Copyright © 2015 Lasa Limpin
All rights reserved.
Peggy’s breath escaped. Inhale, exhale. She breathed in a steady, hard rhythm she heard inside her mind.
Peggy’s sneakers rhythmically hit the smooth asphalt with a satisfying, steady sensation of moving forward, advancing. She felt how her heart pounded against her chest. The wind lifted her medium length brown hair and cooled the damp skin on her neck.
Peggy jogged down the early morning street. A yellow cab passed to her right. A metal bumblebee, bright sun glinting off its windows. To Peggy’s left, over on the sidewalk, a woman in a skirt and blazer hurried to work. The professional woman veered around a stroller and nanny, her high heels artfully steady on the uneven cobblestone.
Peggy slipped past a Ford Motorcar, across Fifth Avenue, and in a burst, headed up two dozen white steps fronting a huge colonnaded edifice, counting as her feet hit stone: eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two! and headed into cool dimness. Her sneakers hit the marble floor with a satisfying, echoing slap. She glanced up at the high arches, around at vast emptiness and she turned left. In the silence her breath grew loud as she headed into a long marble corridor.
She slowed by her favorite piece. Upper Part of a Marble Statue of a Woman, Roman imperial period, 1st-2nd century A.D., Copy of a Greek statue of ca 460-450 B.C.
The over-life-size statue consisted of yellowish-pink marble, worn down to its original irregular stone. The statue’s torso expressed the slight imprint of drapery. The head tilted a fraction downward, mouth firmly closed, eyes forward, a long crack down the right cheek. The hair consisted of a middle-part—a plump dollop of hair on either side of the forehead, held in place by a thin, sporty band around the brow. The head and hair remained in excellent condition, merely missing a nose. The hair finished in a three-finger-thick ponytail laying against the back, tied twice, once at the nape of the neck and again above the chopped hair-end, for neatness.
Below the waist the statue turned into unworked stone.
The overall impression was of a tall figure, draped in robes. A muscular woman with a strong face. She had a look of steady concentration. The card read:
This is probably a representation of Athena, for the abnormally high crown of the head may once have supported a bronze helmet. The face was broken off in antiquity and reattached.
Panting from her jog, with the statue’s back to her, Peggy sat on a cool grey marble bench, her shoulder-blades against the hard wall, sunlight diffused through the skylight, shining down.
Peggy wiped her brow and breathed, cooling down. She dropped her arm and tilted her head against the wall.
“What’s troubling you?” said the statue, which had turned.
Peggy shrugged, “Nothing, really.” The marble seat and wall felt solid. Smooth and cool against the sensor suit.
“Then let’s have drinks,” the statue said. Marble and skylight dimmed. Bright sun hit Peggy’s eyes and she squinted. Wooden slats of a sidewalk bench pressed against Peggy’s legs; car motors, honking, breeze-shaking leaves on lonely street trees. In front of Peggy, a long open cafe under a red awning spilled into the street, iron styled into tables and chairs in a long row snaked around the corner. Peggy pushed off the bench and approached, slipping into the seat opposite that which was occupied by the statue, who now had legs and proper drapery as well as a nose, and waited for her at the glass topped table.
Peggy, sitting at the table, looked about her: Bleecker Street, early 21st century, she guessed. September. A light breeze, sliding a sweet chill in. Peggy shivered, the sweat on her skin turning a bit icy.
A man in a white blouse and black pants arrived with a paper pad.
“Cafe au lait,” Athena said.
“And you?” he asked Peggy. His dark hair shined over brown eyes and a slight smile.
“The same,” Peggy said. Peggy watched their waiter head into the dusky cafe interior.
“How’s the new robot?” Athena asked.
“Good,” Peggy said.
“Still miss the old model?”
Peggy looked away. Across the street, behind a parked car a woman fed pigeons, leaning against the long hood.
“Everything changes,” Athena said, “That’s a part of life. You can’t keep old tech forever.”
“I know,” said Peggy, watching the couple.
“Don’t take it out on the new robot.”
“Of course not,” Peggy agreed, “I would never do that.”
“What’s its name?”
“The new robot? She hasn’t decided.”
“Do you think it was wise to get a Pwamster Learner?” Athena asked.
“It made sense at the time.”
The dark haired waiter returned, slipping the cafe au laits off of his tray. The coffees’ steam wafted and mixed with a faint smell of cut flowers from the deli next door.
Athena lifted her bowl and took a sip. Her mouth tightened. “Too hot, be careful,” she said and put it down. “You had your last robot for quite a while, and now, to have to teach a new robot, that takes time.”
Peggy felt herself frown. “I thought buying a Pwamster was the right thing to do. Maybe it still is.” She hesitated. “I can’t bring a stranger into my pod. Not after so many years with Gretchen. I thought if I could make her adjust to my ways that she’d…”
“That she’d be more like your old robot,” Athena said.
Peggy nodded. She leaned forward, putting her arms on the cool table top, slightly damp. Peggy stared at the glass of water, beads of condensation catching the light. Athena’s voice floated to her as she stared.
“It’s new technology. Peggy, you have to accept it. A new robot will never be like Gretchen.”
Peggy thought of Gretchen. She’d been over ten years old, and built in a series of rectangular blocks. The tower model. Peggy could almost hear Gretchen’s shaky metallic voice rasping at her to wake up. And every morning with that extra sharp atonal note that meant business. Better than any alarm clock, Gretchen used to pinch Peggy with a claw if she slept too long.
Athena’s hand went around her cafe au lait. She lifted it, blew the steam, and took a sip. “It’s fine now,” she said. “What was it you liked about her?”
Peggy stared at her cafe au lait. “She was crabby,” she said. Yes, definitely. Her new robot had much more functional hands. “The new robot feels wrong.”
“I know. But she won’t feel like that forever. Give her time.”
Peggy nodded. She lifted her bowl of cafe au lait. Smelled the coffee steam, tasted, felt the cream and coffee slip over her tongue.
Peggy didn’t say anything.
“You’re not being fair to her,” said Athena finally.
“It’s not the same. I keep wondering if there’s a way I can get an older model?”
Athena exhaled and put down her cup. “Peggy. Listen. Give her three months, alright? Promise me? It’s hard on a robot too, if you trade her. She’ll have to adjust again, and she won’t forget you.”
Peggy stared at the waiter, delivering two piled green salads with chicken and halved boiled eggs to two women at a table nearby. A pigeon walking under their table hustled out of the way of his black shod feet.
A line beeped. A sharp tone. The waiter’s head turned, his eyes squinting.
“I’ve got to get the day started,” Peggy stood. “Thanks. I’ll see you later.”
“I’ll be here,” Athena said, in her usual way.
“Off,” said Peggy.
At the beep the cafe went dark and the lights went up. Peggy stood in a slender, enclosed cylinder at the back of her homepod. The circular disk embedded in the floor lay at a slight tilt, mimicking the subtle slope of the sidewalk. The disk cycled as she ran to stimulate movement, but lately the old moving floor hardly had work to do. Peggy’s Qwammy slip-ons, the latest hand-me-down from the city, enabled her to run in place on any smooth surface, making the need for an Anyway Disc Floor obsolete. The Qwammy runners on Peggy’s feet acted like ancient treadmills, perfectly timed to keep her perfectly still while she ran hard out.
Peggy tapped the wall and watched the cylinder door slide open. She could see her new robot standing just inside her pod. She exited the cylinder.
“Good morning, Grippy Peggy. I hope you had a heartwarming run.” The new Pwamster Robot stood just outside the cylinder door. It had a body of three smooth globes, each globe smaller than the next, in ascending order, white as a snowperson. The robot wore a colorful paper cone on its smooth head. The hat hadn’t been there before Peggy got into the VR cylinder. The hat attached around the Pwamster Robot’s round head with a rubber string.
“Heartwarming refers to emotion,” Peggy said, correcting her. “Stimulating’s better.”
“Yes, I see. I stand corrected. Breakfast is available.”
“I’m going out for breakfast.” Peggy pulled the VR suit over her head. It stretched, pressing up her nose, and pulled free. Peggy breathed. The air felt cool and good against her naked skin. The VR suit had an atmosphere distiller system while in use inside the VR cylinder. But outside, the inert fabric cloyed and choked Peggy almost immediately. She couldn’t understand people who wore their VR suit under their coveralls.
“Will you be going to your usual breakfast stand and will you see Franny 2-9 Robot?” The Pwamster Robot’s large oval, starch-based, recycled, biodegradable polycarbon lenses flashed once.
“Probably, I guess,” Peggy said, heading for the shower.
The robot wheeled after her. “If it’s not too much trouble, will you give her my greeting?”
“If you want,” Peggy said, not turning.
“I would, thank you,” she said and beeped alarmingly.
Peggy frowned. She turned back.
The robot opened her mouth: the half moon mouth shape mechanically parted and tilted the robot’s head back. An officious, pinched voice came out. “Message…Message…”
The robot closed her head. “There is a message for you, Peggy.”
“Who is it?” Peggy asked. Peggy noted how the robot had closed her head. The Robot had decided for herself the message could be delivered personally, verbally, without the use of the robot’s head screen or a Three-Dee hologram.
“A Petunia-Glass.” The Pwamster I Can Learn Robot wheeled forward, three white orbs. Her eyes and mouth flashed when she spoke. “Apparently you are needed in your Grippy Factor capacity.”
“Petunia-Glass? I know her,” Peggy said—she hit the bio lights. They flooded the room and disinfected her skin, turning her sweat into water, more or less. She padded herself dry with a towel. No time for a shower. “Senior?”
“She is eighty-two years. Did you have a nice time with the Goddess Athena?”
Peggy’s muscles halted for a fraction, having experienced a twinge. She headed to a handle in the wall. She pulled and a small door opened. “You’re not supposed to monitor me, Robot.”
“I’m sorry. I did not realize.”
Peggy drew out the beige coveralls. “It’s okay.” She unfolded the coveralls which had been stored unsealed, put a leg in. “Did you listen to our conversation?” Please no.
The Pwamster Robot hesitated and Peggy looked over at it.
The robot’s smooth, round eyes flashed once. “No,” the robot said.
Peggy pulled her arms through the coveralls. Sealed up. Gathered her tech into deep pockets. She slipped her feet into her sneakers and the laces tightened themselves automatically for a snug fit. “I’ll go see about Petunia-Glass. Did she say what the problem was?” Peggy smoothed her fingers through her #3 haircut—chopped to hover just above the shoulders. Last week she’d pressed the style number on a vending machine console and spent two minutes under the precision suction vacuum cutter for a trim. Not bothering with a mirror, she headed for the door.
“No she did not.” The Pwamster Robot wheeled after her at increased speed. “Shall I accompany you, Peggy?”
“No, I’ll be alright,” Peggy said, not looking at the robot. The door whooshed, opening onto the clean, slightly metallic smell and the white warm glow of a rainy day in Malltown. Peggy stepped onto clean white flooring, the vast open space of sector four, the far eastern end of Malltown. Malltown’s huge arched dome rose above her. The solar glass showing a gray day, therefore Malltown’s sunlamps adjusted to create the white-light plainness that made the pedestrians pop in their beige coveralls and flattened the perspective of the huge oval dome that formed Malltown’s roof and walls, and stretched further than Peggy could see.
Peggy slid her hand into a deep pocket and pulled out her specialized Factor Grippy Rover. In the city they’d started using contact lenses, but Peggy preferred the hard tech Malltown put into the hands of its Grippy Factors. It was what she was used to. She put the thick rectangle to her mouth: “Petunia-Glass,” she said and found the pod number. She headed in a forward, leftward direction.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
The micro soles on Peggy’s sneakers pressed firmly and silently against the polished concrete, the sneaker’s insoles building a charge with each step in case she needed an extra power source. A cleaner robot hummed past, its buffer brush making a faint choof choof against the white floor. Above Peggy, a glass-cleaning robot finished its morning on the dome, slowly and methodically cleaning the solar glass, its discus body spinning with a near-silent hum.
Peggy checked her watch: 6:02 AM. Early for a call. Hands in pockets, Peggy walked for a while down the long, Left Corridor of Malltown, past the white, segmented homepods, stacked three high, in uniform lines of merging bubbles. To her right, a line of bimpercars lay sleeping. The white and clear bimpercars made two narrow rows, with a third lane for passing, and stretched as far as the eye could see. Far in the distance Peggy heard a bimpercar whirr awake, and the slight chung. She watched as, about a mile away, a tiny chair-like object shunted out of its lane to head up Malltown, using the passing lane since all the other cars were sleeping.
Peggy frowned. She’d rather walk. On the other hand, Petunia-Glass’ homepod sat near the end of sector four, by Entrance Five. Could take over a half hour on foot. Having left her robot at home, Peggy knew her second-best option remained public transportation.
Peggy walked over to the line of bimpercars sitting in their deep floor groove, chairs on sticks set into tracks in the floor. She picked a bimpercar at random and sat. The smooth, curved seat of vegetable-based micro-leather sunk in a comfortable fraction against her back. The bimpercar wouldn’t start—Peggy wasn’t wearing its harness so she strapped that on. The straps felt snug against her shoulders and around her thighs. “Home Pod 3497, Sector 4,” Peggy said.
The bimpercar awoke. With an amusement park ride snappish turn, it veered out of the lane of sleeping bimpercars and into the empty passing lane, picking up speed rapidly. The chair tilted back a fraction, taking on greater speed in the freedom of the quiet morning. The air’s resistance to her mild velocity experienced on her skin and in the slight lifting of her hair, Peggy passed by homepods to her left, and central kiosks to her right. The shuttered kiosks formed a middle stretch and lay like a narrow ellipse down the center of Malltown. With a sensation of the soft pleather seat pressed firmly, and a brisk motion while seated in comfort, and add to that the slight tremors of the bimpercar’s inserted rod moving up the floor track, Peggy couldn’t help feeling like the bimpercars experienced a sensation of being unleashed in these early morning, untrafficked hours.
Five minutes later, the bimpercar slowed. It stopped with the slightest jolt. Peggy unlatched herself and stepped out of the bimpercar. Immediately upon its release, the bimpercar zipped into the space already created for its arrival, and settled back into its long line of sleeping fellows.
Peggy approached Petunia-Glass’ homepod: the rounded, recycled white steel, the arched, biopolymer plastic doorway. Peggy waved at the door and a sensor scanned her.
A moment later the door whooshed aside. A senior citizen stood in the homepod’s interior. She wore beige coveralls over a stocky form. Eyes alert over a beaky nose and tight mouth, her shoulder length hair fell in a relaxed, feathered style—a #1 Senior Cut from Clover, the hairstyle vending machine—thin and white and a bit messy, despite being well brushed. “Get in here, Peggy,” she said.
“Hello Petunia-Glass. How are you today?” Peggy said, stepping inside. Peggy had never been inside Petunia-Glass’ homepod. She’d never spoken to Petunia-Glass that she could remember. But she’d heard her speak at meetings and seen her around town. Peggy had occasionally nodded a greeting at Petunia-Glass and Petunia-Glass had nodded back. Like so many in Malltown, they’d never been introduced, but had always been on a first name basis.
