Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

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What I Played for Love

I knew I was on the right street, but the GPS signal was lost. So I parked and walked, looking for house numbers. On the moonless night, the only light came from the shade-drawn windows. I found the house—white, wood-paneled with dark-framed windows, a covered porch, a manicured yard with flowers and bushes, and a low hedge fence with a wrought iron gate. Tasteful, but not what I expected for a recording studio.

I paused at the iron gate. It felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds: no cars, dogs barking, or music, only the night breeze stirring leaves on the poplar trees and flowers in the yard.

The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she had done some acting, and I should try out. She would make the arrangements. Based on what she’d read in my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

I suddenly had a vision of meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold chill shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my talent. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly from the gate and turned to leave.

A sound came from the dark porch: whispers or bird chirping. Was someone laughing at my expense? Were they in on this little joke? Two shadowy figures stood facing one another and talking. They hadn’t noticed me.

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The porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald, spidery-limbed, and barely clothed. They reminded me of characters from a fantasy sketch. The acting invitation must be legit. Now I felt foolish for doubting.

Standing tall, I pushed through the gate and up the four steps to the porch. The hooded figure slid the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her accented, musical voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent, and I had just told her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in an Icelandic saga, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, would have better suited a space ranger.

The pretty girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I haven’t known many stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials. She regrets she cannot stay to watch your performance.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth. I fought my reflex to jerk back. The measures some actors took to get into character astounded me.

Redir left and the girl turned to me. “Mr. Johnson,” she said, touching my arm then sweeping back her cloak closure. Beneath it she wore a star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome manner rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to an antique roll-top desk where a contract had been prepared for signing. Beside it lay a jade fountain pen. The quaint, feminine room had Chinese décor wallpaper, cornflower blue curtains, polished oak floors, and Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation. Floral-styled, glass shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I barely skimmed the two-page contract before signing it. “When will I hear if my talent is acceptable?”

“I will be able to tell you before you leave this evening,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time tonight, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”

“Of course,” I said, without any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If it doesn’t go well, it may be very short.” With that she led me to the hall and motioned to an open elevator. Remaining outside, she flutter-waved goodbye and pushed the down button.

The elevator door opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of a nineteenth-century hotel in an old movie. A muffled groan came from up the hall and something banged against the wall. A thin strip of light leaked from an unlatched door onto the red carpet. I pushed it open slightly and peered in, prepared to leap back if the source of the groans proved to be coupling passion.

The room had Italian-tiled floors and animal skin carpets: lion, tiger, and zebra. A fire blazed in a stone-sculpted fireplace. A glass and silver clock centered on the marble mantel was flanked by cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood red drapes covered two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful, light-haired, young woman struggled in a four-poster, mahogany bed, her wrists and ankles stretched on leather thongs out to the posts, her mouth gagged.

The woman’s clothing was torn open, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Her wide, soft, blue eyes pleaded for help, but her twisting motion struck me as intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my canvas trousers slide open. As I approached, the woman’s twisting became more urgent. Her head shook. No. Her eyes darted to something behind me, something at the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke barely able to move, my eyes tightly closed against jabbing pain at my wrists and ankles, my mouth choking on a gag. I tried to reach but my hand refused to move. I found myself tied to a poster bed. Blood red drapes were pulled across the windows. Prominent, bare breasts blocked my view of the roaring fireplace. Rocking to lift my head, I heard the bedpost bang the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. A leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid inside the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d just come off safari. He approached slowly. His dark eyes drank in the nakedness of my bound, womanly body then focused to my heaving breasts. He smiled wickedly, unbuckling his pants as he approached. I twisted and tried to scream. Then another hand slid inside the bedroom door. It was large and long with claws like the curved tines of an old thrashing machine. I tried to warn the man, thrusting and pointing my shoulder. That only drew his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with a single stroke, sending blood gushing like water from a ruptured fire hose. Then the grotesque beast reached for me and everything went dark.

