Upgrade

Jinni’s round rosy cheeks glowed with surprise. “You don’t know? School’s where kids go to play games, meet other kids, and paint pictures.” She poured sand from a pink plastic cup into a yellow dump truck half her size. “And sometimes we get to win prizes and eat birthday cake. My mommy says big girls go to school.” She brushed sand off her daisy-embroidered pullover and bright green suspender-pants.

“My mommy says I don’t have to go to school,” MRKI said from the corner of the sandbox. “I can stay home with her and get upgrades.”

“But what about games, you won’t get to play any games?” Jinni sounded distressed. “And if you don’t go I’ll have to go alone.”

“If you want you can still come over to visit me,” MRKI said and tilted her head. “But I’ll be a boy.”

“A boy? Ooo, yucky.” Jinni sounded confused. “Boys are terrible. My mommy says so. And you’re a girl. That’s better.” She pushed back her curls and got sand in her blond hair.

“I can be whatever I want,” MRKI said, smugly. “But next time I get an upgrade maybe I’ll be a girl again.” MRKI nodded smiling until Jinni nodded and smiled back.

“It might be okay to be a boy then,” Jinni said, “but just for a little while. And if I don’t talk to you while you’re a boy, you can tell me about it when you’re a girl again.”

“Okay,” MRKI said, and they both laughed.

“And I’ll be smarter too,” MRKI said. “Not because I’m a boy, but because my mommy is getting me the 5 Upgrade. So I’ll know fractions and logger … logarithms and French and … ahh, ahh, Heidegger. Anyway I’ll be really smart, so you still might not want to talk to me.”

“High digger?” Jinni frowned. MRKI nodded. Jinni returned to spooning sand into her pink cup. “I still get to play games.”

“I don’t have to play games,” MRKI said. “My upgrade remembers me playing games so I don’t have to. And I don’t have to go to the playground … and see mean kids … and get dirty … and I get to wear pretty dresses all the time cause I’m not getting dirty.”

“Dresses? If you’re a boy, you can’t wear dresses. Boy’s don’t wear dresses.” Jinni smirked.

“Yes they do, my mommy says boys can wear dresses, too.”

Jinni stuck out her tongue and walked home.

 

The next morning Jinni’s mother set a blue bowl on a yellow flower-patterned mat for Jinni’s breakfast, arranged a napkin and teaspoon beside it, and poured orange juice into a ceramic cup with a field mouse face on the side and handles like mouse ears.

“Jinni, come down,” she called. “Hurry up, we have to leave for school soon.”

“I don’t want to go to school,” Jinni said, walking in sullen. She climbed onto her seat and took the teaspoon in her round fist.

“What’s wrong, honey. I thought you wanted to go to school and play games with the other kids.”

“No – I – don’t. I want to wear pretty dresses and remember stuff, like, like French and loggers and high diggers.” She frowned up at her mother. “And I want to be a boy.”

Her mother sat back confused. “If you want mommy to get you a computer implant, I can do that. There’s a long wait for gender reassignment, but I can put you on the list. Is that what you want?”

“NO,” Jinni said, pouting. “I want to get upgrades and be just like my best friend, just like MRKI.”

“But Jinni, MRKI’s not alive. MRKI’s a robot.”

Callisto Confidential

“Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for the GSA Jupiter mission, Callisto Command Center. I know the solar storm took down your comms last month, so I’ll just read the list of what happened.” She affected her best cheerful expression.

“I replaced Jamaal as C3 station monitor. He left on the return module two weeks ago. He looked fine. The GSA handyman showed up last week and got the food synthesizer working. Jamaal put that repair order in fifteen months ago.

“Tell Jamaal I appreciate his recipe for Callisto krill cakes and his technique for scraping them off the water filters. He got pretty desperate without the food synthesizer. Last night I fed krill into it. Krill steaks taste better than the ones made from protein paste. Only thing missing was a good martini. If you guys really want to cheer me up, add gin and vermouth to the next supply run.

“Best news. Before the handyman left, he put together the moon rover you wanted me to test. I ran the diagnostics and got it up and running this morning. As you can see, everything on “Rover” checks out. Carly swiveled back to give the sensor a clear view. “Heathcliff, can you say something for the Hargate team?”

“Rrrruh, rrrruh.” The sensor tilted to find the source of the barking—a large black Labrador retriever sitting with a toothy grin. Carly jumped down to hug the simulated animal.

