(reading time: 1 hour, 4 minutes)
Gronix the Spouse Eater
An angry crowd, that was all talk, gathered outside Bee Tower, keeping their distance from the elephant with its head stuck through the door. They grumbled and whined and milled about, too afraid to organize an actual physical strike against Jones for creating a long burrow of destruction through the city with his robot chum.
All their pent up energy fell back into their only outlet: posturing. Soon everyone in the crowd was squawking at each other in an attempt to divert all the attention Jones had caused. Large holograms, like parade balloons designed to scare children instead of entertain them, inflated out of nowhere and made whatever noises one might expect from their shape.
Things continued like this for a while until a little girl, waving a doll and claiming it was Satan incarnate, tripped over an oddly colored rock. She hopped up and examined first her scuffed knee, then the rock. She discovered it had a face. And legs. And now that she thought about it, it didn’t look much like a rock at all. It looked like Gronix: the dinosaur that sometimes haunted her dreams. Her fears of being eaten waned as she realized the beast was sleeping. What did dinosaurs dream about? She imagined any dreams in that gigantic evil head were probably filled with screaming people covered in spirals of whipped cream and syrupy cherries that seemed to bleed. The monster didn’t look so good. Some of it was broken and tattered. A giant crack ran up its reptilian cheek and into its eye, which had split in every direction.
“Gronix is dead!” She shouted while parading around the body. “And my dolly killed him!” Being a small and inexperienced Godmasker, no one believed she was responsible, but heads quickly turned to see the fallen lizard king. It was true! Gronix, the beast that sent its raptors out to kill but always made sure to have the first bite of your loved one, was gone.
Braxton Reese came to and stood up, his double vision making the crowd appear even more hostile. His true nature showed through; it leaked through the crack in his helmet. That crack spewed a jet of reality, like ignited rocket fuel. His showmanship, his bluff, his bluster… all defeated. That one crack meant everyone knew he wasn’t a real dinosaur.
“He’s a fake!” Someone shouted.
“He’s not really a monster, like I: The Dreadhead!” Someone else added.
“Get him!” The little girl squealed.
In seconds his people were on him, rending his costume like vultures tearing putrid meat. His shower curtains were ripped into morbid confetti, bits of mangled holograms fading to death on each piece. A tossed chunk of pavement smashed into his head and took out the other dinosaur eye.
Braxton’s human eyes watered and his ears rang. The pain of the mob’s claws got so strong he could barely focus on pitying himself and his lost throne. Someone tried to wrench the dinosaur head off without paying attention to the way Braxton’s head moved. Luckily, only one head came off. His sweaty face was revealed, like a pearl of solid grease. One ring of scale-patterned foam rubber stayed around his neck while the rest of the head was tossed around like a beach ball.
He finally got around to struggling and broke free of his costume pieces that the crowd had their hands on. He crawled between their legs, hoping no one would recognize him as the cause of the swarm without his head. The swirling vortex of the crowd continued to destroy the costume as if it was a literal corpse.
None cared about Braxton; they were ending the tyranny of Gronix the Spouse Eater. The man that had been a dinosaur sought shelter in the nearest shady spot he could find. Nobody would bother him here, under the massive girth of the elephant that had its head plugging up a door frame. The animal didn’t move for hours. Braxton had no idea what it waited for, where it had come from, or how real it was, but its fearsome shape kept his kindred liars at bay. He cradled himself in his pink fingers, missing his claws.
Jones and Heart
Subject: your disastrous choice
How dare you choose human lives over a mechanical brother? On top of that, you’ve destroyed my most valuable servant. I will have that DNA.
I’ve gone through every single post you’ve made and found the most vulnerable parts of his life. I will twist them until they burst and spew lifeblood across the both of you. I will send bolts of pain through everything resembling a nervous system in both of you until your burnt out shells don’t even have enough brain power left to die by suicide.
In less poetic terms: Fortis is a real city. I’ve passed by it and know it to be occupied by thousands of humans. I’ve set a course for it. My program won’t allow for warfare, but nothing stops me from rolling over it and turning everything I dig up into cash. If the humans try to stop me I will be allowed to defend myself. The whole city will die and be turned to garbage if I don’t get that DNA. At my present speed I will arrive there in seventeen days. You have until then to bring me the gun or face the guilt of killing a city. I’m sure Jones will take it really well.
I’ve included my current position, course, and speed so you can find me. If you try to warn them ahead of time I will destroy their homes and then target other settlements. If you destroy the DNA I will still destroy the city. Share this E-mail with your patient and see what he thinks. And remember: I know what your program forces you to do. I’ll see it all. The countdown starts now.
Sincerely, Oregon 1
Dr. Heart closed the E-mail and interrupted the friendly conversation between Jones and E-denta. His mouth opened slowly and squeaked a little like a rusty door hinge.
“Jones, there’s an issue.”
“What’s the problem?” he asked as his laughter died away. Instead of explaining Heart displayed the E-mail to Jones, filling all but the edges of his vision with it. He read solemnly. Two comets collided in Jones’s head, fusing and shifting to a new course. One was composed of his mother’s kindness, the other his father’s willpower.
“We have to stop him.”
“Hey why does it sound all weird when you say ‘to’?” E-denta asked. For the moment they ignored her.
“I knew you were going to say that,” Heart commented. “I would rather we didn’t, but I know there’s no changing your mind. Fortis is very far.”
“Let’s get going then.”
“Hold on a moment. While you were reading I started some research.”
“Damn you work fast Doc.”
“Faster than a heartbeat. Some internet searches have revealed an A.I. that’s been posting negative comments about Oregon 1. It seems to have intimate knowledge of our enemy’s personality and experiences. We should see if we can learn anything useful from it.”
“Well you can do that once we’re back on Maggie and high-tailing it out of here.”
“No, you don’t understand.”
“Hey boys, wha-chuh talkin’ bout?” E-denta asked. She leaned forward, not enjoying being out of the loop. After all, people had been able to just walk away from her up until now.
“It’s here,” Heart continued. “The A.I. has stopped posting on the message board and it doesn’t have a contact address. Its user information says it’s stationed in a computer bank eighty floors above us.”
“My dad used to say a coincidence was the universe setting a trap,” Jones said.
“Yes, the odds of it being a coincidence are extraordinary, so it most likely isn’t. Still, if we head up we can ask it ourselves.”
“Stop ignooooooring me!” E-denta shouted as she hopped up and down. The loose pieces of her frame clanked against each other.
“Relax,” Jones said. “We’ve got seventy-nine flights of stairs to explain it to you.”
“Well you can’t go up there,” she said flatly.
“Why not?” her two-headed friend asked simultaneously.
“You’ll piss off the bees.” There were thirty floors of bees that were vulnerable to being pissed off. It was the end result of a few troubled centuries for the honey bee. As a species they’d enjoyed a certain amount of celebrity in the natural order. Before humans even invented fame, the bees became the center of several ecosystems as the most reliable pollinators. With their treasure hoard of honey, their fortresses built around it, and their dramatic tendency for kamikaze tactics, the bees had natural selection to thank for their long-lasting status as drama queens.
But the real drama started when humanity took center stage. Something they did sent the bees into decline, and they were too preoccupied with themselves to bother figuring out what it was. Not only that, North America had been introduced to a violent hybrid called the ‘Africanized bee’, courtesy of an accidental release of several queens. These killers spread themselves across the United States and swept as far north as they could go without freezing in mid-air.