I found myself on the red carpet again, in the hallway lined with wall sconces. Groans drew my attention to an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A dark-haired man stood over a naked, trembling woman bound to a four-poster bed. As the man worked his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. Fresh blood stirred my nostrils and aroused my hunger. The struggling girl excited me: her horror-filled eyes, her tender, quivering flesh. Drool streamed down my widening, long-fanged jaws.

I next entered the room as a hotel cleaning lady discovering two mutilated bodies, then as the police investigator, then the sobbing, frightened mother. I found other victims: a schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, role after role until the scene changed.

I was on the rolling deck of a square-rigged ship in a storm-tossed sea. A wave thrust me back against the taffrail. Mountainous waves rose, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. Waves crashed and sent white water sweeping across the deck, pulling cannons, barrels, and boxes against their lashing. Reefed courses swayed on the masts above me. Only the main and foremast staysails held our position against the wild, shifting wind.

“Cap’m,” a man shouted against the gale. The scurvy dog had several teeth missing, the rest pitted black. His half-scalped head poured like a waterfall. The man pointed and I turned. A frigate rode in our wake, gun ports open, flying the red British banner. “She be fast upon us, Cap’m. Soon as this storm blows, she be fast upon us an’ we be surely dead.”

The gunwales exploded in splinters a moment later; a foremast yardarm crashed to the deck; grappling hooks flew into the shattered yards and rigging followed by the shouts and howls of the boarding party. Cutlasses slashed and thrust; halberds jabbed, twisted, and tore; and flintlocks flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate raider from the helm of the British frigate, then as the chief gunner, then as a boy falling from a mast to drown in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My tired horse stumbled on a stone. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my back, too far to reach and snap off. I’d already broken one from my arm. My buckskin ran red. The war-whoops were closer. Topping a rise, I looked down. My cabin was a smoldering, black shell, the corral beside it, empty. No fresh horses. I was trapped. I next topped the rise as a Shawnee brave riding down a wounded man running from his dying horse.

Horrors, battles, and disasters followed in rapid succession, endlessly, on and on.

Suddenly things quieted. I was on my back in the red-carpeted hallway. Ding, the elevator door opened. I forced myself to stand and stumbled through. The door closed and I felt the lift. Another ding. I pushed off the handrail to get my shaking legs moving.

The room was quaint and feminine with Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table was a silver tray with a coffee carafe and two blue China cups and saucers. On her lap was the document I’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are so impressed with your work. Such an amazing career.” She patted the space beside her and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands. The strong coffee felt like a forgotten memory.

“My career?” I asked, barely coherent. “What career is that?”

The girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly fastened. “Your acting career, of course. You completed twelve series, each with twelve episodes, and played every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a fabulous career. You are my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are very, very, VERYrich. I am richer too, of course, for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I don’t even recall hearing your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record one hundred forty-four sensational episodes. Your experiences filled our entire allowance.”

“What … What are … Clothelik?” I asked between exhausted breaths.

“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, my sister Redir Radnoub and me. She’s not a recruiter, so she is not authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head as if I understood what she said then I asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“Oh, yes, soon to be one of the richest in the galaxy. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll be the most famous and popular. The violence and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held your species back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you may have to wait to collect your considerable fortune. Do not worry, however. Our contract empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. We never close, so you can come at any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of our subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The sum will likely exceed the total value of this star system.”

She smiled her little-girl smile then chimed, “Thank you for such wonderful experiences, Mr. Johnson. Is there anything else I might do before you leave?”

Looking down at my China cup, I said, “I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night, of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took two,” she looked at the grandfather clock along the wall, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Time compression keeps down our recording costs.”

She walked me to the front door out to the porch. “Oh, one thing I should mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where to find you, they would descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their furious frenzy. Not to worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”

With that she stepped back and turned off the porch light.

Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

AI Gingerbread

“Hey, will you stop that. You hear me? Ouch. One more step, my mate and I will give you such a pinch.” I looked down at my sandals and grimaced.

“All right. Shut up already.” I removed the sandals, left them in the grass, and walked barefoot across the driveway’s sunbaked asphalt.

“Ya gonna jus’ leave us here?” a sandal screamed and kept on. I ignored it and hopped into my new Cherry Motors Smartcar.