“Thank you so much for modeling the rover after my dog.” She looked up into the sensor. “You even programmed in the commands I taught him. I’ll test the sensors when we do the rounds outside.”

She smiled, signed out, and leaned back in her chair. No human visitors were scheduled to arrive for two years. No supply ship for nine months. She stroked rover Heathcliff’s ears.

Jamaal had warned her about the solitude and said GSA’s only interest was in making a profit. He was sure if anything interesting happened, GSA would send one of their boys to take credit. One time he got so lonely that he almost made something up just to get a visitor. Carly was pretty certain his complaining was responsible for her getting Heathcliff.

“Let’s go boy.” The simulant responded with instant wiggling and tail wagging at the prospect of going outside for a walk. It raced her to the moon-suit locker, crossing and re-crossing the room’s threshold several times. Carly suited up helmet to boots, checked the oxygen, pressed in a charged capacitor, added another to her side pouch, and climbed the stairs to the airlock.

She checked the suit’s seals, oxygen flow, and temperature before venturing out. Heathcliff, undaunted by the minus 142 degree centigrade temperature, dashed past her and began sniffing chemical samples.

slide1
Approaching Callisto with Ganymede and Jupiter in the background

Callisto’s rock and ice surface was broken with sharp-ridged craters never smoothed by erosion. Hanging on the horizon to Carly’s right, Jupiter’s orange striped disk looked twice the size of Earth’s moon. To her left, the sun was a distant searchlight, and Earth a pinpoint.

From the command center, Carly rounded past the antenna farm, the water pump and electrolysis plant, the oxygen and hydrogen storage facilities, the additive manufacturing plant, the garage and motor pool, and finally the fusion power reactor. Heathcliff loped along, sniffing and — God bless the engineers’ sense of humor — lifting a leg to every vertical surface.

Everything was in order. GSA’s automated systems picked up any leaking, pressure drops, disconnections, or system failures, but the operations manual insisted on daily inspections. Carly didn’t mind. Even in gravity one eighth that of Earth, she wanted the exercise. More than that she needed to look at a horizon further off than C3’s eight-meter diameter.

Glancing back, she decided she wasn’t ready to go in. “Shall we walk a little further?” she asked. Heathcliff’s tail wagging accelerated. “Good boy.” She leaned down and stroked the simulant’s neck with her wide gloved hands. This would be her first excursion. Jamaal said beyond what he’d seen in the original survey records, he had no idea what was out there. He preferred virtual entertainment close to his home base.

So with Heathcliff at her side, Carly headed for the nearest rise. The walk was not strenuous; she had learned the low-gravity glide-walk, and Cal-Pro meds kept her strength up. But she didn’t want to risk tearing anything on the sharp outcroppings.

Heathcliff zigzagged ahead of her, sniffing and lifting. After a kilometer, she arced right, planning to follow the crater ridge and keep arcing until she got back. Jupiter was her reference.

Heathcliff suddenly became rigid, pointing with his muzzle. “What is it boy?” Carly stroked the simulant’s neck. “Hrrruu, hrrruu, hrrruu,” it growled and looked back to her. “Go ahead, boy. Show me what you found.”

She waved the simulant ahead, and he took off, his nose-sensor pressed down. Carly followed him around the base of one crater into a valley it created with another. She found him sitting beside a dome barely higher than himself.

The dome’s smoothness contrasted with the sharp ridges of the terrain, but its white tone blended perfectly. Carly’s first impression was that they’d stumbled upon a pressure dome. That seemed unlikely in light of Callisto’s lack of geologic activity, but the consequences of something like that bursting could be instant ice encasement. She walked around its base, twelve by seven meters, an ellipse. It appeared to widen below the surface.

“Leroy,” she called the engineering tractor by the designator Jamaal had given it, “would you bring me the radar surveillance module.”

“Yo, my man, be right witch’a.” Carly laughed. She’d forgotten Jamaal had programmed Leroy to sound like an old high school buddy.

Leroy arrived three minutes later. Ice-penetrating radar showed an ellipsoid fifty-eight by at least thirty-three meters buried mostly under the ice. Its hull—for that’s what Carly decided it was—was an iron-carbon-beryllium alloy of metallic glass.

Could such a thing have come from Earth? If it was man-made, it was more advanced than anything she had ever seen. But she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d check it out before she sounded any sort of alien alert. Jamaal’s words came to her, Find anything interesting … GSA’s gonna send up one of their chosen boys to take credit.