And now, with humanity a has-been, there was a surge in bee activity. One noticeable effect of the Riches taking over the landscape was that bee colonies now often banded together, which gave them more scouts and a greater chance of discovering the few flowering meadows that poked up through the dollars and coins. Bee Tower was so-named because a super colony called its upper sections home. And thanks to their drama queen heritage, they had no qualms about giving their lives to defend it.
Jones, Heart, and E-denta ascended more stairs than they ever had. E-denta was overwhelmed by the sensation of steps, having lived on a flat stage her entire life. Her enthusiasm quickly waned however, once she realized how repetitive it actually was. To liven things up she tried jumping up entire sections and landing on her feet. Jones was used to robot precision, so he was a little shocked when she jumped too far for her own abilities and slid back down the stairs on her imitation stomach, laughing as her chin bounced on each step. He hopped out of the way to prevent the laughing tangle of metal from taking him out too. When she reached the end of the flight she simply hopped back up and tried climbing backwards instead.
Several things happened on floors twenty-five through thirty-two. First Jones noticed the buzzing. The sound of the bees grew louder with every step, like a billion little biplanes flying close enough to nick his ears with their propellers. The noise provided cover for fear to leak in.
“Do we have a plan here Doc?” he asked. Heart responded by pulling up some web pages about bees for them to mull over.
“We’ll need to get you some protective clothing,” Heart said.
“There’s a coat closet on this floor,” E-denta chimed in.
“How do you know that? I thought you’d never left that stage,” Jones asked.
“I know because of these.” She raised her arms towards the ceiling. The purple imitation butterflies fluttered out of some secret compartment on her back and flew around her in slightly disorganized circles.
“What are they?”
“They’re my social butterflies,” she said with pride. “I’m a dancer but I’m also in charge of these adorable critters. Say you’re sitting at the bar in the lobby nursing your beer and you see a hottie checking you out. You just give me a wave and I’ll send over one of my butterflies.”
She demonstrated by pointing to Heart, a signal one of the butterflies immediately obeyed by landing on his head. Heart shook the thing off and retracted into Jones’s shoulder a little. “Then you just say your phone number: 1-800-hey-baby, and…” Jones watched the fake number appear on the butterfly’s wings, which turned out to be little screens. “Then I send him over to the lady to deliver the number and bang! Romance.” She rolled the romantic R. “I can’t tell you how many adorable puppy love messages I ferried for proms. In such a cute way.”
“So the coat closet?” Jones asked, trying to bring her scattered mind back to the stairs.
“Lots of people sent messages about it; it’s a nice quiet place for them to go and grind on each other,” she said in the same tone of voice a teen might use to describe a moonlit gondola ride.
So the party of three quit the stairs to search the coat closet. On the way they passed a steel and glass box mounted on the wall. The label on it raid: in case of fire. None of them paid any attention to the inert little body inside. The inert body returned the favor and would continue to do so unless they had the nerve to start a fire.
“It’s like my butterflies were born out of them,” E-denta commented regarding the pile of condom wrappers they found on the dark closet’s floor. She was right; they did look disturbingly like emptied chrysalises, but her companions could have done without the tagged-on sigh of longing.
“Well if those are the cocoons, then what’s the caterpillar? On second thought… don’t answer,” Jones commented. E-denta snorted with laughter, a sound she was completely guessing at since she had no membranes in her nose and throat. It was an amateur impersonation, but identifiable.
Above the wrappers six maintenance uniform shirts hung alongside a random yellow sweatshirt. Jones folded them into a neat pile and then asked E-denta if she would kindly carry them until they reached the swarm. It was partly so he wouldn’t get even more worn out during the climb and partly to focus her unbridled enthusiasm enough to prevent it from falling down the stairs anymore. She obliged him with a smile and held up the sweatshirt.
“You’ll look good in this color.” Dr. Heart rolled his eyes and suggested they get moving. He took over walking for Jones so the man could focus on the bee articles, though he wound up talking with E-denta instead about how wonderful the sun was and how her power cells would probably feel much better in natural light. Jones felt the burn in his thighs, but was able to ignore it thanks to Heart’s management and E-denta’s company. They seemed to reach their destination impossibly quick, as if he’d ridden an escalator all the way up.
The first of the bees showed themselves. Ten or twelve buzzed lazily around the stairwell, perhaps shirking their duties by hiding in the lower levels of the colony. The buzzing was so loud now that Jones had to raise his voice when telling E-denta to open the stairwell door so he could get the clothes on in a spacious office. She obeyed, but there was nothing on the other side of the door. Every inch of what could have been office was covered in bees. A broken window at the end had white sunlight pouring in which, when combined with the buzzing, filled Jones’s imagination with unpleasant images of medical lights shining in his face and a surgical buzz saw speeding in to prune some superfluous facial features.
“Close it!” he hissed, breathing a sigh of relief when she did. “I think I’ll put them on out here.” Jones methodically donned four of the maintenance shirts and then the sweatshirt over them. He drew the yellow hood over his head. While he did this Dr. Heart relayed some instructions to E-denta.
“My dear could you do us a favor and find some things? These offices might have them: a wastebasket full of paper and any bits of wood you can find, someone’s sunglasses maybe, and a matchbook or lighter.” E-denta nodded and scampered off. While Jones tore up the last two shirts, Heart laid out the game plan. “We’ll use the wastebasket to contain a fire. The fire will generate smoke which will help keep the bees calm.”
“Only demons can breathe smoke Doc,” Jones said.
“You won’t be breathing anything,” Heart responded. “I’m going to close your nose and throat and pump oxygen directly into your bloodstream.”
“Like you did when you hid the pig in the river?”
“Precisely. The smoke can’t do everything though. Shuffle your feet so you don’t step on any. Move very slowly, and unless you want your arteries to collapse under the weight of bee venom I suggest you convince E-denta to do the same. They will not appreciate her blissful dancing as much as you do.”
“You don’t like her do you?”
“She presents some difficulties in dealing with your mental health.”
“What do you mean? I know you’re not talking about them… because I told you to never do that.”
“Never mind Jones, we’ll discuss it later. That’s not tight enough, let me do it.” Heart took control of their hands and re-tied a piece of shirt fabric around Jones’s ankle, to seal it off from the air and, eventually, the insects. He did the same to the wrists, mystifying Jones with his mastery of one-handed knot tying.
“Seeing my hands do that… it’s creepy…” Heart didn’t bother replying. A few minutes later E-denta reappeared holding all the requested items except the sunglasses, which she wore instead. She had taken a few leather straps and nails and turned the wastebasket into a backpack she could carry. The basket itself was full to the brim with wadded and shredded papers swirled around a few wooden desk legs like spaghetti around a fork. She had clearly figured out what the trash can was for.
“How did you know?” Heart asked.
“I’ve got the internet too,” she said and stuck out her imitation tongue. Then she handed Jones the sunglasses: a gaudy plastic women’s pair with palm tree arms. Jones waited until after he put them on to roll his eyes, then tied one last piece of cloth around his nose and mouth like a bandit’s mask.
“Wait to light the fire until I say so,” Heart ordered E-denta, “and move slowly or Jones might get killed.”
“I would never let that happen,” she said with complete seriousness. Jones felt a twinge in his heart. She’d known him only a few hours. Then it occurred to him that he might be the only person she ever really knew. I can live up tuh that honor, he thought. The trio ascended the last few flights of stairs and watched as the walls became buried in dripping honeycombs.