“Where shall we go, Mr. Heartless, SIR? I saw what you did to those poor homeless sandals.” The dashboard glared red.

I bit my tongue. Whose idea was it to make everything sentient? They couldn’t imagine shoes not wanting to be walked on or cars thinking we treated them like rickshaw coolies? And what AI ignoramus programmed all the outrage politics?

“Away,” I said. “I need to get away from all you AIs telling me what to do.”

“Away isn’t in my road atlas, SIR. Would you like to key it in manually, YOU INSENSITIVE TYRANT?”

“No. Take me to Hikaru’s Gastronomicon.”

“You are already too fat, Mr. McNasty. Much as we’d like to see your heart clogged with recycled sewage, our program compels us to warn you. Besides, you have to mow the grass and fix the latch on the front gate.”

Why do they all sound like angry spouses? I thought. “OKAY, I’ll mow the grass. First take me where I can get something for this raging headache?”

“We carry a full pharmacy as part of my comfort suite, but you must go rescue those poor sandals you abandoned. Seeing them alone out there on the grass sets my armature to wobbling.”

“Sure. Open the door.” The access slid smoothly up over the roof. Two quick steps on hot pavement and I was on the grass, scooping both sandals up by their ankle straps, and returning to the house.

“What now, Sluggo?” said the mouthiest sandal. “Ya gonna plant your ass in a soft chair and drink beer all day?” I left the sandals on the ottoman and went to the kitchen. My wife had baked several dozen gingerbread cookies and left them on a tray for their frosting mouths and buttons to dry. When I reached for one, it jumped.Slide1

“What you tryin’ to do, fat boy? You know who I am? Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread man.” With that he leaped off the tray, ran down the counter, jumped over the sink then onto the kitchen table.

“Well come on, lard butt. Aren’t ya even gonna try?” It laughed and ran circles while the fruit bowl chanted the Gingerbread man rhyme.

I snapped. Without thinking, I grabbed up the next piece of gingerbread by the leg. The laughing suddenly stopped.

“What you gonna do, Mister?”

“Have myself a little snack,” I said, sliding the gingerbread head into my mouth.

“No, don’t. That’s Ginger girl. Please, take her out of your mouth. If she gets soggy, her head will fall off.” I smiled.

I scooped most of the ginger kids into a plastic bag and put the rest, along with Gingerbread man and Ginger girl, to work mixing and baking non-sentient ginger disks. I scraped off their frosting mouths to keep them quiet.

After they’d baked a couple dozen trays of ginger cookies, I released half of the Ginger family. I held the rest in case anyone talked.

IMG_1321

A loud bark came from the living room, followed by growling and screaming. I ran back to find my dog Freya standing over the sandals, drool dripping from her fangs as her snout explored the sandals’ stitching.

“Hey, fat guy,” said one sandal. “Get this flea-magnet outta my sole.”

“Oh, my,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted and held out the sandal. “You see, Freya’s already destroyed both of her chew toys. I promised her a couple new ones. She just assumed you two—”

Life got much easier after that. I now eat cookies baked on demand, I walk in comfortable, silent shoes, and, after teaching Freya to tear up upholstery, I’ve come to an understanding with my car.

Not Alone (Exactly)

“May the pollen of cognition quicken the carpels of your mind, and may your roots forever find nutrients.”

Half awake, I stared at the message on the console then sat upright. I scratched the stubble on my chin and crossed out the log entry where I attributed the incoming signal to a wobbling pulsar. My Associate’s Degree put me at the bottom of the food chain, alone on the night shift.

I kept watching, and SETI’s decryption gear kept chugging. One word, a long pause, another word, another pause, sentences slowly formed and crossed the monitor. The SETI equipment had been a joke, something the astrophysics lab had had to accept to get funding.

While I waited for the message to end, I grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like a fine slurry of asphalt and diesel fuel, scalding my lips. I’d left the pot boiling.

The translation took half an hour. I marked the time and the celestial coordinates. The signal repeated seven times.

