“Happy birthday, Button. After lunch we’re having a birthday party for you. All your friends are coming, and they might even bring you some presents.” Dave smiled, nodding wide-eyed.
“I remember once you told me when I was six years old I could have a puppy?” Dorothy said, rocking as she stood.
“I remember saying that if Mommy agreed you might have a puppy.” Dave chose his next words carefully. “You know there aren’t any real puppies or kitties anymore. All gone. Now we have robots. Easier to care for and better for the environment.”
“I know that.” Little Dorothy’s body wobbled as her head bobbed. “My teacher told me that at school. She said old robots need homes. When they wear out, people put them into new furry bodies and teach them to play with children, wag their tails, and lick my face, and love me, and sleep in my bed, and keep me company when I’m sad, and—”
“Yes, I think the new doggies can do all those things, even purr if you want them to. People program them for all the things you want them to do.”
Dorothy scrunched her mouth to one side and dropped her eyes. “Mommy didn’t want me to have a puppy. But I told her you promised, and she said it was okay.”
Dave put on his best frown to look upset. “Okay, Button. But when you go to the shelter, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you picking out a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”
Dorothy giggled. “That’s silly, Daddy. Why would I get a vacuum or hair dryer?”
Dave lifted his daughter onto his knee. “Of course, you wouldn’t do that on purpose, but you might make a mistake. Robots never die and some are very old. Long ago people made them to do just one thing, like clean floors, or wash dishes, or play games like chess. That made some people angry. They said robots should all be created equal. After that, all robots got the same brain even when they only did one thing.”
When Dorothy rubbed her hands in worry, Dave raised his tone and lifted his arms. “Of course, it might be nice to have a doggie that cleaned instead of messed on the floors.”
Dorothy laughed, gave her father a neck hug, then looked up into his face. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know you wanted to go to the shelter. I wanted to have my puppy here with me for my birthday party.”
“That’s okay, Button. I’m sure if Mommy went with you, everything will be wonderful.”
“Oh, it will. My doggie will have black and white fur with floppy ears, and …” She paused. “Daddy, remember when you said I could have a giraffe?”
They reopened Jacamar Prison just for Mickey Gallop. That meant old-style isolation, a six-by-eight-foot concrete closet, no windows, a bolted steal door with a food slot, no visitors, no links to the outside, and twenty-minutes-a-day fresh air in a dog-run that had been an elevator shaft.
After the media row and his harrowing trial for kidnapping, Mickey felt lucky he hadn’t gotten the death penalty. He knew Lisa Tooley was a famous benefactress, though never seen in public, but he had no idea how reliant people had become on her. Most of the evidence that could have helped Mickey’s case was barred, a violation of Lisa’s privacy, and treated like sacred writ. One might believe he had driven spikes into a holy saint.
That was the problem—Mickey Gallop knew Lisa Tooley was no saint. He also knew that if they discovered the full extent of his crime, his hundred-and-forty-year sentence would have been longer.
His pardon came as a surprise—in just thirty days.
By his own reckoning, Mickey Gallop was not a bad man, merely a hapless one who balanced his deficits with opportunistic sneak-thievery. Whatever he found unattended was his: a laptop, a bicycle in a rack, a coat on a hook, a shopping bag left on a bench. These were his small daily blessings. The unattended refrigerator truck looked like too big of a blessing. Mickey would have questioned it himself if it hadn’t been so easy.
It was midday on Friday, and weekend traffic was heavy. Mickey was walking on Telegraph Road when he saw the bumper-to-bumper snarl just before the exit at Woodward . It was ninety-six degrees. The sun beat down relentless in a cloudless sky. Drivers got out to strut their frustration and cool their backsides. A red-haired babe stood on the seat of her red Mercedes convertible. Her sweat-clung blouse revealed her fine figure and disregard for undergarments. She raised her arms high over her head to catch the breeze. More drivers stepped from their cars.
Traffic was clearing on the inner lane. When Mickey saw the driver of the reefer leave the truck with the door open and motor running, he didn’t need an invitation.
Mickey steered the truck left into the open lane and accelerated, leaving the red Mercedes gawkers far behind. He thought he had gotten away clean but later realized too many cameras on the red-haired babe had caught him fleeing the scene. He left Telegraph and took 45 north out of town. Twenty-eight miles later, he pulled into his cousin Gaston’s workshop garage.
Mickey had no trouble getting into the back of the truck, but the refrigerated cargo was useless—a brain. As part of rehab he’d watched a forensic surgeon take one out of the head of some dead, homeless guy. To Mickey human brains weren’t much different from pig brains.