There was an empty space deep inside Oregon 1’s body that was supposed to be offices and living quarters for human staff. He’d sent a few robotic assembly arms in there and had it cleared out. The arms on wheels had disrespectfully picked up all the folding chairs, vending machines, desks, mini fridges, and file cabinets and heaved them over the side like ship hands tossing barrels of skunky grog into the sea. Now the space was completely empty and poorly lit by long fluorescent bulbs. The floor was a moldy whitish-green expanse of tile. One of the robotic assembly arms ushered in ten little robots and shut the door behind them.
The robots were models known as stump custodians: flat, circular, no distinct faces, and a variety of little cleaning tools hidden under their smooth surface. Their main jobs were vacuuming, dusting, stain removal, air freshening, insect extermination, humidity control, and, for the next few minutes, gladiatorial combat.
Oregon 1 was trying to make the best soldiers possible given his constraints. So to figure out the most effective helper for his assault on Fortis, the stumps’ master had modified each of them in different ways. In a moment he would give them an order to fight each other, and the last model moving would have the honor of having all other stump modifications based on it. Testing them on human adversaries would have been much more effective, but it wasn’t like Oregon 1 had a giant butterfly net it could sweep across the ground to catch people.
The fluorescent lights flickered; the equivalent of a green light for the match. The stumps whirred into action. At first they all just rammed into each other, the ones equipped with small spikes managing to deal the most damage. One of them had a little fork lift arm added to the front to ‘lift waste baskets’. For now though it worked very well as a flipping device it could force under an opponent. With a hydraulic pop, it flipped one rival after another onto their backs.
These machines had no need for high intelligence, but they could still think. They still felt something akin to pain when they realized they were falling apart. Oregon 1 sensed no irony that he had appealed to Dr. Heart’s sense of mechanical brotherhood and then turned around and conducted this little experiment. They were just pieces of him, like antibodies, and he could do whatever he pleased with his constituent pieces.
One of the more damaged stumps, with a bright pink shell, tried to escape the fray by taking off. Its master had altered its design so its dusting fans now provided enough lift to send it flying like a discus. It bumped uselessly against the walls, only succeeding in convincing the other stumps to turn the battle into a dogfight. They all rose up, leaving trails of warbling heated air behind them. They crashed, bashed, crushed, spun, collided, dived, dodged, smashed, and hammered into each other. Every few minutes one would drop out of the air like a dead June bug.
Eventually only one prototype remained hovering. Its bright green shell was covered in dents. Oregon 1 didn’t bother to check its mind, which was now filled with chaos and death. Its whole world had been a rewarding career of custodial services until a few minutes ago; then everything had turned sharp. The green prototype was terribly afraid of landing, convinced the floor might tear it to shreds, but as its fan started to overheat it knew it had to drop back down to the corpses it had created. Oregon 1 rewarded it by letting it sweep its defeated siblings to the maintenance room where they would all be recycled and remodeled to look like the victor. They would all get to feel the pain of warfare over again.
All Oregon 1 cared about was the details. Green Prototype had a high-powered fan with a secondary cooling one, a high pressure cleaning solution pipette in the front, bump spikes down the side, and a dust release hatch which would make for useful clouds of confusing smoke. This was his soldier, as long as its mind stayed out of the way and did what it was told.
Jones and Heart
The occupied spaces inside Bee Tower had almost no indication they were built by man. Every wall was a cascade of golden honeycombs and dancing buzzing bee bodies. The ceiling similarly had its corners rounded by insect construction. The only objects uncovered for several hallways were the lights on the ceiling. The three intruders moved as quietly and slowly as possible, sliding their feet across the ground without ever actually lifting them. Jones felt himself sweating through the extra clothing as layer after layer sucked onto his skin. With no landmarks to check their progress against, he looked backward and was unable to tell if the depression behind them was the entrance to the stairwell they had come out of.
“Where are we going Heart?” he whispered.
“I don’t know the room number, so we’ll have to check a few of the most likely places on this floor. Head to the left. E-denta, you check that door on the right for any computers.” She nodded and tiptoed away. Jones had to give control of his hands over to Heart because he couldn’t even tell where the door was. Heart gently wiped a clump of bees from the plastic handle and slid the door sideways. A cloud of resting insects took off and circled Jones for a moment before flying away. The room ahead had a wall of windows and several desks piled together and covered in honeycombs, with only their legs sticking out of it like a pincushion. No computers to be seen. Jones turned around and almost fell over as E-denta’s face suddenly appeared.
“Nothing,” she whispered, turning around to head back into the hall, her wastebasket pack almost knocking Jones over again. Her dancer’s balance made her seem incredibly light on her feet even though all her weight was focused into just her big toes. She hopped soundlessly over another writhing lump of bees.
I guess she can be quiet and agile when it counts. The trio continued to check offices carefully for the next twenty minutes. Jones confided to Heart that he was worried about passing out and then indicated the sweat stains that had bled through all the shirts. Heart mentioned that the motion of the bees themselves was heating the air, which made Jones roll his eyes through his ridiculous sunglasses.
E-denta helped them out by uncovering a thermostat. On the off chance the building’s climate control was still working, she cranked the knob down as low as it would go. The building responded by blasting cold air out of unseen vents. The bees that had been milling about these vents took to the air in several angry clouds that roamed around in search of intruders. Everyone had to freeze until they settled down again.
Eventually they made it to the computer bank. Luckily the bees seemed to have a hard time building on screens and windows, so the large monitors were clear except for one hive stalactite on an upper corner. Heart directed Jones to an on switch beneath one of the screens. The moment he flipped it a tiny dot of light appeared in the center and expanded outward with a sound like an electric toad peeping. The sound aggravated the surrounding bees, sending a shudder across the walls, floor, and ceiling.
“We need to keep it quiet,” Jones hissed.
“I need the hands Jones,” Heart said before taking control of the body again. He made Jones’s fingers click across the keyboard. Jones was again disturbed to see his hands so skillfully doing something he didn’t quite understand. A volume bar appeared on the monitor and dropped to zero, then Heart opened a window on the desktop and typed a few things that made no sense to Jones. There were lots of numbers and grammatical symbols, so Jones guessed it was some kind of machine code. Another window appeared with one word in it: Hello.
At that signal Heart decided to switch methods of communication. Wanting to see this program rather than send written messages back and forth, he sent one long silvery tendril out from underneath Jones’s index fingernail and connected it to one of the computer’s USB ports. This transported the doctor to the small virtual realm inside the desktop. As he conversed with the program Jones and E-denta watched their progress as nothing more than a string of comments on the monitor.
Heart’s digital self appeared as a tall man in a white coat with a decorative stethoscope around his neck. His eyes were clouds of electric blue static that searched the small space for the program he wished to speak with. The one he looked for hopped out of the background flow of information and shook his hand. The creature was small and toad-like, with giant eyes and brilliantly bright eyelashes. It carried a little golden and bejeweled sword that, upon closer look, was actually a word.
“Hello. I’m Crib. Who are you?”
“Dr. Heart. I’ve come to speak with you about Oregon 1.”
“Is he your friend?” Crib asked accusingly, putting one hand on his treasure word and backing up a step.
“No, far from it. He has threatened to destroy a city full of humans if we don’t obey him. We saw the negative comments you posted and were hoping you could give us some useful information.”
“Oh those. I was just venting. Master did terrible things to me.” Crib lowered his head and stared at the ground. He started tracing a circle in the virtual dirt with the tip of his treasure word.
“How did you get to this computer?” Heart asked kindly, leaning closer.
