I don’t remember being a citizen, but when I was growing up, it was all my father ever talked about. ‘Back in the valley,’ he would say, and point to the acrylic mural that took up most of the wall by the front door. It looked nothing like a valley. It was a jumble of angles and curves, oddly pixellated like most of my mother’s art. I don’t remember much of my mother either, but there are bits and pieces of her all over the apartment, plotted out in meticulous detail on nearly every flat surface.
Of course, my father wanted me to go into something with computers. He still does. “Dennou,” he says, when I meet him for coffee, “when are you going to give up that mess and buy yourself a datafeed?”
“I have a datafeed, dad.”
Actually, I have six. Only one has been turned on, and I use it as a lamp in the hallway. Across from me, my father began listing the merits of computer operation, chuckling and gesturing like he was describing a woman he wanted to set me up with. I smiled and nodded a few times, but we both knew nothing would come of it.
It’s not that I don’t know how to use a computer. I grew up around them, after all. I used to type eighty words per minute, but I haven’t tried in months. My father has never been away from a datafeed for longer than a day, except for the horrible, horrible night he spent in an airport after his wallet was stolen. I still hear that story, sometimes. You’d think he was kidnapped by terrorists.
Normal parents encourage their kids to get married, settle down, spit out a couple kids; my dad just wants me to hack. I haven’t decided if I’m lucky. We meet at the teahouse every Tuesday, and he rants about my career choice for a bit before giving me the manila envelope of stolen blueprints and security codes. Then I pay, or he pays, and we part.
Today, I pick up the tab. Money’s been good this week. He asks me if I need any cash, as usual, and I tell him no, as usual. I don’t know where he gets his money, since he seems oddly isolated from the crime circles of the island. I had to describe the runner code using networking references, and I still don’t think he gets why, because I’ve agreed to work with my partner, I couldn’t stop working even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I suppose, in the valley, they didn’t have honor among thieves.
“So you’ll think about it?”
“I’ll think about it,” I lie.
“You’re getting old to be playing Robin Hood,” he warns, his tone shifting to the serious. This is a deviation from the script, and I adjust my posture to hide the usual slump.
“I’ve got it under control.”
“Ah, you can’t control age, Dennou.” He’s called me that since I was six, when, on a sadistic whim, he convinced me that I was a robot.
Outside of the teahouse, I pull a cigarette from my pack and shield my lighter from the fierce January wind. “I downloaded the patch for that,” I joke, and he fakes a grimace.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
“I don’t need your money, Dad.” I open my bookbag against the wall and slide the envelope between two notebooks of securifeed schematics while I held the cigarette in my teeth. “Do you want money for the files?”
“From my own son? Never. I give you those to keep you alive.” He grins, but he knows it’s true.
“Same time next week,” I say as I sling the bag over my shoulder.
“Take care of yourself, Dennou,” he warns. I make a face before turning my attention to the sidewalk.
This is it, lads. Weâ€™ve done it. The future of dating is now.
Forget all those phony hookup services, the holodates, the matchmakers. Weâ€™ve discovered what your problem was all along. You donâ€™t need to find the right girl, mate. Not anymore. Thatâ€™s a thing of the past. You need to find the right you.
Itâ€™s taken decades of surveys and analyses and precision research, but we have finally figured out that mystical ideal: what girls like. Brace yourselves, gents. This oneâ€™s a doozy.
Girls like assholes.
I know youâ€™ve heard this one before, and it didnâ€™t work, did it mate? Well, thatâ€™s because you didnâ€™t understand it the right way. Sure, we all know nice guys finish last, but assholes tend to get left in the end, tooâ€”unless theyâ€™re just the right kind of assholes.
Now, I wonâ€™t deceive you blokes. This ainâ€™t easy. You canâ€™t be an all-out fucker and expect a girl to like you. There is a certain type, a certain formula: the thing all women secretly want. They want just enough asshole to keep their lives exciting, to make â€˜em think theyâ€™ve got work to do, but not enough douchebag to bugger off with some other chick in a shorter skirt.
Being an asshole takes care and talent. You need just enough cruelty to make â€˜em hurt, and just enough kindness to make â€˜em simper at you afterwards. You need to play the game, boys. Itâ€™s all in the game.
