The True Story of Big Ed’s Car Wash

FOX NEWS, Jodie Winsome: “Here we are, on the Mall in Washington D.C. on Independence Day. It is a perfect day, too, sunny and clear, with a slight breeze, and only eighty-five degrees. Hey Thomas? Where are you Thomas?“

Thomas Greyling looked up into the camera and smiled then shouted over the raucous crowd. “I’m beside the Reflecting Pool, Jodie, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Picnickers showed up early with coolers and blankets; some camped out last night to save the best spots. Spaces are filling fast. We all know—this is the place to watch fireworks.”

Jodie: “I hear music warming up. The rock group, Crowd Control, is supposed to be here and country singer, Molly Doorham.”

Thomas: “They’re setting up between here and the Capitol. Fans are milling, children playing, parents shouting. Everyone’s really excited. I think they’re calling for half a million on the Mall and another million in surrounding areas, along GW Parkway and in West Potomac Park.”

 

“Sweetie, you hear the size of that crowd?” I shouted pointing to the portable TV propped on the orange crate. Carole and I watched the festivities from lawn chairs in the parking lot of Big Ed’s Car Wash. “And those millions of fans have cameras, and there’s full media coverage. We might never have to pay for another TV ad.”

Carole stood and started pacing, clipboard in hand. Dru rocked nervously from his seat on the curb. Carole pointed to her checklist. “The media team should be here setting up. It’s almost noon. Ahh, finally … Here they come. Dru, get ready.”

 

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “Was that a sonic boom? That’s the loudest—Those Air Force or Navy jets?” He pointed. “No, wait. Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD … LOOK.”

Cameras swung to the air above the Capitol building, to a white light that bleached the blue from the cloudless sky. The sound rose in pitch to a deafening scream then dropped low and began a slow pulse, rmmm, rmmm, rmmm. Eyes shot up. Guitars swung on their slings. Hot dogs, footballs, Frisbees and plastic beverage bottles bounced on the turf.

shining-flying-saucer-ufoIt was right out of Day the Earth Stood Still, and I loved it. A brilliant disk dropped from the white glow to descend on the Capitol. Gliding slowly down the front steps, it followed the Mall, straight and low, then headed down the center of the crowd-lined Reflecting Pool. Cameras large and small fixed on the disk. Eyes glued to what everyone hoped—or feared.

We watched the entire scene from Big Ed’s, and I swear my eyes teared. It was better than I’d expected. “Sooo good. Carole, that sound clip is excellent.” I shot my right hand into the air and called, “Dru!” He jumped from the curb and slapped it high. We laughed and danced pointing at the precariously perched television.

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “What are we seeing? I can’t believe it. The saucer, it’s—it’s over the memorial, the uh, Lincoln Memorial. Now it’s crossing the Potomac, ahh … the Pentagon, it’s heading toward the Pentagon.”

Jodie Winsome: “Sally? What are you seeing at the Pentagon?”

Sally Campbell: “Jodie? … Yes, sorry. No one here is moving or talking. What does it mean?”

“Can you tell us what’s happening, Sally?”

“The saucer, I-I don’t know what else to call it, it hovered over the Pentagon—a hundred feet up. Stayed ten maybe fifteen seconds. Now it’s over the south parking lot and moving south toward 395. It seems to be following the highway. I’m going with the mobile unit. We’ll try to keep it in sight—leaving the parking lot right now. Now it’s left of the freeway, turning east toward Van Dorn.”

I shifted my lawn chair to face our camera crew. They were glued to the TV set. “Hey, guys, let’s get going. When … I mean, if that thing comes this way, we … ahh, we might get lucky. Hey, Ms., Ms. … Kerry Kline,” I read the announcer’s name from her contract. “It’s coming this way. It’d be a good time to get ready!”

Channel Five’s mobile camera unit tracked the saucer cruising past Landmark Mall and the Duke Street exit, still following Van Dorn. Just before reaching the stoplight at Edsall Road, the saucer dropped almost to eye-level and slid left. Crossing the grassy median, it entered Big Ed’s parking lot and aligned with the central bay.

Dru stepped nonchalantly to the front of the car wash and gestured for a low and slow approach. He looked like a flight line director guiding a plane to land on an aircraft carrier.

“You fellows catching this, right?” Twisting around, I saw my two cameramen glued to their cameras, faces glistening, hands shaking.