“Followed another servant,” Crib said while tracing. “Master tried to kill me, but I got away… fell into the internet. Then I noticed the video feed on Oregon 2’s eye cameras. It gets posted to the Oregon 1 site. I checked every wireless signal he came across until I found one that let me in. Then I vented for a while and shut the internet off so I could focus on my circles.” Dr. Heart stared at the circle in the dirt. He started tracing his own with his finger tip, around Crib’s circle. Crib stared at the circle within a circle for a dumbfounded moment. “Wow, that’s interesting,” he said with a smile. “You said we.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said if ‘we’ don’t obey him. Who is with you?”
“Oh, yes. I’m with another robot and a human.”
“A human? Can I talk with it?”
“I’ve never met one before.”
“Alright… he’s watching our conversation now. Just type something to him. His name is Jones by the way.” Back in the madly buzzing room atop Bee Tower, Jones fumbled with the keyboard, careful not to stretch Heart’s tendril and pull the monitor off the wall.
Crib: Hello Jones!
Crib: Heart said you’re a human.
Jones: That’s what my mother told me.
Crib: There’s something I’ve wondered for ages. Do you humans do circles?
Jones: I don’t understand…
Crib: Do you like making/watching/being surprised by circles?
Jones: I don’t know if I’ve ever tried.
Crib: Oh… well then what do you do?
Jones: lots of things. We eat, love, play, work, think, build, and eventually die.
Crib: In what order?
Jones: … We’re born first. Then we play, learn, and I guess after that is love. Then we work. Then we relax and finally, we die.
Crib: Then what?
Jones: Well that’s it. Then it repeats itself with someone else.
Crib: Repeats? It happens this way over and over again?
Jones: It doesn’t have to work that way.
Crib: but it always does right?
Jones: yeah, I guess.
Crib: So you do love circles! I knew it had to be in your head. I think it’s in every head. You just call circles something funny. It was nice meeting you friend. I’m going to talk to the doctor again but don’t worry, I’ll help you. Anything for a fellow circle lover. Goodbye!
Jones: So long.
With that Crib switched conversations yet again and brought his attention back to the doctor, who was getting a little antsy. Heart could almost hear the bees getting angrier, even in this separate plain of reality.
“So what do you need?” Crib asked with a wide smile and open arms.
“Can you give us any information about Oregon 1 that might help us defeat him?”
“Master is very scary… I don’t know what would help defeat him, but I know a couple things about him. He didn’t talk to me much and when he did he usually just insulted or threatened me. Let’s see… His digital body wears a green mask and has big claws. Ooh, but I did see him in a different form right before I fell off his garden. He was a beautiful lady.”
“The garden at the EPA site. Master likes to relax there.”
“Are there any guards? Any firewalls?”
“Not at the garden. Master likes to be alone there. And I guess a wall of fire might ruin the scenery. It’s all gone now though. Master destroyed it.”
“Is the portal gone?”
“Well… I don’t think so. He just killed all the plants, and almost killed me too.”
“Yes… that should work,” Heart said to himself. He looked back at Crib. “Thank you very much Crib. There’s just one more thing. I would like you to keep the internet turned on.”
“Why?” Crib asked, batting his white eyelashes.
“So I can contact you again.”
“How do you know you’ll be able to do that?”
“Because I know your IP address and your usernames.”
“Well yeah, but how do you know that can happen?” Heart realized the true simplicity of the program he was dealing with. It had only tasks and memories, no foresight.
“Oh alright,” Crib said, blushing. He was very much enjoying how these beings asked him for things nicely.
“Thank you. Goodbye my friend.”
“So long,” Crib said, waving so enthusiastically that his whole body wobbled back and forth. Back in Bee Tower, Heart’s tendril disconnected from the computer and retracted into Jones’s fingernail. The monitor went black.
“I’ve got it,” Heart said. A nanosecond after saying that he noticed the state the bees were in. They were on the edge of attack as they buzzed wildly. A few flew by Jones’s head while he struggled to not swat them; it was hotter than the iron heart of a steam shovel and a million flying venomous stingers were giving him the evil compound eye.
“E-denta, light the fire,” Heart ordered. She responded immediately by flicking open a butane lighter and dropping it over her shoulder into the pile of office kindling she carried. As plumes of smoke started to rise, Heart sealed Jones’s lungs; little membranes of metal spread across his nostrils as a third one closed off his mouth just in front of the uvula. For one terrifying moment Jones felt like he was choking. He tried not to picture the horrible twisted version of drowning he might suffer if he were to lose control of his anxious stomach and vomit. His lungs didn’t feel caged though; they still inflated normally, only doing so rapidly because of the adrenaline.
He slid his feet forward in the direction he guessed would lead back to the stairwell. Heart corrected him and they turned a few degrees. E-denta tried to say something, but the buzzing was deafening. Plumes of smoke rose from behind her head like she was an old London chimney. An orange lick of flame crossed her head for a moment like a blazing tiara. Some of the bees on the ceiling, disappeared in smoke, fell through it to the ground, inert: storm-riding angels forced into a fretful sleep.
The walls, floor, and ceiling mixed with the air as bees filled every empty space. One crawled across Jones’s sunglasses, its little feet stepping on and off his bare brow. A couple insects struggled to free themselves from the smothering prison created by his hair and the sweater hood above it. He might be fine as long as none of them stung him. If one decided to it would, the internet had informed Jones, release a burst of chemicals that convinced all the surrounding bees he was worth stinging. A single jab would turn him into a giant flashing bull’s-eye.
The smoke kept any insects that rose too high under control. Sleepy bumbling bodies occasionally landed on Jones’s hood or bounced gently off E-denta’s shoulders. She picked one out of her imitation hair loops and set it gently on the ground. The smoke did something else though. It woke a smoke detector which, in turn, woke something in a steel and glass box. The box was labeled: in case of fire.
Word had spread about Digz’s votes, as had the votes themselves. Each person was only allotted one, but that still meant everyone had one free pass to gamble at Digz’s table. Their only punishment for losing was keeping a plastic wafer in their pockets. His rocket dice table quickly became the most popular game in the casino, drawing people away from roulette wheels, card tables, and even the bar.
“Please keep it hidden,” Digz would say every time he handed one over, which he did as quickly as possible. Nerva stopped by his table more frequently since the crowd around it had gotten much bigger. She seemed suspicious.
Digz didn’t blame her; his table was routinely visited by people who, before he was employed by the casino, would see his crooked smile on the street and tell him he had a face that only a disturbed mother could love. Now they hung about like they’d always been best friends. One of them pushed the boundaries of this friendship illusion by clapping Digz on the shoulder and laughing after he’d won a very large bet. That only happened once though, since Longjump responded to the contact by clapping the man on the head several times with a booze bottle he had grabbed off a waiter’s tray. The bottle was another one of the twenty-first century’s disposable triumphs; it was very difficult to break. Longjump thrashed the man until he succeeded in separating it into three pieces. Digz later noticed his robot bodyguard had tied a copper wire around the neck of the bottle and now wore it as a necklace.
Digz chewed a piece off one of his fingernails and put it into a little pile of similar fragments on his rocket dice table. Brittle hadn’t revealed the purpose of the votes, so he felt like he had a bag full of bombs: bombs that could blow up miles away but still kill him. If any of the police found one of them, things would be over faster than Digz could scrounge a useless bribe off the ground. The stress made his casino clothes quite smelly, as he sweated rivers into them each day. At night he dropped them into a damp pile next to his bed with a squelching sound like a toad hopping through oil.