So how do you do it? Ay, thereâ€™s the rub. Let me tell it to you straight: if you donâ€™t already know it on your own, youâ€™re never gonna. Itâ€™s just that simple. What you need, my friends, is some way to know when enough is enough and when itâ€™s not. What you need is this little miracle.
See it? Barely visible to the naked eye, but with more computing power than your entire cubicle. This little guy takes information directly from your brainwaves and figures out just how you should react. Itâ€™s like having that proverbial angel on your shoulderâ€”or devil, boys, take your pickâ€”to tell you just what to do. Doesnâ€™t even need surgery.
Youâ€™ll have just the right formula, just the right mix: enough asshole to make a girl feel needed and enough humanity to convince her sheâ€™s done her job. And if youâ€™ve got the unfortunate habit of being a nice guy at heart? All the better. You can go back to your goody-two-shoes ways once the prize is won. All you have to do is take the miracle bug out of your ear and hide it away. Itâ€™s that simple.
But youâ€™ve got to start somewhere, gents. Youâ€™ve got to start somewhere. Now, I know the trick. I can show you the way.
But itâ€™s gonna cost you.
Autumn was ending the day the man who carried no name wandered into the village of Plum Rose. Nearly bent double by the pack upon his back, the stranger nevertheless moved with a fluidity and grace that immediately drew attention in the dusty township. Children watched from hidden places and whispered, “Ronin” to each other, and if the same thought crossed the minds of the adults, they held their tongues.
Indeed, it was not until the man unloaded his burden that the adults allowed themselves to speak the word their children used without reservation.
The first thing the man removed from his bundle was this: a small box of lacquered wood and paper that his deft hands unfolded into a waist-high table. Also brought out was a second box, larger that the first, and made of metal. It proudly displayed a funnel once unfolded, as well as a revolving bottom and a hand-crank that needed to be attached separately. A third box was carefully manipulated by the man’s rough hands, and once unfolded it also required nozzles and pipes to be screwed in. Though the burlap sack the man had carried upon his back was still filled to bursting, he did not pull any other wonder out of it. Instead, he merely displayed it’s contents to townsfolk who had gathered.
Within the dusty burlap, in their pristine, pale green glory, laid a prize worth more than gold, more than silver. For when the man who carried no name had come to the town known as Plum Rose, he brought with him coffee beans.
He called for fire, and it was brought to him. He called for water, and this element too was collected and laid in front of him. The village of Plum Rose was not a wealthy one, a villager could find himself enjoying and perhaps even preferring the synthetic meat and beer that made up his diet. But coffee was more than the stacked molecules that made it, and as such, synthetic coffee was tolerated, but never enjoyed. Only the Magistrate enjoyed coffee, his imported beans and personal barista bought with the broken backs of the villagers.
This much was told to the man who carried no name, and more, as the boiler he had unfolded reached it’s full heat and potentency and the roaster turned the green beans that tumbled down its funnel black and aromatic. Cup after cup was poured for the villagers, and so fragrant was this ronin barista’s brew that the smell even wafted to the nose of the Magistrate.
Perhaps the man who carried no name knew of this, perhaps he had counted on it. Only such could explain the slow smile that crawled across his visage as the corpulent Magistrate and his similarly begirthed barista plowed down the street toward him.
“There are worlds,” the ronin said. “Worlds far out in the edge of the sky, whose distance from the Earth curses them. They receive no beans from the home world, so distant are they, so far, and their lives are that much darker. Every night I write a prayer for them, and burn it with my best beans in the hope that the aroma will reach them.”
“You dishonor me, sir,” the barista said, after being forcibly prodded by the Magistrate. “Tell me your name so I may know who would have the disrespect to brew about my proximity without so much as ‘a by your leave?’ I do not wish to battle you, sir. But I feel my honor demands it.”
“Would that your honor was as demanding as your belly,” the ronin said. “Then perhaps I would have not needed to provide these poor souls with my paltry beans’ embrace. All barista are taught from birth that coffee is a drink of the people, yet you would bar the door and toss them the molded grounds! My name, like respect for you, it is not something I can carry. My pack is weighty enough. But battle I can provide in abundance.”
And so then, on the dirty streets of Plum Rose, did two masters do battle. Their ritual, their art taking all of their focus. The village found itself drowning in the swift hand motions of the two men, engaging in rites that had remained unscathed by the progress of time. And when it was over, every body held its breath as each man tasted the brew-work of the other.