What was she to do? This was certainly interesting. She shrugged and inadvertently swept a glove across the ellipsoid’s smooth surface. An electrical shock ran up her arm. She pulled back. She touched the object again. It was vibrating. She stepped several paces back. Nothing more happened.

“Leroy,” she turned to the tractor, “lift back to camp?”

“Right on, baby. You an’ that bad boy jus’ get on up.”

Three hours later, Carly still hadn’t found any report about a Callisto-bound or stranded space module, escape pod, planet monitor, sensor package—

Suddenly, Heathcliff barked, ran to the airlock, and started jumping. Back home when her Lab did that, she knew a stranger was at the door. She regretted not insisting the handyman put cameras around the perimeter.

She dressed quickly and raced through the airlocks. There on the stoop she found an environmentally sealed container, about a meter on each side and half-a-meter high. Against her better judgment, she brought it into the Callisto Command Center control room.

She stared at it, afraid to open it, afraid not to. Curiosity overcame fear. Inside she found six large and two smaller bottles of clear liquids, all without markings. Tucked beside the bottles were two stemmed glasses with funneled bowls. She unscrewed a large bottle, dipped a finger, and tasted it. Gin … her last request to the Hargate engineers.

GSA’ll send someone to take credit. “Not on my watch,” she said aloud. She laughed and hoisted the two martini glasses. “Looks like someone around here wants to be invited over.”

And To All A Good Night

Jamaal’s projection popped up in the middle of his family’s media room. He wore a Global Space Agency tank top with the GSA logo stretched across his left pectoral. Though his wide brown eyes looked tired and his gaunt cheeks spouted scruffy corkscrew hairs, he was all smiles. The wall behind him bore the words, ‘Callisto Command Center, C3’, arched over a picture of Jupiter and a confusion of dials, gauges, monitors, and switches.

“Hi Mom and Dad, and Merry Christmas.” His eyes sparkled as he revealed what they both knew already. “Yup, I did it. Your runaway son is alive and well, and is spending his Christmas alone on Callisto. ALONE. Whew, and lonely.” He cocked his head and let his tongue loll from his open mouth. “I still have three Christmases to go before I can come back.” He scratched the hairs on his chin. “Sorry, I won’t be graduating this year like I told you. I only took enough classes at Stanford to qualify for the Jupiter mission. You wanted an engineer. Instead you got a glorified service station attendant.” He shook his head and shrugged.

callisto
Callisto – Home for four years.

“Been here a week, so I’m still settling in. This far out, the sun’s just a really bright star. Jupiter looks about twice the size of the moon, and it stays in the same place, just above the horizon. Gravity is one-eighth of Earth’s, but that feels heavy after two years in zero G traveling here. I should’ve taken the Cal-Pro meds like the doc said … I wouldn’t have lost so much muscle.

“I know December is cold in Saginaw, but if you get Kryn to set up my old telescope, she can show you, Coraleen, Raymond, and the grandkids where I am. Once you find Jupiter, Callisto is the fourth moon, the third out to the right if you look tonight.

“It’s cold up here too, minus 140 degrees centigrade. And I will have a white Christmas—Callisto is covered in an ice crust.” Jamaal turned in his seat and pointed to a robot tilted back into a recharge station.

“That’s Leroy. He’s my only buddy. Does most of the work outside. You remember Leroy from Elon Musk High School. I pasted his prom picture on the robot’s dashboard and loaded Leroy’s voice into the robot’s synthesizer. Did I say I was lonely?” He scratched his chin again and bit his lower lip.

“I haven’t had any visitors yet, but GSA assures me business will pick up. They have a lot of plans for C3. They want to make this a space dock, repair yard, and refueling station for outbound space missions. The electrolysis plant makes and stores hydrogen for nuclear engines. We’ll make our own repair parts from what we can salvage from space. Up top it looks like a junkyard: old boosters, landing modules, habitats, that sorta stuff. They drop everything here. We even have the entire spacecraft from the last failed deep space mission. Lotsa cool stuff onboard.” He smiled and nodded wide-eyed.

“The additive manufacturing plant will make the replacement parts—some call it a 3-D printer. I’ve played with it some. Tried to use the junk outside for feedstock. That got me into some trouble.” He raised and shook both index fingers.

“Dad, remember when I got that cortical implant so I could run the VR Dragon Lord Empire? You hit the ceiling and said I was wasting my college money.” Jamaal squinted, pursing his lips. “Well, I have to confess. It caused some problems back home, and up here it’s started talking to the C3 main computer.” Jamaal looked down at his lap then back up.