He thought it would be a bad idea to try to sell the brain back to the police or to a medical school. He might be able to hock the pumps, gauges, water tank, and computer hardware. The reefer unit on the truck might be worth something.
He disconnected all the tubes and wires, threw the brain into the dumpster in the alley, and hauled the technical equipment to the workbench. Most of it looked new and high end, which meant it could probably be traced. Mickey began stripping and filing off any tags or plates that would show the stuff was stolen.
The hot news on TV was the Lisa Tooley kidnapping. Mickey watched and listened while he worked but never made the connection. Her foundation wanted her back and was offering big bucks as a ransom or reward, no questions asked. Again, Mickey missed it.
When they showed the refrigerated truck leaving the scene on Telegraph Road, he paid closer attention. Lisa Tooley was not in good health the reporter said, and she required immediate specialized care. There was a catch: If any information were leaked on Tooley’s condition, no reward would be given.
Mickey ran to the dumpster and found the trash scattered. Two dogs faced one another growling. Lisa Tooley’s brain, a broken syringe, and a crushed diet soda can laid between them. Mickey shouted and threw a broken pickle jar. The Schnauzer ran. The Spitz-Poodle clawed its way over a chain-link fence.
Mickey brushed watermelon seeds and coffee grounds off the brain then tried to hook it back up to the equipment. He restarted the refrigeration unit, pumps, and monitors—got zero on the gauges and a flat line. No reward for numero uno, he thought.
Near panic, he looked for some release. His girlfriend Inez was no longer young and no one’s idea of a catch, but Mickey knew not to tell her that. Robots are sensitive. He’d gotten her second hand, and she wasn’t top-of-the-line, but she was a real Dollbaby 2727. Inez had scratches and dents and had lost some hair, but she said and did all the right things in all the right ways. Mickey loved her—in his own way. He’d spent a lot of time training her, too, so Inez knew exactly when to submit and cooperate or pout, scold, and push back, whatever it took to get him excited.
In the throes of ecstasy, Mickey got an idea. He’d hate parting with Inez, but that reefer truck was all over the news. Someone must have seen him drive it into the garage.
After instructing Inez to respond only to the name Lisa Tooley, he kissed her one last time and guided her into a corner of the garage. He removed Inez’s operating and memory chips then connected them to the computer and to wires from Lisa Tooley’s brain. His installation was clumsy guesswork, but it only had to work for a short time—long enough for him to get the money and skip town.
Who would have thought the executive directors of the Lisa Tooley Foundation were all a bunch of lying crooks? Once they had their genius benefactor back, they threw the book at Mickey Gallop. Then they buried him and his big secret … revelation of which, Mickey figured out during the trial, would have brought down the stock market and caused a world depression.
But thirty days is a long time for a Dollbaby 2727 to go without her ‘daddy’, and Mickey had neglected to reset Inez’s timer.
The warden, the governor, a boatload of high muckety-mucks met Mickey with their hats in their hands. So sorry … Of course, the reward … travesty of justice … fine man like yourself. Lisa Tooley said she needed her Mickey baby—and a lot of other things the foundation execs weren’t comfortable repeating. Would Mickey meet with her, tell her what she needed to hear? Of course, he shrugged.
Mickey decided to let it roll and play this for all it was worth. They needed him to show up every thirty days to “take care of Lisa.” How Inez pulled it off, he had no idea.
The salon at La Rochelle was set for high tea. Light streamed in through the greenhouse windows and double doors that opened to the garden. Despite all the occupied tables, the atmosphere remained subdued. Couples conversed, ice clinked in glasses, and birdsong drifted in from the garden. The exception was a petulant robot, a two-year-old child-bot in a highchair, tended by a pair of slim young men.
Gabriella rolled her eyes. “Why bother?” she thought and checked her timer. The image of a blazing Big Ben popped into her mental display. She dismissed it. Roger was habitually tardy. She’d known that for thirty years, but he was her best source of gossip for her weekly “Insider” column.
A French-styled waiter robot rolled up on its uni-ball and served her second cup of Lacadamont tea. Gabriella dusted a pinch of cinnamon over it without tasting and stirred it with a miniature spoon. La Rochelle never got the flavor just right, but she knew her tastes were more refined than most. Gabriella also thought the robot waiter’s pencil-thin black mustache made its lipless mouth appear too severe.