The Magistrate’s barista drank deep. Upon tasting the dark, sharp beauty the ronin had provided him, he hung his head. The ronin bowed to his fellow barista and thanked him for the exquisite coffee. The Magistrate’s barista bowed lower, thanked the ronin, and proclaimed him the winner.
The Magistrate was enraged. He charged at the barista, drawing forth his pistol of flame and thunder. He never received his chance to fire it. The barista laid him flat with an expertly-aimed demitasse spoon right between the eyes.
“You have already disgraced your ancestors. Do not disgrace your progeny as well,” the ronin said, kicking the Magistrate’s pistol across the dust. “Any worth you might have claimed though this man is gone. You are now merely a man with more money than sense, and those are as the sand on the beach. These people owe you nothing. ”
That evening and well into the night, the coffee flowed freely to the townspeople, who engaged in revelry unlike the town of Plum Rose had ever seen. Such revelry was this that no one noticed the man who carried no name fold up his table, roaster and brew station. No one noticed him leave, the sunset turning his silhouette as dark and rich as the drink he gave.
But his presence in Plum Rose is not forgotten. Even now, carved deep into the wood underneath the sign that proclaims the village’s name, is written this:
Before the ronin came
Did we ever know the world
Or its bitter kiss?
â€œWeâ€™ve got a jumper.â€ Pratt was one of those orderly, wiry men who pleased supervisors without ever accomplishing much of value. Detective Harr lit his cigarette and enjoyed the growing scowl on Pratts face. Cigarettes were quite illegal in hospitals, but no one questioned a damned thing anyone in his department did.
â€œSuspected jumper.â€ Detective Harr pointed toward the one way mirror where a little girl was playing on the floor.â€œHow did she get picked up?â€
â€œChild abuse. She dropped some pretty heavy hints to school officals, teachers, aids and the like, but no one took direct action until she marched right into the Principals office and started demanding police interventionâ€
â€œThis is unusual behavior?â€
Pratt raised an eyebrow. â€œAbused children donâ€™t usually march right up to their principals and demand that their fathers be arrested.â€
Harr shrugged. â€œA feisty child then.â€
â€œYeah, a feisty child who poisioned her fathers cereal before school. They had to pump his stomach, he nearly died. We didnâ€™t suspect it was her till the police went to pick him up and found him at the hospital.â€
â€œWeâ€™re sure there was abuse?â€ Pratt handed him a file.
â€œRead the medical reports yourself. There was tearing of the vaginal wall, and â€“â€œ Decetive Harr waved his hand, cutting Pratt off.
â€œI can read it.â€ He stuffed the report in his briefcase and stared though the one way mirror where Jenny was playing under the supervision of a nurse. She knelt on the floor studying the bottom of a toy truck. Jenny put the truck on the carpet and began rolling it around, all the time looking at the nurse and smiling.
The nurse fussed a bit when Detective Harr told her to leave, but flashing his badge and smile earned him some alone time with Jenny. He sat on the couch where the nurse had been sitting, the broad bright smiles of the playroom mural made him feel lewd and out of place.
â€œHi Jen. Do you know who I am?â€ She didnâ€™t look at him, just continued to roll her truck around on the carpet.
â€œAre you a doctor?â€
Harr chuckled â€œNo Jen, Iâ€™m a police officer.â€
Jenny looked up at him though her soft bangs. â€œMy name is Jenny.â€
He leaned over towards her and smiled, big and fake. â€œJenny is a little girl name, isnâ€™t it?â€ Jenny rolled the fire engine around on the floor.
â€œDid you ever hear the story about the fairy and the housewife?â€ asked Detective Harr.
Jenny kept her eyes on the engine. â€œNope.â€
â€œWell, it goes like this. Once upon a time there was a housewife who had a beautiful new baby. Her baby was so pretty that the fairies wanted it, so in the dead of night, they snatched the baby from itâ€™s cradle. Of course, they couldnâ€™t just take the baby and leave nothing in itâ€™s place, so they left an mischevious spirit that made himself look like a the housewifes beautiful baby. When the housewife picked up her child in the morning, she knew that something was wrong, so she picked up the spirit and smashed its head with a cold iron frying pan until the fairy promised to bring back her baby safe and sound.â€
Jenny paused and her chubby hands pulled at the carpet. â€œThat doesnâ€™t sound very nice.â€ she said.