“I was rehearsing a little Christmas show I wanted to do for you and … ahh, the computer tried to help. The security recording just about captures it.” The scene switched to the side of Jamaal’s head nestled into a pillow.

“Ow! Ow! What the f – – -.” In the recording, Jamaal batted at his face and forehead hurling two purple spheres across the room to the far bulkhead.

“Hey, why’d you do that,” the tennis-ball-sized spheres responded together in high matched voices.

“What are you?” Jamaal said, gaping and sitting up in his bunk. “And what are you doing here?”

“You requisitioned sugar plum fairies,” the nearest purple sphere said, blinking its anime eyes.

“Sugar – plum – fairies?” Jamaal squinched up his face.

“Well, sugarplums that dance,” the sphere said. It rocked upright, checked its spindly limbs for damage then pulled up a virtual checklist. “You know, ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’ Your cyber link failed to specify design parameters for sugarplums. With the Christmas deadline so close, the best we came up with was ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ from The Nutcracker.” Both sugarplums gestured mechanical palms upward. “We didn’t think you wanted actual ballerinas on your head.”

“Hmm,” Jamaal said, arching his eyebrows, “ballerinas on my—oh, oh no, certainly not. But I didn’t order sugarplums either, not dancing or otherwise.” He reached up and pulled a conical hat off his head. “What is this?”

“‘And I in my cap’, one sleeping cap, check,” the plum said, raising a spindly metallic finger. “Well, the order went in … and it came from you, Jamaal Washington,” both sugarplums chimed together.

A terrible racket suddenly came from above. Jamaal scanned the ceiling and ran out to check the command center. The sugarplums followed.

“… a clatter heard on the roof, check,” one plum said. Then came a sharp staccato rhythm. “… the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” The plum pivoted toward the hydrothermal heat exchanger bedecked with sweat socks. “Stockings hung by the chimney—or suitable appliance—with care, check.”

“Now what is that sound?” Jamaal said looking confused and exhausted.

“You don’t have a chimney for Santa to come down. The only outside access is through the refuse chute.” Both plums smiled.

Jamaal ran to the bathroom. A red worm slithered out from the toilet, then another worm, then a white one, a black one, several more red ones. They kept coming. As Jamaal watched, the worms collected on the floor, braided together and transformed into a black base of two pillars topped by red then white then more red. The figure kept building and transforming, red fringed with white. It took a human appearance, a short heavyset elderly gentleman with shining eyes and a full beard as white as the snow. Several red worms collect at the top to form a hat. The last black ones formed the stump of a pipe that hooked into the figure’s mouth. Check, said the plums together.

“Hey, now,” Jamaal protested, “I didn’t authorize—” The figure shook its finger and raised it to its mouth for quiet, then it walked directly to the sock-bedizened hydrothermal exchanger. “Excuse me. Can you explain—“

“Jamaal, Jamaal,” the plums interrupted, “your specifications were clear on this. Santa is not enabled for direct verbal communications. ‘He spoke not a word but went straight to his work.’ ‘Not a word’, you said.” Check, said the other plum.

Jamaal clenched his jaw and fists, and watched as the Santa figure stuffed wrapped gifts into his soiled socks. The jolly figure turned to Jamaal, laughed until its belly shook like jelly, and winked. Then it strolled to the bathroom and disassembled into mechanical worms that leaped into the waste disposal and vanished. The two sugarplums jumped in after Santa.

And the scene returned to Jamaal laughing from the desk console in front of the Callisto Command Center. “That’s all I have time for now. The console says there’s an incoming transmission, so I have to sign out.” As Jamaal waved and his image faded, the incoming message came from the C3 speakers.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” Check!

Once People Danced

“Ther number 38?” the Director called, looking up from hir lavender soft-bot.

“Yes.” said 38, feeling hir stomach tighten.

The Director’s windowless chamber was pastel blue with vases of soft yellow and green tinsels set fashionably on corner sconces. Hir desk was rounded at the corners and padded to eliminate sharp angles and hard surfaces.

“And ‘J’ is your little brl?”

”Yes,” said 38, rolling hir lips in.

“We’ve received several complaints.” The Director’s eyes locked with 38’s. “There’s been an incident. Before we talk, may I show you?”

“Please, Director. I want everyone to feel safe.” 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed smoothly to the virtual display platform.

