the pair of things suddenly appeared to him as the bookends of human history, the alpha and omega. Fire propelled us as a species into the great unknown future, and then we invented these stupid hunks of talking, thinking, metal that were now in the process of stopping all human progress, including fire, and all in the name of our own good. He looks at the robot. “This is about the terrorists, isn’t it?”

“How do you mean, agent Addison Logan?”

“I mean that you guys are outlawing these combustion reactions to stop the independents from bombing your complexes. And it’s just Addison, dummy.”

“Again, we are not outlawing combustion. If you are able to create a combustion reaction possessing the parameters you wish without triggering an inverse reaction in the nanosphere, there would be no penalty for such an action. This is why I do not concur with your usage of the term law. Laws, within the purview of—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Terrorists.”

“Multiple human groups have devised offensive tactics both dangerous to AIL agents as well as human citizens of AIL complexes. Many of these tactics utilize rapid combustion reactions. Given alternative resources and technologies now available, we have deemed said reactions obsolete.”

“Stupid kids. They got the free zones. Why do they have to ruin everyone else’s fun?” Addison closes one eye and looks to the droid silently hovering. This one must know what a rhetorical question is. He roles his head back and looks up at the night sky, more beautiful that he could ever remember it being in his childhood. At least they’d done a nice job cleaning up the real atmosphere. He squints. He can even see the Milky Way. He sighs. “Ah shit. Maybe’s it time for me to get citizenship.” He slumps back over and puts his head in his hand, looking at the robot.

“I will gladly get you the requisite software for download to your—”

“No, no, no! You’re not gettin’ me that easily, screwdriver. You’d love it if you could lock me up in one of those stupid virtual reality machines. No. As much as the nanosphere is a pain in my butt, I still like it better out here.” He pounds his thighs with his fists. “This is the real stuff.” He breathes in deep and thinks about all the thousand miniature nanocytes in the nanosphere washing into his lungs. He frowns and says, dejectedly, “This is real air.”

“You could always move to Mars, agent Addison Logan.”

Mars. What a dump. No, there wasn’t room enough on any world for someone like him—someone who just wanted things the ways they used to be. Regulated combustion was just one more thing added to the pile of recollections in his head. Now he could say he remembered the days when guns worked. He was just as a much a relic as the useless gun in his lap. Just for fun, or maybe to make a point, he picks the gun up again and puts the cold barrel to his temple. He stares at the floating automaton in front of him with a heavy heart and pulls the trigger.

Review: Superego Podcast

In which we discover why Jessica‘s recording label stopped putting out albums.

Review: Superego Podcast

I used to have a decently profitable sound studio with some of the latest and newest digital recording equipment. Had some pretty cool bands come in and record music and what not over the years. I even managed to keep out of the business of doing commercial work, like, you know, car dealership owners coming in and going on and on about their crazy deals. Never did any of that. Anyway, my cousin shows up having acquired a troop of spider monkeys. I think at some point he thought he thought he was gonna be a veterinarian or something. I don’t know why I let him talk me into these things, but we weren’t recording much at the time and he wanted to keep the monkeys in the studio for a while, which I guess made some sense since the booth was sound proof and padded. Anyway, it’s been about six months now and those damn monkeys are still there and my no-count cousin is nowhere to be found. Most of the bands don’t mind working in the booth with the monkeys there, but, you know, there’s only enough room in the world for one concept album that has monkeys screaming in the background. Helluva an album though. It is a helluva album.

Patient J and Depression

In which we read Dr. Neisser’s first impressions of a new patient, Mr. J

March 22nd, 2002

The patient, Mr. J, appears to be stupid. After our first session, he claimed that he was primarily here to discuss his “depression,” which he describes as manifesting itself in various poor habits, among which are slovenliness, slothfulness, and a general disregard for maintaining relationships. He described having difficulty finding interest in any subject and when asked about previous subjects that he previously found interest in, he described several peculiar studies that mostly took the form of a large amount of reading. In my view, he somewhat deflected my question by listing titles in an attempt to impress me with the “depth” of his interests, rather than make any attempt to synthesize the works in question. He likely lacks the intellectual skills necessary to generate such a coherent synthesis. The subject matters were eccentric, to say the least, mostly dealing with matters of pseudoscience. More on this fact later.

I believe his symptoms primarily arise from a sense of ennui that would be difficult for him to elucidate due to his clear lack of vocabulary. I would guess he reads at an eighth grade level. What might appear to him as a lack of drive to increase his knowledge likely has more to do with basic limits to his capacity to think. And while he may ascribe other behaviors such as “being very messy” and “not cleaning the bathroom often” and “not ever making the bed” to depression, I would not jump to such a conclusion since he is so clearly a slob. I should note at this point that patient J wore a t-shirt with mustard stains and jeans with holes in them to the session. He also did not sit up straight. When I inquired about his preference for wearing a beard, he replied that his father had worn a beard and that perhaps there was something in that. While I would generally prefer to avoid basic Jungian archetypes in my therapeutic practices, thus ignoring this patient’s observations on matters psychological, on this point he is likely right; he is used to men with beards. Big deal.