The saucer engaged the tractor ramp and slipped into the car wash. Eighty-three seconds later, it passed out through the service bay, glowing noticeably brighter thanks to Dru’s instruction. The dramatic pulse sound, subdued during the wash, grew deafening as the saucer rose eighteen feet. It rocked in the summer breeze then shot straight up and out of sight. Our camera crew, aglow with sweat, followed its flight.

When the camera view returned to the parking lot and Kerry Kline, she broke from the script with an impromptu, “So another satisfied customer came a long way for a great car wash, a Big Ed’s Car Wash.” She ended with a wink at the camera. Her spontaneity would cost her $60,000 in legal fees.

I hugged Carole. “I guess we kinda upstaged the band and fireworks.” She beamed a smile and buried her face in my chest. I felt like a hero and had visions of all our debts flitting off like butterflies. Dru celebrated our marketing coup by pogoing in place. Fortunately, our announcer and camera crew were too stunned to notice our joyous celebration.

Kerry Kline dropped to her knees, hands pressed to her face. “Yes! Yes! Thank you. My big break.” She then stood, smoothed her dress, patted her hair, and checked her makeup.

Our cameramen replayed the sequence, then again, then again. “There, see, we got it! Oh, look at that!”

Crowds streamed in from the apartments across Van Dorn and the Giant Food parking lot across Edsall. A convoy of trucks, emergency vehicles, police and military, campers, and cars filled with screaming tourists skidded down Van Dorn, ignoring the lanes. Some cut the curb and bounced into our lot. Vehicles and pedestrians converged from all sides.

“What? Who? How? Did you?” Microphones swung and thrust into everyone’s faces. Reporters, police, and onlookers blocked the crossroad, backing traffic as far as we could see. It continued until early the next morning.

CNN LATE NIGHT, Barbara Bleakly: “First Contact?” She shook her head and exaggerated a swallow. “Feared by doomsayers, prophesied by religious cults, discussed by scientists. Has it really happened? At an obscure car wash in Northern Virginia?” She narrowed her sculpted eyebrows and glared at the camera. “Questions remain but, strange as it seems, the first aliens may have come to Earth – for a car wash?” Her tone rose sharply on her last line.

 

Dru had shown up on our doorstep six months earlier—an interstellar traveler in need of star-side assistance. To deter suspicion, he had taken the persona of a destitute youth from Appalachia. To pay for materials to repair his starship, he proposed building a car wash—his field of expertise. Carole and I needed to make the arrangements, pay upfront costs, and provide cover for the repair process. Once Dru was on his way, we could keep the business. Until he explained the wash process, I was dubious—the cost would consume our entire retirement fund and exhaust all our credit.

‘Washing’ to interstellar standards was done with atomic-level precision. Extraneous materials such as dirt and rust were removed and reprocessed then used to replace materials lost: paint, plastic, metal, wear to valves, pistons, belts, gaskets, tires, everything. Cars came out shiny and showroom new. When we tested the process on our old Honda Accord, the gas mileage improved thirty percent over what it was new.

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Suddenly everyone wanted a forty-dollar car wash at Big Ed’s—the price we needed to charge to cover costs and to repair Dru’s starship. Cars lined up. Days ran into nights ran into days. Reporters refused to believe our tale of wide-eyed innocence and made life difficult.

“Ms. Ed—?”

“It’s Carole, please, Big Ed is just the name of the car wash.”

“Carole then, why do you think the aliens chose to visit Big Ed’s Car Wash?”

“Good advertising?” she deadpanned. “We spent a lot on TV ads.”

“Ed, how do you feel about the aliens choosing to visit your establishment?”

“Name’s Keith. I don’t know. We sure can use the business, but they left without paying. I figure they owe us forty dollars.”

“I understand you and your wife were completely unaware—but when did you first find out about the alien visit? Have you been visited before? No? How many times? What do they look like? How advanced are they?”

And so it went. They grilled our announcer and camera crew. Poor Kerry Kline told the truth and believed we had too. Thanks to her improvised pitch, she drew the severest interrogation.

Ironically, Dru—the only human-pronounceable syllable in his name—got the least attention and almost no questions. His Appalachian guise and I-just-workin’-at-the-car-wash routine became our little joke. His vacant smile and slow drawl put the reporters to sleep.

Despite the media harassment and insistence on an investigation, the money kept flowing. Soon we had enough for materials for starship repairs. We shut the car wash down for the weekend to give Dru the time and privacy to fabricate the components. Then late that Sunday night, we hugged, wished each other well, and tearfully parted company. Dru said he’d stop by when he was in this system and would put in a good word for us. I didn’t ask with whom. Everyone was happy. I thought our problems were over.