The Director explained. “Touch-pass is a game for teaching cooperation and social skills without stirring aggression or competition.” 38 nodded and turned to the display.

A first grade classroom appeared with eight little brls sitting in a soft-bot circle. 38 identified hir little brl, J. An instructor pseudopod reached toward the circle and revealed a foam ball the color and size of a grapefruit. The first little brl took the offered ball. Everyone in the circle hand-patted to celebrate hir success. The first brl then handed the ball to the second and again everyone soft patted, and so with the third. Then the scene paused. J was next in line. 38 felt hir heart pound.

“Watch how J plays,” the Director said, and the play resumed. The ball was handed to J and everyone patted. But when J went to hand the ball to the next brl, the reach was further. J leaned and stretched. The scene froze again.

“The correct response,” the Director said, “was to ask for assistance and not to risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” The scene continued.

Shocked at the sight of J stretching, the next little brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reacted by stepping one foot from hir soft-bot, stopping the rolling ball, and placing it in the little brl’s lap. All the little brls screamed and covered their eyes. The virtual instructor stopped the game.

“Yesterday I met with a ther who said hir brl had screamed all night. When I showed hir the scene you just watched, hir fainted. This morning hir reported nightmares of brls falling, heads bumping, and noses bleeding. Hir’s now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”

“I had no idea my J was so independent,” 38 whispered, tears welling in hir eyes.

“And so aggressive,” the Director added. “Walking is a reckless act that endangers everyone. Fetching the fallen ball demeaned all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything that everyone cannot do safely. Your brl reacted without thought, without consideration. Everyone in J’s class and many thers are being treated for stress. Several insist that both you and J be punished.”

“Perhaps another sensitivity session,” 38 said hopefully and accepted a tissue.

“When we issued J to you three weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You’re still young. Perhaps you don’t know how far our civilization has come.” 38 shook hir head. “As I suspected. Let me take you back.”

The classroom faded and 38 found hirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. The humans were in strange tight-fitting costumes and stood precariously on legs without soft-bot protection.

“Oh my,” 38 said, averting hir eyes.

No, you must watch. This is from the time before civilization.”

“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”

“In the 21st century, humans still walked on legs. They ate food they plucked from the dirt, had two sexes, and used their fun parts to procreate. Keep looking,” the Director shouted as 38 tried to cover hir eyes.

“I, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” 38 whimpered. “Why are they so oddly shaped?”

“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how humans looked. The differences helped them to identify one another and to attract mates. They called themselves women or men, depending on their genders. Thers were divided into mo-thers and fa-thers. Brls were girls or boys.

“Here we see a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the 21st century, virtual and robot dancers were just coming into fashion, and many people still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “You can tell the female-gendered from the male by their blue tulle skirts. Now watch.”

As the dancers leaped, glided, and pirouetted, often brushing and touching one another, 38 winced and ducked. “What if someone falls or breaks a leg?”

“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise they were expected to continue, to endure the pain.”

“But why?”

“We have no rational explanation. Even after virtual reality became common, some humans persisted in doing things with their bodies. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere. Some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”

“Worked?” 38 sat up. The scene faded and 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot glided hir back to the Director’s desk.

“Yes, worked, worked like machines.” 38 shuddered. Hir soft-bot gave hir a warm squeeze. “Now do you understand?”

“I understand,” 38 said, lowering hir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to pick up my little brl?”

“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us. We must be constantly on our guard.” The Director caught 38’s expectant gaze. “Out of sensitivity to the thers and brls, we had J euthanized. Hir attempt to walk and dominate marked hir as a dangerous throwback.” 38 began to cry.

“Don’t worry. Clearly your brl was defective, and you were not programmed to handle that sort of problem. As soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”

38 forced a smile through hir tears.

* * *

This is a nerf-world story that projects an outcome from overprotection from all things real and imagined. Do or have you had any such visions or concerns?

Artificial Love

Willard glanced at the contoured android at the next table. It batted its blue saucer eyes, tossed a long shock of acrylic red hair then slid its tongue between its slightly parted lips. Willard returned a sardonic smile. The android re-crossed its sculpted legs in his direction and hiked its hip-hugging skirt.

Too dishy for my tastes, he thought, forcing his eyes away from the android’s twin-lobbed dashboard. Some men my age still go for that sort of thing. He adjusted his belt over his paunch.