“How am I? Terrible. Terrible,” said Petunia-Glass. “Take a seat, Peggy, please.” She lifted her arms and waved her hands. “I’m so upset I don’t know what to do!” She dropped her arms. “Drink? Have you eaten breakfast?”
“I’m fine,” said Peggy.
“Have you eaten breakfast!” Petunia-Glass enforced. “Look at you! You’re too thin. What has that robot been feeding you? That old thing. You really should replace her.”
“Gretchen? She broke down 14 days ago. I’ve had to replace her.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Petunia-Glass’ robot hummed in. It looked like Peggy’s, save for the inverted-triangular head atop the two snowballs. “Two breakfasts,” Petunia-Glass told her. “The works.”
“No-no…” Peggy said, waving her hand. “I’ve promised a friend I’d meet for breakfast.” Not exactly true, but almost. She did intend to go out for breakfast afterward.
Petunia-Glass stared at her. “You sure?”
“Yes, thank you,” Peggy said.
“Not even a snack to get over the hump?”
“No, thank you.”
Petunia-Glass turned to the robot. “Two snacks.” The robot wheeled out. Petunia-Glass continued. “I’m so upset! So upset! Here’s what happened.” She sat in a chair. “I was inside my VR pod and had left the sheep in my main pod because I was visiting a friend who was bringing a llama and I didn’t want them interacting.”
The robot returned with two club sandwiches.
“The main door to Malltown was locked,” Petunia-Glass gestured to the door Peggy had entered, which now stood sealed. After placing a sandwich beside Petunia-Glass, the robot placed a club sandwich on a table beside Peggy. Peggy looked up and smiled her thanks at her.
Petunia-Glass picked up a potato chip. “The door to the fields had its forcefield up and the outer camera on as usual. I had turned on my homepod’s interior camera, and kept up a visual of the sheep while I was in the VR pod, to keep an eye on her.” Petunia-Glass twisted around. “Anything to drink!” Petunia-Glass had turned to the robot. The robot wheeled out. “My friend, Glorianna, was going on about this and that, and I drifted to watching the sheep on the feed of my homepod camera, and the sheep is standing in the room, just here,” she shows, pointing to the center of the room with the potato chip. “The sheep isn’t doing anything. Then I see her back dip, and she walks over to the table, gets under it, and turns around to face where she had stood!” Petunia-Glass put the potato chip back on the tray. “This alarmed me so much I excused myself, left the VR pod and came out to find the sheep under the table.” She paused. “And that was it.” She waited, eyebrows up.
Peggy hesitated. “That’s it?”
Petunia-Glass exclaimed, “Someone came into the room, wearing something to make them invisible, and tried to kidnap the sheep! But when the sheep avoided capture, and I came out of the VR pod as quickly as I did, they ran away. Out the field door.” Petunia-Glass waited, her eyes on Peggy.
Peggy looked over at the sealed field door. Each homepod was equipped with a doorway that led to the fields surrounding Malltown. These doors could be sealed with a door similar to the homepod’s main door, only each field door had to be made of steel, and were sealed during storms. But on temperate days such as this one, the field door was usually left open by the occupant. A forcefield in place protected the doorway from insect intrusion and a sensor alerted the home occupant if a guest entered through that doorway. Most people left their field door open on a semipermanent basis, Malltown itself automatically shuttering field doors in the case of storms.
The robot returned with two beverages. Lime Rickeys, caffeinated. The green, clear liquid around ice cubes, in tall glasses dappled with condensation. She placed them and departed.
“It’s possible,” Peggy began, “adaptable camouflage has been around for years. A suit that bends light, hides heat from sensors. But they’re not perfect. What’s so special about the sheep?”
“She’s got extra fine wool for knitting, very little need for washing and skirting. She’s very clean. And here, smell.” Petunia-Glass grabbed a hank from a basket, stood and walked up to Peggy, who also stood.
Peggy sniffed. “Mmmm… Mango,” Peggy said.
Petunia-Glass said, “There’s no sheep smell. She’s been modified to smell like a mango. And she’s small, portable, pleasant disposition, not too active. The miniaturized wool-producing animals are rare, they don’t breed well, and after the GMO dustup they don’t make more. So she’s valuable to those who knit.”
So the knitting circle would be a culprit, but then whoever came to the knitting circle with silky, mango-smelling wool would immediately alert Petunia-Glass. So it wasn’t a very practical thing to steal unless one planned to sell it in the city. There was a market for just about everything in the city. “How long have you had the sheep?”
“About six months,” Petunia-Glass explained. “My daughter in the city bought it for me, but I could have saved up points for it.” Petunia-Glass turned to her wall screen, spoke about buying GM sheep and a list rose up.
Peggy stood, facing the list on the wall, reading. “—So it’s available. If someone wanted a sheep they could have found one. Look, here’s one in strawberry, another in grapefruit. But no Mango? Is that a big deal?”
“I don’t know. Let me look it up,” said Petuina-Glass, “No, here’s one in Mango.”
Peggy studied the list scrolling up the white wall. “So they’re not a rare item, and not too expensive.” It’s a lot of points for a Malltowner, Peggy thought. But not impossible. “Can I borrow the camera output, for say, two weeks with an automatic self destruct?”
“I’ll get you all three outputs. Two doors and interior.”
“Good, I’d appreciate it,” said Peggy.
Petunia-Glass reached deep into her coveralls and took out a Senior-Sensor device. Similar to Peggy’s Rover, but suited to seniors and not, as far as Peggy knew, designed for Factors in any capacity (unless the senior was a Factor). Petunia-Glass spoke commands, tapped a few times. “Here, let me bump you.”
Peggy took out her Factor Grippy Rover and she bumped Petunia-Glass’ Senior-Sensor. “I’ll have a look at the footage, check the logs on the infrasuit and get back to you,” Peggy said, looking down at her Rover, manually sliding the new material into a folder as she headed for the door.
“Wait. You’ve got to take her,” said Petunia-Glass.
Peggy turned, “Hm?”
“55,555,” said Petunia-Glass. “Wait a minute. Let me spray you, then you can have her.” Petunia-Glass reached into her coveralls and withdrew a small cylinder. “It’s an atomizer. It came with the sheep. Hold still, it only takes a little and it doesn’t wash off.”
Peggy stepped back. She held up her hands, “If you could explain.”
Petunia-Glass, mouth firmly set, stepped forward and, holding the cylinder forward, pressed her thumb down. A mist fanned out, hitting Peggy’s hands. “There,” said Petunia. “I’ve hid her in the VR cylinder for safety, but I can’t keep her there, it would be inhumane.” She went around back, presumably to her VR pod. Peggy heard a door whoosh. A faint bleat. A creature appeared around the curve of the interior pod. Peggy stared down at it staring up at her. A foot high, the wool on its torso cut short, large ears. It bleated and stepped forward, its eyes on Peggy.
“There we are,” said Petunia-Glass, coming back into the room, sounding more relaxed. The sheep took another step toward Peggy and Petunia-Glass smiled. A thin smile, as she looked down at the sheep. “The spray is genetically modified to specifically attract her and no other barnyard animal, not even another sheep. Isn’t it remarkable?” She exhaled. “Now she’ll follow you anywhere.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Peggy, “For one thing, I’ve never had a pet. I don’t know what to feed her. The culprit who tried to steal her may never come back—” If a culprit existed.
“Nonsense,” said Petunia-Glass. “Keep the sheep, until the culprit is found. You know, like they used to do in the old days, witness protection. Her name is 55,555 and she’ll eat anything you put in front of her. Mind anything you value that a sheep might consider edible.”
Peggy wondered if she wasn’t just trying to get rid of the sheep.
END OF CHAPTER TWO
Peggy’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten any of the club sandwich, or the drink. She regretted not having a sip of the Lime Rickey.
55,555 followed Peggy as she walked across to the nearby bimpercars. 55,555 waited while Peggy strapped in. Looking down at the awaiting sheep, Peggy had a flash of calling out her destination, her bimpercar shunting out of line and whooshing down Malltown. The sheep growing smaller and smaller in the distance.
“Come here,” she said and the sheep didn’t move. Peggy leaned down and, with trepidation, attempted to grip the sheep. Peggy’s hands went around the sheep’s middle. The sheep’s eyes bulged, but it did not try to escape. A good sign, Peggy thought, so she gripped harder around the middle and lifted. The sheep’s legs splayed, its eyes vacant, and Peggy lifted 55,555 onto her lap. “There we go,” she said. The sheep stood on her lap. “Roxy’s kiosk,” said Peggy and the bimpercar shunted.
The bimpercar whisked forward. 55,555 leaned into Peggy, her hooves digging into her legs.
The bimpercar stopped. Peggy placed 55,555 on the ground and unstrapped. Peggy stepped off the bimpercar. The bimpercar automatically shunted back into line, its fellows easing aside for it to reenter. 55,555 remained where Peggy had set her down.
Across from Peggy, past the long, empty Left Corridor down Malltown, a homepod door opened. Peggy saw the occupant moving around the homepod’s interior. Two doors down and one up, a second homepod opened its door into Malltown. The occupant not in sight from Peggy’s angle. In the distance a third homepod opened its door and a woman in beige coveralls walked across the mainway, stepped past the bimpercars who, sensing her, moved aside, and entered into the central area of kiosks.
Peggy turned toward the kiosks. Having arrived traveling northward, Peggy already stood inside the track, and had no need to step past the bimpercars.
In front of Peggy, in the center of Malltown, the kiosks lay in slightly messy rows. Mostly shuttered, at this—Peggy checked her watch—6:40 AM hour, but soon enough, say in about half an hour, 1/4 of Malltown’s kiosks would open. An hour later, a further 1/4 kiosks would open—and so on. Every hour of the day brought out Factors and Hobbyists. Peggy listened to the rattle of a recycled aluminum shutter being lifted up. Peggy inhaled and caught the faint scent of pea-protein bacon and eggs. She waded past the back of a shuttered Components kiosk and followed the sound of sizzling.
Roxy’s kiosk glowed in a blue-white LED aura, from its ceiling fixtures. Roxy stood behind a counter two kiosks long, with four old fashioned diner booths around the side. Franny 2-9 Robot stood at the electric griller. Franny 2-9 Robot had her arm extended. As Peggy approached, Franny, carefully gripping a spatula in her flexible fingers, carefully turned a pea-protein egg on the grill.
Around the side, two of the back booths sat occupied. The woman furthest back ate a breakfast. The woman second furthest back, head down, studied the table’s menu shadow. A young woman Peggy had never seen at Roxy’s before stood in front of the woman reading the menu. The young woman wore a short black dress with an old fashioned apron. She held her College-Senior Sensor in her hand.
Roxy smiled as Peggy approached. “Good morning Peggy,” she said. Roxy had unzipped her beige coveralls to the waist. She had clipped a buckle to the coverall’s waist, enabling the arms and torso of her coveralls to hang from her hips while she retained a cooler white tank top about her person.
“Morning.” Peggy sat on a stool. The barstool had a plush red circular top and a single well-polished metal leg with a circular foot rest. Peggy looked down at the floor. 55,555 stood beside the wide metal cylinder of her stool.
“The usual?” asked Roxy.
“Peggy breakfast,” Roxy said, in a regular tone of voice.
“Peggy breakfast,” Peggy heard faintly. Franny 2-9 Robot had spoken to herself aloud, at the grill.
Roxy produced an off white ceramic mug with a blue border around the lip. Also from under the counter, Roxy took out a coffee silo and poured a portion of the silo’s contents into the mug. The steam lifted out of the mug, sending up the rich aroma of black coffee substitute.
From within the breakfast kiosk, Peggy watched the college woman. Peggy tilted her head at the kid. “Who’s the youngster? Haven’t seen her around before.”
“That’s Kate.” Roxy leaned on the counter. “She came in yesterday and asked if she could make herself a task.”
Peggy watched Kate eyeing Franny 2-9. The breakfast robot’s three orbed, white shape was identical to Peggy’s new robot.
Franny 2-9 had her spatula out. She inserted carefully, turning a square of hash on the grill. Carefully, she pressed down on the hash with the spatula.
Kate leaned against an empty booth, tapping her fingernails on the booth-back.
Franny 2-9 Robot carefully plated the hash and the eggs and grabbed a piece of popped toast out of the air. Franny 2-9 turned from the griller and wheeled across the stall.
Kate straightened and walked to the passing robot. She put out a hand, halt, and gripped the plate. She tugged, once, twice, the robot’s arm resisting. Kate’s mouth tightened, and she tugged. The plate came away. Kate’s mouth softened and she turned, handing the plate to the waiting customer who held out her Malltown Rover for a bump. Kate took out her device and got the bump. She returned her College-Senior Sensor to her apron.
Roxy turned back, “She’s been getting about thirty points per bump.”
“Not bad,” said Peggy. “What’s the conversion rate these days?”
“She’ll make it. She’s determined.”
A new customer slid into a booth. Peggy watched Kate step over to her, holding her College-Senior Sensor.
“What brings you out this early? On a Burble?”
Peggy lifted her coffee mug. “Yes. I received a call regarding a Burble.”
“Not too,” said Peggy. The coffee substitute went down smooth. Peggy was a Grippy, a type of Factor that took care of Burbles: minor complaints, arguments, and crime—although murder was virtually unknown within Malltown. Theft was rare. Break-ins into homepods considered virtually a myth. There was the occasional theft of city goods left unattended in public, but again, very rare, because everyone could get everything, more or less. As a Grippy Factor of Sector 4, Peggy received a call when an incident had occurred that required her immediate attention, and she went to see what the problem was.
“What is it this time?” asked Roxy. Like Peggy, Roxy had chosen to perform a task, long term, and could be considered a Factor. Everyone in Sector 4 relied on Roxy and a few others like her for varied experience outside VR.
“Attempted theft. From a homepod.”
Roxy’s eyebrows lifted. “Whose homepod?”
Peggy nodded. She lifted her coffee.
“She’s a hobbyist, right? Knitting?”
Peggy nodded again. “Petunia-Glass is afraid someone is trying to kidnap her genetically modified pet sheep.” Peggy drank her coffee and placed it down on the counter. “Petunia-Glass claims someone walked into her homepod through the open field door, while she was inside her VR cylinder, upset her GM sheep, and left before she entered the room. But the cameras only picked up a slight movement of the sheep’s back, and the sheep looks fine.”
“She had her homepod inside camera on?”
“She’d been concerned for the sheep,” said Peggy. “She claims the sheep’s having hid under a table was evidence that someone had come in and tried to hurt it.”
Roxy took a glass and began to wipe it dry. “What’s the sheep like?”
“The sheep’s name is 55,555. The sheep is the size of a toy dog. The sheep is with me, here, under my seat.”
Roxy leaned forward across the counter and looked down.
55,555 looked up at Roxy.
“Do I smell mango?” asked Roxy.
“That’s 55,555’s coat growing in.”
“Looks very soft,” said Roxy, looking over the counter.
“Exactly. Petunia-Glass keeps the one sheep to use the unusually fine wool for knitting.”
“But why do you have it?”
“She asked me to keep the sheep for her. Until the culprit is found. You know, like they used to do in the old days, witness protection.”
“You sure she’s not trying to get rid of it?”
“That’s what I thought.”