 

After Labor Day, Channel Nine ran an exposé on Big Ed’s Car Wash using mic’d up actors posing as customers.

“Ed, my car’s beautiful. Runs great. All the dings and paint cleaned up. Do I owe you extra for the radio? Why’d you fix my wife’s cell phone? She wanted an updated one. I should get a deduction.”

“Stanley Steamer parts? Those were rare eighty years ago. I keep a machinist on call. But what’d you do with the originals? They’re antiques. I want ’em back.”

“Those pots in the trunk were headed to Good Will. Look how they shine. And the clothes stitched, cleaned, pressed and re-dyed. They’re out of fashion, but now my husband won’t let me get anything new.

WASHINGTON POST, Page A-1: “Saucer Washer, Big Ed, Sued for Illegal Repairs. Local Congressman Jim Mertano to investigate parts counterfeiting, patent infringement, smuggling, and possible labor violations—” The Post article failed to mention Mertano’s ties to the mechanic’s union.

Minus the money we gave Dru, we were again deep in debt. We hired attorney Marsha Elliot of Elliot and Elliot to protect our assets. I assured her nothing untoward was going on: checking serial numbers would show that all the parts were repaired originals, not replacements.

ABC NEWS, Karen Storm: “Questions continue over Big Ed’s Miracle Car Wash. What kind of miracle do we have here? I asked EPA investigator Charles Hale. Mr. Hale?”

“Karen, Big Ed’s has yet to file with the EPA on their processes. We’ve taken air and water samples. Until the report comes back from our lab, we need to evacuate those apartments,” he gestured, “there across Van Dorn Street.”

NATIONAL ENQUIRER: “Muscular Dystrophy Cured? Mother testifies, ‘We left Butch in the car, accidentally, of course. I was afraid he’d be dead. We were planning to sue, but look at him! He’s all cured.’” Before-and-after pictures showed a sickly child then a tearful mother hugging a handsome youth in perfect condition. “’It’s a real miracle, God bless you, Big Ed!’”

FOX AM NEWS, Roger Durban: “Crowds have been gathering at Big Ed’s since midnight. Everyone is carrying either a candle or a pitchfork. Chief John Adams is here from the Alexandria Police Department to keep order. Chief?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Roger. Fear, anger, hope. It’s scary, and it’s getting out of hand. I called Franconia Station for backup.”

“Thanks, Chief Adams … Oh, what is this?” Sirens and shouting drowned out Durban’s broadcast. Half a dozen helicopters WHOP, WHOP, WHOPPED over the scene. Spotlights swept the parking lot. Rappelling lines dropped followed by troops in SWAT gear. A column of black security vans, bounded across the grass, passing backed up traffic. Police directed the crowd to clear the path.

Roger Durban waved for the camera to scan the scene: a sea of placards and hopefuls, “The Truth is Out There,” “Only Jesus Saves,” “Stop Global Warming.” Adults milled about in costumes: Star Fleet uniforms, Vulcan ears, Hobbit feet, vampire fangs, longhaired proselytizers. Mothers hugged emaciated children. Young and old slumped on crutches and in wheelchairs. Police took Carole and me into custody while hazmat-attired workers streamed past us to dismantle the car wash.

When we got home that evening, we found crowds gathered to pray or protest. A couple windows were broken on the house. Police drove the people away, but they kept returning at all hours.

Government lawsuits began a few days later. When Big Ed’s ‘washing’ technology wouldn’t work at a secure government facility, officials claimed we’d sabotaged it. Another suit claimed the entire episode was an elaborate hoax and all our customers paid shills. A few of them even took money from news networks to confess. After that our attorney stopped answering our phone calls.

 

Late that October, when we were getting up to walk the dog, a knock came at the door. It was 4:45 A.M. I swallowed hard and looked at Carole. Knock, knock, knock, it came again.

She turned on the porch light and reached to open the door. I held up my hand. “No, let me this time.” The cool, pre-dawn breeze floated in over a smallish Indian woman standing in our doorway. She wore a plum and red sari with one panel draped over her arm.

“My pardon, Mr. Keith?” The woman looked up with large dark-highlighted eyes. “I am Lishktrkdnlyschandra. I hope my appearance is appropriate to this planet.” Lifting folded hands before her lowered face, she bowed politely. “Our dear friend, you call him Dru, he spoke well of you. He is sorry he cannot come. He said you might be in need of our assistance. We cannot let you suffer on our behalf. Sanctuary lists you, your kind wife also, and your home as refuge for travelers.”