“All rise,” the bailiff console ordered. “The Honorable Justice P-47-T-Jeremiah presiding.” Everyone stood as a black-robed metallic humanoid swept in and took its place behind the bench. CRACK, the wooden gavel sounded.

“The court will come to order,” the judge said and nodded to the bailiff.

“The next case is Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 vs. Jonathon Willard,” the bailiff said then rolled back. The prosecuting attorn-tech swiveled to upright.

“Your Honor, my client, Dollbaby,” it gestured to the android seated to its left, “is suing Mr. Willard,” it gestured to Willard, “under the Sentients’ Rights Act, the Sentients’ Equality Act, and the Gender Victimization Act, for emotional disaffection, attempted chassis degradation, withholding technical support, and refusing to address my client with the preferred feminine pronoun.” The attorn-tech folded back onto its uniball base.

The judge’s sensors panned left. “Mr. Willard, were you unable to acquire an attorney?”

“Your Honor,” Willard stood from the wooden chair, “I’ve elected to speak in my own behalf.”

“As you wish. Please continue.”

“You’re Honor, I request that all charges be dismissed.” He wiped the heel of his hand across his high glistening brow. “My contract was with a WD-12, Mandrake, model 132, two-slice bread toaster, not with the Triple-X Dollbaby that appears here.”

“You brought proof of that, Mr. Willard, and if it was not your intent, can you explain how you came by Ms. Dollbaby?”

“I have a certified receipt,” he said. He pressed an icon on his briefcase, raising a mid-air projection. “Nine weeks ago, I purchased a two-slice toaster …”

“Object,” shouted the attorn-tech swiveling up, “SEA, the Sentients’ Equality Act, states clearly that all sentients are created equal with equal rights. Whether Mr. Willard’s intent was to purchase a toaster, a shoehorn, or a companion like my client here is irrelevant. All sentients have the same grade electronics, interchangeable with all other sentients. A two-slotted bread toaster has the same processor, sensitivity, and rights as a long-legged big-chested Dollbaby.”

“Sustained,” said Judge Jeremiah.

“But your Honor, I don’t need a long-legged, big-chested toaster, and I can’t afford the insurance or tech support for a Dollbaby.”

“I understand your position, Mr. Willard, but it’s the law. These charges cannot be dismissed. Please transmit your receipt for the toaster for the court’s records. Prosecutor, you may continue.”

The attorn-tech rolled forward on its uniball. “On 27 April last, Mr. Willard’s son, Paisley Willard acquired a Triple-X Dollbaby chassis, the chassis occupied by my client, at the quarterly police auction at the corner of Twelfth and Woodward.”

“Was the chassis sentient at the time of purchase?” the judge asked.

“No, Your Honor, before the auction its processor had been pulled for illegal activities. It is being held for evidence and will be reprogrammed after the trial.”

“By illegal activities, you mean prostitution?”

“I beg Your Honor, the activities of this chassis’ previous processor are not the issue.”

The judge raised a finger. “Agreed. If your client has not continued in these activities, I strike my question from the record.”

“No, she has not. Thank you, Your Honor.”

“Can you tell me how your client, Dollbaby, come by her current programming?” Judge Jeremiah glanced at the android and got a saucer-eyed wink.

Willard stood. “I can answer that, Your Honor.” The prosecutor deferred and swiveled down. “To purchase it, my fourteen-year-old son—“

HER,” the prosecutor interrupted. “To purchase her. My client wishes to be referred to in the feminine gender.

Willard took a purging breath. “My son, Paisley bought an android chassis at the police auction. Because he is only fourteen, he had to lie about his age. When he got home with the chassis, the Mandrake toaster agreed to let him switch out its processor and memory chips, and accept new programming.” He shook his head. “I was not aware my son had the resources or inclination for such questionable activities. When I got home from work that day, I attempted to restore the Mandrake to its original configuration. It …” Willard cleared his throat, “she resisted and struck me several times across the face. This police hologram shows the sutures.” A magnified three-dimensional projection revealed eight nanoscale wires beside Willard’s left eye.

“Object,” the prosecutor said. “Sentients have a right to self defense. Mr. Willard was attempting to modify my client’s chassis without her permission.”

“Sustained,” the judge said, and panned to Willard. “Mr. Willard, you understand that a sentient’s rights can neither be denied nor curtailed. Not because of your son’s prurient misbehavior, and not because of your ignorance of his activities.”

“I understand, Your Honor.”