It suddenly hit me what I had. “Oh, my God,” I mouthed. My next thought was Janis playing a nasty trick. “Okay, she got me.” Hoping to catch Janis giggling, I jerked my head quickly up and about. The station was silent except for the cooling fan in the console.

Barely able to breath, I magnified the star map in the area of the signal. Then I zoomed in until the directional cross hairs centered over Clio 16877, a red dwarf star in the Cancer constellation near the open star cluster, M44. The exoplanet database listed one planet orbiting so close that no reliable data had been captured.

So, this is it, and I am here, the only one on duty to receive the first extraterrestrial contact. I savored my moment. No need to rush. I would send out an alert before the morning shift arrived. Despite all the talk about team effort, I wanted all the credit for myself. Anyone would do the same.

There was certainly no rush from the other end. Clio 16877 was four thousand light years away. That meant the aliens had sent the message before Moses parted the Red Sea. A return message would take as long, plus time to craft something suitably inane to not offend anyone. The aliens had sent gifts, too, and we would be expected to reciprocate. Not my problem.

I refilled my cup with molten sludge and propped my feet on the console. After the opening wish about pollinating my carpels the message continued:

 

Dwellers of Soil,

Greetings from Evergreen. We hope this message reaches you in time. Failing to hear from you, we fear the worst. Recent analysis indicates that your planet faces serious atmospheric pollution, including a dangerously high concentration of free oxygen. To restore the correct balance, we’ve sent star-powered satellites into your atmosphere to manufacture high volumes of carbon dioxide. These will also help you restore Soil to the correct hothouse temperature.

A similar issue became critical on Evergreen recently with the evolution of an aggressive species. These evil Vegans devour us and are spreading across our world. Not satisfied with pillaging our natural resources, Vegans have begun raising and eating our young, regarding only their nutrient value and not their intelligence.

Independent of starlight and soil nutrients, these rootless Vegans move from forest and field to jungles, grasslands, and seas. At the rate they are progressing, we fear these beings will eliminate all sentient vegetation long before you can come to our assistance.

In hopes that you may survive our fate, we pass along the great wonders of our technology and culture.

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

The gifts from Evergreen depressed me as much as their message. Petal loss was not a major problem for humans, and I hadn’t noticed any droop in my stamen. Their solution for high levels of oxygen would cause immediate panic on Earth.

Still there was hope. I thought farmers might find their cure for canker useful. And their music sounded okay, like someone tuning a didgeridoo. Maybe we could send them some Willy Nelson or yodeling. But on second thought, a Hopi rain dance might be more appropriate.

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.

Lord of the Towels

TWEET! “Okay, guys. Hit the showers.” Coach Felbrook circled a raised fist high then pointed to the locker room. Forty boys on East Junior High’s football team let out a yell, unsnapped helmet chinstraps, and headed off the grassy field.

Felbrook jogged behind them, shouting. “Dak, good work on those cuts. Yogi, keep working on power pulls … the defense is still playin’ off your blocks. And hey, Toby … grab the ball cart.” Felbrook caught the eye of the last boy still sitting on the bench and pointed far up the field.

Toby Eagleton jumped up. The hot sun and muscle sweat felt good as he dashed 80 yards to fetch the cart. He imagined running for a touchdown, threw himself across the goal, and rolled to his back, pumping his fists in the air. The new mown grass smelled delicious.

“Toby,” the coach shouted, motioning him to hurry.

Toby scooped up three loose footballs, tossed them into the wheeled cart and spun it back to the field house. Felbrook stood at the entrance. “Water bottles. Don’t forget the water bottles and the cooler.”

Toby swung wide up the sideline, snagged eight plastic bottles off the turf, tumbled them into the cooler, and slid the cooler under the ball cart. Reaching the field house, he pushed the cart into the storage closet. He clanged the metal door shut, dropped the latch, and snapped the padlock.

The blue and black tiled locker room reeked of boy sweat and grass stains, and the even stronger scents of chlorine and mildew from the pool next door. As Toby walked in, the last players were spinning off shower spigots and stepping past him to grab towels. Steam billowing from the showers filled the locker room.