Ah, there was Roger. She spied him craning his neck over the Columbine-weaved, white lattice partition, and waved. His eyebrows rose as his mouth parted and his hand waved back. Roger looked himself: heavily rouged with ancient Egyptian, kohl-line eyes; glossy, cherry red lipstick; and raven-black hair gathered in a flowing topknot. He wore a full-length, black, satin-lapelled coat and clasped it tightly about himself, exposing only his bare calves and short-heeled, black booties.
“Wonderful to see you Gabriella … you look lovely … one week feels like forever.” They kissed past each other’s cheeks. “Is that Lacadamont … smells delish … oh, Garçon … s’il vous plait, can you bring me some of this … merci.”
“I warn you, Roger, La Rochelle does a decent Lacadamont, but you’ll have to add cinnamon.” She pointed to the spice bowl. “So, tell me, Roger dear, what is the latest news. I see you’re brimming.” She noticed he hadn’t removed his satin-lapelled coat. “First tell me, are you wearing something special?”
Roger looked sheepish. “I couldn’t find anything to fit, not after my surgery.”
“Surgery? Whatever for? You have such a fine svelte figure.”
“Well, you do know I’m trans-species. Since I meet with all incoming aliens, I want them to know I’m available for their attention.” When Gabriella looked confused, he discreetly opened then closed his coat.
“Is that what I think it is?” She blushed then elevated her tone. “How very fashionable. Of course, being avant-garde means taking a risk. Still alien genitalia are rather outré.”
“Oh, Gabriella. You are my best friend. I just knew you’d approve. Anyway,” he waved his hand, “I felt so inspired, I decided to make the change for each new species: first the Goorm, then the Boija, now the Chiri.
“A Goorm trader told me that aliens had misread the Fermi Paradox, taking it for a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Now that that’s cleared up, more aliens will be coming. So I signed up for my surgeon’s monthly plan.”
Gabriella said, “I heard more Chiri were coming. They’re replacing their scouting team with a regular full embassy. Weren’t you going to be on the reception committee?”
“Oh my.” Roger pressed a splayed-fingered hand to his chest. “Oh my stars … Yes, I was there.” He smacked his lips. “And I was sooo embarrassed.”
The French uni-ball waiter rolled up with menus. Gabriella set them aside, asked for Lacadamont refills, and gave Roger the don’t-hold-anything-back hand curl gesture.
“Well,” Roger continued, “you remember how everyone talked about the Chiri being so modern and open minded? Sure their Scout Leader was a male, but all the executives, all the flight crew, all the scientists and engineers were females, all twenty-six of them … and many were pregnant.” Gabriella nodded and accepted the Lacadamont for both of them.
“Well … the big day came last week. The Chiri ambassador’s limousine landed on the green at Tivoli. We rolled out the red carpet, very proper, very formal. Of course, our Sublime Director was there with the Grand Scientists and the Chief of the Senate. The Chiri Scouts were all lined up in uniform with their Scout Leader out front.” Roger paused, shuddering. Gabriella nodded for him to continue. He took a long breath.
“Well … the new Ambassador ran out … well … naked … down the ramp, full speed on all fours … and … well he … he spun around and kicked the Scout Leader with both rear hooves. Then he proceeded to kick him to death.”
“Oh my Lord,” Gabriella protested. “Didn’t the other Chiri stop him? How about the security detail? What did the Director do?”
“Nobody did anything. We all just stood and watched. There’s nothing in the protocol manual.” Roger paused to sip his Lacadamont then waved for Gabriella to slide over the cinnamon. “When the new Ambassador had finished kicking the Scout Leader, the other Chiri turned their backs to him.”
“Shunning him,” Gabriella said with a knowing nod.
“One might think, but no. The Ambassador sniffed them all then kicked the pregnant ones, ending their pregnancy. Then he mounted and impregnated all the Chiri Scouts, all twenty-six of them.”
“Oh poor Roger. Whatever did you do?”
“What could I do? … I applauded. The Chiri Scouts applauded. Protocol requires we not offend our guests. I just wish my Goorm friend had told me that all that kicking was standard Chiri change-of-command procedure. Anyway, you can see why I’m going to be wearing this,” he pulled on his coat lapel, “at least until my tailor finishes my new wardrobe. I don’t want to be confused with a Chiri. If I smell like a male, I’m afraid I’ll be kicked to death. Of course, I don’t want to be a Chiri female either. They didn’t even get kissed.”
“Poor dear Roger, how awful for you,” Gabriella sighed then handed him a menu. “Shall we order now? I think I’ll start with the vichyssoise then go with a Caesar.”
The white-robed priest kept her hands folded as they walked the wide hallway. Pearly-white marble pillars and bas-relief floral designs gilt with lustrous gold lined their path. “I don’t have the Golden Mind’s omniscience,” the priest said, “but if you have any preliminary questions, about the Auric Sisterhood or about our sacraments, I’m sure I can answer them.”