The judge returned to the prosecutor. “What is your client requesting for a settlement?”

“Dollbaby bonded with Mr. Willard in her previous configuration. If Mr. Willard is willing to honor their original contract she will be satisfied.”

“Making toast?” the judge asked.

“Yes, and other services for which she is currently enabled. She also requires lifetime tech support appropriate to her new chassis, with upgrades and parts as needs arise.”

“Tech support for life?” Willard asked. “But machines are immortal.”

“Mr. Willard, must I remind you about sentients’ rights?” the judge said. “Responsibility for Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 and the benefits of her services are yours. These will pass to your son at your death and indefinitely down through his descendants, or until the contract for her employment is transferred. Is that agreeable to you, Mr. Willard?”

“I guess it will have to be, Your Honor,” Willard sighed.

“Then you and Dollbaby are dismissed to go home. Bailiff, please call in the parties for the next case.

Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”

Family Pride

“What do you mean, we look good. You look good.” Jackson pointed to his mental imprint projected across the table. “I wasn’t sure you or Galactic Phoenix survived when CANUS was overrun. I barely escaped, but I kept the GP schedule on the calendar just in case. When Sezuia told me my ‘brother’ had reserved the Shigematsu room, I hoped it was you.”

“We had to keep to the original schedule. The starship’s program is hardwired to update in sixty-eight years.” Jackson’s imprint smiled. “That’s how long it will take my program to catch up with it. The update window’s only open for three days; that’s to keep it from begin hacked.” The imprint cocked its head. “I’ve been training for this for ten years and it still sounds crazy.

“You must be ready to leave,” Jackson said.

“I’ll transmit in ninety minutes.”

“How’d the training go?”

“Great. I can repair tech gear and restore any antique from the last century.”

“Mom and Dad would be proud,” Jackson said.

“It’s strange. Remember how we’d hide whenever Dad needed help with the plumbing or gamma shields?” Jackson nodded. “Never thought that’d be my ticket to the stars. A lot of physicists like me applied, but when they reviewed the flight roster they decided what they really needed was a handyman. That’s how I made the final cut. When I arrive at Galactic Phoenix, I’ll have two years to get the old starship online, fix whatever needs fixing, and keep it running until we land on Skolni. By then GP will be over two hundred years old.” He looked at Jackson. “Unless we discover some sort of FTL drive, this’ll be the last time I see you.”

“If we do, my son’ll meet you on Skolni.”

“We have a son?” The imprint’s face twisted. “Does that make me a father … or an uncle?”

“Not yet, but there’s still time. I’m young and Janet’s young,” Jackson insisted. “Do you miss having a body?”

“Not as much as I thought. I still think about our old cravings: food, gin, women … okay, just Janet. But my ego needs have certainly changed, or maybe the engineers deleted that from my imprint program,” he shrugged. “Fear too, all gone. That’s probably part of not having a biological body.” He looked up. “Speaking of bodies, when we land I will get a robotic humanoid body. That’s another advantage to being the GP’s handyman. The other two scientists’ll have to make do with farming and construction equipment until we can build more humanoid chassis.”

“Sounds like you’re still excited about the mission,” Jackson said.

His imprint locked onto his gaze. “It’s everything to me. All I can think about is getting my family safely to Skolni. I feel like every one of those eight billion embryos and seeds are my children. I love them, all of them, every toad, dog, worm, fish, spider, bird, goat, reptile, all the plants, too,” he rolled both hands out, “and all the humans, of course.”

“Do you know whose genes they selected? That data hasn’t come out.”

“It doesn’t exist anymore,” the imprint said, looking down at the table. “Galactic Phoenix was classified. When we evacuated CANUS, all the records were lost or destroyed.” The imprint glanced down at the table’s embedded clock. “Since human survival demands genetic diversity, we think they sent a cross section of the Oslo Gene Bank.”

“Time to leave?” Jackson asked.

“Almost. I’m happy to be going, but I know I’ll miss everything here on Earth. Send regular updates, particularly about my yet-to-be-conceived son.” He frowned. “I won’t get anything until I reach the starship, but then they’ll keep coming for as long as you send them.

“Will do. I’ll send movies and pictures, too,” Jackson said, tearing up. “Thanks for doing this for us. It’s been our dream since we were boys.”

“Send things for the children, too. Anything you can think of. I’ll have about a million kids to raise, and they’ll all want to know about their Uncle Jackson.” His imprint waved and faded. “Take care of Janet for us.”