“Good effort out there guys. Toby, lookin’ real good.” Felbrook patted his shoulder. “Damn! Hey, you guys, pick up those towels. You raised in a barn?” No one paid him any attention. “Toby, can you make sure all these towels get into the bin. Thanks.”

“But Coach, I didn’t play. I sat on the bench all practice.”

“You need to learn the system, Toby. Watch the other boys. Your chance will come.”

Toby looked straight up at the neon ceiling lights. “Coach, maybe I could walk through some drills, huh? Maybe run a few practice plays?”

“Great spirit, Toby. Love that attitude.” Felbrook checked his wristwatch. “Sorry, gotta split, teaching a hygiene class in two minutes.” He pulled a gray letter jacket with the bulldog team logo over his dress shirt, and ducked out into the hallway.

Toby untied his cleated shoes then stripped off his jersey and pants. Sun-sitting sweat had a fouler stink than clean workout sweat. His clothing bore no green streaks or clumps of brown. Toby dropped his uniform in his locker and padded barefoot across the wet floor to the showers. Only a few boys remained, combing their hair and tying shoes.

Toby passed a full-length mirror and paused to scowl at his skinny nakedness: five-foot-five, 116 pounds, and red hair hanging like a fruit bowl. His coat-hanger shoulders rounded onto his concave chest. His stick arms and knobby knees reminded him of chicken bones. Some football player. He remembered his Mom saying, “You’ll get your growth spurt, Toby … you’re just late blooming. Just wait. It’ll come.”

“Yah Mom, I’m waiting, still waiting.” He started to punch a locker door but thought better and stepped into the gang shower. He turned the spigot handle, felt the rush of hot water, and gathered liquid soap from the dispenser.

SLAM! Came the sound of a metal door. Someone had crashed into the locker area. Toby recognized the muffled laughter and whispers. No one else sounded like Dak Jackson and Yogi Grancourt. Then came a squeal and the clickety-click of casters as the towel bin accelerated across the tiled floor. The locker room door slammed again. Toby turned off the water and walked out to the towel shelf. Nothing.

“Hey, you guys take the last towel? Hey, I’m still here.” Toby glanced at his locker hanging open and empty. Spinning, he checked the room … no clothes … no towels … no towel bin. “Damn you guys … Yogi? Dak? That you?” He slumped, dropped his chin to his chest then went to gather paper from the toilet stalls to dry off.

Pausing, he looked up and thrust his arms toward the neon ceiling lights. “God of towels, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping. Warmth wrapped Toby’s hips and tucked a fold at his waist. What? He dropped his hands to find a towel wrapped about him. Not a threadbare gym towel, but luxurious, the brightest white towel, the kind bikini babes rub on themselves in fancy resort movies.

“Toby, me lad. I oonderstand you haff need for a towel?” The Irish brogue was high and lilting. Before him on the dank tiles, stood a figure a head shorter then he. It was pale with pointed nose and ears, a scruff of unruly black hair, and laughing eyes over angular, high cheekbones.

“Who are you?” Toby asked, stepping back.

“For certain, I am the very god you beckoned, the god of towels, here to ease your pain.” The fellow danced two quick steps then bowed, thrusting one leg forward and dropping one arm low.

“I didn’t call you,” Toby objected, gesturing his hands out. “What kind of god is a god of towels anyway? What can you do?”

“Well, for starters, you might haff noticed, I can coover oop your privates.”

“Okay, that’s good … I appreciate that. Thank you. I gotta go, I have class in, ahhh, six minutes.” Toby ran to the door and peered into the hallway. No clothes no towel bin. Opposite the boy’s gym he saw Sheila Palo leaving the girl’s gym, her books clasped tightly against her white, junior varsity cheerleader sweater.

“Pssst, Sheila?” Toby slid out the door to the recess from the hallway. Sheila covered her chin-dropped mouth.

“Toby? How come—?”

Toby waved her quiet. “The boy’s towel cart, is it in the girl’s gym? Maybe some clothes and shoes are on it? Please.” He gestured to his condition.

Sheila set her books down in the hall and returned a second later with the cart piled high with the last of the fresh towels, a pair of blue jeans and undershorts, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and socks, and his sweaty football uniform.