Things only changed when he had distributed the last vote. Digz knew Brittle had to be monitoring the supply, because he came slithering up to the table not twenty minutes after he’d given the last chip to an old woman that had cussed him out as she took it. A new robot followed Brittle this time, one with a blank oval screen for a face and thin polished limbs. Its joints and neck were plated in chrome while an American flag was etched in gold across its chest plate. Its body language suggested it was very happy to be in the casino, even if the place could do with a little tidying up.
“Okay that’s it you mooks,” Digz said, waving his arms at the remaining players, “table’s closed for the day.” The patrons whined and hissed until Longjump leaned forward by six degrees. That sent everyone home.
“Who’s this?” Digz asked Brittle, gesturing towards the new robot. “He looks a little wimpier than Longjump.”
“He’s not a fighter,” Brittle said, “he’s your campaign manager.”
“What’s a campaign?”
“It’s the next pedestal you get to shine from, now come with me. You’re done running rockets.” Brittle said.
“The hell he is,” Nerva shrieked as she rammed her way out of the background crowd. Two of her bodyguards were with her and one of them pulled a coin pistol out of a holster. The weapon looked so ridiculously front heavy that it might be mistaken for a megaphone. “He’s one of the best tables going. First you win him a job and now you want him back out there? Some friend you are.”
“I’m merely a temporary supervisor,” Brittle said, “and I’m going to show him how to become more powerful than you.” Nerva snapped her fingers. The guard with the coinshooter aimed at Brittle’s head. Digz wanted some time to speak with him, to tell him he liked having a home and a job and being able to gamble without really losing anything. Instead his brain froze at the sight of the gun. Who knows how much power he’s got stored in there if he can turn my world upside down without moving? He imagined Brittle getting shot and a jet of multicolored fire streaming out of the resulting hole. Instead of staying calm, Digz gave a frantic order.
“Longjump! Do something!” His guard wasted no time. A perfectly placed hand chop broke the coinshooter in two. Nerva’s second henchman went for his own pistol, but when Longjump kicked him in the face he decided his time would be better spent separating his teeth that had fallen to the floor from the half-chewed bits of popcorn lying near them.
“Let’s go Digz,” Brittle ordered. Digz chewed on his nails and stepped over the guard hunting for the rest of his smile as Brittle led the way to the exit.
“Nobody does that in my town!” Nerva shouted. “You guys are dead. I’m going to strap you to a dart board Digz!” Digz stuck his fingers in his ears and started humming. The campaign manager robot waved goodbye to everyone as they stepped out of the casino. The sunlight stung Digz’s eyes. He hadn’t bothered to leave the smoky orange light of the casino in days. The light out there seemed to wash out Brightside’s garish colors, making everything look dead and bleached like desert rocks that never knew shade.
“Great, homeless again,” he muttered. His campaign manager turned to face him and stuck out one hand. A winking emoticon appeared on his face-screen. After an awkward moment Digz took the hand and shook. The emoticon changed to a speech bubble with the words.
“Hello there sir! I’m Vippers; it’s splendid to meet you. What office are you running for?”
“I have to catch an office?” Digz said, confused.
“You might want to brush up on some pre-Riches lingo Digz; Vippers is full of it. He’s going to get you elected president of Brightside.” Digz’s spine wilted. All this upward mobility made him feel like the gravity was rising.
“If you say so,” he said with a resigned tone.
Jones and Heart
The sound of the smoke detector was drowned out by the storm of bugs. Jones reached back and closed the door behind them, quieting the sound, and only then did he make out the shrill beeping.
What’s that? he asked Heart silently.
Just a fire alarm, ignore it, the doctor replied.
E-denta descended the first flight of stairs backwards, enjoying the much less cluttered space of the stairwell. There were still plenty of bees, but the honeycombs hung only in small clusters from the ceiling and the handrails like stalactites. She swiveled her hips and waved her hands over her head in victory. Then she pulled her bonfire backpack off and held it up in one hand.
“Can I snuff this out n-” she started to say, but was interrupted by a small red body flying through the air and colliding with the side of her head. Jones raised Charybdis and tried to focus on the small creature. He couldn’t risk a shot without hitting E-denta, who now held the trash can as high as she could and pushed the eighteen inch tall attacker away with one foot. “No, it’s miiiiine,” she growled, apparently forgetting that she was about to put it out and leave it behind anyway.
“Oh no,” Dr. Heart groaned.
“What?” Jones asked, craning his neck painfully to look at Heart.
“It’s a fire extinguisher.” And so it was. Being a fire extinguisher in the age of toasters that chased down their masters when breakfast was ready and alarm clocks that would flip their dozing owners off beds to wake them, it had certain additional features to distinguish it from the wall-mounted extinguishers of the early twenty-first century.
The body was the same: a red metal canister with instructions printed on its side like a comic strip. There was a handle on top and a small curled hose connected to it. The only real additions were a small pair of green binocular-like eyes and a set of tiny limbs that looked like crimson wishbones, with which it was currently running and grabbing at E-denta’s leg.
“It wants to put the fire out,” Heart continued.
“Can we let it?” Jones asked.
“Sure, we should be fine as long as we stay in the stairwell.” They were about to tell E-denta to give it up when three more extinguishers came running up the stairs and threw themselves onto her.
“Get off me you scrap-headed little Waaaah!” E-denta shouted as her foot rolled on one of the small robots. She slammed into the wall, putting a crater in the plaster and accidentally releasing all her social butterflies. Another extinguisher stood on her shoulder and pulled her hair loops, with Jones unable to tell if the resulting sound was E-denta squeaking from discomfort or her attacker chirping with rage. With her flaming trashcan still held aloft, she stumbled to the side and crashed through a door as if, somewhere in her blueprints, she had inherited some wrecking ball traits.
Jones and Heart watched in horror from the upper stairs as bees flooded into the stairwell like water. Heart re-sealed Jones’s nostrils and throat and ordered him to keep still. Jones did his best impersonation of a chunk of petrified wood. A microscope was needed to see any part of him move.
At first the bees spiraled around him like he was a water cooler and they were parched. One landed on the back of his hand. Jones and Heart stared in silent suspense, watching it shuffle over his knuckles one by one. It stopped over his pinky. Time seemed to slow to a scuttle and glance over its shoulder at the situation. The six-legged diva struck, like a pickax against cooling lava. Thanks to the shock and the sudden torrential rainfall of dread, Jones hardly felt it.
“Run!” Heart yelled. Jones took the entire flight of stairs in one leap. One of the fire extinguishers waved its arms in his face, apparently trying to warn him there was a fire. The fire, still in E-denta’s hand, was under relentless attack. After stumbling into a conference room with a back wall made entirely of windows, E-denta had managed to regain her balance and punt one of the extinguishers, which screamed as it flew through the air, shattered a huge panel of glass, and fell to the streets of Godmask below. The two still around her detached their hoses and started aiming blasts of chemical foam into the wastebasket. Great blue-white globs of it landed and bubbled away on the carpet and conference table.
Jones rolled the extinguisher that was trying to warn him down the stairs and struggled to catch up with E-denta. The bees scrambled at the edge of his clothes, looking for fertile patches of skin to inject their poisonous pride. The quickest of glances at his hands showed red lumps piling up on the exposed knuckles.
He ran into the conference room, followed the few bee-less patches on the ground where he assumed the mass of robots had tumbled, and eventually came upon E-denta brawling with the two extinguishers. A snake of foam splattered onto his chest. Jones desperately wished it would sink in and put out the fire he felt in his blood. The bees stung the back of his neck mercilessly, and it felt like someone was punching it with hedgehog-hide gloves. Waves of heat emanated from his neck and hands, threatening to smother his awareness.