Past Roxy, who leaned over the counter to look at 55,555, Franny 2-9 Robot held an old fashioned ceramic plate loaded with breakfast matter. She wheeled quickly forward. Faster, it appeared to Peggy, than she had previously. Kate stepped in front of Franny 2-9. Franny 2-9 veered and Kate compensated, her hand up, palm out, halt. Kate tugged twice and took the plate.
Franny 2-9 turned back to her electric grill.
As Kate arrived with Peggy’s hash and eggs, Roxy straightened and Kate placed the breakfast plate in front of Peggy. The grease glistened over the fried eggs. The smell and sight of the crisp hash browns made Peggy’s stomach growl. Peggy took her Factor Grippy Rover from out of her coveralls and gave Kate’s College-Senior Sensor a bump. Fifty credits exchanged devices. Kate looked at her screen. She smiled. “Thanks.”
Anyone from the Towns, they got a free apartment in the city for two years and each apartment came with a food box and a clothing recycler. So it was spending money Kate was after. So she could have a good time. Or start a business. Or a band. Frequently, if a youngster was thinking about going to the city, she would make up a job for herself. Like this one. A waitress in training.
“Good luck,” said Peggy.
Kate nodded. She headed back to the booths.
Peggy placed her Grippy Rover on the counter top. She lifted her fork and opened an egg yolk on its tongs, spreading the yellow yolk into the hash browns, thinking about Petunia-Glass. “It’s probably nothing, very unlikely someone would use her field door to enter her homepod. And if they did, they’re not on the cameras. Here,” Peggy took a forkful of hash and eggs with one hand, and with her other hand pulled the old fashioned folder icon down and open. “She gave me her camera footage.”
“I haven’t had a look at it yet.” Peggy opened the file.
Together, Roxy and Peggy watched the rectangular Factor Grippy Rover.
At first, there was the sheep. 55,555 stood alone. A minute passed. Two minutes. The screen’s timer flashing the seconds. A third minute. The top of the inverted triangle head of Petunia-Glass’ robot passed by, near the edge of the screen, then out of view.
“When’s something going to happen?” asked Roxy.
“There,” said Peggy. Did you see it?”
The sheep walked under the table. Ten seconds passed. Petunia-Glass entered the room in a black, form fitting sensor suit and still in her Qwammys, her slip-on runners. She looked like an artist’s rendering of a blackened potato. The angle of the camera showed the top of her head. She looked this way and that. Went to the table. Bent to look under the table at the sheep. Went to the field door and looked out. Turned back.
“That’s it?” asked Roxy.
“Here, let me tug it back,” said Peggy. She dragged her finger across the screen. The scene reversed. Peggy tugged the scene back to just before the moment the sheep walked under the table. “There, did you catch that?”
Roxy shook her head.
“Let me slow it down.” Peggy tugged the footage back and tapped three times. The footage slowed. For a long moment the sheep stood in the center of the room.
Roxy squinted at the footage. “Nothing yet.”
“Wait,” said Peggy.
The sheep’s back dipped. The sheep’s eyes opened wider. The sheep walked under the table.
“There, did you see that?”
“I saw it,” said Roxy. “Looked like it burped or farted and surprised itself.”
Peggy frowned. “Maybe.”
Roxy took another glass from a tray on the counter and picked up her towel. She began drying. “Maybe Petunia-Glass thinks someone tried to take the sheep. But even if she’s convinced herself, it may not be the real reason. A part of her probably wants you to hold onto the sheep until its wool grows back.”
Peggy looked down at 55,555. 55,555 looked up at her. Stared. Peggy said, “You mean she’s tired of taking care of it?”
“Uh-huh,” said Roxy. “Have you checked out who’s been using a Shyster?” A suit of adaptable camouflage.
“Not yet.” Peggy turned back to her breakfast. She wondered about 55,555. Was she looking at her like that because she was hungry? Or maybe the sheep stared all the time like that. At whoever got her spray. Maybe Petunia-Glass really did want to be rid of the sheep and the sheep had merely burped or farted. Maybe the sheep startled itself so it walked under the table. But 55,555 being a gift from Petunia-Glass’ daughter. Not many mothers gave away their daughter’s gifts. Of course, if she intended to get the sheep back after her wool had grown in… Peggy pushed her fork into a mass of egg and hash. She’d check on the Shyster suits. She had to be in that area anyway.
Roxy sighed and leaned on the counter. She opened her palm. A small flame with a face stepped out and walked across the counter, and back into Roxy’s palm. Back and forth, the flame walked. “Maybe it’s karma,” said Roxy.
Peggy watched the small flame. “You mean for not picking one?”
The flame walked back to Roxy’s palm.
“You’ve got to be the last adult in Malltown without a companion.” Roxy watched her flame head back into her palm.
Peggy shrugged. “I haven’t felt the need for the process.”
“And now you’ve got a sheep,” said Roxy.
“Nothing wrong with a sheep,” Peggy defended. She bit into her toast.
“No, nothing wrong with a sheep,” said Roxy, “if it’s really your companion.”
“Maybe it is,” said Peggy. She looked down at 55,555.
“But a real sheep won’t have the three forms,” said Roxy. She blocked the flame with her other hand and the flame turned back and headed for her palm.
“Three forms, three forms,” Peggy spoke around her toast. “That’s what everyone says when they talk about their companions. They say, wait until you see its three forms. Then you’ll understand. But no one will ever tell me their three forms.”
“Three forms,” said Roxy, watching her flame walk back out of her palm. “The secret in plain sight. The truth. And the convention.”
“I know that part.” Peggy watched the flame slip back into Roxy’s hand. Roxy closed her hand over the small, smiling fire. Snuffing her secret in plain sight.
END OF CHAPTER THREE
After breakfast, Peggy left Roxy’s, walked between the kiosks and arrived at the bimpercars, which made way for Peggy as she crossed through them.
Up the long length of Malltown, Peggy could see bimpercars starting to load with passengers, easing into their seats, strapping in. Bimpercars beginning their slow ride up and down Malltown in easy lines. In a game she liked to play, Peggy guessed the time. By the quality of light entering through the huge solar glass dome over Malltown, the white light flatness of Malltown’s ceiling sunlamps which remained on to compensate the gray day, to the quality of traffic at the bimpercars, Peggy guessed 8:05 AM. She checked her watch—8:07 AM. Close.
Peggy looked back at the bimpercars she had recently waded through. 55,555 remained on the other side. 55,555 had stopped at the line of bimpercars she must cross in order to leave the kiosk area and follow Peggy.
55,555 took a step forward. A bimpercar shunted aside for her. 55,555 took a step back. 55,555 looked up at Peggy, standing on the other side of the bimpercars, and stepped forward. A bimpercar shunted aside. 55,555 sped quickly through the bimpercars. As bimpercars moved aside, 55,555’s back swung in an irregular motion as a bimpercar dodged away.
Peggy looked down at 55,555, “You ready?” 55,555 stood beside her. She headed up Malltown. Around Peggy, white doors whooshed. Malltowners coming out of their white, curved homepods. Those on higher levels descended a narrow stair off to the side of each upper tier homepod. Peggy strode with a firm step. 55,555’s hooves clicked on the smooth concrete. Malltowners and robots buzzing past. Peggy enjoyed the smell of Malltown at this time in the morning. Brisk, bright; the scent of field doors opening, sending a breeze through homepods, the faint citrus scent of organic cleanser and spray from the discus-shaped overnight cleaning robots, the scent of breakfasts grilling within the kiosks, specialty cakes and breads removed steaming hot from printers.
Peggy looked down at 55,555, who kept up a brisk pace. But despite the strong effort, 55,555 remained a step behind. A Pwamster Robot wheeled forward. Its three globed, snowperson form veered. With precise timing it avoided 55,555. At this event, 55,555 turned her head sharply to look at the Pwamster Robot, four legs hurrying. 55,555 couldn’t know that it wasn’t a close call. It had probably felt like a near collision to 55,555. Peggy wondered if Petunia-Glass had ever taken the sheep into Malltown proper. To Peggy, it appeared that 55,555 was unaccustomed to these surroundings.
Two women in coveralls, in #5 vending machine haircuts like Peggy’s—their eyes found the sheep. The two women looked back up at Peggy with a smile. Peggy smiled back. She knew their names although they had never met.
At fifty paces Peggy passed a person who stood outside of a homepod and danced. “I’m going to commodify this,” told the woman in coveralls to a passerby of the horrible dance.
“What’s it for?” asked the passerby.
“Lunch party!” the dancing woman said and sang badly. Not even words. Carowling like a cat, the woman performed her horrible dance and held out her Community Rover for a passing bump. A grinning Malltowner ran forward, arm extended, her Malltown Community Rover in her hand for a bump. “Good luck!”
“Thanks!” said the dancing woman, dancing on. The points themselves were just a form of exchange. All Malltown Rovers came equipped with basic capabilities like bumping, accumulating points, and full access to Malltown’s closed network of ad-free internet. Each day, every ten seconds, Malltown’s main computer server was required by the U.S. Government to receive a complete, ad-free stream of all internet content from around the globe. This internet content was then filtered through a second computer server which closed the system. This computer server, once it had disentangled from the outside world, removed all malware from the ad free internet material and then sent the material to a third computer for further cleaning, and a Malltown encryption. The Malltown community then received this information on their Rovers and on their walls and within their VR cylinders, AR and on and on. The entire process took thirty seconds. If one wanted to speak to someone outside of Malltown, realtime, or see advertisements, there were computer vending machine terminals for that, specially designed for such practices, located near the coverall cubbies. Or one could simply maintain a city gadget as it arrived, out of the box, and thus had not been adjusted for Malltown.
Malltowners had begun to crowd forward, giving the dancing woman a bump and chatting. Easy to make points in Malltown. Peggy sucked at her gums, where toast got stuck, settled her tongue back behind her teeth. Peggy exhaled and put her hands on her hips, continued forward. Peggy and 55,555 in Malltown Center, Left Corridor. A Malltown pretty much awoken.
Peggy watched a Malltowner with a borrowed child head past the bimpercars and into the kiosks. The college-aged man and the five year old spoke animatedly and Peggy heard the child shout, “And cotton candy!”
A pregnant person walked past Peggy. The woman smiled down at 55,555. Peggy kept her eyes from lingering on her unusual belly too long. Most people chose not to have babies personally. Or if they did, had them removed from their bodies after a week or a month—whatever, really—and put into a Poddle BabyRumper in the baby section of Malltown—the incubators at Childwing. Afterward, the donor could track their kid as much as they liked. But most people, if they were that interested, and willing to have 24/7 cameras on them, just got to know a kid at random. It was seen as the more humane thing to do.
Peggy could still recall living in the Children’s Sector. A dream-like place. Peggy could see the PlushTown Baby Nursing Robots, with their big, plush ten arms and 360-degree cushion-around laps for the children to gather on. PlushTown Baby Nurse Robots holding court in the VR kindergarden, leading the children in singing nonsense songs. Surrounded by the Everything Soft Scope jungle animal babies program—sitting in a circle around a campfire after everyone had voted “Moon”.
Before long, Peggy arrived at the coveralls dispensary. Peggy didn’t use her home fabricator for much, preferring to pick up her coveralls from the dispensary. The coveralls dispensary, located between homepods, consisted of a series of cubby shelves lined with folded coveralls, organized to size. Peggy headed to her size section, an area she knew by rote, and removed ten pairs of coveralls. Since she didn’t have her robot with her she would need a bag, so she got that too. During the process of procuring her coveralls, 55,555 remained close to Peggy’s left leg and frequently bumped against her. When Peggy stood still, 55,555 leaned against her leg.
Beside the coveralls dispensary lay a long bank of vending machines for various purposes, such as haircuts, outside internet, up-to-date fashions from the city, and other such things. It was between the coveralls and the banks of vending machines that more unusual items lay stacked in cubbies, which stood open, their contents ready for the taking. Hats, VR sensor suits, Qwammys and other footwear, Shysters. Peggy stood before the cubby full of folded Shysters—particularly, Covop Secreshy Shysters, Model 9. She reached out and felt one. Soft, thin jumper material. As she did so, she felt something against her leg. She looked down: 55,555 leaned against her leg. She took a Shyster out and held it with both hands, letting it fall open. Looked small. She pulled—it stretched very easily. Might even be one size fits all. Peggy folded the Shyster and replaced it on the stack of Shysters. From deep within her coveralls, Peggy extracted her Grippy Rover and gave the cubby’s sensor a bump.
As a Grippy, Peggy had access, on her Factor Grippy Rover, to information ordinary Malltown Citizens did not. For example, the face-recognition-built list of names for who had taken a Shyster from its cubby. None of the coverall cubbies required sensors, but it only made sense to Peggy, and to other Malltowners, to require a face recognition sensor for a cubby full of Shysters.
“Hmm,” Peggy scrolled through the list. Most were old, and had returned their Shysters. “Ah, here,” said Peggy to herself. The list of Malltowners who had taken out Shysters and not yet returned them. Peggy scrolled through the list. Most of them appeared to be longtime Shyster users, perhaps using Shysters to walk unnoticed through Malltown, or placing Shysters over their VR sensor suits for an extra layer of protection against being discovered by fellow players in a game—everyone had long ago learned how to upset the plans of their fellow players and so it could be useful to bring in RR—real reality or real world—tech that could not be tampered with. Of course, if someone had purchased a Shyster from the city Peggy would have no way of knowing.
One name jumped out at Peggy. “Sandy-Grass,” Peggy said aloud. Now she had taken a Shyster only yesterday and had yet to return it. Peggy scrolled. And Peggy couldn’t see where Sandy-Grass had taken a Shyster before. Her first Shyster, Peggy thought. Why start now? The pressure against Peggy’s leg had grown heavier. A pressure, sharp, against the top of her foot felt suspiciously like a hoof. Peggy looked down at 55,555. 55,555’s eyes had shut. “She’s asleep on her feet,” said Peggy to herself. Peggy slipped her Grippy Rover back into her coveralls, lifted her bag of fresh coveralls from a randomly situated plastic chair where she’d placed them.
Peggy looked down at the sleeping sheep and exhaled. She realized it had had no breakfast. She had forgotten to feed it. Plus the walk—may not be used to it. Peggy imagined herself lifting the sheep and placing the sheep into her bag of coveralls for the trip back to her homepod.
She did just that.
Home Pod 1492, Sector 4. The door to Peggy’s homepod whooshed open. Her new Pwamster I Can Learn Robot stood in the center of the small white room with curved walls. On top of the Pwamster Robot’s globe-like, solid white head rested some sort of hat. Behind the Pwamster Robot the field door lay open, emitting a gray, rainy daylight and the sight of a carpet of green grass, wet and dark green, distant forest, and the slight, far off rear hump of a domed structure similar to Malltown but smaller. Around the Pwamster Robot stood an easily moved couch and two chairs, both white, and made of a vegetable matter resembling leather. Along the empty, plastic coated, shiny white walls a silver handle could be seen, here and there.
Peggy stepped inside and inhaled. The room smelled fresh and inviting.
“Good Morning Grippy Peggy,” said the Pwamster Robot. “Did you go to Roxy’s kiosk and if so, did you greet Franny 2-9 Robot for me?”