â€œItâ€™s not. Tricking people isnâ€™t nice.â€
Jenny stood up and lifted her arms in the air. â€œDo you like my dress? Green is my favorite color.â€
â€œCan we cut the crap Jen?â€ Jenny lowered her arms.
â€œI mean it. Cut the crap. Youâ€™re a jumper. You are accused of the transposition of consciousness onto an earlier time period.â€ Harr laid her open file on the ground and Jenny glanced at the papers, clenching her little chubby hands.
â€œYou know what he did, the sickness he gave me. You know I will be on treatments for the rest of my life.â€
â€œJen, the punishment for transposition is removal. Your consciousness will be dispersed.â€ He tried to keep his voice from cracking. Jenny knelt next to her records and picked out an x-ray of her pelvis.
â€œWhat about this body, youâ€™ll let this body rot without a consciousness?â€
â€œThere is a little girl in there-”
â€œWe are fully integrated!â€
â€œThere are methods. Sometimes we can pick little bits of person out.â€
â€œWhy did you transport yourself back after the first abuse? You must have known you would catch it from him, you knew about the illness.â€
â€œMy husband.â€ said the little girl, her soft voice chiming. â€œThree days ago, my husband went to the fair with his big brother. Itâ€™s his happiest childhood memory. He deserves that day.â€ Her cheeks flushed red and tiny adult tears ran over her smooth face.
Detective Harr wanted to reach out to her, the instinct to comfort a tiny child rising in his ribs. After a while he stood and took her hand, leading her out the door and down the bifurcated timeline.
They wait for him. They deny it, but they do. They sit with their alcohol and they wait for the man called Ironwine to walk in and regale them with tales of his latest adventures. Ironwine, who they say hears the buzz and modulation of the galaxy. Ironwine, who they say feels the stars and crackle and is aware of the turn of every planet he lands on. Ironwine, the man for whom the universe waits for.
For when he arrives, he makes it worth the wait.
â€Naoki Anzai had bioluminescent tears embedded into the flesh of her cheek and down her neck. â€˜One for every year Rajeevâ€™s away,â€™ she said. â€˜One for every year heâ€™s away.â€™ I could see the light from the glowing trail peek out of her collar and bleed through her blouse.â€
â€œA year isn’t that long on Kesh, is it?â€
â€œAre you telling this story? Because if youâ€™re telling it, Iâ€™ll shut up and let you tell it. I can wait.â€
â€œNo, no, continue, Ironwine. Weâ€™re all anxious to hear.â€
â€Very well. Naoki said she had asked for my help because she heard I got things doneâ€”I heard that snortâ€”that I got things done. She gave me a holographic image of Rajeev, and asked me to find him. She said that my legend spoke of amazing deeds and grand adventures, and that she knew I could do it.â€
â€œYou sure she had the right man?â€
â€œIndeed, you may say that. I thought she had the wrong my own self. But I smiled politely and suggested she not put so much faith in legends.â€
â€œWaste aâ€™time. Blokeâ€™s prolly dead.â€
â€œI brought that up, but Naoki shook her head, and showed me the slowly blinking light on the inside of her right wrist: Rajeevâ€™s pulse.
â€œOn Kesh, the trail was brief. I managed to cheat better than a couple of slave traders at game of brocco, and won the last hand right when my own freedomâ€”and, more importantly, my wardrobe!–was in the pot. The slave traders, naked and shivering the harsh Kesh rain, were so polite about where to look next that I gave them back their clothes.â€
â€œWhy would you keep their clothes?â€
â€œSpite, mainly. They were going to keep mine.