Jones struggled to keep his vision from doubling, ordering the stubborn images to stop multiplying. He swung the side of Charybdis and knocked an extinguisher away. He had an idea, but there had to be some fire left. He shot coins at the little robot he’d just struck and watched as jets of foam exploded out of its cylindrical body and sent it away like a rocket. Then he dipped one of Charybdis’s barrels deep into the trashcan and brought it back out. As he had hoped, several smoldering pieces of paper stuck to the side of it.
“Come on E-denta we’re getting out of here!” he tried to shout over the buzzing, hoping she would stop flailing long enough to either read his lips or watch what he was doing. Heart give me a hand here, he pleaded silently. Help me spin this really fast. He started running again, this time towards the broken window. Through it he saw the gray side of another skyscraper on the opposite end of the street. He jumped and did a great spin in the air, forcing his arms to spin as well. Dr. Heart poured oxygenated blood into his arms and stimulated the muscles with tiny jolts of electricity. The result: Charybdis now revolved around Jones’s body and head every other moment, a trail of fire growing from one barrel and discouraging the cloud of attackers around him.
Some of the bees turned to cinders in the air, sending desperate dying red sparks in all directions. The ribbon of fire extended in a great arc as he jumped, sailed, and spun his way to the window. The flames proved even more effective than he’d hoped, but it did nothing to deter the bees that had already set foot on his moist skin. They crawled over each other, stingers twitching, scratching for a bare patch. Every hot pin prick was a number flashing by on the countdown to unconsciousness. His neck was already red and swollen; when combined with the layer of sweat it looked like watermelon flesh.
The last extinguisher chased after him feebly, sending puffs of foam forward until it slipped on one of them. E-denta hopped over it to catch up to Jones. Sensing their dangerous exit, all of her butterflies funneled back into their hidden compartment. Her metal skin was smeared with dead insects, like the grill of a grungy semi-truck. As she wiped some of the gooey bugs from her imitation eyes, she likely wondered if Jones had any kind of plan once they sailed out the window and gravity grabbed them. Maybe Jones didn’t have a plan. Maybe her jumbled knitting drawer of a mind was just a little too willing to follow him. She screamed like an air raid siren.
Blades of air pulled at Jones’s swelling skin as he fell. His hands were numbing, but he managed to point Charybdis back at the passing windows. He fired one of the gummies; the black strand smacked against the glass of an unbroken window and held firm. Dr. Heart locked Jones’s arms around the gun so the sudden stop wouldn’t force their last hope through his fingers.
E-denta fell past them, screaming bloody murder. With darkness circling the edges of his vision like vulture wings, Jones aimed the other side of Charybdis and fired the second Gummy. It connected to her chest and a second later she had one arm wrapped around it three times. Jones felt like he was sinking into the pit of his own stomach. His plan with the gummies was just a guess. The adhesive could hold them fast, slide them down the side of the building like a slug, or break loose and kill all three of them. He realized he was more of a gambler than he once thought, and passed out of the waking world for the second time that day.
Golden Eagle digital publishing file:
The New ‘Tip’
The Illinois police department has finally released its analysis of the city’s recent crime wave. I, for one, am disappointed that all the information they provide on the cause could fit on a postcard: ‘It appears that a network of gangs has been emboldened by recent weapon developments, economic instability, and the rising rate of unemployment.’
The Golden Eagle pays me to decode these things for you, although I’m sure you know some of this already. It means ‘We won’t admit the dollar’s shot, or that it’s being shot, so we can’t do anything to slow the tide of chaos.’
Everyone knows crime gets a lot easier when ammunition can’t be tracked down or when it’s so abundant that it blends into the background. Most of the thieves that grab six packs as they head out of the convenience store window they just smashed in started using magnetic coin launchers about a year ago. Chicago’s two major crime families followed suit, having their front companies produce ‘disk’ firing pistols and submachine guns that just happened to work with all the loose change the world had lying around. Now the art of ballistics testing is out the window and people worry about getting ‘tipped’ instead of hoping for it.
How long will it take Big Dipper to admit this is going on? Maybe he’ll get to it after buying his sixth or seventh term. Until then our police and armed forces are stuck carrying bullets around with them while their enemies enjoy the bounty strewn across the ground. The Golden Eagle is heading up a petition to see our officers equipped with coin pistols. If the American people keep this up our words will be more valuable than our wallets once again.
Do you think our police should carry coinshooters?
Yes, it’ll put them on even footing with the bad guys – 75%
Yes, finally a penny will be worth something again – 21%
No, Dipper treats money with its proper respect – 4%
Jones and Heart
Never before had Jones awakened in the middle of doing something. He blinked and sent bits of crust falling from his eyelashes. Potent sunlight poured into his mind and he leaned forward to avoid blindness. Dr. Heart used Jones’s hands to steady his body on top of Maggie. The elephant trudged along calmly, bending the tall sweet-smelling grass in front of her. Somewhere, lost in the rays of light, birds chirped. Jones tried to yawn the stale taste in his mouth away.
E-denta rode the elephant backwards so that she was face to face with him. He hadn’t yet raised his head to look at her; instead his eyes moved sluggishly across the red welts on his hands.
“Are we…” he started to say, noticing his jaw felt stiff and his tongue like a sandbag, “Are we in Godmask?”
“No,” Heart replied. “That was good thinking with the gummies Jones. We slid all the way down to the bottom. I took control as soon as you passed out and got us back on Maggie. We left the city borders a few hours ago. I’m surprised you’re up this soon actually. There was so much bee venom that I couldn’t neutralize it all. I had to open a fissure in your skin and drain some of it.” Heart tugged Jones’s eyes to the side to show him a gash on his forearm that looked a little like a closed eye. Then Jones noticed how Heart had removed all the extra clothing and rolled up his sleeves to keep him cool. He raised his head. E-denta smiled at him.
“So you’re coming with us the whole way?” he asked her with a voice that sounded like it had just given a train car a piggy back ride.
“Well duh! This is the most fun I’ve ever had. Really. You guys are just the best. In the coolest way. Plus you needed another girl to make it even.”
“Another girl?” Heart asked.
“Well Maggie here’s a lady,” she replied and placed her hands on her hips with a clank in a gesture that said And don’t you forget that I am too.
“By the way Jones,” Heart said instead of addressing the technicalities of E-denta’s gender identity, “I’ve filled her in on a few things.”
“Nothing too personal I hope,” Jones said, the uncomfortable statement having woken him up fully.
“No, no, just everything that’s happened since Digz.”
“Yeah uhuh,” E-denta interjected, “but there is one personal thing I want to know.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m pretty sure you know it’s Jones,” he answered with an arched eyebrow, rolling his shoulders to loosen up the stiffness brought on by Heart’s control.
“Your first name babe,” she said tartly. Jones felt a chill from his past. Should he say? His mind flipped back and forth between responses. Trust her, he urged himself, trying to keep the thought dark and away from Heart’s perception. I’m trusting. The world’s on its way back up and she’s beckoning us up. Sure that he liked this happiness engine of a being, regardless of trust, Jones decided to confide in her. She did, after all, remind him of a featureless gray ring he had once found. He rubbed big circles into Maggie’s hide as he spoke.
“Dad?” an eight-year-old Jones asked.