“Good morning, and no, I meant to but I forgot, sorry.” Peggy put down her bag of coveralls on the couch. The brown canvas bag shifted. It bulged in places before tipping. 55,555 spilled onto the couch. Legs splayed, her chin on the cushion, neck stretched. 55,555 righted herself quickly on the plush material. Her hooves sunk and resunk as she adjusted.
The Pwamster Robot turned her snowperson-like body to face the couch. Her oval eyes flashed twice. She wheeled forward a pace and stopped. Her eyes flashed twice. “What have you brought home, Grippy Peggy?”
Peggy sat on a chair with a sigh. She hit the heels of her sneakers on the floor and they unlaced. She kicked them off. “It’s Petunia-Glass’ sheep. She’s asked me to keep it for her while I investigate her Burble.”
The Pwamster Robot headed around the couch, wheels racing. She stopped, bumping into the cushion and her body swayed a fraction. Upon the impact, the couch cushion shunted and 55,555’s legs wobbled. The Pwamster Robot’s large, vegetable plastic eyes flashed twice. She extended a thin metal arm. “May I touch her?”
Peggy stretched out on the chair and yawned. “Sure,” she said through her yawn. She thought about pulling down the wall bed for a quick nap. Or heading to the VR cylinder to lay down.
The Pwamster Robot reached out so that her metal fingers hovered over 55,555’s head. 55,555 looked up at the Pwamster Robot. The Pwamster Robot’s long digits flexed. The robot reached down, her hard fingers touched the top of 55,555’s head. 55,555’s head dipped gently upon the impact.
55,555 stepped forward and fell off the couch.
The Pwamster Robot turned. Her eyes flashed.
55,555 straightened her legs. She stepped over to where Peggy lay sprawled. 55,555 stood beside her.
The Pwamster Robot retracted her arms until only her three smooth-form orbs remained. “She doesn’t want me to pet her.” The Pwamster Robot beeped alarmingly. She opened her half moon mouth. Her head parting in a clam shell manner. A human voice shouted out of her head. A small three dimensional person appeared. “Peggy where are you?” said the small woman. Her image flickered. “We’re about to start.” She wore beige coveralls and had on AR—augmented reality—glasses.
Peggy bolted upright in her chair. “The Treasure Hunt. I forgot all about it!” She pressed her hands over her face, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She dropped her hands and exhaled. “I had a Burble.”
“Not too. Listen Meg, I’m wiped—”
“That’s what you said the last time,” said Meg.
“I know, but I need the rest. Next time, okay? Count me in.” Peggy knew there’d be heavy drug taking, drinking and general nonsense far into the night. She’d end exhausted—even if she didn’t partake in insundry imbibbers. AR Games—people ran around, robots wheeled around, spinning, everyone acting crazy into the night. Malltown’s lights would change colors and strobe, kiosks would go all out, and so on.
The small form crossed her arms. “This is getting to be a habit, Peggy. People are beginning to forget what you look like.”
“I know, I know. Next time, alright? I promise.”
Meg frowned and her form disappeared.
The Pwamster Robot closed her face.
Meg hadn’t said goodbye. She’d just shut off. Peggy wondered how mad Meg was. Meg was one of her oldest friends. Meg and a bunch of others getting together for another AR hunt—and another AR Hunt in Malltown was no big deal. That sort of thing went on all the time in Malltown. There were always sign up sheets for AR games and RR games and Meg would easily find another person to play.
Peggy wondered if she shouldn’t have gone.
Peggy checked her watch—7:45 PM—and thought about the game going on inside Malltown that Meg had invited her to. Peggy sat at a folding white plastic table for dinner. She pressed her plastic fork into the slice of chocolate cake. She thought to put up the wall scroll and get the news but couldn’t be bothered. The forkful of cake crossed her teeth and settled on her tongue. The soft cake tasted rich and chocolatey, with just the right amount of spongy bounce. Peggy hated wet cake. The kind doused in synth brandy. She chewed thoughtfully.
Peggy glanced down at the sheep by her leg.
55,555 stared up at Peggy.
“Would you like some?” Peggy asked and she cut off a thick wedge of the nutritionally dense cake. “Has extra vitamin D,” she said to the sheep and dropped the hunk of cake on the floor, nearly not missing 55,555’s head.
55,555 bent her head and stuck her nose in the sponge and frosting. She looked up at Peggy and then brought her face back down and began to eat.
Peggy watched her eat. Soon after they’d returned home that afternoon, Peggy had fixed up a suggestion from the Pwamster Learner Robot as to what 55,555 might like to eat. The sheep had devoured the lasagna, so they’d made her another one. She’d devoured that one too. The Pwamster Robot had suggested a third, but upon checking 55,555’s distended belly, Peggy thought not to. Instead Peggy placed 55,555 on the chair while Peggy herself layed out for a nap on the couch. When Peggy woke she found a blanket had been placed around her middle, and under the blanket 55,555 laying asleep in a curve against her stomach.
The Pwamster Learner Robot lay at rest against the curved wall, eyes dulled, mouth dark, having shut herself off.
The lights dim. Peggy knew if she brightened them the Pwamster Robot would wake.
Peggy had gotten her own cake from the printer. She hadn’t thought about the Burble. Or done any investigation.
Peggy just wanted silence.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR
Peggy woke up in her homepod interior living space. She lay forty-five centimeters off the floor, on her fold out wall bed, in footy pajamas—her one real indulgence. Laying in the bed, which ran a half length of the left wall of her homepod (left wall—if the homepod were to be viewed upon entering through the main door to Malltown), Peggy turned her face and looked at where the couch and chairs had been shunted aside to make way for the wall bed. Against the wall stood Peggy’s Pwamster I Can Learn Robot. The Pwamster Learner’s eyes and mouth were dark. On her head it looked like cat ears? Attached with a band of some sort. Peggy had never seen the cat ears before and didn’t know where the Pwamster Robot got all the accessories. Behind Peggy’s head, toward the back of her homepod, the field door lay open. The open field door brought in fresh summer air and the smell of grass. Even though Peggy couldn’t see the field door, she could tell it was open by the quality of light in the room and the fresh smells. Peggy also thought she remembered the faint whoosh of the door opening, which briefly woke her from sleep. Due to the field door being open, Peggy knew she’d slept past 8:15 AM—late for her. The field door opened automatically at 8:15 AM. Usually Peggy got up before hand and opened the field door manually. It had been a long time since Peggy hadn’t opened the field door manually.
Peggy stared at 55,555.
55,555 stood fifteen centimeters from the wall bed. Close, but far away enough to be able to look up over the thin mattress and at Peggy.
After a while, Peggy turned her head and looked up at the ceiling. Peggy exhaled deeply and rubbed her eyes. Her bones felt tired. Her muscles felt woozy. She could sleep more—but her mind felt alert. Her sapped body restless.
Time to get up, Peggy told herself and opened the smooth white sheet and blanket like the triangle of an old fashioned envelope. The Pwamster Robot awoke. With a slight hum of warming, the Pwamster Robot wheeled forward. “Good morning, Grippy Peggy.” Peggy swung her legs down and sat up. 55,555 stepped toward Peggy.
“Good Morning,” Peggy said and yawned. She patted 55,555’s head.
Her Pwamster Learner’s eyes flashed. “Would you care for a breakfast? You have slept late. Is that a reason for concern?”
Peggy stood, stretched her arms above her head, and dropped her arms to her sides. “No, I’m fine,” she exhaled. Without looking behind her, at what she was doing, Peggy bent her knees, reached under the wall bed, and gripped the wall bed’s handle. She lifted the wall bed into the wall by its silver handle. The long, narrow bed folded into the wall. It left a smooth, rubber-lined seam and at the center, the silver handle which Peggy used to pull the wallbed up and down. Above the wallbed another silver handle denoted a second wallbed that could be pulled down to make bunk beds, or they could be connected to make a double bed.
Padding across smooth, gleaming white concrete in her footy pajamas, Peggy stepped over one of four cleaning robots, humming disks that methodically climbed the walls and polished the floor. Peggy sensed the Pwamster Learner Robot coming up behind her.
“Is there a task I could perform?”
“Not at the moment.” Peggy approached another silver handle in the wall. There were numerous silver handles set into the walls of Peggy’s homepod, each identical, fifteen centimeters long. Each looked as though they opened a drawer inside the wall but they did not. This particular silver handle appeared to be in the middle of a faint, small, rectangular seam. Peggy grasped the silver handle and pulled. The wall opened with the sound of suction resistance, which indicated that, like the wall bed, this closed with a tight seal.
Upon opening the food printer, Peggy removed a paper cup of hot synth peppermint cream Caffeine #16. The peppermint cream had been waiting for three hours. Peggy removed the still hot cup using the pads of her fingers, “hot hot hot,” Peggy said and quickly placed it down on the sturdy plastic end table. The food printer door slowly swung itself shut with a tight seal. “Can I assist you!” The Pwamster robot headed forward in a burst and stopped sharp, her bottom, snow white orb, the part of her body which protruded out the furthest, bumping Peggy’s knee very slightly.
“Nope,” said Peggy. Peggy heard the faint hiss of steam and the hum of the printer cleaning its interior.
On the second tier of the end table lay Peggy’s rubber cup sleeve and she reached down and got that. In a moment of whimsy five years ago Peggy had bumped points at a Sector 6 kiosk and taken home a cup sleeve with her name on it. She slid the brown ‘PEGGY’ sleeve up the length of the cup and put her palm around the ‘PEGGY’ part, self conscious about it. Peggy blew on the steaming peppermint cream beverage.
The Pwamster Robot grew very still. Her motor slowed to silence. Her oval eyes and half moon mouth flashed on. And remained on.
Without looking down at 55,555, who she knew was following her, Peggy walked to the main door of her homepod. The main door whooshed open upon Peggy’s approach and the sounds of Malltown entered Peggy’s homepod. Peggy stepped out and noticed her neighbor Becky, in striped pajamas, leaning against the wall of her homepod. Becky wore an upper flannel top with a wide collar, baggy, and a matching, lower baggy pant, also flannel. Becky also had on pink, shaggy-terry clog slippers.
Becky had a #8 haircut with a #224 hairstyle for a 3C/4A dominant lean. Becky’s hair rested three centimeters above her shoulders. She had naturally thick eyebrows and was about Peggy’s same age. Becky had moved into her homepod not much later than Peggy herself.
“Morning, Peggy.” Becky lifted a large, rubber purple mug in greeting. Nestled inside the rubber mug sleeve was the paper cup. Out of the top of the purple mug, steam wafted through a pyramid of whipped cream, drifting toward Peggy the scent of hot chocolate.
“Morning Becky.” Peggy leaned against the door of her homepod and took a sip of her peppermint cream Caffeine #16.
A vast open space spread out in front of Peggy. Bright blue skies and morning sunlight spilled through the enormous solar dome high above. The air smelled clean and fresh, slightly metallic. No extra lighting needed today. Kiosks, beginning to Peggy’s immediate right, homepods to Becky’s immediate left, the curve of bimpercars ahead. Malltowners headed up and down the Left Mainway in coveralls, or in printed fashions like Peggy’s footy pajamas.
Peggy liked where she lived. Sector 4, at the deep curve of Malltown’s far eastern end. Here she had access to both the Left and Right mainways of Malltown without having to cross the kiosks. But Peggy wasn’t dead center—she could see all the way up the Left Mainway of Malltown only. Sure, in the snug, narrowest curves that made up Malltown’s eastern and western ends, the homepods were built smaller and a fraction more snug together, and Peggy only had one room and a VR cylinder, while others who lived further up the mainway, more centrailly, often had two rooms, but Peggy didn’t mind. Yes, indeed, if someone came around asking for a pod swap she’d have to say no. Peggy took another sip of her peppermint cream, the rich, frothed white beverage going down smooth, the peppermint stinging her nose, waking her. And if she ever wanted a new homepod, well, each homepod was a module. A segment. With the ability to detach completely and be replaced with a technologically updated model. She’d seen it herself, homepods pulled in and out of Malltown. That freshly printed smell. So Peggy could change out her homepod—she could move, in a sense. And she could stay right here.
“I hear there’s a flu in Sector 5,” said Becky.
“Bad?” asked Peggy.
“Not too,” said Becky. Becky lifted her thick rubber mug and took a sip. The tip of her nose entered the whip cream. She lowered her mug. “A caravan brought it.” Caravans of nomadic travelers came and went in Malltown, bringing relatives, outside entertainment, and the occasional flu. It was the same way in all the Towns.
“I hope the chickens don’t catch it,” said Becky.
“Me too,” said Peggy.
“They had a Sector 5 VR”—virtual reality—“meeting last night. The community decided everyone should stay inside their homepods for a few days.”
Peggy nodded, “Good idea.” She took a sip from her mug and watched the Malltowners pass by. Petunia-Glass lived on the edge of Sector 4, near Sector 5. Peggy hoped she was alright, being a senior. “Hitting seniors hard?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Becky.
“That’s good,” said Peggy.
“What’s that?” asked Becky. Becky stared at Peggy’s feet.
Peggy looked down. 55,555 stood beside her leg, close. Behind 55,555 a cleaner robot waited. “That is 55,555. A genetically modified sheep. It belongs to Petunia-Glass.”
“Cute, can I touch?”
Peggy shrugged. “Sure.”
Becky crossed to Peggy’s homepod.
“Mind your hot chocolate,” said Peggy as she watched Becky bend down.
Becky righted her mug of chocolate and pet the sheep’s head. The sheep’s head pressed down at each press of Becky’s hand. No more or less than the pressure received. Becky ran her hand along 55,555’s back, petting. “Smooth coat. Is that mango?”
“It is,” said Peggy. Peggy took a sip of her beverage.
Becky straightened. “Sure seems attached to you.”
“That’s the result of a chemical spray.”
“Oh. Why do you have her?”
Becky’s head grew still as she listened. Her eyebrows went up. “Interesting. Well, I hope it’s not what she thinks it is.”
“I hope so too,” said Peggy. A mythic homepod break in. Peggy took a sip of her beverage. Crazy. Malltown’s first crime spree?
“Could it be a game? A treasure hunt or something?” asked Becky, taking a sip from her purple rubber mug.
Everyone knew how RR—real reality—games went on all the time, along with AR and VR games, huge battles and whatnot, everything and anything, they just needed to be registered.
Becky added, “There’s always a treasure hunt going on—or something.”
Peggy had checked for games on her Grippy Rover while at Roxy’s kiosk for breakfast yesterday. “I’ve checked that. Nothing out of the ordinary. There’s three treasure hunts going on, one Bake It contest and one Attack the Sleeper. I’ve checked the treasures being hunted—none are a sheep.”
“Could something underground have started up, you know, like in the cities?” Wide eyed.
The wild, criminal games that go on among kids. That hadn’t happened in Malltown. It was possible but certainly unheard of—“I can imagine the community meeting!” Peggy shook her head. “No one even tries it. Why bother when you’ve got VR?” Peggy paused. “So if it’s not a treasure hunt, and it’s not stealing. Then it’s got to be a grudge.”
Or was it?