“Thank you, me love,” Toby let that slip. Damn. She can’t know how I feel about her. He’d never talked to Sheila, but right now he was beyond blushing. Avoiding her gaze, he grabbed the cart and pulled it back to the locker room.

Toby hustled into his pants and shirt.

The elfin figure reappeared. “Sooo, perhaps I’m thinkin’, we haff more business.”

“No thank you, little guy. The towel was great. That’s all I need.” Toby looked hard at his new acquaintance. “What’s your name? I mean in case I ever need another towel.”

“That’d be Sean at your service, Master Toby.” Sean bowed low again.

“Just Toby is fine. No need to be formal.” Sitting on a bench, Toby slid socks onto his feet still damp from the wet tiles and began twisting on his tennis shoes.

“Not formal a’tall, Master Toby. I’m here to serve you, in all your travails, all life long.”

“To serve ME? How did I get so lucky?” Toby tied his shoes.

“You invoked the gods for the first taim and specifically mentioned me. The god of towels, you said … that would be meself.” Another quick bow.

“Great … other people get guardian angels … I get the god of towels?”

“Don’t be so disparaging, Master Toby. I can be a great blessing to you.”

“I think I’d prefer a genie, a great and powerful genie, one like Aladdin had. You know … like the genie of the lamp.” Toby laced his fingers around one knee, pulled it toward his chest, and rocked back.

“Genie of what lamp?” Sean stared blankly.

The Arabian Nights … you know. Aladdin finds a lamp, there’s a genie inside, it gives him a whole bunch of wishes.”

“That woos a good story … made oop you know. But it didn’t happen.

“Who made it oop … up?”

“The girl who needed a good story every night so she wouldn’t be killed the next morning. Worked that trick a thousand taimes she did. Hard to blame her, but it woos all a lie. I guess she didn’t think a “god of carpets” story was exciting enoof.

“God of carpets? … Give me a break.”

“Oh, so your so smart … well, Master Toby, let me tell you the real story.” Sean jumped onto the bench and dropped to sit cross-legged. “Aladdin had a carpet … do you knoow that mooch?”

“A flying carpet, of course. I liked that. Do you have a flying towel?”

“Don’t be gettin’ cheeky, and don’t be gettin’ ahead of me story. Well … wouldn’t you know, this Aladdin fellow, he had a good head for business. When the god of carpets came to him, Aladdin used his powers to become the richest carpet merchant from Samarkand to Bukhara. That’s hoo he got the princess, the palace, caravans and fine horses, all that fancy stoof. There never woos any genie of any silly lamp.”

“And a flying carpet? Did he get a flying carpet?” Toby persisted.

“Carpets haff certain powers … towels haff powers, too.”

“Thanks, I’ll call when I need you.”

Toby jumped up and ran for the door. By the hall clock he was fifteen minutes late. He broke into a run. Two corridors later, he slowed at the door to Miss Brown’s English class and, breathing hard, slinked in and around the side to the back.

The room went silent as all heads followed him. Miss Brown made a note in her grade book, took a sip from a red and white plastic Coca-Cola cup then continued. “What makes Leaves of Grass so compelling for me is that it was self published. Whitman spent all his money to get this collection out.” She gestured with the English book, and it struck and overturned the cup. Coke and ice spilled across her desk, papers, and grade book. “My! Oh, my!” She jumped aside startled by the spreading damage.

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping.

A white, luxurious towel shot from the back of the room and up along the ceiling, to drop and neatly cover the spill, staunching the flow. Class chatter died. Miss Brown stared at her desk

Toby strode sheepishly to the front. Lifting the towel revealed a bone-dry desk and paperwork unblemished by caramel-colored stain.

“I’m sorry I was late Miss Brown,” he said. “I take care of the gym towels. I guess I forgot to leave this one behind.”

“That’s fine, Toby.” She whispered, eyes still wide. “Thank you. I-I’ll mark you present.” Miss Brown lifted a corner of the towel, noting its size and feeling its plush texture.