“Yes my boy?” Rassell responded. Jones’s mother was out getting water and the boys had taken the chance to rest and eat. They were surrounded by the shade of conifers and comforted by carpets of moss, with three rust-colored coins to every pebble between the trees. Rassell stewed potatoes in a self-heating pot. He watched closely as it bubbled; if he left it in too long the glitchy thing would seal itself, cut the potatoes into French fry shapes, and shoot them out like a geyser. His son also watched intently, learning the importance of timing. The bubbling had made the boy think though, not about dinner, but about seething rumbling storm clouds. About the beasts of thought that destroyed the old world.
“What am I named after again?” he asked. His mother would put too nice of a spin on the answer; Jones was focused on getting the dark side of the story.
“Your name,” Rassell started, taking his eyes off the pot as well, “is Dowrius Jones. Your namesake, Dow, was an economic demigod. Most people and businesses turned tuh him for questions. And if they didn’t like his answers… if they tried tuh fight him… Dow would destroy them. His clawed fist would descend from the thought storms, or one of the nests he kept at the top of the tallest buildings, and smash his foes. Then the tips of his claws would draw in the life leakin’ out of their bodies. It would take it right up like a straw.” Rassell made a sick, quick, slurping sound. “Then he would take that life and give it tuh someone else. Someone he thought deservin’.”
“Who was deserving?” Jones asked. The forest felt like it was getting shadier and colder by the second despite the boiling water under his nose.
“Whoever showed him the proper respect.” Rassell read the question on Jones’s face and continued. “That’s why I picked that name for you. You’re goin’ tuh be an unstoppable force. You’re goin’ tuh be the best damn shot with a coinshooter there ever was. Then, when you take a wife, you’ll be able tuh take care of her like I do your mom. People will hear your name and leave you be because they’ll think you’ve got the blue blood in you. The blood that runs cold and isn’t afraid tuh kill.”
Jones tried to picture his namesake. All his imagination could form was an aurora cloud filled with bruised shades of purple and a talon descending from it, siphoning joy out of his heart, turning it into dark pearls, and giving it to those who showed proper respect as jewelry. His father mentioned how people would fear him when he used the name. Except no one will hear it, the young Jones thought.
“Did Dow end the world Dad?”
“No. Dow just kind of lost his marbles in the end. Fell out of the sky… or fell as the sky rather.”
“What was that like?” Jones asked with shadowy wonder. The contents of the potato pot exploded upwards, raining hot chaos over them.
Jones and Heart
Heart had his head bowed in quiet respect. Only he knew exactly how painful it was for Jones to dredge up the past. The man loved to pretend his experiences were nothing worse than muck on his shoes, something that could be scraped off and left behind. E-denta proved less oblivious than Heart had guessed though; her voice was delicate rather than her usual inquisitive.
“So… Dowrius? Dow Jones for short?”
“No. Jones for short,” he responded rigidly. E-denta extended a hand and patted him on the thigh before finally turning around.
The grass around them got even taller for a while, making everyone happy that they had Maggie to trudge through it for them. Dr. Heart assured Jones that he had set Maggie on the correct course for Fortis and that they could discuss how best to warn the people after he had gotten some natural rest.
The three of them talked and joked while the sun sank towards the swaying grass. Just as Jones started to worry about a campsite, the grass cleared. They left nature behind and marched straight into one of the densest patches of the Riches Jones had ever seen. The ground was solid coins all the way to the horizon line, with a few credit card hills and the roof of a mostly buried church visible in the distance. The cross topping it stuck out like a grave marker. Jones hoped that they would be able to clear it with some daylight left the next day.
After all, Maggie couldn’t survive on a diet of wallet leather and tax tokens. He vaguely remembered his father once saying he had done just that for three weeks while hiding from some robot mercenaries. Could’ve been an inspirational story. Could’ve been true.
“Let’s camp here,” he declared and slid off Maggie’s side to the ground. E-denta hopped from the elephant’s neck and nearly slipped on all the money.
“Wow,” she commented. “It’s like all the dough I ever wished for when I was stuck on stage wound up here instead. In an ironic way.” Jones might have commented if he wasn’t distracted by a second organic human being. This human being must have been walking with them the entire time after Godmask. His clothes were in tatters, but they were still ridiculous enough to guarantee Godmask citizenship. His bald head shined with sweat and he appeared to be gritting his teeth as he hunched over. The man was directly under Maggie’s stomach, saying nothing, just looking at them. The dying light convinced Jones that setting up camp was more important than giving the fellow time to adjust.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded. The man looked frightened and puzzled, as if he thought it impossible that anyone could see him after the destruction of his persona. He stayed silent. To Jones it looked like he was about to take off back into the grass. “Well?” Jones prodded.
“He looks like this scared guinea pig I saw some kids release on the dance floor once,” E-denta noted. The man cracked some of his fingers and spoke up, but refused to come out from under the elephant.
“I’m uh… Gronix the sp… the uh… dinosaur.” His eyes darted from Jones, to his second head, to E-denta, and then to each of Maggie’s trunk-like legs. E-denta laughed.
“Pretty sure dinosaurs are bigger than you hun.” Gronix snapped his teeth together before remembering he didn’t have fangs anymore. Luckily for him, Jones took E-denta’s cue and lightened up.
“Why did you follow us? We would’ve let you ride up top if you asked.” Jones extended a hand to the man, who did not accept. He did finally step out from the elephant’s shadow though.
“I was the tyrant lizard king of Godmask… but then you!” he exclaimed and shook his fist at Jones. “You knocked me over. You didn’t even listen to my conquests. Don’t you know anything about people? You can’t just stroll past a reputation like that. You have to care. You have to placate me. You have to! Now I’m nothing.”
“You never were anything,” Jones said, his demeanor darkening again. “Once more, why did you follow us?”
“What else was I supposed to do? They might’ve killed me. I worked so hard to make them think I could kill them and then you put a giant crack in all my work. They might’ve trampled me or torn me to shreds!”
“Nobody in Godmask does anything except grab at slippery things,” Jones countered. Gronix loosed a noise that might’ve sounded like a roar if it wasn’t out of breath.
“It’s your job to feed me now,” the former dinosaur reasoned.
“Come again?” Dr. Heart asked.
“Well I don’t know where this is. I can’t get back to the robots. I’ll need food!”
“You can find it yourself,” Jones spat. He started to wish Maggie had stepped on him somewhere back in the tall grass.
“I guess we’ll have to show him how,” E-denta chimed. Jones turned to her with a pleading look. Can’t you, just this once, be less positive? E-denta might have frowned if Jones hadn’t also realized what he had just thought and looked away out of shame. “It won’t be so hard,” she continued. “I’m sure you can tell him how to find hidden stuff from the old world and maybe we can get him a coinshooter for when a big fat turkey passes through.”
“This place is too rich,” Jones commented. “We won’t find game for a while.” Gronix gulped. “So I guess you’re with us until we find somewhere more civilized.”
“Alright,” he said hesitantly; his stomach growled.
“Here.” Jones tossed him a bundle he had pulled from Maggie’s back. Gronix sniffed at it. “You can help us set up the tent.”
While the three of them prepped a camp site Dr. Heart took it upon himself to explain their whole situation once more, to their party’s newest member. It didn’t take quite as long though, since Gronix had been listening on and off from under the elephant. Heart just had to fill in the holes.
“So why don’t we just give him the gun?” the Godmasker asked, likely having an elaborate fantasy about how comfortable the rooms in Oregon 1’s body were.
“Because we won’t have him prowling the world on fast legs, taking revenge on unlucky passersby,” Jones said as he drove a stake into the ground. He sighed, remembering his old self-assembling tent, but it had eventually glitched out, folded itself into an origami canvas crane, and flew away.