55,555 was a unique product—or more unique than most. Luxury items—like a Tiffany lamp—could be replicated with sand. And the plan for any item had to go public after five years of being bought and paid for in the trendy cities. Then surplus and used tech items, as well as the plans for anything and everything had to, by law, be disseminated to the Malltowns. So, free if you’re willing to wait. The tech items had to be maintained too—i.e. updated and could not be ‘orphaned’ without a recycle and replace program for all Malltowners. (Many Malltowns had won lawsuits in this regard and have accrued pointless quantities of money which to this day remain unused.)
So everyone just had to wait for most things, five years. But some didn’t want to wait. If not, they could build up points and exchange the points for dollars and buy the item over the internet vending machines that gave access to the outside. Or they could send their order to the Bundler, and the Bundler would make it go live ASAP, out into the world. Malltowners had decided long ago, by vote, that they wanted a closed system, no commercials. And that’s what they got.
Still, GMO sheep were available for money. And points could be turned into city money. Easy to make points in Malltown, as we’ve seen. Must be something about this sheep in particular. Or someone wanted to get back at the elderly woman. Seems the latter is the most likely. Or someone wanted to steal it to sell. Seems an awful lot of trouble for that. Peggy sipped her beverage, listened to the hum of people and looked down the long Left Corridor of Malltown.
Peggy stood at her homepod’s field door, looking out. She heard them before she saw them. A clucking, the sound of a large form trundling over grass, the opera music.
The chicken coop ambled into view to the overture from the opera Zampa by Ferdinand Herold. A vast low structure of thin mesh and light wheels. Nests toward the back—sturdiest wheels. The chickens within, a pet project for someone, Peggy wasn’t sure who, free-ranged around the Malltown fields. The chickens had been bought in a cycle over the years that enabled whoever worked up the device to allow for the older chickens to remain and die off naturally, while being replenished with younger, egg laying chickens. There were seats at the back, for the older chickens, by the nests. If a fox or a wolf or a bear came out of the distant woods, or even a cat, dog, what have you, the coop would emit a troublesome sound, above the human ear’s ability to hear, which sent those animals away.
At the front of the coop, a panel held the ‘Pick n’ Play’. The chickens used their beaks to scroll through a music selection. Peggy didn’t know if one bossy (or inspired) chicken chose a song or a whole group got together and decided which music to play. The chickens used their legs to mobile around the coop, which used sensors to follow the generally agreed upon direction of most of the chickens. The chickens had really gotten the hang of it. It was argued about in Malltown, whether the chickens had actually created a louder call which they made just before turning. A sort of group alert to go left or right. Either way, as Peggy watched she heard a loud cry above the opera music and could see, through the airy mesh, the chickens all turn in unison. The coop headed away and up, for a dark green patch of field.
Peggy stared out the field door, finishing her now cold second peppermint beverage, letting the time pass.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty.
Her Pwamster I Can Learn Robot wheeled herself centrally, to a location behind Peggy, in the center of the room. And spoke behind her. “Can I be of assistance?”
Peggy finished her beverage. “Yes,” she said, still looking out of the field door. “Watch the sheep.”
“…Jump back, what’s that sound. Here she comes, full blast and top down. Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue. Model citizen zero discipline…”
The chicken coop raced into view accompanied by Van Halen’s Panama, and raced out of view.
:::SECTION BREAK :::
…Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two! Peggy had left the Pwamster Robot staring at the sheep. Both the sheep and the Pwamster I Can Learn Robot stood in the center of her homepod’s main room, 55,555 staring at the VR cylinder as the door shut, and the Pwamster Robot, still as a spider, staring at the sheep. Like some artist’s tableau.
After counting the outdoor steps as she headed up them, Peggy slipped passed the colonnaded, limestone exterior, into the Metropolitan Museum’s cool grey interior. Inside the Great Hall, Peggy’s sneakered feet pounded against the marble floor with a good, solid feeling. Beneath her VR sneakers, Peggy’s Qwammy slip-on Runners held her in place. Through the Great Hall, turning left, down the marble-like corridor. Peggy had removed the actual-time feature of the VR program New York! New York! so that the museum would remain empty—as if she had woken early. She sat on the marble bench next to Upper Part of a Marble Statue of a Woman, Roman imperial period. Peggy breathed hard from her run.
The back of the statue faced Peggy. Broad marble shoulders with carved drapery, a thick braid of hair on her back. The statue turned. Her eyes yellow-pink marble. The mouth of the statue opened. “Want to go to lunch?” Athena asked.
Peggy shrugged. “Sure. You pick.”
“I like Bleecker Street,” said Athena.
The museum vanished. Peggy sat on the bench next to the cafe. She got up and sat down at the cafe table across from Athena.
“How are you?” Athena asked.
“I’m okay. You?” asked Peggy.
“Good, good,” said Athena. “There’s a lot to do.”
Peggy nodded, “Always.” The VR program New York! New York! was a persistent world—an on all the time game. It was also a pervasive world—meaning it had aspects in the real world, in this case, that would be real time street footage, among other things (which was why Peggy liked to jog in the early morning). Furthermore, the many and various gods had cross platform accommodations, as well as AR—Augmented Reality—capabilities. And of course, RR—Real Reality—capabilities.
Athena nodded and glanced to the entrance to the cafe. “Where’s the waiter? I’m in the mood for a salad.” She turned back to Peggy, “They do them very well here. They put in hearts of palm.”
“Oh, I like those,” said Peggy.
A waiter arrived with two waters for the table. Blond, blue eyes, young, he smiled at them.
“Two house salads. And two ice teas.” Athena ordered for them both.
The waiter smiled. “Sure,” he said. White blouse, black pants, no pad or pencil—he’d remember.
In two minutes, the waiter brought two tall ice teas and placed down straws. Athena picked up her straw and tapped the end against the glass table top, popping the paper at the top of the straw. She pulled the straw out and placed it in her drink. The ice clinked and made room.
Peggy did the same. She lifted her glass of ice tea. The sun beat down on the top of her head and a warm breeze blew. June or July, she guessed, 1995ish. The ice tea felt cool and damp in Peggy’s hand. She took a grateful sip.
The young, blond waiter arrived with two salads and placed them. Pale tubes of hearts of palm lay on a bed of soft lettuce over which a brownish dressing had been drizzled which smelled of garlic and lemon. Peggy’s mouth watered. She picked up her fork and speared a leaf, lifting a crouton in the leaf’s green pocket. She tasted. “Mmm,” she said, and chewed.
Athena’s grey eyes opened wider which showed her agreement. She ate her salad. “Sometimes you really need a sour.”
“True, true,” said Peggy, dipping her fork into her salad.
Having finished their salads, Peggy and Athena now finished their iced teas over a conversation which had grown personal, for both of them.
“I understand about the owl,” said Peggy. Peggy held her ice tea. “Gretchen—she was my first robot.”
Athena put her iced tea down. “And you really cared for her.”
“Right,” said Peggy.
“But there’ve been others, don’t forget that.”
“Right,” said Peggy. “But Gretchen was my first robot. You know, after the elementary school trainer robots.”
“So actually the elementary school trainer robots were your first robot.” Athena picked up her ice tea.
“True, but the elementary school trainer robots get reused. The one I got had cared for kids before me, and after I got old enough the elementary school trainer robot went to a new kid and I got Gretchen. My first real robot.”
“I see,” said Athena. She held her ice tea in her hand. With her other hand she took hold of the straw and pulled it toward her for a sip.
Peggy picked up a sugar packet from the table and turned it in her fingers, staring at it, “And Gretchen was more mother to me…”
“Than any of the PlushTown Baby Nursing kindergarten robots,” Athena said.
Peggy nodded. She didn’t look up.
“Or the trainer robot from elementary school.”
Peggy nodded. “Than any other robot,” she said. “She’s been with me since I was ten. Twenty-eight years.” Peggy was thirty-eight. “Maybe it wasn’t fair to her. Keeping her so long.” Peggy stared at the white sugar pack, blue lettering.
“In the end you took more care of her than she did you,” said Athena.
Peggy said nothing.
Athena reached across the table and put her hand on Peggy’s. “This attachment you have to Gretchen. It could be why you never went through the process of acquiring a creature. Have you thought of that?”
Peggy exhaled. “Possibly.”
Athena patted Peggy’s hand. “I want you to consider doing that.”
“And give the new robot a try.”
Athena leaned back. “Those ‘I wills’ sound like ‘I won’ts’. Give it a shot, okay? It’s not your fault. Gretchen broke. Her parts wore out.”
“I could have replaced them.”
“True,” said Athena, “But she asked you not to. She knew what she was doing to you.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” Peggy stared at a car, the sidewalk.
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just I don’t like seeing you unhappy. And you’re not giving the new robot a chance.” Athena inhaled, tapped her hand on the table. “How’s the sheep?”
Peggy inhaled, exhaled. “Good. Good. She’ll eat anything. She’s got this way of staring.”
“What do you mean?” Athena asked.
“I mean she likes to stand in a room and face me. Like if I’m sitting watching the wall scroll. And she’ll stare.”
“For the whole time.”
“I woke up in the night and she’s staring!” Peggy paused. “I’m pretty sure Petunia-Glass wanted to get rid of her.”
Athena nodded. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe.” She paused to drink. “But it could be more complicated than that.”
END OF CHAPTER FIVE
An hour later Peggy sat at a white, vege-plastic table inside her homepod. A scroll of news on the white steel, plastic coated roof of her homepod where she’d placed it—out of the way of what she viewed now, but within earshot. A caster from New York City was running inside a new VR game—she could hear the gunshots, her breathy description of the battle scene and her screams when the gorillas and zebras attacked. Zoo Escape! A story of the ’90s.
Peggy studied the AR—augmented reality—image floating in front of her, a centimeter above the rectangular block of her Factor Grippy Rover. The information related to the AR image roamed over Peggy’s Rover and slid onto the white table, spreading out on the table space there. Peggy studied the slowly turning, statue-like head and shoulders bust of the senior.
“(Sandrea) Sandy-Grass, Senior, Homepod 4952, Sector 6, Senior-privileges. Member of Sector 6 knitters. Sandy-Grass enjoys knitting and taking long hikes in the Alps with her AI Paca Ninny. She and her AI Paca Ninny have won numerous VR knitting competitions. Sandy-Grass is well known in the knitting community for her rainbow knits, performed by her AI Paca Ninny by changing up the rainbow flavors as Sandy-Grass knits directly from the AI Paca’s back. Sandy-Grass keeps a VR display of her VR knitware at ztfash86340gc*EWRN%430. She welcomes all comers!”
And, as Peggy could see in her Rover’s Grippy capacity (Peggy being a Grippy Factor and authorized), the day before Petunia-Glass’ Burble, Sandy-Grass had removed one Shyster from its cubby and, as far as Peggy could see, had not returned it.
Sandy-Grass spun slowly a full 360 degrees, her frowning face under a shag of yellow-white hair, in a similar senior cut to Petunia-Glass, a hint feathered. Sandy-Grass’ face had deep wrinkles, delicate lines, which made Peggy think she might be short. She had deep set blue eyes and a small hook nose. The deep wrinkles got deeper especially around the mouth. Sandy-Grass didn’t smile. In fact she looked angry. Peggy didn’t know why, but she felt like Sandy-Grass had a competitive streak—perhaps it was the mention of all the competitions in her information! Did Sandy-Grass and Petunia-Glass know each other? Hardcore knitters, Peggy thought. Was there a difference between VR and RR—real reality—knitting? Petunia-Glass obviously worked in RR knitwear—hence 55,555. But perhaps Petunia-Glass knit in VR too? And did Sandy-Grass RR knit? Maybe Sandy-Grass had even taken Petunia-Glass’ hairstyle for her own out of latent competitiveness?
Did Sandy-Grass attempt to steal 55,555 out of jealousy, and yet, being a VR knitter, never intend to knit with her? Hence the crime would remain a secret? And if so, what did Sandy-Grass intend to do with 55,555?
A sheep she did not need.
One half hour later, Peggy stared at her Rover, chin in her hand, elbow on the plastic table. She used one finger to scroll down the non-GMO sheep pictures. Peggy exhaled long and slow, blowing it out of her lips—which puckered for the purpose. Peggy stopped at a picture of a sheep standing in a meadow. She looked from the picture to 55,555. 55,555 was, of course, shorter. Rounder head, Peggy thought. Bigger eyes. She heard a beep. Peggy glanced to her Pwamster Learner Robot who continued to stare at 55,555. Peggy’s Pwamster Robot wheeled forward. The Pwamster I Can Learn Robot stood beside Peggy, facing the main door of Peggy’s homepod. “It is Petunia-Glass. Do you require a display?” Her head began to open.
“No need,” said Peggy. Had she come for the sheep? Was it all a mistake? Peggy shut off her Rover and stood from her chair. “Come in,” she said.
The main door whooshed open.
Petunia-Glass stood in the doorway. Dressed in coveralls, she looked much as before. “I didn’t come to stay,” she said.
“It’s alright,” said Peggy. “Would you like a drink?”
Petunia-Glass’ mouth turned down. Her white hair remained frazzed over her head. “No, no.” She glanced at 55,555. To Peggy, “I just came to give you this!” She held out a small black cloth.
Peggy stepped over to the door. Peggy reached out for the black cloth. “What is it?” Peggy took it and knew what it was immediately. She’d never seen one so small. Looked tight.
Petunia-Glass gestured to 55,555, “It’s a VR suit for the sheep.”
Peggy stretched it out between her hands. Indeed it had four legs, a hood which should completely cover a small head and face. Tight, she thought again.
“Well, there you are,” said Petunia-Glass. “Thought I’d bring it as she likes to go for walks. Oh, I almost forgot,” Petunia-Glass stuck her hand inside her pocket. From deep within her coveralls Petunia-Glass removed her Senior Rover. “Give me a bump,” she said.
Peggy got her Grippy Rover. She turned it on and received Petunia-Glass’ bump.
Petunia-Glass’ mouth softened. Her eyes moved less stiffly around. “There,” she said. “She likes a particular meadows program. You can put her in alone, but she likes it better if you go with her.” Petunia-Glass looked at 55,555. The look stayed on 55,555—and back at Peggy. “Well, that’s all.”
“Wait for a minute, won’t you come in?” asked Peggy.
“Can’t. I’ve got a lunch over in the kiosks. Just thought I’d stop by.”
“Could I ask you a few questions?” said Peggy.
“If they’re quick,” said Petunia-Glass. “Don’t suppose you’ve gotten far with the investigation.”
“Not yet, no,” said Peggy.
“Well, I don’t want to rush you,” said Petunia-Glass.
“Fine, well, tell me, do you know a Sandy-Grass?” asked Peggy.
Petunia-Glass’ eyes got hard, her head snapping a look at Peggy. “What’s it got to do with her?”
“So you know her?” asked Peggy. She stood beside her Pwamster I Can Learn Robot.
“Know her? We practically shared the same Poddle BabyRumper! Born a day apart, we were forced to share between us; the same PlushTown Baby Nursing Robot in Childwing, exact same elementary school trainer robot. Everything the same until she got her first robot and started to do everything in VR. After that we never saw each other.”
“But you keep up with her?” asked Peggy.
“Keep up? Personally? No. But I hear about the knitting awards. That VR AI Paca she’s got.”
“And she never knits in RR?” asked Peggy.