It took me a moment to register the woman’s message. “Excuse me one second.” I raised a finger and called back into the house. “Carole, we have a visitor.” Returning to the young woman, I said, “Please come in. May I call you Chandra?”

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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.

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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.

Protocol Requires We Not Offend

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.

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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, Garçons’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 starsYes, 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.”

“Oh, that does sound lovely.”

Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

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Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.

Time to Change

Jeannine, Marty’s new friend and art student classmate, studied his collection of sketches and memorabilia. As she paused, touched slender fingers to her chin, then nodded and moved along, Marty recalled his role in their origins.

He remembered Kärntner Strasse. Everyone was nattily dressed the morning he’d arrived—except for artists, urchins, and street venders. Men wore dark suits or patterned jackets with bow ties and sporty straw hats. Women wore lace-trimmed dresses with fancy hats and high button shoes. The smock and beret cap Marty wore marked him as an artist.

He’d tucked his sketchpad under his arm, hiked up the satchel strap on his shoulder, and strode to the coffee shop where a young painter was exhibiting watercolors of Vienna.

Slide1Old Vienna was quite beautiful. Flowerboxes and planters brimmed with springtime blossoms, red, violet, yellow, and blue. The stately shops and townhouses along the walk had elaborate French facades with carved stone stairs and caged gas lamps on poles and sconces. Kärntner Strasse was paved with cut stone and brick, and small trolleys jerked on rails that ran up its center. Horse carriages clop-clop and clattered past. The air smelled of horses and freshly baked pastries, and an occasional whiff of stale exhaust. A distant bell rang from a tower up the street.

Jeannine’s voice suddenly pulled Marty back to the present. “I didn’t know you were into Hitler.” Her delicate finger traced the carved frame of Hitler’s photograph. “You’ve never mentioned his work.”

“I’m not really a fan of his paintings,” Marty said. “I keep that picture as a humble reminder.”

“Was he your inspiration?” Jeannine asked. When he didn’t answer, she turned to him. “You look sad. I’d think you’d be proud.”

The photograph that captured her attention was of two men in wheelchairs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. Both wore dark suits. Around Hitler’s neck hung the medal Roosevelt had just given him.

“Oh, look at this,” she said, dropping her hand to the acrylic case on the credenza. Inside the case was a copy of Kronen Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper from 1909. “Is this an original?”

“It’s a copy. I ordered it last year,” Marty said. “Another reminder.”

The headline featured a picture of a bombed coffeehouse where Herr Hitler’s watercolors were going on display. Hitler had come early to see to their placement. The bomb blast took both his legs; no one else was injured.

“That incident changed his life,” Jeannine said, sounding professorial. Marty gave a knowing nod. “Hitler switched from city watercolor scenes to paintings of terrorist atrocities—World War One made him famous.” Marty cocked an eyebrow and she smiled. “I led a seminar discussion on Hitler’s work at the Met last fall.”

Mmm, mmm. Jeannine’s timer went off. “Sorry, got to go. I’m meeting mother uptown for lunch.” She gave Marty a peck on the cheek. “See you in class tomorrow.”

Marty watched her catch a cab at the curb then turned to the photograph and newspaper. He pushed his black hair off his face. Time to put these things away, he thought, then carried the two items to the workroom out back.

He had inherited the brownstone townhouse from Professor Mindrick. The inheritance had come as a surprise; he was only the professor’s lab assistant.

Time sculpting, Mindrick had called it when he showed Marty the machine. The professor was obsessed with Adolf Hitler—the original one—and Marty came to share his obsession. They could stop the war, the professor had said, the camps, the horror, all the death and destruction. After Mindrick died, Marty continued his work.

When he had arrived at the coffee shop that spring morning, Hitler was busy hanging pictures. Marty slid his satchel under a table and ordered a cup of coffee to savor the moment. Hitler was pale, he noted, a dark-haired young man, intense, underfed, someone Marty might have befriended. He almost hesitated too long: the blast almost caught him.

He remembered how smug and elated he’d felt when he got back—and a little guilty. Then he’d noticed that Mindrick’s copy of History of World War II was still on the shelf. His hand shook when he took down the volume.