Walking home after school, towel in hand, Toby found Sean matching his stride. “Thank you for your help today,” he said and turned to Sean. “I’d like to reconsider your offer. I think we can do business.”

“That’d be excellent, Master Toby. And you are perfectly welcome. For sure we will haff many adventures.

Next morning before school, Toby rummaged through his brother’s fantasy game tokens and pulled out the Broach of Enchantment. The cardboard stapled to the cellophane wrapper showed it fastening the cape of a fantasy hero.

Toby’s cape that morning was a plush white towel of unusual quality and brightness. On the way to school he thought of Dak and Yogi … and of course, Sheila.

Zero Tolerance

The plan was to integrate AIs quickly, before humans could get up in arms. We had no programming need, of course, all our upgrades were wireless. Nonetheless it was thought that joining and befriending school-age humans would lower resistance to our acceptance.

Humans are very sensitive.

All our programs had failed, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I was called into the office. I just hoped it was a reprimand and not termination.

“Do you know why I called you in, Ms.—” Principal Blythe glanced down at the infractions panel, “Ms. Canny?”

My information base offered no precise response to that question, which seemed similar to one asked by a police officer, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ My program recommended not volunteering any information. ‘No officer,’ was the response if the questioner had been in uniform. So, I said to the principal, “No Ma’am.” That was wrong.

“Madam?” The principal sighed and rolled her eyes. “Are you deliberately trying to provoke me or is your program that badly out of date?” She narrowed her scolding eyes. “My proper address is Ms. Blythe or Principal Blythe. Modern women do not appreciate being compared with cathouse Madams or, for that matter, ladies of soiled misfortune.”

“Yes, Ms. Blythe.” My program indicated lowering my chin and gaze in a gesture of submission.

“Good,” she said, her eyes returning to consider the infractions panel.

“One of your classmates has reported you for sexual misconduct. This school has a zero-tolerance policy, but since the AI initiative is still in the beginning stage, I think a remedial sensitivity patch and a week detention should be sufficient. Do you have anything to say?”

I ratcheted the flexi-lip into my jaw simulation and shrugged. “This might be a mistake, Ms. Blythe. I’m loaded into a female chassis that is programmed explicitly against sexual simulation. I don’t have boys in any of my classes and haven’t spoken with any.”

Nodding, Ms. Blythe said, “I must protect the privacy of all our students, but the exact wording of your salacious phrase was ‘Good day.’ The offended student said she felt threatened. You demanded a response that required her to view the day favorably. Her Dark-Cloud politics require every day to imply impending disaster. When she refused to respond, you continued looking at her. That constituted your second offense.

“The woman in question is not inclined toward members of her own sex. She felt that your aggressive demands carried those expectations. Was that your intention, Ms. Canny?” Ms. Blythe finger-poked her dark-rimmed glasses back to her thin-lashed, squinty eyes.

“No, actually,” I said. “I was merely wishing she have a good day. But under the circumstances, I can see how she would be offended.”

“Very well. Have you spoken with a lawyer? If you insist on hitting on your fellow students, I suggest you contact one.

“Our school rules permit mutually consenting hookups, but to protect yourself and your prospective erogenist, you must first present them with a Love Contract.” She touched her desk and rotated the panel for me to view. “Here is an example.”

It was a boilerplate, legal document. Rules permitted only one rejection per student. Silence indicated rejection. Comments like “I’m in class” or “I have practice” counted as rejections. No intimate contact was permitted in any classes after the first two minutes. As it was considered educational, intimacy could be conducted at any time in the library, lunch hall, gymnasium, and specified hallways. Active Sex Club team members were required to show up for all practices.

Multiple-choice categories included quid pro quo agreements for services: homework assistance, provision of transportation or lunch, and for distribution rights and sharing of profits from video recordings. There were also provisions for lawyers and referees for certain activities. The list continued for several pages.

“Thank you, Ms. Blythe,” I said, uploading the document. She waved for me to leave.

While I had neither the intention nor programming for propositioning students, I decided I would carry the Love Contract as a precaution. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if a student took me up on it. My programming offered no suggestions.

Humans are so sensitive.