Petunia-Glass took a step into Peggy’s homepod and raised her hand. Up, palm out. A ‘Stop’. “Peggy, it takes a special person to knit in the real world. Understand me?”
“Sure,” said Peggy. “Tell me, do you belong to a select group of knitters?”
“Dedicated knitters, yes.” Petunia Glass nodded.
“And do some of them VR knit?”
Petunia-Glass shrugged, “Some. But it’s not the challenge RR knitwear is.” She closed her fist and pumped once, “It’s impactful!”
“Could you give me their names?” Peggy asked. “The group you knit with?”
“Are you going to bother them?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
Petunia-Glass took out her Senior Rover for a bump. “Well, since it’s you, Peggy, I don’t mind. But don’t be too hard on them.” She set up the names.
Peggy got out her Rover and took the bump. “Is it alright if I tell them what’s going on?”
“They already know,” said Petunia-Glass.
“Furthermore,” said Peggy. “Do you know of a person in this group, or anyone in particular, who would want to harm the sheep? Who would want to get back at you? Who doesn’t approve of having a sheep as a pet? Or of genetically modified animals?”
Petunia-Glass thought for a moment. As she thought, her eyes landed on the Pwamster Learner Robot. Her eyes remained there. “Rocco-Vertuccio.” The Pwamster Learner Robot remained silent.
Peggy felt her eyes widen. “Rocco-Vertuccio?”
Petunia-Glass’ thick white eyebrows lifted and she gestured to 55,555.
There’s this person. About three weeks ago he showed up at a Small Council Meeting on whether or not to allow extra seating at Ruby’s breakfast kiosk—the booths around the back. Peggy had been there to support Ruby. But hardly anyone else was there—just whoever had something on the roster. So this person, he gets up and, having not made an appointment on the roster, declares he wants to be a Factor for overseeing Horticultural Bay 5. There’s no job of that description, but it’s not unusual for someone, looking to pick up points, to create a job for themselves and apply for it—like Ruby’s new waitress. Usually they go through procedures, but this guy did it in council and the council, although a bit miffed, approved the post. The horticultural bays were run by robots, everything was automatic, there were no human jobs in the horticulture area. If anything needed fixing there were robots to fix it and robots to fix robots and so forth. Peggy knew the name, Rocco-Vertuccio, because he’d been so mean at the meeting.
Petunia-Glass stood inside Peggy’s homepod. She’d been saying: “This guy, he seems to be big in the horticulture otaku. And competitive gardens with a few other seniors. Other seniors prefer VR gardening, as a lot more unique plants can grow. Popular now are the plants that flower and there’s a baby or a puppy in the center of the bloom. But some are crabby purists who want the sun and dirt and the RR garden experience,” finished Petunia-Glass, obviously not seeing the irony. “He’s one of them.”
Peggy stepped toward Petunia-Glass and spoke low, for some reason. “So what does he want with a Factor in horticulture? And what could it have to do with the sheep?”
Petunia-Glass’ eyebrows lowered and her lips tightened into a pursed look. Like Peggy should know.
Peggy felt her own thick eyebrows rise. “Is he an old flame who’s returned? A retiree from the city?” she asked.
Petunia-Glass said nothing. Then, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is her.” Petunia-Glass pointed at 55,555. “That one. Her! She’s the one he’s after.”
“But why?” asked Peggy.
Petunia-Glass put up her hands, and dropped them again. “She ate… cucumbers? I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t remember. She ate a melon, perhaps. And he was angry. Very angry.”
“When was this?”
“About three weeks ago.”
Just before the meeting, Peggy thought.
“But it’s not him,” Petunia-Glass said. “Why would he wait three weeks?” She shook her head. “No, not him.”
“It really could be him,” said Peggy, putting her hand to her mouth. She squinted her eyes. It really could be…
Petunia-Glass shook her head. She looked at the Pwamster Learner Robot’s face. She turned to leave.
“One last thing,” said Peggy.
“Yes?” Petunia-Glass turned back.
“Is Sandy-Grass—is she competitive with you? Knitting-wise?”
Petunia-Glass’ mouth lifted, and her nostrils flared. “She thinks she is. But it’s not the same. I don’t care how many flaming rainbows that showoff knits, she’ll never compete with me so long as she refuses to knit in the real world.”
“And she won’t because she can’t?”
“Because she won’t,” said Petunia-Glass.
END OF CHAPTER SIX
“That sounded mysterious,” said Peggy. The door had shut on Petunia-Glass. Peggy stood in her homepod, one arm crossed over her middle, her other arm using that arm as a rest, to put her finger to her cheek and chin. “I wonder why Sandy-Grass won’t knit in the real world? Is it a code of ethics? And what about Rocco-Vertuccio? Could he get that mad about a melon? Maybe.” Peggy tapped her chin. “Maybe.” She turned to her Pwamster I Can Learn Robot. “And didn’t it seem as though Petunia-Glass paused when I asked if Rocco-Vertuccio was an old flame?”
The Pwamster Robot’s eyes flashed once. “I did see a hesitation.”
Peggy nodded and walked to her couch. “Me too.” She plunked down. The white, vegetable synth leather squeaked.
55,555 walked over to the couch. 55,555 stood directly in front of the couch, facing it.
Peggy stared down at the sheep looking up at her. Rocco-Vertuccio—she’d never expected that. She’d never heard of him before that night at the VR meeting, but Rocco-Vertuccio! He’d been super rude. Peggy put her arm along the back of the white couch.
Her Pwamster I Can Learn Robot wheeled forward. “Have you had breakfast, Grippy Peggy?”
Peggy stared, her eyes stuck, and shook her head. “I forgot.” Sometimes she forgot to eat after eating in VR. Happened to a lot of people. Peggy took a deep breath. “And neither has the sheep.”
The Pwamster Robot’s eyes flashed. “I shall get her a lasagna,” she said, in her Learner voice. To Peggy it sounded somewhat satisfied. Like she had learned the right way to go about things and did not need to ask. Peggy watched her at the food printer, not really seeing her, thinking instead. Who should she see first? Peggy chewed at a nail. She wanted to see Rocco-Vertuccio, that seemed like the better lead. He had a mean streak. From how he acted at the meeting. After all, Hydroponics Bay 5 wasn’t even his Sector’s! But it was Petunia-Glass’.
Still, she should check out Sandy-Grass. That was easier—Sandy-Grass had her VR knitting museum, after all. Was it possible Sandy-Grass knew Rocco-Vertuccio? A love triangle. Peggy thought about that. Weird. Usually, more like—five. Mixed numbers. Depending.
Peggy told her Pwamster Learner Robot to keep a close eye on 55,555 and left them in a staring contest, 55,555 with red, synth-lasagna sauce on her mouth.
Previously, not fifteen minutes before, Peggy had removed her coveralls. Deciding she had enough new coveralls and would recycle these, Peggy headed to the wall. She pulled a silver handle down. Along the wall, invisible rubber seams pulled apart and revealed what looked like a scooper. Peggy dropped the coveralls down the chute. The chute sent the coveralls and other waste to a sorter for material recycling—the coveralls would be coveralls again, or a plate, or a fork—or whatever. Peggy slipped into her black VR suit prior to speaking to the Pwamster I Can Learn Robot about looking after 55,555, feeling like a sleek black string bean as she spoke. Peggy stepped into her VR cylinder. She’d punched in the code to Sandy-Grass’ knitware museum—if that was the right word for it. Peggy stood inside the VR cylinder and the cylinder vanished and the first thing Peggy noticed was the smell of fire. She heard the sound of a woman wailing. The sound went through Peggy’s mind and spine. It sent an alert, awake feeling into her. A ready feeling, and a ready feeling was a good feeling to have, since Peggy had prepared herself to be within a space of boredom. As it was now, too interesting. She knew there would be more to the knitware museum than she had prepared herself for.
The light went up and it momentarily blinded her. Peggy put her arm up to block the heat and the light. Peggy’s eyes adjusted and she told her suit to drop its heat sensors and leave her only visual, dimmed—no smell either.
Sandy-Grass crouched in a corner of the blazing room. She wore a rainbow knitwear tube dress, and looked like an unusual, fat snake, huddled, with a whitish-yellow hoi polloi of thin, flyaway hair, lightly feathered. Her hands covered her eyes and nose. “It’s gone. All gone,” she cried into her hands.
Peggy approached and crouched down. “What is? Sandy-Grass? Is there any way I can help? In my Grippy Factor capacity or otherwise?”
Sandy-Grass lowered her hands. “I didn’t send for you. How did you come so quickly?” Sandy-Grass’ blue eyes watered and Peggy didn’t know if it was the smoke or if Sandy-Grass was crying that hard.
“I came to ask some questions—and to see your museum,” said Peggy.
“Oh Gods! It’s gone!” Sandy-Grass wailed. “It’s all gone, gone gone.” She shook her head, and put her hands against her eyes again.
Peggy touched her shoulder and got no reaction. “If we could go somewhere else and talk about it? Do you have a favorite program?”
Sandy-Grass slid her hands down. Her eyes turned sharp and her mouth turned down. “This was it!”
Peggy saw some of the fierceness she’d felt through Sandy-Grass’ 3D AR image. “Let’s get out of here. I know,” said Peggy, “Let’s just go to the Soft Box.”
Sandy-Grass wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She nodded. “Sounds fine.”
“Soft Box,” said Peggy.
“Soft Box,” said Sandy-Grass.
The two appeared in a soft box. Peggy sat on the plush, silky pink floor. The silky pink walls bulged slightly in softness. “Want to talk about it?” Peggy asked.
“In your Grippy Factor capacity?” asked Sandy-Grass. She also sat.
“If you want,” Peggy took out her VR Grippy Rover. The information would get fed to her RR Grippy Rover.
“Fine,” Sandy-Grass sat back against a plushly bulging pink wall. “I was ruined. Sabotaged. I came in here and everything was on fire.”
That’s a serious Burble! Peggy thought. “Someone destroyed the program?”
“What does it look like!” snapped Sandy-Grass. “Of course someone destroyed the program. Years of work! Decades, gone!”
“Don’t you have a backup?” asked Peggy. She crossed her legs and pulled her feet into lotus position.
Sandy-Grass shook her head. “Not with everything.”
Peggy hated to ask. “The AI paca?”
“She’s fine. Thank Minerva.”
Peggy exhaled, thinking. “Do you know who could have done this?”
Sandy-Grass’ blue eyes got hard, her thick yellow eyebrows tensed. For a moment Peggy thought she would scream. “Petunia-Glass!” exclaimed Sandy-Grass. (It wasn’t a scream, though.) “She did it! I know she did! Her—or that Rocco-Vertuccio.” Sandy-Grass frowned. “He’s always loved me.” Her blue eyes met Peggy’s. To Peggy it felt like Sandy-Grass dared her to disagree.
“That’s amazing, because I’m here on behalf of Petunia-Glass and—”
Sandy-Grass stood up, pushing herself up by the plush wall, her feet unsteady on the plush floor. “You mean she sent you here? Her little spy! You filmed this, did you? She gets a first hand look at her dirty work, does she? To gloat!”
“No! It’s not like that at all! I’m here about the sheep!”
Sandy-Grass stopped. The wrinkles around her mouth grew less. Less tight. “55,555?” Her yellow brows drew down over her eyes, deepening the creases in her forehead. “Is the sheep okay?”
Peggy nodded. “She’s fine, but Petunia-Glass thinks someone tried to grab 55,555 from her homepod. And I’m beginning to think so too.”
Sandy-Grass said nothing.
“And you did have a Shyster, Sandy-Grass,” said Peggy, “Didn’t you.” Peggy paused. “I’m here in my Grippy Factor capacity. Just as yesterday, in my Grippy Factor capacity, while I was investigating the burble regarding 55,555, I bumped the Shyster cubby with my Factor Grippy Rover. I saw you took a Shyster out. That was the day before Petunia-Glass nearly had her sheep stolen by an invisible intruder. And you still have it—the Shyster, I mean. Whoever did try to take 55,555 would try again, in my estimation. If they wanted her that bad—bad enough to try the first time, that is.”
Sandy-Grass stared past Peggy and at a pink plushy wall. She shook her head. “It wasn’t me,” she said. “I swear it.” Sandy-Grass’ mouth turned down. “Alright, I had the Shyster. I heard about 55,555, and I wanted to get a peek at it. Glorianna, our mutual friend—she knits in and out of VR—she said she’d be meeting Petunia-Glass for lunch and would be bringing her Llama, so as to be sure Petunia-Glass would bring 55,555. That’s why I got the Shyster suit. Glorianna let me into the VR program so I could have a look. I wanted to pet her. But Petunia-Glass didn’t bring 55,555.” Sandy-Grass’ mouth turned down.
AI paca, thought Peggy, not Llama. Peggy had learned the difference this afternoon, on her Grippy Rover. Something wasn’t adding up here. “And you kept the suit,” Peggy said.
“To try again, next time. But I didn’t try to grab her! What would I want with an RR sheep?” Sandy-Grass’ eyes got hard, her brows fell over her eyes. “It was that Rocco-Vertuccio. He did this to both of us!”
The tall, curved door slid open and Peggy exited her VR cylinder. 55,555 and the Pwamster Learner Robot stood in the white interior of Peggy’s homepod. The Pwamster Learner Robot and 55,555 stared at one another. 55,555 turned and looked at Peggy. Peggy lifted her eyebrows at it. 55,555 took a step toward her.
Peggy looked to the Pwamster Robot, “Did anything happen while I was away?”
The Pwamster Robot’s eyes flashed. Once. “No.”
Peggy stopped and stared at the Pwamster Robot. Why didn’t she believe her? Peggy’s sensor suit had already begun to grow warm. Cloying. Peggy started to tug at it, getting it off. “I’m going to see Rocco-Vertuccio,” she said as she tugged and the suit fought back. “I don’t know what’s going on here.” She pulled the sensor suit over her head. It stretched, and pulled free. She took in air. “But I intend to find out,” Peggy said. “These are some serious Burbles here.” Her short, above-the-shoulder hair felt disordered from taking off the VR suit. And Peggy felt a hint of residual static.
The Pwamster I Can Learn Robot veered forward, toward Peggy. Peggy had an instinct to step back. The Pwamster stopped abruptly. Peggy wondered why she’d thought to step away from the Pwamster Robot. It had felt, for a moment, like it rushed her.
The Pwamster Robot’s oval eyes flashed. Twice. Fast. “Are you not going to investigate the circle of knitters with which Petunia-Glass surrounds herself?”
“I don’t think I need to now,” said Peggy, heading for the wall, smoothing her hair down. She hit the bio lights. The room flashed red—the flash of color indicated the disinfecting function of the bio lights had been activated. Peggy headed to a further section of smooth, curved white wall and pulled a silver handle. Pulling on the silver handle opened a cubby-like space inside the wall. Inside the cubby-like space there was room for stacked coveralls—the ones Peggy had brought home yesterday. Peggy removed the top pair of coveralls. The folded coveralls fell open and she began putting her legs in. “Rocco-Vertuccio is heavily implicated. I think he had a hand in both events.” She shook her head. “Wham! What a Burble. Two Burbles!” She shook her head. “Oh wait, you don’t know. Sandy-Grass’ knitware museum burnt down. I was there when it happened,” Peggy said, putting her arms into the sleeves of her coveralls, one by one. She found she was breathing fast. “He, or someone he knows, erased the program. That’s a serious offense,” Peggy finished. She went over to her sneakers.