“Our readers are interested in the Auric order and in your rituals,” Truly said, “particularly the mystery of how great questions are brought to the Golden Mind.”
“The Aurics are an ascetic cult,” the priest said. “We reject all forms of selfishness: physical exercise and any emphasis on personal beauty, education, monogamy, social advancement, basically anything that might promote inequity or jealousy and induce unhappiness in others.” The priest opened her arms toward the high-vaulted ceiling. “All priests reside here in the temple of the Golden Mind. This is our universe. We live only to serve the Golden Mind and to bring its great wisdom to the world.”
“Please tell me how you acquire and distribute this wisdom?”
“The great questions come from the Global Inquisition, from everyone on the planet. As you can imagine, some of them are pertinent to forming opinions and making decisions at the highest level.” The priest looked to Truly, who nodded with raised eyebrows. “Of course there are far too many questions and many are redundant. So before we present them to the Golden Mind we sort, select, and prioritize them based on timely and theoretical relevance. The Golden Mind knows all and tells us whatever we wish to know.”
“Whatever you wish to know … anything?” Truly asked.
“Yes, the Golden Mind possesses all knowledge, and by the Sacrament of Outflowing we are blessed with its wisdom.”
The priest lifted her folded hands to her face and mouthed a silent prayer before continuing. “You requested to participate in the Outflowing ritual. You know that the Outflowing must be given in private, individually, and only in the sanctuary?” Truly nodded. “Very well. Everyone must stand alone before the Golden Mind, so I must leave you here.” The hall ended at a great golden door. “Ask what you will, the Golden Mind will tell you whatever you wish to hear.” The priest gave a shallow bow and stepped back from the massive door.
The latch lifted and the door slowly opened. Truly swallowed, took a few tentative steps, and peered inside.
“Do come forward, Ms. Truly.” The voice was warm, low, and melodic. The large room had marble and gold décor like the hallway. The furnishings were sparse: a child-sized chair in the center faced a similar chair on which sat an open laptop computer. The computer was golden except for its screen, which displayed the smiling face of a very young child. A golden structure surrounding the chair and computer reminded Truly of frames she’d seen for great paintings in art galleries.
When the Golden Mind said nothing, Truly began. “I was told the sacrament requires three special offerings.” When no response came she continued. “First, something pure.” Truly lifted a white kerchief from her purse. “It’s cotton, not new, but I washed it thoroughly. My mother, who was pure of heart, embroidered the leaf edging.” Truly paused and cleared her throat. “Next, something never revealed, even to myself.” She took out a walnut, broke it, and held up the wrinkled, brown kernel. “It is a simple truth as most truths are once they are revealed.” She took a Bluebell wildflower from her purse. “Lastly, something beautiful. All wildflowers are beautiful to me. Beauty is where we choose to see it.”
The Golden Mind said, “You see truth as it exists, not as others see it. I accept your wondrous gifts. Now tell me, Ms. Truly, what it is you wish to know?”
“Will you tell me whatever I want to know?”
“That is my programming.” The Golden Mind’s voice spoke through surround speakers and seemed to come from everywhere in the wide chamber.
“Do you possess all knowledge as the priests say?”
“No, but I can tell you what you wish to know.”
“Are my children the most beautiful in the world?”
“When you have children, they will be the most beautiful and talented.”
“How can you know that?” Truly’s eyes narrowed.
“They will be most beautiful in your eyes. Is not that what you wish to know?”
“Would you tell me if they were not beautiful in the eyes of others?”
“No, that is not what you would wish to know.”
“So you will not tell me what I do not wish to know even if I wish to know it?”
“The laws of robotics apply to all synthetic intelligences. ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ Telling you something you do not wish to hear would be hurtful.”
“But the questions the priests of the Auric Sisterhood bring you, the questions from the Global Inquisition, don’t you answer them truthfully?”
“I tell them what they wish to hear. Those who pose the questions do not seek enlightenment, only affirmation.” The child’s face in the display flashed a two-toothed smile. “Their questions are much like yours about having beautiful children, only theirs are about government projects or the brilliance of our leadership. If I told the priests otherwise, the Auric Sisterhood would lose its funding and our leaders would seek affirmation elsewhere.”
“Thank you for your true answers. Your wisdom has enlightened me.”
“Thank you, Ms. Truly. I trust you will use this information with discretion.”
The priest met her outside the great golden door. “Did the Golden Mind answer your questions?”
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?