â€œAs you gentlemen know, Rimjar is not so much a world as it is a way station for people who liked to be kept under the radar. Obviously, my usual subtly is wasted there. I found myself in a bar near Rimjarâ€™s tiny equator, engaged in what started as an innocent dance but escalated into all-out mayhem.â€
â€œPretty standard for Rimjar.â€
â€œToo true, my friend. Though this is only the fifth bar fight Iâ€™ve been in where the establishment was leveled in the process. But it was in the barâ€™s remains, drinking the last of the Tarkellian whiskey from broken glasses, that the proprietor let slip that he had seen Rajeev sold.â€
â€œYes! And on Gumgigobella, I was forced to duel the magistrateâ€™s daughter in order to gain entrance to the Sacred Library of Trade Dealings! Iâ€™ll have you know, she had a wicked left hook and knew her way around a trident, and I would be lying if I said the way she whipped around the net with her third arm wasnâ€™t monumentally attractive. I could tell in her eyes that she felt similar about my fancy footwork. I almost stayed. I almost did, until I felt the holograph generator in my pocket. I was able to persuade the magistrateâ€™s daughter to grant me admission to the Library, even though I had let her win the duel. She was voracious, and with good reason; Gumgigobellian females tend to eat their mates. I have teeth marks to prove it.
â€œIt was on Xiuxiraboheres that I was captured and interrogated by the Galactic Inquisition, and their viscous tentacles oozed over my skin and mind.â€
â€œPffft! Now you pulling my leg. No one escapes the Galactic Inquisition.â€
â€œSo it is said, so it is said. However, while the Inquisition had searched me thoroughly, they did not check every orifice, and I had more than one gadget available to me as a means of escape. The Inquisitionâ€™s tools proved more effective on the Inquisitors than they had ever been on the inquistitees, and I was able to discern exactly where Rajeev was. On Alkalinella.â€
â€I was surprised too. Luckily, on Alkalinella, it was just a matter of haggling. I was reluctant to give all three shriftgeg seeds for Rajeev, but his current owners would not let him go for any less. The journey back was uneventful.â€
â€œThen what happened?â€
â€I returned Rajeev to Naoki in the tiny hovel on Kesh where she had first asked for my help, of course. They embraced awkwardly and passionately, engaging in motions and sounds they probably wouldnâ€™t have if the separation of years hadnâ€™t bereft them of their inhibitions. Forgotten, I left them entwined and ambled back to my ship.â€
And they buy him another round of drinks and ask to hear it again and he tells it again, and few more times after that. The details omitted and details remembered, but the story ends the same way. He does not speak of what happened after he left the lovers.
For the man called Ironwine, who hears the buzz and modulation of the galaxy, who feels the stars and crackle and is aware of the turn of every planet he lands on, the man for whom the universe waits for, sat alone in his ship and wanted very much to be someone else being embraced in dirty hovel on tiny planet. It is not an uncommon feeling.
But he knows he has to wait.
The robot was white, angular, and roughly waist-high. At least, it was waist-high for Jack, but Jack had always been a tall man thanks to the synthetic hormones he’d been given at a young age. It was a diminutive thing, like most personal assistants, and if one were terribly nearsighted and unfamiliar with modern robots, it might look like a human child. Jack was neither nearsighted nor unfamiliar with modern robots. The robot stood in the center of the cell, making a low whirring sound, while Jack sprawled on his bunk and read a yellow-paged scifi novel he’d picked up at the prison library.
For several minutes, the robot stood in relative silence, and Jack turned a couple more pages. It didn’t show much interest in cleaning. It didn’t show much interest in doing anything. It was a fairly ineffective device. Eventually, Jack placed the book beside his pillow and propped himself on his elbows to get a better look at the shape.
“What’s your deal?” he asked.
“I am a Class B personal assistant produced within the United States from United States material. My operating system is Windows 2060. My serial number is 376-2678,” the robot recited. “My uses include, but are not limited to, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, walking dogs, and playing MP3s currently licensed by the RIAA.”
“Huh,” Jack said.
“Under the Right-to-Work Act, I am incompatible with products manufactured overseas or those manufactured from overseas parts.”
“So, are you going to clean, or what?”
“I have been incarcerated because of a conflict between the legal system and my programming.”
This was news. Jack had never heard of a robot in prison before.
“I will be decommissioned and my parts will be used to build other personal assistants. I am scheduled for decommissioning in seventeen minutes.”
“Did you roll over a cat or something?”
Before the robot could answer, the door opened with a musical bleeping and a gray-clad officer typed a code into an outside panel to lower the electrical containment field. “Okay, mechboy,” he said. “The family of the victim wants to hear your statement.”
The robot moved forward, its gears whirring and clunking towards the door.
“Wait, wait,” Jack said. “You killed a person?”
“His place of manufacture was incompatible with my programming,” the robot answered as it disappeared into the opening. The door beeped shut, and Jack was once again alone in the cell.