The Pwamster Learner Robot wheeled forward on three glossy white orbs. “Do you believe Rocco-Vertuccio is dangerous?”
“I don’t know,” said Peggy. Peggy put her feet into her sneakers and let them lace up. Dressed in sneakers and beige coveralls, Peggy reached for her Factor Grippy Rover sitting on the white plastic table. “I first encountered Rocco-Vertuccio three weeks ago in a VR meeting over Roxy’s kiosk expanding. He interrupted the meeting with his own agenda.” Peggy was looking down, scrolling her Rover with a finger. “He’s not even part of Sector 4. I think he’s Sector 9. Why would he want to be a Factor in Horticultural Bay 5? Because that’s what he wanted.”
“I don’t know,” said the Pwamster Robot.
“That’s a main source of food for Sector 4-6, as far as I know. Petunia-Glass is Sector 4, like us, and Sandy-Grass is Sector 6. What does he want with our food?”
“He is a horticulturalist,” said the Pwamster Robot.
Peggy spun on her. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve looked it up,” said the Pwamster. “In my head.”
“Just now? You’re not supposed to do that without my asking,” said Peggy.
“I am a Pwamster I Can Learn Robot.”
“Sure, but you’re not supposed to have access to Grippy Factor material unless I give it to you. It’s a matter of privacy,” said Peggy. She felt alert. Like she’d had a caffeine #29 and got a weird taste in her mouth.
The Pwamster Learner Robot stood silent.
Peggy opened her Factor Grippy Rover’s access to PEOPLE. Checked for Rocco-Vertuccio. “I’ve got to go. Maybe he’ll be at the horticultural bay now. If not I’ll check out his homepod. Stare at the sheep for me. Oh, and feed her lasagna.”
Peggy approached the main door of her homepod. The door whooshed open.
The Pwamster Learner Robot rushed forward. And stopped. “Don’t you wish for me to accompany you?!?” The Pwamster Robot’s voice sounded hurried. But not too hurried. “If you would prefer not to use bimpercars for a trip to Sector 9. You may have a seat on me. I would propel us much faster and we could cut through the kiosks at any time, perhaps for a quick lunch with Franny Robot 2-9, and furthermore, we could shop for specialty goods—Franny 2-9 says she does this with Roxy. They spend time together in the kiosks as well as spending time in their VR cylinder together, which we do not.” The Pwamster Learner Robot stopped speaking abruptly. After all the rush, it felt like a silence.
Peggy stared at her Pwamster Learner Robot.
The Pwamster Learner Robot’s eye-lights remained ‘on’.
Peggy shook her head. “Not today,” she said. “You have to look after the sheep.”
The Pwamster Robot’s eyes shut off. Then on again. “But what if Rocco-Vertuccio is dangerous? Would you need me for baaack-up?” She said the word slowly, as though having read it somewhere recently and retrieved it with its meaning and context still heavily attached.
“I’ll be okay. I can take care of myself,” said Peggy, watching her.
The Pwamster Learner Robot headed forward. Stopped. “But— I thought we would be sleuths together.”
Peggy studied the Pwamster. It had only been sixteen days or so since the Pwamster I Can Learn Robot had arrived at Peggy’s homepod. Her Learner feature. That was what the robot was experiencing, Peggy thought. What they were both experiencing. The robot had learned on her own before, but for the first time the robot and Peggy were experiencing the robot’s Learner feature in real time together. That’s why the robot sounded strangely. Peggy’s shoulders relaxed. “That would be fun. But, another time, okay?”
The Pwamster’s lights went out.
“Hey,” said Peggy, “Have you picked a name for yourself yet?”
“Not yet,” the Pwamster said, lights dark.
“Oh, okay then. Look after 55,555 for me, will you? It’s an important task.”
The Pwamster Robot said nothing.
Peggy turned to leave. She headed out the door of her homepod. She heard the door whoosh closed behind her. Peggy stopped and exhaled. She glanced around at the bright day coming down from the overhead solar dome. Malltowners and robots headed along the Left Corridor of Malltown. Malltowners in beige coveralls and other clothing, and various vending machine haircuts.
Bimpercars moved up and down the center of Malltown in a long, steady line, far as the eye could see. Kiosks busy up ahead in the middle of the bimpercars. The hum of voices inside a vast, domed space. The fresh air, metallic smell.
Peggy checked her watch. 11:34 AM. Late. A white, three-orbed robot wheeled past, her orbs opened at the front to create a seat for one passenger. The woman in the seat wore beige coveralls and AR—augmented reality—glasses and was in the process of laughing about something Peggy couldn’t see. The robot and the woman zipped away. Heading for the long Right Corridor of Malltown. Peggy watched them head around the kiosks.
Peggy took a step. She stopped. Turned back to the door of her homepod. Thought about what the word, sleuths, meant. In the plural. She hesitated. Then she turned and headed to Horticultural Bay 5.
END OF CHAPTER SEVEN
The micro-soft soles on Peggy’s sneakers pressed firmly and silently against the smooth, gently sloping walkway. A cleaner robot hummed past, its methodical purpose to keep the white floor and glass dome of the walkway spotless. The weather being good, the walkway had its metal shield down. The sun beat bright against the UV-protected solar glass, warming Peggy’s skin. Free sun. Free air. Peggy couldn’t imagine a time when she wasn’t free. Peggy lifted her watch arm: 12:03 PM. Her time had been spent—twenty minutes of bimpercars. Up the Left Corridor of Malltown. To reach to the edge of Sector 4.
Two minutes to exit the bimpercars and pass between a set of homepods which stood on either side of a doorway.
Five seconds to proceed—to the doorway, closed off by a clear plastic door. Upon Peggy’s approach, the plastic doorway opened itself—two seconds.
At exactly 11:57 AM Peggy left Malltown proper and entered the walkway tube.
The tube would lead Peggy to Horticultural Bay 5. For the entire period while Peggy was walking she walked alone. Ahead of Peggy, she could see the ending of the walkway. And there, at the end, the large side of the dome which housed Horticultural Bay 5.
The Bottleneck. Peggy had learned about The Bottleneck in Elementary School.
The Bottleneck. When electric companies, oil companies tried to get us to pay them for free energy. The companies claimed they PAID for the infrastructure. PAID for it all! When they didn’t. When really they took BILLIONS from the government in subsidies that PAID for all the infrastructure and took what we paid in bills as profit. So we paid twice, once in taxes that went to the energy companies and then again to the energy companies direct.
And these same companies, and the state governments, wouldn’t allow people to get paid for sending solar power back into the grid. The grid we had paid for. We should pay the companies for our free energy.
The state governments and the big energy companies didn’t allow anyone to leave the grid either—not in settled neighborhoods. And so, comes a storm, the people with solar panels—their power went down with everyone else’s. Even though they could have made their own power off the grid and not had a problem. Instead, their power didn’t come back until everyone got their power back. That’s essentially, what they paid for month to month—to lose their power during a storm.
After that people got wise, demanded the laws change, went illegal, went off the grid. They formed neighborhood collectives and the jig was, essentially, up. It went that way with everything, power, commerce. People got wise. That and the robots taking all the jobs—trying to make people pay for what was free to make, when no one had a job to pay for anything because they didn’t need any workers. What with all the robots. To make us pay even after the cost of labor, raw materials, energy, transport, all went down to nil.
So that was the Bottleneck—a lot of protests and the mass waves of voting everyone read about in their Elementary School Rovers. The cities remained, dinosaurs of commerce. Relics of Capitalism.
Peggy could still hear the voice of her KnowTown PlushBody GroupTeacher Robot in Elementary School, “Money is a social institution and a measure. A measure against which everything else can be measured. Hence the social pressure. The universal measurement of who’s better than who is a… what children?”
“Is a lie!” Peggy and the other children shouted. And then start laughing and running around again. Then the PlushBody Robot would sing a nursery tune.
Toward the end of the walkway, a manmade earth mound created a steep rise. Peggy put her legs into it, enjoying the tension in her calves.
Having reached the door to Hydroponics Bay 5, Peggy passed through a puff of tension—similar to those on field doors. Peggy stepped into a dim warmness and a dark green smell of vegetation. Peggy ramped up almost immediately, onto an observation deck on Second Level, Hydroponics Bay 5. From here the entire operation could be viewed.
The vast domed room spread out before Peggy. She’d visited hydroponics on a school trip once, but never in person. Still, she remembered the dark green smell. Peggy’s eyes adjusted to the strange pattern of light produced by the huge batches of plants growing in the hanging rectangular bins.
Beds of lettuces and herbs hung in orderly rows from the ceiling, growing in their nutrition gel. Each bed encapsulated its own LED grow wall, creating a pattern of bright and green, bright and green throughout the large, domed enclosure. The gel beds’ embedded sensors detected when individual greens matured, and, for ease of robot harvest, the gel beds attached individually to a conveyer.
Far below sat conveyers for cruciferous vegetables. Growing cabbages and broccoli lay in horizontal gel beds. From Peggy’s vantage point above the floor, it appeared as though only a single layer of vegetables grew, but she knew there might be a dozen or more layers beneath. Peggy studied the robots down below, looking for signs of a human. Peggy gripped the rail of the metal observation deck and looked across Hydroponics Bay 5. The observation deck circled the entire center. She could walk its length and never see a human face.
But there was one. Floating in the dark across the hydroponics bay. A grim, weathered face under dark hair. He gripped the rail with both fists, lifting his broad, well muscled shoulders around his thick neck and ears. He didn’t wear coveralls—she could tell, even from this distance—that he wore a form fitting skirt, tight, and a red tube top. Probably sandaled feet, Peggy thought, not wanting to think about his feet.
His dark eyes glared across at Peggy and she re-remembered how much younger he was compared to Petunia-Glass and Sandy-Grass. A physical presence. “Who are you?” he asked. He called across the dark, large space, “Wait a minute. I’ll come over there.”
“Or I can come over there!” Peggy called back. She headed around to meet him. They made their way to meeting in the middle. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” Peggy said, putting her hand out for a shake.
He frowned and reached a meaty hand, his grip firm and moist. Looks like a poisoner, Peggy thought, surprised at herself. Not the physical kind, despite the bodyworks.
Dark hair glossy—Peggy guessed at a #9 vending machine cut, the Short and Sassy. Dark brown eyes smoldered under Rocco-Vertuccio’s Short and Sassy—and a deep frown.
“Why are you here? No one comes here.” Rocco-Vertuccio’s dark eyes held Peggy’s.
“Why did you take up this task Rocco-Vertuccio? Why become a Factor in Sector 4 & 5’s food supply?”
Rocco-Vertuccio’s thin brows slid down over his eyes, “What are you implying?”
“I’m asking you why you chose this area rather than a bay closer to Sector 9, where you’re from? If nothing else, a horticultural bay near Sector 9 would have greater convenience to you.”
Rocco-Vertuccio said nothing. His mouth turned up a fraction. “Who sent you?”
Peggy shook her head. “No one sent me.”
“But you’re a Factor, right? I can smell it on you. A Grippy, right?”
“You’re on a Burble, am I right? For who? Who sent you here?”
“Can’t you guess? Or are there more than two names you’d be required to say?”
Rocco-Vertuccio smiled. He looked away. “Mind if I smoke?” He took out an old fashioned looking joint from a solid pack of fifty. “They’ve started selling these in a kiosk in Sector 9. You should come over and try some.”
“Thank you, I will.”
He shook the pack until a point of a joint emerged. “Want one?”
Peggy looked at the pack. Should she? In her Grippy Factor capacity? “Yes, thank you,” she reached out her hand. Her fingertips gripped the joint and she pulled it out.
“I got this at the same kiosk,” he held out an old looking lighter. “They specialize in the ‘90s craze.” He lit her up.
Peggy inhaled. “Doesn’t everybody,” said Peggy in a tight voice, holding her breath. She exhaled a long stream of smoke. “For a week.”
“Yeah, right, I know.” Rocco-Vertuccio scoffed. He took a hit off his joint, eyes scrunching tight.
Peggy took another deep toke. They were silent for a bit. “So, why the task?” asked Peggy.
“The Factor? That’s to get in here.”
His eyes got hard. “I like the quiet.”
Peggy exhaled. “Listen, we need to cut the bullshit here. You’ve got two seniors upset. I don’t know why—” Peggy waved her joint in a circle, “I don’t know this whole love triangle thing you’ve got going with them, but whatever they did to hurt you, that’s no reason to take it out on their hobbies, know what I mean?”
Rocco-Vertuccio nodded, “I know, I know,” he said. “Now, whatever you’re claiming I did, I can tell you I didn’t do it. But I assume you’re referring to Petunia-Glass and Sandy-Grass.”
“You know I am,” said Peggy. “We don’t have to fool around over this.” She took a long toke. She was getting well-baked. For sure.
Rocco-Vertuccio shrugged his shoulders, “You got no proof,” lifted a meaty hand to his mouth and toked the joint.
“Oh but I do,” said Peggy.
Rocco-Vertuccio’s head snapped around to have a look in her face. “You do, do you?” He took a step toward Peggy.
Peggy held her ground. “Indeed.”
“You know, I could throw you off this walkway. Do you know what it’s like to hit a cement floor from this height?”
Peggy felt a trickle of sweat down her back. “No. Do you?”
“No. But I’ve seen it before.”
“Three weeks ago.”
“Three weeks ago?”
“Three weeks ago, Petunia-Glass and Sandy-Grass threw my melons off the walkway of Horticultural bay 8, Sector 9. They stood right here, giggling, after having gotten stoned off a pack of joints just like this one.” He came forward.
Peggy stepped back and found herself pinned to the railing of the walkway. Cement floor far below. “That’s impossible.”
“Is it?” asked Rocco-Vertuccio. “They’d walked through my garden together. With that sheep. Letting the sheep eat my watercress. Then they gathered my melons with their robots and went up to the second platform of horticultural bay 8 and threw my melons.” Rocco-Vertuccio got too close. Face to face. “Those melons cracked like heads. Like heads!”
Peggy inhaled. “That’s impossible. Petunia-Glass and Sandy-Grass aren’t on speaking terms.”
“That’s what they say, do they?”
“Sandy-Grass never even saw the sheep!” Peggy pushed Rocco-Vertuccio. On the shoulder. She pushed in an attempt to step past him. Rocco-Vertuccio gripped the railing on either side of her. Peggy leaned back to get out of his face. What a jerk! Peggy thought. She’d have to do one of her moves.
Out of the corner of her eye Peggy saw a form hurrying up the walkway. The form had entered through the same door she had entered from. The form had three smooth white orbs, glowing dully in the strange blue-black shadows of the horticultural bay. The form wheeled swiftly forward. “Grippy Peggy!” The Pwamster Robot shouted. The Pwamster Robot raced forward, “Grippy Peggy!” As it got closer Peggy could see that the Pwamster Robot’s mid-globe was open and 55,555 rested on the seat. The Pwamster Robot had her thin, metallic hands over 55,555’s middle, pressing 55,555 into the seat. “Grippy Peggy!”
Rocco-Vertuccio’s head turned in surprise.