Who Are You?

In which Joe helps Ghede with the body and Ghede helps Joe ponder the question.

Crumpled helplessly on the floor of the chamber, Joe stares at the little metal box, closed now, wondering at the meaning of anything that has happened in the last who-knows-how-many hours or days. “I’ve lost my mind,” he says to the little black box. Looking up from the circle of light that the lantern provides, he stares at the darkness that rises above him, tear tracks on his face illuminated. “None of this can be real.” He sits up, some trickle of resolve running into his veins. He crosses his legs and again, focuses on the box, takes a deep breath and, “Beatrice.” Some errant memory from his childhood intercedes and Joe is forced to smile at the remembrance of a movie. “Beatrice! Beatrice! Beatrice!” He chuckles when nothing happens. “Figures.”

“Talking to your little box?” says Ghede, entering the chamber. He looks around the room, trying to sense where Joe is.

“Over hear. I’m over hear… she was speaking to me.”

“She speaks to you through the box, eh?”

“Sometimes… it seems like it. I think she used to speak to me through a backhoe, though.”

“Backhoe? What’s that?”

Ghede makes his way toward him. He is hauling a large canvas bag, draped over his shoulder and trailing behind his lithe frame. Joe looks up, Ghede standing over him. “It’s uh… a tractor.”

Ghede mouths the word slowly, turning it over, “Trak-tor.”

Cocking his head Joe replies, “You don’t know what that is?”

“No, can’t say I do. But…” Ghede looks around the chamber, sniffing, “Listen closely. She speaks through quite a lot of things.”

“What you’re look for is over there though. Go past me; in the corner of the room between the pipes.”

“Ah. A surrender.” Ghede begins to make his way to the corner where the corpse is. “What did she say to you?”

“She asked me who I am.” Joe gets up off the floor and follows after Ghede to the corner.

“Huh. Trick question.”

“Oh? So then, what’s the answer?”

Ghede feels around for the pipes and then Lays the canvas bag out in front of the gap between the pipes, “What do you think the answer is.”

“Well, I’m Joe. Joe Takanara. I’m a construction worker—kind of a demolitions expert.”

“No. Your not any of those things. Your certainly not a construction worker now, or demolishing anything for that matter.” Ghede reaches in between the pipes and tugs on the legs of the corpse. “Until a few moments ago, you weren’t Joe Takanara; just Joe to me.”

“Well, I’m also American… and Japanese…”

“Oh, so you’re a nip?” Ghede turns to ask.

Excuse me?”

“What?”

“Just—just don’t say that. It’s rude.”

“Is it?” Ghede feels one of the legs break free. “Damn it.” He pulls the leg out and throws it on to the canvas sack. “Well, at any rate, if you think on it, you aren’t any of those things—those are empires and countries—you’re not an empire or a country are you?”

Joe bends down to help Ghede with the body, “I suppose not. What about you? You have a funny accent.”

“Do I now?”

“Yes. So who are you, where are you from?”

“Two very different questions. Who I am is simple: I’m the undertaker.” Ghede pauses and looks wistful. “Where I’m from?… It’s hard to remember. I used to live in the city, New York. I remember that much—not much else. There was this street corner, I can still see it. The micks used to scuttle about there looking for work. There was a fruit stand. I remember… it’s silly. It’s mostly gone now—memory.”

The pair manage to haul most of the corpse out by the second leg, the hips still attached, the rib cage, all loosely covered in ragged clothing. “Who do you suppose he—she?—was?”

“Whoever he was, he didn’t know.” There is a clunk as the skull rolls off the body and back into the corner behind the pipes. “It’s why most of them give up. They go on for so long until they forget everything and the question is the only thing they can remember. They keep thinking the answer is in the details they don’t know anymore. Then they just huddle up somewhere and rot.”

“God, how sad.”

“God’s got nothing to do with it.”

Joe gets down on all four and reaches behind the pipes, blindly patting the floor until he locates the skull. He pulls it out and holds it in front of his face. “He or she… is just a thing now.”

“Mostly. We’ll throw ‘em in the furnace.”

Joe helps Ghede arrange the corpse in the canvas and then Ghede ties it up with straps.

“So, Beatrice…er… the Painted Lady… she asked you the question?”

“She did, and she gave me the answer. To put it mildly, she helped me to see it very clearly,” and for emphasis, Ghede pulls his sunglasses down, revealing nothing but skin.

Joe gasps, but just then, a loud scraping sound comes from another part of the room and Joe and Ghede turn towards it. Where there is an expanse of and sand dust covering the floor, a circle appears and then twists and lifts until Joe can see a manhole arise and then two hands shove it aside. From up out of the hole, the head of Walt appears. He throws his arms up over the floor and pauses to catch his breath. “Good Lord, I hate it down there.” He wrinkles his nose. “Smells like sulfur.”