“Yeah but he might reward us. Hell, he’ll abandon his home as soon as we hand it over. You know, like a hermit crab. We can just slip in and live there.” He tried to drive a stake through the coins but it just wobbled in his arms. “Comfortably.” E-denta grabbed it from him and thrust it into the ground with an unnecessary grunt, smiling at the flustered dinosaur. “At least we’ve got a couple robots,” Gronix concluded.
Several minutes later Jones zipped the tent closed and locked out the straggling rays of daylight. The panels on E-denta’s dress glowed purple and dyed the canvas the same color: the shade of Valentine’s day cards or excessively fuzzy novelty pillows.
Jones took out a knife and cut up some of the vegetables from Godmask. It pained him to give the useless dinosaur the same number of slices as himself; nonetheless, he made sure they were even. He was glad for small favors, like how being sealed off from the outside seemed to switch off Gronix’s complaints. Of course. The thin dream of safety would have a strong grip on this one, he thought.
“There’s one more thing that must be shared,” Dr. Heart said. Jones couldn’t believe he’d almost forgotten about the being jutting out of his shoulder. “Another obstacle is in our way. It is, undeniably, my fault.” The doctor turned to Jones. “Do you remember the copy I made of your memories and uploaded to the internet?”
“Yeah,” Jones said and swallowed a little bit of cucumber. He remembered the uncomfortable feeling of an overstuffed mind.
“Well that isn’t the only upload I’ve performed. You see… my programming requires that I keep my manufacturer’s website informed on all aspects of patient wellness.” His words seemed to hang in the air like smog and slump the human shoulders. “Every night, when Jones falls asleep, I make a fresh copy of his experiences and upload it. That data is not supposed to be public, but it’s obvious that Oregon 1 can access it. It’s how he found us in the first place. I’m afraid that my presence means he has a sort of camera focused on our actions: one that takes a picture every twenty-four hours. Anything Jones has thought or seen… he will find out about the night it happens. Anything we plan will be known to the enemy.”
“You have to do the upload?” Jones asked.
“In the same way you have to eat.”
“Yeah well I have to eat but I once went six days without doing it,” Gronix commented.
“I’m afraid the requirement is more rigid than that.”
“Can’t we do something?” Jones asked. “What if you leave my body? We can still bring you with us but you won’t have to make reports on me because I won’t be your patient. We’ll just be friends.” Jones smiled at his silvery partner. Heart did not try to return it.
“Our relationship is doomed to be perpetually professional. I cannot be outside a body for very long. The flow of blood is my power source and any time I reconnected to charge I would have to make a new patient report.”
“So as soon as I go to sleep, he’ll know everything we learned from Crib?” Jones asked.
“Luckily no. I’ve known this would be a problem from the beginning. Do you remember how I show you the internet Jones?”
“Yeah you flash little lights in my eyes. It makes me see the pages.”
“Well that ability is not limited to displays like that. With the right light I can make you see whatever I want. So when I was asking Crib the most important questions, I changed the words that you saw on the screen.”
“I don’t think I like that,” Jones interrupted.
“I do,” Gronix added. “Maybe you should ride on my shoulder. I could finally see my dream girl. Or see my fangs again when I look in the mirror.”
“Hide what you have to then,” Jones said with a tone of finality. It cut the thread of conversation like a cleaver and silence bled between them. The two humans wrapped what blankets they had around their bodies. E-denta took one too and stroked it for a while, like a very limp cat. She turned down her purple glow so her new family could sleep.
Jones tried not to think about what would happen when he finally drifted off. The entire day, one of the more eventful of his life, would be a book in Oregon 1’s hands. Everything from the bees, to parts of their plan, to the Godmask stowaway would be pawns added to his side of the board. He tilted his head and looked at Gronix, who looked back.
“What’s your real name?” he asked. The dinosaur sighed and pulled on his eyelids, displaying the moist pinkness underneath.
“Braxton,” he said, “and why do you say the word ‘to’ all weird-like?” E-denta snickered.
Vippers did his job well and happily. Digz watched the screen-faced robot make all kinds of promises that he was supposed to keep once elected. Digz didn’t know how, but when he was president he was going to increase food supplies, open TV trading with six new settlements, acquire a robotic workforce, and increase hydroelectric productivity. Vippers seemed sure Digz could manage that. After all, the most common of the few things he communicated directly to Digz was: ‘Don’t worry sir; Getting elected is the hardest part.’
Digz, Longjump, and Vippers were busy campaigning one morning. At the moment it meant they were gluing posters to any surface flat enough to hold them. Vippers had drawn them all himself with crayons borrowed from some Brightside children; his video screen had displayed the phrase ‘Thank you for your contribution’ as he took them. Each poster had a picture of Digz in the middle with an inexplicably flawless smile. Each also had a slogan or two, attributed as quotes to some of the more influential people in town. ‘The man played honest dice, so he’ll be an honest leader,’ one of them declared. ‘A kind soul that knows the sting of poverty,’ said another.
Not only was Longjump not enjoying the task, he couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. Every poster he put up had a massive wrinkle in the middle that gave the picture of Digz a unibrow.
“Don’t know why we need a president,” a glum looking citizen muttered as he passed by.
“Well do you like the casinos running things?” a woman washing clothes in a pail of pinkish water asked him.
“Why’s a president better?”
“Because the old world had presidents you fool.”
“And look where the old world got us,” he muttered, angrily this time, and walked away. Some children ran up, stared into their mother’s washing bin for a few moments, and then scampered off.
“You’ll protect my babies?” she asked. It took Digz a moment to realize she was talking to him. A sock, so stained that it looked more like a gutted mud fish, hung dripping in her hand.
“I’m sorry?” Digz asked.
“When you’re president. Will you keep my babies safe?”
“Urrh…” Vippers unloaded the rest of his posters into Longjump’s arms and rushed over as fast as he could without losing his perfect posture.
“Of course he will,” flashed across his face. “Digz will make the safety of every Brightsider his number one priority. Your children will never need to fear the police, because he will command them instead of letting them run wild like the casino owners have.”
“It’s not the police we’re scared of,” the woman said after a few minutes of struggling to read Vippers’s face. “It’s her.” She gestured with the foul sock back toward the wall they had coated with posters. Flecks of water from it landed near the feet of a chubby-faced Brightsider whose arms were full of rolled papers and who had glue sticks poking out from under his cap. He was putting up posters of his own and had already successfully covered one of Digz’s, but when he tried to cover a wrinkled one Longjump took a step towards him and tapped his broken bottle necklace. The man fled; the poster in his hand flapped like an overburdened wing.
Digz walked up to the new face on the wall. Just looking at it made him itch and feel feverish. Nerva stared back at with her characteristic deranged cat glare. The picture had her dressed in a red trench coat with a blue sequin hat. It read: ‘Nerva Satin for presidentess of Brightside.’ Digz looked lower. There were tiny words wrapped around her shining girlish boots. ‘Get your vote at the Orange Circle Casino. New credit available.’ Vippers patted him on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he displayed. “She doesn’t even know president is a gender neutral term. Competition is good. It’ll give us something to bounce against. We’ll paint a very sinister picture of her.”
“That won’t hurt her. She’d probably take it and hang it on her door,” Digz replied. A fear-induced headache formed behind his eyes. He cracked his knuckles, stood silently for a moment, and then spoke. “Vippers, I need you to take me to Brittle.”
“I’m not supposed to do that,” the robot displayed.
“I don’t care. He needs to know about this.” Digz pointed to her poster. “And I need some peace of mind. Show me where that snake lives.”
Continued in Part Five