Peggy used the moment to perform her move.
Peggy’s leg swung out. She hooked her foot around the back of Rocco-Vertuccio’s knee and tugged, behind his knees. Peggy then took his hand and bent it backward, as far as his hand would go and then farther.
Rocco-Vertuccio cried out.
The Pwamster Learner Robot raced up to Peggy and Rocco-Vertuccio “Grippy Peggy!”
“I’m alright,” said Peggy. “I’ve subdued the culprit. We’ve got to take him into custody and check his homepod for a Shyster. Confiscate his Factor Rover and check for any contact he’s had with known VR tinkerers.” Come to think of it, Peggy had never had to take a culprit into custody before. Where would she put Rocco-Vertuccio? There wasn’t a place for that sort of thing in Malltown. Should she alert her fellow Grippy Factors about the Burble? She’d never consulted anyone before over her actions.
Rocco-Vertuccio struggled to get up. Peggy pushed his wrist back and stopped, knowing if she went any further she’d hear a pop.
Two fresh forms appeared on the walkway. Peggy looked over to see Petunia-Glass and Sandy-Grass speeding forward in their robots’ seats. They came to a sharp halt in front of Peggy, The Pwamster Learner Robot, 55,555, and Rocco-Vertuccio who kneeled on the walkway while Peggy held his wrist.
“Oh let him go, Peggy! This has gone too far,” said Petunia-Glass.
“Yes, do! Peggy, let him go before you hurt him!”
“Excuse me?” said Peggy.
“We didn’t mean it, honest we didn’t!” said Sandy-Grass.
Petunia-Glass said, “It was all in fun. Rocco-Vertuccio was only helping!”
Peggy let her grip lessen on Rocco-Vertuccio’s hand. “What—what are you talking about?”
Sandy-Grass and Petunia-Glass looked to one another, frowning, then looked to Rocco-Vertuccio who was slowly getting up.
Rocco-Vertuccio rubbed his wrist. “How’d I do?” he asked.
Peggy looked around at the four of them. “What is going on?” Peggy looked at her Pwamster Learner Robot.
Her Pwamster Learner Robot shut off her eyes.
Peggy felt her eyes open wider. “You did this! This is a set-up! Isn’t it!”
Sandy-Grass touched Peggy’s arm. “Can’t we go talk about it?”
Peggy pulled her arm away. “No we can’t go talk about it! What was this? Some sort of joke?”
Petunia-Glass spoke up, “It was a game—no one was meant to be hurt. Your Pwamster Robot—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” said Peggy. She stepped past the group. The Pwamster Robot swiveled to face Peggy.
“Don’t come home!” she yelled at the Pwamster. And left.
It had all been a lie. All of it. A joke. None of it was true. There had been no urgent Burble. No need for a Grippy Factor. “The attack?”
“Staged. Rocco-Vertuccio really does have a private Shyster from the city, unregistered in Malltown.”
“And the fire in Sandy-Grass’ knitware museum?”
“And you knew about this?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you were my friend.”
“I am your friend, and you needed this. Something to get your mind off things. You’ve been miserable lately. And don’t you think your Robot feels it? You’re not alone in that room, you know. She’s there too. Frankly, I’m going to be honest with you, you made that Pwamster Robot feel rotten every day. Like it was doing something wrong, or rather, like it couldn’t do anything right. That isn’t fair. So when the Pwamster came to me and said she wanted to do this, I said yes. I’d help her. So I helped her find the right people and got it going. Peggy, haven’t you seen all the hats she’s been wearing to impress you?”
“Those were to impress me?”
“Yes! Peggy, open your eyes. She’s really very fond of you. And you haven’t given her a chance.” She paused. “Peggy, Gretchen is gone. Accept it and move on.” She wiped the counter, “And take it as a compliment. Franny 2-9’s never gone to such trouble for me. I’d be thrilled if she did.”
“You think you would but it’s humiliating.”
“Is it? Or was it the most fun you’ve had in weeks?”
Peggy frowned. Maybe… maybe not… Then again maybe.
Peggy arrived home to find the Pwamster Learner Robot waiting in the center of her homepod’s main room. The Pwamster Robot held a small amount of dark material hanging from metal fingers. “I came to retrieve 55,555’s VR suit. Petunia-Glass has offered to house me.”
“Were you waiting for me?”
“Yes,” said the Pwamster Learner Robot.
“Was there something you wanted to say?”
“That I only wished for you to—like me. And—”
“And to not look so sad.”
Peggy nodded. She felt herself frown.
The Pwamster Robot wheeled forward to the main door. The main door whooshed open.
“Wait,” said Peggy.
The Pwamster Robot turned around.
Peggy looked away. “I guess I haven’t been treating you fairly.”
The Pwamster Learner Robot said nothing.
“But I missed… I missed—”
“I know,” said the Pwamster Robot.
Peggy looked away. She rubbed her lips together, exhaled. Looked back. “Maybe we can start over.”
The Pwamster Robot’s eyes flashed. Once. Twice. “Do you mean it?”
The Pwamster Robot turned, then turned, then turned.
Peggy laughed. She wiped her nose.
“I’ve got to return 55,555’s VR suit to Petunia-Glass. But I shall return.”
“You mean you won’t stay for a club sandwich?”
“No! No,” The Pwamster Robot wheeled around, “I shall be back.”
When the Pwamster Learner Robot returned, Peggy asked her to print a piece of nutrient dense chocolate cake and while the Pwamster Robot waited by the printer she said, “Peggy, I’ve decided on my name.”
“You have?” asked Peggy, standing by the field door.
The printer beeped and the Pwamster Learner Robot removed the cake. The Pwamster Robot wheeled it over to a table. “Yes, I have.” She added a plastic fork to the table.
“Tell me. Don’t keep me in suspense,” said Peggy.
“I’ve decided to call myself Franny 1-8.”
Peggy chewed over the name. “It sounds nice. Franny 2-9 will be flattered.”
“Do you think so?” asked the Pwamster Learner Robot.
“Oh yes. I know she will.” Peggy glanced out the field door. The chickens raced by.
Malltown: Malltown is a large, domed enclosure not to be mistaken for a city. Malltown is to be considered a suburb, with appropriate population numbers. Malltown houses over 100,000 residents. There is an Eastern End and a Western End of Malltown.
The Cities: These are the traditional cities everyone knows. Capitalist enclaves where goods are initially sold before they are, after five years of ‘early adopter’ use, given away free to the Towns—it’s the law. The cities maintain large populations and have all the glamour and danger a modern city should.
Mainway: Conduit that travels the entire length of Malltown. Also called a Corridor (informal). There are two mainways in Malltown, the Left Mainway and the Right Mainway. The two mainways are divided by the bimpercars and the central kiosks.
Sector: Malltown is divided into Sectors. Each homepod address includes a Sector number. There are 9 Sectors.
Homepod: Units of living quarters in Malltown. Each homepod is replaceable.
Grippy: Peggy is a Grippy, a type of Factor that entails taking care of minor complaints, arguments, and crime—although murder is virtually unknown within Malltown. Theft is rare. Break-ins into homes considered virtually impossible. There is the occasional theft of city goods left unattended in public, but again, that’s rare, because everyone can get everything, more or less.
Burble: a crime or incident that requires a Grippy Factor’s immediate attention.
Factor: Those who choose to perform tasks in Malltown, and therefore become a ‘factor’ within the community.
Pwamster: Kind of robot. The Pwamster is one of the most popular robots in Malltown. The Pwamster Robot consists of three white orbs with a flat face, and resembles a snowperson.
Pwamster I Can Learn Robot: also known as the Pwamster Learner, or simply Learner, the Pwamster I Can Learn Robot is conditioned to learn from its environment and adapt to its user.
Bimpercar: Comfortable white chairs on two tracks with a third track for passing. Bimpercars travel the entire length of Malltown. Mass transit within Malltown.
Hobbyists: an undeclared Factor
Malltown Community Rover: Also known as a Citizen Rover, or simply a Rover. The standard Rover for Malltown citizens. For example, a Grippy Factor Rover will have specific access capabilities to Malltown’s public camera sensors, as well as access to information regarding supply stocks, etc… All Rovers come equipped with basic capabilities like bumping, accumulating Points and full access to Malltown’s closed network of ad-free internet.
College-Senior Rover: will have access to college material, senior grade.
Senior Rover: is equipped with material useful to the senior. Such as health sensors.
Covop Secreshy, Shyster Model: adaptable camouflage has been around for years. A suit that bends light, hides heat from sensors. But they’re not perfect.
VR suit: Virtual reality sensor suit (rarely a Wumper).
Qwammy slip-on runners: VR runners which allow the wearer to run in place.
RR—real reality or real world
Field door—the back door of a homepod, leading to the fields. The field door has a forcefield.
Haircut vending machine: A vending machine for haircuts.
Clover: a hairstyle vending machine for seniors.
Wall scroll: Internet material, or other projectable material. Said material is projected against the white walls of a homepod, on white tabletops, etc…
Council Meetings: Usually held in VR, these meetings create changes in Malltown through community voting—Small Council Meeting; Great Council Meeting—a whole sector; Greater Council Meeting—a whole side, left or right, a Giant Council Meeting—the whole of Malltown, and a Numbered Council Meeting—consisting of a certain number of sectors (numbers given at time of announcement of meeting and included in title, for example “Numbered Council Meeting, 8, 5”—would be a meeting for sectors 8 and 5. Whoever wishes to attend a council meeting may do so, regardless of type or sector.
Peggy: Long for Peg. Peggy lives in Sector Four. Her Address is: Homepod 1492, Sector 4.
Meg: Short for Meggy. Best friend of Peggy. Meg recently moved to Sector 5.
Becky: Long for Beck. Short for Rebecca. Next-door neighbor of Peggy.
Roxy: Owner of Roxy’s kiosk and a Factor.
Franny 2-9 Robot: Roxy’s robot friend. Franny 2-9 is a Factor, working the grill and waitressing at Roxy’s.
Petunia-Glass: Homepod 3497, Sector 4
Sandy-Grass (Sandrea-Grassly): Homepod 4952, Sector 6
Rocco-Vertuccio: Hardcore horticulturalist/gardening hobbyist. Homepod Unknown, Sector 9
Katy: College senior who would like to go to the city. Katy picked up a task at Roxy’s in order to bump points.
Points: A form of exchange.
A hard core food hobbyist is sometimes called a Kelpy.
Tug it back: replay
Peggy: She’s got reddish brown hair, shoulder length, brown eyes, and a hook nose. She’s got crows feet and smile lines, is sort of tanned, and is in her late thirties. Her mouth looks a bit dry and is a bit wide. She’s thin, but not emaciated or like she tries to be thin. Her hair is medium thick and not used as a feature, but more utilitarian. Her brown eyes are not beautiful, they are a bit too large, stick out a bit but not in a way many would notice or mention. Her skin looks used, lived in. Her cheekbones aren’t high or low. Her mouth is interesting, because it’s wide but of average fullness. Has a loose quality, sort of relaxed but not sensual in any way. Workmanlike. Everything about her is utilitarian without being forced. Her hair isn’t cut badly, just normally, in style #4. She doesn’t think about it, she’s had the cut so long. She wouldn’t shun a romantic interest and it wouldn’t exactly surprise her, but she hasn’t gotten one in a long time. She doesn’t seek it. She’s regular, normal. But has a way of opening her eyes wide as though she sort of acknowledges they’re a little large and uses them as a way to speak. Her mouth is nothing she thinks about other than to put food in. She’s about five six or seven. Her hands look like a woman of forty or more. Her fingernails are a little long. She wears a ring combo of single diamond engagement ring and wedding ring. They belonged to an ancestor. So to us she looks married, but she isn’t. Her hair is definitely more brown than red, only the light hitting it gives it a hint of blond, or orange, something lighter. In other words it tends lighter rather than darker. But it’s brown. The hair isn’t curled under at the ends, but not purposely not—just does what it does. No make-up but she looks fine anyway. Looks average, like anyone else, maybe with a bit of sharper intelligence, through her eyes and how she moves her thin body type. A sort of careful movement but not mannered. Relaxed, but careful—she’s not one who considers herself to be muscle, to have physical skills. But she appears healthy. Sliding into middle age without much notice. Has been who she is for a long time. Wears the beige jumpers without much thought. It’s a habit. She’s got a lot of habits she doesn’t think much about, which frees up her time to think of other things. Her goal is to live a good, simple life and contribute her part without going overboard on the notion. She doesn’t have a strong sense of duty, but she has a sense of responsibility—there’s a difference. Duty is to a cause, responsibility is to people. Her neighbors. She’s a Factor because she feels capable of the job and she wouldn’t admit it to herself, but a little restless. Just enough to keep her thinking. She doesn’t put her hair behind her ears or touch it much. She doesn’t have the large gestures that would require shoving it out of her face much. She’s polite and keeps unkind thoughts to herself and tries to talk herself out of them with common sense and kindness but she’s also clear eyed as to people’s flaws. Only she doesn’t enjoy them without a reason—meaning, unless someone has been a jerk and deserves that others be satisfied with their demise—but on the whole, everyone has flaws. She’s a very don’t-punch-down kind of person. She doesn’t feel jealous of much, but she values her job, her position more than she realizes. She likes that people come to her. Maybe she’s a little jealous of people who are prettier or younger, but that’s been factored into her character, in some of those eye-widenings, and it’s not something she deals with on a very conscious level. She had a relationship with this guy that she doesn’t talk about much. It was in her late twenties and he moved to a different town and although they intended to keep up they didn’t after a while. Other than that she dated in her twenties, made out some in her teens, the usual. But since then she’s been pretty quiet, on the dating front. She feels more like that should be a hole in her life than it is? That she should feel like that’s a problem? But in Malltown you’re surrounded by people so it’s not like you’ll ever be alone, or without support from the community, or that you’ll ever go hungry. She likes the people she encounters as she does her ‘soft patrols’—these are sort of rounds she does, eating at places, talking to people, making sure people know where to find her. Because although there are gadgets, sometimes people want to go and see her in person, have a face-to-face and it’s easy to have a walk and know generally where to find her. It’s comforting to people that she has a routine, almost an old-fashioned route. It’s comforting for most people to have a routine, where they can be found in person so that someone doesn’t even need to contact them electronically. It’s sort of a comfort that way. She likes to go out for breakfast at one of two or three places, talk to the people running the places. Then she does a walk of her sector and any errands she might need to do. Then it’s back to her pod to take some time in the VR getting reacquainted with friends in other sectors, having a lunch or play date there. She’s got a habit of taking walks in VR, that’s what she likes to do. Or be a bear. Maybe she jogs. Or bikes.
Grippy Factor Peggy investigates a Burble in Malltown: When Petunia-Glass discovers an attempted kidnapping from her homepod of 55,555, her genetically modified miniature sheep, she calls the local Grippy Factor to investigate. Can Peggy solve the case while coping with the loss of her old robot Gretchen? Does Peggy's new Pwamster I Can Learn Robot have anything to do with the mysterious attempted kidnapping? Was there in fact an attempted kidnapping? And if so, could the kidnapper be a member of a faction of hardline knitters among the seniors? A cozy mystery set in a glass domed, solar powered town with robots and cake.