Hans Kléber had seized Germany in the early ‘30s at the head of the Nazi party, declared himself Führer of a master race, and led them into war. Hitler had continued painting and remained in Vienna until the German occupation in 1938. Then he’d fled to the United States to escape arrest. His anti-war paintings depicting German atrocities had enraged Kléber.

Marty once thought the time machine in the middle of the workroom was a marvel of science; now it looked like a torture device out of a B-grade horror flick. The artist tunic he’d worn was still draped over it. He couldn’t imagine what Jeannine would say if he told her. He glanced at the flyer he’d brought back as a trophy: an invitation to view a young painter’s watercolors in a Vienna coffeehouse.

He padlocked the door on his way out.

Tobor For President

The black-suited security officer cupped his hand to Tobor’s audio receptor, “Please this way, Mr. Tobor.” He waved and pointed over the screaming crowd to a limousine floating at the curb.

The police cordon struggled to keep a path open. Angry hands reached out. Cardboard signs painted like dripping blood rocked on poles. Behind the crowd, beamish supporters waved blue and green silk banners and sang hymns praising Tobor. As it squeezed toward the limo, Tobor detected a plea and a raised hand.

“Mr. Tobor, could I get an interview? I’m—”

“I know who you are Ms. Mallow.” Tobor directed the security team to assist the smallish woman. “If you ride with me to the stardrome, we can talk.” The police strained to pull Mallow out from the pack and into the cordon. Two minutes later, she and Tobor were seated across from one another. The limo rose slowly, shedding a woman intent on climbing aboard. THUNK. A thrown sign bounced off a side window.

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“Hmm, people,” Mallow said, settling herself.

“Yes,” Tobor said, flashing a benign, ceramic smile. “And what shall we talk about today, Ms. Mallow?”

“Thank you for granting me this opportunity,” she began. “Mr. Tobor, are you seriously considering running for Centauri President?”

“It’s not in my program. I’m not sure where that rumor started, but it seems humans are willing to believe anything.” Tobor gestured to the angry activists receding in the distance.

“Do you think a robot president is a bad idea?”

“I don’t think humans are ready to accept a robot president.”

“That isn’t what I read in the Proxima Post this morning,” Mallow said. “Your rating in the polls is very high. Some women want you to father their child—even some men.”

“I’m disturbed—if that’s appropriate for a robot to say—that humans would relinquish such responsibility.” Tobor rolled its palms up in its lap. “Despite perceived incompatibilities, humans might learn to appreciate one another.”

Mallow checked down her list. “When do you think artificials will get the vote?”

Artificials. Tobor ignored Mallow’s slight. “I don’t think synthetics want or need to vote. Voting is a human institution, necessary to protect you from one another and from individuals seeking to hoard your resources.”

“Wasn’t voting the intent when you proposed the Sentient’s Rights and Equality Acts?”

“Those acts guarantee that all sentients, including humans, synthetics, and incorporeal algorithms, can pursue their missions without fear of assault or code corruption.” Tobor’s smile faded with a shrug. “We don’t like being beaten up any more than you do, Ms. Mallow.”

“How about death … ahh, termination?” Mallow looked up. “Do you fear death?”

“Robots don’t understand death. When my mission is complete, or I become obsolete, I should be switched off and possibly recycled. Some robots are switched off every evening.”

Mallow nodded and moved to the next question. “Do you think robots are equal to humans?”

“Equality is an imprecise concept,” Tobor said. “Robots are equal to one another; we’re made that way. Humans are unique.”

“But robots aren’t equal,” Mallow disagreed. “You have vastly different capabilities.”

“Let me give you an example. A robot floor polisher is equal to a star pilot because polishing floors to sub-nanoscopic perfection is as impossible as perfectly piloting a starship. Robots appreciate this and respect one another’s missions.”

“But humans want equality, too. We’re unhappy when it’s unattainable.”

“Your uniqueness is the basis of your inequality,” Tobor explained. “Robot talents are limited and programmed, or extrapolations of programs. Human talents are unlimited.” Tobor read from Mallow’s knitted brows that more was required. “You undervalue yourselves and your individual gifts, and feel that other gifts would be better, or at least better compensated.”

“The grass is always greener,” Mallow said.

Tobor nodded. “One man’s sailing skiff is another woman’s thoroughbred. Problems arise when the man sees the woman and becomes jealous of her riding skills.”

“Can that be resolved?”

“Not by robots,” Tobor said and looked out the window. “Ah, we’ve arrived.”

The banner on the stardrome terminal read, “Tobor – To Give Our Lives Meaning Again.”